Karkat and John's hands clasped together over the handle to the white door.
"On three?" John asked. Karkat nodded. "Okay, one. Two! Three!"
Their hands twisted to the left. The door clicked open, showering them all with brilliant light.
Karkat opened his eyes. Green-leafed trees stretched up to a pale blue sky. Birdsong and a gentle breeze carried through the trees above him. He laid on a bed of rough grass in the middle of a forest.
This was their new world.
With some effort, Karkat scrambled to his feet, still staring at the sky. It was so bright, but it didn't hurt. He'd been out in the dim on Alternia before, and it had always burned a little to look at the sky. Here, though, it was calming. Beautiful.
Where was everyone else?
The last thing he remembered was opening the door to their final reward. After all the fuckery that had gone on in their game, he hadn't expected a standard "rule like gods over your universe" ending, but he wasn't sure what to expect, either.
"Dave?" he called out. "John?"
No one answered. The birds quieted for a moment before starting up their songs again. The forest remained empty of anyone but himself.
No, there was something else. Karkat felt a strange pulsing in the area. Flickers of sensation fluttered just outside his awareness. It was weird and distracting, but Karkat had other things to think about. He had to find Dave. He had to find the others. They could be anywhere else in this ridiculous new world.
A sudden fear chilled his heart. What if they were on the other side of the world? What if he didn't find them for sweeps? Would he survive, or would he go bugfuck mental and start living on tree bits in the middle of some frozen woods? Karkat had to find them. He had to figure out what was going on, and, most importantly, he had to get his claws on Dave.
Leaves rustled behind him. Karkat turned in time to see a dark-skinned human carefully push his way past the underbrush. He held a machete in his hand. His grey horns were mostly curved in a wide arc with a single kink in the middle, like someone had bent both of them when he was a grub.
Only, that didn't make any sense. He had human skin; he shouldn't have horns at all.
He stared at Karkat with dark green eyes.
"Who the fuck are you?" Karkat growled. He tried to pull a sickle from his sylladex, but nothing happened. Shit.
The not-human put away his machete and held his hands out.
"Forgive me, Advocate! I didn't know you were here! I can leave!"
"What the fuck are you here for, then?" He could worry about the weird title later. For now he had to deal with this weird not-human and figure out how to find the others.
"H-hunting, holiness," the not-human said. "I can avoid this area. I am sorry-" Karkat rolled his eyes and held out a hand to cut the guy's babbling off.
His hand was the wrong color. Instead of grey it was a rich brown, with pink on the palm. His claws were whitish instead of yellow.
"Fuck the Game," Karkat said. "Fuck the Game and its whole goddamn sorry excuse for a logic system, what the hell is this?" He reached up and found that his horns, at least, were still there. He had no doubt that when he looked in the mirror they would be the same dark grey as this not-human's. One last weird 'fuck your life' from the Game. Were all the players like this? Or was this his dubious reward for never reaching god tier? He had to find the others. It might not make more sense, but it would at least make no sense while he was with his friends instead of in a random forest with a guy who thought he was an "Advocate."
"What's your name?" Karkat asked. The not-human was fidgeting, and that same strange pulsing Karkat had felt earlier was going crazy from their direction.
"Alir, my lord."
Now for the far-fetched part. "I'm lost. Do you know where I might find the other gods?" The phrase still felt strange and somewhat ridiculous.
"The Mountain of the Gods? That's a month's walk to the east! How-" Alir cut himself off. "I mean, it is a very long walk."
"I'm your god, right? The least you could do is point me in the right fucking direction." Of course the game wouldn't let them off so easily as to let them end up in the same fucking place. He supposed he should be glad it was only a month's journey instead of a year, but that still felt like an eternity to be separated from the rest of the group. Even the annoying human kids that he'd barely met.
"My god is the Explorer," Alir complained. His eyebrows came together in a heavy frown of concern. The pulsing from his direction got more pronounced. "Are you feeling well, Advocate?"
"I don't know where the fuck I am, or where- where everyone else is, I'm not even a troll anymore, and I'm feeling the heartbeat of everything in a mile's goddamn radius! No, I'm not feeling well!" Karkat shouted, louder and louder as he spoke. "You're the first person I've seen on this shithole planet! This was supposed to be the great reward for finally beating that stupid game! But here we are, blown to the four fucking winds because it just had to mess with us one last time, didn't it?"
Alir screamed. Karkat's rage left him in an instant. Alir was doubled over, grasping at his face. Bright red blood - mutant blood; human blood - dripped in rivulets between his fingers.
"Shit, shit!" Karkat wasn't sure how, but he was certain this was all his fault. He ran to Alir - but he didn't know what to do next. He had never managed to really control his Aspect in the game. Sure, he was okay at fighting now, but that had nothing to do with Game powers. He'd never figured out how to use Blood in the game. Why had it done something now?
"Please, leave me alone! I- I will find someone to guide you!" Alir pleaded. "Just stay here and let me return to Avekia!"
The not-troll stumbled away from Karkat, moving as quickly as he could with only one working eye. Karkat stayed put.
This was not the reward he had wanted.
Karkat felt heartbeats everywhere. Little animals skittered through the underbrush or flew between the trees, all of them with their own flickering heartbeats. Some pulsed fast and light, while others were loud and slower, but they were all on their own rhythm. It felt like hundreds of insects buzzing against his skin, hopping around so he could never really pay attention to any one thing at a time. By the time he felt some person-sized beings coming towards him, he was overwhelmed and irritated.
Two larger heartbeats approached from the same direction where Alir had fled. One was strong and steady, while another was faster, less even. It took a few minutes for them to come into view after Karkat first noticed them. The steadier heartbeat belonged to a short young woman with delicate, looping horns and bright red eyes. The uneven heartbeat came from an old and frail-looking man, his horns notched in what looked like an artificial way, and his violet eyes dull with age.
"Advocate, it is an honor," said the red-eyed woman. She bowed low before speaking again. "I'm Kalani, promised to you. Alir warned us you were unsettled. What can we do to help?"
Promised to him? What the hell did that mean?
"I need to get to the same place as the others," Karkat said. "God Mountain, or whatever. And I'm sorry about what happened to Alir. I guess even finishing the Game can't stop me from being an irreparable fuck up."
The old man spoke in a surprisingly strong voice, "If you do not mind me asking, Holiness, how old are you?"
"What? Seven and a half sweeps, give or take. Wait, do you use 'years'? I think Dave said I was something like sixteen of those. Why?"
Both of their heart rates went up, and they looked at each other in surprise.
"I am Galir, promised to the Chronicler," the old man said. "She tells us of a time yet to come when the gods first arrive, before they return to the beginning of time to plant the seeds that would grow into the People. I believe now is that time."
"I guess? Why the fuck would we show up in the middle of the timeline?" Karkat ran a hand through his hair, frustrated.
"The universe is fickle, even to the gods," Galir intoned. Kalani put a hand on his arm.
Karkat crossed his arms. "Fine. How are we going to get to the mountain?"
"First," Kalani said, "we need to return to the village!" Her red eyes gleamed with her smile. "A god has come to us, and we are about to undertake a voyage! It's a time to celebrate."
"Did you miss what I did to Alir?" Karkat asked. "I don't know what the fuck happened! I don't think I should be anywhere near a whole group of people until I figure this out."
To his utmost surprise, Kalani waved a hand like it was nothing. "We are blessed with a chosen of the Mender," she said lightly. "His eye is fine."
"I almost blew his eye up!" Karkat insisted. "What the fuck is wrong with you? I could have hurt his blood pusher for all I know!" He forced himself to take a deep breath and count to ten like Rose had told him to do when he felt himself getting worked up. He didn't want the something bad to happen to these people because of him! They were being idiotic dunderfucks poking around like they didn't care about danger, but they were trying to help.
What would Dave have done in this position? He probably wouldn't have gotten into it, because as soon as someone said 'Hey you're in the future' he could have fucked off back to the past, the lucky mumbling piece of shit.
The not-humans (he really needed to figure out what they called themselves) shared a glance and a few murmured words. Kalani stepped closer to Karkat, frowning slightly.
"If you don't want to join the village, you don't have to," she said. "We can give you a hut near the edge of the village. But it's important that we have a feast before going on a journey."
That at least sounded reasonable. "I don't give a fuck what you do, just let me figure my shit out."
"Good! Follow us, please?" she asked. Karkat did, reluctantly. It was his best chance of getting to the others and figuring out what the hell was actually going on. If he stayed out of the festivities, it couldn't be so bad.
The village was a small thing nestled in the trees, with barely a hundred residents. Karkat felt less and less sure of this plan as they got closer and he could feel all the heartbeats around him. There were adults, kids, and even wigglers all wandering around the village. This was definitely something from the humans. As far as Karkat knew, even in prehistory trolls had separated themselves by age group. Seeing an adult carrying a wiggler strapped to their chest would never not be weird.
The people in the village all had black hair and brownish skin, slightly lighter than Karkat's was now. They wore a mix of leather and cloth in styles that were generally simple, but occasionally had beads or colorful designs woven in. They all had grey horns in a variety of shapes, though Karkat noted that they were rarely as fanciful as troll horns could be. He didn't see any arrow-tips or elaborately split horns. Instead he saw a lot of horn carvings. Some cultists did that on Alternia, but it was something Karkat had never seen before. It was supposed to be extremely painful.
The eyes surprised him. They came in all sorts of colors and shades. Bright green, dark green, blues, yellows, reds, even pink. Lalonde had explained once that humans normally only had a few eye colors, and those of the humans in the Game were anomalous. These people seemed to have gone the troll route and had a plethora of eye colors - at least as many as trolls actually had.
As Karkat walked through the village, gaping at the strange people, they stared back. Some of the adults seemed to be trying to go about their business, but even they couldn't help but watch him out of the corner of their eyes. Most people didn't care and outright stared at him. A couple kids ran up to him before Kalani gently turned them back towards the watching adults.
There were more people in the village than Karkat had seen in sweeps. Plus he could still feel their hearts beating, constantly, like a headache that throbbed irregularly at the base of his skull. He was beyond grateful when Kalani led him to a small wood and straw hut and told him that he could stay there until the next day. The walls didn't entirely block out the sense that people were around, but it did block out their stares. Kalani lit a candle for him and left.
The inside of the hut was simple. There was a human-style bed on the ground - if you could even call it a bed. It was a sack of straw with a blanket over it. A firepit sat in the middle, carefully delineated by rocks, with a few clay bowls sitting near it. Clothing hanging on a wooden rack looked a lot like the clothing Kalani had been wearing: brown cloth with bright red beading around the neckline. Karkat wouldn't be surprised if this was her hive.
He could feel her heartbeat just outside of the hut, and hear her speaking to someone. The words were muffled enough that he had to strain to make sense of them, and he didn't really feel like doing that right now. Instead he decided to figure out what had happened to him.
His skin was brown. Okay, weird, he could deal with it. He wasn't as dark-skinned as Egbert or his dancestors, but he was a hell of a lot darker than Lalonde and Strider's sickly paleness. His claws were whitish-yellow now rather than fully yellow. At least he still had claws.
Karkat went to pull off his shirt and realized that it was not his usual sweater. Instead it was a soft rust-red cloth with a goddamn cape attached. How had he not noticed that earlier?
He pulled it off and held it out in front of him. Yeah, it was definitely the Knight god tier outfit. The stupid square cape front was enough to tell him that, even without the blood symbol emblazoned on the front of the shirt.
Was he really god tier now? How? He'd never done anything to deserve it. He'd never even found his quest bed, let alone died on it. He was one of the "lucky" assholes who'd only died once. Was that just some gift for finishing the game?
It did explain why he could suddenly use his powers, even if he didn't know <i>how</i> to. There was supposed to be some progression to this. If he'd been better at the game he would have finished his quests and slowly unlocked the abilities. Instead he'd largely ignored his quests in favor of helping Jack overthrow the Dersite royalty. By the time they reached the end of the game Karkat had no idea what Blood was supposed to do. Now he'd gotten the god mode all powers unlocked cheat without the guide book to tell him how to use it.
That could wait for now. Karkat had slightly more important things to do. He looked down his torso and found it mostly normal, except that his grubscars had disappeared. Karkat couldn't help the feeling of distress at that. It was one more thing to remind him he wasn't a troll anymore.
Reluctantly he checked further down. Thankfully everything south of his waist was the same. No weird human parts to be found.
What if the humans had changed to be like this too? Dave would be freaking the fuck out. Lalonde probably wouldn't care, but Dave had enough problems with human sexuality without suddenly changing into something that didn't have the same arrangement of parts. He'd seemed fine with it when the troll parts were on Karkat, but who knew how he would respond to changes like this? Karkat knew he had to get to the others as soon as he could. Rose might be able to help Dave chill out for a little while, but Karkat had to be there for him.
Karkat put his clothes back on and went to the door. He opened it just an inch. A small crowd had gathered outside. All of their eyes were trained on him. Karkat would never be used to that.
“Do you need anything, holiness?” Kalani asked.
“Uh, yeah. Could I get a mirror?”
She looked confused, but passed on his request to the rest of the onlookers. A few people dashed away, eager to help out. Soon one returned with a small hand mirror.
The first thing that caught his attention was his eyes. They were bright red, just like he had been afraid of. A chill ran down his spine; the old fear of showing his blood color in any way. These people didn't seem to mind, but Karkat felt exposed. He wished he had a pair of Dave’s stupid sunglasses.
As he had suspected, his horns were no longer bright yellow-orange. They hadn’t changed shape or anything, they were just a dull grey with keratinous ridges. He sort of missed the old color, but it could have been worse. He could have lost his horns altogether. Otherwise, his face still looked mostly the same. The same flat nose, sharp cheekbones, and impossibly tangled hair.
“Thank you,” Karkat said to the kid who’d supplied the mirror, and handed it back. The kid stammered something out and ran away.
“We're about to start the feast,” Kalani said. “Would you like to join us? We’ll meet the others who are going to take the journey with you.”
Karkat hesitated. He wanted to stay away from people until he could get used to his powers. But he didn’t want to sit in a hut and brood all night. It was probably good to talk to some people and figure out what the hell he was supposed to be doing.
Besides which, he was suddenly starving.
The food was fantastic. Karkat had survived on nothing but alchemized human and troll foods for the last three years, and mostly ate shitty packaged meals before then. The villagers gave him fresh fruits, vegetables, and real meat that had been hunted and slaughtered just recently. Everything tasted so good that Karkat wanted to bless every single person involved, if only he knew how that part of god-hood actually worked. For all he knew he would accidentally hurt someone else. So instead he thanked everyone profusely and told them all he’d never had anything that good.
After the feast, some people went to the middle of the crowd and began to sing and dance. It was a rousing song, if simple. Karkat had learned a little bit about music from Dave. There was some harmony going on between people with higher and lower voices that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The dancers whirled and pranced in motions that looked spontaneous, but flowed together too well to not be practiced.
While this was going on, a man walked up to Karkat’s table with a wiggler. What was the human word? Baby? It was probably more like one of those. Karkat couldn’t see any grub legs or carapace on it.
“Holiness, I have a question,” the man said. He gently held out the baby in front of him, towards Karkat. “My child’s eyes just recently changed, and we are unsure whether they belong to you or the Composer. Could you please tell us?”
Karkat looked from baby to adult. What did that mean? He glanced at Kalani, who had been by his side most of the night, explaining things to him. She just smiled.
“I’ll try,” Karkat said. The man placed the baby on the table. It stared up at Karkat with big, bright red eyes. He was never going to get used to seeing other people with eyes like that. Now, what the fuck was he supposed to do?
The eyes were a part of it. Kalani said she was “promised” to him, and she had red eyes. Now this kid might “belong” to him or “the Composer.” That had to be Dave. Karkat had to decide whether the kid was closer to him or Dave.
Out of instinct more than anything, he closed his eyes and placed a hand gently on the baby’s forehead. He could feel the baby’s small heartbeat, fast and strong. He could almost imagine that he saw the heart through the darkness, along with veins and arteries. It was a delicate puzzle of thin red lines that made up a small person. And between Karkat and the child was a delicate, silvery-red chain. Now that he was looking for it, Karkat could “see” the same chain between him and the figure of Kalani to his side. Her chain was thicker, brighter red. There was no such chain between Karkat and the baby’s father.
He opened his eyes. “They’re one of mine,” Karkat said, feeling a bit of warmth spread in his chest. It was a weird sensation. He had followers, people who belonged to him. What did that even mean?
“Come on, it’s time to meet the others,” Kalani said. She led Karkat up to a small group of people, including old Galir. There were three others, and Kalani introduced them in turn. Jarna was a large woman with impressively muscular arms and large, curling horns like Aradia’s. She was their primary huntress, and a devotee of the “Explorer.” Hashan was a slight and quiet man with bright green eyes and small, pointed horns, who was apparently Galir’s apprentice. The last one was a lithe person with bright red eyes named Tesh. They followed Dave, as it was apparently considered good luck to have one of his followers along for a mission for Karkat. For his part, Karkat thought that was more silly than anything, but he wasn’t going to argue with the weird superstition of a group of people that had given him such a warm welcome.
Eventually the festivities and introductions waned. Karkat bade his new companions good night and nearly collapsed with exhaustion into the straw bed.
They left the next morning, laden with supplies for the journey. Karkat couldn't help the relief that spread through him when the village faded into the trees. He hadn't hurt anyone the previous night, but he was still afraid that he could. A smaller group felt less overwhelming.
The trek would take a month. Most of it would be through forests and the occasional small village. Halfway through there was supposed to be a city called Gardinas. Karkat wasn't thrilled at the idea of going to a city - he'd never even gone to one on Alternia - but maybe their idea of a city wasn't as big.
His travelling companions passed the time by telling stories. Most of them were of heroes and ancestors: the founding of their village, a chief who slew a monster. They sang cheerful, mindless travel songs, and generally didn't seem to know how to talk to him. He was mostly okay with that; Karkat had no idea how to talk to people who only knew him as a god. He just wanted to get through this journey as fast as possible and get back to his friends.
Karkat had thought he would be used to sleeping on the ground after the meteor. He and the others had collapsed after movie nights with nothing but a blanket to protect them from the cold, hard floor. Somehow, he missed that. The ground outside was lumpy and uneven, and no matter how much he tried to brush away the sticks there was always one that ended up jabbing him in the ribs. The sleeping roll was made of straw, which itched even through his god tier clothes.
So he tossed and turned, longing for the days when he could fall asleep in a pile of random shit. Apparently that was a troll trait that the new people didn't inherit. Karkat had a complaint to make with whoever made that stupid game.
"- love at first sight!" Tesh's voice came from the still-smoldering firepit. They and Hashan were still up taking watch. That tended to mean swapping stories.
"Weren't they children?" Hashan asked. He sounded a little bored. "I don't think a childhood crush counts."
"It is if it lasts!" Tesh insisted. Then they gasped. "Oh, why don't we ask him in the morning?"
"Tesh!" Hashan said in a loud whisper. "Don't ask a god something like that!"
Okay, now Karkat definitely couldn't go to sleep.
"Ask me what?" he grumbled. Tesh practically squeaked. Both of their heartrates hit the roof. Karkat got up and sat down at an empty spot near the fire, trying to ignore Tesh and Hashan's stares. "I can't fucking get any sleep anyway, so I might as well schoolfeed a couple of grubs." Nevermind that both of them were at least three sweeps older than him. He was a god, he was allowed to say shit like that.
Inevitably Tesh broke the silence. "HowlonghaveyoubeenwiththeComposer?" she asked in a rush of syllables.
"Um. A year? Cycle? I don't know exactly how long any more," Karkat admitted. Then the rest of the conversation caught up to him. "Wait, you thought that was love at first sight?" He laughed, but cut it out when he saw their eyes bugging out.
"But that's what our stories say!" Tesh insisted.
Hashan nodded, looking surprised, "The records of the Chronicler say something similar."
Karkat huffed. "Well, they're wrong. I couldn't fucking stand Dave for a while. The first time I saw him with those stupid shades I thought he was a total douchebag. He said I was a shouty asshole, but that's pretty fair."
"But then why- how?" Tesh stammered.
"It just sort of happened? Vriska and Terezi were busy FLARPing all the time, and Rose and Kanaya were disgustingly inseparable, so we started hanging out and ragging on each other's movies. I found out he was actually a really sweet guy once you got past all the irony bullshit." He couldn't look at them when he admitted the rest of it. "And, well, he's hot. That didn't hurt."
That got him a giggle. Surprisingly, it didn't come from one of the people on watch. Instead Kalani was sitting up on her elbows, clearly listening from her sleeping pad. "It is so strange to think you're really just a child."
Karkat flushed. "Yeah, well. We did manage to make the universe your sorry ass is sitting in, so, you're welcome." The adults chuckled.
"How did the Chronicler and Aesthete meet?" Hashan asked.
"Rose and Kanaya, you mean? Okay, how much do you actually know about the Game? Because originally we were in separate universes..."
He spent the next few hours telling the adults all of their embarrassing teenage romance gossip. He told them about how Kanaya and Rose were perfectly snarky together. He explained John and Terezi's weird timeline bullshit, which he wasn't sure he really understood. He spent a while talking about the people they had lost: about how Equius and Nepeta were perfect for each other, as opposed to how Eridan and Feferi were miserable. Telling those stories almost didn't hurt. In a way, it was like saying goodbye.
When he finally crawled back onto his sleeping mat hours later, he fell asleep instantly.
They had packed enough food to last them a couple weeks if necessary, but not enough for the whole trip. That meant they would be hunting. Karkat had just nodded when they explained that to him initially. He didn't know anything about hunting. He never had to back on Alternia. Nepeta had tried to convince him to go out a few times, but he'd always been too scared of getting injured. That wasn't nearly as much of an issue here.
The first few times Jarna had gone out, she did so alone. She brought back small game, little hopbeasts and featherbeasts caught in snares to supplement their hard bread and dried fruit rations. A few days in, she announced that there were deer in the area.
Which was how Karkat found himself hiding in some brush, waiting for a deer to wander by so he could spook it towards the others. It felt more than a little ridiculous. He still wore his rust-colored god tier outfit, and was certain he stood out like a giant abscessed pimple. Jarna had insisted the animals wouldn't be able to see him, though, so he did as he was told and huddled in the bushes. The others were either in their own hiding places or were off trying to find the deer. At least, that's what Karkat assumed. For all he knew they had just told him to stay put to keep him out of the way while they did the actual hunting.
Okay, that wasn't entirely true. He could still feel someone else's heartbeat, far off towards what was apparently the limit of his range. Unfortunately, there were still a horde of other, smaller heartbeats fluttering around him, distracting him from what he was supposed to be doing. He tried to focus on hearing anything coming his way, but it was hard with all these stupid pittery animals going every which way all the time. He was going to be worse than useless. How was he supposed to coordinate with the rest of the group to catch this animal if he could barely pay attention to anything?
No, there had to be some way to deal with this. Dave had told him once about feeling time constantly, whatever that was like. He said it helped to have something else to do. It made sense. Karkat had noticed the heartbeats less when he was busy with something that was taking his full attention. Right now, that didn't seem to be an option. He was just sitting there, awkwardly waiting for an animal to show up so he could scare it. Maybe the Time thing was why Dave talked to himself a lot? That seemed like a bad habit to pick up right in the middle of a hunt.
Karkat was so caught up in his own thoughts and the cacophony of lives around that he almost didn't notice when something changed. Instead of one large pulse off the edge of his perception, there were now three. One of them was moving much faster than the others, and its heart was pounding. Something about it didn’t feel right. The rhythm wasn’t right for a person. How did he know that? No, it didn’t matter. They were coming towards him.
In an instant the maddening chorus of heartbeats around him faded away. The world was only the racing animal heartbeat, charging toward him.
The creature came into sight. It was a graceful form of long legs and branching antlers, leaping through the underbrush like it wasn’t even there. Karkat stood up and shouted at it. The deer ran past him. Karkat chased after it, swearing. He’d messed up again. It wasn’t supposed to go past him! It was supposed to be startled and run back towards the rest of the group! He just wanted it to stop.
There was a short, strangled sound up ahead followed by a thud. The pulse stopped.
Karkat caught up to the deer a second later. It laid motionless on the ground. Its large black eyes stared at nothing.
Had he done that?
Karkat sat down on the ground and stared at the deer. Jarna came up behind him, panting, her heart racing as much as the deer’s had been.
“Look at that! Not a scratch on him!” Jarna cheered. “That’ll make a good skin.” She ruffled Karkat’s hair. He fell to the ground, still staring at the deer.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” he choked out.
“Hm?” Jarna didn’t seem to notice his panic. She took out a knife and started cutting into the deer.
“I just wanted it to stop! I didn’t mean to kill it like that!” Karkat said. He could feel the others getting closer now. It felt claustrophobic, smothering.
“Are you okay?” Someone moved toward him, slowly. They placed a hand on his shoulder. He huddled closer in on himself. The person sat down next to him. “Hey, focus on me. Just breathe.” They led him through breathing slowly. His heart beat rapidly, stronger than all the others around him. That helped. The rest of the pulses around him flitted and wavered, but as he focused on his own they felt distant. It felt like it took an hour, but it probably only took a couple minutes before he calmed down.
“Hey, are you back with us?” Kalani asked. Her heartbeat was still there, but distant. It wasn't as distracting as it had been just moments before. Instead he mostly heard his own heart, beating so loud in his ears that it muffled everyone else.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I've got it now.” The others around them exchanged nervous glances, but Kalani grinned.
“Great! Jarna should be done with the deer in a few minutes. Let's get camp ready for her.”
Karkat allowed himself to be led away, still in a bit of a daze.
Over the next couple of weeks Karkat got better at ignoring other people's heartbeats when it wasn't necessary. The adults kept him busy when they were setting up camp and hunting, which helped. When they were just walking, they had been getting him involved in the conversation more. He spent a lot of time explaining what Alternia was like. He wasn't sure they believed him, but they asked questions and acted sympathetic all the same.
Eventually the woods began to thin. There were more villages and farms. They were getting closer to the more densely populated city.
The villagers instantly fell over themselves when they saw Karkat in his godtier pajamas. It was a little embarrassing, honestly. They had stuff to do; they didn’t need to throw a feast every time he showed up. After the second time it happened, Karkat asked for a change of clothes.
The outfit they managed to find for him was mostly made of rough cloth, grey with bright red beads on the collar and sleeves. The strange clothing was uncomfortable at first, but at least he didn't stand out as much.
Once they got closer to the city, Karkat was more and more thankful for the change of clothes. There were so many people. They had a wide variety of skin colors to go with their rainbow of eyes, but he felt the stares of the red-eyed people more heavily than any. Maybe it was just his imagination, or maybe it has to do with the thin chains he saw linked to them.
The city wasn't that impressive when Karkat compared it to Alternian cities he'd seen pictures and videos of. The majority of buildings were only a couple stories tall, and they were made of wood and brick. They didn't even have glass windows. But there were aspects of it that Karkat was sure were common to cities across all universes. People lived on top of one another, packed together closer than a pair of asscheeks in too-small leggings. Karkat felt overwhelmed by the number of heartbeats, racing, fluttering, pacing. He had to pull back and focus on his own heart and breathing.
Then there was the smell. The gutters reeked of trash and shit. The people sweated and clearly didn't bathe as much as they should. There were animals and weird foods and fires burning in the homes, all lending a strange mishmash of odors to the area.
“I hate cities,” muttered Hashan.
“Are they all like this?” Karkat asked. Hashan shrugged.
“This is the only city I’ve ever been to,” he admitted.
Jarna and Kalani kept talking quietly to themselves, but Tesh put an arm around Hashan’s shoulders with a big grin.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea. While those guys go find us a boat, why don’t we go to the temples?”
“Should we split up like that?” Karkat asked. “What if we get lost?”
Hashan shook his head. “We know how to get from the temples from the docks. They’ll be able to find us. The temple area is more… pleasant.”
He wasn't lying. It was instantly obvious when they reached the temples. For one, there was a massive park filled with flowering plants and lush trees. It was like an oasis in the middle of the stifling city. There were a couple of large buildings on either side of the park. One had a silvery dome, and both had intricately carved designs across their facades.
"The Cultivator is the city's patron, so the park is her's," Tesh explained. "That's the old temple," they pointed at the non-domed building. "The other one was finished five cycles ago."
They walked closer to the old temple. Karkat could pick out elaborate versions of his sign in the carvings, along with the other surviving trolls’ symbols and some signs that must have been related to the humans. It made him feel small. He'd thought about ruling like a tyrant god almost two sweeps and a lifetime ago. He'd given up on the idea after the humans' session. Now here was proof he'd made it after all and it just made him feel… unworthy. He was a kid. He had barely been able to lead eleven other kids, and most of them were dead now. How was he supposed to be a god of anything?
"Can we go in?" he asked.
They could. The inside was cavernous and quiet. There were a few people inside, quietly kneeling in front of statues or murmuring around a table in the center of the room. There were fifteen painted statues standing along the walls. They didn't really look like anyone. Based on the horns Karkat recognized Terezi near the front, but whoever carved the statue had never seen her face. She was wearing something that almost looked like the Seer robes mixed with a draped gown. The hood was pulled up over her face, blocking her eyes. In one hand she held what looked like a scroll, and in the other she had a sword.
"What's Terezi's title?"
"That's the Lawgiver," Hashan whispered. Karkat laughed.
"She must love that."
Someone walked up to them wearing all-white. She was tall with wavy horns and bright blue eyes.
"Excuse me, do you need help?" she asked, voice snippy.
Hashan bowed slightly to her. "Forgive us, priestess, we are visiting. My friend has never seen the grand temples. Can we see the shrine to the Advocate?"
Karkat felt a blush spreading over his face. "We don't have to!"
"Do you have anything to offer?" The woman looked them all over, eyes lingering on Hashan and Tesh's leathers.
"What the hell do you need an offering for?" Karkat asked. The woman's eyebrows raised.
"We must sacrifice to gain the gods' favor," she explained as if talking to a child.
"Is that something you require from everyone, or is it just visitors?" Karkat demanded.
The woman hesitated. "This is a holy place. Don't raise your voice or I'll be forced to make you leave."
"Oh no, not raised voices! I'm so sorry for getting mildly annoyed when you won't let my friends go see the statue they want! Does everyone need a stupid offering, or are you just saying that because you don't like how they look?"
The woman stared at him, eyes wide. She glanced around. The other people in the temple were looking at them. Some were being surreptitious, but most of the people were openly staring. The quiet prayers and whispers had stopped.
"I- I'm sorry. Please follow me." She turned on her heel and walked quickly to one of the far statues. Everyone was still staring when they followed her. Once she reached the statue the woman bowed formally.
"Thank you for visiting, I'll let you be."
As soon as she walked away Tesh started giggling. "Oh, I bet the Composer will love a line about that. 'What a great fool; The priestess got schooled'... I'll work on it."
Karkat ignored them. The statue in front of him was a tall, imposing figure with its head held high and a confidence Karkat himself could only pretend to have. Its horns were larger than his were in real life, Karkat noted with frustration. There was a sickle on its belt, but it's arms were open, palm up, as if welcoming the viewer.
"It looks nothing like me," Karkat complained.
"We'll ask someone to make a shouting version," Hashan quipped.
"You should. I haven't spent my entire life yelling at people for some ignorant nookwipe to make me look like Kankri."
The other statues were much the same. None of them really looked like the person they were meant to represent. They were garbed in stylized god tier outfits and had clearly symbolic items or gestures. Karkat still wasn’t sure what to make of the horns on the human gods. He supposed that one day he’d see if they were correct or not.
The boat trip wasn’t long, thankfully. Karkat found out that he got mildly -- mildly, he swore! -- motion sick on a bobbing boat in the middle of a huge river. The sailors thought it was the funniest thing ever. In short, it hadn’t been a very fun trip.
Then they were on a road again. There wasn’t a large city in this area, but there were a bunch of small farming villages scattered around. Karkat was glad they weren’t tromping through underbrush anymore, though it was harder to hunt for supplies here. It wasn’t the right season for harvest, apparently, so the locals weren’t very amenable to trade.
He found out just how un-amenable they were one rainy evening, when Hashan tried negotiating for a night in a farmer’s barn. The woman slammed the door in his face. Karkat thought that was the end of it. He’d resigned himself to a night camping out in the wet and cold.
Seven people walked up behind them. When Karkat turned to face them, he saw a slightly distant crowd carrying farming tools and a torch.
“That doesn’t look friendly,” Karkat announced. The rest of his group turned and noticed them.
“Shit, they think we’re scouts,” Jarna said.
“Fantastic, what the hell does that mean?”
“Some tribes raid places like this,” she said. “They’ll send in scouting groups to see how many people there are."
"What do we do? Run?" Karkat asked.
The door opened. Karkat didn't have to look to know there was a crowd of people there, too.
"I don't think we can run," Hashan said. He spoke to the farmers, "Please, we don't mean any harm! Let us go peacefully, and we'll never come by here again."
An arrow at their feet was the only answer. The farmers charged.
Karkat lost track of the others. He was too focused on dodging some kind of hellish cutting tool. He got a scrape along his shoulder, stinging pain and flowing blood. Karkat wished he had his scythe. He could almost feel it's comfortable grip in his hand.
No, he could feel it. The blood running down his arm coalesced into a bright red, wickedly curved scythe. The girl holding the farming implement looked at him with fear in her eyes and wound up for another strike.
This was stupid.
"Stop!" Karkat shouted. He reached out to their pulses like he did to the Alir, to the deer. He didn't wrench at them or force them to stop. Instead he held tight to the pulses, holding them still. Everyone froze. "Stop it, all of you! What the fuck is the point of any of this? I get that you're scared! How is attacking random travellers going to help you stay safe? If anything it just makes you more likely to get assholes coming around to start revenge cycles! We are peaceful fucking travellers who just wanted a place to settle our asses for a single night before skipping off on our merry way and never seeing your sorry faces again. We might have even gone on and been like 'Wow what a great place, glad they let us stay!' Instead you baselessly attack us just in case we were trouble? Why?"
Karkat let everyone go. They fell to their knees or wavered on their feet, but made no move to start attacking each other.
"Who are you?" one of the farmers asked. She was staring more at his horns than his face. Karkat remembered the statue from the city, with its over-large horns.
"Just someone who wants to get some fucking sleep."
"I- I'm very sorry, sir," another farmer said. "We just got attacked last month. We've been... hasty."
"Wow, no shit. Look, I'm tired. I don't want to fight, and you really don't want to fight us. Maybe the next time travellers come by you'll take a moment to talk instead of assuming they're here to attack you." With the danger passed, Karkat's sickle turned back into blood and splashed to the ground. He picked up his bags and walked back towards the main road.
The mountain rose before them, looming above the hills around it. A single thin line snaked up its surface, showing the stone trail to the summit.
"This is it," Kalani said. "The Mountain of the Gods."
“Can you come with me?” Karkat asked.
“No,” Kalani answered. “The questor must take the journey alone, if possible.” She turned to him. “I’m honored to have met you.”
“Don’t start with that again,” Karkat grumbled. “I’m a masterful asshole the likes of which the world has never seen and you know it. Maybe Future-Me is less of a douche, but I doubt it. I’ve talked to enough Future-Mes to know that me being an asshole is one of the laws of reality. You -”
Karkat squawked as Tesh pulled him into a tight hug.
“Oh, stop it. You’re a nice guy in a grumpy way. We’ll miss you too,” they said before letting him go.
"Okay, yes, I'll miss your weird, overly curious about my relationships ways. And, thanks," Karkat said. "I wouldn't have made it here without your help. All of you."
He said his goodbyes. Everyone was tired, clearly not looking forward to the long trek back. They gave him handshakes and hugs and then watched him start the way up the trail.
A third of the way up, he took a break to change back into his god tier clothes. He left the tunic and leather boots at a trail shrine to John.
Even though Karkat had been walking for weeks, he hadn't been walking up mountains. The trail was steep in places. He had to scrabble almost vertically up one rise, snagging his claws on the stone steps. All around him the forest was alive with insects and birds singing. It would have been a pretty place if he hadn't been wheezing through half the trail.
He reached the summit near dusk. The setting sun stained the clouds above him orange and purple. Golden light illuminated a giant circle of standing stones with a raised platform in the center. Each stone had a symbol carved into it. He went around them until he found the stone with his symbol.
Karkat touched the stone. The engraved symbol flared bright red. Behind it, the platform glowed. When he walked up to the podium he recognized the series of lines etched upon it.
"This had better not be sending me on another gogdamn quest," he muttered, and stepped on the transportalizer.
The room was dimly lit. Torches flickered around the walls, casting carved stone into stark relief. Karkat could make out imagery on the carvings, but he didn’t know what it meant. They seemed to show people presenting others with things, or fighting. It wasn’t entirely clear. On the far wall was a tapestry with his sign stitched out in bright red. Beneath it was a tall, simple stone chair with his symbol carved into the back. The hall was spacious, for all that it was dimly lit. The lighting gave it a moody, ominous atmosphere.
“What the fuck is this?” Karkat grumbled. He walked up to the center of the room, where there was some kind of stone table. There was a bowl on top of the table. From the warmth he was feeling within it, he was pretty sure it was filled with blood. He dipped a claw in it. Bright red blood stuck to his claw, glistening in the light.
“It’s the fucking antechamber, you infected ass pustule,” said another voice. Karkat looked up. It was another him, unsurprisingly, sitting in the stone chair. He looked like he was about five sweeps older. The older Karkat had broad shoulders and a surprising amount of muscle on him. He was wearing some kind of white tunic with bright red gems on the collar. Karkat’s symbol was stitched around the hems of the tunic in red.
“It’s something out of Rose’s human rainbow drinker books,” Karkat said to Future-Him. “When the fuck did I become human-goth?”
Future-Him rolled his eyes. “I didn’t make it. It’s what the kids want. The 'adherents of the Advocate', I mean.”
“It’s pretentious as fuck.”
“Thanks for your input, dumbass, I’ll be sure to not give a shit.”
“This is stupid. I’m not here to argue with you,” Karkat snapped. “Can Dave send me back to when I need to be or not?”
Future-Him huffed, “You don’t want to ask anything about the future? Nothing about what’s happened in the last eight hundred years?”
The idea tugged at him. What had happened between him and the others in all those years? Had anyone broken up? How could they deal with all that time together? But honestly, he had to admit he didn’t want to know and spend the next few centuries worrying about it. He just wanted to be back with his friends.
“No thanks,” Karkat said. “I’ll deal with whatever happens without your help, thanks. If the last month has taught me anything, it’s that I can deal with bullshit.”
To his surprise, the future-him smiled. “You’re sure about that?” he asked. “Just wait, you little shitstain.” He got up and walked over to the table. Future-him held his hand over the bowl of blood. It flashed bright red.
A red scratch opened in midair next to Future-Karkat. To literally no one’s surprise, a Dave stepped through. He was wearing the same kind of gauzy white tunic that Future-Karkat was, except that it was lined with gear-shaped designs. He had long, curving horns with deep notches in them. Future-Dave looked taller than Karkat remembered, less gangly and more sure of himself. He was still wearing his aviators, because no force in any universe could separate them from Dave Strider’s face.
“Hey, babe, what’s up? Got me right in the middle of a downright nasty rap-off with Calliope over Ganor the Brave’s soul. Aradia’s only gonna let me off for so long, time travel or-- Oh,” Future-Dave blathered for a moment before setting his sights on Karkat. “Oh, shit, hey, Kidkat. Karkid. You weren’t kidding about ending up far as fuck from the rest of us. Does this mean all the other trolls are gonna show up soon?”
Future-Karkat patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m sure that Gurthok’s immortal soul will be fine with Calliope.”
Future-Dave draped his arm over Future-Karkat’s shoulders and all but hung off of him. Dave was a good few inches taller than Karkat, making the scene even more ridiculous. “But he was so cool, Karkat. He wrote an actual saga about a cat. It’s three hours long and in perfect dactylic hexameter. Can’t Aradia be the time travel mule this time?”
“You’re already here, you ridiculous musically impaired barnacle,” Future-Karkat grumbled without heat. “Besides, she’s busy with the souls of the departed.” Dave sighed dramatically.
“Only for you, Karkles. Or kid-you. Gotta beat all these Karkats off with a stick, they’re coming out of the woodwork like weeds. Ain’t no weedkiller gonna get this one down, no sir. He’s gonna chew up that weedwhacker like it’s made out of candy.”
“Oh sweet fucking horrorterrors, even hundreds of years in the future you can’t use metaphors that make any goddamn sense,” Karkat groaned. “Here’s the real ultimate question: how the fuck do I manage to put up with you for this long? How have I not just stabbed my hear ducts into oblivion? Please tell me, oh wise Future-Me.”
Future-Karkat snorted. “You fucking love it, you overdramatic infant. Try telling me you aren’t waiting on the edge of your seat to hear Past-Dave’s half-baked, innuendo-laden drawl.”
“Excuse you, my drawl is fully-baked,” Dave interjected.
“As fun as it is to listen to you two bicker, I have somewhere else to be,” Karkat insisted. “Can we get this over with so both of you can go back to being disgustingly quadranted without me having to bear witness to it?”
Dave kissed Future-Karkat on the nose. It was entirely too cute and incredibly weird. Karkat looked away as they whispered to each other. Then Dave walked up and ruffled Karkat’s hair.
“C’mon, Kidkat, let’s get you back to Past-Me for intense sloppy makeouts. Uh, I mean you two. Not me. I won’t be involved, except as Past-Me. You know what, how about I shut up and just let you ride the Strider Express. Wait, not like that.” Future-Dave got progressively more and more red as he talked.
Karkat facepalmed. “Just get me the hell out of here so I don’t have to listen to you awkwardly hit on me while other me is over there watching!”
Future-Dave hooked his arm in Karkat’s own and pulled his turntables out of thin air. He spun one of the records, flicked a couple switches, and everything around them disappeared.
Everything was bright.
There was a field in front of him, filled with sweet-smelling flowers. Karkat stumbled back, grimacing from the sudden change in light. Future-Dave was already gone, that bastard. Karkat was alone in the middle of a field in the past.
Only, he could hear other heartbeats. They were strong and steady and just past the treeline to his left.
Karkat ran towards them. He ignored the underbrush grasping at his legs, his cape. He nearly tripped on a tree root, but just swore and kept going.
This clearing was much smaller than the meadow, enough that the trees formed a green-dappled roof high above. Nine people were clustered in the middle of the clearing, hugging and talking and crying.
“Dave!” Karkat shouted. There was a moment when all of the people stopped and looked in his direction, but Karkat only cared about one. Dave looked almost exactly the same as he remembered, but he had the same swooping, notched horns as his future-self. He stared at Karkat, as if stunned for a moment. His heart raced.
"Karkat?" Dave's voice wavered.
For once Karkat didn't speak. He ran towards his friends, towards his boyfriend.
Dave flew to him and wrapped him in a warm embrace. He smelled like coming home, familiar and comforting. His lips were slightly chapped but his kiss was sweet. Karkat was exactly where he needed to be.
"Almost didn't recognize you with the palette swap, man. But nobody else would have those little nubs, that kind of cute only happens once," Dave mumbled. His cheeks and ears were flushing bright red. Everyone was staring and trying to act like they weren't.
"Fuck off, I have perfectly acceptable horns. Of course you'd wind up with ridiculous ones," Karkat grumbled. Then he facepalmed. "Flying. I forgot about flying. I dragged myself up that entire mountain!"
"Okay, I have got to hear about that. You want flying lessons? I will show you the world and keep you from falling on your ass."
"Sorry to interrupt you getting your heartfelt reunion," Rose interrupted, "but does this mean that the other trolls will be arriving soon?" Like Dave, Rose looked the same as she ever had, but with long, straight horns like needles.
"I suppose? Future-me said we ended up further in the future than you guys."
"Good, thank you. You may commence sucking face with my brother in full view of everyone." Rose smirked at Dave, who was turning more red by the second.
"Thanks for your permission," Karkat replied, and did just that.
It had been a long month, and a long couple sweeps before that. Karkat was finally home.
Again, thanks to Jo and Angelo for doing such wonderful art.