Chapter 1: Chapter 1: John Egbert Against The Hex Yarn!
The Dersian alleyway smelled like sour milk, sweat, and the old brandy John Egbert's father would take out on the anniversary of Nanna's death and sip, slowly. A sort of smothering sweetness that had more to do with rot than anything; once upon a time, John thought to himself, his friend Rose Lalonde would have appreciated that little visual. Or at least he liked to think so, though not too often, as that brought John back to an unfortunate truth he had realized all too late.
But all hard truths must be confronted, and as John used the bladed tip of his hammer to gently saw through the strange, silky material hanging off of the side of the alley, he was cornered by reality. Thread split, sour acid boiled in Egbert's throat and he touched the mottled black carapace. There it was, in black and fluorescent blue; John might never have known the real Rose Lalonde at all. It took a few precious moments to realize how to close the eyes of the carapace, but the other option was too hard to swallow right now. The Reckoning was bad enough, and John refused to cede any more of his humanity to sburb if he could at all prevent it, wasted time or no.
You're stalling, Egbert. John wondered when his conscience started sounding like the Wandering Vagrant, adjusting his tie and stepping further into the inky hollow the alley led into. Faint traces of ectoplasmic activity were like a trail of radioactive breadcrumbs to John's upgraded goggles; the red and blue lights were indicative of the psychic trauma most commonly associated with sudden, terrible violence. Fear, pain, hate, desperation, all in a strange spiral that indicated....John shuddered at the faint, cool sensation on the back of his neck; he lunged forward, ducking his head and rolling as best as he could in these cramped conditions. The gleaming silk snapped straight like razor wire, close enough to capturing John that he felt phantom pains on his neck. Touching the side of his glasses, Egbert kicked up onto the side of the alley lair, flipping around just before a needle embedded itself into the solid rock; John pulled his body around, leading with his hammer, and smashing into a garbage can like he was playing some kind of crazy trash polo. The can flew, the cheap Derse tin splitting under the pressure of John's enchanted hammer a second after it hit the air, sending a scattershot of refuse all along the opposite alley wall.
The silvery blue color he could only see out of the corner of his eye ripped, and if the situation were not what it was, John would probably be busting out some kind of juvenile victory dance right about now. That damn witch thread had been foiling his most sensitive ectobiological equipment for weeks, now, and his hunch about the subject retaining some of her squeamishness with personal hygiene was…
"What." Rose Lalonde murmured, shoving the old gushers wrappers and silky yarn out of her hair, "No victory dance?"
There's knowing something abstractly, and there's seeing something with your own eyes. The worst part, John felt as he fell to one knee as though struck, was how much she looked like…herself. No bloody stigmata, no unholy sigils, no third eye, just some redness from not sleeping. Be strong, John ordered himself, ask what you want to know, buy time, she's just waiting for you to blink. "…Rose…" John said instead; years of experience or no, he had the same bad habit of ignoring his better judgment, "…Rose, it doesn't have to be this way. We can get you help…"
"We?" Rose raised a slender eyebrow, crossing her arms as if assuming the superior position in one of their old conversations. The quiet triumph in her expression was a kick to whatever was left of John's guts that had not been numbed already.
"Fine," John relented, "I can get you help. You know something's wrong, or you wouldn't have let me get this close…"
Egbert's point, though he felt it was a good one and had in fact dedicated the better part of a week to carefully crafting this last plea, was severely undermined by the six inches of razor sharp knitting needle suddenly sticking out of his shoulder.
"Don't you." Rose hissed, tugging the yarn and John towards her, his face and her left knee if we need to get specific, "Patronize ME," Her eyes were furious now, hard and sure and John barely got his ghost glove activated in time to block the second needle to the throat, "John Egbert!" Rose moved like poetry, twisting to the left and flicking her wrist, causing the supernaturally strong yarn to snap and John Egbert to spin like a top through a weak wall of cheap plywood.
Not one of his better speeches, all and all. Groaning, John checked the data, smiling a little at Plan B's progress. It made the whole 'your oldest friend is trying to gut you with flashy versions of the needles you got her for her birthday' deal easier to parse, and John was nearly ready for Rose's next attack. Or, to be more honest about it, he jumped up to his feet, saw Rose, and was kicked in the face by the roundhouse Lalonde had prepared for when he recovered. Stumbling back, John kept his footing and shoved his fist forward, a ghostly green hand shimmering into existence and shoving Rose away from the ruined building. The angry bobcat's yelp from the alley told John that, no, Rose did not see his using the ghost gloves on her as being any less patronizing as trying to talk her out of this.
Dave would have something great to say about that, John thought, tapping his glasses again and running deeper into Derse's core. On his ecto scanner, John saw what he was looking for, flashes of red and green. Triumph surged in his chest(or possibly it was his being out of breath) as John finally broke through Rose's ecto-obfuscation. He could do this!, John said to himself as he turned a corner and ran right into Rose's gleaming yarn web; a snare wrapped around his leg, tugging him up, as the rest of the net wrapped around him, weights moving delicately to force John's weight in unnatural directions.
"…I knew you'd be good at this." John bluffed, closing his eyes and letting a breath out. Soft warmth brushed against his cheek and for a second, Egbert thought about all of the horrible things that could make their home in the nightmare planet's worst neighborhood.
"You always were sharper than any of us gave you credit for." Rose's voice had a new dimension to it, and for some reason John felt the back of his neck heat up. "…and…as always…too late to make a difference. I knew all I had to do, John, was just enough to make you think you could "save" me, and in you'd rush, all alone, with no plan or second thought towards what you would do when you arrived."
"…could…enjoy this…less…" John managed through the makeshift gag Rose had spun around his mouth, struggling as best he could against the arcane fibers.
"What can I say." Rose smiled, a little, and for the first time in over a year she looked like herself again. "I've always had a weakness for the thought of you at my mercy, Egbert." There was a spark of purple fire in her eyes, or maybe John just imagined it, because a second later they were cold and black again. "Yes. Yes, I understand. The Gods have been patient enough. It is time."
Rose motioned with one of her wand-needles, while the other continued to knit John's cocoon. More invisible silk parted, and John's stomach turned at the two complete cocoons inside of the alcove Rose must have carved out herself, or at least decorated with the likenesses of her three patrons. One was highlighted red, the other green, festive compliments to his own blue-white tomb. Poop, John thought to himself, a sure sign of his new post-reckoning maturity and seriousness towards his duties as a boy skylark and doer of good deeds. Double poop!
Chapter 2: Chapter 2: Applied Ectobiology
The icy cold of the syllogism twine made John feel weak and sleepy, and he chewed the inside of his cheek in an attempt to keep awake. There was no way out, here, no Dave to save the day with a phat time warping beat; it was his turn to get everyone out of the massive mess. Gosh, John thought to himself, we are so the worst unlikely band of teenage heroes ever. Taking in a deep breath, Egbert moved his hands and shoulders just so, felt the odd sensation of his legs passing up and over his head, and carefully set himself down from the still glowing cocoon.
EXIT the sign said; another below had, TO THE MOIST BEYONDHOOD scribbled in a frantic shadow of Rose's elegant handwriting. She was the only person John knew who took time to practice her handwriting for its own sake; an early snag in their friendship had been when John had implied (or so Jade translated.) that she had secondary motives. Well, really, because she had secondary motives she wasn't proud of, John admitted, but the point was that they were not quite right until John took the initiative to figure out what the perceived slight was a few weeks later, after he had been chewed out for being an "insensitive dorkus maximus!!!!!!!!!!!!!". It was then that John learned two things about his strange new friend; she was so perceptive that the hardest thing to keep from her was the problem you didn't know existed, and that Rose cared so much about everything it almost physically hurt her. That was when John started "casually" mentioning his frustrations with his father.
"So, what were you waiting for me to get you to talk about this time?" John murmured to himself, rubbing his weary eyes while letting the PDA goggles load the appropriate ectospectral filters. A timer showed how long he had before Rose was finished her prayer and brooding session, at least if he had read the scrying printouts Jade had made properly. The clouds never told him what to do outright…but from what little Dave had shared about the strange voices that whispered to the children of the nightmare world, neither did the 'gods'. They gibbered and threatened and moaned about the futility of everything, and he and Dave had laughed themselves sick when they made the connection with the troll-like tormentors who had been predicting their ending all of creation for years, now. So if it wasn't Derse creating the voices that were driving Rose to her current depths, what was?
Patient sawing (thanks to a tiny drink umbrella, a pen knife, and the horrible power of alchemy.) finally paid off, and John was grateful for the respite from his thoughts. It's something about this planet, Egbert mused, not outright evil so much as heavy. Cold skin made John's heart stop, until he felt the tick tick tick of a heartbeat. Leaning his head against the green cocoon, John let out a shaky breath, squeezing his hand out of a stubborn refusal to despair. She was alive. Frankly, for being gone a week and change, she was doing remarkably well.
Dave had vanished only a few days ago, yet the red cocoon's movement was far subtler than the green, and John couldn't be certain that he wasn't just imagining the back and forth rhythm of breath. Rose must, John reasoned, have been using something to make Dave's fugue state exceptionally potent. Dave may be a man outside time, but Rose could predict the safeguards and traps he'd set up…or something like that, the formal explanation reminded John of nothing so much as the impossibly convoluted layers of irony within irony that made up Dave and his brother's collective sense of humor. He'd have to give Dave a hard time about all that, when this blew over.
Fighting through the terrible, hollow feeling that scooped his insides out when he let the possibility of this one not just 'blowing over' exist for too long, John stuck his tongue out and started to gently saw. He would have to cut Dave out, find a way to wake him up, finish getting Jade out, revive her, and figure out a way to knock the crazy out of Rose all before she finished her non Euclidian yoga workout and pressed the big purple button. No sweat, John insisted, even as he touched Dave's horribly cold hand and couldn't feel a pulse. Do this all the time, John believed, his body reacting with the haste his mind couldn't allow, but, well, okay, that wasn't entirely true. This is the first time in a while that everyone else's lives relied on his goofy ass. The first time ever, really. What was he even doing here? He'd be better off as…
'command:ectoaudialfilter.exe online firewall established running security program thank you for shopping with skaianet valued consumer.'
…he'd be better off getting his goofy butt in gear! John thanked anything that was listening that his hunch was at least partially right. Something outside of Rose was causing the malaise in this alley, something that had been using her like a lure to bring in juicier and juicier targets. Righteous fury burned in his chest, melting the ice of doubt and concern as Egbert pressed down on Dave Strider's chest like he'd been taught, counting to two and blowing into the boy's mouth. He repeated this action once, twice, three times, and quickly pressed 'play' on the iShades mp3 player Dave habitually wore. "Come on…"
A chest rose and fell, and it would have to do. Fighting back the disappointment, John turned to finish freeing Jade; Jade who had suffered so much when her new confident and spiritual sister, who had helped her so much during those first horrible, dreamless months had turned cold and wild eyed. Jade who believed from the beginning that something was wrong, Jade who was always right about these things, damn her.
"I'm sorry." John whispered, as he gently laid the girl down next to Dave. John carefully inserted the lemon and lime shaped ear plugs into the Witch's ears, and turned on his geistjamz.mp3 program. Maybe it'll work better in time, John rationalized, fighting off a terrible possibility that the effect of the whatever it was became permanent after a while. Closing his eyes and exhaling firmly, John squared his courage and pulled out his secret weapon. "Nothing up my sleeve…"
John didn't hear at first, as he was busy getting Plan C into place. Fighting off the instinctual disgust at the unholy red spoon sigil, John continued his devil's bargain, setting up the supplies with focus, dignity, and then he was hit in the back of the head with a handful of webbing what the devil?!
"…who…says that, man…" Dave Strider managed, wiping his face and ignoring the fact that his best friend's Freudian sized hammer was entirely too close to his grill to be healthy. John could kill him after Dave's unexpected wake up call body check. Dressed but suit clearly slept in. Little greasy. Don't smell. Laying next to a whimpering Jade. Nope, all normal, what's this nonsense about Egbwhaaa. "…w-would it help. If I said. I honestly don't remember. Getting here?"
Under any other circumstance, John would have recorded the break in Dave's cool for posterity and as something to show his hypothetical grandchildren. Instead, the bigger man (damn growth spurts) wrapped his arms around his friend, squeezing the carrot topped Knight as if they hadn't just seen each other last night! "Dude. Dude. John. The suit. Rumpling the…"
"Shut up!" John whispered, sticking his finger in Dave's face. "And keep that song on. It's the best I could do on short notice."
"The 'Extreme Ghostbusters' theme?" Dave moaned a little; he would never admit to trusting John in situations like these, but the fact that the song was still being listened to and the earphones were not being shoved down the buck toothed idiot's dumb yap pretty much said it all anyway. "…shit…did Rose really…?"
"It's April." John confirmed, pulling a blue blanket with green embroidering out of his left sleeve and flapping it in the air a few times. Sluggish synapses fired, and Dave realized a pair of similar giant handkerchiefs were hanging from the ghoulish webbing John had presumably liberated himself and. And. And fuck, he'll think of a witty nickname for Jade later. "Grab her, will you?"
"Bro, I told you…"
"She's still out cold." John noted a little frostily, having picked up on how ready Dave's excuses were. Almost as if he'd practiced. Once he was sure Dave had Jade secure, John draped the cloth over his friends, made a few wiggling motions with his fingers, and watched as the solid forms beneath the blue blanket faded, and something beneath the green and red blanket became rigid. Timing, John reflected, was everything.
This thought was somewhat apt, as it came right after the alcove door was smashed open by a very irate Rose Lalonde. Unholy needle wands gleamed in the forever night of Derse as she somehow managed to loom over John in spite of the laws of conservation of mass saying this was highly improbable. John had seen Rose irate, and distressed, and downright bellicose, but it seems that his bit of fakery had pushed her to a new plateau of quiet, dignified fury.
John couldn't have that, so he pushed a little harder. "Hey, Rosie." John winked, putting on his best Harry the Hat smile, "Gotchya."
Chapter 3: Chapter 3: A Rose By Any Other Name
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"This is selfish of you, John." Rose murmured, not meeting her friend's eyes as she lurched forward, hurling one of her needles at his side. "Making me have to close their cocoons up a second time. Making me have to capture you again." Channeling the fury she could not express into her actions, Rose tugged on her yarn, pulling another needle up in anticipation of pinning John's tongue to his mouth.
To her shock, Rose instead found that for the first time since she created it, her magic yarn was failing her. Egbert stood strong, his hammer wedged against the ground and his face drawn tense in pain, his wounded arm holding the pin into his flesh. Rose had cut herself with her new needles, once, and it had taken the better part of a week of changing the bandage regularly until the bleeding stopped. Damn him, didn't he understand that this had to be done?!
"Did you…seriously expect me not to try anything?" John managed a silly little grin as the tug of war continued; fell energy crackled along the twine, occasionally arcing at John only to be absorbed by his thaumaconductive gauntlet armor. "My stubborn streak's what got us into this mess, isn't it? I mean, if I had just trusted Jade's instincts instead of believing you when you said everything was okay…"
"You would have just forced my hand!" Rose snapped, finally unable to keep the furious pain out of her voice. Her bond to the wands would not let the sudden weakness in her limbs stop her from doing the will of the gods, however, causing her body to buckle and shudder under the pressure of it all. "Don't you get it, Egbert?! There's a reason I grew up the way I did…I was lost before we even entered the game! The gods helped us survive because they knew it would come to this, that the power of Skaia would ripen and bloat inside of us until we were the perfect sacrifices…"
"And what." John was suddenly cold, looking for any kind of reaction on Lalonde's face. "You get spared if you keep getting them better meals? That our whole friendship, that everything we've been through was nothing but a set up so we could play entrée for the things that've been hurting you your whole life?!"
The silence was damning as Rose looked at her feet in shame. John exhaled a sharp breath and brought his hammer up, slamming it into the ground with uncharacteristic speed and tugging at the same second. The result was Rose bouncing in the air for a second before being dragged towards her friend, her eyes widening a heartbeat before the heavy brass handle of the Heir's weapon smashed into her face. Before Lalonde could react, she felt an agonizing weight against her left side as the steam heated iron head dislocated her shoulder. Rose could feel the bone shattering and despite it all could not quite swallow a cry of shock and heartbreak at John finally putting his all into this fight.
"Aaah!" Rose exclaimed again as her kneecaps exploded in pain; she had only noticed the shadow of John's leaping smash before impact, her senses and reflexes dulled by pain, exhaustion, hunger, and regret. He's really going to do it, Rose tried scrambling back and getting some sort of better footing as her thoughts slowly floated above the fight from the haze of pain and heartbreak. John loomed over her like a vengeful mountain, his expression somber as he readied his hammer for the final blow; their eyes locked, and Rose saw an ocean of emotions unable to entirely crystallize. What John saw made him hesitate, quaver in his righteous fury, and for a second, they were just two teenagers in way over their heads, staring at each other and wondering how it could all come to this.
Then Rose's second needle stabbed John Egbert in the throat, and her powerful legs sprung her up into the air, allowing Rose to smash both of her knees into John's shoulders and topple his weight over. Cold black eyes bored into the electronic visor that protected John from the world, and silky smooth fingers traced nonsensical shapes along his protesting cheek. Rose's needles returned to her with a thought and a flick of the wrist, and John bit his tongue to keep from giving Lalonde the satisfaction of a scream of pain as she pinned him to the wall.
"Rose…" John wheezed, coughing on his own blood as he struggled feebly against the resurgent witch silk. "…s a lie…"
"Yes." Rose replied, flicking her wrist twice. John's blankets fell off, and Rose's lips curled into a sneer. "Really, John?"
"Nnno...the…squiddies…" John rasped, hoping against hope that she would understand. He shouldn't have waited, he got stupid and cocky again! "…this…innt…you…"
Rose was by the red cocoon, running her hand over what appeared to be a cheap puppet of Dave. "I don't know how you did it, John, but it was a waste of your remarkable talents. I am still the Seer of Light, and any disguise is still lousy to me." Rose slapped the wooden Dave's cheek, smirking at the wince on John's face as confirmation of what her supernal senses told her. "What, you thought I would run off and search the planet for two runaways who were right here? And you three would have discovered some way of 'freeing' me while I was distracted, I presume?"
Half a dozen black spiders, each the size of a small dog, made themselves known. Three crawled up John's legs, seemingly guarding the Heir while the others attended to resealing the cocoon. "It was a mistake." Rose practically purred, stepping over to run another finger along John's cheek. "Assuming the gods did not provide me with some assistance for my sacred task. It wouldn't have worked anyway. But since you're feeling so…" The look on Rose's face made a guilty part of John shudder, "…feisty, I think I am going to change my plans."
Sauntering back to the red cocoon, Rose let her lips twist into what would have been a rather attractive smile on a face less psychotic, and shoved.
"No. NO!" John surged forward, ignoring the spider bites but unable to break the grip of the thorns. "Rose, damn it, NO!"
"I'm going to make you watch, dear…"
About a block away, hidden securely in the dumpster behind a Midnite Munchies convenience store, Dave Strider repressed a wild shudder. The screaming painted a bad enough picture, but Knighthood of Time meant a certain bond with all the other possible knights of time; it wasn't quite as bad as when he found the still cooling body of an alternate Dave Strider, but the sympathetic pains were more than enough to throw the coolest guy in the world off of his game. For a second. If anything, Dave argued furiously with himself as he rubbed his fingers together to get the feeling back in them, the moment of weakness just made him somehow more awesome, since he doubted any of his scrub friends would recover from such a shock as swiftly.
Which brought things back to Jade. Damn it. They had been sloppy, careless, and it might have gotten one of them killed. One argument…John and Jade did the whole stereotypical bickering brother and sister thing far less than himself and Lalonde, but, in Dave's opinion, they made up for a lack of quantity with the sheer potency of dumpass both could exhibit when angry enough. So it was not a unique occurrence, to hear John and Jade shouting at each other with sudden and unexpected passion, resulting in one of the two storming out of the room and swearing not to talk to the other ever again. It was not rare for the friend in question to stay away from their communal hacienda for a day or two, and by the time either boy had gotten worried about Jade it had already been too late.
Before he could think better of it, Dave found himself brushing the hair out of Jade's eyes. It would be nice, Strider thought to himself, tensing up as he heard a bang outside and covering Jade's mouth, if she didn't snore so loudly. After a heart stopping minute of silence, Dave finally allowed himself to relax, leaning against the side of the dumpster and breathing slowly out of his nose. Egbert's big plan had better work, Dave thought to himself, perking his ears up again just in case and barely keeping from yelping out at the sudden warm, wet feeling on the palm of his hand. Looking over at Jade, he saw that there had been a subtle change in her facial features, being that the Witch of Space was doing her very best not to start giggling loudly enough to ruin her game. Then she did it again.
"Bluh!" Dave snapped in as much of a whisper as he could manage, waving his hand wildly and looking irritated at Harley. "Damn it, woman, what was that all about?!"
"I couldn't breathe." Jade managed, and Dave realized she was not as strong as she was acting just through the inflection of her voice. "And…it was nicer than biting you?" She was embarrassed, not so much of her own eccentricity than its bad habit of popping out when her friends were least likely to appreciate it. A sudden shifting in weight made Jade feel dizzy and ill, and she couldn't help but wonder if Dave was just too mad to yell at her. "…I can get up myself…"
"Shut up." Dave groused, unable to work up a good, honest heap of vitriol in spite of the circumstances as he gently moved Jade to a sitting position, checking her pulse, forehead, and eyes. "You're just lucky the flighty broad stole my John-proof gloves. Here." He shoved a candy bar into her hands, leaning against the dumpster side with a huff.
Jade tore into the first piece of food she had seen in a week like she was raised by wolves or something, daintily placing the wrapper down by others like it and then wobbling a little while she realized something. "…John. Is he? Did he?" She couldn't quite say it; she hated when she and John fought, because below the brilliant Witch and independent young woman was a frightened girl who's only family had left one day and never came back once already.
"…he's with Lalonde." Dave looked away, unable to entirely face the shame of abandoning his friend, even on orders. "Had some plan, said it'd help everybody." A slight pause and Dave sighed, resigning himself to his fate as the emotional bitch of a magical disabled girl. "He told me to tell you how sorry he was. And that he loves you. Or something, I stopped paying attention when he actually started menstruating…hey, leggo!"
Jade didn't, wrapping her arms a little tighter around Dave's neck as she sobbed; relief, fear, anxiety, regret, guilt, anger, frustration, and shame had been stewing in her guts the whole hellish imprisonment. She felt Dave reluctantly pat her shoulder and smiled to herself as she sniffled, using Strider's beloved felt vest as a handkerchief as the emotions poured out. Practically, she argued to herself, she'd need to be together in order to help, and that meant getting this stuff out now. It was a lie, but enough of one that Jade could justify Dave's discomfort, if only for a while. "…Dave?"
"…yeah?" Some emotion she couldn't place made his voice all husky and weird. She'd get him some cough syrup if they all survived.
"Could we get another candy bar, please?"
Wheezing, John looked up from his prison. Rose's vindictive side had thrown a spanner in the works, that had to be admitted. He couldn't warn the others directly without giving things away, and he couldn't escape without the others, which meant that he was probably going to be fed to whatever the hell was in reality's basement. Still, it didn't do any good to moan about it. John knew a lot of this was his fault, again, and he had to be ready to pay the consequences for the sake of the others. Would it hurt?, John thought as he struggled to keep still.
The effort was useless; John felt soft fingers cup his chin and brush his cheek with a tenderness that would have led to his making a total ass of himself just a few days ago. "You cannot hide from me, John." Rose whispered, fully drunk on the influence of her adoring tormentors. "Already healed. Did you know how fascinating your remarkable constitution was? The most interesting things would occur to a busy mind…"
"Stop it." John finally spoke, meeting those mad eyes defiantly. "Damn it Rose, you just dropped your brother off of a planet!" She had been oddly quiet since shoving the red cocoon to its fate, and John had dared hope the shock of it had brought Rose to her senses. "Do you even know where that goes?! Have you taken even a second to question where these voices and urges are coming from?!"
"That's how they won, you know. They opened my mind to the way you and the others really feel about me, made me feel the contempt, the resentment, the fear." Rose rested her cheek on his, and part of John could swear he felt moisture running from her eye. Then she started twisting the thorns, and all John could feel was agony. "You should not have pretended, Egbert." Rose continued with merciless calm, "I would have forgiven anything else. Well, that is, perhaps, a lie, but you would not have to share my fate."
"Rose…" John wheezed, feeling his vision blur as his insides rebelled at the stimulation, "…please, just listen…"
"But thank you." Rose interrupted him with the ferocity of a shout, pulling back and smiling with disgusting contentment. "Deep down, I wanted someone to have to watch with me. You always were thoughtful in the oddest way, John. David is one with the Moist Beyondhood, now. He will live on as a fragment in the mind of the gods. There are worse fates, John. He will not be alone."
And with that, Rose pulled her yarn; threads twitched and tugged, and the great green coffin teetered and fell over into the nothingness surrounding Derse. John cried out over costing Jade Harley her life a second time, over his continued failure as a leader and friend, but most of all over the tears in Rose Lalonde's eyes and the sick, content little smile on her lips. She looked ashamed and relieved, an addict falling off the wagon and feeling the bliss of oblivion.
"Ohmygosh!" Jade Harley squealed, grabbing Dave Strider by the shoulders and spinning him around. "Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave!"
"I'm!" Spin. "Right!" Spin. "Here!" Spin!
"I know, but we look so COOL! I still don't get why John's plan said we needed these disguises but seriously, wow!" The pair were decked out in freshly borrowed Dersian clothes; Dave had on a modest suit with a rain slicker made of a slice of midnight and topped off with a straw boater weaved from the navy blue grass that grew outside of the stables where the Fear Steeds were raised and trained, while Jade wore a modest slip, go go boots, a purple shawl that wrapped around her head and shoulders, and a pair of sunglasses that Audrey Hepburn once had a nightmare about. "We look like we should be going to a movie premiere or backing up Emma Peel!"
"I don't have an umbrella." Dave muttered, adjusting his hat and rolling his eyes at the snickers of the other patrons in the shop. Fortunately they were not in the part of Derse where people saw any sort of enthusiasm as a threat; here it was just embarrassing. "Come on, we've got to go."
"I thought you didn't watch tv!" Jade enthused, letting Dave lead her towards the door so she could focus on making sure the miniature purse that came with her disguise could fit the magnum she kept on her person for emergencies. "One of these days you're going to stop holding out on me, Strider."
"It was the only way to keep John from making me watch his collection of Ghostbusters cartoons with him." Dave argued lamely, boldly ignoring the insinuation from Miss Cheerful And Innocent Except For When She Feels Like It and checking the alleyway for danger. There were always alleyways, and always traps, ambushes, and other staples of Dersian life, the key to safe navigation being to make sure that you are not the one the danger is intended for. Dave tossed a spare alarm clock he kept for just such an occasion down the path, listened for the ticking to stop and grabbed Jade's arm, rushing forward and past a very confused mugger who was trying to find where the old clock kept its wallet.
"I never knew Derse was so pretty." Jade observed in that irritatingly sincere way of hers. Of course she could find the beauty in a crime infested rat's nest; it was the sudden halting of her relentless nonsense that actually worried Dave. "…is that…"
Dave felt his customary frown deepen into a scowl. "Fits Egbert's description." This was something of an understatement, which was new territory for Dave. The machine was about the size of an old fashioned phone booth on Earth, monolithic in density and rectangular in shape. Pitch black, with faint purple and blue cysts showing that something was going on underneath the carapace, the whole of the machine seemed to pulse faintly, beating like a diseased organ intent on spreading its contagion as far as possible. "What does your voodoo thing say?"
Jade slapped Dave on the shoulder half heartedly, repeating, "That stuff isn't real, this is just science!" and pulling the Magic 8-Auger out of her purse. Shaking it a little, Jade looked into the 8-ball shaped device and felt the blue die inside of it attaching to her Oracle Specks; the spatial composition of anywhere this close to the heart of Derse was tricky on a good day, let alone the one Jade had been having, and it took her a few minutes to confirm. "This thing is broadcasting something at 1025 megahertz. I can't quite make it out…"
"And that seeps into human brains?" Dave could not help but ask, despite feeling like the ditzy assistant on Beakman's World. Most of his attention was paid to the surrounding exits. Derse's alleyways tended to shift and rearrange themselves at the most inconvenient times, and it was never wise to take your eyes entirely off of the way back to the main road. "That's what pushed Rose out of 'refreshingly creepy' and straight up into 'Lovecraft villain'sville?"
"I'm not an expert on how this kind of technology interacts with living tissue." Jade cautioned, though it was something of a lie. She was the most scientifically adept person Dave knew, and chewed up John's hesitant theorizing like it were one of those artificially softened granola bars that practically came premasticated. That's a good word, Dave thought, premasticated, struggling to focus on the torrent of technobabble. "…but I think it works like a displacement matrix, irritating the brain's ability to monitor its neurotransmitter production while overriding individual synapses, allowing it to effectively induce the brain chemistry it wants to have. While this is far from 'mind control' it certainly would explain why certain, ah, tendencies someone has might suddenly be taken to an extreme…"
"You mean Rosie trying to feed us to her imaginary friends." Dave simplified cruelly, regretting it the instant he saw the hurt on Jade's face.
It was gone before he could think of an apology, "You know she hates that name." Jade replied, navigating through the torrid waters of discouragement with the enthusiasm she showed for every other insane thing she did every second of the day. "Now stop looking over your shoulder and help me up!"
Shaking his head but kneeling down to give Jade a boost anyway, Dave forced his eyes to stay on his shoes. They were nice shoes. "We're not just going to break this thing?"
"No, that might drive Rose irreparably insane." Jade paused at her unintentional irony, scowled at herself, and tugged a massive artery of a wire out of one plug and forced it into another. "I've already isolated the soundwaves so that this can't happen again, but we need to ease her back into her normal condition."
Dave tried to will some moisture in his mouth before he realized something. "Wait, how do you know what her brain chemistry should be?"
There was a pause, before Jade giggled nervously. "Well, uh, remember that time I took some blood from everybody…? Well, it wasn't just to make sure you guys weren't allergic to the alien medicine we've been able to find…" Another moment of discomfort, as lights switched and sacks of fluid throbbed. "…anyway, what's a little spinal fluid between friends!"
"What?!" Dave looked up, shocked, blushed, looked down, noticed the spider the size of a Saint Benard patiently waiting to be recognized, looked up again, and proceeded to shove Jade off of his shoulders.
"D-dave?!" Jade called out, gripping onto a cord like some kind of silly koala girl. "Is this really the time?!" Flustered, confused, and regretting that third candy bar, Jade looked up to see her dear friend desperately using a trash can lid to keep a giant black and red spider from biting his head off. Phew, Jade thought to herself, bullet dodged; she pulled her pistol out, aimed, and fired, exoskeleton exploding as one of the monster's legs became entirely less so.
"Fix the dingus!" Dave snapped, whipping the trash can lid into the air and sticking the sharpened lid into the spider's face with practiced ease. Years of teamwork demanded Dave leap into the air, kick off of the side of the lid not full of arachnid and kick off of it, giving him some distance from the monster and cutting its head in two, causing the ungainly thing to buckle, bubble, and finally collapse into a protesting pile of oozing remnants. But he didn't have to be happy, damn it. "John can't keep Lalonde talking forever! And never tell her I said that!"
Jade rolled her eyes, gave the Knight a thumbs up, and turned around, trying to ignore a shiver of revulsion as the other three spiders closed in on Dave. She had a job to do.
"How are you feeling now?" Rose would not risk closing the distance between Egbert and herself again. Even restrained, even broken, even two thirds of the way to victory, John was dangerous. In fact, John was the most dangerous when everything had gone against him; she had seen evils that numbed her senses and shattered her invincible cool defeated by the stubborn persistence of a goofy kid with a glorified pogo stick. "Is there still a way out? Can I still be fixed, John?" Rose did not care if she was the one to make John Egbert finally give up. He only had to be in the right mental state to please the palette of the gods. "It's the end of the world, John. And I know Harley always was your favorite."
"If you…wanted me alone, Rose, all you had to do was ask." John joked pathetically, unable to keep the despair out of his voice. His chest rose and fell raggedly, having to struggle against the ever tightening twine for each gasp of breath.
Rose seemed unaffected. "We were always a little awkward, Jade and I. Maybe it was an alpha female thing. Maybe I was just afraid all the nonsense she spouted would start to make sense if I listened too closely. I may be evil, John, but I do not throw my friends into the mouth of a lion with a giggle and a grin." Indeed, her expression was colder than a snowed in grave.
"You loved…her too." John managed, the lip of the pit coming closer and closer. Rose had the decency to push his tomb to the edge herself, but somehow he could not find any gratitude in his soul for this small mercy. "You…only get…upset…when you…care…"
"She never asked me why." Rose ignored these painful truths, the end finally in sight. It could all just end, finally. "I think she knew, the whole time. And said nothing because my power was needed to fulfill her plans."
John shook his head at this painfully plausible scenario. "Rose, what are you even going to do after this? Where are you going to go? How are you going to live? You haven't thought this through!"
"Scream, I suppose." They were at the edge, now. I tried, John thought to himself, closing his eyes and letting out a sigh. I really did try. "It will be an involuntary reaction after some time."
"What?!" John opened his eyes, and felt a pair of arms wrap around his chest.
"You were one of the only people in my life to consistently try to assure me that I was not alone in the world." Rose said, and for a moment she sounded like her old self; or rather, like the shy, unsure girl her old self had hidden behind poetry and sarcasm. "Thank you." Powerful leg muscles pushed, and Heir and Seer tumbled down into nothingness.
"Got it!" Jade crowed in triumph, wiping fluorescent blue bile off of her face and grinning down at Dave for approval. "-are you still playing with them?!"
"Playing?!" Dave moaned, waist deep in spider guts and bound by horrible acidic webbing. The last living spider looked up, possibly to protest as well, before a bullet split its brain case open.
Jade Harley landed with a totally unnecessary flip, which is to say she tried to do a cool somersault, hit a juicy piece of what used to be a feeler, and fell flat on her rear end. All and all, it was one of her better landings, and Dave had the good grace not to say so. "wheeeee."
"Come on." Dave barked gruffly, hefting the girl up and supporting her with his shoulders. "Before whatever built this thing figures out we broke it." The Knight plowed forward, closing his eyes and following an image of himself an hour in the future, when he walked the fastest route from this part of the alley to Rose's lair.
"So coooooool." Jade trilled, seeing the glowing red flash of Future Dave and indulging in a giggle. It was all going to be okay! They'd get to the alley, John and Rose would be there and they'd all be a family again and maybe they'd sing a song about it all! And in Jade's defense, they very definitely got to the alley.
"…nrgh." Dave panted, leaning against the wall. "Jade, you see 'em?" Jade was holding her hands to her open mouth, and her silence spoke volumes. Exhausting bubbling away, Dave disbelievingly stepped forward, slapping his head with his hand. "…that's just not fair."
"Too slow." Jade croaked, burying her head in Dave's rainslick, "Oh God Dave, what're we going to do?"
"…ah…" Dave couldn't manage the words, wrapping an arm around Jade out of instinct while staring open mouthed at the gap in the universe where his stupid friends should be standing there smiling their moron faces off. "…I don't know, Jade…"
"…you could give us a hand!" The voice of a dead man rang out. Jade and Dave looked at each other, almost daring to hope, and ran to the edge of the universe. A packet of Ultra Adhesive Orange gushers was crushed, the ensuing goop holding a spidery lash of yarn to the side. Below, a cautiously happy looking John Egbert, who wiggled his feet in greeting because his other hand was holding onto a pale faced Rose Lalonde, who looked like she had survived a week long bender and just now seen the bill. "…good news!" John chirped, "The intangibility cufflink works!"
About an hour later, the four friends stood in front of the shimmering purple portal that led back to the impromptu shack in the veil they were calling home. Cautious triumph filled the air, as Rose had yet to say much of anything, simply refusing to let go of John's hand for the duration of the trip back. Jade fretted, Dave scowled, and John tried to beat Rose's guilt into submission with an explanation. "…so, see, it wasn't even the voices you guys hear on Derse. That was just how your mind rationalized what was going on."
"…I should go." Rose finally said, "I…clearly I am more dangerous than I thought possible. This should not have happened. It will not happen again. I…thank you, thank you all so much, but…" She looked up, expecting a fight, reluctant understanding, maybe even quiet pleasure at being rid of her. She did not expect Dave Strider's fingers to grab her ear and tug viciously.
"This." Dave continued in a surprisingly Harleyesque tone, "Is how this shit all got started. I'm the only one who hasn't done some stupid clever plan this week, so someone hand me a cigar and drugged glass of milk cause there's a new Hannibal in charge. We are going to go home, we are going to sit on the couch and we are going to watch one of those God awful cartoons John saved from when he was a six year old baby and share a giant fucking bowl of popcorn and it'll be so heartwarming Randy Newman music'll start playing in the background and we'll turn around and oh shit, there he is on the piano banging out love and off key wailing."
"…wait a second." John held a finger up, "I thought you didn't watch tv!"
"Popcorn bitches don't talk back." Dave replied as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Who said I was the popcorn bitch?!" John stumbled, glaring at Jade's attempt to repress her giggles.
"You did, Eggy." Dave smirked a little, and as she was safe, and wanted, and surrounded by the people she cared about most in the world, Rose Lalonde couldn't help it. She started laughing. It was good to be home.
So there we go. I hope folks enjoyed. This chapter was a little swearier than usual but that's pretty much Dave's fault.