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A Page Full of Fate

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The Oracle could see everything if given enough time to look. Wise beyond his years, powers bordering on the divine in nature, an imposing presence; People took him seriously when he started talking. Of course they did - with a title like Oracle he had to be important. And of course, Oracles were exceedingly rare. Once in a life-time rare. Once in several lifetimes rare. In fact, the last Oracle hadn’t been seen in almost a hundred years, not since they had been killed in a bloody dispute that to this day hadn’t ended. A bloody dispute that would only intensify now that a new Oracle had been named. 

Named? Discovered.

Dispute? War.

A war that would only get worse before it would get better - and for many, many people, it would never get better. For Gaster it would never get better. How did he know it would never get better? Simple.

He was the Oracle. And he’d seen it. 

His only regret now, as he was jolted awake in the dead of night by a heavy blast of fire into the side of his home, was that he hadn’t seen it coming sooner. That was the twitchy thing about Oracles, after all - they could see everything, but only if given the time to look. And as Gaster screamed and tumbled out of bed, the sound of breaking glass sharp on his senses, he realized he was completely out of time. Gaster staggered to his feet and dashed from the room, racing against the smoke billowing through his blasted windows as the delicate wooden structure kindled with flame. He paused only long enough to sweep up a little black book on his desk before he was out the door.

Stay calm. Stay calm.

It was easier said than done, even when, as he dashed down the spiraling stairs leading from his room, he realized this scene rang with familiarity. He’d had a vision about this. Bleary with fear and hazy from his broken sleep, his focus pinned to the movements of his feet as he did his best not to trip in his haste, he had no time to try and remember it. Gaster crashed to the bottom of the stairs and lunged for the door, snatching up his cloak on a hook on his way -

Coughing yanked his attention from his flight to his surroundings. Gaster allowed himself a quick glance around the hall, squinting through the smoke. The fire that had caught on the second story of his room hadn’t yet worked its way to the bottom floor, but the light of it cast dancing shadows through the smog. Gaster swung his cloak over his shoulders and kicking the door open so it would make his escape easier later, he dared to explore the place he’d called home for the past three years. In the gloom it all looked awkward and alien; Dangerous even, as the sound of fire crackling intensified in the ceiling.

“Hello?” Gaster called, “Hardwin? Amalon? Are you still in here?”

Gaster could feel himself shaking. His book clutched tight in his hand threatened to shiver free from his grasp. He was scared, familiarity spidering its way up his back. He took a breath to call the names again, but the smoke made him cough. He turned the corner in the hall towards the dining room. There was a tall window there, casting more of that flickering light through the swirling smoke. Sparks flurried from the ceiling here, threatening to catch the rug on fire. There was a scattering of dust at Gaster’s feet, and backlit against that great bright window, Gaster saw a monster and towering over him, a man with a glittering sword.

And Gaster remembered why the scene was so familiar. 

Gaster spun on his heel and ran. Ran before the man could hear him choke on the smoke in the room. Ran before the monster on the floor, his caretaker for as long as he’d lived here, could scream for him to run. Ran before that glittering sword made a new pile of dust before turning itself menacingly in Gaster’s direction. 

He didn’t know if the monster would die now that he’d broken the chain he’d foreseen. But he knew that wasn’t important. Gaster needed to be safe. Because Oracles are rare. Yes, once in one-or-several-lifetimes rare. And if Gaster died here, now, tonight, then the war that had started with the Oracle before him would end in tragedy. What was one life tonight in the face of a thousand tomorrow? A drop of water in a sea, a single ember in a blaze. 

Gaster ran and he didn’t stop running. Down streets coated in dust and ashes, past monsters and men as they fought and screamed. His only hesitation came when another barrage of fire from the sky screamed down on the city. Gaster was knocked off his feet by the impacts, groaned as glass from exploded windows chipped at him and ripped holes in the frail fabric of his cloak. And then he was scrambling back to his feet again and running, running. He clambered over a final fence, fell into the soft grass of a pasture, found his feet. Into the summer wheat, high as his waist and clinging like hands begging him not to go. Into the woods, dark and foreboding. Gaster ran, and he didn’t stop running. Not until the sickly deja-vu of half remembered prophecies finally tumbled free of his mind and he was lost, and he was alone, and even then, he didn’t stop. Only slowed to catch his breath before continuing onwards.

Behind him, the city burned.

Chapter Text

It was still dark outside when Grillby crept from his bed and made his way quietly outside. He yawned and stretched in the cool morning air, exhaling a quiet breath full of tired sparks as he did so. Inside the little cottage he knew Marin was still sleeping and he wanted to keep it that way if he could. The old caretaker and village elder had been feeling under the weather for the past few mornings, and while Grillby wasn’t particularly worried about it, he did wish the old monster would get better soon. Which was exactly why he was awake before the sun had managed to crawl its way up the horizon - much to his own chagrin. If it were up to him, he’d still be sleeping, burning low and warm long into the morning hours. But some things were more important than his own comfort, and Marin was one of them. 

Grillby picked up a hunting bow and some arrows from just inside the doorway and, trying not to look as tired as he felt, ambled his way to the little barn on the side of their property, muttering noncommittal ‘good mornings' and ‘excuse mes’ to the chickens as he went. The single goose that strutted around their yard hissed at him when he passed it, to which Grillby hissed back. It fanned its wings at him irritably. Inside the little barn Grillby kicked apart some hay, checking it for mold before shoveling some into the waiting stalls of a pair of cows, neither of which seemed too interested in his presence. They would much rather be out in the field grazing he knew, but he was about to leave them unwatched, and knowing his luck they’d get loose somehow. So for now he simply nodded to himself with satisfaction and left them to eat until he returned.

His last order of business before he left was at the front gate leading from the property. He gently nudged the lump of fur there with the toe of his boot, earning him a low woof of disapproval.

“Wake up Dog,” he nudged the large furry creature in the ribs a little harder this time, “Up you lazy thing.”

The dog, a spotted mutt of a hunting dog, let out another disappointed harrumph of a bark and begrudgingly sat up. Head low and eyes droopy and tired, it looked up at Grillby with something resembling disappointment and annoyance.

“Yeah I don’t wanna be awake this early either, but here we are,” Grillby said mildly, hiking the little hunting bow a little further up on his shoulder, “You hold down the fort for the old man while I’m out.”

Dog sneezed and shook its head.

“Oh, quit complainin’’,” Grillby chastised quietly, “I’ll give you some of the broth I make later, deal?”

Dog got to its paws and shook out its fur, dappling Grillby’s pants with spots of mud. Then, with a little more purpose than before, it laid back down again in front of the gate. It settled its head in its paws, nose pointing towards the dirt road leading from the little farm. It glanced up at Grillby expectantly.

“You’re just gonna fall asleep again.”

Harrumph.

“Yeah yeah.”

Grillby walked down the little dirt trek, turning back to look up at the farmstead once. Small and a bit ramshackle in places but homey, the cottage and barn sat on top of a rather gentle looking, round-topped hill, pale and blue against the dark morning sky. It certainly didn’t look like much, but for the little village below, this place was their center. Elder Marin was the town leader. He was a quiet and sage old man who had seen hard winters and parched summers, late springs and flooding autumns, and through it all had collected a wealth of knowledge and advice that the town cherished. 

For the most part, Grillby found the old man kind but slow; the farm charming, boring, but enough for now. It was all he knew. And while people often told him he was destined for something greater; he wouldn’t be altogether disappointed if that awesome day of fate and destiny never came. He didn’t have much ambition, though most of the townspeople seemed to insist he tries to find some. These are troubling times, they’d say, and we need a strong elemental around. Except the war everyone worried about was far to the east and would continue to be so for a long time. The mountains protected them, and so did the forest. And besides, they were the only town for miles, and they were small and poor. Hardly worth the trouble of raiding and pillaging. They had to travel two days in any direction just to get somewhere interesting, and they often relied on traveling merchants for goods to fill in the gaps on things the town itself couldn’t provide. It was a humble, hardworking and pleasant sort of existence, or else it tried to be. And that was fine. 

The only interesting thing about the town, if you found that sort of thing interesting, was the giant oak tree that grew in the town’s center. Called the Crucible Oak, it was the reason Grillby lived here at all - or at least, that’s what everyone told him. The great twisting tree had been there for ages he was told, at least a hundred years. Its broad branches sheltered the little town square like the shoulders of a giant, and even from here where he walked on the outskirts of the little town, Grillby could see the tall creature looming over the short and huddled cottages of the village. Several years ago, it had been struck by lightning, and the inside of the tree burned for many long days and nights. Long enough, in fact, that the townsfolk had begun to fear that the tree would hollow itself out completely and fall. 

And then one day, a pale, flickering elemental had crawled out of a hole in the twisted and charred roots of the tree’s base, born in the crucible of lightning and oakwood. 

Grillby didn’t remember all that of course. Few creatures could ever truthfully say they remember things from when they were so young. But he did know whenever he was near the tree, he felt warm and safe, and that was proof enough for him that the story was true. He spent many an afternoon dodging chores at the base of that tree, napping, or doodling in charcoal on the stone path around the tree’s base, and sometimes even climbing its branches just to see how tall he could be.

He was honestly a bit tempted to walk there now. To just ignore his kind-hearted venture and go sleep a few more hours in the roots of the tree until some townsperson stirred and shook him awake. But no, he’d assigned himself a task. He might as well get it done. So, ignoring the comfort of the sleepy little village, Grillby slunk down the path and out of town, venturing past the few scattered farming fields and finally disappearing into the woods to hunt. 

Grillby stifled another yawn as he crept along. He never liked hunting. It was tediously boring. The kind of boring where nothing happened for hours, but you still had to stay focused or you’d miss whatever small thing did happen. Even after a half hour of walking he’d found nothing. He’d spotted some old deer tracks, which he could probably follow alright, but with no one to help him bring back the catch it was somewhat of a useless trip. Besides, he didn’t need a deer - he wasn’t hunting for the whole village. Mostly he just needed some herbs, though any catch was good in his book. Something that could make a good strong broth, and maybe something that could make a decent tea. Grillby gently kicked aside some leaves with his boot and scrutinized the greenery underneath before moving on. 

He wandered for the better part of an hour with no results. He wasn’t the best woodsman around, he had to admit. He was loud enough to be bothersome on a hunting party, bad enough at tracking to lose a trail on a regular basis, and uncertain enough with his sense of direction that he got lost easily. He was slowly getting better at marking his path, but he had work to do still. And it didn’t help that he was made of fire.

For the most part, it didn’t hurt his visibility. During the day Grillby’s fire wasn’t bright enough to draw too much attention, and on dark mornings and evenings, wearing gloves and pulling up the hood of his cloak was enough to stifle most notice. The thing that impeded him the most was his smell. Fire was a natural fear for most creatures, even sentient ones, and most could recognize the smell of smoke when it passed by. Grillby had to keep special track of the breeze, and often it was a fight to stay downwind of anything that could possibly smell him. 

Ugh. This was going to be a chore wasn’t it? 

He wished now more than ever those chickens out front of his house were good for eating instead of just eggs. Gods, this would be so much easier if he could just use one of those. Grillby cast a fleeting look at the sky, at how the dark blue was slowly starting to turn lighter. Dawn was coming, and he’d need to get back soon to start the daily run of chores on the farm. Frowning with determination, he decided he’d wander for a little longer before giving up and heading back.

Grillby found a small game trail in the woods and followed it, looking out for the familiar signs of the river that he knew should be running nearby. On his way he finally managed to find some mint that he harvested, and a rather pathetic looking sprig of rosemary that he chose to ignore in favor of letting it grow. Finally the sound of the river greeted him, and he emerged from the trees onto the muddy bank just in time to watch the white tail of a rabbit vanish into the brush on the other side. Grillby narrowed his eyes in the general direction it had disappeared.

“It’s never easy is it?” he groused under his breath.

With a determined flicker, Grillby walked down the bank on his side of the river, watching diligently for a good place to cross. He managed to find a rougher part of the little river not too far upstream where large stones churned the fast-running water into a soft froth of foam. Grillby broke a branch from a nearby tree and, taking a bracing breath, hopped out across the water. The stones were slick with mud and foam, twice he nearly lost his balance, and more than once he jammed the branch he held into a crack in the stones to offer a firm place for his weight to lean. But he did eventually make it across. After sighing a few sparks of relief when his boots touched the firm stones of the bank, he staked his branch in the ground to use on the return trip and searched back downstream for the rabbit he’d seen. It took him longer than it should have, but eventually Grillby picked up the rabbit’s track in the mud and continued on, doing his best to stay silent. He crept along, his weight centered on the balls of his feet, placing careful steps on soft grass to avoid treacherous twigs and leaves. He unslung his hunting bow and nocked an arrow against the string as he walked, doing his best to be prepared. He caught a glimpse of the little creature nestled in a hollow between two trees and froze. His breath caught, he swung up the bow to aim -

- and before he could release his arrow the creature darted off.

Grillby flailed his arms disappointedly, the only productive thing he could do besides swearing loudly and scaring off anything else that might be nearby. He slipped the arrow back into his quiver and, scowling miserably, looked back up at the sky to gauge his time. Sunrise was turning the clouds pink - he should be getting back. What a disappointment. And he’d done everything right! He was downwind. He’d had his bow at the ready. He was quiet. He’d hardly even breathed he was so quiet. So what in the world had caused the darn thing to scamper off? Oh, he was probably forgetting something. Because he always forgot something. Gods above he was such an abysmal hunter. Why had he even thought this was a good idea? And now he got to go back home tired and empty handed after wasting the whole morning - !

Grillby heard a twig crack nearby and he snapped his head in the direction the sound came from - at first wondering if perhaps there was something else nearby that hadn’t spotted him yet. And then slowly he remembered what exactly it was that he might have been forgetting.

He wasn’t the only hunter in the woods.

 

Chapter Text

Grillby slowly pulled out an arrow and crouched, holding his breath as he waited and watched. The first snapping twig he heard had soon been accompanied by others, the sound of someone or something blundering through the woods. Whoever they were, they took no heed of the noise of their coming, a fact that tied nervous knots in Grillby’s stomach. There were few things that walked freely in the woods, and they were things that had nothing to fear by being loud. The noises made tricks of the shadows in the dawning forest, and Grillby found himself reading creatures into the bowing light.

Marin had once had a cousin in town who’d been attacked by a bear out here, hadn’t he? And there were wolves in the woods sometimes - though they were normally quieter. And of course, there were some monsters and men with ill intentions. Highwaymen, marauders fleeing the wars to the east, desperate fools willing to do anything for the chance at food, money or clothes. Quietly, Grillby squeezed himself against a nearby tree and scanned the forest, trusting his cloak and the dim light to conceal him as best it could. His face would glow in the dark, but there wasn’t much he could do about that right now. Perhaps someone might mistake him for some sort of tree spirit and be frightened off? 

Wasn’t he technically a tree spirit anyway? He was born in a tree after all. Huh, what a funny thought to worry about some other time when he wasn’t looking for bears and wolves and whatever the hell else might be out here.

He caught a glimpse of movement – true actual not-a-trick-of-his-nerves-and-the-light movement - as something in between the trees stepped, stumbled down again, and then rose. Not a wolf then. And too scrawny to be a bear. Grillby let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding - it must be a person. People could be reasoned with, couldn’t they?

A human-like figure, cloaked rather wretchedly, was stumbling in his direction through the tree line. Grillby couldn’t hear their breathing from here, but they looked ragged, unable to walk a straight line, constantly taking fleeting and fearful glances over their shoulder at the dense mesh of trees and brush. They staggered again and fell, and this time Grillby noticed they didn’t rise.The elemental’s caution extinguished itself before a flood of fearful concern. He darted to where he’d seen the form fall, coming silently upon the pathetic bundle of clothes. 

The person flinched where they lay when Grillby seemed to suddenly materialize out of the brush before them. They scrambled on shaking arms as if to rise and froze, catching him in a wide-eyed stare. They were a monster, too pale and gaunt to be a human. Skeletal . Though whether they were truly a skeleton monster or just something similar, the elemental couldn’t tell. Their eyes darted from Grillby to his bow and then back again, their expression grimaced into one of panic and fear. The elemental held out a hand placatingly before, as slowly and purposefully as he could, he replaced the arrow in his quiver.

The shift in the monster’s countenance at the simple gesture was instant. Their face melted into one of fleeting relief before quickly snapping their gaze from Grillby to some point in the distance over their shoulder. Then they looked up at the elemental pleadingly and gasped, “Help me, please .”

Grillby frowned down at them for a moment, but as soon as he opened his mouth to speak, he heard a rushing of undergrowth.

“There! It came this way!”

He didn’t need any further prompting. Grillby reached down and snagged up the monster by their cloak, pulling them roughly to their feet. He slung one of the monster’s arms over his shoulders and ran, nearly dragging the decrepit monster across the forest floor. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other, on getting somewhere safe. For the moment, Grillby’s rational mind left him. Any good question he should be asking, who was chasing this monster and why, fled to the farthest corners of his mind to be dealt with later.

“There! It’s with someone!”

“Don’t let it get away!”

Grillby hazarded a glance over his shoulder. Crashing through the undergrowth, more blurs of movement than anything else, were three humans. Three human soldiers he realized, catching the glint of their armor as the sunrise - now in full swing - began casting brighter shades of color across the forest floor. What were human soldiers doing here? And why - ?

Grillby’s foot sank heavy and deep into soft mud and he and the monster with him fell sprawling. The sound of the river was suddenly loud in Grillby’s ears, and he thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t ploughed face-first into the current. The mud stung a little, but not nearly so much as the water surely would. Grillby scrambled to his feet, his boots slipping on the loose stones of the riverbank, and in the same motion he once again dragged the monster with him to their feet. Grillby snatched up the branch he’d used to cross and shoved it into the monster’s hands.

“Get across.”

“B-b-but-!”

“Go!” Grillby snapped, prompting the monster with a shove towards the river stones, “Quickly!”

Grillby yanked an arrow from his quiver, spun on his heel to face the running soldiers - and froze.

What the hell was he doing?

He couldn’t fight a pack of soldiers . Did they have swords? Did they have magic? He didn’t know how to fight anything! He’d swung sticks around with Bethia sure but what could he hope to do against a sword? Could his dinky little hunting bow even pierce armor? Did he want it to?

Grillby glanced over his shoulder at the sound of a loud splash, half expecting the staggering monster to have fallen in and drowned. Instead he watched as they staggered onto the bank, their cloak drenched from a slip on the last stone but otherwise fine. Grillby turned his gaze back to the running soldiers, to how close they were getting. He pulled back the bow, took a nervous breath - and fired a warning shot into a tree nearby one of the running men. He earned himself a shout of surprise and watched as their headlong rush slowed. One of the soldiers disappeared behind a tree.

“Toss the stick back across,” Grillby called to the monster he’d saved, daring to tear his eyes away from the scattered humans to look across the river.

The monster flashed him a dismayed look, “I can’t throw that far.”

“You’re just going to leave me stranded over here?!”

The monster rung the stick in their hands for a moment, pulled their arm back and threw.

The branch sailed through the air and landed with an inglorious splash less than halfway across the stream. The monster offered him a helpless sort of shrug - an incredibly I-told-you-so gesture. 

Grillby let out a smoke-filled growl, spinning to face the coming humans again. They were far too close now. Closing fast. He pulled another arrow against his bow and fired somewhat blindly, vaguely aiming for the nearest moving target before turning on his heel and, at a loss for any better alternative, dashed across the stones. 

His first step landed squarely, splashing up a stinging mist. His second step was a long, lunging stride to the largest stone he could reach, and he landed awkwardly, nearly losing his balance. He caught a glance of the monster he’d saved on the shore before him, watching him frantically, unable to help. Grillby screwed his gaze to the next stone he wanted to land on and leaped again, flailing his arms when he landed in an attempt to keep his balance, and before his balance was evened out completely, he took a chance and leaped for the next stone. At the same moment his foot hit the foam-slicked surface, something slammed into his shoulder. It blasted him forward, stole his breath away at the stab of pain it sent through him. 

Grillby crashed into the river with a scream and a plume of smoke. He fell on his hands and knees in the water, and with great relief felt the bottom almost immediately. Groaning loudly from the cold of it he dug his feet into the mud and lunged for the bank, catching the tangling roots of an eroded tree and struggling to pull himself ashore. He felt hands on his shoulder, thin and trembling, and offering as much help as they could the monster helped him haul himself up. Grillby rolled into the grass panting smoke and sparks, his arms and legs frigid, his mouth a painful grimace. 

The monster was stammering above him. Grillby was too bleary to hear what they were saying. He moved to grab the monster’s shoulder, missed and snagged their cloak instead, dragging them down to his eye level.

“The animal path,” Grillby hissed, “Run to town.”

There was a second where it looked like the monster might protest. Their mouth opened halfway to stutter on a word. But a shout from the far bank stopped them. They looked up past Grillby to the humans who had no doubt made it to the bank by now. Then with a scramble, the monster yanked themselves up and ran. 

Grillby collapsed onto the bank, shaking. There was a second where all he could feel was how painful it was to be so cold, to have his flames doused by water. It occurred to him this had never happened to him before, and it was somehow worse than he’d ever imagined it would be. Putting words to the feeling was not something he was smart enough or well read enough to try. It hurt so much it was exhausting. He wanted to just lay there and moan to himself in pain and wait. 

But he couldn’t do that.

Those were humans.

Human soldiers.

Their little village didn’t have any warriors.

All they had was a big oak tree and a dog. 

He had to do something about this. He had to do something about this now

So Grillby raised one shaking hand and grabbed a fistful of grass and pulled himself up. He dragged his foot up as well, his boots suddenly feeling like they weighed more than the mountains. In his hand he still clutched his pathetic little hunting bow. Wincing where he lay, Grillby grabbed for an arrow and found one. His arm shook as he drew it free from his quiver, and his stiff fingers threatened to drop it as he knocked it into place. He turned on his side, scowled at the pair of humans now attempting to follow him across the river. The one in the lead glanced up in time to notice him. They locked eyes for a moment before Grillby released the bow string. 

The arrow hit its target. The human let out a sound like all the air had been kicked from his lungs and then fell into the river, their foot catching awkwardly between two of the stones and preventing him from floating away. The second human on the stones let out an enraged bellow of a yell and shouted a word Grillby didn’t recognize. The red light of a spell pooled in his hand.

Grillby curled himself into a ball on the bank of the river just as a blast of magic shattered into the side of the riverbank where his head had been. He had no idea what that spell was, and he had no intention of ever finding out. Grillby nocked a final arrow, pulled it back and fired. It clipped hard against the armor on the human’s shoulder, hard enough to send him off-balance and into the water. With a strangled cry he disappeared into the current. The soldier resurfaced once a few feet away from where he'd fallen, flailed his arms and then promptly sunk and didn’t resurface, too weighed down by his chainmail to swim.

Sighing with relief, Grillby rolled onto his back on the riverbank and screwed his eyes shut. He was shaking still. He was cold, his clothes were drenched. Now with nothing else to steal his attention he was aware of how hard it was to breathe, like someone was standing on his chest and smothering his breaths into smoke. Overhead, the sky was brilliant blue, the clouds hemmed in orange and purple as the sunrise began to settle itself.

Grillby had resigned himself to passing out there on the riverbank, falling asleep as the sun rose and waiting for help to come. But something in his soul shifted, like so many links clicking into place. It seemed like a pulse in his chest, like a heartbeat had decided to suddenly manifest. And then with a gasp of breath, Grillby’s fire flared itself to life. The terrible aches in his arms and legs warmed themselves and relaxed instantly. His flame surged yellow, blue, bright white. The elemental jolted upright as though he’d been struck by lightning - and he nearly figured he had. Then his flame flickered low, back into its normal spectrum of color. Grillby gingerly rolled up one of his wet sleeves, now steaming just slightly from the sudden flash of heat and rubbed a thumb gingerly across his forearm. Then he did the same for the other.

“What…?”

All his harm had healed. 

Slowly, still a bit dazed by the sudden recovery, Grillby crawled to his feet. He slung that little hunting bow over his shoulder, feeling stiff and uncomfortable under his wet clothes. He scanned the tree line, waiting for more trouble and finding none. Just the river, with that single boot stuck awkwardly between the stones, and a soft trail of red bleeding from where the arrow had pierced the human’s flesh. 

It was then Grillby remembered, through his daze of quiet confusion, that he’d just killed three people.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take Grillby long to catch up to the monster he’d sent running down the game trail further into the woods. The monster was exhausted, and alone they couldn’t run far. When Grillby found them, they were cowering behind a tree, hands held against their mouth as if to help them keep quiet. They’d stared up at Grillby with wide eyes, scared and mystified, and ultimately relieved. Grillby simply offered them his hand and once again slung their arm over his shoulders to help them walk.

“You… survived all that?” they stammered at him quietly, “H… how?”

Grillby shrugged.

“You really don’t know?”

Grillby shook his head solemnly, “No. But Marin will.”

“Is… Marin… where you’re taking me?”

Grillby nodded. 

It took them longer to make it to town than it took Grillby to hike out there in the first place. By the time they finally broke through the tree line, all color besides blue had managed to bleach itself from the sky, and the sun had risen to peak between two of the distant mountains to the east. A pair of Loox were out already tending to the wheat field. The older of the two, a monster Grillby knew to be Brigid, waved her hand at him at first, greeting him back home. But when she saw who he carried, she quickly sent her sister away into town while she dashed to Grillby’s side, aiding him in keeping the stranger walking. 

“Grillby,” she fussed, narrowing her great eye at him, “You’re soaked through, boy. Are you alright?”

Grillby thought about the question for a long moment, longer than he probably should have, before finally answering, “I’m… not sure.”

 

Aside from the fall harvest, Grillby didn’t think he’d ever seen their sleepy little village become so active. Suddenly everyone ran about their houses with an air of importance, a sense of urgency. Grillby watched it all from his regained perch at the base of the Crucible Oak, trying to make himself as invisible as possible against the bark.

Brigid had quickly taken the stranger from him and rushed them into her home, going about settling the poor monster into some sort of comfort while they waited on Elder Marin to come down from the hill. With the recruited help of some neighbors she’d gotten Grillby dressed in some dry clothes, ignoring the elemental’s protests to simply walk up the hill himself to be changed and done with it all. She seemed to sense in him the desire to be alone, and actively ignored it as much as possible. Brigid had always been like that. 

“You look like you took a swim for starssakes!” she’d tutted at him, mother-hennish in her insistence to help, “You didn’t douse yourself, did you? For the love of all that’s good boy if you’ve hurt yourself, we need to find you a healer, now-”

Eventually Grillby had managed to convince her he was alright, just in time for the Elder to finally make it to the village square. Then she’d whisked herself up to him and badgered him instead. It seemed the whole village convened on Brigid’s house, all trying to get a glimpse of the stranger, to hear a word Marin had to say about it. The old turtle monster had patiently dismissed them, sending them to complete odd jobs and elaborate tasks of mock importance. The older kids in town were out picking through the woods currently, keeping an eye out for trouble. Younger kids joined a few parents in the fields as the town shared the load of getting the farm work done in record time. A few of the parents assembled to get a meal cooked and a change of clothes gathered up for the bedraggled stranger in their midst.

And Grillby waited.

A few of the townsfolk flashed him withering looks, used to his lazy antics and probably expecting him to be up to them now. But after Elder Marin shooed them off once, they let him be. Now the noontime sun was high in the sky, the summer day was hitting its peak warmth, and Grillby was… nervous. He kept staring at his arms, clenching and unclenching his hands, waiting for the fire to extinguish itself and bring that terrible, frigid ache racing back across his core. He could almost imagine he still felt it, like an itch beneath his core. Looking back at how terrible it had felt, he could hardly believe he’d kept moving. His arms and legs stiff and numb he’d still been able to crawl, to pull back the bowstring.

To kill.

Grillby had only ever hunted animals before. Any harm he’d ever inflicted on another person had always been accidental, dropping things at inopportune times, tripping into someone. Harmless, stupid things. How easy it had been to decide killing those men was his only option. How easy it had been to do, when he’d been backed into a corner. He hadn’t even thought about it. He’d just… done it. Grillby blinked down at his hands. He never wanted to touch a bow again. If he thought he’d survive it, he might be tempted to walk to the town’s well, draw some water and scrub himself clean of the whole thing. He could still hear that sound in the back of his head, that odd rushing gasp the soldier had taken when he’d shot him. Grillby clasped his head in his hands and screwed his eyes shut. He could still hear it.

“Grillby.”

The elemental flinched at the familiar voice. Slowly he looked up, “Elder Marin.”

The elder turtle looked at him, his brows drawn in a look of concern, “Are you alright?”

Grillby traced his hands down the back of his head to rub his neck nervously. After a silence he shook his head.

Marin watched him pitifully for a moment before he lowered himself onto a root nearby where Grillby sat. He clasped his hands together quietly and said, “Our guest seems pretty convinced you saved his life.”

Grillby shrugged.

“What happened at the river?”

“... they were soldiers, Marin.”

Marin nodded.

"They had swords and magic and everything."

Marin raised his eyebrows in mock alarm, "You don't say? How exciting! It's a little far west for those types isn't it?"

"I thought so too but…" Grillby rolled the shoulder where he'd been hit, "Their aim was real enough."

"What happened?" Marin asked again patiently.

"They chased us across the river," Grillby's voice dropped lower as he spoke, noticing now he'd been drawing attention to himself. Some of the townsfolk were watching him with interest, equally curious about his story. It… scared Grillby. He wasn't sure he wanted them to know, "All I had was my bow and… gods I forgot - hah - I forgot all about my magic. That's insane," Grillby ran a hand nervously through the flame on his head, "I waited for uh… the stranger to cross. And I ran after him. They… hit me with something. I think it was a spell? It hurt."

Marin's face was a concerned frown once again, but he said nothing.

"I fell in the river, but I got to the bank and I…"

The grass. The bowstring. The arrow. That noise.

"I'm sorry Marin," Grillby whispered, "I think I killed them."

Marin's hand rested itself gently on his shoulder, "You did what you had to, Grillby."

Grillby hugged himself pathetically for a moment, suddenly feeling small and childish. He was almost tempted to leave the conversation there, to tell Marin to leave him alone, there was nothing left to say. He wanted to sleep, ignore everything, forget even. But…

"Something healed me," Grillby said suddenly, looking up at Marin with wide, confused eyes, "After the fight was over everything just - from the water, and the spell. It all just - it just went back to normal Marin."

To his surprise, Marin simply nodded. The old turtle monster sighed and said, “That does happen from time to time.”

He seemed to ponder a moment, searching for the right words, before continuing, “Grillby, you know about monster souls, and the way violence affects them, don’t you?”

The elemental nodded quietly, his nervousness tying his stomach in knots. Yes, of course he knew. Everyone did.

“When a creature gains a level of violence, a lot of things about them begin to change,” Marin said slowly, “They will get stronger, their magic will become more powerful. Their intent becomes easier to manage. And as the makeup of their soul changes, sometimes, it will cause you to heal tremendous harm. It is a truly powerful thing, taking another life.

“However, it will also start an itch. The gaining of that power, Grillby, it is very tempting, and very convenient. And once you’ve begun to take it, it becomes incredibly hard to stop. You must be careful now, Grillby. Do you understand?”

Grillby wasn’t quite sure he did, but he nodded regardless.

“Good,” Marin hummed, getting slowly to his feet, “It was a brave thing you did today boy. And quite a favorable coincidence for our guest that you happened to be out this morning-”

“Grillby! Elder Marin!”

The two of them - and the smattering of townsfolk trying valiantly to hide their eavesdropping - all looked to the sound of the voice calling. A duo of dog monsters, a rambunctious pair of youngsters who had been out surveying the woods with the rest of them, were sprinting towards the town square. The two of them slid to a stop at the base of the Crucible Oak, panting excitedly. 

“We found it! We found where your fight was!” One of them said excitedly through gasps of breath.

“Yeah! Two humans?” the second barked, her tail low and wagging, “All by yourself? That’s amazing! Super gross though. Elder Marin, why do they leak so much?”

Grillby felt the color of his flame pale. 

“Calm down, both of you,” Marin said sternly, and then he allowed his voice to soften a bit, “Thank you for finding them. We should go about giving them a proper burial. I’m sure wherever their souls are, they would appreciate-”

“There were three.”

The three monsters looked down at Grillby. The elemental was flickering worriedly, and he looked from one face to the other, “There were three of them. I-I thought… Was there one on the other side of the river?”

“Uh-uh,” the two dogs shook their heads in unison, “We just found two. The one on the rocks-”

“-and one that got washed up a little bit downstream!”

Grillby looked up at Elder Marin, and he watched as the old turtle’s face creased in a contemplative frown. He stroked his chin thoughtfully for a moment before saying, “Both of you, gather up everyone out in the forest, quickly. I want everyone here at the Crucible in an hour. We may be in danger.”

As the two dogs ran off, Marin turned quietly to Grillby, “Boy, I want you to gather up some provisions from our cellar in case our guest must make a fast departure. Hurry now.”

Relieved to have something to do, Grillby clamored to his feet and dashed up the trail. Flickering with worry, he wondered what kind of danger they could all be in. 

All because of a stupid hunting trip.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Grillby had returned with the requested provisions, most of the little village had assembled itself at the base of the Crucible Oak; all waiting expectantly for what Elder Marin was to tell them. Kids fidgeted and played around the great tree’s twisting roots. A few of the more bird-like monsters in the village were perched in its branches. All was a murmur of concern as he walked up to them. A few monsters turned and gave him a friendly wave before muttering amongst themselves. Grillby noticed the stranger he’d saved - saved? That was a strong word - wasn’t present, though he figured the monster must still be resting. He’d been nearly spent when Grillby found him.

“May I have your attention please,” Elder Marin called, bringing a hush to the small crowd of people, “I know, we’ve all had quite an exciting day today, and it proves to be getting more exciting by the second. But we must attempt to remain calm and face the path ahead of us.

“Now, this morning while Grillby was out hunting, he came across our guest in the woods here. He was being chased by a ragtag group of soldiers. Apparently they’d been following him for three days now.”

Grillby blinked in surprise. The monster had been running for three days? 

“Thankfully Grillby was able to help the poor soul before anything too disastrous could happen. However one of the soldiers seems to have escaped off into the woods. We do not know where. And this is not the worst of our news. It would seem our guest was fleeing a tragedy of his own. Krossteon, our neighbors to the north east, has been attacked by a human army. The war that we’ve been fearing for so long has finally made its way to our doorstep.”

Grillby felt his flame flicker in alarm, his color paling just slightly. Around him, monsters began to talk in hushed fearful tones, startled by the news. Children were held a little tighter. Husbands and wives and family clumped together and voiced their worries. Elder Marin waited a moment, allowing his village to come to terms with the terrible news before raising his hands for silence. When the crowd had hushed, he continued:

“There is more. Our guest is in great danger here. He is a monster of great importance, and that is why the soldiers were following him so doggedly. While he is here, he isn’t safe, and we are not safe. He must be sent on his way immediately, as soon as he’s rested enough to travel. However, he doesn’t know the land here and is in need of a guide.”

Elder Marin sighed quietly, “I would like to ask for a volunteer to guide our guest at least to the next town, or further, if that is what he requires.”

Grillby shifted on his feet uncomfortably. A guide? Now, after the news they’d just received. Who would dare to leave the village behind-

“I do not ask this lightly,” Elder Marin continued humbly, his expression grim, “It is likely our guest is still being chased. Anyone who accompanies him will be in danger for as long as they remain together. And I ask this knowing full well we may not be here when you return. If armies are coming over the mountain, our village will not stand a chance. We have little of value, so we may be spared. But we may be forced to flee until the fighting calms, or to evacuate to another city.”

Grillby looked about the crowd of people, monsters he’d known and grown up with, his entire world for as long as he could remember. And they in turn looked to their families, their friends, their home. It didn’t surprise him that no one came forward. Not now, with so much at stake. Like him, many of these monsters were born and raised here. Many of them knew nothing of the world outside the smattering of visits to nearby townships. And none of them would risk losing everything they knew and loved for a stranger. It didn’t surprise Grillby in the slightest, and he didn’t begrudge them for it, and from the look on Elder Marin’s face, it seemed he understood as well.

When the Elder deemed the silence had stretched on long enough, he bowed his head and said gravely, “I will accompany the young gentleman then.”

Grillby gasped, sparking in surprise, “Marin-!”

His voice was drowned out by dozens of others as the entire town seemed to protest what Marin had said. We need a leader now more than ever! Are you even strong enough to make the journey? If you’re attacked on the road, what then? Suddenly the town square seemed loud and cramped, and all Grillby wanted was to back away from it, find some calm place to sit and forget their predicament. Elder Marin couldn’t go. He was old, his wellness changed with the seasons, and now standing on the roots of the Crucible Oak, looking down at his languishing townsfolk, he seemed frail and terribly small. His shell looked heavy on his drooping shoulders, and he carried about himself an air of quiet resignation. It occurred to Grillby that the Elder knew full well what he was volunteering himself for. It made Grillby’s heart hurt. It made his heart hurt and… it made him angry. Angry at their situation, at his stupid adventure this morning, and angry because Elder Marin had just made Grillby’s choice for him.

Grillby shouldered his way past the monsters standing in front of him, ignoring the disgruntled comments they threw in his direction. When he was standing at the base of the Crucible he flashed brightly and said, “Marin, don’t be ridiculous. The village needs you here.”

He sighed out a heavy breath of smoke and looked up at the monster who had raised him, “I’ll be his guide.”

The Elder’s expression softened when he looked down at Grillby, something like relief and worry mingling in his aged features, “Are you sure?”

“No,” Grillby said honestly, frowning down at his shoes, “But I know the way and…” he glanced around himself, at all the families that held themselves together fearfully, “... I suppose I’m the easiest to spare anyway.”

Elder Marin frowned, his brow creasing, “Grillby-”

“Hey don’t say stuff like that!” Grillby flinched as the fish monster nearest to him gave him a stiff punch on the shoulder, “You’re a part of this village too, sparks.”

Much to Grillby’s surprise, there was a small chorus of agreement from the monsters nearby, a lot to the effect of him being just as much family and friend as the rest of them. It was sweet and heartfelt, and Grillby found himself smiling embarrassedly at his feet, trying not to look as awkward as he felt. His soul felt incredibly full for this little place he called home. Even the Crucible Oak itself seemed to add its voice to the chorus, its leaves rustling loudly as the afternoon breeze caught up in its branches.

“Grillby,” Elder Marin spoke quietly, stepping closer to the elemental and placing his hands on his shoulders, “This is a dangerous thing you’re volunteering to do.”

“I understand.”

“Don’t feel obligated to go on my behalf.”

There was a fervent sternness in the old turtle’s voice that made Grillby pause and rethink his decision. No part of him wanted to leave. He didn’t like the idea of adventure, of wandering off into the woods with some monster he didn’t know and simply hoping he made it back alright. Hoping he made it back to a town that was still in one piece. The prospect of going was scary to him, and… he was still nervous from the morning’s events. Would that be what this journey was? Soldiers and woods, and jumping rivers blindly?

But from the bottom of his soul, Grillby knew he stood a chance of returning from such perils. The Elder didn’t. And so he met Marin’s gaze squarely and said, “I’m going.”

The Elder nodded, “Very well. We’ll gather you some provisions. Rest for now, Grillby. If our guest is well enough by sunset, you’ll set out immediately.”

Not knowing what else to say, Grillby simply nodded.

 

Sunset was waning into the dark blues of dusk when the stranger finally emerged from Brigid’s house. Grillby was waiting for him at the base of the Crucible Oak, studying the map that Marin had given him. He was confident he wouldn’t need it, but with his terrible luck and sense of direction, it wouldn’t hurt to be cautious. Grillby was given a knapsack of provisions for the trip, enough for himself and the monster he was guiding, and a leather canteen. Someone in town had taken the time to mend his cloak for him - there’d been a rather nasty looking tear in it where the magic had hit his shoulder and knocked him into the river. He’d donned his gloves already, and he had bandana ready to tie around his face to cover more of the light he gave off - though for now he opted not to tie it. He hadn’t left the village yet, and he wanted to stay comfortable for as long as he could. 

Gods above, just thinking about having to hide his face made him nervous. It was just one more reminder about how dangerous this was going to be. Another reminder was the weight on Grillby’s hip, the long knife sheathed and hanging from his belt. Their little village didn’t have much in the way of weapons and defense - they were a village for starssakes! But Bethia had saved her money to buy a longknife during one of the fairs at Scarsborough, and she gave it to him now that he was leaving. It was a terrifying gift to be given, and one Grillby had no idea how to use; but he carried it regardless. It had crossed his mind to bring his hunting bow but… every time he thought of using it, his stomach churned.

The kindness the little village showed him as he prepared for his departure touched Grillby's soul profoundly. Their village had always been kind, it was a necessity when you were so small and alone in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was used to helping each other, because if one family suffered, inevitably, somehow, they all did. But Grillby hadn't expected such a banning together for his leaving. The food that was given, the supplies, the weapon. And Grillby was sure he saw every resident at least once as they all personally said their goodbyes and well-wishes. A handful of the better woodsmen of the village stopped to give him advice on the best paths through the wood, the best ways to find food and emergency shelter if he'd need it. Several times hands had been laid on his shoulders and on the Crucible as someone prayed for his protection and safety. It was… amazing. And Grillby was deeply grateful for it. 

When the stranger finally emerged - a monster Grillby had eventually learned went by the name Gaster - he looked worlds better than when Grillby had left him with Brigid that morning. He’d had some sleep, some good food, and it was very likely one of the various monsters in town who worked with green magic had paid him a visit as well. While the monster still looked troubled, with a tired, hollow look about his eyes, he walked with a sure and even stride when he approached the elemental. His cloak too had been mended of the various rips and tears it had suffered during his flight, and he pulled the hood up over his head as if suspicious of prying eyes even in the fading shade of the Crucible Oak. Grillby noticed he carried no bags with him save for what looked to be a little black journal that the monster had tied and belted to his side in order to keep his hands free. It was something Grillby had seen couriers do once while he was in town, and he idly wondered if Gaster was some sort of message runner? Perhaps that was why he was hunted so doggedly? Grillby wondered what kind of important information he must be holding.

“Ah, my rescuer,” Gaster said, his voice soft and a bit hoarse, “You’re to be my escort through the forest then?”

Grillby nodded simply, folding away his map.

“You must be the hero of the village.”

Grillby flickered a disgusted sort of look, “No,” he pulled up his own hood and turned to begin walking, “Just the most likely to survive the trip.”

“Ah. Well, I see you doing great things,” Gaster said cryptically as he fell in step beside him, slipping his hands into his pockets as he walked. It caused his cloak to billow out behind him rather dramatically as he moved, “I’m grateful they allowed you to come with me.”

Grillby flashed him a confused look, one that, after a pause, Gaster mirrored, “You’re an elemental aren’t you?”

“... yes?”

“Aren’t you the town’s guardian?”

“Wh-?”

“Grillby,” Elder Marin called from where he stood down the little dirt road, waiting patiently, it seemed, for Grillby to begin his journey, “Not leaving without saying goodbye are you?”

“Of course not,” Grillby said with a smile, grateful for a distraction from his guest’s confusing questions. He offered Marin a hug, and the Elder flashed him a tired smirk.

“Be safe, boy.”

“Of course.”

“Did Brigid show you what town you were heading for?”

The elemental nodded, “And she showed me where you guys will be heading too, if… you know. The worst happens while I’m gone.”

Grillby shifted uncomfortably on his feet for a moment, worry spinning the color of his flame green. Elder Marin offered him a reassuring smile and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“We will be fine, Grillby. You’ve got a grand adventure in front of you. Why not try to be excited, eh?” he winked at the despondent elemental, “We’ve always said you’re made for great things, haven’t we? Elementals weren’t made to be cooped up in little farming towns.”

“But I like my little farming town.”

“Only because you don’t know any better,” Marin chuckled, “Now get going. Try to make it to the Eidel Ford before you stop for the night. There should be a ferry there first thing in the morning.”

Grillby nodded and with a final wave goodbye, lead the way up the road. He and Gaster walked in silence to the top of a nearby hill, where with a start Grillby remembered he hadn’t tied his bandana yet. He stopped them for a moment so he could tie it, hiding away as much of his flickering light as possible. While he waited, Gaster surveyed what he could see of the town, letting out a low, impressed whistle.

“That’s a beautiful tree,” he said thoughtfully.

“That’s the Crucible,” Grillby muttered as he struggled to tie off his bandana, “It’ll watch over them while I’m gone.”

“Hm.”

Finally Grillby managed to knot the pestering fabric and, adjusting his hood one final time, motioned for Gaster to follow him, “Come on. We’ve got a while to walk before we stop for the night.”

Gaster stared down at the little town distantly for a moment longer, long enough that Grillby wondered if the monster had heard him. He turned to join Grillby, muttering something softly under his breath. Grillby flashed him a puzzled frown.

“What looks familiar?”

“Nothing,” Gaster replied sharply, waving a dismissive hand, “Just looks like something I saw somewhere once.”

Chapter Text

“Do you intend on making us walk all night?”

Grillby sighed out a soft breath of smoke, pausing as he scaled a fallen tree to look back over his shoulder. Gaster was following slowly, loudly; crunching his way clumsily through the brush. Grillby wanted to chalk it up to the monster’s fatigue at his previous run - he kept reminding himself Gaster had been running for three days before this, and one afternoon of rest wouldn’t put him back on his feet. But the longer they walked through the woods, the more Grillby had to wonder if this odd courier - if he even was a courier - had ever traveled through the woods at all. It was like trying to steer a bear through the brush, and he constantly found himself cringing at how much Gaster fumbled around.

Ah, but he was probably a bad person for being so judgmental.

“We’ve got a solid head start on them, you know,” Gaster called again, unperturbed by the elemental’s silence, “Let’s say that knight did manage to escape, and didn’t just bleed out in the woods somewhere from an arrow shot-” Grillby shuddered at the thought - “It’ll take him three days just to make it back to where the rest of the army is, and it’ll take them three days to follow his trail back through the woods. Or longer. You know it’s harder to move a bunch of men and wagons and horses through the forests like this than just a few men on foot-”

Grillby nodded noncommittally, pulling out his map to give it a look over before continuing down the game path he’d chosen.

“We’ll be at least a city over by then,” Gaster continued, hauling himself onto the tree Grillby had just scaled and sliding clumsily back down the other side again, “So point being I guess - you don’t have to walk us all through the night. Our mission is urgent, but not so urgent. Don’t you think?”

“We’ll rest at the ford,” Grillby said sternly, pausing between two trees to scan a small clearing before them, “If the ferry’s out it’ll take us a two day detour to get to the nearest bridge - a detour north, closer to the army that’s pillaging everything.”

“Ah. Is there no other way south of here?”

“Nothin’ closer than two days.”

Gaster swore fiercely and lapsed into silence, content for now, it seemed, to stew in his own thoughts. Grillby was thankful for the reprieve. Gaster talked a lot. Or at the very least, Gaster talked more than Grillby had the words inside him to keep up with. He wasn’t too big on words - coming from him they always seemed bungled and awkward. There was a saying Elder Marin had told him once, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” and Grillby had taken it to heart; because in all honesty, most of what the elemental had to say seemed pretty foolish, to himself at least. His thoughts were idle and random, and he’d grown used to spouting off-topic observations to the collective confusion of the people around him.

For instance, currently Grillby was marveling at how easy it was to see outside tonight thanks to the moonlight. The full moon was always so interesting and bizarre, it made the air feel powerful, and on clear nights the moon draped the world in enough light that it could almost be morning. The forest was bathed in it, the familiar greens and browns bleached into watery blues and greys. It made Grillby wonder if maybe this was how the world might look from underwater - without all the churned-up mud hazing everything of course. 

Grillby shuddered - water. Suddenly their journey to the ford seemed incredibly daunting. He’d ridden the ferry a thousand times before going to trade with the townsfolk following a harvest, or when Dafydd the town’s most skilled wood carver decided it was time to sell his wares. Logically speaking Grillby new the ferry was reliable, the ford itself low, and the chances of him being in danger incredibly slim. But after the river this morning… well… he never wanted to go through that again. 

As if reading Grillby’s thoughts, Gaster piped up again, humming thoughtfully, “I was wondering, uh--”

“Grillby.”

“Right. Sorry, bad with names. Anyway Grillby I was wondering, about this morning. That was a curse they shot at you, wasn’t it? So why-”

“A what?”

“A curse? That knight was a Hexer?”

Grillby shook his head uncomprehendingly.

“Well, I suppose you folk this far out probably don’t encounter human soldiers too much,” Gaster muttered, picking up his pace a bit to walk beside Grillby, “So Hexers know a specific kind of magic that acts on the soul of a thing. It’s a pretty gross magic honestly, does all sorts of weird things to you but - anyway, so that red spell they hit you with, that was a curse… probably. I mean, it could’ve been something else but not a lot of spells are that color-”

“And what do hexes-?”

“Curses.”

“What do curses do?”

“They kill people of course,” Gaster snorted, waving his hands dismissively as if it were common knowledge, “Figured that would be self-explanatory. They dig into your soul and dismantle your being. Pretty nasty stuff.”

“Sounds like it,” Grillby said shakily, suddenly remembering how bad it’d stung when the spell had hit his shoulder. It occurred to him rather belatedly that most things that hit him didn’t hurt that much.

Anyway, so what I was wondering,” Gaster continued, taking no notice of Grillby’s distress, or otherwise ignoring it, “You know, most humans don’t walk away from curses, let alone monsters. You know… I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a monster surviving a curse unless there was a pretty skilled healer nearby. So what I was wondering was, how did you survive all that?”

Gaster put his hands on his hips and caught Grillby in an inquisitive stare, “Is that just, you know, one of the perks of being an elemental? Being immune to that sort of thing?”

Grillby hadn’t realized they’d stopped walking. Not until Gaster had turned to face him squarely with that curious, entrapping sort of expression. Grillby flickered worriedly, trying to parse everything Gaster had just said, trying to figure out how to answer the question. Trying not to sound as stupid as he felt right about now.

“Uhh… well, I’m pretty sure I felt it, so I don’t think I’m immune-”

“You’re pretty sure?”

“I was also busy trying not to drown, which is a bit more painful for me than most other people,” Grillby pointed out with a little more acid in his voice than he’d intended. Gaster seemed unphased, his expression still idly curious, “That whole fight did something to my soul anyway. Elder Marin said that’s what healed me.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Uh… n… no?”

That little scuffle raised you up a level of violence?” Gaster asked, eyes widening incredulously. He seemed… disappointed somehow? A nasty feeling of defensive resentment curled itself around in Grillby’s stomach, “Have you ever been in a fight before this morning?”

Gaster let out a loud tsk noise, cutting Grillby off before he could even begin to answer, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be surprised. Elemental or not, you’re still basically just a glorified farmhand all the way out here in the boondocks.”

Grillby sparked, first in surprise at the comment, and then brighter in anger. If he weren’t so covered, his light would have blazed in the forest around him. He took a threatening step towards Gaster, pausing only to try to find some biting retort to say. 

A twig snapped.

In an instant Grillby’s anger chilled itself to fear. He jumped back from the noise, his hand flying clumsily to where his knife was sheathed. He fumbled awkwardly for his knife for a moment, and when he couldn’t get it unbuckled in the dark, he settled on holding his hands forth with some flickering fire magic instead. In a single swift movement, Gaster squeezed himself between Grillby and the nearest tree as if it could somehow grant him more protection. Gaster’s hand gripped the elemental’s shoulder, either for comfort or to just make sure Grillby remained a living shield, Grillby didn’t know. He did know it was annoying. He held his breath, scanning the forest as the rustling around them got louder.

Out from the brush stepped a low shadow, lithe and smooth. Upon seeing the two frightened monsters, it let out a quiet harrumph sort of noise and sat.

Dog?” Grillby said incredulously, dropping his magic out of the air and sighing out a relieved breath of smoke, “What are you doing out here?”

“You named your dog… Dog?”

“Oh hush,” Grillby rolled his eyes, “I named it when I knew like… six words.”

“I’d hope so.”

Grillby put his fists on his sides and looked down at the red-speckled lump of fur, “Go home Dog.”

Dog blinked at him tiredly but didn’t move.

“You stubborn thing -” Grillby muttered, and then pitched his voice higher, enthusiastic and sweet, “Go get Marin! Go on!” he pointed back the direction they’d come, hoping it was vaguely were the town was, “Fetch! Fetch Marin!”

Dog wagged its tail lazily but didn’t move.

“I know you know what fetch means,” Grillby snapped, “You’re worse than a mule, you know that?”

“Oh, let it come with us,” Gaster smiled, kneeling down to Dog’s level to let it sniff his hand, “Maybe it’ll help keep us from getting killed. Gods know we’ll need all the help we can get.”

“Dog is a farm dog, not a war dog,” Grillby said sternly, “It’s good at barking at rats and chasing polecats and that’s about it.”

“Well maybe it’ll bark at some big bad soldiers for us,” Gaster cooed, talking more to Dog than to Grillby as he scratched behind the furry creature’s ears. Dog’s tail thumped on the ground a bit more enthusiastically.

Or it’ll get itself killed,” Grillby insisted, “Dog, go home.”

Dog stood and shook out its fur, halting Gaster petting its shoulders. Then it pointedly walked over to Grillby’s feet and sat, looking up at him in the dim light with its determined brown eyes. Grillby sighed at it.

“Worse than a mule.”

Ha - woof!

Fine,” Grillby finally relented, “But so help me when we get back, you’re telling Marin why you’ve been missing for gods know how long!”

Ears pricked with excitement, Dog leapt back to its feet and trotted ahead of them as they resumed their walking, occasionally dipping its head to follow some scent through the woods before wandering back to them again. Gaster watched it go, once in a while commenting on its enthusiasm as it explored the woods with them. 

Grillby sighed apprehensive as he watched Dog run. He was happy to have someone familiar with him - even if it was Dog, and not an actual person. But he did worry about the animal’s safety. Elder Marin had been fairly convinced their journey would be dangerous. And while they hadn’t run into any trouble yet, what would happen if they did? Could Grillby even keep Dog safe? And what would happen if they got separated? Would Dog be able to find its way back home?

Grillby chewed on his worry quietly as he walked, not bothering to voice it. With any luck they’d get Gaster the next town over without a hitch and he and Dog would be back in the village by the week’s end. He just had to stay hopeful. No point jinxing them so early on in the journey.

Chapter Text

It had taken them another hour of stumbling through the forest before their game trail finally ended at the main dirt path leading to the Ford. They made camp by the Eidel river that night, sheltered by the tree line where the wind couldn’t reach them. They didn’t have any tents, so Grillby stoked them a small fire and they wrapped themselves up in their cloaks for the night. Gaster protested loudly about how uncomfortable it was, and again Grillby had to wonder if the monster was a courier or something else entirely. Surely someone who ran messages for the army would be used to miserable nights on the ground. Eventually though Gaster settled down into the grass and began quietly snoring, his sleep occasionally broken by a muttered word. Grillby sat his back against a tree and slept with Dog laying across his outstretched legs, the mutt sighing happily into the ambient warmth Grillby provided it.

Grillby was startled awake in the morning when Dog lurched off him, baying loudly as it chased a squirrel up a nearby tree. It woke Gaster as well, and the monster flailed rather comically as he was jolted from his sleep. 

Grillby chuckled, “Still think it’s a good idea to bring Dog along?”

He earned himself a few grumbled complaints in reply. 

The morning was bright and gentle, scattered with birdsong as the rose-colored sun began painting the sky. Last night darkness had obscured most of the Eidel Ford from view, but now it was lighting up in streaks of color as the green-gray water mimicked the brightest portions of the sky. The river here was wide, far wider than the one Grillby had hopped his way across the day before; and while monsters who often crossed it claimed this was the shallowest the water got, it was still impossible to see to the bottom of the river. There was too much sediment, and it was still too deep to see far past the sloping banks. 

The fording point itself held a wide pier, allowing monsters with wagons to pull up to and board the ferry with relative ease. During the spring thaw and autumn harvest the ford was busy. Grillby could remember many a morning standing tiredly in line as he waited his turn with someone’s wagon to board and slowly cross. In the dryer summer months he’d known some townsfolk who had crossed the river on their own, dodging the ferry altogether. But the past couple weeks they’d seen rain, and the river was far too deep for anything less than a miserable swim.

Gaster kicked the embers around the fire back to life and settled in front of it to eat one of the apples the village folk had packed for the pair of travelers, looking jarringly miserable compared to the bright harmony of their surroundings. Grillby flickered him an amused smile.

“Not sleep very well last night?”

“Of course not. We slept on the ground,” Gaster lamented bitterly, “I can’t wait until we get back to a town again. When does the ferry run?”

Grillby looked out across the river, “On busy days they start up around dawn, but as you can see -” he stretched out his arm towards the empty pier, “- we’re the only ones waiting. They probably won’t start up ‘til the sun’s over the mountains.”

“And how long will that take?”

“Eh. It’ll happen when it happens I s’pose.”

Brilliant.”

It was around then that Dog saw fit to take off into the woods after another squirrel, prompting Grillby to get to his feet to track it down. He spent the better part of the morning wandering around after Dog, throwing sticks for it to chase and going over the handful of commands Dog knew. It wasn’t the smartest animal in the world, but it was smart enough to know how to fetch and leave things and bark on command - though he had to ask a few times. Grillby fed it the jerky he was going to have for breakfast for its good behavior, not too hungry himself. 

When he returned, Gaster had extinguished the campfire and moved to sit cross-legged on the pier itself, waiting patiently for the ferry to appear. As Grillby approached he noticed Gaster had his little black book open in his lap and was scribbling furiously onto the pages, occasionally pausing to flip back to an older writing, strike through something, and flip back to where he’d left off again. Grillby watched him with untamed fascination. He’d never seen someone write so quickly before, or so smoothly. Gaster’s slender hands controlled his quil deftly, directing the ink in swirling and pointed patterns. Even his mistakes he corrected smoothly, his pen swiftly striking across any misspelled word or blotted ink. The ink itself, Grillby realized, was freshly prepared. There were the remains of the charcoal from the fire ground up in a tiny bowl by Gaster’s side, with water added to make a crude and muddy ink. 

“That’s amazing,” Grillby said at length.

Gaster started, nearly dropping his quill into the river in his rush to slam his little book shut, “Hey hey! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

Grillby frowned, “I was plenty loud.”

“Yeah sure,” Gaster scowled angrily, putting his book down to snap to his feet, “What did you read?”

“Read? I - nothing. I was just watching-!”

Spying on me, were you?”

What?

Grillby was forced back a step as the angry monster leaned in towards him, jamming a finger into his chest, “What did you see, elemental? I won’t ask again!” Magic crackled around Gaster, sparking in flashes of yellow and blue. Grillby’s flame flickered pale in his surprise, overwhelmed by the sudden display of force. He could feel the intent in the air, angry and protective. It startled any words of explanation he could possibly muster, and for a second Grillby wondered if he should be running for… somewhere… to get away from the situation.

And then just as quickly his sudden fear snapped into indignance. He’d saved this stupid monster’s life, hadn’t he? What a way to repay the favor! So Grillby felt no remorse whatsoever when he suddenly stepped forward and shoved both of his hands into Gaster’s chest, sending the surprised courier screeching off the pier and into the river with an inglorious, flailing splash. Grillby patiently picked up Gaster’s things as the monster thrashed to the surface of the river, tucking them away safely in his inventory so they wouldn’t get wet. Gaster slapped his arms over the side of the pier, clinging to the creaking wood to glare up at Grillby who now flickered a humorous smile down at him.

“What the hell was that for?”

“You were being stupid,” Grillby said simply.

Gaster let out a scandalized sort of gasp, sending Grillby into a fit of laughter, “I was not! That’s important, sensitive information only for my eyes or - or the King’s or - stop! Laughing at me!”

Gaster splashed some water at the elemental indignantly, splattering his boots. Grillby kept laughing, sparks flying as he did, “You can’t be important when you look like a half-drowned rat,” he cackled.

“I do not-!”

Gaster’s protests were no use. Anything he said just made the elemental laugh harder. It was a high, crackling sort of sound like fizzling embers, and to Gaster it was… begrudgingly contagious. It made him want to smile, and that made him angrier.

“Oh shut up and help me out of here, will you?”

Grillby finally managed to calm his laughter, waving apologetically at Gaster and approaching the edge. He was reaching down to Gaster’s outstretched hand when Dog’s growl stopped him. Grillby paused, crouching, to look back over his shoulder. The red-speckled fur on Dog’s back was raised, its body a stiffly pointed line in the direction of the road. Grillby watched Dog back up a step, its tail low and nervous. 

“Get under the pier.”

What?”

Under the pier,” Grillby snapped, his voice hissing into a crackled whisper as he got to his feet, “Be quiet and don’t come out unless I tell you.”

Grillby dashed off the pier and onto the riverbank, whistling for Dog to come stand beside him. By the time his feet hit the grass he could hear the unmistakable sound of horse hooves on the road. He didn’t want to be close to the river. At least, not close enough to be pushed into it. 

He stood to the side of the road, Dog bristling and sitting by his feet as around the bend in the road six horses rode into view, their great hooves pounding like thunder. They were war horses, massive creatures all muscles and shimmering hair with colorful tabards and glittering bridals. On their saddles were the rings for armor or mail, though none was equipped. On their backs rode human knights, and they were armored. Three of them had swords sheathed at their sides, one had a massive battle axe that Grillby was sure could cleave a tree in half with a mighty enough swing. The last two carried no weapons that Grillby could see. All of them wore cloaks dyed navy blue, with a crest of lions stitched in gold on the hem. Grillby knew nothing of human crests or their meanings, but he knew blue was a nobleman’s color, and that frightened him. Human knights, noble professionally trained knights, armed to the teeth on massive warhorses.

Grillby swallowed thickly, fearful colors sickening his flame.

The parade of horsemen came to a stop in front of the little pier, in front of Grillby, and when they did Dog let out another fearful growl, its ears flat and tail tucked close between its legs. Grillby hushed it gently, hardly daring to breathe the sound out loud.

One of the swordsmen turned his horse in Grillby’s direction, nudging the massive animal closer to the fearfully sparking monster, towering over him. Grillby had to crane his neck to see the man’s face. He had glittering green eyes and hair as black as crow feathers, and it made him look sharp as a knife's edge. The man barked a sudden, rough string of words at Grillby, causing him to crackle and flinch. Dog backed up a step. The man paused, glowered angrily when Grillby didn’t answer, and repeated his command. One of the unarmed men muttered annoyedly, and with an angry sort of growl, the swordsman demanded a final time in a thick accent:

“What sort of a monster are you and what is your business at the ford?” 

Grillby blinked up at him, honestly surprised the man spoke his language. 

Speak or be slain!”

Grillby flickered in alarm and stammered, “I-i-i uhm… uh fire - fire sprite? Fire sprite of uh… the… the forge in…”

Grillby cast around for any of the towns nearby, finally settling on, “From W-Westhollow, s… Westhollow sir.”

The same unarmed man said something to this, some sort of bored observation, and the swordsman glared, “You’re far from home sprite. What’s your business here?”

“I-i-i-i uhm… well I’m recently out of a job sir,” Grillby stammered nervously, hoping his lie wasn’t too obvious, “I heard the forges in Krossteon were looking for fire monsters.”

The swordsman raised an eyebrow at this, studying Grillby for a moment. The elemental tried his best to meet the man’s gaze, did his best not to look too small and frightened. It wasn’t working, he was sure. Finally the man turned and spoke a few words in his own language to the knights with him. Their voices sounded… casual. More bored than anything, like they were disinterested in his presence. One of them said something though, and Grillby could hear their tone darkening. The swordsman on the horse responded, and Grillby didn’t have to know the language to tell he was saying something in agreement. He narrowed his eyes down at Grillby suspiciously.

“You’re just a traveler, eh?”

“Yessir.”

“Why are you carrying a weapon?”

Grillby blinked, his mind freezing in place for a moment. Suddenly the long knife on his hip felt incredibly heavy, a stone tied to his side, pulling him through the ground.

“Got no answer to that, forge fire?” the man asked, and Grillby saw a shift in the man’s countenance. A predatory sort of interest gleamed in his expression, and his weight shifted closer to the sheathed sword tied to his saddle.

Finally Grillby managed, “W… well. You know… the hills have gotten dangerous lately. They say the human armies have made it over the mountains,” Grillby dared to look around at the horsemen, “They weren’t wrong.”

“Ha! So you’re carrying a knife?”

The knight suddenly dismounted, a smooth and fluid movement learned from years of practice, and when he did, his sword sung from its sheath. Grillby jolted a step back and Dog bristled from head to tail. The unarmed man who’d spoken before - Grillby was slowly beginning to suspect he was their leader - barked some sort of warning to the swordsman, one the swordsman flippantly ignored, retorting something laughingly over his shoulder. He pointed his sword at Grillby with an oddly casual sort of menace, the stance of a man who knew very well he was swinging his sword at someone who couldn’t defend from it. The blade was long and black, with red runes trailing down its center. It looked like something out of some terrible fairytale, wicked and deadly with a pulsing conscious all its own, and Grillby was sure if the thing could talk it would spit blood and venom. 

“Go on, forge fire. Show me how you planned on defending yourself with that little knife of yours,” the human laughed maliciously.

Jittering fearful sparks, Grillby’s hands flew down towards the knife belted at his side, “I-i-i don’t really-”

“You know,” the man tested his grip, placing two hands on the hilt of his sword and settling into some kind of stance, “You shouldn’t carry a weapon you’re not willing to use.”

The man heaved his sword forward in a lunging, overhead swing. By some miracle, Grillby managed to find the clasp on his sheath and clumsily ripped the dagger free. The flat of the black sword caught against the sharp of the knife in a shower of wicked looking red sparks and slid, snagging itself on the hilt of the little dagger in a sloppy parry. Grillby, alarmed by the closeness of the nasty looking blade to his hand, threw his arm out to the side, letting the sword come loose as he did.

In a blur of a pause where both monster and man were off-balance from the parry, Dog lunged forward, snapping and barking. The knight leapt backwards away from the bundle of red and white fur; his sword forgotten for a moment in his surprise. The sudden explosion of noise and movement so close to its legs spooked the massive warhorse the knight had ridden, and the beastly animal rammed its shoulder into the horse nearest to it before bolting off down the river. Grillby lunged for Dog and managed to grab its scruff and drag it back away from the swordsman while the human cursed. He glared at Grillby where the elemental now crouched with his arms around Dog, suddenly that sword in his hand held much more menacingly.

But he didn’t lunge, only scowled deeper when he realized… the other knights were laughing at him. Grillby blinked up at them all, wide-eyed, confused and terrified, his breath a flurry of smoke. The man snarled something defensively at the mounted horsemen, one of which was snickering even as he tried to maintain control of his own spooked horse. Grillby had no idea what they were saying - but it wouldn’t be a bad guess, he figured, to think they were laughing at how the man had lost his horse to a terrified elemental – er, fire sprite – and his dog. Finally, one of the horsemen offered a hand to his comrade, allowing him to swing up into the saddle with him, and together the two trotted down the bank after the panicked animal, now just a flurry of mud and river stones in the distance.

The unarmed man Grillby had assumed to be the leader pulled his horse up nearby Grillby, doing his best to hide away a smirk, “Not so much man’s best friend today, are you mutt?”

Dog snarled a terrified reply, though its ears perked slightly in recognition at being spoken to.

The four horsemen remaining horsemen trotted off down the bank after their companions. The leader paused one moment longer, his expression melting back into one of seriousness as he said, “What my companion was meant to ask before he got hasty, is that we’re looking for a dangerous war criminal on the roads. He’s believed to have come this way with the help of a rather skilled marksman. He’s a skeleton monster, and we believe the marksman to be an ordinary man. He was a spy for us until he recently turned traitorous. You happen to see a couple characters like that come through here?”

“C… can’t say I have sir.”

“What can you say.”

“Ah… O-only that I’ve been traveling up the main road here,” Grillby stammered another rushed lie, “And I haven’t seen anyone yet. You shouldn’t be hard finding them though sir. These roads stay empty in the summer. The folks around here are all farmers, you know. Don’t do much ‘til the harvest.”

The man nodded, contemplating something for a moment. He scrutinized Grillby, as if adding something up in his mind. Finally he said, “Look for work elsewhere. Krossteon was burned to the ground four days ago now.”

“I-it was?”

“And you might as well start walking,” the man gently nudged his horse in the direction of his fellows, “The ferry won’t be coming for passengers.”

He waved a hand lazily as he spurred his horse into a trot, “Good luck crossing the river, fire sprite.”

 

Chapter Text

Grillby held onto Dog’s scruff until long after the horsemen vanished down the river and out of sight; until long after Dog had stopped snarling and bristling and had settled down to wait somewhat annoyedly in Grillby’s arms. Grillby was shaking like a leaf, sparks jittering in every direction. He wasn’t even rightly thinking about anything. He was just scared. Too scared to even remember Gaster was waiting for him beneath the pier until the monster was dragging himself out of the water of his own accord, looking around quietly to make sure the danger had passed. He was soaked through and covered in mud, and he stood beside Grillby miserably, his arms crossed around his dripping frame. He waited expectantly for Grillby to say something.

The first one to make a sound between the three of them was Dog. It let out a long, slow sigh and shook its fur, finally forcing Grillby to let go of its scruff. With a wag of its tail it trotted a little way away from them, glad to be free of the elemental’s tight-knuckled grasp, looking altogether like the previous encounter had never happened.

“So, they think you’re a marksman huh?” Gaster said quietly, managing a pathetic smile, “Pretty handy you left your bow behind, then,” he waited again, and when Grillby still said nothing, “Though you did miss the last guy so I’d kinda like to know what their definition of a marksman is.”

“They said you’re a spy.”

“I swear on every god’s name that’s a lie.”

“Of course it’s a lie!” Grillby snapped, and Gaster’s eyes widened a bit with surprise, “A spy would be able to walk through the damn woods without tripping over his feet every six steps!”

“Okay, rude.”

“But it’s a convincing lie,” Grillby ignored him, finally standing shakily. His flame flickered pale and fearful as he spat tensely, “Anyone in the thirteen hells who sees us on the road is going to have a pretty good guess as to who those knights are hunting, and with an entourage like that no one will help us!”

“We don’t need help,” Gaster said with a shrug, “We just need to get to town.”

“Then everyone in town will know what we look like!”

“You’re being paranoid.”

I’m being paranoid?” Grillby laughed incredulously. He snatched up his dagger and held it out to Gaster in a swift jab that made the monster leap back a step, “Look at what that sword did Gaster!”

Hesitantly, Gaster took the dagger and began to look it over, and his brow creased with concern the longer he held it. The long knife had a notch chipped jaggedly from its side. The notch shattered outwards across the blade in red-black veins, and the metal around the point of contact was blackened, scorched almost. If Gaster didn’t know better, he would have guessed the blade had somehow been struck by red lightning, or that perhaps the dagger itself were made of glass given how it shattered.

“... you’re very lucky you parried that,” Gaster said quietly, in awe of the damage the single sword stroke had done, “Very… very lucky.”

“That’s about the only luck I’ve got, apparently,” Grillby muttered, angry and scared, angry because he was scared, no doubt. He felt wire-taught-tense, shaking like a dead leaf in autumn and furious he was too jittery to stop. The woods seemed deadly quiet now, the birdsong dispelled by the ruckus, all nearby creatures startled into hiding. Grillby felt exposed standing on the bank of the river, a flickering target of color of a thousand colors just waiting to be hit.

Grillby jumped when Dog suddenly let out a low bark. The two monsters looked to it, and Grillby noted the fur beginning to stand up along the creature’s spine.

He gasped, “They’re coming back!”

The pair of startled monsters bolted for the tree line, Grillby whistling for Dog to follow. He thanked his stars that Dog listened the first time he called. They scrambled into the trees, Grillby managing to yank his hood up over his flame just in time for the sound of horse hooves to thunder across his senses. He leaped over a fallen log and looked back - only for Gaster’s hand to clap across his face. He shoved Grillby to the ground, hiding his face in the leaf litter as he too crouched as low as he could go. Grillby screwed his eyes shut and held his breath. Behind him, he could feel Dog’s fur pressed up against his side, and he prayed it knew to stay quiet and still,

The sound of hooves stopped, and when it did, the distant sound of voices pricked to Grillby’s attention. The knights were talking. Grillby held his breath, as if it could somehow conceal him further, only daring to move to feel for Dog’s collar and grip it tight.

“They’re looking for you,” Gaster hissed, the sudden noise making Grillby flinch yet again, “Looks like the leader is pretty sure you were lying.”

“Oh of course he is-”

Shhh.”

Pressed up against his side, Grillby felt more than he heard Dog’s low growl.

Grillby lay there for several minutes, listening to the low drone of voices talking, barely daring to breathe. Dog shivered beside him, scared of the humans and their horses even from so far a distance. If Grillby weren’t so terrified of being caught, he would pull Dog closer and try to reassure it, maybe burn a little warmer. As it was now, he was too paranoid, suddenly convinced if he burned any warmer, he would somehow light the forest on fire. He didn’t even dare open his eyes. Time ticked slow as cold molasses until, at last, the horsemen seemed to come to a decision and dispersed. Gaster moved his hand from where it was still clenched in the hood of his cloak.

“They’re gone.”

Grillby gasped as he pushed himself up, like he was pulling himself from under water. He flickered fervently in Gaster’s direction, “We should leave too.”

“Well of course,” came the flippant reply, Gaster’s face a disapproving frown, “But where?”

“I don’t care where you’re going,” Grillby spat, dragging himself to his feet and brushing the leaves from his clothes, “But I’m going home.”

“You’re stranding me out here?”

“Oh you’re not stranded,” Grillby scowled, spinning around enough to get his bearings and, lining himself up parallel to the road, began marching through the trees, “You’ve got legs, haven’t you?”

“I have no idea where I am!”

Grillby motioned behind him, “The bridge is a two day’s walk upstream, or three day’s walk downstream.”

That long?”

“Well if you’re feeling impatient you can always swim!”

“Wait!” There was a crashing of branches as Gaster flailed after him, tripped over a stick and tumbled to the forest floor. After some swearing he dashed again, this time managing to cut off the sparking elemental before he could retreat any further, “Wait wait! Okay I get it, you’re scared-”

“Terrified,” he brushed Gaster out of his way. The skeleton caught his shoulder.

“-but are you seriously going to leave me out here to get lost all by myself? Surrounded by soldiers and - and bears and -”

“You made it to town fine on your own once.

“That was a fluke!” Gaster shouted in exasperation, his voice very nearly the closest to panic Grillby had ever heard it, “A fluke that almost didn’t happen! If you hadn’t found me I wouldn’t have made it across that river. And these knights? If they catch me they’ll kill me, you know! That’s my dust on your hands!”

Grillby scowled, a slowly awakening guilt worming its way into his stomach. He wrung his hands nervously, “Well I wouldn’t exactly be the one swinging the sword, now would I?”

“You’re pathetic.”

“Fine!” Grillby snapped, flailing his arms, “I’m pathetic! Just the most weaselly little coward this side of the mountains. I’m a farm hand, Gaster. Not -- whatever you are.”

He ushered grandly to Gaster as though he were some sort of explanation, “If you’re that worried come with me.”

“Oh yeah, sure, I’ll come with you,” Gaster crossed his arms condescendingly, “The entirety of the human army is after me, wants very badly to dust me, and burned down an entire town looking for me. But sure, I’ll go back to your little cobble-pile in the woods I’m sure it’ll go much better.”

Grillby opened his mouth to say something, but Gaster cut him off abruptly. And this time, Grillby noticed, the monster’s voice was lilting with something like realization, his tone smooth with spite, “And did you think for even a second candlestick that the same thing applies to you?”

Grillby blinked uncomprehendingly.

“Six very powerful knights just saw your face and figured out your lie, you idiot!” Gaster snapped, pointing back towards the river for emphasis, “They might not know exactly what you were lying about, but they threatened you at sword point and asked you about a scary dangerous criminal and you lied about where you were from and where you were going. What do you think they’re going to do when they see you again? Invite you to dinner and ask again nicely what your business was?”

“B-but I-”

“And what do you think they’ll do to your tiny little village,” Gaster continued warningly, advancing on Grillby a few steps, “If they find you there? I know you’re not the brightest spark in the hearth but think really hard on that one. And I’ll give you a clue - they destroyed Krossteon. You’re in just as deep as I am, sparks!”

The elemental sparked at him for a moment, the image of barely contained panic. His breath sprayed in smoke and sparks, and he clutched at his head as if it could keep his thoughts from reeling. Home? Home? His tiny, frail little village, his whole tiny, frail little world - no, no they needed to be safe. He wanted so badly for them to be safe from all of this! But weren’t the hills already swarming with humans? Just two encounters with the violent folk and already his world seemed flooded with them. He had to get back home, to keep them safe somehow - if only his presence were enough - but… he’d just make things worse? In what world did that make sense? 

Suddenly Grillby was sure someone had ripped the whole world out from underneath his feet, and he was falling through the void left behind. All he wanted, all he wanted was to go home. To his chickens and his chores and his bed by the hearth and to Marin and Brigid - back to everyone who’d been so sure he was made for some glorious journey. Because they were wrong. They were very, incredibly wrong.

He wanted to go home.

Grillby didn’t realize he’d crouched to the ground until he felt Dog gently nudging his side, its wet nose sniffing at him as if wondering what he was doing curled up so small.

“So,” Gaster barked, arms crossed, watching the elemental with frigid dispassion, “You going to melt into a puddle down there or what?”

Grillby huffed out a frustrated sigh, curling smoke through the air and making Dog sneeze and step back away from him. Grillby ran his hands through the flame of his head one last time and stood. There was a shiver through his whole body, some frenetic mixture of fear at his situation and exasperation at Gaster’s indifference. Didn’t he realize Grillby’s whole world was gliding away from him faster by the second? But of course, the monster didn’t care. Grillby ran his hands through his flame again and screwed his eyes shut. His core shivered, his stomach turned in knots. A calmer thought of what he figured must be logic needled itself into his mind.

If it was too dangerous for him to go back, all he had left was to keep going forward.

“I hate this,” Grillby said aloud.

“Yeah well, life’s unpleasant,” Gaster snapped, “You’ll get used to it.”

You’re unpleasant,” Grillby bristled, sparks blistering the air around him, “I’m sacrificing my whole world for you, you realize that?”

Grillby watched the monster shrug in reply, brushing off the statement with callous resignation. Suddenly the nervous knots in Grillby’s stomach clenched themselves into anger. He stifled the urge to turn to the nearest stone and kick it as far as he could. Instead he whistled for Dog to follow him and wordlessly turned to start walking downstream. 

“So, we’re taking the long way around?”

Grillby scowled and snarled through gritted teeth, “Unless you want to be the one squaring off against a bunch of horsemen.”

“Do we have the rations for a three-day trip?”

“No.”

Fantastic,” Gaster groaned, “I love it when things go from bad to worse!”

Chapter Text

It was a miserable three days of walking. Miserable and quiet - and for once not just because Grillby wasn’t much of a talker. Both monsters were on edge, a string of wires fretted too tightly, begging to snap. In Grillby this manifested in long gaps of silence, a haze of smoke on his breath, and a nearly constant set of glances up at the sky to check the time. It made the day seem even longer than it already did with their stiff marching. 

Gaster, of course, filled some of the gaps of noise with complaining. He was bored, he was hungry, he was tired, he was footsore. It wasn’t a constant stream of complaints no, but it was enough to be annoying. Grillby did his best to bite his tongue, aware that most of his animosity stemmed from his nervousness. His mind snapped back and forth between wanting to berate the monster for focusing on such trivial, idiotic things - to being genuinely envious Grillby himself couldn’t take their dismal situation in stride in the same way. That phrase Gaster had said, “Life’s unpleasant, you get used to it,” would occasionally needle its way through the back of his head, making the smoke on his breath taste bitter. Such a pessimistic point of view, and on the same hand so very telling of whatever Gaster’s life had been like since the two of them met. Grillby still had no idea what the irritating monster had done to incur the wrath of what seemed to be the entire human army - though with each day that passed he was more and more tempted to ask - but whatever it was, it had calloused up his soul somehow. He seemed used to this kind of thing, the idea that everything could swing wrong so quickly, that their lives could be threatened both with violence and with long drudging periods of inactivity. 

Grillby couldn’t imagine it himself, and he figured it was probably a symptom of his… simpleness? If that was a good word for it. A symptom of his boring life that he loved so much, with its easy problems and easy solutions. Already Grillby was growing wistful for it. He wished wholeheartedly he could turn back time and let himself sleep that fateful morning they’d met, instead of playing hero in the forest. He didn’t regret saving Gaster’s life, but he certainly regretted everything that had cascaded on him afterwards.

Despite the angst of the monsters with her, Dog was completely unaffected. She was on a grand adventure! Or at the very least she was going on one of the longest and most interesting walks in her entire life. There were a thousand smells to smell, a thousand trails to track - and all in the company of one of her favorite people, and an interesting new people she’d never met before! What a wonderful and interesting world this was for a dog! Sure, there were times when she got distracted and Grillby had to whistle for her to follow closer, but that just gave her a good reason to come sprinting through the brush at break-neck speed to catch up. At night she curled up over Grillby’s legs, sighing happily from his warmth.

 

"Dog!" Grillby called, tying his cloak around his shoulders and whistling for the animal to come back from where she'd already gone bounding off, "We're leaving come on!"

“So, you ever thought about renaming Dog?” Gaster yawned, nearly bending himself in half as he stretched his long arms behind his head, “Give her something a little catchier to run around to?”

“She likes being called Dog.”

“She’s only ever been called Dog.”

Grillby shrugged, watching as the animal went trotting up an animal path nearby, sniffing excitedly at something. When she came racing back to the pair of monsters, he led the way further into the woods, “Dogs aren’t good with learning new names anyway. They don't do words good.”

“Pick a name that rhymes,” Gaster said simply.

“Nothing good rhymes with Dog.”

“That’s quitter talk,” he chuckled, “For example, there’s uh…”

“Uh doesn’t rhyme with Dog.”

Hush! I’m thinking.”

Grillby rolled his eyes, "What a dangerous pastime."

“Stop pestering,” Gaster let out a soft tsk noise and lapsed into contemplative silence for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers, "Bog.”

“Oh yes, I’ve always wanted a dog named after one of the most treacherous places you could possibly try to walk in.”

“Don't be so dramatic. How about - there’s uh -- Frog. That’s an energetic name.”

“We’re solving my naming my dog after an animal… by naming her after another animal?”

“Cog.”

“No.”

“Scrog.”

“Now you’re just making up words.”

"Well it's better than nothing!"

"There isn't much worse than Scrog for a name," Grillby chuckled as Dog’s bark suddenly sounded through the trees, “See? She agrees with m-”

That’s when Gaster suddenly shot out a hand to grab Grillby’s arm, stopping him from walking. Any question he might ask shriveled up in his throat when he turned to face Gaster. His expression was… odd. Something like thoughtful worry and concentration. The lights of Gaster’s eyes panned first across Grillby’s face and then out to the wider woods beyond, pausing only briefly on Dog before moving on again. Grillby noticed Dog too had stopped moving, standing stiff and alert with her floppy ears pricked and a paw up mid-step. The nervous tension Grillby had forgotten in his guts made itself known again with a dreadful lurch. Had he missed something?

“I remember this,” Gaster said suddenly, letting go of Grillby’s arm, “Don’t move.”

Without further explanation, Gaster sunk to the ground, pulling out the little black book he carried and hurriedly flipping through pages. Grillby whistled for Dog, and begrudgingly she trotted over to sit beside them, though her ears stayed pricked. More to reassure himself than Dog, Grillby gave her neck a gentle scratch, roughing up her fur. Dog ignored him. 

Gaster continued to flip through his book, muttering under his breath every few pages. Once or twice Grillby hazarded a curious peek over Gaster’s shoulder, but the page was almost always turned before he could make out what the tightly packed script said. About halfway through the book Gaster stopped on a page, tilting his head slightly as he read. Then he nodded, “Thought so.”

“... what is it?” Grillby asked pensively.

Gaster got to his feet, “Stay quiet and keep your hood up,” he instructed sternly, “Follow me.”

Confused and too scared to ask any questions, Grillby did as he was told. Every step he took suddenly seemed terribly loud in his ears, twigs and leaves betraying his movements with clamorous fervor no matter how softly he stepped. Nervously he pulled his bandana and hood up, narrowing his visible fire to just the gap of his eyes. It was a mostly futile gesture - it was daytime, and fire wasn’t bright enough to stand out too heartily - but it reassured him a little. Dog followed him closely when he whispered to her. She was a smart dog all things considered and was learning from the tension of the last few days that when Grillby suddenly got quiet she was supposed to stay close. 

They walked quite a way forward like that, tense and silent as they moved through the trees - or at least as silent as they could manage. Until Grillby could hear the river, and the smell of the water made him spark. He glimpsed through the trees a bit of the road, and finally saw the bridge - and then he froze.

"Oh no."

"Hush."

Grillby reached up to run his hands through the flame of his head but pulled up short when he felt his hood. There were knights on the bridge. Six of them - three posted on each side. Where they stood in the trees Grillby could see a pair of horsemen talking with the men on the side of the bridge closest to them; checking in on something before nodding their heads and riding off. Grillby couldn't see their faces from this distance, but he could certainly recognize the sword strapped to one of the horses. 

He breathed a quieter, "Oh no."

Careful not to move too quickly Gaster stepped back a few paces, obscuring his spindly form behind the nearest tree. Belatedly Grillby realized he should probably follow his lead. Grillby stepped closer to a nearby birch tree and crouched, hoping the dark hues of his cloak blended well with the mottled bark. He said a hushed command and, after a beat or two of simply standing and blinking, Dog lay down in the grass and leaves, watching Grillby with a somewhat puzzled tilt of her head.

"So," Gaster hissed, "When's the next bridge?"

"I have no idea."

"What?"

"You're lucky I've traveled out of town as far as I have," Grillby glanced pensively out to the bridge, his voice sounding loud to him given the closeness of the armed humans, "I've only ever crossed here twice. It's too far out of the way."

"Well what's the map say?" 

"I'm not getting the map out here."

"Keep your voice down!"

"I'm no louder than you are!"

Dog sneezed and the both of them jumped, Grillby nearly losing his balance and falling into the nearby brush. He just managed to catch the tree with a flailing arm and keep himself from pitching over. The two of them held their breath where they stood, crouching on pinpricks, waiting for a tell-tale exclamation from the stationed knights to signal they’d been noticed. Grillby became keenly aware of how loud the birdsong overhead was, and some distant part of them wished it would settle down so he could hear better. 

Gaster huffed out the breath he’d been holding and hazarded to lean from behind his tree to check the road. Grillby watched him, the wire-tension in his body slowly uncoiling when Gaster leaned back into hiding, nodding their safety. Grillby exhaled a long breath of curling smoke.

“So, this is our only crossing point?” Gaster asked, his voice noticeably softer than it had been before, barely audible above the rustle of leaves in the breeze. 

Grillby licked his lips nervously, “The only one I know of. I’m sure there’s another bridge or ford somewhere further upriver but I’ve got no idea how long the walk will be.”

“Not like we have the supplies for another detour anyway,” Gaster scowled, “Damn it.”

“They really want to find you, don’t they?”

“What was your first clue?”

Grillby ignored the aggressive snap in Gaster’s voice, his flame turning faintly green with worry, “What in the world did you do to warrant all of this?”

Gaster blinked at him, his teeth clenched in an unreadable line, his eyes searching Grillby’s face for… something. Sizing him up, it felt like.

“I’ve risked my life for you twice now,” Grillby pointed out.

“This is more important than a few brushes with unprepared soldiers,” Gaster said finally.

“I could’ve-!”

Gaster held a hand out placatingly, “Yeah yeah. Here, I’ll make you a deal,” he leaned out cautiously from his hiding place once more, getting a better look at the bridge, “We get to that town in one piece? I’ll tell you exactly why I think I’m so damn important. Right now you’re just going to have to trust me.”

Grillby scowled and begrudgingly resigned himself to never getting an answer; either because they weren’t going to make it to the next town or because he expected Gaster to remain evasive he hadn’t decided yet. For now, he gently peeked from his cover as well, sizing up the four knights keeping watch. They wore chainmail and tunics, though something about their getup seemed less glamorous than the mounted knights he’d met the previous day. They seemed a bit more ordinary, and in some parts mismatched and cobbled together. And they seemed bored, Grillby could tell that from the distance. Once the two horsemen had ridden out of sight, the men on the bridge had dropped their weapons and taken to listlessly leaning on the stonework, boredly scanning the road. Once or twice Grillby picked out a raised voice as an attempt at conversation was made.

“They’re not… quite as scary as the horsemen,” Grillby whispered nervously as he ducked back behind the safety of his tree, “But they’re all armed.”

“I bet they’re drafted,” Gaster hummed softly, “You see how mismatched their armor is? They’re probably farmers back home or something. Pulled off their land by some nobleman.”

Grillby ran a hand through the flame on his head, “I know the feeling.”

“Oh, stop sounding so tragic,” Gaster bickered, finally turning and slinking away from his hiding place. He moved slowly, half-crouched as he motioned for Grillby to follow, “Come on, I’ve got an idea.”