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The Neden Game

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He’s cutting the raw steel ( low carbon, sheer modulus 75 GPa ) for the final horseshoe to Lady Foalicity’s chassis when the light dips across his workbench. Darkleer pauses and adjusts his goggles’ brightness. He does not look up. In a churchive, one learns not to turn around too quickly. If the darkness wants you, it will find you anyway.

“Um.”  

Oversized shoes squeak-flop toward him until their owner comes into view at the corner of his vise. The junior boogeyman is a loose-limbed, nervous looking indigo with simple, standard paint around her eyes. She’s a recent addition to the workshop tents, too young to have earned her face.

Darkleer sets aside his snips and bows his head.

“Yes, highblood?” he says, adjusting the sweat valve at the side of his visor.

The clown shifts from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable.

“Your palmhusk was blowin’ the fuck up inna breakblock,” she says.

She holds up the brick-like phone to illustrate. It is one of Darkleer’s many areas of opportunity that he still needs flak-damage resistant steel cases.

“I apologize if it has distressed you. It was not my intention to leave it. It is my free period and I was indulging in a...personal project. I must have forgotten it.”

“Nah, it’s all good,” the clown says. “But uh, maybe you should…”

She tilts the whole device so he can better see the screen. Darkleer looks down, and the letter are magenta .

)(IC: yo so ive heard you and my buoy here are tight
)(IC: you wanna come down to the ringmasters tent
)(IC: we got this interestin diplomatic situation
)(IC: you wanna come get in the mix
)(IC: he says you gotta good head on your shoulders
)(IC: who knows
)(IC: maybe youll keep it

“Thank you,” Darkleer says thickly.

All the moisture has vanished from his mouth and sprung up everywhere else across his body.

He loses track of the next several minutes, switching hard into autopilot. Clocking down his forge, wiping off his tools. At some point the boogeyman disappears, but he’d be hard pressed to say when. Should he bring anything?  There’s a riddlebox half-finished on the etching station. He’d intended to detail the razor panels more before demonstrating it. Its delicate compressor isn’t installed yet either. If a troll were to open the lid now, no paralytics would spray into their face. He can’t show it yet. It’s simply not ready.

Darkleer pockets a discrete rag (or three) instead and saddles up for whatever might be waiting outside the workshop door.

He finds himself immediately turned around. Although it’s been a couple perigees since he first came on board, he rarely leaves the workshop area. The church commissions him for all their prized rituals and his standards are impeccable. It had always been his dream to craft for the glory of the Empire, to shape new drones and design devices and emblazon them all with the inspiring beauty of hoofbeasts. Those higher in hue had recognized his gifts and seen fit to assign them here, to the Great Circus, a shiphive so massive some have argued it counts as its own battalion. His first week he had slept in a different ‘coon each night, unaccustomed to the practice of large, unruly ‘blocks’ segmented by only canvas and carnival rides and sound .

The midway is unusually subdued for this time of night, however. The whack-a-troll machine glows eerily but no gutterbloods are protruding from the holes. A few laughsassins are slouched by the sopor slushie machine but none of them are partaking. The whole carnival feels like it’s holding its breath. Ganderbulbs follow the blue of his sigil everywhere .   

Darkleer resists the urge to grit (and break off) this set of teeth. It does not behoove him to think ill of his superiors. And yet…

The new Empress has disrupted everything , from the rhythm of the circus to the social order itself. She rode in from the horizon and drove her trident through the pusher of her predecessor, and from that moment the universe was irrevocably changed. The old Empress (may she rest in pieces) hadn’t even stopped twitching before Her Imperial Condescension was on her palmhusk dispensing change. She had pledged to ‘put the proper dudes in charge’ and sweep out the ‘suckahfish’. (Shiphives had run rainbow with their blood.) She had lobbed glitter bombs at recalcitrant royalty.  

She’d declared an armistice to the legendary hostilities between the land dwelling and sea dwelling castes, and neither surf nor turf knew what to do with it.

If he is most honest with himself, he doesn’t know what to do with her, either. It is the curse all those of blue blood bear. She is higher than him, the highest of the high, and yet the old hate is baked in, deeper than bone. The fin folk once predated upon the trolls that walk the land, and the ones that block their way - the indigos, the grand shorewalkers - instinctively appeal him. It is biological, he is certain. It is like a hoofbeast called to herd. He serves his Empress because her rarity compels him, but he does not feel solidarity with her kind. He sees a sea dweller’s sharp and pointy smile, and he knows his neck belongs between those teeth.

Maybe that is the cause for the quiet as he approaches the big top. Her Violet Vanguard is here, stationed pointedly in a circle all around the thoroughfare. A miniature river of new sweat pours down his back as he shows his palmhusk message - the only summons he has - to a group of at least twelve heavily armed fish. They are so forceful with their prongs and touches. Darkleer is forced to vent sweat from his suit twice before they even finish searching him for weapons.

“You may approach,” someone finally tells him.

A laser rifle butts him from behind. What a silly provocation! He is twice the size of these trolls. He could rip their fussy fins from their heads.

The creaking sound is his only warning that he’s forgotten himself, and he forcibly unclenches his teeth.

Darkleer approaches slowly in deference to both the sacred space and the majestic trolls within. He peels back a small corner of the entry flap. Its design is that of a great painted mouth, smiling on the outside flap, and rainbow with blood on the inside.

‘The Ringmaster’s Welcome’, in the indigos’ religion. Darkleer touched up this mural himself.

The inside of the church is darker than usual, and damp. The sound takes on an eerie quality, both echoed and muffled by the surrounding canvas. A honk in here would last forever, and yet he sees no subjugglators in the three rings at all.

Darkleer rubs at the back of one glove.  

“Executor Darkleer,” he announces. “Reporting per your request, your Harness. Hayness.”

Highness , the term is Highness . Oh, Flicka protect him. He’s tried to rein in his tendency to pun, but when he’s spooked they stampede.

“Highness?”

His words smother and die in the gloom.

Darkleer taps his goggles to adjust them for the low lumens. They beep and zero in on a smudge of light emanating from the far corner beneath a partition he has never set hoof in. The Ringmaster’s Chamber, the most private sanctuary for His Mirthfulness.

Is this -- is this where he reports to?  Does he dare?  He has delivered instruments of whimsy up to the threshold, but never once has he been privy to the miracles.

The closer he comes, the greater the uneasy silence grows. Darkleer readjusts his gloves again. It’s like something’s crawling over his skin, not just the typical rivulets of sweat. Burrowing under it. Chucklevoodoos , he realizes, and strong . His protective suit of moobeast hide is doing nothing to shield him. Tiny fingers are clawing for his bones.

ive heard you got a good head on your shoulders

He can push past it. He knows how. He must . The darkness flexes like the world is bulging in the grip of an unseen hand and he tips his horns to it, acknowledging the distortion. And walks to the partition anyway.

It’s not about pretending there’s nothing to fear. It’s accepting there is everything to fear, but the decision has been made for you.

“Executor Darkleer,” he announces again. He lifts the flap.

And freezes.

The inside of the chamber is a ruin of blacklight and broken furniture and clumps of hair on the tent floor, like a great herd has trampled everything into dust. Long streaks of color line the walls in evenly spaced intervals, like vertebrae. They glow unnaturally under the UV, too-blue and too-violet and in select cases too-green. They match the skulls placed in every corner, each painted with their corresponding color in permanent smile patterns. They have earned their faces, Darkleer realizes with mounting hysteria. In death .

Ha. Ha.

Something hisses to his right and he whips in that direction. If his superiors require the ax to fall upon his own head this time, he will of course accept it, but he -- he is a troll who would like to see it coming.

No blade comes. Instead, a section of darkness shifts away from the wall and suddenly the glow is horns, broad neon lengths that extend forever from the wildest mane of hair any clown would die to neglect. The Grand Highblood, terrible and vast, shadowy save for the paint radiating on his skin. His face is a skull, so white it’s nearly blinding beneath this eerie light.

He’s still holding the head of his latest cull in one massive prong. It’s slathered entirely in violet.

The air around Darkleer seems to shiver and pool into his lungs. This close, he can hear the chucklevoodoos as they liquefy his muscles.

WHAT IS A JUGGALO?

The words appear in his pan like streaks of paint traced by a mad troll. They are, yet they are not. He knows this response though. He has been required to attend sermon.

“I do not know, your Mirthfulness,” he says. “But yea, for I am down with the clown, for all my nights and days. Yo.”

The Grand Highblood lets the head fall to the ground. It lands with a sickening thud.

AYY MOTHER FUCKIN MEN, MY INVERTEBROTHER. FINALLY. REPRESENT!

A second shape peels away from the wall, followed by a train pure darkness. Hair , nearly as large as troll it’s attached to. The arc of her horns is unmistakeable, even without the glitter of royal gold. Her teeth are glowing knives fixed into an ugly snarl and she holds the sharpest 2x3dent Darkleer has ever seen diagonally across her body in a defensive posture.

Aside from a set of vibrant magenta panties, she doesn’t appear to be wearing anything at all.

Darkleer averts his eyes to the floor so quickly he nearly tips over.

“Oh sh--enanigans!  Fiddle-faddle!  Fiddlesticks!  Your Eminence!  I apologize!”

She is his better and he gazed upon her in an unarmored state. Unacceptable. Unforgivable. There is blood still dripping from his Wicked Mirthfulness’ claws and the Empress is without clothes and this whole thing is so--

He can’t help it. He starts laughing. He’s so nervous he’s laughing , and now he’s more nervous because he’s laughing, and it’s all feeding back into a never-ending loop.

He can’t breathe. He’s still laughing.

Miraculously, the Grand Highblood joins right along with him. His chuckle is silent but deadly. Each quiet peal shakes his gigantic shoulders.

WHAT’S THE WICKED WORD, PONY BOY?  

And then, more menacingly:

TELL ME, WHAT’S THE JOKE.

You are, dumb bass,” the Empress says.

Before Darkleer can move, before he can even blink, she is galloping forward like a thoroughbred. Her great culling fork burns , a solid streak of lightning.

She brings it down across the Grand Highblood’s chest from behind, using it like a broad pole to yank him off his feet. The walls around close in, then snap back suddenly to their natural place, as the chucklevoodoos let go all at once.

The great clown flails mightily, then falls to his knees, too off-balance to resist her attack. The Empress lets one prong go from her weapon and claps him about a horn.  

Shoosh already, beach,” she says, impossibly. “Coddamn.”

Darkleer has no words left. He watches in stunned reverence as she slides her prong down into his Majesty’s mane, fisting his horn right at its base. The Grand Highblood hisses but there is no miracle laced in his fury. It’s merely a release of steam. His flanks quiver like a gorgeous stallion after a hard run and she pets him as though whisking away invisible foam.

It is the most salacious, licentious, beautiful act Darkleer has ever seen in real life. He should throw himself onto the culling fork now and beg forgiveness for intruding and yet he cannot look away .

His breath keeps hitching, but even his nervous laughter finally abades. All there is are the sounds of claws scritching softly through hair, and a subvocal rumble that gives the impression of a purr.

His Mirthfulness is docile now, leaning into his moirail’s (!?) hand. As monstrous as her silhouette appears from afar, up close she is scarcely taller than he is on his knees.

“Thanks for the assist,” the Empress says, tipping her horns to Darkleer. “One ‘a my dudes got him in a mood .”

She tugs the Highblood’s head back by his mane and presses an upside-down kiss to his forehead. He curls his upper lip, displaying a gleaming fang.

FISHSIS INVITED A JOYLESS HERETIC TO PLAY THE HALLOWED GAME. DAMN STRAIGHT I’M UP AND MOTHER FUCKIN RILED.

She slaps him square on the cheek in a resounding pap. Right over the pheromone glands, brazenly rubbing them where anyone could see. Darkleer tugs at the seam of his visor, trying desperately to defog in the inside of his mask. His own jaw glands are aching from the tease.

“Clam your tits already,” the Empress tells the Grand Highblood. “‘Kay?  You whaled on him hardcore and it’s all good.”

The Highblood brings one giant prong to his lips and licks at the violet still tinged on his fingers. Darkleer himself is twice the size of most other highbloods and yet even he pales in comparison to His Whimsy. Each claw is as thick as one of Darkleer’s fingers.

I MOTHER FUCKIN ENDED HIM, IS WHAT. CAN I GET A WHOOP WHOOP.

The Empress paps him again, hard enough to make his cheek ripple.

“Shell no. I ain’t getting mixed up in your religious shit.”

The clown snarls but rubs his face into her hand.

“I can -- I can go,” Darkleer chokes out. Tarnation. The stammering is as embarrassing as the runaway puns, yet his STRENGTH fails him in both cases tonight. In the face of his superiors’ overwhelming MIGHT, all his long training and hard-worn discipline is cantering away.

He’s internally shouting STRENGTH again, too. Inexcusable.

Both the highbloods raise their heads. The Empress waves a dismissive prong.

“Nah, stay for a whale. I’ve heard a lot aboat you.”

That is - it’s a switch with dangling wires that nevertheless completes a circuit. An unfathomable mystery that he cannot begin to troubleshoot.

“Why?” Darkleer blurts. His voice sounds plaintive and weak even to his own ears.

The Grand Highblood chuckles again, loud enough to be sensed this time. Darkleer can feel the chucklevoodoos sinking through his stomach, drawing it into an endless pit.

MOTHER FUCKER, ARE YOU FOR REAL RIGHT NOW?  YOU’RE THE MOST RIGHTEOUS EXECUTOR WE’VE HAD IN AGES.  YOU DROP THAT WICKED WORK AND ALL THE NINJAS RESPECT.

He grunts and twists away from the Empress’s grasp, reaching for something in the garbage on the floor. It’s a shapeless black blob at first, invisible beneath the blacklight. Then the clown flips it a different way, and a shock of violet spatter glows vivid around a circular opening, highlighting a familiar shape.

“8 ¾ brim, spring-loaded, number 302 steel,” Darkleer says compulsively. He recognizes the device now, a sleek top hat with the Sacred Illusionist’s emblem pressed into the felt. He’d crafted it for the Festival of Milenko, not even three perigees back.

When used, its concealed blades swing out to tear through a victim’s pan.

TELL HER WHAT YOU CALLED IT.

“The Magician’s Assistant,” Darkleer answers. “It makes the volunteer’s head disappear.”

The Empress herself laughs at that. Her multitude of bracelets jangle with the motion, the only coverage she has aside from the slip of lace down...lower. Darkleer tries to concentrate on the gold only.

“Okay, that was actually pretty glubbin good.”

IS IT NOT?  THIS PONY BITCH IS A MOTHER FUCKIN RYDA.

Darkleer squeaks and squeezes one of the rags in his pocket. Did his Eminence -- did he just make a hoofbeast pun ?  For him?

“I am most honored by your words, Highblood,” he gasps. “Neigh, I am not worthy.”

The Empress snorts.

“Beach, please. We ain’t here for that suckahfish nonsense. You don’t need to be such a drag.”

INDEED. YOU SHOULD SEE THE DEVICE HE DESIGNED FOR PSYCHO-PHANTS.

The Grand Highblood lopes over to another section of the debris and digs out a gleaming silver cube. Darkleer identifies this one instantly. It’s one of his earliest riddleboxes, a Jacque-in-the-box with a special surprise. The Highblood turns the crank counterclockwise to avoid the poison dart mechanism and the lid pops up to show a bulbous red globe instead. It blazes a disgusting off-spectrum red in the UV.

“What the eff is that?” the Empress asks.

The Grand Highblood hands it to Darkleer. He dips his head so the sweat will clear from his goggles. Oh, Black Beauty preserve him. He crafted this thing, and still it embarrasses him just to show such an intimate item to an unquadranted party.

The red globe - a soft, nonporous silicone ball - is attached to a wicked steel peg, flared at the end where it attaches to the globe and extending out in a sinuous cone. Its girth is enormous, the width of a hoofbeast’s majestic -- well, it’s big.

“I-It’s the Brown-Nose Clown Nose,” he stammers. He turns his head, too ashamed to be showing such a lubricious thing to Her Majesty. “It is meant for -- punishing those who whicker duplicitous platitudes.”

IT GOES UP THE MOTHER FUCKIN WASTE CHUTE.

“Aw, ship!”

The Empress crows and slaps the Grand Highblood’s huge shoulder.

“Okay, where the fuck did you find this dude, cause he’s coddamn hilarious.”

THE PROPHETS WORK IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS.

She shakes her head.

“Me, I prefer profits . Whateva.”

The Empress sidles forward, shadowy hips swaying side to side. Her blessed 2x3dent gleams with barely bridled power. She plucks the instrument from his trembling fingers and he offers it without protest. She is so muscular and elegant and powerful.  

(And neighkid -- er, naked, why is she naked --)

She trails the steel tip down the center of his chest, and it seems all the moisture in his body is sloshing in his boots.

“You wanna chance to try this out, buoy?”

YES. DO YOU WANT TO PLAY THE NEDEN GAME?  OUR LAST CONTESTANT WAS A MOTHER FUCKIN DISGRACE.

“The sacrament?” Darkleer squeaks. He has never witnessed nor participated, but he has seen it writ in their hymnal.

The battle hymnal. Shoot, sugar, and sugarcubes!  He is an executor , not a priest. Not a proper cultist, even. He makes culling devices for their needs, and in turn they grant him space to work on his own projects as time allows.

His quadrupedal automatons are his true passion, their exquisite chassises the highest expression of his skill. He isn’t meant for church ritual.

The Grand Highblood snorts.

NAH, REFORM STYLE. THESE WADERS OVER HERE GOT NO MOTHER FUCKIN FLOW.

“Hey, fuck you!  I gotta strong rap.”

YEAH? IS YOUR MOUTH YOUR ‘TUNNEL? / ONLY SHIT COMES FROM YOUR LIPS.

He’s scarcely finished his first stanza when the Empress retaliates. In the space of a second, she goes from docile to explosive. She wheels round to seize the Grand Highblood by his hair, dragging him down -- into an open-mouthed kiss??

“Get a fuckin’ taste beach, before you go down south / gonna stomp your bass so hard my foot come out your mouth.”

The clown grins at Darkleer.

SEE?  WHAT’D I MOTHER FUCKIN TELL YOU. RICHIE BITCHY FISH WITCH,  ONLY FUCKIN FLOUNDERS / GONNA REEL HER IN QUICK, STRING HER UP AND POUND HER.

The Empress snarls and they clash again physically, attacking each other’s lips hard enough to be brutal. The Highblood grabs the small of her back and she leans into his grip, using a fistful of his hair like reins.

Darkleer yanks at his suit-vents, too stunned and overstimulated to look away. None of this makes sense, from their sudden solicitations to the explosiveness of their kissing. Not that he is very...experienced but Darkleer is certain that making out is not a pale activity. Kisses to the forehead or pheromone glands, perhaps. Biting at each other’s muzzles, pulling at manes as though to command -- that is unbridled concupiscent behavior.

He’d seen her pap the Highblood. He’d heard her shush the clown into submission. Yet the way they are eyeing each other now, the hate is practically tangible. The two highbloods draw apart and they are grinning like they mean to devour and...they are circling him , now. Not as though he is interrupting. Like they expect a stanza from him too, or -- more active participation?

Good gracious, are they seeking an auspistice ?  One as lowly as him?  It seems a foalish flight of fancy, yet it’s the only explanation. Diagonal fluctuations are dangerous liaisons. Pale-to-pitch especially - it’s nearly unherd of. Unheard of. Fiddlesticks, he can’t think . He can’t control himself, he can’t --

The Empress trails two claws over his visor and His Whimsy himself squeezes a broad hand against his back. Darkleer’s knees go weak.  

“Forgive me if this is too forward, but...may I enquire, are you vacillating, your Majesties?”

Both of them rear back at exactly the same time, snorting in surprise.

“Oh shell no,” the Empress says. She waves a prong. “We ain’t like that.”

The Grand Highbood tosses his horns.

AS IF I WOULD LET HER HAVE HER WICKED WAY SO EASY.

Darkleer blinks.

“But--”

“I feel where you’re comin’ from, but seariously. We’re whateva. Don’t worry aboat it.”

“Okay…” Darkleer says, uncertain. “Respectfully, your Majesties, I am uncertain then what my role is in these matters. If you are not searching for an auspistice to ride herd on you, then what--”

WHY DON’T WE JUST PLAY THE MOTHER FUCKIN GAME?  

He slides his hand around to cup Darkleer’s cheek beneath the visor. His prong is so massive, it dwarfs Darkleer’s entire face.

YOU GOT A MOST MIRACULOUS FACE, PONY BOY. BE A SHAME FOR SOMEBODY NOT TO TAKE A RIDE.

Darkleer trembles from horn to hoof. All the words are starting to jumble together. They are the highest , his betters in all things. It is not his place to question their prerogatives. That they should want to pap each other - or kiss - in front of an audience is their royal right.

( Depraved, degenerate, absolutely pan-searingly hot…)

The steam inside his suit threatens to boil.

“What would you bid me do?” he asks, throat dry.

“Well first, you can sit your bass down!”

The Empress disappears into the shadows and clatters about, searching for something among the splintered furniture. In the blacklight, her panties bob like a deepsea lure, etching a lurid magenta into his ganderbulbs.

“Perch on this,” she calls, grinning from fin to fin. She holds up something metallic and gleaming, a cylindrical device, that -

Darkleer chokes on his own spit. The Grand Highblood rumbles and slaps him on the back.

It’s a bucket. A brand-new, perfectly polished, ceremonial bucket. It doesn’t seem that it’s ever been used, even in ritual.

The Empress struts toward him and swings the thing in front of his face, seemingly amused at the way his eyes follow it.

She flips it upside down and places it on the floor.

“Sit,” she says, gesturing at the makeshift seat. “Congratulations. You’re our main event.”

From the set of her teeth, it’s impossible to tell if she meant ‘mane’.

Darkleer wobbles over to the bucket on shaky struts. It clanks when he drops his weight on it, but holds fast despite his bulk.

He doesn’t feel large right now. It’s like he is a wiggler caught with a frond in the milk bottle. At any moment, his butler will appear and proffer a stern life lesson.

Darkleer rubs his thighs together.

“If this is a sport,” he asks, bowing his head. “May I enquire how to play?”

The highbloods canter around him and halt one to each side. Left and right, indigo and tyrian. Graceful predators, waiting to strike.

OLD SCHOOLFEED, IT'S CALL AND RESPONSE. WE WOULD HAVE THROWN DOWN THE MAD LYRICS IN BATTLE. REFORM STYLE, IT'S MORE ‘PRONGS-ON’.

“I see…”

The Empress sways from foot to foot, highlighting the wicked jut of her hip.

“He means, we’re gonna throw down on you . First one to get you wet wins.”

Something in his pan shorts out.

“With abject humility and respect, of course that, your Harness, I am already exceedingly saturated. Unless you mean, in a baser way, in which case, I canter - I can't begin to say. ”

He looks down, and he's gripping one of his rags for dear life. He can't recall when he got it from his pocket.

The Grand Highblood laughs, just the barest shaking of his shoulders.

THEN LET US MOTHER FUCKIN BUY YOU A CLUE-VOWEL.

“Yeah,” the Empress says. “C’mon buoy. For a smart beach, you're kinda dumb.”

A tiny, most inappropriate thread of irritation rears its ugly head and Darkleer does his best to stamp it down. He is serving as best he can, with proper decorum as behooves those of their stature. He is not the one cussing and touching ( papping one moment and biting the next, who does that, no one vacillates pale to black , no one …)

A shadow falls over him and Darkleer looks up, awestruck, as the highest indigo in existence goes down on his knees in front of him.

SADDLE UP, PONY BOY. WE'RE GONNA TAKE YOU FOR A MOTHER FUCKIN RIDE.

Huge prongs slide up his thighs and tug the buttons to his trousers. He doesn't undo them, he simply pulls until they pop free. There is a deep pull, and then radiating relief.

Thick fingers grab at his thighs and urge him to lift his hips and it's so shameful but he can't control the way he bucks.

I KNOW YOU GOT IT IN YOU. I SEEN THE MIRACULOUS RIDDLES YOU MAKE. YOU GOT A SENSE FOR THAT DIVINE COMEDY.

Yeah buoy, let's be reel.”

The clown nose swims across his vision, completely eclipsing one of his goggles.

“You're a freak,” the Empress croons into his ear. “You sound prim but that mind is proper nasty.

She's behind him, molding to his back. Chill fingers tug at the nape of his neck and he gasps as his headgear quakes.

They both pull on him in tandem, one yanking off his helmet, the other peeling down his trousers. The Empress -- fuck, the Empress herself  -- steps in to help lift as the Grand Highblood gets them down his hips.

“Spread ‘em,” she commands, and Darkleer’s legs tremble. The Highblood pushes at his knees and they spring apart like they're spring-loaded.

STEP OFF. THIS MOVE IS MOTHER FUCKIN MINE.

The Grand Highblood growls and seizes his hips, biting a kiss into the inside of one thigh.

Lightning races up to his core and Darkleer jerks, overwhelmed and exposed and so, so shivery. His rump is on a literal bucket and his nook is on display for anyone to see and he has never felt this deviant . His trousers aren't even all the way off. They're tangled about his ankles, caught between his boots.

“My apologies if I am not...to your taste,” he stammers. The Grand Highblood is licking the sweat from the crease of his thigh and it leaves him wanting to squirm. The only reason he doesn't is the hand trailing into his hair. Now freed, his mane is unruly and itchy and Her Royal Imperiousness is trailing her claws just-so against his scalp. It sets tingles cascading down the back of his neck, draining all the tension from his shoulders. ...

Darkleer sways into her touch, gasping weakly. He’s not very experienced in the pale arts, but from the cant of her prong she’s heading straight for his-

Slim fingers wrap around one horn, massaging the sensitive pheromone glands at the base, and he explodes into a dazed groan as the world prances out from under him.

MOTHER FUCKIN SABOTAGE!

Somewhere, his Whimsy sounds very upset, but the crawling chucklevoodoos can’t seem to find purchase on his skin.

“Hold this for me, buoy,” the Empress chirrs, and smooth metal presses between his lips.

Darkleer opens his mouth for the bit willingly. Swallows. It’s the punishment device and she’s feeding it to him by inches, until his lips are stretched and his mouth is full to the brim. He bites down against the tapered steel to hold it as she’s commanded and she rewards him with an actual pap on the cheek.

Is this - are they pale now?  Is that what’s happening?  Darkleer whinnies around his mouthful and tries not to drool all over her regal fingers. The remainder of the device jutts obscenely from his mouth.

“Much betta,” the Empress says, and oh tarnation and heck fire and confound it there are hands on both his horns.

It’s possible he is melting from the inside out. If she is the fire, he would go to her forge willingly.

Something bites into his lower belly, hard enough to sting through even the haze of pale satisfaction and the beasthide of his tunic ( that he is still wearing !). Darkleer spasms and twists away. The motion is just great enough to shake the Empress’s iron lock on his horn beds and the world clears.

YOU EVER HAD A CLOWN JOB?

Darkleer rolls his head in a muzzy combination of answers, yes and no and oh, oh please. A tongue as thick as the tip of some trolls’ bulges presses flat against his nook and he flexes into it helplessly. Coarse hair tickles against his thighs and it’s so fu--dging good--

“That’s fuckin’ cheating!

The Empress moves so quick he nearly topples. Darkleer chokes and rights himself just in time to see her yank His Whimsy away. By the horn . Cool air rushes in against his sensitive nook and Darkleer curls forward, bereft from two sides at once. So much sensation at once, and then to have it ripped away...it’s like a physical ache. It’s unbearable.

(How dare they…)

The Empress has her weapon outstretched in front of him, squaring off with the great clown.

“You don’t get to lick him wet, beach!” she snarls. “How we gonna know who won?”

YOU WERE ON HIS MOTHER FUCKIN HORNS!

“Yeah, that ain’t messing with his nook!  Congrats, you fucked the whole thing up. Again.”

The Grand Highblood roars, high and unholy. Every wall in the tent twists and melts like a cathedral’s funhouse mirror. Even the Empress appears to sway under the blast of the chucklevoodoos, and yet, Darkleer --

All he can think is, how petty they are.

He’s abominable for thinking it. He’s atrocious. He’s every adjective he ever swallowed from the thesaurus feeds that praised him for his exceptional manners, and yet, he doesn’t care.

They touched him, pacified him, made him feel honored by the intensity of their attention. Now they’re ready to fight over something as foalish as this.

Something inside him boils.

Darkleer seizes the device protruding from his mouth hard enough to rip the nose from the shaft. The miscalculation only makes him angrier. He hurls the ugly foam away and then spits out the metal. It hits the floor with an ignoble thud.

“Both of you are fucking it up !” he snarls in a single, brilliant moment of frustration.

Everything. stops.

The walls snap back into place with an eerie tinge that has nothing to do with the blacklight.  He is aware of his pusher, somehow still hammering in his chest. Everything he keeps inside -- his baser nature, his own deep well of rage -- it’s exposed right now. His discipline has faltered, all the cogs and gears are bared. Both of the highbloods are staring, and he cannot blame them.

What should a rider say, when the hoofbeast speaks?

Here he is, but a lowly, talking hoofbeast.

Just a talking, pantsless hoofbeast.

He can’t help it.

He starts laughing again.

“What the shell?” the Empress asks, and she is his rider but she is also just a troll, and he sees her now. She is pantsless too.

It’s too funny suddenly, all of it.

The walls snap back with an eerie sense of finality and he’s aware this could be it. She’s turning round, culling fork in hand, and this could be how he ends, yet the strangest calm has come over him.

He gets off the bucket and comes to them, hindered only slightly by the fabric twisted round his feet. His waddling seems to get to her. By the time they’re toe-to-toe, her snarl is slanting dangerously toward a grin.

“I quite understand if you wish to cull to me, but please consider my canterpoint: shoosh ,” Darkleer says.

He paps her firmly on each cheek and then turns to His Mirthfulness, administering the same swift medicine. With each pap, the great clown’s true smile widens beneath the paint.

I THINK YOU MOTHER FUCKIN WON THAT ROUND, MY INVERTEBROTHER.

“Yeah, oh my cod,” the Empress says. “Buoy, we got played. ‘Please consider: shoosh’?”

She’s openly chuckling now, back to her more easy stance. She slaps Darkleer on the back.

“Sea?  Way betta when you’re not so uptight.”

She sidles up behind him again, tickling her claws all along his neck.

“The two of us dumb basses, we could use a dude like you,” she says. “Gets hard sometimes, no one calls you on your shit.”

PREACH.

“We try a lot of candidates out,” the Empress continues. “Most of ‘em splash out. They roll over and do whatever and it’s fuckin’ weak.”

THE WEAKEST OF THE WEAK.

“We gotta roll with the trolls who bite back. Otherwise how is it any fun?”

“...it was a test,” Darkleer realizes. “It was all a test.”

“Yeah, no shit,” the Empress agrees. “Like I said. Still a little slow on the uptake there.”

The Empress stretches forward, putting her trident down with as much bending as possible. In the blacklight, her tiny panties blaze.

“So whaddaya think? You up for round two?  How aboat you buoys get me wet?”

Darkleer swallows hard. He misses the bucket, suddenly. He wants to sit down.

“Why me?” he asks again. He’s starting to realize that maybe there is no answer. Maybe nothing has ever had an answer.

The Grand Highblood claps a hand on his shoulder.

YOU WERE ALWAYS KNOWN FOR YOUR STRENGTH. BUT PROPHETS BE PRAISED YOU KNOW THE GREATEST JOKE OF ALL.

“What’s that?” he whispers.

EVERYTHING.