The little Knight nearly fell from the Great Stag’s saddle once the large insect’s swift legs brought it to a halt at the station, its own movement made clumsy with exhaustion and weakness. Shade bled from beneath the soft, dusty layer of its Mothwing cloak, bubbling and seeping into the very air around it, the Vessel’s shell unstable and barely holding together after far too many close calls and landed strikes by the denizens of Hallownest’s depths. It knew the only cure for damage to its fragile shell was rest, letting it remake itself in quiet moments of respite.
With slow, determined steps it trudged forward across the platform, and sagged gratefully against the rail of the lift as it activated and surged up toward ground level and the outside.
The Grimmchild flew about the Knight’s head in a jagged orbit, chittering in small cries borne from clear concern at the Vessel’s vulnerability and injury. The child’s small teeth set against its cloak and horns, sharp but used gently and with care. Worried and not truly doing harm, only on attempting to usher the knight onward in some small way.
Once the lift clicked to a halt, the Knight trudged forward, moving off and out into the perpetual twilight of Dirtmouth, remaining steadfast on its path.
In the center of town the usual bench looked inviting, the elegant metal filigree gleaming under the lamplight. How nice it would be to sit down, just for a moment…
But the sound of music filtered yet on the wind, and the little vessel passed the usual bench with only the slightest tilt of its head, a bare show of reluctance, and made towards the vaulting tents and red light that marked the Grimm Troupe’s grounds.
The Grimmchild began chattering outright when the knight passed the bench, not understanding why it didn’t rest and recover, swirling about its head in a wild flurry of fluttering movement. The knight lifted one small hand up to touch the child gently, reassuring. Its fearsome little companion, one that it had careful custody of, had grown in their exploration of Hallownest together. Growing fiercer and far more deadly.
The Knight was… proud of the Grimmchild, of how the young creature had developed and grown. It was a strange feeling this small companion evoked in the Knight, one of many. Its pride in the child’s progress and ability, a deep-seated fondness, a worry that the child may come to harm in its custody. All new feelings for the little knight. It tried to silence the whispers of doubt—its own new demon—constantly clamoring over and over—Imperfect, flawed, another failed Vessel—
This was to say nothing of the wealth of new feelings that the Grimmchild’s father woke within it.
Feelings enough that the Knight pushed through its injury and exhaustion towards the Troupe, determined to show the father how much his child had matured in their time together.
Within the depths of the vast tent, Grimm heard the chittering noise of his child’s voice long before he ever saw the little creature’s approach. He was always interested to see his child’s progress over the Knight’s travels, always amazed at how quickly it had developed, how strong and fast it was, the consideration and intelligence with which it looked at problems. How his lovely little child had grown.
To say nothing of his enjoyment at seeing the Knight itself again, the captivating little Vessel that had called him and his Troupe and gave such care to his child.
Still, the depths of Hallownest were clearly not the place for a child to learn manners of all things, if its wild cries were any indication.
He turned, knowing he’d find the pair fresh from a delve into the darkness, his child’s color brighter and the carapace glossier with consumed fire, the little Knight looking up at him with those wide, endless eyes, black like the abyss. And spot them he did as they entered the tent, but it was not the warm reunion he had briefly imagined.
The little knight hobbled forward, shade sloughing off its body, left like a wake behind it, visibly weak and obviously hurt. His child spotted him and let loose a wild screech, a cry for help and alarm, pleading for one of its parents to help the other.
Even without that horrible sound, Grimm could not do nothing. He would not do nothing.
Long, decisive strides brought him over to the Knight and he bent down, concerned.
Before he could make mention or express worry, Grimm was touched when the Knight, exhausted and wounded though it was, bowed to him in respect, its antlers canting forward. Grimm’s red eyes crinkled at the corners, charmed. Their dance never a moment neglected.
There was only one response for such respect.
Grimm reached out and lifted the Knight in his hands, careful and mindful of the Vessel’s injuries, settling it softly in his arms and carried it deeper into the Troupe’s tent. The little knight struggled a moment feebly before settling and Grimm hushed it gently, enjoying the sensation of how solid it was tucked against him. “Be at ease, my friend. You need rest now more than anything.”
The Knight tried to struggle again, doing little more than wriggling against the Troupe Master’s cloak and gestured with one small black hand at the Grimmchild, who had calmed somewhat, its parents together again.
Grimm’s eyes crinkled again, sliding partially closed in delight. “I can see how much our child has grown in your care, but you must worry after your own wellbeing with the same dedication. I hate to see you in such a sorry state, you are aware.”
Satisfied that the Grimmchild’s progress had been noticed, the Knight relaxed in the larger insect’s hold as Grimm carried it deeper into the chapiteau. He moved a tent flap out of the way and settled into a small alcove, lit with warm, red lamplight and covered in plush cushions. He reclined carefully into the soft setting, cradling the Vessel on his lap, tucked against his body. It was not how he preferred to sleep, but it would do for this.
“Rest,” Grimm instructed gently, long fingers brushing against the Knight’s antlers. “No one will disturb you here.”
The Vessel’s dark eyes stared up at him a moment longer, but the Grimmchild chirruped and fluttered in close, crawling up and curling into a tight ball between its antlers and fell asleep almost immediately in that way that only children can.
“Sleep,” Grimm murmured again and the little knight finally seemed to agree, shifting and snuggling into the cloak-covered lap it rested in, head tilting forward and literally nodding off, unchanged in slumber but for the preternatural stillness of its body.
Grimm watched them, his child and his dear little dance partner, sound asleep in his embrace and felt a soft contentment wash over him. He knew, with what lie before them in the future, how the ritual would meet its inevitable conclusion, that his time together with the Knight was short.
But for now, for this moment at least, he felt at ease.
“Master Grimm?” One of the novices wandered back through the depths of the tent, searching for the ringleader. They had seen the Master disappear towards the back of the chapiteau some time ago, but it was strange for him to be missing for so long, and he wasn’t sleeping in his usual spot, hanging from the ceiling, wrapped tightly in his cloak, and dreaming of something so very dark.
“Master Grimm?” They tried again, calling as they moved.
In the darkness two ruby red eyes flashed open, wide and empty. Angry.
“M-My apologies, Master Grimm!” They stammered out a plea for forgiveness and turned and fled.
Grimm’s glowing scarlet eyes followed the novice’s retreat until they were out of slight and slid nearly closed, dropping to watch the two small figures curled up in his lap. Satisfied that they remained undisturbed, his eyes slipped closed again.
The Knight woke slowly, awareness seeping in steadily like groundwater. It was a gentle waking that it had not felt since before it descended down into Hallownest through that old, dry well. It felt like it was basking in the warm, milky hot springs, and the Knight felt cradled and safe and could not help but burrow deeper into the comfortable bed it slept on.
Where was the Knight, anyway? The very last thing it remembered was arriving in Dirtmouth by way of the Last Great Stag and then—
It froze, its entire body going very, very still as it realized where exactly it had found rest.
Slowly, ever so slowly, it inclined its head up to look at the owner of the lap—By the Dreamers it was a lap—it’d found so restful.
Grimm’s eyes were closed, the all-to-keen red hidden from the Knight’s sight by sleep of his own. The Knight relaxed against the strange softness of Grimm’s cloak, thinking that perhaps its embarrassing little display had gone unnoticed.
And perhaps it had.
By Grimm at least.
The Grimmchild cooed loudly from atop the Knight’s head in happiness, wings fluttering, seeing its parents so well and so affectionate.
The little Vessel tried to grapple up and grab the noisy little thing, attempting to hush the child lest it wake its father. But the Grimmchild nibbled at its smaller parent’s questing fingers affectionately, teeth clacking gently against the shadow that so exactly mimicked a chitin exoskeleton. The Knight shook its head, trying to dislodge the vocal passenger between its antlers and the Grimmchild let out a loud, excited cry as its parent seemed to grow playful, swirling and scurrying around.
Too late for silence, the Troupe Master himself shifted beneath the Knight, and the little Vessel felt long fingers slide under its own cloak and wrap around its carapace. “You’ve awoken. And you seem to have recovered, my friend.”
The Knight looked up—and up—and found Grimm looking down at him, red eyes slivered in pleased amusement.
“You’re feeling better now?” Grimm’s gaze, though sheer red, clearly moved over the small body, assessing, searching for signs of shade bleeding through, any cracks in the mask the Knight wore, indications that the Vessel was still damaged.
It nodded in reply, feeling as though it was fully recovered, the same as though it had found a few moments of rest on one of Hallownest’s strangely comfortable benches. Better even.
Grimm’s hands came up and framed the little Knight’s face, his thumbs sliding up its antlers, smoothing up the gentle curve. “Good. I am pleased that you come to me when you emerge from the drear depths of Hallownest,” His fingers curled about its antlers firmly, their grip a touch possessive. “But have care for yourself, my dear friend,” Grimm said earnest, eyes narrowing faintly, “I find I do not like the thought of something terrible besetting you, down in the dark.”
The Knight relaxed into the Troupe Master’s slightly proprietary hold, settling against the gripping hands, perfectly at ease. It nodded again, perhaps an agreement or an acknowledgement, some slight attempt at promise, as close as it could come considering all the horrors in Hallownest.
Grimm watched the Knight for a long, charged moment, his ruby eyes bright and keen, staring down into the little Knight’s dark, empty sockets, before they crinkled a bit with some soft delight and his tight grip relaxed. “Good. I suppose I can ask no more of you.” This was said with some regret, but besides that Grimm seemed only sincere and earnest as he always was.
The Grimmchild chirruped and nuzzled against its father’s chest from atop the Knight’s head, affectionate and happy as its parents were safe together. Grimm himself chuckled and stroked a gentle touch against the little insect’s cheek, his own fondness clear.
The Knight, for its own part, shifted and settled back against Grimm’s chest and pulled out its collection of charms, sorting through to find what it wanted before it would inevitably return to desolate halls of the ruined kingdom beneath. Movement behind its head had the little Vessel glancing up to find both the Troupe Master and his child leaning over, watching what it was doing with great interest.
The Knight lifted the charm it was considering up to show the two, the red lamplight catching on the embossed surface of Grubsong.
Grimm made a low sound of consideration, the noise rumbling through the Knight where its back was pressed to his chest and reached out, brushing a finger against the charm, feeling the power contained. “Perhaps a different charm. One that will reward risk and failure less.”
The Knight tilted its head and then lifted up a silvered charm with crystal at the center glowing a steady pink light. Quick Focus seemed to be more what the Troupe Master might approve of. Sure enough Grimm nodded his approval, eyes brilliant and bright as they beheld this small creature. This Vessel that should be little more than a tool and yet it was so much more.
“What else do you have, my friend?” he reached down, curious, “What does this one do?”
OBLIGATORY STUPID CODA
Grimm slept fitfully, deep in the chapiteau, suspended from the ceiling. Within his sleep his dreams burned scarlet and sanguine, a heart pulsed red, waiting for the show to begin, and a dancer cloaked in crimson awaited his partner.
Soon—Grimm’s dreams swirled with anticipation, thick enough to taste on the air—soon the other performer would pierce the veil and the ritual would continue. Their passionate dance would reach its fever pitch—
Oh, and Grimm’s dreams just burned with desire—
Something landed on Grimm, waking him instantly and he let go of the ceiling with a screech and fell in a heap, the messy bundle of his rumpled cloak splayed everywhere. He hissed, red eyes bright with fire and empty, ready to kill whomever had dared—
The Knight sat on Grimm’s lap, the white mist of soul dissipating with its reawakening, sitting frozen in place upon the Troupe Master. For all that its face never changed, there was something distinctly mortified about it.
Unhelpfully, the Grimmchild gave a soft scree of greeting, fluttering nearby.
Grimm relaxed slowly, seeing the two familiar antlers and faded cloak of his favorite little knight. “Well my dear friend,” He said, voice low and rough, red eyes taking in the cracks littering the Vessel’s shell, lingering marks of some recent battle. His fingers brushed against the web of hairline fractures on its head, the mask of the Vessel broken, “Welcome back. What happened down there, hmm?”