June 21, 2021
A full day had passed since The Immortal Guardian razed the region.
Hollows -- the mindless materialisations of nightmares -- had since infested the charred, barren landscape that was once Mount Ebott. The noon summer sun beat its harsh, hot rays down upon the ashes.
Worse still, without anyone left to guide their souls, the Restless Dead engaged in an eternal battle against the infesting Hollows. They slaughtered each other in a senseless hell, constantly reviving under the influence of The Celestial Calamity.
Dust watched the mayhem unfold from the broken windows of an abandoned office building. Many years ago, when he first stepped onto The Surface, this was one of the taller human structures visible in the distance.
It served its purpose in reverse now, allowing him to keep a close eye on the Eastern exit. The Immortal Guardian had stood guard the whole time, behaving more akin to a statue or a robot than a person.
Not a single entity dared to approach the knight. Not the Hollows. Not the spirits. Not the heroes either. Under his watch, The Underground was completely off limits.
The Phantom floated around in circles, restless. “Saaaaaaaaaaaaaaans! Why are we still bonedoggling here??? Didn’t we promise to meet up with Grillby?!?”
“Just a little while longer, bro,” Dust muttered. “I’m waiting for a delivery to arrive.”
And arrive, it did. A drone with a package flew over the roof of the building. Dust identified it as the exact same model James Pashowar used in May of last year. Although secure, this particular device didn’t have much range. The Guildmaster must be close by: at least somewhere in this city.
Dust pulled up his hoodie and teleported to the drop-off point. There, a toy siren wailed to grab his attention. Everything was the same as before.
The first thing he did was shut off the noise to avoid dangerous unwanted attention. Then, he unpacked the box. A two-way radio communicator sat on the very top. Crumpled sheets of paper formed a half-hearted cushion around the sides. Their ability to prevent jostling seemed doubtful.
He set the radio aside and tossed the paper over his shoulders, hoping that his request was properly fulfilled. Otherwise, he’d be pissed at this James fellow.
At the bottom of the box lay a file with the human nation’s logo on it. From what he was told, it should contain the details of all the children who went missing on Mount Ebott.
He started counting the number of profile faces. “One… two… three… four… five… six…”
Dust immediately switched on the radio.
“Good evening, Lone Defender,” said James.
“Quit the pleasantries, James. I told ya there were eight humans. You only gave six. Are you trying to scam me?”
“No, no, not at all! I just hit the weight limit, I swear. A second drone will provide you with the rest of your request soon. But first… a little discussion is in order.”
“Fine. What do you wanna talk about?”
“You had mentioned that your teacher, Doctor W. D. Gaster, had built a cursed altar for your brother: a beacon to attract human children to The Underground. They would then become a sacrifice to break the ancient Barrier and start a war.”
“Yup. Pin all the blame on Doc G. My brother wasn’t aware of that man’s evil schemes.”
“Is that so?”
“Are you doubting my words?”
“No. It’s just… Mister Papyrus is long gone. I suppose we’ll never know for sure. Nonetheless, are you aware that this makes your whole nation look guilty by association? You included?”
“Does it even make a difference? As far as I know, you heroes have tried to hunt me down for the past six years. My bounty probably went up a hundredfold yesterday. After suffering such massive losses, I’m absolutely sure you’re all looking for a scapegoat. Accusing me of being Grillby’s collaborator is an easy way out. Actually, I’m surprised you’re still able to talk to me. Wouldn’t they try to crucify you for your failures, figuratively or otherwise?”
James laughed heartily. “Your concerns are not unfounded. My survival is indeed at stake. This may very well be the last time I speak to you as ‘Guildmaster’. That’s why I’m owning up to my past dishonesty. If these files can give you the final clue to destroy The Calamity from within, we could both save each other’s hide.”
Dust snorted. “I don’t care about you. I’m only doing this for my brother’s sake.”
And for the sake of those who genuinely helped him in the past. Though, he would never admit that to The Guildmaster.
James was not insulted by the cold response. Instead, he remained impartial and cordial. “Understandable. More so when I have broken my side of our previous contract. As it is, you’re only beholden to the promise you’ve made to Mister Papyrus.”
“Enough chit-chat,” said Dust. “It’s time for you to hold up your end of our bargain. Tell me more about these kids.”
“Seven of the eight missing children have a distinct commonality: they had all been patients of a hospital nearby Mount Ebott from 2010 to 2015 when they were between eight to twelve years old. It’s a dangerous age range. Old enough to sneak out, yet too young to fully understand the consequences. In theory, proximity and vulnerability may have made them suitable candidates for the curse’s mechanisms. Except, they were there for standard vaccinations and routine checkups. None of them had more severe, life-threatening issues that would’ve made them subjectable to magic. Please inspect the first batch of papers to verify my claims.”
Dust arranged the papers on the windy rooftop floor, keeping them weighed down with a bunch of bones. He also adjusted his hood to cut out some of the sunny glare. So far, the facts aligned: they were indeed medical records sourced from a single hospital. He scanned through the details as fast as he could. “…I don’t understand half of these terms. They’re too human specific. Still, I get what you’re saying. In short, it’s as though there’s an invisible third factor in play.”
“Ah, I see you’ve already filtered the data to its most useful points. That is indeed the correct assessment.”
About then, Dust heard the propellers of a second drone. It arrived with another box. James Pashowar hadn’t broken his promise after all.
Inside the container sat a small album on top of the files. That book contained shots of a charity event, organised for August 1, 2015. Celebrities from The Hero’s Guild visited the hospital, aiming to bring some cheer to the littlest patients.
Dust recognised a familiar face in the picture. It was the girl with the black baseball hat. She had seen much better days. He could no longer remember the specifics of her illness, except that it required continual medication.
He turned to the next page. The girl sat beside someone Dust had not seen for a long time.
Frisk. They stared at the camera with a stoic gaze, holding a gift from the heroes: a distinctive bluish sweater with purple stripes.
He expected as much. By the process of elimination, they would be the seventh child to be called by the beacon.
Yet, there were more photographs. He flipped the page again. It showed another year’s charity event, which took place on August 1, 2014. Frisk was there in that hospital again. They shared party snacks and drinks with others who attended the event.
What he saw next shocked him down to the core. Dust swiped the files of the six other children off the ground, cross-checking their faces.
Two of them matched the files of the fallen children.
August 1, 2013. Three more matched the files. They tossed hoops at a row of traffic cones together.
August 1, 2012. The eldest of the six posed for a group photograph next to Frisk. It was a boy in a private school’s uniform, most likely there for a school project.
Frisk had been seen together with every child summoned to Mount Ebott.
Despite everything, Dust had still not reached the bottom of the book.
August 1, 2011.
August 1, 2010.
August 1, 2009.
August 1, 2008.
August 1, 2007.
August 1, 2006.
August 1, 2005.
That child attended the same charity event every single year, ever since they were a wee little baby.
“What the fuck…?” the skeleton muttered.
James said, “It was quite an accidental discovery, I must say. It all started as a confirmation of the baseball-hat girl’s demise, courtesy of Captain Willowherb. One thing led to another, and we noticed that Frisk was a fellow resident of the facility. That child’s records proved to be rather ‘heavy’.”
When Dust lifted the file with Frisk’s name. It had a noticeable difference in weight compared to the previous six. There was a long, long list of surnames for the kid, all crossed out.
He opened the file and began reading the summary out loud. “Name: Frisk. Parents: deceased. They were doctors when they were alive. Their friends -- the hospital staff -- worked together with child protection services to look for a permanent home for many years. Multiple families have attempted to adopt the child, but failed to retain them. Main complaints involved ‘being excessively stubborn to the point of endangerment’, ‘inappropriate flirtatious behaviour’, and ‘physical violence towards a guardian’. Referred to Child Psychiatry for further evaluation.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Dust tried to recall how the Frisk he knew behaved.
“Hello?” James broke the skeleton’s silent concentration. “Mister Dust? Are you still there?”
Dust said: “Uh, yeah. I’m just… going down memory lane. I noticed that Frisk started to show more delinquent behaviour on The Surface. For example, I once caught them trying to throw a bath-bomb into the toilet. Tori would have needed to call the plumber had the kiddo succeeded.”
“I see. That does match their psychiatric evaluation. Did Frisk behave the same way when they were under the mountain?”
“Nope. Frisk always buttered everyone up like a piece of toast, if you catch my drift. Too nice and too accurate. It was hard for me to believe that those actions were genuine.”
“Because it reminded me too much of myself.” He shrugged. “Life is a ton easier if you’re in people’s good graces. So, I played the role of the neighbourhood friendly funny bone. Become everybody’s friend. Surprised?”
“Q-quite,” James commented, “I wouldn’t have imagined that you had such a cordial reputation. When you were at The Hero’s Guild, you kept to yourself in the shadows, glaring at everyone with a hawk’s gaze.”
Dust let out a cynical scoff. “I can read the room, y’know. Your guys? They were all looking for opportunities to backstab me.”
“Nothing escapes you, as usual. Speaking of which, I’ve heard about the former queen’s murder through Captain Willowherb. Based on their psychiatric evaluation, I believe that her own adoptive child was the culprit, as tragic as it sounds.”
Six years ago, Toriel was murdered in her own home. Her expression was burned into Dust’s mind. She had suspicions of ill-intent from someone she knew close to heart. How she wished that she was just being an overprotective, fretful mother…
Dust began reviewing that old, dusty case from memory. He knew that she was killed for her Boss Monster SOUL. The perpetrator used a knife, and was roughly the height of a pubescent child. Based on how she fell, she was tripped over by something rope-like at her feet. Those would be vines that belonged to Flowey.
Could Frisk really have collaborated with Flowey to kill their own mother?
Though their behaviour had changed on The Surface… Dust did not remember ever sensing any malice towards Toriel. He, most of all, would’ve picked up on it.
Dust checked Frisk’s medical files again, searching for clues that may back up James Pashowar’s hypothesis. Physics taught him that everything had a cause and effect. There would always be a bigger story in the scenario.
He commented, “In response to Frisk’s ‘naughtiness’, one of their old guardians tried to beat them with a cane. Kid retaliated by stabbing a pencil into the adult’s thigh. Violent, yes. But I wouldn’t take that as a sign that they’re the culprit.”
“Oh?” the Guildmaster replied. “Don’t you think their capability to commit physical violence is a risk factor?”
“No. It takes more than that. We’re talking about premeditated murder here. The culprit must be someone capable of planning and coordination. Someone like Flowey.”
“If that’s the case, the strange plant could have instructed the psychologically vulnerable Frisk to commit the crime.”
“Possible. But… I don’t think the flower brat is the real mastermind either.” Dust glanced towards Mount Ebott. “If he was the real ‘King’ of The Celestial Calamity, his demise should have ceased that nonsense. Yet, the curse continues unabated.”
“I see,” James paused for a while, deep in thought. “We should move on to the last child then.”
One file remained. This time, it bore the logo of The Hero’s Guild. It had a big red text ‘Top Secret’ stamped on the front.
“Classified documents, huh?” Dust asked rhetorically, “Why do I expect to see endless blocks of black bars upon blocks of black bars?”
Dust’s radar for bureaucratic nonsense proved to be accurate: it was indeed filled with the dreaded black bars.
Personnel involved, redacted.
Names of witnesses, redacted.
What little legible text existed were eyewitness testimonies. Even then, key details were omitted.
‘On [REDACTED], a [REDACTED] appeared from [REDACTED]. Presumed male. [REDACTED] carried the corpse of a child in his arms.’
Dust immediately recognised the story: it was none other than the tragedy of Prince Asriel and The Fallen Human. Knowing the context, he was able to fill in the missing blanks. This document thus presented a rare opportunity to view the incident from the human’s side.
However, the more he read, the stranger the story became. Upon meeting The Prince, the villagers spoke of hallucinations. Mental intrusions. Even direct attacks to the mind that made them almost turn against each other. It stirred the villagers further into a fearful frenzy.
The assault continued until Prince Asriel fled the scene. That was the last anyone had ever seen of him.
The rest of the report, including the aftermath, was completely blanked out.
As far as Dust knew, Prince Asriel definitely died from that incident. Otherwise, King Asgore wouldn’t have made a declaration of war, and Queen Toriel wouldn’t have left her husband.
Yet… Grillby spoke about a ‘Godking Asriel’. The Immortal Guardian declared him a ‘waking nightmare’ for his true king. What was the relationship between Asriel and Flowey?
Another goat boy existed in the dreamworld, helping King Asgore’s with his fantasy flower shop alongside a conspicuous human child. That human was definitely not Frisk. None of the other six children matched those features either.
They had to be Chara, First of the Fallen. There was no doubt about that anymore.
But if they were both already dead for a long, long time… how did they come back to life as a resident of the dreamworld? Were they malicious impersonators, or illusionary NPCs? The answer eluded Dust.
He closed the file. “Say, Ole James, have you heard the monster’s side of the story?”
Guildmaster Pashowar answered: “Yes. Your citizens were very keen on sharing the tale. Do you know any additional information? I won’t ask for it for free, of course.”
“…Nah. They’re not ready for sale yet. I gotta dive into the dreamworld and get my facts straightened out first. Don’t wanna offer you false goods, y’know.”
“A fair assessment, Lone Defender. But, will you be allowed to leave at all? It’s possible that you’ll be trapped there until you destroy the source.”
“Point taken. This may be my point of no return.”
His thoughts wandered for a moment. Dust hadn’t heard about Anya ever since her surviving colleagues took over her care. They loaded her up on their jeep and dashed off to the nearest hospital, wherever it would be.
So, he asked: “Any word about Anya?”
And the Guildmaster responded, “As of now, Captain Willowherb is in intensive care. I’ve done what I can to revert her injuries, though she has yet to regain consciousness. It’s up to fate from here on.”
“I’ll take that as good news. Better than her being a half-toasted corpse, y’know.”
Dust noted that James was oddly specific about his involvement. The man tried to drop hints, but regarding what, precisely?
Before he could draw any conclusions, he heard another drone approaching from a distance. It was moving slowly towards him, also carrying a box.
He asked over the radio: “Did you send me a third package?”
With the most stark, serious tone, James answered, “No, I did not.”
Unauthorised flying object. Unknown package. It raised two major red flags.
Dust summoned his Gasterblaster posthaste and fired it towards the drone. It triggered a large explosion, enough for him to shield his face against the debris.
By the time the noise settled, every airborne Hollow in the immediate vicinity zeroed in on his location.
To make matters worse, The Phantom whispered: “We’re surrounded by humans. They’re behind the windows.”
Snipers. The heroes had already started breaking order, acting on their own accord. Otherwise, The Guildmaster wouldn’t have told the truth in such a grim manner. Seems they intended to start a brawl, hoping to catch both of them in the crossfire.
Dust tucked two files under his jacket, leaving the photobook and the other six behind. “Welp. Gotta go. Thanks James. Stay safe, ‘k? Bye.”
He teleported out of there before anyone could take any further action. His next destination: The Immortal Guardian.
That black armour stood tall at the entrance into the Underground: imposing, and unmoving.
“Grillby, I’m here,” Dust pushed his hood back, showing his face. “We gotta hurry.”
Fire lit up beneath the helmet’s visors. “…Is something wrong, Sans?…”
“The heroes are trying to kill me.”
Sets of high-speed propellers buzzed in the air. More drones. Smaller and swifter. They dodged every Hollow in the vicinity at frightening speeds. Those movements didn’t fit the profile of a manual remote control. It had to be a kind computerised targeting system.
The Immortal Guardian walked past the short skeleton, his scorched cape trailing behind him. “…Get inside…”
A brilliant crimson symbol glowed on the back of his right gauntlet, forming the shape of a flower within a wreath of thorny vines. Black briars erupted from the rocks surrounding the entrance, twisting itself into an impenetrable wall.
Not long after, Dust heard the drones crash against the briars, popping into multiple small explosions. They were more than enough to blow his measly 1HP to smithereens.
The skeleton let out a sigh of relief. “Damn. That was a close one. Since when were you able to control those thorns? I didn’t think fire elementals could do that.”
“…It’s not my place to explain…”
Another cluster of explosions tried to break through the briars. The Immortal Guardian reinforced the wall with a few gestures. “…So relentless… I have never seen such weapons before…”
Dust said, “When we just surfaced, I heard rumours online that humanity was pushing hard for self-computing and adaptive systems. They call it ‘artificial intelligence’. I guess they’ve made some progress over the years.”
“…Frightening… I thought they would have run out of resources by now…”
“I thought so too. Last I entered human territory, it looked like they regressed a few decades. Plus, they’re on the verge of a famine, so I have no idea where the hell these robots are coming from.”
“ …We can speculate later… For now, we should move… Your escort takes priority…”
“Want me to teleport us to the destination?”
“…No… I need to bolster our defences… And I cannot let you speak with the Godking alone… His Majesty’s orders…”
“Understandable. Lead the way.”
As The Immortal Guardian walked, new layers of black briars formed behind his every step. Dust kept up the pace lest he end up entangled in their growth.
New Home -- the once vibrant capital of monsterkind -- had been also reduced to char and ash. It fared no better than the outside surroundings of Mount Ebott. The air was still warm from the trapped heat. Spectral forms of former humans shuffled around the rubble, uttering mindless groans.
“…Sans Serif…” said the Immortal Guardian. “…Do you feel sad?…”
“Of course I do,” Dust replied. “Anyone would be sad looking at these ruins.”
“…Have you cried recently?…”
“I’m sure I did. At some point. I may have been too drunk to remember the tears. There was a time when I was drinking myself to sleep, spiralling down into an aimless mess. I didn’t know what to do. Where to go.”
“…That’s not sadness… Closer to anger… Frustration…”
“Huh. I guess so. I mean, frustration is a form of anger too. Inwards. Outwards. It’s all the same in the end.”
“…I see… You still haven’t realised how unusual your statements are… That is fine… It may be for the best…”
They finally arrived at the floor where the perpetual fire still burns. “Whoa…” Dust took a peek over the edge of the platform. “I thought they died out after I disrupted you in yesterday’s battle.”
The Immortal Guardian replied, “…I merely borrowed them… An unknown fuel keeps these fires going…”
The knight stretched out his marked hand over the bottomless pit. One crimson shine later, a stalk of a flower bud began to grow.
A single gargantuan black flower blossomed, laying flat and wide open.
“…This is an elevator between reality and dreams…” the knight introduced. “…Once we descend, you will fall asleep… Your true body will be stored away safely…”
Rounding his shoulders, Dust said, “I hope ‘safely’ includes ‘not wasting away’.”
“…It shouldn’t take that long… Not to the point of endangering your life… Come…”
“Should I lie down on the platform?”
“…If you so wish…”
Thus Dust laid down on the flower. If he was going to sleep, might as well make himself comfortable for the duration. Not getting into an accident would be a bonus too.
The petals soon drew inwards, folding back up into a bud.
And then… darkness slipped him into a waking dream.
To his mind, there was almost no observable difference between the realm of the waking and the illusionary bubble. He imagined that a hapless, ignorant person would quickly succumb to the rules of the dream. Someone in a tough spot in life might even embrace the lies.
But he resisted the temptation. After all, he didn’t come down here to settle into its comforts.
Dust tried to speak. “Hello?”
His voice didn’t echo. The space sounded large and spacious yet somehow felt small and confining. The smell was earthy too, as if he was inside a tomb or a coffin.
Did he get buried alive?
His macabre thoughts were interrupted by the creaks and clunks of rusty iron. It took great strength to unlock the mechanisms.
Then, the door opened. A warm orange glow beamed between the gaps. On the other side was a sight for sore eyes, one the skeleton thought he would never see again…
…It was Grillby. Not Grillbz Grillenn, The Immortal Guardian. He was Grillby, the friendly neighbourhood bartender, wearing his uniform in style.
“…Hello…” said the fire elemental.
“Hey, ‘hot stuff’,” the skeleton waved back, grinning like an idiot for the first time in a long while. “Long time no see. Should we ‘toast’ to our reunion? We got a lot to ‘ket-chup’, y’know.”
The bartender let out a tired sigh. “…You’re already cracking puns…”
“Welp, I don’t get many chances nowadays.”
“…Do you need help to stand?…”
“I can manage. Thanks.”
Dust shuffled to his feet and walked out of the mysterious room. The first thing he noticed was the starry night sky. It had been ages since he took the time to appreciate the heavens. He spent most of the previous year mulling over pages and computers.
He shook himself out of its mesmer. Although beautiful, that sky was still fake.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Grillby answered, “…The entrance to the dreamworld… Disguised as an underground bunker…”
The mentioned bunker was little more than a grassy mound with a pair of heavy iron doors. The vine-encrusted exterior created the impression that the structure had been long neglected.
Cold, refreshing air blew by. Too cold for summer, he might add. Then, he noticed the grass and leaves were amber instead of green. Dust picked up a fallen leaf, twirling the stem between his fingers. “Nevermind night time, the whole season is wrong.”
Grillby picked one up for himself. “…It’s a perpetual autumn here…”
“And nobody realised it?”
The fire elemental shook his head. Then, he crushed the leaf in his grip and burned it into cinders.
Dust took a moment to pat his torso. Beneath the fabric of his jacket, he could feel the hard edges of his files. Seemed the items were replicated along with him. His luck turned upwards for once: showing these documents to ‘Godking Asriel’ may open up more options for negotiation.
Grillby beckoned for the skeleton to follow. He led Dust down the forest trail. The closer they approached civilization, the more illuminated the road became. Night lights quickly outshone the stars in the sky, causing the celestial tapestry to fade into a blank black canvas.
And there it was: the monster town. Lush. Vibrant. Intact. Well-maintained. Clean. Everything was like a photo on a postcard.
The skeleton should have felt happy knowing that his people lived in such a good place, free from suffering, hardship, and pain. Yet, deep down, he was unnerved. The town felt more like a diorama or a set piece, and all the residents were curated actors…
The following words rolled out of Dust mouth: “This place is way too damn artificial.”
“…I know…” Grillby said. “…We should hurry to the bar… His Majesty awaits your arrival…”
Questions would soon get their answers. Dust knew all his efforts were for this very moment. Maybe now, at long last, he could solve the dusty riddles that plagued his past.