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[Panel description: Jake curls up and hugs his knees, with tears leaking out of the eye holes in his mask. Brain Ghost Dirk materializes in front of him.]

[Panel description: Brain ghost Dirk leans forward. He is wispy and ephemeral.]

DIRK: Do you have it all figured out yet?
JAKE: Son of a fuck.

[Panel description: Jake looks up. Tears continue to drip down his mask.]

DIRK: Chin up. As I have so vaguely implied, I am only here because you, on some level, want me to be.
So, you feeling a little less lost now?
DIRK: Well, that's your prerogative.
Did it hurt?
JAKE: ...
DIRK: Do you remember the last thing you said to her?
DIRK: Whoa. Harsh.
JAKE: I don’t want to get into it right now! You DO know who that was right??
DIRK: Dearly departed Grandmother English, if I am not mistaken.
JAKE: Yes. My grandmother.
My DEAD grandma who you may recall I CREMATED MYSELF when I was knee high to a grasshopper!
DIRK: Sounds like this place touches a nerve.
JAKE: Sod off.
DIRK: Come on.
You've got a quest to finish.
JAKE: I can’t.
I can’t do it.
Not with THAT haunting this damn maze.
DIRK: Everyone's counting on you.

[Panel description: Jake flails out with his arms, clenching his fingers. Two angry eyebrows accent the eye holes of his mask.]

JAKE: And tell me o font of subconscious hopey wisdom. What exactly is the bloody point?
DIRK: That's a question I could spend all day pontificating on and all it would do is bore you.
You don't want to do this for your friends?
JAKE: I hardly have friends.
Can you say that I have people like that? That I stick with through thick and thin? That stick with me??
DIRK: There's Jade.
Come on. You're shitting on yourself again for no good reason. You and I both know this.
You have at least one person who believes in you.
JAKE: I really don’t think jade knows all she thinks she does about the whole shooting match. She wasn’t there.
Sure she thinks I can make up with everyone because she’s still trucking after being an evil werewolf for a few hours. But I’ve been lousing things up for months!
Longer than that! Maybe even years!
Jade just can’t understand how terrible I’ve been. She wasn’t there. She has only me and my word to go off of and of course she’s going to believe the best of me. That’s just who she is.
Maybe the entire time I knew my friends I was doing something wrong and that’s why it all went to shit.
The game only had to bring it to the surface and the rest sorted itself out.
If we don’t all just die again then surely they don’t want to have me as a friend and that all came to light because of the stupid game!!
It takes EVERYTHING away from us! I hate it!
Our homes our planet our guardians and our friendships!
It just keeps taking and taking and taking and for what?
To make a new universe? Were not even the ones getting to make it! The cockle-brained slime progeny are the real heroes here and we didn’t even have a say in their lives either! We just stand around and get kind of uncomfortable about how our genes got combined without our go-ahead like some stupid ironic gesture from the universe itself.
As if the world were saying surprise!! It’s not enough you have all this fiddle faddle here’s a bunch of kids who look like you and a friend whose friendship you fumbled so hard it’s hard to be in a room together.
Look at us!

[Panel description: A close up of brain ghost Dirk's face. Ghostly eyes are faintly visible behind his shades.]

JAKE: We're useless.

[Panel description: Jake puts one hand to his head, eyes wide.]

JAKE: We're useless and that’s what we were designed to be from the get go. No hope no life and no heart. Just nothing.
Why do we even exist?? If we'd have just died before we even knew there was a game to play jade and her friends would get a blank session without all this baggage!
DIRK: Whoa, you're lapsing into some dark places there, buddy.
Calm down, there's no reason to start thinking that way. This timeline isn't doomed yet.

[Panel description: Jake flails his arms back and forth. Meanwhile, brain ghost Dirk stands watching him. He is drawn in a more traditional style, with wisps of white streaming off his skin and hair.]

JAKE: Oh. THAT’S too dark for you!?
I’m alone in a dark friggin maze with my dead grandma trying to get me to jump into the fucking flames I burned her body in and THAT’S a little dark for you?
We started the game with three of us dying before we'd even all entered! If I’d slipped up... if I’d kept yakking at Hal everyone would be dead and it'd be my fault and that’s a LITTLE dark for you?
That same game kills us all if we make the slightest mistake over something that might not even be within our control and that’s a little dark for you?
I watched jade die again! I was the one who got her prone so aranea could kill her!!
I jumped in front of your sword to save Jane even after she killed me and then we both died anyway!! So don’t tell me those kinds of thoughts are a little dark!!!
DIRK: Wow.
You think you have some issues to work out here, buddy?

[Panel description: Jake slumps. A wisp of steam rises from his gas mask.]

DIRK: Do you need another moment?
Need to talk to somebody, perhaps?
What about Jade?
JAKE: She’s... probably busy.
I don’t want to bother her by blathering on and on with my nonsense every time I get a wild hair up my ass.
DIRK: Anyone else.
Literally anybody else.
JAKE: No!!
I can’t just message them out of the blue just to dump more of my baggage on them!
I know I told jade I would speak to them but I still don’t even know what to say to begin with!
Even if I did I can’t open with an apology only to start talking their ear off about my problems!
It’ll only make them cross with me again.
Sure I can handle them not speaking to me but if they give me another shakedown before I got the hook?
Like dirk did?
Like Jane did???
I don’t think I could take it.
DIRK: But I thought you didn't want to be alone.
JAKE: I don’t. But I want to be punted out the door again even less.
It’s one thing to just. Be alone.

[Panel description: Jake cradles his injured hand.]

[Panel description: He opens his hand, revealing burns across the fingers, palm, and wrist. The skin is an angry red.]

DIRK: But being abandoned is different.
JAKE: ...yes.
Besides if they don’t want me then who am I to go darkening their doorstep again?
DIRK: But who are you to say that they don't want you?
JAKE: I know but I.
I’m just. Scared.
I’m scared ok??
I’m still scared of going to talk to them!!
I’m scared of everything happening right now!
I’m a complete coward and that’s why I’ve avoided actually dealing with all of this! And it’s why I keep avoiding it!
I said it! Are you happy?
Are you gonna speechify at me again about how I’m a lily-livered chicken shit? Huh?
Come on. Get up. You have a quest to do.
DIRK: I will drag you through this labyrinth, so help me.
JAKE: I don’t want to!
DIRK: I'm afraid you don't have much of a choice.
Look at it this way: everyone needs to finish their quest to win the game. Do you want to let everyone down again?
JAKE: ...

[Panel description: Brain ghost Dirk holds out his hand. Jake stands up, holding out a hand as well.]

DIRK: I am afraid I may have inadvertently lied about not calling you a chicken shit again.
Should I go now?

[Panel description: A very tall panel. Jake and brain ghost Dirk walk through the narrow canyon, mostly obscured by blue mist. The green walls reach high overhead toward a sky gradiating from black to gray. Pumpkin vines and blossoms twine around the rock.]

JAKE:’s not your fault, Brain Clone Dirk. I’m sure you’re very aware that the situation with dirk is a little maffled right now.
It makes seeing you far more enemious than it might otherwise be.
On any other day I’m sure I’d be overjoyed to see him!
DIRK: You say that, but I seem to recall you once upon a time expressing frustration at my being yet another in a parade of “fake Dirks”.
JAKE: Yeah well that was also a rough day.
I had a lot on my mind as I’m positive you know.
Not to mention... having him in my brain under these circumstances comes across as kind of... invasive.
Like I’m living under the cats foot because everywhere I go he’s always going to be watching me!
And you’re even worse because it comes off like he knows everything I’m thinking.
DIRK: He really doesn't.
Granted, I know, because I'm you. But I have no way of communicating with him. Or anyone else, for that matter, barring some very extenuating circumstances.
And should I ever materialize again and start blabbing about the time the mere image of Dirk Strider gave you a boner, rest assured it will not be because it was my idea.
You have no reason to be afraid of Dirk because of me.
JAKE: I’m not afraid of dirk!
DIRK: Are you?
Didn't you just admit to fearing his judgment?
JAKE: Yes but.
Before that you couldn’t say I was afraid of him.
DIRK: Uh-huh.
But you don't seem to trust him all that much.
JAKE: Of course I do!
DIRK: Jake, please keep in mind to whom you are speaking.
JAKE: ...
You know you make me mad enough to eat needles sometimes but damn it you’re spot on.
He’s intimidating sometimes! And now Jane’s proved she’s a real iron fist in a velvet glove.
Or velvet oven mitt as it were.
And I’ve already done so much to them.
DIRK: Yeah, I don't think anybody needed a projection of your innermost thoughts to tell them that.
JAKE: Indeed.
Does being hesitant towards them make me a bad friend?
DIRK: No idea. I'm just your brain, not your moral compass.
JAKE: (Funny how you’re just my brain as soon as I actually have important questions.)
DIRK: I heard that.
JAKE: So perhaps they’re a fearsome presence! That makes it hard to talk to them earnestly! That doesn’t let me off the hook even if I didn’t know better.
DIRK: So, you fucked up.
But it's an honest fuck-up.
Are you going to tell them that?
You did tell Jade you were going to think about it.

[Panel description: Jake peers around a corner to see the flaming form of his grandmother passing by. Brain Ghost Dirk waits behind him.]

JAKE: (Ix-nay on the ade-jay for now please??)

[Panel description: Jake's face is visible peeking around the rock. Brain ghost Dirk watches.]

JAKE: I still have no idea what I’d say.
DIRK: You're not really trying, if you ask me.
Like you didn't try to patch things over with Dirk.
You didn't look too hard into Jane's odd behavior, either.
JAKE: Like I told j-
Like I said things got out of hand.
DIRK: By my estimation, you've had no less than five direct opportunities to discuss the matters at hand with them.
More, if you count the theoretically infinite number of moments where you had a computing device in your hand and the humility to go crawling back to them to beg forgiveness.
JAKE: ...yeah but...
DIRK: But you were scared.
JAKE: Yes.
DIRK: With good reason, especially when the Crocker devil or candy demon Jane were bearing down on you.
But come on, she was practically begging you to tear into her back on Derse.
JAKE: But I didn’t want to!!
She really wasn’t herself in either circumstance! She’s had enough of a day!
For crying out loud all this is coming down on her sweet sixteen. Poor lass.
DIRK: She was literally asking you to have at her for wrecking you like she did.
You're just going to skip along with your head stuck up your ass, pretending what she said to you in her creepy sex dungeon didn't upset you, just to make everyone else feel better?
JAKE: (Don’t call it that!)
DIRK: You're just going to skip along with your head stuck up your ass, pretending what she said to you in the jail cell she probably would've made into a creepy sex dungeon didn't upset you?
JAKE: Please stop with the explicit references! I don’t want to think about what happened in that jail cell and neither does she.
If she is truly regretful of saying such things to me then I reckon that’s enough!
I don’t want to get into any more trouble with my friends today! And if they’ve garnered that their words stung then they don’t need me to lay on the guilt.
DIRK: Bro.
Remember what Jade said.
You can't go assuming this shit.
JAKE: It’s not an assumption! I can gather for myself that Jane was regretting her words thanks.
DIRK: You're really just gonna let that go, huh.
Let people keep walking all over you?
JAKE: I feel like you’re trying to provoke me.
DIRK: Yeah, because you only want to get riled up at me.
Never at the people who hurt you or wanted to use you.
So you don't want to get into it with Dirk or Jane. Fine. What about Aranea? She was only sweet on you because she wanted your powers and your destiny for her plans.
That was a twist. Like if Scooby Doo and the gang pulled off the mask and Velma was the one underneath.
And then she called in an airstrike on all of them. The bomb being you.
Didn't matter what happened to you, as long as she got her way. And she was happy to prey on your cerulean spider girl fetish in order to manipulate you for it. That oughta fuckin' cheese your onions.
Whatever happened to her healing mojo, by the way? Wasn't that supposed to fix you?
JAKE: I don’t think so.
I don’t think there is a fix for me.
At least not an easy one.
It’s less like she fixed a leak in my head and more like she reached in and pulled out whatever it was she wanted.
Then when she was gone it went back to wherever it was and I don’t know how to reach it again.
Not that I’m really complaining though? Sure it would be nice to actually know what the hell is up with this supposed infinite well of power but.
If that’s what being a fully realized page of hope means I don’t want any part of it!
I couldn’t control myself I couldn’t help in any real way...
I wasn’t even fully present as myself if that makes any real sense. It was as though I was there but I wasn’t really me.
It was all light and energy and it was only through you I had any real say in what was happening around me and even that didn’t last.
DIRK: Maybe it's for the best if you don't master it, then.
How many players can you say have that kind of control of themselves anyhow? If you had to have your head re-screwed on to access that kind of power, it's probably not something our merry band of mentally scarred dip shits can reach.
JAKE: Most likely not. At any rate if I can’t get a hold of myself I’m at least in good company.
And if all anyone wants from me is my spectacular powers... I’d say I’m happier not having access to them.
You can bet your bottom boon buck I will most certainly not be anyone’s moniker-shouting weapon of mass hope!
DIRK: See what I mean, though? She went screwing around with your head even when you told her to get her hands off you and she didn't even let it stick long enough to do any actual good.
AND she killed Jade. And Jane. And you.
Doesn't that piss you off?
Doesn't people looking at you for ways to use you make you mad as hell?
You ARE a man, right?
JAKE: Of course I am!
DIRK: Then grow up. Get angry. Don't be a goddamn doormat.
Friends or not, this shit isn't okay.
JAKE: I know that it isn’t! But-
DIRK: But what?
JAKE: But... you know. I’m on thin ice with them already.
I think we're seeing the problem here.
You stepping in what I'm spilling?
Are you always going to be making excuses for them just to keep them around?
I'm not just talking about now, I mean even before this. Way back when, when this whole romantic subplot was but a twinkle in the freshly pubescent eye of its perpetrators.
Provided you can even remember a time when you weren't up to the hem of your banana pants in potential suitors.
JAKE: That time is but a distant and foggy memory.
But now that you say it it seems pretty obvious.
But of course that’s because I already knew all of that isn’t it.
DIRK: Yup. Look at your track record.
Ignoring this shit and hoping it would go away didn't work.
Neither did just complying with the others.
Maybe if you'd have socked Aranea in the face, though, it would've been a start. Let her know you mean business.
JAKE: What is it with you and punching people in the face??
What is it with EVERYONE and punching people in the face???
DIRK: It's a quick, physical shorthand for "I don't agree with your course of actions, cease immediately. And also, get the fuck out of my face".
If they keep trying after that, they're either an idiot or they have a death wish.
JAKE: I invoke jades advice! Violence is not the best solution!
DIRK: Because yelling at Aranea worked out so well.
JAKE: Besides what if I really had punched Jane in the face? Even if that had stopped her what about after she came off the Crocker juice?
What would she say then?
DIRK: To do a quick risk analysis, would it have been better or worse than the possibility of having your rump mounted over her mantle place?
Would you really want to give up both defending yourself and avoiding life as a Crockercorp bunny on the off chance she'd be pissed off at you for it?
Especially when, you know, she was kind of already mad.
JAKE: Well... put like that...
DIRK: Sometimes you've just gotta put yourself up on the chopping block, bruh.
Stop hiding and grow up. Be a man.
JAKE: Punch your assailants in the face?
Though perhaps more often in the metaphorical sense of accosting them with my innermost feelings.
DIRK: That works too.
To be on the offensive also inevitably means letting your guard down. If you defend all your life, you're just gonna get wailed on.

[Panel description: Jake turns to look at brain ghost Dirk, eyebrows rising. A blurry figure with enormous teeth looms behind him.]

DIRK: At the risk of becoming one of those infuriatingly pretentious assholes who just tosses out references to popular culture without a justifying context,
Ever heard of the Hedgehog's Dilemma?
JAKE: I’m familiar with the comic books! Are you referring to something from before or after the genesis wave?

[Panel description: Dirk and Jake both look at an enormous pencil drawn creature. It has a sphere-shaped body and two stick-like legs. Most of its body is taken up by an enormous mouth. Shaggy hair runs down its back. It bears a resemblance to a nightmare version of Sonic the Hedgehog.]

DIRK: Gotta go fast, motherfucker.

[Panel description: Jake sprints away. The Sonic monster chases after him, its eyes bulging cartoonishly. Brain ghost Dirk stands still in the background.]

DIRK: Do you want me to leave you alone now?
JAKE: Do you mind!? I’m a little busy here!!
DIRK: Busy running away.
JAKE: From MONSTERS! These skeletons are nothing to sneeze at!
DIRK: When you were mortal, yes, but you're a fucking god now.
JAKE: But I don’t have my powers down pat yet!
DIRK: Does that even look like a skeleton to you?
JAKE: Are you going assist me or are you going to keep giving me lip??
DIRK: I thought you didn't want any help.
JAKE: I’m in a bit of a bind here!!

[Panel description: Jake twists around and points both of his golden pistols toward the viewer with his hair and cape flapping. The pose is very cool.]

[Panel description: The hedgehog monster grimaces as a hole is blown through the center of its head. The word Bam pulses next to the wound.]

[Panel description: Jake stands with his legs braced, looking over at brain ghost Dirk. Brain ghost Dirk looks down at the remains of the monster, which are dissolving into the same white mist curling off him.]

JAKE: What WAS that thing??
DIRK: Maybe it's the sound of twenty-five years of Sonic.
JAKE: Oh SHUT UP! Why’d my brain think up such an irritating self esteem-ghost?
Are you going to keep giving me the runaround by letting me make a fool of myself? Is me looking like an idiot my own self-sabotaging end?
DIRK: Hey, you're doing fine.
You're kind of giving yourself a run-around in the process, but whatever.

[Panel description: The two of them emerge onto the same path Jake walked down several times before. Jake vibrates up and down with frustration.]

JAKE: Is this the same path...?
Oh god damn it!

[Panel description: Jake looks down at his burned hand.]

JAKE: I have to get moving.
I need to do this or we're all dead.
Maybe I can’t be the cool hero everybody expects but I can outsmart this stupid maze by myself.
Why should I be the one with the handicap?
DIRK: Jade said herself that she had help with her quest.
Jane isn't alone either. Your quest is linked to hers and Dirk's.
Maybe you can message Dirk, see what he has to say.
JAKE: Be that as it may!!
If I DO want the stupid help who is there to go to???
Who would want to help me? I’m a moron! I’m pathetic! I’m an eccedentesiast scaramouch who’s all talk and no walk. Everyone in this outfit can outclass me at everything I can do!
As ugly as it is the truth of the matter is that I am worthless. I’m the dead weight of the session and that’s all I’m ever going to be.
If somebody did want to help me it’d be an obligation of some sort.
The proof is in the pudding just in the fact that you’re all I’ve got to talk to right now. Nobody here’s that fond of me.
...not anymore at least.
Not since I showed my true colors, so to speak.
But maybe I was never that close to anyone to begin with and now that’s why I’m here.
I’m alone and that’s all I’m ever going to be.

[Panel description: Brain ghost Dirk places a hand on Jake's shoulder.]

DIRK: Okay.
You're going to write this off as me moonlighting as your self-esteem, but.
You are not going to get anywhere with the fucking pity party.
JAKE: I know.
DIRK: I've been telling you this all along.
You will always be cooling your heels in this position unless you get up and do something.
Jesus Christ, fucking Pages. Their worst enemy in this game is themselves.
You're not even alone in this. Jade's only a Pesterchum message away, and you haven't even spoken to the other new kids yet.
JAKE: What do you mean?
DIRK: Well, without digging into the Byzantine cabal of game lore you've got crammed in here from subconscious exposure,
I keep telling you that you need to get back up.
No, don't even think of this as Dirk imparting this little nugget of wisdom. This is you, telling yourself, that your own goddamn sanity depends on you getting back up on this proverbial horse.
Pardon the pun as it punctures a hole in my claims to not-Dirkdom. This isn't to prove something to someone else. This is to prove it to yourself.
And for all your insistence you're a coward, it hasn't stopped you from doing some pretty courageous things.
Maybe standing up to Aranea like you did was only a half-measure, but that doesn't mean you couldn't do it once you put your mind to it.
I was just a proxy. I don't exist unless you believe I do.
That whole thing was you.

[Panel description: Another pencil-drawn monster with red, blue, and yellow eyes emerges around a corner, visible behind brain ghost Dirk. Jake is facing toward it.]

[Panel description: Jake's eyes widen.]

DIRK: All of this is just you.

[Panel description: Jake lifts both pistols and fires into the monster while brain ghost Dirk stands by.]

[Panel description: Jake leaps forward.]

[Panel description: Jake lands on top of the monster, hangs onto it with one hand, and clobbers it with the other. The creature is a vaguely scorpion-shaped entity with a bird-like face and pool ball eyes lining its body. It has several gaping wounds that drip blood. Where eyes would normally appear on its head are only bloody sockets.]

DIRK: Told you so.

[Panel description: Jake stands in the middle of the monster's remains as they dissolve into white light.]

[Panel description: Jake looks to one side.]

DIRK: You don't have to go it alone, but you're perfectly capable on your own.

[Panel description: Jake reaches a hand toward the vine-encrusted wall.]

[Panel description: Jake pushes his hand straight through the wall.]

DIRK: Get past the walls you put up and you'll see it.

[Panel description: Jake steps directly through the wall into an open area.]

JAKE: Now THIS is bananas!

[Panel description: Jake looks back to see brain ghost Dirk following him. Behind both of them, the phantom Jade stands swathed in flame.]

JAKE: I could do this the whole time? What a load of bull hockey.

[Panel description: Jake looks over at brain ghost Dirk as they keep walking.]

JAKE: So what are you anyway? You’re super insistent I go speak to my friends for help but you’re still here.
DIRK: Yeah, because you don't really want to be alone. Just like I told you.
JAKE: So is having you here with me being alone or isn’t it?
DIRK: Still have hang-ups about me?
JAKE: Not when you’re being helpful instead of obnoxious.
Real dirk could be a pain in the rear sometimes but not with anywhere near your frequency.
DIRK: We've kind of been over this. I'm not Dirk.
And I know, if it walks and talks like a water fowl then the obvious conclusion follows, but my situation runs deeper than that.
I was born from a splinter of Dirk embedded within you and animated by your own abilities, for whatever symbolically relevant nonsense that's worth.
Would you have picked Dirk to represent your subconscious if he weren't already a part of you? Maybe, maybe not, but that's not something either of you had any conscious say in.
My appearance comes from both that coincidence and whatever weird mire of emotions you experience towards him. It can be both those things, in varying levels depending on different circumstances. Our lives are more than complex enough to transcend a binary, either-or answer where this miraculous thing called feelings is concerned.
I only act the way you think Dirk would act when he gives you his spiels. I'm really just you talking to yourself. I'm not even an exact copy, just your image of how you think Dirk would act. And that might not be totally him.
JAKE: You think so?
DIRK: You know so.
You're really just speaking to an imaginary friend. A very convincing sock puppet.
You get all that?
JAKE: ...yeah. Thanks for the explanation.
And for everything else.
DIRK: It's all on you, bromide. Literally.
All of this is you.
Maybe now you can stop over-thinking every little thing every Dirk Strider-shaped individual does in your life.
And start comprehending the point of this little venture.
JAKE: And that is?

[Panel description: Jake races toward some flames. Behind him, brain ghost Dirk fades and vanishes.]

DIRK: Talk to him.

[Panel description: Jake's small silhouette stands in front of towering flames.]

[Panel description: Jake advances bravely, eyebrows angled with determination.]

[Panel description: The phantom Jade rests her hands on his shoulders and then fades away.]

[Panel description: Jake stands in front of an angular gray structure. Then its appearance shifts, turning green and revealing an arched doorway. The doorway features a serpentine figure wrapping around its columns and is crowned with the hope symbol’s wings.]

[Panel description: Jake walks down a green hallway that is illustrated with more sinuous lines. The gas flows in after him and then sinks into trenches on either side of the walkway.]

[Panel description: Jake takes his gas mask off as he approaches a door. The door has nine colored panels and is decorated with a combination of the heart and hope symbols.]

[Panel description: Jake stands in a square room with at least two passageways leading out of it. Gas pools in trenches along the walls, which are decorated with green swirls. A speech bubble with Dirk's hat appears above his head.]