He stepped over the bodies of his fallen warriors, warriors who had run into this dark wood at his command.
Despite the blood, the house mantles and tartans tarnished, he did not draw his sword. In fact, he hardly looked at those who had died. There was little warmth in his gaze as he looked ahead, eyes only for what had killed them.
“You’re not like the others,” he said.
The thing’s carapace undulated as it turned. Its wings knocked against branches, cracking and breaking them. Its entire face was like the eye of a reptile, and every time it blinked, its mask was different.
Right now, it was plastered with an expression of sickly joy.
“That’s right,” it said, its voice sharp yet rounded, like chimes at the bottom of a well.
“What are you?” asked the Prince. In a way, he was glad none of his comrades were alive to hear the way he said it. He felt his fascination making him sick, but he pressed on.
The creature seemed to cock its happy head, before making itself more comfortable. It rested its chin atop its folded front talons and looked almost longingly at the Prince with its quirked face.
“Shall I tell you a story?”
The Prince felt sweat dripping down his face. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He grit his teeth instead, and nodded.
The creature’s face disappeared, only to re-emerge as one with a more tepid, closed mouth smile.
“Once there were a brother and sister, both who loved to make things. The sister’s works were made in passionate swaths, brushwork worthy of memory, emotion worthy of visitation. The brother saw the things his sister made, and tried to do the same. And though his creations contained great detail, they felt hollow. His sister tried to help, filling in the things he’d missed, but when she did this they were no longer his creations. He studied her art carefully, rigorously, endlessly. Finally, one day, he made something truly his own. His creations were something more lofty, higher than his sister’s works, which seemed base in comparison. He was so proud of what he’d done, he had to show her. It didn’t take long for the sister to fly into a jealous rage. She didn’t understand: to her eyes her brother’s creations still seemed empty. But somehow, their emptiness drove them onward, pushed them to search out beauty, to strive, to die upon a path. She would never admit their beauty, and wished to see them ended. She made her own new creations, riven from threads of her blind rage. The brother, not understanding why his beloved sister was acting this way, panicked. He spawned again, only this time his works bore a terrible curse: their husk-like nature drove them forward, but they could never fill themselves. Always searching, lusting.”
The being’s face switched to one where the mouth was now small, neutral. “The rest is history,” it said.
It raised its head, gingerly, a query in its vacant eyes.
“Do you too know this feeling?”
The Prince still did not look down at his fallen soldiers, though tears now flowed from his eyes. He thought of how he’d sent them all to their deaths, hoping it would make him feel something in the shape of remorse. Instead, he was left with tears given from an empty space where that shape should go.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
The creature’s face was now a coy one, and it moved ever closer to the Prince. “Shall I tell you a secret?” It whispered, its voice seeping into his ear.
The prince’s eyes were wide, and he was frozen. It seemed not to matter: it seemed the creature could hear him without speaking.
“Death is the key. You are on the right track. For, if this were all gone, what would come to fill its place?”
It craned its neck low, so that the Prince could look at the two voids in its head. “You may start with me. Kill me, and you will see the word to a new world. A word to forgiveness, happiness. Wholeness.”
The prince took his shaking hand and moved it to his sword handle, and he jerked the blade from its scabbard.
When the deed was done, he saw what the creature had called the word. Though, it didn’t seem like a word. Maybe a thought, but even that seemed too generous. He couldn’t pinpoint its meaning; it seemed amorphous, deformed. When he tried to give it a sentiment, the closest he could come up with was…