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You Guard the Pyres of a Stillborn Universe

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Crushing force slams into you, followed by the cold shock of arctic water. Claws of ice rake through skin and bone and you gasp involuntarily, drawing stinging liquid into your lungs. You're drowning, you know you can't die permanently but it's nothing against the reflex panic of cold and can't breathe

The claustrophobic pressure breaks around you as you erupt through the surface, replaced by a ripping gale that cuts even deeper while your numb and shivering body corkscrews through the air, water flinging from your extremities. Your lungs seize and your chest implodes, water spurting out of your nose and mouth. You gag and choke. Your drenched, flapping cape tangles around your limbs, your shades are miraculously still on your face but they're slipping and oh shit oh fuck your hand darts for the falling glasses just in time to captchalogue the damn things by a hair.

That moment of panic is what it takes for you to finally pull yourself together and halt your aerial tumble. You've practically torn your cape in half with that move, but wardrobe malfunctions are the last things on your mind right now: you might be out of the water, but your teeth are doing their best impression of an industrial jackhammer and everything hurts like you've been tenderized inside out by an army of mallet-wielding five year olds. The total lack of feeling in your fingers isn't a good sign either.

"I hate LOCAS... I hate LOCAS why the... fuck is it... always this goddamn planet..." you chatter, trying in vain to shield yourself from the wind with an arm.

Then you remember that you're magic and you can get this freezing death trap off.

Light sears from your body and your god tier costume reconstitutes itself, this time sans the complementary hypothermia. Your skin's still damp and your hair dripping, so you grab your billowing cape and wipe yourself off as best you can. Another quick resummon gets rid of the rest of the evidence of your impromptu swim. It's still pretty goddamn cold, but at least it's now ordinary freezing winds instead of impending frostbite.

You exhale miserably and wrap yourself tighter in your cape. Getting your bearings will have to wait.

It's at this point that you notice it's pretty goddamn bright in here.

You look up to see where all this light is coming from like a grubtripping moron and immediately boil off your retinas peering straight into the fucking sun.

In retrospect, it should have been glaringly obvious that this is, in fact, not LOCAH.

Yeah, where the actual fuck are you?

You cast a look around the giant body of water (saltwater, the aftertaste on your tongue says) you've been inexplicably dunked into at Mach 10. Normally you would guess LOMAT or LORAF from that, but the sky isn't a giant quasi-luminous map canvas nor an empty black void, so strike that out. It looks like you managed to draw Earth for once. There's the sun and everything, the faint sound of seagulls, and-

What the hell is with the horizon?

It's flat. Practically a straight line. Technically there is a slight curvature if you pay attention, but it's so flat and you're no geometry expert but that means the planetary radius has to be... holy shit. What kind of monstrous dream bubble is this? And how much of it is Earth?

You fly higher, powering through the bite of the frigid air, and you can probably see for dozens of miles, but there's still no edge in sight. No walls of boiling steam where lava meets sea, no violet aurora and aquamarine crystal, only endless ocean stretching into infinity.

Either the dark gods have finally lost what scarce scraps of sanity they possess, or this is something else altogether.

What's the last thing you remember?

Your memories take their sweet time rebooting, and it's embarrassingly long before recollection clicks.

Aranea. Jade. The dogs.

Dying.

"Fuck," you say aloud.

"I'm dead," you mutter. "I'm supposed to be dead. Unless that wasn't heroic enough, but then why did I come here? Where is this? Goddammit, I'm not cut out for this detective shit. Where's Jade? If I'm alive, is she alive? Did John's mom get to her? What the fuck's even happening?"

Your eyes glide to the horizon again.

"Is this a dream bubble?"

You pause, a simple test occurring to you. You remember your death, don't you? You've done this a hundred times with new arrivals to the bubbles, but never from this side. You pull a glass pane from your deck into your hand and inspect your reflection.

Your eyes are still normal.

"Just peachy," you mutter, putting away the improvised mirror and reequipping your shades. This is bizarre, and you're out of ideas. What now?

Rose. Pester Rose. When in doubt, defer to the smuggest person in the room. Even if it turns out they don't know the answer, you get to watch them stew in the shame of their bitter failure.

You take out your phone, careful to not drop it with your shaky fingers, and open Pesterchum, bracing yourself for the bad news.

Yeah, just as you thought, paradox space prides itself on being a pain in the ass: Rose isn't online.

...but John is.

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 13:11 --

TG: hey john wtf is happening

You hit send on the first message and are halfway through composing a follow-up line of similar dry incredulity when your brain kicks in and your eyes dart back up because what?

No, you didn't read that wrong. That's 13:21 right there, slipped in all deceptively innocuous and shit.

Not the ??:?? you're used to. 13:21.

You're in a stable chronology. A stable chronology with an Earthlike concept of presumably hourly time and day/night cycles.

Are you literally on Earth? Like, not an ghost Earth dream bubble or a shrunk-down pocket Earth drifting through intersessional hyperspace, but a real Earth in an honest-to-god Genesis Frog? Is this the new Earth after you won the game? Did the others win the game without you, resurrect your desiccated corpse somehow, and... unceremoniously dump you in the middle of the ocean...?

Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Bluh. You're getting a headache.

Maybe John will have some answers, you decide. That's his thing now, isn't it? Popping up in places he has no business being and vaguely fucking things up with game-breaking meta powers. Watch all of this be his fault.

TG: are you ok
TG: where are we and which genius decided what i truly needed in my life was an ice water bath to commemorate my much anticipated return to livinghood
TG: are we even in the same place
EB: dave!
EB: i think we're on earth, but i don't know for sure.
EB: you were dead?
TG: ok clearly you know fuck all too
TG: lets figure this out together i guess
TG: whats the last thing you remember
TG: i was chasing jack and the other dog for jades body like a fucking idiot and i thought i got stabbed to death but reality appears to disagree
TG: not fun
TG: would not recommend
EB: jade died???
TG: yeah you missed that part too
EB: oh noooooo.
EB: is she ok now?
TG: i dont know
TG: maybe
EB: ok, well i went to talk to typheus on my planet with you.
EB: i mean dave sprite.
EB: and then im not sure what happened but i think i died too?
EB: and maybe him as well? oh no.
TG: dude focus
TG: what did you do because im pretty sure this is all your fault somehow
EB: that part is kind of hazy.
EB: all i remember is then i woke up in a crater and that was ten minutes ago.
TG: wow thats helpful
EB: why did you get stabbed?
TG: ill tell you later it dumb and doesnt matter now
TG: so both of us died and came back to life
TG: god its all we do these days like how many times have you died now
TG: what were you doing with your denizen anyway
TG: do you think that has anything to do with this
EB: maybe?
EB: im getting the feeling that its not directly responsible, but maybe...
EB: cause adjacent?
TG: ok fine more cryptic bullshit from the impudent god of bovine anus himself
TG: fyi its like two minutes ago for me so whatever it is it isnt synced for what thats worth
TG: where are you now
TG: like what do you see around you i guess
TG: if wilderness orienteering isnt one of your many invaluable life skills
EB: i think im in england.
TG: what
TG: how do you know that are the birds chirping in british or
EB: haha, don't be silly.
EB: of course the english people told me i was in england.
TG: wait
TG: you have people over there
TG: as in real talking humans and not dumb crocodiles or featureless chess people with wildly variable cognitive mileages
EB: yes.
EB: are you in the middle of the sea or something?
TG: yes that is exactly where i am
TG: nothing but water in every conceivable direction
TG: goddamn waterworld up in this bitch
TG: so that means this is earth then
TG: the og fda certified authentic planet earth TG: with the president and walmart and the alleged indelible cornerstone of cinema history that is ghostbusters
TG: because we all know those are the only important things in modern civilization and everything else might as well be window dressing amiright
TG: obama || walmart && ghostbusters = planet earth
TG: didnt you pass alchemy 101
TG: what kind of sburb noob are you
TG: hey bro are you there
EB: i think so!
EB: to the earth part, not all that other rubbish you were saying.
EB: i haven't gotten exploring but it looks mostly the same.
TG: damn
TG: i wonder if hussie ever finished midnight crew

This is Earth. An undestroyed Earth with people on it. Human people.

You barely notice your hand trembling ever so slightly as you swipe down the top of your screen and see the date. 6/01/2013.

It's 2013.

The parade of existential horror questioning what this exactly means for you and your possible deadness slash resurrection is briefly trampled by a thousand different trains of speculation tearing through your very limited attention span, from jegus i'm never going to catch up on mspa now i was already thousands of pages behind to oh god i missed the rest of obamas presidency.

EB: it's been four years, so i hope so.
TG: hey do you still have your unholy time travel blue zappy thing
EB: what?
EB: i can't time travel! that's your thing, remember?
TG: yes fine its not time travel whatever you say john we dont have time to argue the semantics of your bullshit powers
TG: do you still have the thing or not
EB: i can turn into the wind and transport to places if thats what you mean by zappy thing.
EB: how do you know about that
TG: what
TG: ok whatever can you do that and grab me
TG: because im kind of freezing to death here
EB: oh.
EB: well, i would very much like to do so, but i don't know where you are!

Fuck. Okay, you need a solution to this temperature issue and soon. This location issue as well. Isn't Jade an all-powerful space furry now? You tap out of the pester window to see if she's come online, but her icon and Rose's are still offline.

So is everyone else, you realize as you scroll down into the trollslum. Karkat, Terezi and the rest. Wait, but that's not the offline icon, is it? With a start, you realize that you haven't ever seen that cross-eyed face in the slum before. You tap into carcinoGeneticist [CG].

carcinoGeneticist [CG] does not exist.

You haven't ever that message before. You didn't even know it was a thing, but it doesn't sound good. At all.

Does not exist.

Pesterchum always knows. Does not exist.

How long does paradox space keep stuff cached?

For a moment fleeting panic grips you as you wonder what if they're gone, erased out of existence along with their twice-removed dead universe in whatever brand-new reality you now occupy. If you never see them again and this is all there is, you and John stranded on this foreign Earth for the rest of your lives. You mean, you're always up to chill with the Ultimate Dork, but you've spent three years with these guys trying and failing not to be a miserable clingy shit, so like hell you're going to let all that effort go to waste.

Your feigned blaseness does nothing to alleviate the jagged tightening in your chest at the thought.

Hey, if this is the afterlife and they're not here because they're alive, that's fine. Great, even. That's generally the term used to describe the diametric opposite of being dead. You're perfectly okay with it. Good for them. Really.

In fact, you're prematurely overreacting, you tell yourself, trying to calm the jitters. John got here ten minutes before you, the rest might be showing up any time now. Priorities. They exist and need to be attended to.

"Don't die first," you say to yourself. "Heat. What do I have?"

You rifle through your captchalogue deck. Jegus, why do you have this much useless shit in there?

"I don't need this many swords. Why are there five tins of grubloaf in here? Scalemate on fire... that might work." You can't hold it, though, and there's nowhere to put it down on. "A toaster?" Nowhere to plug it in, and what are you going to do? Hold your hands above the bread slots?

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 13:19 --

TG: gimme a sec

This isn't working. How about you figure out where you are first? There's no GPS signal, which is such bullshit. How do you have Internet everywhere but not GPS, which actually is supposed to be everywhere in real life? Okay, new plan: fly in a straight line until you find land.

You shiver, turning in a circle.

Slight amendment to the plan: fly towards the equator where it's hopefully not a goddamn open-air freezer. Or is it just normally this cool in the middle of the ocean? Fuck if you know; you live in Texas. Which way is the equator? The sun is over there, so... that doesn't tell you anything. You could peek forward in time to figure out where it's moving, but...

"Nah."

Your timetables are singing to you from their slot in your strife portfolio like the game thought you might have forgotten about your literal time machines. You tell the devil on your shoulder to fuck off. You're done with that stuff.

Random direction it is.

How about up?

Holy shit, you're a genius. You can breathe in space, and your peak speeds are pretty much arbitrary in this game, so it'll take no time to ascend the stratosphere. Plus, space is warm when you're in the sun, right? You think you read that somewhere. Fuck it, you're immortal.

You take a deep breath, tense your imaginary flight muscles, and rocket up—


Woah.

Everything trembles for a split second, a cone of vapor spilling away from you as shock waves reverberate down your body. It's gone in an instant.

Was that a sonic boom? Jegus, have you done that before? You definitely went supersonic flying from LOHAC to LOFAF, but apparently the sound barrier isn't a thing in the Medium. Physics can suck it, for all the game's concerned.

You have no idea how fast you're going, but you've blown right past the cloud layer and the sky's dimming to black, the Earth falling away from you at a snail's pace. You pan your view over the curving horizon framed by an ethereal glow, still shooting up like a Dave-shaped bullet. Not a speck of land below you, and the only sight of any major landmass is silhouettes way off in the distance, too far away to put a name to. The only way to go is further up.

A burst of exhilarated laughter rocks through you as you realize belatedly that you're going to space. Real space, not Sburb space full of unknowable tentacle monsters, spacetime vortices and memory bubbles full of your dead friends. Space classic is perhaps a tad underwhelming compared to what you've been through, but at the same time— space. This particular boundless void has a distinct realness attribute that's not quite fully the same out there in the Furthest Ring.

The air friction has stripped the cold from your skin, replaced by a burning, roiling heat that's confusing your still-thawing innards. You're certain that you'd be a deep-fried popsicle right now if not for your absurd gel viscosity stat. You're still accelerating upwards, but you think the atmosphere has thinned enough that it's safe for you to take your phone out again without the wind whipping it right out of your hand.

You open Pesterchum and oh thank god.

tentacleTherapist's icon is cheerfully lit, informing you of her restored connection.

Lalonde. Just what you needed.

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 13:23 --

TG: yo where are you
TG: me and john are on earth so i assume you are too
TT: Hello, Dave.
TT: Did you know that death is quite an efficient hangover cure? I have no clue why I never tried that before.
TT: I appear to be in some form of rainforest, possibly of the tropical subcategory. Specifically, in the gaping crater created by my meteoric collision into the heart of aforementioned forest.
TT: The symbolism of a fallen angel returning to the land of man is not lost on me. It's beginning to look like a recurring theme in my character arc: the descent into astonishingly poor life decisions and having to pay the price in blood.
TT: I never seem to learn.
TG: so i guess you died too
TT: You have me at a disadvantage.
TG: we got here literally minutes before you
TG: johns in england
TG: im in space trying to find out which ocean i got lobbed into
TG: youd think theres only 7 how hard can it be
TG: but news flash theyre fucking massive and all these clouds are conspiring to stop me from actually seeing anything from here a billion miles in the air
TG: its the cabal of weathermen rose
TG: theyre onto me
TG: they know
TG: and gods and monsters be damned they will stop at nothing to protect their monopoly on satellite geopositioning
TT: I see.
TT: Unfortunately, we have greater problems than hypothetical meteorological conspiracies. I've been trying to use my powers.
TG: hit me with it
TG: what terrible fate do you spy with your little eye
TT: The key word is "trying". I can't. That's the problem.
TT: My sight is clouded.
TT: Even the victory state itself is unclear. I'm not sure our previous goal is achievable anymore, at least not by us. I don't believe I have to describe how alarming this is.
TG: consider me exhaustively briefed on matters of alarm and its appropriate degrees of magnitude
TG: but shit performance issues or not we need to get the party together
TT: Hold on. John is messaging me.

You muster the truly titanic willpower to not instinctively tab over to spamming John instead, and opt for reassessing the view from your new vantage point. In terms of altitude, you're pretty sure you're in genuine, actual outer space now by any formal definition. The Earth's curvature is honestly starting to weird you out, because after years roaming the microplanets of the dream bubbles, it's only now starting to hit you how really fucking massive your homeworld is. Your lands don't even begin compare.

The distant coasts are coming into view now, framing a good semicircle of your view. You narrow your eyes and lift your shades for a better look, trying to trace the shape of what has to be continents at this distance. On the opposite side is a stretch of land that's now resolving into an archipelago. A really nice thick and chunky one, not pansy island sprinkles like the weeny Bahamas.

"Japan," you say out loud. "So that's Korea, right? Russia, whatever. Is this the East China Sea?" Come on, your bro didn't bother teaching you proper geography. Chalk that up to another parenting failure for the pile. "I'll just Google it."

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 13:31 --

TG: im above the sea of japan
TG: in space because its fucking awesome
TG: is that precise enough for you
TG: are you done pestering rose yet
TG: you do know she has an alien girlfriend now you cant marry her anymore
TG: rip karkats shipping chart it was a thing of beauty while it lasted
TG: homewrecker kanaya maryam strikes again
TG: wait does that count as the clubs thing karkat keeps going on about isnt that kanayas favorite quadrant
TG: auspisitisicism
TG: auspistisism
TG: or was it least favorite
TG: you never know with these trolls
TG: but yeah that one tearing apart beautiful hatemarriages for world peace and public health
TG: is there an opposite ausptsistism for ruining red ships is that real
TG: im declaring it real before karkat comes in and ruins my fun with another dating manual
TG: thats a real thing btw empire issued official prints
TG: troll romance is so ridiculous
TG: karkats soap operas are as hilarious as theyre incomprehensible
TG: the secret to surviving through them is reading them as absurdist ironic comedies
TG: then the drama is pure gold
TG: play a laugh track in your head every time the director comes up with a new color based metaphor that makes no fuckin sense
TG: doubles as a drinking game if thats your jam
TG: you never used to but who knows what happened on that ship
TG: i was on it after all
TG: who knows what depths of depravity i inducted yall into
TG: dont tell karkat i said that though he might murder me for real
TG: he still thinks i unironically hate his precious collection so he has to bribe me in exchange for suffering through his rage filled commentary
TG: its like walking through an astrology museum and hes the thermonuclear astrophysicist the dumbfuck owner hired as curator but he had to take the job because he got fired from harvard for calling the department head a nook stuffed imbecile
TG: the seething tantrums are half the experience
EB: wow, the trolls sure got to you quick!
TG: hey youre back
EB: i was talking to rose!
EB: i will try to find you now.
EB: i'm still getting the hang of this crazy new power.
TG: just dont fuck up the timeline
TG: actually on second thought maybe dont try anything weird ill just fly over normally
TG: lets exercise our scarcely seen capacities to act like responsible human beings
TG: you already did it didnt you
TG: goddammit egbert

You glance around nervously, wondering it you would even notice before being blipped out of existence by a new alpha timeline. John isn't showing up, but he hasn't replied to you yet. Do Breath powers only work where there's air? You think you're pretty deep into vacuum, but you can't tell. He said he got that power from a magic house on a dream quest, though, so it's not even anything to do with his aspect.

Finally, your phone dings.

Alright, not unexisted yet. Or maybe some other Dave was unexisted and you're the new version that took his place without even knowing it.

You try not to think too hard about this.

EB: i'm over the sea now but i don't think i can home in to your position
EB: can you send a signal or something?
TG: dammit
TG: fine

Okay, think. There has to be a simple solution to this. Preferably one not involving weapons-grade explosives. What do you have? Nothing in your sylladex is useful, you looked through it earlier, so game powers?

Hmm.

...that might work.

You sift through the metaphysical abstractions cluttering your mental superstrate to find what you need. Good god, you have too many of these. There it is, Breath and Time.

You activate [Ivories in the Fire].

It takes but a moment for John to accept from the other side. Your soul hums, John's echoing back from the other side of the connection. They whisper to each other, tuning themselves the unique combinatorial frequency of the technique, two ends straining and reaching across the void, then—

An awful grinding sensation slams into you, the feeling of caught gears gnashing against each other. A turbulent backlash of wind rattles the tail off your health vial. Threads of power stretched too taut snare you in wake as the cosmic clockwork reels them in. But it only lasts a second: as quickly as everything started, the gears slip, the breeze rolls past, the knot unwinds, and your breath returns. You flex your fingers.

You're too far apart for the fraymotif to engage. You guessed as much, but you got what you were looking for.

Turning to the general direction the power was pulling towards, you squint and manage to just barely glimpse the blue glow of the Breath sigil in the far distance. Target secured. You project yourself straight forwards, feeling heat and plasma stoke again along your hurtling body as you reenter the atmosphere.

Seconds tick past, the Earth slowly but surely looming closer and closer. Your eyes flit around, searching for the telltale figure of the other boy. You yell John's name, wondering if it's possible for anyone to hear you like this, or if the "Breeze" will "carry" your voice to him regardless of whether it's mechanically feasible. Heirs are total bullshit.

As soon as you begin to wonder if maybe it was a plane you saw, it finally happens: the heat whisks away, the air turns thick as syrup around you, and you let yourself slow to a natural stop.

A flying blue windsock bursts out of the clouds below, trailing mist and vapor as he arcs towards you. With a small smile, you raise a hand to wave at the boy as he swoops to a halt in front of you, his goofy bucktoothed grin racked up to twelve.

"Dave!" he says, beaming. "I was beginning to wonder where you'd gone. Smart thinking."

"You know it," you shoot back.

John frowns, putting a crease in his... surprisingly babyish face? He opens his mouth, saying, "You look..."

He's different from the last time you saw him, you realize. It's not a huge difference, he's still visibly John Egbert, but the shape and tone of this one is... you can't put it into words. Different. Younger.

"...older," he finishes, his scrunched up look of mild confusion probably exactly mirroring the one you're wearing right now.

You swallow. "John, how old are you?"