Buttoncup put a paw on the rock face to steady himself. The pain in his chest was getting more intense, shooting down the length of his left arm. He considered going back—but back to what? Candy Cloud wasn't what it used to be—and he'd be damned if he was going to let them ship him off to The Cottage. No, there was one place left for him to go and he was going, come Hell or—he coughed, hard, and blood sprayed into his matted yellow fur.
He stood as straight as he could, turned and continued up the dirt path. There was a rush of cold wind and, of course, mist. There was a time when Buttoncup had liked the mist. That was before it got so cold, before the damp would seep deep into his bones and stay there for days—it was when he was young.
A task like this should have belonged to Clovershield or Copperclock; they were the warriors, but they were long gone now. He was the only one left. He started counting them in his head, as if ticking off a list. Mopwatch had died in the mines and Sweettart had gone trying to avenge him during the rebellion. Clovershield had walked this same path years ago and fallen to his death during a storm. Copperclock had hauled up in The Cottage with only gin and old books for company.
The Cottage: the windows were shaped like hearts and the only people who ever came to visit were naughty children in need of a lesson from a wizened elder. And soon, even they stopped coming. Buttoncup shuddered to think of Grandmother Goose, how they'd found her, and worse, how long it had taken before they did.
Nookworm had died defending the library from sugar ants and Snugboat had, eventually, rusted out.
There had been more, so many more, but Buttoncup stopped counting. He could hear thunder. He was getting close now. He allowed himself one more rest, drew one more stabbing breath, and turned the corner, mindful the sheer drop to his right. Thundercloud Castle loomed enormous, its rolling grey base flickering with the occasional crackling lightning bolt.
Security on the castle had never been great. There had been times – countless times – when Buttoncup, Sweettart, Mopwatch and Cottondandy had snuck in for a bit of mischief, just to give Unjust and the Baddies a taste of his their own medicine.
The Baddies were gone too; the sugar ants had seen to that. They had been replaced with a red velvet rope, a metal box with a slit in the top and a sign that read, Suggested Donation cc2.00. The sign was covered in cobwebs. No one came here anymore. Sooner or later, everything got forgotten. Everything and everyone.
Buttoncup was disappointed. There had been no guards to kill, trip up or outsmart. Even on this, his last heroic quest, he couldn't be bothered to step over that damned velvet rope; he had unclipped it from its brass pole and let it fall to the ground. And now, when he should be charging up the stairs, he found himself sitting on them, struggling to catch his breath. The pain was almost unbearable, it felt like someone was standing on his chest in a sauna, like any moment could be his last.
Old images flickered across his memory. He wondered if Mopwatch had ever known—certainly Sweettart had known—how Copperclock felt about her, how her choosing Mopwatch had eaten him up inside—but had Mopwatch known? And Cottondandy. Buttoncup had known he wasn't her first choice, or even her second. But he thanked his lucky stars every day that Copperclock and Clovershield were beyond her reach. She did, too, in the end. That was the last thing she said to him – I'm glad it was you. Buttoncup closed his eyes. He could almost see her, almost pick out her sweet, sugary scent.
Thunder always sounded louder from inside the castle. It jerked Buttoncup out of his revelry, forced him to his feet. He climbed, wheezing, to the top of the staircase. With every step, every stab of pain that felt like a red hot poker being rammed through his chest, Buttoncup reminded himself, it was Unjust's fault. Unjust had ruined everything, made Skyland unstable—and when the sugar ants came, the Snugglebuns had been desperate. They'd given up Candy Cloud, they'd worked in the sugar mines, they'd watched their home be carried away, one grain at a time. They'd sold their souls. Someone had to pay.
At the top of the stairs was the throne room. Buttoncup knew that once he entered, he wouldn't be coming out; in fact, he had every chance of being struck by horizontal lightning as he entered – and he accepted this with perfect unconcern. But he also knew—he was determined—that if he died in Thundercloud Castle, Unjust would die with him. Buttoncup was the last of the Snugglebuns; this was his duty.
The door squeaked open – a sound more tragic than ominous. He steeled himself, stepped over the threshold. The room was deserted. Buttoncup clutched his chest and hit the ground with a thud.
"Who's there?" Unjust limped out of the shadows, his steps as slow and unsteady as the voice from beneath his cowl. "I know there's someone there. There's nothing worth taking."
"I've come to kill you," Buttoncup groaned, trying to pull himself forward.
Unjust chuckled. "Buttoncup? It's nice to hear a familiar voice. Forgive me, I can't see anything now."
"You're blind?" It wasn't fair. Unjust could have at least tried to be threatening.
"As a bat." Unjust shuffled forward. "I was hoping someone would come. You know, before the end."
Suddenly, the past didn't matter. They were mortal enemies and they would die together.
"When they find our bones," Buttoncup ventured, "do you suppose they'll think—"
"One can hope," Unjust answered. "One can hope."