The chill February air whistled outside the windows of the home. The shades were set against the night, sealed with tape to block out any sight of the outside. Within, two people sat vigil, silent in a room illuminated by a single sputtering candle. One, a young man, whose dark skin absorbed the light of the candle and left him a silhouette in the space, stared fixedly at the candle with keen green eyes, watching as it burned down the wick. The other, a slender teenaged girl, was idly paging through a book. The light played across her hair, which darkened from blue to black as the shadows passed over it. She had the comfortable set of someone who had been here for a while, and was ready to remain there for some time.
The young man at last straightened, glaring at the girl. “You said you’d fix this,” he growled. “And we’ve been here for hours.” He was broad-shouldered, and, if standing would have towered over her, but he had his arms tucked in, and gave the corner nervous glances once his eyes were away from the candle.
“Not the witching hour yet,” the girl said softly. She kicked her foot in the air. “It’s not going to show up until the witching hour. She lifted her head from her book and smiled at the young man. “Don’t worry. Do you have your bracelet?”
The boy lifted his left wrist, which bore a thick gold bracelet, one that was sturdy, and seemed crude at first glance, unless you were to look closer and see the faded marks cut into its surface.
“I don’t know what good this will do.”
“It can’t hurt,” the girl replied.
A crack in the blinds let in a glimmer of light; it suddenly changed in tone to a searing blue, and a pounding could be heard outside.
“Witching hour,” the girl said, drawing a fireplace poker from next to her and standing in one smooth motion.
An unearthly noise, like that of a horse tormented by the fires of hell, rose through the night, echoing in the room. The boy winced, gold-encircled hand grabbing at his chest.
“Hold strong,” the girl muttered.
The pounding came again, a rapid beat that drew closer and louder until the blinds rolled up with a snap and the windows slammed open. At the same time, the door slammed open, a sound echoed by what sounded like every other door in the building opening as well.
“All doors and hindrances unbar themselves before it. Stay here.”
The open windows revealed a hideous form outside, a headless man riding on the back of a black horse with a blood-flecked mouth. It held a rotted, moldy head in one hand, gripped by the hair. The other hand held a long pale whip, yellowed and, thankfully at this distance not obvious that it was made from the spine of what was probably an NBA center.
The girl hopped out the window, poker still clenched in one hand. With the other, she fished out a roll of duct tape.
The head clutched in the creature’s hand turned toward the girl, yellowed eyes narrowing. The girl was already sprinting toward it, poker swinging. A careful strike hit the creature’s arm, causing it to let go of its head, which fell to the ground. The girl dropped as the headless creature swung its whip at the air she’d been previously occupying. She grabbed the head, which, as she’d read, did feel like moldy cheese, and began wrapping it up with duct tape. It took only a few moments before it was entirely encased in tape, all but blind and mute.
The the girl stood up and chucked the head as hard as she could into the night, where it bounced into a manhole she’d levered open six hours earlier.
She turned back to the horseman, grinning. “So what are you going to do now?”
She returned home an hour later, Dave Mwangi safe from the dullahan that had been slated to take his soul tonight.
She fell into bed almost immediately, to have troubled dreams.
She awoke to find a blue-eyed black cat sitting on her chest, staring at her unblinking. She sat up, dislodging the creature, who stalked back into her lap and stared at her. She grabbed the cat’s sides and peered down at him.
“And what are you up to?” she asked.
Coraline Jones stared at the cat for a long moment. “Oh, crud.”
Two years ago, Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts was changed forever. A curse laid upon the town was brought to an end, and a boy earned the respect of the people lived there. Six months ago, Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts was changed again. A boy and his twin sister set foot in the town for the first time in their lives, and their intermittent presence came with a strain of weirdness that almost replaced the one-time curse.
Said boy was currently hanging upside-down on a couch in his boyfriend’s living room watching sixty-year-old science fiction and having a conversation with said boyfriend’s grandmother.
“I don’t understand why they can’t just share the planet with those ant-people.”
Norman nudged Dipper’s side. “Grandma thinks they should all be getting along.”
“But they’re vicious ant-people! Look at that, they ripped that guy’s head clean off!” Dipper pointed at the screen, wincing at a particularly gruesome scene.
“Oh, sure, after they tried to shoot down their spaceship.”
“Grandma thinks those people started it.”
“Wait - isn’t this a sequel to something? We could settle this!”
Dipper rolled himself off the couch and landed, cat-like, on his feet between the couch and television. “Just give me a second-”
He turned, stopping only when he realized Norman’s hand was still gripped loosely around his wrist. “Come on; just watch the movie.” Dipper’s expression wavered, and Norman tried to give him the warm smile that usually left Dipper flustered and compliant.
“Tell him I’ve seen that one, too, and it doesn’t paint people in too good a light, either,” Grandma interjected.
“Grandma says we don’t come off too good in that one, either,” Norman said.
Dipper shrugged. “My grandfather would say your grandmother’s a Communist Hippie for thinking we can all get along,” he said.
“Oh, jeez, come on back here.” Norman dragged Dipper back to the couch, nearly toppling the brunette on top of him. “You need to stop antagonizing my grandma. You’re lucky my parents let her be a chaperone, and if she stops doing it, you’re going to have to put up with my parents and they are not going to let us spend any time at all alone.”
“Oh, come off it. Tell him I think he’s a spirited young lad. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have these little debates every once in a while.”
Dipper did, however, sit down, upright this time; Norman scrambled up to lean against him, because as tempting as the thought of pulling Dipper down to join him was, it was much less so with Grandma hovering in front of the television.
“How long are you here?”
“Uh,” Dipper moaned. “Don’t remind me. I’ve got math homework to do. My mom doesn’t believe that trying to track down the Jersey Devil is an acceptable reason to blow off algebra.”
“I wasn’t sold on looking for it this far away from, you know, Jersey.” Norman elbowed Dipper playfully. “Face it: the world is a lot less weird away from Gravity Falls.”
“Yeah, this place is a real letdown.” Dipper folded his arms, glaring at Norman.
“I’d feel more worried if you’d started dating me because of how exciting my town is. So do you need to get going?”
Dipper groaned. “Yes. Probably.”
“Think on the bright side; maybe you’ll get to see that vampire bus driver again.”
“Wee.” Dipper scooted down onto the floor.
“Are you okay?” Norman reached down to ruffle Dipper’s hair; the other boy growled and threw the hand off. “Dipper?”
“I don’t know,” Dipper muttered. “I know nowhere is as interesting as Gravity Falls. I just...I don’t know. I’m bored, maybe?”
“Things will pick up, I’m sure. If not, you could always get involved in whatever Mabel’s been up to.”
Dipper shrugged. “Sure. Anyway, I gotta go. I’ll catch you next weekend.” Dipper was out the door before Norman could get up and catch him; he stared at the closed door, wondering if he’d done something wrong.
“Grandma? Is there something wrong with Dipper?”
His grandmother drifted onto the couch, settling the memory of her form on the cushion. “Hard to say. He’s fourteen, which some people say is something wrong all on its own. But more specifically - well, he’s been through a lot. You have, too, but you’re a nice, grounded boy. He’s got his head in the clouds. Things like living day to day must be hard for him.”
“Is...he going to break up with me?”
She chuckled. “Not if he’s got a lick of sense, he won’t.” She leaned in to wrap translucent arms around Norman. “Don’t worry about that sort of thing. Worry about...math and whatnot.”
It was hard to focus on that. Norman knew his grandma was right; being fourteen practically was having something wrong with you all on its own. Having a boyfriend was a further combination of absolute confusion, between the happiness of having Dipper around, the anxiety that he was going to do something to mess this up, and the occasional flares of just wanting - some things he could identify, others he couldn’t, and all of them vaguely terrifying.
Norman couldn’t have been happier to have a sweet, open-minded friend like Neil, because there was no other person the the world he would have been able to call the first time he had...arousing dreams about Dipper. He was sure Neil had a future in counseling ahead of him. He seemed incapable of judging anyone, seemed to be interested in everything you had to say, and had somehow acquired an inexhaustible supply of pamphlets about every issue a teenager might be expected to encounter.
Norman had three of them shoved into the very back of his sock drawer, to look at only when he was feeling very brave.
He spent most of his Sunday making the rounds, reacquainting himself with the spirits of Blithe Hollow. The process took longer than it once had, because the people of Blithe Hollow no longer ignored him when he did so, and in fact asked him about the spirits, the ghosts.
And then there was school, and that was delightful. Not being an outcast was still novel to Norman, and the shift in his social standing had uncovered an introverted streak that surprised him. The dead, after all, were perfectly acceptable company.
Although even that had become strange. Norman had never fully understood the extent of his abilities; the dead possessed powers the living did not, but then again he possessed powers most living people didn’t. He’d thought that was it, but Bill Cipher had awoken new awareness of what he could do. He knew, now, he could bind, command, and banish ghosts. He knew he could exorcise possessing spirits and that he could wield a ghost’s deathly powers. It made his time spent near the dead feel much less natural. Knowing the power he possessed over them, he couldn’t quite see spirits as the peers he once had.
He couldn’t quite see people the same way anymore, either. He had shared a lot of his discoveries with Neil, but this he hadn’t. He hadn’t addressed it with Dipper, even.
Bill Cipher could enter people’s minds, a talent shared by Mabel Pines. But he could also manipulate their spirits, and that talent, Norman knew, was shared by him. He wished he didn’t know it, but after the battle with Bill, Norman had woken with the knowledge in his bones. It was freakish and made him worry that one day he might see people as nothing more than puppets.
It also made him wonder what undiscovered talents lived within Dipper Pines.
He gave in and called the Pines household on Wednesday.
“Pines residence, where the magic happens!”
“Norman!” Mabel sounded about as cheery as she normally was, but Norman felt he’d known her long enough to tell she was especially pleased to hear from him.
“Hi, Mabel. Is Dipper there?”
Norman’s heart sank. “He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“He doesn’t really want to talk to anyone. I think puberty’s hitting him really hard.”
“I...is he okay?”
“Pchooo. Probably? I don’t know.” Norman heard an arrhythmic tapping that meant Mabel was drumming on the nearest object; a squeak suggested Mabel’s impromptu percussion set was Waddles. “It’s sad, seeing him look all...blah. I’ve never seen someone who looks blah before. He’s not...is he telling you anything?”
“No, and that’s the problem.” Norman flopped back on his bed. “The only thing he seems to get into anymore is arguing with my grandmother about bad movies.”
“Ohmygosh please don’t break up with him. He’ll be heartbroken and mope around and I won’t have any idea what to do!”
“Just hang on, Mabel. I’m not...I’m not planning to break Dipper’s heart. I’m just worried about him.”
“Join the club,” Mabel murmured. “I wanna do something but I don’t know what and I’m worried he’s going to...run off and go all Supernatural on me.”
Norman let that sink in for a moment. “You’re worried he and Jensen Ackles are going to take a road trip?”
“I’m worried he’s going to get sick of boring old Winter Glen and run off to find supernatural mysteries in the middle of nowhere and get himself - hurt because he’s fourteen and doesn’t have superpowers.”
Norman hadn’t been worried about that specifically, and he wasn’t certain that was all to it, but it did sound like something Dipper might get into his head. He sighed. “I could...maybe ask that lawyer who died in your house to keep an eye on him. She likes having something to do.”
“Really? Norman, you’re the best!”
Norman grumbled noncommittally. “I’m not really. It doesn’t help Dipper get into a better mood, and it definitely doesn’t keep him from running off.”
“Stop it,” Mabel protested. “You’re doing your best. And we’re going to come up with something. Okay? How about you come over Friday night? Mom and Dad are going to some work thing, so I was thinking movie night.”
“Sure, I’ll see if my parents will let me go.”
“Eee! I’ll brainstorm cheering up ideas.”
Norman hung up and dropped the phone next to his bed. He wished he could share Mabel’s enthusiasm, but he was certain no one could share her enthusiasm. And in any case, it was clear Dipper wasn’t just restless from having no supernatural stuff to do. Something was wrong, and watching it all happen without having any idea how to help made Norman feel so helpless.
Dipper watched Mabel chatter on the phone with...well, by context, he bet it was Norman. She wasn’t making any effort to keep her voice down, but Dipper couldn’t quite bring himself to listen in.
His history book was sitting next to him, open but unread, and the remnants of his math homework was somewhere in the room. Much like Mabel’s conversation, Dipper had been finding it hard to care very much about much of anything in the past couple of months. He stared blankly at Mabel before rolling away, facing the wall. It’s not like he didn’t know they were talking about him, poor depressed Dipper, the guy who’d face down demons on multiple occasions and couldn’t put up with six months of real life.
At least Mabel was stuck with him; she’d have to at least acknowledge him sometimes, even if he became the most pathetic creature alive. Norman, though…
When they spent time together, Dipper could see Norman disengaging; he knew the look of someone looking for an exit. Sometimes he wondered if he could put it off by avoiding Norman altogether, but his resolve rarely lasted for more than a few days. Besides, it seemed that if he was putting off being dumped by his boyfriend, spending no time with said boyfriend sort of defeated the purpose.
Mind, Valentines Day was looming over him, a confusing mix of anticipation and anxiety; if Norman was done with him, he’d try to drop Dipper right before or right after.
“Eee! I’ll brainstorm cheering up ideas.”
Mabel hung up the phone and bounced to Dipper’s side. “Hey, you wanna see if there’s anything good on TV?” Dipper shrugged. Mabel rolled her eyes and grabbed his shoulder. “Come on.” Dipper followed because it was easier than resisting; Mabel dropped him on the couch, ordered Waddles to keep him in one place, and sat next to him.
“You wanna watch cartoons or the Discovery-ooh.”
The television screen was showing the entire Blithe Hollow police force - about five officers, standing in a circle around a heavily-taped off area. Smeared on the wall of what looked like the library behind them was a messy message: “THERE IS NO JUSTICE”.
The newscaster, a stocky woman whose face had a grey tint Dipper was sure was from the scene she’d seen, had a stern expression as she spoke. “The body, found about an hour ago by local resident Alvin Wynn, was...mutilated. As of yet, no suspects have been identified. Obscure graffiti found near the body appears to suggest a personal or political vendetta as motive for the murder. With his deputy’s resignation last month, the death of mayor Wayne Pendleton has left Blithe Hollow without any executive leadership. The police request that anyone who has information that might help lead to the apprehension of those responsible. Now, the weather.”
Mabel grabbed the remote as the screen flipped to the weather.
“What are you-”
“Look. Look!” Mabel hit the controls for the cable and rewinded the news until the...bloody message written above the murder scene was clearly visible. Dipper sat up straight, peering at the screen. He didn’t see what Mabel was worried about, not until she stormed to the TV and pointed at the screen, at the graffiti, and at something that Dipper hadn’t even noticed the first time around.
Painted next to the message, in the blood of Wayne Pendleton, was a triangle with stick arms and legs, a top hat, bow tie, and a single bulging eye. Dipper’s blood chilled and his heart began pounding. For the first time in months, he felt a spark of interest in the world around him.
“You don’t think he killed that guy, do you? Of course not, that’s stupid. If Bill could rip a guy to shreds, he’d have burned the journal on his own. But he’s obviously got something to do with it. The real question is what.”
Dipper was halfway out of the room when Mabel spoke up. “Dipper, wait.”
He looked back at Mabel, whose eyes were wide and watery, begging him to stop and take her seriously. “Mabel?”
“Don’t do anything without me or Norman. Don’t let Bill trick you into doing anything. Don’t...don’t run off without telling us.”
“Alright.” Dipper held out a hand to Mabel. “You want to come up and help me research?”
She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Well, okay.”
Nothing in the book helped identify what might have killed the mayor of Blithe Hollow, although Mabel pointed out that a book about Gravity Falls menaces might not have information available about monsters in Massachusetts. Mabel begged off more intensive research, but Dipper found, as he tried to sleep that night, that he couldn’t get the mystery out of his head.
He decided Mabel hadn’t been worried about Dipper doing a little research on his own; besides, a monster that ran around killing mayors could be a real danger to people if someone - a heroic, upstanding citizen - didn’t stop it.
The internet wasn’t helpful, either. Specifically, potential culprits for the murder were so numerous that cutting it down to a manageable three or four was impossible. At least, not without access to more information about the body and the scene.
The next afternoon, Dipper slipped away after school, certain Mabel would just be bored with his investigations, and took the bus to Blithe Hollow. He hadn't come up with any plan to infiltrate the police station by the time he arrived, so he decided to wander to the crime scene. Police tape still warded off access to the area surrounding the library. The body was, obviously, gone, but hints at the scene's original gruesomeness remained. Smears of blood nearly entirely covered a space ten feet square, and the library facade was still marked with the message of warning, or whatever it was. 'THERE IS NO JUSTICE.'
"It could be a warning, or a threat, or an existential statement. Or just nonsense, of course."
Dipper had been too engrossed in his own observations to notice the girl, another person more engaged than the curious gawkers. Her musings made him take notice, however. She was dressed lightly for Massachusetts winter, with a yellow raincoat rather than sturdier fare, although she'd deferred to the weather with delicate black gloves and a woolly yellow hat. She was about Mabel's height, and had the gangly build common to those who spent their time climbing over things. He caught hints of blue hair sticking out from the hat. She had a phone of some sort out, and was making notes on it with one finger dancing across the screen.
Dipper sidled toward her, eager to see her notes, but when he drew close, she looked up at him and gave him a distracted smile.
"Hello. Are you from around here?"
"Oh! No. Sort of. I live in the next town over; my boyfriend lives here, so I'm here a lot, but I don't know as much about it as locals, so. Ah. No."
Dipper shut his mouth, painfully aware he'd been babbling. The girl had a hand over her mouth, a clear sign she was trying not to show him she was laughing at him. Right, of course; Dipper the Dip had to make an appearance to remind him he couldn't get along with normal people.
The girl dropped her hand, still smiling. “Sorry. Aren’t you a little...gay to be freaked out talking to girls?”
“I’m sorry. I presumed you were babbling because talking to pretty girls makes you nervous.”
The girl leaned a little closer, narrowing her hazel eyes. “You mentioned a boyfriend. Are you using that word in the platonic way girls used girlfriend?”
“Well, no.” Dipper felt his legs wobble; he reached out to grab something, and hit the girl’s...chest. He flailed out and fell flat on his ass. “Sorry!” He just sat there for a moment, staring up at the girl. He felt like the floor had been pulled out from under him. He’d never about that he was...that people could call him...and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration or insult or speculation. “I…”
“Did you not mean to mention the boyfriend? I can pretend I didn’t hear it.”
“No, I...it’s fine. I just never thought about it that way.”
The girl sighed and dropped to the ground next to him, leaning against a low wall on the sidewalk. “A change in perspective helps sometimes. Do you need someone to talk to?”
“Thank god.” She glanced sidelong at Dipper and held out a hand. “My name’s Coraline.”
“Coraline,” Dipper repeated. “I’m Dipper.”
The girl smiled a little wider at Dipper. “Everyone assumes it’s Caroline.”
“I’m not one to talk,” Dipper replied, shrugging. “So what are you looking at over here?”
“Something big,” Coraline replied. She gestured at the bloody writing on the wall.
“You’re investigating?” Dipper asked, feeling another little twist of excitement in his stomach. “Because I look into things like this all the time.”
“No offense,” Coraline replied, “but your kind aren’t usually a lot of help in these situations. Once people start dying, paranormal investigation goes from fun little hobby to deadly serious. And I don’t like people getting hurt because they’ve never faced down a beldam and think paranormal stuff comes down to cute little pixies.”
“I’ve dealt with paranormal stuff plenty!” Dipper snapped. “I fought a giant candy monster, ran into gnomes a whole bunch, and murdered an entire cursed wax museum.” At Coraline’s careful examination of him, he wanted to wilt.
At long last, however, she made a quiet click with her tongue. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were from Gravity Falls.”
“Gravity Falls, Oregon.” Coraline tossed her hair. “Area 51 for the supernatural set. Every book I’ve ever read that mentions it says you don’t go there unless you’re in the big leagues. And let me tell you, the sort of books I read, they seem to think the Winchesters would be just talented amateurs.”
“I...spend my summers there.”
Coraline raised her right eyebrow. “I rescind my condescending refusal of assistance. Gravity Falls, really? Is it as weird as the books say?”
“I have no idea. All I’ve got is...I don’t have fancy books about all sorts of supernatural stuff, just me and my sister and my Grunkle Stan.”
Coraline’s other eyebrow joined the first. “Well. Aren’t we a hardcore little dude?”
“Is that a crack about my height?”
“You’re hardly a contender for the NBA. Don’t worry. I don’t exactly rely on having a big, strong guy around when I’m investigating.”
“I’m stronger than I look; I trained for like, ever, with a bunch of Manotaurs.”
Coraline raised a finger, paused, opened her mouth, and then closed her mouth. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Anyway, I know plenty of stuff you don’t know. I know what that little triangle in the message means.” Dipper pointed toward the drawing of Bill Cipher. Coraline’s lips pressed into a thin, worried line. She took a deep breath and then glanced at Dipper.
“I think we need to go somewhere to talk. I know this place isn’t so cosmopolitan so as to have a Starbucks, but does it have a coffee shop of comparable or better value? And I swear, if you tell me all you have is a Dunkin Donuts I will scream.”
Dipper led Coraline to Ned’s Caf Shack where she ordered a black coffee and Dipper had a decaf caramel mocha spice latte.
“You realize you’re drinking spicy chocolate milk, right?”
“I don’t need to justify my drinking habits to anyone,” Dipper retorted. A girl with stringy dark hair glared at Dipper from a corner chair as he jumped to a chair at a small table near the front.
“So, you know that symbol,” Coraline said as she sat across from Dipper.
“Because nothing I’ve read says anything at all about that symbol except that it’s bad news. I think the most effusive any author was on the subject was, ‘see not the face, hear not the voice, speak not the name, lest you invite upon you disaster of the grandest magnitude.’ So what do you know about it?”
Dipper took a shaky breath. He sort of wished he’d had access to a resource like Coraline when he’d first run across Bill Cipher. “His name is-”
Coraline lunged across the table, knocking over both of their drinks as she slapped her hand over Dipper’s mouth. “Did you listen to a word I said?” she demanded in a whisper. “The only thing anyone ever said about that...thing was that dealing with it was bad news. I just told you that I’d read a manuscript that warned me not to say its name. And your first thought is to tell it to me? Please tell me your sister is the smart one.” She fell back into her seat, scowling at the spilled drinks. “I should buy you a replacement.”
Dipper, shaken, stared down at the cooling chocolate and coffee stains on his legs. He felt oddly numb, even though he was sure the coffee was causing a mild burn. “I’m not...I’m not stupid,” he said.
“Of course not,” Coraline said smoothly. “I got a little excited there. It’s just, the things I deal with come with a lot of warnings and advice, and it’s the sort of advice you don’t ignore. So why don’t you tell me what you know without invoking the name of eldritch horrors?”
“He - he’s a demon of dreams. He can rifle through people’s memories, and can possess them. If they - if they have special talents, he can use the talents of the person he’s possessing. Someone summoned him to get to us, and we’ve had a few run-ins since then.”
“This would have been a lot easier if you’d told me he was a hellhound,” Coraline muttered. “Because I have no leads. Or, rather, an abundance of them.”
“Yeah, that was me, too.”
“Norman, you got a call.” Norman looked up from his English homework to see Courtney waving the phone at him.
“Thanks.” He took the handset and waited until Courtney had left before he lifted it to his ear. “Hi?”
“Norman you gotta get downtown like five minute ago. Salma told me she saw Dipper having coffee with some girl - she didn’t tell me, but I could tell she thought she was really pretty - and you need to get down here before you lose your man.” Neil took a deep, wheezing breath at the end of his rant.
“Wait - what? Dipper’s in town? Why didn’t he call me?”
“Didn’t you hear me? Salma said he’s got a date! With a girl!”
“It actually sounds like he’s having coffee. Did she see if he actually ordered coffee or just something full of sugar?” Norman dug under his bed for his shoes as he talked.
“Norman! She said the girl lunged at him across the table.”
Norman paused, right shoe halfway on before he began rushing a little. “Okay. That sounds a little more concerning.” It would be just like Norman to find the one succubus or rusalka operating in a thousand-mile radius. “Did she mention anything about the girl’s eyes? Or reflection?”
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.” Neil sounded a little hurt.
“I am taking this perfectly seriously, Neil. I just considered the possibility that Dipper is running around with some girl behind my back and decided it was about a billion times more likely that he’d accidentally gotten into a situation where someone is going to suck out his soul. So yes, I am getting my coat and going outside, but only because I am legitimately worried about Dipper’s welfare. You can meet me there or not, at your option. Mom! I’m heading out!”
“You are not!”
Norman’s mother stormed from the kitchen and grabbed Norman with one arm still out of his coat. She tugged him back into the family room and set him down on the couch before joining him. She folded her hands in her lap and gave Norman a wary look.
“Norman, I know you’re used to having the run of the town, but what with happened to the mayor, we’re going to have to crack down a little. You’re not to go anywhere after school without me or your father with you, or another adult.”
Norman’s mother smiled and patted Norman’s shoulder. “Oh, Dipper can still come over. We’ll have to meet him at the bus stop and get him back there, but-”
“Dipper’s out there on his own and I don’t think he knows it’s dangerous and I’ve got to find him!”
“Ah.” His mother’s kind smile faded and she stood up. “Well. Get in the car.”
It was a short ride to the coffee shop; Norman could have walked easily, if his mother wasn’t frightened of wanton murderers. When he stumbled out of the car, Norman paused at the front window. There was Dipper, facing away from the window, bent over a softcover spiral notebook with a pretty, dark-haired girl in a yellow rainjacket. Norman watched for a few moments, uncertain exactly what he was seeing. He knew in his bones Dipper wasn’t cheating, but he wanted some idea what Dipper was up to before he walked into it.
The girl lifted her head from the book and met his gaze. Norman felt pinned in place by the hazel eyes as she watched him, eyes slowly narrowed in concentration. At last, her expression relaxed and she sat back in the chair, pointing at something in the notebook.
“Is that Dipper with a girl?”
Norman shook his head. “I think...he might be investigating something. You can come in; I’ll be a few minutes.”
He stepped into the coffee shop, nodding at the ghost of the owner back when the shop had been a cigar store. He turned toward Dipper’s tables and waved; the girl’s lips quirked up and she pointed back at Norman. Dipper turned, and his expression took on a flurry of mixed emotions. Norman steeled himself and strode to them.
“I didn’t know you were in town, Dipper.”
“This isn’t what it looks like! Coraline’s just a friend - an acquaintance - I barely know her! She’s helping me with an investigation! I told her I have a boyfriend! I don’t even think she’s all that attractive!” Dipper’s eyes widened in panic. “I didn’t mean it that way,” he said to the girl, Caroline.
“Relax,” Norman said. He reached out and patted the back of Dipper’s neck. “I just came down here to make sure she wasn’t a...banshee or succubus or something. And maybe to figure out what’s going on.” He glanced down at the notebook they had open, which had sketches of the blood-smeared message still stuck on the outside of the library, and a worryingly familiar image of a dapper triangle.
“Nothing good, I’m guessing, given the drawing of-”
“Whoop.” Dipper put his hand over Norman’s mouth, giving him an apologetic smile. “Coraline thinks going around saying that name is sort of dumb.”
“Wait - Coraline? Not-”
“Not Caroline. It’s Coraline. Coraline Jones.” Coraline shrugged. “We were just wrapping up-”
“Come on, Coraline. Norman’s good at this sort of stuff. He...stopped an evil witch from destroying Blithe Hollow.”
“You think something weird is responsible for Mayor Pendleton?”
Dipper shrugged. “I got the heebie-jeebies when I saw the news report, and then I saw B - that sign in the middle of that threatening message and one thing led to another. We’ve sort of hit a roadblock, though. We don’t have enough information to have any idea what’s going on, much less who’s responsible.”
Norman peered down at the notebook, and something about it nagged at his memory. “Wait a minute - the news said Alvin was the one who found the body. If you don’t want to try sneaking into the police station, he’s probably the best source of information we’ve got.”
“Norman, you’re a genius!” Dipper bolted up from his seat and kissed Norman, on the lips, and sprinted toward the exit. Coraline folded her notebook closed and stood smoothly. She tilted her head at Norman, implicitly inviting him to lead the way. He jogged after Dipper, swinging the door open and nearly hitting an entering customer with the edge.
The man, tall, dressed in a sharp navy suit, caught the door in one hand, stopping it mid-swing, fingers clenched along the inside of it. He bent down, too-white teeth gleaming in the midst of his face, skin a medium-tone brown and violet eyes gleaming.
“You might want to watch where you’re going, lad.” The man stepped around the door and pushed it the rest of the way open. He remained in the doorway, however, blocking it with a surprisingly large frame.
“I’m sorry, sir. I was just following my friend.”
The man’s smile widened. “Yes, I see. What is your name?”
“Ah. My name is Asim Malik. With any luck, I will be helping your town to recover from its recent...misfortune.” He bowed, and stepped aside far enough to allow Norman space to pass.
Norman hurried after Dipper, who had been corralled by Norman’s mother, and was hopping anxiously in place.
“Let’s go; we’ve got a mystery to solve.”
“You don’t even want to wait for your little girlfriend?” Norman asked.
Dipper’s face flushed. “Stop it,” he muttered. “I wasn’t - it wasn’t - I told her I had a boyfriend.”
“Sorry. I was joking. I came down here because Neil gave me a panicked call about how you were out here with a girl, and I was honestly more worried about the prospect you’d run into something that was hypnotizing you than that you were going behind my back.” Norman smiled at Dipper. “I’m not worried about that at all because you’re a good guy.”
Coraline took that moment to arrive. She looked up at Norman’s mom and reached out a hand. “Hello. I’m Coraline; I’m a friend of Dipper’s. I think he wanted us to visit his friend Alvin. Do you mind if I ride with you?”
“I’m certainly not letting you wander around this town unescorted, especially given all this brouhaha. Who was that gentleman you ran into, Norman?”
“He said his name was Malik; he said he was going to help the town?”
As Norman’s mother started the car, she nodded. “Ah. The town must have brought in someone to help run the town until they can arrange an election. It goes back to the founding; the elders can nominate a temporary mayor if the current one is indisposed.”
“Hm.” Coraline looked pensive, but she didn’t volunteer anything beyond that. Dipper didn’t seem to notice, being focused on his immediate goal, but Norman made a note to ask her about it later.
“So are you from around here, Caroline?”
“Coraline,” Coraline said evenly. “And no. I’m from Oregon - a lot closer to where Dipper spends his summers than here. I’m home-schooled, and my dad’s doing some touring in the area.”
“He’s been cataloguing developments in gardening out east.” Coraline shrugged. “As long as I get my homework done, he and my mother are happy to let me travel around.”
There was history there; ghosts gathered around Coraline that suggested something darker had led her to this moment. She glanced back at Norman and raised her eyebrows meaningfully. He once again got the feeling she was looking right through him; he wondered what she saw when she looked at him. He wondered what she would see when she looked at Mabel.
Alvin kicked the door open only a moment after Norman’s first knock, only to visibly slump when he saw who it was.
“Jeez. I keep expecting it to be news crews. Instead I get Norman and the rest of the Scoobies.”
“Hello to you, too, Alvin.”
The boy narrowed his eyes at Norman. “Where’s the chick with the weird sweaters? Did she turn perky goth?”
“This is Coraline. She’s…”
“Visiting,” Coraline said.
“So what do you want?” Alvin demanded.
“We gotta hear about what you saw when you found the mayor’s body!” Dipper blurted.
Alvin gave Dipper a lingering grin. “Really? Why?”
“Because you saw something in front of the library you didn’t dare tell the police, something you knew they’d think was crazy. You didn’t tell them, because you want them to think you’re a credible witness. But you’re burning to share it. It’s gross, or shocking, or something that you just need to get off your chest. So why not us?”
In the face of Coraline’s fixed smile, Alvin scowled. “Your lot need to stay out of my head, Babcock.”
“So?” Norman asked. “Are you going to share or not?”
Alvin sighed. “Jeez, you and your friends are weird. But yeah. I saw some serious shit when I found the body. The first bit - it’ll come out eventually. He was torn apart, like someone set a lion on him. Hell, it even looked like they’d been gnawing on him.
“But the rest? I didn’t just find the body. I saw who did it.”
Norman could almost sense Dipper’s anticipation. “Yeah?”
“It’s not like I saw the thing attack him, but...look, you ever see those people at sports events, like birds and wolves and thingamajigs?” Norman glanced at the others for clarification, but none of them looked any less confused.
“The guys in those fuzzy costumes!”
“Like the Trix Rabbit?” Coraline asked.
“Yeah! He looked like that.”
“Like a rabbit?”
“I don’t know. He was fuzzy and had a big head and claws and stuff. I barely saw him; it was dark and stuff. But you gotta believe me. I saw him and thought, bam, that’s Sugar Bear or something.”
“Do you not eat Frosted Flakes?” Dipper asked.
“We’re in Massachusetts, not the wilds of Africa, duh,” Alvin said, rolling his eyes. “So it was a bear or wolf.”
“Person with the head of an animal,” Coraline said thoughtfully. “That’s a place to start.”
“I could help research!” Dipper exclaimed.
“Let’s reconvene Friday or so,” Coraline said carefully. “I have a chemistry project to finish.”
“Yeah,” Dipper concluded. “I should get home. See you around.”
He stepped away from the knot of teenagers and jogged toward the bus stop, leaving the group and Norman behind. Norman stared, feeling just a little abandoned. It wouldn’t have been long, but he’d hoped, for a second, Dipper might let Norman escort him back out of town.
Wolfmen. Kitsune. Harpies. There weren’t a lot of things that could have been responsible for the murder of Mayor Pendleton, but still too many and no clear motive. Dipper dropped his head down onto the journal, head aching. He was sick of flipping through the book, sick of researching, and sick of pretty much everything.
He’d seen the looks Coraline kept giving Norman, something that reeked of some sort of silent communication. The way she looked at things, he knew she was more than she seemed, and that made a little trio of paranormal investigators with special talents, and one kid who had no powers, no talents, and nothing that set him apart.
“Yeah, there’s no justice in the world if a kid like you can’t make a name for himself.” The world around Dipper faded into gray as Bill Cipher peeled himself off of a Zelda poster over Dipper’s bed. The demonic triangle sat on Mabel’s bed, settling into a lotus position. “Overshadowed by all those freaks - I don’t know how you live with it.”
Dipper glowered and stalked to Mabel’s bed. “Get out of here,” he snapped, waving angrily at Bill. His hand passed right through the demon, who giggled.
“Not very serene of you, Pine Tree.”
“And they’re not freaks. You’re talking about my sister, you know.”
“Yes. I know all about that. Little Mabel, born with all the talent. And then there’s the boyfriend, who sees things you can only imagine. And now Coraline Jones. She’s done big things, you know. Sometimes her kind are called fey-touched. And they’ve all got one thing in common: they’re special. Better than you.”
Dipper took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He knew Bill was trying to rile him up, to get him to make a stupid decision. And he’d promised Mabel not to let Bill trick him into doing anything. “Leave me alone.”
“What’s wrong? I thought we were on a first-name basis. Very intimate.” Bill’s legs grew thicker, more human, very feminine, complete with sexy leggings. He folded them in a manner obviously meant to be enticing. “You aren’t listening to what Button said, are you? Really, it’s a little late for pretending I don’t exist; there’s no stuffing this genie back in the bottle.” He tossed something at Dipper, who caught it automatically. It was a glass bottle, filled with a nasty-looking liquid, in which floated three little dolls, crude things made to look like Norman, Mabel, and Coraline. There was even a little peppermint pig floating next to Mabel to represent Waddles. “Have you ever thought about looking into finding powers of your own? There are plenty of ways you can pick up that sort of thing. Old rituals done at the new moon, magic amulets buried in ancient ruins, bargains with powerful beings…”
"You're being very hostile here. Is it because I never apologized for possessing you and trying to kill your sister? Well, I'm a reasonable triangle. Here, have a miniature black hole." Bill tossed something at Dipper; he dodged aside and it landed on his bedside table; after a moment, the table collapsed in on itself, and the little thing, no more than a dot, vanished. Bill giggled.
"If you keep messing around in here, you're going to regret it," Dipper growled.
"What? Afraid I'll mess up your sister's stuff? Aren't you a little old to be sharing a room with your sister, anyway? A boy like you's gotta have alone time, am I right?"
"Sh-shut up!" Dipper snapped. He could feel his cheeks heating, reddening, from the implication. "You don't know anything!"
"Hah. Neither do you, if you're so easily flustered." An exclamation mark suddenly appeared above Bill's head. "Oh! I see. Your parents never got around to telling you about the birds and the bees, didn't they? Well, don't worry. As I've explained before, I know everything." Bill's form flashed images across it, dodos watching the sails of ships, dinosaurs looking up at a violet sky, and millions of bees collapsing, twitching, to earth.
Dipper backed away as far as he could manage in the small room. "Wow. I am totally not okay with you talking to me about sex."
"Why? Having no gender, sex, or any interest in the act, I'm as close to an unbiased party about the subject you'll ever get! It's not like I don't already know what goes on in your head when you think about Eyeball."
What next flickered across Bill's form were images that had heretofore only existed in Dipper's more erotic dreams, things he knew he couldn't talk about with anybody.
"So pull up a couch, open up. It's not like you're going anywhere until I decide we're done talking, Pine Tree."
A long couch, the double of any psychiatrist's couch from a thousand cartoons, appeared next to Dipper's bed. Bill floated to the side of the couch and produced a notebook and a pen shaped like-
Dipper averted his eyes.
"Come on, kid, what's the matter? Couch not comfortable enough? I should have known you're the kinky type." Bill snapped his fingers and the couch cushions were replaced by dozens of rows of long nails. "Sit down, and tell me what you think this pen looks like."
"I'm not talking to you about erotic pens or what I dream about."
"Erotic?" Bill asked. He waved his pen, now shaped like an old-fashioned quill pen, in Dipper's face. "Now I'm not sure I want to know about your dreams. Maybe you could talk about your fears instead. I mean, other than the obvious stuff like illithids and owlbears. You seem like the type to be afraid of something ridiculous, like clowns."
He reached over Dipper's head and ripped away the wallpaper, revealing a thousand screaming clown faces.
"Yes? No? If we're going to get any work done, Pine Tree, you've got to work with me. Don't sit there all closed off. Open up!"
“I’m not scared of clowns, and I’m not scared of you,” Dipper snapped. “So get out of here before I-”
“What? What can you possibly do to me, Pine Tree?” Bill laughed. “You’re stuck here for the duration, remember? You don’t have any fancy powers to kick me out of your head. You are in way over your head, Pine Tree.”
“I’ve beat you before.”
“Not without help. Not without someone to pick up the slack. Look, kid, you’re not equipped to deal with me, much less anyone in the big leagues. Have you ever thought about what you’d do against a real threat? I don’t mean giant robots or dream demons. I mean...pit fiends, cloud giants, the tarrasque.”
Dipper took a shaky breath. “I’d figure something out. I always figure something out.”
“Your little book doesn’t tell you how to deal with the real threats. I told that nosy nerd he was doing more harm than good, letting people think they knew what they were doing. Now me, I can help you out, give you a little something you can use to fight the boogums higher up on the totem pole.”
“I’m not letting you possess me again.”
“I’m not asking, Pine Tree! I’m offering to give this to you - no strings attached.” Bill twitched his hand, lifting Dipper’s arm by invisible thread; he snipped at the air, and Dipper’s arm flopped back to his side. “All you’ve got to do is ask.”
The triangle settled next to Dipper, hovering hopefully at shoulder height. He didn’t say another word, and didn’t make a single move; Dipper waited as the silence stretched on for a minute, and longer.
It took a few minutes before he realized Bill was waiting on him. Of course, Bill had all the time in the world to wait; they were in Dipper’s mind, and as far as he knew, time would stand still until they were done.
So...maybe he should take Bill up on his offer? He wasn’t even making any demands, just offering Dipper power - something to help him watch Norman’s and Mabel’s backs. Something to make him less of a burden to them when things got really serious. Something that could help Dipper stand up on his own, make a name for himself.
Dipper shook his head, trying to clear it of what had to be Bill’s influence. He didn’t need to make a name for himself, not by being powerful or dangerous. He didn’t...need to match Norman and Mabel. He’d beaten Gideon’s stupid robot, even if Mabel had had to save his life immediately afterward. He’d faced down the Manotaurs and told them what he thought of them.
On the other hand...he knew Mabel, Norman, and now Coraline saw the world differently from him, and related to each other in a way he couldn’t get. He didn’t want to be left behind.
But Mabel had told him not to let Bill trick him into doing anything.
“Tell me what you’re offering. Tell me what you want. No tricks. No evasions.”
“Glad to, Pine Tree! I’m offering to give you one superpower - some sort of mystical ability like what your sister or boyfriend have. I haven’t decided what yet, but do you know what? I’ll promise it’ll be good - no unexpected downsides or tricks. I won’t take it back later or anything.”
“And what do I have to do for it?”
“Just ask. ‘Bill, can I have a superpower?’ One little sentence. No possession, no tricks.”
Dipper nodded. “Okay. I think I’ve got it.”
Bill drifted lower, an eyebrow manifesting over his eye just to waggle suggestively. “Does that mean you’ll take it?”
“I’m thinking,” Dipper snapped. “You said I’ve got all the time in the world!”
Bill lifted his hand, pointed finger extended. “Correction. I said we’re here until I decide we’re done. And I say we’re done in sixty seconds, just about enough time to panic and make the wrong decision. If you tell me you’re in before those sixty seconds are done, you’ve got the power, just as I described it, no tricks. If you don’t tell me, you lose out on this chance forever. Ooh. Thirty seconds left.”
Bill began rocking back and forth, making a ticking sound as he did so. “So what’ll it be, Pine Tree? A life of mediocrity, or a chance at greatness? Being a millstone around your boyfriend’s neck, or having the power to help him? You’ve got fifteen seconds left, Pine Tree.”
“No. I’m done.”
Bill stopped mid-swing. “What?”
Dipper straightened, clenching his fists in the hope it would protect him from the backlash. “I’m done. I don’t need whatever you’re offering, especially because you’re trying so hard to make me take it. So you can take your no-strings-attached powers and give them to some other sucker.”
Bill swung back down to a level plane, narrowing his eye. “Now, that’s an idea. But I’ll be magnanimous and give you one last chance, Pine Tree.”
Dipper stared at Bill and then slowly, deliberately closed his eyes. He raised his hands, and tried to focus. Mabel might have joked sometimes about twin telepathy, but there was no joke that she was, if not a master, at least a prodigy of the mental arts. As a result, Dipper was certain that there was practically no chance that Mabel would fail to respond to a mental call for help from her twin brother.
Right on time, Mabel, dressed in a pink bedazzled evening gown topped with a fuchsia sweater sporting a double rainbow, appeared. She gave the scene an appraising glance before focused on Bill, which transformed her smile into a furious glare.
“Ooh! Are we doing that sitcom nemesis thing? Or one of those anime nemesis things with all the sexual tension? I hope it’s the latter; I love seeing what the fans come up with.”
“No, I think we’re doing the thing where I just kick you out of my brother’s head. Toodles!”
The dreamscape shattered, returning the world back to full color, and leaving Dipper alone in their room.
He flopped down onto his bed, panting heavily. His heart was racing, and he felt like giggling, to hell with his image. He’d...actually told Bill Cipher off. He hadn’t agreed to anything, hadn’t made any deals, and - he’d called his little sister to bail him out.
It would have been a mistake to take whatever Bill was offering. He knew it in his bones. But still…
He wished to the depths of his soul he’d have found a way out of this on his own.
Dipper walked woodenly downstairs, where his mother handed him the phone. “Hi?”
“You didn’t make a deal with him, did you?” Mabel demanded.
“I - no!”
“You promise? Because he’s bad news, Dipper, and we don’t need-”
“I’m fine, Mabel. I didn’t trade him anything or tell him anything or let him get inside my head. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got homework to do.” Dipper slammed the phone down and stalked back upstairs to stare at the ceiling of his room.
“If I’d wanted someone to laze about all day, I could have come here by myself.”
Coraline, still drying her hair, offered the cat perched on the sink a level glare before resuming. The cat licked his paw and disdainfully continued his own ablutions.
“It’s not as if I’ve got a great stake in keeping this problem in check; I told you about it for your own benefit.”
“And yet you’re still pestering me about it.” Coraline set down the towel and leaned down over the cat, resting her hands on either side of him, so she could better glare at him. “You’re acting awfully invested in it for someone who doesn’t have a stake. So level with me: what’s going on here?”
The cat stretched, wrinkling his nose as he did so. “It’s complicated.”
“Well, try to uncomplicate it.” Coraline grabbed the cat around the middle and dragged him, protesting, out to the main room. Her father was, luckily, out. He was nice about it, but she knew he thought it was weird she talked to the cat. She tossed him onto her bed and fell onto it next to him.
“But being mysterious and aloof is part of being a cat!”
“I could just pack my bags and leave,” Coraline threatened.
“And leave little Pine Tree at the mercy of the supernatural horrors?” The cat padded over to Coraline and headbutted her shoulder.
She scowled at the suggestion, knowing he was right. She couldn’t leave anyone to the mercy of whatever was stalking Blithe Hollow, any more than she could have left anyone trapped in the Other Mother’s realm. “Who’s Pine Tree?”
The cat waved his paw vaguely. “That kid with the hat. It’s got a pine tree on it.”
“Ah. Dipper.” She rolled away from the cat. “He’s going to get himself killed one day. He doesn’t have any natural defenses against this sort of stuff.”
“Exactly,” the cat said smugly.
Coraline rolled over and grabbed the cat around the middle, glaring at him. “And don’t think you’ve avoided the topic, either! What’s up with all this?”
The cat let his head droop. “You’re no fun. Drop me and I’ll tell you.” He wriggled a bit, and when Coraline dropped him on the bed, he licked himself fastidiously for a moment before straightening.
“I don’t know a lot, just enough to be infuriatingly unhelpful. I know...that we’re in the big leagues now. You’re attracting notice, Button. Enough that things like Dipper’s dream demon are looking out for you.”
Coraline jerked up into a sitting position so she could look down at the car properly. “Are you saying this thing is after me?”
“Not necessarily. Not even particularly likely. But you can see things other people can’t; that makes some things very nervous.You know things other people don’t; that makes you powerful.”
“Then shouldn’t I have some better idea what’s going on?” Coraline demanded.
The cat stretched, arching his back as he did so. “Word’s also starting to get around about you, Button. And that means that the sort of thing that expects you will have taken precautions to stay out of your sights.” He leapt off of the bed and waltzed to the desk, hopping up to it to access the window. He paused, looking back at Coraline. “They won’t play games with you, either, even ones where they cheat. They’ll kill you, Coraline, if given half a chance. So don’t mind me if I seem a little worried for you.” And then he was out the window, leaving Coraline alone in the room.
It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate what the cat had done, and continued to do, for her. She just wished he would be a little less opaque.
That left her current research options at the internet, and Wormwood’s Bestiary. After a moment’s thought, Coraline reached off of the bed to her bag and grabbed the heavy tome. The Bestiary, at least, was honest when it ventured into wildly speculative territory.
She’d begun cataloguing cannibalistic (technically, she corrected herself, anthrophagic) creatures, but had yet to complete her review, so she spent several hours consulting the index and individual entries. It was long, boring work, but Coraline was the child of scholars, and knew the importance of proper research.
Alvin’s assessment wasn’t helping the search, either. Most anthropomorphic creatures ate humans only opportunistically, and those that didn’t tended to be sufficiently aggressive that bodies should have been stacking up by now. Really, the only thing capable of that sort of deviousness were…
Big leagues, indeed. Coraline began hurriedly packing up her books, scribbling out a note to her father. She wanted to avoid getting too close to Blithe Hollow if she could avoid it, and that meant consulting Mabel. She knew nothing about demons from first-hand knowledge, and Doctor Wormwood refused to pass on information she knew was third- and fourth-hand, which meant her discussions on the subject amounted to little more than dire warnings.
Mabel, at least, had dealt with one demon before. Thinking of that, however, Coraline didn’t know what was worse: that the culprit was the mysterious triangle, or something none of them were familiar with.
The twenty-minute bus ride gave her plenty of time to think, but Coraline had reached no conclusion by the time she range the Pines’ doorbell.
Dipper was the one who opened the door; his expression was almost cartoonishly shocked. “Did Mabel call you?”
“No. Is she here?”
Dipper shook his head. “I think she’s at the library.” His eyes and voice went distant for a moment, and it took Coraline waving her hand in front of his eyes to bring him to the here and now.
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“Why? Did you find a lead?” Dipper tilted his head, trying to see around Coraline to her backpack. She side-stepped him, offering him a brief glare. Hadn’t anyone taught him manners?
“I’m really just trying to talk to Mabel.”
Dipper stopped and straightened slowly. His eyes were narrow as he fixed Coraline with the most poisonous glare she’d ever seen from a human. “Well you can call her later or come by when she’s actually here. But if you think you can ignore me just because I’m not a - a freak, you better hope you don’t need my help later!” He slammed the door in her face, leaving Coraline wondering exactly what had just happened.
Dipper had been excitable and friendly when she’d first met him, if somewhat naive about the nature of some of the more dangerous creatures of myth. Still staring at the door, she raised a fist to knock, before letting it fall again. She didn’t know Dipper well enough to address whatever his problem was, and she didn’t know his town well enough to locate Mabel. What she did know was Norman’s address.
His mother answered the door, and gave Coraline a worried frown when she saw her. “I hope you haven’t been wandering around on your own.”
Coraline offered her most winning smile. “I’m fine, Mrs. Babcock. Is Norman here?”
“I’ll go get him. You come inside.” Mrs. Babcock left Coraline in the entry hall as she wandered deeper into the house. Coraline tapped her feet as she waited. It took a minute, at least, at which point Norman jogged into the space.
“Coraline. What’s going on?”
“It depends. What’s a more pressing issue: the murderer or the fact I might have broken your boyfriend?”
Norman opened his mouth to reply - pausing before he could form a word, and narrowed his eyes at Coraline. “Broke him?”
Coraline shrugged and leaned against the wall, crossing her arms defensively. “I don’t think I said anything, but he yelled at me about...I don’t know. I think he called me a freak, and said he wouldn’t be around to help me.”
“A freak? Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like him.” Norman’s thoughtful frown took on a worried cast. “His eyes didn’t look catlike, did they?”
“At least he’s not possessed, then.” Norman sighed. “What did you even say?”
Coraline shrugged. “I was looking for Mabel. He was getting all grabby with my reference materials.”
Norman’s face went through a few contortions as he considered this. At last he cursed under his breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I should have realized.”
He shook his head. “You’re cutting him out, Coraline. I don’t know if it’s because he’s not...special, but that’s how he sees it. Aw, jeeze, I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
“What? You can’t do anything without his permission?”
“No, he’s freaking out over how we’re leaving him out of supernatural adventures because he’s normal - relatively speaking - and that means if he finds out you’re over here consulting with me about that stuff it’s just going to confirm all his worries. Jeez, why didn’t I see this earlier?”
Coraline rolled her eyes as Norman worked himself into a panic. “It’s not your job, Norman. How should you know?” She tried to offer him a reassuring smile, but Norman just scoffed.
“I’m supposed to know him, Coraline. I need to talk to him, like, now-”
“Hold on.” Coraline grabbed Norman’s shoulder before he could flee to the nearest phone. “Norman, I know you don’t want to hurt Dipper’s feelings by accidentally talking about anything even remotely supernatural. But I’ve figured out what’s going on - a bit, anyway. It’s a demon, Norman, and I need to know one thing. Can that demon you’ve met - is it real? I mean, can it walk around and hurt people?”
Norman shook his head. “It’s gone to a lot of effort to possess people, so I doubt it.”
Coraline resisted the urge to growl. Sure, she was glad that it wasn’t the triangle, but she didn’t relish facing down something none of them knew anything about. “I’m beginning to suspect a Dungeons and Dragons book would be as much help as anything here, because I have no ideas.”
Norman snorted. “Well, if you’re serious, Neil’s got a shelf full of those books at his house. Full of all sorts of people with animal heads. One with its hands on backwards, too.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Coraline replied. She paused, considering her next words. “Do you want to get everyone together tomorrow or something? Make sure Dipper comes along; I’ll even apologize if you think he’d appreciate it.”
Norman nodded. “It sounds like a good idea. Do you mind if I bring Neil along? I joke, but you’d be amazed how much of the stuff in those books is based on some real creatures.”
“Sure. Call me whenever you’re ready.” She took her leave then, and, once outside Norman’s house, paused. She was struck by an urge to visit the site of the murder, to take a closer look at it. She paused a few blocks away, at the coffee shop she’d visited with Dipper. There was a crowd gathered outside, and she could hear a voice inside. It grew clearer as she drew closer to the door.
“-will work to ensure our town will no longer live in fear for death at the hands of whomever killed our mayor. I know we all crave peace of mind. We all want to live free of the concerns of the strange and the weird. I will bring this to you.”
A man, tall and dressed in a well-cut navy suit, stood at the head of a crowd filling the coffee shop. He made broad gestures as he spoke, and despite his calming words, he put Coraline on edge. His voice was too smooth and gestures too deliberate. His words had a strange quality to them, polished but meaningless, or coated in honey to conceal the poison within…
Having walked in the faerie realms, Coraline had acquired a talent for sensing when things were not as they seemed. The glamour of the fae, the subtle imperfections of shapeshifters’ forms, all rang falsely to Coraline’s senses. It had been a shock to discover that those who possessed mystical talents alerted a similar sense to her.
It was the former sense that this man awoke in her, the knowledge that something dangerous lurked beneath the surface, coated in sweet words and poisonous lies.
Alone and unprepared, Coraline bolted from the coffee shop, taking no time to think until she was halfway home. It occurred to her only then that a creature capable of changing its shape had no business being seen in its natural shape unless it wished to be, unless it gained something from enticing those who knew about the supernatural to dig deeper and seek it out...
She forgot most of this when she arrived at the hotel, because there was a blinking light on the phone, indicating a message.
“Ohmygosh Coraline Norman’s been arrested call me back ASAP!”
Coraline hadn't been gone five minutes when a knock came at the door. Norman was back in the family room, and so went to it first. A strange woman dressed in a police uniform stood there, with a strangely blank expression. When Norman opened the door, she looked down at him, her lips moving silently. At last she nodded and took a step forward.
“Norman Babcock?” The officer’s voice shook, but she looked at Norman with an even gaze as she did so.
“Yes? What do you want?”
“Ah…” She looked backward, at what Norman didn't know. Again, he saw her lips move without any sound. Norman’s skin began to crawl, a strange tingling sensation more of mundane wrongness than difficulties of a supernatural nature. Cops didn't come to people's houses so distracted and vague. They didn't act like they were reviewing something they'd rehearsed. They didn’t act nervous talking to children.
“Is there a problem?”
“Well. I’m here to place you under arrest.”
"Arrest? For what?"
"Well, protective custody," the officer corrected, her voice wavering again. Her hand drifted to her belt, to her handcuffs. "You're going to have to come with me."
“Wait - am I under arrest or not?”
"We can - discuss it further once we've gotten down to the station." She smiled worriedly at Norman. "It'll be better if you just come along." She had the look of someone pushed to do something she didn't want to, acting for fear of something else. The outward calm covered the panic that wormed its way out whenever she spoke.
Norman took a step forward, certain that whatever was happening, he should be at the center of it, trying to find a solution. But then Norman was hit with the memory of his mother’s admonitions and he paused. “My mother needs to know where I am. Mom!”
"No, please don't-" Norman didn't need to be a telepath like Mabel to see the naked fear in the officer's face. He wished he had Dipper here; he'd have some idea about what was going on. He needed Mabel; she would find some way to dig through the officer's fear and get some answers. But they weren't here, and every instinct he had said that he'd get his answers if he just went with the police.
Norman’s mother took that moment to step up behind Norman. “Oh! Can I help you, officer?"
The calm, blank expression slid back over the officer's face. "Your son is going to need to come with me."
"Is he under arrest? And what for? You can't just waltz in here and drag my son away like we're in some sort of dictatorship-"
She broke off with a gasp when the officer's hand twitched, once, toward her gun. "Ma'am your son will come with me," she said forcefully. Norman was certain he wasn't imagining it now; she sounded like she was repeating something she'd been told. That and the vacant look in her eyes told him all he needed to know. She wouldn't be reasoned with, and provoking her wasn't going to end well for anyone.
"Mom, just call a lawyer or something," Norman said. He held his arm out to the officer. At the sight of Norman cooperating, the officer's tension seemed to ease. They were all following the script, he realized. "Nothing bad's going to happen, okay?"
There wasn't enough telepathy in the world to keep her from worrying, but Norman's mother could see he wasn't scared, and maybe she thought he had a much better handle on what was going on than he actually did. But she didn't protest as the officer tugged him outside and let him into the back of her car. Handcuffs, it seemed, weren't currently a part of the equation. Like the gun, Norman suspected it was an option for if things had gotten too heated.
But now that there were no such requirements of her, the officer seemed content to remain silent. Norman didn't know for certain, but he was pretty sure she wouldn't talk to him. It wasn't needed anymore. It was clear she wasn't possessed; there wasn't more than one soul in there. But he'd heard of something voodoo priests could do with a root and fish that made you empty inside, a puppet whose strings they could pull...
The police station was no surprise, as bland and uninteresting as it always had been. Being dragged through the front lobby and into a tiny holding cell, though, was a novel experience. It was a ten foot cube room lined with brick and containing a toilet and flat cot. He thought it might have been the solitary confinement cell.
The officer had left him alone, and it took about five minutes to realize that there had been no processing, no paperwork, no official evidence that he was here. Anything could appen to him, and no one would be able to prove where he'd been. His unease shifted quickly into a flare of panic.
“Hey! Hey! You can’t keep me here without charging me!” Norman kicked the bars of the cell, but no one seemed to respond. He slumped down on the bed set in the back of the cell and glared at the wall, trying to slow his heart. He - he was in jail. They'd stuck him here without even telling him why, likely while under the influence of something very powerful and very dangerous.
Norman took a deep breath. He couldn’t get out of here if he was panicking. Even if this was worse than the thing with Agatha, than Bill Cipher. At least then, other people would stand up for him. Here, the police were up against him. Well, whoever was pulling their strings. All they had to do was wave their badges in people’s faces and everything seemed legitimate.
“Hello? I thought I heard someone shouting.”
Norman looked up to see a ghost, a neon-green man in striped prison clothes, float through the wall. It was a revelation, a shock that left him empty before the hollowness was filled with hope. Maybe dead people might not be swayed by the police’s authority..
The hope came crashing down, though, when Norman remembered the dead also couldn’t reach out to anyone else.
Norman groaned. “It’s nothing.”
“Aren’t you a little young to be in solitary?”
“Yes. Yes I am. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Someone’s put a whammy on the police, and as long as they’ve got me in here, no one’s going to say boo about it.”
“You talking about that Arab guy?” The ghost, a man with pockmarked face and a naturally dark expression, settled on the bed next to Norman. “People do get all glassy-eyed when he’s around. What’s he want with you?”
“Wait - Arab?” A memory filtered into Norman’s mind. “Mr. Malik? I’m pretty sure he’s Indian-”
“Doesn’t matter. What’d you do to piss him off?”
Norman shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve been on the wrong end of a lynch mob before, and it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as this.”
“Well, yeah, because this is all legal stuff. If they string you up, it’s because they’ve got a judge writing down it’s okay. You can’t do anything about it.”
Oh, god. Norman’s heart sped up. Was this what Agatha had felt like, knowing they were going to - that she was - and knowing that it was all written down and legal, and she had no higher power to appeal to? “I’m not - they’re not going to string me up, are they? I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Maybe you got a gang who can spring you?” the ghost asked.
“I told my mom to get a lawyer, but if you’re right, they’re gonna walk in here and get whammied by Mr. Malik’s whatever.” Norman folded his arms and let his head fall back against the wall. This situation called for a long-suffering sigh, but it didn’t seem like it would help. “That means you’re the only one in here Mr. Malik can’t do that glassy-eyed thing to, and you can’t talk to anyone else - except my grandma, and that won’t help.”
“Oh, yeah. The ghost thing.” The ghost lifted off the bed and floated to the center of the room. “Doesn’t seem like this place should hold you, a kid with awesome powers like yours. Can’t you do more, like mind-whammy people or possess them or-”
“That’s it!” The hope returned in full force. “You can possess people!”
The ghost raised a hand to his chest. “Really? Isn’t that the sort of thing you don’t like us doing?”
“Go find my boyfriend Dipper; he won’t mind if it’s for a good cause. Get his sister in on it; she probably can keep Mr. Malik from messing with her head.”
The ghost tilted his head. “I’m not sure I see the benefit in that.”
Norman took a deep breath, trying to remind himself he wasn’t doing this to revel in his personal power or hurt people. He wasn’t like Mr. Malik or Bill Cipher. And then he pushed, trying to mimic the feeling he’d gotten when Bill Cipher had used his body to control the dead.
He’d never had to do this before, because he got along naturally with the dead. He’d never tried to override another creature’s will. The sensation as the ghost’s free will crumbled under his focus was horrifying, a rush of power that threatened to overwhelm him. “You’re going to find Dipper and possess him just long enough to tell Mabel what’s going on here,” Norman said. “You’re going to come back without making any more trouble.”
“Hey, sure.” The ghost nodded and winked, and floated back through the wall. The moment he was gone, though, Norman collapsed, shaking. This wasn’t like throwing Bill Cipher out of his head, something that had felt natural. This was draining and painful and he knew if he kept this up he ran the risk of becoming addicted to the feeling.
“Norman?” Officer Wilkes, a chubby man, skin usually reddened from the time he spent in the sun, stood outside the cell. “What’s going on?”
“Mr. Babcock was about to join me in the interrogation room.” Norman jumped; he hadn’t even seen a suggestion of movement, just the realization that Mr. Malik was standing behind Officer Wilkes, a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Do help him.”
“Ah.” Officer Wilkes’ gaze went vague and he nodded. “Course. Just let me get this door.”
There was no point in fighting, no point in trying to get away. Norman followed Officer Wilkes and Mr. Malik as they led him to a wide concrete room set with a wide aluminum folding table, two flimsy folding chairs, and a mirror that took up the entire width of a wall. Mr. Malik stood behind the table and waited until Norman had taken a seat. He nodded to Officer Wilkes. “You may go.”
“Right. Sorry sir.” Officer Wilkes slipped out of the interrogation room, leaving Norman with the perfectly-dressed man, who had somehow seized control of Blithe Hollow.
Norman didn’t yet feel any pressure, so he decided to go on the offensive. “Why am I here?”
“You are, let us say, under arrest.” The man gave Norman a narrow, toothy smile. “Oh, I will admit we’ve dispensed with the formalities for the moment, but at the end of the day, you will be formally tried and, likely, sentenced.” He bent down a little, eyes almost gleaming, taking on a red tinge. “I would request you abandon any hope of rescue. As I am sure you have divined, any attempt to act against my will is doomed to failure. Oh, I may allow your public defender a modicum of free will, but your fate, as you would say it, is sealed.”
“What are you even charging me with?”
“Oh! I thought it was obvious.” Mr. Malik’s smile twisted upward, creating a strange, feline grin. “Blithe Hollow never repealed its laws prohibiting witchcraft, divination, and necromancy. It is the latter crime which concerns us, as it is quite literally the practice of speaking to the dead.”
“No.” Norman’s chest felt like someone was pressing on it. His breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. The room seemed dim and distant. “You can’t - I won’t go like that.”
“You might have talked down a mob, Norman, but this will be no mob. This will be a kangaroo court, an impossible place where you have no power and your every move is countered by rules you do not understand. You will be tried, convicted, and hanged, and people will rest easy that the one responsible for the mayor’s death is gone.”
Norman stood up so suddenly the chair behind him went rattling into the wall. He stood there, staring at Mr. Malik, trying to find some hint, some suggestion, of the man’s purpose. “You know I didn’t do that.”
Mr. Malik shrugged. “Oh, maybe not on purpose. But when you deal with the dead, you may call...other things. Things you cannot understand. Dangerous things. You must be taught a lesson, so that such things do not happen in the future. And they will not happen, once you are brought to justice.”
Norman felt like he was dancing on ice, his feet slipping out from underneath him. He couldn’t breathe. He scrambled for any hope, any relief. “The death penalty isn’t even legal in Massachusetts!”
“There will, I suspect, be a terrible scandal. People will question why the city council made such a decision. People will speak of the dangers of prejudice and superstition, and they will move on. Things like this happen, and people accept that they happen. But perhaps a charismatic politician will speak out about this, find that he gains support and acclaim for his efforts to prevent such a tragedy.
“You will be a footnote, Norman, in my ascent.”
Norman could barely follow exactly what the man before him was saying, but something filtered through. Something connected in his mind, because a sense of horror flooded through him. He stared at the violet eyes, the smug grin, and he knew that his gut was right. “You killed the mayor. You started all this - for what? Power?”
“To remove obstacles. To remove those who might stand against me.” Mr. Malik shrugged. “You are troublesome, Mr. Babcock. I would see that you no longer are. And that these steps will help me garner additional power is a delightful bonus. You wonder, I suppose, why I am telling you all this?”
Norman stood, frozen, in place, as his mind spun uselessly. He watched as Mr. Malik stepped around the table, close to Norman, leaning close enough that Norman could smell the man’s rotted breath. The smell triggered the memory of what Alvin had told them just days ago: “it even looked like they’d been gnawing on him.”
“I am not a kind man. Knowing that you are aware of all that will transpire and can do nothing to prevent it - that is one of the few joys I will get out of this distasteful task. That, and the opportunity I will have to consume your flesh, still warm after the throes of death. They say mediums taste sweeter than other humans.”
His vicious grin shifted abruptly to a cheerful, guileless smile. “Now, let’s get you back to your cell.”
A fuzzy pressure engulfed Norman’s mind, and he could do nothing but trail after Mr. Malik as the man stepped from the cell. He couldn’t quite recall why he’d been so panicked. It made sense that Mr. Malik find someone to blame for this mess. It made sense that scapegoat should be Norman; no one needed to speak to the dead, anyway.
And necromancy, all the talents he and his friends possessed, were dangerous.
“You look thoughtful. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I just wondered...why you hadn’t arrested Mabel and Coraline yet.”
“Oh, child, you are so naive. Why do you think I have you here? Why do you think I allowed a spirit to reach your cell? Yes, you are a scapegoat. But you are also bait.”
Dipper came to listening to Mabel shouting on the phone at someone. His head was pounding, and his mouth tasted like, urgh, he didn’t know. The last thing he remembered was Mabel announcing she was home…
“I didn’t get possessed again, did I?”
“Oh, thank goodness, I didn’t know how to tell you.” Mabel turned back to the phone. “Get your butt over here yesterday and we’ll talk.” She hopped off of her bed and handed Dipper a glass of water. He sucked it down.
“Okay. What happened.”
“Well.” Mabel tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Good news or bad news first?”
Dipper’s stomach sank. He hated these decisions. “Good news?”
“You were briefly possessed by a ghost. Nice guy. Was executed for strangling three insurance salesmen.”
“How is that your definition of nice?”
Mabel waved her hands dismissively. “Anyway. He had a message from Norman. Apparently he’s been arrested and is in the Blithe Hollow jail.”
“And that’s the good news?”
Mabel shook her head. “Nah, the possession was. I was just on the phone with Coraline. She’s gonna call Neil and see what he can scrounge up and get them all over here.”
Dipper felt his legs waver; he reached out his hand for some support and just managed to unbalance himself, slumping down in front of his bed. “Arrested? Why?”
“I will admit intelligence is not currently our best asset,” Mabel replied. “But I’m sure we’ll have everything worked out soon. Oh, jeez, are you okay?” Dipper shrugged and sighed, his breath shuddering as he did so. “No doy, stupid question. Hey.” Mabel dropped onto the ground next to Dipper, wrapping her arm around his shoulders. “We’re going to get through this. We are the Pines - the Mystery Twins! There is no justice in the world if we can’t get Norman out of this.”
Dipper nodded, even though he felt his eyes tearing up. “I guess so.”
“You guess? Are you a Pines or a mouse, Dipper? Are you ready to give up just because your boyfriend’s in a jail cell? We’ll get together bond money, Atticus Finch, and a file in a cake!” Mabel rose to her feet, hand raised in defiance, dragging Dipper with her. She turned on Dipper, a feral grin on her lips. “Are you with me?”
“Y - yeah.”
“ARE YOU WITH ME?”
A knock came at the door. “Kids, can you keep it down?”
“Sorry, mom! We’re just planning to get Dipper’s boyfriend out of prison.”
“...That Babcock boy?”
“Of course! If you could get snacks together before the rest of the gang arrive, I’d appreciate it. Thanks, mom.”
Mabel turned to Dipper, and hugged him a little tighter. “Come on, we’ve got planning to do.”
Neil arrived first, carrying a backpack full of fantasy novels and role-playing books.
“Geez, I knew you knew about some of this stuff, but I did not expect you to be such a geek,” Mabel said at the sight of them.
“They’re mostly Mitch’s.” Neil jumped onto Dipper’s bed and punched him in the shoulder. “Hey. We’re going to beat this thing. Norman’s faced way worse. He beat a ghost once.”
“And I’ve been reading up on Massachusetts law!” Mabel announced from her bed. She had, in fact, commandeered their laptop and had been browsing wikipedia for the hour it took Neil to show up.
Dipper grabbed one of the books, the Dungeons and Dragons book Neil had once used to offer useful advice on land-sharks, and began leafing through it while Mabel and Neil started discussing defense strategies or something. There were entirely too many creatures with animal heads, the same stupid problem they’d run across before, but he was hoping, vaguely, that some inspiration might strike-
“Face it, kid, you’re not going to figure this out without help.”
Dipper yelped and hurled the book across the room. It hit the far wall and stuck, where a picture of a four-sided die transformed into the form of Bill Cipher, who floated out of the book. He grabbed the book and carried it with him as he drifted back to Dipper’s side.
“Look at this nonsense: bodaks, saughin - how do you even pronounce that, owlbears? I promise you, Pine Tree, this book won’t teach you how to get rid of your problems.” Bill tossed it aside. “But you can ask me for help.”
“What are you doing?” Dipper demanded. “I don’t want your help. I don’t want your games. I don’t want your stupid deals!”
“Can’t blame a triangle for trying,” Bill said, and vanished in a puff of smoke.
“I don’t think we want to claim an insanity defense if our goal is to get Norman back. But creative idea, Mabel.”
“Ow,” Dipper muttered. “I think Bill’s new plan is to drive me crazy.” He rubbed at his head, trying to dispel the pounding.
“Bill? What? Is he trying any nasty tricks?”
“You should get anti-possession tattoos like those guys on TV,” Neil said.
“I don’t know,” Dipper snapped. His head felt fuzzy. “He keeps trying to give me stuff. He was trying to offer me powers earlier, and I don’t know, he was implying he knew what was going on. I think the next time I see him I’m going to punch him right in that stupid eye of his.”
He fell back on his bed, groaning. “Have you ever wished you had a normal life where your boyfriend didn’t get arrested and you didn’t have to use stuff by J.R.R. Tolkien as serious research materials?”
“Me either. It would be easier, though.”
The door slammed open to reveal Coraline, panting, hugging a book the size of her torso against her. “Demons!” she gasped.
“The murder - demons - animal heads - sinister!” Coraline dropped the book and grabbed her knees, breathing heavily. “They gotta...be...behind the...arrest. Got...evil written...all over...it.”
Dipper pumped his fist as a jolt of excitement hit him. “This, I can deal with!”
“Yeah, about that.” Coraline kicked at the ground, uneasily shifting from foot to foot. “Look, Dipper. I might have said some stuff that implied you’re not qualified to deal with this sort of stuff because you’re not...special. I really don’t think I meant it, but if I did, I’m sorry.”
“No, it isn’t!” Coraline stamped her foot. “Norman told me it’s been hurting you to think you can’t contribute, and, yeah, there are things I can do you can’t, but that doesn’t mean you’re useless.”
“Really?” Dipper dropped back onto his bed and kicked his feet. “Tell me one thing I can do that you can’t.”
“Pee standing up!” Neil declared.
“Thanks,” Coraline sighed. “Look, Dipper-”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now. Norman’s in trouble, and we have to figure out what’s going on and how to get him out of it.” Dipper rolled over enough to glare at Coraline. “Because right now I don’t care about anything except him being safe.”
“Right.” Coraline nudged her book aside. “Has anyone called the police station?”
Coraline was on her phone out in the hall for fifteen minutes before she stepped back in. “I’ve got...well, I don’t have any good news. Apparently, Norman’s been arrested for practicing necromancy, which, uh…”
“Wow. They could even get Dipper on that one.”
“Arguable,” Coraline replied. “There’s a question of jurisdiction and - forget it. So, no one’s a hundred percent sure when the trial is, but I’m guessing it’s going to be soon.”
Neil suddenly gasped and grabbed for the laptop; Mabel let him grab it as he typed furiously. Dipper raised himself up enough to watch the boy’s serious expression, the furrowed brow. Neil knew something, and it had upset him. Dipper felt a twist of unease in his stomach. Something about Coraline’s announcement seemed more sinister than it sounded. Wasn’t there something about necromancy, and about Massachusetts…
“Ohmygoshohmygosh.” Neil pointed at his laptop; Mabel leaned over and gasped, raising her hands to her mouth.
“What is it?”
“Oh, jeez, there’s pictures! Stay over there, Dipper!” Dipper froze in the act of standing up at Mabel’s shout. Her eyes were wild and pained, and Dipper’s stomach roiled anxiously.
“Mabel, what’s going on?”
“Well...look, this is Massachusetts. And any town has stupid laws still on the books from when they were old-timey places. So Blithe Hollow’s witchcraft laws are still around. And...the penalty for breaking them is-”
“Hanging.” It was impossible. Massachusetts didn’t hang people, or burn people, anymore. They wouldn’t do it to a kid.
But under the influence of a demon, dead set on some mysterious plan, they might. They would regret it, he knew. But it wouldn’t change the fact that they had…
“It’s going to be tomorrow,” Dipper said.
“What?” Mabel asked.
“The trial’s going to be tomorrow. Whoever’s behind all this, they want to push this through before anyone can think about it.”
“Yeah,” Neil agreed. “Thinking about things is how he broke the Blithe Hollow curse. Talking about them is how we kept the town from hurting him the last time around. Anyone who knows Norman at all would know the best way to keep him down is to keep him off-balance.”
“Well, we’re not going to let this happen,” Mabel declared, slamming her fist (ineffectively) into her mattress. “I mean, we’re smart. We’re resourceful. We can put together a defense and keep Norman out of the hangman’s noose.”
“We might need to pull a Daniel Webster,” Coraline said. “We can’t exactly prove he’s innocent of practicing necromancy.”
“Dipper! Queue all of our courtroom shenanigans movies on Netflix!” Mabel lunged to her desk to produce several pink legal pads and silver glitter pens. “Let’s start with Legally Blonde to get us in the mood.”
What followed were a series of calls to people’s parents to authorize a legal defense brief sleepover, followed by careful study of every stupid legal trick you could use in a courtroom to delay, divert, and otherwise prevent the jury from finding your client guilty.
Dipper went along with it, diligently taking notes as they did so, even though he felt in the pit of his stomach they were wasting their time. If Bill Cipher was an accurate representative of demonkind, demons lied and cheated. Demons didn’t play by the rules, or, if they could help it, rigged the rules so you couldn’t win. Witchcraft trials were the epitome of rigged games, even without demonic influence.
He didn’t think winning the trial was the way.
They needed to get rid of the demon behind it altogether.
His gaze fell on the roleplaying book Bill had tossed aside. Bill was careful with words; Dipper realized that now. He’d never promised Dipper anything in exchange for possessing him. And he hadn’t told Dipper that book wouldn’t help him figure out what was responsible for all this chaos, only that it wasn’t the key to defeating it.
So he read through it, looking for something with an animal head, something that ate human flesh, something that would revel in the sort of cat-and-mouse wrangling where someone would end up dead. He started with the “Outsiders”, because he was willing to trust Coraline’s judgment.
An hour into reading, and close to the end of “My Cousin Vinny”, Dipper looked up from the book. “Have any of you heard of a rakshasa?”
“Cannibalistic Hindu shape-shifting demon,” Coraline recited absently. Her head snapped up, away from the computer screen. A moment later, so did Mabel’s and Neil’s.
“Where did you learn that?”
“I don’t know; I read it somewhere.” Coraline waved at the air vaguely. “I pick these things up. But where did you come up with that name?”
Dipper held up the book. “It says their hands are on backwards, they’ve got weird mind control powers, and...a blessed crossbow bolt can kill them? Do we know any priests?”
Mabel shook her head. “None that will talk to us, anyway.”
Dipper felt three pairs of eyes on him. He folded his arms and scowled at them. “Nobody appreciates honest inquiry these days.”
“Anyway, I think that puts a topper on our legal research, and puts us into the google portion of the evening.” Mabel made a few quick taps on the computer before recoiling. “Ah! Porn!”
Once Mabel was introduced to the wonders of SafeSearch, they spent the next several hours completing their research on rakshasas, looking for a way to take this one down.
And then they slept, readying themselves for the battle the next morning.
Norman woke to a rough shaking; he looked up to meet Officer Wilkes’ stern gaze. The officer’s eyes had stress lines around them, and Norman knew a part of the man was struggling against Mr. Malik’s control. It wasn’t going to help, he knew. This farce was going to end in his and his friends’ deaths unless Norman did something about it.
“Get up. It’s time for court.”
Of course, Norman thought, as he climbed out of the bed. He didn’t feel frightened or angry anymore, just numb. It made sense to push this whole thing through before anyone could think clearly about it. It made pushing them toward it easier.
The courtroom was in Town Hall, so Norman had a brief glimpse of the grey sky before he was ushered back inside and, as it turned out, to a vast audience. Everyone in town was there, all wearing the strange, glassy look of those that had fallen prey to Mr. Malik's influence. The man himself was standing behind the prosecutor's desk, while at the other sat Dipper, Mabel, Neil, and Coraline.
Judge Noriega sat, swaying, in his place, looking like a doll dressed up in period clothes, face almost lost among the curls of the wig topping his head.
It was like some gross re-enactment.
Officer Wilkes nudged Norman's shoulder. "Get along."
Norman did so, passing down the aisle in dead silence, his friends and neighbors watching impassively. Maybe it was a re-enactment; presenting this farce as some sort of play would make it so much easier for Mr. Malik to push for the outcome he wanted. People would see only the struggles of actors, not a child being escorted to his death.
He then reached the defendant's bench. "You shouldn't have come," he whispered to the assembled group.
"We kind of already figured that out." Mabel lifted her hands, which were handcuffed together, and Coraline made a parallel gesture.
Dipper was staring at a legal pad, pink and covered in silver ink. He barely looked up as Norman sidled past Neil to stand next to him.
"I gotta find a way out of this," Dipper muttered, flipping between pages of the notepad.
"There will be silence," Mr. Malik intoned, and Dipper froze in place, his whole body tensing. "Very good. Judge Noriega?"
"Ahem." Judge Noriega shook his head briefly before continuing. "We are here to sit in judgment of Norman Babcock, Mabel Pines, and Caroline Jones, accused of endangering public safety through the practice of witchcraft, that is, of necromancy, divination, consorting with demonic and diabolic forces, the summoning of fell beings, et cetera. How do you plead?"
Dipper shot to his feet. "They plead not guilty!"
"A point of order, Judge." Judge Noriega's head swiveled toward Mr. Malik as if he had tugged a string attached to the judge's nose. "Statute dictates that only a town resident or official may argue before the bench in witchcraft trials."
Norman's heart sank with Dipper's slow drop back to his seat. So this was how the trial was going to be: tricks and loopholes to twist the law against them.
"May we choose our own barrister, then?" Coraline asked. "Or shall we dispense with a defense attorney as you have dispensed with the requirement that at least three sit in judgment of an accused witch?"
“Oh, sorry, sorry.” Judge Noriega slammed his gavel against the bench. “Come on in!”
Two people in judge’s robes stepped from the door and moved to flank Judge Noriega. Despite the heavy wigs and concealing robes, Norman would have recognized them anywhere.
Mr. Malik wanted him to suffer as much as possible.
Norman’s parents were standing there, ready to condemn him.
“But yes, you may declare your barrister,” Mr. Malik said with a feline grin. “Any man of good standing within the community.”
“In that case, we choose Neil Downe!”
Mr. Malik turned a cool gaze on Mabel, who met it with an unwavering smile. “Mr. Downe is a child.”
“Actually, a ruling in 1735 dictated that unless otherwise specified, ‘man’ can refer to ‘any male of moral age who has stood before his fellows in judgment of his worth.’ When was your bar mitzvah, Neil?” Coraline turned to Neil with a thin smile, and then winked at Norman.
Mr. Malik’s expression went through a series of confusing expressions before he smiled, beatifically, and spread his hands. “Of course. Let Mr. Downe be your advocate. Judge Noriega, let us begin.”
Mr. Malik spun on his heel to face the audience. “Our mayor lies dead, mauled by a creature of unknown origins, a beast of horror who painted the scene of the crime with demonic sigils. Such things do not arrive in a town unbidden, and so I argue we must look to the culprits. And for that, we must look to those who dabble in things they do not fully understand. Witchcraft is a subtle and alluring practice, one against which we must guard with constant vigilance. And so I will show that these defendants, these children, have delved deep into powers they do not understand, have touched on things children should not know, and so should face the penalties for this ultimate transgression.”
He bowed to Neil before taking a seat. Norman gave Neil a hopeful smile and a thumbs up. He knew Neil wasn’t necessarily the most eloquent, but he was passionate, and Norman knew he could do it.
It took a moment for Norman to realize Neil was shaking in his seat, and a moment longer to find the cause. Mr. Malik was staring at Neil, his eyes narrowed in laser-like focus.
And then Mabel reached over and patted Neil’s hand; that simple touch seemed to go through Neil like electricity, as he lunged to his feet, slamming his palm onto the table.
“This is not a trial here. This is a witch hunt - literally! The prosecution is relying on nonsensical connections and speculation to make it seem like these kids are threats. They are not delving in powers they don’t understand; they’re using their god-given talents. You can no more prosecute them for that as you could a natural athlete for playing sports. You - you have to remember Blithe Hollow’s history. We have to learn from that - tragic - history before we repeat it.”
He let out his breath in a single loud sigh and then dropped back to his seat.
What followed was the most grueling and stressful day of Norman’s life. First, Mr. Malik drew up a dozen different people to talk, again and again, about Norman’s talents, his claims, and his actions, proving, to the satisfaction of any Medieval court, that Norman was a necromancer. And then he brought forth others, speaking of Mabel’s unnatural charm, of sightings of Coraline speaking to a black cat.
Neil tried his best, Norman knew, but the name of the game was wild speculation and hearsay, superstition and fear. He could only do his best to suggest that the prosecution was just making wild accusations, and watch no one present do more than stare.
And then Neil pushed himself up, walking evenly toward the bench, stopping in front of Norman’s mother. “What we’ve heard is a long litany of people accusing my clients of being witches. But what I’ve failed to hear is a single piece of proof that what they’re doing is witchcraft. Norman has been seeing ghosts all his life. Mabel is imaginative and cheerful. And Coraline...she can’t help what’s happened to her in her life. No one can help the way they’re born. So show me. Tell us what makes these gifts witchcraft. Prove to us that what these children do is - is magic.”
Mr. Malik rose smoothly, face impassive, as he stepped in front of Norman’s father. “Magic, the art of seeing certain truths in the world and manipulating that aspect of them, is the gift and bailiwick of the devas and the asuras - the gods and the devils. All those who possess such power have been touched by those powers - either through gifting or bargaining. As such, these powers are themselves evidence of congress with powers beyond mortal ken. That is your proof, Mr. Downe. And before you ask, I will demonstrate to the court the source of my expertise.”
Mr. Malik’s form seemed to melt and shift to reveal something out of a nightmare, a human-shaped creature covered in blood-red fur, topped with a vicious, monstrous head, feline in its overall shape, but demonic in its execution. It looked like some cross between some ancestral hunting cat and a dragon. Its hands, Norman saw, were wrong, somehow, in the way he held them and moved its clawed, paw-like hands. Its eyes were still violet, cat-slitted and hungry as they passed over Norman and his co-defendants.
“If it would please the court, I would like to enter these facts under the testimony of Ravana, the demon king.”
Norman didn’t need to see the nods of the audience to know Mr. Malik - Ravana - was holding them fully in his thrall, now, no longer exerting any power to maintain his false face.
“So it should be apparent that these children, despite their appearance, have been in concert with fell powers, and have brought doom down upon this town.” Ravana turned on Neil, eyes all but blazing, looming over the boy. “Any questions?”
“Yeah, why aren’t we putting you on trial?”
“What crime have I committed in the bounds of this city, of the state, of this nation?”
“Going out in front of people looking like that.”
Ravana’s right eye twitched once before he spun back to the judge. “Please counsel Mr. Downe to retain his composure. And let him know petty insults will not make his case.”
“This is wrong!”
The abrupt sound next to him startled Norman, nearly sending him tumbling out of his seat. Dipper was standing, both hands on the table, glaring at Ravana. “This is some sort of sick joke, acting like any of this is fair! You just want an audience for when you rake us over the coals and for when you - you kill us.” He turned back to face the gathered audience. “Why aren’t any of you doing anything to stop this? This is wrong! You’re all being manipulated!”
“Oh, Pine Tree,” Ravana crooned, crossing back to the defendant’s table. “They think this is a play, that none of this is real. What they see is governed by many filters of perception I have laid upon them. Even you sitting here shouting at them is nothing more than a part of the show. They won’t realize this is real until it’s too late for your friends. Now I think you’re out of order. Bailiff?”
“You’re out of order!” Dipper roared. “This whole system is out of order! You’ll have to drag me out of here!”
When that was finished, Ravana took what might as well have been his throne, the space just below the judge’s bench. “Now, I think the time has come for closing statements. I believe I have shown, through testimony of eyewitnesses and other experts, that the accused possess powers of supernatural origin, powers which, revealed through my expert testimony, must be derived from consort with dark powers. To do anything other than convict them for these crimes and show them only the mercy of a swift death would be to encourage such congress and the spread of such terror that has beset the town with the death of your mayor.”
“You’re wrong,” Neil said. “This - maybe these powers come from demons, but whatever the source, you have to think about how they use them. You know Norman, and you remember when he saved all of us from the witch’s curse - the curse we caused by persecuting a little girl who was just different. To repeat that - to punish someone for doing nothing more than living the way they were born - is no better than whatever Mr. - Ravana - is accusing them of. So please, don’t just listen to this - this crap, and let them go.”
Ravana didn’t shift, just nodded up at the judges. “Well, why don’t you go deliberate-”
The fire alarm went off, a loud, irregular clanging that made everyone in the room clap their hands over their ears. Ravana winced, grabbing at his own, while the audience began, slowly, scrambling out of their seats and out of the courtroom.
“Dipper, you mad genius,” Mabel murmured.
“Dipper?” As the bailiff grabbed Norman, Mabel, and Coraline to escort them to safety, Norman realized exactly what Mabel was getting at. Ravana was keeping everyone in check, letting them think they were watching a scene they had no connection to, so any demand that they care, that they involve themselves in stopping this, would fall on deaf ears.
But no amount of clouding could keep people from reacting, on instinct born from years of routine, to a fire alarm. It would buy them only a few minutes, but maybe Dipper had a plan-
“Do you smell smoke?” Neil asked.
Dipper apparently had a plan, which was to burn City Hall to the ground. It was admittedly an impressive sight, watching the building burn merrily as the fire department tried to get to the station. By the time they returned with the engine, the building was all but cinders, and more than half the gathered people had drifted away, denying Ravana his audience and his dramatic moment. It was no more than a delay, Norman knew, but the stay of execution, as it were, was a welcome relief.
“Man, I wish I had a boyfriend who’d commit arson for me,” Mabel said dreamily.
Dipper slept uneasily that night, plagued by the spinning of his mind trying to find some solution to this mess. He woke long before dawn, determined to spend the rest of the day trying to plan for Ravana’s eventual counter-attack. He’d gotten enough research done to know Ravana was powerful and dangerous and about everything he’d have expected from someone who called himself a demon king.
His parents seemed to have vanished. Dipper wasn’t certain if they’d been at the trial or not, but he couldn’t imagine that Ravana would have seen fit to leave them unmolested to potentially upset his plots.It meant, ultimately, that this was all up to Dipper.
He decided to risk Google again, carefully typing in ‘rakshasa’, and, for the heck of it, ‘kill’.
His news feed popped up first, and that, unfortunately, seized his attention. Arson had done little to slow Ravana’s plans, if the headline from the Blithe Hollow Bugle proclaiming, “Local Teens to Hang for Witchcraft,” was any indication.
Dipper sat there, staring at the headline, for close to an hour. Part of him refused to believe it. The part of him that did believe it was absolutely numb. He'd assumed he could find a way to stop the trial, to defeat Ravana, and save the day. He'd actually hoped to expose Ravana, but the demon had done that himself, and his hold on those around him seemed even stronger.
The phone ringing brought Dipper back to reality; when he reached it to answer, it was to Neil's breathless voice. "Dipper! Ravana called some sort of secret council or something and they've decided they're going to hang Norman and everyone else midnight tonight!"
The other boy's panic did something to Dipper. He'd known, staring at the computer, that something had to be done. Neil's panic, the complete absence of a response from his parents, meant that Dipper didn't see anyone who could step up to do anything.
But something still needed to be done.
New resolve bubbled up through his body. "Neil. See if you can look up ways to delay this. If all else fails, set some fires. You should be okay; Ravana doesn't seem to care about us because we're not...gifted."
Dipper heard a wavering sigh from Neil. "Okay. That sounds good. What are you going to do?"
"I...am going to the library."
Dipper was a familiar face at the Winter Glen Public Library; he'd spent much of the past six years in and out of the stacks discussing the supernatural. But no longer studying for idle curiosity, Dipper didn't have time to waste looking on his own.
He strode up to the main desk, an ancient wooden monstrosity staffed by the 90-year-old Miss Phelps and her trusty computer. The wizened woman looked up at Dipper's approach, pale green eyes scanning him with a keenness that she'd hung onto grimly in her many years of service.
"And what can I do for you, Dipper?"
"I need to do some research. On demons. Um. Indian demons - rakshasa? And I'm sort of in a hurry."
Miss Phelps narrowed her eyes at Dipper. "Not looking to summon fell beings, are we?"
"Just the opposite, ma'am."
She chuckled. "Well. If you'll give me a moment." She tapped a few keys on her computer before nodding once, decisively, a small, satisfied grin gracing her lips. "As I thought. Normally I'd suggest you read The Ramayana, but on a time crunch, you might to settle for some secondary analyses. I'll give you Wormwood's and Dutt's analyses, for two perspectives. Now, I'm going to suggest the Tancredi popular culture summary, as well; you never know when the stuff that's made it into common consciousness might be true. Given the nature of the beast, aha, I think we can dispense with the Key of Solomon, unless you think a Christian perspective would be particularly useful? No. Well. I'll just be one second."
Miss Phelps pushed at the counter, rolling out from behind it on her office chair. She'd apparently had the carpets ripped out ten years ago so she could make allowances for her slow movement, and the sight of her sailing through the stacks was a common, if still highly entertaining sight.
She returned to the desk a minute later, the books in question balanced on her lap. "Here we go! Shall I check these out for you?"
Dipper had never seen anyone who could work a library scanner as well as this nonagenarian; she had him checked out and ready to go seconds later. "Now, there's a quiet table back there near biographies. No one goes over there until around April when all your teachers start assigning 'Great Americans' projects."
"Thank you!" Dipper clapped his hands over his mouth a moment too late at the loud exclamation. "Sorry," he muttered.
"I'll overlook it this time," Miss Phelps said cheerily. "Now go on."
The books Miss Phelps had provided were enlightening, even if Dipper wasn't certain how helpful they were. The summaries of The Ramayana discussed a lot of cultural background for what amount to a big war between the sort-of demigod Rama and the sort-of demon king Ravana. It would have been much more helpful if there had been some indication of where one could get the god-killing superweapon Rama had used to win.
The other books listed a host of ways mythology and popular culture had identified to defeat a rakshasa. Dipper had no idea where he'd get a crossbow, much less a priest to bless the bolts (honest theological inquiry apparently wasn’t valued in the ecclesiastical community). The same went for a brass knife, and he was certain that he didn't have access to any herbs listed anywhere that were good against demons.
He was about to start on the Ramayana stuff a third time when the air went still and grey and the eye on a cheesy rebus poster declaring "Eye Heart Books" blinked, revealing Bill Cipher.
"Hey, Pine Tree. Wow. I would not have expected you to be so cold." Bill snapped his fingers, dropping a pile of blood-red snow on Dipper's head. "Most kids, their boyfriend is on Death Row, they find people to shout at. You go to the library. Let's see what you're reading." Bill grabbed Dipper's books, turning them sideways in his examination. "Wow. This crap is utterly useless. I would not try that brass knife thing - it would not end well for you. And frankly, I think this whole sacred weapon thing is just going to use up a lot of precious time. After all, I can help you out right now."
"This is your last, absolutely final chance, Pine Tree. I'll give you powers you can use to rescue your sister, your boyfriend, and that...new girl he can relate to much better than he can you. And this once-in-a-lifetime offer comes with no strings attached. All you have to do is shake my hand."
Dipper glared at Bill as best he could. "Why do you want me to do this that badly?"
"Me? I couldn't care less about Eyeball, Shooting Star, or that Button chick. Hell, I'd probably be better off if they all bought the farm. Except Eyeball, maybe. Killing mediums is sort of a crapshoot. Either they're the type to pass on peacefully, or lay vengeful dying curses on you. Lucky I'm not the one pulling the plug on that one.
"But I like you, Pine Tree. You've got potential. So this is me offering, for the last time, to help you out." Bill settled next to Dipper's shoulder, wrapping a stick arm around it. The sensation was unsettling; Dipper could feel the thin, bone-like texture with an unearthly chill, while at the same time feeling a thick, muscular arm, warm and fur-covered, wrapped around him. It was a grim reminder that Bill Cipher was not what he seemed, and that nothing he said could be taken at face value.
"Plus, I've heard that rescuing someone from certain death is an aphrodisiac. You'd have one thankful medium on your hands, then." Bill's single eyebrow waggled suggestively. You could re-enact some of those very graphic dreams you've had."
Dipper shoved the triangle away, aware that there was more mass packed into that shape than there should be for something so...insubstantial. "Jeez! I'm fourteen! I'm not ready to - to-" He stopped, aware that he had been about to discuss some very intimate fantasies with his mortal (immortal?) enemy. He could feel his face heating, probably a ridiculous shade of red already.
"You, kid, are almost comically boring." Bill Cipher folded his arms, eye narrowing. "This is the best deal you're likely to get, you know. There is no justice, no mercy in Ravana."
Dipper growled, and turned on the triangle, grabbing his stupid hat off his stupid head and crushing it in his hands. It felt both like fabric and like wrapping his hand around an impossibly cold volume of air. "There is nothing, nothing, that would make me make another deal with you. So get out of here and don't come back."
Bill's eye had widened in shock when Dipper grabbed his hat. It had settled, however, into a narrow glare, a slit so narrow Dipper could only tell it was open by the dangerous red light leaking through the crack.
"Fine. I want you to remember, Pine Tree, that I tried to help you. It'll be cold comfort, I bet, when your sister's dead."
Bill was raising his hand to snap his fingers when something brushed past Dipper's legs, jolting him out of Bill's dream world. "Yaa!"
"I'll just give you a warning this time, Mr. Pines!"
Dipper crawled toward the table from where he'd fallen, pausing when he saw the source of his panic. A black cat sat under the library table, calmly washing itself. Dipper stared for a few moments, trying to reorient himself to reality. At last, he reached out a cautious hand to the cat.
"Hey, little guy. You shouldn't be in here." The cat paused in its washing and gave Dipper a disdainful glare. Dipper waved his hands in front of him. "Sorry. I was just looking out for you." The cat rolled its eyes and ambled to Dipper's side, rubbing its head against him, and then stepping back, just out of reach. It took another step back before stopping, staring fixedly at Dipper.
"That's the way out, yeah," Dipper said. The cat turned away and took a few more steps before it stopped, looked back, and then stalked back to Dipper's side. It took a step back and sat, waiting.
For him, Dipper realized with a jolt of awareness.
Well, he thought, scrambling up from his hands and knees, it was far from the weirdest thing he'd ever done. "Alright. Where are we going?"
The cat led him to the actual bus station, sitting meowing in front of the bus to Blithe Hollow until Dipper got on. The cat disappeared until Dipper got off, and then what followed was a bizarre, circuitous, and repetitive tour of Blithe Hollow. Dipper followed doggedly, certain that whatever the cat wanted to show him was important. The fifth time he passed the stupid half-alley on Dharma Lane, however, he was done, and collapsed against the wall. "Okay, I don't think I can do this anymore," he sighed, waving at the cat, who turned, staring at him reproachfully. Really, the range of expression the cat had was remarkable...
As Dipper met the cat's gaze, however, he felt his perception shift, like the moment when he would see the picture of the two faces in the drawing of a vase, or the old lady in the picture of the young woman. A shift in perspective let him see, for a moment, the cat as only a dark outline, a hole or portal or projection that happened to be shaped like a cat.
"Yeowr," the cat protested.
Dipper looked away, and in the same moment, the world seemed different in subtle ways he couldn't immediately identify. He turned, and behind him, where the half-alley between 12 and 14 Dharma Lane should have been, was a short alcove that ended in a door. Something nudged at his feet, pushing him a step toward Number 13 Dharma Lane. Dipper looked down at the cat, who meowed loudly, but made no other move.
"So this is what you were trying to show me? Were we going to walk past it all day?"
The cat sighed and sat, eyes narrowing. Realization dawned.
"You were waiting for me to find it on my own? What if I never did?"
The cat shrugged, and it occurred to Dipper that he knew nothing about this creature, about its origins, or about its motives. He somehow doubted it was leading him here out of concern for Norman's, Mabel's, or Coraline's well-being. At the same time...
It had made no demands, no offers. It had let Dipper choose whether or not to follow it. And he felt in his gut that this was the way to go.
So he stepped up to Number 13 and opened the door. He had a brief glimpse of a glowing portal and a yawning face and then everything went dark.
The room was barely ten feet to a side, perfectly square, and the jade-covered walls carved with elaborate mazelike designs. Dipper had spent a moment examining it, and was convinced that the floor, walls, and ceiling consisted of a single contiguous path. The whole thing was lit by a steady, sourceless white light. Just off-center on the floor, was a knee-high pedestal topped with a curved wooden item. It was shaped vaguely like a knife, and covered with vibrant twisting patterns.
There was no obvious exit from the room, so Dipper picked up the wooden knife.
When he turned to the wall behind the pedestal, there was a ten-foot gap stretching from floor to ceiling. Beyond was a dense, steamy forest made up of unfamiliar trees draped with trailing vines.
“Great,” Dipper muttered. “Weird puzzle shit.”
As he stepped out of the room into the soft green light beyond, a large shape flapped into view, a gigantic raven that perched on a moss-covered rock. “You’re really hard to please, you know that?”
Dipper blinked at the thing. It cocked its head at him and croaked.
“Did you just talk?”
“I resent the incredulity inherent in that statement. Ravens are very intelligent.”
“Sorry. I’ve just never heard one talk before.”
The raven ruffled its feathers in a sort of shrug. “It’s too much of a hassle for most of us. But when you’re a paragon of raven-ness, putting forth sage and cryptic advice in the recipient’s language is sort of expected.”
“What, are you my spirit guide?”
The raven smacked Dipper’s head with the tip of its wing. “This is my forest, or at least the place I live. I check in on people who wander through it. What you’re looking for is probably on the other side.”
“And how do you know that?”
The raven pointed at the wooden knife. “You’ve got a phurba on you. You don’t carry ghost-killing weapons unless you’re planning to cross through the Swamp of the Dead. Which is on the other side of the forest.”
“Oh.” Dipper looked at the dense forest before him, and then down at his sneakers, jeans, and vest. “Do you think you might be willing to take me across?”
The raven hopped off its rock and so close that it was breathing down Dipper’s neck. He remained in place, stock-still, hoping the raven wasn’t planning to eat him or anything.
“I don’t see why I should,” it said at last.
“I didn’t say you should. I wanted to know if you would.” Dipper looked up at the bird. “I don’t really have anything to offer you, but I just hoped…” He shrugged. “If you don’t want to, I’ll be fine, I’m sure. It can’t be worse than the forest in Gravity Falls.”
The raven threw its head back, letting out a croaking laugh. “I like you, kid.” It lowered its body and spread its wings. “Grab on and hold onto your hat.”
“Thanks!” Dipper scrambled aboard, grabbing onto the feathers right behind the raven’s neck. It launched into the air with a series of bone-jarring flaps, nearly knocking Dipper off. And then they were above the canopy, and Dipper could see...Raven’s forest was much, much larger than he’d imagined. It stretched out to the horizon in every direction except behind him, massive trunks rising above the rest like skyscrapers.
The raven snapped its wings out and began to glide over the forest, interspersing its movement with the occasional flap to gain air.
“Um. What would have happened if you hadn’t given me a ride?”
“Who knows? It’s not an easy trip. There’s a lot of dangerous things in there. If you were smart, or lucky, you might make it out alive.” The raven continued in silence for a few more minutes; Dipper could see the edge of the forest approaching slowly.
“What’s after the forest?”
“The Swamp of the Dead. Not a fun place. Full of ghosts.”
“And beyond that?”
The raven chuckled. “You don’t know what you’re looking for, kid.”
“No.” Dipper took a deep breath. “I’m hoping...that this is leading me to a way to defeat Ravana.”
The raven swerved, making a dismayed croak. “You dream big, kid. Next you’re going to tell me you want to find a way to deal with Bill Cipher.”
Dipper shrugged. “That’s sort of a long-term goal.”
The raven’s croaking laughter was almost deafening. “Well, if you survive this, don’t run right off to fight Cipher right away. Stay off of his radar. The worst thing you can possibly do is get noticed by him.”
“Ah.” Dipper’s hands clenched in the raven’s feathers. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Don’t worry so much about what’s going on in here, though. Thinking is your worst enemy here.” The raven banked, soaring lower as it passed the edge of the forest.
It landed moments later, shaking itself as Dipper dismounted. Dipper looked for a hand to shake, and when he found nothing, bowed to the raven.
“Thank you so much. If there’s anything I can ever do for you-”
“Tch. Don’t bother.” The raven fluttered its wings, ready to launch into the air. “And a piece of advice: don’t make that sort of promise to anyone else. There is no justice in the realm of magic, and no one to save you from an unscrupulous creditor.” The raven was then gone in a flurry of black, leaving Dipper standing on the edge of a swamp, a dank, misty forest filled with twisted trees and wide stretches of water of indeterminate depth.
Well, he was here.
He strode into the swamp and was immediately engulfed in a patch of ground that turned out to be neck-deep moss-covered water.The black liquid tasted about as terrible as it looked, and Dipper spent several moments spitting to remove the taste from his mouth after he crawled out onto relatively dry land. He only moved when he heard a faint, distant sound, a splash that suggested movement of something toward him.
He wouldn’t need a weapon for killing ghosts if he weren’t in the Swamp of the Dead.
Dipper scrambled to his feet and began moving, trying to temper the need to seek out solid ground for his need for speed. Every few minutes, a splash or rustle or, once, a distant moan, echoed through the mist, which muffled all sounds, making distance impossible to judge. Each sound sent a spike of panic through his chest and made him begin moving a little faster, paying a little less attention toward finding safe ground.
He didn’t know how long he had been moving, how long he had been running, before he caught sight of an indistinct shape moving in the mist. He bolted away from it and almost fell into a sucking pit of mud; he lost his right shoe anyway. Rustles and splashes heralded the appearance of other shapes in the darkness, and Dipper all but abandoned his caution, sprinting as fast as he could toward what he thought the end of the swamp was. He made it another hundred yards before he fell into a waist-deep quagmire that sucked up his other shoe with a squelch. He struggled to move forward, but he made horrifyingly slow progress as the dark shapes drew closer, and the first few slid into sight. The forms were indistinct, humanoid, and translucent. He could see faint green auras around each individual ghost.
“Don’t eat me!” Dipper wailed. “I bet my soul tastes terrible; I never bathe!”
The shadows paused, considering. It was highly unnerving, seeing these indistinguishable forms regarding him coolly.
Or were they?
Norman spoke to ghosts; he knew and recognized them. Dipper shook his head to clear it of his panic and stared carefully at one, trying to shift his perspective, the way he had in the alley. These weren’t formless nightmares. They were people.
A dark-haired girl, framed in green and dressed in clothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place among the Puritans, hovered six inches above the surface of the swamp, dangling as if gravity were still dragging on her.
He raised his hands in surrender to her, even as the forms of the others clarified in his peripheral vision. “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t hurt me...Miss.”
She tilted her head, fixing her gaze on his right hand. Dipper followed her gaze to the phurba still clutched there. “You’ve got a phurba,” she murmured.
“Oh, this?” Dipper dropped it into the swamp. “Nope. No phurba here.”
She drifted closer, still remaining above the surface. Her eyes, faceted and almost fractured, like Norman’s, shifted down, gaze focused on Norman’s face. This close, Dipper could see it wasn’t just her eyes that reminded him of Norman; there were similarities in the shape of her face, as well. He wondered if it would help or hurt to tell her he was dating her relative.
“You were pursued by ghosts in the Swamp of the Dead, and the thought of using this weapon against us didn’t occur to you?”
Dipper looked at the small circles of the sinking phurba, and wondered that himself. The raven had said thoughts were his enemy here, but an actual thought-out answer to this girl might help him.
He slapped his forehead into his palm. As last words, the uncertain ‘um’ ranked down there as the absolute worst.
But the girl was smiling. “How strange. You are looking for a weapon, but you do not use the ones handed to you?”
“I didn’t come here to fight you,” Dipper protested.
The girl’s smile widened. “Then let’s get you out of this dank swamp.” She raised one hand, and Dipper felt himself lifted free of the mud and water. She turned and began drifting at a 45-degree angle from the direction Dipper had been traveling. He saw the other ghosts, men and women dressed in clothing that spanned two centuries and three continents of fashion.
They moved quickly among the trees, although the girl accidentally ran Dipper into a few trees before she was able to consistently guide him after her.
At last, they came to the foot of a mountain, at the beginning of a smooth dirt path that wound up its sides, to the point high above where it rose into snowy peaks. There was a boy, dark-haired, slender, dressed in a far more modern white T and jeans, resting on a stone near the start of the path. As the ghost dropped Dipper to the ground, the boy looked up, startled, vibrant blue eyes widened at the sight of Dipper.
He glanced slightly to the right, though, narrowing his eyes at the girl. “I thought I told you to get lost,” he growled.
The girl snorted and raised her hands above her head. “I’m just helping out a kid who’s a lot nicer than you. Now I’m going back to the swamp where we’re going to talk about how nice life is without rude jerks messing it up.” She flipped the dark-haired boy the bird as she drifted back into the swamp.
Dipper took a cautious step toward the other boy. “Are you going to attack me?”
“I sincerely doubt it.” The kid hopped down from the rock. “Not unless you’re here to stop me getting up the mountain.”
Dipper looked up, and up, and up, to the towering top of the mountain. It was almost impossibly high, but the path seemed to be an easy walk around the base. “What’s up there?”
“A way to stop Death, I hope,” the other boy muttered. He glanced at Dipper and held out a hand. “I’m Danny, by the way.”
“Dipper.” Dipper took the hand and shook it. “I think we might be headed the same way. Do you want to join forces?”
Danny’s smile turned into a smirk. “Sure. The more the merrier. At least until I’ve got to go my own way. Then I’m not afraid to leave you behind.” His eyes narrowed for a moment, and Dipper felt a chill.
Still, Danny looked friendly enough, so Dipper was sure there wasn’t going to be a problem.
The mountain was anti-climactic; if it weren’t for the underlying tension of knowing his sister and boyfriend were in imminent danger of being hanged, Dipper might have enjoyed the walk. The air was crisp and clear, the sky a clear blue, and his walking companion silent.
Dipper offered Danny a few sidelong glances. The boy was a few years older than him, closer to Wendy’s age than Dipper’s, and wore a somber expression as he climbed. It was, Dipper suspected, something about his cryptic statement earlier.
“What do you mean about wanting to stop Death?”
Danny sighed. “Yeah, it sounded a little more dramatic than it is, probably. It’s this...woman. Powerful. Dangerous. She managed to get ahold of some of my friends, and she’s going to hurt them if I don’t find a way to get out of it.”
“And what? She calls herself Death?”
Danny shook his head. “Everyone else does. You would, too. She’s got this stupid black cloak and these red eyes that look like evil rubies. And she’s got a scythe that can kill ghosts, so she can kill people deader than dead.”
“Man, and I thought Ravana was bad. Where is she wandering around?”
Danny laughed, his voice shaking a little. “That’s the good news. She’s stuck in another dimension until some ridiculous prophecy comes true. The bad news being, of course, the fact she dragged my friends in with her. So that’s my story. What’s yours?”
“My sister and boyfriend are going to hang for witchcraft unless I can banish a demon,” Dipper replied. “So, there’s that.”
Danny looked back at Dipper, one eyebrow raised disbelievingly. “Where the hell do you live?”
“Winter Glen, Massachusetts by way of Gravity Falls. You?”
“Amity Park, Minnesota.”
“I’ve never thought Amity Park was a particularly weird place.”
“There are people that benefit from keeping our name out of the papers,” Danny replied with a careless shrug. “Every town’s got its secrets, right?”
Dipper nodded. He wanted so badly to press, to bond over lives spent dealing with the supernatural. But he could barely focus on maintaining a conversation with the looming threat of Ravana’s execution. As he offered a glance at Danny’s somber expression, Dipper realized Danny was probably feeling the same way. His shoulders were tense, his hands clenched, and Dipper didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the beat-down that body language was signalling.
The next turn in the road revealed to them a wide gap, with a six-inch ledge on the left, mountain-side of it. Danny scowled and stepped toward the ledge. As he stepped onto the narrow bridge, Dipper stretched out a hand.
Danny stared at him for a long moment, narrow-eyed, before accepting the grip. Their path was about twenty feet of precariously edging along. His time with the Manotaurs had left Dipper slightly more balanced than he had been in prior years, but he felt better for having someone to hold onto.
Two-thirds of the way along, Danny slipped. He didn’t make an effort to grab at the edge, which meant the only thing that kept him plunging to his death was Dipper’s desperate grab and the combined strength and dexterity of his time with the Manotaurs (and, if he were forced to admit it, regular trips to the gym). When Danny stopped falling, the jolt nearly sent Dipper, crouching on the edge, tumbling after him. But thankfully, Danny was lighter than his frame would have suggested.
“Okay,” Dipper said through clenched teeth, holding onto the boy swinging below him. “Do you want to climb up or see if I can get you all the way over there?”
Danny stared blankly up at Dipper. His grip was spastic and weak. “You-”
“We can talk about this later; just give me a direction,” Dipper grunted.
Danny scrambled up to the ledge and shimmied to safety. Dipper followed, and didn’t breathe easily until they both stood on solid ground. He clapped Danny on the shoulder. “That was exciting.”
“Yeah,” Danny panted.
Dipper stepped back. This wasn’t quite what he’d expected from a guy who hinted he dealt with Gravity Falls-style weirdness on a regular basis. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Danny gasped. “Just…give me a minute.” His hands were fisted in his jeans and he was breathing hard, but his breath was coming easier. After another few moments, he stood. “Just not used to it.”
Once Danny was up and about again, Dipper led the way up the path until they reached a rickety bridge. Bridge was actually a very generous classification. It was a pair of ropes with the occasional rotting wooden slat between them.
“Okay. Um. Do you want to go first?”
Danny shot Dipper a sharp look before nodding. “Sure.”
“I’ll keep an eye out, and I’ll follow once you’ve crossed.”
Danny nodded again and dropped to his knees, crawling onto the first slat. He moved slowly, uncertainly, and Dipper was reminded of how bodies possessed by Bill Cipher moved, unused to controlling a physical form.
When Danny reached the other side, he rose, turned back, and sliced through one of the ropes holding up the bridge with a pocketknife.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
Danny shrugged and cut the other, sending the bridge slamming down onto the nearer side of the gap. “You need something to beat a demon, Dipper. I need something to take down Death. We both knew we’re each looking for the same thing.” He paused, and while it was a little too far for clear detail, Dipper could see a flash of remorse flicker across Danny’s face. “I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to - Sam and Jazz are - I can’t leave them.” He turned and sprinted up the path, visible for only seconds before he passed around a corner.
Dipper dropped to his knees, staring at the thirty-foot gap and the fallen bridge. The sight of the literal collapse of his hope of saving Mabel and Norman was almost too much; his breaths were far too shallow and his vision was greying.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck.” A sob escaped his throat amid the cursing, and he…
This wasn’t helping. He couldn’t sit here and cry. It wouldn’t help anyone. Now, standing up, taking stock of his surroundings, finding something he could do, that would help.
Dipper’s movements were shaky as he stood, but his mind was clearing. The bridge was shot. There was no way he could use it to cross.
That wasn’t true.
There was no way he could use it as a bridge.
All he needed to figure was if he could pull the bridge up to his side of the gap.
The act of dragging up the remnants of the bridge was easier than Dipper had expected, but the act of untying the ropes knotted about the planks took a lot longer than he’d hoped. Once he was done, he had two lengths of rope, each just about the length of the gap.
Tied together, and knotted around the planks, he had…
A grappling hook.
Once he had the admittedly low-tech grapple assembled, Dipper lined up his aim and let fly. The wood sailed around the post that had secured the bridge at the far end, wrapping around it twice, and sticking. Dipper tugged at it two or three times to confirm it was steady, and then, holding the rope tightly, leapt off the edge.
He just barely avoided being smashed against the far wall, although the shock of it nearly sent his shin bones to collide with his chin. The climb up was refreshingly short, and once at the top, Dipper returned to his trek up the mountain, alone this time.
The broken bridge was only a few minutes from Dipper’s apparent destination, a wide facade set in front of a cavern, decorated with glass mosaics. A woman sat before a door set in the center of the facade, crosslegged with eyes closed. Her appearance was difficult to pin down; all Dipper could say for certain was that it was a woman. Censers sat to either side of her, producing white smoke that smelled faintly of lavender. Danny was nowhere to be seen.
Her eyes slitted open, and the woman stood. “Dipper Pines. You have come seeking the Brahmastra.”
“The weapon. The tool that will defeat any foe.”
“But Danny got here first. You should have given it to him; he’s got people in trouble too!”
The woman raised a hand to her chin, tapping it thoughtfully. “He betrayed you to seek this place in your stead.”
Dipper shrugged. “Yeah, sure, but it’s not like he did it to be mean. I’d hate to get up here and start arguing with you about which one of us deserves the whatever-this-is. I might have...thought about doing the same thing if I were in his place.”
“And yet the thought of betrayal did not cross your mind.”
“Ah...well, no.” Dipper gave the woman a half-hearted smile. “I don’t always come up with the best plans.”
“Truly? You are standing here, guided by those who threatened you, aided by your rivals, and carried forward by your own ingenuity. Truly, there is no justice if such a man has not earned the right to bear the Brahmastra.”
“But Danny got here first! He...did get here, right?”
The woman smiled, a thin, secret smile. “I gave him what he needed, which was not the Brahmastra. Even that weapon could not destroy Death in her own realm. The time will come when she will face her fate. You, however, do require the weapon.”
Dipper grinned. It was good to know Danny’s friends were going to be okay, and better to know he was getting the Brahmastra. “Is it inside there?”
“No. I am the guardian of the Brahmastra, so it is always in my care.” The woman spread her arms, and Dipper realized with a shock that she had six. She held her palms inward, forming a circle at her stomach level, in which Brahmastra materialized.
She reached inside and handed the item to Dipper. He stared down at the weapon, said to be able to kill a demon, a plastic toy ray gun, painted yellow and green. The paint was flaking from it.
“This doesn’t look like a weapon that can kill a demon. It doesn’t look like it could hurt a fly!”
“Surely you have learned that our eyes lie to us, unless we learn to see things as they are. But even to such awareness, the Brahmastra’s true nature is concealed until the proper mantra is spoken.”
“And what’s the mantra?”
The woman shrugged. “It is a phrase needed to awaken the Brahmastra’s destructive nature. It is something granted to each who is fated to turn its power against an unrighteous foe.”
“And where do I find it?”
“It will be known to you at the proper moment, if you are fated to wield it.”
“And if I’m not?”
“Then the power of Brahmastra will not awaken for you.”
Dipper grit his teeth. “So I’ll wing it,” he said. “How do I get home?”
The woman gestured to the open door in the facade. “The same way I sent your friend.”
“Alright. Let’s go!” Dipper sprinted to the gateway, and when he emerged, nearly tripped over the cat, who was still waiting outside the alley. Blithe Hollow was dark, the streetlights piercing the night.
“Cutting it a little close, eh, kid?”
Dipper glanced down at the cat, who was sitting in the exact same place it had been when he’d left, and seemed mostly unconcerned with Dipper’s existence. “What do you mean?” There didn’t seem to be much point in acting surprised that the cat could speak, especially given that Dipper had just been on some sort of spirit quest.
“It’s 11:45. By my count, you’ve got fifteen minutes until the ball drops, as it were.”
“Fuck!” Dipper glanced down to make certain he was holding the Brahmastra and turned down the street at a sprint, knowing he only had a few minutes to get to the town square before his sister and boyfriend were hanged. And, for that matter, a miracle for him to find a way to actually use the Brahmastra to stop Ravana.
Someone had given Norman a coat. They were going to execute him any moment, and someone had thought he shouldn't be cold. If it weren't so horrifying, he might laugh.
They'd built a platform for the hanging, something likely tucked away once for more witchcraft merchandising. Norman stood below the middle noose, with Mabel on his left and Coraline his right. The ghosts of Blithe Hollow filled the square nearly as densely as the people, although the ghosts' expressions held the worry and sympathy the hypnotized populace couldn't express.
"Now would be an excellent time to show up with some advice," Coraline muttered, apparently to thin air.
Mabel had shut her eyes the moment they'd brought the three of them up here, twenty minutes ago. Her voice spoke an endless mantra. "He's going to come. He's going to come. He's going to come."
Norman didn't doubt Dipper was going to show up. His doubt was whether Dipper could do anything to help. Neil had been standing at the side of the platform, hands cuffed behind him, when they'd arrived, suggestive of some attempt to stop the proceedings. He wasn't looking up at them, which Norman didn't blame him for.
"Mabel, can you break his hold on them?"
She shook her head violently. "He's not controlling them. He's changing what they're hearing and seeing. It's too - I can't shake it."
"It will be, when Dipper shows up."
"Sure." Norman didn't have the energy spending his last minutes of life arguing with Mabel that Dipper wasn't going to be able to save them. He wondered, idly, if he would become a ghost afterward. It would be nice to keep an eye on Dipper for a while...
"Good evening." Ravana, still free of the illusion that hid his monstrous form, had taken the stage. His arms were spread wide, palms twisted back to face Norman. Polite claps and cheers proved that the townsfolk were still held in his thrall, saw nothing in his form to fear.
"Tonight, Blithe Hollow continues its vigilant quest to rid the world of evil, by bringing an end to the lives of three witches. In deference to our original laws, the judges will act as executioners."
Norman's stomach twisted, whether out of fear or guilt or some deep fury he didn't know. To have Norman's parents not only condemn him, but to execute him as well? He so badly wanted some shred of power he could use against the demon. He knew he couldn't stand a chance, but the opportunity to give him a bloody nose before the end would help Norman rest easy.
"We will allow these witches one last opportunity to speak, and, I hope, to repent, to prevent this night to end in damnation."
"The only person who's going to Hell tonight is you."
It was a good line. Well-placed, appropriately dramatic, and a perfect response to Ravana's declaration. The only flaw, Norman decided, was that Dipper's words came in a sort of wheeze, as he panted for breath at the far end of the square.
Ravana didn't even twitch. From behind, Norman couldn't see anything of his expression, but he suspected Ravana was sneering.
"Child, you risk your soul seeking to free these misguided children from their fate. Turn aside, lest you suffer a similar one."
"I've heard more credible threats from forest gnomes. But since we're apparently in a merciful mood, I'm going to give you one chance. Release Norman, Coraline, and Mabel, and stop manipulating the people here. Leave Blithe Hollow. Promise never to do anything like this again."
"And by what authority do you make demands, Pine Tree? You have no authority over me, and nothing to threaten me with."
"I have this." Dipper reached to his pocket and pulled out a...toy ray gun, a rusted tin thing painted with fading, flaking paint.
"Stop this farce," Ravana snarled. "This is none of your concern."
Norman could see the exact moment Ravana's influence hit Dipper; his eyes glazed and went distant, his hand holding the ray gun falling to his side. The hand loosened for a fraction of a second, and then tightened. Dipper's eyes cleared and narrowed, and he raised the gun toward Ravana.
"How did you do that?" Ravana howled. "No mortal can escape that enchantment!"
"It showed me what you wanted me to see," Dipper said. "I decided to look at what was really there." His voice was calm and even, but Norman could hear the undertone of cold fury. He glanced at Mabel, whose eyes were comically wide; it was clear she, like Norman, had never heard a tone that even approached this from her brother.
"Impossible!" Ravana's voice grew more feral and monstrous as he stalked to the edge of the stage. "You used some trickery, some magic I do not know. You cheated-"
Dipper merely shrugged, indifferent to the demon's rage. "No one ever said life was fair." Something indescribable crossed his face in that moment - amazement, fear, or wonder, Norman didn't know. "They did tell me there is no justice."
The gun shifted in that moment, unfolding like a flower. Parts of it swung out on hinges while others expanded and seemed to fade around the edges. Parts of it seemed unreal while others took on a quality that Norman could only describe as quintessentially real. It still looked like a toy ray gun, but...more.
Ravana took a single step back. "Inconceiv-"
Dipper pulled the trigger. A flare of pure white light lanced from the gun to the heart of the demon, where it fractured into an eight-colored rainbow. Ravana's body did not burn or explode; the moment the light struck him, he was dead and disintegrated, not even ash left behind to signal his prior existence.
"Ow!" Dipper was shaking his hand, which was empty of any weapon, toy or otherwise. Norman's mother, standing on the edge of the platform, let out a startled shriek.
"Norman! What's going on here?"
Judge Noriega, crawling from his mental fog, recoiled at the sight of a furious mother demanding an explanation. "Madam, I - what are those children doing there? Is that Norman Babcock?"
"Yes! Get him down from there right now! This whole thing seems in very poor taste. What time is it?"
The chaos of a whole town awakening from some twisted dream soon asserted itself. Some people realized they had pressing business elsewhere, while others starting shouting for answers, or providing those answers, and others just sat back to watch.
Mabel, the moment she was free from her bonds, launched herself off the platform and sprinted at Dipper, tackling her brother to the ground with a delighted scream. "I knew you'd come, and you didn't disappoint! Where'd you get that thing? Where is it? What did it do?"
"Norman, what exactly went on here?"
He looked up at his father and mother, both concerned and reminding him of the very real danger they realized he'd faced when he'd broken the curse.
They deserved the truth. "Mr. Malik - do you remember him?" At a pair of nods, he let out a sigh of relief. If no one even remembered the rakshasa, explaining what he'd done to them would be awkward. "He hypnotized you and - and everybody, and put me on trial for witchcraft. Dipper showed up at...hah, the last minute to save us from our, uh, sentence."
His father's eyes drifted up to the unused nooses, and his gaze hardened into something Norman wouldn't ever want to see again.
“I think Dipper...obliterated him.”
“Good. Come on.” Norman hurried after his father as the man strode through the crowd, people piecing together what had just happened.
“Pines!” Dipper, Mabel still hanging around his shoulder, looked up guiltily as Norman’s dad descended on him.
“I don’t know what I did but I’m sor-” His words were cut off when Norman’s dad grabbed Dipper and hugged him, a tight embrace that shoved his face into the man’s chest.
“You did good, Pines.”
“Aw, group hug!” Mabel grabbed Norman’s father around the knees, glanced sideways, and then dragged Norman in. “Don’t worry, Mr. Babcock; we’ve always got Norman’s back.”
“I know.” He set Dipper down, hands still on Dipper’s shoulders. “It’s good to know...you’re a good kid, Dipper.”
Dipper rubbed the back of his head, cheeks reddening a tad. “That seems to be the consensus.”
“Ha! Well, next time you take Norman out, it can be on our dime. It seems the least we can do.”
Dipper ducked his head under the attention, giving Norman a shy, sidelong glance. Norman reached out to maybe fist bump him or something, but Dipper was probably still hopped up on adrenaline because he grabbed the front of Norman’s shirt, dragged him down, and kissed Norman right in front of his parents.
He supposed it was alright; they’d all come out of this alive and the world was short one demon.
So things had worked out alright.
Your dream shifts into a strange parody of a cop movie. The bullpen looks like a ballpit, colorful plastic balls waist deep on the floor. You hear shouting from the captain’s office, so you follow the sound. When you open the door, a flood of balls spill into the room. The demon Ravana, the red-furred demon with the backwards hands, looked, startled, at you. Bill Cipher is sitting on a chair that looms over the desk between him and Ravana, and doesn’t even glance in your direction.
“Don’t mind them,” Bill says. “I let them in now and again to get a glimpse of what’s going on, just to increase the drama.”
“What, you told them about-”
Bill slaps Ravana, leaving a set of deep gouges in his cheek. “Wow. You are a bad kitty. Did I say I told them everything? Did I tell you I wanted you to say anything at all?” His eye turns a violent red, setting a small fire in the trashcan. “No, I did not. So sit there and shut up. You fucked up, Ravana. You told me you could handle this. You told me you could get me what I wanted, so color me surprised when you failed to accomplish anything at all! I am not a happy camper, Ravana.”
“You think I am? Another twenty centuries trying to regain my physical form-”
“Twenty centuries? TRY TEN THOUSAND!!!” The air flashes white-hot for an instant, and Ravana’s fur blackens at the edges. “Look, I expect you think I’m going to slap you on the wrist, stick you with a humorous punishment. Something funny.” He turns, and waggles his eyebrow at you. “But do you know what’s hilarious? A guy who thinks he’s immortal, who keeps getting his ass handed to him by mortals, finding out that he’s not so immortal after all. Hey!”
The air shifts and pops, revealing a human-sized figure dressed in a night-black robe that conceals every detail of its form, even the hand clutched around an ancient scythe with the sharpest blade you’d ever seen. The hood shifts ever-so-slightly toward Bill.
“Hey, how’re you doing?”
There is the barest hint of movement from the shoulders of the robe.
“Ah, well, you win some, you lose some. But you’ve got time, right, Death?”
Ravana lets out a pained hiss. “No. You can’t.”
Bill’s eye narrows to the tiniest slit imaginable and the air darkens noticeably. “NO ONE tells me what I can and can’t do. But hey, I don’t want to upset my guest here.” He gestures toward you. “So I’ll give you a ten-second head start.”
Ravana doesn’t waste time with a confused look or another question; he bolts from the room. A few moments later, Death lets out an almost inaudible sigh and glides after him.
Bill laughs maniacally. “Aw, man, the look on his face! You see that? I hope you appreciated I did that for you. I know you wanted to see him get his comeuppance, so enjoy! And the rest of it?” He drifts across the table, flickering through a rainbow of colors. “Well, rest assured, this failure will not be repeated. After this, everything’s coming up Cipher.”
“How did you do that?”
“I wasn’t aware I did anything. Pine Tree’s the one who vaporized your boy.”
“Ravana couldn’t be killed by any spirit - or people granted powers by them. So, yeah, I’m curious how you kept him from taking me up on my offer.”
“I don’t recall saying a word to him. You, however, did an awful lot of talking.”
“And you led him straight to the Brahmastra, so stop acting coy.”
“I wasn’t aware I was.”
“Stop playing GAMES with me!”
“Oh, no. I think you forgot who you’re dealing with. Cats always play games with their food. And this is the best game of all, Cipher. Pulling strings behind the scenes, moving unwitting pawns, all for the highest stakes of all. You’re going to need to step up your game, Cipher, if you intend to win.”
“Oh, definitely. I’ll get right on that.”
“Au revoir, Cipher.”
THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS NOT TO PLAY