Sixteen children meet in between.
It is called the Furthest Ring for being unimaginably far from everything, but at the same time, it is between every crack. It is between sessions, between universes, between eras. It is far out and deep inside, everywhere and nowhere.
In between, there exist no air and no light, no time and no space, save for what its visitors bring with them in their minds. They breathe because they think they do; they see because they want to; time and space seem to be there because without them, visitors would go insane.
There are sixteen children, but any observer would have sworn there were more. Each of them multiple, images of could-have-beens and would-have-beens and never-weres drifting in and out of existence in the corner of their eyes. Causality is as void as everything else.
Sixteen children gather here, to meet and touch for the first and final time, and to do what needs to be done. They hesitate, but more than that, they are determined.
They could follow the rules. Scratch the game and start over.
Instead, they break it.
The first thing John noticed as he slowly drifted back into existence was that there was a breeze. There was a blessed, warm waft of air moving across his face, and that's what convinced him that he was alive and back in reality. He had no idea where, and for the moment he felt too exhausted to even wonder about it, but he was away from the horrifying nothingness of the Furthest Ring. That meant they had made it. He didn't open his eyes, but his mouth twisted into a smile. It was good to be alive.
He breathed deeply, feeling the air in his lungs. It was hot and humid, smelling strange, like a foreign country when you step off an airplane, but it wasn't unpleasant. He realized he was lying on his back, on top of something soft but prickly - perhaps a lawn? Yes, there was definitely grass poking at his arms and legs through the thin fabric of his clothes. It was nice. He didn't feel any need to move at all. Perhaps he would just stay here and rest until Jade started poking him with a stick or Rose told him now was not a good time to sleep or Dave tried to draw something ironic on his face.
Except... He could hear the wind rustling through leaves, and he could hear the soft chirping of some kind of wildlife, but even listening carefully, he could hear no one's breath but his own.
John blinked his eyes open. There was a thick canopy of red-pink leaves overhead, which looked pretty cool actually, but he didn't care all that much. He pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked around. He didn't really need to, but he refused to believe anything before it was confirmed. They had been right beside him, after all.
"Rose!" he called, eyes darting over the area. "Dave! Jade!" His voice sank along with his heart. "Anyone?" Predictably, there was no reply. He stumbled to his feet and tried calling again, louder, but that didn't do any good either.
The place did look like some kind of lawn, though not exactly well-tended, and the grass came in every color from teal to dark red. There were mountains in the distance in several directions. He found himself in the shade of a large tree, but beyond that he could see the cloudless sky, blue but with an unnatural hint of purple that made it seem much more ominous than a bright clear sky should be able to. This obviously wasn't Earth. John was alone on an alien planet.
"Ugh." He hung his head and rubbed his face absentmindedly. His skin was stinging for some reason. Alien planets were cool and all, but he was so tired, and he had sort of looked forward to a break and getting back to Earth and having things be normal for a while. Wasn't that what they had tried to make the game do? He hadn't really understood everything Karkat and Jade and Kanaya had babbled, but the idea had been to force the game to reject them and get them back where they belonged, hadn't it? He had imagined that Earth would be back, and no one would be dead, and Dad would be alive too, and he would give him a big hug and tell him about everything he had done, and Dad would be so proud of him, and John would even be ready to eat cake at that point. He had really thought about it. He would use his windy thing to go see Dave and Rose and Jade and they would have a weird sort of victory party that involved movies and music and video games and possibly a pillow fight and perhaps the trolls would be there too and he would be able to show them earth human movies and prank them and it would be the best thing ever.
He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Alright, this was stupid. He wasn't on Earth. Which meant this was probably the trollplanet - Alternia, was it? With the trolls. That couldn't be so bad, although maybe he'd have to watch some of Karkat's stupid movies instead. He wondered if Rose and Dave and Jade had ended up somewhere else on this planet, or if they were properly back to Earth and the game had just made a mistake with him. At least it was no wonder that the trolls weren't in sight. They had probably all been dropped off in their homes. Hives? Anyway, all he had to do was to find out where everyone was, and then they could start sorting things out. It would be fine.
John reached for his sylladex, going for the Cosbymufftops. He couldn't find them. In fact, he realized as he flailed about with his hand, he couldn't find his sylladex at all. There was nothing, and that more than anything else brought him close to panicking. How was he supposed to contact anyone if he couldn't access Pesterchum? How was anyone supposed to contact him?
Suddenly desperate, John patted his blue pajamas thing for pockets, but of course there weren't any. And if there had been, they would have been empty, because he certainly couldn't remember storing anything anywhere other than the sylladex. Who would have thought sylladexes couldn't cross universes? He facepalmed hard, but that just made his forehead sting worse. In fact, all this patting around had made him realize that his skin felt slightly sore all over his body. He pulled up a sleeve and frowned at his forearm – it was starting to go red, as if he had been out in the sun for too long. Sure it was hot here, and whatever material the god pajamas was made out of wasn't very thick, but he was fully dressed and in the deep shade of the tree – how long had he been out for, anyway?
That wasn't important, though. The important thing was to get unlost and find someone – anyone – who could help him find his friends. He raised a hand and tentatively tried to make the wind whirl around it. It worked, to his great relief. He could still do the windy thing. Raising both arms horizontally by his sides, he took off, straight up, piercing the pink alien foliage and emerged hovering above the treetop.
He failed to be prepared for the way the unblocked sun beat down on his back like a white-hot sledgehammer. The sudden pain made the wind slip from his grasp and he fell handlessly back down, knocking into branches and just barely managing to cushion himself before slamming into the ground. He whimpered as he had to move to get back up on hands and knees. Dave would probably have called him pathetic, but he didn't care. God, that hurt.
God, that was stupid. He had all the warning in the world, with the sunburn and everything, and come to think of it he was sure someone had mentioned at some point or other that the Alternian sun was dangerous. He just hadn't ever thought that information was going to be important in any way. Stupid stupid dumb. He steeled himself and pulled up a sleeve to examine his arm again. The back of it, which had been closest to directly exposed to the sun, stung at least three times as much as before, and he could have sworn it was going redder in front of his eyes. His entire back felt the same. It was like he had tried to lean against a burning stove or something.
He got back to his feet, slowly and tentatively. How could anyone live in a place where the sun actively tried to kill you? He grimaced and figured he had to give his troll friends a hard time about that later. Once he found them, of course. Which would hopefully be soon, because even though the shade from the tree helped a lot, it obviously wasn't blocking the sun completely. Basically, the sun was going to kill him quickly if he left the shade, and slowly if he didn't. This sucked.
…alright, so maybe he was still a god or whatever and wouldn't actually die – he definitely didn't feel very heroic right now – but it still didn't seem like a fun prospect. This whole situation sucked so much.
He found himself wondering what a sun like that looked like, but he caught himself and violently shook his head before he could take that thought any further. He really really didn't want to know.
Reviewing what he had seen in that short moment above the treetop, he had to conclude that there had been some kind of a building relatively close to here. All he could recall was a glimpse of a small square shape on the other side of the low hill in front of him, but it must have been a building. Even if it was just a shed, maybe he could hide from the sun in there? And it could be a house, with people. Or a hive with trolls, but same thing. If he was really lucky, perhaps even someone he knew would be there. He hoped that Vriska had rubbed off some of her luck on him. She didn't need all of it, did she?
John took a deep breath and summoned the wind again. He couldn't stay here, and the building seemed like his best chance by far. He just had to get there. At least now he knew what the sunshine felt like, so it wouldn't be as overwhelming. It would all be a matter of steeling himself and getting there as quickly as possible before he got burnt to a crisp or whatever. The wind should be able to take him there in a matter of seconds. He could handle that, and then he would be safe. Or at least safer. He clenched his teeth and flew off.
He let the wind carry him close to the ground but as fast as he could manage. It was like swimming through fire. No, it was like being chased by a fire, because the heat was behind him and not in front of him, but it was definitely a like fire if not a frying pan in the way it hurt and burned and how the hell could this be sunshine and fuck it hurt.
He had no idea how long it actually took to reach the building, but it was longer than he expected. At one point he realized he must have blown himself off course, because he glimpsed the building in the corner of his eye to the left, and then he had to turn around, head averted to avoid looking at the sun. But he got there, safely on the opposite side, stopping in the shade and shivering. He wasn't even going to look this time. He didn't want to see his skin now, because if it looked anything like it felt like it would probably be ugly. He felt faint.
John steadied himself with a hand on the wall. Ow, the side of his hand was sore, too. He was pretty certain that sunburn wasn't supposed to work like this, and had an urge to tell that to the Alternian sun, but it probably wouldn't listen. And, right, he was supposed to try to get indoors.
The building was a bit larger than he had thought. Definitely not just a shed; in fact, there were even two stories. There was a many-paned window close to where he was standing, but it was pitch black. Maybe it was covered with something from the inside to not let sunshine in? Further away, though, there seemed to be – yes, there was a door. He walked over to the it, grunting when he had to move his sore legs. The soft fabric of the god pajamas felt coarse like it was full of cookie crumbs. Ew.
He knocked. Knocking on a door was universal, right? He didn't see any doorbell, so he couldn't think of anything else to do. Heartbeats passed and nothing happened. He wished fervently that it would be a familiar face that opened the door. How sympathetic would a random troll be to an alien stranger with a sunburn dropping in from nowhere? Probably not very much. Unless they'd be like Elliott in E.T. and try to feed him candy, and the thought would have been amusing if it weren't for the fact that the silence was stretching unbearably, and it didn't seem like anyone was going to open the door at all. John knocked again, harder. Still nothing.
Eventually he tried to turn the knob himself. He didn't really want to, because it felt very rude to go inside someone else's house uninvited, but it was sort of an emergency. He felt seriously light-headed, and his entire back and left side were burning. Getting somewhere that was cool was kind of urgent. Unsurprisingly, though, the door was locked and refused to open. He whined and knocked again, more desperately.
He could break in. He could do the windy thing on the house and blow the door away or something. But then whoever lived in here would never want to help him, and he really needed help. Besides, he wasn't sure he was up to summoning that much wind right now, at least not with enough control to make sure the entire house wasn't blown away. He felt more like crap for every passing moment.
He raised his hand to knock again, but at that moment the door finally opened. Not with a creak, but with a shoosh, door sliding aside to reveal two dark-clad, hooded people on the other side. John's eyes met the shorter one's, and he managed to crack a smile. Gray skin, nubby horns, snarling fangs – all familiar. He was lucky after all.
"Hi Karkat," he said faintly. Black spots were closing in on his vision, but he knew things would be fine.