Death is something you welcomed with open arms.
After being enslaved for so long, to highblood after highblood, crazed seadweller who thought love was attention to insane blueblood who thought hate was torture, the endless void of death is a relief. You’re not really you in there, and you don’t think, but it’s a relief from when you were sharp as a needle and pricked yourself with understanding.
This lasts until a world gradually solidifies around you, developing along with your sense of self. Your memories trickle back slowly as the world fills in, sand, hardy plants, wild animals, and just as you remember your name your hive appears on the horizon. It’s low and wide, sandstone with jade accents, and the entire world seems to flow towards it.
You are the Dolorosa, and you have nothing better to do than to explore this empty facsimile.
The series of caves where your mother grub nested are still connected to the bottom of your hive. You take the stairs down slowly, hoping against hope that she’ll be there when you turn the final corner.
She’s not, of course. The cave looks unused and untended. You clear away some gravel from the floor and sit down, careful to not let the gauzy streamers of your shawl get caught on any rocks. When you were younger, you used to sit here by your lusus’ side whenever you needed to work through a problem. Now, though, your memory is faded and hazy, and you’re not sure what the problem is, let alone how you’ll work through it.
But it’s in your hands now. And you’re reasonably sure you have all the time you’ll need.
It takes you hours to go through the first level of your hive. Everything is bare and austere, but as soon as your memory disagrees with any facet of the hive, the hive changes to fit. At first it unnerves you, but having something familiar around is worth a little mind-bending discomfort.
There are touches you can’t quite place. Red accents in the décor when red was never really your colour. Sickles hanging by the door, when you’ve always used Sewkind. The nutrition block is full of vegetables, and the only meat you can find is in the freezer. You pull it out to defrost in case you’re hungry later, although you doubt you will be.
You continue to the next floor and find what must be your respiteblock. An entire wall is made of glass and faces east, and you don’t know of any other trolls who would face the sun with only gauzy jade curtains to defend them. The wardrobifier works when you test it, and all of the clothes are sized and coloured appropriately for you. You leave the door open when you exit the room, a safe place to retreat to if necessary.
All that exploring the hive does is madden you with hints of memories until you reach your sewing room. It’s much like your respiteblock in construction, but the interior shows that this is where you spent most of your time. There’s a slim green husktop in the corner with dust on the lid. You wipe it off and turn it on, then cross to your sewing table.
It takes up most of the room, with your bolts of cloth piled at one end and your ancient sewing machine at the other. Shelves in the middle store the plans you found and the ones you created for-
You try to chase that memory down, but thinking about it just sends it further away.
You edge around the table to the bolts of cloth and run your hands over them possessively. This you remember. Long nights of perfect seams and constant fittings, because anything less than perfection was not something you wanted to create. The joy of a finished garment. The triumph you felt when picking the perfect cloth, the right pattern, when everything worked and came together into something beautiful and lasting.
Tending the mother grub was your trade. The sewing was your life.
You absent-mindedly pick up a piece of grey fabric and twine it through your fingers. It’s a thick wool blend, rougher than you normally choose, and you puzzle over it as you go back to your husktop. All of the files you remember are on the machine, and Trollian is indicating several unread messages. Understandable, since you’re rarely online.
Less understandable, since you’re dead and alone.
You peruse the contacts list and ignore the messages. You can’t place most of these names, other than as highblooded contacts who oversaw your duties to the mother grub but didn’t want to dirty their hands coming to the desert. Three others are there, all offline, green, yellow, and most curious of all, grey.
A prickle of unease goes through you and settles in the pit of your stomach. You never approved of the way things were, really, but you were also clever enough to not shout it from the rooftops. Furthermore, your mind keeps putting these three names together in a way that belongs, and adds you to the mess, TA AC CG GA.
The cloth in your hand is the same shade of grey as candidGovernance’s handle. That means something.
You open twofoldAbolitionist’s unread messages.
TA: fuck dr ii’m 2o 2orry they were on u2 two quiick and ii couldn’t
TA: and now he’2
TA: and iit’2 my fault
TA: what am ii 2uppo2ed two do wiithout him
TA: what are any of u2 2uppo2ed two do wiithout him
Somewhere after the second line you started shaking, and now you’re shaking too hard to close the window. The five mustard-yellow lines stare at you accusingly, except that wasn’t a conversation you’d had on Trollian. There was a prison cell, dank and grey, flecks of blue-and-red light and blood on your hands blood everywhere a voice screaming in your ears-
You stand up and slam the husktop shut. Perhaps there are some things you don’t want to remember.
You barricade yourself among bolts of cloth and the comforting whirr-thunk of your sewing machine.
Everything you make is grey, grey, grey.
You’re not sure how long it’s been when you notice the sky darkening. Something inside you says it’s been a lot longer than a day, that maybe the world is giving you a hint that things change and you can’t keep running from the past.
This realisation is particularly annoying. You always thought that you could rest when you were dead.
Even more annoying is that you can’t find anything to jog your memory. You have a puzzle with a border, but all the inside pieces missing. You take to carrying the scrap of grey fabric everywhere, wound around your fingers, or tucked up your sleeve if you need to use your hands.
TA’s messages disappear from your husktop. You leave it constantly running in case more arrive.
One day it makes a sound that you haven’t heard in a long time.
— guiltlessCustodian [GC] would like to talk to you. —
Accept or Deny?
You flex your fingers to stop them shaking and accept.
GC: 1 H4V3 B33N TRY1NG TO G3T THROUGH TO YOU FOR 4LMOST 4 P3R1G33 NOW.
GA: Pardon Me
GA: Do I Know You
GC: OUR D34THBUBBL3S JUST R4N TOG3TH3R.
GC: OH. 1 HOP3 YOU R34L1S3D TH4T YOU’R3 D34D 4LR34DY.
GC: SORRY >:/
GC: 1’LL G1V3 YOU 4 MOM3NT.
You suck in a quiet breath. It’s not quite a gasp, but it’s getting there.
GA: Is That Why I Do Not Remember Anything
GA: I Had Suspected
GA: And You Cannot Be A Memory As I Do Not Remember You
GC: YOU WOULD R3M3MB3R M3.
GA: So Certain
GC: 1 4M V3RY M3MOR4BL3.
GC: LOOK, M4Y 1 COM3 1N? 4LL TH1S S4ND H4S B33N G3TT1NG 1N MY H41R FOR TH3 L4ST P3R1G33 4ND 1F YOU 4R3 GO1NG TO 1NT3RROG4T3 M3 1 WOULD R4TH3R 1T W4S 1N TH3 FL3SH.
GA: You Know There Is A Series Of Caves Right Below My Hive
GA: I Am Sure It Would Have Been Adequate Shelter While I Was Occupied
GA: I Will Come And Unlock The Door
GC: WHY D1D YOU LOCK 1T 1N TH3 F1RST PL4C3 >:?
GA: I’m Not Sure
You honestly don’t expect to find anything when you open the door. This place has been empty of anything but you and your thoughts for so long that you’re convinced this is somehow still a memory, or perhaps a cruel trick of your mind.
The short, whip-thin legislacerator standing on your doormat is the biggest surprise of your death.
She looks up at you and tilts the red sunglasses she’s wearing down. Her eyes are teal, and she’s dressed in a clashing mix of bright red and her blood colour you would have sworn wasn’t possible. It may be blinding you, and the itch to dress her in more appropriate colours is almost as bad as the itch to defend-
You frown and press a hand to your forehead. No matter what you try, you just can’t fill this puzzle in.
“Everything alright?” the legislacerator asks, her voice as rough as the rest of her.
You lower your hand and press your lips into a thin smile. “I’m still adjusting, I’m afraid. Do come in.”
“What an excellent host you are,” she comments off-handedly as she strides past you. Her movements are long and lean, assured and comfortable, and you can tell this woman is a legislacerator to the bones. She stalks through your hive without an invitation, not raising an eyebrow at the bright red accents in a jadeblood’s hive.
If she can even see them through her glasses.
Finally she sits at the table in the nutrition block, leaning her cane against the chair next to hers. You take the one opposite after preparing coffee and sliding one, still black, across to your guest. You’ve never met a legislacerator who liked their coffee as anything other than black sludge.
She takes a sip and quirks an eyebrow. “Good deduction.”
“I am the perfect host.”
“I won’t argue.” She kicks off her cherry-red boots and sighs. “You also have amazing strength of will. Do you know how much sand I had to hike across to find you?”
You set your cup down, the drink inside untouched. “I do not. Nor do I know why you have found me. Not that I begrudge the company.” Although you do, a little. For some reason the sight of her, connected to the law, is raising your hackles. You don’t know why. You’re fairly certain Alternian law holds no sway here, and good riddance.
“Well, I wasn’t looking for you, specifically. Anyone, really.” She smiles honestly, her razor-sharp teeth making it a lot more intimidating than she probably intended. “That the person I found is both charming and lovely is a mere bonus.”
You keep a straight face. “I am sure that flirting while on duty is misconduct, legislacerator.”
“For you, doll, I’ll take a break.” She takes off her glasses and then does a double-take at your expression. “What?”
Before you know it, you’re on your feet, two thin needles in your hands. “You said you didn’t know me.”
Her eyes flick to the needles in your hands. “I don’t. Am I supposed to be afraid of those?”
“I never told you my name.” You stand at the ready, needles firm in your fingers. You may look a little ridiculous, but you’ve taken down legislacerators with nothing but a seam ripper before and you’ll do it again if you have to.
Why would you…?
You’re too busy blind-siding yourself with your memory to notice your legislacerator pick up her cane. Before you can react, she’s hooked aside your shawl to reveal your insignia.
Back to your senses, you grab the cane and pull it out of her hands. It’s easier than you expected, because she’s gone slack. Her face is a perfect storm of disbelief and hope, and the way she looks up at you is the only reason you stay your hand.
In answer she reaches back and fiddles with something at the base of her neck. After a moment, she pulls a necklace out from under the high collar of her shirt and hands it to you, mutely. The chain is a dull grey, iron perhaps, but it’s the symbol dangling from it that draws your attention.
There are two circles, arms reaching out and joined together in a way that reminds you of an ouroboros. No, handcuffs. The ones they use for heretics, your heretic-
-cuffed to a rock, the sizzle of flesh, his cuffs glowing white and melting down his arms, Psiionic beside you taking away his pain as he delivers his final sermon, he always said he’d die for his cause but this is real and the end and your heart is breaking with every second you buy him-
-the melted slab of iron, still in two rough circles bound together is all that’s left, and they throw it at your feet in the cell and laugh. You and Psiionic hold it together and cry for everything you’ve lost, everything this world has lost, and silently hope that his Disciple is able to carry on his legacy while the two of you pay for the sin of hope-
You’ve hit the floor at some point, your Signless’s legacy held so tightly in your hand you’ll be left with an imprint. You’re shuddering with sobs that you can’t control, and it’s only when your legislacerator presses some cloth into your hand that you remember she’s there.
You mop at your eyes, choke down sobs until you’re composed, and try to loosen your fingers enough to hand the necklace back.
She reaches out and wraps your fingers around the symbol, but gently. You’re holding it close now, not letting it cut into you. “It’s yours. I think you have more claim to it than I do.” She hesitates before asking, “You didn’t remember?”
“No.” You finally have your missing piece, and you’re not sure you want it.
You retreat back to your sewing block. No matter how hard you try, you can’t lose yourself.
Your legislacerator keeps bringing you food and drink, and makes you sleep when you undo a seam for the fifth time because you can’t get it right. Sometimes she’ll just sit and stare out the window through her thick red glasses. Sometimes she talks, telling you about what the Sufferer- he’s the Sufferer now, he was given a sign and title and that was the least he ever deserved- meant to her.
On the third day you finally ask her name.
She smiles and taps her glasses. “Redglare.”
A quarter-cycle later you emerge from the sewing block with cloth draped over your arm. Redglare is on the padded seating block, her glasses pushed up on her head as she reads a book with quiet ferocity. Every so often, after turning a page, she’ll nibble on her forefinger. You learned of her synaesthesia the first time she buried herself in your stash of cloth scraps and refused to come out, but at least she seems decorous enough to not lick your books.
She hears you and looks up, surprise and confusion tinging her features. You don’t blame her. You haven’t gone anywhere but your sewing block and your recuperacoon since remembering your grub, but you couldn’t wallow in sadness forever. There was enough of that while you were still alive.
“I wanted to thank you,” you say, and hold out the bundle of cloth. “And apologise for my initial reaction to your presence.”
“Neither is necessary,” she says, but takes the cloth anyway. When she shakes it out, your labour over the last few days becomes obvious.
You’ve made her a set of clothes based on the dress code of legislacerators. While they’re similar to her current uniform, you’ve added a few touches. The angles of the jacket and skirt complement her figure better. You’ve used black as the main colour to unite the teal and red so she isn’t a disgrace to snappy dressers everywhere. There are any number of hidden pockets, and subtle patterns that you know appeal to her synaesthetic senses.
Watching the delight spread across her face pulls you full-force from the last lingering strands of depression. You’ll never forget how you and the beginnings of the revolution died. But the revolution moved on, and so can you.
“How did you know my size?” She swaps her jacket for the one you made, and it fits her perfectly. “Dollface, this is downright magnificent.”
“I will take it back if you keep calling me Dollface in an attempt to sound hardboiled,” you say. “Go try the rest on so I can be sure they fit properly.”
She sticks out her tongue and swings herself off the seating block, collecting the clothes on her way. When she comes back you circle her slowly, checking the fit of all the pieces and making sure they look as you’d hoped.
You go to tug the collar into place, but freeze to a halt before you can. You thought the high collar on her other uniform was an affectation, but apparently not. The lower neckline on the one you’ve made reveals a scar writ large across her neck, curving under her chin.
“I’m so sorry.” You let your hands drop. “I can fix the collar higher. It’s no problem.”
Redglare grabs one of your hands and presses it to her cheek. “It’s perfect, Dollface. I love it. Stop looking like someone kicked your barkbeast.”
You’re caught between a laugh and a choke, and the noise you make ends up as both. “You’re still trying to sound hardboiled.”
She grins. “I don’t need to try, toots.”
— guiltlessCustodian [GC] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] —
GC: ROS4, W3 N33D 4 PL4N.
GA: Redglare You Are Two Rooms Away I Am Sure We Could Discuss This Face To Face
GC: BUT 1 JUST GOT COMFORT4BL3 >:[
GC: 4ND YOU G3T CR4NKY 1F 1 S1T 1N YOUR F4BR1C P1L3.
GA: Yes Because You Try To Stuff Most Of It In Your Mouth
GC: 1T’S SO D3L1C1OUS.
GC: BUT 4NYW4Y!
GC: 1T 1S V3RY L1K3LY W3 W1LL COM3 4CROSS OTH3R D34THBUBBL3S.
GC: ON3S OF TROLLS W3 KNOW.
GC: 1 W4NT3D TO W4RN YOU.
GA: I Appreciate The Sentiment However I Do Not Understand The Need For Warning
GC: TH3R3 4R3 TWO R34SONS!
GC: F1RSTLY, W3 BOTH H4V3 3N3M13S.
GC: S3CONDLY, YOU H4V3 M4NY 4LL13S WHO D1D NOT D13 W3LL.
GC: TH3 MOR3 TR4UM4T1C TH3 D34TH, TH3 LONG3R M3MORY T4K3S. 4ND W3 C4N B3 STUCK ON TH3 OUTS1D3.
GA: Like When You First Arrived Here
GC: FOR YOU 1T W1LL B3 B31NG K3PT 4W4Y FROM TH3 4LL13S YOU C4R3D D33PLY 4BOUT. WH1L3 TH3Y 4R3 STUCK TRY1NG TO R3M3MB3R HORR1BL3 TH1NGS.
GC: DOLLF4C3? YOU ST1LL TH3R3?
GA: Are You Saying There Is A Chance We Will Intersect With The Sufferer
GA: While He Is Reliving His Death
GA: And I Won’t Be Able To Reach Him
GC: Y3S >:[
GA: To Be Honest
GA: It Is Not Something That Worries Me
GA: I Will Tear His Universe To Shreds If I Need To
GA: He Will Not Suffer His Death Again
GC: 1’M NOT SUR3 TH1S 1S 4N 4PPROPR14T3 CONV3RS4T1ON TO PUN 1N >:/
GA: How Do You Know All This
GC: W3LL… YOU KNOW TH3 H4NDM41D OF D34TH?
GA: The Quote Super Foxy Unquote One You Have A Literary Crush On
GC: Y3S H3R!
GC: SH3 TOLD M3.
GC: SH3 1S BR1NG1NG TH3 BUBBL3S TOG3TH3R 4S MUCH 4S SH3 C4N BUT 1T 1S UP TO US 4S TO WH4T W3 DO ONC3 W3 4R3 UN1T3D.
GA: I Propose A Three Point Plan
GA: Firstly To Enter The Foreign Bubbles We Encounter
GA: Secondly To Raise Some Hell
GA: Thirdly To Repeat As Necessary
GC: 1 L1K3 TH3 W4Y YOU TH1NK, ROOK13.
GC: PL4N 4CC3PT3D!
— guiltlessCustodian [GC] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] —
– graciousAntecedent [GA] has started trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] –
GA: Redglare I Know You Are Still Awake
GA: I Would Not Be Interrupting But This Is Important
GC: 4CTU4LLY 1 W4S 4SL33P ON MY K3YBO4RD.
GA: I’m Sure
GA: The Face I Am Making Right Now Is Both Indulgent And Doubtful
GA: Now Please Just Come To The Sewing Room
GA: There Is Something You Need To See
– graciousAntecedent [GA] has ceased trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] –
Redglare shuffles into the room a few minutes later, sans leggings but wearing her sunglasses. You spare a brief moment to thank your past self for making the splits in her skirt less revealing, because your new hivemate seems to be strictly pants-optional. The last time you brought it up she cackled and started flirting mercilessly, and you had to pretend a swoon before she’d stop.
Not that it was entirely pretense. Sweeps of legislacerator training and walking the beat have given her rather nice legs. You are mere flesh and blood, after all.
“Why did you wake me up?”
Mutely you gesture at the wall-sized window beside you.
Redglare turns and looks out. After a moment, she takes off her sunglasses to better appreciate the way that the sun seems to be setting the horizon on fire. Even you have to squint a little, and you were the one of few naturally-diurnal trolls on Alternia.
“Well,” she says eventually, and slides her sunglasses back on. “Ain’t that something?”
“The horizon has been stuck that way for a few hours now.” You tidy away your work area, sweeping scraps of thread and cloth too small to be of any use into a small bin. “I assume we’ll be investigating.”
Redglare looks out the window for a moment longer, then swivels and marches off. “I’ll put on some pants.”
Being dead means that getting ready to trek across the desert doesn’t take as long as it used to. You no longer need to carry water, and you’re reasonably certain that you can no longer get sunburned. In the end you take your sewing kit and a bottle of water in case whoever you find needs it.
Redglare frowns when you walk over to the door. “Where are you going?”
You frown back. “In the direction of the lightshow, as we agreed.”
“Oh!” She starts laughing helplessly. “Dollface, were you going to hike across all that sand?”
You fold your arms.
Redglare stops laughing with a final snicker. “Sorry, Doll, I keep forgetting you’re new to this. Here.” She holds out her hands, then wriggles her fingers expectantly until you take them. “Close your eyes.”
“If you lick me…”
“I only did that once!”
“It’s the sort of thing you become wary of after any length of time spent in your presence,” you say, and close your eyes.
Redglare squeezes your hands lightly. “This is your universe. You have absolute power over it. All you have to do is remember whatever you want, and it will be true.”
You think you understand her meaning. “Even things that didn’t actually happen?”
“You have to put a certain amount of will behind it, so the world doesn’t change every time you think of something. But yes. So, remember us close to the source of those flames…”
It’s surprisingly easy to remember something that never happened. You feel the ground change under your feet and open your eyes. Redglare drops your hands and looks around, and you do the same as you dust off your skirt.
The rays still seem to be on the horizon, but the floor under you is twisted glass, rough and grainy from the sand it was created from. When you kneel down and touch it, it’s warm but solid, as if it was made a long time ago and has been waiting here since. Trapped under the glass is still the sand of your desert, the rays of light from the horizon casting strange shadows and reflections.
“The glare isn’t what I’d expect,” you comment.
“It’s under the influence of whoever owns that bubble,” Redglare says, and points. There’s a silhouette of a building ten minutes’ walk away, tall and spindly, and the sight of it makes your fight-or-flight instinct scream flight. Redglare’s frowning at it, her mouth pulled into a disapproving flat line. “Be careful,” she says, finally, and races off across the glass before you can ask of what?
Her footing is sure despite the slick unevenness of the glass, and you can’t keep up. By the time you get there she’s using her cane to work open a window. When that doesn’t work, she smashes it instead and climbs through.
You look through the window at her. “That was unwarranted.”
She pulls a face. “That was an offense.”
You carefully climb in after her, but not before knocking away the shards that are still in the window. You’re beginning to get an idea of why legislacerator uniforms cover as much skin as possible.
The inside of the hive is covered in cobwebs. Redglare sweeps them down with her cane as she prowls through the rooms, her footfalls silent and measured. You follow with as much caution as you can muster, but the atmosphere has you wound too tightly for as much restraint as you need. Everything in here is a deep blue, a step up on the haemospectrum from Redglare’s teal, and something about it is setting your teeth on edge.
Redglare looks back at you, her eyes invisible behind her thick red glasses. You have no idea how she can see, but you’re beginning to suspect that she doesn’t need to. “You alright, Doll?”
“No,” you answer honestly.
She nods. “Good.”
Redglare heads straight for the top of the tallest tower jutting out of the hive. The rays of fire burning at the horizon cast a long shadow from one of the windows. It belongs to a tall, curvy blueblood, clearly the one who owns the hive. The light reflects off one of her arms, which turns out to be metal on closer inspection.
You stagger back and lean against the wall as she turns to face the two of you, invaders of her territory. Here is your worst nightmare, curved fangs and cobwebs, and a thousand indignities suffered at her hands assault your memory at the sight of her.
Your death was terrible, bleeding out in halves. Even then, you almost wanted to thank Dualscar for the assassination. It got you away from her.
Redglare has no such hesitations. She takes two long steps forward, levels her cane at Mindfang, and announces, “Marquise Spinneret Mindfang, I am taking you into custody on charges of evasion of the law, interfering with trial proceedings, contempt of the court, unsanctioned mental manipulation, and execution of a lawmaker on duty.”
You put those together, add to it the scar that winds around Redglare’s neck, and realise you’re not the only one who Mindfang has tormented to death.
Mindfang tilts her head, her mass of hair shifting around her shoulders. “What? No on-the-spot execution? I’m shocked, Red.”
“Someone beat me to it, it seems.” Redglare’s arm doesn’t waver. “Pity.”
Mindfang finally steps into a shaded area, and the first thing you see as your eyes adjust is her bright-blue smirk. “Don’t be silly. There was never any of that lost between us.” She spies you and before either of you can move, Redglare’s cane slashes across her stomach, cutting into the leather of Mindfang’s clothes and leaving a line of blue behind.
The blueblood presses a hand to the line, and it’s only then you notice the gaping hole in her chest.
“Really now, I don’t need any more holes in me,” she scolds Redglare. “I just wanted to greet my lovely slave-girl. It’s so nice to see true loyalty, don’t you think?”
“Stay away from her,” Redglare hisses. “I’m sure she’s had enough of you to last a lifetime.”
Mindfang pauses, then looks at Redglare with a wide, incredulous smile. “Redglare! Don’t tell me that someone has finally captured your heart? I’m almost jealous.”
Redglare circles until she’s in front of you. “I see someone took yours by force. Colour me surprised you had a heart at all.”
Mindfang’s expression transforms from mocking to rage in the space of a few seconds. Her dice appear in her hands, and your blood runs cold. You remember those too well, the results of the eight-to-the-eighth probability space and all their implications. Discovering each one was one of Mindfang’s missions, and when you were still alive you’d drive yourself sick with hope that she’d finally stumble on a throw that would kill her.
Redglare shifts into a defensive stance, but before either of them can begin strifing you step around Redglare to throw a handful of needles at Mindfang. Most of them hit her metal arm and bounce off, but some of them bite into flesh, and she jerks before folding bonelessly to the floor.
Redglare nudges Mindfang with a boot before turning to face you. “You’ve convinced me. I’m terrified of your needles.”
You offer her a weak smile. “Wisely.”
Redglare hooks her arms under Mindfang’s armpits, careful to avoid the needles still embedded in her skin. “Help me get her back to the hive, then.”
You grimace at the thought of touching her.
“We can drop her a few times on the way downstairs,” Redglare adds, her tone innocent and helpful.
You smile for real and grab Mindfang’s legs.
You bind Mindfang to a chair when you get back to the hive. Redglare plucks out your needles and hands them back to you, then drags up a chair to sit facing Mindfang. You can’t see her eyes, but her pose is tense and her mouth is downturned. Her cane is balanced across her lap, and the sharp edge you hadn’t noticed still has traces of Mindfang’s blood on it.
It’s a storybook kismessitude. You hope it doesn’t mean that you’ll have to deal with Mindfang on a regular basis.
– guiltlessCustodian [GC] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] –
GC: ROS4, 1’M SORRY.
GC: 1 KNOW YOU PROB4BLY DON’T W4NT TO T4LK TO H3R, BUT W3 N33D TO D3C1D3 WH4T TO DO.
GC: 4ND 1 DON’T W4NT TO L3T H3R OUT OF MY S1GHT.
GC: 4R3 YOU OK4Y?
GA: Not Really
GA: I Will Be Down Momentarily
– graciousAntecedent [GA] has ceased trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] –
You ball your hands into fists, your filed-down claws digging into the meat of your palms and leaving small greenish marks. After a few long breaths, you slowly relax your hands, compose yourself, and go to confront your demons.
Mindfang is unbound when you enter, slouched over one of your chairs like it’s a throne. Her coat is thrown over the back of her chair, and there are a dozen new cuts along her arms. Another one curves along her cheekbone and disappears under her hair when she looks at you. In response to her cool, calculating look you raise an eyebrow. Silently you hope that none of her blood got on the floor. You can manipulate the stain away, but you’d be more tempted to burn the floor than salvage it.
When she smirks, all of your calm flees in an instant and leaves you with a hollow, sick feeling that has nothing to do with hate. “I want you out of my hive,” you say.
“Leaving me homeless and destitute, Dolorosa? A fine repayment for all I did for you.” She stands up and takes hold of the ends of your shawl. Before you quite know what you’re doing, you snap a punch into her gut and she doubles over, wheezing.
“If you want your kindnesses returned, I’ll be happy to provide an accounting.”
Redglare coughs from her seat. She didn’t make a move to defend you from Mindfang, not that you needed help. “As much as I would like justice to be delivered, the long-term viability…”
Mindfang sits back down in a single fluid motion. One of her hands hovers near her stomach in a casual way, but the look she shoots you through the one eye not covered by her hair is venomous. There will be a reckoning. Slowly you cross to stand behind Redglare and rest your hands lightly on the back of her chair. Some of the tension goes out of the legislacerator’s shoulders.
“Can we not just let her drift away again?” you ask.
Mindfang folds her arms. “Indeed. I was enjoying my solitude until I was kidnapped.”
Redglare shakes her head. “Not if we want to find anyone else.” She drums her fingers on the head of her cane. “Both of us know Mindfang, Doll. We’ll just keep pulling her back anyway.”
“We’re stuck with her,” you say flatly.
“Think of it as an opportunity to get to know me better, then.” Mindfang kicks one long leg over the other and reclines back in a languid display of control. The pain you caused doesn’t mean anything to her. It never did.
Redglare taps a finger on the head of her cane. Mindfang goes slightly paler. “Think of it as an opportunity to redeem yourself, Spinneret. I have absolutely no qualms about locking you in a windowless room and throwing away the key.”
“Well! Looks like you finally found your spine when you died.” Her eyes flick from Redglare’s hands on her cane to the sunglasses covering her eyes. “The snap must have helped.”
Redglare reaches out with the point of her cane and tips Mindfang’s head back. As her hair falls away from her face, you can see what the pirate kept hidden. Her left eye is burned out, the flesh around it warped and scarred. Redglare’s mouth twitches into a small smile, savage and pleased. “I don’t think you’ll beat the burn I gave you.”
The situation devolves from there.
Half an hour later, when both Mindfang and Redglare sport new bruises and your voice hurts from shouting, you are all sitting around your table, hot beverages at hand, maintaining a veneer of civility. You had to confiscate both of their strife specibi, and you don’t entirely trust them to not start a slapfight, but it’s a beginning.
“What are you going to do with me, then?” Mindfang tilts her chair back until she sees you frowning at her. With a huff, she plants both feet back on the floor. “Lock me in a windowless room? Gouge out my other eye, so I can’t see to hurt anyone? Cut off my hands so I can’t roll my dice?”
“I wouldn’t give me ideas, Spinneret.” Redglare’s fingers curl around her cup of coffee, the threat implicit.
You take a sip of your tea. The two of them go silent.
“We’ll have to keep you here,” Redglare says abruptly. “Until your old bubble drifts off again. Then you’ll be free to wander, and good riddance.”
“You say that like you wouldn’t miss me, my darling Neophyte.” Mindfang tosses her hair, more a show of dominance than anything else.
“I don’t miss.” Redglare’s voice is flat and matter-of-fact. “I don’t know if you can die again, but I will find out if necessary.”
Mindfang stops at that, one of her hands unconsciously going to press at where the hole in her chest was. She notices you watching and drops the hand, digging it into her leg underneath the table where Redglare can’t see. They’re not a storybook kismessitude anymore, because you don’t murder your kismesis. You don’t even joke about it, and Redglare wasn’t joking.
You’re starting to worry about your apparent ashen feelings for this pair.
“I’m not going to leave,” she spits out suddenly, and if words were venomous the table would be hissing and smoking. “The more of us, the greater attraction to other bubbles? Good. I’m looking for someone.”
“We can’t trust you.”
Mindfang spreads her arms. “You don’t have a choice. As a gesture of faith, you can keep my strife specibus and the Fluorite Octet. Once my world leaves, give them back. Consider it insurance.”
Redglare raises an eyebrow over the rim of her glasses. “You want to see this troll quite badly.” After a long silence, she looks at you. “Rosa? Your world, your rules.”
You extend a hand to Mindfang. “Your entire strife portfolio, please.”
She sighs but hands it over. Inside are the cards for fistkind, bladekind, and riflekind. You captchalog them all, then the portfolio itself, glad you thought of it. You wouldn’t put it past Mindfang to stab you in the back. In your sleep.
“You may stay,” you tell her stiffly. “There is a series of caves under the hive. I’ll furnish a small branch for you.”
She salutes you mockingly, a lazy flip of the wrist more than anything. “Much obliged.”
– guiltlessCustodian [GC] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] –
GC: H3Y DOLLF4C3.
GC: YOU D1D GOOD.
GA: Redglare I Do Not Need Encouragement
GA: And I Do Not Think So
GA: Sufferer Is The Forgiving One
GA: Not Me
GA: To Be Honest I Feel Like I Have Failed Him
GA: How Silly, I Know
GA: We’re Both Dead
GC: ROS4! 1 W1LL NOT TOL3R4T3 S3LF-P1TY 1N TH1S UN1V3RS3.
GA: You Tolerate It On A Nightly Basis
GC: 4ND MOR3 TO TH3 PO1NT, OFF-TOP1C. 1 DOUBT 3V3N TH3 SUFF3R3R WOULD 3XP3CT YOU TO B3 C1V1L TO M1NDF4NG 4FT3R 4LL SH3 D1D TO YOU.
GA: And What Do You Know About That
GA: Was It In The History Books
GA: Dolorosa, Lusus Of The Sufferer, Slave To Highbloods And Most Useless Death In Existence
GC: TH4T’S 1T.
GC: 1 THOUGHT YOU N33D3D SP4C3 BUT 1F 1 L34V3 YOU 4LON3 YOU’LL JUST SP1R4L 1NTO ON3 OF YOUR S3LF-LO4TH1NG S3W1NG P4RT13S.
– guiltlessCustodian [GC] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] –
Redglare shows up in your sewing room a minute later, her sunglasses off. She never took them off around Mindfang, you realise. Taking them off must feel like a vulnerability, but she seems perfectly at ease with you. Then again, you’ve confided in her more than is strictly appropriate. It’s not like there are a lot of other opportunities for contact in a universe of two. Three, now.
She pulls scissors and cloth from your unresisting hands. The look on her face is deep, profound pity, and it’s something you need but not something you want to deal with at the moment. She takes your hands and leads you gently to your fabric pile. You end up nested in cotton and fleece, wrapped in Redglare’s arms.
Something inside you breaks and you start crying, your breath hitching every time you try to stop. Redglare pulls off her gloves and wipes away your tears with fingers callused from hard work and hard fighting. She makes small, rough, comforting noises, and everything about her is rough around the edges, not beautiful and thorned like Mindfang. You’ve been running on misery too long, and having Redglare shoulder some of it is a kindness that breaks you.
You have nightmares when you sleep, but she’s there every time you wake up, warm and real. She shushes you back to sleep, and you go willingly.
– averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] –
AA: y0ur sufferer’s self-c0ntained universe has intersected with y0urs
AA: i will warn y0u 0f universes that d0 n0t cause an 0utward reacti0n 0r are 0therwise invisible when p0ssible
AA: the p0int 0f intersecti0n is ten kil0metres and twenty-five metres f0rty-0ne degrees east of n0rth
AA: y0u have nine h0urs barring 0utside influences
– averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] –
GA: Who Are You
– The trollhandle averseAttendant could not be found –
You look at the screen for a moment longer, then scramble out of the room to get Redglare.
Sweeps of living in the desert gave you a good sense of orientation, and you manage to bring you, Redglare, and Mindfang (who Redglare wouldn’t leave unattended) well within the co-ordinates averseAttendant relayed to you.
You can tell by the jeering and screaming.
There’s a crowd of remembered trolls circled around the point of your grub’s execution, formless and indistinct the further away they get. You shoulder through them, ignoring Redglare’s grab at the back of your dress. The crowd pays no heed to any of you, as if you don’t exist. When you reach the centre of the circle, bile rises in your throat.
There’s a memory of you, screaming as you fight off three of Her Imperial Condescension’s soldiers. Psiionic is there too, his screams mingling with the crowd as he tries to save Sufferer the pain of torture and barricade you all against a world of angry highbloods at the same time. The both of you look ferocious, desperate, and beaten.
Worst of all is your Sufferer, shouting out his last sermon as fast as he can, punctuated by screams of pain whenever Psiionic slips up. He looks more solid, more real than anyone nearby, even the memory-figures of you and Psiionic, who he knew best.
Disciple isn’t here. She escaped right at the beginning, before they even clamped the burning irons around Signless’s wrists and marked him as the Sufferer. You hope she lived a long time. You hope that she has good memories of him, that she ran as far as she could so they weren’t corrupted by pain and hate.
You stand in front of Sufferer, unsure of what to do next. He doesn’t even see you, and your heart is constricting painfully in your chest every time he screams. You can feel the heat of his manacles from where you stand.
“-ALL I EVER DID WAS FUCKING CARE, I KNOW IT’S A STRANGE CONCEPT FOR YOU FESTERING WASTELICKERS, BUT THE UNUSUAL- FUCK FUCK FUUUUUCK- THING ABOUT DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT MEANS THAT OCCASIONALLY I DEVELOP INTO SOMEONE BETTER BUT YOU’RE THE SAME, YOU’RE ALL THE FUCKING SAME AND I CAN’T STAND IT, THANK WHATEVER SADISTIC GODS APPLY THAT YOU’RE KILLING ME BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO LIVE ON THIS BUCKETFILLER OF A WORLD NO- FUCK!”
Laughter cuts through the sound of the crowd behind you, wild and delighted. You turn just in time to see Redglare take Mindfang to the ground, the blueblood still laughing helplessly as Redglare shoves her into the dirt. It looks like she’s bowing to the Sufferer and mocking him at the same time, which wouldn’t be all that inaccurate. He continues to scream and preach behind you as Redglare sets her knee into Mindfang’s back.
“I remember you saying something about tearing this universe apart, Dollface!” she shouts as she shoves Mindfang’s shoulders down. Mindfang keeps laughing and Redglare pulls her up by the hair before slamming her head into the ground sharply. The absence of her laughter, cut off by an indignant screech, is almost as unsettling as its presence.
“-I TRIED TO CHANGE YOU, I TRIED TO LEAD BY EXAMPLE, BUT YOU’D ALL RATHER BE VICIOUS AND CRUEL AND SENTENCE A MAN TO TORTURE AND DEATH IN FRONT OF HIS FRIENDS AND FAMILY! HAVE ANY OF YOU EVER HAD A FAMILY, LOVED INSTEAD OF HATED, WHO AM I FUCKING KIDDING? NONE OF YOU WOULD KNOW LOVE IF IT BIT YOU IN THE GLUTES AND MAYBE IT’S JUSTICE THAT YOU’LL NEVER KNOW LOVE AS I HAVE, THAT YOU’LL NEVER HAVE YOUR FAMILY FIGHTING TO THE DEATH TO BUY YOU A FEW MINUTES-”
You reach up and rest your hands on his shoulders. He sucks in a breath and then screams, loud and long. Your blood goes cold in your veins. No, no, no, you will not watch this happen again, you can’t-
He stops screaming and goes silent. The crowd of memories goes silent with him, leaning close in anticipation. You grab his shoulders and pull, as hard as you can, but he doesn’t notice.
He draws in a breath and you can hear it perfectly. Everything is silent enough to hear a pin drop and you can’t, but you have to, you’re not letting him do this alone again. When he picks his head up, it’s like he’s the only thing in the universe that matters. In a very real way, he is.
“I hope you all rot,” he says, vicious and quiet. His head drops again, he exhales and goes still.
The crowd cheers. You go blank. Before you know what you’re doing, you reach up, take the white-hot irons around his wrists, and pull. They sear into your hands and you think you scream as loud as he did, but the metal’s hot enough that it gives and you’re able to pull him away. He falls on you and you collapse to the ground under his weight.
You roll him over and support him with hands you can’t feel anymore. He’s not breathing, not moving, he’s already dead so he can’t be dead again but what if, maybe he won’t wake up again-
His eyes flutter open.
You wipe away the sweat on his face with your shawl. “I’m here.”
Your heart sinks. “No, my grub.”
His hands wrap around one of yours and squeeze desperately. It hurts more than anything you’ve felt before, in more ways than one. “D’l’rosa, I can’t stop remembering.” His eyes dart around frantically. “You should run, it’ll start again soon, it always starts again, even if you’re not real I don’t want you here-”
You stroke his face gently with the hand he’s not crushing between his. It’s blackened and weeping angry jade. “Quiet. I promised that I would get you out of here, and I will.”
“Rosa, the crowd!” Redglare calls. You look up and see that the crowd didn’t disperse with Sufferer’s ‘death,’ they’re beginning to look as threatening as indistinct trolls can. You reflexively reach for your strife sylladex, but you can’t fight with your hands like this. You can’t fix them, either. Sufferer’s memory is overwhelming this place, and you don’t even have the power to make yourself whole so you can protect him.
This feels entirely too familiar.
“Signless, grub, you have to remember,” you say calmly. “You’re not here.” You cast around for a happy memory of his. His life was so hard, there aren’t very many. Stolen moments, mostly, and that won’t be enough. You swallow and pick a memory. You’ll only have one chance. “You remember when you were just a child, barely pupated, and you got it into your head to chase a shooting star?”
“Give me my dice, Redglare!”
You stroke his hair and continue. “And so we ran, even though you got so tired I had to carry you, you insisted that we had to follow this star. Only it wasn’t a star, it was a psionic trail, and at the end of it…”
“Psi,” he whispers hoarsely, his voice cracking at the end.
“The first one you saved.” You smile past the pain. “He fell at your feet.”
He closes his eyes slowly, his breath getting shallower.
You grip his shoulder as much as you can. “Signless, remember for me!” His wounds are knitting up before your eyes, but for some reason it’s making you uneasy instead of happy. You grab his shoulders and shake desperately. “Karcin!”
His breathing evens out until it’s like he’s asleep in your arms. Only you can’t wake him, and the memory-crowd is moving in. Redglare and Mindfang are standing back-to-back in defensive positions, and that’s a testament to the sudden danger of the situation.
Two memory-trolls part from the crowd and march towards you. Their blurred insignias are both seadweller-purple, and what you can make out of them shows them to be some of the Condescension’s guard. Her Imperial Condescension’s guards, who took your grub to slaughter. Redglare tries to trip them up, but they pass through her like she’s not even there.
Fear takes you by the throat and grips tight. You gather Sufferer into your arms and hug him close to your body, but he’s too heavy to drag anywhere, limp and unconscious as he is. His sleeping mind might not even let any of you past the border before he snaps out of his memories fully.
The two seatrolls snatch Sufferer from your grasp easily. They bear him back to the rock, his head lolling, and you chase them with your breath running ragged and tearing you apart. The crowd begins to shout and jeer again, a recording on loop, as the seatrolls slam his hands into the reformed manacles.
His eyes open again, but this time he sees you. He parts his lips as if to begin his sermon anew, then wets them and closes them again in a daze. “Dolorosa?”
Now that Sufferer is back on his rock, the members of the guard don’t seem to care about you slipping past them. “Karcin, please,” you beg, reaching up to him again. “Get down. You just have to remember that it’s all over.”
He cries and laughs at the same time, looking up at the sky and his shackled hands. “It’s never over, Rosa. I can’t stop.”
You stand on the tips of your toes and cup his face in your burned and bloody hands. “You’re dead, my grub. You’re dead and none of this is real. I can take you away from here, but only if you come willingly, please, Karcin, have I ever lied to you?” You wipe away one of the red tracks running down his cheeks, replacing it with a dirty jade smudge. Your heart is threatening to rip itself out of your chest.
Sufferer lets out a long sigh and closes his eyes. “All I ever wanted was to not have to run any more.”
Your heart seizes in your chest. He’s starting over again, his hopelessness turning to rage, and you can’t do anything. Ever since you died you’ve been useless. Redglare had to pull you from the brink of insanity, Mindfang nearly drove you back there, and now you can’t even save your grub, just like in real life. You’re even more useless than you were then, because at least your past self managed to buy him some time. You can’t even do that.
You rest your forehead on his chest. He doesn’t even notice. “I’m so sorry, Karcin.”
Redglare steps up to your side and rests a hand on your shoulder. “Rosa, it took me a perigee to get through to you, and this is a lot more traumatic than you recovering your memories.”
You look at her, and she shrinks back a little. “I’m his lusus,” you say, before looking back at Sufferer. Your hands throb in time with your heart. “For all the good I am. We only have nine hours, Redglare. Eight now, I suppose. I can’t handle eight more hours of this.”
You feel a prickling across the back of your neck as Mindfang speaks from behind you. “Am I the only one missing the obvious solution? We simply abduct him.”
You turn and snap at her. “And how do you propose we fight the crowd when they get angry?” You hold up your burned, numb hands in front of her good eye. “Things here still hurt, Marquise! I’m sure you’re better-qualified than Redglare or I to tell us what being impaled feels like!”
She scowls. “Give me my dice and I’ll fight them off one-armed, if you insist on bringing up sore subjects.”
Behind you, Signless’s manacles are being heated again. You can hear the hiss of metal from here, although he hasn’t started screaming. Psiionic was able to keep the pain away fully at first.
“Can you do it?” Plans begin ticking over in your mind. “Because you’re going to have to keep all of these trolls from getting anywhere near Redglare and I as we go back to the intersection of our bubbles on foot, carrying him.”
“You know as well as I do what my dice can do, jadeblood.” After a bare moment you nod, almost imperceptibly, and Redglare hands over the Fluorite Octet. Mindfang presses them to her cheek, familiarising herself with an old friend, before holding them loosely between her knuckles. She looks like she could take on the world, and she’s going to have to.
She rolls the octet before you or Redglare have a chance to confer about what’s going to happen. All of the memory-guard turn to face her, drawn away from their posts at Sufferer’s sides. The crowd slowly draws to a halt, Mindfang’s actions breaking the recording.
She touches the guard nearest her. He splits into skin and purple blood, and the crowd goes wild. She starts laughing again, ducking a sword as she scoops up the octet and rolls. She kicks another in the knee as the crowd swarms her, only to be rebuffed by a blue wind that whips your shawl away. Two bluebloods get their throats slit with thin blue knives as she kicks the octet into a new configuration, her impossible luck dooming all those around her. The dice never seem to go beyond her reach as she flows through the crowd, delivering pain and death.
Redglare jams her cane into the joint between two links that attach Sufferer’s cuffs to the execution pillar. He’s long since stopped talking, and his eyes are staring blankly through the crowd attacking Mindfang, like he’s not sure what’s happening. It takes a few more blows from Redglare’s cane until the weakened metal breaks. Sufferer’s weight pulls the broken link apart until he’s freed of the rock and kneeling in the dirt underneath. His hands are still cuffed together, but you’ll have to do something about that later. Time is of the essence.
The ground abruptly opens around Mindfang, leaving her standing on a small platform as half the remaining trolls fall down. The ground closes over them, and you try to not be sick. While there are still trolls left, she’s just created a pathway for you and Redglare. They weren’t real anyway, just figments of Sufferer’s nightmares.
There’s a brief argument about how to carry him that you win because you’re taller and can’t fight at the moment. With Redglare’s help, you loop Sufferer’s arms over your head and carry him on your back, like you used to when he was just a pupa. He’s still unresponsive, staring sightlessly through everything, and the manacles are too warm even through the armour you wear under your dress. He’s heavy in the way only unconscious or dead trolls are, but you won’t drop him. You’d rather die again first.
Redglare sucks in a deep breath before shouting to Mindfang. “Clear out, Spinneret!”
“Took you long enough!” She picks up her dice and runs through an assailant with a long blade. “I’ll cover you, get going!”
You put your faith in the worst person you can imagine, and run. You don’t get very far past Mindfang and her assailants before a sound you’ve heard before makes you stop in your tracks and the world goes white-blue.
Mindfang’s reduced to a silhouette in front of the light coming from the gun in her hands. The rifle she’s firing is impossibly powerful, legendary, and not hers. She couldn’t have imagined it, either – even if Sufferer doesn’t have his wits about him at the moment, he’s still in control, and this place will act as he believes it should. The beam wipes out the last of the memories, turning them to ash in front of her.
She releases the trigger, and everything is deafeningly quiet as she strolls up to you, Ahab’s Crosshairs casually slung over one shoulder and the Fluorite Octet held loosely in her other hand. This woman has two unstoppable weapons of legend and you are quietly terrified down to your bones.
“What?” she asks, looking between you and Redglare. The legislacerator looks how you feel. “I said I’d cover you.”
“Where did you get Ahab’s Crosshairs?” you ask, your voice little more than a whisper. “Dualscar…”
Mindfang shrugs. “I took it back when he died. Are we saving your precious mutantblood or not?” Before you can reply she strides off in the direction of your bubble, swagger in her step that wasn’t there before. Peace was what you strove for with Signless, but seeing Mindfang the way she is now makes you think that maybe some trolls need to fight. She’s the most alive of any of you at the moment, and you desperately want that for yourself.
You share a look with Redglare and follow Mindfang, Sufferer still insensate on your back. He falls asleep as soon as you cross the line of intersection, his breathing even and calm. This time, you let yourself hope it’s a good sign.
Redglare and Mindfang disappear into the caves when you get back to your hive. You don’t begrudge them, and you need to tend to Sufferer anyway, a task that should be easier without them underfoot. You’ve laid him out on your sewing table, red cloth under him, and the first thing you do is try to manipulate his handcuffs away.
You can’t. To be honest, you kind of expected this would happen. With a sigh, you conjure up a set of lockpicks and get to work on taking them off the old-fashioned way. It takes a long time, but you can lose yourself in the patience required for the task, and that’s more than you hoped for.
Once they’re off, you toss them into a corner of the room. Sufferer might want to do something with them later. Smash them, maybe. You wipe his face and hands clean with cool water, then rinse out his hair. He looks almost well when you’re done. Like he hasn’t been through hell and back.
You kiss his forehead and retreat to your sewing machine, something to keep you busy until he wakes up.
Morning light is slanting across your table when he wakes up. He always grumbled about your diurnal sleep cycle, but more often than not he’d be awake before you, writing ideas for sermons with a cup of coffee next to his elbow. There’d always be a cup of tea waiting for you as well, made exactly how you like it. Now he just blinks in confusion, before coughing to clear his throat.
“I heard you sewing.”
You blink back tears, unable to stop the smile that accompanies them. “I was hardly going to fuss over you.”
He gets up and grabs your hands, looks at them, turns them over and searches for any trace of damage. There is none, of course. Finally he meets your eyes. “It’s over?” When you nod, he pulls you into a hug, crushing you and crying into your shoulder. You rub his back soothingly. “It’s over, thank fuck, I thought I was stuck there forever-” He comes to a realisation and pushes back from you. “Disciple? Psi? Have you found either of them?”
“No, who we find seems to be fairly random. We may have a better chance of coming across them now that you’re here. We seem to attract people we know.”
He nods once, resolutely. It’s enough for him that you’ll find them. It always has been. You feel a lot better with his determination to guide you.
– graciousAntecedant [GA] has started trolling acquiredGoods [AG] –
GA: I Know How Bored You Are
AG: I 8eg your pardon.
GA: You Were Yourself
GA: You Were Made For Strifing, Mindfang
AG: O8viously. I’m failing to see your point, slavegirl.
GA: I Need Someone To Spar With
GA: I Cannot Continue To Be As Useless As I Have Been When Approaching New Deathbubbles
AG: You want me to strife with you?
AG: ::::/ Run 8efore you can walk, slaaaaaaaavegirl.
AG: I’m sure your lovely legislacer8or would 8e delighted to help you.
GA: Call Me Slavegirl Again And I Will Make You Swallow It, Spiderbitch
GA: We Will Be Strifing
GA: The Only Question Is As To Whether You Want To Arrange It Beforehand
AG: I wasn’t expecting a 8ite!
AG: 8ring it, Fussyfangs!!!!!!!!
GA: That’s Even Worse
– acquiredGoods [AG] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] –
GUYS. GUYS, I got fanart!
(Pssst any fanworks I find on Toomblr will be reblagged under that tag, so it might pay to check back every now and then if you're interested!)
WARNING: Heavily implied non-con in this chapter.
Redglare patches you up with frightening efficiency. It’s become something of an evening ritual: Strife with Mindfang, be patched up by Redglare, share a meal with everyone, then go to sleep as they wake up.
There are parts of the ritual you aren’t fond of.
“You know I’m willing to strife with you, right, Dollface?” Redglare smears antiseptic over a cut. For all she’s upset by your injuries, she won’t let you make them vanish. Strife injuries are how you get stronger and smarter, Rosa! If you don’t want more cuts and bruises, you’ll just have to dodge quicker.
You questioned her logic at first, but, well, you are a lot better at getting out of the way now.
“I know, Redglare.” You wince as she prods at a bruise. At least she didn’t decide to lick it this time. “I’d rather strife with Mindfang.”
“Why?” She slides up her glasses and looks at you with legislacerator eyes.
You look down. Because my problem isn’t strifing, it’s freezing up when confronted by something traumatic. I feel useless if I can’t fight to protect anyone. She fights dirty and quick and that’s the only way to win. Finally you meet her eyes, half-smile, and say, “It’s very satisfying, punching her in the face.”
Redglare grins and goes back to tending your wounds.
Sufferer doesn’t approve of your strifing. In life, before you were beaten down and locked up at every little thing, you were essentially his bodyguard. Disciple did well enough for the obvious threats, and Psiionic was always quick with the shields, but you were the one who took care of problems before they ever got to him. The number of bodies you racked up was astounding, but the Condesce never stopped sending more assassins.
You think maybe he hoped you could stop fighting once everything was over.
Still, even if he doesn’t understand, he tries to help. There’s always a cold drink waiting for you (and Mindfang, begrudgingly, because exclusion is rude) after strifing, and the first time he finds you practicing on your own he corrects your stance. His training with scythekind has given him an uncanny sense of balance, even if he’s not so good at the actual strifing part.
He seems a little lost without anyone to help.
You never thought having a routine could be so boring.
Redglare starts going on patrols around the desert because she can’t sit still any more. You don’t blame her in the slightest.
Everyone takes to staring out your windows and monitoring their husktops excessively. You don’t even complain when Mindfang starts sleeping on the couch instead of down in the caves, because at least it’s something different, and maybe she’ll see something.
This is no way to live.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
AA: six hundred and twelve kil0metres west
AA: i can’t answer y0ur questi0ns n0w
AA: next time
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] –
There’s nothing here. A breeze kicks up the sand around your feet as the four of you look around, taking in the vast expanse of desert.
“Did you get the co-ordinates wrong, slavegirl?” Mindfang shields her eyes with one hand. The sun is just rising, and everyone’s tired. That’s the only reason you don’t slap Mindfang, although Redglare prods her with the tip of her cane. She doesn’t pay any heed to the legislacerator. “There’s a distinct lack of anything here.”
“It’s hardly my fault,” you say, as Sufferer shakes his head. His sense of direction is better than yours, honed by a youth spent exploring the desert while you bribed officials and covered up his existence. “The source is bad, if anything.”
Redglare walks off in the direction of a tall dune. Mindfang follows with a flick of her hair and exasperation in her stride.
Sufferer steps up beside you, one arm raised to shield his eyes from the sand still being kicked up by the persistent breeze. “We don’t know anything about this averseAttendant, Rosa. What if they’ve led us astray?”
“They led me to you, grub.”
He sighs and flops down in the sand. You sit next to him, even if it means you’ll be shaking grit out of your skirt for the next few nights. The sand is still cool from the night, and you dig your hands into the loosely-packed grains before an idea occurs to you.
He opens one eye and squints at you. “Mrngh?”
“How far out did the caves go?”
He opens his other eye and sits up slowly. “I wasn’t able to explore them all. They went forever, Rosa. Do you think…?” At your nod, he looks at the sand. “How are we going to get down there? By the time we do, whoever’s down there’ll be gone.”
You try to exert your control over the area around you without much hope. To your surprise, the staircase leading down into the caves you were hoping for actually appears. The two bubbles must have overlapped if you still maintain this much control over your surroundings. Either that, or practice makes perfect.
That’s an alarming thought. You hope Mindfang hasn’t been practicing.
You wave at Redglare to get her attention. A few moments later she waves back and starts skidding down the side of the dune she just climbed. It looks fun, and you suspect that might be half the reason she climbed it in the first place. Mindfang follows, a huge cloud of dust in her wake and a grin on her face.
The two of them walk over to you and Sufferer, dust-ridden and hopeful. Redglare looks down at your staircase, which disappears into black before the bottom can be seen. “Underground?”
You nod. “The caves under my hive spread out further than we were ever able to explore.”
“And I found Disciple living in the caves, when I first met her,” Sufferer adds. He’d never mentioned that to you, but then again, he’d always had a habit of appearing with a stray attached to him after exploring. Psiionic, Disciple, roughly one hundred shellbeasts… “If, if it’s her…”
“You’ll need torches.” Redglare pats you on the shoulder. “Good thinking, rookie.”
The caves are dry and dusty. By unspoken agreement, none of you are splitting up. There would be absolutely no chance of getting out if you get lost, and you’re relying on the method of navigation you and Sufferer devised together, chalk markings at every intersection. Redglare scouts ahead, torchless, her sunglasses off. As good as trollish night vision is, hers is almost supernatural.
Sufferer walks with her, talking quietly. Ever since he found out she was a follower of his, he’s been asking about his legacy. The answers half-please and half-horrify him. He’s pleased that Disciple lived long enough to spread his teachings. Upset that they didn’t spread further.
You notice that he hasn’t asked about Psiionic. You hope that he never does. The Alternian Empire doesn’t throw away a useful traitor, not when it can make examples instead.
Mindfang walks behind you and steps on your heels until you flick out your foot and make her stumble. After that she walks beside you, holding her torch up to keep Redglare and Sufferer in sight.
“You’re getting better at strifing,” she says, abruptly.
You give her a small, sharp nod.
“Are you getting less afraid?”
You shoot her a sharp look. Every time you forget to breathe when she grabs your wrists, every time your mind screams when she throws you to the floor, every time you have to choke back a sob when she’s got you pinned so you can’t move, and she still needs to ask?
“I always swore I’d see you dead,” you say finally. “It’s doing wonders.”
She scowls. “If you’re going to be like that…”
You slap her. It feels good to finally get that off your chest, to know you won’t be beaten and worse for it. It feels good knowing you’re in a position of power. It feels horrible knowing all that and still being scared of Mindfang anyway. She broke you, in more ways than one, and now you’ve got to deal with it.
“Do you think conversation can make up for everything you did to me?” You hold her back to let Redglare and Sufferer get further ahead. Redglare undoubtedly heard you, but it’s not something you want your grub to overhear. The one mercy of his death meant that he never had to know what happened to you and Psiionic. “You’re sick, Mindfang. I tolerate you in my hive only to strengthen myself.”
“Oh, that’s nice!” She scuffs her foot along the rock underfoot, half a stomp. “You’re not the only one trying to change, you know.” Her hand drifts to her chest again, where the hole that pierced her through was, and you’re beginning to suspect there’s a story behind more than someone finally had enough from her, the end.
Not that you care.
“How brilliant for you.” You tug her down to your level, and maybe she’s a pirate and made for brawling, but you tended a mother grub and you’re made for protection. You know how to be intimidating. “You’re not getting forgiveness from me. Don’t try to seek redemption where there is none.”
“What would your grub have to say about that?” she sneers, and maybe your feelings aren’t as ashen as you thought. You tamp the sudden-black feelings down ruthlessly. You wouldn’t get tangled up with Mindfang romantically if someone paid you, no matter what your base instincts want. Even if you hate her more than you thought you could ever hate another being.
“I’m not my grub, Marquise.” You twist her collar, choking her. “And he will never know how you wronged me. Understand?”
She regards you flatly with her one good eye. It reminds you of nothing so much as the spiders she favoured, lying in wait. “Understood, slavegirl,” she agrees finally, drawling the epithet out. Perhaps you shouldn’t have let her know that you never want Sufferer finding out what happened to you, but oh well.
There are ways to ensure silence.
You let her go. She straightens her coat before strolling off casually, even waiting for you to catch up when she gets ahead. It’s like nothing ever happened. Only the way she flinches when you’re at her back gives her away. You chalk that verbal joust up as a victory to you.
You’ve been walking for fifteen minutes when you come across a chalk marking that none of you wrote down. Sufferer scrubs a finger into it and checks the colour against the chalk he carries. It’s slightly greyer. He’s unable to stop his hope from appearing on his face. Only Disciple and Psiionic knew your markings.
You grab his hand and squeeze tight. To be honest, you miss them almost as much as he does, all your grubs. Even if he was first, and needed the most raising out of all of them, you still care about them all. Perhaps it was why you were able to accept his ideas. You love your grubs, and there’s no quadrant for that.
You follow the markings until you can hear shouting.
Sufferer breaks into a run, dragging you along by the hand. You keep pace easily, tearing past Redglare and Mindfang. You follow the markings until they run out, and you find her and the troll she’s arguing with.
He’s a brownblood, tall and muscled, and you’re momentarily afraid before you make out what Disciple is shouting.
“Your side of the cave is ofur there! This is my side! If you can’t be apurroachable in purroblem solving, this is what we have to do!”
“This is stupid!”
Beside you, Sufferer’s jaw is slowly dropping. This probably isn’t how he expected his reunion with his… ex-matesprit? You were never quite sure about their relationship. Just as yours is outside of the quadrants, so is hers. They’re not romantically inclined, like moirails, but they’re closer than mere friends have any right to be. Using Sufferer’s parlance, it’s clear to anyone that they love each other.
“What the hell are you doing?” he snaps.
The brownblood and Disciple both whirl around, identical blushes blooming into existence. Disciple’s only lasts long enough for her to see the two of you before she shrieks and throws herself into Sufferer’s arms. He breaks into a grin and spins her around before hugging her close.
He winces and paps her. “I can hear the cat puns.”
She disentangles herself from him and bounces over to wrap her arms around you. She’s as strong and wiry as ever, and you feel like your arms are full of life as you hug her for the first time in who knows how long. Before long, she detaches herself again and grabs the brownblood by the hand.
“Dolorosa, Suffurer, this is Summoner. He’s my kismeowsis.”
Redglare and Mindfang catch up just in time to see your identical expressions of shock. And, as if your wild pouncebeast-grub having a kismessitude last beyond death wasn’t enough, Mindfang draws her dice and rolls in one fluid movement. A fluorite lance appears in her hand, the weight of it straining her metal arm to the limit, plates separating and joints creaking.
Summoner pushes past you, takes the lance from Mindfang’s hand, and drops it. It rings oddly against the rock of the floor. “Spin, please, I’m so sorry-”
“I don’t want your apologies!” She smacks him with her metal hand, the sharp edges of the plates leaving bloody lines behind. He’s going to be all bruises before Mindfang’s ever reasonable.
“Fine then, Spin, you were going to sell me out-”
“I was trying to stop you from losing your fool head!” She tries to smack him again, but he catches her arm and holds it in place. “That stupid wriggler’s ideals aren’t worth the life of a squad of cavalreapers!”
The stupid grub in question opens his mouth, only to have Disciple shove her hand over it before he can get involved in the fight. You nod your thanks to her. Idealist he may be, but your grub has always had a temper he can’t quite control.
He takes her other hand as well and holds both to his chest, so gently you can see the pity in his movements. How anyone could pity Spinneret Mindfang, you have no idea, but the reality is right before your eyes and begging her forgiveness. “Some things are worth dying for. I don’t regret it.”
Then the impossible happens.
You never thought you’d see MIndfang cry.
She blinks back the blue furiously, drops still escaping to get lost in her hair. Her voice cracks when she speaks. “How could you just leave me to bleed out like that and still say you pity me?”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeats. “I’m so sorry, I hated myself for it, please, Spin, I never would have laid a finger on you but you were going to sell me out, sell all of us out, and the revolution needed us-”
“Fuck your revolution!” she screams, right in his face. “Your revolution was never going to work, you pan-diseased , coatstand-horned piece of shit! But you didn’t listen to me, I had to do something!”
He grips her hands tighter. “I still had to try, Spin. You know that.”
“You killed me,” she hisses, and when her voice goes low like that it makes your skin crawl. You want to take your grubs and hide. Redglare shuffles around the fighting pair to join you and from her pose you can tell she feels the same way. “It was your choice, and still you killed me. In cold blood, no less.”
Redglare gropes for your hand. You let her take it, offer a reassuring squeeze. Out of the corner of her mouth, she mutters, “I can’t tell if they were flushed or pitch.”
“Flushed,” Disciple says, from her position silencing Sufferer. “He wouldn’t shut up about how guilty he felt.”
“All I can do is tell you how sorry I am.”
“Sometimes sorry isn’t enough!” Mindfang freezes, then looks at you. You blink at her slowly. You’re surprised she recognised her own hypocrisy at all. She rips her hands out of his grasp and scrubs at her eyes, regaining some lost composure. “Maybe it will be. Eventually. But not now.”
You nod at her slowly. Summoner can’t see you behind him, but he must sense something, because he turns and narrowly misses hitting Mindfang with a horn. She whacks him in the shoulder, but he barely notices. His eyes travel over you and Redglare, who he smiles at, before settling on Sufferer. He fishes out an iron necklace, identical to the one Redglare wore that now never leaves your neck, and kneels.
Disciple slowly lowers her hand. Sufferer steps forward, snaps the necklace off Summoner’s neck, and tosses it to a distant corner of the cavern. He then grabs Summoner by the shoulders and hauls him upright. “I didn’t die for anyone to idolise me.”
You step forward and wrap an arm around your grub’s shoulders. It should have looked ridiculous, this huge cavalreaper kneeling to your tiny, redblooded grub, but it didn’t. He looked like a leader. So you can’t stop protecting people, Sufferer can’t stop leading, and Redglare can’t stop patrolling. A fine group you make.
Disciple nuzzles between the two of you and looks up at you. Her eyes are as dark a green as you remember, though not as happy. “So where do we go furrom here, Dolorosa?”
A piece of your heart clicks back into place, and damn anyone who says you don’t care for her even if she’s not in a quadrant. “Home.”
Your hive is fuller than it’s ever been. Disciple and Summoner sit at the table, bickering over a plate of biscuits, new hate almost sickening-sweet. Sufferer sits with them, taking the measure of Summoner and stealing all the biscuits while they argue. Mindfang is down in the caves somewhere, ostensibly because it’s late in the morning and she’s tired, but probably because she’s ashamed to the core of anyone seeing her tears. Redglare sprawls half across your lap, reading a trashy romance.
You sit and try to remember the last time you didn’t have to worry about running. Fear is no longer your constant companion. While Psiionic is still out there, somewhere, and you are worried about him, you can’t lie to yourself. Despite everything, you’ve never been happier.
You take a sip of tea, rest your other hand on Redglare’s head, and let yourself smile.
It feels good.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling twofoldAbolitionist [TA] --
TA: why are y0u contacting me
AA: y0u were the last 0ne to see the c0ndesce
AA: i need t0 find her
TA: the c0ndesce is n0t l0cated within my sphere 0f influence
TA: last seen 0n her ship, the battleship c0ndescensi0n, preceding the vast glub
TA: date unkn0wn
AA: she may still be nearby y0u
AA: please inf0rm me if she appears
TA: reas0n required for placing tag
TA: why d0 y0u h0pe?
AA: the same reas0n as y0u
AA: place the tag
AA: i kn0w why y0u h0pe
TA: payment required
AA: y0ur sufferer, his disciple, and the d0l0r0sa are c0ming f0r y0u
AA: it will n0t be l0ng n0w
TA: i d0n’t
TA: ii̶ ͘cań'̛t k̸eep ҉hopi̵i͝ng͜
-- twofoldAbolitionist [TA] has lost connection --
AA: that s0unds ab0ut right
WARNING: Body horror, Psiionic-style.
Also this chapter might look really weirdly formatted. I've been fighting with AO3, but if it doesn't look right for you (all weirdly whitespacey around the pesterlogs, etc) you can read the chapter here. And now I need to go to uni.
Sometimes you wake up screaming. The sopor drags you down and paralyses you, but you thrash until you’re free and gasp for breath, silencing yourself as soon as you realise you’re awake. You have to press your hands against your torso and make sure that you’re not split in half. The slime pours through your hands like blood and makes you shudder.
It happens more often, now that your hive is full of trolls. Thankfully you sleep while they’re awake, and none of them like to hang around the hive when there’s endless desert to explore, or old acquaintances to catch up with.
The third time it happens, Redglare’s sitting in your window seat when you claw your way out of your recuperacoon. She doesn’t offer to help, which is good. You probably would have kicked her. When you come out of the ablutions chamber, there are clean clothes hanging on the doorhandle, and your slime-ridden ones are gone. You get dressed, dry and style your hair, apply your makeup. Disguises and routines make up so much of the way you keep yourself going. It’s almost depressing.
She waits for you in the nutrition block, sipping at the sludge she calls coffee. There’s a cup of tea there for you as well. It reminds you of the days when you and your grubs still lived here, before it was necessary to go on the run. Routines aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
You sit across from Redglare, pick up the tea, and wait for the confrontation.
“I could hear you screaming,” she says, eventually, and takes a sip of her coffee. You don’t know what to say. You can’t really say that it’s nothing, because it’s not like anyone wakes up screaming for no reason. You can’t even say that you’ve got it under control, because you don’t. Before you can decide on the appropriate response, she speaks again. “You’re not the only one.”
Any white lie you were going to say turns to dust in your mouth. She swallows another mouthful of coffee, and the scar around her throat seems more obvious than ever.
“How could you hear me?” you ask, after a long silence. Her hearing is good, but not good enough to hear through several walls and a vat of slime. The aforementioned barriers are the only reason Sufferer hasn’t barged in and made a mess of things, probably.
She twists her fingers together uncertainly. “Sometimes I hear things I shouldn’t be able to. I wasn’t hearing you screaming, exactly.”
You raise an eyebrow.
She gives up, her shoulders slumping inwards. “Your mind was screaming. You were still asleep.”
You carefully put your cup down before you can drop it.
“It’s only started happening since I woke up in my bubble.” Redglare picks up a cookie and tears off a piece, then puts both pieces down in front of her. “It’s nothing like Spinneret’s control. Or Summoner’s, over his animals. I just hear things.”
You bunch your hands into fists to stop them from shaking. “Can you turn it off?”
Her mouth flattens into a thin line. “I won’t. I don’t ever want to leave you alone through something like that again. It was horrifying.”
“I don’t care.” Your hands are shaking too much now for anything to hide. You stare at them instead of Redglare. “Stop.”
She sighs and picks up a piece of the cookie she tore in half earlier. “Dollface, you can’t keep pretending you’re fine. I’ll stop, but…”
She solemnly hands you the other half of the cookie. “You have to promise to come find me if you need company. I won’t ask questions.”
You sigh, bite into the cookie, and nod. She eats her half of the cookie, looking inexplicably smug.
-- twofoldAbolitionist [TA] has opened memo iìs̶ an̷y̡o͠ne ͝t͏heŕe̕ --
TA: c͢an̛ a͡n̨yo̕ne he͠a͏r̴ m͏e͏
TA: ii̛t'2 bee̢n 2͡o̧ ̨lo̶n͜g̨
twofoldAbolitionist has lost connection
candidGovernance [CG] has joined the memo
CG: PSI, WHAT THE FUCK.
CG: HOW DID YOU LOSE YOUR CONNECTION, YOU SLIME-LICKING BAG OF BONE BULGES?
CG: IT’S OMNIPRESENT.
averseAttendant [AA] has joined the memo
AA: he drifted 0ut 0f range
AA: excuse me
AA: i need t0 f0ll0w him
CG: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIM?
CG: IF HIS BONY GLUTES AREN’T IN THIS UNIVERSE IN THE NEXT FIVE SECONDS I AM GOING TO PREACH AT YOU SO HARD YOU’LL THINK YOU’VE FOUND THE SECOND COMING.
AA: there’s a chance he c0uld lead me t0 s0mething i need
averseAttendant has lost connection
Sufferer shoves his husktop into your hands with an aggrieved air, and you know it’s going to be a long night. The memo makes your hands freeze on the keys, because it’s Psiionic, your wayward grub who got captured by the empire, and it seems that they’ve put him through the wringer.
Dualscar told you that he’d been taken as a pilot. You’d hoped that Psiionic had managed to get away. Apparently not.
“What is this?” Sufferer says, practically vibrating in anger. Disciple puts a hand on his shoulder and he calms down a little, but not much. The boy needs his moirail. “Dolorosa, what is this troll doing to Psi. That text isn’t him!”
You stand up and wrap him in your arms. Disciple follows suit, turning the three of you into an impromptu pile. He’s shorter than all of you, and no amount of squirming is enough to get him away from the affection.
“The fact that you’re seeing a need to comfort me is really worrying!”
Disciple pats him on the head gently. “Suffurer, I know you miss him, we all do. But I’m pawsitive this purrson doesn’t mean any harm. They wouldn’t be bringing efuryone together otherwise.” She meets your eyes over his head and winks. It’s almost macabre, since she undoubtedly knows Psiionic would have been turned into a Helmsman for his crimes. Nonetheless, the words do calm Sufferer down enough that he stops struggling and returns your hug.
“If previous instances are anything to go by, the fact that he’s in such close proximity means that likely we’ll call him back here soon.” You kiss the top of his head lightly and wonder if there’s any way you can hide the fact that his moirail’s likely as broken as a troll can get.
You read the statistics, when you believed in the Empire. Most Helmsmen ‘burned out’ in four sweeps or less. Then, when you grew older and wiser, you realised that meant they died screaming with their thinkpans melting out their ears.
You want to spare Sufferer the knowledge of that, if you can.
He grumbles and shoves at your shoulders, which means that affection time is over. Redglare’s taken his husktop and is staring at the memo intensely, her glasses off. Sufferer’s been around her long enough to know that there’s absolutely no chance of him getting his husktop back, so he takes the path of least resistance and sits next to her instead. She waves a cookie at him with one hand and types with the other.
Disciple pulls you away. You lead her down to your sewing room and shut the door. Nobody bothers you when you’re in here, except Redglare, and she’s occupied.
“Rosa, what are we going to do?” she whispers, as if Sufferer will be able to hear her through the walls. “If Psi’s hurt… Should we tail him? It’s not pawsible to cofur it up much longer.”
You open your husktop and turn it on. “Normally averseAttendant messages me. They don’t seem one for memos. Any notifications of Psiionic returning to our area should come to me.”
“That doesn’t change anything!” Disciple strides up and down the room, fingers twitching agitatedly. “He’ll want to be on any rescue opurrations, especially after that meowmo! I cat keep him back furrom it, he’d blame me furever!”
You rub your forehead with one hand. “I don’t suppose he’d fall for, ‘Oh goodness, look over there, it’s a distraction!’?”
Disciple laughs, despite herself. You smile at her, although forcing it makes your cheeks ache. You are all going to come out of this as well as possible, even if you have to claw your way there while dragging everyone. Redglare will probably help.
-- twofoldAbolitionist [TA] has started trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
TA: w̧h͟y a͟rè ̨yo̕u ́do̢iin̸g ̷thii͝2 ̛t͢w̴o me͞
TA: i̷i c̢a҉n't̛ ͘k̶ee͢p͝ ̷goii͡n̢g
TA: i͞i'̢m͝ goi͜i͟ng t̛wo ͏bu͞r̷n òu͏t
AA: i can’t keep d0ing this either
AA: i need t0 find c0ndesce
AA: then it can end
TA: 2̴he c͠an̢'̧t f̷įi̷x҉ ͞anythi̧ing
TA: 2̨H̕Ȩ ͞ŖUÌI͞N̸2͡ EVERY̡THII̕N͡G̕
TA: WHY ̷C͡A҉N͠'̧T ĮI J̕U̕2T͢ ̀D̕I̧IE̷
TA: t͘h̸at͡ ͝fa̸ce l͘o͝óḱ2 ̀2tu͟p͝ii̷d̢
AA: d0n’t w0rry
AA: as s00n as i find a better link t0 c0ndesce
AA: i’ll help y0u die
AA: i'm g00d at that
twofoldAbolitionist is an idle troll!
twofoldAbolitionist has returned!
TA: 2he’2 aliive
TA: and 2he doe2n’t 2leep
TA: you’re not goiing two fiind her iin here ii2 what
TA: could you
TA: untiil they come for me
TA: ii don’t want two be alone again
TA: plea2e aa
TA: ii’m 2o fuckiing 2iick of not feeliing real
AA: 0f c0urse i’ll stay
-- Conversation has timed out! --
You’re awoken by a loud crash and the world shaking enough that it feels like your bones are rattling in your skin. By the time you haul yourself out of your recuperacoon and change, Disciple’s at your door with your husktop.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] --
AA: c0me find us
AA: we’re n0t far
AA: bring the sufferer and the disciple
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] --
That puts paid to any thoughts you had of leaving him behind, and this ‘we’ is intriguing. You and Disciple go to the dining block, where Sufferer and Redglare are jittering impatiently, while Mindfang and Summoner are nowhere to be found. They seem to be holding each other back from leaving, and the arrival of yourself and Disciple catapults them out the door before you can ask if they’re ready. Good thing that’s answer enough.
The distance to where metal spines arch to the sky is alarmingly short. Sufferer’s a good five strides ahead of you, Disciple a close second. You lag behind them, somewhat on purpose. You’re not sure you want to see this, but it’s not like you have a choice. Redglare walks beside you, but it’s obvious that she wants to race ahead and start investigating.
Your heart sinks a little as you take your first step onto metal. About all that’s solid of this ship is the flooring and the structural skeleton. The walls have rusted off and withered away, exposing thousands of wires strung between supports like decoration. Even the floors are patchy, rusted holes snagging at the hem of your dress.
“Where is he?” Sufferer snaps. Disciple grabs his hand and tries to calm him down, but she’s no moirail. “He should be here!”
You indicate the stairwell hidden to the side as casually as you can manage. “You and Disciple search upwards. Redglare and I will cover the lower levels. We can troll each other if we find anything.”
Sufferer regards you with suspicion, then nods slowly. Disciple shoots you a look that somehow manages to be both grateful and despairing as she tugs him to the stairs.
Redglare tilts her head, listening to them clatter off. When their footfalls fade away, she says, “That was cruel, Rosa.”
“As cruel as letting him see his moirail as a broken pilot?” You start down the stairs. “Come if you’re coming.”
“You can’t keep lying,” Redglare argues, following you. “Putting it off will just make it worse!”
You stop and look up at her. She’s on a higher step than you, glasses still on despite the darkness of the unlit stairwell. You wish you could read her eyes. “We’re not talking about Psiionic and Sufferer, are we? My nightmares are my own, Redglare. We’ve come to an agreement on this.”
“You’re very good at bottling things up and making sacrifices,” she says, folding her arms and shifting into a solid stance. “It’s all right to ask for that help back. We’re all dead, we’re not going to judge you.”
You tilt your head downwards, to where the hold and the Helmsman will be waiting. “I think we have more important things to worry about at the moment.”
Redglare sighs and nudges you forward. “Onwards, then.”
The hold is one area that’s managed to retain its walls. You suspect you’re several levels below ground, and it’s pitch-blank in here, enough that Redglare’s hand on your elbow is a welcome guide. You can feel wires underfoot, and just make out the outlines of rows of computer stations, all dull and dusty.
As you approach the centre, where all the wires coalesce, every screen around you flickers to life. You have to blink to adjust, and the first thing you see is your yellowblooded, independent, free grub tied up and left to rot in a mass of wires that go around him, through him, he’s as much machine as he is troll-
Redglare tugs your elbow, seemingly unaffected. “Rosa, the screens…”
You turn to snap at her, see one of the screens, and your mouth dries out.
You swallow, hard. Her Imperial Condescension’s personal ship. The Empire does not tolerate a traitor. To be a psionic is to serve the Empire, from hatching to death. There is no other choice. You hid your grubs as best you could, but in the end, you all paid the price for revolution.
There’s a crackle of green lighting and before you realise what’s happening, a female troll almost as short as Sufferer is standing in front of you. Her eyes are red but she dresses in green, and you have a sneaking suspicion that this is averseAttendant. You’ve seen trolls with special skills before, but teleportation is a new one on you.
Redglare punches you in the arm. “Dollface! It’s the Handmaid!”
You’re startled enough by having a figure of legend in front of you that you momentarily lose your brain-to-mouth filter. “The super-foxy one?”
The spectre of death in question clears her throat. “I can’t stay.”
“What? No.” You start mentally flicking through your strife deck. “I was promised answers, and they’ve already been too long coming.”
Handmaid crosses to where Psiionic hangs, sagging in the mass of wires. It seems he’s unaware of everything around him, but she places a hand on his head anyway. “I have a final promise to keep to this Helmsman.”
“Psiionic,” you say, after a short silence. You can’t deny her anything if it comes to your grubs.
“Yes, I know.”
“No, Psiionic is his title.” Your voice is sticking in your throat. “Do what you must.”
She seems a little surprised, in an expressionless way, that you’d know what the favour is. It’s not that hard to guess. She’s a legendary figure, the Handmaid of Death, with bone-sharp needles that can pierce your soul. And Psiionic always liked doing things in twos. It figures that he’d have to die twice, as well.
She leans into Psiionic, her forehead resting against his briefly. A look of sorrow crosses her face that makes you want to turn away. Her trollhandle is averseAttendant. Perhaps she doesn’t like her job.
“It won’t be long now, Psiionic. Everyone’s here for you. I have to go. I’ll take care of your remaining life as soon as I can.”
Every screen in the room flickers, the Condesce’s imperial sign disappearing.
TA: th͏a̡nk͝2̨ aa͢
TA: ii̷ ̸ow̶e̶ you
“I’ll be seeing you soon.” She disappears as the flat statement works its way into you and plucks at your nerves. The green lightning sears into your vision.
Redglare walks off, circling around the stem of wires that hold Psiionic in place. You can hardly bring yourself to look at them, or him, but you have to, before Sufferer and Disciple finish exploring the upper levels. It will take them a while, but you’ve never trusted chance.
“Psiionic? Can you hear me?” you ask, looking steadily at his unresponsive body.
TA: 2or͟r͜y d͜r
TA: ii̷2 2̛f h̡ere
“He’s nearby. I didn’t want him to see you like this.” You take a hesitant step towards him, then another, until you’re close enough to rest a hand on his head. You don’t know if he can feel it, but it’s the only comfort you can provide right now. Removing the wires or his goggles before he’s ready could do something drastic in his half-dead, half-alive state, no matter how aware he is.
TA: me ̴ne̷i͢i̧t͝h́e͏r
TA: bu̷t̀ i̶i ̨th͢ii͝nk̵ ͞ii ̧mi̛igh͟t ͘ńee̷d ͢h͜i͞im
You close your eyes in despair, blocking out the light of a hundred screens. “I’ll summon him.”
The only response you get to your message is “ASKLDHSKLDA,” and you’re sure you taught Sufferer to be more polite than that, but you suppose exceptions can be made in extreme circumstances. Redglare’s given up on poking the wires holding Psiionic, and is now attempting to bring one of the computer stations under her control. It’s really no use when Psiionic has them under his thrall, but if it makes her feel better she can try to match wits with him.
“He’s on his way,” you tell Psiionic. No answer comes, so you sit down in a computer chair and wait. Sufferer bursts into the room with all his customary grace, Disciple following close behind, and when he screeches to a halt at the sight of his moirail broken by the Condesce, it almost causes a pileup.
TA: h̨e̵y 2̀f
TA: ho͠w'̢2̨ íit ḩa̕ngii͢ng҉
Sufferer stares at the screen, then looks back to Psiionic. Finally, he manages to come up with, “I have no idea why I was so worried about you. Clearly, you’re doing fine.”
TA: t̢he ̕cǫmp̸an̢ý ҉hel҉p2̕
TA: a͠l̴2͞o ii͡ miįg͟ht͢ ̛lo2e͜ all ̧m͞y͢ ͢wiit ̧a͢nd́ verve̡ ͞ẁh̶én i̛i ͢d͜i̡i͡e ful͟l͠y̧ ͠2o ̀i̛i ͡ha͘v̀e t͟w҉o ͘u2e͡ ͢i̧it̶ ҉ńow͞
“Don’t worry, Psi!” Disciple shoulders past everyone and wraps her arms around him, column of wires and all. “I’m pawsitive you won’t change a bit with us around to help.”
TA: yo̴u͡'r̢e ͏a2 be͘a͠u̧tii͡fu͝l͏ a͞2͏ ́ev͡e͠r
TA: ii'̨m g͟l҉ad̷
She sniffles a little. Everyone pretends to not notice. “I told you. Pun furriends furever.”
Suddenly his body convulses in the wires. An alarm starts blaring, making Redglare cover her ears and look around frantically while the rest of you just wince. He coughs twice, spitting up blood each time, then goes limp again.
TA: ii̶t'2 ҉2̶taŗti̕i͡ng͘
TA: you mi̧ight̷ ̴wan͠t͠ t̀wo͏ 2̷t̛a͡n҉d̕ b͠a͘c͠k d̶c̵
Disciple shakes her head stubbornly. “Here until the end, Psi.” She beckons Sufferer to join them, and he does, looping an arm easily around Psi’s waist. You follow as well and touch his cheek before standing guard. “We all are.”
It’s as awful as watching Sufferer die again. The alarms never stop ringing, and towards the end, when his eyes are gone (seeing that makes Sufferer vomit but he comes back, none of you are letting Psiionic go through this alone) and his pan starts melting out his ears (Disciple holds his arm so tight you’re surprised bones don’t snap), the wailing of the alarms is joined by screams. At the end, electricity melts all the wires leading from him, racing through the walls and turning the wires inside the insulation into so much slag.
He stops screaming and the alarms cut out. All of the screens, somehow still alive despite Psiionic’s power surge, go dead. Redglare crawls out from under a desk, her hands wrapped tightly around the head of her cane. With her senses so acute, you can’t imagine how painful the cacophony must have been.
Psiionic coughs one last time, a splutter more than anything. “Hi.”
Sufferer stands on tiptoe and wraps his arms around Psiionic’s shoulders. Disciple manages to squish in as well. You think maybe all of them are crying, but you’re too busy wiping your own eyes as surreptitiously as possible to verify that.
“Can you guyth help me down or am I jutht going to be thtuck here like the wortht twelfth perigeeth decoration ever?” Psiionic lightly headbutts Sufferer, the only thing he can do in his position. “Theriouthly, my shoulders hurt.”
Disciple begins pulling at the wires attached to him, taking out the larger ones one by one. Sufferer goes for the direct route and uses a sickle to slice through the ones that have grown into Psiionic. You leave them to it and cross to where Redglare’s slumped on a computer chair, her hands shaking slightly as they grip her cane.
“Are you all right?”
Redglare jerks, and looks up at you. “Fine, Dollface.” At the raising of your eyebrow, she reluctantly says, “The noise…”
“I thought as much.” You sit next to her. “How do you cope?”
She shrugs. “Normal noise is fine. Someone shouting near me hurts a little. It was just, the alarms…” She swallows and her fingers tighten on her cane. The fingers of her gloves are already becoming worn and a little rough, you could have picked a better material. “I’m fine.”
“Apparently we all are,” you say, dryly. “I believe I should return your offer. If you ever need help with anything…”
She shakes her head. “Just don’t let Spinneret know. I have absolutely no desire to wake up to blaring alarms every five hours.”
You laugh at that. This day has been long, as promised, but you have your grubs and your circle of trolls is expanding, and now that Psiionic’s here there’s nothing left to worry about. He’s even more alert than Sufferer was, as an added bonus. Redglare smiles at you, sharp-toothed and with the same relief you feel.
There’s a crash behind you, and you look to see Psiionic picking himself off the floor, still trailing wires. “Real nithe, you two, I wath jutht thinking, what do I want to do firtht when I get out of here? Get intimate with the floor. Of courthe.”
Sufferer rolls his eyes. “You’re welcome. Stop moving, you still have wires everywhere.”
Psiionic waves him off. “It’th cool, I jutht wanted down. DC, don’t even think about hunting them.” He crosses to you, still in Helmsman garb, a macabre sight for sore eyes. “DR, who’th the lovely legithlatherator?”
Redglare snorts. “Don’t strain yourself, Colonel Mustard. Call me Redglare.”
You take one of Psiionic’s hands. “It’s good to have you back, Psiionic.”
“Mithed you too, DR. Can we get out of here?”
You rise and dust off your skirt. Redglare follows suit as the rest of your grubs join you, having rid themselves of wire remnants. “After you.”
He stops once he takes the first step onto sand, kicks off his shoes, and digs his feet into the loose grains. After a long moment of silence, he sets off again, boots slung over one shoulder, only to stop again after a hundred metres or so.
“What is it?” Sufferer asks.
Psiionic finally pulls off his goggles, revealing eyes that are now black-and-white, not his familiar blue-and-red. He regards the goggles sadly for a moment, then hurls them back towards the Battleship Condescension. “I don’t want any reminderth of thith plathe.”
Everything erupts in crackling black-white. Before you quite know what’s going on, the Battleship Condescension is gone and Psiionic is leaning heavily on Sufferer’s shoulder. Everything smells like molten metal and plastic.
You always knew he was a good psionic, but piloting must have built up his strength. Certainly he was never able to burn an entire battleship down to the ground and leave no trace of it before he was pressed into service.
“You idiot,” Sufferer says fondly. “Now I’m going to have to carry you, aren’t I?”
“At leatht I’m light,” Psiionic replies weakly. “Thankth, SF.”
You make your way back to your hive slowly. You could have just remembered everyone there, but it seems important to give your grubs this time, somehow. Maybe important for you to have it as well. It’s the first time you’ve been together in a long, long time, and you’re not going to ruin it by interrupting.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling callousCondescension [CC] --
AA: y0u’re stuck in space
AA: y0ur pil0t is dead
AA: y0u have n0 h0pe
CC: W)(o do you t)(ink you AR—E?
CC: )(ow did a rustblood even find this handle?
AA: y0u w0n’t even make it back t0 alternia in time t0 prevent the ap0calypse
AA: the 0ther one
AA: n0t the vast glub
CC: This is ridic--E--EL-ous. I whale have you --EX--ECUT--ED if you continue to talk to me.
AA: these are the facts
AA: i have an 0ffer t0 make y0u
AA: shall we discuss it like adults 0r w0uld y0u like t0 sh0ut s0me m0re
AA: i have all the time in the w0rld
CC: This had B---EST B-E WORTH IT, loyal subject.
AA: i will be there s00n
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling callousCondescension [CC] --
Mindfang and Summoner don’t seem all that surprised to see the new addition to your hive. You’re surprised they look up from their latest argument enough to notice Psiionic is even there. You have to question whether Disciple is jealous of the arguments they have, but your only response is a shrug. You get her point, the arguments are decidedly of the sort that only happen in the flushed quadrant. Still, the way they go quiet whenever they realise someone else is there is suspicious.
You decide to leave them to it as long as they don’t destroy anything.
Psiionic ends up kicking out Disciple to sleep in Sufferer’s old respiteblock, which has a recuperacoon that Sufferer never uses. Disciple then kicks Redglare out of her old room, leaving you to organise new lodgings. Any way you cut it, there are too many people in too small a hive, cave system notwithstanding.
It’s time you made this world habitable.
You build Mindfang a hive first, because no matter how much time you spend in her presence, you’ll never like having her in your home. It’s tall and spindly, as close to her hive in life as you can make it, and she nitpicks every single detail before she’s happy with it. When you’re done with the hive, you do your evening strifing in a disused ballroom, then walk back to your hive and practically collapse in your recuperacoon.
Summoner says that he’s fine with the caves, and seems to have built himself a league of small, cave-dwelling minions. You shake your head, make him more comfortable, and take a mental note to get Sufferer to talk to him more often. They can bond over small, furry beasts. By the time you’re finished reshaping some caves for Summoner, he seems grateful to not have to stoop so much. When he stands up straight, the top of your skull barely comes to the bottom of his nose.
“What happened between you and Mindfang?” you ask, then freeze. It seems you can’t rid yourself of your mothergrub ways.
Summoner hesitates, then says carefully, “It’s not obvious?”
“I’ve pieced together some.” You sit on the pile in the room as subtly as you can. He joins you after a moment of deliberation. “There’s the small matter of her death, and you being a follower of the Sufferer. Care to fill in the blanks?”
He laughs a little. “If you want to stick around long enough to listen.”
“As Redglare keeps telling me, we all need someone to listen to.” You smile, to set him at ease. “I won’t deny I’m curious. I also think it would be better if we all knew each other well, since we’re stuck together now.”
He laughs again, more honestly this time. “Redglare’s not going to be mad we’re jamming? Because that is one lady I don’t want to have to fight with.”
You twine your hands around your knees. You’ve thought a lot about Redglare, without letting yourself know that you’re thinking about her, and all it’s done is made you very confused and given you several headaches. “It’s hard to tell. I don’t know what she wants from me. As far as I can tell, I think she’s pushing things in a flushed direction.” You sigh. “But we were talking about you.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t even remember how I met Spin, but it was just… Fate, you know? She was always around when I was a pupa, and I guess she was curious about the animal thing.” He taps the side of his head. “Anyway, she admitted she was flushed for me when I became a cavalreaper. It was kind of stupid, sharing a quadrant with a pirate, but…” He shrugs helplessly.
“So, things were good,” you prompt. You find it hard to believe things could ever be good with Mindfang involved, but you are curious about how it all fell apart.
“For a while, then I got my wings.” At your confused look, he laughs. “I just suddenly got these huge wings. I don’t like keeping them on in these bubble-places. Doors are hard enough with the horns.”
You can’t remember the last time you heard of a troll with wings. Generations before you, they might have been common among the higher castes. You’ve certainly never heard of someone as low on the spectrum as Summoner having wings.
You must have been dead by the time he grew them. Perhaps even long before, if Mindfang knew him so long.
“Anyway,” he shrugs. “I got promoted. The purples couldn’t not promote me, after the wings. I got my own squad, had to start leading, and I didn’t even know what leadership was. I was just a guy who punched people and happened to be good at it.”
“All the things Spinneret looks for in a troll,” you say, dryly.
He laughs easily. You’re sure he’s telling the truth when he said he didn’t know how to be a leader, but it’s obvious he learned somehow. You kind of want to hand over responsibility for everyone to him and go take a long-overdue nap. It’s a pity this is your bubble.
“It seemed to impress her. The promotion, not the punching. Well, the punching too. But I had to figure out how to be a leader, so I started asking around. And occasionally, and I mean really, really, rarely, someone would mention the Sufferer.” He looks puzzled by your surprise, then hits his head. “Right, you… sorry. The Condesce made speaking his name treason.”
You gape. Mentioning his name? Everyone loves being forbidden to do something. It makes them much more likely to do it, especially in the short-term, before executions start happening. “Well,” you finally say. “A fine example of how to not rule over anyone.”
It feels good to acknowledge the only reason Condesce managed to rule over Alternia was a universe-wide death threat in the shape of a lusus.
“I thought so too.” Summoner grins, a lazy flash of teeth that manages to be affable without the usual threat implicit behind troll fangs. “So I started a revolution. Spin didn’t approve, she was going to use her seadweller- Dualscar?- to end things if I didn’t stop. But before that she tried to…” He waves one hand at his head again.
It takes you a moment to catch on, and it hits you in a rush that folds you over with nausea. One small, minute blessing you had under Mindfang’s ownership was that you were too high on the haemospectrum for her to control, although she tried. It felt a lot like someone hitting you over the head with a plank of wood, and in the end you succumbed to her desires anyway most times just to get rid of the headache.
Summoner is a brownblood. He has no such protection against Mindfang’s powers.
He puts a hand on your shoulder. “It didn’t last long.”
“It happened at all, and you’d still forgive her?” you ask, despairingly. He is a better follower of Sufferer’s ideals than you ever were. The best you can manage is sharing a world with her.
“Well,” he says, and his cheerful demeanour is gone like frost in the sun. “I did kill her for it.”
Redglare mopes the entire time you set up living areas for everyone else. Logically, she would be the next one to go, because there’s no chance of you separating from your grubs after all this time. She reacts to this by not leaving the hive, when normally she’s gone most of the night and only comes back when she’s managed to fill her boots halfway with sand.
You can’t say you want her to go, either. You don’t know what you feel for her, but she’s been by your side from the start of this awful, wonderful recovery of yourself, and you want her to stay with you, even if it’s selfish to want to appropriate her strength for when you’re weak.
You don’t even know where she’s been sleeping since Disciple reclaimed her room. Then again, with the amount of coffee she’s been drinking lately…
This is ridiculous. You’re a grown woman, you’re able to make decisions without dithering in your brain like a pupa over their first flush-crush. Handing her a note saying ‘Are You Flushed For Me Please Circle Applicable, Yes/No’ probably wouldn’t work, anyway. She’d just lick it and the ink would run.
You let out a sigh that’s been building up since you first met Neophyte Redglare, and seclude yourself in your sewing room. How can you even ask her about her feelings when you don’t know your own?
Redglare wakes you up an uncertain number of hours later, and pretends to not notice that you were drooling on your latest pattern. Thankfully, it’s not damaged. You rub tiredness away from your eyes and ask what she wants before you can get a good look at her, one that isn’t fogged by sleep.
She’s shaking slightly, swaying back and forth on her feet a little. She normally can’t stop moving, the energy in her needs to get out and it takes no hostages. Now, though, it’s like she’s trying to hold herself still so she won’t fall over, and she’s not entirely successful.
Her glasses are on. Her glasses are never on, not around you.
“Can I borrow your recuperacoon, Rosa?” Her voice is clipped and carefully controlled, not her usual throaty rasp. “I just need a quick…”
Her voice trails off as you reach out and take her glasses off, gently and slowly like she’s one of Sufferer’s wounded shellbeasts. Her eyes are ringed with tiredness, orange shot through with teal, and slightly unfocused. You know the look well enough. Being a heretic and a rebel never did leave much time for sleep.
“How long have you been awake?” you ask, still gentle even if guilt is pounding at your sense of shame. You should have noticed this sooner. Done something about it sooner.
Redglare shrugs one shoulder. “About six nights. Not long.”
Your hands drop in shock. You managed ten, once, when you were being chased by a particularly determined squad of enforslaughterers. You can manage a few more with brief naps, but you need sopor once you hit fifteen because the walls start melting. Sufferer’s the only troll you’ve ever known to not need the sedative.
You put her glasses down, carefully, more to buy you time than because you’re afraid of breaking them. “Why didn’t you say something?” you ask, although it’s the stupidest question you can think of. “I, I thought you were switching with one of the others, I was going to make you something tomorrow…”
Redglare sits on the edge of your table, though it’s more a collapse than anything. “I don’t want to leave, Dollface.”
You sit down in your seat, high-backed and padded, and grip the table until your knuckles turn white. “I wasn’t intending to make you.”
Redglare chews at her bottom lip, and it’s a nervous habit you’ve never seen before. You wonder what else she hides with her sharp tongue and hardboiled-around-the-edges attitude. Do you only let some things slip when you’re tired, too? She may know you better than you know yourself now, with all the time she spent making sure you were still here in the beginning.
“Rosa, I-” She cuts herself off with a tired, irritated noise. “We need to talk about this, but not when I can’t even string a sentence together.”
You smile half a smile. “Well, I won’t be sleeping after that ultimatum. My recuperacoon is yours.”
Redglare laughs and slides off the table, feet hitting the floor with a thump. “Good, because otherwise I was going to seize it in the name of the law.”
You catch her hand before she can leave. “Redglare.” When she raises one eyebrow, tired to the bone and wondering why you’re keeping her, you find your voice and say, “I’m glad it was you.” You get up and hug her, and despite all the casual contact you’ve had over the past couple of perigees, this feels foreign. She returns your embrace without hesitation, leaning her head on your shoulder.
It feels strange to want something for yourself, and more than anything you want Redglare, fierce and alive or tired and quiet.
She pulls away. You press her glasses, forgotten until now, into her gloved hand and let her go.
You thought sorting out your feelings would bring you peace, but instead your thoughts war in your head more than ever.
While everyone is asleep you tidy a little, then sit and watch the sunrise as it hits the ocean.
It takes you an embarrassingly long time to realise that the ocean shouldn’t actually be there.
You gather Psiionic, Sufferer, and Disciple. Redglare needs sleep more than she needs to come along on this expedition, and you’re not waking Mindfang up unless someone posits a very good reason for it. Disciple offers to wake Summoner up, but you decline to let her.
Thus equipped, you begin your trip to the seaside.
None of you are excellent at swimming. You’re probably the best, but Psiionic uses his powers for everything, Disciple is the proverbial cat in water, and you kept Sufferer away from shores, just in case a seadweller ever passed by.
This means, of course, that he’s far too excited about this. As soon as the ocean is near enough, he runs into it, ploughing through the waves and laughing madly. There’s no sign of whichever troll is responsible for this, so you let him have his fun as you look around with your saner grubs. It’s not like he can drown now, after all.
There’s a ship in the distance, an actual sailing ship of the sort Mindfang coveted and eventually commandeered. It’s wrecked on the shore, weathered by wind and Alternian storms. You go to investigate just as Sufferer surfaces again.
“Rosa, I found someone!”
“In the ocean?” Your heart constricts a little. The only possible option is a seadweller, and they’re not likely to adapt well to the community you’ve managed to build and keep the peace of. You’ve never met a sane seatroll. “Sufferer, come out of the water.”
“No, I got him.” He dives back under, inexpertly. You wish he’d at least taken off his cloak; did he just forget he was wearing it?
You could not be more surprised when Orphaner Dualscar tows your grub out of the water by the cloak. “Wwould you lot stop throwwin’ your lowwbloods in the ocean? This one codn’t swwim for shit.”
Sufferer regains his footing and yanks his cloak out of Dualscar’s hands. “Fuck me for trying to get your attention then! Next time I’ll let you keep moping around at the bottom of the ocean and grow some barnacles or, or something!”
“Wwhale maybe I’d appreciate that!” Dualscar pauses, then leans down and looks into your grub’s eyes. “Coddam, wwriggler, wwhat’s wwith your eyes?”
You clear your throat as tactfully as you can. “Dualscar.”
“Naut noww, Dol, Isle-” he pauses and looks at you, then looks back at Sufferer. “Bloody shale, you’re him.” He tilts Sufferer’s head up by the chin and looks at his eyes more. “Cod, I thought you wwere a pupa or somefin, but you’re just reely fuckin’ short.”
You, Psiionic, and Disciple all tense in alarm. There’s no quicker way to Sufferer’s wrath, and you don’t entirely trust the hapless sea-prince to not set him off even further by saying ‘so, that burnin’ at the pillar, that must’a hurt.’ Before any of you can stop it, Sufferer sweeps Dualscar’s feet out from under him in a move so perfect Mindfang would have laughed herself stupid over it.
“You’re outnumbered here, but none of us will harm you,” Sufferer says to the seatroll, firm but gentle in the way of his that tamed even indigos. “We’re stuck here for the next conceivable eternity. More importantly, you’re stuck with us. Other trolls come along rarely.”
“Wwhy shoald I care?” Dualscar asks, after he spits up some water that he wasn’t quite prepared for. “Lowwblood piece a wwork, I shoald-”
“-Because you can either choose to live alone and lonely now, or come with us. We’re the only company you’re ever going to have again, and we’ll welcome you if you choose to join us.” Sufferer wrings water out of his cloak and ruffles his hair. “Don’t choose your pride. It’s not worth it.”
He nods to Dualscar, once, then walks off. Psiionic and Disciple follow without a second thought, leaving you alone with your former master. He stares after your boy, astonishment on his face.
“He’s nice,” he finally says, and hauls himself out of the water. “Dol, he’s nice.”
“That was the point,” you say, and twitch the ends of your shawl away from his dripping.
He shakes his head. “No, it’s naut. You don’t undersand, nice makes you wweak. Efin you’re naut nice, an’ you’re one of the kindest trolls I ever kneww.” He continues as you try to decide whether that was a compliment or an insult. “Boat he’s nice, an’ he’s still strong wwith it.”
You become the better troll, just once, and reach out a hand. “That’s all he was trying to teach. Come with us and learn.”
He shakes his head, but takes your hand and uses it to step up the embankment. “This I need ta sea.”
Redglare reclines against your side as you read a book, your eyes beginning to shut of their own accord. It’s the beginning of her night and the end of your day, but you’re used to socialisation as stolen moments. Being diurnal is hard, and nobody’s ever awake enough to understand.
You haven’t had the dreaded quadrant talk yet, but from how warm and subdued you feel with Redglare at your side, maybe you don’t need to.
“You were fine with Dualscar?” she asks, suddenly.
You look at her in surprise, then remember how completely you broke down at the sight of Mindfang. It makes sense that she’d ask. Ostensibly they were both your owners, but there was a lot of difference in how they treated you. Dualscar was petty, overemotional, and far too fond of seapuns, but the worst you were subject to under him was terrible poetry about the lustre of Her Imperial Condescension’s hair.
The first thing you did, once you came out of your grief-fugue, was rip all of Dualscar’s poetry to shreds and throw it overboard. It was a service to trollkind, and any sane ruler would have given you a medal.
Marquise Spinneret Mindfang, on the other hand, likes to break her toys. You doubt that will ever change. Perhaps you’re dealing better with being broken, though.
You slide down a little and tilt your head sideways until you’re resting against Redglare, mindful to not skewer either of you with a stray horn. “I was fine,” you say, and let your eyelids close for just a moment.
“Dollface, are you falling asleep on me?”
Your only response is a rather unladylike yawn.
Redglare shifts around a little to make you both more comfortable in your pile of fabrics. “Don’t drool on me, Dollface. And I’m putting you in your recuperacoon when I go out.”
You nod your assent and let the warmth of another troll by your side lull you to sleep.
As Redglare slides your half-awake self into your recuperacoon, you realise dully that you haven’t heard from the Handmaid in almost a perigee.
She’s probably just busy.
Dualscar is surprisingly easy to build a hive for. You tour inside the wreck that’s apparently his hive and recreate it in your bubble. You can’t imagine the ocean to go with it, though. The water just seeps into the sand and dries out like it was never there.
You suppose you don’t know enough about oceans to create one.
Still, he doesn’t complain. He seems happy enough to be nearby other trolls, and you suspect he’s been alone and at the bottom of an ocean for longer than he lets on. When he sees Mindfang’s hive his eyes practically light up with glee.
They wake you up early in the morning, rowdy-drunk and singing sea shanties. Dualscar trips over his Ws like it’s a Troll Olympic sport and Mindfang holds her vowels a mite too long. In the evening they drape themselves over your couch and whine until one of you brings them coffee.
You make pointed remarks about slavery. They even have the grace to look suitably abashed, though that might just be the hangover.
Three nights later, Dualscar intercepts you on the way to your recuperacoon. “Dol, wwait a seacod.”
You wrap your shawl around your shoulders and blink at him blearily. “What is it?”
“Wwhale…” he trails off uncertainly. “I know you got no reasons ta showw me kindness after everyfin, halibut I need somefin.” At a sleepy, irritated look, he continues hurriedly. “Wwater. I need a place ta swwim.”
“I tried creating an ocean,” you say, dryly. “It didn’t work out. Perhaps you could exercise some other way?”
He rolls his eyes. “It’s naut the exercise, Dol, my gills are dryin’ up. It itches like a beach. An’ before you suggest it, I tried a bathtub an’ it didn’t wwork. I need somewhere I acshoally fit.”
You fold your arms and stare him down. “Ask nicely and I might,” you say, adopting the tone you used with Sufferer when he was a grub and you were trying to not get him culled. While he doesn’t really know how to interact with people, Dualscar is still treating the world like it owes him. Worse, it’s working on your grub. He’s naturally inclined to fulfil requests, and even if he snarks at Dualscar, the seatroll is conditioned to ignore anyone below blue on the haemospectrum.
You’re a bit lower, but you’re in control of this world. Furthermore, you are far too tired to deal with being at someone’s beck and call. Dualscar will listen and pay heed, or he’ll have itchy gills for the rest of eternity.
He opens his mouth, prepared to snap invectives at you- you know his expressions- then closes it and bites the inside of his cheek. He’s realised the same. “If it wwouldn’t be too much trouble,” he finally chokes out. It’s killing him, but it’s a start.
You nod. “I’ll take care of it when I wake up.”
You wake up earlier than normal, and when you head to the communal entertainment room Sufferer, Dualscar, and Psiionic are still there. Psiionic is sprawled full-length along the couch, head in Sufferer’s lap as he watches one of the inane dramas he used to favour. He finds the strangest things comforting. Dualscar, on the other hand, is perched on the armchair nearest Sufferer, an unusually intense look on his face as he talks to your grub.
“An’ just howw wwould you reform Alternia then? It ain’t perfect, Isle givve you that, halibut it’s howw it is for a reason.”
Sufferer scoffs and waves a hand, the other gently tangled in Psiionic’s hair. “It’s the way it is because the Condesce made it that way. We’ve been systematically bred to be warlike and aggressive because fear helps her keep control. The haemospectrum wasn’t even a thing once, we just happened to have different blood colours.”
You’ve heard this speech a million times in a million places, but you still rest against the frame of the door and listen now. There’s something special about this, your grub preaching to a seadweller and the seadweller listening, in the ruins of your lives.
If he can’t accept it here and now, where could he?
Dualscar shakes his head. “Wwe’re wwarlike becod our population expands quickly an’ wwe need the land ta keep up. An’ the haemospectrum’s there for a reason, guppy, the order a’ it’s been scientificeely provven, an’ there’s traits that only belong ta some colours.”
Sufferer spreads his arms, almost knocking Psiionic in the horns. “Then how do you account for me? Scientifically, I shouldn’t even exist.”
“It’s strange, Isle givve you that.” Dualscar shrugs. “I’m a captain, not a scientist.”
Sufferer sighs. “I’m too tired to argue convincingly. Tomorrow?”
It surprises you when Dualscar hesitates, then nods. “Tomorroe.”
You scuff a foot along the floor, then step into the room. Everyone twists around to look at you, and Sufferer grins. “Rosa! There are leftovers for you to eat, and they’re actually kind of tasty, our newest acquisition made dinner.”
Dualscar turns faintly purple and refuses to meet your eyes. As far as you know, before this, you were the only one who knew he could cook. His ships had chefs, and highbloods were always expected to have slaves or servants cook for them at their hives. You were Dualscar’s only slave (wwhy wwould I need a bunch a’ slavves wwhen I’m gone most a’ the sweep anywwavve?), and he firmly forbade you from the kitchen. It was, perhaps, the smartest thing he’d ever done. You still had knifekind.
“Wwhale, you lowwbloods havve the collectivve palate of a wwild oinkbeast,” he says. Sufferer kicks him gently in the knee. “You poor unfortunates?” he tries instead, and Sufferer gives up.
Sufferer and Psiionic go to their respiteblock to sleep while you’re still eating. Dualscar watches them leave, a mildly confused expression on his face. Once they’re out of earshot, he says, “Those twwo…?”
“Moirails.” You eat the last of your soup. It’s seadweller-style, thick salty broth and vegetation you were never really sure was meant to be eaten. You’re all for culinary experimentation, but really. Kelp? “It’s complicated,” you allow, as if that could cover their entire romantic history.
Once you’re done eating and cleaning up, you lead Dualscar down into the caves. There’s only one place that’s big enough for a pool to satisfy a seadweller, although you haven’t let anybody else near it since they started showing up. There are sacred places you hold dear, too full of memories to let anyone else invade.
And then sometimes you don’t have a choice. Everyone has made their own sacrifices to make this situation work. You’re not going to be the fulcrum this uneasy living arrangement breaks on.
You walk into the brooding cavern that your lusus used your whole life and take a deep breath. Everything that made it hers is missing anyway, and your memories of her are a better tribute than any disused, empty cavern.
“Dol, this is…”
“I know.” You change it before he can protest, creating a large pool that deepens towards the middle. There should be plenty of room for him in there. You also add in a path back to his hive, so he won’t have to bother all of you to get to your artificial lake.
“You didn’t havve ta,” he says, quietly. You know he lost his lusus when he was young.
You turn slightly and look up at him. “You’ve been trying to fit in here. I appreciate that.” Before he can protest, you hold up a hand to cut him off. “We’re all becoming different here. Life goes on, or whatever form of it we have left. I just want everyone to be happy in what time we have left.”
Dualscar sits down and begins unlacing his boots. “You an’ your Sufferer…” Once he has his boots off, he dives into the water, clothes and all. He surfaces before you can make your exit, flicks some hair out of his eyes, and holds out a hand. “Come for a swim, in the name a’ all this happiness?”
You look down at your dress, decide life is too short for worrying about what saltwater will do to something replaceable, and wade in after him. It’s been a long time since you’ve had fun.
Dualscar goes to sleep in the water not long after, curled up at the deepest point of the pool. You climb out and trail water everywhere instead of immediately cleaning yourself up. You have pancakes for lunch and give the rest to Redglare when she wakes up.
“Want to come out with me?” she offers, in-between shoving syrup-covered pancakes in her mouth and washing them down with coffee. The combination must be disgusting. “Unless you’re going to sleep.”
You don’t feel tired at all.
You’ve never been quite sure what Redglare does when she disappears, and you’ve never asked. Now you know, and you regret finding out first-hand. While you’ve been strifing with Mindfang, Redglare’s been keeping in shape her own way, and the pace she sets is gruelling.
You spend at least two hours running over the desert, only broken up by walking when you tire before she does. When you’re too worn out to continue, she starts doing pushups and situps, blithely chatting to you the whole time as you suck in lungfuls of air and grasp at the shreds of your dignity. You knew Redglare was fit, but this is ridiculous.
Just when you think you might be able to stand up, Redglare springs to her feet and rolls her shoulders. She has so much sand in her hair she looks like some sort of desert shrubbery, but it doesn’t seem to bother her at all.
Then she starts strifing.
It’s only practice, obviously, drilling forms and patterns, but she’s as intense about it as she is everything else. Mindfang acknowledges her as equal, even with the Fluorite Octet, and in a fair fight the winner wouldn’t be in question.
You rub the soreness out of your limbs, stand up, and throw yourself into the fray. Redglare grins, wide and delighted, and whips her blade at you.
It’s a poor match, weapon-wise. Redglare can keep you at cane’s length, while everything but your needles requires you to be up close and personal. She doesn’t hold back, either, and you gain more than a few stinging cuts that you’re going to have to wash sand out of later.
You use your clothes as distractions, but Redglare focuses on the core of you and not anything you wave in her face. You manage to yank her feet out from under her with her shawl, though – she forgot about the weighted edge. You kick her canesword away from her and pin her down before she can move, and hold a seam ripper to her throat. It’s wickedly sharp, and larger than normally useful for a seam ripper, but, well. You find use for the oddest of things.
Redglare tilts her head, her grin still in place despite her loss. “I yield, Dollface.”
You smile back, pleased in victory. “And to the victor the spoils,” you say, before you lean down and kiss her, hoping that you haven’t drastically misread her signals.
She wraps her arms around you and pulls you closer, and you feel more alive than you have since long before you died.
You make it back to your hive just as the last lingering remnants of sunset fade over the horizon. Redglare took it easy on you, jogging at a more sedate pace than the flying rush of her run on the way out. The lights shining from everyone’s windows lights the last of your way.
Everyone is crammed into your communal entertainment and dining rooms, and the noise is unbelievable. Dualscar and Sufferer are talking about Sufferer’s visions of his Alternia again while Dualscar prods at a pan of food. Mindfang leans on the wall next to them and makes fun of Dualscar’s domestic tendencies as she steals morsels when he’s not looking. Psiionic, Disciple, and Summoner sit at the table, and you contemplate rescuing Psiionic from the ridiculous arguments you’ve all become accustomed to.
Then Redglare tugs you by the wrist and leads you down the hall, and you follow. Psiionic watches you go, looks disappointed at the lack of rescue, then waggles his eyebrows.
You colour faintly. You’re going to have to have a talk with him about appropriate behaviours. Again.
You take refuge in your sewing room, although you can still hear the chatter of everyone from down the hall. Redglare sits in your lap and pushes up her sunglasses, unbothered by the lack of light. You marvel at the way she fits against you, and you start combing the sand out of her hair with your fingers. It scatters everywhere, and you’re too happy to care. You feel like a pupa and almost want to ask Redglare-
“So,” Redglare says, and looks up at you. “Be my matesprit?”
You laugh and hold out a hand, thumb extended, forefinger curved. After a moment Redglare mirrors the gesture, joining her fingers to yours, and your matespritship is sealed with a heart.
The moment is perfect, and then it’s interrupted by terrified yelling from the kitchen. Redglare snatches up her cane and is out the door before you can blink, and you only pause to grab some cloth before you leave as well, in case someone’s cut an arm off someone else.
Handmaid stands in your kitchen, rust-red blood dripping from a three-pronged wound that pierces her through. Psiionic is supporting her as much as he can without aggravating the injury, and her fingers dig into his shoulder. He’s going to have his own punctures once she stops, but he doesn’t even seem to notice.
When he sees you enter, he snaps, “Fix her!” at you. Even as you wrap the cloth around Handmaid and cinch a pad of cotton in place to soak up the blood, you sigh and mentally note that there’s going to be more drama between Sufferer and Psiionic soon, in all likelihood.
Handmaid rests a hand on your shoulder. “I need the Sufferer,” she manages to get out, in a whisper. The strike- being realistic, Condesce’s strike- must have hit her lung. It would explain the blood staining her lips.
“He’s here,” you say, before attempting to call up an image of her, whole and healthy, in your memory.
It doesn’t work.
“You have to relax and let me take over,” you tell her, gentle but firm. She’s still maintaining her bodily autonomy in your universe, which you can’t violate, but it’s stopping you from healing her. “Just let me heal you.”
She shakes her head weakly. “I have to die. Where is he?”
Sufferer comes forward, but you hold him back. “What do you want?” you ask her, your sense of wrongness mounting. Something’s never been right about the Handmaid here, she’s never quite meshed with the environment. And you never did receive your answers.
She looks at Sufferer, meeting his eyes even as she weaves unsteadily on her feet, her knees shaking. “A Quest Bed, Sufferer. Space.”
His eyes widen, then he pries your hand off of his arm. “Rosa, give me permission! Now!”
You put your trust in your grub and relinquish your control of the universe. He shoves you all back to the edges of the room, clears the centre, and places a black stone slab where all your furniture used to be. Poles at the corners extend through your roof, but there was nowhere else that something like this was going to fit.
Psiionic helps Handmaid to the slab and she lies down on it, on top of the white swirled symbol in the centre. She’s losing vitality with every second that passes. Sufferer reaches out and takes one of her hands. “I was right?”
She nods, and closes hers eyes. “Psiionic…”
Sufferer folds her hand over her chest, then motions for Psiionic to step back as well.
Psiionic balls his hands into fists. “Are we theriouthly going to thtand here and watch her die?”
Handmaid opens her eyes again and coughs. “Kill me,” is all she can get out before blood bubbles into her throat and she’s cut off. Something is starting build up in this room, a pressure that makes your teeth ache and your ears feel blocked. Everyone is standing at the edges of the room, watching this girl die, and it feels like your existences are changing again.
Psiionic wipes away a couple of tears that managed to escape from his eyes. “Fine, AA. A favour for a favour, right?” There’s a crackle of power and Handmaid goes still, unbreathing. Psiionic goes to join her body, but Sufferer holds him back. “What the fuck, SF! She’s dead!”
“Just wait,” Sufferer says grimly.
There’s a long, drawn-out moment of silence, and then the pressure in the room begins to build up again. A green light emanates from the slab of stone, turning everything otherworldly as Handmaid’s body begins to glow and flicker.
Redglare throws up a hand to shield her eyes, unable to take the brightness as it increases. You’re on the verge of following suit as the symbol that was on the slab hovers above Handmaid’s body, incorporeal and wraithlike. Everything builds to a head and the pressure disorients you, but you lock your legs to remain standing.
Then there’s a blinding flash of green-white and everything disappears.
When your vision clears, Handmaid is floating in mid-air, a snapping green aura surrounding her. Her clothes have been replaced with a dark, hooded outfit with the spiralled symbol emblazoned across her chest. Despite everything that just occurred, she doesn’t seem as out of place as she did the last time you saw here, in the depths of Psiionic’s world.
She opens her eyes, hovers uncertainly, then collapses to the floor, unconscious. The aura fades until she’s just a short woman in odd clothing, and you dare risk approaching. This is certainly going to be the end of your relaxed existence. You can tell.
Mindfang clears her throat. “What the hell just happened?”
END OF ACT ONE
There'll probably be a bit of a lag between this chapter and the next, as I'm working on something for this that will likely take a short while.
FEAR NOT, HOWEVER!
Chapter 8: Intermission 1
==> Go check on Handmaid.
It’s been a long time since you’ve looked in on the Handmaid since her resurrection, but Psiionic has her well in hand. It seems that he feels almost responsible for her. A favour for a favour, he called it, but it’s obvious to everyone trapped in this universe that there’s more there.
Nonetheless, it is about time Psiionic slept. You can spell him for a while and bring Handmaid food when she wakes up.
Or you would, if a WILD CHARACTER SELECTION SCREEN DIDN’T PUSH YOU OUT OF THE WAY.
Well. This is a conundrum. Why is everyone except yourself, Sufferer, and Psiionic greyed out? Who are those three trolls left unrevealed? You are so unsure as to who to choose. It’s like free will is being handed out like samples at Troll Costco, and you are just stunned by the ridiculous amount of choices on offer here.
Oh. You can’t select the greyed-out versions. It’s not like you want to be Redglare or anything, just...
This is ridiculous.
==> Be the Sufferer
Who else would you be? Certainly not your horn-sucking free-piling nookcleaner of a moirail. He’s probably asleep now anyway, like anyone who isn’t you or your lusus. Fucking diurnal sleep cycles, they ruin relationships.
Well. Okay. It’s probably not your sleep cycle. More like he’s a bulgebag who- No, Sufferer!
==> Save your relationship!
Pfff, what, sorry? It’s not like it’s your fault that you’re such an awesome moirail that he doesn’t... actually... need you...
Well, look here, mysterious arrow. It takes two to... not tango? Sit awkwardly at opposite sides of the room and refuse to make eye contact while everyone else dances and drinks the spiked punch? Yes, that sounds accurate. It takes two to do that, and it seems that Psi would rather be dancing with Handmaid.
And that’s fine.
...Maybe you just need something to talk to him about? He hasn’t had as much concupiscent drama lately, which you assume is mostly to do with the fact that everyone here is spoken for or completely unstable.
==> Contemplate topics of conversation
Well, let’s see. There’s Dolorosa and Redglare’s budding flushmance, which, bluh, you don’t really want to think about because Dolorosa’s your lusus. Then there’s Mindfang and Summoner, but you’re kind of quietly terrified of Mindfang and don’t want to gossip about her. And you’re both close enough to Disciple that there are no secrets there, no matter how much you wish there might be.
You wish that a lot.
So you guess... Dualscar?
Shit. You don’t know anything about Dualscar.
==> Go to the source
Ugh. You’re going to be thinking in fishpuns for days.
==> Get interrupted by the last person you want to see at the moment
What? You don’t want to do that! Fuckdammit.
PSIIONIC: hey 2f
SUFFERER: ...HOW’S HANDMAID?
PSIIONIC: 2till uncon2ciiou2
PSIIONIC: dr’2 keepiing an eye on her on the condiitiion that ii get iin a recuperacoon
PSIIONIC: ii2 iit normal for 2omeone two be knocked out after thii2 whole re2urrectiion deal
SUFFERER: TO BE HONEST, NOT REALLY...
SUFFERER: BUT IT’S NOT EXACTLY A NORMAL RESURRECTION CASE SO.
SUFFERER: QUIT WORRYING.
SUFFERER: SHE KNOWS WHAT SHE’S DOING. I HOPE.
PSIIONIC: thank2 for the pep talk
PSIIONIC: 2orry but ii really need two collap2e
PSIIONIC: 2ee you when ii wake up ii gue22?
SUFFERER: I WAS GOING TO GO TALK TO DUALSCAR ANYWAY.
PSIIONIC: good luck wiith the fii2h2tiick
Triple fuckdammit with a side of screw your afterlife, why do you have to be so pale for this jerk.
You guess you actually have to go see Dualscar now.
==> Find Dualscar
What do you mean, find him? He’ll be in the lake Rosa made for him. He’s always there, lately. You’re pretty sure he’s moved half his hive down there, and the only reason he hasn’t moved the other half is because Mindfang threw his clothes in the lake and apparently saltwater is a bitch to “the finest materials.”
They are the weirdest friends.
Nonetheless, as, like, the only person who isn’t involved in your quadrant clusterfuck, he’ll be good to talk to. He’s curious about Olde Alternia, anyway, and you always like telling people about how much better everything was back then.
Will he be awake? Who knows!
==> Go jump in the lake
Yeah okay, this fits your mood pretty well OH FUCK IT’S FREEZING IN HERE AND YOU ARE TERRIBLE AT SWIMMING WHAT MADE YOU THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA.
DUALSCAR: cod wwater you doin
DUALSCAR: i wwas sleepin
DUALSCAR: did your morayeel trench you alreedy
DUALSCAR: don’t drowwn yourshellf in here
DUALSCAR: some a us havve ta breathe the wwater
SUFFERER: THANKS FOR THE CONCERN, FISHFACE.
DUALSCAR: you’re wwhalecome
DUALSCAR: wwhat do you wwant guppy
DUALSCAR: oh cod
DUALSCAR: he acshoally did trench you didn’t he
DUALSCAR: i wwas only jokin
SUFFERER: NOT YET.
SUFFERER: FUCK I DIDN’T THINK IT WAS SO OBVIOUS.
DUALSCAR: it is
DUALSCAR: cod please don’t cry or anyfin
DUALSCAR: he’s kinda a bag a bulges anywwavve
DUALSCAR: wwhy did you come here
DUALSCAR: i’m no good at this sort a fin
DUALSCAR: isean’t dol your lusus
DUALSCAR: she wwas made for comfortin grubs
DUALSCAR: naut that you’re a grub
DUALSCAR: wwoww i’m goin ta stop glubbin
You have never seen anyone get their foot that far into their mouth before! You’re tempted to take measurements, but then you decide that you’re stretching the metaphor too far.
SUFFERER: I JUST. WANTED TO GET AWAY FROM ALL THE QUADRANT DRAMA.
SUFFERER: FUCK THAT NOISE.
SUFFERER: SORRY FOR WAKING YOU UP.
DUALSCAR: if you’re naut leafin
DUALSCAR: i’m awwake
DUALSCAR: an i seappose i cod lisean ta you for a wwhisle
SUFFERER: BUT. AND I DON’T MEAN TO MAKE THINGS AWKWARD.
SUFFERER: DO YOU THINK YOU COULD MAYBE PUT ON A SHIRT.
SUFFERER: AND ALSO SOME PANTS.
SUFFERER: TALKING TO SOMEONE TWICE MY SIZE IS KIND OF DISCONCERTING WHEN THEY’RE ONLY WEARING UNDERWEAR, SORRY.
DUALSCAR: it’s naut like i’m goin ta swwim in my clothes like some trolls
DUALSCAR: although swwim is a kind wwavve of puttin it
SUFFERER: YOU’RE LEARNING!
SUFFERER: NOW LEARN CLOTHING.
DUALSCAR: you’re reely demandin
DUALSCAR: did you just demand evveryone lisean ta you wwhen you wwere alivve
DUALSCAR: becod i honestly didn’t realise that wwas a fin that wwould wwork
SUFFERER: I VALUE YOUR HONESTY AND YOUR WILLINGNESS TO ACCEDE TO MY DEMANDS.
SUFFERER: YOU ARE THE WEIRDEST SEADWELLER.
==> Find something to sit on
Okay, let’s see. There’s...
...a whole bunch of rocks. Brilliant.
There’s also a pile in the corner, but hell no, there is no way you are going there. Your objective is to save your relationship, not be the one that palecheats first. That’s why you’re here in the first place! It’s perfectly logical!
What the fuck was past you even thinking.
==> Sit on the edge of the pool and hope Dualscar doesn’t shove you in for a laugh
SUFFERER: GRIST, WHAT ARE YOU DOING OVER THERE, SEWING THE CLOTHES?
DUALSCAR: some a us wwear moray than a pair a leggins an a strip a cloth
DUALSCAR: this armor is a beach
SUFFERER: IF I PROMISE TO NOT STAB YOU IN THE BACK WILL YOU LEAVE THE ARMOR OFF? I DON’T HAVE HALF AN HOUR TO WAIT WHILE YOU FUCK AROUND WITH BUCKLES.
DUALSCAR: halibut if spin busts in here wwith a knife i’m blamin you
SUFFERER: IF MINDFANG BUSTS IN HERE WITH A KNIFE WE CAN POINT HER IN THE DIRECTION OF REDGLARE AND LIVE SAFE IN THE KNOWLEDGE THAT WE DON’T ACTUALLY MATTER IN HER STRANGE, WARPED THINKPAN.
DUALSCAR: that’s moray true than i wwant ta admit
DUALSCAR: swweeps a kismessitude an i get trenched for a legislasearator that calls me professor plum
DUALSCAR: an i nevver got my phd
DUALSCAR: that wwas a joke guppy
DUALSCAR: you’re allowwed ta laugh
SUFFERER: I WASN’T AWARE YOU KNEW HUMOR EXISTED OUTSIDE OF PUN FORM.
DUALSCAR: you cod say i havve hidden depths
SUFFERER: OH FUCK YOU.
DUALSCAR: halibut i just got dressed
DUALSCAR: that wwas a joke too
DUALSCAR: i thought you wwere meant ta undersand evveryone
SUFFERER: YOU’RE CONFUSING SHOOSHPAPS WITH UNDERSANDING.
==> Ponder why you’re
efin even talking to Dualscar
Well, obviously you want to convert him to the ways of not being a complete bulgemuncher, but really, if you were set on that you’d grab Mindfang as well and try to convert them both.
Then you’d spend the rest of the night running from Mindfang, probably.
You might leave her to Summoner.
And also you kind of woke Dualscar up, and although he’s being surprisingly calm about it, you don’t really trust him to be pleased if you start preaching. A daring afternoon break-and-enter sermon is probably not the best way to convince the seadweller to the path of peace.
oh gog he is watching you
DUALSCAR: wwhale are you acshoally goin ta say anyfin or shoaled i come back later
SUFFERER: I WAS JUST WONDERING THE SAME THING.
DUALSCAR: you wwere mutterin ta yourshellf an flinchin
SUFFERER: I WAS THINKING ABOUT MINDFANG.
DUALSCAR: oh cod don’t wwake her
DUALSCAR: she shavved off my eyebrowws the last time i did that
DUALSCAR: that wwasn’t a joke
DUALSCAR: i’m searious
DUALSCAR: i had ta steal one a her eyebroww pencil fins
DUALSCAR: an all my creww started wwonderin if i wwas a gill
DUALSCAR: do you knoww howw long it takes for eyebrowws ta groww back
SUFFERER: YES, ACTUALLY. PSI BURNED MINE OFF ONCE. I HAD TO WEAR MY HOOD UP FOR A MONTH.
==> Be unaccountably sad
Stupid moirail being stupid and dumping you but not yet but probably.
DUALSCAR: this is awwkwward
DUALSCAR: isle make some breakfast
DUALSCAR: come on guppy
DUALSCAR: you can at least get dumped on a full stomach
DUALSCAR: i’vve been trenched before
DUALSCAR: it’s betta wwith food
SUFFERER: ONLY IF THE FOOD IS GRIDDLE CAKES.
DUALSCAR: i seappose i can stretch ta that
DUALSCAR: that wwasn’t a short joke
SUFFERER: YES IT WAS.
DUALSCAR: yes it wwas
==> Sit in the nutrition block and touch nothing
You have been collectively banned from the nutrition block since the Great Grubcorn Fire of last week. Once it was contained, Rosa shoved you outside and told you that if you ever touched the thermal hub again, you’d be eating the charcoal.
She loves you, really. And it was at least partly Disciple’s fault. She was the one that wanted to experiment with oil temperatures. Apparently gouts of flame were a smidge too hot. It’s a good thing Dualscar came along, really. None of you actually know what a nutrition block is for, although Rosa ignored your argument that maybe it was for explosions and everyone’s just been doing it wrong.
SUFFERER: SO. GET DUMPED OFTEN?
Wow. You pretty much murdered that conversation.
==> Forge onwards regardless!
This is the most awkward conversation in the history of awkward conversations. And that includes that one you had with Condesce before your death that basically consisted of, “Fuck you, you miserable excuse for a troll,” on both sides.
DUALSCAR: often enough
SUFFERER: PLEASE FEEL FREE TO PRETEND I NEVER SAID THAT.
DUALSCAR: it’s fin
DUALSCAR: it happens a lot for my caste
SUFFERER: WHAT, BECAUSE YOU LIVE SO LONG?
SUFFERER: I THOUGHT YOU WERE ALL SNOBS THAT STUCK TO PURPLE ANYWAY.
DUALSCAR: do you fin enough a us are lucky enough ta find their quadrantmates an havve em livve long enough ta enjoy it
DUALSCAR: nevver mind that the drones are alwways knockin on the door becod highbloods are so vvaluable that they’d take our fuckin blood in a bucket if they cod
DUALSCAR: an maybe a guy just wwants ta be left alone but no
DUALSCAR: four pails a swweep an no excuses
DUALSCAR: naut efin ‘i wwas on a boat for the past fuckin swweep an all a my creww is fuckin serendipitous’
DUALSCAR: naut efin ‘my morayeel just died a old age an i’m naut reely in the fuckin mood’
DUALSCAR: so wwe movve around an try ta naut get too attached
DUALSCAR: then we fin someone ta stay wwith
DUALSCAR: halibut no
DUALSCAR: then wwe havve ta fuckin spread our genes around some moor
SUFFERER: I THINK THAT BATTER IS MIXED ENOUGH?
==> Distract Dualscar from the imperfectness of the batter
Look, you really want these griddle cakes, and his standards are way too high. The only way that batter’s not getting binned is if you distract him enough so that he just starts cooking again.
Clearly the only way to do this is through more conversation. It was working before!
SUFFERER: DO YOU SERIOUSLY THINK MY VISIONS OF ALTERNIA ARE WORSE THAN ALL THAT SHIT?
SUFFERER: I MEAN, CULLING EVERYONE IF THEY DON’T
SUFFERER: IS PRETTY BARBARIC.
SUFFERER: AND THE LIFESPANS WERE A LOT MORE EVEN, FOR A START. THERE WERE MORE TYRIANS AROUND WITH THEIR WEIRD LIFEY THING, AND, SHOCK HORROR, THEY ACTUALLY HELPED HEAL PEOPLE INSTEAD OF JUST PROLONGING THEIR OWN LIVES.
SUFFERER: I MEAN, HELL. WITHOUT EXECUTION I WOULD HAVE DIED IN ANOTHER FIVE, TEN SWEEPS ANYWAY.
SUFFERER: IT WASN’T LIKE THAT.
DUALSCAR: i seappose
DUALSCAR: i knoww con had a vvision for alternia though
DUALSCAR: an sometides you need ta bring dowwn others ta get wwhat you wwant
SUFFERER: YOU KNOW WHAT HER VISION FOR ALTERNIA WAS?
SUFFERER: THE END OF THE FUCKING UNIVERSE, DUALSCAR.
SUFFERER: IT’S ALREADY HAPPENED.
SUFFERER: THESE BUBBLES, HANDMAID...
SUFFERER: OUR WORLD IS GONE.
SUFFERER: GUESS WHO’S STILL ALIVE, AS PROVEN BY STAB WOUND TO HANDMAID’S ORGAN SHIELD?
SUFFERER: GUESS WHO DIED TO MAKE IT THAT WAY. HINT: EVERYONE.
DUALSCAR: i havve enough regrets in life, guppy
DUALSCAR: don’t try ta put the fate a the univverse in my hands
SUFFERER: NO, NO, NOT YOURS. CONDESCE’S.
DUALSCAR: an i seapported her
DUALSCAR: i did wwhat needed ta be done
DUALSCAR: an if it wwasn’t needed wwhose fault is that
SUFFERER: STILL HERS.
SUFFERER: I’M NOT BLAMING YOU, DUALSCAR, I’M JUST SAYING. IT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER. IT IS BETTER. LOOK AT US NOW, HERE.
SUFFERER: YOU HAVEN’T COME AFTER ME WITH A KNIFE SCREAMING ABOUT HOW IMPURE MY BLOOD IS.
SUFFERER: EVERYONE HERE IS COEXISTING.
SUFFERER: EVERYONE HERE IS TRYING.
SUFFERER: IT’S ALL I EVER WANTED AND ALL I WAS TRYING TO LET PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT. PEACE. REAL PEACE, NOT THE UNEASY WAIT FOR CULLING AND THE CONSTANT PRESSURE OF THE HAEMOSPECTRUM.
DUALSCAR: if it’s so piscesful then wwhat’s wwith all the quadrant drama
SUFFERER: I NEVER SAID THERE WOULDN’T BE PROBLEMS.
SUFFERER: IT’S HOW WE RESOLVE THEM THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE.
DUALSCAR: eat your pancakes
==> Eat the griddle cakes. Also, continue calling them griddle cakes, because you’re not a snob
SUFFERER: JUSHT FINK ABOUT IT, OKAY?
DUALSCAR: i am finnin aboat it
DUALSCAR: don’t talk wwith your mouth full, that’s disgustin
==> Be interrupted by Mindfang
No no no nonono noooooo she scares you-
DUALSCAR: what the shell are you doin awwake so eely
MINDFANG: Having a m8sprit, Dualscar. You should try it some time!
MINDFANG: Or is that why you’re awake ::::O? I wasn’t aware that you mixed with the low8loods now.
MINDFANG: Oh, 8e a good lad and make some coffee. It’s too early for this.
MINDFANG: Oh? 8rilliant! Pancakes!
==> Engage in a fork war with Mindfang
Where did she even get a fork. Does she just... carry one?
MINDFANG: Really, Sufferer, I thought you were all a8out sharing!
SUFFERER: I AM ABOUT PEACE, AND GETTING TO EAT MY BREAKFAST IN IT.
DUALSCAR: i’m naut makin moor
DUALSCAR: you knoww wwhere evveryfin is
DUALSCAR: get your buoytoy ta make you breakfast if you’re scared a the kitchen
DUALSCAR: i sea nofin ta the contrary.
SUFFERER: IF YOU TWO ARE HATEFLIRTING COULD YOU TAKE IT ELSEWHERE. PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF GOG.
DUALSCAR: oh cod no
MINDFANG: 8een there, done that :::;]
MINDFANG: What? He’s old enough to know what a 8ucket’s for!
==> Choke on a griddle cake
DUALSCAR: coddammit, pirates
DUALSCAR: please just go awway
DUALSCAR: wwe wwere havvin a perfectly civvil convverseation before you shored up
DUALSCAR: i fin he’s dyin a pancake
DUALSCAR: surf, say somefin
MINDFANG: Say 8ucket!
DUALSCAR: wwhy is this happenin
DUALSCAR: i miss wwhen fins made sense
DUALSCAR: an noww evveryone is fightin ovver buckets
SUFFERER: MINDFANG’S FAULT.
MINDFANG: >::::O Dualsc8r’s fault, surely.
DUALSCAR: some a us aren’t uncouth slobs that talk aboat buckets at the table
MINDFANG: 8etter on the ta8le :::;]
DUALSCAR: you an red
DUALSCAR: havve you
DUALSCAR: i mean
DUALSCAR: you havve your owwn table
SUFFERER: OH GOG OH GOG OH GOG OH GOG
==> Watch Mindfang leave
Oh thank fuck. You did not need any more uncomfortable revelations during breakfast, thank you very much.
She made off with your griddle cakes!
Fuck this day. You liked those griddle cakes.
DUALSCAR: i’m still naut makin moor
SUFFERER: THIS DAY HAS GONE COMPLETELY WRONG.
DUALSCAR: i don’t knoww
DUALSCAR: you havven’t been trenched yet
DUALSCAR: wwait until that happens an then you can say that
DUALSCAR: ...isle make some moor pancakes
SUFFERER: AND THEN SHOVE SOME IN YOUR MOUTH, SO YOUR FOOT CAN’T FIT?
SUFFERER: GOOD PLAN.
DUALSCAR: i wwas a master strategist
==> Get interrupted again
What the hell? It is way too early for anyone to be up. Except you. And Dualscar, you guess. And Mindfang, but you can dismiss her as a statistical anomaly. Disciple sleeps like, well, like a cat, and you can practically hear Summoner’s snoring from here.
Rosa pokes her head in.
You forgot about Rosa.
DOLOROSA: Sufferer What Have I Told You About Using The Kitche
DOLOROSA: Good Evening Dualscar
DUALSCAR: i wwish it wwas evvenin
DOLOROSA: Did You Wake Up Dualscar So He Would Make You Breakfast
DOLOROSA: Dot Dot Dot
SUFFERER: IT’S NOT ACTUALLY A LIE!
SUFFERER: I WOKE HIM UP TO TALK ABOUT QUADRANTS!
DOLOROSA: Oh I See
DOLOROSA: This Makes Perfect Sense
DOLOROSA: He Has Such A Good Track Record
DOLOROSA: Please Stop Dripping On The Furniture I Know I Taught You About Towels And How Your Cloak Is Not One
DOLOROSA: While You Are Fetching One Please Check On Handmaid
DOLOROSA: You Are The One Who Knows The Most About What Is Happening To Her
DOLOROSA: You May Notice Something That Psiionic And I Have Missed
SUFFERER: BUT MY GRIDDLE CAKES...
DOLOROSA: They May Be Here When You Return
DOLOROSA: I Make No Promises
==> Go find a towel
Your lusus always wins in a passive aggress-off. She is simply the best there is.
Sufferer: Be Dolorosa
You are the DOLOROSA. Currently you are SUSPICIOUS of DUALSCAR, and also rather TIRED. Quite honestly, you are waiting for REDGLARE to wake up so you can hand over HANDMAID DUTY to SOMEONE WHO ISN’T YOU and abscond with your NEW MATESPRIT.
You are feeling rather IMPATIENT.
==> Converse with Dualscar
DOLOROSA: These Pancakes Are Delicious Dualscar
DOLOROSA: Did You Put More Effort Into Them Than Usual
DOLOROSA: In A Petty Attempt To Impress My Grub
DUALSCAR: wwater you implyin dol
DOLOROSA: I Do Not Believe There Is A Need To Imply Anything
DOLOROSA: You Are Oddly Friendly Towards Him
DOLOROSA: Dare I Say He Is Making You A Better Man
DOLOROSA: The Only Question Is If It Is Pale or Flushed
DUALSCAR: just becod i havven’t gutted him doesean’t mean i wwant ta pail him
DUALSCAR: maybe i’m just interested in wwhat he has ta say for himshellf
DUALSCAR: i nevver had the pleasure in life
DOLOROSA: Because Of Your Stance Of Kill All Lowbloods Correct
DOLOROSA: Do Not Wwww At Me
DOLOROSA: Your Pancakes Are Not Good Enough To Excuse Any Meddlings With My Grub You May Be Contemplating
DOLOROSA: You May Have Turned Over A New Leaf However He Does Not Deserve To Be Your Testing Grounds
DOLOROSA: Especially When He Is Vulnerable From His Moirail Being Unfaithful
DUALSCAR: i wwasn’t goin ta take advvantage
DUALSCAR: cod howw awwful do you fin i am
DUALSCAR: i nevver took advvantage a you noww did i
DUALSCAR: that wwould be dowwnright unconscionable
DOLOROSA: Like Killing All Lowbloods
DUALSCAR: wwould you let go a the krillin
DUALSCAR: i havven’t efin stabbed spin since i got here
DUALSCAR: an that takes restraint
DOLOROSA: That Is True
DOLOROSA: However The Issue Remains
DOLOROSA: If You Hurt My Grub I Will Not Be Merciful
DOLOROSA: Condesce’s Interrorgators Often Stop To Hear You Scream
DOLOROSA: Her Torterrorisers Pause To Switch Instruments
DOLOROSA: I Will Not Rest Until I Have Taken You To Pieces And Perhaps Sewn You Into A Lovely Hat
DUALSCAR: wwhale at least i’d be fishinable
DOLOROSA: Do Not Attempt To Sway Me With Flattery
DUALSCAR: i wwasn’t
DUALSCAR: hats are vvery classy
DOLOROSA: He Is Returning
DOLOROSA: Act Natural
DUALSCAR: shore, shoaled i krill him here or eelswwhere
DOLOROSA: Act Less Natural
Dolorosa: Be Sufferer
You are now the SUFFERER. You have managed to DRY OFF, although you didn’t get changed because your JERKBAG OF A MOIRAIL is in your SHARED ROOM and you don’t want to wake him up. Now you feel SLIGHTLY GRIMY and your title is RATHER APT. If your LUSUS has eaten all your GRIDDLE CAKES, it will be SIGNIFICANTLY MORE APT.
==> Return to the scene of the crime
DOLOROSA: Thank You For The Pancakes Dualscar
DUALSCAR: naut a problem
SUFFERER: I WANTED THOSE! ROSA!
DOLOROSA: Stop Shouting Dear I Can Hear You Fine
DOLOROSA: I Saved You Some
SUFFERER: HAVE I EVER TOLD YOU THAT YOU’RE THE BEST LUSUS.
DOLOROSA: You’re Only Saying That Because I Don’t Scree
DUALSCAR: so dol an i wwere just glubbin
DUALSCAR: an appierently i’m bein a manipulativve nookscourer by liseanin ta you wwhen you need a frond
DOLOROSA: Dualscar Don’t You Dare
DUALSCAR: so wwe shoaled go on a date
SUFFERER: GETTING OVER THE FACT OF WHAT WHAT WHAT WHY WERE YOU AND ROSA EVEN TALKING ABOUT THAT, WHERE THE FUCK WOULD WE EVEN GO ON A DATE? THE VAST EXPANSE OF SAND TO THE EAST? OR IS THE ONE TO THE WEST A LITTLE CLASSIER? SHOULD I DRESS UP? I DIDN’T THINK TO BRING ANYTHING FORMAL TO THE AFTERLIFE.
DOLOROSA: Oh Dear
DOLOROSA: I Am Leaving
DOLOROSA: Suf Please Come Find Me After So I Can
DOLOROSA: Deal With This
SUFFERER: THAT WAS AN UNPLEASANT PAUSE.
DOLOROSA: It Will Be An Unpleasant Task
==> Watch your lusus flee
This is going to be so awkward. How do people deal with this.
You opt for your usual standby of shout a lot and flail.
SUFFERER: WHAT IS GOING ON.
SUFFERER: I UNDERSTAND NOTHING.
DUALSCAR: it’s naut that difficult ta undersand
DUALSCAR: an isle showw you around my hivve instead a alwways crashin ovver here or somefin
DUALSCAR: wwe can wwork out the details
SUFFERER: BUT. BUT YOU DON’T LIKE LOWBLOODS.
DUALSCAR: i don’t knoww wwhat to fin
DUALSCAR: maybe i just don’t like seadiots
DUALSCAR: an jerks
SUFFERER: AND YOU’RE ASSUMING I’M AGREEING!
DUALSCAR: you’re naut?
DUALSCAR: halibut i made you breakfast
SUFFERER: BREAKFAST ISN’T-
DUALSCAR: joke, guppy
SUFFERER: BECAUSE TECHNICALLY YOU ALSO MADE BREAKFAST FOR MINDFANG AND ROSA.
SUFFERER: AND STOP CALLING ME GUPPY!
DUALSCAR: halibut you’re little like one
DUALSCAR: look do you wwant ta go on a date or naut
DUALSCAR: it’s fin if you say no
DUALSCAR: i’vve been rejected before
SUFFERER: I JUST. I WANTED TO GET AWAY FROM ALL THE DRAMA.
SUFFERER: I JUST WANTED EVERYTHING TO FINALLY FUCKING WORK.
SUFFERER: AND MAYBE IF PSI COULD JUST STICK TO ONE FUCKING QUADRANT MAYBE IT WOULD HAVE AND I WOULDN’T BE SITTING IN THIS STUPID NUTRITION BLOCK IN DAMP CLOTHES BECAUSE I’M GOING TO GET DUMPED THE NEXT TIME I SEE HIM.
DUALSCAR: sometides fins just don’t go accordin ta plan
DUALSCAR: a guppy once told me that howw you deal wwith it is wwhat matters
==> Consider carefully
Pffff, when have you ever done that? Your decision to go a-preachin’ was pretty much ‘I’m really sick of Psi’s cooking, let’s go spread the good word,’ and that was the most important decision you ever made. This is nothing in comparison.
SUFFERER: BUT IF YOU TRY TO MURDER ME ALL BETS ARE OFF.
DUALSCAR: wwhy is evveryone so hung up on the murderin
DUALSCAR: spin has ahab’s anywwavve
You’re not sure if your day has gotten better or worse. But you have a date for the first time since... Disciple, and wow. That’ll definitely be something to talk about with Psi.
If he’s still your moirail.
Chapter 9: Intermission 1, Part 2
Art provided by the esteemable Choco, who you may remember from this biznasty picture of Prospit she did a while ago and Ask the Ancestbros.
Guys, it's Choco's birthday. It's Choco's birthday and she gave me FBaTN. I don't think she quite gets how birthdays work but you should definitely go check out her toomblr and see if it is to your liking since she went above and beyond the call of duty here. She is the best bro.
Warnings: IMAGE HEAVY, INCLUDES GIFS. One mildly NSFW panel.
==> Be the Psiionic
You are now THE PSIIONIC, and you are feeling MILDLY OPTIMISTIC, which is a new and exciting feeling for you! So far, your DEATH is turning out a lot better than your HORRIFIC, HORRIFIC LIFE. For one, you are not the BATTLESHIP CONDESCENSION. Another point in the favour of death is being able to sleep in a RECUPERACOON, although being slimy kind of sucks. THIRDLY, and most importantly of all, your QUADRANT POSSIBILITIES are looking FUCKING AMAZING.
==> Quadrant possibilities? Tell us more!
You got it, MYSTERIOUS ARROW!
So, you’re polyamorous, which usually doesn’t do you any favours, you’re not going to lie. And everyone stuck in this desert seems to be taken in at least one quadrant and disinclined to share! So you’ve experienced a dearth of any love other than pale lately.
Now you have a PLAN.
It is time to put MACK TWOFOLD to use.
You’re taking that pointed silence as an invitation to continue. How polite!
You’ve already determined it is incredibly unlikely you’re going to get more than one partner for each quadrant, no matter how ODDLY ATTRACTIVE you find MINDFANG in the kismesis department. However, there’s nothing stopping you from trying to fill your quadrants ‘normally’, and you’ve finally decided on a plan of action.
==> Look, Sparky, just tell us the plan
Arrow, you have no flair for the dramatic.
Your QUADRANT PLAN is as follows:
- Brofist Handmaid when she wakes up and be the most amazing pale partners this desert has ever seen.
- Seduce Suf back into the flushed quadrant. Shouldn’t take long.
- Go kick Dualscar in the shins for that one time he made you a ship. Then trip him onto the nearest horizontal surface and have your way with him if he seems amenable.
BRILLIANT. Absolutely nothing can go wrong.
==> Be interrupted by Suf
Oh, awesome! You can put step two into action right away!
Wait, why is he ignoring you and looking at a mirror?
PSIIONIC: what are you doiing?
SUFFERER: OH, YOU’RE AWAKE.
PSIIONIC: i mi22ed you two
PSIIONIC: 2eriiou2ly what are you doiing
SUFFERER: TRYING TO FIX MY HAIR. DOES IT LOOK FIXED?
PSIIONIC: iit look2 liike iit alway2 doe2
PSIIONIC: here giive me the bru2h, ii miight be able two do 2omethiing
SUFFERER: YOU’RE A WALKING PILLAR OF STATIC ELECTRICITY. I DON’T THINK YOU’RE GOING TO BE MUCH USE IN TAMING MY HAIR.
PSIIONIC: ii can’t exactly make it much wor2e, can ii
PSIIONIC: ju2t giive me the bru2h iidiiot
==> Accept brush
Wow, Suf is being a lot more distant than usual. Normally he’s all for hairbrushing sessions and other pale activities. What is even his problem.
Time to implement Step 2.1: Be an awesome pale partner. From there, you can segue into 2.2: MACK TWOFOLD.
PSIIONIC: 2o why are you fiixiing your haiir?
PSIIONIC: you only tend two attack iit once every few periigee2
PSIIONIC: a2 much a2 ii liike the2e two letter word2 you’re not beiing very enliighteniing here, troll jegu2
SUFFERER: DUALSCAR ASKED ME ON A DATE AND I SAID YES?
SUFFERER: OW OW OW FUCK OW!
==> Stare in disbelief
It’s times like these you really want to scree. Unfortunately, you don’t have capable enough lungs.
SUFFERER: HOLY SHIT PSI, YOU’RE SPARKING, PUT THE BRUSH DOW-
PSIIONIC: WHY DIID YOU 2AY YE2
SUFFERER: I DON’T KNOW! I JUST DID!
PSIIONIC: well un2ay iit!
PSIIONIC: 2hiit iin a bucket 2f what even
PSIIONIC: he’2 a 2eadweller!
SUFFERER: SO WHAT? YOU’RE A PSIONIC!
PSIIONIC: look ii know forgiivene22 ii2 your thiing but thii2 guy ii2 de2piicable
PSIIONIC: do you even know what he’2 done?
PSIIONIC: he wa2 cn’2 lackey, you iidiiot! a pretty hiigh-rankiing one!
SUFFERER: HE’S HERE NOW, AND HE’S PRETTY OBVIOUSLY OVER THE KILLING EVERYONE AND CACKLING EVILLY WHILE STROKING HIS GOATEE PHASE.
SUFFERER: YOU’RE BEING PRETTY PREJUDICED, PSI /:B
SUFFERER: THIS ISN’T LIKE YOU.
PSIIONIC: fuck you!
PSIIONIC: he wa2 the one who over2aw my fuckiing retrofiittiing
PSIIONIC: he turned me iintwo a 2hiip
PSIIONIC: he gave the order two cut off my fuckiing leg2
PSIIONIC: I WA2 2TIILL AWAKE.
SUFFERER: WHOA OKAY JUST CALM DOWN, STOP SPARKING.
PSIIONIC: he took dr a2 a 2lave 2f
PSIIONIC: how can you even be iin the 2ame fuckiing room a2 hiim
SUFFERER: SHE NEVER SAID. SHE LIKES HIM, THEY HAD GRIDDLE CAKES TOGETHER A FEW HOURS AGO. ARE YOU SURE?
PSIIONIC: ii wa2 the battle2hiip conde2cen2iion
PSIIONIC: ii had acce22 two record2 of everythiing
PSIIONIC: ii’m pretty 2ure, yeah
PSIIONIC: and yeah, ii do remember hiim holdiing me down whiile miiniion 1 and miiniion 2 cut off my leg2, thank2 for a2kiing
==> Hold the upper ground
PSIIONIC: what were you even thiinkiing, 2f
SUFFERER: I DON’T KNOW! I WASN’T ABOUT TO GIVE HIM A BACKGROUND CHECK THEN AND THERE!
PSIIONIC: but why diid you 2ay ye2?
PSIIONIC: ii mean
==> Lose the upper ground
Your only options for continuing that sentence are either ‘he’2 a colo22al wa2te of 2pace’ or ‘ii have diib2 on both of you!’ and you don’t think either of those will go over well.
You don’t really have any other options though.
PSIIONIC: iif you wanted a flu2hmate...
SUFFERER: DID YOU JUST TRAIL OFF MEANINGFULLY AT ME?
PSIIONIC: ii ju2t thought you would have come two me fiir2t
PSIIONIC: iin2tead of 2ome fii2h wiith a leader complex
SUFFERER: I THOUGHT WE HAD SORTED THIS. YOU KNOW, BEFORE THE WHOLE DEATH THING.
PSIIONIC: actually you had iit 2orted
PSIIONIC: you had everythiing 2orted
SUFFERER: AND WHAT, NOW YOU’RE GUILT-TRIPPING ME?
SUFFERER: WHILE FAWNING OVER HANDMAID, I MIGHT ADD. WAY TO MAKE A GUY FEEL NEEDED.
PSIIONIC: what the fuck
PSIIONIC: ii2 that what thii2 ii2 about?
PSIIONIC: 2he wa2 by my 2iide a2 ii diied, 2f
PSIIONIC: we talked a lot
PSIIONIC: mo2tly about you, you bulgebag
PSIIONIC: ii wa2 a computer for 2o long that ii forgot everythiing and 2he remiinded me what iit wa2 liike two be aliive
PSIIONIC: and ii mii22ed you
SUFFERER: AND EVERYONE ELSE YOU WERE EVER FLUSHED FOR, I’M SURE.
PSIIONIC: quiit beiing a jerk and lii2ten two me
PSIIONIC: 2o maybe ii wa2 jammiing wiith aa
PSIIONIC: ii wa2 goiing two talk two her when 2he woke up and 2ee iif 2he wanted two be moiiraiil2
PSIIONIC: and 2ee iif you wanted two be my mate2priit
SUFFERER: SO WHAT, I’M YOUR PALE SAFETY NET?
PSIIONIC: 2f, no
PSIIONIC: ii’m ju2t 2iick of pretendiing that’2 all ii want from you
SUFFERER: QUIT GUILT-TRIPPING ME.
SUFFERER: YOU KNOW WE WERE SHITTY FOR EACH OTHER. AND WE PROBABLY STILL ARE. I DON’T SEE WHAT’S CHANGED.
SUFFERER: YOU KNOW I CARE ABOUT YOU, YOU QUESTIONABLY SANE PIECE OF SHIP. BUT YOU’RE POLYAMOROUS OR WHATEVER YOU’VE DECIDED TO CALL IT THIS WEEK, AND I’M NOT.
PSIIONIC: but you 2till care
PSIIONIC: or are you goiing two go out wiith thii2 douchecanoe becau2e he’2 turned a new fuckiing leaf
SUFFERER: I’M NOT GOING TO WRITE HIM OFF BECAUSE HE DID STUPID SHIT IN HIS LIFE!
SUFFERER: WHAT, DID YOU THINK I WAS GOING TO HAVE EVERYONE ABOVE GREEN SUMMARILY EXECUTED IF I SUCCEEDED?
SUFFERER: YEAH, HE DID SICKENING THINGS.
SUFFERER: I’M WILLING TO BET YOU DID A FEW OF YOUR OWN BEING THE BATTLESHIP CONDESCENSION.
SUFFERER: NOT THAT I’D KNOW, NOT BEING YOUR MOIRAIL NOW.
SUFFERER: OR FOR A WHILE, APPARENTLY.
PSIIONIC: 2f that’2 not what ii meant
==> Fuck everything up
You’ve got a handle on that, thanks arrow.
PSIIONIC: ii ju2t
PSIIONIC: ii thought that 2iince maybe nobody el2e ii2 here that ii’m iintere2ted iin flu2hway2
SUFFERER: JUST STOP.
SUFFERER: WAIT, FLUSHWA-
SUFFERER: NO, SORRY, NONE OF MY BUSINESS.
PSIIONIC: ii wa2 goiing two go kiick d2 and 2how hiim ii have leg2 agaiin
PSIIONIC: ii gue22 that’d be awkward now
SUFFERER: YOU HAVE THE SENSE OF TIMING OF A SWEEP-OLD DEAF GRUB LEARNING TO DANCE.
PSIIONIC: yeah well you 2uck two
PSIIONIC: ii’m goiing two clear out for a whiile
SUFFERER: HEY. PSI.
==> Receive hug
What is Suf doing what is he doing oh gog you cannot handle this.
SUFFERER: I DO CARE. FUCKNUBS.
PSIIONIC: ye2 ok good two know
PSIIONIC: gotta go
Bad things about living on top of a system of caves: Critters, creepy cave noises, weird drafts of wind, everyone using you as a flashlight, did you mention the critters that spider has to be as big as your hand oh gog.
Good things about living on top of a system of caves: Easy hiding, nobody will ever find you, and you get to use your psionics to go through cave-ins, if you find any.
Right. You may have exactly two hours of sulking time, then you need to devise a plan for when Suf realises exactly how much indulging the fishstick will not work.
==> Have your plans foiled. Again.
Nothing is going right for you.
DISCIPLE: :33 Psi?
DISCIPLE: :?? what are you doing down here?
PSIIONIC: beiing 2tupiid
PSIIONIC: ii thiink ii ju2t lo2t all my quadrant2 dc
DISCIPLE: :|| ofurachiever.
DISCIPLE: :33 h33 h33!
DISCIPLE: :// anyway, which quadrants? you only had the one.
==> Explain your plans as briefly as possible
PSIIONIC: ii wa2 goiing two 2tart a ki2me22iitude wiith d2 and a2k aa two be moiiraiil2
PSIIONIC: and get 2f back iin the flu2hed quadrant
PSIIONIC: iit wa2 goiing two be awe2ome
DISCIPLE: :// wow, Psi.
DISCIPLE: that was purretty stupid of you.
PSIIONIC: thank2 dc ii hadn’t notiiced
DISCIPLE: :CC just saying!
DISCIPLE: you two weren’t exactly on the best terms after efurything
DISCIPLE: and you’ve been all ofur Handmaid lately!
DISCIPLE: :// he wasn’t furry happy ofur it
PSIIONIC: ii talked two hiim about that!
PSIIONIC: ii ju2t
PSIIONIC: bluh bluh p2i ii care about you but let’2 not be iin a quadrant and by the way ii’m 2teppiing out wiith d2
DISCIPLE: :|| wait
DISCIPLE: :?? Dualscar?
PSIIONIC: 2o ii can’t even have a ki2me2ii2 becau2e wow that would be awkward
DISCIPLE: :|| all of you
DISCIPLE: are so
DISCIPLE: so stupid
DISCIPLE: and if you hate Dualscar and he hates you, what’s stopping you?
PSIIONIC: 2f beiing 2tupiid and not gettiing kii2me22iitude!
PSIIONIC: he’d probably thiink iit wa2 about hiim!
DISCIPLE: :// then that’s his purroblem, not yours!
==> Be in cahoots with Disciple
Disciple has always been good at colluding. She makes an excellent partner-in-crime, mostly evidenced by the fact that Dolorosa only caught you sneaking out and the like about three times in ten.
And she’s always wanted the best for Suf, just like you.
PSIIONIC: but what happen2 iif iit end2 up all a2hen
DISCIPLE: :33 what if
PSIIONIC: thank2 dc
PSIIONIC: ii feel better now
DISCIPLE: no purroblem!
==> Go talk to Dualscar
Okay, so the plan has been amended and now has two steps, which means it’s a way better plan than any of your previous ones. It is as follows.
- Find Dualscar and initiate kismessitude
- If everything goes wrong, pretend you were going for the ashen quadrant and tell him Suf quadrant flips a lot. Which he does, only he doesn’t realise it’s flipping because he’s weird, but Dualscar doesn’t know that.
PSIIONIC: ARE YOU EVEN IIN HERE?
==> Throw rocks in his pond
Okay, they’re more like boulders, but hey, you’re a psionic. Fuck pebbles.
DUALSCAR: COD WWHAT
DUALSCAR: can a man get some fuckin sleep around here or wwhat
DUALSCAR: oh it’s you
PSIIONIC: niice two 2ee you two
PSIIONIC: heard about you and 2f
DUALSCAR: an wwhat, you’re aboat ta wwarn me off?
DUALSCAR: good luck wwith that
PSIIONIC: 2iit on 2omethiing 2harp, d2
PSIIONIC: ii’m avaiilable iif you need me
DUALSCAR: wwhat are
DUALSCAR: wwhat the fuck
PSIIONIC: fuckiing’2 part of iit
PSIIONIC: do you 2tiill remember how or ii2 your 2ad lack of partner2 a handiicap here
DUALSCAR: you wwant a demonstration, pissblood?
DUALSCAR: isle get your former morayeel in here
PSIIONIC: ii knew your a22-backward2 new leaf wa2 a liie
PSIIONIC: once a hiighblood alway2 a hiighblood riight d2
PSIIONIC: what, you 2educiing hiim to 2ee iif he’2 really a mutant or are you ju2t bored of your hand?
DUALSCAR: so wwhat, did you come dowwn here ta wwhine aboat howw i got him before you did or are you acshoally tryin ta do this fin?
DUALSCAR: i’m flattered an all halibut you’re naut my type
PSIIONIC: gue22 ii’ll ju2t have two waiit untiil 2f dump2 you for beiing the ob2e22iive, 2elf-2erviing 2on of a 2eahor2e we know and hate
PSIIONIC: and you go back two beiing alone and de2perate
DUALSCAR: shorey wwhat wwas that
DUALSCAR: codn’t hear you ovver the lisp
PSIIONIC: for not beiing your type, you’re 2ure actiing liike you want two do the horiizontal hatedance wiith me
DUALSCAR: an they say romance is dead
==> Rrrright okay let’s go be Suf while those two are flirting, this is awkward
You are now THE SUFFERER, and you are wondering WHAT IS AWKWARD.
Then you wonder where that thought came from. MYSTERIOUS DISEMBODIED VOICES IN YOUR HEAD are not your thing. You are actually PRETTY GLAD about that, VISIONS are more than enough.
You are currently BAWLING LIKE A WRIGGLER into your lusus’ lap. REDGLARE is also there, and QUITE POSSIBLY she is the one that thinks things are AWKWARD, and you have developed the ability to READ MINDS.
SUFFERER: ROSA, I AM THE WORST.
DOLOROSA: No, Grub, You Are Thinking Of Psiionic
DOLOROSA: You Were Simply Caught By A Trick Of Exceptionally Bad Timing
DOLOROSA: If He Had Been Honest About His Feelings This May Not Have Happened
SUFFERER: BUT HE ALWAYS WAS HONEST!
DOLOROSA: Ugh Is Not An Explanation Dear
DOLOROSA: No Matter How Much You Draw It Out
REDGLARE: NO L3T H1M CRY! H1S T34RS 4R3 D3L1C1OUS.
DOLOROSA: Now Is Not A Time For Joking
SUFFERER: I STRONGLY DOUBT SHE WAS JOKING.
REDGLARE: 1 C4N GO 1NT3RROG4T3 COLON3L MUST4RD 1F YOU W4NT.
REDGLARE: 1 H4V3N’T DON3 4 PROP3R 1NT3RROG4T1ON 1N 4G3S.
DOLOROSA: I Don’t Think This Is A Matter For The Law
SUFFERER: CAN EVERYBODY STOP FLIRTING AND PAY ATTENTION TO MY SUFFERING.
DOLOROSA: Sorry Grub
DOLOROSA: Go Ahead, We’re Listening
SUFFERER: HE SAID DUALSCAR TOOK YOU AS A SLAVE, ROSA.
SUFFERER: AFTER. I DIED.
==> Break the awkward silence you just created
SUFFERER: I’M SO SORRY.
REDGLARE: >:/ YOU D1DN’T KNOW? WH4T 4BOUT M1- OOF! ROS4!
DOLOROSA: My Elbow Slipped
REDGLARE: 1NTO MY R1BS!
DOLOROSA: It Was A Complete Accident
DOLOROSA: Back To Topic
DOLOROSA: Yes Dualscar Did Take Me As A Slave
DOLOROSA: It Was Not As Bad As You Are Thinking
DOLOROSA: I Assume He Did It Mostly For The Status Of Owning A Jadeblood
DOLOROSA: I Harbour No Resentment
DOLOROSA: At The Time I Was Too Disturbed From Losing You To Care
SUFFERER: I’M SO, SO SORRY.
DOLOROSA: He Treated Me Well
DOLOROSA: And Gave Me A Lot Of Freedom
DOLOROSA: To Be Honest I Don’t Think He Knew What To Do With Me
DOLOROSA: If You Care Enough About Dualscar To Ignore Psiionic In Favour Of Him You Should Not Fret About Our Past
DOLOROSA: I Think He Is Terrible For Other Reasons Of Course But You Do Seem Determined That This Afterlife Is A Chance For Redemption
DOLOROSA: And If You Want To Offer That To Dualscar It Is Your Business
SUFFERER: BUT I STILL LIKE PSI, ROSA.
DOLOROSA: Of Course You Do
==> Have many complicated feelings
Okay, you know you died young, but this return to pupaehood is just downright disturbing. You’re having relationship troubles involving Psi, Rosa is comforting you and slightly exasperated, yeah, this is exactly what most of your pupation consisted of.
You don’t miss it.
REDGLARE: YOU KNOW.
REDGLARE: YOU’R3 K1ND OF M4K1NG TH1S H4RD ON YOURS3LF, M1SS SC4RL3T!
REDGLARE: H4Y 1S FOR HOOFB34STS.
REDGLARE: BUT R34LLY! YOU 4LR34DY KNOW TH4T YOU’R3 JUST GO1NG TO H4V3 TO FOLLOW YOUR 1NST1NCTS ON TH1S ON3!
REDGLARE: 4ND M4YB3 ON3 CHO1C3 M1GHT HURT MOR3 OR TH1NGS M1GHT G3T FUCK3D UP B3TW33N YOU 4ND YOUR PROP3CTS 1N FUTUR3.
REDGLARE: BUT WHO C4R3S?
REDGLARE: YOU JUST H4V3 TO GO FOR WH4T YOU W4NT 4ND CONV3RT TH3 UNB3LI3V3RS ON TH3 W4Y.
SUFFERER: ...IS THAT FROM THAT BOOK DISCIPLE WROTE.
SUFFERER: THAT’S CREEPY.
SUFFERER: I KIND OF WANT EVERYONE TO STOP USING MY WORDS AGAINST ME.
REDGLARE: 1 4M 4 L3G1SL4C3R4TOR 4ND WORDS 4R3 MY W34PON!
REDGLARE: 4LSO MY C4N3SWORD 4ND STUNN1NG GOOD LOOKS.
DOLOROSA: Redglare Is Correct
DOLOROSA: About The Choosing
DOLOROSA: Well Her Looks Too But I Mean In The Context Of This Conversation
SUFFERER: YES WE GET IT YOU’RE MATESPRITS.
DOLOROSA: You Are Going To Have To Deal With This Instead Of Prevaricating And Ruining Both Potential Relationships
DOLOROSA: And Frankly This World Does Not Need More Drama
DOLOROSA: Now Are You Done Being Emotional I Am Very Tired And Would Like To Go Back To Sleep
DOLOROSA: I Mean That In The Most Caring Of Ways
SUFFERER: YEAH, I’M DONE. THANKS, ROSA. AND REDGLARE.
SUFFERER: YOU’RE PRETTY CREEPY. BUT IN A GOOD WAY.
REDGLARE: 4W! TH4T 1S TH3 N1C3ST TH1NG 4NYON3 H4S S41D 4BOUT M3.
SUFFERER: GOING TO SORT EVERYTHING OUT.
SUFFERER: WISH ME LUCK.
DOLOROSA: Suf Don’t You Think You Should Wait Until Everyone Is Awake
==> Leave without hearing that
Hearing what? You are way too pumped about getting your shit sorted out to wait for anything!
DOLOROSA: Oh Dear
REDGLARE: 1 W4S GO1NG TO T3LL H1M TO FL1P 4 CO1N.
DOLOROSA: I Am Going Back To Sleep
DOLOROSA: Wake Me Up If The Universe Explodes
==> Go find someone
Okay, you have no idea where Psi ran off to, and spelunking is definitely not in your plans for today. That leaves Dualscar, who will hopefully not be annoyed that you have woken him up twice in one day.
Stop and think about what you’re doing? Why would you do that?
==> Find both someones
This is awkward.
And not what you were expecting.
PSIIONIC: 2f iit’2
PSIIONIC: exactly what iit look2 liike
SUFFERER: ARE YOU SERIOUSLY SO UNABLE TO COPE WITH BEING REJECTED THAT YOU’RE TRYING TO PULL ME AND DUALSCAR INTO THE ASHEN WHEN WE HAVEN’T EVEN GONE OUT YET.
PSIIONIC: oh get your head out of your wa2te chute
==> Engage in dialogue
Sure, arrow, if by that you mean get in a horrific argument with Psi in front of Dualscar. Sounds great!
PSIIONIC: do you 2eriiou2ly thiink that ii’ve been makiing out wiith hiim waiitiing for you two 2tumble acro22 me
PSIIONIC: maybe ii ju2t hate hiim
SUFFERER: BLUH BLUH THUF I WAS GOING TO ATHK DEE ETH OUT BUT I GUETH THAT WOULD BE AWKWARD NOW.
PSIIONIC: iit ju2t kiind of happened ok!
PSIIONIC: there’2 nothiing 2toppiing you from beiing an iidiiot and gettiing all flu2h-goopy for hiim 2o get off my ca2e!
DUALSCAR: wwhat the shell is happenin
DUALSCAR: can evveryone stop shoutin an explain ta me
PSIIONIC: why not
SUFFERER: PSI’S AN IDIOT.
DUALSCAR: yes i knoww that
DUALSCAR: halibut if you twwo can’t play nice i’m duct-tapin one a you to a chair an liseanin ta the other
DUALSCAR: so one a you tail me wwhat’s happenin
DUALSCAR: an the other be quiet
==> Glare at Psi
Why are you glaring at Psi? He’s your best friend, despite everything! This is stupid.
You can’t even tell if he’s glaring back at you.
SUFFERER: PSI WAS FLUSHED FOR ME AND BLACK FOR YOU AND I GUESS HE FELT LIKE WE WERE SCREWING HIM OVER SOMEHOW BUT WE TOTALLY WEREN’T AND-
DUALSCAR: noww you be quiet an psi explain
SUFFERER: I WASN'T DONE!
PSIIONIC: hey he wa2n’t done
DUALSCAR: i’m shorey, do i need ta get your lusus in here ta mediate fins
SUFFERER: ARE YOU SERIOUSLY PULLING THE LUSUS CARD?
PSIIONIC: dude 2eriiou2ly that’2 ju2t creepy
PSIIONIC: and you were 2o 2crewiing me over
PSIIONIC: you knew ii wa2 flu2hed for you!
DUALSCAR: wwhale awwesome
DUALSCAR: wwhere the shell do i come in
SUFFERER: YOU ASKED ME OUT!
DUALSCAR: wwhale appierently psi wwas entitled ta you first or somefin
SUFFERER: PSI’S A GRUNGELICKING SLOSHLESS THINKPAN WHO CAN’T KEEP TO ONE TROLL PER CONCUPISCENT QUADRANT.
SUFFERER: THAT’S WHY WE WERE MOIRAILS.
DUALSCAR: wwhat reely
DUALSCAR: that’s naut that wweird
SUFFERER: IT’S NOT?
PSIIONIC: ii told you!
DUALSCAR: once you get ta about forty a feww trolls tend ta branch out in quadrant posseabilities
PSIIONIC: are you calliing me old
DUALSCAR: wweh wweh i wwas a ship for six hundred swweeps
DUALSCAR: you’re older than me, brinesucker
PSIIONIC: ii am 2uddenly uncomfortable wiith thii2 conver2atiion
==> Share a moment of camaraderie
Wow this is terrible. You essentially have to choose between these two to make the drama stop happening, but you like them both and they are both flushworthy and you can’t choose. And either way you are probably going to make their kismessitude awkward.
SUFFERER: THIS IS STUPID.
DUALSCAR: i’m still naut shore wwhat’s happenin
DUALSCAR: halibut it seams preedy stupid
PSIIONIC: iit ii2 2o 2tupiid
DUALSCAR: so wwhat is efin happenin noww
PSIIONIC: well ii gue22 we’re kii2me2e2
DUALSCAR: nevver try ta say that wword again
PSIIONIC: 2crewuh you
SUFFERER: YES OKAY NOT IN FRONT OF ME PLEASE.
PSIIONIC: 2o what about you
SUFFERER: QUICK! ARM-WRESTLE OVER ME!
PSIIONIC: are you 2eriiou2
PSIIONIC: becau2e he’2 2tronger than me 2o ii 2hould get two u2e p2iioniic2
PSIIONIC: and maybe a head 2tart
DUALSCAR: he reely shoaled
SUFFERER: YOU KNOW WHAT?
SUFFERER: YOU TWO CAN SORT IT OUT BETWEEN YOU WHILE I GO AND ACQUAINT MY FACE WITH A WALL.
PSIIONIC: holy 2hiit
Sufferer: Be Psiionic
You are now THE PSIIONIC. You have been having several UNFULFILLING, CIRCULAR ARGUMENTS lately, it’s GREAT. The most recent one has NOT BEEN SO GREAT, however, you have just had an AMAZING REALISATION.
Suf has NO FLIPPING IDEA which of you to choose for his FLUSHED QUADRANT.
Which clearly means he’s into BOTH YOU and DUALSCAR.
You are going to WIN THIS ARGUMENT in the BEST OF WAYS. Possibly there will be MAKEOUTS.
PSIIONIC: holy 2hiit
SUFFERER: YOU ALREADY SAID THAT.
SUFFERER: WHY IS THERE SHIT AND WHAT’S SO HOLY ABOUT IT?
PSIIONIC: you’re flu2hed for me and d2
SUFFERER: THAT IS THE PROBLEM HERE, YES.
SUFFERER: WHAT ARE YOU SAYING.
PSIIONIC: hey 2f
PSIIONIC: what’2 beiing flu2hed for more than one troll at the 2ame tiime
SUFFERER: NO NO NO NO NO.
SUFFERER: YOU’RE BEING STUPID.
PSIIONIC: you were alway2 worriied ii’d run off wiith 2omeone el2e riight
PSIIONIC: not an ii22ue wiith d2
PSIIONIC: ii’d come back wiithiin a niight
PSIIONIC: he’2 two annoyiing two put up wiith for long
PSIIONIC: ju2t giive iit a try
DUALSCAR: do i get a sea in this
PSIIONIC: no, 2hut up
PSIIONIC: you already 2aiid you’re not 2tupiid liike 2f anyway
SUFFERER: DO I GET A SAY IN THIS?
PSIIONIC: only iif you 2ay ye2
PSIIONIC: you liike both of u2
PSIIONIC: obviiou2 2olutiion
PSIIONIC: we can celebrate wiith weiird quadrant-fliippiing three-way paiiliing
SUFFERER: OH MY GOG STOP TALKING.
SUFFERER: WILL YOU STOP TALKING IF I SAY YES?
SUFFERER: OH GOG NOT TO THE PAILING JUST TO THE TRYING THIS STOP SMIRKING AT ME.
PSIIONIC: all ii had two do wa2 embarra22 you?
PSIIONIC: ii 2hould have triied that earliier
PSIIONIC: 2o you’ll do iit?
SUFFERER: WAIT, WHAT? I WAS JUST CONSIDERING MY OPTIONS! NO!
SUFFERER: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.
PSIIONIC: ye22iity ye2 ye2 ye2
Hours later, but not many...
DUALSCAR: coddammit would one a you just wwin alreedy
DUALSCAR: i don’t evven remora wwhat you’re arguin ovver
PSIIONIC: ii get two vote2, ii wiin
PSIIONIC: 2222f c’mon
PSIIONIC: we’re promotiing harmony!
SUFFERER: NO I GIVE UP.
SUFFERER: THE WORD ‘NO’ HAS LOST ALL MEANING FOR ME.
==> Employ the double-fistpump of victory
DUALSCAR: seariously do i naut get a say in this?
PSIIONIC: iif you ruiin thii2 for me ii wiill cut out your tongue
DUALSCAR: quit tryin ta seaduce me
PSIIONIC: no need two try d2
SUFFERER: I’M JUST. TRYING IT.
SUFFERER: IT MIGHT NOT WORK.
SUFFERER: I STILL DON’T REALLY GET IT.
SUFFERER: BUT I GUESS AS LONG AS NEITHER OF YOU ARE ABOUT TO RUN OFF AND GET FLUSHMARRIED I CAN TRY?
PSIIONIC: ii wiill be happy two proviide le22on2 iin datiing u2
PSIIONIC: no no 2f
PSIIONIC: only flu2hed 2hoo2hiing now
DUALSCAR: i’m still confused ovver here if anyone cares
PSIIONIC: we’re iin an iince2tuou2 flush-black double reacharound now
PSIIONIC: everyone grab a paiil
DUALSCAR: that clears evveryfin up, i undersand perfectly noww
==> Hash out details
As the most experienced at dating more than one person in the room, it falls to you to sort everything out. You’re okay with that.
Psiionic: Be Dolorosa
You are, once again, THE DOLOROSA. You have been UNABLE TO SLEEP due to the fact that SUFFERER may DESTROY EVERYTHING in his QUADRANT QUEST. NEOPHYTE REDGLARE is trying to ORDER YOU TO BED in THE NAME OF THE LAW, but it is NOT WORKING, and also you suspect she has ULTERIOR MOTIVES.
REDGLARE: YOU H4V3 M34SUR3D TH4T P13C3 OF CLOTH S3V3N T1M3S.
REDGLARE: 4ND YOU SHOULD H4V3 B33N 4SL33P L1K3 S1X HOURS 4GO!
REDGLARE: ROS4 4R3 YOU L1ST3N1NG TO M3?
DOLOROSA: I Am Sorry Redglare I Am Just Worried That Someone Will End Up On A Murder Spree
REDGLARE: W3LL 4T L34ST 1T W1LL SOLV3 TH3 MYST3RY OF WH4T H4PP3NS WH3N YOU D13 1F YOU’R3 4LR34DY D34D!
REDGLARE: ROS4, GO TO SL33P.
REDGLARE: 1 W1LL NOT 3V3N 1NS1ST ON K1SS1NG B3FOR3H4ND.
REDGLARE: 1 PROM1S3 TO K33P 4N 3Y3 OUT FOR R4MP4G3S.
REDGLARE: TOMORROW 1S 4 N3W D4Y 4ND 1 4M SUR3 1T W1LL BR1NG 4LL TH3 S1LLY DR4M4 YOU COULD 3V3R W4NT.
DOLOROSA: Yes You Are Right
REDGLARE: FOR 3X4MPL3, YOU SHOULD PROB4BLY 3XPL41N TO SUFF3R3R 4BOUT M1NDF4NG 1NST34D OF 3LBOW1NG M3!
DOLOROSA: I Would Rather Not Let Him Know
DOLOROSA: He Has So Much Faith In The Goodness Of Everyone
DOLOROSA: I Don’t Want To Crush That
REDGLARE: JUST TH1NK 4BOUT 1T! S3CR3TS DON’T ST4Y S3CR3T FOR LONG.
REDGLARE: 4ND SOM3TH1NG T3LLS M3 TH4T 1T’S B3ST TO H4V3 TH1NGS 1N TH3 OP3N 1NST34D OF ROTT1NG 4W4Y 1N TH3 D4RK.
REDGLARE: BUT GO TO SL33P FOR 4 WH1L3.
REDGLARE: 4ND TH1NK 4BOUT 1T ON 4 CL34R H34D.
REDGLARE: FLUSH3D FOR YOU ROS4.
DOLOROSA: Flushed For You Too
DOLOROSA: Even When You Are Infuriatingly Correct
DOLOROSA: Good Evening
Chapter 10: Chapter 8
The air tastes different somehow as you haul yourself to the edge of your recuperacoon and begin the daily process of scraping off the slime. You hurry through the process and your shower, dress quickly, and hurry out to the communal entertainment room with your hair still in damp curls.
Nobody is there. Even Handmaid’s stone slab is empty, although the blankets Psiionic tossed over her are heaped at one end in an undignified tangle. You are beginning to entertain the mildly terrifying thought that everyone has been a very vivid hallucination when Redglare bursts in through the front door, sunglasses clutched in one hand.
She pulls up short at the sight of you, dishevelled and half-awake, then grabs your hand in her free one and yanks you outside with a, “Rosa, you have to see this.”
Everyone else is outside too, which explains the abandoned feeling the hive had. The reason the very air tasted different is apparent when it hits you in the face.
Psiionic is shielding both Handmaid and Sufferer with his psionics, and Dualscar stands near them, catching the rain in his hands and looking happy in a way you’ve never seen, before or after he died. Apparently the three have sorted out their problems. You’ll have to talk to at least one of them about it, you suppose. Mindfang is sitting on Summoner’s shoulders, and Disciple is hiding under her hair and watching the patterns the droplets of rain make in the sand. Redglare grabs your arm as you go to join everyone.
“Wait a second, Dollface.” She remembers her glasses, then hangs them by an arm from her vest in a jerky movement. “They’re all happy.”
You pause for a moment to take that in. “Is there a reason they shouldn’t be?” you ask her, slowly. The sense of dread you felt when you found the hive abandoned is coming back. Redglare’s expression, worried and tense, is not helping. When she doesn’t answer, you squeeze her hand gently. “Redglare.”
“Are you doing this?” she blurts out. “You were asleep, but are you- did you dream of rain?”
“No,” you say, confused, and then a sudden chill runs through you that has nothing to do with the rain. You control this universe. Rain is not a thing that just happens, especially not while you’re asleep. “Perhaps it’s another universe,” you say, before silence can fall between you. “Remember the effect Mindfang’s had.”
Redglare shakes her head, her mouth drawn into a long, thin line and her hair plastered to her face. She must have been out here a while before she came to find you. “I asked Handmaid. She can’t sense anything.”
You take her face firmly between your hands and rest your forehead on hers. She flinches a little at your touch in surprise, but leans her head against yours without much argument. “Do not worry about this,” you say, in your quiet no-nonsense tone. “You will go take your ablutions and get changed into some dry clothes. I’ll bully Dualscar into making some hot chocolate and talk to Handmaid while everyone else is arguing over the appropriate spongesweet to chocolate ratio. I’m sure that whatever this is can be fixed.”
Redglare kisses you gently, her arms wrapped around your waist, and it's wonderful despite the fact that the both of you are more than slightly damp and everything has taken on the chill of the rain. When she lets you go you feel warmed from the inside out, and by the look on her face she feels a little more solid, a little more stable as well.
“Save me some of the chocolate, Dollface,” she says, before going inside. You sigh a little, then join everyone else, who politely pretend to be surprised at your presence.
Dualscar not only makes proper hot chocolate, melting dark chunks of chocolate into cream and adding cinnamon, he also doctors it with a splash of brandy that the soaking wet and freezing cold trolls huddled into your kitchen can appreciate. You start a fire in the small fireplace and hand out towels while Dualscar gives everyone drinks. It’s almost peaceful, as long as you don’t think too hard about what’s actually happening.
There are, in fact, arguments over spongesweets. You draw Handmaid away while Psiionic is distracted by trying to feed one to Sufferer. Dualscar watches them, but not jealously, and talking to him gets bumped up a rung on your to-do list. Fix the universe, meddle in relationships, just a typical day.
Handmaid tilts her head at you, clearly waiting for you to speak first.
“What’s happening?” you ask, dispensing with any formalities.
Handmaid blinks at you, then swallows down a sip of hot chocolate. “It’s raining,” she says, the hint of a smirk in her voice. She’s not the same blank-faced Handmaid of Death that you met in Psiionic’s memory of the Battleship Condescension. She still doesn’t seem to want to give you any answers, though.
You hold out a towel and wait.
She accepts it and wraps it around the mass of her hair, tucking the ends in place under a horn. She’s mostly dry, no doubt thanks to Psiionic, but still spackled with rain a little. Likely she was first to discover the weather. Perhaps it even woke her up, or was caused by her awakening.
“You can remove the quest bed,” she tells you as she sweeps damp bangs out of her eyes. “The rain appears to be a natural phenomenon,” she adds. “There is no root cause. I told Redglare.”
You are beginning to think that she only talks in sentence fragments, and her mysterious nature is merely caused by a complete inability to answer any questions.
“And it’s not another bubble?”
She shakes her head firmly. “I would know.”
You resist the urge to sigh dramatically. Redglare is having a terrible effect on your sense of propriety and appropriate times for sighing. “I suppose we wait for it to go away, then?”
“How strange,” she says. When you shoot her a look, she’s smiling into her hot chocolate. You suddenly get the feeling that she’s not being sarcastic. This tiny rustblood out of legend with powers you don’t understand has likely never just waited for rain to stop.
Questioning her can wait until later.
You tackle Item #2 on the list once Redglare is back, her clothes dry and herself much calmer. She accepts the mug handed to her, sniffs it, then downs half of it with a grin. You then tell her to go distract Psiionic and Sufferer, because what is the point of a morally-ambiguous matesprit if you don’t use her? She promptly starts an argument that draws the whole table in – TH3 L4W D3CL4R3S THR33 SPONG3SW33TS TO B3 OPT1M4L FOR TH3 D3COR4T1ON OF H34T3D B3V3R4G3S, 4S 4CCORD1NG TO TH3 GU1LD OF L3G1SL4C3R4TORS V. IMPR4CT1C4L S34DW3LL3R COFF33 CH41N, (634/1920) – and you manage to corner Dualscar while he is making seconds.
He motions for you to grab the bottle of brandy, and you inspect it as you do so. It’s the sort of thing highbloods keep in their cabinets to impress other highbloods, and costs a disgusting amount per bottle. From raiding his liquor cabinets when you were alive and didn’t care if he punished you, you know the taste is well enough, but you wouldn’t call it worth the price. He grabs it without a thought and pours a generous amount into the chocolate mixture, then hands the spoon to you and tells you to stir while he collects everyone’s mugs.
You decide to not let him hold the pan of boiling hot, slightly alcoholic liquid while you talk to him when he comes back.
“You seem... oddly happy,” you hazard, as you ladle hot chocolate into mugs.
Dualscar looks at you and your potentially weaponisable saucepan nervously. “Shoaldn’t I be?”
You shrug diffidently. “Well, it seems that Psiionic and Sufferer have resolved their problems. And, being perfectly honest, you were never one to take rejection well. I expected you to be weeping at the bottom of your lake.”
Dualscar almost drops the mug he is holding, which proves your decision to not let him hold the pan was wise. “Cod, hasean’t he told you?”
“No,” you say pleasantly, and finish ladling out the second round of hot chocolate. “Which is all the more reason for you to. Before these cool, please.”
“I don’t fin it’s any a your buseaness,” he says haughtily. You simply look at him and wait for him to crack. You are strongly convinced that at least one of Dualscar’s hatchnames was ‘Gossip.’ After fifteen seconds – almost a new record! – his shoulders slump, but there’s the ghost of a smile on his face. “You might wwant ta put those dowwn,” he says.
You put down the mug and ladle you’re holding accordingly. “I highly doubt it’s going to be surprising enough to make me drop things,” you say.
“You might wwant ta go for your strife speseabus though,” he retorts. “First a’ all, it wwasean’t my idea.”
“This isn’t exactly endearing-”
“Seacod a’ all,” he says, right over the top of you, “Surf’s tryin’ both a us on as matesprits.”
You are so shocked you drop your composure. You gape openly for at least five seconds, then snap your jaw shut before managing to eke out a, “W-what was that?”
Dualscar leans against the counter, which looks ridiculous since it was made for someone your height, and plasters a smug expression across his face. When it comes to smug, Dualscar has even Mindfang beat. “An’ Psi an’ I are kismeseas noww,” he adds.
You take a deep breath. “Anything else? Have you made pale advances at Disciple? Perhaps Redglare has you all ashen? My goodness, Dualscar, was it absolutely necessary to fill your quadrants with my grubs? They’re so young!”
“Psi’s naut,” he points out, then hands you your refilled mug of hot chocolate and adds an extra dollop of brandy to it. You take a fortifying sip. “An Surf, wwhale...” He looks uncomfortable and has a sip of his own drink. “It’s kind a wweird, I knoww. Halibut I pity him a lot, Dol. An’ he hasean’t told me ta fuck off.”
“He’s an adult and can make his own choices,” you say pleasantly, a calmness that is probably at least sixty percent brandy taking over you. “Even if they are terrible and I am going to have to deal with the mess.”
Dualscar places a comforting hand on your shoulder. “Relax, Dol. I’m naut so wwhale off in the quadrant department that I’m screwwin’ this one up so easy.” Before you can retort, he loads you up with refilled mugs of brandied chocolate and nudges you towards everyone else. “Speakin’ a’ quadrants, go get your legislasearator off a’ the table. Some a’ us eat there.”
Somewhat mollified, if not exactly comforted, you rejoin everyone. Dualscar follows a moment later with the rest of the mugs, and the rest of the morning is spent celebrating Handmaid’s reawakening, quadrant forming, the existence of alcohol, and its ability to be combined with chocolate.
-- cyberneticTinkerer [CT] has started trolling assiduousCollaborator [AC] --
CT: D--> I have found a new universe, Disciple
CT: D--> It is one you w001d like, I am certain
CT: D--> It reminds me of the times you spoke of the desert
CT: D--> Perple%ing as it is, you are correct
CT: D--> It certainly is something to behalter
AC: :OO darkleer! is it you?
AC: :OO oh my gog have you been writing to me all this time?
CT: D--> Disciple
AC: :DD wait right wherefur you are! we’ll come get you!
CT: D--> DISCIP001
AC: :?? what?
CT: D--> Is this
CT: D--> Some trick
AC: :33 of claws not!
AC: >:|| stay put!
CT: D--> Disciple
AC: :33 purrlease?
CT: D--> Very well
CT: D--> Keep me informed
AC: :33 in the 100p?
CT: D--> Purrecisely
AC: :>> will do! missed you, meowrail <>
CT: D--> I
CT: D--> Yes
CT: D--> <>
-- assiduousCollaborator [AC] has ceased trolling cyberneticTinkerer [CT]--
You awaken from sleeping off your hangover in a midday nap whilst curled around Redglare so early in the evening it may still be termed afternoon. At first you’re not entirely sure why you woke up – your head, for one, is telling you that you’ve not had enough sleep – but then you look up and back a little to see Disciple perched on the arm of the seating block.
She solemnly holds out a glass of water, and waits for you to extricate yourself from Redglare before handing it to you. She fidgets the whole time you drink it, and as soon as you take your last sip, she blurts out, “My meowrail is out there!”
A thousand questions immediately clamour for attention. You pick the most pressing one. “You have a moirail?”
She jitters from foot to foot. “Yes, the Executor, except don’t call him that, it makes him really grumpy. Rosa, c’mon, we need to go find him!”
“Is he the cause of the rain?” you ask, as you wrap your shawl around your shoulders. Redglare stirs on the seating block, and you take a moment to rest your hand on her cheek. By the end of the festivities she was drinking more brandy than chocolate, and you don’t wager she’ll feel like venturing forth right now.
“No,” Disciple says, uncertainly. “He only just appurred! And the rain was here before, so...” She frowns. “Wait, you didn’t make the rain?”
You smile a little and gloss over the subject by ignoring it entirely. “Go find Handmaid and ask her for the location of your moirail, then. Time is wasting.”
Handmaid seems perfectly content to stay in Sufferer and Psiionic’s room, the latter fast asleep on her lap, the former awake and peppering her with questions that only get a few words in response. You’re glad to see you’re not the only one. Nonetheless, it ends up being you, Disciple, and a set of coordinates that would be several days of walking away if you couldn’t teleport. You will admit there are some advantages to death.
Even with the coordinates, you still have to track down the elusive Darkleer. You leave that to Disciple and simply stroll along beside her as she bounds along the sand. Eventually, just for the sake of conversation, you remark, “You don’t seem to be spending much time with Sufferer and Psiionic lately.”
She pauses, then keeps walking, albeit much more slowly than before. “They’re busy with their own thing!” she says, eventually. “And they’re so happy all wrapped up in each other like they’ve always wanted. I don’t want to butt in.”
You stop and look at her. “Do you honestly think they’d not like your company?” When she shrugs, you take off your shawl and place it around her shoulders gently. She has always been your friendliest grub, accepting everyone and loving them with every beat of her bloodpusher. “They may be distracted right now,” you tell her as she buries her face in your shawl, “but they love you fiercely. I give you full permission to throw shoes at them until they pay attention to you.”
“I am an adult and that would be furry silly,” Disciple says gravely. “I think I can nail Psi in at least three horns at once.”
You straighten the shawl around her shoulders. “Your points are doubled if the shoe hits Sufferer on the rebound.”
You find Expatriate Darkleer by means of very confused Trollian exchanges, trying to judge the position of the sun through heavy cloud, and sheer good fortune. He is as large and imposing as you remember, taller even than Dualscar and at least twice as broad in the shoulders. Disciple runs the final few metres to him and doesn’t stop when she crashes into his chest. With a little help from Darkleer, she is perched on his shoulder and rubbing her cheek against his hand in clear affection. There is serendipity, clear and true, in their smiles.
Darkleer crosses to you, Disciple knotting her hands in his hair to stay balanced, and extends a hand to you. It takes you a moment to catch on, then you realise what he is asking for and place your hand in his.
To your utmost surprise, this man, who had held the haemospectrum in his highest regards, drops to one knee in the sand in front of you. Disciple hisses as she’s unbalanced and clutches at his head in surprise, ruining at least half the gravity of the situation. Darkleer ignores this and continues being perfectly stoic. You are a triptych in cool colours and ridiculous poses.
“I apologise for my role in your suffering,” Darkleer says.
You frown at him. “For sparing Disciple and letting Sufferer die a death less painful than being burned alive?” He attempts to speak, but you cut him off. “It was nobody’s responsibility. I have forgiven worse crimes than giving my grubs some peace.”
Disciple leans over and prods him in the cheek. “I told you!”
She slides off him and hugs him tightly around the shoulders, only having to lean down a little to match his kneeling height. He immediately releases your hand and cautiously returns the embrace, as if he’s afraid your leonine girl can be broken. Disciple is tougher than perhaps anyone knows, but it’s nice to see that her pale quadrant takes due care with her, for all that she could scrap with tuskbeasts and come out on top.
“Stop scolding me,” she says, her face pressed into his hair. “If you want absolution you can get it from Suffurer himself, back at the hive.”
You are contemplating the shuffling that new living arrangements will cause when the skies open up and drench the three of you to the bone in a matter of seconds. Darkleer stands and looks up at the sky, and a perturbed look tightens the muscles of his jaw and draws his eyebrows inwards.
“Rosa!” Disciple yelps, and holds one of Darkleer’s arms above her head. “That was compurrlitterly unnecessary!”
“I’m still working out the kinks in weather patterns,” you lie smoothly. “I believe it’s going to be stuck on rain for a while. Shall we return to the hive?”
You think Darkleer may be staring at you from behind his tinted lenses. Fortunately, there is no distraction greater than a wet and displeased Disciple.
-- acquiredGoods [AG] has started trolling cyberneticTinkerer [CT] --
AG: Weeeeeeeell, if it isn’t my favour8 ro8o8oy!
CT: D--> Marquise
CT: D--> Tonight, of all nights, I have no use for your games
CT: D--> Either state your wishes or leave me alone
AG: No need to get all 8itch8rained just 8ecause you have your precious l8ttle moirail 8ack!
AG: I’m h8ppy for you! Reeeeeeeeally!
CT: D--> And
AG: 8efore you go off and pile with wild a8andon, have a chat with an old friend :::;] I won’t keep you long!
CT: D--> I w001d not call you friend, Marquise
AG: Someone you owe a de8t to, then. A favour.
CT: D--> How 100di%. Are you suggesting that your arm is not repayment enough
AG: You were looking after something for me, Expatri8. I want it 8ack.
CT: D--> And then I will owe you nothing
AG: Well, I’d appreci8 a checkup on my arm! No8ody works a wrench like you do, ro8o8oy.
CT: D--> I suspect that was 100d
CT: D--> At this junction, I do not care
CT: D--> Your belongings, your arm, and then you will cease to claim I am in your debt
AG: You drive a hard 8argain!!!!!!!!
CT: D--> I am waiting
AG: You see it too, don’t you?
AG: I saw you looking out the w8ndow.
CT: D--> The Dolorosa claims it is her e%perimenting with weather patterns
AG: Willing to 8et your 8oots on that?
AG: I need the 8all to see what lies ahead.
AG: And that’s the only reason I’m even willing to 8argain!
CT: D--> Marquise
CT: D--> I c001d not care less
CT: D--> I will be there to check on your arm momentarily
-- cyberneticTinkerer [CT] has ceased trolling acquiredGoods [AG] --
Chapter 11: Chapter 9
With the constant rain and cloudiness, your sleep schedule is beginning to synchronise with the nocturnal trolls. Redglare in particular, because it’s hard to fight your way through the haze of sopor slime and the arms of a matesprit that is also sopored and doesn’t want to let go of their heat source. She likes sleeping with you, despite the fact that you still wake up thrashing every few days. As much as you hate to admit it, there’s some comfort in having her there, even if she stalks Mindfang with murder in her movements the entire night after.
“I won’t auspice for you,” you tell her one evening as you scrub shampoo into her hair, fighting sopor slime every step of the way. You’re already clean, because bathing is a military operation to Redglare, but you refuse to do anything but take your time with her. While you are strongly convinced that, in many ways, you are an awful matesprit, you can still cherish her.
Redglare squints and wipes shampoo away from one eye. “Good, I don’t want you to.”
“Redglare,” you say, then catch her face between your hands and make her look at you. “Redglare. You cannot go haring off after Mindfang every time I don’t sleep well. It’s getting dangerous. You’re not treating her as a kismesis should.”
She looks you straight in the eyes. “She didn’t treat you like anything should. Do you know what it’s like, Dollface? All I can do is wake you up.”
You bow your head, breaking eye contact. That guileless, confess-your-sins stare must be something taught to legislacerators, and you have no chance standing up to Redglare when she’s right to be concerned. “I was there for it,” you say, drily in a way you hope covers the shake in your voice. “It was a long time ago.”
She sighs and takes one of your hands in her own, rubbing circles on your wrist with her thumb. “It’s obviously still present in your mind.” When you can’t respond past the lump in your throat, she leans forward and loops her arms around your shoulders loosely. “I just wish I could do something.”
You swallow hard, blink twice to push back any tears that may have fought their way free, and look up. Her expression halts the words you were going to say. Redglare, who is capable and enigmatic and pretends to be hardboiled, looks like she has no plan of action and it is driving her mad. She is the kind of woman who writes to-do lists in her head and you refuse to fit in. Eat breakfast, check. Exchange revolution anecdotes with Summoner, check. Fix your matesprit’s lingering trauma over her slavery and assassination, cross, a strikethrough, several question marks, and possibly a frustrated emoticon.
“You want to fix everyone else,” Redglare says, quietly, hoarsely. “You can’t last like this, Rosa.”
“I’m trying,” you say. On top of a miserable conversation, the water is starting to get cold. You bend a little, kiss the crook of Redglare’s elbow, then start rinsing off her hair. “The strifing helps.”
She shoves her bangs back and blinks water out of her eyes. “Sure, but hiding it from everyone and pretending it never happened isn’t helping you at all.” She sighs and closes her eyes, submitting to your scrubbing. “You can deal with it however you want. You know that. But waking up screaming more often than not isn’t dealing with it.”
“I know,” you say. The two of you are silent until you finish de-soporing Redglare and step out of the trap to get towels. As you wrap hers around her, you quietly say, “Flushed for you,” and are inordinately relieved when she repeats the words, punctuated with a kiss.
It’s still early for others to be awake and invading your hive, but you can smell things cooking in the nutrition block. It must be Suf, the only one of your grubs who managed to keep up with your diurnal schedule at all. Redglare perks up, you assume at what smells like eggs, and bounces ahead of you.
By the time you enter, she’s prodding Dualscar (poor man, he’s been co-opted into the position of Universal Chef) with the head of her cane, and Suf has his face buried in a recipe book. You take note of the slightly-burned food and the upside-down book in Suf’s hands, then gently reach out and turn it right way up. He flushes brilliantly and slams it down on the counter, then sits at the table in a huff.
“Red, stop pokin’ at me wwith that fin,” Dualscar complains, and loads her arms up with plates. “Go set the coddamn table an’ pretend you havve an ounce a’ civvility.”
Her grin widens. “Oh, noble prince of the seas! Thank you for teaching this poor landlubber the ways of courtesy. Shall I participate in the customary pre-breakfast sloppy makeouts now, or should I wait until someone else is ready to be the interrupting party?”
You take the plates out of Redglare’s hands. “Really, Redglare, one would think you were raised in a swamp. Everybody knows that pre-breakfast makeouts are to be conducted in intervals. To allow one to refresh their palate, as it were.”
Suf softly lets out a groan of, “Oh my Gog,” into the surface of your table.
You pick his head up and slide a plate under it. “Elbows off the table,” you chide him.
Redglare leans on the table and talks to you over his head. “Rookie, do you think that this egregious disrespect of theirs for common areas, the pollution levels of adorability, and breakfast should go unpunished?”
“No,” you say firmly. “The law is the law, Neophyte.”
Redglare thumps her cane on the ground. “Orphaner Dualscar and The Sufferer! By the power vested in me by His Honourable Tyranny and the Cruellest Bar-”
“-I declare that the first serving of breakfast goes to those officers of the law who had the misfortune to witness your truly awww-inducing attempts at romance!”
You whisk the plates Dualscar is holding out of his hands and close his jaw with your elbow. “Thank you for co-operating, boys. It’s nice to know the law still means something around these parts.”
Sufferer stands up abruptly, his chair scraping against the tiles. “I am taking my seadweller and leaving.”
Redglare sits down opposite you and grabs some cutlery. “Don’t forget, lads, you’ll have to perform the customary makeouts again before you make breakfast at his hive. Legally mandated. Pass the preserves, Dollface.”
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
AA: w0uld y0u st0p flirting with redglare f0r a m0ment
AA: and check y0ur huskt0p
AA: i’m trapped under psii0nic 0n0
AA: there’s a new universe
GA is an idle troll!
AA: y0u are n0t 0n0
GA is an idle troll!
AA: i guess y0u are
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling acquiredGoods [AG] --
AG: What ::::/
AA: that’s defensive
AA: g0 tell d0l0r0sa there’s a new universe
AA: it’s 52 kil0metres s0uth
AG: I’m not your errand girl, Handmaaaaaaaaid.
AG: Go clean up your own messes.
AG: I’m 8usy.
AA: s0 is every0ne else
AA: i feel less h0rrible ab0ut interrupting y0u
AA: since y0u’re kind 0f awful
AG: ::::| Where did that come from?
AG: You 8arely even know me!
AA: i kn0w every0ne
AG: Ugh, your f8ce is creepy.
AG: I’m going already, wh8tever!
AG: I’m not going with her, though ::::|.
-- acquiredGoods [AG] has ceased trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
AA: i’m n0t creepy
Mindfang sweeps into the kitchen, deposits her husktop in front of you, and steals the remainder of your breakfast. You have absolutely no doubt that somehow, in the convoluted depths of her mind, that this is perfectly fair. You know for certain that you don’t want your breakfast back.
Redglare kicks you under the table. You kick her back and read the conversation on Mindfang’s screen.
“What is it?” Redglare asks, before shoving the last bite of breakfast into her mouth.
“New universe.” You send a message back to Handmaid – Thank You I Have It Under Control – and stand up. Redglare stands up with you, but you place a hand on her shoulder and firmly sit her down again. “I’m sure Mindfang would be happy to accompany me, Redglare.”
Mindfang chokes on her stolen breakfast. “Did pampered jade princesses not have schoolfeeding, Fussyfangs?”
You relocate her to Dualscar’s lake, put Redglare’s dishes in the hygiene trap, then bring Mindfang back. She lands with a thud on the tiles, dripping wet, and it is only your sense of self-preservation that saves you when she lunges for your ankles with a truly blood-curdling screech.
“We’ll have a wonderful outing, I’m sure,” you say, and grind your heel into the back of her hand.
Redglare kisses you before you leave, and, in a move that surprises you, slips her sunglasses onto your face. “You know, when I said you weren’t dealing with things, I didn’t mean to charge into danger with an unreliable ally.”
You raise a hand to the glasses, dyeing your world uncomfortably red. This is how Redglare sees all the time, you realise, and push them further up the bridge of your nose. They block out your vision until everything is reduced to solid blocks and Redglare is just a sweep of motion. It’s an interesting effect, but you don’t think it will help tonight. You go to take them off, but Redglare catches your wrist.
“Keep them on,” she says, serious. “It’ll be better once you get outside. Trust me.”
You hesitate, then nod. Redglare managed to stay alive with them on, and so shall you. In return, you fish out the necklace of the Sufferer’s symbol she gave you, unclasp it from your neck, and clip it around hers. “She may be an unreliable ally, but she’s still an ally,” you say, surprising even yourself. “We’re all we have left.”
Redglare looks up at you, her eyes worried without her sunglasses to cover them. “Mindfang doesn’t care. She’d tear us all apart and just for entertainment.”
“And then I’d dance in your intestines, my favourite legislacerator.” Mindfang slouches against the doorframe and tosses her hair over her shoulder. “Are we done with the touching farewells, slavegirl?” She reaches out and flicks a finger against the corner of Redglare’s glasses. “Not quite your style.”
It’s a lot easier to be inscrutable with thick red glass covering your eyes. “They’ll serve me well enough.”
When you appear at the location Handmaid specified, you’re halfway up a mountain, water spreading around the base and islands dotting the ocean as far as the eye can see. There’s no sign of life around, so you’re probably going to have to go island-hopping.
Mindfang sniffs the air. “We’re on a live volcano.”
You look up through your red-tinted glasses. Now that Mindfang has mentioned it, you can smell the sulfur in the air, and it does seem hot. You think of the molten lava running underneath and repress a shiver. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone here,” you say. “We’re going to have to search.”
Mindfang snorts and decaptchalogues something, a large white ball that looks like a cueball. “You might. Some of us won’t spend ages searching for things the hard way.”
“What is that?” You reach out to the orb. You’ve never seen it in Mindfang’s possession, which is saying something. Either she acquired it after you died, or she didn’t want you to know about it. Either possibility is alarming.
Mindfang brushes you off. “Nothing. Let me ask it a few questions.”
“Mindfang, you’re talking to an inanimate object,” you point out, feeling very disenfranchised in your choice of exploring partners. She ignores you and continues to mutter to the cueball. You decide to leave her to it, until her eye starts glowing.
“What are you doing?” you screech, and reach to slap the ball out of her hand.
She jerks it away. “Finding your next lost cause! Do you want my help or not, you meddling, co-dependent, maternal whiner?”
You pinch the bridge of your nose. “If you’d merely told me-”
“I’m not one of your grubs.” Mindfang captchalogues the orb. “I don’t care if this is one of your coping methods, Dolorosa. We’ll never be friends and have adventures.” She shakes her hair out of her eyes, revealing her new robotic one. Darkleer has more time and generosity on his hands than you thought probable. “We share a universe.”
You fold your arms loosely and shift your weight onto one foot. “Please. Next you’ll be saying ‘This universe isn’t big enough for the two of us.’”
“I don’t think it is.” Mindfang mirrors your pose. “But it’s the only universe we’ve got, apparently. So we’ll have to cope.”
“My goodness, Mindfang! That sounds almost adult of you.” You slide Redglare’s glasses further up your nose – her nose must be wider than yours, her glasses keep slipping down – and summon a little legislacerator courage. “Now all you have to do is admit your past mistakes, apologise for them, and you’ll almost be acting your sweeps!”
“Like wearing my girlfriend’s glasses because I’m afraid to let go?” Mindfang snorts. “No, thank you.”
“That is not even remotely the same thing.” Your hands itch to summon a weapon from your strife specibus, but if there’s a chance to end this peacefully, you have to see it through. “You abused me, Mindfang. Like I was some sort of puzzle that was too hard, so you just decided brute force would work instead.”
She lifts one hand lazily and opens and closes it as if it’s talking. “Such a whiner, Maryam.”
You flush and press your lips together. Redglare would help you hide the body, you’re sure. “I never gave you that name,” you finally manage to spit out.
Mindfang drapes an arm over your shoulder and leans in until it feels like you’re breathing the same stale air. You’re choking on cerulean, and you close your eyes behind Redglare’s glasses. She’s only doing it to unsettle you, you know. All she ever does is unsettle people. You don’t think she knows what sincerity is any more, if she ever did. “Sure you did,” she says, warm and vicious. “Just before Dualscar got petty and split you in half.”
You pull off Redglare’s glasses, your last defense, and stare her in the eyes. It’s hard to out-stare someone who doesn’t actually have to blink with one eye, but you straighten your shoulders and shrug her arm off. One way or another, you are dealing with Mindfang, right now. You grab her hand and shove it against your stomach, where the scar dividing you can be felt even through your dress.
She draws in a sudden breath, not that you would have noticed were you not so close to her.
“I think your games got a great many people killed, Spinneret.”
“So what if they did?” she asks, stripped bare to her base pettiness. “You’re deluded if you think I care, Fussyfangs.” She tries to pull her hand away, but you hold it tight against you.
“I think you do,” you say. “I hate you.”
Her eyebrows raise. “Encroaching on Redglare’s territory? How bold.”
“Don’t be obtuse.” You let her hand drop. She folds her arms, tightly this time, defensively, as you continue. “I hate you. But that isn’t what this afterlife is about.” You pause and wait for a know-it-all comment, but with none forthcoming, you keep going and let everything spill out in a rush. “There is no point to a feud here. We’ve lived our lives, and as you said, there’s only one universe and it has to be big enough for us both. Truce.”
She stares at you, slack-jawed in disbelief. “A truce? What are you, four?”
You tilt your head and replace Redglare’s sunglasses. You are going to have to praise her foresight when you return to the hive. You’re becoming very attached to not letting people read you. “I don't see any other solution.”
“You wake up screaming!” Mindfang snarls. “I know you do! A truce isn’t going to stop that!”
“No,” you agree. “I don’t think much will. But there’s no point in making it worse.” You sit down on an outcropping of rock, certain that the danger has passed. Marquise Spinneret Mindfang is, for the moment, all bark and no bite. “Besides, I don’t think I’m the only one who has suffered. Do you ever sleep, Spinneret?”
There is a long, drawn-out silence in which you resist looking at Mindfang to see if she has drawn her dice.
“No,” she says, quietly. Then she sits down on the ground next to you, buries her head in her hands, and says, “No, I fucking don’t, because there’s too much screaming. When did you notice?”
“I figured there had to be a reason greater than Summoner or Redglare constantly calling you to my kitchen.” Carefully, cautiously, you reach out and lay one of your hands over hers. “It’s a new game,” you say quietly. “I have to know the players.”
“You still don’t like me,” Mindfang says.
“Good,” she decides. Then she stands up, as if nothing happened. She is ready for action once more. “We done with this jam? Let’s go find whichever poor soul ended up stuck with us this time.” She decaptchalogues the white orb again, shakes it, and stares at it intently. “This way.”
You watch her walk off to the other side of the volcano-island for a few steps before falling in behind her. Seething inside of you is something almost black, something almost pale, and you wonder if you’re beginning to get Troll Stockholm Syndrome.
Mindfang leads you the long way to the occupant of this universe. Since you’re not on your own ground any more, you can’t just relocate yourself island-to-island, so there is a lot of wading, some paddling, and far too much shrieking about hair. Eventually, Mindfang declares this island to definitely be the right one, unlike the last three. It’s not very big, so you stick together to search it.
Your heart catches in your throat when you come across a sleeping girl. She looks to be no older than six sweeps – how she died is apparent, from the gaping hole in her chest not dissimilar to Mindfang’s, but why? Grubs and pupae were precious, with your population on the decline.
“Dolorosa.” Mindfang places a hand on your shoulder.
“What?” you ask, through numb lips.
“She’s wearing your sign.”
Chapter 12: Chapter 10
She looks like you, you have to admit. Part of you – a large part – tells you that you were never this tiny and frail and young, but it’s there in the sweep of her nose, the way her hair falls, how her fingers arch. Mindfang crouches down and looks at her, then back to you.
“Your descendant?” she asks, finally.
You shake your head slowly. “This isn’t how it works,” you say. There is absolutely no way to be ignorant of the Facts of Life when your lusus is a mothergrub, and producing an exact replica of yourself is a thing that cannot, does not happen. You know more than most – the ratios of genetic materials used in order to come up with a population of grubs that carries on the usual haemospectrum distribution, for one, and just the mixing of genetic material alone should ensure that there is no Dolorosa 2.0 in the world.
You’ve just had your worldviews shattered and it isn’t even time for lunch yet.
“So it’s you, then,” Mindfang says, and prods at the girl with one foot, ready to jump away if necessary.
“I never owned these clothes,” you say, and kneel down next to the girl. She deserves to be woken more gently than Mindfang kicking her in the ribs. “And I didn’t die at six sweeps old of having a hole punched in me.”
“I was having a chat with Handmaid. Apparently these universes are hosts to doomed timelines.” Mindfang backs off and pulls out her cueball again. She may be insane. “So it could be you.”
The girl finally wakes up. It’s odd, meeting colourless eyes after so long spent with adults. She scrambles back a little, hits rock, and stops with nothing more than a near-silent gasp. You’d have a similar reaction if you were woken up by strangers, so you keep your distance and attempt to smile as harmlessly as you can. “Good evening.”
Her eyes dart upwards, then to Mindfang, then return to you. “It’s afternoon,” she says, and yes that is your pre-adult-metamorphosis voice coming out of her vocal chords.
“Your land is a bit brighter than my own,” you say, and gesture off to your left where grey skies can be seen in the distance. “I am the Dolorosa.”
She inclines her head. “Kanaya Maryam.”
Mindfang shoots you a look. She shares your last name and your symbol, and you don't know what to make of her. She’s obviously connected to you somehow, and from the way she keeps studying Mindfang under her eyelashes, she has an inkling of knowledge about you.
“Kanaya,” you say, then realise you’re at a loss as to what comes next. Nonetheless, you’ve coaxed pupae into not wanting to bite your hand off before, even if it was mostly through hero-worship of Suf. “Would you like to come back to my hive for tea?”
“I think that would be prudent.” She stands up, ignoring both your hand and her gaping wound, and dusts herself off. Now that she is awake, she has settled into a mantle of calm that you recognise all too well. It is making your heart ache to see someone bottling everything away the same way you do. Hopefully you’ll find some time to talk to her privately.
-- callousCondescension [CC] has started trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
CC: )(andmaid, are you t)(ere?
AA: 0f c0urse
CC: I don’t )(ave long. T)(e Furt)(est Ring only s)(ields against )(is gaze for so long.
AA: d0n’t w0rry
AA: y0u’re intersecting with an0ther universe
AA: speak freely
CC: W)(ale, good.
CC: S)(OR---E took you long --ENOUG)( to arrange t)(is!
AA: y0u d0n’t have en0ugh time t0 whine
AA: judging by the speed y0u’re travelling at
CC: I’m aboat to join U!2.
CC: Yes, O)(.
CC: I’m naut s)(ore how long isle be.
AA: time w0rks 0ddly here
AA: and we have a time player
AA: d0n’t w0rry
CC: W)(o said I was worried?
AA: just remember the plan
AA: and d0 your best t0 n0t g0 insane 0u0
AA: we’ll be waiting
CC: It’s naut like you )(ave a C)(OIC--E!
AA: g00d luck
CC has lost connection!
AA: y0u’ll need it
Mindfang parts ways with you once you get back to your desert, loping off to her own hive without so much as a farewell. Kanaya watches her leave until you open the door of your own hive. She’s half lost and all defensive, twitching at the sound of the latch unlocking but following you in nonetheless.
Everyone is rather shocked when a pupae trails you inside. You lead her to the kitchen, sit her down at the table, and make your favourite tea on a hunch, sliding a cup over to her when it’s done and staring down everyone in your hive who wants to ask questions.
Halfway through the cup of tea, Kanaya’s shoulders start shaking. Handmaid and Sufferer, who are the only two who had enough persistence to stick around, share a look and scramble out in unison, leaving you to try to stick this mess of a girl who reminds you too much of yourself back together.
It takes a long time for Kanaya to choke out all the details. Despite the fact that fifteen minutes in, you give up and start taking notes, you think you’re going to have to get Handmaid to explain, since she’s clearly aware of what is happening to your descendants - who are technically your ancestors, and may also be you.
You are very confused and would like to go kick Dualscar until his descendant is well-adjusted. Unfair? Certainly. Cathartic, after listening to Kanaya’s recount of her game? Perfectly.
When she stops talking, it’s more because she ran out of steam than because she finished telling her tale. She fades off halfway through a sentence, takes a sip of her tea, then puts it down and wraps her arms around herself. You didn’t raise three wrigglers to be completely ignorant of the signs of an imminent mental breakdown. More than anything, this tiny, delicate girl shutting down while contemplating her bloody last moments makes you think Sufferer was right. The violence trolls are born to takes its toll sooner or later.
“What do you need?” you ask her.
She looks at you like she’s never been asked that before. Something in your heart squeezes. It is the same look that a young psionic gave you when he said he was never going back to the highbloods, and the same look a tiny oliveblood with claws bigger than her head and a mane matted with blood gave you when she told you her lusus was dead.
She blinks it away and composes herself as soon as she notices you watching. “Sopor,” she says, finally. “I would be grateful for uninterrupted sleep.”
“Of course.” You lead her to your bedroom and give her a set of far-too-big sleeping clothes. “You’ll be uninterrupted here as long as you wish.”
You close the door, and a moment later there is a light thump. You can imagine Kanaya on the other side, leaning against the door and pressing her palms against her eyes, the way you did when you first found Karcin and couldn’t deal with hiding him from the imperial drones, covering his tracks, and trying to raise a grub with no clue what happened to grubs past the time when their lusii chose them.
You figured it out. Kanaya will figure out her afterlife. Jadebloods are resilient sorts.
You retreat to your sewing room to get some thinking done and some problems sorted out.
-- graciousAntecedant [GA] has started trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
GA: I Think It Is Time You Outlined Your Plans
GA: You Have Left It Too Long Already
GA: And To Be Quite Honest They Are Seeming More And More Ominous As Time Passes
AA: y0u’re right
AA: i sh0uld have t0ld y0u a while ag0
AA: h0ld 0n
AA: there’s an easier way t0 d0 this
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedant [GA] –
-- averseAttendant [AA] has created memo ‘mysteri0us plans 0u0’ --
AA has banned timeline shenanigans!
AA has invited AT, TA, CG, AC, GA, AG, GC, CT, CA to memo!
10/10 members present!
GC: ROS4 DO YOU 4LW4YS H4V3 TO M4K3 TH3 3XC1T1NG TH1NGS H4PP3N WH1L3 1 4M OUT?
GA: My Apologies Redglare
GA: You Are In For More Excitement When You Return, Worry Not
AT: wHY ARE THERE PLANS, aND WHY ARE THEY MYSTERIOUS,
AG: Well, you didn’t know a8out them, did you?
AT: fAIR POINT,
CT: D--> C001d we perhaps get down to business
CT: D--> I was installing a new filter in D001scar’s p001 and sh001d not leave it for long
AA: yes that w0uld be a g00d idea!
AA: is every0ne here?
TA: 2ure am
CG: I AM SITTING HERE IN AWE AND HOPEFUL EXPECTATION.
CA: no he’s naut, he’s fuckin sprawwlin ovver the conch an naut lettin me sit there
CG: FIND YOUR OWN SEATING BLOCK, I REQUIRE THIS ONE TO CONTAIN ALL MY HOPEFUL EXPECTATION.
AC: :33 share!
AA: 0kay g00d
AA: first i think i sh0uld establish s0me backst0ry that y0u might n0t kn0w
AG: 8ooooooooring. Get t0 the plans!
AA has muted AG!
AT: I w8s just s8ying that we’re 8nly here f8r the fucking acti8n!
AT: iT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN
AA: i am unafraid t0 mute 0u0
AA: first i will tell y0u ab0ut the game
AA: we are essentially the result 0f a l0t 0f timeline shenanigans!
AA: a l0ng time ag0 0ur universe was different
AA: we were children in this universe and it was very peaceful due t0 wh0 was ruling 0ver us
AA: then we g0t an 0pp0rtunity t0 play a game, but it was a trick, and it destr0yed the w0rld
AA: we had t0 reset the universe
AA: and suddenly we were the adults
AA: and everything was terrible
AA: but that d0esn’t really matter
AA: s0rry 0n0
AA: but as part 0f the big picture it was just a chance f0r 0ur ancest0r-descendents t0 play the game in 0ur stead
AA: and create a universe that was viable f0r them t0 live in
AA: but they s0rt 0f g0t it screwed up by a gr0up 0f squishy aliens that are the d0minant species 0f the universe they created
AA: it’s pretty c0mplicated
AA: but it’s als0 the reas0n we’re still alive in these dreambubbles
AA: they made them f0r their dead
TA: 2ound2 liike they 2crewed up biig tiime
CG: WE DIDN’T DO MUCH BETTER.
CG: IN EITHER UNIVERSE.
GC: SO WH4T 4R3 YOU PROPOS1NG W3 DO, H4NDM41D? W3’R3 MORT4LLY 1MP41R3D, YOU KNOW.
AA: there are tw0 things that i pr0p0se!
AA: first, i believe that there is a chance 0f us making int0 the final universe
AA: sec0ndly i want t0 keep the influence 0f the gamemaker fr0m reaching this universe s0 it remains viable
AA: his name is l0rd english
AA: he is 0mnip0tent and we will likely fail if we plan against him
AA: but we are dead and hidden by the furthest ring
AA: we’re the 0nly 0nes wh0 stand a chance against him
CG: WHOA WHOA WHOA YOU WANT US TO KILL AN OMNIPOTENT BEING? HOW ARE WE GOING TO DO THAT, LURE HIM INTO THE BUBBLE AND HOPE HE THINKS HIMSELF TO DEATH?
AA: we’re n0t g0ing t0 kill him
AA: we’re just g0ing to trap him here
CG: THAT WILL BE SO MUCH EASIER.
CT: D--> What if we w001d rather not participate
AA: i can’t f0rce y0u
AA: but it w0uld take all 0f us
AA: plus s0me wh0 have n0t sh0wn up yet
AA: the game gave us all individual gifts
AA: and we will need all 0f them t0 0utwit l0rd english
CG: I HOPE YOU’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT WHO I THINK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.
CG: NO, FUCK, I KNOW YOU ARE.
CG: WE’RE DOOMED TO LIVE OUT WHATEVER SHITTY ETERNITY THIS BUBBLE DECIDES TO THROW AT US, THERE’S NO WAY WE’RE GOING TO COOPERATE AND THROW DOWN WITH THE GRAND MASTER OF FUCKING UP WORLDS.
AA: she’s n0t as bad as y0u think
CG: SHE STABBED YOU WITH A FORK!
CG: SHE STABBED LOTS OF PEOPLE WITH A FORK!
CA: wwhale maybe she had a reason for it after all
TA: 2he really diidn’t
AA has muted TA, CG, and CA!
AA: and an0ther thing
AA: these bubbles are breaking
AA: there are t00 many 0f us
AA: and alth0ugh time w0rks strangely here
AA: we’re being affected by the end 0f the universe
AA: i can 0nly h0ld it t0gether f0r s0 l0ng
GC: SO 1T’S D34TH OR D34TH 4ND GLORY
AT: sPIN IS MAKING MANY, mANY ANGRY NOISES AND KICKING THINGS,
AT: i HAVE TO GO, aND SAVE MY BELONGINGS,
AT has left the memo!
GA: This Is Clearly A Decision That Cannot Be Made Quickly
GA: Handmaid I Would Rather You Had Divulged Your Information Earlier
AA: there was never a g00d time 0n0
GC: 1 TH1NK W3 SHOULD M4K3 4NOTH3R M3MO ONC3 TH3S3 L4ST F3W P3OPL3 H4V3 SHOWN UP
GC: ROS4, COULD YOU BR1NG M3 B4CK TO TH3 H1V3?
GA: Of Course
AA has disbanded the memo!
You bring Redglare back to the hive, then have to hastily explain about Kanaya’s presence before she goes to dump her boots in your shared room. She kicks them under the table instead and sits on the edge, talking to you as you start a project just to keep your hands busy.
“What do you think of this, then?”
You smile at her as you cut cloth. “I’m not sure. I don’t doubt what she says is true, but it really would be a miracle to have everyone cooperate enough for any plan to work, let alone something of this scope.”
Redglare lies on the table and promptly gets in the way of everything. “Do you really think any of us will die again without a fight?”
You lean over her and pick through your spools of thread, resting one hand on her shoulder. “I’m really not sure.” Once you find the colours you need, you say, “To be perfectly honest, I’m trying to not think about it.”
“You’d try, right?” she asks, quietly, not looking at you. “To live.”
“Redglare,” you say, and tilt her head up to look her in the eyes. “Stop fretting. I admire you for your tenacity and courage, and I love you for sharing them with me. I will follow the path you follow, and were you to choose to sit here and wait for the universe to end, I would drag you down the other path kicking and screaming if I had to.”
Redglare sits up and wraps her arms around you, burying her head in your shoulder. You return the embrace firmly, running one hand through her hair for unknown minutes. Finally, she says, quieter even than before, “I don’t want to lose you, Rosa.”
You abandon the thought of a new project, and keep busy in other ways instead.
Redglare nests in your fabric pile and watches you drowsily as you sew. Kanaya is still asleep, and no doubt everyone else is confronting their second inevitable mortality, quite probably in the same way you and Redglare did. Once everyone wakes up and shakes off their pheromone-daze, you expect there will be a lot of arguing. For now, you are content with the lingering warmth of your matesprit and the hum of your sewing machine. If life is now limited, you will end it in happy moments, not in terror.
You are surprised when Psiionic lets himself into your sewing room, even more so when he simply pulls up a chair and buries his head in his arms. The fact that he didn’t notice a dishevelled Redglare in the corner speaks volumes.
You take your foot off the pedal and wait for him to speak.
“SF and DS are arguing about CN,” he finally says, lifting his head the barest fraction. “I dethided to leave before they realithed that I’m the only one that actually knowth her.”
“And?” you ask, raising an eyebrow. Even in his depressive swings, Psiionic has always shoved his way into arguments. You suspect that arguments and eyebrow waggling are his two main forms of communication.
He shrugs. You raise the other eyebrow. Finally, he lowers his head again and speaks into his sleeve. “It wath pretty obviouth thingth were heading thouth, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh,” you say, and return to your sewing with as nonchalant an air as you can muster. “Is that all?”
He fists his hands in his hair. “AA tellth uth that we’ve got limited time left, and what doeth he do? Goeth off and fucking thedutheth my kithmethith in front of me. Like, wow, it’th not like I’ve loved him for the patht thix hundred fucking thweepth or anything! And that I finally thought we were in a thituation where it could work out! No, he jutht dethideth to pail the wortht troll in the univerthe. Gueth that maketh it about clear where I rank, huh?”
Redglare uncurls from her pile and stretches. “On the echeladder of intelligence, quite near the bottom, yes.”
Psiionic whips around, power crackling. When he sees Redglare, he subsides and lets what she said sink in. “I’m not thtupid, I was a fucking ship, I know more about shit than anyone ever wi-”
Redglare picks up her cane and prods him with it. While he is sputtering in outrage, she taps him on the head. “From the way everyone talks about you around here, you’re not so smart about relationships,” she says. Sunglasses off, you can see the wicked gleam in her eyes. Her investigation finally has a case to apply to. “You know you’re just being overdramatic.”
“I am not-”
She knocks him on the head again, none-too-gently this time. “Really, you should be talking to your moirail about this, but I suspect your girl has the romantic experience of a lamp.”
Psiionic sticks out both his tongues. “Thchoolfeed me, then.”
Redglare shrugs and sits down. “You already know that they’ve just newly found each other. Sufferer knows he can rely on you to be there for him, but he doesn’t have the same knowledge about Dualscar. Knowing you, you just absconded out of there without any indication you were feeling needy.”
Psiionic scowls. “I am not feeling-”
You clear your throat.
Psiionic’s shoulders cave in and he renews his attempts to become one with the desk. “Fine.”
Redglare slings a companionable arm around his shoulders. You hadn’t realised that they got on so well. What else have you missed, while everyone else was nocturnal and you were diurnal? “Fear not, Colonel Mustard,” she says solemnly. “Dualscar at the least was probably trying to flirt with you and make you jealous.”
“He can shove a pail up hith wathtechute.”
“That’s the spirit!” Redglare grins widely. “Now, may I suggest finding your moirail and sobbing into her shoulder until you feel less needy? It’ll take a while, the raspberry-blackcurrant duo may even be done by then!”
He snorts. “You’re a jerk.” Regardless, his voice is fond, and he’s snapped out of his downspiral for the time being. As maternal as you are to your three grubs, keeping Psiionic mentally healthy was a challenge that you could never live up to. All you could do was offer your company and hope his depression would pass, though he preferred Karcin at his lowest.
If everyone has formed bonds as well as Redglare and Psiionic, everything will be fine.
There is, in fact, much arguing a few hours later. You rub your temples and prepare to venture out into the fray, but Redglare puts a hand on your shoulder, picks up her cane, and goes forth to hold court. You tilt back in your chair and sigh heavily, closing your eyes against your developing headache. When were you elected leader? Redglare is much better at it.
It takes a long time for you to realise there is someone in the room with you. When you open your eyes, Kanaya is sitting in the window, looking out at the vast grey expanse in the direction of her universe.
Your universe is not at its best. For a moment, you feel illogically ashamed.
She notices you watching her and tries to smile. It is a miserable failure, and the both of you know it. After a long minute, she says, “I’m not sure what to do next,” and you can tell how much that simple admission costs her. Jadebloods are planners. You have contingencies and fallbacks, you guide and manipulate, you perform your tasks and mediate and keep gears turning, and after death there is simply little necessity for the whole thing.
Now you lead. And you do it because it hurts your heart to do otherwise. Now you are turning your skills outward, kicking your friends and family and their friends and family and those they love and those they hate into living for another hour, another second, because you cannot bear to part with them just yet.
You pick up your project, which you managed to finish despite interruptions. When you stand up, Kanaya does too, uncertain. When you reach for the sash around her waist, she recoils, but then calms and lets you undo it.
The hole through her is low on her stomach, and unlike Mindfang’s it is a smooth, cauterised wound. You tie the sash you created for her around her waist, making sure to centre the embroidery you managed properly. You would have liked time to make it fancier, but time is one thing in short supply now.
Kanaya presses a hand to the space sigil that is placed directly over the hole in her midsection. She told you her gift when she was telling you about the game, and you were unsurprised to find it differs from your own. While you may be the same stock, you are not the same person. You suspect that her true-timeline part will grow into someone glorious, and are sad that in all likelihood, your Kanaya will never have the chance.
You place a hand on her cheek, gently. “You’re dead, but it’s not the end. Everything you have gone through makes you stronger than you know. Perhaps you’re out of the running for the main timeline, but there is still good that you can do.”
The corner of her mouth tilts up in the beginnings of a real smile. “Everyone has an important job to do,” she says, with the air of a quote.
“You’re welcome to stay,” you offer.
Kanaya hesitates, and all the familiar longings flicker in her eyes. Family. Safety. Home. But she shakes her head, however reluctantly. “I think it’s time I found my companions. I have no doubt that they have already started seeking each other out as their bubbles clump together.”
Handmaid and Kanaya have a long conversation about the logistics of manipulating dreambubbles that you do not understand a word of, and all too soon you are taking her to the border between your lands.
She looks up at you. “Thank you.”
You nod. “It was my pleasure.”
You teleport away before she leaves, sadness and pride for her making you feel slightly hollow. She will be fine, you know. It is your gang of misfits you have to worry about.
Chapter 13: Chapter 11
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has started trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
TC: WICKED SISTER
TC: i finally got my motherfucking understand on
TC: AS TO WHO YOU ARE
AA: it’s y0u
TC: now i know
TC: NOW I MOTHERFUCKING KNOW
TC: i have seen the mirthful messiahs
TC: WITH MY VERY OWN EYES
TC: and i thought you should know
TC: THEY’RE MOTHERFUCKING COMING FOR YOU
AA: this is ridicul0us
AA: y0ur scare tactics will never w0rk 0n me
AA: h0ld 0n
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has ceased trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
You are awoken to the unpleasant sensation of being ripped free from sopor by psionics. You land on the floor with a squelch, Redglare beside you, ready to yell at Psiionic, but the sight of Handmaid stops you. She’s drenched in sparks, power flashing through the spectrum too quickly to follow, and the space around her seems distorted.
You swallow hard and prepare to decaptchalogue your weapons. Just in case. Before you can, however, green light pulls you apart. The next thing you know, you’re in the loungeroom and feel as if your stomach is in the wrong place. Psiionic, Disciple, and Summoner are there too. You stand up on unsteady legs and walk over to join them.
“What is going on?” you demand of the group.
Psiionic shrugs uneasily. “AA thaid we had to thtay put here until further notice.” At your look, he holds up his hands defensively. “I don’t know why!”
You’re interrupted by Dualscar’s appearance. He sloshes water over the floor, but you can’t exactly snap at him for it, as much as you want to. You and Redglare are trailing sopor slime everywhere. As you return the room to its default state and give Dualscar the tablecloth to wrap around himself, he starts in on Psiionic as well.
“Wwhat the shell is goin on? Your fuckin’ morayeel’s gone completely fuckin’ insane an’ she’s screechin’ in coddamn horrorterror an’ I still can’t get any fuckin’ sleep!” He takes the tablecloth from you and knots it around his waist. “Much obliged, Dol.”
“I don’t know what she’s doing!” Psiionic says, raking a hand through his hair. He must be agitated if he’s messing up his symmetry. “And she’s thet up thith room with thome kind of thpathe redirect, we can’t get out if we want to.”
Horror crosses Dualscar’s face. “I am naut spendin’ the rest a’ eternity wwith you as company.”
Psiionic throws his hands in the air. “We have more important shit to worry about, you colothal wathtewipe!”
Redglare thumps her cane down between the two of them, and even half-asleep and covered in slime she is still authoritatively a terror. “I will charge you both with noise violations,” she says. “The punishment is traditionally having your noisemaker extracted via your eye sockets.”
“Wwhat happens ta the eyes?” Dualscar dares to ask.
Redglare frowns. “You know, I never asked.”
You’re interrupted again, this time by the whud of Sufferer and the twenty blankets he cocoons himself in to sleep. He rolls over in his pile and goes back to sleep, apparently unaffected by being transported through space. Psiionic and Dualscar share a look, realise that they are doing so, and take it out on Sufferer instead. You pull Redglare back before she can distribute any tired, grumpy drubbings.
Disciple sneaks up to the two of you. “Rosa, my meowrail...”
“He’ll be along shortly,” you say, slipping back into the mantle of the reassuring leader.
Disciple shakes her head. “No, that’s... I think Handmaid is really angry at him!”
You are unable to speak. Disciple would pick someone silently dangerous as her moirail, someone you can’t protect her from. Redglare speaks up from beside you in your stead, hands braced on the head of her cane, point digging into the floor. “And what makes you say that?”
Disciple flares in anger. Her fingers curl into claws and she bares her teeth, her feet shifting into a defensive stance. Redglare doesn’t move, and you don’t dare to. Slowly, the tension eases out of Disciple’s shoulders. She curls inward. “He was hiding something for Mindfang, and she didn’t want Handmaid to know about it.”
Suspicion uncoils inside you. “A white ball? About this large?” You indicate with your hands the size of the cueball Mindfang was carrying around while you searched for Kanaya. At Disciple’s nod, you frown. “What does it do?”
Disciple shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling cyberneticTinkerer [CT] --
AA: where are y0u
CT: D--> Alone
CT: D--> I w001d prefer to keep it that way
CT: D--> STRONGLY
AA: i d0n’t recall asking what y0u w0uld prefer
AA: this is an emergency
AA: y0u’re the 0nly 0ne i can’t l0cate
AA: s0 tell me where y0u are
AA: 0r d00m every0ne here t0 a l0ng and excruciating sec0nd death 0u0
CT: D--> There is no need to be cr001
AA: tick t0ck
CT: D--> I am appro%imately two stories below ground
CT: D--> And 100 metres north-north-west of the Summoner’s section of caves
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling cyberneticTinkerer [CT] --
CT: D--> Is that sufficient
CT: D--> Oh, fiddlesticks
Disciple grows tenser the longer time passes without Darkleer appearing. You try to comfort her, but she shrugs you off and paces the floor a thousand times, ignoring Summoner’s barbs and the attempts of Psiionic and newly-awoken Sufferer to distract her. She is just about to try ripping through the walls when her moirail appears.
He is battered and bloody, dark blue pouring freely from a split in his lip. His tinted glasses have been lost, but the black eyes he’s sporting may be an adequate replacement if they swell any further. Disciple rushes over and eases him down like he’s a wriggler and not a wall of muscle. He’s too far gone to be embarrassed by her public display of pity. You conjure some ice, a bowl of water, and some rags, give them to Disciple, and leave her to it. Redglare is frowning in her subtle way, a tiny crease the only sign, and you know that means that she has deduced something unpleasant.
True to your expectations, she draws you aside. “Rosa, this is bad.”
You nod. “I gathered.”
Redglare’s face softens a bit behind her glasses. “Don’t tell me I’m losing my inscrutable face.”
You nod again, solemnly this time. “You may have to practice in a mirror, Neophyte. You’re becoming alarmingly soft-boiled.”
She nudges her shoulder against yours. “In any case, rookie, it begs the question. If Darkleer is here with his skin ripped off, what is Handmaid doing to Mindfang?” You take a moment to process the horror, but Redglare continues. “And if Handmaid is laying into us, what happened to needing everyone for this plan of hers?”
Horror dawns on you slowly. “Redglare. Redglare, she’s a god.”
Redglare nods, her mouth drawn into a grim line. “We are essentially over a table sans pail if she’s gone rogue. You might be able to do something, but the rest of us...”
You shake your head firmly. “No, Redglare. She’s dumped us all in this room for a reason. She hasn’t hurt anyone except Darkleer. She may be dangerous, but we should hear what she has to say for herself.”
“You’re being very idealistic,” Redglare says.
You look at Sufferer, who is curled up on the laps of both Dualscar and Psiionic, and appears to be acting as some sort of strange flush/auspice hybrid. He always did make the best of whatever situation he found himself in. “I learned from the best,” you say quietly. Redglare follows your gaze, and that’s that.
It’s a long time before anything else happens. As terrible as it is, all of you are starting to get bored. You wind up playing Five-Card Hand, but without Mindfang cheating outrageously it’s not very interesting, and Redglare always wins. After several games where everyone just looks at her and folds, she takes to telling everyone which cards they’re holding and is correct most of the time. Dualscar calls her a ‘wwitch’ when she surmises that he has the nine of hearts up his sleeve.
It’s almost a relief when green sparks whip up a fury in your living room and Handmaid appears, holding Mindfang by the throat in one delicate hand, needle in the other pressed to her chin. Mindfang’s arm is dangling uselessly by her side, hanging by a cord. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see Darkleer wince at the treatment of his work.
Psiionic shoves Sufferer’s legs off his lap and scrambles up, but in the space of a blink he’s been relocated from one side of the room to the other. The difference makes him stumble, and in that time Handmaid cools down. The green electricity around her sparks out, and her black-hole aura fades. She keeps Mindfang on her toes though, and her eyes still dim and flare in barely-contained rage.
“Give it to me,” she says, her voice utterly devoid of inflection.
This is the first time you have ever seen Marquise Spinneret Mindfang look afraid. She reaches out a hand, slowly, and decaptchalogues the orb. If anything, the feeling of rage from Handmaid intensifies. You can feel it in your chest, choking thick and bitter. The tiny, terrifying woman vaporises the cueball until it’s white dust, then throws Mindfang down on the floor.
Mindfang, both amazingly and unsurprisingly, manages to rally. “What the fuck, Handmaid?” She pushes herself up, grinding white fragments into the carpet. “Did I miss the bloody memo when we agreed that you were going on a murder spree?”
Multicoloured psionics backhand Mindfang hard enough that she’s slammed back down into the carpet and she gets a split lip to match Darkleer’s. “You almost ruined everything,” Handmaid snarls at her. “I will not return to being his servant, no matter how much you seem to want to take to his side!”
Mindfang sneers. “Servant? I stole that fairly!”
“You can’t steal from the omniscient!” Handmaid slams a foot into Mindfang’s ribs, and when you hear a crack you finally come to your senses. Handmaid may be a god of space, but this is your space, and you will not tolerate this madness. You rearrange the room so that Mindfang appears behind Redglare, coughing up spurts of blood, and Handmaid is on the other side. Before either of them can go back to tearing at each other, you step forward, into Handmaid’s path.
“Enough,” you say, with finality. Handmaid only hesitates a moment, but a moment is all Psiionic needs to wrap his arms around her from behind. He shooshes her carefully, then slowly eases her down until they’re sitting against the wall, curled together tightly. Some tension you didn’t realise existed leaks out of the room, and when you test a door, it opens as normal.
Handmaid speaks up in a wavering voice. “Everyone should stay here.”
“Why?” Sufferer demands. “So you can murder us when you get angry again?”
“SF, what the fuck?” Psiionic grabs for a cushion and throws it at him. “Let her explain herthelf!”
“The Grand Highblood is in this universe,” Handmaid says quietly, but at Grand Highblood everyone stops and stares. “He warned me that Lord English was on his way here, so I was gathering everyone. And something had to lead him here, so I searched for that as well.”
You look back to Mindfang, a sick feeling building in you. “She led him here?”
Mindfang props herself up on one elbow, barely wincing at her broken rib although her voice comes in short, ragged breaths. “Not on purpose.”
“You knew exactly what it was!” Handmaid says, tightening her grip on one needlewand. You step in-between their line of sight again. If you have to do this for the next few weeks you may just give up and let them at each other.
“I wanted answers!” Mindfang snaps, although it’s more of a wheeze. “You can’t answer a question if it bites you in the ass, and some of us need to know what to do, not just sit around with our bulges up our nooks!”
“You could have asked-”
“I did!” Mindfang slumps back down to the floor.
Sometimes, you wish you were Redglare. You have no cane to thump on the floor and draw everyone’s attention, so you clap instead. The sharp sound makes everyone snap to look at you, even the injured members of your party. “That is enough,” you say, using your lusus tone this time. “There is an insane indigoblood wandering around my universe, our best fighters are injured, and we appear to be trying to end our escape attempt before it begins. This argument is not helping.”
Handmaid closes her eyes wearily. “I need to move the bubble through the Furthest Ring.” Psiionic takes her hand, and she grasps it tightly. “The Grand Highblood is loitering around in the cave system. I won’t be able to locate him while I’m piloting.”
You nod curtly and cross the room to Darkleer, who is submitting very patiently to Disciple and a teatowel of ice. Now that Handmaid’s strange interference with this area is gone, you feel better about healing him. You didn’t want to before, in case he somehow lost an arm or sprouted a third eye. Thankfully, he stays in one piece.
When you go to heal Mindfang, she rolls her eyes. “They’re just scratches, Fussyfangs!”
“You look like you’ve been on the losing end of an auspisticising fallout,” you tell her firmly. “And clearly Redglare was the winner, since there’s not a scratch on her.”
Redglare grins from her seat.
Mindfang sighs. “Can you do the arm as well?”
You shake your head. “I don’t know nearly enough about robotics.”
“Oh, fantastic.” She grabs the robotic arm with her other hand and pulls until the final cord holding it together snaps. You can practically hear Darkleer’s whimper from here. “Fine, Dolorosa, hit me.”
“Don’t tempt me,” you say, and reset her to healthy. Before you can offer a rag to wipe off her leftover blood, she tears off the redundant sleeve of her coat at the shoulder and scrubs her face with it. You shake your head and stand up. Now the only thing you have to worry about is an insane subjugglator roaming the caves and the fact that your omniscient obstacle now knows you exist.
You want to go back to your recuperacoon.
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has started trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
TC: hey motherfucker
CG: OH NO.
CG: OH FUCK NO.
CG: IF I WAS ABLE TO TRANSMIT NO THROUGH THE INTERNET I WOULD BE TRANSMITTING SO MUCH FUCKING NO THAT THE NETWORK WOULD COMMIT SUICIDE. YOUR HUSKTOP WOULD EXPLODE. WE WOULD EXPERIENCE A POSITIVITY SHORTAGE THAT HASN’T BEEN SEEN SINCE I LAST WALKED THE LAND.
CG: IF YOU ARE STILL CREEPILY, FETISHISTICALLY OBSESSED WITH MY GODDAMN MIRACLEBLOOD I SWEAR I WILL PUNCH YOU RIGHT IN THE FACE WHILE WEARING BRASS KNUCKLES WITH NO EMBLAZONED ON THEM.
CG: DON’T YOU FUCKING HONK AT ME.
TC: what’s a fucking brother meant to do when he’s gone and got all up and dead
TC: MOTHERFUCKING DEAD BY WAY OF TREACHERY
TC: maybe a brother just wants to connect his motherfucking lookstubs to some motherfucking miracles
TC: AND A MOTHERFUCKING MIRACLE UP AND APPEARED
CG: I SAID NO HONKING YOU PANWHACKED LUSUSLESS SON OF THE UNHOLY UNION OF CLOWNS AND MURDER.
CG: OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE.
CG: WHERE ARE YOU. WE NEED TO COME SHOVE SOPOR IN YOUR MOUTH SO YOU DON’T TRY TO MURDER US ALL. WE’RE STILL NOT ENTIRELY SURE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE GET MURDERED HERE.
TC: i wouldn’t up and murder my best motherfucker right after i found him
CG: SPILLING MY BLOOD TO MAKE YOUR ~SPECIAL STARDUST~ COUNTS.
CG: AND I AM NOT YOUR ‘BEST MOTHERFUCKER.’
CG: I SPENT ONE VERY TERRIFYING NIGHT LOCKED IN THE SAME ROOM AS YOU. YOU MADE ME BLEED INTO A TINY DISH AND THEN YOU STARTED PAINTING THE WALLS WITH MY BLOOD.
CG: YOU SMELLED LIKE A GOGDAMN SLAUGHTERHOUSE.
CG: WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU.
TC: COME AND FIND ME
CG: DON’T DO IT DON’T DO IT DON’T DO IT
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has ceased trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
In the end, despite Psiionic muttering about horror movies, you split into two groups. Disciple, Psiionic, Darkleer and Redglare stay back with Handmaid in case the Highblood decides to venture upwards. You’re not entirely sure how he got in the caves without you noticing a new universe, but it’s best to assume he’ll be able to get out of them too.
That leaves you, Summoner, Mindfang, Dualscar, and Sufferer to explore the caves in search of the Highblood. You were surprised at Sufferer’s insistence at coming along, but he muttered something about ‘thinks I’m his fucking moirail,’ and ‘none of you can shooshpap for shit.’ You give up on understanding that and bid Redglare farewell instead.
“Hold on,” Dualscar says suddenly, resting Ahab’s Crosshairs over his shoulder. “There’s somefin wweird.”
Mindfang groans. “No there isn’t, Dualscar! And there hasn’t been anything strange the last six times you held us up!”
“Shut up, Spin,” Dualscar says absently as he walks over to the wall. It’s dark in here, enough that your daydwelling self would be tripping over things if Ahab’s didn’t radiate a small glow. Dualscar probably has the best night vision, given that he’s used to swimming the deeps, but he still puts his face right up against the cave wall and squints.
“You look stupid like that,” Mindfang says helpfully.
Dualscar ignores her and rubs his fingers against the wall, then examines them under the light of Ahab’s. His fingers are stained indigo. “He’s left us a fuckin’ trail,” he says, bleak dread in his voice. “Surf, you shoaled-”
“If you say go join everyone above-ground, I will hit you,” Sufferer informs him. “I am in a hitting mood.”
Dualscar recovers magnificently. “A’ course I wwasn’t goin’ ta suggest somefin that stupid,” he says in a wounded tone. “I wwas just goin’ ta say that you shoaled be careful, Gra seams ta havve kind of a fin aboat you an’ you might be able ta talk us out a’ a sticky situation.”
Mindfang ruins it by applauding until Summoner elbows her.
“May we continue?” you ask, pointedly.
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has started trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
TC: got your wicked direction on yet best brother
TC: GOT YOUR MOTHERFUCKING TRAILSENSE YET
CG: ARE YOU EVEN GOING TO HAVE ANY BLOOD LEFT IN YOUR BODY BY THE TIME WE REACH YOU?
CG: GENIUS PLAN! PAINT THE WALLS... WITH YOUR BLOOD!
CG: BECAUSE NOBODY’S EVER DONE THAT BEFORE! HA HA! WOW, IT’S LIKE A TOTAL FUCKING NARRATIVE FLIP! IT’S YOUR ATONEMENT PHASE! INSTEAD OF PAINTING WITH OTHERS’ BLOOD, YOU’LL USE YOUR OWN IN THE MOST BRILLIANT CLICHE EVER TO EXIST: AN EYE FOR AN EYE.
TC: sounding a little worried
TC: BEST FRIEND
TC: got your motherfucking thinkslosh all
TC: RILED UP IN THERE
CG: DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT A BEST FRIEND IS?
TC: not until you up and told a motherfucker
TC: AND THEN LEFT HIM AGAIN
TC: ON HIS MOTHERFUCKING
CG: WELL, FUCK.
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has ceased trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
CG: JUST TELL ME WHERE YOU- WOULD IT KILL YOU TO STAY ONLINE FOR LONGER THAN A FUCKING MINUTE, OH MY GOG.
The trail of blood leads in circles and switchbacks until you’re deep underground and entirely unsure of where you are otherwise. You’re just following Dualscar, who holds Ahab’s high and peers at the walls. He keeps Sufferer so close behind him you’re contemplating loaning him some apron strings, but Sufferer keeps fiddling with his handheld and doesn’t seem to mind. You and Summoner have to manage the constant duty of keeping Mindfang on task. She’s bored of the tracking and the slow back-and-forth pace of scanning for more of a trail and tries to wander off down every side path that presents itself and a few that don’t.
“Spin, if you keep this up, I am going to tie you to one of my horns, I’m not kidding.” Summoner yanks her back by the collar from a crevice that’s barely wider than she is. He certainly wouldn’t be able to follow her.
“What if he’s on the other side of one of these cracks?” Mindfang asks, and bends the fingers of her hand into claws. “Just waiting for us to get inattentive about checking, then we’re all just so much blood on a wall!”
“He’s not some monster out of tales,” you say tiredly, and edge around a stalactite. “He’s just a man.”
Mindfang flips her hair, somehow managing to pull it off despite the narrow confines and lack of an arm. “Sure, and I was just a pirate. You really should listen to reputations more often, Fussyfangs. Sometimes they’re true.”
“I think that they’re both important to keep in mind,” Summoner says diplomatically. “Dolorosa is, uh, making the job of bringing him back alive seem a bit easier, and Spin, you’re, uh, making sure we don’t forget the danger.”
She taps him on the nose. “Stutter.” While he’s busy wincing, she saunters away until she’s walking in front of you. You decide she can be Dualscar’s problem for a while and sigh in relief. Herding Mindfang is not unlike herding pouncebeasts when they’ve spotted a squeakbeast with a broken leg.
“Trail’s run out,” Dualscar reports as you catch up and clump into a small group. “So he’s either run out a’ blood or he wwants us here an’ he’s goin’ ta krill us all.”
Sufferer glances up from his handheld. “He won’t kill us.”
“Wwhale, no, wwe’vve got sopor,” Dualscar says pragmatically. “He’ll probably have a reel good try, though.”
You reach over and pluck Sufferer’s handheld out of his grasp suspiciously. While your grub believes in everyone, he’s not an idiot. Sure enough, there are lines and lines of purple text, written with the quirk one gets when one is mad with rage.
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has started trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
TC: HEY MOTHERFUCKING BEST FRIEND
TC: got you
TC: RIGHT WHERE I MOTHERFUCKING WANT YOU
CG: Oh Dear
CG: Kindly Do Yourself A Favour And Come Out Quietly
CG: Everyone Except Sufferer Has Trigger Finger Syndrome
CG: It Involves Them Blowing Up Anything That Twitches Threateningly
TC: my motherfucking finest sister
TC: DO YOU THINK I DON’T UP AND KNOW THAT SHIT
TC: long past time you and i got our motherfucking bargain on
TC: MADE SOME BITCHTITS DEALS
CG: Very Well
CG: Come Out
TC: no can do fine sister
TC: CAN’T RIP MY MOTHERFUCKING ARMS OFF
CG: Your Sense Of Humour Is Sorely Lacking
-- candidGovernance [CG] has ceased trolling truculentCaperer [TC] --
He slopes out from a small offshoot that was hidden by an outcropping, bending more than should be possible for such a tall, muscled person. Even so, you’re astounded he and his horns fit anywhere in here. Mindfang was, in fact, onto something with checking every crevice between here and the hive.
Dualscar levels Ahab’s Crosshairs at the Highblood, but keeps his finger off the trigger. You know Dualscar, though, and he has the familiar tension in his shoulders that means someone is going to get murdered if things don’t go his way. You suspect you might look similar. Mindfang rattles her dice in her hand, and you wonder if she’ll be any weaker one-armed. It’s doubtful.
The Grand Highblood looks over all of you - quite literally, he has at least a head on Summoner - and he isn’t quite insane. There is intelligence in his eyes, and he picked you as the leader immediately. He tries to stare you down, but you’ve dealt with power-tripping highbloods a time or two, and you meet his gaze coolly.
His eyes slide over to Sufferer and drink him in, horns to toe. You’ve never seen someone so lasciviously, shamelessly pale, and even though your grub looks calm on the surface, he’s clasping his hands tightly behind his back and they’re shaking anyway. The Highblood grins, slowly, and he leans down until he’s level with Sufferer.
“Honk,” he says.
Sufferer explodes. “Great! Just fucking great! I trek down here against the advice of little things like logic and sanity, because hey, someone might be in need! Deploy the fucking Sufferer, emergency shooshpaps required! Never mind that I am probably going to get paleraped, because you colour-obsessed clown cultists have been trying to capture and preserve the, and I quote, motherfucking miracles in my blood since Day One, never mind the fact that you know my trollhandle, you creepy waste-shoveler, I came! Because I am apparently the kind of troll who decides that hey, this whole afterlife thing isn’t going so well, let’s see if there’s an after-afterlife! Maybe it will be populated with less people, although knowing my barrel-scraping dregs of luck, it’s populated with infinite clones of you and I can’t die! And when I get here, because as previously established I am amazingly generous and still trying to help you, I get honk. HONK, FUCKASS, I GET IT.”
All of your party is left gaping at Sufferer, who has gone slightly red in the face and is panting. You haven’t heard a rant like that out of him since he was eight, and that was as a result of Psiionic gleefully and continuously pushing his buttons until he snapped. Treacherously, you almost wish Disciple were here to record the rant.
In the lull, the Grand Highblood reaches out a hand and touches Sufferer’s face more gently than you would have thought possible. He skates his fingers over Sufferer’s cheekbone, then holds him steadily at the jaw. “Aw, brother, no need to up and use SO MANY FUCKING SHOUTPOLES, I ain’t so tall you gotta compensate.”
Thankfully, Dualscar has picked up some ability to read body language, and shoves Ahab’s between the two before Sufferer can start again. He shoves Sufferer back unceremoniously and pastes a society smile on his face, all teeth and oozing charm. “So, Gra - can I call you Gra - I fin wwe’re off ta a boat a’ a confused start. Let’s chat.”
The Grand Highblood stares down at Dualscar through lidded eyes and flicks a finger against Ahab’s. “Ain’t no kind of BARGAINING SESSION with a gun all UP AGAINST MY MOTHERFUCKING ORGANSHIELD, seadweller.”
Dualscar’s eyes narrow. “Shore it is,” he says. “You’re just goin’ ta havve ta bargain reel wwhale.”
Mindfang grins and walks a fluorite die over her fingers, somehow not dropping any of the others. “Well, Highblood? What’s it going to be?” The scourges of the seas have fought together - and each other - enough to synchronise with each other fluidly, and every movement of theirs seems calculated and dangerous.
Sufferer is staring at Dualscar, slightly amazed, slightly sick. He’s seen you and Psiionic and Disciple fight before, but you suspect he is having trouble with reconciling his pancake-making matesprit with this gun-toting, one-liner-delivering badass. You draw Sufferer back to you and Summoner, until he is shaking under your arm and safe between the backup corps. Summoner shoots your grub a sympathetic look and paps him once on the shoulder. The reminder that everyone with you is on his side seems to soothe Sufferer, and he stands taller for it.
The Grand Highblood cricks his neck and watches Sufferer like predator watches prey. “I don’t have a SINGLE MOTHERFUCKING CARE about your terms as long as I get my miraclebrother.”
Dualscar curls his finger around Ahab’s trigger. “Wwhale, that’s a shame, on account a’ it isn’t goin’ ta happen ovver any a’ our dead bodies.”
“Dualscar-” Sufferer says, helplessly, and you know that he will give himself up to the Grand Highblood rather than see violence, he doesn’t understand that some things are worse than violence. Summoner realises the same as you and clamps one hand down over Sufferer’s mouth.
“Kid, c’mon,” he says, quiet and measured. “You just snagged two trolls who pity you more than a kicked barkbeast, you cannot handle this guy on top of that-” he cuts himself off and holds up one of Sufferer’s wrists, wrapped in his ever-present bandages because the sight of his own wristbones disturbs him. “I think you’ve suffered enough for everyone, right?”
Sufferer makes an incomprehensible noise of rage.
“YOU’D BEST BE REMOVING YOUR HANDS,” the Grand Highblood manages to get out, before Dualscar shoves Ahab’s point further into his chest. Some indigo wells up, but you are too busy holding Sufferer back by the shoulders to care.
Summoner paps Sufferer on the shoulder once before walking up to the Grand Highblood. His measured stride forward causes Mindfang and Dualscar to have to duck back lest they get hit with one of his horns, and in the end it is Summoner and the Grand Highblood facing each other, and you would give them equal odds if you were a gambling woman.
“You want miracles?” Summoner asks, and it is then that you and Mindfang realise what he intends to do, far too late. He unfurls his wings from empty air, letting that part of him back into his reality. They are magnificent, brushing the floor and ceiling of the cave, refracting the light in ways that don’t seem physically plausible, and the Grand Highblood is entranced. “I’ll be your miracle.”
“You for him?” the Grand Highblood asks, his gaze not leaving Summoner’s wings.
“No!” Mindfang snaps. “He’s mine!”
“Spin, we have to be in this together,” he says gently, and reaches back for her hand. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, right?”
“No!” Mindfang shrieks, and throws her dice down. Summoner reacts lightning-fast and grabs her hand before she can do anything permanent, and rests his other hand on her shoulder. “No, you are mine, I just found you again-”
“This doesn’t change us,” he says, and presses a kiss to each of her cheeks. “Flushed for you. Let me do this, Spin.”
Mindfang pulls her hand free and scrubs her eyes. “Fuck you and your sacrifices,” she spits out. “Fuck you for being good.” She storms off in a wave of hair, leaving the Fluorite Octet abandoned on the floor.
“This is sick,” Sufferer says. “This is- I can’t-”
You tighten your hand on his shoulder until your nails dig in. “It’s his right. You’d do the same.”
“Me for him,” Summoner says to the Grand Highblood.
“DEAL,” the Highblood replies. "We'd best be sealing this properly, moth-brother. TRADITIONALLY."
Summoner rolls his shoulders as Dualscar tries to yank you away. He's the only one who has any knowledge of how subjugglators cement their relationships, and it seems that he certainly doesn't want to stick around, but this is the least you can do for Summoner now. You owe him for keeping your grub safe from the same slavery you went through. You may never be able to repay him.
Somehow, Summoner seems to know what the Grand Highblood is referring to, likely from his days as a cavalreaper. With the weight of tradition in his actions, he settles his feet comfortably and holds up a hand, beckoning to the Highblood. "Bring it."
Before you quite know what's happened, you are subjected to the worst slamdown in Alternian history. There is no winner.
The Highblood settles a hand on Summoner's shoulder, and Summoner jerks his head at you to leave. You take yourself, Sufferer, and Dualscar away before any more damage can be done.
Sufferer grabs Psiionic as soon as you’re back in the hive, practically yanking him from Handmaid and disappearing into their respiteblock. Dualscar tries to follow, but you shake your head and lead him into the kitchen, only pausing to tell everyone else that the danger has passed. Redglare gives you a thumbs-up then goes back to the game of checkers that she’s playing with Disciple.
It is your turn to press a fortifying drink into Dualscar’s hand and sit him down. You stand Ahab’s Crosshairs against the table and take the chair next to him, waiting as he stares at it. Finally he says, bitterly, “Wwhale, that’s another reloceanship dowwn the drain,” and takes a swig of the rather alcoholic hot chocolate you conjured up for him.
“You’re being rather pessimistic,” you say, as he tries to cough up a lung and almost succeeds. “He’s seen those he cares about be dangerous before.”
“He codn’t get awway from me fast enough.” Dualscar slumps until his forehead is resting on the table. “Coddammit, Dol, I can’t stop bein’ a fuckin’ wwarmonger.”
“It’s not all you are,” you say firmly. “He knows that.”
“I fuckin’ hope so,” he says.
Psiionic enters the kitchen silently, gliding a bit above the floor in the way he only does when he’s exhausted. He’s not Sufferer’s moirail, but he’s the closest thing Sufferer has, and trying to get Sufferer to see reason is impossible without a lot of effort and a few tears. He is wrung out, there are faint-orange splotches on his uniform, and when he sees Dualscar he yanks the seadweller’s chair out from under him, which is rude even by kismesis standards.
“Wwhat the fu-” Dualscar snaps, but stops when he sees Psiionic. “Howw is he?”
“He wantth you,” Psiionic says, and steals the seat. “Gog knowth why, thinthe you are actually the biggetht athhole to ever exitht, but if you don’t go talk to him right now I am authorithed to thtart zapping you until you do.”
“I’m goin’” Dualscar says, and picks himself and Ahab’s up in one fluid movement. “Is he...”
“He hath hith theriouth fathe on.” Psi flaps a hand at him. “Pith off, DS. Make him happy or I’ll end you.”
Dualscar touches Ahab’s to his forehead in a mockery of a salute and leaves.
“Tho,” Psiionic says, and fishes an orange out of the fruit bowl. “AA thayth that CN should be here within the week.”
You fold your arms and lean back in your chair. “You’re worried about Dualscar.”
Psiionic snorts. “Yeah, hith creepy obthethion with her ith worrying and I don’t think SF will be happy, but I’m actually worried about all of uth. CN ith not a nithe lady, and I don’t think she’ll merrily jaunt along on our little quetht. And everyone ith making thacrifitheth for it.”
“Let me worry about it,” you tell him. “Enjoy your time now. Once Condesce appears, I doubt we’ll have little time left to enjoy anything.”
You curl up in your recuperacoon with Redglare, sopor dulling the racing of your thoughts and loosening your limbs in a pleasant way that is completely unconducive to serious talks. Unfortunately, this is what you and Redglare are aiming for, even if she is pressed against you with your chin to the top of her head. She strokes your side lazily, and that makes it even more difficult to concentrate.
“We can’t stop now,” you say, sleepily. “We have to push forward. With this plan.”
“Mmm.” Redglare tucks herself closer against you and nudges her legs against yours until you tangle together. “You know I’m with you, Dollface.”
“Even if it’s difficult and doesn’t work?”
She yawns and kisses your collarbone. “Especially then. Now stop trying to auspice the present and the future and get some sleep, rookie. We’ve work ahead of us.”
END OF ACT TWO
Chapter 14: Intermission 2
BAZILLIONS OF FLASHING GIFS, be careful!
==> Be the Condesce
You are now HER IMPERIAL CONDESCENSION, although it’s QUITE UNLIKELY you would be anyone else. Over your IMPERIAL REIGN of this particular UNIVERSE ITERATION, you have carefully restricted POPULATION GROWTH through several VERY SANE and COMPLETELY APPLICABLE METHODS. Now this planet is limited to ONE FEMALE and ONE MALE HUMAN, which will prove ADEQUATE for your PURPOSES.
==> Reflect on your reign
A long time ago, a GOOD FRIEND - who may have been A BIT MORE THAN A GOOD FRIEND, but that is neither here nor there - told you to NOT GO INSANE, and that you would not be ON YOUR OWN FOR LONG.
You think you may have SLIGHTLY FAILED at the first, at the FAULT of the second. Part of being a GOOD RULER is being able to evaluate your OWN FAULTS, and you have long since come to the conclusion that you went S)(IT)(IVEMAGGOTS roughly TWO HUNDRED SWEEPS AGO. Even then, replacing the planet’s oceans with FAYGO, trying to clone your DEAD RACE, and building IMPERIAL DRONEBOTS were not your BEST DECISIONS, even if you did score A LOT OF VERY USEFUL POWERS.
Now there is just YOU, the PLAYERS, several CARAPACES THAT YOU CANNOT GET RID OF, and an APPROACHING APOCALYPSE.
==> Whoa hey, don’t you think you should have mentioned that apocalypse? Like, how imminent is it? I don’t know about you, but I for one am not sticking around for this apocalypse.
Haha! STRANGE VOICE FROM THE NETHER, the apocalypse is VERY IMMINENT. You can already see the METEOR SHOWER that heralds a GAME SESSION. You are in NO DANGER at the moment, however. Being HER IMPERIAL CONDESCENSION, the BLACK QUEEN, and also EMISSARY OF LORD ENGLISH has given you a veritable LIFERAFT of DEATH-DEFYING ABILITIES.
The ability to IDENTIFY NARRATORS being one of them.
==> Hey! Stop breaking the fourth wall!
You COMPLETELY REFUSE this request. You can easily escape CERTAIN DOOM by calling on the powers LORD ENGLISH gifted to you as his EMISSARY, but there is only one way to escape without him realising. This CUNNING PLAN has been LONG IN THE MAKING - with FOUR UNIVERSES and INNUMERABLE SWEEPS behind it, you are DETERMINED it will succeed. And for that, you need access to a REALM that LORD ENGLISH doesn’t know of. Yet.
==> Break through the fenestrated wall
In your day, you called it a WINDOW. Whatever it’s known as, it SHATTERS EASILY under assault from your 2x3DENT
Condesce: Be the narrator
You are now THE NARRATOR, better known as ASHKATOM, and oh god oh man oh fuck this is not what you signed up for when you started writing.
==> Talk for your goddamn life
Are... are you narrating your own actions? Pose like someone extremely terrified of a 2x3dent because shit just got meta.
ASHKATOM: I- I don’t understand you-
ASHKATOM: OH MY GOD
ASHKATOM: I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU
ASHKATOM: I’M GOING TO DIE
CONDESCE: 38| I speak -Englis)(
ASHKATOM: Could you, maybe, drop the trident?
CONDESCE: Naut until you agree to s)(ip me on to t)(e Furt)(est Ring.
CONDESCE: I )(ave a standing appointment.
ASHKATOM: I would love to help, and get you and your weaponry away from me.
==> Gesture dramatically at your fenestrated wall
ASHKATOM: You broke my wall. It’s not exactly travel-worthy now.
ASHKATOM: OH GOD OKAY I GET IT INTER-UNIVERSE TRAVEL OR YOUR STABBINGS FREE
CONDESCE: I’m glad you catc)( on so quickly!
CONDESCE: Ot)(er )(umans didn’t.
ASHKATOM: That’s totally not threatening at all.
==> Contemplate your options
Okay, you can do this. You’re a Narrator, you’ve got this shit in the bag. Schlepping a dangerous fishlady to the Furthest Ring, land of the horrorterrors? No problem.
You are going to die. You wonder if your will is up to date, then realise you never made a will. This day just keeps getting better and better. You knew you should have gotten your goddamn wall fixed when it stopped playing stuff from your computer and got stuck on an endless loop of Squiddles episodes instead. You should have expected a violent fish empress, to be frank.
ASHKATOM: ...How do you feel about Deus ex Machinas?
CONDESCE: Not OV--ERLY frond.
CONDESCE: Do B-ETTA.
betta better fuck those puns are intrusive
Okay. You are going to have to consult your Book of Narrative Devices. It is time to bring out the big guns.
ASHKATOM: Okay, here. Uh. Let’s see. Window?
CONDESCE: Been DON-E.
ASHKATOM: You’re telling me. Foreshadowing, doesn’t actually get you anywhere. Synchronicity-
CONDESCE: W)(at’s t)(at?
ASHKATOM: When your life synchronises with-
ASHKATOM: I thought so. Uh, light and dark, no offense, you kind of lose out there. Allegory, too, in general.
CONDESCE: Codn’t you just call a R-EPAIR DRON--E?
ASHKATOM: Where do you even think I live?
CONDESCE: Just G-ET M--E T)(-ER------E!
CONDESCE: I am naut )(aving S)(-ELLVERAL )(UNDR----ED SW--E--EPS of planning RUIN-ED by a sub-par narrator!
ASHKATOM: Wow. Ouch.
ASHKATOM: I mean that literally, by the way.
ASHKATOM: If you push that trident any further I am going to come down with a severe case of the stabs.
CONDESCE: W)(ale, )(urry up aboat finding me a wave out, and Isle stop krilling you 38]. S)(rimple!
ASHKATOM: Okay, okay, let’s just go through this alphabetically, there has to be something.
Hours later, but not many...
CONDESCE: I said no to t)(e deus ex mac)(ina!
CONDESCE: And I’m naut a subjugglator.
ASHKATOM: Okay, fine. You’re not all that simpatico with Jegus, either.
ASHKATOM: Look, it’s either this or you’re stuck here forever. I don’t think there’s much else in the way of getting you the fuck gone in here.
CONDESCE: S)(OR--EY, w)(at was t)(at?
ASHKATOM: Just. Just read the bloody entry. I’m going to pick up this glass.
==> Pick up the glass
Bloody hell, next time you’re springing for that safety coating that keeps glass shards together. This is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, except the haystack is your carpet and it is full of needles, all of which want to stab you in the foot when you least expect it.
You knew getting the cheapest fourth wall you could find was a bad idea.
CONDESCE: Are you DON-E?
ASHKATOM: Yes! Sure! Why not? It’s not like I’ll die of glass splinters if I don’t pick everything up!
CONDESCE: 3>8[ T)(e sarcasm isean’t required.
ASHKATOM: Neither is the condescension!
CONDESCE: )(alibut it’s in my name. W)(at’s your --EXCUS-E?
CONDESCE: I fin the mirrors cod work.
CONDESCE: Are you reedy to be a PROP----ER Narrator?
ASHKATOM: I came into this murky half-universe somehow completely ready.
ASHKATOM: Let’s get you gone.
Ashkatom: Be the Narrator
You’re not sure why you needed a COMMAND for that, or why you’re even still ISSUING COMMANDS to YOURSELF. It is kind of POINTLESS, but you suppose it is a FORCE OF HABIT. Nonetheless, you pull together an appropriate BACKDROP for this stage in the STORY. You consider adding some DRAMATIC LIGHTING, but realise there is NO WAY IN HELL you are ILLUSTRATING that. MIRRORS are BAD ENOUGH.
Fucking picky FISH QUEENS.
ASHKATOM: That’s it.
ASHKATOM: Go ahead, take a look.
Ashkatom: Be the beachy Emissary
You are now the CONDESCE again, although your title should perhaps be the CAUTIOUS instead. While being an EMISSARY means that you have to be a certain degree of FEARLESS, STUPIDITY is not in your NATURE. And being victim to a NARRATOR’S whims has you feeling VERY VIGILANT INDEED.
Being a troll with as many titles as you does tend to give one the tendency to think in EIGHT-LETTER WORDS.
NEVERTHELESS! You are ENTIRELY UNSURE of what exactly is going to happen with these MIRRORS. They are just MIRRORS, after all.
CONDESCE: My goodness!
CONDESCE: It’s my R-EFL-ECTION.
ASHKATOM: Do I have to explain everything around here?
ASHKATOM: OKAY OKAY TRIDENT SAYS YES I DO.
ASHKATOM: Look in the mirror.
==> Look in the mirror
Oh. Oh, that’s unushoal.
ASHKATOM: They say mirrors trap souls, you know.
CONDESCE: W)(o are ‘T)(-EY?’
ASHKATOM: You know, I don’t know.
ASHKATOM: It’s just one of those things that everyone knows, where I’m from. Whole urban legends sprung up wholesale about mirrors without ever seeming to have a source.
ASHKATOM: They capture the souls of the dead.
ASHKATOM: They show true things.
ASHKATOM: Behind the mirror is another universe.
ASHKATOM: If you get caught between two mirrors and look too deeply, you’ll see your reflection moving in ways you aren’t.
ASHKATOM: Creepy things, mirrors.
ASHKATOM: In myths, anyway.
ASHKATOM: But myths have to come from somewhere, right?
CONDESCE: W)(at are you carping on aboat?
ASHKATOM: Only narration now.
ASHKATOM: Let me grab another mirror.
==> Reflect on yourself
You are ENTIRELY CERTAIN that this TINY EXCUSE for a NARRATOR is putting these AWFUL PUNS in your head.
CONDESCE: T)(ese trolls AR-EN’T M-E.
CONDESCE: I recognise my )(-EIR---ESS, )(alibut t)(e OT)(-ER ON-E...
CONDESCE: S)(e’s naut me.
ASHKATOM: Please. You’ve served Lord English long enough.
ASHKATOM: You know your Heiress is you, or, to be more accurate, you’re her.
ASHKATOM: Says a lot about nature versus nurture.
CONDESCE: I don’t bereef I asked for your opinions.
ASHKATOM: What happened to her?
CONDESCE: S)(-E DI-ED.
CONDESCE: I )(ad a planet to rule and you cannot be NIC---E and be -EMPR-----ESS.
CONDESCE: S)(-E DI---ED w)(en I was PULL---ED from the S----EA and told to )(op to!
CONDESCE: By advisors I )(ad MURD-ER---ED once I was old enough to UND-ERSAND!
CONDESCE: AR--E YOU )(APPY NOW?
ASHKATOM: Are you?
ASHKATOM: The you in the other mirror is Meenah.
ASHKATOM: Yes, I know, you’re Meenah.
ASHKATOM: She’s you from your pre-scratch universe.
ASHKATOM: She was, well, mean. She didn’t want to be Empress. Her ‘niceness’ wasn’t taken away by being shoved in a throne and handed a tiara.
CONDESCE: So w)(at, I )(ave to pick a pat)(?
ASHKATOM: Of course not.
ASHKATOM: You’re you.
ASHKATOM: But don’t you wonder who that is?
ASHKATOM: You’re not Feferi or Meenah.
ASHKATOM: Just who will you be when you go into this new universe?
CONDESCE: Aren’t you S-EAPPOS---ED to know?
ASHKATOM: I’m just the narrator.
ASHKATOM: You’re the one having all this stunning character development.
==> Examine mirrors
These mirrors appear to be perfectly ordinary, apart from showing you images of a) another reality and b) your Heiress, who you never really liked, especially after she stole Gl’bgolyb from you. Your Gl’bgolyb was never really a replacement, no matter how hard she tried to lusus you. Killing off the last scraps of your race whenever you got a viable clone was most unkind.
Now you suspect she was just trying to tell you to move on and keep focused. Oh well.
The mirrors! Yes.
CONDESCE: W)(ale, )(ow are they seapposed to get me to w)(ere I want to go?
ASHKATOM: Smoke and mirrors!
CONDESCE: You )(AV-E gone right around the B-END, starfis)(.
ASHKATOM: But since I’m clever, sure.
ASHKATOM: You’ve already seen alternate versions of yourself in there, right?
ASHKATOM: Trolls you could have been.
ASHKATOM: But where are they?
CONDESCE: I am becoming DIS--EANC)(ANT--ED wit)( your L-EADING QU-ESTIONS, Narrator.
ASHKATOM: Give me five seconds for a dramatic pause and I’ll answer it.
ASHKATOM: You already know about doomed timelines.
ASHKATOM: And bubble universes, also known as dreambubbles and deathbubbles.
CONDESCE: Yes, the )(orrorterrors made t)(em.
ASHKATOM: So if every dead end is its own little bubble universe...
Oh boy, you’ve been waiting forever for your time to shine!
OH GOD YOU ARE DYING NOOOOOOO.
Condesce: Be alarmed
HER IMPERIAL CONDESCENSION is not ALARMED. Very little surprises you!
The sound may have startled you. A little.
CONDESCE: Are you saying t)(at...
CONDESCE: Are T)(-ES-E TROLLS from DOOM-ED TIM-ELIN--------ES?
ASHKATOM: Does it bother you?
CONDESCE: Of COURS-E naut.
CONDESCE: W)(y would it?
CONDESCE: T)(e mirrors are gateways, t)(en?
ASHKATOM: No no no.
ASHKATOM: Haha, noooooo.
ASHKATOM: The mirror IS the bubble universe!
ASHKATOM: Here, anyway.
CONDESCE: )(alibut t)(is one’s breaking.
Other mirror: Crack
Your inanimate life sucks.
ASHKATOM: They all are.
CONDESCE: Cod, you’ve been stalling! You little B----EAC)(, I w)(ale )(AV--E YOUR )(------------EAD-
ASHKATOM: Before or after you try to carry out your plans without me?
CONDESCE: L-ET M-E T)(ROUG)( OR YOU W)(ALE BE T)(E S)(OR------EI-EST )(UMAN TO -EV--ER -------EXIST!
ASHKATOM: I wouldn’t try breaking my way through, btdubs. Those universes sure are fragile!
CONDESCE: TAIL M-E )(OW, BRIN---ESUCK---ER.
ASHKATOM: Do you really think...
Ashkatom: Be threatening
ASHKATOM: ...that you can intimidate me?
CONDESCE: You’re naut a Narrator.
ASHKATOM: I’m The Narrator.
ASHKATOM: I’m your Narrator.
ASHKATOM: I’m on your side, since nobody likes getting murdered by Lord English.
ASHKATOM: But if you threaten me again, you won’t finish your plans.
CONDESCE: I cod TAK-E you.
ASHKATOM: Can you take Lord English?
ASHKATOM: Thought not. Back to it, then.
ASHKATOM: The mirrors are every single bubble universe.
ASHKATOM: You just have to find the one you want.
ASHKATOM: Need a manual for that, too?
Condesce: Do the Lifey Thing
DEAD TIMELINES and DOOMED TIMELINES there may be aplenty, but if your COLLUSION with HANDMAID has gone correctly, there’s only going to be one deathbubble with SOMEONE ALIVE in it.
LIFE is kind of your thing. You’ve got this. Even if it means SCRYING for LIFE through a MIRROR, which is UNUSUAL but USEFUL.
CONDESCE: Found it.
CONDESCE: Now, would it krill you to )(elp me figure out )(ow to get t)(roug)(?
ASHKATOM: Oh, I don’t know.
ASHKATOM: Something to do with the God of Space over there, perhaps?
CONDESCE: T)(-----E! Narrator! )(as kelp for pan!
CONDESCE: )(OW AM I S------EAPPOS-ED TO G---ET )(-ER ATT---ENTION?
ASHKATOM: Try cracking the universe a little!
ASHKATOM: She should notice.
ASHKATOM: And it’s very cathartic.
CONDESCE: You’re leaving the fate of t)(is entire universe in my )(ands.
ASHKATOM: I have others.
==> Crack the universe a bit
This is doing wonderful things for your ego.
CONDESCE: Be the Handmaid
You are now the HANDMAID! You are FLAT-OUT EXHAUSTED from the effort of moving DOLOROSA’S BUBBLE UNIVERSE around the FURTHEST RING in order to evade any SEARCH PARTIES that you may not want to run into. LUCKILY, the HORRORTERRORS, the VOID of the FURTHEST RING, and DARKLEER’S PASSIVE VOID POWERS should be enough to hide you until PHASE TWO of your PLAN occurs. By then, it will be TOO LATE for hiding! 0u0.
RIGHT NOW, you are HOLDING THE UNIVERSE TOGETHER, since it is, well, BREAKING. Your TRAVELING didn’t exactly HELP, but you had no choice. Also, you are almost breaking your MOIRAIL’S FINGERS. He is KEEPING VIGIL with you. He knows the importance of DEAD FRIENDS RETURNING, and you think CONDESCE will show up VERY SOON.
==> Detect an anomaly
The CORNER of the UNIVERSE just fell off.
That doesn’t make much sense, even to you.
HANDMAID: either it is l0rd english and we are all g0ing t0 die
HANDMAID: 0r it’s c0ndesce
PSIIONIC: and we’ll only wii2h we were dead
HANDMAID: i’m sick 0f dying
PSIIONIC: me two
PSIIONIC: let’2 2ee iif we have two deal wiith that hoofbea2t2hiit agaiin
==> Do the Spacey Thing
ASHKATOM: Fucking finally.
You've been most helpful. Unusual of you.
ASHKATOM: They could still win.
ASHKATOM: You don't know where they are, or what they're going to do.
Ah, but now we know that our rag-tag group of would-be heroes and martyrs are banding together for yet another revolution.
I rather dislike dealing with the element of surprise.
ASHKATOM: Right. Now get out of my home.
Thank you for your hospitality.
I do hope I was the perfect guest.
Chapter 15: Chapter 12
You are teaching Redglare how to use your sewing machine and privately wondering how one woman can snap so many needles when two knocks at the door make you both look around. Psiionic gives you a tired wave. “She’s here, DR.”
You exchange a look with Redglare and abandon your schoolfeeding efforts.
“Does anyone else know?” you ask Psiionic, as you follow him back to the communal entertainment room.
“Jutht you two, me, AA, and our gloriouth Empreth herthelf.” Psiionic scrubs at his eyes and yawns. “And I’m going two go thleep until SF kickth me awake, tho nobody elthe will be finding out from me.”
You take his hand and squeeze it. “Thank you.”
He looks at you and something in him softens. Before you quite know what’s going on, he hugs you, leaving you uncertainly patting his back. Genuine shows of affection from Psiionic are few and far between, generally reserved for your grubs, and somewhat unsettling. “Don’t thank me, DR, I’m thticking you with the hard work.”
“If I was unwilling to do what needed to be done, I’d hardly have been fit to raise you.” You gently disengage from him and turn him about-face. “I believe Sufferer has entrenched himself in the shipwreck Dualscar calls a hive for the day. Get some sleep.”
“You look like the walking dead,” Redglare adds helpfully.
“You are the walking dead,” he retorts amicably as he leaves.
“Your lusus is the walking dead!” she calls after him, then winces when you pap her on the shoulder more firmly than you intended. “No offense, Rosa.”
“We have more important things to worry about,” you say absently, watching Psiionic’s back. He’s handling this far better than you expected, given he was Her Imperial Condescension’s Helmsman. You’re not sure whether you hope Sufferer and Dualscar are awake to welcome him or not.
“I can follow him, if you want,” Redglare offers.
“Am I that obvious?” you ask, and scrub at your eyes with the heel of your palm. You can feel a headache beginning to gather behind your eyes. “No. He’ll be fine. We need to go greet our last member.” You leave it unsaid that you need her with you. She loops her arm through yours and twirls her canesword experimentally with her free hand, message received.
You should probably not be so tempted to ignore the latest important development and kiss Redglare until you are both breathless instead. Unfortunately, you reach the door before you can fully consider that possibility.
Redglare nudges her glasses up her nose. “Ready, Dollface?”
“As always,” you say, and push the door open.
The last - and only - time you ever saw Condesce was at Sufferer’s execution. She was terrifying, and you had already surrendered to insanity by then. In your head she is a deadly, laughing shadow, lined in fuchsia and bedecked by gold. She is a satisfied smirk and the end of everyone you loved, the murderer and torturer of your grubs and the end of your freedom.
She is a tall woman with horns that make it hard to stand in your kitchen, a beat-up two-by-trident, and more hair than you thought possible. She is uncomfortable in your hive, an aberration that does not mesh. She reminds you of Handmaid, before Handmaid was resurrected.
She reminds you of Mindfang.
She looks at you, assesses you, and finds you wanting. Strangely, it is that which breaks you from Redglare’s side. You pull out the chair opposite from Condesce and sit down calmly. Handmaid watches you anxiously, and Redglare stands behind you. You know without looking that she is in her whip-state, ready to lash out the instant it becomes necessary.
You fold your hands on the table. “How was your trip?”
Condesce stares at you, then bursts into ragged, harsh laughter. “Long,” she says eventually. “And I see death is working out well for you.” She leans in, across the table, and both you and Redglare go perfectly still. “Better than life, at least,” she says, leaning back with a satisfied air.
You do not take her bait. Instead you say, mildly, “You’re still alive.”
Condesce applauds. “A smart one!”
“She needs to be,” Handmaid says, anxiously. “To get god tier, otherwise we’re not going to-”
“Shoosh,” Condesce says, and you bristle at her giving orders in the space you’ve carved out and made safe. You can’t escape the Empire, it seems, even after death. “She’s a jadeblood, I’d honestly be surprised if she hadn’t figured everyfin out.”
“My grub has likely done a better job of figuring things out than I have,” you point out. “In any case, I dislike the idea of the two of you running around with godlike powers.”
“We all must make sacrifices.” Her teeth are sharp when she smiles, somehow more threatening than Redglare’s mouth of razors. You suppose intention counts. “I’m sure krilling me will make up for some of your hurt.”
You have to relinquish control of your universe to Handmaid to make Condesce’s quest bed, since apparently having her describe it to you wouldn’t work. “It has to be a quest bed, not an imagining of a quest bed,” she says, and you have no choice if you want to keep moving forward. This has to be done to further the cause, you know, but Condesce has a lot of enemies here. You’re capable of remaining level-headed, and so is Redglare, but Sufferer or Dualscar might not. Or Summoner, for that matter.
There are too many variables in this situation. You don’t like it, at all, but you have to deal with it.
Condesce’s quest bed is brown stone with a green symbol, much more welcoming than Handmaid’s slab of jet. You are liking this less and less, but Condesce lies down readily enough, her hair spilling off the sides of the bed and coiling in tendrils. You cannot shake the feeling that this is a bad idea.
Redglare hands you her canesword, and the brush of her fingers reassures you. You’ll find a way through this.
Handmaid holds Condesce’s hand as fuchsia leaks out of her chest. You were surgical about it, but it still takes longer than you expect for Condesce to die. Condesce’s resurrection follows the same procedure as Handmaid’s, although it’s less flashy in that it doesn’t completely blind you. Her outfit is brown and green as well, all skirts and layers, and she examines it with a frown. You’ve never seen her in anything but her bodysuit.
It only takes five minutes for everyone to start showing up. Summoner, Disciple, Mindfang and the Grand Highblood arrive in a group, and the Highblood shocks you by picking Condesce up and twirling her around. “That is some bitchtits raiment, shark-sister,” he informs her solemnly.
“Don’t make me stab you in the eye,” she says, but she sounds fond. While he puts her down, Summoner mouths sopor to you over their shoulders, which is reassuring. Mindfang is assessing Condesce, her lips drawn into a thin line at results she doesn’t like. Disciple is the first to cross to you and Redglare, and she is tense with fear and anger. You don’t think she’s forgotten that she had to run at the last battle, and you stand in front of her to keep her from lashing out. Darkleer arrives not long after, and then you leave her to him.
“Some of you appier to be missing, still,” Condesce says, looking straight at you.
You resist the urge to scream admirably and turn to Redglare. “Keep things in order here while I fetch them?”
“Of course.” Redglare takes her canesword from you, prying it out of your fingers. You weren’t aware you were still holding it. She pulls a rag out of a pocket and begins cleaning tyrian blood off the blade as you step out of the room.
Psiionic helps you up to the deck of Dualscar’s wreck. The circles under his eyes have gotten deeper in the half-hour or so that’s passed since he left your hive, and you have to resist the urge to fuss over him.
“They’re thtill athleep.” Psiionic leads you through the nutrition block, where his glasses, a half-finished cup of coffee and a book are abandoned on the table. He picks up the coffee and downs it as he takes you to Dualscar’s respiteblock.
Dualscar and Sufferer are dead to the world, passed out in a pile of blankets that must comprise of every blanket Dualscar owns. One of Sufferer’s horns is digging into Dualscar’s chin with how closely they’re wrapped around each other, and your heart breaks a little. So many of you have only just found each other, and Condesce’s arrival feels like it will break everything.
Psiionic shakes them both awake, more gently than you would have expected. They both grumble coming to, but stop when they see you standing in the doorway. Your night vision isn’t as good as other trolls, a disadvantage of being a daywalker, but you can still see the moment when they each realise there’s only one reason you would have woken them up.
“Fuck,” Sufferer says. It sums up your feelings succinctly.
The communal entertainment block is eerily silent when you return with the last members of your universe. Nobody is bleeding, though, and for that you are thankful. This is going to be a mess, but you’d rather it were an unbloodied one.
The only seating left in your abused entertainment block is Condesce’s quest bed. You sit in a rough circle around the steps of it, everyone taking cushions and curling up on moirails and avoiding the tyrian blotch still in the middle. You settle yourself between Redglare and Disciple, then look expectantly at Condesce.
She does not disappoint. She stands in one fluid movement and steps to the centre of the quest bed, standing on her symbol with her feet in the drying pool of her own blood. Most trolls learn from a young age to not be surrounded, to always have the upper hand in terrain, because one lapse could mean your culling, but Her Imperial Condescension is unafraid. You are unconvinced that she isn’t the laughing, impervious Empress of death you remember her as.
“It’s time you knew our plans. I think you’ve all been left hanging long enough,” she says.
“Rude,” says Redglare.
Sufferer raises a hand in the air. “Seconded.”
Mindfang leans back on her one arm - she still hasn’t been able to wrangle a new one out of Darkleer, it seems, but it hardly seems to hinder her. “Let her get on with it, you nitpicks. I’m curious.”
Condesce inclines her head. “I take it that Handmaid has already told you the basics.”
“The crazily impossible basics, yes.” Sufferer folds his arms and leans against Dualscar, who blanches a little. You can practically see the Condesce-worshipping gears in his head grinding against the finally-have-a-matesprit ones. “Do tell us how this plan of yours isn’t doomed to failure.”
“Whale, trapping Lord English here is going to be Handmaid’s role. Mine is in getting us out.” She starts walking around the platform of her quest bed, twirling her trident casually. “Once Handmaid died-”
“Once you killed Handmaid,” Redglare interjects, only to find the point of a trident levelled at her nose.
“This will go faster without interruptions,” Condesce says.
You slap the trident away from Redglare. “This will go more smoothly if you treat everyone in this room with respect. You could certainly use the practice.”
“Ha!” Condesce drops her trident in front of you. “Teammates, is it?”
“It appears that way.” You take her trident and captchalogue it, not missing the brief flash of annoyance on her face when you do so. “Continue, please.”
“Once I krilled Handmaid,” she says, with an exaggerated bow to Redglare, “I was taken into the serfish of Lord English. Under his tutelage, I learned a lot about the mechanics of the game, and I intend to use them to win.” She resumes walking around the quest bed. “But, your Condescension, we alreedy lost! Shale no, idiots, we just delayed our victory.”
“You blew us all up,” Sufferer says. “It kind of hurt.”
“You would be the one to remora everyfin, wouldn’t you?” Condesce sits down abruptly. “Someone hand me somefin to draw with, I need to sketch this out for the rest of you.”
Redglare tosses her some of your tailor’s chalk. You hadn’t even noticed it was missing.
“So here’s how the game works,” she says, sketching out a meteor, a planet, a squiggly line, and what is presumably a glowing planet. “The game is started and meteors take out the dominant speseas of the host planet, except for the players of the game who make it in.” She draws an arrow from planet to planet, through the squiggly line. “They play to both create and win the ultimate prize, which is a new universe.”
Despite yourself, you edge closer to her drawings. Condesce surprises you with a grin, her eyes dancing with excitement behind her goggles. She looks more like someone you could know than she ever has.
“So our descendants - bunch of brats who can’t keep their minds off their quadrants, I don’t know how they managed it - won the game and created a new universe, with a planet called Earth, but their gatewave to it was broken before they could use it. Meanwhale, Earth played their session, failed, and had to scratch it, resulting in a null session we’ll call Earth-2.” She draws both Earth-2 and Earth-2’s session and sits up again, dusting her hands off.
“I am not understanding a single world coming out of your mouth,” you say, fascinated despite that.
“You don’t need to.” She shakes her hair out of her face impatiently and taps Earth-2’s planet with the chalk. “These are the important guys. Right now eferryone from eferry session is on their way there to make their session succeed and create a new universe. We need to join them, trap Lord English, and get into the new universe alive. That’s where our cod tiers come in.”
“Wait,” Sufferer says slowly. “I remember bits of the game. Pieces. And I remember that you need both a functioning time player and space player to pilot something between sessions accurately.”
“Functioning being the key word, hm, Vantas?” Condesce laughs again. “I’ve thought of that. We’ll be taking an alternative route.” She draws a line from nowhere (Us! she writes beside its starting point), to your descendants’ session, to Earth, Earth’s session, Earth-2, Earth-2’s session, and finishes with a flourish in the middle of another patch of nowhere that she outlines and places an inquiry bend on. “A little complicated, shore, halibut we’ll get there.”
“You just said the gateway between our descendants’ session and Earth is broken,” Redglare points out.
“Oh! I hadn’t thought of that!” Condesce rolls her eyes. “We have a god of space and a god of life. I fin we’ll make it through somehow.”
“There are numerous other problems,” Darkleer says, and you jump because you cannot remember the last time you heard him speak. “Most prominently, that we are dead. Secondly, that this Lord English is omniscient, and would thus know our plans the moment we set foot in a new universe. Thirdly, that this being seems to want us dead, so even if we were to succeed in our escape, it would be short-lived.”
“This is starting to look a bit uncertain,” Summoner agrees. Mindfang punches him in the shoulder. “Spin!”
“Well, what choice do we have?” Mindfang says, and shrugs. “Roboboy might have a point, but our only other option is staying here and what, ceasing to exist? No thanks.”
“There’s nothing wrong with pointing out claws in a plan,” Disciple snaps from beside you.
Mindfang rolls her good eye. “Calm down, kitten, I said he had a point. An inane one, considering our options, but a point nonetheless.”
This is going to devolve into a full-on argument. Condesce doesn’t particularly seem to care, but Redglare’s hands are tightening around the head of her cane, and Disciple looks about ready to launch herself at Mindfang, although Darkleer is keeping a wary eye on her.
You are about to call a halt to proceedings and try to calm things down when interruption comes from an unexpected source. Handmaid storms past you and Condesce in the centre of the quest bed and keeps going, until she’s right up against Mindfang and crackling with anger. Suddenly, you are aware of why sometimes she was known as the Demoness.
She points an accusing finger at Mindfang, who leans subtly away from her, and says, “Stop it.”
“I was just-”
“You were just inciting everyone into argument!” Handmaid whirls around and stomps over to Darkleer. “You stop it too!”
“Doubts are only natura-” he says, before Handmaid cuts him off again.
“We need everyone!” The anger in Handmaid suddenly cracks, and she turns to face as many of you as she can. “Everyone,” she repeats. “We all have special gifts and they’ll all be needed!” She takes Darkleer’s hand and even from where you are you can see her nails digging into his skin. “Void, to hide and protect us,” she says, and steps on to Disciple. “Hope, to make us strive.”
She moves on to Redglare, placing a hand on your legislacerator’s forehead. “Mind, to know others.” Next is Psiionic, who gets, “Light, to guide us,” then Sufferer and Dualscar, who get, “Time, to urge us, and Heart to know ourselves.” She continues on to Mindfang with, “Doom, to warn us,” Summoner gets, “Breath, to vitalise us,” and the Grand Highblood is the last in the circle. “Rage, to fuel us,” Handmaid says quietly, and the Highblood offers her a laughing salute.
She presses a hand to her own chest. “Space, to help us through.” She then takes Condesce’s hand. “Life to ensure we live well.” And then she looks at you. “And Blood to unite us.” Softly, with everyone’s attention squarely on her, she repeats, “We need everyone to make sure we come through this and remain ourselves.”
Nobody knows quite what to say to her. After a long silence, she nods firmly. “Time is running out. You all know how important you are. We start tomorrow.”
Everyone eases away in twos and threes, deflated by Handmaid’s admonishment, until only you and Redglare, your grubs, Dualscar, Handmaid, and Condesce are left.
“Well, that went better than I’d planned,” Condesce says, and stretches. “You, seadweller?”
Dualscar starts. “Me?”
“Whale, I don’t see anybody else with gills and fins aboat,” Condesce says. “You must have a swimming area. Show me to it.”
He looks at Sufferer helplessly, and you can see the gears grinding in his head about to strip their teeth. “It’s at the bottom of the stairs,” he says, and squeezes Sufferer’s hand so tightly his knuckles go pale.
She tilts her head. “Walk me there. Us seadwellers have to stick together.”
“No,” Dualscar says, abruptly, and you almost lose your composure and cheer out loud. The matesprit-and-self-respect gear has won. “No, I don’t fin- think so.” He detaches himself from Sufferer and stands up. “I wwas one a’ your most loyal servvants, your Condescension, an’ you don’t evven knoww my name. So I can’t followw your orders, on account a’ howw I’m handin’ in my slavve card an’ officially becomin’ traitorous scum, because at least they seem ta care. You’re an Empress, I’m sure you can figure out the stairs.”
Redglare lets out a whoop and starts applauding. Dualscar sketches her a quick bow then practically flies out of the room, probably to call himself ten kinds of idiot if you know him at all. Psiionic follows him, but Sufferer stays behind.
“I’ll show you to the lake,” he says, and offers his arm to Condesce. “I’m no purpleblood, but Dualscar’s been rubbing off on me. I can pretend manners for a while.”
She lets out a huff of annoyance. “Is that his name? I didn’t need to know his life story.”
“I think maybe you do,” Sufferer says, with unusual diplomacy. “You’re part of a team now, whether you like it or not. You’re going to have to get on with us.”
You and Redglare sit on the roof after dinner and watch as false dawn lights up the horizon.
“That could have gone worse,” she says, and leans into you until you start stroking her hair. “You think we’ll be able to pull this off, Dollface?”
You kiss the top of her head. “I think we’ve got a fighting chance.”
Chapter 16: Chapter 13
-- averseAttendant [AA] has created memo ‘mysteri0us plans part tw0!’ --
AA has banned timeline shenanigans!
AA has invited AT, TA, CG, AC, GA, GC, AG, CT, TC, CA, CC to memo!
12/12 members present!
AA: hell0 every0ne!
TA: aa what even
TA: iit ii2 liike three thiirty iin the fuckiing afternoon
TA: ii knew ii 2houldn’t have 2hown you the advanced memo optiion2
AA: but the alarms are fun! and t0night is g0ing t0 be a big night f0r all 0f us
AA: we are finally m0ving f0rward 0u0!
AA: aren’t y0u excited?
GC: M4Y TH3 SUFF3R3R S4V3 US FROM 3V3N1NG P3OPL3.
CG: NOT A CHANCE, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN.
GC: 1T W4S 4 F1GUR3 OF SP33CH BUT 1F YOU W4NT TO TRY 1 W1LL GR4NT YOU 4 SP3C14L D1SP3NS4T1ON.
GC: > :]
AC: :// did you just wave your horns at Suffurer?
CG: DON’T ASK ME TO CHOOSE BETWEEN THE POSSIBILITIES, THEY ARE BOTH TOO DISTURBING TO CONTEMPLATE.
GA: Redglare Please Contain Your Eyebrow-Horns
CC: 38| Are t)(ey normeely like t)(is?
AA: 0n0 yes
AA: any further 0ff-t0pic c0nversati0n will result in a muting
AA: and we kind 0f all need t0 discuss this s0 please stay 0n t0pic
AA: i made a versi0n 0f c0ndesce’s diagram fr0m yesterday
AA: s0 h0pefully as i explain y0u’ll be less c0nfused
AA is sending file diagram.png
AG: Suddenly, everything m8kes sense ::::/.
GC: 4ND 1S V3RY T4STY.
GC: TH1S T4ST3S L1K3 TH3 SOUR L1M3 BL4ST GRUBS PYR4LSP1T3 US3D TO G3T FOR M3.
AA: it is just green!
GC: W3LL, 4S LONG 4S 1T 1S JUST.
AA: back t0 the plan
AA: c0ndesce 0utlined 0ur r0ute yesterday, f0ll0wing the arr0ws
AA: n0w is a g00d time t0 settle any d0ubts y0u might have
CT: D--> May I assume I will not be silenced for voicing my opinions now
AA: well if they are unrelated t0 the t0pic i will mute y0u 0u0
CT: D--> This is f001ishness in the e%treme
CT: D--> With a 100di% number of vague parameters there is no chance of su%ess
CT: D--> How do we travel between these places
CT: D--> How do we remain undetected
CT: D--> How will we be alive at the end
CT: D--> I am unconvinced that this is not some scheme to further your own machinations
AA: i will pil0t the bubble through the veil t0 the first sessi0n, and then thr0ugh the gateways bey0nd as l0ng as it will h0ld t0gether
AA: b0th it and y0ur p0wer 0f v0id that was discussed last night will keep us hidden
AA: alth0ugh 0nce the bubble cracks bey0nd a certain p0int it is likely l0rd english will find us
AA: c0ndesce will resurrect every0ne at that p0int and we will c0ntinue alive
AA: there is still danger that we will die after that
AA: but it’s 0ur 0nly chance 0u0
AA: and y0u see even if it is a scheme 0f 0ur 0wn
AA: which it is since we came up with it
AA: we still need y0u t0 make it w0rk
AA: s0 we’re unlikely t0 d0uble-cr0ss y0u!
CT: D--> I am not concerned for myself
AA: d0n’t w0rry
AA: i said yesterday that we need every0ne’s p0wers and that is still true!
AA: even the useless s0unding 0nes like heart
CA: that wwas me wwasn’t it
CA: you take that back
TA: no iit’2 true iit 2ound2 pretty u2ele22
TA: you 2tand your ground aa
TA: don’t let 2ome fii2hguy tell you how two cla22ify power2
AA: i am right-clicking y0ur names right n0w y0u tw0
AA: my curs0r is h0vering 0ver mute
TA: that’2 not actually po22iible iif you’re 2tiill typiing two u2
AA: d0es any0ne have any further 0bjecti0ns?
GA: I Do
GA: How Are We To Defeat Lord English
TC: you ain’t gotta concern your thinkslosh with that drudgery leader-girl
TC: SOME OF US ARE MADE FOR FIGHTING
TC: and some of us ain’t
TC: WE’LL DO THE DIRTY, BLOODY WORK AND GET OUR HANDS SOAKED, SISTER
AT: gRA, hAVE YOU HAD YOUR SOPOR,
TC: we’re a little beyond the motherfucking time for sopor
TC: BEST FRIEND
AT: aRE YOU GOING TO MURDER US ALL, iN OUR SLEEP,
AT: bECAUSE THAT WOULD BE PROBLEMATIC,
TC: not that far gone yet brother
TC: DON’T THINK I’LL EVER BE SO UP AND TAKING OFF LIKE THAT AGAIN
TC: wicked sister
TC: YOU TAKE ME TO THE MIRTHFUL MESSIAHS
TC: and i will
AA: that is actually imp0ssible but i will need y0ur help t0 trap him
AA: there will be a fight
AA: but the aim is a checkmate, n0t a bl00dbath
AA: in any case the m0st imp0rtant thing right n0w is t0 start m0ving
AA: we can discuss strategy 0n the way if every0ne v0tes t0 g0 n0w
CC: We’ve alreedy delayed enough! A boat is going to take forever.
CC: The jadeblood seams to be the leader, let her act like one.
GA: The Jadeblood Has A Name
GA: And Will Not Be Approving Anything Before Everyone Has Had Their Say
GA: Does Anyone Have Anything To Add Or To Clarify
TA: ju2t another adventure iin fucked-up death 2hiit
TA: been there done that 2taiined the t2hiirt
CG: AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, THIS SEEMS PLAUSIBLE. WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO PULL IT OFF, IF WE DON’T DIE HORRIFICALLY ALONG THE WAY.
GC: W3 MUST BR1NG TH3 FUG1T1V3 KNOWN 4S LORD 3NGL1SH TO JUST1C3.
GC: 4ND 4LSO D3L1V3R JUST1C3 TO OURS3LV3S.
GC: 1 TH1NK W3 D3S3RV3 4 CRU1SY L1F3 ON 4 N3W 4ND COLOURFUL PL4N3T 4FT3R 4LL TH1S.
AG: Fiiiiiiiinally, the 8eginnings of a plan! My prayers have 8een answered!
AG: I’m not a8out to let an adventure get out from under me.
AG: Engines to full power ::::D!
TA: wow ii’m riight here mf
AG: Get on it, then!
CT: D--> My concerns were addressed adequately
CT: D--> If it offers us the opportunity to live a better life, then the opportunity must be taken advantage of
AC: :33 of claws I’m up fur it!
CA: heart is not a fuckin useless powwer
CG: OH FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THE GODS OF ALL THE SESSIONS, GET OVER IT.
CG: MY SUPERPOWER IS FLASHBACKS.
CG: I HAVE THE ABILITY TO SEE THINGS IN SEPIA WITH GRAVELLY-VOICED NARRATION FROM ON HIGH.
CG: WE’RE ALL USELESS!
CA: is that really howw it wworks
CA: that seems inconvvenient
CA: yes i concur wwith the general feelin a movvin things along
CA: suf there wwas no need ta throww things
AT: gRA AND i ARE BOTH READY TO GO }:)
GA: Very Well
GA: Obviously Condesce And Handmaid Are Eager To Get Started
GA: So Let’s Do This Thing
At first, you think nothing has changed from before The Plan was put into action. When you ask Handmaid how long it will be until the next stage of the plan needs to be talked about, she looks at you and gives you a hopeless shrug. “It could be a week or a perigee,” she says, the hollows under her eyes growing darker night by night. Her work may be invisible, but it is clearly taking a toll. “Could you send in Sufferer?”
Still, the lack of forward momentum is disappointing.
Until you start noticing things.
Small things, to be true. Things like Redglare correcting Mindfang’s technique with a sword, however brusquely. Things like Sufferer and Condesce scribbling out nonsensical maps over several pieces of paper during the middle of the night, even if Disciple watches Condesce with distrust. Things like the more solitary members of your group, Darkleer and Summoner and the Grand Highblood who everyone has taken to calling Gra, appearing in your hive and not leaving straight off.
For the first time since you heard of this plan, you are not running on sole determination. Now you have hope.
You eat dinner all together every morning now, the conversation a dull roar that engulfs an entire floor of your hive. Psiionic and Condesce even usually coax Handmaid into eating something as well, despite her weak protests that she is busy. You realise, slowly, that you have all thrown in your lot and now there’s no choice but to trust.
It doesn’t explain why everyone is trusting so willingly, but you’re not going to complain. So you pass the grubsauce, chide Dualscar on his table manners, restrain Redglare from drinking the grubsauce, and let everyone come together in their own time.
It seems to be working.
“Clench your fist.”
“It feels fine!” Mindfang clenches her fist despite her complaint, artificial muscles and tendons all working in concert. Darkleer flips a magnifying lens down over one eye and prods at the inner workings of her wrist with impossibly tiny tools, aligning components and checking connections, and she wriggles her fingers. “I don’t remember you taking this long last time.”
“I’ve improved the design. If you maintain it correctly, it should last the rest of your natural lifespan. If you move again I will disable it.” Darkleer leans down and puts an ear to her wrist, then does something that makes Mindfang shriek with laughter. “My apologies, Marquise,” he says, tongue between his teeth as he squints at her arm. “I had to adjust the neural relays.”
“Yes, well, it tickled-”
You tune the two bluebloods out and return to your book, an adventure novel on loan from Summoner. It’s surprisingly refreshing fare, lacking the usual reinforcement of haemoclassist norms present in literature published in the Alternian empire. You wonder when Summoner read it, and who he got it from.
“Watch that joint!” Mindfang snaps, and you sigh and put the book aside. Her voice has a way of burrowing.
“Can I be of any assistance?” you ask Darkleer.
He runs the sleeve of his workshirt along his forehead and considers. “I need to finish routing the wiring, and your fingers are smaller than mine. If you’re certain you wish to help...”
You roll your sleeves up past your elbows and kneel next to him. “Just tell me what to do.”
It isn’t unlike threading a needle, really. Perhaps a thousand needles all together, with the threads tangling and interacting, but in the end all of the wiring is neatly set through channels in the inner skeleton of Mindfang’s arm.
“Can I move now?” Mindfang asks, when you rock back on your heels and stretch. Kneeling over her arm isn’t the most ergonomic position you’ve ever been in. At Darkleer’s nod, she stands up and flexes her arm. It’s still lacking its protective casing, but this way you can see the power behind it.
Mindfang seems pleased with what she sees.
She slaps Darkleer on the back with a clank, then wriggles her fingers again. “I see you kept the response time the same.”
Darkleer pushes his tinted glasses up the bridge of his nose. “It seemed prudent to not make you learn new reflexes at this point in time. When we are done with this venture, I can adjust it further.”
You help Darkleer put the protective casing on Mindfang’s arm, a series of interlocking plates that are cunningly hinged and oiled to allow her the full range of motion a real arm would have. They are fidgety to attach and are held in place with tiny screws that you keep losing in the carpet, but between you and Darkleer you manage to attach it before Mindfang dies of old age. Mindfang insists on high-fiving the both of you before going off to armwrestle Dualscar.
“I will never understand that woman,” Darkleer says, then looks at you as if he forgot you were there. “I-”
“I don’t believe I ever will, either,” you say.
You keep stumbling across pockets of teamwork and co-operation. You’ve seen - well, heard - well, eavesdropped on - Summoner talking to Sufferer about the Grand Highblood and check that off your mental list of things to fix.
It seems that your universe is getting along fine without you. You’re not sure how you feel about that.
It’s almost a relief when you see Darkleer standing outside, staring up at the sky without his usual black glasses obscuring his view. There are deep blue shadows under his eyes, making him look tired, but he hears you coming and looks at you.
There is fear and wonder in his eyes, and you can’t tell which is winning.
“The Handmaid meant it literally when she said the world was breaking.” He points up at the sky. “I could tell when I first arrived, due to the rain. I thought I might have been the cause of it, however, there were cracks...”
You look up, following the path of his finger. The sky is torn in two by black, and you can see things out there-
“Void,” you say, numbly.
“I may be able to help the Handmaid.” He tears his gaze away from the sky and shoves his glasses back on unceremoniously before going inside.
You stay and look. You stay and watch until you have gathered a silent crowd around you, Redglare’s arm around your waist, Mindfang’s hand on your shoulder. All of you are touching someone else, you note, as if to keep anchored. You all stand there and keep a watch for hours, as if you’re guarding against this crack in the sky.
This is real. There is no going back.
You wrap an arm around Redglare in return and do your best to not think of hopeless situations.
A few nights later, Handmaid staggers into your respiteblock, supported by Condesce. The Demoness of legend is so pale her skin is almost white, and you can see red tinting her skin at the points where it is thinnest. She is so exhausted she’s wavering despite Condesce’s support, and she sinks down into your pile without protest. You take a moment to wish Mindfang hadn’t claimed Redglare to help calibrate her new arm, because you have no idea which pressing question to lead with.
Luckily, Handmaid spares you the decision. “Something’s coming.”
You sit down. “Do you know what?”
Condesce shakes her head impatiently. “Don’t you think she would have told you if she knew? It’s knot like she’s running herself into the ground for fun!”
“Condesce,” Handmaid says. Then she looks at you and shakes her head. “If I was outside the bubble, I could tell, but I can’t leave.”
“I’ll tell everyone to prepare for a possible threat,” you say, but before you can get up Handmaid has grabbed your wrist and is shaking her head.
“I just wanted you to know first,” she says, and pops out of the room. Your wrist tingles where her fingers were.
“She’s too tired to keep doing this,” you say. “Does she understand the need to take a break?”
You meant it rhetorically, but Condesce laughs bitterly, twisting one of the golden bracelets on her wrist. You’ve tried to avoid being around her as much as you can, given that she murdered Sufferer, tortured Psiionic, exiled Disciple, and enslaved you. Still, you’ve noticed the only ones of you to voluntarily approach her are Handmaid and your grub. Handmaid, because there is presumably some romantic link between them, and your grub because he is, in fact, completely insane.
That needs to end if you’re to be a team.
“Handmaid,” Condesce says, biting off the word. “When I first met the Handmaid, I was four sweeps old and she told me I was going to be Empress. I said no, she said yes, and then she made it happen, abalone. Then she said I was going to be Lord English’s Emissary and I said no and she said yes and then she made that happen.” She sighs. “It’s more complicated than that, of course. Halibut I’m six hundred and twelve sweeps old and Handmaid hasn’t taken a break yet.”
Your jaw drops a little at six hundred and twelve sweeps old. You knew tyrians were essentially immortal, but having the proof in the same room as you is a little unnerving. She has probably seen her world crumble away until the only things left from her childhood were in the hands of museum cullators.
“You must hate her a lot,” you say slowly.
Condesce blinked at her. “Hate her? Without her I would have been krilled by my advisors when I was six. Alternia would have crumbled apart unless I kept it in line.” She sighs, spins her trident absently, and makes for the door. “Maybe I did in the beginning, a little. Halibut then you realise, six hundred and twelve sweeps, probably moray, and she hasn’t stopped for breath.” She leaves, but then looks back in, her hair dragging along the floor. “I’m knot shorey about your grub. It was neseassary, he was drawing too much attention. We all had our parts to play. I am shorey that it was so painful.”
She leaves before you can even begin to process that.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has created memo ‘it’s c0ming!!’--
AA: d0l0r0sa, assemble every0ne!
AA: eighteen kil0metres n0rth-n0rth-east
AA: i’ll try t0 c0ntain the damage but please hurry
AA has left the memo!
TA: 2he u2ed two exclamatiion mark2
TA: ii’m 2o proud
GC: PL34S3 TRY TO CONT41N YOUR D1SPL4Y OF P4L3 TM1 UNT1L W3 4R3 NOT 4BOUT TO D13.
GC: 1’M PR3TTY SUR3 TH4T GROSS1NG M3 OUT B3FORE 4 B4TTL3 COUNTS AS 1MP3D1NG 4 L3G1SL4C3R4TOR 4BOUT H3R DUTY.
Somehow, in the space between you teleporting everyone out of the house and arriving at the location given by Handmaid, the horizon changes. This isn’t like the typical appearance of another universe, where your terrain blends smoothly into the memory-world of the other universe. The distance to the horizon is all jumbled up, tall square buildings and wrong-colour rivers intersecting with surreal landscapes made of light and trees with nooses hanging from them and drawing them all together is red, red, red, your grub’s red-
Handmaid lets out a shriek. You snap out of your reverie and look at her, drawing your needles as everyone else whips out their preferred strifekind. She’s not afraid, though. She’s wearing a grin that threatens to split her face in two and looks more awake than she has in half a perigee. You lower your needles in confusion.
“What gives?” Redglare asks, her canesword still held at the ready.
“We have people to meet!” Handmaid takes off, literally, flying across the sand in front of you, her laugh drifting back in her wake.
“It is wway too early for this.” Dualscar slings Ahab’s over his shoulder, sighs, and starts trudging after her. You tuck your needles into your sleeves and follow him.
The first to come into view is Handmaid, because she’s hovering in the air like she’s so excited she’s forgotten how gravity works. Then everyone standing behind her comes into view, and you stop.
Redglare’s lips move in a silent count. “Sixteen. ” She squints. “And a barkbeast.” she adds, uncertainly.
Handmaid waves madly at you, as if you can’t see her.
“I suppose we’d best find out what this is all about,” you say, and gather your skirt in one hand. It doesn’t take much longer to get there, everybody else trailing you uncertainly. As you approach, a flash of green spins out oddly over the horizon.
"The barkbeast disappeared," Redglare points out. "I am having my doubts as to its nature."
"Your observvational skills remain unparalleled, Red," Dualscar snipes.
Handmaid grabs your wrist and drags you the last few steps. It seems you’ve been appointed spokesperson, and you take a moment to study the crowd. A moment is all it takes to recognise the pupae shuffling awkwardly about. Kanaya shoots you a smile and nudges a tiny, tiny pupa with your grub’s hair and horns forward.
The pupa looks you up and down with blank white eyes, then looks past you to where everyone else has stopped. Presumably they’ve figured out the same thing you have.
The pupa’s eyes snap back to you and he sticks out a hand. “If you can manage to get your group of slosh-deficient spit-producers to do something other than stand there with their mouths open in the hopes a clue falls in, we’re here to help and having a communication channel that isn’t interpretative dance would make my miserable undeath a lot easier.”
You shake his hand reflexively. “I think interpretative dance may be beyond them,” you say, and are rewarded with a slight smile. That breaks your spell. This boy isn’t your grub, who always smiled freely. “I am the Dolorosa.”
“Karkat,” he says. “We’re your descendants, the squishy mammals are aliens we created, and we have so much shit that needs doing that my to-do list spans universes. Let’s get moving.”
Chapter 17: Chapter 14
-- grimAuxiliatrix [GA] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
GA: I Feel As If I Am Herding Clawbeasts
GA: And Im Not Sure Which Group Is Proving More Troublesome
GA: Definitely Mine
GA: They Are Older
GA: Their Idiocy Has Matured
-- twinArmageddons [TA] has started trolling twofoldAbolitionist [TA] --
TA: how’2 the dna?
TA: how2 the deathbubble?
TA: le22 2hiitty
TA: diid your voiice2 2ay iit would end liike thii2?
TA: doe2 iit even matter.
TA: ii gue22 not
TA: but now that you’re here ii miight a2 well kiick your a22 untiil you’re a half-decent p2iioniic
TA: and iif your voiice2 2ay ‘2l diie2 iin 2hame after 2triifiing wiith hii2 much cooler ance2tor’ then you miight want two heed theiir warniing and briing your a game
TA: oh now ii remember, the criippliing voiice2 of doom had a me22age for you.
TA: they 2aiid fuck you and the hoofbea2t your prehii2toriic a22 rode iin on.
TA: briing iit.
-- twinArmageddons [TA] has ceased trolling twofoldAbolitionist [TA] --
GA: The Descendants Are All Eager To Prove Themselves
GA: I Dont Think Weve Realised That Were So Young In A Long Time
GA: Since The Game Started I Guess
GA: And Your Generation Was Legendary
GA: I Think Its Messing With Our Heads To Measure Ourselves Up To You
GA: If It Helps We Don’t Know What To Do With You Either
-- candidGovernance [CG] has started trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG] --
CG: I ALWAYS THOUGHT PAST ME WAS THE LARGEST IDIOT OF THEM ALL, AND LO, IT HAS BEEN PROVEN THROUGH SCIENTIFIC REASONING. I HAVE TAKEN THE DATA POINTS OF ME, FIVE MINUTES AGO, WHO WAS KIND OF A TWIT, AND COMPARED IT WITH YOU.
CG: IF INTELLIGENCE IS THE MATTER OF THE UNIVERSE, THEN YOU, BEING MY GENES SET SO FAR BACK IN THE PAST THAT YOU HAVE APPROACHED THE TURNING POINT OF THE STUPIDITY PARABOLA AND CAN ONLY GET BETTER GOING FURTHER BACK, EXCEPT OOPS, YOU’RE THANKFULLY THE FURTHEST BACK OUR MUTATION EXTENDS SO OUR GENES ARE MIRED IN YOUR STUPIDITY, YOU ARE THE DARK MATTER OF INTELLIGENCE.
CG: HEY, HE SAYS.
CG: NO, ‘I SURE AM SORRY FOR BEING AN EXCRUCIATING EXAMPLE OF WHY MUTANTS SHOULDN’T BE LET OUTDOORS, KARKAT!’ OR ‘HEY, SORRY FOR GETTING US CANDYBLOODS EARMARKED FOR A LONG AND PAINFUL DEATH BECAUSE I THOUGHT BURNING TO DEATH FUTILELY WOULD BE A FUN WAY TO SPEND THE WEEKEND, KARKAT!’
CG: NO, INSTEAD I GET ‘HEY,’ THE LAMEST GREETING.
CG: WHY WERE YOU KIND OF A TWIT FIVE MINUTES AGO?
CG: I WAS TRYING TO THINK OF SOMETHING TO SAY THAT WASN’T COMPLETELY INANE.
CG: THANKS FOR SAVING ME THE TROUBLE.
CG: I WOULD HAVE SAVED YOU ALL OF IT. IF I COULD HAVE. THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT.
CG: DON’T START PROSELYTISING AT ME.
CG: I WASN’T ABLE TO HAVE DESCENDANTS BECAUSE OF THE WHOLE MUTATION THING. I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE ANOTHER PUPA WITH MY HORNS OR MY BLOOD COLOUR.
CG: BUT I WANTED TO. AND I WANTED THEM TO BE ABLE TO LIVE LIKE THEIR BLOOD WASN’T EVEN A THING.
CG: I’M SO SORRY, KARKAT.
CG: YOU DID IT ALL FOR ME AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I WOULD EXIST. IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING.
CG: I DID IT FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE. AND I DID IT FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF YOU.
CG: ROSA TOLD ME ABOUT YOU FROM WHAT SHE LEARNED ABOUT YOU FROM KANAYA.
CG: I’M PROUD OF YOU, FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH.
CG: YOU’RE NOT PROUD OF ME, YOU’RE PROUD OF THE SLIGHTLY-LESS-OF-A-CONTINUAL-FUCKUP THAT DIDN’T GET HIMSELF DEAD.
CG: I’M PROUD OF YOU.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] has ceased trolling candidGovernance [CG] --
CG: HEY, COME BACK HERE!
GA: At Least You Pupae Seem To Have Developed Some Sort Of Emotional Sensitivity
GA: Dont Judge Us All By Karkat
GA: Plenty Of Us Wouldnt Touch Emotions If You Paid Us
GA: For Some Strange Reason It Feels As If We’re Describing The Same People
-- acquiredGoods [AG] has started trolling arachnidsGrip [AG] --
AG: Given that you’re my 8lood and 8one and thus 8oth 8eautiful and cunning, I take it you found what I left for you.
AG: Of coooooooourse I did! I’m insulted you even asked.
AG: Good, then. I would have h8ed for them to fall into the wrong hands.
-- acquiredGoods [AG] has ceased trolling arachnidsGrip [AG] --
GA: I Dont Know
GA: We Are Different No Matter What Our Genes Are
-- callousCondescension [CC] has started trolling cuttlefishCuller [CC] --
CC: So tell me, c)(ild.
CC: )(ow were you planning to overt)(row me?
CC: Revolution, of COURS--E!
CC: 38[ I )(ad )(oped you were clever enough to knot try somefin t)(at’s alreedy failed.
CC: Some of us can learn from t)(e glubbing mistakes of ot)(ers!
CC: I )(ad fronds from eferry caste in my co)(ort. W)(en the s)(ips came for us I would )(ave )(ad an agent in all of t)(em! I )(ad t)(e descendant of t)(e Signless. And I )(ad Gl’bgolyb!
CC: You were off sailing around the glubbing UNIV-ERS---E! I could )(ave staged a coup bes)(ore you got anyw)(ere N---EAR )(ome!
CC: )(ow did you overt)(row t)(e Empress bes)(ore you, t)(en, if my plan was so awful?
CC: I didn’t.
CC: T)(e job was t)(rust upon me.
CC: Per)(aps you would )(ave made a betta Empress.
-- callousCondescension [CC] has ceased trolling cuttlefishCuller [CC] --
CC: W)(ale maybe you s)(oaled )(ave glubbing ABDICAT----ED!
GA: It Seems Unfair
GA: To Make You Pupae Live In Our Shadow
GA: You Are Your Own Beings
GA: You Shouldn’t Have Had To Strive To Be Like Us
GA: Not All Of Us Strove To Live Up To History
GA: Sometimes It Just Happened
-- arsenicCatnip [AC] has started trolling assiduousCollaborator [AC] --
AC: :33 < *the great huntress stalks a mighty clawbeast through the wilderness*
AC: :33 < *she has been tracking this giant kitty fur nights and nights in order to purrove herself worthy*
AC: :33 < *the giant kitty, who is also the huntress’s ancestor which is why the tiny huntress is trying to purrove herself, purrtends to not notice the huntress tracking her movements*
AC: :33 < *the great huntress does something compurrlitterly surprising and jumps out in furont of her ancestor, only to noof her affectionately!*
AC: :OO < *the giant kitty purrlay-wrestles the huntress to the ground!*
AC: :33 < and just what have you been doing *the mighty clawbeast asks*
AC: :33 < *the great huntress has been suppurrting herself through hunting since she was a tiny huntress! she has also pale-seduced the furry best meowrail and fought bravely fur him when he was killed*
AC: :(( < *the mighty clawbeast thinks that it’s a bit sad that efurrything ended in death*
AC: :33 < there are a lot of sad things!
AC: :33 < but also a lot of happy things and i got to share them with the people i care about
AC: :33 < *the huntress thinks that is what is impurrtant in the end!*
AC: :)) < *the mighty ancestor-huntress agrees compurrletely*
GA: But It Was Important To Some Of Us
-- caligulasAquarium [CA] has started trolling crushedAdmiral [CA] --
CA: so wwhat
CA: i come all a this wway ta offer my assistance in ovvercomin the threat against all a us
CA: evven though im dead an i wwas glubbin told i could rest wwhen i wwas dead
CA: promised by kar an evverythin
CA: an my ancestor drags his fuckin fins greetin me an offerin his gratitude
CA: i knoww im impressivve an all but that’s some nervve you got keepin me wwaitin
CA: you’re definitely my descendant
CA: no i just thought itd be glubbin hilarious to impersonate you
CA: got ahab’s?
CA: a course
CA: spin an con’s descendants?
CA: fucked up wwith one an killed the other
CA: a course im wwearin a fuckin cape id havve to be a fashion blind idiot to turn dowwn the dramatic silhouette it offers
CA: twwo out a three
CA: you’re doin better than i did wwhen i wwas a pupa
CA is an idle troll!
CA: you there?
CA has returned!
CA: wwhere else wwould i fuckin be
CA: kind a stuck in this stupid univverse savvin your sorry glutes
CA: so wwhat you wwanted an expression a gratitude for doin the job right
CA: come by the ship an i’ll showw you howw ta handle ahab’s
CA: if you’re goin ta be guardin my back you’d better be up ta it
-- crushedAdmiral [CA] has ceased trolling caligulasAquarium [CA] --
GA: We Wished To Make Our Own Name With Your Traditions
GA: Some Of Us Continued Them
-- guiltlessCustodian [GC] has started trolling gallowsCalibrator [GC] --
GC: C4D3T PYROP3!
GC: 1 H4V3 H34RD T3LL TH4T YOU W3R3 W3LL ON YOUR W4Y TO B3COM1NG 4 L3G1SL4C3R4TOR.
GC: YOU H34RD WRONG, N3OPHYT3!
GC: TH3 TRUTH 3LUD3S YOUR C4P4BL3 R34CH >:]
GC: 1 SH4LL H4V3 TO 1NV3ST1G4T3 FURTH3R 1N ORD3R TO R3CT1FY TH1S GR13VOUS L4CK OF 1NFORM4T1ON >:]
GC: MY PR1M4RY SOURC3S T3LL M3 TH4T YOU H4V3 SURV1V3D BL1NDN3SS, L34RN3D TO S33 THROUGH SYN43STH3S14, D34LT W1TH M4NY THR34TS TO YOUR M1SS1ON, 4ND 4R3 ST1LL 4L1V3 1N YOUR TRU3 T1M3L1N3!
GC: TH1S WOULD 1ND1C4T3 TH4T YOU POSS3SS BOTH TH3 D3T3RM1N4T1ON 4ND SH4RP CR1T1C4L TH1NK1NG SK1LLS N3C3SS4RY 1N TH3 L3G1SL4C3R4T1V3 L1N3 OF WORK.
GC: TH3 F4CT TH4T YOU 4R3 W34R1NG 4 R3PL1C4 OF 4 L3G1SL4C3R4TOR’S UN1FORM 1ND1C4T3S TH4T YOU H4V3 TH3 D3S1R3 TO SUCC33D 1N TH1S C4R33R P4TH.
GC: SO T3LL M3, C4D3T PYROP3, WH3R3 D1D 1 GO WRONG?
GC: YOU D1D NOT C4RRY YOUR D3DUCT1ONS F4R 3NOUGH!
GC: 1 4M NOT ON MY W4Y
GC: 1 4M SURP4SS1NG YOU >:]
GC: 3V1D3NC3, C4D3T!
GC: 1 D3L1V3R3D JUST1C3 TO S3RK3T 4ND R3SCU3D TH3 PYROP3 N4M3
GC: W3LL D4RN.
GC: D34L W1TH 1T >B]
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] has ceased trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] --
GA: And Some Of Us Inverted Them
GA: Some Of Them Needed Inverting
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has started trolling terminallyCapricious [TC] --
TC: wipe that shit
TC: OFF YOUR FACE
TC: cAn’T mOtHeRfUcKiNg WiPe OfF mY fAcE bRo
TC: gIvEn ThAt It’S aLl Up AnD bEiNg A sYmBoL oF mY dEvOtIoN tO tHe MiRtHfUl MeSsIaHs
TC: and how i have
TC: MOTHERFUCKING WORSHIPPED THEM
TC: you’re wrong, makara
TC: YOU ARE LAUGHABLY MOTHERFUCKING WRONG
TC: subjugglators wear their faces to up and hide their motherfucking feelings
TC: BECAUSE OUR MOTHERFUCKING EMOTIONS DO NOT MATTER IN THE BIGGER PICTURE
TC: all that matters
TC: IS THE BLOOD
TC: and the service
TC: WE ARE NOT THE MIRTHFUL MESSIAHS
TC: and we do not sacrifice to them
TC: WE SACRIFICE FOR US BECAUSE LIFE IS A MOTHERFUCKING JOKE
TC: and we are the punchline
TC: SO GET YOUR HEAD SETTLED ON YOUR FUCKING SHOULDERS STRAIGHT
TC: or wipe off your fucking face
-- truculentCaperer [TC] has ceased trolling terminallyCapricious [TC] --
GA: I Only Hope That We Can Work Together
GA: If Things Are Awkward We Won’t Be A Very Effective Team
-- apocalypseArisen [AA] has started trolling averseAttendant [AA] --
AA: it’s nice t0 finally meet y0u!
AA: i heard that y0u were helping with the dreambubbles
AA: alive y0u was
GA: I Have Stressed The Importance Of This Being An Equal Partnership To The Adults
GA: You Have All Proven Yourself A Thousand Times Over In The Game And Throughout Your Adventures
GA: We Should Be Taking A Page From Your Book To Be Frank
GA: I Dont Think That Will Happen
GA: There Is Little Incentive For Us To Change Now
-- cyberneticTinkerer [CT] has started trolling centaursTesticle [CT] --
CT: D--> I am aware that this is a strange situation
CT: D--> However we must make the most of it
CT: D--> And as we are to be working together I wished to offer you a piece of advice
CT: D--> I have observed the way you act around the lowb100ds as compared to the highb100ds of your cohort
CT: D--> I recall that I felt much the same in my youth
CT: D--> Which led me into making several regrettable decisions
CT: D--> But I have found through events that transpired in my life
CT: D--> Honour does not depend on the haemospectrum
CT: D--> I have found more honour in oliveb100ds than in Empresses
CT: D--> True honour comes from within yourself
CT: D--> Take pride in who you are and what you do
CT: D--> There is little time left for being f001ish and doing otherwise
CT: D--> I will admit to noticing some
CT: D--> Failings
CT: D--> In the haemoclassification system
CT: D--> But it is the very structure of our society
CT: D--> I will not e%change it for chaos and uncertainty
CT: D--> That is your prerogative
CT: D--> I only wish for the happiness of everyone here
CT: D--> There is little time left for reconciliations
GA: But I Also Dont Think There Will Be Many Problems With Assimilation
GA: We Are Used To Working In Teams
GA: And If There Is A Healthy Undertone Of Competition Perhaps That Will Drive Us All The Better
AT: oKAY, sO MY oOGONIBOMB IS NOW A FIDUSUCKER,
AT: aND IT IS DEFINITELY, gOING TO REPRODUCE INTO SOMETHING GREAT,
AT: yOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY BE QUAKING IN FEAR,
AT: bUT NOW IT IS MY TURN,
AT: aND i HAVE SUCCESSFULY HARVESTED, mORE OF THE oOGONIBOMBS THAN YOU,
AT: wHICH ALLOWS ME TO KEEP SOME IN RESERVE,
AT: wHAT i MEAN TO SAY IS,
AT: yOU ARE GOING DOWN, aLTHOUGH IN A COMPLETELY SAFE WAY, bECAUSE YOU CAN FLY,
AT: i MEANT IT, mETAPHORICALLY,,,
AT: i ACTIVATE MY TRAP CARD,
AT: iT’S NOT EVEN YOUR TURN,,,,,,,,
GA: Well Be Okay
GA: We Have Everything In The Bag As They Say
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has created memo ‘totally human awesome party board!’ --
EB: i think they forgot about us.
GG: oh noooooo :(
TT: It seems certain that we’ve been lost amongst the tearful, slightly confusing generational meet and greet.
GG: this is a totally human awesome party board!
GG: so we can just party while we wait :)!!!
GG: i dont think it will be long, i heard karkat screaming and running down the hall before :B
TG: im not sitting around waiting like a jilted girlfriend
TG: whats that honey you met your real dad today and decided it was more important than the special bond we share
TG: im joining in on the fiduspawn tournament with the guys with great racks
TG: ollies outie
TG has left the memo!
EB: this party is not as awesome as i hoped it would be.
Chapter 18: Chapter 15
What you said to Kanaya was correct. The younger generation of trolls is clearly superior in matters of teamwork. It’s obvious they’ve been working together for a long time. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses intimately, and for all they bicker as much as your generation, they are actually capable of getting things done.
You had thought that you were making progress in that area with your lot, but bringing in trolls that actually know what they are doing makes it obvious that you are a group of sharp edges and misshapen puzzle pieces.
The reason for their ease with each other is obvious, once you have a moment to watch. The humans, whose names you learned through Karkat’s screeches of rage echoing through, perhaps, your entire bubble, are at such ease with each other, with the younger trolls, and even with you that you can scarcely believe it. It takes a while for you to decode it, but then you realise. They’re friends, untainted by pity or hate.
Your descendants made their universe. Your terrible, overstressed, abandoned, too-young too-old descendants. They somehow came through and made a universe to be proud of, one as unlike Alternia as it could get.
They still get confused when you hug them.
Handmaid yells at you when you adjust your universe for them. Aside from the Mindfang incident, it’s the first time you’ve heard her get angry.
“This universe is being ripped apart!” she snaps at you, leaning heavily on Condesce. She looks as unwell as it is possible to get without actually expiring, and you are having a hard time listening to her due to the fact that you’re making mental calculations on how to catch her when she inevitably keels over unconscious. “This universe is being ripped apart, I am trying to hold it together so that we don’t all die, and you’re ripping its fabric apart to make hives?”
“Where else are they supposed to stay?” you point out.
“They can sleep in the sand, for all I care!” She sways, and both you and Condesce move automatically to try to catch her, but she keeps her feet. “I’m fine,” she says.
“You’re really not,” you say.
Condesce captchalogues her trident and uses her freed hand to shove hair out her face. “Handmaid,” she begins in an entreating tone.
“Stop,” Handmaid says, her voice cracking. “Nobody else can do this, Condesce, you know that.”
“The human girl could kelp you, at least,” Condesce says. “She still retains some of her powers.”
“I’d have to bring her up to speed-”
“And you’ll do it, since you’re ferry clever.” Condesce’s tone brooks no argument. “Dolorosa, get the girl and bring her to Psiionic’s block.”
“There are two.” You fold your arms and stare the both of them down. “Have you even bothered to learn their names? Get to know them? Or even your descendants?”
“I fin we have more important things to worry aboat,” Condesce says.
“I don’t.” You point at the sand until they sit. Off in the distance, just beyond earshot, most of the people in this universe are engaged in a ridiculous human sport that Dave calls hoopball. You’re not sure why. It doesn’t seem to involve any hoops. “These children are dying for us,” you say, quietly.
“They’re already dead,” Condesce says. “We shoaled be thinking moray about keeping the god of space alive! It’s in your betta interests.”
“Shut up,” you say calmly. As she gapes at you, you continue. “These children, who you probably have centuries of sweeps on, are dying for us. They didn’t have to. But they’re here, trying to help and buy us more time. You owe them your respect. I realise you may not understand the concept, given how they appear to be more mature than you, but if you do not start making the effort right now I will gladly go to my death rather than propagate a new universe with you in it.”
“My descendant is part frog,” Handmaid says. “Ribbit!”
You let out a slow sigh. “How long have you been awake?” you ask, gently, once you’ve calmed yourself.
“Since Gra,” she says, serenely. “I can’t sleep, I’m the only thing keeping this bubble together.”
“I think, perhaps, you’re not making the best decisions.” You close your eyes and sigh. “Jade and Kanaya may be able to take the burden off you long enough to let you rest.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Handmaid insists.
“You’re reely naut!” Condesce glares up at you. “Can I take her back inside so she can at least rest?”
“I will,” you say, and help Handmaid up before Condesce can. “You are going to go get Jade and Kanaya – Kanaya is my descendant – and bring them to Psiionic’s room.”
“I would like a pile,” Handmaid says distantly, “before I begin vaporising things.”
Redglare is telling you about the finer points of HUM4N HOOPB4LL, which appears to have no hoops or balls, when you feel a shudder tear through the bubble. Expecting the worst, you and Redglare both turn to look out the window, but the landscape is unchanged.
Redglare jumps out of her seat and drags you along with her. “Investigation time!” Her voice is bright with manic cheer, and you take a moment to squeeze her hand. Not too hard, though, in case she cracks. “Can I trust you to handle the interrogations?”
“And what will you be doing?” you ask. Redglare rarely overlooks a chance to collate information.
“I will be investigating the scene.” She closes her eyes and draws a breath in. “The world smells different now.” She smiles, and her expression is so honestly joyful that you are stunned breathless by her. “I like it,” she says. “It’s better.”
Before you have a chance to do something silly, like tell her how vibrant she is, she hollers, “Terezi!” and marches out of the room, leaving you to interrupt the ladies of space.
Jade and Kanaya have taken over a corner of Psiionic’s room, which has turned into a collective Handmaid-Sufferer-Psiionic room that is rarely used by any of them. Handmaid is in Psiionic’s recuperacoon, her horns curving in and out of the sopor.
The room makes your skin prickle when you enter.
Jade waves to you cheerily. “Hi!” Her voice, always a few notches above acceptable volume, doesn’t even make Kanaya flinch. Your descendant is sitting cross-legged, hands clasped together loosely and eyes closed, and when Jade sees you looking at her, she wriggles her fingers and says, “Kanaya’s doing her Spacey Thing.”
“Is that what caused the tremor just then?” you ask.
Jade winces. “Ooh, no, sorry. That was me!” She begins talking with her hands, trying to explain the concepts of paradox space to you. “I was piloting just before you came in, because your friend with the ram horns – Handmaid, right? – said that was the most important thing, and we just sort of... made the jump!”
“The jump,” you echo, confused.
“Mmm!” She circles an area with one hand. “Okay, so this is normal space, right?” She waves her other hand outside of the circle. “And here’s where we’ve been. Except just then...” She brings her hand into the circle. “We made the jump to normal space!”
“Good?” you say, her hand acrobatics not making things much clearer.
She frowns. “Yeah, it did kind of break the bubble up a bit, but that’s what Kanaya’s working on – sylphs are good at healing! And we’re still alive for now, so that’s good.”
“We could have died?” you ask, only just resisting the urge to grab her shoulder. Humans are more breakable than trolls, and your strength as an adult, panicked, could hurt her.
“Well, there was always the chance the bubble would pop,” Jade says, and twists a blue ring around her right forefinger. “I thought Handmaid had warned you.”
You affix a smile to your face, thin though it may be. “Is there anything you need?”
She blinks at you, her smile wavering uncertainly. “Um. If it’s not too much trouble, could you find Rose for me? Her Seer powers could help Kanaya patch up some smaller holes, maybe.”
You frown. Something Handmaid said is bothering you. “Your group of players, which aspects did you play?”
“Space and Time, and Light and Breath,” she says promptly.
“And the trolls, Karkat’s trolls,” you say, a nasty suspicion forming inside you.
Jade frowns. “The same as you guys, but jumbled, I think. Why?”
That leaves you with a count of three Time and three Space players, two of each who have played the game and thus have some level of mastery over their powers. Time and Space, necessary to navigate an easier path, according to Handmaid and Condesce. An easier path you now suspect has a lot less chance of getting you killed, and which may be impossible to follow now.
Handmaid will be asleep for at least a few more hours. You will deal with this problem as appropriate.
“I’ll find Rose,” you say, more crisply than you intended, and leave to find Redglare.
-- graciousAntecedant [GA] has started trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] --
GA: Redglare Where Are You
GA: We May Have A Serious Emergency And You Have Appeared To Vanish Off The Face Of The Planet
GA: Whichever Redglare Please Check In
GC: C4LM DOWN! 1 H4V3 NOT V4N1SH3D, T3R3Z1 4ND 1 W3R3 S1MPLY 1NV3ST1G4T1NG.
GC: NOW WH4T H4S YOUR STR1PED SK1RTS 1N 4 TW1ST? YOUR T3XT R33KS OF B4N4N4.
GA: I Will Assume That Means I Seem Panicked
GC: 1 DON’T L1K3 B4N4N4S.
GA: I May Have Accumulated Evidence That Condesce And Handmaid Are Trying To Murder Us All Although I Cannot Think Of A Motive But I Am Quite Worried And I Do Not Think We Can Escape Even If We Wish To
GC: TH3 PLOT 1S 4FOOT, W4TSON!
GA: Redglare Now Is Not The Time For Quoting Troll Sherlock
GC: 1T 1S 4LW4YS T1M3 FOR TROLL SH3RLOCK! DO NOT WORRY, W4TSON, 1 W1LL D3DUC3 4N 3XC1T1NG W4Y OUT OF TH1S. UNTW1ST YOUR SK1RTS AND B3 PR3P4R3D TO T4K3 4CT1ON!
GA: Redglare Please Watson Did Not Even Wear Skirts
GC: MOR3’S TH3 P1TY >;]
GC: DON’T WORRY, ROS4. W3’LL WORK 1T OUT.
GA: I Hope So
GA: I Really Do
-- graciousAntecedant [GA] has started trolling guiltlessCustodian [GC] –
You are in your sewing room with Redglare, essentially the only room in your hive that hasn’t turned into a communal room. Nonetheless, you kick a wedge under the door to bar anyone from entering and confide your findings in whispers. Now Redglare is pacing back and forth, polishing her sunglasses absently as she thinks.
“They didn’t know that the wrigglers would be joining us,” Redglare says, then shakes her head. “Stupid! Of course they did, Handmaid would have been able to tell.”
“And it doesn’t explain why she didn’t tell us that the transition could have killed us,” you say.
Redglare sits down in the window seat and slides her glasses back on. “Motive,” she says, rolling the word around as if examining it. “Well, we are assuming that they are in cahoots! Why are they in cahoots?”
“They’re matesprits,” you say. “But Handmaid has a moirail, and Psiionic isn’t in on this.”
Redglare nods. “Colonel Mustard, sadly, is entirely clueless to this farce or is an incredibly clever actor!”
You lift your head from its perch on your hand to stare at her. “You...” Some more pieces are starting to click into place. “All the time you spent with him, you thought Handmaid was up to something, you were investigating.”
“I also happen to like him!” Redglare agrees. “He is very amusing and has terrible taste in moirails.”
You cradle your head in your hands. “Redglare, are we doomed?” you ask, your voice hollow with despair. You are meant to be the leader of this group, and you have given them hope just to take them into a worse situation and eliminate any chance of survival they had.
Hands find your shoulders, and Redglare starts rubbing her thumbs over your neck, pressing in with comforting, warm strokes. Your misery abates, but only a little. “Dollface, if you start beating yourself up now, we have no chance at all,” she says, softly. “From now on we’ll treat Handmaid and Condesce as hostile, but we should talk to them and let them explain. We are rather quick to jump to conclusions, and we can’t let bias mislead us, not now.”
There’s a knock on the door, and Redglare gives you a comforting pap before going to kick the wedge out from under the door and answer it. Dualscar is standing there, which is kind of a surprise.
“My favourite blackcurrant!” Redglare grins up at him as she slides her glasses back on. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Con wwants her,” Dualscar says, before looking at you over Redglare’s shoulder. “Wwhat happened?”
Redglare turns to look at you. “I’ll go talk to Condesce,” she says, and slips past Dualscar. You and the seadweller are left awkwardly staring at each other, before he comes in and shuts the door behind him.
You think of how much he has to lose – his newfound decency, Sufferer, Psiionic, everything that has happened to change you all for the better up until now – and choke back a sniffle.
“Oh, hell,” Dualscar says. “No, I am not equipped ta deal with cryin’, Dol, please don’t-”
You press your hands to your face again, lest any tears escape. Now you are thinking about Sufferer and Psiionic, and how they only just resolved the issues that got cut off with no answer after Sufferer’s execution. They had a second chance and time to enjoy it and now you have crushed it, and you and Redglare only just found each other and this is all the time you had, and you are gone, sobbing into your hands with your shoulders shaking.
Dualscar’s hand, large and seadweller-cool, paps you as if he is afraid you might explode. You may yet. “Shoosh?” he tries.
You swipe at your eyes furiously. “Don’t.”
“Right,” he says, and steps back. You think he is leaving, which might make you scream, but he only fetches a chair and comes back to sit next to you. “Dol, wwhat’s happened?”
You tilt your head back and press your lips together to compose yourself. It doesn’t work very well. “I think I’ve ruined everything by being gullible,” you manage to eventually choke out, a fresh flood of tears running down your face that you don’t bother to swipe away.
Dualscar frowns. “You’re not gullible.” He reaches out as if to pap you again, but wisely holds back. “You just believve the best a’ people, like Suf, an’ the lot a’ you havve showwn that it’s nothin’ to be ashamed of.”
“I’ve still ruined everything,” you say.
“You wwouldn’t be the first,” Dualscar reaches out and tilts your head up. “Noww calm dowwn, evveryone needs you an’ you’re ruinin’ your makeup.” He produces a handkerchief and dabs at your face like you’re a wriggler that needs taking care of, and the feeling is so unfamiliar that you are stunned into letting him. “There. You’vve got your game face on.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re a gentletroll,” you say, unsure of what to do with yourself.
“Sometimes I forget you’re not my lusus.” He hesitates, then says, “You havven’t ruined evverythin’. An’ evven if evverythin’ is ovver, wwhich I doubt, you pulled us all together an’ helped us be better than wwe wwere. That’s not nothin’.”
“It may yet count for nothing.” You can’t stop bitterness from leaking into your tone. “I failed my grubs in my first life, and now I’ve failed all of us.”
“If you start callin’ yourself Dualscar wwe’re goin’ to havve to fight ovver the title,” he says. “You’re wwelcome to angst in the bottom a’ the lake though, it’ll give Con somethin’ to poke that’s not me.” At your puzzled look, he presses his handkerchief back into your hands. “Look, Dol, if this second chance has taught me anythin’, it’s that nothin’s ovver evven if you givve up. Things are goin’ to keep happenin’, an’ you’re only goin’ to be able to influence it if you wwake up an’ try.”
You smile at him, despite yourself. “Look who’s grown up.”
“I resent that,” he says, a relieved smile answering yours. “Noww are you goin’ to fix wwhatevver this is or wwhat?”
You roll your sleeves up. “I’m certainly going to try.”
Handmaid is heavier than she looks, though the fact that she’s immersed in sopor probably helps weigh her down some. You take one of the spirals of her horns in both hands and pull her out of the recuperacoon.
“Dolorosa-” Kanaya says in a tone of muted horror, before she’s cut off by Handmaid waking up and clawing at your face. After all of your strifing with Mindfang, fighting someone half-awake is almost laughably easy, and you slap her hands down.
“Children, I think you should leave,” you say, looking down at Handmaid, who is on the floor and too bleary-eyed for panic. “Handmaid and I need to have a talk.”
Rose - who strikes you as practical and mildly creepy - snaps the book she’s reading shut. “I’ll stay,” she says to Jade and Kanaya, who are obviously anxious about the possibility of you hurting Handmaid.
For some reason, you doubt Rose will balk at you doing what needs to be done.
You sit down in front of Handmaid and give her Dualscar’s handkerchief to wipe the sopor off of her face. “Let’s talk, Handmaid,” you say, pleasantly. It is the same note of pleasant you used while informing Condesce that you would rather rip apart the universe than let her ruin another one.
“What?” Handmaid asks, rubbing her face. Her voice turns wary. “Has Condesce done something?”
You settle your hands on your knees and stare at her with all the jadeblood passivity you can muster. “Let us establish some facts,” you say. “I have been working ceaselessly to form this group together and to keep them together, to follow your plan in order for a chance to live.”
“I am displeased,” you continue, “when, as it happens, someone is less than honest with me, with potentially dangerous results.”
“I’ve been honest-” Handmaid says, before you hold up a hand.
“Rose, here,” you say with a gesture towards the girl standing in the corner, “is here to ensure that I do not brutally maim you.” You lean in conspiratorially and say, softer, “I could not care less, at this point. You have endangered my family, and I will hear your explanation.”
Handmaid tilts her head. Finally, she says, in her inscrutable way, “I’m God Tier.”
“This is my universe.” You lean back and fold your arms. “Tell me, why didn’t you inform me that this route could have killed us?”
“There was no other-”
You snap your fingers. “No other route, yes?” When she nods, you say, “Of course, because you said that any other route would require Time and Space to map out.” When she nods again, you continue with, “Of course, there aren’t any Time or Space players in this bubble.”
Understanding dawns in Handmaid’s eyes. “No, you see, the universe, it’s-”
You begin ticking things off on your fingers. “The universe is safe. The universe is breaking. The universe cannot be found. The universe can be found. You’re the only one who can keep the universe together. Jade and Kanaya can keep the universe together.” You tighten your mouth into a thin line. With the facts gathered together like so, you can’t imagine how she kept fooling you. “This route will let us live. This route will kill us. I think perhaps you ought start over from the beginning, Handmaid.”
She wipes her face with her hand, clearing away the last traces of sopor. “Dolorosa, please. I’ve been operating with as much knowledge as you have.”
You pull a needle out of your strife deck. “Beg pardon?”
“Well, I know about the game!” she snaps. “Of course I do! I’m already bending the rules as much as possible, just to make this happen, I’d hoped for a little more faith!”
“None of this is an explanation,” you say, flatly.
“Well, if you’d give me a moment!” Handmaid cuts a hand through the air, and your needle goes flying. “I didn’t tell you the route might kill you because I didn’t want you to know, and none of the others could have helped with the route because they can’t go outside the bubble because they’re dead and doomed timelines!”
“You didn’t want us to know,” you say. “Why?”
“It wouldn’t have hurt,” she says, finally, barely above a whisper. “And I didn’t want you all to worry.” She wraps her arms around herself, heedless of the sopor sticking to her. “I’ve helped so many people die, and I knew it would be okay,” she says, a little duller. “Either way.”
Rose clears her throat tactfully, snapping the two of you out of your conversation. “It seems that this was all a miscommunication,” she says. “The close quarters are starting to take a toll on everyone. The most important thing is that you’ve made it past the first crossing.”
Handmaid nods, jerkily. “I’ll just take ablutions, then start piloting again.”
You catch her arm as she tries to walk past you. “I apologise for my outburst,” you say, the words grating against your ribcage. “Please do not hold back information again.”
“I won’t.” She tugs her sleeve out of your grasp and leaves. Rose puts her needles back in her sash and opens her book again, and everything is restored to an uneasy peace.
Try as you might, you can’t keep everything together by yourself any longer. Your deadline is looming in the form of your first destination, the bubble is breaking up and will soon be useless to you, and your defences need to be shored up.
“We know what to do,” Karkat tells you. “You’ve just got to quit with the emotional co-dependency on your universe and let us do what we came here to do before we all rot away slowly of inertia.”
“I suppose there’s nothing to lose, now,” you say.
He laughs, short and angry. “Hope springs eternal.”
You think of Disciple and shake your head. “We make our own hope,” you say, and sever your control of the universe. It’s still there - you can feel it, you could reach it easily if you wanted, but this is no longer about you. “Thank you, Karkat. You didn’t have to do this.”
“You are dumber than a box of rocks,” he tells you as kindly as he is capable of, and teleports off to marshal his troops. You stay where you are and sit, feeling out a world that no longer belongs to you, and perhaps never really did.
Chapter 19: Chapter 16
The ingenuity of these children will never cease to surprise you.
Over the past two days, they have displayed such sheer mastery of their powers, laying traps, drilling strifes, preparing defences, and all to save you. You wish you could save them, but Handmaid was clear about their fates, if nothing else: doomed selves in the real world will always be destroyed. The only reason you have a chance is because each of you is from the true timeline.
You still don’t think it’s fair.
You help as much as you can, but with everyone finally given access to your universe-bending powers, nobody needs your help. You try in other ways, making everyone eat communally, ending arguments, being a mediator whenever arguments break out. There’s no time for you to split apart now, it is quite literally do or die.
All of the defence-building, all of the bonding, the awareness that the other shoe is about to drop does absolutely nothing to prepare you for when it does.
A wailing alarm splits the air. You drop the dish you’re drying and it shatters on the floor, as Redglare slams her hands over her ears.
You set up a meeting point just two days ago - this is happening too soon - and so you teleport there. It’s the centre point of all the hives you set up, and it’s where your descendants and their friends, these children, will make their last stand.
The alarm shuts off once the last few arrive - Darkleer and Equius, covered in engine grease, working on a last-minute measure to save their lives, you cannot think about this - and Condesce steps forward.
“Lord English is not infallible,” she says, crisply. “You don’t need him to be, you just have to keep him here and make shore he doesn’t follow us.” She nods to the group once. “You know what to do. Don’t disappoint!”
Karkat folds his arms. “Thanks for Generic Motivational Speech #341. I don’t suppose you could grace us with engaging the useful part of your brain where English’s weaknesses are filed and forwarding them through your noisemaker?”
She grins a feral grin. “I don’t want to make things too easy on you grubs.”
“Five minutes!” Handmaid says, and everything devolves into a pool of high-strung emotions. You find yourself gathering Kanaya into your arms and crushing her into you, the kind of hug you haven’t given since Sufferer was her age.
“Thank you,” you whisper to her, then kiss her forehead.
“I’m just doing my job.” Kanaya tries a shaky grin. She’s jittering from nerves, and you have to hug her again.
“Two minutes!” Handmaid says, and you hastily whip your shawl off and tuck it around Kanaya’s shoulders. She hasn’t trained with it, but she’s clever and quick, and if the weighted edges give her any advantage you want her to have it.
“Good luck,” you say, and stand back up. Everyone else is parting, too. Feferi has gained a new trident, leaving Condesce bare-handed. Karkat is swathed in a cloak far too large for him. Sollux is wearing a new headband, Disciple has a new hat, Redglare and Terezi have swapped canes. Even the human children haven’t escaped unscathed. Dave has been subject to one of Summoner’s hugs, which you estimate has twice the crushing power of yours. Jade has one of Sufferer’s necklaces around her neck, courtesy of Disciple. Handmaid has given Rose some needles that thrum at the edges of your hearing with power, and John is floating in mid-air to adjust a fedora on Dualscar’s head.
“One minute!” Handmaid looks at the twelve of you. “Ready?”
You will never be ready, but you nod firmly. “Ready.”
“Take control of the bubble back,” she orders you, and you reach out and grab the connection that’s been waiting for you, careful to not eradicate any of the hard work your descendants have put into readying the battleground. You’d leave them control of the bubble as a weapon, but it was agreed that risking control getting into Lord English’s hands was too much. Control over the universe will go with you.
“Let’s move,” Condesce says, impatient. There’s no time for farewell more than you’ve already had, so you whisk you and your cohort away, leaving your descendants and the human kids to fight a battle they cannot win.
Your crossing point is as far from the battleground as you can get to give you some advantage, because every little bit counts now. Handmaid casts her hands through the air, looking for something invisible, then she simply takes the fabric of reality and rips a hole in it.
“I’ll scout ahead,” she says to Condesce, and disappears through the gap before anybody can stop her.
Condesce looks after her for a long moment, then shakes her head and steps towards you. “Here,” she says, and presses the palm of her hand to your forehead. Your vision goes pink-white-pink as you’re consumed by the feel of being built from the ground up, as if you’re pupating all over again and the itch will not go away. Then your vision clears again and Redglare catches you as you stagger backwards.
You feel wrong, somehow.
“You’re alive now,” Condesce says, already pressing her hand to the Grand Highblood’s forehead, him slouching over so she can reach. “Try to knot die, you’ve only got the one chance left.”
Gra rolls his shoulders. “Motherfucking tickles,” is his only comment, and the two of you stick out like sore thumbs in this universe of the dead.
Condesce has resurrected half of you when Handmaid floats back in through the hole in reality, crackling in psionic power. “We’re safe,” she says tightly. “He’s taking the bait.”
Relief and sadness run through your group. Condesce closes her eyes, nods, and moves on to resurrecting Sufferer.
“This is where it gets a bit messy,” Handmaid says in an apologetic tone. “Hold on tight.”
Each of you take the hands of another until you’re linked in a circle. Psiionic and Handmaid lift you off the ground and then you’re flying, through the rip that feels like a punch to the stomach, and you’ve stopped in empty space, there is no air.
“Stay calm,” Handmaid says, and seals the rip in the bubble. There’s no going back now. You take a deep breath - there is air, somehow - and calm. The curvature of the bubble strikes you then. It’s massive, you are face-to-face with a universe that shimmers gently green, and you have left people in there.
Redglare squeezes your hand, digging her nails in, and you start before turning to her. She nudges you gently with a shoulder and offers you her glasses. You take them and slip them on, beyond caring about looking as a leader should by now. You’re not the only one crying, after all.
It seems to take an age to reach your destination, which is an unassuming platform in the middle of nowhere. Your legs are grateful for the solid ground, though. There is a purple structure there, shaped like a hive but cut in half, the top presumably lost to endless space. A door exists in the lower-right square, but when you open it, it leads to nowhere.
Your bubble hangs in the starless void like the green moon of Alternia. Black streaks are running through it, giving it a sickly air.
“They’re losin’,” Dualscar says, finally. Sufferer elbows him. “Look, someone had to say it,” Dualscar says, but without anger.
Disciple stands on the very edge of the platform, but at Dualscar’s words she turns and shakes her head. “They’re doing what they have to,” she says, quietly, but there’s no missing a word, gathered together as you are. “And on their own terms. That’s a victory.”
Condesce and Handmaid examine the purple hive, only to have Condesce sigh. “This would be so much easier with a Time player,” she says, before the entire building is surrounded in the same brighter-than-tyrian pink you saw when she resurrected you. Handmaid adds in her own power, and before your eyes, the building is reconstructed, the top of the hive growing from empty space. When they finish, the two of them are weak and panting.
Handmaid leans heavily on the wall and gestures to you. “We have to keep going,” she says.
You look at your group, who can’t tear their eyes away from the death of your bubble and their descendants, and then at Condesce and Handmaid, who are nearly unable to move under their own power, and make an executive decision.
“We’re waiting until you can move, first,” you say, and join Redglare. Without her glasses, you can see the sadness in her as she watches your universe break and your descendants die.
She takes your hand. “Remember when it was just you and me, Dollface?”
You close your eyes and smile, despite yourself. “We had to go and complicate things, didn’t we?”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” She wipes away a lone tear that escaped her and resumes watching the cracks spread across your world.
By the time Handmaid and Condesce have recovered, you are surprised your bubble hasn’t disintegrated entirely. You can still feel it pulling on the edges of your consciousness, each crack making you flinch.
“We can’t stay,” Handmaid urges you. “The whole point was to escape his notice while he was trapped in another universe!”
You nod, reluctantly. The sacrifice of these sixteen children will not be in vain.
Your arms feel bare without your shawl.
“Darkleer has to go first,” Handmaid says, beckoning him over. “He’ll hide our trail on the other side.”
You expect Darkleer to protest, but he merely nods and says, “Disciple will be coming after me.”
“As if you could hold me back,” Disciple says from across the platform, where she’s in a clump with Psiionic and Sufferer. They’ve always felt safest having each other’s backs, you know, and you nudge Redglare’s glasses up your nose. You think you know the feeling, now.
You make sure that you will be the last through the door. Darkleer opens it to nothingness, and without hesitation, walks through. Disciple squishes Psiionic and Sufferer into one hug, follows it up with a hug to you, and bounces through the door. Mindfang is the second-last, and you have to call her from her position at the edge of the platform.
She looks at you in a start, then jerks her head back at your bubble. “Look.”
You look. The bubble has stopped cracking, though something about the stasis seems uneasy. “They must be holding their own,” you say.
Mindfang’s mouth turns up at one corner, too sad to be her usual smirk. “Of course they are. Brave little idiots.” She shakes her head. “Get going, Fussyfangs. I want to watch a little longer.”
Suspicion roots deep in your stomach. “You’re not coming.” Your voice comes out as a flat accusation, rather than the question you meant it to be. You let it stand.
“They’re not going to hold out forever.” Mindfang shrugs one shoulder indifferently, as if she’s not facing a death sentence. “You lot keep telling me we’re all in this together. It’s time I did my part.”
“Mindfang-” you try.
“Save the lectures.” She pulls out her dice and starts polishing them, one by one. “I already know. Summoner and Redglare, Dualscar and Darkleer, Disciple – your girl’s an explosion waiting to happen, Fussyfangs, did you know that? – I’m going to be disappointing a lot of people. But Doom’s not something you want to bring with you, and I’ve got work to do here.”
“I could drag you,” you say, your tone testing.
“You could try,” Mindfang says.
“What if we need a fighter later on?” You fold your arms. “The place where we’re going is the final session, apparently. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a battle there.”
“Stop stalling,” Mindfang flicks her hair out of her eyes and looks at you straight-on, something that has happened only a handful of times in the aeons that you’ve known her. “Either strife or get going, Dollface, I have preparations to make.”
“You’re going to die!” Your hands ball into fists. You shouldn’t care, all you ever called with her was a truce, but this is too far and too noble for Mindfang. “You are going to die alone, in the middle of space, on a broken platform, Mindfang!”
“Wrong!” Mindfang grins, savagely pleased. “I will be saving your lives, Fussyfangs, and you’re welcome.”
“My name is Dolorosa,” you snap.
Mindfang interrupts you before you can continue. “My name is Aranea Serket.” She holds up one die to the light of your dying planet and wipes off a last smudge. “I’m serious about this, Dolorosa. I’ll destroy the door after you’re gone to buy you some more time.” She swallows. “Tell Summoner I pity him. And keep Redglare on her toes for me.”
“You’ve gone mad,” you say, wonderingly.
“I think I’ve gone sane.” Mindfang – Aranea tucks her hands into her sleeves. “Get going, Fussyfangs. I’ll cover you.”
You- you don’t know what you’re doing, but the callback to when she first helped you to rescue Sufferer, you were all so different then, undoes you. You crash into her and wrap your arms solidly around her shoulders. “You brave idiot.”
She wraps her arms around you haltingly, her robotic arm cool against your back. “Now you go all pale for me?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “But I will miss you. Aranea.”
She pulls away and scoffs, and you’d be annoyed if you didn’t know her so well. “Get going so I can actually buy you some time, then.”
The last you see of Aranea Serket, she is standing on the edge of the platform, silhouetted by a dying universe, dice in hand. You know she won’t win, and given she’s stranded in the middle of nowhere you don’t really hope she will, but you wish her luck nonetheless.
“Where’s Spin?” are the first words to greet you on the other side. You make an abortive gesture to tuck your shawl closer around your shoulders, but it’s two universes away and Summoner is waiting for an answer.
You meet his eyes and firm your shoulders. “She made the choice to stay behind, to give us some time.”
“No,” he says, barely a hoarse whisper. “No, she wouldn’t, you...”
Gra rests a hand on his shoulder. “Abide, brother,” he says, a low rumble of warning in his voice.
“You hated her,” he says, ignoring the Grand Highblood’s hand. “She wouldn’t have stayed on her own, you trapped her there.” He backs away, which shouldn’t be threatening, but he uses lancekind and can only skewer you at a distance.
You hold steady and look up at him. “Do you really believe that?”
His shoulders sag and he turns away, striding across the landscape in angry, long steps. Gra follows him serenely, his long legs matching Summoner’s stride in ease. You exhale, slow and unhurried, and take your first look around.
All is sand. This is your desert, but wrong. It’s full of dunes, and the sand is a bright, cheery yellow. The sky is blue. The sun – the sun is bright and warm, but doesn’t hurt any of you, and while you are still miserable over Mindfang and the children, being able to share the sun eases the knot in your heart a little.
Redglare is squinting a little, though. You go to her and give her glasses back.
She slides them on with a murmur of thanks, then looks up at you. “What did Mindfang say?”
“That she’s saving our lives, and that we’re welcome.”
Redglare laughs and looks away, rubbing the head of Terezi’s cane with her thumb. “She always told me that I would never take her alive. I thought it was a very clever joke! Criminals of her status do not get taken alive. Wordplay, you see.” She laughs again, sharp and brittle. “I never expected her to win, let alone twice.”
You rest a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugs you off and goes walking after Summoner.
“Well,” Handmaid says, “at least they are walking in the right direction!”
Redglare comes back to you an hour into the slog. When you ask Handmaid where you’re going, she shrugs, The direction, she knows, and it’s not too far! Except not all of you are used to long walks in sand, and the strange slip-slide of this planet’s sand is even wearing you and your grubs out faster than usual. The seadwellers, in particular, are suffering.
You pull Handmaid aside during the second hour, when everyone is flagging so badly that erosion is moving faster than you. “We need water,” you tell her. She stares at you blankly, and you say, “You’re the one with teleportation powers.”
“I would have teleported us all to the gate if I could have,” she says, and spreads her arms. You look at her, really look, and all you see is a short woman in a strange outfit, sweating as hard as any of you. Worse, in fact. Her godhood can’t be helping. “We’re not in the game right now.”
You suck in a breath. “You do realise that there is a very real possibility that we could die if we don’t get out of the heat and rehydrate?”
“We have a few nights before that happens.” Handmaid smiles at you. “It’s not too much further.”
It is, in fact, another five hours of walking over sand. Your calves ache, your heels are rubbed raw, and the group is too quiet without Mindfang. The only blessing is nighfall, which brings the same cold as your desert.
“Do you think,” Summoner asks, haltingly, “That she’s still fighting?”
“A’ course she is,” Dualscar says, immediately.
Redglare nods. “She never did have the grace to lose easily!”
“I hope she found the laser I installed in her arm,” Darkleer says. At your look of surprise, he colours and looks away. “It was her wriggling day, as far as I could tell from the stars in your universe.”
You tilt your head back to look at the Earth sky. It’s unfamiliar, but it’s easy to imagine Mindfang still fighting somewhere past the thin membrane that separates universes. With a laser in her arm.
“The gateway’s just ahead,” Handmaid says. You think of all the sacrifices that have been made: Mindfang; who is still fighting, who destroyed her only hope of escape to give you more time; the children, who nobody wants to talk about because the gifts you gave them would never have been enough; and you gather your band and keep on keeping on.
Chapter 20: Chapter 17
The gateway is in the sky above a crater, a white spirograph that lazily shifts through configurations, picking up speed as you approach, as if it knows you’ll be using it.
The only problem you have is how high it is. Darkleer could possibly jump through, although after the slog through the desert he may not be up to it.
“Psiionic?” Handmaid says to your grub, and you feel foolish, glad that you didn’t get the chance to ask how you were going to get through. Of course he and Handmaid retained their psionic powers. Nothing would have changed that.
“I got thith, AA,” he says, and motions for you to cluster into a group. Without warning, you are all rocketing upwards wreathed in blue and red- blue and red! It keeps slipping your mind that you’re all alive again.
Well, most of you.
You chance a look down to hide the expression your face makes when you now think of Mindfang. Earth is... well, Earth was obviously destroyed a long time ago, but high up as you are, you can see the sprawl of the desert, not as great as your own, and the green creeping in along one edge. Life has a way of triumphing, slowly but surely. That will have to be enough.
This gateway doesn’t hurt at all as you pass through it.
The first thing that hits you on the other side is the heat. It’s worse than the dry heat of your desert, this heat is thick and clogs your throat when you breathe, and makes you feel like you will never be dry again. You look down to a seething mass of glowing red and only register what it is when Sufferer starts laughing, high and terrified.
“SF, no, it’th okay, AA and I have got you,” Psiionic closes the distance between the two of them, leaving everyone else hanging where they are. Desperation is layered in his voice as he reaches out to Sufferer. “Shhhhh, it’th going to be fine, we’ll get you inthide.”
Sufferer manages to focus on Psiionic, although his breath still hitches every time he inhales. “Yes, let’s g-get into one of the fucking iron structures that’s probably going to fa-fall right over into the lava and smells like- like-” He crumples all at once, sobbing with the edge of a scream, and you, Disciple, and Dualscar are left at the edges with no way to get to him of your own volition, let alone help.
“Handmaid, get us into shelter,” you snap. The best thing you can do for your grub is at least remove the sight of the heat source, even if you can’t remove the smell or feel of it. Psiionic rockets ahead to the nearest building, which rises higher than seems probable in a singular block, entirely unlike Alternian architecture. Handmaid grits her teeth and you all drift after them, albeit slower and less controlled.
As soon as you land, you, Disciple, and Dualscar all run to the corner that Sufferer has tucked himself away in. Before a minute has passed, he is wrapped in one of Dualscar’s capes, which always has and always will smell like the sea, and seems a little less wild around the eyes with Disciple holding his hands, so loosely that they’re just connected by their fingertips. You sit next to him patiently, until he nudges your shoulder with his and you take the hint, drawing him against your side.
Only then does he blink up at Psiionic. “I’ll be fine,” he says, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Go take care of Handmaid.”
Psiionic kneels on Sufferer’s other side, nudging Dualscar aside, and leans in slowly until their foreheads are touching. Psiionic is panting slightly, and it occurs to you that now you’re alive you’ll have to make sure everyone remembers to eat and rest and not work themselves to death again. “Don’t ever thcare me like that again,” Psiionic says, his voice shaking. “You know I’ll thave you.”
“I won’t,” Sufferer lies through his teeth. Somehow you are going to have to travel this land. You wonder if blindfolding your grub would be a kindness. “But Handmaid needs you, look at her.” She is, indeed, worn through, so much so that Condesce is steering her to a likely patch of floor to sit and be quiet.
Psiionic sighs and reaches up to stroke Sufferer’s cheek. “Flushed for you,” he says so quietly you don’t think you were meant to hear it. Then he gets up to go tend to his moirail and Dualscar slides back into place. By now Sufferer’s shivering has mostly stopped, and you relax a little. The immediate danger has passed.
“I can’t keep going,” Sufferer says, after a long time has passed of you rubbing his back in slow motions that almost set you into a trance. “Not right away,” he amends, when Disciple’s hands tighten on his. “Can we stop for a while?”
You look around the room. Summoner is sitting in another corner, staring blankly into thin air as Gra sits beside him and talks about nothing. Darkleer is working very carefully on a husktop, sinking into his work to try to avoid thoughts of Mindfang. Handmaid is about to keel over on Psiionic, and Condesce has already pillowed herself on her matesprit’s lap. And Redglare is leaning on the broken window, looking out at the landscape below, and the fact that her posture is one long slump from toes to the top of her head is the only thing that shows that the recent events have hurt her.
“I think we had better,” you say.
Handmaid is not in favour of resting, although the fact that she trails off mid-sentence and starts snoring renders her argument moot. Condesce is already asleep, although you get the feeling if you wake her up you’ll wind up with a trident through the stomach, and Psiionic is almost there with her. Summoner went to a different floor, and while you’re in favour of sticking together, you’re not going to sentence him to crying in front of the rest of you. Gra can handle that, hopefully. Sufferer has fallen into an uneasy rest on Dualscar, and whether it’s the comfort of a matesprit or the fact that Dualscar’s just cooler than the rest of you that allows him to do so, you hope that he’s not having nightmares. Disciple is curled up at his feet as if to keep them at bay.
Darkleer and Redglare are still distancing themselves from everyone else. Darkleer, you know, will be fine once he has processed the shock, and Disciple would have intervened if she thought he was in enough distress to require a feelings jam. Redglare, though, Redglare has been brittle and pointed ever since you stepped through the door without Mindfang, and you are worried she thinks it is your fault your group is down a member. You’re worried you do, too.
Ironically, if you really were pale for Mindfang, you could have used her company right about now. Instead you climb endless flights of stairs to the top of the building and sit on the edge of the roof, keeping the first watch. Even so far removed from the lava, the air is scorching hot, and there’s no indication of a night to come to make things cooler.
You take a sandwich out of your sylladex - you’d thought of food and not water, of course, you’ll have to look through the building and see if any of the taps still work - and bite into it methodically. At the bottom of the building, you can see tiny beings scurrying around on the lava-free sections of streets. Floors below you a clockwork sculpture attached to the wall pours more lava into the pool at the bottom that flows into a greater lake, yet the overall levels never change. You wonder that if you watch too closely you’ll see the flow repeating, as if it were an animation.
You’re not sure how long it is before you hear the roof access door open. Either it is Summoner, and if he really wants to push you into the lava he is welcome to, or it is Redglare, and you will be at a loss as to how to cope with that scenario.
It is Redglare, and you are at a loss. Thankfully, Redglare has never been the sort of person to stand around and wait for someone else to initiate a scenario. She sits beside you, dangling her legs off the edge, and you wonder if you should offer her some of your sandwich.
“Mindfang has the absolute worst sense of timing of any troll to ever exist,” Redglare says.
You bow your head and smile a little. “How dare she grow a conscience and be a hero?”
“Yes.” Redglare grinds the heel of her palm against her eye, and you shuffle closer to offer a tissue. She takes it and presses it against her face. “It was very noble of her and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop hating her for it.” Her voice cracks on the hating, and you wrap your arms around her firmly, whether she wants you to or not. You cannot have another person breaking on you, especially not Redglare, whose support you have had from the very beginning.
“Nobody expects you to,” you tell her quietly. “I miss her too.”
You sit with Redglare and don’t bother waking anybody up for additional watches. You couldn’t sleep if you tried.
Redglare wakes everybody up while you explore around the building a bit, looking for any hints of what is to come. The beings you saw from the top of the building are improbable, bright red with long snouts and a strange gait, and you attempt to speak to them.
“Hello,” you say to one staring at you, feeling foolish.
“Naknaknak!” it says. “Do you know of he who dropped it?”
“I beg your pardon,” you say, as it is the only thing you can come up with.
“Nak! He has left us and yet surrounds us!”
“I’m afraid I don’t-”
“He fell down the righteous scratch,” it says, unblinkingly. “Nak nak!”
You paste a smile on your face. “I’m sorry, I have to join my companions. It was lovely talking to you.”
“Naknaknaknak!” it says in farewell, and scampers down the street. It leaves a set of sunglasses in its wake, and you pick them up. They flicker with the pale blue light that means they’re more than mere sunglasses, and you slip them on, feeling a little guilty.
Unsurprisingly, these are Dave’s. You had guessed it was his land, given the clockwork motif. What does surprise you is a text file, front and centre on the desktop labeled ‘yo mama d.txt’.
It’s not snooping if it’s addressed to you, you tell yourself, and open the file.
sup, dave prime here
lets just skip the bullshit where im some all knowing mystic time guy and thats somehow surprising and get down to it
fact 1 youre gonna get a message soon
fact 2 its from scratch, who is englishs weird prepubescent mode
fact 3 not answering it dooms your timeline
fact 4 answering it lets him manipulate you
keep your head and dont flip off the grimdark edge that many consonants do not belong in a humanoid mouth
make a dash for the void asap and well see you soon
ps dont let the nakkodiles cook you they have a taste for flesh
You dim the screen in the glasses and look warily at the nearest nakkodile. It naks and wanders off.
The glasses ping. You sit down. You might as well.
-- ??? has started pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
You seem to be stuck in quite the predicament.
TG: I Realise The Nakkodiles Have A Taste For Flesh But Predicament Is Overstating Things A Little
TG: Oh Goodness One Moment Please
How gracious of you to not put up the facade that you are the human time player. Or is it merely the last of the haemochromism lingering in you? Is assuming another text colour so difficult?
TG: I Have Been Told That You Are Omniscient And Fond Of Playing Games
TG: I Refuse To Indulge Either
I never asked you to indulge anything. You were perfectly capable of ignoring the message, or of never picking up the glasses. It is a thing that has happened and was always going to happen, something that you were always going to do.
TG: A Choice Made Under Duress Is No Choice At All
TG: Let's Get Down To Business
TG: If You Were Going To Come And Murder Me You Would Have Done So Already With The
TG: You Possess
TG: So Clearly You Have Some Reason For Not Doing So
TG: Out With It
Very well. Let us speak of your predicament.
You are trapped in a land that is not your own, following my servant into dangers you cannot possibly fathom. Without following her, you will slowly die here, the aforementioned consorts of the land feasting on your flesh and awaiting the return of their Knight. However, following her presents its own challenges, far riskier and with less reward. You’ve already lost one of your members.
TG: Challenges Such As
I am not privy to that timeline.
TG: You’re Not Very Omniscient Are You
Perhaps not, but the patience I possess for arguing over matters that are irrelevant to the discussion at hand diminishes much more quickly than my omniscience.
TG: There Must Be A Reason You Are Staying Your Hand
That is not the topic under discussion.
TG: Humor Me
TG: You Are Clearly Manipulative And Prefer Working From A Distance Although I Suppose As You Hinted Terribly Either Handmaid Or Condesce Could Be An Agent Of Yours
TG: You Are Contacting Me Which Implies That I Could Be Of Some Use To You And I Imagine That As Leader I Am In A Position To Carry On Your Manipulations To All Of Us And Cause Us To Crash And Burn However If You Could I Am Sure You Would Contact Handmaid Or Condesce As They Are More Likely To Listen To You Rather Than Go Off On Tangents Like This
Allow me to interrupt. The conclusion you are likely to reach is that I cannot find any of the ancestor’s generation other than you.
You are correct. You have left the Void player’s sphere of influence, and I cannot locate them unless you tell me where they are.
TG: I Must Admit I Didn’t Expect You To Admit Your Weaknesses
It makes the game more enjoyable.
TG: Which Game
TG: I Was Under The Impression That You Were Outside Sgrub
So are you. The usual rules ceased to apply a long time ago, within this session. Perhaps within all sessions, given the ripple effect through universes.
No, the game I refer to is one you understand innately. It started with you defending your children against an inhospitable world. Or perhaps before that, when the world was made inhospitable. Perhaps when the Condesce took power. Or before that, when I gave Handmaid orders to rise the Condesce to her throne.
TG: You Are Saying That You Are Responsible For Alternian History
TG: Through A Cascade Of Events That You Are Responsible For Us Being Here
TG: For The Breakdown Of Moments That Leads To This Conversation
TG: That You Are Responsible For The Slaughter Of My Grubs
TG: And So You Are Trying To Make Me Angry With This Knowledge What With Your Omniscience And All
TG: And This Will Serve Some Greater Purpose In Your Plans And Further Your Endgame
That is one of the results of this conversation, yes.
I believe I would be the one to know if my planning was sound. While there are, admittedly, gaps in my knowledge, they exist only to further the ultimate purpose of the game, and thus my own purpose as well.
I do not need to see the end in order to know it, and I do not need to know the end in order to advance my plans. This conversation with you is a seed, insignificant on its own, but significant in its potential.
TG: You Are Not Privy To The Timeline That Happens If We Follow Through With Our Plan
TG: Perhaps That Means We Fail But It Is More Likely That You Are Dead Due To The Fact That Lord English Is Your Mature Form And He Is Known To Exist
TG: So You Are Trying To Manipulate The Odds To Give Your Favoured Outcome A Better Chance
TG: But A Man Who Readily Admits His Weaknesses Is Not One Who Is Used To Gambling
TG: Just To Winning When The Outcome Is Certain
TG: We Are All Used To Pushing On When The Odds Are Overwhelming
TG: Mindfang Gave Her Life Even Though The Odds Were Overwhelming And It Is Working
TG: I Imagine You’re Stalling In Order To Provide My Location To Lord English So He Can Foil Us
TG: It Won’t Work
TG: We Are Going To Win No Matter How Much You Attempt To Tip The Scales
TG: Now If You’ll Excuse Me We Have A Battle To Win And That Nakkodile Is Eyeing Me Up I Think It Will Soon Attempt To Devour My Foot
TG: Also As Far More Dramatic Parting Words
TG: Due To The Harm You Have Caused To Everyone I Hold Dear
TG: If By Some Miracle I Am Incorrect And You Are Alive At The End
TG: I Will End You
-- turntechGodhead [TG] has ceased pestering ??? --
You rip the glasses off and stomp on them until they shatter. It takes you far too long to race up the building to the floor that everyone has congregated on, but when you stagger in, short of breath and your legs burning, Redglare picks up on your frantic handwaving immediately.
“Time to go!” she shouts, with cheer substituted for urgency that nonetheless makes the room scramble up, and you spare a moment to be thankful that she seems to have returned to her usual self.
There’s no time to do anything for Sufferer, but he sticks close to Psiionic and keeps Dualscar’s cloak wrapped over his nose and mouth, and you keep an eye on him as the lot of you burst out of the room, flying at the top speed that Psiionic and Handmaid can muster between them.
“He can’t track us,” you shout to Handmaid over the wind whipping around you, slapping you in the face with heat. “He only knew where I was because I wasn’t close enough to Darkleer!”
She shakes her head, her eyes crackling wildly and spinning so fast the colours seem to be one blur of nothing in particular. “He’ll know where we’re going,” she says grimly, and you catch the words more by reading her lips than by hearing them.
The Beat Mesa is floating over a lake of lava in two halves, the clockwork underneath spinning as if it was still united. Looking at the crack makes you feel queasy, and when you land on the surface you avoid going near the divide. Condesce does something and the gears start spinning faster. You can feel the thrum of them underfoot, and as they gain speed, the crack in the Mesa starts to glow.
“Are you certain about this?” you ask Handmaid, and receive only a, “Shoosh!” in reply.
“Um,” Sufferer says from behind you, and there is something in his tone that makes you turn.
The horizon has turned red. As you watch, it appears to bleed over the sky towards you, and as the colour approaches you see that it’s not a solid mass. Instead, it is a thousand writhing tendrils of red, cutting through everything in their path.
This escape attempt seems determined to throw things you can’t handle at you until you fall over.
You will not give it the satisfaction.
“Psiionic, can you deflect it?” You calmly step in front of Sufferer, edging him closer to the crack in space that Handmaid and Condesce are resurrecting. Psiionic stands beside you, eyes and hands already bathed in light, and fires off a shot at one of the tendrils.
It does nothing.
Handmaid finally looks up, and her expression is one of perfect shock and utter horror. “Condesce,” she says, her tone blank in the way it hasn’t been since you first saw her. Whether she realises it or not, being part of a team has been good for her.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” Condesce says, after looking up. Her eyes are hard as steel behind her goggles, her mouth pressed into a determined line, and she is actually afraid. You cannot let this rattle you.
“What is it?”
“It’s called the Red Miles,” Handmaid says, spreading her hands. She is ready to rip space apart and it might not be enough. “It ends universes.”
Far in the distance, but not far enough, you see your shelter fall. Condesce curses under her breath in a steady stream of ocean references that get more and more obscure until she’s just chanting in something that’s not Alternian. Then something wrenches in the world, and all of you stagger.
“The scratch is ready, time to go!” Condesce grabs Darkleer and shoves him through, and all of a sudden the Miles seem to realise where their target is.
“Are they sentient?” you ask.
Handmaid shakes her head, but she doesn’t reply. The reason for that is obvious when a hole tears itself in space right through the first tendrils that were aiming at you. “I can redirect them,” she says tightly, “but not for long. Go.”
You herd everyone through before you again, Handmaid ripping open makeshift portals every time a tendril of the Miles dares quest near the Mesa. They’ve started coming faster now, and one she misses tears off a chunk of the platform you’re standing on.
“Handmaid, we need to go!” You take ahold of the back of her shirt and pull her along for a few skidding, staggering steps until you’re almost tripping over the edge of the crack in the Mesa.
She shrugs you off, tearing her shirt from your grasp. “The Miles can’t get through the scratch,” she says. “If we let them through they’ll destroy everything.”
“Do you think we can stop them?” you scream in her ear over the sound of buildings crumbling. You get an idea in your head, a terrible idea, and draw her needles from where she stuck them through her waistband. She starts, but blocks another Mile before she can protest. “We have to play outside the game!” you tell her, though you doubt she understands.
Before you can second-guess yourself, you trip her into the scratch and fall backwards through yourself. The last thing you do, before everything goes red-white-red-white and shatters, is take Handmaid’s needles into your hands properly and draw on the side of needlekind you’ve never availed yourself of.
The way back explodes, and you fall down a long, long tunnel of darkness, your knuckles pale as you clasp Handmaid’s needles tightly, your last defense.
Chapter 21: Chapter 18
You wake up in water, washed ashore on a rocky outcropping. When you sit up, you discover that you’re bruised head-to-toe and stiff besides, and to add insult to injury there is a long tear in your skirt from knee to hem that you are not going to be able to fix invisibly. Not that the salt water hasn’t already ruined the material.
Enough. You can’t sit around on the beach all day. Given that you’re not being hovered over by several people, you’ve been separated from your group. You’re not entirely sure how far the reaches of Scratch and Lord English extend, but you want to get back into Darkleer’s Void sooner rather than later.
You stand up and wring out your skirt as you look around. It is Earth again, almost. There’s water as far as the eye can see in one direction, and you’re lucky that you somehow didn’t drown. Ragged metal supports stick up out of the water, where they haven’t been eaten away into rust. Land stretches away further than you can see, but you’d be willing to bet that you’re on an island.
Finding the others is going to be difficult.
There’s a scrape on your leg that green is oozing out of, but it’s not deep. You splash some seawater on it, take off your wet shoes and socks so you won’t get blisters, and start stepping carefully over the rocks. Your head still pounds a little, but you can walk, at the very least.
Fifteen minutes or so later, you come across a ragged, sodden bundle of black cloth that groans when you nudge it. Handmaid has been knocked around worse than you, a bruise blooming on her cheekbone and a cut over her hip.
“What did you do?” she asks you in a voice of hollow awe as you prod at her to make sure she hasn’t broken any bones. She’s more ticklish than you expected her to be, flinching at every poke. “Dolorosa, what did you do?”
You look at her and smile tightly. Your pounding head has settled into a regular dull ache that is nearly impossible to think around, and you feel entirely too sluggish for this conversation. “I exploded it,” you tell her, as you dab at her wounds with the edge of your skirt. It’s hardly sanitary, but seawater’s all you have at the moment. “Nothing will be coming through.”
“You’re insane,” she says in the same tone. “We could have been trapped in there forever.”
“But we’re not.” You give up on tending to Handmaid’s wounds. Condesce should be able to heal them anyway, and they’re not life-threatening. “We do need to find everyone else, though, or we’ll be trapped here.”
Handmaid sits down again, gingerly. “I could send up a flare,” she offers, and you sigh as you sit next to her. You are both too worn-out to keep going, especially without anything obviously fatal to keep you running. “They’re probably near a gate,” she says as you lie back and look at the alien blue sky. “Condesce would have kept them moving.”
“So they’ve left us behind?” You let your eyes close. “I expected a little more gratitude out of them, frankly. It’s not every day I almost lock myself in a tunnel between universes.”
“They should buy us a card,” Handmaid says, and you are so surprised at hearing what could possibly be a joke from her that you open your eyes. Handmaid has sent up a psionic flare, and is now sitting all curled-up with her arms around her knees. “Thanks for almost being trapped in the Void for us!”
“I don’t think Troll Hallmark sells that,” you say as seriously as you can. “They may have to handmake it.”
“Obviously that’s why they’re not here yet.” Handmaid toys with the end of her hood. “Has anyone trolled you?”
“Oh,” you say, and decaptchalogue your husktop. It falls on your chest with a thunk, and you open it only to be assaulted by twenty thousand messages arriving at once.
-- callousCondescension has created memo ‘Missean Persons’ --
CC: R-E—ELY. S)(ut it, )(elmsman.
CG: SHUT IT, BOTH OF YOU. YOU’RE EMBARRASSMENTS AND I AM ASHAMED TO BE INVOLVED IN A MEMO WITH THE BOTH OF YOU.
CG: ROSA AND HANDMAID AREN’T EVEN ONLINE.
CC: T)(ey’ll reelise to go online soon enoug)(!
CC: )(andmaid, I’m )(eading for t)(e gate t)(at we discussed eelier. Isle try to knot breaker anyfin, halibut I might need to keep t)(is lot in line SOM---E)(OW.
CG: I AM NOW IN CHARGE AS I AM THE LEAST LIKELY TO BREAKER ANYTHING. ROSA, I HOPE YOU’RE OKAY. WE’LL WAIT AT THE GATE FOR A WHILE BUT.
AC: :CC don’t worry, she’ll understand
CG: JUST DON’T TAKE TOO LONG, ALRIGHT? I THINK REDGLARE WILL STONE-COLD MURDER ME IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT YOU DON’T SHOW UP.
GC: 1NCORR3CT. 1 W1LL 4DOPT YOU 4S 1F TH4T 1S NOT 4N 1NV1T4T1ON TO TH3 CULL1NG DRON3S. 4ND 4S YOUR L3G4L GU4RD14N, 1 W1LL ORD3R YOU TO W41T LONG3R B3FOR3 G1V1NG UP 4ND GO1NG 4 UN1V3RS3 4H34D.
GC: 4LSO TO CL34N YOUR BLOCK.
CG: ROSA, I HOPE YOU GET HERE BEFORE I GO INSANE.
CG: IT’S TOO LATE FOR REDGLARE, BUT THINK OF THE REST OF US.
CC: We s)(oaled conserve power, F-EARL-ESS L—EADER. I’m closean t)(e memo.
-- CC has closed the memo! --
Everyone is now offline, so there’s no hope of telling them that you’ve made it. Hopefully they see Handmaid’s flare and know to wait. The memo is timestamped almost two hours ago, so it’s only been a short while. For all you know, they could still be travelling.
Handmaid reads over your shoulder and shakes her head. You agree with the sentiment.
Handmaid is running out of go and can barely lift the two of you between islands. Flying to the next gate is completely out of the question. You think of Psiionic, who needs calories to operate and is always a collection of bones held together by skin because of it, and give her some food. It is gone before you can blink.
You hope that she and Psiionic will nag each other into eating on a regular basis. Even if she is one of the most powerful beings you’ve ever met, and knowledgeable, even if she’s not very good at disclosing it. She knows the way between the gates and what lies beyond them. She almost killed Mindfang for possessing a cue ball that could clue Scratch in to your locations.
She didn’t seem surprised when Mindfang stayed behind. If she is a traitor, you are all alone right now, and it could be a just death, but...
She looks at you and raises her eyebrows just a little, waiting for you to speak your mind.
“Will it be worth it?” you ask. You’re not sure what you want the answer to be.
She frowns a little. “Before the Game, Earth was a very lush place. Lots of plant life, lots of animals. Sufficiently advanced tech to make life easier for a lot of people. Society wasn’t as brutal as the haemocaste system.” She pulls down her hood and fans herself as you walk. It’s not as hot as the Alternian sun, but most trolls aren’t used to the heat at all. “Then the Miles destroyed it. They’ll be here soon, or maybe they’ve already been, I’m not a time player.” When she sees your horrified look, she says, “No! You delayed them, it’s not your fault. It’s just, the Miles automatically cross-contaminate universe iterations.”
“I dislike it when my dramatic gestures don’t work out well,” you say. Your shoes are dry, so you put them back on. You’ll be grateful for the protection and the extra traction if you suddenly need to run from the Miles. “But you were saying.”
“Earth was very nice,” Handmaid says with a firm nod. “And the new universe will likely resemble Earth, given that it’s the scratched humans’ game. But I hope we keep some of the trollish influence.”
“You do?” you ask. Handmaid is the last person you expected to want to continue troll society.
“We’re not all bad.” She shrugs a shoulder and leads you into a building, up the staircase inside that seems likely to collapse and break your neck. “There’s you, for example, and Summoner. Mindfang liked rescuing barkbeasts. Dualscar treated his crew well. Darkleer didn’t shoot Disciple. Condesce tried to limit birth rates and shift the haemospectrum to better allocate resources for all trolls. And we all try to be stronger, in whatever way feels most appropriate for us. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
She has seen so much, and she has hopes and dreams, just like everyone else. Whether or not you should, you trust her to guide you onwards.
You don’t relax – especially after mention of the Miles – but this land is empty. Occasionally a creature with a hard carapace scurries by, giving you terrified looks, but they don’t seem inclined to attack, and Handmaid ignores them.
The gate is at the top of a building. Of course it is. You raid the hiveblocks as you climb, finding tins of food and collecting them into your skirt, made easier by the tear in it. It feels like it’s been longer than the time you spent passed out and then walking, and you doubt you’re the only hungry one. The owners of these tins are long gone, in any case.
You are greeted by the tip of Ahab’s Crosshairs, and then by Redglare throwing herself at you. You drop all of the tins on your feet to hug her, and she squeezes you fiercely before backing off.
“Dollface, you smell like pond,” she says, and helps you pick up all the tins. “What is spaghetti?”
“Food, I hope.” You stack all of the tins on the ground. “There’s no sense in going through this gate starving and tired, so we’re eating first. I found...” You start reading the labels, written in an unfamiliar alphabet the humans taught you for fun. “More spaghetti, baked beans, and a lot of soup.”
“Here.” Psiionic stretches out a hand. “I’ll warm it all up.”
You eat on the roof of the building, under the gate. It is lucky you have several bladekind users and one forkkind user, but those who chose soup have to drink it out of the tins. The gate and Psiionic shed enough light as the sun sets to see by, and you are absurdly grateful for this meal together. Just through the gate is the battlefield, and you will have to help your descendants and the humans win the battle to claim the new universe.
You are more nervous than you have any right to be. This is a useless feeling, so you dismiss it as much as you can with the company of your friends and family, a hot meal, and the certainty that you have all come this far and there is no stopping you now.
Handmaid gets fidgety once you’ve all eaten, and the longer you stay gives more purchase to the silent sense of dread that is weaving through you. Condesce has started puncturing her empty tin with her nails, and the noise is setting everyone else on edge.
You stand, dust off your skirt, and look at the hole in the sky. Everyone else slowly follows your gaze until you’re all watching the gate as its lines weave through endless spirals.
Condesce hoists herself up and walks over to you in long, deliberate steps. It’s the walk of an Empress, and you don’t think she realises she does it. “Once we’re in there, we’ll be in the game,” she says.
“Haven’t we been?”
She shakes her head. “An active session is another thing entirely. Handmaid and I are equipped to defend ourselves, but within the context of the game, you’re weak.”
“What does this mean for us?”
Condesce shrugs one shoulder and pulls her goggles down. “Don’t get krilled until the final battle. If you waste all of our hard work, I will be incredibly annoyed.”
Through the gate is the creepiest place you have ever been. The entire land has been stripped of colour, save sets of four lanterns that appear every so often, shining into holes in the ground that you cannot see the bottom of. Balloons rise and fall, blocking any light that may have saved you half a dozen scrapes, and...
Well, trolls aren’t much for funeral rites, but on occasion one highblood or another will be preserved and inhumed, and this land reminds you of nothing more than a caste’s graveyard, solemn and bleak. It feels like a bad omen, as though you are the walking dead and have just discovered your graves.
You feel underdressed, in your tattered skirt and beaten-up shoes, lacking a shawl and still sand- and salt-ridden. It’s quiet here, and you find yourself startled by every noise your group makes.
“Where are the consorts?” Handmaid asks. “And the underlings?”
The only sign of Condesce’s worry is a slight frown, nearly imperceptible in the low lighting. For you, anyway. “We didn’t get the timing wrong. The Miles have already been through.” She points at a long furrow in the rock that you assumed was part of the landscape. “I seappose it was too much to hope for everyfin to go correctly.”
Handmaid pinches one hand to her temples. “If he’s already-”
“Don’t say it,” Condesce cuts her off.
“If he’s already ruining the session, then that means our distraction didn’t work,” Handmaid says, raising her voice to talk over Condesce. You have seen Handmaid in fury and panic, but now she is just worn-out and resigned. “We failed.”
The line of Condesce’s mouth thins out. “We haven’t.” She takes Handmaid’s face in her hands and jerks her gaze up, so they are meeting eye-to-eye. “For you, I was the Empress of Alternia, Lord English’s Emissary to post-scratch Earth, and the Black Queen of Derse. I spent hundreds of sweeps locked in a ship alone, slowly going mad. And if you fin, for one moment, I went through all that to have my plans fall through, then I may ‘swell cull you for infirmity.” When Handmaid gives no response, Condesce shakes her a little. “Fin, Handmaid! If he knew aboat this, then what would happen?”
“He’d doom the timeline,” Handmaid says, the colour returning to her voice a little. “Probably by killing us.”
“And the fact that he hasn’t?” Condesce prompts.
“Either he’s waiting for something-” Condesce rolls her eyes, but Handmaid continues nonetheless, “-or he doesn’t know.”
“We’ve set off so many events that we have to be just a blip on the radar.” Condesce lets go of Handmaid, just as Disciple steps on Sufferer’s foot to keep him from interceding. “We are going to be fine so long as we keep moving.”
“Maybe we should, then,” Summoner says. It is the first time he’s spoken since Mindfang. He is drawn tight, and there is a sarcastic edge to his voice that makes you tense, but it’s better than the silent treatment and Gra's appeals, which mostly consist of the words ‘brother,’ and, ‘motherfucker.’
Handmaid looks at him, as if she is suddenly remembering the rest of you exist, and in a move that surprises you she pushes Condesce out of her way and takes Summoner’s hands. “You think she’s dead,” she says. “But she’s not.”
“We left her behind.” He swipes at his eyes with one shoulder, given that Handmaid won’t let go of his hands. “There’s so much- but she’s gone-”
“You didn’t leave her behind,” Psiionic says, abruptly. “She chothe to thtay.” Disciple and Sufferer both look away in shame or sorrow or a mix of the two, but he takes Sufferer’s hand and wraps an arm around Disciple. “It wath her choithe, and wathting the advantage she gave uth ith jutht invalidating it.”
“She’s not dead,” Handmaid repeats. “Paradox space is strange. Right now she’s living all the happiest moments of her life, and the saddest, and she’s with us in the bubble, and she’s fighting for us against Lord English. She won’t die until the very last of paradox space is torn apart.”
“I don’t know if that makes me feel better,” Summoner says.
“World is all sick up in its thinkpan, you gotta grab what good you find and motherfuckin’ hold it,” Gra says, laying one hand on Summoner’s shoulder and meeting your suspicious gaze with something alarmingly sea-deep. His obsession with the pale quadrant is starting to legitimately worry you.
Redglare takes off her glasses and folds them closed, hanging them on the collar of her jacket before crouching next to Summoner. “I think we all know that rebellions are not always successful,” she says quietly. Her glasses weigh her collar down and reveal the scar around her neck. “This one is different.”
Summoner quirks an eyebrow.
“This is the first one Marquise Spinneret Mindfang has ever bothered to stick her neck out for.” Redglare stands and offers Summoner a hand up. After a moment, he takes it. “Terribly comparative phrase unintended,” she adds as an afterthought. “I doubt she will be hung.”
You think you would be the last person Summoner wants to talk to right now, but he looks at you, and for some reason all eyes in the room follow. Your mind betrays you and says the first thing that comes to you, which is, “It’s not only Mindfang.” Before Summoner can lance you, you straighten your shoulders and continue with what comes to mind. “Our descendants and the humans are fighting too. This is obviously something that has been planned for a long time, and we cannot let grief slow us down and ruin everything. Not now.”
Much to your surprise, Summoner nods, once. Redglare punches him in the shoulder and puts her glasses back on, once more the Neophyte. You shove your weariness and your own grief and wishes for this to simply be over to the back of your mind and turn to Condesce. “Lead on.”
What you thought was more blue sky, something you’d become used to on your brief runs through various Earths, is actually another planet so close you feel like you could reach out and touch it. Handmaid and Condesce call it Skaia.
“Phythicth don’t make thenthe,” Psiionic says, in a tone that indicates he is personally wounded by this development.
Dualscar snorts. “Wwe’re somehoww in the middle of a game that has the powwer ta destroy wworlds wwith magic an’ you’re bitching about the physics?”
“We just have to get up there,” Handmaid says. “Psiionic, if you could.”
“Do we thtill need air, at leatht?” he snipes. “Or doeth the game magically take care of that too?”
Handmaid points at him, her finger nearly taking out his blue eye. “Watch it.”
He salutes. “Ignoring phythical impothibilities now, thir!”
“I hate it when he gets sarcastic,” Condesce says, morosely.
Flying through space is something, alarmingly, that you have become used to. Given that Psiionic is supporting all of you, you don’t get much freedom of movement, and after the first half-hour everyone is sick of shouted conversations and has retreated into their own entertainments. You and Redglare are close enough that you play endless rounds of Hangman with her, most of which you lose due to not being a walking law dictionary.
Skaia draws nearer. You push down the nervous feeling rising in your throat and guess another letter.
You land on Skaia not a moment too soon. Losing to Redglare was starting to get boring, although the two of you made up so many limbs for the titular hangman that you decide to keep the paper you both scribbled over as an example of places trollkind should never dare to tread.
Handmaid does her space-scrying thing. “Everybody ready?” she asks, absently, then tears open a portal before anybody can respond. This time, you go through first. This is the final step, and on the other side of this portal will be where you make your stand.
Nobody hesitates in following you. This is unfortunate, given that on the other side is a circle of tense, ground-down children, all pointing weapons at you.
“We’re here to help,” you enunciate clearly, before Karkat Prime can slice you off at the knees.
One by one, they slowly lower their weapons, though their hands don’t stray far. You take a moment to look over the group. Smaller than you would have expected, with more humans - those must be players of this session. Older than you expected, too. A wrenching feeling deep down is telling you that the absent trolls are absent from more than this session, as well.
“Ah, the Cavalreapers!” Karkat gestures expansively. “Welcome to our humble abode! This situation has left me so overwhelmingly grateful I would be throwing my ability to give a single flying fuck about the realities of the situation out the window if there were one!” His voice takes on a ragged, hysterical edge. “I am done with weird shit happening and alternate selves and timelines. There is no timeline where I wore leggings up to my armpits and I refuse to acknowledge it on the general concept that things you don’t acknowledge go the fuck away by general agreement.”
“Actually...” Terezi says, and grins at you.
“No!” Karkat flips his sickles around and offers the handles to you. “I am officially handing over the sickles of office to the first person to look vaguely competent and running off into the sunset while contemplating my own madness.”
You do what you have always done when confronted by a scruffy boy with nubs of horns and no volume control, and lean down to hug him, careful to not hurt either of you on his sickles. “Shoosh, Karkat. We really are here to help.”
“Well, fuck,” Karkat says into your shoulder. You can’t help but agree.
Chapter 22: Chapter 19
These children are not the ones you knew in the dreambubble. The trolls are exhausted, physically and mentally, and can’t scrub off the blood on their hands. The only ones left alive and together after all of the insanity their broken session threw at them are Karkat, Terezi, Kanaya and Gamzee, who seethe with unresolved tension. Upon further questioning, you learn that Sollux and Aradia are also alive, but elsewhere.
You can’t blame them for wanting to get away from it.
John, Jade, Rose, and Dave are much the same; older, sadder, but still with a welcoming veneer of the friendly attitude that separates them from trolls. They aren’t as weary as your descendants, who have gotten sick of playing the game and losing. They still have hope. As hard as you look, you can’t find any left in your descendants. They’re running on autopilot.
The new humans and current players are so different to the rest of you that it almost hurts. They are active in the game and clearly still expect to win, despite the fact that their session has been crippled from the start.
Perhaps you will win. You are certain that this is, without a doubt, the strangest game session in the history of paradox space. You weren’t even meant to be involved, but here you are. Your descendants won their game, but lost their reward, and here they are. And John, Rose, Jade, and Dave were supposed to win their session, which led to this.
Condesce’s and Handmaid’s comments about needing everyone are starting to make a lot more sense. Your descendants have the knowledge of how sessions work and how to manipulate them, your humans have half the session, the new players created this session, and you...
You’re the backup. This is a war and they intend to win.
Karkat has reclaimed the sickles of office and is holding court, introducing everyone – humans, terrifying figures of legend and history, terrifying figures of legend and history, humans – and so you take the opportunity to take Condesce by the elbow and lead her away for a quiet talk.
“Are we likely to survive this?” you ask without preamble.
She purses her lips. “I’m knot a fortuna teller, Dolorosa.” At the sharp look you give her, she flicks her eyes up in annoyance. “It depends on a lot of fins. The guppies seam to have a decent grasp on teamwork, halibut we’re going to have to come up with somefin that works against a god of time.”
“Well, we have our own gods,” you say, but she shakes her head.
“A god of time is a whole different kettle of fish. He knows what you’re doing before you do!”
“So we need our own god of time,” you deduce.
“She’s on her way, if everyfin’s going according to plan.” Half her mouth curls up in a pleased smirk. “With reinforcements.”
“Aradia?” you guess. At her nod, you sigh and rub your temples as you think. There has been too little rest and food and water lately. You are beginning to think that being alive is a bit of a hassle. “So Aradia and Lord English play their time chess match, and what do we do?”
Condesce lays a hand on your head and something burns through you, leaving you awake and alert and well. When you open your mouth to ask why she did that, she cuts you off. “We krill him, of course.”
“Oh,” you say, dryly. “Of course.”
“We’ll never be able to kill him,” Handmaid says. She and Psiionic have taken over a room in the building your descendants have made their own. It was built by the small carapace creatures you’ve seen rushing around, and is excessively fancy. You have never seen so many curlicues in your life.
“Why not?” Psiionic asks. He and Handmaid have thankfully seemed to skip the overly sickening-sweet stage of new moirailship, but it’s still hard to pry them away from each other. You don’t particularly mind in this instance, given that he’ll inevitably repeat the discussion to everyone else, which is more efficient than you going around and doing so.
Handmaid sighs. “He’s a Lord of Time. In the game, time and space are the powers necessary to win, and have the most power. He can manipulate time in any way he pleases. We could win, and he’d see that timeline and avoid it.”
You recross your legs as you think. “Condesce implied that there would be a way to make him vulnerable by using our other Time players.”
“I don’t understand it very well,” Handmaid says, frowning, “but yes. From what I know, Aradia and Dave will attempt to essentially remove him from time. But since he’ll be removed from time, he can’t be harmed. Injury requires time to happen in.”
Psiionic yawns and tilts over until his head is only held up by the spiral of Handmaid’s horn. You’re still going, thanks to Condesce’s touch of life, but everyone else is starting to wind down, and you have a feeling you’re keeping these two awake. “Talk about it tomorrow,” he gently suggests with all the grace and tact of a grub. “At the meeting with everyone.”
“Mmm.” You’re not entirely sure you know enough to be speaking on behalf of your group, but it’s not as if any others are stepping forward. At the very least, you should be able to collate information. “Good morning.”
You find Redglare sitting on a balcony, her feet dangling off the edge as she watches the sunrise. She’s still quiet, but she doesn’t shy away when you sit down beside her.
“I am not coping very well,” she says, tucking her hands into her sleeves. There is a hint of despair in the way the corners of her mouth turn down, and you wish you could smooth it away. “Remember Vriska?”
You nod, because that seems to be the only appropriate thing to do. You hadn’t spent much time with Vriska, mostly because she reminded you of Spinneret before she had grown enough for you to call your truce. You don’t recall anybody else spending much time with her, either, although they had all pulled together as a team.
“Terezi killed her,” Redglare says, flatly. “She wanted to follow in Spinneret’s footsteps and be a hero and went off to fight their boss alone. Except Terezi saw that Vriska would lead him back to their lair and they’d all die, so she executed Vriska. It was a just death.”
“And?” you prompt, quietly. You can see her lashes sweep down behind her glasses, and you surprise the both of you when you reach out to take them off. She has to squint in the light, but she can’t avoid you now.
“And it is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” Redglare stands up and paces the length of the balcony, scuffing her shoes along the ground because she needs to kick something. “They were playing, Rosa. Legislacerator and pirate, because Spinneret and I apparently had a kismessitude for the ages and they knew about us.”
You remain sitting where you are and wait. It is a skill you honed during the long sweeps your grubs were going through puberty, and it has proven useful in any number of situations.
Redglare deflates in one long sigh and slumps down beside you again. She swallows, hard, and you know the feeling of trying to form words you’re too afraid to say. Eventually, with a hesitance that is nothing like her, she says, “If. If Spinneret and I were a kismessitude for the ages. Why does one of us always die?”
The answer comes to you so readily it surprises you, but given how certain and implacable Redglare was when she was supporting you through those first few terrible weeks, it’s about time you returned the favour. “Because,” you say, and take her hand to rub your thumb over the back of it, “what makes something remembered through history is not necessarily what makes something good. Terezi and Vriska were not you and Spinneret, and their kismessitude was not yours, no matter what they pretended.” A touch of your mothergrub nature comes back to you before you can press it down, and you add, disapprovingly, “At their age I doubt they even knew how a proper kismessitude works.”
Redglare smiles, although it’s distant. “I think they got there in the end, somehow.” She takes her glasses back from where you hung them on your collar, and leans against you as she puts them back on. She’s... more settled than she was, you decide as you tuck her close to you. You must have said the right thing.
“What else did you find out?” you ask, as you idly run your hand through her hair. She yawns, rolls out her shoulders, and tells you.
Karkat wakes you up early, and you think for a moment that he is Sufferer, and all the sweeps between then and now were a particularly terrible dream. It only takes a moment for your surroundings to swim into place and your memory to return.
“Karkat?” you say, sleep still heavy on your voice.
“Time to talk about what happens next,” he says. As your vision clears, you see he still has bags under his eyes, and the droop of the perpetually tired. You would be surprised if he had slept at all. “There’s coffee,” he adds, as you haul yourself upright.
Redglare rolls into the hollowed area in the pile that you were occupying. You take a moment to twitch the blankets higher over her shoulders and murmur, “Meeting,” to her, because the night Redglare can sleep through something happening in the same room as her is the night you will be very surprised indeed.
“Mmnnrgh,” Redglare says. “Tell me about it later.”
“Of course.” You stand up, and Karkat, who was averting his gaze as if he were expecting to win an award for it, leads you to a room much like all the other rooms in this building. Dave and Rose are already there, and Dirk, who appears to be lost in the world in his glasses.
Karkat gives you the promised coffee, and you are tired enough to sip at it even though you’d prefer tea. You’re reasonably certain you didn’t tire this easily when you were dead. You sit next to Karkat and nod to the others, then settle back in your chair, expecting the process of planning to flow around you.
Instead, you are, for some reason, the focus of all attention. You resist the urge to ask if there is something caught in your teeth and carefully set your mug down before folding your hands together expectantly.
“We need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your group,” Rose says, taking pity on you. “Titles and aspects would be an excellent start.”
You spread your hands helplessly. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. Aspects, I know, but if you want to know how the game mechanics relate to us, you’d be best off asking Handmaid or Condesce.”
Dirk twitches ever-so-slightly. There is a scuff under the table, which you suspect is Rose kicking him in the ankle. “Tell us what you know,” she says, her expression never faltering.
You outline what you remember of the game aspects that were assigned to everyone. Karkat is the most expressive member of your audience, nodding along and frowning in turns. Dirk leans back in his chair, endlessly impassive. You can practically see the gears ticking in his head. Rose pays attention, leaning on her hand, her fingernails digging into her cheek. Dave fidgets until you mention Sufferer’s aspect is Time, at which point he groans.
Karkat’s expression transforms into a scowl in the space of an instant. “Problem, Strider?”
“Yeah, check it, it’s like math all over again.” Dave gestures elaborately with one hand in a manner you suspect is cross-cultural. “You have one Vantas.” He repeats the gesture with his other hand. “You add another Vantas. How many Vantases is that?” He frowns slightly and turns to Rose. “Vantii?”
“Vantases,” she says, agreeably.
Karkat crosses his arms. “Since you seem to need to count on your fingers, why don’t you tell me? It’ll be a fucking learning experience for you.”
“Too many goddamn Vantases,” Dave says, and disappears.
“Showboat,” Dirk says, faintly amused. It’s the first thing you’ve heard him say.
Rose leans over the table and confides, “They’ve been flirting for the past few perigees. We have a pool running on when they make it official.”
Karkat’s scowl deepens as the tips of his ears flush a brilliant red. “The day after our glutes are no longer in mortal danger, Lalonde.”
“Manipulating the odds is beneath you, Karkat,” she chides.
Dirk clears his throat. “As entertaining as this is, I believe the lady needs to know our plans.”
You raise your eyebrows expectantly. Heroes they may be, but Rose and Karkat are young enough to notice the gesture. Dirk remains unruffled, though with the desolation of his version of Earth you expect that Condesce left few enough adults around for him to acclimate to.
Instead, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you. You flick through the open documents, ignoring the blink of a chat program in the corner.
“The plan is,” Dirk says, and his eyes are brilliant, unnatural orange, “that we die.”
You lower the glasses and stare him down.
It is a good plan, you have to admit. You’ve been forcing the game’s hand since day one, exploiting the dreambubbles to give Handmaid and Condesce God Tier, then using their powers to resurrect the lot of you and get you to this session. They’re merely taking things a step further and bringing as many gods into the picture as they can.
Jade has her session’s planets, complete with Quest Beds that the other heroes of Light, Breath, Time, and Space can use. This session’s Quest Beds have escaped the Red Miles, as have Derse and Prospit. The only problem is that of reality. In the dreambubbles, you moulded reality by your expectations, and your general lack of knowledge about the godhood process made things a lot easier. Now, the game expects a sacrifice.
“Aradia’s coming back with our expired sacks of flesh,” Karkat tells you. “Then we’ll use Condesce’s Life powers to resurrect them and post them on the moons. We kill ourselves, the game thinks that the fakes we’ve cunningly resurrected are real, God Tier takes over, and clearly nothing is ever going to go wrong with this plan.”
You skim Dirk’s observations. He’s noted down a lot of things ever since your group found them, his hypotheses leading to one conclusion: The game can be cheated. And if the game can be cheated, then there is no reason this shouldn’t work.
“There are only eight planets with Quest Beds,” you note. “We have twelve aspects.”
“Mind, Blood, Rage, and Doom miss out,” Karkat scowls. “Because the multiverse hasn’t screwed us over enough already.”
“We’re mainly looking to get as many Time gods as we can,” Rose says. “The others are a nice bonus, but Time is what will let us win.”
“So Sufferer has to die,” you say flatly. Then it occurs to you and your heart sinks. “On LOHAC.”
“We’re going to test the process with someone less important to the victory,” Dirk says.
“Who?” you snap. “And have you asked them?”
Dirk’s eyebrows, pale enough to barely be seen, raise slightly. He has the body language of someone who grew up without any contact with his peers, and you are trying very hard to give him the benefit of the doubt since you wandered through his version of Earth, desolate and ruined. For all that, every time he speaks, part of you is set on edge.
“I was going to use myself,” he says. “Heart is expendable.”
You fold your hands together to stop them shaking. Who can be so cavalier about their own death? “Do your friends agree?” Beside you, Karkat rolls his eyes. You think it’s in agreement with you.
“If anything goes wrong, AR will tell them how to carry out my backup plans.” His expression remains unflappable. “Rox can build him a body if she wants.”
You pause for a moment. From context you assume AR is some kind of artificial intelligence, and the sheer apathy he shows towards the possibility of his own death is breathtaking. After a long moment of silence passes you say, quietly, “I think they would care about you dying more than they would about your backup plans.”
Finally, a flash of annoyance surfaces, if only for a second. “I know that,” he says, and you think from anyone else it would be a shout. “But this has to be done, and if it fails then they need to know what to do next to keep themselves safe.”
“You should still let them fucking know when you’re traipsing into mortal danger!” Karkat says, throwing his hands in the air. “I know you’re not all moirails, but the sentiment is the same!”
“I’m doing this so they don’t have to!” Dirk stands up abruptly, his chair skidding back. “We agreed on this plan-”
“Sit down,” you say, layering your voice with steel. Dirk slowly sits again, and the tension drains out of Karkat. Rose scribbles something in a notebook and snaps it shut, captchaloguing it before either of them notice. “A plan is no plan at all if it depends on ignorance and deceit,” you say, firmly. “Being a team is going to make or break this for us, and we can’t be a team if you’re keeping things from your teammates. Even for their own good.” You think of Handmaid and wince. “Even if you think it will be better in the long run. It won’t.”
You wake up Redglare and fill her in on everything you found out as she puts on a fresh uniform and sharpens her canesword. She listens intently when you talk of Dirk, kisses your hand when you finish speaking, and is out the door before you can blink. You think that Mindfang’s death has only solidified her resolve to have this work.
It is left to you to break the bad news to Sufferer. You find him on his own for once, wandering the gardens outside. He always liked gardens, sneaking out whenever you were in cities to visit parks, bringing home flowering plants that inevitably couldn’t handle the desert heat. There were few enough beautiful things on Alternia that you couldn’t deny him the plants, too.
You sit next to him on a black-and-white path, shoulder-to-shoulder. It scares you a little, when you think of how you’ve raised him from barely-hatched grub to the adult who died for his beliefs. It scares you now, when you know you’ll have to watch him die again. It broke you all so much the first time.
He waits as patiently as he is able as you try to find the words, then says, “So it’s bad news, then.”
You smile involuntarily at that. “How did you know?”
“I already sort of figured it out.” He twists his fingers into his cloak. “I still have a... sense, kind of, of how time should go. And then Dave found me to try to teach me time stuff.”
“You’ll have to go to LOHAC,” you say, half a question.
His shoulders droop inwards. “Of course I do.” His nails poke a hole in his cloak and he swears, and suddenly he’s gritting his teeth together in the way that means he’s trying to not cry. “Because it couldn’t be in the Land of Happiness and Solid Landmasses.” He curls his arms around himself and says, “I’ll be fine.”
You reach out and press your hand against his face, running your thumb along his cheekbone. He takes your hand and presses it to his eyes, and if you feel moisture there you don’t blame him.
Aradia returns some hours later, appearing the space between one second and the next. You should be glad the plan is moving forward, you know, but all you can see is how red her outfit is and think of Sufferer until Redglare drags you away by the back of your collar.
“Tomorrow,” she says. Humourlessly, she adds, “We have all the time in the world, now.”
Chapter 23: Chapter 20
There is a little body horror in this chapter! About a paragraph. You should be able to scroll right on past it if it squicks you out.
There is no sense of time, here. At least in your dreambubble you had night and day, no matter how artificial it was. Here there is just a soft, omnipresent light that makes it difficult to sleep and difficult to know when you wake up. Nonetheless, when you do wake up, it is with the distinct feeling that you overslept. You’re starting to feel the effects of the lack of sopor, too. Even after waking you feel groggy and unresponsive, more easy to provoke.
To add to the strangeness of waking up on Skaia, Redglare is sitting across the room, her rarely-used husktop balanced across her lap. You are used to Redglare being gone when you wake up, out interrogating the world until she understands it to her liking. Her husktop disappears as soon as you crawl free of the pile that does little to stop your nightmares, and she helps you buckle on your armour and slip your dress over it, winds your sash around your waist, and rests her forehead on your back before tying the final knot.
Dread builds up until you can’t swallow. “What’s happened?”
Redglare jerks back into motion and ties your sash. “You’ve been asleep for nineteen hours, Dollface! A lot of things have happened.” When you say nothing, she adds, reluctantly, “Sufferer just came back a couple of hours ago.”
Suddenly you are sitting on the floor, with little memory of how you got there. “From LOHAC?” you ask, even though there’s nowhere else he’d have gone that would overly worry you. “Why didn’t he wake me?”
Redglare crouches beside you. “It could be that he wanted to deal with his own fears,” she says, and nudges you with a shoulder. “Reminds me of another idiot I know!”
“Mindfang!” she coughs into her hand.
You stand back up again, your fists so tightly clenched your nails dig into your palms. As much as Redglare is correct in that you’ve kept your past from your grubs for selfish reasons, you don’t think you’ve taught Sufferer to stand alone and refuse support. “Where is he?” you ask. You have no doubt that Redglare was talking to him on her husktop as you woke up.
Redglare stands up with you and takes one of your hands, stroking it with her thumb until you relax and open it, pale-green marks in obvious relief against your skin. “You are taking this very personally, Rosa.”
“He was so scared,” you say. You reach out and trace the thick scar under her high collar, dropping your hand when she flinches away. “He and I talked, and he was terrified of LOHAC, and of dying in heat and metal again.”
“But he did it, and on his own.” Redglare adjusts her collar, straightens her glasses. You unnerved her more than she wants to admit. “You should be proud, Dollface. You’re his lusus, not his moirail. He’s standing on his own two feet.” She flashes a shaky grin at you. “Besides! You have more important things to worry about, leader.”
You have never wanted to beat your head against a wall more than you do at this moment. That is saying a lot, given the people you’ve known in your extended lifetime.
“Condesce,” you say, slowly. “What have you done?”
“I was definding myshellf!” she says, waving her trident and almost taking out Darkleer, who is being an implacable barrier between Condesce and the Alpha children. She has one scratch on her face that is already scabbing over, while Roxy has a black eye blossoming and Dirk is low in a defensive pose, blade out, despite Darkleer’s intervention as a sentient barrier.
At least Darkleer looks relieved to see you.
“They jumped me!” Condesce continues. She makes it sound both condemning and congratulatory, as if she can’t believe someone managed the feat of hurting her, even through surprise.
You pluck her trident out of her grip, then extend your hand palm-up in Dirk’s direction until he hands over his sword. “I thought you were all smarter than this.” You toss the weapons down on the floor. “Condesce, what did you do?”
She scowls and looks away.
“She killed my Mom,” Roxy volunteers, glaring death at Condesce. “And Dirk’s Bro. And kind of ruined Earth. There is no way she’s not gonna double-cross us.”
“It was a long plan!” Condesce throws her hands up in exasperation. “Four worlds of casualties and you start beaching about your human lusii! Well, I’m shorey, halibut you wouldn’t efin be here if I hadn’t done what I did, and you can-”
You cut her off with a sharp gesture and speak directly to Roxy. “We wouldn’t be here to offer you aid without her help,” you say. “And she bears a grudge against Lord English that’s been building for lifetimes. For that, if nothing else, you can trust her until after he is dealt with.”
Roxy’s glare almost withers you. “She’s your friend! It’s not like she committed genocide on your world, or took away your family.” She jabs at you with a finger. “Of course you’re sticking up for her!”
Redglare, ever inappropriate, begins laughing. You’re not sure what the look on your face is, but it makes Roxy take a step back, in line with Jane and Jake, who mostly look confused.
“Holy crap,” says Roxy. “Seriously?”
You make a great effort and keep your arms by your side and your stance as it was, as much as you want to shift into a more defensive position. “We’re a team. That doesn’t mean just including the people we like. It means including everyone and using their abilities to the fullest.” Now you do fold your arms, though you make it a stern gesture rather than a defensive one. “Did you come here just to pick a fight with Condesce?”
Roxy wipes away a trickle of blood from her split lip and says nothing.
You turn to Dirk. “And you! What happened to ‘doing what needed to be done’?”
“Sometimes you just have to watch the insane overlord of your planet be punched in the face,” he shrugs.
As much as you’d like to, you can’t really refute that statement. You’re preparing your arguments to, which are rather feeble, when Sufferer bursts in and saves you the trouble. Before any of you can react, he tackles Redglare to the floor. A mere instant later, a red tendril bursts through the wall, slicing the room in two along where Redglare had been standing. The ceiling and walls waft dust through the air, and when it settles you are left with approximately two-thirds of a room, filled with coughing people. Sufferer’s red robes stand out so much that it chokes you and you want to shake him, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances may be.
Redglare sits up and looks at the damage, rubbing her shoulder. “My hero!” she says to Sufferer, after looking at the section of the room that is no longer there.
“Was just passing through, ma- no, don’t!” he yelps, and leaps to grab Jake by the back of his shirt before the boy can look outside through the crack. “They’ll see you!”
“They’re just tendrils, old chap!” Jake protests.
You offer Redglare a hand up. There will be time to have words about trust and not running off to die without so much as a wave with Sufferer later, but the situation has clearly become more dire than the need to hold your family together. “Sufferer? How much time do we have?”
“I don’t know!” he says, helplessly, one hand still fisted in the back of Jake’s shirt lest he get any ideas. “I can see all the timelines but I don’t know which one’s the right one!”
“S’cool,” Roxy says, fight with Condesce postponed for now. “Me an’ Leery here are keeping us hidden.” She pats Darkleer on the chest absently, who is stoic in the face of nicknames. “English is probably just trying to get us scared or flush us out.”
Everyone who was missing arrives in a flood of panic and shouting. More of them than you want to think about are wearing brightly-coloured god tier robes, and the fact that they can fly does not help with quieting and organising them. It takes Condesce threatening to pin everyone to the floor for the rabble to subside. Aradia, Handmaid, Sollux, and Psiionic look ready to carry the threat out, and the feeling of psionics crowding the room is what finally silences everyone.
In the silence, Karkat folds his arms. “Since my extremely generous estimation of your collective intelligence would have to plunge into the negatives otherwise, I am going to assume that we are safe for the time being, and that this chunk of wall fell off the building due to renown shoddy local building practices.”
“KK, you can thee the Mileth,” Sollux says.
“I am pretending they do not exist, because that would mean we are about to die,” Karkat says, and kicks Sollux in the ankle.
“We’re fine!” Roxy says. “We’re hiding.”
“We are doing an excellent job of it,” Terezi says. “I can’t see any of you!”
Sufferer bursts out laughing, then guiltily claps his hands over his mouth. Redglare’s mouth hooks up into a smirk in pride of her descendant, and suddenly the tension in the room has dissipated. Knowing Terezi, even if it was a different version of Terezi, you wouldn’t be surprised if she had made the joke for that very reason.
“Well, if that’s everything,” Karkat says, although even he seems to be less tightly-wound than before. “Back to work, peons! We have preparations to make.”
John, barring Karkat’s path to the door, jumps up and down slightly higher than he should be able to. “No we don’t, Karkat, that’s what I was trying to tell you!”
“What? No, we have to-”
“It’s all done,” John says, patiently. “Ask Rose!”
Rose pushes her hood back and lays a hand on Karkat’s arm. “We could prepare for a year at this point and it wouldn’t make a difference, Karkat. All of the necessary pieces are in place. It’s time we won this game.”
“You’re looking forward to this,” he accuses.
“Living peacefully?” Rose quips. “I suppose I am.”
Outside, the Red Miles cut a building in half. As it crumbles to the ground, carapacians fleeing the shrapnel, Karkat sighs and nods.
For all that everyone is ready and willing to end this adventure, there is still some last-minute organisation to be done. You make a point of talking to all of your cohort, most of whom are now god tier, even if they removed the garb. Summoner is doing as well as you’d expect, and something about the way the Grand Highblood looms over him convinces you to not question him too long.
Disciple is watching Darkleer like prey, and prods at him when he starts getting analytical about your situation. The statistics are not in your favour, you have to admit, but you don’t think the situation is as dire as Darkleer does. Disciple grabs your elbow as you get up to leave them and pulls you into a hug, nestling her head on your shoulder. “Don’t be too mad at Suffurer,” she says quietly, and Darkleer politely pretends to not hear. “He just wanted to get it ofur and done with.”
“You were there?”
She nods. “And he was there with me.”
You think of her bleeding out on a stone slab and words fail you. Instead, you hug her tighter, rocking back and forth like you used to when she was a child and full of day terrors about her lusus dying. “I’m not mad,” you get out, finally, surprised to find that it’s the truth. “I just wish I had been there too.”
Handmaid and Condesce are together, talking over- well, arguing over strategies to defeat Lord English once your Time players have him locked down. They go silent when they see you, which should worry you, but you are quite honestly over demanding to know everything. They’re the two who know the most about Lord English, and they’re the two that stand any hope of coming up with something viable. They’ll tell you when they decide they need your help, likely sooner rather than later.
“Whale?” Condesce says, before you even have a chance to greet her or Handmaid. Her fins flare out, a clear show of disapproval at your interruption.
“I’m just checking on everyone,” you say. “I see your cut has healed.”
“Benefit of being a Life player,” she snaps. “We’re ferry busea, Dolorosa.”
You take a seat. “I’m just worried about how everyone is holding together,” you say, radiating sincerity and concern. Handmaid’s eyes dart from you to Condesce nervously. “Are you coping appropriately?”
Condesce lays her hands flat on the table. “I’m coping by keeping us all breafin! Go tend to your grubs, Dolorosa.”
“After the fight with Roxy...” you say.
“I’ve FORGOTT----EN IT,” she snarls. “Now, if you don’t mind?”
“Psi and Dualscar are at the lake,” Handmaid interjects, her tone flat as ever. You still think you can detect a hint of amusement. “Since you’ll want to check up on them.” Before you can say anything else, she nudges you along. “We’re both fine.”
“Tell me as soon as you agree on a plan,” you say, and leave, given your lack of other options.
Dualscar and Psiionic are, indeed, at the lake that Dualscar terrified a Carapacian into finding. They’re sitting on the shoreline in the mud, talking, Psiionic resting his feet in Dualscar’s lap. You decide to not intrude on their moment and leave before they notice you.
You find Redglare and Sufferer together, Redglare wrapped in Sufferer’s cape and clearly delighted at the ability to swoosh around in her namesake colour. Sufferer looks up at you and waves a moment before you say hello, and you wave weakly in return.
Redglare draws the cape around herself and stalks closer to you. You prepare to access your strife specibus, just in case she feels like an impromptu showdown, but at the last moment she springs to her full height, kisses you on the cheek, and runs off in a dramatic flare of cape, yelling, “Pchooooo!”
There is absolutely no way that you could not have fallen for Redglare, you suddenly realise.
“Rosa?” You jump a little and turn back to Sufferer, who is looking his most contrite. “I’m sorry.”
You realise that with his new powers, Sufferer has probably seen every timeline where you have lectured him. And the amazing thing about your grub is that he can do what he believes is right and still be sorry afterwards. And Disciple was with him, which means that he wasn’t alone.
“You should be, for giving Redglare that cape,” you say, sternly. “I’ll never get her out of it.”
He pulls a face. “Rosa!”
You’re all as well as can be expected, you think. All you have to do is survive what comes next.
Rose steals people in ones and twos, Handmaid and Sufferer, Jade and Kanaya, Roxy and Darkleer, Karkat, Dirk, Jane, you.
You get the impression that there is not so much a plan as there is the general outline of one, a gambit that will let you see what happens next. Still, you brought who you could here on the slim chance that you could all spend a lifetime peacefully after this, and now it’s out of your hands.
Skaia is unfamiliar ground to you, but to the humans and Karkat’s cohort, it’s very nearly home. They have the advantage here, and they choose to press it, scouting out a flat, featureless section of battlefield that precludes the possibility of you getting snuck up on. You have superior numbers, superior knowledge of the field, and three gods of Time on your side.
You can’t help but be nervous anyway.
You’ve borrowed a pair of needles from Handmaid instead of your usual fare, in case the extra firepower is useful. Roxy and Darkleer have stopped radiating Void, with some confusion on Darkleer’s part since he was unsure how he started in the first place. Now you are waiting, ready in case you are needed, strongly suspicious that you are not.
Your suspicions are proven wrong when carapacians start slinking towards you, weapons in hand.
Your hands tighten on the needles. They had always been friendly, if not entirely communicative, and now have a slack look to them that makes you regret the idea of killing them. Still, needs must, and you will do what it takes to keep your side alive. This is clearly the advance wave, and the best thing to do would be to show there is no need to send another. Lord English must come here himself if you are to defeat him.
You step forward, raise your needles, and are hit by a wave of sound that gives you nightmares. It drives you to the ground, trembling, and in between the world flickering you can see it’s having a similar effect on both the carapacians and humans. The Grand Highblood towers over the battlefield, horrors writhing around him as he lets out his screech.
You see Sufferer on the execution pillar, flesh melting down his frame. You see Psiionic eaten alive by biotech piece by piece. You see Disciple wither into nothing, sobbing the whole time, and are only distinctly aware that you are sobbing too and the sound still will not stop. You see Redglare’s head ripped from her body and eaten by a spider, you see Mindfang torn to pieces and badly rebuilt, you see all this and scream and scream and scream until the sound reverberates through your body and you can’t see anything else.
When the world stops being you and the nightmares, the carapacians have fled and your side shows signs of doing the same. Summoner has his hand clamped over his moirail’s mouth in the most necessary shoosh of any shooshpap to date.
You unfold, carefully. You wipe off your cheeks and ignore the stinging of the long scratches you’ve rent in your hands and face and anywhere there was uncovered skin. “Chucklevoodoos,” you say, tasting the word. It’s the first time you’ve ever experienced them. You thought they were subjugglator myth, to be honest.
The Highblood starts laughing behind Summoner’s hand. He doesn’t stop until you take two quick steps and slap him across the face with all the force you can muster with your feet planted and the swivel of your hips and shoulders. He staggers back, which surprises you. He’s so much taller and heavier you didn’t expect to have much of an effect other than quieting him, which also happened.
“Girl,” he says, “that is no way to up and show your gratitude.”
“I might care if I was grateful.” You throw out an arm to gesture to everyone on your side, who are maintaining a healthy distance from you, the Highblood, and Summoner. “Do we look in any condition to fight now? You’ve undermined us!”
“Got those little ant-brothers to leave without getting their blood everywhere,” he says, ignoring your point entirely. “Could have done it traditionally if you’d expressed a preference, sister.”
Summoner wraps his hand around the Highblood’s wrist and grips hard enough that the skin starts going pale. “Gra, you overdid it. Don’t do it again.”
“I will exercise all kinds of motherfucking caution,” the Highblood says, which is not an agreement exactly, but it will have to do. You glare nails at Summoner until his mouth tightens and he nods. He’ll keep his moirail under control, or else you’ll have to do something about it.
Sufferer edges closer. “Not to kill this beautiful moment, but we have-”
A Future Dave appears and lets out a piercing whistle through his fingers. “Battle stations!”
“That,” Sufferer says.
You don’t have battle stations so much as you have an arrangement that means nobody is in anybody else’s way and the Time players have a clear view of the field. Everyone is still shaky from the attack of chucklevoodoos, but you group together and stand ready nonetheless.
Sufferer stands between Aradia and Dave, scanning the battlefield. You know he’s running the timelines, and that between Aradia and Dave keeping time constant and Lord English trying to wrest away control, finding the correct timeline must be like trying to untangle a thousand threads. He keeps twitching, as if Lord English is about to appear, but every time he does Dave spins his timetables or Aradia turns the handle of a music box and time seems to skip a little.
“Alright!” Sufferer says, after a long, tense minute. “He’s locked into this timeline, we have to-”
“We’ve got it from here,” Dave says, hands dancing across his timetables. Aradia nods firmly in agreement, an eerie clockwork melody rising as she adjusts the quartz crystals inside her music boxes. Then the music skips a beat, you feel thrown out of your body, and you realise that somehow, the two of them are playing time.
Then Lord English appears, and you almost drop your needles as you go slack.
He towers. He’s taller than the Grand Highblood, for whom ‘grand’ is a very literal descriptor. He’s overmuscled and skeletal at the same time, and his skin is a dull green that you suspect attacks would bounce off. He has billiard balls for eyes and they are nowhere near as absurd as they should be.
You feel a vaguely sick feeling rise in your gut and hope he doesn’t remember you shouting at him as Doc Scratch.
He roars in rage just as you come to your senses and raise your needles. There’s a flicker of misplaced time before Dave scratches a record and Lord English resolidifies, firmly caught in your trap. With no way out but forward, he raises his cane as it begins to morph into a long rifle, and you let loose a wave of rage through needlekind. He is the last obstacle standing in your way and you will not fail here.
You’re already moving again as the light dies away, everyone else scattering as if your action woke them up too. Psiionic is already gathering power while Sollux throws up shields for Aradia and Dave. Sufferer is running full-tilt towards Jane, and just manages to pull her out of the way of Lord English’s shot. Rose shouts things that you can’t quite hear and you all flow where she points.
One of English’s bullets bites Kanaya in the leg and Sufferer is there to scoop her up and run back behind Sollux’s shields. Terezi is the first to draw Lord English’s blood, and it’s the same red as your grub’s. It hits you suddenly that Lord English must be a person beyond all that he has done to destroy your universe, and the possibilities that lie behind turning a person into someone who ends universes makes you bite the inside of your cheek and grip your needles tighter. There’s no point in feeling sorry for someone about to murder everyone you hold dear.
You thought the same about Condesce, once.
But he created Condesce.
He is still a force to be reckoned with, even with Dave and Aradia taking away his time powers. He is faster than he should be and his gun seems to make impossible shots. Kanaya was the first hit, but Summoner and Darkleer are quickly taken out as well. Jane hovers over them behind the shields, repairing broken bone and tissue, replenishing blood, but they’re hardly fit for fighting afterwards. Disciple rakes long wounds down his back and legs, but English punches her and she lands roughly on the hard ground, her breathing quick and shallow. You stand over her until Condesce can patch her up, and Redglare runs in to slash at him as a distraction, too close for him to shoot.
The needles call to you, whispering destruction in your ear. You could explode him from the inside out, you’re sure. This is merely a game. You’d be supplied with all the power you’d need, if you could just-
“Aradia, do it!” Dave yells. The squeal of a record stopping and then silence, heavy and thick, fills the air. Your needles are gone, and when you look Condesce has them- but she was with Disciple, and now she’s looking at you, and-
Lord English is dead still in the centre of the battlefield, glowing red clockwork blinking in and out of existence around him. Aradia has frozen him in time and she stands there before him, as unmoving as he is. Only the rise and fall of her chest shows that she’s not frozen with him, but locked in concentration instead. You’ve won the battle, you realise, and flex your hands. You’d almost ruined everything by abusing needlekind. Or perhaps by needlekind abusing you.
“We don’t play with horrorterrors,” Condesce says archly, but not so loud that the others can hear. “Will you krill us all if I give you your weapon back?”
“I don’t think so,” you reply, in complete honesty. Condesce snorts and hands back your needles anyway. They lie inert in your hands and after a moment you tuck them into your sash. “What now?”
Condesce tilts her head towards where the Space players are clustered together. “Now we figure out how to make it permanent.”
Chapter 24: Chapter 21
Handmaid and Condesce cannot agree on a method of disabling Lord English. The Alpha kids, for reasons they are unwilling to explain, are on the side of incapacitating him permanently rather than killing him. The Beta kids are apathetic, and the younger trolls are on the side of killing him, just to be sure. It turns into a long argument that, for once, you have no desire to mediate. Once they’ve all stopped shouting, perhaps.
Dave has taken over the duty of keeping Lord English frozen, headphones trailing from his timetables firmly clamped over his ears as he nods to a beat that only he can hear. Redglare peels away from everyone else when she notices you walking over to him, matching her steps with yours. She seems surprised when you reach out to take her hand, firmly interlocking your fingers with hers, but you still feel strange after the incident you had earlier. Dave hooks his headphones off to rest around his neck as the two of you approach.
Redglare lets go of your hand and keeps walking up to Lord English, presumably to poke him in the knee. You fold your arms uncertainly, your needles digging into your side. “I’m not sure,” you admit once Redglare is out of earshot, and Dave’s eyebrows rise over the rim of his sunglasses. “I had a moment,” you say slowly, “where I wasn’t... completely in control. And I thought, perhaps Rose...”
“Can’t blame you for not wanting to stand under the waterfall of purple prose,” Dave says, easily. “Lalonde let the horrorterrors get in her head by using, hang on let me get the right amount of wanky goth Ys here, dark majyyks. The needles you’re using are basically a gateway drug to grimdarkness.”
“Ah,” you say, and pull out the needles to look at them. Your hands fit around them as if they were made for you, even though they were Handmaid’s. Ever since you first used them to destroy the scratch, you’ve known things would be easier with their power, but now you’ve contained Lord English and there’s no reason for the additional firepower. You’re a decent fighter on your own. Mindfang and Redglare saw to that.
You try to make yourself snap them and can’t.
“Dave?” you say, a little helplessly.
He reaches out and takes the needles, looking at them for a moment before breaking them each in half. “It’s cool. Rose couldn’t do it either.”
“Our tentacled friends are trying very hard to live on,” a cool voice says from behind you. You jerk in surprise, but Rose lays a hand on your arm to calm you. “There’s no shame. They’re desperate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Condesce and Handmaid were experiencing similar urges.” She purses her lips. “They seem to like women in hopeless circumstances, with a lot of pent-up rage.”
“Welp,” Dave says, and puts his headphones back on. “Run while you can. I smell thesis.”
“What do you mean, live on?” Redglare asks, making you jump for the second time in the same minute. You’re getting very bad at noticing people behind you. “They’re in the Furthest Ring, yes? The Furthest Ring should be unaffected by what we do here.”
Rose shakes her head. “From what I’ve gathered, The Game is a method of propagating universes, which the horrorterrors cultivate, similarly to how they were able to create the dreambubbles. If we make it so the game no longer exists in further universes, then we deny them further sustenance. We’ll be starving them, essentially.” She spreads her hands. “With that said, I’d appreciate your help corralling these idiots into casting votes, Dolorosa.”
“If only we still had Mindfang,” you say, wryly. Redglare laughs. It’s something, at least.
In the end it takes three hours, Aradia and Dave becoming more and more annoyed, Condesce stalking off and coming back with a trident, and the first time you’ve ever heard Handmaid shout to get everyone to listen to you. When they’re all quiet, you sit down and gesture to Handmaid.
“We can’t kill Lord English,” she says, slowly and with hand gestures, as if she is explaining things to a group of three-sweep-olds. “Or we could, but he’d almost certainly kill some of us first! He knows that Condesce and Jane are the Life players now, and do you really want to take the chance of letting him loose just to undo all the work we did to get here?”
A general grumble through the group assents that they’d rather that didn’t happen.
“Thank you,” Handmaid says, with no small amount of frustration. “What I can do, with Kanaya and Jade’s help, is enclose him in his own pocket of space for eternity.”
“Like a dreambubble?” Terezi asks. “Because they do not seem to be terribly secure! I will have to object to this plan.”
“I can fix it to stay closed and offer him no control over the terrain inside,” Handmaid says. “He’s a Lord of Time, not of Space. And he won’t be able to send Condesce or I to break him out, since he’s been locked into linear time since he knew this would happen.”
“I thought you wanted revenge,” Roxy says, suspiciously. “Why’re you letting him live?”
You think of the later perigees in your dream bubble, when Redglare would go out to wander the desert and you’d sew things nobody would ever need and all of you did pointless busywork because you were all so, so bored with static life. And that was with twelve of you. Lord English will be on his own. “It’s not really living,” you say. “Just existing.”
“Could we do it now?” Aradia asks, music box resting on her lap. “Dave and I are getting tired.”
Watching Handmaid create a dreambubble is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen. She folds space in on itself until it’s solid, building up curved walls that shimmer slightly and block out the view of the battlefield behind them despite being transparent. At the halfway mark she begins beckoning you over one by one and placing your hands on the bubble. It shimmers a different colour each time, seemingly linked to your aspect.
“I’m linking it to the game,” Handmaid says, before you can ask. She presses your hand to the bubble and you feel something yank inside you. “I told you I’d need all of you.”
“What about Mindfang?” you ask, as the bubble turns a deep, rich red.
“Sollux will fill in for Doom, and Rose will provide Light for Vriska.” She pulls your hand away and nods. “Blood made the structure stronger. I thought it would.”
“This is all guesswork and magic, isn’t it?” you ask.
“Well-informed guesswork!” she says, cheerfully, and beckons over Jade. The bubble is almost complete around Lord English’s prone form, and with a squint and a wave of her hands, Jade begins to shrink him so that the bubble is more on the scale of a universe. He looks much less impressive when he’s the size of your forearm.
“If he doesn’t get control, how will he have food and water?” you ask, as it occurs to you. It was down to you to make sure everyone had what they needed in your bubble, and after a while it became routine to summon the usual things at set periods, even though you technically didn’t need to. Lord English will. “He is alive.”
Handmaid’s expression goes blank, and it’s only then that you realise the good being with all of you has done. “How sad.”
“Handmaid,” you insist.
She sighs and waves over Condesce, placing her hand against the surface of the bubble with more force than strictly necessary. “There, Life,” she says, while Condesce rubs her wrist and scowls. Between the two of them you’re almost sorry you asked.
The process, while very otherworldly and intriguing, can only be stared at for so long before you get bored. The only ones who still watch over it are the Space players, Aradia and Dave, and the Pyropes, who have both become utterly transfixed by the play of colours that started sliding over the surface of the bubble as soon as all the aspects had touched it.
You manage to convince the carapacians to bring you food, and then manage to convince everyone to eat. Everyone eats in furtive, quick bites and it’s hard to resist the urge to tell them that Lord English will not free himself somehow and attack them for daring to keep themselves going.
Kanaya fetches you an hour later. The bubble is almost done. Everyone stands in an indefensible clump in front of it as Handmaid slots in the last piece and Lord English disappears into his own universe. You can practically hear time snap free from him as Dave and Aradia stagger and collapse in a heap.
“That’s it?” Karkat asks.
Handmaid shakes her head. “I have to go hide the bubble. Jade?”
“On it!” Jade repeats the gesture she used to shrink Lord English and the dreambubble shrinks as well, until Handmaid can tuck it into a pocket that you swear appears in her god tier outfit when you’re not looking.
Handmaid disappears without a word once she has the bubble safely stowed.
“Is that it?” Karkat asks, hopefully.
“We have to win the game to claim the ultimate reward,” Dirk says, and turns slightly to face Condesce. So do Roxy, Jane, and Jake. “That means defeating the Black Queen.” His fingers hover over the hilt of the sword strapped to his side. Roxy raises her fists, Jake draws pistols, and Jane pulls out a small trident.
“I yeeld,” Condesce says, smugly. Only Condesce could sound smug while yielding.
“Beg pardon?” says Jake.
“I YI----ELD,” Condesce repeats, and pulls a necklace out from under the collar of her bodysuit. “I can do that,” she says as she snaps the necklace and holds the ring on it out to the Alpha kids. “We can go to Derse and you can sit in the throne if you R--E--ELY want to, halibut it’s not ferry comfortable.”
Jane lowers her trident and elbows Dirk aside to take the ring. “That won’t be necessary, thank you.”
A red hive appears, but instead of being composed of four panels to represent Jane, Jake, Dirk, and Roxy, there are twenty-five small squares. Everyone is silent as they take a mental count of how many your group totals, then the silence continues as everyone wonders how the Game knows. A door is set into the hive, but it doesn’t open when Summoner tests it.
“Who has the Genesis Frog?” Condesce asks, eventually.
“Oh! Um, he’s here somewhere,” Jade says, as things start flying out of her sylladex. You duck just in time to escape an extremely odd pair of goggles and a lemon-yellow horrorterror plush. “Got him!” she says, holding aloft an 8-ball.
Condesce peers in through the aperture and taps the clear window twice. The 8-ball ribbits back. “Well,” she says. “That’s a first.”
Handmaid appears in a flash of green. “Done,” she announces, dusting her hands.
“Where did you put it?” Psiionic asks.
She looks at him and then shakes her head in despair. “I hid it.” She crosses to Condesce and looks into the 8-ball. “Are we ready?”
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” Condesce says, and hands the 8-ball to Handmaid. You wait for the agreement of Dirk and Karkat before giving Handmaid the nod, and she removes the frog from the 8-ball in another flash of light.
“He needs a name,” Jade says, scooping him out of Handmaid’s now-ink-stained hands.
“That is the most pan-rotting idea that I have heard this sweep, Harley-”
“-naw, Karbro, their guy all up and had a name-”
“-Perhaps we could name him once we’ve finished-”
“-Oh my god, you guys! You guys! He has to be named Wilfrog-”
“That is the worst name I have ever heard and I will let you name the frog over my dead body, which is looking increasingly likely due to natural entropy, can we stop arguing about the frog’s name and go-”
“-Billy for short, because he’s, like, baby Bilious Slick-”
“-what part of it’s not happeningdo you not understand, incestuous slurry has more intelligence than this-”
“-He’s accepted the troll habit of portmanteau, clearly our cross-cultural society can only go well from here-”
“-Wilfrog Hopstermeister,” John finishes, triumphantly. Karkat shakes his head and walks off, clearly unable to deal with the blow of a ridiculously-named frog that you don’t quite grasp the importance of.
Jade yells in surprise, then immediately dives at the ground. “I dropped Wilfrog!”
The newly-named Wilfrog hops away from the twenty-five people scrambling after him, clears the final few metres to the red hive, and then disappears into it. The whole structure ripples and then goes still, a glow emanating from the door you suspect is no longer stuck closed.
“Oh,” Jade says.
John pats her shoulder. “He’s in a better place now, Jade.”
There is a lot of, ‘you open it,’ ‘no you open it,’ about the gateway to your next universe before you get up, collect Jane, Rose, and Karkat, and open it together. All of you escape unscathed from the dread act of opening a door, which comes as a surprise to everyone except the four of you. And if your hands were shaking on the doorknob, well, it was a group effort.
Handmaid is the first through the door, followed by Condesce. The Alpha kids and Beta kids follow them, and then you shoo the younger trolls through first. It’s their reward, and they deserve it.
“What if we’re separated?” Summoner finally asks.
You look at the group - at your group. You’ve been through enough now to become bonded, and lived together for long enough that being forcibly separated would be a huge blow. “We’ll be fine,” you say, with confidence you don’t exactly feel. “Trollian has worked in all the iterations we’ve been in so far. We’ll be able to contact each other.”
“What if we forget all of this?” he presses.
“Do you really think we will?” You gesture to Sufferer. “We have at least one person who won’t,” you say. “And I’m sure it won’t come to that.” You hesitate a moment, then point to the door. “Go. Now. Before you talk yourself out of it.”
“Heh,” he says, and goes through the door. He has to turn sideways to fit through, and the Highblood has to duck when he follows.
Disciple rolls her eyes. “He’s too dumb to survive over there on his own, I’d better go.” She hugs all of you, even Dualscar and Redglare, and walks through the door with no fear. Darkleer follows her without hesitation, and Psiionic and Sufferer follow after her as well under their age-old agreement that at least one of them has to supervise Disciple at all times.
Dualscar hesitates before following his quadrantmates and holds a hand out to you. “Dol, thanks.”
You take his hand, mystified by the formal gesture. “For what?”
“For forgivvin’ me,” he says, simply. “An’ acceptin’ me into your hivve. Acceptin’ all a’ us, but it meant a lot to me.” A trace of nerves crosses his face. “An’ maybe wwhen wwe’re on the other side I could make you dinner?”
You feel a bright flush spread over your cheeks. “Dualscar, are you pale propositioning me?”
“An’ it’s about time,” he says. Then, unlike the Dualscar who you first dragged out of the water so many perigees ago, instead of waiting for your answer he presses his lips to your hand and lets go. “Let me knoww,” he says, before stepping through the door.
Redglare lets out a low whistle.
“Not a word,” you say, still green to the tips of your ears.
“Just saying, if he tries to get ashen with Disciple-”
You bury your face in your hands.
Redglare pulls your hands away from your face to kiss you. “You said you’d get us here, kicking and screaming, and you did,” she says, and leads you to the doorway. “Time for our reward.”
You grip her hand tightly and step through with her.
You wake up on a rest slab in a room that looks very much, but not quite like your respiteblock. The sunlight that comes through the curtains is Earth yellow. Your husktop blinks on a desk in the corner.
You reach up and pat your hair. Yes, still a troll.
It takes a moment for you to convince yourself to get off the rest slab and turn on the husktop. As it boots up, you look outside your respiteblock. The hive seems to follow the floor plan yours did, before you had to cannibalise the structure to fit in more people than it was ever meant to hold.
There’s a note on the table of the dining room.
YOU WON’T WAKE UP BECAUSE YOU CAME THROUGH LAST OR SOMETHING, HANDMAID AND CONDESCE ARE ABOUT AS CLUELESS AS EVERYONE ELSE FOR ONCE. I’M GOING TO GO FIND PSI AND DUALSCAR. MESSAGE ME WHEN YOU WAKE UP. MESSAGE DISCIPLE TOO.
You tuck the note away in a pocket. His handwriting is better proof to you of his existence than talking to him online could be.
Trollian has a thousand new messages when it opens, most of them from a memo that Handmaid opened as soon as she got through. You announce your presence and then sit back to stare at your contact list. All of the names are lit up except two: acquiredGoods, which will always be grey now, and guiltlessCustodian.
Worry gnaws at you.
You busy yourself by exploring the hive. The inside is the same as ever, but outside appears to be a mix of Alternian and Earth suburbia, spiraling towers with bright canopies next to blocky, square houses neatly fenced off. It must be the Game’s parting gift, keeping you all close.
You go back to staring at your husktop. When someone knocks on the door, you almost think you’re imagining it. Almost. When they knock again, you’re there to open it.
Redglare stands there, panting, hair a mess and glasses askew. She’s teal all over from exertion, but she still smiles razor-toothed up at you and says, “Did you know you’re the only Dolorosa in the phone directory?”
“It’s an uncommon title,” you say on reflex, and step back to let her in.
She shakes her head and grabs you by the wrist. “I am not coming in! Are you ready to go raise some hell, Maryam?”
You’re out the door following her before you can begin to process how happy you are.
-- averseAttendant [AA] has started trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
AA: s0 the thing is
AA: we s0rt 0f f0rg0t t0 destr0y the gate
AA: it w0uld have meant leaving s0me0ne behind anyway
AA: but the fact that it’s still standing means that the game has a pathway thr0ugh t0 this w0rld
AA: but h0nestly i think i’m 0kay with that
AA: l0rd english is 0ut 0f the picture which means that games fr0m n0w 0n will be fair
AA: and they are part 0f the natural pr0cess 0f universes
AA: the game w0n’t 0ccur t0 this universe until entr0py has run its c0urse
AA: and then this universe will be key in spawning a new universe like it’s supp0sed t0!
AA: i think that’s 0kay.
GA is an idle troll!
AA: have fun
-- averseAttendant [AA] has ceased trolling graciousAntecedent [GA] --
Welp, that's that. Hope you enjoyed, guys!