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Spies in the Land of the Living

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I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.

-Famous troll rapper, J. Alfred Prufrock

What is immediately apparent to anyone with a passing interest in ghosts or the undead, the grim and grisly, is that Rose Lalonde’s new house is haunted. Shadows catch in odd directions. Books open and close themselves without anyone there to move it. All the wizard statues in the house point south at dawn, and north by twilight.

“I think it’s homely,” John says thoughtfully. He is helping Rose hang new pictures to the walls: oil paintings on canvas, so handsome that Titian Vecelli would have torn out his beard in envy, charcoal sketches of mysterious new life forms, some troll and some just weird, and peculiar framed photography. Rose is planning on using them as substitutes for Rorschach inkblots when everyone’s traumas inevitably surface. The paintings, like the furniture, television, and wireless Internet connection that literally shoots packets of green and violet data from one point to another, came with the house.

“It’s eerily reminiscent of my previous home,” Rose says. “Right down to the tired Frank Wright architecture and water running beneath the floor. The game even lovingly preserved my mother’s statues and wine coolers.”

“Yeah, that’s what makes it awesome. It’s like before, only cooler.”

“And emptier.” The words shoot out of her with more of her heart attached to it than she’d like. Her fingers twist into her shirt sleeve. She’s crossed her arms, quite unconsciously. She lets them drop to her side and thinks about coping strategies.

Mutie sneaks his head around the corner. John, with a sideways look and a grin, creates a little whirlwind, and spirits Mutie into his arms. He buries his face into Mutie’s fur, ignores the claws digging into his shoulder and Mutie’s scrambling limbs. The light raining in from the south cuts hard shapes into his face. The natural sweetness of his expression has edges. “Well,” he says, “Kanaya and Aradia are going to be living with you for a while. I don’t think it’ll be so bad. You can sit around in a circle and knit sweater dresses and talk about dead things.”

“Kanaya sews,” Rose says. “And Aradia’s interests lend more to the destruction of garments than the crafting of them.”

“See?” he says. “You guys are going to be the best together.”

 

John leaves for Dave’s house once the last of the pictures has found its spot. He floats about the house to admire his work, and then, after helping himself to half a bag of chips, jets off. When he leaves, Rose amuses herself by writing reviews of her favorite novels online (one star? Surely they jest) and watching small objects move across the table. She imagines the little empty ashtray moving across an Ouija board: spirit, spirit, what will you tell me now? L. P. R. W. Q.

At sunset, she gets an apologetic text from Kanaya saying she’ll be late. Kanaya has been making frequent visits into town lately; it’s the first time, she says, she’s been so close to a center of civilization in her entire life, and the novelty has yet to wear off. Every day she comes back full of observations, some that make Rose smile with how mundane they are, others that are genuinely interesting: the buildings rise up in puzzling geometrical patterns; the human inhabitants speak Alterenglish with trollish accents and the troll inhabitants speak Engternian with American ones; and strangest of all, the grocery store stocks grubloaf next to the fruitcake. Truly, a travesty.

Aradia rises an hour after sunset to shower. By this time, Rose has become distracted from idle imaginings about changing the curtains by the Internet. She comes downstairs, gives Rose a particularly perky, “Good evening!” and helps herself to a serving of grubcake drizzled with grubsauce. She’s dressed in khakis and has a backpack on her shoulders. A jaunty little hat rests between her horns. Her whip hangs from her belt. Lately, she’s taken to styling herself like Indiana Jones. Kanaya considers it a tragedy.

“Another night in?” Aradia says.

“I’m a diurnal creature, so yes,” Rose says. “Heaven defend me from the dangerous nightstalking beasts of the wilderness.”

“Hmm,” Aradia says. “I don’t know, Rose! I wouldn’t put it past you to talk them to death. Is Kanaya awake?”

“She’s still looking for this week’s dinner.”

“Too bad,” Aradia says. “She’d make a good flashlight.”

“Personally, I’m still waiting to see if I’ll be able to plug in a USB cable into her hole and recharge my phone,” Rose says. No, wait. That’s not how she meant it. Should she clarify? No, clarification will only make it worse. “Where are you going this time?”

“I found a secret passage in your house, so I’m planning on going on an adventure.”

And that is how Rose finds herself wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt with a backpack full of dried grubloaf and water bottles, staring down a hatch in her basement.

“This is new,” Rose says.

“I think it’s just one of those quirks of a new universe!” Aradia says. “Echoes from the old one have all sorts of unexpected side effects. Also, I heard a lot of voices down there—”

“Voices?” Rose says.

“I can speak to the dead.”

There’s a snarky remark, just on the tip of her tongue. Rose pauses. “I don’t remember you telling me that before.”

“There wasn’t enough time,” Aradia says. “I’m glad I was able to make it back to you guys, because now we’ll have lots of time to get to know each other.”

There is firelight at the bottom of the shaft. The ground below is pale, tan rock, nearly the same color as Aradia’s pants. Rose can’t see much more than that. Aradia swings onto the ladder, and climbs down. Rose, after a moment’s hesitation, follows. She can hear water from the river beneath her house rushing past her ears as she goes down. By the time she touches ground, there’s no noise except for the occasional rustle of clothes, the shift in air from Aradia’s wings. Torches hang from the walls. The flames are blue. They illuminate the cave paintings, which generally depict people being eaten by animals, their bodies contorted into abstract impressions of horrendous pain. Green and purple data crosses the tall, curved ceiling. It has the air of a very spacious museum exhibit. “Pre-history, circa 12,000 B.C.E.”

“This is great!” Aradia says. “I bet we’ll be here for hours.”

“The Wi-Fi still works down here,” Rose says, with a little frown. Now that’s stretching it. She doesn’t mind having a cave civilization in her basement, but for the Internet to still work? Nonsense. The universe needs to get a grip. When Aradia looks ready to take off, Rose says, “Stop. We need a way return to this spot before we go on.”

“Hmm,” Aradia says. “We could just use your Seer powers. —I’m just joking, Rose, don’t get too mad. The thing is about systems like these is that there are always multiple ways in and out. I’ve been through millions of these on Alternia, and I’ve always gotten out just fine.”

“I’m sure,” Rose says. This is honestly a bit new. Rose doesn’t think she had a chance to meet the psychic trolls during Sburb; and of the psychics, Aradia is the only one left. “Are the voices telling you that this venture will be equally as serene as your previous ones?”

“Not really,” Aradia says. “They’re not very helpful, actually. They keep saying, ‘whooooooo, we’re here, come talk to us.’”

“That’s verbatim, I take it.”

“Yeah, pretty much. No, Rose, of course not! That’d be silly.” She raises her nose up, and breathes in. “They want us to go left.”

“That way lies danger,” Rose says. “And good fortune. And bad luck. Strangely, all three seem to coexist in the same instance.”

“I’m an old hat at this,” Aradia says, detaching her whip from its harness. “We’ll be fine.”

 

The path they take twists, spins, and curves. They hack through thick spider webs. They leap over quicksand. They stop to admire the paintings. The most recent set seems to be elaborate portraits of a young, gun-toting man stranding triumphantly over a dinosaur. Aradia mentions an old friend who used to paint with chalk—made from, what else, the blood of grubs—on the walls of caves. Like most of the other trolls, there’s nothing left of her except a constellation in this universe.

“arsenicCatnip?” Rose says as she steps over a taut wire.

“That’s her,” says Aradia. She catches a bat with her whip and flings it into a wall without a shred of mercy. It smears bright red across the image of the gunman shooting a minotaur in the face. Rose takes the time to trace the movement of Aradia’s shoulders through her shirt. It can be distressing having attractive friends. There is a chance that Rose spends a good deal of time being distressed.

“She liked to talk to my cat,” Rose says. “After a while, I just gave him my laptop. I wish I could have met her.”

“She’s having a lot of fun in the afterlife. Although I’m sure she would’ve had fun here, too.”

For a moment, Rose wonders what happened to the beta universe. Aradia somehow crossed over after being left behind; appeared, suddenly, with a smile and untouched by age. But as for whether or not the beta universe still exists, no one knows. Aradia seems to prefer to believe that it does.

Something goes crunch under Aradia’s shoe. Mushrooms and goopy fungi surround a sizeable pile of vaguely human-shaped bones.

“We found something!” Aradia immediately bends down and inspects. There are also three skulls in the bone collection, each with no fewer than two arrows embedded in the bone. Rose looks for the trap—yes, she sees it. Embedded in the ceiling is a crossbow. There seems to be no ammunition left. “I bet we’ll find tons of other bodies as we keep going.”

“We are climbing on the skeletons of other failed attempts,” Rose says. “Our halcyon journey will undoubtedly come to an end as we reach the traps yet to be activated. I hate to say this, but I’m actually excited to see what appallingly bloody quagmires the architect of this labyrinth has planned for us.”

“This reminds me of my old FLARPing days,” Aradia says. Her expression twists in reminiscence, just as she searches his pack. Not out of greed, but plain curiosity. “The fun ones. Not the Vriska ones.”

“I’ll hazard a guess: the ‘f’ stands for ‘fatal,’ doesn’t it?”

“It doesn’t have to. Tavros and I—we FLARPed a lot, and just had fun with it. Vriska and Terezi—” Aradia sighs. “Their idea of play didn’t always turn out well for their opponents.”

Rose thinks of Terezi’s wild, toothy grin, the dragonhead cane-sword, and the way misfortune bites into her movements, as though she was pierced in the heart by some large needle a long time ago, and now her life has a crooked blue line running down its whole length. A poor way of coping with loss.

“You had a busy life on Alternia,” Rose says.

“There was always a lot to do then, between the the archeological excavations and people trying to kill me for no good reason,” Aradia says. The humor is just a bit dry, just a bit bitter, but it’s not—Rose doesn’t understand this about Aradia sometimes. She seems so… well-adjusted, despite everything. “It’ll be nice to unwind for once.”

As she says this, another bat swishes down on them. Rose smacks it down with the back of her hand. The impact stings more than she expects. The bat goes down with a pathetic squeak. It gives her a comically stunned look that Rose ignores in favor of putting a hand on Aradia’s shoulder.

“There will be other corpses for us to plunder and defile,” Rose says. “Let us move on.”

 

They’re reached the point where the bodies have started piling on each other into a single, unbroken file of corpses. They make a game of guessing causes of death: “Fire.” “Falling sword.” “Bitten by a rabid bat; upon going mad, he tore off his own leg and attempted to attack his party leader, only to fall into the acid pit.” “I’m pretty sure he just tripped, Rose.” “Let me amend my previous statement: he was blinded by magic, and then fell into the acid pit.” Once, Aradia slips and triggers a trap: a sudden flaming arrow launches from the left, and cuts into Aradia’s cheek. She hisses and cups her cheek with her hand.

“Let me see it,” Rose says.

“It’s fine, it’s already healing,” she says. “Wow, we must be reaching the good part.”

Rose looks around, and agrees. The tunnel has been, slowly, narrowing in on them. They’re walking with the wall brushing against one shoulder, and the torches just inches away from their faces. Aradia has assured Rose that these are “spirit flames.” The torches are lit by the power of souls; it is a very pragmatic invention that only could have been created by trolls. Rose wants one. Just as a novelty gift.

(“Do they talk to you, too?” Rose says.

“No,” Aradia says. “Which is good, I think. Otherwise everything would be screaming the whole time, and I’d have a headache.”)

Rose ignores Aradia’s insistence on being fine, and nudges away Aradia’s hand from her face. To say that Aradia lets her would be redundant; there is a sense of permission, now, when anyone does something to or for her. Aradia is still a god, and Rose—well, Rose is, too. But Aradia has taken to godhood and made it a part of her. When the old universe bore its fruit—a surprisingly ugly frog, despite Jade and Kanaya’s insistences on “cute” or “endearingly helpless and in possession of large eyes and a small nose”—Rose felt something in her get left behind, and found it again in the stars. The constellation “Lightseer” hangs near Virgo, and takes the form of a many tentacled woman with a cat wrapped around her neck. There’s a shrine to the Seer in town, complete with a statue and a little painting in an alcove at the base. Lightseer looks like her mother, only considerably more sober.

Even if she can still see the paths of fortune, Rose considers herself neither a Seer nor a god anymore. And Aradia—Rose has theories about why Aradia has kept her godliness around her. None of them are very kind. Psychology is not a kind art.

Her blood is deep, maroon red, darker than human, and thicker. It wells into fat, deep drops onto her cheek, and slowly curves down from her cheek to her chin. Rose imagines Kanaya’s finger on Aradia’s mouth, gentle, fussy Kanaya’s fangs dropping deep into a gray throat and Aradia smiling and wrapping her hands around Kanaya’s horns and oh, fuck. She snaps her hand back to her body; her arms, almost by second nature, cross. A defensive posture. She puts one on her hip. Also defensive. Both hands on both hips?

She says, “Your face is remarkably symmetrical.” She tries to make it sound off-hand, and not like she’s having distressing threesome vampire fantasies.

“Thanks,” Aradia says. “Yours is, too!” Rose smiles, just a little. Aradia’s hair smells like her mother’s shampoo. Her smile fades. She turns away.

 

“Fifty-eighth century,” Aradia says. “Fifty-seventh. Mid-sixties. Late fourth millennial.” She’s cataloguing all the jewelry in the chamber. It’s charming. But a little inappropriate, considering that the walls are two minutes away from crushing them.

Rose tells her as much.

“I know,” she says. “But I can see some bodies up ahead, and these ones look like they just barely missed the cut-off.”

“I think we need to escape up,” Rose says.

“It’s too bad about some of those bracelets,” Aradia says. “Because wow, you don’t get that kind of craftsmanship—”

“If you want one, just take it.”

“But then there’d be nothing left for the people who will come after us,” she says. Rose is about to ask if she has some kind of hookgun, the kind they have in comics, when Aradia slips her arms beneath Rose’s, and flies. “Wow, you’re lighter than I expected.”

“Kanaya once described me as ‘grotesquely small.’”

“That’s not very nice of her.”

“She was just grousing because she can’t get a full meal without rendering me unconscious.”

“Still not nice,” Aradia says. She has to bend her head to her chest to keep her horns from bumping against the ceiling. Rose curls her knees to her chest so her feet won’t be crushed in the advancing walls. “But pretty accurate, I think.”

 

There aren’t as many bodies in the next leg of the chamber. The traps come more frequently, all deadly and none especially innovative. Her favorite one so far is the room with the flesh-eating beetles with the escape hatch hidden by a stone Sudoku puzzle.

They take a break and share some grubloaf and water. Unlike the movies, where the darkness gets deeper the further one goes into the maze, the spirit torches burn especially bright here. It’s nearly like full day. Rose can’t stare at the flames for too long without her eyes watering. Aradia yawns, like clockwork, at every half hour.

“What do you think is at the end of this?” Rose says.

“Hmm,” Aradia says. “I don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s ever made it to the final rooms.”

Rose looks at the wall. The designs have changed. The pattern for the last fifteen minutes has been hundred of DNA helices, unzipped and tattered, each one in search for its second half. The ten minutes before that were pornographic horses that made Aradia descend into testiness and silence.

“It reminds me of the tombs beneath the pyramids,” Rose says.

“What are pyramids?”

“Enormous burial monuments, constructed for ancient Egyptian rulers and their consorts. Before the modern age, they were the largest manmade structures in the world.”

“I’d like to go see one someday. If there still is an Egypt.”

Rose traces the air above the helices with her fingertips. A warning note some time ago informed her the paint is, in fact, poisonous, and should not be ingested. Rose is certain there is a good explanation for why that explorer thought eating paint would be a good idea, but she’s never been addled enough to consider it. “So you’re not planning on staying here long.”

“First I want to make sure everyone gets settled,” Aradia says. “And then I think it’ll be relaxing to explore this new world. I don’t know if anyone will want to come with me, though. Maybe Kanaya?”

“I’m sure Kanaya, who spent her entire life never traveling beyond a twelve-mile radius from her house until the game, will be thrilled to go with you to the other side of the globe.”

“I was just wondering if she would or not,” she says. “If you want her to stay with you, I’m sure she will.”

Rose looks down at her hands, stained a lime green by the loaf. She meant what she said, and still means it, even if she wishes she had said something else. Three years should have been time enough for her to tire of Kanaya, to hate the flicker of her light on the walls, but she’s as fond as Kanaya as she’s ever been. And three years should have been enough time to make Aradia an outsider to this journey, but their friendship has resumed just as easily as it began when Rose and Dave ascended out of the Green Sun.

Well, what she could say is: I’m going to miss you, don’t take Kanaya, what if she gets hungry and has no one to feed off of except you, what if you get hurt, what if I don’t want to live alone in my mother’s house, I’ll go crazy—

But instead Rose sighs, looks into her canteen, and says, “Jade might want to go with you. She can teleport you from place to place. You’ll save thousands of dollars on airfare. You’ll watch advertisements for Orbit and Expedia.com and laugh with relish.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, Rose,” Aradia says. She licks the last bit of grubloaf off of her fingers. “You’re thinking way too much about this. We’ve won the game, so there are no more duties or jobs for us to do. If you want to stay here, and if Kanaya’s happiest with you, that’s okay with me.”

“I’m not worried about you,” Rose says. “I just think there are some of us who would appreciate a good trot around the globe. Who would you have liked to go with?”

“Sollux, for sure. He could have taken his laptop with him and coded while we jumped out of the way of angry sharks.” They get up and start on their way to the end. “Vriska, too, when I think about. Her favorite part of FLARPing was always searching for treasure with Terezi and Eridan. She would’ve had fun. Even if we’d end up trying to kill each other.”

There is a wizard on the wall. Rose shoulders her backpack. The grubloaves rattle. Around them, the spirit flames burn brightly.

“Of course, they’re both dead,” Aradia says. “So they can’t.” She worries at one khaki sleeve. “If I had to pick someone among the living—it’d be nice if you could come. I don’t think we make a bad team.”

“I’ll be the brains,” Rose says. “You can put yourself in danger and be rescued.”

“You’re so bossy,” she says. “But that’s why some people like about you. Me included.”

 

The end of the tunnel has two doors. One of them leads to another tunnel; Aradia’s certain it leads to the exit. The other leads to a chamber with a roaring spirit fire at an altar above a half-open coffin. Thousands of clay smuppets point their butts at the ceiling. This is unbelievably absurd.

“I can’t see anything,” Aradia says. Her pupils are tiny black pinpricks, and she’s shielding her face with her hand.

“I can describe it to you,” Rose says. She puts a hand on Aradia’s shoulder.

“No, we need to find a way to put out the fire,” Aradia says. Rose thinks the smuppets—she curses Dave, for a moment, for his “ironic” sense of humor—turn to look at them. She winces, and then grips her forehead and sinks to the ground. “Shit.”

The flames jump from the altar to the smuppets; the entrance, too, is blocked by a wall of raging fire. The smuppets, now animated by fire, are crawling in jerks and grinds towards them.

“Aradia, are you all right?” Rose says. “Because if you’re not, then we’re in danger of being trampled unheroically by Dave’s ironic clay smuppets.”

“I’m okay,” Aradia says. “It’s just a really bad—psychic headache. Something about— ‘ALSO the short,,, glowns in the dark the short acutally… DOES NOT glown in the dark too find out—’ It’s just so bad, I can’t—”

“Aradia, can you fly for me?”

Aradia looks up at Rose. She pushes herself onto her knees, then uses the wall to pull herself up. “I can,” Aradia says.

“I’ll direct you.”

Aradia wraps her arm around Rose. Her eyes are closed. Her wings beat.

“Go up by about two feet,” Rose says. The smuppets glower up at her, and raise up onto their hind legs. Rose kicks one in the face, and the rest scatter. “Go to the light.”

She has Aradia drop her off in front of the coffin. She sees: pale, nearly white hair. An orange baseball cap. Sunglasses. Rose peers into the skeleton of the man who raised her brother, and slides the coffin shut. She bends down and collects a handful of dust and drops it onto the lid. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it—three years, and not once did they ever think to have a corpse party for their guardians. But Dave never brought it up, and Rose didn’t want to be the one to drag it out. And once they met John and Jade again, they were too busy to think about it.

Well.

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

A wind blows. The fire spends itself, and burns away. In the darkness, Rose hears a door open.

 

There are three more rooms, each lit by a flaming altar. Rose is proud that she doesn’t linger in the final room, which is full of drunk science wizards and has a corpse wearing a pink scarf. At the end of the whole mess is a collection of mutant cats in jars, hats, guns, and cheap-ass swords. Rose fits most of it into her backpack.

“I wonder if the others have similar structures underneath their hives,” Aradia says.

“It would present an interesting time-space paradox,” Rose says. “But cathartic, I’m sure, for all of them.”

“I’ll have to visit them before I go to Egypt,” Aradia says from somewhere to her left. It’s nearly pitch-black; the only light comes from the Wi-Fi data packs, sailing across the ceiling.

“Everyone’s already been to Egypt. You might have more adventure exploring South and Central America.”

“That does sound fun,” she says. “Although I want to go to Egypt for a corpse party like this one. I wish my vision was better adapted for bright lights. I missed the whole thing.” She sounds, just a bit, excessively cheeky.

“We can throw one back in my house,” Rose says. “God knows we have enough liquor to mummify ourselves, if we wish.”

The exit takes them to a riverbank. The two moons have both risen high. Rose spent hours on this spot when she was a child. It’s just close enough for her to see her house, yet far enough to make her feel like her mother isn’t watching her.

Of course, her fondness for this place was ruined when Jaspers washed up on the shores. Rose brushes the petals of an unknown flower.

“Oh, careful,” Aradia says. “It—”

“Bites,” Rose finishes. She yanks the flower off her finger. “So I’ve noticed.”

Aradia takes her hand, and inspects it: the candy red blood. The way it runs, fast and quick, from her finger to knuckle, and to the ground. Rose’s fingertips tremble. She reaches up to touch Aradia’s face, and smears a bit of red along the unhealed arrow wound. Her face is beautiful. Aradia, herself, is wholly and sincerely, without a trace of irony, beautiful.

Rose, with great caution, reaches up on her tiptoes and presses her lips to the calm gray of Aradia’s jaw. Aradia breathes in, sharply, nearly a gasp. She smells flowers. She smells water running from mountains to sea. She smells mortality. Finite amounts of blood dripping into a black void; startling color, fading into stars.