For most bugs, the rise of the infection marked the fall of the eternal kingdom of Hallownest. But for Hornet, the plague was part of her world since the moment she hatched.
The Mantis Lords had unintentionally performed a grand job of shielding Deepnest from the infection. They dedicated their entire lives to honing their skills until none dared challenge a mantis in combat. The offender would lose their head before finishing a single sentence. But the infection struck indiscriminately, and no bugs were exempt from its insatiable appetite. Hornet heard on the grapevine that one of the four Mantis Lords abandoned his sisters and accepted the plague with open arms. The corrupting light whispered promises of inconceivable power. It swore to strengthen their muscles, turn their bones to steel and their claws to obsidian. It infiltrated their dreams and eroded their minds like a sinkhole opening beneath their feet.
The only price they had to pay for limitless potential was their souls, and for the traitorous Mantis Lord, no cost was too small.
The tribe had to excise half their population to ensure their brother's madness didn't wipe out the whole species. There was something admirable about their unshakeable tenacity. The mantises saw a tumour, a blight upon their honour, and mercilessly cut it out before it demolished them all. Hornet couldn't even begin to imagine the heartache that the remaining Mantis Lords had endured for all these years. The mantises who remained swore fealty to the Pale King, supervising the entrance to Deepnest so that no horrors could slither up to the surface. Without their brother, they wouldn't have stood a chance against the Wyrm's court. In the end, only one bug benefitted from the Traitor Lord's debasement, and that was the Pale King himself.
Hornet wondered what she would've done if she'd stood in the shoes of the Mantis Lords. Could she have evicted the Weavers that draped the tangled tunnels of Deepnest with their silk? Could she have condemned the Mask Maker or Midwife if their minds fell to insanity? Hornet prayed that she would never need to find out. Perhaps that was why Herrah was the queen of Deepnest, and Hornet was not.
Hornet had spent next to no time with Herrah before she became a Dreamer. The spider queen lay swaddled in a silken crib while Hornet sat crossed-leg by her side, chatting away into the stillness of her mother's chamber. It didn't matter what subjects sparked her interest - the weather, the bugs tricked into sitting on the web-lined bench, the unpreventable entropy of the universe. It was always one-sided. Herrah never roused from her hibernation. Each of the three Dreamers had a line of defence to ward away any curious beasts that sought to pierce the veil of sleep. Lurien had his Watcher Knights. Monomon had Uumuu. And Herrah had Hornet. She couldn't begin to fathom why any bug would willingly brave the coils of confusing caves that was Deepnest. A single wrong step would take an unassuming insect into the path of a gluttonous Garpede. Innumerable pitfalls ambushed with tetanus-ridden spikes hid around every corner. But the infection turned its hosts against the Dreamers, striving to snuff out their lives and break the seal on the Temple of the Black Egg. It understood that its tentacles would never span the latitude of Hallownest if the Dreamers kept it confined within the Hollow Knight.
Honestly, Hornet didn't need to be given motivation to keep watch over her mother. The bond of blood held truer than any spider silk. She'd come to terms with spending the rest of her mortal life guarding Herrah until she was too weak to hold up her needle. But as all things tended to pass when the Pale King was involved, it was never going to be that easy.
The unwavering compound eyes of the Mantis Lords kept Hallownest secure from the terrors of Deepnest, but the reverse was no less true. Not a single soul bridged the threshold into the gloomy caverns, which kept the infection firmly out of Deepnest. The mantises had inadvertently quarantined the spiders from the plague that ravished the settlements above, and Hornet was content for it to stay that way. Deepnest was submerged so far beneath the surface that her citizens would never see the light of day nor fall prey to its illusions. They roosted in the shadows where it was safe, where the claws of the old light would never reach them.
So when the first infected Deepling staggered across Hornet's path, its spindly legs quivering as it barely clung to the last vestiges of life, she knew she had to take action. The unintended curtain that concealed Deepnest from the infection had failed.
No one really understood how the plague spread from bug to bug. Some claimed the waters raining on the capital from the lake above were spiked with its poison. Some said it invaded your dreams and devoured your brain before dawn. Some declared it was divine punishment for turning their backs on the old gods and worshipping the Pale King in their stead. To Hornet, it didn't truly matter. The infection was restrained within the body of the Hollow Knight - or at least, it should've been. Something was awry within the sprawling city above Hornet's head, but she didn't dare face the Mantis Lords to investigate. Deepnest would fall into decay if the royal bloodline ended with her head on a pike.
But the sole infected Deepling quickly became an infected nest. The infected nest became an infected region. The light burrowed into the minds of the Stalking Devouts like a botfly. It gorged on the Weaver's dreams and distorted their bodies with glowing cysts and cancers. The entire den would be consumed before long, and Hornet didn't doubt that help would never arrive.
Well, no daughter of Herrah the Beast would sit back idly. Hornet stuffed the hidden pockets of her ruby shawl with as much silk as she could carry and hoisted her needle onto her back. She cast one final sorrowful glance at her mother's sleeping silhouette projected against the backdrop of spider webs and departed Deepnest for the grottoes beyond. Hornet wasn't sure which was heavier - the weight of her weapon or the weight of her heart.
Herrah would excommunicate her daughter in a flash if she discovered her using the tramway, but Hornet didn't fancy her chances against the Mantis Lords. The desolate cable cars stood as a shrine to unfettered greed. The tracks were the Pale King's fingers clawing into territories that didn't belong to him. The electricity pulsing down the circuits was his heartbeat carrying blood to the farthest reaches of his usurped empire. His shallow promises of increased trade and a bolstered economy fell on deaf ears, and the trams sat disused for longer than Hornet had been alive. But she didn't have another option. There wasn't enough Geo in Hallownest to convince the stag beetles to service Deepnest's only platform. The trolley formed a connection with the Ancient Basin before snaking out into the Kingdom's Edge. It would be the detour of a lifetime, but Hornet could make her way back into Hallownest from there.
Hornet cautiously hopped aboard the tramcar, wincing as the rusted metal creaked beneath her weight. The control panel was laden with dust from years of disuse, and the fabric cushions were faded and frayed. The lifeless bodies of bugs were strewn across the seats like fallen dominoes, their faces indistinguishable and shells laced with mould. Hornet stepped over them without sparing a second thought. The sanctuary of the tram had become their eternal tomb, but there was no time to pay respects. If Hornet stopped to offer a silent prayer to every casualty of the plague, the entire nest would be overrun before she even left Deepnest. Instead, the spider queasily swept away the dust from the cable car's controls and pushed down on the largest button. The doors clattered shut, and the tram lurched away from the station like a lumbering grub. Hornet half expected the support beams to splinter and buckle, sending her tumbling into the frigid void below. To the bugs that lost themselves to the infection, perhaps such a fate would be merciful.
Hornet practically pressed her face against the cloudy window as the car neared the Ancient Basin. The air was thick with bitter smoke, and flecks of ash and soot danced below the Lumafly lanterns. The barren walls twisted and turned as if the stone had a will of its own, and stalactites hung from the ceiling like fossilised vines. The tram tracks carved a path through mounds of dried egg sacks that littered the floor, once thrumming with life but now silent and still. Hornet felt her trichobothria standing on end. Very few bugs knew of the chimney that extended below the bedrock and into the pits of hells. Hornet wouldn't be surprised if the Abyss drew its darkness from the very centre of the earth. There was a palpable uneasiness in the air that made her shell itch, and she was loathed to linger long. Hornet was not unaware of what tossed and turned in the Abyss below. Part of her wanted to see it for herself - to stare into the void and see what stared back.
As the tram entered the final stretch towards the forgotten station, Hornet almost jumped back from the window in surprise. The Ancient Basin wasn't infertile after all! The platform was not only strewn with debris; it was host to a hoard of tiny glowing creatures. Meagre globs of golden honey, gently pulsing with fuzzy light. They skittered and scuttered across the tram tracks without caution, jiggling like blobs of animate jelly. Were they single-celled organisms? Hornet had never seen amoebae the size of grapes before, but perhaps the mutative caress of the void had created life where nothing else could thrive. The creatures barely seemed to register the spider's presence, or maybe they lacked the capacity to care.
The primitive bugs were not the only beings devoid of empathy. The tram car unaffectedly rolled over the bodies that couldn't scamper away in time. The Lightseeds burst like ripe berries, spewing nectar-coloured juice across the jagged rocks and painting the cable car's metal with hues of yellow and orange.
Hornet swallowed heavily. A boulder of existential dread sat in the pit of her stomach. Her nose caught a whiff of syrupy sweet sap, but it only made her feel sick. Without taking her eyes away from the window, the spider urgently pressed the control button and held it down until the tram sailed past the station. Perhaps Hornet wasn't ready to uncork the secrets buried below Hallownest’s foundations after all.
Hornet nearly sprang clean out of her shell as the tram screeched to a halt at its terminus - the Kingdom's Edge. The rivulets of void that perspired from the Abyss seemed to spread only upwards, not outwards. But even as the gates closed with a thundering boom, sealing off the darkness-soaked tunnels behind her, Hornet felt an urge to run as far from the Abyss as her legs would carry her. She shook herself off with a resolute "harrumph" and stepped out of the tram car and onto the awaiting platform. She was the princess of Hallownest, daughter of Herrah, child of Deepnest. Her needle struck with the force of a scorpion's stinger, and her determination was as unbreakable as an armadillo's armour. Hornet hiked up her metaphorical britches and pushed onwards into the Kingdom's Edge. All the while, her shadow seemed to reach its arms out towards the Abyss, trying to rejoin her siblings in the darkness below.
The sheer cliff face of the Kingdom's Edge was not a roost for the wary, but it seemed the infection had found no foothold here. The endemic Booflys lazily buzzed through the air, drifting under the whims of the wind that blew across the canyon like zeppelins. Irridescent snowflakes of moult wafted in the breeze, sloughing off the corpse of a dead Wyrm that marked Hallownest's farthest boundaries. The scales rained down upon the green acid pools and disintegrated into puffs of white smoke on contact. Hornet's goal was a half-collapsed waterway that offered an entrance into the City of Tears for those brave enough to wade through. The Pale King ordered the gateways into the capital be sealed when the Hollow Knight's failure to control the infection made itself known. The only other entrance to the City of Tears was lost when Hegemol's armour seemingly grew legs and strolled out of the palace treasury. Hornet sincerely detested the cowardly insects who barricaded themselves inside their fortress of greed, leaving their less fortunate brethren to shoulder the consequences. But if anywhere in the kingdom remained uncontaminated, it was the City of Tears.
If Hornet hadn't been only half-spider, she could've scurried straight up the wall. Sadly, she lacked the tarsus and claws to adhere herself to the craggy cliffside. Instead, she looped one end of her weft through the eye of her needle and hurled it through the air like a platinum spear. It penetrated the rock face like a magnum bullet, embedding itself several centimetres deep. Hornet then effortlessly rappelled up the cliff with a speed that would've made her ancestors proud. Her progress only paused when she encountered the entrance to the hive. A vast network of honeycomb lay just below the surface, woven throughout the cobblestone like the most delicate hand-crafted lace. But now, the only indication of the hive's existence was a waxy plug that formed an airtight seal over the entryway. Several Hivelings repeatedly bounced their heads off the cork as if they'd been trapped outside and were desperate to reunite with their kin sealed inside. Hornet courteously lowered her head in respect but dared not dally. She just prayed that somewhere within the bowels of the hive, Queen Vespa and her bees had found asylum from the epidemic.
Hornet had planned to reach the City of Tears before resting, but by the time she'd scaled the cliff, her body was already voicing its complaints. Her muscles protested loudly from the exertion, and she was panting for precious air. The spider's lithe form was perfectly engineered for traversing narrow tunnels, leaping over spikes, and balancing on the thinnest tightropes. Not for ascending mountains so tall that she got vertigo trying to see the peak. Not to mention the Primal Aspids swarming from every nook and cranny like a flock of locusts. They showed no signs of carrying the infection, but their dispositions were no less vitriolic. The Primal Aspids spat corrosive venom at Hornet every time she entered their line of sight. One wrong step would see her exoskeleton digested by the poison so the insects could slurp up her mushy remains. And they always seemed to know where Hornet was going to place her next step before she even knew it herself. She almost wished they'd contract the infection so their entire species would be wiped out. The world would be better for it.
Hornet was not too proud to admit when she'd had enough. Her limits lay somewhere in the vicinity of scaling the entire breadth of Hallownest in one night. She would find a safe spot to rest and continue her quest tomorrow.
Hornet eventually sighted a small campsite erected on a plateau that sagged beneath the weight of decades of accumulated moult. A leather awning stretched above her head, tattered and torn by the sharpened claws of the howling wind. Several large sleeping bags huddled together as if clamouring for warmth that would never come. A hammock swayed from the supporting pole, though its contents betrayed the fate of those who once sought shelter here. The emaciated body of a dead bug was bundled in the cradle where it took its last breath, and doubtless there were more entombed in the sleeping bags at Hornet's feet. This tent was both a site of refuge and a graveyard for the forgotten. Hornet almost drew the line at lounging alongside the cadavers of bugs that once had names, families that loved them and stories that would forever remain untold. But she didn't have the privilege of choice. This tent was a haven from the beasts that would slip their proboscises between the joints of her carapace and suck out her insides. It would have to do.
Hornet rammed her needle into the soft earth at her feet and tied the loose end of her silk to the tent's central pole. She was never a particularly skilled weaver, but the filament naturally produced within her shell would form a serviceable hammock. It didn't look nearly as comfortable as the linen bedsheets that enveloped the dried-out husks, but it was preferable to sleeping on the ground. Perhaps if Hornet's mother hadn't been stolen away and enticed into an eternal coma, Hornet might've learned to do a better job. She cautiously eased her weight into the cradle, the fibres of her crimson cloak adhering to the slightly sticky residue that coated the silk. Her curved horns almost poked two identical holes in the gossamer strands. Hornet tucked her legs under her coat and wrapped her arms around her knees. Her sensitive ears could still detect the faint buzzing of wings below, and the whistling wind was like the howling of anguished ghosts.
Hornet lay wholly within the borders of Hallownest, yet a stab of loneliness pierced through her chest like a shard of ice. Most bugs were terrified of the darkness of Deepnest that shrouded predators with dripping fangs and gnarly claws, and rightly so. But to Hornet, the shadows were like the comforting embrace of the mother she never had. While her svelte silhouette was muddied by the hazy darkness, she wasn't just a feeble, helpless spider. There was nowhere to hide in the light. It exposed every chink in Hornet’s armour that she obscured with her razor-sharp tongue and abrasive attitude. The light permeated the wrinkles of her brain and illuminated parts of her character that she would prefer to remain out of sight. Insecurities buried so deep that she'd almost convinced herself that they didn't exist.
As Hornet lay curled in her makeshift hammock, besieged on all sides by dead bodies and with the translucent flakes of her father's moult collecting on her horns, Hornet felt as if she was the only bug still alive.
She was absolutely, completely, utterly alone.
Hornet wasn't sure where she was.
The spider stood within a primitive passage so narrow that her horns were a mere hair's breadth from becoming embedded in the earth above her head. The rocks were like coarse sandpaper, unnaturally cold as if a layer of permafrost lurked below the surface. Hornet's arachnid eyes could detect movement in even the deepest darkness, yet they couldn't penetrate the unnatural shadows that skulked at the corners of her vision. Was this Deepnest? Some age-old trail carved by the forebearers of Hallownest that had fallen into obscurity? That eluded any attempts to map its anatomy or ascribe a name? But... surely that wasn't possible. Hornet knew the bowels of Deepnest like the back of her horns, but this place was eerily foreign. A pale imitation.
The cave was so quiet that Hornet could hear her own heartbeat thumping like a bass drum. The air smelled of damp and moss, but a slightly sour scent caught the back of the spider's throat. The aroma of death and decay that occupied the once thriving halls of Hallownest - clinging to the clothes of any bug unlucky enough to wander into the derelict civilisation. Void. It emerged from the Abyss in clouds of dense fog that suffocated all remnants of life until only wraiths remained. It wove itself into the fibres of Hornet's cloak as she passed the Ancient Basin and refused to relinquish its hold. But how? The void had never breached the depths of Deepnest. Its only instinct was to climb higher and higher into Hallownest, yet Deepnest was as far below ground as bugs dared to burrow.
Hornet suddenly felt a presence to her rear. It was as if the force of gravity had suddenly multiplied and was trying to crush the spider beneath her own weight. Hornet whirled around, her red cloak billowing out like rose petals, but there was nothing behind her. At least, nothing she could see. No matter how keen her vision, there was no discerning the darkness that crept closer with every breath. It wasn't that the shadows were any more opaque than she remembered. The concept of light just... didn't exist at the far end of the tunnel. Hornet was teetering at the event horizon of a black hole. Nothing indicated that the spider was being hunted - no heavy breathing, scuttering of legs, or chattering of mandibles. But Hornet couldn't shake the feeling that something was creeping up behind her in the shroud of darkness. Some unseen nightmare that could crunch her exoskeleton in its jaws as if she was made of brittle ceramic.
Hornet felt a wave of dread swelling in her chest, but she shook herself down and demanded her mind be quiet. She was no one's prey, and her actions would not be dictated by her fight-or-flight response. Hornet was the daughter of the Pale King: a veritable demi-god. Instead, she briskly turned her back on the menacing shadows and marched into the tunnels without a hint of anxiety. Hornet had gotten herself here somehow, and she would find her own way out.
Unfortunately for Hornet, the entangled knot of passages was not so easily convinced.
Her route split in different directions, turning back in on itself in ways that defied all logic. It was like a coiling ouroboros devouring its own tail, sending Hornet in circles until she could barely tell up from down. Her hands occasionally skimmed over bleached-white roots; fossilised remains of plants that once colonised the substrate, now barren and stripped. The spider never once looked back, but the creeping darkness nipped at her heels. Hornet’s feet grew numb as thorns of ice spread up her calves from the frigid soil. The smell of damp, dank mud hit the back of her throat, but the bitter scent of void only grew stronger with every step. The floor could've split open like a grievous gash and plunged Hornet into the Abyss below, and she wouldn't have been taken aback. Hallownest was founded upon a mound of corpses, and to rest peacefully was a mercy that would never come to her curse-crippled siblings.
But just as Hornet was beginning to lose hope of ever escaping the labyrinth, her eyes caught sight of a glimmer in the distance. At first, she suspected it was an illusion. Her eyes were blinded by darkness, looking for anything to latch on to. But no matter how many times Hornet blinked and rubbed her eyes, the subtle glow persevered.
It was light!
But how?! No light could touch the abyssal pits of Deepnest, no matter the depth of the hole it wormed through. Yet the spark continued to gleam in spite of all common sense. Perhaps the glow came from bioluminescent mushrooms that found security in these abandoned halls. But it shone with an illustrious golden hue like a ray of unfiltered sunlight. The weighty presence at Hornet's rear receded into the intestines of the earth as if even the dimmest light was enough to strike it down. Wherever that light had sprung from, it may have saved Hornet's life.
Hornet couldn't comprehend the full extent of what was happening, but one thing was certain. Something waited at the end of the tunnel; that banished the darkness plaguing her footsteps. If she could make contact, could she find her way out? Hornet's crusade to eradicate the infection was nowhere near complete. She refused to allow her legacy to end in some unnamed, unknown, unexplored dirt hole like this. Herrah had not martyred herself for nothing. As long as Hornet drew breath, she would ensure that her mother's sacrifice was not for nought.
With a renewed sense of confidence, Hornet stood up to her maximum height and ploughed onwards towards the light. Whatever secrets it held within its radiant bloom, they would all be laid bare soon enough.
Hornet jolted into awakeness with a startled yelp. Her heart was pounding so fast that it threatened to break through her thorax, and her muscles quivered with paranormal chills. A lump in her throat threatened to block her airways. Only the sticky coating of her silk hammock kept Hornet from tumbling out of bed and landing on her face. She'd been wrenched from sleep with such suddenness that her mind was doing cartwheels in her skull. Hornet froze in place as she sensed a set of eyes staring her down, but it was only the corpse of the bug in the other hammock. Its glassy gaze peered into her soul from beyond the grave. That's right; Hornet wasn't lost amid the jungle of tunnels beneath Deepnest. This was the Kingdom's Edge. There was no looming darkness trying to soak into her shell and swallow her organs. The awning of the tent still stretched above her head like the wings of a moth protecting her children from the Wyrm that sought to devour them whole.
"A dream...?" Hornet quietly asked herself, rubbing her arms as if trying to soothe the whirlwind raging in her soul. The other bugs did not respond. Their corpses continued to stare at the spooked spider like a jury of jesters. "My mind goes to such strange places..."
Hornet felt little fear wandering the caves in her mind yet was almost paralysed by terror as soon as she woke. Something had breached her dreams and muted the encroaching panic, keeping her calm and compliant while her spirit explored worlds unknown. But as soon as Hornet rose from sleep, all that repressed fright came rushing back in one great tsunami. Her waking self knew to be afraid of what her dream self was not. Hornet shoved away the lingering dread as if sweeping off the speckled dust from her red cloak She'd spent the night surrounded by dead bodies! Was she expecting to dream of rainbows and kittens while resting in a copse of corpses? The experience was better left here amongst the whispers of the departed. There was no better place.
Hornet left the sanctum of the tent and approached the shaft that ran the full height of the Kingdom's Edge. Countless holes had been bored into the outer wall of Hallownest by weevils and wasps, and one was a stoma connecting to the City of Tears. Hornet was contemplating how best to traverse the gap when a piercing scream rang down from above. She looked up in time to watch an armoured bug come sailing down the chasm from the Colosseum of Fools like one of the countless flakes of moult. The insect bounced off a rocky outcrop with a jaw-shattering CRUNCH, smashing through its chitinous armour and turning its insides to pulp. Its scream abruptly cut off as it tumbled past Hornet with several broken limbs before splashing into the acid pool below. The green liquid frothed and foamed as the bug was reduced to nothing but dust. Only the shell of its head remained, gracefully floating down to the lakebed alongside the other warriors that had met the same fate.
The Colosseum's clients came from far and wide seeking glory and fortune, yet their legacy would inevitably end with a murmur.
Hornet shook her head. There was a good reason why the arena was named the 'Colosseum of Fools', though the irony was lost on most. Both the bloody-thirsty combatants that fought to the death and the audience members who revelled in senseless violence earned the title of 'fool'. The infection increased its body count with the passing of every day, yet so many insects turned out to watch their peers tear each other's limbs off. Did they think their masks would protect them from the disease? Or were they willing to turn a blind eye to a pandemic for the sake of entertainment? They buried their heads in the sand because it was easier than facing the harsh truth of reality, even as their kinsfolk dropped like flies. At least every bug hurled from the amphitheatre into the maw of the Kingdom's Edge was a body that couldn't become a carrier for the infection.
Hornet huffed in contempt and fired her needle across the gorge and into the wall on the other side. The silk thread tied to the spear formed a tightrope that Hornet could nimbly scamper across. A fat Boofly watched the spider dart across with a docile, vacuous expression. Had the infection spared this area because its population lacked the capacity for higher thought? Maybe the disease required a host that could be brainwashed into serving its twisted dogma, infiltrating populated settlements and circulating its spores without discrimination. The pacifist Booflies likely had no idea of the chaos that raged around them. Hornet was almost a little jealous.
Thankfully the disused Stagway connecting the Kingdom's Edge and the City of Tears hadn't experienced a total cave-in. Hornet carefully squeezed herself into a gap in the rock face. The hem of her ruby-red cowl almost snagged and tore on the jagged shale. The spider cringed as she sloshed through murky, muddy water that stank of stagnation. Curse the capital and its endless rain! Constructing a city beneath a leaking lakebed was the height of hubris. Hornet's cloak was soaked a deep, bloody mahogany by the time she found footing on solid ground. Hornet just prayed that the infection wasn't waterborne.
Hornet had only visited the King’s Station once: shortly after she hatched. The Pale King paraded her around like a trophy, declaring her to be living proof of the ceasefire between Hallownest and Deepnest. The hub once bustled with life, often so busy that bugs brushed shoulders and a single stray horn could take out an eye. Now it was so empty that Hornet could've heard a pin drop. The wall tiles were warped and sagging as the constant barrage of water displaced the cement beneath. Its arched windows were clouded with grime, and the spiral staircases had collapsed into twisted rubble. Half the floor was entirely underwater, and the other half was on the verge of joining it. It looked as if no one had called upon the services of the Stagways for years. Hornet had no idea of the bedlam brewing in the city above her head. Deepnest never caught wind of the despair that coiled its serpentine limbs around the kingdom and strangled it of life. This was bad.
The City of Tears closed all passageways into the metropolis when the infection made its first reappearance. The denizens had the opportunity to shelter the less fortunate bugs living in the wastelands outside but chose not to. They only saw value in their own lives and the mountains of wealth they hoarded in an attempt to fill the emptiness with piles of gold and gemstones. Ugh. What a farce. But there were only three colonies that Hornet could imagine withstanding the oncoming apocalypse. The City of Tears had impossibly high walls and skilled armed forces that could hopefully keep the infection at bay. Crystal Peak was so challenging to access and perched so high above the epicentre that it could've been spared. And Dirtmouth was the only settlement above ground, with the dried-up well forming a natural bottleneck. These were the regions that Hornet was going to storm. If she could find even a single bug still in control of their faculties, she could perhaps drive back the infection before the kingdom was wiped from the pages of history.
Hornet breathed an audible sigh of relief as she stepped out of the King's Station and onto the boulevard. Her eyes caught the first sign of intelligent bug life since the last time she looked in a mirror. The city guards still patrolled the residential district, safeguarding the homes that hopefully sheltered the remaining population. There were bugs that had escaped the infection! Hornet's intuition must've been spot on. The Great Sentries were some of Hallownest's most feared sentinels; just the sight of their brick-red chitin and heavy greatnails could strike fear into the hearts of the most dauntless hunters. They carried shields made of the hardest beetle shells, impervious to all but the most soul-crushing blows. They could easily repel any infected husks attempting to disseminate their disease. Hornet could barely restrain her excitement as she sprinted towards the nearest Sentry, trying not to slip on the rain-sodden pavement.
"Pardon my interruption," Hornet declared as she approached the patrolling officer. "I seek news of the capital's condition. Can you offer your insight - do the bugs of Hallownest live on?"
The Great Sentry didn't reply. It didn't even turn its head.
The mighty bug continued to pace onwards, marching past the entrance to the Pleasure House. A tender glow peeked from the stained-glass window set into the doorframe, luring its patrons in with the promise of alcohol and "gentleman's entertainment". Well, the City of Tears couldn't be suffering too badly if the Pleasure House could still fill its chairs. Perhaps the Sentry just hadn't heard Hornet over the pounding rain? Rivers of water trickled down the spider's horns and into her eyes. She wiped the droplets from her shell but was soaked through again in seconds. The city guards were doggedly loyal to their commander, but not to the extent that they were deaf to their surroundings. Hornet felt unease stirring within her stomach, but she brushed it aside and reached out once more.
"Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt your duties," Hornet stated, a little louder this time. "If you can offer any assistance, I'll be on my way and out of your antennae."
The Great Sentry stopped in its tracks. Hornet's words carried over the streaming rain and caught the soldier's attention, but it wasn't the reaction she was expecting. Instead of turning around and addressing their visitor, the Great Sentry was like an automaton following a predetermined path. A robot bound by the rules of its script. Hornet stared up at the towering bug as it slowly turned its head. The Great Sentry's eyes were like pools of amber honey, radiating a lethargic glow that illuminated its armour with golden sunshine. It stared through Hornet with an absent gaze as if its thoughts were fragmented and fractured. The insect's sinewy limbs moved with jerky, unnatural motions like a marionette on strings, puppeteered by a creature lurking in the shadows.
The Great Sentry... no, the Great Husk Sentry, was infected. The infection had reached the City of Tears.
Hornet stepped back with a gasp as the Great Husk Sentry suddenly lurched towards her. It raised its greatnail above its head and cleaved it through the air in an attempt to slice Hornet in two. The spider swiftly dodged to the side, hearing the steel blade whistle beautifully as it cut through the rain and smog. The greatnail struck the pavement with a jarring CLANG, leaving a gash in the concrete that bled brown mud. The Great Husk Sentry's head was filled with a thousand voices screaming in unison, and its neurons were drowning in adrenaline. Hornet was a threat. She was an outlier, a heretic, a savage. She was blind to the light that granted them unity; that saved them from the agony of free thought and indecision. But it wasn't too late. The light forgave all sins. Hornet couldn't fathom the eldritch beings she was playing with, but her eyes could be opened. Even if it was through force.
The Great Husk Sentry almost lost its footing after throwing its entire weight into that swipe, but the hivemind controlling its body refused to let it rest. The armoured bug jerked upright and swung its greatnail horizontally to chop off Hornet's head. Hornet's instincts urged her to fight back, to strike down the beetle before it could do the same to her. But... she couldn't. This wasn't a mindless Aspid or Garpede. It wasn't a terrified creature backed into a corner and fighting to survive. This bug was sick. It had a family, loved ones, a story to tell and a perspective that no other insect could replicate. The Great Husk Sentry needed help. But the infection coursing through its veins and rotting its muscles didn't care about the body it had appropriated.
Hornet nimbly hopped backwards and out of the greatnail's reach, but the paving stones were slick with rain. Her feet skidded and slipped out from under her, sending the spider toppling to the ground. The Great Husk Sentry wasn't about to let such a blunder go unchecked. It raised its sword above its head and aimed for the valley between the spider's horns. The hefty blade was more than enough to crack Hornet's shell in two and skewer her like a kebab. But Hornet wasn't out for the count. She snatched her needle from her back and deflected the blow before it could land. The spear absorbed the impact and sent shockwaves down her arms that almost wrenched the weapon from her grasp. Hornet's slender form was suited for short bouts of intense combat, striking with precision and downing her opponents before they even saw her coming. She couldn't stand against a bug that used unadulterated brute strength to crush its enemies.
If Hornet didn't do something, her exoskeleton would be pummeled into dust and she would join her siblings in the void below. Herrah would never rouse from her sleep, and the last bastion of Hallownest would fall to the infection.
Hornet reared her needle back like the fangs of a cobra and hurled it forward with as much force as she could muster. The spear sang a haunting hymn as it soared through the air, impaling the Great Husk Sentry right between its eyeballs and out the back of its head. The brutish beetle staggered backwards before weightily collapsing to the ground. It didn't get back up.
Hornet was frozen in shock as several globs of yellow pus oozed from the Great Sentry's eyeholes, the same fluid that filled the organisms in the Ancient Basin. The gelatinous goop drained through the cracks in the pavement and disappeared into the soil, leaving behind its host's empty shell. The jaundiced glow faded from the beetle's eyes, returning its retinas to a jet-black hue. The stranglehold of the infection had been severed. Hornet wrapped her hands around the hilt of her needle and tried to pull the weapon from the Great Husk Sentry's head. A wave of nausea surged in her throat as the chitin splintered beneath her touch, yanking on her spear until it finally came loose. Her legs were shaking, and it wasn't only because of the adrenaline still pumping through her veins. This bug was dead because of her. It wasn't the infection that took its life, that stilled its breath and silenced its heartbeat. It was Hornet. These bugs were supposed to be her citizens. She would've been their princess if she ever accepted the title. But now, Hornet was the arbiter of their death.
Hornet ran. She left the Sentry's lifeless body behind and fled into the twisted skyscrapers of the City of Tears. She raced into the Royal Quarter, a structure padded with plush fur carpets and paintings so beautiful they could make a God weep. Hornet almost barreled headfirst into a band of bugs huddled beneath a Lumafly Lantern. They were once the high society of Hallownest, the cream of the crop, the aristocracy that leered down at the peasants with vile sneers. Now they were empty husks with golden eyes; skin speckled with pulsing boils that wept sweet-smelling purulence. The bugs released simultaneous rasping groans and reached out for Hornet like a horde of brainless zombies. Hornet yelped in fright and pushed them away, knocking them to the floor like a row of bowling pins. She was a crimson blur as she darted through the alleys of the city. Everywhere she looked, infected insects lurked on the vacant streets with clothes saturated by rain and eyes that glowed like stars.
Hornet ran and ran until her lungs felt like they would tear themselves apart. Her vision was freckled with bright spots as her organs screamed for oxygen. The rain pounded against her shell like icy hailstones, and a painful headache sprouted between her eyes. Hornet was desperate to leave the City of Tears and its doomed denizens behind, but her muscles were at their limit. She had to stop and rest, lest she collapse from exhaustion and become easy prey for the demons roaming the capital. Hornet scrubbed the rain from her face with the hem of her cowl, yet wet trails still dripped down her cheeks. She told herself that they weren't tears. The dreary rain had infiltrated her soul until she was just as dour as the gentry that once called this place home.
Hornet sighed and heavily flopped onto a nearby bed. She'd escaped into an abandoned house that faced onto a narrow alleyway, a building that smelled of damp and decay. Trails of rain trickled down the window that stretched from floor to ceiling, racing the other droplets in a bid to be the first to hit the ground. Its owner had undoubtedly succumbed to the infection and joined the mobs that prowled the desecrated capital. Even so, Hornet had thrown open every wardrobe and cabinet before allowing the tension to slip from her joints. The drumming of rain against the foggy skylight could mask the sound of footsteps, and she didn't dare let down her guard.
Hornet was so confident that the City of Tears would've survived the resurgence of the infection. She hadn't considered any other possibility. The spider hadn't mentally prepared herself to stroll into a den so rampant with disease that she could smell it in the air. It was sweet like the purest royal jelly but polluted with a bitter aftertaste like the smell of void. The same biting tang that tormented Hornet in her dreams. Was the infection a consequence of sealing the Abyss beneath Hallownest's foundations? Had it been left to curdle and fester in despair, and was this mess just retribution for the Pale King's crimes? Hornet shuddered, suddenly feeling much colder than could be solely blamed on the rain. She had no idea of what fate had befallen her father, but as long as Hallownest prevailed in his shadow, they would bear the weight of his actions until the whole nest came crumbling down.
Hornet slapped her right cheek hard enough to leave an angry red mark. What was she thinking?! The situation seemed so utterly hopeless that her spirit was spiralling into a ditch of remorse. But this was no time for self-pity. The City of Tears was evidently a lost cause, but the kingdom of Hallownest was so much more than the beating heart of its capital city. The miners of Crystal Peak and the travellers of Dirtmouth could very well be unthreatened. The Dreamers still hibernated in their sanctuaries of solitude, and the royal bloodline still raced through Hornet's veins. If she was going to marinate in a pool of her own anguish, then she might as well just lay down and die right now. And Hornet was not going to die. There was no proof that those bugs had truly perished. They could still be alive, struggling tirelessly beneath the blanket of infection that reanimated their bodies. The citizens of Hallownest could still be cured.
The sorrow that once filled Hornet's heart to bursting was now replaced by righteous anger. She was riled up and ready to go, but her body was out of sync with her emotions. That brawl against the Great Husk Sentry left bruises on her shins that would've burned with an inflamed purple hue if her chitin wasn't already black. Hornet needed to be in prime physical condition if she hoped to make it to Crystal Peak. She had to move quickly, but not recklessly. Hornet was a strategic spider who premeditated her actions several steps ahead of those who dared stand in her way. Allowing her emotions to guide her footsteps would only result in her stumbling before she even began.
Hornet wrung her cloak between her hands. A stream of rainwater squeezed from the fibres and collected in a puddle on the floor. She would gather her strength, free her mind from the turmoil that churned in her stomach, and continue up and out of the City of Tears tomorrow. Hornet’s mind wandered towards the Temple of the Black Egg that stood in the crossroads like a monument to the Pale King's failures. The door sealing the Hollow Knight within its jail cell should still be undisturbed. The Dreamers continued to sleep, so how had the infection escaped? Hornet vowed to pay her sibling a visit. No matter how hard she tried to avoid the issue, denial would only turn to demise. She had to face her ghosts sooner or later.
Hornet was too tired and frustrated to spin a web to nap in. The bed she'd stumbled upon in this sidelined house had more than a few broken springs and one very suspicious stain in the mattress, but it would do. Hornet flopped face-first onto the bed without tucking herself under the bedsheets. She was too exasperated to bundle up in the wrinkled linens, and her brain wouldn't let go of the agitation that fueled her furnace. Hornet grabbed a droopy pillow and buried her face in its downy fluff. The road ahead seemed to twist and turn into infinity, and her destination hid somewhere beyond the horizon. Hornet would need every ounce of tenacity if she was going to single-handedly save her kingdom.
With the gentle pattering of rain against the windowpane, Hornet eventually drifted into an uneasy, unrefreshing sleep.
Hornet looked around with a gruff grunt of disappointment. This was a bleak landscape she'd hoped to never lay eyes on again in her lifetime. The claustrophobic tunnels that wound through the bowels of the earth like an undulating snake. The distant dripping of peat-stained bog water. The shadows were so opaque that it appeared as if chunks of the planet had been carved out, leaving only nothingness in their place. This dream again? Perhaps the sight of the tram ploughing over those alien creatures and peppering its paint with their insides had left more of an impact on Hornet than she'd realised. The ordeal was burned into her retinas like a portrait of an atom bomb.
But something was different about the atmosphere this time. The air was so cold that Hornet could see her own breath. The tips of her horns were like icicles, and everything below her knees was completely numb. The gravelly walls now felt slightly fleshy, and her hands left small indents in the unsettlingly moist surface. The aroma of void had increased tenfold until Hornet felt like she was on the verge of passing out. If this was Deepnest, then it must've begun to slip into the Abyss. Perhaps an earthquake had caused the earth to subside, and the entirety of Hallownest was collapsing into the caverns below. The void would never rest until balance was restored. The Pale King siphoned from its core by creating those damnable vessels, and it was trying to fill the hole with the souls of the bugs that lived in blissful ignorance above.
Hornet heard something approaching from the perpetual darkness behind her.
She slowly turned her head, afraid of making any sudden movements. Distant scuttling; rhythmic tapping. The percussion of chitin against stone. A creature with a thousand legs was crawling through the cave system, its footsteps resounding down the silent tunnels. The tympanic sound bounced off the walls and was amplified tenfold as if an entire army was approaching Hornet's flank. She sucked in a deep breath and held it, trying to muzzle her bodily functions so her ears could better detect the noise. If the source of the racket was a Garpede, it must've been a hundred feet long. As long as Hornet kept out of its way, it wasn't something to be afraid of.
But as the frightened spider continued to listen into the darkness, she realised that she absolutely had something to be afraid of. The noise was coming closer.
Hornet didn't hesitate. She turned and ran. She sprinted into the dizzying maze of hallways without thought for where they was taking her. The monster was hunting her down, licking its lips and salivating at the thought of chewing on her succulent meat. It would sink its talons into Hornet's eye sockets and blind her so she could never see the light again. It would devour her limbs so she couldn't flee. It would consume every aspect of who Hornet was until she was just another soul lost to the Abyss. But no matter how deep the spider threw herself into the winding shafts, the darkness predicted her every move. It was like Hornet was being chased by her own shadow. She skidded to a screeching halt at an intersection that split into an infinite number of passages, branching off more and more the longer she looked at it until her mind couldn't comprehend what she was seeing. It was a kaleidoscope of dirt and darkness whirling around like a ferocious tornado, fueled by Hornet's own indecision. She didn't know what she wanted. She didn't know where she was going.
Hornet was paralysed by fear as the inky darkness skulked closer and closer like a frothing, rabid animal. Her legs wouldn't move as the tunnels twisted in on themselves in a vile ouroboros of confusion and adrenaline. Hornet curled into a ball, clutching at her shell with both hands as a paranormal chill crept up her legs and turned her limbs to ice. Her fingers gripped her ivory horns so hard that she felt the shell crack. She was going to die! The darkness would dissolve her insides like a tide of sulphuric acid. The entire weight of Hallownest was pressing down on top of her, and Hornet would be nothing but a red smear of blood beneath the rubble.
Then, as soon as it arrived, the darkness retreated. And in its place was light.
Hornet was convinced that she was gazing at the light at the end of the tunnel. That she'd been eaten by the darkness and her soul was crossing into the afterlife. But her heart was still pounding in her chest, and her lungs were still gasping for air. She released her head from her hands and forced herself to look up. The tendrils of darkness scattered like flies as a solitary ray of light broke through the haze. It was so faint that a single breath could've snuffed it out, yet the shadows recoiled in pain beneath its commanding gaze. Hornet recognised the candlelight that warmed the glacial tunnel walls. It was the same glow that breached the nightmarish fumes that invaded her dreams once before. It trickled down through miles of soil and slate, just to find Hornet in the bowels of Hallownest. It had come for her - to save her from a threat that she was yet to understand.
Hornet forced herself to her feet. Her legs were like iron weights dragging her down into dreamless slumber. Her head felt insufferably heavy, as if something had taken root in her brain. They once worshipped the glorious light of nature, yet they'd forgotten its face to make way for a false king. A White Palace built upon white lies. But all the light wanted was to be remembered. That was fair, wasn't it? The sun beamed down on the earth, feeding the plants with her radiance. The plants bore fruit; the bugs ate the fruit; the bugs died and became the plants. The light was the centre around which all life orbited. Thus was the natural order of things. Wouldn't Hornet want to be remembered? Immortalised in the memories of generations to come? There was nothing unreasonable about that.
Something leaked from Hornet's eyes - a thick, syrupy fluid suffused with a sickly yellow light. It smelled sweet with an afternote of bitterness, like honey burnt on an open stove. The light in the distance grew in intensity until her entire field of view was consumed. A quiet murmuring resounded down the crawlspace and into Hornet's mind: the voice of Herrah the Beast. Her mother's words were so muffled that she couldn't decipher the meaning, but the spider didn't care. Her legs moved of their own volition. Hornet unevenly placed onto foot in front of the other and sluggishly closed the distance between herself and the flare of light. Something sugary and sticky slid down the back of her throat, a sacrilegious amalgamation of nectar and atrophy. Herrah was calling for her, beckoning her daughter towards the sunrise where they could finally be the family that Hornet always craved. No Pale King to keep them apart. No siblings whispering her name from the shadows. There wasn't anything else in the world that Hornet wanted more. She would gladly trade every soul in Hallownest for just a minute longer with her mother.
Hornet's legs were shaking so badly that she could barely walk. Her eyes were clouded with orange-tinted smoke. But Hornet was the princess of Hallownest, daughter of Herrah, child of the Deepnest. She held out one hand and unabatedly walked towards the arms of the light.
Hornet hurtled out of bed with a panicked scream. She thrashed around in the bed sheets that ensnared her limbs like a boa constrictor, choking the life from her body. The spider’s sleep-deprived mind saw the faces of the countless Weavers that lost their identities trapped in the folds of cloth. They reached out like starving infants, snagging Hornet’s limbs and trying to drag the spider down to hell. She grappled her needle from the floor and violently slashed at the linens like a wild animal. It was only when Hornet was surrounded by scraps of stained purple fabric that she came to her senses. The line between sleep and reality had become so blurred that it was hard to tell the difference. Hornet gasped for air like she was drowning in her own desolation. An explosive headache detonated in her skull, and she crumpled to the ground with her head in her hands. Her thoughts grew louder and louder until Hornet was sure her brains would burst from her shell and decorate the rug with grey matter. Her nightmares had left a contusion on her psyche that refused to heal.
Hornet forced herself to breathe slowly and deliberately. She ground her fingers into the yarn of the plush carpet, grounding herself against the urge to hyperventilate. She was not lost within the boundless tunnels of her own imagination. Her dreams couldn't hurt her, no matter how real they felt. Hornet rubbed the corners of her eyes as spots waltzed across her vision. She half expected to find globs of orange sludge coating her fingers, but her palms were clean. That nightmare was on another level. Hornet could almost still taste the saccharine honey that coated her tongue and swelled her mind to bursting point. This disaster was getting to her. Hornet always affirmed that her will was unbreakable - an attribute inherited from her mother, who once united the entirety of Deepnest. But that was a lie. She was no more undefeatable than any other bug. No less mortal.
Hornet knew she had to keep ahold of herself, but part of her yearned for the anaesthetising tranquillity of the light. No more hardship; no more suffering. Just endless, mindless, thoughtless peace. It had to be better than this.
Hornet muttered something rude under her breath as she pushed herself up from the grimy carpet. Her cotton cowl had finally dried and returned to its rich red hue like pressed rose petals. There were so many holes in the narrative, and her mind seemed determined to trip and stumble on every single one. Why would Herrah's voice speak from the light if she was slumbering in her chamber in Deepnest? How could a shaft of light drill through the layers of bedrock where not even the Pale King's influence could infiltrate? Hornet was dwelling on nonsense that wouldn't even give a maggot pause for thought. She needed to cut herself some slack. The spider witnessed the kingdom take its final agonal breaths as its bones putrefied and turned to dust. Hornet had to keep her wits about her, lest she fall prey to the very infection that she sought to conquer.
Speaking of which, Hornet felt a little... unwell. Her muscles shuddered with chills that radiated out from her core, yet her brow was dewy with sweat. Her stomach gurgled as if itching to evacuate its contents, but Hornet hadn't felt the urge to eat since she left Deepnest. Had she caught something? Considering she'd spent longer than anticipated sprinting around in the arctic rain, it wasn't unreasonable to assume so. That tent in the Kingdom's Edge didn't exactly offer much protection from the frosty wind. Or perhaps she'd inhaled too much void while passing through the Ancient Basin in that tram car. Hornet had likely just fallen foul of a cold that had colonised her sinuses - nothing that couldn't be cured by some well-deserved bedrest. But she'd consider that after returning home victorious. Hallownest wouldn't patiently twiddle its thumbs while its protector sipped warm soup with a heated cloth on her forehead. Hornet's next stop was Crystal Peak - if there was any corner of Hallownest that the infection couldn't breach, it was at the commonwealth's highest peak.
Hornet never understood the lust for gems that engulfed the minds of Hallownest's elite. So much of the kingdom’s wealth and resources were wasted harvesting crystals that sprouted from the earth like thorns. Innumerable bugs were consumed by greed for what was essentially a bunch of shiny rocks. Herrah said the gemstones reflected all the colours of the rainbow - a sight that the bugs living their entire lives underground would never see for themselves. Some claimed that the crystals sang with an unearthly timbre that could soothe even the most troubled souls. They followed the lullaby into the mines and seldom ever returned. Several worker bugs reported sighting their former colleagues meandering around in the offshoots of the quarry shafts. But they were no longer insects - at least, not entirely. Their shells were punctured by crystals that took root in their bodies like poison ivy. The same gems that lured them to their deaths with their obsessive siren song turned them into walking crystalline golems. Hornet just hoped those bugs found whatever they were looking for.
The entirety of Crystal Peak boomed with the clanging of machinery that made Hornet's head hurt. Boilers feverishly burned through their supplies of coal, belching soot and smoke up the mine shafts like chimney stacks. Conveyor belts chugged with their loads of gem shards, dumping their cargo into carts that would never be emptied. Nearly every inch of wall space was crowded with bevelled crystal tumours as if the quarry was a living, breathing lifeform. No matter how long the miners chipped away at the gems, toiling day and night until their hands turned numb, they never made any headway. New branches of quartz would just sprout in their place like the buds of a bonsai. The whole mountainside was a rainforest of diamond, and the miners were merely pruning its leaves. Not that they complained. The bugs could stare at the light refracting through the crystal until they went blind; could listen to the sweet melody until they went deaf.
Well, Hornet didn't care for shiny trinkets. Unless the crystals could somehow slow the infection's progression, they were no better than colourful baubles.
Hornet's heart almost skipped a beat as her ears picked up the sound of pickaxes striking the brittle rockface. The staccato rhythm echoed down the mine shafts like an infantry of snare drums thumping in time. Tap... Tap... Tap... Even while the kingdom fell to ruin, the miners still harvested their crystals, utterly unaware that the demand for diamonds had petered away. Hornet was so overcome by relief that the corners of her eyes grew damp. They were alive! The miners were alive! Crystal Peak was so cut off from Hallownest's trunk that the bugs had no idea of the battle warring below. And that meant the infection hadn't spread its wings and infiltrated the flues that reached up into the heavens. Hornet offered a brief prayer of thanks to whatever god may have heard her pleas. With a renewed sense of hope, she hopped aboard the nearest conveyor belt and journeyed into the maw of the mines.
It was no wonder the infection hadn't successfully plundered the excavation site. Half the railroads had collapsed and been swallowed up by the crystals, leaving behind only their mangled metal spines. The only light that could reach into the tunnels came from within the gems themselves. They glimmered with an ethereal glow that made Hornet's headache spike in intensity whenever she looked at them. Her eyes had become extremely photosensitive since she fell ill, and every sensation was intensified a thousand times. The vibrations of the conveyor belt scampered up her legs as if her exoskeleton was being shaken apart. Hornet's temples pulsed in time with the rhythmic drumming of the pickaxes. Even her heartbeat seemed to match the tempo as if every bug was marching to the same tune.
Even if Hornet couldn't hear the eerie aria that reverberated within the crystallised caves, the song had undoubtedly heard her.
Hornet's mind had begun to wander when the conveyor belt reached its inevitable end. She almost fell flat on her face as the coal-powered track dumped its load, landing on a heaped pile of crystal shards that had obviously been accumulating for a while. The agile spider slid to the base without losing her balance, sending a cascade of gemstones clattering across the floor as the mound collapsed behind her. The conveyor belt continued to offload diamond dregs onto the mine floor, and it wouldn't be long until the heap was reformed. Hornet smoothed down her crimson cloak and dusted off the specks of crystal dust that settled in the folds. The sound of mining was significantly louder on this side of the collapsed tracks. Just how deep did these tunnels extend?! Hornet felt as if she could walk in one direction for eternity and never reach the end. She was already feeling nostalgic for the sensation of fresh air in her lungs.
The source of the metallic clanging became immediately apparent as Hornet came across a group of miners hacking away at an enormous crystal deposit. The gems stretched from floor to ceiling like lustrous scales upon the hide of an unfathomably giant snake. The miners wore chalky helmets inset with a single Lumafly encased in a glass bulb. The makeshift flashlights ensured the bugs could work around the clock, their beams reflecting off the angular quartz like a galaxy of stars. The miners’ rusty pickaxes had long since lost their sharpness from weeks upon weeks of ceaseless hammering at the crystal deposits. The tools were now so blunt that they didn't even make a dent on the hardy quartz, yet the bugs continued to dig without breaking their synchronised rhythm. Perhaps they’d stared at the same ore veins for so long that they'd fallen into a trance? Hornet felt an all too familiar stirring of worry in her gut, but she forced it down before it could fester into something more troublesome. There was no way the infection had breached Crystal Peak. She refused to consider the possibility.
"Umm, hello?" Hornet chirped with trepidation. Her confidence was rapidly waning as the miners persevered with their fruitless task. "My name is Hornet; I'm the daughter of the Pale King. How fares your excavation?"
Just as the Great Husk Sentry ignored Hornet's greeting, the miner bugs seemed oblivious to her words. They continued to dig their pickaxes into the crystal formation like a marching band. Their muscles never seemed to tire as they endured their relentless pursuit of riches. One bug managed to free a singular shard of lavender crystal from the vein but showed no interest in claiming their prize. The fragment lay forgotten on the dusty ground as the insects kept gashing at the quartz construct. These were some very dedicated workers - so engrossed in their task that the outside world had disappeared around them. Hornet's eyes narrowed and she huffed in exasperation. It seemed less like the miner bugs were poisoned with any virus - they were simply unconcerned with the spider's existence.
A simmering kernel of anger ignited within Hornet's belly, filling her chest with searing heat. Her smouldering fever had left the spider irritable and terse, and she clenched her fists tight enough to turn her knuckles white. How dare they ignore her?! Hornet was the princess of Hallownest, daughter of Herrah, child of Deepnest. The blood of the Pale King rushed through her veins. These worms should be grovelling at her feet, begging for forgiveness for their impudence. Hornet was a level-headed bug, graced with patience and maturity beyond her years. But whatever force had invaded her dreams, propagating and multiplying within her brain, had already begun to exert its influence. Hornet was overcome by an irrational rage that made her want to lash out. Her exhaustion and frustration muddied together with the sickness that afflicted her stomach. Every sound was too loud, every light too bright, every touch like the thorns of a cactus. Hornet ached to bury her nail in the miners' heads until that damned picking stopped. Her thoughts bounced off the inside of her shell until it felt like her organs were too large for her skin to contain. If the miners bugs refused to halt their pathetic, useless endeavour, then Hornet would have to make them!
With an uncharacteristic snarl, Hornet grabbed the shoulder of the nearest insect and whirled it around to face her.
"HEY! Look at me when I'm talking to y-"
Its eyes shone from within: an orange glow like the pollen of a sunflower. The miners were infected.
Any remnants of rage immediately vanished from Hornet's mind as if the embers had been extinguished with a candle snuffer. The two bugs stared at each other without speaking a word; Hornet's hand still glued to the miner’s shoulder. Its gaze was as dull as its pickaxe, looking straight through the spider's head as if unable to tear its vision away from the gemstones that gleamed around them. Hornet couldn't breathe. She could barely feel her heart beating in her chest. The miner didn't speak, didn't lunge to attack like the Great Sentry Husk. It simply shrugged off Hornet's grip and turned back to the wall of crystal. The sound of picking filled the air once more as the husk rejoined its brethren, dutifully carving away at the deposit. It was as if Hornet had never interrupted its work at all.
Hornet's arm fell to her side. She watched the miner bugs chip at the resilient quartz in stunned silence. They hadn't reacted to her outburst in any way, as if she were a ghost - an echo of a kingdom long deceased. Hornet felt a shard of pain pierce her chest as if she'd turned her needle on herself. The infection hadn't spared a single inch of Hallownest. It injected its toxins into the minds of every bug, hollowing out their skulls and reducing their brains to a citrus slurry. It was a parasite that had turned them all into slaves, wearing their corpses and parading them around like demented marionettes. The infection would stop at nothing until every bug on the planet became a mass of pus-filled cysts, and the earth suffocated under a blanket of cancer and blight.
Yet despite the heartbreaking realisation, Hornet just felt... empty. Her headache throbbed in time with the pickaxes striking the crystalline rockface, trapped in a hypnotic jig from which there was no escape. Was it the illness she'd contracted that left her too tired and unwell to keep pushing forward? Was it the migraine that made her head feel like it was stuffed with cotton wool? Or had Hornet's spirit finally broken? Either way, there was an inescapable pit of despair in her heart that distended deeper than the underbelly of the Abyss. Hornet thirsted to crawl back to Deepnest and curl up in Herrah's arms. She wanted to hear her mother say that everything was going to be OK. Maybe Hornet would fall into the same unbroken sleep, and the two could find contentment in whatever existed beyond death. The light that manifested in Hornet's dreams and filled her head with static could put an end to all of this. It was so tempting to let her thoughts fizzle away into smoke and cinders. Anything to drown out the pain.
... Wait, was that... singing?
Hornet snapped out of her spiralling depression as a dulcet melody washed over her ears. It bounced off the bevelled crystals, amplifying the mellow music until the entire mine was humming along. The gems were chirping like a choir of cherubs. Something deep within Hornet's core fluttered in response. A caterpillar emerging from its cocoon and stretching its pearly wings. Hornet was finally hearing it! The song that led so many bugs to whittle away against the diamonds that thrummed with an eldritch heartbeat. That beckoned them to hurl themselves into the mine shafts so their bodies could become one with the crystals. It was so unbelievably beautiful that words could never do it justice! But Hornet couldn't make out the lyrics. No matter how hard she strained her ears, the melody slipped through her fingers like the limewater that collected in pools at her feet. The mountain was singing to Hornet and Hornet alone, and she had to understand the meaning. She would die on the spot if she couldn't comprehend its message. Her head felt bad. Words were hard. She smelled something sweet but couldn't see where it was coming from.
Hornet wobbled towards the crystal crop. Her body felt unusually heavy, and she was having a difficult time coordinating her movements. Her fever skyrocketed as if someone had lit a match inside her shell. The miners never once paused in their digging, even as Hornet pressed her head against the gems they were trying to excavate. Her twin horns scraped against the crystals, leaving jagged scratches in their virginal complexion. Hornet closed her eyes, disabling her other senses so that only her hearing remained. She squeezed her body into the quartz as if she was welcoming it to swallow her into its embrace. As if she was attempting to metamorphose into one of the crystals that jutted from the cavern walls. A slanted chunk of mineral tore an unsightly hole straight through the fabric of her ruby-red dress, but Hornet barely even flinched. The pounding of the pickaxes resonated throughout the rockface, fervently driving the anthem on. It was as if every bug imprisoned in the mines was another instrument in the orchestra. They were all singing along with the music, whether they knew it or not. And now, Hornet could join them.
All she had to do.
Was close her eyes.
Oh, bury my mother, pale and slight,
Bury my father with his eyes shut tight!
Bury my sisters, two by two,
Then when you're done, let's bury me too...
Hornet didn't know how long she'd stood against the crystals. It must've been hours. Her knees trembled from fatigue and her legs begged to sit down and rest. But if Hornet took her head away from the gems, she'd never hear the music again. There would always be a gaping hole in her soul that could never be filled.
No wonder so many bugs clamoured to the mines in search of the sweet lullaby that plagued their dreams. The infection's call ricochetted off the crystals until it felt as if an entire chorus of angels was crooning at the sun. It echoed down the mine shafts and into the heart of Hallownest until even the bugs in the deepest fathoms heard the hymn. Hornet's thoughts evaporated into stubs of light that danced in the wind like a thousand fireflies. She could hear her own voice singing along. She'd known the lyrics from the day she hatched, but that knowledge had remained submersed in her subconsciousness until now. How wonderful to be part of something so huge. Hornet's grief felt so insignificant when there were a thousand other souls to carry the burden. Individualism was so tiring, so agonising. She could become a beam of sunlight falling upon the delicate leaves of a flower. That sounded nice.
What little part of Hornet that remained lucid fought back with claws drawn and fangs bared. It wailed with the howls of a dying animal, thrashing within her carapace until it became hard to breathe. Hornet inhaled in and out, feeling her ribcage expand with each intake of air. She could smell grit and gravel, could feel the soft cotton cloak brushing against her calves. Hornet grasped at the sensations just to drown out the music that swelled every cell of her body. She had to live. Her mother was waiting for her to come home. Her father would never deem her worthy of his love if she lost herself. That mantra rang louder than the chorus that tried to pull Hornet beneath the undertow. She was the princess of Hallownest, daughter of Herrah, child of Deepnest. She was... she was...
Hornet's limbs were like blocks of lead, but she forced herself to raise her arms and push against the crystal face. The celestial music quietened as the connection was severed, but the notes were already branded onto her brain. Hornet's fever was like a raging inferno, and her brow was glazed with sweat. Her horned head hung low as she panted for breath, but feeling was gradually returning to her limbs. All the while, the miner bugs never once paused in their digging. They didn't acknowledge Hornet's company. The only thought occupying their vacant egos was that of a mellow symphony, ringing out from their own minds and echoing off the crystals they so painstakingly mined. Perhaps the Pale King's genes had granted Hornet some resistance against its call, no matter how dilute the blood. But these lesser bugs were already profoundly spellbound by the song. Unless Hornet could stamp out the infection, they would toil away in the mines until their exoskeletons collapsed. And Hornet couldn't stamp out the infection if she suffered the same fate. She had to live - if not for herself, then for these bugs that were powerless to save themselves.
As Hornet felt a flicker of strength return to her limbs, she looked back up at the crystal wall. She finally understood the allure of these gems. The affluent elite saw a reflection of their wealth: the satin robes they garbed themselves in and the piles of Geo they hoarded in their lairs. The poor saw their own faces, cast in an exquisite light that they could only dream of holding for themselves. The crystals revealed the world as the beholder wished to perceive it. They could lose themselves in that fantasy, even just for a moment. They became addicted to the lie until the misery of their reality became unbearable. And then they became just another corpse in the belly of the mines.
And what did Hornet see when she stared into the facet of the crystal vein? She saw herself without tiredness in her limbs or failure in her heart. She saw the protector of Hallownest that the bugs deserved, one who could defy the seduction of the infection and save them all from a fate worse than death.
Hornet saw her eyes, and they were lit from within by two glowing yellow stars.
The scholars of Hallownest never truly discerned how the infection spread. Some postulated that it was transmitted by microscopic particles too small to be seen by the naked eye. They urged the populus to remain indoors, limit their contact with other bugs, and cover their mandibles with fabric masks. Very few listened. They'd grown accustomed to a particular lifestyle and were unwilling to compromise their luxuries. It was more important to maintain the status quo; to indulge in Marissa's recitals or entertain themselves at the Colosseum of Fools. Some claimed that the disease established itself in the fragile minds of the weak. It materialised in their dreams, preying on their shortcomings and boring holes using their regrets. Xero stoutly declared that the infection was a direct consequence of the Pale King's unethical experimentation with the void. He 'disappeared' very soon after. Even though that stubborn beetle turned his blades against her father, Hornet couldn't help but harbour some respect for the fallen warrior. At least he had the courage to speak his mind, even if it ended in an early grave. Better to die for what they believed in than live a life of lies.
But there was one thing that all scholars agreed on. Those who denied their affliction died sooner. Their futile attempts to deceive themselves only opened a pathway for the infection to surge down like a deluge of floodwater. Their lies became seeds of disease, and it was within that garden that the infection sowed its fruit. The truth was often painful to admit, but the freedom it granted was always worth it.
So Hornet would not lie to herself. She was infected.
Had she contracted the plague from the mutated husks that roamed the City of Tears? Had the stinging venom of the Primal Aspids perforated her exoskeleton and allowed the infection to take hold? Or were the single-celled organisms engorged with pus in the Ancient acting as a reservoir for infection? It didn't matter. Pondering the origins of her sickness was a waste of energy that Hornet couldn't afford to spare. The forgotten light had rooted itself in the spider's brain, and she was running on borrowed time. Hornet would never have guessed just how close to death she'd strayed, pressed up against the crystals as if the gems were her life support. Another minute of contact with the diamonds and she may never have recovered her brain functions. The royal lineage, ending with a whimper in the pit of some god-forsaken mine shaft.
Hornet could still taste the remnants of death at the back of her throat. It tasted of glucose and sap with a prickling heat like the capsaicin of a chilli pepper. The gelatinous fluid that dripped down Hornet's oesophagus in her dreams had become her reality. It was easier just to swallow it.
Hornet had to practically drag herself out of Crystal Peak. None of the infected miners paid the spider any mind as she fled the spire as quickly as her shaky legs would carry her. She was one of them now - a bearer of the infection. They no longer saw her as a threat. Every corner she turned was another column of quartz that reverberated with a light long forgotten. The crystals had stolen Hornet's voice and used it to spin a web of lies. They goaded her into taking a quick breather that would inevitably evolve into a stupor. It was so difficult to resist. How could Hornet vanquish the infection if she’d become a carrier herself? How could she extinguish the light when it now burned within her own eyes? But make it out, Hornet did. The crystal ballad faded with every step she took, but the evocative melody lingered at the back of her mind.
Hornet had planned on investigating the fading town of Dirtmouth, but that draft was entirely off the table now. The only route out of Hallownest was the old well that connected to the surface above like a desiccated aorta. Any insects residing in the dwindling hamlet could well be free of the torment that had laid its eggs in Hornet's head. But now, it was Hornet who was the hazard. If she ventured up to Dirtmouth, she would carry the infection with her. She would bequeath the curse upon innocent bugs and add to the piles of corpses that Hallownest now stood upon. That was exactly what the infection wanted, and Hornet was not far gone enough to allow herself to be controlled like that.
Hornet felt like a dead bug walking. Her fever had spiked to agonising levels as if she could hear her brain matter sizzling inside her shell. Her entire body felt like it was turning to stone, and it was a monumental effort just to keep walking forwards. The pressure in Hornet's head was steadily growing as more and more purulence accrued inside her skull. Trying to conjure a coherent thought was like playing darts blindfolded. The spider's vision had blurred around the edges as if she was gazing at the world through a thick pane of glass. It was no wonder all the infected bugs were stuck in a perpetually sour mood. Hornet absentmindedly played with the gash that the crystal had left in her cloak, rubbing her fingers over the frayed edge of the cut.
She was just making the tear worse, but the motion allowed her brain to focus on something other than her rapidly declining health.
There was one last place to inspect - the Temple of the Black Egg. The Hollow Knight was sealed within the oubliette shortly after Hornet hatched, an empty vessel to contain the infection. No mind to think, no will to break, no voice to cry suffering. What an awful fate. Hornet couldn't begin to imagine the toll that an eternity of solitude would take on their sanity. But Hornet was now living proof that something had gone wrong. The Hollow Knight hadn't prevented the second wave of infection that now defiled her body. Their sacrifice extended the kingdom's lifespan, but it had not granted immortality. Had the Hollow Knight broken loose of its restraints? Was it now a dire monstrosity prowling the ruins of Hallownest, devouring the citizens it once gave its life to protect? Hornet had to know.
This was her last chance at redemption, of proving her worth. She was no longer fighting the infection to save her kin - she was fighting to save herself.
Hornet had never seen the Temple of the Black Egg in person. The shrines construction began and ended before the spider made her first crack in her egg. It took every mason and architect in Hallownest to construct the obelisk housing the fate of the kingdom's heirs. Once upon a time, bugs would journey far and wide to pray at the temple steps. The air was clear and clean, free of the pollution and smoke that arose from the Pale King's push towards industrialisation. The weight of the shells on their backs felt somehow lighter, and the worries of their minds seemed somehow less important. But that was a long time ago. Now the spectral light shining from the frosted windows was cold and hostile. The antlers above the doorway built in the shape of the Hollow Knight's horns were like pincers, ready to decapitate those that drew near. The atmosphere shifted as the vessel's hold on the infection slackened, and it was no longer a sanctuary for troubled minds.
Hornet expected to find the walls of the church bursting at the seams with infection, but there was nothing outwardly different about the shrine that caught her eye. No veins of orange sickness sprouted from the entryway, no smell of sulphur or charcoal, no screaming of the incarcerated vessel within its inner-most chamber. The Temple of the Black Egg was exactly as its founders had left it. Somehow, that just made Hornet feel even worse. Her only hope at foiling the fate laid out before her drowsed in the chest of the Hollow Knight. If Hornet could kill her sibling, then maybe the infection would go away. It made the spider sick to her stomach to even consider turning her needle on her family, but... there was nothing else she could try. She had no allies to turn to. No warehouse of knowledge to draw from. If there was even the slightest, most infinitesimal chance of this working, then Hornet had to try.
Hornet drew her needle in preparation and stepped across the temple's threshold. The air inside was humid and heavy with a miasma that seeped beneath the seal keeping the contagion locked inside. The vaulted ceiling was stained a dark bronze from rust that gathered around the rivets and bolts. The temperature was several degrees warmer inside the temple as if the infection was emitting heat like a fusion reactor. Hornet wasn't sure what she was going to encounter within the dungeon's walls. If the Hollow Knight had liberated itself from its bindings, it could be lurking in the shadows like a rabid wolf. It could blast off the seal with a wave of polluting infection at any moment, opening both a metaphorical and literal door to hell. Or, she might trip over its shrivelled corpse. Hornet just sauntered straight in without a hint of trepidation. The Hollow Knight posed a threat unlike anything the spider had faced before, but she'd forgotten how to feel fear. Hornet's brain was pickling in a slowly rising pool of pollution, muddying her thoughts into a sluice of cerebral fluid.
But Hornet had not yet forgotten who she was, nor why she’d come this far. The infection would have to fight tooth and nail to take that away from her. The furthest wall was cast in oblique shadows, shrouding the form of the seal that subdued the plague. The yellow glow radiating from Hornet's eyes illuminated the dusty floor before her. She marched towards the seal with all the determination and authority of a monarch. As long as Hornet's legs could bear her weight, she would keep pushing onwards without hesitation.
The seal still held.
The seal still held?
A plug of knotted chitin and keratin obscured the entrance to the chamber within, bearing the faces of the three Dreamers. Lurien. Monomon. Herrah. The trio stared down at Hornet as if they could see her looking up at their images. Like they were judging her for falling victim to the very plague she set out to destroy. Hornet's mother wore a disgusted expression, her six eyes narrowed with revulsion. What a pathetic daughter, wasting the energy she'd expended laying that egg! Herrah only agreed to become a Dreamer in return for a child, and Hornet had only proven herself to be a disgrace to Deepnest. She would've spat on Hornet's face if the spider weren't just a painted impression on an airtight seal.
Of course, the three Dreamers were just portraits: a reminder of the legacy that the bugs had left behind. A monument to their sacrifices that allowed Hallownest to reign eternal. But to Hornet's infection-addled mind, the triad psychically stood before her in all their glory. They sneered and laughed at her pitiful presence, snickering as a golden glob oozed from Hornet's left eye and stained the collar of her cloak. And why shouldn't they? Hornet couldn't protect the kingdom - she couldn't even protect herself. She was the princess of no land, daughter of no queen, child of no realm.
Hornet turned and left. She felt nothing as the wicked laughter conjured from her own mind followed her out into the ruins of Hallownest. Her quest was over.
Hornet could hear the cogs in her brain sticking together as they frantically span in place. It took all her brainpower to form words with more than two syllables. Her head was unbearably heavy. Her fever was so high. Hornet was going to burst into flames, spewing smoke from her mouth and eyes until she turned to smouldering ashes. Was this what dying felt like? Hornet watched a Tiktik scurry back and forth on a mound of dirt. It walked in circles. It had nowhere to go. Neither did Hornet. She couldn't remember why she'd come out here. There was something she had to do, someone she had to protect, but she couldn't remember their name. The Tiktik made another round of its patrol. Something sickly sweet dripped down the back of Hornet's throat, and she swallowed it without complaint. The Tiktik made another round of its patrol.
Hornet had to go somewhere, do something. She couldn't just stand in one spot watching this Tiktik carve a path into the dirt. She wanted to go home, but she couldn't remember where 'home' was. Her legs carried her forward without a goal, her needle dragging across the ground and leaving a line in the dust. Hornet knew she was a danger to any bugs around her now. She had to find somewhere far away from any signs of uninfected life. The overpowering desire to climb out of the well and crawl into Dirtmouth was so strong that it almost hurt, but Hornet didn't know if the intention was solely hers. The infection was filling her mind with ideas and masquerading them as her own thoughts. It was trying to trick her into spreading its spores. Hornet couldn't trust herself. Her head felt heavy. Her fever wouldn't go away. She couldn't remember why she ever left home.
Hornet's legs carried her to the emerald groves of Greenpath. There were very few bugs here. Mostly moss. Moss and grass. Some bugs, but mostly moss and grass. The acid pools that bubbled below the undergrowth sizzled as pollen gently rained down from the vines above. Hornet tried to steer herself into the nearest puddle. The acid would burn straight through her exoskeleton and turn her insides to tallow. Neither a noble nor a quick death, but a death nonetheless. The infection forced her feet to side-step around the caustic pool. Hornet had to repent for her sins before she would be allowed to die. She must grovel for clemency at the feet of the ancient light that she'd forgotten. She must spread the light where it couldn’t reach on its own and kill those who tried to suppress it. Hornet let out a hoarse, barking cough. Honey came up from her lungs. Her organs were turning to mush.
Hornet almost trod on a Mosskin camouflaged into the vegetation at her feet. It leapt up out of the undergrowth as the spider invaded its territory. It had spent hours digging through the soil to find the most perfectly round pebbles in Greenpath, and this bug just trampled all over them! The Mosskin were not an inherently aggressive race, but the sentient plants were sensitive to the shifting winds that wafted down from the surface. The splotches of infection that had settled into the fibres of Hornet's scarlet cowl were like a flag of death, staining the regal robes with pallid yellow. This was a bug that the Mosskin wanted to stay far away from. But the living shrub wasn't about to let someone use it as a doormat just because they were taller! Its leaves had wilted and browned at the tips after Unn ceased responding to their plight, but that wasn't going to stop the little bush.
The Mosskin ruffled up its leaves, making itself look as big and imposing as possible, and charged at Hornet with a fearsome battlecry. Unn may have abandoned them, but the Mosskin would not go down without a fight!
The Mosskin went down without a fight. Hornet instinctively raised her needle and thrust it through the bush's face and out the other side. It seized and spasmed in violent death throws before eventually falling still, leaking transparent sap onto the forest floor. There was once a time where Hornet was crippled by remorse because she'd taken the life of an innocent bug. But now, she barely even turned her head. Her shell was so full of infection that there was no room left for anything else. Her horns felt like they would snap off from the pressure. Hornet was very tired. She had a fever. She should rest.
Hornet left the corpse of the unfortunate Mosskin behind as she continued to stagger into the depths of Greenpath. A diminutive Mosscreep scurried out from beneath an overgrown mass of vines and thorns. The light of the infection shone in its eyes. Hornet threw her needle at the living bush, killing it instantly with a single lethal blow. Even though the infected flora no longer attacked on sight, Hornet was still compelled to strike them down without mercy. She harshly yanked on the line of silk tied around the needle's head and returned the weapon to her hand. A swarm of Squits hovered above the surface of the acid pools, curiously darting close to inspect the intruder as she passed by. Hornet sliced one clean in half with her needle. The other Squits fled in unadulterated terror. She didn't see them go. Hornet's eyes were cloudy from the sap that kept dripping down her cheeks. She wiped it away with the hem of her cloak, but more took its place. It smelled nice. Sweet.
Hornet came upon a bench just in time for her legs to cave beneath her weight. Her knees had been shaking ever since she left the Temple of the Black Egg, and she no longer had the strength to stand. The spider landed face down in the dirt, laying among the leaves and roots. The soil felt cold and pleasant against her feverish forehead. Hornet tried to push herself onto her knees, but her elbows buckled as if she was carrying the entire weight of Hallownest on her back. Her head was just too heavy. Too full of bad. Bad stuff. Hurt. Can't think. Too much pressure. Hurt. Pain. Help...
Hornet had just enough strength left in her weary muscles to raise her neck. She sharply slammed her face into the ground, kicking up a cloud of soil that swam through the air like a bouquet of rust. The impact splintered Hornet's shell, cracking the calcium like fine china. A fissure broke from the top of her right eye and ran between her curved horns. A huge glob of infected material bled from the wound, splattering onto the vegetation and tinting the leaves with vibrant orange. The shrubbery immediately shrivelled and died as the caustic pus burned through the cellulose. But it helped. The excruciating pressure had been somewhat alleviated. Hornet could think a little clearer. Her head felt lighter. She managed to push herself onto her knees, but it took so much effort that she feared her muscles would tear themselves apart. Hornet needed to rest. A decent sleep would make her feel better.
Hornet collapsed into the embrace of the bench with a sigh of supreme relief. The metal lattice was interwoven with emerald vines like an organic hammock. Its surface was hard and cold, but the spider didn't care to find a more comfortable resting place. Hornet had no desire to weave a web anymore. She was simultaneously burning alive from the inside, yet cold enough to turn to ice. It was getting harder to breathe. Something was filling Hornet's lungs like viscous tar and coughing it up it was no longer enough. Yet, she felt no panic or fear. She could feel the light approaching. Hornet lay on her back with her hands clasped beneath her cloak. She stared blankly up at the ivy that crept over the roof of the cavern like a bride's veil. Her eyes were too cloudy to make out anything more detailed than bursts of bright colours. The song that embedded itself in Hornet's brain back in Crystal Peak had returned, and it was so loud that she couldn't hear her heartbeat. She was so damn tired. But as Hornet's eyes gently drifted closed, could hear own voice weakly humming along to the tune.
"...Bury my body... c-cover my shell... What meaning in darkness? Yet here I remain..."
Hornet wasn't in pain anymore. The nausea in her stomach was gone. The migraine that drilled into her head had evaporated. She was in the darkened tunnels again, but she was no longer afraid. The light was now so bright that Hornet could smell her carapace burning. Her cloak was smoking at the hem, sending rivulets of flaming cotton into the air like ruby-red butterflies. The light was so hot. It seared away all remnants of suffering and agony, cauterising her blood vessels and blistering her skin. It hurt. It hurt so badly, but Hornet didn't care! She was being made pure. The sun was charring away the darkness in her heart, leaving behind only white-hot perfection. Hornet remembered the light! The Radiance! She was nature in its absolute form. The light of the sun, the heat of the flame, the warmth of skin and the stars in the night sky. What an honour to behold!
Hornet turned her head and looked behind her. The lurking, scuttling beast that stalked her throughout these meandering tunnels was now laid bare in the light. There were no more shadows to hide its grotesque form. It was a Wyrm, a creature so unfathomably long that its segmented body stretched into eternity. Its gullet was lined with rows of teeth that chattered together as if the beast was quaking with fright. It was afraid of the light; afraid of the Radiance! The Wyrm saw how easily the light tore apart the kingdom it built around itself, razing its walls and filling its subjects' minds with the truth! The Wyrm tried to squash the light by leading Her worshippers astray, placing itself at the centre of their universe. But nothing could snuff out the ancient flame. The Wyrm was born in the filth and excrement of creation and to whence it would inevitably return.
Hornet turned her back on the Wyrm. The blinding light took the form of feathery moth wings threaded with gold. All the light in the cosmos was concentrated behind the moth's eyes. Hornet could hear the voices of every single bug that had fallen to the infection. They weren't crying or wailing... they were singing. The light could grant boons beyond her wildest dreams. It could give Hornet the power she lacked. She would be strong enough to protect Hallownest. She could protect her mother. Hornet was a nematode in the eyes of a god, but she had the potential to become something more. The unity of the light would give her powers that could topple a kingdom overnight. Hornet wanted nothing more. Herrah would be safe with Hornet watching over her. And one day, when the last bug of Hallownest remembered the old light, Herrah could join her in paradise.
The Wyrm made one final attempt to reach out to his daughter. The child he'd left behind, who'd never known his love. And Hornet ran into the light with open arms.
The Knight didn't know that life could thrive beneath the wind-scarred surface, but it was a welcome surprise.
When they stepped over the corpse of the Elder Baldur and crossed into Greenpath, they almost believed that they'd entered another world. The barren terrain of the Forgotten Crossroads gave way to lush, sprawling greenery that sprouted from every crack and crevice. The air smelled of pollen and petrichor, and buds in every colour conceivable bloomed along the acid shore. The metal walkways were almost entirely eclipsed by plant life that wound around the grating like a verdant filigree. The Knight could hear the distant humming of Squits as they probed their proboscises into the stamen of flowers, drawing out the succulent nectar hidden inside. Considering the lack of sunlight, it was a miracle that any plants had germinated at all. But the outside world was cruel, battered by harsh hurricanes that ripped and tore at any optimistic shoots. The raging storms couldn't reach below the earth, and life had found a foothold in the oasis that was Greenpath.
Frankly, it was a nice change of scenery. If it weren't for the indigenous Mosskin who were dead set on turning the Knight's body into compost, they would've sat down and taken in the sights. The vessel lifted one arm of their ragged cloak and withdrew a map scrawled on a sheaf of dog-eared parchment. They unfurled the scroll and studied the contents like an academic pouring over their thesis. Nothing extravagant was penned on the paper - rather, it was a hastily scribbled map of the area. The Knight attributed their chances of survival directly to Cornifer's generosity. They'd still be wandering the Forgotten Crossroads like a lost lamb if it weren't for the long-nosed cartographer. The landmark that caught the vessel's eye was a sketch of the acidic Lake of Unn that dwelled at the furthest reaches of Greenpath. Legends spoke of a bygone deity that once inhabited the acrid waters, though the slug had not surfaced in decades. The Knight was painfully oblivious to the reason for its summoning to Hallownest, but the lamentations of a forgotten god certainly piqued their interest.
Yet it was not only his map that Cornifer parted with for a share of the vessel's Geo. He also offered some advice. The Mosskin were generally a peaceful folk, but something had riled them up into a frenzy, and it wasn't just the infection. Some unholy creature had appropriated Greenpath and made it their hunting ground. The bodies of dead Mosskin and insects alike marked a trail of destruction that led through the thicket. But the beast was not consuming their remains. This was not a hungry scavenger killing for sustenance - it was hunting the Mosskin for sport. Thankfully for Cornifer, the Knight was entirely bereft of fear. Their insides were a hollow chasm of emptiness within which no emotions could hope to survive. The prospect of facing a skulking, egregious behemoth did not instil the vessel with dread. The Knight was likely the only bug in Hallownest that would dare approach such a ruthless hunter.
However, despite their lack of emotions, the Knight was by no means stupid. They weren't about to charge into a predator's lair with no regard for self-preservation. It was a very long walk from the nearest bench. The beast's den was on the way to the Lake of Unn, so it seemed the two were destined to cross paths regardless.
The Knight followed the leafy trail towards the lakeshore, fending off the occasional over-curious Squit with their nail and climbing up creepers with the grace of a spider. They came too close for comfort with the bubbling acid pools more than once, and the hem of their slate-grey cloak had a few new singe marks. Whatever had been stalking the hapless Mosskin, it had picked a nasty place to build its lair. The Knight brushed aside ropey vines that hung from the narrow canopy, ducking slightly to avoid scraping their pronged horns on the ceiling. They could hear strained panting coming from further down the passage, punctuated by the repetitive sound of something being stabbed. The lair was occupied. The voiceless vessel readied their nail. Its edge was somewhat dulled from a lifetime of combat, but it was no less effective at drawing blood.
The Knight poked their horned head out from the mouth of the channel and cautiously scouted out the lair. A bug donned in a tattered cloak was hunched over the body of another insect, holding what appeared to be a long, tapered needle. It raised the blade above its head and jammed it into the torso of the downed bug over and over. The beast didn't seem to have noticed that its prey was long dead. Or perhaps it simply didn't care. It grunted and growled like a feral animal, taking out a massive amount of repressed frustration on the poor corpse. The bug's shawl was stained with patches of dirt and some odd yellow substance that clung to everything it touched. But the Knight could tell that the fabric would've once been tinted with a vibrant red hue like a glass of perfectly-aged wine.
Huh. They'd expected to encounter some abhorrent brute that not even the bestiary dared to describe. But this... just looked like a regular bug.
The Knight hopped down from the den’s entrance, landing softly among the leaves that cushioned its fall. The other insect froze in place at the sound of crinkling foliage, its needle still raised above its head. It slowly turned its neck to stare at the intruder while keeping its blade aloft, ready to strike in the blink of an eye. The Knight didn't recognise the bug staring at them with unmitigated terror, but the void coiling in their stomach lurched in surprise as if recalling the face of a forgotten relative. The dishevelled insect bore a striking resemblance to the Knight's own features: a pale, porcelain shell marred by scratches from battles won. Two pairs of horns curled up into pointed spikes but without the prongs that set the vessel's silhouette apart. Long, spindly black limbs with a hint of toned muscle. The two bugs were so similar that they could've been called siblings.
But one difference was so noteworthy that it couldn't be ignored. The bug's eyes glowed with a blazing amber light.
"G-Get back!" the insect yelled with a raspy voice as if they hadn't spoken in years. "This... This is MINE!"
The Knight took a step back as the bug stumbled to its feet, swaying unsteadily as if it was about to topple over. Its coordination was severely impaired by some internal conflict raging within its psyche, two forces battling for control over its limbs. A seam ran from the crest of its right eye between its twin horns like a parched riverbed. A bead of infected matter oozed out of the crack as the bug prepared itself to strike. It tipped its head to one side and smacked its temple, forcing the sap out of its skull and onto the ground with a sickening splat. The Knight had encountered more than its fair share of infected bugs since launching themselves down the well and into Hallownest's belly, but this one was different. It could talk. Its language skills were rather basic as the infection rotted its cerebral cortex, but it was intelligible. The insect carried itself with a posture befitting a regal warrior, though the height of its prowess had clearly long since passed.
"T-This is MY KINGDOM!" the infected bug screeched like the caw of a voracious vulture. "It's MINE! I WON'T LET YOU HAVE IT!"
The Knight considered heeding the creature's warnings, but in rising to its feet, it revealed the form of the prey. That alone was enough to solidify the beast's fate. That corpse wasn't a tragic Mosskin that found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't a Squit or Gruzzer that had become another insect's meal. It was a vessel. One who was only a shell and a cape, with no void filling their insides and animating their carapace. One who’d met an untimely end, whose shade had fled into the umbrella of vegetation above. The Knight had long considered themselves to be the only vessel of their kind. No other bug was so deeply intertwined with the shadows yet imbued with a will all of their own. This husk, with two pairs of upturned horns, was a sign that the Knight was not alone in this cruel, unforgiving world.
And it was already dead.
The infected bug had murdered it.
To give credit where credit was due, the haggard insect put up more of a fight than anything the Knight had confronted thus far. If the sickness that made its joint creak wasn't impairing its faculties, the bug would've posed a serious threat. Its calcium shell had become slightly softened from malnutrition. Its compound eyes struggled to focus on moving targets. The bug was perhaps once a respected, mighty hunter whose very name struck fear into the hearts of others. But this was no longer that bug. This was a monster whose mind had been crushed by the infection - a danger to the Mosskin and every other bug within a mile radius. What if it got bored and strayed out into the crossroads? What if it ran into Cornifer? Or Quirrel? Unacceptable.
The Knight felt no joy in the endless waves of combat that seemed to follow in their shadow. The trail of death they left behind was far longer than what this infected bug had ever accomplished. No one was innocent in the war for Hallownest. But the Knight had a job to do, and their moral compass would not be swayed by empathy.
The stalwart vessel wiped off the blood from its nail using the lining of its cloak. The blade was scarred with notches from felling foes many times their size, and the ruby droplets sunk into the lacerations. The Knight really needed to find a nailsmith. One of those scrapes could hold the ambition to develop into a crack, then into a fissure. The nail could easily break in two if its owner accidentally struck with the spine instead of the whetted edge. The Knight wouldn't last long against Hallownest's revenants with a broken sword. They didn't doubt there was much, much worse waiting in the bowels of the blighted kingdom. If only they had a shell that covered more than just their head. Maybe they'd be less squishy.
The Knight sheathed their nail onto their back and looked down at the body of their fallen foe. Their battle was intense yet disappointingly short. The insect clearly possessed the muscle memory of a fierce warrior - a remnant of the life they once lead before the infection rendered it meaningless. But the plague that reduced its brain to slush had crippled its talent. The bug's movements were erratic and uncontrolled, fighting less like a noble soldier and more like a rabid animal, which the Knight supposed it was. Well, it didn't matter now. The beast was dead. It lay crumpled on its side like a ragdoll as yellow ooze drained from its eyes and joints. Its crimson robes billowed out across the forest floor like a pool of blood, and its needle was buried in the dirt like a grave marker. At least the bug was now at peace. Its eyes no longer shone with a deadly light, and its chest no longer heaved with strained breaths. The Knight arrived too late to save their sibling, but at least their meaningless death was avenged.
The stoic Ghost kneeled and claimed the Mothwing Cloak strung around their sibling's neck. They offered a silent word of thanks and slipped the fabric over their shoulders. The Knight turned away from the bodies of their two siblings and darted into the impenetrable underbrush, never to return.
As the final scraps of their silvery cloak were absorbed into the plants of Greenpath, an entire library of secrets fell silent forever. The voice of the only bug to recall the fables had been snuffed out. The final drops of royal blood dried on the leaves. Somewhere in the darkness of Deepnest, Herrah twitched in her sleep. The Knight would never receive the name that so many would fondly remember them by. They would never discover their father's sloughed-off shell or the mark of royalty branded on its hide. They would never uncover the shared blood that once ran through the veins of the three ill-fated siblings. Somewhere in the skies above Hallownest, cradled among clouds and sunlight, the Radiance cackled in delight.
But even in the end, as the Knight's nail cleaved between her ribs and scattered an emulsion of blood and infection across the forest floor, Hornet had no regrets. After all, with the course that her sibling was destined to follow, she would be reunited with her mother very soon.
Bury the knight with her broken nail.
Bury the lady, lovely and pale.
Bury the priest in his tattered gown,
Then bury the beggar with his shining crown.