Fandom: Hollow Knight

  • The Last Stag
  • Ghost
  • Canon Compliant

Length: 2k, Oneshot

Date Posted: 2020-12-26

Collections: Yuletide 2020

but if you close your eyes


A stag finds a traveler, and the world begins to become whole.


Written for graveExcitement, for Yuletide 2020.

He could not say when Hallownest fell.

It was not a stag's place to know. His duty remained, until the stations were shuttered, one by one, and the world would close down into only miles and miles of tunnels. The labyrinth that had carried the kingdom had been the stags' domain since his hatching, back when the world was rough and unfinished, only just touched by the pale light from afar. Many bugs are burrowing sorts, and the stags had long established themselves great tunnels as passageways, it was told to him once in a whisper, to travel the lengths of the world below the surface themselves. When the light came to shine upon them, it decreed they would carry other, smaller creatures through their tunnels, for none matched their speed and paths.

As such, though, the world beyond the tunnels was not built for his kind. The tunnels were the stags' domain, but they traveled no further than they dug, and they had not seen reason to do so in an age, too long for even the oldest, grayest stags in the nest to recall clearly.

When the stations closed, the entrances to the tunnels had closed with them like so many windows, as if the king hoped to block out that hateful light by entrapping them all in darkness. A futile effort, really. The light whispered to them in the tunnels, too, and the loneliness and the confinement took many, old stags vanishing out into the tunnels day by day to destinations unknown and without return. Some of the younger ones would seek another escape, to the surface filled with howling winds, dust, and an endless barren expanse, equally final.

The numbers had dwindled quickly, and then slowly, the last few wise or foolish enough to stay clinging tightly to their existence, until the last and youngest of them watched the light fade from his sole lingering elder's eyes, and learned at last what it was to be alone.

The tunnels stretched on forever, a kingdom within a kingdom even the king's light never knew in full, looping and backtracking, connecting and reconnecting, paths and routes which the oldest stags had all known only by memory, as they all had for as long as the tunnels had been carved. He did not often dare the deeper tunnels, uncertain as the memory splintered and faded, for without another to guide him even the best-trafficked paths grew unfamiliar. In part, he feared he would take a path forgotten and never find a way back; in part, he feared he would find a fellow stag, in whatever place they did not return from.

Time slipped away into nothing, and he could not have said how long he wandered, retracing the same few roads again and again, pacing as his memory broke down, piece by piece, boxing him in until he knew only the road he had traveled most -- the path from the crossroads to the town above, a name he couldn't recall, a path he could not yet even complete but instead half-followed and returned from, turned in circles like a maddened animal -- and then it appeared.


The bell came like an illusion, a dream, and he nearly chose to ignore it. Could it not have been trickery, for the light to call him, to taunt him with the ghosts of the kingdom? But he had his code, and his honor as stag. He could not ignore a traveler in need. And if there was truly an open station, and a traveler seeking passage...

If he was to chase a memory, he would do so in service. It was all that remained, now, after all.

The ringing echoed down the stagways like a beacon, and his legs carried him more than his mind. The memory of the path rebuilt itself like a carving draining of water, the shape forming clearer and clearer until the last obscurity had soaked away into the earth. Reaching the station, the light nearly blinded him; he stumbled to a stop, ungainly on legs that had grown frailer than remembered, sometime in the sleepwalking mists of time between.

It took a moment, recovering, to see the platform, and then another to find the traveler, tiny as it was, perched atop the station bell. It stared at him with what he could only read as fascination, in the way the dark eyes of its mask followed his every move with slight, deliberate shifts of its head.

Besides the newcomer, the station lay empty. Weeds grew in the cracks of the tiles, and he could see the old look of it as if overlaid upon the newer sight before him -- signs that should have been straight and legible, arches which had at some point cracked, an iron bench once unrusted and glossy black as carapace.

The script of greetings and offering passage flowed smoothly, despite disuse, and he kept his voice unbroken as much from disbelief as by his own steady temper. The tiny traveler listened at rapt attention, even dropping down from the station bell to the bench, and then to sit down before him in the tunnel, dark legs tucked beneath its cloak. That black gaze did not leave him, and the traveler tilted its horns in question.

He had forgotten much, he admitted. He would not remember most of the stations, these days, though he promised to follow the bell, should it ring again. More stations than he could remember marked the roads and settlements of Hallownest, and as the knowledge of this path returned to him, he found a longing for the thought of another bell's call, a guide back into the paths of memory.

The traveler bug made no sign of minding. It stood, nodded, and hopped neatly back onto the platform. Then it turned, one last time before leaving, to strike the station bell.

Though the traveler bug had not spoken a single word, the ringing sounded like a promise.


The bells came again, and again, and the paths reached further into the depths each time. The tiny traveler proved more an explorer, finding station after station in the dark. Some, even the last stag himself did not recognize -- for one, how long had Hallownest had a tunnel into the dens of Deepnest, and why?

The traveler appeared alone, and only alone -- the stag heard voices, once or twice, at a distance from the station, and saw another bug rest once nearby, but the traveler bug kept no companions, and frequented nowhere in particular. Often it arrived with wounds that bled black, and would stagger to the station bench to rest, unnaturally still, until the cuts began to mend. Nearly as often, he would find it fidgeting with metal charms beneath its cloak, eerie lights flickering on rearrangement.

The last stag did not ask questions of it. Such was not the way of the stags, or of their passengers; even the tiny traveler appeared to understand this, though it wasn't much for conversation in general. He suspected, by the third or fourth station, that it did not speak at all, by the fact it only rang the bell and pointed to the map to ask a destination.

Nonetheless, the loneliness weighed upon him heavily with all the time before, and exposed to a stranger, however silent, he could only resist so long. In time, he had come to regard the traveler as a companion of his own, of sorts. Both travelers of the kingdom, on their own roads, and at times together as well. For all that he knew little of the traveler's adventures beyond the stagways, an affection for it grew, to see it return so many times. The days of station regulars may have passed, but the fondness of habit had not.

He spoke to it, musing and rambling when it rested by the station. Sometimes it approached him, to sit on the ledge, watching with curious hidden eyes, and so he could imagine it had taken an interest, rather than that he was merely an old bug lost in his thoughts. It made no sign of disapproval, so he could only hope it appreciated the few stories he still told.

On one journey, after so many stations had reopened he felt as if he traveled the Hallownest of old, he made mention of the old stags' nest, which had long escaped his memory. No stag in the old kingdom had reason to see it with any frequency, as it served as a birthplace and breeding-grounds, and little more. The traveler listened intently, as always.

When he finished, the traveler leapt from his saddle to the platform railing, and dropped down into the station of the town above. It turned, and paused, as if to gather his attention, and rang the station bell, once, carefully. As the sound faded, it turned and vanished into the caverns, as was the way of it, and the last stag settled down to rest.


The ringing came from above, so far above he could not imagine it anywhere beneath the earth. The heady air of the surface rushed past him from somewhere distant, twining with the clang and clamor of the bell, and whatever path he walked was so old he could not even place it, only follow, and pray to the tunnels to lead him to whatever he had no choice but to seek.

The station ahead lay open, and the wind blew strong from the skies beyond, cold and sharp and new. He staggered to breathe it in, the dim light resolving into vision.

No traveler stood at the platform, and the bell hung silent despite the call. It echoed inside him now, and in his mind's eye, he could see it -- a path he had known barely a half-dozen times in his life, before now, yet knew with a surety he could not explain that he would never forget again.


He brought the traveler, once he had lingered at the station long enough to believe it real. An edge of dreamlike wonder clung to it, but the winds, brisk and alive, cut it away as they approached again.

The traveler had taken his offer more eagerly than anything he had seen of it before, bobbing its pale mask up and down in a quick, jerky nod, all but bouncing in place. It had climbed his saddle without any further dawdling, and he let his legs carry him, the path already in memory once more. As the last, he felt a duty to the place -- if no others remained to see the nest, who else would remember but him?

Disembarking, the traveler nodded again, and darted ahead into the shadows of the nest. The last stag waited, and settled down to kneel in the earth of the tunnel, drinking in the cool air and the scent of dust and weeds. The town above carried those scents, at times, but muted, protected by the valley walls. His first memory, the oldest he knew, smelled like this, amid the scent of other stags and earth and something else. The smell of home.

The winds sang outside, their harsh voices softened by the tunnel walls, stirring gentle eddies of dust. A new scent emerged, older in a way that needled at him to remember. A dark shape leapt in front of him, and he raised his head to see the traveler again.

Back so soon? It held something close beneath its cloak like a prize, like a gift, as it approached.

A moment later, the traveler held out its offering, a chip of something solid and dried, and the smell overwhelmingly known. He stared in shock for a moment, more so than ever before.

A scrap from an egg. A recent hatching -- it must have been, to leave enough for the traveler to find. His mind ventured out, to the young stags who walked to the wastelands, who had not returned.

Perhaps... perhaps...

The traveler sat down beside him, and the old stag was not alone.