Alright, Chapter 14, bringing the pain! Well, maybe, but it's here! Read it while you can...
While most of the party slept, Daniel, along with his pets, watched the hall ahead of him like a hawk. The Knight knew a lot about this place, more than anyone except perhaps Thaddeus, but even he hadn't known about the Disgaea Tiles they'd had to go through. He was starting to wonder how much this place had changed when Soil snapped to attention beside him; a pair of bright red eyes were staring at him from across the shadowy hallway, and a small but echoed snarl followed them.
Daniel drew his shields in preparation. "If that thing comes at us," he told his pets, "beat it into submission. Do not attack it until then, though, or-"
"Or what, Danny-boy?" a girlish voice called from behind him, accompanied by a light tapping on his shoulder. Terrified, he turned around - and gawked in disbelief.
A young girl, almost as tall as him but some years younger, had appeared next to him. She was obviously dead - the slight hovering and translucent shimmer gave that much away - but there was obviously another kind of life within her, a sparkle or fizz that floated above the surface of the grave, that made it easy to forget she wasn't all there. The Knight was entranced.
"Or..." he thought a moment, "Well, now it depends. Is it yours?"
She laughed, a short but vibrant giggle. "No, it isn't mine! I may live here now, but that hasn't always been the case, you know..."
"Well, in that case, it might try to kill us, probably in the same way you were - assuming you're here for a reason."
"Yes, I did fall to that little..cretin, but there's no reason not to strike it first," the girl's tone became more thoughtful, "It feeds off of fear. Which, actually, is why I'm here; you are incredibly skilled in the art of masking your terror."
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Thanks, uh-"
"Roxanne," she whispered, leaning closer.
"Thank you for the compliment, Roxanne, but I'm not sure where this is heading."
Roxanne hovered slightly higher. "I have a favor to ask of you: you see, I cannot go beyond that creature's place, even after its own death. However, there is an amulet, bronze with an onyx stone inset as a pendant, that my friends took further in before succumbing to other hazards. If you could find it, and leave it on top of that dreaded thing's collar as you return, I would be most grateful."
"I'm willing to do that," the Knight agreed, "but I do not work for charity. For you I may make an exception, seeing as you are a ghost, but-"
"Do as I've asked, Daniel Strider, and I'll do more than repay you..." Her already bright eyes were practically lighting the hallway as she spoke, casting a shadow on the shadows themselves. Daniel was taken aback by the display, but as soon as he glanced in another direction she Roxanne was gone, leaving nothing behind but a corona in the Knight's vision. Thus encouraged, he returned to his post, glaring at the eyes across from him and occasionally growling along with them.
-Some time later-
When Thaddeus woke up the next morning, and saw Daniel staring across the hall at a pair of crimson orbs that were growling, he decided it would be best to shoot at it. So, armed with his trusty Driver and a Math-Magical Orb to hit at the thing, the Alchemist took a post beside his companion.
"Morning, Danny," he softly greeted, not wanting the others to wake up just yet.
"Good morning to you as well," the Knight replied, "You see what I see?"
Thad nodded. "The eyes? I was just about to pull a Hole-In-One on his ass. You wanna see?"
The Knight smirked and acquiesced, scooting to the left to give the golf club plenty of room. Across the hall, the beast continued to growl, although it seemed much less confident. The Alchemist, a wicked gleam in his violet eyes, sent his orb to the ground before winding up for his attack. Then, with a grunt, he swung, launching his arithmetic construct right between the two glowing irises of the creature. With a *thud-unk,* it fell to the ground, its eyes fading along with the shadows, leaving behind an ivory collar chained to a ring on the wall.
"Hellhound," Daniel muttered, arousing his familiars from their cat/snail/giraffe-nap, "Figured as much."
"Hey, what's that?" Thaddeus asked, pointing to a gleam several yards further down the hall. Intrigued, they rose and walked to it, where they found a necklace with a black gem hanging from it...
The Knight turned to the Alchemist. "Can I have this, Thad? I don't intend on keeping it, and I'll give you something else later on if you wish."
"Sure, buddy," Thad replied, intrigued, "This wouldn't have to do with Roxanne, would it?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot you could read minds," Daniel awkwardly shrugged, staring at his feet.
"It's okay, buddy," the Alchemist eased, "Go ahead; I'll stand here and ensure another ghost doesn't ask for a fetch quest."
With his encouragement, Danny took the amulet and laid it gently across the collar; immediately, Roxanne was there, no longer hovering OR shimmering.
She smiled at him. "Thank you, Daniel. You as well, Thaddeus!" the ex-spirit called to the Alchemist, who waved.
"So does this mean you're alive again?" he wondered aloud, cocking his head.
"Yes, my rescuer, yes it does," Roxanne drew towards him, "Now let's talk about a reward, shall we?"
The Knight returned her smile. "Let's."
While Daniel, Thaddeus and Roxanne were hanging out as most of the others slept, Taylor was walking down a gravel road towards a cobbled-together lean-to to meet up with Gary, her Patron.
Gary, represented by a dark and lean man with a cane, greeted her at the door. "If it isn't the Arbiter, coming for a visit with the oldtimer! How're things, Tay?"
"Well, you could say," she replied, reaching the porch soon after the Conflict spoke, "It's certainly been busy."
"I've seen, I've seen; some real emotional carnage with those Parallels and the Bard. Could you explain to me something about that young man?"
The Arbiter seemed surprised at the question. "Who, Johann? What about him?"
"What's his story? I know that all I ask of you is stories, but I really want to hear his."
"Oh Dave," she muttered, "Where to begin?"
"The first three years he was in our class - starting around second grade, I believe - no one heard much from Johann. He kept to himself, practiced a lot, was a great player mechanically, but he didn't have friends or really do much. Then, halfway through fifth grade, he starts hanging around CJ, the Soldier, like they'd been buddies since they first met, which with the bullying he, the Mage and the Cage used to throw down on the poor Bard, was kind of surprising. It turned out, as I learned later, that both of his parents had died in a car crash while he was walking alongside them...really, it was hard to believe he was still sane, much less an extrovert.
"I was the first girl to call him mine; the summer after fifth grade, playing on the server beside him, brought us together in a way that kind of shocked us both. Of course, it was my fault things got so involved - my hormones weren't the easiest to control at that age - but we mutually broke it off. It was good timing, too; the Witch got her turn during sixth and seventh grade, and when my brother and I left the Minister dated him...for about three seconds, if I remember correctly. Then she got Nadya - the Muse - to break up with CJ and went for him, which left Johann and Nadya together, which is how it's been ever since.
"One major thing, though, is that even though I was Johann's first, Ivy Witch of Contempt was the first girl he fell in love with and not the other way around. It was funny, though: up until they started dating, Ivy always played a Life Role while Johann was the Breaker of Law, focused on buffing his friends. As soon as they started dating, though, it was the Bard and Witch, Bard and Witch, as if they'd never played anything else. Of course, they were ridiculously potent as a pair - Nickelback and Five Finger Death Punch are good bands for a Bard with that kind of Social Link - but Ivy never lashed out at him like she would at the others on the server. I'll always say Johann can tame any beast, but sometimes? I wonder if he isn't one himself, waiting to be unleashed.
"The Parallels proved me right there: after we'd all poured our shit onto him, he unleashed a taste of his fury on us, but just like *that,* he turned it onto himself. Aaron might be the Cage of Doom, but it's hard to tell who has more reason to have that Role. Either way, one thing's for sure - he'll always have our backs, no matter what hell we put him through in return.
"Bravo, Taylor," Gygax applauded.
The Arbiter blushed. "Thank you, sir-"
"Bravo, but you left out what I really wanted to know:" the Conflict resumed his questioning, "Why does he have your backs, despite what you've done to him, hmm? Many a greater man has folded to the power of a Parallel's assault, and he had to withstand two and didn't fail."
"It's hard to say, sir; I thought it was because he was blindly loyal to his friends, but he proved me wrong quite easily. If I had to guess, which is all I can do, I'd say it's his dedication to treat others better than himself except for those who try to hurt his friends. Hurt him? You live to fight another day, but his friends? The people he's relied on, known and loved for four years now? The very same group of losers who can't remember their pasts with a straight face? No, you're gonna die in as brutal a fashion as he'll permit himself to execute."
Gary pondered this for a moment. "I see...your friend is quite an unusual character, Mrs. Dremora. I wish to hear more of his saga the next time we meet; until then, however, there's something I'd like to give you for what you've given me..."
Once more shocked at her Patron's words, Taylor waited on the porch while he rummaged around in the shack; finding what he wanted, he returned, a reverent grin on his face.
"This, my girl," he beamed, holding an object under a cloth in his hand, "is perhaps one of my most treasured pieces of literature. It's small, I know, but don't let that fool you: it is quite powerful in the right hands, such as yours."
He pulled the cloth away, dropping a booklet into her open palms. The cover read The Pocket Monster's Manual, Eighth Edition, and was bound in what appeared to be tanned cat skin.
"Is this for my Card Casting?" the Arbiter asked, staring at the small book with great interest.
The Conflict simply shrugged, then returned to his house. Taylor, sensing it was time for her to leave, pocketed the book and headed for home, her mind filled with thoughts of the Bard's tale...
Taylor woke up on the floor to find Daniel and some random girl hanging out by the campfire with her brother; eager to hear what was going on, the Arbiter silently scurried up to the fire.
"Where you from originally?" the stranger was asking.
"Not from around here," Thaddeus replied, "We're not exactly natives to this world."
The Knight nodded in agreement. "PCs, actually. Got trapped in here by God knows what, but frankly we don't mind staying here at all."
"Oh...you guys are PCs..that explains why your friends are still asleep, at least."
Taylor rose from behind her, causing the girl to jump. "Not all of them are, ma'am."
"Taylor!" the Alchemist jokingly scolded, "She's just been resurrected - don't give her a heart attack, now!"
"Just came to check on you guys," she replied, taking the seat between Thaddeus and Daniel.
Roxanne watched her, intrigued. "Which one of these guys is yours? I didn't mean to interfere, I jus-"
"Hold up, ma'am. This one," she punched the Alchemist in the arm, "is my brother, and a father now, while the schmuck over there is dating one of the other sleepers. We're kind of all taken."
"I see; if that's the case, Mr. Strider, perhaps this would be a good time for me to get your reward?"
The Knight shrugged. "Are you sure you should be going alone, though? It's pretty dangerous around here; I'd hate to be the one to kill you a second time."
"If you feel you must come," the revived explorer sighed, "then I will make no objections. It's down one of the side tunnels."
Daniel and Roxanne left the campfire, nimbly stepping around the still-sleeping like cats in a lava factory. The Arbiter turned to her brother.
"The fuck is going on here?" she interrogated, readying herself for any threat from down the hall.
The Alchemist shrugged. "All I know is that I killed a hellhound, Danny took a necklace that was just beyond it and brought it back to the collar and...well, Roxanne appeared."
"An artifact lost, with killer's garb, brings back the one who's lost to harm," whispered Taylor, her eyes growing wider and wider.
"Sis?" Thaddeus inquired, "What are you reciting, exactly?"
The Arbiter rose. "It's an old ritualistic way to summon certain...unwholesome things."
"Like what?" the Alchemist probed, standing as well.
"Like demons, Thaddeus," Taylor answered, "Like succubi."
Roxanne led Daniel down the hall, holding one of his hands as she did. The Knight, who'd brought his familiars along, was growing increasingly worried about leaving his friends, but he bit his tongue, knowing what he was doing was for the good of the party.
"I promise you it doesn't hurt," the girl was explaining, "It's actually a rather simple little procedure - you'll barely notice what we've done."
"We?" the Knight started, exchanging glances with Soil the snail.
Roxanne simply waved him off. "Like I said, simple thing, you won't even remember. Ah, here we are!"
And there they were, before a large, charred-looking door at the end of one of the other doorways leading from the Disgaea room. Knees slightly shaking, Daniel waited as his escort knocked on the door, which opened without a sound. She dragged him forward, through the threshold, and the Knight couldn't help but wonder what damnation he'd brought upon himself for this. Probably something major, if he knew how these things worked.
Upon entering the room, our imperilled friend looked about in an attempt to gauge his situation: large bed, red walls, an altar covered in bloo- 'Oh...shit, this won't go well.'
"No, not for you," Roxanne replied to his non-question, "At least, not later. For now, though..."
It was at that moment that Daniel not only knew what was going on, but finally felt it - the aura of subtle manipulation, the bed next to the altar, the altar itself. Now, at the last possible moment, he threw all caution to the wind and simply punched the succubus in the face. She fell to the floor, surprised; he towered over her.
"Good try, Roxie; I'm glad I left an impression." The triumphant Knight stared down at her, grimly grinning.
She smiled also. "I'm glad I left enough of one for you to remember me, Strider; this time, tho-"
"This time," Daniel strapped on his twin shields and headed for the door, "I have some more friends with me. Soil, Ore, Cinder - take her down. I don't want to see any scraps when I get back."
So saying, the Knight opened the doors - only to find the rest of his party waiting outside, weapons equipped.
"Really, Danny?" Ivy bumped his forehead with her Tendril, "Falling for the succubus trick again?"
"Not this time; I tricked her instead," his grin grew, now more like a jester's than a victorious hero's.
Johann clapped him on the back as he pushed him aside to enter the room. "Good job, Daniel. Now, as for you, Ms. Roxanne...Daniel, why are your pets eating a vaguely human-shaped pile of ash?"
"That would be Roxanne after my giraffe got ahold of her," the Knight now sheepishly smirked, shrugging his shoulders, "Sorry, Jo, but I couldn't take any chances."
"Your giraffe incinerates people? Damn, that's awesome," Kyle complemented from the back, having woken up last.
Having finished that task, the group returned to the one at hand. They walked beyond where the dog had once been, past the amulet, and finally through a long, narrow hallway right before a door. The threshold here was strangely straight, made of a black rock flecked in purple and large enough for two people shoulder-to-shoulder. Not seeing any harm, they walked through...and found themselves in, quite literally, Hell.
In another hallway, through another doorway, Grudge the Black-Silk Needle-Worm floated in a miasma with the spirits of dozens of other Worms. It had been a long time since he'd seen anything else, human or otherwise, and frankly, it was starting to make him mad. So mad, in fact, that he was about ready to blow everything else up...and somehow, he did.
Call it what you will - coincidence, luck, a lot of incubation in a cloud of Shadow Fog inside a large soul-binding crystal on top of a leyline - but sometimes Rage is enough to change how the world goes about its business...all it needs is a Catastrophe to let loose. The Worm, like others before him, had been brought to a more powerful echelon: the Catastrophe of Rage had entered the world as a Needle-Worm, and he was pissed.
He tore from that rock, his body reforming around him as he did. Bellowing with a great and mighty roar, Grudge stormed from the large chamber. Entering the Disgaea Tile floor, and experiencing an immobilizing indigo, the Catastrophe willed himself to move and did, breaking tiles and their magic as he strode. Seeing the long corridor to his right, Grudge sprinted down it, bursting through the obsidian doorway, and ran over the Mage in the process.
"Ouch! Dave, what the fu-Grudge?! How did you-"
"So this is where I find you motherfuckers!" the Black Worm screamed, needles bristling, "Do you know how long we've been fucking waiting for you?! Do you have any fucking idea the fucking shit we've had our asses wrung through, you thrice-pained bastards?! No, because you haven't been trapped in a FUCKING SHADOW CRYSTAL FOR 2 WHOLE MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT WEEKS!"
Aaron simply stared at his familiar, bubbling with pride. "It's...it's true. They were right all along."
"What did you say, asswipe?" Grudge continued.
"Grudge, you have a Role now."
The Catastrophe abruptly stopped. "I...I have a Role? Does that mean I'm a hero now?"
"Yes, you beautiful motherfucker, you do." The Cage ran towards his friend, sliding into an embrace with the three-foot mutant. It was short, certainly - they had some face to keep with the others, after all - but it seemed to last an eternity, like all deserved reunions, and it was long enough for Aaron's whispered apologies to seep into Grudge's soul. Soothed, he rose with the Cage, riding his shoulder like a falcon, or a cat who belongs to a really old lady.
"Welcome back, Grudge," Levi smirked, shaking the Catastrophe's long leg, "You're home now, and that's all that fucking matters."
This episode has been brought to you by Homestuck's creator Andrew Hussie (along with every other chapter of this story, tbh), Gary Gygax (in spirit), and JBPuffin (in the flesh). This episode was also sponsored by the letter S and the number 19; we thank them for their contributions to this story, and the rest of our lives. See y'all on the other side.