Arrays of vibrantly colored liquids swamp the ground, in every shade in the spectrum, and some besides. To the casual observer, it is a quaint sight, ridiculously childish, especially as it clashes with the dark scenery that looms overhead.
In the eyes of the ten kids who have to walk tread over the liquid, it is a nauseating reminder of the friends that they had been looking forward to reuniting with.
Their leader reaches behind him and offers a comforting hand to one of his grieving teammates.
Determined not to break, choking back her bitter tears, she turns away from him and marches on ahead, urging the others along without making a sound. She doesn’t want the others to see her weakness, even as she averts her eyes from a crimson smear on the wall beside her.
The weeping girl doesn’t immediately respond to her name. There is so much she has to say, but the words are stuck in her throat.
‘What do you even want me to say at this point?’
‘Is it even worth it to continue?’
‘Oh, come on, I didn’t really mean that. Is it too much to ask just to leave me alone for one moment?’
And most of all,
‘Do you really think they’re… gone?’
She falters just a moment, but her friends don’t waste a second. The first one to get to her is a winged orange knight, who simply rests a comforting hand on her shoulder. She smiles just a second before shrugging him off.
They continue the dark corridor as one unit, trying not to lose their grip on the slick floor.
“How can there be this much blood,” one of the females standing behind Jade muses, making Jade’s stomach roll. She almost turns around to yell at her, but then comes to her senses. This is no time for fighting amongst themselves.
It might just because someone pointed it out, but suddenly the rich smell of the trolls’ metallic blood is almost unbearable now, and some of them turn away to gag quietly.
That is their background noise: some stifled dry heaving, some wet sobs, the shuffling of cautious feet. And even more faint, a chorus of deafening silence, the pure tangible horror weighing down on their shoulders, impossible to ignore. It steadily grows louder as they realize just how real their situation is, what all the blood swimming before their eyes really means.
Jade puts one hand to her ear, trying to block the beating of the new white noise, but realizes that she is merely tuning in to the sound of her own heart breaking.
“Wait,” someone breaks the horrible silence, “Can you hear that?”
Reluctantly, the leading girl lets her hand drop back down to her side, dog ears perked to catch the sound her ally had pointed out.
It is a voice, a long, drawn out scream that Jade recognizes. It is her friend, her patron troll, her Karkat.
“Come on,” she shouts, and not waiting to see if they are following, she darts down the hall, following his voice, as if he were the beacon of light to her weathered ship on choppy waters, darting at a speed that is inhuman, godly, until she’s not even sure if her feet are touching the ground at all.
She sees him in the distance and is suddenly beside him in an instant, leaping through time and space to reach him before she has the chance to register the danger.
Here is her monochrome troll, splattered with red, bleeding way too much red, and it’s so wrong, so blasphemous. She can’t tell if he’s whole, or if bits of him are missing, smudged out by mutant blood.
His mouth is moving, screaming at her, but she doesn’t hear him. She doesn’t care if there is a horror monster beast behind her, about to take her life for her mishap. She doesn’t care if that particular beast is Jack Noir, the Condesce, or even Lord English himself. She only has enough time to register that Karkat is still alive, if not for much longer.
She doesn’t consider that he is the danger, as he lets out a howl that is not human nor troll, and that he has his sickle aimed at her chest, that his eyes are mysteriously blotted out, not as if his eye sockets are empty, but rather as if they don’t exist any longer, and she’s seeing right past them into the night sky.
Jade freezes, unable to fight or flee, unable to register what she’s seeing; he’s the Karkat she knows, and yet he isn’t, as if he’s already dead, and she’s arrived too late. But he’s still animated, moving his arm to stab at her, even if his motions are not his own. Ironically, tragically, a memory of watching a badly funded zombie movie with her brother, so long ago, when they were still young (when they were still happy) pops into her mind, and she breaks.
His sickle pierces right into her chest, and it’s not a clean cut. It has to slice through skin, muscles, bones… and Jade feels its passing through each level, pressing pain, as its hooked end catches around her heart.
‘Perhaps,’ Jade thinks serenely, ‘Something traditionally poetic and sappy should go here. Those lengths, to which you strive, Karkat, were never really required. I may die so you may survive, Karkat, if it’s what you have desired. Yet for as long as a part of me continues to endure, let it be known that my heart was already yours…? No, that doesn’t sound right. Not enough cheese.’
Jade smiles and thinks of what her brother would have to say about her final thoughts, and waits for the pain to end, for reality to drift away.
She allows her body to abruptly lose all the tension that normally keeps her upright, and is pleasantly surprised when she feels strong, heated arms circle around her waist, helping her decent to the ground as a clawed hand cradles the back of her head.
“Jade,” she hears.
It’s that impossibly scratchy, guttural voice she secretly adores as much as she genuinely scorns. She wonders why his tone has become so affectionate.
He didn’t snap back to his senses, did he? To have him watch as she faded away, knowing fully well that she had perished by his careless, possessed hands… The very notion sent a new wave of feeling and anger through Jade, and it felt suspiciously like coming back to life.
In fact, her whole body was continuing to spasm in agony. Part of her heart had been torn out. Shouldn’t she be dead by now?
Oh, right. Having her heart spooned out of her by a giant hook at the hands of her temporarily haunted troll patron was neither just nor heroic. Jade grimaces, and comes back to her senses all at once. She feels air rush back into her lungs, tastes the blood on her lips, and hears the screams of her friends.
“Jade,” Karkat sobs, “Jade, you have to wake up.”
‘Don’t be silly, stupid. I’m already conscious again. And besides, I was dead, not asleep,’ Jade replies, or tries too, but all that comes out is, “Uhhh…”
She stares at the face of the distraught alien staring at her, and realizes that her earlier comparison to zombie slasher films was not as far off as she had thought. One of Karkat’s horns was missing, completely ripped from his skull, and his hair was so matted with blood she couldn’t even say for sure if he still had most of his hair or not. At least his eyes had grown back.
Jade starts to feel dizzy and weightless, and very, very confused. What was even going on? How had she gotten here in the first place? This was all starting to feel kind of like a dream.
“Jade, for the love of fuck, just wake up already!”
Karkat hadn’t lost his horn, hadn’t had been torn up and zombified. He was here, in front of her, whole, shaking her to get her to wake up.
The world around Jade shifts, and she remembers who she is and what’s she’s doing.
“Where did Lord English go?” She asks Karkat, who’s already sighing in relief and pulling her back onto her feet.
“He escaped into another dream bubble while you were busy taking the longest fucking snooze in paradox space over here,” Karkat snarls. Her other teammates are standing behind him, some of them in the process of waking up as well.
“That didn’t feel like a regular dream bubble,” Jade tries to explain herself, “It wasn’t a memory of the past at all! You were bleeding to death, and then you attacked—”
Karkat puts up a hand, physically stopping Jade from her rant. “Yeah, I know, I was there, too,” he snaps, “Maybe it was one of the doomed timelines or something. Lord English just keeps fucking up all the timelines to keep us from following him.”
“Well, it’s working,” Davesprite points out, and rushes to Jade’s other side, offering her his support.
“Well, we don’t have any time to waste then,” Jade interrupts them both, and wipes away the tears that are lingering on her cheeks angrily.
“Are you absolutely sure you want to go through with this?”
They are standing on the edge of the world, the tall figure and the smaller one. He is offering her everything, for the price of everything.