"Thorns are chiefly weapons of Warding. As such, there is often to be found some sweet treasure the Herb or Tree is obliged to defend against those who would steal it: the odorous blossom of the Rose, the moist oasis at the heart of the cactus, the succulent dates of the Crucifixion Thorn. The Thorn, therefore, is naturally endowed with the potencies of brisk defense, and further to this virtue, hatred of its enemies and valour in warfare."
- Daniel Schulke, Viridarium Umbris
No one expects Sollux and Aradia to catch up with the meteor eight months into its journey, but they do. They're both exhausted when they arrive, and Sollux looks nearly as bad as the corpse he'd left behind. He collapses on arrival, psionics exhausted from the effort of catching up.
"I assume," Kanaya murmurs to Aradia, "that the dream bubbles have not been kind to him." Rose overhears them, and sees Aradia's tight, stiff nod. She hangs back, quiet. Dave lurks next to her like an ungainly shadow--he's charged head-on into a growth spurt and his god-tier pajamas have gone all short in the sleeve.
When Karkat sprints to his side Sollux puts his arms up as if to ward him off.
"I need some time away from everybody," he says.
"You heard him, back off, give him some goddamn space," Karkat barks at the assembled population of the meteor.
"Everybody includes you, Karkat," Aradia says, too gently.
"Sorry, KK," Sollux mumbles. "I'm just going to find somewhere to take a break, okay? Don't come looking for me. I'll come out when I'm ready."
He turns accusatory eyes on Sollux. "What, so Aradia is going to be your only point of contact?"
"It includes me too," she says.
At that Karkat's anger gutters out and dies. Sollux shrugs at him helplessly and drifts into the bowels of the meteor. Everyone mills around a moment, not knowing what to say, before they eventually disperse.
Rose doesn't see Sollux again for nearly a year.
It's not as if anyone forgets his presence. They all see signs of him--a book moved, a dirty mug abandoned on a counter, the mirror fogged over in the ablution trap. At one point Terezi stumbles across him and manages to wring a full quarter-hour of conversation from him, a feat which sends Karkat into a week-long sulk. But on the whole his request for solitude is honored.
Everyone's settled into Operation Meteor, claiming their own spaces. Kanaya's carved out a workroom for herself and put herself in charge of keeping them all clothed. The storeroom Dave has annexed is unfortunately not soundproof, and he's taken to recording shitty beats and samples by banging various supplies against the microphone. Karkat has amazingly proved himself to excel in the kitchen, teaming up with the former mayor of Can Town to turn out meals that could put Troll Julia Child to shame. Aradia flits between everyone to help out wherever she can.
(No one is sure where Gamzee is, most of the time. No one is sure they really want to know what he’s doing.)
Rose, for her part, has been alchemizing a library.
She started small, copying books she'd had before the game. Trade paperbacks first, then the first editions and rare finds she'd bought with her mother's credit card online from secondhand dealers and magicians fallen on hard times, then branching out to the rarest tomes she’d never seen in person before. Within half a year she'd accumulated the entire catalogs from Xoanon and Scarlet Imprints, and now she's a solid thirty percent through the offerings of Fulgur Limited. Sometimes Terezi joins her in her storeroom--
("I didn't think you were interested in the occult."
"I am not particularly interested in human nudity and hallucinogens! But this paper is delicious." And she trailed her long dark tongue down a page of Qutub. “Besides, Ms. Lavender Candy, somebody needs to check up on you. There is quite a slippery slope down from here to building ginger-grubloaf hives in the forest.”)
--But more often than not, Rose is alone with a cup of coffee and her books, her cardigan rolled up to the elbow as she makes notes on a legal pad.
The first thing she notices when she walks in is that the cushions are missing from her wicker papasan. She blinks, frowns, looks around, and sees the top edge of an open book poking out from under the table in the center of the room.
"You may want to take a lamp under there with you next time," she says. "Reading in the dark is awful for your eyes." And then she remembers it doesn’t matter, wonders if he reads by touch or by taste now.
"Yes, lusus dearest."
Something about the caustic tone makes her smile, and she carefully stifles it before she kneels down. "What are you reading?" She doesn’t bother to ask where he’s been, what he’s been doing, what brought him in. Somehow it seems irrelevant. Time blurs together on the meteor anyway, and she can’t say for sure anymore how long it’s been since they last met.
Sollux scoots slightly out of his pile of cushions and holds up the book, closing it on his finger so he doesn't lose his place. "It looked interesting."
Rose arches an eyebrow. "It's the Viridarium Umbris, and it's worth over a thousand dollars." Or it had been, back when there was still an Earth with a market for such things. "Though I wasn't aware you were interested in horticulture."
She understands it too soon, and sympathizes, though she hides that as carefully as she did her smile.
"What happened in the dream bubbles?" She's only seen a handful herself, and found them not particularly pleasant. They've passed through some as the meteor travels, but Sollux has never joined any of them in exploration, though undoubtedly he’s heard Terezi’s calls to arms ring through the station.
His muscles tighten, and he stares at her in baleful silence for a long moment. His blank eyes don’t unsettle her. She’s gotten used to Terezi, after all.
"Human magic," he finally says, "is supposed to be about dealing with massive forces that exist beyond the scope of your comprehension."
"So you encountered the horrorterrors and had to make a saving throw for your SAN check," Rose muses. "And now you're looking for clues as to how I handle it, aren't you?"
She rises and dusts off her skirt.
"You know, you don't have to go back into the dream bubbles."
That comment actually brings Sollux out from under the table. For a half-ghost he’s surprisingly solid. He draws himself up to his full height like a particularly irate meerkat, all elbows and long torso and sharp frown.
"Yeah, because when has fucking ignoring a weakness ever not backfired spectacularly on any of us? I'm smarter than that, and I hope you are too, since you charted the course this stupid hunk of rock is on." He spits a little on his plosives, anger spoiling his enunciation. "I may not be any use at it but if I'm a fucking mage then I better learn how it's done."
He couldn't have come to a better source.
She heads to the bookcase and pulls down an armful of tomes: Schulke's Lux Haeresis ("Lux Haeresis," she thinks with a certain grim satisfaction, ought to be a rung on her echeladder), the Praxis Magica Faustiana (printed in the Municipal Library of Weimar in 1571, it says--never mind that no Municipal Library existed in that year), Huson's Mastering Witchcraft (she's got it memorized herself, but starting from the basics never hurt anyone), a first edition of Liber AL vel Legis (and she bets this is a law Terezi's never dreamed of), Chumbley's Azoetia (a shortcut to understanding the ipseity of the Path Itself, if Sollux can be convinced to suffer through the florid language).
As an afterthought she pulls down One: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad from the top shelf (Chumbley again--why are so many of the best magicians rich British men, anyway?). Though it’s a slim volume, it's the pride of her collection. Only seventy-seven copies had been printed on Earth, and she’d never gotten one. It had taken her three tries to alchemize it properly. She opens the book to its endpapers to check, and it's still there: a little white envelope containing a blackthorn and a triangle of toadskin.
"There are horrible things out there," she says conversationally. "And if you go down this road there can be horrible things in here, too."
"This fucking game is all about horrible things," Sollux snaps. "Give me the damn books."
"Hekas hekas este bebeloi," she murmurs, tapping her fingers against the cover of the first, and wonders if she'll need to talk Kanaya into helping her alchemize a natterjack.
Rose thunks down the stack of books on the table with a smile she doesn't bother concealing.
“And so, Beloved, must I say unto you:
Eat and ye shall be Wise!”
- Andrew Chumbley, One: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad
Three days later Sollux has dinner with the rest of the meteor. Aradia looks from Rose to him and grins, winking at her when she thinks he’s not paying attention. Karkat sits next to him and doesn’t shut up for the entire meal.
A week after that the meteor reaches another dream bubble. Rose can feel the horrorterrors hovering around its edges, lower emissaries of the Noble Circle. They’re not the biggest or the worst of the lot. They’re not invincible. But they’re still extremely powerful.
Sollux says he wants to go in alone.
Rose leans back into the squashy velveteen cushion of her papasan and takes deep breaths. She stops hearing, stops seeing--slips into perfect praedormitium--and taps into the grimdark current.
Their names are mangled smashes of unpronounceable signs. She digs through the tangle for the information. Almost every demonic name passed through grimoire tradition was once the name of a horrorterror, though time and the human tongue have corrupted them. But through the whispers (Ogolg, Arsellagc, Yuushmr, Nyarukosn, Xintn), she hears it.
It’s a sign if there ever was one. She reaches inside for her Light, and examines the paths he can take. Not all of them end in victory, and even the ones that do are rough. Over and over she sees possibilities: Sollux’s skinny frame twisted and broken, Sollux flinging the horrorterror’s bones into the murky river running through the dream bubble to send one screaming upstream, Sollux with his hands over his ears unable to drown out the voices of every dark thing he’s ever thought and every dead memory he can’t escape.
Rose hauls herself back to consciousness and smiles calmly at him.
“The way has been prepared before you,” she says, and pulls out the Thorns of Oglogoth. She considers them in her hands before turning one around and offering it to him skull-first. The needle looks small and too fragile in his long fingers. Can he really impale the horrorterror on just that one thorn, pin it so that the flesh may be rent from what bones it has? She wonders if she has given him enough, or just enough rope. “I wish you the best of luck in your personal oneiric hell.”
“Keep your luck,” he says. “I can get by on brains.”
All thought reined unto the strength of will, he goes forth into the dream.
The Waters of the Moon is, on its surface, a simple rite.
Find a toad--or in this case, a horrorterror.
Kill it, and strip the flesh from the skeleton, preferably by pinning it to an anthill. (Rose suspects Sollux’s method will be much messier.)
Cast the bones into the river, and claim the one that floats upstream, away from its fellows, as the world itself comes alive to try and stop the rite (howling winds whipping past, the trees reaching to restrain you, the night-birds screaming auguries dire--at least, that’s how the story goes).
Take the bone and hold the vigil for three nights. Your ghosts will speak to you. Every evil, selfish thing you’ve ever dreamed will haunt you. The corpses in the earth and the little bugs that eat them will teach you their secret languages.
On the third night you will be challenged. It is written by Chumbley that, “if the Devil succeeds, then all is lost, but if the Devil’s blood be upon your hands, and if the bone is retained through thick and through thin, then the Power of the Mystery is bestowed in completion, straight to the heart of the Seeker.”
Hold fast to the bone, and if you should win, the Word shall be yielded to you.
And the Word is sic jubeo.
“Sabatraxas?” she whispers when he finally comes back, like a shibboleth. His pants leg is torn, and one pocket bulges with his prize, proof of his victory; his hair drips with muck. A long deep scratch has dried dirty-mustard on his forearm, ending just beneath his knobby elbow. He is all rags and bones and she feels a sudden wash of tenderness towards him.
Sollux grins and holds up a Thorn, still dripping with ichor. “Sabatraxas,” he answers triumphantly.
That’s a toad bone in his pocket. But yes, he’s happy to see her.
It spake to me and charm'd me,
And led me through the Fire's breach,
And named me and true-swore me:
The Sabbat's Arte, to learn, to teach.
- Andrew Chumbley, Azoëtia