The demon's laugh sounds through the halls, a harsh, mirthless barking that sets Eridan's teeth on edge.
"Join me?" he says, "You hear that? Kid wants to join me." He gestures around the ruined court expansively, as if expecting an answering chorus of sycophantic laughter, but he is alone. The echo of his mocking laughter seems to satisfy him, and he turns back to Eridan with a glint of insane hunger in his bright white eyes. Eridan huddles on the floor, his forehead pressed against the stone in an attitude of panicked submission.
"Tell me what you got, then," says the demon. He is utterly changed. Karkat's mentor had been sleek, his every movement a barely-contained threat. This Jack wears his aggression like a dark and bristling cloak.
Eridan knows better than to mention his royal blood. What fucking good has royal blood ever done him anyway? He imagines it spilling on the floor, blackberry-purple slicks running across the marble, the smell of hot metal, slippery under his scrabbling fingers. Worth less than the lowest crimson. He would shed every drop if it would-
"You goin' to stare at the ground all day?" says the demon, and Eridan feels the point of a blade at his throat.
"I c-could help you," he stammers. On his way out here he had hoped that the demon might just murder him and have done with it, but now the black blade pricks his skin he finds himself clinging to life with a desperation that disgusts him.
The demon's lip curls in derision and his chitinous eyelids flick shut. "I'm a motherfuckin' god dog, kid," he says. His voice is lowered to a jagged whisper. "I'm a glitch in the goddamn code. What do you think you can do?"
"I've killed," he says, "I've killed... a lot of people. I- I've got a wand and I ain't afraid to use it."
He hadn't intended to vomit cliches like this. He had wanted to make a speech, the kind that goes down in history. Because this is a turning point in history. Maybe he'll be remembered as the boy who made an alliance with Jack Noir, the man who secured the future of the high echelons of the troll race -
- like raindrops spattering the floor in purple, each small drip, drip stings like a whip of scorpions, each small helpless gasp steals the air from his own throat, oh, what has he done, what has he done -
"F-th-the, the, the-" Eridan shivers uncontrollably, the words trembling on his lips. He can't say her name. "The Empress," he says at last, "I only, I only fuckin' loved her, I didn't - sh-she got in the way, I was so angry-"
"Well, ain't you a pathetic snivellin' specimen," says the demon. "Get up."
"W-what?" says Eridan.
"I said get up, you goddamn blitherin' sack of mucus," the demon spits, "The hell are you goin' to take orders lyin' on the floor?"
* * *
It is a strange business, omniscience. People misunderstand the word. It is hard to know every movement of every particle in past, present and future, every twist and quirk of energy moving through the timelines like the leaves of an infinite forest moving in the wind, ever branching and rebranching, looping and reversing, annihilated in an instant and recreated new in the next. It is harder to do this and to maintain any identity. It is hard to know every fish in the shoal and not to become the ocean that surrounds them. It is hard and nobody understands.
Scratch tries not to be self-pitying about it. All-knowledge has its upsides. Cold, hard and vicious upsides. One is never surprised by grief or by happiness. There is no joy of anticipation and no pain of disappointment, no unexpected loss.
Alternia floats in the darkness before him, a pale grey speck amongst the stars, that will bloom verdant with life under his guardianship. A small girl stares up at him with great dark eyes, her tiny hands reaching up like flowers stretching to the sun. In the same instant he sees her soul racked with green fire, a sickeningly familiar green. Her body falls, crushed beyond repair, jewel-coloured blood seeping into the tiles. Alternia withers and dies in a hail of rock and flame.
His omnipotence is limited by what he knows must be. The fates at times do not lack mercy, however, and it requires only the slightest unravelling of reality to reach into the brain of a dying girl and redirect certain nerve impulses.
Mister Scratch It Is Good To See You Again
You have played your part well.
I Am Glad That You Think So But I Must Confess That I Am
I know. This will not last long.
Im Hallucinating Arent I
Yes. How perspicacious.
I Would Like To See Vriska And Rose And Karkat Again
I Need To Warn Them
Perhaps in time. For now you must sleep. I have taken your pain.
The book of knowledge in which he writes and is written records one further detail, and that is his revenge. All that remains to be done is to make certain connections.
* * *
Jack doesn't know why he bothered to spare the boy. In his heart of hearts, however, he suspects that it was the small spark of recognition he felt. Regicide as a defining act of violence, after all, is something he is perfectly familiar with. The little troll seems to be taking it badly, alternating between practising his wand skills, brow grimly furrowed, and weeping bitter indigo tears into his scarf. He's weeping more for the child he used to be than the child he killed.
What Eridan doesn't understand is that certain acts have the power to change who you are forever, to melt you down and bring you back reforged, tempered, adamant and impermeable. The machinations of Skaia made him kill the woman he loathed, and he will make himself into a weapon to rend space and time until he can avenge her. If taking on a whiny overpowered kid can help to fuck with the game's hierarchy, he's willing to give it a try.
Doesn't mean he doesn't want to strangle the boy every time he hears his goddamn sniffling though.
"You killed her dreamself," says the kid suddenly. They are resting on a meteor in the Veil, space-dust falling around them like ashes. These are the first words he has spoken all day.
"Did I?" says Jack, rolling his eyes, "Don't remember. Probably."
"She told me," he says, "W-well, she told that fuckin' duplicitous lowblood an' maybe I overheard. Oh god, I'm so pathetic."
"Don't make me cut you again," says Jack.
"You slaughtered her," says Eridan, "You murdered half of her. I w-would have kissed her. Like she did with- she would have come back. You're just as responsible as I am."
"Yeah, you keep tellin' yourself that, kid."
"She was terrified," he says, "He was- I wanted to be the one to comfort her. She could've - after everythin' I did for her - how can you be so fuckin' calm about it?" His voice is dull, the words tripping over each other as if he knows how inadequate they sound.
Jack shrugs. "You thought I was a nice guy? Least she didn't call me a friend."
"Fuck you," says Eridan, tears starting in his eyes again. His face is permanently stained with them now, blotches the colour of gall smeared down his cheeks.
"Pull yourself together before I snap that neck for you," Jack growls, "I thought you were some kinda special wizard."
"I am!" he says, sitting up and wiping his eyes, "Better fuckin' wizard than you know."
"Uhuh." Jack smirks.
"Better than that cold bitch Rose," says Eridan, turning his wand from hand to hand as though testing how far he can twist it before it breaks, "Like she knows fuckin' anythin'."
"Funny thing," says Jack, "You're payin' her a visit soon."
* * *
It had been easy enough for Scratch to arrange for Jack to send the boy after Rose. A brief flutter of lilac light at the edge of his vision, the faintest whisper of suggestion that it would be an interesting symmetry, and most appealing of all the idea that this would leave Jack free to pursue the Heir Transparent currently wreaking havoc with his plans.
A few explanatory messages to Rose and the streak of jade-green blood splashed across Eridan's scarf will do the rest.
* * *
Jack picks Eridan up by the scruff of his neck and drops him into the sea of the Land of Light and Rain, before teleporting away. The cold salt water stings and Eridan thrashes helplessly for a few moments, thinking I can't swim I can't swim before realising the ocean is still and shallow and the white-sand beach lies only a few feet away.
He struggles to the shore, soaked to the bone with freezing water but glad there's nobody here to witness this embarrassing scene. His glasses are cracked from the impact and he doesn't even care. He imagines himself, a hard-bitten and powerful sorceror, rising from the waves to enact his revenge, wielding a wand of justice and-
- the white fire has a sharp explosive smell, and sparkles like ground glass, and it can punch through a teenager's chest like a blade ripping through canvas -
- if Rose had agreed to teach him instead of blowing up his fucking computer before she even got to know him, maybe he wouldn't be in this fix. If Karkat had actually paid him any attention instead of spending all his time tolerating his stupid blind girlfriend. If Gamzee had been a friend and ally like he was supposed to be instead of corrupting his unworthy indigo blood with slime and sugar - if Sollux hadn't rubbed it in his goddamn face, lying there in the middle of the room and secretly laughing at him - if Kanaya hadn't got in his fucking way -
God, but the loneliness is unbearable sometimes. Nothing but his own voice bouncing back off the inside of his skull. He wants to crumple to the ground and hold his face in his hands. Let the bitter waters wash over him and he will be absolved.
He remembers what Jack said - life fucks you over, you fuck it right back - and stands up straighter. He will be resilient and undaunted, like any great general. Wizard. Scientist. Pirate king. Whatever he is now. He will maintain his composure and leave the emotional theatrics to the helpless child who died on the meteor beside his true love.
"Excuse me," says a cool voice, "Who are you?"
A girl is floating in the air beside him. Her black dress flutters in the wind. Has she been spying on him, lying there weeping?
"My name's E-Eridan Ampora," he says, clutching his wand grimly.
"Oh," she says, casting her eyes to the sky, "You."
Another one who can't even get to know him before curling her lip in disgust. He supposes it's only what he deserves now.
"Yes, me, what's that supposed to fuckin' mean?"
"Without wishing to surrender my composure to melodramatic platitudes, I think it means that I'm going to kill you."
Eridan has no time to formulate a witty response or even force his aching muscles into action before Rose raises her wands. A cloud of darkness masses around her like a raincloud and he can barely dive out of the way as a bolt of dark energy streams past him, hitting the surface of the sea with an angry crackle-hiss.
He struggles to muster a counterattack but his palms are sweating, he can barely keep a grip on his wand and he's so fucking tired, he just wants to go home-
There is another deafening concussion as the twofold stream of black light coursing from Rose's needles hits the ground beside him, grazing his hip and sending a cloud of white sand into the air to choke him and sting his eyes. He yells back at her, an incoherent cry of protest, and struggles to his feet, raising his wand as he does so. He should be winning this stupid fight easily. He's at the highest level, he defeated the Black King, for god's sake - but there's nobody backing him up here.
He finally manages to fire off a defensive shot, a loop of white light that deflects one or two attacks before dissolving, but Rose is implacable. Her face, visible through the cloud of steam and sparks and flying sand, is set in an expression of quiet fury.
"Rose, please-" he calls, raising his hands in a gesture of submission, but she merely takes the opportunity to send another volley of black flame sizzling towards him. One clips his shoulder and he falls back into the shallows, screaming. Blood flows from the wound, a stain of deep purple on the waters, spreading around him like a dark halo. Some part of him wants to lie there, letting the cold water numb him, and wait for her to finish him off, but whatever desperate howling survival instinct still lurks at the base of his brain sends him scrabbling for leverage on the sand and he hauls himself onto all fours. His glasses are shattered and there's sand and saltwater in his eyes. He can't focus. The blue-grey blur of the water fades into the grey-white blur of the sand, and the dark silhouette of his death bearing down on him from above. The only certainty is the slender white wand in his hand, the cause of all this, gripped so tightly in his fist that its edges have cut deeply into his palm -
- something strikes him, hard, sending shudders of pain down his arm, and the wand is gone, shattered into a thousand small splinters of bone. The wand and his fucking hand, his right hand, nothing remaining but a jagged flap of sleeve, flapping helplessly in the wind. He screams hoarsely and the sound doesn't seem to stop as his knees give out and he collapses onto the sand, blood pouring from his ruined wrist and turning the sand to royal purple.
Rose lands lightly beside him.
"N-no," he gasps, shaking, "Please don't, I'm sorry-"
"I know what you did," she says, "Eridan."
She manages to spit out his name like it's a curse word. He realises with a sort of sick amusement that in another life he might have been delighted by the hatred blossoming in her eyes, but he was so wrong, so stupid-
"Please understand something," she says, "In the last few days my friends and I have had to witness the destruction of all we know and hold dear. Endearingly optimistic as John and Jade may remain, we are not unaware of the scale of devastation that has been visited upon us."
She kneels on the sand beside him, the tip of one needlewand to his throat, drawing a bead of blue-black blood. Maybe I'll pass out soon, he thinks, and she can kill me in my sleep. That would be nice.
"I suppose what I am trying to convey to you is that given the situation into which we find ourselves bodily hurled, it is in each other that we can see our only possible hope for survival."
Her hands, he notices, are shaking.
"From a purely strategic point of view, you don't kill your allies, Eridan Ampora," she says, "And if you value whatever miserable state of being you currently inhabit, you do not kill my friends."
"I'm sorry," he manages to say, "I'm so- I loved her."
"You - what?" she says, genuinely taken aback. "As though that gives you any right to - how dare you even talk about Kanaya."
"Not Kan," he says, "F-Feferi. I loved Feferi."
"I see," she says. Her face is impassive as a statue once again, but Eridan gets the impression that she has not prepared a speech for this eventuality.
"Just kill me," he says, clutching at his wounded arm as fresh tears pour down his cheeks. "Please. I'm too much of a coward to do it myself."
"No." She sits back, digging her heels into the sand and withdrawing the wand from his throat.
"No?" he says. There is a moment in which the only sound is the lap of waves. Whether Rose is gathering her thoughts or relishing the look of agony on his face, he can't tell.
"Kanaya - my friend, my friend who I loved, though I don't know why I'd tell a worthless nonentity like you when I could never tell her - worried about what I might become," she says, "And now it seems I have become the kind of person who leaves you with the choice to bleed to death alone in the sea or to get to your feet and perhaps continue to live with your guilt. I have become, in short, the kind of person to leave you with hope."
Rose stands and turns to go.
"I wonder whether she would approve."