I AM SORRY. SO SO SORRY. Real world, lots of work, studying, yada yada yada. I also had some massive writer's block, to the point I couldn't write anything for a few months, and had to really force myself to do anything. BUT it's finally here. As always, leave a review if you enjoyed it, and please check out the art in the previous chapters! Hollownest-Whore on tumblr made art for chapter 3! Feel free to come talk to me on tumblr at bugbeee!
Chapter 5: Promise
"We look absolutely ridiculous," Hornet grumbled, running her claws through the tangled shrubbery covering her small form. "There is absolutely no way that anyone would fall for this."
Ridiculous was a kind word in Hornet's opinion. They had all draped each other in various greenery and leaves, hoping to cover their masks in such a way that passers-by wouldn't look twice. Because if they did look again, then they'd notice very quickly that something wasn't quite right. Shrubbery only did so much to beings that held little, if no similarity at all to most Hallowian bugs.
Peering up at her tallest sibling, Hornet supressed a giggle at the vines looped across their horns and the bush shoved up their cloak to give them the silhouette of a mantis. They looked absolutely mortified, and seemed well aware of how shoddy their disguise was. Ghost wasn't much better, but they seemed to take a special sort of joy in tearing up roots and stalks and sticking them haphazardly on their body, making them look like some sort of demented mosscreeper.
Hornet wasn't quite sure what she herself looked like, but she had smeared enough grassy pulp onto her mask to stick leaves to it, and she'd be damned if she was going to suffer long-lasting grass stains for a plan that would fail. With clumsy fingers, she had quickly made herself a cloak to cover the bright red of her clothes, and while the woven work of it would have her tutors fainting, it did its job well enough. She'd offered to make Hollow one, but they had taken one look at the pristine white of their cloak, and promptly tossed themself into the dirt.
Ghost gleefully joined them.
"You could have... taken your cloak off, you know," she said, amusement in her voice. But on some deeper level she understood. It was symbolic, in a childish way, of how they truly weren't the 'pure' vessel everyone thought them to be.
Hollow paused for a moment to examine their new brown cloak, but a clump of dirt hit them in the head before they could do much else. They whipped around to Ghost, whose roots were now bent and battered as they held several balls of mud as a weapon. Hornet watched with laughter in her thorax as the two vessels leapt at each other, tussling and turning in the mud as their disguises became more and more tattered. She'd join them, but... she didn't want to risk getting her clothes so dirty that they could no longer be cleaned. The red had been such a comforting colour to her for so long, and losing such a vibrant colour so soon... she wasn't ready for it. Shaking her head softly, Hornet turned her attention back onto her siblings. Now was not the time for contemplation or grief. Not when they could change everything.
Placing her hands on her sides and sternly looking at her playing siblings, Hornet cleared her throat.
"Right, come on, before you completely destroy your disguises and have to do it all over," she declared, reaching down to help Hollow up. They tilted their head forward, horns clunking against hers, and she figured it was their way of smiling. She couldn't stop her own grin from leaping forth, before shaking it off.
Ghost bounded over, having disappeared briefly. A sharp stick was in one of their claws, and they swung it enthusiastically. Hornet stared dispassionately, and could feel the stirrings of a headache.
"Ghost, that's going to break the moment you look at it too hard," she muttered, and they shrugged, swinging it happily to and fro.
She went to speak again, but the growl of her stomach interrupted her. A blush overtook her face beneath her mask, and she turned away, trying to hide her embarrassment. But alas, her siblings had heard. Ghost jumped up and down in excitement at the noise, while a soft rumbling sound escaped Hollow. Despite her mortification, glee rose up within her when she realised it was their way of laughing. It still startled her that after all this time of being mute, Hollow could make some sort of noise, though nothing coherent. While she was no expert, the rumbling seemed to stem from their own Soul, and only when they willed it.
She wondered if their father would know more about it, though she quickly shooed such thoughts out of her head. The Pale King would have no hold over either of her siblings ever again, not while she still lived.
Hollow tilted their head again, towards the deepening gardens of her step-mother's grounds, and she understood the gesture well enough.
It was time to hunt.
Anticipation rushed through her limbs, and she couldn't stop herself from baring her fangs in glee. It had been so, so long since she had hunted in a pack, and while she doubted Hollow or Ghost knew of the significance, it was enough to make her vibrate in excitement. Taking in a shaky breath, Hornet practically skipped to the entrance of the Gardens, Ghost prancing beside her as Hollow followed behind them at a more sedate pace.
Ghost seemed surprised by the carefully manicured vibrancy of the Gardens, and even she had to pause for a moment to take it all in. The last time she had been here, it had been overrun with thorns and traitor mantises, the wild steadily returning to its base state without the constant supervision of the Queen's retainers. She couldn't help but frown.
"I never thought I'd say it... but it was prettier during the Infection," she said softly. Ghost gave a forlorn nod.
Hollow prodded at her in confusion, and she elaborated.
"That's not to say it isn't nice now, but it's too... tame if that makes sense. It isn't as wild and free."
They still did not quite seem to understand, but gave her a gentle pat between her horns anyway. Ghost quickly followed in the affection, grabbing onto her hand and squeezing.
"Oh come now you two, I'm not sad, just wistful! Still, I thank you both for your kindness. Shall we continue?"
Her two siblings nodded vigorously, through Ghost still clung to her claw as they darted through the greenery. The Gardens seemed to be mostly deserted, though they still avoided the distant muttering of retainers clipping away at bushes and vines. It wasn't until they heard the soft humming of mossflies that they let themselves relax slightly. Hornet watched the small flock of mossflies bob up and down, unaware of the predators waiting to strike. And then she remembered her oversized needle, and grimaced.
"Hollow," she whispered, "I don't know if... if I'm big enough to wield my needle."
It was an embarrassing admittance, but Hollow simply patted her on the head again, as though to reassure her that they didn't mind hunting down food for them all alone. Ghost stepped forward with their branch, but Hollow shook their head, pushing them back softly to stand with Hornet. Her siblings stared at each other for a moment, some unspoken conversation occurring between the two of them, before Ghost's mask drooped sulkily.
"We can hunt together next time, Ghost. But right now we have to be quick, and since Hollow has the sharpest nail..." she trailed off, and Hollow nodded at her words. Ghost let out a silent sigh, before plopping down to the floor, small claws fiddling with the roots covering their form, appearing to reluctantly agree with their other sibling. Hornet let out a small puff of laughter, before turning back to her tallest sibling. With one last slow nod, they darted off, ready to strike at their soon to be lunch.
Hopefully sooner than later, her stomach reminded her with another loud rumble. Ducking her head to avoid any sign of embarrassment, Hornet fiddled with her shabby cloak, ignoring the way Ghost swayed their mask back and forth in a basic form of laughter.
"Stop that," she grumbled, but she couldn't stop her own smile from appearing. It truly was lovely to see the different ways Ghost and Hollow expressed emotions, and Hornet wondered how such expressive beings were able to trick anyone into thinking they were mindless.
Ghost scooted up closer to her, shiny claws tapping excitedly at the ground.
"Do you want to play a game?"
They nodded rapidly, and she chuckled softly.
"Very well. We can't leave here, so let me show you some simple games you can play through drawing. Have you ever played Pillbugs and Spiders?" she asked, and they cocked their head in confusion. She thought as much.
"Right, well, we have to draw a grid, like this," she explained, drawing as she spoke, "then one of us is either a spider or a pillbug. The spider is drawn like a cross, while the pillbug is a circle. First one to get a row wins."
Ghost nodded again, and pointed at the circle. She chose the spider, and thus began a series of small games. They ended in a draw more often than not, but it was fun to try and outsmart each other in different ways.
She hadn't played such a simple game in a very long time. Back in the beginning of Hallownest's stasis, she would occasionally draw up a small grid and play one side one day, and the other side a different day. After a while, she forgot to return to her last game, and just... never started it again. Both out of a desire to 'grow up' and because it was too painful to keep on pretending that she wasn't completely alone.
Well. Almost completely alone.
Hornet found herself thinking to her step-mother. Her feelings were... mixed, to say the least. She had always spoken about the vessels in such a distant and uncaring way, and the moments she had spotted Ghost speak with the Queen only filled Hornet with a delayed rage. How could someone be so uninterested in their own child? Especially when evidence pointing towards their sentience was blaringly obvious?
"You know that I... care for you, Ghost, yes?" she said suddenly, burning with the desire to make sure her siblings knew that she loved them, knew that she valued them, knew that she saw them as the bright bugs they were. Because no-one else would, and they deserved to know just how much they meant to her.
Ghost paused, and looked at her. Then, they began to scribble with the stick they had been using as a makeshift pen, the painstaking characters of God-Script being carved into the dirt.
Love sister as she loves me. Love sibling as they love me. Family.
Hornet let out a choked sound, and forced herself to blink back the tears that tried to come. She had already cried enough today, this tiny body of hers had to stop crying at every single thing-
Ghost reached out to squeeze her hand, and she let out dry sob, before pulling them closer.
"I love you too," she said thickly, "both you and Hollow. You're my siblings, my family, and I'm going to make sure you both get to be yourselves when this is all over."
It was a promise she was determined to keep, and from the soft shudder she could feel from Ghost, it was a promise they were thankful for.
Ghost did not know how long they stayed in Hornet's embrace, but it was long enough for Hollow to return with five dead mossflies clasped in their claws. Their taller sibling froze as they wandered into their hidden alcove, but Ghost quickly waved them over before they could dither further. Hornet shuffled sleepily, and judging by her gentle grumbles, Ghost assumed she had fallen asleep. Fond amusement bubbled up in their shell, and from the way Hollow tilted their head, they assumed they felt the same.
Hollow leaned over the two of them, and with a gentleness rarely ascribed to such a tall being, stroked Hornet's head affectionately. She let out another complaint, but her eyes slit open, and were her mask not in the way, Ghost was sure she would be pouting. Hollow simply raised the mossflies, and she blinked.
"Food?" she croaked out, voice laced with sleep, "Already?"
Hollow nodded, and Ghost gently prodded her.
Up, up, they wanted to say. It was time for her to eat!
She seemed to understand them well enough, though she nudged them in retaliation for their insistent tapping. Hollow held out a mossfly to her, and without hesitation, she grabbed it, lifting up her mask and scarfing it down immediately.
Hollow looked mortified.
Ghost laughed silently. Of course, their taller sibling still must have all those courtly manners ingrained into them! Hoping to scandalise them further, Ghost reached out to nab a mossfly, letting tendrils of void consume it quickly and messily, tufts of mossy hair falling to the ground. A soft clicking sound escaped from Hollow's mask, and with glee, Ghost realised that they were tutting.
Hornet looked up at the sound, licking the juices off her claws, and let out a quiet giggle at their disgruntled sibling. Pointedly, Hollow grabbed a mossfly and daintily consumed it in small bites of void, until nothing remained. Their sister tilted her own head, made a show of grabbing the last mossfly, and tore into it, clearly delighting in throwing all manners to the wind. Ghost cackled, a soft scraping sound escaping their chest, while Hollow's clicking simply grew louder. Hornet beamed at the both of them, face covered in moss and blood, and Ghost felt their soul swell in delight.
They were so grateful they were able to experience such moments, when before all of this would have been nothing more than a hopeless daydream. Had they been the only one to travel backwards in time... it would have been difficult, but for their siblings, for a better future... they would have done what they must. Thankfully, there would be no need for self-sacrifice, not when they had Hornet and Hollow with them. Shaking themself of such thoughts, Ghost stood up and marched on the spot, wanting to know if they could start moving towards the Queen's Station. Because although they had their siblings with them, they still had to save the others.
Quirrel, Myla, the Dreamers, Mato, Ogrim and his friends, and yes, even the Pale King and the White Lady. No matter their mistakes, Ghost had been given the chance to change things, for the better this time.
"Time to go?" Hornet guessed, and they nodded. Hollow let out a low huff as they stood up, claws reaching out to pull the both of them into a quick hug. While their disguises were well and truly dishevelled, Ghost couldn't bring themself to care. Not when it meant getting to hold their siblings close like this. They would never get over how lovely such simple contact was.
Finally, they released each other, slowly making their way outside of the little nook they had sequestered themselves into, heading back down the path to the Fungal Wastes. Hornet had told them that the Garden Station was usually guarded, as only authorised people could freely come into the Queen's domain. So, back to the Fungal Wastes it was.
"Right then, Queen's Station, then a stag to the Resting Grounds, yes? What if they've shut down the Stagways?"
Ghost paused. That... would be inconvenient, since it would mainly mean they'd have to go up through Fog Canyon, into the Forgotten (Remembered?) Crossroads, and either swim through the Blue Lake, or, if Hollow and Hornet couldn't swim, hope that the tramway was open.
Of course, it was hard to communicate all of that, so they just shrugged instead.
From the exasperated look on Hornet's face, they guessed it wasn't all that helpful. Still, she seemed to understand that a further explanation would require writing utensils, so she simply sighed and continued onwards instead.
It wasn't long before they reached the first area they had arrived in after escaping Deepnest, the thick green foliage of the Garden slowly yellowing into the spongy soil of the Wastes. They could feel the way their siblings relaxed the moment they exited out of the Queen's domain, taking comfort in the knowledge that they'd be far less likely to be stopped by a guard.
"I doubt our father would publically announce Hollow's disappearance," Hornet explained, "so as long as we don't do anything suspicious to alert the guards or a kingsmould, we should be fine."
It wasn't until they walked onwards did they encounter their first major problem.
Thorns, acid, and bouncing mushrooms.
The three siblings stood at the top of the ledge, watching the steaming liquid below them with trepidation. While Ghost still had the ability to swim through acid, they doubted Hornet or Hollow was afforded the same boon. If Hollow were smaller, then they could have just taken Hornet and bounced on the mushrooms, but their large size made the outcome of doing that potentially dangerous.
"...back to the Garden?" Hornet suggested, but Hollow shook their head, looking at the path before them with narrowed eyes.
"You can't be serious? You want to try going through there?"
Their taller sibling shrugged, and took a step forward, but before they could try, Ghost stopped them, rapidly tapping on the floor and making writing motions. Hollow paused, and finally gave an acquiescent nod, while Hornet watched with uncertainty.
"I could try to swing across-?" she began, but they quickly shut that idea down. No, no, Hornet was too small right now, and while Ghost didn't doubt her abilities, they didn't want her getting hurt because she overwhelmed herself. Instead, they began to write into the grit below their feet.
Immune to acid! I carry Hornet? Hollow jump?
Without holding Hornet, Hollow would probably be able to balance far better on the mushrooms, and if they ran into any trouble, Ghost could simply stop them from getting hurt after depositing Hornet on the other side. Hollow let out an uncertain rumble, and Hornet didn't look too convinced either.
"Are you sure? Will you be able to carry me? We're the same size..." she trailed off, and Ghost frowned. Metaphorically of course.
Have wings. Can jump. Then you swing.
"What? No! That's far too dangerous, what if you start to sink, or, or miss? Let's just go back to the Garden and up into Fog Canyon, I'd rather take my chances with the retainers there than put either of you in danger!"
"Once is all it takes to die, Ghost!"
They paused. Hornet looked terrified, small mask scrunched up with tears welling up, and they felt their soul sink. They hadn't known how scared she was of them potentially getting hurt. Ghost couldn't stop themself from pulling her into a tight hug, Hollow wrapping them both up against their chest.
"I just... I can't lose you. Either of you. I'd rather we go through the Gardens. Please."
As she spoke however, something seemed to shuffle beneath Hollow's cloak, darkness slowly enveloping the two of them.
"Hollow? What are you doing?" Hornet asked, voice tinged with worry and fear. Hollow replied with a gentle chuff, and while Ghost wasn't exactly reassured, they doubted their sibling was going to do anything too stupid.
Everything seemed to shift, as though they were watching a door slowly open without actually seeing the door itself. And when the darkness receded, they found the three of them on the other side, Hollow hunched over in exhaustion. Hornet gave a shriek, small claws reaching out to fuss over them, but they simply replied with a soft laugh.
They scrawled into the dirt, and Ghost blinked. They could use the Void to travel? And then they remembered their battle in the Black Egg, how their sibling had been able to teleport from one end to the other without hesitating.
...Ghost hoped they could learn how to do it as well.
Still, right now, all that mattered was looking after their sibling, though they quickly seemed to be regaining strength. Hollow tilted their head fondly, as though they were smiling, and despite Hornet's loud berating, she seemed overwhelmingly relieved more than anything.
"Don't do that again without warning," she scolded, and their taller sibling gave a grave nod. After a few moments however, they pulled themself up, tugging both Ghost and Hornet alongside them. Their sister opened her mouth to protest, but Hollow tapped against their wrist. Time was of the essence, Ghost could concede that. They'd personally prefer it if Hollow rested for another moment, but they doubted they would listen. Not unless both Ghost and Hornet forcibly sat on them, and even then they'd simply be able to scoop both of them up.
Resting would have to wait. Now? They had a Stag to catch.
Quirrel tapped his foot impatiently, peering down the dark tunnel of the Stagway for the third time, wondering if his ride would finally arrive. Judging from the disgruntled looks of his fellow passengers, he assumed they were just as frustrated with the lateness of the stag.
"Honestly," one of them grumbled beneath their breath, "the sooner the king installs those tramways, the better. The stags have only been getting slower I tell you."
Someone gave a soft noise of agreement, and while Quirrel sorely wanted to complain with them, he knew more than anyone how overworked the stags were at the moment. Letting out a soft sigh, he resigned himself to waiting for another twenty ticks before finally being on his way to the Madame. She had requested some documents from the Archives to go over with Lord Lurien, and while they weren't desperately urgent, he desperately did not wish to let the Madame down.
However, as a harried Stagway worker came over to the group, Quirrel had a sinking feeling he might not be able to deliver the documents after all.
"Ah, uh, your attentions please. I regret to inform you that all Stagways have been shut until further notice by order of his Pale Excellence, the King. This is due to, uh, maintenance requirements, and the potential dangers of a cave-in."
The loud groans of the collective group seemed to make the bug shrink, as they stuttered out apologies and options for refunds. Quirrel tutted to himself, but saw no reason to linger. He'd have to tell the Madame about the Stagway issue, and try again the next cycle. He slowly wandered up the stairs towards the Fog Canyon exit, humming a wordless song to himself, before pausing. A trio of very strange looking garden bugs stood awkwardly by the exit to the Fungal Wastes, staring with blatant disappointment at the notice he assumed said the same thing the worker had just said.
"-just our luck!" he heard one of the small ones hiss out. "Now we have to go through Fog Canyon! And that's a difficult journey at the best of times."
Their voice was strangely familiar, high-pitched with a soft clicking under-tone, but Quirrel was sure he'd recognise such a bug if he had met them before. Perhaps they were closely related to the mosswalkers?
Besides... While he might have been inconvenienced, it didn't mean he had to let others be. He might even be able to find out what species they were!
"Hello there, travellers!" he called out kindly, "I'm heading up to the Archives in Fog Canyon, but I can happily take you to the Garden entrance if you wish!"
They seemed to stiffen, with the other small one looking particularly caught out by his request.
"Ah, we're... heading up to the Crossroads."
How strange. But perhaps they were Greenpath natives, or simply on a small excursion.
"It is no problem for me to guide you there either. In fact, it's quite close to the Archives."
The group seemed to hesitate, and they huddled together. He couldn't quite make out what they were saying, though he heard a hissed "Ooma" and "reckless charging". The other two bugs only seemed to respond through nods or head shakes, so he imagined they were mute. Mutated mosskin perhaps?
Finally, the small one stepped forward.
"We would be very grateful to accept your offer, if it is not too much of an issue," they said, voice hesitant. Well then, Quirrel thought, the Madame would be quite pleased to hear of the appearance of some new bugs!
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Just follow me then, and I'll show you how to navigate through the Oomas."
Perhaps this journey wouldn't be too fruitless after all.