Once, there was a maiden who played a game.
She and her friends struggled through many trials.
They found death
And they found victory
They won the game at a great cost
And found the reward was not what they thought it was
“A game is part of a greater game,” she said.
John felt a rush - wind, life, light, all flashing past him. He could see nothing, hear nothing, but the sensation whipped through him.
Eternity always takes forever, he thought. I hope it’s not too much longer.
They had won, hadn’t they? Finally finished their glitched, broken, terrible session of Sburb? Earned The Prize? He was supposed to be home.
John missed his dad, cakes and all.
Suddenly, the rushing intensified, as though he were falling.
John blinked. He hadn’t hit anything. He hadn’t been falling. At least he hadn’t been technically falling. Probably. But here he was, lying on his back on some stone.
The first thing he thought about was how bright the sun, directly overhead, was.
The second thing he thought about was that it was quite cold. Frosty, even.
The third thing he thought about was how people seemed to be shouting. They sounded kind of far away, though.
Stiffly, as though his muscles weren’t properly working yet, he rolled over. Oh, he thought, there’s a ledge there. And all of those people, he realized as his eyes began to open.
“Um, hi!” he called down to them. Wind whistled past, and he realized just how high up this ledge was. After a moment of thought, he added, “Can someone help me get down?”
Rose could hear waves.
This was peculiar, considering that by the rules of the game she should, by all means, be home, in that big empty house in the middle of the woods.
Taking a deep breath to steel her still-frayed nerves, Rose kept her eyes closed until she felt ready to face whatever new problems had arisen.
She really should have expected better than to have a plain, simple victory.
Dave coughed and spat hot sand.
Fuck, he thought. More glitchy bullshit. Stupid game must have gotten some code mixed up or some shit and filled his and Bro’s apartment with sand. Or maybe-
Ugh. Who was he trying to kid? This had to be something else.
Not even bothering to take stock of his situation, Dave gritted his teeth and pushed himself up. Time to get moving. This shit wasn’t going to fix itself.
Jade could hear birds. Not the kind of birds she used to hear on the island, which worried her, but at least it was something familiar. And these were songbirds, unlike the hummingbirds which had populated her Land. So there was that.
The second thing she noticed was that she was upside-down. Her ears twitched - her doggy ears, not her human ones - and she realized that she still had those doggy ears. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
The third thing she noticed was that she was in a tree. A very tall tree. This would be rather awkward to get down from.
In the lands of the dead, a grin split a painted face, as understanding dawned.
A busy trade city saw a gray-skinned figure leaning over one of much more human complexion, sniffing the air.
The statement accompanied a shark-like grin.
A world of machines was greeted by a window shattering, and a Champion being thrown through a window by a very, very disgruntled troll.
And in another realm, lit by a sickly green light, one troll picked himself up off the ground, looked around, and screamed “FUCK!”
==> John: Get used to your new surroundings
The people who had helped John down were very friendly! They were also heavily-armored and carrying spears, but at least they were friendly. Most of them spoke a language that he didn’t understand, but some of the words were in English or sounded English-like. They’d taken him into a clean, but rather severe room in a clean, but rather severe building, somewhere near the edge of the city, near the walls. He’d been sat down and made to run his hands through a bowl of salt and to pick up an iron cube. He’d tried to do a magic trick with it - make it disappear - but they hadn’t cared for that much. There wasn’t much to do after that besides sit around. He wished he had a yo-yo or a book or something to keep himself occupied. He settled for letting his thoughts wander.
Eventually, he found himself wondering what had changed. His memories stretched back to just before the game ended, and a few moments of the final battle - flashes and glimpses, mostly - but there was absolutely nothing until he had “landed” on the roof. Still, it could be worse, right?
John received no answer to his question, as the guards chose that exact moment to enter the room, startling him. One of them, a tall woman with short, thoroughly-brushed hair and her helmet under her arm, sat across from him. Two other guards stood by the door, keeping it guarded. It was their job, after all. The woman gave him a piercing stare before asking him a question in the same weird, thick, breathy language that the guards had been using.
“Um… excuse me?”
The woman frowned slightly, as though she were ticking something off on a mental checklist. She asked him another question, this time in a language that sounded vaguely like Chinese, if it were filtered through ancient Greek.
“I, uh, don’t speak Chinese. I think.”
“You speak Riverspeak?”
“Yes! That! Those are words I understand!”
“Good. No Skytongue, so you are not from around here. No Low Realm, so you are not from Empire. So, boy… where have you come from then?”
“Um… Washington. Seattle. I mean Seattle, Washington. Originally. But I mean there’s been a lot of things happening and I’ve been in the Land of Wind and Shade for most of it but there’s also the dream bubbles and the ship and… um.” He had noticed the look the woman was giving him. “I’ll stop talking now.”
“Yes. Might be good. Meanwhile.” She turned to the other two guards and issued a command in the first language - Skytongue, he assumed. One of them left. “He will check maps for where you have named. Now. You are still clearly foreign to Whitewall. Salt did not hurt you, so you are not dead. Iron did not hurt you, so you are not fae. Human, then. But that leaves many possibilities. I am wondering how you got onto Central Temple’s roof.”
“Oh, is that what the building is called? I’m glad you guys helped me get down, by the way, thank you, but it’s-” He stopped. The full implications of “Central Temple” had just hit him. “Um. I didn’t, um, do anything blasphemous, right? I mean I didn’t mean to be on top of the temple or anything.”
“Only blasphemy if Syndics are offended. Nobody has climbed Central Temple that high before, especially to sleep. So, Syndics may even be amused.”
“And… the Syndics are the people in charge?”
“Not people. Gods.” She said this very matter-of-factly, as if she were saying they were politicians or belonged to a certain religion.
“Gods?” More people that had gone God-Tier? But the entire game had been over, everyone had “won” at the same time. Was this another session, somehow?
“Yes. You are confused? Must be from Nexus.”
“I’ve never even heard of Nexus!”
“Hm. Either you are very, very strange or you are lying.” She smiled a very wolfish smile. “Guess which one Guardians have more fun with!”
John swallowed nervously. He was saved from further interrogation by the arrival of another guard, who muttered something to the officer and left.
“Ah,” said the officer. “This is interesting. Stay here.”
When she left, John slumped in his seat. His God-Tier pajamas were still comfortable, which was good, but they tended to bunch up in weird places when he sat slouched.
He stopped. He was still in his God-Tier pajamas.
Well that was very interesting. Did this mean he got to keep his sweet bonuses and powers?
He tried waving his hands around, attempting to do the Windy Thing. All this got him was a funny look from the remaining guard in the room. So that was a “no.”
The next option was the God-Tier immortality. Which… well, John wasn’t eager to test that.
He was stopped from thinking of further experiments by the return of the officer, who had a familiar face in tow.
“No, no, it’s totes fine. It’s fiiiiiiiiiine. Def not gonna do it again. Um. What did I do again?”
From the exasperated sigh, this conversation had been going for a while.
The guard half-dragged, half-pushed a very familiar young woman, dressed in dark blue and black clothing (complete with matching mask) into the room. Upon realizing who was already in the room, she flashed a bright, toothy grin. “Hi, John! ‘s been a while!”
“So what’re ya in for?” she asked, as the guard left the room again.
“I’m… actually I’m not really sure. I woke up on the roof of a huge building that’s apparently called the Central Temple or something and they brought me here after helping me down.”
“It’s p much the same for me,” she replied, pronouncing the “p” rather than fully saying the word. “Only I was on top of a bathhouse.”
“... a bathhouse?”
“What, like, a big building full of baths?”
“Uhhhh huh.” There was an edge to her voice, implying with all the might that a tone of voice could imply with. The faint blush on her cheeks didn’t help.
“Well okay then,” said John, nonplussed.
“So anyways, what happened?”
“I wish I knew,” John sighed. “The last thing I remember before waking up here is a whoosh.”
“What are you hmmm-ing about?”
“That’s a lot to hmmm about.”
“Yeah, no kiddin’. Might take me all night.”
“Sounds like something that would go smoother with two people.”
“Oh really? You’d do that for little old me?” Roxy winked, or in her case, wonked. John had a distinct feeling that he’d missed something. Fortunately, he was saved from further wonking by a polite knock at the door. Someone entirely new entered, someone without a guard’s uniform. They also didn’t have a guard’s bearing. Instead, they walked like a person accustomed to having to walk the same way no matter where they went - poised.
“Hi there,” he said, offering a friendly smile and handshake. “Call me Rune.” He gestured to the chairs. “Please, sit.” When they did so, he continued. “I’m here because… well, a lot of reasons. Truth be told I’m a little tired. You mind if I sit down too?” Neither one objected.
“So, if I may ask, what’s on your minds?”
The duo looked at each other. John spoke first. “Are we in trouble?”
==> Rose: Take stock of your situation
Rose sighed, looking out over the waves. Overall, it could have been much worse. For one, they could have been wiped out of existence by Lord English. For another, the Condesce could have enslaved them all. Really there could have been any number of truly awful fates in store for them.
Really, though, would it have been too much to ask for a simple trip home?
Perhaps, she reflected as she watched the two trolls she was probably the least familiar with swim, she was thinking about this wrong. The game could have been glitched in ways other than what they already knew. Or perhaps she was still thinking in the wrong ways. At this rate, who knew what had really happened with Sburb?
Still, things could be much worse. At least at the moment, she had allies. At the moment, that was all she really had. No idea of her location, no supplies, and most painfully, no knowledge of her situation.
Time to tally her assets.
One (1) tyrian pink-blooded troll empress-to-be (currently swimming).
One (1) violet-blooded troll, formerly a murderer that attempted and nearly succeeded at genocide (currently swimming).
One (1) glow-in-the-dark and VERY refined jade-blooded troll (currently occupying the “better half” part of one’s life, and searching the nearby jungle).
A crash of underbrush and a bold shout announced that one thing had not been forgotten.
Ah, yes. One (1) utter fool and ectobiological relative of a dear friend.
“TALLY HO, CHAPS AND CHAPPETTES!” came the shout. Rose kneaded her brow before turning to face her latest headache. The headache that was the straw to her migraine’s camel back.
“Mr. English. Have you perhaps considered that not everyone on this island is as friendly as the rest of us are?”
“Oh. Ah.” He at least has the decency to look embarrassed at his mistake, she thought, seeing him rub the back of his neck and look away. “Right. My apologies. I just let the adventure get to my head, you know. Good to be back and not… well, stuck playing some dashed silly game.”
“While I agree that Sburb was perhaps not the most healthy of pastimes, that doesn’t mean that we should act in similarly unhealthy manners.”
“Got it, o wise Seer!” He threw her a salute - a salute! She could see how he was related (ectobiologically) to John. “So, what’s our survival plan? The jungle’s teeming with life and adventure and it shouldn’t be too hard to scrounge up something to munch on, so we have that!”
Rose nodded thoughtfully. “Did you happen to see Kanaya while you were out there?”
“Sorry, but no. Couldn’t find a dashed trace of the lass! Funny, really, seeing how she glows.”
Rose forestalled an incoming tangent by holding up a hand. “It’s something she can turn off. Likely she did it in this case because of something potentially hostile being nearby. If we hear the sounds of a chainsaw in the distance, I’m sure we’ll be able to track it.”
It was this moment that the two seadwelling trolls chose to surface and stagger back up onto shore. Feferi was already wringing the seawater out of her hair, a bright smile on her face, but Eridan looked considerably more perturbed. The Seer let the two of them catch their breath and give her their report in their own time.
Feferi shook her hair, sending droplets cascading over the beach, and said, “Well, we didn’t really find much. There were a lot of little fishies and some weird coral I’ve never seen before, but not much else.”
“Yeah, I didn’t find much either,” added Eridan. “No landmarks, nothin’ to navigate by, not even any signs of any other trolls. Or humans,” he added as an afterthought. “Nothin’ that could talk. Not even anythin’ from a ship or a shipwreck.” He huffed and crossed his arms, frowning deeply. “Nobody else thinks there’s anythin’ suspicious about this?”
“Oh, come on, Eridan, lighten up! Things could be a lot worse, and the water feels GREAT!”
“Well, yeah, I’m not denyin’ that the water feels fuckin’ amazing. Better than the seas back home, even. But it’s still botherin’ me that we don’t know where the fuck we are!”
Rose raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. “Surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with Eridan.” As the troll flung his arms skyward and muttered something about people finally growing some common sense organs in their thinkpans, she continued. “While this island is indeed quite idyllic, and I’m sure the water is equally so, we have greater concerns than aesthetic ones. Our first priority should be establishing a shelter, I think. After we get our bearings, we can begin searching for our friends.”
Before any further discussion could be had, Kanaya announced her return with a revving of her chainsaw and the crash of shredded vegetation.
“Pardon the intrusion,” she said, “but I believe I have found someone who can help us.”
There were several someones, in fact, all carrying shields and spears, and wearing rather concerning expressions.
==> Dave: Get to know your new traveling partner
“So, I, uh, really don’t think this is, uh, anywhere we’re supposed to, um, be.”
“No shit, Troll Sherlock. Deduce that from the angle of the sun?”
“Look, we’re not, um, exactly in the best of, uh, situations, but you could stand to be, y’know, a bit nicer.”
“Nope. We’re on the angry Dave train now.” The stoic teen’s expression hadn’t changed at all. “Just chugging along the tracks until it hits Fuck-this-noise-ville and maybe makes a stop at the junction next to the Desert of Utter Horseshit. Might have heard of it. We’re in it.”
Dave wasn’t angry, per se. Just annoyed. He really should have expected better than to just go home and be back to dumping sharp pointy things out of the fridge to get some god damn apple juice like nothing happened. Instead he got miles and miles of sand, and a troll with very few talents other than rap battles and hesitation.
Well, it could have been worse. Tavros had mysteriously kept his robo-legs rather than being returned to his wheelchair, which would have been a complete pain in the ass to get through miles and miles of fucking sand.
“There’s, um, something over there.”
“And that would be…?”
Tavros hesitated. “Um. A building, I think?”
“Fifty boonbucks says it’s a trap. Or empty.”
“I don’t think we have those anymore.”
“Well, fuck. Here I was thinking that I’d make a shitton more boonbucks than I already had! Too bad they don’t exist anymore. Could’ve had a hundred smackaroos instead of fifty.”
Tavros, almost imperceptibly, gritted his teeth. “Done?”
“Yeah I’m done. Do we check out the abandoned trap building?”
“All this sun is, uh, not helping me. At all. Um. It actually kind of hurts.”
“Hope they have a phone in there.”
“So we can call an ambulance.”
“... uh, seriously?”
“Nah dude, I’m just fuckin’ with you.”
“That’s what I- oh, never mind.”
The dusty mud-brick shack, for that was what it was, held very little other than more dust and more sand. At the very least, it was cooler than standing outside, if not much dimmer. Dave thought about how Tavros was actually probably really hurting, more so than he would let on, because of all the sun - even behind his sunglasses the (possibly former) Knight of Time was positively sizzling in the heat and light. Even his super-comfy pajama-like robes weren’t helping much.
His troll companion, at least, seemed to be relaxing a bit. They both leaned against the still-cool brick walls, breathing deeply now that the drifts of wind weren’t blowing grit into their faces.
A thought occurred to Dave. “Hey.”
“I’m thinking this isn’t the only thing here.”
“Would you build a tiny one-room shitshack in the middle of nowhere? I mean, I might, just for irony’s sake, but nobody else is as much of an irony master.”
“Aside from your, uh, irony master claims, that’s, um, actually a pretty good point.”
Dave rolled his eyes behind his shades. “So there’s either a hidden room or some bullshit here, or there’s more heaps like this nearby.”
“I think I’d, uh, rather search in here. Yeah.”
It didn’t take much between the two to find a hidden room, protected by a curtain cleverly disguised to look like a cracked, dusty wall. Inside, it was much darker and cooler, and the floor (also much less dusty) sloped downwards. There were several crates at the opposite end of the room, almost as if they were waiting for a pair of brave adventurers to come and smash them open. It was as Dave reflexively pulled his sword out of nowhere that he realized he could still actually do that, which was funny seeing as how his God-Tier abilities and other cool things from Sburb had gone away. Curiously, he looked at it.
Yep, it was still the same legendary piece of shit with an unpronounceable Welsh name.
Well, he thought, no time like the present. He shoved the tip of the broken blade into the gap under the lid of a crate and began using all of his knowledge gained from hours of Half-Life to make the sword work as a crowbar. The top popped off under the force of his battle-hardened muscles, skinny as they may have been. Inside the crate sat several sacks of a weird substance that might have been mistaken for gunpowder, if not for the fact that it was a deep, burnt red instead of a soft gray. Dave experimentally let some run through his fingers. It almost felt like it warmed his hand as it fell back into the sack.
“What the hell is this stuff?” he asked nobody in particular.
“Whatever it is, I think it’s probably, um, really valuable.”
“Yeah. Spice and flow and shit.”
“It doesn’t smell like any spice I know of.”
“Nothing pinging on my sniff radar either.” Dave put the lid back on the crate. He had a sneaking suspicion that he shouldn’t sneeze too hard around the stuff or he’d lose his eyebrows. Not that anyone would notice.
Tavros, to his credit, had already popped the lid off of another with his lance. This one contained elaborately-carved boxes, like jewelry cases. He’d already opened one and found that it contained a single stone, no bigger than Dave’s thumb, that glittered green even in the dingy light. A face flickered across it for the barest second, just before Tavros picked it up.
“Huh,” he said, just as Dave turned around to see that there were now half a dozen angry men in desert-faring robes aiming what looked like flintlock rifles at them.
==> Jade: Stop barking up the wrong tree
Getting down from the tree had been awkward. Her Space dress with its flowy hood and bright shiny stockings kept getting caught on branches. Miraculously, it seemed to have suffered no actual damage of any kind.
The awkwardness of the tree, however, had been nothing compared to the awkwardness of finding a very tense troll in the shade of a small copse not far away, licking animal blood off of the metallic blue claws she had strapped to her wrists and crouching over the corpse of a deer that had been, quite plainly, eviscerated.
Having been out hunting for herself before, Jade was no stranger to gutting a wild animal. If she hadn’t been, she might have been sick at the sight. Even so, her composure had not helped much in approaching her new companion.
Introductions had been difficult, and Jade felt that it was partly because of her canine ears. Still, once they’d actually been introduced and had some fresh venison roasting over a fire, the cat-like troll had warmed up to her quickly enough.
Lunch had been a good idea, she thought. It kept Nepeta’s needle-sharp fangs occupied as she explained her theory - namely that they actually had won, in the end, but something had yet again gone wrong.
“So,” she concluded, “I think we need to set up a base camp somewhere and start mapping out the area. If we don’t get lost, we’ll find everyone faster.”
Nepeta nodded, finishing a chunk of deer. “Sounds like a purr-fectly good plan to me. I can scratch together some purr-visions while mew get shelter set up.”
Jade ignored the cat puns for the moment and said, “I think I can do that. I don’t feel like I’m God-Tier anymore, but I think I still have some of my abilities.”
“That makes as much sense as anything else going on.”
The two set about their tasks quickly, not wishing to lose what daylight they had. Jade quickly found that she could indeed still move objects as part of her Space-y powers, but there was little else she could do with them other than swap the places of two specific objects. It made assembling a shelter a bit of a puzzle, but it was an enjoyable one, at least. She hoped she still had her rifle, but that was a question for after the shelter was finished.
Well, she thought, carefully placing the last branch on the roof by swapping it with a fallen leaf, it could be a lot worse. She’d managed to lift enough logs and branches to make an effective shelter for the both of them, though it might be a little tight. It wouldn’t win any prizes, but it would do. She gathered some stones to make a firepit, but her ears perked up as she was placing them.
Something didn’t sound right.
Her doggy instincts led her to sniff the air, though that didn’t tell her much. Her ears twitched, the fur ruffling in a passing breeze.
The birdsong had stopped.
Suddenly, her own breathing sounded very loud indeed. Every muscle in her body tensed - this was a familiar sensation, as she had been stalked by predators before, on the island. Back then, though, she’d had Bec to watch her back. Now she was on her own. Nepeta was nowhere near and there had been no signs of anyone else at all.
Jade closed her eyes to concentrate. Whatever was out there, it would make a sound the moment it moved closer.
A twig snapped, and in a flash her rifle was in her hands. Just as quickly as she drew the gun from wherever it had been, she sighted along the shining barrel, taking aim at the spot she believed the sound had come from, and fired.
The blast of the rifle firing echoed throughout the forest. Jade had been fast enough that any observer would have thought that the snapping twig had totally exploded by some random chance before it had even finished breaking.
Jade stared at her rifle, which was clearly not her rifle. First of all, she was sure that nothing she’d ever owned had elaborate glyphs along the barrel, and said barrel certainly had never ended in a detailed carving of a snarling wolf. None of the rifles she’d ever owned had been made of silver, either. Especially silver that glinted like the full moon at midnight, and looked almost as though it were alive.
Second of all, none of her weapons had ever made a tree disappear into a pile of firewood, matchsticks, and splinters.
Jade continued staring at the beautifully lethal gun in her hands until Nepeta came bounding out of the trees behind her, hauling another deer over her shoulder. “What in the purr-ld was that ex-purr-losion?” she asked.
“Um,” said Jade. She wordlessly showed her troll companion the rifle. “This.”
Dumping her latest kill on the ground, Nepeta ran a delicate claw over the carvings. “Im-purr-sive, but how did it claw-se that?”
Jade hoisted it again, drawing a bead on another tree. The rifle seemed almost… happy, now that it was being used once more. The ironsights jumped eagerly to line up with the point she had in mind. Just as she had done countless times before, Jade breathed in and squeezed the trigger.
Nepeta’s jaw dropped, much like the trunk of the massive oak did after receiving a hole through it that a wolf could have leapt through. The resounding crash drowned out her comment, but Jade didn’t need to hear it to recognize the amazement. She did catch the rest of it, though.
“How did mew get that?”
“I… have no idea. I think it’s my old rifle, just… different.”
Nepeta considered this for a moment. “Maybe it’s a reward fur finishing the game?”
“Maybe. I’m not convinced, though.”
“It’s paw-sitively incredible!”
“Okay, yeah, that’s true.” Jade looked at it critically. She began to take it apart, as though she were cleaning and maintaining it, only to find that it didn’t seem to want to come apart where it should. The cartridges came out just fine, but the stock didn’t have any point where it seemed to be bound to the barrel, and the firing mechanism refused to open except to be reloaded. Puzzled, the former Witch of Space counted out her rounds and found that she had the exact same number as she had last time she had checked, before firing. On a whim, she checked the ground for shell casings - none.
Seeing this, Nepeta gave her a questioning look. After Jade explained herself, the troll shrugged and said, “Purr-obably a spacey thing!”
Jade nodded agreement, but still felt a sense of apprehension. Something here didn’t add up. Nepeta had wandered off to get more food, and Jade hoped it wouldn’t be more meat. Surely trolls had to balance their diets with fruits and veggies too?
Shrugging resignedly, she finished the firepit and collected the remains of her first tree-victim to serve as firewood. As she re-kindled the fire, she sat back feeling satisfied with her hard work. The next problem, of course, would be to find a means of map-making, but she was reasonably sure she could come up with something, even if it was stripped bark and charcoal. Maybe a drying rack of some kind as well, because all of this venison would go to waste otherwise….
The forest had regained some of its noise after her little weapons demonstration, but now it grew quiet again. Straining to hear, Jade mentally began reaching for her rifle once more.
Not the light pouncing ones belonging to Nepeta, and not the heavy dragging ones of someone dragging a fresh kill back for dinner.
Jade’s eyes darted over the edges of the clearing, searching for some sign…
A tall figure, followed by several smaller ones, emerged from the growth opposite where Jade had stood up. It was a man, dressed in very, very fine robes - too fine for a forest stroll - accompanied by short, squat, armored servants. There was something unreal about the man in the way he moved, the way he looked at everything. And he carried in his left hand the end of a silken rope, trailing off so that whatever it was attached to remained unseen.
“Greetings,” said the man, “Welcome to the Forests of the Woodsie Lord.” He smiled, and Jade felt her hackles rising. His teeth were all pointed, like an animal’s. “I invite you, traveler, to introduce yourself and join my fine companions and I at a small festival.”
Jade frowned. “Do you often invite random strangers to parties like this?”
“Not often, no,” said the Woodsie Lord with a bow. “But I make an exception in this case, for you must surely be exceptional.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Ah, what a wonderful story it is! May I sit as I tell it?” Before Jade could answer, one of the squat beings in armor had opened up its pack and assembled a chair that looked as though it had been made of solidified spiderwebs. The Woodsie Lord sat, and began telling his story, eyes closed in concentration… or bliss.
“Walking through our woods, as we are wont to do, we heard a great noise. What a puzzle! It had been a quiet day and nothing was amiss. But now! Calamity could be striking and we would not know it but for the cataclysmic noise! Of course, it could have been a mere clap of thunder, but lightning never does strike twice at the same spot. When we heard the second blast, we rushed ourselves over to investigate. And here we found you!”
Jade was, to say the least, not sure how to react to all of this.
“So silent? But you should be honored! Not all draw the attention of one such as I!”
“I… would imagine not,” she replied diplomatically. “I’m just wondering one thing.”
“And that would be?”
“Why specifically seek me out? I mean, why all the fanfare? You could have just investigated and walked off without bothering me.”
“Ah.” There was a subtle change in the stranger’s face, and suddenly he looked less like a man and more like a thing wearing a human-like mask. “Well, you see, there was another purpose to our walk.”
Jade’s eyes flicked to the rope he held. “I assume it has something to do with that.”
“You’re not wrong. Indeed, you are almost right. You see, we have a little… pet. One that requires regular exercise… and feeding.” He grinned as a roar shook the birds from the trees, and his teeth looked like jagged knives.
==> Terezi: Sniff out some clues
Noise. That’s what all of this was. Loud, stinking noise, and by that she meant noise so loud and overbearing that you could practically smell it and the unwashed people it was coming from.
Terezi suspected that if she had learned to replace her sight with hearing rather than smell, she would be extremely disoriented right now. Thankfully she had been taught better than that. She had also been taught better than to just take a huge whiff and figure things out from there - a person with normal vision wouldn’t keep their eyes closed all the time and just look at the biggest, brightest images they could get.
She prodded the comatose human girl lying in the alley with her foot. She knew from prior experience, melded with knowledge from her friends, that this was likely one Jane Crocker. Unfortunately, the girl seemed to be a very heavy sleeper. Doubly unfortunately, this left her with the dilemma of their other companion.
She hadn’t wanted to trust Vriska. Troll jegus help her, she hadn’t wanted to. But with Crocker still unconscious and absolutely zero sign of any of their friends anywhere, it had fallen to Terezi to keep an eye - er, nostril - on Jane while Vriska scouted the city.
Come to think of it, she still didn’t trust Vriska. But at this point, she didn’t have any other options.
Trying to get a sense of her surroundings, Terezi took a few experimental sniffs, trying to sift through everything she detected.
Garbage, humans, sweat, more garbage, more humans, more sweat. Smoke. Smog. Dust and bricks. Lots of metal. Clinking metal with traces of everything possible on it. She decided to not dwell on where the metal had been. Instead she focused on the sounds and smells that accompanied it - food or leather or more metal, or even substances she didn’t know anything about but practically dripped with illicitude. The smell of trade and business almost overwhelmed everything else.
She could smell large groups of humans in creaking musty leather and clashing rusty metal, and she could hear their marching lockstep. Money meant a lot here, it seemed.
Terezi eased herself down into a less-pointy bit of trash filling the alley, next to Jane, and began planning.
Step one: acquire money.
Step two… hm.
Step one: acquire money.
Step two… still a “hm.”
Step three: ???
Step one HAD to be acquire money, but the others….
She was interrupted, rather rudely, by someone opening a window and shouting at her.
“Get out of my alleyway! Damn beggars, probably spies for some street gang going to slit my throat for what little I have!”
Thinking quickly, Terezi adopted the most pitiable and plaintive face she could and stared up at the source of the sound. Not just irritable, and male, but sick too, by the smell.
“But sir,” she whined, “we don’t have anywhere else to go!”
“You and your plague-bitten friend can go anywhere but here! Mutants don’t belong near honest folk!” Terezi’s first thought in response to that statement was a truly sincere doubt that this man was honest in any capacity, save his disdain for those beneath him… or at least his window. Her second thought, coming roughly at the same time as her keen ears picked up grumbling about “bringing plagues of raksha” down on his head, was that it was very interesting that he thought she was some kind of mutant.
Her third thought was that it was so very hard to keep a straight face when using this old trick. “But… but sir!” she said, doing her best to get her lower lip to wibble pathetically. “Why would you say such cruel things to me?” Before he could follow it up with more vitriol, she added, “Why would you be so cruel to a blind girl?”
There was a long moment of embarrassed silence. Terezi counted it off - one… two… three - and the window slammed shut. She bit down on her sleeve in an attempt to stifle her cackling. Ye gods, that had been fun. It had been so long since she’d gotten to pull that on someone, too.
Her reminiscing was interrupted by the banana-orange-smoothie-flavored arrival of Vriska. “Hey Terezi,” she said, being uncharacteristically low-key. “The Batterwitch’s heiress still out?”
“Yes.” Terezi was being purposely terse. As dire as their situation was, she wanted to keep all her cards close to the vest.
“Damn, the girl can sleep.”
The other troll brushed it off. “What did you find?”
“Not much. It’s so busy here! Honestly, how could you expect me to figure out where we are based on what I can see in all of fifteen minutes?”
If she bothered using her eyes anymore, Terezi would have rolled them. Spare me from the arachnoid dramatics, she thought. “Just tell me what you could see.”
“A lot of pointless rushing and talking, that’s what. The only times anyone stopped was to shout at someone or spend money. And it was usually both!”
That was all the evidence she needed to support her earlier conclusion. Money would indeed be important. “Alright,” she said, “what about the people?”
“Just a bunch of boring humans. Ugh. Not a troll in sight.” Something in Vriska’s voice told Terezi she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She could understand that, though probably for different reasons. On the one hand, it meant that they were completely on their own - no trolls, no lusii, no useful tools or potential contacts, not one familiar thing. It would be first contact with the four human players all over again, only with less to relate to and more possibility of getting killed. On the other hand, it also meant that Vriska didn’t have any mind-controlled pawns at the ready and couldn’t just betray them, if that was indeed what she had planned, and she also didn’t have any other advantage over them other than her God-Tier abilities, if she’d kept them. And Terezi knew how to work around those. All she’d need was a rolled-up newspaper.
Factoring all of this together, along with her previous observations, Terezi came to a decision.
“Okay. Grab Jane. I think it’s time we got out of here.”
“What’s the plan?” asked Vriska, who made no move towards the comatose human.
“We need to find a way to make some money. It flows around here like nectar in an Apiculture Network.”
“Nice comparison, dorklord. Hang around ‘Tholluckth’ for too long after you stabbed me?”
“Shut up.” Truthfully it had been all she could come up with on the spot. “Are you going to help me or not?”
Before the other girl could respond, they were interrupted by someone shouting, “hey, you! What are you doing?”
Both of them turned to the source of the sound, which happened to be a growling, stubbled man in blue armor, the top of his face obscured by a blue leather hood with a crimson crest. He had a club of some kind already drawn, and looked like he was ready to use it. Terezi took a small, subtle sniff. She could smell the fear on him. She could also smell the raw anger coming off of Vriska, like she was a small sun that radiated fury. She gave her companion a short sharp kick to the back of her ankle to signal to her that action was not a good idea right now.
“Come on, you!” said the man. “You know the law. Nobody to gather in the alleyways by order of the Dawn Sergeant, Pellicia.”
“But that’s the problem, sir,” said Terezi, taking the lead. “We don’t know the law.”
“You don’t… what? Come out into the light, where I can see you.”
Adopting an attitude of confusion and contrition, because she knew how to work over a law enforcer, she shuffled forward, making a big show of tapping her cane in front of her. She heard a sharp intake of breath from the man, and thought she heard him take a half-step back. “We really don’t know. Nobody told us we couldn’t be here, sir, and our friend, she’s sick….” She trailed off in a truly pitiful tone. Humans were such suckers for that kind of thing.
“I… alright, I suppose that’s….” The man paused for thought, blowing a sigh through his nose. “Damned Council. Civilities shouldn’t just be announced and enforced so quickly like this…” he muttered to himself. “Alright, fine. I’m letting you lot off this once. But you can’t bloody well stay.”
“But what about our frieeeeeeeend?” whined Vriska, picking up her cue.
“I… ye gods, how did you two not hear the new laws? I figured you’d have known, even if you’d been in the worst parts of Firewander which, if you don’t mind my saying so, you must have been to look like that."
Terezi was puzzled by the aside, but kept up her act. “Please sir, we need to help our friend.”
“Alright, alright! Stop… stop looking at me like that. I think.” Under normal circumstances, Terezi would have chuckled. Her glasses must have confused him. But humans (and trolls, for that matter) saw what they expected to, so he must have thought she was giving him the teary-eyed stare of a homeless street urchin. “I’ll… ugh. Fine. I’m not arresting-” He was interrupted by the arrival of several others in similar uniform.
“Come on, Cavan, we haven’t got all day,” grumbled one of the newcomers.
“Yeah, but these… girls here, they need help,” replied Cavan.
Terezi managed a pitiful snuffle, which disguised her keenly searching out any potentially useful scents from the newcomers. Nothing so far. Vriska, for her part, knelt down next to Jane and was apparently biting at her sleeve out of concern. In reality, she’d accidentally kicked a misplaced brick hidden in the gloom, and was biting her sleeve to keep from cursing loudly at it, but she wasn’t one to waste an opportunity.
“We can’t do that. You know the Civilities.”
“Yeah, but we can’t arrest them either, can we?”
“Well,” said a third, “technically we’re supposed to.”
“They’re from Firewander! They’re trying to get their sick friend-”
“Yeah, alright, but alleys aren’t where you find medicine. At least, any medicine that won’t just kill you faster.”
An idea seemed to strike Cavan. “Wait, wait! We could take them into… Ladeel, you were in Lookshy for that one job, what did they call that thing they did?”
“No, it was… wossname, they took some sod into… oh, bugger….”
“... protective custody?”
“That was it! That was the thing!”
“Let me get this straight,” said the first of the group. “You want us to only-sort-of-arrest these girls, two of whom look pretty heavily Wyld-mutated, and the other one is sick, because…?”
“Because some Bronze Pioneer bastard might not even have half a heart like you do, Drell, and take it upon himself to try and beat the Wyld out of them!”
While the group of them continued to argue, Terezi felt Vriska tap her on the knee. Jane was stirring. Terezi leaned down to help her up.
Jane’s eyelids flickered open, and she let out a yelp of surprise when she saw, as the first thing since ridding herself of the terrible Batterwitch’s mind control, two shadowed faces, one of which had fangs and the other had glinting red eyes.
The silence that fell upon the alleyway was deafening. Sheepishly, Jane said, “Oh dear, my, um, apologies… I thought that… um… I was surrounded by… er, that is to say that I felt… I’m just going to be quiet now.” She was beginning to wilt under Vriska’s baleful “You Done Fucked Up” stare.
“I think,” said Drell, who was apparently the leader of the little squad, “that you three had better come with us.”
==> Equius: Wake up
Voices roused Equius, slowly, through his throbbing headache. His thinkpan felt as though it had been steam-pressed.
“Great Maker, do you realize how strong he is? He knocked out Press! With a punch that sent him out the window and across the street!”
“I’m aware, Clarion.”
“I’ve never heard of someone - not even a Champion - strong enough to knock a Champion through adamant-reinforced glass!”
Disgruntled, the other voice grumbled, “Clearly, it wasn’t properly reinforced….”
“Okay, Bulwark, we know you’re not happy about the shortages. We have a more important issue here!”
A third, more solemn voice broke in. “Your issue is also currently awake.”
Trying to force his eyes open, the “issue” felt cool hands pull him upright. The hands remained clamped tight around his wrists and upper arms, restraining him quite effectively - his strength meant nothing if he couldn’t move his limbs in the first place.
Equius cracked his eyes open, just barely. The light, though dim, was plenty for his troll eyes to see by. Three humanoid figures, made of softly glinting metal, were watching him. One, who looked as though he were made of silver, leaned down and stared him straight in the face. The troll could see tiny lenses and wires in the optics of the mechanical man, but his wonderings at the construction were cut short.
“Hello, stranger,” said the silver man. It wasn’t a friendly greeting. “I am known as Elegant Bulwark Against the Void. And you are a very interesting… anomaly.”
The solemn voice whispered in Equius’ auricular sponge clot, “I have you held quite securely. Answer all questions truthfully and to the full extent of your knowledge. I still have two arms and many Charms to encourage cooperation.”
It took Equius a moment to find his voice, having apparently misplaced it during the same incident that caused these people to take him prisoner. He was grateful that they allowed him the moment to speak, rather than his expectation of being manhandled. An Imperial drone would have already attempted to beat answers out of him, without even asking questions first.
“And if I cooperate?” he croaked.
Bulwark gave this due consideration. “Well, it depends on what the answers are. You’re an anomaly.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Quite frankly, none of us have seen anything like you, ever. So we need to determine a few things.”
Closing his eyes to help blot out the hot pains running through his thinkpan, Equius replied levelly. “And those things would be?”
“Well, first, you need to tell us what exactly you are. Clearly, you’re not human.”
“I am an Alternian, though colloquially I am referred to as a troll.”
“Interesting. Clarion, ask Clarity to check the archives for either one of those terms, would you?”
“On it, boss.”
“Now, secondly, how did you get here?”
“I think... I think I would find it easier to answer that if I knew where ‘here’ was.” Equius opened his eyes to notice a significant glance pass between Bulwark and a golden-skinned woman - Clarion, he supposed.
“You… don’t actually know where you are?” asked Bulwark.
The troll decided to give in to the urge to bite back. “I am being interrogated in a dark room and being held in place.”
“I mean in general. Nation, city, anything like that?”
He sighed. “No. Not at all. The last thing I remember is being attacked and defending myself.”
The silence that descended upon the room could best be described as “stony.” There was a whirr and a click from behind Equius as the person holding him adjusted something unseen.
“So…” said Bulwark, carefully, “the name Yugash means…?”
“Claslat? Xexas? Sova?”
“Not a thing.”
“Not even the name Ot?”
Desperately, Bulwark tried one last thing. “Project Razor?”
“While it sounds interesting, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Bulwark swallowed. “Reach?” he asked.
“This is the truth,” said the figure holding Equius.
“Thermal confirms, boss,” chimed in the golden woman, her eyes glowing. “And no Essence expenditure. He’s not lying.”
Bulwark was silent for quite some time. Fortunately, whoever was holding Equius securely was also clever enough to keep him in a relatively rested position, so that he wouldn’t wear out while being spoken to. By the time that the silver man spoke again, the troll was beginning to wonder if he was even thinking about what had been said.
“Alright, one last question. We found someone else. Spiky hair, dark glasses, wearing weird fingerless gloves and purple robes. Sound familiar?”
“Obsessed with puppets and irony?”
“In a word: yes.”
“I believe I know him.”
“Good, because you two are going to get to know each other even better now.”
==> Karkat: Figure out where the fuck you are
The dry, blasted, stony landscape echoed with the raw force of the expletive. It took a practiced voice to muster that kind of vehemence. That being said, it was entirely justified, as was the string of profanities that quickly followed, and the long train that had preceded it.
Karkat scrabbled down a steep hill as basalt and chunks of black iron ore cascaded down after him. Another quake, and this had been the fourth in fifteen minutes. Even accounting for aftershocks that was four too many.
“I SWEAR TO FUCK WHEN I FIND - ow! - OUT WHAT HAPPENED - gah! - I AM GOING TO-” his voice was cut off as he tripped over what looked like a tree root made of brass. If it hadn’t been for his carapace, he probably would have left a trail of blood all the way down the hillside. As it was, he was tremendously surprised that he hadn’t splattered gruesome graffiti somewhere on the way down by the time he reached the bottom. Miraculously, he tumbled into a small grotto as rock and shards of metal showered past.
Still breathing heavily, Karkat leaned back and closed his eyes. His auricular sponge clots stayed primed and ready to pick up the faintest hint of shifting rock, but the rest of his body was collapsing into an exhausted trance.
Fuck everything. Fuck this place, fuck his luck, fuck him, fuck everything to do with this entire situation. Even the air in this place smelled like it hated him, and he was ready to return the favor.
And especially fuck the stupid game that had gotten him here in the first place.
Yeah, fine, it was technically unavoidable. Some stupid bullshit to do with the natural cycles of the universe or whatever. Still, fuck that. If this was the Prize, then it could go fuck itself too.
Karkat took a deep breath to calm himself, telling the back part of his mind - the part that always wanted to rant and scream about things not working like they were supposed to - to calm the fuck down for five minutes. He needed to think, and making lots of noise wasn’t going to help.
That was one of the things he hated about this place. It was always full of so much goddamned noise. Shouts, banging rocks, clanging metal, bizarre “music” that would have given even addled, pan-fried clown worshippers like Gamzee…
Karkat gritted his teeth, biting back the sick burning that was beginning to rise in his chest like a tide of acid.
If only he’d been better at being a moirail, if only he’d been able to get Gamzee to see reason -
No, he told himself. Thinking like that wouldn’t help him. The only way to get out was to move forward, right? Assuming “forward” didn’t involve another earthquake, blast of metal, acid shower, or entire storm of corpses. That had damn near snapped his already strained psyche in half, seeing that. Just corpses, blown about on air currents that seemed to touch nothing else. It had been so far away he hadn’t been able to tell for sure, but no living body lolled and twisted the way the bodies had. He suppressed a shudder at the memory.
There was a whisper of doubt in the back of his mind, telling him that he could have prevented all of this. Karkat pushed it aside once again, and levered himself up to look out the cave mouth.
This place was… well, “unlike anything else he’d ever seen” would be one way to describe it. “Utterly grubfuck insane” would also be accurate. It was like a city that just stretched on forever, up until it crushed all together in a massive earthquake that destroyed everything in sight. And the noise never stopped, like whoever was making it or at least contributing to it was frantically trying to stay alive, like the noise would keep them from dying so long as it went on.
He was already getting a splitting headache.
And then there was the sunlight. What the fuck kind of place had a sun that burned bright green? Sure, Alternia’s moons had been pink and green, but the sunlight (insofar as he’d ever seen any of it, which had been once and he’d regretted it instantly) had been the same bright yellow-white that John had described. The green light here, though, tinged everything, making him feel queasy and off-balance.
A far-off rumble reminded him that he couldn’t stay here. Buildings, or at least structures that had enough building-like qualities to seem like shelter, loomed in the distance. Structures that provided shelter meant people. And people meant, potentially, help. Or at least the chance of it, and that was better than a guarantee of dying horribly out here, alone.
The slope below the cave mouth wasn’t quite as steep as what was above it, making for an easier trip down. The troll made his way down relatively safely, save for a few crumbling ledges and outcroppings. He climbed the nearest jagged hill, pushing himself to continue no matter how exhausted he would get.
What greeted him at the top of the hill, however, provided a great reason to stop. There was a pool of bubbling green solution, something that looked like every terrible cartoon’s depiction of acid. This was, in essence, the platonic ideal of acid - something that would eat through anything in seconds. Karkat kicked a pebble in to test this hypothesis, and was rewarded with a horrendous-sounding hiss.
“Great,” he said, muttering darkly to himself as he turned away. “More shit that wants to kill me. I don’t suppose there’s one single fucking thing that doesn’t want to tear out my protein chute and have it for lunch with grub sauce and my eyeballs on the side, with shame globe souffle for dessert? No? Didn’t fucking think so! Now I’ve got to find some other way….” He trailed off, only now noticing the hissing and spitting noises coming from behind him.
Having been raised on Alternia, he really should have known better. But then, it had been a long day.
He whirled, drawing his sickle from the weird conceptual space of a “Strife Deck” and dropping into a crouch. He almost dropped the weapon in surprise as he looked at the… the thing that was standing in front of him. It was like a cholerbear, if they’d been twice the size, had no muzzle, and watched their prey through three pairs of eyes. The thing’s brown-yellow hide was covered in shaggy, similarly-colored fur that dripped with the hideous corrosive substance it had apparently sprang from. It towered over him like a monolith, only in this case there would be a messy devouring instead of monkeys hitting other monkeys with old bones.
Karkat swallowed and gripped his spiny, clawed sickle more tightly. Fuck it. If he was going down, he was going down fighting, kicking, and screaming. He’d give this thing a serious case of indigestion, or maybe his bone bulge would catch in its throat and it would choke.
He fought back the pangs of regret and images of his friends, surfacing from his mind.
Just as he was about to scream an enormous cascade of vulgarity-laced threats and charge, the thing spoke.
“Mortal thing that has been brought here by the will of the Almighty, sires of the Unquestionable. I have been commanded to locate you.” It’s voice hissed and burbled like the acid pool it had risen out of.
Too stunned to do anything else, Karkat responded, “Excuse me?”
“I bear a message for the one known as Karkat Vantas. You are he.” This was a plain statement, not a question.
“First, fuck you. Second, I don’t remember giving anyone my name, especially anyone that would give a message for me to a phlegm-drenched, inbred-looking spawn of a cholerbear and a pile of steroids with a horrorterror’s godforsaken shit for a lusus.”
“You are indeed he. You find this form unconducive to discourse?”
“Asshole, I find that form unconducive to breathing the same air.”
“Very well.” The thing’s form began to ripple slightly, and there was a bizarre sucking noise as it seemed to condense and shrink, going from ten feet tall and wider than a thermal hull to wickedly thin, the same height as Karkat, and with spiralling horns. “This is more acceptable?”
Karkat remained sullenly silent. This did not discourage the creature.
“I bear a message from the Principle of Hierarchy,” it said. Karkat was about to make an acerbic remark about what a completely moronic name for a school “Hierarchy” was when he noticed something off about the beast. It had been speaking with a rumbling, hissing voice, but when it named the origin of its message, it spoke with a ringing tone, one that was almost… crystalline. The voice didn’t sound natural, but rather like it had been perfectly synthesized to mimic what was a perfect fit for the situation.
“She Who Lives In Her Name knows of you, mortal thing,” it continued. “The Principle of Hierarchy knows of your failures.”
This hit one of Karkat’s many raw, exposed nerves. “Fuck you!” he screamed. “And fuck your bizarre empress who thinks she knows who I am!”
The thing’s voice now positively rang with crystal harmonies, ones that should have been perfect but clashed in some subtle way with the troll’s senses. “The Pyrian Flame has watched you in the game. She knows of your frustrations. She knows you, Karkat Vantas. How often you have screamed at yourself inside of your head. How often you have blamed yourself for lack of understanding. Oh yes. You couldn’t have possibly known. Yet you should have.” Karkat wanted to spit more bile at the thing, but he couldn’t. His throat had closed up. “Each mistake, each loss, each death. It all could have been prevented. You should have known more, shouldn’t you? You should have understood what you were getting into. Your friends would still be alive if it weren’t for you.”
Karkat seethed. His grip on his sickle would have cracked it in half if it weren’t already one of the strongest things he could possibly have ever made. His teeth were gritted so tightly that they might crack at any moment. He was shaking with undeniable rage at the utter gall of this bell-voiced monstrosity.
“We offer a solution. We offer understanding.”
Karkat’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.
“You wish to know what went wrong. You wish to know how it could all be prevented again.” The thing’s eyes were glinting with a viridian light now, as it leaned into his face. “That can be arranged, Karkat Vantas. We can give you power. We can teach you how to bring everything into proper line so that it does not go wrong again.”
The troll couldn’t will himself to move. He should be spitting in this thing’s face, he should be telling it to fuck itself with a rusted lawnring implement, he should be running the hell away… but he couldn’t do it.
“You will never need to blame yourself again, Karkat Vantas.”
Finally, he got his mouth working again. “And what the ever-loving, paradox-space-forsaken fuck would I be agreeing to?”
“An investiture of power. And one of glory. Also, it should be noted, one of survival.”
“What in the name of whatever hideous, malformed god you worship is that supposed to mean?”
“This is the Demon City, mortal. You are not welcome here. Accept this offer, or die, choking on the toxic breath of Malfeas that permeates the totality of all this realm.”
Shit. That was what had been bothering him about the air.
“Who says I’m going to die?”
“It is fact. No mortal in the Demon City lives unaided more than seven days. No more, no less.”
Well, that put a stop to any plans he might have had. The monster had shown him both the tasty plate of grubs and the culling fork, and now he really had no choice. Not if he wanted to live…
… and not if he wanted to look at himself in the mirror again.
“Take your time deciding, Karkat Vantas. We will wait.”
“Fuck that.” His shoulders drooped defeatedly, and his grip on his weapon slackened. His downcast face betrayed his exhaustion. “You could be lying to me through whatever you have for teeth.”
“This is no lie. We would not insult you so. You have been… specially selected for this honor.”
“What kind of honor is this? A deal where I join you or die?” he spat back, outraged.
“The honor of a Prince of Hell, and leader of the legions that would bring the world back to its rightful owners. You would walk as an Unquestionable does, ruling anything you lay eyes upon.”
Something buried deep in his bloodpusher twinged at that. He was destined for greatness, wasn’t he? He had been the leader of the Red Team, and the whole group of them after that, and the survivors even after that. Something deep within him told him that now was the time to get the recognition he so rightly deserved.
And still… “You will never need to blame yourself again, Karkat Vantas,” the thing had said.
“Will you accept your crown, Green Sun Prince?” The monster had extended a single, wickedly clawed hand.
Still staring at the ground, Karkat wordlessly accepted its hand. For a moment, there was a hideous smile upon its face. Then its grip tightened, like a vise, and Karkat looked up to find it lunging at him, mouth stretched impossibly wide as its form unraveled into a viridescent shower of light-
-and the world stopped, just as the scream of horror had frozen before it had escaped his lips.
There was a distant sound of crystal thrumming.
==> Aradia: Explore
There was a soundless roar in the distance, as the massive branches of the titanic tree shifted and wove themselves into a pathway.
Sollux once again pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered “Fuck thith plathe” under his breath.
Aradia gave him an encouraging nudge in the shoulder, smiling half-heartedly. Admittedly, this wasn’t anything remotely like they’d hoped they would get, but it was still better than being dead, wasn’t it?
Still, their luck could have been a lot better. At least they had each other.
Sollux looked around. The only way forward seemed to be the tree-road that had just formed in front of them. He grumbled something about “bullthit treeth the thize of fucking planetth” before hurling himself into walking forward. If he was going to have to deal with this, he’d do it head-on. Aradia followed behind, keeping close but letting the grouchy troll have some personal space. Both of them were immensely curious about the nature of this new place, though Sollux would never admit to it.
The other curious thing, of course, was the fact that Sollux had regained his eyes. He wasn’t strictly complaining, of course. It was nice to be able to see again, especially since it meant seeing Aradia’s face. It was especially nice when she smiled.
The downside to this was actually seeing the sanity-bending sights of… whatever this was.
“Tho where the fuck do you think we are?” he asked his traveling partner.
“I’m not really sure!” she responded. “This is nothing like anything I’ve seen in the dream bubbles, and I’m pretty sure not even Beforus had places like that.”
Wood creaked under their footsteps. “Leaveth are the wrong color to be Alternian or Beforan. They look like thomething from Earth,” observed Sollux. “Altho, what happened to your wingth?”
“I… don’t know, actually.” Aradia still wore the garb of the Maid of Time, but her wings had disappeared, along with both the voices of the dead in her mind and the faint pulse of Time itself running through her body. “Whatever happened to give you back your eyes, I’m pretty sure it also took away my God-Tier powers.”
“Well, that’th jutht fucking great.”
“It could be worse. And besides,” Aradia added, “this is pretty amazing.” She indicated a violently yellow flower bud sticking out of a branch. It was easily bigger than she was, and looked as though it might bloom at any moment. She crept up on it, wanting a closer look. She was stopped, however, by a gentle tug at the back of her robes. Sollux had stopped her, and was telekinetically picking up a fallen branch. He tossed the stick at the flower, which quivered as the wood clattered to the branch-floor nearby.
Sollux waited, then picked up the branch again with his psionics and poked the bud.
The bud opened, revealing a maw of curling petals studded with what looked like metal spikes. Several skeletons, in various states of decay, clattered to the ground as sticky green tendrils lashed out and wrapped themselves around the branch before pulling it into a messy flurry of plant juices and savage, shredding teeth.
“Like I thaid: fuck thith plathe.” At the moment, Aradia was inclined to agree. In fact, she was quickly growing uneasy with the place. Every breath she took seemed to feel different, somehow, and it felt like the place had an energy all its own - not a good kind of energy, but one that was sinister, untouchable, and would relish the opportunity to take hold of them and… and do something to them. She couldn’t be sure what, and she didn’t want to find out.
The two walked on in silence for what seemed to be hours, sticking closely to the center of the path. Sounds - distant cracks of breaking twigs, shifting leaves, creaking wood - drifted through the tightly-woven branches, weaving past the two before slipping off into the overgrowth. They saw a few more of the same horrifying plants, some of which had bones littering the ground near them that defied description. All the while, the branches grew closer together and more tightly-knight, forming a tunnel of living wood and leaves.
Eventually, the two began hearing drums. They were faint at first, thrumming like a faint heartbeat, but they quickly grew stronger as the two continued marching forward. Soon, there was also chanting in a language neither of them knew.
The tunnel widened out slightly, and the duo found that they could see what would in other circumstances be described as a clearing. Hunched figures danced and chanted as other played the drums they had been hearing, seemingly conducting some kind of ceremony on the grounds of…
“AA,” Sollux whispered, “ith that a frog temple?”
It certainly looked that way to her. It was the same design as the one she had unearthed back home: an impressively tall stone ziggurat with a simple statue of a frog perched on top, surrounded by spires topped with carved lily pads. The temple grounds were surrounded by more of those carnivorous flowers, although the trolls could see some of the hunched figures moving among them with impunity.
There was a sudden crack from the far end, and the hunched figures began to flee before a horde of ravening beasts bursting through the flower wall. Massive creatures that looked like minotaurs, if the bull part had been replaced with an elk, charged forward, trampling the flowers underhoof. Even larger beasts that looked like the worst nightmares of a lusus followed behind, chasing down some of the hunched figures and scooping them, screaming, into terrible jaws that closed with sickening crunches.
In the midst of the confusion, neither troll noticed the similar crack from behind them, until they had been seized by one of the elk-monsters. This one was a truly titanic example of its kind, scooping each of them up in one gnarled fist. It bellowed as it charged forward, dragging them along.
Sollux yelled wordlessly, and Aradia could already see the blue and red sparks dancing around his horns as he aimed his psionics at the beast. A blast of red and blue force hit the thing square in the face, causing it to reel. In its pain and fury, the monster squeezed the two tighter.
Despite his torso being crushed, Sollux used the pain to focus his powers. He yelled again, this time aiming a blast right under the monster’s jaw. Aradia’s own telekinesis struck it at the same time, though her aim was slightly off-target, striking it alongside the face. The combined strength of their blows, however, snapped the monster’s head back and to the side with enough force to break its neck. It toppled over, the momentum of its charge still carrying it forward, and the two tumbled out of its slackening grasp just in time to avoid being crushed by its carcass.
They scrambled to stand up in the chaos. Aradia was first, hauling Sollux to his feet before dragging him out of the way of one of the devouring behemoths.
A horn sounded above the screams of pain and monstrous roars, and thunder clapped overhead.
Both trolls found themselves looking at the frog statue, which suddenly shook violently and exploded. Shards of rock showered the battlefield, and in its place stood a huge frog with the head of an ivy-shrouded woman.
Their jaws dropped in sheer disbelief as the frog leapt off the temple’s peak, landing with bone-shattering force on one of the behemoths. Two of the elk monsters charged, not realizing the danger their opponent posed, before being swept away by a flick of one of the frog’s limbs. They cannoned into their allies, bellowing in pain, before being crushed under the frog as it leapt again. Vines and trees sprung up wherever it had been, choking and entangling the monsters that remained or were unlucky enough to be nearby.
Then, the titan opened its mouth. Both trolls dropped to the ground, hands planted firmly over their auricular sponge clots as the thunderous blast of sound washed over them like a tidal wave. Their heads ringing, Sollux and Aradia looked up to find the ground itself reaching up to tear apart and devour the invading monsters. Not knowing what to do, they froze in sheer terror, hoping that they would not be counted as the enemy.
Just as suddenly as the battle had started, it stopped. The frog titan spoke again, this time more quietly, and the ground returned to being ground. One of the hunched figures approached and bowed low, muttering something to the titan. It was silenced by a gesture, a simple twitch of the boulder-sized toes, as the nose on the massive face wrinkled, sniffing the air.
The titan turned, seeing Sollux and Aradia picking themselves up off the ground. It spoke in a language that seemed to be older than time itself, and equally as incomprehensible, but the meanings of the words echoed inside their heads.
“I know this scent,” it said, voice rumbling like a thunderstorm. “I smell my Essence upon you, small ones, and the Essence of my brethren, and the Essence of those I turned to join.” It leaned down, cocking its head to the side, so that one incredibly huge eye was gazing at the two trolls. “Who are you, children of the Games?”
Neither one responded. How did you answer a question like that, from something like that?
“Speak, small ones. I will not harm you.”
Aradia’s voice shook, though she was trying her hardest to keep it steady. “M-my name is Aradia. This is Sollux.”
“I asked not your names. I asked who you are.”
The trolls looked at each other. How were they supposed to answer?
“I see that this is not going to proceed quickly. Enter the temple,” the titan said. In a rush of air, it sprang up to the peak where the statue had been. There was a crack and a flash of light, and the titan vanished, replaced once more by the statue.
Sollux and Aradia found themselves pushed towards the entrance to the temple by the hunched figures, wondering if this would end well for them or not.
AH HA HA HA HA