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Chapter Text

Everywhere he looked the town burned. Colorful banners burnt to nothing but black ash, kicked up in his wake. The bazaar where fresh fruit and fish were bought was now a graveyard of charred and bleeding bodies. Screams echoed in the distance, some silenced, others growing louder.

How had this happened? he thought. Hyrule hadn’t known war in centuries. Dear Hylia, they had been at peace with the Gerudo for longer than he had been alive!

Fire burrowed through his shoulder, and an arrow shot out the other side. He screamed, clutching the wound and avoiding the arrow, running for all he was worth towards the edge of town. Kakariko, Kakariko, all he had to do was race to the end and keep on running even as his legs flared. He could be safe, it was there, he could make it if he kept going.

He stumbled. A fallen piece of debris from a bakery. He regained his footing and leapt over the ruins of an overturned cart. He didn’t spare a moment to think of the man who sold melons. Had sold. He either left or he hadn’t.

Another burst of agony, this time through the back of his leg. A voice raised behind him as he fell, spouting off about corrupted Hylians and traitors. How their king had returned.

He reached forward. A foot squashed it into the road. Above him stood a woman with bright red hair and black marks on her cheeks. Two streaks on either side, like incomplete triangles. Or, he thought, arrows pointing down. At him.

A blur of light hit the woman in the side, flinging her across the street. From the shadows came another, dressed in blue, through stained black with soot.

“Go,” they said. “Leave this to me.” They raised a garbed hand and another sphere of light shot out towards him. Something thumped to the ground behind him.

Nodding fervently, he stumbled, despite the pain, and fled Castle Town in ruins. Why, he did not know, but he prayed. He prayed and he never stopped moving.

Chapter Text

Dr. Eggman pulled his gloves tight, confident and with purpose. Victory was his for once! He had most of the Chaos Emeralds, the Eclipse Cannon was charging up nicely, and Sonic was nowhere in sight! The news outlets still considered the blue marble a menace and he was still being hunted down.

Things could not be more perfectly lined up for Dr. Eggman. He was hold up in his grandfather’s creation, still in Earth’s orbit after fifty years. No one had set foot in the ARK since the government shut it down, not even to deal with the escaped Chaos creatures. It had likely been forgotten about and ignored, much like the rest of Gerald Robotnik’s legacy.

Dr. Eggman scowled, tapping a few keys on the computer. That bit of knowledge left him more than a little irritated. The greatest scientist in the world – before him, of course – had designed, created, and researched so many great and wondrous things...and they had all been left to collect dust and rot.

But that was all about to change. His grandfather’s work would not go to waste. He would make sure of it.

The doctor cleared his throat. The Eclipse Cannon was ready for a demonstration, and the world would soon know to bow down to the Eggman Empire.

Chapter Text

The mad king of the winds cackled loud and hard. His dream, his goal, had finally come to fruition. His minions from lowly moblins to the proud dark nuts poured out onto Hyrule Field and spread in every direction. Wizzrobes flashed in and out of sight a they teleported farther and farther from sight.

Their efforts would sow chaos and destruction to every corner of the kingdom.

But that was minor compared to his bigger prize.

Hyrule Castle stood proudly in the distance, as if to mock any attempt at falling into a heap of rubble. It would take time for the monsters to reach there, but it mattered not.

Vaati grinned maniacally. “Go!” he shouted. “March on Hyrule! Take it from those foolish humans!” His grin crept upwards, and he whispered to himself: “The boy will die by my hands. But first...” He bared his teeth. “The princess.”

In a fierce whirlwind, the mage was gone.

Hyrule would plummet into darkness, and the hero would not save it. He would make sure of it.

Chapter Text

Burgerpants blearily opened his eyes to the sound of his MTT Brand alarm clock going off, and smacked it. He would have thrown it across the small room he stayed in at the MTT Resort, but then he wouldn’t be able to know what time it was or make it to work on time. Then where would he be?

Somewhere between gratified and even more stressed out. He had been down that train of thought before, and knew to just skip to the end.

With a groan only earned from working in the soul-sucking customer service industry, he stared up at the ceiling and refused to budge. He had half an hour more to himself before he had to crawl out of bed and face the mind-numbing reality of being a working man for the Underground’s most egocentric robotic slavemaster.

He had once been so innocent. So naive. He had been caught up with silly things like hopes and dreams about being an actor like Mettaton. He traveled to the resort, bright-eyed and full of aspiration. Mettaton hired him on and he was in bliss!

For all of a second.

What a dope he was.

Trapped and dead tired, that was his life now. What a joke. Except the punchline was as terrible as the set up!

Burgerpants rolled out of bed, his covers coming with him. He didn’t need to dress; he had worn his work clothes to bed. He couldn’t bother with taking them off. He would just have to waste time out of his life putting them back on.

He glanced up at the alarm clock. 10 minutes to get out the door before the bloated bucket of bolts rolled into his cruddy room and dragged him to work. Again.

Sighing, Burgerpants unmade the burrito he had wrapped himself into and went to grab a smoke. At least he could have one before the nerve wracking job began in earnest.

Chapter Text

The Puppeteer had never questioned the Batter’s mission. Purifying spectres, bringing down evil and corrupt Guardians, and freeing the poor Elsens from the iron grip of tyranny. Those black and white goals were just and there was not an entity they could find to sway their thoughts.

If anything, the Batter’s goal of purification was proven righteous the further they went. The meek Elsens worked in unfavorable conditions, and the Guardians were selfish and brutal. Often, the Puppeteer and the Batter would come across blackened and grotesque Elsens, driven mad and unable to revert to their old selves. “Burnt” they were called, as if the workloads had finally taken their toll and hollowed them out.

His burden had become their burden. As partners they traveled and grew stronger, sharing accomplishments and failures, smashing anything and everything that dared to get in their way.

Zone 1’s wrathful Dedan had been beaten to a pulp. Zone 2’s envious Japhet had been served justice. Zone 3’s glutton of a Guardian Enoch had been disposed of. The way was clear. There was only one last place to go.

And yet, standing in that void of voices, Enoch’s words echoed in their head. The brief utter blankness they had passed while escaping the mad man had been strange, too. Unusual, even for the Zones.

Certainly it would not hurt to check. Enoch had been a fool, and the Elsen would certainly be better off now.

Curious, they returned to Zone 3.

And beheld the failure that had been wrought.

Chapter Text

The court poet of Hyrule Castle rolled across the scorched earth, ears ringing. He couldn’t risk looking back. He knew of the borrowed stead’s fate. The whinnying had silenced, and the air carried the scent of burnt meat. It would be his end, too, if he remained still.

He rushed through the sparse coverage of trees, knowing they were as good as a rickety fence. They would give him seconds. On the other side was open field, he knew. It would be a death sentence. But...Dueling Peaks. It was a bottle neck. The countless other Guardians behind him – and goddesses, the thought sickened him with dread – could not all get through at once.

He had a chance.

It was more than what could be said for many of his countrymen. He could not afford idle thoughts on where the other Guardians would go.

He had already witnessed the devastation the corrupted Guardians had wrought. Lasers, red and hot as a smith’s forge, streaked through buildings, land, trees, and people alike. Castle Town had been overrun before he had even made it out the gates. He had barely any time to fetch a horse from the ranch before a blinding line of red had cut through what was left of the once prosperous place.

Then, a chill gripped his heart.

The Guardians weren’t all behind him.

They were ahead.

They scrambled like ants down the thin path of Dueling Peaks, climbing over one another, butting into one another, vying for passage.

He hadn’t realized how many had crawled out from Hyrule Castle.

He wasn’t aware of how many more might be heading for the Spring of Wisdom.

Princess Zelda.

A surge of adrenaline pushed him forward. He would scale one of the mountains. His sedentary days as a poet did not mean he was completely out of shape. He could get up it faster than the machines could track him.

He did not intend to be added to the list of the fallen.

He would not allow his princess to come to harm.

Not if he could help it.

Chapter Text

The world faded in, and xX_jellyexpress86_Xx froze. His home had chunks missing. His bed was gone. Lava flooded the floor, and the only things not on fire were made of stone. A stream of voices cried out in shock and agony as he searched his home. All of the diamond had been mined out. His chests had been smashed open, leaving his storage to be consumed in even more lava. All three floors had been blasted open, with water, lava, and obsidian obstructing the way.

He shouted. He screamed. Who had done this! Who had dared to destroy the Overseer’s house?!

The outcries grew stronger. No, he thought. It can’t be!

He rushed to Jelly City.

Or what would have been Jelly City.

The towers that reached past the clouds, the manors that held secret entrances and secret halls, the gardens and parks painstakingly created over a weekend.

It was gone. The entire city, the month of community work or working together under his precise order, had been leveled. Cobblestone, obsidian, bedrock, filled the flat plane. Not even a flower had survived.

As more and more citizens made their grievances known – missing diamonds; busted chests; lava flooded caverns; destroyed beds; hordes of creepers; sponges lining the bottom of the ocean; the Nether hub’s tracks destroyed; ghasts in the spawn citadel; the Great Glass Bridge was full of holes – xX_jellyexpress86_Xx saw it.

At the top of a small pillar of bedrock was a sign. He read it.

Fuming and sputtering every curse he knew, xX_jellyexpress86_Xx reached into the past and rolled the world back to how it had been an hour ago.

Nothing changed.

Two hours ago.

Nothing changed.

A voice called out, stronger than the rest.

He fell to the ground, powerless.

<SoldierOfDestruct1on> Nuh uh uh.

<SoldierOfDestruct1on> That’s against the rules.

xX_jellyexpress86_Xx’s hands shook as he tried to come up with a reply. All he could manage were three letters.

<SoldierOfDestruct1on> Well your rules.

 <SoldierOfDestruct1on> Which are now mine.

<SoldierOfDestruct1on> Goodbye.

And with that, the hammer was dropped.

Chapter Text

What use was there in continuing in the same vein, watching as the world fell apart around her, if nothing changed? Captain Cal eyed the wreckage that was once her pride and the joy, the Giant’s Hand, shattered upon the waves. Most of the reliable old ship was now below the waves, sinking towards Davy Jones’ locker. Twenty-nine men and women had been aboard and among them only she and five others had survived the onslaught. The only reason they, too, hadn’t died was the timely arrival of the mercenary fleet headed by One-Eyed Dagger.

The enemy ship had been blown to splinters and the black pirates had been sent to a watery grave. But it had been too late.

Twenty-four lives rested on her shoulders. They had trusted in her ability to lead them and the decision to drop anchor at the little known village had killed them.

She was a horrid captain, undeserving of the title.

A hand clapped her on the shoulder. She looked up into the remaining eye of Dagger, his face as serious as it ever was. A long scar reached from his cheek to his nose to under his eyepatch, barely missing his good eye.

“Cal,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault. Nale the Abyss has been tracking all of us up and down the coast. Lord Lunatic’s orders.” He snarled, briefly. “My men found a camp site not far from here. They’d settled in and waited. This was not happenstance. They had everything planned out to bring down one of the Whet Stones. Same thing would have happened to anybody else who landed here.”

The man crouched down to her level, and gestured behind them. Cal turned and watched as Dagger’s crew went about the village like ants. They marched into the woods and brought out half-used supplies, marched into homes and took out boxes and bags.

There were no villagers, only people of the sea. Only the Whet Stone Rebellion. The whole village had been a setup.

In the middle of it all, Cal spotted her crew. Two were guzzling down a bottle each of alcohol. Rasba and Nel. They would be drinking each other under the table in no time flat. Thomas, bless his heart, was bandaging John Two’s arm – Cal stopped, corrected herself; there was only one John now – and Leopard was halfway through a rubbish song, intentionally missing words and jumbling up verses so the lady fell in love with a mermaid and cut her husband in half.

Dagger’s voice burst into her thoughts. “Look at ‘em. Still alive. Still kickin’. I’ll bet my last piece that anybody else wouldn’t have even half as many survivors.” Rasba threw a bottle at Leopard, but that only encouraged him to sing louder. “You held your own against the Black Tide, against the man with a hundred notches in his scabbard, and came out of it alive. Outgunned, out manned...” He paused. Cal kept watching as Rasba tackled Leopard to the ground. “You should have died. But you didn’t.” Cal swallowed. Neither said anything for a while, content to watch Rasba chase Leopard around the stacked crates, being admonished by Thomas the whole time.

Then, low, barely above a whisper, Cal heard it.

“We weren’t expecting to find survivors.” Cal turned to Dagger. The man was still staring out at the false village, but he was looking at something beyond it. “The Black Tide never shows mercy, and nobody has ever gotten away from. Never mind getting the drop on him.” Dagger turned to face her fully. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss. For everyone’s loss. We were able to get the drop on him, but the price...it was too steep.”

He clapped her on the shoulder again. “Cal, whatever you may think, you did the best you could under dire circumstances...and I hope you keep believing in your crew. And yourself.” Dagger smiled and with a grunt, he got to his feet. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, straightening his hat, “I have a crew to tend to. And you do as well.” He nodded to her, and stomped back down the flimsy dock.

Cal laughed humorously, rubbing her eyes. She considered for a moment to keep away from her crew. Her red-rimmed eyes would not inspire confidence.

Then again, she thought, neither would sitting alone and distancing herself from them.

Swallowing again, Captain Cal got to her feet and made her way to the others. A bottle shattered at Leopard’s feet and Nel cursed about wasting a good drink.

She smiled, eyes watering. Some things, thankfully, never changed.

Chapter Text

Dr. Eggman’s last defiant scream echoed, then died in a hail of gunfire. The shots were brief, and Omega’s gatling guns whirled to a stop, objective fulfilled. The once infamous and feared scientist the world over, responsible for deforestation, devastation, and near worldwide annihilation was still. The sharp chop to the skull had killed him before Omega had unleashed his vengeance.

For all the doctor’s talk of world domination and claiming victory, he simply couldn’t stand up to the forces he himself had created.

“Target Eggman: eliminated,” Omega announced, lowering his arm. “Mission accomplished.”

“Yes,” said Shadow Android. He couldn’t help but feel a little of glee at the doctor’s passing. The man had been intelligent but incompetent. He had a pride that eclipsed reason, and could not for the life of him see when he should have quit.

He raised the yellow Chaos Emerald into the air, his reflection cruelly smiling back at him. “Now, with the power of these Emeralds, the world will bow under the might of my empire!”

And it would. Dr. Eggman rarely ever made one of something. He repeatedly remade Metal Sonic. He mass produced airships and Badniks.

He mass produced androids.

Shadow’s smile grew. Oh yes. The world would know true competence, power, and terror.

Satisfied, Shadow led Omega out of the chamber. The deceased doctor had to have a place to store all of those other androids. It was just a matter of finding it.

Chapter Text

Shadow Android had been right. Kept behind a multitude of electronic doors and security systems were other Shadows. Other clones. Rows upon rows of pods stretched down the room, each with an android sealed inside.

Idly, he noted they were as the same make as the one he had awoken in not too far back. At the time, Omega had immediately attempted to fill him full of lead. Now the same E-series robot was on his side, trusted unlike any other ever could be.

Funny how things things worked out.

Beside him, Omega whirred. “No other androids detected,” he said. “Scans suggest that these are the last remaining units that Eggman created.”

Shadow’s gaze swept across the pods. Easily a hundred androids were in stasis. Each one would be as capable as he was, able to take down any enemy and fulfill any objective. If these actually were the last, then no others would futilely attempt to kill him. Even if they did, well… He was the ultimate battle life form. None would stand a chance against him.

E-123 Omega would ensure that.

“No problem. They will be more than enough,” he said. “With them, this pathetic planet’s days are numbered.”

So many Shadow Androids. He had thought about them while Omega and him bashed through security doors and destroyed inferior robots. Would they be ready to attack as he once was? Were they preprogrammed to obey a master who did not exist anymore? Were their memories as fake as his own?

“Omega, can you see if they still follow the doctor’s orders?” he asked.

The robot approached a console attached to the nearest pod and put a hand over a screen. “Scanning…” A moment passed and he spoke again. “Affirmative, this unit has been programmed to follow Eggaman’s orders. It is highly probably that the others are as well.”

Shadow cursed. “Can you reprogram them?”

“Affirmative.”

Shadow’s mouth curled up into a self-satisfied smirk. “Good. Only one Shadow Android is allowed to be in control, and that android is me!

“Affirmative.” Omega stuck his fingers into five holes surrounding the hand scanner. The machine whirred as Omega twisted it counterclockwise. “Initiating sub-command protocols. Unit shall obey prime android.”

“Excellent.”

There would be no room for squabbling in his empire, nor organics. The others would obey him unconditionally, and march out onto the Earth. Above all, he would finish what his dear creator started, but could never finish.

Machines would rule once and for all. His reign would be absolute and neither hedgehog nor human would stop him.

Chapter Text

Long ago, in ages past, legends told of an ancient terror. One so ravenous and quick, that all who stood in its path perished.

Some once believed this destroyer to be a force from the goddesses, unleashing judgment upon evil.

However, this terrible force knew nothing of good or evil. It attacked without sentiment, seeking only destruction.

Time passed and the tales of the destroyer disappeared from people’s memories. Tales of heroism and villainy, charity and greed, legends and myths erased the ancient scourge from history.

Until one day…

A boy in green visited an old ranch.

He soon grew bored and weary of running and playing. For a moment, carelessness caused him to raise his sword against the barn animals…

And then he knew what the Hylians had known so many centuries ago:

The revenge of a cucco.

Chapter Text

A viciousness burned inside of Ganondorf. He had done it. The Triforce. It was all he had ever imagined and more. Such power. Such strength! Raw and unfettered, it flowed through him, soaring his magic to heights he had only ever dreamed of!

And yet, it was only a fraction of the whole that he held. The other two fragments had split and scattered from the one piece he had claimed as his own.

The Gerudo King clenched his hand into a fist. The power settled within him, the hum of it still in his mind. This...this was what he had strove for. This was what he had staked everything on. The power of the goddesses, the power to shape the world as he saw fit.

It wasn’t just Hyrule that would bend to his power. It was the world. What he felt, and what he was missing still. Together, the Triforce pieces would enable him to lay claim to everything even beyond the mountains that bordered the kingdom.

Grunting, Ganondorf turned from the Sacred Realm and returned to Castle Town. A grin spread over his face. His rule was only beginning. The boy would return, and eventually so too would the princess. But until then, his reign would go uninterrupted.

He walked out of the Temple of Time, and then unleashed the fires of hell.

Chapter Text

Ven kicked her feet over the edge of the island, staring blankly at the static below. What once had been a bright sea, glistening in the light of the sun was now a sea of static, endlessly stretching in every direction. It never raised above surface structures or mountains or bodies of water. It never did anything more than shift and waver, always present.

It’s like a fungus, Ven thought. Or a virus.

Virus. The word was more accurate than she cared to admit. Although a virus did not hiss quietly from thousands of feet below. Nor did it consume homes like a colony of termites on overdrive.

Ven fiddled with a frayed edge of her cape. It was hard to imagine that only days prior the Smash Tournament had been underway. People had gathered from all over the different worlds to watch the best of the best fight through new areas with new faces and items to unveil. Then, the static had burst from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Odd spots of the substance lingered just above the ground or coated the outside of buildings. They had thought the static inert. Kept their distance and did what they could to contact Master Hand. The mercenaries tried through their comms. Mewtwo attempted to search out for the foreign mind. Ven had used her direct line to the arrogant hand to maybe find wherever he was. A fair number of Smashers had trekked through the basics of Classic to find him at the end.

But the master of the realm would not answer.

And he could not be found.

The static expanded and spread overnight. Quicker than anyone had expected, it had consumed their world. In a flurry, the Smashers and what survivors they could find had been forced to evacuate to the few islands floating above the Smash World.

“Hey!”

At the very least, she wasn’t alone.

“Heeeey!”

Ven looked up, and found a spot of white against the blue sky. She pushed herself away from the edge, and waved back at the approaching angel.

Maybe Palutena had some good news this time. Couldn’t be much worse than listening to Bowser bellyache over rations, or having one of the Koopalings try pelting her with rubble again.

Some days it just wasn’t worth having the title “Emissary”. It brought no respect when the one she was representing was missing.

Chapter Text

Ven dragged a hand down her face. Palutena had exactly the same news as the Stars had. That is to say: none. Nothing good, nothing bad. Ven would have settled for hearing of movement in the static sea. Of some sign of the old hand. Anything was better than sitting and waiting on their haunches. Waiting as absolutely nothing happened.

A crash resounded from just inside the palace, drawing her attention. A terrible roar echoed from inside, a guttural growl that chilled her spine. Hazy memories danced in her mind of facing King Bowser in a tight arena. A breath of fire, chasing her to the edges. Relentless stomps pounding across the field, always on her heels. Wickedly sharp claws threatening to tear her apart.

Ven forced herself to shake off the fragmented thoughts. Such a stupid reaction. She wasn’t a frightened kid anymore. She was an emissary, brave and semi-respected, and she had responsibilities expected of her.

By her.

As if anybody else would know of her old duties.

“What...was that?”

Ven glanced at Pit, and began walking towards the palace’s entrance. “It’s Bowser.” Again, she mentally added. She waved an arm forward. “Come on.”

The large double doors were propped open by tall golden statues of Mario and Kirby. To one side the plumber struck a heroic pose, one hand punching the air. On the other, Kirby held his stubby arms up, mouth wide open as if cheering. Both bordered the thick, wide crimson carpet that led visitors inside. Faded and worn banners hung on the walls, some barely hanging on by tattered shreds. There were no traps or monsters, only an ancient place that had lied forgotten until just before the tournament’s start.

Had Vaati any other options, he would have sealed off the palace entrance and forbidden anyone from setting foot on the island. As things were, he begrudgingly allowed a few people on the lower floors. It was in his best interests, as Lady Palutena had so graciously informed him. Meticulously.

As Bowser’s boisterous voice became clearer and clearer, Ven wondered how much of that decision the windbag was already regretting.

Between the massive fit being thrown and the calm tones that were being replied with, Ven debated whether it was an old argument or a new one.

“That’s enough!” The scream was enough to startle Ven so badly, she stumbled. Heart hammering, she stopped for a moment, the angel doing the same right next to her.

Pit seemed ready to bolt with how he held his hands up. Guarded, ready to fight to take flight. “What in the world was that?” he asked, more than a little disturbed.

“That,” Ven answered, willing her voice not to squeak, “was Princess Peach.” She considered the brief silence and the distinct lack of bellowing for a moment. The princess was still quite loud, but it was more along the lines of lecturing, not overt rage. Ven nodded to herself. “I think she has it covered.”

“Uh… Are you sure?” Pit asked, as if uncertain that Bowser would actually stay quiet for now.

Ven nodded again. “Yeah. You’d be surprised at just how capable she is. She and the other princes and princesses have been taking charge...just about everywhere. For everything.”

Leaving very, very little for her to actually do. Aside from the initial evacuations, she hadn’t actually done much within the past few days aside from breaking up fights and distracting some of the children.

Children. They didn’t belong in the Smash World, and yet they were stuck as much as anyone else until the situation was resolved.

Whenever that was.

Ven shook her head. Her mind was drifting to places she’d rather not even think about.

“I’m going out again,” she said. Princess Peach kept going somewhere down the hall. She was likely in full-on speech mode.

“Oh?” said Pit. He looked at her with those bright blue eyes of his. “Where are you going?”

Out, she wanted to say. Out of the palace, out into the sky, out to the heavens where she could do...something.

“Star Haven,” she said instead. “Everybody has things taken care of here. Star Fox is patrolling the skies for any breaks in the static or signs of anything wrong. Wronger. Samus and the Great Fox are somewhere in the atmosphere, monitoring things that could be coming in from off-world. The Fire Emblem heroes are used to the sort of stress we’re in, and Robin’s pretty much taken over who gets what.” Ven crossed her arms. “There’s nothing more for me to do here anymore. Might as well be in a place that might give an update” – if – “when it comes.”

“Oh yeah.” Pit tilted his head, and held his chin in one hand. “The Star Spirits are still trying to figure out a way of getting rid of the static, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Ven. “So far no luck...but who knows?” She shrugged. “Maybe hope’ll come today?”

Pit grinned, bright and encouraging. “Yeah! If we work together, there’s no way that...stuff can win!”

Ven snickered quietly. “Ah...yeah. You’re right.” She turned around. “I’ll be back later, alright?”

The angel gave a thumb’s up. “Alright!” Ven chuckled, and went on her way.

How could anybody keep being down for long with such an optimist flying around?

Outside, the low buzzing reached Ven’s ears again. Her tentative smile froze in place. She withdrew a long card and flung it in front of her. It lengthened, expanded, until it was large enough to seat her and maybe two others. If she didn’t go very fast.

She sat down in the center of the magic card and willed it to fly upwards.

Maybe the Star Spirits wouldn’t mind a physical visitor for a few hours.

Chapter Text

The halls were quiet. That was the first thing Lath noticed upon entering the high school. There wasn’t a single echo of footsteps or doors closing in the halls. No rolling of carts, no muffled din from nearby classrooms. Then there were the shiny lockers, oddly pristine when she knew that the fourth one on the left used to have a noticeable dent in it and the ones beside it normally had hearts and words carved into them. Not a scrap of paper was left on the floor and she couldn’t see any pens or pencils either.

Instinctively she knew something was wrong. She was early. There should have been some students milling about while Andy Johnson played the guitar on the front steps and his friend Rick Chandler tried caroling to the girls with mixed results. The halls should have been filled with laughter, ridicule, complaining, and the excited chatter of other students before the school day began.

But there was nothing, no one.

Lath gulped. On ginger feet, she started creeping through the empty halls. Where has everyone gone? she thought, her eyes shifting back and forth. I can't be alone...I can't.

It wasn’t until she was standing beside Ms. Hill’s room that she noticed she was breathing in through her mouth. She licked her lips, grabbed the handle, and pushed it down. The wooden door opened easily, allowing Lath to take a peek inside. All that awaited her though was an empty, lit room. Not a chair was out of place and the whiteboard was clean. Familiar math posters decorated the walls while extra textbooks lined the back table. The ceiling lights were on, but they weren’t buzzing.

She shut the door and tried another across the hallway. Inside were neat rows of desks, but no one was sitting in them. The whiteboard here was blank as well with only faint blue and black lines from past usage. All she could make out was the word "Directions" on it's surface. Lath furrowed her eyebrows. She was early but not that early. Where did everybody go?

“Hey!” Lath jolted and looked back into the hallway. She knew that voice anywhere and it had come from further into the school. Her mouth opened to reply, but the words died before they were even spoken. The same sense of wrongness that she felt walking into the building overtook her again, suppressing her will to speak.

Seconds passed. Lath stared down the corridor, debating on whether or not to seek out Chet. On one hand, was the uncertainty of what lay ahead; on the other, was the certainty that this was Chet, her longtime friend who might be just as lost about the lack of people as she was.

That sealed her decision. Lath ran down the hall, her footsteps oddly silent as she made her way to a four-way intersection. She rounded the corner in time to see a door close in the left passage. Quickly, she made her way to it and opened the door.

A man with short, black hair and hazel eyes looked up from a clipboard. He smiled.

“Hello, Lath,” he said cheerily.

The girl’s gaze left him and fell upon the two dozen or so desks that had been taken up by other students. Some were staring back at her, the interruption, as if she were a curious sight.

“Take a seat.”

Lath snapped her attention back to the teacher as he motioned to the rest of the class from where he stood at the front. Every face suddenly turned to her, unblinking.

The air filled with static. Each was face was empty. They had no eyes, ears, nose or hair, only sharp yellow teeth, laced into smiles. Slowly, she took a step back, chills running up her spine.

She closed her eyes. Even in the dark, red haze behind her eyelids, the world spun. The teacher cleared his throat.

“Lath.”

She swallowed.

“Take. A. Seat. Please.”

When she looked back at the classroom, normalcy returned and the teacher was all smiles while the others looked at her with blank expressions. He gestured to a chair in the front, as though he understood Lath's hesitation. Even as she stepped forward, all she could think was: run. Get the hell out of here. Run.

She blinked.

Chet stood in front of her outside the classroom. The door hung open and she knew they were being watched, like how vultures would eye two carcasses in the middle of the desert. Their eyes met, his brown, hers green. He understood, that...those people...

“Ready for the test?” he asked. Lath took a breath to steady herself.

“Which test?” she asked cautiously, frowning.

Gaps in her memory, she realized. What was happening, and why, was unclear. Who she was, however, that was simple to grasp. Lath Fields, high school sophomore. Likes: drawing; creating characters, if a little too much; mysteries; secretly smashing things in the old junkyard off Turner Road; and heights. Just recently turned sixteen and setting up job interviews for some part-time work during the summer.

Not a character, but a person filling a role as best as they could without knowing their lines.

“Our geometry test,” said Chet, “Don’t tell me you forgot.” His lips turned up as he failed to hold in a small chuckle. Lath screwed up her face into mock disapproval, eyes half-lidded and lips curled in. This lasted not even five seconds before she snorted and laughed.

“Of course I didn’t forget! Why would I?” Lath looked at the floor and quietly added: “It’s been a long day.”

“But it’s barely started…” he whispered just as low. When Lath looked up she met his searching eyes. “What are…?”

“Miss Fields, Mister Treadwell. Will you be joining us?” The teenagers looked back into the classroom. The teacher was still standing there, but the students were now writing on sheets of paper.

“Uh, yeah,” Chet responded. He started shuffling into the classroom

She stayed put.

 “Lath?” he asked.

 She looked away.

 “Hey, are you not feeling good?” She didn’t look up. “I’m going to take her to the nurse’s office.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said the teacher. “She can make it herself.”

 Chet insisted, “No, really, I think she might need help.”

 It was then she realized: he didn’t want to go in there either.

 So she bolted.

 Chet was right on her heels. The corridors seemed to stretch as she rounded the corner.

Inhuman screeching filled the building.

“Now you’ve done it!” yelled Chet.

Soon enough the halls were crowded and Lath made her way as quickly as possible through the masses. A series of hisses arose from behind her. They were furious.

In her mad dash, she closed her eyes. A moment later, she was outside, sprinting across the field to the chainlink fence lining the school. Chet was right beside her, already climbing over. He had foregone his tennis shoes, shoving bare feet into the gaps to make his way over the five foot fence. Lath scrambled after him, the feeling of being watched never ebbing even as no one came outside to hound them.

They ran across the barren street to a narrow alley, then up the fire escape. The metal creaked under their weight, seeming to reverberate all the way back to the oddly quietly school. Neither she nor Chet dared to look back, as if that would confirm their fears.

Inhuman bellows came from below. Mouths full of razor sharp teeth stretched out as far as the eye could see, and probably beyond. The creatures clawed at the building, steadily, but surely destroying it.

“Run!” Lath screamed, yanking Chet along behind her. The next roof was across a skinny alleyway. Five feet wide, maybe six. She was a long jump amateur, but she could probably hang onto the edge and pull herself up.

Chet ran ahead of her.

And missed.

She screamed, a high-pitched and aching shrill of agony as the mouths tore into him and gobbled him up.

The eyeless things looked up, bloodied and still hungry.

The building shook, the structure unsteady and crumbling beneath her.

Without a moment more, she ran and leaped to the next landing.

Her fingers missed the edge.

The nightmares rushed up to meet her.

Chapter Text

Even before his reign, the King of Steel had always been a strict one. As a boy, he ordered his toys in a line before bed, minded his manners in front of family and servants, and was diligent in his studies. He learned to wield a sword and a bow at a young age, and relished the moments when he could hunt in the forests north of his home. He learned his place in the world and that of all others. His father raised him to be a cunning and clever ruler who would bend to no one and give orders to all. The Radium Empire could not, would not, be allowed to fall. Such an occurrence was unthinkable at best and disgraceful at worst.

The Radium Empire had survived for centuries as a terrible force. A formidable army occupied the well fortified towns of the country, and protected the borders with bloodied blades. Swaths of forests had been chopped down to widen the spaces between roads and cities, or had been barred from public entry to preserve the wildlife within for authorized hunting. Mining was a way of life for many, and the steel exports provided for the families which provided for the king.

There was order. There was prosperity. There was fear wielded like a finely crafted blade over the necks of any and all dissenters. But most importantly, there was a feeling of surety that such a balance could not be toppled.

Time passed, and the boy became a man. Radium wed and had two sons and a daughter in the middle. The oldest, Magnus, cried out for control of the armies. The youngest, Brass, wanted to sail and explore new lands to add to Steel Empire. They daydreamed and lolligagged, testing Radium’s patience and blood pressure.

His daughter, in contrast, quietly obeyed his orders and acted as a young lady should. She curtsied and bowed, holding herself proudly as royalty demanded. Her marriage to a defeated crown’s prince had been set, and she shed no tears as she learned of her future.

Dedicated and disciplined as she was, however, his little Lumin was too soft-hearted. She failed to punish servants for lacking in their work, and had not the spine to watch as an upstart was led to the guillotine. Bloodshed frightened her and no matter how often he tried, she refused to watch him dole out punishments. She much preferred to stare out windows, watching the ships in the harbor come and go.

His wife suggested fencing. Lumin would bleed and learn not to wince.

And so she did.

To Radium’s joy, she did not worry about light wounds or the occasional deeper gash. To Radium’s irritation, Lumin’s concerns about the Empire’s subordinates only increased. She begged, she cajoled. She tried reasoning out why his punishments were too much.

But the king did not listen.

A king did not listen to those lower than himself, of course. A son could learn from a father, but a father did not take advice from a daughter.

One night, after a heated argument, King Radium sent his daughter to her room, and had it locked for the night. He believed a night, or perhaps a day alone would clear Lumin’s thoughts and make her see sense.

A little after midnight, he awoke to a soldier pounding at his chamber door.

Irritated, he pushed himself out of bed, and yanked open the door.

Before he could say a word, the soldier told him in a rush:

His daughter was being held hostage.

Fury boiled in Radium’s veins. He did not care how his daughter had managed to get out of her room nor how a ragtag rabble of rebels entered his bay in the middle of the night without being caught. That they had dared to take his daughter hostage was his focus, and he swore to himself that they would pay.

He was a man now. A father and a king. He could no longer hunt, but he could spill blood just the same.

He stormed out to the harbor, sword in hand, bow and arrows on his back. The sails on his fleets were torn, full of holes. One or two were burning away, likely from spilled oil.

This had not been a sudden decision. This had been planned.

In the light of the flames, he spotted a ship further out. A steam engine, similar to the likes from across the seas. Though how such a small thing could survive the trip was beyond him. It was also irrelevant.

The small ship was not close enough for the fires to burn it, but not far enough that signals could not be exchanged. The fortress’ cannons could reach it, but not before his daughter was safe.

Radium roared, his voice like thunder, and demanded his daughter back. A boy with flags signaled back a response.

It said: ‘Long live the blade. Long live the dagger.’

His daughter, his lovely Lumin in her pink nightwear and red hair fell from the ocean scum’s ship and into the harbor. She disappeared beneath the water and red blossomed forth. The carnivorous creatures that made the bay their home had devoured her.

He ordered for the cannons to fire. His daughter was dead, taken by the sea. He would have no mercy.

King Radium grabbed his bow and nocked an arrow. The ship sailed outwards. His fleet was dead in the water. He loosed the arrow and struck a man. Two, three. No cannon fire came. He loosed another arrow. It sank into the water.

The steam ship puttered away, without a dent or hole to sink it.

Voices rang out, carrying over to him until a shaking captain of the guard came to him, saluting. The man reported of sabotage. Wet gunpowder. Vinegar in the cannons.

An inside job.

Before morning the bay was said to be as red as Princess Lumin’s hair. King Radium had thrown in all suspected traitors and done a clean, personal sweep through the fortress.

He was no longer a boy. He could no longer satisfy himself to the occasional hunt in the forest. His soul, his empire, cried out for blood and retribution. He would hunt down the dogs who believed they could kill his own and get away with it.

King Radium, his empire already bloated, set his sights across the ocean. If the enemy would come by sea, his fleets would have to improve. His rules would have no loopholes or allow weaknesses.

The King of Steel’s rule would be absolute, not only by land but by sea as well.

Chapter Text

Ven closed her mouth with a click. She found her voice and tried once more. “...Come again?”

“We have found a way to banish that awful static,” Misstar repeated. The Honorable Star Spirit floated above a blue pillar, her signature red ribbon flowing around her form.

“Well, yes, in theory,” Klevar added, frowning. He shifted uneasily. “But the price...”

“It’s far too much!” insisted Kalmar, mustached ruffled. “There must be another way!”

“We’ve talked about this, Kalmar,” said Eldstar, voice wise and steadier than the others. “Yes, there may be another way, but right now there’s only this.”

Ven took a breath, then paused, hesitating. The question was on the tip of her tongue, the desire to know burning inside of her. Yet the worry the Star Spirits were expressing was disconcerting. Kalmar, particularly, was not one to usually lose his composure.

And yet, she had to know. The islands of survivors and stranded people were counting on something, anything to help them. Master Hand had yet to return. Lady Palutena was hard at work on a solution, contacting other gods and goddesses that she knew for ideas or suggestions. The holders of the Triforce pieces had, once, brought their powers to the fore to dispel the disturbing tide, and the static had consumed their attacks. Explosives were just as effective as were holy swords and ancient abilities. They were losing hope day by day, week by week. They needed help. They needed an answer.

So, tentatively, Ven asked, “What is it?”

Eldstar turned to her. She almost swore she could see the regret in his ancient eyes. “The burst of this strange static into this world,” he said, “was due to Master Hand’s and Crazy Hand’s absence.”

Ven’s stomach dropped. Her mind connected scattered dots to conclusions she hadn’t wanted to draw before the old Star Spirit could continue.

“In order to get rid of it,” he said, gravely, “either they must return...or someone must fill the void they have left.”

/–/

For an eternity, her body burned. Every inch of her skin was alight with fire. Her skin burned. Her veins carried acid from her heart to her toes to her fingers to her head. Her lungs ached for air she couldn’t draw.

Then all at once it stopped. The fires dimmed, slowly vanishing. Her lungs were filled with sweet, cool oxygen and after a coughing fit, she was able to breathe normally.

Ven looked down at herself. There were no burns or injuries. No sign that she had been within a sun, then became the sun. For all intents and purposes her body was unharmed.

But that was on the surface. Somewhere deeper she could feel something had changed. Shifted. Her body thrummed with power, more so than the Mewtwo Bio Card had ever given her. She was greater than the sum of her parts. She was a tight ball of energy trapped inside a physical body that could barely contain it.

She commanded a finger to twitch, and it did. She wanted to clench the hand into a fist, and it did.

Distantly, a voice called her name. She directed her gaze upwards to the top of a pillar where Eldstar still floated. He inquired as to her state. She took a moment for herself then answered.

“I am functional.”

Eldstar’s mustache seemed to droop. He asked after her mind.

“Broken,” she provided immediately. She had spent many years meditating in her spare time. She knew that, if nothing else pertinent.

More questions followed. More answers ensued. No, she was not in pain. Yes, she was still aware of her body’s surroundings. Yes, she was still herself, if not with a slightly different perspective.

She was Ven Brooks, the new, perhaps temporary center of the Smash World. Her being was a sun, and orbiting around that sun were concepts; pieces of what she had been.

She would adapt. She would learn. And she would bring hope back.

Chapter Text

When the first curse broke, Ganondorf was confused. His was a power not taken lightly. He had practiced for many years, perfecting his magic under his mothers’ guidance. He had been confident that not a single Hyrulean could match him in strength, that each of his twisted curses would remain until the rulers of three domains broke and gave in to his demands.

He couldn’t imagine the Gorons having starved to death already or having had found the bravery to enter the dodongo-infested caverns to defeat the king of the beasts. Nor did the guardian deity of the Zora could have passed on so quickly. For that matter, none of the Zora would have survived against the parasite he had left inside of Jabu-Jabu. That left the ancient and dying Forest Guardian finally giving into his curse.

However, that did not explain away how sudden the connection had snapped. Something – no, someone had defeated the spider queen. But who?

Puzzled and indignant, Ganondorf waited and kept an ear out for anything out of the ordinary.

When the second curse broke, Ganondorf was surprised yet pleased. Once was odd enough considering the strength of his spells. Twice was a pattern.

He was certain now. Someone was gathering the Spiritual Stones. He quickly excused himself from the presence of his fellow Gerudo, and in private, a smile broke out on his face. He snickered, then full on cackled at the madness of it all and the luck that he had. Some imbecile was undoing his work, true, but they were doing everything else for him! No one went out of their way to break just one curse, never mind two!

The Sacred Realm was within his grasp. He could already see his victory.

All he needed was to wait a little while more.

When the third curse broke, Ganondorf smirked. The last Spiritual Stone had been reclaimed. It was only a matter of time before the Gates of Time were opened and the path to the Sacred Realm was revealed.

He gave the signal to his followers, and strode purposefully to the throne room. They scattered, as planned, and began their assassination of the royal soldiers. Confidence exuded from the man as he made his way through the long, wide corridors. A sinister grin split his face. The king was finished. His daughter would be next. And the Triforce would be his.

All would hail the new king.

Chapter Text

It was a thought that had constantly lurked in the back of her head since learning the truth. She had died, and yet was alive. She was all she had ever been and ever would be, and at the same time would never be herself. Countless days had passed since her first and last demise and here she was, under the sun, enjoying the pleasant weather.

She watched her hand, flexing it. There was skin, stretching and scarred. She could bleed and ache, even felt hunger. A part of her mourned for the self who couldn’t enjoy such simple things.

If asked, she couldn’t even pinpoint when the timelines had split then merged then split repeatedly, all without her knowing what was happening to each doomed version of herself. All she knew was in a straight line of events that led to her death then rebirth.

But it wasn’t a rebirth. It was more akin to copying the important data from a dying PC to a flashdrive then moving the files to a fresh PC. The old one died and the new one carried on with things like nothing ever happened.

That was her life, carrying on with a power she hadn’t before to protect others and possibly find a way back home.

Then the Muse had found her, exhausted and having met her deceased selves in eternal limbo. None wished to die, and so they combined themselves into one. Into the one that had survived. Every death was felt, every life was represented.

And the Muse told her to choose: close the loop that began her suffering or not, and allow herself to be undone by time.

The choice was simple, she had told herself. Just say no. Undo yourself and be done with it. Then she asked herself again if there was any reason not to. She ignored it.

The question passed her by again. She rejected it.

The third time, she broke.

Her friends, her family, the ones maybe gone, and the ones definitely not gone. They deserved to be protected if she ever saw them again.

So she closed the loop, and asked herself for forgiveness.

A cloud passed before the sun. The original died, scared and alone. But which had been the original, really? The one who had perished of exsanguination, or the one who had bled out in a strange land, begging for someone who would never hear her cries?

Which left her, bearing burdens to live on in the original’s stead.

She wore the face, she wore the scars, she held the memories. What was she really?

The circle of thoughts stopped. But it kept silently turning in the back.

There was no answer. Yes there was.

She was herself. A copy.

She called herself flashPanacea and her timeline was swiftly coming to an end.

Chapter Text

Obey.

Pain throbbed in every limb as Ven came to her senses. Fire bloomed in her legs and arms. A great weight pressed down on her stomach. She tasted copper. She couldn’t think.

Several voices rang out and soon the weight was gone. The voices merged into indistinguishable mumblings.

Then the warmth. A light shower rained down on her, and wherever the raindrops landed, the fire faded into minor aches. Oddly, her clothes didn’t soak up the water. Instead, the rain seemed to disappear the moment it hit her. It didn't even pool around her.

Then the aches left her.

Clarity filled its place.

She was lost. Had been lost. She drifted, place to place, world to world, following way point markers that should have led her back home. N-no. The Smash Hub. World. But they didn’t. They never did. They only led to more places, and more danger, like that shark that bit her leg or, or…

Beady red eyes stared back at her from the blackened depths of a skull. Pointed teeth hidden beneath a too wide smile. Questions, questions, screeches, the scrape of steel on concrete.

Ven shivered. A hand gently set on her as shoulder. She looked up at a painfully familiar face that she had last seen...yesterday? Last night? What day was it?

“Are you alright?” asked Princess Peach. Soot dusted her face and dress.

Ven took a deep breath then let it out. Then another.

She remembered.

She hated to remember. The headache came back.

“Yeah,” she answered hoarsely. How long had it been since she had drank something?

“Here you go.” Ven turned to to the short fluffy boy, standing beside the princess. A small rounded bottle was in his outstretched hand, the top already open. Ven took it gratefully, and lifted it to her lips. The honey sweet drink soothed her throat, and filled her with energy she hadn’t a moment ago.

Honey syrup. Almost like a pick-me-up in its own right.

At least she wasn’t tasting copper anymore.

She...oddly felt fine. Between the rain and the syrup – HP Rain. It was HP Rain, that was why she felt rejuvenated and ready to move again.

Off to the side, Bowser grunted. He stood with his back to them, unwilling to involve himself.

Ven blinked and looked around herself. Past the heroes were scattered pieces of shrapnel in all sizes. A few larger pieces of metal were crumpled here and there, almost reminiscent of bells. The ground was made of green stone, solid and sturdy.

Ven stared. There were no walls. The floor only went so far, but it stopped not even a hundred feet out. It just suddenly stopped and beyond it was a grey haze. She looked up and to her other side. It just kept going.

Her memories slotted into places, and it clicked.

Exor.

The Factory.

Count Down.

Obey.

Quickly she patted herself down. Her face was fine, if smeared with soot. Her arms were solid, her hands were there, all of her fingers were accounted for, her stomach was flabby, her legs-

Her leg.

Bits of metal lay on either side of her right leg. It was whole. Slightly scarred from years of outdoor activity, but whole.

Yet the metal. The pieces were long, slender. She imagined if they were together that they would fit over her bare leg perfectly.

Her stomach twisted.

“Ven?”

She felt her face again. Was she imagining it, or was there a dip by her eye? She reached behind her neck, fingering an area just over the spine.

“Ven?”

Grooves. Scars where there hadn’t been any before. She swallowed thickly.

They had tried to make her into a machine.

They had tried to make her into a machine.

“Ven!” She started. Peach was looking at her with concern. She breathed faster. She held her arms to herself-

Another click.

It was gone.

Her Nexus Watch was gone. She couldn’t use way points, couldn’t find way points, she couldn’t go back to the hub world, she couldn’t go back home. She needed to breathe, needed to breathe, needed to breathe…!

Arms embraced her.

And she sobbed for a mother she could never return to.

Chapter Text

The Minish Woods did not receive many visitors, but when they came, they drew attention from all things. The trees shifted, the animals stirred, and the little people of the forest, the Minish, cautiously stuck their heads out from their homes.

Men sauntered in, axes hung over one shoulder and tromping through the undergrowth. They cut down trees to warm themselves during winter, or to make furniture for their homes. Women tread with care, lifting dresses above dewey grass. They gathered herbs and berries in baskets, and left with a smile and a merry tune. Children would rush in, wild, carefree, and loud. They climbed the old trees, splashed in ponds, fought with broken branches, and crushed mushrooms as they ran and explored. They were young and had not yet learned to take care where they tread.

The Woods welcomed them all and the Minish kept far and away out of sight to remain safe. They more than any other knew how to live with such visitors coming and going and were never really bothered, save for when a child decided to poke their fingers into tiny holes in thick trees or cracks in the ground.

That was the way things had always been, as far back as any resident of the Woods could remember: familiar distractions punctuating the peacefulness of the forest.

Some sights, however, were rare and even rarer still spoken of. Instead, the tiny people warned others not to go out late at night. More dangerous creatures roamed the Woods at night and shadows would obscure them. Any who found themselves out after sunset would find themselves in peril.

Not that everyone listened.

Especially not the young and upset.

It was on a night when the waning moon cast a dim light over the trees and crickets sang and owls called that caution was thrown to the wind. A young Minish stepped out of the stuffy stump he lived in and walked. He didn't much care where he was going, only that he was gone.

Anger boiled inside him. How could anyone say he was immature? He was twice as wise as anyone his age with a sharp tongue to match his wit. He could brew potions, repeat mindless information by rote, and pluck a needed ingredient or book off the shelf without being told where it was.

He had such great aspirations when the old fool had taken him in. He would do great things, the geezer had said. He would become a sage, the fool had said.

Pah! What idiocy. What lies! Day in, day out, it had been the same thing. Wake up, eat, study, be lectured, screw up, get lectured, do well, another lecture, and on and on it went in an endless cycle with nothing to show for his efforts except exhaustion and headaches.

The Minish stomped under a broken branch. What was the old fool thinking? His talents were being wasted on fetching ingredients and memorizing useless things. Who cared about the old ties between Men and Minish? Why bother with meditative silence when the time spent bore no fruit? Who cared for stories of the old Minish’s past or why strawberries were supposedly necessary for a red potion?

He sat under between the roots of a tree. With a flick of his fingers, a small spark lit his face briefly then died. The Minish snarled. This! This was the problem! His magic was weak and utterly useless except as parlor tricks. No matter what he did, no matter what he tried, nothing ever improved.

Patience, his master had said. He needed patience. To let his frustration go. What a load of crock! It had been over a year and still nothing had changed! He could conjure a small flame or a slight breeze or send an arc of electricity dancing across his fingertips. If he concentrated, he could make the breeze a tiny bit stronger, just barely noticeable, but that was all.

That. Was all.

The Minish bashed a fist against the bark behind him. Hours of practice hadn’t seemed to get him anywhere. Everything from his head to his toes ached from his earlier session, and after that he had to sit down, nursing a cup of green medicine, as his master berated him yet again on overextending himself.

The Minish huffed. He was tired of the old sage and his long winded speeches. What was the big deal? He learned his own limits and that was what counted. He needed nothing else than his own will and effort. He could… He could…

Raucous laughter interrupted his thoughts, making him start. Eyes narrowed, he turned to the deeper darkness of the Woods. Growing up, stories of gruesome ends and ferocious creatures had always kept him well away from it. No one sane set foot further in. It was a death sentence. It was foolish.

But tonight there was laughter.

Tonight there were Men.

The young Minish considered where to go. He could go back to his master’s, listen to a speech on patience and rest and safety, then fall asleep in his bed to prepare for another long day of studying. Or, he could follow the sounds and discover what Men were really like. No birds or foxes would come close such noise, and he would be getting lectured no matter how late he came back.

Boots stomped the ground, fast approaching. The choice had been taken from him.

Instincts pushed him to hide. He found room between bits of tree bark, then stayed there and listened.

The footsteps neared his tree, stopping a little ways away. Two sets. Two humans.

“Look boy,” said one, voice gravelly, “I understand ya. You’re not used to the thievin’ life. You’re used to buying things and sleeping indoors… Your life doing that ended when you decided to hike with us back in the last town. Now, I’m not saying you’re weak. By Din, you cut down Shade faster than Blind himself! But if you’re ever going to fit in you need to actually, you know... steal.

“I know, sir,” said the second, voice small and smooth but certainly not a little boy. “I’m sorry. I’ve never stolen anything before, and when that lady looked at me I just…”

The first man snorted. “Lesson number three, boy: backbone. You have enough of it when arguing, that’s obvious enough, but you need to apply that to your pickpocketing. Otherwise we’re going to leave you high and dry and be on our merry little way. Then, when the townspeople find out you were associated with us, well…” The man chuckled sinisterly. “The old saying goes: Hyrule’s history is drenched in the blood of traitors.”

Silence.

Leaves crinkled as boots shuffled.

“Look at me, boy,” demanded the first. “How do you think I got to where I am today? I wasn’t born into money. These rings? I took them. This necklace? I took it. The gold in my bag?”

There was a pause. It only grew awkward as the seconds passed. A handful later and the second man spoke. “You took them, sir?” he asked, more than stated.

“Yes!” the first man hissed. “I’ve stolen gold, rupees, jewels, heirlooms, paintings, and so much more! And do you know why?”

The second man swallowed. “N-no, sir?”

“It’s because we deserve it. We deserve good things, boy. We deserve a good life. We were born into thievery and never even tasted the sweet delights that other people enjoyed. That not even you used to enjoy.

“We work hard for the life that we have. Some people live cushy lives, never having to lift so much as a finger. Others work day in and day out, nose to the grindstone, never resting a day in their lives. And for what? A meager meal and the feeling of a job well done.” The last words were said with a snarl, as if the very notion offended the man. “Why should they be the only ones to have good things?” A clap of flesh on cloth. “Whatever it is in life that you want, boy, you take it. You don’t second guess yourself. It only makes you messy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good boy. And you’ll pickpocket the next person you see, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. Now let’s return to the others. We’re moving on from Hyrule as soon as supper’s done, and back to Blind.”

“Yes, sir,” said the man, and the footsteps receded.

Seconds passed, then minutes. The Woods returned to their traditional silence.

And the Minish breathed.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the Minish crept out of his hiding spot. He winced, gently dislodging his feathered tail from where it had become stuck. He hadn’t realized how far back into the tree bark he had pushed himself.

But those Men… Those humans. So ruthless! So vile!

So...

You take it.

So...

A job well done, Vaati!

So...

My greatest work yet!

A short while later, his master found him, sitting between the roots of the tree, staring at the ground with a disturbing intensity. He was taken back home, then sat in a chair and lectured at.

The young Minish let the words to enter through one ear and out the other. He sat through the speech, tight mouthed and mum.

And resisting a grin.

He had found power.

Chapter Text

The sun went down and she was left with a half moon and a sky bursting with pinpricks of light. Like the stars above, her thoughts were scattered and many. It was better this way, rather than following one down the inevitable rabbit hole.

A copy was a copy was a copy, after all.

Or was the copy the new original as she was the only one left standing?

Did it even matter?

She grabbed another thought, quickly.

The world was an odd thing, wasn’t it? Capable of sustaining life for millennia.

Only to end due to meteors.

And a game she was never supposed to be a part of.

She groaned and closed her eyes tight. Where in the world, the multi-verse or whatever system was being used, was she supposed to go now?

What were they supposed to do? Just a handful left after the Witch went nuts and slaughtered everyone else. The Page was dead as a paperweight and the Prince had taken an arrow to the knee.

And the face.

And the sternum.

Just a whole lot of arrows everywhere. The Witch hadn’t been happy with their breakup.

Then there was her and the Maid. They had an inkling of an escape route, but they’d need to wait a bit for a detector to go off on the other side of the rim before they could reliably pull it off.

The Mage rubbed her face. So much to do, so little time.

A voice, low and excited reach her.

“Pan-pan! Pan-pan! It went off!” The Maid jogged up the hill, disrupting the illusion. The starry sky wavered and broke, parting like mists in the afternoon. She smiled, pulling off her hood. “We can finally go now!”

Well. That was sooner than expected.

The Mage nodded and took up the rucksack next to her. There was no telling what the Furthest Ring held for them, but it was better to die than to be murdered by a Witch with an obsidian bow and one hundred-sixty-three arrows.

In a blink, the Maid hugged her.

The Mage froze.

“I’m not your Flashpan, remember?” she asked, voice flat.

The Maid laughed. “Of course you are! You’re here aren’t you? You’re the only one I see lying around and being mopey. We’ve been friends since Kindergarten; you’re not going to lose me any time soon.”

The Mage had no words.

She couldn’t find them, but she didn’t need them.

She gave a half-hearted laugh, and they pulled away from each other. The Maid took her hand and they ascended into the infinite darkness.

Chapter Text

I’m counting on you Tails! And Amy...take care of yourself.”

There was silence as the capsule exploded. Space was a vacuum; no amount of sound would carry back to them. Even so, he could imagine it as billowing flames briefly lit up the outside of the ARK and were extinguished just as quick.

Hands gripping the controls of his mech tight, Tails couldn’t think. His hero...gone. Just gone. They had been everywhere together, done everything together. They had defeated Dr. Eggman over and over since bringing down the Death Egg, saving the animals trapped inside his robots and foiling all of his plans for world domination. They were a team, brothers even, and nothing could slow them down.

But…

There wasn’t a team anymore, was there?

He lowered his head. It was his fault. If Eggman had thought that the real Chaos Emerald was with Sonic then maybe he wouldn’t have launched the capsule and-

Amy wailed, her sobbing filling the chamber.

He could hear his heart beating in his ears.

“Now we have some unfinished business to take care of!” declared the doctor, authoritative and confident. Gloating even. “If you give me the real Emerald, I will release you both! You have my promise!”

Tails slowly lifted his head, numb. “Sonic...”

“Huh?”

“Sonic has asked me” - has; he couldn’t believe Sonic was dead, not yet – “for the first time to do something for him.” Tails peered up and into the glasses of Dr. Eggman, willing for the man to look him in the eyes. To really look. “I won’t let him down.” He glared, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. His white knuckled grip on the controls kept his hands from shaking. “I won’t give up!”

Chapter Text

Shadow Android chuckled darkly as he watched the chaos unfold on the wall of monitors. Governments turned themselves in knots; cities burned; infrastructure crumbled; communications were being blocked or actively taken down.

And in every instance there was a Shadow, wreaking havoc. They sped by in black and red blurs, tearing through opposing robots and humans with ease. They were working together for a common goal, unstoppable and determined.

However, all of them lacked something that made them weaker. Something that made him, Shadow Android, the ultimate replica.

Free thought.

It had been a tough decision to seal away their broader awareness. They were like him, only unknowing of the truth: that Dr. Eggman had cloned them all. That the original Shadow had died, sacrificing himself for both the Earth and a young girl long dead.

How pathetic.

Shadow Android had thought about it, however, and he knew well what would happen if he didn’t have the other androids’ minds restricted. Dozens of Shadow Androids waking up, oblivious to the truth of their existence until it was told to their faces, then running off to destroy the planet.

Divided.

Individually.

Inefficient, as his partner put it.

Omega’s coding had chained them all to Shadow’s will. They weren’t stupid by any means, but they could not see anything beyond their orders or memories. They were driven by a command to destroy.

For Maria.

They all had memories of her, of course. He wasn’t going to have their minds wiped either. He wasn’t a monster. If he couldn’t make them naturally forget, then he was going to use the next best thing.

Revenge.

It had served him well so far, after all. Coding the Androids to believe that Gerald Robotnik had created more than one Shadow had been enough for all of them to band together in her name.

“Omega,” he said, “How much longer until the Eclipse Cannon is fully charged?”

“Twenty hours, seven minutes, and fifty-two seconds,” replied the E-series robot, eyeing the counter with something close to anticipation.

Shadow Android’s mouth curled up into a smirk. “Good. The time will soon come for those humans to bow down to me...and perish.”

Chapter Text

Silver the Hedgehog jolted awake to Klaxon alarms. He twisted his head around, red lights flashing over him and reflecting against the glass windows stretching over one wall of the corridor. The other side was of solid steel, no wear or rust to suggest how long it had stood there.

“What? What’s going on?” he asked, as if someone would answer him as he tried to wrap his brain around just where he was. Last he recalled, he had been in the city, running a few errands. Nothing much, just groceries. Or was it building supplies? A search and rescue mission? Then the sky had gone dark, and his partner had shouted something or other about running. Then…then..

Bang!

A bullet whizzed by Silver’s ear.

He jerked his head towards one end of the hall. Standing in a tight v-formation were armored men. Vests, helmets, and odd red goggles were worn by each, preparations for combat and hidden foes.

And they all held guns. Silver wasn’t sure what kind they were, but he wasn’t about to ask. He probably wouldn’t get an answer anyways.

The one in front of the formation had his eye looking straight down the sight scope.

Silver’s body glowed green. Another shot and the bullet stopped an inch in front of his face.

“What is that?” asked one of the men in the back, caution and disgust coloring his tone. “Another experiment?”

“Who cares?” the leader spat. He gestured the muzzle of the gun at Silver. “Take it out! No one escapes!”

“Hey-!” Silver raised his hand as more bullets came his way. Each one was stopped midair, crushed under his power, and left to fall harmlessly to the floor. “Enough of this!” With a gesture, Silver mentally grabbed every gun he could see, and flung them away from the soldiers, towards himself.

The leader reached down to his leg and withdrew a second gun from a thigh holster, this one smaller and with a shorter barrel. “You won’t get away with this!”

Silver moved his fingers, and that one was taken from the man as well. A few of the other soldiers rushed forward low to the ground, hands outstretched. With a thought they were restrained and held in midair, a green aura covering them.

“Retreat!” shouted one of the others. “Retreat!”

“It’s too powerful!”

“All units, fall back!” commanded the leader as he began to back away. He ran back down the hallway, the rest obediently turning, trailing behind.

Silver shook his head, wincing as head throbbed. The Klaxon alarms had yet to cease, and he had three soldiers, who had gladly tried to kill him, free for questioning.

He wasn’t going to get anywhere by mindlessly running around, so he levitated a foot off the floor and moved towards one of his would-be assassins.

“Hey! Why were you trying to kill me?” he demanded of the three. “And why are these alarms going off?”

One soldier shook, the only signs of his constant struggling to break free of Silver’s control. “I won’t say anything to the likes of you!”

Silver turned to the next man. “What about you?”

The soldier sneered. Somehow, Silver could feel the glare through the goggles. “As if a member of G.U.N. would ever give away information to the enemy!”

Silver blinked then glared back. “Enemy?” he asked, indignant. “What do you mean by ‘enemy’?”

The third one snorted. “Everyone aboard this space colony has knowingly committed treason,” he said. “For your acts of terror, all of you are slated for immediate execution.”

Silver froze, ice trailing down his arms and legs. “Execution?!”

The second one groaned. “Good going, Rick!”

Silver’s eyes searched the floor as the three attempted to wiggle free, yelling at him. Soldiers. G.U.N. Orders to kill…

“Space colony...” Silver whispered. Amidst all the panic, he’d nearly missed the odd bit of info. He glanced out the window and caught starlight. They littered the black expanse, some duller than others but no less beautiful. Though, there weren’t any buildings looming in the distance. Silver hovered closer, and his breath caught in his throat.

Earth. Blue and green with white clouds dotting the atmosphere. Smog didn’t choke the atmosphere. The oceans were brighter than he ever thought they would be. Satellites didn’t crowd in orbit for space. It was so…

So beautiful.

“Hey! Don’t ignore us!”

Silver shook his head, clearing his mind and focusing. He didn’t know enough about what was happening, and he probably wouldn’t get much more out of the people here.

Still, he could try.

He stared at the three men. These people from G.U.N. Why was that ringing a bell? “What was that...about an experiment?”

“It’s what you are, abomination!”

“Rick!”

Silver glared at Rick. “I am not an experiment!” he shouted. Part of him wished that the human wasn’t wearing goggles. It would make judging his emotions so much easier. “I don’t even know how I got here…but if the people aboard this colony have truly done terrible things, then it’s my duty to stop them!”

Conviction rising, Silver tightened one hand into a fist in a private vow. A second later, the aura dissipated from the three soldiers and they dropped the foot or so back to the steel floor without a problem. As they got their bearings again, Silver gathered up the guns, even the ones in their thigh holsters, mashed them together into a tight wad of warped metal – bullets were discharged, but his power kept them inside – and placed the misshapen ball to the side.

The soldiers shouted, though one pressed a hand to his helmet and muttered. Another tried finding a salvageable gun from the mess Silver had made, though he knew the chances of that were slim to none.

He wasn’t worried. Not about them. Not when there were much bigger problems to take on.

Like the others still on the colony. The ones who had brought G.U.N. down on their heads.

“What a monster...”

Silver turned. He couldn’t tell who had said it as all three were visibly unsettled and slowly backing away.

But he wasn’t about it take it.

“The only monster here,” he said, unable and unwilling to hold back the anger in his voice, “is whoever’s doing those acts of terror! And if you’re not going to tell me anything, then I’ll just need to check it out for myself!” With that, Silver dashed down the hallway, the alarms drowning out the voices of the soldiers.

He didn’t know what those experiments were about, but if they had been enough to be considered treason, they couldn’t be anything good.

Chapter Text

Ramirez… May you rest in peace...”

Fina watched as Vyse hurled the Silver Crystal as far as he could. The glittering gem arced through the sky, the sunrise making it seem as though it were leaving sparkles in its wake. She watched as it shrank to a pinprick, then a glint amidst the clouds, until finally it disappeared.

The last remnant of Ramirez, her childhood friend, had been given to the sky.

Fina closed her eyes, a prayer in her heart. He had lost himself to the awfulness in Valua, never having the fortune to meet the wonderful people of the world who would have embraced him as Vyse and Aika had embraced her.

He had not taken the time to get to know the people who lived under the Silver or Red Moons.

He had not seen the skies as she did, full of wonders and ancient history.

He had not experienced the exhilaration of soaring the skies, wind in his hair and laughter by his side.

He had not deviated from his mission in the slightest.

Until Galcian.

Ramirez had entered Valua and his view of the world had contorted until only spite and disgust remained. Despite what those feelings had pushed him to do, she had still considered him a friend.

Even as he had beckoned the Silver Gigas itself to consume him.

Fina opened her eyes, and stared out at Soltis, determined. Ramirez was gone, but he would not be forgotten.

She wasn’t sure what would happen next, but whatever would come, she would stand by her allies. Her friends.

Along with her home.

Chapter Text

Perfect Chaos’s form exploded, a streak of golden warmth and protectiveness striking through his hatred. The feeling was vague but fleeting as the ancient creature’s fragments coalesced and reshaped further into the ruined city.

Perfect Chaos seethed. How dare this tiny, insignificant blue hedgehog try to destroy him?! The world had wronged him, and it would finally pay.

He lashed out with vortexes of water, controlling them as they weaved through the flooded street. They swiped buildings in their path, busting open wide sections of walls and sending pieces tumbling to the waters below. Yet, the golden figure dodged them all, becoming increasingly fast until he turned into a bolt of lightning.

And struck again.

Perfect Chaos cried out in rage as a slash of compassion collapsed his form. The feeling was quickly deluged by his anger.

He reformed, further away still, and attempted to stop the hedgehog again. Already broken structures crumbled into the water as typhoons and energy projectiles were aimed at the small glowing speck below.

And failed.

An explosion of water and a surge of fondness, trust, and an urge to just stop, come on, I know you’re hurting, but you have to stop!

Perfect Chaos roared. Such emotions scrapped at old scars, reopening wounds where his hatred had festered for hundreds of years.

Perfect Chaos’s rage boiled over and he bellowed. Fury consumed him.

The attacks came faster, more frequent. Perfect Chaos barely paused between attempts to skewer the hedgehog and open his mouth to blast him with the power of his wrath.

When had it become acceptable to meddle with a guardian’s affairs?!

The bolt of lightning raced up his body and hit his brain can’t you see what you’re doing is wrong?, destabilizing his form.

Perfect Chaos left and united himself. Typhoons were sent in trios, energy spines cut off paths and skewered roadways.

The combined emotions from multiple people burst his mind with a wave of concern and determination. Their kindness seared him. Open your heart, Chaos.

The water burbled and tendrils emerged from the flood to meld and bring him shape.

Why couldn’t anyone just leave well enough alone?

The ancient creature glared, and gave the golden blur his all. Beams and spears of energy, lines of cyclones, all sent out with one intent: to sink the hedgehog beneath his domain.

And yet, it was not enough to so much as slow him down. The blur dodged and swerved around his attacks, slipping through gaps where spears would not hit, where typhoons had already passed. The lightning swirled up inside and burst him apart, a wave of undulating sympathy overwhelming him at last.

It’s gonna be alright.

Perfect Chaos collapsed.

His rage simmered.

Then, it vanished.

A single puddle of water emerged from the flood, and onto still standing strip of highway.

He returned to his most simplistic of forms, and found himself struck with awe.

Small blue creatures skipped up to him, babbling in their own language. They had tiny wings and little yellow orbs bouncing atop their heads.

The Chao.

The Chao!

As the creatures surrounded him, asking who he was, and what he liked, and if he wanted to play, Chaos felt something akin to hope stir within.

He hadn’t hurt them. He could have never done that. He had sensed them before in a building, the second floor, but he hadn’t destroyed it. Hadn’t so much as touched that level while he rampaged, the very notion a distant afterthought. He was their guardian. He always would be, no matter what.

Chaos shook with joy. They were alive. They were alive! It hadn’t been his imagination. The Chao had lived!

In a burst of light, Tikal appeared, and confirmed his thoughts, and then some. The Chao were not only living, but were thriving. It had taken hundreds of years, but finally, finally, they were as loved now as he had loved them. Still loved them.

His heart was unchained. His mind was clear.

Chaos found that, for the first time since Pachacamac’s time, he could be content.

Tikal hovered into the air and extended a hand towards him.

He knew what she was silently offering, and he ready for it. He was a guardian, of course, and he had a shrine to look over.

They both floated, growing closer and closer to one another as they ascended, until light engulfed them.

This time there would not be a mess of emotional destruction and his keeper. There would be two guardians, observing from inside the Master Emerald until they were needed.

Chapter Text

“Listen well, now. This is a legend that had been handed down through the women in our family for generations.

“You know of the golden goddesses and how they shaped our world… What I did not tell you was that they left behind something when they parted for the heavens. Something very important.

“It is said that at the point where they left our world, their powers together created something so incredible that wars have been started over it.

“The Sacred Realm... A place beyond mortal sight where all is golden, even the sky. There, somewhere hidden amongst the magnificent sights, lies the sacred triangles.

“The Triforce.

“It knows not good or evil. It only grants wishes reflected by the user’s heart. A good and righteous person will be filled with light and bring forth prosperity. Meanwhile, a person full of hate and greed will only corrupt everything he touches.

“Time and time again, the lure of power has twisted the hearts and minds of mortals, far and wide. Immortality, infinite power, riches beyond measure, and every other conceivable vice fulfilled by carving through their fellow men to a sacred place for the powers left by the goddesses.

“Yes, it is horrible. That is why I am teaching you this now. You must know for the future. For all of us.

“Remember this: just as evil will be attracted to the Triforce, so will good. Three pieces. Three people.

“You may not feel it yet, but the Triforce will undoubtedly find its way to you. Whether it be whole or only a part, it does not matter. Listen to your instincts and never doubt yourself.

“Trust me, my sweet daughter. When the time comes, it will not be the birth of a god that heralds a new era for our fair country, but the birth of a legend. Your legend.”

Chapter Text

Rian slammed the heavy door shut, then scrambled to heave the board into the metal brackets. His muscles strained to lift the thick piece of wood by himself, but adrenaline surged, giving him the strength to slot it into place. It was a poor defense, he knew, but there was only so much he could do against the onslaught of those machines.

He took a shuddering breath and backed away from the door. Even now he could hear the clanging and beeping and explosions that the once-trusted Guardians were making. It had been mind-numbing to see and hear them approach, cutting through the land with ease. It had been horrifying to realize that these, their once absolute defense against the Calamity, had been possessed, turning on them all. Captain Vincent, ragged of breath but smart as a whip, had taken the reigns of command immediately and given orders to all who were stationed there along with the men who had survived the onslaught at Hyrule Castle.

The emergence of the Calamity.

Rian winced as the walls outside were hit by laser fire again, the telltale explosions tearing through his thoughts. The brave souls who had manned the cannons had gone up in flames, unable to scream as they collapsed where they stood. Archers on the ramparts had been picked off one by one, or groups at a time as Guardians began flying – flying! – overhead. The batteries were in the wrong placement to take on foes who came from the southwest and traveled up to the bridge. The Guardians heading eastward could have been hit, but even the ones directly within the cross sights of two batteries didn’t so much as flinch.

Akkala Citadel had been built to protect the region from invaders by sea.

It was never meant to repel invaders from within.

The citadel shook, and Rian backed away into a corner, nearly tripping over a bag of rice. Those things had obliterated Cobalt as he tried to buy time for Captain Vincent and the others. They had overtaken Verdan, the man’s battle experience no match for the lightning quick sights of the machines. And Scar. He had tried nailing one of the things in the eye before it hit Captain Vincent, and was consumed in flames by another for his efforts.

Which left only him. From a quartet of soldiers with high hopes and dreams of becoming captains, down to one pathetic man whose knowledge couldn’t save him from the unknown.

Deep inside the citadel as Rian was, he knew it would only be a matter of time before the Guardians burst through.

And there were not enough cannons nor archery skills that could save him.

All he could do was wait and pray to the goddesses that the princess was safe, and that she would find the strength to repel the Calamity that had taken over their fair kingdom.

Black ooze crept in from the cracks of the barricaded door.

Rian’s heart hammered.

He prayed it would be soon.

Chapter Text

Fewer things were more terrible than empty silence. It was like a yawning, gaping wound that muted the world. An omnipotent presence whose gaze bored into a person’s soul and demanded that not a sound be made.

In a world recovering from devastation many such wounds were left. Some scarred over, a contemplative quiet having settled. Others remained open, festering reminders of the past.

It was difficult to tell which would be found by exploring the openness of Hyrule. A few points were obvious, such as the husk of a home that Kakariko Village overlooked. Scarred over, a commemoration of a countrywide tragedy. Torn and wrecked villages dotting the kingdom. Noted, but ignored scars. Graveyards even.

But Central Hyrule… Central Hyrule was the worst. An infected lesion of wandering Guardians, a devastated town, Malice...

And the awaiting Calamity.

A wide berth was wordlessly given to the region, pushing travelers to go elsewhere  Further from the blight. Further from death.

Further into the unknown.

That, reflected the traveler, was exactly where he was going. Since the Great Calamity, countless records and maps of the kingdom had been lost. Most, if not all of them, have been kept at Hyrule Castle. There hadn't been a need to copy any maps since all roads led to Hyrule Castle Town, and from there you could go anywhere.

Now, however, monsters blocked many roads and hid in small camps all over the country. Word of safe paths traveled by mouth alone. Drawing an accurate map was next to impossible, and anything could be lurking off of the well-known roads.

Or up the cliffs of Death Mountain.

He hadn’t thought anything would really be up this high on Death Mountain eastern crags, especially so far from any villages or stables. But there had been a path of sorts, going higher and higher.

And here he was.

Here it was.

Another ravaged remnant of Hyrule’s past.

Vines and moss and grass grew over the skeletons of homes. A cart lay on its side, one wheel broken, overtaken by nature. A few trees were barren of leaves but others were bursting with life.

It was a small isolated place, with nothing to offer but an imagined existence. The traveler couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to live so close to Death Mountain and yet out of the way, but whoever had lived here had carved out lives for themselves. They had made a choice and probably enjoyed it.

The traveler carefully moved through the old ruins, observing the few structures left standing, even on brittle legs. The insides of the homes were empty. No wooden chests to plunder could be found. Not even a rusted knife lying under the wild grass.

A poor place. But the people must’ve been happy.

An odd emptiness in his heart, the traveler turned and left. If nothing else, he had a story to share to others at a stable.

Chapter Text

Captain Dagger watched as the smoke billowed out from the slowly shrinking mechanical monstrosity. He hesitated to call the machine a ship even as it floated upon the waves like his own fine vessel. The metal beast bore no sails, only cannons. Cannons which had nearly crippled his ship, the Carver. If not for his skills and the sharp turns his ship could take, Dagger had no doubts that he and the crew would have sunk beneath the waves, or worse: become captives of the Steel Tyrant.

A meaningless roar of noise rose briefly above the waves. Gesturing from the gleaming aft, likely cursing Dagger’s name and giving orders in turn, was the man himself. King Radium. Sunlight glinted off of him with every movement. His rule was based on the metals his mines produced and he wore them as proudly as a peacock. Captain Dagger couldn’t focus on the figure for more than a second lest he be blinded into submission.

He was not known as a man of mercy by any means. The shadow his empire cast was long and the atrocities he had committed were even longer. Crooked fingers plunged countless towns and cities into terror. Meager rebellions would rise up but were quickly crushed under his fist. Horror stories of family, friends, and even strangers disappearing without a word spread like wildfire from the coast up into the mountains.

Even into the ocean.

King Radium had a long reach, but he could at least be fought back. His odd machine was dead on the water as the Red Dawn Rebellion ships sailed away, and the fact that it had happened while the tyrant himself was on board as a show of power gave a hint of sweetness to the whole debacle.

“Captain Dagger?”

The man started from his thoughts, and turned to the girl at his side. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, fourteen, tops. The simple red shirt and brown pants betrayed her station, and only those who frequented the Nether bars would know the significance of the combination, even if the tradition had come about of an old joke.

“Emma,” he said. “Thank you. Without you we would have surely lost this battle, and our lives.”

The girl scratched her cheek, and winced as a thin scab broken open. She would be seeing the medic before long. Dagger knew she had to have other injuries elsewhere. “I...only did what my father would have done,” Emma muttered.

Dagger waited a moment, but nothing else was offered. Not the white beam of light from her ship that had crashed through and disabled the largest of cannons. Not the mysterious bolts of lightning that had struck the metal beast. Not the strange winged creature that had flown out and melted a hole clear through the enemy’s hull and damaged their machinery. Nothing.

Dagger itched to know. Power like that didn't crop up overnight, and there were no flying armored creatures that he knew of. The few contacts who had seen Emma in the past months hadn't reported anything so fantastic either.

Dagger shook his head, brown locks swishing with the movement. Matters for a later time. “Regardless, you’ve aided us greatly in our fight. We are in your debt. If there is anything your heart desires, just name it. I shall see it done.”

He knew what she was likely to request, as well. Her father’s pride and heart had sunk not an hour ago, and she was as much a sailor as any other man or woman about his own ship.

That much he knew. Ashamedly, he hadn’t kept accurate tabs on Emma in the past several years. The girl always seemed to be moving, ducking in and out of bays along the eastern and southern coasts and bars in the Nether in a constant search for family and crew. A few of his contacts had alluded to some ships attempting to follow her, but nothing had come of it yet, and his contacts were better used for gathering intel on new armaments or Radium’s forces.

Besides, he told himself, if Emma could bring down Radium’s latest monstrosity on the seas, she could take care of a few troublesome and nosy ships.

After a moment, Emma replied, “A ship. Ours sank…” She took a deep breath to steady herself. Her voice still came out watery. “We have.. My father’s ship i...it’s…”

Captain Dagger patted her on the shoulder. The Ruby Eye. A sturdy ship, he’d heard. One that had seen more battles than most sailors. The ruthlessness of Galden had ensured that his ship had lasted well past his time, and his daughter had inherited it.

It had been what? Six? Seven years since his disappearance? And the old beauty had taken several hits before finally cracking then breaking in half.

If the Ruby Eye was as cherished as his Wavebreaker, it had not only been a ship, but a home too. A dozen or so people suddenly displaced, without food or coin.

That was why the rebellion was there, though. To aid, to heal, to overcome.

He had connections in high places. A few strings pulled, several favors changed in, and the request would be fulfilled.

“I’ll see to it,” he said, “that you and your crew are given a worthy ship. Now, why don’t you go check on them? I believe they made their way below deck during those last barrages.”

Emma nodded. “Aye. Thanks. I…” She swallowed, eyes glistening. “You’re a good captain. I’ll see you later.”

“Aye.”

Dagger turned away, staring back at the floating hunk of metal on the waves as Emma’s footsteps retreated, quickly disguised amongst the numerous others on deck.

A good captain, she’d said. Ha. A little over a half dozen ships, fully manned, reduced to three with surviving crews scattered to the remaining ships. A good captain would have retreated despite the seemingly favorable odds. A good captain would have bent over backwards to keep an eye on such a young captain, no matter how mature or clever the first mate. A good captain would have commanded all others to flee and given them time as he stood before the latest machine from the Steel Empire.

A good leader would have known about the danger before it even appeared. Spies, double agents. He knew the dangers of sending them into the Empire, yet… There were volunteers. There would always be volunteers. What use was there in having them if he didn’t use them effectively? What…

What use was he, even? A strategist. One who knew the Steel Empire more than anyone else outside of it. He had thought that would’ve been enough to tip the scales of fate in their favor.

Blatantly, he had been wrong.

So very wrong.

Dagger whirled and slid between crew as they went about their jobs. He passed the door to the lower decks and opened the one on the starboard side, leading to his private quarters. He entered, then sat a board between the handle and an iron bracket in the wall.

Alone at last, Dagger’s face crumpled.

“You’re a fool, Dagger,” he muttered. “A complete fool.” Wiping hair from his face, the captain drew in a breath and let it out. “Lulu...you idiot.” His voice broke on the last two words into a higher octave.

Away from prying eyes, Dagger quietly wept for a man driven beyond the brink and a daughter who once believed she could stop his madness.

Chapter Text

The woods were silent as he staggered back up the mountain, the cold body of his sibling in his arms. The humans had been relentless in their assault, throwing rocks and cooking pans and whatever else they could grab. The brave and perhaps the angriest had charged at him, wielding spears and pitchforks. One had even a rusty shovel.

He had smiled then. Chara had been wrong. They had been wrong! Humans weren’t so bad, not if they would band together to attack someone who they thought had killed one of their own.

Even if it was him that...

Agony lanced their SOULs. Asriel stumbled, his grip tightening on Chara’s body. He couldn’t - wouldn’t stop. Not until they were both home. No matter how much the other screamed, begged, pleaded, and flung insults, he didn’t stop, he didn’t let his control slip. As much as it pained them both, as much as they had sacrificed and were sacrificing still, Asriel didn’t have it inside him to harm anyone.

Well. He did, sort of. But he wouldn’t allow it to happen.

Their cries were hysterical. All the planning, all the heartbreak their parents had endured. All for nothing as he trudged back to the barrier, and passed right through it.

Chara’s attempts to take back control were like little fists against his back. They both knew the form wouldn’t last.

One foot in front of the other, Asriel steadily made his way through the corridors until they opened up into a sparsely lit room of colorful flowers.

Home.

Asriel sighed in relief, grip loosening on the corpse as he collapsed. Faintly, he thought he saw his mother and father, faces stricken as his vision faded. He couldn’t be sure. He wouldn’t ever be sure.

Darkness enveloped him.

Then, there was warmth. And he opened his eyes.

Waking came slowly, naturally, as if he had been asleep for a long time. He felt oddly well-rested without any aches or pains. The humans, he remembered. How was he healed? How was he alive?

Sunlight filtered down through the holes in the mountainside, casting warm rays upon the garden of oddly golden flowers. Like the ones in the village. Where were his parents? Where was Chara? He couldn’t feel their SOUL anymore.

Asriel moved to get up from the bed of flowers, to see what had happened, but nothing so much as twitched. Not a toe. Not a finger.

He froze and looked down. Fear filled him.

He had no legs.

He had no arms.

He was just a stem and – and…!

Asriel screamed, crying out for his mother. Then his father, tugging at his roots in the ground. Then for somebody, anybody.

Alone with only birdsong, Asriel wailed. He called out, voice ragged and cracked.

But nobody came.

Time stretched on. It was minutes, it was hours, maybe even days. Would he ever see them again? And Chara… He had failed his sibling. Not in killing the humans, but in stopping their plan before it ever launched. If had said something, just one word, it would have all stopped and they would be here right beside him, making that scary face and playing games, and he wouldn’t somehow be a flower, and mom and dad would hug him and love him and--

“Golly. Are you alright?”

Asriel hiccuped and looked up and further up still. Towering over him, then bending down on one knee, was the King of All Monsters. Asgore.

“Dad!” he sobbed. A taunt of “crybaby” echoed from his memories. “Dad! It’s me, Asriel!”

His father blinked slowly, uncomprehending. “Asriel?” He slowly shook his head. “I don’t understand...”

“I - I don’t either!” The words tumbled out of the prince’s mouth. “A-after Chara d-died, I took their SOUL then carried their body past the barrier and down to the human village. I placed him on a bed of flowers…but then there was a loud scream, and they were so angry! They thought I had killed them, dad! They thought I had killed Chara!” Asriel sniffled. His father’s face was a mask of horror.

It was the same look that had appeared on some villagers’ faces before they began attacking.

But Asriel was unable to stop the flood now that the gates were open. “They started throwing things at me and hitting me, so I took their body and came back. I made it back through the barrier, then everything went black and I woke up here!” He wilted, so very exhausted. “You have to help me, dad...”

The alarm had grown with every word said, but the final plea snapped Asgore out of it and into something more somber.

Asgore reached for him, and carefully wrapped one arm behind him and put his massive head beside his own. A mimicry of one of his tight hugs. “There, there,” he said, lightly patting the back of Asriel’s head. “Everything is going to be alright.”

The boy sniffled. “Thank you…” he said.

They stayed like that for a long while, father and son reunited. Though, as much as Asgore’s voice was full of kindness and encouragement and support, Asriel was only confused. He didn’t say it out loud, but the reassurance and the love for his father that he should have felt, was oddly missing. He thought of his mother’s snail pie and warm hugs,  and his father’s strong arms and proud smile.

Still, there was nothing.

Maybe, he thought, it was shock. He was numb. It wouldn’t last for long. He would feel again in no time.

His father pulled away and said he would go get a pot and a trowel to dig him out. Asriel nodded, and accepted the offer. As the king rushed away, Asriel once more reached for that warmth he had always lived with. Love, happiness, the bubbly feeling that everything was alright.

It was still missing.

Asriel let out a shuddering breath and shook his head.

He would feel again in no time.

Chapter Text

The dull roar of waterfalls enveloped him among the flowers. The patch was small, barely anything at all, but it was a place to hide and think away from the rest of the morons in the Underground. The Ruins were small and everyone knew everyone, Snowdin Forest was freezing, Hotland was blistering, and New Home was where the soft-hearted hypocrite lived. Waterfall might have been damp and full of monsters, but few ventured so far into the dump. It was a Wednesday, too, so Catty and Bratty wouldn’t be scavenging there. Alphys would be coming by for a few hours though. She would stare down into the abyss for seventy-two minutes, then head back to her lab, tail between her legs like the failure she was.

Flowey swatted a golden flower. What a pathetic monster. She claimed to have built a robot with a SOUL, something the old fool fell for and called “groundbreaking”. He chose her to be the royal scientist for her brilliance, then when she failed to deliver on her promises, she lied and wallowed in her failures instead of moving on.

What an idiot!

Flowey stretched his roots, seeing how far he could reach the rest of the flower patch. He couldn’t fault Alphys for trying something new. That was what he tried every day! Every year! But she didn’t bother to get back up and try again. She preferred watching human anime and constantly making posts on the undernet.

How boring could you get?!

Unfortunately, his best efforts had resulted in her either shutting herself up in the lower lab or awkwardly fumbling her way through a confession for Undyne. By role-playing. With him.

Admittedly, he may have botched the role-play once or twice. Undyne was fierce and intense so of course she wouldn’t stand for cowardice. Of course she wouldn’t stand for lying. Of course she wouldn’t like the idea of Alphys’s experiments resulting in a living flower that couldn’t feel anything!

Snapsnapsnap. In a flurry of dirt and golden flowers, the flower bed ripped apart, his roots rising up from furrows in the soft ground. Flowey idly took in the destruction then used two nearby roots to shrug. It didn’t matter. Nothing ever really did. Anything and everything he did would be RESET once he was tired of the current timeline.

Once in a while he thought he felt something that wasn’t anger or boredom. A spark where his SOUL would be. It was always brief, but that tiny moment where he felt something was always exciting.

If he couldn’t feel happiness, if he couldn’t feel love, then he would take the next best thing, no matter what it was.

No matter how many tries it took.

Because he was filled with Determination.

Because he had no compassion.

No hope.

Something sparked, then flared inside Flowey. He growled, then grabbed one of the broken flowers littering the platform with one of his roots. He whipped it back and flung it as far as he could into the water. Then he threw another. And another. He tore a fourth in two and plucked the head off a fifth. That stupid lizard! If the pathetic monster wanted to jump, then she should just jump already!

Flowey twisted his face into one that they would have been proud of. The flowers couldn’t feel anything either, but they weren’t alive like he was.

They didn’t matter.

Flowey ripped and tore every flower he could get his roots on. Stems, petals, and moist dirt flew through the air then plopped into the murky garbage water. Stupid Alphys. Stupid Asgore. He had died. He had suffered. And what did he get?

This miserable existence!

A sharp crack echoed. His roots burrowed into the surrounding walls and broke them open. Tiny cracks at first, but he wriggled his roots around, wincing, found fractures, and made the holes bigger.

Before he knew it, he was screaming. He screamed at Alphys and her worthless attempts to save the Underground only to result in melded monsters and a flower that couldn’t return love. At Asgore for killing the humans who dared to fall after them. At her for daring to replace him with humans she couldn’t even protect.

At himself for daring to believe there could be any good left in the Underground.

Flowey screamed until his throat hurt.

He screamed until he ran out of things to say.

He screamed until it was a primal, wordless thing of fury that bounced off the walls.

Because nobody would come.

They never did.

Clicking. Stuttering.

Flowey turned away from the carnage of the walls and the brownish water, blinking. There, standing at the spot he knew she would for seventy-two minutes was the royal screw up herself.

Alphys backed away, shaking. “I… I…”

Flowey tilted his head. This had never happened before. Usually his venting was uninterrupted. He would LOAD sometimes to erase any evidence, but never had he been caught before leaving.

Interesting, but…

“Golly!” he said, cheerfully. “I didn’t know anybody else was around!”

Alphys shook her head. “I- I- I didn’t know! I didn’t…”

Oh shoot. Maybe he could try defusing the situation?

But then… What did he owe her?

“That’s right,” he said, smiling. “You didn’t! You thought you could play all day in your little lab and help people! You really thought you could change things!” Flowey bared his teeth and his eyes widened menacingly. “You idiot!”

Green roots swarmed towards the scientist. Alphys yelped, turned on her heel, and ran.

A bullet hit her shoulder. A root slammed into her back. Alphys yelped and tripped over another root.

Splash.

And then she was gone.

Just like that.

Flowey blinked, his roots going slack. Alphys… He hadn’t meant to dust her. He only wanted to scare her! To teach her a lesson! He hadn’t meant to... to make her fall.

But he had and he…

He felt nothing.

He knew he should feel something towards her. Anything. Pity. Regret. Guilt.

But there was nothing. He couldn't feel bad about this.

Yet… He did feel something. A spark where his SOUL should be. Before he could place the feeling, it was gone.

Like her.

It had been easy.

So easy.

Part of him said to RESET. To LOAD. To reverse her dusting and go back to how things were. He was good. He tried to do good. Wasn’t that the right thing to do?

But the other, louder part of himself said no. It said to wait.

It said to see what happened next.

He could reverse things later. See where the timeline went. Find out what happened next.

After all, he could set things back to how they were. Like with the flower bed.

Curious, Flowey ducked into the ground, and sped away towards Hotland. The monsters there would notice her missing first.

Just this once, he told himself. Just this once. Then he could go back to...figuring out what else to do Underground.

Again.

Chapter Text

Night had long since fallen on Nimbus Land and yet, he could not sleep. Certainly he was tired – their descent into Barrel Volcano had proven almost too much for his borrowed form and the fiery dragon had been an awful match up against his wooden body – but anticipation kept him awake.

Only one more star piece remained. The hope and relief that had leaped up inside him when the red star was no longer guarded was unparalleled. All of the effort to get into the volcano in the first place, then traversing the place itself, had been worth it.

Then the Axem Rangers came and they were forced into a game of keep away. Each one handed the star piece off to another team member when someone got close, taunting them the entire way.

Thankfully, none of the machines could naturally fly, and the super spring left behind enabled the party to follow the Rangers straight onto volcano’s lip, then onto the Blade.

The ensuing battle had seen each of Geno’s allies squaring off against their mechanical counterpart. Mario against the leader Axem Red, Mallow magic to magic with Green, Bowser claw to ax against Yellow, Peach’s love and war fan versus Pink’s healing magic and Petal Blast, and himself with the fragile bomb-throwing Black.

Geno quietly hummed. Somehow, and he didn’t know when, Smithy must have gotten his hands on the data for everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. It was the only explanation for how equally matched the Axem Rangers were against them. Regardless, by switching enemies and exploiting their own well-known flaws reflected in the Rangers, the machines and their Blade had gone down.

On the volcano’s edge, they were left with the red star piece, at long last. Aided by the heartfelt wish to send it up into the sky, Mario had wearily lifted the red star and tiredly threw it upwards. The residual magic of Star Road inside it had granted his wish, and flew from his hands, shooting straight through the sparse clouds. They hadn’t needed to lug it back with them down the volcano to Land’s End then Nimbus Land. Only themselves, worn and aching and burned.

Very, very much aching.

By the time they had climbed back to Nimbus Land a day later, night had fallen. Mallow’s mother had told them that they could use the royal bus to get to Bowser’s Keep, but the time was late and she’d insisted on everyone staying the night before taking off for their final battle.

Geno continued staring at the domed ceiling. In the morning they would set off to take back the final piece of Star Road. They would defeat Exor then Smithy and bring back the power of wishing to the world.

He needed to be at the top of his game. But still, sleep eluded him. It was just out of reach, telling him of what tomorrow would bring.

Geno sighed. Laying down and trying to convince himself to sleep was getting him nowhere. He got out of the absurdly soft bed, practically gliding to the edge of it with a single push. He left his lofty accommodations by the dim light of the moon through the window and made his way through the maze of a palace, backtracking to the entrance. Few guards were on duty at the hour, a couple giving him a tired smile and a nod. Geno returned their nods with one of his own, thankful that they didn’t want to talk.

As he stepped outside, guards on either side of the entrance stared at him. They gave him a nod, he gave one back, continuing on. His boots sank slightly into the cloud, like it did in the sands back at the seashore, only with more give and less grit. After the dirt, gravel, and water, it was nice to feel such comfort.

After a minute, Geno reached the fluffy eastern edge of the village. He stared out, past Barrel Volcano, past the ocean. Glinting by moonlight, a giant sword glared from its mountain pedestal.

Geno’s gaze hardened.

Exor.

He still remembered the panic and mayhem when the sword had crashed through Star Road. The ground had cracked and shattered in mere moments. Shooting stars died. Wishes fell from Star Hill, unfulfilled. Star Spirits flew to the jagged edges of the gaping hole the sword had left, watching as wishes fell away. Many had flown to the elder Star Spirits, seeking aid, guidance, and answers.

And they had chosen him, out of all of them, to go to the surface and fix things.

It was a heavy responsibility. Some hadn’t wanted the burden, others all too willing to take it and go. But he had the experience. He knew rules of the surface world better than most.

And now his journey was almost done.

The war was almost over.

He had meant what he had said in Moleville Mines. Maybe it was not a war in the most traditional sense, and it was nowhere near as chaotic or violent as ones in the past, but it was a war all the same. The difference was that Mario and his friends had started fighting against Smithy’s forces early on before a few machines had become an army.

Geno crossed his arms and nodded decisively. All of the invading machines had been destroyed up to this point. There was no telling what other machines they would face tomorrow or what Smithy would dish out.

What was certain, however, was that he had allies. Friends. They would back each other up, cover one another’s weaknesses, and take back the last Star Piece.

There could be no other outcome.

Chapter Text

The world came into focus. Colorful blurs dissolved into solid lines and shapes. The greens became bushes and grasses, the browns became trees and birds. The expanse of blue stayed blue, stretching over his head like a canvas, covered in splotches of white.

More than anything though, his entire body ached. Muscles protested the slightest twitch and his head felt as if it were about to split open. How he was still breathing was beyond him.

How…

How did he even get here?

Where was here? And for that matter…

Who was he?

Faker. The word echoed in his mind, a fragment of a bigger picture. He chased after the word, hoping for answers, but there was nothing. No faces or places or snippets of context.

Had he said that? Or had someone else?

That, he decided, didn’t matter at the moment. He glanced to the side where one of his arms lay. A gloved hand and a golden ring around his wrist. Matted black fur.

No bells rang in his head.

Well, wherever he was and whoever he was, he couldn’t stay on the ground. He was thirsty, hungry, and in need of healing.

Slowly, painfully, he rose into a sitting position, taking care not to put too much weight on any one limb. More black fur greeted him as did a few red stripes and an odd pair of shoes. They were scuffed, but otherwise intact.

He wondered how he would get them off.

He decided he didn’t have the energy or masochism to find out.

Birds flitted from the trees, branches and leaves shaking as they took flight. He turned his head to follow them.

A crick in his neck cut him off, and he hissed at the pang there.

What had caused him to be in such shape? A battle? But there were birds and undisturbed nature. An explosion? But from where?

Maybe he would find the answers later, his back griped at him, after he found help and comfort.

He pushed experimentally on the ground to rise to his feet. The spasm of pain made him halt.

He tried again, gritting his teeth, stilling his tongue, and putting weight on all of his limbs.

He had to move.

He had to move.

He refused to stay outside, vulnerable and injured and without any idea of who had left him so beaten.

So, gradually, determined, he rose to his feet.

Hunched over, but on his feet.

Satisfied at his victory, he carefully turned around, shuffling in a circle.

Green in every direction.

But…

There was smoke rising above the trees.

Whether it was friend or foe… He would cross that bridge when he came to it. Either way he could get some answers.

With as much speed and care as he could, he moved towards the tower of grey in the distance.

Whoever he was, he was not a “faker”. And even if he were, he was still himself.

A little lost in the world, but surely still himself.

Chapter Text

The ticking of time and a shred of doubt

No truths remained that he could live without

The sky split open, he chose a side and ran

But when the war ended, another one began

[Chorus]

Copied memories of a martyr

Thought his purpose had no charter

But the doctor’s out

And this Shadow’s route

Holds no mercy or regret

The violence will beget.

 

A black and crimson army

Unleashed upon the Earth

They’ve left behind the ruins

Of humanity's worth

A hidden hand commands them

Because vengeance won't suffice

Their bloody path continues

For a machine paradise

 

The click of a gun and a wordless shout

The world bows down to the androids, devout

To the long dead girl, her kind and gentle smile

They uphold a memory that's been defiled

 

Twisted in knots

Tainted with pain

These thoughts are not what remained

Fifty years

Locked away

The shadow of death makes us pay!

[Chorus x2]

A machine paradise!

A machine paradise…!

Chapter Text

You came into the forest

Skipping along the trail

You thought you’d find some Pieces

Well guess what? You failed!

 

I rule over the Subcon

No one escapes unscathed

You’re surrounded by my darkness

Now cower before my name!

 

FOO-OO-OO-OO-OOL!!

 

Chorus:

I’m the Snatcher, and this forest is my home!

You foolish hat child, you won’t freely roam (But...)

I’m missing a servant so let’s make us a deal

You get to live, that’s right, how does it feel?

Usually I’d eat your soul then throw away the body

But hey, just look at you, kid, you just won the lottery!

 

Sign the contract on the dotted line

Don’t try to whine

Your soul is mine

Now I have some errands to run

That toilet for one

Go and get it done

 

The old well needs to be unplugged

It’s full of bugs

They may want a hug

And my minions need some mail

Get on that trail

Try not to flail

 

Last but not least is the manor in ice

Go for a visit, one thing shall suffice

Up in her attic is something of mine

If you are lucky, you will be just fine

 

AHHH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

 

[Chorus]

Chapter Text

Knuckles the Echidna trudged through the underbrush of Angel Island Zone. He weaved through the foliage with long practice, ingrained habits making him curve around known burrows and bolt holes. Flickies tweeted in the trees and the occasional small animal dived through the bushes as he pushed branches aside.

Knuckles breathed in deeply, some of his nervous energy bleeding away. The sounds, the smells, the feel of nature. How he had missed them.

Pushing aside a few tall leaves and walking into a small cave, he grimaced. He had been away from Angel Island for far too long. A week of fighting Eggman’s forces had turned to a month, had turned to half a year. With Egghead finally dethroned and his empire under heavy deconstruction, he finally had the time to get away from Resistance HQ for a little while to check on the Master Emerald.

Thankfully, Amy had things well under control in his absence. She had everything and everyone organized in the reconstruction efforts and while he was still needed, those in the know knew he had other duties.

Duties he could no longer put aside.

Knuckles put a hand on the cave wall, following it. As Guardian of the Master Emerald, he could tell if something had happened to it, whether it be theft or breaking into dozens of pieces. He couldn’t feel that anything was off, but that didn’t mean the island was peaceful. There could easily be an intruder lurking somewhere on his island. It could be another Eggman, looking for power.

Or, just as easily, another Sonic. Or Amy. Or Tails. Or Vector. Or Silver. Or…

Knuckles shook his head and picked up the pace. He had grown so used to living alone for most of his life, then in the last months he’d had to grow used to people. People asking him for advice, people asking him for plans, people wanting to double check dropoff locations, people wanting Wispons, people bringing in survivors, people, people, people.

Not for the first time, he was thankful for Amy’s managing skills. Adventuring with Sonic and Tails was fine. They were two friends and allies who didn’t have to ask many questions to get things done. Being around everyone else was far more exhausting with their endless questions and worries.

He preferred to be alone when he could. The Chaotix had done well to ensure he wasn’t disturbed at those times, or they took up questions that newbies had when joining.

It all seemed like a lifetime ago. It was hard to believe that the whole world had fallen to Eggman, that Sonic was believed...gone, and only now could they start dismantling the mad doctor’s factories and warehouses. Last he had heard, Sonic was heading out to some of the outlying villages and settlements to wipe out roaming badniks. Just like him to never stay in one place for too long.

Eventually, the cavern wall abruptly ended at a bulging hunk of rock. Pulling a fist back, Knuckles slammed it into the rock. It went flying back, soft glowing light erupting from behind it as it crashed into a green, gem-like stone wall. Knuckles blinked rapidly, and as his vision got used to the dim light, he went over to the boulder then carried it back to the cavern opening. He hefted it back into place with a grunt and made his way through Hidden Palace.

He may have been called a knucklehead in the past, but he wasn’t stupid. After Amy and Silver had made it apparent that he would be needed for longer than a day, he’d taken the Master Emerald from the altar to someplace safer. He’d smashed the teleporters for safe measure and blocked off the path from Lava Reef Zone. If Eggman was going to come for the Master Emerald, or any of the few Chaos Emeralds they had collected, he was going to make sure the doctor couldn’t just float in like he had before.

And then the war had become global and he couldn’t even make a quick trip to the island to check on the Emeralds in person.

Knuckles climbed the last set of stairs. Nothing was wrong. He knew nothing was wrong, but he needed to see the Master Emerald with his own eyes. Much like hearing Sonic was alive, he couldn’t really believe it until he saw his old buddy again.

A few corridors and a hidden column door later, he was there.

And so was the Master Emerald.

Lighting up the chamber in ethereal light, it showed no cracks or signs of disturbance. Knuckles climbed up a wall and glided to the Emerald’s pedestal. Once there, he put a hand on the surface. Underneath, the Emerald thrummed with power.

Knuckles closed his eyes. Through the Master Emerald, he was connected to the rest of the island. From the very edges where water ran off in imposing waterfalls to the center of the Hidden Palace, he felt and saw all.

Hydrocity, Marble Garden, Sandopolis, Mushroom Hill, IceCap, Lava Reef…

All safe.

Knuckles opened his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. The island was untouched.

For now, anyways.

Settling down, Knuckles let himself relax next to the Emerald. The utter silence of the chamber was all at once peaceful and lonely. No one to ask him anything. No one reporting to him.

Just him, and the Master Emerald. His ancestral duty.

Amy had given him a timeframe for how long she could hold the fort. He planned to be back before things got too out of hand. The Resistance needed a commander and although he had made some mistakes – some minor, some severe – he was the only one willing to fill the role and do it right.

He leaned his head against the shining Emerald. He wouldn’t admit it out loud, not even here in this sacred place, but he missed being around the others. Somewhat. Certain people who would not be named would drive him up a wall on a regular basis, but everyone else.. It was nice having someone to talk to instead of just himself.

He liked his solitude even more, however, so for the time being, he would watch over the Master Emerald personally. Another day or two and he would head back.

The Eggman Empire wouldn’t dismantle itself.

Chapter Text

Fire light glinted off steel armor and blades in the Kings’ Hall. Most belonged to the patrolling guardsmen and alert soldiers that now littered the ground in splayed limbs and pools of blood. The rest was all with one man, glaring through unkempt hair, promising no mercy.

The tyrant, King Radium himself.

The man marched forward, stepping over the body of a fallen guard, a tough move to make given that he was in full war attire. Heavy armor covered every last inch of his body from his feet to his fingers, save only his head. A power play, Dagger knew. The king would step over the bodies of his own men to get at his daughter’s murderer and he wanted the last thing Dagger saw to be Radium’s face.

Captain Dagger was familiar with physical interpretation. He had watched things play out on both sides of the war, and knowing the man and his motives made it easier to read him. To predict him.

But by no means was it any easier to stare into those burning eyes full of hate.

“You dare,” Radium growled breathlessly, “to escape my prison. To evade my guards in my fortress! You dare to interfere with my plans, sink my ships, and humiliate me!” Radium looked down his nose, his gaze settled squarely on Dagger’s bloodshot eyes. “You dare,” he whispered dangerously, “to kill my Lumin...and think that you could get away with it?”

Dagger kept silent. The blood drying on his arms was starting to itch, and the cuts and gashes he had accumulated were stinging.

He knew what he had done, and accepted the consequences.

Radium put a hand on the pommel of his sword and with a sharp shing unsheathed it. It was a long great sword, nearly four feet in length and three inches wide. If Radium wanted to he could have swung and slit Dagger’s own throat from where he stood.

Dagger carefully did not twitch at the sight of Silencer. For years he had held onto some vague hope that the tyrant would choose another sword to wear at his side. He was a strategist, the best the Red Dawn Rebellion had, and although he had been in sword fights before, his opponents had always favored normal blades and he’d always had someone watching his back.

This time, however, he had no one. The hallway was quiet with only the occasional crackling of torches to disturb it. Whatever reinforcements had arrived were busy running circles around the loyal soldiers, and this corridor was so deep in the heart in the fortress that nobody but the king or his men could find it with ease.

“I’ll make your death as painful as possible,” Radium rumbled. “I promise you.”

Dagger’s grip on his short sword tightened. Even grey-haired and wrinkled, he knew better than to think that Radium would be slowed down any. The man wasn’t even winded in the overbearing armor and its stand was in his royal bedchamber clear on the other side of the fortress.

“If it is death you seek,” said Dagger, tiredly moving into his preferred defensive combat stance, “then you shall meet it this day.”

A curse, an oath, and Radium shot forward to cleave Dagger in two. The captain jumped back, then spun on his heel and ran.

As he raced down the hallway, Radium screamed obscenities behind him. The thumping of steel plating on stone and the sloshing of liquids let him know that the tyrant was on his heels. As he was, Dagger had no advantage or hope of defeating the tyrant. He was weak from his extended stay in the cells below and the trip across the Central and Iron Seas.

The thumping got closer. Calls of his cowardice followed him. Dagger’s muscles burned as he forced himself to go faster. He needed a plan. Something to stop the king. Something to put him on the back foot, maybe even trap him. Get him to listen and give him a chance to step down.

If that didn’t work, then…Well. The Steel Empire would end anyway and a new kingdom would rise. One that would right his wrongs and make the country brighter and livelier.

For his daughter would take her rightful place on the throne.

/-/

Dagger collapsed in a heap of aches and injuries. His right shoulder burned from a slash that went bone deep. His legs were naught but jelly, and the hammering of his heart filled his ears. His gulped down breaths of air as if each could be his last.

He didn’t move.

He didn’t need to.

Buried to the hilt through Radium’s forehead was a common foot soldier’s sword. The tyrant’s body laid flat in the doorway to his so-called Conqueror’s Room, a place for his trophies and signs of achievement throughout his reign, and of those before him. Dented armors, various weapons taken from enemies, trinkets from high priority prisoners, papers proclaiming his victories under glass, shelves of thick leather bound books numbering into the thirties. Countless prizes from war and interrogations.

A sickening monument to the Steel Empire.

Dagger hadn’t known it even existed while he lived the fortress all those years ago. But the plaque above the door, seemingly written in gold, had compelled him to go through it even with the mad man on his tail.

In that, Dagger had been lucky. Only blood of the royal family would unseal the door. With all of his wounds, it had been simple to gain entrance. To lock it from within.

To climb the mounted Bronze Range bear’s head and wait above the door.

Radium hadn’t even bothered to look up.

Dagger’s heartbeat slowed. He had thought for almost a decade that when the day came, he would be ready to face the monster of a man. That when he stared the tyrant down, wherever it would be, he could kill the King of Steel in combat, one-on-one. That, maybe, there was a shred of decency left inside of the monster and Dagger could talk some sense into him.

But there had been no sense. No sanity. Instead, he’d been forced to run and hide, then ambush Radium in a desperate gamble to end the chase and the battle before his body gave up.

Dagger chuckled bitterly. A page out of Kris’s book. What irony that a sea rat’s tactics would be the undoing of an experienced man of war.

Sighing, Dagger pushed himself to his feet and withdrew the blade from Radium’s corpse. A tinge of fondness lingered and he squashed it immediately. Gallius Radium was dead. All of his insane plans of dominating the oceans and far off countries were done. His fortress was in ruins after the Red Dawn’s bombardment, and his empire would soon crumble when all learned of the tyrant’s demise.

And learn they would.

Not for the first time since the night Copper Bay had turned red, Dagger needed to put on a show. Not with clothes and a wig over a dead pig’s body, but real proof of a deceased royal.

Dagger took a chipped axe off the wall, and with a deep breath, brought it down on the dead tyrant’s neck. Blood sprayed out, coating his already ragged and filthy clothes. He pushed down the bile that threatened to rise up, and took up Radium’s head. Carefully, he walked back to the King’s Hall and to the throne room.

There would be a void of power, certainly. The Steel Empire’s reach was terribly long and many had been brought down by it. Countries would want their independence back. People would riot. Vengeance and satisfaction would be demanded. Outright chaos.

There was only one immediate question for who would lead, however: Captain Dagger, rebel leader and king slayer or Lumin, the beloved princess seemingly back from the dead?

Dagger’s side flared up and she winced. A matter for later. For the moment, the old king’s head needed attention.

Chapter Text

Ganondorf closed his eyes, muttered a few words, and pulled. In an instant, ancient waterways and carved reliefs burst forth in his mind’s eye. Water poured from the walls, churned through chambers, and flowed through hidden systems, cycling back to the walls again. He could feel where his monsters moved and the void they left behind when the kid eventually slayed them. He could feel the compressed waters of Lake Hylia in the form of Morpha, lurking deep within the temple.

And he could feel where the little “hero” was heading now.

Tracing the boy’s path, Ganondorf grinned and chuckled, loud and sinisterly. Oh, he had been waiting for this! Of all the monsters he had created or ordered to guard the sacred temples, this one…this one was special.

Before his power had even so much as touched the temples, there had been guardians in place. Challenges, obstacles for whomever entered. The Poe Sisters of the Forest Temple, the

Flare Dancer of the Fire Temple, the Iron Knuckles in the Desert Colossus... All tests that had existed long before his time.

But the Water Temple was different. Instead of testing the ability to adapt to something new, it focused on testing what one already knew of.

A reflection of sorts. How appropriate.

The boy made his way cautiously to the other side of a long room. Ganondorf’s mouth twisted into a grin as he watched. The trial had once been a simple duel, safeguards and protective spells in place in the event of forfeit or injury.

Once.

The boy reached the other end, barred tight to his dismay. With nothing else to do he turned, then gasped.

The fog had dissipated. The illusionary woods had vanished. But the isle with a dead tree still persisted.

And standing there at identical height, with an identical build, was a dark copy of the boy in green.

As the two drew swords, Ganondorf leaned back in his cushioned throne, settling in. There really wasn’t much in terms of entertainment with most of Hyrule living in fear or apathy or denial of his reign. This mirror duel of light versus light would, if nothing else, prove to be amusing.

Chapter Text

“You know too much.”

Dinah looked up from her bacon and eggs at her mom. Her face was pale and her mouth open in horror. The scattered gray hairs on her head seemed to stand out, stark against her auburn curls

“Mom, it’s fine,” she said, stretching out the word. Dinah rolled her eyes at the theatrics. “It’s not going to hurt anyone. Besides it’s probably just part of a senior prank.”

Her mom grabbed her by the shoulders, dark eyes wide, shaking her some. “No, it’s not!” she cried. “No, it is not!”

Dinah put her fork down and placed a hand over her mom’s. As strong and wise as her mother was, sometimes she did worry over things that wound up being nothing at all. Like the confetti cannon at last Halloween. Now that had taken some explaining without using the m-word.

Humans didn’t exactly react well to things they couldn’t control.

Making her best encouraging face, Dinah smiled and said, “Mom, really. I think it’s just Josh and his dumb idea of a joke. Really.”

“You don’t understand .”

“Mom-”

“It is real, Dinah, and you were caught on camera!” Dinah’s jaw dropped. She worked her mouth but couldn’t get out a single word. Real? Camera? But...how? “This isn’t the twentieth century anymore,” said her mom, voice low and steadying as she spoke. “There are cameras everywhere, good ones in all sizes and they can be anywhere. Last night on the news they said that there had been a break-in at Gravenford. The police are going over the footage right now and they’re going to see that it was you who snuck into their basement.”

Dinah searched her mom’s face. A twitchy eye or lips trembling to prepare a spell.

She found nothing but stern eyes and a face blanketed with worry.

Dinah, mouth dry, finally found her voice. “But...I’m a teenager.”

“In body,” her mom admitted, “but they won’t care.”

“Then…”

Her mom let go of her and stood up straight. She leaked authority and Dinah could feel the presence of the wind coiling around her feet. “We’ll have to run. Pack your bags, we’re leaving now.”

Dinah nearly knocked the chair over standing up. “Wha- But- I...isn’t there something we can do?!”

Her mother, Anita “Wind Speaker” Vathers, looked at her flatly. “You uncovered a decades-old plan to make vampires and necromancers rise from the shadows again. Our treaty with the vampires is void. Our best bet is the head to southern Italy, maybe find a little village somewhere, and lie low until some hunters beat them all down.”

Ignoring her daughters sputtering, questions, and protests, the woman ushered Dinah to her room to start packing.

As her mom left to go pack herself, Dinah could have sworn she heard her muttering about banishing some lawyer named Livsley when she had the chance.

Chapter Text

It was an annoying process, Pritley thought, extracting the wisdom from the old codgers. Their knowledge accumulated from years of living, learning, and applying themselves meant that every second of extraction was worth a hundred times their weight in credits.

People the world over in the right circles would sell their grandmother for even the smallest wisdom crystal. A lifetime of thoughts and know-how condensed into a pocketable convenience. Children could get on the fast track to a prestigious university. Plans came to minds for better, more efficient inventions over existing ones. Crime lords and CEOs improved business and the most average, down on his luck man could become top dog in any field he chose.

Unfortunately the old timers’ ages also meant that they were frail, and often sickly with one disease or another. Failsafes to keep one alive might not work for the next. Too slow a process would ensure safety, but increase the chances of the disease’s deadline coming up before the crystals were complete, making them shatter into worthless, ambient mana. Too fast, and the heart might give out, also shattering the crystal.

Pritley rolled his eyes and kept a sigh from escaping. The pay was good and he had no inane coworkers prattling on about their day, their families, and asking him to cover their shifts so they could get blackout drunk. It was just him, the quiet humming of the extractors, and all the movies he could watch. Oh, and the old coots, of course. He had to keep an eye on the semi-circle monitors so none of them would croak too early, but he had that down to a science an eight year-old would understand.

Monitor goes “beep-beep-beep”, Pritley picks up the red phone and goes “I need medical”.

The simplest instructions on the planet. Wouldn’t do anything if one of the old timers died before the medics got there, but hey, not his department, not his problem.

Pritley sat back, watching as Will Smith chewed out a bunch of idiots for not running from a giant alien worm. They deserved Darwin Awards, all of them. Looking death in its many-teethed maw was not an achievement. It was a feat of stupidity on level with striding up to the first cop on the street above and saying “I monitor wisdom extraction for a living”.

Yeah, nah. Pritley liked his nine-to-five. It was as stressful as watching a kitten rolling around on a baby blanket.

Pritley took a swing of his coffee and glanced at the monitors around him. Subjects one through four were steady. Five had her heartrate dip for a few seconds, so he was probably looking at a medic call soon. Six had picked up a little, but seven and eight were in prime sleep zones. All in all, nothing to worry about yet.

He turned back to the movie, occasionally glancing at the monitors. Five climbed back up and six evened out. Then, near the end of the movie, neglected to do so at all.

Agent K and Agent J were wrapping up. The world was safe, and it would never know how close it had come to destruction. The Men in Black had done their jobs, leaving nobody wiser to their work.

Then, something caught Pritley’s ears. Something he never thought he would ever hear in his ten years serving underground. He thought he was imagining it at first. He was alone, and the DVD player sometimes made odd noises. But as the credits started to roll, he heard it again.

Groaning.

Human groaning that was distinctly not coming from his TV.

Pritley rose from his chair, his feet and legs aching from sitting down for so long. He looked at the monitors.

One – okay. Two – okay. Three, four, five-

Six’s heart rate had jumped.

Six was waking up.

Pritley scrambled for the red phone. There was a blanket cover on all incidents with the subjects. If anything happened, he was to call medical. No exceptions.

“Henry...?” called a weak voice. Pritley grabbed the red phone, shaking. No one had ever woken up before. No one. They died. They all died eventually, so why of all times was this one waking up?!

“I need medical,” he said in a rush. “Six is -”

“Oh Henry...”

“-waking up.”

The men and women in white came in faster than he’d timed before. Each held a bag or tubes or a case. One took out a mask from a canvas bag and it was affixed to the old woman’s – subject’s face. It struggled sluggishly, the long sleep making her – it unable to resist the young, healthy hands holding mo- it down.

Soon, Six was stabilized and the extraction was back to optimum levels.

One of the medics nodded at him on their way out. The doors swung shut, and just like that, Pritley was alone.

But his heart wouldn’t stop hammering.

Chapter Text

At a more opportune time, the Conductor probably wouldn’t have minded the dramatic shift in scenery. He was a successful movie director. Drama was what he lived for! The thrills, the mysteries, the explosions!

But without cameras? Without a plot?

Without his Owl Express?!

The Conductor squawked as the pleasant spring weather turned to scorching heat. Steaming pipes blinked into existence. Statues of some weird girl with a mustache appear between one second and the next. Lava spewed forth from the ground like geysers, burning his train station and searing owl feathers. The Owl Express owls ran in circles or cowered in fear.

He screeched at them to get going. Get to higher ground. They were owls, for goodness sakes. They could fly!

He put one foot onto the main engine of the Owl Express –

– and it winked away. The Conductor fell bodily onto the dirt, trackless road. A couple of owls pulled him up. The lava was consuming more and more of – of everything.

But he couldn’t find it inside himself to care.

His train. His baby. His sweet, loyal girl that had helped him win three hundred and eight-five awards.

She…

She was gone.

His Owl Express was gone.

He fought the other owls off, screaming for his train. Demanded that whoever was fooling around with the blasted Time Pieces to return everything to normal. To return his train.

His words went unheeded. His memories clashed, two timelines worth of memories jumbling his mind from what he knew and what he knew. He was a big time movie director, except he wasn’t. He had grown up watching countless films and making scripts for his own, except those movies hadn’t been made. He spent years putting together a superb train, the finest in the world, but he hadn’t.

The Conductor’s screams sometimes reduced to pure screeching when he couldn’t tell which had and hadn’t happened.

Eventually, DJ GroOoOoOoves had to pull him away. They were being summoned, too, by some uppity little girl in a giant castle for their crimes. She had a mustache.

For the first time since meeting the rival peck neck, the Conductor was furious.

/-/

They had to go by rocket. Somehow those still existed, but his precious train did not.

He sat in the back, as far away from DJ Peck Neck as he could get. In any other situation, the Conductor would have balked at taking up any offer for a ride with the other director, but…

Well. There was a lass in need of being brought down a peg or two, and he wasn’t one for having much patience.

There was also the issue of his train being retconned from reality. The Conductor growled. Why couldn’t DJ GroOoOoOoves have been retconned, eh? One less bothersome spur in his side.

Oh, that was a good line. He could use it in his next movie after he got his pecking Owl Express back!

It took two hours to get to the castle. By then, the Conductor was almost done ranting.

He refused to look DJ Peck Neck in the eye.

/-/

As it turned out, they weren’t the only ones summoned to be judged by miss “leader of the free world”. There were owls and penguins, true, but also crows, nomads, those muscle-headed Mafia, some great big goat, fiery foxes, tiny little giggling children, and a very tall, very talkative shadow. It seemed as if everyone in the world had been called to this eyesore.

Typical. If it wasn’t a detective picking out the murderer, it was the main bad guy collecting all the good guys in one place to gloat.

Unfortunately, he was unable to give the mustached girl a piece of his pecking mind once he set foot on the ground.

“A number?!” he squawked. “Why do I need a number? Do you have any idea who I am?!”

“She doesn’t care,” hissed the tiny little hooded thing that was probably not actually a child. “You need to take one, or otherwise she won’t see you. You could always just hang out out here, though! Hee hee hee!”

The Conductor snarled, then stomped over to the ticket machine. He muttered the whole way, cursing in such a way that even a hardened sailor would blush. He nearly ripped the little pink ticket from the slot.

#1728

He looked at the little meter next to the machine.

Now serving #0002

Oh well wasn’t that dandy?

/-/

The lass in the hat passed him.

Her eyebrows were knitted with worry, but there was a spark in her eyes that was all too familiar. He’d seen it before. Security footage from Dead Bird Studios as she snuck past security. Moments caught on the Owl Express as she searched for clues.

Those last few minutes as she lay the beat down on DJ GroOoOoOoves.

The lass had heart and fire in spades, he’d give her that.

So he kindly suggested that she cut to the front of the line. See the mustached, hatless, hood-wearin’, statue-posin’, castle-dwellin’, ticket-givin’ peck neck in charge of the place.

He knew his classic villain cliches. There was bound to be a veritable gauntlet up those stairs, and he was no stunt owl.

But if anyone stood a chance of getting through it, he’d place his bets on the hat lass. She was a capable one for sure.

What was her name anyway?

Eh. Probably not important.

/-/

“Get lost!” he called. The big old shadow, the penguins, even the Mafia lads had joined in. Nobody liked a killjoy.

Then a moment later, everything went black.

Then color came back, and he halfway believed he had died for a moment. A second phase. Of course the Time Piece hoarding peck neck had a second phase. Why had be thought differently? It was one of the biggest cliches in the book, right up there with the villain pretending to die, only to get back up and try stabbing the hero in the back!

/-/

He wasn’t a stunt owl, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know a few tricks. A director had to know how to adapt after all.

The fact that he had perfect balance from occasionally rolling around on one of DJ Peck Neck’s moon props had absolutely nothing to do with it.

/-/

The Conductor had his family. His grandbabies were safely squared away with his daughter and son-in-law. He had his health and his skills. He could make a million movies and hit the top of the box office every time.

But he only had one Owl Express. Years of cobbling together plans, scrap metal, gathering favors, and pinching pennies to foot the bill for her just...gone.

She was everything. A home, a career, an actual train to get places. It was where he filmed the core of his movies. It was where his family came for reunions. And sure, they were alive, but in this universe? It was lousy! Didn’t make much sense to stick around.

Not without her.

Not without his purpose. That emptiness of aim and life had gouged him on the rocket ride over and needled him in line. It tore at his soul until only the fumes of rage kept him going.

And now even that was fading in the face of the selflessness of the Mafia lads.

He chuckled hollowly. He didn’t need to accept any of that.

“Alright DJ Grooves...the two of us are gonna help this little hat lass.”

Not when there was something better he could do.

“Get ready for a mean punch, and you aim for my face, that’s my weak spot!”

What will death be like? he wondered. Tears pricked his eyes but he kept his head low enough for his hat to cover it.

“This angry red lass needs to...get lost!” He growled out the last words, all his remaining anger going into them. He wanted to see the little ones grown up.

But not in a world like this.

They would be fine.

He punched DJ Grooves square in the face, felt his own cave in, and all went dark.

/-/

Light surged and he breathed. The Conductor looked around him, his neck popping from the speed. Firm boards beneath his feet. A pleasant breeze at his back. Grandbabies playing on the floor.

And the ever lovely Owl Express back where she belonged.

The Conductor smiled widely and laughed, bent over, uncaring of the other hoots and cheers from the owls. His pride and joy had returned.

She was back!

He was back!

Which also meant DJ GroOoOoOoves was back, too, but...eh. What can you do?

Really. That heart-to-heart was in an alternate universe and therefore, had never happened. Right? Right.

Ah, but the hat lass! She had done it! She made the little red menace get lost! Ha ha!

The Conductor sighed. That was enough excitement for a lifetime. And he hadn’t even filmed any of it!

Glancing at his grandchildren, the Conductor smiled again. His memories were still a little...mixed up, but he knew what was what. For the most part, at least.

A little niggling thought floated through his mind. Maybe he should go on vacation? Get away from all the stress of directing for a while. His train was back and in one piece. She had earned a well-earned rest and so had he.

Besides, the world could survive for a week without the Owl Express. It wasn’t his fault nobody else was putting in the effort and elbow grease to start up a rival train service. Everyone else could figure things out for themselves for a change.

He looked up at the sky. That floating house of a spaceship was still up there, he reckoned. If the hat lass was really done collecting Time Pieces then…

The Conductor pivoted on one foot and took off for the other half of Dead Bird Studios. He ignored the confused calls and questions from the other owls. He hadn’t much time. His train was grounded, but rockets? Now there was a way to get somewhere fast.

Maybe he could collaborate with that DJ Peck Neck. Just this once.

Chapter Text

She flipped the hood off of her head and stared up and up at the wind worn temple. One hand had been lost to the centuries and the entrance to the temple itself had collapsed in on itself, yet despite that, the figure of a majestic woman was still as clear as the sky.

Hidden away deep within the wasteland, she had only ever rumors and stories of the near mythical holy ground. It was said that in millennia past, the dead of the once-united tribe would travel to the temple to lay rest their deceased. From there, the Goddess of the Sands would take the departed sisters to the world beyond.

Now, it was a lost ruin to the ravages of time.

And her last hope.

She trotted her mare up to the edge of the stone plateau and dismounted. The slope up to the small platform was small and unstable, the steps long gone. It was no real obstacle to her though, not compared to actually finding the temple’s location in the first place. She needn’t even a running start to climb it. She hoisted herself up the four feet and she was standing before the entrance proper.

She would have preferred to enter the Temple of Spiritual Blessings, but this would have to do.

She knelt, bowing her head and clasping her hands together. She closed her eyes.

Then opened her heart to the heavens.

“O Goddess of the Sands,” she began, “please hear me. I have come far from the safety of my sisters’ village to seek guidance. My journey has led me here because I have no one else to turn to.” She took a deep breath, steeling herself, and let open the floodgates. “O goddess, my Ruuya has been having dangerous thoughts lately. She has confided in me treacherous plans and… She will surely die if she carries through with them.

“I am torn between my duties and loyalty to my sisters...and my love for her. We are taught unity of sisters above all else, and that only our loyalty towards King Ganondorf should be held in the same fierceness. We are taught love for others comes after, but she brings a light to my life I hadn't before!”

Veil’s voice shook, her control wavering. “With Ruuya I can stand the desert heat and icy nights. I can take the late shifts knowing there’s a warm body waiting for me. Sometimes barely awake. I can fall asleep to her voice and imagine all these...foreign stories in my head. She has a way of making the most boring story come to life. I can share stupid ideas with her and not be judged with how crazy they become. With Ruuya...I’m free to laugh.

“But...” Veil swallowed. “She’s the village pariah. Our sisters don’t dare say it to my face anymore, but I know they think little of her. I know they steal her things far more often any anybody else’s. I know what they call her when my back is turned. A liar, an attention hog, a Hylian waif. Worse things. They’ll never say traitor though. They know better than that.

“My Ruuya’s clever though. She knows how to hit them harder without being caught. Cilna woke up next to a pile of horse waste last week.” Veil couldn’t help grinning. “I still don’t know where she got the sleeping herbs.

“They...” She paused. “They don’t understand. Her visions are frightening but not even her mother acknowledges as anything but nightmares. Her dreams are laughed at and ignored. I used to laugh, too.” Veil’s voice was small. Ashamed. “I didn’t really believe they were visions until...until I found her seizing. I thought I was going to scare a couple after watch duty, but instead...I found her, alone. That wasn’t normal. She doesn’t come out of her visions as severely anymore, but they haven’t become better. She has been blessed but the others don’t see it. They refuse to. To have a seer would be a boon, but her visions go against all we have been taught. If they ever admit she is right, then they would have to admit that all we have ever known is a lie.

“O goddess I beseech you, what should I do? Do I betray my sisters and help my...my silly bookworm of a girlfriend” – she chuckled sadly – “or do I betray her trust and give her over to the elders for punishment? I have tried reasoning with her, but she is adamant. She wants to leave us – to leave our village behind and travel to the forbidden land in search of answers she says our elders won’t give her. I know they won’t. They never will.” Hot tears fell down her face. “I want what’s best for my family, but...”

Veil scrambled for words. She hadn’t expected to say so much, to lay her heart bare before the goddess, but was done was done.

She had nothing else to spill.

“What should I do?”

The wind blew through her hair, whipping sand and dust through the strands and against her forehead. It blew past her, to the east, twisting and swirling until it formed something like an arrow. An answer to prayer?

“I can’t,” she replied.

The wind blew harsher.

“I’m not...” The wind picked up, the sands flowing faster. “I'm not brave enough to go through with it!”

The admittance shook her to the core. Veil struggled to find words, another reason for her fear, but what was done was done.

The sand fell. The wind settled.

And in the silence, Veil was alone.

/-/

It was two days later that Ruuya was cast out. That a shadow passed over her, that her head sunk low. The others barely spoke with her, leaving her to her sorrow, misery, pain. Her heart wished to follow east.

But her legs would not allow it.

Chapter Text

Cloudy eyes,

Falling rain

Saw the smile

That you feigned

I don’t know

What you'd say

If you were me

Walking the other way

 

I know it's

Not too late

Take my hand and -

Open up the gates

[Chorus]

And we'll wait

For the dawn

For a new

Day to come

And bring hope where it's gone

We'll sing proud on and on

[Chorus]

The clouds will part

The road will clear

With just one step

Our worries disappear

[Break]

The purple paint beneath your eyes

Tells me that the world’s demise

Would not move your heart or your soul

 

Oh - enough has been enough

And this life has been too rough

There’s nothing left for a toll

 

Still,

I'll stand by you

Stalwart and true

The moon will pass

This night won't last

The light will be renewed

 

So we'll wait.

For the dawn

For a new

Day to come

And bring hope where it's gone

We'll sing proud on and on

[Chorus]

Chapter Text

“Silver… Look at this!”

Silver looked away from the dusty old report in his hands to his feline friend typing away at a computer. He left the battered bookcase and went to stand by her side, stepping over loose tiles and the fallen pieces of machinery.

The monitor Blaze had stationed herself at was red and black and full of dates, going as far back as thirty years and then some. Beside the list, taking up more than half of the screen, was a blue, green, and grey sphere. It slowly turned, large colorful masses passing out of sight while other came in.

As the list scrolled down, a little red dot zoomed across the map, seemingly at random. Sometimes it would stay in one place or disappear completely. At the same time, words flashed by rapidly in a small box at the bottom. Silver caught some words - “island”, “city”, and “robots” to name a few – but nothing that made sense.

“Whoa…What is it?” he asked.

“I think...” Blaze said carefully, her finger flicking a small wheel, “I think this may be some sort of record of the past. It ends just a little over ten years ago and goes back...here.” The red dot stopped. “Over fifty years ago.”

Curious, Silver’s gaze settled on the small box, the words no longer a blur. Beside him, Blaze gasped softly.

April 29, XXXX

Metal Sonic, Chaos, Shadow, Zavoc, and Infinite, Eggman’s latest ally, defeat Sonic.

Eggman makes a global broadcast declaring Sonic dead. Gives governments of the world an ultimatum: submit or be crushed.

May 1, XXXX

Eggman and Infinite take over South Island. Infinite proceeds to decimate twelve cities over the next 24 hours including Empire City and Metal City, despite them being in opposite hemispheres.

May 3, XXXX

Zavoc seen at Monopole City. Attack launched two weeks later on May 17.

May 7, XXXX

Chaos attacks Station Square. Note: Can’t find Amy.

May 8, XXXX

Shadow attacks Westopolis. Rouge the Bat is injured trying to stop him.

May 9, XXXX

Infinite invades Soleanna. Princess Elise the Third of Soleanna submits to the Eggman Empire.

May 13, XXXX

Eggmanland Amusement Park opens.

May 15, XXXX

Eggman and Infinite invade Central City. G.U.N. headquarters destroyed.

May 16, XXXX

Team Chaotix attack Eggmanland Amusement Park. All communications cut after 54 minutes.

May 17, XXXX

Monopole City attacked. Is under command of Metal Sonic.

Blaze scrolled down quicker. Silver’s teeth clenched.

May 29, XXXX

Infinite invades Emerald Town. No survivors.

June-July XXXX

Angel Island starts heading north, northeast.

June 11, XXXX

Infinite invades Chun-nan. Emperor of Chun-nan is killed.

June 19, XXXX

Mystic Ruins workshop destroyed. Still can’t find Amy.

June 30, XXXX

Remnants of a G.U.N. cell stage an attack on Metropolis. No one comes back.

July 17, XXXX

President of Spagonia submits to the Eggman Empire. Eggman has 4 Chaos Emeralds now.

July 29, XXXX

Holoska refuses to submit to the Eggman Empire. The Eclipse Cannon is fired. No survivors.

Silver stepped away from the console, shaking his head and wrenching his eyes away. “This is horrible...”

Beep-beep-beep! “No hostiles detected.”

Silver spun around at the stilted, unnatural voice, hands curled into fists, a cyan aura covering his body. Blaze backed away, fire wreathing her hands. The computer whirred and a moment later the monitor lit up in even more colors as a new screen appeared over the first. The grinning, wrinkled face of a grey fox greeted them.

“I did it!” he shouted. “I did it! I’ve found a way to save them!” The fox stopped for a moment, and took a step back, brushing down his lab coat. Blaze’s fire extinguished. “Oh, uh, log two-fifty-eight-dash-nine-one-two. Anyway! It’s taken almost forty years, but I have a way to stop Eggman.” The fox closed in on the camera again, his blue eyes lit up. Breathlessly, he said, “Time travel.” The fox stepped aside and allowed the screen a full view of an odd array of wires, tubes, and metal towers surrounding what looked like a high tech altar. Hovering atop of each tower was a sparkling gem, each a different color but no less beautiful.

Silver let his hands drop and psychic powers lax. He turned for a moment with Blaze to eye the very altar behind them, something they had unanimously decided to stay away from. The gems were still sparkling atop their pillars, still unblemished.

“Behold the Time Twister!” the fox announced, gesturing proudly. “It takes the chaotic energies of the Emeralds and focuses them into a singular localized point that opens up a portal to another time! With this someone could theoretically go back to when the war with Eggman started and change things. Knuckles wouldn’t have to leave with Angel Island. Amy could be found before the attack on Station Square. The Chaotix wouldn’t have sneaked into Eggmanland and been caught. Cities all over the world could be warned when Eggman and Infinite would attack and they could defend themselves!”

All at once, the joy seemed to be sucked dry from the fox as he slumped onto a nearby stool. “...But I can’t use it. I would need to interact with my old friends to save them, and inevitably I would meet my past self.” The old fox grimaced. “That’s not something I could allow to happen. The results would be devastating. Besides that, my past self would also need to be absolutely certain that he would build the Time Twister in the future, regardless of what happened, and even if we won...the paradox of me being from a future that didn’t exist anymore living in the past would probably ruin everything anyway. I would either fade from existence and be unable to help anyone anymore because this instance of myself wouldn’t be what my past self would grow up to be, or my efforts would be erased. Eggman would win and my past self would try making the Time Twister. It would be a never ending cycle of defeat.

“That’s just quantum mechanics, though, and I have plans on how to keep the cycle from happening.” The fox took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No, the main problem of the Time Twister is that in order for it to work, it has to rely on a continuous type of Chaos Control.” The fox put his glasses back on. “As a result, it would effectively pull the Chaos Emeralds from the time stream, beginning at the moment someone arrived in the past. The Emeralds would be remembered before then but wouldn’t be able to be found anywhere in the world. My friends in the past wouldn’t be able to find them but neither would Eggman.” A grin briefly stretched across his face, self-satisfied at the small victory. “They would be kept suspended from reality until the machine shut down. However, for any of that to happen, the Time Twister needs two people.” He hunched over and looked square at the camera, his brows furrowed. “One to operate it and one to go through. If enough change happens for Eggman to be overthrown then the machine will cease to exist, because past me wouldn’t need to build it. The Chaos Emeralds will return to Earth and the Time Twister will disappear. Whoever stays won’t remember this future, but whoever goes..."

He pushed his glasses back up his snout. “It’s a one-way trip. Normally this would all still result in the timeline twisting back on itself and reasserting Eggman as the ruler of the Earth, but I have a plan!” The old fox pushed against the floor with his legs and the stool rolled to the other side of the camera. He reached off screen and came back with a vial of glowing blue liquid. “After running some biometric data scans on the Chao out back, I came across a DNA sequence that would give them odd mutations while transforming. It had some similarities to channeling the energy from the Chaos Emeralds and well… Long story short, whoever drinks this will be technically considered a Chaos Emerald. They would have the same wavelengths as a real one, so when the Time Twister disappears the person will be linked to the Master Emerald and not suddenly...cease to exist.” He coughed and muttered under his breath. Silver missed it, but Blaze was able to pick out the quick “theoretically” before the vulpine straightened up in his seat.

“No way,” Silver breathed.

On screen the fox lifted the vial closer to the camera. Tiny little bubbles seemed to be trapped inside it. “I’ve run the numbers countless times and have done every experiment I could think of. I know it works. Even down here I’m connected to the shards of the Master Emerald on the surface.” The fox twitched slightly, and blinked several times. Eyes shining, he went on, “Whoever decides to go into the past has to be prepared to defeat Eggman and remain there.” He paused for a moment, raising a hand to his chin. “Although...it’s not impossible that there may be technology that Eggman has that could help the person in the past return to the future, but they would either be their own person or merge with another version of themselves. It’s hard to be sure which outcome would happen.”

The vial went off screen, and the hand it was in came back empty. The old fox rolled a little closer to the screen, hands clasped. “If you’re watching this, then that means I failed in finding someone to send into the past. I don’t know if I’ll even be alive when you see this, so I don’t even know if Eggman has been overthrown by now.” He chuckled sadly, his smile a little broken. Like he didn’t expect for that to happen at all.

Blaze’s tail swished behind her. It really was an impossibility. The mad doctor had long ago turned himself completely mechanical in order to run his empire. He had even started aiming for the stars, wanting to expand his empire beyond their planet.

“If you’ve listened this far,” said the old fox, “and have the determination, then I give you the ultimate power.” The fox outright glared at the camera, smiling and stretching his hands out to either side. “The power to change the past! Stop Eggman and make this a future that we can be proud of! ...Please.” Silver found himself nodding. Beside him, Blaze did as well. “The instructions are in the next log. Good luck.” The wrinkles on his face seemed to multiply as he grinned widely one last time and gave a thumbs up. “End log.”

The screen turned to black, then disappeared. The list and map of the world were left as they had been before the odd, and enlightening, interruption.

“Time travel,” Silver started, breaking the silence. “I thought it was impossible, but that fox...” We waited for Blaze to agree with him, to add her two cents. When he looked up at her face though, he found her in one of her thoughtful poses. Hand under her chin, eyes down and searching. “Blaze?”

“It’s...” She shook her head, arms crossed. “It seems outrageous...but that fox was convinced of his efforts. His eyes, his body language... I don’t think he was lying.”

Silver’s eyes widened. Blaze’s intuition was second to none. “So it’s true! But the way it operates… Someone would have to stay behind.”

“Then I’m trusting you, Silver.”

“What? Blaze...”

“I came to this dimension to help its people. It may have started as a favor for an old friend, but I’ve grown attached to this world...and all of you.” She turned to face Silver. Gone was her curiosity for the buried workshop and that sliver of openness that rarely came out. Here and now was the stoic princess from a kingdom far away, sure in every word and action.

“I’ll stay here and activate the machine. I found plenty of preserved food in the back, even a garden. I’ll be fine.”

“Blaze...” Silver nodded, a smile stretching across his face. It wasn’t half-hearted or pasted on.

It was genuine.

“Thank you!”

Blaze smirked, that openness reappearing, if just for a moment. “Just give it your all, alright?”

He nodded. “Right!”

As Blaze went through the files for the instructions, Silver felt something warm bloom. It was odd, alien almost, but he recognized what it was and couldn’t stop smiling.

Hope. Happiness.

For the first time since he was a kid, he felt he could do something. Make a difference.

He wouldn’t let the old fox down!

Chapter Text

The hero braced himself. He was no stranger to danger, for all that he had just recently begun his journey. He had faced countless monsters and climbed risk heights, pouring rain and freezing cold, the walking dead and the dreaded tracking sights of the wandering sentinels, though he was still only human.

He could not calm the hammering of his heart when a boulder decided to move, just as he could not overcome the wonderment, the thrill, and the anxiety of falling. He had his glider, though he often did fall maybe four, five feet on occasion when at the end of his descents. This, however…

This was different. His glider had been put away as had his abundance of gear. He hadn’t need for any of it, only the garments he had bought in the next village over. They were thin, but had been magically imbued to make his steps fainter, so that not even the lightest of sleeping monsters could hear him before he was upon them. A cloak fell from his shoulders to his waist, a grey thing that tended to catch more attention than he cared to.

Part of him wondered about journeying with a brighter colored cloak like a light blue or pink, but he dismissed the idea just as quick.

There was no going back.

He shut his eyes tight.

And the floor flew away.

The moment stretched. Then, a splash and a puff of magic, and it was done.

Link climbed out of the tub, a grinning Kochi awaiting him. He shook off the last drops of dye, and looked down at his outfit. The Sheikah outfit was mostly dark, gray and black where the light bits of armor did not cover. It also did not obscure the eye symbol on the front. It was as prominent as ever, red over a lightly greyed chest area. The cloak was darker, and a quick peak showed a completely black mask.

It was...almost disappointingly similar to what he had been in a minute ago.

Link sighed. The image in his head of a dark figure creeping past monsters had been dashed to pieces. So much for blending into the night.

Chapter Text

The pretty boy in sparkly spandex unsheathed his rapier. “I am not going to play mind games with you, girl!”

She smirked, knowing her place. “I’ll have you know I am Gilda Barkley, Third Division of the Underground Rail-Rogues! And you, Malachite...” She pulled on her shoulder strap and spun her guitar into her hands “Are out of time!” Gilda plucked a few notes, the tunes buzzing into the form of musical notes. Each one glowed an ethereal blue before slamming into Malachite. She chuckled. “Let’s jam.” Her fingers moved faster, the notes spilling forth in waves. A few would circle around her, dipping and rising with the music.

“Enough of this petty squawking!” shouted Malachite, arms crossed over his chest. He crouched and leaped up above the tide of music magic. Landing safely on the far side of the pier, he smiled at her. “You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

Gilda growled. “Then try this one on! Solo Supremacy!” The chords became chaotic, blending two roles into one. What should have only been possible with two players was condensed into one. High and low notes intertwined, overlapping each other in harmony. The bells around her ankles jangled to the rhythm, lighting up the ground in a wide spectrum of colors. With every step the notes of her song rose up around her. They encircled Gilda, rising and falling at her will.

Malachite hopped to one side then jumped up, soaring over her head. He landed as gracefully as cat on the other side of the pier where he had started. Unwilling to quit, Gilda turned and continued her assault. Malachite, however, only chuckled, weaving around the attack notes she sent his way. Blue splattered against the wood, then yellow and pink as each note failed to hit their target.

Malachite grinned. “Ah ha ha ha ha! Did you really think such a pathetic power could defeat me?!” He smoothly avoided an F chord as he moon walked towards the sprawling city.

Gilda followed him, running as fast as her legs could carry her. But no matter how hard she tried, she never got any closer.

“Nobody has the right to take away the dreams of the future!” she shouted. Pink and blue painted the pier. “Not you, not society! We stand as one under the gaze of the Watchers and we either rise above their influence, or are crushed under their heel!” Another strum sent out a score as she worked up a combo.

“Lydia Fields, that is enough!” The notes bled out and fell to the ground. Gilda could only stare as a brown-haired woman marched right past a smirking Malachite, and kept on going. Straight towards the guitarist.

“But, but mom!” Gilda sputtered. “We have a right-”

You have the right to go straight home, young lady!” said the woman. Her pink and purple suit stood out in the moonlight, not as bright as the musical splatters, but eye-catching all the same. There wasn’t a flaw to be seen, not in the seams of her collar or the bun her hair was in. Hands on hips, she glared down at her daughter. “What did I tell you about dreams? They’re worthless things.”

“M-mom…?”

The woman’s glare intensified. “I have never been more disappointed. Look at your father.” She turned and pointed to a man in a suit standing by Malachite. They were shaking hands. “Do you see him playing around at work?”

Emma’s jaw dropped. This couldn’t be happening. Weeks, months of planning the ultimate checkmate – cornering right hand man Malachite and brandishing the guitar of love in its first public debut – ruined. The man with salt and pepper hair looked over at them, smiling.

“Hi sweetie!” he called, waving an arm in the air. “I’m just getting my taxes in order!”

Emma’s grip on her guitar tightened. The Rail-Rogues were dead. “D-dad?!” she sputtered, “You’re the Dark General?” She was so fired.

The man kept on smiling. “I got a rebate! We’re going to Disney World!”

Not only were the Rail-Rogues dead, but they were burned and buried as well.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

A submarine emerged from below her feet, breaking the boards she stood on. She dropped into the entrance, the domed hatch closing over her.

There was something to be said for family bonds. There was also something to be said about the bonds of friendship.

Buzz, buzz.

The submarine started its descent. Malachite’s minions – her father’s employees – would be on them soon. The radar shielding would only hold out for so long.A hand clapped her on the shoulder.

“We won’t make you fight them -”

“No.” She didn’t bother to look at who was behind her. Only a single red light illuminated the area. “This is our fight. We’ve tried for too long to overthrow the empire. If they want to treat me like a child, then they have another thing coming.” Back straight, Gilda weaved her way past boxes and pipes to the control room. “If they want order and perfection, fine. If they want to be my enemies, fine.” Her eyes watered. “They’ve ignored me long enough,” she muttered.

The control room was a smidge brighter, but only due to the lights shining from behind the buttons, dials, and levers. The Rogues here were furiously at work, making the sub dive deeper into the sea, taking one of several planned escape routes past the aqua mines. Gilda took a seat on a chair bolted into the wall. She carefully maneuvered her guitar onto her lap, holding it firmly so it wouldn’t suddenly drop to the floor.

“Ma’am,” said one of the Rogues. Brandon, she thought. “We’re heading for coordinates Alpha Foxtrot Tango. Do you want to be dropped off at Guardian’s Point?”

Emma’s heart clenched. “No.”

“Where to then?”

“Headquarters.”

There was a pause. For a few seconds, nobody spoke. The sub turned. The radar pinged regularly.

“Are you sure? It’s half a day out.”

Gilda nodded, trying not to think of what she was doing. “I’m sure. I have some spare clothes there.”

“Roger.”

Conversation over, the commander of the vessel went about giving orders. Too much had been sacrificed. Too much had been done until now. All the little things she had done in defiance had given herself something to be proud of.

But the cost...

Gilda held the guitar close to her chest, heart aching, and wept.

Chapter Text

The day the world lost Sonic was the day the world received a message. It was broadcast on all channels, in one language, with subtitles and translated voice overs layers on top of it for all to hear, see, and understand.

The voice was rough, the face vaguely familiar.

And every man, woman, and child watched as the nightmare from months past, nearly a year ago, returned.

“Attention worthless humans! Hear me and know despair! I am Shadow the Hedgehog, the universe’s ultimate life form...and your executioner. This pathetic planet will be destroyed in three minutes. The Eclipse Cannon will fire, and there will nothing left of you parasites.

“And don’t think that your precious Sonic,” the word was spat with venom, “will come to save you. Your hero is dead. G.U.N. is finished. And you will all join them!”

The black hedgehog laughed, loud and sinisterly. “Do what you will in your last moments alive,” he said snidely, and screens the world over went dark.

Sitting in his oval office, the president could barely hear the hysterical screaming from outside. He hung his head, failure filling him, heart hammering in defiance of the cold realization of approaching death. He hadn’t any idea of how things had escalated so quickly, nor where it all had gone wrong. Better security; harder training; destruction of the ARK; putting down the hedgehog after he had reemerged…

The sparing of a single life fifty years ago.

Regardless, it was far, far too late. He dismissed his staff, then picked up the phone and made one last call.

It was always said to spend the end of days with loved ones, after all.

Chapter Text

Accomplishment was as odd a feeling as it was foreign. She had aced tough tests before, made delicious pies and cakes, even received a letter saying she had been accepted into her chosen college in another province. Yet, they had all been so distant. Such small and insignificant things.

The wind played with Madeline’s hair as it rushed past her. To be somewhere else so far away from everyone had been overwhelming. A year off she told herself. She told her family. She would take a breather and relax from the rush of senior year and be ready for college next fall. Perhaps by then, she thought, the exhaustion from her final exams would pass.

A year went by. Her exhaustion strangely remained. College admissions opened up again but...she just couldn’t do it. The deadlines for grants, the confusing layout of the website’s class lists, the sprawling campus, the moving expenses, all of the strangers she would be surrounded by, and the possibility of a crushing student loan she would never shake off if she didn’t succeed came down upon her like a drizzling rain suddenly turned to thundering hail.

Madeline sat down on the snow-capped summit and pulled her legs up, wrapping her arms around them. She had always been good at putting up a good front. Whether she was tired or having a bad day, she always managed to put on a show of being better than she felt. When asked about the fall semester, however, she nearly shut down. She needed an out. Something to work on.

With college on the back burner, Madeline had gone job hunting. People went to college to get better jobs anyway. She could cut out the middleman and save herself some stress by finding one she could be happy with. She was a somewhat fresh high school student with a decent grade point average. How hard would it be to land one?

One month. Two months. Four. The college her teachers had pushed her towards was always on her mind, a path she could reach out to, but those hailstones froze her. Eight months and more. Another year passed and she was still useless. The thought of college became a tower she could not climb. She cooked and cleaned at home and walked all over to find a job opening, but nothing really helped her in the shadow of something she had turned her back on.

No matter where she went, the taunts of old bullies and disappointing stares of the neighbor never left her. She would never get into college, they said. She would never amount to anything, said the old man down the street.

Secretly, she believed them. And slowly, ever so slowly, the words bit into her and would whisper to her in the dead of night.

And suddenly, she woke up one day and didn’t even recognize the bedraggled, pale redhead in the mirror. Where had the witty girl gone? Who was this other person? Who was Madeline for that matter? A girl with only a high school diploma and nothing else to show she had ever done anything of worth.

Soon, Madeline hadn’t even known what was going on anymore. Her dreams were rags and her future was nonexistent.

Then, she had heard about Celeste. A dangerous, inspiring mountain that few attempted to climb. Those who did were seen as impressive. As...not useless.

So she went, for nothing else than to prove she could do something right.

Madeline shoved her hands into her jacket, glancing at the other part of herself floating above Celeste’s summit. A little lighter. A little more carefree.

Madeline smiled. The swelling feeling of a job well done filled her as it never had in the past several years. Somewhere along the way she had forgotten what it felt like. It was her and her other half who had made it up the mountain. There had been no exams or deadlines or the judgmental stares of strangers. Just herself. All of herself. Because even if the girl in the mirror looked different, she was still Madeline.

And Madeline, who wasn’t even a professional climber, had made it to the top of Celeste Mountain.

If she could do that, then who knew what else she could do?

For the moment, however, she relaxed with her other half, enjoying the view of the sunrise as the sky slowly began to turn. 

The descent would come, but not for a while yet.

Chapter Text

Where am I?
Who am I?
What are these echoes of memory?

What am I?
Why am I
Always tortured by these reveries?

Sealed
away for fifty years
Became
the monster that they feared
All in her name...

Found
my efforts had no worth
Fought
to defend their Earth
All in her name...

Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a!
Your name entraps my mind in pain.
Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a!
Why do I reach for you in vain?

You're dead! You're gone!
And yet I still hold on
To your dying breath.
I can not see the dawn...

No more!

No more!

I will take control
Of my destiny
Tonight!

I will stake my soul
Cease my elegy
Tonight!

[Break]

Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a!
Your name ensnared my mind in pain.
Ma-ri-a! Ma-ri-a!
Why did I reach for you in vain?

You're dead! You're gone!
Now I have to move on.
Won't cling to death.
I see the rising sun...

Chapter Text

Beyond hope, beyond despair, beyond the ever-present stare of Big Brother’s looming eyes, brighter than the sunrise, is a concept, a power. A thing that makes men glower and politicians cower. It’s danger, it’s safety; it’s cozy, it’s crazy. Men in charge parade it when they haven’t forbade it, proclaiming they know best while leaving everyone distressed.  

Freedom, jealously gripped in greasy hands that slipped presidents, pocketed, while outcries skyrocketed. They ignore it, of course, can’t hear from their high horse. If you don’t have cash, then you’re in the trash, smashed by brash laws and a clause that keeps you leashed even as you sleep. Sheesh.  

All of this, all of this, we’re supposed to dismiss, to live in bliss while they hiss and slither and we wither away under duress, to forget all and dress our minds with the curtains they supply. “We’re so certain,” they reply, “we know what’s what.” Reclining, sitting on their butts, dictating rights that are wrong, and there are riots before long. All the chaos, all the protests, and still they can’t see the distress. Or maybe they can and they don’t care, content to tend to their own affairs.

Either way this cannot stand. Their ambitions written in sand, because one day you could be right where they are now, decree what is right to much rejoice, to let them all hear your voice. It’s a long ways off, years to go, and the gears of time move too slow, when there’s things to be undone and legal battles to be won right now. The key, you see, is to keep on fighting, writing, and uniting. Do not be silenced, turn from that violence and call in for the fallen who cannot reach out. Then shout, I say shout for your rights, your plights, and never let go of your freedom’s glow because beyond despair is power bright as a flare. Embrace your freedoms whatever they may be, and never, never let them go, because they cower before this one, singular power.

Chapter Text

There was no denying the capabilities of the red-eyed clones. They fought with as much fervor and spirit as the originals, sometimes even better, flowing from one move into the next. In some respects it was even an art form, the grace only overshadowed by the sheer brutality of their attacks. The earlier copies had been stiff and somewhat unresponsive. Almost as if the brainwashed spirits had been shoved into ill-fitted suits.

(How often that was true, nobody wanted to admit.)

However, as the fighters were freed and continued journeying, the spirits inhabiting the clones adapted. Punches and kicks flew faster, swords angled better with each swing, guns aimed better, and the slightest advantage got pushed. Abilities and techniques that took years to master were under control within days.

And then the sky started falling and the other giant malevolent eye joined the party.

The sickly world of swirling purple clouds and rocky islands was Dharkon’s domain. By exhaustion or cruelty, the copies became tougher to overthrow. Where they had once been instilled with a sleek understanding of battle, they now pushed the limits of physicality. Simple one-on-one battles became overwhelming as the clones flung themselves forward in a flurry of furious attacks. A moment’s hesitation was punished. The clones lived to fight and win, and that was all that drove them: a strange determination that Galeem’s forces had lacked.

And yet, that determination was not tempered. There was no strategy behind their actions, no mind. That emptiness was an exploit. For what was battle without a mind to think ahead? To take risks and lure an opponent into a trap? What was a fight when the opponent couldn’t consider the value of anything other than a Pokéball?

A shame. A sham. An utter waste of potential.

(Ganondorf had been quite vocal when the Fire Emblem Brigade had brought it up.)

Even worse: the spirits trapped inside each cloned fighter couldn’t even make a decision on what to do.

Determined as they were, though, it would never be a match for pure experience and skill. A point the Smashers ensured was hammered home every time they found an entrapped soul.

Chapter Text

Whoever said victory was boring had never been at the forefront of change. To see the world shift and mold under one’s own hands brought an exhilaration that none could match. Vast and empty green fields were trampled under treads and metal feet. Old buildings crumbled and were replaced with shiny new ones. The blue skies were clogged with flying ships and the seas turned black with oil to make the aquatic machines there work more efficiently.

Dr. Eggman leaned back in his chair, the seat squeaking, and tapped his fingertips together. His glorious mechanical army was advancing nicely. Radical City was being leveled in key places to further the chaos and flush out any foolish enough to merely hide. Several forested areas had been set ablaze to smoke out runners. Footage of the ruinous remains of Empire City was being broadcast on his personal broadcast system, interspersed with clips proclaiming the defeat of the long time quill in his side.

And soon, Station Square would be flooded. Not by machines, but by the power of the Phantom Ruby. The raw potential it held was too good not to use in a place where he had been foiled before. Chaos’ reprise as the city’s destroyer was all too perfect, and this time the doctor would have no need to rein in an out of control monster.

Briefly, Dr. Eggman pondered the pros and cons of letting his little prisoner join the viewing party.

The answer was obvious.

Cracking a devious grin, he pressed a few buttons on his console. To see the devastation happen in real time was far better than to be confined to images of the aftermath. The hedgehog could watch in his cell as Chaos finished what he should have so long ago.

“Zavoc!” he called. He didn’t bother to turn. He knew the Phantom mirage would be there. “Grab one of the prisoners from level C. I don’t want Sonic to think he can stop watching without consequences.”

“Yes, doctor,” answered a gravelly voice, and heavy footsteps receded.

The good doctor chuckled to himself. “All according to plan… I should have thought of imprisoning Sonic years ago! Heh heh!” Dr. Eggman tapped a button on his armrest.

“Yes, doctor.” The reverberating voice was unmistakable.  

“Infinite, are you in position?

“Yes. I am ready to proceed at your command.”

A wicked smile graced the man’s face. “Excellent! Let Chaos loose in exactly three minutes fifteen seconds. I want to make sure the rat gets to watch.”

“As you wish, doctor.” Dr. Eggman took his finger off the button, then rubbed his hands together. His empire, his machine utopia, was coming together. Oh sure, some of Sonic little friends tried fighting back, but none of them were quick enough alone to fight through his forces.

A little clock in the corner of the screen counted up the seconds until showtime.

Dr. Eggman cackled. And what a show it would be.

Chapter Text

Feasting on cavier may have been a rich man's healthy choice, but it was by no means the food of a dictator. They were eggs. Fish eggs at that. And they hadn’t even been cooked!

No, the good doctor thought, cutting into his medium-well steak, a genius such as me does not eat raw food.

Fast food was often too greasy and there was not a restaurant in the world that would serve him, what with his reputation of trying to conquer it on a regular basis.

Well, restaurants not under his control wouldn’t serve him. He could make them all cook food, but there would be no guarantee that some upstart chef wouldn’t spit in his food, or that numerous nuisances wouldn’t close in upon hearing he was out in public.

No, blatant public outings weren’t for him. It was best to have his meals right at home where no pesky hedgehogs or foxes could ruin his dinner. His personal robotic chefs were probably one of his oldest surviving ideas from his initial days of bringing machines to Green Hill, and he had no intention of doing anything to modify their current configuration. Discrete, silent, and able to whip up world-class meals, they were perhaps the most fine-tuned out of all of his robots. He added a few arms to them over the years, gave them more RAM for multi-tasking, and adjusted the stabilizers. Nothing too big, and he only needed to replace the animals inside every month or so.

Dr. Eggman took a sip of red wine, a vintage from his great grandfather’s time. He didn’t much like the taste, but it was a special occasion. Central City had finally fallen, the president and G.U.N. headquarters along with it. The last organization that could do anything to inconvenience his armada had been reduced to scattered cells all over the world. It was only a matter of time until they were also tracked down, along with the rest of Sonic friends.

He had kept careful watch over their appearances, and not one had kicked the bucket. Yet.

Overall, it was a rather pleasant evening. His base was not under attack. Sonic was imprisoned and being taunted by chili dogs he just couldn’t quite reach through his cell bars. He had one Chaos Emerald with another to be delivered the following morning. The drones stationed up and down his table stood quietly at attention with not a servo whirred among them.

Which meant it was as good a time as any to be honored.

The doctor put down his utensils, dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, then obnoxiously cleared his throat.

Dinner Drone #3 let out a grinding cough – it would either need a tune-up or replacement – and raised a cup, neither dropping it nor cracking it. The PSI of its grip had been exact.

“I propose a toast!” it said stiffly. “To the new ruler of Earth!”

“To the new ruler of Earth!” The echo nearly deafened the doctor, but he grinned through it, showing all of his teeth.

He chortled, his voice not quite colored with surprise. “Oh, you flatter me, Dinner Drones! And to think it’s been all thanks to my incomparable genius! Heh heh! The Phantom Ruby has been a real boon to the Empire. Even if the original can no longer compare to the finalized prototype, it still has its uses...” Dr. Eggman pounded a fist on the table. “And I’ll use it to wipe out every last miserable Mobian on this planet!”

The drones lifted up their arms in celebration. “All hail Eggman!” came the synthesized chorus. “All hail Eggman!”

The doctor chuckled, then sat back and took a sip of his wine. “Yes,” he said. “All hail Eggman, indeed.”

Chapter Text

Maria, Maria, Maria.

Amidst memories of blood and deeds of the past, her name was a lifeline, a symbol, a mantra for what he stood for. The humans fought, they always fought, whether it was against each other or invaders, they always sought to spill blood. Innocent lives didn’t matter, their own lives didn’t matter. Men at the top sent down orders and like little ants their special forces would go out and decimate people, homes, entire countries.

Maria, Maria, the sunshine and moon, the friend and sister, a promise never fulfilled because little men in big buildings were scared of what might’ve been. Cure a girl? No, it would cause a war, so slaughter the hired minds who only wanted to help and blame it on faulty equipment; an accident.

They didn’t know what was good for them. None of them! They didn’t know truth from lies and would shoot a child in a ditch before questioning if anything was wrong. They were mindless, unable to see a better picture because all they wanted was a warped canvas to splatter paint on.

Maria, small and gentle and so, so kind, a soul unfit to step foot on the soiled earth. It should have been her, it should have been her who was put in a capsule and sent to safety, because she needed a cure, but she was a cure. She saw the silver linings, the better things in life even more than the Professor and if anybody could have turned that rotten world to see sense, to see the wonders that could be, it would have been her. He would have allowed it had it been her.

He was in space, again, face-to-face with a Robotnik. It wasn’t the Professor, or his friend, but he was on the floor, defeated, unable to move. The Chaos Emeralds were his capsule, encircling him in safety and power. It was all in his hands, to do with what he pleased. It could be war or salvation or somewhere in between.

He was the one with the gun, but he was so tired of them. He let the glock clatter on the odd yellow flooring.

He was the ultimate life form, and as such he had the ultimate power: choice. No one else could have it. No more ARKs, no more Marias, no more senseless missions and little pests running around trying to do what they thought was right.

He had everything now, and only he knew what was right for the world. For the humans.

Maria had asked him so long ago to give them a chance to be happy. He had given that chance, and it had been squandered.

Now he was the one with the reins, he was the one with the future in his hands. The humans knew nothing. Only he knew what was best.

He told the good doctor as such, and silenced him.

It had been far too long since anyone had stepped up and done anything sensible.

It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Professor Gerald Robotnik poured over the reports on his desk, the single light built into the wall casting a small circle of light across his work space. Piles of papers were haphazardly sorted in a system only he knew, and sticky notes dotted his desk in yellow. His computer was only a swivel away, on standby in case he needed to edit something or send off a message for the morning shift.

Or if a probing message came in from the government. The President of the United Federation was a vain man, and though Gerald still had his doubts about reaching the demanded immortality, his research was making leaps and bounds towards revitalization. The Ultimate Lifeform prototype was developing quite nicely and would be soon prove his theory or show him where it was lacking. After that, he could fine tune the real one and open the capsule.

Maria was already so curious and excited for her new friend. Every time she saw Gerald, she would ask after Shadow. Would he wake up this week? Could he bake? Did he like pillow fights? Would he like chocolate chip cookies? Was his fur soft?

Gerald chuckled to himself as the memory resurfaced. One of the scientists had pulled out a photo of her pet tabby on Earth and Maria had cooed to the point of squeaking. As she was told about the varying fluffiness of cats in vivid detail, Maria’s eyes had brightened in a way they always did whenever anyone talked about Earth. She was absolutely fascinated by it from the mundanity of trees and sidewalks to the breathing sight of the planet from the ARK’s many windows.

She was such a free spirit, just like her mother. She wasn’t yet shackled to any organization or government, and he doubted she ever would be. She saw everything with such optimism and innocence that it sometimes hurt. Should the Ultimate Lifeform succeed, Gerald had no doubt that his granddaughter would one day change the world, just as he was doing. A voice for peace and eyes that never held malice, she would go on to do great things.

She was already at the heart of Project Shadow, the reason everyone kept chasing after the impossible. She could move people with ease, encourage them and push them forward. So long as he could help it, he would preserve that good in her and keep her from the darker sides of humanity.

Heavens knew he was toeing the line of one already.

Gerald blinked purposefully, then lifted his mug to drain last of his coffee. Joanna’s report called for a fourteen percent increase in Chaos Drives to keep the life support system going for the prototype. That he could do. There was a surplus of them down in storage area three. Fourteen percent wouldn’t even make a dent in their supplies. The president was invested in their success, perhaps unhealthily so.

He gave a jaw-cracking yawn. A glance at the analogue clock told him it was close to three in the morning, Standard Federation Time. He could do a few more checks to ensure everything was in order. The prototype was adapting quickly. None of them could afford errors when they were this close to their dreams becoming reality.  

Gerald scribbled out a few equations on some scrap paper, then compared them to two separate reports he had used the numbers from. The results were solid. The early morning shift takers could continue with monitoring duty, then.

Four hours, he decided. He would give himself four hours to rest before going over the new numbers for the prototype’s growth, then go back to sleep. Maria would worry otherwise.

Gerald woke his computer from sleep, and typed out a note for the guys down in IT. That done, he put it in standby again, and left the room with his coffee mug. The lack of movement would make the light above the desk turn off in a minute.  

Despite his fatigue, Gerald couldn’t help but smile. He was absolutely positive that the prototype would work out. Once it was done growing and fully adapted to the Chaos Drives, he would run the data and give Shadow a final boost before waking him up.

Nothing said he couldn’t introduce his granddaughter to another friend while the project was on-going.

Chapter Text

“So you’re the cap’n?”

“Yes. And you would be the latest to escape from the Iron Guard. Alone no less.”

The adolescent smiled crookedly, dried blood flaking off her lips. “A blessing from the forest gods.”

Captain Dagger lifted his eyes to the girl’s fiery red hair for a moment. “Red hair is rare in the empire,” he commented. The girl’s tired smirk turned into a grimace.

“I’m from Goatown,” she said, scarlet eyes glaring, “before those stuck up snotty snobs came and robbed us of everything!”

Dagger nodded slowly, thinking. “Goatown was part of the Larrin Republic.” The thirty-third Radial Chapter as of three seasons ago. It was home to a paltry instated noble who didn’t see how his mandates could choke an economy. “I’m sorry.”

She sneered, crossing arms jagged with scars. “Not as sorry as that fat bucking bull is gonna be when I get my hands on him!” She snarled, a single fang bared. “He choked us all on taxes then threw people out of their homes to make room for his stupid horses! I don’t even know why he has them! That fatso would break their backs if he tried mounting one!”

Muffled laughter spread across the decks. Dagger himself covered his mouth and coughed hard to hide his own. “So,” he said, a smile threatening to break his careful appearance of stoic professionalism, “might I have your name?” He already knew. One of her escorts had told him that before she had even set foot on the gangplank, but knowledge was power and the girl had need of the latter.

“Iris,” she answered curtly.

“Well, Iris,” said Dagger, folding his arms behind his back, “how would you like to get back at the empire? I would offer to rid your home of its...current problem, but King Radium would only instate another noble. A smarter one. Maybe crueler.”

Iris tsked. “And what can you do? You’re a guy with a ship. Lard butt has three and they patrol up and down the coast. The Proper Sayer-”

“-Pauper Slayer.”

“Whatever.” Iris rolled her eyes at Gus’ correction.  “The other lard butt has an entire army and a hundred ships. How are you going to do anything to him?”

For the first time since he watched her approach the Carver, Dagger dropped his facade and smirked. “Not me, Iris. Us.”
 

“Us?” Iris asked, confusion written on her face. “What, you think I can do something?”

Dagger leaned down, and his voice gained a reverent tone. “There are more fish than a man can see below the tide, Iris. There is more than my crew and me. Lots more. Inland, on the seas, hidden, and in plain sight. There are places Radium cannot look. Places where his reach is too short to corrupt. Places where we can meet and plan. King Radium has an army, true, but we’re building one, too.” He stretched out an open palm. “And we can use your help.”

Iris leaned away, eyeing his hand as warily as a cat would. “And what help is that?” she asked cautiously.

The captain stood up straight. He mentally congratulated the girl for being so sharp. “Sometimes we need things. A key in a pocket, an eavesdropper by a window. Little things...but important.”

Iris shuffled her feet. “And what makes you think I can do any of those things?” she asked. Dagger leaned back ever so slightly. She probably hadn’t noticed, but Dagger did as her shoulders hunched in. This needed a delicate touch.

“You’re a thief, aren’t you?” he asked in return.

Her jaw dropped. “Uh… How did you…?”

“I watched you filch Sam’s lucky jackal tooth.”

A man near the bow quickly patted his side then shot his head up. “Hey!” As if on cue, raucous laughter rang out all around them, loud and sudden. Dagger watched Iris, but all she did was tense up.

“We told you not to wear it out here!” someone shouted from the upper decks.

“Oh shut up, Wilbur!” Sam yelled back.  

“Make me you old codger!”

“I am twenty-two!”

“And a real charmer.”

Dagger cleared his throat loudly. The two quieted down before things could escalate and the smattering of cackles died out. He brought his attention back to the girl. Her shoulders were looser and her cheeks were pink, but she seemed more embarrassed than anything. She shoved her hand in a pocket and withdrew a fang with a string drawn through it.

“How did you see that?” she inquired lowly.

Dagger smiled gently. “We come from all walks of life. Everyone brings something to the table and that knowledge gets passed around. Trust me, you aren’t the first one I’ve seen pickpocket."

“So...why not let them spy for you?”

“A fair question,” said Dagger, nodding. “There are other jobs you could take. Messenger. Charter. Cook. Laborer. We still need someone to clean the vomit in the brig-”

“I’ll do it.”

The captain clapped Iris on the shoulder, smiling broadly. “Then welcome aboard, Iris. We’ll be setting sail for Red Dawn Docks in an hour. I hope you have your sea legs.” He winked, and withdrew his hand. Then he peered about the deck and bellowed: “Back to work!” Variations of “yes, captain” went up, and the crew returned to loading supplies and hauling buckets to pour over the side.

One of the crew jogged up, the charter, Floris. She began rattling off a welcome quicker than Iris could follow, and was led below deck. Dagger chuckled. Floris was nearly a mother hen with how she treated everyone. Without a doubt she would be showing Iris to the doctor, the cook, and the crew quarters, in that order.

Dagger leaned his head to one side, and felt a satisfying crack. Standing at attention always made him stiff. It was worth it, though. The Red Dawn Rebellion had another pair of helping hands, ones that had freed herself from a fate worse than death.

That was perhaps the oddest part about their newest recruit. Not the rare red hair nor unheard of matching eyes. The fang was another strange quirk about her, but nothing particularly stuck out in his mind as a possible justification. No, he couldn’t begin to guess how she had gotten away from the Iron Guard. They were notorious for their sharp eyes on any prisoners they brought in and brutal tactics in keeping the shackled in line. Iris had obviously been hit in the head and mouth, so it had not been a clean capture or getaway, yet she had not been followed despite not being a native of the area.

But that, he supposed, was for when he had a moment to himself. There were many legends and tales about people with red eyes that held nuggets of truth amidst the fantastic re-tellings and horrors. It was only a matter of picking it out and holding it to the light.

Chapter Text

Vaalni knew he shouldn’t have wandered into Castle Town’s alleyways. He was a bookworm, his natural home was in the library, despite Lin’s occasional attempts to lure him away on some inane adventure or other.  He didn’t crave the physical unknown, but rather the mental one. The found and explored, the mysteries that yet still remained out of reach for Hyrule’s best minds.

How he had thought following the book thief would turn out in his favor, he had no idea.

“Get out of here, pipsqueak,” the burly man growled. He puffed out his chest, the rug of hair underneath pushing through the long dip in his shirt collar. “This is Blind’s turf. Unless you want business with my fist...” The man slammed one meaty hand into the palm of the other. “You better run on home! Aheh heh.”

Vaalni snarled. “How dare you! That was the only copy of Hylia’s Blessings: A History of Hyrule in the entire town! Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited for it to be released from the royal archives?! The transcribe was sanctioned last year!”

“And that’s what makes it so valuable.” The man smirked, showing off yellowed, crooked teeth. “Maybe if you ask reeealll nice they’ll make you another one. Hah hah hah!”

Vaalni’s nails bit into his palms, blood dripping down his fingers. He glared at the human blockade, the man’s girth nearly touching the sides of the alley. Despite being smaller, he could not see a way to even duck beneath the filthy man’s legs. Not that he particularly wanted to.

“You… You foul, odoriferous, wretched halfwit!” Vaalni seethed. He had never felt this angry, even when Ezelo ignored his hard-earned accomplishments. “You, none of you have any respect for such knowledge! If all you care about is rupees then by all means go down to the tavern down the street. I’m sure they would be willing to hire someone to block the outhouse door!”

The man’s smug countenance twisted into a nasty scowl. “Run home, boy,” he rumbled, cracking his knuckles. “Before I have to make a mama cry after her son. You’re young and foolish, so I’m gonna tell you this once: power is everything. Without it, you’re nothing. Just a speck in the wind. Whatever you want in life, you just take it. ‘Else people walk all over you like you’re trash.

“So...why don’t you just turn around, and go on home you tiny. Insig-neef-icant. Nothing.”

Vaalni’s breathing stuttered. Something within him – maybe in his head, maybe in his chest – snapped.

Thoughts that weren’t his, thoughts that were, mingled together in criss-crossing threads, tangling together in an incoherent mess of voices and places and feelings that made no sense, sending spikes of agony through his mind, his knees to the ground, until all at once the chaos settled and Vaalni was aware again.

Aware of himself.

A breeze picked up and swirled around him, throwing back his hood and lifting his hair until it flailed all around him. He needn’t even push himself to his feet. The wind did it for him.

The man stumbled back, his face pale. It was almost as I he had seen a poe.

Vaalni flexed his hands. Power sprang to his tips, awaiting command. He then peered up at the human filth through lilac bangs. He grinned cruelly. “I’ll teach you to mess with the greatest sorcerer of all time!”

“Now w-wait just a second-!”

“To stone with you!” Vaalni raised a hand, the man raised his own, and in a flash of power, the thug was nothing more than an ugly statue. Vaalni chuckled to himself, looking at his hands again. Then he grimaced.

What a farce of a life he had led. Knowledge was indeed power, but he had done nothing with it! Instead he had hoarded it, letting it all – no, only most. Allowing most of it to go to waste.

Worse, he felt a disturbing mix of fondness and loathing towards his best friend. His best friend who had killed him in the past, split into four by some strange sword, then stabbed his eye again and again and again -

Vaalni – Vaati closed his eyes, and took a steadying breath. The heaviness in his gut was firmly ignored as he focused. The boy had not awakened. Lin didn’t even care about his destiny, that one day a sword forged with holy powers or the elements would be thrust into his hands, and he would have to slay the wielder of power.

Himself.

Years of friendly bickering, of knowing there was someone else who didn’t quite care about what the world thought of them, of sneaking out to observe things he had only read about but Lin knew where to find, of brown paper wrapped around handmade gifts, of teasing and secrets and laughter and-

Gone. A prank. A cosmic joke.

Vaati snarled again. The cycle would happen again and again, shackling the chosen three in a vicious battle of blood, spirit, and hate. One of Lin’s past selves had tried staving off the inevitable and ended up skewered by monsters.

Vaati had followed not too long after, the Seven Sages taking his life.

Vaati rolled his hands into fists again. The cycle was starting anew. Lin was still as oblivious as ever. Perhaps not for long, but for the time being he was safe. Vaati snorted. In a sense. But a new era brought new information. He could seek for a way to break the curse, if nothing else. He had failed in his past life, pitifully at that, but there had to be something, anything he could use that the brightest scholars of the last generation had discovered. He would not given into his enmity so soon. Not again.

Though first, however, he needed to find that book thief.

He needed knowledge.

He needed power.

Chapter Text

Ruuya clutched at her head, curled up on the bed granted to her by lies and twisted truths. She had no family, she had no friends. Everything she knew was spurious, and everything that was right had been warped by bloody visions and the ceaseless march of time. Memories warred, foggy recollections with recent events, crowding her head and threatening to burst through her eyes.

A small whine escaped her. None, however, could hear her sounds of discomfort and torment so deep beneath Hyrule Castle. The prisons were scarcely used during the current king’s rule, thus patrols were few and far between. It would be hours yet before a guard found her, hours to her own private hell of confusion and unanswered questions.

She rolled off the mat and onto the straw covered floor, taken by another vision. She Saw fields of fire, smoke twisting into the air. Homes burned and crumbled, and the wind blew the scent of fear to roaming monsters that followed it until they found cowering humans to beat and gnaw on. Desert heat blanketed the land, and through it rode a single figure, garbed in healthy green, a gleaming sword on his back. Shadows melded around the historic castle, shielding the highest tower from the hungering flames. Lights, colorful and bright, followed the green one, carving out a path of safety.

Light glinted off metal, and a blade shot towards her eye.

Ruuya screamed, a phantom pain lancing through her head.

“Make it stop!” she shouted. Her voice echoed back the same outside her cell. “Oh goddesses, please make it stop!”

Are there even goddesses? she wondered. Why was she born as a Gerudo? Why hadn’t she been born as a farmhand or a lowly merchant on the fringes of the kingdom? They led simple, fulfilling lives that didn’t involve assassinations or blinding headaches brought on by a cascade of images that hadn’t even happened yet!

Ruuya groaned, fighting to sit up. She longed to stay with her arms wrapped around herself, but she refused to stay in such a weak position any longer. With an effort of will, she sat up and leaned against one of the walls. The stone was cool to the touch, and a mild relief. She didn’t dare climb up onto the plank of wood hanging off the wall. The first two visions had made her fall off it. She had lost count how many had seized her. Each one was far more intense than what she was used to, pushing her to the edge of agony, then stopping just as abruptly as they had started.

She let out a long, weary sigh. She fully blamed the old journal for her misery. Someone, she didn’t know who, had rummaged through her room while she was away, then presented the transcription to the head guard. One thing led to another, and soon she was thrown into prison. Last she had overheard, Vaati had fled. To where, nobody knew.

She had felt uneasy at first. Part of her distressed state, she’d assumed. But as the hours ticked by, the unease grew and soon she was thrashing against the waves of visions. She saw wings, pig beasts, and more monsters than she ever thought possible to exist.

Ruuya hit the wall behind her. Curse that miserable excuse of a sorcerer! She had gone along with his plans for nothing else than to further her own. A few rupees in her pocket and she could flee Hyrule and all the problems that came with it. But no! Some fool had to go through her things and find the one thing that would blow both of their true natures out of the water.

And from what she knew, through studies and visions alike, there was only one excuse for it.

“Do you hear me?” she called out in exhaustion. “I know you’re there. You’re the only one who could have found that journal. Vaati’s magical residue is one of a kind, just like mine is. Nobody could have found out it was linked to him except for someone who is really good with magic... They say there are no more Zoras in Hyrule or any of the other races...but they’re wrong. Aren’t they?”

She waited. She wasn’t sure if her gambit would pay off. It probably wouldn’t matter if it did.

“Make up your mind!” Ruuya demanded. “I’m gonna die before you get your spine out of your -”

A blur of shadow and the cell door squeaked open. Ruuya stared for a moment then huffed a laugh.

“Okay then. Thanks...whoever you are.” With a grunt, she pushed herself to her feet, and made for freedom. She still wasn’t sure about what was going on, but she had a small stash of rupees up in Minshi Woods and knowledge of the ships coming and going from Hyrule for the next month or so.

That one shy boy in the ranks had probably taken care of Jamila. The boy seemed to like her as much as the rest of the guards liked wielding a sword. It wouldn’t take much to get her friend and skip town. Ruuya had a plan for her life, and it did not involve small, cramped spaces. She would move on, with or without that stubborn mule of a mage.

Chapter Text

A haze of white blanketed the world, enveloping senses with unfurled commands, demented demands to bear arms against all friends and allies, and brawl for one's delight and twisted pleasure.

A being of light without measure, it destroyed the known world in a blink, faster than anyone could think, and all was gone, all was lost, replaced with a new world glossed over with memories and melded planes, past and present meshed, the boards refreshed as a new battle began. Everyone, to the last man, the last woman, and child, were trapped and beguiled by Galeem's machinations. Kirby's determination by Warp Star, a sensation, gave them all one last hope in a shrinking scope that they ultimately may one day be fought and freed.

The fighters old and new, strangled by strange blue strands, were unbound, astounded and confounded by the changes hands of greed had commanded.

Galeem. A grim dream of extreme control schemed by supreme madness, deems a regime without screams to be the theme. Then once he's gone, instead of dawn we get the dusk; a worldwide husk as the sky shatters. Then all that matters is who to defeat, as the two elite of darkness and light continue to fight over the still alive and the spirit archive. Nothing to lose and all to win, all go forth as the battle begins.

Chapter Text

Maria was five years old when she first saw him. The lights had been turned off for the night cycle, leaving little more than a tiny night light to illuminate a close corner. The ARK was very quiet in a way she was not used to, the familiar low hum of nearby machines completely absent. Her room had been moved from one wing to another so she could see the Earth more easily from the window. Try as she might though, she could not find rest.

The darkness stirred and two red eyes lit up within in.

Maria gasped and brought the blankets over her head, silently hoping for the monster to leave. Although her grandpa had said that he told all of the monsters to leave the ARK, and the only ones who stayed were good ones, she couldn’t help the fear that clutched at her. What if one of the bad ones had snuck back in?

When she thought enough time had passed, she brought the blankets down.

There was nobody there. The darkness didn’t move. The night light revealed nothing to her.

She stared at her room for a little longer, then burrowed into her covers. She was out like a light within the hour, never seeing the eyes keeping a vigil at the edge of her bed.

/-/

Maria was five and eight months when she first talked to him. She was wandering around the hallways deeper inside the ARK, closer to where her grandpa had told her not to tread. She was so curious what happened in the forbidden zones, and that kept her going even as she passed yellow and black lines on the floor.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

Maria whirled around, heart hammering in her chest. Yet, there was no one. Her eyes flicked from wall to wall, as if she might catch whoever had spoken. It wasn’t anybody she knew. Maybe it was one of those people her grandpa worked for?

A door opened beside her quietly. Maria turned and looked. There were no lights on. Not even through a window or from a computer screen.

Then two red eyes met her gaze.

Maria stepped back. The monster! But...it wasn’t doing anything. Maybe it was a good monster?

“You should go back,” he said. His voice was deep, even while whispering. He certainly didn’t sound evil to Maria. Evil people laughed and shouted things very loudly. They also told people to do bad things. The monster did none of those things, though, so he was definitely a good monster!

“Who are you?” Maria asked softly.

The monster said nothing for a moment. The red eyes tilted and blinked.

“Your shadow,” he finally answered. “Now go before you get into trouble.”

“Okaayyy.” Maria pouted, but turned and marched back all the same. She had already been found out. Going further would only get her into more trouble.

It would be months before she understood what he meant.

/-/

When Maria was six years old she gave her secret friend a present. She waited until the lights had been turned off for the night cycle, then crept out of her room. A few lights built into the sides of the walls gave just enough light to see by. Part of her wished that the sparse light from the half-darkened Earth could help her, too, but her friend had been firm on not being seen. He stayed to the darkness, never venturing into the light.

She wasn’t quite sure when or where he would appear. The monster was so mysterious! It was part of why she loved him.

Unfortunately, not everyone believed her when she told them about him. Her shadow didn’t want to talked about, so she couldn’t even keep trying to make them believe her.

Her grandpa said that some people just liked to be alone. She didn’t understand, but she kept quiet about the monster anyway.

Maria made her way to the kitchen and to the fridge on the other side. Taking a butter knife coated with hardened chocolate, she carefully cut away a slice of cake from earlier. She placed it and a fork on a plate, then tip-toed back into the corridor.

“Shadow...” she whispered. “Shadow? Where are you?”

“Right here,” came the reply, and she nearly dropped the cake in a panic. Even after four months she couldn’t get used to how he just appeared.

She could only see his eyes, so she hoped he wasn’t mad at her for being out late.

“Here,” she said, proffering the plate. “It’s for you!”

One of the eyes disappeared halfway, like the Earth did sometimes, then came back. She felt the plate being lifted from her hands.

“...Thank you,” said her shadow, and the red eyes disappeared.

“You’re welcome!” Maria said, and she skipped off to her bedroom, giggling.

In the morning, an empty plate and fork were found in the kitchen sink, both smeared with bits of chocolate.

/-/

When Maria was seven she discovered something new about her friend.

“You’re not a monster?” she asked, puzzled.

The shadows in the empty room moved. “No.”

She tilted her head, the way his eyes did sometimes. “Then what are you?”

“As I said, I am your shadow,” he replied. “I watch over you where the light can’t reach me.”

Maria frowned. “Well, why don’t you come out?”

Her friend paused. He did that sometimes when he was thinking hard. “I would disappear,” he said.

Maria apologized, not wanting him to go, but never brought it up again.

She had so few friends who made time for her. She wanted to keep the ones she had.

/-/

When Maria was eight the scientists were suddenly abuzz with excitement, and it wasn’t because of their work. When she asked, she was told that another state had been added to North America. She didn’t really understand, but she was happy for everyone just the same.

Then Abraham wanted to play hide and seek, and Maria went running through the ARK. They had agreed upon places that they would never use, and she resolutely avoided them. Bedrooms for one, the fridge for another. The latter was too cold to stay for long anyways, as the boy had found out some time back.

“Maria.”

She stopped, then turned, smiling. “Shadow!”

An open door to darkness greeted her, then two red eyes opened. “In here.”

Her shoes clicked as she went in. She had nothing to fear in the lightless room. Her friend was the darkness, after all.

The door shut and she waited. Occasionally, she would look over at her friend and ask a hushed question. He would whisper in return, and she would go back to listening.

She waited for a long time before she heard him. Quick footsteps, familiar ones that made her cover her mouth, as if hoping Abraham wouldn’t hear her breathing.

“Ma-ri-a!” he called, getting louder and louder. “I’m gonna find you!”

She strained to hear as the door across the way fooshed opened. A minute later, it closed.

A hand landed on her shoulder, and suddenly she was dizzy and stumbling. Gentle hands guided her to the floor. A whispered “I’m sorry” came from her friend, before she heard the frustrated groaned from Abraham outside. Maria held her breath, listening.

His footsteps retreated. His voice faded.

Maria giggled. The dizziness was worth it to not be found! She told her shadow as much and talked with him in low voices as she sat and waited.

She lost track of the time, and only knew the game was over when Abraham came back, calling out, “I give up! Come out already!”

Somehow, she thought her shadow was pretty happy about that. His muffled chuckles didn’t help any.

/-/

When Maria was nine, she awoke to a hand on her shoulder and red eyes beside her bed.

“Come with me,” said her friend. She was so tired, she didn’t want to move, but her friend was insistent, and she was soon walking out from her room, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Where are we going?” she asked wearily.

“You’ll see.” Maria moaned, but shuffled along obediently. The footsteps were light, but noticeable, so they didn’t get separated.

It didn’t take long, but the footsteps stopped right outside the kitchen. “Go on in,” said her shadow, and Maria walked inside and flipped the switch. She ducked her head and squinted, the lights blinding her for a few seconds. When her eyesight adjusted, she saw it.

Atop the round kitchen table where some wrappers were left, was a strange flat case. It was brown and clasped shut, but when she started poking and unlocking it, she found a side that flipped down. An odd ridged thing stretched out, and clicked into place. Then she found the wrinkled note, just to the side. The writing wasn’t as flowing as her grandpa’s, but still perfectly readable, if a bit messy.

‘This is a polaroid camera,” it read. ‘The instructions are attached. Make some memories.’

And she did.

/-/

When Maria was ten, she decided that her shadow’s birthday would fall on her own. He refused to say when he was born or how old he was, but everybody deserved a birthday party. So she commandeered the kitchen for an afternoon, and with a little help from her grandfather, she made cupcakes and homemade french fries.

At her first chance, she put a few cupcakes and a plate of fries in her room along with a handmade card. It was very colorful, a picture of the Earth on the front and a brown stick topped with a green blob on the back; a drawing of what she thought a tree would look like. The inside was scribbled in black pencil with two red, oval eyes in the middle. Underneath them, she wrote ‘Happy Birthday, Shadow!’ in white crayon. Then, she left it all behind as she went back to her grandfather, planning to give it to her friend later.

By the time she came back from her party, the food was gone and so was the card. However, carefully placed beside the plate was a torn bit of white paper.

It simply said: ‘Thank you, Maria.’

/-/

When Maria was eleven she came to a very important conclusion.

“Calling you Shadow is going to get confusing,” she stated, staring up at the ceiling of her room. Her grandfather had already told her about her new friend who would wake up soon. Both of their names were the same and she had no doubt it would be very confusing when talking to at least one of them about the other.

“Hm.” Her friend hummed from inside her closet. He was kind of silly like that. “Do you have another name then?” he asked.

This time it was her turn to hum. “You’re always watching over me like a guardian angel and we’re on the ARK, so...you’re ARK Angel!”

Her closet chuckled. “As you wish, Maria.”

/-/

Two weeks later, Shadow the Ultimate Lifeform emerged from his capsule.

And her guardian angel never appeared to her again.

/-/

Maria was twelve when the Klaxon alarms blared and her grandfather sent her away with Shadow. He pulled her along, refusing to activate his air shoes for fear of losing his grip on her. Shots rang out behind them, boots stomped on steel, and voices ordered them to stop.

Her lungs burned. Being on the space colony meant that she never had to be very fast. Not even while playing. But now every inch of her begged for rest, to stop for just a moment before her legs turned to jelly.

A bullet whizzed by them, and she found the strength to keep going.

Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of struggling to breath, they came to the emergency escape pod room. Maria was well aware of how the escape procedure worked. Her grandfather made sure everyone onboard did. So when Shadow walked further into the room looking around for an obvious pod for them, she pulled down the switch.

Her grandfather had always said that Shadow was a hope for humanity. That he could one day pave the way for a new future.

He was far more important than her. And even more, he was her friend.

Her only friend left.

He pounded on the glass, screaming her name in the most horrified voice she had ever heard. Yet, she smiled, gently, and told him her one wish.

“Sayonara-”

Bam! Something solid flew into the door, but it held still.

“-Shadow...”

Red crept in around the sides, and from the hall came curses, shouts, screams, and gunshots.

“...the Hedgehog.”

And she launched the capsule towards Earth.

Maria slumped against the console. She was so tired. Everything hurt. Even thinking made her head throb. But her friend was okay. He would live and all the people on Earth would be better for it.

Maria slid to the floor sitting and waited. Eventually, the gunshots stopped. But she didn’t move. She had no reason to. A second pair of hands would be needed to send her out, and the only ones she trusted to do that were gone. She feared what the men in masks and armor had done to the people she called family, and prayed they had escaped. She could only do the same for her grandfather.

The hairs on her arms raised on end. The air tingled, and a second later, a sharp zap echoed within the small room. She slid her gaze up, and she smiled; a small, tired thing, but genuine.

A hand reached out for her. She reached back and grasped it.

Her ARK Angel, her ever watchful Shadow, had returned for her.

Chapter Text

The bones of a hero
The blood of royalty
They flow so well together
I'm pledged their loyalty!

So you think you can run
Swing that dagger like a pro
Wield ancient arcane tricks
And to put on your best show

Well I have a little news
You pretender to the line
I see you cowering
Thinking there will be divine

Intervention on your behalf.
Oh don't bother to make me laugh!
You're a fool
You're a pain
You're a tool
You're a stain

And if you try to test me
Well, I won't be who to blame

For your blood upon this stage
As I turn the fi-nal page...!

Good bye foolish hero.
Here ends your act, your show

Chapter Text

Sometimes, in order for a relationship to improve the people involved had to take a step back and look at themselves. It was something Steven had shown Garnet and then to both Ruby and herself. As Garnet, they were a whole new Gem with thoughts and emotions that stemmed from the Gems who made her. Taking time for themselves as individuals only improved that relationship.

As it was, Sapphire was enjoying the peace of a walk along a nature trail, as suggested by Greg. She firmly ignored her future vision, content to watch the leaves shake in the light breeze, and the small animals scurry through the trees and across the path. Ruby was off at a laser tag arena, likely having the time of her life.

For a brief moment, Sapphire wondered how her other half was doing. Then she studiously examined the bright blue sky through the hanging branches, the thought of using future vision shunted away. Spying was wrong. They were separated for a reason. Ruby and she needed this. And Steven would be disappointed if they didn’t stick to the plan he proposed.

She could almost hear him laughing now. “You guys should have a day to yourselves now and then! You know, just be Ruby and Sapphire.”  

Sapphire had to admit that the experience alone was refreshing in a way. She missed Ruby terribly, but they would meet up again at the temple. These hours were for herself only, to reflect upon her own thoughts, not those of Garnet’s.

A ground squirrel darted across the path, and Sapphire started. When the shock faded, she smiled and giggled. The world never stopped surprising her, even in the little things.  

Well. It had once she stopped using future vision so much.

Sapphire moved forward, almost gliding along the trail. The birdsong and rustling of leaves brought a sort of tranquility that the ocean in Beach City did not. It was different, but not unwelcome.

“What do you like about yourself…?” she murmured softly. It was an odd question written down in a list of suggestions that she and Ruby could think or do. Some of the things were rather silly, such as ‘Make a together breakfast’ or ‘Take turns singing your favorite song’. Others, like the crumpled one she had chosen randomly from a sun hat, were rather thoughtful.

Well. She was patient. She could levitate over obstacles and the occasional sleeping Amethyst. She had led the Crystal Gems – no. That was Garnet. She could hit a home-run. She liked the cut of her Gem. She also liked the tin ring on her finger next to it, but that wasn’t really...part of her. Part of Sapphire.  

Sapphire hummed as she went along, turning her hand over and inspecting her wedding ring. She could go on and on about all the things she loved about Ruby. Her laughter, her determination, her passion for fighting for what she believed in. the way her cheeks turned bright red when she was happy…

Sapphire hummed. After a minute, she smiled.  

She liked the life she had. She liked the simplicity of it, now that Homeworld wasn’t a problem. She liked that she could think under duress and come up with a plan to fix things, but didn’t have to anymore. She liked her contributions to Little Homeworld – as Sapphire, not Garnet. That had been her task the month before, brainstorming with everyone on what to tell the incoming Gems and how to introduce them to Earth. It wasn’t as if anyone could hear Ruby’s thoughts when they were Garnet. Ultimately, the proposal had been a success, allowing for more ideas to be bounced around, discarded, or accepted.  

Even light years away, Steven’s suggestions were making interesting changes.

Birds flew through the trees in a rush, tweeting and flapping into the sky. Sapphire watched, humming a familiar song. It was a new day with new experiences to be had.

And she would share them all later with the most important person in her life.

Chapter Text

The world outside of books had never meant much to Vaalni. The humdrum of everyday life as people went about their chores, opened shop, and traipsed off to monster-ridden fields was monotonous at best and mind numbing at worst. There was simply nothing of interest out there that he could not find in a book, with supplementary information filling in the gaps that would be otherwise a mystery to the average person outside of a certain profession or skill.

However, with the return of his memories came a broader picture of the world. One that was fated to be torn asunder every century or more with unfathomable devastation and sorrow as a war reignited. Following that was the realization of how pathetic nearly every person’s lot in life was. Their lives weren’t only monotonous, but the casual belief that tomorrow’s worst problem could be a leak in the ceiling or a theft was wholly spurious. The futility of “true” peace or freedom had never been more blatant or disturbing.

Vaati rubbed his face with both hands, his eyes strained from reading by a meager candle light. Part of him wished he could revive Ganondorf just to kill him again. The foul pig had passed on a power with only two equals, but with it came a curse without parallel. Doomed to kill or be killed. He chuckled mirthlessly. And dealt by his best friend of all people.

Had it been a total stranger he would be pitted against, there might have been less guilt, less effort. But he knew Lin. He knew who he had been before. The hero chosen by the goddesses. Chosen to overcome trials and defeat a great threat, his tale told and retold until it vanished into myth.

Vaati slammed a fist on the table. And he was to be the enemy. Already he could feel something bubbling in his chest. Some malicious thing that urged him to try his newly enhanced powers on the castle town citizens. To destroy and maim and crush whoever was in his way and claim the world as his.

He took a breath and let it out. He did so several times, concentrating on the face of Ezelo then Lin. The only people close to him. The only people he would not turn to his enmity for.

Every day it was becoming a little harder, took a little longer to calm down. But he managed.

Vaati shut the tome and stretched his arms and legs. It was late already and he needed to find more time to visit the library. He was sure Ezelo was becoming suspicious of him, especially with the mounting chores that had gone ignored.  

He was getting sloppy. He needed answers, but he needed discretion just as well.

With a wave of his hand, the candle blew out. Tomorrow, Vaati decided. Tomorrow he would do his chores quickly, then pack a bag of supplies and head into town.

He would find some hint on how to break the cycle, even if it meant skulking in the back alleys again.

Chapter Text

Some roles people fell into. Others, they were born for.

For Shadow Android, the new leader of what was formerly the Eggman Empire, it was both. No one was his master, not Black Doom, not G.U.N., and certainly not the deceased doctor. For the first time in either set of memories, he was free to do as he wished. No longer chained by the words of the dead or the living, Shadow Android had the future in his grasp.

And he knew exactly what to do with that power.

The door opened before him, and he strode into the room, every pair of scarlet eyes turning at his entrance.

“You’re all awake,” he said, eyes scanning the room. The androids hadn’t made a mess of things or attempted to leave. “Good.”

“Another Shadow,” commented one of the clones, arms crossed. “How many of us are there anyway?”

Shadow Android nodded. “You are all Shadow,” he said, “the ultimate lifeforms created by Professor Gerald Robotnik.” He put a hand over his chest, watching the reactions of the others. Some recognition was there, the subtle body movements telling him so. “I was the original that his granddaughter Maria sent to Earth when G.U.N. raided the ARK. What they failed to discover were all of you.” Shadow Android lifted his hand and gestured to the crowd before him.

“More than one ultimate life form?” It was a chorus of confusion and disbelief, and the other Shadows turned to look at each other. One closer than the rest nodded at them and stepped forward. “Why would he do that?” he asked, curiosity naked on his face.

“Gerald’s brilliance knew no bounds,” was his reply. The head android and Omega had gone over some of the more likely questions to be asked. He knew how to set the stage. “He knew our potential and wanted more Shadows to spread across the world...for her.” At once, the androids shifted. It was minute, but he knew what to look for. Shadow Android suppressed the urge to smile. “Our memories are shared across a private network of his design. My memories are your memories. And your memories don’t lie.” Yes, they did.

“Then, Maria...” The scattered voices rose, all in concern. The androids’ eyes were widened, unblinking.

“Is dead,” Shadow Android said bluntly. “Humans killed her and the professor went mad from her loss. The humans killed him, too.”

The uproar was immediate.

“What?!”

“How dare those dirty-!”

“-was a child!”

“Silence!”

“No!” rose the voices. “The humans must pay!”

Shadow Android nodded. “And I agree, but we'll do it together.” He paused, curling his hand into fist, preparing to twist the last knife. “For Maria.”

The machines before him gained a steely glare, the likes he hadn’t seen since the original had stared into his reflection in the ARK windows. It was a look that spoke of merciless pursue of a goal and retribution to be paid.

“For Maria!” chorused the enraged androids.

Shadow Android grinned maliciously. Yes…

For Maria, indeed.

Chapter Text

Abraham Tower scowled at the monitors. Cities the world over were reporting damages and destruction faster than G.U.N. could keep up with. Thousands dead, even more homeless, injured, and missing. The soldiers were stretched thin and the aliens were overwhelming the deployed troops at every location.

Worse than the ongoing war, however, was the progress that the black hedgehog was making. With every Chaos Emerald he pursued, the war ebbed in favor of one side or the other. Strategic places were littered with the Black Arms, alive or dead, and filled with holes where the being’s immense power had exploded.

Abraham pounded his fist on a blank section of the console. The Black Arms’ hybrid was a menace!  

It should have been destroyed years ago! He’d known it since he was a boy, and the thing’s actions only exposed the blackened heart of evil the hedgehog had and cemented his beliefs as truth.

A plan formed and cemented itself in his head. He wasn’t going to lose anymore men. No more lost friends or family. Hedgehog, android, alien, whatever! He was going to follow the corrupted experiment and put it down once for all!

/-/

Cement cracked and realization flooded in. The quiet footfalls left him in disarray and confusion and defeat.  

Shadow had...never remembered anything at all. The entire time. The raid on the ARK, the deaths of everyone he knew. Wiped from memory.  

There hadn’t been some fifty-odd year agenda to slaughter every human on Earth. Only a fractured mind trying to recover its pieces. His pieces.

Fueled by spite and regrets, Abraham had climbed to the top of the very organization that had seen Maria and his family slain, all to stop a tragedy like it from ever happening again. He’d thought Shadow reappearing meant another tragedy incoming. The Eclipse Cannon had been a close call, and he’d refused to believe that Shadow had sacrificed himself to fix his mistakes.

But without the whole picture of how things were, Shadow’s very purpose was built upon shreds of the past.

Just like how his own was, in a way.

Abraham shook his head and pushed himself to his feet. He didn’t know how long he had been on his knees, but it was enough to leave them sore. Too long, then.  

Enough was enough! He was a commander in the Guardian Units of Nations. He had best all in his field and his duty to his country came second to none. Not even his past prejudice could come in the way of that.

He could have the luxury of introspection later. Right now, the fate of the world hinged on cooperation.  He had men and armies ready to move at his mark. Shadow was off to settle a score at a heart of the conflict, but there would still be much to do afterwards.

Picking up his handgun again, the commander left the confines of the comet. He had work to do if the Earth was going to get through the next twenty-four hours.

Chapter Text

Mortals were so inferior in the grand scheme of things. A broken leg or a flu bug and they were down for the count, if not for a few days then weeks. Their bones broke too fast from impacts and falls, and so much could cause internal organs to shutdown from parasites to diseases.

To go beyond such meddlesome limitations was not something the jackal had once thought of. Improving his gear, proving his mettle and abilities, leading his pack. That was life. That was all he had, no challenge too great to take on, no job too perilous to accept.

But then, he had struck the Phantom Ruby in the doctor’s stead. The desolation of the world had ignited something in him that had long been left cold. A desire to show his power and do more than simple jobs for cash. A need to rend and destroy not only enemies, but cities, forests, mountains.

The image had been brief, but the fire continued to burn well after. An agreement made in pursuit of subduing the world had been struck, and he had found himself the subject of innumerable experiments. His physical limits were tested, his mind scanned. All sorts of general checkups were performed, albeit with more wires, tubes, and lights than a clinic. Then came the combat tests, the scarlet liquid injected into his veins. The latter held unpredictable results, ranging from a slight irritation at the point of contact to strangled screams of agony. They were imperative, the doctor assured. The Ruby was finicky at best. To properly prepare its future vessel, certain “adjustments” were necessary.

Or so he claimed. Part of him wondered if the doctor had a sadistic streak as long as his own.

Likely, considering their shared goal.

He hadn’t cared much. His dream, his desire, was ever growing closer. Between periods of animated suspension, time passed quickly. Body scans became more frequent as work on the Phantom Ruby infusion prototypes became more finalized. His limbs were replaced with cybernetics to better accommodate the prototype. He went as far to accept a Phantom Receiver attachment to his spine. Robots always adapted well to the tests, though not small animals. Thus, the doctor concluded, the less organic matter the prototypes interacted with, the better the results.

So the jackal replaced what organics he could, furthering himself from the pathetic louse of his past self. The partial roboticization was possibly the worst he had ever experienced in all his life, but the outcome spoke volumes. He needed no sleep nor food to eat. He was faster and stronger than ever before, able to tear through solid steel with ease. His reaction time and eye-hand coordination surpassed the best badniks Dr. Eggman could make with the original Ruby. His weapons became inferior to his claws. Topping it off, the mask he had designed gave him sight that an eagle would envy.

Yet, it was only the start.

With the successful infusion of the prototype, he found himself far beyond the threshold he had anticipated. Reborn, even. Cybernetic enhanced strength was only furthered by the Phantom Ruby, every inch of him vibrating with potential. With change. Infinite change. Power pulsed from his chest, eager and inviting. It swirled in his limbs, in his mind. The slightest whim could be made real. Buildings, people, landmarks, miniatures of other planets all down to the last detail, made real with a thought.

Of course, he needed more. He needed to have an invincible army at his beck and call at a moment’s notice. Old recordings from the doctor showed some of the largest threats to the Earth from years past, and he based his army on those. An ancient being of chaos capable of citywide destruction; a clone of the fastest thing alive; the ruthless leader of a lost civilization; even him.

Infinite flexed his claws. The old jackal was dead. There was only him and his desires.

And the world would soon know both.

Chapter Text

Silver turned and found his friend gazing at the time-stopped palace. He recognized such a stare, having long seen the stiff posture in her future self. He could only guess at what she was thinking.

He slowly approached, the book of Solaris and Soleanna under one arm, kept safe through their travels up and down the time stream. The same tome that was undoubtedly in the palace even now, and would remain as such until he claimed it in ten years.

“Silver,” she said. Blaze turned around, as graceful as ever. “I want to thank you.”

Silver blinked. “Uh… For what?”

“Before Sonic, I believed I had to do everything on my own.” She raised a cupped hand and fire engulfed it. “I thought my power was a curse, and that I had to carry that burden all alone. That as Guardian of the Sol Emeralds, I could not allow anyone to get close.” The fire extinguished. “Before Marine, I believed reckless children would always remain reckless. That they were a hindrance. And before you...” She paused, bringing her hand down, as if reviewing her thoughts again. “Before you, I believed I would grow old alone.”

Silver’s brow furrowed, then he tensed, fur raising on end. “Wh- Blaze, what are you...”

Blaze, calm and cool Blaze who never did anything but stand near people, took three steps towards him, and wrapped her arms around him. The book nearly fell from his grip.

“B-Blaze...?”

The proud and controlled princess raised her head, her smile unnaturally watery. Silver’s eyes widened. “You’re a good friend, Silver,” she said softly. “Take care.”

She gently pushed him back and green, flaming arms grasped his shoulders.

“What has been will always be,” said Innerste, and the world twisted in on itself, the image of his friend warping then completely gone in a void of white, screams of denial caught in time’s river. Then he was on his stomach, soft grass against his face, and birds were singing in the branches, the wind rushing past as the roar of Iblis resounded across Soleanna, leaving the world at once in unearthly silence.

“And change will always be.”

Silver ignored the cryptic statement and scrambled to his feet, eyes snapping from one point of the field to another. “Blaze? Blaze!” he shouted. Feet unsteady, he nearly stumbled turning back to Princess Elise and Sonic. “We have to go back for…!” The words died on his tongue. The avian princess lied on the ground, eyes shut. Sonic bent down and held her wrist in one hand. After a moment, he sighed and picked her up, taking care to place her wings on her stomach.

“She's alive,” he said, a mix of exhaustion and relief creeping into his voice. “Looks like the trip just wore her out.”

Silver nodded. “Good.” His gaze slid over to where he had seen the other princess not a minute before. As if she would reappear in a blast of green fire if he stared long enough.

“Hey, Silver...” Sonic began, “I don’t know why Blaze stayed behind, but maybe she had something to do back there?”

With painful reluctance, Silver spun his back on where he was fixated, and locked eyes with Sonic. “What could possibly be more important than stopping Iblis?!” he demanded.

Sonic awkwardly shrugged, trying to keep the princess in his arms level. “When Elise first pulled Blaze into our time, she said she had just seen Elise as a little kid. That was ten years ago!”

Sonic let the revelation hang, watching as Silver connected the dots, eyes searching the ground.

“Where we just were...” the other hedgehog muttered, hand over his mouth.

“We’ve been jumping all over the place in time,” Sonic continued. “Maybe...we hit Blaze’s stop.” Despite the guess, he grimaced all the same. That was one more ally missing in the present fight. One less friend.

“But...”

“She’ll be fine, Silver,” he reassured. “Right now we have to get these blueprints to Tails and get that torch back from Eggman!”

Silver took a steadying breath and let it out. He repeated it again, gripping the book to himself tighter. He knew when he would meet Blaze again. Or rather, when she would meet him.

“Alright,” he said, raising a fist. “Let’s end this!”

Chapter Text

The night shift was perhaps the most wearisome duty to be had at headquarters. It was better than cleaning the restrooms in some respects, though the stress and monotony were not a pleasant trade-off.

The lanky white rabbit before the security console sighed heavily. Between the twinkling stars and noisy crickets, there wasn’t much for Cliff to monitor while the rest of the base slept. A small animal would occasionally scurry through the bushes or fly past the camera at two in the AM, something that had made him nearly jump out of his skin at first. As the weeks went by, however, they became part of the routine. As natural as the swaying of the trees or whisperings of the breeze.

Cliff yawned. Thirty miles out from the nearest occupied city, and the worst he had to worry about was a stray robot coming out to capture more animals. It had only happened once, but Commander Knuckles had nearly burst out of the bunker to turn it into scrap metal. Their voice of reason, Amy Rose, was the only reason he hadn’t opened the hatch.

Small miracles.

A quick triple ping from the console broke the quietness, and Cliff was halfway to falling out of his chair, one hand on the edge of the console. Silently, he pleaded for it to be another flicky. Or even a branch whipping the lens. But no, he remembered, three pings meant it wouldn’t be either of those things.

Sitting himself back up, he followed the sonar tracker’s alert to the far eastern edge of the plains. He found the camera for the location and zoomed in.

Amidst the darkness of the new moon, the world was tinted green. Cliff squinted, scrutinizing the tall grass and the trees. Cloaked badniks were unheard of, but the technology for such was undoubtedly within Eggman’s grasp. When he found nothing there, not even trampled flowers, he tilted the camera up.

There! A slight silhouette against the stars, blotting out the dappled canvas above. Shaking, he unclipped his walkie talkie from his belt, and pressed the side button. “Miss Rose?” he asked, uncertain. “Sorry to wake you, but I need you to come to the security room. We have a possible Eggship on the way. Or G.U.N.. I can’t tell.” Dear heavens, he hoped it was G.U.N..

He put the hand radio down, and waited. Some bird or other shot out from the trees, taking to the air. At once Cliff realized: the woods scattered around the bunker had gone silent.

Not a minute later, static came through. “This is Amy,” she said, suppressing a yawn. Even tired, she sounded in control. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

Cliff continued waiting, and watched. When Miss Rose came in, he reported the signal and the shape in the sky. In turn, she told him to keep looking for any others and left to wake the Commander.

In the minutes she was gone, the blanket of night began to fade. It was a gradual thing, the grey of morning dawn heralding the sun. The gentle light was a beautiful sight, the start of a new day and the sweet relief of a cot and warm covers.

The image on the camera invoked none of that comfort. Cliff zoomed out and his blood ran cold. His breaths quickened. All the nightmares he had dreamed since Sonic’s defeat came rushing back, and it took all he had not to scream.

Distant specks of red and yellow dotted the sky, hovering at the edge of the horizon. Vessels large and small spread out in a uniform convergence formation, as they always did before bombarding a city.

But there were no cities out west. Only mountains and more forest.

Eggman’s fleet was coming for them.

The hissing of a door had Cliff swiveling his chair around, words tumbling out of his mouth. “Miss Rose! Commander! They’ve found us!”

The blood drained from the strategist’s face, and a second later it fled from Knuckles’ as well. Miss Rose rushed forward, shoved Cliff aside, and began typing furiously, muttering under her breath.

“How did they find this place?” Knuckles asked, bewildered. “Why didn’t anybody report this?!”

Windows appeared on the central monitor, several bordered in bright, angry red. “All incoming transmissions are jammed!” Miss Rose reported, then went back to typing, frantic in a way Cliff had never seen her.

Knuckles grunted. “Eggman’s really not leaving anything to chance. Amy, go wake the others. You,” the Commander stared straight at him. “You’ve been on the night shift the longest out of anyone. Keep us updated.”

“Right.”

Cliff clamored out of his chair and snapped to attention, nodding. “Aye, aye, sir!”

“Good. I’m gonna get the back exit open.”

Not a moment later, Cliff was alone with a wall full of screens, each filled with the looming armada. He very nearly collapsed back into his seat, a chill overtaking him. Eggman at their front door. Or worse: Infinite. Him, Chaos, Shadow, or even Zavoc could be waiting in any one of the ships, as the opening barrage or to catch any who fled.

Cliff was fast, but their enemies were faster. Stronger. Deadlier. The world’s hero hadn’t stood a chance. So what were the odds of all fifty-odd resistance members making it to safety?

He knew the answer. They all did. But better to try and fail than to sit and fail anyways. “Keep on runnin’” as the saying went.

Cliff’s eyes darted from one screen to another. No changes other than more blips on the sonar. Every second seemed to stretch on, becoming an eternity as the fleet grew closer. Shouts and stomping echoed outside the doors, others running around for direction or friends or supplies to carry. The sounds steadily increased until the rough voice of Vector called for order. He gave directions to the hidden exit – “Knuckles is waiting in storage room A, behind the crates.” – and the noises dropped as the footfalls retreated.

The door behind him opened, and a pink arm reached out for him. Cliff looked up, a comment dutifully ready on the fleet’s status, but stopped. Standing to his side was not Miss Rose, but Fuchsia.

“Come on!” she said, “Everybody’s leaving!”

“But Miss Rose–”

“Who do you think sent me to find you, dummy?” She smiled wryly, barely masking her worry. “Now come on!” She yanked him to his feet and took off into the corridor, hand tight around his wrist the entire way. The halls were a blur as she raced around the corners, dodging the few stragglers who were emerging from other rooms. Charmy Bee flew above, shouting for everyone to hurry. Espio stood outside the store room, eyeing them with a glance before dismissing them. Vector waved people through a crudely made hole in the wall, calling out for how many were left.

And then it was dark. Only the lights given off by wispons and gear lit the way. Bits of lumber supported the tunnel, cut and fitted to intersect in lieu of screws or nails.

Eventually, Fuchsia let go, and Cliff was able to better maneuver through the passageway. The ground was uneven, dipping at random by an inch or more. Lightly, he touched the packed dirt walls, keeping aware of where he was walking when the dim lights weren’t enough.

He dared not speak. No one did except for the Commander far up ahead and Vector in the rear. Instead, he counted the minutes in his head. Maybe he was a little fast, maybe he wasn’t. He waited for the first explosion. The moment Resistance HQ was done for.

One hundred thirty-two seconds after he reached the eight minute mark, and the tunnels rumbled. Eighty-one seconds by his count after that, the passageway opened up. Her face lit up in a green light, Miss Rose pointed to a small, circular platform on the ground, glowing with an energy the hue of summer trees.

“Go,” she said simply, and Fuchsia stepped onto it. In seconds, she was gone.

The tunnel behind him rumbled, and Cliff leaped onto the platform, still as a statue as the green glow encapsulated him and filled his vision. His feet left the platform and suddenly his stomach fell, he had no weight, and then he did and the glow left him but the summer green did not.

Stumbling onto the grass, Cliff looked up and around at the palm trees and boulders before a pink arm hauled him away and further towards the Commander. Everyone was gathered around him, asking questions, but he denied every one.

“We’re waiting until everyone is here,” he said, “Then we’ll start.”

It wasn’t too long. Maybe seven minutes. Maybe five. Vector was last, a smug grin on his face.

“No one’s gonna use that teleporter now!” he announced, and Knuckles smirked back at him.

“Right,” he said with a nod. “Let’s get started! Alright everyone, welcome...to Angel Island...”

Chapter Text

They existed in a world of gray, washed out colors in a timeworn city. Cherished landmarks fallen into disrepair, bleached by the sun, rotted in the public’s periphery. The faded vibrancy of neon signs welcomed people through cloudy windows. Buildings that had once stretched towards the heavens were leveled, the foundations paved over to overwrite man’s hubris.

Ambitions would not be tolerated. They were condemned, reviled, for they had ruined mankind. Those who held even a spark were ground down or put in shackles.

Like himself.

One in a moving line of captives, he kept a slow, easy pace. The Walk of the Dead was a spectacle and all were encouraged to watch, either at home or from the windows and doors of their houses. Never up close. Those who marched could damn them all, they said. Throw society into the Blackout Era again, and bring hell on Earth.

He knew one day he might march as a Despised, his feats uncovered and burned, his life taken away for daring to think for himself. He just never imagined it would happen so soon.

He caught the movement of a curtain behind a cloudy window. They had called him contagious. Maybe if he spat in the guard’s face, they would catch his disease.

It would do the drone some good, if they got away in time.

A jerk of his shackles. He peeked around the woman in front of him, and found another guard wielding a baton. The grey garbed prisoner near them shrugged a shoulder, got back in line, and stumbled forward. The pace increased, just the slightest bit. There was a schedule to keep.

The sun moved overhead, beating down harsh on tan skin. The beige buildings were like a blur to him, each one as identical as the next. Cheap to build, cheap to maintain. No personality.

Finally, they came to Gallow’s Archway. There was once a grand library there, someone had said. He couldn’t remember who. Just an old woman who would pop up from time to time.

Now days there was a foreboding scaffolding with a hangman’s noose attached, right in the center of a bland, gray square. Cameramen were set up at different angles along the border. One had even brought a stool, and was practically melded to the viewport of his equipment.

Last time he’d seen the elder was a few months back. Hopefully she wasn’t anywhere in the line behind him.

A man with a long white beard in formal robes stepped forward to the edge of the scaffolding. His name was Gol-something or other. He gestured grandly for the audience at home.

“Citizens of New Life City!” he announced. “Lend me your ears so your hearts may rest! Last night our finest officers raided a bunker” - a basement- “on the edge of the city. Inside they found propaganda, illicit literature, and dangerous weaponry.” Doodles of flowers and people, their collective writing for the month, and Lisa’s baseball bat. “Even worse, there was a hive of the Despised .” The man spat the word as if it had personally offended him, his mother, and his heritage. “Those you see before now you were apprehended, and shall now be brought to justice!”  He was certain that kid two bodies up had been missing for two and a half weeks. Golem held his hands up. “Turn from avarice! Uphold justice!”

Then the head of the line had the chain slither from his manacles and was herded up the stairs.

He knew how it would go from there as Golosh read from a piece of paper. Their crimes, actual or not, would be rattled off for a minute. Then the government’s slogan would be announced as proudly as a peacock would show its feathers, and the lever would be pulled.

The names were in alphabetical order. Bureaucracy wouldn’t allow anything less organized.

Alfred, Awilda, Carl, Carmina, Daniel, Derick, Edward, another Edward, and on and on it went with the line dwindling minute by minute. People walked up as corpses below were dragged away by hazmat teams.

Some tried running or screaming. Others talked over Goliard, giving their best rhymes or stories or characters or ideas. They stopped once the guards started removing tongues. A few still tried despite the threat, slinging insults before the noose grew taut.

The chain’s slack grew so long at one point that bolt cutters had to be located. The guards were spending a half minute feeding the chain through a loop in the cuffs, and the whole time Goldfish was left posing before the cameras.

Quietly, he could hear something further behind him. He couldn’t tell what. A single curse echoed down the street. A minute later some of the guards moved, walking past him.

“Izzy.”

He didn’t smirk. He didn’t twitch. He consciously kept from showing any sign of recognition to the rowdy voice.

Then, he was called.

“Harold.”

No last name. The Despised had no right to them.

The chain, shorter now, slipped between his cuffs. In defiance of the warm weather, cold sweat clung to his skin as he was led up the rickety stairway. Fear and fury welled up as they had the night before. He was going to die. His crimes were negligible, harmless, but the government couldn’t admit it. Wouldn’t. To say that stories and dreams of anything outside of everyday life were acceptable would destroy their base of power.

And so he would die. Because paranoia and lies simply would not.

A new noose was being hung by the time he got to the top. The last one had snapped. The cheapskates running the city couldn’t be bothered to get anything sturdier for a line of televised executions, but could devote manpower towards stalking people at all hours of the day and setting up a citywide speaker system.

He took the chance to glance at the line of the people below him. Forty, fifty people easily. Some must have been younger than himself. Not even adults.

How long had they all been imprisoned for this moment?

“Harold!” Golfer bellowed. The new noose was placed over his neck. “Your crimes are inexcusable! Possessing propaganda! Intention to spread propaganda! Aiding and abetting criminals!” Harold clasped his hands and tapped his thumbs together. There was no outward rhythm to it. No sense. So, much like a man lying on the sidewalk, it was ignored by onlookers.

“-illicit literature, writing without a permit, destruction of property, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer of the law-”

Harold gave Gopher ten more seconds to get through the drummed up list of charges. It took fifteen. Well he had punched that one guy in the nose. Still hadn’t done as much damage as Lisa though. Bless that woman and her brass knuckles.

When the robed rattler was done, Harold looked up. “Got a cigarette?” he asked. Goldenrod scrunched his nose up like he had gotten a whiff of month old rotten eggs and waved a hand at the hooded executioner.

A roar of gunfire arose from the city.

Harold smiled, the world caught fire, and he plummeted.

Chapter Text

Sans had never been one to put much stock in prophecies. The hope-laden and despairing conjectures of the future were hollow reassurances at best and empty promises at worst.

Countless years back, a semblance of hope was welcomed rather than none. Though as the centuries wore on, the words largely lost their influence. The anticipation for a brighter future dimmed. Monsters fell down.

And as he stepped through Waterfall, they continued to fall, struck down by a human child and their chosen weapon. Behind him, the flowers echoed the cries of the dusted. Pleas cut short. Gurgling roars. A defiant stand ending in warped laughter. Distantly, he realized that there could be worse than a dead prophecy.

It could come true.

And by his word he was bound from interfering. Even if the old lady didn’t answer anymore, his promise still held.

Even without his brother, his promise still held.

Integrity was as part of his SOUL as LOVE was the human’s, though more intrinsically woven throughout his being in a way violence could not. To revoke a promise would not only take an immense effort of will, but would irreparably damage his SOUL. With his minuscule HP, reneging on his word would mean the end of him.

Unfortunately, that took more effort than he was wiling to expend.

Too tired to care, and steeped in grief and fury, he followed and watched, bearing the burden of counting the dusted and committing them to memory. Monsters fled when they could, the slower ones falling victim to the implacable human. Just as in Snowdin, just as in Waterfall, they methodically hunted down stragglers until only the sounds of machinery and bubbling lava could be heard.

Throughout it all they smiled, bright and static. Dust stuck to their clothes and hair, coating the book clutched in their hands. An angel of death manifest.

Through Hotland and the Core they went, leaving only lasting silence in their wake. The last of them, Mettaton, stood as the last frail bastion for monster-kind.

And exploded.

Welp, Sans considered grimly, that was it. That was the final heavy hitter before Asgore. The human’s LOVE was enough to kill the king in one flick.

Enough to end everything.

Sans walked through the CORE and stepped into the golden hallway. Ready or not, like it or not, he had a human to stop.

A commitment and SOUL to break in half.

Chapter Text

A king and a common man vying for a princess’s affection, one saving her from the clutches of the other. It was a tale told repeatedly throughout the years, details forgotten or embellished, but it hardly mattered. The king would strike again before anybody knew it, beginning a new tale with a familiar core but the twists and turns always changed. Sometimes travelers or merchants gossiped about the hero’s actions, adding bits and pieces to the rumors and truths that swept through the kingdom.

If there was any singular truth it was thus: she would come back. She always came back. It was a statement made in faith that was absolute. The sun would rise. Goombas had no arms. Their hero would bring their princess back.

It was hard to believe that their ruler’s return had once been uncertain at best. Yet, as the kidnappings persisted, and the man continued to prevail, the uncertainty vanished. More and more the man was relied upon, a rival of the fierce and horrible beast from the darker lands of heat and ash.

It, too, became an almost unnatural truth. Just as the sun would rise, the king would plot to take their fair princess away.

They could never tell when, and she refused to make her kingdom into a militaristic zone, so in peace they all lived until she was inevitably stolen away.

Yet, some days it was almost too casual with how the king spoke. Rumors flew about how the horrible king teamed up with his longtime rival, but it was always taken as nonsense. The brute crashed parties and may have been invited to kart races, but that was the princess’s kindness shining through. As often as she was locked away, and as sharp as her reprimandings towards the beast could be, she could not shut her heart away. She was far from callous, and it showed in her forgiveness towards the king’s children.

There would come a day where one or the other was too old, or of failing health, to make the journey across the kingdoms. Perhaps then the power and tenacity that kept the rivalry alive would dwindle. Until then, however, the people lived. The people wished.

And the Stars heard them.

Chapter Text

I stood on the shore of another world, basking in the light of dusk. The waves gently lapped at the sands, and the winds occasionally picked up enough to make my cape flap. Adrenaline had long left me, leaving aching muscles and a deep weariness.

All around my allies and friends chatted. Some were louder than others, overjoyed at being in one piece. Ecstatic that for all the chaos and terror, we had made it. Even more, the black domes that had dotted the land had shrunken and vanished, as verified when I took a card ride up into the sky.

I still couldn’t shake the image of the giant ‘X’ in the sky out of my head. How would I contact the Stars now? What would happen to the Ancients?

It couldn’t have been us, so someone else had won the battle for us. Won what was practically a war where we hadn’t been able to.

For the first time in over a day there was relief. Some were a little confused, others were worried still that there might be more to this all. But overall they were glad.

Me? Oh, I had been happy at first as well. I was ready to jump for joy and start celebrating.

Then it felt like something shattered and I remembered.

There was so much wrong between my old memories and my current ones. So many lies and omissions. I didn’t fight or do recon for a living. I hadn’t been here for just a month. I was not an emissary for the Stars.

I was a regular person from Earth who had had their memories sealed off for no good reason.

Now I had them all back. Every last happy and horrifying memory had returned. Anger ruled me, and I wasn’t about to shove it down.

I crossed one arm over my chest and gripped the armlet hidden under my sleeve. I was done being toyed with. No longer would I just be a source of entertainment for arrogant pricks who thought trauma and terror were sources of fun.

I turned on my heel, cape flaring out behind me, and strode away from the group. We were done. The danger had passed. But I had one last objective on my mind.

Somewhere on this island my captor was waiting. And we were going to have a little chat.

Chapter Text

“Dr. Ryan Hibitson, the greatest mind of his generation. Eighty-three years old, developed dimentia at seventy. Has been in home care for the past ten years until he was entrusted into our care by his grandson in return for the lion’s share of the profits. Has since been droned to be a non-problem. Time of death was two-sixteen AM this morning.” Jonathan Gracy glanced up from the paper, hazel eyes peering over his glasses. His perfectly styled grey hair did nothing to obscure his piercing gaze. “So why, Mr. Swans, is his crystal not already up for bidding?”

Tim Swans adjusted his glasses, more out of a need to occupy his hand than anything. His white coat was as neat as he could make it on such short notice, and he dared not show any overt signs of his distress. “W-well you see, sir, we were analyzing the crystal f-for specific points of enhancement, a-as we always do. Dr. Hibitson had many strands of knowledge, a-as expected. Nuclear power, natural power, biological warfare, chemical warfare, psychological expertise, and breakthrough physics! But...”

“But...” Jonathan let the word hang dangerously.

Tim swallowed. He knew how the extraction pods worked and had been working on plans for an improved design. That would not matter if his boss was not pleased. “Well you see, sir,” he said, fingers digging into his thighs beneath his coat, “it seems that Dr. Hibitson had some...eccentric qualities. We attempted to isolate them, but they were interwoven with various other mana strands. To purge them would purge whole sections of the doctor’s knowledge.”

Jonathan grimaced. “And what sort of...qualities would these be?”

Tim cleared his throat and opened the folder in his lap. To most, the papers resting inside would appear to be the crayon scribblings of a child. Jagged colors rode over each other with seemingly no reasoning. To an expert mana observer, however, it was more than just chaos. It was knowledge strands broken down into a more presentable 2D form. Every color represented a different aspect of a person’s life, every color divided between the creative purple and logical yellow; the focused and casual; language and numbers; words and rhythms; and on and on it went until the strands became clear mana tones which formed memory.

On paper the tones lacked dimension. However, for this demonstration Tim needn’t a program. The chaos of the tones winding around one another was enough.

Jonathan took the proffered paper and leaned back in his seat.

“This is as clear as we can separate Dr. Hibitson’s calculations from...the first of our...unexpected hurdles.” Tim winced. He had been chosen to confront their boss because he had a degree in English. There was only so much words could soften the impact of their discovery, though.

Jonathan did not bother to peer up. “And that would be…?”

The balding scientist swallowed. Here went everything. “It appears that Dr. Hibitson had a few...hobbies outside of the workplace. The darker brownish-orange came from a...perverse sense of creativity combined with running numbers on the relationships of people. The mana tone imagery suggested that he created odd images, then...posted them on public message boards.” He squeezed his thighs harder. “He would then track the responses. The archival team has confirmed that certain...popular images had been found on his personal computer well before their debut date online.”

Jonathan Gracy slowly laid down the paper, and looked at the scientist from over his lenses. “Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Hibitson, the most esteemed man to have ever walked out of the doors of Harvard, spent his spare time making...memes?”

“I’m afraid so, sir.” Tim took a breath, and forged onwards. The worst was over. “There’s more. One of the images retrieved was the infamous ticking clock mirage.” His boss’s eyes bulged. “I’m sorry to say that Witman had to be decommissioned.”

Jonathan shook his head, dazed. “By the fragments…” Tim wisely decided to remain quiet as his boss digested that bombshell. The ticking clock mirage had been a controversial issue decades back. Those who stared at it for too long claimed they were inspired to create. Unfortunately, that usually meant shutting themselves up for days at a time, making clocks from whatever materials they had on hand. Including their hands. Still, no one had been able to discover why so many people had been taken by the same fugue, and the image had been banned from every image board imaginable shortly thereafter.

The clock ticking behind his boss was beginning to get on his nerves.

Finally, Jonathan’s eyes gained a steely glint to them. He stared Tim straight on. “Purge the crystal,” he ordered. “Tell the bidders that his mind was too strong and resisted treatment. That should quell any concerns.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re dismissed.”

Relief swept through him. “Thank you, sir,” he said, with a slight smile. He rose to his feet, and turned to leave.

“Oh, and Swans?”

Teeth grit, the man looked back and replied evenly, “Yes, sir?”

Jonathan folded his hands over the mana tones paper on his desk. If he was still disturbed by what he learned, he hid it well. “Were there any who objected to you telling me about this?” he asked.

Swans’ blood froze. I did. But he dared not say it. Instead, he steeled himself for a force reduction, and answered, “...Yes, sir.”

His boss nodded decisively. “Get me their names by the end of your shift, won’t you?” It was a demand, not a request.

Tim nodded stiffly, and with another affirmation, left Gracy’s office.

He was out of the lion’s den, but knew he would be back in soon enough.

After all, the head of his department was going to need a replacement.

Chapter Text

Most people only lived one life. It would wind and turn through highs and lows, through exciting moments and depressing times. Some were cut short. Others made it until their body eventually gave out.

Shadow the Hedgehog, however, had experienced three.

His first was aboard the space colony ARK. He knew little of that time, what snatches of memory he could remember scattered at best. It was a time of peace and hope, shattered by the fears of humans and deaths of innocents.

His second was as a revenge-fueled fool. His fragmented memories gave nothing but pain, and he intended to inflict the same on the people of Earth. If it were not for Amy Rose’s words triggering another lost memory, he surely would have carried through with his plans. At the end he was content, having kept his word to his one and only friend.

His third was worse than the second. The only remnant of his previous lives was Maria Robotnik’s final moment etched into his brain, and nothing more. With no idea on where to go, he had searched high and low unknowingly with a former ally and with a discarded threat. He traveled with them until Neo Metal Sonic’s defeat, then wandered the world by himself for answers. Any answer.

That life ended when he cast aside his past in favor of living in the present. He was tired of searching for who he was and did not care for deceivers or the recordings of a man long dead.

His fourth life was his current one, and he did not intend on letting go of it. Employed by the Guardian Units of Nations along with Rouge, they took the hard jobs, cornering dangerous elements to protect the world. No more guns, no more casualties. Just his power and her skills.

Which was why he was in an alleyway at two in the morning in a small country, eleven miles from the isolated compound of a would-be Eggman. Shadow had scoffed at the name in the debriefing. Dr. E. Vile, very creative. The man was reportedly working on a biological weapon of some sort. Two days before he had hacked into G.U.N. HQ and sent an ultimatum: surrender to his insane demands within seventy-two hours or his creation would be unleashed.

G.U.N. did not negotiate.

G.U.N. dispatched.

There was a click in his ear.

“This is Rouge. I’ve disabled the security system. Two minutes until it comes back online. Over.”

“Roger that. Over,” he replied, and in a blink, he was gone.

A minute and a half later, the compound and disgustingly sloppy bio weapons went up in a blaze of high grade explosives.

The sight was gratifying.

Not that Dr. “Vile” agreed, but neither of them heard him through his gag.

Rouge smiled at him. "Oh, don't worry. We already have a place all set up for you. A nice cozy cell on New Prison Island. Aren't we thoughtful?"

That only made the frizzy haired man scream louder.

Shadow rolled his eyes. He knew better than to involve himself in his partner's games. "We're done here," he stated with finality. He raised a hand and pressed a button on the device in his ear. "This is Shadow. The target has been captured and the facility has been cleared. Over."

"Roger that. Pick up inbound." The man rattled off directions. "Estimated t-o-a is thirteen minutes. Over."

"Roger. Over."

Against the amateur villain’s complaints, Shadow bent down and slung him over a shoulder like a bag of squirming potatoes. Then he placed one hand on Rouge’s shoulder, and between one moment and the next, they were gone.

Chapter Text

In the end, he was traitor. No matter what his past deeds, he ultimately turned his back on all of us. Plenty of people have made excuses and come up with reasons for his actions, but none of it matters. Our hero is gone and Eggman rules the world.

Silver tilted his head back against the beaten up old sofa, head whirling. For the better part of the last hour he had gone through the papers detailing the complexities of the enigmatic Shadow the Hedgehog. Villain or hero, the self-proclaimed ultimate life form couldn’t seem to make up his mind. At one point in time he was the catalyst for the end of the world, then sacrificed himself to stop it. He helped turned back an alien invasion, was hired by the Guardian Units of Nations, then suddenly turned around and beat a former ally into the ground.

Once again the catalyst for the end.

The hedgehog was a mess. Yet despite the atrocities committed, Silver couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“Ergh.” Silver leaned forward again, holding a hand to his head. Feeling sorry? For him?! He was part of the problem!

And had also lost his entire family and had recorded memory loss.

Silver threw his hands up in the air and got up. Blaze was fast asleep already on the other side of the bunker’s divider, the quiet hum of an air filter nothing more than comfortable background noise. A cyan glow encapsulated his body, and he lifted off the ground. Blaze was silent on her feet when need be, but his shoes echoed loudly in the cramped space.

The various plants scattered in every nook and cranny, and hanging from the dull metal ceiling had been watered already. The lights were all working, and the piles of books weren’t in any danger of tipping over again.

Rubbing his head, Silver hovered over to a hatch in one corner. Carefully, he eased it open to a stream of running water. Cyan lit up in the darkened water, and up came a rectangular metal case. He let the lid click back into place, then the two pieces of the casing twisted, and came apart.

A rarity lay inside: diced vegetables. What few could be grown underground had adapted since Eggman’s takeover. Still, it took time for them to grow, even in an ideal environment.

They were leftovers from yesterday, and better than oats and seeds.

He ate quickly, eyeing the documents Blaze had found. A traitor with amnesia who worked for the very forces that destroyed his life decades before. Silver winced, and tried to stop thinking. The whole matter was more confusing than figuring out where the underground stream came from.

Part of him wanted to believe it was another case of memory loss. That Shadow hadn’t willingly joined the bad guys, and that all the time spent helping the world had been genuine.

But it still didn’t explain how the black hedgehog was still sighted on the surface now and again.

The main forces of the Eggman Empire never tired. Never aged. They only grew in variety.

Finished with his dinner, Silver sat the container halves down and floated over to his own bed, a cot with layers of blankets. He snuggled into them, then promptly made himself into a burrito.

Sleep did not come quickly. Try as he might to put the life and legend of Shadow out of his mind, it kept him awake until hours later, what ifs and reality dancing in his head.

Chapter Text

Her last words said, Navi slowly flew away from her friend, inch by painstaking inch, foot by foot, a farewell prolonged by her spiraling ascent.

From the moment they had learned of Link’s heritage, she had known this day would come. The dread had eaten away at her first, an awful thing that left her hollow inside. Her light hid her face, keeping Link oblivious to her turmoil.

She was a guide from the Great Deku Tree. She had a duty to aid Link in saving Hyrule. Yet, the sooner the country was saved, the sooner their journey ended.

The sooner the boy would be without a fairy again.

Heart and mind burdened, she pushed away the dread every day that she could, focusing on the journey, on where they needed to head to next. Dancing in the air, she would nudge him, reminding him where to go or of important clues they had picked up. Sometimes he listened. Sometimes he gave her a flat look that said he knew and he would get to it.

He was such a child; pure of heart, willing to help, and a rebellious streak the size of Castle Town.

If Link wanted to fish, or jump into holes, or chase after big poes for a weirdo in a cloak, he was free to.

Some part deep down wished that they could go back. That she could be at her friend’s side when he warned the princess, and then go do fun things, like play a game in the town, or borrow those masks, or play hide and seek, or...

Or anything. Or nothing. As long as they were together.

But she couldn’t.

It was obvious in hindsight why he hadn’t had a fairy in all the time he had lived in the forest. He wore the clothing, lived in the village, yet he grew. He grew from a babe to to child.

He wasn’t a Kokiri.

And only Kokiri could have fairies, after all.

The power of love wasn’t an unconquerable force. There were laws and rules of nature that she had to abide by.

Even if it tore her insides to fairy dust

Navi rose to the high window in the room of the Pedestal of Time, and looked away.

It was time she returned to where all fairies went when they lacked power or purpose.

Chapter Text

Creeping through

The caverns dark

You will not be lonely.

 

Safe with sight

I give you here

Friend, one and only.

 

Knight, you came into his store

Gave me hope, now I adore

The freedom and world you see

My dream's coming true, finally.

 

Your little light.

Your little friend.

See the dangers

Before your end

I’ll keep the shadows away

In this kingdom of decay

And be here as we descend.

 

What is that chittering,

Groaning, and bickering?

I can’t see that far, Knight

But I know it'll be 'right

With your nail glimmering

And your soul shimmering

Like the far off moonlight.

 

Whatever comes our way

I know you will not be prey

For the dangers that lurk

On my edge, in the murk

Because you're prepared.

Knight, none will ensnare

or stomp or smash you

For your aim is true...

 

Your little light

Your little friend

We'll see dangers

Before our end

As I show you what hides!

I'm fire-light guard and guide!

Hallownest's husk, we descend.

Chapter Text

Godzilla strode down a street or two in Tokyo. It had been a hard week fighting other monsters, and at last he had some time to himself to see the sights.

A number of buildings were still destroyed, but he was adamant not to let that tiny detail get him down.

Godzilla was ready to take on the town. His suit was pressed, his top hat tilted just so in a dapper manner, and his shoes shined in the remained streetlights.

Oh yes, he was in top form! The humans below were so overcome by his charm that they fell over in droves as he made his way through the city. Godzilla made sure to tip his hat at each of them.

“Good evening,” he said. Or he tried to. All that came out of him were roars. When there was room, he bowed. The humans here bowed to each other constantly every day. He had to be polite.

Godzilla was a little concerned when the humans began vomiting. Then he heard the telltale sound of sirens in the distance. He listened for a moment, and when he was sure it was not the siren for “giant monster incoming”, he continued on with his night.

He tipped his hat to a lady on the ground. She vomited, too. Godzilla placed his hat back on his head just so, and tsked. These humans, always becoming sick. Maybe they should have stayed at home.

Godzilla graciously gave the coming siren a wide berth. If someone needed help, he was not about to block it. He was a gentle-lizard and doing such a thing would be unbecoming of him.

As he went on his way and the humans swooned before him, he softly roared a jaunty little tune. Tokyo was such a nice little place. He would have to do this more often!

Chapter Text

Shadows were never meant to be alive. They followed you, leaning away from light, wavering in silence. They stretched and shortened, delighting children as they ran around lumaposts. So deep underground, it was easy to overlook the silhouettes. Their only real use was in being aesthetically pleasing, contrasting colors in the gardens and Greenpath.

Her father, however, saw the darkness and had it sculpted. The most brilliant of minds of Hallownest put their heads together and had constructed a way produce something from nothing. Kingsmoulds and wingmoulds, defenders of the White Palace, loyal to the end, but ultimately lifeless. They did their jobs without fuss or complaints, without goals or hopes or free will. And that was all.

And when Hallownest was in peril, he turned again to the shadows. The antithesis to the source of the Infection. The perfect defense; the perfect savior.

But nothing could ever be so simple.

She didn’t know how many had been created, all the little shadows turned ghosts that were tossed away before the one her father deemed “pure”, but as far as Hornet was concerned there had been far too many. Life had been given, then that life was carelessly thrown into the Abyss, where the Void coalesced. Broken little pieces of Void, without even a duty. Without a voice or a mind.

She couldn’t stop to pity them, however. Not when her kingdom was once again falling to the Infection years after the sealing of the Hollow Knight. The gates to the city had been sealed even before the Vessel's imposed sacrifice, as had the Stag Stations and the entryway to the Royal Waterways. All, infected or otherwise, were sentenced to a grand prison of spires and eternal rain for fear of maddened bugs who would storm through the Fungal Wastes or other routes in a frenzy to kill all within. She herself had shut as many doors as possible leading to the surface, ensuring that travel would be difficult for any who dared to venture down. A last precaution as the lift to Crystal Peak had been locked in place high above Dirtmouth, and all of the tram tickets and passes that the king had sent out had long been confiscated or destroyed by citizens as their worth became meaningless in the plague-ridden Hallownest. Still, she managed to find some lying around and either burned them or let them drift into acid for good measure.

Foreign bugs did occasionally come down, still. Those she could not scare off died to the creatures and reanimated corpses below. Then she would reset the doors and make her rounds. She had attempted evacuating some of the native bugs, but they would not budge from where they were. They were either content or, like the Nail Masters, had not only fortified their skills, but their minds as well. They would not be taken easily.

But they could be taken, all of them. Not that she could do anything about it. The heart of the Infection was sealed away, albeit imperfectly, and she had no desire to wake the Dreamers. Even if she did, even if there was another of the Void to replace the Hollow Knight, she could do nothing but put the kingdom’s future on another’s shoulders.

Just as her father had.

The thought galled her. Not that she had much of a choice. The Black Egg would kill her before she could do so much as make a scratch.

All she could do was wait and watch as the corpse of her birth place rotted away.

Wait, and hoped for something to change.

Chapter Text

It was a dull, dreary morning when the circus arrived in Brockton Bay. There were no posters, no fanfare, no parade of carriages; no warning. The crimson tents were simply there between one heartbeat and the next in the empty parking lot of a long abandoned super store. The slightly off-key sounds of worn and cranky woodwinds and a well kept accordion echoed to the street, inviting passersby to step through the sunken, ghoulish faces of the tormented and admire the acts within. Smaller acts in smaller tents, each unique in their own right, and of course, the main attraction in the largest, spanning nearly the entire length of the lot. All grouped tightly together, the tents faced one specific spot on the sidewalk where one might wonder if they heard a wail from them after all.

Half-masked, half-mad, or perhaps a demonstration of skill. It was a gamble what one might find in such a place.

If one were any but the Troupe Master, of course.

Cloak wrapped around herself and masked minions hopping about the air and ground like children, Taylor Hebert breathed in and out, heart hammering, and Heart gently pulsing. All her work carefully crafted over months of effort and this was the result: a circus, her circus, where people could take a moment from the bland terror and crushing reality of the Bay, and experience a different sort of danger with no consequences.

It was a twisted way of thinking, she would admit, but with power like her own she could not be a hero in the light of day. The darkness held her, draped around her shoulders like a shawl, stronger in the absence of the sun or in the shadows cast by buildings. In the harsh sunlight, however, her power waned, her exposed skin burned, and her eyes ached.

The scarlet fires consumed all living in their path, but she refused to sink so low as to be a murderer, or to torment others with a lick of the flames she commanded. She was not a bully, and she never would be.

She had burned warehouses of drugs and guns. Flicked a spark of flame at muggers and gang members, blocking their ways with sudden pillars that shot into the sky and lasted until authorities arrived. Sent spikes of her flowing cloak into the earth and out further away to box in getaway vehicles.

It had always been a struggle to balance might, grace, and restraint, but she had done it. She was better.

This, however, was outside of her comfort zone. The stark imagery of the tent entryways, the eerie music, the grand house with her at the center. It was all so different, designed to put all eyes on her and her flame-born minions, and yet it felt so right.

As it should, whispered a voice, coiling around her head in soothing heat. They will come. They will see.

Troupe Master Flaresight opened her eyes, the color and whites turned the color as the fire that sat burning inside her.

“Firelings,” she said in a rasp, calmly. Some of the taller beings floating above came down, maroon bodysuits wiggling as they crowded around her. Taylor rose a black-clad arm and pointed to several. “You three,” she began. “Come back as soon as you’re done, won’t you?” The masked creatures nodded, then spun in a tight circle, chortling to themselves as they faded from sight. Glancing at the rest, Taylor sighed. “As for the rest of you, please behave this time. I would hate to cancel the show just because one fireling couldn’t sit still or follow the act.” There were rapid nods from all, eager to get started, eager to play. “Good, good. The barrier generator should be operating at full capacity so no stray fireballs will land on anyone.” For a moment she glared. The firelings did not stop snickering. “This is not a free pass to go aiming for the heads of innocents,” she said, her rasp turning into more of a hiss. “If you must cause panic and mayhem, wait for your act. When my dance partner arrives you will have more freedom to test them, but until then” - her eyes blazed briefly from behind her mask – “behave.”

The firelings kept giggling.

Sagging, Taylor sighed, her eyes dimming to a normal level. So much for being a so-called “monarch of nightmares”. She could make her tormentors paranoid, but her best glare couldn’t even unsettle her minions.

Which was more frightening: the nightmare or the unruffled?

Ah, well, it wouldn’t matter. Cloak wrapped around her again, Taylor turned from the entryway and towards the back end.

Someone was coming.

The firelings dispersed.

Taylor disappeared in a whirl of flame.

Let the show begin.

Chapter Text

In the depths of dream, beyond fabrication, beyond illumination, lies the deepest darkness, purest black. In gaps it hides, ‘tween forgiving and reliving, creeping through cracks and burrowing deep, bursting forth, an adroit parasite, an expert exploiter, in moments of weakness.

Bursts of scarlet, blossoms of defeat, clinging to mind with insufferable heat. Madness then, to think it passing when nightmares trespassing in dreamscapes do not cease.

Madness then, to believe the threads of scarlet and searing flames that call, promising to catch you if you fall, only to awaken and see a deed to be done, a wheel to be spun with burning fate in one’s hands. Who could ever understand the compulsions, the convulsions, the will and need of impulsion to create and desecrate to one’s last breath. And even with death looming, and scarlet fire blooming behind blinded eyes, hands toil and scar, carapace wears and char, and they still agonize over every last detail.

Lest seen and known, the task won’t fail as they alone sacrifice all to be precise in the machinations of the nightmare’s foundation. And the reward for such dedication is a pulsation of affirmation, acceptation of reservation and inviting the soul to attend their realm and ascend to another plane while the body remains whole, intact in a hole, awaiting the time when the lantern ignites, in a grim, quiet night.

Then, the roads shall open; they will travel at lantern’s call, to consume the flames of a kingdom’s fall.

Chapter Text

Long lasting impacts were seldom remembered clearly in history. Victors and rulers carried on their truths, tales and songs trailing after, spun and stretched until the original account was a dried husk of a core. An unappetizing story that all had tried at least once, then heard and reheard it from friends, neighbors, family until the vaguest of idea of the record could be called upon at any time. Time worn words floated from memory to memory until tales became legends became myths, and truths were ignored as fiction or make believe.

Ghost stories in the dark to scare children into obedience and safety. Remains of a war or tragedy reduced to thorned words, malleable, told and retold. An eyeless thief who stole wandering girls away from their villages in the dead of night. Boorish demons that lurked beyond the comforting walls, dark creatures that wouldn’t hesitate to slay a grown man. Living shadows that stalked the wicked and took them when their hearts matched the waiting darkness. A towering demon that a princess and brave knight rose up against and cast into the underworld.

A wicked wind that would whisk away the fairest of maidens.

Vaati rubbed his face, then looked down at the tome again, the words less blurry. He couldn’t understand it. Of all the progress he had witnessed, of all the horrors he knew must have happened in the past, not one book told him what he knew to be fact. The closest he had come to was a book of legends regarded as mere fiction when he more than anyone else alive knew how true at least a handful of them were. Time and human memory twisted reality until the terrors of the past were nothing more than nightmares.

There was a knock at his window.

Vaati raised his head, already expecting the blonde hair and mischievous blue eyes staring in. There was an “adventure” planned, no doubt. The smile on his face said as much.

He rose from his chair and Link – Lin rushed to the back end of the house. Vaati couldn’t help but smirk. Ignorant of the past and uninterested in the future, the other chosen embraced the present world and all its wonders.

To be so naive, again. It would be a blessing.

In a matter of minutes, Vaati had his cloak, bag, and boots on, with a map tucked into one. A quick word to Ezelo about stretching his legs, and he was out the door and in the back.

“Hello, Lin,” he greeted. “Did you find another grotto?”

His friend grinned, shaking his head. “Not today, but I did find something you’re going to like.”

Vaati perked up. A rarity if he ever heard one. “Oh? Really now?”

Lin nodded. “Come on – it won’t take long,” he said, and started into the woods behind Vaati’s home.

Vaati blinked then followed after at a brisk pace. “Won’t take – Lin where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

Vaati raised an eyebrow, but kept his concerns to himself. He and Lin had gone out of town enough times in the past that voicing them would be redundant. Lin knew of the curfew Ezelo set and how long it would take to walk to wherever he found and back without issue. A few hours was normal.

Something about Lin’s tone, however, made Vaati think it was going to be another trek like the one to the Silent Princess’s cave.

As they left the town behind, crossed on and off the usual beaten path, and the sun moved slowly across the sky, he decided that, yes, Lin had found some odd place further away from home than normal. Appropriately, his friend had also packed enough food and water to last the trip. He was excitable, not stupid.

More than once, Vaati found himself imagining Lin in other colors than blue and brown. A legendary sword strapped to his back and a shield on top of that, a holy symbol emblazoned upon it. He could imagine that reality had come and rudely awakened Lin as well, but they were still able to do this. To talk and laugh and just walk on and on to some mysterious location until his feet were aching. Then without any warning, Lin would smile and say-

“We’re here!”

Vaati nearly stumbled over his feet, but caught himself, then lifted his eyes up. A clearing in some forest, far north of the castle if he wasn’t mistaken. Filled with tall grass and what looked like the ruins of a small structure, whatever had been here had ultimately been reclaimed by nature. A piece of history broken down and obscured.

Lin was quiet while Vaati took it in. Here there were two short columns swathed in vines, their positions implying two more had once been there. One at the very least. Cracked stone and broken walls, designs mostly worn away with age.

Something had been here, he knew. Something important.

The curse gave him back memories, but none from before his mind was a tangled mess. Something from then, perhaps?

Lin began telling him, quietly, as if something there were watching, how he came to find the ruins. His first impressions, the feelings he got upon finding it. Vaati listened half-heartedly, trying to piece the broken pieces together. Ruins in a grove. Hylian cut stone. Pillars that had once stood taller.

He knew he was missing something, he knew it, but the answer remained out of his reach. No matter how long he dwelt upon it, the long forgotten remains from ages past haunted his mind, and didn’t stop even after they had left the forest far behind.

Chapter Text

The fury of the Old Light burned without peer. It was not enough to suffer the indignation of another Higher Being encroaching on her territory. It was not enough that her own followers, born of her Light, had turned their backs on her in favor of a mere Wyrm. It was not enough that she had been sealed away, forgotten by those she had once united. Her expansive territory was defiled – was still being defiled – with unnatural structures built in the caverns below. The Pale One even had the gall to build his home down there, further below, near the pit of her ancient foe.

Though her existence was chained to dreams, she was still aware of what occurred in the physical. Her Light still yet lingered in the crystals, and through them she listened.

And whispered.

Bugs were simple creatures. Much simpler than her beautiful, traitorous moths. They were fueled by basic desires, much like the Pale One. It was child’s play, then, to promise the miners their greatest desires. Companionship. Praise. And above all: riches.

By stroke of fortune or fate, the Wyrm’s design for his precious kingdom made such a frivolous thing necessary. Wealth allowed the lowly bugs to climb their pitiful social ladders. Food, homes, prestige, honor, importance, recognition. All tied to little bits of fossilized shells.

Thus, she whispered. The bugs came with their tools and machines, and dug out tunnels and placed down tracks. They came with hopes and ambitions, hefting pickaxes to whittle away at the sparkling crystals. The affluent members of the capital were demanding them. Crystals for window panes, for goblets, for chandeliers, for shining pale light through and changing its color.

Wherever the pieces of her power went after they left the caves hardly mattered. Broken into shards and plates, her Light spread in bits and pieces throughout the city of the Pale One’s design, yet another absurd symbol of opulence. However, her power dwindled with the crystal’s size. Near enough to silence her, but she could still listen.

Slowly under her guidance, the crystals were excavated. She murmured approval and suggestions on where the bugs could go next. A little bit higher up, a little further into the mountain; inviting them deeper and deeper into the mines.

They broke through the surface once. There the little bugs built a camp in the freezing cold, so desperate to not leave the mines when their bodies gave up.

Then they broke through again, further on.

COME, COME she called. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. BE AS ONE. ALL ARE ONE.

And they obeyed.

The mining bugs found her crumbling statue, one by one. Not many, but enough. They gazed up at her visage, a Higher Being from a time long passed.

And she was remembered.

The chains on her prison shattered.

She was the world. She was meaning.

And the whole of the Wyrm’s kingdom would know.

She seeped into the dreams of the simple-minded, blinding bright and screeching. Those who fought enraged her, and she pushed her Light through them like a river through a crevice, blinding them with agony enough to throw them from her domain. The bugs grew sick, and she screeched at them while awake. She called through the shards and the panes and the goblets and the chandeliers, and her Light refracted through them and into the bugs in garish garb.

They were intruders, all of them. They followed the Wyrm and desecrated the land under her dominion. She could not strike them down herself, so she sent her Light-infused followers to do so. Larvae and elderly, none would be spared. And then, once they fell, they too would join her.

Her single-minded blazing wrath knew no bounds.

It did not die when the Pale One’s city was sealed.

It did not die as bugs fled and died in droves, and her traitorous tribe fell one by one.

It did not die when she was bound within a Vessel half-made of her ancient enemy.

It did not die as she whittled away at the mind she occupied.

It did not die when the Vessel was foolishly freed and another of her foe came.

But it did die. Extinguished with her life as the Vessel's shade ripped her face open and another lashed at the Essence within her before being dragged into the Void itself.

An immutable rage without satisfaction, silenced by the dark.

Chapter Text

One step forward and the shadows melted away, the silence rent by the grinding of gears echoing in their ears, rhythmic and cacophonous. The roar jarred them, an almost alien sound after traversing the quiet corridors for hours. Most cogs hung far above in the white abyss, so much so that all had to crane their necks to watch the rusted and worn mechanisms turn. The smallest was perhaps the size of an adult man, crowded on all sided by ones the size of a three-story building. The largest gear dwarfed even the mansions in Amberton Hills, being more on par with the grand Holison Castle in the capital.

“What is this?” asked Luke, mouth open in awe. His short sword tilted down in his lax grip.

“It’s some sort of mechanism,” Felna said faintly. Her clawed fingers itched for the tools in her pack. They were too small besides for such a mechanical marvel, and she couldn’t even begin to tell where the gears started turning from, but the urge to tinker with the mechanisms was still there. “Like a clock, only...”

“Made for a giant,” Locke muttered gruffly. He shrugged a shoulder, popping it. His bag was thrice as heavy as the others, and although he was strong, the weight did not do any favors for his joints.

“I don’t hear any ticking,” Luke threw in. His right ear twitched. “Just a bunch of grindy noises.”

Felna shook her head. “The sounds they’re making. It's similar to a clock, but all of this is too old and complex to maintain something such as that. It’s complicated, but it must keep something going...”

“Correct.” All three jerked their heads to one of the lower gears. There were no shadows here, a strange light permeating the strange place, so when the figure stepped out, adorned in a grey fur cloak and a dagger at his side, Felna and Locke shifted into offensive positions, she with her bow and Locke with his ax. A second after, Luke followed, sinking into a defensive stance.

The stranger held himself not like a noble or a merchant, as the fur and long ears would indicate. He stood calmly, his face betraying neither anger nor confusion. He smiled placidly.

“This,” said the stranger, lisping slightly, “is Palluck’s Corridor. I wasn’t expecting you to make it through the labyrinth so soon.”

“Who are you?” demanded Locke, fangs displayed in the opening of his metal horned helmet. "Are you responsible for this wild duck chase?"

The man waved a hand flippantly, then crossed his arms. “A wandering soul in the crossroads. My name has been forgotten to time, so call me whatever you please. Whatever hunt you've been on is no concern of mine.”

Felna forwent the stranger's offer. “That tells us nothing,” she said roughly, keeping the bow string taught, arrow aimed up and to the side. “We have the name of this place, but not its function or why you are here.” Locke hefted his ax, a silent threat to tread carefully.

To his credit, the stranger did not flinch. He continued to look bored, as if he were only speaking with them out of courtesy. “You can do nothing with the information, but denying you would lead to us going in circles.” He shrugged carelessly. “To put it as simply as possible, this place connects worlds. Your world, the worlds beyond, and more all from this space. There were others here before you, and still more before them who created this place to keep in touch. It was put into motion eons ago, yet time is meaningless here. Time is different everywhere; an hour in one world, two in another, centuries apart, yet here time is immeasurable.” He pointed a single finger at the cogs above. “The machine here was made by some of the brightest and insane minds to ever exist. It had several names. I’m partial to Loud and Clunky Waste of Space myself. Sounds accurate.”

Luke snorted. Felna shot him a glare then turned back to the man. “Let’s say I believe you,” she said, skeptical. “Let’s say I believe there are other worlds and this strange place can take us there. What did you mean by we can do nothing with that information?”

“Well it’s quite simple.” And for the first time, the man, impossibly young despite the look of someone who had seen it all, did something that put Felna further on guard.

He grinned mischievously.

“You don’t have any ancestor who came through here. Except you.” He briefly gestured at Luke. The young man blinked, and nearly dropped his short sword.

“What?!”

“You have an ancestor who helped build this place," the stranger replied as patiently as a grade school teacher, "so you’re naturally inclined to hear the Corridor’s turning. That’s how you got here.” He shifted from one foot to the other, putting his weight on it instead. “As such you can listen for the hidden rifts leading to other worlds. You can also use that talent to go home. Your companions won’t be able to see the rifts, but you could still lead them.” The stranger tilted his head until there was an audible crack. “Ah, better.”

“Do you honestly expect us to -”

“I’m bored of this,” he interrupted Locke. He kept speaking, even as he turned and walked back behind the gear. “So long, good-bye, may the wheels of fate spin in your favor, and so forth.”

“Hey!” Felna shouted, and she sprinted towards where the odd man had been.

When she got to the gear, she found only a bit of grey fur.

Luke’s mouth was still hanging open as she came back, cursing under her breath. She hesitated, but eventually asked if he could attempt listening for their home.

For once, he complied happily.

Chapter Text

Memories tangled, criss-crossing threads of voices and feelings, of places and impressions, of screams and laughter, squeezing into his skull in a single moment of chaos.

Then, it passed.

His head still yet throbbed, but it was dull compared to the daggers that had pierced his mind. He could think, if only just.

Lin blinked. Why was he looking at the ceiling of the cave?

“Don’t move.” He froze. He knew that voice. He knew it more than he ever had before. A blur of purple swam into view. Cloth rustled. “I knew coming here was a bad idea. The plateau is off-limits for good reason.” A canteen at his lips; he reached up to take it, and drank. “I can’t believe you convinced me to come up here, and then you had the audacity to climb up to the temple’s roof. The roof, Lin! I could see the sky clear through it! I know you could care less about conventional methods of exploration, but that temple was old when the Sage Princess Ruto was alive. We are three hours from Castle Town, and it’s going to take another hour to – are you even listening to me?”

Lin winced, and leaned forward slightly to gently touch the back of his head. There were fresh bandages there, and he could feel how they wrapped around his forehead. He shook his head slowly, but even that much hurt his eyes to do. Snippets and pieces of speech that he had never heard before, yet had, floated through his mind. Some seemed unimportant, bits of small talk or personal secrets.

Others seemed more prominent.

Calls for his name – his original name. Weak points exposed, hopeful rising voices, terror-laced shouting.

Knowledge of what had been and what would be.

What would be very soon.

Vaalni – Vaati, he realized – tsked. “There’s no getting out of Ezelo’s lecture now,” he muttered, leaning against what Lin guessed was a wall. “We’re safe from the monsters in here, so we can wait until you feel better before continuing.”

Lin – Link hummed in affirmation. It was far from the first time he had been injured while exploring Hyrule, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was, however, one of the few times it had happened while around his friend. Usually he was careful to avoid weakened areas and branches, taking every caution that he could to keep his limbs intact. Falling was inevitable, though, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it so high off the ground.

But...he hadn’t slipped. He remembered that much. Vaalni – Vaati was shouting at him from below, inside the ruins, for being a reckless fool and that Link – Lin was lucky that the winds weren’t pushing him off. Then… Then something had just snapped. Some string of words, or maybe it was the tone of voice his friend had. A fool, the height, the quiet wind. It all clashed in his head, and he knew he must have fallen for the barren temple’s roof slanted downwards, and yet he had only a headache instead of having several broken bones and being in need of stitches.

Or worse.

He suddenly had an idea of why the monsters wouldn’t be bothering them.

A crackle of fire. A slight breeze from outside brought with it the scent of cooked fish and smoke.

Vaalni hated fish with a passion he could never understand – except now he did; Vaati had nearly been eaten by a whale once and from then on declared every fish in the sea to be cursed, and they were, but only to his tastebuds – but knew to always have a proper meal prepared while resting. Link only wished his friend was a better cook than a bookworm. Not that he would change anything about Vaalni-Vaati.

Lin blinked. Both names came to him naturally. Both were a friend – though one was a former enemy turned acquaintance, and hadn’t that worked out well in a previous cycle? – but one wouldn’t know the die cast for his fate.

Closing his eyes, Lin crushed down the urge to scream. He hadn’t wanted this. He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had no cares for the future; he still didn’t. Vaalni was his best friend, someone he had dragged out of that musty old library in town and showed the real world to. Not the known one most Hyruleans knew of, that everyone talked about, or had pinned on maps. The secret world where ruins stood like ancient sentinels, silent keepers of the past, and animal spirits hid in the bushes and Great Fairies awaited travelers in unusual places. Where hidden caves and grottos gave little treasures or fantastic surprises. Where the biggest worry was getting home on time or mapping out a route to a new secret.

He didn’t want to lose that.

He didn’t want to lose the precious freedom he had to be himself.

He didn’t want to lose his only friend.

Link shut his eyes tight, refusing to let a single tear fall. Regardless if Vaalni was Vaati or not, he wouldn’t saddle him with this. He refused. So, he turned his head away from his friend, finding a comfortable angle on the bag acting as his pillow, and forced himself to sleep.

That, at least, was something he was always good at.

Chapter Text

He remembers dying.

A half-step out of sync. A mere second of distraction as he dodged a spat rock, and he’s sliced through, a jagged mess as an ax crashes into his side. Agony sears him. Fear saturates his mind. Two beats later it doesn’t matter.

Then his eyes open and he’s in the weaver’s hut again, the beginning strains of music stirring in his ears.

“My thread! Give that back, you knave!”

He ignores her demand, as he did before, only bothering to listen with half an ear to see if she says anything different.

Impossible, he thinks. A vision of the future? But...no. The pain was all too real, the exhaustion seeping into his bones too well recalled. Through fate, fortune, or goddesses, he’s alive once more.

When it’s clear that the old crone’s nonsensical mutterings are the same, and his hands stop shaking, he leaves her home. Tektites and zols greet him outside, in different numbers compared to his first outing. The Golden Lute makes short work of them, and he’s off once more in his personal quest to prevent Ganon’s takeover.

He is a natural at rhythm and the flow of music. He is a bard; it is his life and passion. But the pulse echoing across the kingdom pulls tethers on his heart, even as his body grows weary. To stop means to feel his heart seize and twist. To step out of rhythm sends shivers up and down his body, a threat to fall in line or else.

His injuries from before are missing, as if they had never been. His side does not ache, the shattered bones whole and unbothered. He is certain nothing will stop him this time. He knows the monsters’ tricks now, and will be more cautious. Goddess of time, or whichever force had granted him another chance, had not only been gracious but had chosen wisely.

/-/

At some point he is poisoned. A foolish mistake, but one that can be handled, or so he thinks before the hinox’s bomb goes off a beat before he expected, shrapnel shredding through him, a worse burning than the one in his veins.

He’s dead before his corpse even hits the ground.

/-/

“My thread! Give that back, you knave!”

This time Octavo takes a few breaths and goes over his mistakes before leaving. Poisonous monsters and ranged foes first. Avoid hinox unless they are the remaining ones still alive. He has this. Third time’s the charm, and he can make this work.

And then he misjudges the reach of the darknuts and their swords and is bisected before he can even curse the reanimated dead behind him.

/-/

Beamos. He had read about these before in some book or other when he had been looking up legends and myths for song ideas. Supposedly their sight could kill a man. All he had to do was stay out of it while destroying the other monsters.

He only hears it – a loud, unusual whining sound from behind – then red stains his vision.

/-/

He learns. He dies. He adjusts. He triumphs.

He finds it in himself, finally, to grin as he sweeps the monsters away. He begins to enjoy the feeling, the thrumming, the beat of which he moves to. It's odd, and some part of him knows he shouldn't be happy like this, but he can't help it.

And then, he trips.

A slight miscalculation, distracted by the giant that threatened to squash him in such tight confines. He falls to the ground, the rhythm disturbed, and he knows he has only a second to get to his feet, to move, to dance, to do something-

A tremor in his limbs is his only warning, a violent shaking that nearly topples him again, but he manages to get to his feet before the next beat and leaps away from the monster before it crushes him.

He is much more careful from then on.

Although it doesn’t matter half of the time.

/-/

The most important thing Octavo learns across his deaths is this: he has not been blessed, but cursed. Perhaps severing the thread hadn’t been the wisest idea. Perhaps he had disturbed some entity or deity by doing so, and they wanted to keep watching him die again and again and again and again -

He can’t quite take a steadying breath, not with the pulse as quick as it is, so he goes through the motions of conducting with his baton.

It’s all he can do for the moment. It has to be enough.

But it never is.

/-/

“My thread! Give that back, you knave!”

Octavo ignores her. Shadow Zelda is an annoying demon to fight, no two ways about it. He thought he had the monster. He thought he could press the advantage he had, just get a tiny bit closer and finish her off.

By the old crone’s presence, that hadn’t gone as planned. He waves the weaver off and begins exterminating monsters again.

If his notes are a tiny bit rough, well. Nobody is there is criticize him.

/-/

Octavo looks at himself and realizes: this state of reliving these hours again and again is not the curse he thought it was for being defiant, nor is it a blessing to aid him in stopping Ganon.

It’s self-inflicted penance.

He had never intended to go so far in this quest to prevent his own death at the heinous pig beast’s hands, but apparently he had.

In denying one fate, another had arisen, more twisted than he had ever imagined.

“Give me that Lute!”

As if he would ever listen to the words of a madman. Octavo strums his Golden Lute, gracefully rounding on monsters and delivering them notes of finality. They fall, one by one in bursts of musical magic.

Was this how Ganondorf came to power originally? Had he good intentions once, and been corrupted as his future self had?

“Reanimate!”

Another sarcophagus cracked and ruined, but more appear, releasing more monsters that are quick to gain on him.

However, the pulse of music sings in his bones. Moving to the rhythm, keeping just out of harm’s way. He has done this all before. It’s an art to him, a dance with no peer. He keeps an eye on where his deranged self lurks. The instruments are alive, adding to the harmony of the music. He focuses on those when he can, knowing that it will disrupt the power flow.

He is proven correct.

“My instruments! Do you have any idea how much I had to go through to acquire those?” A pause. He seems to think better of it. “Hm, perhaps you do. Let’s put an end to this charade!”

The remaining monsters burst into magic and the fell maestreo falls back.

“With me, loyal knights! Defensive formation!”

The pulse picks up, becoming more frantic. It’s the fastest Octavo has ever moved and he’s on the stalfols before they can so much as raise their blades at him.

A thunderous boom. Was the wall always that close? No, no he’s certain it wasn’t.

Octavo swallows and focuses. Death won’t be the end of him – at least he hopes – but he doesn’t fancy waking up in the Fate’s home again.

Another boom. The walls are closing in faster. No stranglers left, he approaches the main stage, fury and righteousness burning. The creature had no right to take Hyrule for its own. He would destroy the guards and take center stage.

Easier thought than done, but Octavo finds a rhythm and lets the red-eyed demon have it. Then he leaves the dazed monster, stepping onto the golden triangle. It rises, unexpected, but not unwelcome, and he has to look away when the walls finally crash together below, destroying the conjured knights and his other self.

The fact that the future him is not even bleeding, never mind broken, when the walls retract is as worrisome as it is disturbing.

The other Golden Lute floats above the floor, as pristine as his own. No signs of the evil acts committed with it blemish the instrument. It’s just as his own, with no sign of the numerous deaths he had experienced.

A single Lute could change history. But two?

He knows what must be done. He has to atone for his foolishness.

Releasing his own, he allows it to drift towards the other.

The world reverberates. It is no pulse of music, but one of change. He can feel it, something unraveled, then rewoven and connected and then-

He gasps, the air stolen from his lungs. The old woman sits before him, a Fate unbothered and smiling coyly.

Octavo’s shoulders sag in relief.

“Ah, I see that you’re back,” she says pleasantly. “Are you still dying to know what fate has in store for you?”

Octavo’s eyes widen. “No!” the denial spills out. “No,” he says again more calmly, more composed. “I will leave that for those who are much wiser than I.”

When he leaves her home, he sighs. A great weight feels as if it has been lifted from his shoulders.

He had dealt with fate enough for one lifetime. His lute and a good meal were all he needed.

Chapter Text

Kris Dreemurr watched, waiting. They were pretty good at practicing patience, all said. Pranking wasn't always straightforward, and it was always funnier when someone was none the wiser.

Noelle's face after grabbing her leg a while back was still priceless.

It was no small annoyance that they couldn’t at least smirk, however. They hadn’t been able to so much as blink since that morning. Their body moved without their willing it, exploring the bedroom, the bathroom, and the living room before whatever was in control finally grew bored enough to climb into mom’s car.

It was perhaps the oddest sensation. A warmth had blossomed under their chest, like the summer sun at the lake, beating in time with their heart. Kris could feel it implicitly, and ever since gaining the strange armor, had seen it time and time again. The bright red caricature of a heart floated before them or shined in the dim areas of the strange, new world.

The SOUL, that fake brother had called it. The culmination of their being.

Of the puppeteer’s being.

Kris hadn’t really bothered paying attention after that. This SOUL was the key to their freedom. If they could just grab it, they could rip it out and regain control of themself.

Again.

This wasn’t the first time one of them had attempted to usurp control of Kris’s life. Kris had tried over and over again to be an equal to their brother, to be an unnoticed student, then acting out to get a certain reaction out of people.

Nothing had stopped them.

Not even their brother, the golden child, had really noticed. Instead, he took everything Kris or them did in stride, and never failed to be supportive. He never joined in the pranks – not that he could – but he always made sure to spend time with them, no matter how they were like.

A lot like the fake brother, but less of a doormat.

When the puppeteers refused to give up, though, Kris did. They went about life as usual, and ripped out the hearts whenever one of them settled in their chest. Eventually, mom stopped asking after the rust in the birdcage. It was just another part of weirdo Kris’s quirks.

With Asriel off at university, Kris had been able to breathe for a little bit. Life went as they wanted it.

And now they were unwillingly leading a fake and a bully through some fairy tale wonderland.

So, Kris Dreemurr watched. And waited.

They were nothing more than a shadow for now, helpless as the puppeteer pulled them along. The entity in control ACTed and fought, but would lead the way back home sooner and later. And then…

Well.

Shadows were always more plentiful at night time.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Mr. Traveler had never adjusted or upgraded, it was his running speed. He never had to be especially fast; he wasn’t built for it and he could get through anything with strategy and a lot of firepower. Now, however, he cursed his lack of rocket boots – or a better booster – as he followed Sue in a mad dash out of the ancient structure that rumbled and fell apart around them.

Past the cages and the throne, he finds Sue waiting on him outside. She shouts for him to hurry and he scrambles down the steps, dodging the falling pieces of stone. By the time he’s cleared the stairs, Sue is a purple speck in the distance, her small stature making it easier to avoid the debris. He moves as quickly as his legs will allow, ducking and weaving his way forward through the increasing chaos of the falling island. It isn’t long before he’s halfway across the balcony and notices the empty space where a helicopter once sat.

For a split-second he wonders: How will we escape? Will we escape? What about Momorin and Itoh? Then the ground meets his face with unsuspecting force. Wriggling his legs, he finds that one has become wedged in a crack in the earth. He moves for all of two seconds to free and upright himself before a great weight crashes down on his back. Sprawled on the ground, he lets go of his gun and starts pushing the rock with his good hand, the other sparking and useless. Fighting off the pain – why did he have to be modeled after humans? – Mr. Traveler realizes that his leg is going deeper into the ground as more pieces of ruin rain down upon him. It doesn’t set in that he might not make it until his arm gives and he’s suddenly staring up at the sky. The doubt is cemented but he struggles anyway.

Then Sue is there pulling on his broken arm, shouting at him not to give up, not to die, and how dare he not listen to her about hurrying while the balcony breaks and crumbles around them. He hears it before he sees it, but that doesn’t make a difference as a pillar breaks, its shadow cast over them as the top of it comes down and Sue can’t see it because her eyes are shut as she pulls and he can’t scream loud enough to warn her

Crunch!

* * *

When awareness returns to him, it’s with flickers of light and sound. His mind runs through recent memory, so many thoughts coming to him that his body freezes. He sits there in the dimly lit cave, unsure what has just happened. There was panic, screaming, and destruction then...nothing. Between being pinned under rubble and waking up, there is a blank space of recollection that refuses to be filled.

In a rush of clarity, a snapshot stands out from his last moments of consciousness.

A futile effort in the shadow of death.

Sue!

He scans his surroundings quickly, even putting in the energy to call for her.

The drip drip of water continues unabated.

He pushes himself to his feet, legs somehow straight and whole, warily putting weight on each one. When he doesn’t immediately collapse, he makes his way to the edge of the rough ground and looks down. Water and jagged rocks greet him from below, a hand to disability and death.

Taking a chance, he leaps down near the body of water, landing on a flat, dry surface. The bottom of the cave is small, about seven by ten feet with most of it submerged in shallow water, and he only needs a cursory glance to confirm.

Still no Sue.

He tightens his hands into fists. Failure.

But still, no body.

He logs her status as “unknown” for the time being, and makes his way out of the cave. It is so familiar taking the leaps needed to get higher, and not for the first time he wonders how he got there if the ceiling lacked a giant hole. Everything he had acquired is missing, and his clothing is in decent condition. He passes through an old wooden door, his mind trying to piece together events as he climbs up an uneven slope. So much does not add up and it does nothing to help his situation.

His pondering is interrupted by a few jumping critters and a creature’s eye centered over a door.

He remembers this. He remembers how to get past as well.

The Hermit, he figures, might have another gun lying around if he’s lucky.

And so he goes.

* * *

It’s when he sees King and Toroko again – alive, speaking – does Mr. Traveler realize something is truly off. The Mimiga Village is occupied, the little creatures set up everywhere, content in their lives. One is up at the farm, another is fishing, another eating. Jack is guarding the graveyard, and Toroko has holed herself up in the shed.

(Balrog can smell the Mimiga, he remembers. Nowhere is safe.)

The necklace is in the pond again, and the puffy fish is floating there, innocent as can be. He takes the locket, ignores the fish, and heads straight to Toroko.

Mr. Traveler knows how to handle Balrog and Misery. He can defend Toroko this time, even with just the Polar Star in hand.

* * *

As it turns out, Misery does not appreciate being deterred by a strange robot and his flimsy pea shooter. Toroko runs and lighting rains down until all goes dark.

Drip, drip…

* * *

Third time’s the charm and King’s presence and declaration of Toroko’s identity makes Balrog and Misery back off, leaving the younger Mimiga to abscond to Arthur’s house.

That’s one crisis, Mr. Traveler thinks, that has been averted.

He still has to grab the spare key from Arthur’s grave, but he still ultimately gains access to the teleporter. Toroko lets him, and gives him the locket to prove to Sue that he’s trustworthy.

(A nose for Mimigas.)

He hurries for the egg room.

* * *

His journey through the Bushlands is largely unchanged. He certainly doesn’t have a explosive handy in the first place, so collecting the necessary ingredients is unavoidable. He finds Kazuma and Booster – the old man is alive, too! – and lets them go on their way.

He doesn’t know how to ask about or prevent Booster’s death, yet, but he’ll figure it out.

* * *

Curly Brace is as protective as ever, but refuses to take the Colons back to Arthur’s house. She also refuses to roll them in sand to smother their scent. She runs roughshod over anything he has to say and refuses to budge.

Mr. Traveler doesn’t want to hurt her or make an enemy of her, but he knows their fates. He knows what the Doctor is planning and how far his evil will spread before he is stopped. Between merciful death and preventing it from happening in the first place, he knows which option takes priority.

Unfortunately, nothing he tries to say or do changes Curly’s mind. He is forced onwards into Sand Zone until he finds the warehouse.

The warehouse which has glass windows.

He has no key, and only a dog atop his head for backup. So, he sets the puppy down, takes aim, and with a burst of machine gun fire, rips open a pane high above. He uses the burst of rapid fire bullets to hover up to the newly created entrance, and drops in to see Balrog collecting red flowers.

Then he takes out the Fireball, and sets everything ablaze.

* * *

Drip, drip…

The Doctor hadn’t liked that idea.

* * *

He sets fire to the warehouse three more times, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t outpace the Doctor as he is with his minions Balrog and Misery at his side. Mr. Traveler tries incapacitating both of them, but within the tight confines of the building, it’s nearly impossible to dodge attacks and keep up the heat for every long. The Doctor always leaves before too long, he learns, but by then Misery is set to fry his circuits into oblivion.

And she does. Ruthlessly.

Mr. Traveler starts keeping a checklist in his head. There are many lives he wants to save, things he has to say regardless of his desire to stay quiet, and plans he needs to keep focused on if he wants to avoid shooting enraged Mimigas.

The little things build up into greater ones. “Save Toroko” becomes “Keep Toroko Out of Harm’s Way” because no matter what he attempts to do, Balrog will always track her and the rest down. “Incapacitate Misery” becomes “Incapacitate But Don’t Kill Misery”, because the one time he did that, he found her again in the throne room, skin greyer than normal and patched with green.

“He wouldn’t let me die!” The screech still echoes in his head, of a woman cursed to live beyond what she had suffered.

Balrog, fortunately, is not mortal and thus cannot die. Therefore, Mr. Traveler can shoot him as many times as he wishes and not have to worry about an undead minion coming for him.

It’s a relief, sometimes, that he has a nigh-invulnerable foe to fight. Otherwise the repetition of everyone’s suffering would weigh down on him even more.

* * *

During the times Misery or the Doctor don't kill him, Mr. Traveler finds himself in the Labyrinth without fail. He's never quite figured out why he is sent here of all places. The garbage dump of the island, but also near the Core, the heart that keeps the island afloat. He's tried every last crevice of the maze for an alternative route, and shooting the bars in the lion's mouth.

This run through, Mr. Traveler managed to persuade Balrog in wrenching the iron bars out. They clatter to the ground, and other robot leaps through the ceiling. The temporary truce is over, but he can't stop smiling. The Waterways are unobstructed, and the Core is left undisturbed. Mr. Traveler points out the entrance, but Curly Brace is far too curious for her own good. She insists on seeing what is through the door before they go, and he shakes his head emphatically.

She keeps going.

He's torn. On the one hand, Curly is going into the Core room alone. She has the Machine Gun, but he can't tell if it would be enough. If she can even get past the blast doors first. On the other hand, if he joins her, then she will give him her air tank to survive, and he will have to grab the tow rope or else leave her sealed in a watery grave.

He is going to try this again regardless. He needs to know if this matters enough to change.

So, steeling his resolve, Mr. Traveler enters the Waterways alone.

* * *

Curly catches up with him at the Plantation and together they traverse through the last cave up to the surface. United in skill and weaponry, they are a devastating duo, destroying any creatures in their way and dodging around the enraged Mimigas. Curly outright refuses to harm them, and he does the same if only to please his last friend and ally. He has no qualms with putting them down.

(Toroko and Sue and the Colons are still in there, but he can't think of them with names or it hurts.)

Misery's magic is no match for modern firepower, and the Doctor seems more feral in his attempts to smash the both of them into gears and pieces.

The Core is not dead. The fact that it is absent is all the confirmation Mr. Traveler needs, but the pride he feels is fleeting.

Balrog is possessed by the main consciousness of the Doctor, and Misery and Sue are transformed again. Somehow the fight goes even worse than he guessed it would as Curly focuses on the witch and the girl and he concentrates on the suddenly much more terrifying robot. The missiles are quick and powerful, his arms are malformed wings, and his body is a grotesque red face that seems as if it's melting. Every hop sends shockwaves across the floor, and drops rocks from the ceiling.

One, the size of one of possessed Balrog's wings, comes down.

Straight onto Sue.

Curly dodges out of the way, but the little girl is in agony as she shrinks and screeches. Amid the explosions, he can't tell when she falls silent. But she does.

Sue is dead. The world should stop, but it doesn't. He and Curly rain hell upon Doctor-Balrog, a steady stream of bullets, missiles, and slashes from King's Blade that eventually cut the Doctor and his unwilling puppet down.

Curly takes the crown, the thing Momorin attributed to the Doctor's suddenly increase in power, and they leave, releasing the Mimiga below as they go.

Two days later he is alone and unarmed in a damp cave.

* * *

It's almost like clockwork, he finds. After a number of injuries to Balrog's disturbing form, a boulder comes crashing down. Always, always Sue is right there when it does. Shoving her away only leads to a stray missile impacting her.

Try as Mr Traveler might, there is no escape. Not this way. Not now.

* * *

He loiters around the shed in Waterway one cycle, hoping that Curly will awaken again. He had infinite time it seemed. He could afford it.

When she doesn't regain awareness, despite all the water having drained from her, he loads her onto his back with the tow rope again, and dives into the veins of the island.

It's only later while he's blasting the stubborn little curative mushroom in the cemetery that he realizes: the little person is still in his pocket.

* * *

The cycles blur together. Everything has a purpose, everyone has a need. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and all the pieces are his to make and fit together, and when something doesn’t neatly slot into place he has to remake it again and again and again, unless he has to make some other piece change which might change another piece of the puzzle, in which case he has to start from scratch sometimes or use ideas he had discarded before until this particular part of the puzzle is done, and he moves onto the next.

At some point he asks himself: why can he easily kill Misery when he has never entertained the possibility of killing the others humans? Why can he kill the enraged Mimigas when they are just not in the right state of mind, but the normal ones he can only knock out?

He tests himself once. Just once. He raises the Polar Star and aims for Itoh’s arm.

It’s nearly singed. Would be, if not the for man’s reflexes.

Still, he can’t bring himself to raise the gun any higher or to the side. He doesn’t want to.

The cycles are days, are weeks, are years, are grinding him up inside as he fails, fails, fails to save even one life.

Every time, no matter how hard Mr. Traveler tries, the Mimigas are captured, all of them. If it’s not Toroko in the warehouse it’s an unknown Mimiga from the plantation. If he burns down the flowers, the Doctor seeks retribution and the village Mimiga are taken even quicker. Curly refuses to leave her home unless lured by the garment she has hidden away, and even then she must be knocked out until he can get the Colons into Arthur’s home.

He hides the Mimiga wherever he can. Under flowers, in jelly, in soot, in tiny caves, even in the Outer Wall. Yet Balrog finds them regardless.

And the one time Sue was fed the red flowers…

He doesn’t like to think about it. A cycle of mistakes and doing too many experiments at once. He’s learned his lesson.

Threads of ideas still come to him. He rescues Curly, sometimes forgets Professor Booster, and eventually something…changes.

The final cave before the balcony. It’s always been one way, but this time it’s...different. His weapons are drained of energy but that does not deter him. He carefully makes his way up, past the spikes and bats and perilous drops, past the strange red ogre and the presses with eyes.

He makes it to Misery, to the Doctor, to the Undead Core, unsatisfied but intrigued.

The prefabricated building isn’t blocked.

He enters, curiosity pulling him along.

There’s a wrecked bed, a bookcase, and a hole in the floor.

(Little hands trying to pull him to safety.)

(She would be safe without him.)

Clutching the blade possessed by King’s spirit and the Spur, he leaps down.

* * *

There is a dog. One of Jenka’s puppies. He is see-through though, and speaks like a human.

“Please kill my master,” he pleads, the voice hauntingly familiar. One Quote has heard throughout the entirety of these ruins. “That is the only way Misery can be freed... The only way to cease the repetition of this tragedy.”

And then he’s gone.

Just like that.

Bits of stone still fall all around them.

He moves forward.

* * *

Jenka’s brother is tragedy personified. The reason why the island is falling, the reason behind the cycles, and his own personal nightmare.

He is human, or he was long ago. Now he is overtaken by a feverish rage, just like the Mimiga.

Quote takes aim, and so does Curly against his back, and they shoot for all they’re worth into the mad man. Bones and skulls fly as his coat brushes over the floor. The man leaps and comes down as a spiked head, grinning maliciously. Green devils hover above and Ballos hops then rolls through the chamber without thought or destination other than destruction. Spiked eyes attach to him, and bleed red. Spikes raise from the ground, and his eyes and mouth are full of screaming, bloody faces, each one with a distinct voice that echoes in the small battleground.

Then, nearly dead himself, Quote collapses as Ballos explodes.

And yet...the voice. Ballos. His voice sounds out, still maddened, still desperate to destroy and maim.

A grey block descends, and Quote has never been happier to see Balrog or be thankful for how he can somehow find someone hidden away so well.

(Part of him is still angry about that, but he is too exhausted to care.)

They hover in the sky as the island slows its freefall, until it finally just...stops. Then it comes up, bit by bit. Everyone and everything inside would be alright.

Quote slumps, tired. No more time resets. No more failed plans to save everyone that he could. He did his best. That’s all he could ever do, even with regrets weighing on his back.

There are those who survived, and those who would carry on despite their injuries. They would live. They would rebuild. Somewhere in there, Jack would be coordinating efforts to help the Mimiga get back home. Stepping in where Arthur and King had left off, leading the village. Jenka would be seeing to the island’s future, and Momorin...

(Tiny hands trying to pull his arm.)

(A shadow of impending death.)

...would have her daughter back.

Quote closes his eyes. Time would march on.

That, he thinks, is just fine to him.

Chapter Text

The ARK was quiet. Quiet in a way it hadn’t been since the collision of the space colony had been averted months past. The remains of G.U.N. robots and Artificial Chaos alike laid scattered in various levels and rooms, unwelcomed intruders and unreliable guardians put to rest. Reinforced windows reflected fluorescent lights, humming a constant low drone as they lit the way for the only occupant aboard.

Some would have called his choice an admirable sacrifice. Still others would have called him an utter fool, wasting his time wandering the husk of what had once held high hopes and countless lives. There was nothing left to see. All relevant files and machines pertaining to Project Shadow had been confiscated or destroyed. Parts of the ARK were in such disrepair that it would take a dedicated team to make them useful again. The Eclipse Cannon itself was no longer viable threat, a core component in the machine having weakened and bent from the enormity of the force fired at the Black Comet.

To Shadow, however, this was the ultimate inevitability. Of all those who survived the raid, of those who still lived on Earth, none were more willing or worthy to walk the halls of the once-wondrous station than him.

Shadow briefly stopped before a door. A second later it hissed open, allowing him entrance to a room teeming with life. Trees towered above him, about as high as the smallest ones that used to be found on Prison Island. Tips brushed the top of the ceiling, emulating the starry night sky as seen from Earth, and vines hung down from the branches, stretching low to the ground. More than a few had fallen here, crushing whatever bushes and flowers had been unfortunate enough to be in the way, much like in the other green sectors. A consequence of the space colony’s sudden collision course with the planet, but not unsalvageable. The shorter, thinner trees were fine. The oxygen levels had dropped since he had last been here, though simply locking a few sections of the space colony until more trees regrew would fix that.

Damage assessed, Shadow turned and left, faint giggling ringing in his ears.

He ignored it. The ARK was empty save for himself, and he still had the blue sector remaining on his list to inspect. Unimportant as far as running the space station went, although necessary for the sake of thoroughness. Defenses and shielding had been inspected, as had solar panels, air, and basic food supplies. He hardly required the latter due to the large concentration of Chaos energy stored in the Core, though that was not to say he preferred siphoning to a decent meal. The fact that a vast garden had suffered less destruction than the other parts of green sector was a blessing.

The dull green line on the floor eventually led him to an intersection converging with yellow and blue lines. He followed the latter, the other colors soon branching away, leaving Shadow to the blank white corridors, broken up only by artificial plants and blank monitors that may have once listed some notices back when humans still lived here.

The doors here were a uniform white as opposed to the vertical green streaks that the previous sector boasted. Instead there were black numbers next to each one, sometimes with designations listed beneath. “Orbital and Gravitational Monitoring.” “Greenhouse Observations.” “Chaos Drive Research.” “Archimedes Repository of Knowledge.” Shadow snorted, but entered the last room regardless.

Shadow took two steps inside before he stopped. Lights flashing on solid black towers, each reaching from the floor to the ceiling. They stretched from one side of the room to the other, separated into aisles of electronic pillars.

He blinked and walked further inside. As appropriate as it was, he had not expected to find a room full of servers, and seemingly functional ones at that. For all that G.U.N. had supposedly ransacked the facility, perhaps they had not done more than the bare minimum. The humans had been frightened, after all, killing researchers and bystanders indiscriminately, and the professor’s last words had somehow become accessible after the seven Chaos Emeralds had been gathered. Who knew what else the ARK still held?

He moved on from the server room. It was a place to come back later, certainly, when he had finished his rounds. Most records might have well been erased, and while the professor was a genius without peer, none knew him better than the sole living legacy of his endeavor to cure what had no cure. If there was anything he had left behind, Shadow was sure to find it. It was only a matter of time.

He had plenty of it, after all. With the Guardian Units of Nations off his back and the Black Arms destroyed, the future was his to make.

And he would make it here.

The space colony was his home. He was born and raised above the planet’s surface in a place so few had the privilege to see, and no amount of fractured memories would destroy that fact. For better or for worse, he would keep the colony functioning. He would save his home. He would restore it to its former glory day by day and, perhaps, one day he would walk its halls without the ghosts of the past haunting his steps.

He ignored the steady footfalls to his side, and carried on.

Chapter Text

Lay your head down, sweet child,

Close your eyes now and rest

Your journey left you beguiled

So worn down and so stressed

 

All your troubles and your trials

Your successes and falls

Carried with your constant smile

Even as darkness calls

 

As you sleep amongst the flowers

Held in sunlight’s golden embrace

The imprisoned will use your power

Desperation erased.

 

Centuries of being denied green

Wiped away in a flash

All the monsters’ hopes and dreams

Revived from the ash

Chapter Text

To harness the Void was a difficult feat, but by no means impossible. The kingsmoulds and wingmoulds proved as much, though their orders were simple. The kingmoulds had the imprint of defending and killing any who were not cleared to enter the White Palace, or who proved a danger to those within. The wingmoulds were considerably plain in comparison, restrained to a minimal flight distance. A single smack and they burst right open, only to fix themselves up after. Obstructions or pretty decorations. It all depended on the bug.

That wasn’t to say that leashing the amorphous Void to specific forms was easy, nor was it without a great deal of theorizing, hypotheses, testing, grumbling, guesses, grumbling guesses, samplings, arguing, and even more testing to ensure the result was as perfect and obedient as possible.

Not that the results were consistently reliable. The first kingsmould had been fine at first, but after it began to obsess itself with the safely of others, grubs in particular, the Pale King had it locked away in a tower to itself.

Testing was increased after that. The wingmoulds never had troubles, fluttering in their own little designated areas, but the kingsmoulds would sometimes lend an unsettling gaze on the guests of the palace. Never striking out, but the blank white glare never ceased to disturb some bugs.

A small cost for the best guards in Hallownest next to the Great Five, but it was worth it to ensure the safety of every bug who came to the city.

Yet it was not enough. Against the physical, it was a dangerous opponent, yes, but to the affliction of the mind that soon spread across the kingdom, it could do nothing.

The Pale King watched and heard stories of how the bugs of Hallownest would slowly lose track of their thoughts. They would mutter the strangest things, unresponsive to voices or noises or hunger. A mere sickness, they all thought. Only a sickness – as the affected’s eyes turned orange. Only a sickness – as the bugs turned on friends, family, and strangers alike, ripping apart innocents and careless throwing their lives away to take another.

It was more than that, the Pale King knew. From the mumblings of the half-mad and the reports of the still sane, he built a picture in his head of what was happening.

And set forth a new Void project.

The harness needed to be stronger, he told his keenest minds. Strong enough to house their hopes and salvation. The being needed to listen, but have no thoughts of its own. It needed to be burdened with a great weight, but no will to break under. It would suffer, but could not cry out in anguish. The task it would take was one eternal, and was required to live so long a life as to deny time itself.

Born of a higher being and the substance from the Abyss, it needed to be perfect. Pure.

No sacrifice was too great to save Hallownest. To preserve the place where all bugs gained a higher mind and found true purpose. To reign in the light that threatened to consume them all.

It was a tedious and awful process. To have an empty vessel worthy of the sacrifice, hundreds, thousands were created. Most moved upon creation. Some did not. The slightest bit of free will, of emotion, of stress, and the once-potential vessel was mercifully killed, the remains tossed into what was quickly becoming a bone-like graveyard, the masks of the failures piling up like molted skin at Kingdom’s Edge.

Every day the Infection spread. Bugs died or hid or fled back into the wilderness, willing to give up the gift of the kingdom than be taken in a fate worse than death.

The burrow grew less livelier. The promise of Hallownest’s greatness declined. But the Pale King dictated that the Void researchers proceed, going so far as to move operations to the entrance of the Abyss, continuing to oversee the procedure personally.

The process went quicker than thought possible. Failed vessels were thrown off the lonely ledge almost as soon as they displayed deficiencies. The scans and tests were done in batches, rushing through those of Void make for one who fulfilled the Pale King’s orders until finally, finally one of the bugs in a white coat called out success.

The king stepped forward as regal as ever and scrutinized the tiny thing. Two horns curved up from its blank, sealed mask. There were two holes for seeing out of, but nothing else. The cloak was ratty, low quality. A temporary garment until it grew and needed something for a larger frame. It stood still without so much as a shuffle or twitch. It did not cry, nor ask any questions, nor stand proudly. No curiosity or goals. No will to run away, as a number had previously, nor voice with which to speak. It stared straight up at him, and not a thing more.

The scans and tests were positive: it would not even move an inch unless told to.

A strong specimen, the Pale King decided. A perfect one at long last.

A vessel worthy of being called the Hollow Knight.

Chapter Text

Nothing itched her fingers worse than dried blood. She longed to step forward and send her fist first class into the leering scarred face, making him stumble back and release his hold. To make any sort of move that mattered and could end this standoff in seconds, if not minutes.

Yet that fear looking back at her from the captor’s grip. Gun against his throat, a second chance and 14 years of life to be torn away. But there was more, more than anyone could possibly fathom hidden there, unspoken, experienced.

But he could not move.

“I have your attention,” the man said gruffly, eyes trained on her face. “Good. I’ve been watching you, Christie.” Her breath caught. The man grinned. The child’s face fell even more. “Yeah, that’s right. I know. Funny where you can hide cameras now days.” His teeth flashed, surprisingly white for how unkempt and filthy his garments were.

“Nowhere that matters,” the words spilled from her mouth. Defensive and deflective, that was her operandi; nothing better she could do considering the circumstances.

“Everywhere matters,” the man replied, still grinning sharply. “Especially when children are involved.”

“That’s low.”

“But it works.”

The child mouthed words, started and stopped, eyes darting around them. Good, she thought, he’s learned. He was working his way through the tactics of A.C.E.: Analyze; Consider; Execute. Not that it could add very much when a plan had been implemented already.

She sighed, unsteady. A tendril snaked into the ground under her feet. “Why?” she asked, tired. He wasn’t the first to take someone she knew hostage, and probably wouldn’t be the last. But this was the first time since her presence began blacking out camera screens that someone had done so. That above all made him special.

“Once upon a time, humans had the ability to seal monsters underground.” She didn’t so much as flinch as cold realization flooded her. “Humans have lost that over time and yet...” He gestured at her with a flick of some fingers so close to the child’s neck. “...here you are.”

Her toes curled in her shoes. It was the only reaction she allowed herself as she stared down the problem that had occasionally haunted her dreams when her own nightmares didn’t.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “We have access to magic, yes, but I’m no mage. No one is.”

The mounting problem laughed as though his throat was coated with gravel. “You and I both know that’s not true. Six dead children in six little coffins.” Her hand twitched. “A seventh comes up, having freed them. The hole they fell down is found one day then mysteriously covered by vines the next. Then the cave is blocked by a boulder. A door Underground leading to the area is always locked, yet monsters are sure it’s been recently opened.” The tendril split, rising.

“Who are you?” Christie whispered. “Nobody should know all of that. Only privileged people granted entry by the government and the monster council are allowed down there.”

“Oh, they are, they are…” he assured, nodding. The tendrils split. “Which is why I’m here. A human found frequenting the monster community two years after their freedom was obtained, treated as an old friend.” The tendrils split. “A human who only half a year before had papers expedited in her name for citizenship.” The tendrils split. “Officially required due to having lived in the Underground and having no legal identity above.” The tendrils split. “But then, where were you all that time? Why not reveal yourself when the monsters were freed?” The tendrils split. “No, no… The ambassador never freed the monsters. It was you.” And the stranger smirked widely in the face of her unimpressed countenance, as if he had found the greatest scandal to rock the country in years. “You siphoned the SOUL from those young children” – the tendrils sharpened, undulated, split, rose – “and used it in some devilish ritual to break the barrier! You ha–”

He stopped, watching as the accused bent over, chuckling. It slowly rose to belly-rumbling laughter then to outright maniacal howling. It was a raucous, unsteady thing not found even in clubs as stand-up comics made people fall out of their seats. It was the laughter of one who had found the limits of reality's ridiculousness, found them broken, and so broke themselves.

Eventually, when she guessed the silence had gone on long enough, she pulled on the reins of her sanity. She put a hand on one half of her face, her grin nowhere near comforting. “I have to commend your logic,” she told him. “I have no idea how you got all of that information, nor how you figured out whether or not any of it was true. But…” She let her hand slip down, and tilted her head in feigned interest. “You’re missing something.”

“An-”

He didn’t get to finish the sentence.

Thin black tendrils circled in from behind him, under his arms, and struck as quick as vipers. They wrapped around his gun hand, foremost, jerking his hand away and sending the weapon flipping onto the dewy grass. Then they wrapped around everywhere else. His arm under the child’s neck was wrenched away; the former prince ran the second he was clear. Legs were bound, the neck was firmly held, the body constricted, the mouth muffled by thickening bands that curled at the edges with wisps of dark.

By the time the boy was at her side, the problem was naught but a removed thorn.

“What are you going to do with him,” he whispered, mouth turned to her, but eyes never straying from the threat.

Christie’s gaze locked onto the man. The human who dared to disturb the fragile peace of what everyone had. Mages were a far removed idea for present day civilization. It would takes decades, if not centuries, for magic to saturate the world again and give rise to humans with odd talents. Still, there were those who could not, would not wait for such a time. Power hungry fools who invested into SOUL research in some vain hopes of achieving immortality or instant healing or some other tomfoolery.

She was so very, very tired.

“Let me worry about that,” she said, not because she didn’t want him to watch, but she didn’t know how to hang onto her humanity and ensure that this danger was nulled.

“Christie...”

“It’s alright, Rei,” she assured calmly, and his ears picked up because she had told him of the only reason she would ever use that nickname. A word of unusual familiarity and of warning, to flee for safety or aid. “I’ve got this.” She brought up her hands and crackled her knuckles, first one then the other. “Tell your mother I’ll be late to dinner.” Thicker tendrils rose up, securing thrashing limbs and doubling the cover over the mouth while giving a fresh one over the eyes.

A few seconds passed. Then a few seconds more. She glanced down at the child, physically a teenager but knowing so much more. His head was down, fists clenching and unclenching. For good measure, she covered the stranger’s ears, but not before he spoke up.

“I’m...not going.” He looked up, more determined than she had ever recalled seeing him. “You always help us, no matter what it might cost you.” An impulse came to reach up and press a hand to her chest, over her heart. She restrained it, but imagined the chunk torn from her SOUL regardless. “But that’s not right. This is my home, too! I have just as much of a say of what will happen here as you do.” His voice softened, but was no weaker for it: “You always have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Let me help.”

Christie crossed her arms, and looked the boy up and down. Gone was the fear and unsurety. Here was the burning fire of resolution and responsibility she always knew was there. An upstanding young monster who had found a foothold in life and refused to let go.

Here, she thought wryly, is the prince of hope in all his glory.

And like any other prince, he deserved a chance to prove himself.

After a moment, she said, “Okay,” and the tension drained a little from his shoulders. Her gaze drifted to the man she had steadily been rising into the air. At a good ten feet off the ground, the sight would be in danger of being discovered if they hadn’t been in the woods of the mountain. “He can’t see or hear you, so there’s deniability all day long. Harming him would also cause an international incident, so how to do deal with him without bringing down the bigwigs on our heads?” She mulled the situation over a bit, considered her disused abilities and the tricks she had picked up, then tacked on: “Assume that anything you can think of is valid. Sky’s the limit.”

The monster gave her a look of dawning comprehension, then screwed up his face in concentration. She already had an idea or two, but none so friendly or gentle as whatever he could possibly come up with. He was a little more pragmatic than she was comfortable with, but that was a far greater ease she could live with than compared to the type of contingency plans she carried around.

They were both damaged when it came to permanent consequences, though between the two of them, they eventually arranged a punishment that appealed to Asriel’s sense of mercy and her own of drilling lessons into thick-headed fools without causing fatalities. Hours later the man would awaken in an alley hundreds of miles away, reeking of alcohol. Quietly, she added urine to the list because nothing was worse than a man stinking of both near a bus station in the middle of nowhere, and really who listened to drunken folks who claimed of having encountered a mage? Resisting the urge to stab the moron through the foot or slice off a few fingers took effort, however.

Really, the man couldn’t have know better. Her glitched title encompassed everything and nothing. It tickled the back of her mind, offering to reach out beyond what she could see and into the bleakness between worlds. And whenever her anger stirred, the void followed, curling in her bones, tangling in her veins. It wanted to suffocate what was visible and bring bothersome elements into the emptiness that cloyed at her back.

It itched worse than dried blood at such times, but she endured for all who thrived in the light.

Chapter Text

The child of Void deemed to become the Hollow Knight was not chosen for their speed to reach the edge of the Abyss.

The climb was precarious at best, the sides of the pit and some surfaces filled with curved spikes, like teeth of a waiting predator. The darkness beneath bubbled, the occasional howl or shriek coiling upwards into the Ancient Basin, a long-lived entity welcoming in the unwanted and daring the monarch to come down further. Even the best outside of the Great Knights would have difficulty in making every leap, every landing safely. Each child unknowingly ascended to prove success or failure, drawn in by the Pale King’s light as moths to a flickering flame, a primal desire that could overtake all thought for the barest of moments and leave the children plummeting to meet their broken kin.

However, even successes could be failures in the eyes of another.

Empty of mind to be consumed by the alluring light; empty of will to be deterred by the corpses of the fallen; empty of mouth of which to scream and inquire. Yet, a hint of curiosity. A whim to move without orders. The gall to reach out for affection. A tremor of the shoulders.

Lacking in the eyes of the Wyrm.

So high were the Pale King’s demands that an ounce of weakness was not permitted. Not of emotional or mental presence. Not for his plan to seal the Infection to succeed. A pulse of Soul, and the Vessel was rejected to the thousands below, another casualty, another cast-off spawn to never see light.

There were not many so spurned, nowhere near comparable to the ones shattered and wandering and lost, but enough. Enough that the Pale One could have reconsidered his decision. Enough that could have joined him in the White Palace as family, or sent to the Teacher’s Archives to aid Monomon, or to the spire with Lurien the Watcher to aid him in his daily routine.

But that would reveal the Vessels to Hallownest, and he had only need of one, and no more. So the siblings were born then died and floated through the Abyss, and more rained down as water did in the city or corpses at Kingdom’s Edge, smashing open the aimless offspring of a fool of a ruler and leaving their regrets to cluster.

Pale Ore was the strongest material in the kingdom, but the Pale King made his heart harder than even that, steeling himself from his own actions, the shattering he heard, the cries of Root born, and shrieks of the entity below.

“No cost too great.” A claim then mantra, brittle as folded steel though its fragility ignored. What was a king without action? What was a ruler without a kingdom or citizens? What was strength if not through sacrifice?

Then at last a suitable candidate, a perfect Vessel born of Void, of his and the Root’s creation. He led them out and sealed the door behind himself, uncaring if others may have made it. His kingdom, his legacy thought to last forever was falling in a haze of light and death.

So he fought with Void and life.

He allowed the Vessel to mature, their mask sharpening and growing while free of the Void’s domain. Deft with a nail, but bereft of caring touch or a loving word; an empty life for an empty being.

However, the Wyrm was careless. The folded steel broke.

He had deigned the Vessel with approval. A simple nod. A moment of careless eye contact. Isolated moments shared observing the tiny world they knew.

No mind or will to break, but the being watched. The being learned.

Torn from duty by curiosity and presumption. Will built up by pride and adoration. Mind tainted by wishful thinking of wants and desires.

A father, a son in the court. No smiles given in silent moments, but none required.

A heart born of the Void, awakened at long last, grasped at the times shared; grasped the nods and subtle eye creases.

Grasped at the singular, heavy nod before the chains dragged them into the Black Egg and they took the heart of suffering into themselves.

Chapter Text

The god of destruction, Eggman had called it. Not a moniker of his own, but a name given by the survivors of an ancient people, a warning written in stone and lost to the ages. The accompanying mural deep below the earth’s surface elaborated the peril, a gigantic creature with a gaping maw, set to devour and destroy all in its path.

We write these words as a warning, one tablet told. Bring not the seven of Chaos together or the god of destruction shall bear down its full fury.

Beware of the god of destruction, the other was inscribed. It sleeps in the Controller. Its prison is not to be disturbed.

Very clear. Very direct.

But ultimately ignored, as the ruins of Station Square attributed to. Water poured from broken windows onto the streets, broken, flooded, and obscured under the sea water and sewage. Buildings tilted to one side, or were broken in half, or were collapsed as the ancient being rampaged. People huddled where they found safety, calling for others not yet saved; calling for those lost beneath the churning waves.

Eggman’s attempt to subdue the creature went down in flames. What was a machine to the embodiment of all that was natural and unnatural? An underestimation of the potential at hand, despite the name inscribed in stone. Despite the mural and the danger it represented.

What was once an ordinary Chao, mutated by the Master Emerald’s power, now boosted to perfection through the seven, bellowing its bottled anguish for the world to hear. An amalgamation of unfathomable energies and deepest loathing coalesced, absorbed from the seven Chaos, leaving only grey Emeralds to tumble onto dry land.

Few knew what had to be done. Fewer knew how to do it.

Scattered witnesses, brought together through circumstance, collected the partially drained Emeralds. They still existed, proof that some remnant of the power remained. Deposited at the feet of the chosen one, experienced in their usage, knowledgeable of the limits they imposed.

He had once been on a mural, too.

Blinding light revealed their golden savior. Then, he was gone. Streaks of electric blue through sunlight, screaming over the waters, weaving around the creature's attacks.

In less time than it took to destroy the city, the monster was defeated. Calmed. The Spirit of Water returned to his natural state, relieved of the near limitless power of the servers.

Perfection had its price. A steep one, one he never wanted in the first place.

The vision giver welcomed him with open arms, forgiving as always.

And they ascended.

Chapter Text

Long before the Wyrm, long before the Old Light, there was an ancient colony of bugs that settled in the vast caverns that would one day become known as Hallownest. Without granted minds, these bugs lived simple lives and yet they left behind advanced methods of preservation that historians still struggle to understand to this day. They left behind Arcane Eggs full of knowledge that few possessed the talent or patience to carefully peal back a single layer of. They built odd statues brimming with so much Soul that the very air around them glowed. They turned the corpse of an enormous bug into a temple to worship their deity: That Which Moves Below.

To call them primitive for not having the gift of mind would be a horrid mistake. They were, above all, guided by a higher being, one unknowable yet embraced with fervor. That Which Moves Below granted them subtle ideas while they were nearer to its home, deep down under all that they knew. The ancient bugs then took these vague ideas and created things that not even time and neglect could decay. The thick-shelled eggs containing decades of records were one. The Soul Totems were another.

The Soul Totems were special in a way that nothing else was, however. They were scattered throughout the ancient bugs’ home and were designed and built to harness the ambient energy of the world. That energy would then drift towards those nearby who had lost Soul, or gained an injury, filling in that which had been lost. These miracles increased the belief of the ancient bugs, compelling them to listen harder at their temple, or more boldly, at the edge of where the entity dwelled. It was where their funeral ceremonies were conducted, imparting the departed to their deity so that they might be as one, unified in death. Some were said to have been chosen by the darkness itself to descend into the depths after leaping into the Abyss, following a call no one else could hear. Those without purpose were given one, and they embraced the opportunity to become unified.

A terrifying notion, to throw oneself to the mercies of a higher being, and yet it was not met with anything but cheer. Who had anything to fear by being together with loved ones?

That Which Moves Below welcomed them all.

But it still could not speak to them. All was silent in and around the Abyss, and yet the notions of doing this or that persisted on. So, That Which Moves Below selected one who had departed and allowed him to climb back to the funerary ledge. This bug, named He Who Leads in Silence, lived within the temple close to the surface. Any who attempted to cross the threshold into his living space, however, be it for greed or to merely ask after something, were devoid of Soul in seconds. A chosen one, one above all who would help lead the rest of them, voiceless as he was.

The golden age for their civilization sadly ended with the appearance of the Old Light. Those who opposed the glory of the new order were burned inside and out. A new regime struck down the old, a tradition carried on by the Wyrm, and then reversed when the Old Light was recalled.

And during both reigns, That Which Moves Below was subdued. The Old Light detested it, but the Pale Light investigated it. Molded it. Commanded it.

And his strongest warrior. His “pure” vessel from the darkness below. How could he have known that surrendering so many lives uncalled, and making the Void revive them was a folly? How could he have known that Void did not mean thoughtless? How could he have known of the will in the entity below?

How could he have known that the true potential of the Void was in unity, not division?

He could not.

So he assumed.

And so he fell.

The Lights winked out. The darkness was forgotten. But the Void would always be.

Chapter Text

The Janitor looked out of the spaceship’s port side window. Never had she imagined that Xabran’s Rock would look so green, or so huge. It was like the grass after Theday, when visitors had partied too hard around Thedelule’s shrine, leaving puke and used narcotics everywhere. The planet spun, almost ridiculously so, the parts in shadow slid into the sun’s light even as she watched.

It would be morning in the spaceport soon. And she wouldn’t be there to pick up the day’s refuse. A part of her was anxious about that. She had never missed work, even when she was sick to her stomach and vomiting every other step. It was more to burn, anyway, and that meant having enough for food for the next day. The rest of her though was relieved. Giddy even. She wasn’t going into work today.

The thought stuck out, repeating in her mind. She wasn’t. Going. Into. Work today!

The Ex-Janitor giggled then covered her mouth. She could hardly believe it! After years of scrounging for partial credits, being treated like garbage, and having to eat literal garbage, she was free! Free to leave behind the daily, thankless grind of picking up strangers’ trash and barely making it day to day. Free of the suffocating hopelessness that haunted her mornings, and the exhaustion and starvation of the evenings.

She was free.

A laugh bubbled up in her chest and echoed in the empty hallway. She had been waiting for this moment for so long, it almost seemed like a dream. At any second she expected to wake back up in her cramped apartment, the portable furnace charged up and waiting for her.

She blinked. She breathed.

The planet kept on turning.

The girlbeast placed a hand on the window, smiling. It was so surreal. From the moment she had met that odd woman at the spaceport, she had thought her hopes of leaving Xabran’s Rock would have to be put aside. A curse that continually ate at her meager luck would only make her chances of leaving that much harder. So she worked, she explored, she prayed.

And finally, the curse had been transferred. Her hopes could be her one focus again. Then, as if in a dream, the floating cursed skull had returned. It had held out an offer, having heard her prayers over the weeks, seen the disrespect, seen her struggles and triumphs.

And here she was. Off-planet.

She still wasn’t sure what had possessed her to enter the sewer dungeon – maybe one of the goddesses was feeling mischievous? – but she couldn’t regret the choice. The adventurer she had hired was going to be leaving orbit soon. This was the last she would ever see of Xabran’s Rock. She couldn’t say she would miss it.

It was shrinking now, steadily but surely. The green rock spun, a sickly blob that would never get better. Around it, stars glinted in the vast canvas of space, so bright and inviting in a way she had never seen them. She watched as Xabran’s Rock shrank and shrank, until only the stars remained.

She muttered a quick prayer to Beb, then left for the room the adventurer had given her.

She was free, and for the first time ever, she could decide what to do without pressure.

Even if it was only a few hours' sleep.

Chapter Text

Someone save me from this terrifying life

I'm so sick of corruption and baseless strife

Backdoor deals made in open air

Rules broke and bent without a care

Somehow I don't think

That this ship won't sink

 

Another hour, another day

My soul aches but I get paid

Somewhere out there's 

Something better

But how I reach that end

I don't understand 

 

I can't break it, I can't hide it

Though like vultures they have eyed it

Something strong, within, without

They won't have it, I have vowed 

No one will take away from me

That I guarantee

 

My disposition's 

In remission

I've made my last decision

 

Somewhere out there's 

Something better

I finally know I'll reach that end

And they'll never understand

Just what they had on hand

Chapter Text

“Eugh! Gross, man…” Zeke held the collar of his shirt over his nose, the stench of the purple-pink aftermath of Hulking out assaulting his nose. It was the demented, cackling dolls all over again, only larger and more…just more. “Julie better thank me for this. Ugh…” He backed away from the mess, the goop clinging to grass and hedges like sludge. It was like some nightmare walker had come through and decided to repaint the blood color for the hell of it.

Heck. Heck of it. Julie was going to give him the stink-eye if he slipped up again. 

Zeke turned around and left the remains of the maniac behind, idly following the right side of the maze as he did. 

“Julie!” he called out, a hand cupped to his face. “Jules! Where are you?” Zeke paused at a rough, butchered shortcut in the hedge, but quickly shook his head and left it behind.

“Julie!” He had seen her. He had heard her. He hadn’t Hulked out for long. Had he?

Bile briefly rose in his throat. The arms, the legs -- he had… No. No, it was a monster. It hadn’t said a word or even screamed when he --

“Julie!” His voice cracked, a short-lived shriek in utter silence. 

He waited a moment, holding his breath. One heartbeat. Two. The wind carried the sickly scent of the deceased, dozens if not hundreds of reanimated corpses shambling through the town and the countryside. They would have heard that. 

He didn’t have much time, and neither did his best friend.

Sunlight dwindling, and acutely aware of every horror movie rule he had broken, Zeke chose a direction and shoved his foot into a wall of leaves. He moved it up and down, grunting as his laces caught on tiny branches. Each snapped or snagged him again quickly. None would hold his weight.

Eventually, Zeke sighed in resignation. He had to leave the hard way.

Somewhere in the distance, he heard moaning.

Zeke shuddered, and started walking, faster this time. He’d seen a brick wall at some point. The maze probably bordered someone’s house.

He’d joked with Jules about becoming some ultimate powerhouse by chugging the purple gunk. A dumb joke after finding the sports bottle a soldier dropped. He’d thought to just take a swig of it, just to see what it was like, before chucking it at the chainsaw maniac to lure it away from Julie.

Then his skin rippled, and purple hair covered his arms like a shag rug, and then…

He couldn’t remember. There was a vague sense of “stop this thing” and anger, but that was all. 

Zeke paused at a roughly butchered wall. For a moment, he listened, the puttering of a chainsaw half-expected to turn up.

The groans of the dead disturbed the peace. But no motor. He ducked through the impromptu shortcut, eyeing nearby roofs that were becoming closer and closer.

Julie was somewhere around here. She had to be. She was an ace when it came to strategy, and she wouldn’t have stuck around when the Hulk’s cousin and Jason Voorhees threw down in the Overlook’s labyrinth.

Zeke blinked and slightly lifted up his 3D glasses to get a good look at his arms. He turned them over, then checked over the rest of himself. He had plenty of scratches and a small burn from one of the Chuckie ripoffs exploding into fire, but other than that, he was fine. Which was sort of concerning.

He hadn’t a single injury from the chainsaw.

“Huh…” Zeke shook his head. There were far more worrying things to think about than mysterious gashes not appearing.

Such as the distinct click and flash of a camera going off.

Zeke resisted the urge to sigh. He was slowly coming to realize just how many tourists coming to town were actually brainless. Too bad that didn’t excuse them from being dinner for some decade old geezer that decided to stop taking a dirt nap.

Maybe if he was lucky, Julie would already be there trying to herd whoever it was towards the nearest checkpoint.

But from the distinct lack of denial and confusion, he doubted it.

Chapter Text

Deep within the gauntlet of illusions and magic, past countless statues and banners bearing crowns of searing red flames, sat a man on a throne of marble. He did not seem surprised that his doors had been thrown wide open in a burst of winter, nor that all his traps and generals been defeated. He held his head high, back straight and arms resting beside himself. Eyes as dark as coal bore down on the intruder, as if the man in shining, white armored plate was nothing more than a foot soldier.

“I fully expected you to walk through those doors yesterday,” he stated, smooth voice pitched so it carried and echoed without shouting. “But I suppose you had your reasons. After all, it was your last night in this world. Who would I be to tear that away from one who has endured so much?”

The man in plate did not move.

“I’ve heard of you,” he continued, fingers brushing over a small indentation. That one had been during an attempted assassination in his grandmother’s time. And it had remained an attempt. “Where you came from. What you have done. They call you many things. The Bearer of Hope, the Light’s Champion… The Prophesied Protector.” He waited a handful of seconds, perhaps waiting for a shift in the intruder’s stance. None came. “Of course, very few would call you by your actual name, without any titles attached. Just as few would call me Darun instead of King Darun Faronious IV, or whichever vicious names those in Orador have chosen to call me.”

“Mostly “evil”,” Barthor rumbled. It echoed oddly from inside his helm, but King Faronious had heard it just fine.

“Yes. That is how things have been for centuries,” he said. Beyond the doors, barely visible within shadows, two soldiers stood waiting. A single word would have them follow through with their orders. “Ever since their ancestors betrayed mine, they have sought to completely annihilate my country and enslave all who do not amount to their ridiculous standards of civility.”

Plates scraped slightly as Barthor shifted.

King Faronious gestured with one hand, the edge of his purple cape falling away to reveal overlapping copper plates up his arm. “You have already seen it, then. You could be the most intelligent person in your town, but if you were born poor or unable to fight or refused to take the Veracity Test, you would be no better than the rats living in the sewage runoffs.”

Barthor shook. A fissure in the otherwise silent death’s implacable mask.

A quick gesture, miming the rune for “shadow”, and the soldiers backed away some. “And what,” he asked, softer, “did you see in the Rasette Kingdom?”

The Chosen Hero, the Gleaming Knight, Death’s Advocate, stopped and tilted his head up higher.

“Fear,” he began slowly, “but not of you. They speak highly of you, almost to the point of worship. Runaway bondsmen and bondswomen say they have a chance to live here. They’re protected and hidden. Learn skills and have homes. They live.” The King nodded once, deeply. Barthor froze at the gesture, then shook it off. “There is magic in abundance here, moreso than in Orador. There’s no race to keep it all to one group or another. It’s free to anyone who chooses to pursue it.”

The previous Chosen One from Orador had said as much, as well. A simple thing to notice if one took the time. However… “So you know what Orador’s royal family really wants.”

Barthor nodded, stiffly. “I do.”

“And yet, despite that, you still fight for them?” King Faronious raised his other hand. More copper plates. He discretely signed the rune for “head”. “They use you as a tool, heedless of your true value.”

There was a clang, a battering of steel against granite. Then silence.

Barthor stepped over the iridescent blade with too long of a name. “Not since I lost their watchdogs.”

King Faronious lifted an eyebrow. “You would disarm yourself in front of an enemy?”

The helm was lifted and cast aside. “I don’t see any here.”

A gesture to the softly glowing columns to either side of the throne. “These glow with more than just magic.”

Pauldrons clattered to the floor. “Deflection amulet.”

“The rods in the ceiling aren’t just for show.”

More bits of white armor joined the slowly growing pile. “I’ve been putting one on since after my first breakout attempt.”

“Charming.”

Barthor shrugged. Stress lines creased his tanned skin. “Never really did see myself as a hero of light. Or whatever they insisted on calling me.”

As more of the plate armor dropped to the floor, King Faronious watched. This wasn’t how the standoff traditionally went, but with a non-traditional hero by Orador standards, he supposed exceptions had to be expected.

As the torso was shoved off and sent rolling away, King Faronious found he had to ask. “What did they promise you?”

“Freedom,” Barthor snorted. He rolled a shoulder. It popped unpleasantly. “That they could use the mana ley lines in Rasette to send me back.”

The same promise, then. Predictable. “But you know they won’t.”

“They will not.”

The King nodded to himself. Straight to the point. He liked it.

“I also know,” Barthor added, “that they’ll kidnap someone again. They have to be stopped.”

“That itself is simple enough,” King Faronious stated. He rose from his throne, unclipping his cape and leaving it behind. His hands flashed “halt”, and he stepped down from his seat and towards the once feared and unstoppable one-man army. “You had a reputation for being rather silent upon entering Rasette. If we could get one of our own into your armor and send them back with word of my passing, they could get close enough to the king and his mages.”

Barthor nodded along absently, scraggly black hair falling over brown eyes. “However you get it done, I’m cool with it. Um, Your Majesty.”

The King barked out a laugh, making the young man jump. The sound reverberated, making him seem much louder than he actually was. The last of his tension fled in that moment, easing his shoulders. “Please, call me Darun, Mr. Barthor.”

“Um….” He shrugged uncomfortably. “Okay. Just call me Barthor, though.”

“Barthor, then. Tell me, do you still wish for your freedom?”

“Of course!”

Yes, so much alike the last knight, but distinctly willing to talk instead of trying to cut his head off. “Then we’ll make preparations to send you home,” said Darun, “wherever that may be. After that is taken care of, you will be sent there at the exact moment that the Orador’s King falls so as to not arouse suspicion. Too much magical fluctuation would draw eyes better served looking elsewhere.”

It was a decent arrangement. One that had just about fallen into his lap. But the look on the other man’s face… “About that…” Barthor’s face creased in worry. “There are some people at the castle I would rather not…”

Darun waved away his concerns. He turned and waved for the young man to follow. “We aren’t barbarians, Barthor. We’ll leave the staff alone. They’ll still have their jobs afterwards.”

“Not that, but that’s great,” he assured quickly. “It’s just…” The man grit his teeth. “It’s the royal siblings, Your M-- Darun.”

The King hummed, and pressed the rune for “hide” on the wall. A panel slid away, revealing a passage. That was indeed a problem. But he hadn’t kept control of the throne for decades by letting them pile up. “That is troublesome,” he admitted, walking through the hidden door. “But by my word I promise you, I’ll do what I can to ensure that they are not killed during the coup d’etat. You can rest assured of that.”

“Right,” he murmured, as if trying to convince himself. “Right.”

“I understand your hesitance,” Darun said. “I am but a mere stranger to you, heard only in second- or third-hand accounts. You are but the same to me, but you have shown great trust in me already. I can only repay that in kind. Now...” The passage was short and ended at an actual door. He pushed it open and moved into the dining room beyond. Once Barthor followed through, he set a hand on his back and motioned to the food set upon the table. Meats and fruits of every kind in Rasette, even a few jelly-filled pastries, spread out before them like a wedding banquet. “I had a wonderful dinner planned. Let us feast, and in the meantime my archmage may get started on pinpointing where you come from.”

Darun side-eyed the former champion. Barthor’s gaze had gone wide. From duel to the death to a meal. How things changed so quickly, though it was certainly not unwelcome. The young man made to reach out to the grand spread, then retracted his hand. “...And if it’s not anywhere in this world?” he asked quietly.

“Barthor, please. My family came from another world.” That jolted the young man. “Wherever you came from, we will find it and send you there. You have my word.”

Darun watched carefully. He was extending hope, a hope he could and would fulfill, and to a man in...his twenties? Thirties? Who had been seen in Orador at least seven years back, this had to seem as a dream. He knew little about Orador’s methods, other than throwing things a problem until it stopped being a problem, but he imagined the time there couldn’t have been pleasant. How many promises had been made? How many had been broken? His own ancestry had been built upon blood and sweat, with oaths made and kept even after someone had passed on. He briefly wondered how many even knew of that little detail.

Barthor’s face cringed, shifting from uncertainty and anger and frustration, until finally the young man took a deep breath. Then he sighed, and smiled.

“Thank you, Darun.”

Chapter Text

Laylee spun in the air, whooping as she swooped around her chameleon friend. “Yeah! Take that, bumblebutt!” she squeaked.

Rextro waved his little arms from where he was in the disabled elevator, waving his Trowzer Tracker – patent pending – RC controller, his stilted laughter clear across the once-office. The ever-polite Yooka shook with adrenaline, his giggles becoming full blown laughter as the One Book floated above them, away from the wrecked Busy Business Beebot. Pagies flew into it, stacking on top of one another in a joyous frenzy. “We did it... We actually did it!”

“Whee!”

“Thank you!”

“Woo!”

“Home sweet home!”

The chorus of cheers overlapped as the book filled up, the lights around the impromptu arena making the golden pages glitter. At last, the final Pagie settled into place, and the cover snapped shut, golden beams scattering all around it like sunbeams through the treetops. Reverently, Yooka reached out and gently grabbed the tome.

He smirked, side-eyeing his friend as she continued her aerial tricks. “Still feel like selling it, Laylee?”

“Are you kidding?!” she practically squawked, landing on his head. “Nuh uh, no way!” She playfully bopped her wing against his crests. “We went through too much trouble to get this back! I'm locking this up as soon as we get home!”

Yooka grinned, opening his mouth again to reply, when an odd booping and beeping interrupted him. It echoed in the room, seeming to come from every speaker at once. Then, the ceiling still remaining above Capital B.’s desk opened up, allowing an enormous, thin curtain to be lowered.

Somewhere in the wall behind them, another panel slid open with a hiss, and the click of a projector came to life.

Over the remains of Dr. Quack’s shoddy duo buster, the shadowy silhouette of a tall, intimidating figure appeared.

The beeps and boops echoed again, somehow carrying a note of disgust and irritation.

Laylee tilted her head. “Who’s this guy?”

The odd noises gained an intensity.

Rextro’s voiced echoed from the thin opening in the elevator. “Well that’s not very nice.”

Laylee turned, eyes wide. “You can understand him?"

Rextro nodded. “Yeah! Can’t you?”

“I don’t speak dinosaur.”

The noises tumbled together again.

“I don’t know what that means, but thank you!”

Yooka glanced back between the outdated translucent T-rex and the silhouette. Their adventure had had its stranger moments, and this was far from the top five, but it was still off-putting. “Erm, could you please translate, Rextro?” he asked.

“Yeah,” his bat pal chimed in. “Who’s this last minute addition?”

“Oh, uh...” Rextro paused as the noises began again. “Oh! He says, “I am Mr Chairman of the Board. I am the big boss, the puppeteer, and soon-to-be master of this world. On behalf of the Corporation, thank you for collecting the Pagies for us. The corplets were...insufficient in their efforts, and you have saved us the trouble of paying them for collection. Now...be good heroes, and hand over the One Book”.”

Yooka straightened up from his minor slouch, and fell back into a ready fighting stance. Laylee flapped her wings, and prepared for whichever maneuvers they may need. “Fat chance!” she shouted. “We found these Pagies first! Now scram so the credits can roll already!”

A high-pitched hiss of static made Laylee wince, but she did not look away.

“"You top shelf wannabes have no inkling of what power that book holds”,” Rextro said, still translating. “Wow, that’s really rude! Oh, right. He says, “Our world is one of evolution. Every year the expectations rise, and every year we struggle to meet them. It is a never-ending bid to advance pixel by pixel, polygon by polygon… But with the One Book, all of that can change. We can keep ahead of the curve, bring our world – no, our universe into an age unparalleled by another other. We would be unstoppable in the market. Stocks would rise, merchandise sales would go through the roof! Small time worlds would vanish or be assimilated...

“”Do you see? The need of the One Book isn’t just for us, it’s for you, as well… So… Are you going to be selfish, or will you give the Book to me?”"

Laylee shook her head vehemently. “In your dreams, you unfinished concept piece!”

Yooka held on tight to the tome. “The One Book doesn’t belong to you!”

“He says, “Hmmm… I wonder… How fast can an iguana run?””

The floor rumbled beneath Yooka. Tiles fell from the remains of the ceiling and the elevator creaked ominously.

“Uh, guys?” the flickering Rextro called. “I don’t like this game anymore!”

“A load bearing boss? Really?!”

“It’s time to go!”

Yooka rolled into a ball and Laylee tumbled him towards the elevator. There had been an emergency hatch above Rextro. Hopefully it would be enough to get them somewhere better to escape.

There were a few more parting noises, but it was easy to decipher their meaning.

Good bye.

Chapter Text

Rumors can often be hard to put down.

A legendary source of untold power, they say, one to make us prosper.

Whispers about a secret underground hideout for ne’er-do-wells, a secret shared beneath shelter from the unforgiving sun.

Wanderers divulging over drinks: a wizard hidden away from the rest of the world and reanimated bugs with a taste for the living.

Guards overhearing and wondering of a battle lost to a terrible evil.

Of course, it’s harder to dispute that a rumor is true when there's living proof walking the kingdom. When the same villain has been trounced and made harmless, with the Queen denying any other event having occurred. Rumors tend to shift, however. Mimic bugs, doppelgangers; the speculation spins in the gossip mill for a time until something else of interest crops up.

Team Snakemouth took it mostly in stride. Vi grumbled and shouted over Kabbu’s sputtering protests while the explorer team’s third member, Leif, mostly stayed quiet, not deigning the stories with anything but a sigh. The little Chomper on their heels behaved for the most part, although a few of the nosier bugs complained of tears in their clothing afterwards.

But, if you listen, you may hear from the palace guards a different story. That Team Snakemouth did not come back with the Queen, nor with Team Mothiva, nor with Team Maki.

But, you may catch in the Association, they were missing for weeks. None knew where they went. Only that they came back.

But, you may coax from a hermit, a bug came through the path some time back. It was dark and cold out, so he might have been mistaken in seeing glittering stones trailing behind them.

But, you may find past the Seedlings and Inichas, an ancient frigid chamber flooded and unwelcoming of strangers.

But, you may notice, the team’s heart pausing before finding the stilted words to cheer up a child.

But, you may hear, the youngest and only Bee explorer grumbling when her cloak snags on a bush.

But, you may gain, a glare from the tired, trailing mage, a thin layer of frost in their palm as the only warning.

But they are only rumors. They can often be hard to put down, though even harder to keep.

Chapter Text

My head ached, my knees protested, but I stumbled to my feet anyways and kept moving. The few hours of sleep I had managed to get weren’t much to go on. Unfortunately, I just had to deal with it.

There had been almost no time for rest the day before. Days maybe? I couldn’t follow the time anymore. My fellow crewmates were either driven mad with the pursuit of power, dead, or had decided to abandon the project as soon as the Giganbot was operational. What had originally been an expedition to investigate the odd temporal readings on a planet had devolved into a bloody screaming match until our engineer finally cracked and killed our head of operations. The lasers had been meant for any dangerous creatures or flora on the surface, or carving through solid rock, not...not humans. There was nothing but ash left, but his wide eyed stare of disbelief wouldn’t leave me.

Then, our jovial, joke-loving engineer had turned the rest of the excavation robots on everyone else.

I’d run for the escape pods. Staying on the space station was certain death while heading towards the planet was uncertain death. And if there was some temporal anomaly that could turn back the clock enough to avoid this disaster, all the better.

I wasn’t holding my breath for that, though. I just had to run. I just had to keep on going. Past every vicious bug and mechanical abomination, past the bloodied corpses of majestic beasts and friends alike.

I couldn’t stop. If I did, something would kill me. If it wasn’t part of the planet, it was the sudden invasion force that the engineer was commanding.

I should have known something was wrong when he spilled his guts about his career. His successes and regrets. One reward or another should have been his, he ranted about a backstabbing partner, and I… I hadn’t thought much of it. We all had dreams about time travel. Simon wanted to know if the Raiders would win this year. Rachel loved her uncle and quietly lamented time lost between them. Tilly wanted to speed up the growth of crops to end hunger once and for all. Little things, big things. They tied us all together.

Or at least, I thought they did.

The planet was dying. My crewmates were dead and scattered like broken toys. The Giganbot and its pilot were both sunk in lava – or magma, whatever the hell you call it so deep down here. I was the only one left, stranded at the center of a strange planet with no way to call for help. There was a temporal something or other down here though. That’s what all the robots had been going after. I… I couldn’t begin to comprehend why that one creature was hooked up to the machine so long ago… Or why everything had to die. How could he have justified that? How could he have justified wiping out entire species in a bid to dig towards the planet’s core? We had time. We had the resources and backing. And he just...threw it all away.

The worst part, perhaps, was that all of it was planned. How long had he plotted in secret? Right back at beginning when the first scans had come back. Did he envision his mechanical invasion then?

I… I couldn’t know.

I just had to keep going.

I just had to keep going...

Chapter Text

They called the planet Alpha, the first one discovered in a newly discovered solar system. The name itself was nothing special. New planets were being found all the time at the outer reaches of mankind’s map of the stars. It was only a placeholder until a proper name could be given, and then announced to the public, although a few astronomers and engineers quickly grew attached to the name as the first photographs came in.

The initial images were promising, if a bit blurry from the distance. Colorful and vibrant flora dominated the surface, and strange alien creatures, almost like whales, flew through the debris filled skies. A probe was sent out to do some more detailed scans, and each one that came back made the hub crew excited. Enormous fronds went limp as the sunlight faded. Some bulb-like protrusions twisted open at sunrise. Peculiar beasts that resembled brontosauruses stomped around the surface, and eerie bug-like creatures flew in the dark, knotted jungles.

Most interesting, however, were the monuments and crumbling stone buildings. A sign of civilization, although it seemed nature had taken most of the world back. That, more than anything, stirred interest in the higher ups and spurred the need to send out an exploration crew. They were to observe from the atmosphere first most, then when given clearance, send out a pod to the surface. The procedure was set at a minimum of six months of data analysis to ensure that a human could withstand being on the surface with little to no difficulty. A number of statistics and information would be gathered in the interim, with more probes or a rover sent down to test the waters. It was a safe, stable process.

For some people, this was not enough.

Before long, Professor Alex Rosenfield, an expert in robotics, took an intense interest in the remains of the civilization. Spirits were invigorated by the day as new findings rolled in, so such enthusiasm was overlooked in the beginning. Everyone was overjoyed to find a scrap of new information about the planet. Yet, as the weeks rolled on, the professor’s pursuit of the odd repeating symbols and ground-penetrating radar scans became borderline obsessive. Rosenfield went as far to suggest sending down actual robots and drones to explore the surface on foot as none of the creatures had been deemed “docile” at the time.

The request was shutdown.

That, perhaps, was where Rosenfield broke. Deep in the night, some members of the ship could hear the professor muttering in one room or another. As soon as anyone investigated, though, Rosenfield clammed up tighter than a goodfella. Once a constant chatterbox of theories, the good professor retreated into the confines of the robotics department for hours at a time. The rover was maintained and updated, but nothing much else regarding machines was brought up.

Then, four Earth standard months later, radio contact with the ship ceased.

By the time a crisis crew was dispatched and set to arrive, the original observation team was low on supplies. A single silver lining was that with Rosenfield and an emergency pod missing, there were more rations for everybody else.

All plans for the planet were put on hold until the investigation was finished.

By that time, however, it was too late.

Professor Rosenfield was known for robotics, yes, but few knew of the deep burning passion for nanotech. By sending small batches of self-replicating nanites onto Alpha’s surface via the rover and probes, Rosenfield was able to create a hidden underground base beneath a crowded jungle. Meanwhile, in the planet’s moon, another facility was created using a spare drone and larger batches of nanites. Within a year, both locations were home to robot manufacturing plants, with the moon location mass producing small rockets and a plethora of laser-based drones. Pre-written protocols for clearing forestry and living organisms were implanted into each creation, so that even while asleep, the professor’s secret work kept on track.

I...was such an idiot. I curse the day I ever deduced the true nature of planet Alpha. Day and night manipulated the landscape and the inhabitants. The repeating symbols on stone flooring were often spotted on several ruins at night. Sun, moon, planet, beast, and bug pincers. All were important to Alpha, and some poses of the golden statues suggested worship where intelligent life could walk.

The ancient civilization worshiped the sun and moon. There was evidence to corroborate the idea in one of the temples with vague models of both. Beast, insect, and plants alike changed behaviors based on the time of day. And then there were the deep ground scans. Some things moved so far beneath the Alpha’s crust.

Even as far as the core.

I couldn’t help myself. I was curious! I took a pod to the surface and wandered through the remnants of an old structure. The discoveries I made there! The shift of the planet as I stood on one of the designs. Night turned to morning, to afternoon, to evening, and back to night. A shift of my arm and the sun rose in the opposite direction! It was dusk again, but the screeching of the creature outside said that it was treated the same as morning.

This potential was amazing! This was why the sun and moon were central to the civilization’s beliefs, as was harmony with beasts and insects. And the power had to come from the core. I knew it! And if I could crack the ancients’ code and discover how to get down there, the potential of harnessing the energy could be huge!

The protocols in the robotic army was set to activate the next day. They would drill into center of Alpha and process their findings for me.

I designed rovers and probes. I loved nanotech but I was no programming genius. The robots were too aggressive. Too forceful. They destroyed everything in their path with abandon. Even the whales, the stupidly wonderful flying whales weren’t spared.

I hadn’t even designed the stationary lasers. What had happened to my work? Where had I gone wrong?

I’ve tried over and over, but there seems to be no way of saving this dying planet. My failures haunt me everywhere I go, draped like macabre decorations or lying like trash to the wayside. Even when I succeed in destroying my most powerful creation, the constant chase leaves me barely standing.

I piloted it once. Only once. I can’t remember doing it, but the proof condemns my past actions.

I can only hope to find the last missing symbols hidden somewhere on this world. Those should allow me to escape, at least.

Maybe then I can stop my monstrosities.

Maybe then the cycle will stop.

Chapter Text

When Taylor Hebert finally returned home, the city had been blanketed in the dark of night. The moon had settled in the sky, but even so it gave no light to see by. An annoyance at best, but she had managed  the trek. She avoided the broken step by habit, and opened the creaky front door.

“Taylor?” Rapid footsteps followed the exhausted question, and suddenly her dad was there, hair disheveled and glasses askew. “Oh, Taylor!” Before she could get a word in, he had swept her up into a hug, holding onto her as if she would float away if he let go.

It had been years. It had been years since he had held her like this. Not since...since…

She wrapped her arms around him, ignoring the way his cheek was cool against hers.

“I thought…” He took a shallow breath, the steady voice of a reporter droning in the brief lull. “When I heard about the fire, I didn’t think it was that bad. Then I saw the news and you didn’t come home, and I thought...”

Taylor swallowed hard. Hot pinpricks danced at the corners of her eyes. “Yeah...” she said weakly. “Guess I was lucky. Some...girl pulled me out, but I must have passed out.”

Her dad squeezed her even tighter. “Thank God,” he sighed. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Taylor nodded into his shoulder. What was she supposed to tell him? That some concerned student at Winslow saved her? That Emma had pulled her worthless carcass out of that hell? That she had nearly burned to death and now she needed a certain fire to keep her alive? No. She couldn’t let him know what she had been reduced to. What had almost become of her. Best to let him guess and wonder, and then forget.

She knew she wouldn’t. The flames wouldn’t let her.

The moment ended far sooner than she wanted. Her dad pulled away, and adjusted his glasses, wiping near his eye in the same movement.

“So,” he said, trying to compose himself, “What would you like for dinner?”

“Um… Chinese?”

He nodded. That was normal. Normal was good. “Sure.”

In an hour, they were both in front of the TV, watching old, corny sci-fi flicks. He had left work early and school was effectively canceled until half of Winslow could be repaired, so there was no rush to go their separate ways. Just a regular dinner and actually spending time together.

It was...nice.

Though she resolutely ignored the heat behind her eyes, and the rest of the room bathed in scarlet flame.

Chapter Text

It’s kind of funny how our ambitions change as we grow up. As children we dream of being heroes and princesses and officers and presidents and all sorts of things. And when we get older, we lose those rose tinted glasses of the world and start looking at things more realistically. Sometimes we keep our ambitions, our hopes, our dreams for the future, and other times...we don’t.

Like, when I was younger, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. Wasn’t thinking that far ahead and hadn’t found anything worthwhile to pursue. When asked, I just said I wanted to be a policewoman. It seemed safe enough.

 

It's here somewhere. It has to be.

If it isn’t, there are still plenty of places left to search.

 

Then one day I got it. We were reading out of our social studies book when a passage briefly went over the number of casualties in the Alamo. It was a number, a large number to a kid, and my brain just sort of...stopped. There were no names mentioned. Every person who died was reduced to just...that number.

I couldn’t hear what else was being said. At that moment I was terrified. I didn’t want to be forgotten after I died. I wanted to be somebody that people would remember. It didn’t have to be everyone, just something, anything that would show I existed.

The answer came easily. Everyone knew the name on the front cover of our history books. It was impossible not to when we saw it every day. I had already enjoyed making stories, so if I just applied myself, then one day my name could be on library bookshelves. One day, my name would be on a front cover. I wouldn’t be forgotten. It was the perfect dream.

Fat lot of good dreaming got me.

 

Another useless tome. Perhaps my efforts are better suited elsewhere.

...Although there are a few more I haven’t seen to yet.

 

Somewhere along the way, that passion for writing flagged. It was a good hobby, but that was all it was: a hobby. I needed something else to support me that wouldn’t twist my enjoyment into mind numbing work.

Ambling down memory lane from late night theorizing and character analyses, I did eventually land on something else. Psychology. Fascinating stuff. The reactions people had to the same situation, the way trauma could be identified and overcome, and how to tug on just the right words to get someone to look at themselves just a little deeper. I’d been doing it lightly over the years, tightening my skills by analyzing how characters would interact with each other or how they would react to certain situations. Turning that interest on actual people was a little weird at first, but I made it work.

 

This is it. This is it! I’ve found it!

And yet...could it really be true? Could this be real? No one here has heard of it. Not even in nursery rhymes.

 

But then one day on my way to college, my bus crashed. Semi-truck came barreling through a red light and hit the back end where I was sitting. Think my neck broke. I certainly don’t remember anything after that.

Well. Anything comforting at least.

Because reality likes to play with lives like a yo-yo, I woke up staring at a rocky ceiling with no clue where I was. My head hurt terribly and there wasn’t a single part of my body that I could move. Everything ached and when I tried calling out for someone to help, my throat rumbled, a deep baritone that was distinctly not my own voice.

 

That fool of a king. It’s so easy to lead him by the nose with promises of peace and an alliance. As for his daughter…

Well, she can barely do anything at all. A little dreamer locked away in her room who no one believes.

 

After some internal panicking, my mouth opened.

“Who’s there?”

My brain stopped. A man. That was a man’s voice. Coming from my throat.

Needless to say, I didn’t get with the program immediately. I’d been hit by a semi and woke up with someone else speaking for me. I wasn’t exactly dealing with a full deck.

Thankfully it wasn’t too long before I discovered my circumstances. I was little more than a disembodied voice inside the head of some evildoer wannabe. Count Dicoda, because of course the bad guy was a count. He’d been in an accident with a carriage and some witch was taking care of him. At least, I thought she was supposed to be a witch. Normal people didn’t stock lizard body parts for potions or boiled weird liquids in giant cauldrons.

 

Closer, closer, the time has almost come! Nothing can stop me now!

The girl has been incapacitated. The boy in mourning. Neither shall interfere.

 

For a while, I just hung back. For all I knew, I was just dreaming and soon enough I’d wake up in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, a full body cast, and bright, painful lights to greet me.

Good gawking geese, I had never been so disappointed in being wrong. Whatever trick or prank this was, it wasn’t funny. The guy I’d become a passenger with was insane. He was utterly convinced that he could hear spirits and that they were telling him that the time for change was upon the world, and yadda yadda, evil crazy guy speech about making the world better through making it worse. It was the same song and dance I’d read and seen countless times before, only this time I was aware of every second of every day that passed with his scheming to overthrow the king and collect whatever magical artifact he had discovered in an old library in the middle of nowhere.

The icing on top of this fecal landmine? He could hear me sometimes, something I learned by accident when he was contemplating poisoning the princess. A slight intrusion, a line of thought that carried off from his previous one. His next thought then carried off from my own intrusion, decided that no, now was not the time to do away with her because there really was too much focus on the royal family right now.

I would’ve internally screamed right then if I could’ve gotten away with it. Instead, I waited until nightfall when he was asleep, then promptly screamed.

He...kind of woke up then. An interesting reaction that I kept stowed away.

The maniac was planning on bringing forth some old dragon deity that would “cleanse the world in holy fire” or some junk, and if the princess and her little friend were who I thought they were, then they needed every edge they could get.

 

At last, I--

Wait. Where is the book? Where is the tome?

The tome! Where is it?! It was right here – it was right here!

 

Which, naturally, meant that I gaslighted the hell out of Dicoda and gave him very little sleep in the lead up to the so-called “promised day”. Cutting off his thoughts or mingling them with intrusive ones, and screaming late at night to wear away at his energy and concentration, which made him irritable and less likely to notice some things were off or to accept the odd idea that yes, maybe reading by candle light really did hurt but he really did need to go over this passage again, and oh, look, it says “oil blood until brown” not “boil”. How about that?

With roughly two weeks to go, I ramped up everything little by little. Less sleep, more paranoid intrusive thoughts about someone trying to backstab the Count, re-reading his precious book for the umpteenth time and noting down a “correction”, encouraging little mumbles so he could verify what he was seeing, and eating a little less because, of course, he wasn’t exactly popular and if he had had the idea of poisoning the precocious princess, then surely someone else would have had the idea of poisoning him as well.

The end result was a battle worn youth in blues and whites paired with a princess in purple and shining gold staring down a rattled old man who thought snakes were hiding in his room on the eve of the “promised day”. He was surrounded by various foul-smelling potions, and a pot of oil and hog’s blood, with a bit of heather in his hair and lizard scales on his tongue. He himself stood in the center of a strange symbol that supposedly depicted the four elements devouring each other to satisfy the sacrifice to the dragon deity, each point with a bottle of some pure elemental substance that would be used up in his little ceremony.

More like a funeral, but I wasn’t the one who wanted to set fire to literally everything because mankind was “impure”.

With the presumed hero and heroine ready to fight, there was only one last thing to do.

“Howdy,” I forced out of Count Dicoda’s mouth. His eyes widened. Curses rained furiously in our shared mind space. They’re brushed away, his consciousness fractured and weakened. “What do you two know about extracting another person’s consciousness from this old, terrible fart? Because I gotta tell ya, cleansing the world via fire sounds like an incredibly bad idea when you actually live in that world.”

Chapter Text

Intent is everything.

Hiding it isn't feasible, or easy. The smaller kinds aren't a problem. Acing a test, deciding what's for dinner, wanting the clock to run out the last few minutes so you can go home. They're the little things that make up life, and they either don't last long or we don't focus on them all day. They're fleeting. Harmless.

But the bigger ones, the more ugly ones…

Well those are where we come in.

Special Suppression Force. We get called out less often than the fire department,  but it's by no means any easier. The call comes in, the alarm starts shrieking, and we hustle into the trucks in time for the ambulance to run by.

Fat lot they'll do, but they can take away the bodies at least.

We have the directions onboard before we even leave the garage. Shotgun reads it to the comms, along with whatever details the operator was able to get. It's never any good. Bein' in a Suppression Force means the situation has escalated to where your average cop or negotiator can't do squat.

Intent is everything, and if you're too focused on it, it consumes you.

On lucky days, the only worry we have is the intent hoarder. Their intent becomes desire and affects the area around them. A tranq or bullet might be enough sometimes, if you can find the brain in that mess. It's better than bringing out the equivalent of an emotional powder keg anyways.

On an average day, we usually lose people. One or two who had the manifested desire turn on them. Ugly sonnuvaguns. It's like looking at flies in some parody of a human form.

On worse days…

Well. Las Vegas is quarantined for a reason. Not that the news really acknowledges it anymore. Multi-trigger episode that left the city a cesspool of mangled and deformed hoarders. Government estimates it might be cleared out by 2032. Peh. They wish.

Would things be better if people were more honest? Maybe. Desires aren't a bad thing. It's just that people bottle 'em up so much they explode. Literally. Sharing some writing or drawing usually helps hoarders. So does talking, but art doesn't have to have your real face and name stamped on it. You don't even have to necessarily trust the other person either. Just throw your intent to the world and nobody has to know that turtleneck-zero-seven's weird, crackpot romance has anything to do with the real you.

Makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?

Somehow it isn't for a lot of people. Maybe they don't trust easily. Maybe they're shy. Or maybe they don't think their intent is very...worrisome. Either way, they keep to themselves...until they finally can't.

Chapter Text

Who do you think you are, princess

Taking the whole world upon your back?

You know you've lost but don't distress

At last, I'll be picking up the slack

 

There's no difference to my workload

Undervalued, overworked for too long

My kingdom will have no crossroads

Enjoy your last moments in this swan song

 

[Banter/arguing/Crow in pain until 1:16.]

 

There's no room for a second guess

Now let me address

Your mess

Of progress

In my transgress

 

You still believe you stand a chance

I can tell at a glance

Your stance

Won’t advance

A naïve trance

[Mayapple]

I may not be a hero knight

But I won’t give up this fight

We’ll take flight

Tonight

We unite!

[Becky]

Take your end with a graceful bow

I really don’t care how

You avow

To disallow

My crown

[Becky]

Who do you think you are, princess

Taking the whole world upon your back?

You know I've won but don't distress

At last, I'll be picking up the slack

[Mayapple]

Who do you think you are, princess

Taking the whole world upon your back?

You know we've won but don't distress

At last, I'll be picking up the slack

[Becky]

Accept your fate, this is your end

However you choose, I couldn’t care

How much longer will you pretend?

You fly on barethread hope and prayer

Chapter Text

Every mask that I claim
Has a story and name
This one drowned
That one found
In a hole in the ground

An unfortunate soul
Beneath mountains of coal
A frown etched forever
Found he wasn't that clever

My collection, it grows
Still there's more to discover
As I follow the crows
And find out where they hover

The dead and the wistful
Lay bare by the fistful
Dust and bones remain
Of where they last lain

No class or skills divide them
[Beat]
None sobbing left beside them

Oh ho, what is this?
I would be remiss
To leave this behind.
Once a man, half-blind,
A soldier or hired
Sword, life long expired

But wait, there's a gleam!
Like a waking daydream
Faded, but lasting in mind
Ah ha ha! What a find!

It shines like a star
In night's blanket of dark
A spark of life inside
This hollow coffin, tied
To regrets and sorrow
To see next tomorrow
A woman he lost
A love so star-crossed
A duty to land
A haunted last stand

Who are you, tragedy's fool?
I suppose you lost a duel
And now desire a tour
Of how much we've endured

Well why not? Life's a show!
So onward we'll go
To Hyrule's highs and lows

Chapter Text

Growing up, her mother used to tell her to find four things in a man: kindness, selflessness, reliability, and a job. Kindness was a virtue anyone could have, but that was not all there was to life. A selfless man would put others before himself, although it was pointless if he did not have a home of his own. A dependable man wasn’t always caring, and a job that whittled away at life was almost worse than no job at all.

Love didn’t pay the bills, and when they piled up, love was crushed and broken.

She had thought having a construction worker for a boyfriend was perfect. He had a home of his own, a large backyard for the dog, and remembered to bring her flowers and chocolate when they had a date night. Her passing interest in physics and love of math had her asking after a skyscraper’s integrity and how it could withstand high winds, and with a glint in his eye he divulged the secrets of his career.

Everything was so intricate and exact. It intrigued her, and sometimes she found herself just outside the construction zone, tracing the geometry of the building, and noting where the next girder would go or imagining what the finished result would be.

She always brought something to eat for when he was on break. He always asked how her day was.

Neither had want of anything.

But the moment a giant gorilla grabbed her, he fled. Kind and selfless, but without a spine.

They all ran, except for one. One who ran into the site. A plumber in red overalls who had been working on the other side of the street. At some point during her screaming match with the huge animal to put her down right this instant he had decided to stop being a bystander. The ape saw him coming, and carried her up higher. Twenty-five meters. Fifty. Her stomach dropped with each leap, but she never stopped kicking the beast in the chest, in the arms, wherever she could.

To her surprise, the beast grunted back. Told her to stop it.

She did.

She did not want to test the ape with enough intelligence to speak English.

She did not want to test the ape that admitted that trying to squash the man below was fun.

A hundred meters up, the plumber severed the incomplete connections to the girders and finally knocked the beast unconscious.

She was free.

She was saved.

He led her back down, all the while asking if her legs hurt, if her arms were stiff, and taking the time to double check each ladder to see if it went down all the way. He apologized for not having any mushrooms on hand, and that he might have one in his van.

Her boyfriend was overjoyed to have her back. Kissed her and held her, and nearly cried in relief. Animal control had been ready and moved in while the plumber introduced himself, with a thumb over his shoulder to a van by the apartment complex. Super Mario Bros. Plumbing.

He came over for dinner once. Jokes were exchanged, and he was offered a cash reward. It was turned down.

They were bewildered. She had never seen such humbleness. A promise was made to go golfing one of these days, and with tip of the hat, the plumber bid them good night.

And yet somehow, he seemed to take the warmth of the room with him. That protective net underneath her came apart, and she thought if the gorilla came crashing through a window to grab her again, the man washing dishes and singing a little ditty wouldn’t be the one to rescue her. She would be left alone again, and she…

She just couldn’t handle that.

She sorted through her thoughts. She gave their relationship another day, another week. Just one more, she told herself. Just one more day to try working things out. He worked over forty hours a week sometimes for optional overtime pay, but even with the extra time alone, she had trouble putting her thoughts into words. To call the man a coward was a little unfair. No one wanted to get near a presumably wild animal underneath the unstable steel skeleton. No one wanted to be maimed or injured or crushed under metal drums.

But he didn’t even try, not even to reach out to her.

And that hurt more than anything.

A shadow of its former state, her relationship finally ended. In between one rescue and another, the perfect life broke apart, and she found herself alone in her one-room apartment.

She tried sitting down and getting to know her savior, but the spark was only that. A spark. It never truly ignited, and they decided it best to remain as friends.

The next time she heard of the plumber, though, he was credited with having saved the princess.

And the time after that.

And the time after that.

A simple man who leaped into danger regardless of obstacles or distance or danger to save one woman. It was as if he didn’t know fear. A careless thought, since who didn’t feel some sort of nervous twinge when the fire-breathing fiend showed up? Nevertheless, the princess was saved, not a single scorch mark to be seen when she walked into her castle again.

The local nobody-to-hero became the light in everyone’s lives. With every successful return of the princess, the people of the Mushroom Kingdom eased into a surety that no matter what happened, Mario would be there to save them and Princess Peach.

She didn’t let herself fall into that mindset. She had the coin. She had the time. So she took a trip to other kingdoms. Some had heard of Mario by virtue of the plumber coming through in the past. Others, many others, had no idea who he was and pointed the way to local interests.

The kingdoms themselves differed greatly. Some were so vast she couldn’t see the other side unless she had binoculars. Others were tiny, only a single landmass in the middle of nowhere with only a castle and scattered homes dotted throughout. And yet, both were equally seen as kingdoms in their own right.

Sometimes she imagined skyscrapers towering over the fortresses and castles, wondering how the local inhabitants would react to one. Would they want to live in one? Climb it? Would there be a shop inside, or offices? Or maybe they would much rather have a line of homes or an apartment complex. The possibilities danced in her head at night, dreams that were put away in daylight hours when she would see what else the world had to offer.

Every so often, she heard word of Mushroom Kingdom’s superstar. Bowser foiled again, or some other malevolent being stomped down and defeated. As humble as always, he seemed more beloved each time she turned around. A man who jumped at the chance to help someone in need, going out of his way for total strangers and trekking through unusual lands if it meant saving someone. He had the freedom to choose simply not to go and instead live out an ordinary life, but he went off the rails of convention and did what he did anyways.

Obviously there was something between the princess and him. Just what, exactly, that ultimately was was the subject of debate in the occasion whisper caught between teenagers. A light in each other’s lives. Best friends. A secret romance. All different points of view of the same people. It was a little silly to consider, but it fueled the tabloids practically non-stop every week. She had glanced at one and rolled her eyes. Peach was not a toad in disguise using experimental powerups. What a ridiculous concept.

Sometimes new names were listed alongside his. Allies he found and fought with in his latest adventure. Goombas, koopas, boos, and more races she had never heard of before showed up in the paper. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to hear about some of them since she had met a few koopas while traveling. It seemed like all the time more and more were moving away from Bowser’s Kingdom to settle in little villages or just to see what else lied beyond the dark clouds of the ash-covered land.

When a single man trounced your leader on a regular basis, it was time to reconsider your priorities.

The news from the city was a balm for her homesickness, but it couldn’t hold back the urge to return forever. A few mementos in hand, she came back to the recently renamed kingdom. Kingdom! The population and usage of newly discovered power moons in the power plant had officially boosted the city to be officially recognized as one.

Metro Kingdom. A little odd sounding, although the complete name change to her home had her verbally stumble more than once.

New Donk City. No longer the outdated and forgotten Big Ape City, the newly acknowledged kingdom embraced the chance to change and improve a number of areas in preparation for incoming tourists.

And so did she.

A new kingdom was ripe for a certain reptile invasion, and few people ever left Big- New Donk City for any reason. The populace needed guidance from someone with experience, Someone local who knew how things used to be run and how things should be run for the betterment of every person. Who knew what dangers could come to pass and how to prepare for them as best as possible.

And she succeeded.

Fifteen years after she had been saved from the top of a pile of girders, she was sworn in as the first female mayor of New Donk.

Leaning back into her worn office chair, she knew her mother had been right. A kind, selfless, reliable man was worthwhile.

But Pauline was married to the job. New buildings to construct, old ones to maintain, a power plant to monitor, and the lives of over two hundred people and counting working together to keep New Donk City thriving.

And she couldn’t be happier.

Chapter Text

For once since high school had started, Taylor had gotten a good night’s sleep. No recurring nightmares of betrayals, confined spaces, and the acrid smell of burning waste. Just herself with the power, the confidence to face her attackers and bring them to their knees.

There had been a certain delight in the show. Whirling around Sophia in bursts of flame had been a game, always hidden from her eyes, but never letting the girl leave her own sight. A difficult feat as Sophia kept on her toes, never letting her guard down. The twisted version of Winslow left her separated from Emma and Madison, both of them wandering hellish halls that never ended. Occasionally, she would whisper to them. All the secrets Emma ever told her, all the despair she sowed, thrown back in vicious hissing and in visages of a badly burned Taylor. Madison, the social butterfly, was haunted by the traitorous whisperings of students. Everything from her hair to her clothing was picked apart in barely heard murmurings, paired with scornful laughter.

Then, fury unrestrained in that realm, she had allowed her hatred to boil out and consume them one by one. All the while, the Heart had beat with her own, an encouraging murmur in her ear that faded as she opened her eyes in the waking realm.

She had had her revenge, in a way. It was a harmless exercise to help hone her new power. Still, the act didn’t feel...satisfying. She had made herself the bully, a thought that made her blanch upon waking, but it wasn't real. It never would be.

Worries aside, something was still missing from her performance. It nagged at her, though Taylor couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.

She stretched her arms above her head. She could figure out what was amiss after breakfast. Her dad had already left for work, so she wouldn’t have to hide her budding fangs while eating. A minor change in her appearance, but not the only one she had taken note of.

Despite the heat under her skin, she threw on a hoodie and headed down the stairs. After a quick bowl of cereal and making up a wrap for lunch, she headed out of the house and caught a bus towards the docks. Her plans for the day meant heading somewhere to practice her technique. For that she wanted to be near water, just in case.

Just because her source of power was from a being of literal nightmares, that didn’t mean she had to be reckless with them. Nor did that mean she had to restrict herself to believing she could only be a villain. Other heroes had fire-based powers. All she had to do was perfect her control so some random thief wouldn’t end up with third degree burns on her first night out. She would clean up the Bay, but not at the cost of painting herself in a bad light.

That’s all she needed on top of everything else. Maiming someone without meaning to.

By the time she got to her stop, the sun was high in the sky. She tugged her hood down as far as it would go before disembarking, and quickly shoved her hands into the pockets as she stepped out. The slight ache on the backs of her hands let her know she hadn’t been fast enough in hiding them. She grimaced. Next time she would do better.

Head down, Taylor made her way into the docks. The scarlet flames were larger here, a result of the decline then consequent halt of the shipping trade back in the day. It hadn’t been the first place she had noticed with such an abundance of fire, but it was by far the most prominent. Trading had been the lifeblood of Brockton Bay, and with both the Boat Graveyard and the wreck of the trainyard crippling the local economy, it wasn’t a question of why so much of the flames were in one place. At least, not anymore.

The fires themselves had plagued Taylor for a few days after her return home. They were absolutely everywhere in her city, with practically no rhyme or reason. It wasn’t until she sat down with a tourist map and marked where she had seen them that a pattern had emerged.

Gang territories. The docks. Winslow. They were everywhere in those areas, more so where recent cape battles had taken place. Other places had less of the flames, but it only reinforced what she was thinking.

And tasting through smell. The scent that so many converging gave off was almost too much. She would breathe in, and taste a bittersweet flavor on her tongue. Clamping her mouth shut and ignoring the alluring aftertaste of despair was all she could do without seeming like a loon in public.

She could eat those things. She could eat fire made of the dashed hopes and dreams of Brockton locals. She might have to, eventually, but for the time being she had her wrap. She was good.

At last, Taylor hit upon a building without any flickering signs of life. She summoned a flame to melt the lock, and let herself in. The sea breeze disturbed the dust for the brief moment that the door was open, then settled as it closed.

In the sheltering darkness of the abandoned warehouse, Taylor shucked off her hoodie leaving a plain red tee underneath. With a snap of her fingers, a single tiny flame appeared at the tip of her index finger.

“Let’s see what I can do,” she whispered.

The Heart pulsed with her own.

And the shadows danced.

Chapter Text

You thought Crow was a no threat

Well it looks like you lost your bet, Buttercup!

Kidnapping the head of the regime

Did you think I had no other schemes?


You dare call yourself a hero

You will fall, you’re nothing but a zero!

No matter the orbs you’ve obtained

Soon the world will cower at my name!

[Picks up again at 1:16.]

Let’s take a spin on an old game

It really is such a shame

You’ve come far

But this is no petty spar


You are really such a pest

You don’t know when to rest

You’ve been best

This is the end of your quest!


I really haven’t got all day

So without delay

Let’s finish this fight

You jerk of a knight!


I'm rotten to the core, eh?

Then come up and say  

That claim to my face!

Let's finish in space!


You thought Crow was a low threat

Well it looks like you lost your bet, Buttercup!

Kidnapping the heads of the regimes

What do think of my greatest scheme?


I’ve overthrown the status quo

You heroes have no chance, drown in your woes

A tyrant needs no friendship or ties

What did you expect, a compromise?


My life has led to your last moment

Hyper or not, you can't take a hint

You've lost, you're through, you golden gnat

This is your end, now fall and go splat!

Chapter Text

“Hey, Jason Voorhees! Over here!”

Julie threw a shaken-up can of off-brand cola at the discount Halloween maniac, then turned tail and ran for all she was worth. A second later the puttering of the idle chainsaw exploded into a buzzing roar, sending ice down her spine as the sound tracked her through the hedge maze. Her heart thudded in her chest. She resisted the urge to scream, swallowing down the terror that gripped her, if only barely.

The roar died somewhat, quieting to the telltale menacing putter that had pursued Zeke and her since they had found the stupid dog in the center of the attraction. The dog was long gone, probably out of the maze by now, but the Voorhees knockoff hadn’t knocked it off.

Another roaring buzz and the hedges to one side were being stabbed and shredded by metal teeth. A short-lived shriek escaped her. The man was on the other side, jerking the saw through feeble branches. Julie covered her mouth and fled back to the last intersection, taking the path she had foregone. Behind her, bushes rustled and the buzzing kept going. She had seconds before he was on her again. The implacable man couldn’t care less about any perceived obstacles, the scrapes and scratches he had accumulated from stomping through his own shortcuts telling as much.

“Zeke!” Julie gasped. “Where are you?!”

Further back, the buzzing died.

He was tracking her again.

Julie panted. For all she hated jazzercise, she had never more wished her mother hadn’t given into the puppy dog eyes and let her stop joining in every Saturday.

She had made plenty of mistakes in the past few years, but that one was quickly becoming the worst, right up there with waking up this morning.

Somewhere within the hedge maze came a blood-curdling scream.

Julie opened her mouth to call for her friend –

The scream rose and distorted, becoming a snarling, guttural growl.

– then closed it, her teeth clacking together. She swallowed back the words she wanted to call out as the puttering of the idling chainsaw was drowned out in a single, deafening instant. Julie forced her legs to keep going even as the monstrous noise rose in fury. She didn’t try to imagine what it was that was behind her. She didn’t care to listen to the inhuman growling and smacking of wet flesh and snapping of bones.

She tried not to imagine Zeke, the dork with old 3D glasses and dumb jokes for days, and whatever had managed to turn him into yet another horror that the city seemed filled with.

Julie ran, legs aching and lungs burning. She ran until she could only jog, then only power walk.

Steadily, the chainsaw revving died. The bellowing of a monster stopped.

Eventually, it was silent.

By the time she made it out of the maze and into an old abandoned auto shop, the horizon had been dyed a dusty orange and faded pink. No zombies or cackling demonic dolls could see through the boarded up windows, and no chainsaw-wielding maniacs could chop through the steel shutters. There was one wooden door, but it was blocked off by a tall filing cabinet, rusty with age.

By evening, she was still tense, expecting the revving of a chainsaw any minute. Expecting the clash of steel against steel and having to get up and run again.

The anticipation ground away at her. Her eyelids grew heavy. Her heart twisted. Her thoughts became jumbled.

Eventually, she curled up in the back of a beetle on blocks, exhaustion claiming her with dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

I will march through the ashes

Holding hope as it crashes

Burning light keeps the dread away

(Creeping up into your mind.)

 

Reddened sun, ill advances

Blackened sky, blotted chances

Counting down to the last delay

(Praying the nightmares won't find.)

 

Stars peek out against bleeding dusk

High above the city's husk

Walk through wreckage and shattered lives

Wondering what or who's survived

 

The world is dying, but what can I achieve

If I drop my dreams and leave?

 

A candle's wick

Cupped fading light

Soaring fires streak blazing skies

Those trailing stars

Roaring for demise

 

(Wake up, don't be blind.)

(Wake up, don't be blind.)

 

Hold on tight, although you ache.

Soot will choke, but will not break.

Take your stand, and they will recall

Why humanity won't fall

 

March through the ashes

(Shadows and dust)

Burning hope flashes

(Held with your trust)

Trailing footsteps wind

(Scattered in sands)

Know that you will find

(A will to stand)

 

The world is dying,

But you can't just leave.

You will never know

What you can achieve.

Head held high we walk

In these barren lands.

Together we will

Hold hope hand-in-hand.

 

As we find the will to stand.

Chapter Text

There were few things that got the evil heart pumping in the morning. Coffee for one, obviously. A villain couldn’t be expected to fight heroes and sabotage rivals without a black cup of despair in one hand. Another was drawing up blueprints for a new machine, but it didn’t hold a match to putting something together on the spot. Who needed designs when there was a brilliant spark of an idea unfolding in your head that was demanding to be made real?

Despite having done some drafting and tinkering that morning, though, Crow, ruthless near-overlord of the world, dreaded big bad of Macro City, was finding that he probably hadn’t been as wide awake as he thought he was.

“That was not part of the deal!” He pointed an accusatory finger at the utterly disinterested figure on his monitor. “I agreed to that sham of a wedding, not being some schmuck with a welcome mat on his back!”

“No, but it is requirement of the Council of Virtue,” the princess stated placidly. “We do not allow machines of war to simply roam the world, nor do we tolerate torture or needless slaughter of subjects.”

“For the last time, they’re minions!” Crow’s face was smooshed against the camera, fingers grasping at the subtle dips on the sides of the monitor so he wouldn’t slip back down. “I pay them, I can do whatever I want with them! I am a menacing force of chaos and destruction, and if I feel like suspending a minion over a vat of acid, then I’ll do it!”

Crow clenched his hands so hard the knuckles in his flesh hand went white, and his mechanical one tore into the steel around the screen. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening. He was Crow, a Buzzardling! He busted more heroes as a kid than any wannabee villain at the time, with only Rook as his equal. He was a terror! He sowed havoc and mayhem wherever he went with his theme song blasting from the Condor.

And he was just supposed to take this?! It was all for Emperor Penguin and Chickadee, sure, but Crow wasn’t one to just take conditions unconditionally!

“Not after the wedding.” Virtue didn’t so much as smirk at his suffering. “Princes are not “menacing” towards their subjects. They are upstanding pillars of society, and meant to be examples we should all follow. With your marriage to Princess Molotov, you will become one, and that means more than wearing a crown.”

Crow’s face twisted into a vicious snarl, his face a little bit away from the camera, but not by much. “What about Tephra? She’s basically the final boss of Sukochi! You can’t tell me that she’s not!”

Virtue’s face didn’t so much as twitch. “Princess Tephra is continuing a war that her father began,” she said blandly. “It is her inheritance, whereas your empire was self-made.”

“Self-made with money that my dad left me!”

“Are you attempting to break our deal, Crow?”

He froze. The echoes of his brother’s happy blubbering resounded in his head. Chickadee had a home. Chickadee had a family. Teeth grit, Crow nearly growled out his answer: “...No.”

“Good. I would hate to go through the trouble of bothering the Fairburns again.” Virtue briefly glanced to the side. “Our time is up. The wedding is scheduled for next week. A packet of guidelines will be delivered–”

“Hey, we’re not–”

“–to you before then.”

“–through here!”

“Good day.”

The screen buzzed sharply, then went black. No matter how hard Crow screamed and cursed and banged on the console, the woman did not reappear and any attempts to reconnect were rejected immediately.

“What am I supposed to do with the vats of acid?!” he ranted at the ceiling. “Drop them at an orphanage?” From the corner of his eye, he caught the stare Becks was giving him. He turned, head tilted to one side. “...What? I wouldn’t drop the kids in them.” He grinned, teeth aligned like a shark’s. “They could play around them, like I did!”

Becky rubbed two fingers against her eyelids. She got paid enough to deal with crazy, sexy abs – CROW, Crow’s brand of absurdity. “I don’t think the orphans would need any more scarring.” She resolutely ignored how hot her face felt, and looked back down at her clipboard. “Look, I’m still going through the known laws of the Council of Virtue for loopholes. I think I almost have something, but their rules are nearly airtight.”

Crow’s face was suddenly very, very close to hers, grinning. “Nearly?”

“Yes. They have a surprising amount of bylaws and stipulations.”

Her boss rolled his eyes. “Killjoys.”

Becky resisted the smirk that had her lip twitching. “I thought that was you?”

Crow opened his mouth to reply, pausing for a second. Then he clamped his mouth shut, a wide smile stretching across his face.

Oh boy.

She knew that look. It was different sometimes, but it always meant trouble.

For other people. And maybe the minions.

“Has the Doomerang been spotted yet?” he asked.

“No, boss.”

“Damn.” Crow sighed. “I should’ve aimed at the Sky Kingdom. Maybe it would have lopped her head off.” He grabbed his helmet from near the sparking hole in the console, and marched out of the room. “Send in some minions in about an hour!” he called back. “I’ll need to do some testing!” He thought for a second. “Actual testing!”

Chapter Text

The dense trees of the eternal forest finally opened into a small grove. The grass grew around and between carved stones, themselves overtaken by weeds and moss. Sunlight shined though the thick boughs above, dappling the ground in a blend of lighter and darker tones that invited thoughts of safety.

The area had changed over the centuries, overgrown meadows exchanged for immaculate temples then right back again, the pedestal sometimes relocated, but it was still familiar to him.

The sight was wondrous, the glint of a blade only making the grove more mysterious.

And it left Lin feeling worse than waking up on the Great Plateau, his carefree life robbed as ancient memories flooded in.

The Master Sword, the Blade of Evil’s Bane, called to him. Called him to tighten his shackles to a bloody cycle of revenge, hate, and fate that was to begin anew.

Lin shook his head. There was always the chance of finding it, with how often he wandered the Lost Woods. He just...didn’t think he would today. Or this soon. The trip to the Great Plateau had been a week ago, and now…

Lin’s hands clenched into fists.

If the Sword was pulled, if he took it and left the heart of the Lost Woods with it strapped to his back, it would be an acceptance of his role. To be the “hero” and slay the “great evil” that would ravage Hyrule otherwise. To be some noble, selfless soldier of the goddesses and throw himself into battle and be celebrated after for his deeds.

That wasn’t him, and it never would be. The sacrifice would be worthless in the end, anyway.

But, whispered a tiny, traitorous voice, will it matter to the Curse?

Lin firmly stamped the voice down, and shook his head.

“I refuse…” he whispered. He glared murderously at the Master Sword. “I refuse you!”

Turning on his heel, Lin left the grove. He could still feel the blade calling him, beckoning him to come back.

He walked faster. Retracing his steps was tricky, but he left the Master Sword farther and farther behind, the thrum in his bones lessening until it was barely noticeable.

There was no such thing as the birth of a champion. Of a hero. Only endless fury and magic chaining people to misery.

If there was any silver lining here, it was that now that he knew where the Sacred Grove was, he could entirely avoid the path there.

If, or when, he ever decided to come back to the Woods.

Chapter Text

Sonic had to give it to the doc: he sure was persistent. Bounding from one wall to another, he weaved between scarlet lasers, blackened marks left behind where they scored the ancient stone. A few of his old enemies would have started screaming by now. “I’ve got you this time!”, or “Stop doing that!”, or his favorite, a string of intelligible rage gibberish followed by a satisfying explosion.

But not Robotnik. Oh, he shouted alright, but nothing like he was reaching the end of his patience. His crazy machine kept pace, and the lasers only barely missed their target as Sonic changed which surface was his road.

Not even Nack had that kind of dedication, and he always went all out to get that bounty on his head.

It was a little worrying. Unlike all of the others who’d ever become obsessed with his electric sonic booms, the mad doctor was not about to let a little something like an unpredictable moving target slow him down. Even worse: he was intelligent. He had the brains to back up whatever plans he had in mind.

Sonic took one of the rings off his hand and threw it forward, electricity arcing from his fingertips as he did. The ring tumbled through the air, then expanded, his next destination in mind opened before him.

Between seconds, he left the wall and his feet hit dry desert sands. More difficult to run through, but he was no stranger to the terrain.

The doctor’s machine screamed through the ring portal before it closed. Sonic rounded back to collect the falling ring before taking off for the distant pyramids. Fifty rings in hand again, he rounded Robotnik’s laser death ship and his drones, skidding often to slide around sand dunes. Missiles and lasers seemed to come from every direction, keeping him on the run without pause. Where Robotnik couldn’t see, his drones did, and they took every opportunity to try to get a direct hit.

Around another dune, then zig-zagging across the open desert to the side of a pyramid. Sonic lived and breathed evasive tactics. Ever since his powers manifested, he had learned to dodge the covetous Mobians who sought his near infinite energy.

Now, however, was someone who could not be outrun.

So maybe it was time to bring the doc to Sonic's own turf.

Sonic pivoted around, keeping his pace as he ran backwards, then, hands up by his ears, he blew a raspberry at his pursuer. “Can’t catch me! You’re tooo slow!” he gleefully called, then spun around and swerved around a drone’s laser.

Despite the inch of steel between the doc and the arid heat, he must have understood the hedgehog because the number of red lights following him drastically increased and the missiles suddenly weren’t as conserved.

Bingo.

Sonic dashed up to the peak of the pyramid, another ring in hand. He had a destination in mind, then threw it forwards with a jolt of electricity, and went through.

He landed on a baseball diamond, then tossed another. Bright green grass greeted him on the other side, the air pleasantly cool as it whipped past. Palm trees towered him on either side, and totem poles poked out of the ground from a time long forgotten. The solid checkered ground gave him a boost in speed, like he had gone from wading through molasses to sprinting down an empty highway.

He had spent so much time on Earth, he had forgotten what Green Hill smelled like. It was easier to breathe. Easier to run.

Robotnik followed right on his tail, bursting through the portal. A few drones were left behind in the desert as the ring shrank. The less trained on him, the better.

Too bad for the doctor that he had no idea the number of shortcuts around these parts.  

And Sonic knew every one.

The ball was in the blue blur’s court this time.

It was time to show the doc the real power of his sonic boom.

Chapter Text

Decryption Status: Complete

Warning: File corruption at 89%. Some files are inaccessible. Continue?

>Y

Loading…

 

Log 005

“It’s madness. Absolute madness. We have so little time to test and confirm before the ocean swallows us. Some countries are pulling out of the war already. Others are in denial.

“What have we done?”

 

Log 007

“The human DNA isn’t taking. Perhaps the botryllus schlosseri needs further fusing first?”

 

Log 017

“A-3 sample incompatible. Scrapping it and starting again.

“...I can’t go home to see my pets anymore. I can’t just let them die, either. Maybe I’ll give the cryology team a shot.”

 

Log 021

“The tension is affecting my colleague’s mind. He’s suggested we start testing with cephalopods next. What nonsense! The DNA is to different from anything else, it may as well be an alien!”

 

Log 029

“Inspection day. The higher ups were not happy with our progress. They have gone ahead with giving the grant to the ARK Project.

“We have to step up our methods! We cannot allow the human race to float aimlessly through space on the vague hope that there is a habitable planet out there!”

 

Log 031

“Forty hours with no sleep, but we have a viable sample! We only need to inject it into a host.”

 

Log 033

“The sample failed. Going back to batch C-2.”

 

Log 034

“They finally decommissioned that titan monstrosity, thank heavens. It’s already ankle deep in sea water and slowly sinking into the subways of New York. I’ll send an AI to monitor it later, just to be sure. It may be able to salvage something from it.”

 

Log 040

“The cryology team came through. My pets will be put into a long sleep to ride out the incoming apocalypse. When and if they will wake up, no one knows, but at least they will be safe...

“AI Tata has found what seems to be some sort of artificial digestive juices in the human mockery. I’ve ordered for a sample of it.”

 

Log 043

“They keep telling us that the future of the world rests on our shoulders. I don’t think they realize that it’s too late. Regardless, we have to keep trying. We have to until Ark Polaris is ready to go.”

 

Log 048

“There has been -”

“I have returned, Professor.”

“Agh! Don’t scare me like that, Tata!”

“Apologies.”

“Don’t worry about it. Now, what do you have for me?”

 

Log 087

“I TOLD YOU WE NEED A CLEAN SLATE! A CLEAN SLATE! NOT THIS MES-S-S-S-”

Warning: File corrupted.

 

Log 089

“Blending together a smidge of squid DNA actually worked. I owe my fellow night owl an apology.”

 

Log 098

“I… I don’t know what happened. The chemicals, the specimens – they’re all ruined!”

 

Log 126

“The surgery was a failure. More oxygen needed. Moving onto the next in- subject.”

 

Log 138

“...We can’t do this. We were never going to be able to do this. Humanity can’t just evolve gills and breathe underwater in a month. It was never goin-n-n-n”

Warning: File corrupted.

 

Log 148

“This is it... There’s no more use in stalling the inevitable. Ark Polaris and Sirius have finally taken off with every last possible human they could hold. Dozens, if not hundreds have been left behind to drown in the coming weeks. A few ships might make it, but I don’t have much confidence for that.

“Polaris is set to orbit the Earth for a few decades while the rest of the Arks are to take off for what the astrologists are guessing are habitable planets. Part of me thinks of that as a vain hope. There are so many problems that could arise, but they insist on trying, if only so humanity isn’t stuck like Judd and Lil' Judd for millenia. Tata’s brother AI is taking the helm and will be monitoring everyone as they enter cryo-sleep.

“Who knows? Maybe with humanity gone, the world can start over with a clean slate. No pollution, no nuclear warheads… Maybe history will repeat itself, but not for a long while yet.

“At least I’ll be able to sleep. Good night, Tata.”

“...Good night, Professor.”

“End log.”

Chapter Text

Brockton Bay had seen better times. It seemed every day, if not every hour, a new Parahuman was crawling out of the woodworks. If they weren’t running into the Wards on patrols, they were announcing themselves with a fight involving the local gangs, usually ending with damage to the infrastructure. The Protectorate could barely keep up with the ensuing “peacekeeping” by the E88 and ABB, and the police were more overwhelmed than usual with the number of street thugs being found knocked out, maimed, or worse.

Director Emily Piggot picked up the next report. Her face was perpetually pinched as she skimmed through the details. More skirmishes at the fringes of Merchant territory, and they were actively losing. Not to any of the known local groups, but by the odd Cape who thought that they could pick off an easy mark. Emily scoffed. They were only making things harder on everybody else. Just yesterday Squealer had torn through the Docks and wrecked several buildings at the DWU. A tinker in a combat suit – Wrecker was the tentative name – had slammed the tank-like monstrosity into the bay, only to get in a verbal sparring match with someone in a strange Halloween witch costume – Hex – about the cost of human lives before she gestured at the suit. The tinker then started cursing as the machine sparked and eventually broke down.

It was becoming the same story almost everywhere. These new Capes showing up to bring down gang members, or try their hand at a villainous Cape, then getting into arguments or fist fights, often citing the Unwritten Rules as to why the PRT was useless and why there was a need for vigilante justice.

How disgustingly ignorant.

Worse still, these arguments were caught on video and posted online where they had gained traction. Not very much compared to other issues, such as the eerie circus tent propped up in Empire territory, but it was there.

Emily sipped at her coffee, then eyed the stack of reports waiting for her. It was too early for this idiocy. Her saving grace was that Armsmaster had to look over them, too, and would likely be calculating a plan on how to tackle this mess.

They had already scrapped the theory about a single new gang or group. With how many Capes there were and how often they were seen clashing, it was very unlikely. No. The new theory was that some of them had been involved in a group trigger, while others had traveled to Brockton Bay specifically from other states, if not countries. Voice recognition software had pegged at least two from England, three from Texas, one from New York, and fifteen from California. And none of them matched any Parahuman incidents prior to appearing in Brockton Bay. The think tank had thrown out a few ideas, including one wherein these people were teleported into the city.

The very thought nearly gave Emily a heart attack. The new Capes themselves ran the nightmare gamut from Thinkers and Tinkers to Strangers and Masters. The PRT only knew of the latter due to strange, inexplicable events around the high schools. The report in front of her detailed an entire classroom at Winslow High having the desks and chairs glued to the ceiling. In the span of two minutes. No witnesses. No clues.

Speaking of that school… Emily took a moment to check her emails. Ah. The relocation of one Taylor Hebert had been successful. Another oddity from these new Capes, and cause for the main migration theory. Two had explicitly referenced the girl by name, claiming that she deserved better. After looking into it, it was discovered that Shadow Stalker had violated her probation, her minder and nearly the entire faculty of Winslow having turned a blind eye to it. Now Emily was down a Ward when there was an impending gang war on the horizon. Just what she needed.

Hopefully the Hebert girl would turn up as a Cape herself. There had to be something there if, as suspected, a number of Parahumans traveled hundreds of miles to such a dangerous city for her. A Master power, likely. Either that, or she had found contacts online to help her out.

The implications of either was disturbing to say the least.

Her intercom buzzed. “Armsmaster is here to see you, Director.”

She took one more fortifying sip of her coffee. “Send him in,” she said.

A moment later, the door slid open, and the head of the Protectorate marched in. In his hand was a folder with a small stack of papers just visible within. “Director,” he greeted. “I have the analysis you asked for.”

Emily clasped her hands together and mentally steeled herself. “So what do we have?”

Chapter Text

It starts off small. Memorable by a few, but a minor detail that escapes most news outlets. A battle with a minor villain ends in a street torn to rubble. No civilians are hurt, but the trench is long and inconvenient for a day or two before someone with the proper Quirk can come down and fix it.

Few, if any, blame the hero publicly. After all, if the villain hadn’t broke the law then a hero wouldn’t have needed to intercept and subdue. In the depths of the internet, however, people make their displeasure known. Detours to get to work or school. The fear of if the blast had hit a building, or someone on the sidewalk. Largely though, people rant and go about their lives. The hero goes on to patrol and apprehend more villains, and the trench is mostly forgotten.

Only mostly.

The parents and other adults are a little wary afterwards. A broken window across the street sends shivers up an elder man’s spine. A distant roar from yet another hero battle rattles nerves for the briefest of moments it erupts. A double look before crossing the street, and extra moments spent reinforcing caution. Life changes, for weeks, for months, then ebbs back into a semblance of normality that most take for granted.

Inko Midoriya does not forget. After her son leaves for school, she visits a popular forum for parents in Musutafu while the news runs in the background. The topics range in diversity from tips and advice for emergent Quirks to decent sales at certain stores. It's the current events page she eyes. Everything from traffic jams to last day sales are posted, always updated in real time with optional alerts for emergency information.

Sipping her tea, Inko eyes what has happened since the night before. Another street was temporarily closed and a store was shutdown due to a burglary. The former lists off in about five pages. Enough for some grievances and complaints, with the possibility of more incoming as the day went on.

A small icon of a stylized V sits next to the topic title. Villains were involved somehow.

Or was it the heroes? comes the dark thought.

Not as dark as it could be. How her Izuku could have ended up if he hadn't been home in time. If he hadn't come home sweating and trembling, stumbling over his words only to be cut off by that awful crushing sound from outside.

A single minute. A single minute and her baby could have been--

Inko finishes off her cup, then pauses. The taped off street is some place across the city, but the chill does not leave her. Who else's child could have been hurt?

Had anyone been hurt?

Inko rises, refills her cup, and sits back down. She clicks the title and scans the posts. The power lines had almost gone down, and more than one window had been shattered. A child claimed hearing loss but it turned out to only be temporary.

The hero this time was methodical. Less damage to the buildings and street, and more focus on the one who deserved it. Some laser ability or other which used electricity for power. The wrongdoer had been caught and was in cuffs before Inko had even started breakfast.

She sips her tea. The news drones on. A power outage in the southeast. The taped off street is to the north of there.

So, a running battle.

She clicks away and into the ending sales topic. Pork cutlets ten percent off, one day sale, seven blocks over. She can make that.

Inko sips her tea. Clicks back. A new topic comes down on the main page.

She reads the title once. Then again, more slowly.

Warning: Street Wrecked in Northern Musutafu!

She scans the first post. A battle between a hero and villain. It ended in a trench carved out in a neighborhood.

The following posts sound familiar. Far too familiar, in fact. The cup in her hand sharply cracks as she reads more and more.

It’s him.

The rage in Inko’s heart surges, reignited from its months’ old rest. That irresponsible hero again. The pictures posted confirm her thoughts, and then she has to keep from letting the computer monitor fly across the room.

She takes a breath, and forcefully calms herself. She has been calm for Izuku. She would be calm for this. The man is a rising, though controversial, star in the community. Reckless as her child never was, but charming in front of cameras. His silver tongue justified his actions to the masses, but the actions were never justified to the people he directly affected.

This is not what a hero is meant to be. Not the kind her son aspires to be. A hero does not take down a thief by leveling a store, and putting civilians in danger. A hero does not hide behind pretty words, then traipse off into the sunset, having learned nothing.

No. That is not the sort of hero her son wants to be, and if he keeps that desire and idealism burning bright, then she will teach him what these full grown adults are obviously missing.

In the utter stillness of her home, Inko Midoriya makes a vow to her son. To herself. To the helpless people who can only stand by while fools like these do more damage than good.

Change will come. It will not come quickly. It will not come quietly. But it will come.

Inko sips her tea, and picks up the phone.

She has some calls to make.

Chapter Text

The dead need not be burdened. This much he upheld even as his limbs grew heavy and his mind drowned in memories and revelations. The Madam’s last wish had been fulfilled, and with it, his purpose. She had known of the Infection returning, and that another Vessel would be there to rid Hallownest of it. The certainty of such was as strong as any of the old bits of knowledge that slipped through his mind, fractured as it was. The missing gaps could occasionally be filled with a little thought or exploration, although not as often as he would have liked as of late.

His mysterious little friend had come and gone already. Such a polite little fellow, but harboring far more potential than he would have guessed in their first meeting in the Temple. It seemed so long ago, and yet it hadn’t been very long at all, had it? Traveling made time fly by so quick, and introspection made the minutes and hours pass by just as much.

All the time he had lost, and still had no recollection of, and yet he kept whiling it away.

What use had he, really, to keep poking around in moments he could no longer reach? To grasp for memories that would not come, and likely never would?

To live for far longer than most other bugs of Hallownest, and yet still able to take in its wonders instead of having his heart torn asunder by misfortune and tragedy at every turn. Truly a blessing to have been bestowed by the Madam, though a double-edged sword of one, to not even remember the sound of her voice.

And to have been an aid in her passing…

It did more than wrench his heart a little.

But, what had passed had passed. The Madam knew her future and had prepared for it. And for her, he would do anything she asked. Another certainty.

And now he was alone, on the shore of the source of the capital’s namesake.

Quirrel reached a hand up, an old habit to tilt his additional mask, but aborted the motion. Monomon’s mask was no more. All that was there was a bandanna, tying down his antennae and knotted under his chin.

His knees ached again. He had suffered through injuries and discomfort, true, but the encroaching signs of age had barely ever touched him in all his travels. It was only here, with no direction or meaning and missing his Teacher’s mask did they begin to settle in. He doubted that he could rush past dangers as well as he used to. The swim across Blue Lake would undoubtedly wear on him if the dull throbs and weariness kept up, never mind a return trip to the surface.

...If he so desired, in any case. He was in no particular hurry to rise from his spot. The serenity of the lake was comforting, a rarity only on par with the natural springs dotted throughout the fallen kingdom. An eternal fount of quiet and peace, where only a few creatures lived, and even then they would not bother those at the water’s edge. The perfect end to a long journey he didn’t even know he had been on.

He had long-planned on coming here, back when he first – on his return trip – set eyes on the City of Tears. The mystery of where the relentless rain came from had intrigued him, and in turn had become a treat for himself on his way out. Leaving Hallownest with at least that enigma solved had seemed perfect.

Though now with the Madam gone, well… He was still on his way out, though perhaps not in the way he had once thought.

So inviting, those waters. They lapped so close to his feet, a gentle rhythm like no other. To curl up, embraced by the tranquil lake, watching his nail fade away. To allow his carapace to wear away and become part of the calm waters, and eventually part of the everlasting rain on the city’s architecture, tapping against glass and stone. To be part of Hallownest, instead of taking a bit of it with him.

Yes, that seemed alright. The allure of travel still yet burned within him, but it was merely embers instead of the roaring flame it had always been. All he had were broken fragments of another time, and the moments he had made himself beyond the wastes. The bugs most important to him were gone, either by Infection, or duty, or the same old age that was creeping up on him even now.

A tiny, niggling thought prodded him through the haze of numbness. A stream of words that came to him unbidden from the past, though he knew not from where he had heard it.

A permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Quirrel blinked, then ran over the words again. This was permanent, yes. Death tended to be that way. He felt more and more like the age he was, but that wasn’t the problem here, now was it? No. He simply…

...had no use left.

A part of him shriveled up inside to admit to that, even privately. He had been given a mission, and leaving Hallownest had been part of it. Losing his memories meant he needn’t worry about the happenings in his home or Monomon’s state as a Dreamer, or worse: being overcome by the Infection. He was safer that way, oblivious to the crisis that had gripped the kingdom and the resulting solution from the Pale King.

But it was all over now. There were none left alive here from before his leaving, and even if there were, they would be a stranger to him. His little friend was undoubtedly still running around, yet for how much longer? They, too, had a mission upon their shoulders and they would complete it. He was sure of it.

And then, that would be it. None left that he cared for, none that he wished to spend a moment or two talking with. Whatever the outcome, he would truly be alone.

If they came back before he was gone… Well, he didn’t see why they would. They had said goodbye in their own way. No need to come back to this lonely little corner of the kingdom.

He was alone, ready for the inevitable. To forge a path forward yet again, regardless of what he had done and learned would take an effort, besides. An effort requiring far more energy than he had to spare.

... a temporary problem.

Another thought occurred; a spark of memory, flickers of color. A flash of white and acidic green. A vague comforting voice floating through his head. Three words uttered, isolated from a torrent, and no more.

...to live, Quirrel.

Quirrel swallowed thickly, then curled in on himself, shuddering, no tears left to shed, his eyes dried out. A wave of guilt crashed down upon him with all the force of a hail storm. His stomach roiled, his thoughts scattered. Confusion fought with previously solidified thoughts.

Most probably a glimpse into a moment before he left with her mask, but it hardly mattered.

It was not that the words were an order, for such a thing she would never make a command of. It was not that he had forgotten such a sentiment and nearly neglected it in his acceptance of his fate. It was a simple fact: Monomon wished him to have a life. A life after Hallownest.

And yes, he had certainly lived one. He had gone so far in his wanderings that the positions of the stars had shifted. Seen snow and desert lands. Impassible valleys and deep green gulleys. Buildings so tall they touched the sky, and burrows so deep that it took a full day’s walk to see the surface again. And then she had called him home to carry out his final duty.

So why shouldn’t he give into his weary limbs and allow himself to end his journey here, where everything and everyone he ever cared for was?

... temporary...

Quirrel stared out at the lake for a time, turning over the words and memories. Time slipped away for awhile – for how long, he did not know and he did not care to – then, ever so slowly, he looked back at where his nail was buried tip-first in the sands. His thoughts came to a sudden halt.

“Oh...”

Sitting at the base of his makeshift marker was a pale, white flower. The petals were so thin, he could see the tiny veins running through them, like tunnels for the Stag Beetles. The flora seemed so fragile that a stray breeze would blow it to pieces, much like a dandelion in a gust of wind. Cautiously, Quirrel reached out and took the flower in his hands. He recalled having seen it before on the few occasions his little mute friend had attempted to grant him one. They had been insistent, but he had declined each time, stating how delicate the flower looked and his worry over ruining it with all the rough terrain and vicious husks running around. He hadn’t wanted a heartfelt present to be destroyed so quickly.

A piece of history drifted through his mind subconsciously. The delicate flower was brought to Hallownest by Ze’mer of the Five Great Knights from her homeland, an impressive feat in itself considering the dangers of the wastes. It was known for its distinctive glow and frail nature, as well as the unique conditions required to make them bloom. To be bestowed one was an honor unlike any other, second only to standing in the presence of the Pale King. It was a symbol of affection, hope, and trust; an acknowledgement that the recipient was worthy of such things. 

A stilted, sad laugh escaped him. His friend didn’t seem like the type to take “no” for an absolute answer, and this here was proof of that. Did his friend even know the meaning behind this flower? From where had they obtained it to be in such fine condition?

Just by looking at it, something in his chest loosened. Not entirely; the knot was still there, and his concerns hadn’t abated, but it was something. From a small parting gift, no less.

He gently followed the curve of one petal with a claw, chuckling sadly. “Very well, my friend. I accept.”

If anything, he would gladly take this with him.

The nail, though, would remain.

It was supposed to be a sign, a mark of a departed wielder. More than that, however, it symbolized the end of an age-old journey; of an assistant fulfilling his Teacher’s final wish; of the Dream of one of the greatest minds in Hallownest; of a weary bug who had found peace.

If a fellow explorer or adventurer happened to come across it and found it suitable, why, that would be just fine. The dead shouldn’t be burdened with such things, after all, regardless of sentiment.

Why take with you what the living will find more useful?

No other nail he had seen in the whole of Hallownest had a design quite like this one. He suspected it a custom order, and seeing the effect it had on Uumuu, he was likely correct.

Just as likely that his Teacher had given it to him long ago.

Quirrel didn’t really want to remove it, though it would be foolish to leave without it. The reanimated husks and infected creatures between Blue Lake and Dirtmouth were dangerous, and though the ones out in the wastes were less so from time to time, it was better to carry even a broken weapon than none at all.

Quirrel paused in his thinking, and looked down at the flower again. Its soft glow was somewhat relaxing. He certainly felt more at ease than he had earlier, if only just. It was a different sense of ease that settled upon his carapace as well, one that did not pull on him. Rather, it drifted, unwound, lifting the barest of a burdensome weight that had bored down on him since the Teacher’s Archives.

Another gentle caress of the petals. A parting gift for the dead, or for the living. Flowers could be taken as either as the situation demanded it, yet the mere fact that it had been left now, rather than later…

Quirrel laughed silently, carefully lifting the flower to his mask. Such a remarkable specimen to have endured through the tragedies of this land. Wherever his little friend had found it was surely a sight to see. Whether a hidden cave or grove or a secret tightly guarded, he could only imagine.

The embers stoked briefly. A pang struck him. He shuddered, wrapped in emotions he could not name. He did not contemplate to name, beyond one: longing.

A moment stretched. Then another. And another. Quirrel focused on his breathing and the glow of the flower and the miniscule veins that ran through it.

There was not a single truth that Quirrel would ever shy away from. He was a seasoned explorer, and before that an archivist. Knowledge was, and always had been, his life. To ignore a sliver of reality was to deny the history and actions of the bugs who had come before him. To live in a delusional fantasy of one’s own designs.

Therefore, when one sprang to mind, he chose not to bury it, but instead, accept it.

It was a simple truth, one that had been buried under the flood of realizations and resulting emotions:

Sorrow was temporary. Oh yes, it ached. It ached terribly, far more than his joints or his back. It was a gaping wound upon the soul that went deeper than any physical injury could. It distracted the mind and twisted the skewered, bleeding heart into disarray, submerging the afflicted in tides of chaos. To heed the mind when in such a state was difficult, a task of such magnitude that even the wisest of bugs would have trouble with. A taxing endeavor, yes, but not at all futile. 

Eventually, as all wounds did, it would heal and scar over in time. Not quickly, not easily, but it would.

Quirrel chanced a moment to lift his gaze. The water still beckoned, but the words of the Madam were stronger. The glow of the flower reassuring.

He sat up, just a tiny bit straighter. It was odd, changing his mind after making it up so firmly. Despite not having the strength or a complete inclination to do so, he would do as she said. It would be difficult, perhaps as much as losing her the first time had, but he would push through. He could dodge the husks and creatures, run straight past them all until he emerged into Dirtmouth. There were sure to be abandoned homes with spare nails he could use. He was certain of it.

It wasn’t quite the death he imagined, Quirrel reflected, but neither was it quite the end. For all his soreness of age emerging, he knew the Madam would want him to continue doing what he loved. To lift his head above churning doubts and breathe. His friend, likewise, seemed fond of him avoiding a more...lasting solution as well, if not by the flower’s presence then the duration of which they sat with him on the bank.

It would not be simple nor easy by any means, but then, life never was. Anything worth having never was.

So, Quirrel rose to his feet, stretched his legs, and left Blue Lake behind.

A new beginning… It couldn’t be so bad. With whatever years he had left, he would see what the world had to offer.

For her.

For them.

Chapter Text

Somewhere in the dark, he heard them. Footsteps, normally quiet but loud as gunshots in the empty clothing store. He could imagine the knife, the gun that the mad man surely had on him. He’d seen both before creeping up to the second floor. A bid to give him time to think. Time to hide. But a single breath, a single echo or shuffle, and the barrel would be turned in his direction.

Benny didn’t have to guess where the maniac was. The man was humming softly, something like a lullaby that moved from one end of the floor to the other. Without racks or tables, there were no obstacles with which to hinder him. On the flip side, Benny didn’t have to worry about accidentally knocking over anything but the occasional mannequin. They were everywhere, and he took care to tip toe around them when he felt out with his hands or socked feet.

Benny breathed in slowly, carefully. Despite his heart hammering inside his chest, he kept a tight reign over how much sound he made. This is what he got for taking up a stupid dare to enter an old, abandoned shopping mall. This is what he got for lying to his dad about where he was going. This was what he got for letting that utter waste of human garbage egg him into --

Blam!

Benny started, scrambling around a wall as a porcelain mannequin crashed to to the floor..

“Oh, sorry about that Dolores.” The casual, almost dismissive tone sent shivers down his spine. “Didn’t see you there. No hard feelings, right?”

Benny swallowed.

“I’ll fix you up later. Right after I get your brother ready.”

Benny held his breath, refusing to scream.

God, he thought, if I get out of here, I promise I’ll be a better son. I’ll do the dishes when mom asks me. I’ll even visit Aunt Gertrude in the home. Just please let me get out of here!

The humming started up again. The footsteps louder.

Very carefully, Benny padded further into the store. The man knew this place. He would peak around the corner. Might even shoot the gun while he was at it. Going back down to the first floor was tempting. So very tempting. But he knew what he would find there. Chains around handles. A padlock hooked around two links.

If only he could get the stupid key from that man…!

Blam!

A hollow thunk.

A dim light from one corner.

Benny noted the silhouettes of more mannequins and moved as quickly as he dared.

“Oh! It’s you Cory.” Still so casual. Benny resisted the urge to go faster. “You know better than that. Now I’ll have to mold you another head. Tsk.”

The light winked out. A phone. Why didn’t he bring his again?

Oh. Right.

The dare.

His hatred for Mr. Waste of Oxygen was outdone by the shear terror pushing him on.

Two floors. Four hours until someone came to get him. Even longer for the police to show up. He needed to do something or he wasn’t seeing the sun rise.

“Moving my friends won’t help you, you know!” The voice echoed like a car horn. Benny stilled for a second, listening. He waited.

And waited.

The footsteps began again. Softer this time.

Benny moved, too.

He needed to throw a mannequin. Plain. Simple. Distract the maniac then wrestle the gun away or at least squeeze the trigger enough to waste all the bullets. Get the knife. Get the keys. Pick up another and swing it like an oversized baseball bat.

Plain. Simple.

Another hollow thunk.

The phone light again.

“Mary? You’re supposed to be on the first floor.”

Silhouettes were noted. There were more now.

The light moved some.

“Christopher! What… Hey!”

The light swung around. Benny froze. The light fell upon some plaid shirt.

“What is this? Are you doing this, boy?!”

Benny padded away. He was nearly to the escalator again.

The light swung again. More silhouettes. Most in a row.

Oh hell.

“Wh-- How are you doing this? Do you think this is funny?!”

More thunks. A wet, meaty smack hit the floor.

“You little s– let go of me!”

Finally!

Benny hunched down by the side of the escalator. The phone’s light was gone. He wasn’t sure what was happening. No, certainly not. The screams were fake. The gunshots just another feint.

Clack! The jingle jangle of keys skidding across linoleum. They came to a stop, maybe three feet in front of him. Benny reached out, feeling around until he found them, then amidst the hollering and cursing, made his way down the stairs.

He wanted to run. He wanted dearly to pick up the pace and run to the exit. But it was a ploy. A fake out. A mistake to toss the keys. A commitment to an act.

Benny told himself as much over and over again, every step another step towards freedom. Every second the voice got further away a confirmation he was almost out. Almost free.

His chest was tight. The feeling of reaching the first floor did not loosen it. It would not so long as he was locked in here.

The darkness wasn’t as pervasive here. A little moonlight came through outside the store. The mall doors. The chains were clear as day.

Benny moved. He allowed his instincts to take over, running for all he was worth. He flip through the keys. Tried one. Tried another, A third. The fourth clicked open, and he nearly threw the lock to the side. The chains were undone. The doors pushed open.

The screams were still going. The cursing and smashing continued.

Just mannequins.

Only mannequins.

He took the chains. Looped them around the handles outside. Locked them together.

Unlocked the second set of chains on the main doors. Threw them aside.

Cool autumn air hit his face.

He…

He was out.

He was free.

The cursing was becoming louder.

He looped the chains around the handles on the other side. Locked those, too.

Then he kept running. Across the parking lot, across the empty street, and to his car. His phone was on the passenger seat.

Without even touching it, Benny started up the engine, and drove off.

Twenty miles from town. Twenty miles from actual safety. It was doable. He’d make an anonymous tip later. Some creepy guy seen coming to and from the abandoned mall.

Yes. That was what he’d do.

After all, who would believe him? An armed psycho in an old mall? A teenager claiming to be caught in a death game? Claiming to see shadows move against the light? Have some therapy or get out of the station.

But someone did know. Somethings.

A sudden thought. Benny peeked in the back of his car.

Nothing but a fast food bag.

Benny sighed. His chest unclenched. For the first time since that afternoon, he could breathe. Screw Chad Chadingsworth McKillabuddy, he was never stepping foot in some haunted building ever again.

Benny tapped the screen on his dashboard and called up the first friend he could think of. He needed a place to crash for the rest of the morning. And maybe prepare whatever story he was going to go with.

Chapter Text

“This isn’t working.”

“The specimen can move on its own. The subject is injured, but alive. It should have merged already.”

“The subject can’t even run this time.”

“What a waste…”

“It’s a failure. Yet another one...”

/-/

Leif's mind was hazy, but he remembers this. Wings curled inwards, like his father, presenting himself in a manner that subtly commanded respect. Walking lightly, almost silent wherever he went, occasionally scaring other bugs by mistake. His wife and best friend who always knew he was there when he entered a room. A queen who ruled with an even hand. A mission. A team. A disaster. Then nothing.

He awakens to pain and dizziness. He stumbles from the grip of another bug, memories tangled, knotted, but slotting into place. A name, a place, a mission. The fall and the damp cavern. First the spider had taken him, then sleep.

He walks as if in a dream, the chill of the underground barely bothering him. He speaks words that are and aren’t his own, wrapped in his wings and among strangers. Explorers in search of the artifact, braving the dangers of Snakemouth for the Queen. He has no weapon, natural or otherwise, so there is little choice here but to accompany them. 

He trails after the two, observing this dream and half hoping it is real. He could see Muse after they return to Elizant, reassuring his wife that he’s fine, just a little bruised and tired. His scouting is just taking a little longer than expected.

They pass reanimated bugs, and somehow he knows what this is. Cordyceps. He has heard of it in passing, but never has he seen what it looks like. A tendril wriggles from atop the poor Ant’s head as it meanders, eyes white and lifeless. The stories he used to hear are real after all. Something to warn the Queen about. 

His new allies, Kabbu and Vi, take the creatures down. They are uncoordinated at best, with the young bee all too eager to throw her boomer- sorry, beemerang at anything that even looks at her funny. The beetle, meanwhile, tries to keep a degree of strategy to each encounter. He doesn’t do too well, but that’s because Vi mostly does her own thing. It all works out somehow.

And then one of the many mushrooms dotting the cavern comes to life. He turns, an intense chill racing down his arm, and before he knows it, the jellyfish-mushroom is nothing more than an ice cube.

Well. That’s new. He even feels like he’s speaking this time when he explains he has never done this before.

After that, they fight every creature together. His newly discovered ice magic gives the other two a break to agree to who will break what, and then Jellyshrooms are thrashed and Inichas are struck on their exposed undersides. All in all, it’s rather refreshing and the thrill of ice building in his hands never gets tiring. Magic. Real magic in his hands. He watches idly as it builds up in a thin layer of frost on his hand, then releases in a puff of mist. It’s the second most fascinating thing he’s ever seen, the first being his other half.

There is an odd twinge somewhere from deep within. He tries finding where it came from, but comes up empty.

The artifact is found. A mask of some sort. A clue to the Everlasting Sapling. The Queen's search is finally bearing fruit.

Suddenly, water begins to flood the chamber.

Then the spider comes back.

Rage boils up inside of him. How dare it try to eat him. How dare this eight-legged menace try to trap them here. How dare this creature interrupt his scouting and keep him from his family. Vi's weapon flies and icicles shatter against the monster's abdomen. Kabbu keeps the spider's attention from time to time, allowing him to cast uninterrupted while the young bee shouts and tosses her boo- beemerang with reckless abandon.

Revenge is had.

They are all washed away by the flood, anyways. Somehow, none of them die.

But that’s where the positives end.

They return to the kingdom. The square is the same. The inn is there as is the statue of the first Ant standing tall and proud. But he recognizes no one. There are homes set up, a shop, a chef ready to cook for anyone who’s hungry - and wow, is he hungry. So very, very hungry. He could devour everything they have left in the team inventory and still not be full.

And then there’s the Queen.

Queen Elizant. The Second.

She is forceful where Elizant I was humble, harsh where she was kind, and is so much more obsessed with finding the Everlasting Sapling than her mother ever was.

It’s disgraceful.

She is not his Queen, but he will not say it to her face. Not because he has manners, but because there is a much more pressing issue at hand.

He is in the future. He somehow slept and survived for countless years with nothing to show for it but some giant icicles he can make appear on demand.

He suddenly wishes he could wake up.

And Muse… What of her? Where was she, how was she? Was she happy?

He feels sick.

One quest later and they’re all staying the night at the inn. It gives him a warm bed, but not much else. His thoughts race and he can’t understand anything at all. Rebecca is alive, certainly, but she doesn’t recognize him. He still doesn’t know what had happened to his family. The kingdom is under the rule of a Queen who seemed to wield her power like a club. His stomach growls. He mentally tells it to shut up.

Despite everything, he somehow manages to fall asleep.

He has questions. So many questions. And though his feet do not obey him and his mouth moves on its own, he will find answers.

Chapter Text

When Asriel was eight years old, he created a game with his adopted sibling. It had no real name to begin with, but it was simple enough: he was the prince of shade, but despite his many subjects, he was without a real friend. One day a great evil threatened his kingdom, and he was in need of a brave knight to defeat it.

Every Sunday after church, Asriel would wrap an old scarf around his neck and pull Kris aside to adventure around their room or under the tree in the backyard, jumping on top of beds and beating back the dark forces that threatened to overrun his kingdom. He insisted on following the brave knight, for what kind of prince would he be if he did nothing to help his subjects?

Of course, the foul villains could be turned to the side of good with the power of love and understanding. Kris tended to pretend stab the stuffed animals with a creepy smile on their face, but a quick embrace from the prince would sway the knight to release the dark minion.

It never failed to succeed.

(Sometime after that, Asriel noticed how Kris reacted when his mom hugged them. The prince always made sure to keep his distance from the knight after that, instead gently encouraging peaceful actions.)

/-/

In time, the story evolved, as stories are wont to do. The kingdom emptied of subjects, and the knight’s arrival was foretold in a legend whispered in the Queen’s shadow. It told of two, no, three heroes who would journey across the land to restore the balance of light and dark. The emblem of Prince Ralsei’s land - anagrams were so much fun! - depicted three triangles: two pointing up, and one pointing down. Thus, the ones pointing towards the sky represented knights from the light, while the other referred to one living in a grand castle under the ground. Like a dwarf!

Only...what sort of creature lived underground? Certainly not a monster! And Kris, regardless of their habit of hiding and scaring the ever-living love and goodness out of people, wasn’t one to live underground either. So the prince must be something else! A third race never seen before!

The other one of light would have to be a monster, then. A human, a monster, and a mysterious prince, becoming friends and bringing peace and harmony to the earth. A wonderfully optimistic game that was nearly destroyed once his mom heard him talking to Kris about darkness and destruction. He was very careful about talking about the Delta Rune game after that.

(A third was never really found, though Asriel didn’t mind much. This was their game after all. A secret that none other could join in on.)

/-/

The siblings grew, and the games of pretend sputtered and ceased. Studies and his blossoming social life got in the way, as did the general embarrassment of playing “kiddy games”, although Asriel never really stopped thinking of the little story they created. He rewrote the main legend, revising it as his vocabulary grew and storytelling skills improved. He used bits of his religion to fill in the blanks. What if the Angel was bad? Or had a bad twin? What did the Lightners look like? What were the Darkners like?

He would think up details and ideas and compile them in a small notebook under his pillow. His mother would be aghast to know how he mangled their religion into something completely different, but he never threw anything out. Something about the story compelled him to keep going. Ralsei was a lonely child who wanted, needed a real friend. Someone like Kris with secret, conspiratory smiles and an aching SOUL that desired freedom.

Not even his own mother seemed to notice how left out Kris was. He tried pointing out that Kris could have an extra chocolate cupcake or blankets like his own, yet she would put the desserts aside or fetch some off brand comforter from a thrift store in the next town over.

His dad noticed, though. The big softy would sneak in extra slices of pie into their room at night, or surprise Kris with something they wanted around Christmas.

That was before the arguments began in earnest, however. After their dad left, Kris went back to being largely on the sidelines. The “pranks” Kris pulled turned several shades meaner and they glared at almost everyone at school, something he occasionally lightly admonished his younger sibling about, although nothing could ever hold a candle to his mother’s reprimands.

He still occasionally bumped shoulders with them, after. A knight couldn’t be strong alone.

/-/

A week before he was to go off to college, Asriel sat down with his sibling and told them about a story he was going to write. He carefully avoided spoilers, but gave a general gist of the familiar plot.

“Don’t tell mom,” he whispered, as if she would open the door at any moment – and she could, “but I’m going to try and get it published. She never really liked the Delta Rune game we played as kids, so I’m going to put it under an alias. Keep an eye out for Ralis Dreamer.” Kris’s lips twitched. Asriel pouted. “Stop laughing!” Lips twitched again. Asriel rolled his eyes good naturedly. “Yeah, yeah. Just you wait. I’m going to become an author, and then we can both move out of here.”

Kris stared at him flatly. He fidgeted. “I know she expects more of me. They all do, but this is my life. I can’t keep compromising and doing things just because I’m pushed into them.”

Kris kept staring.

“I know.” Asriel sighed. “I was pushed into this, too. But!” He narrowed his eyes in something akin to determination. “When I’m finished I’ll have a degree in English. Maybe something in journalism, too? I’ll write this book, buy a cottage out in the country, and we’ll never have to be pressured into anything ever again.”

Knock, knock.

His spine straightened. “Asriel!” sang his mother from beyond the door. “Don’t forget, we have to check-in early at the university today, sweetie!”

“Just a minute, mom! I’m getting my things!”

“Okay, then. I’ll be in the car.”

As her footsteps padded away, Asriel sighed again. “I love mom, but sometimes she...can...be a little much.” Asriel met Kris’s bangs, and focused on where he knew the eyes would be. “I promise to come back, okay? I won’t leave you here all alone. After all...” He smiled a little. “What’s a prince without a knight to guide him?”

Kris gave him the look, lips pressed together. They were unimpressed.

He snorted. “Yeah, okay that was cheesy as all get out. I’ll see you later, okay?”

They nodded.

He left.

A prince pressured to do perfectly and a knight of the light sidelined to the darkening shadows.

It was wrong, but there was little he could do.

He only hoped he could do well enough to free them both.

Chapter Text

The Everlasting Sapling, like all sources of magic, was never truly understood. To grant eternal life or power, or to awaken a long-slumbering queen. To bestow unrivaled prosperity to a land and those who dwelled there, or devastation as never seen before. The legends were as bountiful as they were imaginative.

Though in reality, Leif thought with a wince, it was a royal pain.

Verdant fire, as vibrant as the plants in Venus’ garden, roared the fury of the Wasp King. It stretched high above and far to every side like the dome the termites lived under. Leaves and bits of vine crept out between joints and flowered around his head, matching the unearthly glow in his eyes. Teeming with power of unfathomable might, he would have turned them all to ashes by now if not for the Flame Brooch held at Kabbu’s side.

With one last bash of the beetle’s horn, the Ancient Tablet crumbled to pieces below the Wasp King’s feet, landing by the cracked and buried halves of the Key. The blue protective shield around the tyrant cracked and faded at last, allowing Vi to finally pelt him with her Beemerang.

The little clonk was never not funny.

The energy-sapping leaves, however, were less so.

Kabbu, gasping and trembling, gave the most insulting thing he could come up with to draw the King’s ire. As humble and honest as he was, he had a way with words that rivaled the best authors. And when that was turned on their enemies, none could resist making him a target. With a moment’s respite, Leif took a few seconds to shake the frost off their arms. They glanced at Vi’s deflated side pouch, then the depressingly thin bag of supplies.

Not good.

They were exhausting everything. All of them. And yet the Wasp King still stood, defiant and pompous as ever, taking strength from the team to restore his own.

He had been brought low again and again, and he still wouldn’t heed Vi’s demands and stay down. Vines wriggled and writhed around him, the only true sign of any resentment or fatigue.

None of them could keep this up forever, and despite her boasting, Vi was flagging.

This had to end, and end fast.

Kabbu drank the last bit of spicy tea while the Beemerang whirled around the Wasp King, battering him in a hurricane. Leif reached out, frost rapidly coating their arms and creeping up towards their wings. A moment of concentration, and a block of ice encased the mad king. It wouldn’t last, but it would give them a few seconds.

“Ugh!” Vi caught her weapon. “Why won’t this creep stay down?!”

“Huff…” Kabbu held his stomach. Leif did not envy him, medals or not. “Is this truly the power of the Everlasting Sapling?”

Creeeak.

“Whatever it is,” Leif said, eyeing the quick forming cracks in their handiwork, “we can handle it.”

Crick-crack.

“Yeah!” Vi twirled the Beemerang around in her hands, a tired but proud grin on her face. “He can’t keep healing up forever!”

Kabbu straightened, eyes gleaming with a familiar vigor. “You’re both right! We can do this! For all of Bugaria!” The crackling of ice grew louder. Time was up. “Here he comes, team!”

The ice block violently exploded in a shower of shards and water, sharp pieces dwindling to droplets by the time they hit Leif’s wings. Then even that dried up under the heat of the Wasp King’s fiery cage.

“You filthy vermin!” he spat. He held up his hands and with a motion all three knew and dreaded, summoned pillars of flames amongst them. The fires burned, not as severely as it had in the past, but enough to put them all on the backfoot.

Vi huffed, antennae drooping, then threw out some supplies from her stash. Leif eyed it in the brief moment it had been brought out. Not enough to make a significant difference if they were hit again like that. Another option struck out.

Kabbu struggled to his feet. Leif barely had enough strength to keep standing.

If they all just had some more time. A minute more to think, some seconds to spare between recovering and attacking again.

Perhaps…

The fires glinted off the golden crown. Left untouched by the tangled vines.

Perhaps there was a chance.

“Kabbu, Vi,” they whispered quickly. “Distract him.”

Kabbu straightened himself up. “Right!”

Vi scowled. “How?”

“Just be yourself.” They almost wanted to smirk, but everything hurt so, so much already. “Pretend he just took all of your berries.”

A flash of...something crossed the young bee’s face. Shock, maybe. Disbelief, perhaps. Then it turned into a glare and she shot off to the side. “Eat Beemerang!” Words to action, she swung her weapon straight at the Wasp King’s mouth.

Clonk.

A boulder was heaved from the other side, straight at the thief's back.

Well.

Let it never be said that their team was the quiet sort.

Hands hidden under their wings, Leif quietly made an icicle between their hands. Their wings cried out to rest, almost as much as their legs did, but the protests were noted and put aside. The Wasp King flung fire and chased their teammates with hungry flora. Both encircled him, taunting and drawing his attention in different directions.

For the briefest of moments, his back was turned, hands up in a threatening manner.

Blue wings opened, frosted at the tips, blue arms coated in a sheet of white.

A shard of ice crashed into the crown--

--the brilliant fires dimmed--

--the Wasp King screamed in desperate defiance--

--and something went clonk.

A glint of gold rolled across the ground and stopped before them. Leif stared at the jagged thing at his feet. It…it pulsed with magic. Magic he was long used to.

He hadn’t known it when the Ant Kingdom was attacked.

He hadn’t noticed it now, past the Artifacts.

But here, apart from its master, he could feel the source of the Wasp King’s power, the same as it was before the Sapling. It was like the Ancient Mask, sitting for an age or more but never losing its strength. It was like the Tablet and Key, brimming with untold energies, only...less.

It was Roach magic, clear and defined.

And it was not getting back into the Wasp King’s hands.

In one fluid motion, Leif bent down and picked up the crown.

The Wasp King hovered above them, green eyes narrowed in slits. “Put that down you disgraceful plebeian-!”

So Leif did.

On their head.

“No!”

Leif froze. Nearly literally. The tiny well of magic they had always poked and prodded and experimented with suddenly burst into an ocean. They were cold inside and out, yet the ice did not sting. An undercurrent of comfort ran under it all, a certainty that it was all theirs to control. The heat that had permeated the air throughout the confrontation was as a summer breeze now, a little annoying, but overall not a bother.

They had once offered to freeze the ocean from the Ant Kingdom’s port to Metal Island. Now they were certain they could ice over the entirety of it all the way to the Rubber Prison.

And it probably wouldn’t even exhaust them.

Oh, yes. That hand gesture. Leif should do something.

They reached out just as the flames spiraled up. A glittering blue shield surrounded them. It had been barely a thought, and yet it had sprung forth almost immediately. The expected drain was...negligible. Barely anything that they felt now.

They waited a bit. The fire never burned for too long. Always just long enough to show his superiority and allow him to see the damage wrought by his magic.

Leif counted. The fires kept burning.

They glanced up. Were the spires higher than they used to be?

At about ten seconds, the flames let up. Kabbu and Vi wore similar looks of furious worry, while the Wasp King seemed gleeful.

For all of about a second.

“What?!”

“Leif!”

“Leif!”

The barrier fell away, flaking away little by little. “Thanks for the warm up.” Leif flared their wings again. “But I think you should chill out.” Frost covered their arms, their legs.

Then the King’s.

“You…!” Fire leapt from his arms, but was quickly covered by thicker ice. “You insolent pest! You dare steal what is rightfully mine?!”

“Yeah, right!” Vi shouted. She seemed slightly better from before, her antennae more steady, but not by much. “Like you should be called a king in the first place!”

Kabbu raised his arms, shaking. “Your actions are detestable! Anybug who calls himself king should work for the betterment of all, not just himself!”

The ice spread faster along the Wasp King’s body, fighting through fires as it broke apart and reformed.

“Eep!” Vi stepped back, closer to Kabbu. White and blue ice formed on the ground in a thick layer, curving around her and him as it closed in on the elemental duel. Ice rose from the ground in great pillars. Occasionally they cracked from the heat, but those were quickly filled in.

It was only about thirty feet or so, but the area of control Leif was casually displaying was far beyond his usual range.

The self-proclaimed king may have had a power boost, but Leif had control.

Lots of control.

In a scream of absolute rage, the Wasp King suddenly turned. His glowing gaze settled on Vi and Kabbu.

He rose his hands up,

The ice rapidly began to crack and melt.

Leif had but a second to see the sheer terror on the faces on their team. The utter despair that they all faced.

Then the world was ablaze, red and green spires of hate burning all in its wake.

And through a sheen of glittering blue, Leif watched. Relief rushed through them. Raising their hand had hardly been needed, but it was a habit they had formed over the weeks and months traveling with Team Snakemouth.

The pure power they had on their hands, however… It was daunting. Manipulating their ice magic to overcome whatever problems came their way had been interesting, yet with the crown… None of that was necessary. A single thought to stretch their magic, and it was done. A small tweak to avoid allies, and it, too, was done.

However, it still paled in comparison to the might of the Everlasting Sapling. Where Leif’s ice could spread, the Wasp King’s fire sprang to life. A sculptor to a thug with a hammer.

But where the thug only had a hammer, the sculptor had options.

Eventually, the fires vanished. Standing apart from Leif were their friends, unscathed in glittering shields.

Vi stared. “W-what the...?” She and Kabbu shared a look, then turned to Leif.

The tyrant was decidedly unhappy about that.

Vines sprang from the ground, writhing as fire burst from each one.

Very unhappy.

Leif gestured and ice immediately began creeping up the flailing plants, steaming. Green eyes landed on them again, smaller vines emerging from the Wasp King’s chest.

That was…slightly unsettling for some reason.

The offensive things were instantly coated in white.

Leif met the usurper’s glare with one of their own. “Alright. Time to put an end to this.”

Kabbu and Vi watched, tense even within their shields.

Nothing happened.

Then came a whistling sound.

“Uh…” Vi looked around at the ongoing battle with nature, then did what few other bugs did.

She looked up.

Her antennae shocked straight up.

“What the heck?!”

Kabbu followed her gaze. “Sweet merciful goddess...!”

A resounding crash cut off whatever else he might have said. The empowered icefall ruptured from its landing, giant frozen pieces flying in every direction. Vi and Kabbu ducked, despite the protective barrier, as chunks the size of themselves flew overhead.

The ice crashed with a sound like thunder, the occasional hiss snapping through the air as pieces met the fiery dome in the distance. It was as if the world was coming down around them.

Until suddenly, the noise tapered off.

Silence.

Leif stared at the nearly flattened bug beneath their gamble. The green fire was not as bad higher up, but it still took effort to keep together.

And now, the would-be king was much like a Seedling. Crushed beneath their magic.

A whip of fire lashed out, as sudden as a Leafbug, the boulder-sized ice destroyed in an instant, droplets hissing in mid-air. The mad usurper floated higher, and higher. His clothes were ragged. One antennae was gone. His eyes dimmed and brightened.

You...”

A pillar of fire stormed up from the ground, wreathing his form.

You…!”

The vines from his joints writhed in a way they never had.

Clonk.

The Wasp King whirled around, hands rising –

--and stopped. The pillar shrank. The vines became sluggish.

The wall of fire died.

This was...not something Leif had seen coming.

The usurper cried out, indignant. How dare they all oppose him, what did Leif do to him, something about his power…

And then he was a tree.

Leif tilted their head. Huh…

Not so Everlasting after all.

“Um…” They looked up. Vi was looking around at the very chaotic mess of ice and plants. “Can you kind of…” She waved her hands around, her words caught and tangled.

“Oh.” Leif lifted their hands and with a few gestures, left the once-sacred place bereft of ice, although a lot more damp than when they all arrived.

Then the Queen and other explorers approached. The crown was left to the Queen to be destroyed if possible, leaving Leif...less, but ultimately themselves.

As Team Snakemouth walked away, revelations in hand and Bugaria saved, Leif looked over their hands. Frost gathered. Just some, and they shook it off.

“We suppose the idea of freezing the whole ocean was…too much.”

“Er, yes,” Kabbu agreed.

“We could still make a path to Metal Island.”

“Absolutely not!”

Chapter Text

The great library was a testament to the wisdom and talent of those from ages past. It was built to accommodate thousands of books, and while the floors were mostly bare at first, they grew to be fit to bursting over time. Thick and thin tomes filled every shelf. Decades’ old works sat side by side with newer ones, faded spines mingling with shiny, unbroken ones. More were always being added and ragged books were replaced as needed.

As old as it was, existing since the city had been built, rumors were a given. Whispers where the lights didn’t work further back in certain aisles. Misplaced books offering guidance or advice to those who find them. The circular hatch in the ceiling, free of rust and just out of reach from the railing of the eighth and final floor, said to lead to a recluse’s paradise. A place full of books from before the founding of the great library where ancient tongues could be learned and spoken, and hidden secrets were kept. An elderly woman in grey occasionally seen wandering the seventh floor who would curse you if she heard you so much as breathe.

Saran Yutan scanned the old magazines on display. There always seemed to be more secrets found every week. Sometimes they were dismissed as myths. Sometimes they changed as more information was added. Mostly, however, they simply petered away.

She nodded, then moved on to the rest of the shelves. Most of the legends were hogwash, but there was no denying the sheer volume of knowledge she could find here. Over four city blocks she could get lost in if she only had the time.

She picked up a tiny statuette of an angel, taking a step to one side to allow other patrons to pass. Saran turned it over, eyeing the glittering gold edges of the wings, and carefully set it back down. There wasn’t a surplus of books like in other libraries she had visited, but there were little knick knacks, donated mostly, that were available for those who wanted to help support the building and those who worked in it.

It was an unorthodox measure. Surely such things belonged in a secondhand store? But people regularly brought in gently used decorations or self-made doodads that went on offer for ten cents or more. A coin in one of the little metal boxes at either end of the shelves, and a person could take something home.

Saran kept a sigh to herself and continued along the neat and orderly wooden shelves. She wasn’t quite interested in taking one of these things home with her. Stuffed animals weren’t something she was invested in, an earthquake could make something small and fragile fall to the floor, and she had nowhere to hang any of the stringed hearts. So many empty spots, too. Someone had to have come by recently and filled a backpack full of whatever little things had been there that morning.

With practiced ease, Suran wove around the other visitors. Even with dozens of people in the area alone, the great library was quiet. She glanced up at the long connected room that broke up the shelves. Several people worked behind monitors, the barely audible clicks of a keyboard louder than anything. Probably volunteers or students getting work done. Suran crossed the bookless gap, reaching the last three shelves with something to offer. Unlike the rest, they were skewed. Each one faced her at a slight angle so that she could see the edge of each from where she stood.

And after that, was the wall. A side of the great library, plain and undecorated. It slid from the ceiling-high window showing the sidewalk, and extended back into yet another room where people typed. Here, though, was a desk closer to the front. It lacked a glossy sheen, a few scratches and dents showing its experience. The woman behind was assuredly every bit as old, cheeks sagging but eyes focused fastidiously on the keys under her fingertips. She wore a flowery dress, mostly a dull red with the occasional burst of blue. The little silver plaque at the edge read in tiny script: “G.L. Keeper: Terra Fores”.

Name noted, Suran turned and headed back to the other shelves. There was a tiny puppet-like doll that might have a home in her room.

She glanced to the side as she went, the clicking and clacking of keys drawing her attention.

She froze.

They were gone.

So were the people.

So was the room.

Moonlight streamed in through large windows. The dark of night had come, blocked only by the silhouettes of beds and the people who slept in them.

She had never seen this room before. Had never even conceived of a room so large with so many beds and people.

She looked from the bed to the right – a mother and father, older than the rest – then swept her gaze over a divider to the middle one – son. son? - where the covers shifted and moved. Then, her eyes fell upon the third and last bed – elderly. elderly? elder. She watched, transfixed as a slender object emerged from the central bed. It thrust into the third bed, then two children – sons – followed after, one holding another spear as they gleefully stabbed whoever was in the third bed.

Distantly, Suran heard screaming. She listened as blankets thrashed, as a woman cried out in agony, as a man plead for mercy, as two boys giggled, and as a strong man quietly encouraged them.

Out of the corner of her eye, Suran noted that the people in the first bed were now getting up.

The boys retreated.

Suran’s feet moved on their own. What she had just seen. What she had just witnessed. She had to tell someone, anyone!

She found herself in front of Terra Fores. Her breath came out quick, enough that the woman turned her attention from the computer screen.

“Can I help you?” she asked quietly.

Suran swallowed, her throat dry. The image was planted in her mind, winding vines through her thoughts. She knew what had happened even if she didn’t know why. “I… The Durlans –” she stuttered- “they’re dead – I saw them--”

Terra’s face fell from friendly to horrified before all of the words were out. The Durlans looked after the city. And if they were gone... The Keeper pushed herself away from the desk and quickly bent down to her ear. “Come with me,” she whispered urgently. Suran nodded numbly, trailing after her. They passed the study room as they went.

The windows were gone. The beds, too. A couple of people were gesturing to a screen, before one threw his hands up.

Everything…

Suran swallowed again and sped up. The Keeper was quite quick and she did not want to be left behind.

Rumors always sprung up, almost every week. Yet, no matter how hard she tried, Suran could not shake the feeling, the knowledge that what she had seen was absolute.

Chapter Text

When she first arose to the surface, it was with wonder and fury. For the first time in her life she had power. Not the kind that the captains and soldiers commanded, but real, actual power. She used it to propel herself up and out from her prison, a cool breeze blowing past her as soon as she breached. Her trial was over and the world greeted her.

Then she set her sights upon the forest floor. The edges of the sinkhole had stretched far beyond the initial area, but there were no signs that anyone had attempted to bring in anything to reach into the ground. No mounds of dirt, or tracks of a crane. Wrappers, cans, and discarded papers laid among the angular grass. A single foldout chair was knocked over.

The survey team. They had left.

They had abandoned her.

A swell of rage swept through her, igniting her blood again.

They had left her to die!

They couldn’t have waited? They couldn’t have left even a single marker? They didn’t even try to help!

The ivory swirled beneath her, boiling with her anger. She would show them. She wasn’t someone to just ignore time and time again until it was convenient not to.

Not ever again.

With a single motion, she called upon the lifeblood of the planet to push her forward. It rose around her from the sinkhole, then propelled her forward, faster than she had ever run in her life. The trees blurred past, hard edges smoothing out into something resembling normalcy. The hills rose against her and valleys parted the land, but she continued forwards without a single thought.

She had control. As she was always meant to.

It didn’t take too long for her destination to come into view. The planet wasn’t very large, and there weren’t very many ships. As such, the curvature of one was very distinct from all the square and diamonds of the flora.

She burst into the clearing, ivory rising from the ground in geysers. All of the people stopped what they were doing, running of maintenance or whatever they deemed important, and lifted their heads her way.

“You…” she growled out. “You all left me down there!”

“I-it’s you!” piped up one. He was a little young, wearing the red of an electrician in training, and carrying a toolbox. “We thought--”

“You thought nothing!” she hissed. Another geyser. “I was down there screaming for help, and this is what you’ve all been doing?!”

“N-no!” A bearded man stepped forward. The yellow of a foreman. “No one abandoned you! We did all we could, but the sinkhole wouldn’t stop growing!”

She thrashed her head side to side. The insolence! “Lies! All lies!”

“No, it’s true!” he insisted. “That giant...worm thing came down and started attacking the ships! It wasn’t just yours. We managed to hide a few, but--”

“Silence!” She waved a hand, and wrapped ivory around the foreman. He started thrashing immediately within her grasp, trying to claw his way out. She could imagine him screaming within, begging for the fires in his lungs to be put out.

Then, she roughly pulled her fist down.

The orb of ivory oil disappeared into the hard dirt.

“Anyone else have any excuses?!”

The reaction was instantaneous, if predictable. The runners were captured and buried. Those who remained but shouted obscenities joined them.

Then there were the few who fell to their knees and begged for forgiveness. They pleaded their guilt, asking for mercy.

She raised her hands, ivory at the ready. She watched them all. None dared to run. They knew better.

Slowly, she lowered her hands. The wave of gratitude was sickening, yet genuine. She watched them grovel a little more, then beckoned them all closer.

Oh, yes.

She could definitely use them.

/-/

There was only oil, choking, burning, and burning--

/-/

Their screams were music to her ears. All of these pathetic parasites who had ridiculed her and ignored her, had to answer to her now. Her workers scoured the known world. Space ships were torn into and the guilty were hauled out one by one, men, women, and children. The latter were spared, unknowing of the Truth. They would have a new family, one that didn’t betray one another and ensured all needs were met.

Still, they were intolerant. Abrasive and resistant little ingrates that didn’t know their rightful place. They looked up at her, in awe and fear of her renewed being. Risen from the wreckage of steel and agony, she was reborn, and she came to them on a throne of ivory.

They didn’t know what to think, at first. Who was this woman, gracing them with her presence? They trembled at her words, and cowered at her punishments. Only the truly remorseful, adult and child alike, showed their guilt, and pledged themselves to her.

Only once the guilty had been dealt with, and the ones seeking repentance bowed before her, did she call out to them. To these masses she let it be known: the Starworm that had descended upon them had passed judgment on the evil. To a chosen few, he gave a trial of survival. Out of everyone who had sunken beneath the shimmering oil, only she had come back, and thus she was seen as worthy.

The Starworm was judgment. She was mercy. Connecting them were the Stars, which humanity came from and would return to again one day. Together they served a purpose to all. To guide them to a better life wherein they would find happiness and peace. There would be no worries. No lack of food or housing. All were welcomed. All were loved. There would be no concerns, save one: to serve that which they had already sworn to.

A few believed, grasping at what she offered them, but many did not. To them all, she had copies of her speech written and passed out. Then, she sent them to the furthest corners of civilization to spread her lecture to those who would listen.

Obedience took time. If she had to twist things to get them all to listen to her, then so be it.

A voice arose from the group. “W...what do we call you, ma’am?”

She stared at him, unblinking. Hmm… Yes, what to call herself? “You may call me…” She smiled. “Mother.”

/-/

She couldn’t scream, couldn’t grasp anything in the thick, suffocating oil.

/-/

The One Concern was spreading. Even now, people were arriving, switching their clothing to pure or off-white, and doing whatever it took to build up the central hub in the mountains. Songs were being sung, food was being shared. Many came to her asking for advice. It was going well.

However, her Concern was facing resistance. It wasn’t just the usual small pockets, holding out until the Penance came.

It was a single man in the north.

And he was threatening to ruin everything.

She looked at the known map of the world. It was a little vague, with sticky notes about how it was constantly shifting, but it was useful for the next few hours at least.

Her people were spread out across the world. A promise of serenity, peace, and purpose in a time of chaos were given in her name. What else were the people to do without their leaders to tell them what to do? What more did one need but One?

But this man. He promised more. He promised to get them all off of this planet. He had a ship, or so he claimed, with enough fuel and food to get them to safety. He had a radio, a link to a space station, beds, and more. And all he was asking for was a little help to repair the engines.

Such a threat could not stand.

She called upon her most trusted people, and gave to them a command: spread word of the man’s lies, whoever he was. The ships did not work. The Starworm disabled them all. Attempting to fix the ships would only anger the Starworm and incite him to come back. This man was going to kill them all if he wasn’t stopped. It was survive as they were or die to a second passing of vengeance.

Food? Shelter? The One Concern had those. They had prefabricated houses for everyone. They had jobs for the jobless. They had order like nowhere else and no one would be turned away. Humanity would rise to the Stars again, one day, but so soon after this attack? Foolishness.

Her piece said, she sent the messengers on their way.

Then she called in a second group. These were the children. Her children, now. She smiled at them kindly and told them of the wicked man in the north. He was spreading lies to the whole world. He had little food, not even enough to feed a child. He had no radio, the main tower for it had been destroyed. He was mean and yelled curse words at little kids. He was an awful man and would do anything to destroy the fragile peace that they had.

Her second piece said, she sent them out with some volunteers to visit the settlements, and settled into her throne.

In a matter of weeks, the various villages and hermits had mostly turned against the disruptive man in the north. His engines were sabotaged, his food stolen, and just when it seemed the people were wavering, his ship was suddenly swallowed by a sinkhole.

And that was the end of that.

(When the first of the condemned clawed out of their ivory coffins shortly after, she quietly had them taken to space, and then released to the Stars. None would usurp her reign.)

/-/

She needed to breathe, needed to breathe, but she couldn’t--

/-/

The rebels lived. The rebels died. The One Concern continued to survive. The loyalists had children, who grew and had children of their own. Generations beget generations until truth became lies, and the only truth was her Truth.

It was incredible how many people bowed to her word. How many people sought after her advice for the silliest, most inane things. There were houses, there was food for everyone, and everyone had jobs. If you didn’t have one, you were assigned one.

People wondered at her transformation. They had for years, but it was always so nice to hear. She had transcended into something beyond human, and could anyone else even dream to attempt such a trial? Could anyone else dare to serve under the One Concern, touched by the ivory?

So, she eventually allowed it. She had her best scientists and workers design a controlled chamber to be used for those who proved themselves eternally loyal to the Tri. If they survived, they served to carry out the will of the Tri. If they did not, then they still served as Elites in the afterlife.

Comforting lies always made daunting choices easier.

/-/

The fuel burned her alive, scalding her tongue and eyes and setting fire to every nerve.

/-/

“Mother! I have good news!”

“Oh? What is it, Darland?”

“A new Medium has Transcended!”

“Oh? Yes, this is wonderful! Father hasn’t been able to get around as much lately. It will be good to have someone succeed him.”

“O-oh.”

“Oh? What do you mean?”

“The Medium… It’s a girl. Her name is Herald.”

“…”

“Mother?”

“Does anyone else know about this?”

“Only the medical staff overseeing her, and myself.”

“And have you seen this Medium for yourself?”

“No, not yet.”

“Darland.”

“...Yes?”

“It is a sin to behold a female Medium before she has come before me. Do you understand?”

“...I understand.”

“Good. Ensure that Herald is placed in the detritus room, then have Agent Black escort the sinners to a house for Penance. Use one outside City One.”

“Your word is law.”

“And it shall always be.”

/-/

She sank into the ivory oil, and it consumed her.

Chapter Text

There's a thrumming in her chest that won't stop. It rattles her rib cage with every beat, her heart in tune with the echoing rhythm that spreads throughout Hyrule.

It's a powerful curse, the radiating pulses demanding action of all those affected. Even herself, a descendant of royal blood, chosen by the Triforce of Wisdom, is not immune. Every step is measured. Every movement planned out. Evasions are dances and lunges are precisely executed. She balances strategies for battle with routes through Hyrule and a list of objectives and things she has picked up.

It is perhaps the most taxing experience she has ever had in her sixteen years of life, but she endures. She is the crown princess of Hyrule. The blood of the goddess Hylia runs through her veins, just as it has for generations of Zeldas. She knows far more than a girl her age should, having far outpaced her teachers’ lessons, yet she hides more than any would believe her capable of. Prophetic dreams that were more cryptic than helpful; a sense for the magical potential of others; witnessing the true self of every individual that has come before her, a ghostly image superimposed over the flesh, a mirror of their souls and intent.

And when she sees Octavo, she really sees him. She sees the desperation on his face. She sees the fear in his eyes. The hunch in his shoulders tell of tension, coiled up and ready to snap. But his fists clenched at his side and his teeth grit say he is determined to do whatever it takes to reach his goal.

One of her first thoughts, before she is left with the musical monstrosity of a Gohma, is: When did I fail him?

He was the court musician, a passionate young man whose ghost smiled with glee with every song he played. Lips whispered half-made lyrics she could not hear, but imagined anyway. The ghost would sway in time, sometimes at peace. Sometimes with an excited grin. Some days there was frustration, but that was normal. It was never tainted with malice though, and was swept away by the music in due time.

So what had cracked this gentle soul into becoming a tyrant?

She hasn’t a moment to ponder the thought as the Gohmaracas rears up and spits out venomous blobs.

* * *

The second time she confronts Octavo is in the chilly underground chambers of a recently developed temple. A few centuries old and enchanted by the Sheikah, it had been intended as a trial of sorts for the chosen hero some time in the future, yet it has been cast in the monsters’ favor.

He grins menacingly from across the chamber, but his ghost has gained a steely tint to its gaze. Translucent fingers flex and tighten again. His determination is solidifying, she realizes. Is his fear really so encompassing? Or is it something else?

“I’ll not make the same mistake again,” he announces. “Face my second champion!”

As the element of the temple is taken and shaped with a crowd of Wizzrobes, the ghost closes its eyes. Its mouth moves, speaking words that cannot be heard. But Zelda knows better than most how to read lips and it only takes seconds to figure it out.

This is for Hyrule, I will not die, I will not--

In an explosion of magic, the oboe transforms. Octavo flees and the princess is left to take care of the unnatural creature.

* * *

The next she sees the court musician is deep within the ruins of the Gerudo Desert. Her canteen is nearly empty, the dry air and demand of the constant rhythm to keep moving making her parched faster than planned.

He is waiting for her. There is no other explanation for why he stands there bouncing on the balls of his feet.

There is stress lining the eyes and mouth of his ghost. He claimed to need champions and she had dispatched two of them already. She knows why he is so persistent now. The Fate of Power had told her what had been told to Octavo.

A death sentence. A young life extinguished before his time.

And instead of telling anyone, he plunged headfirst into taking the reins of the kingdom in a desperate attempt to take agency over his destiny.

Didn’t he trust anyone?

Didn’t he trust her?

“Perhaps you’re stronger than you look,” he comments, the ghost in front of him searching her up and down in assessment. “Not that it matters… You’d never be able to defeat Ganon.” He speaks in such a confident way as if there could be no alternative. The grass is green. The desert is hot. Princess Zelda of Hyrule cannot defeat the King of Evil as her fore-mothers have. She scowls and lifts up her rapier, ignoring the sting in her heart. “But are you strong enough to defeat my third champion?”

Fire infuses the guitar behind him. After the maracas and oboe, Zelda is certain she can handle whatever it is Octavo is throwing her way.

She just doesn’t expect the additional Armos to come crashing down.

* * *

The fourth temple she enters is at the summit of Death Mountain. It’s dedicated to the storms the volcanic heat brings with each eruption, curbed by the Gorons so the lava does not cascade to the mountain’s base.

In the farthest reaches of an open chamber awaits Octavo, as he is wont to do. Rain patters the ground and soaks into her dress. Octavo, in comparison, doesn’t seem to be affected by the weather. Water lands on his hair, his suit, and yet it all rolls off. His ghost seems to be split between irritation and wonder while his flesh face flashes in indignation.

“You again! Still haven’t given up?” He crosses his arms. “I’m doing this for your own good, you know,” he says as if addressing a petulant child. “We’ll need an army when the time comes to face Ganon.” “We” he says. And yet he refuses to ask for aid. Was it the Triforce of Power infused with his lute or had he always been this way deep down? The musician’s face twists into a sneer. “My fourth champion will beat some sense into you!”

This time as he chants, she watches the ghost carefully. It mouths words again, eyes closed.

Just one more until I have it, just one more and I’ll defeat him.

When the transfigured Gleeok appears, Zelda doesn’t even blink.

* * *

The final time she finds Octavo, he is on a raised platform, his very own stage in this closing act. His ghost has a look of intrigue, rubbing its chin as it looks at her. Reevaluation. She’s far too used to seeing such a look on adults’ faces when she exceeds their expectations.

It does not reassure her, however.

Neither does the sudden relinquishment of the instruments she had kept in her bag. They blink into place where tapestries would be on the wall, each encased in colorful crystal.

“Perhaps I require a new champion,” he says, eyes briefly landing on her, Link, and Cadence. His spirit of intent grins, showing off teeth. “Let’s find out if you are the Champion of Hyrule! Prepare yourself!”

The beat changes up and Zelda finds herself in a veritable gauntlet. Monsters of all kinds burst into existence, as do Octavo’s champions, though thankfully more manageable in such a cramped space. The man himself comes down to attack her himself between the destruction of each partial monster. The phantom superimposed over his body won’t stop grinning.

She half-wonders if it’s more out of anticipation or the thrill of finding a true “champion”.

Either way, she doesn’t find out. The former monster champions are once again dealt with, and as she stabs at Octavo one last time, a dark portal opens above the stage. The Golden Lute is pulled through and suddenly the phantom is furious, matching the man’s own expression. His demands to know what transpired go unanswered. Hyrule has been witness to dozens of odd and miraculous happenings over the millennia, but there is still much that even the holder of Wisdom cannot solve.

“You fools!” he cries. “Without my Golden Lute, how will we defeat Ganon?” His gaze searches the floor, darting to the scattered remains of the element-infused instruments. Each one is destroyed beyond repair. His so-called “army” is finished.

Link and Cadence keep their guards up. Zelda eyes the specter. It shudders and shifts. Its face is a mash of confusion and despair and anger.

Then it settles. Its eyes are wide, mouth cracked in a maniacal smile. It laughs silently at a joke that no one can hear, no one can see.

That’s it, that’s it, that’s it!

Her stomach drops.

“We have only one final hope.” And without another word, Octavo, self-proclaimed savior of Hyrule, flees.

They follow after, rushing up the stairs up the stage and into the hallway beyond. Boots stomp down the carpet, echoing faintly in the tight confines. At the end they encounter a portal, and without a second thought, they leap in.

And land in the crumbling ruins of the castle.

She, Link, and Cadence leap through the only exit: a hole in the floor. The landing is rough, but there is nothing debilitating from the fall.

They move forward quickly. There is only one place Octavo would have gone. Only one thing he would have done.

But they’re too late.

Face down on the floor is the young man who sought to defy fate. His breaths come out in ragged gasps, his suit bloody and in tatters. His baton, for once, lies out of reach and he makes no motion to grasp it.

But what makes Zelda’s heart twist is the ghostly image lying over him. It’s paler, almost completely see-through to her eyes. The ghost is torn, shredded as if some horrid creature had raked its claws across its form. And what little she can see of the face speaks volumes.

Regret. Resignation. Defeat.

And through it all a current of terror.

The specter huddles in on itself as Octavo groans. “I couldn’t...defeat him...alone...” He coughs, a pained thing that makes him groan again.

A man seized by the mania to live, fulfilling his own prophecy. His well intentioned goal to save Hyrule was noble, but his methods were corrupt at best. He had put her and her people through many trials, and such actions would ordinarily grant him a stay in the castle dungeon at the very least.

But this situation is far from ordinary.

And he is still a member of her realm, no matter how misguided.

Zelda kneels down next to Octavo’s prone form, and hefts her sack off her back. It jostles some, the items inside clinking against each other. She sticks a hand inside and rummages through it, pushing her collection around. Maps, a bag of rupees, a spare rapier, a dowser--

--a bottle of red potion.

She fishes it out and very cautiously turns the man over. Cadence takes care of his lower half, perplexed and saying as much, but giving in at the princess’s stern look. Octavo hisses as they lay him on his back, then Zelda props his head up on her bag, opens the bottle, and carefully pours it down his throat.

The man coughs and sputters, but does not jerk away. When the bottle is nearly empty, she reseals it, and puts it away. As she draws her sack closed and moves his head to the floor, she can already see his face regaining some color. The gash along his side heals up well, leaving behind a pink line. His phantom intent becomes more solid, the rents filling in, blinking in disbelief. He will require rest, but he will live.

Nodding, she rises to her feet. Link and Cadence bob their heads in acknowledgment, the local hero smiling. Zelda turns, taking a steadying breath for the battle that surely awaits them.

At her feet, the reflection of the soul stares at her. Its mouth moves.

Why?

Zelda looks down, her companions slowing. The spectral form is in awe, as is the soloist. “You asked for a champion,” she says, and rejoins her allies, stepping into the room beyond.

Chapter Text

Julie cracked open her eyes, lifted herself up just enough to read the time on the radio, then collapsed back onto the back seat with a sigh. Barely seven-fifteen in the morning and she could still barely hear the walking shambling around outside. Part of her really wanted to close her eyes again and try for more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep. The rest of her was too concerned about some monster or other barging into the auto shop when she was vulnerable.

Staying awake it was.

Julie carefully opened the back door and extracted herself from the confines of the grey beetle. Her legs ached from huddling all night, but it was a small price for safety. Houses had been right out of the question since hour three of the chaos when monsters barged straight into homes without care for locks or windows.

The zombies had been bad enough, but then the mutant slimes had started slinging suffocating blobs, and those girls on TV had been abducted by aliens…

She was not in the mood to take her chances with weirdo movie monsters roving the town.

Her stomach growled at her. Julie glared at it, then rolled her eyes. Fine. Her selfish body could have food, jeez!

Just as soon as she made it outside and found a house that wasn’t occupied by demonic dolls or teachers with grudges against her.

Join in on one little prank and the resident stonewall of education had you on his list of “ne’er-do-wells” for life. Guy couldn’t take a joke if it was sent by the mayor himself.

Getting out of the garage was about as easy as getting in. A little WD-40 kept the door hinges quiet and the filing cabinet tilted back into place with a couple planks of wood in place to muffle the thud. Zeke may not have had any interest in getting his hands dirty, but his dad was all too happy to show her the ropes whenever she dropped by.

Julie pushed through the nausea of her last memory of her best friend’s family, and stepped out into the morning light. With the dark of night banished, she could make out the sign hanging high above. Darnell’s Autobody Shop, one of a few in business on the outskirts of Marthon. Two blocks up was the nearest residential area.

Which meant food.

Smacking her water gun into one hand, Julie braced herself then took off. The door closed loudly behind her, drawing in a few of the undead, but she paid them no mind. Compared to everything else she had encountered the day before, they were small fries, barely worth wasting her holy water on unless there was little choice.

The lack of national guard troops was unnerving. She had seen several the other day and they were supposed to be setting up a perimeter around Marthon. This far out, she should have seen someone, yet all she could see were zombies, shambling along and sometimes following her. Leaping over fences usually lost them and saved her water, but aside from the dozens of bullet holes in walls and cars, there wasn’t a single breathing human to be found.

Just because the residents were gone, though, didn’t mean they welcomed others to come barging into their home. Three yard jumps and a break-in later, and Julie found herself inside a cramped kitchen. The remains of a pancake breakfast were left on the small dining table, hardened and unappetizing. A plate of softened butter and a bottle of store brand syrup had been left out beside it. A quick meal abandoned in the wake of living nightmares.

Julie swallowed and focused her efforts on finding some leftover grocery bags. She found them beneath the sink, and filled them with whatever food she could grab. Half a bag of bread, some frozen waffles, a couple cans of mixed fruits, rolled up bags of cereal, and whatever cheapo junk food she could find and stuff into the flimsy bags.

Once again, she cursed letting Zeke carry their one and only backpack. And now – now he was chow or some ghastly decoration for whatever creature had been in the maze and she couldn’t go back to find him and it was all her dumb fault for suggesting going after the stupid dog in the first place –

Julie took a deep breath in and let it out. She made her short prayer of survival and glanced out the large window over the sink. More of the undead had gathered while she scavenged for food. The crowd wasn’t as bad as the one that had followed her up from Darnell Street, but it was getting there.

She backed away slowly from the kitchen, eyeing zombies outside as she did. The toxic dump was on the other side of town, but she didn't believe for a second that meant only the walking dead was her only worry.

Her back hit something warm.

A half-strangled scream was crammed down as she spun around, holy water filled gun in one hand.

Her eyes met red and blue 3D shades before her finger pulled the trigger.

Julie nearly crumpled on the spot. “Zeke...” Then her brain caught up to what she was seeing and her face lit up with a broad, relieved grin. “Zeke!” She dropped the grocery bags and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, thank goodness! You’re alive!”

Zeke remained silent. Instead, he shrugged and she took the cue for what it was and released him. He didn’t so much as smile seeing her again. Julie’s face slowly fell, her best friend refusing to do anything but stare blankly at her.

Julie brought back a curl of red hair behind her ear, and sighed. “I-I-I get it,” she said, “I left you in the hedge maze with that chainsaw maniac and that- whatever that monster was.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I was so scared I...” She swallowed, eyes wet, unable to look away. “I thought I was going to be alone.”

Zeke said nothing. He remained as a stoic statue or one of those stuffed shirts at a fund raiser.

“I understand if you’re mad,” she said. “I left you… I left you to die.” Her voice cracked on the last word. What kind of friend left another to fend for themselves when their hometown seemed to be falling apart? “I found a map. If we go – if you want to go – we can head east towards Hendershot’s Gas Station. From there we can follow where the national guard was evacuating everyone.”

Still, Zeke stared. He made no move at all, not even to scowl.

Julie shook her head. “Say something, you dork.” With a watery smile, she lifted her water gun, and pulled the trigger twice.

She expected her lifelong friend to tsk and blast her back like always. Two shots. They could afford that. Their church was a ways off in the middle of town, but the Pentecostal one was on their way out of Marthon and they could refill on holy water there.

Instead, Zeke screeched, an unearthly wail that made her clamp her hands over her ears. Blond hair and pale skin melted into purple-pink, sagging to the floor even as the humanoid blob reached out to her with one deformed hand.

And then, it was a puddle on the floor.

“What…?”

A multitude of wails resounded from outside. Julie jerked her head up and gazed out the kitchen window. Blond- and red-heads were moving in the street.

She swallowed a panicked scream, and cursed. The grocery bags were grabbed up, then she turned on her heel and dashed out the back door. East to the highway! she thought frantically. East to the highway!

Chapter Text

>Initializing...

“Hello! My name is Martina. I’m so glad to meet you!”

The pale girl smiles back from her bed. The covers are decorated with hundreds of tiny stars and dozens of moons, crescents, waxing, and full. “Hello, Martina,” she says quietly, “I’m Maria.”

The old man behind me gestures at the other occupant of this room. “And this is Shadow.”

“Hello, Shadow.” I approach the black hedgehog at Maria’s the real one bedside and grasp both of his hands with mine. His eyes open wider, his face hiding none of his curiosity or surprise. First impressions were everything, so I put as much cheer into my voice to sound genuine, and say: “I just know we’re going to be best friends!”

Forever goes unsaid. After all, nothing lasts forever.

“I...yes.” He nods, a little hesitantly. “It’s good to meet you, Martina.”

The good Professor behind us claps his hands. “Wonderful! Then how about we celebrate this friendship?”

Maria’s face brightens some. Her smile becomes larger, more real. “Really, grandfather?”

His mustache twitches as he grins. “Really. I think we have some cake in the kitchen somewhere…”

She laughs, almost like bells chiming, and then the Professor brings out a wheelchair from beside a tall machine flickering with green and red lights. Together we gently move her into the chair and leave behind the grey, sterile room.

---

>Archiving...

The smile I wear feels brittle as plastic. Only an hour old and already faking my emotions.

“So that’s Earth?” I ask. I already know the answer, but the both of them have been watching the planet for a while now, the plates of chocolate crumbs all but forgotten.

“It’s so pretty!” she says. “Grandfather says there are so many people down there, all trying their best to live their lives.” She lifts a hand and presses it against the glass. “I hope that we can go down there one day. Together.”

Shadow nods beside her. He hadn’t left her for a moment. “The Professor will make sure of it.”

Sheered memories float through my mind. Half remembered bits of math and history and people. Not the data given, but something...else.

Perhaps...perhaps my answers lied down there.

“Yes,” I chime in, giving her shoulder a small squeeze. “Together.”

---

>Loading...

I wake up,

I sleep.

I miss a lot.

---

>Retrieving

She likes looking at the Earth. Every time I am awake, she’s either in bed or looking out the window at a world she wishes she could visit. Shadow offers to bring her the most beautiful flower he can find for her once we’re down there. She says not to pluck it, since it won’t be able to make anyone else smile.

This girl…

This girl is impossible. She’s so utterly honest and true not only to herself but everyone around her.

It makes the plastic smiles I wear so unfitting. So wrong. How can I look this girl in the eye and lie to her? To pretend it’s all fine and dandy, and how all her dreams will come true, and…

Everything feels like plastic, and I hate it.

But when I’m around her, both her and Shadow, the haunting words that follow my thoughts quiet.

“We’re family,” she says, beaming.

And...well, that is that.

---

>Updating…

“Will you protect her?”

Is there any reason to doubt?

“She’s my sister.”

Darkness encroaches on my vision.

---

>Applying…

Red liquid flows through plastic tubes.

She sleeps. He sleeps.

We watch.

“Soon,” the Professor mutters. His fingers tap a few keys on the computer. Lines weave together, all different colors. “She’ll be well soon.”

“Yes,” I whisper. “She will.”

If any tears are shed, I can not say.

---

>Searching…

Klaxon alarms blare, red lights intermittently bathing the empty corridor. We don’t know where the Professor is. We can’t know; he’d gone into one of the deeper research labs earlier while we played charades. But the alarms mean danger. They mean evacuation, so we flee without him. Shadow races as quickly as he can, gripping the handles of Maria’s wheelchair, tilting it back on two wheels to maneuver faster. She still needed it. The blood transfusions weren’t complete. A tiny tweak, the Professor had found, and his DNA was capable of reversing her disease.

But now…

“Hurry, Martina!”

My insides burn. I wasn’t made for speed. I wasn’t made for anything but strength to withstand a disease.

The stomping of boots gets louder. A man shouts behind us.

No time, no time, no time!

“Keep going!” I shout. “I’m right behind you!”

I’ve been lagging. They know this. Maria looks back for a moment.

The plastic crumbles. I smirk.

At the next intersection they go right.

I lag behind a bit more, just long enough to spot the black uniform and gun.

Then I go left.

“Halt!” someone commands.

As if a Robotnik would ever stop.

The lines on the wall guide me between flashes of light. A week of on and off consciousness isn’t long enough to memorize the layout of the ARK. Maybe a month would work, if that was all I concentrated on, but I only ever needed to know a few places.

I slam a hand on the red button besides the nondescript door. It slides open. I dart in. Another slam on the button inside and it slides shut just before a black-clad arm bangs against it.

The banging doesn’t stop.

No time.

I turn to the machine in the center of the room. It’s a grey and black bulky thing that reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Three cylinders of varying colors sit behind a pane of glass in the center, unchanging under the emergency lights. It’s a mini rainbow reflecting the chaotic energies the Professor had harnessed for his experiments.

He had tried again and again for a perfect clone. One where the disease was dormant so he could monitor its transformation. One that wouldn’t expire so quickly. Because somewhere in that shift of DNA was the answer he was hoping for.

And MAR-TEN-A is that hope.

A few taps at the keyboard and the pane opens with a pressurized hiss.

Metal creaks and groans behind me.

Green, purple, yellow shine on my white dress. Crimson lightning crackles at my fingertips.

The door finally gives.

Spinning on my heel, I deliver the Professor’s final gift.

Red streaks across the room, arcing across bodies and weapons alike until all screams stop and the men drop bonelessly. The burst of chaos energy dies down, the crackling quieting to a gentle hum.

I don’t bother with the bodies – but I should, I know it, but there’s no time – and instead tap the side of my collarbone twice. My left arm folds open bloodlessly, a hollow where a bone should be. Instead, there is a cylinder, spilling scarlet light. I exchange it for the verdant one, the color of wild fields, and tap my collarbone again.

My arm closes up.

Green light arcs across my fingers.

And I sprint.

There are soldiers. There are soldiers everywhere, running along the halls like ants. I pass each one, sometimes with a punch, sometimes with a paralyzing arc. The path of bodies will lead more to me, more to them, but it doesn’t matter. It won’t matter. Not if I can just get to them in time.

The corridor passes and I elbow a man in the back of the head in front of my destination. His head slams into the wall, and I pass into the room.

Shadow greets me with raised fists, and gritted teeth. It lasts for a second before he recognizes her face.

“Martina!”

I can’t tell who says it first, but I remember – I remember so much and so little – that we have bigger problems.

The door slides close behind me.

“Yeah. Er, yes.” I scratch the back of my head, a habit I never knew I had. Maria sits in her wheelchair – of course she can’t get into the capsule like this and Shadow won’t let her go alone – and Shadow backs up to the launch console.

Green lightning arcs across my hand.

We need more time. Just a little more…

I eye the door and concentrate the chaos energy to my fingertips.

“Martina?” is all I hear before I start welding the door to either side.

“Shadow,” I say, raising my voice above the crackling, “Get Maria into the capsule.”

“What?” It’s him this time. “We can’t leave you here, Martina!”

I ignore the sentiment. One side of the door is done, and I start on the other.

The Professor is a real genius. Chaos energy can flow through organic tissue and unite it with artificial ones. He had prototypes floating about the space colony as a proof of concept. Installing an arm that would grant the same abilities as the Ultimate Lifeform for a limited time was trivial at this point.

I wasn’t real anyways.

That came with its own issues, but they weren’t anything to worry about at this point.

The door is finished and I shake my hand of sparks.

“Designation: MAR-TEN-A. Purpose: Protect Maria Robotnik.” I turn, wiggling my fingers. Their eyes glance at my hand for a second. “...Sister.”

“What?” Maria – the first and only and real – reaches out, as if she can't understand that this was who I was. What I was designed for. “Martina…”

“Get into the escape pod, Maria.” I gesture with a numb hand to the center of the room. The Earth spins beyond the window taking up most of the room. “It’s only a matter of time before they get here.”

Shadow looks between her, me, and the door. “But…”

“Please understand,” I say, “There are two capsules here.” I vaguely gesture at the console. It has two red buttons on it. “You two can be in one. I’ll be in the next one right after.” A glance at the door. “We’re out of time.”

“You promise?” I look back. The angel of the ARK stares me down, gentle but firm.

Chaos is power--

I nod easily. “...I promise. Now get in there.”

Carefully, Shadow lifts the girl from her chair and comes to stand in the center circle. She’s so thin, now, but she insists on standing next to him, even if that means leaning on his shoulder and head for support.

Boots stomp closer.

Time’s up.

I slam a fist onto the first button and the capsule descends in an instant, protecting both.

There’s hollering outside the door, but my gaze never leaves them.

“Thank you…” - I smile, no more plastic - “for being my family.”

The other button is hit, a look of comprehension dawns on Shadow’s face for a split second before the capsule shoots off into space.

The hollering has turned into a commotion. The door goes bang as something slams against it.

I tap my collarbone twice. The Chaos Drive is nearly depleted. I toss it aside and exchange it back for the one I had before.

Power enrich--

The door screeches and groans.

Two taps.

Lightning arcs across my hand. I still can’t feel it. Something warm leaks from one of my eyes.

Ah. Well…

I suppose it was only logical.

After all, nothing lasts forever.

Not even promises.

Chapter Text

Tammi eased into her first stance, eyes closed. The cool sea breeze and distant roar of waterfalls wrapped her in a totally serene mood. A future pop star as cute as her needed to keep off the flab to keep the fab, and you couldn’t beat Boogiedown weather!

The clacking of wood on stone emerged from the west and a moment later rushed passed her. Tammi barely opened one eye, peeking at whoever it was.

Ah! Subscriber! They were always in such a rush. They were like ZOOM all over the island! If they weren’t fishing or digging up tons of fossils they were burying money or getting bridges built. They were super awesome! Oh! When was their birthday? She hadn’t thought to ask yet. She totally shoul--

/-/

Tammi eased into her second stance, eyes closed. The cool sea breeze and distant roar of waterfalls wrapped her in a totally serene mood. A future pop star as cute as her needed to keep off the flab to keep the fab, and you couldn’t beat Boogiedown weather!

The clacking of wood on stone emerged from the west and a moment later rushed passed her. Tammi barely opened one eye, peeking at whoever it was.

Ah! Subscriber! They were always in such a rush. They were like ZOOM all over the island! If they weren’t fishing or catching a ton of bugs they were burying money or getting bridges built. They were super awesome! Oh! When was their birthday? She hadn’t thought to ask yet. She totally shoul--

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Tammi stretched from one side to the other. The cool sea breeze and distant roar of waterfalls wrapped her in a totally serene mood. A future pop star as cute as her needed to keep off the flab to keep the fab, and you couldn’t beat Boogiedown weather!

The clacking of wood on stone emerged from the west. Tammi turned to look and smiled. Subscriber!

They were always in such a rush. They were like ZOOM all over the island! If they weren’t fishing or burying bells they were busy building bridges and inclines. They were super awesome! Oh! When was their birthday? She hadn’t thought to ask yet. She totally shoul--

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Tammi wandered around Boogietown Museum. There were SO many fish on display! When did Subscriber find the time to catch them all? It was totally awesome!

Oh, and the bugs, too! The butterflies were so pretty, but the tarantula made her fur stand on end. It was behind glass but those little eyes were--

/-/

Tammi wandered around Boogietown Museum. There were SO many fish on display! When did Subscriber find the time to catch them all? It was totally awesome! The goldfish was so adorable, she could just die! But! Then she couldn’t be a pop star! And no one wanted a zombie pop star!

/-/

Tammi waved at Punchy from across the empty plaza. The clacking of wood on stone rushed past her so fast so didn’t even have time to turn and see who it was! Wow! Who would be in a rush at this time of day?

/-/

Tammi walked into the plaza, giddy. K.K. Slider was visiting today!

The island rep and some new guy ran around the Residential Services building. What were they in a hurry for? And who was the new guy?

/-/

She listened with rapt attention as K.K. Slider played. The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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She listened with rapt attention as K.K. Slider played. The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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The clacking of wood on stone came and went.

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Tammi strolled into her yard and towards her house. It had been a great day, but she needed her rest. Judy was totally right about going to bed at a good time. Too little sleep, and she would end up like cranky old Lobo. Too much, and well... Punchy was nice, but she wasn’t too keen on the idea of keeping bugs under her bed. Eugh...

Behind her the clacking of wood against stone raced past. She took one look over her shoulder and smiled. Subscriber! They were always up and about at the craziest times! When did they ever sleep? Maybe she should see about telling them about those tips from Judy’s magazine, even if a couple of them seemed...really odd.

Still, she couldn’t think of anywhere else she would rather be.

Chapter Text

Come home, lie down, and wait to go to work. This overall monotony is driving me berserk! All on the news is what is shutting down, while protesters march through the town. The stores are out of meat, white bread and wheat. Toilet paper out of stock again, no surprise. They flock on in every time a new shipment arrives.

Another week of scraping by just to hear the death toll rise. No one to visit or see, no places to be. That void is tearing up my mind. Barred at home, a cell confined. Something's got to give; this is no way to live!

Fed and mollified by greenery to sub for scenery. “Why work?” some ask with a snerk as they bask in relief. It's a belief they have in mind. A lousy one, I find.

It feels like I'm in solitary, with a burden to carry while we wait out this virus that tires us. Hope feels fleeting while eating takeout at the same table, with the same old label. But wait! What’s this? Why they’re reopening businesses! Some scoff, some cheer, others look at the numbers in fear. “You’ll get sick!” come the cries, but the happy ones don’t mind the caution, just wash in twenty, with plenty of sanitizing and they can be advertising that people may walk in and get to talkin’.

The states creak open one by one, allowing people to walk in the sun. Hair to be cut, a little light has come back. Then suddenly, it’s sacked. Pushed down the steps, now people are upset that the obvious came to be and we’re back at one not three. Small owners are crying, don’t want to be lying home all day while their businesses waste away. Some defy instead, their places almost dead, so it’s either this or income dismissed.

Life is tough. Our future is rough. But maybe if we're lent a hand to vent, to scream and cry and steam and write, we can make it the next hour, the next week, for the freedom that we seek.

Chapter Text

The great library had seen better days. Books were tilted back from their rows, the crushing force of other tomes keeping them from falling to the floor. Others littered the floor by the shelves, in singles and groups. And at the top of the building, the door to the attic, a recluse’s paradise, was shut and presumably locked.

She wandered through the well-known corridors, aware of the subtle shifting of the rows she passed. Footsteps, quick and faint, echoed from below. The front doors squeaked open, and then slammed shut. Maybe whoever it was that departed was late for the parade. It was mandatory; the great leader of the city was being celebrated and every worker had the day off to come watch. There were sure to be dodgers, but who would even think to check the oldest library in town for stragglers?

Who would even want to?

The rows moved before her, blocking the path to the center aisle. A slow creak came from below. Shoes – no, boots treaded the linoleum of the first floor. Without a second thought, she turned and retreated into the lightless corners of the library’s sixth floor. Some said ancient creatures from before the city’s founding lurked in the darkness. Others claimed the Watchers hid there. Yet still there were others who whispered behind the magazines racks that a path to paradise was only a few turns away, and that was why people went missing.

Better to be missed, than dead.

“Come here,” said a voice. She gave no outward sign of distress, instead choosing to pile it up within and keep walking. The shelves’ movements slowly became muffled the further she went, weaving between gaps where bookcases had once been. Other voices whispered, thankfully out of sight. A human would be bad. Anything else would be worse.

Deeper in the darkness they spoke, each in a different language, even ones unknown to human ears. It was hauntingly beautiful in a way. Letters rolled off tongues, letters that were hard and strong. Speech was quick, speech was slow. So many variances, so much to learn.

The paraders could hang. They would never know the fine line between life and knowledge. Life was chained and fleeting, while knowledge was demanding and ever-lasting within the annuls of time.

One out of thousands, an insistent voice grew closer to her ears. It murmured the same phrase over and over, though she couldn’t make out the language.

Finally, she said, “My name is Lath. And I am...here.” Knowledge received, the voice started up another round of repetition. Some of those in the dark howled in agony. A child sobbed and a man argued. A flurry of furious words were exchanged. A faint whisper in her ear to rush.

Amidst it all, somehow, she knew what the one voice was asking.

It was almost like a song. Lath couldn’t quite grasp what it was, but it sounded lovely.

The darkness began to lighten. It was a small difference, but noticeable to one who had grown used to nothingness.

Boots clomped on carpeted wood. Five aisles, three-

As the melody came to an end, she felt more than heard the oath.

She felt more than saw someone else in the dark. She steeled her nerves.

Two aisles.

Throat tight, she could not speak.

Sound was death.

So, mouthing the words, she gave the oath.

I promise.

And Paradise welcomed her.

Chapter Text

The darkened hall was silent. Silent in a way that even the Stitched Castle wasn't when all the minions turned in at night. The trailing footsteps, once pattering in a lopping rhythm behind them, were absent. A single look backwards had been a mistake to start with. 

Now, they faced the way back, the key in hand.

There was no secret shortcut. No open windows. No trapdoors or convenient elevators. Just an ex-minion, a talking sword, a candle, and the ghostly hand of a fallen hero. 

And whatever was lurking out there.

Their first steps were hesitant. Trembling, muscles tight. The few feet that Bella’s light allowed wasn’t enough. It let them see the clean and neat walls. See the lightly dusted floor. See one hand in front of the other. 

But not what had chased them.

Not enough to stop the tremors in their arms as they picked up speed on stiff legs.

The carpet muffled their footsteps. The silhouette had been quieter, but still heard. The lopping rhythm of what hid in the dark. It would be the same way back. 

And it was.

Until it wasn’t. 

“What?” Elizabeth IV asked. Masky wasn’t moving. “What are you waiting for, kid?”

They stared at the slouching shadow, grip tight on the hilt. One second there was darkness, then the next a member of the Stitched Army was there. Another of the same who patrolled Heroes Road.

They motioned at the other Masky Boy outside Bella’s light.

“An enemy? But…” A fist was pulled back. The shield was raised.  “But there’s nothing there!”

Patrol...

Bam!

The hollow rasp made their hair stand on end. It wasn’t like Greg’s weary voice, echoing and groaning. It wasn’t like the ghosts, lively and ethereal. It wasn’t the sinister tone Mr. Stitches would take up on occasion when laughing.

It wasn’t like anyone or anything they had ever heard before. 

And the shadow wasn’t leaving. 

Run...

The shadow threw another punch. 

Light flared from Elizabeth, taking on the shape of a sword. They didn’t want to do this. They really, really didn’t want to.

“Kid?”

Die…

Bam!

But what other choice did they have? 

Fighting was… They were used to fighting by now. It was horrible what they had done, what they were doing. 

“Kid!”

Hero...

Bam!

But they couldn’t give up or run away. They couldn’t just stay here in the dark, cowering while the rest of the Stitched Army advanced on the kingdom.

With a practiced motion, Masky swung Elizabeth in a graceless arc. The light of the hero’s sword sliced through the shadowy minion just as it had many others. The other -- he, she, they flinched away, ducking with the hood tight over their head. 

“What… What was that?!”

I...

It was a process.

Alone...

A very methodical process.

Stitches...

Until the shadow vanished into purple smoke. 

Would they become another Masky? One of Greg’s army?

They didn’t know.

So they ran. 

Elizabeth kept asking what they were doing. They thought it was obvious. After all, dozens of their former comrades had fallen in the past several days.

They were just adding to the weight they couldn’t shake.

All too soon, another appeared. Head tilted, shoulders slouched. Masky looked away and tossed a gold piece, hoping it would solve things. He just had to be faster, right?

A soft pat, then another. Masky peeked between his fingers and found the coin glinting in Bella’s candle light, at the feet of the Masky Boy.

They...couldn't be saved.

Elizabeth was drawn again.

Allies...

Bam!

So was the shield.

Gone...

Behind them, Bella made a noise of distress.

Stop...

And sooner than they liked, the other Masky Boy was nothing more than a cloud, dead by their hand and on the way to be...recycled.

Like every other minion they had felled.

Desperate, Masky timed his jog this time. A number of steps a set distance apart. They counted in their head, trying to estimate by feet and bricks.

Then leapt.

A shallow figure ran underneath them.

A sigh of relief escaped them as they kept going. How many more? One? Two? He had to be getting closer to the exit.

Wandered...

Elizabeth was pulled from their pocket.

They would not stay.

Help...

They would not cower.

Please...

They would not cower.

Where...am I...?

Bam!

But they did not strike. Elizabeth was confused, but they did not answer her questions.

H...Home...

Bam!

Where is...home...?

Masky swallowed. Hands tight around Elizabeth's hilt, they swung.

And swung.

And swung.

The minion crumpled. A purple cloud formed and dissipated.

Reincarnation.

Recycle.

A little wronger every time, until...

Masky didn't want to think about it.

About themselves.

So they didn't. Instead, they sprinted the last bit down the corridor, and listened to Elizabeth as she congratulated him and considered the empty hallway.

They shook their head and pointed back.

Back at the gloomy hall.

Filled with nothing.

They could even see the burning brazier clear as day from here.

They...no, there were minions, there were shadows, there were--

Elizabeth shouted in their ear. There was a goal here, she reminded. Mr. Stitches needed to be stopped.

Slowly, Masky nodded. The key was tight in one hand as the odd group left the giant doors behind.

Very firmly, Masky did not look back.

Chapter Text

Faye watched as the scattered pieces of Clockwerk turned to rust and disintegrated in the bay. Once pristine alloy browned and creaked. Centuries of obsession and hatred crumbled into a skeletal frame in seconds.

Despite her situation, a wave of relief washed over her. The nausea that had plagued her for weeks, if not months, vanished. And with it, a grave future that would thankfully never be.

She had hoped it would end like this one way or another, although at some points she hadn’t been so sure it would. Her capture at the claws of Rajan, Natasha’s presence, Sly’s spice episode, her...absence of memory in Prague. The thought that everything would come crashing down and Clock-La would win had always been there at the back of her mind, haunting her dreams and overshadowing everything she chose to do. Now…

Now her mind was silent for the first time since India. She sent out a tired, tentative thought of “Yami?”, just to check.

And there was no reply.

Faye was vaguely aware of Sly making out a deal with Carmelita to the side. Their freedom for his capture. Behind her, Bentley pitifully groaned in Murray’s arms. She just… She just…!

Couldn’t...actually change anything. Faye hung her head. No matter what she thought would help, or what might change the future for the better, none of it had mattered. Her attempt to destroy evidence was foiled by duplicate photos. Buying a cheap “cat costume” to do better than lay about or accidentally run into trouble only ended with a broken arm when the claws of one glove tore free from twenty feet up a tree. In turn, Neyla had caught her and nearly taken her to Arpeggio. Her choices to aid the gang in their jobs only got them done.

The traitor had been right. She really was worthless.

Her shoulder was gently bumped. Eyes wet, she turned and looked up at Rexus. The dark rings under his eyes seemed more pronounced in the early morning light. He grinned, but it came out as more of a grimace full of teeth.

“Hey,” he said, hoarse. “Thanks for, uh…saving me. I...I wasn’t sure I was going to make it back there.” Faye blinked then nodded numbly.

“Yeah.” Her voice was scratchy. She coughed and tried again. “Yeah, well... It wasn’t like I could let you fall like that.”

“It would’ve been the worst belly flop ever.” Faye suddenly found herself chuckling then coughing as saliva went down the wrong tube. She caught Rexus smirking, and weakly shoved him.

“Dorkasaurus,” she whispered fondly. “You haven’t changed a bit, Matt.”

He simply smiled and bumped her shoulder again.

Rexus glanced around her then leaned in close to her ear. “Hey, don’t look now, but your fan is hanging out of the helicopter.”

She couldn’t resist. Faye turned and sure enough, Natasha was leaning out of Carmelita’s helicopter maybe fifty feet from the Inspector, waving a paw excitedly. Faye raised a gloved hand and waved back. The panther ducked back in quickly just as Carmelita turned to see what Faye was motioning at. When the kid didn’t reemerge, Faye slid her gaze back to the bay and the decrepit remains of the steel ruler of the skies.

Their key back home. Gone.

“She’s a good kid,” she whispered. “Carmelita told her to stay put, and she has.”

Rexus nodded. “With Carmelita around, she’ll be safe from Vermon.” Faye hummed in agreement. There was nothing else to say.

“...you have yourself a deal, Cooper.” The Inspector had made her decision then. As she always would. Faye didn’t bother to look. “Alright...you four are free to go...but if I ever see you again, I’ll arrest you faster than you can blink!”

As sure as the words were, they were delivered with less enthusiasm than her regular threats.

But it was still a promise nevertheless.

She heard Murray start to remove his and Bentley’s gear without protest. The gloves and mask, the buckles and vest. To not even hear a single “but” from Murray was...disconcerting. Even more distressing, Bentley wasn’t saying a single word.

Rexus put an arm around her shoulder. He didn’t really have anything to leave behind. His “gear” was only just a torn hoodie and pants covered with splotches of oil.

Faye reached up to her mask, but thought better of it, and let her arms fall. Humans were extinct in this world, and if anybody saw her face it would only raise uncomfortable questions she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, answer.

She’d been stupid to think that Neyla’s plan could have been stopped and they could have had their way home. It just couldn’t have ended that way, no matter much she convinced herself otherwise.

Faye finally wrenched herself away from the sight of the wreckage, and looked at Sly. Natasha had her arms wrapped around him, head buried in his side.

Once a Sly fan, always a Sly fan, Faye thought. She had sang exactly one song caught on a grainy video camera, but Sly had been her secret idol for who knew how long.

And now he was being taken into custody. His gang was injured and any hope for future capers had been grounded.

“Come on,” Rexus urged. “I can hear the police sirens coming.”

Faye opened her mouth to say something, anything to Sly. Thanks for taking her along. How much of an idiot she had been. Was he okay? Where did they go? Had he… Was he...

She swallowed. The words wouldn’t come.

She gave up on anything long or complicated. “I’m sorry,” she croaked, and turned to follow Murray away from the Inspector and master thief. Rexus – Matt, held her close to his side as they walked.

They had nowhere else to go. No family or home to return to. He was stuck as a golden retriever and her memories were still as foggy as they had been the night before.

But they had each other, and the brains and brawn of the Cooper Gang around. It wasn’t enough to replace what had been lost – nothing would – but it would make the coming days bearable.

Chapter Text

Wearing hearts on sleeves perhaps wasn’t the best way to live. It was too easy to be hurt. Too simple to be struck by the slithering snakes that came in through the wide open doors of trust and kindness. Without the sharp eyes of experience, those same snakes would curl up and bide their time until there was nothing left for them to take.

In Inko Midoriya’s line of work, it was an almost constant battle between genuine and plastered smiles. Knowing when someone was trying to yank on her heartstrings for a discount was a must, and rude customers were just a fact of life no matter how hard she tried to believe that today was the day when she would get a break.

That was why when Mitsuki Bakugou told her to go blow off some steam – in not as few words, and with far more enthusiastic wording – Inko decided to walk along a trail outside the city. It was a less often trekked route, having grown less popular ever since the landslide last April. However, the mud and rocks had long been removed and the forecast was as clear as it was going to get late fall.

Unfortunately, the trail had no signs telling of where to go to follow the short loop back to the beginning. A few worn ones still existed, brittle looking and chipped with age. Inko, phone fully charged and with a map app ready to be opened, ambled along. Colorful leaves crunched underfoot, startling a few creatures in the brush. The air was empty of birdsong, something Inko hadn’t realized she’d missed until a quarter hour into her walk.

A half hour after that, she was starting to grow concerned at the lack of a beaten trail. She opened her app, and waited for it to load.

No signal.

Inko sighed. Great. Her first time out in the wilderness since she was a teenager and she was lost. She turned around, remembering the small clearing she had been in last. A few trees had fallen around there, so perhaps the way had been blocked? If so, she would just continue backwards instead of going any further out.

She wasn’t entirely sure what drew her attention just then. A flicker of light or perhaps a stray sound. However it occurred, her eyes were drawn to a crevasse in the rocky mountainside. It was a jagged hole, reaching from the ground to perhaps twice her height. It was wide enough to accommodate a full grown man, too, if he turned sideways anyhow.

She was going to leave in just a moment, and she hardly expected to ever come back. Taking a peek inside wouldn’t hurt.

Inko approached the crack and craned her head to the side to see more as she got closer.

Was that…light?

All the way out here?

Inko eyed the trees then the inside of the crack again.

That was not sunlight.

Part of Inko wanted to swing right around and leave right that instant. If someone was living out here on their own and wanted to act like a hermit, that was their choice. She couldn’t know if that person would be kind or cruel. For her own safety it was best to leave.

But.

But…

That light. It was a lot more like a TV’s in the dark of night than a flashlight or fire, and there was no heat besides.

Something stirred in Inko’s heart.

This...something about this wasn’t right.

She took a breath, then let it out. Just a look. A quick look, then she would leave and put all of this behind her. Even order takeout when she got home. Just a nice night to herself. Maybe even invite Mitsuki over.

Slowly, carefully, Inko slid sideways into the crevasse. Inch by inch, she made her way in, ears alert and heart pounding.

What was she doing? What was she doing?!

Just...a peek. Just a peek she told herself. Then she would leave. Quietly.

So she looked.

Only, her eyes lingered.

This was not a small cave.

There was no hermit.

This was a cavern stretching higher to the ceiling than she felt comfortable with. Bright monitors lined the walls, and thick silvery cables ran along the ground, reflecting light from somewhere to the left.

The crack she found herself in was set between two monitors, currently off. Another cable ran between them but Inko could step over it easily.

This… This was a secret lab. It was like some bad cliche straight from out of a bad movie. A glass cylinder filled with eerie green fluid over there. A diagram of the human body over here. A table filled with designs in the center. A young boy standing by a bland desk--

Inko froze. Everything in her screamed to run. No one else was in here, and she didn’t know for sure how long that would be. She was trespassing on something very likely dark and dangerous, but…

But.

That boy. He stared blankly ahead, his eyes only straying to her once before he flinched and went back to staring ahead again.

Inko’s heart clenched.

She stepped forward as silently as possible. Every little sound she made made her worry. At the very least, she took solace that no cameras had been installed here.

When she was close enough, she spoke quietly. “Who are you?”

The boy didn’t so much as glance at her. “Subject 1-Z,” he said dully.

Inko’s heart shattered.

She was not leaving without this boy.

“Well… My name is Inko Midoriya.” Her voice wobbled. “May I call you...Izu-kun?”

The boy turned his head, looking up at her, his eyes and hair matching the grey of the immaculate desk. Heavens, he couldn’t have been older than Mitsuki’s boy. Four years old? Five maybe?

“Call me whatever is suitable, Midoriya-san.”

Inko swallowed. She would not cry here, she would not cry here, she would not--

Something wet trailed down her cheeks. “Well, Izu-kun,” she said, choking back tears. “What are you doing here?”

“I am waiting for Doctor-san to return for my testing,” he replied, his voice never giving any hint of emotion. But those eyes. They expressed so much resignation, Inko couldn’t take it anymore.

She held a hand out. “Would you like to come with me, Izu-kun?” she whispered. Anyone could enter any second from the door behind the desk. “Whatever tests...Doctor-san is doing, you wouldn’t have to do.”

The boy stared at her, eyes wide and uncomprehending. He tilted his head, the grey shimmer fading, leaving his hair black. In the light, she could just make out a small scar under his curls. “Why?” he asked. “Doctor-san would be...mad.”

Inko snorted wetly. “They can be mad all they want,” she sniffled. “But I won’t let them touch you again. I promise.”

The boy’s – Izu-kun’s – hands flexed, as if he was wanting to grab something. He looked up at her, at her messed hair, at her scratched arms, at her face. A tinge of green lit up the tips of his hair. “I…” he said, “I would...like that, Midoriya-san. But… They always catch me.”

“They won’t this time.”

“How do you know?”

For an answer, Inko bent down and wrapped her arms around Izu-kun. “Because you’re not alone this time.”

Izu-kun froze, then, slowly, tentatively, he closed his arms awkwardly around her shoulders. Without thinking, Inko picked him up. “Are you ready?” she whispered into his ear. Arms and legs tight around her, Izu-kun nodded into her shoulder.

Without another word, Inko went back to the crevasse, muscles taut. Her heart was beating in her throat. Any moment, now. Any moment now, if someone came in to see her, to see them before getting a foot through, and they were both in trouble. Counting seconds by heartbeats, Inko persuaded Izu-kun to go through the crack first with her right behind him.

No one came.

No one shouted.

The sun lit up the boy’s hair, black and green with a bit of yellow tinge on the back. In proper light, she could see the drab grey gown he wore and how pale his skin was.

Had this boy ever...? No, of course not, he was probably never allowed outside.

Picking the boy up again, Inko marched back through the woods with purpose. As the seconds turned to minutes and still nothing happened, her heart calmed some. They weren’t out of danger, not yet. And she would still have to drive a ways away from home before doubling back on a different road, not to mention getting proper clothes for Izu-kun – and all of those scars on his arms and legs, some fiery red and some faded white. No child had that many, not even Mitsuki’s son.

Some luck, some fortune, some blessing must have been upon them both for they made it to her car without trouble. A quick map search as she drove away and she had a decent plan for going through the back roads. It wasn’t foolproof, but it would do to ensure she got lost in the rush hour traffic and then wound through various roads until she was back home.

It might’ve been dangerous. She had no idea who thought subjecting a child to whatever Izu-kun had been through – not even giving him a name, just a designation – would do to get him back, nor what resources they might’ve had available to them.

But.

Those snakes would never harm him again. She would make sure of it. Whatever past Izu-kun had, this was a permanent departure from it. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be possible. She would pull whatever strings she had to make it so.

Hmm. Departure. Izuku. Izuku Midoriya. She liked the sound of that.

She asked the boy.

He liked it, too.

Chapter Text

A long time ago, farther back than in living memory, our world was lifeless. Day in and day out everything was the same. Our ancestors planted seeds and waited weeks, even months for food to grow. They tended to animals that they would then eat. Travel was dangerous at the best of times, but they managed just fine.

Then, one day a dragon appeared out of nowhere. His mighty wings were longer than a man was tall and he blotted out the sun as he stood over our ancestors. He said, “Greetings,” and introduced himself to them. No one knows which of the Artisan dragons it was – too many of us spread out – but they all came in peace. They showed kindness and compassion, and in return our ancestors shared stories and showed them the worlds.

Some were almost barren back then, and there were no portals to speak of. The wildlife wasn’t as rich as it now. You could go to what is known as Peace Keepers and be lucky to find a jackrabbit. But the dragons saw potential and settled where our people did not.

At first there were five of them, then ten, then thirty, then dozens! Everywhere! They brought with them glittering gems and spotted eggs. They breathed fire to cook wild sheep and entertain. They wove magic into art, weapons, trickery, beasts, and dreams. It seemed there were no limits to what they could do.

And our ancestors yearned to break free of their own.

It was Marco the First who figured it out first. He watched the hatchlings play in Artisans’ Home. Heat rose and could keep feathers in the air almost indefinitely. If the heat was captured it could lift even more. With enough heat and a large enough bag, a person could be lifted into the air.

His first prototypes didn’t do too well. He couldn’t get enough lift to raise a basket off the ground. One of the Artisan dragons found out, and offered his help. Then the rest of them heard and started sketching ideas. Then the Peacemakers heard and started calculating the weight of an average person and the force necessary for takeoff. The Magic Crafters heard and began work on a flame that wouldn’t need oil to stay lit. The Beast Makers heard and collected reeds from the swamp to make a stronger basket. The Dream Weavers heard and cast a spell that made the basket nearly weightless no matter how many were standing in it, which upset the Peacekeepers but made their work easier.

When their labors were complete, Marco lit the flame, and the first balloon rose into the air. It passed the dragons’ heads. It passed the mountain tops. It rose until the dragons were as tiny as ants and the wind roared passed his ears. The balloon did not shift in the gale, and soon he was back on the ground.

Soon after that, more balloons were made. More people were trusted with the power of flight, and with them, the worlds were more closely connected. The hatchlings loved riding in them as much as our ancestors did. Messages could be sent faster and trips took a fraction of the time. There were thieves who sought after our power of flight, of course, but in the sky we were invincible.

It was around then that the balloonists started hearing the strangest rumors. Little winged people fluttering past fields. Food that grew almost overnight. Beasts roaming in areas that had long been empty. Aches and pains vanishing after soaking in ponds. Strange dreams that seemed to prophecy good fortune. Then the dragons built the portals in all the lands and places that none could reach by foot, by boat, or even balloon were suddenly open to everyone! Open fields, grottoes, deserts, canyons, caverns, high mountains, islands in the sea and sky, and trees taller than the dragons were simply there. Flight was still needed to reach those places, but the dragons were more than accommodating. Some chose to stay where they were ended up, making homes there. Others only visited and returned to tell tales of what they had seen. Glowing crystals in floating boulders, lights that needed no fire, foolish jesters that could not be harmed, and winds that lifted hatchlings into the air. The stories went on and on. There seemed to be no end to the wonders.

The dragons hadn’t only given magic to Marco’s invention, they had given magic to the worlds!

No longer did anyone have to work from sunrise to sunset to make a living. Food was plentiful and shared with our new friends. More time could be spent towards creation like the Artisans or learning like the Peacekeepers. There was peace. There was harmony.

And there still is.

And hopefully, it always will be.

Chapter Text

I.

The first ones who ventured out found darkness. A lighter one than their home, the caves were coated in luminescent moss and the discarded carapaces of dead bugs. On one side were gnashing, noisy thing things that seemed to be all teeth and shell. These were observed by a couple, then ignored as they wandered through the cavern, rushing past the creeping, crawling, skittering things that lurked where the light did not reach. The tunnels looped in on themselves, and the little ones were forced to climb upwards. More things skittered here, more creatures with invincible hides and mandibles larger than the little ones’ bodies. Carefully, they wound around the treacherous burrowers, following the light of the moss, forced to run from the mouths that would swallow them whole.

As they went, the darkness steadily began to lighten. A place of peace where the beasts would not follow. The little shadows approached the light source, a pool of water, warm to the touch. One poked at the surface. Another smacked the surface. A third ran and leaped straight in, drenched the others.

The waters brought comfort, soothing their nerves and making them unwind. Their apprehension dulled as water was splashed and ducked into.

An odd sensation, but not an unwelcome one.

Yet, they could not stay. Their minds inquired about what else these caverns held. What other sensations would there be? What other creatures?

Thus, they left, the light of the pacifying hot springs fading with every step and the chittering and hissing of things becoming louder and louder. Silver things lunged up from pits to bite them, and the dirt beneath their feet stirred up paler ones that did not hesitate at such a feast.

Small platforms of safety above the silver beasts kept the paler ones at bay, and so the explorers jumped across the pits, huddling together, watching.

Then, one turned around and began tapping the others on the shoulder. The little ghost lifted an arm and waved at a small cloaked figure on a ledge above.

Another! Like themselves! A sibling who had arrived here first.

No mouths to voice surprise or joy, the little ones instead leaped up to where they had seen their sibling.

With no other way to go, they went forward, deeper into the caves. Time and again they caught sight of their sibling, so like themselves, but so alone. They were all of one; there was no need to be alone.

The tunnels twisted and turned, making the wanderers question their way back. A problem for the future, yet still a problem.

Finally, however, they found their lost kin. They rushed to embrace them, to welcome another into their group.

Then the exit closed, a slab of rock slamming down, barring the way.

The kin turned their head with a sickening crack.

It hadn’t been one of them after all.

II.

The next shadows from the deepness sped ahead from the dim tunnels and caves, uninterested in even more darkness. They went higher, as far up as they could through the streams of comfort home source togetherness, green barely glimpsed in passing, and hopped out in a haze of white. Green liquid hissed below and round creatures floated everywhere they looked, little orbs of orange sitting inside each.

The floating creatures popped with ease, however, they soon learned that the cores of the larger ones would careen back towards them, exploding once it touched something. A quick jump through source and they were unharmed by the orange cloud, though they decided not to go back that way.

There were more of those creatures on either side, but the one side they decided upon had less of the bigger ones. Carefully, they made their way across the bubbling lake and around the complacent creatures, then up and up, avoiding even more below.

The world shifted as they climbed, pale pinks giving way to vibrant greens and softer hues. The waters here still bubbled, and speckles of it burned when they get too close, but this place was so lively and colorful and things actually lived under the green above and below their heads.

They made their way, up, up, up through the foliage, dodging acidic spit and bugs clouded in the same orange as the explosive gooey things. The clapping traps and moving bushes startled them, but they learned, adapted. Some things wouldn’t hurt. Others would, but wouldn’t give chase. The little shadows jumped from platform to platform, quickly turning it into a game of who could get where the fastest. The one with the moth wings nearly always won, just a step ahead of the other.

Eventually, they each took interest in another part of the dense domain. One sought to go deeper, to see where they could go. The other continued upwards, finding dead ends and fragile rubble.

Until they felt a breeze, faintly blowing past their cloak.

This one followed the wind, until it was a howling gale and and the green fell away behind them.

A vast place to explore. To wander.

And so they went.

Their partner was safe below, they believed. They had found that sharp piece of metal and knew how to kill things with it.

Unfortunately, another stray sibling had found herself there in the domain of life.

A cloak was nothing to a piercing needle.

III.

The last little shadow was filled with curiosity. To escape the bonds of the kingdom did not interest them as much as the unknown. The surface was certainly mysterious, being so high above from their birthplace, but they were in no hurry to see it.

Instead, they absconded to the furthest reaches that the darkness could go alone, seeking to fulfill their desires. Regardless of their thoughts of the surface, they rushed on to see what there was. Creatures, bright, large, and small moved here. Some hopped along the ground, the larger ones making the explorer's legs thrum with each landing. Some tiny ones flew on even tinier wings, and spat hissing liquid when approached.

Then there were the huge, monstrous flying beasts. Those ones the little adventurer cautiously leaped to, always watching. The beasts were held aloft by small wings beating furiously. Yet, they made no sound of aggression. Not even a lunge for a quick bite. The hopping things at least tried chasing after the child. These...these lived unbothered by anything. Not even by the heavy raining things. One fell right in front of its face, but it didn't so much as twitch.

The raining things sometimes did, though. They would groan or gurgle or make strange sounds, then they wouldn't move anymore. Occasionally, the child would poke the bodies, expecting them to move or make more noises. They rarely did.

The eye holes would remain dark, the shell hardy and dented. The sharp things they dropped were long or broad or broken in two. Useful, the little one discovered, for making other creatures go still.

Cracked but sharp weapon in hand, the little shadow lived on the fringes of the world. They hunted. They learned. Their life was one of impulses. Freed of the darkness of the deepness, they found color and light. Not the waning and waxing hues where they had fallen, but an array so varying in contrast that they found themselves staring at the world for long stretches of time.

Then, at last when they had grown some, when their curiosity was sated, they left through the streak of boiling dark, the path to deepness, the path to greens and haze and other darkness.

They knew where the first had gone, and so went into the den of beasts. They found the burrowing monsters with steel hides, the creatures of many legs and impenetrable shells, the hissing and skittering things that loomed out of sight. They found beasts that sought to devour and were instead speared upon a broken nail. They found a large thing shining with light through many eyes, still and silent as the bodies at the furthest reaches.

This last one, they noted, did not breath. It did not stir. It should have been dead, and yet the light…

The light drew them forward, compelling them to come in from the perilous tunnels and come, come...

Through the mouth of the beast they went, and instead of teeth and squishy insides, they found faint bulbs of light and squishy rocks, except they weren’t rocks. A swipe of the nail revealed bits of white fluff that stuck to the cracked bits in their weapon. Nothing sprung out to bite them or pierce or crawl over the exposed fluff.

Nothing happened at all.

A safe place, then. A haven in this treacherous domain. The little shadow curled up on one squishy not-rock and claimed it as their own. They didn’t need sleep, however, and was up and about soon after, exploring their newfound shelter.

There were two glowing discs, one at either end of the odd cave. One only made little buzzing sounds, making the explorer shake with glee and silent laughter. The other made the cave move.

They watched as the floors walls around the refuge passed. The slight glow of the moss faded and the soft dirt gave way to solid rock.

They remained in that haven for a time, pressing the buttons, watching the world move back and forth. Eventually, they hopped off onto grey, solid ground.

The place was quiet. There was no buzzing of wings, chirping, or hissing. The wind didn’t even blow here, the air stale in a way they had never experienced. Everywhere had some sort of sound. Even the deepness. Such a place as this left them uneasy. On edge.

They brandished their nail and delved into the nearest hole.

The stillness seemed to carry into the very bugs that crawled here. Part of the little shadow knew that they were close to home. That wasn’t something to be scared of; it was home. It was togetherness.

All the same, something unnatural permeated this place. An older, wiser bug would say it was a violation of nature, a twist in the world that shouldn’t be. A less wise bug would say that all the life had been taken from this place. A younger bug would say that the place was haunted before daring a friend to go in first.

They would all be right, not that the shadow knew of such. A place of torment and depravity where few tread.

Deeper they went, still, vigilant for predators. Even with the comfort of home so close, they dared not let their guard down.

Glints in the distance. The shadow moved towards them and found blades, like teeth, buried in the earth. All of them clashed together in a way that prevented secure passage to the other side.

The wanderer tilted their head, thinking. Then, they leaped off the ledge, and scrapped their weapon across the jagged spikes.

For a split second, they remained airborne, then the world grabbed them again to bring them down to be gored.

They swiped their nail again with a shing. Then again. And again. They bounced in place, hovering above danger, but with their skill they stayed in relative safety. It was a trick they had learned with the creatures at the edge of the known world and the invincible bugs with the large pincers. It was different to see no white or orange with each slash, but it bothered them none. Back and forth, side to side they bounced, keeping just one step away from being maimed.

And yet, they never stopped. They never fell. They bounced from one end all the way to the other then up onto another ledge where they could stand on their own two feet again.

The shadow waved their arms, vibrating with excitement. Such fun in this dull, dreary place. Curiosity tugged them onwards, however. Nail out, guard up, they made their way deeper into the twisting tunnels. There was naught to be found, though. Once more, no life was to be found, not even vicious ones.

A break in the silence. Pit, pat, pit, pat, the sound of their own footsteps.

Behind them.

The shadow turned, nail up to stab or slash or to jump and slice through shell.

They nearly let go of their weapon.

There before them was another like themselves. Another with a tattered cloak and curved horns, though not quite like their own.

Another without a mouth.

They put their nail away and waved, walking up, gesturing to the other then themselves and pointing forward, down, and above before nearly flailing their arms with excitement. Another! Another who had escaped! Was this one from the first group who went up?

A pale light from behind their sibling caught their eye.

Then a nail, intricately carved, slid into their head.

A hand outstretched, questions unasked, and then nothing.

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, until burning burning BURNING LIGHT KILL IT LOVE ME KILL IT--

Blissful darkness.

A tattered cloak. A pair of horns.

A hand outstretched--

A nod. Acceptance.

And then nothing at all.

Chapter Text

“I'm tired of being afraid, Fuchsia!” Cliff threw up his hands and paced in the tight clearing. Moonlight glinted off his silvery bracelets as he walked. “I’m tired of hiding, because if I go outside for a walk I’m going to get nabbed by a badnik. I’m tired of lying awake in a bunk at seven o’clock in the morning, wondering if the Egg Fleet is going to find us again.” Cliff stilled, hands clawed in frustration. He slowly turned around, and met his fellow rebel’s eyes. “Is this what the rest of our lives are gonna be like?” he asked quietly, his voice rising with every word. “Hiding in fear in little pockets all over the world, unable to do anything or go home?”

Fuchsia shook her head. “Not everyone’s afraid,” she replied, tail swishing behind her. “The Commander sure isn’t.”

Cliff snorted. Nothing really phased the Commander. He was so used to Eggman’s schemes that, to him, overthrowing the doctor was only a question of when, not if.

One of Cliff’s ears briefly flipped up. “He’s hard-headed, that’s for sure. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without him. Without any of them.” All at once, his shoulders slumped. “But it seems like no matter how hard we try to hit Eggman’s operations, we get pushed back...or the damage is repaired by the next week. Or...we lose people.” Fuchsia's ears flicked backwards, and she frowned. Cliff turned and collapsed at the base of a tree, heaving a long sigh and staring unfocused at the ground. “No matter what we do, it just isn’t enough. We’re not like him. No one is. No one can...fill his shoes...” 

Fuchsia pressed her lips together, but said nothing. It had only been a handful of months since the catalyst for a worldwide takeover. Not everyone had worked their way past the ensuing grief.

Not everyone had had the time to process at all.

Cliff licked his lips and pressed on, unwilling to let the oppressive atmosphere stagnate. “No one else was fast enough to stop the doctor’s plans before they lifted off the ground. And if they did lift off the ground, he would fight him in space!” Cliff splayed his hands out, representing all the decisive battles past that had taken place high above the planet.

The cat glanced at her communicator. Still no alert. They had some time, then. Slipping the device into her pocket, she sat down next to him, one leg stretched out, the other close to her chest.

“I just want this all to be over,” Cliff whispered, shaking his head. “I want to walk down the street to my dingy apartment. I want to catch the bus at Forty-Second Street where the wildflowers grow.” He lowered his head, propping it on his knees. “I want to see my sister again…”

Fuchsia reached out a hand, hesitating. Then, she placed it on his shoulder. “This won’t be forever. Sure, none of us can be like Sonic, but he’s not the only one to have fought the doctor before, you know. We can do this!”

Cliff hummed dully in agreement. 

Fuchsia grimaced, gaze flickering over the small area on instinct for something else to talk about. But they were out in the middle of nowhere with only a bolthole to hunker down in, and the moonlight only illuminated so much. Instead, she pulled back her hand, and rested it on her raised knee.

Eventually, amidst the song of crickets, the cat sighed, loud enough to draw Cliff’s attention.

“So...I heard something,” she admitted in a whisper, “about why we haven’t been able to launch an assault on the Death Egg.”

Cliff’s ears perked up. What was this? “I thought it was because we couldn’t get to space?”

The cat shook her head. “It’s not that. Well...not only that.” She closed her eyes, and took in a breath, as if steeling herself. “We can’t launch an all-out attack because...” Her hands clenched. “Eggman has hostages.”

Immediately, the rabbit's white fur stood on end. “Hostages?” Was his voice up a pitch? “How many?”

“Thousands.”

“What?!” Cliff hit the back of his head against the trunk. “Ouch!” He winced and rubbed where he’d smacked his head. That was gonna show in the morning. “What do you mean “thousands”?”

“The people caught up in the attacks,” she answered simply. “We thought they were all dead or turned into machines, but…” Fuchsia tilted her head up towards the shadowy canopy. “The Chaotix intercepted a transmission a while back. I overheard some of the last of the deciphering, but the message was pinged around a lot of different places, with the final one being the Death Egg or something. It could have been the ARK, but...” She shook her head. “Never mind. The point is that the message was showing a number of...somethings en route. The number was two hundred and three. The message originated from a small coastal town to the east of Mystic Ruins.” Fuchsia turned to Cliff, eyelids drooping, her usual energy sapped away. “Guess how many were unaccounted for when the resistance got there.”

Cliff stared. His jaw worked, but no sounds came out.

Fuchsia nodded.

The spell broke.

“He’s-!”

“Shh!”

“Oh, sorry.” Cliff shrugged sheepishly, voice lower. “So he’s kidnapping people?”

“Yeah. That’s what I heard. We can’t even launch a sneak attack because we don’t know where any of them are, or how many there are at risk.” She shrugged and looked up at the stars peeking through the leaves again. “The higher ups have intel on a number of places, but we have no solid lead on if the people are in one location or not. We’re stuck unless something changes.”

Cliff tapped his knee. “Well… What if we could get someone in there? Or some sort of spy camera? That guy Gadget is pretty good a-”

Fuchsia blinked. She looked over at her companion for this trip. He stared at nothing, eyes wide.

“Tails!” he finally blurted out. Cliff turned towards her, fighting down a hopeful grin and failing. “What about Tails? He’s gone toe-to toe with Eggman before, and the doctor is basically a genius. He could get us in no problem!”

Fuchsia rolled her eyes. “Good luck finding him,” she murmured. “He’s gone radio silent. Some even say he’s lost his mind.”

Cliff stared at her incredulously. “What? That makes no sense! He once took down Eggman by himself in Station Square!” As an afterthought, he added: “And then kicked his butt on that space station!”

The cat shrugged. “Some people like their drama. But...everything fell apart so quickly. Cities were wrecked and Eggman took over in months. So...who knows?”

“That...doesn’t sound like Tails,” he said slowly. “Maybe he’s still…” Cliff swallowed. “Processing.”

She nodded. “Yeah... Probably.”

Silence descended once more. The crickets picked up their song. Their communicators remained blissful silent, no radar pings for badniks.

“But...if we could find Tails…”

“...Yeah. We might have a chance. We would have to pass it by the higher ups, but they’d probably listen.”

Cliff smiled. “So we have a plan then?”

“I’d say it’s more of an idea than a plan, buuut…” She smirked. “Yeah.”

Then she yawned.

“In the morning.”

“In the morning,” he agreed.

The two rebels enjoyed a precious moment more in the cool night air, then together hefted up a large rock and slipped into the bolthole.

Chapter Text

Deep beneath the world's code

Grasping from the undertow

Ones and zeroes make an ode;

A siren's call of lasting woe.

 

I hear them calling out to me,

On this shore of another realm,

To embrace my destiny

Let hate flow and take the helm.

 

Dark voices lapping at my mind

The edges wear away in time.

False promises and power,

They grow stronger by the hour

 

"You'll be the greatest ever!"

"No sidelines, only treasure!"

Wrapped in screams

Beyond the screen

Beyond the sea

 

No matter how hard they try

I won't be pulled by the tide

 

I've faced the dusk, I'll face the dawn

No matter which next Digimon

Decides to try shut my light away.

I won't let myself be swayed

 

Threats to cede or be devoured

Hold to hope in darkest hour

Holy light

Shining bright

Be my guide

 

Be my guide.

Chapter Text

Let me run

Through the realms

Take life by the horns

And fun by the helm

 

Let me fly

Power up

Stop draggin’ your feet

And save Farley pup

 

We’ve been waiting for a dragon’s age

Since Gnasty’s curse and Ripto’s rage

To soar through the worlds again

 

Forgotten realms we took to heart

And now they have a fresh new start

To reignite the flames of passion

 

So light up the night,

Breathe the fire!

Spread your wings,

And soar up higher!

 

The adventure begins once more...

And it’s just as good it was before

Chapter Text

All fairies know

Their role, bestow

Healing deep wounds;

Guide youths from doom.

 

For years I've known,

This Fountain home

But now I’m yearning to ro-am.

 

Find me out here

Conquer your fear

I’ll be waiting

If you’re fading

 

Through forests green;

Waters, cool, clean;

Saw a world I had never seen.

 

Mountains that rained

Haunted tomb stained

Quests, love, and friends

These lands you cleansed

 

For months I’d known

Your side; we’ve roamed

But now I’m yearning to go home

 

Please don’t think ill

Of my heart’s will

I don't wish harm

Don’t be alarmed

 

You have the key

To set me free

But would you need help if I flee?

Chapter Text

When Sandra was a kid she would blow into her hands to warm them, and her breath would come out like smoke. Some classmates would pretend to have cigarettes, holding their fingers in a V-shape, crossing their arms sometimes and gesturing. Swirls of white would float away and disappear, ethereal.

It was all she could think of while walking through the small town. Winter had come but it was not yet gone. Fog rolled through the streets, blotting out the sun and making driving next to impossible. She had rammed into a pole on the outskirts, denting the front and sending steam into the chilly air. Even in an old place like this, there had to be a mechanic around somewhere, or some landline phone that didn’t need a clear signal. Podunk towns in the middle of nowhere always had awful reception.

The fog blew past her, like a single continuous breath was making the haze, keeping it from lifting. Sometimes she could even imagine it, a noisy inhale and exhale somewhere she couldn’t see. Which was ridiculous. Sandra hadn’t found a single person while walking. All of the store windows were dark, the doors locked. Flower shops, restaurants, and even the gas station had been closed up.

What was with this town?

Sandra called out. “Is there anybody out there?” She kept to the sidewalk, looking up at the lightless apartments, then back to the street. Once again, nobody answered.

The world only breathed.

Sandra heaved a sigh. Just her luck to be trapped in an abandoned town. She took her hands out of her pockets along with a pack of menthols and a lighter. She took out a cigarette, put the pack away, and lit it up. She took a long drag and blew out. Sandra leaned lightly against a chainlink fence. If she really was stuck in some forgotten backwoods town, then she needed to double back to her car. Clean out the trunk, burn a few things. Even if there wasn’t an active police force here, she supposed, the highway patrol could be, if only to clear the place out of squatters and human trash every now and then.

A shuffling of cloth. Sandra peered up and found a silhouette in the fog. Tall and lithe, the person began shuffling away.

“Hey, wait!” Sandra dropped her cigarette, and crushed it beneath her heel. Mindful of her Guccis, she carefully chased after them. She was not about to be left alone, not now. Heels were killer and she did not fancy walking another block to find even more closed shops and empty homes.

She only needed a mechanic or triple A.

How hard could it be to get some service around here?

Chapter Text

High up in the sky,

Sea of clouds pass by

Freed of caverns confined

Dragon wings, I’ll decline

 

I won’t run away

I will not betray

All the innocent lives

Under the Doctor’s knife

 

On this outer wall

Take care not to fall

I will not give up here

Climbing ever higher

 

Night Ghosts

Hoppies

They all

Want to

Stop me

 

Just one

False leap

I’ll be

Nothing

But a

Scrapped heap

(Never seen again.)

 

I will accept this harsh trial

Everything I have learned, has been compiled

 

No need

For a second pass

My aim is first class

Soon the Doctor will know

All the misery he’s sown!

 

Higher up I climb

Stones beset by time

Guided by the moon's light

Shining down, full and bright

 

Counter's running down

Until the vile Crowned

Enacts his cruel scheme

Reigning a new regime

 

Sandcrocs

Hoppies

They all

Want to

Stop me

 

Just one

False leap

I’ll be

Nothing

But a

Scrapped heap

(Never seen again.)

 

With King’s Blade in hand, I'll stop him

Pushing through it all, though their fates look grim

 

No time

For a second plan

I'll save who I can

For all those who are gone

I will fight and carry on!

Chapter Text

There was something disconcerting about witnessing a procession of unpowered Moons.

When the civilian above ground had told him proudly that the Metro Kingdom was run by Power Moons, Mario had been intrigued. An entire kingdom fueled by the very objects the Odyssey needed to fly. How many did it take to keep the lights on for all of those people? How long did it take to collect them all? The sheer effort required to make that idea a reality was mind boggling.

He was reminded a lot of the Power Stars back at home. They had been known to dispel potent magic and empower large, complex machines. The possibilities of what they could be used for was practically endless! He had thought them similar to the Power Moons that Cappy had introduced him to, bright, sparkling sources of power that could do great things.

Then he had reactivated the power plant, and watched as Power Moons were funneled into the machine.

Only to reemerge from the other side, grey and lifeless. One by one they went in, and one by one they left. Never to shine again.

He had never seen a depowered Star in his life. Seeing the Moons in such a state, stirred something in discomforting his gut. What happened to the Power Moons afterwards? How many Moons were drawn from every day? Every week? For this festival?

So, with the mayor nearby, he decided to ask.

“Oh!” Pauline’s eyes lit up. “Yes, it’s a wonderful system. The depowered Moons from the power plant are sent out to Starlight Valley. There, they are reenergized under the light of the stars, and when regain their shine, they are brought back here. It’s a source of renewable energy for Metro Kingdom, and we’re very proud of it.”

Mario sighed in relief and smiled.

“Wow...” Cappy said in his ear. He could imagine the other’s eyes wide in astonishment. “That’s amazing!”

Mario nodded, following Pauline to an elevator for the surface. He couldn’t agree more.

Chapter Text

All Hallow’s Eve. A night of transformation, tricks, and treats, capped by frights in safety. Homes were decorated with lights and carved pumpkins, lawns staked with warnings and welcomings. A chill breeze brushed past hanging ghosts and ghouls.

A badly painted Frankenstein’s monster hit the grass with a pained groan.

Well the trick part was right, at any rate. Jessie gasped for air, eyes desperately scouring the school grounds for any more weirdos who thought of trying to heft her like a bag of potatoes. That was five freaks so far who had tried persuading her to go into the school’s basement. That led to about a quarter of the classrooms, and the back entrance of the party, but she was not about to go the long way to the gym when it was literally right there. But by the time they had revealed their true colors, she had been lured away from the entrance by casual talk.

She’d tried running, but she wasn’t exactly on the track team. The boys and girl had cut her off and when she didn’t come along, when she struggled and punched and kicked, they punched her back.

She held her stomach. Where were the teachers anyway?

“Oh, lookie here!” Jessie’s head shot up. Sitting on top of the administration office were four more teenagers. Two girls, two boys. The girl on the right, dressed in gothic chic, smirked, fist propped underneath her chin. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this,” she said snidely. One of the boys, in a smart suit of all things, slid down the angled roof tile. He fell the twelve feet from the edge to the grass, bending his legs to absorb the impact.

Then immediately rose up and ran at her.

Jessie eyed the scrawny boy, but had no illusions about his strength. He came close, arms outstretched and hands clawed just like the rest of them. She caught one of his arms on the outside, and shoved as hard as she could. He lost his balance, shifting to one side. Not by much, but enough. Taking the chance, she swept his feet out from under him, making the business casual fall on his backside.

Just like the others, she then kicked him. Hard.

The boy wheezed and curled into himself.

Six down.

And why weren’t any teachers out here?!

Jessie looked up again. It was just the two girls. The overweight one in suspenders was missing.

“Who do you think you’re kidding?” Gothic scoffed. “You’re not getting out of here. This is our night and it’s not going to end just because you want it to.” The other girl, sitting pretty in a black belted dress and pigtails like some discount Harle Quin, smiled and giggled. “So just sit tight and let us work our magic, alright?”

Jessie really should have taken the monologue to just run. Run until she hit someone’s backyard or found a teacher. But her body ached all over, her lungs burned, and her dress was making moving around a chore at best. She had nothing to tear at it, not even her house keys because she was going to be picked up later in the night.

‘Phones are not allowed during this school sanctioned event,’ the fliers had read. She never should have listened to those stupid--!

Just then, the doors to the basement’s stairwell opened. Pink light slid over the sidewalk and vanished as another two party goers came out. Vampires, white face paint and all, eyeing her.

Gothic girl smirked again.

Screw it.

Jessie took off for the back field beyond the admin office. There were trees. There was a fence. There were backyards, active with lights.

There was a chance, and she was going to take it.

“Oh minions!” Gothic’s voice rang out. “Go get her for me, won’t you?”

Jessie jogged for all she was worth, lungs and legs both loudly protesting the movement. Growling pursued her. She couldn’t run, it wasn’t in her, but all she had to do was keep out of reach of the vampire wannabees and she was home free.

“Get back here!” roared someone in a deep baritone.

Jessie dared to peek behind her.

And quickly regretted it.

Coming up fast was the overweight suspenders guy.

Jessie turned back and poured everything she had into running. Behind her she could hear accusations being hurled at her. That he had been yelled at, that it was her fault, that “they” were mad at him.

By the time Jessie made it to the wooden line of fencing, her everything was on fire. The suspenders guy had lost steam, but the vampires were still on her and gaining. For once, she was glad for the trees planted in the very back for some semblance of privacy for the people on the other side. Hiking up her dress, Jessie scrambled up the tree with some difficulty, her purple mage dress snagging and tearing as she went. The vampires tried climbing after her, but their fancy pants would not bend or stretch as much as they needed. Calling it a minor win in her head, Jessie carefully crawled along one of the thicker branches that jutted out onto someone’s property, her dress still ripping along the way. The limb cut off right at about the boundary line, but that was good enough. Ignoring the cursing from behind, she lowered herself from the branch on the other side of the fence and let go.

A four foot drop was much more manageable than twelve, and it didn’t cost her any broken bones.

Stumbling to her feet, Jessie made a straight line for the off white back door. It had a single window in it, and she couldn’t see anything lit from this side, but that didn’t mean no one was home.

She clung to that hope as she pounded on the door. “Help!” she shrieked. “Help me, please!”

Part of her panicked. What if this was like a horror movie and nobody came to the door? What if nobody heard her? What –

The old brown curtain shifted and a light sprang up behind it. Locks clicked and the door opened to another teenager. She looked barely awake in fluffy pumpkin pants and a shirt splayed with the dripping words “Slashstreet Boys”. A pug puppy yapped at her heels.

After a second when the other girl did not try attacking her, Jessie relaxed. She had never been so happy to see someone bedraggled. “Please help me. They – the other teens tried attacking me and I--”

The other girl’s eyes widened and she put a finger to her lips, the universal sign to shut it. “We have to get out of here,” she whispered, waving Jessie to come on in.

“Why?” Jessie walked in, gestured to the well-lit interior of the one-story home. “We’re in a house, we’re safe.”

The other girl shook her head, locking the back door. “No. Queenie went and drugged most of the school with something like steroids, or meth, or something. It’s been on her stupid FaceBook page about how she wanted to really “spice up” the party. They’ll come here first chance they get for the queen bee.”

Jessie stared incredulously. “FaceBook?”

The other nodded, walking out towards the living room. “Public. Really stupid of her. Lana, by the way.”

“Jessie,” she replied, then shook her head. “Then what do we do? Why are they doing this? Where are the teachers?!”

“Shh! We run.” Lana shook her head and gathered up a small backpack. She put a cellphone inside, then shouldered it on. “I don’t know if the police will come even after all the reports tonight,” she continued, “but we shouldn’t hang around. I don’t know why and I don’t know what happened to the teachers, but our best bet is just getting out of dodge.” She picked up the little pug and held it close in one arm. “I was lying low for the night, but then you landed in my yard, so there goes that plan.”

Jessie cringed remembering the jocks from earlier. “Sorry.”

“Nah.” She flipped a hand back and forth. “They probably would have come here anyways.” They passed an old wooden antique table by the front door, and she picked up some keys. “Come on. I’ll take us to a party my parents went to. It’s on the other side of town. You lie down in the back and I’ll get us there through the back roads.” Jessie nodded and followed her outside, scanning the yard and street for any more weirdos.

There were none. They wouldn’t have kept silent if they’d spotted her, the freaks.

Hearing the door click locked, Jessie watched as Lana walked towards the driveway.

And to the sidewalk.

Jessie caught up. “Aren’t we using your car?” she asked.

“Nah,” came the reply. “They’d see it was gone and know where I went, even with the TV on inside. I have permission to use the neighbor’s car anyways.”

Jessie nodded, and followed along. Quietly, the two girls and pug piled into an old blue Honda parked across the street, Jessie laying down in the back as asked. In a moment, the engine turned over, and they were on their way out of the neighborhood.

“Oh, here.” A cellphone was thrown into the back. The pug puppy followed it, leaping onto Jessie’s bruised stomach.

“Oof!”

“Call the cops, would you?”

Jessie stared at the touch screen and the wallpaper of Jack Skellington. “...Could we go by the police station first?”

“...I’m an idiot. Yes, of course, yes.”

Chapter Text

She found her corpse under a fallen catwalk. The torn and twisted metal spoke of sabotage or unleashed rage. The cables and bars had been mangled, bent by inhuman hands or tools. The body beneath was crushed, barely recognizable save for the old clothes she had worn at the time. Bones poked through flesh, smashed and cracked amidst rusted blood.

She remembered this, vaguely. She had been exploring the deeper depths of the base when the Seer had called her. Knowing that keeping a Seer waiting was always a mistake, she had turned and headed for the nearest door, when something heavy clanged on the floor behind her with enough force to rattle her brain and her bones. A fallen piece of steel, twisted and ruined.

The catwalk.

This catwalk.

She had wondered what would happen to her past self, going back in time. She had her answer now, but it did not fill her with closure. Most of her was numb, but dread clutched her heart with icy fingers.

This could have been you, the dread whispered. This could have been you.

Her shallow breathing seemed so loud in the empty vastness of the old laboratory. Too loud.

This could have been you.

She swallowed.

It was her. The past her. The one who had escaped enough terror to finally be relieved when peace had been promised, at least for a while.

And then, the Seer hadn’t called her.

And so she had died.

Again.

She opened to mouth to speak, but found her throat dry. She coughed and dredged up some saliva, and spoke. “Captchalogue broken body.” Her voice cracked, but the body zipped away, stored safely for later.

productiveFailure shuddered a sigh. Another body found. Another body to bury. This was the path she had chosen, and she needed to be responsible for them all.

Chapter Text

There were a number of things Taylor expected after opening a giant nightmare circus at the edge of Empire territory. Protection rackets, threats, ambushes, attacks from one of the gangs, molotovs, protest groups, and trash, among other things. She had prepped herself for the inevitable conflict that would barrel through the canvas walls and ignite a frenzied battle only rivaled by the ritual of revitalization.

For all her carefully laid plans, she had not, however, expected her first interloper to be a stray dog tearing through her packed wraps.

Taylor stared as pieces of her lunch were strewn in the back room only to be immediately gobbled up by the scrawny mutt. 

A fireling cackled from behind her. The brown and white dog jerked its head around, spotted her, then suddenly whined and cried, ears back, as it escaped under the tent flap. 

Taylor sagged, sighing. With an effort of will, the heat behind her eyes slowly abated to a comfortable warmth. Without looking, she knew the scarlet light had died for the most part. She had barely registered the flare while talking to the Heart.

Taylor tsked, then started picking up the bits of trash and food.

"You don't get to go collecting tonight," she said idly.

She could've sworn the air moaned its discontent.

Taylor rolled her eyes. Her minions could be so melodramatic sometimes, even the supposed senior ones. "Don't give me that attitude. Now go." She waved a hand, nails glinting in the hanging lights. "Tonight will be our most important performance yet, and I will not be made a fool of before the heroes!"

Taylor blinked. Where had that come from? 

The fading giggling cued the minion's exit, and she shook her head. She was settling into her role as Troupe Master earlier than usual today. Being quick to transition from awkward, shy Taylor to the formidable Flaresight was great, but she hadn't had the cowl and bodysuit on for more than ten minutes. It wasn't an issue in her circus tents while in costume, but the fancy speak was getting difficult to resist indulging in outside of her persona.

Taylor hummed. That…was going to become a problem if she wasn't careful.

The remains of her devastated lunch collected, she set them on the ground and snapped her fingers. 

Foosh! The bits of food exploded into a menacing red flame, consumed in almost no time at all. Wiggling her fingers, Taylor allowed the flames to roll across her hands. With hardly a thought, the fire extinguished shortly after, her fingers cleansed of dog slobber.

Not entirely satisfying, but it would do for the time being. 

Straightening out her cowl, Taylor slowly allowed the Nightmare Heart's power to bloom behind her eyes again, her Cape's namesake returning to her. With it came an understanding that was muted in her everyday appearance. She could feel the scarlet fires spread out for miles in every direction, the anguish fueling them as tantalizing as the sweetest junk food. She knew where her firelings were, instinctively, pinpointing each one in her mind. Most were in the circus, though a few had floated away to less populated areas in search of the odd fires that sustained them. 

Most importantly, however, she could sense when someone entered her domain. 

Such as the energy in her quarters.

Right then.

Between the thick, velvet curtains and the tent canvas. 

Taylor withheld a sigh, because of course that's where her partner would be. Why even use the front entrance? A scowl briefly crossed her face before Taylor schooled her expression. Then, in one fluid motion, she flung the curtains aside. "Well met, Aisha," she rasped. "I…" She paused, then blinked. "Is that my wrap?"

Chapter Text

He can’t breathe. Pressure, like searing blades, sink into his chest. Pins dig into his stomach. Fire claws at his throat, his arms, his legs, eating away at his fingers as he tries to pull free.

“Mikleo!”

Straining one eye open, he catches sight of something white beyond the violet waves.

“Luzrov Rulay!”

A tug, a familiar pull on his spirit. A brief relief, then the pins and blades dig in, keeping him in place.

He screams. He doesn’t know what else he can do, his very being torn between armatization and the malevolent clutches of Calamity. Violet waves spread across his vision, erupting and twisting.

“N-no! Sorey, he’s trying to sever the Sub Lord’s pact!”

“What?!”

The pulling ceases, but the burning does not. The very air is crushing him. Suffocating with every breath. No matter how much he gasps for the relief of cool air, it will not come.

“I can’t purify him with so much malevolence being generated!”

The Lord of Calamity hums, his voice rumbling distantly. “I see…” he says, something sharp at the edge of his tone. “So what will it be, Shepherd? Unite with your seraph or watch as he turns into a dragon? I won’t even stop you this time.”

“Luzrov-!”

“Wait!” A flash of red. “If you armatize with Mikleo while he’s like this, then…!”

He wants to retch. Sorey. He knows Sorey. Knows what his answer would be. Because even though it might hurt him, even though it might kill him--

“But Mikleo…!”

“The Shepherd cannot be overcome by malevolence!” It is like a mantra. “It would bring unprecedented chaos to the world!”

Something tears inside his chest.

He opens his mouth, tries to speak, to gasp, to tell him that the world needs the Shepherd, more than himself, more than a single seraph. It needs hope, it needs a future.

But all that comes out are choked screams.

The world grows fuzzy.

White and black fade into streaks of purple.

Distantly, he hears: “If I have to choose between my best friend…and myself...”

The familiar squelch of a sword sinking into flesh.

“Then I won’t sacrifice either!”

The waves of malevolence waver and fall.

“I won’t sacrifice anybody!”

He gasps and chokes. The knives and needles remain, the pressure unbearable, but--

Something...

“So that is your choice,” Heldalf growls.

                          Something is...

“Struggling is futile, Shepherd.”

                                                     Something is wrong --

“You will realize that soon enough.”

He blinks, then emerald greens are gazing into his eyes, his name ringing in repetition.

Numbly, he lifts a hand, struggling for every inch. Sorey grabs his and holds it close.

The fuzziness returns. Darkness hovers at the edges of his vision. Dredging up the remnants of his energy, he tries to smile, a shadow of the secret ones he knows aren’t so secret. He opens his mouth one more time, to say something, anything, but just as quickly, the energy drains from him.

With one last visage of the Shepherd, the world’s guardian, Sorey, he at last succumbs to exhaustion.

Chapter Text

It was a painting of boldness and idiocy, marked by a stroke of luck. The exact details were known by few and spoken of by fewer. Queen Elizant II was of both, for a time, when she confided in her personal guard about the appropriate punishment that would not undermine her fragile rule nor make her seem needlessly cruel.

Seventeen ladybugs. Not just one or two working in private but over a dozen coordinating with each other in perfect concert, having pulled off a heist that made her out as incompetent at best and a pushover of a Queen at worst.

She tapped the armrest of her throne, quietly. It hadn’t only been the Aphid Eggs. That was the main theft, the one described and passed throughout Bugaria. A cheap staple of many diets, the lack of supply had forced a temporary increase in prices in her kingdom.

The other half of the truth was far more embarrassing. So much so that every bug in the know had been sworn to secrecy, never to breathe or write a word for as long as they lived.

Taking advantage of the uncertain time of her crowning, the ladybugs had not only deprived the people of food and pushed her to make a lasting, decisive punishment, but taken a symbol of her and her mother’s rule.

Queen Elizant II straightened her back and stood. The soft sound of footsteps grew closer to the throne room, echoing from the central chamber, and she was better seen standing strong rather than sitting when someone sought an audience with her.

Perhaps not the best choice, turning her back on it, but she had Zaryant as an extra pair of eyes and the throne had been secured to the floor and wall both.

It had not been an easy decision, even after finding the culprits, but constant surveillance and restricted entry into her kingdom were the best she could do at the time. She would repeal it, with her rule now cemented in a better light and the relationships between kingdoms repaired. She didn’t think there would be a repeat of stolen Aphid Eggs.

But still...

A circus of ladybugs.

Never again.

“Team Mothiva,” Zaryant whispered before they appeared. Ah, yes, the mostly-part-time diva and her...boyfriend? Fan? It was difficult to tell even after the trek to the Everlasting Sapling.

Regardless, speculation had no place while her explorers approached. She had some time before her latest announcement. She could hear the team out.

Chapter Text

The janitor tapped his fingers across his knee. Space shuttle rides always varied from job to job. Sometimes it was an hour’s ride. Other times a good quarter of the day, without pay. He half-suspected that the shuttle went in circles a few times just in case he had even an inkling of where it was going.

He sniffed. No trust lost there. He’d been to plenty of cleanup sites and remembered the debriefings. The cover ups. Seen the bloody streaks and gurgling pods and questionably moral holding cells. Read the notes, scanned the discarded PDAs. Big companies, especially The Company, didn’t care for guys like him. Whenever someone lowest on the ladder tried pointing out something odd, they were ignored at best. Next thing anybody knew, people were disappearing, experiments went wrong, and the Exo-Planetary Liberation Corps had to be called out. The jerks just loved making a bigger mess of things, but at least it largely meant no alien would creep up behind him while pushing a bin into the incinerator or airlock.

But work was work. The pay was barely acceptable, his apartment leaked something from the pipes, but it sure beat living in a house full of people who thought medium rare chicken-flavored mystery meat was good for you.

He uncrossed then recrossed his legs. How much longer was this ride? Four hours had passed already. He could be either fifty kilometers or three hundred from his office. The shuttle could be close to the surface or up in space, and he wouldn’t know. The tiny vehicle had no windows, just uncomfortable seats and a digital clock below a news ticker. Stocks were up – again. Some hot-blooded sharp shooter was bring praised, more milestones safely made in medical research, and – oh look! Someone died of an infection after an award ceremony. Again.

He thought of all the Employee of the Month awards stuffed in his bathroom. Stacks and stacks of excellence acknowledged.

After a moment, the janitor shrugged. Maybe one day they would learn.

Just as well. Their heads were so far up their bums, they probably couldn’t tell one sanitation worker from another.

And – oh. He went rigid. Oh hells, did he really forget--

“Destination reached.” The dull droning of a woman’s voice broke through the monotony. “Watch your step, and remember: sanitation is our salvation.”

The door hissed open a crack, then lifted up all the way. He rose to his feet, stretching his arms and legs. Maybe he should invest some time into finding a comfortable cushion one of these days. Surely nobody would care if a burnt and permanently stained Craz-E-Boy went missing?

He rolled his shoulder then took up his trunk and left the shuttle.

He stepped outside, and nearly dropped it.

A tall, chromatic building stood before him. Half glass, half reflective nightmare. At the very top, in bright red letters were three words he saw on a regular basis.

Aerospace Sanitation Inc.

He scanned the windows. Nothing was broken. Nothing was on fire or out of place. His gaze lowered, floor by floor, until he was staring across the sparse parking lot.

Nothing wrong on the outside. So somewhere deeper inside. If they were firing him, or worse, they wouldn’t call him to headquarters.

There were maybe a dozen other senior staff. Why him? Why here?

His mind went back to the crowded bathroom.

Well… Maybe they had wisened up.

Beep-beep-beep.

His PDA. He slipped it from his side, and glanced at the instructions.

Proceed into the building and up the main stairwell.’

As direct as ever. With a grunt, he put the pad away and trudged on. Probably a malfunctioning computer or a boiler exploded. Or maybe somebody had had enough of this place and set loose a bunch of abominations on the CEOs.

He passed through the sliding glass doors, chuckling. The woman behind the curved desk glanced up once, then immediately dismissed him. He nodded, more out of habit than actual politeness, and made his way to the stairwell, labeled by the elevators. He swiped his card and went on his way. Up and up, flight after flight. His mind danced with delicious possibilities of the snobby, uptight tightwads getting splattered across the floor and walls like a crash test dummy, or a dog’s chew toy.

At some point, his PDA beeped again. It directed him to a single door, this one with a keypad. He raised an eyebrow, but put in the temporary password without comment.

The moment the door swung open, a familiar copper scent welcomed him. Definitely more than one body, and not yet rotting. A rush job, as always. He stepped forward, the door closing behind him with a loud beep, and a click of the lock engaging.

The entry corridor was small, but…

The sanitation worker tag.

The demand on the opposite wall.

A hint of yellow overalls beyond.

Something...didn’t feel right. Entering Office Block A, his gaze swept across the desks, the walls, the floors, and windows.

He looked again. The outfits didn’t change, and neither did the tags. He stepped over congealing blood and tipped over chairs. More tags, and new signs. Broken glass and bottles of beer. Messages decrying androids and brass casings. Bodies against walls, slumped in one piece. No bits of aliens, no gurgling pods, no evidence of explosions. All the doors were locked. No elevators worked.

It had been a slaughter.

It had been efficient.

And the one person they all thought would save them was long dead, driven further into insanity on an alien planet by a mysterious artifact. Whatever he’d gotten to say before killing Dave and taking off to parts unknown, it had sparked more than a little fanaticism.

Scattered PDAs and scribbled notes told pieces of the...incident. A defiance to the status quo. Drunken workers mounting a defense. A woman swept up in the common man’s plea. It figured that the single person with connections to ever listen to everyone ended up in this sort of mess.

Down the staircase to the Crew Level, he went. The trail continued. More tags, more demands, more signs, more bodies. One in pieces by the belching incinerator. Android bodies littered further in. A final defense that utterly failed.

He ignored his gut, and kept going. The androids were cut in half, laying in purple fluid. Maybe it had originally been blue. The walls glowed electric blue from laser fire. And at the end of the hall, alone and huddled against some crates, was the final body. He checked the PID, as he’d done with each one.

Mrs. Ruth Fielder.

The liaison.

Not the worst fate – you’ve seen one skinned body in a dark cavern, you’ve seen them all – but being cornered like a rat couldn’t have been pleasant. She tried to join the blue collared Joes and Janes, but under pressure, ended up alone.

He pocketed the little device, and went back up the stairs. Blood was cleaned and soot was mopped up. Garbage was taken in by the bin full, and cabinets were set right. Each body he found was taken down to the fire as they were, limp and heavy in his arms. He read their IDs. Memorized the names. Nobody would remember them after this. The Company would make sure of it.

Back up the stairs he trudged. Glass was picked up, and bullet holes were welded up. Chairs and computers were set upright, giving an air of normalcy where he had mopped up puddles of blood only an hour ago.

He had plenty of time to think, tossing things over the railing. Maybe the Company wouldn’t let him leave. What the place would have looked like if Bob had actually crawled though the vents and started going at the androids with reckless abandon. If Mrs. Ruth Fielder had been more subtle, less gung-ho. If there hadn’t been beer, if there had been more beer. How much alcohol would light up an android. If more arc welders had been on-site. If Bob’s plans and evidence had gone public at his death.

But no one knew where Bob had gone, and he kept his secrets close. No one even knew he was dead. And now, no one would know any of these people were either. Because as far as the Company was concerned, nobody had to know. Just him, and maybe not even then if the higher hoity toity types thought he was a risk.

Just him, alone at corporate, with the PID of one perceived traitor and the body of the other forgotten in his trunk.

He threw a bucket into the incinerator, the contents sloshing and spilling into the unquenchable fire. He checked the computer room. Set a monitor on a desk. A quick glance for cameras, and he smiled.

Trudging back to the floor above, he grabbed his trunk, and headed back down. Just for kicks, he grabbed a broken, twisted piece of machinery and set it on top in the narrow hallway. The Company never cared if something was taken from a cleanup site, so long as it didn’t reflect badly on the ASI. Junk was junk, and NDAs prevented anything sensitive from getting out to the public. There were eyes and ears everywhere, too.

Twenty-seven people in twenty years. A twenty-eighth left unaccountable. Another twenty-eight shot then disposed of by one of their own.

Maybe he would be number fifty-five. Maybe he didn’t have to be.

Filthy mop in hand he looked over the tiny room. Not a single camera. He nearly snorted. Why would there be? It was the crew quarters and the liaison wasn’t anyone of particular importance.

It was a simple matter of popping his trunk and withdrawing two very important things. The first was a thumb drive. All the work of a mad mind culminated in a tiny zip file. A single page from anywhere in it would cause a scandal. The second…

Sickly green skin. Yellowed eyes turned to slits. A menacing smile; a permanent rictus in death.

Leaving Bob to burn in obscurity hadn’t been a pleasant thought. For all of the horrid, disturbing things that had been found in his office, and as much as leaving it a mystery of where in the universe Bob had gone would have been entertaining, there had been an opportunity there.

He’d initially thought of using the body as “proof” of his reliability in a pinch, or to just screw with management. Maybe bring it to some dank, dark place and report it in, just to hear the reaction of the secretary on the other side. Maybe he’d throw knives at it. Maybe he’d rant at it. Maybe he’d burn it after all.

But this? This was too good to pass up.

The man rubbed his hands together, blood and rubber squeaking together. He tapped into the account of Mrs. Ruth Fielder, checking local folders. Nothing too big. She was still logged in, and still would be until the inspectors came through. Her clearance wasn’t...hadn’t been all that high, but she had an email and a list of contacts. None in the news media, but that was quickly remedied. A few sentences about doing what was right and having help from Bob, confirming it would be sent in the event of her death.

Zip file attached.

Delivery date chosen.

He was maybe seventy, eighty percent done with the job. Still a bunch of rebellious graffiti to take down. Boxes to move, trash to get.

Who was to say that an insane AWOL sanitary technician hadn’t been lying in wait with an accomplice?

But then… Hmm. He tossed the liaison’s PID into his trunk. It tumbled under a small pile of med kits. Nope, not accounted for. She escaped somehow and Bob covered her exit, staying behind for some mysterious reason.

He idly cracked his knuckles. So then, the question became how to get Bob on camera and how to cover up the fact that he was already long dead? The closest camera was in the stairwell. It swiveled, so he either had to time it just right or prolong whatever he was going to do.

He tapped his fingers across the desk. Well… He had always wanted to shout a few choice words at the corpse. The bodies of Dave, Carl, and Lillian. The strung up “trophies” of body parts. Why was he there of all places, what had happened, why didn’t he run instead of staying there?

The man nodded to himself. He wasn’t much of an actor, but he could project anger really well. Tossing crates and barrels across rooms and onto piles was just one way he did it. Other times he just lasered everything bloody until the air smelled like cooked meat. Or tossed TNT into incinerators then ducked for cover. Or took every roll of toilet paper at a site and dropped it down the chute in his office. Whatever worked.

In this case… Bob was prone to violence. He killed a man and two other colleagues before going on the run. The weird artifact at the dig site only fed into his habits. So...he’d definitely throw a punch. Maybe three. Throw the “traitor” out of the Crew Level. Keep doing that, claiming something crazy. Something about clearance and killing him, too. Against that sort of insanity, nothing short an arc welder would do. Two were downstairs. One conveniently by the steps where he still needed to weld the railing.

Say Bob went into a rage, might’ve killed another coworker. Someone named Dave? So he went charging in with the arc welder. It was the only thing he had to defend himself. What of Bob? Oh no, he was turned into chunks and tossed into the incinerator. Served him right.

The man nodded to himself. That all seemed alright. Not like anybody would be able to refute him. He’d probably get another Employee of the Month award, too, out of it.

He chuckled to himself, and then the lowly sanitation worker went back to checking for dents and dings in the level above. He had to be thorough, after all. His work was going to be judged with a sharp eye.

Chapter Text

The old library was more of a squarish tower than anything. It simply went up and up, ragged and pristine books lining every wall of every level. The center was empty, providing an unobstructed view of every floor from anywhere. On the top floor, the people below seemed so small, they could be cockroaches.

It was at this level, some minutes before closing, that Lath found herself staring at the round vault door. It was screwed into the ceiling and practically ancient, yet the staff ensured the valve wheel was oiled regularly. Half-inch round pipes stuck out of the ceiling leading to the door, which was thankfully open at this hour. Guests were discouraged from climbing like a skillful monkey to the top of the dome, but it was not against the rules to try. Everyone knew the rules anyway. If you fell, it was your own fault.

Lath did not intend to fall.

Hoisting herself up on a small table, she stood up and grasped the bars. A woman glared at her, but said nothing. Taking a deep breath, Lath moved one hand forward, and clung to the next bar. She brought up her other hand, and did the same. She repeated the motions, refusing to look down. People tended to fall more easily when they were distracted.

She swung to and fro, until her shoes hit the bars further behind her. Nothing and no one said electromagnetic sneakers were banned. From there it was more of a crawl to the circular opening. She could see stacks of books and loose papers. Others had been up there. She would soon join the ranks.

Before Lath knew it, she was crawling onto a ledge. She backed away from the hole and smiled. This secluded place of knowledge was so alluring. She didn’t care about the number of current splatters. She was in the den of isolated books, and she could potentially stay up there all night. Not like anyone checked the vault every evening for stragglers.

She leaned against a pile of title-less books that had been knocked over at some point. She plucked one from beside her – a nice red one – and cracked it open. She couldn’t understand what it said. But she had a feeling what it said anyway.

In a long sought after land, in the country no one can reach, lies the river of gold and silver. Do re do re mi.’

Lath looked up from the page, and jerked back into a column of tomes. Across the hole, sitting with legs criss-crossed, was a young man with intense red eyes. The collar of his lavender shirt stretched out to the curve of one shoulder. His hair was the same hue, perhaps a little lighter, cascading over his other shoulder. Despite his casual looks, his composure, the way he held himself spoke he was anything but.

“Who are you?” he asked. No, she thought, not a question. It was a demand. “I have no desire to speak with Windy or Emily, so…” The man narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

Windy the shape-shifting fae who desired to be human. Emily, the survivor of a desperate attack and a minor member of the Rail-Rogues (what use was status when your team was so incredibly small?). They weren’t her. They were part of her, but they weren’t her.

Realizing her mouth was still open, she closed them and licked her lips. “I… I’m Lath. I’m...” An ear-splitting screech rent the air, and a clashing mess of images crashed into her head. Each one entered and left her mind in a flash; not one could be figured out before it was replaced. Screaming echoed in her ears. A sense of ill intentions

When the torrent subsided, everything was silent. Hunched in on herself, she pulled her hands away from her eyes. All could see were her legs and a little of the attic floor. She pulled herself up, trembling. The man hadn’t moved. Why hadn’t he moved?

A sound like running water caught her attention. Sensing something wasn’t right, Lath leaned forward over the opening. A bubbling black substance, almost like tar, was rising up the empty library. It was past the fifth floor, then the sixth and eighth.

It would reach the attic in seconds.

Lath reached down and grabbed the inside valve. She flung herself backwards, hauling the door up with her. It clicked into place. She scrambled back to the valve, gripping it tightly. Tugging and twisting, the wheel began to turn, the squeaking bringing respite.

At last, the valve stopped. The room was sealed. Lath looked up. Yet again, the man had not moved from his spot. He held the same expression of boredom on his face.

How could he be so unruffled?

At last, he opened his mouth and spoke. But the words. They blurred between familiar and unknown.

But somehow...

What do you know-”

She knew.

-of this nonsense language?"

The screaming started again.

Chapter Text

I found my way there after reading it in a book. The directions seemed so odd, so specific. It was almost like a ritual with how everything had to be set. But I was alone and intrigued. “A new world awaits,” it had read. The materials needed weren’t too outrageous, though the wording was poetic.

Element of the sea, flowing and uncontrolled. Element of the earth, unmolded. Origin of fire’s spark. I almost thought it would ask for the very wind itself.

Still, it made me curious. Who had written this book? Why was it left in a long abandoned village? It was written as if in a rush despite the sometimes flowery language.

There was nothing better to do, so I tried it. Getting everything took no small amount of effort, but by the time I’d arranged everything, I was finding myself invested. It wasn’t just a way to relieve my boredom anymore. I took my sturdiest clothes and sharpest blade and followed the last step.

Instantly, my world was tinged violet. It swam and swirled, making me dizzy as I tried stumbling away. I rubbed my palms against my eyelids, hoping to dispel the dancing shapes of purple beneath them, and praying the nausea would leave. I hadn’t felt so badly since I’d stayed out in the cold too long after dark and ended up sick in bed.

But I was not cold. Not anymore. The refreshing breeze of the ocean stilled, replaced with a warmth I only felt while tending the furnaces.

I opened my eyes and found myself in a fiery hellscape. Cracking flames lit the dry, red ground. Magma poured from above, cascading down cliffs and slopes towards a glowing lake far below.

Though the most disturbing thing were the...the beasts. They had faces of livestock, even hooves, but were built as men with half of their chests torn open and rotting. The stench nearly made me gag, so I kept my distance from the things as I explored the area around the portal.

There was a giggling. Or a sound of crying. A baby? Here? Were there other people? I climbed some of the odd stones to see what was making the sound.

Immediately, I was forced to duck and dodge a fireball. I fell nearly the whole way down, the eyes of a mutated and ghostly thing stark in my mind. The mound above broke apart in an explosion, and the thing rose up behind it.

I got to my feet and ran back to the portal. I had nothing to hit it from the ground. I needed to go back and get something better, or better yet: disable the whole portal so none of the undead could come through.

Fireballs ripped past me as I ran from side to side. The ground erupted with each explosion, making me stumble. Then, finally I was there. I stood in the swirling purple vortex, willing the dizzying effects to hurry up. I willed the heat to leave me and for the ocean breeze to greet me. My vision was purple.

Then it was red and white, pain blooming everywhere. The deafening blow sent flying, heat raking across my chest. My body hit the ground, rolling. Another haunting screech rent the air, and I scrambled to my feet. I ran, watching another fireball land where I had just been.

And saw something that made my heart twist in fear.

The purple vortex was gone.

And in my frantic attempt to get to safety, my bag had slipped from my shoulder and been devoured by the flames.

I could not relight the portal.

I had no time to mourn. The ghastly thing above was relentless, and I needed shelter. With the equipment I still had, I ran and dug my way into a solid wall.

I didn’t stop, even when the giggling and crying stopped. I had no illusions about it being an ambush or something worse.

The hole I made was deep. A haze of red eventually obscured my way in. With little choice, I forged on. There had to be more to this world. More the undead or the lava or the heat or the deceitful floating things.

And I did find more.

Part of me wishes I hadn’t.

My path eventually opened up, but not to red ground. It was dirt of some sort with some strange red plants growing on it. At a look, I found not only the ground to be dirt, by the ceiling, too. Carefully, I made my way through the new area. Strange off-white structures, hollow as bone, grew up and curved from the ground.

Then the dirt changed. My feet sunk into it more, and with each step I could swear I heard moaning.

I strained to hear, but I didn’t need to. The groaning grew louder and merged with whispers. I couldn’t understand them, and when I called if anyone was there, they stopped.

For a while.

The odd dirt never seemed to end. When I wasn’t ignoring the groaning beneath me, I was ignoring the whispers by my ears. Air brushed my ear, once. Just once. Like someone’s breath as they told me a secret.

I considered going back. The curved structures, most definitely bones of some giant monsters from long ago, meant there was more to this world than I could comprehend. I needed to find something, anything that could help me light a spark and hopefully repair the portal.

Then there came a roar. It was deep and long. Unnatural as the whispers but more so. It echoed from ahead of me, behind me, and beside me.

It struck me then that those creatures still existed somewhere in this place.

I needed to leave.

Giggling.

My arms were still shaking, the icy hand of terror upon my spine when it came.

I dove for the nearest wall, tearing at it until my equipment broke then tore at it with my hands. An arrow narrowly missed me, so I piled up more dirt behind as even as it screamed at me for ripping through it. A tall, gangly thing followed me. I watched me as I dug, as the whispers came back, echoing in my head. They called me to to stay. To go back. To not leave them alone as they had been.

My hole came out to a wall over a lava pool. I tried going another way, but only found the same lake. No matter where I went, I could find no safe way to leave.

I was stuck. I blocked the way behind me with barely any room for air, and sat there among the whispers and groans.

Maybe it’s been hours. Maybe it’s been longer. Even now I hear their screaming, the agonizing screaming of the dead and dying and undying. I hear the wailing of a newborn beyond the walls of my enclosed prison. I hear the whispers of all of those who died here, alone and scared and lost in this hell.

But worst of all, I hear the thunderous footsteps of some giant roaming in the distance.

And they’re getting closer.

Chapter Text

It started with a murmur. An imperceptive humming in the eternal darkness of his prison. He acknowledged the sound then went back to trying not to think again. It was an earthquake, like the past several hundred had been. The humming would fade and his prison would be filled with the aching silence once more.

His thoughts wandered. He imagined the hero being ripped apart by winds. He imagined the princess as his, presiding over the country together. He imagined killing her, trapping her, exiling her, making her a statue, destroying the hero before her eyes, imprisoning them both, crushing the kingdom in a vice grip as the screams of the populace proved his greatness.

Again.

He shut the thoughts away. Sometimes they were welcomed. Sometimes they were an irritable reminder of his helplessness and divine sentence as all he could do was think.

The humming continued. Like the buzzing of a fly, it would not leave him. Curious, he stretched his limited senses out beyond the sword.

The world was shaking. It paused sometimes, but it would pick up again without fail.

Slowly, the rumbling became louder.

Slowly, the silt and sand and rocks around him began to shake.

Eventually, his prison was found.

He felt outwards. A break in the surrounding earth. The world shook violently then finally, it stopped.

Murmuring. Shouts. A hand grasped the grip of the forsaken sword.

With a mighty pull, his prison was freed from the earth.

The mortals began babbling, but he couldn’t care less. An unfamiliar feeling surged within him. He hadn’t felt such a thing in...however long he had been gone. The last time he had held the upper hand during the war, certainly.

Before those Sages had sealed him away.

Ah. It was excitement. Hope! Some fools had finally, finally unearthed him. His tomb had been broken at long last and his vengeance would soon be known! His name would be feared as it had been during those seven short years.

Now all he required was for the seal to be lifted. Then he could unleash his fury, his wrath upon Hyrule.

Within the darkness, Vaati cackled, long and loud. Oh yes. They would all cower and bow before the greatest mage to have ever lived!

Chapter Text

Compared to more conventional options, time pieces were a very odd choice of fuel to be sure. Crystalized time in tiny, unique hourglasses instead of dark matter, or some obscure ore mined from a foreign planet. Although tricky to make, each one was worth far past its weight in valuable metals.

With them, the risks and dangers of FTL travel were lessened by a considerate degree. No more did space explorers have to concern themselves with being gone from home for years while their families aged and grew older without them. Communications would be down in the interim while utilizing FTL travel, but the tradeoff was nothing to sneeze at. Twenty-five light years out and back, and barely a month would pass as the time pieces reasserted the spacecraft in local spacetime and kept the people onboard at the appropriate age throughout the trip. The shortage of steel was, too, addressed as the materials that made up the interstellar temporary homes could even be expanded upon as the time pieces kept the craft they were contained in from wear and tear. A spaceship could be made from plastic, and so long as it was durable enough, it would survive the harsh conditions of space travel.

And if a ship wasn't in need of repairs as often, and everything inside of it was as secure and stabilized as could be, less specialized people could find themselves in a craft of their own, shooting past planets and galaxies. Elderly folks and children could climb aboard and never have to know the nausea of the first pioneers to leave the planet.

All due to time travel, a dream made reality. A dream many other races would have gone to war for.

If such a function wasn't such a well kept secret, anyways.

Every space explorer knew, of course. It was a matter of safety, for both crew and everyone on the planet. It was a hefty weight, yet so long as intruders did not snoop and the travelers remained mum about any sort of possible time-related hijinks, everything was fine.

Unless, of course, an alien grabbed a time piece, shattered it, activated the failsafe, and found out what the fuel could actually do.

But what were the chances of that?

Chapter Text

My life cast away into the threads of time and space

What do I have to show, for all my duties in this place?

Trapped within my choices, a life turned, thrown away

A moment’s indecision has given me time to play

[Chorus]

An eternity’s worth to live and see.

Just what will become of me?

Insanity’s been holding tight

To my mind, my soul, my sight

I don’t know how much longer

That I can say what’s wronger

Is it the lifeless life I lead

Or the lives lost inbetween?

 

Thoughts mangled

Mind tangled

Is there an end to this fight?

 

Alone in this madness

With I, myself, and me

I am drowning in this

Sea of lunacy

 

With nothing left to find

I sort my thoughts and pray

I swim against the tides;

The spun threads of fate

[Break]

Will there be a distant rise

Of hope I still not see?

Fate will rise against us.

What will become of me?

[Chorus]

I know it's too late

Against the threads of fate.

Chapter Text

Taylor awoke to the steady beat of a drum. Every thud rumbled the earth against her face, and traveled up and down her spine, rattling her teeth. Not the cool, slick, and cracked tiles of Winslow, no, but actual hard-packed earth with little pebbles that dug into her skin.

The world was fuzzy, the air fresh. Steel walls no longer caged her in filth, and when that realization hit, she breathed in deeply and looked down at herself.

No blood or pads or bugs. No wounds from bites or dried bits of biohazard. She gently touched where she had felt something crawl on her. It was as if she had never been coated with the waste that had been maliciously waiting in her locker.

But this place was not in the vacated halls of Winslow.

Nor did it seem like it would even be remotely close to anywhere in the city, never mind the school. The walls were made of dark fabric with odd designs that were somehow disturbing in the low light. Soft, red curtains hung from above as if to give the impression of being in an upper class home, despite the lack of an actual, physical house.

Taylor stared at the curtains, eyebrows furrowing. The E88 would never deign to settle in a tent of all things. Neither would the ABB, and even if they did, she didn’t think she would be left free to wander around freely without a guard nearby. The Merchants wouldn’t put the time into neat aesthetics, and neither would they help clean up and heal a teenager who had just been in the worst hell imaginable.

They were the main gangs in Brockton Bay, if you could even consider the Merchants one. And nothing about her situation reeked of any of their usual MOs.

So whoever had...saved her? Kidnapped her? Was someone new or climbing their way up. A vigilante cape maybe? Certainly made more sense than some random gang member saving her from the locker when no one else would.

Still, she needed to have some sort of idea of where she was. Carefully, she approached one wall of the tent, ducked down, and lifted the edge--

--darkness screeching red chittering cackling screaming red red RED--

--and promptly dropped it, scuttling back from the innocent looking fabric between herself and unspeakable chaos.

Definitely a vigilante cape. A very powerful, very scary vigilante.

And very, very definitely not a safe one.

A high-pitched giggling in her ear.

Taylor spun around, a scream ripping from her throat.

But no one was there.

A second burst laugh echoed from behind her.

She spun again.

Still, no one. A stranger?

Another giggle, distant this time, barely audible over the rhythmic pulses. Taylor turned cautiously.

And spotted a dancing red flame merrily waving down the hall, growing closer to the brighter red light further on.

Taylor hesitated, then, with no better choice, slowly followed after it.

The steady rhythm grew louder. The more she focused, the more she listened. It wasn’t so much a drumbeat as it was...a heartbeat. A heartbeat that matched her own. Or was it that hers matched it?

The pulse flowed through her. For every step she took, the ground seemed to quake. The air itself seemed to grow tenser, as if it were ready to snap into brittle little pieces.

Then she stepped out from the corridor, into a grand arena surrounded by tapestries and stands.

And stared up.

And up.

Suspended directly in the center of the tent was a beating heart. Not a cartoonish one, or even a realistic human one. No, it was clearly divided into segments, much like an orange, only with deep, pitch black holes resembling eyes in each one and stitches weaving across the whole thing as if to keep the heart together.

And she knew it was a heart. Knew it as much as she knew never to bring up mom in front of her dad. Knew it as much as she knew that Brockton Bay would never get any better. Although while those were learned through experience, this...this she knew by merely watching it.

You.

Taylor started. She had expected someone to speak eventually. Maybe to her face, maybe from the shadows. But not ever so close as to sound like whispering in her ear.

She swallowed, and bottled up her hesitation. “Who are you?” she asked, refusing to wince at the shaking of her voice.

In a thunderous unvoice, it replied.

I am that which whispers at the edge of consciousness. The terror of dreamers. The bane of light. The one who tore the realm in twain. The m aster of the deepest reaches of nightmare.

And I have chosen you as my Vessel.

Vessel.

“What?” It was only after the word left her that she realized she had spoken her thought out loud.

The heart patiently answered.

The lantern calls. The flame has been lit. Your potential shall not be wasted.

Taylor glanced around the tent. The dancing fire was long gone, vanished without a trace. There was another fabric hall on the other side of the first, but she would have to walk under the thrumming heart to reach it.

It was tempting, just the slightest bit, to run with everything she had, but curiosity and trepidation in equal measures drove her to remain.

Another question crept into her mind. She dreaded the answer, but she had to ask.

Taking a steadying breath, she braced herself. Then: “Are you...my power?”

In a sense, it acknowledged. You shall serve under me, consuming the flame and taking my power into your world. In exchange, the Grimm Troupe shall be yours to do with what you wish.

“And if I refuse?”

Then you shall die. Taylor’s blood ran with ice. The crimson flames sustain you even now. Without them, your frail body will perish.

Her mouth went dry. Life support. She was on life support and if she resisted, it would end. Her dad… He would be devastated. He hadn’t even gotten over mom’s accident. She hadn't either, but his grief was deeper and left him blind to so much. Losing her would wake and crush him. If that happened, would he be chosen next? Would this thing of nightmares that echoed authority and might go after him?

She couldn’t allow that. Not to her last living family member. And if she had no choice, then she would twist these flames or whatever into something useful, and carve out her own path to protect him.

She refused to be a villain. No matter what power she was saddled with.

“Okay,” she conceded. The dark pits in the heart flared to life. The seams burst with red hot flames. Then, it cracked open with a terrible boom, fire pouring out like liquid.

With an aborted scream, Taylor Hebert disappeared from the middle of the ringmaster’s circle.

And into the Nightmare’s Heart.