A few minutes in a universe left behind. An hour on the planets silently orbiting Skaia. And on Derse, a handful of days, twisting in on themselves, warping around the planet's twisted towers, so close to the realm of the elder gods.
They called her the Taciturn Tyrant, Jack's stoic little archagent. Her door was always locked, she had no political power, and yet she ran Derse. Jack came to her for everything now; couldn't go an hour without talking to her, to vent, to rant, to pour out his mounting suspicions of subterfuge and hidden assassins, his words garbled by some exhaustion-drunk high because she'd strung him taut and scared him out of sleeping.
It wouldn't have worked on a human, she mused. It shouldn't have worked on a Dersite. But she was thirteen, a little girl, scared and powerless, and when she struck, nobody saw it coming.
She was a horrible person. But she was winning.
- - - - - - - - - -
The man once known as the Draconian Dignitary sat in the shadows at the far end of the bar in a dimly lit rathskeller, exhaling cigarette smoke and making hazy clouds in the air around him. There was a shotglass on the dark purple wood in front of him, which he fiddled with from time to time without drinking. He wasn't sober at the moment, but neither was he drunk, merely buzzed to the point where the world became slightly fuzzy at the edges.
He didn't like being drunk. Preferred his mind sharp, but it was a good, sustainable balance; keeping just enough alcohol in his system to let him slip into a kind of trance. Events happened one after another, going by in a haze, and he was detached from it all, as if it was happening to someone else.
He downed the shotglass, at last, and turned to look fuzzily at where Droll was spinning in dizzying circles on the barstool next to him. "Stop that."
Droll did, by falling off his chair. "Ow."
"It serves you right. You're going to make yourself sick, and then they'll think we're drunk and kick us out."
"I am drunk, Draconian!"
The Dignitary put his cigarette out in an ashtray on the bartop. "Stop being so energetic. You almost died recently, so act like it." He took a moment to adjust the collar and cuffs of his suit, casually eyeing the rest of the bar to make sure they weren't overheard, more out of habit than because he really had anything important to say. The closest person to them, a short black pawn with a soldier's build, caught his eye and flipped him off before returning to her drink.
As Droll climbed back up onto the barstool, Draconian laid two official-looking slips of paper out across the countertop. The other Dersite peered at them curiously.
"Boarding passes for the Derse-to-Earth shuttles. If Jack..." His eyes flickered to the woman nearby once again, but she was making a point of ignoring them. Nevertheless, he lowered his voice. Being on first name terms with the Sovereign Slayer wasn't going to earn them any friends. "If Jack changes his mind about letting us go, we'll need to get off-planet in a hurry." He'd heard things about Earth. A barren, scarred wasteland, a place you went because you had something to run from, and more shuttles were leaving for it every day. Exile started to look pretty good, with Jack in charge.
"Those shuttles don't come back," Droll explained patiently, as if he wasn't sure Draconian was aware of this detail.
The two of them sat in silence for a while. Draconian fiddled with his shot glass without really drinking, and the quiet strains of a piano drifted from a stage somewhere in the back. They'd played these bars once, not so very long ago. Draconian with his saxophone, Droll on the clarinet, Jack's hands flickering across the ivories like he wanted to beat them apart and Hegemonic standing stoically and plucking slowly at the bassline, while around them the world faded away and all their constant bickering wasn't important anymore, because you needed a crew to play the music.
After a while, Droll pulled a crumpled violet envelope out of his pocket: his last invitation, the one for Jack Noir. "Jack gave his word that he wasn't gonna kill us or exile us. Jack keeps his promises."
"I know he does. But that thing isn't Jack anymore."
Droll spread the invitation out carefully on the bartop, next to the shuttle tickets. "That's not true. He's still Jack and it's not his fault he's crazy, and we're his crew and we're supposed to be helping him."
"He's made it fairly clear that he doesn't want our help."
"But he needs our help. It's not his fault."
"It's not our problem anymore, Droll."
"It's not his fault," Droll murmured quietly, looking despondently down at the two tickets and the memorial invitation. "Does this mean we're not going to have the memorial?"
A sigh from the Dignitary, who didn't answer.
"I bought all those decorations, and we won't even get to use them. It's not his fault."
"You've said, Droll."
"No, Draconain, it's... it's not his fault!"
Draconian turned his head at Drolls sudden rise in pitch, and saw the little Dersite starting down at the crumpled invitation, his eyes wide. "It's not his fault!!"
But Droll was ignoring him, speaking rapidly, as if quoting something and trying to force the words out before he forgot them. "They wanted me to become Jack Noir's therapist, and instead I decided to gain his trust and slowly drive him insane! Rose said that! I heard her! She and the Knight are plotting together and they're doing something to Jack, she's doing something to him, and that's why he's acting like this, and then she told him it was you and he believed her and he doesn't even know!!" He stared up at Draconian frantically. "I was trying to tell you before but I couldn't remember! Rose is the reason Jack is crazy!!"
For a long time, Draconian just gazed at him, carefully, slowly controlling his breathing. Droll watched him nervously, waiting for a response.
It wasn't the ring. It was never the ring. It was the girl.
"Alright." Draconian stood up, took Droll by the shoulder and steered him quickly towards the door. "We don't need to discuss this here. Let's go."
"Are you mad?"
His chitinous hand tightened imperceptibly on Droll's shoulder. "Yes. Very."
And yet not as mad as he could have been. Here, suddenly, was something he could do, something he could fix. And someone he could kill to make the problem go away. He was on familiar ground again.
"We've gotta stop her, right?" the Courtyard Droll asked as they left the rathskeller and started striding quickly down the street outside. "We can't let her do that and get away with it. We've gotta-"
Draconian ducked into an alleyway and cast a quick glance behind them to make sure no one was following. "Of course we're going to stop her." He paused for a second, and exhaled with a slow hiss. "Oh, damn. My radio's in your office. Give me yours."
Droll handed it over without question, and Draconian set it to the general channel, the one used for commanding imps, before pressing the talk button. "New orders for those of you guarding the girl. The Slayer doesn't want her anymore. Kill her."
He waited, and over the static heard an imp squeak in the affirmative. There was a pause, a grisly crack, a high-pitched shriek of pain, and then radio silence.
With a satisfied nod, Draconian handed the radio back to Droll. "Come on. It's high time we got back to the palace."
"Weren't we kind of sort of exiled from there?"
He nodded, Jack's voice echoing in his head. If I ever see you again I'm running this sword through your chest. Part of him honestly didn't want to go back, part of him knew he'd die if he tried it.
But when it was your crew, there were things you had to do anyway.
- - - - - - - - - -
Hidden in the recessed stairwell at the entrance to the bar, the Warpainted Pariah pressed herself to the dark purple bricks and listened intently as Droll and Draconian moved on and their voices died away.
Of all the bars they could have discussed that in, they'd would up not three feet from her.
They were gone, but she waited, made sure. Counted to twenty in her head, and then sprinted off down the street, leaving a trail of oily black footprints behind her.
The headquarters of the Medium's tiny resistance force was a cramped apartment situated above a shady liquor store. Pariah rushed up the violet-metal stairs of the fire escape and pounded frantically on the window screen until his majesty the Prince snapped the blinds open. "'Sup?"
"We need to get her out now." she commanded, paused, saluted, and rephrased. "Sir. I'm sorry sir. We need to get her out now, sir."
Dave pushed the window open and leaned out of the sill. "You mean Rose? What happened?"
"The Dignitary knows about your plan, and he's on his way to tell the Slayer. Her body on LoLaR is dead by now and her dreamself will be next. We have to get her out of the palace before-" She was cut off as Dave streaked past her, soaring off into the skies of Derse as fast as he could fly, not even waiting for her to finish. "Your majesty, wait! You don't have a weapon, you can't... DAVE!!"
But the Prince of the Moon was already long gone.
- - - - - - - - - -
...and still fast asleep on LoHaC, his mouth hanging slightly open, his sunglasses askew, unaware of the chaos raging around him. The air was filled with the angry howls and shrieks of imps attacking and dying, and as Davesprite hovered with his eyes blasting streaks of blinding orange through the window, he worried they'd wake him up.
Jade was having trouble with the door; the wood was splintering and buckling as creature after creature pounded against it, their numbers too great for her to shoo them away. The table and mixing equipment she'd barricaded it with creaked ominously and threatened to topple, and Davesprite could do nothing because the second he let up, winged, serpentine basilisks would come clawing their way in through the window.
GG: dave what do we dooooo D:
TG: well pretty soon here
TG: were gonna have to wake me up
TG: if they get in here and im still asleep
TG: might as well change my chumhandle to
GG: but if we wake you up you cant save rose!!!
GG: i don't want her to die dave but i don't want you to die either!!
TG: keeping the turntech though that parts cool
GG: and i don't know what to do!
GG: i don't know what's going to happen next!!
TG: jade we need to wake me up
TG: we cant wait much longer
GG: but rose!!!! :(
TG: i know
TG: but its her dreamself and shes gonna go on living anyway
TG: you know that
GG: DAVE THAT IS TERRIBLE!! >:(
He would have responded, justified himself, but he paused at the realization that the creatures outside had abruptly gone silent. Just beyond the door there was the unmistakable sound of radio static.
TG: what was that
GG: they're stopping?
GG: one of them has something, i think it is a walky-talky! they are all listening to it.
In the sudden stillness the two of them listened, and the static buzzed on in the hallway outside.
"New orders for those of you guarding the girl. The Slayer doesn't want her anymore. Kill her."
Davesprite winced at the crack, the cry of pain.
And the silence.
Then the imps and ogres and other game enemies began attacking again, beating themselves against the doors and windows. Davesprite shot another random laser, something akin to panic rising in his chest. He'd failed. He was supposed to be keeping them alive, and he'd failed. Jade's green text was racing across his vision.
GG: oh my god oh my god oh my god
GG: no no no no no no no no!!!!!
GG: they killed her dave they killed her they killed rose what do we do!!!!!
-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG] and turntechGodhead [TG] --
- - - - - - - - - -
Somewhere on LoLaR, surrounded by grist, hammer tossed carelessly at his feet after bashing in the head of an imp carrying a radio, John Egbert grinned and hoisted a peacefully sleeping Rose in his arms.
EB: don't worry, guys.
EB: i've got her!