I'm well aware that the premise of this story is utter crack, which is part of the fun. My only hope is that in the end, it's crackfic done well. :)
Jack's heels clicked loudly against the dark purple marble of the tiles that lined one of the many twisting corridors winding their way around the Black Queen's... around HIS palace on Derse. The labyrinthine structure was eerily empty, so soon after his return from razing Prospit to the dust. No one wanted to be anywhere near him after that. Ungrateful vacillators.
Still, even in relative solitude, the Sovereign Slayer kept his back rigid and his pace unfaltering until he reached the room that had been his old office as the Dersian Archagent. He slammed the door shut behind him and stepped across the room, careful to avoid the darkening smear across the floor that no one had thought to mop up. It was starting to stink. Jack didn't particularly care.
He sank into his old chair - uncomfortable and cramped now that he had to lift his massive wings at an awkward angle just to sit down properly - and at last let his forehead hit the desk with a low thunk, a tired hiss escaping from between his teeth. The sword through his chest ached and the scar on his eye ached and the stump where his left arm used to be ached and the ring on his right hand burned against his skin, but he refused to take it off, even for a moment's rest. SHE never had.
There was a rapping sound on the door. "Jack?"
He ignored it. Not his office anymore. Nobody was supposed to know he was here.
A hurried, whispered conversation, and then again: "Jack?" The Draconian Dignitary's voice. "Don't pull this today. It's important. About Hegemonic."
Slumped over with his face pressed to the dark wooden surface of the desk, scarred eye only half open, Jack let off another hiss. The Hegemonic Brute was just another pawn. Dumb muscle. Who cared?
"Droll had an idea, and we're going to put together a memorial service. Something small and classy, just the three of us, to see him off in style."
"I'm doing the decorating!" a small voice piped up from somewhere behind Draconian.
"And Droll's doing the decorating. We owe it to him as one of the old crew."
Jack heard the creak of the door opening, and lashed out with a tentacle, snapping it shut in Draconian's face. "There is no crew," he muttered at last, in a venomous voice muffled slightly by the desk. "There's you, and there's me, and then there's whatever flimsy veil of friendship you've conjured up between us so you can rock yourself to sleep at night. Go away."
The Draconian Dignitary paused for a long moment before responding wearily, "Take off that ring Jack. No one's around to see you."
Jack's one remaining hand clenched into a tight fist, the ever-burning ring biting into his chitinous palm. He'd take it off when his skin caught fire. A king relished his cumbersome prototypings, and reveled in their power. Their painful, exhausting power. "That 'go away' was an order, pawn."
But the door was pushed open yet again, this time forced against the winding tentacle trying to hold it shut, and Draconian stood in the doorway in his typical snazzy black suit. The squat Courtyard Droll peered out from behind him, his head at about the level of Draconian's waist and the turrets on his ridiculous hat making up for the rest of their height difference. Jack considered sitting up straight for a moment, before realizing that exhaustion and apathy wasn't going to allow for it, and so he settled for glaring at them malevolently from his pathetic slouch. They didn't deserve the effort, anyway.
"You're still crawling away to hide in your old office, so don't act like a king," Draconian stated shortly.
"I'm the king."
"I know, Jack."
"I can have whatever office I want."
"Yes, Jack." The Dignitary looked the Slayer over as Jack scowled up at him, still folded over onto the desk. "You look terrible. When was the last time you slept?"
"Kings don't sleep."
"I hate to be the one to remind you," Draconian told him flatly, in a voice that meant something more along the lines of 'I can't believe you actually have to be reminded of this.' "But you weren't born a king."
That was enough. Jack wasn't taking this from anyone, least of all Draconian. With some effort he raised a fist and slammed it down on the desk, making the little Droll jump. "I'm the king!" He shoved himself violently upright, sharp fingers raking the wooden desk, and the chair fell away with a clatter as his wings spread menacingly. "I'm the king, and I'm not taking my ring off, and I don't want you in my office! And Hegemonic was an idiot and an eyesore, so don't think for a second that I care that he's dead or that you're having some garish send-off for him, because I DON'T MOURN FOR PAWNS! I'M THE KING! IT'S ME!"
And he took two steps forward and collapsed like a house of cards.
The Draconian Dignitary lunged forward and caught Jack under the arms before he hit the ground. Dersites were lightweight and Draconian was relatively strong, but still he struggled to support the Slayer under the dead weight of his superfluous prototypings. "Jack? Jack!"
"...hate you..." Jack Noir murmured to the world in general.
"Jack, you're stretching my coatsleeves." Draconian lowered him slowly to the ground and straightened up to readjust his suit with an air of annoyance. The floor wasn't much better than the desk.
"Are you okay?!" Droll asked with genuine concern. The gaudy colors of his uniform danced fuzzily in front of Jack's vision.
"You can't make me wear that," he managed.
"Go away. I told you to go away. I'm the king. That's a royal decree. I command you on pain of death to go away."
Droll and Draconian exchanged looks. "Let's get him somewhere where he can lie down," Draconian said at last, completely ignoring Jack. Droll nodded soberly.
"No. Go away. I will cut you to ribbons I swear."
"Yes, Jack." Draconian had him under the arms again, and was dragging him slowly and laboriously across the floor. "We really need Hegemonic for this. Write that down; we'll toast to it at the memorial."
"No, I'm... I'm the king. Don't need help from pawns. I'm..." His eyelids fluttered, and the world lurched abruptly. "I'm... not a pawn... I'm not..."
"Jack?" Draconian repeated, but a sleep-deprived and battle-drained Jack was already drifting away.
- - - - - - - - - -
It was a while later, after they'd put the Sovereign Slayer to bed, that the Draconian Dignitary stepped out into the hallway and stared without really seeing out one of the windows that looked out onto the warped and alien architecture of Derse. "Did that strike you as odd, at all?"
The Courtyard Droll, meandering out after him, gave Draconian a funny look. "What Jack said? He didn't mean that stuff about us and Hegemonic. I'm sure he's really sad about it and everything. He's just bad at showing it."
"I meant the part where he fainted because he refused to sleep, but you have a point. This isn't strange; it's just Jack being Jack. And that worries me."
"He really didn't mean it!" Droll insisted.
"Maybe. But all this; the power and the social insecurity and the prototypings dragging him down, and now Hegemonic... It's a lot to deal with all at once. And Jack notoriously does not deal with things. He buries them and lets them build up and then he snaps." Draconian was still gazing out the window, at the pristine darkness of Derse, and the black-carapiced pawns walking along the streets and bridges below. "And it's a problem, because now he's got the power to wipe out the population of a small planet."
Droll looked up at him uncomprehendingly. "Why is it a problem?"
"A Derse-sized planet. Think about it."
A long, LONG silence, and then: "Ooooooh."
Draconian turned away from the window and began pacing quickly down the deserted hallway, trailed by Droll. "This is just going to get worse, isn't it," he murmured, more to himself than to the other Dersite. "He's ranting about kings and refusing to sleep, and it's going to get worse, and there's not a thing we can do about it."
"We could get help," said Droll, half-skipping to keep up with Draconian's longer strides. "There's doctors for this stuff, right?"
"Therapists. Psychiatrists." Human words the Dignitary had picked up somewhere. Words for professions that didn't even exist on Derse. But at the thought of asking for help, another unfortunate realization arose. "We can't tell anyone on Derse about this," Draconian said aloud.
"Because no one LIKES Jack. He's the king, but he's a diabolical gamebreaker and he slaughtered our entire army just to speed up the reckoning. If anyone knew he was..."
"Crazier than usual?" Droll supplied.
"Yes, thank you. There would be a panic, or a coup, or something that inevitably resulted in Jack killing far more of his own people than is really justifiable. Including you and me, most likely."
"He wouldn't do that."
"Your faith in your friends is impeccable, Droll."
"So if we can't ask for help from a Dersite," said the Courtyard Droll, straining his brainpower to its relatively short limits. "We'll ask for help from someone who... isn't... a Dersite?"
"You really don't seem to be grasping some of the fundamental concepts here," Draconian stated flatly.
"No, I mean... Isn't one of those kids - the ones playing the game, I mean - a therapist? We could ask her to help!" He grinned up at Draconian.
"You really, REALLY don't seem to be grasping some of the fundamental concepts here."
"But if we ask her really nicely...?"
Draconian considered for a moment. In all honesty, his future was looking depressingly bleak, and yet another futile errand wasn't likely to make it any worse. "Alright. Fine. We've got a few hours before the Sovereign Slayer wakes up, so why not?"
"Really?!" squealed Droll, whose ideas almost never got implemented.
"Yes, really. But if this idea of yours lands us in a convoluted mess of fiery death, that's on your head."
"We can't put it there, Draconian," Droll said seriously. "I'm already wearing a hat."
It wasn't until she opened her eyes to find herself plummeting towards the shimmering, soap-bubble waters of Lolar at terminal velocity that Rose realized she'd never had much sympathy for Jade Harley's condition. Admittedly, she knew very little about narcolepsy other than the apparent inconvenience it tended to cause. But if she were to make a list of places she'd rather not fall asleep, Rose Lalonde had to admit that speeding across an alien world in a sphere of arcane magic would probably be near the top.
Even with the rainbow waters rapidly approaching, Rose didn't bother to panic. Fumbling with her sylladex, she calmly retrieved the Thorns of Oglogoth and summoned up another sphere. With a mighty splash she hit the water, occult sphere and all, and bobbed gently to the surface, safely suspended within the dark globe.
"Well. That was-"
And again it happened. A sharp pain across her throat, like a cold knife being pressed to her skin, just short of drawing blood. It wasn't her pain; it was like trying to dream while somewhere far away someone was pinching and prodding her, trying to wake her up. Her dreamself's pain. And it was putting her to sleep.
Determinedly she jetted off once more, aiming at top speed for the nearest tiny island of barren white sand. The pain spiked and her eyes shut as if some inner switch had been flipped, but even as the magic flickered out Rose's momentum carried her. She struck the water, skipped, and hit the beach at dangerous speeds, leaving a long swatch of tossed-up sand as she skidded to a halt, the right side of her face scraped up and bleeding.
It was enough to wake her, for a few minutes. She'd lost a good chunk of her Health Vial. It didn't concern her at the moment. The advantage to these abstract gaming concepts was that she would still be perfectly functional until the meter ran out completely, and so with a little shake to dislodge the snow-white sand from her hair, she sat up and fired up her hubtopband.
-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
TT: I believe my dreamself is in immediate peril. Wake me if my original body follows suit; I may be occupied on Derse for a while.
TT: Are you there?
He didn't respond.
TT: Strider, whatever hilarious shenanigans you're no doubt occupying yourself with, I'd appreciate it if you postponed them long enough to assure me I won't be ambushed by ogres in my sleep.
The pain against her throat twinged sharply again, and Rose caught a flash of the color she liked to call "velvet". Whatever Dave was busy with, Rose pondered irately, it had better be a matter of life or death.
TT: This is rather urgent, you understand.
TT: Answer me, Dave.
TT: Where are y
And then, somewhere in a spindly violet tower looming over the isolated moon of Derse, someone slapped her. Hard.
- - - - - - - - - -
Rose's eyes snapped open to a view of the deep purple ceiling of her dream room, partially obscured by the dark silhouette looming over her and holding a short switchblade to her throat. "She's finally awake."
The four months of excess memories her dreamself possessed thanks to Dave's many tragic excursions with time travel were enough to identify him: the Draconian Dignitary, one of Jack Noir's lackeys. Rose gazed up at him levelly. She knew she should have been frightened, and perhaps Jade or John would have been, in her place, but a quick epiphany of logic kept her calm. They weren't trying to kill her; only to wake her up.
"I wasn't under the impression that you and yours knew about the presence of our dreamselves."
"Two massive towers on the moon aren't exactly easy to miss," Draconian countered, switchblade still at her neck. "The old regime didn't want us to disturb you so soon, out of respect for the rules of the game. The new regime couldn't care less."
"Ah." There really wasn't much more to be said.
"Ask her, Draconian," someone with a slightly higher voice prompted, from just outside of Rose's field of vision. Turning her head to see who it was would have sent the Dignitary's blade slicing into her windpipe, so Rose was content to continue staring at the ceiling.
"You're coming with us for a while," Draconian commanded shortly. "Behave like a good young lady, and we won't hurt you."
"Might I ask where?"
"You'll be told."
The girl narrowed her eyes. "I see. And I take it that this mysterious agenda is something you'll need me awake for, or you would have simply spirited me away, still fast asleep. An interrogation, then?" Rose could see the briefest flicker of surprise in the Dersite's expression: she'd gotten something right.
"In a way. You'll be talking to Jack."
"I'll be talking to Jack. Not, 'the Sovereign Slayer wants to talk to you,' but 'you'll be talking to Jack.' You're not operating under his orders."
Another spark of surprise from the Dignitary, and the other, unseen aggressor whispered, "See, she's really good!"
Draconian sighed in irritation.
"No, really!" The largest, most eye-wateringly garish hat that Rose had ever laid eyes on loomed into view, followed by the head that wore it - a squat little Dersite with wide eyes. "She's gonna help Jack, and everything will be fine. Sorry for waking you up like this, Miss tentacleTherapist."
"Help Jack," Rose repeated dully.
Rose gave the Draconian Dignitary a skeptical look, which to his credit he returned. "So, for the sake of coherence, you're expecting my dreamself, which you've forcibly kidnapped, to give competent therapy, a profession you believe me to be proficient in due to my internet alias, to Jack Noir, the man who doomed Skaia and serves as a constant threat to the lives of me and my allies."
"Exactly!" said the Courtyard Droll, while Draconian put a hand to where the bridge of his nose should of been, with a look that indicated he'd rather be anywhere other than right here, right now.
"I won't dispute that he needs it. But suppose I refuse?"
"We'll kill you," Draconian answered. "You seem like an intelligent child. I'm surprised you have to ask."
A slight frown crossed Rose's face. "Somehow I doubt you will. If you've stooped to this humiliating last recourse, then I assume you're desperate enough to need me. Furthermore, while I wouldn't relish losing my dreamself, I would persist in living even if it died, and my other body is significantly more powerful and protected."
Droll and Draconian stared at her dumbly.
"So my answer is no," she added, with a tone of mock helpfulness. "And I'd appreciate it if you removed the knife now. I think we're done here."
There was a long moment of motionless silence, and then the Draconian Dignitary straightened up and pocketed his switchblade. Rose got to her feet as well, with as much dignity as possible given the circumstances...
...and saw for the first time the boy who had been tied up and roughly gagged, lying against the far wall and struggling desperately against his too-tight bonds.
"Oh... oh god, Dave!"
Dream-Dave's head snapped up at the sound of his name, and Rose could make out a thin trail of blood running freely down his forehead and streaking his sunglasses. She looked to the Dignitary in shock, and he gazed back at her emotionlessly. "Fair enough. We'll kill him instead."
Rose struggled to regain her composure, but her voice shook just the tiniest bit when she spoke. "That's irrelevant. It's just his dreamself; the real Dave will be fine." She locked eyes with Dave, who gave her a defiant nod. Don't comply, Rose. They've still got nothing on us. Our dreamselves are a nice luxury, but they're expendable. Don't comply.
Draconian nodded, and the switchblade was whipped out again with a snap. Rose swallowed painfully.
The Dersite, already stepping slowly towards Dave, turned his head to look at her over his shoulder. "Reconsidering?"
She couldn't watch this. Not Dave. For the briefest of moments Rose entertained the thought of leaping forward and knocking the knife out of Draconian's hands, but she knew even as she thought it that the Dignitary was taller and stronger than her, and could probably kill her even without a knife.
"I think... I think I'll humor you." She'd meant to sound cold and indifferent, but she couldn't keep her voice from shaking.
He gave her a sober smile. "You ARE an intelligent girl. Droll, knock the boy out and untie him."
Rose winced as with a thunk, the Courtyard Droll bludgeoned Dave across the back of the head with a thick crook, and the boy slumped to the floor, motionless. "That was a mean trick, Draconian," the little Dersite complained while he undid the knots binding Dave's arms and legs.
"As long as the young lady remembers that we know exactly where to find her friend, she'll do what we say." Draconian put a sharp-fingered hand on Rose's shoulder, with a detached care that implied he'd rather not be touching her.
Beside him Rose stood, silent and shaken, and stared down at the prone body of the closest thing she had to a brother.
- - - - - - - - - -
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] --
TT: Where are y
TG: alright fine that was pretty much the worst experience of my entire life
TG: no hold on
TG: second worst. demoted for not involving puppets
TG: and dont think i didnt see you having some kind of panic attack over there
TG: like some hysterical dame
TG: hysteria meter at maximum
TG: being all hysterical
TG: anyway im awake
TG: and youre not
TG: so yeah, this is basically just the best day ever over here
TG: cant wait to tell john about this one
TG: "hey john guess who just got kidnapped by jack freaking noir?"
TG: come on rose
TG: i could take it
TG: i could totally take it
There was no need to panic.
To be more specific, Rose justified to herself, she certainly had ample REASON to panic. At any moment Jack Noir would come striding through the barred door across from where she sat, seppuku sword in hand, and Droll and Draconian were expecting her to somehow magically make him... what? Saner? Less powermad? She honestly had no idea what was expected of her, and wasn't sure she'd be capable of it even if she did. The extent of her knowledge went only as far as the books she'd read and her playful banter with Dave. She'd never given legitimate psychological help to anyone.
But she had to succeed, or Jack would kill her. And if he didn't, Draconian would. Rose wondered if it hurt when your dreamself died. Maybe it would be easy, like a falling dream, and she'd simply awaken with a start when she hit the ground.
Maybe it was excruciating.
But there was no need to panic. Yes, she had ample reason to panic, but no need. Panic would solve nothing. She was trapped, and so she sat and waited, composed and resigned to her fate.
For the last hour she'd been pacing methodically back and forth across the dark violet carpet of the dark violet room she'd been locked away in; six steps from one end to the other. This had been someone's reading room once. The walls were lined with cherrywood shelves filled with dark violet books. When she'd taken one down to peruse she'd discovered only neat rows of nonsensical symbols: what looked vaguely like chess and playing card motifs. If it was a language, she couldn't read it. High on one wall was a small window, just big enough to scramble through, but it was sealed by thick bars of a dark violet metal which refused to budge no matter how hard she pulled on them.
Rose had always rather liked purple, but the gloomy chroma of Derse was beginning to make her eyes ache. Now she simply sat in one of the two towering, old-fasioned armchairs which were (of course) upholstered in dark violet, and surveyed her lavish prison over steepled fingers. She fully intended to be sitting there, cooly, when he arrived. She wouldn't give Jack the pleasure of watching her lose control.
Somewhere in the palace, distantly, Rose caught the faint sounds of a disjointed argument and recognized Draconian's voice, drawing ever closer through the labyrinth of dingy hallways and empty rooms. She closed her eyes and took a long, slow breath. There was no need to panic.
And now the voices were just outside the door, bickering with one another in low tones. Droll and Draconian, and a third, fractious timbre that could only be the Sovereign Slayer. She'd never met him in person before. If nothing else, this would be intriguing. Something to write about in her journals. And so much more challenging than Dave...
A wry smirk crossed Rose's face. Suddenly, she was looking forward to it.
With a click of the lock the door swung open, and Jack Noir filled the doorway.
He looked... the word that immediately jumped to the forefront of Rose's mind was "ridiculous." His prototypings alone would have been imposing, but on Jack they looked too large and out of place, obviously meant for someone much taller and stronger. The wide, ragged wings alone he had to fold ungracefully just to enter the tiny room, and Rose caught a glimpse of Droll and Draconian standing outside before Jack slammed the door.
He scowled down at her, and Rose, still seated calmly in her armchair, looked up at him with the faint smile that had never left her face.
"Therapy. Really." There was a dangerous tone in his voice, like the calm before a storm.
Rose shook her head. "They weren't foolish enough to relay to you their actual intentions in this venture, were they?"
"No," he answered with a snap. "But I'm not an idiot."
She refrained from commenting on that. Too easy.
"Which one are you?" he demanded, and after a moment Rose realized that he was referring to the players in her Sburb session.
"Rose Lalonde." In case the name meant nothing to him, she added, "tentacleTherapist, or by the game's jargon, the Seer of Light."
"Rose Lalonde." Jack gave her a twisted smile, displaying an unnerving amount of acanthous teeth. "Do you know what you are now, Lalonde?"
"Leverage?" Rose guessed in a blank voice. "As long as you have my dreamself here, you can control my waking self's movements, sending me to sleep whenever it suits you. My safety should be a sufficient ultimatum to keep the others in check. You should be thanking the Dignitary for capturing me."
As was typical after one of Rose's analytical speeches, Jack was speechless for a moment. Rose took the opportunity to add, "The whole therapy idea, admittedly, was moronic. But as the abducted party, I wasn't really in a position to make suggestions."
Jack's smile returned, crooked and smug. He agreed with her on that, even if he'd never admit it, and she'd assured him that she, and by extension her friends, were completely in his power. Rose was fairly certain she'd just put the Sovereign Slayer in a good mood.
"This is your position now, Lalonde. You'll be a good little hostage, you'll tell your friends what I want you to say, and if you try anything, I'll kill you in both of your bodies."
"I'm getting a little weary of all these threats on my life," Rose sighed. "You'll no doubt lose your temper at some point and kill me anyhow, so I don't see why I should betray my friends on account of it."
Jack bent down to her eye level, leaning in so close to her face that Rose had to shrink back into the armchair to avoid his hot breath on her forehead. "Don't do anything stupid and I won't kill you. I give you my word, Lalonde, and I don't make promises I don't intend to keep."
A shiver ran the length of Rose's spine as she realized that he was being completely honest. Jack Noir had just sworn to keep her alive.
"Alright," said Rose, after faking a moment's thought. "Attribute it to my humanity, but I'd rather survive the game. What do you want me to tell them?"
The Slayer straightened and turned his back to her, heading for the door. "Tell them you escaped."
It wasn't until he'd put his hand on the door handle that Rose spoke up again. "Why don't you make promises you don't intend to keep, Jack?"
She saw him freeze, and felt a small amount of self-satisfied triumph at having caught him off guard.
"Because," he muttered without turning around, "When I give my word, I want everyone to know I'll keep it."
"Not because anyone ever broke a promise to you, then?" Rose said offhandedly.
A tense, silent moment, and then Jack wrenched the door open and stormed out, slamming it behind himself so forcefully that a few of the books fell from their shelves and went tumbling across the carpet to lay open at Rose's feet. She bent down and began gathering them up with a smile.
"In case you were wondering," Rose said aloud, for the benefit of the two other Dersites who had most certainly been listening at the door, and who had scattered when Jack emerged, "That went very well, all things considered."
"What do you think you're doing?" said Draconian's voice from the other side of the door.
"Exactly what you told me," she answered coyly as she put the books back on their respective shelves. "I'm helping Jack with therapy."
"My idea wasn't moronic," insisted Droll.
"You are TRYING to irritate him," the Dignitary countered.
"One idle comment hardly counts as an attempt at irritation. Leave the psychology to the qualified, if you please."
"It was a good idea," Droll said, unaware that he was being ignored.
"I find it hard to believe that you've so suddenly joined our side," Draconian said coldly. "It's easy to make an enemy of me, Miss Lalonde. Remember that."
Unseen by Draconian, Rose's smile widened. "I assure you, I have nothing but the purest of intentions. What other choice do I have? Now if you'll excuse me, I have a message to send."
Whatever the Draconian Dignitary said next, Rose ignored it, instead curling up in one of the large armchairs and laying her head on the armrest in an attempt to get comfortable. It was not the most awkward place she'd ever tried to fall asleep, but nevertheless it felt like an eternity went by before her dream body was cozy enough to doze off. Awakening from a dream was easy enough, once you realized it was a dream. You just had to open your eyes.
- - - - - - - - - -
The first thing she saw was sand, white and pink with blood from the large scrape on her cheek, which still stung even though it had scabbed over. Rose pushed herself slowly into a sitting position. Even after being asleep for so long, she felt exhausted. Her hubtopband was still active against her right eye, displaying a brilliant red tirade from Dave. She deactivated it. It was all she wanted to respond, to let him know she was alright, but first she needed to decide what to say.
There was an imp sitting across from her.
Rose blinked and stared at it. It was a white marble imp; by chance camouflaged almost perfectly to match the sand, and there were several more standing idly near it, making a lopsided circle around Rose.
"I see," she said to the first imp. "You're here to make sure I follow orders. No need to crowd me; I'll deliver the message and head back to Derse like a good little hostage." Rose, feeling as though she had a right to be a little petulant, stuck out her tongue at one of them before accessing her hubtopband again.
-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
TT: If I recall, it was you who played the damsel in distress in that scenario.
TG: oh my god rose where have you been
His response was almost instantaneous.
TT: Why do I get the strange impression that you've being staring intently at your iShades for the past hour or so, just waiting for me to respond?
TG: because you like to think youre that important
TG: i mean seriously
TG: that would be pathetic
TT: I'm sure, Dave.
TG: some of us have lives that dont revolve around you
TG: real nice of you to go and get kidnapped like that
TG: because we have nothing better to do
TG: than put this whole saving the universe thing on hold
TG: so that you can have your bondage fantasies
TT: Once again, may I point out that you were the one in the ropes.
TG: oh yeah
TG: bondage is totally my thing
TG: you and i need to just get together
TG: for one big bondage party
TG: and i really mean this
TG: where have you been?
Rose cast a glance over at the gaggle of imps who were watching her intently, reading her chatlog as it scrolled in reverse across the translucent screen covering her eye.
TT: I was taken to an interrogation with Jack Noir.
TT: Luckily, they forgot our dreamselves could fly. I took the first available opportunity to escape via an open window. I'm alright now.
She waited patiently for his reaction.
TG: oh fine
TG: so i can just cancel my rescue mission then
TG: call up mission control
TG: turns out our problem was just a big freaking waste of time
TG: crisis over
TG: go home
TT: Dave, I just want to reiterate.
TT: I'm alright now. And I mean that with my usual sincerity.
TT: And in the same vein, I find your sudden overuse of ellipsis neither annoying nor redundant.
TG: your usual sincerity
TT: As sincere as that veritable work of art which is your webcomic.
TG: yeah okay now whos being redundant
TG: but i get it
TT: I have somewhere to be now, Dave. I'll try to keep you updated.
She reached up to turn off her headband, and one last message from Dave blinked against the screen.
TG: youre gonna be okay
Rose shook her head and shut down the hubtopband. She had the sickening feeling that she shouldn't have left Dave any hints as to her situation. The last thing she wanted was to involve him again. Let him focus on playing the game, climbing the echeladder, working towards an ending. She should be able to handle something like this by herself.
And then she looked around at the group of imps and almost laughed aloud from humorless absurdity. One of them had brought her a pillow.
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] --
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --
TG: group meeting
TG: so stop whatever stupid thing youre doing and get in here
EB: i am kind of fighting some basilisks right now dave!
TG: dont care
He ran. The eternal heat of Lohac rose around Dave Strider in simmering vents of scorching, distorted air, a pyroclastic locus for his frantic, half-mile sprint across the Land of Heat and Clockwork. Climbing across spinning gears and burning metal girders all the way, with sweat soaking into his suit and making thin runnels in the ash that was quickly coating his skin, Dave hacked wildly through any monster that stood in his path. The air tasted toxic.
Davesprite was sitting in boredom at his computer when Dave burst at last into his bedroom, panting frantically. A few of the imps that had been poking around in his room took one look at the deadly variety of blades in Dave's hands and quickly decided that now was a good time to be somewhere else. "I need the computer!"
Behind his aura of gently glowing orange, Davesprite frowned. "Why are you back?"
"Because I need the freaking computer. Took a return node. Did a lot of running."
Davesprite glided aside and watched over Dave's shoulder as he slid into his desk chair and started clicking rapidly through the tabs on his computer screen. Sburb was still displaying a view of Rose's bedroom, but as Dave navigated methodically through her house he found no sign of her. He was certain she hadn't entered her first gate, but Rose's architectural monstrosity of an abode was empty.
Dave cursed, loudly, and threw his head back to glare at the ceiling through his iShades. "Where is she?"
"She left to explore Lolar while you were headed for your gate," Davesprite explained.
"Great. So very fucking great." He looked down again as both his iShades and the pesterchum window on his computer flashed spring-green text.
GG: ok dave im here! what did you want to talk about?
GG: i think whatever it is it must be pretty important!!
EB: one of the tar basilisks just picked me up with its teeth and used me to hit the other tar basilisk,
EB: and now they are just fighting with each other so i guess i can talk.
GG: but we should probably wait for Rose to log on...
TG: yeah about that
EB: um, just a quick question but how much blood can i lose before i have to start worrying about dying?
TG: hows your health thingy?
EB: its still pretty full.
TG: then suck it up and pay attention
TG: because i think rose is in trouble
TG: deep convoluted sburb perturbation
GG: oh no! what happened? D:
TG: jack happened
TG: i mean seriously
TG: its like hes gone right through mortality and been upgraded to a freaking natural disaster
TG: he happens to people
EB: oh man, he didnt hurt her did he??
EB: where is she? ive got my rocket pack right now and i can go get her!
TG: no hold on
TG: i think weve established that rocketing at random around the medium like some hyperactive space ranger
TG: can only end badly
GG: but if rose is hurt we should help her right away!
GG: especially if jack is involved!!
TG: okay no seriously just shut up and listen for a minute
TG: she just messaged me
TG: and she didnt sound like she was dying or anything
TG: but i think her pesterlogs are being monitored
EB: you mean by the dark kingdom? do you think they are spying on us right now?
TG: nah she would have told me if they were
TG: its not roses normal body we have to worry about
TG: some of jacks minions got her dreamself
TG: she told me she escaped
TG: but she also pretty obviously told me she was lying
TG: so yeah
"She did what?" Davesprite asked sharply. "Where were we when this was going on?"
Dave wasn't about to admit to being ambushed in his sleep, even to himself, so he made a noncommittal noise and muttered something about fighting heroically through hoards of imps.
"Sure you were." The orange sprite glanced down at Dave's computer screen. "Jade's about to have a panic attack." Dave grimaced and turned his attention back to pesterchum.
GG: oh nooooo!!!!!
GG: dave that is really really bad!!!!!!
GG: our dreamselves are really important and we cant lose any more of them!!
GG: we need to save her what do we dooooooo??????
GG: we need to do something!!!!!
TG: were doing something
TG: this is us doing something
TG: get with the program
GG: john do you think you can get to derse with your rocket pack?
EB: i dunno because its really far away but i think i will try it!
EB: will you be okay for another hour if im gone?
GG: the meteor is very big so i cant really tell how close it is to my house...
GG: but i think an hour will be fine as long as you get back fast!! :)
GG: rose is in more danger than i am so we should definitely take care of this first!
TG: why is no one listening to me?
EB: we are listening to you dave!
EB: i think i can save rose though! ill sneak in and it will be just like die hard!
TG: seriously john will you curb your fucking ADD before i have to come over there and nail your feet to the ground
TG: you may not have noticed
TG: but the guy in die hard didnt have a goddamn rocket strapped to his back
TG: also i didnt know you watched any actual decent movies
EB: die hard is not one of my favorites but its still pretty good.
EB: and um bluh bluh i would not use the rocket pack when i was sneaking!
EB: anyway this is the best plan because im the highest on the echeladder and i have the most sweet gear.
EB: so if anyone has to fight jack it should probably be me!
Behind Dave, Davesprite's iShades flickered to life.
TG: okay i am officially stepping in to veto the shit out of that shit
TG: motion not carried
EB: dave we really dont have time to sit around and talk about this some more.
TG: i am the frikkin lord of time
TG: i will MAKE time
TG: knight of time
TG: wait why are you talking to me over pesterchum
TG: you are literally standing right next to me
TG: god this game is weird
TG: listen john
TG: if you cant even beat a bunch of tar basilisks
TG: then what makes you think you can beat jack?
EB: um well i probably wouldnt even have to fight him.
EB: i just meant in case i did. but ill be sneaking around so i probably wont!
TG: stop and think for two seconds before you do something stupid
TG: you need to stay here so jade can enter the medium
GG: no dave, its ok!
TG: its not
TG: were not doing this again
Dave stole a surreptitious look at his future self out of the corner of his eye, but Davesprite's expression was unreadable.
TG: listen to me
TG: i probably know what im talking about
EB: i didnt mean that i was going to let jade die!
TG: but way too many things can go wrong here
TG: and trust me on this
TG: they usually do
GG: so what do we doooo??? D:
Dave's hands hesitated on the keyboard. Normally at this point in the conversation, Rose would pipe in with some brilliant, if convoluted and morally unsound, solution. It was her station in the group - she was the logical thinker, the solver of problems. But she wasn't here.
He exchanged looks with Davesprite, who shrugged as if to say: My brain works the same way yours does. If you can't think of anything, then neither can I.
EB: what if i gave you the code to the rocket? you could go get rose while i got jade into the medium.
GG: im really sorry you guys!!! i wish i could be more helpful! :(
TG: this isnt your fault so stop guilt-tripping about it
TG: the last thing i want
TG: is that fiery death machine strapped to my back
TG: but yeah sure lets try that
EB: okay, the code is PCHOOOOO
TG: i repeat
TG: god this game is weird
EB: let us know when you get to derse! if theres anything jade and i can do to help then we will definitely do it!
GG: and then you can tell us what derse is like! i wonder if it is anything like prospit?
TG: its purple
TG: thats about all there is to describe
TG: im an idiot
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] --
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --
The desk chair was knocked over in Dave's rush to get to his bed. He climbed hastily under the covers and smothered his face with the pillow, leaving a wide smear of soot across his sheets. "Keep the imps from killing me. I'm taking the world's most important nap."
Davesprite didn't question him. After all, he'd realized it at exactly the same time. Dave already had a body ready and waiting on Derse.
"I'll keep watch, I guess."
Dave pressed the pillow against his face.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to smother myself. You think I can just fall asleep right now?"
The sprite watched for a while as Dave struggled unsuccessfully with the pillow, before giving up and letting his arms flop down on either side of the mattress, his head still hidden by the pillowcase. "There has got to be a better way to make myself pass out."
And then he gave a jolt of surprise as a pair of unseen hands clamped down on the pillow and forced it against his mouth and nose, cutting off all air. He tried to shout, but his voice was muffled by the fabric. "MMPH!"
"No," he heard Davesprite say calmly, as his head spun and his vision began to explode with points of ultraviolet light. "NOW you're trying to smother yourself."
Well, thought Dave. Damn me.
The massive screens of the Fenestrated Wall in front of Draconian showed only blackness, punctuated on occasion by the dark and distant shapes of the Elder Gods as they drifted listlessly through the starless void beyond Derse. In the velvet blackness of the screen the Dignitary could easily make out his own reflection, and with an expression of cool equanimity he adjusted the collar of his suit. Draconian was not the kind of person who looked effortlessly impressive in any outfit. He was the kind of person who looked like he put a ridiculous amount of work into looking impressive in any outfit, and that was how he preferred it. Appearance was important.
Satisfied at last with his mirror image, Draconian adjusted a set of dials on the control panel in front of him, and the Wall flickered and returned to a street view of Derse. Sitting in his office chair at the long black board that housed the Wall's controls, he could simply spin the dials and with one fluid movement, see almost anywhere on the planet. More finagling with the controls split the view in half: a wide shot the dark purple hallway where Rose's prison could be found, and the exterior of the tower where the boy, Dave Strider, lay asleep, still sprawled haphazardly on the carpet of Rose's dream room. It seemed prudent to keep an eye on that one.
Watching the goings-on of the Dark Kingdom was not technically Draconian's job, but at the moment there was no one else to fill in, and the Dignitary rather liked the solitude. It was the only time when no one was trying to annoy him.
On the control panel beside him, a small, handheld radio crackled loudly to life. "Draconian!"
The tall Dersite sighed in irritation and picked it up, pressing the button to speak. "Yes, Droll?"
"What was Hegemonic's favorite color?"
"Why do you need to know?"
"I'm buying streamers!"
Draconian glanced at the radio through narrowed eyes. These exasperating conversations with the Courtyard Droll never went where he expected them to. "Why," he asked slowly, "are you buying streamers?"
"For the memorial! And I need to know Hegemonic's favorite color so I can get streamers he would like! Is it purple? I hope it's purple because all they have is purple."
"Droll, this is a memorial. It's not a party. It should not involve streamers." He said it without any real emotion, because as annoying as Droll sometimes was, being angry at him for anything was like kicking a puppy.
"I thought we could make it more cheerful," Droll explained.
Draconian took a moment to lean back in his chair and rub his temples exasperatedly before taking a deep, calming breath and responding. "You do understand that Hegemonic is dead, don't you? This is what we're commemorating. His death. Please keep the decorations appropriate."
There was a long silence on Droll's end, and then, quietly: "I understand that, Draconian."
"Alright then." The Dignitary waited, but Droll didn't say any more. After a while, he picked up the radio with another sigh and added, "Red."
"Hegemonic's favorite color was red. You ought to remember that."
"Oh, that's right! I'll see if I can get red streamers."
"...Yes, Droll. Red streamers." It was pointless to argue; the tiny Dersite could never really fit more than one idea into his head at a time. Funerals, the Dignitary determined, were for the living. If red streamers made Droll feel better about losing Hegemonic, then let him have red streamers. For Droll, Draconian could make that concession.
A flicker of movement on the Fenestrated Wall caught his eye.
Draconian hadn't been paying much attention to the Wall during his conversation with the Courtyard Droll, but as he turned back to it he saw something dart just out of view on the screen showing Rose's dream tower. A spin of the dial and Draconian was able to follow it: a fast-moving violet blur shooting through the skies of Derse.
Draconain's mouth twisted into an irritated frown as he followed the boy's flight path with the Wall. It was immediately obvious that the child wasn't merely out for a leisurely flight; he moved with purpose, skimming the chain that connected Derse to its orbiting moon as he made a beeline for the four mighty towers of the palace, looming over the twisted geometries that made up the rest of the city. He was looking for the girl.
Either she'd managed to give the other children a message despite the imps carefully observing her pesterlogs, or they'd figured it out on their own. Regardless, they knew she was here.
"Droll," said Draconian into the radio. "This conversation will have to wait. We may have a problem."
It would take the boy time to get there; Derse was massive and confusingly warped in on itself, and dreamselves couldn't fly particularly fast. Draconain estimated about half an hour, at most, before he reached the palace, and even then one thirteen-year-old boy wouldn't be much of a threat. Still, it was a problem to be dealt with, and so Draconian switched the frequency on his radio and made another call.
"Jack? I think you're going to want to see this."
- - - - - - - - - -
The Sovereign Slayer strode in a few minutes later, a white wax-paper package in one hand and, because he didn't have a second hand to hold them, a couple of official looking documents clenched between his teeth. Draconain reached up absentmindedly and took them from him, glancing at the papers without much interest as he set them down on the control panel.
"A budget report for the cloning labs in the veil?"
"The war is over. I'm shutting most of them down," Jack explained curtly as he tore open the wax paper.
"The people won't like that."
"The people can die in a fire." Jack gestured to the endless rows of figures printed out on the documents. "Derse is in debt. We owe ourselves money, for cloning super-soldiers and building battleships and mass-producing weapons and one hundred other idiotic little things that add up to make a war. And the only way to GET that money is to tax the pawns to starvation, and the people sure as hell aren't going to like THAT either."
Draconian didn't comment on that. As far as he knew, the black king and queen had never worried about that sort of thing; they had underlings to deal with it. It had always been Jack, sitting at his desk and sifting through the endless piles of paperwork, who made sure Derse worked. It was a thankless duty, and even now the Slayer didn't have the luxury of being a pampered figurehead like the former monarchy, because somebody still had to do his job.
"Eat this," Jack commanded, leaning his elbow against the control panel and holding the wax paper packet out to Draconian while he gazed out at the Fenestrated Wall.
The Dignitary peered inside with some distaste, and saw a few thin, short loaves of crispy fried bread, slathered in butter and stinking of garlic. "What is it?"
"Earth food. They call them breadsticks. Some of our restaurants liked the idea." He gave Draconian a look that radiated the threat: eat one and don't you dare make me repeat myself.
"Yes, Jack," Draconian muttered, and, mouth twisting in aversion, he carefully rolled up one sleeve, reached into the packet, and withdrew one of the breadsticks with the very tips of his fingers. It felt disgustingly greasy against his carapace, but he put it into his mouth nonetheless and tried not to think about what he was chewing.
Jack was watching Dave wind his way through the skies of Derse. "Now tell me why this is so world-shatteringly important. I thought you'd killed the boy."
Draconian frowned and set the rest of the breadstick down. Holding his hand out at an awkward angle and wondering how he was supposed to get the grease off his fingers, he answered, "Of course we didn't kill the boy. The boy is our hold on the girl."
"The girl has two bodies; she's our hold on herself. What kind of moronic plan would require you to use the boy for that?"
"It was Droll's plan," Draconian snapped tetchily. "Why don't you reprimand him about it?"
"Because, unlike him, YOU know better." Jack bit into one of the breadsticks and made a face.
Draconian's eyes darted surreptitiously to the package still in Jack's hand. "We do have kitchen staff in the palace, you know. You could be eating something that isn't... this."
"HER kitchen staff," Jack replied shortly.
"Why does that matter?"
"Her kitchen staff, who lovingly prepared every sickening morsel of her food like she was some kind of goddess. Until I get a chance to fire them all and hire some new cooks who don't have a vendetta against me for killing their cult leader, no one in the palace is coming anywhere near what I eat."
The Dignitary stared down in barely concealed alarm at the breadstick he had taken a bite of. "...Jack, did you just use me to check this for poison?"
"Yes. And lucky you; it was safe." the Slayer finished his own loaf with a smug smile on his face. "Now, the boy."
"He's... most certainly coming here," Draconian said, a little thrown off by the breadstick incident. You couldn't really call it paranoia; not when the number of people who DIDN'T want Jack dead could be counted on one hand, but still... "The girl must have asked him for help, somehow."
"Then once again, lucky you. He gets to be your problem."
"Fair enough," Draconian sighed. "What about the girl?"
"What about the girl? So she sent for help. She's a scared kid and she made a stupid mistake; that's the imps' fault for not catching it. She can rot forever in her cell for all I care."
"I think," the Dignitary attempted, "that you should at least talk to her about it. You gave her a direct order and she-"
"Why," Jack cut in, dangerously, "are you so very insistent that I talk to her? What makes you think I have any interest in interacting with her in any way whatsoever? She is THIRTEEN, Draconian. She is not a legitimate therapist and I am not going to talk to her just so you can feel some sense of smug satisfaction."
"That's petty, Jack, and you know it." Draconian at last wiped his hands off on the cloning lab's budget report, earning himself a dark look from the Sovereign Slayer. "She said it herself: as long as she's here we have an advantage over those children playing the game. We should use it."
"Why don't YOU talk to her, then?"
"You're afraid of her," said Draconian, placidly. "She talked circles around you once and you don't want to face her again, is that it?"
Jack Noir glared at him. "You're really going to try that."
Yet another sigh. "No, Jack."
"She's a child. I could kill her in half a second."
"I'm going to go talk to her."
"Of course, Jack."
Draconian waited until Jack had left the room before turning back to the side of the screen displaying the hallway where Rose was being held and murmuring, more to himself than to her, since she couldn't possibly hear him, "Alright, I told him what you wanted me to say. The Elder Gods help you if you can't make this work."
The hallway remained silent and empty. On the other screen, Dream-Dave grew steadily nearer to the towers of the Dark Palace.
There was the tiniest click as the Dignitary set his radio to the general channel and pressed the talk button. "Orders from the Sovereign Slayer. Send every monster we can spare to Lohac."
As long as the Knight of Time was flying around on Derse, his other body would be asleep and defenseless, and Draconian could think of at least one easy way to get rid of the problem once and for all.
With sedate eyes Rose glanced over the top of the large hardback book in her hands as Jack Noir closed the door behind himself and walked over to stand in front of her armchair. She noted that he didn't look angry this time, merely harried and tired. With a small smile she closed the book and set it aside so that she could look up at him expectantly, her hands clasped in her lap.
"You sent for help," he stated without preface.
Rose kept her face smooth and innocently honest - the expression she always wore in viciously passive conversations with her mother. "I'm not sure what you're implying. Your imps are watching my other body, so when would I have had the opportunity?"
In one quick, almost casual motion, his hand swept forward and grasped her by the hair, and Rose gritted her teeth to suppress a gasp - more of surprise than pain - as he easily wrenched her head back so that her chin was forced upward at an uncomfortable angle and she was compelled to look him in the eye. "I'm not in the mood for this shit, Lalonde."
"Yes, I sent for... help," Rose admitted, all too aware of his cold, petrous knuckles against her skull. "Is... is witty banter too much to ask?"
"I told you not to do anything stupid. You want to gamble with your life on that then fine by me, but don't act surprised when you get caught."
"Well if you'd like to argue semantics," Rose countered, grasping at the knowledge that if he hadn't burst lividly into the room then he probably wasn't mad enough at her to act on it, "I wouldn't call that stupid. I'm in a hostage situation, and it seems the most intelligent course of action would be to search for a means of escape. It would have been stupid NOT to send for help."
In answer he forced her head back farther, and she hissed and shut her eyes. The book on the armrest beside her fell to the floor with a dull thunk. Stop trying to be clever, Rose. This isn't Dave you're dealing with, it's the Sovereign Slayer, and he will kill you if you make a mistake. Tell him what he wants to hear.
"I'm... you, you're right. I shouldn't have... but I didn't know what else to do and... I just wanted my friends to know where I was. That's all."
"Congratulations, Lalonde, they know where you are." At last he let go, and Rose slumped dejectedly back into the chair with a flood of frustration that always accompanied losing some small battle. She rubbed halfheartedly at the back of her head. "And now I have to deal with the fact that your little human boyfriend is coming to get you."
Her heart jumped into her throat for a moment. "John?"
"I don't know your names, and quite honestly I don't care. But if he sets one foot in my palace he's dead." It surprised her to see that there was the faintest hint of a smile on Jack's face. "Maybe we can have him stuffed for you, like the other girl. I hear you humans are into that."
"I'd like that," she answered, without missing a beat.
They stared across the room at each other for a moment, and Rose held her breath while trying not to look like she was holding her breath. No matter how much she wanted to lash out at him, one angry comment would ruin everything, and so she waited it out with an expressionless look on her face.
But he knew he'd gotten to her. "I'll bet you would."
She didn't reply; simply waited for him to leave. Forget what she'd promised Draconian; she had nothing more to say to Jack. In her lap her fingernails were digging into her palms, so tightly were her hands knotted together. With a slow breath she looked down at them and pulled them apart, finger by finger, and as each uncurled she imagined increasingly horrible things happening to the Dersite still standing over her.
When she looked up again Jack was already opening the door.
No, said some calm, logical, and extremely infuriated part of her mind. I'm not ending it on this note. I am Rose Lalonde; I do not sulk, I tear apart souls with precision and passive-agressive wrath.
And besides, I have a job to do.
She gave a small start when he abruptly slammed the door shut again and glared at her over his shoulder.
"This habit you have of making snide little comments every time I walk out the door is going to stop now, or god damn it you can make do with one less limb."
Casting around for something, anything, to say that would validate her having stopped him, Rose quickly picked up the hardback book again and held it to her chest, a bit like a shield. "No need to be vexed, I just wanted... to know about these books."
"What." He snapped the word shortly, not even bothering to end it in a question.
She set it down on her knees and flipped open the dark violet cover to reveal the endless rows of symbols printed inside. "I was curious; is this some kind of code? The spoken language here is english, so a written language like this seems out of place."
Jack gave her a blank look, stunned, perhaps, by the conversational whiplash. "How should I know? It was one of HER bizarre obsessions."
"The queen." Even Rose, poetic as she was, could find no way to describe how much utter loathing he put into those two words. There was hate there, the kind that simmered evilly on the backburner of the soul. It was something she could work with.
"Ah." She turned the book around slowly, running her fingers along the text as she did so. "It's rather elegant. Could she read them?"
"It's gaudy and I doubt it."
Rose's mouth twitched into a smirk. "Books, books, everywhere, and not a word to read. How very pointless. She had a lot of these... bizarre obsessions, then?"
There was a long, tense silence, in which she wasn't sure whether or not he was going to just storm out again.
And then, sighing tiredly, Jack sank into the chair beside hers. "You have no idea."
The world was a web of red streamers. They were piled atop the control panel for the Wall, tangled up with each other and getting snagged on the dials. They spilled over onto the floor and scrawled across it like little rivers, clashing horribly with the dark violet tile. They hung in curtains from the Fenestrated Wall, turning the screen into a mess of crimson stripes. It looked almost as though someone had exploded, and their inexplicably crate-paper blood had splattered every available surface.
Draconian brushed a few long red strands off of his shoulders with distaste, and tried to rearrange the pile so that he could actually see the controls he was supposed to be manning. Another few rolls of streamers fell to the floor and unwound away, adding to the chaos.
"Droll- Droll. There has to be somewhere else you can put these. I'm trying to work."
"Sure, Draconian," Droll said, scooping up a wad of tangled streamers and trying to balance them in one arm while he scrambled around to collect the ones on the floor. "Sorry, I didn't know you were working. I thought you were just spying on Jack."
Draconian stood up and began tearing down the streamers that were obscuring the massive screen. "Spying on Jack IS work. How many of these did you buy?"
"I didn't know how many we'd need, so I just bought all of them."
"We had a budget for this," Draconian grumbled flatly. "How much did it cost us?"
Droll told him. Draconian stood in silence for a moment.
"...If you value your life you will not tell that to Jack."
He continued pulling streamers away, while behind him Droll protested something about how nice they'd looked when he saw them in store. A view of Rose's reading-room turned prison gradually began to appear, and in it the girl and the Sovereign Slayer were seated in the two tall armchairs, Rose sitting back serenely and occasionally nodding while Jack ranted animatedly, muted on the soundless screen.
"For a man who claims to be so very busy, it's hard to believe he's been at this for forty-five minutes," Draconian commented as the last bit of red paper fell away. "I've never seen him vent like this."
"That's because she's doing it!" the Courtyard Droll said confidently. "I told you she would."
"Your plan is actually working." Draconian was a little stunned by that.
"I wonder what they're talking about?"
The Dignitary looked to the screen and observed the vehement hand gesture Jack was currently making. "The Black Queen. Definitely the Black Queen."
He seated himself back at the control board and flipped a switch, and the view abruptly switched to the outside of the palace, where the four massive kerneltowers loomed against the starless sky. Dwarfed by their size, a point of lighter purple wove uneasily back and forth across them. Draconian zoomed in. Droll dropped his streamers again and stood on tiptoe to peer over the control panel.
"The boy's still checking windows." Dave was trying to find what room Rose was being kept in, but even the Dignitary could see that the task was a futile one. There were thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of windows in one tower alone, and the kid wasn't even searching the right one. He would never find her. Secure in his belief that the Knight of Time couldn't do a thing to hinder them, the tall Dersite switched the wall back to Jack and Rose.
Had someone told him the previous day that an idea this ridiculous actually stood a chance of working, he would have brushed it off as irritating and stupid. And yet everything seemed to be falling perfectly into place. For some reason, that left an unpleasant feeling in the pit of Draconian's stomach, as if something - some small component he hadn't planned for - was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
Then again, it might have just been the breadsticks.
"-and there was this ballgown thing, with these... tinselly frills on it, like anyone in their right mind would ever think that was a good idea to put on an item of clothing, and then she expects me to-"
"Mm-hm," said Rose, nodding in vague agreement.
"-with this disgusting look on her face, like she's just going to sit there and watch while I put it on-"
"-that thing she does with her foot-"
There was a point at which something irrational took over, and suddenly that flood of angry thoughts and little annoyances that had been dammed up for so long broke free, and you kept talking and talking and couldn't stop yourself because if you did you'd drown in it. Rose watched with a calm, supportive smile as Jack purged himself of a lifetime of pent-up malignity, and she could see in his eyes that he couldn't believe what he was saying and yet was physically unable to stop.
"-and the box was right there and I swear it was the most cathartic thing I'd ever done-"
"-and no one gets it that I am trying to run this planet and if they'd all stop being pathetic queen-worshipping sheep for half a second that would make my job so much easier but now everyone wants me dead!" He finished furiously, his one remaining hand grasping the armrest of his chair so tightly that it left incisions in the dark purple fabric.
Rose reached over and gave it an encouraging pat, and he jerked away as if he'd forgotten she was there. "Well done, Jack, I think we've made some excellent progress today."
"I- no!" He shot her a look of pure malice. "What did you do to me?!"
She shook her head. "Nothing whatsoever. No clever wordplay, no tricks or conspiracies, so please don't pull my hair again. I have enough to worry about at the moment without adding the fear of impending baldness." She arranged her face carefully into a look of sincere concern. "What have you been doing to yourself? People do not normally have complete meltdowns over such an innocent comment. When was the last time you slept?"
"Oh god, not you too."
"Fainting and being dead to the world for an hour or two hardly counts as sleep, you know," she added.
He pushed himself angrily to his feet. "You've been conspiring with Draconian. God damn it."
"We may have discussed this ahead of time, yes," she said. "And before you take it out on either of us, perhaps you should be worrying about why your closest friends think you need psychiatric help."
"Dammit dammit dammit, I am never going to hear the end of this." He sank heavily into the chair again and closed his eyes, pressing a hand to his temple. "Dammit."
"I'm sure he's only trying to help," Rose assured him consolingly.
"Maybe I should just... take a nap. Just to shut him up." She could tell that it was merely a feeble justification for something he really, really wanted anyhow, and a smirk flickered across her face.
"I suppose that's your decision. Brave of you, though, to consider sleeping and leaving yourself vulnerable, when everyone in the Medium wants you dead."
It gave her a kind of sadistic pleasure to see the way his eyes snapped open at that.
You shouldn't have brought my friends into this, Jack. You shouldn't have killed the queen and you shouldn't have destroyed Prospit and you positively should not have broken our game, but when you threatened John in front of me you crossed a line. Go ahead and open up to me. Pour out your contemptible soul. I am going to make you unhinged.
The message arrived suddenly and then she was gone, logging off before they'd even had a chance to ask her if she was alright.
TT: I'm not an unreasonable man.
TT: I have something you want. You have something I want. And we can make a trade, if you can be reasonable too.
TT: If not, you'll still get her back. I just can't vouch for the condition she arrives in. Accidents happen sometimes, understand?
TT: Take some time to think about it.
TT: We'll be in touch.
Davesprite, who'd been hovering with his back against the door to keep the hoards of game enemies out of his room and away from his past-self's sleeping body, read it with a sour expression. The words were civil enough, but there was an air of menace behind them, and it had everything to do with the fact that Rose had written them with Jack Noir breathing down her neck.
And a few seconds later, predictable as clockwork, there was John.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
EB: hey is dave still asleep?
EB: i mean are you still asleep?
TG: im out like a light over here
He was also mumbling a bit and drooling all over the pillow, but John didn't need to know that.
TG: so she sent it to you too?
EB: and to jade and other dave probably. this is so stupid!
EB: were all just sitting around and shes sending us messages like that and its stupid! we have all this gear but we cant do anything and jacks laughing at us and making her tell us stuff!
TG: chill out john
EB: its stupid!
TG: i said chill out. its stupid. no one said it wasnt stupid
EB: its like a big stupid prank that stopped being funny forever ago!
TG: are you seriously counting this toward your messed up pranksters gambit thing
TG: egbert you need a hobby
EB: no i am not!!
EB: have you rescued rose yet or what?
TG: well lets see
TG: were having this conversation
TG: so yeah it was obviously an overwhelming success
TG: and dream rose and i are partying it up over here
TG: we just didnt tell you
EB: eff you, dave.
TG: okay hang on
TG: this whole thing is stupid
TG: but if rose were here shed probably tell us not to flip out about it
TG: so maybe we should both just take a deep breath and think about this for a minute
TG: before we start trolling each other like idiots
TG: so what is it we have that jack wants?
EB: self control? charisma?
TG: the ability to not look like a huge freak?
EB: actual friends?
TG: higher brain functions?
TG: okay no seriously
EB: haha, yeah.
EB: its probably the bunny. not the one you gave me but the other one.
EB: well, kinda the one you gave me. theres some time travel involved but i guess the short version is that i got it from jade and she tricked it out and gave it a bunch of cool weapons and stuff!
TG: and how bad would it be if jack got ahold of the bunny?
EB: pretty bad!
TG: on a scale of one to ten
TG: one being a trip to ice cream sunshine land
TG: and ten being con air
TG: how bad is pretty bad?
EB: hey, no, con air is awesome.
EB: but i think its how he broke the game the first time, and the only reason he hasnt used all that power to kill us is because i have it now. so thats pretty bad.
TG: so when he contacts us again we tell him were not gonna give it to him
EB: but what about rose?
TG: i hate to say this
TG: but between that bunny and roses dreamself
TG: i think id rather have the bunny
EB: he said he would hurt her!
TG: her dreamself
TG: its not even the real rose
TG: im not gonna hand the game over to noir so that rose can frolic around on derse while she sleeps
TG: there are more important things
TG: and she would say the same thing
EB: he said he would hurt her!! how is anything more important than that?
TG: chill, john
EB: i want to talk to our dave. he wouldnt say that kind of stuff.
Something huge and heavy pounded on the door, and Davesprite whipped around, wrenched it open, and blasted a sulfur ogre to oblivion before slamming it shut again, breathing heavily.
TG: well YOUR dave is asleep
TG: so you get to talk to redundant fifth wheel dave from the timeline where you didnt listen to YOUR dave and then you died
EB: you know what i meant!
TG: dont even worry about it
TG: rose and i had a blast without you guys
TG: it was just party central all the time
TG: nonstop fun
TG: cant help it if youre the wet blanket
EB: dave im sorry. but youre talking like you dont even care about rose!
I care about Rose, he wanted to say. There was a lot that he wanted to say, and his pride wouldn't let him. I care about Rose, but I also care about you and me and Jade, and I'm trying to keep the four of you alive because I'm the only defense we have against a future where the game is unwinnable and everyone is dead. And just because I stopped it once doesn't mean it won't happen again. So I will fight to the last breath for our real bodies, but our dreamselves are expendable and should not have to be my problem. Too many things are my problem already.
TG: maybe rose can handle herself
EB: maybe youre a big jerk. tell me when the other dave wakes up.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
Davesprite slumped against the door and let off a heavy sigh. It was a horrible, horrible thought and he hadn't let himself think it before, but... John was getting hard to talk to. They didn't have a lot in common anymore, and that four-month gap stretched between them like a chasm of decades.
He took off his iShades, viewing the room with fireheart-orange eyes for a moment while he wiped them on a wing, and then put them on again to find that Jade was pestering him.
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
GG: dave are you ok??
TG: uh huh
GG: no, i mean is past-present other dave ok?
A quick look towards the bed, where past-present other Dave Strider was still drooling like a leaky faucet.
TG: hes super too
TG: both of us as an entity are super
GG: ok good! i got that message from rose and i was really worried about you!
GG: um, or him?
GG: youre both dave so i guess i was worried about both of you!
So soon after arguing with John, it was unbelievably comforting to see Jade word it like that.
TG: yeah, were fine. why wouldnt we be?
GG: if jack noir is sending us a message like that, then it means he knows that we know about rose, so hes not trying to hide that hes watching her pesterlogs anymore.
GG: and i think the only way he could have found that out is if he knew your dreamself was coming to rescue her. so i thought maybe you got captured or something even worse! :(
TG: jade i didnt even think of that
TG: should i wake myself up?
GG: you could be doing something important on derse like sneaking around or flying really high up in the air or something else that could get you hurt if you woke up!
GG: youre probably ok though. so dont worry about it too much just because i was worried.
GG: i worry about silly things all the time! :)
"Sure, and that's not going to make me a bundle of nerves over here," the sprite muttered to the empty air. But if his dreamself was in danger, there really was nothing he could do but protect his other body and wait for himself to wake up. Something was pounding on the door again.
TG: hey jade?
TG: next time you talk to john
TG: tell him im sorry for trolling him like an idiot
GG: im not really sure what that means, but ok! :)
-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
He could have gone back to slouching moodily against the door, but instead Davesprite opted to start in on the various creatures prowling around his hallway. Blasting imps apart easily with his game-given powers wasn't exactly thrilling, but it gave him something to do - something to think about that wasn't practically every other thing he had to think about.
But still, the thought kept surfacing. Jack knows I'm on Derse.
I wonder what I'm doing right now.
She took note, as she typed, (I'm not an unreasonable man.) that Dave had been trying to get ahold of her again, (...we can make a trade...) and she read his correspondence out of the corner of her eye (...can't vouch for the condition she arrives in.) while the imps watched from all sides.
An odd thing to say, given the situation, and so very very non-suspect, which was why she suspected it immensely. Dave was the master of irony, but he couldn't do subtle.
TG: hey rose
TG: ive been workin on this rap...
When she got back to Derse, she nonchalantly removed her headband and set it aside, got a firm grip on a generous lock of her golden-blonde hair, and yanked.
- - - - - - - - - -
It took an almost painful amount of concentration to keep his dream iShades working long enough to send his message, and then Dave slouched back with a sigh and let them shimmer and dissolve back into his usual sunglasses.
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] --
TG: hey rose
TG: ive been workin on this rap
TG: and i need an opinion here
TG: damsel pinin in the keep abyssal
TG: beautify the verticals, textile missile
TG: spellin to the resident templar, declaration
TG: maiden for the aidin here: needs some liberation
TG: so yeah
TG: this thing is going nowhere fast
TG: spinning round in circles like its nascar
TG: your help would be appreciated
TG: anyway later
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] --
He'd talked to Jade enough over the years to know a few things about dreamselves and their limits. If he decided he had four arms, he would have four arms. If he wanted to fly, he could fly. And if it suddenly seemed like a good idea to be wearing fully functional iShades, well, that shouldn't be a problem either. Jade could have done it easily, but for Dave it was both a struggle and a ridiculously satisfying triumph.
You're not the only one who can slip vague hints into your messages. Give me a sign, Rose. Show me where you are.
He was scrambling through enemy territory, half-flying and half climbing up the deep purple stone of the towers, a thousand feet above the distant network of alien geometries that made up the twisted infrastructure of Derse. He darted from window to window, wrapping his hands around the embellished iron gridwork that crossed each one and all too aware of how glaringly his bright violet pajamas stood out against the dark planet, a beacon for any wandering eyes in the opposite tower.
He'd begun with the very base of the palace, where narrow, sunken windows bled shafts of light into row after row of cells. Dark shapes shifted within, but none of them were human, and so with growing anxiety he worked his way steadily upwards, searching for Rose.
At first there had been swarms of pawns and low-level imps in every room he checked, scurrying about in their menial tasks as if the whole of Derse were some giant insect hive. Further up the crowds thinned, and as he neared the top of the tower Dave found only dingy hallways and darkened rooms. They'd been lively too, not so long ago, but the lived-in clutter and lack of dust told Dave that the pawns within had evacuated, and quickly. It seemed as though quite a lot of the palace staff had abruptly resigned in a very short amount of time, and Dave was smugly sure he could pinpoint the exact moment they had made the decision.
But minutes became hours, and still Rose Lalonde was nowhere to be found.
At last, Dave alighted on the very peak of the tower he'd been searching, on a decorative outcropping just below the massive pearl-white orb containing John's kernel, and stared out at the other three towers while trying very very hard not to think about what Jack and his lackeys might be doing to Rose at the moment.
Givemeasign, givemeasign, givemeasign...
Cold, empty air. Purple walls and purple windows so dark as to be almost invisible against the black sky.
Givemeasign, givemeasign, givemeasign...
Purple cornices and purple balconies and purple walkways and purple stairs and RED.
Dave blinked and focused on the tiny pinpoint of crimson halfway up the wall of the far tower. It had to be her. It was something red in a deep violet world, on a planet where nothing red had any right or reason to exist; it had to be her.
And so with a leap he took off, flying as fast as his imaginary body could go and with his eyes still fixed on the distant color as if afraid it might disappear. A mass of red streamers was flying brazenly from one window, brilliant against the endless background of dark violet.
A small, ironic smile crossed Dave's face.
"Rose? Hey, Lalonde!" He darted quickly forward and, leveling with the window, pulled a few of the streamers aside. "I can't believe you. All these writhing flagella flapping in the breeze, it's like a sign saying 'prison cell of a girl who's really freaking obsessed with tentacle monsters, rescue at your leisure.' Seems a little too obvious, if you ask-"
The tiny Dersite who'd been meticulously tying streamers to the window stared back at him with wide eyes.
"You?" Dave began disbelievingly, and then Courtyard Droll whipped his crook out of nowhere, shoved it through the window frame, and smashed it into Dave's face with an unpleasant crack.
He went reeling backwards from the blow and clapped a hand to his face to stem the flow of blood from his rapidly bleeding and probably broken nose. By the time he'd recovered, Droll was already dashing away down the hallway as quickly as his stubby legs could carry him, shouting at the top of his lungs. "Draconian! Draconian, he's here!"
Dave cursed vehemently and pounded on the wrought-iron grating over the window. He'd been so careful to stay out of sight, and now in a matter of seconds everyone in the palace was going to know he was there. The Knight of Time cast around a panicked glance and caught sight of a balcony only a few feet away. Without so much as thinking about what he was doing, the boy shot off along the wall of the tower. He wrenched open the door and sprinted off down the inner hallway, following the sound of Droll's voice.
Rounding a corner at full speed, he caught a glimpse of that garish monster of a hat retreating down a wide staircase up ahead. A quick leap and his frantically pumping feet were no longer touching the floor - he was flying forward in a spectacular swan dive and for once defied the cinematic laws pertaining to stairs by colliding perfectly with Droll's back. The two of them hit the ground and rolled, carried several more feet by Dave's momentum before coming to a rest with the human on top.
Blood was still running freely down Dave's face as he kneed the Dersite in the chest and clapped a hand over his mouth. "Shut up, you retarded little- whatever you are." he panted.
The room they'd wound up in was dark, but the glow from the huge four-windowed screen dominating one wall was enough for Dave to make out a large, old fashioned study-turned-control room, with a vacant office chair and a board of levers and dials at its center. The view on the screen was bifurcated, one side showing the balcony he'd just entered from and the other displaying what looked like a little reading room, filled with shelves of books and two large armchairs, one of which contained a human girl in violet pajamas...
A thrill of adrenaline shot through Dave at that. "Rose...?"
And then someone kicked him hard in the ribs.
Winded, the Knight lost his grip on Droll and rolled to the side. One hand wrapped around his throbbing torso, the other at his face while his nose fountained blood, Dave felt a bony foot press itself against the back of his head and pin him to the floor.
"Don't call him that," the Draconian Dignitary's voice said icily, somewhere above him. "And you're going to die now. I'll make it quick."
Dave tasted blood and stone tile, and he spat and cursed again. "I'll make it quicker."
Dave's dreamself might have been weak and unarmed, but his brother would have disowned him if he couldn't throw the Dignitary off after a rush of adrenaline like that. He shoved himself to his hands and knees, grabbed Draconian's ankle, and yanked, and the tall Dersite overbalanced and fell. He caught himself on the long control board behind him, but Dave was already running off down the hallway.
He reached the balcony and leaped off it in another dive, not bothering to fly, just plummeting. The angry shouts from behind and above him were swallowed by the roar of the wind in his ears, and his heart was making some sick beats against the inside of his aching ribcage; not because he was unsure or afraid, but because he'd seen where they were keeping her and he'd seen that she was alright, and he'd seen something even more important than that.
Because he'd seen her window, and it faced the moon, and there was a glint of something gold tied to the bars...
- - - - - - - - - -
The moment the shadow fell across her window Rose was darting forward, reaching through the grating and sliding her slim fingers perfectly into his, pulling him in, wanting to do something stupid like press her face to his and smell his hair, because even though she wanted to solve this problem on her own, it was the most amazing feeling in the world not to be alone anymore.
"Uh, no. Dave," said the boy currently being pinned against the bars by Rose's vicegrip. "Clingy much?"
Her eyes widened slightly and she pulled away, feeling embarrassed but careful not to show it. "Oh, sorry."
"'Course if you'd rather have John, I could always just go back to my tower and-"
"No, of course not!" Rose said a little too quickly, grabbing his hands again. Some calculating part of her mind, watching the scene from behind her eyes, was quick to comment on how needy she seemed. Pretending to be brave, but terrified. Pretending to be strong, but helpless. Pretending to be a loner, but so very afraid to be alone. Not after everything that had happened. "It's just that Jack implied that it would be John who..."
She trailed off. "Oh, no. He didn't, did he?"
Dave watched her blankly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
A small smile crossed Rose's face. "I think I just psychoanalyzed myself. Nevermind." She squeezed his hands happily. "I've never been gladder to see you, Strider."
"See, that's pathetic. This hardly even makes my top ten." But she noted that he made no move to pull his hands away.
Looking down, she saw that there was dried blood on his palms and down the front of his pajamas, and Jack's idle threat raced across her mind again. "Dave-"
"Keep your voice down," Dave warned her. "They've got this big screen and they're watching us right now. Dunno if they can hear us, but they can sure freaking see us, and seeing as half of Derse will probably be breaking in to kill me in a minute here, I'd rather not share our intimate plans with them."
This was news to Rose. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Dave, what happened?"
"Nothing important. What happened to you?"
At last Rose broke her grip and fingered her awkward and lopsided haircut, mangled on one side where she'd torn quite a lot of it away. The missing locks still hung golden in the window, tied around the bars where they'd shine like a beacon against the dark backdrop of Derse. "You said in your message to leave a sign of some sort, so that John- so that you would know where to find me. And it was all I had to work with that wasn't purple."
He immediately began tugging at the bars, trying to work them out of their niches in the deep violet stone. "You ripped your hair out for that? God Lalonde, you psycho freak."
Her smile widened imperceptibly. "And yet it certainly seems to have worked. You can stop that; they don't come out."
"I'll make them come out."
"Dave, stop!" she hissed, clutching the bars from the other side. "Listen to me. As improbable as this may sound..." A quick glance to either side and she quieted further, her lips barely moving as she spoke. "I don't want to be rescued."
The Knight stared at her from behind his shades. "You've lost your mind. They've freaking tortured you or something and you've gone totally batshit insane."
"But I haven't, Dave. Believe it or not, I have a plan to turn this situation to our advantage. I've been shoehorned into Jack Noir's inner circle, and I'm going to bring him down." She could hear feet pounding against the tile of the corridor outside. "You have to trust me."
"Bring him down? You are batshit insane. How are you going to-"
The sound was getting closer. "If you want to help, bring me something to write with. I have a feeling I'm going to need to journal about this."
"Oh god, is this really an appropriate time for your stupid Zazzerpan slashfic?"
She smirked. "Dave, I'm surprised at you. There is never an inappropriate time for Zazzerslash. Farewell, now."
He opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment the door burst open and the Draconian Dignitary rushed in, panting frantically and flanked by several guards while Droll trailed along behind him. Immediately Rose shoved Dave violently away from the window and gave a rather convincing howl of outrage.
"Strider, how dare you?! I made a promise! I made a promise to all of them!"
He floated there, just outside, and gave her a dumbfounded look. "Rose, what the-"
"You don't understand! None of you understand what it was like to hear him talk about it and know what he's gone through! I can't go back to playing the game and just... just pretend I never heard it!" She wiped crocodile tears away from her eyes in an over-exaggerated motion. "Go ahead and stop the Reckoning, Dave. But Jack earned this. Earth is doomed either way, and always was, and you know it. So whatever you're going to do, you can do it without me."
There was dead silence in the room for a moment while Draconian looked from one to the other, and then Dave gave her one of his signature cool-guy ironic nods and darted away.
"And what are you looking at?!" Rose rounded on Draconian and the unnamed pawns, and they backed out of the room slowly at her look of fury. "Can't a girl betray her best friends in peace?" And she stalked forward and slammed the door in his face.
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --
TG: somethings up
TG: im looking at roses house right now
TG: and there are no imps or ogres or anything anywhere on my screen
GG: oh, um...
GG: well maybe they are in other parts of lolar? rose isnt at her house so they really dont have any reason to be there, right?
TG: thats not how it works
TG: they spawn everywhere randomly and they dont just stop showing up because the player is somewhere else
GG: you know that stuff because youre a sprite?
TG: the game tells me some of this stuff
TG: and right now its not doing what its telling me its doing
TG: so i need you to ask john if his house is still full of imps
GG: dave! :(
GG: please ask him yourself! i know hes really upset right now but thats because hes worried about rose! whatever you two are mad about, you need to talk to each other and be friends again!
TG: look just ask him
TG: i dont feel like having another all out strife with the guy
TG: ill talk to him when weve both had some time to cool down
GG: you promise? :/
GG: ok then...
GG: but im going to keep bothering you about it until you do!
GG: john says his house is empty. this is weird!
TG: ok now check mine
TG: id do it myself but i can't exactly leave while im asleep in here
GG: ok ill zoom out and see!
GG: oh no
TG: oh no
TG: whats oh no
TG: give me context here
GG: um dave i think i know where all the imps are disappearing to...
- - - - - - - - - -
A blast of fire smashed through the winding and warped walkways of Derse, turning the world from purple to brilliant orange. Uttering a long and creative string of explicatives, Dave Strider dived down a side street at random and felt the heat of another searing fireball explode against the side of a building behind him. He'd expected to be trailed, after being caught talking to Rose. He hadn't counted on his follower being a Basilisk.
The Sulphur Basilisk skidded around the corner at breakneck pace and scuttled after him, its huge, ashen wings flapping wildly as it scrambled like a lizard across the adjacent wall, wide maw gaping in a slack-jawed grin and dripping drool. He could have taken it on in his other body. But here on Derse, without his swords or his turntables, Dave could do nothing but flee. He half-sprinted, half-flew, out of the far end of the street and found himself on another of those angular walkways that wound around the upper stories of Derse's skyscrapers, twisting in accordance with the planet's distorted geometry like something designed by M.C. Escher. The monster burst out after him, and Dave quickly leaped over the railing and plummeted deeper into the maze-like heart of the violet city.
He hit the tiled surface of a lower walkway, his landing cushioned by flight, and rolled out of the way just as a massive fireball smashed down after him and sent razor-sharp chips of stone flying through the air. Dave heard panicked shouts as a few of the pawns nearest him on the walkway threw up their arms against the shrapnel.
"Yeah, sorry about this. Blame your glorious monarch," he muttered, and took off running again.
Pawns Dave had to push through scattered to let the Basilisk pass, and the creature's feet thundered against the ground behind him, but he knew he couldn't simply take off and fly, because then it would take off and fly, and the Knight knew which of them was faster. More walkways, bridges, and alleys blurred past, and then, panting from exhaustion and pain and clutching at the stabbing ache rising in his side where Draconian had kicked him, he rounded a corner into an alleyway and smacked face first into something huge and black. For the second time that day he found himself sent sprawling, this time by his own inertia, and his bruised body protested painfully as he hit the ground.
In the shadows of the alley, the massive figure towering over Dave raised its arms above its head. The Knight caught the flash of a gleaming white blade descending through the air...
...and then the Sulphur Basilisk leapt forward to devour him, and the alabaster sword cleanly severed its head.
Dave lay there dazedly as a shower of grist rained down around him. The massive sword-bearing creature bent down and peered at him with beady white eyes set far apart beneath the brim of its tall hat, and said in a voice heavily impeded by its large, purple beak: "Squawk."
"Um," said Dave, still somewhat dazed. "Thanks?"
"What was it chasing, Bishop?" said another voice from somewhere behind the hulking creature, and a moment later a black pawn was pushing her way past it through the alley, so dwarfed by its mass that her head barely reached its waist. A moment later she had hauled Dave unceremoniously upright by the bloodstained collar of his pajamas, and was shouting in his face: "What's your name, boy? You one of us or one of them??"
"Not so loud, Pariah," the gigantic Bishop muttered, its cloak shifting as it reached out and plucked Dave out of her grasp, holding him up by the back of his shirt as if he weighed nothing. The pawn's fingertips left long black smears down his front. "He's one of us. Squawk," it added, as an afterthought.
"You don't know that. Could be a spy for the Slayer. Everyone's a spy for the Slayer. You a spy, boy?! ADMIT YOU'RE A SPY!! I say we kill him."
"Why would the Basilisk be after him if he was on Noir's side?" the Bishop reasoned calmly. "He's one of us."
"'Cause Noir's a raving lunatic," said the pawn who seemed to fit that description very aptly herself. "Came from the direction of the palace, didn't he? Ergo he's a spy ergo we should kill him. If he's not one of us he's one of them."
"Nope, definitely one of us," Dave chimed in quickly, still being suspended a few feet off the ground by the Bishop's firm grip on his shirt. "Totally on your side. Go team us."
The pawn eyed him suspiciously, and it occurred to Dave, albeit unhelpfully, that fighting-class pawns were not very smart. "You're really one of us?"
"Uh-huh. Oh yeah. Team player, that's me."
"Pariah," the Bishop said slowly, lowering Dave to the ground but not releasing him. The Knight considered trying to make a break for it, but turned the thought down after considering the sharp-beaked, sword-wielding brute standing directly behind him. "I keep telling you, he's one of us! Squawk. This boy is... Well, look at him!"
The pawn leaned forward and squinted her milky white eyes as though nearsighted. "Ahrg, I can't see with these things." And then, to Dave's surprise, she reached up to touch her eyes, and a pair of pearlescent contact lenses came away, revealing irises as oily black as her skin. But her skin wasn't oily black; he could see as she leaned in closer that her entire body had been painted over with what looked like shoe polish, and around the edges of her face it was flaking away to reveal the alabaster carapace underneath.
"Oh my god," hissed the Warpainted Pariah. "Oh my god."
"We have to go, quickly, before they send another underling," the Bishop told them both. "Squawk. They'll be searching for him with their Walls, so we'll have to take the back alleys in order to get him back to-"
"Hold it," Dave muttered, at last squirming out of the Bishop's grasp. "Yeah, no, this isn't gonna happen. It's great that you killed that Basilisk, and I'm thrilled that you've apparently decided not to stab me or whatever, but I've got places to be, so..."
He would have taken off then and there, had not the Pariah suddenly launched herself at him and wrapped her arms around him in a vicegrip, bawling uncontrollably. "Oh my god oh my god oh my god you're him! YOU'RE HIM!! You finally came down from your tower after all these years and the first thing I did was scream at you!! Please don't go because of me! AHHG why didn't you tell me you were him!! FORGIVE ME!!"
"Uh, okay, we're cool," said a nonplussed Dave, while the pawn sobbed into his shoulder, tears streaking her caliginous facade and making runnels of white down her cheeks. He glanced up at the Bishop beseechingly, and the hulking chessman gently reached down and pried the Warpainted Pariah off of him.
"Our apologies for this misunderstanding, your majesty. Both of us have been through much fear and suffering in the past few days. We fought side by side in the glorious uprising on Skaia's battlefield, only to flee in fear while Jack Noir easily slaughtered both armies, white and black alike. I am a traitor to the crown, and Pariah has no home to return to." Even with that stiff, birdlike face, he managed to look regretful. "We would be killed if the Slayer or his agents found us. So please understand why we find it hard to trust anyone."
"Well, we've got spies of our own," Pariah muttered viciously. "We've got spies everywhere! Everyone on Derse hates him; they'll all help when we call them to arms. We're building a resistance! And it's all for you!" she ranted, grabbing Dave by the shoulders and having to be pulled away by the Bishop again. "It's all been for her and for you!!"
"Good thing you didn't kill me, then," Dave managed, not sure whether or not he was really following the conversation anymore or if this entire scenario had dropped off into the churning waters of dream-logic. As he spoke, his ears finally caught up to his brain, and Dave paused while his mind switched gears. "Wait, 'your majesty?' Who do you people think I am?"
The Traitorous Bishop's beady eyes glimmered. "You're turntechGodhead, Knight of Time and Prince of the Moon, one of the last true heirs of Derse's royal line. Squawk."
There was a long silence from Dave, and then: "...god that title is girly." The news hardly came as a surprise at this point in the game. Dave was all too used to being proclaimed the prophesied chosen one by varying people and for varying reasons. It was just another game mechanic.
"And you're finally here," Pariah was whispering feverishly. "It's you. We've been waiting for you. Anything you need, any order or whim or desire, tell me and I will fight to the death to serve you. We are your resistance. It's you. It's you. My god. It's you."
In my dream I am the star. It's me. Dave nearly broke his cool, ironic demeanor by cracking a grin at that. "Okay, cool, so now I've got a couple of fanatics who'll do whatever I tell them." It was a mark of how very odd his life had been after installing the game that he didn't feel the least bit surprised at that. "Feel like storming the palace and rescuing the moon princess for me?"
"They have the Princess?" the Bishop began, but he was cut off by a tragic wail from the Warpainted Pariah.
"HE DARES!! HE DARES!! After what he did to the Glorious Monarchs, he DARES threaten the Prince and Princess?! I'LL KILL HIM!! I'LL mmph!" Her screams turned to muffled wauling as the Bishop hastily clapped his large hand over her mouth and glanced in apprehension at the mouth of the alley. She struggled helplessly against his mass.
"This is why I don't let her carry the sword," the beaked chessman explained. "I'm afraid you and the Princess fall into the category of her obsession. Squawk."
"Her obsession?" said Dave, not entirely sure he wanted to know.
"Kings. She adores them. And if the Princess has been taken, then of course we will do everything in our power to aid her. But perhaps we should discuss this in a... safer setting."
Dave nodded and trailed the Traitorous Bishop as he led the way through the dark back-alleys of Derse. "Just how big is this resistance of yours, anyway?"
"With you as our leader," the Bishop said, "There are now three of us."
Behind him, the Knight of Time gave a low groan. "Great. We can totally storm the palace with that. Look out Jack Noir, 'cause we're a freaking army of three. Man, we win, no contest. He might as well just surrender now."
"Storming the palace does seem a bit ambitious," the Bishop agreed, either not noticing Dave's sarcasm or choosing to ignore it. "But surely we can help in small ways. If there is anything she needs - food, tools, knowledge gathered from outside the palace walls..."
Dave shrugged. "She could use a pen."
He heard the Pariah gasp, and the Bishop came to a halt so abruptly that Dave almost walked into him. "A pen?"
He turned around with a flourish, something ghostly white gleaming in his dark hands, and a moment later Dave found himself holding a long, elegant quill pen, glowing ethereally in the shadowy alley. He stared down at it, while above him the Bishop murmured, "My lord, you are a more cunning strategist than I thought."
Dave continued examining the feather blankly. But I could have sworn that when the Bishop was holding it, it was... "Wasn't this a sword a minute ago?"
The Traitorous Bishop gave him a conspiratorial wink as if the the three of them, standing hidden in the narrow, winding alleyways of the dark planet, were in on some secret together. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean. Squawk."
"Right," said Dave, deciding at this point to stop acting surprised at every mind-warping twist the game decided to throw at him. "Hey, can you stop calling me 'my lord' and 'your majesty' or whatever? It's kind of weird."
"What would you prefer to be called, your- sir?"
"I dunno, maybe His Most Ironic Excellence or something. Nah, too obvious. I'll think about it."
"What's up with that, anyway?"
"I can't really control the squawks."
"Good for you."
There had been no plan, beyond wanting desperately to get Dave out of the palace and away from the Dignitary as quickly as possible. Rose had done the first thing that came to mind, and now she prayed that Draconian would see it as a falling out between herself and Dave. The Seer and the Knight got into an argument; he's not coming back, he's not helping her, he's not involved anymore. There's no need to go after him.
And yet she knew they would. Jack, if no one else, would want to make him suffer.
There was a knot in her throat as she flipped the little metal latch just above the ornate handle of her door and heard the deadbolt slide into place: a tiny "click" under the constant rap of Draconian's knuckles against the wood. Rose took some satisfaction in discovering that her prison door could be locked just as effectively from her side as from his.
It was difficult, at this point, not to be a little tense. Her capture, which had no doubt lasted only a handful of hours by earth time, seemed to be amounting to days here on Derse, a planet which twisted time around itself in temporal fractals that rivaled its distortion of physics. It was a small blessing that her dreamself didn't seem to require food or rest.
"Leave me alone," she muttered, leaning her back against the door and hearing her own voice catch tightly in her throat. "I'm doing what you want. Just leave me alone for a while." She wished she hadn't tried to fake a meltdown, because even as the false tears dried on her cheeks, real ones threatened to well up hotly behind them. She forced them back. Rose Lalonde couldn't afford to be sad and scared at the moment. "Leave me alone."
To the Seer's mild surprise, he did. Without so much as a word from Draconian the knocking on her door subsided, and then he was gone, no doubt off to round up some minions to deal with Dave. After a few minutes of dead silence from the hallway beyond, Rose allowed herself to slide slowly down the door and sit tiredly on the floor, her legs splayed out in front of her. She took a few deep breaths and relaxed, trying to recapture that sense of cool, unflappable serenity.
A voice, not Draconian's but nevertheless one she recognized, sounded from the other side of the violet wood. "Miss tentacleTherapist?"
Rose sighed. "Your name was Droll, right?"
"Courtyard Droll. I just wanted to tell you, um, thanks for being so nice and helping us out!"
"My pleasure. I live for ensuring that my mortal enemies are healthy and well-balanced individuals."
"We're not enemies now, though," Droll said helpfully. "Because you're sort of like one of the crew!"
"Does Jack normally keep members of his crew locked away in tiny rooms?" Rose asked with the faintest hint of flat cynicism.
"Well, no... But that's just because he doesn't really trust you yet! And you shouldn't feel bad, because Jack doesn't trust anybody. Not even me or Draconian or Hegemonic, sometimes, and I think he's especially mad at Draconian right now because he brought you here, but that's okay because you're going to fix everything, right?"
Rose was silent for a while.
"Right?" Droll prompted.
"Hm? Oh yes, sorry, right. You say there are some... trust issues between the Slayer and the Dignitary?"
"Uh-huh, but you can make them be friends again."
The Seer's lips twitched into a small smile. "I'll see what I can do. I'm sure it would be absolutely devastating to Jack; learning that he couldn't trust his closest friend. You've been very helpful, Droll."
"Sure, miss Therapist."
"Feel free to call me Rose. After all, I'm sort of like one of the crew."
"Rose," he repeated, happily savoring the familiarity, and the girl couldn't help but be glad of the fact that not everyone out there was an enemy.
"Droll," she continued, deciding to see just how far she could press her luck. "My friend Dave mentioned some sort of... screen? Something used for surveillance? I was wondering if you could tell me anything about that."
"That's the Fenestrated Wall," the little Dersite replied helpfully. "It used to be Jack's job to monitor them, but now Draconian does it. It's really neat; he can see pretty much anywhere on Derse with it!"
"But can he hear with it? Say for instance, if I were talking to someone in private, would he be able to use the Wall to listen in?"
"Nope, just see."
"Interesting." Rose stood at last and began running her fingers through her hair, trying to cover up the uneven spot and make herself look halfway presentable. "I don't suppose you could do me a favor? Can you find Draconian and tell him I'm over my little outburst? I'd like to have another talk with Jack."
"Sure thing miss... I mean, sure thing, Rose!" Droll agreed, and a moment later she could hear the faint sound of his feet receding down the hallway outside. Rose continued to adjust her hair, more because it kept her hands from fidgeting than because she really cared how it looked.
It was time to talk to Jack again, and that as always sent a rush of nervous excitement through her. It would be easier this time, because she'd already laid foundations and won a few small but crucial battles. And now, thanks to the Droll, she had yet another weapon. This would be fun.
Rose had expected Jack to visit her in her little reading room like he had before, but instead Draconian arrived to serve as her escort. He led her stiffly and silently through a maze of dim purple corridors, walkways, and staircases, his chitinous hand clasped firmly around her right wrist to keep her from flying away.
"He's still furious at you," the Dignitary explained briefly, after Rose had given him one too many searching glances. "Or furious at himself for opening up to you. There's no way I'll be able to talk him into entering that room again."
Rose nodded. "I can work around that."
In response he gave her wrist a small squeeze. "Listen to me, girl. I don't like you and I don't trust you, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that Droll and I never should have brought you here, because you don't seem to be making any difference whatsoever."
"These things take time," she assured him. "Although..." And at this she tried keeping her face as smooth and innocent as possible. "I think the reason I haven't had much of an impact is because part of the problem may not be mental."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Draconian give her a quick, sharp glance. "You're saying he's... sick?"
"Well, he certainly isn't healthy."
The Dignitary shook his head. "It's stress and lack of sleep."
"Oh, I'm sure that's part of it," Rose stated authoritatively. "But I suspect that most of the blame lies with that ring he's wearing." Draconian didn't respond, and so she went on. "It was made for a queen, wasn't it? Someone genetically engineered and trained from birth to wear it. It contains untold amounts of power and drastically alters the genetic makeup of the wearer's body. I'd imagine it's a bit like wearing a nuclear power plant on one's finger."
"The ring's not hurting Jack."
"Have you ever looked at it?" she insisted. "And I mean really stared at it closely. You can tell what it's doing to him. I'm surprised you've never noticed."
"There's nothing to notice," he said, but Rose noted smugly that the Dignitary no longer sounded entirely sure.
At long last the two of them arrived in a vast, cavernous room. The vaulted archways of the ceiling disappeared into darkness far overhead, and despite the fact that she now walked across red carpet, Rose's footsteps seemed to echo eerily in the emptiness. She could see, in the distant center of the great hall, a throne of gray stone carved to mimic the massive kerneltowers of the palace. And lounging on the throne, where once there sat the queen of Derse, was Jack Noir.
Some of the majesty of the scene was lost when Rose noticed the pawns hastily shuffling through piles of paperwork strewn across a series of card-tables that had been set up in the immediate vicinity of the throne. The Sovereign Slayer was bickering with them and seizing documents at random out of their hands, and as she and the Dignitary approached he at last lost his temper and slapped one of them hard across the face with a tentacle. The unlucky pawn went reeling backwards and knocked over a table, spilling carefully sorted piles of documents across the floor, and Jack shouted something incoherent and drew his sword.
"Jack," said Draconian calmly, approaching the throne with Rose in tow. As soon as Jack turned his head, the pawns scattered.
"What," the Slayer snapped, seething, "could you possibly want from me right now, Draconian?"
The Dignitary picked up a piece of paper idly and glanced at the back of it before tossing it aside. "Get yourself an Archagent, Jack. You don't need to be dealing with day-to-day paperwork."
"No one else does it right," Jack countered. "Everyone in this palace is an idiot and they make stupid mistakes and then I have to deal with it."
"No Jack, you don't."
"Shut the hell up. I'm running this kingdom, and I'll take my own damn advice." He turned his murderous gaze from Draconian to Rose, who watched him complacently and took note of the dark circles under his eyes. "Why is she here?"
"She has something to tell you. Says it's important."
"Fine. Tell me and get out."
Rose took a deep breath and began the speech she'd rehearsed a hundred times in her head. "When I spoke to Dave earlier today..." Not a flicker of surprise from Jack, so obviously he'd heard about that by now. "It put a lot of things in perspective for me. How stupid we've all been, trying to win a broken game. How we're protecting Skaia, even though none of us really know what's so important about it or why we should care if it's destroyed. We've been doing things because the game tells us we should, without thinking about whether or not it makes sense."
Jack and Draconian listened without interrupting.
"So... it comes down to this. I've started thinking for myself, and I've decided that I want to be on the winning side. I'm siding with Derse. Officially."
There was a moment of tense silence, and then Jack sat back in his throne and let out a humorless, "Heh. You think you're funny, Lalonde."
"I'm being serious," Rose said resentfully. "I want to be a part of your plans. I want to help, and I don't care about whether or not it hurts the game or my friends. I'm smart, and I'm creative, and I know how to be cruel. Surely you can use me for something."
"Oh sure, I could use you," Jack muttered. "But I don't trust you. You're a hostage, Lalonde, or did you forget that?"
"And there's nothing I can do that will make you trust me?"
"What do you think?"
Rose frowned for a moment, trying to look as if she was in the midst of some internal battle. "I... What if I gave you information? Something I've been hiding that would hurt my cause and help yours? Something you need to know?"
That got his attention. The Slayer leaned forward again, his eyes meeting hers. "Go on."
"I can't exactly tell you here and now," she said quickly, glancing up at Draconian. "It has to be in private. Without him here."
Jack nodded, and the Dignitary released her wrist. She wouldn't dare try to fly away in Jack's throne room. Draconian thought she was merely fishing for privacy so that she could have another therapy session with Jack, and in some ways she was. But there was another reason. Rose waited until the Dignitary's footsteps had faded before she spoke again, once she was sure the tall Dersite was out of earshot.
"Draconian and I have been plotting to kill you."
She let that sink in for a moment, watching with sadistic pleasure the plethora of emotions that flickered across the Sovereign Slayer's face in a matter of seconds. "What."
"I'm laying all my cards on the table, as it were. Telling you this so you'll know without a shadow of a doubt that I'm trustworthy and that I'm siding with you. The Dignitary brought me here for the sole purpose of driving you insane. He wanted me to use my 'therapy' as an excuse to make you paranoid and unstable and weak, so that he would have an easier time of taking you down."
"You're lying," he hissed, but Rose knew for a fact that she'd already wormed her way too far into his mind and gained too much of his trust for him to dismiss her now.
"He wants to be king, Jack. He wants your ring."
"You're lying," he repeated. "Draconian wouldn't-"
"Wouldn't he? Watch him next time the two of you are in the same room; I know I have. He's always looking at your ring! Why would I lie about this?" She was working herself into another false meltdown, and she let the tears flow freely down her face even as she spoke. "I wish I was lying! I wish I wasn't a part of this, but I am, and I'm terrified! I'm terrified that you'll kill me now that you know, and that the Dignitary will kill me when he finds out I've told you! I don't want to die!"
Rose buried her head in her hands and sat down right there on the carpet in front of the throne, letting all of her pent-up despair rise to the surface and feeling very real tears streak hotly down her face. "I'm only thirteen, I'm not a real therapist! I don't know how to drive someone insane and I don't want to, and I'm sick of lying and I'm really really scared and I just want to live on a planet that isn't going to be destroyed by meteors! And... and if you're going to kill me just make it quick, because it's bound to be better than all the horrible ways Draconian threatened to do it!"
She dissolved into incoherent sobs, curled up pathetically on the floor and waiting to see what he would do. After an almost unbearably long silence, something gently pressed itself to the back of her head.
Rose pulled her tear-streaked hands away from her eyes and looked up, and Jack was kneeling down in front of her, his hand stroking her hair in what he seemed to think was a consoling motion. "Hey now, Lalonde. Calm down. You're not gonna die."
He looked calm enough, but his teeth were gritted, and she could tell that he was barely keeping himself together for her sake.
"He'll kill me," she whispered.
"I told you I'd keep you alive as long as you didn't do anything stupid, didn't I? And what you just did... that was smart."
"Don't tell him. Please don't tell him I told you. Please."
"Of course not."
"I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for everything."
"Sssh." He tilted her chin upward so she could look him in the eyes. "You may be no good as a therapist, but you're honest and you're loyal. That's what I like. Tell me, how would you like to be an Archagent?"
Rose nodded dully; there seemed to be no other adequate response. But behind her carefully crafted mask of numb fear, she was gleefully gloating.
She payed careful attention as Jack's eyes flitted away from her, grew distant. You won't tell Draconian, will you, Jack? No, you'll keep it a secret and see what he does, because you're not sure, because some tiny part of you knows you've been friends with the Dignitary your entire life, and that part of you knows that I'm lying. So you'll wait and see if I'm right.
He was worried and angry and filled to the brim with panic and betrayal and paranoia, and it would only take one tiny thing to push him over the edge. But Rose had already taken care of that.
When the Draconian Dignitary returned to collect her, he looked immediately to Jack's ring, because she'd told him to. And though he made no comment, Jack noticed, because she'd told him to.
And the Sovereign Slayer was irrevocably hers.
Jade was typing frantically on Pesterchum, filling Davesprite's iShades with lines of green. With a short huff of agitation the sprite threw open his window, ignoring the wave of heat that poured in from outside, and leaned with his hands on the sill, gazing out at what could only be described as an army.
The black skies of Lohac seethed with the soft roar of beating wings as reptilian Basilisks swarmed locust-like around Dave's towering house, some clinging to the brickwork and scuttling along the walls, flitting away angrily as gargantuan Giclops climbed slowly and unstoppably past them. Far, far below, the twisted metal structures and gears rising from the lava were covered in imps and ogres: Dave's own familiar Amber and Sulfur enemies far outnumbered by legions of Marble and Shale; far more than should have been found on the clockwork planet.
He withdrew his head quickly and slammed the window shut as one of the Basilisks spotted him and spat out a few ripples of fire.
GG: this isn't supposed to be happening right? I know your house is always covered in imps but there aren't supposed to be this many!
GG: all of johns and roses enemies are going after you now!!
TG: yeah no
TG: this is definitely not supposed to be happening
TG: but the important thing here is not to panic
He was interrupted as Jade's cursor swooped by and rather violently wrenched up the desk that housed Dave's mixing equipment, dumping several hundred dollars worth of electronics onto the floor as she flipped it upright and rammed it against his bedroom door.
TG: dammit jade what did i just say
GG: im not panicking!!!
TG: oh my mistake
TG: i thought you throwing my stuff around indicated panic
TG: but i guess youre just cool as can be over there
TG: and in your state of total calm
TG: you decided to wreck my room for the hell of it
GG: i am establishing a perimeter!!!
There was a loud crash as elsewhere in the house, Jade toppled yet another piece of furniture.
TG: is that even a thing you can say
TG: because outside of all those really cheesy movies that johns into
TG: i refuse to believe that that is a thing you can say
GG: i am going to block as many doors and windows as i can so they cant get in!
The cursor zipped by again and began methodically tearing up the cinderblocks in Dave's room and stacking them in front of his window.
TG: okay i guess thats actually a pretty good idea
TG: can you do that without destroying my furniture?
GG: you can alchemize new furniture it is not a big deal!!
GG: but you cant alchemize a new dave!
"Oh," he said softly.
TG: this isnt something you need to worry about alright
TG: im a sprite
TG: i am so ridiculously overpowered
TG: that my eye lasers
TG: have their own eye lasers
GG: what about other other you??
GG: dave youre asleep in here and we cant wake you up right now!!
GG: and i know you have cool sprite powers but that is a lot of imps!!
GG: and maybe you can protect yourself but can you protect both of your selves?
Davesprite looked up, trying to imagine the angle from which Jade was viewing him so that he could make an attempt at meeting her eyes. Her cursor dropped the last of the cinderblocks in front of the window and went still, hovering motionlessly somewhere behind his shoulder.
TG: jade look at me
GG: im not panicking!!!
TG: i know
TG: just look at me for a second
TG: nothing bad is gonna happen
TG: not this time
TG: i wont let it
There was a long silence from Jade.
TG: did you just fall asleep
GG: no!!!! :P
GG: its just that maybe i was panicking a little bit...
GG: because i guess im not used to not knowing how things will end!
TG: hey its fine
TG: just think of it like
TG: an amazing stroke of luck
TG: we are going to be drowning in grist after this
TG: alchemize ourselves up a rowboat
TG: so we can paddle through this sea of impberry gushers
GG: we will be grist millionaires!
GG: kajillionaires!! :)
TG: thats not a word but you know what
TG: we will make it a word
TG: because well just be that rich
GG: the big man......
GG: HASS the grist!!!
TG: feel better?
GG: a lot better!
GG: thanks dave. :)
TG: yeah no problem
He seated himself on the edge of the bed where his past-self still lay sleeping, and watched the door and window through his iShades while Jade busied herself elsewhere in the house, sealing up more exits. It didn't matter what they did; an army that size would eventually break through, and when it did, Davesprite would be ready for it. Even as he watched, something with claws scratched against the cinderblocks barricading the window.
TG: hey jade
I missed you.
TG: jack hasnt asked about the bunny again
GG: oh yeah i guess he hasnt!
TG: think he forgot?
GG: i dont think he would forget about something like that...
GG: so maybe he just decided that if he had to choose between rose and the bunny.....
GG: hed rather have rose.
- - - - - - - - - -
Rose's cell was now two hundred paces across, lavish with decorative moulding along its vaulted ceiling and deep violet walls, and bright with the sourceless, ambient light that spilled in through a row of wide, vaulted windows along one wall, overlooking Derse. She had an office chair and a varnished desk of purpleheart wood, and a set of three sleek Fenestrated Walls, set in a semicircle around the control panel at her back, awaiting the slightest touch of her hands on the dials to sent their invisible eyes sailing across the skies of the dark planet.
The silver nameplate at her desk read "Archagent," but this was still a cell, and she was still a hostage, her door locked from the outside and her windows barred by intricate iron gratings. They needn't have bothered. Rose had no interest in escaping just yet.
It wasn't as if she'd expected to get out of this alive, she admitted to herself. She'd fully intended to tear through the Sovereign Slayer's psyche like rice paper; do as much damage as possible so that when someone caught on and took her dreamself out, she'd at least be taking Jack's sanity with her. And that was still the plan, of course. She just hadn't expected it to go so well.
The girl shuffled aimlessly through the various piles of paper that had been dragged up indiscriminately from Jack's old office - unpaid tickets and citations, half-filled forms, files on people she'd never heard of and places she'd never seen - oddly aware of how her new silky black uniform moved against her skin. Most of what she was expected to do was simple addition and subtraction; busywork, and although she'd never been particularly good at math she did her best to tally everything flawlessly.
She amused herself for a while by dredging up old budget reports, columns of numbers scrawled in Jack's wild handwriting, and changing all his threes to eights and his ones to fours. Spun in her office chair until she was too dizzy to see straight. Played with the controls to the Fenestrated Walls, knowing with some satisfaction that no matter what silly thing she did, no one would see. The surveillance equipment was hers and hers alone.
After a while, fiddling with the dials and making the screen swoop at random around the outside of the palace, she caught a glimpse of ginger-blonde hair and froze. Dave was crouched just outside the window of her old cell, his hands on the bars, his lips moving as if quietly calling her name. Rose's heart sank. I'm here, Dave, she wanted to call out, and knew he wouldn't hear her if she did. He would have to search for her all over again.
At last Dave seemed to give up and dart away, and Rose followed him with the screen, watching as he alighted silently in the shadows at the very base of the palace, where two dark figures awaited him...
- - - - - - - - - -
"They moved her," Dave stated shortly as his feet hit the ground. The hulking shape of Bishop looked up from where he'd been crouching, picking the lock of a small side-door with a piece of wire, tiny in his giant hands. There were other ways into the palace of Derse, doors that weren't locked, but none secluded enough that someone as conspicuous as the Traitorous Bishop could approach without being seen.
"She is not in the same cell? Are you sure she wasn't simply taken for questioning, and they'll return her later?"
Dave shook his head. "Nah, they moved her. They caught me talking to her earlier, that's why."
The Warpainted Pariah, sitting against the wall with a paper bag in her hands that clinked glassily when she moved, turned her head and spat disgustedly. "He'd just do that out of spite, wouldn't he?"
"Don't be vulgar in front of the prince," Bishop scolded her absentmindedly, and Pariah's eyes went wide.
"Oh! Oh, oh no, my apologies, Lord Vader, I didn't mean-"
"It's fine," said Dave, concentrating very hard on keeping a straight face. Have you decided what you want us to call you, your highness? Yeah, now that you mention it...
"Nothing to be done about the princess now," Bishop murmured, and with a small click the door swung inwards. "But keep searching, and hope you find her again. There we are, Pariah. Squawk."
Pariah tightened her grip on her paper bag and stood, peering inside the dark doorway. "Coast is clear. Let's move before the Walls find us." She darted inside, beckoning for Bishop to follow.
"What are you guys doing, anyway?" Dave asked while the massive chessman struggled to squeeze through the narrow doorway.
"Pariah has a delivery to make to the palace kitchens. Several of the chefs are sympathetic to our cause, and one has agreed to help us, as long as we provide the... materials. Squawk. Go on and search for the princess; this should only take us a few minutes, and we'll see if we can pick up any information about where they're keeping her."
Dave shrugged. "Okay, sure, be cryptic. Not like I'm your leader and should be kept in the loop or anything."
"I'm glad you understand," Bishop said, completely ignoring the Knight's sarcasm, while somewhere in the corridor beyond Pariah urged him to hurry up. "Good luck with your search, and hope they do not catch you with their Walls again."
"Yeah, you too." Dave leapt into the air and flew away, the windows of the palace darting past him in a purple blur.
She might leave another sign, if they hadn't picked up on it before. Or maybe she'd find some other way to contact him, retreating back to LoLaR to send him a message on his iShades. As long as he steered clear of the Walls, he would have plenty of time to-
Dave stopped dead in midair. They had her under surveillance, didn't they? Wherever she was, he'd be able to see her with the Walls. And while Rose might be gone, he knew exactly where to find those.
- - - - - - - - - -
He managed to locate the right window this time, instead of having to sneak in through the balcony like he had before, and as his luck would have it, the grating here was mostly ornamental, meant more to decorate than to keep people in or out. After a few minutes of struggling with it as quietly as he could, the entire violet metal grille worked its way free from the mortar and came away in his hands. He dropped it without a second thought and climbed inside.
Compared to the world outside, the room was dimmer, lit by the glow of the screens. Dave crept forward, letting his eyes adjust and trying to get a good look at the Fenestrated Walls without being seen.
The one directly in the center was focused on him.
Dave cursed under his breath as the chair in front of the control panel swiveled around and the dark silhouette in an Agent's uniform smirked at him over steepled fingers. "Well well, Strider. Fancy meeting you here."
"What the hell, Rose?!"
"That's Archagent Lalonde to you, Dave," she teased.
"That's Timelord Darth Vader to you, Rose," he answered.
With the utmost care, his mouth skewed in concentration, the Courtyard Droll folded his final invitation and slipped it into its matching purple-and-gold envelope before stacking it neatly atop the other three. He stepped back from his desk and examined the little pile approvingly, while somewhere behind him Draconian slouched quietly on a chair in the corner with a cigarette slowly burning down between his fingers, occasionally taking a drag and exhaling slowly, making the room hazy with smoke.
As a higher-level agent the Droll got his own office, but it was a small, cramped one off one of the low-traffic hallways. He liked to think of it as "cozy". It had everything he needed: his chair, its legs cut short about halfway up their length so his feet could reach the ground; his desk, currently piled high with streamers and party decorations; his little desk ornament with the silvery ball-bearings that went clack. And four invitations, settled proudly right in the midst of it all.
With a small smile, Droll picked up the topmost envelope once again and wandered over to where the Dignitary was sitting. The tall Dersite's eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell with an eerie, controlled slowness. Droll's smile faltered slightly: Draconian's breathing only sounded like that when he was trying very hard not to be absolutely furious. Hesitantly, Droll reached up and tugged on his sleeve.
"Don't touch my suit."
"Sorry, Draconian," Droll said quickly, his hand snapping back.
Draconian opened his eyes and tilted his head back to breathe a stream of cigarette smoke into the air. "It's always the sleeves. You and Jack both, always ruining the sleeves."
"Are you mad?"
"I think you are," said Droll, carefully. "You're doing that thing you do where you breathe real slow. And you keep acting really calm and then you stab somebody."
A long silence, and then, "He gave her my office."
"I know. I just told you a little bit ago, remember?"
"He gave her my office and he didn't even have the decency to tell me to my face. I had to hear it from you." Draconian rolled the cigarette between his fingers with an expression that those who didn't know him well would have called introspective. To Droll, who knew what thoughts went on beneath that perpetually irritated face, it was an expression of black, soul-crushing rage. "I suppose I know why. He's still furious at me for bringing her here, and he's trying to punish me. Look, Draconian, at how well your brilliant plan is working. Isn't this exactly what you wanted? Hmph." He dropped the cigarette and ground it into the floor with his heel. "Petty bastard."
Droll gave him a slightly worried look. "Maybe he just wanted to do something nice for Rose?"
"He gave her my office."
"Well, she'll need a bigger office now that she's the archagent."
Draconian sighed and put a hand to his temple. "Oh god, tell me you're joking."
"No, he told me she's the archagent now, and we have to do what she says! Except not everything she says because she's still kind of a prisoner so we can't let her out or anything like that."
"He made her his archagent and he gave her my office. Are there any other decrees Jack's made lately that he hasn't bothered to tell me about?" There was a definite tone of annoyance in the Dignitary's voice, and the Courtyard Droll took a cautious step backwards before answering.
"Well, um... He also said you're not supposed to talk to her anymore."
"He can't be serious about this," Draconian muttered. "He hasn't slept in days; he's not thinking clearly. He can't just make her an archagent."
"He probably can, though. He's the king, so he can pretty much do whatever he wants."
Draconian shook his head. "But he really isn't thinking clearly, is he?"
"Droll, does Jack seem... different to you, since he became king?"
The little Dersite considered. "Well, he has wings now."
"No, I mean... He's so run-down all the time, and all this paranoia... I know Jack had some anger issues before, but never anything like this. I'm starting to think that the queen's ring really is hurting him somehow."
"If it hurt, wouldn't he take it off?"
A resigned sigh from Draconian. "To be honest, Droll, I don't think he would." He gazed distantly into the smoky air for a moment. "Why is it that I can hate Jack so much on days like this, and yet I feel compelled to go out of my way to keep him alive?"
"I think that's called friendship, Draconian."
"Maybe the better question would be: why am I going to you, of all people, for advice?"
"Because you and Jack are mad at each other, and Hegemonic..." Droll trailed off, and the two of them were silent for a moment.
"Draconian?" said Droll, after a while. "Do... Do you miss him a lot?"
Droll looked down at the purple envelope in his hands. "It doesn't really feel like he's gone. I keep forgetting and thinking he'll be in his office, or at that bar where we all used to play jazz before Jack became the king, and then he isn't, and I think it's okay because he's just somewhere else." He gave Draconian a slightly ashamed look. "I know I should miss him more because he's never coming back. But that's what it feels like. Like he's just somewhere else."
He saw Draconian's eyes rest for a moment on the streamers strewn across his desk. "Well, that's a shame. He's going to miss out on a great memorial."
With a grin, Droll proffered the envelope. "I made invitations for everybody. This one is yours."
"Thanks, Droll," Draconian murmured absentmindedly, taking the invitation and getting to his feet. "I think I'm going to go talk to Jack."
"Oh! Um... don't stab him, okay?" Droll shuffled his feet a little nervously. "Even if you're really mad."
Draconian hesitated, standing in the doorway, and then he turned around, whipped his switchblade out of nowhere, and buried it deeply in the wood of Droll's desk with a dull thunk. Droll made a small, startled noise.
"There. Now I couldn't if I wanted to."
"...Is that really your only knife, Draconian?" the Courtyard Droll asked, unconvinced.
Yet another irritated sigh from the Dignitary. "No." He pulled his usual gleaming arsenal of blades from his sleeves and all the unobtrusive little hidden pockets of his coat, and a small pile of deadly weaponry joined the party streamers atop Droll's desk. "There. Now I couldn't if I wanted to. And believe me, I want to."
He walked out as calmly as ever, but Droll felt oddly apprehensive as he remembered that a furious Draconian was about to confront an equally furious Jack. Things like this had never ended well even before one of the crew obtained godlike powers.
But the little Dersite was distracted a moment later by the other three invitations he still had to deliver. He hurried over to his desk and pushed a few knives aside to pick them up. One for himself: he resolutely laid the envelope down on his desk again, smiling at a delivery well made. One for Jack, but with the Sovereign Slayer's current mood it might be best not to drop that one off just yet. Maybe he'd deliver the fourth and final envelope instead, the one on which he'd neatly printed the name "Rose Lalonde".
Invitation clutched tightly in his hands, the Courtyard Droll scurried off down the hallway, towards what had once been Draconian's office.
"So they asked what I wanted to be called, and I thought, if it was John, what's the stupidest, most nerdy thing he could say right now?"
"And then I thought, okay, but if the answer absolutely couldn't be 'Nic Cage," what would he say?"
"And you picked Timelord Darth Vader? That's really the only thing you could come up with?"
"No, you don't get it. It's ironically awful." Dave was seated atop Rose's desk, idly flipping through some of her files and looking at the doodles Jack had done in the margins while Rose leaned back in her office chair, her feet propped up next to him. "Besides, watching them say that with a straight face is hilarious."
She smirked and raised an eyebrow. "Well, it's nice to know that you're being constructive with your new resistance force. I'd hate to think you were wasting time actually trying to free the people of Derse from Jack's tyrannical rule."
"I thought you were doing that? I'm just here to fetch you pens. I'm like Dave the wonderdog over here; you've got me trained."
"Yes Dave, you've caught me. Your entire life I've been psychologically conditioning you to bring me pens."
"Knew it." He tossed something into her lap: a stiff white quill pen, tall and elegant-looking. "And I know you were just saying that to get rid of me for a while, but look at that! I went and got you one anyway because I'm pretty much the greatest friend you'll ever have."
Rose picked the quill up carefully between her thumb and forefinger and examined it, feeling oddly grateful. "Thank you, Dave." She had a desk drawer full of pens now, but she didn't mention that to him. There was something wonderful about knowing that Dave was around, and willing to help her out with even the most inconsequential little things.
"Rose? Are you getting choked up over a pen?"
"No," she said, and quickly changed the subject. "What's this written on it?" Her fingers traced the words engraved into the shaft of the feather. "Tectrix of the Arbitor?"
Dave shrugged. "Maybe it's latin for 'really fancy pen.'" He put the stack of files down at last and turned his attention to her. "Okay, so I've told you what I've been doing. Now tell me about this crazy plan of yours that's so important that you can't possibly leave even thought there is literally an open window right over there."
Rose leaned forward and set the pen on her desk so she could rest her chin in her hands. "Oh, where do I begin? I suppose the short version of the story is that... They wanted me to become Jack Noir's therapist, and instead I decided to gain his trust and slowly drive him insane."
"Yeah, now I have to hear the long version."
A smile flickered across Rose's face. "Then make yourself comfortable; you're going to be here a while."
Standing in the hallway, his hand hanging motionless in the air, frozen in the act of knocking, The Courtyard Droll stared at Rose's door, listening to the rise and fall of the voices within. The memorial invitation slipped from his hand and fell to the floor, unnoticed.
They wanted me to become Jack Noir's therapist, and instead I decided to gain his trust and slowly drive him insane.
By the time Rose had finished laying out the details of her plan, he was racing through the palace hallways as fast as his stubbly little legs could carry him.
Feet pounding against the tile floor. Had to tell Draconian, tell Jack, tell his real friends how his fake one had betrayed them. Heart pounding against his ribcage. Had to warn Jack, couldn't stop, couldn't think, because he'd forget, he knew he'd get distracted and forget... Thoughts pounding through his head: it was my idea, it's all my fault, the one time they listen to me and I ruin everything...
Droll stumbled breathlessly onto the platform of a transportalizer and felt that disconcerting weightlessness as his body was jerked ten stories up. On the floor where the throne room could be found his feet struck tile and he was off again, sprinting down the wide purple hallways. In a panic his hands struck the great double doors of the throne room and he swung them open with manic hysteria and ran straight into Draconian's back.
He found himself lying on his back, winded and staring at the ceiling, and then Draconian leaned over him and pulled him up by the arm, setting him on his feet again. "Watch where you're going."
"Sorry, Draconian, I didn't see..." Droll blinked, shook his head, and resumed his expression of urgent panic. "I mean, wait! I have to tell you something important!"
"It can wait," Draconian said shortly, striding away from him down the long red carpet of the massive, vaulted chamber. The Courtyard Droll trailed after him, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet in nervous excitement.
"But Draconian, I have to tell Jack-"
"It can wait," the Dignitary repeated, a dangerous tone creeping into his voice, and it was only then that the Droll remembered how furious his friend was. Draconian reached the vacant throne and glared at the velvet seat with his hands clasped behind his back, his mouth twitching into an annoyed frown. "He's not here."
"Oh no, I need to warn him about-"
"What part of 'it can wait' did you not understand?" Draconian snapped, his fleeting acid temper flashing to the surface for a moment as he spun to face the little Dersite. He started walking purposefully towards the double doors again, forcing Droll to jog in order to keep up. "You may not have picked up on this, but Jack and I are at each other's throats right now. He just put a thirteen-year-old in a position of power and I think his ring might be tearing him apart; now forgive me if I think this is slightly more important than whatever inane idea you've come up with today."
He stormed through the doorway and set off towards the transportalizer, Droll trailing slightly behind with a rather hurt look on his face. "My ideas aren't insane. Sometimes they're really good."
"Inane." As he walked, Draconian took a deep breath and let it out in a hiss. "Listen, Droll. I'm not annoyed at you. I'm annoyed at Jack. If you don't want to be caught in the crossfire then I suggest you go do something else for a few hours until we've both finished shouting at each other."
"The memorial was my idea," Droll said quietly, having some trouble letting go of the topic.
"Go away, Droll," Draconian muttered, stepping onto the circular platform of the transportalizer. Droll quickly hopped on after him.
"Where are we-"
"-going?" he finished, as they abruptly appeared several stories away.
"I am confronting Jack about this... archagent thing. I want my office back."
The tall Dersite started walking again, and Droll hurried after him. He had the vauge impression that he was supposed to be telling Draconian something important, but with all this walking around he couldn't for the life of him remember what it was. "But he wasn't in the throne room!"
"You and I both know where he is."
- - - - - - - - - -
The foul reek of old blood hung heavy and rank in the air as Draconian carefully pushed open the door of Jack's former office, but it was an old stench; the smear on the floor had long ago dried and turned an ugly brown, and still no one had bothered to scrub it away. Jack was seated at an empty desk now void of its familiar strata of paperwork, his eyes closed, his forehead pressed to the violet wood and his shoulders sagging under the weight of his wings, exactly the way they'd found him before. Draconian stepped forward cautiously.
"Jack?" he said again, some of the anger draining out of his voice when the Sovereign Slayer didn't stir, and a moment later he was rushing forward and shaking Jack roughly by the shoulder. "Oh god, Jack, don't be-"
Jack Noir's head snapped up, and one of his tentacles shot out and pounded Draconian into the far wall, wrapping itself around his throat and constricting. The Dignitary, his feet suspended a good six inches off the floor, struggled and clawed at the thick black tentacle crushing his windpipe. "Jack it's... me you... idiot..."
"Don't sneak up on me!" Jack hissed, his eyes wide and wild. "Don't you ever dare sneak up on me!!"
"We weren't sneaking up on you!" Droll protested, trying without much success to tug Jack's tentacle away from Draconian. "Stop it; it's just us!"
After a moment, Jack's eyes glazed over, and he sank back into his chair and let the tentacle go limp. The Dignitary dropped to his hands and knees, gasping for breath.
"Never do that again," Jack muttered, looking away. "Just walking in like that. You know how many people want me dead?"
"And how many of those people know you come here to sulk?" Draconian spat, pushing himself to his feet and rubbing reproachfully at his throat. "It's not my fault you were passed out at your desk. Go to bed, Jack. It will solve so many of our problems."
"You want that, don't you?" the Slayer snapped back, glaring at him with unconcealed loathing.
"Yes, I want that," said Draconian, meeting his gaze cooly and silently cursing himself for jumping almost immediately to his inner "is Jack taking care of himself" checklist. "I'd appreciate it if you weren't jumpy and exhausted all the time. Did you eat anything today? That would help."
A tired grumble from Jack, which was as close to a "no" as he was going to get. The Dignitary nodded and with the slightest bit of irritation cast a glance over at Droll. "Run down to the kitchens and grab something for him; it doesn't matter what. Maybe getting his blood sugar up will make him stop acting like such a drama queen."
Jack muttered something unintelligible and most likely obscene, and Droll hurried off down the the hallway to find something edible.
"I'm not eating it. They're poisoning my food."
"You've said," Draconian muttered, leaning on Jack's desk and gazing down at him flatly. "Jack, we need to talk."
Jack leaned back in his chair, and the corners of his mouth twitched briefly into a cruel smile. "About your office?" The smile faded as quickly as it had come. "You know, if if someone had done his job and killed the boy when I ordered him to, we wouldn't have had to move her and you and I wouldn't be having this conversation."
"About your archagent. She's our prisoner, or did you forget? Why put her in a position of power... to spite me? To teach me a lesson for bringing her here and forcing you to talk to her? This has to be the pettiest, most irrational thing you've ever done; I hope you realize that." Draconian shook his head. "Jack, when I told you to get an archagent, I meant-"
"You meant yourself." The Sovereign Slayer's tone was icy, distant.
"Of course I did. I already do most of the work around here; I might as well be on the payroll for it."
"Of course you did," Jack echoed. "Of course you did. Who else is qualified; who else could I... trust?" With a tired sigh he closed his eyes and put a hand to his temple, his voice slurring slightly. "Who can I trust...?"
The Dignitary's eyes flickered to the ring on Jack's finger, gleaming small and deceptively innocent against the dark chitin. It's killing him. He's not the queen; he can't handle it, and it's killing him.
"Take off your ring, Jack," he said aloud, for what must have been the fiftieth time.
"Why should I?" Jack asked softly, eyes still closed.
"Because I can tell it's exhausting and no one ever said you had to wear it around all the time."
"That's not the reason," came the hissed reply, and Jack's eyes snapped open again. "Tell me the real reason, Draconian. Tell me why you want me to take this ring off so badly. Why that's so damn important that you can't stop talking about it. Say it, and stop acting like I haven't figured this out!"
"I don't know what you're talking about-" Draconian began, but Jack had already gotten to his feet (swayed dangerously for a moment, and seized the desk to steady himself), and shoved his palm in the tall Dersite's face.
"Why don't you take it?!" Jack muttered through gritted teeth, his face taut with rage. "Take it if you want it!! Earn it like I did and kill me for it and cut it off my goddamn corpse!!"
For a moment the room was dead silent.
Then the door creaked open again and the Courtyard Droll strolled inside, carrying a plate of cookies. "Will this be alright? They just finished making these down in the kitchen, and they smell so good!" He wiped the crumbs from around his mouth and glanced down at the plate in genuine confusion. "There were a lot more cookies on here when I started walking back! I don't know what happened to them."
Jack and Draconian stood frozen, Jack's arm still outstretched, and stared at him blankly.
"Yes Droll, that's fine," Draconian said after a stunned minute.
"It is not," Jack snapped, his arm dropping at last, but only so that his hand could hover dangerously over the hilt of the sword in his chest. "I'm not eating those. They poisoned them. They're poisoning all my food!"
"No one is poisoning your food." Draconian snapped back. "Everyone knows you don't eat the palace cooking, and regardless, no one would be stupid enough to try. Droll ate some; they're fine."
"Then why are you trying to force me to eat them?" Jack's voice was rising in pitch, his hand trembling slightly just above his sword. Droll looked from one man to the other with apprehensive confusion, not sure of what was going in.
"You think I told the kitchens to poison your food?" Draconian said disbelievingly. "Stop being such a paranoid... idiot, Jack! I'm not trying to kill you and I don't want your ring."
"YES YOU DO." There was a ringing crack as Jack's chitinous hand abandoned his sword and struck the side of Draconian's face, hard enough to send the Dignitary stumbling backwards. "I know you do! You hate me; you hate that I have power now, and you're still just a pawn! You hate that it wasn't you!"
"What I hate has nothing to do with your ring and everything to do with your sudden transformation into a manic, unbalanced wreck! Get a grip, Jack!"
"Pawn!" Jack shouted back at him, a fatigue-drunk thrill crossing his face at the word. "All you'll ever be, because it was me, Draconian. I'm the king, I'm the one with the ring, and you will never touch it!" One tentacle wrapped itself loosely around Draconian's throat again, and the Sovereign Slayer seized the hilt of his seppuku blade.
The thought: I'm probably going to die here ran through Draconian's head with alarming calmness. He'd never even considered being afraid of Jack, no matter how powerful he got. They were a crew; they bickered with each other and they trusted each other and they didn't kill their own. But as he thought of Hegemonic's corpse lying somewhere on the battlefield, of how Jack had never even bothered to mourn... He wasn't the same person anymore, and they were his pawns, not his crew.
I'm probably going to die here.
And then, somewhere off to the side, the plate fell from Droll's hands and shattered against the tile, scattering cookies across the floor of Jack's office.
Draconian automatically turned his head. Droll was standing rigid, a look of shock on his face as his hands clutched his throat, and then, even as the Dignitary watched, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground, his body convulsing helplessly.
"Oh god," said Jack, releasing Draconian, and the two of them exchanged looks of pure panic before rushing over to where the Courtyard Droll lay spasming, froth beginning to fleck his lips.
Draconian's knees hit the ground beside Droll and he grasped the little Dersite by the shoulders. "Droll, can you hear me? Droll! Oh god, you were right, they were poisoning your food-" He was cut off when a cookie struck him in the side of the head and shattered into crumbs. Draconian looked up just in time to see Jack lob another one at him.
"Now look what you did!"
"What I did?"
"You poisoned him! You killed him!"
"Jack Noir, I am not trying to kill you." Rather franticly, he gathered up the convulsing Droll. "He's not dead yet! We have to... We have to..."
"Have to do what?!" Jack demanded, throwing another poisoned cookie.
"Would you stop that? I am trying to think!" His mind was working wildly, and Droll was beginning to go still in his arms. "The kitchens! He got them from the palace kitchens. You don't store poison around food without some kind of failsafe; that means one of the cooks has to have an antidote!"
And then they were both sprinting through the palace, Draconian carrying Droll as they made their mad dash towards the kitchens. Two long hallways, a staircase, a transportalizer that jumped them from one massive tower to another.
"How do you know that? How could you possibly know that if you're not the one trying to kill me?!"
Three more flights of stairs, another transportalizer, another hallway.
Draconian grimaced. "I don't. I'm guessing."
A hallway, a staircase, a hallway, and at last the Sovereign Slayer thrust the vaulted wooden double-doors of the palace kitchens aside with enough force to tear one of them off its hinges. "Who. Was. It."
The ballroom-sized kitchens, filled with massive, industrial-sized ovens and all those gleaming, stainless steel machines associated with feeding an entire palace, went silent. The army of pawns staffing the great room paused to take in the scene with varying degrees of fear and confusion on their faces. With a scowl, Jack pointed to the little Dersite twitching in Draconian's arms. "Who did that? You have two seconds to turn him in. One. T-"
The staff nearest the door scrambled backwards, and almost immediately a pawn was shoved rather violently into the empty space they left behind by someone in the crowd. Jack grabbed him by the collar, and in a flash his vicious black blade was at the man's throat. The pawn gaped at him, terrified.
"You're the one who poisoned Droll?"
"Your highness, I never-"
The sword drew a thin thread of blood. "Tell me."
"Yes! Yes!" he babbled. "But it wasn't just me! There are others! I can point them out, I can tell you who they are! There's a woman; she comes every couple days to bring us more poisons! I swear it wasn't just me! Don't kill me and I'll tell you everything I know!"
"Did this woman bring you an antidote?" Draconian demanded.
Jack shoved the pawn back into the crowd. "Go get it."
They laid the now nearly motionless Droll out across the floor, and Draconian held his head up while Jack uncorked the proffered glass bottle with his teeth and poured the dark, syrupy liquid within carefully down Droll's throat.
There was a tenseness in the air as the two of them crouched over Droll, oblivious to the mass of pawns all around them, just waiting. Draconian with a hand over Droll's faintly beating heart. Jack cursing, too low to be heard.
After what seemed like eons, Droll gave a shuddering cough and focused his eyes. "Draconian... Hegemonic says he likes the streamers."
"That's good, Droll," Draconian answered quietly.
Jack nodded shortly and stood up, sword held loosely at his side as his eyes swept over the watching pawns. "Draconian. Get out."
The Dignitary looked up at him. "What?"
"Take Droll and get out. I'm not going to kill you and god damn it I can't bring myself to exile you, but if I ever see you again I'm running this sword through your chest." His voice was cold, steely, dead serious. "You have until everyone in this room is dead to get out of my palace."
For once, Draconian didn't argue. He lifted Droll, who was still too weak to stand, and walked slowly towards the doorway, hearing the rise of frantic protests from the pawns behind him.
"Been meaning to hire some new kitchen staff anyway," Jack muttered.
They were halfway down the hallway outside when the death-screams began. Draconian broke into a run, and didn't look back.
- - - - - - - - - -
Rose looked up serenely from the documents she'd been working on as Jack Noir wandered exhaustedly into her office, his wings dragging on the floor behind him, his carapace spattered in someone else's blood. He sank heavily into the chair across from her without speaking, and folded over onto her desk, burying his face in his arm and smearing blood across her carefully sorted files.
"Jack, can I help you?" Rose asked softly, trying to hide her shock. "What happened?"
"They're gone," he murmured, his voice muffled. "Draconian, and Droll. You were right."
"Oh, Jack," she said consolingly, reaching out and touching his shoulder, trying her best not to think about the slick blood under her fingers. It was a mark of how far she'd come that this time, he didn't jerk away. "I tried to warn you. You can't trust them. You can't trust anyone but me."
He told her, shakily, brokenly, what had happened, and little droplets of blood made patterns on the dark purple tile.
It was Davesprite and Jade against the Medium. Enemies continued to spawn and swarm across the towering house on LoHaC in ever-increasing numbers, an army sent for the sole purpose of killing Dave in his sleep. They'd lost most of the structure already; there were too many doors and windows, copied and pasted by Jade without thought as she built upwards, and it was impossible to seal them all before the creatures found a way in.
Dave's room was their last stronghold. Jade's cursor hovered just outside the door, a cinderblock held securely in her virtual grasp, and she swung it back and forth, bashing in the heads of any game enemy that dared attempt to get past her. Davesprite was at the window, barricaded with another stack of cinderblocks save for a tiny slit at the top, through which he sent laser after laser, frying whatever came close to the shattered glass.
It would have looked, to an outside observer, as if they guarded in silence. But Jade's screen and Dave's iShades were alive with text.
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
GG: hey dave?
GG: have you talked to john yet?
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
GG: i think you should talk to john! you two are friends and its dumb that you won't talk to each other just because of some stuff you said when you were upset!!
TG: would you get off my back about this
GG: no!!! >:P
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering gardenGnostic [GG] --
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
TG: let me guess
TG: you want me to talk to egbert
GG: okay, yes.
TG: why dont you talk to him?
TG: apologize for me or whatever
TG: oh john hes so sorry
TG: how dare he feel insulted at the horrible horrible things you said to him
TG: grovel grovel
GG: you are both being so stupid!!!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] --
GG: talk to dave!!!!!
EB: um..... what?
GG: do it now or i will hate you forever!!!!!!
GG: well maybe a little bit!!!
GG: you wont like it john! every time i see you ill look the other way and pretend you dont exist or something mean like that!!
GG: you think i cant be mean but i can be mean!!!!
EB: thats cold, jade. he doesnt even want to talk to me anyway!
EB: i said some stuff i shouldnt have and i think it made him really mad.
GG: what was that? i think it was the sound of you not existing~
GG: was that the wind? i think it must have been the wind because it sure wasnt my good friend john!
GG: because my good friend john doesnt exist!!!!
GG: and will continue to not exist until he talks to my good friend dave and they are good friends with each other!
EB: bluuuuuh, you and dave are spending way too much time together.
GG: i think i will close this empty chat window where i am not talking to anybody who exists!
GG: watch me be mean, john!
GG: i mean dont watch me be mean because there is no john here!!!!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] blocked ectoBiologist [EB] --
-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
EB: can you tell her to unblock me?
TG: cant man
TG: she wont talk to me until i talk to you
An awkward silence.
EB: are you really mad? about how i said you werent our dave?
EB: i was going to pester you right back and say something but i figured you were pretty mad.
EB: and then some other stuff came up, like getting jade into the medium and that kind of thing, so i guess i figured i would do it later!
Another awkward silence, which John seemed compelled to fill.
EB: im going through my second gate right now.
EB: i know its stupid to just give jack what he wants, but theres still stuff we can do about it!
EB: so im going to check up on rose. just to make sure her regular body is okay, you know?
TG: good idea
TG: what about jade?
EB: ive got my cosbytop so i can get her in from wherever.
EB: all i really have left to do is prototype her sprite and weve got a while to decide anyway.
TG: hold off on entering until rose is out of there though
TG: last thing we need is another prototyping
EB: well duh!
EB: hey, um...
EB: dave are we cool?
EB: you know i didnt mean that stuff about you and i know you didnt mean that stuff about rose.
Davesprite sighed and blasted an ogre to oblivion without really thinking about it, knowing that Jade could see him on her screen and was waiting for him and John to make amends. They weren't cool, not really, but it made a difference that John wanted to be.
TG: two options here
TG: we could talk this thing out and get all weepy
TG: cry on each others shoulders like little girls
TG: swear to never fight again
TG: that kind of thing
TG: or we could be real men
TG: avoid the subject entirely
TG: and lie out our butts when she comes back
EB: but dave! i have always wanted to cry on your big strong shoulders!
TG: i know right
TG: theyre just irresistible
TG: so manly
EB: so manly!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
GG: are you guys friends yet??
TG: weep, john
TG: weep and i will cradle you in my wings and whisper sweet nothings in your ears
TG: whoa okay wrong chat window
-- gardenGnostic [GG] blocked turntechGodhead [TG] --
- - - - - - - - - -
In silence Dave landed on a narrow ledge about halfway up one of the palace towers, just below the row of windows that led to Rose's office. The other three towers loomed distant and massive, and beyond them yawned the dark void of the Furthest Ring, where Dave could vaguely make out the drifting shapes of the Horrorterrors, black, formless shadows in the darkness of his shades.
He gripped the little glass vial he'd been given by Pariah, straightened up, and peered carefully into the window just above him, careful not to be seen. The Fenestrated Walls were glowing faintly, and Rose's desk sat vacant before them; it seemed like no one was here.
The Knight grasped the grating he'd ripped out of the wall before (she'd made him put it back, so no one would get suspicious), and pulled it away easily. He laid it aside on the ledge beneath him and climbed inside. "Rose?"
At first there was no answer, and the horrible panic struck him that they'd moved her again, that she was lost forever, that he'd never be as lucky as to find her a third time. "Hey, Rose!"
There was blood on the desk.
It was smeared across the papers and files and dark purple wood, and drops of it had spattered against the floor, still bright and wet and red. Dave's heart twisted sickeningly for a split second (blood on my hands blood all over me and I'm lying on the floor dead with DD's switchblade in my back and now I know exactly how much blood there is in a human body oh god oh god I have to get rid of it before Jade sees because she will freak).
But before they've killed her had time to become a fully formed thought, he heard her voice from behind one of the Fenestrated Walls. "Dave."
He practically sprinted the length of the room, some part of him embarrassed for not being cool about this and the rest of him not caring. Rose was sitting in the shadows, her back to the dark side of the Wall and her chin resting on her knees. Dave stared down at her, panting, and she looked up at him with watery eyes and an ash-pale face.
She shook her head. Letting out a heavy breath, he slid down the wall and sat beside her. "God, Rose. There's blood all over."
"But you're okay?"
"Yes, Dave. It's not my blood." She was holding the quill pen he'd brought her between her hands, and it shone clean and white in the shadows. "I'm sorry for hiding back here, it's just... Jack came in covered in blood and told me he'd killed a lot of people, and I think it just scared me more than it should have."
"Oh." Ha, imagine him, Dave Strider, panicking over something as simple as that. "Yeah, you may not have picked up on this, but he does that."
She gave a weak laugh. "No, I hadn't noticed. How kind of you to inform me."
He remembered the vial in his hand, and passed it over to her. "Here, it's from my rebel alliance of three."
"I thought you were Darth Vader?" she commented with a sort of forced lightness, taking the vial and watching its dark contents move around with syrupy slowness within.
"Nah, that got old fast. I'm Zazzerpan the Fantastical now."
"That's terrible. You're hardly worthy of Zazzerpan's most ancient and exalted name."
"You can't call it 'ancient and exalted' if you write slashfic about it. Pretty sure that's a universal law."
"Disappointed sigh, Dave. What's in here, anyhow?"
Dave shrugged. "Antidote for poison, I think. Pariah was pretty insistent that you had some, in case Jack or his minions tried to use you as a food tester. I'm pretty sure she's been poisoning his food, so I'd take her seriously."
"I know." Her voice caught in her throat, and Dave turned his head to see her biting her lip, her eyes shining. "I just... I'm aware that his food is being poisoned. Was being poisoned."
"Dave, I don't... I d-don't..." Her shoulders were trembling, and her hands clenched tightly around the pen.
Wide-eyed and white faced, her words came out in a whisper. "I don't want to do this anymore."
There was a point at which something irrational took over, and suddenly that flood of self-hatred and smothered fears that had been dammed up for so long broke free, and you kept talking and talking and couldn't stop yourself because if you did you'd drown in it. "I'm a terrible person. I'm a terrible horrible person and I deserve to have horrible things happen to me, because I'm driving a man insane. I'm tearing him apart inside and I'm doing it WELL and he doesn't even know because I made him blame his best friend. And the worst part is that I didn't even feel bad about it at first because I hated him! I hate him! I was so angry and I wanted to hurt him so much and then I did but it just made me feel sick because of how good I was at it, and-"
"Rose," Dave began, trying and failing to stop the flow of words that sleeted around him.
"-this isn't like my mother, it's nothing like that. I know I say all those terrible things about her but she loves me, and if I don't win one of our stupid little battles of one-upmanship she doesn't even notice, and she won't kill me if I do something wrong. And here I could die if I say even one thing out of line. And I'm scared! I'm really scared and the only thing to do is to keep going forward even though I hate what I'm doing, and I just want to stop! I don't want to do this anymore!"
"Rose!" he said at last, and she gazed at him with cheeks flushed and wet with tears.
"I think so," she said, wiping her eyes with the edge of her Archagent's uniform. Dave put an arm around her shoulders, because that was what his bro used to do when he'd woken from a nightmare, and hugged her to his side. She leaned her head on his shoulder.
He honestly had no idea what to do. He'd never seen Rose this upset before, and he had the odd feeling that who she really needed was John right now. John was the cheerful, optimistic one who always knew the right thing to say. Dave just supplied the irony.
"Okay," he tried. "First off, you're not a terrible person. Like, not even close. I've never seen you kick a puppy or anything so you'd probably suck as a villain."
"I've killed imps."
"Computer game, Rose. That doesn't even count. Actually, yeah, second thing. This is a freaking computer game. The bad guys are evil; it's okay to brutally murder them. Even Jack," he added, as she opened her mouth to contradict him. "I know they seem like people or whatever, but they're characters in a game, and he's our final boss. Fucking up his shit is kind of the whole point."
"You didn't hear him. When he told me about how he'd as good as exiled Droll and Draconian... They were his best friends, Dave! They were like you and Jade and John to him! I ruined that."
"We're gonna have to kill him, you know. All the stuff he's done, he deserves it." He repeated himself, just to make sure she understood. "It's just a game. And the bad guys are evil. Even if they're people. Especially if they're people. People suck."
She nodded, slowly, her cheek brushing his shoulder. "He said he'd kill you and have you stuffed like Jade. He knew he'd killed her dreamself, and he knew it hurt me to hear that. And he thought it was funny."
"See, he's a creep. And the last point, and this is the important one... are you listening closely?"
"There is an open window right over there." Dave rolled his eyes and gave her a little shove. "You don't have to keep doing this. You're not a prisoner anymore. You can literally leave any time you want to, and go back to your tower on the moon and never have to think about this again."
Rose gave a little laugh that turned into a hiccup. "I know."
"Then why are we still talking about this? We could be partying it up in my dream-room right now."
"Because..." She sighed. "Because I have to be here. No, I suppose it isn't that I have to, it's because I am. I don't think I can go back now. At least, not yet."
"Not yet," he repeated flatly. "Don't tell me you actually like being kidnapped. Stockholm Syndrome, or whatever. Are you and Jack a thing now?"
"Yes Dave, Jack and I are a 'thing'. Well done, spotting that."
"Ha ha. But seriously, what the hell. You have had so many chances to be rescued and I'm getting sick of waiting on you."
She had regained most of her composure by now, but her face was still pale. "It's like you said, I'm not a prisoner anymore. When this whole thing started, I was just angry. I didn't know what I was doing, I just wanted to make Jack suffer for what he'd said and done. But now I have power over him; he trusts me. It's an opportunity we may never have again: to weaken our final boss without a fight. I can't waste that."
"Yeah," said Dave, watching her fiddle with the pen. "But you don't want to."
"It's alright. I was just emotional because... Well, honestly that had been building up for a while." She cracked a small smile. "As these things do, with hysterical dames."
"Oh yeah, of course."
"So I think I should stay. Just a little longer, just for that one opportunity. I'll escape before Jade enters the Medium. That can't be more than a few hours away, anyhow."
But hours for Rose's sleeping body could, and already had, amount to days in the twisted spacetime of Derse. And Dave didn't say it, because looking at her eyes he knew she knew. All he responded with was, "You sure?"
"I'm sure. But... Dave?" Her hands tightened unconsciously on the quill again. "Could you stay on Derse with me? I need you to... um... I need you to get me some... ink. For my pen."
"Ink." In his mind's eye, he could recall at least three brand new inkwells sitting atop her desk.
"Yes. It's vitally important to my Zazzerslash."
"Sure," said Dave, because after a conversation like that it was impossible not to read the undertones of that simple request. I'm scared, and I just need you to come back once in a while and remind me that I'm not alone. "Of course, Lalonde. Dave the wonderdog, at your service, ready to fetch you pointless junk."
"You should go. I think they're sending someone to clean up the desk."
He released her reluctantly and returned to the window, hearing her call out behind him, "Put the grating back on your way out. Jack and I are having regular therapy sessions now, and I'd hate for him to notice."
He leaped down to the narrow, decorative ledge below, and started slotting the grating back into its grooves in the dark violet wall. "How'd you get him to agree to that?"
"Sleep deprivation is a terrible thing, Strider," was all she answered.
A few minutes in a universe left behind. An hour on the planets silently orbiting Skaia. And on Derse, and 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!
"You're rather early today, Jack." Rose commented without looking up as the lock clicked and the door to her office swung open.
She continued doing sums on the form in front of her, making little flourishes with her snow-white feather pen while his footsteps walked around the side of the desk. And some small part of her registered that those footsteps sounded wrong, but she barely had time to blink before a hand seized her shoulder and the Draconian Dignitary's voice hissed into her ear.
"Your first mistake..." He shoved her backward, violently, and her chair toppled over and threw her to the floor. "Was assuming you were smarter than me."
Lying winded on her back, the pen still clutched impulsively in her right hand, Rose attempted to prop herself up on her elbows. Draconian's foot planted itself on her shoulder and pushed her almost casually back to the floor. He was standing over her, his breathing slow and deep and forcibly calm, and she caught a glimpse of Droll hovering further away, watching the scene with narrowed eyes.
"Your second mistake wasn't the plan itself; you executed that brilliantly." It wasn't a compliment, exactly, but it was a kind or respect, as if he suddenly saw her as a threat. "No, your second mistake was letting me find out. You got careless, wanted to show off. Made a rookie mistake." He gazed down at her, his expression flat and stoic. "And that's too bad. I see it now; you could have been something great."
Her heart was pounding, her eyes wide. They'd found out. They knew what she was doing. They knew.
"I could still be great," she managed, casting around in her shock for something to hold on to, anything that would curb his anger and keep her alive. "You could teach me, I could-"
"Yes, you're gonna be something great," the Dignitary told her. He leaned over, seized her by the collar of her archagent uniform, and wrenched her to her feet. "You're gonna be the meat shield between me and Jack."
- - - - - - - - - -
She struggled, oh how she struggled. Gone was the quiet dignity that had carried her this far; Rose kicked and bit and fought and screamed as Draconian dragged her by the hair down the dark, gothic purple vaulted hallways of the palace, one hand scrabbling frantically at the slick tile and finding no purchase, the other clutching Dave's pen so tightly that it threatened to cut into her skin.
"Shut her up," the Dignitary ordered, and the Courtyard Droll's crook smacked painfully into her ribcage, voiding her lungs and making her eyes sting with tears.
She was still gasping for breath when they reached the towering doors of the throne room. Draconian's free arm shoved them aside with a kind of mad purposefulness, and the red carpet stretched out before them, leading into the heart of the cavernous room. She was dragged along the carpet a ways and then yanked roughly to her feet, and with a quiet snap the cold metal of Draconian's switchblade was at her throat again, the very same sensation she'd awoken to in her dream room so long ago.
Rose swallowed, fighting back pained and panicked tears, and raised her eyes to look at the throne. "J-jack..."
In the shadow of the massive throne, Jack Noir sat hunched over, his head in his hand, his tentacles splayed out motionlessly across the carpet. His wings drooped to the floor as if he simply didn't have the strength to support them anymore: broken by exhaustion and hunger and constant paranoia.
He raised his head slowly, shakily, and gazed through her with glazed, unseeing eyes. No longer terrifying, or threatening, or impressive. Just tired.
The way she'd always planned it.
She heard Droll whisper something sympathetic from somewhere behind her. "Oh no, Jack..."
"Jack." Draconian echoed him in a cruel, commanding tone, and perhaps Rose was only imagining the hint of something else in his voice, some softer emotion that she couldn't quite place. "Look at me."
"Don'... tell me what..." Jack slurred, and Draconian snapped the command again.
"No. Look at me."
With some effort the Sovereign Slayer did. "Draconian... what...?
"What the hell."
Lucidity flickered across Jack's face as his eyes snapped abruptly into focus, and then it was flooded almost immediately by rage. He scrambled to his feet and seized the hilt of the gleaming black sword in his chest. Draconain pulled Rose in closer to him, pressing the back of her head against his diamond-hard chest.
"You so much as move, your majesty," Draconian stated icily, his knife taut against Rose's skin, just short of drawing blood, "And your archagent dies."
There was a tense handful of seconds, and then Jack slowly and deliberately let go of the sword. "You goddamn traitor, Draconian. And you call me petty. Let the kid go."
"No. I won't."
"I said let the kid go."
"And I said I won't. I've got something to say, Jack, and until you sit down and shut up and listen, the kid stays right where she is."
"I'm your king!" For moment Jack looked as though he was going to strike Draconian down then and there, Rose or no Rose, but the other Dersite cut him off calmly.
"No. You're my best friend. And you're an idiot."
That should have angered him, but at last Jack's eyes glazed over again and he collapsed heavily onto his throne, his gaze fixed on Rose. "Don't... hurt her. I need her. I need her."
And it surprised her how the sickening guilt writhed in her chest, how much she wanted to call out to him, no you don't, Jack. You don't know what I've done...
"Tell him, Droll," the Dignitary ordered. "Tell him everything you told me, everything you overheard little miss Lalonde say."
Petrified, she couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from Jack as the Courtyard Droll spoke, and his words rushed past her: the plans she'd made with Dave, her manipulative cries for vengeance, the way she'd played them all against each other like the chess pieces they were, delighted like some cartoon villain in tearing him apart... And Jack stared back at her, his gaunt face blank and disbelieving.
At last the Droll grew silent, but the words hung heavy and silent and stifling in the air around the four of them.
Rose winced and closed her eyes, feeling Draconian's sharp fingers tighten dangerously on the hilt of the switchblade at her throat. He'd come to the realization, perhaps, that all the evidence in the world wouldn't make Jack sane enough to spare him, and his shield was no longer a shield.
"Shut up," the Slayer answered in a tired growl, and the feel of cold metal left Rose's skin as he reached forward and jerked Draconian's arm away. "Shut up and let me talk to her."
The air behind her was suddenly vacant, Draconian had reluctantly backed away. Jack's right hand was on her shoulder, and she knew without opening her eyes that his face was inches from her own; she could hear the shallow rhythm of his fatigue-ragged breathing.
"Tell me," he hissed, dangerously, desperately. "Tell me it's not..."
And the thought occurred to her that, as always, she could tell him what he wanted to hear. She was Rose Lalonde, she could think of a hundred different ways to talk herself out of this, and this was Jack, and she hated him, he was trying to kill her friends, he deserved this, all she had to do was open her mouth and say they're lying to you, Jack, of course it's not true, kill them now before they lie to you again...
What am I turning into?
At least he keeps his promises.
She couldn't do it anymore. If not for his sanity, then for her own. It was all she could do to fight back the bitter bile of guilt and shame that rose in her throat, and whisper, "I'm sorry..."
"IT WASN'T HER!"
The shout echoed through the cavernous room, drowning out Rose's whispered apology and reverberating off the dark purple walls. Her eyes flew open and her head whipped around to see Dave Strider standing in the towering, vaulted doorway. He was panting, his fists clenched and his pajamas streaked with sweat, as if in flying here he'd pushed his every faculty to its limit. The Knight glared down the length of the red carpet at the three Dersites through his sunglasses, and with the adrenaline-laced satisfaction that he had their attention, repeated himself.
"It wasn't her. It was me."
He strode into the room, face flat and ironically expressionless, his arms held out from his sides as if taunting them, beckoning them to come after him. "What that little freak overheard us talking about wasn't Rose's plan, it was mine. I was trying to convince her to go through with it; she had nothing to do with any of it. She didn't even want to hear it. If you're looking for somebody to blame, I think you've got the wrong human."
His lips twitched into a faint, smug smile that Rose was sure didn't reach his eyes. "Hey, Jack, 'bout time we met in person. The name's Dave Strider, Knight of Time, leader of the resistance force that's been planning to overthrow you. And... oh yeah. I'm the guy who's been poisoning your food."
The Sovereign Slayer, the Draconian Dignitary, the Courtyard Droll, and the Taciturn Tyrant stared across the room at him, various expressions of dumbfounded surprise on their faces.
Dave proudly flipped them off.
Jack was the first to snap out of it, and he rounded on Draconian with a look of utter menace. "I TOLD YOU TO KILL HIM!!"
"On it," Draconian answered with a short nod, and he dashed across the carpet toward Dave, switchblade in hand. With a shrug and a mocking salute in Rose's direction, the boy leapt into the air and shot off down the hallway beyond, the Dignitary in pursuit.
"Keep her here, I'll deal with her later," Jack muttered, shoving Rose toward Droll, and he too broke into a run and followed them.
For a moment Rose and Droll stood in the empty throne room and looked at each other, not entirely sure of how to react.
"That's... not what I overheard at all," Droll said at last, sounding baffled.
"No, you were right. I was being horribly manipulative."
"I'm going to go see how Dave's faring," she told him conversationally. "Care to stop me?"
Droll blinked at her and reached hurriedly for his crook, but not quite hurriedly enough to stop her from kicking him rather viciously in the shins and darting away.
GG: theyre tearing your house apart and pulling out bricks and stuff!!!
GG: oh my god
GG: OH MY GOD DAVE YOUR HOUSE IS GOING TO
- - - - - - - - - -
The palace of Derse was a maze. Finding the throne room had been challenging enough, but as Dave darted at random through the eerily deserted, labyrinthine hallways, he realized that the real challenge would be finding his way back out. Barred windows and dark doorways flashed past him in a blur. (Where was the window he'd entered from, where was it?) He could break one, pry the grating out of the wall like he'd done in Rose's office, but Draconian's sprinting footsteps pounded against the tile only a few twists and turns behind him. He flew blindly on, knowing the moment he stopped there'd be a knife in his back.
He turned another corner and found himself hovering above a narrow balcony, skirting the length of the dark purple walls and overlooking a wide hallway below, spanned by vaulted ceilings and lined on either side with suits of empty armor standing decoratively at attention.
Dave easily leapt the balustrade and hovered out into empty air, away from the balcony and well out of Draconian's reach. A split second later the Dersite was there, his hands hitting the railing with a clack of chitin, breathing hard and staring at Dave with narrow, annoyed eyes. The Knight gave him a mocking salute.
He was cut off abruptly and violently as Draconian climbed up onto the narrow balcony rail, crouched calculatingly, and launched himself into space. The Dignitary's hand seized Dave's ankle, and the boy's startled cry of "Oh what the f-" was ripped out of his throat by sheer gravity as the Dersite plummeted, taking Dave with him.
The two of them hit the tile of the hallway below, and hit it hard. Draconian's switchblade went flying and landed on its blade with the tiny sound of metal snapping in two. Dazed, winded, and now both weaponless, they scrambled away from one another.
As Dave got shakily to his feet, he heard the grinding of metal behind him, and turned just in time to see Draconian wrench an ornamental iron morningstar from the grip of the nearest suit of armor. The vicious, spiked weapon came hurtling forward as with a grunt Draconian swung it at Dave's chest, and the boy jumped backward just in time to avoid being crushed and impaled. Another swing, and the morningstar came down with a smash at his feet, sending chips of stone flying as it buried itself in the tile.
Dave leapt over Draconian's head and flew for the far end of the hallway, hearing the grating crack as the Dersite jerked the heavy weapon free. His fists hit the purple stone of the distant wall, but there were no doors, no windows through which to escape. A dead end.
He turned around, his back pressed up against the wall. Breathing hard, his eyes flickered across the massive hallway, the suits of armor, the narrow balcony lining the walls above, where black pawns were beginning to gather in sparse, tentative groups to watch the battle. The tall Dersite in the well-pressed suit, stalking toward him, stepping carelessly over the broken blade of his knife as his grip tightened on the bludgeoning weapon in his hands.
"Nowhere left to fly, kid," Draconian stated coldly.
(switchblade in my back and blood on my hands, the Dignitary just killed me and I have to get rid of the body before Jade sees oh god oh god oh god)
Dave took a deep breath.
"Alright then. Yeah, fine, I was sick of running away anyways."
He dived out of the way just as Draconian's morningstar flew forward and smashed into the stone behind him, and went immediately for one of the suits of armor, coming away with some spiked, club-like medieval weapon whose name he didn't know. "Duels to the death I can do."
- - - - - - - - - -
Rose reached the balcony just a few steps behind the Soverign Slayer, and as she pushed past his wings to lean over the railing and get a clear look at the wide hallway below, he reached out a hand and almost absent-mindedly seized her collar to hold her still.
The ring of metal on metal echoed off the walls; the Knight and the Dignitary locked in battle, wielding massive bludgeoning weapons whose weight could shatter stone. For a split second she wondered why Dave was neither flying nor flash-stepping, before realizing that with something that heavy in his hands, he probably couldn't.
Beside her, Jack's ragged wings began to rise.
"Jack, wait!" she shouted, reaching up to seize the hand at her collar as if the slight strength of a thirteen-year-old girl had even a remote chance of holding him back. His ring gave off a few red sparks beneath her fingers, and she yelped with pain but did not let go.
"Gonna kill him," Jack muttered through gritted teeth, fingers tightening on her uniform and prickling against her skin.
Rose tightened her vicegrip, her voice becoming a desperate hiss. "No! Wouldn't... wouldn't it be better to let Draconian do it?" She winced as the crack of breaking tile sounded from below. "Let them battle it out, and then the winner will be tired and wounded. You could do whatever you wanted, then, it would be easy."
He paused, tense, his glazed eyes following the battle below, and Rose held her breath. "Yeah," Jack breathed at last. "Yeah. Let them kill each other. And then I'll kill you."
With a small, wide-eyed nod, Rose let go of his hand, looking down at the angry red burn marks his ring had left on her palm. She pressed her hands together, feeling the filaments of the white feather pen Dave had brought her eons ago brush against the raw skin. She'd forgotten she was holding it, but now it seemed to buzz faintly, like the tiniest of electrical currents.
"Jus' wanna protect the boy," Jack slurred softly. "Never on our side, were you. Shoulda known. Shoulda known you'd stick with them."
"They're my friends, Jack. I'll always side with them." The current between her hands was growing stronger, the quill pen pulsing with some growing energy the Seer in her recognized as magic. Rose's eyes flickered up to the Sovereign Slayer for a moment, but his attention was elsewhere, watching the battle below.
Slowly, she opened her hands, and a hazy green glow poured out from between her fingers.
- - - - - - - - - -
Through the twisting streets of Derse ran Bishop and Pariah, swords in their hands, the painted pawn screaming bloody murder as carapaces around them scattered.
"People of Derse, this is the revolution!!! For blood, for freedom, for the rightful ruler on the goddamn throne! FOR PROSPIT, YOU PSYCHOTIC BASTARD!!!"
They ran, the towers of the palace growing ever closer and looming above them, Pariah sprinting in righteous fury as she followed the path flown by Dave moments before, and Bishop chasing, calling out for her to stop. "We won't get there in time, squawk! If the princess's original body has been killed, then her dreamself has minutes to live, at most. She is a lost cause, Pariah!"
"Then we fight for the prince!" Pariah countered furiously, before continuing her wild cries. "People of Derse! This is the revolution!!"
"Pariah, this is suicide!"
"This is vengeance!" she panted, a grin spreading across her face. "Noir's weak; we can strike at the palace now and take over! Gather an army, storm the main gate-"
"They won't join us!"
Pariah jerked to a halt at last, and the massive form of Bishop, breathing hard, stumbled up beside her.
"What kind of a stupid thing is that to say?" she asked, rounding on him. "We've always said when the time was right they'd join us! We're an army of two now, but when we reach the palace we'll be an army of two thousand! Everyone's furious at what he did to the king and queen, they'll join us!"
Bishop's clawlike hands gripped her shoulders, and he peered down his beak at her beseechingly, trying to make her understand. "No, they will not. Squawk. That's what you've always said, but look at them, Pariah. Look at them, White Pawn. Are they joining us?"
The Warpainted Pariah turned her head slowly, gazing behind them both at the clusters of Dersites watching her out of windows and sidestreets, having scattered when she raced through their midst screaming and wielding a sword.
"They are frightened," Bishop continued softly. "Of Noir, of everything that has happened. Squawk. They were not built for the battlefield like the two of us. It is so much easier for them to keep their heads down and let bad things occur, without trying to change them."
The pawn gave him a look of mingled anger and disbelief.
"I'm sorry, Pariah."
She pushed away angrily. "People of Derse!"
Bishop gave a heavy sigh as Pariah strode into the center of the street and raised her black, Derse-crafted blade above her head. "People of Derse! Now is the time to strike! Noir has been weakened by the valiant sacrifice of tentacleTherapist, the Princess of the Moon! Are we gonna let her death be in vain?!"
All around her, the black pawns began to shift and whisper.
"NO! We're going to FIGHT! We're gonna take the palace back from Noir! We're gonna avenge the monarchs of Derse! And we're gonna put his majesty turntechGodhead on the throne where he belongs!!!" She waved her sword wildly. "Who's with me?! Regency! Virtue! Destiny! Patriotism! Royalty!"
She stood, sword above her head, a slightly manic grin on her face, breathing heavily and looking around at them all with hopeful eyes. "Who's with me?"
There was silence.
Then one pawn moved, and another, and one by one they shrank back and shuffled quietly away. Pariah was left standing like a statue in an empty street.
At last, she slowly lowered her arms. Bishop gave her a tentative pat on the shoulder.
"Cowards," she murmured.
"Do not take it so hard. They are simply not ready."
"DAMN COWARDS!" The warpainted pawn threw her sword to the ground, sending clanging echoes through the Escherlike streets. "After everything he did, you're not even gonna fight?! Cowards! Traitors!!"
Bishop's cloak rustled stiffly as the massive chessman wrapped his wings gently around her, and Pariah struggled and screamed angrily while he held her still.
"You're all on his side! If you're not one of us you're one of them!! COWARDS!!"
"Pariah," the Traitorous Bishop said calmly, heedless of her flailing.
"He killed them all! The battlefield, all the soldiers on your side... on my side... Prospit..."
"Oh god, Prospit..."
"I know. Squawk. I know."
She folded into him at last, throwing her arms around his massive frame and smearing his robes with the shale oil used to disguise her pearly skin. "...oh god, Prospit..."
For a long while they merely stood, huddled together, their arms wrapped around each other.
"I miss the days when we were still on the battlefield, trying to kill each other," Pariah whispered into Bishop's cloak.
"Life was simpler then."
"He's going to die, isn't he?"
"Dave?" the Traitorous Bishop asked, for once not bothering to use the honorific Pariah so religiously abided by. "Maybe, if he rushes in to fight Noir. But it will only be his dreamself, and we have done all we can to assist him."
"We were doing so well. We had the Prince on our side, we were slipping poisons into the palace... I thought we really had a chance."
"We do. Squawk. But not now. There will be a more opportune time."
Side-by-side, they wandered off into the distorted streets.
After a time, a scattering of pawns - nervous, hesitant, but at the same time morbidly fascinated - began to step out of the shadows and silently follow.
- - - - - - - - - -
The quill pen - the Tectricx of the Arbiter, she remembered now - was throbbing with light, bright and green and strong, and the magic of it filled Rose's veins with fire and made her hair stand on end.
Below her, Dave was slowing. His breath was coming in panting gasps, his feet hovering barely and inch off the ground as his exhausted arms tried once again to lift the heavy weapon not meant for his Strife Specibus. Draconian's morningstar came caroming at him again and again, and although Dave managed to dodge each fatal blow, it caught him in the shoulders, the arms, leaving cuts and bruises and long tears in his bloodstained pajamas.
Come on, Strider, Rose thought, while the Tectrix filled her with light. Dave was a brilliant fighter, but he needed a sword, a weapon familiar to his hands. Come on Strider, don't give up now, don't get killed because of me...
It was the Courtyard Droll's voice. He was running up to join them at the edge of the balcony, having just caught up after Rose's debilitating kick, and he waved his arms excitedly through the air. "Jack she got away and I tried to stop her but then she kicked my leg and it really hurt, but then I went to look for you and oh nevermind I guess you caught her."
Jack's head turned to glare at the Droll, and in that split second, acting entirely on instinct and with adrenaline and magic coursing through her body, Rose raised the pen in the air and stabbed Jack's hand.
He gave a shout, more of surprise than pain, and Rose tore free from his grip and dived off the balcony. She hit the tile below almost weightlessly, rolled, and came up in a crouch, brandishing the pen as if it were one of her needlewands. "Excuse me, Draconian, but I think we have a score to settle."
The Draconian Dignitary wasn't stupid enough to turn his back on Dave. That was a mistake. Rose leaped forward and bowled into his back, knocking him down and wedging the sharp end of her quill into the joint in his chitin where neck met shoulders. She pulled it out with an almost cartoonish spray of blood which speckled her black uniform with red.
She skipped backwards as Draconian staggered upright, and stood in a ready position, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
She'd hit a vein. Blood was flowing freely down the back of the Dignitary's uniform, and he swayed for a moment and clapped a hand to the back of his neck.
Somewhere behind and above her, Rose could hear Jack's wings begin to rise again, finally reacting to her mad escape. But he didn't take off, not yet, and she wondered suddenly if he was going to take her advice: let them kill each other and pick off the victor himself.
"You... That..." Draconian mouthed, and for the first time since she'd met him his tone faltered; lost its robotic steadiness.
Across the room, Dave held his club at the ready and gave Rose a wordless nod. The two of them circled Draconian, weapons in hand.
"That. Was. My. Best. Suit!!"
The Dersite's head snapped up, eyes suddenly livid, and he whipped around and brought his weapon down with a slam on Rose's chest. She hit the ground, gasping for breath and with stars dancing in her vision, and somewhere distantly she could hear Dave shouting her name, punctuated by the renewed cracks of iron on stone.
"Rose! Oh my god Rose, get up! ROSE!"
She rolled over at last, curling herself into a ball and coughing, feeling as though her lungs had been crushed.
There was something heavy in her right hand. The pen? No... her vision focused, and she could see it just in front of her face, clasped in fingers shaky with pain. Bone-white metal, polished and smooth and carved with the flourishing words "Tectrix of the Arbiter."
"RO-" She winced as he was cut off by the sound of Draconian's morningstar barely missing him yet again. "ROSE! Rose, get up, don't be dead! ROSE!!!"
"Strider!" Rose scrambled to her feet, drew her arm back, and flung the Tectrix of the Arbiter as hard as she could. "Catch!" Dave dropped his club and caught it: Bishop and Pariah's gift, the last gleaming white Regisword of Prospit.
The Knight held it in his hands with all the smooth confidence of a swordmaster, and Draconian took a step back, his wrath remitted by sudden caution.
"Oh hell yes," said Dave.
His eyes traveled upward, past Rose, to the balcony on which Jack stood above.
"Oh hell no."
A horrible, static crackling filled the air, and Rose stumbled out of the way just as a twisting beam of red fire struck the floor where she'd been a moment before. Jack was standing on the balcony, wings raised, hand flung skyward, his ring aflame as arcs of power lanced their way across the massive room below. The pawns who had gathered along the edges of the balcony fled with screams, some getting caught in the blaze and torn apart where they stood.
"Goddammit Jack," Draconian was shouting, and in the confusion Rose took the opportunity to dart through the rain of deadly light to the place where Dave stood, and wrap her fingers around his free hand. Red lightning surrounded them.
"Let's go. I don't think he can aim it all that accurately, but it'll give us a cover."
Hand in hand, the two of them raced across the hallway and took flight, dodging the Slayer's uncontrolled arcs of power - less controlled now than ever, after how badly she'd broken him. They found a door at the far end of the hall and fled, flying blindly through winding corridors and sweeping staircases until they were too lost to find their way back.
At last Dave stopped and sank to the ground, and his knees buckled beneath him, leaving Rose to support his weight.
"Wait... wait up a minute, Lalonde. Just fought like hell to save you, gimme a... gimme a minute to breathe here."
She nodded breathlessly, and the two of them crouched, huddled up against the wall in some dark side-corridor, listening to the distant sounds of Jack's lightning seeking them out. Dave coughed and dropped the Tectrix to clutch at his chest with one hand. "Ugh..."
"Are you-" Rose paused, and stared down at Dave's chest. "Dave, you're bleeding!"
Dave too looked down, his expression unreadable behind his shades, his skin unusually ashen. The two of them stared as, out of nowhere, blood began spreading rapidly across Dave's chest.
"He didn't hit me," Dave said blankly. "Not there, not that hard. He didn't- oh god-" He coughed again, doubling over and bringing up flecks of blood. "He never hit me there!"
Rose's eyes widened. "Dave. Where's your other body right now?"
"Oh damn me."
- - - - - - - - - -
In the smoldering skies of LoHaC, a copper Giclopse tore one last handful of bricks from Dave's battered tower of a house, and the entire miles-high structure shuddered, swayed, and came crashing down.
The Land of Heat and Clockwork was, for the first time in hours, strangely silent, save for the distant rumble of machinery and the low hiss of lava engulfing brick. Imps, ogres, and other beasts had long since scattered, wandering off aimlessly to other places after realizing they had nothing left to attack, and the island of rubble sinking slowly into the volcanic mire was left barren.
After a while, a glowing orange hand clawed its way forth from the top of the heap and shoved aside a twisted support beam, and Davesprite crawled jerkily out from beneath the detritus and collapsed atop the pile. He was breathing hard, trails of something that looked like molten apple juice dripping from his feathers and speckling the crumbling brick beneath him. Heat from the ocean of lava all around him made the air shimmer disorientingly in front of his eyes.
GgG; dÀv% ar@y ou )))kay/?
Davesprite blinked slowly and tried focusing on the chat window that had popped up in his iShades. Jade's text was flickering and glitched, and a moment later he realized that one of the panes of his shades had been splintered.
The sprite rolled over onto his stomach and made an effort to push himself upright. His arms wobbled a bit, that glowing yellow something making trails across his skin, but a moment later he'd fluttered his wings and was floating again. Beneath him, the pile of brick that had once been Dave's house sank another inch or two into the lava.
He took off his glasses and, with with only the faintest bit of regret, (even with all the alchemization his shades had been through, they were still, in his mind, a present from His John) used a thumb to punch out the offending lens. On the other screen, Jade's words snapped back into coherency.
TG: alright better
TG: so whats going on
GG: oh my gosh dave you're bleeding a ton!!
TG: sprite powers
TG: think ill live
GG: are you sure?
TG: ton of bricks cant stop the strider
TG: im like a human bomb shelter squatting there all cheeky and concrete
TG: whole world comes crashing down around me in the unholy nuclear apocalypse and im all bitch im lined with lead
TG: screaming women and children huddling up inside my feathery nurturing bosom
GG: dave stop doing metaphors!!
GG: we've got to find dave!
GG: other dave!
GG: well who cares what we're calling him because we have to find him!!
It was only then that the realization hit him, the thought that somebody in his apartment did not have sprite powers, was not build to withstand the weight of a million cascading bricks.
Davesprite's heart sank.
GG: we have to get him out from under all this stuff!
GG: he's gotta be here somewhere! help me dig!
Her cursor whizzed past him and began picking up bricks, throwing them at random into the lava. Below, the deadly ocean consumed another increment of debris.
TG: im sorry
TG: i dont think
GG: SHUT UP AND HELP ME DIG!!!!!
A steel girder flew past Davesprite's head, and with a small, uncomfortable gulp that left his throat feeling strangely tight, the sprite nodded and sank to the ground, reaching out with bleeding hands to start pulling bricks away. In silence they worked, sprite and cursor side-by-side, while LoHaC slowly engulfed the remains of Dave's apartment in heat and light and molten stone.
At last Davesprite reached down to pull a piece of concrete aside, and his fingers came back smeared with red.
He swallowed again, painfully.
TG: ok jade
TG: i need you to do something for me
GG: did you find him?
GG: is he ok dave??? he's not hurt really bad is he? i can't see from here!
TG: yeah i found him
GG: what do you need me to do?
TG: i need you to minimize your sburb window
TG: dont ask that
TG: just swear to me youll do it
TG: swear to me you wont look
GG: oh no...
TG: you have to swear jade
TG: minimize the window and dont you dare look you have to fucking swear
GG: i swear
TG: alright then
TG: im gonna dig him out
- - - - - - - - - -
One moment the Draconian Dignitary was swaying on the spot, clutching a morningstar in one blood-slick hand and shouting up at Jack to shut off the goddamn lightning, and the next he found himself sitting dizzily on the tile, vision wavering and and vaguely aware of a heavy pressure against the back of his neck. The crackling red light had died away at last, leaving the room barren and scarred with long burn marks and bits of rubble, and the balcony upon which the Sovereign Slayer had stood moments before was now empty. Draconian gazed up at it with unfocused eyes.
"Draconian?" said a squeaky voice just behind the Dignitary's head.
The pressure at his neck turned out to be the Courtyard Droll, pressing a garish, wadded-up hat to the rapidly bleeding wound left by Rose's pen. The little Dersite leaned forward and his face swam into view, looking wide-eyed and worried. "You okay?"
What a fantastically stupid question, said something at the back of Draconian's mind, vindictive and dizzy with blood loss, but aloud he only muttered, "Fine, Droll. I'm fine."
"Wow, you're really bleeding a lot! The back of your suit's all-"
"Don't." Draconain muttered, cutting him off. "Don't describe the suit. I'd rather not know."
"...Okay, Draconain." Droll shifted his grip on the hat a bit nervously. "I think it's okay though, I bet if we washed it with... oh geeze, bleach, or that stuff that smells like lemons! Or baking soda! We'd need a LOT of baking soda..."
The Dignitary gave a quiet hiss of wounded pride and ran his finger and thumb across his temples while Droll rambled on. "Droll. Droll, what happened? Where's Jack?"
"I think he went after those kids. Rose and the other one. When you were bleeding a bunch and it looked like you were going to lose the fight, he just went crazy! He put his fist in the air and made his ring do that thing with the red light and then the kids ran away and he flew after them." His voice dropped a bit of its forced cheeriness. "He was really scared for you, Draconian."
"Of course he was," said Draconain flatly.
"No, really! He got this look on his face when he saw you get stabbed. It was just for a second, but I saw it. He looked..." Droll seemed to be searching hard for the right words. "His face looked like my whole body felt, when I saw Hegemonic dead."
The tall Dersite was silent for a while, simply sitting and allowing that to sink in.
"He was scared for you," Droll repeated earnestly, pressing the hat almost painfully into Draconian's injured neck, "'cause you're his crew and we look out for each other. I told you he was still Jack."
"I know he is." The words left his mouth automatically, but the Dignitary was strangely relieved at how much he believed them.
"Draconain," Droll said squeakily, and the Dignitary winced as the hat shifted painfully again.
"Droll just- ah! -just let me do that." He reached back and wrestled the bloodstained wad of cloth out of Droll's fingers. It was soaked with dark red, which made Draconain cringe inwardly at the thought of what his most expensive suit must look like at this point. He reapplied it to the injury with steady, calculated pressure. Droll, hands now freed, scrambled over and sat beside him on the tile, watching him a bit anxiously.
"Draconian... I'm really sorry."
"Well. We can try the baking soda."
"Not about your suit! I'm sorry for... this whole stupid idea I had. I have stupid ideas all the time, but this one was really REALLY dumb and now you got stabbed and Jack might be messed up for good, and it's all because of me." The Courtyard Droll glanced away miserably at the scorched sweep of tile in front of him. "Bringing Rose here so she could ruin everything."
"You're right. That was stupid."
Droll gave a little keening, resigned noise, as if he'd gotten the answer he expected. "I took my hat off."
Draconain gave him a blank look.
"You said," Droll stated quietly, and (oh god, was he actually crying?) wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, "That if this landed us in a convoluted mess of fiery death, that was on my head. So I took my hat off. Now it'll fit."
The statement was so very baffling, and so very, very like the Courtyard Droll. After a moment of nonplussed silence, the Dignitary reached out stiffly with his free hand and gave Droll a half-hearted pat on the shoulder.
"It's a figure of speech, Droll. We're not actually putting anything on your head."
"And to be fair, it was stupid of me not to shoot that idea down the moment you said it. And stupid of Jack to let a little girl turn him into a nervous wreck. We've all been stupid."
"Oh. Okay." That seemed to be enough for the Droll. He wiped his eyes one last time and looked up at Draconian with a small attempt at a smile. "How's your neck?"
Draconian cautiously let up on the hat a bit, but the bleeding seemed to be slowing, and while light-headed he was far from any danger of dying due to blood loss. Dersites were tough. "It'll heal." After a few false starts he managed to stand, hat still pressed to the wound, and looked around the room. "We should go find Jack; I don't trust him alone with that girl, even if he's trying to kill her."
Droll nodded seriously and pointed to a doorway at the end of the massive hall. "They went that way." Draconian swayed slightly, and he added, "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, Droll."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"You didn't even look!"
"You've only got three."
- - - - - - - - - -
A frantic scramble through an endless maze of identical purple corridors. Breathing hard, Dave's weight on her shoulder, getting heavier and heavier as his eyes drooped and his flight failed him. Drops of blood hitting the floor, leaving a sparse, spattered trail behind them.
A familiar hallway, a door, a room. A clicking lock, a scrape of furniture as a tall velvet armchair was pushed up against the door, and Rose at last collapsed into the displaced chair and buried her head in her arms.
It was her old prison. Save for the armchair she'd used to barricade the door, the room was as she left it: the unreadable books in their shelves along the wall, the single high window crossed with bars. The door that locked from the inside as well as the out. It wouldn't stop Jack for a second, not with that ring that could tear through steel and stone, but it seemed right to lock it. Something about it gave her permission to stop and breathe.
Dave had splayed himself out in the other armchair, gangly arms and legs sprawled at careless angles, and he was gritting his teeth and attempting to peel off his bloody shirt. "Shiiiiiit."
"It might not be wise to do that. We don't know how bad the injury is," Rose advised quickly, trying her hardest to keep her voice authoritative and steady.
"'Bout to find out, aren't we?" Dave countered savagely, and lifted the front of his shirt up to bare his chest.
Both dreamers, simultaneously, hissed in shock.
"...Yeah," said Dave, when he'd found his voice again, looking suddenly horribly pale. "Yeah, you're right. Let's leave the shirt on."
He lowered it slowly into place, while Rose kept her hands clapped firmly to her mouth, to keep from asking something panicky and unhelpful like how are you still alive? Instead, she dropped them shakily and managed, "It must be a game mechanic. Our real bodies aren't harmed when our dreamselves are injured, but perhaps the same can't be said for... for... Dave, where on earth did you fall asleep?"
"Oh, I just thought I'd conk out any old place, so I picked a spot under the sign saying helpless hero, kill at your leisure. I'm at home in my bed, Lalonde, under the watchful orange eyes of what is apparently the worst guardian angel ever spawned by a coolkid and a bird. Shit shit shit. Shit." He devolved into shuddering coughing for a moment, and Rose looked on with carefully masked horror, feeling more helpless than she ever had in her life.
"What are we going to do?" she asked, in what she hadn't intended to sound so much like a whisper.
Dave just shook his head. They sat across from each other in their chairs, two icy stoics who'd never bothered to learn how to reach over and hug each other and cry like the children they were.
"Guess I just thought once I bailed you out, we'd find an open window and fly for it," Dave admitted. "Spectacular Strider plan A, B, C, and D, right there." He leaned his head back against the dark velvet. "If I had my time turners I could get us out, but I can't even dream-logic them up out of thin air. Doesn't want to work for actual important stuff."
"If I had my needlewands, I could blow a hole through this palace and fly us both out easily."
"Life's full of missed opportunities." Dave coughed painfully. "Heh, yeah, actually, Plan A could work. If you go for it now they'll never catch you. They'll just follow my blood, right? And that'll buy you enough time to get out and hide in the city somewhere."
"That idea is absolutely ridiculous!" Rose snapped.
"It's perfect. Knight in shining armor sacrifices his valiant ass for the Princess of the Moon. Egbert would eat this up."
"No one is sacrificing themselves, Strider!"
"He'd probably tear up and everything. Oh maaaan Dave, this is just like what Nic Cage did in shitty-ass movie number fifty seven, with the terrorists or the aliens or some-"
"Dave!" Rose stood up abruptly and slammed the palms of her hands into the arms of his chair. He looked up at her through his shades, expression as blank and unreadable as always, but this time it was on a face white as chalk and slightly tense with pain. "That type of language is woefully defeatist, and we will exhaust our other options before it comes to placating anyone with your bleeding torso."
"Was Nic Cage even in fifty seven movies?" Dave said distantly.
"Focus, if you please."
"They all run together after a while. Like, make enough terrible movies and they all start to look like the same movie. I never even saw Con Air. Sounds like a brand of hairdryer." Dave was staring past her now, speaking without really addressing anyone. "Don't tell Jade, okay? Wanna look like a good housekeeper, don't leave all my dead Daves lying around for little miss voyeur to trip over. Falling down all these dead Daves, haha."
A strange fear came over Rose, and she reached out hesitantly to take the Knight by the shoulders. "Dave..."
"Don't tell her. Don't let her see, you can't let her see me lying there with blood all over, she won't get it, she'll freak. Gotta clean it up before she sees."
"Dave!" She shook him, and was rewarded by a gasp of pain and a string of curses.
"Jesus girl, don't shake the package! What do I have to do, slap a Handle With Care sticker on here?"
"Stay with me," Rose implored, staring into his face.
"...Right. Yeah. Can do."
Against her more rational judgement, she climbed into the armchair and huddled up beside him, careful not to jostle his injured chest. Hesitantly, she placed an arm around his shoulders, the way she remember him doing not so long ago. "Dave, I'm going to go fetch my needlewands."
"Sounds good. And I'll go fetch ten thousand dollars and the space shuttle Atlantis, that sounds just about as doable."
"They're with my other body," she explained, ignoring his sarcasm. "If I wake up, fight off the imps guarding me and fly to Derse, maybe I can get us out. Fight Jack, or cause enough chaos to distract him." It sounded like a foolish, unrealistic plan even to her, but it was better than nothing, and Dave seemed to realize that as well. With Dave's real body injured or possibly dead, it was no longer just their dreamselves at stake.
"Go for it," said Dave. "At least if he gets here first and kills us, you won't be here to feel it."
"Defeatist language, Strider," Rose scolded, leaning into him and closing her eyes. "Be here when I get back. I'll be horribly disappointed in you otherwise."
"I wouldn't dream of disappointing you."
Uneasily, she allowed herself to sleep. She felt for the body with the scrape on its face, the one she'd left lying in the sand. And she awoke.
- - - - - - - - - -
There was an i-beam punching straight through Dave's chest. Davesprite stared down at it glassily, his body lying there in the rubble, and in his mind's eye a heath vital hovered just above Dave's head, the last few seconds of his life draining away as the meter rapidly depleted. A resurrection kiss wouldn't work, not from him, not in this timeline where he wasn't the Prince of the Moon. He dived into the debris and began trying to hoist his dying body off the girder.
TG: ok heres how this is gonna work
TG: long story short its bad
TG: like stepped on a landmine bad and i know youve eaten in the last twenty four hours so really dont look
TG: but im a sprite
TG: and that means i have sburbs official permission to abuse my powers to their fullest and fill the health vial of whoever the hell i want
TG: problem is i dont know if just filling his health vial is actually gonna work
TG: since you know landmine and all
It had to work, because this was Alpha Dave and Alpha Dave was important. One of the people he was supposed to be protecting, with a future and a purpose and a best friend he could talk to without turning it into a fight. The timeline needed an Alpha Dave.
The timeline needed a Dave.
I'm a Dave.
He could let the meter run out. He could do nothing, and be the Alpha Dave again, John's Dave, the "our" Dave, the only Dave, if he just let the meter run out. Say he'd tried, and he'd failed, and he'd done all he could, and Jade would never know.
GG: i know you can do it dave!
GG: you said you wouldn't let anything bad happen and i believe in you!!
"Aw hell," said Davesprite, and he pulled his Alpha self free of the last few inches of metal and focused his healing powers as hard as he could.
Rose's eyes remained closed. Body still, breathing deeply as if she was still asleep, the girl listened to the distant sounds of LoLaR: the patter of rain and the wash of waves on white sand. There was movement nearby. One of the imps guarding her she assumed, and as still and quietly as she could, her fingers twitched and plucked the Thorns of Oglogoth from her sylladex.
One blast of magic should do the trick. A quick, low sweep to sever their heads, and she'd be free. Fists clenching, Rose took one last deep breath and jolted upright.
The crisply laundered sheets of her bed caught her arms on the way up, throwing off her aim, and a crackling sliver of fiery violet magic shot out from the tips of her wands in a crooked crescent. In a split second it had obliterated her totem lathe, slashed through her writing desk, and spiraled outward towards the bewildered form of John Egbert standing in her doorway, holding a silvery package of untoasted poptarts. With a sudden rush of wind that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, he jumped it, and the magic passed harmlessly under him and dissipated.
John landed, overbalanced, and wound up sitting down hard on the carpet just inside. "Haha, wow. That could have sucked!"
Rose recapatchalouged her wands and quickly disentangled herself from her cocoon of bedding. "Oh dear, John, I'm so sorry!"
He grinned at her and took her proffered hand, and she pulled him to his feet. "Yeah Rose, what's the deal? I'm kind of still planning on using these legs, don't try to chop them off like that. Dick move."
She opened her mouth for some scathing comeback, and was cut off as she found herself suddenly wrapped in John. Never before had a hug smelled so strongly of petroleum and stale birthday cake.
"This is one of those platonic, no psychoanalyzing allowed kind of hugs," he informed her, the frame of his glasses pressing awkwardly against the side of her face for a moment as he squeezed her warmly and pulled away again. "It's just really really good to see you awake right now, Rose."
A small smile flickered across her face. "Alright. No psychoanalyzing that one."
With a proud flourish, John bestowed upon her the packet of poptarts he'd been holding. "So, breakfast! My dad says it's the most important meal of the day, and you've been asleep for a while, so, y'know." His grin slipped a bit. "I was actually just coming to wake you up. We're waaaay out of time over here."
She nodded, and absentmindedly pulled open the silver wrapper. Apple Streudel, a flavor which she hated, but which her mother purchased because plain strawberry was far from good enough for her little Rose. She bit into a poptart, and for this one odd moment, it was delicious. "On my end as well. I assume you retrieved me from the imps that were guarding me earlier?"
"Yeah, I Rambo'd their asses."
"Rambo isn't a verb, John."
"Wait, yeah, Rambo doesn't even use a hammer."
Rose rolled her eyes. "I'd ask what's been going on, but I really don't have time. I need to get to Derse before Jack Noir finds and slaughters me." In this body at least she had game experience and powerful weapons, she could defend their dreamselves and give them a chance to escape. "Dave's..." Rose paused. "...Have you heard from Dave lately?"
John shrugged and fell into step beside her as she began walking swiftly through the house. "Davesprite and I had this fight, and we made up and all but I've kind of been avoiding him. Is Dave okay?"
"John, I think he's dead."
She met his suddenly wide eyes and quickly added, "I don't know for sure! But his dreamself is injured, so I suspect something drastic has happened to his real body. I don't have time to call in and check. As I said, I need to get to Derse now. If a dreamself is all he has left, I'm going to protect it."
"That seems like an appropriate reaction."
They started down the stairs into the main foyer of the Lalonde household, footsteps and voices muffled by expensive rugs and modern white furniture. "I'll get Davesprite on Pesterchum," said John, taking the stairs two at a time to keep up with Rose's hurried strides. "Man, that stupid fight! If I hadn't been an idiot and made him mad while you guys were in danger, I'd know about this already!" He activated his iGlasses, and Rose saw a series of questions begin scrolling across the screen in blue. She finished the last bite of her poptart and stepped through the front door, uncapatcholouging her wands again as the sand crunched against her feet.
"John, I'm leaving now."
"Wait!" He looked up from his conversation and grabbed her sleeve. "We don't have time!"
"I know, but if I don't try-"
"No, I mean we REALLY don't have time," John said in a rush. "Do you know how long it takes to get to Derse?" Rose shook her head, and John continued, "I've only been out as far as the Veil, and it took me like half an hour to get back from there on the fastest rocketboard alchemy can buy. And that's the halfway point, so I figure it's about an hour, tops?"
Rose frowned slightly, as her mind did the mathematics and she realized that days could have passed on Derse by the time she arrived.
"Plus you're just using magic, which has gotta be way slower than actual rockets, and Jade's timer has five minutes."
Rose shrugged his hand off, slightly angered by the stupid futility of it all. "Why should that matter?"
"Because in five minutes either Jack gets prototyped again, or Jade dies! That's why I was gonna wake you up just now. To warn you that he was about to get a lot more powerful. And none of us can go with you to help fight him, 'cause I've got to get Jade into the Medium and Dave's... down for the count, I guess." He bit his lip. "'And, uh... remember Bec?"
"Oh John, you didn't."
"I didn't have to! He just jumped in by himself! Whoa, hold on." A line of orange had flashed across his glasses, and John immediately turned his attention to it.
"Really, John, Bec?"
"Yeah, I know, I messed up, lemme just hear from Davesprite, okay?"
"Apparently a house fell on Dave," John announced rather loudly. When it looked as though Rose's cold look wasn't going to stop boring into him any time soon he added, a little apologetically. "And Davesprite says hi. And then he cussed you out for getting kidnapped."
"Do return the sentiment," Rose said icily. "How's our Dave?" For all her insistence that she was in a hurry, she really did desperately want to know.
"Don't call him that, Rose, it hurts orange Dave's feelings."
"Right, well, he's not dead yet." There was an hopeful tone about that "yet" that released some of the tightness in Rose's chest. "Davesprite's doing his sprite healing thing, but..." Another line of text, and he added, "He says we gotta keep Dave's dreamself alive. If this doesn't work that's pretty much his extra life."
"I suspected." She gave John a hopeless look. "If I had the skill to use Dave's time equipment safely, or some method of warping through space... But I suppose I just have to leave now, hope I get there before anyone finds where Dave and I are hiding, and plan on fighting a fully prototyped Jack?"
Surprisingly, John's face lit up at that. "No way! I think I know what to do." He grabbed her sleeve again, and Rose had a split second to wonder if John even understood the concept of personal space before she was being dragged through the house again, up the stairs and down the hall toward the observatory and the door to the roof.
"Just because you don't have time to fly there with magic doesn't mean we can't get you there in time! I know a transporti-thingy near here that goes straight to the Veil. And from there we just need to get all the fastest stuff we can think of and alchemize you something awesome."
"John Egbert, let go of my sleeve. I sincerely doubt that randomly alchemizing 'fast' objects together, with no time to experiment and no margin for error, will give us anything remotely close to-"
"We're the good guys, Rose. It has to!"
Posed over Rose's alchemiter like the most theatrical of mad scientists, John fired up the machine. Rose at last gave a resigned sigh. "Alright, fearless leader, we've got less than five minutes. Let's alchemize."
- - - - - - - - - -
One of the children was bleeding.
Jack Noir followed the trail as if in a fog, the edges of the world shifting dizzily around him, his eyes fixed on those spattered drops of red spotting the tile. Probably the boy. Hope it's the girl.
He swayed, tried to catch himself with a phantom limb, and his shoulder struck the wall heavily. Damn it. Damn her. Damn everything. Pretty women with their sickly sweet words and their promises they never kept. Should have killed her when Draconian brought her in, cut out that sharp tongue, blinded those level, judging eyes, wrapped his fingers around the coal-black chitin of her neck until it cracked, wait, no, damn it.
Jack pushed himself upright again with his other arm, rubbed the heel of his hand against his aching eyes, and kept walking.
The sparse drops of blood were turning into streaks, smears, clear footprints winding away into the corridors of the palace. The Sovereign Slayer walked dazedly past a pawn trying to scrub it up, and idly severed its arms with his sword.
Should have known she'd turn on him. They'd all been plotting against him, the whole kingdom, ever since he killed their queen. They could have their traitor's reward.
The trail ended at the door to Rose's old cell. Stupid girl, he thought, and tried the handle only to find that it was locked. She gets away and goes running right back to her prison. He could break the door down, but... But as he stood there in the doorway again, the same place where he'd first met her in person, some of the bloodlust drained from him. He was so tired. He just wanted to kill her and be done.
"All that and you just end up where you started," he called out hoarsely, leaning his arm against the door and pressing his forehead to the smooth wood. "Open the door, Lalonde."
There was no answer from inside.
"Open it, girl," Jack hissed, clenching his hand into a fist around the hilt of his sword, feeling the ring burn against his palm, his brain burn against the back of his eyes. "I kept my end of the bargain, now you can damn well die and keep yours."
Still there was nothing but silence from beyond the door. Angrily, Jack pounded his fist against it. "We had a deal! You do what I say and I keep you alive! I gave you everything, made you my archagent! I trusted you over my own damn crew, let you worm into my head like a pretty little parasite, and you can't even keep that one goddamn promise!! I gave you everything!"
His ring sparked with light, and he punched the door, furiously. "I gave you EVERYTHING, woman!! Listened to everything you said and believed it! Wore your colors, spread your goddamn propaganda, believed all your bullshit promises, well GO TO HELL, YOUR HIGHNESS! Your word ain't worth SHIT!!"
In a blast of red light the door flew off its hinges and went smashing through the barricade of furniture beyond. The armchair that had be leaned up against it hit the floor with a loud crash, and Jack stepped inside the reading room, face twisting into a livid scowl.
"Queen's word ain't worth shit," he murmured as he stepped over the toppled chair, the splintered door still flickering with tongues of orange flame. "Always making promises she didn't intend to keep." No, not the queen's word, Lalonde's word. The queen was long since dead. Wake up, Jack, they'll kill you if your head's like this.
Blood was smeared across the other armchair, fresh and wet and red against the royal violet, but there was no one here. They hadn't escaped through the door; there was no trail of blood leading away again. The Sovereign Slayer's eyes darted quickly around the room and landed on the armchair standing against the far wall. In one quick, savage motion, he lunged forward with a tentacle and shoved it aside to reveal the crouching form of Dave Strider, a sleeping Rose Lalonde slung piggyback across his shoulders.
Chalk white, drenched in icy sweat and hemorrhaging blood from some gaping wound under his shirt, Dave looked up stoically and met the Dersite's eyes. "H-hey. Little privacy?"
"Die," Jack snarled, and raised his sword.
"You first," Dave answered, and he leapt forward and with a flash of white, buried a gleaming Regisword up to the hilt in Jack's chest.
The Knight's hands released the hilt almost disbelievingly, and he left the sword where he'd stabbed it and stumbled out of the room.
Jack Noir's black seppuku sword clattered to the ground, and he stood there for a moment, gaping, arm still raised. When seconds had passed and there was no pain, he seized the haft of the sword and yanked it viciously out. "Already a hole there you little brat!"
He picked up his own sword and shoved it back into his chest. Tectrix still in hand, and sprinted after the two children. Dave had already carried Rose a ways down the hallway, panting loudly and painfully with every step he took. His head whipped around just in time to see Jack chasing after him, and with a shouted explicative he ducked. An arc of power lanced through the air above his head and left a stench of charcoal and ozone in its wake.
Stupid kids, betrayers, liars. Poisoning his food, poisoning his head, he'd kill them both and end it. Kill them both, and everyone else who was plotting against him, and god damn it he was tired, but once all the traitors were dead he could sleep...
The ring was on fire against Jack's hand, but he gritted his teeth and ignored it. Kings didn't feel pain. "I said die!" he screamed, and another blast of light danced from the ring, feeling as though it was ripping the Slayer's nerve-endings out along with it. Dave, too weak and weighed down to get away in time, seized Rose and threw her from his back, out of harm's way. The rope of red light punched straight through the middle of his chest.
The boy looked down, expressionless, at the hole burnt cleanly through his pajamas, skin, muscle, bone, organs, and most of the wall and floor behind him.
Behind his sunglasses his eyes moved to Rose, who was still sleeping soundly sprawled out across the floor, and back to the Dersite stalking toward him with the boy's own Prospitian blade in his hand.
This was good. This was being in control again. This was being a king.
"You're dead," said Jack, a cruel, short-lived smile crossing his face. He reached out and gave the Knight a gentle shove, and Dave toppled and lay sprawled on his back, sunglasses askew. His wide eyes flickered around in a panic: the spasms of a brain that hadn't realized its body was dead. Jack leaned over him.
"How does that feel, knowing you lost? Can't stop me, can't protect her, you're dead." He shifted the sword in his hand. "I'm going to kill her slowly. With your sword. One cut for every manipulative word, one cut for every lie, and so many of those were about you."
"Don't-" Dave gasped. "Don't... wake her up yet. She can't wake up yet... Not 'til she gets here... don't..."
The Sovereign Slayer kicked him. "Shut up."
He wrapped a tentacle around the waist of the still-sleeping Rose and hoisted her into the air, until her feet dangled a few inches above the floor. Dave made some weak noise of protest, but by then, Jack was already walking away.
- - - - - - - - - -
He dragged Rose through the hallways of the palace, unsure of where he was going save for the fact that it had to be important. Ritualistic. The throne room, maybe; he would execute her with dignity, somewhere public where everyone would see and know and fear. The fuzziness of sleep deprivation was swimming in the corners of his vision, and his ring was burning hotter and sharper as time went on. It left him with a racing heart and an uneasy disorientation, like the edge of a fever or the end of a fall, that split second of adrenaline before hitting the ground. But maybe that was the exhaustion as well.
Rose shifted slightly in her sleep, and behind him, someone shouted out across the hallway.
"Hey scarface, let go of my sort-of-vaguely-semi-sister!"
It was Dave Strider's voice. Jack spun around to see the boy standing in the hallway behind him. His glasses were hanging wildly from one ear, and through the massive hole in his chest the Dersite could see all the way to the far end of the hall. But Dave was smirking triumphantly.
"You're dead," Jack stated blankly.
"I'm in pretty good shape for a zombie, then," Dave stated casually. "Gonna have to beat the undead ladies off with a stick. Hell, it's like Twilight up in here." He nonchalantly adjusted his sunglasses and gestured to the hole in his chest "But yeah, it's like you said earlier. Already a hole there. All you did was cauterize it. In fact you probably saved my life man, thanks a lot."
The ring buzzed powerfully and sent a wave of pain up and down Jack's arm.
"Then I'll kill you again. I'll kill you until you stay dead!"
It took him a moment to realize that it was Rose who had spoken. Both Jack and Dave turned to stare at her, but the girl was still out like a light, only murmuring softly to herself as she dreamed.
"You shut up too," he muttered, and shook her rather roughly. Rose curled her fingers around the gripping tentacle with a tiny smile.
"Checkmate," she whispered drowsily.
And the world exploded in a grimdark nova of purple and black.
Rose Lalonde went screaming through the skies of Derse on a plume of billowing black exhaust and a jet of purple fire. The writhing, organic straps of her eldritch jetpack curled around her body like tentacles, and her choking contrail formed weird and otherworldly shapes, laced with imperial octarine against the blackness of the Medium. Below her black pawns scattered, screaming, at the sonic boom that shook the streets and cracked like grimdark thunder in her wake.
The four towers of the palace were rising before her, and Rose drew the Thorns of Oglogoth with a precise flourish and took aim. A blast of black fire tore through the nearest tower, blowing a massive chunk out of its middle. The top of the tower flickered glitchily for a moment, hovering with no support as the game tied itself in knots trying to decide which precedent to follow; its physics or its protection of the indestructible kernel orb above. Rose hovered just beyond the smoking wreckage and readied her wands.
"Jack Noir! I'm calling you out!!"
From the heart of the ruined tower, a snake of red lightning lashed out out the massive, swirling cloud of dust and debris she had raised. She conjured a violet, soap-bubble shield and winced for a second as it crackled and split around her.
"Oh Noir, this isn't my dreamself you're dealing with. You'll have to do better than that." Another blast of magic from her own wands, this time only to clear the haze of dust and smoke, and she was looking down at him, glaring up at her from the wreckage of a razed hallway at the top of what was left of the tower. Jack was swaying on the spot, his ring hand raised in her direction, clutching the hilt of the Tectrix of the Arbiter and trembling slightly as tiny green sparks leapt from it. His fourth and final prototyping was fast approaching.
She wasted no time in firing at him again, hitting him square in the chest before he had a chance to react and sending him flying from the tower. Looking vaguely surprised, as if he'd forgotten he had wings, Jack plummeted thirty stories and hit the pavement of the courtyard below with a crack of splintering chitin and breaking concrete, and Rose immediately alighted atop the ruined tower, her eyes flickering around for signs of the two dreamselves she was supposed to be rescuing while her jetpack filled the devastated hallways with a knee-deep bog of black smoke.
She spotted Dave instantly, climbing out from the decorative niche he'd dodged into to avoid her explosion. "Thanks for the heads-up," he muttered sarcastically. "Rose, what the hell are you wearing."
"The Alchemiter gave it the designation 'Bat Out Of Hell', which seems apt. It's a conglomerate of John's jetpack, your brother's rocketboard, and my own Grimoire of the Zoologically Dubious. John's idea."
"Holy shit, it's like that's trying so pathetically hard to be awesome it actually reaches around through desperate and ends up right back at cool."
"Glad to see you're still with me, Strider," she answered flatly.
He poked at the hole in his chest, the gaping wound they'd discovered in Rose's prison, now cauterized cleanly by Jack's ring. "'Course I am. Not even bleeding anymore."
"Davesprite's trying to heal your other body," she assured him. "If all goes well that wound should disappear soon. Did my dreamself make it?"
"Oh, yeah." Dave looked around quickly. "Tentacles over there had you, but when you blew the place to kingdom come he dropped you like a boulder on Prometheus's butter-coated slip-and slide. Think you wound up... over here somewhere." He waded a few feet down the hallway and delved into the layer of smoke before hoisting her sleeping dreamself up into the open air, wincing as the motion pulled at the muscles in his ruined chest. Rose quickly darted over and took herself from him.
It was an odd sensation, looking down at her own sleeping body, feeling the warmth of skin that perfectly matched her own, the rise and fall of lungs in exact time with hers. "You must sleep like a rock if that didn't wake you up," Dave commented, as Rose inspected her own torn, uneven hair.
"I'm running on an ungodly amount of energy drinks at the moment, actually. I doubt anything that happens to my dreamself will be enough to put this body to sleep while my blood is saturated with this much guarana and caffeine."
"Egbert's idea again?"
"Jade's, actually, and it was brilliant." She cast a quick glance over towards the edge of the tower, where black smoke was pouring out over what was left of the ruined walls. Her ears had picked up the sound of Jack's ragged wings from below. "But we need to go now. If you think you're strong enough to carry my dreamself, I need both of you to hide somewhere in the city where Jack can't find you - it's clear our towers aren't a safe haven anymore. I'll hold him off for as long as I can."
"Lalonde, girl, if you're strong enough to hold off Jack motherfucking Noir, then no way am I letting you show me up by being too much of a pansy to lift your dead weight. Gimme your dreamself."
She handed herself over and watched with some apprehension as he maneuvered her onto his back, his teeth gritted slightly with the pain that he didn't seem to want her to notice.
"I'll take her... you? Whatever. I'll take her to the headquarters of my resistance of three."
But Rose was gazing narrow-eyed at the lip of the tower, where a black shape was rising. Silhouetted against the black Medium, framed by the other three dark towers looming in the distance behind him, Jack Noir hovered with wings spread and the gleaming white Tectrix clenched in his shaking fist. Rose tightened her grip on her wands.
"Strider, can you fly right now?"
"I don't know."
"Then I'll take care of it."
Before the Knight could protest, she'd whipped around and enveloped him in her magic. Weightless, she swung her arm and the magic with it and threw him bodily from the tower, away from the Slayer and towards the twisting city below. A split second before he hit the ground another blast from her wand struck him and stopped his fall, and Dave, looking shaken, landed lightly on his feet with her dreamself still clinging to his back.
"Run like hell!!" Rose screamed after him, and she turned her attention back to Jack just in time to ward off another whip of red power with her shielding spell.
"You think you'll win now?" he hissed, wings flapping wildly. "Just because you went and got your goddamn wands? I'm the KING, girl, and you're just some kid."
"I suppose that makes it twice as embarrassing that I was beating you rather badly without the wands, earlier," Rose commented coldly, provoking him, making sure his attention was on her and not the fleeing form of Dave far below and behind. "Although I suspect that cornucopia of neurotic paranoia was there all along, wasn't it, just waiting for someone to poke and prod until they unearthed it."
"Didn' unearth SHIT," Jack snapped back, almost drunkenly, and she deflected another jet of light from his ring, noting as she did so that the green sparks were now dancing up and down his arm, the last unlit orb flickering spastically as somewhere in another world Jade alchemized her entry item.
Rose's feet left the ground, and slowly she began rising through the air.
"Come now, Jack. Don't lie to your therapist, I'm only here to help. You let me tear you apart and find what was already there. Underneath all your power and your prototypings and your delusions of grandeur, you're just an angry, scared little pawn who's terrified that someone will notice."
"I'm not a pawn!" he screamed, and the Bat Out Of Hell gave a roar as Rose dived out of the way to avoid the sudden sweep of his blade. Jack had thrown himself bodily at her, and as his wings caught him she darted easily around behind him, twirling her wands, wondering how far she could push her luck. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Dave disappearing through the distant main gate of the palace courtyard in a stumbling run, maneuvering awkwardly past the hesitant Dersite guards who tried to halt him.
"You're an NPC. A character in a game. Before the ring you were NOTHING."
He spun in mid air and slashed at her again, and Rose's faster, more maneuverable jetpack easily dodged it.
"And everyone knows it, Noir. Your whole kingdom knows what you are, knows that ring doesn't belong on your finger, and they hate you for it. Hate you for pretending to be more than a pawn. You can never sleep again because the second you let your guard down they'll be at your throat. And for the record," she added scathingly, "Your face looked better on my dead cat."
Jack was panting, glaring at her, eyes wide and feral. "Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut the hell up, shut the HELL up, I ain't letting you into my head anymore."
"There's no one in your head but you," she told him. "Isn't that a terrifying thought?"
They'd been rising slowly as they spoke, and now the ruined tower was far below and Derse spread out beneath them in a twisting mandala of purple.
Below, the last dark sphere of the Kerneltowers throbbed blindingly with light and went inert again.
Jack gave a keening hiss and closed his eyes, and the ring on his finger pulsed especially brightly, sending another wave of green sparks up his arm and causing him to grit his teeth. It seemed to bring him back to himself, somewhat. He took a deep, shaky breath as if to compose himself, and when he opened his eyes again there was a hint of sanity there, a shred of the old Jack she'd first met in her prison.
"Shut up. They're just word games, aren't they. Just lies, and they don't have any power. I know what you're doing. Telling me I'm afraid of things until I believe it."
"Oh, well done Jack!" Rose said with a cold smile. "And it only took you weeks to catch on. Truly, your brainpower is a marvel."
"Guess this is the part where you tell me we've made excellent progress today." His tone was acid.
"No Jack," she answered calmly. "This is the part where I break you."
And she dived towards the city below, jets of the Slayer's red fire arcing madly through the billows of grimdark smog behind her.
- - - - - - - - - -
Something glowing and golden beaded on Davesprite's face as he poured his sprite healing capabilities into the rapidly depleting Health Vial of Dave Strider, and he wasn't sure if it was sweat or blood and didn't have time to care. He forced the bar to fill, warped the mechanics of the world around him in ways they weren't meant to bend, while his island of rubble grew ever smaller as LoHaC's lava swallowed it up. The physics of the game protested: he has no lungs, he has no heart, there's a hole through him so wide you could stick your arm in it, and he fought them until it hurt.
His shades were brilliant with color.
GG: you can do it dave! try as hard as you can!
GG: you already saved all our lives once! if anyone can do it its you!! :D
TT: I've engaged Noir in combat. Our dreamselves are fleeing as we speak, and hopefully by the time this battle ends they'll be well hidden.
GG: OH FUVK BLINDFOLED!1
EB: heads up everybody, jade just alchemized her entry thing so she won't be able to talk for a while.
TT: It's all you now, Strider. If you can manage to heal him we might just make it through this without a single casualty.
TT: I know you won't disappoint, Dave.
EB: dave you're the hero of the day, man!
EB: we are not even entertaining the notion that you won't succeed.
EB: the notion that you won't succeed is so bored over here, all unentertained and stuff.
TG: oh my god egbert this is hard enough without you attempting shitty metaphors at me
But all the same, he felt suddenly as though he could wrap this game around himself and bend it to his will, make it do anything and everything and a wound like this was nothing. Because for once every single one of them had forgotten the "sprite" qualifier at the end of his name, and had just called him Dave.
Beneath the orange glow of his gaze, filling with gold now as the game made him pay painfully for twisting its rules, the ragged edges of Alpha Dave's skin began knitting themselves together.
- - - - - - - - - -
A battle raged through the skies of the dark kingdom. Flashes of purple and red erupted like heat lightning from the thunderheads of black exhaust gathering in the stratosphere, two tiny figures weaving in and out of the melee as they chased each other in wide mobius loops. In the streets below, pawns, imps and miscellaneous monsters stood gaping up at the sinister display.
The Traitorous Bishop and the Warpainted Pariah stood slack-jawed with the rest of them.
"She's alive," the white pawn whispered in reverence. "She's alive and she's fighting Noir. She's going to win, she has to."
"His final prototyping is on the way," Bishop warned. "Squawk. I can see the orb flickering atop the last Kernaltower of the palace. Whatever advantage she has, she'll lose it soon."
"She's going to win," Pariah repeated fervently. "We have to follow them, we have to help her take him down before he's prototyped. You said there would be a more opportune time; well this is damn well as opportune as it's gonna get!!"
Bishop nodded his massive, beaked head. "Climb on my back, squawk. They're fast, we'll never catch them unless we fly."
Pariah did so eagerly. Clinging to the folds of his clothes with one hand, clutching her sword in the other, she buried her face in the huge chessman's shoulders as his cloak spread and the great crow's wings granted him as one of Derse's genetically altered supersoldiers unfurled.
In a gust of sudden wind they took to the air, and as if snapped out of a trance the people of Derse - downtrodden pawns who had heard and remembered Pariah's call to arms, who now saw the usurper to their throne fighting in the sky, and furthermore saw that he was losing - gave a ragged cheer and chased after. A resistance of two leading a steadily growing mob of two hundred.
- - - - - - - - - -
Two floors down from the level at which the fourth tower of the palace had been obliterated, the Draconain Dignitary at last dislodged himself from the strata of stone and mortar that had been shaken from the ceiling above, and as he reached out a hand to help the Courtyard Droll do the same he gazed upward through the wide hole it had left in the ceiling, at the brief bursts illuminating the sky.
"They're headed out across the city."
"Dra- Draconain," Droll stammered excitedly as he freed himself. "Did you SEE THAT EXPLOSION?? Did you SEE IT?? That was AMAZING!!"
"Yes Droll, it was very impressive."
"LET'S GO WATCH HER BLOW UP MORE STUFF!!"
Draconian took a slow, exasperated breath and stalked over to the nearest window. Its grating had been knocked out by the explosion, and as he leaned out he could see the distant swarm of pawns flooding the streets below, looking like insects from this distance as the coalesced into a seething mob, following the lights above.
"What?" Droll asked, joining him at the window and still bouncing up and down with adrenaline. He caught sight of the massing pawns and echoed, loudly, "Oh nooooo."
"He's losing," Draconian said emotionlessly, calculating. "He's a nervous wreck and he hasn't slept or eaten in who knows how long. He's in no shape to fight right now, and they can see that. The second he's down they'll tear him apart." His eyes found the kernel orb flickering atop the far tower, and he added, "Or he'll tear Derse apart first."
"Well then let's go stop Jack and his kingdom from killing each other!" Droll stated as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
"Of course Droll. Why not. I'm sure if we just calmly explain the situation everything will turn out fine." When the Droll continued to beam up at him and Draconian recalled that the little Dersite had no concept of sarcasm, he added, "I still have those tickets for the Derse-to-Earth shuttles, you know. It's not too late to cut our losses and run."
To his mild surprise, Droll kicked him.
"You're a crappy best friend sometimes, you know that, Draconian?" Droll was glaring at him, the look of righteous resentment almost comical on his friendly face.
"You're a crappy best friend!" Droll repeated. "You're supposed to be Jack's best friend and sometimes you're really really bad at it!"
"I look out for my own interests-" he began, and Droll cut him off.
"And I'm sick of it! I'm sick of always hearing you talk like that, even though I know most of the time you don't mean it! When Jack was losing his mind all you talked about was your stupid office and when he kicked you out of the palace the first thing you did was decide to leave Derse even though you knew he needed our help and now you're talking about your... your dumb stupid tickets while he's fighting Rose! And I put up with it because I know you don't mean that stuff you say! You never go through with it, you always come back and you always help and deep down you always care about the right stuff, so I'm sick of hearing you talk like you don't!!"
Draconian opened his mouth to counter with something cold and logical and laced with annoyance, but the words died on his lips as Droll turned angrily and stalked off down the hallway without waiting to hear them.
"We're gonna go fix everything, and if you talk about abandoning the crew like that one more time I'm going to hit you in the face until you shut your stupid face. Now c'mon!"
The Dignitary, baffled, found himself following without protest.
- - - - - - - - - -
In the shady sidestreet that was home to the liquor store that rented out the resistance's small headquarters, Dave finished hauling Rose's slumbering dreamself up the last few steps of the fire escape and pried the window open. Their tiny room was empty; the rest of his resistance was elsewhere.
He dragged her inside, to the place along one wall where two cots had been propped up next to the water damage and peeling paint, and dumped her unceremoniously into Bishop's. Exhaustedly he collapsed onto Pariah's and lay there for a while, staring up through his sunglasses at the slew of propaganda posters from both kingdoms she'd tacked up lovingly over her bed. Fight for the Glory of Derse! Victory to Prospit! Join the Black Army and be assured, you're on the winning side! Join the Golden Legion and take pride that your defeat will pave the way for the glorious ascension of the Four!
Beyond the window the world was ablaze with battle and light, but Dave found himself suddenly unable to worry or care who was winning. He was completely drained, his chest on fire from a wound he wouldn't have survived if not for the game mechanics keeping him alive.
"Give him hell, Rose," he muttered, and he closed his eyes and decided to find out once and for all whether or not he had a body to return to.
- - - - - - - - - -
TG: hey guys too late hes dead
TG: man shut up
TG: yep dead as a pancaked circus clown beneath an elephants ass
TG: my condolences to the family
EB: oh wow, you're amazing!
TG: no really egbert tell me something i dont know
EB: not you, orange dave.
TG: yeah cool
TG: im gonna go pass out now
TG: wake me up when we win at everything forever
turntechGodhead [TG] is offline!
TG: yeah well who needs your fangirlism anyway
TG: i have other adoring worshipers
EB: hehe, sorry man, i think he needed that.
For the rest of the game, stories of how it all ended would fly through the Medium, growing more and more elaborate and inflated with each retelling. Carapaces and consorts would describe to each other the writhing black anvil thunderheads that towered over the skies of Derse, the arching bands of purple and red lightning that lanced across the sky, the ancient ocean eyes of the Elder Gods filling the void beyond as they gathered on the edges of reality to watch the show, while in the distance green fire crackled atop the spheres of the kernaltowers and ripped windows in the world to a vast and forgotten sun.
Bat Out Of Hell strapped screeching to her back, heart fluttering dangerously with caffeine and raw adrenaline, Rose Lalonde shot from the black smoke in a streaking, screaming comet. Trails of static danced across Jack Noir's carapace as he met her from above and the gleaming ivory Tecrix clashed with the blazing black around the Thorns of Oglogoth. His ring hissed and spit sparks of green plasma, and when wands and blade split, the green, red, and purple power snapped between them like a hellish Jacob's Ladder.
They were doing battle with sound and silhouettes, stark outlines flashing for a moment against the dark smoke as their blasts of lightning went roaring past. A conversation was scrolling rapidly past on the scorch-flecked screen of Rose's hubtopband.
EB: rose did you get all that?
EB: dave's back here in his real body, he says everything went ok.
TG: mission rescue the flighty broad is fucking accomplished
TG: both dreamselves safe and secured in an undisclosed location
TG: shit is locked down
TG: ill leave any further instructions to general egbert
EB: stand down, soldier, it's time for a tactical retreat.
EB: rose are you there?
TT: Busy at the moment.
TT: I'll get out as soon as I
Jack's Red Miles came snapping like some feral animal out of the smog, and the hubtopband exploded. Rose screamed in surprise and pain and tore the molten metal away from her face before it had a chance to scar or blind her, and let it fall to the city below. The scrape on her face that she'd gotten from that sandy beach what seemed a million years ago had reopened, and blood welled up against her cheek.
Ropes of red were surrounding her, lancing around her body, seeking her out and making her hair stand on end, and in that brief moment of surprise, the Sovereign Slayer materialized out the the darkness behind her and wrapped a tentacle around her neck.
The Tectrix flashed through the air and buried itself in the Bat Out of Hell, and his hand reached out and tore the jetpack from her back. Eldritch straps writhing, sword and jetpack went spiraling away into the clouds of smog, and now it was only the uneven beat of Jack's wings that held her aloft. Without missing a beat she raised her wands, and he moved to stop her. They grappled for a moment, scrabbling for an advantage in the darkness high above Derse, before at last his other tentacle managed to flash forward and constrict around her wrists, trapping her arms in front of her.
There they hung, for a while, at an impass.
Rose panted, pinned against Jack and smeared with sweat and soot and blood. She could hear him breathing just behind her; a desperate, laborious gasping that she felt, hot against the back of her neck.
"You want... to know something, Lalonde?" he rasped softly, and his hand reached out from somewhere behind her and touched the blood on her cheek. She winced, and jerked her face away. "Why I don't make promises I don't intend to keep?"
She was tightlipped and silent, waiting for his grasp to waver enough to let her tear free. The tentacle around her neck was slowly tightening, cutting off breath and circulation, and she struggled against it.
"It's because of sick, twisted broads like you. Hiding behind your politics and your stupid little hidden agendas and thinking just 'cause you smile sweet it means you aren't a monster on the inside. Least I have the decency to act like one."
"I was doing what I had to... to survive," Rose muttered through gritted teeth, fighting his weary grasp. The ring just inches from her face gave off a few more green sparks, and Jack shuddered and hissed painfully - Jade's prototyping was mere moments away. "Your lackeys... kidnapped me and forced me into this. This is war, Jack."
"I didn't force you into shit. Didn't force you to play the damn game and call death down on your planet and start this goddamn war, that was all you, and now a kingdom and a half is dead, one of my crew is dead. And yeah, that's on my shoulders. But it's your war."
The tentacle around her neck tightened, making her head spin and lights flash in her eyes. "I won't lose another one of my crew, and sure as hell not because you broke me bad enough to make me do it myself. I'm not the same kind of monster as you."
Blackness crept into the corners of her eyes. Her head lolled, and Jack simply drew back his tentacles and let her fall.
- - - - - - - - - -
The wind screamed shrilly past her, and her own blood left a trail in the air like glittering red specks of fire as Rose plummeted.
If she had to make a list of places she'd rather not pass out, Rose Lalonde had to admit that careening from an eldritch thunderhead toward the twisted streets of a dark kingdom a mile below would probably be at the top. Wake up, something at the back of her mind was shouting, but the darkness and stars were still dancing in her vision and she struggled to make her limbs respond. Wands, still in your hands. Use them. Catch yourself, cushion your fall, do something!
There was a rushing in her ears. Wind... caffeine-saturated blood... jetpack.
It was the roar of the Bat Out of Hell, but as she fumbled blindly to catch it, something caught her instead. Her momentum lurched abruptly, and she was flying forward and up. The beat of massive, feathery black wings, the smooth grip of a carapace's arms around her, (jack) and she struggled, squirmed, tried to pull away...
"Your Majesty," said a rough woman's voice, "you'll stop trying to fall to your death or I might just let you!"
Rose shut her eyes tightly, shook her head to try and clear her vision, and opened them again to focus slowly on a sturdy Prospitian soldier, face flecked in places with the shale oil she'd hastily tried to wipe away. "Sorry, ma'am," the pawn added quickly. "I wouldn't, ma'am. I really wouldn't let you fall, I swear."
"We'll of course she's struggling, Pariah," said a deep voice from below. "Squawk. We have not been properly introduced."
Rose looked down and realized that she was riding on the back of a massive winged-chessman, a bishop cloned for the battlefield. She and the white pawn were clinging to the place where his cloak met the feather ruff of his neck. One of the pawn's arms was wrapped around Rose's torso to keep her from falling, and in the crook of the other was the Bat Out of Hell, still roaring and spitting smoke and fire, the Tectrix buried up to the hilt in its organic machinery. As Rose watched, the pawn wrenched the sword out and let the ruined jetpack spiral away into the void beyond Derse.
"Pariah," the pawn stated sharply, attempting a rough salute with the hand holding the Tectrix. "Warpainted Pariah, soldier of the resistance. This is Traitorous Bishop. We've been working for the Prince of Moon. Sent you an antidote one time, remember? You're one of us."
"Yes, I recall," Rose managed blankly.
"You good to fly now, your Majesty?" Pariah asked, adjusting her grip on the sword, eyes flickering to the black clouds above. "'Cause you should probably get out now. We'll take it from here."
The sluggish, dizzying darkness had cleared from Rose's mind by now, and she nodded. With a flick of her wands, she leapt from the Bishop's back and was soaring off toward the distant blue star that was Skaia, her planet, and her friends.
Bishop and Pariah continued on upward, through the base of the grimdark thunderhead, where Jack was waiting, wings spread, tentacles writhing, his own sleek black sword in hand, ring glowing with red and green fire.
Pariah swung the Tectrix of the Arbiter as the Slayer and Bishop collided. A flash of serene, hazy green, a world away from the spastic color of his sparking ring-
And both of the Sovereign Slayer's wings were severed cleanly from his back.
His mouth opened in a silent scream of rage, and he fell, and in a shockwave struck the street a mile below.
- - - - - - - - - -
Bishop and Pariah descended slowly and landed at the rim of an impact crater half the size of a city block, a clearing of warped cobbles and fallen architecture opened to the abyss of the Elder Gods above.
They were not the only ones. Half of Derse had gathered at the site, a few thousand black pawns thronging in the streets around the edges of the destruction to stare at a broken tyrant, twitching like an insect and bleeding from a dozen hairline cracks in his chitin. Whispers through the air rose like hissing steam, the usurper is weak, the usurper is dying, the usurper is dead. Pariah took a step forward, white sword seeming to glow in her oil-stained hands, and someone in the crowd called out: "Cut the ring off his finger!"
It began as a smattering of cheers, and grew to a tumultuous, triumphant chant. "Cut off the ring and kill the king! Cut off the ring and kill the king! Cut off the ring and kill the king!"
She reveled in it, raising her sword in the air, bathing in the cheers of her resistance of two thousand as she walked across the the barren rubble. Bishop followed a few steps behind, his frame massive and towering over the other onlookers, his beady eyes fixed on the Slayer. At last, she reached the broken, bleeding Noir, and bent down to seize his hand and wrench it roughly into the air.
Wild, furious applause greeted her. "First his ring!," she screamed. "And then his head!"
Her arm swung back, her sword poised, her other hand around a wrist oozing blood, muscles tensed, ready to cut the ring away and end it, and her eyes met those of a barely conscious Jack Noir. She whispered something, just for him, or maybe even just for her. Something about Prospit, about fairy tales and the princes and princesses of the moon, about a place that didn't exist any more.
"This is for home."
The sword began its descent.
Behind her, the Bishop gave a startled "Squawk!!"
-and keeled over dead with a ragged slash across his throat.
Pariah whipped around just in time to feel Draconian's switchblade bury itself in her heart. The Tectrix of the Arbitor clattered to the ground, and was a pen once more. The Draconian Dignitary set a foot atop it and shifted his weight, and it snapped easily in two.
Pariah met the tall Dersite's eyes with a pained outraged anger that glazed over all too quickly, and he pulled the knife unceremoniously from her chest and tossed her body aside. The resistance of two thousand roared like distant thunder.
Droll was bending over Jack's body, shaking him gently and babbling something frantic, and Draconian turned slowly, bloody switchblade outstretched, trying not to show his back to a crowd that surrounded him completely.
"None of you," he called, in a voice that was carrying and carefully calm, "Is going to come a step closer to Jack. You're going to turn around and go back to your homes, and pray to the Gods of the Furthest Ring we never decide to find out who you were. Your king isn't dead, and if anyone feels like amending that, I'll escort you to the afterlife to check."
The switchblade wavered. Draconian could have sworn the crowd was drawing closer somehow, closing in around them like a slipknot, a rabid entity with one mind. "Droll," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, and the Courtyard Droll looked up weakly.
"It's bad, Draconian. I think the ring makes him tougher than most people but they cut his wings off and he's bleeding real bad and he won't open his eyes and-"
"If they kill me," Draconian cut him off, watching the hostile mob, now so close that he could see the shine in their blank white eyes, "You end him. Make it fast and painless; don't let them get to him first. End him, and run."
Droll nodded sharply, looking blanched. Draconian stepped backwards as the mob pressed in, as scrabbling hands reached out to grasp him, to tear him away, to push him aside, to pull him apart. His knife flashed. Blood spattered the broken street. Someone screamed in pain, drew back, more pawns took their place, someone was throwing rocks, throwing bricks, the crowd roared, the knife struck, the hands gripped from all sides and ripped and tore and the orb atop the final kernaltower-
- - - - - - - - - -
In the twisting weave of Derse's timeline, Jade's finger had squeezed the trigger an eon ago, but at last the bullet struck, and the pinata shattered, and the shards made ripples across the Medium and pulled another planet out of molten code.
- - - - - - - - - -
-burst into a glorious blaze of green.
It flooded Derse with light, made the pawns reel back and shield their eyes; shone blindingly into the Furthest Ring, where the Elder Gods glided quickly back into the darkness.
Draconain was half-kneeling on the ground in a suit torn to shreds and soaked in someone else's blood, one hand shading his eyes from the light of a green sun that filled the world. As it at last died away, a hand gripped his shoulder heavily, and a gruff voice that was animal and angry and buzzing with power but still, unmistakably Jack's, said, "Go away."
Draconian looked up, and saw nothing but a burning green hole in the universe where the Slayer should have been. "You and Droll both," Jack hissed. "Go back to the palace and stay out of my sight. You don't want to be here right now."
"Jack?" said Draconian, staring at the flickering, mind-bending shape.
"That 'go away' was an order, pawn," he said with a smirk in his voice, echoing his own words from a lifetime ago, when they'd found him hidden away in his office.
"Don't destroy Derse," Draconian said automatically. "Don't irreparably wreck the city and don't kill anyone who wasn't in the mob. You've still got a kingdom to run, you know."
"Yes, Draconian," Jack growled, and gave him a short shove in the direction of the palace. "Go."
Draconian turned and went, and after a few steps Droll caught up with him, scurrying along to match the tall Dersite's longer strides. Around them, the crowd screamed and fled, and the two of them walked through a channel parted in an ocean of hazy green fire.
- - - - - - - - - -
John met up with Rose at the halfway point, the ectobiology labs in the Veil, grinning from ear to ear and overflowing with questions. They sat side by side on a bare metal roof at the top of an abandoned cloning facility, and watched the distant fireworks on Derse explode in bursts of green. Rose munched on a pack of Gushers to restore her health vital and heal her face, and she spoke on and on about her time on Derse; as hostage, as Archagent, as betrayer...
"I've been thinking about it," she commented, as she pulled apart yet another packet of Gushers. "And I believe I've figured out why Jack and I fell into the roles we did so... easily, I suppose. When I was little I'd sit my cat Jaspers on the couch and play at psychoanalyzing him. Pretend he was telling me his secrets, that kind of thing. And Jack was prototyped with Jaspers. So maybe deep down, we both remembered being that little girl and her cat, pretending to be a therapist." She trailed off softly, and John caught the look in her eyes.
"You feel pretty bad about it, huh?"
"A little. Maybe I'm just concerned about what it says about me as a person, that my first instinct was to lie and manipulate and tear someone down."
John shrugged, and stole a Gusher from the open package in her hands. "I think it probably says you're way smart." He grinned at her. "Plus, the feeling bad means you're a good person after all. You know, waaaaay deep down past all the psycho crazy awesome."
"John," she sighed, a small smile threatening to creep into the corners of her mouth.
"No, really! You're a bamf! They could make a movie about you, and Dave would be played by Shia Labeouf because screw Dave, it's all about the leading lady."
The smile had broken out across her face now, against her will and beyond her power, and John seemed satisfied that he'd done all he could. "Come on, speaking of Shia- sorry, DAVE, he's really gonna wanna see you up and about. And Jade too, she's in the medium now, and you will not BELIEVE how cool her planet is! That was totally a pun, you'll get it later. And now that Jack's super powerful we'll have to alchemize some new weapons..."
The two of them wandered off toward the transportilizers deep within the empty lab, John talking a mile a minute, Rose sauntering along beside him, happy, for once, to be in a place and with a person where she didn't have to be anyone but Rose Lalonde.
The fireworks on Derse made starbursts of green sunlight. Dave and Rose's dreamselves slept peacefully in the cots of two fallen soldiers.
The game went on.
Chapter 22: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The last Derse-to-Earth shuttle was leaving. A low roar of engines filled the dark sky, and over it a frantic crowd shouted to be heard, begging to be let on board, one more seat, please, for a child, a lover, a friend who'd just barely escaped the slaughter of the mob that had attacked the Slayer. Uniformed police and lesser agents stood stiffly in front of the boarding ramp. No tickets, no passage. There's not enough room for you all. Last call for passengers. There will be no more shuttles. No tickets, no passage.
At the back, the crowd began to part, murmurs of fear and disgust and confusion rising as they stepped aside to let someone through. She stumbled along, a lone white pawn in a sea of black, blood still drying stickily down her front, heaving the massive, limp form of a genetically engineered bishop along via one wing stretched over her shoulders. As she reached the landing ramp, the guards moved to block her path.
"This shuttle is leaving, ma'am-"
"Tickets," the pawn named Pariah spat.
They watched as she pulled from her pocket two bloody and dog-eared tickets to wave in their faces - fallen from the pocket of Draconain's suit as he fought off the mob, and left behind on the pavement next to the soldier he thought he'd killed. "We've got tickets," she repeated. "Official ones. Got the royal seal on them and everything. We're getting on this shuttle. You gonna stop us?"
The guards huddled for a moment, conferred with each other.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," one of the policemen said at last, as they all turned back to her, and Pariah scowled at him.
"What do you mean, sorry? They're official! The shuttle's still here! Let us on!"
"I mean, I'm sorry, but if you board this shuttle it will have to be without your friend."
She gripped the Bishop tightly, eyes going wide and panicky. "He's coming with me! We have two tickets! He has to come with me!"
"Ma'am," the policeman explained, softly, sympathetically, "Everyone wants off Derse. Those tickets are precious commodities. We've got no room for the dead."
She stared blankly at the policeman. She looked to the Bishop's body, his wing resting on her shoulder, his throat slashed, his blank eyes open and staring. She looked back to the policeman. "I don't... I don't understand."
"These shuttles can only carry so many," the Dersite said, as gently as he could. He gestured to the crowd pressing around. "I can't let him on, when there's live people who could take his seat instead."
She nodded, slowly, and let the Bishop's wing slide off her shoulders.
"Do you still want to board?"
"Ma'am, you have to decide now, the shuttle is leaving."
"Do you still want to board?"
"I..." Pariah shook her head. "I have..." A friend to bury. A sleeping prince and princess to guard. A tyrant to overthrow. Only cowards ran away.
The pawn bent down and took the Bishop's weight again, and she started dragging him away. She tossed the tickets into the crowd behind her.
- - - - - - - - - -
Two battered Dersites sat together, somber, in some dark, forgotten room in a dark, forgotten corner of a dark, forgotten palace. Both scratched and bruised, Droll's hat long lost, Draconian's suit bloodstained and shredded beyond repair. For once, it didn't occur to either of them to do something about it.
They sat at a folding card-table hastily decorated with Scotch tape and crumpled red streamers, and passed a wine bottle of some expensive vintage back and forth to refill their glasses. They talked about playing jazz at the back of a bar. About plotting and planning together and looking forward to the day they finally ran this game. About the Hegemonic Brute, who was strong and loyal and a hopeless romantic, who played the bass and whose favorite color was red. And they toasted to his memory, and drank to forget.
The door creaked open. With a tiny clink, the queen's ring was tossed onto the tabletop, rolled for a moment, and came to a rest in front of Draconian.
Jack Noir was standing in the doorway, unprototyped and limbs all present and accounted for, looking utterly grim and exhausted. Draconian glanced up at him dispassionately, and across the table from him, Droll made a small, unidentifiable noise in the back of his throat and said softly, "hey boss..."
"Put it on," said Jack, tired eyes fixed on Draconian.
The Dignitary looked flatly from Jack to the ring.
"Go on. Do it, it's right there. You'd be prototyped before I could stop you. Put it on."
Draconian picked it up. All four tiny prototyping orbs were glowing with a soft white light, but the ring was no longer sparking or buzzing with power. It felt cool against his hand, and he considered for a moment. Considered slipping it on his finger, becoming that thing of raw power he'd seen envelop Jack, considered killing the Slayer and taking over as king and running this place logically for once, never having to deal with the rest of Jack's stupid lackeys again...
He put it back down on the table where Jack had tossed it. "Don't be an idiot. All that green would clash horribly with every outfit I own."
Jack stared at him for a moment.
And started to laugh.
And walked over, still laughing, to sit down at the table in the folding chair Droll had most optimistically set up for him. He rested his elbows on the table and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, and the laughter turned slowly to a shuddering that wasn't quite crying. Droll and Draconian exchanged looks over his head, Droll's worried and questioning, Draconian's carefully blank, but conveying the same.
"Are you okay?" Droll asked, moving hesitantly to pat Jack on the back. Draconian absentmindedly reached out and caught his wrist before it could make contact.
"I'm an idiot," Jack muttered, voice muffled by his hands. "I'm a goddamn idiot. I just had to make sure."
"I don't want you dead, Jack," Draconian assured him flatly. "I never did, and yes, you were an idiot for believing it."
"Made so much sense when she said it," Jack said, more to himself than to Draconian. "All sounded so right."
"Of course it made sense; you're half-dead from exhaustion. Although the part about most of the kingdom wanting to kill you seems pretty justified." Draconian released Droll's wrist with a warning look, and ran a finger idly across the rim of his wineglass. "But we already knew that, we just underestimated it. We'll know to plan for it now."
"To hell with your damn plans." Jack reached across the table abruptly. For a split second something in Draconian's chest twisted uneasily as he assumed Jack was going for the ring, but a moment later the Slayer's hand closed over the wine, and he picked it up and took a swig straight from the bottle. "God it's good to have my left arm back. You know how hard it is to do paperwork when you're missing your dominant hand? It ain't a walk in the park, I'll tell you that."
"That wine was incredibly expensive," Draconian said, without much hope of Jack actually listening.
"Fit for your king then," said Jack, taking another swig. He raised the bottle shakily and grinned, more drunk on exhaustion than alcohol. "So, here's to whatever we're celebrating!"
"Hegemonic!" Droll supplied helpfully. "It's the memorial for him, remember? I put up all the streamers!"
"And they're hideous," said Jack. "To the Hegemonic Brute. He had..." his grin widened, and he waved the bottle around. "He had a... no, he... he had a good head on his shoulders! Wait no... he never could keep his head!"
"Jaaaaaack!" Droll giggled, while Draconian rolled his eyes.
"Is that really appropriate?"
"It's exactly as appropriate as the streamers. I didn't set the mood in here. Wait... I've got one... he knew how to get ahead in-"
"Are you even upset?" Draconian snapped coldly. "He's dead."
The grin slid slowly off Jack's face, and he set the bottle down and leaned back in his chair. "Why should I be? Just another pawn. He knew what he was getting into. He knew..." He rubbed his eyes again, shoulders slumping. "We all knew what we were getting into. All could've walked away, after I killed her."
"But we didn't," Droll said simply.
"Because you're idiots too," Jack mumbled. "Turns out we're all idiots. Idiots with a kingdom. Aughtta make that the official motto of Derse. And this... mourning, this memorial... this could only be the work of idiots." He groped for the bottle, and Draconian surreptitiously slid it out of his reach. "Not like he's dead forever. Just somewhere else."
Droll made a squeaky little "I knew it" noise.
"Did you forget who we are?" Jack asked, sounding almost amused. "We'll be back next session. We come back every session."
"I don't think that counts though," said Droll. "Since we don't remember stuff from session to session. It's a different us." He thought for a moment. "Unless it's just me that doesn't remember stuff. You'd tell me if it was just me, right?"
"It's not just you," Draconian said with an irritated sigh.
"And thank god for that," Jack added. "All those damn lacy dresses I get to forget about."
He slid further down into his seat, started leaning dangerously sideways, and Draconian quickly caught him by the shoulder before he could fall out of his chair. Predictably, Jack tried to jerk away, but it was a half-hearted attempt. "Got a nice buzz from that last prototyping," Jack muttered dizzily. "Prob'ly wearing off by now..."
"So now we're right back where we started," said Draconian.
"I'm not coming up with any plans this time," Droll informed them seriously. "You guys really shouldn't have let me do the last one, I'm not the plan guy."
"Think," slurred Jack, leaning into Draconian's supporting arm, "Think I'm gonna go to bed now. Sleep for a year. Misplaced my ring, guess somebody else gets to be king for a while. Whoops. Lucky them."
Draconian picked up the queen's ring again and slid it into his pocket. "I'm sure your kingdom will still be here when you wake up."
"Ha, hey, I got another one... his head was... heads were rolling... no, that was terrible... that was barely even a pun..."
"Let's get you to bed, Jack," said Draconian, standing up and supporting Jack's weight.
"Dra... Draconian. Pawn. Draconian."
"If you get me a therapist while I'm out, I'll kill you."
Thus ends an experiment in taking a total crackfic idea and seeing what would happen if we treated it seriously. It's been more than a year since this fic began, and I had a lot of fun writing it. Hopefully you had fun reading it, too. :)