I have nothing to say for myself except: I love Hollow Knight. I love these bugs so much that I wrote a fic about them finally being happy. And if some well deserved Pale King Punching happens, well, who am I to stop the muse?
Chapter 1: Alone
Hornet woke up. This, in of itself, wasn't necessarily strange, but the circumstances before her awakening certainly made it so. She wasn't quite sure what made her jump into the battle between her siblings, had even staunchly decided to remain uninvolved. That decision had crumbled quickly, far too quickly, and she had leapt in, even while knowing that the Black Egg would sap her of her very life force. She was uncertain whether it was affection, duty, or impulse that forced her hand. Regardless, she had charged into that fight fully expecting never to escape it.
And yet, here she was, waking up, cocooned in silks softer than anything she had felt since her childhood. She felt warm. Safe. She had felt neither of those things in a long, long time.
The unfamiliarity of it made her uncomfortable, and her eyes snapped open to her childhood bedroom. The bright red sheets she found herself entangled in were more colourful than they had been in a long time now, the original crimson having faded many years ago. Hornet wondered who had tucked her in, how she had even arrived back into her old home without noticing, and a mournful part of her wondered if this was a dream she was caught in, enticed with the hope of old memories.
If that were the case, she wondered if she would even have the strength to leave.
If she would even want to leave.
Hornet was so tired. For too long now she had darted between life and death, dancing with danger every moment of her every day. The infection had cursed not only those whose minds were dead, but also those whose minds lived on, forced to watch the world around them crumble and decay. Hope was a deadly thing in the rotting kingdom, and she had learned to combat it with a cold harshness that had first bloomed after her mother fell into her eternal slumber. Kindness was a luxury, and not something to be expected in the world she had been left behind in.
Kindness was striking down those who showed signs of infection. Kindness was preventing those foolish enough to enter from disturbing the stasis of Hallownest. Kindness was killing her forsaken siblings in a test of strength, to prevent them from undergoing the same fate as the Pure Vessel.
Kindness was letting her mother finally rest.
Tears burned her eyes as she thought of her mother's sleeping body crumbling into nothing, Ghost dormant beside her plinth, before they finally stirred. She had wanted to scream at them, had been desperate to let her sobs break free from her shaky voice, but she was able to restrain herself, and ordered them to leave. She needed them to leave, so she could fall apart in peace. But Ghost had instead sat by her side, a hesitant hand reaching out to hold her claw, and she had nearly collapsed then and there.
Vessels were not supposed to know comfort or when to give it. As much as she wanted to accept the rare kind touch she had not felt since Hallownest fell, she could not give in to it. She could not let herself believe that Ghost was as unpure as Hollow had been, not if she wanted a chance to fight off the infection.
It would be kinder of her to refuse their hopes, she told herself.
Was it kindness that let her lead them to a fate worse than death? Was it kindness that forced her into the Black Egg to assist them in their final moments, moments that she was complicit in orchestrating?
Perhaps it was crueller to seal the infection yet again, only for it to burst free decades later. Were they all only prolonging the inevitable again? After all, if Hollow had failed, pure, shining Hollow, then what made Ghost different?
For all his supposed wisdom and higher thought, the Pale King was a fool, Hornet thought. She had never been fond of her sire, not once the purpose of her birth became clear, not once she found out what her mother's fate would be. He had always been distant with her, even when the Lady Root tried to prod him into spending more time with her. She remembered savouring the scant few moments he allowed her to sit by his knee as a youngling, before she grew resentful of his coldness. As his daughter, she should not have to be 'allowed' to receive affection from her sire. Her mother and step-mother were always free in their affection, never hesitating to scoop her up and let her cling to their clothes.
Even Hollow had, to some extent, let her do that, though it had to be phrased as a demand. But even then, a part of her noticed how readily they acquiesced, how... eager they almost seemed to give her affection, hidden under a thin sheet of emptiness.
...Her father truly was a fool, wasn't he?
Hornet wriggled out of her coverings, the sheets surprisingly heavy on her body, and she lashed out a claw to find her needle, usually stored close to her bed in case of an errant attacker. Her hand found nothing, instead colliding with a small, misshapen mug on her side table. She watched in abject horror as her childhood mug tipped over and collided with the floor, delicate shards of glass shattering in all directions, distorting the blobby Weaverlings she had drawn so long ago. Yet another memento destroyed.
It was as though her self-imposed dam broke, and Hornet let herself weep like the child she had never truly been able to be, sobs wrenching their way out of her throat. It was so silly, that such a small thing would set her off like this, but...
Had she not lost enough of her childhood? Must she lose more?
The door burst, open, and she flinched, hand reaching down to grab a shard as a makeshift weapon, and how strange it was that the distance of her bed to the floor seemed so far-
"Child! Art thou alright?" A voice cried worriedly, and Hornet's eyes panned up to spot her old minder, who would look after her when her mother or Midwife could not. She was an older Devout, her clicking name meaning "Fang-Protector", and she had died in the early days of the infection.
Was this some game? A horrific twisted dream?
(Had the Weaverlings not spoken of a Nosk in the depths of Deepnest that twisted its face to match those in your memories? Was this such a creature come to cruelly taunt and then kill her?)
"Nanny...?" Hornet asked cautiously, fingers still gripping the shard tightly, despite the wounds it caused. Sluggish black blood trickled down, and her minder looked horrified.
"Young one, thou art injured! Drop thy shard, and this one shall see to it immediately!" The older woman said, hurrying over to her bedside, thin arms reaching out from her fur to pluck her weapon from her grip. Hornet leapt back, stumbling over cushions and bedding, and she wondered why her weight felt so off, why her legs shook with exertion at such a slight manoeuvre. She brandished her shard threateningly at the imposter, scowling as her hand burned from the movement. Was her pain tolerance not higher than this? She had taken many an injury before, yet a small cut would send waves of pain down her arm?
"May this one ask what thou art doing, child? Thou shall irritate the wound further, and thy Queen Mother would not be best pleased! Not with this one, or thyself," the impostor begged, reaching out towards her again.
"Mother is dead," Hornet hissed furiously, swiping down desperately with the shard, "I saw her breath her last myself, you cannot fool me, Nosk!"
The Devout reared back, surprise clear in her eyes, before they softened.
"Dear child, did thou have a 'mare? Thy mother is well and hale, and were she not in a meeting, she would have come to you herself rather than this one! Do thou wish to see her? She would not wish for her dearest daughter to suffer. Come, drop thy shard, and we shall visit her," she cooed, claw outstretched to remove Hornet's weapon.
"I said back, Nosk!" She shrieked, voice stumbling over a sluggish tongue. The Nosk frowned at her.
"This one understands thy worry, young one, but thou shall hurt thyself further. This one is no Nosk, as such creatures have been taken by the infection already and are unable to say much more than nonsense. Thy Nanny still hath her mind and wits about her!"
That could not be true. Hornet swallowed, eyes glancing up and down the bug before her. There was no orange glow of infection, no mindless hunger in her eyes, just a soft, reassurance that everything was okay.
How long had it been, since someone told her it would be alright? She hiccupped, and her Nanny crept closer, arms curling around her body. For once, Hornet did not stop her. She could not stop her. If this image were a Nosk, then she would let it take her gladly. What more, after all, did she have to live for?
A dead and broken kingdom, ravaged by infection until it was hollowed out and empty.
No, she would rather perish in the embrace of a fake loved one, able to pretend for just a moment that she was a child again.
Nanny hummed deeply, her whispery voice threading into an old song of their ancient kingdom, of spools of silk wrapping up spiderlings to protect them, of the love a mother held for her child. Hornet found herself weeping again, soft and quiet, into the robes of her old caretaker.
"Oh child, thou break this one's heart. Come, I shall bring thou to thy mother. Mayhap her presence shall soothe thy plight," she whispered gently, and Hornet felt her move, gliding through the friendly cold of her childhood home. How strange, she thought sleepily, that everything looked the same as so long ago. There were no infected corpses riddling the floors, no overgrown cobwebs blocking entries.
Just the homely darkness of her mother's halls, and the comforting scuttle of a people whole again.
Maybe remaining within this dream would not be so bad after all, Hornet thought, before she succumbed to the lure of sleep.
Ghost was in a predicament. Granted, they were often in a predicament, but this predicament seemed to consume all others into one big ball of problems. They were in the Abyss again, the shattered masks of their fallen siblings surrounding them like a mockery of a greeting, each step they took desecrating their already destroyed bodies. That was nothing to say of the tattered, glowing feathers scattered through the dark, lending only hints of light.
They had struck the Radiance, this they knew. It had to be a killing blow, for why else would she have screamed so loudly as the void tried to swallow her whole, why else would she have struggled so hurriedly to escape? And yet there was no dead God anywhere near them, and they were back inside their hellish birthplace, with nothing but the cooing shades of their siblings to keep them company.
They wanted Hornet. She would have known what to do, would have pulled them up from the below and swiped at them with her needle for daring to... wallow? Were they wallowing? Or was mourning a better term?
The Voidheart pulsed comfortingly within their soul, but it was not quite enough to calm Ghost.
They had lots to mourn, they thought. Quirrel, Myla, Hornet, their poor sibling trapped in the egg... It was already quite obvious that neither Ghost nor Hollow were actually 'Hollow'. Certainly not in the terms that the Pale King had meant at least. There was a twinge of satisfaction at that thought, and Ghost wondered if this was what 'spite' was.
A shade crawled closer to them, inky black tendrils reaching out to carefully touch them, and they froze, unsure if the Voidheart would still prevent their siblings from attacking. Rather than a harsh touch, their sibling seemed to gently wrap their tendrils around their head, as though giving a comforting facsimile of a hug.
No, they thought, small hands giving the void a fond pat. They truly were never hollow. Any of them. Just... unexperienced with emotions. The sibling wrapped around their head gave a silent burble, before releasing them and drifting off elsewhere.
Ghost forced themself to stand, and stared upward at the arduous climb they would have to make to reach the exit. Hopefully they could surprise their sister and friends, who surely must have thought that they had perished in their battle against the Radiance. An infection-free Hallownest would be interesting to explore, particularly once everyone began to rebuild. They could show Elderbug the wonders of Hallownest without him fearing for his life, could wander through the caverns with Iselda and Cornifer, who surely would be delighted to reach all the places he could not before. Maybe they could convince Hornet to build a shrine or grave of some sorts for Myla and Quirrel, who both deserved some monument of remembrance for the aid and comfort they had given Ghost during their journey.
Hopefully Quirrel rested with his Monomon, and Myla found all the riches she was unable to find in life.
They wondered if they could bring Hornet into the White Palace. Perhaps she'd like to punch the corpse of the Pale King? It had certainly been satisfying to do so before, and was sure to be even better now they remembered what exactly their father had done. It was certainly childish, but did they not deserve some time to be a child? To (metaphorically) giggle and play and dance without fear? Even while travelling Hallownest they had let themself play sometimes, hitting the Stag Bell over and over, or jumping into puddles in the City of Tears. Splashing other bugs in the hot springs had always been funny to them as well.
As they leapt up from platform to platform, they found themself thinking of all the things they were now free to do, of all the things they had wanted to do, but stopped themself from doing before.
Freedom, Ghost decided, was a wonderful thing that they were going to enjoy to their fullest, for both themself, for Hornet, and all their siblings who were unable to. They jumped over to the next craggy rock, and looked up again, finding themself barely able to spot the exit platform above. They tipped their head slightly in annoyance, wishing that their useless wings were actually able to carry them further than a simple leap, but still resigned themself to their continuing fate. Maybe they could ask Hornet for a tutorial in her needle? That would certainly make climbing quicker, they pondered, as their hands continued to scrabble at every ledge, claws hooking into the crumbling stone. Perhaps it could be a sibling activity. Bugs did those, didn't they? Certainly now that Hornet wasn't trying to kill them anymore, they could both indulge in some bonding.
A part of Ghost wondered if Hollow had survived alongside them, if their eldest sibling had been able to overcome the infection that had rotten their mask and mind, until only a small shard of their own will remained. It would be wonderful if they had. The three of them altogether, being able to play and live and be happy...
It was truly a dream.
A dream that Ghost would hope for.
But for now, they would settle for climbing out of the Abyss. Hopefully they were not gone too long, and the Stag Station by the hidden White Palace could still be accessed. Going through Deepnest was an experience they were currently in no shape for, not without knowing that there would be less things willing to kill them there. It would be nice to return to Dirtmouth, to sit with Elderbug and envelope Iselda and Cornifer in a hug, to see their friends and let them know they were okay. Later on, they would have to visit Mato, and see if his size made him perfect for giving hugs. Then they would have to introduce Ogrim to Lemm, just to see the look on his face.
The dim light of the exit loomed ever closer, and Ghost could feel excitement brimming in their soul, and they swung more recklessly towards the top, Mantis Claws barely able to hang on with the force they were jumping with. Finally, finally they reached the end, and they dashed towards it with fervour, desperate to escape the weighty presence of death and be greeted back into the world of the living.
Except... the door was shut. They approached it with trepidation, excitement simmering down to worry as they tried to push it open. It did not budge. Had Hornet shut the door? Had she believed them dead, and laid them to rest with their siblings? While kind, they would have preferred being in Dirtmouth, or even the Resting Grounds. The Seer was always nice to them, and made an excellent cup of tea.
Ghost focused their Soul and attempted to use magic to force the heavy barrier open, but like it usually did against metal, the attack simply slid off like rain on windows. With trembling claws, they tried to rap against the door, tried to bring it to open like it did before.
It stayed shut, their blank expression reflecting back at them in the gleaming metal.
That's when the panic began.
The Hollow Knight bolted up from their resting spot, pain pulsing in waves of agony throughout their body. They couldn't stop themself from crumpling up and sliding off their bed, shaking limbs trying to curl up in some facsimile of comfort. Orange spots danced through their vision, and terror lanced its way alongside the pain.
No. No, they could not be corrupted now, not before-
But as quickly as it came, it disappeared, and the ache faded with it. Instead, a fuzzy memory of chains and light and anguish flooded their mind, of failure and despair, of Her and Them, of their siblings-
Had they a mouth, they would have gasped, and their hands reached out to grasp at their blankets in horror and desperation. Their siblings. Both the little spider who they so adored before they had been chained, and the small one they had let fall so very long ago.
The one they had abandoned.
They couldn't stop the wheezing sound that escaped their shuddering body, an all familiar panic racing through the Void and Soul keeping them together. What had happened? What had happened after the little ones had held them down and swung that strange weapon? They could only recall the bare fragments of coalescing into Void, in shedding their mortal shell and assisting their hollow sibling in defeating-
In defeating Her.
And that was the crux of the matter. They could not hear Her screams in their mind, could not feel Her infection bubbling deep within their Soul, could not see the chains holding their body still. Rather, a pale blankness they had thought they would never see again surrounded them, the familiar white a comforting reminder of kinder days. Their claws tore through the fabric clutched between their fingers, the tension placed upon the threads too much for it to bear. The sound caused them to freeze, all too aware of the situation they were now placed in. This was not a dream, that much seemed true. The fabric felt too real, the pain too sharp, the memories too... recent.
Which meant they were back in the past, in the Palace, with their... the Pale King a scant few minutes away from them. Their chest rumbled with a quiet keen, their claws tensing up again in anxiety and worry. What if he spotted them in such a state? What if he found out about their impurity before they could see their siblings again?
They could not bear disappointing him. Not again. Not after their last failure.
Fear arched through the Hollow Knight's mind as they wondered if they would be chained again, if She still wandered through the minds of the King's subjects. A desperate part of them that they tried so, so hard to ignore refused to ever step foot in the Temple again. They would rather die than be chained up like that again, the treacherous thought whispered. Even if it meant...
Even if it meant failing their father.
Their claws wrapped around their torso and held on tightly to the chitin, sharp points digging painfully into their shell. It was a horrific, nasty thought that had no place in a mind meant to be empty. But when had that even been the truth? When had they ever been hollow? They had known the moment they had reached the top that they were a failure. They had let their sibling fall, had left the broken bodies of all the others to be forgotten, had pretended to be a perfect, pure vessel to their creator, when they had in fact been anything but.
What a selfish creature they were, so warped and twisted by their own forbidden thoughts and feelings that they'd knowingly doom everyone just to feel that approval, to pretend that they made their father proud. And in the process they had abandoned their siblings to a fate worse than death. Their claws scraped loudly against their shell, but they paid no mind to it. They already knew that the King's plan would fail.
That they would fail.
Perhaps they could allow themselves to be selfish again, just... one last time. They could not continue to knowingly condemn their sibling deep below in their birthplace, not now that they knew that had survived. Carefully prying their stiff fingers out of their position, they slowly moved towards their nail, a gleaming, perfect thing made solely for them and the battle they would have to fight in the future.
Or would have fought, at least. Now though, they could not do such a thing. Another way might be able to be found, but if not, then would it not be kinder to perish amongst their family? With their siblings by their side, their father and mother gifting them the affection they so desperately craved. It was a fantasy, fragile and all too familiar, but they could not sweep it away like dust, not any longer. Even if they could only fulfil part of that dream, then they could be content.
Disappointing their father was a certainty they would never be able to avoid.
But they could prevent disappointing their siblings again.
With that thought, it was easy to pick up their nail, to shrug on a simple robe that fit their lanky form, and step towards the door. A soft hesitance settled within their Soul as they stood by the exit, wondering whether this truly was the best course of action to take. If maybe they couldn't pretend again.
And yet the image of their little sibling trapped amongst the masks of their deceased siblings, alone and confused was enough of an encouragement. With trembling claws, they pushed against the door, the dim light of the hallway reflecting back at them. It appeared to be the middle of the sleep cycle, as the Hollow Knight could not even spot a single retainer lingering in the shadows. They took a tentative step forwards, then another, their footsteps near silent, just as they had been trained. It was almost laughably easy to stalk out of the winding corridors, all the way down until they reached the exit. The Kingsmoulds guarding the entrance to the Palace hardly reacted to their presence, and an almost giddy excitement bubbled up within them as they stepped out of their home.
Maybe they were making the biggest mistake of their life. Maybe all this would result in was more tragedy and death.
But maybe this was better for them all. Maybe this way they could have some comfort before the end. Maybe this time, things would have a happier ending.
And with that thought, they ducked out of the Palace grounds and into the Abyss, slowly but steadily heading deeper and deeper until they reached their destination.
Their birthplace was waiting for them.