Nepeta runs, blind and stumbling, deeper into the caverns. The tunnel winds and forks and twists, always heading down, always down.
She barely feels the occasional dull pain in her arm or shoulder as she lurches into or scrapes past a rock wall; the pain in her chest is so much worse. She doesn't notice the shadows thickening around her; all she can see is Gamzee's mad grin, Gamzee's glaring eyes, Gamzee's hands gripping two halves of a broken bow and tightening the bowstring around an unresisting throat.
He won't use the bow for Karkat, though, part of her mind says, pitilessly clear. That was special for Equius. For Karkat it would have to be something else.
(And then there are the other images in her head, remembered or just imagined, she can't tell: her claws scraping purple runnels across Gamzee's face. An upraised club about to descend on her, already spattered with green. Equius's face, swollen and dark and cold under her shaking fingers, a dried blue trickle from his nostrils winding down around his terrible small smile.)
When she finally sinks down exhausted, sobbing and curling around the ache inside her, she has no idea how far into the mountain she's descended.
There's a flickering light, somewhere far ahead of her, and a blurred impression of color on the reddish stone. Slowly, painfully, she pushes herself up and crawls toward the light.
The first wall drawing stops her where she is, staring. Because it looks exactly like hers, her own style, picture-stories done in ash and charcoal and many colors of blood. Only it's nothing she ever drew in her life.
It's a nub-horned troll in a ragged cloak, seated on a stone, one hand outspread toward the little group of trolls sitting at his feet; he's clearly speaking, and they're clearly listening with all their attention. And next to him, shaggy hair spilling over her shoulders and around a familiar caste sign in hunter green, looking up --
Yes, murmurs a voice in her head, that was me.
She rises to her feet, turning to look around the cavern, eyes widening: the walls are covered, covered in stories.
There: the nub-horned troll (Signless, whispers that voice) as a wriggler, toddling beside -- not a lusus but an adult troll, tall and slender in robes of jade green (the Dolorosa, she raised him), the caste symbol on her breast another jolt of familiarity. There: the Signless with his arm around the shoulders of another young troll, this one wearing mustard-color, with doubled horns and two-colored shades over his eyes (the Ψiioniic, his best friend; it's like remembering something long forgotten, each name underlaid with other names, each image with other images).
There: the Signless and his Disciple, she with the hunter-green caste sign, sheltering under his cloak against a cold rain. There: he speaks, the crowd rapt before him, and she writes each word in the book she carries. There: they stand on the deck of a ship, heads bent together over a map, and she remembers --
A green haze blurs the cavern, wells up and spills down her cheeks.
There: the Signless at the moment that earned him the name of the Sufferer, hanging from the flogging jut, wrists scorched black by the glowing irons, streaked with his strange bright blood.
Beside her, the Disciple looks up at the wall, reaches out long fingers to brush across the Sufferer's painted face.
|He was so beautiful. Even there, at the end.|
They killed him, Nepeta whispers.
How could you pawssibly stand it? she asks, still in a whisper; the Disciple only shakes her head, and gazes around the room as though seeing it for the first time in sweeps.
|It's all still here. Everything is still here.|
(It occurs to her, vaguely, that she should be surprised at the Disciple's presence. Somehow she isn't.)
Where are we?
|I lived here, after he was killed. After the E%ecutor let me escape.|
(There: a tall blue-eyed figure with straight barbed horns, holding a bow and arrow at his side, the bow drawn but lowered.)
|I never found out what became of him afterward. I only hope he escaped the Grand Highblood's vengeance.|
He -- Nepeta stares at the painting in shock. He killed the Signless?
The other voice is silent for a long moment; when it speaks again, it's very soft.
|I remembered him. And he must have remembered me, else he would never have disobeyed his orders to kill me too. Even so ...|
And you furgave him? She's on her feet, eyes burning, staring up at the woman with the caste symbol that matches hers. How could you --
|As he taught us. The green eyes are sad, and compassionate, and so very old. It isn't easy. But forgiving the E%ecutor for slaying him ... in some ways it was easier than forgiving him for dying.|
Nepeta's shaking her head.
|Poor cub, says the Disciple softly. It's hard.|
A long beat. Her hand settles on Nepeta's shoulder.
|You love him.|
|You love him as I loved the Signless. Beyond mating fondness, beyond pity or hate.|
And because of that, you hate him a little for leaving you to put himself in danger. And you also hate him a little for being willing to spare the one who slew your moirail. You want the young highblood dead on the floor at your feet, dead to pay for the one he killed, and how can you forgive him? And what right does anyone else have to forgive him?
But you also hate yourself a little for not stopping your own moirail before it was too late. For not making him safe. And how can you let him make the same mistake?
She's crying now, silently, and an arm wraps around her and draws her close, and a warm forehead rests against her hair like a lioness comforting her cub.
|It's hard. I understand.|
A long silence, broken only by stifled sobs, before the Disciple speaks again -- gentle, so gentle, but firm.
|But you know what you have to do now.|
Nepeta swallows, wipes her nose on her too-long coat sleeve. What?
|What will happen if the Knight stays here, or if he goes to face the Bard as miserable as he is now? Those eyes dwell on her, deep green as her own blood. Ask yourself, Rogue: what is the shape of his heart?|
... no, I don't want to. She doesn't lift her face; strong fingers curl under her chin and lift it for her.
|The young highblood killed your moirail. But purrhaps he will not kill his own -- if the Knight comes to him with a whole heart, knowing what he has to do. As you know what you have to do. What is the shape of his heart, little Rogue?|
It's there before her, clear as the stories on the wall, and she faces it down as she would face down any other prey. Close to breaking.
(There's a painting all by itself on the far wall, surrounded by a border of empty space: a quadrant grid, the old familiar shapes of spade and club and diamond and heart done in a rough primitive style, all of them blurred and faded -- and painted over it in vivid green and red, an eight-pointed star shape.
A compass rose. Transcending the quadrants.)
If he goes back like this, his heart will fail him when he n33ds it most. And if he stays here to save his own life ... it'll break. He'll break. He won't -- he won't be him anymore.
One last blink; two last tears, as she straightens on her own.
But I can make it whole.