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[Panel description: Dave and Dirk float in darkness. Dave slumps back with his mouth wide open to complain.]

DAVE: ugh.
DIRK: God, any fucking day now.
We’ve dispersed our issues into the air, this guy can show up whenever.
DAVE: doesn’t this guy have any respect for narrative pacing.
we’re sitting out here with all our vital regions exposed like European countries ripe for foreign invasion.
there’s a long list of people waiting to kick my ass I can’t give this one all day.
DIRK: Wait a sec.

[Panel description: Dave and Dirk look toward a flashing diamond of light alternating between several bright colors.]

DIRK: What’s that strangely ominous glow in the distance?
DAVE: let’s take a wild guess.

[Panel description: The version of Jack Noir possessed by Lord English floats flashing with bright colors. His eyes bulge out from his face, and tendrils of colored light stream off of them. Blood surrounds the sockets and spatters across his body. His teeth are bared, and one of them is gold. He holds a crowbar in his right hand.]

[Panel description: Dave and Dirk face Jack. They are framed between his two flashing legs. One of the legs is missing at the joint and replaced with a gold spike.]

[Panel description: Dave and Dirk both pull out their swords. Dirk holds his typical katana, while Dave has Caledfwlch. Dave has his back up against Dirk’s shoulder. For once they look kind of cool.]

[Panel description: Jack opens his mouth and spews a torrent of flashing light.]

[Panel description: Dave shoves Dirk out of the way of the column of fire. The word shove is written above him. The edge of his cape trails into the fire and catches alight.]

[Panel description: Dave puts his hands to his head and shouts when he sees the edge of his cape burning with a blue flame.]

[Panel description: Dave stomps on the edge of his cape, which is now charred. Wisps of smoke rise from the burned area.]

[Panel description: Dave wipes his forehead in relief. With his other hand, he pushes his scorched cape back. Jack Noir approaches unseen behind him.]

[Panel description: Dave frowns and looks behind him at Jack Noir, whose head and shoulders are now covered by his cape. Jack flails. He has dropped the crowbar, which falls toward the bottom of the panel.]

[Panel description: Dirk holds the crowbar in one hand. In front of him can be seen Jack and Dave, still tangled up in the cape.]

[Panel description: Dirk holds the crowbar back in a striking pose. Impact lines indicate he has hit Jack on the head. Jack, still tangled in the cape, looks distressed.]

[Panel description: Dirk, with the crowbar, and Dave, unarmed, both shout and jump toward Jack, who cowers between them.]

[Panel description: Dirk and Dave face each other. Dave looks somber. Behind them, Jack floats in a pool of blood.]

DAVE: I don’t know if you know this.
I mean,
I guess there’s no way for you to.
but,
this is how you died.
not you,
my bro.
it was him and uh,
dave sprite,
that guy.
they were fighting our jack and it didn’t go too well.
talk about déjà vu.
...
you really don’t remember that.
DIRK: No.
Nothing in here but sixteen years of isolated adolescent horseshit.
I’ve gathered that the puppet fixation appears to be more or less constant, but whatever.
DAVE: I guess that’s good.
it’s just,
it’s weird to think that you’re so similar in so many ways but there’s no connection beyond that.
that version of me that your world knew,
none of me is in him at all.
I guess good for him and good for you but it’s still unnerving.
DIRK: I don't know about that. I didn't know the guy.
Maybe you two actually were really similar, as much as you can be given your separate upbringings.
DAVE: maybe,
but he wouldn’t have remembered being me would he.
if it didn’t work that way for you I dunno why it would work like that for anyone else.
I guess it’s just more proof of how skaia really doesn’t care.
not about preserving any of us or giving us a good ending.
it’s all big picture stuff.
the scratch had to happen so it did,
and everyone on either side of it, they had to live with it.
DIRK: In essence. Probably no real reason that there had to be such a temporal distance between us and our co-players, either.
The only real purpose I can see is to give the human side some kind of stakes against the Condesce, which we now have in fucking spades.
Though I think the mind control of friends and murder of guardians would probably be enough for that.
Who knows. From what I can tell, on either side of the scratch, we were dealt a radically different set of circumstances. Like you said, playing the same cards differently.
Maybe Skaia does know. Maybe that's why it stuck my ass out on my own and said "look, kid. If you want to not starve to death, you’re on your own."
So I had to grow up and learn to be the closest thing to a grown-up I could. There was nobody else I could rely on. I had to be independent.
We’re presented a different way to play our cards. But past that, it's up to us.
I had to survive on my own, but I couldn't make the others learn the skills I'd honed from that.
That was on them.
And I kind of wish I'd seen that.

[Panel description: Dirk and Dave continue to look at each other. Behind them, Jack is floating away.]

[Panel description: Jack floats even further away, partly past the edge of the panel.]

[Panel description: Jack is no longer visible behind the two boys.]

DAVE: the trolls were post scratch.
they didn’t know until we hit the dream bubbles.
but thinking about how it just as easily could have been a different group who started hassling us,
that those people we met used to have different lives that vanished,
it’s unnerving.
the only thing directing it all is skaia and skaia doesn’t care as long as everything works out the way it wants in the end.
so I guess we’re all teetering on islands of sanity in this huge frothing sea of dip shits,
the occasional tsunami washing us all out into the water where we flail like a bunch of kids getting their first swim lesson in the deep end.
there are probably sharks.
I don’t know what the sharks symbolize in all this.
lord English.
crippling self doubt.
who cares.
DIRK: A formless yet omnipresent deity watching over us demi-gods, keeping us in line like a stern yet absent parent.
That's Skaia, I guess.
Wow.
I just realized the Campbellian horseshit behind this gigantic killer game.
Behind the apocalyptic nonsense and moving beyond the nihilistic denial that we have any real agency in the whole thing, it's a giant coming of age story.
DAVE: Campbell.
DIRK: You know, Joseph Campbell? The Hero's Journey?
The Call to Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, all of that?
DAVE: right I remember rose deconstructing one of my web comics one time saying I’d subconsciously included the belly of the whale or some shit.
the universal bildungsroman.
break this dude and then put him back together.
welcome to our lives.
and don’t get me started on the whole hero routine.
jesus.
DIRK: Alright then, I won't.
DAVE: ha-ha see you’re learning.
DIRK: And it only took possibly traumatizing somebody I love for life to figure that out. Yippee.

[Panel description: Dave and Dirk turn to look at the empty pool of blood. Dirk tenses up, still holding the crowbar.]

DAVE: um,
uh,
wait a second.
tell me what is wrong with this picture.
DIRK: Huh?
What pic. Oh, Christ.

[Panel description: Dave puts his hands to his head in distress. Dirk scowls.]

DAVE: we turned our backs on the body.
what fucking amateurs.
he had maybe 1 goddamn hit point left.
he couldn’t have gotten far.
DIRK: Where could he have even gone?
DAVE: no clue.
he was all hopped up on English juice I don’t know what that does to you.
DIRK: How is he not leaving a blood trail the size of the goddamn Mississippi?
DAVE: well,
we are in space.
DIRK: What are even the logistics of this?
DAVE: would the blood float.
look I don’t know jack shit about physics and I don’t think this game does either.
DIRK: At least, to have gotten away scot-free while never having crossed our peripheral vision, he would have to have retreated, right?
DAVE: so he went away from the session.
mission accomplished.
and hey we got the magic juju thing at least.

[Panel description: Dirk looks down at the crowbar in his hand.]

DAVE: which is.

[Panel description: Dave takes the crowbar and holds it in a pose reflecting the Half-Life logo.]

DAVE: a crowbar apparently.
wild.
DIRK: Yup, that is a crowbar.
But I know from experience that even the most mind-bendingly horrific of ancient mystical jujus can look fairly innocuous.
DAVE: it’s true.
any mild-mannered physicist can fuck you up with one of these.
DIRK: Exactly. Or the lollipop I was talking about.
Or this puppet I had growing up.
DAVE: ...
puppet.
DIRK: Puppet.
His name was Lil Cal. I think my bro left him to me.
A friend of mine, this alien who was really into all the cryptic mystical shenanigans, called him a juju.
DAVE: look I know I just went on that tangent about our alt selves having no connection to us,
but I cannot bring myself to believe that any version of me would ever spread that piece of shit willingly to another human being.
that puppet was EVIL.
DIRK: What?
DAVE: and I’m not just saying that because of his dead dead eyes or that soul crushing giggle,
or the way he moved around in my dreams.
what kind of inanimate object has a dream self anyway.
DIRK: Dude, the fuck do you have against the C-Man?
DAVE: rose was doing research because that’s what seers do.
I don’t even know where she gets this shit.
not like you can steer the meteor into the parking lot for the public library.
apparently that puppet was possessed.
the big bad of the multiverse lurks in his stuffing fucking with people.
DIRK: ...
I'd like to know her credentials.
From where I'm standing, Cal was pretty tight.
DAVE: I dunno she got vaporized on a god slab and now she’s the ascended seer of light.
I didn’t ask for her C V.
she said it isn’t always possessed,
but any time it’s in a universe it has the potential to be a window for this guy to get his peep on and crawl into your soul.
DIRK: ...give me a moment to process this.
DAVE: just for the record he never crawled into my soul.
I think it was the shades.
thank god for ben stiller I guess.
I can’t see the horror terrors with these on either.
fuck enchanted mithril armor, I’m sticking with mirrored plastic.
DIRK: I'm just not sure how to respond to the revelation that the only semblance of human interaction I had for ten goddamn years is apparently Lord English's interdimensional clown car.
Or that these stupid anime shades bequeathed to me from my centuries-dead would-be-guardian were the only thing standing between me and possible demonic possession.
DAVE: not sure if there’s a DNA test you can do to find out if it’s a carrier or not but my advice is to burn the fucker.
DIRK: I can't.
I don't have him.
DAVE: oh SHIT.
where is it.
DIRK: I dropped him before we entered the game, so probably at the bottom of the ocean on a post-apocalyptic earth, now abandoned by all but the carapaces shortly before the universe as a whole got axed.
And I’m pretty sure they don’t have scuba gear.
DAVE: I don’t know if that’s far enough.
DIRK: This game throws enough shitty plot twists at us. I don't know if I really want to ask if and where he'll pop up next.
Or what’ll happen when he does.
DAVE: keep an eye out,
and if you see it bring the flamethrower.
DIRK: Let me head on back and alchemize one.
I'll need a moment to bid a tearful goodbye before I chuck his body into the burning inferno.
Or go on a quest to incinerate him in the depths of a volcano.
DAVE: good precedent on that one.
watch out for badly clothed gremlins jumping you at the last second.
DIRK: I have it on good authority that’s the best way to undo an evil curse.
Like a naturally-occurring phenomenon the planet evolved to combat hypothetical dark forces. Or maybe it just denatures evil the same way extreme heat denatures most things.
I'm unsure how that works, but if it makes sense to the mind of an old fart with a hate-boner against the Industrial Revolution, sure. Whatever, I’ll take it.
DAVE: our forge was lit by Hephaestus so we’ve got some godly power thrown into the mix,
so there’s your Greco-Roman to go with the Nordic middle earth shit.
and hey English has a sarcophagus so Egypt joins the party.
DIRK: Complete with some Judeo-Christian nonsense expounded upon by Socrates, so we're back to Greco-Roman again.
DAVE: the game makers patched in Wikipedia to fill out the game lore apparently.
greatest hits of western civ.
DIRK: In addition to not giving a shit about its players, Skaia also doesn't give a shit about a consistent mythos.
DAVE: wonder what kind of stuff the trolls got saddled with.
except they also had echidna which makes no fucking sense.
unless echidna is in our myths BECAUSE she’s in sburb.
goddamn I don’t want to think about this.
let’s just go report there’s a jack on the loose and shoulder whatever next hellish round of bullshit this game throws at us.
DIRK: I can be down for that.
Keep an eye out for Cal.
Something tells me he's bound to make an appearance.
DAVE: I’m getting the heebie jeebies knowing he’s out there somewhere,
watching.
he always turned up when you were least expecting it too.
DIRK: Can't have him sneaking up on some poor, oblivious bastard unprepared.
DAVE: maybe I should gift everyone on my team with shades.
DIRK: Sounds like a plan. I'll oversee this official inauguration into the cool kid club.
DAVE: our religion is already picking up speed.
soon we’ll be big enough to schism and start fighting for supremacy.
who wants to be the one to nail a list of 95 memes to the church door.
DIRK: Hal.
Definitely Hal.
DAVE: there’s our splinter sect right there.
DIRK: Let's hope no one starts forming subsects based on who they want to smooch whom.
I hear that shit gets ugly.
DAVE: I think we’ve got enough on our plates,
like vanishing big bads.
it’ll be some other shmucks job to take on jack whenever he shows up again.
if there’s one thing we’re not lacking it’s jack fighters.
DIRK: Or Jacks.
DAVE: enough for everyone.
regular jackpot over here.
DIRK: Wow.
DAVE: after everything else I’ve said that’s what you’re going to wow.
DIRK: I'm sorry, my only other response to that pun would be wholly inappropriate given your background of having to live with a hypersexual maniac.
DAVE: fair enough.
well,
let’s head back.
I bet the seers already have our next job lined up.
suddenly everyone’s on the ball.
better keep rolling.

[Panel description: Rose sits leaning against a purple column. Her laptop is balanced in her lap, and a speech bubble with Dave's record icon hovers above it. She is smiling.]

turntech Godhead [TG] began pestering tentacle Therapist [TT].

TG: you were right.

[Panel description: Rose's expression changes to irritation.]

TG: oh but there’s bad news.