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Bleeding and Burned

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“Hey Tyzias! Whatcha doin’?”

Tyzias, the teal-blood in question, barely looked up. “I’m working.”

“Huh. What you working on?”

“Olive-blood’s been prosecuted for high-murder. She got caught and then broke out. I’m sorting out the paperwork to get a legislacerator trainee after them.” that was the official story, anyway. There hadn’t actually been a murder – but the escape was true. She paused. “Did you need something, Zebede?”

“Yeah! I wanted to see how you were doing! I was in town, getting some stuff, thought I’d drop by.” Zebede smiled brightly down at his moirail and best friend. “You had anything to eat?”

“I ate breakfast at six.”

Zebede frowned. “It’s one.”

“I’ll eat in a few minutes. Just-”

“Oh, no,” Zebede cut her off firmly. “We’re going to get lunch and you’re going to eat it all. And tonight, you’re gonna get a full day’s sleep.”

“I got a full day’s sleep yesterday,” Tyzias grumbled, even though it wasn’t exactly true. Nevertheless, she let Zebede drag her to her feet, and she felt her joints pop.

“Come on, I passed by that oblong meat product diner that Diemen’s been raving about. Let’s eat there!”

Tyzias sighed. She sighed out her door, she sighed down her stairs, she sighed through the kitchen and right out the front door, Zebede in front of her.

She really, really needed to finish that report, but her moirail – her moirail, she still couldn’t believe they were together – was right. She’d be no use to anyone if she died of hunger or exhaustion.

“Thanks, Zebede.” she whispered.

“No problem, Tizzy.” Tizzy? was he calling her a mess? Because it sure sounded like it- oh. Tizzy, Tyzias – it was a nickname.

Nicknames? She could get used to that. She let the smile curl on her mouth a little as they walked down the road in the urban shroud of night.

~

“I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS!”

“Calm down, Ami,” the larger girl grumbled softly. Her moirail had not taken the… breakup? Escape? She wasn’t sure, really, all that well.

“How? HOW? She had the most beautiful, most vibrant olive green blood I’ve ever seen! It was so rich, so dashing! How am I going to complete my piece now?” Amisia was pacing up and down her hiving room, pulling at her hair and her technicolour blood-stained smock. Chahut was, not for the first time, quietly glad that she was higher on the hemospectrum than Amisia. For all intents and purposes, it didn’t make sense – Chahut was large, heavy-set, had culled hundreds of other trolls and was a purpleblood – Amisia was a small, skinny and stout blueblood that very rarely killed outside of what she needed for her art.

When she needed paint, however…

“You’ll find some eventually,” Chahut tried. “The jadebloods’ll give you any olive wrigglers that don’t get adopted.”

“But it’s not the same!” Amisia blubbered. Oh, shit, she was crying. Chahut sighed and strode over to hug her, stroking the back of her moirail’s head.

“That’s just motherfuckin’ life for you.” Chahut mumbled. “I’ve lost a few lowbloods on culling nights before. Shit happens.”

Amisia heaved ragged breaths into Chahut’s side – she barely came up to the bigger girl’s chest. “I… I guess you’re right. Sorry for. That.” she tried a dismissive laugh, but it came off as kind of desperate.

Chahut shrugged. “It’s fine. What are moirails for?”

“Yes, you’re right. Let’s not get bogged down by yesterday’s woes.” Amisia stepped back with clapped hands. “Um, far be it of me to ask, but-”

“I’ll help,” Chahut said, giving her a smile. “With whatever it is.” Then she paused. “Apart from your art.” Best save that for a wriggling day present.

“Could you… help me clean up my hive? She did quite a lot of damage on her way out.” Amisia winced, and Chahut nodded, looking around at the various scorch marks and bits of broken furniture.

“Sure. We’ll invoice it to the teals.” that gave her an idea. “Tell you what – how about I arrange for a retrieval?”

Amisia looked at Chahut like she had offered her the world, rather than a bloody and beaten olive-blood girl to use as a long-term source of paint.

~

Blood everywhere. Green, green, so much green. Too much.

Cuts everywhere. Arms, legs, face, body. Needed bandages.

Strength going. Heat heaving out the blood. Strength gone.

Polypa collapsed in the sand.

Chapter Text

When Tyzias woke, it was to a dimly sunny evening.

“Good evening!” Zebede sang when she trudged down the stairs to the kitchen. The smell of crispy oinkbeastmeat strips wafted through the air, spiking her attention.

What really shifted her alertness, though, was how spotless the place looked.

“What,” Tyzias said, intelligently, “The hell did you do to my hive?”

Zebede whirled around, frying-pan in hand, a panicked expression on his face. “I’m sorry! I thought you’d be okay with it!”

Tyzias managed to not narrow her eyes. “No, it’s fine, it’s just… Why did you… why did you even clean my hive?”

“I got restless,” Zebede admitted with a sheepish grin. “I’ve never woken up here before.” he turned back to put the pan back on the stove (Zebede called it a “crisprange” but that sounded stupid to Tyzias) and turned his attention back to her.

“What time did you wake up?” she asked, cautious.

“Three hours ago! Gotta wake up early if you want to want to get on with that bee-keeping schedule!”

Tyzias blinked, then looked at the clock. “It’s six in the evening. You woke up at three?”

Zebede grinned again. “Early Charun gets the worm!”

Tyzias blinked. She had no idea what the hell a Charun was but she wanted it to stay as far away from her as possible. Zebede turned to grab a pair of tongs for the oinkbeastmeat strips as she sat down at her kitchen table.

A Tongva with a pair of tongs. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

“And you say my sleeping habits are bad,” Tyzias grumbled, even though she knew that they didn’t really compare.

“Uh, no.” Zebede frowned and turned back around. “I went to bed early. You stayed up to finish that report and you only fell asleep because I told your lusus to make sure you got some shut-eye.” He pointed at her accusingly with the tongs while he said this, and Tyzias responded eloquently with a tired groan and a leaning back.

“Fine, you win. You’re so…” Zebede turned around then, a mischievous grin on his round face. What Tyzias had been about to say died on her lips, and she picked a different word. “Considerate.”

Zebede beamed.

A few minutes later, as they were eating breakfast, Zebede asked, “So, what did you do with that report? What was so special about it?”

Tyzias hesitated, mid-swallow. “That’s classified.”

Zebede was awed. “Really? That’s so cool! How classified?”

“Direct request from the local Grand Highblood classified.”

“Ah,” Zebede nodded in understanding, even though he probably didn’t understand at all. “So, what did you do? Did you send out a legislacerator?”

Tyzias sighed. “Classified, Zebede.”

“Could you get in trouble for telling me?”

“It’s not like they’d know, as long as you didn’t tell anyone,” Tyzias admitted, then relented. “But if they found out, yes – a lot of trouble. All I know I can tell you is that an olive-blood committed treason and it was witnessed by a blue-blood, so our province’s Grand Highblood sent out a direct request.” she paused. “Come to think of it, she asked for me by name.”

“Oh, wow.” Zebede stared, his oinkbeastmeat forgotten. “That’s good, right? If she thinks you’re good for something like this, that means you might be going good places!”

“Well, yeah, but…” Tyzias rubbed her head. “If this goes sideways I’ll probably end up culled. Or worse.”

Zebede’s eyes were wide. “What could be worse than being culled?”

“Do you know what the empire does to the best psychics?” Tyzias asked. Zebede shook his head. “Well, if you ever find out, it’s a bit like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Tyzias took a shaky breath, thought about how her neighbour had, last sweep, been relieved of their brain and their consciousness to power a warship helmsman’s mind, and how the whole rest of the hivering had been warned that a similar fate could await the rest of them. “You really don’t want to know.”

~

“The report went through,” Chahut had her cheek rested on her hand and her elbow on her desk. She was camera-calling through her computer with Amisia, who was painting enthusiastically. “Entykk is reliable – she’s organised for your captive to be reclaimed by Tegiri Kalbur. Good strategist, tracker and assassin – he’ll be round in a day or two to confirm details with you.”

“Thank you so much, Chahut!” Amisia beamed. Then she frowned. “Why does he have to come here first?”

“It’s a paperwork thing – you know what the teal-bloods are like.”

“Well, in any case, I do hope he finds her soon.” Amisia huffed. “I think she would make an excellent muse!”

“A muse?” Chahut sat up. “I thought you just wanted her for the paint?”

“I do, but,” Amisia squirmed a little. “She was so feisty. It was kind of exciting when she broke out, really!”

Chahut narrowed her eyes. “You haven’t… developed any kind of… feelings for her, have you?”

Amisia pondered that. Chaut realised then that Amisia probably didn’t know that using Highblood requests as a dating service was, while not strictly prohibited, kind of frowned upon.

“No, I don’t think so.” Amisia finally answered. “I think she would make an excellent kismesis, but I want something more from her.”

“Her life.”

“No! Her blood!”

“That’s sort of the same thing,” Chahut felt her brow crease. She had half a mind to cancel the request – she still had time to do so without incurring any bureaucratic wrath from Entykk, but looked back at Amisia and decided that it wasn’t worth it. In the back of her mind, Chahut thought that the olive-blood had earned her freedom through a sufficient show of force – she was stronger and more cunning than Amisia, they may as well let her live.

She shook the treasonous thoughts from her head. Olive was less than Indigo – and if Amisia wanted her – for blood, for quadrants, for revenge, whatever – Chahut was going to get her back.

“Well, anyway,” Amisia continued. “I’ve been painting something new – it’s not done yet, it needs the olive, of course – but it’s inspired by her escape. I’m trying to think of a name for it – I’m considering Filia Naturae or something similar.”

Chahut wasn’t so good with art. “Ask Nihkee, she’s pretty motherfuckin’ good with art.”

“I would, but…” Amisia winced. “She makes me uncomfortable.”

“She’s just being friendly.” This was a blatant lie, but Chahut knew that her moirail desperately needed to fill more than one quadrant, and Nihkee would be a pretty good fit. Not that Chahut knew anything about romance. “I’m sure she won’t mind.”

“Maybe…” Amisia trailed off, her face looking downcast. “I should pay you back for this.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah! I could maybe mix together some faux-purple, or do a white-on-black piece – how about it?”

Chahut rolled the idea around in her head. “How about a white-on-black with some lowblood juices to bring out the contrast?”

Amisia clapped her hands in delight. “That sounds fantastic, absolutely fantastic! I’ll let this dry, and I’ll get to work on it right away!” Before Chahut could say anything, her moirail disconnected.

~

Cold. Warm. Cold. Warm. Just right.

Just right? Right. Good. Comfort.

Comfort… comfort? Soft, soft grass – or was it a sopor cushion?

One eye open. Other eye… gone?

Feel it moving. No, not gone. Still there, just damaged.

Ceiling. Cave? Rock, anyway. Not a hive. Not a normal hive.

Arms burn. Legs burn. Chest aches. Face itches.

Hand up, in field of view. Bandaged.

Bandaged?

“Whu…”

“Oh, hey… you’re awake.”

PERSON!

Upright, look round, only got one eye for it. Find owner.

“I was kinda concerned you were gonna die anyway, but you’d have to be pretty tough to survive whatever you went through. Didn’t look like an attempted culling, so…” the other person trailed off.

She blinked. Winked? “Where am I?”

“My hive. Don’t move too much,” the other troll was dressed in black and olive garb – the same as her. “Sorry for… kidnapping you, I guess, but you looked like you needed help.”

The other troll had brought in a tray of food and a glass of water. They had a lazy, but kind smile and a large sunhat, with holes through it for their horns.

“Thanks.” her voice was raw and raspy. Some trolls liked that. “Why did you…?”

The other troll blinked at her, setting the tray down on a small table she hadn’t noticed. “Why did I what?”

“Why did you help me?” couldn’t help being wary.

“Because…”  the other troll frowned, but they didn’t frown at her, just to themselves. “Because you were in a bad way. Your wounds weren’t fatal, but you’d lost a lot of blood, so…”

“There’s a story behind that,” she grunted. The other troll perked up.

“Care to share?”

She quashed the raw memories. “Too soon. Can I eat?”

“Of course. What’s your name?”

She hesitated. “My name is Polypa Goezee. I’ve had a rough couple of days.”

“I could have told you that,” her new friend laughed softly. “I’m Charun Krojib.

She tried to smile but her face still burned. “There’s bandages over my mouth.”

“Oh. Right.” Charun leaned over to carefully unwind the mouth-level bandages. Polypa took the tray in shaky hands – they had given her a stew of some kind.

“What’s in this?”

Charun spoke as she spooned some up and ate – it was hot and sweet. “Carrots, cluckbeast meat, cooked field grain, roasted worms-”

Polypa froze, the spoon millimetres from her second bite. “Worms?”

Charun sighed, and spoke with a tone that suggested they’d had this conversation before. “They’re a good source of protein, they’re abundant in this cave, they taste pretty good with some salt and pepper, and you couldn’t even tell there was any in it until I said so.”

Polypa blinked/winked at them, and took that second bite. “Sorry. Tastes good.” Charun, who had puffed out their chest, deflated a little.

“It’s fine. I just get defensive.”

Polypa nodded, and kept eating. Charun sat down on a chair next to the bed of cushions, quiet with thought. She took a break from the food to gulp down some water.

“Thank you,” Polypa said, and Charun looked up. “So much. You didn’t have to do this, but you did.” she peered at them. “What do you want from me?”

They were taken off guard by that. “Nothing! I just wanted to help, you know?”

“Just wanting to help is a good way to get killed,” Polypa snarked, but instantly regretted it. Then again, not everyone this simple farmer saved from certain death out in the middle of nowhere would be as grateful as she.

“I can look after myself,” Charun hadn’t taken it personally, thank the signless. “You are right, though. If there’s something I would like, though…”

Oh, here we go.

“… it’s to know how this happened to you.”

Polypa froze. The spoon clattered back into the tray but she could barely hear it. Far away. Back in that basement.

“I haven’t tried something like this, before – so this might hurt.”

Bleeding. Opened veins. Widened veins. Burning, burning, so much burning.

“Don’t worry, dear,” says the indigo artist. “You will go down as the herald of masterpieces.”

Drained. Physically exhausted. Throat raw from screaming. Hands slick.

“The legs, next.” says the artist. “Let’s give the arms time to recover, shall we?”

No. No no no no no no.

“I think that should do for today. It’s a shame I spilled so much, but what a lovely hue! It’s oh so subtly different from the usual Olive!”

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“You’re going to have to eat up if I’m going to keep using you,” says the highblood. “You need your strength!”

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckfuckfuckfuck.

“Hmm. You seem to have reached the end of the line.” the sadist jeers. I hate her. I hate her so much. I don’t want to die. “I might have to put you down. One moment, I’ve got a hacksaw in the other room…”

Melted chains. Scorched equipment. Broken door. Surprised highblood with a hacksaw.

“How did you get out? Get back in there! Why, this is wonderful, I won’t have to dispose of you just yet – you could still-” I interrupt her with a scream and a fireball.

Fight. Bloody fight. Lost more blood. Broke some bones. Burned her skin. Trashed her hive. Feel good about that.

“YOU ANIMAL!” she screeches. She’s covered in blue and green blood. So am I. The hive is on fire. So am I. “You should recognise your betters! I SHOULD HAVE BLED YOU DRY!”

Realised treason. Eye gone but mind not. Not yet. Knocked her out with a high kick. Ran.

And ran.

Got away.

Not there anymore.

In Charun’s hive with Charun.

Polypa blinked.

“I…” her voice cracked. Charun’s curiosity switched to shock. “I… I can’t.”

She cried. They leaned forward and hugged her tight.

“Shhh, sh.” Charun whispered. “You’re safe now. You’re safe. I promise.”

Polypa heaved out some shaky breaths. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.”

“It’s fine,” Charun assured her, and they rubbed her back soothingly. “You don’t have to tell me. I was just curious.”

The two of them sat like that for a while.

Chapter Text

It was hard work herding all these god-damn horned hoofbeasts all night, but if not her, who would?

“Yah!” Skylla called from atop her hoofbeast lusus, one hand on the reins and the gripping her lasso. They took off at a steady gallop, slowly approaching the herd – about twenty strong.

She felt a buzz at her hip, and sighed. Skylla passed the lasso to her other hand, then pulled out her chitin phone.

“Howdy, Koriga residence?”

“Hey Skylla!” it was Diamen. “Have you got a minute?”

“Uh, not really,” she winced at the herd, slowing her lusus down. “Can it wait?”

“Yeah, it uh, it can,” she cringed at his disappointed tone. “But can you call me back later? Xefros is organising something and he wants as many people together as he can get.”

“Huh. ‘s it a party?”

“No idea.” Diamen paused. “I can hear something. Are those cows?”

“What’s a cow?”

“Uh. Horned hoofbeast.”

“Short ‘n sweet, just the way I like it.” she nodded. “Ok, talk to you later, D. I got me some cows to rustle up.”

“Good luck!” her best bro hung up then, and Skylla sighed, pocketing her chit. She didn’t want him to take things the wrong way with the ‘short and sweet’ comment, but it was often how people described Diamen.

Oops.

She shook her head and took the lasso back in her free hand, then lashed the reins again, setting off towards the herd of cows.

~

“So? Can you make it?”

Daraya squinted up at her ex-matespirit, Elwurd. Elwurd was a cerulean-blooded delinquent, just like Mallek sat beside her, but no-one knew her other name. Elwurd was either her first or last name and she had never told anyone what the other was.

“Weird, that.”

Elwurd frowned. “What is?”

“I was just thinking about your name.”

“Elwurd is the only name you need to call me by.” she answered cryptically, and Daraya scowled. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation, but it didn’t make it any less frustrating. “So, Dammek’s meetup – me, him, ‘n Xef are having a thing at Xef’s hive.”

“Why should we go?” Daraya asked. Elwurd seemed delighted at that, but Daraya had already heard everything – a concert or something? They were going to be playing music and there would be food, probably some alcohol and soda, too.

The glint in the cerulean-blooded girl’s eye almost gave the game away. “I’d almost tell you to come to see for yourself, but sure. First though – Mallek?”

Mallek jumped at the mention of his name. He had been sat on the low wall next to Daraya, smoking a tobacco stick, but Elwurd’s attention had snapped him out of his reverie.

“Yeah?”

“Can you come?”

“Bit personal,” he grumbled, and Daraya swatted his arm. He coughed and straightened up. “To what? Xefros’ place? Why should I care about a lo…” he trailed off as Daraya gave him a sharp look. He hadn’t looked at her, though – he was looking at Elwurd. “… loser, like him?”

“Simple.” Elwurd jammed her hands in her jacket pockets. “What do you two think of the rules?”

Mallek snorted, but Daraya hesitated. Was Elwurd trying to catch her out? Betray her to the drones? No it wasn’t Elwurd’s style – she’d rather kill you herself. So she answered honestly, and damned the consequences.

“The rules can eat my nook.”

Elwurd threw her head back with a laugh. “That’s my girl.” she levelled Daraya with a wink that used to make her stomach flip. “You need directions to Xef’s?”

“I know the way.” Mallek piped up, and Elwurd glanced at him.

“You just said you didn’t care about him.”

“No, I asked why I should care about him.”

“Which implies you didn’t beforehand.”

“Psh. Details.” Mallek waved his hand, then took his tobacco stick out of his mouth, blew out some smoke. “What time?”

“This time next week, I think.” Elwurd checked her wristclock with a flourish. “Uh, scratch that – next Thureve, nine in the afternoon.”

“I guess we’ll see you there, then.” Mallek gestured with his hand – not a rude gesture, but a particular gesture highbloods used to signify to lower-bloods that they were done talking.

But Elwurd didn’t budge. “Yeah, I guess we will. Actually, you got a light?” She pulled out her own tobacco stick as Mallek blinked up at her.

The pieces clicked into place in front of Daraya. No rules, no hemospectrum –that was what Elwurd was hinting at. As Mallek handed Elwurd his lighter, she stood up. Elwurd looked at her, tobacco stick lit.

“You doing anything at the moment?”

“I was gonna talk to a few more neighbours, see who else could make it.” Elwurd leaned back on one foot. “You wanna come with?” she sounded surprised.

“Yeah.” Daraya hugged her arms, then remembered her blazer was tied around her waist. As she slipped it on, she turned back to Mallek. “Is that ok?”

He seemed a bit deflated, and rolled his eyes a little too enthusiastically to suggest anything else. “Yeah, ‘s fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Later,” Daraya called as she fell in step with Elwurd, who threw the lighter back to him.

“So, that lighter thing,” she whispered once they were a few hives down. “After he said…”

“He didn’t say anything, and that’s the problem.” Elwurd smirked, clearly glad that Daraya had caught on. “You still on for this?”

Daraya’s mind flashed through all the lessons, the torment, the abuse at the hands of higher-blooded trolls, and yet she had already made up her mind. “You know it.”

“I love it when you’re feisty.”

“Keep doing that and I might not be.” Daraya sounded harsher than she’d meant. “We’re done there, ok? Just so we’re clear.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Elwurd raised a hand in defeat, took another puff of her tobacco. “That’s on me. Sorry.”

“Good.” Daraya sighed. “Look, I wish we could go back to that, but you couldn’t make up your mind – I’m not going through anything like that again.”

“Alright, I get it.” Elwurd all but snapped. “It doesn’t matter – what’s happening next week is bigger than either of us or our relationship issues, ok?” when Daraya didn’t answer, Elwurd closed her eyes, breathed deep, and opened her eyes again. “It’s Third Lacerate Avenue, sixth door down. There’s a big-ass tree in the back lawn ring, can’t miss it.”

Before Daraya could apologise, Elwurd had stalked off, head down and hands in her pockets.

~

“I’ve never been in this place before,” Tyzias said absently, looking up at the sign that said The Rusty Pond.

“Me neither!” Zebede was smiling brightly. “It should be fun. I think it’d be a good idea to keep your strife weapon handy, though.” he tapped the kukri he had holstered at his waist.

“Good point.” she rested a hand on her nightstick. She hadn’t had to use it that often, and she was out of practice, but it wasn’t that hard to use – block with the side-handle, hit with the other handle, parry with the bit they connect. Or something.

Alternia was a dangerous place, and it was starting to dawn on her that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

But Zebede had already pulled her through the double doors and out into the bar area. Tyzias glanced around – it was decently-attended, but not busy. A muscular indigo-blood girl was wiping down the countertop, and looked up when they approached.

Tyzias hid her frown. An indigo-blood? Working as a barman? Now THAT was unusual.

“Hi, can I get you two anything?” she asked them. Tyzias glimpsed a muscular theatre champion’s belt around her stomach. And vehemently ignored the way her heart sped up a little.

“Yeah, can I get a pitcher of Kahled’s Honey Mix?” Zebede asked. There was hardly any alcohol in it, so Tyzias decided to follow suit. The barmaid nodded, then jerked her head at Tyzias.

“What can I get for your friend?”

Tyzias fished out her cashleather and slapped a twenty on the bartop. “Kerosene.”

The barmaid blinked. A couple of conversations near them died down, and she could feel eyes on her. Whatever – she just wanted a drink.

“Kerosene.” said the indigo-blood. “As in, the fuel?”

“Fuel for me, yeah.” Tyzias grunted, and she heard Zebede whine with concealed laughter. “With ice, if that’s ok.”

The indigo-blood laughed. “We don’t have that on tap, but I’ve got some fuel canisters out back.” She turned on her heel and walked off. Tyzias glanced down and saw that one of her legs was missing, replaced by a peg-leg.

Might be why she’s operating a place usually run by low-bloods.

A few minutes later, the barmaid returned with a pitcher full of golden liquid and a tumbler with ice and kerosene.

“Not the strangest request I’ve ever had, but it’s in the top five.” the barmaid set them down and took Tyzias’ twenty, exchanging it.

“You two are new – you local?” she asked, as she handed back her change. Zebede took a break from downing his pitcher.

“Yeah, heard about this place from a friend. Diamen Xicali?” the barmaid nodded. “He recommended a good diner to us, and then told us we should come here. He’s a foodie.”

“He comes here with this country girl sometimes,” the barmaid nodded, leaning forward in the bartop with crossed arms. They bulged and flex each time she shifted, and Tyzias nervously took a swig of her drink. “They’re an odd pair – bit like you two, I guess.”

“I’m Zebede!” said Zebede. Obviously. Tyzias didn’t say it, after all – her name was Tyzias.

“I’m Nihkee,” replied the barmaid, then she smirked at Tyzias. “Your friend got a name, or do I have to call her The Kerosene Ranger?”

“That does sound cool,” Zebede started, and Tyzias almost – almost – felt bad about cutting him off.

“I’m Tyzias.” she straightened up and reached a hand across to shake. “Good to meet you, Nihkee.”

“The pleasure is mine. So, what’s the story behind the kerosene? You had a rough day?”

“Rough sweep,” Tyzias snorted, and Zebede laughed. “Zee thinks I’ve been working too hard recently so he dragged me out here to relax.”

“And your definition of relaxation is drinking auto-four-wheel fuel.”

“Yeah.” Tyzias couldn’t come up with anything witty. She was tired, but then she was always tired, and Nihkee looked absolutely divine in a way that really helped Tyzias understand the fascination indigo-bloods had with muscular art.

“Oh, man, this is good.” Zebede broke the silence. Whether he was aware of Tyzias’ predicament or not was yet to be seen. He turned to her. “Wanna try some?”

“Sure.” Tyzias’ lips twitched into a smirk. “Try some of mine?”

“Hell no.” Tyzias laughed at his reply, and took a sip of the liquid in his pitcher. It was sweet and fizzy, but came with a smoothness that really didn’t make any sense.

“Looks like my money’s been well-spent.” she handed it back to him and he took it gratefully.

“So, Tyzias,” the way Nihkee said her name was so incredible, Tyzias wanted her to say it again. Over and over. She tried not to blush. “What’s a girl like you worrying so much about that she drinks kerosene on the nightly?”

“I study jurisprudence, and I work in the legal transfers and requests department.”

Nihkee whistled, low and loud. “Yikes. Say no more, hon – I’ll put it on the menu, just for you.”

“You’re very thoughtful.” Tyzias tried a smirk, but wasn’t sure what it’d look like, so she quickly took another swig. The blue liquid burned her throat and made her ears ring, which meant it was doing its job. “I’m glad we came here, Zee.”

“Yeah, me too.” Zebede gulped down the rest of his pitcher – it had been two and a half litres and he had handled it all in less than as many minutes. “Wait, Zee?”

Tyzias’ gaze wandered back to Nihkee’s arms. She hadn’t had a matespirit before – Zebede had been her first quadrantmate ever – but she was wondering what it would be like to relax into arms like those.

“See anything you like?” Nihkee asked, and Tyzias barely stopped herself from falling over.

Then, before she could say anything apologetic, her mouth formed the words “Nothing that’s on the menu.”

Surprise flashed across Nihkee’s face, but it curled into a satisfied smirk. She opened her mouth to say something when her eyes darted to a space next to Tyzias’ shoulder, and something wet crashed into Tyzias.

She yelped and hit the ground, head on Zebede’s sandals, her nearly-empty glass smashed on the floor. A troll with a bronze sign, sunglasses and really long horns was steadying himself on the bartop, heaving bile.

Oh, gross.

“Ah! Shit! I mean, um,” this from a smaller troll with a rust sign and small, hooked horns. “Dammek! Don’t do that!”

Dammek blearily propped himself up on the bar. “Whu?”

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” the rust-blood bent down to help Tyzias up, and Zebede steadied them. “He’s not usually like this, I swear.”

“He kind of is,” Nihkee had straightened up, but her arms were still crossed. It was a display of power, Tyzias realised. “We can’t keep doing this, Xefros.”

“Sorry, Nihkee!” Xefros winced at Tyzias and Zebede. “And, sorry. Again.”

“You didn’t throw up on me and spill my drink,” she waved him off, but glared at Dammek.

“Sssorry, sis,” Dammek hiccupped and Nihkee winced. He was probably going to throw up. Then he turned to look at Tyzias and Zebede. “Hey. Who’s your friend?”

Tyzias blinked. “I’m Zebede!” said her moirail, ever eager to make friends.

Dammek seemed to have a different idea. “He’s kinda… he’s kinda cute.”

The reaction was varied, to say the least. Tyzias sighed, Nihkee laughed, Xefros groaned, and Zebede squeaked. Dammek coughed loudly, and then asked Nihkee to remind him where the toilets were. Xefros dragged him off, and Tyzias and Zebede blinked after him.

“I’ll, uh.” Zebede tried. “I’ll try and make sure he’s ok. Catch you later, Tyzias!” he left before she could protest, leaving her with Nihkee.

“Well, that was a mood-killer.” Tyzias just snorted in agreement. “Want another kerosene?”

Tyzias sighed. It wasn’t like she’d gotten out much recently – even if she was drinking with the bartender, it was a step forward, right? “Yeah, sure – could you mix a little Olive-rum in?”

Chapter Text

After a couple of days spent hanging around in Charun’s hive, Polypa ended up telling them a lot about herself.

Her orphaning and homelessness. Her tendency towards violence catching the eye of various culling groups. Her loose-cannon nature leading her to work for various groups as a mercenary. How she had awakened in that highblood’s basement, tied to a vertical rack and been tortured and drained of almost all her blood. How she had escaped with some form of fire-flinging magic, or psionic power.

It had been hell, but she had been feeling better. She had helped Charun with their farm where she was able to, but her injuries mostly restricted her. Apart from where the pain fuelled her.

She didn’t tell them the truth, though. She had never told anyone.

It was on the fourth evening after she had first woken up in the hive, that she heard the door chime. Frowning, as she remembered walking past Charun’s sleeping form at the table, Polypa cautiously opened it, and was greeted by a troll girl slightly taller than her in a brown shirt, black gloves, assless chaps and cowboy boots.

“Howdy, stranger,” she spoke with a twang in her voice. She squinted with cautious, beady eyes. “You don’t look like Charun.”

Before she could stop herself, Polypa brought up her hands in a martial stance, flames licking her fingertips – but the other girl was just as fast, and had drawn a rather large-looking revolver and pointed it at her head in less than a blink of an eye.

“Easy, tiger.” this bronzeblood had steel in her voice. “I’m not here for a fight.”

Polypa blinked. It would have been a blink, if not for the wrap over her left eye. She lowered her hands, flames dying out. “Sorry. I’ve been on edge.”

“In trouble?” the taller girl didn’t lower the revolver. Smart.

“Might be. Depends on whether the highbloods think I’m dead or alive.”

“Ain’t that just how it is on this shithole of a planet.” huffed the other girl. She relaxed, but didn’t lower the revolver. “Charun?”

“They’re through here.” she led the way to the dining room, where Charun was snoozing with their head on a cluckbeast featherbag (pillow, Polypa distantly remembered Charun calling it.) She couldn’t see it, but she could feel the other girl’s pistol trained on her, ready to spark off at any sign of trouble. She was tough and cunning, but you had to be on Alternia. It just explained to Polypa how she had survived for so long as a bronzeblood.

Sure enough, Charun was snoozing away on their dining room table, the cluckbeast featherbag tucked neatly between their dozing head and their curling arms.

There was silence for a moment, until the other girl said, “The name’s Skylla. How d’you do?”

“Alright. Sorry again about the fire thing.” that seemed to satisfy Skylla, because she holstered her gun. Polypa stuck out a bandaged hand. “I’m Polypa.”

“Lovely name. Sorry about the gun.”

“It’s fine, I did draw first.”

“Hey now, don’t go tellin’ people that.” it was less of a warning, and more of a joke, judging by the smirk. Skylla stepped forward to shake Charun, and they mumbled sleepily. She frowned.

“Are they alright?” Polypa asked, and Skylla scowled down at Charun.

“Dumbass cavesquatter hasn’t been sleeping in their cocoon.” Skylla sighed and twitched the twig in her mouth. “They been letting you sleep in it?”

“I haven’t slept in a recuperacoon for…” Polypa trailed off. “At least two sweeps.”

Technically, that was true.

Skylla blinked at her. “Twelve hells, that’s some mighty resilience you got in you.” she tilted her head. “What’s with the bandages, if you don’t mind my askin’?”

Polypa rubbed her left forearm. It had taken a hit during her escape. “That was the highblood.”

Skylla’s look turned dark. “Say no more. Those hoity-toighty pieces ‘a maggot shit,” she snarled. “Don’t know when to quit it ‘n pick on someone their own size.”

Polypa stared at her. “You didn’t seem like the treasonous type, to me.”

Skylla whirled round. “What, you think they’re still better’n you?”

“No one’s better than anyone,” Polypa replied. “If living on my own has taught me anything, it’s that every troll has equal ability and opportunity to be scum.”

Skylla didn’t answer at first. Then she smiled. “You. I like you, Sundance.”

Polypa felt a smile twitching on her face, and was about to answer when Charun stirred with a loud yawn.

“Damn, good morning, lazybulge,” Skylla quipped, and Charun blearily looked up at her, before scowling good-naturedly. They sat back and stretched, then looked at the two girls.

“Hey, Skylla. She let you in?”

“Sure did. Had a fancy little bronze-rebel standoff while we were at it, too. She’s a quick draw.” Polypa silently stowed away the compliment. “You didn’t tell me you had a friend round, Charun.”

Charun shrugged. “It slipped my mind. A lot of things slipping my mind recently.”

“Like havin’ a homeless olive girl in your hive? You’re one hell of a Character.”

Charun smiled at her warmly. “I try. Any reason for this visit?”

“Can’t a girl keep up with her friends?” Skylla put one hand on Charun’s shoulder and slung her other arm around Polypa. The olive-blood in question wondered if she put the arm on her hip consciously or not. “But yeah, also you’ve got no chit phone, and I wanted to talk about something.”

“Is it big?” Charun asked warily. Skylla shook her head, silky locks swaying in the dining room light.

“Just a thing – Diamen tol’ me ‘bout it, said there was gonna be some sorta shebang at his friend’s house – Xefros Tritoh, I think.” she started listing names on her fingers. “Coupla people gonna be there – Elwurd, Dammek, Daraya, me ‘n Diamen of course…” she trailed off, looking at Polypa. “Shit, I feel like a right asshole, now.”

Polypa tilted her head. “Why?”

“Didn’t ask if you wanted to come.”

“Well, I’d love to,” said Charun. “But the farm needs me. My lusus isn’t like yours, remember? I’ve got to stay here. When is it, anyway?”

“Thureve, so, day after next.”

Charum sighed. “Yeah, I can’t go.” then they peered at Polypa. “You could go though.”

“I don’t do well in crowds,” she started, but Skylla brought her close.

“Come on, it’s a shindig between friends! It’ll be a good chance to get some contacts, too – and trust me, no-one’s gonna sell you out. Tirona’s not going.”

“Who?”

“Tirona,” Charun grumbled. “She’s ok sometimes, but she’s a stuck up narc who licks the empress’ boots. Supporting the empire is one thing, but…”

“She’s got more than just respect for it.” Skylla finished. “So, how about it? My lusus is just outside, and I was already ready to take an extra passenger.”

Polypa considered it. “If I get caught, I’m done for.”

“Yeah, probably. But so are the rest of us.” Skylla drew back and looked down into her one eye with two. “That’s just how it is on this bitch of a planet.”

“I suppose so.” Polypa stood up straight. “Sure, I’ll come with you.”

“Have fun,” Charun said sleepily, as they lowered their head back to the pillow. The two girls left, and on the path to Skylla’s lusus, she stopped.

“Wait, so you’ve got no luggage? At all?”

“Nothing physical.”

“Hah!” Skylla grinned and slapped her back. “We’re gonna get on just fine, partner.” she reached her lusus and saddled up, then held out a hand. “Come on, up we go.”

Sat on the back of a hoofbeast lusus belonging to a troll she had known for a grand total of five minutes, Polypa curled her arms around the taller girl and wondered just how her life had gotten so strange.

~

“Hey, Zebede, can we talk?”

Zebede looked up from the crisprange, and Tyzias tried not to think about the absolutely mouth-watering smell coming from the pan. “Yea, Tizzy? Something up?”

“Well…” Tyzias scratched her neck. She had no idea how to approach this. “How long are you going to stay for?”

“Til the end of the wipe!” Zebede smiled. Then his face fell. “Is… is that alright?”

“Yeah, it’s fine, it’s just…” Tyzias rubbed her temples, greatly distressed. “You’ve been here a week and I’ve barely gotten any work done. I’m meant to be prepping for my thesis, which we start going through in a few weeks, and some department cases have piled up. It won’t take long to take care of them, but…”

“But what?” the way Zebede asked those two words – quiet and worried, and a little bit guilty – broke Tyzias’ heart.

“But… I think you ought to think about going home at some point. To check on your lusus, and… so I can get some work done.” her own lusus padded into the kitchen, a feathered komodo dragon with a beak, and started chowing down on the lusus food Zebede had laid out for her. At that point, Tyzias felt incredibly guilty, because it sounded like she was kicking him out.

Then again, Zebede had his own hive to go back to. He’d be fine.

“Oh. Okay.” was all Zebede said, and Tyzias knew very well that she wasn’t the most astute at recognising emotions. But his voice was on the verge of breaking. “Um. Should I…”

Tyzias instantly rushed to his side to sweep him into a hug, and Zebede gasped back his tears in surprise.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just new to this moiraillegiance stuff. I’ve never really had someone who…” Tyzias couldn’t find the words. “Cared. And, it’s weird. The only other people I talk to are the people in my jurisprudence classes and my boss. And you’re so different to them.” she screwed her eyes shut as he clung to her tightly. She was taller than him by a whole head, her chin rested on his crown and her forehead pressed into one of his horns. She could feel him sobbing. “I don’t really know all of your past, but you’re always welcome here. I promise.”

“Thanks, Tizzy,” he choked quietly.

They stood there for a while as the evening sun dimmed. Her lusus finished off her meal, and, oblivious to the teen drama going on right next to her, trudged out the kitchen for a nap. She had spent all day guarding the hive from daywalkers, an evolutionary trait all lusii owned. There wasn’t any danger of daywalkers wandering into the city, but the lusii protected them anyway.

After a while, Tyzias sniffed the air. “Those ovae are burnt.”

Zebede snorted. “My bad.”

“It’s fine. I shouldn’t have said it like that – I should just be getting on with my work.” she drew away to look at him. “I am sort of concerned about your lusus, though.”

“My lusus can take care of himself. Unlike my dumb moirail.” he punched her chest lightly to punctuate the crack in his voice, and she laughed.

“Right in the rumble sphere. Ow.”

“That didn’t hurt, you big wriggler.” Zebede giggled. “I guess I stayed because… I don’t really get along with the other trolls in my neighbourhood.”

She looked down at him, concerned. “How so?”

He sighed heavily. “I’m not a beekeeper, but I want to be – you know that.” she nodded. “They keep picking on me for not having it chosen for me, but-”

“Who?” Tyzias pulled back and looked down sternly. How dare they! How dare they insult and belittle her moirail? Her best friend in the whole world, who only ever wanted the best for those around him? How could they? “All I need are their names. I can tangle them in red tape until they leave for other planets. Just say the word.”

“You can’t, though,” Zebede protested, and Tyzias’ temper flared even further. Why the fuck not? They had hurt her moirail so much he didn’t feel safe in his own hive! Sure, safety was never guaranteed on Alternia, but within the walls of his own home?

 He was owed that, at least! For the sake of justice!

“You can’t. I’m gold-blood. If I’m not already slated for something, I’m not gonna get it without proving it and working for it – so they’re within their rights to do whatever they think to prove I can’t.”

It dawned on Tyzias then. “You’ve thought about this before.”

Zebede smiled up at her, but it wasn’t the happy, supportive, beaming smile she was used to seeing on his face – it looked tired. Self-deprecating, even. “Yeah. All the time.”

That did it. Tyzias sobbed as she hugged him again. Her hands clutched onto his back and shoulder as if she was worried he would fade away and disappear forever. She kind of was worried that would happen, anyway. “Oh, Zee. You didn’t deserve this.”

“What do I deserve?” he asked, quietly. Tyzias couldn’t answer that – not yet. But she thought about her jurisprudence course, and the last few essays she had written on it – neutral pieces on why highbloods were granted the benefit of the doubt in court, whereas lowbloods were often just killed on the spot.

At that moment, while tearfully hugging her depressed and downcast moirail in her kitchenblock as the sun set, Tyzias Entykk decided that Alternia’s legal system, and by extension the very building blocks of the troll universe-wide government, needed a shakeup. Because it had wronged her moirail, and by association, it had wronged her.

And that was unforgivable.

~

The young legislacerator trudged up the steps to the indigo-blooded client’s hive – she had been attacked and her hive damaged by a rogue olive-blood, and so the imperial drones were still rebuilding it. Two of them saw him approach, and broke off to block his path. He tsked and showed them his legislacerator badge, granting him passage.

If they weren’t mindless beasts incapable of fear, the threat of his sword alone could have let him through.

The hive was grand, befitting of an artistic highblood, with a massive set of double doors, each with a metal door-knocker at the height of his shoulder. He knocked with one of them, and waited.

Half a minute later, they creaked open to reveal a very small blue-blooded troll girl wearing wire-frame glasses and a smock covered in a rainbow of colours –from burgundy all the way up to cerulean – he had to admit, this girl looked like she meant business. He noted the gauze on the left of her neck, and the slightly warped flesh that poked out beneath it – a burn victim? Perhaps it was to do with the attack? He was drawn out of his thoughts by her voice, nasally and sharp.

“Yes?”

“Is this the residence of Amisia Erhden?”

She peered at him over the rims of her glasses. “It is. State your name.”

“Tegiri Kalbur, Her Imperiousness’ Royal Order of Legislacerators, sixth division.” he flashed her his badge, and her confusion and irritation evaporated like rain on a hot rooftop.

“Ah, I’ve been expecting you. Would you like to come in?”

“I feel like it would be rude not to.”

“And you would be right.” she smiled sweetly. It looked beyond false. “But don’t worry, I don’t just maim guests willy-nilly – and especially not guests as esteemed as yourself!”

He followed her down the corridor, storing away the route just in case this artist who had no problems killing trolls just to use their blood as paint decided she was running low on teal. Thankfully, she just took him to a side room with a coffee table and a loungeplank on either side. Amisia took one and Tegiri took the other.

“Tea?” she asked, leaning forward to pour from a scalding leaf juice pot. Tegiri frowned, and she rolled her eyes. “Scalding leaf fluid. You teal-bloods, Empress preserve me…”

Tegiri didn’t like scalding leaf fluid all that much, but it would be rude to deny hospitality of a troll higher in blood caste than him. “Of course.” Amisia smiled and poured two cups. “Now, I know you’ve given my department some details already, but I’ll need to ask you some questions to confirm them.”

Amisia nodded as he pulled out a notepad. “Of course, legislacerator.”

“Right. What happened?”

“I was using a particular olive-blood to harvest blood – I make my own paint, you see, it’s much more vibrant – using blood ministration. I suppose it goes without saying that simply draining a troll of her blood just kills her, and so I performed the operation several times over a long period of time.”

She sighed, either wistfully or… disappointedly. “Widening her veins to get the blood out quickly didn’t seem to do any more damage than it would do,” Tegiri winced. “And so I used particular methods usually reserved for purplebloods.” Tegiri raised an eyebrow at her, and she waved her hand. “With the permission of my moirail, Chahut Maenad.”

His gaze flickered over to the corner of the room, where an easel, paintplank and a… a bucket, rested.

He swallowed. “How long?”

“Three weeks.”

Tegiri’s pencil caught on the paper. That poor olive-blood had been trapped with this psychopath for three whole weeks, and yet was still able to escape, injure her and destroy her hive on the way out. Tegiri felt no sympathy for the olive-blood beyond instincts brought about by being the same species, of course – she was lower enough than Amisia on the hemospectrum that if Amisia wanted her for some reason or another, the olive-blood was legally obligated to do so. There were some instances when this was prohibited, of course – if the olive-blood had a purple-blooded moirail, for instance, the olive-blood would be protected – but on the whole, Tegiri was more concerned with how he’d possibly be able to find and defeat, let alone capture, this particular olive-blood.

“Legislacerator?”

He flinched, looked up across at Amisia, her face filled with concern. It was strange, knowing that this was the same girl who had kept a prisoner for almost a whole wipe and tortured her for the majority of it.

“Apologies. I was deep in thought.” Tegiri scribbled on his notepad. “Can you tell me what happened when she escaped?”

“Well, it came clear to me that she was bleeding to death,” she said – yeah, no shit – “So I left the room to get my hacksaw to put her down with.”

“You were going to put her down with a hacksaw.”

“Yes.” Empress preserve me, this broad is fucking crazy. “Then I heard hissing noises, and shouting, and as I turned around she charged right through the door I had come through! I was glad she still had enough strength left, as you can imagine, but she had… other ideas.”

“She attacked you.” legally speaking, Tegiri couldn’t condone it. However, in his own personal opinion, Amisia had totally had it coming.

Amisia sniffed and continued. “I’m not stupid – she was probably scared, the poor thing – but I fed her! I even washed her!” Tegiri just managed to hide his cringe. “She was scared of death, but I would have thought death would be a mercy!”

“So, the fight.” this was the part Tegiri had been anticipating. Any details Amisia could provide him with would give him the edge in what would surely be a savage confrontation with this olive-blood.

“She started it. With a… fireball.”

Tegiri blinked. He hadn’t been expecting that. “A fireball? But she was unarmed!”

“Well, if it were that simple, I wouldn’t have bothered contacting your department!” Amisia spoke hotly. “I don’t know what it was, but I think it may have been related to her blood – it was very slightly different in shade to what you’d expect of an olive-blood. Lighter. Not lime, but lighter.”

Tegiri ignored it. “Sorry, I want to go back to the – fireball?”

“Right. Of course. She has some latent control over fire, and she was able to generate it herself and attack me with it. She was disciplined, too – I didn’t recognise what, but she had definitely received martial arts training.”

“I see,” Tegiri jotted down the relevant facts. “So, that explains the…”

He gestured lamely to the gauze on her neck, and held his breath as he waited for her reaction. She nodded calmly. “She bested me, but she didn’t kill me. I’m not sure if it was weakness, or to try and prove a point. You know what lowbloods are like.”

Tegiri nodded. “Any excuse to try and rise above, they’ll take. One more thing – what did she look like?”

“Ah, well she-” Amisia blinked, then laughed. “Oh, just give me your notepad.”

Tegiri frowned. Then blinked. “Oh. You’re an artist. Of course, my mistake.” he thumbed to a new page and handed it to her, with a pencil in the ring binding. She settled down and he sipped his scalding leaf juice. Tea, she had called it. He shrugged. It wasn’t a very fitting name, but it was much more succinct. He wasn’t prepared to enjoy this tea, either, but that’s what happened.

After about five minutes, Amisia handed him back his notepad, and he was met with a surprisingly detailed sketch of a troll girl with arrow-head horns – one of which had a semicircle cut out of it – and long ponytailed hair. The sign was what he had been looking for, and Amisia had delivered.

He tried not to think about the detailed re-telling of the wounds on the girl.

“This will help me a great deal, thank you madam.” he nodded at her respectfully and she smiled back serenely.

“I don’t suppose I could ask you to donate?” she gestured to the easel and bucket.

“I will be donating – in the form of your olive-blooded girl.” Tegiri stood up, quietly congratulating himself for the smooth reply. “Thank you for the hospitality.”

“Oh, no, thank you for coming, legislacerator. Would you like me to lead you out?”

“No thank you, I think I can manage.” his eyes flitted back to the easel and the paint. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your magnum opus any longer.”

“How very gracious of you.” Amisia beamed. Tegiri honestly wasn’t sure of how sincere it was, or how sincere it was meant to sound. He bowed, headed for the door, and calmly but quickly headed for the front door.

Chapter Text

“Hey Tyzias! What’re you working on?”

Tyzias looked up at her moirail. “I’m prepping for my thesis, trying to figure out how to word my proposition.”

“Is there any way I could help?” Zebede leaned over with his hands on this thighs, eyes scanning the screen of Tyzias’ husktop.

“Well, I sort of know what I’m going to be writing about,” Tyzias began. “It’s about how the hemospectrum influences the various trials that our legal system enacts.”

“Huh. Looks kinda…” Zebede trailed off. He was a smart kid, but he wasn’t as good with words as she was.”

“Contraversial?”

“I guess.” Zebede tilted his head. “‘The manner in which we, the higher castes of the hemospectrum manipulate and belittle the lower castes is based entirely on said spectrum – without it, we would all be equals. As such, there is no clear reason why this spectrum holds any moral or just standing within the parameters of legality.’” he blinked. “Uh.”

“Basically – wait, you got that, right?” Tyzias twisted in her chair to look at him, one arm on the head rest, and he nodded. “What I’m suggesting is that the legal system should not even consider the blood-colour of whatever troll is involved in its trials.”

Zebede stared at her. “Um. How?”

She scratched her chin. “I’m proposing that every defendant get the right to a fair trial, where they can be defended by someone who actually understands how the law works, so they don’t get caught out. It’s fairer on lower-blooded trolls, that way.”

“But… nobody cares about lowbloods.” Zebede fidgeted. “This would never work.”

She looked at him fiercely. “I care. And it will work. I know it can – it’s simple. The blood-colour of a troll is easy to hide, anyway – so in the event of a dispute between a lowblood and a highblood, the lawtrolls selected to speak for them anonymously, any reference to blood colour or social caste is omitted to enforce impartiality, and the two lawtrolls debate the facts and nothing but the facts. If it’s one troll against the system, it’s the same, but with one lawtroll speaking on behalf of the state. This way, it’s fair and based upon fact, not how lucky you are with regards to hatchright.”

They were both quiet for a long time. Then, when her moirail spoke, it was with equal parts worry and awe. “Tyzias… you really think this?”

She spoke with a conviction she had never known before in her life. “I do.”

He hugged her. “You’re a dummy. A real big dumbass dummy. You could get culled for this.”

“I don’t care. This is the hill I will stand on, Zee.” she hugged him back protectively. “And someday, sometime – someone is going to stand up and stay standing. But we won’t get there if we don’t start now.”

He released her, and his characteristic beaming smile had returned. “You’re so cool, Tizzy.”

“I wouldn’t have realised this if you hadn’t-” she cut herself off, remembering how he had reacted the evening before. “Told me.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Zebede held her for another moment, and then let go to look at her. “Hey, so, you know that bar we went to yesterday?”

“Yeah.” Tyzias tried to seem uninterested, but the truth was she hadn’t really been able to stop thinking about Nihkee. They’d talked, and exchanged chit numbers.

“Well, I talked to that guy – not the guy who threw up on you, the kid with him – his name’s Xefros, and we got each-other’s numbers, and he said they were having some kind of… party, I think.” he titled his head at her. “You wanna come with?”

“Where is it?”

“In Outglut.” Zebede thought for a moment, and then his face brightened. “Oh! Also, Diemen and Skylla are going to be there. Skylla called me earlier, and said she met this new girl.” he grinned and nudged Tyzias with an elbow. “Maybe you should, too, huh?”

Tyzias rolled her eyes and tried not to think about the borderline salacious way Nihkee had talked to her in the Rusty Pond. “Yeah, yeah, sure. Some time.” she looked back at her husktop, clicked the ‘save’ button on the document, and closed it. “Ok, let me just get ready!”

Zebede beamed and clapped his hands. “Great! I’ll be waiting downstairs!”

And with that he scampered out of the room.

~

Nihkee closed the door to her studyblock and immediately sagged. She wanted to just collapse into her spoor-filled beanbag and sleep, but her husktop’s display was flashing on her desk. She flopped into the chair and brought up the trollian window.

Hi, Chahut.

hey There sis

can we Talk over The moTherfuckin video call?

Nihkee frowned, but typed Sure anyway. A moment later Chahut’s image came up on her screen.

“Yo, sis.” Chahut smiled lazily. “How’s my motherfuckin’ girl been?”

“I’ve been okay. Opened up an independent business in Outglut.”

“Outglut?” the voice mic crackled with Chahut’s confusion. “Isn’t that a motherfuckin’, uhh, lowblood subgrub?”

Nihkee stiffened. “It is. But I enjoy the work and it’s popular with more than just lowbloods. We sometimes get jades and teals in.”

“Huh. Cool.” Chahut leaned her cheek onto the heel of her palm. She sighed. “Amisia is a pretty high-maintenance moirail.”

Nihkee grunted. “So were you.” Chahut laughed.

“Yeah, that I was, sis. She found some olive-blood a few weeks ago, had her trapped in her basement.” Nihkee stared. “Yeah, right? Poor motherfucker. Amisia was usin’ her to make paint, and I… I screwed up, Nihkee.”

“How?” this conversation wasn’t going anywhere good.

“I told her I’d… motherfuck.” Chahut paused to grab an off-screen bottle of Faygo and take a massive swig from it. “I told her I’d find the olive-blood. And now it’s all she can think about.”

Nihkee winced. “So, is she pestering you?” No doubt Chahut didn’t actually care about anything except trying to placate her moirail.

“No, but I feel like it’s unfair on the olive-blood. When it was just the two of them, she broke out and beat her, and didn’t kill her. Even bleedings, right?”

She stared at Chahut. “I hadn’t been expecting that.”

“Expecting what?”

“For you to side with the olive-blood.”

“I’m not taking any motherfuckin’ sides,” Chahut grunted. “I just think Amisia should get over it. Be glad she’s still alive to complain.”

Nihkee’s head tilted back a little after a moment. “But you’re helping her anyway.”

Another sigh came from the microphone. “Yeah. Sent a request to Entykk – she’s good at allocating legislacerators.”

“Tyzias Entykk?”

“Yeah, her.”

“I’ve met her. Good sense of humour. Kinda cute.” Chahut snorted.

“Sure, if you’re into a lack of sleep and addiction to coffee.”

“I’m… not sure she drinks coffee,” Nihkee frowned, remembering Tyzias’ odd request of drink. “She prefers more flammable stuff.”

“Yeah, she’s nuts.” Chahut leaned back in her chair. Her face-paint was faded and smudged. “Motherfuckin’ good at her job though.”

After that, Nihkee couldn’t think of much else to say. Neither could Chahut, apparently.

“Sun’s comin’ up. Better catch some motherfuckin’ Zees.” Chahut sighed and reached for the camera. “See you, Nihkee.”

The call ended. Nihkee sat in silence for a while.

~

“How many people are we expecting again?” Elwurd flicked over a clipboard she’d stolen from Galekh as Dammek listed names.

“Daraya, Mallek, Diemen, Skylla couldn’t get Charun but she’s bringing some other girl I’ve never heard of before, Kuprum and Folykl – not sure what Kuprum’ll think of our topic, but whatever – you me and Xefros-”

“It is his hive,” Elwurd raised an eyebrow and Dammek seemed like he was rolling his eyes beneath his glasses.

“His hive is my hive, my hive is his.” Elwurd knew that he didn’t really believe that, but didn’t push the issue – they were organising tonight to talk about the bullshit that came with the hemospectrum, and yet Dammek hadn’t even realised that how he was treating Xefros was exactly the same. Or he did realise it, and didn’t care. “We’ve been over this, Elwurd.”

“Not enough times.” she looked over at Xefros, who was sorting through audio discs and comics on his living room table. “Hey, Xef – is there anyone else we’re expecting?”

“Not really, just – oh!” Xefros looked up at Elwurd proudly. “We met some trolls at The Rusty Pond the other night, they seemed pretty cool, so I invited them.”

Dammek whirled round dangerously. Elwurd held her breath. “What blood colour?”

Xefros stilled. “Teal and gold.”

“Risky.” Dammek grimaced, then looked back at Elwurd. “But if they were together, then they don’t care about caste.”

“Sorry, Dammek.” Alarm bells went off in Elwurd’s head as Xefros bowed his head. “It’s just – the gold-blood, Zebede – he came to talk to me, and he’s really nice and cool! And you seemed to like him, so I thought I’d invite him and his moirail.”

Dammek relaxed at that. “Okay, moirails – that’s good. Still, you really should run these things by me first.”

“Sorry, Dammek.”

“No, no.” Elwurd stepped in at that moment. To hell with moiraillegiance, she needed to address this if they were going to lead together. “There’s no need to apologise, that was good thinking, Xefros – we can’t just have friends over for this. We need to branch out, connect with other trolls.”

Dammek peered at her and opened his mouth to say something, but then the door dong screamer rang. “I’ll get it,” Elwurd said before either of them could volunteer.

She opened the door to find Skylla Koriga and a girl wrapped in bandages she had never met before.

“Hi, Elwurd!” said Diemen, and she blinked down, embarrassed she had completely missed him.

“Hey Diemen! Skylla.” she peered at the third troll. “Who’s your friend?”

“Her friend’s called Polypa,” said the bandaged girl, sticking out a hand. From what Elwurd could see of her, she was all callouses, scars and taut muscle. Elwurd took it, and proved herself right.

Shit.

Daraya turning up later wouldn’t make this any easier.

“Elwurd. Don’t let the colours fool you, this isn’t my hive – I owe that to Xefros.” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “No love lost?”

“For highbloods?” Skylla snorted.

“I’d kill them all if it wasn’t going to get me culled.” Polypa growled.

“I know at least one cool highblood!” Diemen beamed up at her, and Elwurd couldn’t help but ruffle his hair, earning them all a giggle. He was younger than the rest of them, just five and a half sweeps, but he was friendly and much smarter than he ever let on.

Also, he could eat eighteen hotdogs in twelve seconds, and Elwurd liked to think of herself as a smart enough troll to not fuck around with someone who had such untapped potential.

“Come on in, by the way. Don’t want you to catch a culled.”

Diemen passed, oblivious to the pun, Skylla squinted at her but said nothing, and Polypa looked her dead in the eyes and said “That was absolutely abysmal.”

“It was. How’d you meet?” Skylla had passed into the living room with Diemen and had started yelling at Dammek for some reason.

Polypa shifted uncomfortably. “Long story. I was staying at Charun’s hive and she turned up looking for… them?” she looked up at Elwurd with unease. “I wasn’t sure what their pronouns where, and they never told me.”

Elwurd patted her shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry – ‘they’ is fine for Charun. So – you’d kill all the highbloods, huh?”

“I would. Please don’t take it personally.”

She laughed. “I don’t. Highbloods are the worst – case in point.” she pointed at herself. “If it were up to me, there would be no hemospectrum – but it’s not up to me, so there is one.”

“I see.” Polypa looked at her with her one eye, sharp and feline, with a dull forest green beginning to fill out the grey of the retina. It was very striking, an effect that was only enhanced by the fact that it was the only part of her face not covered in bandages. “Forgive me for any hostility towards you – I don’t know you, and any aggression I show you is just reactive. I’ve had a rather traumatic experience at the hands of a highblood… artist,” Elwurd cringed, and Polypa nodded. “Then you’ll understand when I ask you not to take it personally.”

“I do, but I wouldn’t blame you anyway. We have a duty to watch over the lower castes, and instead we exploit it. So, we’re seeking to change it. Will you help us?”

Polypa titled her chin towards Elwurd, and she couldn’t help glancing at the dip between her neck and clavicle. “I’m tempted to say, ‘for a price,’ because I’m a mercenary, and I try not to let any opportunity for business slip me by.”

“But?”

“But, in this case, I’ll do it for free.” Polypa practically purred, and Elwurd was very glad she’d had enough experience with other women to stay standing.

“I’ll hold you to that.” Elwurd gave her a smirk, and Polypa nodded, brought up a hand to brush the side of Elwurd’s arm as she passed. She walked into the living room, where Skylla and Dammek were still arguing and Xefros and Diemen were having a very quiet conversation about something.

Elwurd looked after her, saw the very slight sway of her hips, and whistled quietly.

Then the door chimed again, and she scowled at being dragged out of her thoughts. She turned to open it, and blinked at Kuprum.

“Did you really have to bring that thing with you?”

“Hey! That thing is my moirail.” he sounded upset, but his grin didn’t falter. Elwurd blinked up to the top of the massive backpack… battery, thing he was carrying, to where said moirail, Folykl was clinging to.

“Have you showered?” she asked her, and Folykl scowled down at her. In her general direction, anyway – Folykl was blind, after all. Elwurd rolled her eyes with a punctuated sigh, and stood aside to let them in. How Kuprum managed to carry that massive load, as well as the backpack, was beyond her, so she didn’t bother thinking about it anymore.

“Just waiting on Mallek and Daraya,” said Dammek as she appeared at his elbow a few moments later.

“And those others Xefros talked to.”

Dammek grimaced. “I’m not sure about them.”

“But you’re sure about Kuprum, who – on top of being a powerful psionic, is in the caste above you and is strongly pro-empire?” When Dammek opened his mouth to protest, she held up her hand. “When I tell you shut up and listen to me, I say it as a friend, not as someone with a different blood colour to you – you’re just pissed that Xefros did it without you knowing. You feel like he undermined your authority.”

“He should have run it by me first,” Dammek leaned back against the wall sulkily as Diemen started slicing up a pizza (flavour disc, some of her friends here called it) to share. “I’m not angry with him, but there’s a certain chain of command-”

“Which we all came here to avoid.” Elwurd snapped, and Dammek looked like she’d shot him. “I know you care about him, and I know you’re concerned about some kind of security leak, but you have to let him learn to do things for himself.”

“You think I’m as bad as you highbloods,” Dammek growled, and Elwurd sighed.

“No. I think you’re making an unconscious lapse in judgement that highbloods have drilled into you. I’m not free of it yet, either – there’s a part of me that’s only here because it’s against the rules. But the rest of me is here for my friends.”

He looked at her, confused, and she shrugged. “I care about you guys. I’m only going to be seven sweeps old once – and I will always remember the people I was with at the time. I promise. Even if this doesn’t go right, or it does, or we escape some part of neutral space, I’ll remember you all.”

Dammek didn’t say anything, just glanced at the rest of the room, which had fallen silent. Everyone was looking at her.

It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to take back something like that just for the sake of seeming too cool for it. “I mean it. I care about you all, even those of you I don’t know all that well yet.” she glanced at Polypa, who was staring straight at her, and neither of them flinched away. Which was probably good.

“Shucks, Elwurd, that’s real sweet of you.” Kuprum’s voice was nasally and drawling. “Is that why you called us all here?”

“No, that’s something else.” Dammek spoke now, mercifully. “We mostly just wanted to hang out with you guys, but in a clearing-the-air kind of way. We’ll explain when the rest get here.”

“Who else are we waiting for?” Polypa asked, voice low and gravelly. Hot. “Are there many?”

“Four. Two friends of mine, two friends of Xefros.”

Polypa nodded, and unwrapped the bandages around her mouth to eat a slice of the flavour disc. Her lips were scarred and warped, the flesh an angry sea-foam green.

She’d mentioned highbloods. Elwurd didn’t need an imagination to guess what had happened.

The door rang again, and Xefros got up to answer it, returning a moment later with four more trolls – Daraya and Mallek were there, Mallek looking awed at the number of trolls present and Daraya refusing to look at Elwurd. She shrugged, and looked at the two others with them – sure enough, a peppy, stout little gold-blood in shorts and a hoodie and a tired, lanky teal-blood in a blazer, collared shirt and shorts.

They were both wearing socks with sandals, and Elwurd internally nodded with approval.

“Hey, thanks for coming,” Dammek said to Daraya and Mallek.

“Sup, nerd. Thought you’d never ask.” Mallek winked at him and Dammek tilted his head.

“Lowbloods and scum alike are all welcome here, so…” Dammek smirked, then his gaze flashed over to the teal-blood. “That line would be funnier if you weren’t here.”

The teal-blood rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I bet.”

“So, you guys are Tyzias and Zebede!” Xefros hastily stepped between them. Elwurd smiled. “It’s good to have you here.”

The teal-blood – Tyzias, was it? Nodded and lightened up. “Good to see a friendly face. You’re Xefros, right?”

“That’s me!”

Tyzias pointed at Dammek. “And that’s-”

“I’m Dammek,” he started, but Tyzias wasn’t finished.

“-the guy who threw up on me and spilled my drink.”

Dead silence.

Dammek seemed to blink. “Uh.”

“You were drunk,” Zebede hurriedly amended his friend’s accusation. “It’s not a big deal, really.”

“That was my one good casual jacket,” Tyzias grumbled.

“Yeah, see? It’s fine, no harm done.” Zebede was blatantly lying now, and Elwurd realised something very important.

“It’s gonna take days to wash properly. And that was good kerosene.” Tyzias sighed and pinched her temples, dragging the finger and thumb out to the bone of her nose. “But whatever. You were drunk. It’s fine.” Something incredibly crucial to the possible future of the resistance.

Dammek was terrible at getting on with people.

“Yeah, yeah – cry me a fucking river.” Dammek snapped. “Did you come here to whine about your problems, or did you come to-”

“I came here to discuss the gross inequality between the blood castes, particularly within the legal system.” everyone was looking at the two of them now, and a few – Skylla, Diemen, Folykl (possibly?) – were staring at her in amazement. A high-blood who cared? About them? “But according to someone, I’m scum.”

Ah.

Dammek straightened up, looking at Tyzias. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell, with his shades. Tyzias didn’t even blink at him. The entire room was thick with a blanket tension.

“I don’t blame you,” Tyzias relented. “Because most highbloods I’ve met are scum, and I want them to realise it.”

“Even you?”

“Maybe.” Elwurd was surprised that Tyzias was readily admitting to how well-off she was, as a teal-blood. “I don’t think it’s my place to judge what kind of a person I am. But I don’t think I’d have such a good moirail if I was a completely terrible person.”

Elwurd glanced at Zebede, who had somehow combined bashfulness, pride, and smugness in a single facial expression. Dammek said, “Neither do I,” and Elwurd couldn’t help raising an eyebrow.

She wasn’t sure if she agreed with that.

“Oh my god, both of you shut up and eat some fucking flavour disc.” Folykl was the one who had spoken – she had a very distinctive, raspy voice that sounded like a constant snarl, even if she wasn’t snarling on purpose. “You can posture later on when we’re all too tired to stop you.”

Dammek and Tyzias glanced at her in surprise, then at each other, then shrugged and took a slice each.

They ate for a while, chatting in loose, polite groups, until Elwurd cleared her throat and hopped on Xefros’ coffee table.

She winced at him apologetically, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“So – lowbloods, highbloods, angels and scumbags – there’s something we need to address. A certain trunkbeast in the room. She’s large and in charge, and her name is the system.”

Diemen stuck up his hand. “How large?”

“Biggest fatass you’ll ever meet.” she quipped, and Tyzias smirked, said something in Zebede’s ear, and they both laughed. Elwurd continued. “When someone tells you to do something, what’s the first thing you think?”

The room was subdued, then Xefros warily raised his hand. Her chest swelled with pride. “Xef, I knew I could count on you.”

“Uh… whether or not it’s possible?”

“Right, so if I were to ask you to jump, you would…”

Xefros frowned, then hopped on the spot. Elwurd cringed. “Points for effort. Before that.”

“Um…”

“Okay, bad example. Or good! Kuprum, if I were to ask you to jump, would you do it?”

Kuprum hopped in place, and Elwurd blinked. How had they both completely missed the point, twice in a row?

Wait. That was it.

“What if Xefros asked you to jump?”

Kuprum stared up at her blankly. “I’d tell him to go fuck himself.”

“Ouch, harsh. Why, though?”

“Because he’s…” Kuprum trailed off. “Oh, I see what you’re getting at. Real edgy, Elwurd.”

“Say it out loud for me?”

“Because he’s a lower caste than me,” Kuprum said. It wasn’t quite a snap, but she noted the sharp tone. He was bizarrely the most pro-empire troll present.

“Right. But when I asked you to jump, you say you did it without thinking.”

“Uh huh.” Kuprum’s face went a little slack, and Elwurd decided not to push him any further.

“But you didn’t. You remembered that I’m a higher caste than you, and then did it. So, I’ll ask you all again – when someone tells you to do something, what’s the first thing you think?”

The confusion lifted from their faces, and Elwurd silently congratulated herself. Wriggler steps.

“What colour their blood is.”

She didn’t care who had said it, but they were dead-on. “There we go. Got there in the end. Come on – you’re all smart, you shoulda got there right away.”

“I did, I just wanted the others to figure it out for themselves,” said Tyzias, and Elwurd smirked.

“Sure you did. Alright, brainbox, can you tell us why this is?”

“I can. It’s my field of study.” Elwurd’s smirk dropped. Oh, fair enough then. “As highbloods have much higher constitution and longer life spans, the various trolls of yesterwipe decided that blood had an order than had to be followed by the hexcode. Dark red at the bottom, Dark pink at the top, with specific roles, jobs, personality traits, lusii, allowances, rules, and even personal interests picked out for each troll. You may be wondering – why is this a problem when we’re naturally suited to them? But the answer is the question, reversed – we’re suited to them, which is the problem.”

Hands shot up, and Tyzias blinked. “Uh. Zebede.”

“What do you mean, suited?”

“That’s best explained by a jade-blood,” Tyzias allowed, but Daraya gave her such a withering look that Tyzias carried on by herself. “But I’ll try. The purple-bloods use psychic abilities on the mothergrubs to ensure that each caste turns out a certain way – rust trolls are often adventurous, gold trolls lean towards cynicism, jade-bloods are usually more nurturing…” she trailed off, looking again, at Daraya. “But of course, there are exceptions. Which is where culling comes in.”

Elwurd nodded. “You see, all this control and funnelling, it’s only leading us in one direction – and that’s the whims of the elite. The few. I know, it must be rich to hear this from a cerulean-blood, but trust me on this – the highbloods? They don’t care, they don’t give a shit, so why should we give a shit about them?”

“Because it’s their hatchright!” Kuprum all but shouted, and Elwurd trained her eyes on him. But, in like, a friendly way.

“It’s their hatchright because they made it their hatchright. And hatchrights are only a thing they made up so they could perpetuate their rule.” Elwurd tried being calm, but she knew that Kuprum had already made up his mind.

Clearly, Folykl had, too, because she climbed off his pack and flopped onto one of the loungeplanks.

“We, the people, must help each other!” It was Dammek who spoke, now, and Elwurd held out her hand to him, which he took to steady himself as he stepped onto the creaking coffee table. Elwurd mentally decided to pay Xefros back with something good for it.

“So, me, Dammek, and Xefros, have been planning. A lot. And we think you guys can help us.”

“We’ve got some connections from out of town,” said Xefros, rubbing his neck. “But I think we need to centralise our strength before we expand outward too much.”

“So,” Elwurd asked, after a long pause. “Who’s in?”

Chapter Text

After two and a half hours of excited rebellion planning, sharing contacts and information brokering, they all took a break long enough for Daraya to ask Dammek about the music they said they’d be playing, and his grin lit up. Five minutes later, a drum kit had been assembled in Xefros’ living room, along with various speakers and voice filters.

Kuprum had left long ago, realising that everyone else there – even the two cerulean-bloods – were anti-blood caste. He disagreed almost violently, to the point where Dammek admitted to not knowing why he had bothered inviting him. He had left, calling Elwurd and Mallek something along the lines of “blood-cucks,” but it didn’t make any sense to Polypa, so she ignored it.

Folykl had stayed, and the change in her mood was instantly noticeable. She went from grouchy, tired and prickly to nervous, jittery and snappish. Something about “No input.”

Polypa didn’t want to think about it.

In his place, a troll Polypa had never heard of before had turned up – Cirava, a gold-blood with a patch on one eye – and they had brought a couple of friends round, specifically for the music. Cirava was setting up a bass guitar with an amplifier opposite Elwurd, and Polypa felt equal parts excited and nervous.

She had never been to a live performance of any band before.

“So, you know that we’re The Grubbles.” She didn’t know that. However, Dammek was grinning very, very widely. “And we’re putting on a half-gig, half-jam session for you all. Who’s ready to get crazy?”

“Woo!” Mallek howled, hands up in the air as a mock pair of horns each. Diemen cheered and Skylla whooped.

“Now, it’s just me and Xefros who make the music – but tonight, we have the honour of our first touring members!” he gestured to Elwurd, who was holding an electric guitar with a slack, but pleased posture, and Cirava, who stuck out their tongue with a wide grin.

“Couldn’t be happier to be here, Tetrarch,” she grinned, and he grinned right back.

“Please, the pleasure is ours, Tetrarch.”

“I’ve been dead for eight whole fucking sweeps,” Cirava had as much of an indoor voice as a gender. “Today is finally the day I live.”

“I’m gonna kick this off, if that’s ok?” Xefros asked into the mic. It was sort of hard to hear what he was saying, because of all the auto-tune and weird filters his voice was going through, but Polypa guessed that was just part of the music.

“Alright, first song – it’s called ‘Broom Temperature.’ And a one, and a two,” Xefros counted as Dammek clicked his drumsticks together. “And a one two three four five!”

A bass riff punched through the air and Dammek’s drumming picked up, Xefros’ filtered voice yelling various revolutionary rhymes. After a minute or so, Elwurd broke out into a short solo that squealed out the speakers and rattled the drums. Cirava practically stroked the bass guitar’s strings, low and resonant. More songs followed, some slow and some much, much faster, Xefros’ vocals ripping through the air in a particularly discordant fashion.

Polypa wasn’t sure she liked it exactly – she’d never had the luxury of listening to music – but it wasn’t driving her from the living room in frustration. At some point Skylla and Diemen bumped into her, and it was at that point that she realised she had been moving in time to the music like the rest of them.

Well, almost the rest of them. Folykl was curled up on the longueplank, but she was rocking about in place and doing strange hand movements.

“Pretty good, huh?” Skylla asked her, and Polypa smiled behind her bandages.

“It’s fun. I’ve never… relaxed like this before.”

“Yeah, I can tell. So, you’re from outta town?”

“Way out,” Polypa decided to leave it at that. “You?”

“Got a hoofbeast ranch few miles out by the desert. I’m kinda near Charun’s, compared to Outglut.”

“I see.” she looked at Diemen. “I’ve seen your hive.”

He grinned up at her. He looked so young. “I may have gone a little over-board with it.”

“Nonsense,” said someone else. Tyzias. “It suits you just fine, and it doesn’t take up as much land as your neighbours.”

“You should all come round some time!” he exclaimed. “It wouldn’t be like this, but, you know.”

“Sure.” Polypa smiled. Skylla leered evilly at Diemen and bent down, wrapping her arms around his stomach and lifting him up with ease. He giggled loudly, kicking his legs in the air a little. He nearly hit Polypa a couple of times, but she brushed each assault away.

She stepped back to the edge of the crowd to glance at The Grubbles – they were playing a song that was about bad ideas being given to good people, or something like that – and Elwurd kept glancing over at Daraya, who was laughing and hooting loudly. Polypa didn’t really know either of them, but they apparently knew each other.

Several of the new trolls were wearing especially bright colours, most of them contrasting with each other chaotically, like the pink and – lime green – ensemble Cirava was wearing. Even that weird triangle eyepatch they wore seemed fairly normal compared to some of the gear their friends were wearing.

“Something on your mind?”

Skylla had leant up against the wall, just next to her, arms folded. Polypa shrugged.

“There always is.” she jerked a head to Elwurd. “She’s good.”

“So I hear. You listen to much music?” Polypa shook her head. “Mighty shame. This stuff’s a little too thrashy for my tastes, I like more low-key stuff.”

She cocked her head. “Low-key? Was that a music joke?”

After a beat, Skylla blinked and scowled, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it, so Polypa let herself laugh.

“Not on purpose. Ain’t one for wordplay. Leave that to the ones who make a job out of it.” she gestured to Tyzias, who was chatting enthusiastically with Diemen and some other trolls she didn’t recognise about something. It seemed strange – Polypa hardly knew anyone here, but Tyzias hadn’t struck her as a talkative type.

“She’s lively,” Polypa drawled, and Skylla snorted.

“Probably the soda. She’ll drink something weird later on tonight, guarantee it.”

“Like what?”

“Last time she came to my hive – which was about a wipe ago – she poured herself a cup of flour.” Skylla shook her head. “The time before that, she tried milking one of my horned hoofbeasts, but got one of the bulls.” Polypa winced. “She still drank it.”

With one eye, Polypa stared at Skylla, then Tyzias, then back at Skylla. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t, you know… gene-”

“Oh, tarnation, no,” Skylla gagged. “It was just hoofbeast piss.”

“Oh. Thank god it was just piss.” she frowned. “I never thought I’d say that. Do you know why she drinks all that weird stuff?”

“Nope. She says she has a reason, but every time I ask what the reason is, she just gives me a different one to the last.” Skylla groaned loudly and her back hit the wall. “God, these people are so weird. I think I might be pale for half of them.”

“You could just be a naturally more sociable troll than normal,” Polypa suggested. “Maybe the way you view friends is the same as how most trolls view their moirails, or potential moirails.”

Skylla looked at her curiously. “A relationship expert, huh?”

“I’ve… seen a lot of quadrants over the sweeps.” she’d never been in a quadrant with anyone – she’d not had the time. But she did have a guilty pleasure – illegal D-movies about various kinds of vacillation and caste taboos. “I know how they work. I can give you advice. For a price.”

The other girl arched an amused eyebrow. “Sounds more ominous that it probably should.”

“I’m just a humble mercenary who dabbles in relationship counselling,” Polypa only half-joked. She did much more than just dabble, after all.

“Ok, how much does five bucks get me?” Skylla stuck a hand into her pocket. Polypa faltered – it wasn’t often that she got taken seriously right away.

“As much as I can give you about a specific person. Pale quadrant, right?” Skylla nodded. Polypa nodded back and took the boondollars. “Well, I think the best match for you – out of the people here – would be Diemen.”

Skylla took a moment to absorb that information – she didn’t seem too shocked, but she could have just been good at hiding it. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re both very comfortable in each other’s’ presence, and you’re already good friends. If you consider him a good friend, and he considers you a good friend, you might have already slipped into a moiraillegiance without thinking.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“Surprising, but not unlikely. It’s sometimes called being ‘Fated Moirails’ – like matespirits or kismesis – except it’s more subtle. The line between friendship and romance is harder to see whn it comes to the pale quadrant, and the two of you may have simply lapsed into its sensibilities without thinking.”

“Huh. That makes sense.” Skylla didn’t look like she understood anything Polypa had just said, but that wasn’t the bandaged girl’s problem. “You got all that from knowing us for a few hours?”

“I got all that from practically third-wheeling you two on the journey over here,” Polypa resisted the smirk that pulled at her scarred lips as Skylla spluttered helplessly. “It’s no trouble, really – it was kind of adorable. And he could use someone smart, tough, and brave to look out for him.”

Then she realised what she’d implied with the last part. “W-wait, Skylla-”

Just smart, tough, and brave, huh?” the other girl grinned. “Kinda disappointed.”

“I. Uh.” Polypa said intelligently. Skylla laughed and tapped her on the nose.

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul.”

And with that, she strutted back into the middle of the room as Xefros yelled about wanting and needing something, the shimmering cries and paranoid ramblings cutting the air.

~

She slipped in-between Mallek and Zebede to go oinkbeast-wild to Dammek’s pounding beats and Xefros’ lyrical gasping, but Skylla was wildly distracted thanks to Polypa.

She hadn’t missed the look Elwurd had been giving her when they’d arrived, but she also hadn’t missed the way Polypa had, very clumsily, complimented her and then fallen back into stammering. This on top of Polypa’s perception of how Skylla herself was in terms of pale romance – she’d have to bring it up with Diemen some time – and she could hardly concentrate.

“Something on your mind?” Mallek shouted, and she shrugged.

“Had a little flirt, I’m in a good mood.”

“Hey, me too! Might even get some later.” he leered a little, and she rolled her eyes.

“Yeah? With who?” she hadn’t expected an answer when she asked, but Mallek looked over at Dammek meaningfully, his hoodie disposed of and his bare arms and neck slick with sweat.

“Alright, fair enough.” she didn’t find him that hot, but she could see why Mallek had fallen.

“What about you?”

Skylla felt her mouth curl into a little smile. “Talked about romance with Polypa over there.”

“With that girl you brought?” Mallek smirked, and she rolled her eyes. “She’s kinda scary. If you’re into that.”

“I’m not, but…” Skylla trailed off, her eyes drawn to where Polypa was standing. And her one visible eye. Which was looking right at her.

There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Polypa shook her head from side to side as if shaking it dry of water, and then she took off towards the living room’s doorway. Skylla winced.

“Why’d she leave?” Mallek asked, the frown evident in his question. Skylla was wondering the same.

“Hey, thank you all for coming,” Dammek called out over the static of the guitar amp and the faint squeal of Xefros’ microphone. “We’re gonna wind down with this last song and then chill out with some video games.”

“Sounds good!” Zebede yelled, and everyone cheered.

~

It was later on in the day, and the sun was shining overhead – most trolls would be fast asleep at this time, but not these trolls. At some point, Polypa found herself in Xefros’ kitchen area – he was a nice enough troll, but it was a good thing he had a moirail like Dammek to toughen him up.

He’d need it.

Elwurd had remained playful and relaxed, but had excused herself to talk to a jade-blooded girl called Daraya and returned, downcast. Polypa had offered to talk about it with her, but Elwurd had brushed her off – evidently, it was more than a simple rejection.

In fairness, she had sort of been avoiding Skylla – but Skylla had sprung all that flirting on her rather suddenly. Whatever Elwurd and Daraya had gone through, it was an old, scabbed-over wound that kept opening up, and they needed to sort it out. If they decided to ask her for advice, she’d be happy to offer it – but only if they asked.

Sometimes it was better to let snoozing barkbeasts sleep.

Bandages loose, sipping her Faygo – it was some soft drink that highbloods loved, but she didn’t care for it much, as long as it was cold – Polypa leaned against the counter as the teal-blood girl, Tyzias, trudged in holding a coffee cup.

“Hey,” she said.

“Sup,” Polypa answered.

Tyzias gestured. “Can you shift a little? I’d like a drink.”

Polypa resisted cocking her head. “Is that an order, highblood?”

“No.”

She nodded, and stepped to the side. Tyzias reached down into a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of… was that germ-culling juice?

“Does Xefros know you’re drinking that?” Polypa asked, pointing to it with her own drink.

Tyzias raised an eyebrow. “He’s got enough.” she uncapped it and poured it into the mug, then downed it. Polypa shrugged. It wasn’t the strangest thing she’d seen in the last sweep.

The other girl held it out to her. An offering? “No thanks – I’ve been through enough pain recently. If it’s a form of penance, you can keep it.”

“It’s not penance,” Tyzias grumbled, apparently having not thought of it as such. “I just like the feeling of it.”

The words dissipated and Polypa looked at her, long and hard. “Tyzias Entykk, you really are a strange one.”

“So I’ve heard. Ask me about my controversial theories regarding jurisprudence, you’ll find that drinking cleaning fluid isn’t even the start of it.”

“Jurisprudence?”

“Study of law and justice therein.” Polypa nodded at her to continue, and she did. “I think every troll should have the right to a fair trial, regardless of blood caste, but I also think that there should be a person who understands the law more personally to defend them – that way they can’t be caught out by laws they know nothing about.”

“That is quite controversial.” Polypa smirked, and didn’t miss the way the other girl glanced at her mouth. No doubt off-guard thanks to the scarring around it.

Thanks to that damn indigo.

“You mentioned going through a lot of pain recently. Does that have anything to do with the bandages?”

Shit, now she was asking about it directly.

“It was a highblood who kidnapped me and held me prisoner for an indeterminate amount of time,” Polypa hadn’t meant to snap, but she did. “Let’s leave it at that.”

What interested her, however, was Tyzias’ expression – one of shock, guilt, pity, and respect.

“But you got out.”

“I did. Barely. If it hadn’t been for Charun… I’d be dead.” Polypa sighed. “They really are too good for a planet like Alternia.”

Tyzias seemed to be thinking about something, so Polypa tilted her head and asked, “Boonpenny for your thoughts?”

It was odd that she flinched. “Uh. Just thinking. It only really hit me how badly highbloods treat the lower castes when my moirail told me about how… he wants to be a bee-keeper, but because he wasn’t hatched to do it, the other trolls in his hive complex give him shit for it. And they’re allowed to, because it’s expected of us all.”

Polypa tried not to wrinkle her nose at that, but she couldn’t help it – of all the ways that lowbloods were oppressed by the higher castes; it was the dissonance in careers that had caught Tyzias’ attention? Still, it made sense – and it explained why Tyzias was here, because she clearly cared about her moirail – Zebede? Yes, that was his name – very much. Polypa shared her own thoughts; “I don’t think it’s particularly wicked that you hadn’t realised it.”

“No? I can’t help but feel responsible.”

“And you should, because you have probably made more than one transgression without thinking about it.” Polypa allowed, but continued. “That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means you haven’t managed to change yet. You want to treat others fairly, and that’s the best start you could hope for.”

Tyzias nodded, then looked at her. “You’re not… pale for me, are you? It’s just, I’m flattered if you are, but I’ve already got a moirail, and-”

“No,” Polypa cut her off before the poor girl could humiliate herself any further. “I’m just offering encouragement. I have no inclinations towards the pale quadrant.”

“Oh. Okay, good. Wait, at all?” Tyzias’ voice was usually slightly croaky with a tone reminiscent of jangling shells, but at this, it sounded clearer. Intrigued.

“I’ve never felt any inclination towards any quadrant,” Polypa began. “Whether it’s because of my inability to form meaningful or long-lasting relationships with anyone, or because I haven’t stuck around long enough to find out, I don’t know,” she admitted. She’d never felt inclined towards any particular troll before, not with the rush of faces she went by every wipe. She’d always had to keep moving, truth be told.

She soundly ignored the mental picture she had of Skylla’s heady smirk, her collarbone slightly exposed as she leant back against the wall.

“I haven’t let anyone in long enough, to be honest.” Tyzias spoke then, and it surprised Polypa. “I guess… as a teal-blood, I’ve got long enough to consider the various options. Zebede is the first quadrantmate I’ve ever had.”

Polypa nodded slowly, peered at the teal-blood. “I understand. That said, I wouldn’t leave it up to chance – tomorrow is promised to no-one, after all.” it had been the last thing a particularly charismatic caravan leader had said to her, right before he died, burgundy blood heaving out of bullet holes. She had avenged him.

She always did, and she always would.

“What would you suggest? And, if you don’t mind my asking – why not follow your own advice?”

Tyzias was, evidently, very smart. Most teal-bloods were naturally perceptive, but not all of them could connect dots so quickly. Polypa considered it for a moment.

“I would suggest taking advantage of your stable position – not all trolls have the luxury of a job without too much responsibility outside of the teal caste. Flirt with some people, see where it gets you.”

“Like who?”

“I thought I saw some rather black signals between you and Dammek.”

“That was just platonic hate.” said Tyzias. Then, she seemed to reconsider. “I suppose I could go and talk to him again, see where it gets me – he doesn’t hold any ill will towards Elwurd, and she’s in the caste above me. But then, he does seem to have a thing with Mallek.”

“What makes you say that?”

Tyzias hesitated. “I walked in on them.”

Polypa choked on her drink violently, and it took a series of coughs to calm it down again. “What?

Tyzias’ eyes widened. “They weren’t having…! You know. They were just making out.” She winced. “I don’t like this. It feels like gossip.”

“It’s not, really,” Polypa placated. “Because we hardly know most of these people. At the moment, we’re two strangers trying to get our bearings in a social environment. Totally different.”

“It doesn’t feel different.” Tyzias hugged herself. “What about you, then?”

“Hm?”

“You didn’t answer my second question. If tomorrow is owed to no-one, why not take your own advice?”

Polypa balked. How best to tell her? How best to tell this fairly well-adjusted, milquetoast teal-blood that the olive-blood standing in front of her was not, in fact, an olive-blood? How best to tell Tyzias, possibly her first real friend apart from Charun – in Signless knew how many sweeps – that she had never had a home, nor lusus, or any ring of friends that lasted for longer than a few wipes?

How was the best way to blatantly lie to a teal-blood’s face when said teal-blood was such a champion of truth and justice?

“I’d rather not say.”

Tyzias raised an eyebrow. “You can be vague, if you like. I won’t tell a soul.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Polypa answered, and made sure to give Tyzias a long, hard stare. Enough to time to back down from it. But she didn’t. She wavered, but she didn’t back down. Fair enough.

“I’m afraid of the people around me getting hurt because of who I am.”

“But now you’re here.” nothing got past this girl, twelve heavens. “Does that mean you don’t care if anyone here gets hurt, or does it mean you won’t be staying for long?”

Polypa opened her mouth to answer, but closed it, because if she lied, Tyzias would be able to tell. Probably. Truth and fairness was her domain, after all, and Polypa decided she’d rather not risk it. “If anyone here got hurt because of me, I wouldn’t exactly be proud of it, but the fact is I don’t know any of you well enough to care, exactly.”

“So you’re staying.”

“No. I’ll have to be on the move within the next few days – if I’m not being-” chased by a crazy highblood who wants to use my weird blood as paint. “-if I’m not being hunted down for culling because of my lack of home or lusus.”

Tyzias looked at her in shock. “You don’t have a lusus? Or a home?”

Polypa shook her head. “Not since…” ever. I’ve never had a lusus or a home. I was raised by bandits for the first sweep of my life and then from there I survived on my own. “Two sweeps ago.”

“Damn. That’s rough.” Tyzias poured herself another cup of germ-culling juice, and drank it. “You sure you don’t want any of this? It’s good stuff.”

“I’m sure,” Polypa waved her off. “I reserve fluids like that for strifing.”

Tyzias raised an eyebrow at her. “You strife with cleaning products?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I use gasoline to set myself on fire.”

Tyzias blinked a few times. “Oh my god, you’re telling the truth.”

Polypa looked her dead in the eyes. Eye. “Does it look like I’d joke about something like this?”

“No. It doesn’t.” Ok, so maybe Tyzias wasn’t so good at telling whether she was lying or not. But then, Polypa had purposefully set herself on fire more than once. “Um. Do I owe you anything for the relationship advice?”

“A kiss.” She was rewarded with stone-cold silence. “I’m kidding. Just get me another Faygo and we’ll call it even.”

“Oh, okay.” did Tyzias seem… disappointed? No, it was just her imagination. Still, she reached up and grabbed another bottle of the foul elixir and handed it to her.

“Actually, there is one other thing,” Polypa said, realising that she had absolutely no money and no form of shelter as of the present. “I need a job, and or somewhere to lie low.”

Tyzias twisted her mouth in thought. “There’s a bar near here that’s asking for work – The Rusty Pond. It’s where I met Dammek and Xefros, the bartender there is-” she stopped herself there, blinked, and then coughed.

“She’s, uh, an indigo-blood, but she’s relaxed enough. She does most of the work herself but she’s made enough cash recently to advertise some work. Cleaning tables, hauling crates, that kind of thing.” Polypa shrugged. She’d definitely had worse jobs in the past – she’d take it. “I can give you directions later, if you’d like.”

“Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.” Polypa took another heavy glug of her nearly-empty soda. “Any ideas for shelter?”

“Well, you could…” Tyzias trailed off, thinking.

Then Xefros came in, excited and babbling about how Diemen and Folykl were about to have an oblong-meat-product-eating-contest (Diemen was apparently the favourite, but as the underdog Folykl had potential surprise on her side) and how the two girls really needed to see it happen because it was going to be amazing and Cirava was filming it, so Polypa shrugged at Tyzias, downed her soda, cracked open the new bottle and walked into the living room.

~

Skylla couldn’t stop thinking about Polypa.

She was tough, rough, lean, and quiet – but she was gentle, firm, solid and wise. She was really strange – ability to summon fire from her hands notwithstanding – and Skylla wanted to know every little thing about her.

Well, part of her did. The other part of her kept telling the first part that it was being stupid and predictable, like the naïve troll girl in every single romance novel, movie, or show who fell for the dark, brooding and mysterious older troll, be it red or black.

It was silly, if she was honest with herself. They’d only known each other for a few hours, and Skylla only had a skin-deep impression of the other girl.

Skin-deep.

She leaned back as Zebede babbled excitedly about some east-alternian animation series she had never heard of. Considered asking him what he thought.

“-and then they have to go hunting for the troll who cursed his lusus – huh?” Zebede blinked at her ribbing.

“Quick question, and then you can carry on – what do you do when you think you like someone?”

He blinked. “Uh. Well, when I started feeling pale for Tizzy-”

Tizzy?

“-I just kinda followed her everywhere, sent her memes I thought she would like. I don’t know if that’d work for every quadrant, though.” he scratched his chin thoughtfully, then looked at her and shook his head vigorously, as if rattling it loose of any extra bits. “Sorry, that’s not good advice. But, yeah, where was I?”

“Uh.” she squinted. “A troll cursed a lusus?”

“That’s it! Well, it’s less a curse, and more a psychic power he didn’t know he had…”

~

Tyzias couldn’t stop thinking about Polypa.

Not in a cheesy, “Flushed for the mysterious girl who keeps herself at an arm’s length for mysterious reasons,” way of thinking, but in a much more worrying light.

She’d said she had escaped from a highblood who had tortured her.

Tyzias had recently sent out the order for a legislacerator to look into a similar incident.

After an olive-blood, no less.

Tyzias was torn – because either she had signed this girl’s death warrant, or she hadn’t, and it had only just occurred to her that the whole thing was so common, so paste-and-grubloaf to life on Alternia that there would be no way to erase it.

To say nothing of what it meant for Tyzias if she actually had sent Tegiri after Polypa.

She quashed the thoughts as Diemen inhaled another hotdog.

Chapter Text

Burning, constant burning, chains digging in

Molten smiles left her screaming

Hunger, a primal writhing within

A rainbow smock, told her she was-

Dreaming. Just dreaming.

Polypa jerked awake, blinked at the evening sun, and groaned.

It had been two weeks since she had escaped. It was time to forget about it.

And yet, her brain really didn’t want to.

She lay there a while on the loungeplank, before her new employer/roommate strode into the room, indigo blood (like HER crush her kill her burn her bleed her slice her dice her cut her) and muscles rippling with power.

Not small and meek. Tall and powerful. Dependable.

“Morning, P. Ready to make some money?”

Polypa inhaled, exhaled, and then sat up. “Yeah.”

~

“Zebede?”

“Yeah, Tizzy?”

“Do you ever feel like… you’ve done something wrong, and it’s too out of your control to fix?”

“Hah! All the time! The first beehive I built was a mess – the queen was hanging out the back, there weren’t any direct lines for food to pass through, drones all over the place… by the time I realised what I’d done wrong, it was too late to fix it. Why do you ask?”

“…”

“Tizzy?”

“No reason.”

~

Chahut blinked down, blearily, at the request on her phone.

Trizza Tethis, the heiress of the entire Alternian empire, had personally invited her aboard her cruiser.

Chahut felt like it was a trap. Because these kinds of things always seemed to be a trap.

But then, if Trizza wanted her dead, she would have just commanded that she kill herself, and Chahut would have had no choice but to obey.

She grunted. Whatever. What was the worst that could happen?

Well, there was being trapped on a spaceship with Trizza Tethis and nowhere to go otherwise, but apart from that, it couldn’t be that bad.

~

Folykl didn’t see. She was blind, and so she was right on the knife-edge of a cull, but her psychic draining ‘ability’ – more like a constant passive effect, really – meant that as long as she stayed with Kuprum to train his resilience, she was allowed to live.

Of course, once they parted, the empire would probably have no use for her, and she would be culled.

Kuprum didn’t give a shit. She had tried to bring it up with him when they were younger but he had gleefully insulted her and laughed at her rather understandable fear of being culled.

She fucking hated him. To think that he was her moirail now disgusted her – she wanted someone cool, like Elwurd or Mallek. Hell, she’d even take Diemen at this rate – they’d be able to eat loads of food together.

Although her psychic draining would probably kill him.

Kuprum said something about blood-cucks and she snorted. What she’d do to fuck up the highbloods – she’d lose her eyes all over again if it meant schooling them. She reached up, rooted around in her dirty, rotting mane of black keratin, and pulled out a small, wriggling thing, then popped it in her mouth with a crunch.

Tasty. Coppery, with a hint of… mango?

Oh, that was the stuff.

As Kuprum, not for the first time, loudly and a bit over-enthusiastically declared his intentions of becoming a living engine for some kind of a spaceship, Folykl wondered if she had any other snacks hidden in her hair.

~

Tegiri felt his teeth grinding against each other. “Have you seen this troll anywhere?”

His interviewee, a boisterous gold-blood with an eyepatch, picked their nose and flicked one of the grubgers away. “Nah. She looks hot though.”

Tegiri growled and lowered the notepad. “I see. Thanks for the help, piss-blood.”

“Hey!” the other troll glowered. “That’s Messere Piss-blood to you.”

“Of course, messere.” he felt like he was about to pop a blood vessel. Before he could follow up with a rapier-like witty comment, the gold-blood sauntered off, necking a Faygo. Absently, Tegiri wondered if he could get the gold-blood filed for culling for wearing pink and lime-green, but they weren’t the same shade as the blood colour it would be, so it probably wouldn’t stick.

He could always just kill him on the spot, but they were in a public place, and people tended to ask questions if you did that. So he sighed and moved onto the next troll, and spotted a diminutive little olive-blood in a large coat moving about.

Frowning, he followed them, down the pavement and towards a hotdog stand, until the other troll stopped.

Then the troll whirled around and stared at him in fear.

The round face didn’t match the description in his notebook, and the horns were crooked – not arrow-headed. “Ah, my apologies. You look like someone I’m looking for.”

The other troll licked her lips nervously, her tongue running over the large single tooth in the middle of her mouth. “Um. Who would th-that be, exactly?”

Tegiri’s face scrunched up in confusion – she wasn’t who he was looking for, why was she scared? He pulled out the notebook all the same and showed it to her. She looked at it intently, then shook her head.

“I’ve never seen her before in my life, officer.”

“Legislacerator.”

“Of course. May I go?” there was still an edge to her voice, so Tegiri huffed and nodded. She scampered off out of sight and he tucked the notepad back into his coat pocket.

“This isn’t going according to plan,” he mumbled, and trudged off.

~

“An’ that’s the last of ‘em,” Skylla whistled loudly and dramatically as she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her glove. Diemen cheered, Charun clapped, and Polypa laughed.

“You make it look so easy,” called the last, and Skylla grinned at her.

“That’s ‘cause it is.” she held onto her hat and yanked the reins just so, and her lusus reared up in a rehearsed neigh-stance.

“Show-off!” hooted Diemen, and Skylla laughed. The hoofbeasts sat, corralled in a large wooden outhouse, safe from the weather and the sun. Speaking of, the burning entity would be rising soon, and Skylla didn’t want her friends sticking around to see it do so.

“Y’all oughta think about headin’ homewards,” she said. “Hives are much safer durin’ the day than fields.”

Charun smiled. “We will, Skylla – I appreciate the concern. We all do.” Diemen nodded enthusiastically and Polypa shrugged.

“It’s touching, I guess.” the bandaged girl admitted, and Skylla laughed.

“A little more than just ‘touching,’ I’d hope.”

“Maybe if you treat me right.” Polypa smirked back, and Charun gave a hoot. Diemen laughed uncontrollably.

Skylla grinned from atop her lusus, and set herself down on the ground, striding over to Polypa. Once within arm’s length, she took off her hat and plopped it on the stockier girl’s head. The brim fell over her eyes and it didn’t quite fit between her horns, but that added to the charm.

“Thoughts?” Polypa asked, half-heartedly tipping the hat up with a forefinger to look up at Skylla.

“I think you three oughta get home.” Skylla smiled still, but said it sternly. She wasn’t joking around – wack as hell fire magic or not, no-one wanted to be caught out during the daytime.

Polypa sighed. “If you say so.” she took the hat from her head and stood on her tiptoes to put it back on Skylla’s head. “I’ll be seeing you.”

“Sleep with one eye open,” Skylla said, both as a pun – only one of Polypa’s eyes worked at the moment – and a caution. The highbloods were still looking for her, after all.

Polypa nodded, then turned and walked off.

Diemen followed her, and then it was just Charun with her.

“Did she tell you anything about those highbloods?”

“Highblood. One.”

Skylla balked at them, and Charun just sighed. “She got caught off guard. Got tortured. To make… paint. Then she broke out and did a load of damage.” there was another pause. “She’ll be okay. Give her time. Although,”

She frowned. “Although what?”

Charun hesitated. “Cirava called me earlier, said they were stopped by a legislacerator and asked about a troll who looked like her. Arrow-head horns with a semicircle out of one, with one working eye and scars all over. Look out for her.”

Skylla nodded. Charun patted her back, and then walked off in the opposite direction to the other two.

~

She paid no mind to the helpless screams of the lowbloods as she dripped them dry. Amisia had fleetingly entertained the idea of using genetic material of the various trolls she had captive, but ultimately decided that, while much more sustainable in the long term it was also whole-heartedly disgusting.

So, she used their blood. Sapped their veins and sucked their arteries. Reds, browns, yellows, greens and blues of various shades, all of them ready for use once mixed with the anti-coagulant agents.

One thing she couldn’t help noticing was the stark difference between the olive blood she had at her current disposal, and the leftover blood of her muse. She hadn’t been mistaken – there was definitely a difference. A mutant, perhaps? How fascinating, to have had a mutant in her custody for so long.

Amisia could only hope that the legislacerator hunting her incendiary muse didn’t find out – because then she could be tried and culled for harbouring a mutant – or, worse, the mutant would just escape and she would never see her beautiful blood ever again.

“Wait, no, I’m fairly sure being culled- shut up, stop screaming, it really isn’t that bad – being culled is the worse option of those two.” she peered at the restrained olive-blood boy. “What do you think?”

He screamed.

She nodded thoughtfully. “Hm. Quite.”

~

“Sheesh, Tetrarch – this is one wild machine!”

Dammek nodded, satisfied with the title. It would do. “Yeah – interdimensional portal gate, with a sister gate somewhere in the universe. Who knows what’s on the other side? When I turn it on, it’s gonna get…” Xefros looked at him. Sweet, friendly, trusting Xefros

He wouldn’t have lasted a night on this planet without Dammek’s help. Wild, Xefros had said.

“Wild.”

Xefros looked shocked, but then his expression changed to a grin of anticipation.

“I can’t wait. When do we fire it up, Tetrarch?”

“When Tetrarch Elwurd gives us the signal.” Dammek answered. “And it’ll just be me going through, okay? I’m not risking you too.”

“I-” Xefros stammered and Dammek waited for him to finish, but the rest of what he said still came out weakly. “You can’t protect me from this stuff forever, you know.”

“I know.” Dammek stepped forward to hug him. He had received the blueprints for this gate from a mysterious, white-texted benefactor after asking for assistance. Said benefactor had heard his pleas for a resistance, sweeps ago, and had given him the designs to begin work on it.

Xefros was the only person he trusted with the knowledge of it. Not even Elwurd knew the specifics – she just knew it was a weapon of some kind.

A weapon that would bring some incredibly powerful being through, capable of taking down the heiress – as long as someone sacrificed themselves to it.

Dammek had no illusions of what would happen – he would likely end up in another dimension of sixth-dimensional horrorterrors and instantly disintegrate, go insane, or be trapped forever – the white-text man hadn’t given him specifics, but Dammek knew that he knew everything. And he had some stake in wanting the heiress dead. It was the first genuine thing the white-text man had said to him.

In return, some powerful being would arrive on Alternia, ready to take on the heiress and fight for justice on behalf of the resistance.

Dammek trusted this white-text man. He had promised Dammek that he would protect Xefros to the best of his ability, as well – and that was what mattered to Dammek almost as much as the death of the heiress. Maybe one day they’d all be able to kill the empress, too.

And if the white-text man had really wanted to betray him or kill him, he’d had plenty of opportunities to do so.

“Come on, we’re done here for today.” Dammek drew back to look at Xefros. “Wanna play some CullerUnknown’s: Battlegrub?”

Xefros’ face lit up. “Oh, yeah! It’s good practice for military operations, right?”

“Yeah, it’s perfect.” Dammek also secretly wanted to spend some time playing video games with his moirail.

“Well, lead the way, Tetrarch!”

Dammek nodded, absently approving of Xefros’ use of his new title over his name. It promoted anonymity, kept them at arm’s length for when they were around others. Then again…

“Dammek is fine when we’re alone.”

“Okay, Tetrarch Dammek!”

Dammek shrugged. If he insisted on using it, he wasn’t going to stop him.

Chapter Text

She didn’t usually wake up this early in the evening, but Polypa had been hanging around awkwardly in her living room, so Skylla had taken her out to the shaded patch of field outside her hive to relax a bit, under the light-blue of the trees and the glint of the setting sun. There were clouds overhead at present, and so looking in its general direction wasn’t going to blind anyone, but Skylla hadn’t taken any chances, and had brought her hat with her as well.

She was sat, resting on her lusus’ front shoulder, with Polypa sat next to her, resting on the flank. She took a look at the other girl, who had replaced her bandages since they had last talked. Her hand was tracing circles on her own leg, also bandaged. Despite the dressed wounds, Polypa looked… peaceful. And she never looked peaceful.

“What’s on your mind?” Skylla hazarded a question. Polypa stopped the circles, but didn’t tense up.

“When I was younger, I used to watch the sun go down from the corner of my eye.” she paused. “My left eye.”

“Oh.” That was the eye of hers that didn’t work anymore, right?

“Yeah. I never went out in the day, or anything like that, but… It seemed more peaceful. It seemed right. There’s more colour and you can tell that most of the beasts thrive more during the day than the night.” she sighed and stretched. “Sometimes on cloudy days, I would sit by my… window and feel the sun on my skin. It always felt warm. Comforting.”

“Maybe one day you’ll be able to live on a planet where the sun ain’t a weapon of mass destruction.” Skylla tried optimism. It sounded weird, coming out of her mouth.

“That sounds… nice.” Polypa lay back again with a loud exhale. “I don’t know if I’ll ever make it off-world, though.”

Skylla growled. “Yeah, you will – you’re smart, ‘n tough, an’ you can probably find a way offa this dirt-ball if you put yer mind to it.”

“Maybe.” the olive-blood was quiet. She usually was quite reserved, but Skylla couldn’t help wondering what she’d wanted to talk about. “What about you?”

Skylla hummed. “Might try gettin’ a job in agriculture, on one of the colonies. Remote place, far away from all the cities ‘n noise.” She cocked her head at Polypa. “You doin’ alright?”

Polypa’s voice shook with a cold, bitter tenor. “Was I that obvious?”

“You look like you’re wantin’ to jaw ‘bout something. Needed a friendly ear?”

“Not sure about friendly,” Polypa murmured, and Skylla’s eyes widened. Polypa noticed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that – I’m just – I’m not used to-”

“It’s nothin’,” she sighed and waved it off. Polypa shook her head.

“No, it’s not. We came out here to relax, and so far all I’ve done is-” her breath hitched. “I could have lured you out here to kill you.”

Have you lured me out here to kill me?”

“… No.”

“Well, there we go, then.”

They sat in silence for a while. Polypa was just feeling nerves for some reason, Skylla was sure.

“So, why are you feelin’ down?”

Polypa didn’t answer right away. “I’ve never been able to rely on anyone. I don’t want to fall into that trap, because it’s what gets every troll eventually – I’ve seen it happen – but… There’s something about you all.”

“Us?”

“Yeah. You, Diemen, Charun, Xefros, Tyzias… it’s good to have people around who can – who can understand.” Polypa hugged her arms. Her expression, while obscured by wrappings, was embarrassed and despondent. Skylla wanted nothing more than to crawl over and hug it out of her. “I’m not making sense, I’m sorry.”

“Nah, don’t be.” Skylla waved her off. “Charun never makes sense, and I put up with them.” that earned her a small snicker. “Sometimes what you need is a set of ears to yap into. Not necessarily a moirail – not even a best friend, just… somebody you can talk and talk with, and they won’t judge or tell no-one.”

The other girl seemed to accept that. “Alright, then. Be my ears?”

Skylla smiled. “Sure.” she shifted to face her. “So, what’s on your mind?”

“There aren’t enough hours in the day.” Polypa sighed. “Or night. But I’m tired of living a lie, on the run from all the highbloods and drones.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Skylla admitted, stroking her lusus’ neck. “Haven’t the faintest how you’ve managed.”

“Because there’s no other choice for me,” Polypa shivered from something, be it memories or the slight nip of the evening air. “I’ve never known anything else, and yet I tire.”

That sounded ominous. “Wait, never? What about when you were younger? With your lusus?”

From the way Polypa froze up, Skylla wasn’t supposed to have noticed that.

After a very long, awkward pause, Polypa spoke. “I never had a lusus.”

Skylla looked at her sharply, involuntarily. “What? Ever?”

“No. I never had a hive to call my own, either.” Polypa hesitated for a moment before letting out a loud, long lungful of air. “Oh, you have no idea what that feels like to tell someone.”

Skylla was still staring at her. “Yeah. I don’t.” she felt her lusus stir with pity beside her. “So you’ve been completely alone, all your life.”

“Not completely. I’ve had companions and friends along the way. They just never lasted very long, for one reason or another.” Polypa brought up a hand to tug at her hair. “And I never trusted anyone well enough to tell them.”

“Until…”

“Until now.” Skylla didn’t miss the way Polypa stole a bashful glance at her, or the… was she blushing? It was hard to tell beneath the bandages. As the burned girl looked away, Skylla smirked and shifted a little closer to her. If Polypa noticed, she didn’t say anything.

Skylla studied her for a moment. “So, why have you never had a lusus?”

Another pause. “I don’t know.”

She clearly did know, she just didn’t want to tell Skylla. Not yet, at least. “Alright. So, you’re done running?”

“I’m almost old enough to leave Alternia of my own accord,” Polypa pointed out. “It doesn’t matter a whole lot whether I have a lusus or a hive once I’m off-world.”

“Could do with a hive, though.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that would be…” she trailed off. “That would be nice. Maybe a quadrant or two filled.”

Skylla couldn’t help the smirk. “You got a type?”

Polypa nodded, almost absently. But her mouth beneath the bandages twitched into what looked suspiciously like a smirk. “Strong, dependable, rough enough to survive the winter but warm enough to care and comfort you.”

“Sounds like you want a hoofbeast.”

Polypa barked out a laugh and Skylla joined her, loving the gentle burr of the bandaged girl’s voice. She had only half an idea what had made her like this, but by the Signless did she want to know the rest.

Chapter Text

Tegiri scowled as he entered the bar. The Rusty Pond, it was called – so he assumed it would be filled with various lowbloods and scumbags. Sure enough, inside were about twenty trolls, not counting the two working behind the bar. One of them went in the back for some reason or another, and Tegiri scanned the crowd for any potential leads, or olive-bloods matching his target’s description. He couldn’t imagine finding anything, not since he’d come out of the last dozen bars empty-handed on the information front. Starting a bar fight was a good way to get killed, so all he needed to do if he found her was follow her and plan out an ambush.

Which sounded much creepier than when he had first imagined it.

“Targon Sunset, no ice.” he ordered when at the bar, then internally grimaced as he realised that the bartender was, of all things, an indigo-blood.

Just his luck. “Apologies, sir, I wasn’t aware-”

The bartender waved him off with a burly forearm. She didn’t look upset. “Don’t care about blood colour at RP, all we care about is whether you got the bucks.” Tegiri frowned, then sought a fiver and handed it over. She smirked. “Much obliged. Hey, Polypa!” she shouted behind her.

“What?!”

“Targon Sunset, no ice!”

“Got it!”

Tegiri was about to pull out his notepad when the bartender spotted another customer walk in. “Be right back, ‘scuse me. Skylla! Diemen! Good to see you both, have a seat!”

“Hey Nihkee!”

“Howdy.”

“What can I get you both? Nihkee asked them, and Tegiri turned to look at them, expecting to see two other highbloods, considering how quickly Nihkee had brushed him off.

Bronze and Burgundy, though? He’d be insulted, if it weren’t for the fact that Nihkee had clearly said she didn’t care about blood colour.

He hid his scowl. He’d like to see her say that to a purple-blood. Or a sea-dweller, if one ever dared to dry their fins out this far inland. Then again, this was her territory, not his, and so as long as no higher-blooded castes came in here, the rules were hers to make.

Nihkee was pouring out Skylla and Diemen’s drinks, and the two were talking.

“I still can’t believe you got showed up by the varmint.”

“She’s not a varmint – Folykl is my friend.” Diemen, it sounded like, huffed. “And besides, I bet it was just because she was hungrier than usual, what with Kuprum not being there.”

“Yeah, that mighta’ been it, huh?”

“You don’t sound too convinced. I’m hurt, Skylla.”

“Ach, don’t be, I’m only teasin’.” she reached over to ruffle his hair. “There’s always next time.”

“Yeah, you bet. I’ll show her! I’ll show them all!” then he started to laugh theatrically, it sounded more like a squeaky lusus-toy to Tegiri. Absently, he noted a figure place his drink down next to him, and he turned to thank them, but was met with the rear-view of a troll girl with arrowhead horns walking into the kitchen-

Wait.

One of those arrowhead horns looked like it had a rough semi-circle shape cut out of it.

He narrowed his eyes at the back of her head. Could it be…?

He relaxed. If he was tense, or looked at her too often, she would at worst be weirded out – at the best, she would bolt, but he really didn’t want that. She didn’t seem to notice that he was a legislacerator, but then he remembered that he had tucked his badge inside his coat.

For want of a nail…

“Nihkee, I don’t know how you put up with us.” Skylla said from Tegiri’s left. His ears pricked up at the sound of conversation. Might as well eavesdrop whilst waiting for that other girl to appear.

“I take part in a lot of muscular theatre.”

“Sounds like somethin’. What is it, exactly?”

“It’s wrestling, and poetry. Slam poetry, specifically. It’s mostly an indigo-blood thing, but you sometimes get other trolls competing.”

“So, you go a round with yer partner, and then take turns with dissin’ each other’s outfits or techniques, or somethin’?”

“Got it in one. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also how I lost my leg.” Nihkee laughed, and Tegiri heard a thump on the floor from behind the bar.

“Damnation. What happened?”

“Torn off by a purple, after I insulted his trousers. Or, lack of prominence in said department.”

Tegiri was glad he hadn’t been drinking at that moment, because he probably would have made a much more noticeable spluttering sound. The audacity! Truthfully, the idea fascinated Tegiri, but directly insulting a highblood’s… quadrant-filling potential was borderline suicide. He wasn’t sure if he respected Nihkee, or hated her even more than he already did.

“Of course, it meant we both had to forfeit. I wanted to keep fighting, but couldn’t. Same for him – serious bodily harm is prohibited. Also, we’ve been denied a grudge match. His loss, really – he shoulda been able to take it.”

“Sounds like it hurt.” Diemen was quiet when he spoke. A timid rustblood? Might be good for information, if Tegiri could get it out of him.

“Oh, it did – I couldn’t really tell at the time because I was so angry at him for ruining our fight over something so stupid.” she sighed. “He could have insulted me back, but no, he had to throw a tantrum.”

“He ripped off yer leg, that’s more’n a tantrum, Nihkee.” Skylla’s voice was soft and smooth, despite the firmness behind it. Her voice twanged in a strange regional dialect that Tegiri had heard before, but never really understood.

“I know, I know, it’s just that – sometimes… I can still feel it.” Phantom pains. That made sense, Tegiri decided. “Sometimes I wake up in my cocoon and I can feel the ends of my toes – and then I try to flex them, and it doesn’t work.”

“That’s rough.”

“Yeah, well, that’s life. Can I get you anything else?”

“Should be alright for now. Diemen?”

Diemen had been gulping down his drink when his name was called, and he quickly stopped. “Yeah?”

“Want anything else?”

“Nah.”

“Alrighty, then.” Skylla thanked Nihkee, and Tegiri felt movement on the other side of the bar to him.

“Have you- oh, you’re still drinking. Sorry.” Polypa, they had said her name was. Her face was covered in bandages, obscuring her left eye. Sure enough, her horns were exactly the same as those belonging to the sketch Amisia had given him. Arrowheads with a semi-circle cut out.

His eyes flitted across her clothing, looking for a sign, and the lack of it told him all he needed to know. As did the muscle and rough skin.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

He bit back the immense number of cool one-liners he had been constructing in lieu of her arrest, since it would potentially damage the whole operation. “No, thank you. This Targon Sunset is excellent, by the way.”

Her shoulders relaxed. Good. Better to think he was on her side now so that stabbing her in the back would be easier.

“No problem.” her voice was rough and gravelly, not quite as deep as a highblood’s, but it gave him pause – he couldn’t tell if she was an olive-blood – how would he know for sure if she was who he was looking for?

~

“No, thank you. This Taragon Sunset is excellent, by the way.”

Polypa let herself relax, if only a little. He had been studying her, she could tell – the fact that he was a teal-blood hadn’t helped. Was he after her? Hopefully not.

But he probably was.

Once she was back in the kitchen, pouring Diemen another honeyjuice soda, her mind raced. Should she tell Nihkee? Should she just kill him in case? Should she run for the next suburb over? Should she burn the entire bar to the ground? Should she set herself on fire and run at him? Should she just hide in the kitchen until closing time? Yeah that sounded like a good idea actually.

Polypa stood there, in the kitchen, hands on the metal counter, counting down the seconds. She was out of sight of the doorway, right? Maybe she should look up and check. But if it turned out she wasn’t it’d be obvious that she was trying to stay out of sight and if that teal-blood saw her acting so nervous for some reason he’d probably try and ask about it and then there’d be an investigation and then the highbloods would come and burn the bar to the ground and cull all the people in it and she’d be taken back to the artist not the artist please no not the artist anything but the artist anything but her she couldn’t go back she couldn’t go back there not there anywhere but there not there not there not there not there not after what happened and she couldn’t breathe the air wasn’t going in her lungs why couldn’t she breathe was it because she was thinking about the artist probably was because she was thinking about the artist and

~

Nihkee heard a metal crash from the kitchen, and the conversation she’d been having with the suave jade-blood died out. She didn’t hear anything break, so it probably wasn’t that bad, but she excused herself and sought out the source of the noise.

She entered the kitchen, looked around, and saw Polypa’s spasm on the floor.

“Oh, shit. Polypa? Polypa, can you hear me?” no response. “Polypa,” she gripped her head with both hands and turned it slightly to look right at her, hands over ears. “Polypa, it’s me, it’s Nihkee. You’re safe, I promise.”

No response. Polypa’s one visible eye was trembling without cause.

“Polypa?” Nihkee gripped her hand, tried not to grab it too hard. Just enough to get through. “Polypa.”

“Polypa?”

Nihkee looked up. Diemen and Skylla were standing there nervously.

“Do either of you have any ideas?”

“I think I can calm her down,” said Skylla. “You might wanna get back to the bar.”

“That teal-blood,” Skylla continued in a whisper when she was knelt down. “He gives me the creeps. I think he might be looking for her.”

Nihkee nodded, and resolved to keep an eye on him. No goddamn bounty hunters were getting away with her staff, not if she had anything to say about it. All she had to do was say that she was under her protection, and he would step off.

Except, it was never that easy.

Nihkee stood, and walked out to the bar, glancing at the boy out of the corner of her eye. She wasn’t a very subtle person, and she knew it, so she didn’t bother trying to hide it – instead she just glanced as some other customers. The crash hadn’t caused too much trouble, it seemed, but the two lowbloods hopping the counter had.

“You take that from all your patrons?” the teal-blood asked, and she hid a glower. She wanted to knock those stupid glasses and his stupid hat right off his head, but such practises did not a good business make, so she just smiled.

“They’re friends of mine.”

“Hm.” the teal-blood raised an eyebrow and knocked back his drink. “What’s going on in there?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

He froze, narrowed his eyes at her, and she returned the glare. If he had no authority, she could get him kicked out for harassment – or, hell, she could kick him out herself – but if he did have authority he’d have to tell her for his words to hold water.

Which, while bad in the long run, would at least be enough to warn Polypa.

She waited for his answer with bated breath.

~

“Polypa. Polypa. Shh. It’s ok.”

“Does that work?”

“Works on hoofbeasts.”

“She’s not a hoofbeast, though.”

“Hadn’t noticed. Hey, Polypa.” What a soft voice. What a lovely voice. So smooth, so kind, so warm.

“I think she’s coming to!”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know, I was just trying to be positive.” a pause. “She’ll be ok, though. I think.”

“Her breathing’s slowed. It’s more natural.”

“She sure looks calmer. Keep that up, Skylla, it’s working!”

“Shh. Shhh.” a stroke. A gentle caress. “Polypa, you’re safe. I promise. No-one’s gonna hurt you, right Diemen?”

“Yeah, you’re with friends here!” no she wasn’t. She was with strangers. She hardly knew them. “We’re here for you.” so was he.

“Polypa. Polypa, I need you ta’ look at me, can you do that?” she couldn’t do anything. She could only just hear her. “Polypa, I know you can hear me – you flinch when I say yer name.”

Polypa. Polypa Goezee. That was her name.

Did they even know her last name?

It wasn’t like she used it much anyway. She might’ve signed with it for the job. Would they be able to trace her back? Probably. It didn’t matter. The teal-blood was going to drag her back to the artist and she was going to have to re-live that over and over and over and over and over and over and-

“Polypa.”

She blinked up at Skylla. Lights overhead, way too harsh. A peaceful face, knotted in worry. Genuine worry.

That was new.

“Polypa? Polypa, you there?”

Blink. Blink. She blinked. “Skylla?”

“Hey.”

“I’m scared.”

Neither Skylla or Diemen said anything – Diemen just hung back, his eyes obscured by fringe but his bottom lip wobbling slightly. Skylla held her.

“It’s ok. That’s normal. That’s fine, because as long as you’re scared, it means you’ve got something worth keeping. You got somethin’ that they want, and that’s going to be what saves you, in the end – because they can’t take it. Not really. But they can try, and they will try.” Skylla drew back, and looked at her, hard. “But they won’t be able to. And you know why that is?”

Polypa, dazed, stared up at her. And all she could do was shake her head.

“Because you got fire in you, Polypa. I know you have. Not the actual fire that comes out yer hands – I’m still tryin’ a figure that one out – but you’ve got a drive. You survived when most trolls would just collapse. I know you won’t take any of this lyin’ down.” she studied her for a short while. “You got a place to stay?”

“Here,” Polypa croaked. Her throat felt cold and wide, raw with anxiety. Nihkee wouldn’t sell her out, would she? No, of course she would, she was an indigo-blood, they only cared about highbloods. Except she’d said, she didn’t care about blood colour. Or did she? Was she trying to get Polypa’s guard down? Was she-

“Hey, hey! Stay with us!” Skylla didn’t shout, but her voice was firm, commanding. Polypa absently noted that her head was on her lap, Skylla’s arms around her. “Stay with us, Polypa.”

“We care about you,” said Diemen unexpectedly, and Skylla glanced up at him for a moment before returning her eyes to Polypa’s.

“You don’t know me.” was all she could manage, and Skylla hugged her fiercely.

“But I’d like to.”

~

“What’s going on in there?” Tegiri asked. It had sounded innocuous enough. But Nihkee hadn’t seemed to agree.

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” came the snappish reply, and Tegiri narrowed his eyes.

Here it was. The draw. Either he told her he was a legislacerator, and legally gained the advantage but tipped off the troll girl, or he didn’t, and he remained very likely to be kicked out for apparently giving her hired help a seizure.

How, though? Had he really found his mark? If so, she would be defenceless, and it would just be a matter of dealing with this surly, burly bartender.

Who was two castes above him.

Tegiri wracked his brainpan for a plan of some kind, and took another swig of his drink. Nihkee didn’t budge. She was stood ramrod straight, powerful arms folded, brows drawn together and eyes sharply trained on him, barely blinking.

It was then that it hit him – was this Polypa her moirail? If so, that would make the whole process a lot trickier – despite the request being put through by a local grand highblood, it was from an indigo-blood, and so Nihkee had the legal right to dispute it if it called her moirail into question. And it would, as things often did on Alternia, come down to a trial by combat.

If it did, Tegiri wasn’t putting his money on the artist, that was for sure. She was sinister and sick, but in a fight with Nihkee she wouldn’t stand a chance.

He heard slightly raised voices from the kitchen area and craned his neck to hear, but Nihkee stepped closer to him, her face in his.

“I’ll reiterate, sir,” the last word was drawled with particular distaste. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business.”

A decision. Now or never.

He deflated theatrically. “It’s not. You’re right. Forgive me for being concerned.”

“You’re forgiven.” Nihkee grumbled, and stepped back, surveying the bar. She looked around at some other people who had been waiting, and quickly began taking orders. Tegiri slouched on his stool, gripping the Targon Sunset with his left hand and downing the rest of it. He glanced around, waited a minute or two, and then moved his drink aside to hop across the counter.

He stormed through to the kitchen, ready to pull out his legislacerator badge with his off-hand, and froze.

Diemen stood there, alone, awkwardly clasping his hands together at stomach-height, an uneasy smile on his otherwise obscured face.

“Uh. Hi!”

Chapter Text

Diemen wasn’t sure how to feel about this conversation. It was getting deep, emotionally speaking, and he really wasn’t the kind of troll to talk to about deep emotional stuff with. He just wanted to spend time with his friends! Eating food and playing video games was all he wanted to do!

Of course, as a rust-blood, he wouldn’t be able to do it for much longer.

Which was probably why the words Skylla whispered to Polypa rocked him so hard, he supposed. She was talking about life and self-worth and the strength inside, that particular kind of strength you had to have if you wanted to tug past the barbs and thorns of the world around you.

That said, he got the distinct impression that everything here had some kind of weight to it he couldn’t really measure.

“Come on, girlfriend, up we go,” Skylla crooned, and Polypa stood slowly. “There we go. Come on, you wanna go out back?”

Polypa shook her head. “I need to go somewhere else.”

Skylla thought. “My hive? It’s secluded, out of the way-”

“And it’s one of the first places they’d look,” Polypa cut her off, then stood up straight. Something mechanical and well-oiled snapped into place at that moment, even Diemen could see it. “We need to go deeper into the city.”

“My hive?” Diemen piped up before he realised it. The two girls looked at him, and he responded with an intense look of his own. At the floor. “It’s deep in the city, rust-blood slums are… well. They belong to rust-bloods.”

“They’d just bomb the whole place,” Polypa hissed, but Diemen shook his head.

“They’d have to get clearance from the Heiress for that! Not even purples can order bombing raids on entire neighborhoods!”

Skylla scratched her chin. “We could make them think that you’re lying low in rust-boy country, but go to my hive. Throw ‘em off the trail.”

“That could work.” Polypa nodded “But if they go there and don’t find me…”

“Just making sure – it is you they’re looking for, right?” Skylla asked, and Diemen tensed with Polypa. Dangerous question.

“Yes.”

Skylla grinned and slapped her on the shoulder. “Knew I liked you for a reason, heartbreaker.”

But they needed a cover story. The legislacerator meant business, and even if Nihkee was keeping him at bay for now, she’d have to serve some people eventually.

“Go,” Diemen said. “I’ll squirm for him.”

Both of the girls stared at him. “It’ll make it more convincing.”

“He might kill you.” Skylla whispered, eyes wide. He gulped up at her. That was true.

“Not right away. And I think Nihkee might be a bit upset if he did.” He tried a smile. Tried to be brave, for Skylla. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”

Skylla considered him out of the corner of her eye, lips trembling and eyes glazing over a little. “You’d better. I’ve been pale for you for a while, you better make it outta here!”

Skylla? Pale for him? Diemen felt a surge of bitter pride in his chest as she hugged him fiercely. He felt pitied. Appreciated, even. “I will.”

“Good, because I owe you a massive oblong meat product when this is over.” Skylla smiled at him, pained, and then took Polypa’s hand, moving past him to the backdoor.

He sighed. They could trust him – he would never abandon his friends. He just hoped he could trust them.

“Brave,” said Nihkee, and Diemen whirled round to look at her. “I don’t know you, kid – but I’m proud of you. And I bet your lusus would be proud, too. Don’t worry, the teal won’t hurt you. I’m making sure of it.”

Diemen didn’t know what to make of that, so he just nodded, gave her a thumbs-up, and let her leave. Secretly, he wondered if she meant it – they barely knew each other, after all – would she really be willing to stand up for a lowblood like him?

He turned back to the side of the kitchen the teal-blood was probably going to enter from, and waited. Then fidgeted. Then hopped on one foot, then the other. He was taking his time, huh? Diemen rocked back on his heels a couple of times and picked at his nose. Contemplated eating it. Nah, he wasn’t that hungry. He looked down at his hands and clasped them together, elbows drawn in.

And then the legislacerator came in.

“Uh. hi!”

Something unreadable flashed across the legislacerator’s face, before he scowled and pulled a badge out of his coat. Yep, definitely a legislacerator. “Tegiri Kalbur, Her Imperiousness’ Royal Order of Legislacerators, sixth division.” the teal-blood, Kalbur, snapped at him like a dustshark. “Talk, slug.”

Diemen opened his mouth. “Oblong meat products were first invented by Bnukat Tamzem, a prodigious lime-blood cook, at the age of eight sweeps old, when she was travelling the lost continent of Stemed for oinkbeast meat. Despite her foray into cannibalism, it ended with her discovering that-”

The sword flashed out of its sheath, into Kalbur’s hand, and came to a rest mere inches from Diemen’s face.

“I am not in the mood for jokes or games, worm – tell me where your scumbag friends went.”

Diemen frowned, even though Kalbur couldn’t see it. “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as calling them scum – you haven’t really talked to them yet, and-”

What did I just say about jokes!?” Kalbur snarled, loudly, and Diemen gulped. Backed up into a metal table. He raised his hands in defence, but Kalbur’s heated scrutiny turned deadly. “Hands down, filth. Don’t even think about using your disgusting kinetic manipulation energies on me.”

“Oh, uh, ok.” Diemen lowered his hands and did his best not to look at the incredibly sharp sword trained on his throat. “What do you want to know?”

“The bronze-blood and her compatraitor. Where did they go?”

“Out to her… her hive.” Diemen swallowed. It wasn’t just his life on the line, here – in fact, now it was starting to occur to him that maybe this whole distraction had been a terribly bad idea. “It’s out in daywalker country, though – I don’t know if they’ll make it, not if they set off this late in the night.”

“That just makes my job even easier.” the sword lowered, but didn’t waver.

“Y-yeah. Lucky you.” Diemen smiled weakly. Please buy it please buy it please buy it please please.

The sword came up again, and he yelped involuntarily. Ok, maybe he was selling this a little too well. “You’re lying.”

“What? No!”

“Yes you are. I can tell.” Kalbur’s voice got very low. There was none of the rage in it that had come before. “Where are they really headed?”

Diemen caved. Or, pretended to cave. “M-my hive. South-east rust-blood block, Outglut. It’s on 3rd street and there’s three floors. Can’t miss it.”

“Huh.” Kalbur lowered his sword completely, then sheathed it. “How noble. The esteemed rust-blood, hiding his heretic betters in his wretched mud-pile.” Diemen couldn’t help but flinch at that. He was used to verbal and physical abuse at the hands of highbloods, but that didn’t make it any easier to take.

Then again, he had given him sass at first, so he probably saw it as fair game. Even bleedings, as it were. “Just… please, don’t hurt Skylla. She’s… she’s important to me. She’s just getting involved because she doesn’t know better.”

Kalbur snorted, and Diemen wanted oh so badly to kick him right in the bulge. “Hurt her? She won’t feel a thing. Oh, don’t be so miserable. You should know better, expecting things of your betters like tha-”

“Ahem.”

They both jerked up in the direction of the voice – it was just Nihkee.

“A legislacerator? Why didn’t you tell me?” Asked Nihkee. It sounded like genuine concern in her voice.

“Because I have reason to believe that your most recent employee has committed crimes against the empire.” Kalbur’s tone had switched, impressively quickly, to a smooth-but-bored burr. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about-” he fished out a notepad and held it out to Nihkee. “This young woman here?”

Diemen rolled his eyes. Of course he had used the actual description to ask the highblood instead of him.

Nihkee seemed to study it for a moment. “That’s a drawing.”

“Yes.”

“A drawing of a troll.”

“It is indeed.”

“And you want to know if I have seen that particular troll anywhere, recently.”

“I feel like you might have.” Diemen couldn’t see his face, but Kalbur’s voice sounded a little bit infuriated. No, not a little bit – what was the other qualifier?

“Anywhere at all?”

“Here, specifically.” Ah, yes.

“Nope! Can’t say I have.”

Incredibly infuriated. That was a much better way to describe Kalbur. Or perhaps ‘livid,’ maybe ‘furious?’ Even ‘apocalyptically enraged’ would suit the teal-blood’s mood. And he couldn’t accuse Nihkee of lying, because the courts would go against him.

So eager to please their masters that they set about their colleagues with steak knives and dinner forks.

Diemen blinked. That was uncharacteristically poetic of himself.

“Nowhere at all?” Kalbur’s anger had shrunk into a whine.

“Nah, can’t say I have.” she was relishing it, and with good reason – Diemen envied her a little, but was content with just seeing this all unfold. Then, she frowned. “Hey, legislacerator – can I get back to my job, now? Or am I going to have to shepherd you out with the appropriate paperwork?”

Kalbur took in a breath to answer, then snapped his mouth shut and snarled very loudly, before storming out.

Diemen blinked after him. He was going to be trouble. Nihkee tapped his shoulder lightly.

“Good work. I was worried I’d have to jump in, but I think Dammek’s right – you’re ready.” his smile felt like it was going to stretch his face apart. But she wasn’t smiling. “I should have just told him to back down.”

“No, it’s fine.” Diemen didn’t need her worrying about him, too – he was a rust-blood! Everyone died sooner or later, it just so happened that he would die sooner. And it’s not like it’d make much of a difference, right?

Nihkee sighed. And followed it up with a conspiratorial grin. “If you’re sure. Hey, I’m down a pair of hands – you interested in earning some cash?”

Diemen stood up much straighter at that.

Chapter Text

Her imperiousness’ personal cruiser was staffed with drones, all about twice Chahut’s height. She wasn’t a small troll by any means, so this did put her a little on edge. She’d been given a temporary room while the Heiress got ready to talk to her, so Chahut made sure her face paint was immaculate as it could be and put on a new pair of pants to avoid getting culled for brining lowblood bloodstains within a hundred metres of the Heiress to the empire. A drone knocked on the door to let her know it was time, and she blew out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

One foot in front of the other, and she was at Trizza’s viewing platform.

And there she stood. The heiress to the universe – Trizza Tethis herself.

Her back was to Chahut and she was stood slack, a glass of wine in her hand. Chahut was about to announce her presence when Trizza barked out a laugh.

“No, no – there’s no need for that. Oh, yes, I’m sure your lusus is very important to you still – when was it since you last saw home? Ten sweeps? She would still remember you, then. I’ll have to find her and remind her that you left her before your exile – I’m sure such an old featherbeast wouldn’t be able to take that kind of stress and sorrow.”

Chahut blinked. She was on call with someone – a defector? Trizza had no reason to threaten others when subordinates would just do it for her – this was some kind of game to her.

“No, I don’t care about the money. No, I don’t care about the troops. No – no! You don’t get it! Of course I don’t care about your little star system! If I cared about Tolyxa Threvin 379 or any of its denizens, I would have had you culled when I found out about you all seven sweeps ago. I care about your lusus. You can never see her again, can you?” A pause. “Then she won’t die. I’ll make sure she lives as long as possible. And I will make sure she remembers how you abandoned her.”

There was a beep sound, and Trizza tapped at a chit in her hand, calling another number.

“Intergalactic troll military, this is Trizza Tethis speaking. Heiress to the empire? Yes, I’ll hold.” there was a pause. “Evening to you too, General – I’m afraid this is a business call. Are you familiar with the independent stronghold planet Tolyxa Threvin 379?” another pause. “Yes, that’s the one. I want you to get rid of it.”

There was a quiet query, and the heiress sighed with exasperation. “No, I don’t care how. There’s a defector there. Just the one I know of, but there may be more. Again, I don’t care how. Land and burn the place to the ground, nuke it from orbit, Planet-buster if you want some fireworks – have you got a lieutenant’s wriggling day coming up? You could schedule it for then.”

There was another pause. “Thank you, General. Yes, think nothing of it – the honour is mine.” she hung up and slipped the chit in her pocket, scowling. “Fucking sychophant.” She took a long draw of her wine and addressed Chahut as if she hadn’t just ordered the extermination of a few billion people. “Yes?”

“You requested my presence, your imperiousness?” Chahut decided to keep it simple. Trizza turned around, perplexed, and her expression brightened when she saw the purple-blood.

“Ah, you must be Chahut Maenad!” a nod. “It’s so good to meet you.” a drone hurried forward to take her empty glass away. “Do you know why I invited you aboard my command ship?”

“I don’t.”

“It’s quite simple, really – you caught my eye.” Chahut frowned. “A province grand highblood like you hasn’t culled all that many lowbloods recently. Very odd, considering your previous record.” ah, shit. “Is there any particular reason for that?”

“Not really, your imperiousness,” Chahut started thinking quickly. No way had the heiress called her up to her personal cruiser just to threaten her in person. “I’ve been having a case of the culling blues.” she settled on that – it was more or less true, anyway.

“Care to elaborate?” Trizza tilted her head with a smirk. Hadn’t bought it.

“I… just don’t feel much like going out for the express purpose of culling.” that was the actual truth. But it carried with it a lie of omission.

The real truth was, Chahut had grown weary of battle and death. Any rampage she’d been on recently had just tired her out, and she never felt anything for the senseless death beyond hollowness and twinges of guilt. She just wanted a quiet life, with a matespirit or even kismesis, away from the prying eyes of society. But she kept it quiet because, while technically no one would be able to stop her, if the seadwellers caught wind of it she’d be executed on the spot.

Execution was different than regular culling.

“Why not?” Trizza sounded curious. Concerned, even. It was entirely false. No normal fuchsia-blood was capable of pity.

“I don’t know. It’s just too much effort to get dressed, get out of my hive and hunt down lowbloods for the sake of it.” Chahut sighed. She was being honest, but something was telling her she wasn’t going to leave this ship alive. And it was Trizza’s mocking, innocent curiosity.

“Ah, but you made the effort for your humble heiress, didn’t you? I suppose I am much more worthy of a purple-blood’s attention.” the grin she gave Chahut was sharp and gleaming. “Shell you what – you about I bomb a lowblood suburb, and then you can go down and cull the survivors.”

“I can cull mothefuckin’ survivors any day.” the words were out of Chahut’s mouth before she had time to think, and the second between that and the change in Trizza’s expression was probably the longest second of Chahut’s life.

“Are you questioning me?”

Chahut fought a shaky breath. “No, your imperiousness – but I am curious as to why you’d go through so much effort for motherfuckin’ little old me.”

“Well, like I said – you caught my eye.” The heiress took a few steps towards her. “Tall, dark and murderous, with a big axe and bigger horns? You’re all a girl could want.” her smile was devilish. “Think of it as a… courtship present.”

Chahut blinked. She was… being courted? By the heiress? Of all the things… “Um. I see.”

Trizza raised an eyebrow. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, not at all.” again, the truth. “I just hadn’t been expecting it.”

Trizza gaped at that. “But- well, look at you! You’re magnificent!” Chahut squirmed a little as the heiress stepped even closer. She was about the same height, not counting the horns. “How could you not expect this kind of attention?”

“Well, I like to think of myself as a humble motherfucker,” said Chahut. “And I can’t imagine that anyonethinking the future empress would take them for a motherfuckin’ matespirit, or kismesis, would be seen as a sign of anything other than being in need of culling.”

Trizza seemed to accept that. “Hm. That’s a good point. In any case, I’ve never done this before – is a bombed lowblood district suitable?”

Saying no would probably not result in Trizza killing her on the spot. Probably. It was too big a risk, and Trizza was probably going to cull those lowbloods anyway. “Yes, I think it is – although, could I have some time to think about which suburb?”

Trizza smiled. It seemed… warmer, than her previous smiles, but only by a little. “Of course. Would you stay here, in the meantime? I’d very much like to get to know you.”

“Of course, your imperiousness.” Chahut avoided a nervous swallow.

“Please,” said the heiress, smirking like a meowbeast with a rodentgrub at its mercy. “Call me Trizza.”

~

Five minutes later, Nihkee got a trollian message from Chahut.

homegirl, some shiTs about To go down

can i moTherfuckin Trust you

Nihkee blinked, and quickly replied with a simple, yes, Qf cQurse, what is it?

The heiress has The hoTs for me and she wanTs to bomb a lowblood suburb

Nihkee blinked. She hadn’t been expecting that.

which Qne?

moTherfuckers leaving iT To me

is it part Qf the cQurtship?

yeah

Nihkee huffed as Diemen poured out two Grublin Stouts. what dQ yQu expect me tQ dQ abQut it?

which district should iT be

Nihkee bit down the seething venom she felt for the other highblood. Her life – and possibly the lives of hundreds of others – was at stake, and Chahut was worried about which hundred. It was weird how ignorant some people could be with priorities. She plucked a random one out of the air and sent it.

I dQn’t knQw, the industrial district? Can’t yQu just tell her yQu don’t want her tQ cull anyQne?

moTherfuckin negative on ThaT my friend

Nihkee swallowed air, waited for the next answer.

you canT jusT deny The heiress like that

Nihkee waited for more, but nothing else came. She blew out a sigh, trying not to think about how tonight the industrial district would get bombed for some reason or another, now that she had basically condemned it to the heiress. She’d never met the troll, but she didn’t like her on principle – and the only reason she hadn’t been culled for those treasonous thoughts was because Chahut was, fortunately, as apathetic as her when it came to the hemospectrum, and Chahut was the only purple-blood she knew.

Well, the only purple-blood who kept in contact with her. The twins kept to themselves. Even if they were high on the hemospectrum, there was no reason to go out and attract attention to yourself if you were one half of a full freak of nature.

As she carried on working, pouring drinks and cleaning glasses, taking money and writing debts, listening for information and gossip, something uneasy tugged at Nihkee. There was something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.

As she closed the bar for the night, her one day off in the week, she stepped outside with Diemen in tow and they heard a low, resonant rumbling.

She looked up. And really wished she hadn’t.

~

Not long after messaging Nihkee, Chahut had only just managed to lie back in the slime-pool provided for her when her chit buzzed again. She frowned, and picked it up, finding an unknown handle had contacted her.

yo who TThe moTTherfuck is This

7egiri Kalbur, Her Imperiousness’ Royal Order of Legislacera7ors, six7h division.

She blinked. The legislacerator? What did he want? She asked as much, and he replied;

I 7hink I have found 7he 7arge7. Should I engage?

Chahut mulled it over. you know where she is???

7he indus7rial dis7ric7 of Ou7glu7.

She blinked. It was too good to be true – well, almost. If she took Nihkee’s advice and bombed the industrial district, that olive-blooded girl might die in the fires and debris and Amisia would be upset. But then, maybe Kalbur would be able to retrieve his target in all the confusion.

She thought. And thought. Hours later, when she was relaxing on the lounge plank, she finally made a decision.

She walked over to the bridge, found Trizza waiting for her, and asked: “How does motherfuckin’ Outglut sound to you?”

Chapter Text

As the fires burned on, her new matespirit wreaked havoc in the city below and her drones followed their temporary leader, Trizza smirked at her chit, turned on the camera, and took an absolutely fantastic selfie.

Or, a shellfie, as she liked to call them.

All of her shellfies were fantastic, really – and the little ego boost she got every time they rocketed in likes and hates was, in her opinion, just another sign of what a great leader she was.

Alternia was hers, all hers – and that stuck-up witch who called herself empress could suck it for all Trizza cared.

~

The shadow hung over the city like a storm-cloud would. Except it wasn’t a storm-cloud.

It was the heiress’ personal command ship.

With its guns trained on the lowblood district.

Despite the trolls running, screaming around them, Tyzias stood slack-jawed on her front lawn. Zebede was urging her that they had to go now, but it couldn’t be real. Could it? What was the point in bombing a city like this? They always started with a district but it was never ‘just’ a district. And it would always have to be re-built at some point. It’s not like killing your own people was going to help anyone. But here they were – highest blood of all slaughtering the rest.

And the heiress could just do it. She could just order the deaths of all these trolls – none of them adults – just because she felt like it. Or because she wanted to make nail varnish out of their blood. Or because she was clearing the area for a new five-grub water park staffed entirely by lowbloods. Or because she thought the fires would make a nice background for a selfie.

She probably didn’t even know that some of them had begun plotting a rebellion.

“She’s just doing this because she can.” was all Tyzias could say, and beside her she felt Zebede fall silent. After a moment she remembered he was there at all, and looked down at him.

“Tyzias, we need to go.”

The anguish, the terror, the heart-rending ache of bones too old for her body overwhelmed Tyzias. She fell straight onto her backside, eyes blank.

All she could think of was the heiress, probably not even laughing as she ended and ruined thousands, maybe even millions of lives in mere minutes.

“Just because she can.” her words escaped her. Zebede blinked down at her, terrified and worried, until he just plopped down next to her. All around them, young trolls screamed and bolted and panicked and cried.

She didn’t know how much time had passed before her chit buzzed. She blinked at Zebede, then down at her pocket.

She took it out and answered. “H-hello?”

“Loquaciousness Entykk, this is Legislacerator Kalbur.” her world span. “Entykk?”

She recovered enough to ask, “Yes, Kalbur?”

“I’ve found the target in the industrial district of Outglut. You can expect the retrieval at 0600 hours, unless I contact you again with contrary information.”

“The city is burning around us, Kalbur.” she snarled. “You think I give a shit about retrieval?”

“I expect you to give a shit about your job, yes.” he snapped back. “They’re just lowbloods, Entykk, save your pity for trolls who deserve it.”

Zebede flinched. Tyzias couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was this the first time this had happened? No, of course not. But it might as well have been.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Kalbur!?” she all but screamed into the chit, and Zebede jumped out of the corner of her eye. “People are dying! Kids our age are dying! This is fucking insane! It doesn’t matter what colour their fucking blood is! Our peers are dying just because highbloods think they’re better than them, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it! WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?

The world stilled, as her words took effect and she realised what she had said. Kalbur was speechless. Zebede was gawking at her.

After a long, long pause, Kalbur answered. “I’m doing my job. As both a legislacerator and a teal-blood. Those beneath me don’t matter unless in the context of those above me. Our planet is on fire and the lowboods are running loose – I’m doing my god-damned job and I expect you to do the same.”

He hung up before she could snap back, and she held the dumb and lame device in her hand for a moment, before an unworldly screech ripped through the air and she threw the chit to tarmacked road, shattering it.

The roar of fury welled up again, and Tyzias realised then that it was coming from her own lungs. Zebede, the poor boy, was petrified, but he wasn’t the subject of her anger. He knew that. Maybe that only served to amplify its effect on him.

She stood, suddenly. Industrial district, Outglut, Kalbur had said.

She had her nightstick. She had her moirail. She had a death blow with Tegiri Kalbur’s name on it.

She marched off, rage boiling against her brainpan, with a distressed moirail in tow.

~

There hadn’t been time to test it. Dammek had forced Xefros to take refuge in his hive while he fired up the gate.

If the district was destroyed, the gate would be destroyed too – or worse, it would fall into the heiress’ claws, and there was no way Dammek was letting that happen.

So, he had messaged Xefros telling him the necessary security checks, and a message to pass onto Elwurd – four becomes three. He felt that Elwurd would understand it, even if Xefros himself didn’t.

She had too much faith in him. It wasn’t matter of blood, it was a matter of character – and the fact was, Xefros was too kind, trusting, and vulnerable to lead a revolution – so it had come down to Dammek, Elwurd, and the other two tetrarchs.

There was a fairly good chance that Elwurd would promote his moirail anyway.

Dammek Astrai stood before the dimension gate, hypnotic red key in-hand, and raised it to the lock.

~

Halfway to Skylla’s hive, Polypa felt a low rumbling in her core, from through Skylla’s lusus and the ground. It came in jumps and starts, but she could tell somehow that it was from overhead. Their route took them through a treetop-covered ravine and out across a vast plain, and once they got to the plain the sky ahead cleared.

Skylla’s lusus halted at her command. Polypa stared up at the command ship with one eye, mind and heart racing as she clung to Skylla for dear life.

Were they here for her? Had they found out?

Suddenly, being dragged, kicking and screaming, back to the artist’s hive didn’t seem like such a raw deal.

“Polypa?” Skylla’s voice wavered. She sounded as scared as Polypa felt. “Why’s the heiress’ command ship floatin’ overhead?”

“I… don’t know.” It might be because of her. It might be. But she had no way of knowing, and therefore, she didn’t know. “I don’t think the heiress cares about finding me that much.”

Skylla craned her neck around to look at her. “You sure?”

Polypa nodded. “It was an indigo-blood who-” tortured starved enslaved used drained violated “…had me. Captive. That wouldn’t be enough pull for the heiress. Purple-bloods, maybe – but I’m not what she’s here for.”

“Then why’s she here?”

“I don’t know!” Polypa shouted suddenly, and it seemed to unnerve Skylla because she looked at her with wide eyes. Then, a hard stare. When it found nothing, Skylla’s sigh reverberated through the grassland around them. Polypa swung a leg off the lusus saddle and dropped to the ground.

She couldn’t look at her. She couldn’t. This all might have been her fault. But it… it couldn’t have been, could it? A psychopathic artist, her attentions swaying the heiress to the empire? No way. It wasn’t possible.

Not straight away.

“Polypa. Hey, Polypa, I’m talkin’ to you.” she blinked and looked after the voice. Skylla had dismounted as well and was in front of her, looking her dead in the eye. Eye, singular.

She only had one working eye left because of that sadistic artisan.

“What?” she couldn’t help snapping, and realised her mistake right away, because Skylla’s eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared.

“I said, I’m goin’ back to the city. I’ve got friends there and I’ll be damned if I’m leavin’ ‘em all there. You can wait at my hive if you really want, but we’ve only got one lusus between us here.” she patted her guardian’s flank. Said guardian was currently munching away at some violet-shaded grass with fervour.

“What are you going to do once you get there?” Polypa’s voice hitched. There wasn’t anything the two of them could do in the city apart from get themselves killed. Polypa had been surviving all her life and now was not the time to compromise that.

“I don’t know!” the bronzeblood’s voice rang out across the field. Her lusus stopped feeding, and turned to nuzzle her, calming her down. “I don’t know. But I am not gonna just sit alone in my hive with some crazy traumatised girl I met two weeks ago, while my god-damn friends are dyin’ and killin’ just ‘cause I’m scared ‘a’ dyin’.”

She flinched, couldn’t help it. ‘Crazy Traumatised Girl’ wasn’t inaccurate, in Skylla’s defence, but…

She was just looking out for her friends.

“It’s not dying I’m scared of.” it was a whisper of an argument, but Skylla evidently hadn’t heard the fear in it.

“Alright, then, I’ll bite – what are you afraid of?” she wasn’t loud. But she was angry and she was demanding an answer. Polypa knew she didn’t owe it to her.

But she decided to give it to her anyway.

She pulled out a knife she had scavenged from Nihkee’s place and held it over the edge of her hand, where Skylla could see. The other girl had started towards her revolver, but her eyes betrayed her curiosity. Polypa cut just a little bit, just enough to draw blood and sluice it over the tip of the blade. She moved the knife away and used the finger and thumb of her knife-hand to pull the bandage over it. Not like that would hide it all that well.

Skylla, however, was staring at the blood on the knife. “That’s not olive.”

“No. It’s not.” good thing she’d understood that, at least. “Do you know what colour it is?”

“It’s…” Skylla stared at it even more intently. “It can’t be! You’re a…”

“Yeah.” Polypa deflated. Skylla was the first person she had voluntarily told. “I’m a lime-blood.”

~

Across the city, running through the crowd and for their lives, trolls all over saw two beams of light – one green and one red – pierce the heavens.

For a brief second, in the rainbow blackness of space, Dammek glimpsed another figure pass him in the green stream. Tan-coloured skin, a shock of black hair, a glint of mint-green eyes, light-coloured clothes and an equally shocked expression.

And then he awoke in a room made of wood and dust.

Chapter Text

The drone lurched down the street after the terrified bronzeblood with the broken leg. She screamed and it bore down on her, snatching her up with a mammoth set of talons that dug into her skin and oozed her of colour. It took off with her in its grasp, still screaming.

A few moments later, Nihkee and Diemen popped out from their hiding place and scurried across the street.

She had to keep calm – had to find their friends. Skylla and Polypa had, with any luck, headed out to the former’s hive with her lusus to lie low. Nihkee wasn’t much of a sneaker, less so with one real leg than she had been before, but it was the only way to keep Diemen alive.

She tried not to think about the bronzeblood girl and how much she had looked like Skylla.

“What do we do?” Diemen hissed up at her, terrified, and she could only stare down at him. He was just a kid compared to her – five and a half sweeps to her almost-eight.

She fixed him with a hard look. “We survive. You got your strife weapon?”

“Y-yeah.” Diemen gulped and clutched at his cleaver – it was about the length of his forearm and twice the width, but the poor kid had never been in a fight in his life. Nihkee held her claymore with two firm hands, not really needing a weapon but carrying it anyway.

“Good. You’ll need it. Your hive – which way was it?” he rattled off an address and she nodded, setting off with him in tow. The streets were quieting down a bit.

There was a buzzing sound, and Diemen stopped.

“Uh. That’s me.” he stuffed a hand into his pocket to pull out his chit. He gasped and answered right away. “Zebede!”

Nihkee snapped her head to him. If Zebede was still alive, Tyzias probably was as well.

Diemen was listening intently. Then his face fell. “Crap. We’re on our way!” he pocketed the chit and looked up at Nihkee. “My hive, still – Zebede’s there with Tyzias, they’ve seen that legislacerator looking for Polypa but he hasn’t seen them.”

Nihkee nodded, and motioned for him to follow her, turning around to-

-come face to face with three drones, all bigger than her.

She froze. Diemen’s breathing went ragged. Nihkee bared her teeth and stared them all down, a hand out in front of Diemen. They didn’t react.

Then they looked at each other, and then back at her, and started stomping towards her.

Evidently, they’d missed the message. She readied her claymore and she heard Diemen gulp rather loudly.

This was her fault. This was all her fault.

If she had told Chahut to pick a different city, none of this would be happening.

She closed her eyes. No, it would still be happening. It’d just be happening to someone else.

She opened her eyes again and charged.

The first drone met her with force, but she’d tangled with bigger opponents before. Two talon swipes she parried, and the third one she dodged  by kicking off from its wrist. It lurched forward again, trying to grab her, and she batted the offending hand away with her sword. The sharp bit. The hand came away and the drone staggered back, black ooze dripping from its stump, so she stepped inside its guard and plunged the metre of steel into its chest, sending it further back.

It screamed from a mouthless face and she hoisted herself up, dragging the blade down into its abdomen, black blood spraying her face, and she kicked both feet into it, sending it back with a backflip of her own. It toppled to the ground and didn’t get up.

One down.

The second came at her much faster with a right, left, right slashing of talons that she blocked, parried, and dodged respectively. It brought its hand back for another swipe and she rolled under it, so it retaliated with a kick to her side. She grunted as her ribs trembled and her grip lost her sword. She caught herself on her elbow and rose to a crouch, but the drone had turned its back on Diemen.

This turned out to be a mistake. Diemen let out a primal roar, far too terrifying of a sound to belong to someone so small and young, and he leapt up, burying his cleaver in the drone’s neck, his other hand coming round to grab its shoulder. The drone howled and tried to shake him off, and Nihkee searched for her sword.

She caught sight of its glinting blade five metres away. The third drone was four away. It charged and she forwent the sword, rushing to meet it with her fists. It slashed and she ducked, she raised her peg-leg up and rammed the point hard into the inside of its knee. It didn’t work, and she barely dodged the counter-swipe, hitting the ground on her back and rolling back up. She spared a glance at Diemen, who had been shaken loose of the drone but still held his cleaver, baring his teeth at the behemoth.

Nihkee smiled, and the drone she was fighting grabbed her. She panicked, razor-blade claws digging into her bare flesh and cutting her clothing. She kicked with her good leg, found it was useless, and started forcing its fingers apart with her arms. It gripped harder, and then grabbed the bottom half of her body with its other hand, and started to pull, and-

The drone let out a howl of pain as a sharp, five-talon hand stabbed into its chest. It dropped Nihkee and she grabbed its wrist, pulled it down, and grabbed at its head, climbing onto its shoulder and letting loose a flurry of fists, elbows, and palm-heels, dazing it, before her highblood strength and natural bloodlust overcame her and with a hand on either side, she tore off its head.

Satisfied that it wasn’t living through her assault, she turned to see Diemen standing over the mangled corpse of the second drone, drenched in black blood.

Neither of them spoke. She just stared at his shaking form, his heaving face with nearly-spilled tears, and calmly walked over to her sword, picking it up.

“Hey. Diemen.” she wasn’t great at comforting people all the time, and especially not at a time like this, but… “Nice work.”

“Th-thanks… thanks, Nihkee.” he gasped. His hair was mussed up and she could see his eyes, round and usually friendly, staring down at the brutalised drone he had evidently not had much trouble with. “Does it… does it get any…”

“Easier?” she didn’t know if he meant in terms of ability to kill, or ability to deal with the guilt of it. “No. But if it helps, these things are just mindless drones. They exist to kill, kidnap, and enforce. And you took a stand. Good job, kid.”

It wasn’t much. But judging from the way Diemen gripped his cleaver with renewed conviction, took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, it had helped plenty enough to be what he’d needed.

“Come on,” he said, his voice wavering with adrenaline, “My hive’s this way.”

~

Elwurd was having a pretty shit day, if she was being honest with herself.

First Dammek disappears, then Xefros disappears whilst blabbering something about some alien girl, saying he was coming her way, even though she was still in the industrial district of Outglut with Daraya and Mallek.

And then the fucking drones had come down and started murdering people left, right and centre.

If Elwurd didn’t want to kill the shit out of the heiress before, she sure as hell did now.

Her strife weapon, a wooden bat with spikes and nails in it, wasn’t doing much against the drones. The three of them were pretty decent fighters, but for some reason they were being targeted despite their blood colour.

Then again, it wasn’t like the drones discriminated. One point in their favour, she decided.

“Any ideas?” she asked, leaning on her bat like a walking stick and looking at Mallek and Daraya. They had taken refuge in a classroom for jade-bloods, one that Daraya didn’t actually have anything to do with for once. Mallek was holding a chain that he really needed to figure out how to use without accidentally braining someone on his side, and Daraya had found a shotgun somewhere.

Mallek was the one to answer. “Head for Xefros. He’s expecting us somewhere out of town – where was it again? Kaijub?”

“Yeah, that’s where I live,” Elwurd grunted. If it was true that Xefros had somehow befriended an alien, they needed to get over there. Then again, there really were worse candidates for first contact with an alien race than Xefros.

Dammek, for one.

“Kaijub, then.” Daraya’s tone of voice hadn’t changed. It never changed, unless she was angry with Elwurd. And she was only ever Elwurd she was angry with. “We’ll need some wheels, or some kind of hoofbeast.”

Mallek spotted something behind her. “We’ve got incoming,” he warned, and he readied his chain. She frowned, and turned to spot a drone heading right towards them.

From outside.

“It’s going to jump,” Daraya spoke too late – Elwurd hadn’t quite managed to clear the window before it leapt through and knocked her aside. Her head swam as glass dashed her sides and skin – it wasn’t anything serious, she didn’t think – and she opened her eyes to see Mallek twisting one of the drone’s wrists aside with his chain while Daraya fired, pumping shell after shell into its armour.

Elwurd snarled and grabbed her bat, rising to her feet and bringing it up, swinging it into the drone’s side with a crack and winding up for another hit, this time targeting the back of the leg. The drone flailed, its free arm reaching for her, but she skipped back, bashed its wrist with her elbow, waited for Daraya to stop firing, and swung the bat right into the drone’s head with as much force as she could muster. One of the nails must have found its brain because it went limp, dropping dead on the floor.

After the longest five-second pause for breath of Elwurd’s life, someone spoke. “Okay, I think we’re all tired out from the others,” Mallek panted, “Because there’s no way should that have taken all three of us.”

“We need to rest,” Daraya agreed, reloading her gun with spared glances at Elwurd. “Where can we lie low?”

“I’d say Xefros’ hive, but I think he said it got destroyed.” Elwurd paused to think about it. She hadn’t told them about the alien – she’d need to see for herself, first.

“Dammek’s?”

“All those guns, those rations, that hardware…” Elwurd thought about it, but shook her head. “Too obvious.”

“The Rusty Pond?”

Elwurd fixed Mallek with a glance. “Do you really want to break into Nihkee’s bar? Nihkee, the three-time muscular theatre county champion? Nihkee, who could mince your entire head with one well-placed sit-up crunch?” Mallek rolled his eyes.

“She wouldn’t hold it against us.” he reasoned.

“We can’t leave anything to chance,” said Elwurd, just as she caught sight of Daraya’s eyes widening. She followed her stare to understand, and boy, did Elwurd understand.

Outside the window, out on the courtyard, about a dozen drones stood facing them. The three trolls were in no shape to fight. Elwurd groaned. Was this it? Was she seriously about to die here, at the hands of some asshole drones, who didn’t even know they were putting a stop to her rebellion? Had Dammek died for nothing?

A massive fireball blasted through two of the drones and a hail of gunshots took down another. Elwurd stared as Skylla Koriga, riding atop her lusus, charged the nine-odd imperial drones with naught but her gun and…

Polypa?

At that moment, the bandaged girl leapt from the back of the hoofbeast with blinding speed, falling back down with a wide kick that brought a wall of fire down on the drones. The ground scorched and she hopped up into a kick-boxing stance.

Elwurd felt her jaw drop.

Polypa stood, surrounded by six of the drones, and surveyed them for half a second. Then she jumped up, kicking out fireballs and punching out whips of flame, beating them all back. One surged through and she gripped its wrist with both hands, planting both feet into its chest with a napalm shock that tore right through its carapace. She bounded off with cat-like grace onto the shoulders of a second, striking out with both hands into the sides of its head, incinerating its brain before it could think. A third drone landed a hit on her, and Polypa tumbled to the concrete.

And rolled right back up onto her hands, lashing out a fire-kick that knocked the offending drone back. It staggered and she jumped up, a flurry of punches crumpling its armour, before it tried to strike back. She neatly side-stepped the blow and rose with a spinning kick that shattered the armour on its back, but didn’t quite kill it. The drone rose again, matching her blows before catching her in a grab.

Then she roared at the top of her lungs and its hand disintegrated.

Elwurd tried to shield herself from the heat. The concrete cracked beneath Polypa’s feet as the olive-blood – well, clearly she was more than just an olive-blood, she had just set herself on fire through sheer force of will – dug her bandaged feet onto the concrete and fired a two-fist blow into the drone’s chest, hurling it backward onto the ruined courtyard.

Three more drones left. Elwurd blinked, barely registering Daraya at her side until the jade-blood fired her shotgun at the three drones not engaged by Skylla. Elwurd’s eyes flickered to the bronzeblood in time to see her ensnare a drone’s wrist with her lasso and use it to leap from her charging lusus’ form and kick two feet onto the drone’s head, snapping it back at a sickening angle. She dropped, reloaded her revolver in the blink of an eye, and fired off two shots towards the one she hadn’t struck yet. One of the drones she was fighting had somehow lost an arm.

“Holy fuck,” Mallek breathed. Elwurd agreed. Polypa blocked a downward swipe with a high-kick enhanced with flame, and followed it up with an elbow to the drone’s temple, staggering it. She jumped up onto its doubled-over back, sprang off and fired out two more fireballs at the final drone, her other opponent distracted by Daraya’s shotshells. The meteoric strikes rocked the drone, and she met its head with a spinning heel-kick that sent it sprawling across the courtyard.

In the distance, Skylla ducked under and around several swipes with the nonchalance typical of some action movie hero, before lassoing the drone’s left arm, twisting it, and sending a hard enough palm-strike into its turned-outward bicep that the carapace and chitin shattered completely, earning them all another shrill scream from its blank armoured head. The drone collapsed to its knees, and she finished it off with a loud gunshot to the back of the head.

Skylla flicked the spent cartridges from her revolver’s cylinder and replaced them, walking towards Polypa the whole while. Polypa was standing stock-still, right in the middle of the smoky remains of the carnage. Her facial bandages had come undone during the fight, giving Elwurd a good look at her scarred, but nonetheless appealing face. Her left eye looked slightly glazed over, probably blinded. Her fists were clenching and un-clenching, until Skylla edged close enough to whisper something into her ear. Her gloved hand came up to brush Polypa’s bare shoulder, and it seemed to help the other girl relax. She closed both eyes, took a deep breath, and let the breath out.

“So, about not leaving anything to chance…”

Elwurd didn’t have to look at Mallek to know exactly what kind of shit-eating grin to expect.

Chapter Text

“So, what are you two doing here?”

She wasn’t sure what to tell him. She didn’t know why they were there either.

Zebede had just followed her.

“Is there anyone in?” Tyzias asked, with a gesture to Diemen’s destroyed hive, and Tegiri’s eyes flashed.

“No. They evidently didn’t come here at all.” he swept a hand over the rubble. “It’s been decimated.”

“Like the rest of the neighbourhood.”

“Hm.” Tegiri seemed to consider this. “This is the first I’ve heard of you pitying lowbloods, Entykk. What’s changed?”

“I don’t pity them.” she snapped. “All my life, I’ve pitied lowbloods, but that’s changed. I respect them now.”

A haze of blue-green washed over her vision, furious blood crashing in waves against her forehead. “They fight, they die, they survive, all on their own – the system against them, us against them. Do you have any idea – any fucking inkling of how hard that is? Because I don’t! All I see when I look at a lowblood now is someone stronger than I am, because there’s no way they survived to get to where they are now by being weaker than me.”

Breathing hard, she looked at Zebede, his eyes unusually hardened in a glare at Tegiri. “And it changed because I realised I never pitied Zebede – he’s always had my respect, and I never realised it.”

“You should save your respect for the highbloods.”

“I’ve got something else in mind for them.”

Tegiri’s eyes narrowed, and Tyzias stood her ground. “You can get culled for this.”

“I can get culled for a million different stupid reasons. It might as well be for standing up to injustice.”

“Injustice?” Tegiri scoffed. “There’s nothing unjust at work here. This, all that’s happening around us?” he swept his arms to direct he eyes at the city burning around them. “This is justice. The lowbloods owe us everything, and they should be honoured that we think they’re worth the time taken to cull them.”

“What do we owe you?!” Zebede’s question was a cracked scream. “You kill us, you manipulate us, you, you trap us in jobs and roles we can’t escape, what the hell do we owe you!?”

“Your existence!” Tegiri roared. He drew his sword and Tyzias flicked out her nightstick. Tegiri eyed it and relented, but still held his blade. “You should be glad we haven’t wiped you out already.”

“If you wiped us out, you wouldn’t have anyone to belittle. What you call the lowbloods would just move to, to, to the ones that you haven’t killed.” Zebede was crying. “But you’d still support it, wouldn’t you? I think that’s why we’d rather be wiped out.”

Tegiri’s fury dissipated. “In that case, allow me to oblige.”

He shot forward and Tyzias jumped to meet him. His sword clanged against her nightstick and he raised again, blindingly fast, to strike several more times. She managed to parry most of them until one cut past her guard and nicked her arm, and Zebede yelled and jumped forward, his kukri glinting. Tyzias hopped back and Zebede hacked, sideways swipes glancing of Tegiri’s blade. She flanked him and struck out his her stick, but Tegiri raised a leg to kick it away, spring from Zebede’s assault, and smash his elbow into her temple.

Tyzias toppled to the ground, head spinning. Above her, she was absently aware of Zebede’s round face, pulled into a picture of despair and rage as his one-handed kukri strikes were blocked effortlessly by Tegiri, one hand on his sword and another on the sheath. The kukri came for a blind spot and Tegiri clashed it with his sheath, then brought down his sword towards Zebede’s neck. The goldblood ducked under, and hopped to the side, striking again and again, but unable to bring down Tegiri’s blocks. Tyzias hopped to her feet with her tonfa in a reverse-grip and struck. Tegiri grunted and backstepped away from them.

Zebede growled and Tyzias snarled. Tegiri looked at them contemptuously, holding his sword in its sheath at his side.

“You aren’t trained fighters,” he said evenly. “You know you can’t win.”

“There’s two of us.” Tyzias jerked her chin at him, her reply snappish. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I like our odds.”

The legislacerator barked a laugh. “What intoxicating naivety – no wonder you fight. Oh, how to taste the sweet succour of blind optimism so zealously.”

“God, do you ever shut up?”

Tegiri’s nostrils flared and he lunged, iaito flashing out, and Tyzias caught the blade with her nightstick as Zebede struck the sheath. Tegiri whirled round, parrying her strike with his sheath and kicking Zebede in the stomach, doubling him over, and swiping the blade down at him, but Tyzias hooked her arm around his sheath-arm and tugged Tegiri out of the way, spinning him around and elbowing him in the face. He roared, and his assault doubled in speed, his sword sending tremors down her arm. She flicked the stick to her other hand in a sword-grip and deflected a sword blow, then brought it in to catch his head at the same time as his iaito clipped her wrist.

Fucking poncebulges, that hurt.

Tyzias cried out in pain, her nightstick clattering to the ground, as her left wrist spat sea-foam blood everywhere. Tegiri paused, regaining his balance, and cracked his sheath against the side of her head. She staggered. Clutched her wrist. She still had her hand but the cut was deep, and her racing heart wasn’t helping matters. He kicked her in the face and she fell on her back, and his sword rose.

The dark took her.

~

Beneath her, Kuprum panted with exhaustion, carrying Folykl on his back. He was strong and she couldn’t see shit, so it was kind of necessary. She could hear explosions and screams all around her, and was perhaps a little concerned with what was going on, but Kuprum wasn’t telling her anything. He’d just lifted her onto his pack and started running.

She felt them slowing down, Kuprum really out-of-breath, and finally she asked, “Where the hell are we going, dude?”

“I don’t know,” he gasped. “But we’re running.”

“Why?”

“Can’t you hear what’s going on?”

“No! You didn’t tell me!”

“Oh. Right.” Kuprum stood up straight after a moment, his breathing back to normal. His life force – his aura, his chakras, his spirit, whatever the fuck it was fucking called, Folykl didn’t care – silently throbbed beneath her. “Well, Outglut’s finally being wiped out.”

She crunched up her face. “What the fuck do you mean, finally?”

“I mean, we’re just lowblood scum, right?” Kuprum didn’t sound remotely unnerved. “It’s about time the highbloods culled us all.”

“They aren’t culling us,” Folykl snapped. “They’re just killing us. There is a difference, you fuckwit.”

“Bullshit, there’s a difference. If highbloods kill lowbloods, that’s culling.”

“What if lowbloods kill highbloods?”

“That’s illegal.”

“Well, yeah, but would you call it culling?”

“No.” Kuprum growled. “Fine, point taken. Bitch.”

“Asshole.”

“Nook-face.”

“Bulge-whiffer.”

“Lusus-breath.”

“Race-cuck.”

“Am not!”

“Are too. You just want the highblood fuckheads to use your body, like some kind of female barkbeast.”

“Fuck you, take that back!”

~

Cautioning around the ruined courtyard, Polypa looked for any other trolls that could help them, and her eye came to rest at a shattered windowsill, where Elwurd was stood, staring at her and Skylla. Mallek said something to her with a grin, and she scowled. Polypa sighed and trudged over.

“Hi. Are you guys alright?” nice and simple. Daraya was reloading a gun, pointedly not looking at Elwurd.

“We-we’re fine.” Elwurd was still staring at her. “What the hell was that?”

“That,” loud alarm bells rang in Polypa’s head as she tried to think of an excuse. “Was me, fighting.”

Nice save, idiot.

“Yeah, I got that.” despite the words, Elwurd didn’t sound all that sarcastic. “I meant the… the-”

“Well Polypa, those fire-flingin’ tricks you had were nasty, and I got no clue what caused it,” Skylla interrupted. “But whatever it is, keep it pointed at the drones, y’hear?”

Polypa nodded, grateful for the semi-interruption. Elwurd was still starting at her.

“That was pretty hot.”

“Probably the fire,” Polypa grunted, and Elwurd just sighed.

“How- how the hell did you do that, Polypa? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s an olive-blood power,” she lied. “It usually only manifests when an olive-blood has matured, but very rarely, it’ll form while the troll is still fairly young. I’m… a bit of a freak.”

That bit was true, at least.

Elwurd nodded slowly. “Explains why you’ve been on the run, I guess – something like that could be pretty dicey.” she seemed to consider it for a moment. “I feel bad asking this, but-”

Polypa waved her off. “If it’s about the resistance, don’t. I may not be able to help, even if I want to. I… have something to take care of.”

Skylla froze. Looked at her. “You want to go to Diemen’s hive.”

“I need to end this, Skylla.” Polypa sighed wearily. “He’ll just get more people hurt.”

Elwurd screwed up her face. “What, Diemen?”

“The legislacerator who’s been lookin’ for her,” Skylla corrected her, then she turned to Polypa with pain on her gorgeous face.

Wait, what?

“Polypa, this ain’t what I meant. You don’t have to just throw yer life away.” Skylla was trying to be firm but her words wavered. “I said I’d like to get to know you – I still mean that.”

“Is that supposed to mean something?” Polypa tried to keep her tone neutral and ignore whatever her stupid heart was trying to get her to think.

“It means I’ve lost friends over the sweeps, way too many, and people are dyin’ here and now. I might lose more friends tonight. But I ain’t losing one more if I can help it.”

“We could really, really use your help,” Elwurd pleaded, and Polypa glanced at her again. Saw the tired lean she gave on her bat. Saw Mallek’s heavy breathing and wild, darting eyes. Saw Daraya’s thousand-mile stare as she flicked the safety on her shotgun on and off and on again and off again.

“And I’m not lettin’ you throw yer life away,” Skylla took hold of her arm gently but firmly, and squeezed it through the bandages. “You wanna make ‘em pay, right? Well, you can’t do that if you don’t live to see it.”

She looked deep into Skylla’s eyes. The grey of her iris had started to break away, filling out with a deep rich brown colour that, if Polypa was a sappy romantic type, she would say she could get lost in. This girl, who she had known for about a week, knew more about her than almost anyone else – she knew she had been kidnapped and tortured. Knew she had never really had a home she could call her own. Knew her true blood colour.

And she wanted to know more.

It was a strange feeling, living all your life on your own and then meeting someone who could probably make it feel a little less lonely.

“If I survive tonight,” Polypa started. “If. If I survive, I’ll help. I just can’t guarantee I’ll survive.”

“If you do, head for Kaijub. We’ll be meeting Xefros there – my hive should be safe.” Elwurd straightened up and vaulted the windowsill, landing just in front of Polypa.

As Skylla turned back to her lusus to saddle up, Elwurd whispered in Polypa’s ear: “I never had a chance, did I?”

Chapter Text

Tyzias’ vision cleared, but she felt woozy. Hazy. There was a violently stinging sensation coming from her left arm, and the sky above her was coiling with acrid smoke and wails of terror. Metal clanging against metal rang out through the night.

He had saved her. Despite everything, he had saved her. Truly, she was blessed to have such a devoted moirail.

Tegiri hopped back with a mocking sneer. “What’s this? Still fighting?” He was over-confident now that he had maimed her, and she desperately tore her eyes away from her wrist-wound, because oh god there was no way she was supposed to have that much blood leaving her body.

“Always.” Zebede’s voice had taken on a steady, determined tone. “I won’t let you hurt her any further!”

The legislacerator grunted, and struck, the teal blood on his blade flicking to the tarmac of the road. Zebede’s bent blade came in an inward strike to meet it, and the clash forced their weapons apart again, so he swept up from his other side to follow. Tegiri brought his sword down in a two-handed strike, his sheath forgotten, and it came down right in the crook of Zebede’s kukri. The force was too much for Zebede’s one hand to manage alone, so his left hand supported the blunt side of the blade.

Despite her blood loss, Tyzias could tell it wasn’t going to work. Tegiri was stronger, and was slowly pressing down on Zebede’s defence, and the sword inched closer and closer to Zebede’s face, tinged a raw mustard colour from crying and screaming, and Tyzias really hoped that it wasn’t going to go that colour because of Tegiri’s blade-

“HEY!”

She blinked up at the sound of Nihkee’s voice. So did Zebede. Tegiri used the distraction to raise a leg and kick him hard in the chest, and Zebede yelped, falling backwards next to Tyzias, his kukri clanging to the ground.

Tyzias looked over to the source of the voice, and sure enough, saw Nihkee standing there, holding a large claymore in both hands. Diemen was stood next to her, poised to fight, holding a meat cleaver in his right hand. They were covered in splatters of black blood from the drones currently marching through Outglut.

“Thank you, legislacerator, but I’m going to have to ask you to refrain from killing my friends.”

Tegiri turned to her. “You realise that I act upon the authority of Province Grand Highblood Chahut Maenad.” Nihkee flinched at the name but Tegiri didn’t seem to notice it. “So standing in my way can be seen as an obstruction of highblood justice.”

“They’re not your targets.”

“And yet, they defend her and the rest of the lowblood scum.”

“Is that all this is to you?” Nihkee sounded incredulous. “A job?”

“I am the hand of justice,” Tegiri replied, and it would have sounded really fucking corny to Tyzias if she wasn’t bleeding out on the ground while Outglut burned to the ground around them. “And I will not stop. Not for Entykk, not for her pathetic moirail, and not for you.”

“You’re a mindless dog,” she snarled, and surprise flashed on Tegiri’s face. “Blindly obeying orders because they said it was right. That’s it.” Nihkee stood tall, and gestured for Diemen to stand back. “You disgust me.”

“I’ve never culled an indigo-blood before,” Tegiri’s voice was low and barbed. “But there’s a first time for everything.”

The two charged at each other and met with a loud, metallic clang as their swords sparked. He swiped, she parried, she counter-swung and he parried with a backstep, she pressed the attack with three more blows that he dodged, parried, dodged, and he skipped around to her side to strike. She twisted on her leg and blocked it with the side of her metal peg, and her claymore came down towards his left shoulder with a wet slice. He growled, stepped back with both hands on his blade, and guarded.

Nihkee was about to attack when her eyes widened, and Tyzias frowned, following her distracted gaze.

And meeting with the sight of Chahut Maenad, flanked by four large imperial drones just behind her and Zebede. She looked at Nihkee with surprise.

“Nihkee? What are you doing here?” Tyzias frowned. Since when did Nihkee know Chahut?

“I’m…” Nihkee trailed off, not seeming to know why she was, at all, outside Diemen’s house. Then she looked at Tyzias. “Looking for a friend.”

“Polypa.” Tegiri said. “I knew it. Where is she?”

The world screeched to a halt. The screams of the innocents didn’t matter anymore. The bombs and neutron shells relentlessly pounding the planet’s surface didn’t matter anymore. The fires raging throughout Outglut didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that Tyzias’ worst fear had finally been confirmed.

“Polypa?” she asked. The name slipped out. She couldn’t believe it. No way, no way in hell had this mess been her fault. She hadn’t started it, right? She could have denied the highblood request. Except she couldn’t have, because she’d have been culled if she had turned down a direct request. She hadn’t had a choice. Had she?

“Yes, Polypa.” she so wanted to break Tegiri’s smug fucking face. So much. “The name of the olive-blood girl who broke out of Amisia Erhden’s hive, wounding her and destroying said hive, despite explicit orders from her superior to remain inside. You remember that retrieval request, don’t you? After all, you authorised it.”

She could feel the sweat on her back. The ragged breaths running out of her lungs. The blood pumping from the wound on her wrist, through her tightly-clenched fingers. The howl of the wind against her shaking body. Zebede’s shocked expression, Nihkee’s incredulous glare, and-

Tyzias looked over at Diemen. He was looking right at her. His hair was out of the way of his round little eyes, but he was trembling. He dropped his cleaver and sank to his knees.

“I thought you cared about us,” he choked, and Nihkee walked over to him, her sword limp by her side. She knelt by him to whisper something in his ear, but he shook his head and clung to her in a desperate hug, like a drowning man to a lump of driftwood.

Tegiri, damn him, clicked his tongue in annoyance and bent down to pick up his scabbard, sheathing his iaito.

Tyzias looked back at Diemen, who was now shaking really, really badly in Nihkee’s strong arms. Nihkee looked at him with sorrow, and then up to meet Tyzias’ eyes. Her glower told Tyzias all she needed to know.

“Now – Nihkee, was it? – I’m going to have to ask you a few questions about this Polypa.” he looked down at her.

She didn’t answer and he sighed, reaching for his iaito.

“Legislacerator, stop.” Chahut’s voice was a low rumble. She stepped over Zebede’s cowering form and towards Tegiri. “I can take this from here. Thank you for your help.” he frowned, but backed off nonetheless. Chahut turned to the drones. “Leave us.”

Tyzias gaped as the drones turned right around and marched down the road.

“Your lusus is worried about you, Nihkee.” Chahut spoke softly, surprisingly softly. “I was wondering where the motherfuck you’d gotten to these days.”

“I’ve… I’ve been running a bar. In the industrial district.” Nihkee shook, still cradling Diemen protectively. He would have looked absolutely terrified, were it not for the unbridled sorrow of betrayal on his face. “It’s a popular watering hole.”

“It would be, with someone like you running it.” Chahut sighed, her hand brushing the axe slung on her hip. “This Polypa – is she the one that broke out of Amisia’s hive?”

Nihkee glared up at her. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask questions.”

“Dangerous.”

“I know. But I wasn’t worried. I was worried when your pet legislacerator over there threatened my friend.”

“Polypa?”

“No, Diemen.” she gestured to the quivering boy. He was gawking up at Chahut, who would have towered over him even if he was standing up,

“I’m not going to hurt him.” the larger girl spoke calmly, folding her arms now. Beside her, Tyzias heard Zebede pick up his kukri and slowly rise to his feet. “But I need to know – Polypa.”

“No, you don’t. Like how the Heiress didn’t need to bomb Outglut – she just did it.” Nihkee snarled, but didn’t look at Chahut.

“She’s my moirail.” sounded more like an excuse from Chahut than a reason.

“She’s a murderer.”

“So am I.” Chahut shifted, seeming slightly impatient. Nihkee glanced up at her, then back down at Diemen. After a moment of deliberation, she spoke.

“You think she broke out of Amisia’s hive?” Nihkee didn’t look at Chahut.

“She must have.” this from Tegiri. His eyes were flickering between Chahut, and Zebede, who was on his feet and ready to fight. “She matched the description almost perfectly.”

“You’ve seen her?” Chahut asked him.

“Working at Nihkee’s bar.”

The blood was still coming. Tyzias ripped off her torn blazer sleeve and started wrapping it around her wrist to stem the tide. I seemed to work – it would heal in a week or to, with any luck and some stitches.

“I see.” Chahut gave one last, weary sigh. “Nihkee, I don’t like this either. It’s just one troll, and Amisia is, to be honest, motherfuckin’ obsessed. It’s not healthy for her.”

“Not healthy for Polypa, either.” Diemen mumbled. Loud enough to hear.

There was an agonising pause as everyone looked at the little rust-blood who had just sassed a tyrian-blood. But against all odds, Chahut just laughed.

“That’s true. I do regret this, but… well.” she looked at Tegiri, and then glanced at Tyzias. “We’re in it now.”

“How can you do this?” Diemen asked. His voice still croaked with the aftermath of an intense despair. “How can you kill so many people, and, and treat it like it’s just some inconvenience? How can you just destroy a whole bunch of lives like this?”

“Watch your tongue, you slimy little shit,” Tegiri snarled, but Chahut held up a hand to silence him.

“Shut up, Kalbur. Listen, kid… Diemen, right?” Diemen glared up at her. “If it were up to me, Amisia would just forget about this whole business and Polypa could live on her own. If it were up to me, your pal Nihkee here would still have her leg and a good relationship with her lusus. If it were up to me, Outglut wouldn’t be motherfuckin’ scorching to the motherfuckin’ ground.” she hesitated. “That one’s kind of on me, though.”

Nihkee and Tegiri both spoke at the same time. “But I said the industrial district.”

“And I made the call.” Chahut groaned, running a hand through her enormous mane of hair. “A lot of stuff has happened because none of us thought it through. Tyzias didn’t need to approve of my request, even though it was a personal one – it’s not actually motherfuckin’ illegal, and I only sent the request ‘cause I told Amisia I would. I should’ve just… helped her rebuild. I’ve done way too much damage to Polypa’s chances of a normal life, jut ‘cause I’m expected to do it. I’m not sure if it’s an innate troll thing or a cultural thing, but…”

“I’m honoured you think of my life as your personal chew-toy, Highblood.” said Polypa.

Polypa?

Tyzias blanched and whipped her head round to see the bandaged girl standing on the other side of her and Zebede, looking right past her at Chahut.

Chahut rumbled. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Enough.” Polypa glanced down at Tyzias. “I thought you looked a bit guilty when I told you I had escaped, at Tritoh’s. Now I know why.”

Tyzias’ blood ran cold. Her wrist throbbed. “Polypa, I’m so sor-”

“Save it. You didn’t know me when you authorised my capture.” she looked over at Tegiri. “I’m done running.”

“Good. Because I’m done chasing you.” Tegiri’s hand strayed to his sword hilt. “Are you going to come quietly?”

Polypa didn’t answer right away. She stepped over Tyzias, brushed past Zebede, and stood facing Tegiri and Chahut. No way could she fight them both and win – could she?

She calmly kneeled and put her hands on her head. “I am.”

Chahut huffed in surprise and Tegiri scowled. Tyzias stared and Diemen cried out in protest. Nihkee just stared at her.

“Thank you, Polypa…?” Chahut extended a hand towards her to bring her to her feet.

“Does it matter?”

“Careful,” Tegiri tried to caution her, but Polypa laughed bitterly.

“If you’re going to threaten me, don’t bother. I’ve already lived through the worst that can happen to me.”

“You underestimate my abilities.”

“No, you underestimate the potential for cruelty that indigo-blooded artists have.” Polypa glanced at Nihkee. “No offence.”

Nihkee blinked, not really there mentally. “None taken.”

“Right, well.” Tegiri frowned, and made his way over to Polypa. “In any case – you’re coming with me.”

“No, she isn’t. She’s coming with me.” Chahut’s tone implied she really wasn’t in the mood for an argument. “Thank you for your assistance, Legislacerator.”

Said legislacerator stilled, and looked at Chahut curiously. “Um. It was my honour, highblood. If… you don’t mind my asking, why do you-”

“Want to bring her back?” Chahut shrugged. “Silly, really – I told my moirail I would take care of it for her.”

“Moirail,” grunted Polypa. “You two deserve each other.”

“Let’s not go that far,” Chahut seemed like she wanted to laugh. “Thank you, Tegiri. You can go, now.”

He blinked. “Ah. I see. I’ll just… I’ll fill out the required forms and paperwork for you once I get back to my hive. Good day, highblood.” his eyes flitted to Polypa. “Amisia Erdehn sends her regards.”

He strutted off with that last, extremely unnecessary bout of goading. No one spoke. Polypa was staring up at Chahut defiantly. Tyzias slowly got to her feet, and stood beside Zebede.

“Well?” Polypa’s gravelly snarl pierced the quiet like a sledgehammer through glass. “What are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.” Chahut scratched her neck. “I’ve half a mind to let you all go, actually.”

Polypa flinched rather noticeably. “What? No. No you’re not, this is just you, joking around.”

“I’m not.” the tyrian-blood graced her with a sad look. “You didn’t deserve what Amisia did to you, and you proved your strength and cunning by breaking free and defeating her – I suppose it’s an insult that you deemed her not worthy of killing, but it showed your honour. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the better troll.”

“That’s…” Tyzias was speaking now, and she hadn’t even noticed she’d said anything until everyone turned to look at her. “Heretic.”

“I can afford to be heretic. Enough people have suffered at my hand today.” the grim look on Chahut’s face said all Tyzias needed, or wanted, to know. She looked at Polypa again. “Go. I won’t follow you.”

Warily, Polypa rose to her feet. “You won’t?”

“If I wanted to really bring you in, I would have done it by now.” Chahut snapped. “Now go. Before I change my mind.”

“Amisia Erdehn.” the scarred girl said, and Chahut’s face twisted quizzically. “Amisia Erdehn. She was the artist?”

“Don’t go getting any ideas.”

Polypa, her hands shaking and her fingers curling and uncurling, nodded, and ran.

~

They watched from a distance, Skylla and her lusus. Kaijub, Elwurd had said they were regrouping.

She’d never been to Kaijub before.

She’d asked Polypa, but the other girl had only ever been there briefly on an intimidation job. She didn’t know anyone there. Skylla hung back while Polypa bolted off, and tried to hear what the tyrian-blood – Chahut, she thought her name was – was saying to the others.

“… say she died in the bombing. Kalbur told me about your change of heart.”

“I… I didn’t think when I put the request through. I just…”

“I didn’t think, either. I ordered the bombing of this place.”

Another voice. “I suggested it.” Nihkee. “I’m so sorry, Diemen.”

Diemen didn’t say anything. Not for the first time that night, Skylla’s heart ached for another.

“I’d better go. Trizza’s waiting for me.”

Skylla gawked. The heiress?

Chahut continued. “Like I said, you’re all free to go. It’s the least I can do, for… all this.”

She left through the gap between two houses, away from Skylla.

Off to Kaijub, then, I guess.

She motioned for her lusus to trot off at a steady pace, the way Polypa had gone.

~

Polypa, meanwhile, ran.

Her half-bandaged feet slapped heavily against the tarmac road as the smoke from the fires all around her coiled and stung her eyes, licked at her bare shoulders. Her lungs heaved rhythmically, a practiced motion from running so much.

Even now, I run.

Chahut had spared her. Against all odds, fate had dealt a sympathetic hand, and Polypa wasn’t going to squander that.

Elwurd had told her to meet them in Kaijub, wherever that was. She could break into a hive, find a map on a husktop or something, but first she needed to get a safe distance away from the site of her showdown with Chahut and Tegiri.

And she had a fraction of a mind to find her previous captor. The one who had tormented her.

Amisia Erdehn, Chahut had said. But then, she’d also told her not to get any ideas. They were moirails, after all – Chahut was only looking out for her own. So it was a good thing Polypa still felt too traumatised from the ordeal almost three weeks beforehand to get any ideas about revenge.

For now, at least, she would ensure she stayed as far away from said troll instead. And prayed to the sufferer, his disciple, and his supposed-adult-troll-lusus that she didn’t run into Tegiri.

Feeling her breath run out, Polypa slowed down on the outskirts of Outglut, and ducked into an abandoned hive to rest for a moment.

And felt a hard blow against the back of her head. A familiar voice spoke, and with it brought a savage wave of dread.

“I don’t know how you escaped, but rest assured – I won’t let anyone know Chahut was at fault.”

She tried to spit back a response, about how he hadn’t a shred of honour in doing a highblood’s bidding without thought, about how he was a smug bastard and she was going to ruin his entire sweep, but words wouldn’t come. Her tongue slurred and her ears rang, and her vision blurred and sharpened at an alarming rate.

The last thing Polypa saw before the world went black was Tegiri’s foot coming down on her face.

Chapter Text

She had followed the route to Kaijub, but along the way had lost sight of her. Skylla halted for a moment, checked her Grubgle Maps app on her phone, and realised she had taken the wrong route, and had unconsciously ended up near Charun’s hive. They weren’t expecting to see her again for another few days, but in any event she thought it prudent to drop by, at least to say hi.

She was ready to set off again when her lusus suddenly stirred, and quietly whinnied.

“What is it, girl?” a predator? A stalker of some kind? Had someone followed her? Her lusus glanced down the end of the road, and she glimpsed a hazy figure in the far distance. She scanned the immediate area, spotted a makeshift wall of rock and boulder in the ditch along the road, and resolved to wait behind it. She beckoned her lusus by the reins, hopped over the rocks, and flattened her back against it, motioning for her lusus to keep down.

 When her guardian looked at her quizzically, Skylla tapped into her (admittedly weak) natural bronzeblood ability of animal communion to relay the message. Her lusus complied.

“Easy, girl, got no way of knowing if someone followed us. Not without some kind of scout, or…” she trailed off as a flock of birds flapped about overhead.

“Ok, forget I said anything.” she whispered, and looked up at one of the featherbeasts, hands on her temples, eyes narrowed at its tiny mind. She urged it to see for her, to look at what she could not, and spy on the figure down the road. It could be nothing – it could be a hunch. It could even just not work. But if it did-

The featherbeast complied and flapped away from the flock. She saw double – her own view of the sky, and the beast’s eye of the ground – and found it difficult to split the difference. She resolved she didn’t need to look at the sky, so she shut her eyes, focusing on the bird’s perspective. The figure down the road materialised more solidly, more defined, and it turned out to be two figures – one carrying another over its shoulder.

So, someone was in trouble. But who?

As the bird cut through the air, ever closer to its quarry, her lusus shifted next to her. Skylla quietly shushed her. No point in hiding if they made a noise. Finally, the bird hovered over the two figures, and her heart dropped. She’d recognise that hat and overcoat anywhere. And the bandages on the other troll…

She lost control of the featherbeast, and found her breathing had sped up considerably. She shot a look at her lusus.

“We’re not out of this yet.”

~

The four of them – Nihkee, Diemen, Tyzias, and Zebede, were sat slumped, morosely, on the pavement just outside Diemen’s wrecked hive. None of them talked to her, and Tyzias couldn’t blame them.

Even if Polypa had made it out – even if she had escaped – Tyzias had ruined her chance for a relatively quiet life with people she could rely on.

Diemen had scavenged his hive for bits of food, and had found a pre-packaged flavour disc. As luck would have it, his microwave still worked and he still had mains power, so he heated it up and split it between the four of them. If he had happened to give Tyzias the smallest portion, she didn’t bother drawing attention to it.

She deserved to starve.

At least Zebede had no problem sitting next to her. He could, thankfully, tell that she regretted what she had inflicted upon Polypa, and he was ready to give her the benefit of the doubt. However much that was worth. Nihkee refused to look at her, only ever sparing a glance to present her disgust, but also her guilt. Nihkee had suggested the district as a candidate for bombing, but Chahut had been the one to order it.

Really, it should have been Chahut sat there feeling sorry for herself, but she was already doing that on her own, so Tyzias didn’t hold it against her. By far the worst reaction she’d had was Diemen’s – he didn’t look at anything. He just stared blankly at some indistinct horizon. His faith in her had been completely shattered beyond repair, and with all likelihood the same could be said for Nihkee and Polypa.

As if the universe had chosen that moment to fuck with her, specifically, Diemen’s chit phone rang.

He paused, mouth halfway through a slice of flavour disc, and pulled the chit from his pocket.

“It’s Skylla.” he mumbled, and Nihkee shrugged.

“Do you think it’s important?”

“Why else would she call?” Tyzias thought aloud, and the other two looked at her in a way that made her want the pavement to open up and swallow her whole. Diemen didn’t say anything, but he answered the call on loud-speaker.

“Howdy, Skylla here.” came the breathless reply, and Diemen nodded.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“It’s Polypa, she’s in trouble.” Skylla’s voice was tight. “Tegiri has her.”

“What? How?!” Zebede jumped up out of habit, and Tyzias tried to motion for him to calm down. He refused.

“I don’t know. But I just saw him pass me on the road. He didn’t see me. Where would he be taking her?”

Tyzias scrutinised the last hour and a half, desperately searching for some kind of rendezvous. If Tegiri was carrying out his retrieval procedure, then he would be taking Polypa to…

“That artist’s hive,” Tyzias felt her stomach drop. He was going to just dump her there, in the jaws of a monster, because… because what? He didn’t have any personal stake in this. It was just his job, and Chahut had officially dismissed him. “That fucking bastard.”

“You authorised it.” Diemen’s tenor was uncharacteristically cold. “Where is she?”

“The artist? She’s…” she thought. “Amisia Erdehn. She lives in the mountains, off the south east of Outglut, other side of the desert, sort of adjacent to Kaijub.”

“The desert. That’s where Charun lives,” hissed Skylla. “She was that close, all this time, and we never even bothered to look.”

“Okay, can you still see Tegiri?”

“Yeah.” Diemen opened his mouth to cut her off, and Skylla had evidently heard it. “Diemen, I’m pissed off at this too, but she’s trying to fix it with us. At least let her help.” he shut his mouth. “What do I need to do?”

“Don’t bother tailing him, he’ll be able to tell. Just try and get to the hive by another route. We’ll be on our way.” Tyzias paused, and looked at the others. “Uh. Right?”

“Right.” Nihkee nodded solemnly. She didn’t sound like she wanted to talk to Tyzias, and in fairness she had a reason to.

“Yeah. I’m gonna kick that fuckbeast right in the damn bulge,” Zebede growled.

“Get in line.” Diemen stood. “See you soon, Skylla.”

“Get here fast, alright? I don’t know how much time we have.”

“Then let’s make every second count.” Nihkee stood. Hefted her claymore.

Diemen pocketed the chit, slipping his cleaver away. He looked all too old and broody for such a young troll, and the dried black blood all over his jacket and arms wasn’t helping matters. He was as short and wriggler-faced as ever, but he had a murderous kind of energy to him now. Nihkee was as stoic-looking as ever, but now it looked genuinely stony.

Tyzias turned to look at Zebede – he was the only one who hadn’t been scratched by the recent events. He looked determined, but not exactly murderous, and Tyzias was so very glad to have a moirail as self-restraining as he was.

He looked down at her. “You’re coming to, right?”

She nodded. “I don’t know how much help I’ll be with this wrist, but… yeah.” she picked up her nightstick and slipped it into its holster at her side.

“Teal-bloods are fairly tough. You should be fine.” Nihkee assured her, breezily. “But then, I guess that also applies to Tegiri.”

Tyzias nodded. “He’s dangerous. But not as dangerous as he thinks he is – if you can lull him into a state of overconfidence, you should be able to take him.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Zebede asked, tapping his foot impatiently. “Let’s go!”

~

His detour to Amisia’s hive to tell her that Chahut would be back to return her quarry had been most fortuitous. He’d come across said quarry very much unattended, with no Chahut in sight, and had resolved to take care of the matter himself.

Walking down the road with her on his shoulder, wrists and ankles bound, he chuckled to himself. As if a lowblood like her had ever stood a chance against his skills. A rookie mistake, turning your back to an open door like that. It was a wonder she had eluded him for so long.

She mumbled something over his shoulder, but nothing coherent. Good. It’d be easy to bring her back, then.

The road was long, though, and Tegiri absently wished he had brought some kind of transport, but dismissed the thought – he was a legislacerator, and had no need for such things when traversing the ground. If the sun came up, there would be trouble, but he still had a few hours of night-time left and was confident in his abilities to make it back to Erdehn’s hive.

Erdehn. It clicked for Tegiri then, not for the first time, that the whole purpose of his mission was to essentially supply her with paint. He couldn’t imagine what was so special about Polypa’s blood, and so he put it down to eccentricity.

Or obsession. The way she had talked about this olive-blood really gave him the heebie-jeebies.

Still. Not his problem. He was just the messenger.

Whatever blood spilled here wasn’t on his hands.

~

beat beat. beat beat. beat beat. beat beat.

Beatbeat. Beatbeat. Beatbeat. Beatbeat.

Heartbeat. She could hear her heart beating.

Footfalls. Crunching on… gravel? Dirt?

Crunching.

Opened her eye, saw nothing. Something on head?

Rise and fall. Pushed into her stomach.

“Urghug,”

“Oh, good, you’re awake. I wouldn’t want to miss the look on your face.”

“…hurgh?”

“Welcome to the rest of your life, Polypa.”

Polypa. That was her name. Why did they know her name?

Move hands. Move feet. Can’t. Tied together.

Feet slow. Stopped.

“We’re here. I’d better stay with you both to make sure you don’t escape again.”

Escape? Escape again?

Escape from what?

Loud knock. Metal on wood. Silence. Wind in the ears.

Low, loud creaking. Groaning like a great maw. Light footsteps on stone.

“Yes, hello? Who is it?” pause. “Ah, Mr Kalbur! I see you’ve retrieved my muse! Very good, very good, thank you ever so much.”

She knew that voice.

She would never forget that voice for as long as she lived.

And Kalbur…

She knew that name.

Polypa lifted her head up to speak, but the space behind her eyes protested and her ears shrieked and the back of her head really really hurt and her wrists and ankles were burning and

“Well, you’d better come inside. This way, if you would, legislacerator.”

She was going to die. She was going to die at the hands of a psychopath.

“I really am very grateful you managed to capture her, legislacerator – to think, her exquisitely-shaded blood could have been lost forever in the bombing!”

“Quite.”

“Ah, but you are not an artist – you don’t care for paint and colour.” Paint. Colour. Unique colour.

She wanted Polypa’s blood.

“N… n.”

“She speaks! My, she’s rather shy, though – however it was you managed to make her docile, legislacerator, it seems to have worked! Again, I can’t thank you enough.”

“I may have hit her head a little hard.”

“Well, she certainly isn’t struggling.” cold. Coldcoldcoldcoldcold. “There we go – these chains are much stronger.”

“Are they really that necessary?”

“Absolutely! You didn’t see how she escaped last time, legislacerator. Now, can I get you anything? A cup of tea, a scone, some biscuits and cheese, perhaps?”

“No, thank you. I am curious as to what Polypa here will think once she sees your face again, though.”

“So am I!” I don’t think she’s woken up properly yet, however – why don’t we check back in ten minutes?”

“Of course.”

Footsteps. Door creaking shut. Door slamming shut.

Silence. Complete silence.

The room was cold. The chains against her wrists and ankles were cold. She could still breathe, just about, through the bag over her head.

Quietly, she allowed herself to cry.

I’m going to die here.

It wasn’t fair. Chahut, the highblood, had let her go, had flat out said she didn’t deserve it. And yet, here she was. Her wishes being defied by those of lower blood caste.

There was a certain irony, not lost on Polypa, to the fact that a troll who was vehemently anti-hemospectrum was ultimately foiled by trolls going against the wishes of other trolls higher on the spectrum.

All the friends she had made over the last couple of weeks – she had finally found her people. She had finally found people she could rely upon.

And now she was alone again. She could only ever rely on herself.

“Ain’t that just how it is on this shithole of a planet.” Skylla said, deep in her memory.

Skylla.

Skylla would come for her, right?

No, she wouldn’t – she would think she was dead, or in Kaijub.

This was what she got for not running when she’d had the chance.

Tears fell from her eyes again.

~

The legislacerator stalked across the desert, carrying his captive. And the herdsman followed atop her lusus, revolver loaded and steel in her eyes.

The champion drove a four-wheeled device behind her, carrying with her the squire, the lawman, and the confidant.

They were simple people, and they lived simple lives. But their sixth ranger, the survivor, was in danger – and there was no way in the sixteen rings of any of the twelve hells that they were going to leave her there to suffer.

~

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.

Wait, she wasn’t going to die. Amisia wanted her alive.

That’s even worse.

No point worrying about it. She just had to break out.

She’d done it before, after all.

Polypa began by controlling her breathing. She wouldn’t have much of a chance of anything if she didn’t keep calm.

She didn’t have long. She could try and slip out without them noticing, but her escape would probably cause a ruckus – there was no way they wouldn’t hear the chains breaking, and Polypa had no way of knowing whereabouts in Amisia’s hive they were.

She’d just have to be quick. And she couldn’t afford to leave either of them alive this time, so she’d probably have to kill them.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t ever killed before, but in her seven-and-a-half sweeps of work she had never exactly liked it, either. What really worried her was that Tegiri had most likely prepared for whatever Amisia had told him about her.

And Polypa wasn’t scared of death, not anymore. Whatever the empire would do to her for killing two highbloods, it would do anyway because of her natural blood colour. She couldn’t afford to be afraid now.

She tested the chains. They were tight and taut, and the manacles around her hands were thick and cool. She closed her eyes, and envisioned the burning within her. Conceptualised the heat that pulsed through her veins and arteries, that sickly health that breathed her air. Her skin began to vibrate, her lungs and chest a furnace driven with heaving rasps. The heat spread throughout her body, down her legs and up her arms, pooling in her hands and feet. She felt the heavy iron on her wrists and ankles brand her skin, and she bit her tongue to leash the scream in her throat. The metal sizzled and the air of the room popped, the stone walls cracking with the pressure as the iron clamps began to whine. Her muscles, aching with the pain, the solitude, and the exhaustion of sweeps upon sweeps of pain and suffering, throbbed with vigour she had never felt before in her life. She gritted her teeth hard as the bag around her head ignited and hissed to a crisp, her vision clearing to a room on fire.

Polypa roared with a fury she had never understood before, and with a tug, her left arm was free, molten iron dripping from her forearm. She snarled, and ripped the ferrous leash on her right arm from the rack, coiling the make-shift whip around her wrist. It singed the bandages and warped her flesh. The pain only drove her onward. Her feet stepped free, the wraps reduced to embers, and Polypa stood tall, her black sleeveless jumpsuit writhing with smoke and embers.

She was free.

Her one eye snapped towards the door, still closed, and she wondered if that had been reinforced, too.

~

All five of them heard it.

Skylla, at the forefront of their little convoy, frowned, and gradually slowed her lusus to a halt, searching for where the sound had come from. The four-wheeled-device beside her came to a stop as well, and Nihkee leaned out to ask her something.

“Is that her?”

“I don’t know. I kind of hope not.”

“Yeah,” Nihkee snorted. “You and me both.”

“Where’s the hive?” Skylla asked, and Nihkee pointed out something ahead of them.

“In the crook of that mountain, there – cut into the side. It’s an indigo thing, I think.”

Not too far off, then – they were close to the mountain’s shadow, the sun slowly rising. Nonetheless, Skylla frowned. “Do you live in a mountain?”

Nihkee didn’t answer. “We’d better get there quickly, if we want to get there before the sun rises.”

Then, they heard it again. Louder, more furious, more primal. A scream right from the lungs of a God, splintering the air between them with a guttural resonance and a piercing silence that left their ears ringing. It seemed to be coming from the mountain.

Then, a cacophonic noise erupted from the mountain, and an explosion of magma and flame tore from the surface of the planet and up the peak. The very mountain seemed to crack under the pressure, and the ground beneath them rumbled with tremors.

Absently, Skylla remembered the old stories about lime-bloods – they had been wiped out because they had posed a threat that only existed in the brutal, free-for-all culture of Alternia. Rather than fix the system at all, the highbloods had killed them all off to try and keep the peace. To keep their place at the top. They had always sounded laughable to Skylla.

Now, as she raced towards the crook of the broken mountain with her friends in tow, Skylla could only hope that she wasn’t too late.

~

 “Well, thank you again for helping, legislacerator. Not many teal-bloods have an appreciation for the arts, although judging by our conversation, it would seem I have found a kindred spirit.”

He nodded. “It is very fortunate – while my tastes are probably more eclectic than yours, with respect.”

“Of course,” she smiled kindly. “I take solace in my higher standards.”

“Oh, is that what you call it?” he hadn’t meant to say it like that, but Amisia just chuckled slightly.

“Forgive my pretension, you’re quite right.” she picked up her cup to sip it again, and he reached for his.

If Tegiri hadn’t been looking at his cup of tea, he would have missed it.

As it was, the scalding leaf fluid rippled. Very, very slightly.

He frowned. “This isn’t an earthquake-prone area, is it? What with the mountains, I mean.”

Amisia blinked at him. “What in the world are you talking about, dear?”

And then the wall behind her exploded.

~

As they neared the hive, Skylla’s brain flashed with worry over Polypa. An unknown, bandaged mercenary had somehow become the most important thing on Alternia to her, and she wasn’t sure how or why. Maybe it had been the unabashed way Polypa had admitted so much of her personal life to Skylla, about how she had laid bare her very soul when they were alone. Maybe it was the way they stole glances at each other, scratching the backs of their necks and mumbling excuses. Maybe it was the hot, boiling anger of challenging each-other’s beliefs and convictions. Maybe it was the way Polypa had shared her thoughts on Skylla’s psyche without asking for anything but a pittance in return.

Maybe it was the way that the fire inside Polypa burned brighter and hotter than any fire around her.

So when the mountain erupted with lava, Skylla’s worry jumped straight to panic.

Chapter Text

Smoke cleared but she couldn’t tell. She stepped into what was left of a room, tongues of flame licking her form. Dust and cinders flitted across her one-eye vision, as she searched for her prey.

Prey.

She was the hunter, now.

She padded forward on bare feet, the bandages charred to blackness, her amber eye darting all around the whole time. She roared, and napalm loosed from her throat into the air. The walls cracked and lava exploded upwards, digging into the rock ceiling of the artist’s hive.

Not enough.

She raised her hands and lashed out fire. Balls of molten fury crashed against the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, everything.

Not enough.

Polypa arched her back and screamed a blazing pillar into the heavens. It tore through metal and rock, charring the air above it and cooking the landscape around her. The temperature rose, and rose, and rose, and her bandages disintegrated to nothing. Her scars burned with blinding intensity, her useless left eye felt like it was wreathed in barbed wire, tangling her head in animal fury.

It would never be enough. Not until she found that fucking artist.

Then, at the edge of her vision, she saw a glint of steel.

She uncoiled the chain at her wrist to block Tegiri’s blow. Soot and burns were covering his face and coat, his sword out of its scabbard in wild swings. She parried two more blows without thought and punched out a blast of flame, to which he yelled and fell backwards.

“I didn’t think it was true,” he whispered, gaping up at her as he stood. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

And you never will again.” it wasn’t a threat, it was just a fact. She advanced with a lash of the chain, and he blocked two-handed, the follow-up spirals bashing his blade with molten fervour. One, two, three, she struck from alternating sides, and then she spun on her heel and lashed out a kick that would shatter bones, given the chance, and sent out enough heat to crack the stone surrounding them. Tegiri flapped up the edge of his coat against the flame, and it died against the material.

She narrowed her eye at it. Fireproof. Smart.

That didn’t make him invincible, though. She stood with her hands out, ready to strike, as she waited for his next move. Then she felt movement beside her, and turned just in time to see the imperial drone punch her in the ribs and send her flying. She crashed through the weak remains of a wall and fell to the outside of the hive, quickly bouncing back to her feet. The drone had nearly reached her again. She ducked under its second punch, ignoring her screaming ribs, and lashed out a wall of fire to its side. It backed off and she levelled with it, but heard heavy footsteps.

Turning, the troll girl found herself facing off against half a dozen imperial drones, not for the first time that day. She rolled her eye.

The more things change…

The first drone took a swipe and she jumped up, onto its wrist, and blasted its head with tongues of flame, before kicking off its arm and grabbing its head, disconnecting it with a savage twist. Two more drones came at her, and she slipped between them, kicking one of them in the inside of the knee and firing a two-handed blaze at the small of its back, where the armour was thin and weak. The second went down and the third collapsed, and with a roaring leap she spun into a high kick that cracked against the back of its head, incapacitating it.

She turned to face the three other drones and barely dodged the heavy fist aimed at her head, grabbing the hand and twisting it slightly, before igniting it completely. The drone screeched to inaudible levels and she took hold of its arm at the elbow with her chain, then planted both feet on its side and tugged, tearing the whole arm out of its socket, her insatiable rage fuelling her. This was what Alternia’s drones were for – for practising violence and murder on creatures larger than yourself. At least, as far as she was concerned. This fourth drone crumpled to the ground, its armour hissing with smoke and fumes, and she turned to the final two.

Uncurling her chain, she twirled it a few times to get the momentum up, waiting for them to attack. They didn’t. So, with that in mind, she attacked first with a jumping strike, the molten whip whining with heat. The drone on her right raised its arm to guard, but the chain wrapped around its forearm – so she took hold of the chain with her other hand and used the momentum from her jump to pull herself towards it, feet out in a double-barrelled kick. It blocked both feet with its other palm, and was about to counter attack when she sent a surge of scorching energy through her legs and out her bare feet, into its hand, blasting a hole right through it. It shrieked tonelessly and she dropped, landing on her feet, and yanked the drone over with her chain – she ducked between its legs as it went, and turned to the other drone with a follow-up strike.

It hopped back, then span on its heel into a back-kick which she blocked. It then swiped at her once, twice, and sent a fist down on her, all of which she rolled away from. It tried a kick but she held out the chain to glance it off, and she slipped into her own roundhouse kick that it dodged. She growled and punched, fire barking out of her knuckles as she struck, and the drone had a harder time avoiding that, but it still tried evading.

On the tail-end of her last punch it brought up a leg to kick her, and, sensing an opportunity, she skirted to the inside of its leg and gripped its ankle with a hard palm strike on the inside of its knee, incinerating armour and shattering bone in one hit. It screeched and fell to its bad knee, flailing wildly with its talons once, twice, three times, but her guard didn’t break as she blocked the first two strikes and avoided the third.

She retreated, looking at it fully, and she summoned a ball of her power in both hands together, her veins coursing with scything heat as her palms pooled energy. She felt the rage, the pain, the fear and desperation and hatred and another emotion she couldn’t quite place swirl into the fireball, and she loosed it on the hapless drone with an ear-splitting scream.

Then she blinked, and looked down at where the drone had been, and it wasn’t there – she saw a bit of its leg, and one of its horns out of the corner of her eye, but it was mostly gone, and she absently wondered what that last emotion she’d felt was. Whatever it was, she was feeling it as she glanced down the path, down to where Amisia’s hive connected to the main road, and for a moment she was tempted to run away right there and then.

She shook her head. No. It had to end here, whatever it was. She turned back towards the hive, and saw the drone she hadn’t finished off getting to its feet.

She growled and started towards it. It looked up, saw her, and charged. She jumped, flipping into a handstand that brushed its shoulders, and landed behind it in a low crouch, sending out a couple of kicks of fire, weaker than before. The drone guarded against them and turned back the way it had come, hulking through the blasts and kicking at her. She got up in time to dodge, but didn’t actually dodge, and so she felt at least one of her ribs crack as she soared backwards towards the hive, smoked re-entering her vision as-

Stars. She saw stars. No stars. Empty blackness, an inky void, a moon of gold and a moon of amethyst, a battlefield of black and white with bright blue sky, more beautiful than any sunrise or sunset she had ever seen. Creatures larger and more monstrous than imperial drones. More dangerous.

Polypa blinked. Looked around. She was still outside Amisia’s hive and the drone was thudding along the ground right towards her. She must’ve hit her head pretty badly. She rolled up into a crouch, her ears ringing incessantly, and she thought of the beasts she had glimpsed.

Enough of that. Introspection could come later.

First she just had to kill on more drone, and then probably Tegiri too.

It was upon her with a downward swipe from its right hand that she dodged, and then a back hander that she rolled under. It swiped at her with its left and she brought up the chain in a taut two-handed grip, catching its palm and then skirting round it, sending heat down the chain to scald its hand. It screamed and she held both ends of the chain with one hand, using her now-free right hand and both legs to climb up onto its shoulder in a short series of hops, and with a hard elbow-strike to the back of its head she brought it down to its knees. She clambered onto its back and uncoiled the chain from its wrist, then brought it around its neck, pulling as hard as she could manage.

It gagged. She pulled. It whined. She pulled. It scrabbled at the chain but it was too hard, and too small to find purchase. She pulled, and felt no pity. The drone rasped. She felt no pity. Its breaths seized up as she crushed its neck. She felt no pity. She adjusted her stance so that her feet were both on the space between its shoulder blades, and then let go of the chain, grabbed it by the horns, and straightened her legs at the same time as she pulled its horns back, her fury and pain surging through her muscles. The force snapped its neck it crumpled to the ground.

She jumped off it. Steadied herself on the cadaver, and took a long, steady breath. No pity. These remorseless creatures weren’t trolls, they were mindless drones who worked for an unbalanced, unjust empire, and there was no use feeling pity for them if they didn’t feel pity for her. She picked up the chain and clambered back into the hive, over the broken foundations and bits of rubble, smoke still drifting about. Tegiri stepped out of it.

“I kind of hoped they would finish you off, but I’m glad I get the honour instead.”

“I’m flattered.”

“You should be.” Tegiri stood in a ready stance, iaito out and scabbard forgotten. There was blood dribbling down the side of his head and his glasses were cracked in one frame. She waited.

He held out his sword with both hands on the hilt, and charged with a downward strike. She held out the chain to block it again, but this time she pulled the other end over his wrist and sent as much heat she could muster. Tegiri screamed and his sword clattered to the ground. With that, she pushed his hands up over their heads and hopped up, with a two-footed kick to his chest and a blast of fire.

He stumbled back with a howl, tore his arms free of the chain, and took a swipe with his fist, but he clearly wasn’t as good with hand-to-hand as she was. She blocked his strikes, one two three four, then caught the fifth and stepped inward with a hard strike to his ribcage. He spat blood in pain and she seized his collar, slamming his head into the ground. He grunted and kicked her in the stomach, earning her a hiss, and she relented. He picked up his sword from the floor and stood in a ready stance.

Beckoning him forward with a gesture, she braced herself for the strike, and he slashed up with his sword from his hip to his shoulder. She dived to the side, under the swing, and came up with a wild series of lashes from her make-shift whip that he had trouble dodging. They seared his coat but otherwise seemed to do nothing, he noticed with a scowl. He stuck out a foot and she blocked with her forearm, and he followed it up by stepping onto her arm and trying to kick her head. She smoothly bobbed to the right, throwing him over her hip and sending him crashing to the floor.

He hopped back up with a scowl. “Hm. Looks like I’ll have to try something el-”

She had no time for bullshit like talking in the middle of a fight, so she struck again, and he hopped back, her molten chain scorching his blade and jacket as he parried. Then, as she recoiled her whip, he lunged for her ribs with a poorly-thought-out stab. Neatly side-stepping it, she wrapped the chain around his sword-wrist, smashed her elbow hard into his nose, and spun on the spot, throwing him once again – this time over her shoulder – to the ground.

Tegiri made no noise as he jolted back into the writhing smoke, her chain freeing his wrist as he went. She started after him, and then thought better of it. She had no quarrel with him, really. It wasn’t his fault he’d been mixed up in this. No, the only person whose fault this whole thing had been was the artist.

But if she left him there, he would just come up to her while her back was turned.

She set her jaw and kept walking towards him, crumpled against a pile of rubble, but woozily clinging to consciousness. He saw her, tried to get up, and she snapped out a kick that rocked his kneecap. He hissed and she stepped forward, a flame from her palm sizzling against his leg. He screamed as brown smoke wafted up through the air and she relented.

“If you get up, I’ll kill you. Stay down.” her voice sounded like it was ringing with the fury of the dead, hot against the inside of her throat and her lungs turning fire and grit. She was bleeding and burning but she wasn’t dying. She didn’t have time to die.

Polypa looked around for her through the smoke, and found a small body curled up by the base of a destroyed longueplank, rubble from the ceiling pinning the tiny artist to the ground. With a snarl, Polypa kicked her awake.

Amisia coughed and blinked repeatedly, the sting of the fumes and debris clotting her eyes. Her glasses were nowhere to be seen. “W-what… what just happened? Legislacerator? Legis…” she trailed off, as she recognised who it was that was stood over her.

Polypa didn’t say anything. She just looked down at this puny excuse of a troll that had, for whatever reason, been given free-reign to do what she wanted with Polypa’s body. Amisia spluttered out excuses and apologies, but Polypa didn’t hear any of it. All she saw was the figure of her nightmares, the demon that had plagued her every solitary moment with cheerful sneers and joyous torture, pure evil itself condensed into wire-frame glasses and a blood-stained smock.

Shut up.” Polypa heard herself snarl. It didn’t sound like herself, though. “I don’t want your excuses. I don’t want anything from you. Except for one thing.”

Amisia stammered up at Polypa with wide eyes. “W—w-what? What do you want? Please, anything – just don’t kill me!”

“You’re going to wish you hadn’t said that,” Polypa growled, more to herself than anything else. “All I need is a pound of flesh.” Amisia blinked. “Yours, specifically.”

“What?!” Amisia screeched. “You – you vile inbred! How – how dare you! I am an indigo-blood! I am your superior!

“Explain to me why that matters.” Polypa didn’t ask so much as demand. “Because from where I’m standing, you don’t have an iota of power over me. I, on the other hand…”

The other girl seemed to snap back to reality at that. “Please, please, you let me live once, right? And – and I let you live!”

“That was no mercy from either of us. It was practicality.”

“But it – it was – I…” Amisia’s face was the picture of fear. Polypa wasn’t satisfied, though she knew that deep down, she never would be. “What… what do you want?”

Her eyes were wide. Very, very wide. They looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets at any moment.

“Never mind. I think I’ve figured it out.” Polypa knelt down over Amisia’s face, and gripped her head with both hands. The other girl whimpered.

“Please, I’ll do anything. Anything!”

She tilted her head down at her. Was this really the monster that had cut her flesh over and over, drained her of blood from widened veins, starved and violated her under the guise of artistry? Was this really the demon that had inflicted bloody torture on her for countless days and nights, who had chased her through her hellish mindscape with serrated hacksaws and glinting teeth?

Polypa gritted her teeth. “Anything?”

“YES!” Amisia blubbered.

She locked her one eye with Amisia’s two. “Then feel.”

Tightening her grip of her right hand, Polypa curled her fingers into Amisia’s hair and jammed her thumb into the other girl’s eye.

~

The hive was a smoking ruin by the time they got there. They had heard screams and pleas for mercy, which had clearly put Nihkee off, but she had come with the rest of them anyway.

Tyzias just wanted Polypa to still be alive by the time they got there. The smoke was making it hard to tell.

Skylla dismounted her lusus first, walked out with her gun already in her hand. Tyzias wasn’t sure how much help her nightstick would be, but she kept it at the ready anyway as she got out the four-wheeled device. Zebede looked nervous, but Diemen was still uncharacteristically sullen. She was starting to wonder if the change in behaviour was permanent. If it was, it was just another thing on her head – another product of her fuck-ups.

“This is all my fault,” She mumbled without thinking. Zebede snorted, somehow still able to joke.

“Way to take all the credit for a group effort. I bet if we had gone with Polypa when she left this wouldn’t have happened.” he patted her arm, just above the elbow. “Come on, Polypa’ll be fine, we can all go back to Kaijub to meet up with Elwurd and the rest, it’ll be fine.”

Tyzias really wished she could believe him. She sighed loudly, as Skylla tugged her lusus forward by the reins. The bronze-blood’s eyes were unsteady and unblinking, and Tyzias could guess why. She’d clearly made friends with Polypa, and now…

They’d all lost too many friends, usually at the hands of highbloods. It was getting too much to bear, and now there was a very real, very tangible probability that Tyzias had just lost another friend through her own actions. It stung because said action had been something so small, something so inconsequential at the time that she hadn’t even thought about it.

She’d sent a legislacerator after a scared girl with nowhere to go, simply because it was her job – despite all her preaching of how unfair the blood castes had been. Tyzias hadn’t followed it through at all.

“I owe you all an apology,” she began, but Nihkee sighed loudly as they walked up the path.

“Save it for Polypa. Or don’t say it at all.”

Tyzias blinked. “But- Nihkee! I need to say this.”

“No. You don’t.” Diemen hardly spoke at all, but his young, usually peppy voice was croaking with hurt. He stamped off up the path to Amisia’s hive, Nihkee leading, leaving Tyzias to her maelstrom of thoughts.

“Hey,” she felt a comforting arm on her shoulder, a thumb rubbing circles into her flesh. She turned to look down at Zebede. His smile… she had committed it to memory, but the sweet, kind quirk of his lips and the slight twitch of his two protruding teeth was a sight that she would never get tired of seeing.

“I forgive you,” he began, and motioned for her to keep walking. So she did. “I know that you’re just trying to do the best you can. And I’ll bet Polypa does, too.”

Tyzias wasn’t sure she believed that, no matter how much she wanted to. She looked ahead at Nihkee and Diemen. “What about them?”

“They’ll come around. Whatever happens,” his hand strayed down to take hers. He squeezed it. “I’m on your side. Always.”

She smiled, for what felt like the first time in sweeps. “Thank you, Zebede. Thank you, so much.”

“Don’t mention it!” he grinned widely. “What are moirails for?” he let go of her hand and patted the small of her back. “Come on, let’s go catch up!”

And he hurried off. She stood there for a moment, and then followed him, shoes crunching on the gravel pass. On either side, bloody remains of imperial drones and broken bits of hive had scattered themselves, and she had to step over at least two bodies and circumvent half a dozen piles of rubble. She made level with Zebede as, ahead of them, Nihkee and Diemen stopped by Skylla’s lusus. Skylla herself was nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Skylla?” she asked, as the two of them drew near to the entrance. The double doors were humungous, and both still intact, but ajar. Nihkee jerked her head at them.

“She told us to wait. No idea why, since I’ve been in there before – but I guess judging by the outside it’s our best bet for finding Polypa.”

“The outside?”

“Yeah, looks like she fought her way out. Wouldn’t surprise me if-”

There was a gunshot. Muffled, from inside, but a gunshot nonetheless, They all tensed at the scream. Then there was another gunshot, and they heard a male troll cry in pain. One more gunshot and there was silence.

The silence stretched on. The breath in Tyzias’ lungs started to feel ragged and the muted air seemed to press against her skull. She heard murmurs, words stolen between two conspirators, and she could only guess who was talking or what they were talking about. It was probably Skylla and Polypa, but she heard one or two whispers from beside her and realised then that she was losing focus; but a loud break in the stillness snapped her back to reality.

One of the doors creaked and they all jumped to look at it, and saw Skylla’s stony expression. Tyzias feared the worst, until she caught sight of Polypa just by her, bandages gone and covered in blood. None of it was hers – it was either black, or two very distinct shades of blue, and not a drop of green in sight.

She stood there, sharp jaw and scarred visage, lame left eye and feline right, and said nothing – she just clenched and unclenched her fists, occasionally taking a shakier breath than the last.

“We’re not going to hurt you, see?” Skylla’s tone was soft and patient, her hand coming round to gently rest on Polypa’s arm. “You’re safe. I promise.”

Polypa didn’t answer with words. Her face, however, said quite a lot by itself – her lips quivered, her nostrils flared, her eyes stared ahead until they started to water. She blinked, once or twice, until the tears came. She sniffed quietly, and buried her head on Skylla’s chest, bunching up her shirt with desperate grabs. Skylla responded by hugging her, resting her chin on the shorter girl’s crown.

“Thank you,” they heard Polypa whisper between seizing breaths.

No-one really talked much after that.

~

Skylla had gone into the hive first, telling her lusus to keep watch. Diemen knew her well enough that he would be able to understand Skylla’s message through her guardian. She had tip-toed through the grand hallways, revolver in hand and eyes darting from corner to corner, searching for signs of struggle. The most she saw was cracked walls, and – ah, there. A sizeable hole where a door had probably been, judging by the indentation in the floor.

Then, a scream from a voice box she didn’t recognise. Blubbering, incoherent pleas and excuses. Coming from that room.

She steeled herself and stepped towards the hole. Most of the smoke had cleared, but the rubble looked fresh and dust was still settling. She searched around for bodies, and saw Tegiri lying prone, his sword a few feet away from him. Skylla frowned, and looked away, past the table and loungeplanks and…

Another sharp scream drew her out of her thoughts, and she blinked in its general direction. Somehow, she had mistaken the two trolls for a pile of rubble, but considering how much blood was on one of them, it had been an easy mistake to make. One of them was kneeling over the other, hands on their head, and Skyla recognised the kneeling troll’s horns as Polypa’s. The troll beneath her was screaming, loudly, and Polypa was tugging at her head. Skylla didn’t want to think about what it was for.

She stepped forward, carefully, but froze when she heard someone behind her growl.

She span, gun up, and caught Tegiri mid-lunge with a bullet to the hip. He yelled and fell to one knee, looked up at her furiously, then tried to stand. She fired again, and the second bullet buried itself in his shoulder. He screamed and she fired once more at his chest and he thudded to the floor, wetly.

She breathed, wait for him to rise again, and when he didn’t, she holstered the revolver, and turned back to Polypa.

Who was standing, hands out in a martial stance, with flames licking her fingertips.

“Skylla,” she breathed.

“Polypa.” she strained a smile. “Are you…”

“I’m okay.” Polypa heaved a sigh. She didn’t look it. “I… I didn’t think you’d come back for me.”

She was covered in blood, but none of it was hers. She was shaking, but she was breathing. She looked ready to collapse, but she was standing up. Skylla couldn’t help the admiring gaze she gave the other troll.

“You’re so strong,” she whispered, and Polypa’s head drooped.

“I… Thanks.”

Skylla glanced behind her and saw a small indigo-blood – she could easily tell by the blood spurting from her ruined eye-socket – half-buried in rubble, breathing frantically. “What do you want to do about her?”

“I don’t know.” Polypa glanced back at the other troll – Skylla assumed it was Amisia – and then back to Skylla with a shrug. “She can live, she said she wanted to. I think I’ll be fine now, though. I feel… lighter.”

“Do you?”

Polypa looked her dead in the eyes, and then flinched away. “I don’t know. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Well, it’s ok. I’ll help you figure it out.” Skylla held out her hand apprehensively, and she fought her other hand away from her gun. Polypa didn’t need doubt, now.

At that, the lime-blood looked up at her. “You will?”

Skylla smiled as Polypa took her hand. It was warm and rough. “Yeah.”

With that, Polypa drew closer and pressed a very small, very chaste kiss to Skylla’s lips. Her mouth felt like sweat and scars.

“Thank you.”

Skylla brushed a hand through the hair on Polypa’s head. They could talk about technicalities later, but… “It’s no object.”

It was weird to see Polypa smile the way she did.

When she pulled Polypa out of the hive and to the others, then quietly soothed her fears, Polypa practically broke down. They trudged back to the four-wheeled device and Skylla’s lusus, all in complete silence, until Polypa stopped.

She didn’t say anything right away, but when she did, she said “Thank you. Thanks for coming back for me. I… I don’t know what I did to… to, to deserve this, but I appreciate it.”

They all nodded at her solemnly, and Skylla squeezed her hand a little tighter. Polypa wormed her hand free.

“Another thing, before I forget, or before it festers.” she looked right at Tyzias, who seemed to be fighting the instinct to shrink back. Polypa stepped forward and considered her for a moment. “Tyzias, you’re a good person. But…”

Skylla barely had any time to register how fast it was – Polypa’s shoulder drew back a fraction, and then her fist darted out and then Tyzias was on the ground, head up and arms splayed out, and the beginnings of a large, ugly bruise on the space between her nose and cheekbone.

“There,” said Polypa, the weight of mortality lifted from her heaving shoulders with a hint of mirth. “We’re even.”

Nihkee stifled a laugh into a gruff snort, and Zebede had less luck with his surprised giggle, but Diemen was still staring into space. Polypa walked to Skylla’s lusus to saddle up, and just before joining her, Skylla padded to Tyzias, who was still dazed on the floor, and offered her a hand.

A moment later, after much deliberation, Tyzias took it.

Chapter Text

The ride to Kaijub was quiet.

Polypa rode with Skylla, sitting in front of her on the lusus saddle, drooping with tiredness. Skylla had one arm wrapped around her waist and the other arm on the reins, her lusus taking most of the slack. Skylla had to remember to send her off home at some point, but that brought with it a dilemma.

The nature of her lusus, and her hive-life, meant that she and her lusus would have to head back at some point. She couldn’t very well leave her horned hoofbeasts alone – they might die or escape, or get stolen. And for the foreseeable future, she’d be staying at Kaijub with her revolutionary friends and that meant no trips back to her hive to check on her herd. There was no way she’d go back to her hive herself, because that would mean abandoning them. She couldn’t do that to them.

Not now. Not at a time like this. Nihkee, Diemen, Tyzias, and a few others had lost their homes in the bombing of Outglut, and if she left them now she’d never forgive herself. Chances are, they’d never forgive her either.

Their little convoy was approaching the tunnel entrance to the outskirts of Kaijub, the sun overhead beating their skin and clothes with relentless vigour. The cool dark of the tunnels would be a welcome change, Skylla thought, nearly sighing at the idea of it. They’d all spent enough time out in the sun to be delirious, but luckily it seemed like they had all avoided such an ailment.

“Tunnel’s up ahead,” Skylla mumbled to Polypa, but all she was answered with was a few quiet snores. Skylla shrugged, and tightened her grip on the other girl.

Polypa had… surprised her, to say the least. Skylla knew she liked her back, at least as far as the red quadrant was concerned, but wasn’t it a bit quick? Polypa had been through a horrible ordeal – she needed to heal first. And she clearly knew enough about relationships and romance to know better…

Maybe Polypa just thought that Skylla could help her heal.

Skylla jerked at the thought. Her? She was just a ranch-hand living out in the country, not…

Well, not anymore. Now she was a terrorist on the run from the Alternian Legal System. She hadn’t checked to see if Tegiri was dead, but as a teal-blood he was much more durable than most other trolls, and so more likely to survive, even against the odds of three bullets.

Still, if he came after Polypa again, Skylla had three more bullets waiting for him. The conviction that followed that thought was only strengthened by the gentle shadow of the tunnel passing over her.

~

Upon re-entering her hive for the first time in a few weeks, Elwurd found it spotless. Her lusus was probably curled up in the back, sleeping off yet another spate of cleaning frenzy. She got like that sometimes – manically clearing every room and searching out bugs and small vermin that may have snuck their way in. She got especially restless when Elwurd was away, but the young troll tried not to think about that. She worried, but that was her choice. Sort of.

One thing Elwurd hadn’t been expecting was Dammek’s lusus lounging about outside – he recognised her, but didn’t let her in right away. She’d had to use a very special blend of reverse psychology, reward-based negotiation, and ultra-violent threats to gain entry, and even then the Grimalkin eyed her warily. There were three possible explanations – he missed Dammek dearly and didn’t trust anyone else; he was protecting Xefros, the person who had been closest to Dammek before his disappearance; or he was protecting Elwurd from the alien.

Having excused herself, Elwurd sought out Xefros. He had hidden himself and the alien in the back room of her hive, away from the others – just in case the others were too terrified of the alien’s appearance to truly look at it. Dammek had said something, fleetingly, about a powerful warrior of unshakable conviction and a thirst for justice coming through the portal, and Elwurd could only wonder what, exactly, that entailed.

As she walked, she thought about the alien. It had to be at least nine feet tall, with tusks – no, fangs, probably – like broadswords and claws like imperial tridents. Eyes like an Apex Featherfiend that could spot a villain a mile away while in motion, auditory feelers able to hear the pained cry of a single troll in need from the screams of a whole city, muscles like winding steel cables under diamond-hard skin. It probably had a tactical mind, too, a canny ability to read others and understand their plight, to scan a battlefield and guess and second-guess every enemy move and contingency.

Maybe it came from a realm of noble warriors seeking to rid the universe of evil, simply doing what it thought was right? Maybe it was a mercenary like Polypa, ready to do their bidding for the right price and nothing less? Maybe it was just as villainous as the Heiress, and saw an opportunity to undermine an empire that the rest of its species could then enslave? Elwurd wasn’t concerned with the last one – it’s not like things could get any worse for them on Alternia.

She finally reached the storage room at the back of her hive and swung the door open, putting on as much confidence as she could muster, and she saw Xefros immediately. He squeaked a little, but straightened up when he recognised her.

“Awesome, you’re here – did anyone follow you?” she asked, and he shook his head. She stepped forward to hug him. “Good. The others just went through some tight drama, sounded pretty bad, but I’m glad you both made it out ok.”

“I got, uh,” Xefros coughed, stepping back. “I got pinned under some rubble from my hive, at one point-” Elwurd’s eyes widened, “-but I’m fine! Really! And there’s someone you probably want to meet…”

She nodded. They could worry about his injuries later. “An alien, right?”

Xefros brightened. “Yeah! She’s… She’s something.”

“She?” Elwurd felt a smirk coming on. “Where is she?”

Xefros jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s just getting a disguise ready for the next time we have to go out.” he turned, and shouted, “Joey?”

“Coming!” came a… girly voice. Elwurd frowned. Maybe this alien was able to shapeshift? Perhaps she had taken on the form of a young troll girl? Maybe-

A girl stepped into view. Her skin was a tanned light brown, her hair was dark and curly, her eyes were white with mint-green irises and black pupils, she was on the short side and was wearing what looked like scarves on her ankles. On her head were two hastily-made, red-orange-yellow, extremely fake troll horns.

“Hi,” she said, nervously waving a hand. “I, uh, come in peace.”

Elwurd stared.

“This is Joey,” Xefros sounded proud. “She saved my life! We worked together to escape Thrashthrust. She’s cool.”

Elwurd stared a little more, just to make sure her eyes were working properly.

“So this is your… house? Hive,” the alien Joey shifted her feet. “It’s nice. The rooms looked a little large, and I wouldn’t have guessed a girl lived here, but…”

Yep, her eyes were working. This was who Dammek had switched places with to help win the war against the heiress. This was the supposed ‘warrior’ that would save them?

“So,” Elwurd decided to give her a piece of her mind. “Are you the one that Dammek said would save us?”

“Uh.” Joey blinked. “I don’t know. Sure?”

Elwurd winked and offered her arm. “Good, because you sure have already saved me.”

There was a beat, and Xefros groaned. Loudly.

~

When she woke, she was lying on a loungeplank in a living room.

Polypa’s survival instincts kicked straight into third gear and she shot up, looked around the room, and relaxed as soon as she saw Elwurd and Skylla chatting casually opposite her. Their conversation died as they realised she was up.

She straightened out. “Is everyone ok?”

“Everyone’s fine, we’re in Kaijub, my hive.” Elwurd reached forward to reassure her. “Signless, you had us all worried when you dropped off the grid.”

“No one thought to give me a phone.”

“That’s on us, then.” Elwurd snorted. “You two want some time alone?”

“Uh,” Polypa flicked her eyes over to Skylla, who looked like an antlerbeast in the headlights of a parked four-wheeled device. “In a bit, maybe. You still want my help, right?”

Elwurd nodded. “Yeah. Just organising at the moment, but I could do with the muscle.” she shrugged as a sly grin sprang its way onto her face. “But then, so could Skylla,” she ignored their indignant spluttering as she got up. “I’ll see you both in a bit.”

She got up and left for another part of her hive. Skylla was staring after her and Polypa just reached for Skylla’s hand with a small noise of exertion. “Come on, sit down.”

Skylla hesitated, but looked back down at Polypa nonetheless, then sat down next to her on the loungeplank, on her left. “Okay. Sittin’ down.”

The closing of her lips heralded a long, awkward silence that neither of them really wanted to break. Polypa looked around at the sparse living room – another loungeplank, a coffee table, a wall cutaway to the kitchenblock, a few book-cases along the walls filled with various tomes and novels Elwurd probably only collected for the aesthetic appeal of having lots of books around. Polypa just wanted to look at anything that wasn’t Skylla, because if she looked at Skylla she’d say – or worse, do – something she’d regret.

Unfortunately, Skylla spoke. “So, uh. Us.”

“Us.” Polypa agreed sagely.

“Polypa, what are we to one ‘nother?” Skylla didn’t quite whine, but it could be mistaken as such.

Polypa’s throat was more arid and desolate than the most lifeless desert. “I don’t know. I… I kissed you. Back at the artist’s hive.”

Skylla chewed her lip. “The artist.”

She felt herself flinch. “Amisia. Amisia Erdehn. She-”

Swallow, cut off. The words don’t come.

“She wanted my blood. All of it.”

The sluicing olive-lime rivers of her warm vitality covered her vision. Her rage knew no bounds, her fury gave no quarter. That artist, that selfish artist, had deigned to play with her life on a whim.

“Polypa?”

She had paid. An eye for an eye.

She should have paid with more. Ripped flesh, sliced skin and stinging blood, maybe a finger or two.

“Polypa? Hey, hey Polypa.” Soft hands. Warm, on her cheek and her arm. Strong, slender fingers resting on flushed skin. Skylla wasn’t wearing her gloves.

Skylla. Skylla was sitting next to her, and they were sitting in Elwurd’s hive.

“Polypa,” Skylla had, apparently, read her mind. “You’re okay. You’re fine, you’re safe. You’re not there anymore, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart.

“Skylla, I… I-” the words still wouldn’t come. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what she wanted to say. She’d never had a problem like this before, because she’d never worried about what the other person might think of her words. She’d never had anyone to worry about, end of. But now, there was someone worth considering.

Someone worth… more than she had to give.

“I can say it, if you want.” Skylla murmured, and Polypa felt her breathing hitch. “I… I think I love you, Polypa.”

There it was.

“I don’t know how – like, the way I love ya – but I think I do love you.”

Polypa realised then that her right hand had crept over to clench onto Skylla’s. “Why?”

“Why?” the other girl sounded puzzled, but Polypa had to hear it. “Well… I guess… you’re tough, you’re smart, and you’ve been through a lot. You were ready to lay down your life fer somethin’ greater’n yourself when you surrendered to Chahut. But even then you didn’t just lie down ‘n take it.” Polypa felt another hand trace its way up her right shoulder. “And, you’re a dreamer, like me – got your heart on a better life. Got a romantic side, too, even if you wouldn’t admit it.” she heard the warm smirk in Skylla’s voice. “There’s a lot to love about you, Polypa.”

“I…” Polypa blinked. No one, no one she had ever met in her short life had ever said as much about her in such a soothing tone of voice and genuineness. “I appreciate that. And,” she swallowed air again.

Skylla nodded for her to continue.

“I think I love you too, Skylla. You’re cunning, you’re compassionate, you’re beautiful, you’re thoughtful and optimistic, and you’ve stuck by me, even when you never had to.”

“Of course I had to.” Skylla’s protest was slightly, ever so slightly, cracked with emotion. “You’re with good people now, Polypa, don’t think we won’t stick by our own. Elwurd will, Diemen will, Nihkee will – you bet your fuckin’ ass I will, too.”

Despite everything, Polypa thought of a joke. A silly little gag, really, not a proper joke, but she decided to say it anyway. “I can’t bet on something I don’t own anymore.”

Skylla frowned. Polypa rolled her eye. “Because my ass is yours now.”

Skylla burst into giggles, and it was like Polypa had just heard the proud jingle of porch-chimes rattling in the wind, cool autumn air whistling through their hollow gullets with delight.

“I also love the way you laugh,” Polypa smiled to herself; it was a pretty cheesy thing to say, after all. “The way your face crinkles up a little when you smile, and the way your shoulders shake a little, the way you put your whole body into it – it’s so hypnotic.” Polypa caught herself. “I was wrong. I don’t think I love you.” Skylla’s laughter died and she stared at Polypa, who grinned. “I know I love you.”

“Oh, tarnation, don’t scare me like that,” Skylla gasped, doubling over dramatically and thumping Polypa’s hard shoulder. “Oh, damnation, I keep forgetting all that muscle you’re packing.”

Polypa felt a grin coming on. “We’re definitely going to have to do something about that.” Skylla cackled and swatted her arm. “Alright, alright – too much?”

Skylla coughed. “No, not too much, just… too fast, I think.”

“I see.” Polypa relaxed. “Skylla, may I kiss you?”

The other girl raised an eyebrow. “Don’t need to ask permission.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Of course, hon,” Skylla’s smile was so serene - it was like seeing the moonlight for the first time.

Polypa leaned over and their lips met.

~

The tension was palpable, to say the least.

Zebede fidgeted in his seat next to Tyzias. He was clutching a coffee, she had her hands curled around a can of industrial bleach, and Nihkee and Diemen were sat opposite them, both glaring very hard at Tyzias. It was weird seeing Diemen like this, even if it was perfectly normal behaviour for Nihkee.

They were a few blocks from Elwurd’s hive, and she had just gone up to the counter to get a coffee for herself, leaving them alone with each other. Diemen and Nihkee seemed hell-bent on never forgiving Tyzias for, what was in Zebede’s eyes, a logistical slip-up. It wasn’t like she could stop doing her job right in the middle of planning a revolution, after all – she had to keep up appearances.

That was what Zebede told himself, anyway – it made the truth a bit easier to bear.

“I don’t know what I can do,” Tyzias started, shakily. Very shakily. “I messed up, and I know it, and I want to… to make up for that. But you won’t even let me do that. You won’t even…” she hiccupped and a few tears dripped onto the table between them. Zebede slipped his hand into hers and squeezed it a little, just to reassure her. It didn’t seem to work. “I mean, if you want me to… to leave and-”

“Polypa,” Nihkee snapped. “Nearly died. Nearly had worse than death happen to her, just because you didn’t think. If you had-”

Zebede felt an uncharacteristic pulse of rage. “If she had what? Gone against a purple-blood? Denied an indigo-blood? There was no way she could have… well, I guess she could have known.” he had, at some point, shot to his feet, and so he took this lull in the conversation to flop back into his seat. “Look, Polypa’s alive and safe, we’re all together and we’re all ready to strike back. Isn’t that what’s important?”

“You live here,” Diemen snapped, and Zebede felt his stomach drop. He really, really didn’t want to argue with Diemen, of all trolls. “You didn’t lose anything in the raid.”

That, for some reason, was what Zebede took issue with the most. He felt his golden blood boil and his amber eyes flare into a dangerous orange. “The hell I did! My moirail lost her hive, and even if that’s just it, people died!”

With that, he was on his feet again, shouting, and drawing the attention of the few other customers in the café. “I’m a lowblood too, Diemen! I know I don’t have it as hard as you – but I still have it hard! It sucked so bad, and Tegiri beat me up pretty bad!” Diemen stared up at him, as if he hadn’t thought about it at all that Zebede was, like him, a lowblood oppressed by the higher castes. The screams of the night and the burning of rock and flesh stung his senses, and Zebede felt tears come along. “I… I’m never going to forget it. It sucked. So bad. And it’s not fair pretending that it was all about you!”

“Diemen’s friends died in that bombing!” Nihkee roared, the corners of her eyes glinting, and Zebede managed to fight off a sneer.

“And he’s totally justified in being upset about that!” he snapped back. “You, on the other hand, miss ‘Gutterblood Ally’ – you were the one who passed along Outglut as a Finstagram background for the Heiress’ shelfie! Selfie! Whatever.”

Nihkee’s nostrils flared, her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to say… nothing. She blinked at him, wrinkled her nose a little, and then huffed, sitting down.

She sat down heavily, and her shoulders slumped. She broke eye contact and rubbed her closed eyes with her finger and thumb, nose in the crook if her hand. He felt a tiny stab of guilt.

“Look, all I’m saying is,” Zebede paused for breath and screwed his eyes shut with clenched-up fists. “It’s not all Tyzias’ fault. The heiress was probably going to bomb Outglut anyway, and that’s why we’re here.” he looked up, his eyes raw. “Right? We’re gonna try and make a difference.”

“It’s all we’ve got left.” Diemen sighed. His head collapsed into his hands. Zebede frowned and poked him.

“Hey, we’ve got each other – right?”

Diemen looked up and Tyzias looked right back at him. Zebede could only imagine what they were both thinking – betrayal of trust and rejection of understanding chief among them – and resolved to just look at Diemen pleadingly. Diemen’s throat pulsed and his eyes watered behind his fringe, and his bottom lip wobbled.

“Right,” he whispered.

“And,” Zebede tried for words, but they wouldn’t come right away. There was something else, something… incendiary.

Polypa!

“And, Polypa doesn’t hold anything against Tyzias,” he reasoned, glancing at Tyzias, “At least, not anymore. You’re square, I think.”

“Right,” Tyzias mumbled, and Zebede nearly kicked himself. Why did his moirail have to be so grumpy and self-loathing?

“So maybe some people died! Maybe a few too many things got set on fire, maybe I’ll never look at a painting or a pair of manacles in the same way again! But what’s important is that we’re all alive to learn those lessons, right? We’re all here, we’re all fairly safe and sound, and Polypa doesn’t hate you for sending a bounty hunter after her. I think we’d all know if she hated you, because you’d be dead, or missing a few limbs. Right?”

The other three just looked at him for a very long time.

Then, a troll on the table next to them whistled low and hard, and said, “You guys have got some seriously low standards for a good time.”

~

It was much later, and Joey was still feeling a combination of tired, dizzy, and hungry when the rest of them piled into Elwurd’s living room. She was disappointed that she never really got to see Xefros’ house – hive, whatever – but seeing all these new trolls at Elwurd’s place felt like a nice compromise. She couldn’t remember all of their names, even though Xefros and Elwurd had rattled them off earlier, but they seemed friendly enough.

A couple of them looked like they had been crying – the short boy with the multi-pronged horns and messy hair, and a tired girl with flat-top horns and a rumpled-looking blazer. But whatever it was, it seemed to have been sorted out – and it’s not like she had anything to do with it, anyway.

Elwurd was talking to the others, Xefros sometimes piping up and occasionally getting input from a girl with so many scars over her body Joey found it difficult to believe she was still in one piece at all. One of her eyes look glazed-over and vacant but her expression was serious, furious, even. Every so often the girl sitting next to her, with bull-like horns and long hair on her head atop a rough-looking brown collared shirt, would gently touch her arm or hand, or even go as far as to clasp it. Joey could only conclude that they were maybe very very good friends.

But then, the way Elwurd had acted towards her earlier suggested to Joey that maybe things worked a little differently on Alternia, from what she could tell.

Elwurd had stopped talking, and there was a lull of silence. Then, a large girl with one leg and intimidating muscles said, “We’ve properly fucked this, huh?”

A couple of the others laughed. Flat-top horned-girl shifted a little. The scarred girl with one eye sighed, then stood up. “Yeah. It’s not like anyone could have seen any of it coming, though.”

“Get some rest, all – there should be some spare soporbags in the storeroom – Nihkee, is it cool if some of them rest at your hive for a while?”

Nihkee – that was the muscled girl’s name! – nodded. “Yeah, sure. Zeb, Die, and Tizz can stay ‘round mine.”

“Oh, great, we get the canoodling couple.” Elwurd snorted, a droll glance at the scarred girl and the bull-horned girl. Xefros rolled his eyes.

“You mean you and Joey?”

“Hush, kiddo. Skylla and Polypa, you guys can take my ‘cupercoon, Xef and Joey, you two can have the soporbags. I’ll take the loungeplank. See you tomorrow night?”

“Good shout, I’m still tired.” the scarred girl – Polypa or Skylla, probably – stretched. “Your recuperblock is the third on the left, right?”

“First hallway, yep. Have a good rest, Polypa, just… don’t leave-” Elwurd winced, her hand curling up a bit in apprehension. “Don’t get too weird, yeah?”

The bull-horned girl – Skylla, it seemed – jumped to her feet, swept Polypa up in her arms, shouted, “No promises!” and raced off.

The last Joey saw of them both that morning was Skylla carrying a girl easily twice her weight and running at full-pelt up a flight of stairs, Polypa calling out “See you guys tomorrow!” over her friend’s (girlfriend’s?) shoulder.

Silence fell once again. Nihkee gestured for her three friends to follow her and follow her they did. Off to Nihkee’s house (hive, Joey corrected herself – cultural sensitivity cost nobody anything, after all.) To sleep, or maybe even scheme. It wasn’t her problem, either way.

Elwurd left the room and returned with three other trolls – a boy in a hoodie and lots of dark blue piercings, a girl with tired, drooping eyelids and a sleeveless blouse, and a… kid? She couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl, but they had an eyepatch and a lazy grin on their face, and their shirt was slipping off a little. Joey had to fight the instinct to reach over and straighten it out a little

“These are some friends of mine – this dude is called Mallek, she’s Daraya, and this crazy motherfucker here-” she slapped a hand down on eyepatch-kid’s shoulder, “-is Cirava. No gender.”

Cirava sniggered, the laugh pulling back their top lip to show off the startlingly sharp row of teeth. “Gender? I hardly know her.”

“We’ll be coming in and out of here, but mostly we’ll be running interference against the heiress and her drones,” the tired girl called Daraya said. “See you around, I guess.” She turned to stalk off, a bit too hastily for Joey’s liking, but then thought better of it and turned back to them. The boy Elwurd had mentioned was staring at Joey.

“Where are your horns?”

Joey blinked. “I… don’t have any?”

Mallek balked. “You don’t have any horns? What happened to them?”

“I never had any!” Joey yelped. “Why are your eyes yellow?”

He scrunched up his face. “I don’t know! They just are! Were you born without any horns?”

“Humans don’t have horns!” she practically yelled.

“What’s a human?” Daraya asked, feigning disinterest

“Small, pale, and squeaky,” Cirava tittered. Joey glared, but Daraya wasn’t satisfied.

“Yeah, but what are they?”

“ALIENS,” Elwurd shouted, stepping between them. “They’re aliens – look, Cirava, could you take this dumbass with you and Daraya?”

“I’d rather not.”

Mallek scowled. “Fuck you.”

Joey squeaked. That was a pretty bad word!

Cirava grinned. “See? Squeaky. Also – make me.”

Mallek rolled his eyes. “What, you think just you think just ‘cause Dammek’s switched places with this broad-”

Elwurd smacked the back of his head. “Don’t call her that.”

“Ow.” he rubbed the back of his head. “I was just saying! Dammek’s not here, but he’s still my kismesis.”

“He’s awful.” Joey mumbled, and everyone else stopped bickering.

Apart from Mallek, who just grinned wistfully. “He’s the worst. I’m gonna miss him, I think.”

Elwurd coughed. “I should probably check out. See you guys later?”

Daraya disappeared almost immediately. Mallek blinked after her, his open question of what was up with her left unanswered as Cirava sighed somewhat uncharacteristically.

They whirled round on a heel and hooked Mallek’s arm with one of their own. “C’mon, Ball-Bearings, let’s catch up with Daraya.” Mallek spluttered in protest, but Cirava’s wiry frame was too strong for him, and they left the room.

Joey winced. “Was it something I said?”

“Kinda,” Elwurd conceded. “No doubt Xefros told you all about Dammek.”

“Yeah. He thinks they’re ‘fated’ or something.”

“I don’t believe in that shit any more than he believes in ancestors, so feel free to take it with however much salt you usually have.”

“What?”

“Nothing, I’m babbling,” Elwurd… blushed? But it was blue? Then again, Xefros did say they all had different blood colours.

“Well, yeah. I’ve made my own conclusions about Dammek.”

“He’s under a lot of stress,” allowed Elwurd, “But I don’t blame you. I kept telling him to take care of Xefros but instead he just… you know.” The blue-blood scratched her cheek. “What do you think of the rest of us?”

“You’re… people.” Joey couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I mean, uh-” Elwurd didn’t seem offended. “You’re all so… you’re like humans, you’re like me, but you’re so…”

Elwurd offered her a toothy grin. “Alien?”

The air whooshed out of Joey’s lungs. “Yeah.”

“We’ve all got a common goal – the portal thinks you can help us, so all that’s left is for me to ask is…” Elwurd trailed off, and they both sat down – Joey on the squishy beanbag that was probably filled with slime instead of fake beans, and Elwurd on the couch – loungeplank? Her throat felt dry all of a sudden. Was that normal?

No, of course not, none of this was normal. Teenage girl lives unsupervised with her brother and their dog, teenage girl’s brother is a mad conspiracy theorist, teenage girl’s house gets invaded by monsters and she’s zapped into another universe to another planet ruled entirely by kids? This was definitely not normal. It was probably weird for Elwurd, too – to have an alien with a capital A sat in her living room while her friends violently defied the government. But then, it seemed like they were headed that way all on their own anyway.

Joey then realised Elwurd had asked her something. She blinked and rubbed her eyes.

“Whu, what? Sorry, I zoned out a little there.”

Elwurd blinked right back at her, then scratched her neck. “Yeah, best you hadn’t heard that one, actually. I guess what I really mean to ask, is – will you help us?”

“I’m… not really sure how I can help you, but if you think I can…”

Joey looked up at Elwurd’s hopeful face. She looked a year or so older than her, and the boyish haircut, the biker-style clothes and the horns and teeth really made her look even older – but Xefros had told her enough about Alternia for her to know that Elwurd was a kid like her. All of the other trolls that she had met today… were kids.

On Earth, kids are the future. Kids on Alternia, though, have no future beyond the heiress’ war machine.

Well, maybe their planets had more in common than Joey thought.

“I’ll help. If,” some insurance wouldn’t be unwelcome, “You help me get back home.”

“I can’t promise that.”

“I can’t promise anything either.”

Elwurd seemed to accept that. “Alright. Alright, okay. Shake on it?” She held her hand out and Joey took it – firm and warm, but slightly rough – in a hearty shake.

“I’d better get some sleep,” Joey resolved, and Elwurd seemed to agree, flopping over onto the couch with closed eyes. In the corner of her eye, Joey spied Xefros already snoozing away on the other slimebag.

“If it’s good enough for him,” she mumbled to herself, and she curled up on the makeshift bed as consciousness started to elude her. The blues and greys of Elwurd’s hive blurred and shifted, giving way to the warm throes of sleep as the events of the day caught up with her in a most sudden way.

~

Tyzias hadn’t expected Nihkee and Diemen to finally forgive her, so she was surprised that they seemed to no longer resent her. Instead, on the way to Nihkee’s hive, her two compatraitors walked in silence as Zebede babbled. She didn’t mind – it was better than the alternative – them killing her, probably.

She kind of wished she was dead, actually.

The streets of Kaijub were thick and choked with trolls, milling about and commuting. Just about everyone had finished their night shift and was heading home for a hot meal and a long sleep. As such, it was hard to not bump into people, and Tyzias took her eyes away from the crowd right in front of her to crash into someone. She yelped and fell back, right onto her butt.

“My apologies, I didn’t see you there, Miss…?” came a velvety, masculine voice from above her, as Tyzias grumbled and rubbed her head.

“Entykk. Tyzias Enty…” she trailed off as she looked up at the most gorgeous, sharply-dressed, and refined troll she had ever met, offering her a hand. Silently kicking herself for staring as long as she had, she took the hand as graciously as she could. She stood up straight (or, tried to) and looked at the other troll. He wore jade, so she presumed he was a jade-blood somehow. Male identity between jadebloods wasn’t exactly grounds for culling, but it was uncommon at the least. He was also wearing an expensive-looking blazer, slacks and loafers, with a candy-red handkerchief in his blazer pocket.

Suffering Signless, He was an absolute stunner.

“I’m Lanque Bombyx,” said Lanque. “I haven’t seen you around before, Are you visiting?”

“Something like that,” Tyzias scratched her neck, and scanned the crowd, before realising she had lost her friends. “I was just walking with some friends, but I seem to have lost them – don’t happen to know where Nihkee Moolah lives, do you?”

Lanque’s cool gaze brightened a little. “Nihkee’s back in town? It’s been too long! We’ve all missed her and her performances, but I suppose, since the accident, it would be difficult to carry on.”

“You know her, then?”

Lanque nodded, and gestured for them to start walking. “We’re old friends, have been for sweeps but I haven’t seen her in a while. How has she been?”

“Muscular. Confrontational.”

“Classic Moolah,” Lanque nodded slightly. They didn’t seem to be joking. “We’re all high-strung, but she’s the only one who keeps snapping out if it – it’s dangerous for her. One of these days, she’s going to get in trouble because of it.”

“She kind of did, earlier.” Tyzias shrugged. “We were in Outglut, and-”

Lanque stopped in their tracks to look at Tyzias. “You’ve come from Outglut?”

Tyzias’ throat suddenly felt really dry. “Yeah. Why?”

“You’re first person to get here. At least, the first I’ve met.” Lanque suddenly looked nervous, but only very slightly. Either that, or they were very good at hiding it. “The heiress has been culling all survivors.”

That didn’t sound good.

“Killing survivors?” Tyzias started off again and Lanque caught on, leading.

“No idea why. But I guess she doesn’t need a reason. Come on, this way.”

Survivors being culled – a cover-up? Was the heiress embarrassed? Maybe, but if anyone suggested that, she’d probably have them culled, too.

Still, it was enough reason to get to the others and warn them.

“I might have to get to Nihkee’s hive quicker than I thought,” Tyzias grimaced, and Lanque nodded as he lead the way.

~

Zebede had lost sight of Tyzias, and then Nihkee and Diemen, in about zero seconds flat. The bustling throng of the crowd had died down to a steady trickle of trolls, so he stepped onto the pavement to get his bearings.

And ran right into his old auspistcees. Literally. He walked right into Konyll’s broad front and stumbled back, then caught sight of Azdaja.

“Little bee’s been caught in a tizzy, I hear,” Konyll’s voice wasn’t as deep as a first impression would have you think. “Wouldn’t be the first, if the rumours are right.”

“Careful with the grapevine, Konyll,” Azdaja’s hands were stuck in his pockets and his stance was slack. “You never know how long it is.”

“Why does it matter?”

“Easier for the highbloods to strangle you with it,” he explained, and her confusion lifted. She wasn’t stupid, but Konyll was… slower than the average troll, to be charitable. “What you doing ‘round Kaijub, Zee?”

“I was staying with Tyzias-”

“See?” Konyll sounded vindicated. “A tizzy!”

“Nice,” Azdaja smirked. It was almost a good look for him.

“-and Outglut got bombed.”

There was a beat of silence. Then, Konyll asked, “What, all of it?”

“Whole sixteen acres,” Zebede sighed, and not for the first time, the real weight of what had happened caught up with him and crushed his blood-pumper and dragged his soul into a place that threatened to keep it there forever. “So many people died, guys.”

The two other trolls were quiet. Then Azdaja said, “We really ought to get you out of here.”

Zebede tried not to yelp. “But I just got here!”

“Heiress has been culling all survivors, either it’s a cover-up or she’s just a creep.” Azdaja’s tone had shifted, very slightly, to a more serious burr. “That means you, and whoever you came here with.”

Zebede’s throat tightened like a desert crevice. His gut was hollow. His bones felt like brittle sticks of reeds and he felt his eyes rust right in his head. “Eleven of us came here from Outglut.”

Konyll’s eyes widened and Azdaja’s mouth popped open like a cheap nutcracker statue. “Were you seen?”

Zebede blinked. “I don’t know. Probably? By a lot of people? Does it matter who?” at some point they had started walking. His feet already felt heavy.

“We might already be too late,” Azdaja hissed. “Quick, I know a shortcut.”

~

They’d lost Tyzias and Zebede, but Diemen was too tired to stop and look for them. Also, Nihkee’s hive was right in front of them, so it wouldn’t take them long to catch up. He was just looking forward to flopping down onto or into something and snoozing.

As a rustblood, Diemen had gone nights without a repuperacoon before, and the nightmares he had as a result of them were still nothing to the life he lived alongside the other rusts. So he wasn’t that worried about getting a decent night’s sleep.

“Mind the mess,” Nihkee grumbled. “I’ve not been home to clean it in a while, so-”

She opened the front door and they came face-to-face with a rustblood in cleaning gear, who Diemen had never met before.

“Highblood Moolah?” she asked, and Nihkee nodded warily. “Pardon the intrusion, if you may, but I was instructed to clean your hive and greet you upon your return.”

“Uh,” Nihkee frowned. “I don’t remember ordering cleaning services.”

The cleaner looked worried. “I was contracted by Marvus Xoloto. He said to pass along a message about a vacancy in his circus, as well.”

“Marvus,” Nihkee sighed. She looked at Diemen. “It’s not the first time he’s done this. I’m going ot have to think about it – do either of you want a coffee, or something?”

The janitor squeaked. “I-I could never-”

“Milk and three sugars, thanks Nik.” Diemen was too tired to deal with cultural taboos, so he stepped inside and past the cleaner.

“He… he just…”

“He’s cool, he’s a friend of mine. What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“… Marsti. Marsti Houtek.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Marsti. Here,” Diemen heard the jangling of caegars. “A little spending money for the trouble.”

“Oh, um, thank you highblood, but I could never!”

“Please, I insist – it’s the least I can do.”

The conversation died a little as Diemen turned into a big living room and flopped onto a loungeplank. A few minutes later, he was joined by Marsti and Nihkee.

“Just been talking with Houtek here,” Nihkee cleared her throat as she handed Diemen his coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Marsti cradling her own cup. “We’re the first to make it from Outglut.”

He winced. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“We can regroup in the morning.” Nihkee promised, and nearly said something else, but then glanced at Marsti. “I should say no more – I don’t want you getting caught up in this if you don’t want to.”

“Of course, highblood.” Marsti straightened and nodded her head. “I trust in your judgement.”

Diemen hid his reaction – he wasn’t quite sure what he felt, because the disgust wasn’t for Marsti and the pity was fleeting. It was a shame she thought of herself in such a way, but Nihkee was right in that if they told her about a way out, she’d just become a target. Or, even worse, she would disagree with them and rat them out.

Nihkee was about to say something else when there was a knock on the door. “Ah, that’ll be Zebede. Or Tyzias.”

“Shall I get it, highblood?” Marsti asked. She was… eager?

“Um, sure, thank you.” Nihkee coughed. “Is it alright if you just call me Nihkee from now on?”

But Marsti had already raced off to answer the door. Nihkee sighed, long and heavy. Diemen shrugged. “I’m glad I’m not like that.”

Nikhee laughed. “If the way you talked to Tyzias was any indication…”

He felt his smile waver. “I kind of regret that. She fucked up, but she wasn’t really thinking. I guess it makes sense that she feels bad about it.”

“She can make things up to you and Polypa,” Nihkee nodded. “And she wants to. Maybe we should give her a chance.”

“Highblood Moolah? Two trolls here to see you! They...” Diemen nearly tuned out as he took another swig of his coffee. “They’re tyrian-bloods.”

He dropped his cup and it smashed on the polished wood floor.

“The Soleil twins,” Nihkee hissed. She looked right at Diemen. “Take the door behind me, it’ll take you through an atrium that leads to the kitchen – there’s a backdoor there. Take that, loop back round the front of the hive, and run. Warn the others, I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.”

Diemen froze. “What will you do?”

“I don’t know. Something stupid, probably. Go!” she stood up and then said, “Let them in!”

There was no response, apart from a twofold chuckle echoing from the hallway.

Diemen got up and ran for the door.

~

Her muscles felt heavy, her eyelids heavier. Chahut felt kind of bad for Amisia and Tegiri, but it wasn’t like she hadn’t warned them.

“A bronze-blood! Shot me!” Tegiri was ranting, patched up by a medical drone. She had considered having him culled, but decided that the fact he was even still alive meant something. Maybe the universe had plans for him. “I swear, on the empress’ blood, I’ll find them both and kill them for this transgression.”

“Oh, make sure you get their blood while you’re at it,” Amisia practically sang. She had lost an eye and been beaten within an inch of death, but she was as chipper and devoted to the arts as ever. “Such boldness and ferocity must exude the most exquisite shades!”

Chahut sighed. Her sighs tended to sound like rumbling thunder to others, so the other two froze. “I’m going home,” she said, standing up from the wrecked loungeplank she’d been sitting on. “I’ll see you two later.”

“Okay,” Tegiri gulped.

“Okay!” Amisia intoned.

She left. The crumbled remains of Amisia’s hive were still smoking or otherwise molten, despite the best efforts of the worker drones. Whatever Polypa had done, it was enough to convince Chahut that maybe they ought to let this one go.

Or if not, maybe they should bring more soldiers next time.

Her feet took her on a path she didn’t consider, winding down past the mountains in the morning sun. She was much tougher than most trolls, and so the beams of the killing star little more than tickled her. Still, her muscles ached, and so she spotted a cave ahead that she resolved to take a rest in. As she entered, though, she immediately felt a couple of trolls – gold-blood, by her reckoning – slumbering inside.

Until one of them woke up.

“Who’s there?” asked a hairy, dirty gold-blooded girl with no eyes, curled up next to a boy leaned against a huge backpack.

“Just a weary traveller,” Chahut answered. “I’m sleeping here too.”

There was silence from the other girl. “How can I trust you aren’t here to cull us?”

“I have no reason to.”

”Highbloods don’t need a reason.”

“I’m not like other highbloods.”

“Right.” the girl snorted. “Sleep now.”

Chahut felt a flare of irritation. “Excuse me?”

“I said, sleep now. You wanna sleep, right?”

“I’ll do whatever the motherfuck I want, piss-blood.”

“By Troll Allah, not in this hive you won’t.” she snapped, and Chahut growled, stepping forward. Her eyelids drooped.

“I’m just going to rest here, I don’t care if this is your… hive…” she frowned looking around and seeing decorations. Did this bitch really just live in a cave? “I’m just… tired…”

“Yeah, I bet,” the gold-blood snickered, and Chahut frowned.

“What? What… what do you mean…” she staggered, and felt her head loll. She collapsed to her knees and then, slowly, adjusted herself against the wall. “Are you… what are you…?”

“I’m just a gross piss-blood,” the other girl shrugged. “But you can call me Folykl.”

Chahut opened her mouth to argue, but the void took her, and she drifted off to sleep.

And then woke up. To a city of gold and a sky of impossible, inky blackness.

She stared. What the fuck?

She didn’t feel tired. If anything, she felt refreshed, like she had been born anew. Her eyelids didn’t feel like they had lead weights on them anymore, and her mind felt clear and light. Wherever she was, it didn’t seem to be Alternia.

“Motherfucker…” she heard her voice whisper, and she got to her feet. She seemed to be in a street somewhere, unpopulated save for…

Trolls?

Two trolls at the end of the road, walking not towards her but in her direction, with their arms linked. She frowned, and started walking towards them.

Was this a dream? Was she dreaming? Or had she just woken up in a different place after getting knocked out? What the motherfuck was going on?

The two other trolls had spotted her now, and had taken a nervous glance around. It was understandable – she was both a tyrian-blood, and really tall. To say nothing of her muscles and sharp teeth. Still, they seemed to be walking again, if a bit cautiously. One of them had long flowing hair that reached the base of her back, with two large horns similar to what herded hoofbeasts would usually have. The other…

Was Polypa.

“Polypa?” she couldn’t hide her incredulity and didn’t bother trying. “What are you two doing here?”

The other trolls stopped. Polypa winced. “Funny. I was about to ask you the same thing.”