“Everyone knows the legend, right? ‘Travelers who climb Mt. Ebott are said to disappear.’
“But the other day, Dad told me something interesting.
“Long ago, before the war with humans and monsters began, it was said that the mountain was a place where people went to challenge themselves. That the experience of climbing it would help them change for the better. Any traveler who climbed Mt. Ebott would disappear, but only because the person who climbed it would be different from the person who came back down. The legend was hopeful. Not a warning.
“But then monsters were imprisoned inside the mountain, and humans saw the mountain only as the monsters’ prison, and as time went on, hope turned to fear and despair. Mt. Ebott stopped being a place where people went to better themselves, and instead became a place from which no one ever returned. But the old legend still survived. Waiting for the day when everyone who vanished up there finally came home.
“I don’t know if it’s actually true. Dad likes to tell stories. But it’s nice to think about, isn’t it? Now that everyone’s free again, maybe that’ll be the story everyone believes.
“Still, I wonder. After the war, why did so many people travel there anyway? Did they just not believe the warnings? Did they hope to find something up on the summit? Or...did they want to leave something behind? I know why Chara climbed the mountain. It wasn’t for a very happy reason. But I’ll never learn why the others did. Hardly any of the monsters remember the humans who fell. Their souls are long gone and their families have probably passed on, too. Dad might know, but I can’t ask him. He’d get really upset.
“There’s still one left, though. One last human who went to Mt. Ebott. You know who I mean. So, I have to ask.
“Frisk, why would you ever climb a mountain like that?
“Was it foolishness?
“Was it fate?
“Or was it...because you...?
“Hey, I recognize that look. I’ve asked you this before, haven’t I?
“Haha...forget I said anything.”
* * *
(Knock, knock, knock.)
King Asgore clipped another withered branch off his bonsai. His hands were so huge that he needed to handle the shears like chopsticks, but he was nothing if not a delicate touch.
(Knock, knock, knock.)
“Yes, I’m here! Just one minute!”
He barely raised his voice at all, but it was still enough to rumble through every square inch of this house. His chair and the floor underneath creaked dangerously as he adjusted his angle on the tiny tree.
At this point, Asgore considered his bulk to be his biggest problem. True, it had been difficult to forge diplomatic relations with the humans. It had been delicate, painstaking work to balance humankind’s hopes, fears, and expectations against those of the freshly-displaced monsters, the latter of which had poured out of Mt. Ebott in a slow but determined flood in search of new homes and new horizons. It had been a matter of countless sleepless nights to concurrently tackle administrative affairs, relocation efforts, media control, and spending quality time with his children (Sans, at least, had helped considerably with all of the above before taking off with his brother, to the point where Asgore couldn’t even resent him for his late-night visits and persistent texting sessions with Toriel). Over time, the work had ebbed away as society settled into its new status quo. Those problems, to a degree, were solved. But precious little could fix Asgore’s tendency to stab holes in the ceiling if he stood up too fast.
He’d made an effort with this little house, at least – it was just one story and not terribly roomy, but still gave an air of spaciousness thanks to exceptionally wide doorways and high ceilings. Plenty of windows, too, so that the sunlight could rest on the menagerie of plants crowding every sill. Once he’d been able to set aside most of his kingly duties, Asgore had taken to the surface world’s variety of gardening tools and techniques with fearsome zeal. Bonsai barely scratched the surface. He could trim hedges in shapes that defied conventional space and arrange flowers in such vibrant colors that even the Royal Guard dogs appreciated the display. The grounds of Toriel’s school had already won so many awards that they were on the verge of automatic disqualification due to wrecking the curve, and the sight of Asgore’s own front yard had made several hapless passersby burst into tears. His backyard was a lost cause, having been trampled countless times by small, running feet, but he could appreciate that, too, in its way.
(Knock, knock, knock.)
That knock was more forceful than the others. He put aside his shears and rose from the easy chair next to the back window. The wood sounded grateful as it resumed its old shape.
It was a lovely day; he’d made a note of it in his journal. The seasons were changing and the air had begun to bite (in response, he’d developed a serious passion for plaid flannel shirts) , but the sun was still able to keep everything warm, and the leaves had not yet turned. The thermometer beside the front door held steady at seventy degrees. He glanced at it, smiled, and then opened the door.
It was Toriel.
Asgore beamed wide. “Tori! What an unexpected surprise! It’s so...nice to...see. You.”
That sentence started well, but then it sidled out of Asgore’s mouth and ran for the hills. Everything about Toriel – from the lines in her face, to the stiffness in her crossed hands, to the way the spectacles perched on her muzzle glinted in the light – argued that it was not, in fact, at all nice to see her.
He cleared his throat and bravely soldiered on.
“So, what can I do for you on this wonderful-”
“Where are the children?”
Asgore’s smile remained where it was, but in the silence that followed, his pupils slowly contracted. His mind had followed the thread of this conversation to a number of possible futures, and none of them looked promising. Several were on fire.
He managed to say, “The children?”
“Yes. Frisk and Asriel. Where are they?”
“Well, I’m, erm, flattered that you’d come to ask me.” He fidgeted with the front of his shirt; Toriel hadn’t blinked once in this exchange. “But they’re not visiting until next weekend, right? N-not that I’m complaining!” He laughed unconvincingly. “I insisted you draw up the schedule, after all.”
“I thought they had slept in late today. When I came to wake them up, their beds were empty. They were nowhere to be found in or around the house. Sans and Papyrus are not returning until next month. Undyne and Alphys are still on their honeymoon. In the unlikely event that Mettaton had something to do with this, I highly doubt he could have kept it a secret. That leaves you.” Toriel’s voice was so level you could have straightened a painting with it, but her rigid posture and narrowed eyes suggested she kept it that way through a mighty force of will. Asgore felt uncomfortably warm.
“Also,” she added, “Frisk had left this on his bed.”
Toriel produced a folded piece of paper. Asgore stared at it, then took it from her hand as though it might explode. It was a letter, written in Frisk’s large, careful print:
We are OK and will be home soon. Please do not worry about us. Talk to Dad if you want to know more. He should be able to explain.
P.S. – Sorry, Dad.
“Well, at least his penmanship is improving,” Asgore muttered. Toriel snapped her fingers and the paper burst into flames in his hand; a moment later, it was nothing but a wisp of smoke. “Ah. Hmm.”
“Asgore.” She crossed her palms again. “Explain.”
“Toriel, I really don’t know. I mean, Frisk must have had his reasons, but I certainly didn’t expect anything like this to happen. And I can say for a fact that I was not involved.” He wiped soot on the front of his shirt and tried to smile in a reassuring way. “Even I know how foolish it would be to suggest they just run off without...oh.”
Toriel’s brow rose. Asgore had somehow managed to go even paler under his fur.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I mean. It’s not. Well. Ahem.” He nervously tugged on his beard. “It’s all speculation, nothing that I could say outright, but now that you mention it, I did tell Asriel a story about the war a little while ago. And ever since then, I noticed a certain, erm, pattern to Asriel’s questions, and he and Frisk did seem to have a lot of quiet meetings in the backyard that I half-overheard. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but given recent circumstances, at least by what I have observed, my best guess would be...” He shut his eyes like someone about to experience the last few feet of a very long fall. “I think they may have gone to climb Mt. Ebott.”
Silence. Asgore opened one eye, then the other. Neither Toriel’s posture nor her expression had changed. That was when he realized that the heat he felt wasn’t just due to nerves; the thermometer’s mercury was climbing rapidly.
“Is there no end to your irresponsibility?” A definite edge in that voice now.
“You know that I would never-”
“If anything at all happens to them today, it is on you. Do you understand me, Asgore?” She leaned in, teeth bared; she was getting louder. “Are you the least bit concerned about the danger they are in right now?”
“Toriel, the neighbors will hear-”
“I had honestly thought that you would at least try to take care of these two children after all you’ve done, but I suppose old habits are not so easy to-”
“Toriel!” She flinched back as though the sound had knocked her away, and maybe it had; Asgore’s shout echoed down the block for the next several seconds. They stared at each other wide-eyed in the intervening silence. Then, Asgore sighed, and held out his huge palms in apology.
“Yes, I am concerned,” he said quietly. “And now that I know what has happened, I will do what I can to fix it. But Toriel, after all those two have been through, do you really think that something like climbing a mountain will bother them in the least? Or that they would have done this without fully understanding the consequences? I know you’re scared, but...try to have some faith in them, won’t you?”
Toriel’s breathing quickened, but she finally averted that smoldering gaze.
“What do you intend to do?” she asked.
“My thinking is that mischief of this caliber needs accomplices. And this is Asriel and Frisk we’re talking about. If one of them sneezes, the whole town comes running with a tissue.” He scratched one of his horns. “I’ll give Bratty and Catty a call. Those girls are bound to know who helped them on this little adventure, assuming that they weren’t in on it. Then I’ll piece together the whole story from them, have some stern words with the responsible parties, and if those two really did travel to Mt. Ebott, then I – we – will go up there and fetch them.” Toriel glanced back up again, her expression incredulous. “Oh, come now, we might be getting on in years but there’s no way either of us could just let them be. It would take the better part of a day to climb that mountain and I don’t want them up there after dark. They’ll catch a chill.”
“You are suggesting we go together.”
“Well, if either of us tries to go alone then the other will just follow. It would be terribly awkward for everyone.” He smiled, shrugged, then stepped aside. “But, first. Would you like to come in? I’ll put the kettle on.”
She shook her head. “Asgore, this is hardly the time.”
“Toriel, you look ready to fall over. A few minutes off your feet and a hot drink won’t hurt anyone.” She still looked hesitant. “Come on, Tori. They have a head start on us anyway. And if they see us coming after them, they’ll just climb the mountain faster.”
Toriel stared at the open doorway. At Asgore’s reserved, hopeful smile. Then she sighed and put a hand to her forehead.
“I do feel a bit faint,” she said. “Fine. One drink. Then we help the children.”
“Of course. After you.”
She stepped inside and Asgore shut the door behind her. As she made her way into the kitchen, she took in the house – the too-tall ceiling and too-wide doorways, the furniture that all seemed especially thick-cut. It smelled like tea and chlorophyll. Her brow wrinkled.
“I cannot understand why Frisk and Asriel enjoy it here so much. They must feel so small.”
“They seem to have fun climbing on everything, honestly. Besides, it was either home renovations or filing down my horns every two weeks, and if I tried to do that alone I’d just throw my back out.”
Asgore’s kitchen was not unlike the one in his old house, albeit slightly larger to accommodate his table and yet more potted plants. A single picture window took up nearly an entire wall, and flooded the space in golden light. Toriel carefully pulled out a chair and sat down as Asgore rummaged through the cabinets, humming a familiar tune.
“Any preference? I still have some of the goldflower tea from underground, but there’s Earl Grey, jasmine, a bit of chamomile...”
“Whichever you like.”
“Goldflower it is, then.” He took out the box and then shuffled through a sizable collection of mugs; nearly all of them were printed with some variety of ‘#1 Dad.’ The glassware clinked musically throughout the room. “I think I still have one of your old teacups back here. We never were able to throw anything out.” He chuckled. “Why, I remember when you thought that one blue cup of yours had gone missing, and we searched all morning until you finally-”
“Asgore. Don’t do this, please.”
The clinking stopped. Asgore looked over his shoulder and saw Toriel sitting with her palms crossed and her head down; her spectacles printed two hard circles of light over her eyes. His smile drained away.
He pulled out a mug and a smaller teacup. Then he went to another cabinet and extracted the kettle and the teapot. Water hissed as he turned on the tap to fill the kettle. Toriel listened to that sound. Her hands shook. Then she looked up at Asgore, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet and fierce:
“Do you know what I hated most about living in the Ruins?”
Asgore glanced back again, then twisted off the tap. The kettle clunked on the stove burner. He said nothing. Toriel kept talking anyway.
“Whenever one of those children fell down, I did my best to look after them. I tried to keep them diverted, the way Asriel and Chara did for each other. You know how they always had their little games they loved to play. I scrounged up anything I could find. Crayons, toys, new books. It kept them busy, for a time. Then they left. And then, they died.” Her breath hoarsened. “But of course their things stayed behind. I kept them on high shelves or in cabinets, somewhere out of sight, but every now and then I’d find them again, and I would remember. Everything about that day. Everything you had said and done. It would all come back to me at once.” Asgore still wouldn’t turn around. “But I could not throw them away. Because whenever I tried,” her voice cracked, “it felt like I was burying one of them all over again.”
She pulled away her spectacles and wiped at her eyes. Asgore slumped over the stove. One huge hand rested on top of the kettle.
“Asgore, I apologize for what I said. I know you care deeply about Asriel and Frisk. And I’m sure you had only good intentions when you made that terrible promise all those years ago. But despite that...” She replaced her glasses and shook her head. “I just don’t think I can ever forgive what you did.”
Asgore lifted his hand, stepped away from the stove. He snapped his fingers and the burner burst into flame, licking around the sides of the kettle. He stared at the fire.
“That’s quite all right, Toriel,” he said quietly. “I’m not certain I can forgive myself, either.”
He turned and leaned against the counter, his expression pensive. Neither he nor Toriel would look each other in the eye.
“I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you,” he said. “I’ve been looking for their families. Or their descendents, at least. It really has been a terribly long time.”
“Their...you mean the children who fell?”
“Who else? It’s been hard going, obviously. I wasn’t able to truly devote myself to the task until the relocation efforts died down a little. But, I’ve had some success. The Internet really is an incredible thing. And it’s been quite easy to make some small detours on all those diplomatic trips.”
“Asgore.” Toriel’s voice was laced with horror. “Why have you been looking for them?”
“To tell them what happened to their children, of course.”
Her jaw hung open. “Have you completely lost your senses? All that peace we tried so hard to build...if the humans find out that our king was responsible for such an atrocity, it would disappear overnight! The war would-”
“I’m well aware of the consequences. I’ve taken pains to let them know that I was solely responsible. And even if that’s not enough, it won’t stop me.” He finally turned to Toriel, and his gaze was unusually steely. “They deserve to know what happened. We’ve both known the pain of losing children for too long. I cannot just stand idly by knowing that anyone else feels that way on my account. I don’t approach them as a king, or a monster. I approach them as a parent.”
The kettle started to whistle.
“Perhaps that is why they’ve been much more forgiving than I expected,” Asgore mused. “Certainly more than I deserve. Or maybe it’s just the passage of time dulling their grief. Either way, the ones I’ve found were hardly offering their hands in friendship, but they seemed...relieved. Thankful to have an answer.” The kettle’s screech built. “Still, there’s no guarantee they will all be so kind. It’s quite possible that I’ll have to answer for my crimes in a more formal sense someday. And if that day comes, so be it. I swear that I will see this through, Toriel.”
The kettle’s whistle had turned to a shriek. Asgore waved a hand and the flame doused. He sifted faded amber petals into the teapot, then poured in the boiling water. The kitchen filled with a faint aroma of sweet lemons.
“Do you take milk and sugar?” His voice was soft and casual.
“No, thank you,” Toriel said faintly. She no longer appeared certain of where she was. Asgore pulled out a box of sugar cubes anyway. “Asgore...let me ask one thing.”
“Ask away.” He pulled out a sugar cube and unwrapped it.
“This is something I should have done myself, but he was always so quiet on the matter and I didn’t want to pry.” She took a deep breath. “While you were looking for the children’s families, did you happen to include Frisk’s?”
Asgore popped the cube into his mouth, crunched it between his teeth. “Of course. He was the first, as a matter of fact.”
“What did you find?”
He swallowed and said, “Nothing.”
A long silence followed. Asgore hunched over the kitchen counter, his blonde mane of hair hanging loose over the sink. He turned just enough for one eye to meet Toriel’s.
“I thought something was amiss when no one ever stepped forward to claim him. Even though he'd turned down the offer to be our ambassador – quite understandably, in my view – he was still the lone human at the head of a crowd of monsters. He was rather hard to miss. But nobody came to welcome him home. He has no family to speak of. I found no mention of his name, or any news of his disappearance. None of his human classmates recognize him – he gets on with them fine, but they all seem to think he transferred from a different school. He was never enrolled at any other schools in this town, or the towns nearby, or the city. I asked every monster I could to let me know if they learned anything about Frisk from before he fell, a passing mention, a stray conversation, and they heard nothing.” The counter groaned as he tightened his grip. “Nothing.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Toriel was at a loss for words.
“I’ll keep looking, of course,” he continued. “I imagine I will for a very long time. Because I don’t think I can accept it. The idea that anyone – especially a child, especially one like Frisk – could ever be so alone in the world.”
Toriel looked down at her hands. Her eyes welled up.
“When I met him in the Ruins, I asked him to take my hand,” she said. “I remember thinking how eagerly he grasped it. How tightly he held on. Much more so than the other children.” She took off her spectacles; they trembled in her grip. “And that was after who knows how many of those...resets, Asriel called them. I wonder. What must it have been like the very first time?”
The tea had finished steeping. Asgore filled their cups, then dropped several sugar cubes into his own mug and stirred. The spoon clicked rhythmically against the ceramic.
“He’s been talking more lately. Have you noticed that, Asgore?”
“Yes, I have. And Asriel’s been much less gloomy.” He carried the cups to the table, set them down. “They suffered a great deal. But little by little, they appear to be raising each other’s spirits.”
He pulled out a chair and sat down opposite Toriel. He looked down into his reflection in the tarry brown tea. The sweet steam veiled his face.
“We have some extraordinary children, Toriel.” His eyes flicked up to her. “Those other children, too, could have been extraordinary. I had no right to take those futures away from them. And I don’t blame you if you hate me for it.”
“Asgore, I don’t hate you, I...” She pinched between her eyes, then lowered her hand. “I made mistakes, as well. If I had stayed in the capital, tried to talk you out of it...I mean, I was furious at the time, yes, but if I had not been so rash, then maybe some of that misery could have been avoided.”
“You did what you thought was best. You mustn’t dwell on it.”
“Toriel, please listen.” He leaned forward into the steam. “We can’t help but make mistakes. We measure our lives by them. No matter how hard we try, how pure our intentions, we’ll always do things that we regret. There’s no escaping it. One by one, those regrets build on us, and weigh us down.” He leaned back again; his chair creaked. “But as painful as it may be, I just think it’s important that we never let ourselves become uncaring or cruel. Instead, we should help each other as much as we can, and hope that tomorrow will always be better than today.”
Toriel stared at his earnest expression. Then she covered her mouth to stifle the laugh. “Goodness. How very eloquent.”
Asgore grinned. “Was it? That’s good to hear. It’s been so long since I’ve had to make a speech.”
Toriel looked down at her teacup. She clicked her claws against its rim. She peered into her reflection in the drink, and was surprised at the smile on her face.
“Well, then.” She held the cup out to Asgore. “Here’s to better days.”
Asgore held out his mug. “May there be too many to count.”
And they drank together in the sun-drenched kitchen.
* * *
Frisk stood at the edge of the pit.
This cave was quite close to the base of Mt. Ebott, and easily visible from the main trail; it felt like a snare for unwary travelers, and history had proven it to be a very successful one. Sunlight still bled into its depths, and the wind hummed over the entrance like an invitation, lulling any tired hikers looking to step out of the chill. But then there was that deceptive gnarled root hiding in the gloom on the cavern floor, or the way the ground past that root inclined just so – and finally, the pit itself, large enough to swallow anyone whole, and cast them down into the underground, on that sunny patch where the golden flowers grew.
The pit was completely blocked off, now. Tree roots had burst through fissures in the stone, mangling the edges of the hole in their entanglement. They formed a net that looked sturdy enough to hold the weight of ten people. Yet they didn’t grow thick enough to block the sunlight completely; through the gaps in that wooden netting, Frisk thought he could barely see the light lay on that flower bed.
His hair and his hoodie moved to and fro in the breeze. After a long while, he lifted one foot, and dangled it over the edge. Then he pulled it back again.
“Frisk! Are you okay in there?”
He turned and saw Asriel at the mouth of the cave. His fuzzy head and the cuffs of his windbreaker seemed to glow in the murk.
“I’m fine, Asriel. Coming out now.”
He stepped over the root, walked out of the cave, and held an arm over his face until his eyes adjusted. When the glare faded, he saw Asriel anxiously toying with the straps of his knapsack.
“Sorry, Frisk. I know you wanted to go in alone, but you were taking a really long time and I’d thought you had fallen again-”
“That would’ve been embarrassing, huh?”
Asriel snorted. “Yeah, kind of.”
“It’s safe there now. The hole’s all blocked up.” Asriel stared. “By tree roots.” Asriel’s face shone with admiration. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. We’re not even sure if it’s the same tree.”
“It’s totally the same tree.”
“Okay, but I still didn’t really do anything to-” Asriel’s eyes wouldn’t stop sparkling. “You know what, never mind.” Frisk turned to hide his blush and held out his arms. “I’m ready.”
“Uh, yeah, just one second.” Frisk heard a rustle as Asriel fetched the other knapsack. “Man, this thing is heavy. I really wish we still had your phone, Frisk.”
“So do I.” The extra-dimensional phone Alphys had given to Frisk had been confiscated, destroyed, and replaced by Toriel, after she’d learned that the two of them had been using it to smuggle an entire convenience store’s worth of snacks. They’d had to pack supplies the conventional way.
“Put it on like this, and then pull on these...right?” Asriel wrestled the pack onto Frisk’s arms and tightened the straps until his shoulders groaned. “All good?”
“Then let’s go.”
Frisk watched Asriel walk off, his windbreaker swishing with every step; it had been customized to resemble his family’s traditional garb, predominantly purple with the Delta Rune emblazoned on the back. That jacket and Frisk’s blue hoodie had been sent in one of Sans’ care packages while he was abroad. Asriel’s was still relatively unused, but Frisk’s was already sporting some discolored patches and loose threads. He slept in the thing, when he could get away with it.
Asgore’s suspicions had been correct. This hiking trip was the product of a long and meticulous conspiracy, with none other than Bratty and Catty at the helm. Those two girls possessed a net of gossip, rumor, and blackmail so far-ranging that they probably commanded more influence over monsterkind than Asgore himself, and when Frisk and Asriel had approached them asking for help, they’d promised to use every ounce of that terrible power to assist their cause, right after they got done pinching Asriel’s adorable furry cheeks. Asriel had stoically weathered their aggressive affection; he’d sworn to Frisk that he would stay strong.
For the drive up to the mountain’s base, Bratty and Catty had press-ganged Burgerpants, who’d accepted the task with his characteristic verve and enthusiasm (“Godspeed, little buddies. Your parents can kill me, but they can’t make me care”). In their knapsacks were a variety of sandwiches and other healthy snacks prepared by the Snowdin rabbit family. Frisk had asked the family’s matriarch if she thought Toriel would be upset with them; in reply, she had cheerfully said they’d all have a nice laugh about it later, with an optimism that even Frisk found impressive. Their equipment itself – the knapsacks, flashlights, canteens, Frisk’s hiking boots (Asriel went barefoot as usual), and others – had been provided by Gerson, who’d dropped it all on them free of charge after hearing their plans for this adventure. Asriel had asked the grizzled monster if he thought that Asgore would be upset with them; in reply, Gerson had laughed for three consecutive minutes, without stopping for breath.
The path up Mt. Ebott had been underused and overgrown, for obvious reasons, but that had changed after the barrier broke. The descending monsters hadn’t left a trail so much as a four-lane highway; the churned dirt was still littered with clumps of evicted brush and bramble that had been torn up and kicked aside by their exodus. The two of them stared at that beaten ground that cut between the leafy trees. The air was cool and scentless. The mountain was remarkably quiet. They would hear a creaking branch, a rustling leaf, a liquid trill of birdsong, but beyond that, the silence pressed against their ears like cotton batting. The mountain’s domed summit loomed high, high above, obscured by the trees’ canopy.
“It’s going to be a long climb,” Frisk said. “You sure you’re up for this, Asriel?”
Asriel nudged him in the ribs. “Then why are we still standing here? I’ve wanted to do this since I was old enough to walk.”
“Lead the way, then.”
Asriel grinned, hooked his thumbs in the straps of his backpack, and started off. Frisk watched him go, and then fished a small notebook and a pencil out of his hoodie pocket. He flipped through the first several pages – they contained sketches of Asriel’s face, Asgore’s flower beds, passing clouds, the silhouette of Mt. Ebott. None of them were very well-drawn, but he was improving. He saw tally marks and temperatures and terrible jokes he’d heard from Sans. Finally, his finger stopped on a sketch of the pit within the cave, little more than a splotch of charcoal in a sea of scribble; he’d drawn it from memory. He took the pencil and drew dark loopy lines over the pit, then paused, and slashed an X over the entire page.
He looked up. Asriel had already stopped and turned around; Frisk saw the glinting eye of his phone lens pointed down at him. Asriel waved.
Frisk sighed, replaced the notebook, and started after him.
“You look really cool when you’re drawing like that, Frisk,” Asriel said. “Like some kind of brave explorer.”
He’d said that without a trace of irony. Frisk couldn’t help but smile.
“Thanks, Asriel. How’s the battery on that thing?”
“Doing fine!” Asriel had been silent and shy for a while after leaving the underground, but when he’d found out about the innovations humanity had made to their phones, his face had lit up like the sun. You couldn’t accidentally leave the lens cap on a camera phone. He filmed nearly everything he saw. He did so now, as he turned and walked up the trail ahead of Frisk.
“Careful. Don’t trip.”
“We barely started and I’m already getting some great footage. Are all mountains like this, Frisk?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everything’s so quiet and there’s so many trees and you can almost see the city in the distance if you look back, it’s amazing! I can’t wait to show Mom.” Then, Asriel stopped walking, and his expression turned haunted. “...oh, God, I’m gonna have to show Mom.”
Frisk gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and kept walking. Asriel hurried after him.
“Frisk, we need to come up with a story to tell her. If we come back home without a really, really good excuse, we’ll be grounded. And by that I mean Mom’ll literally put us in the ground. I don’t want to go through that again!”
Frisk snorted and stopped in his tracks, knuckles pressed to his face; horrified giggles seeped out from around his fingers. “Asriel, that’s awful.”
“What? It happened to me! I’m allowed to joke about it!” He sounded indignant, but looked quite pleased with himself. “Besides, it’s better than puns. Between you, Mom, and Sans, I’ve had all I can take of those.”
“You don’t think they’re humerus?”
“I had no idea they’d get your goat.”
“We should be okay, though.” He set off again. “I got Dad to talk with her.”
“What, you think she’ll be so busy getting mad at him that she won’t bother with us? That’s kind of mean, Frisk. It should work, but...”
“I don’t think that’ll happen. I always got the feeling that she doesn’t really want to be so angry with him. Hopefully they’ll take some time to understand each other better.”
Asriel had no reply to that. They trudged along in silence for a time. Then, he said, “She’s still gonna give us extra homework for the rest of our lives.”
“Totally worth it.”
Dried leaves rustled beneath their feet. The sun crawled across the sky as they walked, shifting the patchwork shadows below. They stopped every so often when they found something that they wanted to sketch, film, or photograph, but besides that, they kept a steady pace up the trail. Their legs did not tire. The path was flat and fairly straight, the incline not too steep, and they were both used to exerting themselves – Frisk had treaded back and forth across the entire Underground countless times, and Asriel had been so overjoyed to regain his limbs that he would often run around until he dropped.
The trail shrank, heightened, so that the shallow gullies of underbrush on each side dropped further away with every step. They rose from the woods below and saw how the footpath wormed its way along the mountain’s outer edge. This was the only trail that led up to the barrier cavern. The earth here had been chewed down to bare stone by the monsters’ careful passage. The sunlight printed their shadows on the cliff face as they walked, Frisk up front, Asriel behind. Some of the cheer left Asriel’s face as he stared down at that mass of misshapen footprints leading down the mountain. He appeared lost in thought.
Frisk and Asriel stayed far from the path’s edge as the drop became deeper and steeper. Finally, they arrived at the cliffside where they’d all first arrived upon leaving the barrier, watching the sun dawn on the surface world. Frisk had stood with one hand held by Toriel and another by Sans, feeling the light lay warm on his face; Asriel had sat on top of Asgore’s shoulders to get a better view, clutching his father’s horns for dear life, his eyes so wide that they seemed to consume half his head. Right now it looked to be early afternoon, and while the light had changed, that breathtaking view remained the same. The rolling expanse of green, tinged with red where the leaves had just begun to turn. In the distance, the smattering of suburbs (none of the houses appeared to be on fire, which they both took as a sign that Toriel and Asgore’s meeting hadn’t gone too badly), and the horizon broken by the chromed geometry of the glittering city. Behind them, the cave where the barrier had once stood yawned like an open mouth.
“I’m going to take a look inside,” Frisk said. “You want to come?”
“No, thanks. I’d like to get some photos.” But Asriel didn’t take out his phone. His jacket and his ears billowed gently in the breeze. His voice was oddly hushed.
“...alright. I’ll be back soon.”
Frisk set off for the cave, and stole one last glance over his shoulder before he entered the dark. Asriel still hadn’t moved.
The tree was still there, in that echoing gloom. The brilliant jade of its leaves cut through the shadows as surely as before. Its trunk had grown wider, its roots so lively that the stone floor had cracked and erupted into mountains of its own. Now that the leaves had crawled across the walls and ceiling, marking this chamber’s dimensions, the cave looked much smaller than he’d first believed. The ceiling, too, had begun to splinter. It the tree’s growth continued like this, it was possible that it would one day hollow out the whole mountain and burst up through the peak. Maybe it had tapped into Waterfall’s magically infused water. Maybe it was just that determined to survive.
Frisk’s footsteps echoed as he approached the tree and placed his hand on the trunk. He thought he heard the leaves rustle at his touch.
“Thanks for everything,” he said. “Be good, okay?”
It must have been his imagination. That brief sensation of the root bed caressing his ankle.
He made his way back outside. Asriel had finally gotten his phone back out, and silently panned back and forth over the horizon. His knapsack lay at his side. The Delta Rune printed on his jacket rippled and creased.
“The tree’s doing well,” Frisk said.
“The Underground’s probably full of roots by now. I guess it really did block that hole.”
Frisk leaned over, his expression concerned. “Asriel, are you okay?”
“I was just thinking.” He put the phone away. “This is where all the monsters were sealed, right? After the war. So, that trail we just walked. They would’ve had to walk it, too.”
The mountain’s shadow lay cold on them both.
“It must have been awful,” Asriel said. “Being forced to travel all the way up here, knowing you would never come back down. And all the humans watched us do it, thinking we’d be gone forever. No wonder that legend got started.”
“You’re here now, though. You all came back.”
“Some of us did. I guess that has to be enough.” He shivered a little. “Frisk, do you think any of them tried to run away? What must’ve happened to them?”
Frisk stared down at his feet. Then, he walked off. Asriel heard his footsteps fade, and smiled sadly.
“You’re right. It was a stupid question.”
Frisk examined the far side of the cave mouth; the cliff path snaked around up, disappearing into yet more woodlands. Fallen rocks littered the ground.
“Looks like the path keeps going up here,” Frisk said. “It’s probably going to get harder. You want to keep climbing?”
“Can’t stop now, right?”
“You can always stop, Asriel. Don’t feel bad about it.”
“No, I’m fine.” He turned and hitched up his knapsack. “There’s just...a lot of history here, you know?”
“Yeah.” Frisk kicked a stone out of the way. “It gets a lot rockier, too. Are your feet going to be alright?”
Asriel wiggled one of his paws. “What, these? Not a scratch. I’m probably doing better than you are.”
“I guess that means Boss Monsters have strong soles.”
“Well, compared to other monsters, I guess, but I don’t see what that has to do with...” He trailed off upon seeing Frisk’s grin. He thought about what he’d just heard. His muzzle wrinkled like he’d just smelled something foul. And then he grabbed his pack and hurried up and past Frisk, trying to cover his mouth with one hand. Frisk followed behind, still grinning.
“I saw you smile,” he said.
“You didn’t see anything.”
“Come on, you’re smiling.”
“I am and I hate it!”
They continued into the next tier of woods – this ground had not been stepped on in decades, and the path was long buried under the earthy-smelling strata of brush and fallen leaves. There was still that eerie silence, but the rustle of tree branches in the wind seemed louder, as if the mountain was offended at having its solitude interrupted. They had to bend back branches and spiny leaves to pass several times; after one branch smacked Asriel across the nose, Frisk grabbed a large stick and used it to help hold the obstacles aside. The trail, or what could be seen of it, started to twist and double back on itself in bewildering ways. In response, Asriel laid down beacons with his magic – small balls of iridescent light that hovered an inch or so off the ground, their pulsing skins covered with an oily sheen of rainbow. He created one of these shining marbles every few dozen steps with a snap of his finger, marking where they had walked. Frisk was rapt at the sight.
The trees grew bare. The wind turned chilly. Their legs began to ache. They found a relatively clear spot with a few fallen trunks and broke for lunch, fishing their sandwiches and canteens out of their packs. After they ate, they tarried a while longer to rest their muscles. Asriel patrolled the edge of the clearing with his camera, alternating between film and photography at every twitching leaf as Frisk sat and went through his notebook. He wasn’t sure what to write about, so he wrote about everything – the taste of the sandwiches, the tales of the mountain, Asriel’s magic, the smells on the wind.
Mt. Ebott’s peak never seemed to be any closer; it was as if the place’s geography simply rearranged itself around them, always a little colder, a little harsher, discouraging them from pressing on. The soil grew dry and studded with stones. The air thinned and burned in their throats. But they stayed determined.
Eventually, they arrived at a hill so steep they needed to help each other over it, Frisk seizing hold of a protruding tree root and pulling up Asriel with his other hand. At the top was a grassy patch ringed with trees like broken pillars. The sun had started to kiss the horizon, its light blushing scarlet. When they turned and saw the forest they’d traveled through, they saw the reddened dusk laying on the treetops like rust.
Asriel said, “I think this is a good spot.”
“You don’t want to wait until we reach the top?”
“The soil’s getting too rocky. They won’t grow.”
“Okay. Hold still.”
Frisk helped Asriel take off his knapsack, and then stepped back as Asriel rummaged through its pockets. He extracted a bottle of water, a plastic bag filled with seeds, and an old knife – its blade nicked and flecked with rust. He popped the bag open. From inside came the barest whiff, scarcely more than a memory, of sweet lemons.
Asriel hunched down low in the center of the grass, and stabbed the knife into the ground. He used the blade of the knife to carve out a circle of earth. He sawed through the dirt, levered it loose. Then he used his hands, digging his claws deeper into the soft soil to widen the hole further. When it was about the same size as a basketball, he took the water bottle and poured it in until the dirt went chocolate-dark. Then he finally added the seeds, and covered them up, and poured the rest of the water on top.
Asriel plunged the knife into the disturbed earth and stepped beside Frisk. The knife stood tall and straight like a grave marker. In a sense, that’s what it was.
They both stood with their hands folded, staring down at Asriel’s work. The wind plucked at the hems of their jackets.
“You think they’ll be all right?” Frisk asked.
“Considering how they grew in the Underground? If they survive the frost, they’ll probably germinate wild. Half this mountain might be covered in them by next year.”
“He’d like that, I think.”
“Yeah. I think so, too.” Asriel’s face was solemn. “Frisk, is it okay that we’re doing this? I mean...he did some really bad things.”
Frisk didn’t answer. Asriel glanced aside and saw him standing in the same position, hands crossed, his hair over his eyes. He looked back and smiled.
“You’re right. It was a stupid question.”
He reached into his shirt and drew out the locket. The dying sunlight tarnished that golden heart.
“Frisk, there’s something else I wanted to ask.”
“What is it?”
“What were you doing in that cave? The one with the hole.”
Frisk seemed to stiffen a bit. “Just thinking.”
He took longer to answer this time. “Second chances, I guess.”
“Haha. No wonder you took so long. You’ve seen plenty of those.”
Frisk nodded and began to walk off, but then he felt Asriel’s hand close over his own. That was when he finally turned to meet Asriel’s gaze.
“I was listening, you know. When you calmed down Chara. I heard what you said. ‘It’s the worst feeling in the world,’ right?” Frisk still didn’t move. “Frisk, do you still feel that way?”
“Of course not.”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it. But you’ve helped everyone so much. I think you should let them help you, too.”
“You are helping me.” He squeezed Asriel’s hand. “All of you. All the time.”
They stood like that for a while.
Then, Asriel said, “If you weren’t wearing that stupid backpack I’d hug you so hard right now.”
Frisk laughed and broke away. “I bet you would. Maybe next time.”
He helped Asriel back into his knapsack and they set off again. The path up the mountain could barely be called a path at all anymore; it was a series of ever-sharper inclines, the soil gradually falling away to solid stone. As the sun continued to set, the sound of birdsong faded, so that all the remained on the mountain was Asriel and Frisk’s footsteps and grunts of exertion. The skies turned a bruised purple that seemed to bleed away the solidity from everything; all silhouettes turned fuzzy, ghost-like.
“It’s going to be pitch-black by the time we reach the top,” Frisk said.
“Good thing we packed blankets. It’s gonna be tough to sleep up here, though.”
“Not as bad as the Snowed Inn.”
“Why, what was wrong with it?”
“Three monsters snoring next door.”
“Oh. How bad?”
“Worse than Dad.”
“Ohhh, that’s bad.”
Frisk looked behind him and saw that Asriel’s beacons were still burning bright. “How long should those last?”
“What, the lights? Maybe a full day. They don’t take a lot of magic. We should be able to follow them back down, too.”
“You’re so cool, Asriel.”
Asriel hurried ahead to hide his embarrassment.
Now the trail had gone nearly vertical. The shattered cliff face ahead consisted of sheer stone walls with only the merest of footholds, each leading to another flat rock like a giant’s staircase. The rocks chewed at Asriel and Frisk’s palms as they climbed, Frisk leading, pulling up Asriel when necessary. Their knapsacks felt like deadweights. Before long, they had to stop, their breath hitching in their chests. Even the wind over the mountain had ceased; the silence was sepulchral. In the forest below, Asriel’s markers shone like a constellation reflected in still water.
“We’ve gotta drop these things, Frisk.” Asriel wiped his forehead. “They’re killing us.”
“We’ll be in serious trouble if we lose them, though. We can’t make the climb down without water or anything.”
“I have an idea. Here, take yours off.”
They fumbled off the packs and Asriel secreted them in a small alcove on the cliffside. He stood over them, took a deep breath, and clapped his hands. The packs burst into flame.
For a moment, Frisk felt panic, but then he realized that the fire enveloping their supplies gave off no heat – it was hard white, and shone like mother-of-pearl, throwing off prisms of color with every lick. Its light crept across half the cliffside. Asriel stepped back, examined his handiwork. Frisk crouched by the fire for a while, grinning ear to ear.
The final ascent. That bright flame dropped away as they continued their climb. The footholds grew ever thinner, more precarious; a misstep here would send either of them on a fall much more disastrous than the one Frisk had suffered. But they helped each other up each stone at a time, clambering across Mt. Ebott’s face until even the mountain seemed to relent. The outcroppings became more forgiving. The stony edges less sharp. And then, Frisk smacked one palm over the lip of the last giant step, and felt dry soil under his skin.
They found themselves on a hilltop, where the earth sifted under their feet like dust. There were still trees here, but they were leafless, stunted, little more than petrified sticks, clinging to life by sheer determination. They stood like penitents in the moonlight as Frisk and Asriel cautiously made their way up. The ground continued to slope. They still couldn’t find the peak.
“It just keeps going,” Asriel said under his breath.
“It can’t go on forever.”
“Maybe we should’ve just quit after planting the seeds. I mean, that was really dangerous back there. Don’t we have anything better...to...”
Frisk had stopped walking. His head craned skyward. Asriel followed his gaze, and the words dried up in his throat.
Further down the mountain, the night sky had seemed flat as slate and black as whaleskin, with only the feeblest pinpricks of stars glowing in the murk. But here, at the summit, with night fully fallen, they saw a shimmering plane of color from amethyst purple to velvety black, the colors running together in whorls like wet paint, and the stars like diamond dust cast out into the expanse, their brilliant disorder changing every time they blinked; they could make out faces, and patterns, and stars laid in parallel like roadways spread across the sky. Several meteors streaked by, scratching their ivory paths across the dark. All changing. Nothing still.
Frisk and Asriel stood on the peak of Mt. Ebott, bathed in starlight. Tears came to Asriel’s eyes. He didn’t wipe them away.
“I dreamed about standing here.” His voice filled with wonder. “It’s more incredible than I’d hoped.”
He felt Frisk take his hand.
Asriel wrenched himself away from the view long enough to see Frisk’s smile. “Yeah?”
“After this, let’s find something even better.”
In the world around Mt. Ebott, new possibilities rose and burst. Papyrus’ car stood parked on the side of a highway in the pouring rain; Papyrus carefully studied an upside-down map as Sans sat out on the hood, his face upturned, feeling the raindrops thud off his skull and run between the seams of his grin. Undyne and Alphys snapped selfies a mercifully safe distance from a smoking volcano; Undyne grinned wide as she showed off the gold band gleaming on her clenched fist, while Alphys frantically texted to Mettaton in the background. Asgore and Toriel made their own trek across the mountain’s skin, following the markers Asriel had left behind; they saw his final flame gleaming like Polaris in the distance, and pressed forward with renewed purpose. People all over turned out their lights and pulled up their blankets and hoped that tomorrow would be kind. But for Frisk and Asriel, there was only this moment. These bent trees, this soundless space, the warmth of a hand in their own. They stood side by side. And the jewelbox heavens rotated ever onward, as the world moved into the relentless future.