“So basically you’re Satanists, and I interrupted a Black Mass,” Karkat says. His head hurts, there’s a bag over his head, and he’s tied to a tree. The last thing he’d seen before everything went black was Feferi Peixes and most of her friends gathered around a stone altar. That one of the freshman from school was lying on, while Peixes carved on him with a knife. Not the best time to go camping in the crow woods, the guy at the camping store had said. No fucking shit dude. He’d been torn between rushing in and going back to the camp for help, but he’d been caught.
“Not really, no,” Feferi says. “I don’t think we’ve ever had Satanists in Alba before.”
“What about that guy back in 1925?” Eridan asks. “The one who broke into the restricted room at the library?” Then there’s the sound of someone being smacked and a yelp. “Fef!” Eridan protests.
“Outsiders aren’t supposed to know about the restricted room!” Feferi scolds.
“Not like he’s going to be able to tell anyone,” Eridan mutters. There’s a weird chilling hiss in response. A sound that was too realistically reptilian to have ever come from a human throat. “Shutting up now,” Eridan says hurriedly.
“Good, you do that!” Feferi says cheerfully. “Outsiders also aren’t supposed to be up here this time of year, weren’t you warned?”
“Not really no,” Karkat says. Not in a way that Dad would have found logical and reasonable anyway. Dad had brushed off the vague warning as, “obviously a microaggression, which is a shame because otherwise the service was excellent.” Karkat is really, horribly worried about his dad suddenly. “Dad doesn’t know anything,” he says. “Whatever you’re going to do, leave my dad out of this.”
“Your dad is going to be fine,” Feferi says. “Did you go to that camping store on 4th street?”
“We got the camping stuff in Chicago, before we moved here,” Karkat says.
“Lying,” someone says softly.
“Is he seriously trying to protect the guy who didn’t warn him off the crow woods?” someone else asks incredulously. Karkat thinks it might be Vriska.
“You wouldn’t happen to remember his name, would you Karkat?” Feferi asks. “The guy who sold you the gear? Nothing bad will happen if you tell us.”
“Right, I’m going to believe that with a bag over my head while tied to a tree,” Karkat says.
“Nothing too bad?” It was the same person who’d said he was lying. Terezi. Terezi was involved in this? As far as he’d seen, she wasn’t a member of Feferi’s clique. He’d mentally put her in the “fellow outsider, okay to hang out with,” category. “To him anyway!”
“Why not just make him tell?” Vriska asks irritably.
“Joel Morgan, Morgan’s Outdoor Sports on 4th Street,” Karkat says. If he were able to move at all right now, he’d be covering his mouth in dismay like an actor in a silent movie. He hadn’t intended to say that. He hadn’t intended to speak at all. The words had just come out of him, with no resistance.
“Vriska!” Feferi’s voice sharp with weird rattling, hissing notes. She snaps strange, twisting words at Vriska, sounds Karkat has never heard before from a human throat.
Vriska replies with buzzing two-toned noise, simultaneously low and high. The sounds make Karkat’s ears hurt. He couldn’t have separated the sounds into words, sentences if he tried. Humans couldn’t make the sounds that they were making at each other. “Teenaged Satanists from Outer Space,” Karkat thinks, maybe actually says out loud because the alien sounds stop.
“We’re not from outer space!” Feferi says. “And also? Not Satanists. Our Gods predate the Christian concept of Satan by thousands of years, let alone the Zoroastrian good god/evil god concept.”
“Cthulhu, Satan, big difference,” Karkat says.
Feferi makes a horrible noise. “Okay, that’s it. I was going to explain nicely and show you that we hadn’t hurt Tavros in a bad way, but you had to mention Cthulhu, so now I don’t care! Equius, call your Dad, Eridan and Terezi, take him to the temple, Nepeta help me clean up Tavros, Vriska, go veil Mr. Vantas.”
“Yes High Priestess!” Feferi’s friends (cultists?) chorus.
Karkat hears movement and feels that he’s being untied from the tree. He struggles, but it doesn’t do much good. His hands are tied behind his back, and his feet are hobbled. They take off the bag, but it’s only to gag him, and then they put the bag back on. “Wow, that was dumb, Karkat,” Terezi mutters as she and Eridan guide him away from the clearing. “Really, really dumb.”
“I don’t know why she was bothering to explain nicely,” Eridan grumbles. “They didn’t explain nicely back in Great Grandfather’s day. They dragged you out and sent you to the Gods to explain your unconscionable stupidity.”
“Oh Gods, shut the hell up Eridan!” Terezi says. “If the High Priestess wants to explain to the Outsider why he fucked up, you let Her explain to the Outsider why the hell he fucked up!”
Terezi and Eridan continue to argue as they prod and lead him along narrow dirt path, and around curves. Karkat stumbles a few times by accident, and a few times deliberately in an effort to trip either Eridan or Terezi. His escape attempts are less than successful.
After an unknown number of hours, they finally stop. Karkat can feel a breath of cold air, and a disturbing sense that something huge and empty is in front of him. The hood comes off and the huge and empty thing turns out to be the entrance of a cave. The opening is at the bottom of a huge steep-sided hill, and is twice his height. “Okay,” Terezi says. “I’m going to explain how this is going to go, and Eridan is going to shut up.”
“I’m a priest,” Eridan points out with chilly offense. “I outrank you. I should be doin’ the explainin’ if anyone is.”
“The priest is going to shut the hell up,” Terezi says cheerfully. “And the seer is going to explain how this is going to go. We’re going to take you into the ablution chamber, where we are going to purify ourselves and then you. Ideally you will not say a word or try to escape. If you do try to escape…” Terezi spins him around. They are at the bottom of a rough sort of stone amphitheater. It’s a half bowl in front of the cave entrance. Beyond the amphitheater is nothing by a blank white sheet that curves to cover the sky. It isn’t fog. Karkat isn’t sure what it is. “You will not get very far, trust me on this.”
“What the hell,” Karkat tries to say, but the gag is in the way.
“It’s a force field!” Terezi says cheerfully. Eridan grumbles about science fiction crap, and how Terezi is the shame of her ancestors. “Not so, my ancestors think I’m totally awesome,” Terezi says. “I’m tempted to cut you loose and let you try to run into it, but the ablutions chamber is calling.”
Terezi and Eridan continue to guide and prod Karkat through the entrance of the cave. Lamps hang from the ceiling, and the walls are painted with strange images and symbols. There are animals and birds and fish and creatures that were combinations, gryphons and manticores and centaurs and sphynxes and pegasi and stranger beings. There are murals of human figures presenting offerings to strange coiling shapes with tentacles. “And here we see why our beloved High Priestess lost Her sacred shit at the mention of Cthulhu,” Terezi murmurs.
“Don’t be blasphemous, Ter,” Eridan says.
The entrance goes downhill for a hundred feet, and then splits into two corridors. Terezi and Eridan lead him down the right corridor and into a chamber with several stone tubs and basins. “If you have to go to the bathroom, you should probably go now,” Terezi says, and takes him to a bathroom stall. She helps him with his pants without the slightest hint of discomfort. Karkat goes along because protesting would dumb, and he does in fact have to relieve himself.
Terezi and Eridan clean up in the basins and change into white belted skirts and sandals. Then they untie Karkat. Karkat makes a renewed effort to struggle when they start to strip him out of his clothes when he realizes they intend to bathe him. He protests loudly, and tries to tear out the gag, but is ultimately unable to escape. “It’s just a bath Karkat,” Terezi says.
“This isn’t even the worst part,” Eridan says evilly.
“Wow, way to sound like a horror movie sir priest,” Terezi says.
“Our Gods are unknowable nightmares beyond human ken,” Eridan says. “Might as well embrace it.”
“Shut up Eridan,” Terezi says, and wrestles Karkat into the tub she’d been filling with water. “Stop flirting with Light. Thank the Gods for indoor plumbing.”
“I ain’t flirting with Light,” Eridan says, and for some reason, blushes.
They wash Karkat with a weird determined gentleness, using unlikely-to-be-brand-name soap (It’s a square dark brown chunk) and some kind of scented oil that they rub onto him after getting him out of the tub and drying him off. They put him in another white skirt, put him in some extremely medieval looking manacles, and take off the gag. “What the fuck?” is the first thing Karkat can think to say.
“So, Outsiders who interrupt major rituals such as the initiation of a priest are offered to the Gods,” Terezi says with a wide smile that is somehow very unhappy. “No questions asked, no excuses given. The crow woods are off limits during Spring Break and everyone in town knows this and directs Outsiders elsewhere.”
“There’s a hiking trail,” Karkat says. “And a campground.”
“Not for Outsiders durin’ Spring Break,” Eridan says.
“And offered to the gods basically means murdered, right?”
“Sacrificed, executed, not murdered!” Terezi says.
“By various methods,” Eridan says. “Depending.”
“Wow, what a relief, I’m going to be sacrificed or executed instead of murdered,” Karkat says sarcastically. “I don’t think there’s that much of a difference.” He should possibly be trying to beg for his life or something. He can tell Terezi isn’t happy about this situation. Maybe he could turn Terezi against Eridan or something.
“There is a difference,” Terezi says insistently. “You committed a spiritual crime, and the only way your soul can be cleansed is through sacrifice and the blessed intervention of the Gods.”
Or maybe he can’t.
They manacles his legs together, and leave him by the chamber’s exit.
They clean up the bathing area and themselves. Terezi helps Eridan into some kind of collar necklace that has a winged symbol in gold on it, and serpentine bracelets that wind up his forearms. She puts a coronet on him with the same symbol. Eridan combs Terezi’s hair back and places a coronet on her brow with a curved symbol over a straight line. Terezi’s necklace has a shape with three curved arms. Her coronet has a red veil attached.
After getting dressed up, they each take an arm and move him out of the chamber. The floor is icy cold under his feet, which are quickly turning numb. They walk him down another corridor and into another room, this one with huge doors marked with strange symbols. They unbar the door and open it. This room has stalactites and a few pillars. In the center of the room is one huge pillar with several sets of manacles hanging from it. “This is the Chamber of Repentance,” Terezi says. “You’ll stay here until the Gods make Their choice.”
“Of how you’re gonna die,” Eridan says in a quiet, serious tone.
They prod him into the room and he nearly stumbles when he tries to walk. His feet feel like blocks of ice, and he’s shivering so hard he thinks his teeth are rattling in his skull. They catch him before he can fall flat on his face, and half-guide, half-carry him to the pillar. They press his back to the stone and he jerks hard at the icy dampness. They pull his arms over his head and chain him to the pillar. The manacles are set high enough that he’s on the balls of his feet. Karkat is not shy about expressing his feelings about this, though he’s so cold and shivering so hard he can barely get the words out. “Sorry, Karkat,” Terezi says, and it sounds like she means it.
“F-f-f,” he can’t get the word out, but he hopes his glare gets the idea across.
They leave him, and after a while, he can’t hear their footsteps anymore. He wonders how they weren’t shivering or goosebumped from the cold. He wonders if he’s going to freeze to death before any alleged judgment from the alleged gods. He wonders about a lot of things, like, is his dad okay, are his arms going to fall off. He wonders how he ended up in a really bad horror movies.
The lights in the ceiling dim. The only sound is his breathing, and the occasional drip of water. The sound of water makes him feel ridiculously thirsty. The stretched out pain of his arms and legs gets steadily worse. After a few hours, he has gives up trying to keep his back away from the stone, and the cold feels almost pleasant in comparison with the burning of his arms and legs. He yanks at the manacles, but it doesn’t do any good. He bitches at length but that doesn’t do any good either (maybe warms him up some).
It gets darker in the chamber, and then it gets pitch black. In the black are colored shapes, like the colors that appear when you close your eyes in a dark room. There’s blue fading into a brighter blue, there’s purple and a brighter pink-purple. There’s a bright orange and a bright red, and two shades of green, dark and light. Random wisps of color at first, in the corner of his eyes, then sudden flashes.
The room gets warmer. The wisps and sheets of color become tendrils and vines, growing up the walls. Become strange, oblong shapes fringed with flagella that beat frantically as they swim through the air. Other shapes, long and about the thickness of his thigh coil and dart at the oblong shapes with fanged jaws wide. A brilliantly red coiling shape lunges at his face and he yelps, trying to dodge it. It slides into the pillar next to his head, leaving behind a warm red slime that drips onto his shoulder.
Karkat wonders if he’s hallucinating. He wonders if he was slipped something and he’s having a trip. He wonders if these things were supposed to be “Gods.” If they were, he wasn’t really impressed.
Oh like we’re here to impress you, a blue…something says. It’s hanging in the air, a blue shape he can’t really define because it keeps changing. It has multiple weaving tentacles, radiating from a sharp edged shape made of blue crystal. It has wings that beat slowly and too many eyes.
We should definitely impress you, because we’re able to fit so many dimensions into such a tiny space! A green thing says. It’s made of turning galaxies and light sucking black holes. It goes on forever and wears a crown made of candles.
I think we’re definitely blowing his mind, says a bright red thing made of wheels and feathers. It’s voice is like music being sung by thousands of voices. It has a human face, and that’s probably the worst part, because absolutely nothing about it is human.
We should judge him, sometime before he loses his mind, one of the purple things says in an arch tone. It’s shape is more or less human, but its surrounded by a mass of writhing smoke and eyes. The human shape in the middle has no eyes at all, and very sharp teeth.
There’s a murmur of agreement from the others, and then he’s engulfed.