The builder never sleeps.
Malroth stares down uncomprehendingly at the form of his closest companion on the bed. The visage of the living legend that is his Builder looks bizarrely buffoonish in sleep, drooling out of one side of their mouth, compared to his or her normal bearing.
That’s not to say Builder isn’t always kind of an idiot. Just…usually more perky about it.
Malroth tenses—only beneath the skin, however, showing nothing on the surface that ripples beneath. He’s learned to control that much, at least.
He turns to see Anessa of all people approaching.
The once-general of Moonbrooke has her usual stoic, stick-up-her-rear expression fixed in place. Malroth wonders if she’s wresting with concealing her negative emotions, too, like him. He doubts she’s going to have as hard a time as he is, concealing the sharp words waiting on the tip of his tongue, though.
He vaguely remembers the two of them exchanging apologies, sincerely, when his cell door was opened before the fight with Atlas. At the time Malroth knew it was important to get those words of true apology out as quickly and directly as he could to the Moonbrooke brigade in some form or another before his latent anger took hold on its true target. He still knows he’d have been unable to live with himself and brought on the collapse of his defenses from Hargon’s influence far sooner without owning up to—at the time—his one real and constant regret toward the people of Moonbrooke and their army before burying his heart in a cold vault to contain the bubbling rage within.
Rage, at the voice in his head, whose calls for destruction and the futility of creation itself were all the worse for how much more they made sense the longer he was forced to listen. And oh, how long a time that had been (and by whose hand?) he was never allowed to forget, never allowed to forgive or even consider the possibility…
Rage at himself. For what he said and hadn’t done at Moonahan, perhaps moreso in the aftermath when those callous words passed his lips in lieu of a word of mourning for the still-warm corpses that had fought alongside him like one of their own.
And rage at Builder, hatred against Builder most of all. For locking him up underground on his Majesty’s precious orders like just another corpse in the crypt, not giving her so-called best friend a second thought until the army they’d come to aid together changed its mind and decided Malroth was needed on the battlefield after all to be unleashed in tandem with the Kazapple Cannon to save their collective rear ends. He knows now, should have known then it wasn’t so simple as Builder merely following their directives to betray Malroth without a second thought but at the time it was the final nail in the coffin of their friendship. As far as he cared or let himself care in that tenuous time, they were over, had to be over. Before something truly terrible got a hold of him and he managed to outdo even that, managed to destroy something so terrible that broken trust would seem like small potatoes by comparison. Malroth knows he felt it coming even then, a wick burning down on a round of fireworks about to explode into pure annihilation—
At the time he remembers thinking, too, the anger to alienate her was at least justified even if it wasn't already rationalized as the only answer. It was supposed to be the best solution for them both. Creation and destruction could never get along.
Well, Malroth knows better, now. He knows too how many times Builder’s told him Anessa confessed, that she still felt guilty after what happened in Moonbrooke.
Malroth at the time took the knowledge away him feeling only the slightest bit of uncharacteristic vindication (if only uncharacteristic because it’s not an often occurrence when he gets to be proven right with that hot head of his).
Well now that he’s properly apologized to his friend (on all accounts, though bizarrely, the builder seemed most angry about Malroth being kidnapped by an evil lord and nearly dying rather than refusing to listen to reason or apologies, plus the whole matter of the attempted murder / consumption thing), and in turn accepted Builder’s long-ignored attempts to apologize a dozen times over and then some for those things out of her control in Moonbrooke?
Malroth’s starting to rethink his blind acceptance of Anessa’s, and the king’s for that mattter.
Because Malroth thinks he’s got enough of the gist of what Warwick did in his time as the traitor in wait to reason out that the army's resident blue-headed backstabber wasn’t the only one that ought to have had any say in whether a guy like Malroth was truly dangerous enough to be locked away so long. Especially when the latter was only there as a volunteer to help their damn army in the first place!
Apparently Warwick was was the only one that had any say in it, actually, because by her own account Anessa certainly didn’t stick her neck out to question why their would-be savior’s constant companion had to sit there rotting in a cell during those critical battles leading up to the end when Anessa herself hadn’t been the advisor who insisted on it.
And now, here she is. Greeting Malroth like whatever must pass as a friend to a living stick in the mud. A stick wandering out of the swamp it crawled out of, apparently, because it got its own stupid muddy self lost.
Okay, that may be overdoing it. But he thinks that maybe, he is not really in the mood for…whatever this is tonight.
Could be it’s the lateness of the hour. But he’s feeling less charitable than usual about the whole ‘water under the bridge’ bit he usually spouts with some measure of near-sincerity to the remainder of their friends when it comes to the whole Moonbrooke business in their day-to-day lives on the Isle. What happened after is usually so much more vivid in his memory.
But now it grates at him. It had been the start of their downfall. His and Builder’s. The break in the unbreakable friendship he’d needed, to keep the monster lurking within him at bay.
Maybe Anessa should feel guilty.
He realizes he hasn’t greeted her back and feels the bizarre, automatic compulsion to do so.
It’s such a…a human thing to do that Malroth finds himself wondering at how he doesn’t know when it became automatic. On the surface it’s something so unlike himself.
Something so unlike what he once had been, rather. Back when he woke up on that beach surrounded by bodies and clumps of kelp without much more compassion for the former than the latter, until the moment that the builder approached him, living, and without trying the building of Malroth the person began in earnest.
Now, things like this—casual greetings to people he wasn’t quite sure he wasn’t angry at, feeling doubt about that, even—he did on his own, with his own, learned humanity. Less and less as time passed in their new world he found behaviors of the sort irritating him during personal interactions, like pebbles in the sand: things that had to be picked up on from the humans around him, learned, feigned, imitated.
This is him now, he supposes, wondering as he often does whether he should be resistant or cautiously accepting of the loss. Gain. Whatever. This is the him he is, since meeting the Builder and Lulu and all that’s happened in their time on and off the Isle of Awakening. The Builder doesn’t leave him hanging in the lurch and Lulu doesn’t simply accept the idea of giving up on a friend that’s gone sour any more than a chore she wants done or a project she’s set out for them to do. And so, as long as Malroth has them both, he ultimately doesn’t care what he becomes.
This hadn’t been what he was, no, not fully, when he and Anessa first met back in Moonbrooke.
That doesn’t mean he appreciates her walking over the stretch of castle wall in her steel boots and sitting down beside him on the section of battlement that overlooks the housing. “Hm,” is all she offers, staring down at the builder as Malroth has been doing. If she notices the way Malroth is now side-eyeing her instead, now, or the expression he must be wearing while he does it, Anessa says nothing of the matter.
Instead when she speaks, it’s about the figure familiar to them sprawled out on one of the black-dyed king-size beds in the room below.
“Mmn…” There’s a considering, thoughtful noise from Anessa after a long and intended-to-be (but probably ignored) awkward pause before she finally gets to it, whatever ‘it’ is. “…You know, I’ve never seen her…well, him…sleep…so…”
A pause, a hum, a moment where Malroth resists the urge to bark out a harsh get on with it.
“So…peacefully before,” Anessa finally muses on. “In fact, since being brought to this island, I’m at a loss as to whether I’ve seen your builder friend sleep at all, even once—not even for the number of beds he managed to fit in this castle he’s rebuilt for us on here the Steppe.”
Malroth bites back this time on a grin, a rather unpleasant one, though the military woman isn’t looking at him anyway. Anessa’s stumbling block over the builder’s (current) gender worn like any other stylistic choice up to and including the outfit covering it is nothing new. Malroth takes that in stride, always has; though Lulu had complained and moaned every time Builder “changed clothes” at first that she was upset at having believed their friend at first to be some unfamiliar enemy or a new arrival whenever he (or she) swapped appearances at a dressing table.
For Malroth it’s easier. Maybe it’s a not-exactly-human thing or merely started as one. But once he learned to recognize the shape of the face and eyes, and the dopey, kind expression resting on them both? It was never a hard matter for him, simply glossing over in his mind any other swaps in color or style when it came to accessories, changes to hair, skin, or eyes any more than clothes and armor the way a dressing table could. The builder used it as a workbench same as any other whereas the most any of the rest of them could do was swap out outfits.
Again, it doesn’t phase Malroth. Even easier for him to get over are cosmetic swaps to clothes and weapon types picked for their outer appearance, which go practically ignored altogether, have from the start. Style means not a thing to Malroth so long as what’s equipped underneath the outer glamour built by the mirror at a dressing room table does its intended job.
A sudden, drastic change in the builder’s looks doesn’t even register consciously to him half the time anymore when his friend goes bouncing off to a dressing room and comes out a whole new person. Male, female, brunet, cottontail…whatever. The builder’s the builder. Malroth always knows what she (or he) has got equipped for real beneath the glamour because she (or he, at least for today, as Anessa has pointed out) is too loudmouthed in their enthusiasm not to wake up half the island after managing to craft a new bit of armor or a superior weapon that surpassed the last thing that was hanging from his belt.
Malroth always knows what face is the builder’s in a crowd. People are constantly coming and going from their own little piece of paradise, arriving from a trip to the Explorer’s Islands turned into an encounter turned invitation. Coming to live in one of the sections of populated land for a time before moving in or moving on, but Malroth can see through them and be drawn to the builder easily without ever needing to memorize the most of who they invite to stay with them here, like a magnet.
In his eyes the builder’s still recognizable now as that same blond, bedraggled rat he dragged out of the ocean on a whim after the wreck, thinking he’d found another body to poke at later before getting grumpy and wandering off until it turned out he’d actually pulled out a live one.
Alive. Skinny and soaked, and shaking with wide eyes in spiked blond locks or bunched pigtails. Dressed in a ratty set of builder’s workwear styled after their hometown’s traditions, and carrying a dinky little cypress stick made of barely passable lancewood. But alive. Thoughtful and quick to break out in a smile like they weren’t all alone on a deserted island.
Part of that will always be what the builder is to him, Malroth knows, though he hasn’t admitted as much to anyone out loud.
If Anessa doesn’t recognize Malroth’s friend so easily, absorb the constant changes being crafted onto the builder’s own person like any other project without being perturbed as even Lulu manages these days, sharp as that tongue of hers…
Well, Malroth can try not to feel the slightest bit smug over it. But it’s a hard thing.
All he offers Anessa now to her musings is a mild snort. Even her slip-ups in wording interest him more than what she apparently picked of all the inane things to talk about if she was going to come up all the way here just to bother Malroth while he’s busy guarding—
Busy watching over his friend while he sleeps, he finishes with conviction in his own mind, satisfied. Mostly by coincidence, anyway.
“Doesn’t need much sleep. Never has,” he supplies in what passes for his part of the conversation. He’s not really thinking deeply about her words.
Malroth didn’t sleep either, in that cell buried underground on their miserable, soot-covered block of bloody snow and marble. But she’s not gonna hear him complain about it.
As for tonight, well, if the builder’s going to sleep for once, Malroth may as well let the guy do it in peace, or else the once-god might have plopped back his own into bed already and be out like a light on a button switch.
This portion of the castle doesn’t hurt for extra guarding in the evening hours. Soldiers drafted here from whatever bit of Rimey Reef the builder shored up on last time can only manage so much, right?
That’s why Malroth’s up with the men and women patrolling tonight. The ghostly mocking of a reaper in orange having roused him from slumber on the other end of the hall in his private room some twenty minutes ago, ready and itching for a fight. More might come, Malroth knows. And sunrise is a few hours off yet.
They sit in silence a while.
Chat idly. Nothing of consequence.
They watch or pretend to watch the latecomers filter in and fill the surrounding beds of the dormitory that Builder passed out in, each in their own minds.
“We had no farmers left after the first time we brought the mirror back.”
Malroth grits his teeth. Because of course this is why she came to him. Moonbrooke. What happened.
What they did to him—to them.
He longs to snap at her: just get to the point, spare me. Instead he obliges whatever she’s trying to do, reluctantly, and thinks for a long moment. Has to put context to the non-sequitur Anessa just spouted to him in a voice just…maybe the lightest bit uncertain, like she was sitting on the apprehension for a while.
Soldiers. He so despises the minds of soldiers.
It hadn’t been a soldier—no, eventually it had been. But it had been an ordinary, run-of-the mill farmer among Zara’s rescues or the like that trained under Anessa turned soldier, that managed the tiny, pitiful patch of potatoes that would have made Rosie cry in its piteous state in the castle. Even a field that small needed care and maintenance.
Malroth thinks back. Scowls at the memory. The man that had tilled their fields, handled their food, had been a skeleton, as it turned out. This annoys Malroth for more reasons than one. More than once Malroth’s caught himself wondering would he have been capable at the time, had he paid attention instead of having his tiff with the whole upper echelon of guards, to figure out on his own who the monsters were with his…background and makeup. Maybe prevented some part of that fiasco. Without the need for any stupid mirror to use at all.
“The builder had planted a few medicinal shrub seeds from somewhere in that patch, and wheat, too, but—well, after we slew the monsters in our midst that had been working among us after the mirror revealed their true nature, the builder maintained the little patch herself. At the time, I thought nothing of it. She was so prolific, after all.”
Another contemplative hum. Malroth doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath while he waits, watching Anessa stare down at Builder through slightly narrowed eyes the color of blood.
“After your incarceration,” Anessa continues, “that is…there was no one left doing it anymore. The harvesting and maintaining of health of that little patch, that fed every one of us. Not the crops. Let alone herbs for medicine.
“We soldiers and His Majesty had…higher concerns. Or so I believed at the time,” Anessa sighs. The words are rueful, nearly pained. “It took me some time to notice the builder felt the same. She did nothing but fulfill what was asked of our plans for the castle, around the clock. I hardly think she registered what she was making in half that time. Her pace of building and scouting for the necessary fortifications and materials to make them was feverish, Malroth, to a truly worrisome degree. I’ve not seen anything like it, before or since, though I envy the pace at which she accomplished all these things…or I’d like to…and yet.”
Malroth can see his friend in his mind’s eye, can see her pouring herself body and soul into the castle renovations, the traps, the things demanded to win an entire war on the shoulders of one person. It had stung, at the time, that she didn’t visit him in his cell, despite her stammerings that they denied her permission to do so. He accepts that reasoning now, but it doesn’t make him feel better to know she would have worked herself even harder than normal into a fever pitch just to try and end the conflict sooner. Needing a distraction, lacking a friend, or merely working so hard to end the war if it was the only way at the time she thought she could prove Malroth’s innocence or at least get him out of his cell?
“Why are you here?” he finally snaps at Anessa, glaring at her with eyes blazing. “Is it to tell me that Builder wasn’t just twiddling her thumbs while I rotted down there? That she didn’t sleep because she was busy doing all the things you jackals didn’t know how, including, I dunno, work as a team?
“Because maybe you haven’t figured it out, Anessa, but that’s what he does anyway. He’d build until his hands fell off if no one stopped him. Why do you think he needed me there, watching his back?”
Anessa doesn’t flinch, but he sees a flicker in her expression, eyes wide and darting up to meet his for the first time before skirting away, back down to Builder’s sleeping form.
“…I…I…” she begins. She clears her throat, trying to regain some of her composure, or collect her wits, like Malroth doesn’t already have her stick-in-the-mud brain mapped out in the palm of his hand like a book to read because he’s been a stubborn fool himself but at least he wasn’t too stupid to realize the importance of—
“…I-I don’t have to ask,” she goes on. Her is tone just so faint, and sounding just enough that there’s something like a trace of illness in a memory at the words: Malroth’s building train of thought in rage derails, snaps back to focus, and he notices for the first time how tightly Anessa is gripping at the flagstones that they’re sitting on.
He sees the haunted flicker of emotion that lurks behind her flat, lavender eyes. Cloaked in shadows by the mask of blankness carefully forged on all of them, those Moonbrooke veterans, by their war.
Warwick had had a mask like that. He’d fooled them all, hook, line, and noose.
Anessa’s had more cracks. Or perhaps it’s just now that Malroth is able to see them.
He opens his mouth to ask, but she makes a noise, stopping him. She continues.
“I don’t have to ask,” Anessa continues distantly, looking mournfully down at Builder as a drool bubble begins to form at the corner of his mouth. “I brought up the patch of herbs, because your friend did have to sleep, then. You were in a cell, and all she did was build and build and build when the lot of us weren’t out scouting the enemy ranks. Even when the monsters laid siege.”
“He…slept through monster attacks? Because… of all the building?” Malroth asks, cocking his head. He’s torn between scorn and confusion at what she’s getting at.
His friend isn’t the fighting marvel that Malroth is, but Builder’s no slouch with a weapon, either. He’s more than capable of defending himself.
“No! She built through the sieges,” Anessa says, nearing agitation. “She didn’t pull behind our ranks for safety. She didn’t use her weapons to defend herself when they got behind the walls, she…she didn’t stop to look at them, Malroth. Just kept placing blocks correctly if they got knocked out of place when she got bumped this way and that, going back to the workbench if they struck her hard enough to interrupt her building…I wondered if the poor girl had gone half-mad.”
The general is growing more agitated with every word, sounding truly and well heated for the first time he’s heard her since the unfortunate soldiers whose deaths Malroth caused a Moonahan.
“It was like she was…possessed!” Anessa went on, gesticulating a bit with her hands, the most emotion Malroth’s seen out of her to date when most of the time she could pass for a living statue with a mouth. “Or caught in some illusion. Something that made her build on and on, before even breathing. It became routine, Warwick and I having to drag her back into the throne room. Lest she just keep…building, and building… as they cut her to jolly-bleeding ribbons, that fool little…like she didn’t see. Hargon’s monsters cutting at her. Or how badly hurt she got by acting so—so foolish in the battlefield, or…!”
Malroth’s breath catches in his throat, unable to look away from Anessa’s pale face in the moonlight. He knows that Builder is enthusiastic about his job but Malroth’s friend is not stupid. Never stupid with his life.
Builder is driven to a fault, even, in the pursuit of preserving as much life as humanly or inhumanly possible. Even if it means picking up a blade and ending that life which is ending more around it.
“Builder—” he starts, but is cut off by Anessa plowing onward. Like she can’t stop now that the story is spilling forward.
“We told her. So many times. And she ignored us,” Anessa tells him, her eyes still fixed on the figure on the bed surrounded by so many others, serene in dreams filled with war or island paradise depending on where Builder happened to recruit them from. “She built while they attacked her, until she was near to faint. And then she would use those medicine pouches she could just…whip up out of nothing like those antidotal herbs. And keep building. But then she ran out…”
Ah. The garden patch. Malroth lets out a breath he doesn’t realize he’s been holding.
“She just worked to collapse then from injuries, and…I didn’t understand it, Malroth. When we rescued her she’d only rest until she could walk and then she’d take her pallet and drag it to the door of the stair outside your cell.
“And then she’d sleep. Even after Warwick was…” Anessa grimaces at the mention of his name. Malroth can tell she must have loved Warwick deeply to the end in whatever way she saw him, and Malroth wonders distantly if the back-stabbing traitor ever knew it, or cared.
Anessa certainly didn’t seem to realize that fact herself. She still was rambling:
“…She was…she was so frightened, and I never realized, Malroth. I was foolish not to bring it up with her, to keep so focused on ending the war when the one advantage we had against Atlas was working herself to—I—
“W-We had you incarcerated. It wasn’t the traitor that had her working so feverishly, and it wasn’t anger that kept her from speaking to us even when I could sense she was so enraged from that sunny girl that had shown up with you and Warwick from the Moonbrooke Dock. All that time she kept building because she thought real the reason we hadn’t let you out, was because it meant we had the leverage to make her build the canon. I managed an entire war and I couldn’t put two and two together and figure out that it hadn’t been my orders or the King’s that put you in that cell, and that she knew it.
“And I am so sorry that I didn’t stop to think. Even with Warwick…even with the closest thing to a friend I had gone and buried, so suddenly, and the evidence staring me right in the face. I forced myself not to think or to feel. I didn’t ask what it was that kept the builder working. I was too hard-headed a soldier to stop and think about what your imprisonment meant to her. I count myself jolly well lucky she didn’t do what Warwick would have and kill the lot of us in our sleep to cut out the middle man to get you free.”
Malroth’s blood runs cold. He can’t—he will not think about Builder doing that, slitting someone’s throat in the night that was ostensibly friend by day.
Would Malroth have done exactly that to Lulu with nary a thought, if it’d only been him and her on the beach that day? If Builder hadn’t shown up then and found him, before…
Not me. Builder isn’t me, he chants to himself frantically, jumping to his feet to get away from Anessa’s story and his terrifying thoughts before he realizes what he’s doing. The capital block isn’t as steady as it should be beneath his feet, as steady he knows it would be, knowing that Builder chiseled every brick by hand. Builder wouldn’t use a piece with so much as a hairline crack to build the castle walls.
He feels ill, like he’s going to fall. He’d accused her of refusing to so much as visit him, and she’d bled out enough times they had to pull her into a bed to do what was supposed to be his job.
To keep him, keep Builder, safe while he did his job. Did the building.
And to think Malroth had repaid her by—by—
“Malroth!” Anessa calls out behind him, startled, but he doesn’t answer. He sprints across the side of the wall to the edge and then throws himself down from the castle wall. Instead of grunting or grimacing he finds himself embracing the pain from the fall, as he slams to the packed-block ice below with bone-creaking damage; he hits the ground running from himself even.
He’s over the nearest chalky crag and gone from the general’s echoing calls, from Builder’s eyes blearily blinking open in confusion and concern, as the sun makes its first hairline crack over the horizon.