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Music to End the World By

Chapter Text

‘Le porte verranno schiuse’

In the frozen moment following the chimera’s declaration, Chihiro saw the Miracle Man stumble forward, looking dazed. He was clutching his left arm until he reached the circle inscribed in mid-air, at which point he punched that arm through it.

The arm that emerged from the other side bulged strangely. He flexed it and claws sliced through the glove covering his arm.

That, the transmutation from human to animal, seemed to break the paralysis on the audience. People began shifting, murmuring uncertainly. About a dozen people, including those standing on the stage, exploded into action.

Chihiro nodded as the man behind the circle screamed in agony; the paw sticking through the plane had grabbed the edge and began pulling forward. She didn’t have time to make friends. She barely had enough time to do anything to do anything about the Miracle Man and the weird floating triangle.

“It’s an n-dimensional Dho-Na fractal!” she heard Hiro shout. It was an accurate assessment if an n-dimensional Dho-Na fractal was a passage into a spirit realm. The tone suggested that he had an accurate understanding of the gravity of their situation, regardless.

The girl on stage took a step forward and the badger-headed dragon recoiled, grabbing at its head.

“Fuck! Desire, I need backup, so get your oversexed ass out here now!” It turned and snarled at the girl, third eye gleaming bright red.

If Chihiro hadn’t been worried before, she would be now. Only dragons held such simple names - usually the name of the river or mountain which they embodied. A name like Desire meant that the dragon fighting to escape that circle embodied something much bigger than a mountain.

She dragged a scrap of paper from her pocket and scribbled hurriedly on it. She heard an agonizing scream and a thud; she spared a momentary glance to see that the Miracle Man’s left arm had fully separated from his shoulder, and that it had dragged its shoulder and a horned cat’s head through the circle.

She finished her writing with a flourish and sprinted toward the stage. People in the audience were beginning to respond with a little more panic, those closest to the exit moving quickly away from what was becoming something very worrying.

The first dragon didn’t seem to notice her, giving Chihiro the time to clamber up the stage and slap the makeshift ofuda onto the edge of the circle.

The dragon forcing its way from the circle howled and swung its head toward Chihiro. Its chest strained against the invisible force of the gateway trying to close around it. Hazel eyes wild with pain focused on her, narrowing.

Why are you doing this?” The voice was strange, sibilant, and had a seductive, compelling quality to it. “Surely you want to see me better. Surely you have no desire to harm me as you are doing.”

Like desire itself, its words were subtle but had the weight of a stone. Chihiro’s hand drifted back toward the ofuda to remove it. Before her hand reached the paper, Chihiro felt a flare of heat at the back of her neck. She recoiled from Desire, stepping away from it as it hissed. She saw a charred circle on the stage - Zeniba’s hairband!

“You are trespassing in our realm. You come without invitation or jurisdiction. I know the rules of the boundaries between mortals and spirits, and you are not welcome.” Distant voices suggested someone was getting the rest of the audience out of the tent.

“Oh, no, Dragon, you’re not stopping this that easily.” Something like a puff of air struck the back of her neck and Chihiro’s awareness shattered. She felt like every aspect of her consciousness - every thought, every impression, every second - was sharp-edged, disconnected from every other. She had experienced nothing like it in all her years since her first voyage into the spirit world, but it was magic, a spirit’s influence on her. She swam against the crushing influence, piecing her thoughts together through her force of will.

She didn’t know how long she’d spent with her mind disconnected from the world around her, but when Chihiro returned to herself, the cat-headed dragon was pacing a wide circle around its - sibling, she guessed, given the badger-headed one’s announcement that the Cipher Clan was coming. The dragon’s tail, that of a snake, whipped around as it paced with steps even though its arms - lion’s, fox’s, monkey’s, rabbit’s, were mismatched. Her ofuda was in shreds, and the badger-headed one had crouched at the foot of the circle, all three eyes glowing a color like purple or green. It was pumping its own power into the passage, forcing it open. Yubaba or Zebiba might possess the power to seal the doorway, but Chihiro did not, even if Desire would let get get close enough.

She glanced sidelong at those people who were still in the tent - the brunette and what looked like his sister, a weedy dark-haired boy with a seer’s eyes, a dark-skinned girl shielded by a taller one with almost olive skin, a young man and young woman with a spirit crouched before them, Hiro, a blond girl she’d seen on the bus, a trio of kids, one of whom had the stench of death around him, Hiro’s five friends, and the resurrected Tadashi.

Children, all of them, against full-grown dragons. A cat’s paw and pig’s hoof punched through the circle, and the boy who smelled of death paled as his eyes shifted to a dangerous green.

Well, that afforded her a quick retreat. The boy’s hands glowed green as he conjured a translucent plane he slammed into the circle. He slammed it again and again, bruising the arms they scrabbled for purchase on the edge of the doorway.

GET HIM!” the first dragon howled.

“He’s dead,” Desire growled. “What do you think I can do to him?”

“Oh, for heaven’s-” The badger-headed dragon leapt forward, twining sinuously around its sibling to lunge toward the dead boy.

“Not so fast, Bill!” The girl who’d held the dragon - Bill - at bay glared at him; his motion slowed as he approached her.

“Oh, Shooting Star, you can’t beat me here. Not now.” Bill opened its mouth in a wide, sharp-toothed grin. “You wanna try?”

“Staring contest?” she asked with a similarly toothy, albeit less threatening, grin.

Bill shook its head. “You’re trying to distract me, Shooting Star.”

“Guilty!” The girl hopped forward and paused inches from Bill. “You know, you look like you could use a hug. Come here.”

Bill coiled into the air, wings flapping wildly as it glared down at the girl. “Stay away from me. I don’t have time for your shenanigans.”

The girl stared at the flapping dragon, tapping at her chin. “You’re not as cheery as you usually are. Nervous?”

I AM NOT NERVOUS!”

“Look, everyone gets nervous their first time. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I gotta book if you want to read it.”

Bill’s third eye, gleaming red, narrowed at her. “I do not have performance anxiety.”

The girl shrugged. “Look, I know how these things go. You sit around looking like a triangle for a couple thousand years, you plan out all this stuff, and when it comes to the big moment, bang! Or no bang, as it is.”

“I’m going to rip your brain into confetti,” Bill growled. “I’m going to throw a party with streamers made out of your ego and party favors made of your worst nightmares.”

“Wow, I have never been invited to a party where I’m the decorations!”

You’re trying to distract me. Chihiro spared a glance to the doorway, glittering in the air. The dark-skinned girl and her friend were mixing handfuls of something in a low bowl. A match flared, and smoke curled up from it, slowly encircling the lines that marked the passage between this world and the next. The still-gripping fingers slipped from the edge of the circle.

Desire, crouched protectively behind its sibling, suddenly sniffed at the air and whirled in place. “Bill!”

Bill flew over the girl, diving at the dead boy; Bill’s body collapsed when it made contact with the boy, and then the boy turned, grinning disturbingly at the stage. “Even when I’ve got a body, this is a trip,” he said. “Hey, Froggy, get out of the way!” A blast of emerald light erupted from his palm; it nearly incinerated both girls crouched under the passage. As they dodged out of the way, a green dome slammed over the gateway.

“Come out, kiddo! It’s safe!”

The dragon that scrambled out of the doorway looked miserable, the cracked ram’s and goat’s horns looking desolate atop the molting raven’s head. A bloody, torn bat’s wing flapped weakly next to a broken vulture’s. It landed heavily on cat’s, pig’s, owl’s, and sloth’s legs, and every movement sent its donkey tail, held on with a nail, swinging. Its grey eyes were pained and despairing, and it seemed momentarily disoriented by the domu surrounding it.

“Sorry!” The seer had stepped next to the dead boy, and with this warning, slammed a chair into his skull. The dead boy was halfway through twisting to blast his attacker when the blow came; the energy went wide, slicing through the edge of the tent already burnt by his prior blast. Wind whipped through the space, tearing away scraps of fabric and sending glowing masks clattering to the ground. The dome flickered out of existence, leaving the portal exposed.

“Dipper, do something!” The boy who’d tried to argue with Hiro nodded at his sister and sprinted toward the portal. His movement spurred the newest dragon into action, the creature leaping at him with beak open to let forth a terrifying caw. The boy, Dipper, slowed as he drew closer to the dragon, eyes widening. He stopped a hand’s-breadth from the creature and let his head drop.

“Dipper, what are you doing?” His sister tried to jog forward, but Bill’s body lunged up and grabbed at her. She made some reflexive motion that sent him tumbling back, but it was clear she would be occupied for some time.

Chihiro scanned their surroundings, gaze alighting on the spirit who stood protectively in front of the girl with bright blue hair. “Kitsune-san!” she cried; the creature turned, startled, at the call. She bowed hurriedly. “I beg your pardon, please. My name is Chihiro. These dragons do not belong here. If it would please you to do so, can you help us close the door they have opened?”

The girl behind the spirit stared thoughtfully at Chihiro. “What are you saying? Are you talking to...Mystery?”

The spirit acknowledged Chihiro with a distracted nod. “It is a difficult thing you ask of me. Even so politely requested, I might be tempted to refuse. But Vivi is here, and has already lost much to these beasts. Lend me your strength, Sen, and I will try.”

The use of that old name sent a thrill through Chihiro; she did not know if the spirit had lived through her stint at Yubaba’s bath-house or had simply heard the tale, but it surely knew of what she was capable.

“Okay.” Chihiro focused on her inner reserves and offered them up to the spirit, Mystery. The glamour that concealed its true nature fell away as it leapt forward. The girl - Vivi - gasped, and something in the expression of her companion hardened as Mystery dodged around the fighting Bill, Desire, and the still-unnamed dragon. It soared at the portal, mouth open in a silent howl, and bit at a claw that just pierced the plane.

With one fluid motion, Mystery jerked its head sideways, ripping the hand from the arm behind it. Blood sprayed in a wide arc, but the creature seeking the escape the world beyond continued its efforts. Mystery, however, had no intention of allowing this, as it snapped at the arm that continued to push through, tearing the arm off at the elbow, then the shoulder. What followed was a brutal assault, as Mystery tore the creature’s flesh to shreds, spraying blood around the stage at random - no, not at random. Chihiro, only a novice at onmyodo, did not know the meaning of the symbols painted in blood, but each movement of Mystery’s head let blood splatter onto the floor in the form of another word or sign, and an interlocking circle.

At last, Mystery stood at the center of a circle that encircled the doorway, panting as a blood-red aura engulfed him. The lines of the passage were outlined in the same red, burning angrily as the power within struggled against Mystery’s magic.

And then the gibbets of flesh scattered across the stage flowed together like mercury beading on a table, melting into a common mass that bulged and molded until it took the shape of a girl, pale as moonlight with midnight hair, whose brown and blue eyes seemed to glow from within.

“That wasn’t very nice,” she said to Mystery. “I mean, I’ve never been torn to pieces before, so that was a new experience. But I know you didn’t mean to be helpful.” She reached down to the circle of blood and tugged it upward, like it was made of thread laid on the ground. She stuck the free edge in her mouth and sucked in; like a strand of spaghetti, the blood slurped up into her mouth. Once she’d swallowed the last slurp of blood, she gave the spirit a thin, predatory smile.

And then the world on the stage descended into madness.

Chihiro, who had stepped inside the spirit world, had no words to describe the absolute insanity of what happened within that space. She had no idea if it was a fight between Mystery and the newcomer, or if this was an emanation of the dragon itself.

Regardless whether it was a conscious assault or a consequence of its presence, the madness sent Mystery flying from the stage with a pained yelp. The spirit hit the ground, unmoving, and Chihiro felt her stomach turn. This was quickly growing beyond her.

A colorful sphere arced over her head and hit the weird warped space and exploded into a cloud of silver smoke. As it began to clear, a blurred yellow form shot forward and a man in blue armor sprinted past her. A blue and orange reptilian creature leapt onto the stage shortly ahead of a huge form in armor.

In all the fighting, Hiro and his brother had managed to stumble to a safe distance, but at the appearance of the new combatants, Hiro was on his feet, drawing almost back to the edge of the fight.

“You can collapse the Dho-Na function with a reverse-Fourier-”

“I know, dude!” the guy in blue shouted as a wood tentacle erupted from the surface of the stage, forcing him to slice through it with some sort of energy blade attached to his forearm. “You needed me to tutor you in multi-dimensional spatial calculus! But we’re a little busy right now!”

As energies volleyed back and forth between the dragons and honest-to-god superheroes, the ground suddenly shifted underneath Chihiro’s feet. Others stumbled in place, and something drew Chihiro’s gaze up, past the shredded tent and up to the mountain. The Six Grandfathers, it had once been called. Now it bore the faces of four men, fathers of this nation.

And they were moving. Rocks cascaded away from the faces as humanoid forms forced their way from the mountainside, giant-headed stone faces walked toward the gateway.

“Ah. Everyone. I think we have...backup.”

Only a few eyes looked up, but Dipper’s sister did, her eyes widening almost comically at the sight. “Guys! We have GIANT ROBOTS on our side!”

“What?” Dipper spared the approaching warriors a glance. “What do you mean, our side? Do you remember the wax museum?”

George Washington’s foot slammed into the ground, shaking the entire area as Thomas Jefferson let out a deafening howl.

“Wait, what?” Bill twisted his head around. “Holy shit! DEATH, get your bony ass out here now!” He leapt backward as the lizard-man spat a jet of flame at him. “SIS!”

The dark-haired girl with the dead boy let out a yelp. “No! You have to keep her from getting out!”

George Washington’s mouth opened, admitting flickering blue light. It grew in intensity until a six-foot-wide beam of light (a laser, certainly) erupted from it. The beam sliced neatly through the stage, forcing Bill and Desire each to leap aside. The laser struck the strange pale girl, vaporizing her. But even as she evaporated into smoke, the smoke twisted and drew together again to reveal a rainbow-winged bird with blue and brown eyes. It launched itself into the air, seeking the faces of the presidents. The molting dragon followed her, while Desire took a defensive posture.

“Speak softly,” rumbled the face of Teddy Roosevelt. It aimed its fist at Desire. “And carry a big stick!” The fist flew from its arm, rocketing straight at Desire. The dragon scowled, but made no move to dodge. Instead, it met the fist with its own.

Stone shattered into tiny fragments, showering the all-but-ruined tent with a shower of dust. All action paused for a moment; Chihiro could see everyone consider the same thought that crossed her mind. The dragons had avoided direct physical confrontation, and so everyone had assumed they weren’t particularly strong.

The reverse appeared to be the case, as the molting bird reached Thomas Jefferson and slammed its face into his. The president’s nose cracked and fell away while the dragon appeared unharmed. And then the rainbow bird reached Abraham Lincoln and transformed into an infinite number of black tendrils that ensnared the figure, all but concealing it from view.

“Come on, Abe!” Dipper’s sister shouted.

The figure of Abraham Lincoln strained against its bonds while Thomas Jefferson swatted ineffectively at the other dragon. The bonds tightened, but then the presidential figure strained harder, letting out a scream that echoed across the landscape, and then the bonds snapped. The shapeshifting dragon coalesced from the broken strands almost immediately, but kept its distance. Lincoln, for his part, responded with a pair of white-hot lasers from his eyes. They sliced through the landscape, and even the regenerating dragon dove to avoid them.

“Will you let up? It’s not easy performing multi-dimensional transformations in your head during a pitched battle!”

Chihiro’s attention was drawn back to the circle, the gateway, reminding her that the real battle was not defeating the dragons already here, but preventing the rest of them arriving through the portal. Hiro, his brother, and his blue-clad friend were crouched at the foot of the gateway, arguing while their other friends fought to keep Bill and Desire away from them. The girl who’d panicked hearing the name ‘Death’ was shaking her unconscious friend.

Dipper was suddenly on his feet, aiming some sort of gun at the gateway. A cable launched forward through the gate; it then dragged Dipper forward. He let go once he sailed past the perimeter Hiro’s friends were maintaining, dropping to the ground next to them. In only a moment, the argument intensified, which Dipper probably thought was progress.

Chihiro felt her hands clench at her sides; she knew she could help somehow, but couldn’t figure out how.

But didn’t she? This was a place of power for Americans, a place of pilgrimage. And it was once a similar site for older peoples. American legends were rising to fight the dragons; it was possible others could be convinced to do so.

She just needed a little help.

The dragons were too absorbed in their fight against the superheroes to pay attention to Chihiro as she ran toward the boy with seer’s eyes. Hopefully he knew how to use them.

“Too late, Avengers!” Bill crowed. A form erupted through the gateway, claws and talons just visible emerging from its dark cloak. A reptilian tail whipped around to balance it as it landed on the stage. It clutched a wicked-looking scythe in a feline paw.

Chihiro reached the seer and tugged at his arm. He turned, blue eyes all but shining.

“I need you to be my eyes,” she said. “Show me where the spirits live.”

For his part, he didn’t ask stupid questions. She suspected he was spurred by the presence of the dragon named Death. But it took time, during which most of the fighters fell back, for them to find some hint of the spirits that had originally inhabited this place.

And then she saw them, indistinct shapes that suggested a group of elderly men.

"Please! We need your help stopping these spirits. They're-"

"We know what they are."

"Far better than you."

"The world is a prison for them."

"And now the bonds are coming loose."

"If you know how terrible they are, can you help us?"

The spirits turned to Chihiro, and there was a shake of their heads. "For too long has the world allowed the bonds to weaken. Too many have chipped away at their shackles."

"There has to be something you can do!" the seer protested.

The spirits bunched up together and there was a sense of disdain.

"Child of liars and murderers, you make demands of us?"

"No, please. We humbly ask that if there is anything you can do-"

A howl came from the gateway, and another dragon plunged into the physical world. The spirits drew closer to one another.

"You, Sen, have no skills we can teach, no gifts we can give, no esteem we can grant, that you do not already have. But you, child of murderers, atoner of others’ sins, we will grant you nothing you do not already possess. Your eyes are open; open them wider. Your tongue moves the dead; let it speak louder. Your hand may brush against the soul; let it grip and temper it.”

One of the spirits brushed a hand over the seer’s forehead. He shuddered and slipped to his knees. Behind him, the cluster of scientists shouted in triumph. Dipper lunged toward the circle, sketching out something in the air as he did. The portal shattered into bent line segments, leaving the air above the stage empty, and for a moment, Chihiro hoped they had stopped the flow of dragons into the physical realm.

But then the air itself seemed to shred under the assault of sharp claws and a knife-like appendage. A dragon with a bull’s head topped with moose and deer antlers stepped through the tear in the air, forcing it wider as it forced its bulk through. Its right arm was folded and sharp like a mantis, its other a wolf’s paw. It did not stumble on its mismatched reptilian and insectile legs, flaring crow and dragon wings to balance it as it took its place on the stage. It was a massive creature, dwarfing the other dragons, even as it looked tiny against the grim faces of the presidential statues. But then its tail, segmented and pointed - a scorpion’s - whipped out of the world beyond.

Chihiro wasted no time, grabbing the seer’s shoulder and shoving him back toward the entrance of the tent, to the entrance to the park, to anywhere but here.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

“We’ve got to go!” Chihiro bellowed. “Everyone, get out!”

The others were slow to follow, at least until the dragon turned its blazing red eyes toward Abraham Lincoln. There was a moment of perfect silence before the machine exploded backward, metal and rock and wires showering the space between it and the mountain. George Washington opened his mouth to retort with another laser, but the dragon was faster, some force from it shattered the president’s head, the statue toppling forward even as the rest of it broke to pieces as well.

And then they were all running, scattering because of the importance of getting as far away as possible before the last, monstrous dragon turned its baleful attention on any of them…

Behind them, the dragons expended their hateful will on the first line of defense for the United States of America, one that had proven laughably insufficient for the task.

---

Chapter Text

‘And only one will survive, I wonder who it will be’

Patrick barely remembered when his queen had first commanded he serve under Nicholas. It was not a long time, not by his standards, but Nicholas was simply so...

Nicholas was larger than life. When he stood in a room, he overshadowed everyone else. Seeing him and Patrick’s queen at the same time was like watching a sun shining from behind the moon. And so much of Patrick’s life from before Nicholas had faded to something like a midsummer dream.

The alarms in the Elliptical Office roused Nicholas from his massive chair; the room, smooth and dark save for the endless screens plastering the walls. They flickered constantly, shifting between scenes from cameras spread across the United States. But as the alarms blared, adjacent screens settled on a thousand shots of the same scene, and then, slowly, joined to show a single image.

Seven creatures whose bodies were made up of all sorts of things stood among the ruins of Mount Rushmore. It would have been something to worry about if they’d destroyed any national monument, but that they destroyed Mount Rushmore…

“Is it the Time Baby?” Patrick asked.

Nicholas turned to Patrick, his ice-blue eyes reflecting the light of the screens in an eerie glow. His lips were turned down, which was a far more worrying departure from reality. They lived in a jollyocracy, for Christmas’ sake!

“They are to the Time Baby as the Time Baby is to us,” Nicholas said flatly. “They are the First People, those who dwelled in Chaos.”

To Patrick, no more explanation was necessary. The First People - they were the stories faeries told to frighten each other. The First Powers had sealed - not destroyed - them, because they could not harm the First People. And indeed, the weakest among them would outmatch the Time Baby at the height of its power.

The mere suggestion that they might ever walk the world again would set Patrick to shivering. Seeing them standing on American soil, though-

Patrick had been bound to Nicholas in strange, subtle ways. So the flare of righteous anger in his heart was not his own. He turned to the giant of the man, whose fists clenched at his side as a rumbling growl escaped his lips.

“Nicholas?”

“This will not stand,” the ancient man muttered. “Not in my country. Not on my land. Ready the Sleigh!”

Others, used to following Nicholas’ orders without question, rushed to comply, but Patrick held his place and stepped close to the old man. “They are powerful. Monstrously so. Perhaps…” The words would not come, the admission that the First People might be more powerful than-

“But I was given charge of this country. Its people are mine.” A hand stretched out, and a coat, red as blood, appeared in its grasp. Another summoned a cap of similar shade. “No creature will dare threaten it so long as I draw breath.”

“Each of them individually is more powerful than-”

“Perhaps. But it would be un-American to sit down and let it happen. I am going, Patrick.” Nicholas knelt and handed Patrick a package, a box wrapped in silver and gold that fit in the palm of his hand. “This is for you.”

Patrick stared at the box. He couldn’t form appropriate words. Nicholas had never given him a gift - they were for children, not for the undying races. Giving Patrick a gift seemed...wrong, somehow. “Nicholas?”

The man smiled gently at Nicholas, shaking his head. “If I - if this doesn’t work out, this will be my last gift, Patrick. I am entrusting it to you. Your job, your duty, is to keep it safe until it is to be delivered.”

Patrick’s breath caught. This was...not wrong, but much bigger than he’d thought. The small, quiet part of him that remembered what being an elf was supposed to be, squeaked out, “Your proxy?”

Nicholas nodded. “Yes. Do what you will, but deliver that package.”

Patrick glanced down. There was no tag, no label. He looked back up at Nicholas, who winked at him. So no mistake, just a package Patrick had to deliver to no one.

There was no point in asking about it; Nicholas had his reasons, and if he thought it shouldn’t be talked about, he would pretend not to hear. So Patrick nodded. “Yes, Nicholas. I - good luck.”

Nicholas snorted. “Way ahead of you, Patrick. Let’s get a move on!”

The whirl and clatter departed the control room, leaving Patrick standing before the massive image of the First People lifting from the ground, ready to move on from one place of devastation to another.

He was struck with the certainty that Nicholas wasn’t returning, and that remaining here, beneath the White House, was a very poor idea. He was not the sort of creature that benefitted from ignoring such premonitions, so Patrick bolted from the room to collect the few things he’d need to walk the world looking for the child meant to receive Nicholas’ last gift.

--

Nicholas was not used to the heat, his companions even less so. Reindeer might find it stifling, but they were reindeer in the same way unicorns were rhinoceroses - in the same way that Nicholas was human.

So the summer heat was not a great discomfort, though it was unsettling. He did not ride in the daylight.

Not without good cause. And if Bill Cipher was not good cause, nothing was.

Cipher! Nicholas fought back a shiver. Oh, he'd always known that, like other worlds, this one had bound within it one of the First People - the Chimerae, Demons, what have you. And logically, yes, one world had to be the one in which Cipher, the greatest, the most monstrous of all of them, save for Nightmare Herself, had been placed. But for his own world to be home to not only Cipher, but those he had called his siblings, was almost too much.

The word 'unfair' lurked in his thoughts, but he dared not voice it. Life wasn't fair. It was, then, difficult to comprehend.

And terrifying. He mustn't forget that.

"You've been with me a long time," he said to his companions. "You've carried me, and my burdens, for longer than anyone should be expected. If you wish to leave, to find some place away from Cipher and his kin-"

Rudolph snorted disdainfully, and the others joined in with little nickers and chuckles that conveyed a simple message: he was stuck with them until the end.

Before Nicholas could mull on it further, the time for thought came to an end. A set of seven shapes crossed the Badlands beneath them, some flying and others walking, but the hints of their forms setting Nicholas' nerves on edge.

"Well, here we go."

The ragged-looking one with a raven’s head and torn wings, whom ancient texts had called Despair, had only a single shocked moment to view Nicholas before nine reindeer and a two-ton sleigh slammed into her skull.

And then Santa Claus leapt from his sleigh, twin sickles clenched in his grip as his cloak billowed around him, slowing his fall toward the earth. Above him, the reindeer let out battle cries as they engaged Despair, breaking free from their reins to attack her at will. A solid crunch told Nicholas Blitzen had managed to get high enough to drop the Sleigh on the chimera when he cut loose.

As Nicholas fell, he angled toward another flyer, one that soared and spun through the air with all the grace and lack of concern as a butterfly. He readied the blades so that he could force every Newton of force from his fall into the back of her neck.

It was like punching smoke; Nicholas caught a glimpse of startled eyes - one brown, one blue - and then he was falling again. They had noticed him; the cat-headed one leapt up at him, soaring with sensual grace, hazel eyes almost gleaming. It slammed into Nicholas, knocking him sideways even as he kept dropping. Its breath was sickly-sweet and awoke formless passions in Nicholas’ mind, like some untamed manifestation of the Love God’s potions.

Desire, then.

Nicholas punched the demon's face, and, as it howled and grabbed at the bruising skin, completed his fall. He landed easily, falling being something of a talent for him. He straightened carefully, allowing the demons on the ground to see the sickles in his hands. At last, his gaze alighted on the twisted shape that was Bill Cipher.

"Come quietly and turn yourself in, Cipher."

The demon, chimera, whatever he was, snorted. "You can't just swing in and make demands like that. Not in America, land of the free. Unless you're really embracing that whole totalitarian state thing?"

"You defaced an American treasure, assaulted U.S. citizens, exacerbated a tear in reality, and are currently leading an invasion into our dimension. So yes, I can just swing in and make demands like that."

Cipher's lips turned up in a wicked grin. "You and what army, Fat Man?"

A snowflake drifted from the sky, landing on Nicholas' nose, and he smiled. The timing couldn't have been better if he'd planned it.

"This one."

Despite it being the height of summer, the winter spirits were the first to answer Nicholas' call. Or maybe because of it - Nicholas wouldn't call them in the middle of summer if he didn't desperately need every hand on deck.

A flurry of knife-sharp flakes nearly eviscerated Bill; he swore and lunged uselessly at his attacker as Jack Frost danced out of the demon's grip. Behind them, two massive yetis bore down on the huge, bull-headed one. Distantly, he saw snow whipped into a blinding fog descend over Despair and Desire.

He grinned, pivoted on his heel, and caught Death's scythe with both of his blades. "It's not going to be that easy!" he shouted.

The creature shrugged. "I do not expect victory to be easy. But it is inevitable." She wrenched her blade back and tossed it. The grim, blinded chimera caught it in one grey talon and lurched off the ground and into the storm. "Destiny knows where everyone is, and now holds a weapon that can kill anything. Your allies are about to get a nasty sur-"

Death, too, received a nasty surprise as icy hands reached up and grabbed her tightly. Nicholas took advantage of her struggling against the cheerful snowmen who had climbed out of the now-frozen ground and lunged with both blades. She knocked one aside, but the other sank deep into her shoulder. Her blood, lime-green and sickeningly viscous, pulsed irregularly from the wound.

If she felt the pain, she did not show it. She ripped through her captors with her good hand and packed the remains of one's head against the wound. Then with another flourish, she tore away her black robe, revealing a black goat’s head set upon the draconic body the demons all shared, Monarch and raven wings stretching free of the fabric. She sidestepped Nicholas and sprinted for the blizzard. Screams within suggested that Destiny had found at least one target. Her movement was arrested by two blurred shapes slamming into her, one to her stomach and one to her head.

"Hey, watch it!" one of the forms snapped as it, a brown furry creature two-thirds the height of a man, dropped to the ground.

"You'd think your mother never taught you manners," the other, white and about the same size, save for its large, floppy ears, added.

"My mother," Death snarled, "was Chaos incarnate, the antithesis of all Creation." She slapped her crocodile’s tail at the white rabbit behind her, but the groundhog in front of her seized the moment of inattention to sink his teeth into her leg.

She kicked him away, tearing the wound further and releasing a fine spray of blood. She reached out a hand, and a moment later, her scythe whirled out of the misty blizzard, her brother Destiny still holding onto it.

Before she could grab it, the rabbit leapt at it, snatched the handle in his mouth, and dropped to the ground. He shook once, vigorously, and once Destiny's grip broke, began a desperate run away from Death.

"Destruction! Stop playing around and help me!"

Red light flared across the landscape accompanied by the scent of scorched flesh. The bull-headed creature lumbered out of the mist, skittering on a lizard’s and insect’s legs. His red eyes gleamed and smoked.

“Hahaha!” Bill Cipher kicked Jack Frost aside and fluttered into the air. “Show them what you can do!”

Destruction threw his head back in a deafening roar. As he stalked forward, gaze sweeping toward Nicholas, a massive hoof at the end of a blue leg stomped him flat into the ground. Babe bellowed in triumph while her master, a man in plaid towering over the scene, stepped next to the monstrous ox. He swung an ax meaningfully.

“Now what do we have here?”

“Oh, COME ON! How many stupid pieces of mythological Americana did you drag along to throw their lives away?” Bill dropped to the ground, folding his arms. “Del!”

Something happened, high in the air. A cloud seemed to coalesce into a solid form, colors swirling and sparkling within it, before spiraling downward, molding into something the shape of a little girl. She looked around the battlefield, a faint, puzzled smile on her face. She paused as her gaze alit on Paul Bunyan. A still, silent moment passed before the child skipped forward, rainbow-winged butterflies rising from her footsteps. They fluttered around the child in a dense cloud until Paul Bunyan raised his ax.

The butterflies exploded into motion, engulfing the legendary lumberjack and his pet in moments. They were lost, Nicholas knew, even before the butterflies evaporated into vapor, leaving two monstrous bare skeletons to collapse onto the landscape. He threw the closest thing on hand at the strange child, and sprinted toward Bill with the other one clutched in his hand.

He heard a squeak and the flutter of wings, but had no time to verify that the girl was gone; he swung at Bill Cipher, and had the gratification of getting a solid hit, slicing through Bill’s lower right eye. The central eye widened and blazed red. “You little-”

The world went white and hazy, screams echoing vaguely within the fog. When he came back to himself, Nicholas was standing in the center of a wide band of blood that smelled worryingly familiar. The sight of a broken antler solved that mystery, but Nicholas had no time to spare for the sharp pang in his heart. Destruction had recovered enough to clear up the blizzard, the yuki-onna little more than melting puddles on the ground. His little army was falling apart, and if no one else showed up, they were doomed, especially if Destruction stayed in the game.

“Hey, Big Boy.” The whisper of Desire at his ear sent shivers through Nicholas’ body. “I think you want to sit down and let us do whatever we want - motherfucker!” The chimera lurched away from Nicholas, hacking and coughing, and the strange buzz of Nicholas’ nerves vanished like he’d been doused in cold water.

He turned to see Desire hacking up a fine black mist and behind him...a winged portly man with sandy blond hair wearing a bandolier of vials holding multicolored liquids.

“Dude! Looks like I got here just in time!”

Nicholas gave the Love God a thumbs’ up even as Desire scrambled to its feet and lunged at the master of passion. He collapsed mid-lunge, writhing on the ground. “What did you do to me? What did you do?”

The Love God grinned at Desire. “I hit you with a dose of Anti-Love, my little fluid friend.”

“The fuck? The FUCK? I’m Desire, you fluttering freak! Your stupid potions shouldn’t make me say boo, much less, fuck, I can’t move my fucking arms!”

“Watch your language, or I’m going to remove those cute little fangs with pliers.”

Nicholas had no time to acknowledge the Tooth Fairy, as a pair of chimerae barreled through the air at her, melding into a cloud of violence. Despair and Death seemed just about capable of keeping up with her, given that a fairy dentist was also a fairy barber, a fairy bloodletter, and a fairy. A donkey tail with a nail in it went flying from the melee, followed by half of a butterfly’s wing.

And then Bill’s horrifying chuckle came from behind Nicholas. He spun and stabbed at the demon with his sickle, only to collide with the demon’s feather-covered talons. Irish-accented screams joined with the sound and metallic scent of magic told Nicholas that more reinforcements had arrived, keeping the remaining demons off his back.

A yelp and squeak, however, drew Nicholas’ attention. Death had gained a reprieve and managed to score a lucky shot on the Easter Bunny. The rabbit held a paw to his bleeding shoulder and let out a scream before lunging across the cracked ground.

Despite his injury, he moved with almost impossible speed, all but teleporting to dodge a swipe from Death. He leapt at a surprised Destruction, teeth and claws striking with vicious accuracy. Destruction swiped helplessly at the rabbit until it got a purchase on his face, reached down, and ripped the chimera’s throat out.

Normally, Nicholas wouldn’t have expected much from such an attack - gods had failed to topple the First People. But the Easter Bunny was a creature of life and rebirth, empowered not just by belief, but also by continuous reinforcement of that mythos in media of every type. So the Easter Bunny’s strike against the spirit of Destruction sent the massive creature crashing to the ground with a pained bellow.

“NO!”

Silence rolled over the battlefield as the sky went gray. Bill Cipher lifted up into the air, apparently unsupported by his wings. “This fight is over,” he growled. “Oh, I’d be happy to let my siblings murder you, but not enough to put them at risk.”

“You are fighting just to keep up, Cipher! What makes you think you can just end it?”

Cipher chuckled. “You are creatures of myth, the collective dreams of humanity. And when you’re only a sort of thing in a dream, when that dream ends, you’d go out - bang! - just like a candle!”

On the word ‘bang’, Bill snapped his fingers on his coyote’s paw, and the Easter Bunny was shredded to nothing. It wasn’t like the work of some beast, tearing flesh and bone, but like the rabbit was nothing more than ink, and the paper on which it was painted was ripped.

Another snap, and the Love God vanished into vapor. Bill Cipher began to drift, eerily, toward Nicholas.

“I was willing to give you your little heroic last stand, Fat Man, but I’m not going to make any needless sacrifices to do so. Oh, sure, this eye’s gonna end up having a cool scar - I won’t have to buy my own drinks, anymore - but I won’t let you kill them.” Another snap, and Jack Frost, still alive and stalking the blind Destiny, disappeared. Another, and the new arrivals, the entire army that Nicholas had summoned to stand against the First People, the chimerae, were no more. “I will, however, let you know one thing before I unmake you, Fat Man. And I say unmake, because you aren’t a real thing, Fat Man. You’re a legend and a dream, and that has always been my bailiwick.” He was a foot from Nicholas, and then less, middle eye gleaming with reflections of a thousand foes felled by Bill Cipher’s dark will. “I never would have allowed this battle to happen if there was even the slightest chance that you could beat us. So know, Fat Man, that all you have done today is fruitless, nothing more than a waste of my time.” His mouth twisted into a sharp-toothed grin. “And on that note-”

There was nothing after that.

Chapter Text

'Why can't I be God?'

To be born in Kinshasa could be the greatest curse laid upon an innocent child. The capital of the poorest nation in the world, it could be said to be the poorest city in the world. Riots, theft, violence, made the city something of a nightmare.

To those who lived in the poorest districts, witnesses to the worst atrocities the city knew, the thought that it could become worse would have been all but inconceivable.

But that was what had happened when the Miracle Man set foot in Kinshasa.

Some said he was a sorcerer, and others a demon or jinn. Others whispered that something terrible had happened in America, and that from it had come power, so that a man could change the world with a thought, even if he had never tried his hand at magic.

But what was the truth was that one summer morning the Miracle Man had walked into Kinshasa and met a starving, homeless man and asked him what he wanted. The man had asked for a meal.

When he had received the meal, the man had asked for a new set of clothing, and when that was provided, he asked the question that had destroyed Kinshasa.

“What is it you will give me, if I ask?”

And the Miracle Man had answered, “Anything.”

That man had taken his fill of the Miracle Man’s largesse, and the story had spread. It would have been enough to cause problems that the Miracle Man was granting wishes - finding him and staying close enough to benefit from his generosity would inspire men to violence.

But there was another problem.

The Miracle Man didn’t fulfill only pleasant desires.

Most people who spoke to him were bright enough to ensure they did not have to worry about food or shelter for the foreseeable future, and some enterprising soul had requested a soup kitchen for the ages.

But Kinshasa quickly became a maze of fortified bunkers, and, as time went on, a playground for murder machines, demonic servants of paranoid men, and impossible dreams being made into reality.

Some men tried to bind the Miracle Man, to ensure that they alone would have access to his magic. The few that did gave rise to a smoking crater in the landscape, a chasm that plunged thousands of feet into the earth, and an abandoned building that everyone was certain belonged to a man who never existed. So as a result, the Miracle Man was the only creature capable of walking the streets of Kinshasa unmolested, as even the worst of his summonings knew better than to threaten him.

Because, though, of others’ desperate desire to have access to the Miracle Man, when discovered, he became something of a mobile warzone, a brief intensification of the horror that was spreading across Africa, leaking from the epicenter of the atrocities.

It was Hell on Earth, because people were never meant to get everything they wanted.

Chapter Text

‘It’s seven minutes to midnight, and your time is almost gone’

At dawn, Akihito rose and sought his attendants to help him prepare for his day. He normally dispensed with such niceties, but today was a special day, and his regalia had to be impeccable.

After all, today, he was going to banish the mazoku from his empire.

Some three weeks prior, seven beings of vast magical power had stepped through a doorway in America, and promptly descended upon the world to spread their dark will. Out of some design, agreement, or simple territorial nature, they seemed contented to limit themselves to a continent apiece. One had stormed through Hong Kong, demonstrating monstrous physical strength, unmatched endurance, and a single-mindedly destructive nature. He had subsequently began a rampage through Akihito’s domain, and now he was approaching Chiyoda.

It took time to complete dressing, but Akihito knew they had that time. The mazoku was coming for him, and would allow him the time to make this a true spectacle.

Once he was finished, Akihito went by himself to his family shrine, in which rested three treasures. Reverently, he lifted the magatama over his head, bringing it to rest against his chest. He then set the blade in his obi, and picked up the mirror.

When he faced the mazoku, it would be with the entire weight of Japanese history behind him. In this strange, new world, it would be with all of the spiritual power he could bring to bear against this mazoku.

As Akihito stepped out into the Kyuden Plaza, he felt as if his entire family walked with him, as if Amaterasu walked just behind him. The mazoku had shown the world magic was real, and with such certainty, Akihito knew he could do nothing but triumph.

The mazoku soared through the air, serpentine body moving with awesome grace. Akihito did not get a clear look at it until it landed. A bull’s head jutted from a reptilian body with only one reptilian limb. A mantis’ scythe, insect leg, and wolf’s paw made a disharmonious whole, made more jarring by the crow’s and reptilian wings fluttering on its back. A scorpion’s sting swung behind it, and its red eyes gleamed at Akihito.

“Good morning,” Akihito said. “I am Akihito, Emperor of Japan.”

The creature gave His Imperial Majesty Akihito little more than a glance. “I am aware. You are the last vestige of these people’s pride, the one power they believe stands between them and disorder.”

“I apologize, but I did not hear your name,” Akihito said firmly.

The creature snorted. “I am Destruction. And I have come for you.”

“No.” Akihito had known this mazoku had come to face him, to posture and demand that Japan bow down before it. He did not know if China had done the same in the face of the creature’s formidable strength, but he would not give the creature the satisfaction of seeing him grovel. “I have come to see you to demand you leave. Leave this country, leave this world!”

“By whose authority?” Destruction asked lazily. “You have no temporal power.”

His Imperial Majesty, Akihito, glared at Destruction, feeling his ire begin to rise. “I am descended from Amaterasu. I am the last of an unbroken chain that has existed as long as this nation has. Within these islands, I am akin to God, and I am commanding you to leave!”

Destruction threw back its head, adorned with mis-matched horns, and laughed. “A god? No. Your imperial mandate was granted by a mongrel lucky enough to slay one of the lesser Brood. You rule a broken nation, whose pride has long since faded. You are weak, old man, and I will not hear your commands.”

Akihito’s heart surged, and without thought he lunged forward; Kusanagi sliced through the creature’s shoulder, spilling lime-green blood onto the tiles. Destruction hopped back, a startled snort escaping him.

“You impertinent bag of flesh!” he declared. “You dare bring violence upon me?”

“Yes!” Akihito snapped. “If you will not submit to my demand, I will bring to bear all of the wrath of which my people are capable. Their fury is my fury, their power my power.”

“Their sorrows yours,” Destruction murmured, as he held up the mantis’ blade to block any further assaults. “Tell me, Your Imperial Majesty, what is the saddest day of your people’s history?”

“What?”

“What caused the pride of the nation to fall? Do not answer, I know. It happened the day when your people faced a weapon against which there was no defense. A weapon whose match has never since been seen.”

Akihito felt his hand spasm, the blade almost slipping from his grasp. “Do not taunt me with my people’s misery, mazoku.”

“I am not taunting, human. I am explaining. The principle of that weapon is laughably simple. If the bonds holding together the elements together are broken, vastly destructive power is released. Once that is realized, it is only a matter of scale.”

“I am not a child! I know how atomic bombs work! You are only making me angry, Destruction!”

“I know.” The bull’s head smiled, an unnatural expression that made Akihito’s flesh crawl. “Do you wonder why I take that name? Every one of my clan, the mazoku, as you so charmingly call us, has taken one power, one principle, as our bailiwick. And so to me, the weapons of war are my bread and butter, the instinct to destroy my breath.” He raised the wolf’s paw, and something began happening above it, something barely visible, except for the waves of heat rising from it. “Fission is something I understand very thoroughly. Splitting atoms? Child’s play.”

“No-” Akihito whispered. “Impossible.”

The mazoku met Akihito’s gaze, his red eyes blazing with fury and triumph together. “The first step in the destruction of a nation is the destruction of its hope. There will be no more emperor. There will be no more Tokyo. Soon enough, there will be nothing.”

Akihito felt no pain. Many, many others were also so lucky. Many more were not, as the heat seared but did not kill, as the earthquakes maimed but did destroy, and as the sickness stole only the hope from life rather than the life itself.

It was Hell on Earth.

Chapter Text

‘How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?’

Aaron had been on the road for days. Even back before the Apocalypse, his mates would have called him crazy for it. Now…

The outback had always been dangerous. You’d have been stupid to go out into that without proper preparation, knowledge, and a little bit of luck. People disappeared in the outback.

Now…

People didn’t joke about drop bears or bunyips anymore. They were an all-too-terrifying reality for what once were suburbs. People said the spiders were more venomous, the wildlife more aggressive, but that was subjective, and, frankly, easy to adapt to. Even the new wildlife was just another animal to defend against.

The real problem was the dead.

Like a proper Apocalypse, this one had come with the dead rising from the grave. Not physically...mostly.

But the dead walked the Earth. Drifted, actually. It was hard to say if they were malicious, but the result was the same anyway; those who came too close to the dead joined their ranks.

People had gravitated to whatever defenses they had discovered against the dead - running water (usually), sunlight (sometimes), consecrated ground (occasionally). Cities had fallen apart in the initial purge, suburbs not long after that, and now what settlements existed were cobbled together out of what worked...until it didn’t.

Some people said at least they were better off than Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul, but Aaron doubted anyone could claim to be better off than anyone else anymore. Stories of mass suicides in Europe and of the violence that had erupted in Africa suggested that every corner of the world had its own unique brand of horror.

And that didn’t even take into account what people whispered about the Americas…

In many ways, Aaron thought, he was in no more danger than anyone else on the continent. And he was trying to do something about all of this.

No one had enough information to make theories, but there were suggestions, intimations, that Aaron had cobbled together into a hope.

Death had abandoned her post, allowing the dead to wander freely. Some people had met people who’d heard from someone about a person who’d seen Death - a robed figure with a scythe - wandering the deep outback. Others said that the ghosts followed a strange migration, as if herded by some invisible hand.

And Aaron had heard tell of a city of the dead, all but inaccessible to the living, somewhere deep within the continent.

He’d been born with a rare gift, and saw more in the ranks of the dead than the faint green glow and red eyes. He saw something of the humans they had once been, and had learned just enough to avoid those who had never lived. He had known the outback before the Apocalypse, and so had pierced deep into the heart of the untamed regions of Australia. He knew he was close; he had seen the glow of the city of the dead shining in the night.

Indeed, the dead were denser, here, but seemed unconcerned with Aaron’s presence.

But this morning, he had woken to find no evidence of the dead. As he traveled toward where he had last seen a suggestion of the city of the dead, he slowly came to the realization that there seemed to be little evidence of any living creature near him, either.

The surrounding terrain was silent except for the sound of his breathing and of his heart.

“I have heard it said that humans have the worst survival instinct among any other living creature. They will destroy that which they need to survive, and delve into danger for the sake of...well, I’ve never quite understood.”

Aaron paused and turned. Behind him stood a form robed in black, not much taller than him. It had a scythe strapped to its back, and at first glance, it was the most archetypal picture of the Grim Reaper he had ever seen.

But strange bulges in the form concealed by fabric, the way the creature held itself, and the hint of a tail flicking around at the hem, suggested that, as Aaron had heard said, this was no creature born of human imagination, but some other animal entirely.

Aaron was too practiced at wandering the wilderness to startle at an unexpected appearance, but he couldn’t fight the flash of ‘fight-or-flight’ across his mind before some other part of his mind silenced both of them, leaving him with an eerie calm.

“Is that your city out there?” Aaron consciously avoided the obvious question, because no one would dress like that if they didn’t want people to think they were the anthropomorphic personification of Death, meaning that asking the question would just waste time.

Death chuckled. “What need does Death have for a city? I once ruled a realm without end. They feared me, and some thought to worship me. It made no difference. Now, they know. I grant no quarter, no mercy.”

“Good to know.” Aaron took a careful step away from Death. He knew, now, why every living - and dead - thing seemed to have fled the area. Rather, he had two theories, and no interest in discovering which was correct. “Now that we’ve cleared that up-”

Death moved faster than Aaron’s eye could follow; the next thing he was aware of was a plane of metal pressed against his back.

“I think we both know that you’re not leaving here alive,” Death said, gentle voice concealing the harsh intent beneath. “And then, after you’re dead, I’ll show you what this blade can do to ghosts.”

It was Hell on Earth, discovering that even death was no release from the wrath of the monsters that walked the world.

Chapter Text

‘They looked backward and said goodbye...she had become like they are’

She spent the days watching the moors, now. They had insisted she retreat to this estate when the news had first come, that America had descended into...madness. And with each new report, they had insisted their decision was wise. Unchecked violence, and worse, in Africa, the capitals of Asia reduced to smoking rubble, the nightmare that had once been Australia…

And then the mists had descended upon Europe. They rendered radio signals all but useless, and the wet interfered with land lines. News from outside the borders slowed to a trickle, and then died. Gathering information about her own country became a full-time job, as even travel became more difficult. After the third disappearance, each expedition became a careful, well-defended affair.

After two months, she lost contact with Downing Street. After six, she forbade anyone to leave the grounds.

After seven months, the mists lifted, and she discovered the horror that had enveloped the continent.

There wasn’t a single person they found who hadn’t lost two or three people close to them. There wasn’t a single person they found who wasn’t suffering from the depths of the misery surrounding them.

The worst part of it was that there was no one to blame: no monsters, no demons, nothing that stole these lives from them.

Nothing but despair overtaking their souls.

“Hello, Your Majesty.”

She turned her head away from the mirror. She had come to suspect the reason for the despair that had engulfed her subjects - all the people of Europe. The vision had begun to speak to her from the corner of the mirror - all mirrors - when the mist had lifted. Sometimes the vision was a round-faced woman with heavy jowls and grey eyes. Sometimes it was a raven’s head topped with cracked horns, the same grey eyes looking out at her.

“If you want to ignore me, I can just start listing the crippling insecurities that have plagued you since you were seven.”

“What would I possibly have to say to you? It is self-evident that you care nothing for my feelings, as you have dismissed all my prior attempts to make you leave.”

The vision shrugged, the hint of some reptilian form briefly passing into the reflection. “I thought you might like an update.”

“About what?”

“Well, the twenty percent of your subjects who’ve taken their own lives.”

Her breath caught in her throat; her advisors had suggested a range of numbers, but this exceeded even their most dire estimates. But she could not afford to lose her composure, not when she was standing alone against a hostile foreign power (she had decided this creature was a foreign power because it had shown no fondness for anything of the British Isles, and because it had an American accent).

“Is that your doing?”

“I don’t think I’m responsible for what someone does when they’re feeling bad.”

“Then are you the one who has put such misery into their hearts, that they see no escape save for death?”

The raven clacked its beak. “Guilty!”

“Why? Would you see us all dead?”

“Ha! This sort of widespread despair never gets more than 35, 40 percent of a population, and your people have got that stiff upper lip thing going on.”

“But it is your goal to destroy us.”

“I don’t know if that’s my goal, per se. Seeing your continent collapse into abject misery is definitely moving things along.”

To what end?”

The raven winked a grey eye at her. “Think of it as a competition between me and my siblings. I wanna see how long it takes this whole landmass to break down.”

“We will not give in. Not ever.”

The raven croaked, amused. “We’ll see.”

The raven did not appear to her again, but her staff began to suffer. She could see the strain in their eyes and the weariness in their stances. She couldn’t say which death struck her the hardest - she was tempted to say the first, because it was the first personal loss she’d knowingly suffered (she’d lost touch with the rest of the family, and she had few enough people to help her to expend more than cursory effort finding them). But the losses all hit hard, and her helplessness grew with every life stolen by that monstrous raven.

There was barely anyone left when she stormed to the mirror in her bedroom at three in the morning and banged on it. “Come out, you bloody beast! You coward!”

Nothing appeared. And that was the worst. It had apparently decided it wanted nothing more than to steal everything from her, leaving her aware that she was helpless before it, that there was no defense she could offer to her people.

It was Hell on Earth, and at that point, death held no more dread for her.

Chapter Text

‘But I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name’

Roberto cut through another twisted mess of vines and scrambled through the resulting gap. The path beyond looked clear for a few hundred yards at least, so he sheathed his machete and took a few moments to enjoy the walk.

In many ways, he was lucky. He had moved back from America before the Apocalypse, so the terrible things happening there had not touched him. He had friends, though, whose brothers or fathers or uncles had been in the Land of Opportunity, working for their family, when The Devil had come to America.

The Devil had come everywhere, it seemed.

Everywhere except South America.

The refugees pouring into the ports told stories of the horrors that had conquered every other continent. Seven demons had walked out of Hell, and now more were following them. Strange, monstrous chimerae, their slaves and pets and followers, walked the earth now. Late at night, safe in countries that seemed free of this invasion, men asked what had happened to the demon bound for South America. Many laughed and said that Jesus had kept it at bay, but Roberto knew no one who did not suspect, deep in their hearts, that the creature was biding its time, waiting for some predetermined moment to show that for all of their hopes, mankind was not free from these demons.

He wiped at his forehead, sweat already beading back upon it from the heavy, wet heat. He had come to another blockage in the path, but he had been practicing with the machete for weeks, now, traveling into the depths of the rainforest.

There were rumors of a man who held all the secrets of the future, who could tell a man how to change his fate. He lived in a temple, far from the prying eyes of mortals.

Roberto, already chafing from his hometown, already bursting to the seams with people, from the cities now overwhelmed by people who had once demonized him for wanting to live in their country, had decided to strike out on his own to find this man.

It did not take a genius to see that the influx of humanity would soon enough push the countries of South America to a breaking point, that a single continent was not meant to hold all of the people of Earth. If there was a way to make them safe, to help push back the demons that had seized every other nation, the man who read the future would know.

It didn’t matter that he had no idea how to find the man, or that canvassing millions of square miles of rainforest would leave him dead long before he had even a chance of meeting him. What mattered was that he was doing something.

And then Roberto cut through another blockage to find a tiny clearing in the trees, a place set up like someone’s library. Two upholstered chairs, wide and red, sat next to a small table. A creature sat in one of the chairs, something like a snake with an owl’s head. Some bird’s and cow’s legs rested on the cushions, while nine white tails flicked endlessly around the creature. An eagle’s talon tapped the cover of a book resting on the small table, while a wolf’s paw rested on the other arm of the chair.

It glanced in his direction with clouded, blind eyes. “Hello, child.”

Roberto swallowed nervously. If this was the man he sought, the rumor was a terrible trap; the creature was the image of the demons that ruled over the other continents. If it was not, Roberto had a great chance of dying here without ever finding the man who knew the future.

“Who are you?”

The creature hooted disdainfully. “You know, child. I am called Destiny. The future is my bailiwick.”

A thread of hope wormed into Roberto’s chest. “Then you can tell me my fate?”

“Yes. All I need is your name.”

“Roberto Ramirez.”

The creature nodded and then lifted the book from its table. It flipped the book open and dipped a talon in a pot of ink. It then reached down and wrote something in the book.

“I thought you needed to look something up to tell me the future.”

“Oh, Roberto Ramirez. I do not need a book to tell me your fate. It is the fate of all men to die, and this helps me to ensure it.”

A sharp pain shot up Roberto’s arm, as his breaths became shallower. His vision was going black at the edges. When he realized what was happening, he wanted to laugh. The other demons transformed whole nations into nightmares of death and madness. And they fled as far and as fast as they could, to a land that seemed safe from the murderous beasts. A place haunted by a creature that intended to ensure the death of every person in the world.

It was Hell on Earth, and there was nowhere to escape.

Chapter Text

‘But I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more’

The sky burned violet and orange, octarine lightning arcing from horizon to horizon. Fantastic constructions of stone rose from the earth, spirals and loops twisting in impossible forms. It looked like a child’s painting, and might have been pretty to look at, were there not other things to worry about.

Bacon was crouched in a shallow hollow with Chihiro.The young woman had been traveling alone when Bacon had met her, and Bacon’s dad had insisted she come with them when they left Mount Rushmore.

At first, Bacon had been frightened. The news talked about a battle in the Badlands, death and destruction raining down upon the world. Her dad had pushed them as hard as he could manage, and she hadn’t acknowledged why until they’d heard the news about her hometown, and her dad had just...shut down.

He’d knelt down, hugged Bacon, and said, “I love you, Bacon. Hobbes will look out for you.”

She was old enough to understand what he was doing. He didn’t really expect that he’d find her mom, and he didn’t want to risk her.

It was almost funny. There wasn’t any place safe anymore, and the only other person in the world besides her who know how to survive here had left her alone.

Because it had taken her a while to realize what had happened. She didn’t notice the change because her daily life was full of aliens, dinosaurs, and superheroes. It wasn’t until the day Chihiro started running when Hobbes warned them about the clowns with the tear-away faces that Bacon understood what was going on. She spent much of her time in a different world from her friends, one she’d inherited from her parents. She knew other people saw the world differently from her.

But now everyone saw it the same way. And the world Bacon inhabited was not the sort of world you wanted to live in all the time.

“Is it safe yet?” Chihiro asked. She’d held up remarkably well, considering, the product of a wild adventure as a child that they hadn’t had the time to explore fully.

Bacon narrowed her eyes, scanning the landscape. They’d sent out Hobbes to scout, and she wasn’t about to move from their hiding place until he came back to give the all-clear. But he’d been gone for a long time, and it was beginning to get dark. A distant howl wound its way across the rocky landscape. Beside her, Chihiro shivered.

Bacon turned to Chihiro and nudged her. “Come on, it’ll be fine.” But then the other girl gasped and Bacon turned her head to see a lurking mass of grey-green ooze rolling slowly toward their hiding place. It looked like the sort of thing that occasionally woke from Bacon’s morning oatmeal, and the reason why her mom had led a strong campaign for cereal-only breakfasts. Such creatures were voracious and stopped only by the fact that they were usually a tenth of Bacon’s size.

This one was...not one-tenth Bacon’s size.

“Okay, new plan: we run like hell.”

“Wait.” Chihiro’s eyes had gone distant. She did this, sometimes; she hadn’t explained, but it was pretty clear she could see things Bacon couldn’t. It was enough to give a girl a complex, if she wasn’t bringing superior firepower to the table. “Something’s coming.”

“A good something or a bad-”

The ground shook with a furious roar - the phrase ‘wall of sound’ came to mind when the noise hit them. Bacon and Chihiro went tumbling down, so Bacon saw only brief glimpses of something plunge through the multi-colored clouds right toward them. Whatever it was, it had likely remained hidden above in the clouds before, because even below them, it looked like a hundred-ton rainbow. Blinding light flashed across the landscape and then a furious downdraft came as the new arrival soared upward.

Bacon righted herself just in time to get a single clear look at the creature, and she almost didn’t believe it then.

Chihiro had no such problem.

“A dragon,” she whispered, awed. “We must be near a powerful river.”

“No luck; we’re pretty much stuck with ponds for a couple of days at least.”

Bacon’s spirits lifted at the low, growling voice. She dashed out of the hollow and grabbed Hobbes in a tight hug. The tiger reached one paw up to pat her back in response.

“Where have you been? I was getting worried about you!” she chided.

Hobbes glanced up. “I was asking around about that dragon.” There was little more than a healing rift in the clouds to suggest that a dragon had been here. The reminder, though, brought to mind the other threat.

“Hold on, we’ve got-”

She took only a few steps before she came back in sight of the oatmeal monster, and then stopped. The ground within twenty feet of it was on fire, coated in ice, and sparking dangerously. The creature itself was a broken, blasted mass of goop.

Bacon looked back up at the hole in the clouds. “Did that thing...save us?”

“Dragons aren’t really known for their charitable spirits. Not like tigers, at least.”

“Dragons’ motives are difficult to discern,” Chihiro added. “Moreso if you know very little about the dragon.”

“It’s heading west, though,” Bacon mused. “And it didn’t eat us when it had the chance.” She looked at Hobbes, who’d so far kept them out of sight of almost everything that might hurt them, who’d taken her dad’s last wish to heart. “Do you think you can follow it?”

Hobbes scoffed. “A rainbow-breathing dragon? If I can’t, I don’t deserve to be called a tiger.”

“Hm.” Chihiro looked toward the setting sun. “That’s an interesting idea. Americans don’t have a lot of legends about dragons, do they?”

“Not that I can think of.”

Chihiro nodded decisively. “Then I think finding out where that thing is going is a very good idea. A rainbow-breathing dragon doesn’t...fit.”

Chihiro didn’t explain much about that statement, but Bacon reckoned she was right. The things of Bacon’s imagination that had taken over the whole country were...very strange. The Nightmare Brigade, the Wishing Company, the Iron Wind...things that were no more than half-formed notions. A rainbow-breathing dragon was just too concrete, too...organized for all that. So it stood out, and it was worth investigating.

They followed the dragon west, so far west that Bacon wondered why they hadn’t hit the ocean yet. They had been plunging through thick evergreen forests for several days when an axe whirled past Bacon’s head and buried its head into a nearby pine.

“Don’t move.”

All three of them froze. A young woman, taller than Chihiro and Bacon, stepped from behind a tree. She had an axe in each hand, and from how close she’d come to hitting Bacon, knew how to use them. She was clad head-to-toe in some sort of padded camouflage, but a few locks of red hair peeked out from beneath her hood. Bacon could see little else of the woman around her goggles and concealing outfit.

“We apologize if we are trespassing,” Chihiro said hurriedly. “We will leave if that’s what you want.”

“No, just sit here a minute,” the woman commanded. “Robbie? Candy?”

“They’re clean,” a male voice called out from the left.

“They do not appear to be of the Delirium, but I would prefer to ask Dipper to be sure,” a female voice called from the right.

The woman sighed and ran a hand along her hood, pushing it back to reveal red hair tied up in a bun. “We’d need to drag them into town for that. Look, why don’t we just take them to see Pacifica with the understanding that if they make trouble I’ll go all Lizzie Borden on them?”

“Sure,” said the male.

“Not ideal, but we’ve got to do something with them,” agreed the female.

“Okay, good.” The woman pushed up her goggles, revealing a friendly face, pale and freckled, a woman probably closer to her teens than being 30. She reached a hand out to Bacon and Chihiro. “Welcome to Gravity Falls, last bastion against the chimera Delirium.”

Chapter Text

‘I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem’

A man once wrote a story about an impossibly tall mountain range in Antarctica, a formation that shielded an ancient city from sight of humanity. Monsters haunted this city, the last creations of a dying race.

The story was fiction, of course.

But it was also true.

The creatures were imaginary, of course, as was the case with any work of fiction, but they could inflict wounds of the mind, and a man whose dreams had been torn asunder had little hope of surviving the Antarctic cold.

They didn’t need to be there. Bill could directly handle any intruders himself, without going through the trouble of conjuring imaginary shoggoths. But it wouldn’t be interesting. Anyone who was going through the trouble to stage a desperate assault against the most dangerous chimera in existence would expect minions.

Not that anyone was likely to try it, but Bill liked to cover his bases. And if people were going to try to take him down, he needed to adhere to expectations.

Another man had written a story about a library that contained every book never written, the stories that lived on in people’s dreams, but were never committed to any other medium.

This was fiction, and it was also false. Stories that had never been written down were useless. What Bill Cipher had collected was every forgotten scrap of knowledge, every fact and figure lost to humanity. He knew the secrets of Atlantis, the knowledge stolen from Alexandria by fire, and the remnants of a thousand broken civilizations.

It was a pretty good deal, if you could swing it. Other things, he knew conventionally, through ripping the knowledge from people’s minds. He had learned the ancient prophecies about his return that way, the need for ten particular people to witness the impossible under the gaze of a nation’s guardians.

But he knew secrets greater than those. He knew true astrology, the type that worked. He knew how to birth new worlds and set them spinning to their hopeless destinies.

He knew the secrets to apotheosis, to rise above the limitations of chimerae, for whom the impossible was routine. He knew how he could become a Supreme Being, something beyond any other entity that had ever lived.

And he knew, as he always had, that the Pines family would be the ones to usher in his final victory.

He wondered, sometimes, what it would be like to not see the vast sweep of future history, to be as limited as every creature that wasn’t Bill Cipher.

Causal thinking was for suckers.

So for now, he would amuse himself by allowing his enemies to believe he was doing exactly what they expected him to do, so that when his real plan was unveiled, it would be a suitable shock.

All across the world, new doors began to open.

There was only one true story, really, about how some dark force fought against the gods, and was sealed away, and would one day rise again to wipe the world clean.

Yes, everything was coming up Cipher.

Chapter Text

‘Tonight all the monsters gonna dance’

Applejack was willing to admit - if she was forced to, mind - that she didn’t trust Discord. Sure, she trusted her friends that he wasn’t about to try to take over the world again, but he was a troublemaker by nature, and that sort of thing wasn’t welcome on the farm.

Maybe it was because she didn’t trust him, kept a closer eye on him than the others, that Applejack noticed he was acting downright squirrelly. He’d begged off at least one meeting at Twilight’s - their - castle, claiming a headache, as if an immortal being of pure chaos could have a headache.

Fluttershy wouldn’t hear a word of it, and even Twilight pointed out not everypony felt comfortable being around others all the time.

But he looked hunted all the time, glancing over his shoulder when he thought nopony was watching.

And because Applejack was foolhardy and mule-headed, she decided to track him down in the strange little twist of space he called home and talk to him about it.

He was coiled on top of a bookcase, scowling at the night sky when she found him. He yelped when Applejack stepped inside and glowered at her.

“Didn’t your parents teach you to knock?”

It was never clear if Discord was intentionally insensitive; he certainly didn’t understand a lot about normal emotions. So Applejack didn’t rise to the potentially non-existent bait.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?”

“Oh, I don’t think we are, not really.” The chimera slithered down his bookcase to give Applejack a wide, piercing gaze. “You don’t trust me as far as you can - as far as Rarity can throw me.”

“Fair enough,” Applejack agreed. She stepped close to the chimera, looking him over. He didn’t exactly look thin or sickly, but he didn’t do things like most creatures. “But you’ve been skittish, lately, and that makes me worry.”

Discord sighed dramatically and flopped onto the ground. “I suppose somepony was bound to notice. Very well. Are you here to interrogate me? Be gentle; it’s my first time.”

Applejack scowled. “Don’t be crass. I...you’re usually harder to keep down than Pinkie Pie.”

Discord popped up from the ground, grinning at Applejack as he slithered around her. “Were you worried? About little old me?”

“You’re not a little old anything,” Applejack retorted, snapping her tail at Discord. “But...I reckon I was a bit worried; your troubles seem to turn into our troubles an awful lot.”

“I hope not,” Discord muttered, almost too quiet to hear.

Applejack, however, wasn’t having any of that silliness. “And what does that mean? What’s going on, that’s got you all in a state?”

“My family,” Discord replied with a disdainful shrug. Applejack, though, could see the tension in his shoulders. Some people didn’t get along with their families at all, Applejack knew, beyond the normal squabbles families got into. And even though the thought felt uncharitable, she knew that if any family was the type not to get along, it’d be Discord’s.

Of course, he’d never mentioned them before. “So what brings on all this recollecting? Did they invite you over for dinner or something?”

“I should have known better than to think you’d get it.”

“I’m not stupid!” Applejack snapped, heart surging with the same familiar anger from when she was a filly and the other foals talked around her because she wasn’t good with numbers. “You think just because I don’t spend all my time with my head in a book-”

“I don’t think you’re stupid, Applejack, not at all.” Discord was staring at Applejack with unusual seriousness. “Do you think I went after you first because I thought you were easy pickings? You’re dangerous, clever. You’d have seen right off that something was wrong and needled at it until everything fell apart.” He wrinkled his nose thoughtfully. “So I guess it seems a little silly sitting here saying you wouldn’t get it. You’d understand embarrassing relatives.”

“You know, I’ve seen a lot of things following Twilight around, but never seen another draco - chimera.”

Discord chuckled. “Can you imagine a world with two of us running around?” He gave a wicked little grin and curled up on the ground. “But since you asked, I’m going to tell you. Settle in, Applejack, this is going to take a while.”

Applejack sat hesitantly. She wasn’t certain, still, if she trusted Discord. But this was the most - reasonable she’d ever seen him. “Well, go on.”

Discord stretched out his forearms. “At the dawn of time-”

“Wait - this starts at the dawn of time? What sort of story is this?” A thought occurred to Applejack. “What are you?”

“I bet Twilight knows. You, though, you’re the sort who likes a good story. I’ll try the abbreviated version, though. Now, what do you all say about how the world was made?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Discord sighed, dropping to rest his head on his forelegs. “I thought it might help to give you a little perspective. It’s alright, I know the story anyway. There was a thing, a big mess of stuff, and your creator god balled it up into a little planet that you run around thinking is the center of the universe. Oh, don’t get your hackles up; you might very well be. Of course, you’re not the only universe out there.”

“Oh! Like that place Twilight went when Sunset Shimmer stole the Elements!”

“Yes, the multiverse - a billion universes, all with their own rules. A place for every possible thing that could ever exist. So at the dawn of time, everything’s coming into existence, and then bam! Things from outside the multiverse start poking around.”

“Wait a minute - you said there’s nothing outside the multi-thing!”

“Ah!” Discord raised one claw. “I said the multiverse is where everything that can possibly exists is. So anything outside of the multiverse is, well-”

“You.” Applejack had the gratification of seeing Discord’s eyes flicker in amazement at her statement. “What? I told I wasn’t stupid.”

“Color me embarrassed, then. Yes, me. Or, my family. They weren’t very big on reality. It’s so...limiting. Can you imagine spending your whole life inside a box two sizes smaller than you? Anyway, as it turns out, your people weren’t on board with us undoing the whole creation thing. And they were much better at fighting inside reality than we were. Luckily for me, it turns out we’re much more durable than your kind. So even though you won-”

“They couldn’t get rid of you for good.” Inspiration struck. “They did something to you - to keep you here, in Equestria. Maybe even make you weaker.”

Discord’s smile went wide. “I was right; you’re the dangerous one. Like you thought, they stuck us in a billion worlds and threw away the key.”

“It doesn’t sound like your family could exactly come over for dinner.”

At that, Discord shivered. “That’s...how it should be. But...we’re not all the same, Applejack. We took names, talents, based on things we saw in the world. There are weak ones - Fire, Lightning, Water. Some of us are a bit more powerful - War, Fear. And then...there’s the First Generation. Destiny, Despair, Del - Delerium, Destruction, Desire, Death, and - Bill Cipher. They didn’t just stick them in an unsuspecting world, they stuck them in a world inside a world. So many locks and seals that Twilight herself couldn’t get them open.”

Applejack had learned a few things hanging around with Twilight. Not book things - she listened, but she knew a lot of that stuff was beyond her. But she’d learned to pick up on things - the big things. She knew, now, when someone told her a story about monsters and things sealed up, exactly how things were going to go.

“They’re out, aren’t they. The First Generation. So what? You’re worried they’re going to come here?”

Discord snorted. “Bill sent an invitation. And…” He looked away, staring at his tail.

Applejack tried to conceal her surprise. She’d never seen Discord look so frightened. Cowed. “Don’t tell me you think you’ve got to go.”

Discord pawed at the floor anxiously. “You don’t know what he’s like. He’s going to do it all over, and he’s going to do - terrible things to anypony who gets in his way. You think I was bad? He’s going to be a nightmare!”

“Excuse me. I want to be sure I’m hearing this right. Are you saying you’re going to leave Equestria, go off to some other world in the multi-thing, and tail after some nasty chi - other chimera, because he told you so? You? Discord? Spirit of chaos and madness?”

Discord looked at Applejack, eyes wide and pleading, and she felt a flash of sympathy for him. If he was telling the truth, he was ancient, more so than Princess Celestia or Princess Luna. Ancient and - lonely. The fact that he’d been so desperate for company that he’d leapt at the first sign of affection from Fluttershy was sad, in retrospect.

“Well, buck that! Look at you! You’re Discord!” Discord stumbled back, startled, at the vehemence in Applejack’s voice. She felt a little thrill at that, recalling that Discord had admitted that, long ago, he’d thought Applejack was the dangerous one. “Mucking up other ponies’ plans is what you do. So I got one question - are you going to slink off to Bill Cipher and do whatever he says, or are you gonna go out there and lie, cheat, and manipulate him until his evil plots fall down around his ears?”

“I…” Discord’s ears, flattened against his skull, flicked forward as he grinned. “You’re right! Why should I let Bill push me around just because he’s infinitely more powerful than me? Why should I let him do whatever he likes just because he’s been plotting this for uncountable eons?”

Put like that, it didn’t sound like such a good idea, but then Applejack remembered that Discord was no match for the Elements of Harmony, and he’d still beaten them. His mind was as twisty as a corkscrew, and that might just be what he needed.

The chimera grabbed Applejack in a tight hug, still grinning. “Thank you, Applejack! I might have moped for eons if you didn’t talk some sense into me! Now I gotta talk with Twilight, and Fluttershy - ooh! Might as well consult with the master pranksters. Oh, this is going to be such a hoot!”

It was strange, Applejack thought later, that she felt better having Discord on her side. But she’d seen first-hand that he wasn’t quite the evil they’d always assumed him to be. And it was no surprise he had no fondness for a tyrannical monster that ordered him around. All in all, if he was there to muck up everything Bill Cipher had planned, everypony fighting the other chimera would have a little better chance.