The room was pitch black, save for a nearly indiscernible ambiance that glowed low and dim like the twilight right before the true darkness of night. The walls and floor of the room oozed with a viscous substance that stank of fermentation and rubber. At the end of the room, upon a throne of black stone, sat a diminutive figure from whence the slime seemed to originate, itself drenched in it to the point of blackness save for the singular glow of one lavender eyelight, shining like poison in the darkness.
The tentacle that held Arum inescapably tight (and Arum was as alarmed at that as anything else, knowing himself to be of unparalleled strength until five minutes ago) dragged him forward in a motion that would have given a normal creature whiplash, from one end of the room to the other, to hang in the air in front of the slimy creature that regarded him like some trinket on display. The slime-covered beast uncrossed and re-crossed its legs, its long slender phalanges interlocking thoughtfully with the index pointed up. Its grin creeped wider, wider, the slit of intelligence going wide and narrow in bursts of sick glee.
"A horror type, I presume, given you have yet to perish," intoned the voice that might have sounded like the whisper of the void to someone who had never heard the void speak. Arum could feel more squirming masses curl around his skull, probing into the inside through the open top where his cranium had shattered. He struggled harder, shuddering at the uncomfortable, invasive mess that clogged his senses with the scent of something just on the right side of chemical and just on the wrong side of fragrant, thick and choking and heady.
"fuck you!" was Arum's reflexive retort.
"How vulgar," Said the voice again, the barest hint of something melodic in the sound.
"i'll show you vulgar-" Arum snarled, only to be cut off by a slimy, wriggling mass being shoved between his teeth. He tried to bite down on it, but the damn thing was too thick. It tasted like rotten apples and rubber piping, reminding him of how hungry he was.
"That is not how one speaks to their King," the creature said, leaning forward. "To their God." When Arum didn't have the room in his mouth to reiterate that the freak could go fuck himself with his own creepy tentacles, the creature merely continued. "I am Nightmare, Lord of Darkness and Despair. And you, mortal, are my newest minion, to do as I bid and act as I desire. Be grateful, since the only other fate which awaited you was a death to match the universe that bore you."
Arum didn't quite understand the implication at first. His universe was fine, for what it was. Just as bleak and empty and hopeless as always. A few blue strings weren't some sign of the apocalypse.
His brother was fine. Arum was going to go back and-
Who the fuck was he kidding? Arum didn't have hope like that. He knew what the screaming had meant. He knew what the strange destruction meant. He knew that he had lost everything again.
As if to prove him wrong, a new tentacle tapped on Arum's sternum, just above the coils pinning his arms to his sides, and pulled in a way that no one had been given permission to pull. To Arum's horror, his SOUL came out, thrumming dim and hopeless, oozing the mess of void matter that kept him alive.
Side by side, it was easy to see the difference between the true darkness of the void, and whatever the fuck this fucker was drenched in: the void was pitch black, so black it could not reflect any light back, could not show shape or form. Beside it, the dark ooze that stank so strong was a deep purple, shimmering where it did not outright glow with a kind of muted life.
Nightmare clicked what one could assume by the sound was his tongue. "How messy..." The hypocrite complained, his tendril brushing void ooze off the surface of Arum's soul to inspect. "No matter. Even this will not stop me."
Somehow, Arum felt a hard tug from the inside of his being, his soul being emptied somewhat of the void, only to be replaced by the dark ooze Nightmare created. The void was a part of Arum, but now so was the slime that burned and stank of decay in a way the void did not.
Arum's soul, soiled and oozing, was returned to him, and he was dropped to the disgusting floor. "Welcome to the Citadel of Despair, minion."
Arum coughed, thrashing as he regained his balance and orientation. He rose to his feet, and then lunged, aiming to knock out a few of those gleaming teeth.
His wrist was caught in Nightmare's tendril. "Rule number one, minion: You will conduct yourself in a way that furthers my best interests."
"fuck you!" Arum snarled. What other words could he possibly have for someone who had violated him so utterly?
Something wet and acrid struck Arum from behind. It did not feel like a particularly powerful strike, but his skull rang and his vision blurred nonetheless. The last thing he heard was an almost disappointed sigh from the diminutive creature, and the last thing he saw was his scowl.
That had been weeks ago.
To Arum's great rage, he could not seem to escape the shitty black castle that constantly stank of cider and bad memories. Whenever he left, he was quickly found by the blue-string-throwing freak, never enjoying more than a few days of peace.
Arum might have been fine living life on the run, but some part of him balked at doing it at the expense of the universes destroyed in his escapes. All he could think about was how his brother would hate it, how much food he wasted by leading to their destruction. The people could fuck, off but the food...
Just thinking about all the sandwiches lost to the apocalypse was making him hungry.
Arum turned a corner to stalk down the empty halls, taking his energy out the only way he could. He took great vindictive pleasure stomping on the delicate black tiles, watching them scratch, eating the imprint of his shoe when they didn't outright shatter. He knew they would heal themselves again, but that only meant that he could break them all over.
He hated the castle. He hated the son of a bitch who controlled it. He hated how it always smelled like food and nobody else seemed to notice. He hated that there was not a single bite to eat unless he played Simon Says with the fuckers. Trying to just raid the kitchen meant a fight. A fight drew attention. Attention meant watching that fucker waste all the food. After the third time, Arum decided it wasn't worth the trouble.
Fuck, he was hungry.
Another turn, heading up the stairs into the empty second floor. The only furniture were a few empty bookshelves, which meant Arum had to take his anger out on the stupid walls with their stupid artsy shapes. His knuckles bled a little after punching stone, but Arum was beyond caring. The fact he smelled like rotten fruit was more annoying.
The whole damn castle was a tease. He hated it. He hated it so fucking much-
"arum," called Cross's voice.
Arum turned. "fuck right the hell off!" He snapped back.
Cross regarded him with the same guarded reserve as usual, the shadows under his sockets as deep as ever. "we're going on a raid. come take point."
"why the hell should i?" Arum demanded, even though he was already making his way for the simp.
He already knew the answer: raids meant food.
"do or don't, i gave the order." Cross said. "but it won't be me you answer to in the end."
They both knew it would be Nightmare.
Arum flipped Cross off, pushing passed him on the way back down to the ground floor where he knew the portal would be opened. Arum could go, eat his fill, and come back without that glitchy bastard catching a whiff of him by using it.
He had nothing better to do.
The prospect of food was so tempting.
The food had been worth it: Arum sauntered out of a pastry shop, a bit of creamy pie filling still clinging to his teeth. He licked it up, sighing softly at the last lingering taste. No snail pie, unfortunately, but after so long of living on scraps it was heaven. He felt full, and at peace, the most content he could hope to ever feel in his horrible, tragic life. Honestly, he could go for a good lay, but like hell he trusted anyone to get that close to his-
"Woah, you're new!" Called a loud voice.
Arum jumped, looking around.
At first, he didn't see anyone, then there was a blur of color, and a very tiny, short, dirty imp of a skeleton ran up to stand in front of him. He had a large tool that looked like a giant paint brush strapped to his back, and a splotch of black on his white cheek, under where his eyelights flashed and shifted both shape and color. The weirdo took a vial off his bandolier, popping the cork to sip at the orange liquid inside. "Very new! And tall! Hi!"
"what the hell are you?"
"I'm Ink! Nice to meet you!" The guy, Ink, offered his empty hand. Arum hesitated to shake it, less than incentivized to trust anyone. Before he had a chance to make up his mind, the little imp darted forward and started circling Arum like a cheery little vulture. There was something unsettling about his expression, like a mask that had learned how to pretend it was alive. Arum could almost believe it was the void behind those colorful eyelights, that whatever power gave them life was only holding the emptiness at bay by a spider's thread and a prayer.
"...i asked what the hell you were, not who," Arum decided to say, not sure if the answers were the same in this case.
"Oh? I'm Ink! I'm the guardian of the multiverse!" Ink answered, tugging at Arum's ripped clothes. "Did you get in a fight? Want me to fix these?"
Arum yanked himself away. "don't fucking touch me."
Ink stared at him, then shrugged. "OK."
Arum made to return to the portal, wondering how much longer he had before short dark and murder-y showed up. Ink followed after him, closer than Arum was comfortable.
"You're going the wrong way," Ink advised with a trill.
"how the fuck would you know?"
"Because that's towards where Nightmare's crew is gathering!"
"I wouldn't go there if I were you. Or... maybe I would?" Ink chuckled.
Arum glared at him. "what do you know about nightmare?"
"Um..." Ink paused, looking at the old brown scarf he had wound around his neck, scanning the surface front and back. Arum could see there were black squiggles, which might have been notes painted on the fabric from the way Ink went over them. Arum thought the very idea of painting notes onto a scarf was rather stupid, given how easily they could be washed off. "Oh, I know lots! He is Dream's brother, he is rather rude, he stirs up trouble!"
Arum shook his head. None of that was particularly new or helpful. He kept walking, hoping the little imp gremlin left him be.
Ink kept following him. "So are you Nightmare's new recruit? Is that why you're headed to his meetup?"
"none of your fucking business."
"Why do you guys work for Nightmare anyway?"
"you act like we have a choice in the matter," Arum hissed, stopping to make a half hearted jab at Ink's head. "fucking asshole, don't ask stupid questions!"
Dodging to stand at his other side, Ink regarded Arum with that inscrutable perkiness. "Oh." As if he hadn't known, or considered. Ink took another vial from his bandolier and sipped from it, eyelights tinting green and cyan, flashing orange at odd intervals.
Arum flipped him off and ran. The last thing he needed was whatever bullshit the creepy imp was trying to drag him into. He had enough problems.
Arum might have hated it, but he went out of his way to go on as many raids as possible. Any opportunity to eat. Over time, the raids became the only thing Arum had to look forward to, the only light in his dark and horrible existence.
And eventually, even those were ruined.
The stupid imp man started showing up, and seemed hellbent on making Arum crazy. Ink would follow him around, asking him stupid questions, or talking incessantly about stupid things that Arum didn't give a shit about and refused to pay much attention to. All the while, the stupid little imp man kept nursing those damn vials of colorful... something.
Cheerful fucking goblin bastard that he was, neither Arum's threats nor his repeated attempts to beat the shit out of him seemed to phase Ink in the least. Arum clocked him full on the mouth once and the fucker just kept on talking like it didn't happen.
It had to have been the tenth time they ran into each other that Arum screeched, "why the fuck do you keep following me?!"
Ink paused, smiling that mechanical smile as his eyelights flickered to yellow shapes. "Because you're new, and interesting, and that usually means something... you know?"
"so what, i'm some sort of novelty to you?!" Arum snarled. He stomped forward, looming over the little asshole. "you think bugging me is fun?!"
"Isn't fun subjective?"
"i'll show you fucking subjective-" Arum hissed, reaching on instinct to grab at Ink's chest, snatching a few of his precious snack vials.
Ink froze, his eyelights flickering between exclamation points and squares. "Give those back," said his voice, more monotone than Arum had ever heard it before.
"fuck you, these are mine now!" And before Ink could do anything about it, Arum popped the top off his stupid yellow drink and chugged it.
He had drunk half the vial before he realized it tasted like paint.
Arum spat out the vial, spitting out what of the yellow paint was still in his mouth, gagging on the chemical taste. "what the fuck-" he started, sure he was about to begin a rather long chain of swears, when the strangest thing happened: Arum started to feel happy! There was no reason for it, nothing nice happened, he just felt good and fuck the rest apparently. Smiling, uncaring for the metallic tang in his mouth, Arum looked at Ink (who was still shorter than him, even when kneeling). "what happened??"
Ink took a sip of his green drink (which Arum assumed was more paint). "You drank my paints. Can I have them back?"
"oh. yeah, sure..." Arum offered the near empty yellow back, as well as. the second one he'd grabbed (filled with pink, oddly enough). Ink put them back in his bandolier, patting them with something that mimicked affection. Arum rubbed some leftover yellow paint that was stuck to his fingers off on his pants. "so. why do i feel..?"
"Feel?" Ink sipped more orange, eyelights going to starbursts. "You feel something?! What do you feel??"
Ink surged forward, getting strangely close. He clasped Arum on the shoulders. "You do?! Wow!! Thats so cool! And new! Nobody ever seems to feel things from my paints except me!! And Dream, but he's weird. That makes you weird! In a cool way! Wow! Wanna drink more with me?? I got orange! Its excitement! Or the pink is affection! And the cyan and green are both kinds of calm but the nuance is there and you just kinda gotta feel it but i dunno what words would-" Ink froze like a machine that needed to buffer, his eyelights going out briefly before coming back in a swirl. "...What was I saying?"
"you were asking me to sniff paint with you."
"Was I? Why was that?"
"because drinking it made me happy?" Arum was still pretty happy, but he couldn't help being confused. Did Ink have memory issues or something? He never stuck around long enough to notice before...
"It did?!?!" Ink drank more orange. "Wow! Thats so cool! And weird! In a cool way!! You wanna drink more?? I have lots of colors! Like or-"
"got anything for anger?" Arum cut Ink off before he could repeat his whole rant again.
"Oh, anger is red, I don't have any red." Ink waved it off. "I could probably go find some, but you'd be gone before i got back. I have pink though! It's affection!"
Arum was starting to wonder if the happy juice was ever going to wear off. It was strange, feeling good and pleased while an undercurrent of rising alarm bubbled in the back of his mind, in the back of his soul. "when will this wear off?"
"Um..." Ink looked at the vial. "How full was this when you drank it?"
"Then probably a few hours. If I drink that much I just cough it up, but you're different, you just absorbed it..." Ink's eyelights spun like stars. "Thats so cool!"
Arum definitely couldn't go back to the castle as he was. He had the distinct impression it wouldn't be a good idea. He couldn't stop smiling, for fucks sake! "you said you could go somewhere for the angry paint? could you take me with you to get it?"
"I- could?" Ink thought about it. "Yeah, I could! But would you want to come?"
"Definitely." Anything to avoid walking around like a smiley loon back at the castle.
Ink whooped, jumping to his feet. "Then lets go!" He took Arum's wrist in one hand, his oversized broom in the other, and with a great swing of his arm, left a splash of orange paint on the ground. Before Arum knew what was happening, Ink dragged him into the paint, and they both sank into the color.
On the other side, Arum had to take a moment to sit down and remind his body he wasn't a fucking newtonian fluid. Not only was it disorienting as fuck to fall down in one instant and be seamlessly falling up in another, like he managed somehow to pass through a planet's center of gravity without being crushed, but in the instant of that passing he swore he could feel himself be liquified!
Ink, unbothered (or perhaps so alien that it was natural for him), hummed a cheery little tune as he started gathering grass and rolling it up into a ball.
Arum looked around. They were in a tiny meadow, surrounded by trees taller than he had ever seen, as tall as buildings, as tall as skyscrapers. It was silent, lacking even the ambience of birds or insects, as if the natural world were holding its breath.
At the very least, the whole process knocked the happy juice out of his system (or maybe squeezed it out -- Arum probably wasn't doing himself any favors going down that train of thought).
When he had himself under control, Arum looked up just in time to see Ink take his ball of grass, weeds, and flowers, and crush it in his fists. Red liquid seeped between his fingers, dripping down his metacarpals and into the vial he was holding under his hand, as if instead of plants, he'd crushed some sort of animal, draining it of its lifeblood.
When Ink opened his hand, it was covered in the same color, shiny and wet with it. Ink brought his hand up and licked it clean, smiling until he wasn't, the cheeriness of his disposition shifting to a dark scowl.
"did you just make... ink? out of grass???" Arum asked, hoping that that was what he was seeing and not that Ink brought him to a world where plants bleed.
"Got a problem with that?" Ink asked, his upbeat tone pitched down to something with more bite. "You wanted red, so I made some fucking red. Maybe be grateful before I beat your god damn face in."
Arum wasn't on that yellow swill anymore, but he felt his grin quirk up anyway. He liked this Ink a hell of a lot better. "ya make it out of grass..?"
Ink stood up, corking the vial and twirling it absently in his hands. "No, you fucking idiot. This isn't ordinary paint: its liquified creativity. It's the stuff the multiverse is made of, just as important as the boring code. I can extract it out of anything." He switched to playing with the vial two handed, balancing it end to end with the tips of his fingers. "Plants. Water. People." He side eyed Arum at the last one.
The implications of that made Arum recoil, trying not to be sick.
"The color isn't dependent on what I make it from, but where that something originated," Ink continued, getting bored and approaching Arum, hand outstretched to offer the vial. "This universe makes red. It doesn't matter if I use the grass, the water, or the fucking squirrels, they'll all come out red."
Arum stared at the vial, before swiping it. He had drunk the yellow. What the hell did Ink make the yellow out of, what the fuck- "why are you telling me this?!" He snarled.
"You asked!" Ink snapped back.
Arum got the impression that Ink wasn't particularly good at lying or secrets.
"Besides, what are you going to do about it? It's not like anyone will believe you."
...Never mind, he's just a god damn freak. ...He liked that. Popping his all vegan paint open, Arum took a shot. The rage hit him like a lightning bolt, so strong and sudden he nearly crushed the vial. "fuck you!"
"No, fuck you!" Ink spat.
Arum put the vial away in his pocket, lunging to attack Ink with his bare hands. He needed a god damn fight! He aimed a punch right for Ink's stupid face.
Ink took it, but it felt like punching an iron wall. Ink barely moved, only turning his head to one side. He spat out black ink, his eyelights two crosshairs, seeking their target. With a cry of his own, ducked under Arum's arm to get in close enough to punch him in the spine.
It felt like a wrecking ball to the gut.
Arum loved it.
Ducking low, because his opponent was so stupidly short, Arum sent out a flurry of punches, rapid fire, to Ink's face and chest. Ink blocked with his elbows and forearms, barely making a sound. Arum could hear his bones cracking under the sounds of impact. He mixed it up with a sweep kick, but Ink dodged, using his momentum to upward strike kick arum in the jaw. Arum felt his mandible dislocate, delicious, familiar agony.
He backed up only long enough to pop the thing back in place. Then, Arum was right back on the attack.
The exchange of blows lasted for only fuck knows how long; long enough for Arum to break a sweat, long enough for the sky to go dark and the earth to bear the scars of it beneath their feet. The meadow was ripped to pieces from the force of their bodies being flung, from their heels digging in for grounding, from missed punches and kicks that had to terminate somewhere.
The red in Ink's system had worn out a while ago, his stupid perky grin returning in spades, perfect for punching. His own attacks did not change, each strike as powerful and each block as indomitable as before. Ink did not seem to tire, or give much care to where his body was breaking apart. He only stopped when he could physically not continue, crumpling like a puppet with its strings cut into the grass, breathing heavy.
Arum wasn't far behind, stumbling before dropping down beside him, chest heaving in violent, desperation drags. "fuck."
Ink hummed wordlessly, still smiling. "That was- was fun!" He decided between gasps for air he probably didn't need.
Arum looked at him, his tiny body beaten to hell, covered in black stains from all the spitting and vomiting and bleeding he'd been doing, grinning like a fool with gold and orange stars in his eyes as he wiggled his dislocated arm back into place.
Arum really couldn't help himself. He reached out, grabbing that joint and shoving it where it belonged, so he could pull Ink closer by it and kiss him.
Ink pulled back, holding up a finger. "Wait-" he gasped out, fumbling for his bandolier. He pulled out the pink vial, taking a shot from it before putting it back. "ok, now-"
Arum interrupted him, viscerally pleased with the reciprocation this time around, and too tired, too sated, to ask the stupid question of why.