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Miracle Man

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Coraline Jones had seen places like this before in television and movies, but never in real life. People dressed in their Sunday best were milling in front of a large purple tent. She could see elderly ladies bent over walkers, men walking on two crutches, blind people, sick people, the downtrodden, and those who just came out for a little faith.

They had come to see The Miracle Man.

Coraline didn't see much in that. In her experience, people who performed miracles were charlatans or dealing with powers they didn't understand. Creatures from other realms, usually, at a cost higher than anyone should have to pay.

Most of those stories didn't end as well as that of the Pines twins, who seemed to possess preternatural luck, or at least a fantastic talent for survival. Either the giver or the recipient usually ended up dead.

Coraline slipped through the crowd, trying her best to remain unnoticed. The trick was not to look sneaky, but as if you belonged. Give someone what they expected to see, and they didn't look any further.

A hand in a long purple glove suddenly clapped on Coraline's shoulder. Coraline had some time ago learned to keep her composure when surprised; there were creatures that would be perfectly pleasant unless you showed the unforgivable weakness of being easily startled. So she turned her head back and up, taking the cheerful, hopeful demeanor of a teenager here to see the Miracle Man.

The face she found was the face that graced the posters she'd followed here: a narrow, light brown face, framed by a top hat and purple coat that highlighted his violet eyes. He grinned at her with straight, white teeth.

"Hello, little lady. Such a lovely day, don't you agree?"

"If you're looking to hold a revival, yes."

The man's - the Miracle Man's - smile widened. "Of course." He leaned in a little closer and his voice lowered. "Now I hope a pretty little thing like you hasn't come for help. It'd break my heart to know you had nowhere else to turn."

Coraline shook her head. "Just here for the show, to get a glimpse at how you work."

The Miracle Man laughed and clapped her shoulder again. "Well, then I hope you enjoy it! It's an absolute marvel!"

That, Coraline didn't doubt.

Inside, the tent was...strange. Grinning faces leered down from the walls. Herbs and flowers and branches were intertwined among them. Padded chairs lined the space before the stage, a podium framed by three grinning faces in red, black, and purple.

At 11 on the dot, the Miracle Man strode onto the stage, pausing to lean on the podium and turn to the audience.

"Good morning, fellows sinners. You may wonder what this little old place is about. It's about the one who's always watching you - He's all-knowing and all-seeing, and he can see right into your soul! You know who I'm talking about!" Wild cheers and applause followed this statement. "He knows the stains of sin, but that doesn't mean he rejects you. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you. And it doesn't mean he won't lend you a hand. Oh, no! He sees your suffering, and he will reach down and help you if you just ask! Can I get a Hallelujah?"

"Hallelujah!" the crowd roared back.

"But wait, you say." The Miracle Man stood and began pacing in front of his podium. "This is awful generous. Nobody gives away nothing for free. You'd have to be some kind of saint to do something like that. And you'd be right. He won't help you for nothing. He wants you to let him into your heart. He wants you to believe in him, to believe he can make miracles come true! He wants you to know there's more to the world than you can see with your eyes! Can I get a Hallelujah?"

"Hallelujah!"

The Miracle Man stepped back over to his podium and slammed his palms against it. "So who here wants to let him into their heart?"

"Hallelujah!" cried most of the crowd.

"Who here wants to see the wonder of his works in the world?"

"Hallelujah!"

"And who here is looking for the day he'll wipe away this world to make a new world for the believers?"

"HALLELUJAH!"

The Miracle Man then shoved the podium aside and stepped front and center of the stage, spreading his arms in benediction. "That's," he said with satisfaction, "what I want to hear. Now I think it's time for all you suffering sinners to come and see if he'll work up a little miracle for you."

Many - not quite most, but a fair portion - audience members stood and shuffled or walked to the side of the stage. But there was something frantic, almost violent about their approach. Coraline saw a man shove an old blind woman aside, and a woman tread heavily on another's broken leg. There was something seductive and almost hypnotic about The Miracle Man's promise, and this frenzy seemed to be the result. But the results alone weren't the only worrying thing about him.

He seemed to be talking about Jesus, but there hadn't been a proper noun in his sermon. The decor certainly didn't seem indicative of a Christian revival.

And then he laid hands upon a sickly boy in a wheelchair, and every leering face's eyes glowed sickly green.

Coraline bolted from the tent, forgoing all attempt at subtlety to get away from the Miracle Man and whatever gave him his power. She didn't stop running until a black tomcat dashed into her path. She stumbled but kept her feet, and when she was upright, glared at the cat.

"I could have fallen," she said sharply.

The cat shrugged. "Could have, would have, should have. The only thing that matters is what actually happens."

"I'm not going to give you a pass for being a reckless asshole." Coraline rolled her eyes when this declaration earned an offended look from the cat. "And anyway, what are you doing here?"

"Hanging around. Catching a show." The cat stretched unconcernedly. Coraline resisted the urge to kick him.

"Like the Miracle Man?"

The cat hissed, spitting a little as his tail went ramrod-straight. "Not even a little. You shouldn't get too close to him, either."

"I don't suppose you're going to tell me why."

The cat turned and gave Coraline a furious glare. "If you can't tell he's bad news by now, I've been wasting my time, and you deserve whatever happens to you."

Coraline rolled her eyes, picked up the cat, ignored his reflexive hiss, and continued her walk. "I was asking if, by some miracle, you might feel inclined to share what the Miracle Man is up to. He's got an awful lot of power for running around in a revival tent."

The cat's eyes flashed. "Not as much as you'd think. His kind can't summon for themselves, and every miracle comes with a price."

"And what," Coraline asked, "is his kind?"

The cat stretched and twisted in Coraline's grasp. "Poke around New Orleans a bit." He then swiped at Coraline's hand and bolted once he was free.

Coraline stared after the cat's retreating form, wondering if she was ever going to get a straight answer out of that cat. The world would have to be ending, she decided, and even then, she wouldn't bet on it.

Luckily, with summer finally here, Coraline's parents treated her with an even looser hand than normal, and wrangling a side trip down to New Orleans wasn't all that hard. Her mother was excited about the prospect of visiting Tiana's Palace, an eighty-or-so-year-old restaurant that was supposed to be the best in the city.

When they arrived, however, the city was in chaos. Some sort of freak lightning storm had set fires that ravaged the French Quarter. Hundreds were dead, including, Coraline discovered, the owners of Tiana's Palace, which had been burned so thoroughly the only solution was to sweep up the ruins and rebuild.

The cat, for all his apparent carelessness, didn't do anything by chance. If he'd sent Coraline to New Orleans in the aftermath of the worst fire in decades, it was for a good reason. And he'd done that when she'd asked about the Miracle Man's powers, and as far as anyone was concerned, there was only one kind of magic in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, there was no amount of looking that got Coraline in contact with someone who as much as read palms, much less practiced voodoo, hoodoo, vodun, Santeria, or anything even tangentially related to magic. She doubted they'd all died in the fire; even a deliberate attempt to take them all out would have left a few alive. Of course, if the fire had taken out enough...the rest might have gone to ground.

In her desperation, Coraline tracked down the tomb of Marie Laveau, because if the Queen of Voodoo didn't have a way to give advice from beyond the grave, she was going to give up.

It was a dead place, the cemetery, plagued by no lingering shades or fairy spirits. Others might have called it creepy, but Coraline's standards had undergone a radical change following her experience with the Other Mother. As it was, the quiet cemetery was relaxing. Laveau's tomb didn't look like the sort of place where the barrier between worlds was thin, but Coraline rapped on it obligingly.

"Ah, give Marie a little rest; she deserves it."

Coraline stepped away from the tomb hurriedly. An old woman, skin as brown as a nut, wrinkled and hunched, stepped around the edge of another tomb. She was smiling, and wearing a cream-colored dress, but Coraline didn't like taking chances. She could see a twist of possibilities around the woman, the sign of magic. The woman tapped at the side of Marie's tomb with her walking stick and stepped around the edge. A snake slithered hurriedly after her.

Something about the woman's movements seemed odd. When the woman took a step too close and reached out a hand to Coraline's face, Coraline noticed the woman's sunglasses, and realized she was blind.

"Calm down, child. Do you jump at every 295-year-old blind woman who crosses your path?"

Coraline took a step back. "I can't say I've met any person quite that old. And I've learned not to judge people by appearances."

The woman chuckled. "Good thing to learn, child. But what are you doing out here bothering poor old Marie?"

"I need help, and the rest of the voodoo priests seem to have disappeared. So I thought it was worth a shot coming down here."

The old woman tsked. "Well, if you're looking for a voodoo priestess, you've found one, even if Marie didn't have much to do with it. My name's Mama Odie."

"Oh. Well. If you'd said that right off, I wouldn't have worried. I'm Coraline."

Mama Odie tilted her head inquisitively. "And where have you heard of Mama Odie?"

"Dipper Pines said he met you. Called you a cool old lady."

Mama Odie straightened, her smile going to a wide grin. "Did he? Well. How is he getting on?"

"He started a website for...people like us. He thinks...something big is coming. He keeps saying the magic's coming back."

Mama Odie's smile faded. "Yes. That's a fair thing to say."

"We're exposed, Mama."

Mama glanced down at her snake. "Juju's right. We need to take this elsewhere, if you'll come. There's something you might want to see."

Coraline nodded. She'd learned caution around those who dabbled with the supernatural, but Dipper's assessment along with her gut feeling said she could trust Mama Odie. Besides, sometimes she needed to take a chance to get anywhere.

Mama Odie led Coraline to an inlet holding a motorboat, which Coraline eyed dubiously. Mama Odie may have been navigating largely without incident, but there was a world of difference between walking on the ground and piloting a boat through the bayou.

Mama Odie stepped onto the boat and waved Coraline on. "Come on, child. You won't bruise a hair on your head while you're with me."

Coraline shrugged and joined Mama Odie on the boat. The woman had taken a seat at the middle of the boat. Coraline paused. "You don't want me to drive, do you?"

Mama Odie laughed. "Oh, that motor's been rusted out for years! I got a family friend to tug this boat around. You still around, Lennie Ray?"

An grey alligator popped its head out of the water, reptilian grin fixed on its face. "Hey, Mama Odie! Who's the kid?"

"I'm Coraline."

The alligator's eyes widened. "Ah. And where to?"

"Just back to the house is fine, Lennie Ray."

The alligator saluted and dove back into the water, and a moment later the boat began gliding along through the water. Mama Odie patted Coraline's hand. "Don't worry. Lennie Ray and his kin know the bayou better than anyone. His great-great grandpappy played the blues, you know."

Coraline nodded. She wasn't certain she had much to contribute to the conversation, a discussion of whole lives she wasn't privy to. But it was also a sign of another corner of the world where magic thrived, where abnormal was the norm.

Mama Odie's place was a strange little shack, weirder on the inside, with its wall decorations, the bubbling cauldron, and bright lighting Coraline wouldn't have thought a blind woman would need. But then a girl peeked out from behind a rack of alchemical ingredients. She was a little shorter than Coraline, face a smooth, pale brown framed with gold curls. She slipped out from behind the display, moving with an enthusiastic bounce.

"Who's this? Is she another voodoo priestess? A witch? Is she an orphan, too?"

"Hush, child," Mama Odie commanded. "We've got a lot to talk about and not a lot of time." Juju slithered across to room to drag a stool under Mama Odie as she sat down. She waved a hand at the other girl. "I'm looking after Tiana as a favor to her great-grandmother."

It wasn't the whole story, Coraline knew. Tiana was an orphan, she'd said, and a fire had just swept through the French Quarter-

"Your parents owned Tiana's Palace," Coraline said. She spun on Mama Odie. "What's going on? What do you know about the fire? Why is Tiana here?"

Mama Odie sighed. "Tiana's here because I know her great-grandparents from way back, because I'm her godmother, and because anybody with a lick of power knew that fire wasn't natural. A dozen mambos and houngans died in that fire, and the rest have gone to ground. But you haven't said exactly what you're doing here, Coraline."

Coraline wasn't certain how to explain; saying she'd followed a cat's advice on tracking down leads on an evil preacher didn't sound particularly rational.

On the other hand, this woman talked to alligators and snakes, and was a voodoo priestess. So maybe rational wasn’t the way to go. “A black cat told me I could find out more about the Miracle Man here - I’m guessing by now that the Miracle Man’s a voodoo priest like you.”

“Miracle Man?” Mama Odie asked. She shook her head. “Never heard of him.”

Coraline opened her mouth to describe him, but then thought better of it. “He’s going around in a revival tent for the glory of...well, someone. It sounds like he’s a preacher, but I haven’t heard the word Jesus come out of his mouth once. He heals the sick and all that, but the place is covered by all these leering mask-face things.”

Mama Odie’s expression had hardened, mouth a grim, tight line. “You don’t say,” she said. “And is he dressed up like Papa Legba? All in a suit and top hat and a cane?”

Coraline nodded. “Yeah.”

Mama Odie snapped her fingers and Juju hurried to a desk, rummaged through the drawers, and produced a sheet of paper, yellowed and cracking with age. He handed it to Coraline.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No problem,” Juju said as he curled back around Mama Odie’s legs.

The sheet depicted the Miracle Man - or someone who looked just like him, because the paper seemed ancient. Here he was named “Doctor Facilier - Purveyor of Dreams.” She doubted that was his real name.

“Is this his father? Grandfather?”

Mama Odie shook her head. “Nah, that’s the Miracle Man himself, if I’ve got an ounce of intuition in this old head. We saw him dragged off by the spirits he bargained with and cheated and called his friends. Tch. Like they understand what that even means, being friends. But that doesn’t mean he died. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t ever release their clutches on him. But I can tell you one thing for certain: if the Shadow Man - your Miracle Man - is walking the Earth, he set that fire to burn the whole of New Orleans to the ground.”

“You mean he killed Mom and Dad?” Tiana’s voice was shaking, but her fists were clenched tight at her side, and for all that she was wearing a pink dress that flounced around her as she moved, she looked hard and dangerous with a glint in her blue eyes and a determined set to her mouth.

“Oh, if he had half a chance, he did it,” Mama Odie replied. “Your great-grandmother wasn’t fooled by his lies, and she lost him his chance to put one over on your great-grandfather. And I’ll tell you what: if he knew for a second you were still alive, he’d stop at nothing to kill you, too.”

Chapter Text

The dreams were getting worse.

Danny hadn’t mentioned them to anyone at first because they were ridiculous. So what if he dreamed of failing in his last-ditch attempt to save Sam and Jazz from Death? She was incredibly dangerous, and he’d almost lost in his fight against her. She’d suggested, once or twice, that she had created the Ghost Zone, and that she could destroy it on a whim.

But his dreams were being haunted by something more than the worries that had first plagued him, a nightmare realm of endless plains filled with murderous horrors. In his dreams, he ran from a pitiless hunter, one that lurked forever beyond his vision. The sky was boiling, full of black clouds and blacker night.

And Danny didn’t have the power to escape.

He rolled out of bed one June morning, the nightmare still lingering in his mind. It was time to talk to someone, or would be, if the thought of admitting he was freaked out by a few nightmares wasn’t the most embarrassing thing imaginable.

He slumped downstairs, trying to sort through who he could turn to.

His mother looked up from an experiment she’d set up in the kitchen as Danny entered. “Good morning! You look down in the dumps. What’s wrong?”

“Bad dreams,” Danny muttered. His mom was the last person he needed to discuss this with - at the very least because she knew nothing about his extracurricular activities, which made explaining who Death was a little difficult.

“Morning, son!”

Scratch that; Danny’s father was the last person he wanted to talk to about this. Sure, both his parents loved him and were well-meaning, but Danny suspected his father’s first instinct would be counterproductive.

And then Jazz tromped down the stairs, making a beeline for the coffee, and Danny made a swift evaluation. She’d been there when they’d faced Death, the somber spirit who seemed to view every living thing as an offense to her. She might understand Danny’s dreams.

“Hey, Jazz, can you give me a ride to school?”

Jazz looked up from her coffee, scowling. “Danny, I’ve got a lot of work to do-”

“But I could really use a ride,” Danny insisted. He tried a subtle wink, hoping that Jazz would get the hint. Through some miracle, she seemed to, as she narrowed her eyes and nodded.

“Sure, Danny. Just give me a minute.”

Once they were in the car and on the way to school, Jazz glanced at Danny. “What’s going on, Danny?”

“Do you remember Death?”

Jazz laughed. “For some reason, being threatened by a chick trapped in a hellish death dimension sticks in the mind. What about her?”

“I don’t know.” Danny rubbed his forehead. “I’ve been having these freaky dreams, and they’re not about her...exactly, but they’re freaking me out. It’s like there’s something...looming.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Danny felt a shock through his body, a moment of realization, followed immediately by a shiver of fearful anticipation. Dipper Pines had, a little less than a year ago, contacted him about fears that the world was…

Well, not coming to an end exactly. But the rise of things like the haunting of Amity Park, the weirdness in Dipper’s own home of Gravity Falls, and dozens of other towns with kids their own age struggling against strange and terrifying worlds suggesting the approach of an apocalypse. The world was falling apart, and Danny’s feelings were just one more symptom.

“You think it’s a ghost?”

“The only ghost that can mess around in people’s dreams is Nocturne, and he doesn’t do nightmares,” Danny replied. “No, this is something else.” He sighed, feeling a faint echo of that crushing sense of inevitability, and threw his head back against the car seat. “I just wish I had someone I could ask about this stuff who knew more about ghosts.”

Jazz shrugged. “Isn’t there a ghost out there who specializes in knowing stuff?”

“No,” Danny replied. “They’re not much for...reading.” Except that wasn’t quite true. You couldn’t be a prolific writer without reading a lot. And that meant there was one ghost who might have spent enough time reading to be able to give him advice.

So after school he, Sam, and Tucker snuck down to the Ghost Portal.

“I don’t know, asking the Ghost Writer for advice seems a little…”

“Dumb?” Sam asked.

Danny shrugged. He wasn’t certain it wasn’t dumb. But at the same time, he didn’t see that he had much time to consider other options. There was a sense of urgency in the dreams, and he could feel it pushing him to action. Better to ask for help before he started panicking and making stupid decisions.

“Do you think it’s a dumb idea?”

“Probably not. Ghost Writer’s not exactly...hostile, and he’s probably a more reliable source of information than Vlad.”

Sam shrugged noncommittally. “I’ll go with that.”

Danny nodded. “Thanks.” He stepped up to the portal and paused at the threshold before darting back to kiss Sam’s cheek.

It was darker than usual, somehow, inside the Ghost Zone. Quieter, too. Floating among the disparate realms of the many ghosts, Danny found the silence gave him time to think. More accurately, to worry. It took a lot to scare a ghost. The few things he’d seen that did were...horrifying.

Death would have just been in a long line of those, except that she could kill ghosts. And for all that she had lost her chance to seize a host in the physical world when Danny had saved Sam, that didn’t make her powerless.

It was an alarming thought.

The Ghost Writer’s mansion was much as Danny remembered it; he found the ghost sitting in his study, typing desultorily. His gaze flicked up when the door opened.

“What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to know if you knew anything about Death.”

“It happens to all of you dumbbells,” Ghost Writer said airily.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant with a capital ‘D’. The chick in a robe with the scythe.”

Ghost Writer’s green eyes narrowed. “Not a heck of a lot. This may surprise you, but I didn’t spring fully-formed from the ether at the dawn of time. And the older ghosts don’t like talking about her. Although…” He turned abruptly back to his typing. After a minute of relative silence, Danny coughed.

“Although what?”

Ghost Writer sighed. “Look, they don’t talk about her a lot. But sometimes you hear...things. Some old ghosts talk about doing things ‘in the name of Death’.”

Danny wrinkled his nose. “It sounds like she’s some sort of god.”

“She created the Ghost Zone,” Ghost Writer allowed. “And as far as I can tell, didn’t rule over it with an iron fist, so there’s not a lot of ghosts around who’ve got a grudge.”

“So what would happen if she came back?”

Ghost Writer frowned. “What would your kind if God showed up? It sounds good, but I doubt anyone would really know what to expect. Chaos. Madness. Probably some sort of war. Why do you ask?”

Danny looked the ghost over, weighing his options. Ghost Writer wasn’t particularly hostile, and he seemed skeptical about Death. Talking to Ghost Writer about his suspicions still was a crap shoot, something that could end terribly.

But he’d been burned keeping his mouth shut before.

Danny took a deep breath. “I’ve met her. She...can’t come here, not unless she’s invited, and even then, she’s just a phantom. But there’s a prophecy that she can come back, walk the world again, and I’ve been dreaming about her. I think...that time’s coming.”

“Hm.” Ghost Writer tapped at his chin as he drifted closer to Danny, examining his face. “Straddling the world of the living and the dead - you could get echoes of things yet to come.” His face suddenly broke into a grin. “Ooh, that gives me an idea! Come on!” He grabbed Danny’s hand and dragged him from the room, at least until Danny grabbed the door frame.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?”

Ghost Writer spun on him, eyes glowing brighter than usual. “There’s a portal between the Ghost Zone and the world of dreams. The Gate of Horn would be able to show us if you’ve been having dreams of the future or not. And if Death is coming back, we can take a gander at the Library to see if there’s a way to stop her.”

“Wait, what?”

“Come on,” Ghost Writer insisted with another tug. Danny shrugged and decided to go along with it. The worst that could happen was that he’d have to fight his way out of life-threatening situations, and that was just an ordinary Wednesday.

Danny had never thought a great deal about the structure or geography of the Ghost Zone, but being dragged along by Ghost Writer, he had an opportunity to consider it. As they traveled, the air grew darker and chill, and the strongholds became less well-defined. When the landscape became all but formless, Ghost Writer plunged through a great, dark cloud to emerge at the base of a pair of towers, carved of cracked, yellowing horn and supporting a latticework gate between them. It rested on no landscape, and nothing seemed to lie beyond it, but the gate had the foreboding weight of a portal to an important place; it could have been the doorway to the palace of a god.

Danny floated toward it, finding the surface made of something impervious to both flesh and ectoplasm. He glanced back at Ghost Writer, who shook his head.

“This isn’t a place to mess around with all that sneaking, kid. You gotta knock.” Ghost Writer rapped his fist against the door, drawing out a hollow ringing sound that echoed in the void. The sound hung in the air for quite some time before fading into a distant ringing in the ears. At last, it seemed to be silent, and then the doors swung inward with the creaking of unused hinges. With the gates turned aside, Danny could see a path of stone or tile stretching beyond them. Indistinct landscape framed the path, rising in gentle hills that obscured the path no more than a mile beyond.

On the side of the path, just beyond the gate, was a small shack with a window set in it. A creature with a badger's head perched on a reptilian body resided in the shack, watching the gate attentively with three black eyes. It tilted its head, which was crowned by a rhino's horn, as Danny and Ghost Writer approached.

“I think you might be lost,” it growled, twisting its head out toward them. “This is normally reserved for outbound traffic.”

“But there’s no actual rule against the dead coming this way,” Ghost Writer retorted.

The badger-thing growled low in its throat. A canine paw coated in light grey fur reached out of the shack to scratch its chin absently. “Of course there isn’t. But the lord of dreams put the Gate of Horn here to recognize the boundary between the Realm of Dreams and the Land of the Dead. You can’t just waltz right through like you own the place.”

“Well, here we are,” Danny said, spreading his arms wide. “We’re not waltzing anywhere. Can we go across?”

The badger narrowed its eyes at them, the third briefly gleaming red like a jewel set in its forehead. “It probably shouldn’t be that easy. I bet there’s forms to complete.”

“Or what?” Danny demanded. He floated to the shack and grinned at the badger. “I’m Danny Phantom; there isn’t a ghost I’ve met I can’t beat the ectoplasm out of.”

The badger's mouth turned upward, its fangs peeking out through his fur. “Man, beat back one anthropomorphic personification and you get all pushy. You forget: this isn’t Death’s realm. It’s Dream’s. Power here is defined by imagination and adaptability, not your fancy ectoplasmic powers. The most powerful person here could be the sweetest, most unassuming kid imaginable. So pissing off anyone who lives here might be the worst mistake you can possibly make - short of crossing Dream himself.”

The badger gave them both a smug smile. Danny glanced back at Ghost Writer, who had a panicked look on his face. It wasn’t, it seemed, a good idea to risk angering the badger, even if Danny was pretty sure he could take him.

“So...what kind of paperwork are we talking about here?”

What the badger meant was approximately twelve thousand pages of forms to read, fill out, and sign. Time and the words seemed to flow together until Danny didn’t know what he’d read, signed, or agreed to. The badger scanned the forms impossibly quickly before stamping them with a strange little wooden stamp and handing one each to Danny and Ghost Writer.

“Welcome back to the Realm of Dreams, Mr. Fenton,” he said with a grin.

“Welcome back? You said I needed to fill out a billion forms to get in!”

“Well, physically,” the badger allowed. “You’ve been in this way a lot recently.”

A chill ran down Danny’s spine, and he could see Ghost Writer frown. Ghost Writer had said the Gate of Horn would let him know if he’d been having dreams of the future, and he was almost certain Mr. Lancer had mentioned something like this before. True dreams went through the Gate of Horn, and false dreams through the Gate of Ivory…

So his dreams had been pictures of the future, of some time when Death would walk the world again.

“Well, we gotta jet,” Danny said cheerily. “Can you tell us where the Library is?”

The badger's mouth tugged up into a smile that widened and stretched before tearing its head off, revealing a wide eye set in the top third of a gold pyramid. A hand reached out and conjured a top hat to set on the top of the pyramid, and another hand tugged a cane from the air.

“All you had to do was ask,” the pyramid chortled. The eye narrowed as it drifted down, examining Danny and Ghost Writer. “But I think only one of you is getting the all-expenses-paid tour.” Gold light exploded around Ghost Writer, and when it faded, he was gone. The pyramid turned to Danny and held out its free hand. “Hey, Spook! Nice to meet you! I’m Bill Cipher.”

Danny reached out to shake the hand, even though his skin was crawling with the thought. Dipper Pines had warned every person who would listen against dealing with the entity called Bill Cipher, but at the same time, had cautioned that the creature - a dream demon - would happily engineer situations where dealing with him was necessary.

“Hi. I’m Danny.”

“I know, Spook,” the demon laughed. “You told me everything I could have ever wanted to know about you already.” He threw the forms Danny had completed into the air, where they shredded into confetti that rained down on them, melting when they hit Danny. “Anyway, what do you want my Library for?”

Your Library?”

“Oh, sure! Every book in there is chock full of stuff I drained straight out of someone’s head.”

Danny tried to maintain a neutral expression, but he couldn’t help but recalling Bill was a master of memories, and could likely tell exactly what Danny was thinking.

“When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound all that useful.”

Red flashed across Bill’s form, and his eye narrowed further. “It is, Spook. That Library’s full of every word, every secret, that humanity has ever forgotten. Every lost scrap of human knowledge is written in a book there. And you’ve got the luck to meet the curator. So tell me, Spook, what is it you’re looking for?”

Danny took a steadying breath, wishing he’d been more concerned about the risks of this journey. Sure, he hadn’t expected to run into Bill Cipher, but when had he ever expected the things that turned his adventures into death-defying escapades?

There was only one piece of advice he could recall. There was nothing he could risk giving to Bill, even if he was certain it would get him what he wanted.

On the other hand, he was in Bill’s world, and that meant he might need to bargain just to get out of here safely.

He decided that since Bill could probably read his mind anyway, he had nothing to lose.

“I just want to get out of here.”

Bill’s eye widened. “You came all this way just to come home? That doesn’t sound remotely satisfying. No, you came here to learn more about my sister.”

Danny shook his head. “If I’ve got to make a deal with you, it’s just to get out of here safe and sound-”

“Done,” Bill proclaimed.

“What?”

Bill spun in a lazy circle around his central axis. “You can go whenever. I don’t want you sitting here complaining about what I’d ask in exchange for you leaving. But my point still stands. It’d be a terrible waste if you came all this way just to turn back. Think about it - you’re standing in the Library! A wealth of knowledge at your fingertips!” A stack of heavy clay tablets slammed into the ground, forming aisles of stacks surrounding the two of them. “So what do you want to know?”

Something filtered through Danny’s desperate thoughts of finding a way out of this. “Wait - sister?”

Bill’s form brightened a few shades as he darted close. “Oh, is that all you want? It’s a lovely story. Eons ago, our mother birthed seven little baby demons.” He handed Danny a photograph of a woman, face obscured, standing behind a brood of children. Or so he assumed from the context. Five were just blurs on the paper, another was a black robe leaning on a scythe, and the last was a triangle wearing a red beanie cap. “Sis and I have been best of friends for ages.”

He threw a series of photos at Danny, who had only a split second to see each before the next hit him. Bill swinging a scythe in the air above a sinking crystal city, Death and Bill walking hand-in-hand along a street while ash rained down from the sky, a man with wild cats’ eyes setting fire to a library, the two of them riding at the head of an army of monsters, a shot of the two of them and the five other blurry forms surrounded by ten forms obscured by shadow, and a photo of something like the badger with a rhino’s horn that had guarded the Gate of Horn-

The photos burst into flames; Danny threw them aside before he could burn, and Bill laughed in the background.

“What the hell?” Danny demanded. “Is this some sort of sick game to you?”

“Of course it is! When you’re immortal and can see everything everyone is thinking all the time, you gotta find new ways to stay entertained.”

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me your sister’s weakness?”

“These little cakes they served in the Starbucks in the Library of Alexandria. She could eat so many of those I joked she’d get big as a house.”

Danny narrowed his eyes, considering a snappy retort. But it wasn’t going to help. Bill lived in a world all his own, and he wasn’t going to do anything he didn’t want to.

“If we’re getting to where you’re just going to make dumb jokes, I’d like to leave.”

Bill waggled back and forth in the air. “Iiiii don’t know. It seems like you’ve got a lot of questions I could answer with half-truths and irrelevant stories.”

“You said you’d let me go.”

“True. I could point out I was lying, but that doesn’t seem, you know, funny.” The triangle huffed and seemed to deflate. “Fine. Follow me.” He turned and drifted away. Danny hurried after him, or tried to. Just as Bill turned the first corner around the shelves, something wound around Danny’s legs, causing him to trip. He ran into one of the shelves, knocking the corner off of one of the tablets. Rather than clattering to the ground, the clay transformed into a scrap of paper and fluttered downward.

Looking down, Danny caught sight of a flash of a black tail retreating back away from Bill. And then down was the paper, like a page ripped from a book. Danny snatched it up and tucked the paper away just before Bill reappeared at the intersection, eye narrow.

“If you’re not going to accept my generous offer to lead you out of here, I’m going to leave you here.”

“Sorry!” Danny scrambled after the demon, following him through the twisting paths of the library until they reached the same gate he’d entered through. He decided not to question how they’d gotten so far from the entrance when he didn’t think he’d stepped more than ten feet from it. For all he knew, Bill had dragged him miles away. Or, he thought darkly, Bill was taking him the long way around for his own ineffable purposes.

Stepping back into the Ghost Zone was surprisingly relieving; Danny moved as fast as he could to return to the portal, certain that Bill would change his mind, find out he’d stolen from the Library, or simply decide killing Danny would be a great joke.

But he returned home with no more incident, stepping back out into the real world to find Sam and Tucker playing cards. Sam was on her feet first, scanning Danny up and down before stepping in for a hug.

“Everything alright?”

Danny sighed. “I don’t know.” He tried to explain as best he could, producing the scrap of paper he’d stolen from Bill’s library.

They read the paper together, words scattered across smudged and faded patches.

”...war between the gods...demons...no god could defeat them...bind them...each found ways to reach out...no seal lasts forever…”

The last few lines of the paper were clear, bold as if the writer had put all their weight into writing them. Danny’s stomach twisted as he read them.

...A time will come when the...children of Chaos will break free of their prisons. And then there will be no help for us.

When they were finished, it was Tucker who voiced what was going through their heads at the revelation.

“Crap.”

Chapter Text

Arthur was trying to get through his second cup of coffee when Vivi tossed a newspaper onto the little desk in their hotel room. He peered over at it, regretting it when he saw the headline.

Third Mysterious Death Leads Residents to Panic

“Just because it’s mysterious doesn’t mean this is a paranormal case,” Arthur said. “The Boston Strangler was just some guy, you know.”

“Oh, I know that,” Vivi replied. She hopped next to the paper, avoiding Arthur’s coffee. “But there’s something about this case that’s pinging my weird-o-meter. Take a look; tell me what you think.”

Obediently, Arthur bent to read further. Three people around the Oberlin, Kansas area had been killed in the past two weeks. They had each been strangled; Arthur felt a jolt in his stomach at the realization that he’d jokingly identified the nature of the killings. There were clear fingerprints but no suggestion of a match. There wasn’t much more than that besides the request people call the police with any leads.

But Vivi was right; something about the article was...odd. His left hand abruptly clenched; being that he’d had his coffee cup in that, it shattered. Mystery yelped from Vivi’s bed, and Vivi jerked away from the shards, nearly falling from the desk.

When she regained her composure, she leaned close to Arthur, grinning. “You think so, too?”

Yeah, there was something fucking weird about Oberlin, Kansas, and if Vivi had her way, they were going to try to figure it out.

Vivi could seem like the sweetest girl imaginable - that charm had left both Arthur and - had left Arthur smitten when they first met. But the smile concealed a devious mind the match of any military genius. They hadn’t yet met a police officer, medical examiner, or county records clerk she couldn’t charm. For some reason, she made being a pair of meddling kids sound like a perfectly reasonable justification for being allowed to view the files from ongoing or closed investigations.

Oberlin, Kansas proved to be no exception. Half an hour later, they were paging through the autopsy reports from the three victims. They’d all been strangled, of course, but there hadn’t been other signs of trauma. No other bruising or lacerations, nothing to suggest the attacker had found it necessary to further subdue their victim.

And the victims had each been strangled with only one hand - the left, the examiner had concluded.

“Well, this is a doozy,” Vivi said. “Absolutely weird, but nothing conclusive.” After a moment, she poked Arthur in his side. “Are you listening?”

Arthur jerked up away from the photos he’d been looking at. “Sorry?”

Vivi smiled gently at him, the sharp blue gaze softer than usual. She reached out and patted Arthur’s cheek. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Arthur shoved the photos back into the stack of papers and pushed himself up from the table. “You want to check out the CSI reports?”

Vivi nodded and bounced to her feet. “Sounds like a little more information might help. Besides, I bet Mystery’s getting bored outside.”

Arthur followed her. He didn’t mention his continual worry that he thought Mystery was intelligent enough to keep himself occupied. And he certainly didn’t mention what he’d seen in the photographs of the victims’ throats. The hand that had strangled them had some sort of bulging protrusion or growth on it. It would consequently be easy to identify the perpetrator by the bulging eye set in its palm.

Arthur grabbed at the seared stump of his shoulder, falling to his knees. He wondered if Mystery was going to rip the rest of him off, too. He couldn’t bring himself to work up the energy to blame the dog - or whatever. But then he saw Mystery snarling at something. He looked closer, and regretted it almost immediately.

It was his arm, stump still bloody and seeping. Its flesh had gone green and it twitched to an unheard beat. But the worst was when the hand widened, revealing the gleaming green eye set in its palm. Before Arthur could react, the creature - the arm - swiped at Mystery’s nose and fled as the dog yelped and pawed at the wound.

Arthur shivered as they stepped out into the bright summer sun. The less he thought about the day he - that day - the better. But even more so, it was better he didn’t think about those strange, delirious moments when he’d seen impossible things. He knew it was his imagination, but he’d never been able to shake the feeling that Mystery was more, far more than he appeared. And he had long been certain it was his imagination, and so had long tried to avoid thinking about the moments when he’d seen his severed arm moving of its own volition, somehow animated by the envy that had possessed Arthur to - that had possessed Arthur.

Vivi seemed unaware, or at least unconcerned with, his consternation, so Arthur trailed her to the police station. There she successfully charmed her way into the files of the strangling investigations, and Arthur was visited with mounting evidence that he wasn’t as crazy as he thought he was.

The photos of the crime scenes showed no footprints or other evidence another living creature had set foot near the victims. There were marks like the movements of a snake, or a disembodied arm. In one of the cases, the victim had been inside a locked room, the only access point an open heating grate.

He couldn’t begin to imagine what was going on here. Was the hand trying to track him down to kill him? Or maybe to seize control of his body and make Arthur - hurt people?

“Arthur? Arthur!”

Vivi’s shout brought Arthur back to himself. He was breathing far too shallowly and panting, and the table he’d been sitting at was - oh.

He’d punched through the aluminum surface, tearing his sleeve and the glove he wore to conceal the robotic arm. And his heart was still racing from the rising panic.

“Arthur, what’s wrong?”

He shook his head at Vivi’s light touch on his shoulder. He had no way to voice his concerns, because that required rehashing what he’d - things that were best not delved into too deeply. “It’s nothing.”

It didn’t stop him from wondering about it for the rest of the day, as Vivi tracked down and quizzed possible witnesses and toured the crime scenes. It was a long day, and every new piece of information gleaned from witnesses or their examination of the evidence strengthened his suspicions as to the nature of the murders. He bolted from the room when they returned and went to the Starbucks across the street to take advantage of the free wifi.

Once alone, Arthur found his fingers tapping out search terms like they had a mind of their - like Arthur wasn’t even thinking about what he was doing. And the search brought up a chilling list. He had before him a series of cities that had seen a trio of murders in the past several months: Baton Rouge. Shreveport. Hugo. Stillwater. Medford. Newton. Wilson. Oberlin. And, the night before, Sutherland, Nebraska.

This wasn’t a single town being plagued by something trying to lure Arthur to some sort of karmic retribution. This was something carving a path along the breadth of the United States, something driven to murder and making its way to...what?

It was heading north, whatever it was.

Arthur stared at his phone for what must have been hours; he couldn’t find the courage to look away, because then he’d have to go to Vivi and tell her what he thought was behind this. He’d have to talk about the night he’d - that night.

“Hey, Righty, why the long face?”

Arthur yelped and jerked away from the unexpected voice. The clatter of his falling chair didn’t seem to attract any attention. In fact, there didn’t seem to much noise around him at all. Carefully, Arthur looked around the Starbucks, finding everything looked washed-out and grey. The only bright spot of color was a yellow triangle floating a few feet to his left. The triangle looked like a drawing of a pyramid, marked with a single leering eye. It seemed to be wearing a bowtie and top hat, and carried a cane in one hand. Perhaps the weirdest part was that the creature was two-dimensional; when Arthur tried to peer around it, he just saw the back of the triangle.

“Hey! Eyes up here! I’m not that sort of demon!” The triangle lunged out with the cane and dragged Arthur’s head around to its front. “Also, didn’t your mother teach you it’s rude to stare? Of course, I’m betting she taught you it’s rude to push people off of cliffs, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped you.”

The casual mention of Arthur’s - of what Arthur - of-

“Oh, wow.” The triangle’s - the demon’s - voice barely registered as Arthur struggled to avoid acknowledging - to avoid thinking about-

STOP IT!

The roar cut through the unnatural silence surrounding them. The demon seemed unmoved. “Wow, you’ve got quite a temper on you, Righty, don’t you? I’d hate to think what you’d do-”

Arthur swung his fist at the demon, all concern about what the creature was or could do to him in retaliation all but gone. It was like socking a bear; the demon grunted in surprise as the metallic fist punched into the center of the triangular form.

“Neat!” the demon exclaimed. It spun around Arthur, grabbing his arm with his weird little stick-figure arms. There was more force than a three-foot-tall triangle should have been able to exert, so Arthur was helpless to prevent the demon from examining his arm intently, eye narrowing in concentration. At last the triangle let go and floated up above Arthur’s head.

“Man, Righty, I never realized you got such a good deal out of this.”

Arthur felt exhausted, the brief pangs of fury and denial leaving pained, empty channels in his mind. But the demon’s comment piqued his interest.

“What deal?”

The demon dropped, wrapping an arm around Arthur’s shoulder. It felt all at once slender and textureless, and also like a heavy, furry paw. “You know what deal, Righty. You wanted to be alone with Vivi. You wanted to be strong. And you got everything you ever wanted!”

The words struck Arthur like a tidal wave, stealing his breath and leaving him staggered and shaking. “No. I didn’t want - I didn’t ask-”

The demon laughed, a wild, hilarious sound. It would have been better if the creature sounded, well, evil. But it just sounded like it had heard a hilarious joke, as if Arthur’s pain was just the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

“Do you think this is about you, Righty? You don’t need to ask; you just need to want. And you wanted, Righty. You wanted Lewis out of the way. You wanted Vivi all to yourself. And you wanted to be strong. And Righty, here’s a secret. When in you’re in the right place and nakedly want something, you get it, and then you pay the price for it. So you got Vivi to yourself, and you became strong, and all you had to do was murder Lewis.”

“No, it was-”

The eye became transparent as the demon drifted to fill Arthur’s whole vision, and within, Arthur could see the horrible scene played out in front of him. “No one made you do it, Arthur. You gave in to your basest desires, and you opened the door to something more horrible than you could possibly imagine. Lucky your little...dog was there to limit the damage. But damage there is. Vivi barely remembers the man she loves.” The eye shifted back to a faint red glow as it narrowed. “And you live every day with guilt you refuse to acknowledge. I guess you’ve found getting everything you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, eh, Righty?”

“I didn’t want this!” Arthur snapped. “I didn’t want Lewis to die and I didn’t want to break Vivi and I didn’t want this stupid robot arm!”

“You did want it, Righty, for just a moment. And a moment’s all it takes to do something you’ll regret forever.”

Arthur spun on the demon, pounding ineffectively at its two-dimensional form, ignoring the strange sensation of also striking flesh. “What do you want with me? Why are you tormenting me?”

The demon laughed. “Oh, Righty, if only you knew. I don’t need a reason except that I think it’s funny. But maybe...I want you to think long and hard about what you’ve done, about how all it took was a moment of weakness for you to do something you can never undo. Hahahahaha ciao!”

Color flooded back into the world with sounds and smells that left Arthur light-headed.

No.

It wasn’t the return to the real world from whatever trance state or hallucination he’d experienced that left him light-headed. It was the shock of confronting his - the - that he’d killed Lewis. Arthur was hyperventilating; he could barely breathe, but the thought didn’t bring his mind to a stuttering stop.

It didn’t, however, make anything better, not even remotely. Lewis was dead, and Vivi still struggled with faint memories of him and his death. There was nothing he could do to make it better-

“They call him the Miracle Man, and if his patrons are to be believed, he’s living up to the name.” Arthur glanced up at a television set near the front of the shop. There, a reporter was standing in front of a large purple tent, something out of a classic revival in front of which close to a hundred people were milling.

“Stories of the blind seeing, the lame walking, and incurable diseases going into remission are drawing flocks of people to see the Miracle Man,” the reporter continued. “His revival started in Baton Rouge, and he’s been working his way north, leaving a string of little miracles along the way. We tried to get an interview, but his publicist declined, stating that they prefer the Miracle Man’s results to speak for themselves. We did manage to catch some of the people he’s helped, however, and it seems like he’s living up to his name.”

The screen cut to an old woman, wide brown eyes blinking blearily against the studio lights. As she spoke, her hands moved animatedly, and she was smiling so wide Arthur barely saw the edge of her mouth.

“The doctors had me on all the pills, breathers, and they still said I had weeks to live. And The Miracle Man, he said we could have miracles if we just believed they were possible, if we just asked. I’ve had arthritis for 30 years, was practically blind, and couldn’t move out of my wheelchair, and now look at me.” She stood and danced for the camera, waving inch-thick glasses at it jauntily.

“And what sort of preaching does he do?”

The woman shook her head. “Oh, it’s nothing about hellfire and damnation. We just gotta kneel down and ask, and really believe a greater power can help us. We gotta look at our miracles every day and remember what he did for us.”

Miracles…

Arthur felt, for the first time in ages, a sense of stability. He couldn’t make things right, but if he could just get his hands on a miracle…

Mind whirling with possibilities, of luring Vivi to the Miracle Man and bringing Lewis back so that at least if they hated him, they’d have each other, Arthur stumbled from the Starbucks. He was so preoccupied, he nearly tripped over a cat warming itself next to the door. The cat, black from nose to tail, gave Arthur a disdainful glare, fixing him in place with the feeling of being judged.

“Hey, you’re sitting in a high-traffic area,” Arthur said. The cat’s expression didn’t shift. “And you’re practically invisible. Anyway, I’ve got things to do-”

“Mwrowr!”

Arthur paused mid-step. It was impossible, but he couldn’t shake the feeling the cat was telling him to stop. He turned and scowled at it.

“Look, I’m trying to fix all the mistakes I made.”

“Yeowl!” The cat fixed him with a sharper glare, and Arthur knew the beast was judging him. He couldn’t say if it was like Mystery, who he was certain was more than he seemed, or just the way cats were.

“No, I don’t want them to forgive me. I just want everything...to be alright again.” Arthur knelt down, reaching out to the cat in some hope that it would respond and prove he was worth something.

The cat turned aside and paced in a loose circle a foot away from Arthur. He felt his heart sink and he knelt even further down.

“You don’t understand,” he murmured. “They won’t forgive me. But if I…” Arthur realized, trying to explain his plan to a cat, that it was absolutely insane. Asking an old-style revival preacher to raise the dead so Arthur wouldn’t have to own up to killing his friend? Trying to keep the plan a secret from Vivi so she wouldn’t know his part in Lewis’ death until it was too late?

“I’m an idiot,” Arthur said.

The cat stepped forward and nuzzled his outstretched hand.

“No, I am. And a coward. There’s nothing I can do to fix this.”

The cat reached up and put its paw on Arthur’s hand. He looked down and met the cat’s gaze. It blinked slowly. Arthur patted its paw and then pushed himself to his feet.

“I think...I get it. Thank you.”

Arthur returned to the hotel resigned to the outcome of the coming confrontation. When he stepped into the room, it was to find Vivi curled up on her bed with Mystery, murmuring to the dog. She looked up at him, startled, and Arthur gave her a weak smile.

“I’ve got some...good news, Vivi. And then I’ve got some bad news.” At her raised eyebrow, he sighed. “I think I’ve got a lead on our murderer. But I’ve got to tell you something first.”

It had been so hard, so painful, to step up to her and begin speaking, but once Arthur had started, the words came easily. He touched lightly on how he’d been jealous...of what, he still didn’t know. Of the cave outside New Orleans when his desperate desire for things to be different had culminated in Arthur doing something unforgivable. The demon was right; he couldn’t distance himself from Lewis’ death. He’d wanted it, in some abstract way, and he’d been the one to push Lewis.

Vivi watched him silently through the confession, through the tears, her eyes wide and clear as she took in everything. There was a shift in her expression as he neared the end, something gentle as she tapped her chin.

“Then that haunted house - the ghost-”

Arthur let his head fall. “I couldn’t - I didn’t know how to face him. But look, before you tell me to get out of here, or call the police, or anything, you need to listen. Mystery took my arm off, afterward. I don’t know if something possessed it to make - urge me on, or if - killing him gave it an opportunity, but I know I saw it. Something possessed that arm and it’s been killing people, making its way north.”

Vivi didn’t speak for a long time. Arthur was about to take his chances running when she looked up, face somber.

“I don’t...think I have the right to...forgive you, Arthur. But I have the right to decide if I can still trust you. And...I think I can.” She looked to Mystery, who made no move one way or another. She nodded and looked back to him. The tension in Arthur’s body left in a rush, and he slumped down, sitting, onto his bed.

“Now, why don’t you show me what you’ve been looking at?”

She printed out maps of the United States to trace the path of the murders, dug into the news stories to find some link, while Arthur stared at the maps, feeling that he was missing something important.

When it hit him, he felt like the biggest idiot on the planet.

He hadn’t mentioned the demon because it didn’t seem important.

But the demon had told him everything he needed to know.

“Vivi? You can stop researching.”

She looked up from her papers, a pen clenched in her teeth. “Wha?”

Arthur dropped onto her bed, earning an inquisitive whine from Mystery. “Look, I didn’t mention it because it was weird and seemed unconnected with all of this, but when I was out, I ran into this...demon. This yellow triangle with one eye-”

Mystery was growling, deep in his throat. They each paused, staring at the dog, until the growling softened.

“And he told me that cave had something in it that granted wishes, that gave people what they wanted, and took a - a price for it.”

“You think it’s the thing that possessed your arm.”

“Not...precisely.” Arthur grabbed Vivi’s computer and ran a quick search just to confirm his suspicions.

“There’s a man out there giving away miracles, saying they’re free to anyone who asks. And three people have died in every town he’s visited.” He looked up to meet her eyes, and was relieved to see the old fire in her eyes, the thrill of a lead. “He’s called the Miracle Man, and if we want to know where he’s going next, he’s got a website and a schedule.”

Chapter Text

Tiana spent much of the train ride north to Princeton reading the books Coraline had given her. The first held Coraline’s notes from years of delving into the supernatural. The second was the textbook that had helped her understand enough to survive. They were worrying. The Shadow Man wasn’t hardly the worst thing to ever stalk the earth, although he was undoubtedly changed from his time on the Other Side.

“Can you tell me what the Shadow Man is like?”

Tiana glanced up from Wormwood’s Bestiary at Coraline’s question, and she considered it. She knew the story as the family told it, how her great-grandfather had fallen in with the Shadow Man, and how it took the combined efforts of her great-grandmothers, Old Louis, Mama Odie, and the firefly Ray to set it all to rights. But the stories had touched only lightly on the Shadow Man. It had been Tiana, perhaps driven by the same spirit her great-grandmother had had, who sought out her godmother to learn more.

Mama Odie had told Tiana to carefully consider what she did with the knowledge she’d shared, because it wasn’t just about the Shadow Man, but some of the art of Voodoo. Perhaps because her godmother was a mambo, or because so much of her life was shaped by people who had gone before her, Tiana had begun to walk the mysteries with Mama Odie. She had been...baptised, in a way, under Ezili Dantor, the spirit that had governed her great-grandmother Tiana’s life. She had even attended services with Mama Odie’s flock, and even now made offerings and little prayers to her great-grandmothers Tiana and Charlotte, Louis, Ray, and the enigmatic Evangeline.

The upshot of all of this was that Tiana had secret and sometimes dangerous knowledge relating to the Shadow Man and his works, and no clue what she could safely share with someone who was essentially a stranger.

“He sold dreams - giving people what they thought they wanted for money. But toward the end, everything he did was to turn over souls to his ‘friends’ on the Other Side.”

“Hm. That doesn’t sound like the Miracle Man; he’s been giving away miracles and telling people they just need to believe in - well, he makes it sound like Jesus, but I didn’t hear a name in there.”

Tiana’s breath came out in a surprised hiss. She shook her head. “No, that sounds tricky like him; Mama Odie said his tongue was twisty as a mangrove. If he isn’t asking for payment, he’s getting it from somewhere else. Even he isn’t dumb enough to go into debt to the Other Side twice.”

“Is he dumb enough to be working for somebody else?”

Tiana considered that; the Shadow Man wasn’t actually stupid, but he’d gotten into a lot of trouble. Someone who could help him get out of it, release him from whatever hell he was held in on the Other Side, would have earned a lot of goodwill.

On the other hand, she didn’t have any idea who would have the influence to get him out of debt to the Other Side.

When she voiced that concern to Coraline, the other girl shook her head. “That’s part of why we’re headed up to Princeton. I don’t understand who he’s doing this for, or what they’re getting out of it. Take it from me - supernatural beings don’t give miracles away for free.”

Tiana nodded. She knew that; even the most benevolent spirits demanded something - sacrifice or tokens of worship - in return. The Shadow Man, Miracle Man, whatever, had to be no different. He wasn’t demanding the worship of any particular deity, which meant that whoever his patron was, it wasn’t drawing power from the faith of those it helped.

Tiana couldn’t help but feel she was missing something. Her mind kept skittering at the edge of a realization, but backed away from the edge of it before she could voice it. She wished she was as smart as her Nana Tiana, or at least as popular and pretty as her Mama Charlotte, but with neither gift, she was left struggling with the puzzle all the way up to Princeton, where Coraline had promised there was someone who could help.

Tiana had never been this far north, and deep down she’d expected it to be cold, even though it was mid-June. But it was a clear day, eighty degrees, dry, and magical simply because of how new it was.

Coraline seemed to know exactly where she was going, because she led Tiana to a huge complex of buildings shaped like castles, into one of the buildings, and at last to an unassuming wooden door with cartoons stuck to the outside of it.

‘Doctor Matilda Honey,’ the nameplate read, nestled between a comic about a primatologist and one about computer science.

Coraline took a deep breath and then knocked at the door. A slender white woman opened it, eyes automatically scanning a few inches above the top of Coraline’s head before they dropped to meet the girls’ gazes. Her lips twisted into an expression of consternation before she stepped aside.

“Good afternoon. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Coraline nodded. “Yes. I came here because I wanted to talk about your dissertation.”

Dr. Honey’s lips quirked up into a smile. “I’m certain you could have found my e-mail if you wanted to ask a question about computer science, or biology? I’m afraid I’m a little vague on my physics dissertation; it’s been a while.”

Coraline responded with a sly grin. “I’m here about your writings on crypto-zoology.”

Dr. Honey’s expression went through a confusing mix of emotions before settling on something neutral. “I’d prefer not to talk about that. I have a reputation as a scientist to maintain-”

“Which must be hard when you know magic exists,” Coraline blurted.

Dr. Honey shook her head. “I especially do not want to indulge children who want me to confirm their belief in fairies. Please leave.”

“If magic isn’t real, what happened in Cruchem Hall?”

Dr. Honey stilled completely, staring at Coraline blankly. Both Coraline and Dr. Honey remained silent as they stared at one another, until the tension made Tiana want to scream.

“Please, Dr. Honey. We need help.” Dr. Honey glanced to Tiana, frowning. Tiana pressed forward anyway. “The Shadow Man killed my parents, and we know he’s going to do something worse if we can’t figure out what. Maybe you can’t help, but if you won’t even try, then we’re going to have to face him on our own.” Tiana took a step forward, fists clenching at her sides. “And maybe you’re a scientist, but that means you should admit the truth whether or not people will think you’re weird for it.”

Dr. Honey sighed, sagging against the door of her office. “You’re entirely right. I...it’s difficult to discuss my experiences with m - the inexplicable. But that’s no excuse to turn my back on those who need it. You might as well come in.”

Her office was...well, it reminded Tiana of Mama Odie’s. Not in the exact content; Dr. Honey’s office was full of books. But they were laid about in a pattern a casual observer couldn’t identify, and all looked worn and well-used. For all that they represented a thousand different disciplines, they were tools to which she referred frequently. Tiana found herself looking for a familiar, disappointed when she found Dr. Honey did not keep animals in her office.

Dr. Honey sat behind a wide desk of oak piled high with books. A laptop was perched on the corner. Though it was a new model, it was as battered and used as the books in the office. There was also a picture set on the wall behind her, of a small child and pretty woman crouching down behind her, arms wrapped around the child.

Dr. Honey sat at her desk and looked up at Tiana and Coraline, gesturing to the squishy armchairs set before the desk. Coraline took a seat gingerly, and Tiana sat next to her. Dr. Honey looked to Coraline expectantly.

“You published a bestiary under the name Matilda Wormwood,” Coraline said. “Your notes hint that you’ve studied in other areas, as well. That you had experience with magic - or something like it - yourself.”

“Hm. You mentioned Cruchem Hall,” Dr. Honey said thoughtfully. “So you must know some of it. For a brief period in my childhood, I developed a talent for telekinesis. I used it to vanquish a thoroughly unpleasant woman, and subsequently, the talent faded. I didn’t think much on the talent for some time, but during a modern mythology course during my undergraduate studies, I found some mentions of events that attracted my interest. The bestiary you mentioned was an adaptation of my doctoral dissertation to a...school that does not hold a great deal of respect in the scientific community.”

Coraline nodded. “I know most of that. What we’re here to ask about are things you didn’t put in the book. You wrote very sparingly about human magicians...or demons.”

Dr. Honey shook her head vigorously. “I placed that book out into the world to help people who needed good, reliable information. I had little reliable information about either of those topics when I published that book.”

Tiana smiled as Coraline sat bolt-upright in her seat. “Does that mean you have more information now?”

Dr. Honey started to shake her head, paused, bit her lip, and then slumped backward in her chair, looking up at the ceiling.

“If you were adults, I would tell you no, and send you on your way,” she said. “But if you’re coming to me, well, it means you’re desperate, and what I tell you could be the difference between success and - and death.” She sighed and tapped a key on her computer, likely pulling up notes or something similar.

“Have you ever wondered why magic is often...remote? Why the strangeness of magic might settle in a small town, but not extend beyond that? Why it is so difficult to make ordinary people believe? For a while, I thought a lack of belief might make magic weaker, or encourage it to fail.

“The truth, as it turns out, is much stranger.

“Magic is something like radiation, I’ve found. A source of it can irradiate the area around it, make it more common. There are certain barriers that can prevent its spread. And if too much of it gathers in one place, something...bad happens.”

“Bad? What sort of bad?”

Dr. Honey shrugged. “Bad enough that humanity, as a species, developed skepticism as a defense against it. That is what I meant when I said the truth is strange. The most common reaction to magic is to disbelieve it, to distance ourselves from it, because such a reaction limits its ability to spread.”

“But we believe. All three of us.”

Dr. Honey gave Tiana an approving smile. “Yes. What good would it do if humanity as a whole refused to believe the existence of the supernatural, when such power is real, and dangerous? I think that people like us are something like antibodies - those who possess the requisite mix of curiosity, imagination, and a sense of responsibility to acknowledge magic and to step up to try to defend our species from it. Those who are more likely to contain it than to allow it to contaminate anything further.”

Tiana felt a shiver run down her spine. The Shadow Man - the Miracle Man - was telling people to believe, and he was giving them something to believe in. But he was also supposed to be dead - or as good as. And that meant…

She looked over at Coraline, who still looked thoughtful. Tiana looked up at Dr. Honey. “Who...would want magic to spread?”

Dr. Honey steepled her fingers and leaned across the desk. Her lips were pressed into a thin line, forehead wrinkled in consternation. “I believe this is the nature of creatures that humans call demons.”

Coraline paled (well, even further) and pushed herself away from the desk. Her expressions was controlled, neutral, but Tiana could see tension in her frame as she gripped the arms of her chair.

“And what do you know about demons?”

“They - or things of similar description - hold a common place in eschatology.” At Tiana’s questioning expression, Dr. Honey smiled gently. “The Apocalypse. Many mythologies connect the end of the world with the opening of gates and seals, of the reawakening of things long since set to slumber.”

“So...a little more serious than we thought,” Tiana said thoughtfully. “What do we do?”

“And that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Dr. Honey asked quietly. “I’ve no idea. Everything we know about magic is from isolated pockets. Everything I’ve told you are suppositions I pieced together from second- and third-hand sources, most of which were already copied from fragments saved from the Library of Alexandria.”

“But is it something we really need to stop?” Both Coraline and Dr. Honey stared at Tiana, but she knew she couldn’t back down or wilt under the attention. She could feel a fire in her belly, and something pushing her to say the words. “Apocalypse means a revelation of something hidden. It is an age of change - it doesn’t need to be a disaster.”

Dr. Honey gave Tiana a careful look, narrow-eyed. “Change is very difficult for many people to deal with. An apocalypse would be...chaotic. Dangerous.”

“And there’s one other point,” Coraline said. “We’re not in control of it, and people like Bi - like demons - are. The Miracle Man is out there making people believe again, so when magic comes back, it spreads like wildfire.”

“Wait a minute.” Tiana had heard stories about the Shadow Man. She knew he desired nothing more than an audience to his triumphs. He’d been north of Baton Rouge when Coraline had seen him.

He’d want to go somewhere he could get an audience.

He’d want to build one up.

“Can you see if he has a website?”

Coraline’s mouth snapped shut. She looked at Dr. Honey. “Can we do that?”

Dr. Honey was already typing. “Of course we can. And here we...oh.”

The website was a revelation. Doctor Facilier was a traveling preacher building up to a big old revival at-

“Mount Rushmore?”

“That’s not all,” Tiana said grimly. It wasn’t even remotely all of it. Doctor Facilier, the Miracle Man, had a collection of stories expounding on the existence of magic in the world. He had a schedule of his performances, and testimonials. He had a blog, with Youtube clips and rambling posts on the nature of miracles.

His videos had millions of hits apiece. There were remixes and TV interviews and memes.

“His tumblr’s more popular than mine,” Tiana said numbly. Admittedly, she hadn’t cured a dozen cases of cancer. But Tiana felt she deserved a few extra followers for not being in league with dark (well, evil) powers.

“Wait a minute!” Coraline lunged at the computer and sent it tumbling to the ground. “Sorry.”

Dr. Honey smiled and picked it up before setting the computer back on the center of the table. “Happens all the time. What’s wrong?”

Coraline poked at the computer and opened up another window. The site was a forum of sorts, including a page showing a series of stories about the presence of magic in the world.

“He stole Dipper’s website!” she exclaimed. “Every story they posted is something Dipper or one of the other kids posted...oh god.” Her face grew ashen as she grabbed at the edge of the computer. “They’ve seen it. They know we’ve been trying to - find a way to fight.” She bit at her lip. “We are fucked.”

“I think you were already. You made a website to connect with other people who know about magic.” Coraline, eyes still strained and wet at the edges, looked up at Tiana.

“What?”

“Dr. Honey said magic is - dangerous when it starts drawing together. You’ve been doing it, and the Miracle Man has been doing it, and I think we’re not trying to stop this anymore. I think we’re hip-deep in it.”

“No,” Coraline growled. “It’s not over. He’s going to South Dakota to put a show in front of a bunch of dead presidents’ faces, and that means he hasn’t gotten what he wants - not yet. He wants the world to see magic is real, so we’ve got one shot to discredit him, make him seem like just another quack.”

“He’s not, though. He’s a bokor, and he wouldn’t be out playing the part of a miracle worker if he didn’t still have the talent. If we want to stop him, we’re going to need magic on our side.”

Coraline gave Tiana a broad smile. “Well, then lucky you’ve got me on your side. You mind if I use your computer, Dr. Honey? I’ve got some e-mails to send.”

Chapter Text

Mabel woke before dawn the first day back in Gravity Falls, a combination of excitement and still being on Eastern Standard Time. She decided to make breakfast as a surprise for Grunkle Stan and Soos.

Grunkle Stan was already in the kitchen, however, frying bacon. He glanced at Mabel when she stepped into the room, giving her a too-wide smile.

“Hey, Mabel! Up early?”

“You betcha!” Mabel swung herself into a chair at the little table and frowned at the pan. The bacon looked a little lonely there. “I could make some eggs and pancakes and potatoes and a fruit salad to go with that!”

Grunkle Stan grunted. “You can see what’s in the fridge, kid, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”

“Yee!” Mabel bounced to the refrigerator and dug through it, finding enough to add some potatoes and fried tomatoes to the mix. There was even a bottle of orange juice, as well.

Grunkle Stan remained silent as he made several pounds of bacon; he tended not to talk much when he cooked. Mabel decided to fill the silence with the latest pop song that had been playing on the radios in the airport.

Well, more like humming. She hadn’t been listening to the words.

She finished about the same time Grunkle Stan did. He sat at the table, staring at the plate of bacon while Mabel set down the other plates. When he didn’t say anything for thirty seconds, she poked him in the side.

“Poke. What’s up, Grunkle Stan?”

“Nothing,” he said, staring blankly at the kitchen window. It didn’t take a master of the mental arts to know Grunkle Stan was upset about something, but Mabel was much too ethical to go prying around in his head like a pointy-headed top-hat-wearing demon. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t pry around the normal way.

“So...you might say there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve got that mopey look on your face. So why don’t you share with Mabel and we can see how to make things better?”

Grunkle Stan spared Mabel a brief glance before shaking his head. He was smiling, though. “You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself, kid. Yeah, I got stuff going on. But I wanted to wait until Soos and Dipper were up.”

Well, if that was all. Mabel bolted to her feet and saluted Grunkle Stan. “I’ll get right on it!”

“Hey, kid!”

Mabel ignored Grunkle Stan’s shout. She knew he didn’t want her to wake them, but she wanted to find out what was happening right now.

And the longer Grunkle Stan had to sit there brooding, the less likely they’d actually hear what was going on.

Upstairs, Mabel took a flying leap onto Dipper’s bed; he yelped as she landed on his stomach, shoving her off the bed as he woke.

“What the hell’s wrong with you, Mabel?” His face was flushed and in the moments it took Mabel to get back on her feet, he’d tugged all his sheets back into his lap. “I was asleep!”

Mabel smirked. “I think you were doing more than that. Were you dreaming about Norman?”

“Sh - shut up!” Dipper grabbed a pillow and threw it at Mabel; she dodged it, grinning. It was so cute how embarrassed Dipper got about this stuff, but she didn’t have time to tease him. So Mabel hopped back to the door and waved at Dipper.

“I just wanted to let you know breakfast is ready! Grunkle Stan made bacon, and I made potatoes. And he’s got a big secret to share with us.”

Dipper’s cheeks were still bright red, but he didn’t immediately yell at Mabel. “Wh - what kind of secret?”

Mabel grinned, glad that Dipper’s natural curiosity was coming to the fore. “A big one. I’ll give you a few minutes to - ah - wash up.”

“Mabel, gross!

Mabel dodged another pillow and retreated, laughing. Waking Soos was less interesting; he responded to her knock with a call of, “In a minute!” She was about a billion percent certain he was chatting with Melody, and might not have actually slept the night before.

In any case, ten minutes later, they were all gathered in the kitchen. Soos had a plate of potatoes, Grunkle Stan was moodily crunching down a massive pile of bacon, and Dipper was staring forlornly into an empty coffee cup. Mabel had forsworn food in the interest of making the meeting proceed more efficiently.

She banged on the table with a juice glass until everyone stared up at her, both Grunkle Stan and Soos around mouthfuls of food. She smiled widely at them.

“Now, I guess you’re wondering why I called you all here.”

“You said Grunkle Stan had some big secret,” Dipper mumbled. “Can I get some coffee?”

“It’ll stunt your growth,” Mabel said. “Now, Grunkle Stan, what is this exciting news you had?”

Grunkle Stan was staring at the table, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of bacon. “I don’t know that it was exciting, exactly. It’s important, though. Life-changing, even. Get up. I got something to show you.”

Dipper tried to remain sitting when Grunkle Stan walked toward the gift shop, but Mabel grabbed his arm and tugged him to his feet, forcing him to stumble after her. She rolled her eyes at his antics. She’d been fine when Dipper drank cups of basically hot chocolate milk, but someone had convinced him black coffee was more manly, and now he’d gotten himself incapable of waking up until he’d had two cups of coffee.

“Come on, we’ve got mysteries to solve!”

“Before coffee?” Dipper asked. He dragged back against Mabel, reaching for the empty coffee pot, and that was strange. Normally, Grunkle Stan would leave half a pot of coffee from his late-night wandering, but there wasn’t any left. Almost as if Grunkle Stan had spent the whole night awake…

Mabel stared at Grunkle Stan as he waited for them to assemble in the gift shop. He did look a little more tired than usual, strained around the eyes. But Mabel was sure it’d all be better once he got his news off of his chest.

But Grunkle Stan didn’t sit down or tell them important news or anything. He just walked to the vending machine and pressed some of the buttons. Mabel was about to point out that he wasn’t going to get anything out of the machine without putting money in when the vending machine swung out to reveal a set of stairs heading down under the Mystery Shack.

Dipper’s head snapped up and he stared at the opening and the strange blue light welling up from below. His eyes were comically wide, all hint of exhaustion gone as he took hesitant steps forward to the gap. “How long has this been here?” he demanded of Grunkle Stan.

Grunkle Stan shrugged. “Came with the building,” he replied. He waved at them, stepping through the doorway. “Come on, it’s all downstairs.”

What’s downstairs?” Dipper shouted.

Grunkle Stan laughed heartily. “Oh, you’ll see.”

Dipper seemed invigorated by the prospect of a new mystery, bolting forward to follow Grunkle Stan. Soos glanced at Mabel and shrugged before following at a more sedate pace. She looked at the open doorway, the steps going down, and paused at the top. Sure, it was Grunkle Stan, and guaranteed to be amazing, but, well, awesome didn’t always mean good.

On the other hand, if Dipper was down there, Mabel needed to be down there, otherwise they weren’t the Mystery Twins.

So she hurried down after Dipper and Soos, arriving at the lower level about the same time Dipper did, when he stopped mid-step and she ran into him.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?”

“This is...why didn’t we know this was down here?”

Mabel stopped to look around and...Dipper’s question made a lot of sense. Below the Mystery Shack was a gigantic laboratory, like something out of a sci-fi movie, except real. There were consoles and lab benches and a gigantic glowing set of circuits and lines and circles set in the far wall. A giant portal sat in the middle of the lights, blue sparks leaping around the edges of it. She could feel Dipper vibrating next to her, and for once she didn’t think he might be overreacting. This was big.

And not just physically big. It was big. End-of-the-season, game-changing big. She knew Dipper had been worried Grunkle Stan was hiding something from them, and this was the proof he wasn’t just paranoid or whatever.

Mabel knew Dipper only had eyes for the machine, because if he had been able to look aside and see the two notebooks sitting on top of another table, he would have started swearing. Grunkle Stan had two notebooks, and, based on the piles of papers next to them, copies of the third.

And this was getting bigger than big. Mabel wished she’d woken up Waddles; she needed something to hug because this was getting too weird.

“Grunkle Stan?”

He had moved to the far end of the lab, next to a console set before the portal thing. He was grinning widely at them.

“Okay, this, you gotta see.” He flipped a switch and pressed a button. A low, bone-rattling hum filled the room as the lights around the portal brightened and seemed to blur together. There was a snap, a sort of reverse splash of weird silvery stuff, and then the surface stabilized into something like a pool of water standing on its side.

It was shiny and totally awesome, but Mabel found herself dwelling on Dipper-like things, like what exactly this was and why it was under the Mystery Shack.

It was depressing she couldn’t bring herself to truly admire the thing.

In about the same amount of time it took Mabel to work through those thoughts, Dipper got over his blustery amazement.

“Grunkle Stan, what - where did you - why - what-”

Okay, never mind. He’d moved onto the stammering incoherently stage.

“What is that thing?”

“This,” Grunkle Stan said proudly, “is my way out.”

“Way out?” Dipper stumbled forward, still staring at the gate. “Way out of what?”

“Everything.” Grunkle Stan walked to the edge of the portal and patted it gently. “Look, I always knew about all this weird zombie, gnome, demon, weird stuff. I always knew it was dangerous, and I always, always knew it was building up to some huge thing. I spent years stocking up gold and supplies, and even longer looking for the journals - the notebooks that had the plans for making this thing work.”

“Mr. Pines, sir, we’re supposed to open in fifteen minutes, so it might help if you got to the point.”

Grunkle Stan glanced at his wrist and nodded. “Yeah, sure. I decided to skedaddle, kids.”

“Skedaddle?”

“There are worlds where they don’t worry about demons or gremlins or whatever, where they solved their problems with things like Bill Cipher. It took me ages to track down a place like that, where I can go and won’t immediately be hunted down by dream demons with grudges.”

“Skedaddle?” Mabel stepped closer to Grunkle Stan, for the first time noticing the duffle bags sitting next to him. “You’re leaving?” She could see the moment the realization occurred to Dipper, when his eyes drooped and face twisted into something heartbreaking. “You’re leaving us?”

Grunkle Stan sighed, shaking his head. “No, I’m asking you to come with me. All of you! Kids, whether you know it or not, everything is going to hell. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. And I’m giving you, and only you, one chance to get out of here with me.”

Dipper’s expression had shifted, and he looked puzzled, or thoughtful, or something else Mabel couldn’t name. “What about Norman?”

“Nuh-uh. We got one shot for this, and I don't have the time to wait on anyone else."

"So what, you want us to leave everything and everyone we love behind so we can run away with you?" Dipper stormed to Grunkle Stan, hands waving wildly as he shouted. "You wanna teach us to be cowards, like you?"

"Cowards survive, kid."

Dipper spat at Grunkle Stan's feet, and Mabel felt her heart clench. She took a step forward, wondering if there was anything she could possibly say to stop the argument that was coming.

But Grunkle Stan didn't yell at Dipper. He just reached down and picked up his bag. He glanced at Mabel, face weary, defeated. The last time she’d seen him look like this was when Gideon had taken over the Mystery Shack.

The comparison struck Mabel like a blow, and once she had it, she could see it as clearly as if it were written on Grunkle Stan's face. He looked resigned; things were happening he couldn't change, and this was the only thing he could do. He couldn't protect Mabel, Dipper - any of them, unless they were willing to come with him.

And he didn't have the time.

"You're really leaving, then. For good."

Grunkle Stan shook his head. "It’s for the best. I gotta find - gotta get out of here." He awkwardly scratched the back of his head. "I don't suppose you're coming with me?"

"I'd love to, but, you know, twins." She gave him a helpless shrug, hoping her expression properly conveyed how sad she was that she couldn't leave Dipper behind.

"Soos?"

Soos shook his head. "Sorry, Mr. Pines. Someone's gotta man the Mystery Shack. Plus, you know, Melody..."

"Hah. Right." Grunkle Stan sighed. He looked over all of them once. He looked at Mabel, who was trying to let him know just how much she loved him through stare alone. He looked at Soos, who stood there with hands clasped in front of him, clearly worried he was somehow disappointing Grunkle Stan. And he looked down at Dipper, who was still glaring at him. "I guess this is it. Soos, the safe under my bed has the deed. Combination's your birthday. Mabel, take care of Dipper. And Dipper-"

He paused, but Dipper didn't offer any angry retort. Grunkle Stan shrugged. "Well, keep an eye out for your sister. Au revoir!"

Bags in hand, Grunkle Stan stepped up to the portal and stepped through. The air flashed blue-white and Mabel had to close her eyes against it. When the spots from the flash faded, Grunkle Stan was gone.

Dipper took a cautious step forward. When he reached out his hand to the dimming portal, nothing happened.

“Wow. Mr. Pines always said he was going to blow this joint, but I never actually believed him.”

Soos’ expression was mild, thoughtful, but Mabel had seen how the loss of one father had sent Soos into a spiral of depression. A second might destroy him. She stepped up and patted his shoulder.

“It’ll be okay, Soos.”

“I don’t think it will, Mabel. If there’s one thing I know about Mr. Pines, it’s that he knows how to get out when the getting’s good.”

“Yeah, first at the rear,” Dipper growled. “After all these years...I thought he cared about - us. I thought he believed in us.”

“I think he does, Dipper.” Mabel reached out her other hand to pull him into a hug, trying to transmit all the love and support she could into that one gesture. She wondered sometimes if her natural talent at hugs had always been a manifestation of her Master of the Mental Arts thingie, because Dipper actually relaxed in the embrace. “He wanted us to go with him. Can you imagine him asking us to come along and eat all his supplies when he first got here?”

“I can’t imagine it two years ago,” Dipper replied. He sagged into Mabel, reminding her that at some point he’d actually gotten taller and more muscular and was therefore heavy. “Do...you think he’s right?”

“Do you?”

Dipper nodded. “Yeah. I just sort of assumed Grunkle Stan would be around with us to deal with it.”

“On the plus side, we can dig through all of his stuff in case it’ll help us deal with the oncoming Apocalypse.”

Dipper gasped and lunged back toward the desk, sending Mabel tumbling to the ground.

“Ow, hey! What’s the big idea?”

“The journals!” Dipper held both books triumphantly. “We’ve only ever seen one of them, but imagine what we can learn from all three of them!”

And there was one way to get Dipper out of his slump. There was very little in life that he liked more than doing research. Although as the days passed into a week, Mabel began to question the wisdom of letting Dipper look through the journals. Their room (and it was strange that neither of them felt comfortable trying to take over Grunkle Stan’s room) was quickly becoming plastered with an interlocking set of notes, and Dipper was sleeping less and less.

And then the day before Norman was supposed to arrive, Dipper dragged Mabel up to their room during what was supposed to be a short break in her plans to spend all day dancing in the sprinkler.

"This better be good," Mabel announced half-heartedly. At this point, she didn't expect Dipper to bother her for trivia; his experiences the previous summer seemed to have left him more grounded.

He looked it now, somber and tired underneath his wild hair and clad in rumpled clothes. He reminded her of Grunkle Stan, having searched so long for a way out, and ready to take it alone if he needed to.

"It's not good. It's the exact opposite of good." Dipper waved his arms at the board, at the copied pages, some painted over with purple, green, or red letters. The purple Mabel recognized as the words that showed up only under blacklight. Mostly containing the notes of the mysterious author, they were shoved to the side.. The green must be the words hidden to all but mediums and seers - again, dire warnings were shoved off to the side. The red, though...the red words on any one page seemed to be nonsense, but Dipper had strung corresponding pages from each journal together, and the message was terrifyingly certain.

"No puppet strings can hold me down
So patiently I watch this town
Abnormal soon will be the norm
Enjoy the calm before the storm

Ten crowns were set to seal the door
So seven heads would rise no more
Ten keys will turn to open wide
To loose the heads to come inside

Miracles will sweep the land
Wrought by a dead man’s hand
Common eyes set on this wonder
Will rend what is odd asunder

If challenged ‘neath stone watchful eyes
Seven heads will seize their prize
If raised aloft by great acclaim
The world’s fate will be the same

Sword and spell will hold no relief
All efforts will bring naught but grief
To prevent this fate drawing nigh
Your only hope the blinded eye.
"

She looked away from the dire prophecy; Dipper was watching her with a wary, pained expression.

"How'd you find this?"

“I was trying to make sense of all the notes, trying to find some code or something that showed the Author knew something about this - and it was the monocle, the stupid monocle we found with the journal. It made all this weird prophecy shit show up.” Some of the energy left Dipper, his weariness suddenly visible in the slump of his shoulders. “Mabel...this is bad, right?"

She considered that for a long moment. It was a hard question. Sure, it suggested something really bad was going to happen, but it gave them a way out. But there was only one answer she could give.

"Bad? Maybe. But it isn't anything we can't handle."

Just a hint of Dipper's stress dropped away, and he offered Mabel a shy smile. He was opening his mouth to reply when his phone rang. The sudden noise startled Dipper, and he lunged, fumbling for it. "Hello?" His expression darkened as whoever was on the line spoke. "Yeah. We've been getting that, too. Uh-huh." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "Don't do anything until we get there." A pause. "Because it would be a really bad idea." He hang up and gave Mabel a wild smile. "Guess what? Coraline's been chasing after a dead guy running around performing miracles, and it looks like there's going to be a big showdown at Mount Rushmore."

Stone watchful eyes...

Mabel nodded. "Well, sounds like a party."

Chapter Text

“We will be arriving at our hotel in about fifteen minutes, so please make sure you have all your belongings.”

Hiro sighed and pushed away from the bus window at the driver’s flat, unenthused voice. He nearly bumped into his neighbor, a girl who had spent some 80 percent of her time drawing or writing in her notebooks. Once Hiro had realized she was adept at holding conversations, continuing to write, and walk at the same time, he’d taken to sharing his ideas with her.

She didn’t share much; she was on this tour as part of her Masters in folklore or something like that, although she’d failed to explain what a tour of the United States’ monuments was supposed to help.

He, after all, was here to celebrate receiving his own Masters. Cass had insisted he take some time off of studying and crime fighting. And now she’d abandoned him to strangers; he could see her chatting up the cartoonist who was here with his daughter.

“This should be an interesting stop,” Chihiro said as she packed away her notebook.

“How do you think?”

“Mount Rushmore is a shrine to the idealized leaders of America’s past. It’s a fascinating monument.”

“A shrine?”

“Yeah.” Chihiro grinned at him. “All these monuments and tourist traps memorialize or idealize things that Americans value. People go on pilgrimages to see some embodiment of their legends. It's not all that different from the Japanese countryside, littered with shrines to forgotten gods." She shrugged when Hiro didn't immediately reply. "This sort of thing is my subject of choice."

"Mythology?"

Chihiro shook her head. "How and what people memorialize, and how that affects their legends, and their culture. But I must be boring you, Mister Engineer, with my talk of the humanities."

"No! It's-" It wasn't quite something Hiro cared about; he'd never been one to think too deeply on spiritual matters, preferring the concrete world of science, but Chihiro was as enthusiastic about her world of myth and culture as Hiro's own friends were. "No one can make something quite as interesting as when they care about it," he concluded lamely.

The response, however, seemed to charm Chihiro. When they alighted from the bus, she grabbed Hiro's arm and dragged him to some tiny cafe off the main road. Cass didn't call, so Hiro presumed she either hadn't noticed or didn't care about his apparent kidnapping (he tried to remind himself it wasn't a fair analysis; Chihiro was hardly a threat, and Cass liked to think Hiro should make more friends).

They passed a huge poster set against a shuttered tailor's. Or, rather, Chihiro dragged Hiro back to it a moment after passing it. The poster depicted a tall, slender man with dark skin, gleaming eyes, and an immaculate purple suit. He held a woman's hand, looking at her with exaggerated benevolence as she threw a crutch aside.

'The Miracle Man!' the poster exclaimed. 'One Day Only! Making the Impossible Possible at Mount Rushmore!' The event was scheduled for the next day.

Hiro snorted; Chihiro gave him a narrow glare, one with a piercing quality he was used to seeing only from parents.

"What? It's obviously nonsense."

Chihiro turned back to the poster, frowning thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure about that. I think I read something about him..."

Hiro still doubted it. Chihiro didn't sound remotely like someone who believed a real miracle-worker was in town. A man who could do the impossible should elicit giddy excitement; Hiro had seen it enough in his fellow engineers, the moment when their horizons expanded to contain new possibilities...

Chihiro sounded more like someone who'd heard about a natural disaster and didn't want to believe it.

"You really think this guy's for real?"

Chihiro shrugged. "It's hard to say. If he is, though..." She trailed off, giving Hiro an assessing glance. He shrugged in response; he wasn't about to tell her whatever she was thinking was impossible. Magic or science or whatever it was, knowing what she was worried about could only help him figure out what he was going to do.

She shook her head and led him to the coffee shop. She wasn't just giving him the silent treatment; Hiro recognized the look of someone who was on the verge of a discovery and just needed to find how to put it in words.

When they sat at a table in the back, each with a cup of tea, Chihiro sighed and leaned back. "Let's pretend magic is real. It can't be all that different from science. Doing big stuff - really big stuff - requires power. Power most people don't have access to."

"And nobody's going to just give that away."

Chihiro gave Hiro a bright grin. "Exactly!" The excitement gave way to a scowl, however, as it took her back into her thoughts. "So someone who's handing out miracles has to be getting something from it."

"What about exposure?" Chihiro twisted her face in confusion, and maybe a bit of disbelief, so Hiro pushed forward. "No, think about it. Practically nobody believes in magic nowadays. So if you wanted to sell people miracles, what sort of market would you have? But if you give away miracles, even to the poor and desperate and credulous, you're going to build a reputation. Maybe get a good name for yourself. Then, and only then, you've got leverage. You've got a brand you can advertise and a product people know works. You've got something people will pay an arm and a leg for."

"Literally." Chihiro's expression had darkened, her face crumpled up almost cartoonishly.

Hiro reached out to pat her hand, but paused and drew it back, uncertain if it would be welcome. "What do you mean by that?"

Chihiro pushed herself up straight and banished her sullen expression, replacing it with something Hiro was far more familiar with: an expression of determination. "Magic is all about exchange. If you give, you take away. If you push, you pull. The price people are going to have to pay for miracles is...astronomical."

"So, wanna check it out?" At Chihiro's outraged glare, Hiro resisted the urge to laugh. "Look, you said you're not sure he's for real. The only way to know for sure is to check it out ourselves. And if he is...well, we can figure out what to do next."

"You're a man with a plan, aren't you?" Chihiro smiled at Hiro more gently, reaching out to pat his hand.

"Eh, it comes in handy from time to time." He gave Chihiro what he hoped was a modest grin. It was hard to say if he succeeded, because she just stood up and dragged him up by his wrist. He wasn't much taller than her.

She abandoned him back at the hotel, which was alright because Hiro had things to do now. It had been infeasible to bring Baymax along, even if he was cheaper than any sort of emergency medical care they might need.

So once he was settled in the room, Hiro called the robot's internal phone.

"Hiro! Do you require medical assistance?"

"No, I - it's not a health care thing. It's a - you know, the other thing."

"Using alternative skills to obviate the need for medical care by preventing injury from criminal sources?"

"Yeah, that." Hiro couldn't help but grin; Baymax still had little concept of colloquialism, preferring the precise language Tadashi had originally imbued him with.

"Are you certain you do not need medical assistance? Your vocal registers indicate a higher than average level of stress-"

"I am stressed, but this isn't the sort of thing a cup of warm milk will help. It's the sort of thing I need the whole team for."

Hiro heard a whir and click. "The negative effects of stress can be alleviated by socialization with others who can help resolve or discuss the underlying cause. Very well. I will call your friends."

"Yeah, great. Tell them I need them here yesterday."

"I am not certain the message would be well-received. The efforts in developing a method of time travel to respond to a summons-"

"Just tell them to take Fred's jet."

"That will certainly be more feasible. I will inform them immediately."

"Thanks, Baymax."

Hiro hung up the phone and let out an explosive sigh. For all that he’d done almost nothing all day, he was exhausted. He fell back onto his bed and curled up at the foot of it. He hadn’t quite intended to fall asleep, but he dreamed of Tadashi, of the horrifying moment when he knew his brother wasn’t coming out alive, of the depression and anger that followed, and of the still-lingering pain.

Normally the dreams were pained recollections within the larger continuity of his night, but that night, they were an endless recollection of his worst moments.

At least until the explosion paled to colorlessness and a flash of yellow entered the scene of his memories. A triangle, decorated to look like a pyramid, inset with a bulging eye. The thing had a top hat and bowtie, and weird dangling arms and legs.

“Pretty compelling story, right?”

“What?”

The triangle drifted lower and reached out an arm, dragging Hiro closer. The arm was thick and muscular, covered in fur, a startling contrast to its appearance. The single eye narrowed. “Your story, kid. It’s got all the classic elements: drama, violence, sorrow, redemption…”

Hiro shoved the triangle away with a shout. “Get off me. This is my life, not some sort of - blockbuster!”

The triangle laughed. “Yeah, I know. A blockbuster would make back more than three times its budget in ticket sales. Here, have a better movie.” Hiro reacted on instinct, catching the blue DVD case the triangle had tossed at him. The temperature abruptly plummeted, snow blowing around Hiro in a concentrated whirlwind until he dropped the DVD. It dropped to the ground and shattered into shards.

Hiro took a step back from the triangle. “Look, I don’t know what this is about, but I don’t want any of it.”

The triangle rocked back and forth in a strange, hypnotic motion. “That’s awfully judgmental of you. You haven’t even heard what I want!”

“I’ve generally found that the sort of people who pop up in my dreams unannounced aren’t the type to have my best interests at heart.”

“I, for one, would like to know who’s been visiting your brain. Was it that sow Luna? Whatever she told you about me is a lie! You don’t look like the sort who could take on Freddy - holy shitsnacks, it wasn’t one of those jackass Psychonauts, was it?” The triangle’s eye was steaming as it darkened to a vivid red. “Because let me tell you, they’re all amateurs. Can one of them do this?”

Hiro’s entire existence transmuted into taffy, a horrifying, sticky, stretchy experience that would haunt him until the day he died. When everything snapped back to normal, the triangle seemed to have calmed, arm back on Hiro’s shoulders.

“Now that we’ve established I’m the master of the mental arts, you wanna chat, kiddo?”

Hiro shook his head. “Look, I’ve got a therapy-bot-”

“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” The triangle floated away and crossed its legs as it dropped to the ground. “The whole superhero origin story. It’s a pretty good one - the discovery of your true potential, new friends. The only problem with it, in my opinion, is how the bad guy wins.”

Hiro’s blood chilled. “Wins? Callaghan went to jail!”

The triangle laughed. “Yeah! But I bet he’d tell you it was worth it. He got his revenge on Krei, and he got his daughter back. But you? Your brother is still dead.”

Hiro launched himself at the triangle, beating at its surprisingly solid form with his fists. “Shut up about him! You don’t know anything! He’s still here-”

“That’s just the sort of thing people say to make themselves feel better about the fact that their loved ones are dead and gone forever.”

The words sucked the energy out of Hiro; he fell to his knees and resisted the urge to cry. Of course he’d thought that on occasion; it wasn’t fair that Callaghan had gotten everything he wanted and Hiro still had a hole in his heart. A clawed talon rested on his shoulder.

“Look, kid, don’t worry about it. It’s not like there’s anything either of us can do about it. I mean, I could fuck with your mind, make you convinced he’s still alive.” The triangle popped up, swiveling around to face Hiro. “Hey! I could totally do that!”

“No, no! This is stupid! I don’t need you sitting here telling me all this shit!” Hiro waved at the triangle, trying to find some mental balance among his turmoil. He didn’t want someone tempting him with insane, impossible promises. He needed to move on; he needed...to live with this. “Get out of my head.”

“Oh, sure.” The triangle began fading out, its eye remaining in place until the very end. “Never say I didn’t do anything for you, okay, kid?”

Hiro woke too early the next morning. Aunt Cass was asleep and his phone had a message explaining Baymax and the others would be there around noon - some sort of thing about Immigration and US airspace.

It left him to his own devices until the tour bus was to take them to Mount Rushmore. He spent most of that time huddled up in the business center of the hotel, trying to settle his mind. Nothing about his dreams was remotely conducive to staking out a potentially evil sorcerer. He didn’t need to be fixated on everything he’d lost.

When Aunt Cass found him, he was mostly composed and ready for the bus. Chihiro waved at him as they were boarding and he managed a hesitant wave in response. She sat next to him on the bus, looking far calmer than Hiro felt.

“Are you okay?”

He shook his head minutely. “No. It’s just...old stuff. Stuck thinking about it all night.” He paused, glancing sidelong at her. She seemed to believe in magic. He wondered if she’d seen weird triangle things before.

He decided against asking her. The last thing he needed was letting her know he was certifiable.

“I...think the Miracle Man might be...the real thing,” Chihiro said quietly once they started moving.

“Why?”

She shrugged. “Old stuff. Old friends. But…”

Hiro nodded. “It means we need to go in there with a plan, doesn’t it?”

“Sort of. I think...we just need to keep him from doing anything big.” At Hiro’s questioning look, Chihiro answered, “It’s like you said. Exposure. He only gets what he wants if he does something big - something impossible and irrefutable - on camera.”

Can he?”

“Anyone can pull something big off once,” Chihiro replied. “And all he needs is one.”

Hiro nodded. “So, what? Interrupt the big spellcasting?”

“No,” Chihiro replied. “Keep his focus on us. Keep him talking. Keep him from moving onto anyone who might ask for something big. I’ll take the right side and you take the left, okay?”

“Sure.” But Hiro wasn’t certain he could do what Chihiro asked. He wasn’t good at public speaking, and his mind never seemed to engage when he needed to talk if he hadn’t rehearsed it. He remained silent through the rest of the drive, until they approached the actual mountain. Cars were packed in the approach; Chihiro’s mouth thinned as she examined them. It was clear from the knots of people drifting toward a large purple tent when they disembarked that much of the crowd was here for the Miracle Man.

Aunt Cass drifted behind Hiro. “Hey, you ready for some monument-touring?”

“I think I want to check out that big tent.”

Cass wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t know you were religious, Hiro. But...well, I don’t see the harm in exploring your spirituality. Come on.”

Chihiro was already in the tent; Hiro and Cass followed the crowd into a huge tent decorated with strange masks. He’d never spent any substantial time in a church, but he was pretty sure the decor was a little out of place. Cass led Hiro down the aisle; he directed them to the center aisle a few rows back from the front. He was pretty sure it was the best way to catch the Miracle Man’s attention. Cass seemed a little anxious, which seemed reasonable even if she wasn’t planning to derail the entire presentation.

Chihiro was seated across the tent; she glanced once in Hiro’s direction but gave no indication of seeing him. She seemed to be in conversation with a slender, dark-haired boy, who was gesturing at another group of kids closer to Hiro. He tried to discreetly examine them, finding little unusual about them save that Chihiro seemed interested in them. None looked older than Hiro, even though Chihiro’s interest suggested they had similar sympathies to him…

Purple smoke erupted from the stage set a few rows from Hiro. A tall, slender, dark-haired man dressed in a purple suit stepped from the smoke, arms held wide. A purple glove encased his left hand, which he swept around to signal the audience.

“Good morning, Mount Rushmore!”

"Hello!"

The crowd spoke in a roar, all but a few knots of journalists and other curious onlookers joining in. The energy seemed to flow into the Miracle Man, because he began to pace the stage, gesticulating wildly as he spoke about faith and belief, how with enough of both, anything could happen. He spoke of the lame walking, the blind seeing, incurable illnesses cured-

"Bullshit."

The voice, sharp and clear, cut through the rapt silence of the audience. Cass shook Hiro and hissed, "What are you doing?"

"I-" Hiro's voice, too-loud in his uncertainty, rang out again. He realized with a twist of his stomach that he'd been the one to interrupt the Miracle Man.

The performer seemed unmoved by Hiro's declaration, though, slipping down to ground level, a sly smile on his lips. "It seems we have an unbeliever in our midst, folks."He reached down with his left hand and tugged Hiro up. There was strength there, concealed by the wiry frame, so Hiro couldn't have resisted if he wanted to. "What's your name, boy?"

Hiro was first overwhelmed by the hundreds of eyes fixed on him. But then he saw movement at the back of the tent, the familiar shape of Baymax and his friends. He straightened, set his shoulders, and said, "Hiro Hamada."

"Not a home-grown lad, then. And what makes you say 'bullshit' to me? You don't believe in miracles."

"You're not talking about miracles. Nothing you're talking about is beyond the dreams of scientists today. I'd bet you in ten years, fifteen, the 'miracles' you're espousing will be commonplace. You don't need to be preaching miracles to do all that; you just have to be the first breakthrough in medicine."

The Miracle Man shook his head. "That's the sound of a man who's never needed a miracle, who's never been so down and beaten that the only thing that called out to him was a higher power. There are people out here who yearn for a miracle, who've been laid so low nothing else can reach them." He paused, arms mid-sweep, and he bent down to examine Hiro closer. "Or maybe you're so low you can't believe in miracles anymore. Something's cut you deep, boy, and I tell you I have the power to fix it. Whatever's tied you up in knots, whatever you want in your deepest desires to fix things, I can do it."

"I want my brother back!" Hiro snapped, and he could see people near him cringing at the vehemence, could hear the murmuring of others, people who believed in miracles but not to that degree. He saw thought he saw Chihiro giving him a thumbs-up, but he was too worked up to care. There was nothing else in life he couldn't work for, nothing impossible except seeing Tadashi alive again-

"Well, why didn't you say so at the start? Come on, boy, and let's raise the dead!"

Chapter Text

The tent had fallen silent as death at the Miracle Man's words. Healing the sick, that was something revival preachers did. Raising the dead, though...

Norman was shivering on one side of Dipper; Dipper reached out and grabbed his hand, and Norman gave him a strange, twisted smile.

"That'll do it," Norman whispered. "Even I know you can't raise the dead."

Dipper almost asked Norman to explain, but then he sat for a moment and really looked at his surroundings. There were cameras, news crews here. He was sure there were bloggers who'd heard about the Miracle Man and come out here to see just how hilariously bad he was. The boy - Hiro - was right. There were so many things the Miracle Man could do that could be passed off as trickery.

Resurrection couldn't.

Coraline grabbed Dipper's shoulder. "That kid's brother's been dead for two, three years. We have to stop him."

The Miracle Man had led Hiro up on stage. The boy looked to be in a daze, and Dipper couldn't blame him. This was like - like winning the lottery, but...bigger. This wasn't a one-in-a-million chance. This was an impossibility.

He felt a twinge of regret knowing they were denying Hiro the chance to see his brother again. But there was no way that letting the Miracle Man do this was going to end well for anyone.

Dipper grabbed Mabel and dragged her after him. He didn't look to see who was following them. If anybody. A burly guy tried to block their way onto the far end of the stage, but Mabel just gave him a firm look and his resistance melted away.

And then Dipper was standing across a wide platform from the Miracle Man and his latest victim. He spared a glance behind him; it was him, Mabel, Norman, and Coraline standing against whatever the Miracle Man really was.

"Stop it," Dipper said. "You can't do this."

"You mean you don't want me to." The Miracle Man swept his hand out to encompass the audience. "They all want to see this. And this heartbroken child just wants to see his brother again. Is that really wrong?"

"Yes." Norman stepped forward shakily. He didn't look at the Miracle Man, but at the dark-haired boy standing next to him, the one who looked hopeful and terrified at the same time. "I'm not going to say there's a rhyme or reason to death. There isn't. But death is - is the final frontier. It’s not something you’re supposed to come back from.”

As Norman spoke, Hiro’s expression shifted, from his wide-eyed uncertainty to a narrow, focused look, and at last to something hard and angry. He clenched his fists and took a single step toward Norman.

“There are a lot of things people think we aren’t supposed to do - just because no one’s done it before. And I don’t think - you haven’t lost someone like I have. Otherwise you wouldn’t tell me to leave someone behind. I’ve brought someone back - not the way the Miracle Man’s promising, but you can’t tell me it’s something I’m not supposed to do. Not when I’ve lost so much and - and…” He bit off the rest of his words, eyes tearing as he let his head drop.

The Miracle Man stepped up behind him, resting a familiar hand on Hiro’s shoulder. He smiled mockingly at Norman. “I’m going to agree with young Hiro, here. You have no right to tell him if he should want his brother back.”

“Do we?”

The voice came from a knot of people at the entrance of the tent, backed by a large, rounded robot with a flat expression. A tall woman, built like a beanstalk, dressed in vibrant colors, stepped forward. Her expression was doubtful, worried, and Dipper felt a flare of hope. Hiro himself looked shaken at her words; it was clear that he was far more conflicted about this than he might appear.

“Hiro, we all miss Tadashi, every day. And yes, sometimes we wish we could have him back. But where does it stop? If we know someone can bring back the dead, who gets to live again? Your brother wanted to improve everyone’s lives, to make medicine accessible to everybody. This...would do the opposite.”

“How convenient that she can tell you what your brother would want, seeing as he’s not here to speak for himself.”

“Shut up.” HIro shrugged away from the Miracle Man and strode to the front of the stage and toward the group. He looked at the strange, round robot. “Baymax?”

The robot’s eyes gleamed briefly. “At Fred’s suggestion, I investigated the effects of economics on public health. It seems likely that the advent of a cure for death would divert resources from needed medical care toward resurrection for those most willing and able to pay for it. I do not have feelings on the matter, but a reduction in overall commitment to public health is an outcome counter to my programming. I cannot say for certain how your brother would feel on the matter, but-”

“You’re right.” Hiro turned to the Miracle Man. “I don’t want this.”

The Miracle Man’s smile suddenly turned into a smirk before morphing into a terrible rictus. “Do you think this is about you? It isn’t, not even remotely. You see, when you’re in the right place and nakedly want something, you get it. And you did want it, kid, just for a moment. And a moment’s all I need.”

Dipper heard a pained gasp from somewhere in the audience, but he didn’t have the energy to worry about that, because the Miracle Man shifted slightly, tugging at his left hand, and Dipper could feel the magic building in the air. Even in Gravity Falls, the center of supernatural weirdness, magic was barely a background buzz. The feel of it around the Miracle Man was something like the shift in pressure before a tidal wave, a slow rolling pressure that heralded something huge lurking on the horizon.

The power building around the man, Dipper knew, meant that trying to fight him would just make things worse. He had power gathered in his hand, power enough to do the impossible in front of hundreds of witnesses and whoever would see the images and video broadcast out. There was too much energy building to simply let slip away. Something had to be done with the magic…

Dipper could see the fulcrum, the tipping point of the magic, as it gathered. He knew that he could reach out and push the magic another way, if only he had some idea of what to do.

“Your only hope the blinded eye,” Mabel whispered behind him.

The blinded eye?

Dipper looked back at her, dressed in a loose sweater covered in pink playing cards, and something clicked.

Magic. Magic. Illusions.

He could use all that power to make something happen that was just a hoax. Obviously a hoax, proof that the Miracle Man relied on trickery and hope to make his magic work. A trapdoor, a lookalike, some smoke and mirrors…

It would ruin the man, and prevent loosing whatever the keys were set to lock away onto the world.

It was his only choice.

No.

He had other choices. There was never only one choice.

So.

He could try to find a way to make the power dissipate harmlessly. Hard. Nearly impossible. It would probably kill them all. It was not, therefore, optimal.

He could twist the power and make the Miracle Man seem like a fraud. Not easy; Dipper didn’t have much experience wielding so much power. But Dipper could do it, and it would stop whatever was supposed to happen.

Or he could let it happen.

It seemed like a stupid idea, and maybe it was. But just because a choice seemed easy didn’t mean that it was.

Was there a downside to stopping all of this right now? To preventing whatever the ‘seven heads’ referred to in the journals were from escaping their prison?

Yes.

Whatever they were, they had all the time in the world. They could wait for something like this moment to come around again. If Dipper stopped the Miracle Man, he was deciding to make these creatures someone else’s problem.

It wasn’t a decision between stopping the Miracle Man or not.

It was deciding whether the world should face the consequences of this moment now...or later.

Dipper didn’t have time to talk it over; he barely had time to think it through. But...he looked back at Mabel, at Norman, at Coraline and her friend. They were good people, had a good handle on things. He trusted them.

If the world was going to go to hell eventually, he wouldn’t want anyone else besides them dealing with it.

But that didn’t mean Dipper had to sit back and let the Miracle Man do this however he wanted.

Dipper grabbed the fulcrum of the magic and sent it along his own little idea of what should happen here.

Dipper had no time for fancy flashes of light or special effects. One moment, there was nothing, and then there was a young man on the stage, on his hands and knees, coughing wildly. He looked very much like Hiro, and his appearance set Hiro’s face alight with some combination of joy and terror.

“Ta...Tadashi?” The voice came from the audience, halting and uncertain. Dipper could see the same paralyzed shock in Hiro’s friends. The world then seemed to shift under Dipper’s feet, something no one else seemed to notice. The Miracle Man, whose face had twisted into shock as Dipper had wrested the magic away from him, grinned with a triumphant intensity that confirmed to Dipper that enough people had observed - or believed - or whatever was needed for this moment - that his prophecy was coming true.

The air above the stage went strangely grey, while the rest of the world remained in vibrant color. In the center of the grey appeared a creature, a triangle in stark yellow, holding its arms and legs in some parody of the Vitruvian Man, inscribed within a ring divided in ten segments. Dipper saw a pine tree in one segment, a child’s drawing of a ghost in another, a dragon, a tiger, a shooting star, a right hand, an eye, a button, a frog, and a gear. The symbols flared with octarine and Bill Cipher’s eye swiveled to meet Dipper’s gaze.

“Thanks a lot, Pine Tree!”

And then Bill Cipher reached back and punched his fist through the plane of the ring. What emerged was not the stick lines Dipper was accustomed to seeing as Bill’s limbs, but a paw like a wolf’s or coyote’s.It grasped around the ring and tugged, pulling forth a head like a badger’s topped with a rhino’s horn, and another arm like a seal’s. A serpentine body followed, and a mismatched pair of bee’s and eagle’s wings. With enough leverage at last, Bill braced himself against the circle with clawed bird’s talons shrouded in rainbow feathers and a stubby clawed reptilian foot, and leapt fully from the circle. The maddening form was topped with a ratlike tail at the end, but for all the mismatched parts, Bill landed easily on the stage. He scanned the audience with two beady black eyes and a third feline one suspended above it. His expression, for its feral features, was unreadable.

“Good morning, South Dakota! You are in for a treat today! You get to see what happens when the Cipher clan finally gets to walk the Earth again! Hint: it’s going to be explosive!”

Chapter Text

It was less than a month after the Pines twins had restored Blendin to his position when he was called before the Time Baby. When he entered the office, Blendin fell to his knees instantly.

“Please don’t vaporize me! I’ll try to do better!”

SILENCE, BLENDIN.

The voice of the Time Baby, as always, was like having words carved into your brain, a memory of words that your ears never heard.

I HAVE NOT CALLED YOU HERE FOR DISCIPLINARY ACTION, BLENDIN. The Time Baby glanced at the guards. YOU MAY LEAVE US.

They did without complaint, and then Blendin was alone with the most powerful entity in the universe.

BLENDIN BLANDIN, I HAVE CALLED YOU HERE FOR A SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT.

“Oh, no.” Blendin shook his head, whole body shaking. “The last time I had a special assignment, I ended up in prison!”

THIS IS DIFFERENT. I HAVE ELECTED TO GIVE YOU THIS ASSIGNMENT PERSONALLY. FURTHERMORE, IT IS THE LAST ASSIGNMENT.

“You’re firing me?” Blendin’s blood ran cold. “Or are you terminating me?”

YOU MISUNDERSTAND, BLENDIN. THIS IS THE LAST ASSIGNMENT THAT THE TIME PARADOX AVOIDANCE ENFORCEMENT SQUADRON WILL EVER RECEIVE. AFTER I FINISH THIS MEETING WITH YOU, I, AND THE TIMELINE YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH, WILL CEASE TO EXIST.

“Sir?” Blendin looked up cautiously, his mind all but blank. What the Time Baby was saying made no sense. The Time Baby was immortal - was eternal. There was nothing that could challenge, much less defeat, the Time Baby. “What do you mean?”

THERE IS A NEXUS, A POINT IN TIME FROM WHICH THE FUTURE FLOWS. IT...IS DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN HOW THE CHAIN OF EVENTS IN THE PAST AFFECT THE CURRENT AGE, BUT CHANGES HAVE OCCURRED SUCH THAT I NEVER AWAKEN, AND OUR WORLD DOES NOT EXIST. EVEN NOW WE EXIST ONLY THROUGH MY EFFORTS TO SUSTAIN THIS MOMENT.

“So I need to wake you up so you can make sure the future happens right?”

The Time Baby shook his head. THE ENTITIES THAT ARE AFFECTING THIS CHANGE ARE FAR BEYOND ME.

“But maybe there’s something I can do-”

NO! INTERFERING WILL RISK PARADOX. I HAVE A DIFFERENT MISSION FOR YOU.

A golden orb holding a glowing gold hourglass appeared in front of the Time Baby.

“A Time Wish…” Blendin reached out toward it. “So I use this to fix everything?”

NO. THE WORLD HAS CHANGED, CREATING NEW POSSIBILITIES, PATHS OF WHICH I CANNOT CONCEIVE. IT TAXES EVEN MY OMNISCIENCE, AND SO I HAVE A DIFFERENT MISSION FOR YOU. TAKE THIS TIME WISH, AND GRANT IT TO THE ONE YOU DEEM MOST WORTHY OF IT.

“What does that mean? Who do I give it to?”

The Time Baby sighed. I HAVE TOLD YOU MY KNOWLEDGE, MY POWER, CANNOT TOUCH THIS NEW WORLD. IT IS FOR THIS REASON THAT I AM ENTRUSTING YOU WITH THE RESPONSIBILITY OF DETERMINING THE CORRECT ACTION TO TAKE.

“What?” Blendin stared up at the Time Baby, chest pounding. He could feel his panic rising. “I can’t make a decision like that! I know the Pines’ had me reinstated, but I’m not some super agent!”

YOU MUST ACCEPT THIS RESPONSIBILITY, BLENDIN. I HAVE PEERED DEEP INTO THE TIME VORTEX, AND I KNOW THE CORRECT ACTION IS TO ENTRUST THIS TO YOU.

“But how will I know what to do with it? What if I choose wrong?”

The Time Baby shook his head. I CANNOT COUNSEL YOU. YOU MUST OBSERVE AND MAKE A DECISION THAT YOU THINK IS BEST.

I BELIEVE IN YOU.

With that, Blendin was banished from the future, quite possibly for the last time ever.

At the dawn of time, there was a war between the gods and those who saw nothing of value in their creation. These...demons possessed such power that no god could defeat them. In the end, there was no hope except to find a means to bind them so they could not wreak havoc upon the world.

Look into the vast infinity of space. There is a temptation to call it a vast nothingness, but even in the most distant corner of existence, stars gleam in the sky. Here, the dancing galaxies make constellations of their own, forms of starlight that wander the heavens of their own accord. Though a billion billion times larger than their ordinary counterparts, the galactic constellations are more recognizable. Here you see a great winged horse, here a man with a sword of burning light. There an eagle and there a fox.

A menagerie wanders by, and it occurs to you that each form may not merely be a collection of galaxies, but an entire universe...

You realize, slowly, that you look ahead, but not back, and slowly, you turn.

Behind you reality boils. Where the great infinity tempts you to call it nothingness, this calls forth only one word: Chaos. What forms that emerge from the madness are themselves impossible things, flesh fused to steel and magic, things whose very existence seems to twist and torture the world around them.

If all possible creation is behind you, what is in front of you is everything else - things that cannot possibly exist, that cannot survive in the world behind you. It is a nightmare.

Even so bound, the demons had power. Whether held in stone, glass, or beyond the reaches of reality, each found ways to reach out into the realms from which they had been banished.

You do not see the strange dance of reality as you did before. Galaxies spin and collide, light filling the sky in every direction. Lights dance between them, and then, slowly, you see something else.

Six lights gleam within the universe, purer than starlight and brighter than anything else in the heavens. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet…

Slowly, the lights draw close to one another, and for a brief moment, you can see them set within a gauntlet of steel or some other metal.

Your perspective shifts radically, revealing a vision of a blackened gem, surrounded by a sickening violet miasma.

Then you are in a cool tomb, and watch a great coffin set with strange gold artifacts, each marked with a watching eye.

A twisted hand, like a furry man’s or a monkey’s, rests on a table with a series of other trinkets.

A burned-out motel, abandoned within a blasted desert.

An ornate jade box sealed with strips of leather.

Other images flick by you, too fast to register. They are not images of any creature, only of objects, innocuous things that seem like they could do no harm.

But no seal lasts forever. Whenever these demons have broken free of their prisons, they bring death and misery in their wake.

A creature looms over you, an impossibility. Something like a cross between a dragon and a goat, its wings are those of a bat and some feathered bird, bearing an eagle’s talons and lion’s paws, walking on the legs of a horse and a lizard. It is, you realize, cast in stone, but even with that realization, you know it is far more than it appears.

Standing near it brings you the same feeling as the mass of chaos that lurked outside the bounds of reality. If madness took a shape…

There are other flashes across your mind’s eye, things that wear human or other shapes, but are instead something out of your nightmares. A woman with three eyes, whose soul burns with power. Creatures that are nothing more than blots of darkness. And other creatures that look like they are made with the bits of other creatures, terrifying chimerae that all bring to mind the roiling chaos outside of time.

Cracks begin to appear along the surface of the stone statue before you. Light begins to shine out between the cracks. You take a step back, but realize even as you do so that distance alone won’t protect you from this.

And a time will come when the chimerae, the children of Chaos, will break free of their prisons.

High above the town of Gravity Falls, at the top of the titular falls, there are two lines of runes cut into the stone. One of the lines, the furthest from the edge of the falls, is strange, at times fading to near-invisibility. And of all of the marks, two are stained a dark brown.

It has the look of a cave-painting or shrine, something old created for a purpose unknown to the current age. It has the look of magic.

A figure dressed in black robes steps to the very edge of the line, staring through to the unreal world beyond. After a long time, the figure kneels, wiping a hand across the nearest of the two bloody marks. When the hand is removed, not only is the stain gone, as if it had never been, but the mark itself has been worn away. Like writing in the sand, the marks to its left and right slowly begin to fade...

And then, there will be no help for us…

Blendin Blandin landed in the center of a wide, low valley. The air smelled of soot and the electrical after-effects of time travel. He reached to check his time machine, but the thing fell to pieces as he pulled it from his pocket. There really wasn’t any way home.

He carefully took a look around him. Clouds hung low in the sky, much like his own time. But they weren’t the pink-orange he saw occasionally in sunsets in the past. Lines of silver and fluorescent greenish-yellow purple arced across the sky.

He took a cautious step forward and nearly tripped as his foot kicked up against something brittle. He looked down and saw a white dome inset with-

It was a human skull. Blendin shivered and kicked it away, but not before seeing dozens of other skulls scattered across the landscape. He’d thought the Time Baby was sending him to a time in which he could make a difference. He’d thought he could prevent this kind of tragedy-

Something brushed past his ankle, and Blendin was so startled he nearly vaporized the culprit, a small black cat. The creature glared at him before brushing past him disdainfully. It wandered toward the edge of the valley; Blendin, feeling on edge from the abandoned landscape, followed if only for the sake of being near another living thing.

The cat led him (or he followed) up the sides of the valley until they were high up enough that Blendin could see shattered hills beyond the edge of it, and on the other edge, roads curving away from the place. Twisted metal along the side of the roads were clearly some sort of sign, so Blendin began hiking that way, intent on discovering some hint of what had happened here.

The sign was scorched and half-melted, such that Blending could make out little more than “-t Rushm-” and half of a drawing of a rocky outcropping.

But it was enough. Every child in the year twenty sñeventy twelve knew of the Battle of Rushmore, when the Time Baby had won over the automatons set to protect the world from him. The battle had been a close one, and the site a historical landmark.

To see it so ruined, the mountain all but reduced to rubble, the landscape dotted with corpses, was a shock like a punch to the gut. Surely the fight between the Time Baby and the Sentinels of the Past Age hadn’t been nice and neat, but this devastation was…

Something that could wreak this sort of damage made the Time Baby look like - like a human. And to have marked the sky with such strange colors...Blendin shivered.

The cat had followed him to the sign declaring this ruin the one-time home of Mount Rushmore. Blendin reached down, and the cat stretched up to nuzzle his hand.

“What do you think about all of this?”

The cat hissed sharply, and Blendin nodded. That was about what he’d expected.

“I was supposed to do something to help,” he said. “Only I think I’m too late.”

The cat gave a long, full-body shrug, seemingly unconcerned with Blendin’s tardiness. Or maybe it was trying to tell him he wasn’t tardy at all. The Time Baby had expended substantial resources in getting Blendin out of the fading future. He had entrusted Blendin with a Time Wish. He wouldn’t have...missed the critical moment, would have he?

“I wish I knew what he wanted me to do.”

The cat made an inquisitive sound.

Blendin waved his hand vaguely at the air. “The Time Baby. He sent me back to do something with this Time Wish, and all he said was that I’d know what to do with it.”

The cat tilted its head, examining Blendin critically. It brought to mind every judgmental word ever thrown Blendin’s way.

“Yeah, fat old stupid Blendin,” he groaned. “I mucked things up so badly, I...I don’t even deserve this. The only reason I got my job back was Mabel and Dipper Pines!”

The cat meowed. Blendin, even last-place Blendin Blandin, paused to consider that there was something strange about the cat.

“Mabel Pines?”

The cat meowed again.

Blendin knelt down to meet the cat eye-to-eye. “Kitty, do I need to find Mabel Pines?”

The cat fixed him with an even, disdainful stare. Blendin took that to mean that the Time Baby had sent him back to make his own decisions, not to take directions from a cat.

And that meant…

Blendin straightened and clenched his fists in resolve. The cat was right. He needed to track down the Pines kids - and now that he knew he was looking for them, he knew what he needed to do when he found them.

Mabel Pines had once been wise enough not to use a Time Wish for herself when someone else needed it more. He was absolutely certain that if he gave her another, she’d be smart enough to know how to use it to fix things.