The Mantis Lords rose when the little challenger returned.
They bowed, as was customary, to the victor, and like always, the creature paused in its travels to bow its head. It was a polite little beast.
It stayed longer than usual, staring at them with empty eyes. The first Lord raised its head to meet its gaze and chirped a question, unsure if it could even understand language. It didn’t respond, just tapped the point of its nail against the ground.
Suddenly, it scurried off towards Deepnest.
Once it was gone, the third Lord huffed and flopped back onto her throne. “It’s been a while since the little monster visited.”
“At least it hasn’t killed any of ours,” the second Lord said.
“This time,” the third Lord hissed.
The first Lord settled herself back on her throne. “To be fair, it- they didn’t have much choice coming down here.”
They heard a screech from within Deepnest, one of many that usually followed when the challenger entered. As much as they hated to admit it, the little beast did as good a job keeping the horde back as their own tribe.
“It’s a person now?” The third Lord asked.
The first Lord shrugged. “It no longer kills our people and it says hello every time it passes through. It’s not stupid.”
“Think it will come back this ti… ugh, nevermind.” The third Lord started, then stood once again. The other Lords joined her and bowed.
The challenger was back, dragging a dead dirtcarver larger than itself. It carried the corpse to the middle of their throne room floor and dropped it, then stared at them until they all met its gaze.
Without breaking eye contact, the challenger flicked its wrist and disemboweled the bug.
The Lords blinked at the corpse, the growing pool of hemolymph and the challenger with the bloodied nail. It would take forever to scrub the stain out of the floor.
“…Was that a threat?” The second Lord asked.
The challenger shook its head and shoved its hand into the body cavity of the dirtcarver. It pulled out an organ and rubbed it along the ground, leaving a smear of orange fluid. The Lords watched the little beast make a mess of their living room with mixed concern, curiosity and irritation.
The first Lord almost asked, “What are you doing?” but knew it wouldn’t respond. She just watched while the challenger finished its grisly painting.
Eventually it tossed the spent organ back to the corpse and bounced back to the base of the thrones, gesturing wildly at the picture with its nail. The first Lord stepped down to get a better look and cocked her head at the crude drawing of a Hallownest bug. The bug was a little portly, with long legs and a squarish mask. The challenger had drawn it staring off towards Deepnest, one hand on hip and the other shielding its eyes.
The challenger kept pointing at the drawing, then itself, then the drawing, always with its nail.
“Do you… want us to kill him?”
The challenger started shaking its head hard enough for the second Lord to step down in concern. It took its nail and started carving into the floor around the drawing. The third Lord hissed at that, but the creature continued.
It carved a heart around the drawing.
The Lords stared down, uncomprehending. “Do you… want us to protect him?”
The challenger paused, then half nodded. It retrieved another organ and splattered a question mark on the floor, then pointed at the drawing. The Lords tilted their heads and looked to the creature for more explanation.
It tapped its foot, then ran to one corner of the room. It made a show of looking around, kicked over a rock, then ran to the other end of the room. It poked its head into the Deepnest tunnel and made the same searching gesture as the bug in the drawing, then ran back to the Lords and sat down. It pointed at the question mark again.
“Find him?” the second Lord asked.
The creature jumped up and nodded, bouncing in place. It clasped its nail to its chest as it did so.
The Lords stepped back to discuss its request.
“Will it kill our people if we refuse?” the third Lord asked.
The second Lord hummed, but the first Lord responded, “I don’t think so. They would be disappointed, but I doubt they would grow violent… at least not against the other mantises.”
“And the younglings havebeen growing restless,” the second Lord said, rubbing a claw against her cheek.
“Then we should send them to scout in Deepnest,” the third Lord snapped, “not running errands. We already gave the little beast our treasure and a place to rest.”
“The tunnels of Deepnest are too narrow. The younglings would be overwhelmed in minutes without scythes,” the second Lord said. “Besides, with their wings, they could cover all of the old kingdom.”
“…The exploration might do them good,” the first Lord said. “At least while they still have their wings. Many will soon molt and lose them.”
The third Lord looked between her two companions. “You want to accommodate its request?”
They nodded. “Fine, but we should get something in return.”
As one, they returned to the little challenger still bouncing in place.
“We will help you,” the first Lord said.
“If you give us something in return,” the third Lord finished.
“We will accept-“ the second Lord began, but the challenger cut her off by hacking up several thousand Geo.
They stared at the pile of fossilized shells. There was at least ten thousand Geo, just glinting in the middle of their floor next to a pile of offal, a still growing pool of hemolymph and a child’s drawing.
The little challenger looked up at them expectantly. When they didn’t respond, it retched and a single, pitiful fivepiece popped out from under its mask. In the awkward silence, the challenger nudged it closer to the pile and looked up again.
“Um… ok. That will suffice,” the second Lord muttered. She would have accepted far less, but a gift was a gift. The other two Lords nodded and leapt away to rally the younglings.
Quirrel stood over an outcropping far above the City of Tears, watching the rain pour down from above. It was a soothing sound. He could fall asleep to it and not wake for years.
With Monomon gone, his memories had trickled back. Of course, not enough to remember who he was or what he should be doing now, but enough to exhaust him. He had found the source of the City’s rain, but now that he could mourn his past companions, the thought of exploring beyond the kingdom alone made his abdomen ache.
He would keep going, but maybe… maybe not right now. Right now he could rest. He could grieve, and try to understand all that had happened.
…Or not. Quirrel heard the buzz of wings and sighed, roughly getting to his feet. Now that he knew he was old, mysterious aches and pains had settled themselves in his joints. It was all very irritating.
The wingbeats got louder, more numerous. Quirrel peeked over the edge, expecting an errant husk guard or two, to see an entire squad of flying mantises. He instinctively froze, and was too slow ducking back behind cover.
The lead mantis screeched and made a beeline for him.
“Oh, goodness!” Quirrel screamed and bolted back the way he had come.
WHY DID I LEAVE MY NAIL AT THE LAKE?!
He ducked into a building and extracted a dull nail from the inanimate corpse of a guard, not that he would stand a chance against twelve mantises at once. He struggled to slow his breathing as they reached his refuge, the buzzing deafening. Panicking never did anyone any good.
The buzzing swelled, the abruptly stopped. Quirrel froze in the apprehensive silence, waiting for something, anything, but not expecting the polite knock on the door.
Quirrel blinked and risked a glance out the peephole. Only ten mantises were waiting, sedate, clinging to every available surface in the narrow passage. One was positioned at the door, balancing to tap the door again with its stinger.
A lest optimistic person might have been hesitant opening the door, but Quirrel had pretty good luck with strangers, especially polite strangers. Besides, he was a little curious what they were doing outside of the wastes.
Quirrel steadied himself, squared his shoulders and opened the door. “Hello there!”
Ha, his voice cracked. Still, Monomon had taught him that absence of fear was stupidity, not bravery. Nothing to be ashamed of.
One of the mantises snickered. The knocking one hopped back and buzzed. “Greetings.”
There was an awkward silence, save for the rustling of wings.
“Isn’t the weather here lovely?” Quirrel offered. He had expected them to speak first and had neglected to think of a more intelligent topic.
They weren’t much for conversation. Quirrel wasn’t sure whether to make eye contact or keep his gaze to the floor. He settled on proper eye contact.
“May I ask what you’re doing all the way out here?”
“Looking for you,” the lead mantis responded.
“Well that’s ominous!” Quirrel chuckled and clasped his hands. They hadn’t tried to kill him yet, so that was something. “Why me, pray tell?”
The lead mantis didn’t have an answer, just looked back over its shoulder to its comrades. One of the smallest ones shrugged. “’Dunno.”
“Aah, well, alright then. I would offer you some refreshments, but I… do not have any.” Quirrel grimaced under his mask and tapped his fingers together. It was easier to carry conversation with people that would either speak freely or not at all. Before he started another volley of questions, they all heard the buzz of another mantis in the distance.
“They’re back!” the lead mantis chirped. The rest of the mantises scuttled to make room for the newcomer, or newcomers, in the case of the soft footfalls accompanying the wingbeats.
Quirrel could barely make out the familiar blur dashing ahead of the new mantis, just blues and whites and blacks bleeding together. The tiny sledgehammer threw its nail to the side and barreled into his chest, nearly knocking him off his feet. Quirrel staggered back as his little friend slid down, unable to get purchase on his shell or wrap its arms around his torso, and settled for gluing itself around his leg. Figuratively. The little bug thing couldn’t secrete glue, as far as he knew.
“My friend!” Quirrel laughed in equal parts relief and joy. “It is so good to see you! Are you with these imposing fellows?”
The mantises puffed up with pride, and Quirrel smiled to himself. Flattery was an art, and his words had their intended effect.
The knight gave a curt nod against his leg and adjusted to hold tighter. Quirrel reached down to stroke its head, more than a little unnerved by the unnatural cold seeping from its flesh. This was the first time he had seen the small knight have physical contact with… anything, at least nonviolent contact.
From the way it hunched and ignored his pets, the knight seemed grumpy. “Oh-ho, what has you in a mood, little one?”
It didn’t respond, instead shooing away the mantises. They flew off en masse and left Quirrel alone with his friend.
“Alrighty then, let us – oof,”Quirrel tried to take a step and severely misjudged how heavy the knight was. “Let us get somewhere sheltered, if your friends won’t stick around to protect us.”
When the knight made no move to comply, Quirrel feared he would have to remove it by force, or, more successfully, gnaw off his own leg. He wasn’t sure how to respond to the new behavior.
At length, the little knight slowlyextracted itself. It glared up at Quirrel the entire time, moving each limb deliberately and lingering before finally releasing his leg. Warmth flooded back to the cold spot where the knight’s shell touched his own. It must be a lovely trait in warm climates, or so he told himself.
Without letting him out of its sight, the knight backed away to retrieve its nail, then rejoined Quirrel. It pointed at him, then the exit.
“Ready to go?”
The knight just stared at him, continuing to point at the exit.
“What do you want, exactly?”
The knight pointed at him again, more of a jab, then swept its arm in a stiff arc towards the exit.
Quirrel chuckled, shaking off residual jitters from the mantis scare and in unfamiliar territory with his friend. “Do you want me to go first?”
It crossed its arms across its little chest and nodded, then made a show of gesturing between its eye holes and Quirrel. He couldn’t help but laugh.
“You want to keep an eye on me? Oh my goodness! I like that. You’re a funny little one, aren’t you?”
The knight was not amused. Quirrel started walking and attempted to smooth things over as the little bug followed at his heels.
“Do you think I’m going to run off again?”
The knight glared, convulsed and spat out a screaming mess of soul, annihilating a section of the wall. It aimed far away from Quirrel, but he still flinched away from the shrapnel.
“Oh dear! Alright then, I won’t leave your sight!”
He hurried to open one of the many abandoned homes of the city and gestured for his escort to follow, closing the door behind them. The knight immediately hopped on a bench and curled up, nail tucked in its lap.
Quirrel rubbed the back of his head and brushed away a severed arm, then sat crossed-legged on the floor. Once he was good and settled, he propped his chin on his hand. “I suppose you are upset about the incident at the lake?”
The knight didn’t nod, but also didn’t shake its head. He took it as a cue to continue.
“I do apologize for running off so suddenly. I… there… um….” Quirrel sighed and dragged his hand down his face. He normally had no difficulty expressing these things, though normally he didn’t have so much in his head at once, so much that didn’t even feel like his own.
The knight watched him, mask propped on knees, perfectly still.
“…It was a lot to take in.”
Quirrel’s friend nodded slowly, still watching. He normally would not share his troubles so readily, but he also hadn’t expected the little creature to care so much and felt he owed them an explanation, especially after going to such great lengths to find him.
“I… I don’t know where to start. I don’t even know where the start is. It’s like my memories are in boiling water, coming to the surface at random.” Quirrel twirled his hand around his head to demonstrate.
The knight nodded again, more purposeful this time.
“I know I am far older than I have any right to be, but I still feel as if I have unfinished business? Hallownest may not be eternal as our people had hoped, but echoes of the old world still linger. Maybe I’m one of those echoes? I don’t… I am uncertain whether I belong here anymore, but I don’t want to leave.”
His friend patted the bench next to itself. Quirrel smiled at the gesture and sat up straight, realizing how far he had slouched during his little monologue.
He groaned as he shoved himself to his feet, shuffled over to the bench and gingerly lowered himself next to his friend, not so close as to crowd them but enough to be companionable.
That wasn’t enough for the little knight. It scooted closer until its horn clunked against his shell, not leaning into him like a normal bug but sitting ramrod straight and staring ahead.
Quirrel chuckled and stroked the top of its mask, careful not to flinch back from the feeling of pins and needles. He had a good friend. A strange, creepy friend, but a good one.
“I suppose it’s not so bad,” he said a length. “Not with bugs like you here.”
It may have been wishful thinking, but he swore the numb feeling lessened in his hand. Together they listened to the sound of rain on the roof, surrounded by relics of a dead past. The little knight’s head slowly drooped as Quirrel stroked it, its chest gently rising and falling in time with his pets.
“You’re a good little knight, you know that?” he whispered.
It didn’t respond, fast asleep. Quirrel stretched, careful not to jostle his friend, and made himself comfortable. It, no, he? She? He couldn’t tell. Children tended to be difficult to determine, but were they even a child? He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything anymore.
Except… he did know something. He had a friend. He had a friend that had searched for him for lord knows how long. No matter what happened, Quirrel wouldn’t be alone. He would never wander a desolate kingdom without purpose, without companions, ever again.
For the first time in a long, long time, Quirrel drifted off feeling content and secure.