A/N: Law school. That's all I'm gonna say on the matter. Thank you all of you for the wonderful comments, because every single one made me smile so much. I love this story and love writing it, so seeing that others like it too? Big whoof. In like. A good way. Big whoof (positive).
Chapter 11: Gleam
Their approach to the tram was near silent. Wyrm didn't know whether to be thankful for it or to desperately wish for someone, anyone, to speak up and say something. Midwife had not stopped glaring at him since leaving the mines, her smiling visage full of nothing but vitriol and absolute hatred.
And yet, he could not fault her for it. He had always known that if... when the truth of his actions was revealed, then he would be regarded in disgust and horror. However, his Root had been right. What else could they have done at the time? Try to negotiate with a half-mad god? Evacuate the entire kingdom and wander through the Wastes? Ask for other bugs to sacrifice their own children?
No. No, Root and Wyrm had known that they could ask no other. They would pay the price for their desperation, would be willing to do so, despite the gruesome acts needed to create a vessel. For his kingdom, for the people he had sworn to protect, Wyrm had willingly buried his children in the soil of the Abyss, letting the void seep into the pristine shells until the tiny beings inside were more Void than bug.
They were gods, after all. They could handle such loss. But that did not mean that they held no regret, no grief, no rage over their actions. In the early days, before he had sealed the eggs into the Abyss, Root had pleaded with him to give her at least one of the eggs. Just one, she begged, just one child for them to raise.
It took everything within him not to crumble and give in. But he had managed to harden his resolve.
Better to break her heart now than later, when she realised that her chosen egg would not - could not - hatch without the embrace of the Void, he reasoned. Either way, she would lose the child she wanted to have.
There were no children in those eggs, he told her bluntly. Only lifeless vessels.
The void would carve out the Soul of the eggs, would nest and root in their little bodies until they were hollow and cold. The beings that hatched were not children, he told himself, watching those tiny little vessels stumble out of the eggs he had created with Root. They were lifeless, he repeated as their little masks glinted in the soft light he provided against the darkness of the Abyss before they went tumbling back down into the void. They had no mind, no soul, no will. They could not feel pain, he said over and over, ignoring the pain in his Soul as he heard the crunch of masks shattering against the cold uncaring ground of their birthplace.
They were not children.
Perhaps if he repeated it enough, he would believe it himself.
While Wyrm purposefully blinded himself to the truth, Root had turned away from any mention of the vessels, refusing to even look at the Pure Vessel after it- they ascended. She had almost crumbled the first time she saw them, eyes tearing up as she stared at her husband with an unspoken plea. He had to turn her away yet again.
"It is empty," he reminded her gently. "It is no child. If you feel tempted to coddle it as one, then perhaps it would be best if you stepped away from it."
For a moment, it had seemed as though she would argue, as though she would put an end to this farce, this lie they continued to tell themselves-
But ultimately, she let her eyes flutter shut, and agreed.
For the good of the kingdom, they told themselves. To safeguard the future for their subjects.
And so she had avoided the vessel as much as possible. The moment they wandered into the same room as her, she would leave, head held up high and eyes looking through the being that could have been raised as their child.
Empty, he had told himself over and over while he watched the little vessel grow and grow. No mind, no will, no thoughts, he insisted, even as he sat beside them in a rare moment of peace, their gaze undeniably full of adoration.
He had forced himself to look away, to forget and pretend that there was nothing there, just as Root did whenever the vessel needed to approach her.
The Midwife had been correct; they were both cowards. But what else could they have done? How could they look at that child, that precious, dutiful child, and bring themselves to accept that they were not as empty as thought? That they were going to sacrifice them for the sake of Hallownest, a plan that only would work if the vessel was empty? A plan that they had already sacrificed so much for?
It was safer to pretend, safer for them, safer for the kingdom.
But oh, how cruel it was to the vessel, to the children he had tossed down into the Abyss and watched as they shattered themselves for the sake of a father who could never show love towards them. Even now, after having his failures thrown into his mask, Wyrm was still unable to tease out the tangled web of emotions he felt towards the vessels. He had done what he had thought was right, despite the truth of the matter.
He had done the duty of a monarch. But not a father.
Never a father.
Not even with the Gendered Child, his daughter, the only child he had openly accepted as his own up until now. Root often pushed him towards her, trying again and again to get him to talk and interact with her, but- he couldn't. He just couldn't. He loved his child, but he could not stop the burn in his chest whenever he saw her. It was far easier to run off and avoid the young girl, despite the way her face fell every time he did so. He knew Root resented him for it, that she hated how he ignored and squandered the daughter he was lucky enough to have, the daughter she wished was hers. But no matter how much he tried, he could not ignore the fact that he was going to rip her mother away from her, that he was going to be the cause of endless grief and sorrow for her, that he would hurt her over and over until she finally looked upon him with nothing but scorn and hatred.
Wyrm loved his daughter, and that was precisely why he stayed away from her. Better she hate a distant figure than someone she trusted, someone she loved. It was easier to digest than the simple fact that he did not think he could stand to watch his daughter fall apart knowing who exactly caused her misery.
He already was going to have to look one child in the eyes as he sacrificed them. Was it truly so terrible that he did not want to do it again?
Wyrm truly was selfish, in the end.
But now... things had changed, yet again. He could not keep his distance, not when the future he had once seen swam and twisted into something else before his eyes. Not when he stood to lose everything due to his own apathy and blindness.
If, after this, his children wished to never see him again, then he would personally ensure that they could have a place of comfort and safety as far away from him as possible. But right now... Wyrm had to try. For Root and her desire to be a mother. For the Gendered Child who he pushed away without fail, unable to look at her and see beyond what could have been. For the two surviving vessels who deserved a loving home and rest, who deserved an apology, some sort of remorse and regret for what had happened to them.
For what he did to them.
"Wyrm," Root called out softly, her gentle voice forcing him from his thoughts. "The tram is here."
He blinked, and gazed up at the gleaming metal of the carriage, wondering how he had missed the shuddering groan of its arrival.
"Indeed," he murmured, and his wife stepped closer, placing a steady hand on top of his shoulder in a show of support.
He absentmindedly patted it with his own claws, before carefully climbing onto the tram and sitting down. The silence in the carriage was heavy with tension, and he couldn't help but observe the other two members of the group.
Midwife had finally turned away from him, instead choosing to look outside the tram window. She had never held a high opinion of him, and now he was sure that what little respect she may have had for him was forever destroyed. She would not openly attack him while with her queen, but he made a mental note to keep an eye out for any future missives that could hold a trap. It wouldn't kill him, but it could seriously injure a servant. He must have been too obvious, as her eyes swivelled around to look at him, a sneer blooming on her face as her mask clicked with a desperate desire to unlatch and attack.
He quickly looked away, instead focusing on Herrah.
The mother of his child's gaze was firmly fixed on the way in front of them, just as it had been since the truth was revealed. They were not friends, and never would be, but she undeniably understood his choice as a ruler. They were beholden to something beyond their own will and desires, held the lives of thousands in their hands, and knew that the line between ruin and safety was far more unstable than most would think.
She knew very well what sacrifices had to be made for her people, just as he did.
With a tiredness he knew he would never escape, Wyrm turned to look out the window, watching the kingdom he had built up pass by.
Soon, he told himself. Soon it would be over. And everything would be well again.
"Do you feel any better?"
Hollow tilted their head slightly to get a better look at their sister, careful not to wake up the sleeping bundle of Ghost that had tucked themself into Hollow's side. Hornet herself had not moved since plonking herself in their lap and holding them until their wheezing sobs calmed down. Slowly, they nodded, letting out a soft huff as she wriggled further against their chest.
"I'm glad," Hornet said simply. "I know it hasn't been easy. Well, none of this has been easy. For any of us. But... it's over now. All that's left is..."
She grimaced, and Hollow nodded solemnly.
"You know, we, ah... could technically meet them back at the palace? Go the long way around? There's no need to wait for them here, is there?"
They laughed silently, reaching up with their free hand to tap her mask in light-hearted reprimand. She sighed loudly, letting herself go loose and floppy.
"Yes, yes, you're right. No use delaying the inevitable and all that. I just... I'm scared, Hollow."
Small little claws began to pluck absentmindedly at their dirty cloak, and Hollow waited for their sister to continue, listening to the distant sound of scraping.
"It's just... what comes now? We won. You won! But... what if nothing changes? What if Midwife lied about father being worried about you and Ghost? What if-?" she muttered nervously, voice carefully rising with each fear, and they knew they had to stop this.
Gently, they raised a hand, and Hornet immediately fell silent.
Hollow could not speak. They could not tell her that whether or not their father's mind had changed, it did not matter. They could not reassure her that they would not leave again. They could not reveal to her that the same fears raced through their mind over and over again.
But what they could do was cup her mask and touch it with their own. Perhaps some complications would still remain. Perhaps they would still have to fight in order to finally live. But these were things to worry about later. Not now.
Hornet let out a soft hiccup, claws digging deeper into their cloak.
"Okay," she whispered. "Okay."
The sound of shuffling caught their attention, and they looked down to see Ghost reach out to snag both Hornet and themself.
It will be alright, they seemed to say. We have fought a God and won. We will make it be alright.
But despite the relieved air, something kept Hollow on edge.
The scraping grew louder, loud enough that their sister furrowed her brow, whipping her head around to find the source of the noise.
"I think... that might be our cue to get going," she murmured, and Ghost nodded, body twitching with every sound.
Hollow reached down and grabbed Hornet's shoulder, their instincts screaming at them to be careful, to tuck their siblings away and keep them safe. But aside from the scraping, nothing was wrong.
Something glinted, and Hollow tried to yell, tried to move out of the way, but they had seen it too late, and instead-
Their sibling leapt forward, letting the silver blade skid across their arm. Void began to sluggishly leak from the wound, and Hollow stumbled forward, trying to grab onto them, but another blade came flying.
"There!" Hornet shrieked, wielding onto her needle with furious determination, but Hollow shook their head, void pumping through their body with fear and desperation. Their siblings were not big enough for a fight. They had to retreat, they had to-
The ground seemed to split open as something sharp clawed its way through the dirt, the edges gleaming in the low light of the Resting Grounds. Hollow grabbed Hornet and yanked her away from the scene, body tensing in preparation to flee.
"Ah... there you are, princess. You've made several people very, very worried with your disappearance. But... you know what they say..." a deep voice said, and slowly, a bug stepped out of the tunnel, his large serrated horns glinting dangerously. "One bug's worry is another bug's gain."
Rulka, fourth brother of the Mantis Lords, gave them a crooked smile.
Hollow gripped onto their sister even harder, shoving her behind them, but a razor sharp claw forced them to dodge. Two other mantises seemed to have accompanied their lord, and while one of them darted behind the siblings to block the way, the other one charged towards Hollow yet again. Ghost howled and tried to stagger forward, ignoring the void that leaked from their arm, but Rulka didn't even hesitate in slamming Hollow's smaller sibling away. Hornet shrieked as they clattered against the floor, a loud cracking sound echoing through the cave. And despite their training, despite all their skills and abilities- Hollow flinched.
And the mantis struck, claw swiping at their mask before something heavy landed on them, strong limbs holding them down and making sure they couldn't move. And all of a sudden they weren't in the Resting Grounds, but in the Black Egg, chains keeping them still even when the pain made them want to die, even when the infection bubbled up beneath their carapace like a blistering wound, their mind slowly decaying as harsh laughter rang out over and over again.
In the back of it's mind, they could hear someone screaming.
"Let them go! Let them go, let them go! Hollow! Hollow! Ghost! I'll kill you, I'll kill you-!"
A deep voice simply tutted.
"That's no way a princess of Hallownest should be acting, is it? Come now, you should be grateful to your saviours. Your safe return is valued very highly, don't you know?"
The young girl continued to scream, and it could feel an urgency rise up beneath their carapace, but... why? It was in the Black Egg. It could not move. Could not speak.
Could not will.
All it could do was hang there and listen to the steady drip of its void seeping out of its body, until She was finally gone.
But... hadn't they won? Hadn't they succeeded in their duty? They had done well. The Radiance was gone, and they... they were free.
So why couldn't they move?
"Now then, why don't you come with us, little princess, and we'll make sure you're returned home safely," the voice continued to croon. "After, of course, your parents pay your ransom. Oh, sorry, I meant reward. A nice slice of Deepnest land would be much- augh!"
Hollow heard small footsteps run towards them, as tiny little hands reached out to shake them.
"Hollow, Hollow get up, Ghost needs us! The silk won't stop them for long, please! Ghost! Ghost, please, please wake up!"
"Shut her up," the deep voice said, and Hollow felt the child be yanked away, her loud shrieks suddenly muffled and quiet, until all that remained was the sound of faint sobbing and thrashing.
That was... possible? It could try to leave?
Almost automatically, it felt themself wiggle, trying to escape the cold chains that kept them immobile, and slowly, light began to return to their mind and their surroundings.
A brown sack was wrapped tightly around a child of red, while two large bugs kept her still. In the distance, a small figure lay broken on the floor, mask cracked in two. Rage flooded their chest with an intensity that scared them, because how could they feel something so strong, what would father think-?
"That was a stupid move, little wyrmling. Just for that... well, I don't think your Vessel will be waking up anytime soon. Either of them."
And everything went dark.
There was not much that could frighten Root. She had seen kingdoms rise and fall, had stood unyielding as time continued to march on, had watched as madness slowly spread through her home until all that remained were drastic measures to finally fix an ancient wrong.
Root had thought that things would finally get better. But as she looked at the vessels slumped on the ground, masks visibly cracked, she wondered where it had gone so wrong.
They had reached the Resting Grounds. There was nowhere left for their children to run, they could finally talk, could finally fix this mess, and she had been so excited, so happy, and then-
Void pooling like ink on the floor. A tiny little vessel with their mask almost split in two as they reached out with a trembling claw, while the Pure Vessel lay unmoving a short distance away. Their children. Her children. Cracked and bleeding and broken like wooden toys, tossed away before she could reach them.
Root screamed. She threw herself onto the floor, uncaring of the void and dirt as she pulled that tiny little child into her lap, desperately focusing her Soul on the wound. In the distance, she could hear Wyrm choke as he stumbled to their other child, their brave Hollow Knight.
Herrah's rage was noticeable, but Root could not care, not right now, not as her child was dying before she could even meet them.
"Come on, darling," she whispered hoarsely, tendrils cradling the little vessel close. "You're going to be alright, your mother is here."
The Midwife was yelling something, and she could hear her husband reply, voice hurried and strangled, but the words rushed past her. The crack wasn't sealing. The void had slowed down into a soft drip, leaking like tears from her child's face. Despite the pain they must have been in, the child was still awake and aware. Their tiny claw reached up to touch their face, and Root tried not to sob.
"No, no, sweetheart, save your strength, be still now."
They ignored her, and instead dipped a finger into the wound, letting void pool onto the digit. And then, they began to write on her robe.
Suddenly, Herrah was by her side, and she gripped onto her robe, her gaze burning first into the writing, and then the child.
"Did they take my daughter?" she asked softly.
Root's child nodded, and Herrah blinked.
"I see," she said. "Thank you, small one. Midwife! Wyrm!"
As quickly as she had come, the other queen swept away from her side, and Root clutched the little one close to her chest, before shuffling over to her other child.
The Pure Vessel's wound was nowhere near as deep, but they remained unresponsive, even as she poked and prodded at them with her Soul.
"They'll wake up soon enough," she muttered to herself, "and so will you, and then we will find your sister, and you will all be grounded until I can be sure none of you will ever scare me again."
The vessel stayed still.
Carefully, she unfolded her smallest child from her clutch, and as she moved, something fell, clattering to the ground.
Only half of a mask looked back at her.
No, she begged. No, no, not now, not after all this time.
Root reached down, grabbed the other half of the mask that lay in the dirt and desperately wiped it off. She could fix this. They would be alright. Both of them would, all of them would-
She felt something shift beside her and she whipped around to look at the Pure Vessel, awareness slowly seeming to creep back into their otherwise empty gaze.
"Child?" she whispered. They shuffled again, before suddenly lurching forward, panic clear on their mask as they reached out to their sibling.
A muffled sound seemed to escape their chest, and Root tried not to sob.
"Don't worry, dear one, it will be alright. We will fix this, don't worry-"
But her words did nothing to soothe her other child, their keening slowly growing louder and louder as streams of void dripped from their eyes.
Her heart broke. At the sound, her husband hurried over, visibly blanching at the sight of one distressed child, and the other... wounded.
They were just wounded. That was all.
"Root," he said quietly, and she shook her head, holding out their smallest child.
"Fix them," she pleaded. "You can do it, yes? Please. Please, Wyrm, I beg of you."
Wyrm swallowed and gingerly took the other vessel from her grasp, and Root let herself reach forward and cradle the Pure Vessel to her chest.
"Your father will make it all better, my child, I promise," she muttered, carefully rocking them back and forth as they sobbed.
Light shone from her husband, but she ignored him instead whispering reassurances and sweet words to her other child. Everything would be okay. It would. It had to be.
No. No, if she didn't look, then everything would be fine.
The Pure Vessel squirmed, pulling away from her embrace, and she tried not to tug them back, to keep them close to her where nothing bad would ever happen again, but-
She had to look.
Carefully, she turned.
And the little mask was whole, eyes drooped in sleep, and Root couldn't stop her strangled sob, throwing herself at her husband and the child tucked in his robe. With one tendril, she yanked her other child close, arms desperately clutching her family as tightly as possible.
Her children. Her family.
They were finally safe.
They were safe.
A/N: Waheey! Reunited! ...sort of. Look Hornet will be fine. She's running on 90% rage right now, so uh... you just know that things are gonna go splat next chapter. Anyway, I'm sorry this took so long. I can't promise the next one will come out soon, but as always, this will NOT BE ABANDONED. I don't abandon stories.
As always, please leave a comment! Thank you all so so much, and I will see you soon. Come talk to me on my tumblr at bugbeee . tumblr . com