Every day, the humans met in Jade’s room, arraigned their chairs in a circle, and sat together to talk. The meetings had started with the intention of discussing Noir, but the topic almost never came up. They chatted without focus and looped back and around in their conversations. Jade and John made it a goal to have Rose and Dave laugh at least once every day; Rose was always made to talk in the hope of recovering more of her voice.
Over the course of two weeks, however, they had grown quieter and quieter. That day, they sat in a heavy silence; they did not meet each other’s eyes. Jade was ramrod straight, hands folded in her lap; Dave slumped with his legs spread and his hands clutching the chair’s arms; John leaned forward with his elbows on his knees; and Rose was curled up with her legs to her chest. When the silence was broken, the voice that spoke was still quiet and heavy.
“You guys really think we can off Noir?” Dave asked.
The silence resumed immediately, and the others did not look at him. They fidgeted in their own ways: John flicked his thumbs against his palms; Jade twisted her fingers over each other; and Rose curled up tighter. Dave twisted the heel of one foot against the floor, swinging his foot back and forth.
“Well?” he said. “D’you guys really think we can kill him?”
“There’s no reason we can’t,” Rose replied. “He was badly wounded in our last fight.”
“But it don’t feel like it,” Dave shot back. “Every day that fish-face asshole comes back with no news about Noir, the more it feels like he’s going to heal up and come back just as strong as before. And he still had enough fight in him at the end to bump off your moll. Down an arm and an eye, and he still got her.” He shifted, bringing a hand up to scratch at his chin. “It makes me nervous.”
John smiled. “We’ll be okay! As long as we stick together and stay on our guard, we can kill him!” He sat up straight, holding his arms up and out. “Just think about it! A life without Noir!”
Jade shifted. Shaking the stiffness from her shoulders, she smiled. “Won’t it be nice to just study alchemy without thinking about how to use it against Noir?”
“I can’t wait to help Karkat and Miss Feferi and everyone!” John said, his smile becoming a grin. “It’ll be a great adventure! Maybe we’ll even go into space! That’d be amazing!”
Dave snorted. “You just want to be a pirate in space.”
“What’s wrong with that?” John asked. “Maybe I’d help stop the slave trade if I get to be an awesome pirate in space! Everyone would listen to someone who got all the way to the stars, right?”
“The stars ain’t gonna help anyone if we don’t survive the fight.”
“We can’t go into the fight thinking we’ll lose,” Rose said. “We might hesitate if we don’t have the conviction, and hesitating will get us killed.”
“You havin’ conviction got you possessed by monster gods,” Dave muttered. “You sure going all out is a good idea for you?”
“I haven’t had a single nightmare since arriving here,” she replied. “Two entire weeks without them when I used to have them every night. I don’t hear the Gods, brother. I don’t think I will anymore.”
He tipped his head forward to let his sunglasses slip down his nose, but paused. He took the glasses off completely, folding them shut and holding them in one hand. He sat up to put his elbows on his knees.
“You gotta swear that you’re never going to let yourself get stolen again, sister,” he said, voice quiet. “You do it again and I’m the one comin’ after you—and I sure as fuck won’t be as sweet about it as Kanaya. You scare me like that—you fuckin’ break my heart like that again—and I will drag you back and kick your ass so hard it’ll be like fire and brimstone and the Lord’s second coming. You understand?”
She looked at her knees, but murmured, “I understand.”
“Good, ‘cause I think the Egbert and Harley duo would be right behind me to make sure I get you for your beating.”
“We wouldn’t beat her, Dave!” John said, chuckling. “We’d just get her back!” When his chuckling died down, he turned to look at Rose. His smile genuine, he said, “You promise, right? You’re not going to do anything stupid involving the Gods.”
Arms tucked behind her legs, she put her hands on her forearms and rubbed idly. “I won’t.”
Jade, sitting at her right, frowned. She leaned over and caught Rose’s elbow. When she pulled, she caught sight of where Rose’s hands had been: atop the sigils. She looked up and shook Rose’s elbow until her gaze was met. “What were you thinking?”
“Rose Lalonde, don’t you dare lie to me. Why were you touching these?”
Silence. Slowly, she looked down at her arm. She opened her hand and stared at the mark in her palm. “I was thinking about what I did.”
“And how you’re never going to do it again, right?” Dave asked.
“Not for the same reason.”
Jade let go of Rose’s elbow and brought her other hand up to fold both around Rose’s. “You can’t ever use that formula again. You have to promise us.” She tightened her grip. “Don’t try to bring any of us back if we die.”
“That’s not what I was thinking of,” Rose said. “I was thinking of how I could use it constructively.”
“The Gods still want you as their speaker, sis,” Dave said. “You use that formula and you’re serving yourself up on a fuckin’ platter made of the finest silver.”
“It’s not me I want to serve to them. It’s Noir.”
They all went silent. For a moment, Jade’s grip on Rose’s hand faltered and loosened. Shaking her head, she squeezed Rose’s hand even tighter than before.
“Rosie,” she said, voice firm, “that’d be suicide. There’s no way.”
Jade frowned, brows furrowing. “Even if you got him into a place big enough to make a transmutation circle, you’d never have the time to make one—not with everything you need to have. And then if you did the alchemy, you’d be going back to where the Gods are. You’re not fast enough to do all of that and then escape from them!”
“But Kanaya is.”
“What’s Miss Kanaya got to do with it?” John asked.
Rose gently pulled her hand free. Straightening her legs, she undid the first two buttons on her shirt. As she sat forward, she opened her shirt enough to show the sigil on her chest. She pushed up her sleeves and held out her hands, palms up. “The reason I drew these on myself was to circumvent painting the entire formula. Back then, it was because I didn’t want to use up all of Kanaya’s blood, and it would have been too much of my own blood to paint it. But now that these are permanently on me, all I would have to do is make the base transmutation circle in advance and get Noir in it.”
“That doesn’t explain what Kanaya has to do with it,” Jade said.
“Now that she’s a rainbow drinker, she’s faster than any of us, and she’s probably physically strong enough to go up against Noir. Since she has the same sigils scarred onto her, I have someone who can not only get him into the circle, but also help me perform the alchemy without needing to make any new sigils. I need someone’s help to get him to the Gods. And because she went to find me, she knows how to escape to the dream bubbles.”
“But why do you have to off him that way?” Dave asked. “Why can’t we just stab him through his devil dog skull?”
“We don’t actually know if it’s possible to kill him completely just through physical means. Like you said before, he was still able to—to...” She swallowed hard. “—k-kill Kanaya after losing an eye and an arm. He was created by the leftover traces of the alchemy that brought us here—fallout tainted by the energies of the Elder Gods. I think the only way to completely undo him is to send him back to the Gods.”
“And you want to be the one to do that,” Jade said, voice quiet.
“I hope to get Kanaya’s help as well.”
“Why not ours?” Dave snapped.
Rose turned to look at him. His gaze was hard; his jaw was set with how fiercely he clenched his teeth. When he spoke, his voice was sharp and strained.
“Why the fuck wouldn’t you ask us to help you with this?” he said.
“I don’t want to put you in danger.”
“By fuckin’ putting yourself in danger?” he shouted. “How many Goddamn times do we have to tell you that you’re not the only one responsible for Noir? Let us help you!”
“It’ll be easier for just two people to escape from the Gods after bringing Noir to them,” she said, looking away.
“Fine,” he snarled. “I’ll be the one to help you.” He dropped his sunglasses in his lap and shoved his sleeves up his arms. After undoing the first three buttons on his shirt, he summoned his sword and put it up against his throat.
Rose shot out of her chair and grabbed his hands to try to wrestle the sword away. “Dave, no—stop!”
He stood up in a rush, pushing her back as he went. He pulled the sword from her grasp, stabbed it into the floor, and grabbed her shoulders. “No, Rose! You swore to me that you wouldn’t do this kinda stupid shit just a few minutes ago, and now you’re telling me that you’re gonna do it anyway! You know you’re gonna get Kanaya’s help, and you know you’d get ours! You want to make sure Noir dies for sure? Then you fuckin’ let all of us help!”
When she only stared at him, eyes wide and lips parted, he sighed. He lowered his voice and said, “We’re doin’ this, sister, whether you like it or not.” He gave her a small smile. “For God’s sake, Lalonde, stop bein’ noble and let me take care of my little sister for once.”
“And my little sister, too!” said John.
“Shut your yapper, Egbert, I’m talkin’ about my sis.”
“I am, too!” He took to his feet and went to their side. Slinging an arm around their shoulders, he said, “Rosie’s my sister just as much as Jade! We’re all family so we have to look out for each other!”
Jade got out of her chair and moved to their other side. Like John, she put her arms around them, hugging them at the waist. “And that means we’re all going to send Noir to the Gods.” She leaned slightly to hug Rose tighter. “Okay?”
“Rosie, say yes or I’ll hit you again.”
A small chuckle left her mouth. “All right, fine. We destroy Noir together.”
Laughing, Jade took her arm from Dave to hug Rose as hard as possible.
Dave snorted loudly, but there was a smile on his face. “Jesus wept, Harley, are you tryin’ to bust her ribs by bein’ a big baby needin’ hugs?”
With her face pressed against Rose’s shoulder, Jade’s voice was muffled when she sad, “You’re more than free to join us, mister cool mobster!”
“It’s caporegime, doll face,” he chuckled, “but fine.” He stepped in to hug the both of them. The moment his arms were around them, he was slammed into from behind and the air in his lungs left him in a rush. “Egbert, for the love of—”
John laughed to cut him off and squeezed them hard. “This is the first time in years I’ve been able to get all of you in one big hug! I can’t help it! And I think Rosie likes being in the middle just fine!” He squeezed one last time before releasing them and stepping back. He rolled up his sleeves and undid two buttons on his shirt. “Okay, Rosie, you’ll have to help me with this. I don’t know the sigils as well as you do.”
She looked at him when Dave and Jade stepped away, hesitance clear in the hunch of her shoulders. Anxiety came to her face when Jade pushed up her own sleeves and opened her shirt enough to bare the top of her chest.
“If we do this,” she said quietly, “then you’ll all have these marks on you forever. They’re too complex to repaint every day—and if I use alchemy to put them into your skin, there’s no reversing it.”
Dave raised an eyebrow at her. “So? It’ll be like a tattoo. You’re actin’ like I don’t have a few of those already.”
“Yeah, that’s normal for tattoos,” he replied. “Look, we’re all ready for this, so get on with it, would ya?”
She opened her mouth to protest, but sighed. She summoned one of her needles and gestured to the chairs. When they had sat back down, she went to Dave. With a murmured apology and a quick flick of the needle, she cut a line on the side of his neck. He did not react beyond tilting his head; he remained quiet when she coated her fingers in his blood. As she began to paint the sigil on his chest, he went completely still.
“Are we going to use our own blood or just Dave’s?” John asked.
Jade spoke before Rose had a chance. “Ours. The sigils will connect best if they’re painted using materials from the bodies they’re on.”
“Correct,” Rose said absently. She returned her hands to the cut on Dave’s neck to refresh the blood and moved to his arms.
“Sorry, Egbert,” Dave said. “You still get cut.”
“I’m not complaining!” John said. “I just don’t know as much about alchemy involving the body as the girls do!”
Jade giggled. “You’re more about breaking stuff.”
“Hey, I make stuff, too! I just have so much mangrit in me that I’m more skilled as disassembling matter.”
“You’re fine, John,” Rose said. She finished the last marks in Dave’s palms and took her hands away to wipe them clean on her jeans. Looking at his eyes, she said, “Are you ready?”
“Fry me, sis.”
She put her hands flat on his chest, touching her thumb to either edge of the circle. Sparks shot along the blood, searing his chest before leaping down his arms to the sigils there. Dave grit his teeth when the lightning touched his palms, but kept his hands open. The electricity ceased when Rose took her hands away; the sigils steamed faintly.
“Well?” Rose said.
“Well what, sis?” Dave replied. “It hurt like a bitch, but my heart hasn’t stopped if you’re worried about it.”
She smiled slightly. “Feel like you can send people into the loving tentacles of the Elder Gods?”
“Can we try it on fish-face?”
She gently punched his shoulder before moving to John. He sat up straighter on her approach and fidgeted until she sighed and tweaked his nose. He stilled as she cut his neck, his breathing stuttering to a halt. He shivered at the warm smear of the blood painted on his chest and winced at the feel of it in his hands. When she cleaned her hands and looked at him, he swallowed once and nodded. A choked noise left him at the burn of the lightning, but he did not break away. Once the electricity vanished, he let out a brief groan.
“You weren’t lying about it hurting,” he muttered. He brought his hand to his chest and touched the sigil gingerly.
Rose turned toward Jade. She did not move; anxiety had come back to her face. Her mouth barely opened for an attempt at speech before she closed it again.
Jade sighed loudly through her nose. “Just come here and do it. You’re such a worrywart.”
With a begrudging smile on her face, she walked to stand before Jade’s chair. Jade smiled back at her and, pulling aside her hair, tilted her head to present her neck. She inhaled sharply at the cut but remained still. She waited through the painting of the sigil on her chest and offered up her arms when Rose needed them. Her fingers twitched at the touch bringing blood to her palms, but she did not pull away. She closed her eyes as Rose put her trembling hands to her chest. She nodded firmly; Rose set off the lightning. Her face tightened in pain and she let out a whimper, but she remained as still as John and Dave before her. A heavy sigh left her when Rose pulled back, and she opened her eyes to look at her arms.
“It’ll—the pain won’t last,” Rose said. “I’m sorry.”
Jade looked up to give her a smile. “It’s okay! We’re the ones who told you to do it, after all.”
Dave flexed his hands, straightening his fingers to stretch the palms. “Okay, so we’re all set to go kill Noir and send his demon soul back to the monster gods. Where’re we puttin’ the transmutation circle?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said. “I was hoping to get John’s input.”
John blinked, sitting back. He pointed at himself. “Wha—mine? Why mine?”
“You’re the one with more experience leading others,” Rose said. “You’re the one who was first mate on a gamblignant ship, and you know more than us about leading large groups in battle. I defer to you here.”
He blinked again, brows rising, and went quiet. He looked at the ground and slowly sat forward to put his elbows on his knees. He lifted a hand to his chin as his brows came together. “Leading everyone, huh?” He looked up to her and smiled. “That’s a lot of pressure to dump on a guy, Rosie.”
“I trust you,” she said, “and I’m sure everyone else does, too.”
He drew a deep breath and let it out in a humming sigh. “Well, if you guys want me to be the leader, I need to start making plans.” He stood up, cracking his knuckles as he went. “I’m gonna go find Vriska and Karkat. Vriska’s been a captain longer than I’ve been a first mate, and I think Karkat would be cranky if we didn’t let him in on a big plan like this.”
Dave pushed himself out of his chair and plucked his sword from the floor. Banishing it, he said, “Come up with something good. I want Noir out of our lives once and for all.”
John laughed and slapped Dave on the back, knocking the breath out of him. “Don’t worry! I’ve got a few good ideas already!” He turned to Rose and said, “For right now, why don’t you head back to your room? You should rest up as much as you can, since we don’t know when Eridan’s gonna come back with some important news.”
She lifted a brow. “Are we coddling me now?”
He held his thumb and forefinger close together. “A little. Just until we kill Noir for good.”
“Then you can go back to being your usual snarky broad self,” Dave said.
She sighed, but a smile curled her lips. “All right, fine. I’ll acquiesce.” She yelped when John grabbed her under the arms and lifted her off the ground. “Egbert, what in the hell are you doing?”
He grinned as he walked to the door and carried her along. “Making sure you actually head on back to your room! You’d probably just stay in here with Jade and talk if we didn’t make sure you left!” He set her down gently and opened the door. Slipping past her, lifting a hand in parting, he said, “Say hi to Miss Kanaya for me!”
Dave only patted Rose on the shoulder when he left, but Jade gave her a quick hug before pushing her along. She went in the opposite direction as Dave and John, walking down the long hallway toward the rest of the private rooms with her sock-covered heels padding faintly on the tiled floor. The hive manor was enormous; the wide, tall hallways made it feel like a deserted castle when it was quiet. Though it was just as quiet in her room when she opened the door, the glow inside kept the emptiness at bay.
Kanaya was stretched out on the couch, now sized for two, hands draped over the book in her lap. Her shoulders rose and fell in steady breathing. Rose closed the door gently and walked over as quietly as she could. She sat down and worked the book free from Kanaya’s hands. When she remained still with slumber, Rose lifted a hand to comb her fingers through her hair.
With a deep breath and a stretching shift of her body, Kanaya opened her eyes. She blinked slowly until catching sight of the gray hand near her face. Upon seeing Rose sitting beside her, she smiled. She caught hold of Rose’s hand and brought it to her lips to kiss her knuckles.
“I think this is the first time I’ve found you sleeping in the last two weeks,” Rose murmured. “But I guess I wasn’t really able to tell if you were sleeping when we first arrived.”
“I’ve been sleeping,” Kanaya replied. “Just not nearly as much as you.” She sat up slightly, shifting to lean against the back of the couch. She held out her arms and pulled Rose to her when she moved close enough. Pressing a kiss to Rose’s hair, she said, “I’m glad your dreams have been calm since we brought you back.”
“So am I.”
She let out a long sigh of a breath and settled Rose more firmly against herself. She began to pet her hair. “Did you finally tell the others about the plan you were thinking of?”
“Are you finally going to tell me what it is?”
Rose drew her legs up and curled around Kanaya. “Sending Noir to the Elder Gods using the resurrection formula. Now all of them have the sigils on their bodies like you and I do.”
“Do you realize you’ve started stroking my neck?”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“It depends on if you’re doing it because, as your voice suggests, you’re still drowsy from your interrupted sleep, or if you’re doing it because you’re trying to make me relax because you’re hungry.”
Silence. Her hand went still.
“That’s why you’re tired enough for me to catch you sleeping, isn’t it?” She took a deep breath and murmured, “It’s all right. You can take some of my blood.”
Kanaya began to draw her hands back. “I can’t ask that of you.”
Rose caught her hands and held fast. “Yes, you can. I don’t want you to be hungry like this.”
“When we may be on the verge of fighting Noir?”
“At all.” She brought one of Kanaya’s hands back to her neck, laying it over where her pulse could be easily felt. “You know I was there when Feferi said you’d need blood. I didn’t run away when I heard that. I just started waiting for you to ask for this.” She smiled gently. “But I guess I should have known that you wouldn’t ask for it, regardless of heightened aggression.”
A long pause came before she sighed. She took her other hand from Rose’s grasp and set it on her cheek. “You’re certain this is fine?”
“I’m not going to repeat myself much more, Kanaya. Go ahead.”
Her lips curled in a small, tired smile. She brought her hand up from Rose’s neck to rest it on her other cheek. “Look at my eyes.”
Rose smirked. “Are you actually going to use vampiric hypnotism on me?”
“I have no idea what ‘vampiric’ means, but rainbow drinkers are able to relax their—donors through certain methods.”
“Cunning word choice.”
“Just relax, keep your eyes open, and focus on me.”
Rose sighed, but did as she was told. Kanaya held her gaze steadily, eyes open completely. She stroked Rose’s cheeks gently with her thumbs. Rose blinked once, head tipping back. When she blinked again, her head rocked forward on its own. A faint, deep crooning welled up from Kanaya’s chest, and Rose’s shoulders slackened at the sound. She breathed slower and slower; her muscles relaxed bit by bit. The crooning gained a soft, meandering tune, and Rose’s eyelids flickered with the beat of it. When Kanaya tilted her head to one side, she was nearly limp; when Kanaya pressed her fangs into the flesh of her neck, she barely flinched.
At the first pulse of blood on her tongue, Kanaya began to purr. She drank carefully; she suckled gingerly. She let the blood seep into her mouth and swallowed without taking her fangs from Rose’s throat. After three half mouthfuls, she pulled herself away, remaining close enough to lap at the wounds to soothe their sting as they closed. She sat back, and her tongue flicked out naturally to catch an errant drop of blood from the tip of one fang.
Rose swayed where she sat a moment before slumping over Kanaya’s legs. Kanaya, eyes wide, caught her by the shoulders before she could hit the back of the couch.
“Rose?” she said. “Rose darling? Are you all right? I’m sorry—I took too much, I didn’t mean to—”
Rose patted one of her hands and gave her a weary, unfocused smile. “I’m fine. But that’s a very...strange sensation.”
“You’re certain you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just tired now. I already told you to not worry.” She leaned into Kanaya’s hands. “Just...hold me right now.”
“Hardly a difficult request to fulfill.” She moved them about, settling when she sat against the back of the couch with Rose in her lap. One hand moved to Rose’s neck to press fingertips to the wounds, and the other arm wrapped around her. “I think the tiredness will pass soon. I did my best to take only a little, but I may have guessed wrong on what ‘a little’ is for humans.”
Rose shushed her with hushes of breath between her teeth. “It’s all right. Do you feel less hungry now?”
“I do. Thank you.”
She hummed sleepily and let her head rock to one side to rest on Kanaya’s shoulder. For a time, she was silent; even her steady breathing was too soft to be heard. She brought her legs up to curl around Kanaya as best she could and nuzzled her head against her shoulder. Her silence broke only when Kanaya’s hand left her throat in favor of rubbing her back, and it was with a low sigh.
Voice barely audible, words slurred with exhaustion, she said, “Kanaya?”
“I don’t want you to die.”
Kanaya blinked and looked down. “I don’t intend to.”
“I don’t want anyone to die.”
“Darling, what are you talking about?”
“Noir. I don’t want anyone to die. I don’t want them to get killed.”
A long sigh left her. “I have taken too much. You’re rambling, darling. Everything’s going to be all right. You don’t have to worry about us. We’re not going to die.”
She took Kanaya’s shirt in hand, holding tight. “I don’t want to die.”
She pulled Rose even closer and kissed her hair. “We won’t let him kill you. I won’t let anyone hurt you like that.”
“I want to keep living. I want to be able to wear that dress you’re making for me.”
A moment passed where she was silent. Surprised laughter tumbled out of her mouth. “Have you been watching me work?”
She nodded against her neck.
“Oh, darling,” she laughed. She tilted her head to kiss Rose’s forehead. “You will. You’re the one who’s been saying there’s no reason we can’t kill Noir. We’ll be all right.”
“Do you promise?”
She almost chuckled again. She felt how tightly Rose’s hands gripped her shirt and stopped short. Kissing Rose’s head once more, she wrapped her up tighter in her arms. “I promise.”
Maplehoof was restless. As Rose guided her through the streets, she snorted and tossed her head from side to side. More than once, Rose was forced to pull back on the reins and make the horse stand still a moment. Her gray hands were stark against Maplehoof’s mane when she stroked it to soothe her. When she tapped her heels to Maplehoof’s sides to urge her forward, she always spoke softly to give her more directions.
Trolls murmured as they went by. Lowbloods all, dark green at the highest, they never looked her in the eye, but she caught sight of them staring sidelong. Every so often, she heard someone hiss “ain’t that one a them freak brigandrifts?” and fought the urge to reply. Only once did someone try to stop her, but Rose kicked him on instinct when he went for Maplehoof’s reins. The murmuring grew quieter after that, but the sidelong glances became direct stares.
It was pitch dark above; clouds sat low and thick in the sky. A lazy, steady rain flowed out of the clouds and droned in the background. Despite the muttering around her, there was no ambient city buzz to be heard. Maplehoof’s hooves clopped noisily on the pavement; her anxious noises were loud to the point of grating on Rose’s already fraying nerves. When she rounded a corner and saw Eridan standing at his post in the center of a wide, empty avenue, it was something of a relief to see him. He spun at the sound of hooves, rifle raised immediately. He held off on firing, though, and jerked his chin in a nod before lowering the rifle.
“No signs of him here?” Rose asked.
“Not a fuckin’ whisper,” he replied. “Or is it a woof with this thing?”
“Whisper is accurate, now that he’s capable of speech.” She stood up in the saddle slightly, looking about. “You’re sure there’s no sign of him anywhere?”
“Hey, did you see any a those stupid signal shots your giant human came up with? No? Then there ain’t been any fuckin’ signs a him.” He snorted. “Still can’t believe him and Vris came up with this stupid plan. Yeah, stick you freak lowbloods around the city all by yourselves. That’s not askin’ for the demon to just come up and kill you all one by one. Or hunters, for that fuckin’ matter.”
She sat down and looked at him with a hard eye. “How much have you told other highbloods about us?”
He sneered at her. “I’m not betrayin’ anyone, if that’s what you’re thinkin’. All I did was say the freak brigandrifts are still in the city. No where or when or about you bein’ as much of a monster as the demon.” He smirked and chuckled. “Not to mention your matesprit.”
“Why are you trying to make me angry right now?”
“Vris said you’re fuckin’ hot when you’re pissed.”
“Remind me to thank her as violently as I can when we’re done with this.” She paused and shook her head. “On second thought, she’d probably like that. In any case, I agree with John’s plan. It’s better to have everyone spread out. We can run more freely if we’re not trying to defend anyone else.”
“You still gotta get back to that circle thing you made in the middle of the city. You think you can get there from way out here without gettin’ your neck cut?”
“Maplehoof may not be a race horse, but she’s fast. I’m confident in her.”
He scoffed and said, “You better be. Fef’s got a lot ridin’ on your freak ass, and I don’t want my moirail gettin’ disappointed ‘cause a some slow hoofbeast.”
“Now is honestly not the time for awkward black flirting,” Rose said with a sigh. “I’ll cut you a deal. If you stop, I’ll pretend to entertain these come-ons after Noir is dead.”
Eridan considered it with his head faintly tilted and his eyes turned upward. After a moment, he nodded and said, “Deal.” He hesitated, lips curling in a new sneer. “I’m not makin’ any oaths with you, lowblood.”
“Like I would make an actual oath with the idiot who tried—repeatedly—to kill Kanaya. Just do me one favor right now, Ampora.”
“But it’s so fucking boring!” he said, voice pitching high with whining. “You’re the only person that comes near me in this whole stupid arrangement, and I’ve been standin’ here for hours waitin’ for stuff to start!”
She opened her mouth to fire back a retort, but the intended sentence died on her tongue. “Wait—‘start’? What do you mean by ‘start’?” Her hands tightened on the reins. “You said you didn’t betray us.”
“I didn’t, you paranoid freak.” He jerked his chin up, looking into the sky. “You’re tellin’ me you don’t feel that?”
“Forgive me for not being as connected with nature as you, but feel what?”
“There’s murder in the air, Ros,” he murmured. “People are gonna die today.”
“I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I have no intention of letting anyone die any time soon.”
A horn honked above them.
Eridan turned his gaze from the sky to the rooftops and found Gamzee standing on a ledge not ten feet overhead. In his left hand was his horn; he fondled it lovingly. In his right hand was his club; congealing yellow-green blood oozed and dripped from it. He grinned widely, head swaying from side to side, and stepped off the rooftop. He strode toward them, arms swinging.
“Hey there, my fishy brother,” he said gently. “I heard that you’ve been hangin’ around lowbloods the last few days. It’s a motherfuckin’ miracle that you’re really down here.”
“Gam,” Eridan replied, crossing his arms. “What do you want?”
“I want to know what the fuck that little demon witch is still doing alive!” Gamzee screamed, spittle flying from his fangs.
Without turning his head, Eridan looked at Rose. She sat stock-still in the saddle, eyes wide and lips parted. Maplehoof chuffed and danced anxiously in place. Sighing loudly, Eridan moved in and caught hold of the reins. As he pulled the horse into stillness, he said, “I bought her.”
Gamzee’s head tilted and his chin lifted. He looked them up and down, and his voice dropped into a low rumble. “You bought her?”
“Yeah,” he said with a lazy shrug. “What’s it to you?”
“You let me have her before, sea dweller!” Gamzee roared. “What the fuck are you doing buying a heretic you gave up to my graces?”
“It’s not my problem about how she got away from your, ah, ‘graces’ before, Gam.” He sighed wearily. “Let’s go, little freak. I have things I want cleaned.” He tugged at the reins, but Rose did not let him pull them away. He sneered at her and reached up to grab her by the wrist. “I said, let’s go.”
The fury in Gamzee’s face slithered into sharp glee. He drew closer to them, feet shuffling slow and quiet over the pavement. He chuckled and said, “Looks like your pet doesn’t want to clean your sea-salt coated shit, brother. Looks like you’re scaring her. Maybe what she really wants is to see a miracle.”
“We don’t have any fuckin’ time for your miracle shit tonight, Gam,” Eridan snapped. He drew himself up to his full height, throwing back his shoulders, but he was still left looking up toward Gamzee’s face and the growing smile there. “This is my slave now, not one a your heretics, so if you try to take her away—”
“Then motherfucking what, Ampora?” Gamzee shrieked. He clamped his fingers down over the hand Eridan had around Rose’s wrist, the horn honking as his grip tightened, and grabbed hold of his collar with his other hand. The spikes of the club squealed as they moved against Eridan’s glasses. “Then what? Here’s the end of your story tonight! The lord highblood Eridan fucking Ampora gets his slave taken away from him and cries like a pathetic, powerless little wriggler! It’s the perfect joke!”
Eridan’s gills flared; his lips pulled back to show his neat needle fangs. “I order you to let me go, land dweller. You’ve got no fuckin’ right to treat a sea dweller like this, indigo blood or not.”
The laugh that left Gamzee was giddy and soft, and he pulled Eridan up onto his toes as he leaned in. “Why the fuck is that, fish-shit? It’s not like you’re really someone special with that magenta blood of yours. You’re just runnin’ around playin’ badass for the chick who wants to be empress.”
A flush of rich magenta flowed into his cheeks as rage twisted his face. “How dare you! You take back what you said about Fef!”
“Or motherfucking what, sea dweller?” he howled. “You’ll cull me? You’ll try to cull a servant of the messiahs? You’re already standin’ in my fuckin’ way by taking my demon witch and not giving her up! I want her blood, Ampora! If you don’t give her up, you’re just another blasphemous bastard!” He chuckled, and his voice dropped as he murmured, “And you know exactly what I do to blasphemous bastards.”
Rose slammed her foot into Gamzee’s face; the crunch of his nose breaking was audible over the rain. He let them go and stumbled back, bringing his hands to his face to catch the blood pouring from his nose. When he looked up at her, she was staring at him with wide, stunned eyes. Her foot dropped as her leg went limp. As the fury returned to his face, worse than before, she began to hyperventilate. She trembled violently and tried to curl in on herself.
Eridan vaulted onto Maplehoof’s back and shoved Rose forward in the saddle to drop behind her. He snatched hold of the reins and held on through Maplehoof’s rearing at the sudden weight on her back. When she dropped down, he snapped the reins and kicked his heels into her sides. With a wild whinny, she bolted away from Gamzee and galloped down the road.
“I can’t believe you fuckin’ kicked him!” Eridan said with a laugh. “Good job, Ros!”
Rose said nothing, instead curling forward to hide her face in her hands. With his arms against his shoulders, Eridan could feel her shaking.
“Knock it off!” he barked. “We ain’t got time for you to go off the rails ‘cause a Gam!”
Lightning crackled in the clouds, skittering wildly here and there. At the first strike of the ground and the rolling thunderclap, Maplehoof whinnied again and reared back. Eridan brought her back down and goaded her on, weaving them through crowds and along streets. The rain began to fall harder as more lightning struck the city. The storm grew stronger rapidly, and trolls left the streets with equal speed. When Rose lifted her head, she started.
“St-stop!” she said.
“You’re taking us off John’s routes! Go back!”
“Fuck the routes,” he snapped. “You’re losin’ your shit ‘cause a Gam, and I don’t really feel like dealin’ with a freak who’s freaked. We’re scrubbin’ for today.”
“You’re the one who said there’s murder in the air!” she shouted in return. “If you’re right and Noir appears, I’m not going to be the one who’s not there! Take us back to the routes!”
“We don’t know how much intel Gam’s got on how we’re movin’! The routes are compromised now! We’re scrubbin’ today!”
Rose grabbed the reins and pulled them clean out of Eridan’s hands. Maplehoof snorted and tossed her head at the sudden change, and again when Rose bade her stop. Though Eridan opened his mouth to argue, he caught sight of the sky above and went silent.
The lightning had become a storm in its own right, lashing from cloud to cloud and to city below. Green was seeping into the white of the electricity, casting a sickly shade on the world. The Thorns of Oglogoth appeared in Rose’s hands, trapped between her palms and the reins. As they spat sparks of their own up Rose’s arms, a massive green bolt struck down in the distance to their left. Moments later, another bolt of green flew back into the sky. Upon reaching the clouds, the bolt exploded into bright blue starlight.
“Oh Christ,” Rose sad. “He’s by John.”
“By John?” said Eridan. His eyes widened. “Then he’s by Vris?”
As if to answer him, a new flash of blue appeared: a brief tower of blue flames.
“I know that fuckin’ fire!” he said. “He’s fightin’ Vris! He’s goin’ after my kismesis!” He leaped from Maplehoof and drew his rifle the moment his feet touched the ground.
“What are you doing?”
“Goin’ after the demon’s that’s tryin’ to kill Vris! No one gets to kill her but me!”
“And what about scrubbing the day’s plans?”
“Fuck that, Ros! Get your ass down to the circle thing!” He cocked the rifle and gave her a sharp grin. “If the demon’s still alive after me and Vris are through with him, you’re gonna need to be ready for him.”
For a moment, she stared at him. Despite her shaking, she smirked and adjusted her grip on the needles and the reins. “Someone likes to play hero.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Not bad, just terribly amusing.” She pulled on the reins to turn Maplehoof to the side. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
“Right back at you, lowblood.” With a flick of his hand in parting, he dashed away. She watched him until he vanished down another street. Swallowing hard, she looked back. The rain pounded so hard on the roofs above they were blurry with mist. The lightning continued to lash out, striking the ground in the distance and jumping from cloud to cloud. She stared up at the rooftops; her shoulders still trembled. A bolt struck close enough for the thunderclap to be cacophonous, and Maplehoof whinnied loudly and reared. Barely managing to keep from falling, Rose brought Maplehoof down and rubbed her neck.
“Can’t wait forever,” she muttered. She forced the trembling to leave her hands and patted Maplehoof’s neck. “Ready to go?” Maplehoof nodded her head and looked back at Rose. She danced from side to side anxiously, and Rose chuckled.
“Well,” she said, “if you’re going to put your cowardice aside, I will, too.” She tightened her grip and sat up properly. Taking a deep breath dispelled the last of her shaking, and she clicked her tongue sharply and kicked her heels into Maplehoof’s sides. As they rushed onward, Rose heard an explosion, muffled though it was by the rain. Glancing away from the street let her see blue smoke just before the rain battered it to the ground. It was some distance from where the flames had been, moving toward the center of the city. She brought her attention back toward driving Maplehoof as fast as the roads would let them pass.
The storm was wicked enough to have driven almost every troll off the streets, and it was only narrow alleys that slowed them greatly. It was abruptly, then, that Rose forced Maplehoof to stop, and the horse protested with loud huffs and hard shakes of her head. Rose ignored her; she stood in the stirrups and twisted back and forth to cast her gaze about. Though the streetlamps were all aglow, she could not see the writing on the posts on the corners. Flicking a needle sent lightning to the nearest post, and the burst of light was enough to let her read the sign. The street name was one she only vaguely recalled from the maps John had set before them; she no longer knew where she was.
Rose felt her stomach drop into her feet. She fell back into the saddle and pulled Maplehoof around. Another shot lit up the next nearest sign, but the name was no more familiar than the one before it. Grimacing, she urged Maplehoof down another alleyway and flicked lightning at the first signpost she saw. Again, it was an unfamiliar name. She swore aloud and threw another bolt to the next sign. When she found yet another unknown street, she dismounted and shot lightning into the sidewalk. A staircase of stone grew from the street, tall enough to reach the lowest rooftop. She dashed up it and looked about once she was at the top.
A fire of deep crimson was eating at city blocks despite the rain. She squinted through the downpour and saw that at least one small building at been demolished, straight on from the fire and moving in a steady line inward. She followed the natural course of that line and spotted the empty space of the great plaza at the city’s center. She traced the streets leading from the plaza over and over until they were all but branded into her mind and ran back down the stone stairs.
The rain continued to torrent down; the lightning still flashed. She drove Maplehoof hard, winding around corners with fast tugs on the reins. Straight-aways were galloped down at top speed; the chill of the night and the rain made Maplehoof’s breath appear in great steaming clouds. The streets forced them to move on an angle, veering to the right. There were almost no trolls left wandering the roads, but the further from Noir’s destruction they went, the more noise Rose heard.
Over the rattle of the rain, she heard low rumbling. Sharp cracks spoke of breaking stone, and she pulled back on the reins to make Maplehoof slow from a gallop to a swift trot. She looked about, tilted her head as far back as she could without the rain pouring over the brim of her hat. She could not put a location to any sound; the cracks echoed strangely in the downpour. Frowning, she pulled on the reins to make Maplehoof stop entirely. Neither horse nor woman stayed still: Maplehoof’s ears twitched as Rose twisted this way and that in her searching for the sound.
The rumbling grew fiercer, hard enough to feel the shaking in the ground. Rose turned one way, but she yelped when Maplehoof began a new sprint down the street. She wrapped her arms around the reins and opened her mouth to shout a reprimand, but the roar of shattering stone behind them silenced her. Letting Maplehoof run free, she looked back. A massive troll she did not recognize was encased in a purple flickering psionic flame, and his struggling was audible even as Maplehoof fled. He wrenched himself free of the flame and unfolded from the rubble of the building he had been thrown through. She saw him look after her and spun back around to face forward and urge Maplehoof on.
Ahead, the street was broken in half. The road had been narrow for some time already, but it was high over the ground as well. The rain’s cacophony redoubled as it struck the street beneath them and flowed over onto the roads below. As they sped along, the road sloped downward to return to firm ground. Over the noise of the rain and Maplehoof’s hooves clattering on the pavement, Rose heard two sounds. The first was the recognizably powerful shouting from the troll behind them; it made her snap the reins to quicken Maplehoof’s gallop. The second was the throaty roar of an engine, even more familiar to her than the sound of her horse’s breathing.
Dave shot by on his motorcycle as they came to the end of the high road, casting curtains of mist from his tires. It seemed as though he was abandoning them with his speed, but the thrum of the engine died down abruptly. A new crest of water slashed into the rain from his back tire as he spun the bike around. He revved the engine to make it roar louder than before and came back faster than he had left. As he drew close, he summoned his sword; lightning snapped along its edge. He let go of the handlebars entirely and held his sword high. When he reached Rose, he tipped himself off the bike and slashed it as he fell.
The bike all but soared up the street, covered in lightning and glowing bright red. It slammed into the troll just as he crested the slope and exploded in a flash of hellish green fire. Dave pulled himself out of the thick, soft mud he had alchemized in falling and got to his feet. He took hold of the hand Rose held out and clambered up to sit behind her.
“Get a move on, sis,” he groaned. “Captor’ll do his damndest to keep him off our asses, but Zahhak ain’t gonna stay down too long. ‘Sides, we don’t wanna be late to ventilatin’ Noir’s hellhound heart.”
“Are you able to ride after a fall like that?”
He lifted a brow over his cracked and bent sunglasses. He plucked the glasses off, tossed them aside, and tapped his sides with his sword. Though he bit down on a curse at the sting of the electricity, he said, “There, no more busted ribs. Let’s get a fuckin’ move on already.”
She could not argue against him, and so kicked Maplehoof’s sides to start their run anew. “Why are you and Captor here? He’s off his post, and you’re supposed to be going to the transmutation circle.”
“Sure, bust my chops,” he replied. “Nice to see you, too. Happy to have helped your ass get away from Zahhak. No need for thanks, sis. I won’t even mention that you’re completely off your route and all over mine.”
“How did you know I needed help? I didn’t send up any flares.”
“I didn’t know. That whackjob Makara sold Terezi out, and Zahhak came after me and her. We got some help in bookin’ it—that psionic palooka Captor was on Zahhak’s tail before he even got to us, and he’s been doin’ his best to cover my ass.”
“That explains the colors before. Where’s Terezi now?”
He took one arm from around her waist and pointed in the distance. “Swing a left on that street.” When she had done so, he said, “Her and her squeeze are goin’ to get her sky monster. We gotta be ready to haul all our asses outta here once Noir’s dead. Remember to not look at its eyes when it’s around.”
“Noted.” She paused. “I’m sorry about your bike.”
“Right and a left after two blocks,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter. That was a copy. I stashed the real deal back at Peixes’ place. Don’t get all sentimental on me right now, sis. I got a feelin’ this shit’s gonna get rough, and the last thing we need is you worryin’ about a wrecked bike.”
“Are you accusing me of sentimentality, brother?”
“I don’t know. Is that still our old lady’s scarf on you?”
She elbowed him in the ribs a touch too hard to be considered gentle. He flicked her in the back of the head, but helped when Rose snapped the reins to make Maplehoof surge forward.
“When we dust outta here, I’m tellin’ ‘Rezi to leave your fuckin’ horse behind,” he grumbled.
She laughed. “It’s comforting to know your rapier wit is untarnished by nerves.”
“Good to see you’re still a snarky broad despite that grimdark shit.” He tightened his grip around her a moment. “You stay like this, y’hear?”
“I promised you already, brother. Stop fretting.”
He chuckled. “Fine.” He sat up and settled firmly on the saddle. “Ready to go kill Jack Noir, Rose?”
“I was ready the moment he killed our mother, Dave.”
“Good.” He closed his hands over hers to take hold of the reins. Snapping them, kicking his heels into the horse’s sides, he shouted, “All right, Maplehoof! Show us how much of a bangtail you can be!”
The plan had been simple. They set themselves in a broken shape around the city; some roamed closer to the transmutation circle than others. Jade and Karkat remained at the circle, Karkat on the ground to drive off any passersby and Jade on the rooftops to cover the streets with her rifle. It was in the plan to fire off signal flares when Noir was spotted; it was in the plan for everyone to head toward the circle upon seeing the flares. Those closest to Noir’s location would do their best to converge on him and weaken him before his arrival.
It was not in the plan to have hunters surge into the streets at John’s firing of a flare.
John had placed Tavros and Aradia directly opposite his and Vriska’s position, and they had been skirting the edges of the highblood section of the city. Fortune favored them, though, as they were put on edge instantly at the sight of the flare; when the hunters rushed at them, they were more than primed to fight.
The first attack was made by Aradia. She lashed out with the Bane of Mars, and the tails spat lightning when the whip cracked. Three trolls dropped to their knees screaming because the lightning destroyed their eyes. The fourth troll’s charge on Aradia was ruined by Tavros dashing forward to run the man through with his lance. Two more women leaped from a rooftop, but Aradia caught them in a telekinetic grip and slammed them to the ground hard enough to crack the pavement.
Catching sight of another trio pouring out of a nearby alley, Tavros plunged his lanced into the ground. The lightning shot along the ground till it reached the trolls, and great spikes were birthed at their feet to kill them. As the blood ran down the spikes, the rain beat and stirred it into a dark slurry that sluiced onto the stone.
Tavros caught Aradia by the elbow. “C’mon!” he said. “We have to get to the circle!” He pulled his lance from the stone and aimed it toward the sky. Before he could cast lightning into the clouds, Aradia grabbed his arm and tugged.
“If we send up a flare, it’ll make everyone think Noir teleported over here!” she said. “The others will find out about the hunters soon enough.” As she let go of his arm, she smiled. “I think fighting hunters will be a lot easier than taking down the demon.”
He looked at her a moment before returning her smile. They reached out in time with one another to tap their fingertips together. When the next wave of hunters arrived, they only saw Tavros and Aradia’s backs as they sprinted away.
When John had announced that Kanaya and Rose would not patrol near each other, but would be stationed directly opposite to each other on opposite sides of the city, he was met with two hard glares and a stern, sharp “no” from Kanaya. It took Karkat explaining that it was his part of the plan to make them begrudgingly acquiesce. The argument he made was that they would remain more focused if separated; he said when the flare went up, they would be fighting to reach each other.
That was entirely the truth when the first six hunters started their assault on Kanaya at the sight of John’s flare. She had turned on them with more fury than they would have expected from a lowblood, and they faltered at seeing both her rage and her glowing skin. Two trolls lost their heads before the rest of the group pulled themselves together. She revved her chainsaw fiercely, and the lightning that was caught in the saw’s teeth disintegrated the sword that a hunter swung at her head. The man stared at the space where his sword had been with his mouth agape before the chainsaw came down on his shoulder and ripped him apart.
As the man fell in pieces, one of the remaining trio sprinted around to Kanaya’s back and leaped at her with knives in her hands. She wrenched her chainsaw free of the man’s carcass and dodged aside, but one blade still slashed into her upper arm. The woman barked a laugh, but the laughter died when the wound did not gush with blood. It was an open wound, to be certain, but blood barely moved from it to stain Kanaya’s shirt sleeve. With a snarl, she turned on the stunned woman, revved the chainsaw again, and ran her through.
The last two hunters made their move in the form of a charge meant to knock Kanaya from her feet. She dropped her chainsaw and caught the man who tried to tackle her by his throat. A twist of her hands cracked his neck. Her grip had been tight enough to break skin, and his azure blood showed on her fingers when she let him drop to the ground. She released him to free her hands and caught the sword swinging at her head barehanded. She wrenched the sword from the woman’s hands and grabbed her by the neck.
“How many of you are there?” she snarled. “How did you know where to find us?”
“It’s not hard to find a bunch of lowbloods and freaks where they shouldn’t be,” the woman spat. “Especially when they’re idiots and they walk around staring up at the sky!”
“Do you understand that if you kill any one of my comrades, you could doom all of Alternia?”
“Better than leaving it in your hands, lowblood! Once we kill you, we’re going after the rest of your rebellion!” She laughed, showing all her fangs. “Her Imperious Condescension wants us to go from the top down, starting with Peixes! We’ll get your leader, and then we’ll rip apart the freak brigandrifts!”
She opened her mouth to continue talking, but Kanaya slammed her jaw shut with a hard punch to her chin. Before the woman could react, Kanaya swept in, wrapped her arms around the woman, and bit deep into her neck. Dark blue blood gushed from the bites; the woman thrashed in pain. Kanaya drank, swallowing only when her mouth was full. Within minutes, the woman went limp and heavy. When no more blood came into her mouth, Kanaya let her crumple to the ground.
Swallowing once more to drag all the blood from her mouth down her throat, she wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. She held it out into the rain to let it rinse the blood off and bent down to pick up her chainsaw when her hand was clean. Taps of the saw to her palms and arm healed the cuts there, and she sprinted away before the lightning faded from her skin.
As she ran, she veered to the right and kept her gaze at the level of the rooftops. It helped her spot hunters planning to pounce on her and interrupt their leaps with swipes of her chainsaw, but it let her track Noir’s movements. A blue-hued explosion here and bursts of green lightning there kept her on track to hunt him down as he approached with John and Vriska leading him on.
The roads had sloped steadily upward as she ran, and thus she found herself standing at a ledge surveying the fight below. Eridan was standing at a distance, rifle raised and jittering back and forth as he tried to aim. John and Vriska were stuck; Vriska tried to drive Noir forward while John kept him from escaping. It was too close range to throw her dice, and so Vriska duel toe-to-toe with Noir. Her hook-ended sword struck his black blade, the metal scraping and shrieking loudly.
“Fuckin’ hell, Vris!” Eridan shouted. “Will you stop dancin’ around so I can shoot him in the head?”
She laughed at him while slashing at Noir’s throat. “What happened to the best shot on aaaaaaaall of Alternia?”
“He keeps gettin’ blocked by the biggest loudmouth on Alternia!” he replied. “Hold him still!”
She made to snap out a reply, but her words were lost in a yelp as she ducked under a swing aimed at her head. Eridan aimed at Noir’s open, snarling mouth and pulled the trigger. The bolt caught Noir full on the tongue; his head rocked back with the force of the blast. Before Eridan could laugh in triumph, Noir’s jaws clamped shut around the growing explosion. He swallowed slowly, visibly, and let his steaming tongue hang out of his mouth when he opened it again.
John came in swinging his hammer and landed a blow on the white scar across Noir’s chest. Noir barked a cough as he was thrown back, but landed on his feet. He barely had time to block Vriska’s sword as she rushed in and stabbed at his head. He growled at her as he parried the flurry of strikes, but she grinned in return and relented enough to let him strike back. She ducked away from a blow aimed at her throat and gave Eridan another shot. The bolt from his gun struck Noir between the eyes and his fur caught blue fire. One-armed as he was, he dropped his sword to slap at the flames as they crept toward his eyes.
Laughing, Vriska swept in and caught Noir’s elbow with the hook of her sword. She wrenched his arm away, and laughed again when the blade ripped a line down his arm to the wrist and his red blood spurted into the world. He howled again, whipping his head back and forth as he stepped away. She took her left hand from her sword, plunged it into the pockets of her coat, and drew out her hooked dagger. As she lifted the dagger high, John shouted wordlessly and Kanaya leaped from her ledge.
Noir, smiling, surged forward as the fire vanished from his fur. His hand clamped down on Vriska’s head; the claw on his thumb pierced her left eye. Before she could wrench away, he opened his mouth wide and slammed his jaws shut high on her left arm. The crack of the bone shattering was audible just before Vriska screamed. Her heels slipped on the soaked pavement as she tried to pull away; her sword and dagger splashed down into a puddle.
With a blood-filled, bubbling laugh, Noir bit down hard and wrenched his head to one side. Vriska’s arm came away in his teeth, and he threw her into John as he ran forward. He dropped his hammer to catch her and her blood splattered over him. His feet slipped in the puddles of rain and blood and he brought them both to the ground.
“Oh, God—Vriska!” He slung one arm beneath her and gripped her left shoulder tight. He brought his other hand to her face, grimacing at the coolness of the blood pouring from her ruined eye. “Just hang on and I’ll—I’ll go get your arm and I’ll fix you!”
Another wicked crack made him look up. He watched, mouth agape, as Noir smiled at him and ate Vriska’s arm, bones and all, in massive mouthfuls.
“You fucking asshole!” Vriska shrieked. “Nobody eats me!” She shoved hard against John’s chest to roll out of his lap, but could not find balance enough to get back to her feet. She pitched forward, hitting the ground when she could not catch herself with one arm. With a grunt, she rolled onto her back and reached her one remaining hand into the pouch on her belt. Before she could pull her dice free, John sprinted past her.
When Noir jumped back and the hammer came down, it was John’s strength alone that shattered the pavement and threw stones high into the air. He stepped in hard to follow Noir in his retreat, swinging his hammer too quickly for Noir to summon his sword and block it. His eyes were massive; his teeth were bared in a grimace. Swing after swing made Noir retreat further and further from Vriska, but there was no strategy in the strikes. It was rage that moved John, and it was because he had no plan that he fell through Noir’s body when he flickered out of reality. He hit the ground, the air in his lungs leaving him in a rush, and rolled over slowly to stare up at Noir and the sword stabbing through the rain toward his chest.
Eridan shot Noir in the back of the head over and over before the sword reached flesh. Tiny bursts of blue fire caught in his fur, dancing on the tips of his ears, but the flames died almost instantly. The force of the bolts was still enough to rock Noir and drive him step by stumbling step away from John, and Vriska pulled herself along the ground to where John lay. As Kanaya dashed in and swiped at Noir with her chainsaw, Vriska shoved herself upright, found her balance, and slapped John hard across the face.
“Stop being stupid and fix me!” she snapped.
He stared at her, barely reacting to the sound of gunfire and the noise of a chainsaw against a sword. “But your arm—”
“If you or Noir think that Vriska Serket is going to be taken out of a fight because I lost one fucking arm, then you’re both idiots! Just stop the bleeding and we’ll deal with it later!” When he remained still, she smirked and tweaked his nose. “Come on, you silly dumb boy. It’s an order from your captain.”
For another moment, he was still. The moment passed and he gave her a small smile in return. He summoned his hammer and tapped near both of her injuries. Though she squirmed and cursed with the pain, she immediately grabbed hold of the hand he held out upon standing. They got her back to her feet, and she returned her hand to the pouch on her belt the moment he let her go.
Kanaya and Eridan had taken over John and Vriska’s roles. While Eridan kept Noir from retreating with precision shots, Kanaya drove him forward. He had stared unabashedly at her when she appeared, his eye wide and gaze confused. The first chunk she had cut from his armless shoulder had driven the confusion from him and left behind only rage. That rage grew from a rumble to a roar as she matched his speed and strength. They snarled in tandem, each sound coming in response to blows that landed roughly on them. The worst of the blows never met flesh: Noir blurred out of the world when the chainsaw came at his neck, and Eridan made sure to aim a bolt at Noir’s head whenever his sword came too close to Kanaya.
A fierce shove from Noir sent Kanaya skidding backward through the water caught in the street. She brought her chainsaw up in a guard before her as Noir rushed at her, sword raised. From the corner of one eye, she saw Eridan drop down to one knee. Before either of them could make their move, Vriska’s dice went flying past them. They hit the ground, landing in a puddle at Noir’s feet and finishing their roll abruptly. Blue-hued lightning shot from the dice and wound around Noir in a cage, and he howled as the electricity stabbed at him.
He wrenched his body free of the cage, stumbling away as he curled at the waist. He snarled, frothy spittle dripping from his muzzle. His body shuddered; the great black wings that had carried him away long ago reappeared on his back. With another great howl, he flapped his wings and began to rise off the ground. There was barely a yard between his clawed toes and the ground before Eridan fired a shot into his ruined eye socket. Noir screamed at the pain of the bolt, but went silent when Kanaya leaped into the air after him and lopped off one of his wings.
Surprise had muted him by the time he hit the ground. Blood poured from the stump of his wing; he watched it flow onto the pavement with a narrow eye. He rose slowly from his knees, head twisted to try and see the wound. When he tried to banish the wings, remove the source of the pain, he was unable to do so. His eye widened. He stared a moment longer before turning to look at the others. His gaze fell on Kanaya. Just as before, the surprise and confusion left him all at once for rage.
“You bitch!” he screamed at her. “You filthy little bitch! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you for this!”
Kanaya replied, “Good luck,” and turned on heel to sprint away with the others right behind her.
Karkat was nothing if not an active leader. When Tavros and Aradia arrived at the circle with ten hunters trailing behind them, he shouted for Jade to get down on the streets and open fire as he charged into the fray. They killed five hunters apiece, and Karkat whirled on Tavros and Aradia with blue and azure blood splattered on him.
“What the fuck happened?” he snapped.
“Eridan spreading rumors about the humans worked too well,” Aradia said. “They were just waiting for a real sign of them.”
“Just what we need with the demon on his way here.” He flicked his sickles to cast the blood from them. He looked this way and that, moving his eyes slowly. Eventually, he gestured to two wide avenues leading into the circle. “Lalonde and Strider are coming in on those roads. You two stand watch there and take down whoever’s on their asses.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at Jade. “Harley’ll cover Egbert and Serket’s street.”
“What about you?” Tavros asked.
“I’ll take care of whatever comes in later.” He grimaced a moment. “I’d like to hope that Makara doesn’t know where we are, but that’d be pretty fucking stupid of me.” He shook his head and cast the grimace from his face before gesturing toward the streets again. “Get your asses over there and get ready. I don’t want this shit storm getting any worse.”
They nodded and sprinted to their respective positions. Karkat began to prowl at a rapid pace at the edges of the square, peering down the alleys and narrow streets as he went. Whenever he spotted a troll emerging into the square, Karkat bolted to the end of the street and cut down the stragglers who made it through the hail of bullets. Behind him, he heard the dying screams of the hunters that tried to attack the others and smiled grimly for it. The sound of hooves clattering did not make him hesitate when he was in the middle of another group of hunters; it instead made him swing faster and harder to be able to turn about sooner. He nearly faltered at the sight of Rose and Dave both atop Maplehoof, but he ran to them as they dismounted and Rose sent Maplehoof away.
“Why are you two idiots together?” he barked. He jabbed a finger toward Dave and snapped, “You’re supposed to have Terezi with you—” He turned his finger toward Rose. “And you’re supposed to have Ampora!”
“Change of plans, rag-a-muffin,” Dave said. “We had Zahhak comin’ after us, so we split up.”
“Then who’s dealing with Zahhak? Did you kill him?”
“Captor’s beatin’ on his ass.”
“And we have Gamzee Makara’s sudden appearance to thank for my being off course,” Rose said.
“Great,” Karkat snarled. “Just what we need with the demon breathing down our necks.” He closed his mouth and looked at the ground in thought. The moment died with more gunfire, and he spun immediately to attend to a new group of hunters. Though he killed them, a low roar sounded from all around the city square. He walked backward slowly, casting his eyes about. All at once, dozens of hunters poured out of the alleys and streets and into the square, weapons and fangs bared and eyes wild.
One of the hungers swaggered forward, smirking as he moved. He looked at each of them, eyes roving slowly. When he saw Karkat, his smirk grew broader.
“The lowly mutant Vantas!” the man said with a laugh. “Nice to finally meet the freak who’s been such a fucking thorn in our side. And you’ve brought so many friends with you!” His gaze turned to Rose. “Is this the freak alchemist we’ve heard about?” He snickered. “You’ve got a huge bounty on your head, brigandrift, you know that?”
“I fail to see how that’s important in relation to what’s happening currently,” she replied.
The man stared at her, lips faintly parted. He looked from Rose to his compatriots and back again with incredulity in his face. “Are you serious? It’s important because we’re here for your head!”
“Has anyone informed you of the demonic creature tearing through the city?” she asked. “The one that’s caused considerable damage already?”
“What about the demon?”
“You really wanna do a song and dance with Noir?” Dave said. He leaned around Rose and gestured with his sword. “I think you’re gonna get your chance right now.”
Everyone turned in time to see Kanaya sprint in from the street. Noir, limbs lengthened like a hound’s, charged in behind her. He leaped at her, claws outstretched, but a pair of blue bolts from behind knocked him to the ground. When he tried to get to his feet, more shots from Eridan and Jade’s rifles threw him back down. John, Vriska, and Eridan ran by him, stopping only when they and Jade had reached Dave, Rose, and Kanaya. Though Eridan and Jade continued to fire at him, Noir flickered out of existence to dodge his next few shots. He took to his feet and swung his head back and forth to look about; he stopped only when he saw Rose.
“You think this is going to help, mother?” he snarled. “Getting all these people around you?” He pointed to Kanaya, his face twisting with rage. “I’m going to kill her, mother! I’m going to kill her over and over and I’m going to make you watch!” He swiped his arm through the air and roared, “I’m going to kill everyone here!”
The leader of the hunters threw a knife at Noir’s head. He faltered when Noir caught it in his fangs and bit it in half, but he stood tall and puffed out his chest. He said, “Don’t get so fucking cocky, demon! You’re outnumbered and outmatched!”
For a moment, Noir was still. He stared at the man with as much disbelief in his face as the man had shown to Rose before. The disbelief faded slowly, replaced with a deep, dark smile He stood even taller, twisting against the kilter his body had from the uneven weight of his mangled wings. He chuckled and said, “You’re a fucking idiot.”
The troll opened his mouth to shout back a response, but Noir teleported to stand in front of him. Before the man could speak, Noir plunged his claws through his throat and ripped off his head. The other hunters howled at the sight and charged as one at Noir. Laughing, summoning his sword, Noir began to fell the trolls as though they were weeds.
All at once, John, Dave, Jade, and Rose sprinted toward the fray, catalysts in hand. Karkat moved next, chasing down John at the head of the group. Were it not for the near foot of height and many more pounds of weight John had in his favor, Karkat would have tackled him to the ground. The others stopped as they struggled, giving Aradia, Tavros, Eridan, Vriska, and Kanaya time enough to catch up.
“Let go!” John said. “We have to go help them!”
“No the fuck we don’t!” Karkat snarled.
Jade caught one of Karkat’s arms and pulled him away from John. She said, “We can’t just let them get killed!”
“We were going to kill them if they got in our way! Let Noir kill them for us!”
John took Karkat by the shoulders and shook him once. “I don’t want to let him kill anyone else! He’s already killed so many people because we haven’t been able to stop him, and I don’t want any more people to die because of us!”
“If we let him keeping killing, he’s going to forget us,” Jade said. “They won’t be able to stop him from escaping. We can’t let him get away—not when we’re this close!”
Karkat opened his mouth but did not speak.
“And do you really want to give the other major whackjobs to catch up with us?” Dave asked. “The more time we waste lettin’ Noir hack these palookas up, the more time their bosses got to find us. We gotta do this fast and dust faster.”
He hesitated. He looked to Kanaya. When she nodded, he jerked his chin in return. He pulled free of John’s hands, scowling, and summoned his sickles. He looked at each of the humans in turn, ending with Rose. “Got a plan?”
“Scatter the trolls and make Noir focus on us again,” she replied.
“Do you have a plan to make that happen, witch-bit—” He shook his head fiercely. “Lalonde?”
She summoned the Thorns of Oglogoth and smirked. “Go all out.”
He returned her smirk. “Finally! A good plan from you!” He turned to the others and raised one sickle high. “Let’s fuck them up!”
As the rest of the group charged in, Eridan and Jade immediately brought their rifles to bear and fired into the melee. Their shots struck their targets in the chest: Eridan’s bolt tore straight through the troll while Jade’s lightning bounced wildly from person to person and seared their flesh. Noir paused, pulling his sword from a woman’s gut as he turned about. He leaped back and away from the lance Tavros thrust at his throat, snarling as he moved. Though he pulled back his arm to swing his sword, Aradia lashed out with her whip and caught him by the wrist. He turned to howl at her, but found that she had passed the whip to John. With a mighty heave, John yanked Noir clean off his feet and hauled him away from the hunters.
The first troll that tried to follow was struck full in the face by Dave’s fist, and the second received the same from Karkat’s foot. Three more made an attempt, but each of them came away less one limb thanks to Kanaya. Quick flicks of the Thorns from Rose sent lightning at the remaining six, and they yelped at the fire that caught in their clothes. Neither the driving rain nor their frantic slapping killed the fire, and so they ran away screaming and in flames. The injured began to follow after them, leaving behind their dead.
Noir had wrenched himself free of Aradia’s whip and stood growling at John. Cords of oozing, steaming black saliva hung from his maw; his muzzle seemed to ripple with the force of his snarling. His eye darted back and forth as the others encircled him; his noise grew even more violent.
“You fucking worms!” he snapped. “That’s all you are! You’re nothing but weak little worms, and I’m going to turn you into worm food!”
“How’re we gonna be worm food if we’re already worms, Jack?” Dave asked with a sneering smirk. “Don’t make a lot of sense!”
“Shut your fucking mouth!” Noir howled. “I’m going to tear you all limb from limb!” He jabbed his sword toward Vriska, smiling as he did. “You can ask her how good I am at that.”
She looked at him and lifted the brow over her ruined eye. Smirking to show her fangs, she shrugged. “I’m still up for kicking your ass, so I don’t think you’re thaaaaaaaat great.” She bounced her dice in her hand, tossing and catching in fluid motions. “And I’m sure John would like to pay you back for that.”
Noir’s growling resumed. He looked at all of them with rage in his face. “You think this is going to do anything? You really think you can do anything to me?”
“I think that you losing an arm, a wing, and an eye counts as something,” Rose said. “But I suppose a cornered coward would try to sell himself as dangerous.”
Noir’s ears twitched, slapping at the raindrops falling on them. His shoulders hunched even as his spine straightened to make him taller. Lightning crackled around him, winding like brittle snakes. He murmured, “Coward? You’re calling me a coward, mother?”
“If the word fits,” she replied with a smile.
Slowly, his lips curled to match her smile. He lifted his sword and said, “You’ll run before I do.”
She brought up the Thorns. “Prove it.”
He leaped straight for her, aiming the tip of his sword for her forehead. Kanaya was faster, and so it was her chainsaw that knocked away Noir’s blade. After her came a throw of the dice from Vriska, and Noir was caught up in stocks and chains. He tried to rip the blue wood apart, but a blast in the back from Eridan made him pitch forward. Dave kicked him on the snout as he fell, getting a wounded pup’s yip out of Noir for his efforts. Noir landed with a splash at Rose’s feet, blood leaking from his nose. As he tried to push himself up, Rose stomped on the back of his neck and forced him down again.
“I don’t seem to be running, Noir,” she said.
Snarling, he opened his mouth to reply. His roaming claws slipped into a groove; he went quiet to look about. Another burst of lightning from above lit the city square, casting light into the water that filled the carvings of the transmutation circle. His eye widened. After a moment, he chuckled.
“Are you sure, mother?” he asked.
“How could I not be sure that I’m not running?” she snapped.
He turned his head to grin at her. “I’m asking if you’re sure you don’t want to run from me.”
The grin was one that Kanaya recognized. It sent a hard, ice-cold weight to the center of her stomach, and she moved instantly at the sight of it. She shot out her arms, grabbed Rose by the shoulders, and yanked her backward. Had she moved any slower, at any other time, it would have been too late. The jerking force of the movement made Rose gasp, but it also made her hat fall from her head. Just before it fluttered in front of her eyes, she caught sight of great swells of flesh squirming and writhing along the length of Noir’s back.
Tendrils of dagger-ended flesh exploded from Noir. One rushed at Rose, but only pierced through her hat as Kanaya pulled her away. The other trolls moved half a heartbeat after that: Karkat leaped in front of Jade to slash apart the tentacle that stabbed at her head; Vriska pulled John out of the way; and Tavros knocked aside all that came near Aradia. As Eridan skipped backward and peppered the tendrils that squirmed after him, Aradia reached out a hand. A shimmer of translucent white energy caught hold of the tentacles that surged toward Dave, slowing them enough that he had time to react and cut them down.
With a roar, Noir twisted about; the tendrils ripped the stocks from around his neck. It was at Aradia that he leaped next, sword abandoned to let him reach out his shining claws. He ripped open four gashes of deep burgundy along the length of her torso, earning a scream from her. Tavros dropped his lance in turn to dive forward, wrapping his arms around Noir and bearing him to the ground. Fangs bared, he smashed his fists against Noir’s muzzle. With each punch, he growled out words. “Don’t—you—touch—my—matesprit!”
Noir whipped his head about in the middle of Tavros’ next punch, closing his fangs around his hand and biting down hard. Before he could rip off Tavros’ hand, Vriska rushed in and crammed her dagger into the corner of Noir’s jaw. He gagged at the pressure, mouth popping open, and Vriska kicked him in the throat the moment she could.
“Don’t act like the entire arm of a highblood isn’t a good enough snack for you, asshole!” she snapped. “No more food for you, even if it’s a lowblood!”
Noir pushed himself upright, but his body was caught up in the white energy again. Though he writhed, he was flung high up into the air. Grimacing with the effort of it, Aradia brought both hands down swiftly to throw Noir at the ground. The tendrils surged from his body on his approach, and they caught him before he smashed into the pavement. He got to his feet and summoned his sword, grinning as the tentacles squirmed around him.
“Like them?” he said with a chuckle. “I’m still evolving, parents. I’ll keep evolving and I’ll keep getting more ways to rip off your heads.” He let his head loll to one side, turning to Rose. “Are you really sure you don’t want to run from me, mother?”
Rose sneered at him. Pulling away from Kanaya’s hands, she went to where her pierced hat had fallen and plucked it from the ground. With a tap of a needle, the hat was repaired; she set it upon her sodden head. She looked at him from beneath the hat’s brim, her eyes hard. When she spoke, her voice was even harder. “I refuse to run.”
The smile on Noir’s face vanished instantly. His muzzle began to vibrate once again with his snarling, and his eye grew wide with fury. Green lightning began to slither along his body, surging with the fiercest of his growls. He held his sword so tightly that his furious shaking was visible through the blade’s quaver. He hissed, “Fear me, mother.”
“I will not.”
She stared at him. At the faint sounds of movement—the clank of the gears in Kanaya’s chainsaw shifting; the splashes of Dave and John’s feet falling hard in puddles on either side of her; Jade cocking her rifle—she took in a slow breath. She tightened her grip on the Thorns and smiled. “Never.”
With an inhuman shriek that echoed loud against the thunder, Noir went berserk. He charged at Rose, slavering and snarling with his sword held high. She stepped back as he came forward, bringing up her needles to catch Noir’s blade in their cross as it fell. Though a web of lightning erupted from the needles to halt the sword, the pavement shattered beneath them with the force of the strike. A screech rang out as Noir drew back his sword, scraping metal against metal, and he howled as he lunged in with his mouth opened wide.
John roared as he swung his hammer in to smash against Noir’s chest. Lightning flashed from the hammer to the white cracks in Noir’s skin, and he howled as he was thrown backward. Three bolts from Jade’s rifle tore holes in his remaining wing; the wounds spat blood up into the rain as he jerked about with the pain. He spun on his heel to howl at Jade, but Eridan shot another round into his open mouth. He threw his head back and spat the energy into the clouds above, and turned on his latest assailant. Before he could even bring up his sword, Aradia’s whip cut him full across the back between his wings.
When Noir turned about to bellow at Aradia, he received another punch from Tavros and the stab of his lance into one thigh. He stumbled away, turning as he went, and found himself face to face with Dave. A duel began then, both of their faces twisted in fury. Noir hacked madly, one armed and wounded as he was, and Dave parried each swing before replying with a blow infinitely more precise. Where he had once been the losing party, Dave now gave Noir slash after slash, burning the wounds open and raw with bursts of alchemic lightning. He forced them to turn about entirely and began to drive Noir backward.
It was because the back of his heel caught on the gouges in the ground that Noir paused in the slightest. He looked away from Dave, once again seeing the transmutation circle carved behind him. The moment of hesitation cost him: Dave drove his sword clean through Noir’s chest. Another howl left him as he pulled himself from Dave’s sword. Blood pouring down his body, he stumbled away and began to turn about. Vriska’s dice landed before him, each face showing an eight. A ghostly apparition of a woman troll appeared, as bright blue as the dice and wielding Vriska’s hook-ended sword. Laughing strange noise, she rammed the sword through the hole in Noir’s chest, lifted him from his feet, and slammed him down to the ground.
Wheezing, bleeding from so many different wounds, Noir hauled himself to his feet. He straightened up and expected Dave to stand before him. It was Rose he found instead, wielding her needles as though they were long knives. She slashed at him, driving him back further. She turned aside and dodged away from his returning strikes with almost no time to spare. Cuts showed on her arms, her chest, her cheeks. He took the hat from her head again with a wild slash, cutting open a line on her forehead that sent blood pouring down her face. In the moment she flinched at the sting of the blood flowing into her eyes, he cackled and lunged.
Kanaya’s chainsaw was waiting for him when he arrived, and she drove it into his gut with as much force as he had moved in. He choked, hand uncurling from the sword, as the saw ripped apart his spine. There was no stopping his fall when Kanaya slipped a foot behind his feet and shoved hard, and he plummeted into the center of the circle with Kanaya driving the chainsaw deep into the ground. Dave swept in as Noir tried to kick and flail, stabbing his sword through the bones of his ankle and pinning it down. John moved in on Noir’s other foot, obliterating it and its leg with three great swings. When the tendrils erupted from his body, Karkat tossed his sickles to Jade and she cut them all apart.
Snarling, spitting, writhing, Noir tried to grab at the chainsaw and pull it free from his body. Rose’s boot slammed down on his arm, snapping the bones with how hard she stomped. She dropped down and stabbed one needle through his palm and the other through his forearm, pinning him completely. He screamed wordlessly at her as she strode away, twisting his head to follow her movement. He heard splashes all around him: John, Jade, Dave, and Kanaya had dropped to their knees at the edges of the transmutation circle where his limbs would have reached. Another splash sounded above his head, and he looked up to see Rose kneeling there. Before he could roar at her, four more splashes sounded. Rose lifted her hands and slapped them down to the edge of the circle, and Noir saw her smile in the instant before he was blinded by green lightning.
All at once, he was seized by many hands. He had no time to react before he was hauled from the ground entirely, and when he looked up into was into what he thought was a desolate black void. The void was suddenly filled with great gleaming gold eyes. He twisted his head about, finding the others holding tight to him while Rose stood before them all.
“We have a present for you!” she shouted to the eyes. “It’s your son!”
The world around them screamed, and Noir felt a great stab of dread. The panic was great enough that he did not have it in him to fight the hands holding him; he was paralyzed when the hands gripped him even tighter. Before he understood what was happening, he was flung up hard and into the reaching tentacles. As they began to rip him apart, he screamed to match the shrieking of the gods.
Kanaya put her hands to the others’ backs and pushed hard. She sprinted ahead of them as they began to run, shouting, “This way!” When she reached Rose, she caught one of her hands and pulled her along. Behind them, the gods shrieked louder than they ever had before. Kanaya felt something in her ears rupture, but not before she heard pained shouting. Deafened, she turned about to find the others standing with their hands clapped over their ears. She returned to them and held out her hands. When they shook their heads in confusion, she took Rose’s hand in one of hers and Jade’s hand in the other and nodded at them all.
The screaming of the gods was so fierce that it rattled their bodies, and they grabbed hold of each other’s hands without hesitation. Kanaya took a deep breath, leaned back, and pulled hard. Gravity twisted, taking the ground from beneath them and letting them fall away. Though Jade jumped at the falling and let go of Kanaya’s hand, Kanaya took the chance to point down to the gleaming bubbles below. John nodded once and pulled Jade and Dave in by their hands, wrapping his arms around their shoulders when they were in reach. Another scream from the gods shook them once more, and Rose’s fingers slipped free of Dave and Kanaya’s hands. She began to fall away from them, veering off to one side. Dave howled for her, clawing at the air, but John did not release him. Kanaya twisted in the air, reaching for the hand Rose stretched out to her.
Seconds before they hit the dream bubbles, they managed to catch hold of each other.
Kanaya stood on a dirt road. Overhead, the sky was completely clear and a bright, brilliant blue. A faint breeze brought to her a scent she could only assume was from some plant. In the distance stood a massive house, its walls painted a clean white beneath the crawling ivy scattered here and there. To the house’s left, she saw a pure white dog prancing about with a tiny, black-haired girl in a green jumper toddling after it. A black-haired boy in a white shirt and blue short pants walked behind the girl, keeping her from toppling over.
Slowly, she began to walk up the road. At the house’s front was a porch, open to the air and with no real railings to speak of. A wide porch swing made of deep red wood was beside the front door, and a woman with white-blonde hair sat upon it. A small girl with the same colored hair and a pale purple dress sat on the porch by the woman’s feet, scratching a piece of chalk against the wood beneath her. The girl sat back from the chalk transmutation circle, looking up to the woman expectantly. The woman leaned forward and a smile curled her lips.
“Very good, sweetheart,” the woman said. “Now tell me what the formula is for.”
“To make a flower,” the girl replied.
“Right. Go ahead and try it.”
Kanaya stepped gingerly onto the porch, timing her footfall to the soft slap of the girl’s hands onto the porch. She approached quietly amidst the crackle of the lightning and stopped when the girl relented. A small flower, made of the same wood as the porch, sat in the center of the circle. The girl was silent as she stood up, took the flower in hand, and held it out to the woman. When the carving was not taken, Kanaya looked up. The woman looked back at her.
“I was wondering when you’d get here,” the woman said.
Kanaya stared at her. When the girl turned about and looked at her with violet eyes, her own eyes widened. The girl took a step backward, gaze confused, but the woman stopped her with a gentle hand on her back. The woman stood up, keeping her hand on the girl’s back as she went.
“You’re Kanaya,” the woman said mildly.
She did not step away, but instead narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that?”
The woman smiled and stroked the girl’s hair. “Why wouldn’t I know the woman who my Rose cares about?” She took her hand from the girl’s hair to tap her shoulder. As the girl turned, her body flickered and blurred. The woman set her hands on Rose’s gray cheeks, sighing despite her smile. “Oh, sweetheart. You’ve come a long way from giving me carvings of your namesake.”
Rose blinked, and her voice was dazed when she said, “Mother?” She blinked again, looking to Kanaya with confusion in her face. “Wait...Kanaya? You were never on Earth.”
“No, but that doesn’t really matter in dream bubbles,” the woman said.
Rose’s eyes widened as she turned back. “Then you’re not just a memory playing in my head?”
“Hardly,” the woman laughed. “I called you two down here myself.” She patted Rose’s cheeks. “I’m not going to keep you long.”
Rose hesitated but a moment before catching her mother’s hands and holding tight. “But we haven’t—I haven’t said—”
The woman laughed again and pulled her hands free to ruffle Rose’s hair. “You don’t have to! The only one who has to say anything is me!”
“And what I have to say is that you’re good, sweetheart,” she murmured. “You are good and strong and brilliant, just like I always knew you’d be. And that’s all you ever have to know.” She set a kiss on Rose’s forehead before patting her cheeks once again. She reached out to grasp one of Kanaya’s hands. “Take care of her.” She smirked. “I’ll come after you if you don’t.” With a sigh, she let go of the both of them. “All right, get going.”
Rose stepped back, eyes wide. With anxious, twitching hands, she took hold of her mother’s shoulders. “I can’t—leave, not now, not—we only just started talking and—I can’t, I—”
She laughed and patted Rose’s hands. “I’m not going to disappear when you wake up, sweetheart! I’ll still be here in the bubbles! But you have things to take care of in the waking world, so you need to go.”
With something close to panic in her face, Rose shook her head. “I can’t go—Mother, I can’t go, not yet, please—I’m sorry, Mother—don’t go, please—”
Very gently, she wrapped her arms around Rose and held her tight. She whispered, “I’m not leaving you, Rose. All you have to do to find me again is fall asleep.”
Kanaya put her hand on Rose’s shoulder. “Darling, we can’t linger.”
For a long moment, Rose was completely still. She swallowed hard, let go, and stepped back. She met her mother’s eyes and said, “I’ll come back.”
She chuckled. “I know you will. Now go on.”
Rose nodded. At the touch of Kanaya’s hand to her back, she closed her eyes tight.
The rain was fierce enough to be blinding when Rose opened her eyes. She blinked repeatedly, swiping her hands weakly at the water in the hopes of driving it away. Her hands were caught immediately and she was heaved upright and onto her feet. The moment she had in standing on her own was long to let her recognize where she stood: a long dock extending into the sea from the caverns far below Feferi’s landside hive. It was into Dave’s rough hug that she was pulled first, but John and Jade enfolded them within seconds and they reached out in turn to return the embrace. They held tight to each other, sitting in human silence amidst the noise of rain and waves.
“Stop being such sentimental assholes and get the fuck in here!” Karkat barked.
“Shut your fuckin’ yapper and let us have a minute, rag-a-muffin!” Dave shouted, but his voice was so without venom it broke into laughter. He hugged Rose even tighter, nearly lifting her off her feet. Though he set her down safely, John swept in and plucked her from the ground entirely. Laughing madly, he danced about with her in his arms and swung her back and forth. He set her down with another whoop of laughter, and Jade rushed in to take his place. She hugged Rose tight enough for her body to tremble, but she laughed as much as the others before her.
Karkat snapped, “Fine, that’s a minute!” and stomped out from beneath the cover of the outcropping and onto the long dock. He grabbed Rose by the back of her shirt and hauled her along. She would have protested had she not turned about to see Kanaya standing at the end of the dock, the shredded ruins of her hat in hand. It was not brusquely that she pulled free of Karkat’s grip; she even favored him with a small smile. It was simply that she was able to walk faster without hands upon her, and she went to Kanaya freely.
“Why does it take you so long to wake up nowadays?” Kanaya asked, brow quirked.
“Because I finally have good sleep to look forward to,” she replied. She reached for her hat a moment, but paused. She turned her fingers tentatively, smiling when she took hold of a Thorn of Oglogoth. With a casual tap of the needle, she repaired the hat. Before she could take it, Kanaya set it atop her head. Though she set it neatly at first, she smirked and flicked the hat’s brim. As Rose tipped her head back to keep the hat from slipping off, Kanaya leaned in and kissed her hard.
A good ten seconds passed before Karkat made his next remark by way of noisy coughing. When Kanaya turned to give him a withering glare, he stuck his tongue out at her. “Are you flighty broads done yet?”
Rose was too weary to do much more than chuckle. As she let the needle fade out of her grip, she looked at her hand. Her fingers seemed to be covered in black oil, and she rubbed them against her jeans. When she looked again, the tips of her fingers were not ashen gray, but the pale color they had once been. She let out another small chuckle and, smiling, took hold of Kanaya’s hand.
“Not quite,” Rose said to Karkat. “I think we still have your rebellion to enact.”