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The Marble Thorn

Chapter Text

“I’ll do it.”

The biting whispers and nervous words perished. All eyes in the dimly lit warehouse fell to the woman who had stood at the side. Silent over the course of the briefing, up until now. Gael did not seem a particularly imposing figure, being only a little above five feet. Brown dull eyes, dark brown hair and a face marred by the fading scabs of that first terrible night did not give her any weight in intimidation. She assumed it was the way she spoke. Plainly and firmly when the situation was neither plain nor firm. Or perhaps it was the type 94 and the holstered Markov at her side. The words ‘little to be done’ repeating over and over in her head as she walked towards the center of the room, towards the two men who had explained to the ragged escort force the plan.

Ali was the first to speak, a tall bearded man with sallow eyes that hid an unusual softness few had retained. Dressed in heavy flannel, boots and jeans he had ended up being the intelligence leader of the group, speaking in such a way that could make most listen to him. His voice wavered now. “No you won’t I-”

“You’ll what?” The flatness in Gael’s voice remained as she looked up in the older man’s eyes. Not much filled her mind as she pressed. “Take my place? You’ve got two kids in Michigan you want to see again.” Ali’s mouth opened to speak, but after a few seconds he closed it, his gaze dropping to look at the floor.

“Someone needs to detonate those charges and hold that flank's attention but it’s- it’s a one trip Gael.” Broderick’s voice was hoarse. Younger than Ali, Broderick was the official leader of the escort force. His hair was shaved to the skin and brown, dressed in muddied military fatigues he looked exhausted. The Second Lieutenant inherited the command by virtue of outlasting every other commanding officer.

Gael looked over at the wide stares of the others, most civilians with a few soldiers mixed in, ragged and filthy. None raised any voice. Concerned perhaps that one of them would need to take her place if they intervened? Gael stomached the thought as she turned back to face Broderick and Ali. No walking this back. “I’m aware of that. But guess what? The rest of you folks have stakes south of the border. I don’t. I’ve got the basic knowledge to make sure that ugly fucking bridge comes down tomorrow morning. What’s more I’m the only one willing.” The room was silent. “Well? Am I wrong?”

A twinge of annoyance peaked in Gael’s stomach as she noted both Ali and Broderick struggle to speak, shifts in the others made in what might have been discomfort. Gael scowled. “Fuck, Ali’s got two kids who probably made it out, Broderick you’ve got the lead so there’s no way you’re taking this. Sarah can’t shoot to save her life, Moe can’t hit anything outside of a ten foot range, and Harry is needed to make sure the tech gets over. The rest of you?” She turned back to the audience that at her turn moved to look anywhere but at her, a familiar unshaven face turning to stare at the ground. “Ralph man you don’t want to die I can see it.”

The big wide man coughed and hissed but was still unable to look at her. “None of us want to die.”

The pernicious imp inside her snickered, only furthering Gael’s scowl. “Well fucking tough, we need a feint and we don’t have three hundred to spare with a couple helots. We don’t have three to spare. Even if this distraction shit goes through then you fuckers still need to get through Detroit. If the Americans fuck up you’ll need everyone for that convoy.”

Broderick finally found his voice. “Xavier won’t fuck up. I know him too well. He’s one of those hard-asses who gets exponentially more competent the more SNAFU it gets.”

Gael scoffed. “If you’re right and that debriefing wasn’t bullshit then half of Detroit is coming down when their resistance pulls out. Whoever does this isn’t getting rescued and will have to make sure that those xeno freaks are at least occupied on the west side of the river.”

“I won’t tell her no. If she wishes to take the position.” Most turned to look at the second in command to both Ali and Broderick. Sergeant Singh had been absent for the briefing, checking over the watchmen and preparing himself for tomorrow. Even in the dull light he looked impeccable, his grey camouflage turban was immaculately pressed, his fatigues cleaned and his battle rifle already trail carried in his hand. He looked at the escort leaders who both choked.

“I just-” Ali’s words came choked, and ended as soon as they had begun. “Callise.” He hissed turning away from Gael and Broderick. The other man passed a look over to the Sikh second in command and sighed.

“If you’re willing, then I guess I don’t have a right to stop you. You know what you need to do.” He said and rose, walking over to the spectators, announcing the other positions that needed to be filled for the assault and passage through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Gael watched him for a moment, before she turned back over to Ali. He leaned his head against the wall. Cursing to himself in Quebecois French or Arab. It was difficult to tell his voice was so quiet. Gael walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s fine Ali, I’m prepped for this.” The older man’s curses stopped but he did not turn to look at her.

“Is-” The soft voice behind her made Gael turn. Sarah had nearly a foot on Gael, but the quiet woman almost flinched when Gael looked up at her. Sarah’s hair was dirty blonde, eyes blue teal and one of the few not matted with scabs from the day of landing. “Is there anything we can do for you?”

“Besides all the extra munitions you can give me? I’d take that stupid RPG-7 we have in the back. You people are going to blow yourselves up if you try to get that thing over into Yank territory.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Sara murmured, wincing a bit at the response.

“I know.” Gael said, crossing her arms to keep the shaking in her fingers unnoticed. “Look, there’s not much to say. I want all of you folks to get over. All the CAF and two thirds of the civies that joined on didn’t die just so we could get that god damn box to the border and just drop it in the river. As long as you pass that on and join up with the Yanks to push these horned xenos assholes off, I’m good.”

A unpleasant sharpness came to Gael’s throat as Sarah’s eyes began to tear up. She fidgeted for a moment, wiping her eyes and coughing lightly. “Thank you.” Sarah finally managed.

“Don’t worry much about it.” Gael said quietly as she noted Singh walking over.

“Come on, let’s see what I can get for you.” He beckoned, Gael managed to take one step over before a shaking hand grasped her shoulder.

“Gael.” Gael turned to see Ali, eyes bloodshot. “Thank you for this, I-” He choked. Gael stared at him, near complete breakdown. The sharpness in her throat only tightened. “There isn’t anything I can do but-”

Gael managed to find her voice as she pushed the older man away. “Just get that black box down to the Yankies. That’s enough for me Salman.” He opened his mouth but ultimately only nodded. Gael gave him and Sarah one last look and exited the impromptu meeting room beside Singh, who blessedly did not say anything as the pair wandered into the main area of the warehouse where the escort force had established their camp and parking zone. Only a handful of soldiers were there, like Singh they had already been briefed.

They wandered over past the battle scarred Cougar AVGPs and heavy military trucks to where Gael has set herself up. The only things she possessed were leaned against the wall, a rolled out sleeping back, a refurbished RPK of dull steel and stained garnet oak, an Ithaca shotgun and the trail battered dirt-bike awaited her. Gael whistled as she retrieved her guns.

“I still can’t believe you’re using those antiques.” Singh said as Gael slung the RPK over her shoulder, trail carrying the Shotgun in her free hand.

“Hey, if they work they work.”

The Sikh man chuckled as they walked over to the old Navistar 6-wheeler that carried the bulk of the miscellaneous munitions. “Evidently. You’re lucky we raided that depot with civilian contraband or you’d be out on your ass.” Gael watched as Singh leaned his own rifle against the side of the truck and climbed into the back of the 4 ½ tonne transport vehicle. A moment of rustling about and Gael leaned her own MG and shotgun beside Singh's and hopped up. Inside Singh was reading over a number of stapled papers, inventory likely. “Let’s see, Makarov. Nine by Eighteen Makarov rounds. One case totaling one hundred rounds but only five eight round magazines. Too late to mod them I suppose.” He pointed over to one of the crates, Gael walked over and opened it to find an excessive amount of soviet munitions.

She grimaced. “Pretty much. By the time I’m down to the Makarov I don’t think I’ll have much time for loading. Still, I’ll take those mags.” Gael pulled out the munitions for her sidearm as Singh returned to the manifest.

"Ruchnoy Pulemyot Kalashnikova, seven point sixty two by thirty nine milometer rounds. Fourteen cases with three hundred rounds each but we only have five extra seventy five shot drums.”

That earned a whistle out of her. “Ooh, must have missed those when I came in earlier.” She said as she picked up one of the extra platoon bags and stashed the loaded Markov magazines.

“Should have checked the manifest.” Singh muttered as Gael closed the crate containing the Markov munitions and with a little effort managed to free the smaller but significantly heavier crate of older MG munitions from the pile of Boxes. Gael could almost feel one of Singh’s eyebrows raise as she loaded the machine gun drums and stacked them into the bag. “You going to be able to carry all this?”

Gael nodded. “Yea, don’t need to for long. Once I dig my heels in up on Ambassador Bridge I won’t need to move much.”

“I figured. You realize there’s a chance the bridge is going to come down on top of you?”

“Of course. But if it doesn’t that fucking checkpoint layout is going to be perfect for keeping those xenos ground forces busy for as long as possible while you push the tunnel.”

“Hm. I’ll guess that’s why you asked for the old soviet rockets?”

She snorted and shoved the last loaded of the RPK drums into the sack. “Can’t exactly deal with their stupid insect hover cars without them now can I?”

Singh flipped through the manifest papers for a moment. “We’ve only got five of them. TBG seven-v Tanin heads, meant for anti-personnel purposes but they should punch through their armour.” He pointed to a particularly well-fastened crate on the other side of the covered truck bed. Gael carefully pulled the box out of its bindings and opened it. It was Singh’s turn to whistle as they looked at the polished grenade launcher and the foam sealed RPG’s. “Can’t even imagine where these were confiscated.”

“Hm.” Gael murmured and lifted the launcher out of the box. Singh had explained their function, having used a more advanced model a week ago to clear an intersection. It was hefty but definitely something she could carry. “Not perfect but with the fucking clown looking pricks it might be my only options. You’re pulling out the heavy weapons for the tunnel?” Gael asked as she put the launcher back in the crate.

“Heavy yes, but not explosive. I don’t want the river coming down on us.” Singh said as he returned to the manifest. “That just leaves the Ithaca thirty seven right? Hm.” He looked over at the boxes, wandering for a moment before he came across the appropriately marked one. Taping his foot gently against the side. “All we have is that back-box of twelve gauges. Everything else is riot police gear. No magazines either, you’re stuck with that twenty shell drum.”

“Piss. I mean I can compensate, this thing is easy to load. Would have been nice to have another drum though.” Gael muttered as she pulled the RPG box out and pushed it to the back, moving back over to the crate housing the shotgun shells. Before she could lean down and pry open the crate she was stopped by the Sergeant’s hand on her shoulder. “Singh?” Gael asked as the Sikh man looked out the back of the transport.

“You know what happens if those monsters get their hands on you right?” Singh whispered, earning a noise of annoyance from Gael.

“Yea, fucking rip me apart and dance in my blood.”

The hand on her shoulder tightened. “No, I mean what they do with special POW’s. Before the regular communications went out they-” Singh’s voice cracked, something in the weeks they’d been fighting beside each other Gael had never seen. “I saw-” Singh tried again but was unable to speak. “Look. Just- just know that being taken alive isn’t an option. We have a few extra plastics, I could hook something up with a short timer to make sure you have an out.”

It took a moment to process what Singh was suggesting, the absurdity of it making Gael roll her eyes. “What, you think the Makarov is for show?” Singh’s grip tightened to the point where it almost hurt. “Severity doesn’t really suit you Singh.”

Singh relinquished Gael’s shoulder, look softening but no less serious. “You aren’t coming back. I want to make sure you leave on your terms, not theirs. I don’t want to see you be made an example of.”

She looked up at the man for a moment and sighed. “I’ll take the extra pineapples then. Standard M-Sixty-Sevens right?”

“Almost out but you need them more than us. Four second timer.” Singh set aside the manifest, hands coming to his face.

“Hey, smile a bit will you? You’re the last member of forth division out of Canada. Bringing something that just might turn the tide if the fucking Russians decide to finally get off their asses and pull out their old arsenal.” She lightly punched him in the shoulder, earning a small smile and a chuckle out of him.

“Pft, half of those silly ICBM’s will blow in the ground when they finally dust off the button.” He laughed openly. “We’re likely doomed you know?”

“We’re all doomed to die. The pricks with FTL ships that actually use it to invade other planets are just expediting that process.” Gael said as she pried open the shotgun crate, grinning at the boxes upon boxes of shells inside. “This war is the last big one I think. If we lose we get obliterated. That's that. But if we somehow ass-pull a drive-off? It’ll make the fall of Nazi Germany, the Qing Empire collapse and the conquest of Constantinople look like a putz to the beach. But to get that you need to get that stupid black box to the yanks. If you don’t I’ll haunt you I swear it.”

“Such encouraging words.” Singh laughed. “If I survive to that point I’ll make them put up a statue for you.”

“As long as they don’t rebuild Ambassador next to it then I’ll take a statue. That shit is like putting a Vimmy Ridge monument next to a landfill.”

~~{†}~~

The remainder of the night had passed quickly, Singh and Gael working in tandem to outfit her for her mission. None had interrupted them, and when finished Gael had retired to her lonesome sleeping bag without a word. She did not sleep much, though no dreams troubled her for once. Perhaps the universe allowed her something small before oblivion. Gael woke well before dawn was on the horizon, quickly dressing herself and prepping her bike, her weapons and bags coming to her easily. She elected to pass on her sleeping bag to one of the private’s whose name she couldn’t remember. After eating a pair of protein bars she drove outside of the warehouse, waiting for the others as the escort force drudged themselves out. Dark, stars still vibrant in the absence of human light.

Gael watched as the ragged task force made their way out of the warehouse, the armoured assault vehicles first, with bikes and trucks following, out of the quick exit chaos Ali made his way over to her. He looked as if he had not slept one bit over the night. In his hands was a small black box that could only be one thing.

“Ready to move.” Gael said as Ali handed her the small box, which she quickly stashed in her explosives bag.

“Once you make it up to the American side tower, hit that button. Whole thing will come down behind you. If you- when you do take that national guard checkpoint every alien in the west city is going to be moving on you. You’ll need to hold out as long as you can.” He gulped. “Once the bridge goes out we hit the tunnel in two, clear it out. Once we meet up with the Americans and get over they’ll detonate their own cargo. If they’re successful three quarters of Detroit is going to come down on the occupiers.” He looked at Gael a moment, eyes shaking a little. “If you can hold out for that long you may be able to escape.”

The thought made her laugh grimly. “We both know that’s not going to happen Ali. City core’s a ways out. Combat groups that respond to me are gonna stick on me like flies on a corpse.” Ali moved to say something, but Gael cut him off. “But that’s the plan. I don’t think I can get out with a few hundred aliens on me, but they'll be kept busy.”

“Yes.” Ali said. He leaned over and pressed his forehead against her own, breath coming uneasily to him. “Thank you for this. Again.”

Gael’s hand came to his shoulder. “Don’t, I’ll do my part you do yours.”

They separated Gael turned, bike revving to take off only to be stopped by a shout.

“Miss Gale!” Singh hollered, jogging over to her, a burnished sheathed dagger in his hands. He grinned and pushed it into her hands. “Here, my Kirpan. I think you need more than that rusty old katana at your side.”

“I'll have you know it’s a rusty type ninety four.” Though Gael snorted, she knew well the severity of this gift. “Thanks Singh. For everything.”

The Sikh soldier’s smile widened with barred teeth as he extended his hand. “Give to them nothing, take from them everything.”

She griped his hand in a Predator shake unable to contain her own toothed grin. “Auf Wiedersehen, see you in Walhalla.”

Gael broke off from Ali and Singh, revving her bike once before taking off into the burnt out ruins of what had once been the city of Windsor. Alone, as the day drew near.

~~{†}~~

Gael dismounted her bike, hiding it in the bushes under the cover of early dawn. The noted time of weakness for the xenos. She moved quick, making use of a hooked chain and a sharp pulley system to scale the Ambassador Bridge from the underside, avoiding the xenos chokepoint at the Canadian side’s entrance.

The Americans had informed them that there were three such chokepoints on the Ambassador Bridge. One on each end of the bridge and one at the chokepoint the American National Guard had set up when the invasion had begun. A small reinforced concrete building, set up underneath the American sided tower with a few concrete car guards.

The Yanks had passed on the explosive detonator frequency and planted the explosives for the Canadian resistance, the aliens overwhelmed for the time being in their war of extermination had allowed the paired resistance groups to plan extensively, planting charges across Detroit for the final act of the battle for the ‘Arsenal of Democracy.’ They’d planned a pyrrhic victory for the invaders.

Gael climbed up to the roadside without incident. Making her way silently up the empty roadway, on her back the black duffel bag containing the RPG launcher and its cargo, the rest of her was burdened by two bandoliers that carried her MG drums and pistol magazines, the shells allocated to a small sack tied to her belt. She wore no helmet but instead a Keffiyeh covering everything but her eyes. Her Makarov was holstered at her side, RPK slung over her shoulder leaned against the duffel. Behind, hung upon the back of her belt old type ninety four was stashed in its sheath, Kirpan with it. With a sweat stained brown t-shirt, camouflaged grey-black cargo pants and dull leather boots there was nothing else on her. She carried her Ithaca in her hands, having unslung it on the when she’d made it up on her feet.

Somehow she made it, the quickness of her pace and a few abandoned cars her only cover. The aliens not noticing her approach. They had once been unsettling to Gael, though familiarity in violence had killed that. Bipedal, like humans and almost close enough to pass at a distance. Similarity perished with close proximity. Most of the aliens stood a little above seven feet with horns like fire that came in all shapes and sizes. Their large nocturnal slit-eyes were marked with yellow sclera that blared in the dark. Their ears more akin to bats in structure, some near human in size while others near a foot in span. Punctures of many coloured chitin poked out from their thick grey skin. Their hair was black and wiry, ken to steel wool over the human equivalent. Their lips black as charcoal. Many had long carnivorous fangs that were too large for their mouths to contain, most of their fingers ended in sharp talons.

Not that they need such natural tools, the aliens carried a plethora of weapons, many melee weapons reminiscent of sickles and swords among them. Their ranged weapons are fewer, most kin to flame throwers made in the likeness of lances and halberds, instead of petty flame they seemed capable of hurling white-hot plasma. The garrison of the small chokepoint on the bridge did not notice Gael’s approach, indeed, they seemed more focused on one another. Hurling chittering scratching words that chewed at Gael’s ears. Their internal conflict allowed her to take point behind the back of the small concrete building, the checkpoint composed only of that single concrete building, little more than the size of a truck, and a few concrete barriers surrounding it.

Without noise Gael set the explosives bag down, pulling the detonator from her magazine belt. She pulled off the safeties and pulled the trigger, muttering a silent prayer that the Americans did their job correctly.

They had.

Gael had been told the destruction of the bridge was cut into four compact explosive charges. Two under the Canadian side tower, and two under the center near the suspension cables to sever them cleanly. Designed to cut down everything behind the American side tower.

The Americans had succeeded with flying colours, the explosions tore Ambassador Bridge apart. The roar of the charges dimmed by the shriek of metal, from where Gael hid she saw no flame, but the effects were immediate. The Canadian tower simply tumbling backwards back onto Canadian soil, the between space of roadway collapsing into the Detroit river as the cables once holding it in place failed. The tower above that held the American side up roared and swayed, but did not fail. The air was high with the noise of shrieking xenos and the bridge falling into the river behind. The human did not dwell on the display. Needed to take advantage of it.

Gael pulled out a grenade, Singh had told her it was a four second delay. Pulled the pin. One. Two. She lobbed it over the small concrete building, three. Four came, the explosion was loud though the death of the bridge remained louder, Gael’s ears rang as the noise of the xenos was abruptly slain. She stood, well aware her best option was to stay inside the chokepoints small building for cover. The bridge’s collapses ending scarce more than a dozen feet behind the chokepoint. Severed tethers shrieking as they came to rest on the dashed road and the sides, swaying behind like severed veins of an iron titan. Fucking yanks knew how to play with fire at least.

Gael darted into motion, bringing her shotgun up as she poked her head out to check for xenos. The garrison outside was either dead or dying, caught off-guard by the grenade. The pavement was stained with several shades of dark red, brown and muddy green blood analogue. Two shots into those still moving came automatically, a yellowy-olive head popping first, a rust red body reaching for a plasma thrower crumpling violently and falling still. A smaller xeno with teal tinted eyes and sharp horns jumped out of the small concrete building, sword raised but unprepared for the leveled Ithaca. It went down with one shot that blew apart its neck.

Breathing hard came as the xeno hit the roadway. Gael heard no immediate feet, but already there was hollering and roars belonging to horned bodies. She moved, fast as she could grabbing the explosives bag and moving herself into the small chokepoint’s fortified building. It was largely empty, a small aluminum desk laid out in the corner the only furniture. The only holes in the concrete box was the ‘door’ shaped hole that let out onto the roadway, and a ‘window’ that showed the road ahead, the light of early day illuminating the Detroit skyline and the roadway that led into the city.

Below where the bridge ran down into various roadways there were a dozen startled xenos that stared up at where there had once been an outpost for them, the bridge behind collapsing out of nowhere. Setting up the RPK’s drum and stand came automatically now. Gael set the levelled gun aside, quickly opening the duffel and loading one of the RPG’s into the launcher. Singh’s instructions running through her skull. Explosive head and launcher together weighed about twenty five pounds, it felt lighter than it had earlier. Turning even lighter when she pulled the trigger.

Gael felt like she’d blinked and missed something when the explosion erupted from the small blockade, blowback hitting her hard even though she was prepared for it. The thermobaric head engulfing the entire chitin blockaded zone in white hot fire. “Don’t have time to admire the view.” Gael mumbled as she laid down the empty launcher and picked up the RPK. Two had survived the thermobaric explosion, their heads popped like melted chocolate thrown upon a wall. Panic was bringing her accuracy to point today, it seemed. Gael’s heart raced as she noted no direct movement below. She hadn’t expected to make it this far, hell she hadn’t expected to do anything but detonate the bridge. Not much to be done but carry through.

They came like a storm cloud had simply opened overhead, a flood of bodies moving faster than a human could ever hope to move, the first one to fall went down after taking three shots to the chest and two to the head, dark purple splattering those behind. Arrows cracked into the concrete and bolts of scorching heat struck, Gael snarling and digging herself down, exposing as little as she could as she focused on the chargers, who spattered indigo and dark blue. The last one took nine mind numbing shots, almost making it to the cement guards before he tumbled face first to the concrete.

Gael growled, pulling out the first of the machine gun’s drums, down to five.

She put the machine gun down again, loading another RPG, recalling where the worst of the shooters were, a ways down the road, taking cover behind one of the peeling off roadway’s cement guards. Xenos were nothing if not reliant when it came to group combat, moving with great efficiency and speed in groups. Maybe explained why they used melee weapons so much. Without that first grenade dealing with the garrison Gael would have likely shot once and not again.

Gael pulled up, quickly taking aim and firing, xenos shrieks filled the air as the group of four shooters down the road were silenced. No motion, the rest ducking off the roadways. Of course that was not the issue now. The issue was attrition. She had a perfect bottleneck. The xenos didn’t care to swim it seemed and there was now no other way to reach Gael besides approaching her up the road unless they climbed up. She’d hear that at least.

She had five drums of seventy five bullets left for her RPK, three hundred and seventy five bullets. Sixty twelve-gauge shells that she could load into her Ithaca, seventeen still in the drum. Fifty six Makarov rounds, cut between seven magazines, one already loaded. Three more thermobaric RPG’s, three more M-Sixty-Seven Grenades and one self-primed plastic explosive. Gael had separated the detonator from the plastic, apologizing to Singh as she went. Needed everything to stall as long as possible.

Gael reloaded the RPG, setting it aside and tasking post to watch the road with the RPK. She could hear shouts and hollers made by chittering and growling, but none attempted to assault her position for the moment.

Moments drew on to minutes, the next force coming with no warning and killing silence. A group of about twenty, most of average size, but led from the behind by a monster of terrible height, must have been twelve feet with gaunt purple eyes. Rightly terrifying, like some kind of demon. “Big target.” Gael growled as shot after shot sank into the giant, seventy five down to fifty three when the monster finally fell, the death of the monstrous roaring figure stalling the relatively smaller ones.

Gael plucked off two front runners who fountained dark red, the spray breaking the others who fell back into retreat. She spent three rounds shooting over their heads, making a few panic, sending them jumping off the sides of the roadway. Down to forty eight rounds.

The empty road was her only companion for a few more long minutes, perhaps it was even longer, as Gael had no way to tell time. Each second dragging on as she eyed the roadways.

The next group finally brought armour, a heavy looking chitinous thing that seemed half alive, like a living Patton tank of gleaming dark yellow shell. It was without tracks or wheels, the underside glowing faintly a yellowish shade hovering perhaps a half foot above the ground. Its gun barrel short and shaped like a monstrous horn. Forty or so xenos accompanied the vehicle with more fucking shooters far behind. Still the common sort that bled red, brown and dull green were eschewed ahead of the attack, even before the chitin panzer.

Gael had noticed there was a pattern the prior skirmishes had not revealed, the commoners were ill-equipped compared to the more range-based elites. Rust reds to the lighter greens outfitted for close combat, outfitted in dull grey uniforms but no armour. In this situation they served as little more than cannon fodder. Fodder that could rip a human in two without trouble but fodder nonetheless.

Gael put down the RPK on the floor, pulled up the RPG, praying it fucking pierced chitin. She snarled breathless curses as a shell struck the side of the outpost building, shuddering the world and covering the concrete box in blaring napalm like plasma. Brow already sweating from the sudden oven-like heat Gael stood, aimed for the space between its turret and hull, and pulled the trigger. The armoured monstrosity was blown apart from the top up, turret blow clean open. The under-soldiers scattering in the explosion.

Reload or machine gun? Out of the downed burning wreck emerged another monster. Full body black heavy plate armour, ten feet tall, unbothered by the loss of its tank, dashing up the road like a vengeful wraith. RPK. Fast as she could Gael leveled the RPK’s bipod on concrete window sill, xeno was only ten meters away when she was ready to shoot. Faintly aware the time for controlled fire was past Gael unloaded. Five, ten, fifteen, the monster finally crumpling on nineteen, gushing blue from the head with white fangs and bone revealed by machine gun fire. Down to twenty nine bullets, cursing the blue blooded monster she emptied the magazine on the still advancing common soldiers, a few more cracks of energy and just-short plasma returned fire, but she had the high ground and cover, squatting down and letting the old soviet machine gun do its job.

Several had thankfully turned tail when the blue had gone down, the last advancer falling to her last three rounds. The body not even hitting the ground before Gael ducked down. Four drums left, Gael's hands shook hard as she reloaded, a quick look up confirming that no more were advancing. Reloaded the launcher as well, two RPGs left.

Quiet for the moment, ears ringing, alone for the present aside from distant xenos cries, the wind and the crackle of flame dancing off the infernal plasma that covered the nearby road and the checkpoint building’s exterior. The heat of it slowly fading, leaving charred sunken black stains across the road, couldn’t see the outside of the building but the cracking of the concrete under the heat was fading. Thank fuck the yanks had made a box rather than a bucket.

A few minutes passed like that, could see movements of the xenos in the distance and hear them and their accursed hovering chitin war machines. But they did not advance. Gael’s mind ran over possible origins to the unexpected lull. Perhaps coordinating shelling or snipers at her position? Xenos did not normally make use of such but in a situation like this it would be extremely advantageous and spell her doom.

The reason for their silence came with the first of the distant earth shaking rumbles. Detroit’s skyline had been left mostly intact by the initial bombardment, unlike Windsor which looked like a post Bomber-Harris Dresden.

The first crashes came unseen, but with force that made the bridge beneath her tremble. Gael shifting herself to note the destruction off in the distance. In the distance the Renaissance Center was the first to go. The seven hub towers tipping and crashing one by one. The first of dozens, as the city's skyline was leveled. Who knew how many xenos ground forces were trapped in the collapsing city? Gael had known the resistance was fierce from the Americans, but not actually seen anything. If everything went well, the resistance would withdraw, leaving a burnt out city behind with valuable Intel in American hands. The aliens left with nothing but chaos and a scorched ruin. Good.

Gael had little time to watch the show as more chitinous vehicles appeared, making their way up the bridge. These ones without cannons and heavier in make. Their shells more green than yellow. More analogous to an APC than the earlier tank analogue. Gael moved automatically now, picking up her launcher and waiting. Her second to last RPG was brought to bear when the first chitin hover-craft came near the still burning corpse of the Chitin tank. The shriek of the exploding organic vehicle was sweet, the sound of it collapsing and blocking off the advance of the others even sweeter. Shouts and screams came as she leveled the RPK back up on the sill. Another charge arriving.

The world became a haze of counting down numbers, the aliens near literally eating the bullets. Gael noticed the change in tactics with the absence of noise. It seemed they no longer fired their plasma guns, the archers and energy blaster now silent. No time to think on it, head after head burst, necks and chests ripped tearing out maddening colours. A murmured thanks to old Mikhail Kalashnikov came to Gael’s lips, reality felt distant. Down to fifty bullets, down to twenty five. The assault did not relent as she ran dry on drum four, down to three.

Cursing Gael yanked up the RPG launcher, pulling up the last explosive and launched it amidst the advancing swarm. It did not kill them all, but it blew apart their massed charge. They were close enough the explosion had stolen the oxygen from the air, hard to breath she thought. No. Couldn’t think about it.

Gael tossed the useless launcher behind her, reloading the machine gun as fast as her shaking hands could and pulled the RPK up. The first one couldn’t be more than three meters away, dashing sickle in hand. It had rust red eyes and strange curling horns, shaped like a heart above its head. The first shot slowed the xeno, the second shot stopped it. Third shot struck the rust eye dead in the middle of its neck, sending it tumbling down backwards. Gael’s curses no longer came out as words as flicked the auto fire, needed to make space. Couldn’t count the dead or the shots that felled them anymore, the swarm advancing too quickly.

Drum three ran out fast, with three xenos still up, advancing fast, too fast to reload. Shotgun or Makarov? Shotgun won out as the first xenos cleared the body of the heart horns. The Ithaca came up when the eight foot xenos was a foot outside the impromptu bunker, mouth full of fangs howling in rage. Could see the dull lime green cores to its eyes. Blew the xenos’ face off in a burst of lime that splattered upon Gael’s front, two and three went down in bursts of Rust and dull yellow respectively. Down to fourteen shells. Chattering screams all around, couldn’t count the dead but the assault had been stalled. Sounded like the xenos were fighting among themselves behind their burnt out vehicles, no more charging up the road.

Gael took the gifted pause silently, reloading the RPK with drum two, one extra left. One hundred and fifty bullets. She was only faintly aware she was crying. Why was she crying? After everything she’d seen at Toronto, London and every wiped out town why this? Nothing made sense, mind reaping the mantra ‘don’t think about it’ over and over now. Could only mutter sorry to the rust with the sickle and the blown apart lime eye as she checked the bridge.

No more advancing. Filled her shotgun drum back to twenty, popped her head back up. Still no more coming. Pulled out the grenades and the plastic explosive. Still nothing. Pulled the RPK back up to aim it down at the burnt out chitinous hover-craft barricade. Fuck, must have been dozens behind, a few eyes peeking out, yellow and piercing. Couldn't waste ammunition on pot shots though.

Another moment, grabbed the plastic explosive and threw it far ahead, placed the trigger down beside her. Couldn’t let them get close again or it was over. Gael realized even then it might kill her, not much to do about it though. Something something, one way trip. Long minutes came, Gael silent peering down the length of the old soviet machine gun, listening to distant rumblings of the dying Detroit and the snarling of the horned aliens from behind their cover. Words coming in all ranges of pitch and beastly sounds. Her own mind running oddly blank, barring the mantra.

The first one to pop out went down with two shots, trigger pulling on instinct, splattering the burnt out chitin armour behind him with chocolate blood. More alien screaming behind, insubordination in the Ranks? Maybe. Maybe they would switch tactics. Fire fight would end badly for her if they decided to use the burnt chitin as cover. But more rushing would only increase the bodies. Something that should be a positive.

The sounds of alien voices and her own panicked half-thoughts ended with an enormous sickening crack. Could see a xeno body fall lifeless out behind cover, a moment later the horde charged once more.

Full auto again, banzai charges less effective against auto weapons Gael faintly recalled. No time to think, only option was fire. Far more than last time, couldn’t even guess how many, could only slow them. Must have been dozens left when the drum ran dry. Gael snarled and ducked down behind the cover of the concrete wall, face to the floor grabbing the trigger to her once Walhalla ticket turned space maker. Waited, about twenty meters away, charging steps and howls, ten, five, trigger punch came without trepidation.

The noise of the blast was all-encompassing, tearing away all noise from the world with it. Felt the heat of it burning overhead, chunks of burning concrete and asphalt raining down on her. Something else too. Heavy. Gael opened her eyes and noted the burning torn off limb that had been flung to the back, smacking her on the back of the head on its way forward. Couldn’t hear anything, felt like maybe her ears were bleeding. Couldn’t stop. Looked overhead, a few mangled xenos near the sides that had been protected by the bodies of the main charge withered. Bodies shredded and torn apart, a rainbow of burning blood just outside, the entire front side of the concrete box had been ripped apart, but the rebar-enforced walls were still standing. Barely.

Not much to be done.

Gael pulled up the last drum, slotted it in as all noise was remained banished, slowly pure silence was replaced by a gradually rising pitched ring. Brought the machine gun to bare as the road lay empty aside from the dying. More tears. Couldn’t do much for the xenos, seventy five bullets, shouldn’t waste them on the dying.

Gael did anyways. Nine bullets, seven put out of their misery. Crying harder as she grit her teeth.

“Sorry.” Gael mumbled unable to hear the word. Perhaps, in another life they might not have been led here. What kind of horrible fucking bastard traverses the void between the stars to make their soldiers fight entrenched enemies with fucking swords? The black carapace soldier answered her question. Something snapped. Rage filled the human Guerrilla as the world slowed. Some switch flicked in the back of the human’s mind that turned her sight crimson red.

Xenos body armour was impossibly tough, but lower faces were always exposed. Four shots and he went down. Fifth catching him in the back of the head as he tried to crawl back to cover. “Come on and get me already!” The roar came still without noise though the ringing had faded, leaving a silent chasm behind. She counted Sixty three bullets left when the armoured xenos charged, still without ranged weapons that she very much knew she had. "Fucking end it!"

Singh’s words danced in the back of her mind. An example they wanted likely. Wouldn’t get it, considering how much they'd paid. Down to ten bullets, stopped, pulled up two grenades and flung them. One, two, three, and the explosions came without noise, rumbling informing Gael of the detonation. Four more passing through the shrapnel, ten bullets ran out quickly, taking two down.

Could hear the creaking in their voices now, they must have been shrieking loud. Ithaca came to hand as the first went down by sheer force of bullets, not dead, definitely not dead. The fucking black metal armour just made the slugs crack against it with a blast of sparks. Second charger was a little behind. The blast of the shotgun hit it square in the mouth, sending it tumbling down in a burst of white fang and teal blood.

The first one tried to rise, helmet knocked of revealing enraged blue eyes. The xenos’ head popped like a water balloon filled with blueberry jam, what Gael assumed was brain analogue stained the charred roadside. She tasted bile and acrid smoke.

RPK was out. Good while it lasted. “Thanks Kalashnikov.” Gael muttered.

Just the shotgun, seventeen rounds chambered and the next attack was already beginning, commoners and armoured alike. Last grenade came to hand, threw it at the center of the charging mass. Rewarded with a meaty explosion that produced a rainbow of chromatic blood. Seventeen shells left, each placed at neck level with the chargers. Faintly Gael realized she was having the best accuracy in her life, probably the only reason she was still here. Pegahmagabow and Abu Tahsin would be proud, she thought.

Down to ten shells, the mass was fifteen meters away, down to five shells, ten meters, a dozen left, maybe. Counted three armoured and the rest common. Took down the Officers, one and two, three reached the window of Gael’s battered bunker, a gauntleted hand reached out to grab her. The alien took shell number three square to the face in a shower of dark blue and sparks. Reeling body knocking back the other window chargers. Others coming in from the door. Fuck. Last two shells cleared the path open free of bodies. Gael dropped the Ithaca, drew the Makarov with her right hand and her sword on the left.

Though she was ambidextrous Gael favored her right. Jumped back out through the door before any more could block the way. The move must have surprised the xenos, giving Gael a moment. She promptly she emptied the magazine dropping the nearest two aliens with bursts of orangey brown and olive green. With the two that had fallen to the shotgun clearance that left her with five still charging. Two with sickles, three with swords. It all processed in a moment. Dropped the Makarov to grip the type 94 with both hands as they charged. Faster than humans, but something was amiss, their eyes wider than she had ever seen them.

Their movements came shaking, removed. Gael realized she was howling. Perhaps it was the many shades of blood covering her, or the screaming she could not hear? The first one’s sickle went too wide. Allowing Gael a shot at the alien’s under arm, the blow of the well-sharpened type 94 tearing into something squishy, neck had been slashed too she realized.

Brownish blood splattered her as she pressed, a sword wielding rust eye went down before it could even move, cut from the nape of its ‘belly’ to its upper chest. The last two sword bearers charged but unaware of each other, crashing into one another. The one went down from Gael’s flanking strike, cutting cleanly into the skull. The other Gael knocked down in a full body charge before the slight looking xeno could regain its balance. Gael dropping her sword. One arm backhandedly knocking the alien’s weapon arm aside in the fall, the other yanking the Kirpan from her back and driving it into the creature’s eye, splattering Gael with rust red. Its body shuddered nauseatingly and fell still.

Breathing hard, Gael forced herself up to her feet, aware of the last one behind her. It was a smaller than the norm, six and a half feet but quite wide. Looked, nervous? It jittered, keeping its distance. Gael realized she should be dead, it’d had a clean shot at her back. The alien walked past Gael, carefully to behind the charred and pock-marked checkpoint building.

To her surprise the alien shouted out in feigned pain, dropping the sickle and pulling a knife from its side, quickly yanking out a small bundle of flesh and something black from its shoulder. The alien went silent, dropping the cut out chunks and smashing its booted foot down on them. It's rust red eyes met Gael’s, and then the alien was gone, scuttling off the back of the destroyed bridge. But no burst of water came.

It felt like the final one had been a mirage, though the bloodied hunk and sickle remained. Gael turned, looking at the bodies that decorated the once bridge turned slaughtering ground. Something like the First World War, a killing ground where old generals sent young men to die, black and white photographs coming to mind. They paled in the face of the physical view before her. “Sorry.” The useless word came again, still she couldn’t hear it.

Reaching down she yanked the Kirpan from the dead alien's skull, aware that more were coming. Could pick the Makarov back up, load it and kill herself. Could jump in the river, could cut something important. But- that felt pointless. Vasiliás Leōnídas did not take the easy way out. Faintly she noticed the clown-like paint on the faces of the chargers. Joy, those were the skinning types. Dully, she watched. Braced. Until she could see the indigo of their leader’s eyes. The beast had to have been over fifteen feet tall. Wielding a monstrous stained iron club fit for an Oni, it brought the club down in a lightning fast overhead strike. But Gael was not there.

Rage moved her, driving her under the blow and jumping high. The monstrous purple blooded beast shrieked as the Kirpan bit into its neck, free hand holding onto the beast’s hair. Four stabs and a final plunge into the thick flesh beneath his jaw sent the giant tumbling, allowing for a final stab, straight under the base of his neck. The thing was dead before it crashed to the ground. The final body Gael claimed.

She did not even see the club that came down behind head. Blackness claimed her without hesitation.

Chapter Text

Gael woke slowly, pain radiating across her form. Slower to move, the pain heavier on the side of her head and back.

Her eyes opened to a lightless place, back against cold metal. She felt a heavy seamless metal collar affixed around her neck, gone was her shirt, Keffiyeh and bra, though at least her cargos and boots seemed to have been left untouched. Metal shackles of similar make to the collar bound her hands together, an experimental yank revealing what felt like a small chain was binding her wrists together.

She groaned a soft wayward curse.

Gael had known that killing every fucking xeno she could would possibly lead her here. Not that there was much to be done, other than to silently apologize to Singh. At least her body count had been monstrous, and if there was one thing true to the madness that suffused her person, it was that they could take nothing, nothing she would not give willingly. The strange watching for the first time made her laugh aloud in the darkness. Mirthless but from the gut. Gael would end up a Sambhaji then.

Something moved in response. Gael snorted, aware now she was not alone in the lightless room.

“Hey. You hearing me?” For a moment there was nothing, then came strange words. Alien words.

Oh fuck it’s awake.” The skittering and clicking notes played off Gael's mind for a moment, faintly she could hear breathing, multiple individuals. It seemed the violence had not deafened her at least.

A moment of strained ears. At least three breathers.

For some reason this did not unsettle Gael. If they wanted her dead they’d have already killed her. If their intent was torture they would have roused her first. Never had any of the xenos beings she’d encounter done anything besides try to shoot her or bite her face off. Her voice was ragged as gravel when she spoke. “Oy. Any of you understand me?”

The chittering from the original speaker came high. “Oh fuck, oh fuck, what the fuck do we do?”* Hearing the language in the quiet without the stress of violence was strange. The words were built for mouths full of teeth, likely with tones human vocal cords couldn’t replicate. Going high and low in such a way she wondered if such meanings went beyond simple tone. Gael mused listening. “Meltik what do we do?!” The words took a squeaking tinge, kin to panic, maybe.

Slowly Gael shifted and rose to a sitting position. Blind outright here, she could at least move around a bit. Another alien voice spoke up. “Shut up you idiot psion she’ll kill us all! They said she brought down hundreds of trolls and I don’t want its body pit to deepen!” This one was deeper, harsher. The clicks more like cracks of wood than the noise of an overly large insect.

A third one spoke up. Softer than the others with rolling clicks and faint hisses. “How? She’s scrawny, looks weaker than you Pillas. Just like the rest of those aliens.

Gael managed to rise to her feet, still listening to the voices as she did. The air was warm, making her shirtless state a non-issue at least. “Psionics maybe Zeylii, they say she killed many highbloods.” The softer voice clicked loudly but did not interject as the first speaker carried on squeaking and trilling. Seemed the three voices were all near each other, a ways away. Probably best to leave them Gael figured. If they hadn’t mauled her by now, they’d likely leave her. “Xenos. Who knows? Maybe she’s venomous, or has psionics, or-

A sharp snarl from the deeper second cut of the skittering first. “What did I fucking say Pillas!?

There came a silence. Oddly for Gael it was not an uneasy one. She thought of what would be the most unsettling song to sing to unnerve her captors. White Army, Black Baron was an easy one, though perhaps something more modern would work. The sound of movement from the other side of the room roused her from such thoughts. A sharpness coming as her mind focused on noise alone.

Zeylii what the FUCK!?” One of the alien voices gave a full shriek, processed it as the first speaker, who now sounded like a wet squeegee on glass.

The source of the footsteps responded, the soft voice. “Shut up Pillas you’ll freak the alien out. I want to look at her.

The deep voice made a short sharp noise. “If you want to die Jade, then be my guest. Just don't get us killed for your foolishness

The softer clicking came again, followed by words from the calmer (?) voice. “I can see why you both deserted.

The deeper voice skittered something sharp. “I’ll take slavery to dying on that accursed planet, I’ve done three decimations and the drop of competence in management being picked up by the opposition on the ground isn’t worth the pittance of pay.

The skittish voice spoke up, voice a little less sharp but still rolling with what might be panic. “Same. Fuck those hairy creatures, they’re fucking all over the place. Can’t tell the highbloods from the lowbloods.

The steps came, drawing close as the softer voice clicked again. “Whatever lets you sleep at day.

Gael did not move, instead electing to stay still as the alien drew closer, the noise of its feet and breathing the only things existing in the void. When it stopped the xeno must have been nearly standing over her. Could probably reach out and touch it. Still Gael still did not move. Couldn’t risk provocation. “Can’t understand a word of what we’re saying can you?” The voice clicked, above her. She felt the creature kneel down, clicking softly, even reduced it still must have been looming feet over her, the odd calm remained in Gael though. She’d done her part, nothing to do now but see what else came. “Pretty bad bruise you got. You’re lucky the priest didn’t crack your think pan.

Could stay like that, but it wasn’t moving. Had it asked something? Gael looked up at where the creature’s face may have been. “Sorry. Can’t understand a click of that.”

The voice made a noise reminiscent of a giggle, though far sharper, laughter through fangs perhaps. A laugh at her ignorance? Or her blindness? If it was laughter, and not something else entirely.

Poor thing, those aliens are day creatures right? She can’t see us much at all.” Gael shivered a little when a clawed hand touched her cheek, but she forced herself not to move. No sudden movements. “It’s alright, I just want to pull your hair back to check the bruises.” Gael held her breath as the alien hand drew down her neck, the skin felt odd, closer to something like a harder dolphin skin on the inside of the palm, outside something like a smooth crocodile hide. The hand pulled up her hair, felt like the frenzied dark brown mess all around without her scarf to keep it in place.

The alien clicked something to the others of its kind. “Bad. But not as bad as I worried it could be.” A soft sound, like purring almost, if it came from a strange alien chest. A bit like a Cheetah with insectile pitch. “You’re all done in from the look of it though. Sorry I can’t do much.

Gael could do nothing as she felt the alien slump down to sit beside her, the other voices xenos on the other side of the room hissing. The one beside Gael clicked sharply in response. “Leave off. If she was going to attack she would have already.

The deeper voice snarled at the softer words. “Your fucking burial heretic.

The softer voice growled right back. “Better a heretic than a coward.” The growling rose, then fell when no more words came from the alien beside Gael or the other two. The quiet and the noises of breathing returned. Minutes crept into what eventually became hours, time hard to tell in the darkness as the strange thoughts-not-her-own claimed her for a time. Slowly, the body at Gael’s slide slumped against her, breathing softly. Gael said nothing. The alien’s body was cool, taller than many others, eight near nine feet tall, though it’s form with lithe. Gael could feel its chitin and muscles through its skin. It had no shirt, the sides of its torso flanked by hard chitin bundles, when it came closer Gael could feel its collar clink against her own. It must also be imprisoned. The human let out a tired breath, content to allow the alien to remain close. Bondage made prisoners the same in some ways. Some small rest claiming her for a time.

The darkness filling with mirages of sand and stone.

~~{†}~~

I’m sorry you’re going to die.” The horned alien’s words came from nowhere, rousing Gael after- a long time had passed. Hard to tell what was sleep and what was deep thought in the accursed darkness. The alien’s clicking and chittering quiet, ken to a whisper directly into Gael’s ear.

Gael sighed, a blind hand tracing to where its shoulder was, giving the strange thing a gentle rub. “Wish I knew what you were saying. Sorry I can’t.” Her voice quiet, but in the darkness and near silence the words filled the room, earning slow clicks from the alien. Sharper clicks from the other two on the other side of the cell. Perhaps the soft words were prompted by the steps of feet Gael heard now. They closed in, earning a shiver in Gael’s arms.

The alien beside also shivered. Emotion panged in the human's gut as she stood, resent for the master and sympathy for the slaves. Gael separating from xeno to face her fate, standing up. The other inhabitants of the room clicking sharply at her rise.

“Have to do this standing.” She kept her voice calm, though a small flame had been recovered in Gael. Sympathy failed before the resent, which burned purer now. Anger. The memory of the bridge had played in her mind in the dark, over and over suffusing the madness of the thoughts-not-her-own. In truth, it was nothing she had not seen before in those strange dreams. But she could do nothing for inhabitants of those distant dreams. The soldiery that served the monstrous blues and indigoes? They had died as meat in the grinder. Gael was embedded here, the executioner and the doomed alike. But, she reminded herself, that did not mean she would go easy or quietly.

By the time the steps reached the door, Gael’s teeth were grit and her hands balled into fists. She had no weapons, barring the chain binding her hands. Seemed unlikely she’d be able to kill one of the big ones with it, but she didn’t really have much to lose now. A new mantra chanted in the back of her head. Already done, all on borrowed time.

The light of the door opening may have been dim by human standards, but from the blackness of the cell it may as well have been cutting sunlight. Gael noted the cell’s inhabitants, distant ones first. One large and stocky, about seven feet maybe, being completely without hair, horns small sharp fletchlets where a humans temples would be. Its eyes were brown tinted and its darker skin was matted with scars. Beside, the other alien was stranger. Its eyes were plain red orbs without pupils, horns splintering out like soft branches into three prongs on each side. It was also without hair though its limbs were stick thin in comparison to the brown eyed. Paler grey skin without scars.

Beside her sat perhaps the strangest one of the imprisoned. Perhaps it was female, its form more slender than the first stocky two, its eyes suffused with jade, horns sharp straight thinks like stilettos that pulled back from its head, almost hidden by its short upward curling black hair. A pair of long sharp fangs jutted up from its lower jaw, but its look was not intimidating. Instead it seemed remorseful as it looked up at the human, had it been human.

Gael looked up from the jade-eye to the alien that had entered the cell, a teal blood in armour without helmet, if its eyes were anything to go by. Big dull fangs and heavy set buffalo horns. “Xenos. You are called by the Grandest of the Highbloods.” It made a beckoning motion, while it's words made the other inhabitants of the cell flinch. Joy.

“Sure hope I’m getting this right.” Gael growled, advancing in spite of the nervous chittering of the Jade and the red-eye'd. The teal alien motioned for her to step past, into a hallway unlike any Gael had seen. The walls seemed to be composed of metallic chitin, the lights that hung from the stark metal ceiling seemed composed of glowing flesh, ken to an angler fish’s lure. Floors and ceilings composed of a harsh flat grey metal without seems and rivets. Outside were four other guards, all no less than nine feet, eyes shades of blue and glowering down at her.

For some reason the fear in Gael was dead, replaced by indignation and a faint pride that accompanied fury. “Seems I’ve made an impression.” Gael hissed at the teal who had led her out of her cell gestured for her to march. March she did, through the tomb of chitin and chromic metal humming an old tune. Humming turned to soft singing after a time.

“My Krasnaya Kavaleriya i pro nas, bylinniki rechistyye vedut rasskaz.”**

At least two of the blue eyed aliens growled at the soft words, but at this point Gael was beyond care. Soviet music was at least good for crawling under imperial skin, and oh this felt like an empire. Composed of fangs, grey skin and insectoid skittering but the stench of bloated imperial reached her.

“O tom, kak v nochi yasnyye, o tom kak v dni nenastnyye, my gordo i smelo v boy idom!”

Gael stopped as the tight corridors pealed open into a massive space, a grand hall. A foul smell filling the air like the high stench of rotten flesh. Gael did not allow herself to be paused long as the alien escort advanced, the hall devoid of furnishing, at least five stories up from floor to ceiling and wider across. Desolate in its emptiness. The floors of dull grey metal fading instead to black stone here, the walls draped with indigo banners, marked with symbols like horrific faces twisted in glee or rage. If they’d been human.

Gael ignored most of the hall, as she focused on the monstrous sight at the end of the cavernous space. There, stone covered all the walls, up to the very ceiling, and all of it was stained in blood. The blood of the aliens covered everything in grisly splatters. Dark reds, browns, yellows, greens of all shades, blues too, and even some unfamiliar shades of purple. Words were written in the terrible mire in a language Gael knew nothing of. Crude faces like the banners too inscribed in the many shades of blood. Grisly insane finger paintings.

In the middle of it all, atop a titanic throne dyed in Indigo was the largest xenos she’d ever seen. Standing it must have been over eighteen feet tall, its horns going up to at least half that above his head. Its hair was a gargantuan mass that was longer than it was tall, cushioned the alien against his seat, and curling about his massive barren feet. The hair was greasy, the tips stained with many colours of alien blood. Its clothes were almost fetishistic, dyed in Indigo and composed of ragged draping sheets around a tied up mass of wrapped bones at its core. Adornments made of flame coloured horn and white bone ringed the giants arms and neck, its massive battish ears marked with piercings of the same make. At its side, leaned against the throne was a club twice as tall as Gael was, surprisingly plain and well cleaned. Made seemingly of black iron.

As Gael approached, the beast’s face rose to glare at her. Its nose was a long crooked thing, mouth so full of overgrown fangs the creature seemed like a great viperfish that was unable to fully close its jaws. It wore the monstrous face paint that reminded Gael of a clown, its ragged markings looking similar to a messy white skull. But the core of the giant was its eyes, not like the other horned xenos, this one’s eyes had round pupils, ringed by dark orange.

Fear, not distant, but gone. No pause in her form now, no weakness in her legs. Every opportunity to make a creature like this suffer she had to take, unburdened by fear. Or perhaps the club of the alien that had hit her had broken something within Gael? She had no time to think on it.

This…” The giant’s voice was unexpectedly high, almost shrill, but a lowness following it like the sound was dragging on the bloodied stone beneath. A reverb that followed like a stalking wolf. “This little grub-fucker is the one who, not only culled my mother fucking high messenger, but also my mother fucking master of mirth?

There was a silence for a moment. Looked like the teal who had brought Gael was trying to find his voice. Seemed these armoured ones had something to lose. The wide eyed looks and stiffened figures clicked after a moment. They were afraid. The absurdity made her laugh, not a little laugh but a deep full one. Here she was a stranger in their midst of these nightmarish creatures, not understanding a single click but somehow brought to this. Feeling bad for one hunting fish now entrapped by a larger one, so to speak.

The effect of her laughter was immediate, the armored escort going still as if they’d been petrified. The giant starting to shake slightly, his orange eyes reddening. That made Gael laugh even harder. This was ridiculous. An escort of five for a tiny human. A Chihuahua amidst a pack of lions and she’d managed to crawl under their skin. The giant stood as the laughter was reeled in, her desire to not die laughing winning out as the giant rose to his feet. Fuck he might have been closer to twenty feet.

The high growling filling the room as he picked up his club. “What is so funny you LITTLE MUTANT ALIEN FREAK ASS MOTHER FUCKER?!” The voice of the giant grew so loud and high it made Gael’s ears ring. The giant’s glare firmly set upon her.

For some reason that also made her want to laugh though she contained the humor to a wide ‘dare-to-die’ grin. “I have no idea what you’re saying you stupid clown.”

Gael had no time to prepare for the foot that seemingly appeared into her gut with a force that knocked the wind completely from her lungs, flinging her back down the hallway. The unbloodied black stone greeted her harshly, smashing into her chest. Hurt but not as much as she had expected it to, the thought came as she rolled to a halt. Gael struggled to find her breath as the giant screamed. “YOU MOTHER FUCKERS BRING ME SOME FREAK MOTHER FUCKING ALIEN WIGGLER AND EXPECT ME TO MOTHER FUCKING BELIEVE THAT LITTLE MOTHER FUCKER KILLED MY MOTHER FUCKING HIGH MESSENGER AND MY MOTHER FUCKING MIRTH MASTER!?

Gael faintly heard the teal blood squeak up in the face of the giant’s rage. “It is oh grand one! I swear to you upon my very blood the xenos before you is the one delivered by the purging clerics themselves!

The teal eyed ablation did the giant no favours, perhaps enraging the painted beast even more. “BY WHAT MOTHER FUCKING MEANS DID THAT MISERABLE MOTHER FUCKER KILL MY PRIESTS!?” The noise that came was squelching and terrible. Gael forced a breath down and rolled herself to look up, being greeted by an unfortunate sight.

The teal had been well and truly shattered, its head splintered into gore without form, the overhead swing of the club crumpling the black armour all along his core like it was made of aluminum. The mangled remains collapsed, pussing the teal blood of the dead alien across the floor. Another stain. Another mark of death. Gael stared for a moment.

Rage returned, replacing mirth brought by absurdity. She might be living on borrowed time, but the armoured ones were not, their body language screaming they wanted to be anywhere but here. Their comrade dead on the ground. Enemies though they were, before the clown monstrosity they seemed united in a strange way. Ironic. Gael forced herself to her feet. “Hey, fuckface!” The human woman snapped, a little unsteady on her feet, a bit short on wind but everything she had now aimed at the indigo giant. Prepped to move fast or perish quickly. “Come on I'm the one who broke your pet clowns! I'm right here!”

She gave the giant a two birded salute to accentuate the point. The giant’s eyes were now so red they were almost black, it flung itself at the human, who had a moment to move before the xeno ran her down like an elephant trampling a dog. It was fast, faster than a creature so large had any right to be to. But with its great size there was at least some level of broadcasting to its movements. Its club swung to crack her down, like the giant had wrought on the teal. But for a second time Gael avoided such a blow, jerking aside and before the giant could recover she passed right through its legs, right into its proverbial hedge of hair.

It stank of strange death, the alien blood. The unwashed knotted mass of xeno hair filling Gael with a faint sense of illness as she passed through the bush, whipping out a few stands carried with her tangled in her manacles. She narrowly avoiding the second backhand blow from the giant club. The missed swing smashing into the wall, tearing through one of the Indigo banners and shattering the stone underneath.

All it would take is one blow and she would be dead. Gael did not focus on that, instead focusing on making this giant as frustrated as possible. A pull to the side. The club came down again, this time close enough the blow made the stone beneath her feet shudder, sending her tumbling down to the stained floor. Noted the mistake but already too late. Gael rolled, but was not fast enough to avoid the giant foot which pressed her down. The weight resting on her chest squeezing the air from her chest. “Oh, you’re a slippery little mother fucker. Mother fucker freak ass mother fucking red blood mutant ass wiggler. I should mother fucking add you to the walls, maybe the floor. Been a mother fucking while since a mother fucker with blood like yours came along into my mother fucking nook. Whole planet of you mutant alien ass mother fuckers.

Its clicking was high, pointed. Long winded. Gael didn’t even try to interpret intent, struggling to breathe under the foot that could with a single press snap every bone in her chest. “Well? You Mother FUCKING FREAK!? HAVE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO TELL!? A MOTHER FUCKING JOKE MAYBE!?” From the way the giant faced Gael couldn’t see much but the black-red sclera, wanted to give him the finger again but she didn’t have the breath for it.

Still, the giant sounded absolutely fucking nuclear, a plus for Gael’s current demented focus.

Another of the armoured ones spoke up in a skittering tone. “Grandness, she can’t understand a word of what you’re saying.

The giant was silent for a moment, even its bestial breathing running still. “What?” The indigo’s tone lowered, cracking down like a sunken stone. He turned to look back at the escort.

Yes. She- she’s had no idea what we’ve been saying this whole time. I- she laughed on her own accord.

The noise from the giant was like thunder. “THIS MOTHER FUCKER LAUGHED AT ME IN MY MOTHER FUCKING MIRTHFUL THRONE ROOM! DOESN’T KNOW WHAT I’M MOTHER FUCKING SAYING MY BULGE!

Its foot came up a little, as if preempting to press down, but a new clicking tone stopped the motion, stopped all motion from the giant. “Ungorn. I thought I told you about culling your guards? I have enough trouble filling positions on your ship even with all the donations from your clerics.

To Gael’s immense surprise the foot came up, the giant walking slowly off and with either care or caution to the newest inhabitant of the room. Oddly enough this one was not tall, only around six feet, perhaps a little taller. Though the alien still had a foot on Gael this one might be considered ‘petite’ to the xenos.

It was dressed in an odd fashion, elaborate in a way Gael had not seen so far. A mixture of militant and extravagant. Its torso was guarded by a sleeveless jerkin of dyed black leather-like material, bound with dark metal buttons. A sash tied around its ‘waist’ of flat teal colour. The shirt underneath composed of a softer version of the jerkin’s leather, embroided with teal and indigo thread. It wore black metal boots that came up to its knees, the faces of the armour decorated with symbols of unknown meaning. A pair of black pants underneath stitched with teal thread. Around its neck was tied a small necklace, twined together with fuchsia and indigo string, upon which hung a Capricorn like symbol, one Gael noticed was emblazoned upon the giant’s throne. Connection, but what kind?

In the newcomers hands was a cane made of what looked to be bone, the head carved into a draconian beast's face with a pair of red stones embedded in to serve as eyes. The alien’s own eyes were hidden by a pair of strikingly out of place glasses, a garish shade of blood-red, human blood anyways. They were almost like cat-eye sunglasses, but seemingly without frame, bending around the face to hide the alien’s eyes from all sides.

Its hair hung down its face in ragged locks, its horns cutting like knives aimed behind. When it opened its mouth to speak, it revealed a mouth of fangs that, while nowhere near as large as the giant’s looked as if they could bite a misplaced digit clean off with minimal effort. “If you keep this up it will be you chewing through your own priests again.

Even odder, the red-glared alien had seemingly kowtowed the giant, whose head sank. “I know that mine Pallid, It- its mother fucking difficult to contain my anger for backtalk.

The giant’s voice rose high once more as the red-glare chittered almost scolding. “Back talk or explanation?” The giant clicked slowly but did not answer. “I thought as much. More concerning you seem to be near to culling the killer of your priests.

The red glare looked over at Gael, who struggled to her feet. Felt like her entire front was going to bruise but nothing to be done about it. If this one would be her doom she would like to meet meet it on her feet.

The giant’s clicking grew stark and loud, head lowering. Shaking for a moment. “Truly this- this little freak alien is the one who culled my most mirthful mother fuckers?

The red-glare turned to look up at the giant. “Of course. But your Master of Mirth and your Messenger on High were only two of the casualties. She struck down two hundred and ten trolls, of which forty one were highbloods.

The words of the Red-Glare made the giant growl something sharp. “How?” A single word or near it. Gael guessed a question, or a simple response.

The red-glare chittered low. “I intend to find out if you would allow me, while you are entitled to claim the creature I’d prefer her released over to my custody for interrogation and dealing. These aliens are stranger than we thought them initially.

The giant’s cracking shrieking was almost like a laugh. “Oh, mother fucking miraculous aren’t they?” The indigo leered a near black eyed look down at Gael. A part of her wanted to give the giant the finger again, but a greater part of her realized that would be pointless now. The noises of the blues stopped anything else. They stood behind, looking up nervously at the giant, fear perhaps was mutual between humans and these aliens. Kind of hard not to be scared of a two story tall murder clown.

The death of Gael’s fear was stark here. The giant cackled like broken glass, but it did nothing to shake her. “Oh, mine pallid promise you’ll make her scream before you rope her.

The red-glare chittered, looking back down to Gael. “I won’t if she talks freely. Once clean across the neck if she gives me what I want. But for you Ungorn, if she doesn’t?” The red-glare’s cackling and knife filled grin made Gael clench her teeth. It took a lot more effort than expected to not give them the finger. “I’ll promise you a front row seat and the body there-after, once I extract what I need of course.

The giant roared with the facsimile-laughter. “MOTHER FUCKING MIRACULOUS HYRALX! BLUE BLOODS! ESCORT THIS ONE TO MY MOTHER FUCKING MOIRAILS FINE SHUTTLE, I’VE BUSINESS WITH MY BESTEST FUCKING PALLID ONE!” The indigo’s words spurred the armoured blue xenos into action, one roughly picking up Gael up by the collar and dragging her along faster than her legs allowed. Eager to be gone.

When she stumbled to fall another of the armoured blues gripped her by her arm, pulling her up as the blues literally carried her out of the grand hall. The collar holder dropped her neck to grab her other arm. Once they were back in the tighter corridors the armoured aliens chittered nervously among themselves. Gael allowed herself to be carried about, taking stock of her environment, noting the passing sights of other xenos going about unknown tasks in the the various off-shoot hallways and rooms.

Bad blood, I need to get off this ship, the Grand’s air is going to make my blood pusher explode. I don’t want to die here, my matesprite would kill me.” The one holding Gael under her left arm chittered nervously.

The blue carrying her by her right barked at his compatriot. “At least you have a matesprite to go off too. I fucking signed a full sweep in this fucking pit because I need the Keagars and I’ve got no one waiting for me.

What’s worth this? My pay’s going to my moirail, idiot got himself fined and he would have gotten auctioned if I hadn’t bailed him out.” One of the armored alien’s snarked behind. Gael wondered what they could be speaking of, their tones spoke of worry, as did their body language. Like old Wehrmacht chafing under SS command she mused. Or was that a step too far? No way to tell, of course. But the resemblance stuck firmly in her mind.

The right one’s clicking softened. “I’m tired of this- this life. It’s insufferable. I want to settle, buy myself land on a colony to get a hive, invest in some lowbloods to help set up something. A fermenting house maybe.

Final one spoke up, also behind, a bit duller in tone. “I never picked you for a homebody Eormyn.

The right remained quiet as he clicked out his response. “They don’t let soft lookers take high positions. Paying positions. I want to have enough money that I’ll be secure until the void takes me. So I never have to come back here.

Left blue clicked in a similar tone. “I hear you. Stress. There’s so much more to life than stress.

The winding chitinous corridors peeled off once more, revealing a massive dry-dock like space, hundreds of feet across and at least ten stories from floor to ceiling. Numerous small flying craft of alien make were settled here some sitting on the floor on chitinous landing gear while others hung from the ceiling. Most of the craft were small sharp winged things like hornets the size of cars in make, but on the far end of the room a ship composed of white shell was settled. Blindly pale in the dirty room.

It struck Gael faintly that she was on a ship. A titanic fucking space ship, somehow. She’d heard tell of the leviathan void-faring vessels that had decimated earth before the ground invasion, but it seemed incredulous that she was somehow in one. The absurdity of it made her giggle a bit, though it also might have been the pain in her back and chest that brought out the laugh. The noise audibly tensing up the blue blooded escort.

Fuck me why does it have to do that?!” One of the ones behind Gael snarled, low and dangerous. “Void forsaken fucking aliens have highbloods you can’t tell apart from the rest of them.

The right one clicked sharply. “Calm yourself Beylae, this one has been pliant so far. Do not give it a reason to strike us.

Odd things aren’t they? Almost like us but so- strange. Weak but somehow they’re pausing the ground forces. And if command is letting that get out who knows what’s actually going on planet side.” The left one clicked out, almost firm, a faint wavering coming with it near the end.

The other voice from behind huffed up. “It’s a mess even if no one wants to admit it, their weapons are all range focused and have munitions in high automation production. Heard they’re powered by internal combustion, so they can’t de-nock them out like we did their satellites. Throw in some void-forsaken weather, constant miscommunication and the fact their resistance seems to be coordinated across the planet and we may be culling these things for sweeps before we wipe them all out.

The right one snarked. “What for? We should have just bombarded these things outright from orbit. They had hundreds of thermonuclear devices that could hit low orbit and I’m worried they have more. If they do the entire fleet is completely out of void-combat configuration!

None of the blues responded to the alien word's behind, Gael’s attempts at translation falling hilariously flat. They spoke in many tones for clicks and chittering, she imagined it likely speaking tone had as much value as noise construction to them. Their vocal makeup it seemed had a much wider frame than the human sort, the clicking and chittering indicating a strange bestial nature to their cords.

Perhaps this made up for lack of articulation brought by absurd teeth? Evolution had not domesticated them as fully as humans, or perhaps for their circumstances it had. Resources and dominance by the indigos and blues allowing a direction in their growth that perhaps had made things come along faster. Gael reminded herself the dangers of speculation, aliens were not bound to human development, though their shared biped form at least provided some small shared ground. Fear and anger, maybe even reprieve seemed close. Seemed.

Up close the white chitin ship was a sight, at least fifteen feet tall and forty from one end to the other. Gael noted weapon barrels hidden in the natural curvature of the hull, the metal of the exterior seemed to have been grown rather than forged. There were no windows on the thing, of course windows would be a terrible structural weak-point. The ship seemed sealed. There were no visible engines or exhaust turbines. The landing legs seemingly made of just the same exterior metal.

The escort carried her around to what might have been the ‘back’ of the strange shuttle, a number of the chitinous plates curling in what might have been a door, were it composed of the organic looking white metal.

Gael also noted a similar makeup of chitin along the far wall of the dark siding. It was not in fact a wall at all, but instead a titanic bay door, composed of the dark brown metallic chitin. The aliens paused there, setting her down.

The one that had carried her by her right arm spoke first. “What, are we supposed to wait for the Legis?

The left carrier responded quietly. “Are you going to go ask? I’m not going to go and fucking interrupt the Grand Highblood’s pale romance with the bloody High Legis. Don’t look a gift hoof beast in the mouth.

Gael listened to them still, now free of their grasp she shuffled herself to lean her back against the white hulled ship, dropping down to her haunches. The aliens did not seem bothered by this, offering her only passing glances as they talked among themselves. “If nothing else, we’re not on the ship that has the bloody tyrant beast on it. That over-grown lusus will chomp on anyone that so much as tosses a bad look at the High Legis.” One of the behind escorts chittered out, earning skittering facsimile-laughter at one glancing down at Gael.

Hm. Think that this alien beast will last long?” The left one clicked earning a sharp noise out of the right.

This thing ran circles around the Grand one. If nothing else it’s insane enough to try and piss off the tyrant.” The right one cast a look down at Gael, its face unreadable and flat. “Feel kind of bad for it. They should have just culled it when they finally reached it. Two hundred dead by its lance? The alien deserves a culling in battle.

Is it female?” Right again, Gael closed her eyes, trying to identify individual words, the fast spoken clicking and shifting tones had some pauses. If she ever wanted to understand the language she’d need to manually translate. Pain in the ass it was, it wasn’t like she had much else to do. “Those things on its chest look like rumble spheres. What are the dots? Molting scars or something?

Left again. “They don’t molt. They just sort of grow apparently.

Right. “Bleh, that sounds painful. The more I hear of these things the more disconcerting they become. Is it true they simply hatch their young from their bodies spontaneously?

First behind. “Apparently, worse they carry the wiggler for half a sweep inside, they’re about the size of a near moulting grub when they pop out.” Odd hissing noises from the others. Sharp and unpleasant on the ears. Empathetic pain or disgust?

The other behind. “What, do they pop out of the gut or something?

First behind. “You wouldn’t appreciate me telling you. I regret requesting an anatomic layout report.

Right. “Oh please. How bad could it be?

First behind again, clicking clear and starkly. “The young emerge from the nook.” The alien words earned harsh clicks from the others, scraping and dour. Croaking noises too. A full conversation going on and Gael didn’t understand a fucking word of it. She would have been annoyed if the attempts at identifying repeated words wasn't constant. “I told you. The process has a high fatality rate apparently. The scouting group found all sorts of horrors on these things. If we did not have the protections we did likely the ground force would be afflicted by the thousands of pathogens below, the infectiousness is high but the sheer variety below is disconcerting.

Right again. “Eugh. Whatever the empire wants out of this planet I can only hope it is found soon. Casualties are bleeding the reserves dry and I’m worried the protections may not be enough.

Left. “I fear-” The others quieted their rumbling clicks. “I fear the empress wishes to make use of this planet for a breeding world. Since Alternia was ripped apart the colony manpower outputs have been- declining. You’ve noticed the lull in young ones coming in?

Right again, his clicking was sharper. “That’s madness. This world is a ball of toxins and red blooded hostile aliens and the throne thinks it a replacement for the homeworld!?

Left. Softer, near to a whisper. “I’m not saying it’s a good idea, I’m saying it may be their intention. No other world is like the homeworld, the caverns there ideal for the mother grubs were few but vastly superior to anything we’ve found in the stars. In spite of this world’s issues it has a long history of life, there are many subterranean cavern systems and I imagine they think they’ve found a replacement. ” A choking skitter. “We can only hope this is not a trip before the long fall. I’ve never feared the fleet could somehow lose, particularly against a world occupied by aliens that haven’t even reached another planet. But, if everything comes to its worst?

Right. “A blow, right to the neck with no way to close the wound.” A sharp noise, was it a sigh or a grunt? “Then we’ll bleed ourselves out fighting each other.

Silence reigned for a time, the guards milling about waiting for something, perhaps for the owner of this vessel, whoever it may be. The red-glared alien flashed in her mind. White cane, white ship. Surely it would be absurd to make such a jump? Yet the comparison of aesthetics played heavy on Gael’s mind. Not that there was much to be done, besides bide her time and look to make the leading captors suffer, much as she could.

Shame, pathos dictated hierarchy, the blue eyes may well be slaves of a sort too. Wouldn’t stop her from killing them if she needed, but Gael wouldn’t be able to forget sense.

The low growling of her escort alerted her to the approach of others. The footsteps confirmed it was just one other.

Gael opened her eyes and rose to her feet, looking about to see the owner of the even steps. It was the red-glare, as even faced as it had been in the perverse throne-hall. None the worse for wear from its time spent in the presence of the giant indigo. Was its blood human red by the make of its glasses? Or perhaps teal based on the small flourishes in its clothes and the sash on its waist? Gael doubted the prior, she had seen every colour thus far, barring human red and Fuchsia. Perhaps the horrific bloodshed kept by the Indigo giant had been useful for something. Gael looked on as the red-glare called out. “You may return to your posts, I am fully capable of escorting this one myself.

The left one spoke, now identifiable by the pitches and creaks of his voice. “As you wish, High Legislacerator.” The armoured ones departed as the red-glare came near, only the right carrier pausing, looking down once more upon Gael. She gave the blue giant a small nod, and was surprised to see the silent alien return the gesture. Then it was gone, leaving Gael alone with the red-glared one.

Gael watched cautiously as the red-glare approached the ship, withdrawing a small white metal orb from some unseen pocket. Only the size of a human eyeball. The alien pressed the orb against a small indentation in the ship’s hull. A soft whirling noise came, and a pair of chitinous white plates opened wide. The red-glare gave a low growl, Gael took it silently and boarded the vessel.

The interior was smaller than expected, the space seemingly composed of only two rooms, one lined with harsh chitin metal walls, chains attached to the walls, hanging down far enough they seemed to be meant for alien sized bodies, arms and legs far longer than her own. The room beyond Gael could not see much of, soft almost mechanical clicks came from there. She did not have time to ponder. The red-glare growled, pointed a clawed finger at the benches that lined the walls. Gael did not need to be told twice, the human moving with immediacy to seat herself down. Wait and watch for now. Might be on her way to the slaughter-house but if she wasn’t she’d be able to bide up something. The red-glare looked at her for a moment. “Better trained than most lowbloods.” The creature’s words were harsh, and it quickly stepped off into what must have been the ship’s cockpit. There came a sharp noise, and a pair of doors shuddered behind the red-glare, the doors behind slamming shut. Leaving Gael alone.

She sat, pulling her legs up crossed, hands resting on her lap. Hungry, thirsty, tired and she needed to take a leak but still alive. Somehow. The ship rumbled, a strange light overtaking the ear, green and orange in colouration. An odd weightlessness came, and she felt upwards motion that was stymied after a moment. The glow of light fading as the ship rumbled softly, like a giant cockroach.

Gael closed her eyes. Not much to it. She let the void claim her again, content to consign her ‘extended’ fate to play out in the absence of conscious for a time.

Chapter Text

For the second time in who knew how long Gael woke up on a stark metal surface, aching. Though not so much in the back and the side of the head this time, her chest and gut were what pulsed every now and again. Hurt enough it made her grit her teeth against her cheek. Not that the original aches were gone, they’d just accepted second place to these new pains.

Gael opened her eyes, pleasantly surprised by the ability to see this time around. She was in what seemed to be a small private cell, only about six feet across on all sides, the ceiling a little taller than the width and length. Uncomfortable for aliens of horned make, but almost spacious for humans. Walls once more seemingly grown of bug exoskeleton, though less apparent than the other ship had been. Ceiling of similar greyish exoskeletal make while the floor was a sheer metal. Slightly warm to touch.

No door. Though some of the chitinous wall looked like it could be made to open like the ship door had. Escape was unlikely.

The holding room was near barren, the most apparent ‘furnishing’ was a small shoot that descended from the ceiling. Made from a coppery alloy it came down to about halfway down from the ceiling and curled off into a small tray that the tube’s contents would roll out onto. In the corner of the room was a small pod like structure, filled with an odd smelling green slime. The slime smelled alien, but faintly reminded Gael of concrete glue in its thickness. A little examination also revealed a hole in the floor on the opposite side of the room. If she had to take a wild guess, the tube apparatus likely delivered food and hopefully water and the hole was for ‘waste disposal.’

Gael didn’t even have a fucking clue what the pod was. Maybe a sleeping apparatus?

A mirthless thought, she hoped she wouldn’t ruin her back on this fucking aluminum flooring. After a quick confirmation of the hole's function with a sniff and quickly doing her business, Gael sat down, back leaned against the pod which at least had an odd porousness to it. Softer than the floor anyways. A few conscious thoughts ran through her mind before sleep came. Well wishes upon Singh, Ali, Broderick, Sarah and the rest of the rag-tag escort that had actually made it. If they'd made it.

Even Ralph. Fuck, particularly Ralph he’d fucking need it.

Mind also went back to the aliens who’d died on the bridge. A few old words to honour the willing and unwilling fallen in battle. Then the inhabitants of the cell. Jade eyes. Gael oped it- she, was alright. The others too. An apology to the teal, blood mixed in amidst the sea of chromatic stains. Deserved a fair crack by human hands at least.

Helplessly bound, masters and slaves. Traversers of the void between the stars, yet still bound to master-slave logic? Gael found the notion depressing.

Sleep came again like a knife in the back. The space between was violent in the rest that came to the human woman. Gael did not dream as brightly as her ken-bound cousins did. But it was enough at times to know a position. A strangeness that suffused her to her core. Perspective, of the grander scale of things, not to destroy her struggles minor as they were. If anything they hardened Gael, a dust mite she was, she was content to struggle. Choose the path, Assign meaning as her dead antiquarian matron would have her do with freedom.

But amidst the crack of things, convictions faded with individuality. Without body and conscious, what could one do but be whisked about by the flow and ebb of all things? She was no bright burner that glowered in the face of the nothing and was helpless when the winds blew.

In a moment 'it' came upon Gael. It struck and held, like a blade between the shoulder blades, a burn of boiling grease upon the belly. Pain, a grievous pain, terrible and familiar though the body that carried it was not. Pain that stole away any sense left, binding Gael to it. The chains holding her were burning, the world on fire. But something burned brighter, hotter than pain. Anger, a mind numbing anger that fought its way through pain, a fury to all things that lived and breathed. But in the fire of pain and fury was something else. A-

Compassion. Kind to Agape in make, but going well beyond it. A love for all things. But stranger, standing above the pain and fury, kindling it in the physical form. It was an imperishable form of compassion. One that no matter how the pain and the hate and the fury burned it remained. Undamped.

Gael died in agony.

It was not the first time she had done so, truth be told. Gael had died many times here, as did those that woke to their lineage. Both in those strange dreams, and before. Dying was a part of this existence, nothing really ending, though the players were allowed to pass into silence.

But this death was not like the others, the compassion remained, burning away the body. Outlasting it. To Gael it felt as if her flesh had been burned away, leaving a grotesque skeleton. The pain was gone as she drifted through the abyss, the memory of the pain binding her to consciousness, shuddering from the memory.

Then-

Eyes upon her, not from all things like she had felt in her ken, but below. In darkness below water. Titanic, unshakable, near completely alien in its nature. But for a moment, there came a sense Gael shared with the thing. Sorrow. Sorrow turned to something blue, ailing and sickly. The molding blue bubbled down to a tar black. Weary, wanting to return to silence. The leviathan though remembered a core of sorrow. Three figures, shining in its eyeless memory. Red and Blue, burning under turgid vines. Fangs and claws, false horns and a promised strike. Last came weariness, listlessness, an emptiness that could not be filled. Jade.

Machinations turned alien and unrecognizable, Gael able to find some modicum of self again in the sea of madness. The body refused to eat, aimed not without but within. Tear it all into darkness, when Jade, Olive, and Mustard went. Then, when they were gone?

One final word, no need to hold back.

Gael woke to the noise of chitin plates pushing aside, a stain of crimson red and jade green still flushed across her memory. It stung a little, Gael was able to resist much. But occasionally the cosmos decided it would crack her back down into nothing, reminding her of her position as a cosmic dust-mite.

One wayward step more than enough to obliterate her, nevermind whatever the fuck that had been.

Gael was breathing hard, tears in her eyes when the red-glare stepped into her cell. As flat faced as ever, though her more formal attire was gone, stripped down to a militant pair of pants and shirt like the common soldiery wore. The boots, and her cane remained. “Did you think the recuperacoon was just for show or something?” The alien hissed as Gael struggled to her feet, feeling the loud pangs of hunger and the groaning of dehydration. Needed something soon, but the xeno took priority. The memory of agony making bodily functions a little distant.

When she managed to make herself stand the alien clicked harshly, and pointed a finger to her, which it then drew to the door. “Move.” Intent was clear at least.

Gael obliged, uninterested in wasting much needed breathe on pointless words. She needed it for the gasp when she saw outside. The chitinous retracting door opened to reveal a titanic space. The room, if it could be called such dwarfed the hall of the murderous indigo and his ship bay. A few hundred feet up at least, but only about a hundred across. The walls were lined with walkways, the indentions of what looked to be hundreds of cell doors marked out along the walkways and near the floors. A massive prison, half covered in darkness.

Thoughts came quickly, as she looked over the canyon. She saw no other xenos, indeed the space before her was an enormous shaded chasm devoid of life. If this was a prison where were the wardens?

Get moving whelp.” She had no time to dodge the blow to the back of the head, strike making her bruised body groan. Gael did not make a noise, as she managed to steady herself and started marching. She couldn’t even guess where to, but Gael did not dwell on the destination. Focusing her eyes and ears open for life in the veritable chitinous walled canyon. Yet, there was no noise outside the dull hums of the ship and their steps, no movement at all. It remained the same, marred only by the occasional scorched mark along the walls, infrequent gashes and rare splashes of dried dark colour along the floor.

It took a long while of walking to reach an end to the cells, the ceiling coming down to only six or seven stories, the few bioluminescent lights that lined the walls and ceiling stopping with the declining roof. Ahead was a near pure darkness. Still the red-glare ushered her on with sharp clicks. Fear remained gone, oddly. Pain and weariness replaced by a strange sense of curiosity that gripped Gael. She could only lay half-mangled guesses to the nature of this place, as she stumbled into darkness. Nothing that really materialized into words.

The noise that came only a ways in stopped her dead in her step. Knowing her eyes to be useless she concentrated on hearing. The rumbling was like the breathing of an impossibly huge creature, overwhelming in its depth. The noise of a tiger the size of a sixteen wheeler, groaning and clicking above. The noise of motion came, straining muscle and hide. The alien behind had paused too, taking note of the noise. “Seems my grublet is up. She’s getting fat from all the traitorous sorts turning up. Of course, if you run she’ll still splatter you on the wall or burn you even if she’s full.” The red-glares words were only half heard over the descending pulsing.

Right over her head.

The red eyes opened above, not more than a story above Gael’s head. Glowing with a terrible bioluminescence, each eye the size of a industrial wrecking ball and a pupiless blood red. Human blood red. Gael faintly realized the lack of fear must be brain damage, for the only thing that came was awe. The creature must have been as large as the ancient sauropods from the noises of its motion. Its head descended, making tufting sounds that might have been smelling from the sudden upburst of wind. Hard enough Gael’s hair whipped around her head. Against the better judgment of what sanity remained her hands came up above her head and were met with what felt to be warm scale-like carapace.

“Hi.” The word came without force or air behind it. The creature's rumbling increased on her touch, head sinking lower to rub what might have been the scale-chitin lower jaw against Gael’s head. Faintly Gael rubbed the thing back.

PYRAL THAT IS A PRISONER OF MINE NOT SOME GRUB FOR YOU TO IMPRINT ON!” The noise from red-glare startled Gael, making the red-eyed titan grumble like a rockslide. In a moment it was gone, the darkness silent as if the creature had never existed. Gael skittered forward to avoid the swing of the red-glare's cane. A break in her façade made by anger as she growled at Gael. “Move it! I’ve had enough delays with this interrogation.” Not like Gael had any other options, as she marched ahead thoughts of what the enormous animal could be skittered on her mind.

It must have been the warden. What a warden it was, it would likely be able to make a quick meal of the indigo giant. Pleasant thought that it was, it was evident the red-eyed leviathan was kowtowed to the red-glare, much like the Indigo itself. Nothing to be done about it now, though Gael couldn’t suppress the yearning to give the titan a scratch behind the ears. Well whatever the nearest thing to a scratch behind the ears the human could manage. If it had ears.

The dark hallways of the ship rolled on, Gael half-blind directed on by the red-glares barks and cane smacks. The back of her head was singing when the alien finally made a noise to halt. Red-Glare walked ahead, hands sharply tapping something on the wall Gael couldn’t make out. Yet another Chitinous door pulled open, the light coming from within making Gael blink as the red-glare growled for her to enter. She did not need to growl twice, Gael already stepping inside. Within the room was spacious, smelling of something reminiscent of pine. Walls and ceiling lined with an odd shimmering glass of near-white colour. The only furnishing was a small table, two stool like furnishings sat out on opposite sides all made from a dull grey metal without sheen.

Atop the table in tandem to the stools were a pair of odd computer monitor like objects. Similar to a Commodore-64, but entirely without keys, seemingly composed of faintly pulsing muscle and honey-comb like siding. Dull yellow in colour with a screen of black-brown glass, or something like it.

The alien growled at her gesturing at one seat before one of the living computerlike objects. Gael said nothing as she sat down, the red-glare taking the seat opposite to her. There came a moment of silence, the red-glare tacking on the screen of her living computer for a moment. Sharp calculated taps of claw on the glass-like surface. A moment later Gael’s screen perked up, blank and black in colour but alive. The red-glare clicking away for a moment on what could only be a touch-screen.

Letters on a keyboard analogue popped up on the lower half of Gael’s screen, a small blinking arrow the only occupier of the top half of the screen.

Unfortunately the characters were in Cyrillic.

The alien was already typing, the blank space above filled with words she could not read. Of course Gael was fortunate, she knew how to spell a single phrase in Russian.

[я не говорю по-русски]

I don’t speak Russian.

The words popped up on screen, the device was ken to a chat program then. Gael leaned over and shook her head at the alien who clicked sharply. A moment later the screen cleared. Another keyboard appearing on the screen a moment later.

It was hard to not laugh when she noted the Chinese characters, leaning over and shaking her head. The red-glare was silent as she repeated the wipe-process. Twice more, the next time Hindi characters were used. Gael had allowed herself a giggle as the red-glare snarled. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon keyboard popped up, devoid of punctuation, apostrophes and commas but hey. Couldn’t be picky. Gael waited while the alien quickly tapped out words in what must have been its own language. First message popped up quietly, earning a small grin.

[1 D34RLY H0P3 Y0U 4R3 48L3 T0 R34D TH1S X3N0 SCUM]
[B3C4SU3 1 4M L0SING MY P4TI3NC3 F0R Y0UR 1NSUFF3R48L3 L4NGU4G3S]

The incredibly silliness of this situation washed over Gael. This creature from hundreds if not thousands of lightyears away that breached the wild distance in order to get to the Sol system and Terra. This thing that was part of an invasion force attempting to wipe out mankind and was Gael’s current abusive captor. The thing was leet-speaking at her. Someone hadn't so much botched their translation job as they hadn't given a single fuck. Somehow everything had turned entirely silly, somehow it had managed to overcome the notion alien murder clowns in absurdity. All it Gael allowed herself was a dry snicker as she tapped out a message.

[You are very lucky you found someone who speaks this language]
[The dominant languages of the people below are Navajo Esperanto and Finnish]

The red-glare growled at that as she tacked at her translator.

[1 W4S 4SSUR3D TH4T TH3 F0LL0W1NG L4NGU4G3 C0D3S W3R3 TH3 D0M1N4T3 0N3S 0N Y0UR W0RLD]
[1F Y0U 4R3 B31NG F4C3T10US 1 W0ULD 4DV1S3 Y0U C34S3 SUCH H4B1TS H3R3]
[0R 1 C4N PR0M1S3 Y0U W1LL R3GR3T 1T]

Gael could feel the xenos’ hidden glare on her as she hunched down and typed out a response.

[You seem to be under the delusional belief that I have reason to comply with you]
[This is not the case]

The alien gave a sharp crack.

[1S TH4T S0]

Gael was unable to keep herself from rolling her eyes. Could only hope these creatures didn’t have similar gestures as she wrote out her messages.

[It is]
[Of course this isnt to say that I wont be willing to converse]
[But you arent really in a position to force anything out of me I wouldnt give in regular conversation]

The sharp noise that came from the red-glare was like someone shaking a box full of twisted metal and broken glass. If the indigo giant’s cackling was horrible, than the red-glare’s was quite frankly monstrous. Her clicks came slower, more deliberately as she tapped claws on her screen.

[1 H4V3 T0 D1S4GR33]
[Y0U S33M T0 F0RG3T WH0 1S 1N CH4RG3 H3R3 X3N0]
[1 H4V3 4LL M4NN3R 0F W4YS T0 M4K3 Y0U SCR34M Y0UR M0ST GU4RD3D S3CR3TS]
[0F C0URS3 1 D0 N0T H4V3 T0 US3 TH3M]
[S0 1 W1LL PUT 1T L1K3 TH1S]

The noise of the red-glare’s cackling dug into Gael’s ears as she read the excessively silly messages.

[1F Y0U T3LL M3 WH4T 1 W4NT H3R3 4ND N0W]
[1 W1LL K1LL Y0U QU1CKLY]
[1F Y0U D0 N0T T3LL M3 WH4T 1 W4NT H3R3 4ND N0W]
[TH3N 1 W1LL M4K3 Y0UR 3X1ST3NC3 4S P41NFUL 4S 1 C4N]
[3V3RY CR34TUR3, D3G3N3R4T3 4L13N 0R N0T T4LKS WH3N 1 M4K3 TH3M T4LK]
[S0 WH4T W1LL 1T B3]

Couldn’t contain the snickering. Nor could Gael prevent the snicker from growing into a full laugh as she tapped away a message. Certainty and levity would be her only companions then.

[Well you can certainly try]
[But no promises]

The alien made a creaking noise deep from its torso as Gael kept typing.

[But first I want to put name to your face]
[Do that and Ill give you mine and we can see how deep this rabbit hole goes]

The alien stared at the monitor in silence for a moment, the faint noise of its teeth grinding against each other came to Gael’s ears as it carefully tacked out its response.

[X3N0 HUM4N]
[1 4M T1TL3D TH3 H1GH L3G1SL4C3R4T0R 4ND H3R H0N0UR4BL3 TYR4NNY]
[H4ND 0F TH3 3MPR3SS3S JUST1C3 4ND 3X3CUT1V3 D1R3CT1NG 3X3CUT10N3R]

Reading the words in leet-speak was just a tad painful, seemed to Gael more akin to a title than a given name. Also the alien was female, apparently. Gael supposed if she squinted a little she could see it. It was only fair to return the kindness equal as she had received.

[Well then High Legislacerator]
[I am called the Lion of Windsor and the Vanguard of Saint Kalashnikov]
[But for the purposes of our communication I will go by Gael]
[Would you be so kind as to give me a designation that is less of a time sink]
[Because well be here all day if I have to spell out High Legislacerator every time I address you]
[For your benefit of course]

The High Legislacerator paused, consulting something Gael could not see on her side of the table, a little glance over her ‘monitor’ revealed it to be a small tablet-like construction. Similar in make to their communications machines albeit with teal musculature. The alien growled faintly and put the shell tablet aside.

[Y0U SH4LL R3F3R T0 M3 4S L3G1S TH3N G43L HUM4N]
[FR0M H3R3 0N 0UT 1 SH4LL B3 4SK1NG TH3 QU3ST10NS]

Gael resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. Catty but she supposed that came with the murder-lawyer like title.

[Well then go ahead]
[Im not going to try to stop you]

The Legis was quick to type her interrogative inquiries.

[F0R WH4T PURP0S3 D1D Y0U D3STR0Y TH3 BR1DG3 STRUCTUR3 4ND K1LL TW0 HUNDR3D 4ND T3N 1MP3R14L S0LD13RS]

Gael read the question once, then again, whistling. Two hundred and Ten? Pegahmagabow and Abu Tahsin would be pleased. Worthy were more than paid off.

Likely the Legis was wise to her actions as a distraction. But Gael wouldn’t be able to just give information so easily. She wanted to make this process as drawn out as possible. Might get her fed to the red-eyed giant but hey. Living on borrowed time let Gael work like that.

[Well that bridge belonged to my ancestors once]
[The people of the Yankee stole it from my people and I decided to take it back and destroy it]
[Im not just going to let someone else have my ugly bridge]
[Your kind seemed to be having some trouble with the Yankees over the river huh]

The pain that came upon Gael was both debilitating and unexpected. Centered at the back of her neck underneath the collar the blinding anguish dropped her from her seat, jerking about on the floor for a moment as she struggled to contain the spasms. But even then there was a-

A flaccidness to it. Felt like she would be screaming at the top of her lungs under this once. Weak as her body was, she had endured far worse at her own core only a short while ago. Pain, not so much as pain but a ringing thing that filled her mind and drew Gael out of function. Of course she was still susceptible to repeated high voltage shocks to the base of her neck but it was a consolation prize to her battered state. The pain ended as abruptly as it had begun.

The Legis clicked. “Funny girl then.” She gestured for Gael to sit back up, and she did. Once her legs decided to work again. A message was waiting for her. “At least you didn’t pop.

[1F Y0U 1NS1ST 0N LY1NG 1 W1LL B3 F0RC3D T0 D0 TH4T]
[4G41N 4ND 4G41N 4S M4NY T1M3S 4S 1 H4V3 T0 UNT1L Y0U 4NSW3R 0R UNT1L Y0UR H34D P0PS]
[S0 4NSW3R H0N3STLY]

Gael had to stop herself from furthering the absurd and prodding lines. No, she’d have to be a little more subtle than that.

[What do you think the answer is]
[I went out there to break your ground forces as thoroughly as I could until your soldiers sent me to Walhalla]
[And from that look you have I think I did a bang up job]
[But Walhalla is still there waiting for me]

The Legis consulted the tablet once more before responding.

[WH4T 1S TH1S W4LH4LL4 4ND WHY D0 Y0U S33K 1T]

Gael smiled a little at the alien’s ignorance as she responded.

[It is the glorious resting place of those who die of battle]
[There in the halls of Walhalla the dead await the end of time when they shall participate in the final struggle called Ragnarok]
[I imagine I’ll see some of those Rust bloods from the Bridge there when you finally off me]
[Doubt Ill see many blues and purples though]

The Legis clicked harshly, drumming her claws on the tablet deciphering meaning to the human terms. The last statement earned a growl, but not another cattle-prodding from Gael’s collar. The human’s grin widened, there was a line to push.

[Y0U 4R3 LY1NG]
[Y0U W0RK3D W1TH 0TH3RS TH4T P4SS3D THR0UGH TH3 UND3RGR0UND TUNN3L 4ND TH3 0N3S TH4T D3STR0Y3D TH3 HUM4N URB4N C3NT3R 0N TH3 0TH3R S1D3 0F TH3 STR33T]
[WH4T W4S TH31R PURP0S3]
[Lady I dont know what youre talking about]

Gael was better prepared for this shock, managing to avoid falling out of her chair. Likely was going to give her brain damage she realized dimly over the blaring whiteness. Borrowed time, she reminded herself faintly over the white in her head. Hands gripping at the table and teeth grinding together she endured.

The shock ended quicker than the first one had, or maybe that was just perception. Gael faintly smelled something burning as she looked up at the translation screen.

[Y0U 4R3 LY1NG]
[4NSW3R M3]
[Cooking me isnt going to change my answer]
[Unless youre the sort who thinks a coerced lie is better than an honest unpleasantness]

The Legis was silent for a long moment. She gave two sharp taps to her screen, the mass of their recorded dialogue vanishing. Gael noted it down internally, seemed to her she’d struck a soft spot. She adjusted the collar as the Legis typed out more questions.

[WH0 4R3 Y0U W0RK1NG W1TH]
[H0W M4NY 4R3 TH3Y 1N NUMB3R 4ND WH4T W34P0NS 4R3 TH3Y US1NG 4ND H0W D0 TH3Y C0MMUN1C4T3 W1TH 34CH 0TH3R]
[Your lot killed everyone I was with. Been fighting alone since you fuckers landed]
[Mostly on my own but Ive had alliances of convenience with wretched creatures like the Quebecois]
[Nothing more than what I could communicate with vocal bits]
[QU3B3C01S]
[WH4T 1S 4 QU3B3C01S]

Gael somehow managed to keep a straight face as the urge to smile came again. Leet-speaking aliens it seemed knew little enough of earth for her to get some leeway back. Little delays, little things.

[The Quebecois are the northern people of the Quebec nation]
[A frightful bunch that smoke and are unable to speak any civilized language]
[They’ve been having a great deal of success]
[A group of five or more can eat the skin off of one of you aliens in three minutes]

Of course it wasn’t all wily fable, she’d worked with French Canadians and they’d been quite successful. She imagined Pat and Ludwig were somewhere up in the woods dragging as many Xenos down with them as they could. Fucking franks. Gael hoped they were still alive.

If the Legis didn’t believe her, she didn’t show it. Instead pressing on.

[QU1T3 TH3 C01NC1D3NC3 Y0U CH0S3 T0 M4K3 Y0UR L4ST ST4ND 0N TH3 D4Y 4 F0RC3 0F X3N0 HUM4N M1L1T4NTS D3C1D3 T0 L3V3L 4N 0CCUP13D F0RM3R X3N0 HUM4N P0PUL4T10N C3NT3R]

Gael responded in careful order, to keep herself line with her other responses. Not too fast and not too slow.

[I took it as a sign from the native gods they either like me or dont like you types]
[One or the other]
[D1D Y0U H4V3 4NY 1NCL1N4T10N SUCH 4N 4TT4CK W0ULD 0CCUR]
[None]
[To be honest Im a little mad at those Yankee fighters]
[They probably stole valiant deaths that I should have given]
[Without them I could have wiped out maybe three hundred of your kind perhaps more]
[The more indigo shed the merrier]

A moment of consultation on the tablet and the Legis resumed her questioning.

[WH3R3 D1D Y0U 4CQU1R3 Y0UR W34P0NRY 4ND MUN1T10NS 4ND H0W D1D Y0U US3 SUCH PR1M1T1V3 W34P0NRY T0 F3LL H1GHBL00DS 0F 1ND1G0 4ND H1GH BLU3 C4ST3]
[FURTH3R M0R3 W3R3 Y0U 4FF1L14T3D W1TH 4RM3D F0RC3 GR0UPS PR10R 1N X3N0 HUM4N C0NFL1CTS]

Gael rolled her response around in her head for a moment. Which felt a little lighter than usual due to the hunger. Or maybe that was just the result of the prior shocks. Pressed anyways, first things coming to her mind rolling her forward.

[I found everything aside from my blades which I had owned prior to your assault]
[As for prior military training]
[Ive served with the Army of Gabriel Dumont and the Fenians in the past]
[It made explosives manufacturing a bit easier]

All bullshit of course, she’d owned the RPK before and had gotten rather good at shooting the stupid wonderful soviet machine gun. Gael didn’t have any military training, nor even emergency services training. She’d just read a fair bit on strategy, a little steadfastness bringing the rest. But the Legis did not need to know that.

[4RMY 0F G4BR13L DUM0NT]
[F3N14NS]
[WH0 4R3 TH3S3 GR0UPS]
[Armed groups of strong conviction and ideologically aligned with perishing in battle]
[Expert guerrillas and cavalry soldiers all]

The Legislacerator clicked softly. “Of course you would be some kind of freak.” The indecipherable words came as she typed.

[H0W M4NY 1N NUMB3R W0ULD TH3 4RMY 0F DUM0NT 4ND TH3 F3N14NS B3]
[WH3R3 D0 TH3Y 0P3R4T3 FR0M]
[They used to operate in Canada but stopped when the queen told them they were being quite silly]
[Both have been defunct for a long while so I couldnt tell you how many are left]

There was a pause before the Legis tapped out another question.

[H0W 0LD 4R3 Y0U 1N T3RMS 0F Y0UR PL4N3TS S0L4R SW33PS]
[1 B3L13V3 Y0U R3F3R T0 TH3M 4S R0T4T10NS 0F B1RTH]
[52]

She was actually twenty four, but the Legis didn’t need to know that. The alien looked at Gael for a moment, a clawed finger just above the tablet. Perhaps considering if another shock was in order. Ultimately she decided against the action and pressed on. Didn’t know if she fully understood human aging. Little things.

[H0W D1D Y0U K1LL TH3 H1GHBL00DS]

A scoff, memories of exploding necks and heads running through Gael’s mind. The words came quickly, didn’t much see a point to jumping around this one.

[I shot them]
[With small pieces of metal]
[What did you not see the bodies or something]

The burst of pain that came was significantly greater than the prior strikes. So much so that even prepared as Gael was the pain simply ‘blanked’ out everything, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. Could only shudder. But it fell short again. Oh, Gael hadn’t felt anything like this before. But in memory? She had felt much worse.

The Anguish stopped after, well, time didn’t really matter when every millisecond dragged on.

Gael checked her pants first. Glad she’d used the literal hole in a ground before she got here. Would be a real shame to come all this way and foul her drawers because dur-hur pain button. Eyes opened, taking in things slow. Seemed as if her spasms had knocked over the stool, hadn’t felt it of course. The fucking shock ate up her sensory input. Standing shaking but smiling as joy came when Gael noticed the ‘Honourable’ Tyrant’s scowl. Same look structure that the Giant Indigo had given, there was no way it could be anything but a look of dissatisfaction.

Gael picked up the stool, and sat back down. Typing a bit slower from the way her hand kept shaking but she managed to get a response in.

[That truth seems to have unsettled you]

The clicking and the snarling noises that came from the red-glared Legis reminded Gael a bit of a crocodile, maybe with hissing cockroach noises mixed in. The alien’s response came quick.

[L14R]
[TH3R3 1S N0 W4Y Y0U 0P3R4T3D TH4T RUST1NG C0MBUST10N F1R1NG D3V1C3 W1TH SUCH 3FF1C13NCY]
[N0 W4Y Y0U 0P3R4T3D Y0UR 3XPL0S1V3S 3QU1PM3NT W1TH SUCH PR3C1S10N]
[Y0U 4R3 G01NG T0 T3LL M3 H0W Y0U 4CC0MPL1SH3D TH3 4CT10NS 0N TH3 BR1DG3]
[3V3N 1F 1T R3QU1R3S 3XT3NS1V3 3NC0UR4G3M3NT]

It was hard not to notice the stray clawed finger just above the chitin tablet. Gael ignored it. Borrowed time and all that.

[Youre asking me to lie to you again and Im afraid I really dont see the point in it]
[I am not special in form of combat, any other human with sufficient competence and aim could do what I did up there]
[I am beyond petty fear of beasts]
[Thinking or otherwise]

The Legis was silent, finger hanging still. Her head was low enough that Gael couldn’t see her face looking around the screen of the translator. The taps of her claw against her screen drew Gael back to the translated conversation.

[Y0U UND3RST4ND TH4T 1 4M G01NG T0 M4K3 SUFF3R F0R TH1S F00L1SHN3SS]
[Y0U 4R3 4 W34K P4TH3T1C CR34TUR3 TH4T SH0ULD H4V3 N0T 3V3N B3 4BL3 T0 D34L W1TH TH3 G4RR1S0N 1F Y0U W3R3 0NLY TH3 SUM 0F Y0UR 4PP4R3NT P4RTS]
[B3L13V3 M3]
[Y0U W1LL T3LL M3 TH3 TRUTH 0F 1T]

The Legis moved to stand, but Gael decided she was not done yet.

[Tell me something]
[If you would High Legislacerator]

The Legis paused mid stand, scowling but still paused. Hand not going to tablet, at least not for the moment. “I’m really starting to hate these fucking live-birthers.” The Legis muttered something low as she return to her seat.

[S4Y Y0UR W0RDS WR3TCH]
[Your title]
[Legislacerator]
[It is a combination of a word for someone who dictates law and a term for cutting is it not]
[1T 1S]
[Then I can assume that the title is designated for one who forms and executes laws on your general population]
[WH3R3 4R3 Y0U G01NG W1TH TH1S]
[Answer and Ill tell you]

The High Legislacerator’s growl filled the room but her claw did not scratch the tablet to fill Gael with pain. The claw came close certainly. But it did not scratch down. The hand slowly withdrew. The Legis’ response was typed with haste.

[TH3 L3G1SL4C3R4T0RS 3NF0RC3 TH3 W1LL 0F L4WFUL JUST1C3 UP0N 4LL 1ND1V1DU4LS W1TH1N TH3 3MP1R3]
[W1TH0UT P4US3]
[W1TH0UT H3S1T4T10N]
[C3RT41NLY W1TH0UT R3PUGN4NT M3RCY]

Huh. Concept of mercy. Maybe a different sort or just shitty translation but hey. Close enough Gael might be able to scrape something up. Maybe. Perhaps that was the leftover daze from the electric shocks thinking though.

[And to you the action you commit here is just]
[Making me writhe about on the floor for speaking to you the truth]

A pause came. The skittering claws killed it.

[Y0U K1LL3D TW0 HUNDR3D 4ND T3N S0LD13RS 4ND S3RV3NTS 0F TH3 3MP1R3]
[Y0UR 4NC3STRY 1S D3SP1C4BL3 4ND 4B0M1N4BL3]
[Y0U D0 N0T F4CT0R 1NT0 TH3 3QU4T10N 0F JUST1C3]
[Y0U 4R3 N0TH1NG WH3N 1T C0M3S T0 L4WFUL JUST1C3]
[Do you actually believe that lie]

Gael typed out the response before she could help herself. The sharp noise that came from the red-glared alien brought with it a pain even greater than last time. One that stole conscious from Gael before she could even make a noise. Sending her back to the swirling void of pain, rage and pathos that burned it all so brightly.

Chapter Text

- Somewhere under the Northern Highlands of Wisconsin

Singh tied his turban in the pitch blackness. He had been doing it for almost thirty years, every morning without pause since his eleventh birthday. The process did not require his eyes at this point. Oft his less faith inclined brothers would mock him for his diligence, his parents frequently questioning his choices of ‘gaudy’ colours for his turbans. But Banda Singh cared little of his family now. Perhaps they were gone, the Prairies had carried the worst of Canada’s devastation. If they had survived there was little he could do for them.

Singh finished tying his Turban, hands running over the tight grey-black Dastar he had worn day after day since the invasion had begun. Satisfied he ran his hands down his freshly trimmed beard, wiped his eyes one last time and stepped out of the dark bathroom. Awaiting him were the concrete hallways of the old nuclear bunker the Americans had dragged them too after they had punched a hole through Detroit. The memories of it did not feel real, almost implanted and half-forgotten. Truthfully nothing had in a long time. Sometimes he felt a spectator in his own body. But Singh did not concern himself with that now, walking deliberately down to the infirmary. He had no time for petty issues of the self.

None stopped Singh, neither Americans nor Canadian expats. The former perhaps fearful of his stern look and strong figure, the latter too focused on their own issues. The best case situation scenario had been achieved, but still it had cost them a third of their people.

Laurence Broderick hadn’t even made it to the tunnel when a Xenos had seemingly popped out of the dawn light and simply torched him and the truck he was driving. Singh recalled faintly how Harry had vomited on his shoes when the screams came. Ali had taken full command moments later, barking orders to the convoy that the panicked escort had followed to the letter. Singh had followed, under the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, chewing through the unsuspecting patrols. Then, up into Detroit when the Americans had begun dropping skyscrapers on the horned invaders. It became a blur after that, of dust and blood and his own curses.

He had almost lost Ali too, the foolish man getting himself shot pulling people out of a crashed truck. How terrible that would have been, Singh would truly be the only one left to lead.

The Infirmary was at least somewhat less harsh than the halls of concrete and rusted steel stairwells. The walls tiled blue and white, the lights somewhat bright. The walls were lined with curtained off beds. Fortunately the xenos plasma weapons killed outright usually. Usually.

The air stank of rubbing alcohol and idoform, noises of groaning and the hum of the old fans greeting Singh as he walked through the wards. His face broke wide when he saw his target, Ali Salman was already up, sans a good chunk of his right ear with that matching arm in a cast and sling. “For the last time would you let me go I am needed-”

A man who must have been a doctor cut him off. His eyes were ringed with dark circles, his sand toned fatigues stained with a worrying amount of red. “Sir you lost a serious amount of blood, I can’t let you go in good conscious because you might fall and make your injuries worse.”

Singh approached with hard steps, grabbing the attention of both Ali and the said. “I will see to him. Mister?”

“Helway.” The doctor said after a moment, giving a look to the indignant Arab man and then back to Singh. “Make sure he doesn’t accidentally fall over. I don’t want to waste limited medical supplies on something preventable. I don’t care what the acting commander says.” He grumbled as Ali hobbled over to Singh.

“You look good Salman.” Singh said as he carefully patted him on the back, the two walking out.

Still he winced slightly. “Good as can be.” Ali hissed between his teeth. “I can’t believe I lost my good ear.”

“The Xavier character wants to see us both.” Singh’s kept himself quiet as the pair exited Infirmary. “Something about information on the global situation.”

Ali stared at Singh hesitant for a moment. “Were you able to ask about-”

“Dearborn wasn’t hit by the initial bombardment. Refugees from the city went out west before xenos feet hit the ground. There’s a good chance your kids got out Ali.”

Ali breathed out softly, content to allow Singh to guide him down into the bunker, slowly of course. The stairwells in particular proved a pain to navigate, every step making Ali wince. Near the end Singh had jokingly asked the other man if he would prefer to be carried. Ali had valiantly attempted to smack him, nearly tipping for his effort.

They managed to reach the bottom floor without incident. The command center awaited them, past two enormous blast doors and multiple sets of armed guards. Singh supposed the extra bodies had to be put to some use.

The final blast doors passed, and the pair stepped into the command center. The walls were lined with computers and assorted equipment, tables dominating most of the room laden with communications equipment. At the back of the room was a titanic screen, displaying a full map of the planet against the length and width of the wall. A worrying amount of the world was marked with bright red and black.

The large room was largely empty, the few staff able to make use of the equipment likely MIA. Most operating equipment and communications were dressed in civilian clothes.

The head of the operation stood in the middle of the room. Still, staring up at the map of Terra.

“Xavier.” Ali called out.

The man turned, exactly as Broderick had painted. His skin was black as ebony. His features strong and his blue eyes piercing. Not a single hair rested on his head or his chin, so much so it looked as if he had waxed his entire head. He wore brown fatigue pants and boots, his coat unbuttoned revealing the sweat stained white shirt underneath. He grinned, revealing stark white teeth. “Salman, Singh, excellent. It’s time to brief you two on our position.” He said and beckoned the pair over. “Sorry about your losses. The fall of Detroit was one hell of a retreat. Caught an entire swarm of their hover vehicles and low atmosphere fliers. Entire great lakes region is reeling and the wider press Operation Backhand-Blow initiated is bleeding the xenos forces with below minimal casualties.”

Ali and Salman hobbled over as another American soldier trudged past, putting a page into Xavier’s hands. Scanning over the contents he handed the page off to the man sitting at the desk beside him, a green dull eyed man with a black cowlick who quickly updated the global map. Singh noted faint changes, a little more red in China, a little more green on the coast of the Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

Singh could not help himself. “It is to be expected. If I may ask-”

“The bridge detonator did their job better than we could have hoped. Drew half the combat groups along the river all the way up to the tunnel. You can thank him for the minimal losses.” Xavier it seemed had expected his intentions.

Ah. Of course. Singh’s hand drew to his face, rubbing over his eyes. “Her, sir.”

Pulling his hand back he noted Xavier’s grin was only slightly dampened. “Well, she held out until the bulk of our forces had pulled out. Must have been nearly an hour up on what was left of Ambassador before they got her.”

Singh cleared his throat, careful to keep his words from cracking. “Well. Good then, we lost a very useful soldier. I hope that package was worth it.”

Xavier raised a hand and pointed at a nearby desk. Sitting there was the cargo Singh had seen handed off to the Americans, opened and being examined by a pair of men, one in military fatigues with short cropped hair, the other in civilian attire with an extremely out of place neon green Mohawk. The box was as tall as a 55 gallon industrial barrel and half that across, the black box had been an enigma that had been dragged with bloodied hands all the way from Nunavut. Over the Hudson Bay and all the way down through Quebec. Whatever it was, none had bothered speculating on it. The task drawing them south. Following their one directive, get it to the Americans. “If that black box is what we expect it to be, then it’s going to make breaking the enigma look like Pig-Latin.”

“I knew we were down to the wire, but this is maddness.” Ali murmured as he looked up at the map of the earth, Singh and Xavier looking back at him.

Xavier shook his head. “We have three satellites left, all operating on a suppressed tone and overworked. You can thank the Iranians, the Indians and the Kazakhs for setting up a global intelligence network. Old Soviet equipment, tech-boys guess they were spared because they look defunct and are a ways out in outer geosynchronous orbit.”

Singh looked over at one of the reports, a confusing mess of numbers was printed across the page, a translated message underneath. Polish he thought, though it may have been Czech. “Evolving cryptograph?”

The American commander grinned. “Yes, some Swiss bastards hooked it up and passed us off before they went silent. I don’t think they’ve been wiped out though, Alps are too well prepped for that.”

“So. What’s the global situation?” Ali asked still staring at the global map.

Xavier’s look fell as he pointed up at the map. “Well, Scandinavia, North Europe, Russia, North China, Mongolia and Canada took the brunt of the orbital bombardment, major population centers hit globally. Death toll is estimated to be at somewhere between two to five billion at this point.”

“Allah Yarham.” Ali hissed as Singh considered what he Xavier had said, Most of the North was black, only a few blots of red and green about anywhere. For some reason he felt nothing aside a slight pain in his brow. He said nothing as Xavier continued, tone turning severe.

“This seems to be a war of extermination, however they evidently want the planet. Eggheads say for colonization. Means that they could only use special strikes to neutralize military installations and short lived chemical agents on population centers. The entire US nuclear stockpile has been nullified by some kind of particle negation weapons, all that's left in the bombs is carbon. But, now that they’d landed it seems they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Resistance is global, organized and currently making them pay.” He turned with a raised brow aimed at Singh. “You’re Canadian armed forces, right Turban?”

“I am.” Singh waited until the American commander had turned away to roll his eyes.

“Well congrats, you’re countrymen are leading by example, only three wings left in contact. Leaf-Rangers, 427s and the JTF2. Rangers are operating up somewhere in Manitoba, have a heavy amount of focus on them and the aliens don’t like cold.” He took a few steps over to one of the translator’s desks and pulled up one of the decoded messages. “427 and the JTF got stuck in Afghanistan. Initial assault took out half the NATO and American forces, three quarters of the Afghan army. But what’s left of them, the Canucks and some Germans are still holding Kabul. Militants are also assisting, tribals, Islamiscts and the rest. Aliens make for a better ceasefire than Christmas.”

Xavier set the message aside and whistled at a man in the far corner of the room. Pointing up at the map, the man nodded and tapped something out on the computer. The map zoomed in on Continental Asia. Singh grimaced when he noted the near blackness in Japan, and the red stain running over India. “Japan’s almost gone, minimal contact with groups out there and when we do its bad. Chinese and Indians account for the highest casualty rates though, whole lot of central India and coastal China is just gone. Resistance is scattered but thanks to communications they’re fighting out from the more mountainous areas, re-organizing what they can scavenge. Koreans even went and formed a joint front and are having the most success out in the Far East.”

He whistled again, the map repositioned to show the black mass that was once the Russian Federation. “North, the Russians have been put down to one in eight, but are having extended success in the North, with their untouched nuclear facilities in the Urals being re-fitted for orbital nuclear strikes.” Another whistle, the map repositioned to South East Asia. “Southeast got hit hard too, but the Indonesians are also knocking off assaults. Bali has managed to drive off landing forces entirely.” Another whistle. Down again. “Australia is gone, overwhelmed in the first four days. No resistance, and most of the Oceanic front is the same. Only a few Maori and Kiwis left.”

Xavier whistled once more, waving his hand to the left, the map repositioned to the blotchy mess of the center-most continent. “Africa’s a fucking mess, South Africa was knocked down three quarter population wise but what’s left is re-organizing with Zimbabwe cores and Mozambique. Communications otherwise have been- limited. South of the Sahara the only confirmed operations are the Liber-CAR force that- if they’re being honest managed to actually take back port territory and are having repeated success. Ethiopian front’s the other, and from the sound of it they’re in over their heads.” A lift of the hand and another whistle. Singh heard someone curse somewhere as the map raised north. “Europe. Fuck what can I say? Everything north of Berlin got cut down to one in ten. Things get less dire in the south but the fighting along the Mediterranean is something else. Greeks are the only non-mobiles at the moment, though we can’t be sure of that.”

“Greeks?” Ali asked.

Xavier nodded, giving a whistle, the map zoomed in on the Balkan Peninsula. The only place in Europe of green marked human controlled land. “Greeks, Albanians and Turks to be specific. Taskforce Napoleon has been bleeding rainbows for the last two week, lost their primary bases in Thessaloniki and Athens but they’ve managed to retake Larisa and Lamia, might be able to retake Athens too.” The American chuckled grimly. “Though that might just be their optimism.”

The map operator shouted up after Xavier. “There’s active resistance in almost every European country, even Sweden which is estimated to be down to one in twenty. Mobile though it may be they’re not yet lost.”

Xavier gave another whistle and the map repositioned again. “South America’s might be in the best position, they were the last to get hit by orbital strikes and terrain’s been favorable to them. Peruvians and Brazilians in particular.” Whistle. The map moved north again. “Central America got hit a bit sooner, still they’re also pulling their weight. Caribbean- well there isn’t much ground to retreat on the islands. The only contact we had was in Haiti, and they’ve been silent for a week.” Whistle. All of North America. The north was black, only a few dots of Green and red above the American border. Singh could hear Ali’s teeth clench.

“I don’t have to explain the Canadian situation. Mexico’s in a similar situation to the Centrals, if a bit worse off. Then the US, the best coordinated, currently we are operating without commander and chief and most groups are operating under provisional heads like myself. Initial strike cut out an estimated two in five, resistance success has been- mixed.” Xavier muttered something foul sounding Singh could not make out. “Having a gun behind every blade of grass doesn’t matter if you have no time to use it, and when this is over we’re going to have a half-dozen commander and chiefs running about. But we’re getting victories. We’re still getting cut in half with most assaults but we’re taking more and more with us. Detroit might be the Kiev of this war if the push keeps up.”

“How unfortunate we’re the Asiatic hordes in this case.” Singh said quietly.

Xavier clapped once and the map zoomed out to a global scale again. “I’ll wear it proudly if we actually win.”

Ali’s voice cracked as he spoke. “What of north Africa and the near east?”

“Getting to that.” Xavier said as he walked over to another of the communicators, quickly pulling out a sheet of paper. Walking back over he handed it to Ali. Though he could not read it, he recognized both the Farsi and the Hebrew script. “Currently it seems like the bulk of the assault force landed there. Focused around the Levantine coast. If there have been any certain victories it’s been there, along with the backroads of North Africa, the Caucus and Iran. Israeli, Lebanese, Iranian, Chechen and Armenian governments are still active and coordinating nuclear surplus for strikes when someone finally figures out where the fuck that fleet is and what ships to hit. They’re coordinating mainly with the Russians and Chinese. Likely we'll only be able to get off one strike before they retaliate, we'll need to make it count.”

Ali looked at Singh eyes wide. “I knew it was bad but this is insanity.” Singh said nothing as he processed it all, a hand coming to his mouth as he eyed the map and put down the untranslatable page. A war of extermination. He recalled a movie about such a thing, a few actually. He had indulged in such things begrudgingly with his oldest brother.

How pathetic they seemed now. Tasteless. Looking at that map it seemed like their doom was certain.

‘Hey, smile a bit will you?’

The memory made him smirk. Gael was gone, dead. It sunk in fully then. Some small part had struggled, unable to accept it. Not a soldier, but one hell of a scrapper it didn't process up until now. But the acknowledgment did not come with any weight in Singh’s mind. Miss Murdoch had done what she always had. The same as he hoped he could. He turned when the Mohawk'd man barked at Xavier to come over. “Wilson?”

The soldier beside ‘Wilson’ looked up as Xavier walked over, the Canadians following behind. A small compartment on the side of the device had been opened up, revealing a number of numbered dials, a pair of headphones that the Wilson character was wearing and a small printer. “The device is functional and-”

Wilson hissed over the soldier. “The sons of bitches actually pulled it off Commander.”

“Pulled what off?” Singh’s voice was stern enough it drew both of the black-box operators and Xavier. Wilson gulped.

The soldier and Wilson looked up Xavier nervously, avoiding the Sikh’s gaze. “Sir?” The soldier asked as Xavier looked over to Singh frowning.

His head fell. “This is the sum of Canadian Intelligence, FIS and GRU efforts to ‘decrypt’ what they termed ‘energy ripples’ that passed by Earth nine months ago. Didn’t start as a decryption product but it turned into one, after GRU and FIS people realized what they were dealing with. These xenos?” He hissed and tapped on the black box’s top. “They’re operating on a bio-technological level of post-industrial scale. Those fucking tanks and hover-craft are or were alive at some point. They grew them and we’re operating on entirely different levels of warfare.”

The soldier nodded and spoke up. “They’ve had a largely unknown advantage over us since this invasion began, energy, weapons munitions, and communications. All of that has seemed a non-element. Up until now-”

“Fuuuck!” Wilson snarled and yanked off the headphones, pressing them down on the soldier’s ears. “Browning are you getting this too?!” Browning was silent for a moment, a cautionary hand going to the largest of the dials to adjust it.

Xavier slowly walked over, Browning taking off the headphones and passing them off to his CO. Xavier shuddered a little as he pressed the earphones down. “Unbelievable.”

“Communications?” Singh murmured.

Wilson cautiously flipped a switch. The printer whirred to life, printing out a rapid lettering of what Singh assumed was the translated energy communications.

Browning audibly gulped as he read through the first printouts. “Darn.” Was all he managed to say before Wilson leaned over.

Wilson’s reaction was a bit more violent. He immediately kicked the desk behind them, the noise making Ali and Xavier jump. “You've got to be kidding me. It’s all French! Fucking instructions are in-”

“Here, let me see.” Ali’s voice was soft, though his eyes were near to bulging as he gently pushed browning out of his seat. His hand quickly reaching up to take the waiting earphones from Xavier’s hands. The Americans and Singh watched quietly (barring Wilson) as Ali quickly read over the notes that had been sealed inside the box. His spare hand hung at his side shaking. “I can operate it. Read the translations.”

Xavier spoke sharply. “Are you sure about that?”

Singh leaned over putting a hand on Ali’s unbroken side. “I would not doubt his conviction. You’re lucky you actually have someone who understands Quebecois, the Mainlander French wouldn’t have a clue they were reading.” Singh looked over the notes Ali was glued too, working hand quickly running over the dials as he scanned over the notes. Eyes tracing up to the constant printed stream of Quebecois translations. “Salman?”

Ali turned to face him. “Good notes, sorry. Its set up to automatically print translations, language is made of high tone variance and many vocal que’s. Seems like they set it up to manually confirm- well. Let’s hope the Scientists and translators did their jobs.” He murmured and set aside the notes. “Energy pulse dilations and rescissions alter what we pick up, like radio frequencies.” His hand quickly found a spare pen and a blank page from the table. “Some of its white noise and some of it just sounds like fucking screaming but we’re getting-”

Ali went still, hand quickly writing down rough translations in English to the stream of words coming from the Machine. Browning eyes widened as he realized what they were receiving. “Location coordinates.” The Soldier moved quickly, hand pulling over the notes as Wilson looked on. “We work out their mapping system and their handlers- and we’re going to know exactly where they are.”

“Callise.” Ali muttered. For some reason the curse made Singh smile. Beside him Xavier shook his head.

“Fucking French.”

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere Around 105km Above Greenland

Lygtagt-Kaigari Kohlar Degaal was tealer in the face than Marcyg Petang had ever seen him. That included the time Marcyg had called the teal a coward in a can. “For the last forsaken time you insufferable lead skulled malform! Plate will be the only means by which we break these degenerate aliens! We have lost over three million and eight hundred thousand on the ground to combat alone with an even higher number to attrition! Nearly a quarter of our initial boots on the ground are dead, out of commission, stranded or are outright deserting!” The low teal howled at his commanding officer.

Degaal’s jowls were shaking, eyes oranging in fury. He looked out of place in the black and gold attire of the Imperial Armies command staff to Petang. His cracked and battered horns more kind to a soldier, though his excessive fat marked him as more in line with command. His skin was only twinging dark grey, being the youngest in the war room by many sweeps.

The Suprek Lygtagt-Kaigari Duolan Haeiig looked over at Marcyg, eyes biting into him demanding he do something about the infuriated teal. Haeiig was tall and lean sea-dweller with dead eyes and shortly cut hair. His horns shaved down to his head in youth, created a pair of dark red disks above his brow. Haeiig’s skin was black from old age. The commander of the Imperial armies did not cut a striking figure at the moment, as he near cowered behind his desk.

Lygtagt-Kaigari Petang cleared his throat and stepped beside the teal blood. “Normally I would disagree with you Kohlar, but by virtue of being slightly less wrong I am forced throw my lot in with you.” Even beside Degaal, Marcyg was the shortest member of the command by two heads. An old-skinned and scarred olive blood, Marcyg’s horns were short sharp things that curled up from his opaque black hair. Scarcely visible under his hat.

Degaal looked over at Petang for a moment with a cold smile, then turned back to the scowling Salt blood. His hands slamming down on the shell-make desk made Haeiig jerk back. “Rymmyl is beside me on this issue and Genitori Jifryg is abstaining! The entirety of your subordinates who are well above you in terms of combat experience are telling you to undo our positioning and you’ll still side with the void forsaken Vykjiit!?”

Haeiig shot a lethal glare at Petang that he had not seen in sweeps as the sea-blood turned on Degaal. “The ‘forsaken’ Vykjiit have the ear of the Empress herself, they are having their equipment needs sustained while ours run low. I’ve weathered worse storms than this. Nothing to do about it now but grit our fangs and wait it out.”

“Pah.” The quietest member of the Imperial Armies leadership clicked softly as he righted himself from where he had sat in the back of the Suprek Lygtagt-Kaigari’s office, watching the chaos unfold. He was a tall full-blue, but age and sedation had made him soft and wide. His horns were dull things that looped under his ears and pealed back up. Lygtagt-Kaigari ‘Genitori’ Jifryg shook his head slowly, eyes half lidded.

Haeiig made a noise like a protein grub being stepped on as Jifryg took a step towards the door. “Do you care to add something Genitori?”

Jifryg paused. He turned to them, frowning. “Yes, I’m taking leave and returning to the planet. The very least I can do for my forces is suffer down with them in the mud.” He gave a solemn nod to Petang and turned again to leave. While there was something almost comical to Degaal's anger for Petang, the sight of the old blue looking so- empty and dispiriting.

Haeiig’s creaking turned to outright hissing. “I order you to halt. Genitori!”

Jifryg did not even turn to look at his commanding officer. “Don’t make me turn my abstainment into opposition, Butcher Lygtagt. I am weary of this bickering.” Haeiig’s hissing died as a purple blush of fury rose to his face. Jifryg was gone in a moment, walking out without ceremony.

The Suprek Lygtagt-Kaigari finally lost it, howling as he rose to his feet, oranging in the eyes to meet Degaal’s fury. No one flinched as he snarled at his subordinates “Unbelievable! Since when do the beasts and supreme leaders of the empire’s ground forces have cold feet?!”

“When we find we are going up against a foe that has barely left their own orbit, no longer is in control of their own population centers and are not only still fighting but winning battles.” The warm calculated voice of the last member of the empire’s command staff came undisturbed by the sea-dweller and the teal near ready to tear each other apart. Marcyg allowed himself a breath of relief as Lygtagt-Kaigari Arhwyx Rymmyl stepped forward. Tall to the point he was near twice the size of Petang and lean. With a face full of scars, Rymmyl was also a pure blue like Jifryg. His jagged red horns shaped back and curling upwards behind his head. Unlike Jifryg he still looked as if he should be serving with psi-armour groups on the planet below. His officer’s attire devoid of gold chain and jet black, a pair of battle googles laid upon his officer’s hat.

“A foe that had, and may still have weapons that could cripple the fleet if they sum up more atom-cracking material with orbital rockets.” He walked slowly between the battle-eyed Haeiig and Degaal, his clawed hand fell on Degaal’s shoulder. “Haeiig, I took you for stubborn and uncaring but I did not take you for an idiot. The Vykjiit will turn on us first when we are left weak by this.”

Haeiig’s brow twitched dangerously as he looked between the three Lygtagt-Kaigari. “And I’ve told you I have my own plans laid! When we wipe out the last of these abominable aliens we will deal with the cursed Vykjiit and those wretches Higmmr and Gobayl!” The sea dweller panted and leaned back on his desk. “I can do nothing to change our current approach. If we fail the course now we leave ourselves open to daggers with Imperial backing.”

Petang clicked twice and shot his ‘leader’ a scowl. “Then there is nothing for us here. I believe I shall take to the Genitori’s approach of it.”

Degaal nodded beside, shooting a glance up to the blue blood. “I as well, Rymmyl would you join us?”

Rymmyl coolly tapped a finger against his head, though Petang already recognized the blue blood’s smile. “I suppose my plate forces can wait a while longer for me.”

Rymmyl followed them as Degaal lead the trio of Lygtagt-Kaigari, hands locked behind his back and head shaking. When they were out of the hall another flaccid screech came from the office of the Suprek Lygtagt-Kaigari. The noise earned a growl out of Petang and a sneer from Degaal as the three began walking off towards the docking bay. “You know what I would have done if someone told me a sweep ago that I would find myself allied again with you Petang? I would have them thrown out an airlock.”

“I am not exactly pleased with this either, but there is little to be done.” Petang clicked earning a laughing trill out of Rymmyl.

“I imagine the actions we take undersupplied and against skilled foes will serve as proof to ‘the ineptitude of males.’” The blue blood chuckled.

The abrupt burst of anger fell upon Petang, his mouth opening before he could help himself. “I hate those Vykjiit.”

Degaal clicked in agreement, while Rymmyl turned to Petang. Look still humorous, but with a faint darkening remaining in the eyes. Rymmyl spoke with his fangs barred. “Look on the shaded side of things, those accursed zealots will shatter once the heads are cut from the serpent. That is your proficiency, Roaring Beast.”

The smile only furthered the anger bubbling in the Olive’s gut. “I wish I had your confidence Rymmyl. It seems the sort of trolls who do not believe in clean culling are once more crawling up out of the cracks. Was Alternia not lesson enough to that foolishness?”

Degaal turned to Petang, brow low. “It is inevitable. You and I are despised for our caste Petang, never mind you could likely hold off a priestly charge with three low teals and a half dead sabered beast. The old guard are emboldened by failings before the deep fall, and their motley parasites have come running.”

“Why do you think I stuck my underbelly out for you? An idiot proponent of armour and a stubborn troll you may be you are preferable to the half-dozen idiot sea bloods and true blues that Haeiig wanted.” Petang growled.

Degaal raised his eyebrows in feigned shock. “How strange. A near compliment from the Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul? I almost don’t believe it.”

The anger still burned in Petang, though it shifted from the foul black anger to the familiar desire to drive his fist into Degaal’s knee. His look almost turned amicable. “Don’t think too long on it. I would take the Pryaefaxa at this point. Indulgent sea blood is always better than stupid and malicious sea blood. And whatever bloody abomination Gobayl is.”

Degaal stroked his second chin, looking away from Rymmyl and Petang. “And where would you two put the admiralty at now? Perhaps we could rouse some support from them at this point.”

Petang snorted. “Unlikely, The Suprek Pytiax is an eight faced coward who could not be trusted to not betray his own moirail.”

“His successor?” Degaal questioned.

Rymmyl chuckled mirthlessly. “You never struck me as the cloak and dagger sort Degaal.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The teal grumbled. “Well?”

“Somehow he’s even worse. Vilnuv is an idiot and a coward who could not direct a fleet out of a wet grub-skin bag.” Rymmyl spoke plainly.

Degaal gave a trill of frustration. “Wonderful. I suppose offing the pair of them would only expedite our collapse?”

Petang recalled the last time he was forced to dine with the members of the fleet’s admiralty, established and free-horn alike. The memories made him shudder as he spoke. “Yes. Yes it would. There are a few who might rise in the void forsaken all-cannon standoff but it would cost us resources we can’t afford to lose for a possibility of fleet competence now.” He shook his head, almost spitting in disdain until he remembered he was not planet-side. Some poor janitor would have to clean the spittle up. “Even if we did kill them and left the succession open. Do you know who would likely win the position? I see only time bombs.”

Petang looked up at Rymmyl, who tapped a talon against his cap in thought. “Yes, likely it would be one of the free-horn captains. The proper imperial command in the navy values complacency and the ability to bomb unaware targets. Free-horn Captains actually require competence, but their intrigues are many and no sane troll willingly takes the position.”

Petang snorted as he considered the knifed proposition Degaal laid, recalling members of the Empire’s void fleet he had actively attempted to scrub from his think-pan. “The Red-Pashka would be an ideal Suprek Pryaefaxa KVP. If of course his fool-hardy bravado could be contained. Pashka Camalari would also work. Though I feel he wishes to return to far scouting. In the event of a struggle he might just desert.”

“Thoughts on the Dual-Scarred?” Rymmyl asked in a facetious tone.

Facetious or not the memory of the battered seadweller made Petang growl loud and low. Low enough it drew stares from his fellow Lygtagt-Kaigari. “An idiot who should have perished back on Alternia.” It took him a moment to stop creaking, biting his tongue with his beast-like teeth to cut the anger. But when it was gone he felt empty. “Rest softly, pale titan. You deserved better than that one.”

Degaal looked at the Rymmyl then down to Petang. “Sentimentality as well? Bad blood, who killed the real Petang and replaced him with you?”

Petang snorted. “The Two-scarred Iconoclabductors are abominable, as is their ‘supreme’ admiral. The only benefit would be Dual-Scar’s utter detest of the Vykjiit. That is if he wouldn't inevitably use the imperial navy to wipe out a half to three quarters of the free-horns. Half the fleet being blown apart in the process.”

The teal sighed. “Typical sea bloods. Any others that would not sell out to the occult lapdogs?” Petang had no more anger to give a full growl as he recalled a certain Cerulean. “What?”

The olive blood looked up to the blue walking beside him. Rymmyl’s look had turned serious, Petang had enough faith in the man to know they shared the thought. “Kh. Rymmyl?”

Rymmyl cleared his throat and looked over at the staring Degaal. “There is a particular… Marquise who is only Marquise in name. Spinneret Mindfang I think was what she went by?” He looked to Petang who gave a short nod. Rymmyl nodded himself and continued. “One of those neurotic types, does things in eights, but has at least a full fleet in terms of vessels to back her. Also possesses mental control psionics and has a long vindictive streak.”

Degaal let out another annoyed trill. “What I would not give to have the rest of the fleet against us, rather than a bunch of live birthers. Properly I mean. No doubt the Vykjiit would gladly have us all culled, likely they are planning it.” He corrected himself after a moment. “On the open field I mean to say, we would burn them down to bone and plate.”

The rest of the walk down to the docking bay of the ‘IV Breaker of Filth’ was made in silence. The long halls largely empty as most of the military personnel of the Imperial Army had moved their operations down to the planet. The skeleton crew of Haeiig’s flag-ship busied themselves with the basic upkeep of the titanic carrier. The ship bay was largely empty when they arrived, Degaal’s blockade runner ‘IV Molded Two Hundred and Forty Six’ docked alongside.

Degaal gave one last solemn look at his fellows and tipped his hat to them. “Well then, my broodling-blood by circumstance. I wish you the best of luck. Keep an eye on your backs will you?”

Petang returned the gesture. “And you Kholar. If we lose you Haeiig gets to put whatever decadent prick he wants up to the plate, and I would very much like to finish my service without culling another member of command.” Rymmyl gave a long wave as Degaal boarded his vessel, the hull doors of the connective walkway shutting behind him, leaving Rymmyl and Petang alone.

Petang managed a few sullen breaths before Rymmyl spoke up.

“You came up on one of the troop transports heading for a rotation ship, didn’t you?” The intolerable smugness of Rymmyl’s voice made Petang gurgle. The olive blood tried speaking, he really did. But all that came out were croaks. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

“Oh you know what I said.” Petang managed as Rymmyl began walking over to his own shuttle, a battered old thing scarred by age and low orbit combat alike. One would not think a second in command of the Imperial would ride about in a dingy old shuttle, but Rymmyl was hardly a normal Lygtagt-Kaigari.

“Honestly, if you wanted a ride, you could just ask.” The blue blood’s voice was thick with feigned exasperation as he withdrew the shuttle’s key-ball from his vest. The doors opened and after a moment of grumbling Petang forced himself over on stilted feet. “Truly, you are still that same threshicharger you were when you were conscripted.”

As Petang stepped inside the familiar stench of Rymmyl hit is nose, mildly irritating but at this point it was almost a comfort. The discarded ration tins scattered about and haphazardly placed cannon parts less so. “And you are still that insufferable plate driver that doesn’t know when he reeks of ley grease and psi-worm urine.”

“Some things do not easily change you know.” Rymmyl murmured as he closed the ship door behind him, leaving them in the dim ambient orange light of the shuttle.

“Are you ever going to get this dented hover-beast replaced?”

“No, faithful service has earned it a few retrofits.” Rymmyl mutter as he pulled of his command coat and hat and hung them in a locker.

Before Petang could stop him the blue blood yanked off Petang’s cap, the olive’s movement to grab it back leaving him open to the treacherous free hand that scratched Marcyg behind the horns. Talons earning an involuntary purr out of Petang. Rymmyl snorted as he tossed the Olive’s cap beside his own and yanked up the Olive into his grasp, careful to keep scratching as he carried Marcyg over to the padded benches that lined the back of the shuttle.

“If the rest of the empire could see the Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul’s reaction to a good scratch behind the ears-”

“They’d also see the Old Sand Beast doing the scratching.” Marcyg snorted as he readjusted himself in his moirails lap, though already he could feel the stress and anger of the meeting with Haeiig draining from him under the careful claws of Arhwyx.

He allowed himself to lay there for a long while, reclining against his pale partner as his mind wandered.

Marcyg stayed quiet, as his thoughts finally fell to a dark place he'd promised to address. Partly because such time together was rare, partly because he knew he would destroy the peace when he spoke his mind.

Arhwyx had been Marcyg’s moirail for little over ten sweeps now. Unusual, considering their history. When Marcyg had been a young threshicharger and Arhwyx an up and coming commander they had been on opposing sides of a full civil conflict. Rising through the ranks of the Imperial army they had been rivals, Marcyg had been closest with the Genitori, though his own defensive command skill had been eventually recognized.

But- Marcyg could not have asked for a better moirail, even if they had to keep their quadrant hidden as such things were blatantly exploited in Imperial intrigues. Arhwyx’s careful taloned scratches could bring Marcyg down from a full killing state if they needed to.

When Marcyg finally worked up the courage to speak his voice came choked, earning a nervous chitter out of Arhwyx “I tire of this. Of seeing so many die. Of this bloodshed without end.”

Arhwyx was silent for a moment, looking up at the ceiling when he spoke. “There is little we can do, pallid beast of mine.”

“That is the worst part of it, perhaps.” Marcyg growled as he pressed his head against Arhwyx’s boney chest. “I am close to them, the Genitor the same. I’ve watched so many die. Clinging to me for comfort as the void takes them.”

Marcyg had earned the title ‘The Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul’ for his defence of an Imperial colony in a greater conflict with a now extinguished xenos race. Gould or Gou’ald or something. He hadn’t felt particularly proud of himself then, now all he felt was humiliation. The olive blood ground his fangs together and shut his eyes to avoid the sudden sense of illness in his gut from the uselessness that gripped him.

“I want to build a state where this sort of war is made abhorrent.”

The blue blood trilled softly but said nothing. Thinking for a moment before he spoke. “I would like such. But to earn that would require a war the likes of which neither of us would win. Or likely survive.”

“That would be enough. My bones will never lay in Alternian sand. May as well let them lie for a proper thing.” Marcyg grumbled into Arhwyx’s shirt. “We are alike in our hate for her, aren’t we?”

Arhwyx’s reply came with a softness unbecoming of a blue. “It seems we are.”

Marcyg felt the tremor in his moirail’s bones well before the blue blood noticed it.

Before the Olive blood could move the blue buried his face in Marcyg’s hair. Claws digging into his flanks as Arhwyx gripped him. “Perhaps, had I been on Alternia perhaps I could-” Marcyg Petang had never heard Arhwyx’s voice break, his words disintegrating on his tongue into a choked growl. He tried again. “I could have-”

Again his words failed as his body shuddered.

Words failed Marcyg for a moment as the noble shook. But he was not much of a talker anyways. He kept his head pressed against Arhwyx’s chest, and when the worst of his tremors passed he gripped his moirail’s head. “Arhwyx.”

Arhwyx said nothing and made no noise at all, though Marcyg could feel his straggled breathing. The olive blood readjusted himself and pulled the blue blood’s forehead against his own. His eyes were clenched shut, his serrated fangs biting into his lips. “Arhwyx there was nothing you could have done. You were a soldier, proper. You always did your job.”

“Marcyg that doesn’t excuse anything.” Arhwyx managed with a ragged chitter.

Marcyg nodded and wrapped his moirail in a tight embrace as the battered armour leader’s tears and sobs came freely. “None could know how the cascade would begin and end. I would rather have you serving here at my side than perishing in the void collapse that came upon home.”

“Do you believe any of what the Sufferer said?”

The question caught Marcyg off-guard.

After a moment the olive blood snorted. “I would not call him such a name. He began Signless, I would remember him as such. As for what I believe?” Marcyg held onto his moirail until the last of the shakes stopped, Arhwyx grumbling nonsense as he dried his eyes. “I don’t believe in anything outside of you and my punch knives Arhwyx. Everything else is either actively failing or going to fail me at some point. I am prepared for such.” Arhwyx chuckled sordidly, but it was enough to restore a semblance of a smile to Marcyg. “But I will say this. From what I have heard? I would take that crimson strangeness to priests, free-horns and Vykjiit in a blood pulse.”

“That’s quite treasonous of you.” Arhwyx half-choked half-chuckled as he re-adjusted himself.

Marcyg Petang shot his moirail a beast’s grin. “My taste for ablation has worn itself down. I want no more deals with tyrants for a future of petty comforts that may not even be.”

Arhwyx leaned back into the seat for a moment as his usual self was recovered. “Isn't it dreadful? Here we are, two high commanders of the imperial army, discussing the destruction of the very empire we fight for.”

“No.” There was no hesitation in the word. “It isn’t, Arhwyx. If our leaders do not care for the people, where we do? Those trolls should be made not to lead. By all means beneath those that would make us one and the same.”

Arhwyx raised a solitary eyebrow as he “Would you walk that terrible path? It has brought Ire down upon all who have walked it before now.”

“I would, were you there with me.” Marcyg tensed as Arhwyx looked him over, a hand coming to his cheek.

He did not think his moirail would ever betray him. But for a moment an unpleasant nervousness gripped Marcyg. If Arhwyx would not follow then he could not embark on this path alone.

The blue blood’s tone was plain and flat. “Marcyg that may just be the palest thing you’ve ever said to me.” He managed to utter the words before he broke out laughing. Not a half chuckle but a full laugh that made Marcyg green in the face, as much in indignation as pale affection. “Come on, we should return. Lay out lines and see who bites.” He said as he slid Marcyg off his lap and rose.

Marcyg chittered as he noted the dangerous look in the blue blood’s eyes. Arhwyx extended his hand. “Until death and beyond?”

Marcyg accepted the hand and rose himself. “With fangs bared at the void.”

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere above the Northern Highlands of Wisconsin

Layman Lepzig’s last perigee had been fuck awful. Well beyond fuck awful now, more around terribly fucking awful. Not grub fucking void forsaken awful but he was getting there.

He had been deployed into one of the most contested and least habitable zones of the world. When the horrible fucking planet’s axis turned the entire hemisphere he was stuck in would end up being covered in literal feet upon feet of frozen water crystals. But fortunately it had not been that period of the planet’s rotation cycle for that. Instead it was the cycle of EVERY FUCKING CORNER AND CRACK BEING FULL OF ANGRY XENOS HOLY FUCK.

He hadn’t believed the rumors at first, the notion that the aliens had completely divested themselves into decadent ranged warfare and were somehow still holding out in their former population centers was absurd. Decimations of species that had barely left their atmosphere generally took only a few standard Imperial night-day cycles of bombing and a cleanup.

Layman had never seen so many dead trolls, it seemed the aliens not only specialized in ranged warfare and were holding out in their former hives, but apparently they were also fucking psionic. It had to be that, it was the only way the grub fucking shrimps were able to just surround a fucking extermination force and obliterate them in moments without sound. Their hand cannons and explosives had made short work of the initial task force Layman had been assigned to. He had only avoided their grisly fate by dropping and playing dead.

He hadn’t been proud to admit he’d literally wet himself lying amidst the rubble hoping that the void would reject him as the humans gunned down his force. The void had been merciful.

Or so he had thought.

The only thing worse than the forsaken weather and the accursed aliens was the Vykjiit and the Priests. He hadn’t actually believed before deployment that the priests would be on the ground, nor would the hyper-loyalists be leading entire task-forces with fancy new psi-armour and psi-transports. But they were. He couldn’t tell if it was insanity or if things were actually so terrible that the cold blooded monsters were allowed to run amuck.

The priests were bad enough, the face painted messengers of the mirthful messiahs filled his bones with terror. But Vykjiit had actually been worse, actively ‘requisitioning’ general Imperial equipment and redirecting extermination groups like they were fucking chosen by the Empress themselves. Their ‘discipline’ often involved shooting the weakest looking soldier to send an example to the others. Layman was glad he’d never bothered learning anyone’s names on the ground. It had made it all much easier.

The only one who he had talked to in the short nights and days of his time planet-side was his dumb-fuck matesprite. Tiralx Zgaigk was a fleet officer who managed to land a position on scouting duty and was more often than not on a battered old tanker floating on the fringes of the fleet. She was lazy, gluttonous and half of the time wasted out of her fucking think-pan, but for some reason he was flushed enough for the disgraced sea-dweller he had actually listened to her. She’d given him a half-defective ear communicator that let them talk in the off hours when it actually worked.

Layman Lepzig was also kind of a fucking traitor. He’d never liked culling. It made him squeamish.

Tiralx had shared that, being actually far more squeamish than he was to the point she couldn’t even deal with vermin and tiny fleet bugs. Treason was everywhere, borne in every sort of flavor and all a troll had to do was press their ear to the ground to hear it. Free-horn Privateers, Coglocarriers and all the other Gamblignants all near to abandoning their positions to pillage the planet freely, entire task-forces whispered evening themselves against slighted companies or abandoning the empire outright. Priest barking of obliterating the sea-bloods, vanguards of the suffering red taking the filthy xenos blood as a sign to rebel.

Layman wasn’t any of those types, he just wanted to get off this shithole planet. Tiralx was part of something bigger, technically multiple groups. Her outside position allowed her to hook up communications. How deep the burrowing-beast hole went he didn’t know. Didn’t want to know.

Tiralx advised Layman to get out and find a place to hide until the ‘shit-storm wore itself down’ in slurred words the last time they’d met just before this long miserable perigee had begun.

He hadn’t really gotten that chance with his first squad being obliterated, the second task-force he was assigned to being led by a fucking Vykjiit Grythkympter. A high blue that never took off his helmet and seemed to fucking get his rocks off to seeing his subordinates suffer. The only time Layman had seen him smile was when he’d looked over the results of an alien mine that had left two lime bloods crippled. Layman had looked and pried and stumbled about for an escape out into the fucking backwoods, with the already strained army it should have been easy. But the Vykjiit actually had the resources to ensure he wasn’t able to desert. Even if he did, the priests would sniff him out.

Then had come bridge day. Layman called it that, it helped with-

With processing it. Dawn always brought horrors. That remained true, even on this world. Though the star this world orbited was almost pleasantly soft it was still too bright, making it hard to see in the early hours. This world’s nights too dark with its lonesome moon. Dawn and dusk, the aliens knew the trolls eyes were at their worst during those times. They knew they’d either just woken or were near to sleep as the constant and vicious attacks forced them to function with the planet’s day-night cycle, out of sync to the Imperial cycle.

He was near exhausted, having pulled three planet side day/nights which was closer to a full Imperial night/day of Alternia or just a little under. The stringing of the overly long and largely fruitless patrols wearing everyone down. They had been wandering around a ways out of the alien hive thicket’s core when the explosion had come, the bridge that crossed the river simply falling into the water with a cracking that rang across the world. Any question of the act being an attack being cut with the blast of white fire that popped up where the small guard post guarding the bridge entrance sat. Any screams being ended by alien weapon's discharge.

All Layman had remembered was waving to an amicable pair of brown-bloods that had lent him a whetstone as the Grythkympter ordered them forward.

More explosions of white fire came, an older model of psi-armour had been making its way up the remnants of the bridge launching a purging shell that engulfed the top of the roadway in fire. Another burst of white fire came, ripping the armoured psi vehicle apart.

The howls of the priests rung in his ears, the Master of Mirth had fallen.

Laymen only faintly recognized the title, partly due to its height in the ecclesiarchy, partially because he kept himself as far away from anything relating to the Mirthful Messiahs as he could. Above it all the roaring of the priests demanded one thing, the head of the xenos or preferably its living body. No ranged weapons, the Grythkympter had forbidden it considering there was a very large hole with a number of still burning Vykjiit sharpshooter corpses.

The decision to wait for the psi transport ended in disaster. Whatever xenos were up on the ruined bridge shattered the transport with another blast of whatever weapon had broken the armour. The road was cut off, unless they went over. No, stupid fucking Vykjiit didn’t want to risk precious psi-worms and vehicles. The soldiery would need to do this the old fashioned way.

Laymen had been silent as he waited for his combat group to be shuffled to the front, the screams of the soldiery storming up the roadway dying was almost unheard over the howls of the priests. The singular dissenter having his throat ripped out as an example before the charges began in full. All while above the roar of the alien weapons blared. Alien. There was only one. He heard whispers of psionic, some kind of super alien.

None of it mattered when it finally came for his time to rush. The only net positive was the Grythkympter’s dull screech as he was gunned down. Priests still at Layman's back though, nowhere to run.

His efforts to keep to the back splattered him with blood, the roar of the gunfire stopping and explosions blew apart the space before him. The world was ringing. It came to him he had hit the back of the charge, allowing the other soldiers and highbloods to rush ahead as fire tore them apart. Layman could feel the priests down far below glaring daggers but he wanted to live, for the void reject him again. Yes he was a huge fucking coward but he didn't care.

The slower blasts of fire ended, the idiot Grythkympter prick that had forbidden nobles from firing going down without a face. Two more blasts and the soldiers attempting to flank the creature went down. The aliens were ambush and attrition creatures, there was no way for them to win toe to toe. That had been the only thing that seemed consistent. Layman had been wrong.

The thing had charged out howling like a day terror of Alternia, catching the soldiers off guard and sending Layman back peddling as more hand cannon fire ripped apart two others. The spindly thing was down to a blade. Small, almost quaint. Like a blade a wiggler would train with. But the howling filled Layman with the urge to run like the tiny monster was an indigo. Evidently he was not the only one feeling it, as the sharpness of its movement sent a sickle user skittering mid-strike, a terrible error as the small blade struck through the troll.

The xenos' pitched battle cry only rose as it tore through the unprepared trio, Layman watched in horror as the alien cut them down one by one. It was not particularly fast, it's reach short. But it was a cornered beast, and it fought like one. The final soldier fell, the xeno jumping atop it abandoning its blade and tearing into the terrified troll with a knife.

Its howl finally failed, the alien rose and turned to look at him.

It was a strange thing, short like a wiggler near adulthood and close enough to a troll to make its appearance unsettling. The eyes were the worst part of it, small like a predatory day-terror, the rest of its head obscured in a woven brown cloth now stained with every land dwelling spectrum of blood. Its limbs were lean, the bloodied rust stained hands shaking slightly. He noted the bright red blood streaming from a number of small cuts, heavier stains marking its scarf where its ears ought to be.

It looked at him, but it did not advance. He didn’t dare to attack it.

The void must want him out for as long as possible. He didn’t question the unexpected pity of the universe. Or the pity of the small eyed creature that had culled so many. Layman creeped around to the back of the alien’s defensive building, never taking his eyes off the staring alien. Then when he knew he was well out of sight from the glares of the other soldiery he fake shrieked, the xeno only stared as he dropped his sickle and ripped the imperial tag out of his skin. Without ceremony and still baffled by the current situation he stomped the tracker, a satisfying crunch confirming its destruction.

He gave one last look to the alien, its tiny eyes boring holes in him making him shudder as he turned.

Layman was only technically on the psionic spectrum, just enough that he was only certain he would be able to slow his fall as he popped of the edge of the shattered bridge.

He was partially successful, he managed to slow himself. But only enough that his ankles didn’t shatter when he hit the small concrete base the bridge’s tower was based upon. The immediate urge to shriek was buried by the terror that filled him. The alien had allowed him to escape, he couldn’t waste it. The jump over to the river bank forced a faint noise of pain out of him, thankfully hidden under the howls of charging priests above.

A part of Layman wished he could speak the alien language. Or- whatever language that beady eyed monster up on the bridge spoke. Maybe tell to say sorry for invading its planet. Or to just thank it for not culling him. Thank it for fighting the priests he feared to his core.

Layman managed to stomach those regrets as he fled, down the river edge and away from the battle going on behind him.

That had only been the start of his trials, the only boon he had was crossing over an utterly destroyed extermination group of Vykjiit, netting him a replacement sickle and a hefty amount of rations as he made his way into the wilderness of the human planet. He hadn’t exactly picked a definite direction, he’d just started walking and kept going.

This planet was awful, the weather shifted seemingly without reason from tolerable to unbearably cold, damp and wet to unbearably humid. The stinging and biting insect’s native to the planet battering him as he tried to find sleep in the broken abandoned alien hives. He did not encounter any aliens or trolls through a combination of caution and paranoia. He couldn’t tell if that was a blessing or a curse. Sometimes felt he was going insane from spending the too short days and nights alone.

Couldn’t ever get Tiralx on the line. He was torn between wanting to choke her and wanting to hold onto her again.

Finally the rations ran out, he had no idea where he was, what was edible and what was poisonous, the human groves and hills nigh impossible to navigate now. He’d savoured the last grub ball and tapped the ear piece one last time. Only psionic static. “Piece of shit fucking communicator.” He muttered, though there was no venom in the words.

Layman began walking again, following a stream only half aware of his surroundings. He didn’t think much now, occasionally shaking from the strong breeze. “Fuck you Tiralx you fuck if that micro day terror hadn’t decided to spare me I’d be dead.” He growled. Layman managed to avoid tearing up with a hasty verbal retreat. “I’m sorry I just want to leave.”

It was late in the day, night would soon be upon him and there was nowhere to sleep, no buildings to hide in. He hated the alien dirt, it was so fucking hard. “Fucking die frozen down here.” He grumbled. “Fuck this planet.”

As the light perished from the dull yellow to an orangey state the river gave way to a small pond. Layman walked around it carefully, the terrain growing all the more craggy as he looked about. Nothing but forest and hill in all directions, he was going to die in the middle of the stupid alien forest and that was it. He stopped walking at the edge of the pond, and looked down to see his own reflection. Miserable, ugly and tired, just as he remembered. Just with more dirt. He groaned.

It was in that momnt Layman realized there was a human standing not a few steps away from him, staring as wide as its little eyes could at him. Only a little below his height, lean and with strange pale hair. Looked dirty but not as dirty as he was. He stared for a moment. “Oh. Hello.” His vocal cords squeaked against each other as he noted the human had a small hand cannon clenched in its fist, aimed at him.

He managed to contain his creaking, hands shooting up into the air. “WAIT I’m on your fucking side!” The recollection of the bridge human popping the skulls of soldiers made his hands shake as the human slowly rose to its feet. Gun not pointing away from his head. It was so lean it would probably take nothing to cull the thing, but Layman really didn’t want to. The thought made him nauseous as the human looked him over. Tiny teal dots piercing him.

The alien finally spoke. “Drop the bag and that sickle.” Its words were strange, soft and core toned bending things. It did not click or even chitter making the words sound smooth as worn stone. Layman had no fucking clue what it said. He gave the alien an over-exaggerated shrug and a short questioning trill, praying it understood. The human kept staring, but after a moment it raised a hand to point at his empty supply bag and his sickle. It then pointed at the dirt at his feet. “Uh. Bag. Sickle. Drop?” He recognized a few of the words from before.

“Don’t let this be a pre-culling pilfering.” Layman hissed as he carefully shrugged off his bag and let the sickle fall from his belt. He even dropped the knife and his communicator because by the void he did not care anymore. He just wanted to live. The human made another motion with its hand, a small backhanded thing that he guessed meant back off. He took a step away from his things.

Oh.” The human said something indecipherable. “You actually did it.

With the slowness of a serpentine beast the alien stepped forward and picked up his weapons. Stashing the killing tools on its belt after a moment of examination it checked the bag. Finding it empty the alien made another soft noise and shouldered the sack, its hand cannon finally dropping as it pocketed his communicator.

“Thank you void for fucking off.” Layman croaked and dropped his hands, still staring at the alien which stared back. This one’s extra height making it a little less unsettling. After a moment he decided to say something. “Uh, Hello I’m Layman Lepzig.”

Layman slapped his hand against his face. As the human only stared. “Fuck.” He growled at himself as he rose a finger to his chest. “Layman Lepzig.” He emphasized his moulting name with taps on his chest. He then pointed at the alien hoping and praying that it understood was he was emphasizing. “You?”

After a moment of staring and the sensation his blood pusher was going to explode, the human slowly repeated the motion. “Sarah Piłsudski.

Layman managed a smile, careful to keep his teeth hidden because oh void that would get him fucking blasted. “Hello Shay- Sahg-Jarh-” He was starting to wonder if the alien’s blinked at all as he hissed and bit his tongue. “Oh this language is fucking intolerable.”

Layman cleared his throat, and finally managed to speak the first term of its name. “Hello Sharahg.

The human kept staring, free hand coming up slowly to make a near waving like motion. “Hi Layman.” Fuck it got it on the first time. Layman’s name came out thick like a colonial troll or a wiggler's words, but it was talking to him. Sarah carefully tapped his sickle, then pointed back at itself. “Uh. Why no attack?

It was probably asking about why he wasn’t trying to cull it. Not exactly like he could easily explain he was a massive fucking weenie. “Shit. Um. No-” He struggled for a moment, keeping his words as basic as possible. “No want. Want talk.” He quickly tapped his mouth and then pointed back at the Sarah alien’s own mouth. “Talk?”

The creature finally blinked, turning away from him it stowed its hand cannon. It started making a noise like a deflating float-grub. “Fuck no one’s going to believe me.” It turned to face him sharp enough he jerked slightly, hands raising back into the air. The action made the alien’s deflating noise even louder. “Uh- Oh I can’t leave you someone might come along or a-Sarah shook its head and dropped abruptly, shuffling through its own bag for a moment, pulling out a number of thin strips of- something. Thin and white. Sharp sawing noises came as the alien created a pair of squares out of the small straps. Sarah stood and walked over to him, beckoning him to lower his arms again. “Put these on. Then- talk!”

It made motions for him to lower his hands, only then realizing the human had made hand bindings. Layman considered for a moment that, if he accepted he was throwing his lot in with a member of the species his empire was literally trying to exterminate. He didn’t know if there was shame in the fact he put his hands forward almost immediately.

“Fuck just don’t skin me I got away from the priests to avoid that.” Layman mumbled as the Sarah carefully fastened the impromptu cuffs to him. They were odd things, stronger than they looked. The alien looked him over for a moment and nodded.

Alright. Just- just follow me okay. No- No big moves?” It emphasized its words carefully pointing at itself and leveling its hand softly. Though Layman couldn’t even try to guess the meanings he guessed Sarah wanted him to follow. At least he hoped it was that as he nodded.

The alien returned the nod, allowing him a nervous exhale. “Thank fuck they get nodding and shaking the head.”

He kept a few steps behind the Sarah alien as it lead him through the thick alien forest and the ragged terrain, occasionally turning to check on him. Not as much as he expected though. It let him relax and examine the human a bit closer. The alien looked so soft, the hair barely holding together and compared to his own hair it was much thinner. But it swayed and jumped about freely. Its clothes were worn, covered in dirt and what Layman dimly realized was alien blood.

Sarah’s movements were much more subtle than a trolls, its eyes faintly flickering over him and harder to estimate. The xeno actually smelled nice, which surprised him. The smells of dirt and old blood were overwhelmed by something else- something he couldn’t even guess. It made the fact he was probably going to be culled slightly tolerable.

The Sarah’s presence calmed him to the point where he almost shrieked in surprise when an alien shout of rage came. The noise he made was much more pathetic than a shriek as he crumpled to the dirt, the Sarah immediately jumping between himself and two aliens armed with very large very murdery looking hand cannons. “STOP THAT!” The Sarah shouted as the paired aliens, one with dark skin and the other pale glared- yes those were glares directed at Layman. The unnervingly small eyes were filled with death that made him want to run, but that would only get him blown apart.

He stayed as still as he was able to as the Sarah slowly approached him, gesturing for him to stand. Layman’s legs shook hard enough the act required the Sarah to physically help. Its skin felt impossibly soft as it- papped him? He stared blankly as the xeno turned to its brood. “Look he’s friendly! He gave me his stuff and he said what I think means he wants to talk!

The paler alien snarled and returned its cannon to firing position, the Sarah putting itself between him and the alien that seemed like it really wanted to blow him apart. “Are you fucking insane woman!?

Fortunately the Sarah did not budge. “The entire world has gone fucking insane if you two didn’t fucking notice! Put that fucking gun down because I’m not moving!

For a moment the pale alien looked as if it was going to shoot the Sarah to get at Layman, but the dark skinned human finally spoke. “Drop it man.

The pale alien turned going red in the face to the dark alien. “Are you kidding me!? What if its bugged!? What if-

Man if they knew where we were here we’d be covered in this fuckers cousins so fast we wouldn’t know what had hit us until we were dead. Put the gun down, I don’t want you hitting a friendly and a possible VIP.” The dark skin said in what Layman hoped was a calming and not culling tone. The pale human reddened and turned to glare at the troll with the bloodlust of a priest.

Possible VIP my ass-” The pale finally lowered its weapon. “If it makes one fucking wrong move I will blow its roach head off.

Layman managed to find his tongue and tapped the alien that had saved his hide on the back. It turned and looked at him. “Uh- Sharahg? Thanks.”

The Sarah gave an expression that Layman hoped was a smile.

The once pale now red human squealed. “You told it your name!?

The Sarah turned and- yes actually gave him another pap. He tried not to think about what the aliens used paps for as his savior and or maybe captor turned on the red skin. “Yes! He told me his name too! He’s called ll- Lku- Laymanlepzig and he’s been a whole lot more accommodating than you.

The mention of his name made him grumble, Sarah turned again and just fucking papped him. Again. “It’s alright. Just keep calm. Talk soon.

Talk. Layman really hoped Sarah got what ‘talk’ meant. The rust blood managed to nod earning sharp noises out of the armed aliens.

The dark skin spoke while the once-pale sputtered like a psi-worm having a conniption. “Does it seriously understand you?

Sarah nodded. “Yea. Which is why I didn’t shoot him in the face. He’s- it’s like he’s making an effort to communicate and I think he could be a real help. I think he's a defector. Just imagine what he could tell us.

Yea he can tell us we’re fucking screwed.” The red skinned human snarled and took a step forward, the dark skin’s back-hand earned a sharp grunt out of the red.

Would you shut that reservist trap of yours?” The dark alien said something and loomed over the red who stumbled back.

Another pap from the Sarah, Layman couldn’t tell if the blush on his face was humiliation or panic. The Sarah’s words were soft at least, calming. “Easy, it’s gonna be alright.” Laymen clicked in affirmation over what the Sarah had said as the pale haired alien turned to the dark skin. “Private Horace could you-

The dark skin nodded its head cutting the Sarah off. “Yes, we’re going to need to keep him out of the way so he doesn’t lie through his fucking teeth and get our VIP killed.” It shot another foul look at the grumbling red which was slowly returning to its normal skin tone.

The dark skinned human beckoned and the small group made their way to a small grove that quickly proved to be false, a construct of mesh and fake flora that hid the entrance to a deep cave, carved from the rock and outfitted with artificial lighting. Deep inside of the cave was a pair of metal fashioned doors, a massive one like a ship’s docking doors, with a smaller one off to the side. The dark skin human shot one last nasty look at his compatriot and passed through the small door.

Layman leaned his back against the stone of the cave and sank to his knees. “Well, hatched in a cave. Might as well be culled in one.” He clicked to himself and tried to ignore the fact the formerly red alien was glaring at Layman like the troll had borpked his matesprite. Did they have matesprites? Did they have moirails? Was there non-consensual pale touching or was he just dying in a gutter somewhere hallucinating?

Layman’s dazed thoughts were cut short by Sarah who leaned over him, unnaturally soft hand falling to his head. “It’s alright.” He couldn’t even guess what the words meant right now, but the way the alien said it made it hard to think over it much. Sarah wasn’t done yet though, the alien’s hand tapping the rust stained shoulder of his uniform where his tag had once been. “Hey. Can I look at that thing on your shoulder?

Layman shrugged, the alien prodding and pulling away his shirt to look at where the injury. It only struck Layman then that it fucking stung like crazy. He managed to not move though his involuntary chest cracking made both aliens jump.

Sorry! Sorry.” The Sarah said and moved a little more carefully to expose the hole. Layman grimaced as he noticed seeping puss and a little oranging in the scabbing injury. He felt bile rise in his gut and looked at his feet, the Sarah examining the injury as the alien that had really wanted to shoot Layman walked over.

Fuck that looks bad.” The once red mumbled and looked over at the Sarah.I thought they didn’t get sick? Not like us leastwise.

The Sarah made a soft noise and carefully returned the uniform to cover the injury. “Must be an infection. They’re prepared for earth’s viruses and most airborne bacteria but they might be vulnerable to open injury infections.

Once-red-pale-again made a noise like a whiff of air. “Fucker. That might be gangrenous on me.

The Sarah ignored it, keeping focus on Layman and tapping him on the head. “I’m going to get that looked after when-

I don’t fucking believe it. Two miracles in one day.” The booming voice of a new alien earned a shake out of Layman as he noted another dark-skin alien walk out of the small door. It was a hairless thing, skin even darker than the recognized alien that had escorted Layman here, a near half-dozen other aliens with equally large hand-cannons escorting this loud one. Not that it needed the support, in its one hand was the largest one-handed hand-cannon Layman had seen to date.

The alien approached confidently, looking at Layman in a way that made his legs shake. “Sharahg please don’t let them shoot me.” He managed as the dark-skinned must-have-been leader loomed over him.

The Sarah did not sound daunted, a hand patting Layman on the head. “Shoosh.Sarah said and turned to the leader alien with crossed arms. “Yes. I know how he looks but I think he wants to help. Horace told you everything?

Yes.” The leader alien looked at Layman for a moment and then back to the Sarah.You know I’d be in my rights to simply have that thing shot?

The Sarah wasn’t moved by whatever the dark skin had said. “You probably would be, but maybe I’m not going to move out of the way for that shot. Maybe I think Layman here is more useful alive then he is dead.” Layman’s ears pricked up at the mention of his name, the Sarah patted him on the head and looked up at the leader, who seemed to be thinking.

Fucking Leaves. You’re lucky that Frank might be our damn Turing because otherwise I wouldn’t even consider this.

Sarah pressed. “Put him in the back holding cells, I’ll stick with him and figure out a communication system. We share some basic things and he’s willing. Otherwise I would have shot him. Think about what he could tell us. He could freaking help cut out the time for figuring out their coordination in two.

I-” The once-red said something with barred teeth aimed at the Sarah.Fuck even if you had a gun on him he’d have probably been able to clear the distance. This thing wants something commander and it’s not something that will be solved by capping it. I mean we could- but fuck this isn't going to be a repeat thing.

Evidently.” The dark skinned leader muttered something short and shot a look at one of its allies who shrugged. “Fuck. I hope it likes spam.” The alien waved it’s hand and turned to walk off. “Singh, escort your nati and our... Our new guest to the back cells. The rest of you keep watch from the interior of the guard, I want as many guns at the front door as feasible. As well the next person I catch allowing bribes is going to be shot in the foot.

There were many hoots and loud words as the aliens splintered off, the once-red turning red again as the dark skin compatriot smacked it on the back, the leader dark skin disappearing back into its base. The only ones who remained were the Sarah and a chocolate toned human with an unusual cloth hat and immaculately combed hair patches on its face. “I see that you’ve been busy Miss Piłsudski.

Layman processed part of Sarah’s name in the chocolate skin's words, as the Sarah gestured for Layman to stand. “You could say that.

Why were you outside?” The chocolate's words made Sarah stop.

I-Sarah’s voice dropped in volume. “I just needed to breath. I paid off the turn people to look away and just-

You still can’t get Miss Murdoch off your mind?” The chocolate spoke as Layman’s escort walked slowly to the small metal door, iron or steel Layman figured though he had no idea.

Yea.Sarah spoke as they crossed the threshold into the underground human hive-fort. “I just wanted to- to give her a hug or something. Brodrick, Hemming, I got to say goodbye and knew them. Gael-” For some reason the way Sarah spoke made Layman antsy, the chocolate’s piercing gaze did not help much either as Layman forced himself to keep pace with the aliens. “How much did you know about her?

The cloth hat wearing alien's words softened. “Not a lot. Just that she was born a ways up past Thunder Bay. Didn’t speak much about her past at all. She seemed to think not much at all of it.” The grated metal stairs clanked under their feet as the humans escorted him further and further into the earth. The rust blood ignored the shocked and prodding eyes of the other aliens and focused on his own feet. “She’d been through hell to get to us, and stuck with what was left of the company until it was just, myself, Broderick, a handful of privates and civilians.” Layman noted the shake of chocolate’s head. “Yet, it still feels like a dream. I suppose I should be thankful of that.

Will you be alright?” The Sarah said something after a moment.

Whatever was said earned a rolling like noise like laughter out of the chocolate. “Yes miss. Once this detestable war ends I think I will be alright.

The rest of the trip was made in silence, Layman realized he should have been paying attention to where the aliens were leading him couldn’t sum up the desire to. He forced himself to keep pace with the Sarah as it lead him deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of alien tunnels.

Finally, the chocolate spoke up directly to Layman. “Here we are.

Layman looked up an around, noting he seemed to be in some sort of recuperacoon-block or whatever equivalent the aliens had. A moment of careful examination noted that all the rooms were locked from the outside, the doors without windows and composed of heavy metal. Before him one of the doors was open. The rust blood gulped. “You want me in here?”

The Sarah nodded even if she likely had no idea what he'd said, and after a deep breath Layman walked inside the room. It was not terrible though it was evidently not built with comfort in mind. The only things in the room were a small flat padded piece of furniture fitted for perhaps alien resting hung up against the wall with chains and a small seat that with a bit of examination seemed to be for waste disposal. At least that was what he guessed, if the aliens excreted from between their legs. He was drawn back to the aliens as the Sarah snapped its fingers. The pale haired alien pointed at the padded resting plank.

Layman took the order quietly and sat himself down on the odd suspended resting plank. The Sarah walking out of the room. Leaving Layman alone with the hat wearing alien. Layman tried to ignore its looks as the alien stroked its long face hair.

Sarah returned after a moment, hands holding a white box. Before Layman could protest the alien was tugging at his shirt. Layman didn’t resist as the alien alleviated him of the garment, turning his head away from the prodding. He assumed Sarah was an alien equivalent to a medicutioner or something of that nature.

“Oh please do not touch that-” Layman’s complaint died as he squeaked like a startled grub, but the Sarah did not seem daunted.

Please hold still or it’ll just get worse.” The strange soft words were whispered directly into his ear. “Hurt more otherwise.” He gave up on deciphering the language and just brought his knees up to his chest.

Layman managed to nod as Sarah began their ministrations. “I am the worst threshecutioner on the plaA-” Layman managed as his stinging shoulder’s complaints turned to an outright shriek. The rustblood bit his tongue and stared at the grey floor.

The Sarah’s voice remained soothing. “Don’t worry big ears, you took it like a champ.” The alien said as it began wrapping the injury in what felt like a porous cloth, as soft as the Sarah itself was.

Odd fellows aren’t they. Buglike, yet on two legs.” The chocolate skinned human said as Layman bit his lip hard enough to taste blood.

Shoosh.Sarah said. After a moment the pale haired alien stopped, soft hand pulling his head up and making him look over his now covered shoulder injury. “You big baby.

More sounds like laughing from the chocolate. “You never stuck me as the one who would be in a situation like this.

Well.Sarah said quietly. “Guess I was never pushed like this before. I mean I was a nurse back up in Toronto before- all this.

Is there anything I can get you Miss Piłsudski?

If you could get me a stack of paper, some pens, basic foodstuffs and lock the cell door on your way out?

The chocolate raised an eyebrow. “Keeping an eye out for others much as him then?

We’re outnumbered thirty to one here Singh. Can’t be too careful.

The chocolate gave a small nod. “Of course.” Then the strange alien was gone, closing the door behind it. Leaving Layman alone with the Sarah.

Layman gulped as his pale haired savior sat down beside him, looking at him with a face he couldn’t hope to decipher.

“Um. Talk now?”

Yes. Talk.”

Chapter Text

Gael admitted she had never exactly had a strong sense of self identity, recalling admitting such in conversations with the therapist her parents had forced her to see. It had always been a minor problem, not much engaging her throughout her time, the issue exacerbated by the strange watching that infested her dreams. Anything above the untrainable core was indistinct.

She supposed she liked animals, the colour green. Enjoyed old music, mostly war things, marching songs and the like. That had fed into enjoyment of reading, about history, about warfare. Got her invested enough she actually ‘acquired’ that stupid RPK to shoot at a ‘special’ range. Living a ways out allowed that. No pets, didn’t talk to her family much, not that there was much left. Only her fucking prick brothers, who were probably ash and bone now. The only thing that really held her mind was a resilience to things above.

Not to be trounced, never to bow. When Gael had been in grade two she’d attempted to strangle a sixth grader. Got into serious shit over it but she didn’t regret kicking the shit out of the girl. That same trump remained here, do not bow. The rest felt like just another memory she’d wandered into in the xenos prison.

There was no way to keep track of time.

The light in her cell never went off, though they were dim enough she could work her arms around a bit to cover her eyes for sleep. She’d remained in her cargos and boots, her neck and wrists remained bound and manacled, wrists bound together in such a way she could only comfortably rest her arms at her sides.

Gael was glad she hadn’t been made to starve to death or die of dehydration. What felt like once every ten or so hours (if her initial, now lost, sense of time was anything to go by) a ball of what seemed to be hardened tasteless ball protein and nutrition was delivered down the small tube. Along with a large chitin bottle of water.

The balls filled Gael with enough energy she’d exercise for a while afterwords. While even at her best the red-glare legis could probably snap her in two like a twig, Gael didn’t want to fall out of shape. Hard at first with all her bruises and the restraints on her wrists, but she’d eventually resumed a comfortable pattern.

Stretch first. Move into knuckle push-ups until it hurt to breathe, rest a moment, drink. Curl-ups next, wedging her feet into a small space underneath the alien pod furnishing to brace herself, once again until it hurt to breath. Rest then drink. Then inverted push-ups, back against the wall. Until she could no longer breath or her head began spinning. Rest, drink, and then move onto lunges. Repeat prior steps and end with stretches. After that there was nothing much to do but sleep or enter the half-sleep ruled by strange dreams.

Even if Gael had some means of transcribing time on the walls, she doubted she’d be able to remember to mark meals down. No, outside of the monotony of sleep, exercise, water and food-balls there was only the High Legislacerator. Since their initial ‘conversation’ the red-glare had visited her and dragged Gael off four more times. Seemingly at random, Gael did not mind the randomness as it reminded her she was actually a fucking human being and holy shit there was life outside this cell. The only happy things on this fucking ship were making the alien inquisitor snarl and the darkness beyond the cavernous cell-block.

Every time she had passed into the black space the red-glare must have operated in, the leviathan had always noted her passing with its, (what should have been) terrifying gaze. But with fear gone with what should have been her final tour de force, only fascination for the giant and a yearning to be able to touch the creature remained. Mind spinning wild possibilities to the giant’s form revealed by light. Or maybe it was just that Gael just really wanted to touch it again. Maybe she ended up being eaten by the weird alien chimera giant, but again, overtime.

In fact that’d probably be a quick end, going on vainglorious. Better than the slow end at the hands of the Legis.

Four times Gael had been forced back into the translation room. Asked the same questions that prodded at her ties to the resistance, her abilities, her intentions and how she had managed to kill the ‘highbloods.’ The blues and indigos. Her story did not change, and that made the High Legislacerator very angry. The most significant victory besides infuriating the alien was managing to avoid befouling her pants so far. Gael doubted the xeno would be willing to provide her a pair of boxers and some toilet paper. Thank fuck the food balls were full of fiber.

The Legis’s discontent had only grown, pushing the ‘pain’ button for what seemed to be longer and with greater intensity. Stealing away everything outside of that crippling whiteness that stole all control over her body. Couldn’t tell how many times she’d dragged her shaking body up from the floor now. But- the memory of the suffering pathos remained. Hardening her against such things. Each session ended the same, the Legis had a very visible button. Being called a liar.

Of course, being a liar required knowledge of conscious wrongdoing. The red-glare struck Gael more ignorant than anything else, but Gael preferred having the metaphorical ‘abate the inquisition session and possibly perish from shock straight to the fucking neck’ button.

Gael had noted a trend in xenos logic, coordinating with those distant memories on the bridge. The red-glare operated within what seemed to be a rigid xenophobic caste system. One that evidently had the colder blood colours on top, with warmer ones at the bottom. Gael couldn’t tell if it was xenophobia or the non-present red-blood that earned her the position of non-entity. Maybe a combination of both if the xenos translation devices were accurate. But- perhaps that could be made into an advantage. Memories of philosophy and a few wise words remained in Gael’s grasp. The incurable winds of fate had created both humans and aliens, but Mikhail Kalashnikov had made the two species equal. Something she wanted to press into the ‘executioner of justice.’

As for dreams? Strange and stranger still.

Gael could not tell if it was some strange sympathetic wind of the unknown cosmos or chance that led her down into absurd locals. Rare were the times when Gael was able to fully comprehend the actions held within, the suffering memory an exception in the extreme. But now a pattern had emerged, bound to the xenos.

A world with three moons in its skies, a radiant alien cosmos above, where the light of day was as deadly as the light of a mushroom cloud. Dominated by the xenos creatures, Trolls. Strange name, but they were stranger, the blood colours shed rainbows across the black sand deserts and orange stone mountains. Filled the dark oceans and fed the pale beasts. Theirs was not a happy history, par for earth without a forgiving world to shelter them. And it had been stolen away, all of it by the giant that yearned for silence. Gael couldn’t fucking explain ninety five percent of the sights, but it was something. A base.

Borrowed memories of that alien world danced in her skull, allowing Gael to pass the long hours of silence.

The arrival of the High-Legislacerator came unexpected. Of course, it was always unexpected while simultaneously inevitable. Gael moved to stand, but was caught off guard by the alien’s fist. The Legis’ teeth were visible and tensed to bite, she’d moved fast. The blow square in her Gael’s gut dropped her to the ground breathless. The faint processing of what was happening pulled her arms up to protect Gael’s face from the sharp kick intended for it. The Legislacerator landed blow after blow down on Gael. Quiet, with her broken-glass teeth out. A faint venomous clicking filled the air.

Gael could only try to block the assault, able to do little more than curl up in a ball and keep her head sheltered from the worst of the blows. Snarling curses on the one that had affixed her with the insufferable manacle chain.

The Legislacerator finished with a final kick that made Gael’s still faintly bruised flank burn. Unable to block the clawed hand that ripped through her guarding arms and dragged the human to her feet choking. Gael gave the merciless creature her best smile before she was thrown out of the cell. “Get moving and I won’t start chopping off digits.” The snarl was still painfully indecipherable in its wording, but the clawed finger pointing down a long ways into the inevitable darkness made her intention clear.

Gael rose, the landing flat on her face had broken her nose. Blood streamed out of her nostrils as she gritted her teeth to shift the cartilage back into place. Stung, but the ‘encouragement’ of the Legis had left her more than a little numb to pain. Might be resistance, might be brain damage.

The human marched quick, quick enough to put herself outside of the Legis’ swing range. The darkness came quicker than usual, either from pace or Gael's rough thoughts of how to break the Legis dominating her mind, without her hitting the knockout button too early. Should act now, the red-glared xeno was growing agitated. It was obvious she could just kill Gael at this point. Gael would be damned if she’d let the alien shitheel get away without really landing a good blow. Everything up until now had been obstinate defence and prodding jabs. Gael wanted to dig in on the offensive.

Darkness of the halls beyond the cell-block was more comforting than it used to be. Gael knew the way to the interrogation room at this point, and once more she was greeted by half-lidded eyes of the titan far above. Silent apart from its breathing. Like the distant swell of the ocean. “Nice to see you leviathan. I hope the bitter prick is feeding you well.” Gael kept her voice calm, the giant blinking down in response while the Legis behind her snarled.

Gael was shoved into the translation room hard enough she almost fell on her face again. Would have if her hands weren’t chained together on her front. The chitin door closed behind as the Legis gave a sharp crack of her cane to Gael’s back and a bark that meant the obvious now. Sit or something like that. Standing Gael wiped the fresh stream of blood from her mouth, not bothering with her blood dampened front. By the time Gael sat, a message was already waiting for her.

[1 C4N D0 TH1S F0R 4S L0NG 4S 1T T4K3S]
[Y0U W1LL N3V3R L34V3 UNL3SS Y0U G1V3 M3 TH3 TRUTH 0F 1T]
[4ND 1M G01NG T0 ST4RT G3TT1NG V3RY CR34T1V3 1F Y0U 1NS1ST 0N WR1T1NG 0UT S4L4C10US L13S]

Gael read the leet-speak quietly, taste of blood in her mouth with the only noise in the room the growling of the Inquisitor alien. Where to begin? Only one way she’d be able to get the Legis in was if she lured her. False information on the resistance or something more esoteric? Gael near immediately decided on the latter, those cursed dreams had at least gifted a sense for the abstruse.

[Of course you could keep performing surgery with a sledge hammer]
[Or]
[You could try something else]
[You and I have nothing to gain from these sessions if you keep trying blunt force]
[Your creativity wont do anything relying on pain]
[So why dont we get into the why of it]

The High-Legislacerator’s growl rose to an attack pitch for a moment, Gael braced. Waiting tense for the pain wave injected directly into her nervous system. Yet it did not come. The sharp growling of the Legis gradually softening and stopping altogether, the alien tapping away for a moment at her tablet. The response came a moment later.

[WH4T 1S TH3 WHY 0F 1T TH3N]
[BY WH4T M34NS 1S TH3R3 4 WHY T0 Y0UR KN4V1SH L13S X3N0 HUM4N 1F N0T Y0UR R3PUGN4NT HUM4N N4TUR3]

A warm feeling bloomed up in Gael’s stomach though she remained physically tense. It was the feeling a person got when they managed to land a needed dart in the perfect place, the feeling of striking a shot where it was needed. Not the shot itself yet, she’d need to string these together to dig into her weak point. She didn't even know if the alien would follow Gael's logic train but all she could do was try.

[It is not human nature that allows me this High Legislacerator]
[Instead it is something we share actually]
[Why I term you that word you hate so much]
[Would you like to delve into it]

The silence of the red-glare Legis was almost as disconcerting as her laughter or her growls. Almost a minute passed, the only noise in the room the sharp clicks of the Legis on her tablet. She gave a noise crossed between a squeak and a click as she tossed the tablet onto the table, face down. Her typing onto the translation screen was brief.

[WH4T C0ULD Y0U 4ND 1 P0SS1BLY SH4R3 HUM4N]
[4NSW3R QU1CK Y0U H4V3 4LR34DY R0BB3D M3 0F MY P4T13NC3 TH1S N1GHT]

Was it night? Were nights even possible on a spaceship? Gael supposed it did not matter as she carefully chose her words.

[You have interrogated me for who knows how long now]
[Something you have gained little from]
[But you continue to do so]
[Driven by your desire to not be bested by an]
[As you call me an inferior creature]
[Is this correct]

The response was immediate.

[1 4M N0T G01NG T0 B3 B3ST3D BY Y0U Y0U D3G3N3R4T3 4L13N]

Stubborn. Made the corners of Gael’s mouth perk up a little bit. The Legis was nothing if not obstinate herself. Would be the hard part to this, but it would carry Gael there if she did it right.

[Of course]
[But now Ill ask you to see things from where I stand for a moment]
[Your species has invaded my planet and I have quite literally been offered a ceaseless ultimatum]
[Either I die quick telling lies or I die slow telling you the what of it]
[I have elected to follow the latter]
[I gain nothing by this]
[Youre probably going to make the act of killing me an excruciating experience]
[Correct or not]
[4FT3R 4LL TH1S 1T W1LL B3 V3RY P41NFUL]
[TH4T MUCH 1 PR0M1S3]

The leet-speaking murder-lawyer reminded Gael a bit of an old terrier she’d often pass by on her way to work. Chained to the center of the yard it always hurled itself at her at the expense of its neck. The stubborn thing knew it would happen every time, but it couldn’t help itself. Hands shaking hard, not as hard as reloading the RPK all that time ago but pretty bad. Tongue licked up some dried blood as she typed.

[Indeed]
[But ive proven to be rather insufferable I think]
[I have given no information and could simply have my neck slit here and now]
[I imagine that youd be much less stressed with my death]
[Id even make a quick meal for the big monster outside]
[But still you persist with your torture]
[Not because you can]
[But because you must]
[Much as I have elected to remain here unwavering in my response]
[It would be easy to just tell you what you want to hear Legis]
[But I refuse against my better interests prolonging my own suffering]
[Not because I can but because I must]

Still no pain, the response came slow after the Legis finished reading.

[WH4T 1S TH3 P01NT 0F TH3S3 N0NS3NS1C4L R4MBL1NGS]
[The point is we are the same in a conscious choice made absolute]
[We have elected against our better judgment to make our lives much more miserable]
[By carrying on a path either of us could simply walk off of]
[That makes us kin in a strange way]

The Legislacerator made a noise that Gael hadn’t heard out of her before, sharp high and rolling with an odd chittering throughout. Couldn’t even hope to place it. But still she pressed.

[Here we are]
[Both thinking things that chose to struggle]
[Rejecting easy exits to pursue our goals]
[Foolish as they are]
[That is what makes us the same]
[The pair of us are stardust and voidwind that has come so far in its progression it can finally question itself]
[And by its own volition destroy itself]
[This is where we are one and the same High Legislacerator]

The strange noise came again, high and ailing. Outside Gael heard a faint rumble. The titan? She eschewed thinking on it as the red-glare responded.

[Y0U 4ND 1 4R3 N0TH1NG 4L1K3]
[4S Y0U KN0W 1 C4N BR34K Y0U 1N 4 M0M3NT]
[1 C4N M4K3 Y0U SUFF3R 1N W4YS Y0U C0ULDNT 3V3N 1M4G1N3 1N Y0UR DULL L1TTL3 H34D]
[MY K1ND H4V3 CR0SS3D TH3 UN1V3RS3 F1GHT1NG 4ND 0BL1T3R4T1NG 3V3RY F03 W3 M33T]
[1F 1 SP3NT TH3 R3ST 0F Y0UR N4TUR4L L1F3SP4N T0RTUR1NG Y0U 1 W0ULD ST1LL B3 1N TH3 PR1M3 0F MY L1F3 WH1L3 Y0UD B3 0LD 4ND WR1NKL3D]
[So too could those blues and indigos done such on the bridge]
[But I killed them]

The snarling returned but Gael did not stop.

[The Indigo giant who once held me could squash me like I was a tiny flittering insect]
[Yet he did not as he made a conscious choice to not at least until you came]
[Those ones on the bridge went up against me and by rights should have killed me]
[But they did not as someone evidently wanted me alive letting me fight long on my chosen ground]

Growling was peaking but she could not afford to stop now.

[They chose what they did]
[As I chose to fight and endure all this without pause even when I logically shouldnt]
[Cut away our technology and our forms and we are both just creatures capable of rejecting instinct]
[Capable of being so much more than beasts]
[Your kind have invaded my world and are attempting to exterminate my race]
[Yet you sit on your ass and interrogate one of those wretched creatures who is your equal in consciousness]
[As if it will grant you something we both know wont come]
[Perhaps I am your superior even]
[If my will has carried me so far bound and unable to fight back in any way barring this]
[Your alleged justice is nothing more than a lie you hold to entitle you to continue on with your pointless torment]

It felt like Gael had blinked when the Legislacerator had vanished. Conversely a cane appeared smashing her in the head, knocking her off her stool as an assault came that dwarfed the one that had come with Gael’s rousing.

Couldn’t even protect against the cane much which moved too fast for her to block. Hard, fast, aimed at her weak-points. Could barely breathe from the smacks to her chest and the throat. A final kick rolled Gael back, smashing her backside against the wall. Couldn’t open her one eye, breathing was a bit hard. Gael watched as red-glare, glowering and snarling took her cane in both hands. The ‘cane’ split off cleanly at the middle of the shaft, revealing a hidden blade. A foot long and gleaming.

So that was it then. All this way and this was how it ended, being beaten and cut apart by the alien Legislacerator. All that suffering for this moment. It made Gael smile and laugh. Not a snicker but a deep chuckle with a wide grin aimed at her killer. The absurdity of it all, all the hell she’d been through since this nightmare began so long ago.

And this was how she perished?

It just made the human laugh. The booted heel of the xenos inquisitor smashed Gael in the gut, but she wheezed and laughed still. “You’re nothing but a slave anyways.” The words came out choked from her smile. But no blade came down to slit her throat or dismember her.

Instead the world went white with pain, and then Gael was gone again.

~~{†}~~

The alien slumped and fell to the floor. Silent and bleeding that abominable red that Hyralx Pyrope used to hide away her eyes. The same colour as the gaze of her terrifying lusus. Above, heaving breath with the collar trigger still in hand, Hyralx felt every bone in her body screeching at her to cut apart the wretched alien. The creature that had doggedly resisted shocks that had made highbloods simper and had simply left other human aliens braindead. It had not made the Gael human give a word. Not even stole away that wretched splayed grin. It would be so simple to just cut its fucking head off. Not even that, a good kick right in its fragile neck would do it. It might die anyways of the beating. All it would take is one slice across the neck to be certain.

But then the alien would win. The Gael human that had troubled Hyralx's sleep was a two headed day-terror in its mocking. Its pathetic form should simply break with a single strike. It should have crumbled in its capture. Should. All those ‘should haves’ had proven themselves worthless.

The pathetic form made the human’s pain resistance all the more uncanny. The high charge shocks the Gael creature had endured and returned smiling from had made indigos bumble on the floor begging her to stop, selling out their own quadrants. But that was not the depth of it, no Hyralx had seen creatures endure 'impossibilities' before. Her own moirail had once in foolish eagerness to punish gone and accidentally pumped himself with a half-dozen psion’s worth of energy. A normal Indigo would have been fried to ash, but Ungorn had barely been bothered. Singed certainly, but none the worse for wear.

No the truly intolerable thing that made her outlook more than simple agitation was her words.

The Gael creature had spoken things that had creeped up in the space between her claws and fingers, worming into Hyralx in such a way that she could not remove them. Their first confrontation had ended with the Legislacerator nearly frying the creature alive when it prodded a spot Hyralx had kept buried since she had been a neophyte. All these long sweeps, surviving the fall of the home world, assuming the authority of the terrible court master and rising to the very highest position a Legislacerator could. All her accomplishments and struggles made ill by the insufferable red-blooded wiggler's prodding.

Hyralx had been unable to figure out why the words had broken her face. Why they had infested the back of her mind and always returned when she was left alone to think. Hyralx had put it up to the creature’s obstinacy, the thick-skulled nut becoming a bother to crack. The Legis herself had forgotten the heart of it, buried the past behind her duties and the punishment she carried out over the dozens of sweeps. But it had eventually re-surfaced, like an ancient sunken ship come back to haunt her.

The justice she carried out was frequently repugnant to the core of the teal inquisitor.

Memories that she had buried drew back before she could dash them on the rocks.

The rust tears of a dying lowblood, arm lopped off for his ‘assault’ of a high blood. A hanging body, the confession had been evidently false but once spoken was not rescindable. Blade carving across the throat of an olive blood who had barely seen her sixth sweep. Such actions were to the word of the law appropriate to the caste, the punishments for assault, murder and heresy respective.

But some worming nattering beetle dwelled in her guts, biting down whenever she remembered such things. So Hyralx had forced herself to forget, stepping into an ever more unstable future. The only reliable things being Pyral, her own cane-blade and her moirail’s troll-breaking fury. She had been successful in forgetting. Embracing the ideals of the Legislacerator true to their highest accord.

Until waking up a few hours ago from her sopor pod, the nattering beetle chewing again in her gut as if it had never left.

Hyralx, the High Legislacerator, the Hand of the Empress’ Justice and the one known as Her Honourable Tyranny.

Hyralx, stopped by a fragile alien that hit her in a place she could not defend. A miserable conscious she had buried for so long had been awoken by the creature. The Gael human had no right to that, it should never have been able to know it existed. Or perhaps that was it, the alien presumptions leveling itself on a ground the Legislacerator couldn't fathom. The mere imposition was so entirely taboo it would be cause for culling for most Legislacerators.

The High Legislacerator had been incensed since she realized what had been woken inside of her, memory turning in her gut unyielding to her formerly grievous will. None. Not that wretched Marquise nor the insufferable Knyaz, not the bumbling Pryaefaxa Kaigari, not any foe she had fought and struck down had hit her there. Not even her moirail knew of her mental frailty. Hyralx herself had not known the depth of her fury or her disdain for-

Buried it.

Buried it again as she’d dressed herself, laid out orders for her crew, for her agents and exited. Down, further and further into the ship only growing more and more furious. The memories of its words and its defiance and its pathetic form only adding to the fire as she went, unable to think of anything else.

The Legislacerator had assaulted the alien the moment she had entered its cell. She had not intended to do such, it was such a pain to force the cleaning staff into Pyral’s dominion to clean blood from floors. Hyralx preferred to keep such things neat, and when they needed to get messy she had rooms for that.

But the sight of the pathetic pale skinned creature had set the Legis off. What right did such a thing have to incense her so?

The first punch reminding her how easy it would be to just break the alien there.

One good snap was all it would take.

Hyralx had managed to restrain herself, keeping the assault to a mild blemishing by Troll standards. But for the alien it could have killed her, all it would take is the right punch and she would just- crunch. Its insides were even more fragile than its outsides. When Hyralx had stopped and dragged the alien to its feet the little shit had smiled at her.

Ungorn in his simplistic rage had thought the Gael human understood him when he had spoken. Hyralx did not believe anything so foolish.

But when that smile came the urge to just- clench her claws down and rip its pale disgusting throat out filled the Legis. Hyralx had resisted the urge, tossing the human out of its holding cell and sending it marching. It did not understand her words, but it understood her body language. Humans and Trolls were physiologically similar enough there were a few shared body motions by virtue of parting alone. It seemed the Gael human had picked up on the Troll versions of such motions.

The march behind the human had been made in silence, the smell of the creature’s accursed blood filling the air. There was much more iron in human blood than in troll blood, it coloured the liquid bright red and gave it a distinct smell. Hyralx had ignored it, ignored the urge to cull the human and the urge to-

The Legislacerator had growled sharp and high when the human had called out to her lusus. Another irritation. Hyralx could not tell if it was the human’s seeming lack of fear, body language or its small shape. But her draconic ward had shown nothing but softness to the alien. The memory of the terror-lizard leaning down and nuzzling its head against the human piling more fungus on the fire inside Hyralx. When they had arrived, the Legis had kicked the human into the translation room. Eager to get underway and finally break the Gael.

That had not happened.

The human was wise enough to take note of her frustration and proposed an alternate path to the now worn trail their prior investigations had taken. The ‘why’ of it. The Legis had foolishly taken it. The Gael using Hyralx’s own pride and aggressive nature against her. How many trolls had the High Legislacerator killed in her Jet-Grey years? Hundreds? Thousands if she included those made under her orders? How many truly equal rivalries had the Legis had since she took up the lawful mantel? Two? Three perhaps, if she included the insufferable Marquis.

The Gael human surpassed them in a few words. A weak point that she had hidden from mind-breakers and the subject of her pale affections was heated to brittleness by the alien. And then? Snapped over the Gael’s knee.

It stung, not because it had taken Hyralx by surprise, not that they were used in such a way to break the Legis. Instead it was because the words were true.

Justice was retribution, punishment.

Justice was cutting an offending hand off that it would never offend again.

Justice was blind and remorseless.

But the law she enforced cared not for circumstance, she cared not. Rather. She had made herself not care. Hyralx had been with the fleet for five decimations. Five sapient species wiped out entirely, their worlds colonized by the empire, no matter how unsuited they were for trolls. A matter of necessity, Trolls were the ideal species, no other thinking creatures could be allowed. Such was the dictation of the empire.

This was the sixth invasion Hyralx had witnessed.

That invasion had led Hyralx here, to this rival mind, which had only fought off the aggressing force. Fighting an unwinnable war, knowing well it was an unwinnable war. Hyralx had been interrogating the Gael human to get words a part of the Legis realized she would never be able to draw from the alien’s fingers. The Legislacerator was torturing a creature that was her equal purposelessly, and it had told her such. Reminded her of her own disdain for the punishments and wrought half-truths she had wrung from oh so many. It had shattered all those walls she had built up over the dragging sweeps. No longer was Hyralx Pyrope the head of the Executing body of the Empire, but instead nothing more than a petty beast tormenting a defenceless grub.

The realization disgusted Hyralx Pyrope.

It had made it very hard not to kill the human, standing above the unconscious creature’s body. The High Legislacerator inside her desperately wanted to. To just end it and to be done with this abominable xeno. But Hyralx couldn’t. Kill the Gael, and she only deepened the alien’s victory over her. Hyralx deposited the collar controller back into a pocket, and with shaking hands picked her cane blade’s sheath back up. Sheathing the weapon was not automatic like usual, Hyralx fumbled about for a moment. The cane-blade and sheath wavering in her grasp. When she finally accomplished the basic action she could only lean on her weapon for a pause. Breathing hard. Too hard.

She passed a glance down to the human, its body repugnant as always. The human aliens were close enough to trolls that they seemed uncanny in make. Brown hair tangled and knotted all about, covered in its own red life fluids, bruising a veritable rainbow across its naked chest and face.

This creature was the one to break Her Honourable Tyranny. Perhaps, not even knowingly. It did not know of her buried thoughts, it only knew of her reactions. Saying things no troll would even think to say. A killer of trolls it was, it seemed to possess things frightfully soft to itself. The visage of the High Legislacerator long since overgrowing that ailing Neophyte she had once been had been cast aside.

Hyralx had suppressed the faint urge to wretch as she had dragged the alien back to its cell by its manacle chains. Her ward had descended from its guarding perch and walked alongside her. Tepidly, not interested in eating like Pyral usually was with unconscious prisoners. Curios perhaps over the state of the alien. “She’s alive Pyral, do not make light of me.” With the teal-blood’s words the overgrown wyrm had snorted and departed with a great gust of wind, leaving Hyralx alone with alien.

The walk back to the many holding cells felt longer than it usually was. Hyralx felt tired. Exhausted if she allowed herself to admit such, not that she usually did. Thinking was arduous, her mind running blank to keep the wretched words that had broken her facade and tossed Hyralx aside at bay. She’d tried to focus more on her surroundings. Not that it did much good. The cell-block was only ever occupied by a dozen trolls she had decided to get proper confessions out of. Most of her cases ended in the same night as Hyralx’s arrival. She was quick to beat the truth out of trolls, quicker to enforce punishment. Justice.

Human Justice must be different to Troll justice if the human’s words spoke anything. Hyralx shuttled that thought away. Shuttled everything away as she finally came to the alien’s cell. She opened the cell door, and stared into the room for a moment. Still unable to think much.

“Damn it.” Her voice creaked, trilling low. The teal-blood taking an unusual amount of care to set the human alien down. The alien looked near dead. Might die soon with all those bruises anyways. But- for some reason Hyralx put the effort in.

Walking back, her mind slowly processed the defeat. The human had defeated her. Her. The one who had taken the Court Tyrant’s place, who had struck apart the criminal and treacherous no matter what caste they were. The Legislacerator who had been hand-picked by the Fuchsia throne itself to oversee royal law and to ensure her fellow Legislacerators acted accordingly.

A part of Hyralx realized that was the only way she could be bested.

Age had made her wily. Her terrible moirail protected her from the worst physical threats, while craftiness protected her from subversion. She knew every ability of the foes she engaged, researched strengths and weaknesses and adjusted her court accordingly. None could achieve a physical victory, ending their existences either hanging from the gallows or staining the Grand Highblood’s club. The only possible way to triumph over Hyralx was in the range of discussion. She had memorized nearly the entirety of imperial law, knowing her ways around the loopholes, and the nooses waiting the fools that took them.

But this was no legal battle, rather, a battle of treasonous feeling. Of the soft squishy interior that no sane troll would ever consider.

There was an unpleasant logic to it, the Gael alien did not know of Hyralx's extensive history, all it had to go on was her body language, her reactions and it's own squishy logic.

To call it a battle would be a lie though. It was a decimation, she could not even hope to strike the Gael human as it had punched into her core. Ripped her apart and danced about with her metaphorical entrails. She had failed ultimately to drag out even a single thing the Gael human had not given willingly. Little shit. Should simply cut it, bleed it. That would be her victory. Ha.

Hyralx passed by the low-lit space her lusus dwelled, guarding the ship’s prison. Passed up through the command decks, silent. Ignoring the crew of her vessel. The ‘IV Executive Prosecution’ no longer felt like something Hyralx was proud of. How she had preened when Hyralx learned she had been afforded an old prison battle-cruiser that could house her beloved ward. The former priestly vessel felt empty now, the few neonate Legislacerators and lowblood crewmen eager to avoid Hyralx. They had noticed her increased aggression it seemed, and avoided anything outside of vital issues.

The High Legislacerator's private quarters were as she had left them, a small three room suite composed of a podding room, a general workroom with a small number of essentials and a small expulsion room tucked away in the back. The lights dimmed enough that most trolls would have their vision dampened. Disgust came again as Hyralx’s hand shook, she was better than this.

Her vision guarding glasses coming off. She blinked as the red-shades were banished. The world was dull and grey without them, but Hyralx did not concern herself with that now. She stashed away her cane and glasses beside her recuperacoon, not even bothering to turn on the lights in the expulsion room as she walked over to the hand basin.

Hyralx cranked the hand faucet until it sprayed water at full blast. Her head came down, closing her eyes as the cold water blasted at the back of her head. Didn’t even have the energy to grit her teeth now. Head thoroughly sodden, Hyralx pulled herself up and pulled back the chitin mirror guard. It felt like a stranger had greeted here.

Near-black circles ringed her eyes, the yellow of her gaze dull and the teal of her pupils looking back. Her skin had darkened, it felt like only a few nights ago she had been silver skinned. Faint pale scars of experience fringed her face. Hyralx had never been seriously injured, thanks to preparation. Her hair was long enough that in its dampened state it hung down just above her eyes, a black mop she’d put off cutting for a while now. Horns were reddening, her middle sweeps had crept up on her. Registering the reflection as herself took Hyralx a moment. The High Legislacerator did not take much time to self-reflect.

But Hyralx could still see where her neophyte self-had been. Without the scars, paler skin, yellowed horns. Without the dark ringed eyes, and the constantly low brow. A weak and pathetic girl. But still Hyralx Pyrope, as much as the stranger looking back.

The teal made no noise as she pulled the chitin wall cover back over the mirror, faintly she realized she had no pressing matters. It would be wise to deal with her hair now.

But weariness kept her from it. Weariness and something else.

Hyralx wandered listlessly into her workroom, quickly checking her work terminal for messages sent by her subordinates. The usual flood of information greeted her, the fleet and army awash with as much infighting as desertion. More than the past five decimations combined, likely more. To say nothing of the chaos from the planet’s surface. The reports did not fill her with indignation as they usually did, the stream of reports and information of Legislacerator activity simply passing from her mind leaving it blank. None of it so pressing that it needed reply.

Aside from a single more recent report.

Dissent allegedly high in the ranks from a one Legislacerator Sanguine no less. Only rumors, but they would need to be dealt with. Anywhere from landing group heads up to unknown height in the army, perhaps even up to a Lygtagt.

“Later.” The word barely formed in the teal’s creaking throat.

She turned off the terminal, walking over to the small food-storage chest built into the wall. Inside was only bottles of water and protein balls. The High Legislacerator needed nothing else. The ball tasted faintly of recycling grub, dimmed by the cold. Normally trolls would heat these, spice them, but there was rarely time for that. Water was tasteless, drinking it a little hard. The teal tossed the empty ball wrapper and bottle into the waste bin. For a moment Legislacerator stood there, not thinking, not moving. Just staring blankly down at the waste bin's contents. Empty water bottles and wrappers. That was it.

The High Legislacerator forced herself to return to her podding room. Eyes wandered aimlessly away from the large dark purple pod. The recuperacoon, a gift from her moirail. To her glasses and cane, the small crate that contained her attire and regalia. A towel and a mat for cleaning herself after sleeping.

The only thing without function was the small table on the side, atop which were her ‘commendations.’ Honours, for her valor, relentlessness and decisive actions. Hyralx didn’t even bother to look at the worthless trinkets of gold and silver as she undressed without ceremony. Tossing aside her undergarments she slumped over into the sleeping pod, allowing her bedding of dull green slime to cushion her.

“Lights!” The shout triggered the overhead shut-off, leaving the Legis in darkness and slime.

But Hyralx had no intention of sleeping. In such a state one someone of her position would best simply kill whatever had caused her the mental trouble. But that would not solve her problem. An alternative would be to engage a sympathetic confident, a moirail being preferable. If not a moirail then an amicable ally.

But Hyralx had none. She wasn’t Ungorn’s moirail really. Pity the giant she did, theirs was a one sided relation. The High-Legislacerator controlled the Indigo’s worst rages and outbursts, and he in turn protected the Legislacerator from physical threats posed by highbloods. Hyralx herself did not even factor in. She’d never had a matesprite, never had a kissmessis or even played grey intermediary. Time and focus never allowed such.

Why now?

Why after all these sweeps was it something as petty as that frail alien that made Hyralx like this? Was it the same foolishness that had stalled the Imperial fleet? The belief that after the hundreds of races they had obliterated they were invincible? No, Hyralx had never harboured such a foolish hubris. All it ever took was one foolish misstep and the void was waiting like a stalking day horror. One slip and the darkness ate you.

Was it the closeness of form? Hardly, while biped aliens were somewhat of a minority in decimation history, trolls and the human xenos were as different as night and day. Their bodies shaped by a gentle sun, no day horrors to haunt them.

Perhaps they had killed them, Hyralx thought. Wiped away all the terrors of flora and fauna. It would make sense, the creatures had allegedly numbered in the billions before they arrives. Their cities sprawling and vast. They had populated the entire planet.

The chewing beetle in Hyralx’s gut returned when the depth of it all came again. She was complacent in an atrocity down on the planet below. A level of suffering that paled any petty conflict within the empire. No, it was worse, she was actively assisting the process. Her moirail had opened up the ‘heretical’ creatures as open to be painted, though crimson troll blood remained a transgression on the Messiahs. The empress she served eagerly commanding this, this slow death by a million blades as the empire fought for this world.

But what could Hyralx Pyrope do? As far as she had risen, she remained only an organ of this beastly empire. Helpless as the lowest wretched slave. Helpless as the Gael human.

Chapter Text

“High Legislacerator!” The call of one of Hyralx’s neonates woke her from an uneasy sleep. Though she had only recently replaced her pod's sopor her day-terrors remained undamped. Passing sights of flat-toothed smiles and blinding sunlight faded as the teal’s eyes opened. She blinked as she rose, crawling out of the recuperacoon as fast as her weary body allowed. Drying away the remaining slime came faster, hand coming up to wipe away the teal crust from her eyes.

“What is it?” Hyralx’s voice was more in line with the sounds her Lusus made, but she did not care. Faintly the High Legis heard the sounds of tapping feet outside her suite’s door. More than one. Hmf.

“You have a visitor, a free horn by the name of-” The words were cut off by the reactive snarl that came straight from the Legislacerator’s chest. Any remaining weariness was gone.

“You can tell that Cerulean gnat that I will see to her when I wish!” No doubt the Marquise had ‘suggested’ the neonate wake her. Hyralx growled as she marched herself back into the expulsion room. She gave up on her hair, the small shaver cutting it only a talon’s length down across her head. Anger at least allowed Hyralx to stomach her own reflection now, that imperious she-devil of a raider clearing away troubled thoughts.

For the moment anyways, the High Legislacerator was clear minded in her function.

Finishing the short cut, the Legislacerator showered quickly in tank-cold water. Drying was faster, she stepped back out and dressed herself. Her ‘formal’ attire was her choice for the night, her jerkin and sash coming on quickly. She forwent the necklace of her moirail’s symbol. Finding herself unable to even pick up the small pendent. The glasses came on, the world tainted again in terrible red as her cane came to hand. No shaking came to her grip. The Legis barred her fangs as muscle and plate flexed under her hide, once more as able as she had driven herself to be.

Nothing else but resent for the villainous Cerulean driving Hyralx now. When she stepped outside her suite one of her neonates was waiting for her.

A little cloudy eyed, he was a young lime blood who hadn’t seen his twenty fifth sweep, silver skinned and shiny haired. His neonate uniform a tad disheveled, stained faintly with dust from the world below. Was Kiryuu his name? Or was it Schtal? Couldn’t remember, the High Legislacerator did not care too remember. So many came and went it was hard to keep track of them all, impossible really if one wanted to stay sane. If Hyralx had wanted she could bark and send the neonate running, but tonight she couldn’t be bothered.

“Neonate Yizura and Legislacerator Brass Eye informed the Marquise of your words but she isn’t leaving. Seems she has business with you.”

“Has the bitch implied what sort of business?” Hyralx had neither the patience nor the pretense of refined demeanor for anything kinder.

To the neonate's credit he did not flinch. If he managed to survive until he became a neophyte he might do well for himself in the order. “No, she hasn’t given us much. Only the usual summons for you.”

Hyralx clicked sharply as she considered the proposition. The approach of the Marquise was at least routine, she craved attention from subordinates and rivals alike. The rest of her? Vindictive and inconsistent. That made her very dangerous. Dangerous enough it was tempting to cull her outright soon. Soon as she could finally pin something on the freak.

The neonate escorted the High Legislacerator down to the ship docking bay. It seemed that whatever the Marquises business was she had deemed it important enough that she had docked her flag-ship IV 'VIII' Impudent Arachnid against the Legislacerator’s vessel. The old paranoia warned of a trap. But knowledge of the Marquise tempered Hyralx. The psionic bitch did not make ambushes unless she knew she was in a position to wipe out the opposition and grab everything not welded to the floor. No, she was likely in the process of something far more insidious. But what? All the information the Legislacerator had been passed pointed to the Free-Horns, Mind-fang included being overworked in their raiding strikes on the planet below and filling the holes the Imperial navy was too overstretched to deal with.

Arriving at the dock-site Legislacerator Pyrope quickly dismissed her subordinates, the only one to protest was the Legislacerator Brass Eye. A stern low-psion with an impossibly thick skull, a quick growl kowtowed him and sent him running. Every weak minded subordinate in the presence of the mind taker was a potential knife in the back. When they were gone, Hyralx entered the Executive Execution’s docking bay. Inside, waiting alone was the spider bitch herself.

She was of average height and build for a cerulean, towering over the admittedly petite High Legislacerator. Her wide smile of fangs already splayed, tipped in silver and sharpened to kill. Mindfang was dressed in elaborate Gamblignant’s under attire of black, Cerulean and white silk with a grievous number of stained belts and clasps. Black and cerulean was the leather of her long coat, boots and pants, exquisite in make. She wore a perverse sash of Cerulean dyed xenos fur from her shoulder to her hip.

The hungry eight pupiled gaze fell down upon Hyralx as she approached, the cerulean pulling off her wide brimmed hat and sinking into a foppish bow. “Ah, the High Legislacerator has finally decided to grace me with her presence-”

“Speak your issue Marquise or get off my ship.” Hyralx interrupted the free-horn before she could get rolling. The look of the Gamblignant turned sour. While the sharpened grin remained, her brow dropped.

Likely miffed she hadn’t had a chance to ramble. Good.

“Normally you’re such an observing presence High Legislacerator. Perhaps those human creatures you’ve been interrogating have been bothering you? Or is it quadrant issues?” The chittering of the Marquise did not move her face, though internally Hyralx very much wished she could drive a fist into the Marquises’ grotesque eyeball. The seven pupils pulsed gently. Prodding for an entrance into the Legis’ mind that didn’t exist.

Hyralx gave one sharp click. “I’ve been swamped by all manner of deserter, traitor and criminal at the moment. Mine Legislacerators are busy keeping order and I busy in their direction. As for the xenos? Perish usually at the first dose of encouragement. Too fleeting to be of bother.” The High Legislacerator refused to even acknowledge the petty quadrant jab.

The fangs of the Marquise disappeared behind a feigned pout of disappointment. “All of them? Goodness that must be a good many bodies you’ve had to feed to your ward.” Mindfang drew a finger to her lip and chittered for a moment. “Has even the Avarayri perished then? Such a waste of xenos hide if that is the case.”

“Avarayri?” The given name drew a frown to the Legislacerator. It was an ancient term, one for protracted and hopeless warfare, bent around the notion of depriving the other force of the joy of victory. Something in her gut roiled under her typical agitation for the Cerulean.

The Marquises’ unsavory smile returned, a lecherous look in her eyes. “Yes, the human creature that slew the prior standing Messenger on High and the Master of Mirth? I was told the alien was released into your custody. Is it true the Avarayri slew five hundred trolls and a hundred highbloods?”

Of course. Of all the accursed humans that could have engraved themselves onto the minds of the fleet it had to be the Gael human. Of all the miserable beasts that drew their minds and waylaid invading forces the Gael would be the one to be named. Hyralx could not contain her scowl, the Cerulean’s eyes widened as she spoke. “The xenos only slew two hundred and ten trolls. Forty one of them highbloods. I am like to believe that such casualties were wrought by their fool-hardy attempts to capture the alien. The hubris of said agitators humbled with their culling.”

“Still,” Mindfang smile widened at the Legislacerator’s evident disdain. “Such a feet is on par with an Indigo’s fury! If half of what they say of the creature is true then it would be such a shame if the beast fell to a little, ‘encouragement.’” A small flutter in the Marquises’ gaze prodded at Hyralx. The Legis remained unmoved. “What a terrible note to end its tale on. Terribly dull anyways.”

“That creature you term Avarayri still lives for the time being.” Hyralx pulled up the blank prosecuting face that had carried her for so long, unwilling to give anymore to the wretched Gamblignant bitch than she already had. “A terrible pain of a beast. The alien is made of sterner stuff than the rest of its kind. I would call it a mutant if nothing else. Physically however it is no more or less capable than any others common of its species.”

“And?” Mindfang raised eyebrow, a hungriness in her eight pupiled gaze. “What do you intend to do with such a thing when you finish… extracting information from it?”

“Rip whatever the creature has in place of a bloodpusher out. An unsettling thing like this needs to be dealt with quickly.” While not a lie, Hyralx had not intended to make the Gael human’s demise anymore painful. She supposed it had earned a quiet end.

The answer made the Marquise trill with indignation.

“How boring! The priests would want it strung upon the risers! Even then. If it is as capable as I’ve been lead to believe?” A snicker. “I would not want such a thing wasted. Xenos slaves are a rarity. Rarely worth keeping with the way they tend to fall ill and perish. But one like the Avarayri? That is well worth more than its weight in gold. Put such a thing behind a ship cannon and it would be worth more than a trained sea dweller.” The Marquise clicked with disdain at the Legislacerator’s unmoved appearance. "Come now. Do not tell me you're serious with that culling trite?"

“The Avarayri is not some braying beast to be bought and sold. All evidence has shown that xenos human strength comes from preparedness, terrain and our own foolishness that must smell like blood in the water to the aliens. The priests have many humans down below that they can paint if they yearn for xenos blood, some I imagine would be willing to sell you still living ones for your degenerate tastes Marquise. But this particular xeno is best culled quickly.” The Marquise paced frowning as Hyralx spoke. “Even were I behind such a wigglerish notion it is evident that this xenos functions at its best when it is doomed. A beast best backed against the wall as it were.”

“What would it take to make you change your mind High Legislacerator?” Mindfang waved a hand before the Legislacerator could begin growling. “I understand you are well and truly capable of judging a xenos creature like that for yourself but it is such a waste to simply gut a thing like that-”

“Am I to believe you came all this way, interrupted my sleep and work for this? Because you desire another toy for your collection?” It took Hyralx a great deal of effort not to end the words in a snarl. If the decadent Cerulean was bothered she showed none of it.

“I am well aware that these humans are not toys, soft as their forms are. But a creature with that kind of aim and chitin? A waste if I may say so.” The marquise paused. “I would of course be willing to pay a hefty price for the Avarayri. Certainly worth enough to recompense you of ails acquired during your conversations?” The Cerulean lipped words earned sharp barking clacking out of the Legislacerator. It was the first time she’d laughed openly and earnestly since the first interrogation of the Gael human.

“I wouldn’t hand her over to you even if you gave me a full declaration of treason and your bared neck, oh great Marquise.” Hyralx allowed herself a fanged smile that earned an almost invisible flicker of the Marquise's visage.

Though she made an excellent brazen figure, a faint rancorous fear traced about the Cerulean.

She was aware that the High Legislacerator was strong enough to throw off her psionics, well aware that in a one to one fight the teal would win.

The Cerulean buried the flutter as soon as it had come, once more bowing to the Legis low enough the teal could make see the back of her coat. Marquise Mindfang returned her xenos-feathered hat to her head as she stood. “Unfortunate as it is I will have to decline the offer. I will of course have to recompense you at some point for arriving at this early hour, but I suppose that is a matter for another day.” She turned without another word and walked, over to the docking bridge that connected the Legislacerator’s ship with the Marquise’s. Obnoxious crimson boots clacking as she went.

Hyralx did not move, remaining a statue. When the Marquise passed the threshold onto the connective bridge, she turned. Bitch was still smiling. “And High Legislacerator? I’m very sorry we couldn’t do this the easy way.”

Without another word she vanished, the air lock doors rescinding. The High Legislacerator was left alone.

“I suppose it would be too much of you simply give up.” Hyralx growled. Silently she cursed the void and all the beasts within. Curse the whispered words of the fleet and curse that hedonistic Gamblignant as well.

~~{†}~~

“Marquise-Captain is this really necessary?”

Marquise Spinneret Mindfang had expected some complaint eventually. The lime at her side was much more tolerable than the inordinate wrigglerish sputtering the rest of her subordinates were usually known for. The Cerulean Gamblignant turned to look at her Left-Hand. A lime nearly as tall as herself, the entirety of his lower fangs jutted out over his lips. Horns simple and pulling plainly upwards. Left-Hand Herakles looked as if he ought to be overseeing a minor habitation zone or living on a far off colony. Were it not for the immaculate Lime-White Gamblignant attire that exposed a pair of bionic legs from the knees down.

“I’d never imagine you to be a coward Herakles.”

The Lime raised his hackles but did not raise his voice, his words already echoing in the empty hallways of the 'IV PAINTED MESSAGE'. “I am no coward and you know that, I have aided you in assaults no sane troll has ever embarked. Not because you crawled in my head either.” Mindfang rolled her eyes, bringing a trill so low from Herakles it sounded like the wiring of metal. “But this?! Fear and Fearlessness and all ability is useless in the face of the cursed priests, to say nothing of their leader.”

“My dear Left-Hand, there is a purpose for all things. Even that Indigo eyesore. Especially now that I'm in a position to directly benefit from him.”

“I would dearly hope you keep such words quiet on this ship.”

The Free-horns made their way through the labyrinthine core of the Ecclesiarcies most recently awarded battle titan. To the Marquise it was clear the priests and the petty worms that called themselves the Vykjiit were overextending themselves. Few crewmen ran about, those that did exhausted and fearful. Stains of dirt and blotches of hemospectrum all about. Much of which was evidently unintentional, however on occasion the pair of Gamblignants would come across something very much intentional.

“Dreadful, isn’t it?” Mindfang hissed. “Wreeeeeeeetched.” A floor to ceiling mural of splattered burgundy, chocolate and jade greeted them. Depicting three broken trolls and a morbid warning underneath in one of the more archaic mirthful dialects. Though the Marquise could not read the message itself, but it was not hard to imagine what it meant with the grotesque smiling face painted underneath.

Herakles coughed and looked away. “All it takes is wrong one word from you and we all end up painting a wall somewhere.”

“I’m aware Herakles.”

“Aware of it, perhaps. I’d prefer you to be conscious of that.”

On the Gamblignants went. The confusing mess of hallways a feature rather than an inconvenience. The Indigo master of the ship no doubt wanting his guests to feel trapped as squeak beasts in a literal maze. Unfortunately for him, Mindfang was hardly a squeak beast. She looked over her gear one final time, ensuring all the 'clips' were properly set to play on her tablet. Fanged sword at her side ready if worse came to worse.

“Here we are.” Herakles said as they turned a corner to perhaps the most monstrous sight they had seen thus far. Before them were a set of massive doors, tall enough to accommodate this ship's monstrous master. Every inch of the front covered in lurid grinning faces. The doors were made of mushroom wood from Alternia, now an impossibly rare commodity. They were stained a near black purple, something not possible in the days when the Empire's homeworld still existed. But those days were gone. Laughsassins and Oblitipainters had no obligation to honour their own ties of blood. Mindfang stared for a moment. Not so much awed or humbled or whatever silly thing the doors had been designed for, but wondering if she ever managed to make off with the doors if a buyer was even possible. She doubted there was anyone wealthy enough with the tastes for such furnishings.

The Marquise adjusted her gloves one last time. “Well then, stay here Herakles, I’ll try to keep this brief.”

“Best of luck.” The lime turned, no doubt wondering if he could actually escape if this affair went abdomen up. He likely wouldn't, but that was under the notion the Marquise could fail.

She strode forward brazenly, undaunted by the grotesque doors that pushed aside under her hands. The Hall of the Grand Highblood opened before Spinneret Mindfang. As large and unpleasant as it had been described to her. Perhaps even a little bigger. At the end, the figure of the Grand Highblood himself reclined. Boots clacking against the black stone, Mindfang approached the Indigo tyrant. "Hail! Most Grand of the Grandest! Most mighty of the highbloods! I thank you for granting me audience.” Close, close enough the Cerulean could smell the stench of the dead on the giant. Close enough to see the shivering in his eyes that never really stopped. "I understand you are busy these days most magnanimous magistrate of the mirthful messiah's mandate."

The Grand Highblood looked Mindfang over as she stopped a few feet away from his throne. A deep chest centered rumbling coming as he leaned forward. “Of course Gamblignant, most wretched of the mother fucking Free-horns. Surprising to see a mother fucker like you approach me. Though my mirthful mother fucking halls are always open.” The indigo smiled wide. “I’ll be having my mother fucking mirth now if you would?”

The Marquise could not help but return the smile for an entirely different reason than what the Indigo must be expecting. “But of course. What do you call a treacherous lying moirail?”

The setup paused the Grand Highblood. “I do not know.”

“High Legislacerator Pyrope.”

The Grand Highblood was just as fast as the rumors had been. Without the warning pang of the Gamblignant's vision eightfold the giant's club would have shattered her skull. Her former standing place shattered by the overhead strike. Stone chips of the shattered floor flew as the Indigo loomed over Mindfang. Seething with his red eyes convulsing. "THAT IS A MOTHER FUCKING AUDACIOUS CHARGE YOU’VE PLACED YOU CERULEAN MOTHER FUCKER!” The giant's booming roar filled the hall as the Gamblignant registered steps off in the distance.

Spinneret Mindfang was not moved by the display, picking a chunk of blood stained stone out of her hair and flicking it aside. “Yes, really is isn’t it? However I did not come here without proof.” She worked two-fold, hand withdrawing her tablet as her psionic gift slowly worked its way into the Indigo's head. The mind-grip was more versatile than most knew of, not simply a tool of domination but of inclination. Mindless anger left a significant hole in the Grand Highblood's mental flank. Enough to worm in curiosity. Undetected. “But first, a question?”

“GET ON WITH IT!” The Grand Highblood roared, taking a step forward. Mindfang could smell the stench of his breath now, rotten and keening even over the rancid blood. But his insides were open, Mindfang could feel his teeming rage, and a much more pleasing turgid impatience. She was his now, even if it was not any actual control. Even if the Indigo did not know it yet.

Mindfang smiled wider. “What has the Legislacerator told you of the Avarayri?” The Grand Highblood's brow lowered, confusion brewing in him. “The alien who slew your leaders upon the ground? They’ve named her you know?”

"THOSE HEATHEN MOTHER FUCKERS OUT IN THE FLEET ARE GIVING NAMES TO FREAK ASS XENOS HERETIC MOTHER FUCKERS NOW!?" His rage was tinted by incredulity.

“The beast’s infamy is well spread now. But there are more than the Avarayri now, even if the Avarayri is the most well known. Beasts, all over the shop these days.”

The Grand Highblood finally pulled away from Mindfang, turning and growling as he fought to contain himself. “SHE-” His shrieking shout was curtailed by teal smelling memories that Mindfang wormed past, taking with her sincerity as she faced the Grand Highblood's back. Physically and mentally. “My palest promised me the chance to watch her choke. Then, she promised me the mother fucker’s corpse.”

The noose hung so perfectly it almost made Mindfang giggle like a grub. “Funny.” She managed to keep the intoxicating delight at bay as she opened her recording program, starting with the easy one.

The recording played back clear and seamless. “What do you intend to do with such a thing when you finish… extracting information from it?”

“Rip whatever the creature has in place of a bloodpusher out. An unsettling thing like this needs to be dealt with quickly.”

The sounds of the Indigo's teeth cracking against each other came as fear and confusion filled his head. Aimed no longer at the Cerulean, but at the Legis. “She lied to you oh Grandest. Lied right to your face!”

“Mother fucker.” More confusion, thoughts, it had to be lies. Mindfang leaned him into it, whirling his mind like the stabilizers on a void vessel. Out of 'She couldn't have' to 'Why would she do that.' Oh yes, the latter had existed inside of him, his quadrant confusions near detestably simple to play on. “She-”

The stumbling words of the Grand Highblood were cut off by the more 'hashed out' clips of audio the ship's technician had whipped together for her. Indistinguishable from the actual thing unless compared side by side. The fog of panic and confusion brought to full heat by the Marquise made the tiny clicks ignored. Uncertainty replaced by a grotesque green thing that had loomed over the High Priest. "Ignorant fool actually believed me. Dull beast. I won't give him it simply because the terrible idiot desires another toy."

The Marquise took a step back as the Grand Highblood growled. “Imagine all the things she’s already lied to you about! Riiiiiiiight behind your back!”

“SHUT UP!” The Indigo howled, mind now open as the tablet Mindfang's hand. Memories of the creature finally coming to Mindfang as they brushed the surface of the Grand Highblood's mind. The creature was not at all what the Marquise had expected it to be, even with all the pomp and bluster that had been given to it by inflation of its battle. Small, smaller than even the Legis. But it was fearless, the raising against the Grand Highblood proving that. Oh yes, this was a worthy thing to possess. Worth all the trouble even over the struggle of acquisition. Even if the acquisition was well worth itself.

“She’s had the Avarayri for nearly two dozen standards. Human-xenos break in moments apparently, and she’s been keeping her all to herself.” Marquise Mindfang hissed. “The little monster mocked you, made mockery of your institutions, and as a final insult your ‘moirail’ is hiding her from you.”

“Why?” The Grand Highblood's words came softer as the Marquise returned her tablet to her pocket. The Indigo's confusion fading fast into disgust. “Why bring this to me?”

Mindfang drew her hand to her face to keep her smile hidden. “While I certainly despise the Grand Legislacerator, I think it best if you knew yourself oh Grand of the Grandest. But do not worry yourself over me, you should be thinking on your own plans. If you confront your alleged moirail, she’ll likely just kill the Avarayri, denying you any pleasure in revenge.”

The hand came from nowhere, the enormous paw of the Indigo not motivated by the mind. Mindfang growled as the Grand Highblood raised her by her bionic arm, lifting her up off the ground face to face. “Well, spider bitch mother fucker, since you’re so well thought after. What do you advise?”

“I think best if you look to more- esoteric solutions to destroy the human in your sight.” The Marquise tsked as she adjusted herself, free hand falling to her blade in case the beastly body of the Indigo moved again without his mind's consent. “Indeed, the Avarayri committed a grave affront upon you. It’s danger great enough to warrant it earning a name. Named creatures are subject to the old laws.”

The gaze of the Grand Highblood wandered over the Cerulean for a moment, fingers flexing over the chitin chromium of her artificial limb. The indigo's grasp failed, Mindfang falling to her feet as the Grand Highblood turned again, pacing for a moment. His mind falling into words older than the Imperial script that Mindfang could not decipher. But a stain of teal and blue in his mind kept her hand wrapped around her blade.

Finally, the giant spoke. “Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ?”

“Precisely. Name a time, and a date. The Legis will be forced to relinquish her into your custody for the challenge, denying it will simply put her head on the chopping block.”

The Grand Highblood slowly returned to his throne, mind spinning over the terms, over his moirail and the infectious paranoia the Marquise had lit in him. When the mirth rose, Mindfang pulled out of his mind. The cracking began in his throat, deep and rolling like an ocean, followed by the twisting of rock and the tearing of plate. The laughter of the High Priest rolled, unsettling to most, but the Gamblignant could only smile at the sight of the deranged highblood.

“VERY WELL MOTHER FUCKER! LET IT BE KNOWN TO ALL WITH MIRTH THAT THE MOTHER FUCKER KNOWN AS AVARAYRI IS SUMMONED TO MEET ME UPON THE MOTHER FUCKING DEGENERATION OF FLESH!” Mindfang bowed and turned, walking out as the Grand Highblood roared to his underlings. “IT SHALL HAVE TWO STANDARD CYCLES TO MEET ME THERE, LET IT BE KNOWN TO EVERY MOTHER FUCKER ON THE FLEET! I REQUIRE A MOST MIRTHFUL MOTHERFUCKING ASSEMBLAGE!”

The escape from the hall came as Mindfang passed a number of harried and fearful highbloods, carrying paper and ink to their master.

Herakles was waiting for her, somewhat damp but none the worse for wear. “How did you do that?”

She beckoned the Lime to follow her as the Grand Highblood's roaring laughter filled the air. “Not everything is hard control Herakles, sometime subtle nudges works just as well as a strong grip. Physical 'evidence' with it?” The Cerulean snickered. “Sometimes that works even better.”

Herakles shot a final look back at the hall of the Indigo Giant. Doors closing behind. “I thought you wanted the human for yourself.”

“Oh, I still do. But in order to get my hands on her I’ll have to thread the needle as it were.”

“The human will die if she fights the Grand one.”

Mindfang scoffed. “The human should have died back on the planet, but the Mirth Master’s bloody corpse says there is more to the Avarayri than is apparent. I just need her to not perish outright.”

~~{†}~~

Time inside the cell had lost all sense without the High Legislacerator arriving to break the monotony. Not that Gael was necessarily against that. Sometimes it was just better to be a facilitator of dreams, rather than a dreamer. A living crossroad where the dead and unborn mingled.

It was better than acknowledging the present. Indignation had burned in her after her final encounter with the Legis, she had evidently enraged her to the point of violence. The blade had been in her grasp. She'd pushed and gotten her metaphorical blood and the final act should be getting strung up by the Legis.

Yet, Gael had awoken in the cell again. Aching, covered in her own blood but still very much alive.

Why? Why had she been denied peace? Again and again she'd done this fucking song and dance, this needless extension of life draining her. But she couldn't relent, there was no breaking, no frail binding that would let the human slump. The denial had struck her more than any of the anguish her collar had inflicted. Worn away at Gael's mind more than the lights that never fucking shut off or any of the alleged pointlessness of her situation.

Gael chose not to dwell on it when the worst of the humiliation was subsumed. Willing herself to wait for the end. Drawn out as it may be.

Waiting was much easier when one didn’t have to be present, mentally anyways. Gael’s former routine was resumed when the worst of her bruising faded to a plethora of black blotches spread across her form, body remaining functional against all odds. Somehow. Gael did not dwell on it, resuming physical function with feeding and drink between the periods of sleep and strange dreams.

Time had only made them stranger, for better or worse.

The questions of the aliens, Horns as Gael mentally referred to them now only grew the deeper she had been dragged. But perhaps that was to be expected, it would be incredibly frustrating trying to put together a picture of humans if you’d only seen passing fragments of their history and maybe a Jesus at some point. Worse if one had 'been' said Jesus for however long it took for him to fucking pass.

Horn societies built upon concepts upon concepts she had no way to decipher rolled before her unconscious senses. A rolling road that had been paved over and over, occasionally abandoned for centuries and then rediscovered. Gael watched a silent shadow in the half-remembered memories. A ghost amidst the Horns going about their existence. Most passed her by, living and dying on their own accord.

But a few concepts had been nailed down at least. Terrified state towards the dark and the deep colours, indigo, purple and strangely fuchsia. An emptiness of bright red, barring the suffering state Gael had been greeted when this mad voyage into the unexplored had begun. The blazing sun, the soft night. Violence.

But as time went on the violence was seen through, there was more to the Horns than violence, though their world and competition dictated a ceaselessness to it. They were capable of compassion, bonding, humor and great acts of sacrifice. Odd as it was humans and Horns shared laughter in joy, and tears in sorrow. Though both were hidden deeply, meant for hidden places and trusted bonds. A part of Gael realized that if she had any sense of self, the private sights would be voyeuristic to the point of discomfort.

But Gael didn’t feel like a person much now.

How long had she been in here? The feedings were uncountable, not by size but in lost sense. The light never went off, the doors never opened.

Dreams was all there was for Gael, even when Gael barely held onto reality.

The noise of the food chute roused her from dreams and ailing thoughts, drawing Gael back to her physical form. Aching, bleary, filthy. But alive and very much still indignant. Gael wiped the sleep from her eyes and stood. Same orange sized ball of protein waiting for her, same chitin bottle of water. A part of her wondered if it would be best to just stop eating at this point. It might be the best way to end this.

The resent for her captors killed the notion. She wanted to die functional.

Gael picked up both the water bottle and the protein ball. Walking back to the pod of green gunk, which now had an indentation from where she’d been leaning on it all this time. The ball tasted the same, bland, faintly of- something. In memories not her own Gael faintly recalled eating a purer version of the ball. The taste was clear then. She even thought she might know of the balls origins. Grub-like creatures the size of a Chihuahua with a nasty bite. But who knew if that memory had even happened in this reality?

Gael dispelled such pointless thoughts from her mind as she finished the ball. Rising again to begin her exercises.

The noise of the chitin doors opening came. Felt for a moment like she hadn't woken up at all.

Gael turned as the High Legislacerator stepped into the cell. The same, but different. There was no scowl on her face, her body language was not so tense, not even as much as when she had first seen her. Alien again in make. Gael grumbled a curse. In the dark once more. She paused, waiting for the inevitable command, waiting for the Legislacerator to make a move.

However she did not, the red-glared Legislacerator stood there for a moment. Unmoving. Her eventual grunt for motion was short and terse, subdued by comparison to most of her prior becks. “Fuck.” Gael mumbled as she tore open the water bottle, drinking down the entire contents swiftly, disposing the water bottle in the waste disposal hole and walking out. Oddly the Legislacerator did not press her, remaining silent. Staring.

That only inflamed the sense of worry. Gael figured this was likely either the end of the line, or the warning call for it. She stayed silent as she walked.

The quiet of the cavernous cell-block was only alleviated by their steps. The darkness greeted them as usual.

Gael nodded to the titanic eyes that appeared high above. The sight dampened the worry, it was nice to see the titan remained. It would go on, long after Gael was gone those burning eyes would remain.

Once more the Legislacerator stopped her with a sharp click, once more she walked ahead and opened the door to the translation room. Walking inside Gael took note that her blood stains remained on the floor before she sat down at translation terminal. Now rust red and dusty, seems she hadn’t cleaned up. The Legislacerator walking calmly to her own terminal with a reserved pace. Watching it did not feel the slowness of a predator, something else. Exhaustion perhaps, trepidation maybe. Or something more alien that her human experiences couldn't decipher. Gael couldn’t guess as she waited for the Legis to start typing.

She didn’t, at least she didn’t right away. The red-glared Legis moved with a deliberateness, tapping away a few notes on her tablet device then flipping it face down onto the table and sliding it away from her. Gael’s jaw clenched as the Legislacerator’s hand slowly came up to her face, pulling the audacious glasses down.

Her eyes were teal at their core, her slit pupils almost reptilian. The skin surrounding her eyes was grey-black. Drooping eyelids gave her visage a weariness, though the human was not certain such was a sign of exhaustion. The Legis' taps came deliberate.

[1 H4V3 TH3 D1SPL34SUR3 0F 1NF0RM1NG Y0U TH4T TH3 GR4ND H1GHBL00D H4S SUMM0N3D Y0U F0R P3RS0N4L C0MB4T T0 4V3NG3 TH3 PR13STS Y0U SL3W UP0N TH3 BR1DG3 G43L HUM4N]
[1 4P0L0G1Z3]
[1 H4V3 N0 4UTH0R1TY T0 ST0P H1M]

Gael read over the message slowly. Grand Highblood. Could be the Indigo giant. Still, better to be sure.

[Grand Highblood]
[Was he the one you stopped from stepping on me]
[Y3S]
[H3 S33MS T0 H4V3 GR0WN 1MP4T13NT W1TH TH3 SP33D 0F MY 1NV3ST1G4T10NS 4ND D3S1R3S Y0UR D34TH P3RS0N4LLY]

The corners of Gael's mouth finally managed to perk up. Nice to see the yapping Pomeranian had left such an impression on the murder clown. It seemed that perhaps the High Legislacerator was disappointed she wouldn't be able to kill Gael, or perhaps it was the fact someone had ordered the imperious alien to do something. But an apology? No, unnecessary for a dead woman.

[Not much to be done about it from the way youre putting it]
[So no need to apologize]

The Legislacerator’s clicking was slow and loud.

[1 F33L 1 SH0ULD N0N3TH3L3SS]
[TH3 N0T10N TH4T H3 H4S TH3 G4LL T0 CH4LL3NG3 Y0U 0V3R Y0UR SURF4C3 B4TTL3 1S 4BSURD]
[1 C4N S4Y N0W W1TH N34R C3RT41NTY TH3 C4SU4LT13S Y0U C4US3D W3R3 B0RN3 0F PR3P4R3DN3SS 4ND TH3 0V3RWH3LM1NG 1N3PT1TUD3 0F TH3 L34D3RSH1P]
[WH1L3 1T P41NS M3 T0 4DM1T SUCH Y0UR 4SS3SM3NT 0F MY B3H4V10R W4S]
[T0 4 D3GR33 C0R3CT]
[Even so]
[Ive been doomed to die since I went up on that bridge Legis]
[This merely ends this unnecessary extension]

The response only loudened the teal-blood’s clicking.

[1 C4N 4SSUR3 Y0U TH4T 1S H4RDLY TH3 C4S3]
[TH3R3 1S C0NFL1CT BR3W1NG 1NT3RN4LLY 4M0NG MY K1ND]
[4N 1D10T1C 4RR0G4NC3 H4S M4D3 US W34K 4ND TR34CH3R0US]
[4ND 1T S33MS R4TH3R TH4N 4DDR3SS TH1S]
[MY K1ND H4V3 3L3CT3D T0 B4SH 0UR H34DS 4G41NST Y0UR W0RLD]
[Y0U D3S3RV3 4 QU1CK 3ND G43L HUM4N 0N3 TH4T SH0ULD H4V3 B33N D3L1V3R3D 0N TH3 BR1DG3]
[R4TH3R TH4N 4 P01NTL3SS SP3CT4CL3 M4D3 F0R TH3 GR4ND H1GHBL00DS BRU1S3D 3G0]

Was there something analogous brevity in the teal's words? Gael could not guess. It was impossible to tell if it was the absurdness of the leet-speak or the messages conveyed within that made her smile widen.

[I take it priests generally dont lead ground operations]

The Legis teeth snapped against each other.

[Y3S]
[Y0U C0ULD S4Y TH4T MUCH]
[0NC3 4G41N 1 4P0L0G1Z3]
[1 N0 L0NG3R 3V3N R3S3RV3 TH3 0PP0RTUN1TY T0 3ND Y0U MYS3LF 1N TH3 F4C3 0F TH1S CH4LL3NG3]
[I was going to ask about that]
[But if its not an option then again]
[There isnt really anything to be done here]
[The apology is accepted]
[For what little it is worth now]

The Legis did not respond for a moment. Claws hanging inches away from her screen, the clacks of her talons were loud.

[Y0U UND3RST4ND H3 1S G01NG T0 T4K3 4S MUCH T1M3 T0RM3NT1NG Y0U 4S H3 C4N B3F0R3 H3 K1LLS Y0U]
[Of course he is]
[But I didnt really get this far being fearful of the end]
[As far as Im concerned this is all just an unnecessary extension of my life]
[The void is overdue either way regardless of what happens]
[And hey maybe I get one last chance to piss off the stupid fuck clown]

The Legislacerator shook her head.

[1LL 4SSUM3 M0ST HUM4NS H4V3 S0M3 R3G4RD F0R TH31R 0WN SURV1V4L]

The words earned a snort.

[Im not under any illusion that my longterm survival is a thing]
[So the logical path to take is embrace the short term and the whole dare to die thing]
[Mind you I think that might be head trauma and you shocking me just a tad too much]

The Legislacerator made noises that might have been kind to her equivalent-laughter, if sharp and low.

[P3RH4PS]

The Legislacerator moved to tap out another message but stopped herself, her opposite hand moving instinctively to her tablet. She stopped herself, withdrawing her hand, looking up over the monitor at the human. Look unreadable. Her words came slow, shaking almost. Irregularities in her typing taps.

[WH4T 1S TH3 HUM4N C0NC3PT 0F JUST1C3]

It was Gael’s turn to be paused, the fever dream of their last meeting trickling back. It almost felt like it had not happened in some regards, though the black bruises along her front reminded her that was not the case. But what to say? Gael thought for a moment, there was an irony in the stereotypical colonial attitude of the singular nature of the demand.

But, she was asking, Gael was unable to do anything but give such a request its deserved response.

[There are likely a hundred concepts of what Justice is between humans]
[But for me Justice is stemmed from the base word Just]
[Fair and Proper action in the wake of actions that interfere with the rights of others]

[R1GHTS]
[WH4T 4R3 R1GHTS]

Oh. Oh boy, it was one of these.

“Fuuuuck.” The groan made the Legislacerator look up. Gael pressed quickly, the Legislacerator was intent, a tiny hole was open. Couldn’t lose it to her own pause or annoyance. Might actually be able to grant something to the Legis. Something positive.

[Rights are the inherent entitlements that a society agrees to mutually afford its members]

The Legislacerator clicked once.

[Y0U M34N CR0WN PR1V1L3G3S]

Gael snorted, mind running over how the translations were working out this conversation. Had to hope the Legis was able to shift things, that they weren't simply shifting analogous horned words.

[No I do not]
[Privileges are afforded and can be subsequently rescinded, sometimes without reason]
[Rights are implicit and cannot be rescinded except upon wrongdoing or societal consensus]
[From your descriptions prior of your position]
[Im going to take a guess that your head of state controls the entire apparatus of legal issue and that]
[Everything below that authority has only what the authority dictates it has in terms of legal standing]

The Legislacerator picked her tablet back up, typing away at her screen and quickly working as Gael waited for the Horned woman. Hopefully altering the specifications of the translation set-up to do away with miss-translations or overlapping concepts. If she was able to do that Gael owed the actual translator designers big time. For some reason the thought of a handful of Horns slaving over a deft, versatile translation system that barely any of their kind would use and was absolutely riddled with leetspeak was somewhat comical to the still chained human.

The Legislacerator’s response came fast when she finished with her tablet.

[Y0U 4R3 CL0S3 HUM4N G43L]
[TH3 3MP1R3S L3G4L STRUCTUR3 1S B4S3D FR0M TH3 3MPR3SS H3RS3LF BUT W1TH SUBS1D14RY L4Y3RS]
[TH3 L4RG3ST 4UT0N0M0US L3G4L SPH3R3 1S B4S3D FR0M TH3 3CCL3S14RCHY WH1CH FUNCT10NS UND3R TH3 3MPR3SS 3V3N 1F 1T 1S L4RG3LY 1ND3P3ND3NT 0F H3R]
[TH0UGH Y0U 4R3 C0RR3CT 1N TH4T 4G3NTS 0F TH3 3MP1R3 M4Y]
[R3SC1ND PR1V1L3G3S F0R TH3 PURP0S3S 0F 1NV3ST1G4T10NS]

Oh that was just lovely, some regular old Caesar bullshit with a cool extra Ibn Ra'iq thrown in. She pressed again, digging into the details of their make mentally. Could figure out what dreams had been in this reality and which hadn’t.

[As well the extent of these privileges is based upon the caste system is it not]
[The colour of blood if my situation has revealed such]

The High Legislacerator huffed and typed.

[Y0U 4R3 C0RR3CT HUM4N G43L]
[H1GHBL00DS H4V3 TH3 M0ST PR1V1L3G3S M1DBL00DS H4V1NG R34S0N4BL3 4CC0MM0D4T10N W1TH TH3 L0WBL00D M4SS3S H4V1NG TH3 L34ST]
[MUT4NTS H3R3T1CS 4ND X3N0S H4V3 N0 4CC0MM0D4T10NS]
[0F C0URS3 TH3 V3RY N4TUR3 0F 3X1ST1NG 1S 4N 4CC0MM0D4T10N]
[TH3 3MP1R3 D03S N0T 4LL0W 3V3N TH3 F41NT3ST PR3T3NS3 0F 0PP0S1T10N T0 1TS H13R4RCHY]
[4S Y0U M1GHT 1M4G1N3 TH4T M34NS TH3 M3R3 C0NT1NU3D 3X1ST3NC3 0F MUT4NTS H3R3T1CS 4ND X3N0S 1S 4 CH4LL3NG3 T0 TH3 3MP1R3S AUTH0R1TY]
[3V3RY TR1UMPH 0V3R TH3 1NT3RN4L 4ND 3XT3RN4L TH1NGS TH3 3MP1R3 D03S N0T 4LL0W T0 3X1ST FURTH3RS TH3 L3GIT1M4CY 0F TH3 THR0N3]

Good. Gael could work with that. She pressed, hoping she hadn’t missed any egregious shortcomings that would alienate the alien. "Thanks old lady Themis."

[Humans have engaged in such legal systems over time and they are to my knowledge such systems are inherently unjust]
[You and I have already made ourselves aware of each other and have found each other equal]
[Regardless of physical differences I believe we both have inherent rights that can only be taken from us by legal wrongdoing]
[Law which I believe best based upon allowing a good level of individual autonomy]
[So long as it does not tread upon the rights of others but that is more on me]
[The core that is indispensable in this is just treatment may only exist on equal footing]
[And the empire you serve is entirely without such]

The Legislacerator picked up her tablet once more quickly tapping away at the tablet. Was she recording this? Gael could only hope she was. The absurdity of it all had been dampened, she could well be the Ma’at for the Legis. The Legis set the Tablet aside again.

[BY WH4T M34NS C0ULD SUCH 1NH3R3NT PR1V1L3G3S]
[R1GHTS]
[B3 3ST4BL1SH3D]
[H0W D0 SUCH SYST3MS FUNCT10N W1TH1N 1MP3R14L STRUCTUR3]
[Independent law all members monarch included are bound to]
[Though some would have you believe legalism is subservient to priests, political movements and monarchal figures]
[Just law requires none]
[Only a core codex bound to rights principled enforcers bound to the notion of fairhanded rules derived from those rights]
[With fair representation in enactment and punishment meant to ensure crimes are ceased rather than being quashed with unnecessary suffering]
[Ill assume Imperial law does not follow this]

The High Legislacerator, her Honourable Tyranny stared down at the translated words for a pregnant moment.

[TH4T W0ULD B3 C0RR3CT]
[1MP3R14L L4W 1S D1CT4T3D 0N 1MP3R14L D3CR33 BY TH3 FUCHS14 THR0N3 1TS3LF]
[PUN1SHM3NT F0R 0FF3NC3S 1S D1CT4T3D 3NT1R3LY UP0N L3G1SL4C3R4T0R 3NF0RC3M3NT 4ND P3N4L PR3C3D3NT]
[L1K3W1S3 L3G1SL4C3R4T0RS 4R3 B3H0LD3N 0NLY T0 TH3 C0URT M4ST3RS 4ND TH3 THR0N3]
[4T 0N3 P01NT 4 GR34T CR34TUR3 KN0WN 4S H1S H0N0UR4BL3 TYR4NNY PR3S1D3D 0V3R 4LL 4FF41RS]
[H0W3V3R H3 1S G0N3 4ND TR0LLS H4V3 H3LD TH3 P0S1T10N S1NC3]
[TH3R3 1S L1TTL3 1N TH3 W4Y 0F 1NT3RF3R3NC3 B3TW33N L3G1SL4C3R4T0RS 4ND TH31R QU4RRY]
[Such a system cannot be just and fair to all those under it so long as the Throne dictates law]
[1 KN0W]
[H0W3V3R 1 F1ND 1T N34R 1MP0SS1BL3 T0 1M4G1N3 4N0TH3R SYST3M TH4N TH3 0N3 1 0P3R4T3 1N]
[MUCH L3SS TH3 N3C3SS4RY 4CT10N N33D3D T0 SH1FT 0UT 0F 1T]
[My ancestors were once the same beholden to tyrants and corrupt religious law]
[Many times they escaped this through revolution and legislative push]
[M0N4RCHY 4LW4YS R34SS3RT3D 1TS3LF TH0UGH]
[4 RUL3 0F 4 S1NGUL4R P0W3RFUL H1GHBL00D W1LL 4LW4YS 0UTW31GH TH3 R3ST MY K1NDS W1LLS]
[SUCH H4S 4LW4YS B33N TH3 C4S3 TH4T H4S L3D US 4LL H3R3]
[Monarchy autocracy theocracy and kakistocracy rise and fall and just legalism must be defended or it will do the same]
[Defended by people kind to a Legislacerator]
[Although torture and the ignoring of rights ought to be done away with]
[4T WH4T C0ST D03S SUCH 4 TH1NG C0M3 G43L HUM4N]
[N0T 4LL 0F US H4V3 4N 4B1L1TY T0 FL1RT S0 R3CKL3SSLY W1TH TH3 V01D]
[Make no mistake the shifts out of aristocratic domination require vast resources]
[But the merits of what comes are shared among all members of society]
[Barring those that once held it in bondage and would try to hold it in such]
[SUCH 1ND1V1DU4LS 4R3 1N3V1T4BL3 P4RT1CUL4RLY T0 MY K1ND G43L HUM4N]
[L0WBL00DS 0NLY L1V3 4 FR4CT10N 0F 4 S34DW3LL3RS L1F3SP4N]
[TH3 STR3NGTH 4ND PHYS1C4L 4B1L1T13S 0F 4 RUST P4L3 1N C0MP4R1S0N T0 3V3N 4 J4D3 T0 S4Y N0TH1NG 0F C0LD BL00DS]
[MY K1ND 4R3 D33PLY UN3QU4L]
[As are mine]
[However we have already cut this through]
[Physical ability and lifespan are nothing in the face of will and sapience]
[If we are equals in that Legis then why should either of us accept indignity and uneven ground]
[Why should you be beholden to a crown that can have you deprived of dignity for no reason]

For a moment Gael was paused as the sound of clicking talons stopped. Looking over the monitor at the inquisitor, Gael noted she was still. Staring almost blankly at her own monitor. What was she thinking? The xenophilliac in her wanted to press, as did the legalist. But pathos stayed that. How odd, all this time and her torturer was silent. But of course, master-slave logic dictated that both were truthfully slaves. One just dressed more fancifully. Both trapped in their own tracks of thinking.

Gael supposed her torturer deserved a chance at better. There was a little worth in that.

[You can do better Legislacerator than all this]
[If you wish]

The silence drew on for a while. Gael wanted to keep typing, but this was no longer a feud of words. Rather an exchange. The noise from the Legislacerator unsettled the human. It reminded Gael of their laughter, but with something else that filled her with an unpleasantness that she could not name. “You are truly the worst creature.” The words were almost unheard over the sound that came. Gael killed her trepidation and peaked around the monitor again. The Inquisitor shuddered faintly, a hand covering her face. Her other hand came up to type out a message.

[TH3R3 1S N0TH1NG 3LS3 BUT TH1S G43L HUM4N]
[1 4M TH3 H1GH L3G1SL4C3R4T0R]
[TH3 V3RY 3MB0D1M3NT 0F TH3 1MP3R14L L4W L41D D1R3CTLY FR0M TH3 M0UTH 0F TH3 3MPR3SS 4ND TH3 F00T 0F TH3 THR0N3]
[1 C4N B3 N0TH1NG 3LS3]
[I dont believe that]
[4ND FR0M WH3R3 H4S TH1S B3L13F SPR0UT3D FR0M]
[You as an individual have proven to me your will and insistence]
[You have full autonomy over your own being no matter the constraints of your position]
[And if you desire to be just]
[Truly just]
[You can make your own movements towards seeing that done]
[You can set the course to divide the crooked house you find yourself in]
[And with enough effort you can ensure that the house divided cannot stand]
[But only with action]
[Your autonomy and will mean nothing if you do not use them and only act in subservience to the foot of the throne]

Gael waited for the unsettling shuddering noises to stop, waited for the response. Of course she realized she was encouraging blatant treason against the state, considering the horned legal system that was probably a death sentence. Not that death sentences mattered when you were literally stuck in the SS barracks at Auschwitz. Below humans were still fighting. If they were close enough to earth that the word 'below' was functional.

[D0 Y0U 4CTU4LLY B3L13V3 TH4T]

There was no hesitation in Gael's response.

[Of course]
[You are made of stardust Legis]
[Youve crossed the blackness between stars and conquered much]
[Who is to say you cannot liberate yourself from the bondage of your society]
[L3G1SL4C3R4T0RS D0 N0T R3T1R3 G43L HUM4N]
[1 4M N0 TR41T0R T0 TH3 3MP1R3 0R TH3 3MPR3SS]
[Then youre no different than a slave]
[But the difference is that your chains are mental being forged of obligations patterns of thought and expectation]
[You can break these]
[The fact that we are having this conversation means that you can dissent]
[There is no treason if your loyalty lies in justice rather than an arbitrary shitheel]

Another pause that Gael dared not press any further. She faintly noted the paled grey of her knuckles, hand curled up into fists in her lap as she waited. The Legislacerator stared noiseless fingers hanging in the air. She slowly picked up her tablet again, but put it down after a moment. Shifting herself and grumbling her words came slowly.

[1T 1S]
[4PPR3C14T3D TH4T Y0U TH4T Y0U TH1NK SUCH G43L]
[BUT 1 C4NN0T S4Y 1 B3L13V3 Y0U]
[TH4NK Y0U F0R 1NDULG1NG MY CUR10S1TY]

Another brief pause, before Gael could even move the Legis was typing again.

[UNF0RTUN4T3LY Y0U W1LL B3 C4LL3D 4ND S3NT UND3R TH3 N4M3 4V4RY4R1 T0 TH3 GR4ND H1GHBL00D 1N TW3LV3 0F Y0UR HUM4N H0URS]
[4ND 1 4M UN4BL3 T0 R3L34S3 Y0U 0R K1LL Y0U]
[WH3N TH4T T1M3 C0M3S TH3 GR4ND H1GHBL00D W1LL CULL Y0U]
[1F Y0U H4V3 4NY R3QU3STS TH4T 4R3 W1TH1N MY P0W3R T0 FULF1LL N0W 1S TH3 T1M3 T0 V01C3 TH3M]

Gael read the words twice over to make sure she hadn’t misread the Legislacerators message. A blank running in her head. Warm scales filled the emptiness.

[If its not too much to ask Id like to be able to wander about in the space of the giant]
[The red eyed beast]
[I dont think shes going to kill me]
[Y0U D3S1R3 TO S33 PYR4L]
[Is that her name]
[Y3S]
[Then yes I would very much like that if you would allow it]

The Legislacerator made a noise, like a sharp crack. Her voice came low again. “Insufferable.” There was no harshness to her tongue.

[1 SUPP0S3]
[SH3 H4S B33N UTT3RLY 1NC0RR1G1BL3 4S 0F L4T3 4NYW4YS]
[1 W1LL 4LL0W Y0U TH1S HUM4N]
[WH3N TH3 T1M3 C0M3S 1 W1LL C0LL3CT Y0U BUT F0R N0W 1 W1LL 4LL0W Y0U T0 W4ND3R TH3 1NT3RNM3NT 4R34]

The High Legislacerator stood as Gael read the inquisitorial alien's words, anxious for the first time in a long time. Clawed hands grabbing her tablet and glasses.

It was stupid, a walking corpse shouldn't be anxious for anything.

When Gael finished reading, she stood, the Inquisitor already out of the room leaving the door open behind her. The human stared at the open chitinous doors for a moment, and turned back to the translator.

[Thank you Legis]
[I wish you the best]

The final messages came easily, small but it was enough. Minutia stood out after discussion of legalism. With that done she turned and left. Outside a quick look confirmed Legislacerator was gone, no steps troubling the void. The darkness so great that Gael could not see anything. But she did not to, the Legislacerator’s shepherding had left her aware of the terrain. One hand tracing upon the wall Gael walked back in the direction of her cell, for the first and final time.

Twelve hours, that was it.

Kind of the Legislacerator to translate her own species numeral increments into human versions. Or perhaps that was the translation program. Either way it mattered not. Gael was almost disappointed that the small message was all she could leave the Legis with.

But, of course. Over time. All this was needless. Might as well partition something to someone who perhaps could make use of it.

It all almost made Gael want to add time on the clock. No. Hope was an insidious killer, hope would allow her to be fearful again. Infect her with false pretenses and cowardice. If it wasn’t brain damage, instead of a perverse resolve that found her when she had volunteered to die on fucking Ambassador Bridge. The Grand High Douche was just around the corner. There was no way to best him. Nothing to be done but die and do so as properly as she could manage.

The noises of the giant above paused the human. Brain damage, couldn’t be anything else as Gael carefully looked up at the glowering eyes. It should be terrifying the way it moved, one with the darkness.

“Pyral isn’t it?”

The words earned an enormous snorting noise as the glowing orbs descended. Gael’s now thoroughly knotted hair whipped about her heady as the giant sniffed at her, head drawing downwards as Gael raised her hand. The scaly hide of the giant was again warm. Furthering the touch and rubbing her palms against the creature it felt like an enormous furnace. But not too hot as to be unpleasant.

The rumbling that came from the throat of the giant was like a tiger's chuffing. It’s head coming low enough to rub itself against Gael. Sending her stumbling back, feet quickly doubling to compensate. All it would take is one move and it could crush Gael outright. It must have made an elephant look like a rat.

“Good girl.” Pyral's head pulled away, noises of its movements coming from all over as the giant came to rest itself on the floor from its unseen perch. Even then, head resting on the ground, the titan's wrecking ball sized eyes were level with Gael's head. Beaming eyes staring at the human, almost expectantly.

For the human, It was impossible to not smile when faced with such a sight.

“Yea. Just us eh?” She murmured as she leaned against the giant, a hand coming up to the scaled skin of its snout. The warmth of the giant filling her shirtless front for the first time since her garments had been pilfered. "Thanks." Gael mumbled. It was impossible to tell if the creature understood the intentions of her words, but Pyral’s breathing softened, eyes slitting to Red Crescent moons. Just being able to touch the giant, which purred under the scratches along the grooves of its scales.

It almost made all the overtime Gael had endured worth it.

Chapter Text

This world was sand and stone, grey and black. Ashen sand and Volcanic rock. Going on as far as the eye could see in long rolling hills. Above hung the three moons, unblemished on this cloudless night against the backdrop of a sky thick with stars. Commiseration grey, Umbrage green and Recalcitrance pink. The sky was dark, the red sun known as Hate was distant. For now anyways. In time it would return, as Hate always did. Scouring the land of anything unfortunate enough to fall under its gaze. No vegetation, no colour beyond the moons.

Gael stood there, staring for a moment atop one of those dunes. Wind whipping past her, the faint sounds of unseen insects blowing with it.

This was not like the other times. She was never here, never so-

Present. It felt like a transgression, forced. Like her mind had been yanked here through broken glass. Something in the back of her skull throbbed. Gael started walking, the wrongness of it all forcing her to pick up her pace. Running, alone across the Alternian desert. Yes, this was Alternia.

Watchers watched, that much she knew, Gael was a dust mite but she knew that. They did not live, they certainly did not walk.

The air was hot, but the panic burned hotter. Her chest heaved for air, mouth wide open gulping for breath as he legs screamed at her to stop. But Gael could not.

Grey ashen sand gave way to the volcanic rock, the sense of wrongness only growing as she struggled. The world shifting oh so slowly around her. Or was that the speed of her pace? Gael could not tell as she ran up a hill of obsidian shards. She had no shoes, but the cutting stones did little. Drops of crimson blood trailed behind her tethered form as she breached the top of the hill. Bones, white contrasting the black stone. Everywhere, running for miles. Faint tinges of worn yellow and red horn the only colour here. Even then the fading horns were being slowly subsumed by wind and the Hate's light. Bleaching them.

The human hissed and descended, trying to keep pace as her ethereal body shuddered against the exertion. A high and keening note came on the wind, a shrieking, kind to this world.

'Demiurge be damned' Gael mouthed lacking breath for the words, the sharpened howl drawing closer now.

The cave stuck out amidst the ever growing piles of Horned bone, the rising panic that burned in Gael forcing herself forward. A look back was all she could afford on the precipice of darkness as the shrieking thing breached the horizon. Not so much a creature as a mass of squirming forms, all crying out in unison. Gael knew not what they screamed for, nor did she care as she stumbled into the cave. Darkness swallowed her up, a hand on the cavern wall allowing her to continue into lightless hole.

The screaming faded as Gael descended, even here bones of the once inhabitants were scattered about even though she could not see it. Careful feet kicking through the remains of the once thinking things. When the sound of the shrieking thing had been slain by depth Gael stopped. Breathing hard, as she leaned against the wall. Only then did she hear the breathing ahead from sodden lungs. Noises of motion ahead.

Sepulchral hissing echoed along the cavern walls. Gael turned without hesitation, running back the way she had come as a terrible rush of dozens of feet came behind. The hissing lowering to a noise kind to a chainsaw and alive with malice. A poorly placed foot sent her face leading to the floor, her oh so human nose cracked once more. Pain filled Gael, but it was nothing before panic which forced her to rise, the low light of night greeting her as she stumbled out of the cavern. Feet driving her forward once more into the wastes.

The Screaming in the hills was gone at least.

A look behind her confirmed the cave and whatever had dwelled within were well out of sight. The latter presence not giving chase into the open night.

Gael kept on anyways, stumbling back in the direction of the desert.

By the time ashen sand was underfoot again the soles of her feet bled openly. Still she ran, into the desert. Eyes scanning the horizon.

For what she did not know, the confusing mess of amalgamation and the exhaustion that suffused her made it tempting to stop. Gael did not. Could not.

Not until she could no longer physically move. The question of when that time would come answered by another trip. The Ashen sand was soft at least.

After a moment gasping breaths, Gael managed to righten herself, rolling to her knees. Ears straining for anything as Gael tried to kill the hated panic and fear that had suffused her miserable corpse. Nothing but the wind. At least for now. Gael forced herself to sit for a moment, listening for living things as she controlled her breathing. The panic and the feeling of sheer wrongness was slowly corralled as she took stock of her unclad form. Knees scraped raw, feet bleeding from the many sharp bites of stone. Her nose still bled, though it was only a trickle now. the taste of it filled her mouth. Familiar at least.

She stood again when the mental Ataxia was stowed. Walking now, away from the hills and bones out into the desert.

What felt like hours passed, as the ashen sand slowly gave way to a fuller blacker sort, not kind to the obsidian of the hills but something else. Shell?

Gael did not dwell on it as she pressed on, the wind her only companion for a time.

The endless dunes went on and on, such was common along the equatorial ring of Alternia. Gael knew not how she knew that, nor did she consider the morbid unknown of it as she went on.

She missed the Oasis at first, mind processing it as another outcropping of stone as Gael wandered over another dune. The reflection of the water earning her pause. Shifted course, without even thinking.

It was not a large watering hole, perhaps only a dozen feet across at its greatest width. The surrounding sand was pale orange in colour, the water a dark blue verging on black. Great faintly glowing mushrooms grew around the fringes of the water, the smallest the size of dandelion, the greatest the size of a Terran tree. Coloured dull brown and red. The air smelled sweet like raw sugar.

Only upon reaching the water's edge did Gael realize she was not alone.

Standing on the other side of the water was a Horned alien, short as she was. His cloak was light grey, stitched with crimson string. Underneath Gael could make out a long black skirt and tight fitted tunic. Feet bare aside from grey wrappings that bound his ankles and inner soles. His wrists were protected by gauntlets of grey metal, tinged with olive paint. Necklaces with beads of jade, olive and mustard yellow ringed his neck. His horns were soft rounded nubs that peaked out of his hood. Eyes yellow and crimson.

Those eyes were wide, piercing her as she approached. Gael's feet moved on their own as she noted the smaller details. Underneath the cloak his ears were pierced to allow a number of small bone rings, his hair was short and tufted. His hands were shaking, his left hovering over the handle to a well hidden sickle. Gael did not stop, hand coming up to the Horn's face. He opened his mouth to speak as her fingers graced his cheek. The world shuddered, shrieking high and everywhere. Inside her head most of all.

The soft horned alien's eyes went white. Gael died a second time in agony.

~~{†}~~

Hyralx entered the darkness of the Internment area alone, not needing or wanting the escort of her subordinates for this task. It risked distancing herself from the action. Passing Interrogation cells and the translation room Hyralx noted that the door still open, light still on. Of course, no one else would turn it off. She passed the empty room by, having already recorded the final conversation. The Legislacerator had spent most of the day researching archaic law, noting the ideas the Gael human had offered. In spite of the lack of sleep, she felt more aware than she had in a long time. High Legislacerator and Neophyte no longer at odds. Choice, choice was a conundrum the teal could sort through. Not now, but in time.

Rounding the corner, Hyralx noted her draconic ward laying on the floor. It's massive bulk filling most of the hallway down to the many cells Pyral guarded. Gael human leaning against the Lusus' head. Hyralx hissed as she noticed the faint shudders that shook the alien's body. The motions seemingly unnatural compared to the normally smooth slow motions the alien usually made. Was it the species that suffered day-terrors? Or was the Gael human an exception? It would explain the unusual lack of fear or regard for pain.

At her approach Pyral snorted but did not move. To be expected given her ward's unusual inclination towards the xeno. Up close Hyralx could see the beads of sweat running down the alien's naked chest, the shuddering gasping breaths reaching the Legis' ears. She tapped her cane atop the human's head. The Gael human woke with start, smacking aside the cane with her still chained wrists. The Legislacerator took a step back, allowing the human to collect herself. Dispelling her foul dreams, her breathing slowed. She looked up at the Legislacerator. "I take it it's time then." The human muttered in her own tongue, rising quickly. Hyralx did not understand the words, creaking softly as the human turned and ran a hand over Pyral's snout. "Best of luck Leviathan." The soft monotonous words came with a small pat. The Human turned back to the Legis, nodding slightly.

Hyralx began walking, the Gael human fortunately keeping pace without beckoning. Well aware of what was to come. Perhaps the alien's final message had been sincere with this allowed compliance.

They encountered no one on their way to the docking bay. The priestly transport was already waiting, an unpleasant thing marked with numerous enameled paintings covering its hull. Her loading doors were already open. A lanky Indigo highblood with face paint styled after a purr beast waiting outside looking cross. "High Legislacerator! We were starting to wonder if you would be the one joining us." The painted troll squealed at their arrival. Voice shrill and pointed.

"Freaks." The Gael human grumbled.

The alien turned to the Legis staring up with those small diurnal eyes half open, look- unreadable. "Goodbye then Legis." She said and bowed. Then without hesitation she turned and marched off towards the shuttle. The Legislacerator stared as the human passed the growling priest and marched into the shuttle.

"Well." The indigo growled. "I see you at least trained the abomination well enough. The Grand Highblood sends his regards."

"Tell him this if you will?" Hyralx called, pausing the priest before he could turn to enter the shuttle. "When he finally crashes himself into a place where he cannot escape, it will be by his own volition. No others should carry the fault of his own shortcomings."

The painted indigo glared for a moment, likely weighing a response in defense of his master. None came, after a moment he turned and entered the shuttle. When the ship's doors closed Hyralx turned and left the bay. Allowing the priestly vessel to depart her ship. Outside Hyralx leaned against her cane and considered her options. There was no catharsis in the ending, but no regret. Her mind wandered back to the ever constant stream of information that her subordinates threw her way. Legislacerator Sanguine's request had remained, the overworked blue unable to investigate the rumors herself.

When the docking bay's atmosphere was stabilized, High Legislacerator Hyralx Pyrope entered. Quickly boarding her own shuttle, orders were sent to her subordinates to compensate for the fact that the High Legislacerator was going to be unavailable for the time being. High Legislacerator Hyralx Pyrope was eager to get to work once more.

~~{†}~~

Even the highblood viewing ring of the Degeneration of Flesh's arena was packed. The lowest section only a few arms lengths above the arena's walls. The word of Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ combat between the xenos known now to the yellow eyed masses as the Avarayri and the Grand Highblood himself had become brought what felt like the entirety of the Fleet's Aristocracy out. The pious and bloodthirsty eager to show their support for the head of the faith as he culled a mirthless abomination. The sea bloods arriving en-mass not to be outdone by their land dwelling kin in their draconion loyalty and overwhelming cruelty. With paired groups so numerous the lower blues arrived in tow like a tidal wave to take advantage of the gathering. Some to settle disputes, others to meet with rarely unburdened acquaintances and some gain to much needed prestige in attendance and assemblage with their betters.

The upper rings of the stadium were no less packed, the usual fighting schedule being rapidly shifted to accommodate the Grand Highblood's challenge, bringing with it a veritable tidal wave of low and midbloods interested in seeing a unique spectacle. The roar of tens of thousands above only adding to the chaos and atmosphere in the noble ring below.

Marquise Mindfang could not have asked for more ideal conditions to shift the match to her favour.

She had gone as far as to purchase her own private suite for the night's festivities. Quite pricey, but well worth the costs for closeness to the action and to display her wealth to her rivals, in the fleet and abroad. Of course most would not arrive, but that was a given with the perfidious nature of the aristocracy. It mattered only that they had received the invitations. The Cerulean had been giddy, giddy enough to allow her pet Ancillae to wander about a while outside the suite, leaving her alone for a time with her Right and Left hands. Herakles still somewhat bitter over the trip to the Grand Highblood's flagship had sat himself in the corner, paying mind only to his woolbeast drumstick and an enormous sack of buttery exploded kernels he'd purchased. Right-Hand Domeadig however remained at Mindfang's side.

"This all seems rather excessive." The Brown blood said with a shake of her head. She was something of a freak being a little taller than Mindfang herself and twice as wide. Horns built curling out of her front facing like an archaic battering ram. Domeadig had found the pay and worth of the Imperial Army lacking, and eventually securing enough commendations had sought out the Gamblignants, for both the prestige and the wealth. "I understand its worth as a trophy but will it be able to do anything for us?"

"My dear Right-Hand. I will be able to sort that out once I have her in my grasp."

"Before or after the bleeding indigo splatters her against a wall?" Herakles growled, eyes pointed down at the arena. A wide octagon walled off with stark white stone, floors covered in grey chalkdust to emphasize the bloodshed for the spectators far above and those watching it on Imperial recreational broadcast. For the residents of the private suites and the rest of the noble seating however, it was hardly necessary. An added bonus to already delightfully vibrant displays.

"Have a little faith will you Herakles? If that wretch Legis wasn't able to break her then her value is well worth all this trouble."

"And how do you get an alien that the Grand Highblood wants dead out of that arena?" Domeadig questioned. "Barring being scraped off the floor."

"Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ combat has fallen out of favour for many reasons. Most notably the restrictions placed around victory and defeat. If the alien pleads for mercy or the Grand Higblood finds her fitting or unworthy of death, then she'll fall under property of the priesthood as a slave. The instigators of such combat are disallowed from owning the defeated hence they default to imperial, organizational or quadrant ties. A few tweaks and I'll be able to get the alien to auction. Then?" The Marquise chuckled. "Then she's mine."

The Brown looked unconvinced. "You actually think you'll be able to shift the Grand Highblood to spare her?"

"Either I do that or I slip my hands into the alien and force her into the submission pose. Knowing or not he'll be forced to oblige it or his own position will be forfeit."

Herakles grumbled. "Don't hold your breath."

Any further arguing between the Marquise and her subordinates was cut off by the door opening behind.

"Well, well, well! If it is not the eight eyed scourge of the void herself!" Knyaz Puissant looked better than usual, something rarely said for the black skinned jade in his black skinned years. A jovial grinning troll with a well rounded belly, bionic limbs and ivory plated horns. This day he was dressed in many layers of silken robes, coloured dark jade and an obnoxiously bright yellow. The gaudiness of his figure was only highlighted by the innumerable medals and honor ribbons that decorated the old jade's front.

"Knyaz! I was starting to wonder if anyone was going to join me on this outing!" The Marquise laughed as she rose, chromium hand clasping against the jade's matching limb, the two metal grasps clenching against each other before Puissant relented. Though even defeated he looked no less joyful.

"It is not every night I get to see a good old fashioned troll to troll!" The jade remarked. "One of these nights you'll have to tell me who mends that hand of yours Serket. I need to get my own limbs reworked sometime soon. If nothing else than to deepen the struggle to pilfer my remains!"

"A secret like that will remain such old man." The Marquise said and gestured at the suite's seating. "Come, sit yourself. I could have sworn you were on the planet's surface?"

The Knyaz chuckled as he waddled over to the front of the suite, seating himself before the viewing aperture. "I was. Truth be told this has been the most enjoyable foray I've had in a hundred sweeps. The xenos are most enjoyable foes, to the point where I would not mind my bones laying here. Still, I could not resist one final Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ. When I was just out of pupation such things were common place. Now?" The Knyaz let out an ailing trill. "Now the priests are slothful, the Legislacerators overworked, the Archeradicators and the Cavalreapers defunct. Those swirling- what do those new fondling shithive maggot fucks call themselves? The ones with an unhealthy obsession with stamping everything with Fuchsia emblems?"

"The Vykjiit?" Domeadig questioned. Puissant snapped his metallic claws together.

"Yes, those insufferable sorts. No honour, no class, no joy. Just shots to the back and the constant splonging to the thought the Empress looking at them. Considering my age and the new vermin that have overrun the empire this will most certainly be my last Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ. I hope it ends with a bang."

"It should considering the combatants." Herakles snickered, before the hand holding his leg-hunk abruptly shifted and smacked him with his own food. "Oh please it was a joke!"

The lime growled as the Knyaz withdrew a jade handkerchief marked with his symbol from his pocket and threw it over to the grease stained troll. "I see you have plans then Marquise? Do not worry, I won't speak them. You Gamblignants are some of the last interesting sorts in this empire."

"I could have sworn yours was an honourable reputation Puissant?" Mindfang snickered as the jade shook his head.

"Honourable? Pah, it seems honour is a commodity out of both supply and demand. With it gone I'll side with those at least interesting rather than the monotonous sort of drick." The Knyaz paused, withdrawing a small flask from his side. "So, what exactly is the Grand High Fool fighting this day? I've seen humans that can run for hours and put a chunk of metal into a trolls eye at forty paces."

"Does the name Avarayri mean anything to you Puissant?" Mindfang asked. The jade shifted slightly in his seat.

"Avarayri? Oh, that's old. The name was once held by- defunct genetic olive lines I believe." The old troll hissed as he raised the flask to his lips and took a drink. "I'll take it the alien is named that?"

The Marquise nodded. "Slew over two hundred trolls, nearly a quarter of them highbloods. The Master of Mirth and the High Messenger among them."

The jade nearly choked on his drink, coughing and hacking a moment as he resealed his flask and stashed it away. "I'd heard that this was a troll killer but I didn't think it was so potent! Why isn't it decorating the Grand Highblood's wall already?"

"The alien to my knowledge was handed off to the Legislacerators for interrogation but has proven to be- difficult. Such a rift has finally been torn between their head and the Grand Highblood." Mindfang snickered as the suite's door opened. Her fanged grin only widening as a stark seadweller entered the room.

"Marquise." Dual-Scar growled. The Orphaner was an imposing figure, standing a head well and cleanly above Mindfang. His flak-perforated neck gills twitching faintly, his scar-disfigured face wrenched into a look of perpetual displeasure as it always was. To the point where Mindfang wondered if his scarring simply left his face looking like that. His pure white gold tackled supreme admiral's almost looked out of place on the sea-blood.

"Supreme admiral." She inclined flatly though her expression remained deplorably joyful as his scowl deepened. "Lovely that you've decided to join us this evening."

"I've nothing else at this time." The haughty sea blood growled and with little hesitation walked past the Knyaz and the Marquise, sitting himself on the opposite side of the Suite to everyone else. "Is this what you spend your pilferage on?"

"As if you are any better? Were the rumors you were bringing up aliens for target practice true?" The Knyaz barked earning a growl out of the Supreme Admiral.

"I only imported five." Dual-Scar remarked. "Disgusting little day creatures near vaporized when I culled them. I have half a mind to bring down my own ships into the lower atmosphere and personally engage their problem strongholds. If nothing else than to expedite the decimation and get the fleet moving again."

The Knyaz cackled. "Really? The entire descent force is being stalled and the mighty Orphaner is going to be our salvation? Do not make me laugh pupa-"

Dual-Scar's hissing took a dangerously low tone. "Call me pupa again and I will bloody the floor with you land-dweller."

If the Knyaz was intimidated by the sea-dweller he did not show it. "These aliens are not helpless Lusii in a barrel Orphaner, they are more than capable of shooting back. Your Iconoclabductors would be filled with metal before they even know what hits them." The jade snapped his metal fingers, hard enough sparks filled the air as the Supreme Admiral's hissing hit an attack pitch.

Entertaining as a fight would be, the Marquise could not afford to have the Ŧrœⱡ’kyv’Ŧrœ disrupted by violence in the stands and barked at her former Kissmesis. "Dual-Scar I'm not willing to play Auspistice for you."

The sea-dweller's hissing finally broke as he turned away to stare at the Arena. "Oh please I was the one who broke up the feud. I'm above a petty Marquise."

"Keep telling yourself that." Mindfang hissed, any further conversation halted by the arrival of the announcer in the arena.

A shorter Indigo in golden face paint and black seamless robes walked cooly to the center of the wide arena. In his hands he carried a minute black stone tablet and a small vial of dark purple blood. The opening ceremony of vivacious blood had, at this point, been codified and streamlined to a nightly affair to allow the ever constant combats. The Degeneration of Flesh's arena was the largest of its kind, though most grand carriers and life ships had their own arenas, none were so constantly used. The gold painted priest roared, louder than one would think a troll of his size could.

"BROODLING KIND! ABOVE AND BELOW! LET ALL BLOOD SHED HERE BE MADE MIRTHFUL AND FROLICSOME! I DECLARE THIS GROUND FREE TO BE BLOODED! I DECLARE THIS NIGHT OPEN!"

The crowd howled as the priest shattered the stone and the blood vial alike upon the ground of the arena.

"LET NO GRUDGE BE CARRIED AND NO FOUL AIR ROUSED THIS NIGHT! LET THE GAMES BEGIN!"

Mindfang had never been a fan of arena games, but tonight she couldn't stop laughing to herself. The air was infectious, and the Cerulean herself roared as an all too familiar giant stepped forth into the white stone arena.

~~{†}~~

Ancillae Dolorosa wandered the upper ring of the highblood seating, idly passing the throngs of spectators. None troubled her, her collar distinctive enough that her status and presence went unquestioned. Rare were the times when Dolorosa was grateful for the gaudy silver and cerulean binding that dug into her neck.

Her passage for some small semblance of solitude was long. It seemed whatever debauchery the ringmaster had ordained for the night had drawn a crowd so great that even the walkways and staircases were packed tightly with bodies. Nobles of every disposition and the handful of mid-bloods either by relation or wealth allowed into this section formed a tight walling that crowded the weary jade. Dolorosa supposed she should have expected this. Her mistress’s ‘gifts’ always came with thorns. Reaching the very top ringed walkway of the highblood seating, the Jade hissed under her breath as she found even this ring packed tight with bodies.

Still she pressed on, hoping that some small isolation might be found somewhere. Dolorosa did not dare press any further away, Mindfang had allowed her free range for the time being. But it would be impossible to know when her good graces would fail and her mistress would wind her back. Like a beast caught on a hook.

Weaving her way through the crowded path, the Jade noted the unusual fire that filled the audience. Their roars shaking the arena as the ring priest in charge of the night opened the festivities. It all made her feel ill, but Dolorosa knew well her feelings meant nothing here. The sheer noise and heat of the air made it near impossible to endure. She would have chewed through her own cheek had her mistress forced her to stay so close to the bloodshed.

Dolorosa managed to walk a near full circle before a small quiet place revealed itself, a seemingly empty set of stairs up to the midblood seating rings so far above. In her discomfort fear was bested by the need to escape. Dolorosa darted up the steps. The section was a hundred strides above, but there were several breakoffs with landings to small suites like the one her mistress had purchased.

“What is a fine woman like yourself doing in a place like this matron?” The words came hoarse from the open door to a tiny suite. Dolorosa stopped to see a lean and ragged blue noble step out onto the stairs.

Though he was a noble his attire was ragged, his brown pants dirtied from wear and overcoat of fur and leather speckled and decoloured by light bleaching. His horns had been sheared off at some point, stumps half-hidden under the short but greasy hair. His half-lidded eyes reached her collar. He said nothing, bringing the small pipe in his hands up to his mouth. He was waiting for an answer.

“Attempting to find a quiet place Ser, nothing more.” Dolorosa said after a moment. “One where I will be able to pay little mind to… All of this.” She managed.

The blue nodded slowly, letting out a smoking breath. He smelled of the smoke, though it was not unpleasant like one would expect. Soft and redolent unlike most plants trolls recreationaly imbibed. “Well. I can sympathize matron.” He looked back into his suite. “It’s just me for the day here. You’re free to join me if you wish. I only came to get away from my crew.”

The blue returned to his small room, and after a moment of consideration the jade joined him. The inside was much smaller than the viewing space Mindfang had rented, only four seats lining the open window that looked out onto the arena. Dolorosa sat herself on the opposite side of the strange smoking blue, a quick look out at the arena making her gut clench. Already a proverbial giant that could only be the Grand Highblood himself had decimated a number of rusts, their bodies blown apart by the Indigo’s strikes.

She turned away as the Blue spoke. “Pointless isn’t it? A bunch of convicts armed with knives and spears? Might as well just be cut open for all the chances they have.” He sighed and exhaled, smoke pouring from his nostrils and mouth. “Forgive me, I did not ask you your name matron.”

“Ancillae Dolorosa.” The Jade said. Unaccustomed to the unusually polite treatment.

“Pasha Camalari.” The blue bowed his head slightly. “Jades do not get the respect they used to, but my moirail beat the old respect into me by force.” The pipe returned to his mouth, a small thing carved from horn that looked as if it was older than the Pasha himself.

“I appreciate the kindness Ser, though I am not due for any sort of special treatment.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. It matters to me however.”

The Pasha turned back to the arena and shook his head. Dolorosa stared for a moment at the smoking noble.

“Would you permit me to ask you a question Ser?”

“Feel free to Matron.” The Pasha said.

“You do not seem the arena going type. Certainly not enough to warrant a booth of your own.”

Camalari laughed, though between the smoke and his own creakiness he sounded like a frozen pipe crinkling under hot water. “Yes. Very much so. But I’m desperate for reprieve. Desperate enough I’ll take this to my bloody navigator. The old psion is going to short himself out one of these days. But he’s the only one I can tolerate anymore. I suppose I shouldn't complain. At least I came of my own volition, strangled as it may be.”

Dolorosa stared at the floor for a moment, a nauseating crack coming from below making the crowd roar. “Thank you for allowing me entrance Ser, I do appreciate it.”

“Think nothing of it Matron. Tolerable company is in short supply these days.” The blue leaned back against the wall of the suite, staring at the Ancillae. Not in a piercing way, or tinged with something unsavory. His gaze seemed curious if nothing else, coming to rest on the Jade’s collar. “Funny.”

The Pasha’s voice was so quiet the word almost passed Dolorosa. “What is Ser?”

“Nothing.” Camalari replied. “The void’s sense of humor is warped. You have my condolences, Matron. Little as they mean.”

“It-” Dolorosa’s words stumbled short as the Pasha turned back to the Arena. “Little as they are, they are still something. Forgive me for being unable to reimburse such condolence.” The Jade managed. The Pasha said nothing.

Ancillae Dolorosa sat there, mind running back to what had been. The roar of the crowd in the distance, occasional noises of violence far above reminding her of the atrocity happening down below. But what did the Jade have for reprieve outside of her own mind in solitude? Even that, her mistress could break on a whim.

~~{†}~~

Gael awaited the end in the dark once more. The painted Horns had been none gentle in their pushing, shepherding her with growls and barks. But Gael knew they couldn't kill her, that honour was reserved for their leader. It allowed a certainty, the end was at hand. She had already met the bringer of her end once. The memory of their last encounter running over and over again in Gael's head as she had been shoved into a crate with little hesitation. It was only slightly bigger than a large dog crate, her head stooped slightly as she listened outside. The sounds of dozens if not hundreds of Horns came as her crate was carried off the transport ship.

There was no chance of victory, Gael had scrubbed away such thoughts outright. Instead focusing on how best to infuriate the giant. Ironically he was more suited to a protracted battle than his smaller kin. The Legislacerator would have no issue with killing Gael in a fight, but the Grand Highblood's enormous size gave warning to his movements. Fast as he was, he was still burdened by his own form. Gael doubted she would have any weapons, her only option being what she could get from the environment. Using his slower recoveries and own fury against him. Perhaps if she had her RPK she could have had a chance, but idle thoughts like that had no place in the mind of a dead woman.

Thinking became difficult as the crate shuddered, angry hissing outside drawing her attention. "Watch what you're doing you fucking soft plated idiot! If you drop that thing then the fucking alien might get out!"

"Sorry. It's just a little unwieldy."

"Hard to believe the Avarayri fits in there. I was expecting we we're going to need to pull this thing out with the Barbed-lift."

"You know I'm getting real tired of this fucking box?!" The snarl was involuntary, sparked by the noise that interrupted her thoughts of Parthian shots. The temporal sense of falling coming a moment later with a shriek from her carrier. Gael growled as the box hit the floor, smacking the back of her head against the chitinous wall.

"WHAT DID I FUCKING SAY!?" A voice howled high followed by the noise of something smashing against flesh, followed by screeching. Outside a horned body hit the floor. "Pick up that damned crate and fucking get moving! We've had enough delays and the Grand himself is almost finished with his warm-up bouts."

The Box was lifted again, this time by what felt like two Horns and carried, the screeching fading fast, along with all the other voices.

After a long period of quiet, the crate was dropped, softer this time though Gael's head still knocked against the ceiling. The crate was pushed for a moment until it thumped against a wall. The crate siding opposite to her was lifted, revealing a small entrance into what looked to be a cage. A kick against the side of the crate confirming she was to exit. While tempting to remain inside the cramped space to force the aliens to physically extract her, Gael exited after a moment on her hands and knees. The moment she exited the crate a metal plate slammed shut behind her. Standing she found herself in a cage, smaller than her cell in the Legislacerator's den but at least she could still stand.

Outside the cage horns ran all about, the area outside filled with crates and cages, some holding other Horns, some carrying strange white coloured beasts of all makes and forms. Her carriers, the face painted indigo and a pair of rust eyed horns stared at her. "That's it?" The one rust guttered. Gael walked to the edge of the cage, sticking he hands through the bars, stretching her chained hands as far across as she could glaring at the purple eyed beast. Flexing the chain she made a sawing motion with her hand.

"What's it doing?" The opposite rust demanded. The Indigo shook its head and trilled low.

"Seems like its demanding something. We're not supposed to give it anything, troll to troll combatants get their weapons in the arena."

"It wants the manacles off." Another approaching Horned said, a tall thing with Cobalt eyes and dressed in clothes suited for heavy labour like a human jumpsuit.

"Do you happen to have the keys for said manacles? Because I'm not fucking getting near to it otherwise." The first rust speaker said as its compatriot departed. "I like having all my prongs."

"Why bother? It'll be dead in a minute anyways." The Indigo chittered as the cobalt approached the cage, yellow eyes staring down at Gael. Not afraid in the least, or if it was it wasn't showing it.

"Chained animals rank poorly with the crowds, I'm not blowing some special's ratings because of your slothfulness." The cobalt hissed and clicked loudly until another Horn came running over, a yellow eyed thing shorter than even Gael with what looked to be a pair of wire cutters. Albeit wire cutters fashioned from a gigantic ant's pincers. She stretched the chains again, the yellow eyed alien trilling for a moment as it clamped the cutters down on her bindings. Two snaps came and Gael withdrew her hands, free for the first time since her capture. "Thank you Gundun." The cobalt said something to the yellow as Gael stretched her arms.

"Not a problem boss." The yellow departed, followed by the remaining rust and the clown painted Indigo. The cobalt gave a final snort and walked off as well. Gael experimented, her exercise while limited had made sure she hadn't deteriorated in her captivity. She might even be stronger thanks to the extra time for such things. But the abrupt mobility exposed the flimsiness of her recaptured flexibility. The sensation of lifting her arms freely was alien, straining.

Gael's stretching was interrupted by a sudden shift in the cage. Tensing, as her enclosure began to rise. An unsettling thought crossed Gael's mind, the layout of this place reminding her of the Roman Colosseum's underworks. The idea that a species with FTL travel was still making use of gladiatorial combat was utterly preposterous. But then again, clown priests, murder lawyers and a fucking absolute monarchy made the possibility oh so tangible. The human waited as the cage passed into darkness.

Gael did not hold her breath. Stretching her arms for the inevitable.

So many times she'd been denied a fucking end. On the streets of Sudbury, of London, of Toronto. On the Ambassador Bridge. In the clutches of the glass toothed Legis. She could wait a while longer, but the tension strung her. Can't win, couldn't win. But she couldn't lie down and die. The coiling inside refused. Just resist and bite. The noise of the cage's bars dropping did not startle Gael as her core gathered. Knuckles cracked in her tightened fists as she forced herself to remember it all, what was real. Real was the dead on Earth, real was the ruins of desolate human cities, real was the suffering of human and low blooded Horn alike beneath this chafing madness.

"Oh lioness, grandmother of mine before thought and word." The words came with a visceral tinge. This was not like the bridge where she had consigned herself to die against the unknown masses, this time her imperishable foe had a face. "You're sacrifice is not forgotten, your nature not passed. What was broken remains. What was scattered by the winds still holds this. Even when I pass."

Gael snarled as sharp light came blinding her, the wall before her raising. Any hesitation was dead, slain and consumed by ire. She marched forth when the barrier had sufficiently risen.

Once the sight of the Legislacerator's prison had startled her, but it was nothing compared to the sight that awaited her here. This arena made the Colosseum look like a hole in the ground. Thousands upon thousands of Horns sat on high. Layers upon layers of seats and booths went up as far as Gael could see, going so far up Gael wondered if a Horn would even be able to see the violence in the ring. What looked to be a sky was not such, a ceiling so far above and filled with lights it seemed absurd. The noises they made filling the air with a rumbling that was omnipresent. What must have been uncountable thousands of retching, chittiering, howling fanged mouths speaking things Gael could not imagine. They came in every shade of grey, their horns plucking out yellow to red, impossible to even begin processing it all.

So Gael did not as she stepped foreword, instead looking out onto the field that she had been dragged to. There was only a single standing individual in the arena, all too familiar. His rags had been replaced by tightly fit armoured plates. Face paint shifted from a terrible skull into something kind to a wraith, shrouding his eyes and mouth in lines of white while the rest of his black skinned face remained unpainted. Already, his club was dyed in many shades of olive and burgundy. His eyes were already a dark red, but his face was marked with what might have been a demented grin as his foul gaze fell upon Gael.

'I don’t want to see you be made an example of.' Singh's words rung in her head, mundane in hindsight compared to this madness. Not an example so much as a performance.

"Sorry." Gael managed as she stepped foreword. Eyes wandering to the already broken bodies that scattered the Arena's surface. Another muttering apology to each that graced her eyes.

"AVARAYRI!" The Grand Highblood called out, gaze still aimed at Gael as she slowly looked back, loosely circling the monstrous Indigo. "I HAVE CALLED YOU NAMED AS YOU ARE MOTHER FUCKER, AND YOU HAVE COME! ŦRŒⱠ’KYV’ŦRŒ HAS BEEN MOTHER FUCKING ENJOINED UPON YOU!" The giant howled, but Gael did not stop circling, keeping at least twenty feet between herself and the Indigo as it rambled on. It's voice too high and to loud at the same time, like broken machinery running in agony. "YOU MOTHER FUCKING MURDERED MY MASTER OF MIRTH AND MY MOTHER FUCKING HIGH MESSENGER! FOR THIS I HAVE CALLED YOU! ŦRŒⱠ’KYV’ŦRŒ IS ENJOINED! WOULD YOU SPEAK SUBMISSION NOW OR WOULD YOU ACCEPT THIS BATTLE TO THE MOTHER FUCKING BURIAL PIT!?"

Gael eyed the closet body, an olive blooded horn with its head cleanly blown off only a few steps away now. The shattered chunks of the olive's cranium splattered about its fallen spear. She looked back at the Grand Highblood which stared at her expectantly.

Gael breathed in once more, and allowed herself a steady exhale.

The double bird salute came up as natural as it had the first time. "I still don't fucking understand you. You dumb fuck."

The gaze of the Indigo darkened, but his Cheshire smile only grew. "I CANNOT TELL IF THAT IS BRAVADO OR MOTHER FUCKING STUPIDITY AVARAYRI! BUT I HAVE ONE FINAL OBLIGATION TO YOU! WE ARE TO BE EQUAL IN ARMAMENT, THAT IS A MOTHER FUCKING NECESSITY!"

As the giant finished his grating howl a paired set of bootsteps came. Gael's gaze flicked away from the Grand Highblood for only a moment, as two indigos ran into view, carrying a club kind to the Grand Highblood's own. Twice as tall as Gael. The laugh of broken glass came as the pair of painted priests dropped the club at her side. Absurd, deeper and deeper it went.

It was impossible to keep herself from chortling at the fleeing face painted goons. Their cargo deposited as what must have been a hilarious joke, were it not handed to a stumbling corpse. Gael turned back to face the grand Highblood, a demented grin of her own coming as the beast's look turned foul. Finally time to end it.

"SANGUINOLENT THE DUST MOTHER FUCKER!"

The charge came faster than expected, what little space between the human and the Indigo gone in a few seconds. The giant learning from his mistakes sweeping his terrible bludgeon from the side, but Gael was already backpedaling. The speed of the blow sending her filthed hair whipping about her head. The Grand Highblood staggered lightly as he recovered his stance, but Gael was already pulling back towards the fallen Olive. "STAND STILL MOTHER FUCKER!" The indigo howled, a second blow rolling past Gael's head as she dived for the fallen horn's spear.

A sickening mulch came as the the giant's club struck the already dismembered body, splattering the giant as Gael rolled to her feet with the spear clenched tight in her grasp. A heavy thing of iron more kind to a harpoon, Gael hurled the spear before the giant could recover. The perverse speed of the giant blurring it as a side sweep of its bludgeon shattered the spear mid flight. The shards of twisted metal hit the dust as the Giant advanced, a little slower but now shrieking at the top of his lungs. Gael's ears rang as he pressed. The noise of the crowd filling everything else.

Fast, oh so terribly fast. He did not need to bother with worrying over exposing himself as Gael couldn't even hope to strike him much less hurt him, but Gael did not press, keeping herself far enough from the giant to see his motions. Likely he knew as well as Gael did it would be over with one hit. How could he not?

A sudden burst of speed coming fast enough to blur the Indigo, only a twitch of his hand signalling the sweeping strike as Gael realized their position. The human halting immediately. The abhorrent smile came as the giant raised his club, Gael kneeling a handful of chalky dust coming to hand as the club came down. Metal met the unpolished marble wall behind with a shattering smash, the blow slowed enough for the human to sidestep the reeling giant. Face twisted into a mask of rage as he lurched forward right into the handful of chalk Gael had hurled.

The roar shuddered as Gael withdrew, one hand pulling to his eyes while the other swung at where the human had been moments ago.

"MOTHER FUCKING FREAK ASS XENO MOTHER FUCKER!" The Grand Highblood's howling peaked both impossibly high and low as he swung blindly, Gael managing to break into a full dash before the indigo could clear his eyes of the Arena's dust. The retreat towards the Arena's fringes had left her in a zone without any corpses to pluck weapons from. Gael's legs burned as she dashed towards the nearest corpse that splashed burgundy across the arena floor, pounding footsteps behind in a moment. The roll aside came with the telling pause, the giant always turning slightly when his side-swings came. The iron bat hurtling behind her head by what could only be a few inches as the human rolled in the direction of the blow, forcing Indigo to compensate and turn before he could swing again.

Couldn't hope to keep the cat and mouse game up forever, but Gael wanted blood before oblivion.

The thud of the club marked by howling fury proved to be enough to make space once more. If he'd been using his hands and feet she'd have already been finished off. Gael did not dwell on that fact as the broken body of the Rust finally met her feet. The frenzied gaze picking onto the small dagger the rust had perished clenching in an instant. The rush of the giant's club came again, her body darting aside as instinct took over. The overhead blow shattered the rust's corpse and the pathetic weapon it had died clutching in a shower of blood and gore.

The thunder of the alien crowd in Gael's ears, she turned to face the giant. "BOLE SO NIHAL! SAT SRI AKAAL!" The words came on their own accord as she darted forth before the Grand Highblood could swing again. Shrieking he relinquished his club to his left hand, right hand swinging too fast for Gael to dodge. The black skinned backhand sent her flying, weightlessness and stunning fading fast as the frenzied animal still fighting reeled back, back before the landing, rolling carrying her to her feet as the giant pressed again. The immediate overhead blow not going through all the way, stopping enough the giant was able to jab Gael with the end of the massive bludgeon, sending her reeling back again.

She hit the ground face first, already the giant was charging. The crowd's volume swelled. Guessing kicked in, legs pushing Gael forward even as her eyes failed her, ears ringing and her body screamed in agony from the exertion. But the singular command drove her as the ground rumbled from yet another blow. Do not bow, never submit. No matter what.

Stumbling back to her feet as the world sharpened back into view, the club did not come again. The Grand Highblood's roar had been halted as he kept his distance for a moment, chest heaving and his unnaturally vibrating glare glued to Gael. Gael circled back, even as her body felt near to failing, scanning the surrounding area for another weapon. Wanted to bleed that fucker. Just that, a drop would be enough.

The chestnut blooded horn had been ripped almost in half by the Grand Highblood's two handed blow, chunks of his interior splayed out upon the arena floor. His spear still clenched in his hand. The Grand Highblood noted Gael's glance, terrible visage shifted to that demented glee.

He perfectly anticipated Gael's dash towards the body, sidesweep perfectly on key to where Gael would have darted.

The blow left him open to the humans dashing charge, feint aimed just enough that the Indigo fully committed to his swing. Her hand clambering up the giant's arm before he could again relinquish an arm to bat aside Gael. His howling face lurched down to bite into the human, gaping jaws opening wide like a snake. She could see he had more than one layer or teeth, some so overgrown they had shattered. The once binding chain wrapped around Gael's fist met a near black eye with a chunky squelch. The noise of pain was deafening. The giant flinched and shuddered violently, spasming form sending Gael flying back. Her biting teeth finding something before weightlessness took her.

Something cracked upon landing. Loud enough she was certain that the Grand Highblood himself had heard it. Along with the rest of the arena.

Teeth grinding against each other Gael forced herself to her feet, facing the Grand Highblood as he swayed. Spitting out the chunk of ear she had taken with her, it was impossible to do anything but laugh at the indigo's now bleeding eye, the pupil blotted out by a swell of Indigo. "BOLE SO NIHAL! SAT SRI AKAAL!" Gael howled as her ailing feet carried her forward for a final charge, leg that no longer worked properly shrieking out in protest as the Grand Highblood's bludgeon came down.

Gael finally shattered under the iron blow.

~~{†}~~

The moment the frail looking creature entered the arena the Jade's throat had clenched. That was the Avarayri? That was the slayer of two hundred trolls? The small pale skinned thing looked little more than an alien wriggler beside the titanic mass of the Grand Higblood. Only the odd forcefulness of its movements kept the Matron watching. The alien unflinching in the face of the behemoth that roared down at her. Unflinching in the face of its inescapable doom. Dolorosa had prayed the void would take the human quickly, rather than end up a plaything for the indigo before the entire empire.

The first missed blow registered as a fluke in her mind, the second as terrible luck that only extended her misery. But the third miss infected Dolorosa with a treacherous hope long since absent from the Jade. Against sweeps of Pessimism she found herself cheering for this impossible creature that moved in tandem with the Grand Highblood. The terrible dance made without error, ever pulling away from the advance of the Highblood.

But the human's luck could not last forever.

Though Ancillae Dolorosa had shut her eyes the crack of the alien's body breaking made her quake in her seat. The following splattering of the human's body against the side of the Arena magnifying the sensation of Nausea that infested her.

Across the suite, the Pasha winced and looked away.

"A good struggle." He murmured shaking his head. "But an untenable one."

Dolorosa forced herself to look, immediately regretting the action as she noted the creature's blood. Bright, terribly familiar red. Red unnatural to Trolls that she had seen oh so many times before.

Bile filled her mouth as she noted the broken human's body where it had fallen, smashing against the side of the Arena. Vibrant red blood spattering in a pair of wide arcs. Looping together where the alien had hit the white wall. As if the void itself had leaned out and decided to mock the Ancillae so long after her bondage had begun. The roar of the crowd penetrating every corner of the ear and reverberating in the Jade's eardrums. Admonition that the hopeless alien had finally been culled.

Below the Grand Highblood roared in triumph, torso heaving as he allowed his crimson spattered club to fall to the dusty floor. The indigo stumbled forward almost shaking as he picked up something white and red from the floor of the Arena, eagerly ripping a bite out of it. The matron had turned and vomited into the corner when she realized that the Grand Highblood was eating the human's arm. The Pasha had jerked to his feet, a hand on Dolorosa's shoulder as she shook and fumbled for her handkerchief. "Matron-"

The small square of linen finally reach Dolorosa's hand as she wiped of the remaining half-digested rust coloured blood from her lips. After a moment of panting she managed to pull herself up to face the overly polite Pasha. "Forgive me I just- that was repulsive."

The blue blooded Free-horn looked at her for a moment frowning as he stumbled back to his own seat. Trilling softly. "Do not ask for forgiveness for something not needed. I will not hold it against you." He looked out into the arena as the roar of the crowd took a mocking tone. "Seems you are not the only one with an uneasy acid track."

Dolorosa looked back out to see the Grand Highblood doubled over, hurling without abandon a noxious slurry of bile, blood and half-digested foodstuffs. The crowd far above openly mocking the Grand priest even as howls from below came to cease the mocking. The Grand Highblood himself joining in the indignant rage when he finished expelling the contents of his gut. "He deserves worse." The matron hissed.

"And he will not receive it." The Pasha said, tone morose as he raised himself to his feet. "I think that is enough for me today."

He emptied his pipe against his shoe heal as Dolorosa herself stood. "I would agree with that."

"I take it you will return to your heritor?"

"Yes." Dolorosa nodded. "At least to remain outside of her purchase so I do not have to follow this. Thank you Pasha Camalari. I- amicable company made this time much more tolerable." She gulped as the noise of the alien's crunch repeated itself again in her head. The Pasha did not reply as his form fell still. "Ser?"

"What is that?" The blue hissed, ears perking.

The jade herself stopped and listened for a moment, picking up only faint and distant shouts and faint indecipherable calls.

Only after a moment of listening did the Dolorosa realize the sudden and drastic diminishing of the crowds noise. Her eyes glanced back, nervous steps carrying the Jade back to the view of the Arena. The Pasha following shortly behind. Her eyes flickered about for the source of the sudden shift in the crowds attitude. It was not the Grand Highblood himself who looked up at the suddenly hushed masses, head turning in confusion.

It was the terrible crimson stain growing that drew Dolorosa's gaze. Her hand fell upon her lips to keep her mouth from falling open.

A single hand scraped against the wall, completing the mark of chains behind as her body slowly rose. The Avarayri had not broken completely, as she stood upon her feet once more. She looked up. Up to the Grand Highblood who shrieked in indignation, up to the crowd that had been quieted by the seemingly culled Alien's rise. Up to Ancillae Dolorosa who could not believe her eyes. After a moment, the human looked down to see its left arm had been knocked cleanly out of its socket by the Grand Highblood's blow. Perhaps it was shock or the alien's perverse biology, but the creature seemed to take the loss of it's appendage without pause. The creature turning to face the Highblood.

"WELL?!" The voice of the human came loud in the terribly reticent arena. "END IT! I'VE WAITED LONG ENOUGH!" The creature advanced stumbling and near death, the action sending the Grand Highblood skirting back dropping the alien's severed limb.

His body jerked, terribly familiar to Dolorosa. His words came slurred. "Mother fucker you aren't worth my mother'n time." The indigo stumbled back shaking his head, almost confused as the alien slowly advanced. Tiny eyes fixated upon the giant that had maimed her. He called out words that were not his, denouncing the Avarayri as heterodox. Screaming the blood of xenos just as heretical as trolls of the same kind. The giant turning and marching out of the arena well before the Avarayri could even hope to reach him.

Dolorosa felt fingers creeping up her own posture pillar, feet moving against their will as her mistress drew her back. Leaving the Pasha Camalari staring down at the impossible sight below.

Chapter Text

- Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

Arhwyx Rymmyl was not ungrateful for his Moirail's paranoia, after all, he was the more defensive of the pair. The shield to his sword, the tunnel to his air support. But the abrupt shift that had come with the promise of change had taken Arhwyx by surprise. If nothing else but from the speed which Arhwyx had assumed his reactionary olive no longer possessed.

The two had merged their command structures together, jointing their efforts beside Degaal and the Genitori to play the field that they had been given on planet's surface. Another surprise had been the shift of his fellow blue to their impromptu front. Rymmyl had considered the old Lygtagt-Kaigari Genitori a strict-to-plan sort of troll. Not one for something fanciful as hope.

Petang had managed to convince him, the old allies finding common ground with the ever rising threat of the Vykjiit. The rhetoric of the Supreme loyalty towards the throne and the 'swift restoration of soil-side sovereignty' was marching them ever closer to internal war. The Vykjiit themselves had found continuous success in no small part with their constant resupply while the Imperial army found themselves in ever more dire straits logistically.

With the Genitori beside them, the commanders of the Imperial ground troops had drastically shifted their strategy, cutting out Vykjiit sympathizers and Haeiig loyalists alike sending them off to their respective commands. Surpek Lygtagt-Kaigari Duolan Haeiig's rage had been explosive over the insubordination, but the constant direction of forces forced him to stay off-planet to direct the now entirely overreaching command network. His rage was even more impotent when on the other end of a conference call.

The smaller forces had proved to be a boon, allowing strict organization of the ground commanded forces, the supply issues cut significantly as the Lygtagt-Kaigari took a defensive stance. No longer did they bother with the constant assaults and reckless charges on xenos positions, instead waiting for the 'organizational retrofit' to be completed. While the forced change of tactics hadn't sat well with Rymmyl, at least his moirail had been roused by the task. The olive was almost chipper when he had a shovel in hand.

Casualties in the hundreds of thousands were reduced to a fraction, shifting the sea of chroma shed to a somewhat more tolerable lake. The shift had exposed the weaknesses of both Haeiig's command and the Vykjiit alike. The former now so burdened by over-extension and command relay slowness that defections and casualties had hit record highs. The latter being left with significantly less confidence and support. All the armour, psi-worms, equipment and bloodthirst in the empire did not make up for a lack of training and discipline it seemed.

The first assassin sent by the Vykjiit had attempted the astoundingly asinine strike on Arhwyx's moirail. Perhaps the foolish Blue-blood had thought the olive an easy target, attempting to put an arrow through Marcyg's head at dawn. The poor fool had not even made it twenty yards from his ambush position before the olive had pounced upon him. Dragging him back to his fellow Lygtagt-Kaigari for 'questioning.'

It took not even five minutes to break the Blue. Partially because he had not signed on to die for the Vykjiit.

Partially because Degaal had gotten his claws on a CCT, a chitin cutting torch.

The orders had come all the way up from Hanryk Higmmr himself. The Sea-Blood emboldened by his partner's propaganda war. Jyssyf Gobayl's influence extended worryingly far up within the fleet. But on the ground its impact was growing ever weaker as the Imperial forces factionalized.

The divide between the Suprek-Imperial Loyalists, the 'Terrene Armies' as they had come to be known internally and externally and the Vykjiit would burst soon.

In that regard, Rymmyl had rushed with planning the inevitable beside the Genitori and Degaal while Marcyg oversaw the combat affairs. Their greatest issue was the fleet Free-horns and Imperial led ship captains alike would be needed in significant numbers to prevent the Terrene forces from simply being wiped out from orbit.

Progress had been slow, in that regard. Degaal fiery as he was could not be trusted with the task. The Genitori's old fashioned approach only useful with the ancient black skinned captains and nobles, though their contributions and numbers in allegiance were not insignificant.

The suggestion for alternate investments had come from a subordinate. Rymmyl had always known Lygtagt Trskow would either end up culled for treason or a full Lygtagt-Kaigari, his suggestion to investigate searching out human ground to atmosphere weaponry weighed heavy on Rymmyl.

Such things were almost enough to distract himself from Marcyg's over-protectiveness.

The olive had moved the shared Lygtagt-Kaigari command center thrice now, each time to a different secured island. They had settled on this third one the longest, a tiny thing in the middle of the largest ocean. Volcanic in nature, the island was dominated by hundreds of statues the human inhabitants had erected over the centuries. The silent stone monoliths the final native residents as the command center spread itself out across the island. Terrible totems shaped of stone, styled after humans themselves. Rymmyl had established his own base camp atop the largest of the low rolling mountains, partially to avoid the dark monoliths which ringed the shores, partially for isolation, partially because he had grown increasingly uncomfortable in the retrofitted remains of the alien settlements.

Being here for so long, it was impossible to forget the weight of extermination paid unto an unsuspecting species.

The spacious open land had turned packed with his subordinates landing their shuttles and laying down portable hives, the entirety of the communication block for the Terrene forces housed only a few dozen steps away from Rymmyl's private shuttle. A living outpost. Of course Marcyg had followed him there, going as far as to share his shuttle for rest, sleeping on the floor like he was serving back in the trenches. Void, it was impossible to not pity the old olive.

Marcyg’s own command structure following suite making the top of Terevaka as the humans had called it more than a little cramped. Gone were the grassy expanses replaced by tight settling and muddied paths from constant footsteps.

"Rymmyl." Marcyg growled, stopping the blue blood mid stride. The pair had been overseeing communications with subordinates, updating the planetary forces on their slow and cautious positions for the coming conflict. The imminent dawn had prompted their departure.

Rymmyl turned and noted the olive's tenseness, hand pulling away from his ear. Gone was the regal attire of a Lygtagt-Kaigari replaced outright now with a set of soldier's pants, boots. Coat and shirt more styled toward a petty officers, topped with a mundane ear-receiver. Battered punching gauntlets worn outright, only Marcyg's command hat identifying him as a Lygtagt-Kaigari. "Scouts found evidence of a stow-away on one of the supply shuttles that passed through Degaal's base of operations. I'm thinking another uninvited guest is here."

"And you think it an assassin?" Rymmyl smiled as his moirail snarled. Already overworked.

"Of course I think it an assassin. Settlement was swept already, Degaal's people found nothing but passing evidence. Which means they're somewhere on the island."

"We're not re-positioning again." The blue said flatly, prompting louder clicking from olive.

"I-" Petang's voice cracked and he forced himself to calm after a moment. It was tempting to pap his moirail, but Rymmyl did not give the thought much time. Some night but not this one. "I won't make us re-position. This is a good enough location, for now anyways. But keep close to me will you?"

"I suppose I can accommodate that request." Rymmyl said after a moment of consideration. "I'm not made of sponge." His hand fell to his old 'Bolo' lightning pistol resting on his hip. The small gun was deceptively heavy, it's battery overly large and ideal for armour combat. Experience taught that in a troll to troll fight, the winner was the one with more juice in his battery.

Petang did not look convinced. "I've heard those words more than I care to admit. Just trust me will you?"

"Of course! My life is in your hands oh so charitable Roaring Beast." Petang jabbed Rymmyl in the side as he walked past, not hard enough to bruise but hard enough to wince. A Threshicharger even now, Rymmyl contented himself with following his moirail. Slow in his step as he was. "So, thoughts on the Zgaigk report?"

"About as trustworthy as a bleat beast left alone with food. If that information circuit doesn't actually bring something concrete in then it's less than worthless."

"Still, the prospect of thermonuclear warheads could deal with the worst of our void-based opponents. In proper configuration a plurality of combat pilots could be scrambled."

"I'll say it again. I'll believe it when I see evidence."

Rymmyl's shuttle came into view, wedged between a large officer's block-aggregate and the security detachment's ship, the diminutive ship was almost completely hidden. Even their subordinate Lygtagtii did not know the shuttle was their dwelling for the moment. But that was never enough for Marcyg. Arhwyx noted his hackles raise as they closed in, stopping outright in his path.

"Really?"

"Yes. Really. A sufficiently stealthy individual could get in here." The obtuseness of it made the blue pull back, Marcyg walking ahead and fiddling a moment with the door entry controls, passing glances to the nearby patrols. After a moment he abandoned subtly, pulling out one of his punch daggers and quickly undoing the metal plating to get at the internal controls.

"If this is an overly convoluted scheme to get me into a new shuttle-" Normally Marcyg would interrupt Arhwyx bluntly. The sharp silencing pull of his fist noted something less pleasant. Still silent the olive quickly refashioned the door controls together and walked back over to Arhwyx.

"Someone scattered the door. Might be a bomb, might be our guest." Marcyg croaked.

Rymmyl shook his head. "Explosives are too loud, if it is another Vykjiit agent they'll not want to end up like the last one. Might succeed with a bomb but they'd never make it off the island."

"Options?"

Arhwyx considered for a moment. The last agent they had captured had confirmed the overt hostility and rapidly speeding timetable of the paramilitary loyalists. Another might prove useful. "Get a strike team in here, get them to clear it-"

Marcyg cut him off. "No."

"No?" Arhwyx raised his brow as his moirail huffed.

"I can deal with this."

"What if it's a laughsassin or something of the like?"

"Laughsassin's are easy, overconfident and bleed everywhere. Nowhere for those fairwater freaks to jump in that cramped box of yours. Same with every other high caste reserved class that thinks they know the essence of tight quarters combat."

"So you're thinking it's not someone high-caste? That doesn't sound like the Vykjiit."

"I'm worried it isn't." The flatness of his tone brought no question, worry glimmering like silver. At least as much as he would show under the practice of tarnish.

Arhwyx turned away for a moment, quickly looking over the muddied paths of the command center, distant light of the dawn threatening to blot out everything soon. "So, what do you want to do then?"

"Go in there and let me deal with it." His moirail trilled as Arhwyx growled. "I can deal with this and I can make sure we get him alive. You know I can! I don't want some servicetroll with a shaky grip accidentally taking their head off. If it isn't Vykjiit we need to find out who else wants you dead, how they know you're here and what we can do about them. So will you let me do this for you?" Marcyg's trilling failed as Arhwyx fell silent, considering the proposal.

He didn't care much for the possibility of one or both of them getting injured or killed, but the necessity of information was too vital to pass up. "Fine. But I'm setting a timed message to storm my shuttle in one minute thirty seconds in the event things chilly. I'm also coming in with you."

"I would expect such. I'll only allow it because you function best in a metal box." Arhwyx couldn't tell if that had been an attempted jab or if it was just the blunt olive's earnest attempt at a compliment. He did not contemplate it for long as he approached his shuttle behind Marcyg. Hand pulling out a small tablet from his pocket, tacking out a small message to the nearest security team to immediately investigate if Arhwyx personally himself didn't order them otherwise. When the message was composed he looked over to Marcyg, claw on the opening button. The timer was set as the door opened.

Marcyg entered slow, eyes scanning ahead as Arhwyx followed behind. For the life of him, Arhwyx could see nothing out of place, nothing even remotely different to the shuttle's interior. Marcyg reached the cockpit, nose sniffing wildly as the blue's eyes scanned the seating. He was near to believe Marcyg's paranoia was becoming counter-productive when something reached the corner of his vision.

Arhwyx Rymmyl managed to faintly register the boot before it dug into his cheek. Not that did him any good. The slam of the ship doors coming loud as he crashed to the floor. Stunned as a lithe shadow descended from the ceiling atop him.

He realized that his assailant must have been waiting for him on the ceiling, the glimmer of black claws registering from a raised hand. Fine things, terribly sharp looking. The Olive eyes held a reddened rage, brow low and pointed.

The assassin took the blunt of the Roaring Beast's charge in full across their back, being smashed from behind and barreled right over the fallen Lygtagt-Kaigari. The slam of bodies against the ship doors and howling of two trolls coming as Arhwyx struggled to rise to his knees, head still spinning. His side-arm came to his hand as he finally stood turning to look at the struggle.

His would-be assassin was pinned under Marcyg, only a little taller than the older olive but much leaner. Head and horns hidden behind black face wraps, the troll was dressed in the imperial uniform, their claws the only marking distinction that would out-pin them in a crowd.

"Ha- who needs a subterfuge cloak when you can just wear the regular uniform?" Arhwyx chuckled as Marcyg smashed his forehead down on his struggling quarrel, stunning them for long enough that he got hold of their wrists. The only injury taken by the old quarreler a faint slash across his brow, trickled olive mixing with sweat.

"Would you cut your words for just a second and cut that void-forsaken alarm Rymmyl?!" Marcyg snarled as he unceremoniously rolled the would-be assassin onto their back, tearing off their claws. Turning Arhwyx obeyed, as Marcyg smashed his booted heal down on the troll's back. "Easy there culchin. I don't intend to break you just yet."

"Now now, Petang. There's no need to be so harsh." Arhwyx chided as he composed a brief message to Degaal. Tinged with a bit more snideness than he cared to admit but there was little to be done. "We don't have to do this with that sort of brutishness."

"As if you're capable of anything else. Traducer." The assassin's voice was husky and low, female and thickly lowblooded. The insult carried at the end bringing a savage growl from Marcyg.

"You impudent little-"

"Marcyg. Enough." The barked command paused the olive commander before he could drop his boot down on the assassin's posture pillar. He slowly lowered his heel back down, ruthlessly pressing down enough to draw the breath from the masked troll's lungs.

"You're very lucky my brood is feeling generous."

The assassin was undaunted by the Lygtagt-Kaigari's words. "Go to the void and take your water blooded master with you."

The insult brought a sharp kick to the gut before Arhwyx could voice opposition to the action, it was commendable that she'd realized who had less patience from the two of them. Almost commendable. Arhwyx still needed her alive. Something troubling growing from the back of his mind. A familiarity he couldn't place. "If you hadn't just tried to rip my throat out I'd extol your skill with crawling under Petang's hide. But he isn't going to cull you. Neither am I."

"Not that I do not wish too." Marcyg growled, though he eased his boot up enough to allow the would-be assassin to speak.

"Then I'm just going to kill both of you eventually." The worrying concern of who this was only grew. Something was ringing to Arhwyx, he had heard this voice before.

"I would like to not do that, Madam. Nor would I like to see you bloody the floor. It would be rather counterproductive."

"Not to my purposes. If you two vanish, the Imperial army loses valuable heads. End up with clueless waders that will let this entire rotten structure fall. All the way to the bedrock."

Marcyg managed a dark chuckle. "So I'll take it that monster called Gobayl sent you?"

The olive-eyed attacker hissed. "The only reason I'm here and not culling him is his clinging grasp on his void ship. Coward."

"So, that begs the question of your loyalty. Who sent you?" Arhwyx demanded. The assassin's head lowered. "Well? I'll be very disjointed if Haeiig actually remembered subterfuge."

A trill, of annoyance or frustration it was difficult to discern. "You actually think anyone would willingly serve the butcher?"

"If you don't tell us, I'll have to start guessing. None of us can pluck answers from the brightness Madam."

Nothing. The Olive eye was silent for a moment.

Marcyg growled. "Or if you prefer we can start breaking prongs?"

"Marcyg." Arhwyx hissed as he walked near to the assassin, likely a poor choice. But the strangeness of his circumstances and the unsettlingly familiar voice moved him, boldness was a necessity. He hunched down, close enough to be able to see the dark skin ringing her glaring olive eyes. She snarled and broke her own look, slamming her head to the floor. "Madam. Please."

She said nothing for a long while, breathing hard with her head pressed down to the floor. For a moment Arhwyx thought his pleas were in vein, and Marcyg would be needed to pry truth from the other olive. The harsh words came, and finally Arhwyx recognized the speaker. "Underneath the stars I saw them all made one and the same, equal before the void. Blood mixed with blood on the stone. There I did not see a line, nor a pyramid nor any such confining thing as she would make. No-"

"There under the stars I saw a circle, without end or beginning." Arhwyx finished the verse.

The assassin went stiff, Marcyg himself tensing from the sudden shift. "Arhwyx?"

"I could swear he prohibited the action of killing?" The blue blood spoke softly, but it did nothing as a raking furious hissing came. If Marcyg hadn't been on her back the swing of the olive's naturally taloned hands would have struck Arhwyx in the face.

Her eyes were red as alien blood. "YOU DON'T GET TO SPEAK TO ME YOU MURDEROUS-" The roar was cut short by Petang's grasp shoving the would-be assassin to the floor. "LAP BEASTS OF THE EMPIRE!"

"Try that again and I will take off that arm of yours." Marcyg snarled into the back of the olive's head.

Arhwyx's hand came to his chin. Certainty gripped him, but oddly this time it only brought a faint discomfort. What to do now? It all fell to a particular thought, something Marcyg would likely kill him for.

His readings into the histories of Alternia had brought much in Arhwyx Rymmyl's youth, even though he had joined the imperial army early he had kept up with his readings. He'd written some things himself, though he considered armour instruction manuals of little use to most. He'd been ignorant of the goings-on of Alternia, until it had simply been taken. The empire had to be made stable, that was what he had always told himself. Told himself that when he carried out orders from the throne he'd detested. The book of heretical writings had come into his hands during one such action, a number of deserting officers ordered culled. Helpless and weaponless.

He'd found the book looking over the bodies, clenched tightly in the teal's hands for comfort before the firing squad. He'd said nothing as he'd taken it. A curiosity to be read through and learned from. To be understood was to be defeated. But the words had stuck within Arhwyx for sweeps. All these sweeps and the words still came. "We wandered six nights without sign of water or sustenance, but I was not fearful. Though I walked in the shadow of the void. I did not falter, nor did my step fail. On the seventh night our patience was rewarded with a watering hole, alone amidst the sands. Dwelling there were many beasts-"

"SHUT YOUR IRREVERENT MOUTH!" The Assassin snarled struggling to free herself from Marcyg's grasp. But he did not relent, neither did Arhwyx.

"Beasts of brutal kind. Mine companions moved to drive them off, but I stayed their blows. Approaching they did not strike, knowing well that blood would bring horrors that would deprive all of them water. We drank our fill, and found a cave nearby. We set ourselves to sleep with hate's arrival, many of the same beasts sharing the cave. When dusk came it brought with it a number of trolls, cobalt and teal in kind. Soldiers of the empire. Once more mine companions moved to strike them down, but once more I paused them. They were as desperate and thirsting as we had been. We allowed them their satiation and sleep. Three days and nights passed sharing the cave before we left, not as enemies but as brood. Desperation had drawn us together, while kindness had made us ken." The assassin had stopped struggling, staring at the floor. Arhwyx sighed. "Marcyg. Let her go."

"Did she smack you hard enough in the think-pan that-"

Arhwyx cut his moirail off, not even looking at him as he stared down at the olive woman. "Marcyg I'm not arguing over this."

Petang growled low, but tapered his anger after a moment. Eventually he stepped off, though his stance was ready for another assault. It did not come as the would-be assassin slumped against the floor. Staring off into space. For some reason that only fed the blue's malaise.

"We are not enemies, madam." Arhwyx whispered.

"Why do you serve them?" The assassin was quiet, voice coarse and creaking. Empty without the anger that had burned so bright. "Why do you keep their heads out of the fire?"

"Because service is all I know. But I intend to know other things. My moirail managed to shift me to such." He nodded to Marcyg whose face tinged olive with a snarl. "But I would not have even consider such things alone. Alone and ignorant. I am sorry, so sorry for everything. I cannot bring back the dead, but I can shift the path ahead. Try to do that anyways. I know I cannot do it alone."

The olive finally looked at him. The red was gone, replaced with olive tinged yellow. She reminded him of Marcyg oddly enough. They had the same ire, and the same feline eyes. "I did not know."

"How could you?" Arhwyx asked as the olive shifted, looking back to the floor.

Marcyg spoke up. "If you'd care to enlighten me to who this is Rymmyl? Preferably sometime this sweep?"

Arhwyx extended his hand to the olive. "If you'd care to madam?"

After a moment, the clawed hand met the blue's own. With a little assistance he managed to raise the stunned olive to her feet. She swayed a moment, before leaning back against the closed shuttle doors. Hands struggling to remove the bindings that hid her identity.

She was softer looking that Arhwyx expected, making the jarring scars that marred the left of her face all the more unsightly. Her hair cut short and bound behind her head in a militant knot. Her horns were carved down flat ended, the left one carved down with all manner of sacrosanct symbolism.

"Leijon. Just Leijon." The once Disciple of the Signless hissed through her teeth.

Marcyg stared blankly for a moment until the weight of the name hit him. He took a step forward, more incredulous than defensive now. "You died back on Alternia."

Leijon shook her head. "No. I wish I had but I didn't. I was dragged off-world before everything fell apart." She looked from Marcyg to Arhwyx. "Why?"

"Because I'm fucking tired of doing this. Why do you think?" Marcyg growled as Leijon's gaze fell. "Everything is hurtling downhill at speeds I did not think possible. Disciple-"

"Do not call me that." Lejion hissed. "I'm not his Disciple anymore."

"You do not believe in his teachings anymore?" Arhwyx asked. "It was you who wrote them down first if I remember correctly. You who defended him, you who-"

"He's dead now and its obvious only bloodshed will free us from this." The olive did not sound so much bitter as hallow. "You yourselves will enjoin violence on your own masters, correct?"

Arhwyx could feel Marcyg's gaze fall on him as Lejion stared. The blue blood considered for a moment what to say. He knew her history, the Disciple had endured nights and days of watching the subject of her loyalty burn, ending in his death. Only the pause of the executioner had spared her a similar fate as Alternia had begun its tumble downwards towards the abyss.

What could possibly warrant reprieve from such a bloodstained turn?

"Do not raise strife upon any, she said to me. But when strife is enjoined upon you, yay no blow is too sharp, no strike too bleeding. I consented, and she stood by me, protecting me in my weakness and mire."

Leijon's laugh was empty. Shallow and pitted. "You're good at taking things out of context blue."

"Hardly madam." Arhwyx remained undampened. "There is a strict difference to what the Signless permitted. Ours will be a conflict of finality. Strife has been enjoined upon us for thousands of sweeps, prodding golden spears into our backs as we marched forward ever serving the empire. It is time this ended. No blow will be too sharp to end this."

"This?" Leijon questioned, firmer.

Arhwyx chuckled grimly, though his lips tweaked upward. "This conflict without name that has waged between those servile to the Fuchsia she-beast that has dwelled above the rest of us for so long and she herself. I believe we can end this. But if we lose faith in ourselves and those who guided us, then the future will either be empty or coloured Fuchsia once more." The once Disciple stared for a moment. Marcyg too, as he slowly picked up his command cap that had been knocked off in the struggle. "I would appreciate having someone like you with us, Madam Leijion."

"One condition." Lejion's eyes sharpened. "Promise me one thing and I will help you in any way I can."

"Why do I get the feeling it will be difficult?" Marcyg growled, a retributive hissing coming from Lejion.

Arhwyx's clap silenced both. "What would you ask of us?"

"Only two of us who followed- followed Kadarn are still alive. His closet allies I mean. When Kardarn was killed I lost Jiixan to the wader freak's fucking navy. They strung him up but I know they didn't kill him like they killed Sayrii. I always hated him and his stupid lisp but I can't find him and I- I need to make sure he gets out." How odd it was to hear their names. Names by moulting, rather than deed. He considered the prospect, unaware of where the Psiioniic could be. But he could not deny the olive catharsis. "I've never been a position to even find him, let alone rescue him. Do this for me and I'll follow you Cidevant turncoats all the way to the void."

"It will be tight, but we can try to see him freed." Arhwyx stopped as Marcyg turned away, hissing to himself. Of course, his moirail would likely know of the Psion's holding place. "Marcyg?"

"You-" The Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul turned back hissing, no longer in anger but what seemed frustration. "You really are asking for a lot you know?"

"I'm well aware. I'll take it you know where he is?" Lejion questioned and stood, no longer vacant but tense. It eased the malaise that had infested Arhwyx.

Marcyg's snarling peaked. "Oh, I do. You're asking us for the engine of the Empress's flagship woman. They call him the Helmsman now, because he's the only damned psion that can push that enormous gaudy thing about."

Lejion stared for a moment, ears lowering in despair as her hands came to her head. From where she stood, Arhwyx assumed it sounded like rescue was an impossibility.

Arhwyx however found himself chuckling.

"Oh my, that sounds like quite the challenge." He clapped his hands together. What should be an entirely absurd notion gripped him. The vigor of a well-planned and better executed assault taking the blue blooded Armour-Commander. The prospect overwhelmingly tempting and terribly dangerous. But if it worked? "Imagine if the Empress in her moment of dire need found her own flag-ship helpless?"

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere in the underworks of the IV Degeneration of Flesh

"Boss?" Gundun's head peaked up from behind the loungeplank.

The yellow blood's silence was most often comfortable, Gundun not saying much while he worked and Suuial content with not speaking. This was not one of those times. A nervousness had filled Gundun, a nervousness kind to that which had suffused him and every other troll in the arena's undercroft.

Normally the cramped blocks and tunnels were filled with voices and chittering mocking. The crew, from as many castes as they were tended to get along. There was no noise now, with the onset of day most of the Arena's staff had vanished. The small meal block in the employee quarter that Suuial had hidden himself had been empty when he'd arrived. The cobalt had figured that a good thing, seating himself on the loungeplank in the corner after making himself a small grublette out of what little remained in the communal food storage chest.

He'd eaten the vegetable and beef-grub confection in silence. A part Suuial tempted to go out to his employee storage locker and grab his husktop. Work needed to be done, correspondence needed to be sent. Void only knew he needed to post hiring positions and up the pay of his underlings. But the Cobalt found himself unable to as he contemplated the events of the day.

He'd lost a half-dozen of his subordinates as the Grand Highblood had come crashing down into the Arena's maintenance halls. The Indigo's seemingly atypical confusion turning more and more to rage. The night had still been young when his disastrous dual ended, the remaining hours plagued by incident after incident. Cage's failing to open, fighters being bested by accident more than their opponents, constant fuckery with control systems.

By the time the artificial dawn of the ship finally arrived the crowd was down to two thirds of what it normally was, viewing numbers tanking across the fleet. The noble battle over the Grand Highblood's slurred commands and the fate of the xeno claiming another two of his employees caught in the crossfire as sea bloods, priests and nobles had turned violent. Of course the xeno was gone, and across the fleet it seemed a schism was forming in the priesthood.

But the cobalt director hadn't worried about that. It was so far above his fucking pay-grade it would almost be funny if the shit show he'd needed to attend to wasn't dire. Suuial had needed to assist his subordinates personally, cleaning the seating and walkways of blood. The normal arena cleaning four wheel device had broken down, forcing the staff to clean things manually. The cobalt had been unable to force his normal arena cleaners in with the 'Mark' colouring the wall. The overly superstitious limes cursing the ground they'd been cleaning for many a perigee. Suuial, not one for superstition had gone in himself to spray down the wall.

The alien bloodstain had been eerily similar to the Mark of Chains, the alien's bloodied hand completing the paired looping manacles.

It had washed off just as any other bloodstain would.

Unusual as it was, he'd seen all manner of bloodstain shapes in his sweeps working under the blood-bathed stone. It just happened to be the worst possible shape a heretical red bloodstain could take. Suuial retreating to the employee respite blocks when the worst of the excess bloodshed was cleaned. The limes and rusts under him at least satiated for the time being.

The cobalt was near finished with his grublette when Gundun had entered the room, tittering about looking through what felt like every storage shelf and drawer. Evidently not hungry but instead finding his courage to speak to Suuial.

When he'd finally spoken up Suuial had shoved the rest of his ova'n confection in his mouth. Swallowing he turned to the anxious yellow. "Yes Gundun?"

"What the flying fuck was that?" He squeaked, voice creaking as his bant-pipes roiled in his chest. "I- I don't know what fucking happened and no one will tell me! Fucking Hununu told me to bite a carapace pipe."

"To be honest I don't really know myself." Suuial said, tapping free the cushion of the loungeplank. After a moment Gundun joined him sitting down.

"Boss you're the smartest guy I know. If anyone would know anything about today it'd be you. I'm not a fucking mushroom, I don't want to be left in the dark and fed shit."

Suuial snorted and hunched forward as he ran his tongue ran over his fangs. Looking over the yellow with a cautious eye. It was easy to forget he was only about seven sweeps the way he was so confident with tools, mechanical and manual alike. His head completely shaved of hair with his flat horns hanging perfectly flat, his skin was silver grey. He fit his black jumpsuit uniform well, pain as it was finding one small enough for the young troll. Suuial knew he was going to go somewhere better one night. Hopefully.

"I'm not so smart, I'm just observant and sleep well. As for today- well. Do you want to know the firm of it or the ephemeral squishy shit? Paying too much mind to the squishy stuff never ends well."

"Both. I mean- if you don't mind?"

Suuial sighed. "You sure? You're one of those colony grubs free of that stupid beastshit."

"I told you boss. I'm not fungus, I don't want to be treated like I am."

"Alright." Suuial said, running his claws through his hair. "I'll tell you what I know for sure. First and foremost. Whenever non-regulars get involved things go bad real easy. I'm not even talking someone like the Grand Highblood, I mean fucking sea pupids that call in favours to get themselves down here. When you can steer clear of them because they don't mind mangling and culling dirt noodlers like us. Particularly if things don't go their way."

"Right right I got that. But- what the fuck was with the Grand Highblood?"

"Second, watch out for people who are deep in the ephemeral shit. Even if the beastshit they believe in is just that, the fact that they believe it makes them real fucking capricious. Mother grub fucking Grand Highblood is shithive maggots, but he's a one troll extermination force. Because of the shit he thinks he saw he freaked out, now that frigglen-snorter Yunjuj is a floor stain. Along with a bunch of trolls I actually liked."

"Okay." Gundun nodded. "Third?"

"Third thing is special events are fucking stupid when they're paired with the first and second thing I told you. If you get nights off then take them when priests start asking about using the ring."

"But Game-Head Junrii is a priest-"

"Junrii's an exception because he's here daily and his nugbone is screwed on right." Suuial growled, while not particularly fond of the gold painted indigo he'd never mistreated any of the arena underlings. Maybe because his moirail was rust, maybe because he was actually mentally sound unlike the rest of his blood caste.

"Alright alright." Gundun hissed. "So what you're saying is that for sure everything last night went to shit because of non-regulars, shitty think-pans, the entire troll-to-troll thing and the fact they were all bucketed together in an incestuous slurry?"

"There you go pupa." Suuial leaned back into the loungeplank as the yellow blood scratched his head.

"Alright, that all makes sense. But I guess I need to know why everyone's shitty think-pans are wigging out?"

"Yea." Suuial grumbled. "Look, just so you know I'm not big on that stuff."

"You've made that obvious boss."

"So- how much do you know about Alternia? How everything went to shit?"

Gundun gulped. "Not much boss. They didn't teach nothing about it. All I've heard are rumors. Not like I spend my off time looking through books for something that might get my spinal crevice culled."

The cobalt nodded. "Smart of you." A thought crossed his mind. "Say what do you do anyways off the clock?"

"Dominoes mostly." The yellow shrugged. "There's a bunch of black skin farts outside my communal hive block that play night and day. Not bad to pass time with at least."

"Huh." Suuial said, continuing before the expectant troll could prod him. "Right. So, basically back on Alternia was a rebellion-"

"An actual rebellion? Not like a food kerfuffle that got out of hand?"

"No, I mean a full rebellion. If I've heard right about a quarter of the homeworld signed on. But here's the thing, it wasn't a planned rebellion. It was a reaction. See, there was a troll with blood like that alien."

"Crimson?" Gundun questioned with a twinge of incredulity.

"Yes. Meant he had no ancestry or at least no named ancestry. He didn't have a sign even." The yellow snorted but Suuial continued. "See, he wasn't like most trolls. The Signless troll was smart, and he actually knew how to use his smarts. Jade took him in after he hatched and he grew wise wandering about to keep himself from being culled. Some will say there was something special about him, like that alien was. Beastshit I'll tell you Gundun, that ephemeral stuff takes away from things like that Signless troll."

"Why's that boss?"

The cobalt growled. "Steals their character and replaces it with mystic beastshit that every fucking Tooamn, Deeiak and Harrey can rub all over their fucking bulges. No, the Signless was special because he figured out how to talk. He spoke and trolls listened. He spoke about the hemospectrum not as a line but as a circle, everything part of a greater whole. Shit that went face up against the castes and the empire in a way that wasn't afraid. His word spread all over, try as the authorities did to cut it. Shit, they're still out there preaching his words."

"So. What happened to him?"

"What do you think happened to him? Authorities got to him eventually. They strapped him to a rock and let him burn for a few days, trying to get him to renounce his ideas. Problem was he was a determined fucker. They whipped him and rubbed preservative mineral in his cuts trying to get him to squeal. But he never did. So they finally decide to kill him but before they do they let him speak. Crazy fucker managed to get out a whole fucking sermon before they finally put an arrow in his shout-sphincter."

Suuial grumbled and stood, realizing his thirst mid-explanation. "That's when the rebellion starts, it got so bad most of the Imperial forces had to pull off-world. But that was just the start of it. See, there were things that dwelled in the oceans back on Alternia you couldn't even imagine. Lusii so big they wouldn't even fit in the fucking Arena."

"No way. What even gets that big?"

The cobalt shrugged as he opened the door to the food box. "Beasts that belong in the void, born there I mean. Some of them were psionic. Officially they'll say Alternia was knocked out by a stone burner reactor going active. Beastshit. Entire planet just crumpled in on itself by some psionic so powerful it took the moons down with it. There's a fucking asteroid belt that's still hot where Alternia was now." Suuial pulled a dull green bottle out of the box. "Want any bubblyfluid?"

Gundun shook his head. "Nah boss."

The cobalt shrugged and whorled the liquid in the bottle about for a moment. Didn't feel like much of the sugary beverage was left. He simply opened it, taking the whole bottle with as he walked back to the loungeplank.

"See, with all the beasthit that went on after the Signless' culling they fucking pinned it on him. His supporters marking it as an act of revenge from the void, the priests and officials saying his heresy was so great it tainted the planet." Suuial raised the bottle and took a drink. Old tasting but it dampened his chute. "The way that alien hit the wall sprayed like a symbol of the Signless, given to him post mortem. His shackles right? So now everyone is freaking the fuck out because they think it's a message. Beastshit but since they believe it, it makes their reaction real. Never mind something like a rust wriggler went claw to claw with the fucking Grand Highblood."

"Shiiiiiit boss."

"Yea, so now you know. Don't go splurging it about to every fucking troll you meet, yea? You're a good worker and I don't want to have to fucking replace you."

"Yes boss." Gundun nodded and leaned back into the loungeplank's cushioning as he processed everything his overseer had told him. After a moment his short ears perked up. "So. What's going to happen now?"

Suuial shook his head. "I don't know pupa. But I'll tell you this, ring's going to need cleaning either way."

"Yea." Gundun chittered. "Thanks boss."

"Don't mention it Gundun."

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere aboard the IV 'VIII' Impudent Arachnid

Ancillae Dolorosa had worked from night into day on the alien. Surgery and cleaning undertaken alone, barring the occasional intrusion of overly curious slaves.

The Jade's mistress had reeled her back in with her uncompromising will, a panic suffusing the normally overbearingly and absolute pull. Dolorosa scarcely making it back before the halls filled with violence, as the Priests turned on each other. A battle had broken out in the stands over the departure of the Grand Highblood.

The already factionalized priests immediately turning against each other over the interpretation of their spiritual conqueror's mangled words. Dolorosa's mistress in the midst of the sudden chaos working her way through the crowd, inflaming the violence in the underling priests until she managed to catch one of the Grand Highblood's direct subordinates in her web of quick words and sharpened archaic dueling knowledge. In spite of the purple faced rage the Rhapsodist Cogitate had eventually relented under the promise of a hefty amount of wealth, transferring the heterodox human into the Marquises' waiting claws.

Dolorosa's Cerulean owner had sent the Jade running down to the arena to pick up the fallen human, accompanied by the somewhat tolerable Right escorting her. By the time they reached the arena floor the alien had collapsed again remaining hand gripping its stump. Up close the colour of the blood made Dolorosa's blood pusher clench in its familiarity, but motion gripped her squelching all trepidation and nausea. She had ordered the Right-hand off to grab a psi-stretcher and something to fashion a tourniquet with.

Thankfully the brown blooded woman did not protest, bolting off with all the severity the situation warranted.

Attempting to right the alien had earned Dolorosa more crimson as the human still struggled. The B=bleeding alien attempting to worm out of her grasp even as it exacerbated its own suffering. Somehow it was still mumbling, entirely pathetic in its weak slurring but words came nonetheless. Her small brown eye's shaking wildly as they stared up at the Matron. "End it just please fucking end it." The human mumbled over and over again, resisting Dolorosa's attempts to stop her struggles. "Christ would you have some fucking caritas?"

Desperation peaked as the crimson blood stained her hands, a horrible involuntary shuddering taking the Human. Dolorosa did not know how much blood this alien could afford to lose. Experience had taught a third for trolls, a little more for Highbloods, a little less for lows. But this? Blood was not something the human could not afford to lose.

A thought flicked through Dolorosa's scattered mind, the human's inimical resistance only giving the unpleasant thought strength. It was not as if she had other options.

"Dear, forgive me for this." She murmured keeping her voice as collected and soft as she could. "It will only hurt for a moment." Her calm words clashed somewhat behind the strength with which she scooped up the human, whose mumbling took a simpering tone. Dolorosa expected crimson tears, and stared for moment when translucent ones came instead from the small alien cradled in her arms.

"Please- please just stop-"

Memories in the caves came back, tutelage under the grand Jades. The words did not matter so much as the tone itself. “Trust me, please.” Dolorosa wiped the damp skin free of sweat and human blood, eyes tracing for veins underneath the pale skin.

The human was softer than she had any right to be. Fangs brushed against the pliant surface of the human's neck, the pleading turning to a high pitched wail as the Jade sunk her fangs into the human’s lower neck. Dolorosa holding her dependent tightly as the alien convulsed for a moment. The pleading wailing and monotonous words failed as the Colour-Eater venom took hold. Finally the human fell still against her.

The skirting hunger inside Dolorosa made withdrawing her fangs from the alien's neck slow. All it would take was for her to bite down in full to end it. The hunger was stowed as it always was, the Matron quickly setting into action. The entirely regrettable absence of the Right-Hand prompting her to rip off the fringes of her own skirt to fashion a tourniquet to keep her from bleeding out, further torn strips needed for bandages as Dolorosa noted the gashes on the alien's head. By the time she had finished the improvised binding the Right-Hand was still gone. The diminutive girl fit easily in her arms, half the Jade's size and significantly lighter than expected.

Unwilling to wait Dolorosa had ultimately carried the human girl out wrapped in her own cloak.

The matron only slowing to give a passing glance to the human's dismembered limb, half chewed and slobber stained beside the puddle of vomit. Dolorosa muttered a wordless curse as she’d ascended from the arena floor. Returning as fast as she could without causing undo damage to her charge.

Out of either a desire to ensure her new purchase did not bleed out or to flee before someone attempted to question the cerulean’s methods, the Marquise brought her party back to the Impudent Arachnid as soon as Dolorosa returned. The Right-Hand arriving last and bleeding from the head after an altercation with a pair of sea-dwellers.

Dolorosa had not noticed, only hearing of the affair in passing having immediately rushed down to the ship's slave quarters to get at the medical gear. Carrying the alien down to the slave surgical block with panicked steps. Mindfang had allowed her space at least to work, with the usual threat of punishment for failure. Dolorosa paid her mistress no heed for once. The fresh panic that had suffused the Jade bringing her full attention to the human.

The process of dealing the alien's injuries was a long and tedious one, the softness of her form required boiled string and cloth bindings. Such regular troll equivalents the matron feared would only worsen its injuries, tearing through her hide and agitating her lacerations. The normal sort of disinfectants were distressing as well in their possible incompatibility with the alien's biology, forcing the Jade to rely upon a basic surgical spirit.

The pain of application had been enough to rouse the human temporarily. Requiring another sharp bite to still her before she could hurt herself. The depth of the torn off limb had also been cause for concern, requiring a harrowing amount of effort to stitch together. Slow, oh so slow but Dolorosa’s forced meticulousness required nothing less.

By the time the last of the injuries had been bandaged and the last stitches sewn together the day had already arrived.

The human's blood pulsing was weak, the creature pale as Dolorosa herself in a panicked moment. But she would live.

She had to live. The matron found herself desperately repeating that throughout the entire improvised surgery.

That unpleasant hope that had been born watching the human struggle remained. A part of Dolorosa wished she could strangle it. No good could come from caring for a creature without a future. But she could not enforce that treacherous belief as she wiped her hands free of crimson blood.

Outside of the small surgical block, the ship's hall lights were dimmed and most of the crew sleeping.

Dolorosa elected to stay there for a time. Too high-strung to even consider sleeping. The alien's ragged state was not limited to its corporeal trauma. Her eyes ran over the girls form, fingers idly running through her hair. Unlike troll hair there was no natural coiling to the strands. They were soft as silk, a pleasant shade of dark brown. Unfortunately the human's internment had left the hair in a deplorable state. Most of the tangled strands un-salvageable, blood and filth marring the rest.

Cutting had come naturally using a re-purposed pair of medicutioner's scissors. Dolorosa trimming the alien's hair down to a claw’s length from her scalp, a hand wash cleaning away the blood and grease. When the matron was satisfied with the Avarayri's hair she turned to dressing the creature.

The typical slave clothes were harsh things, and Dolorosa doubted any would properly fit the alien. Likely with the smoothness of her hide they would be irritable. Dolorosa ultimately dipped into her mistress' 'gifts' in order to fashion garments for the alien. Entozoon silk skirts and other such things did little for Dolorosa who had come to detest such things. But the soft fabrics proved to be useful in whipping together clothing for the alien. A single jade and black skirt for the Matron was quickly retrieved from her respiteblock, partitioned into base swathes of fabric. The sheets fabricated in short order to a flat black chemise, a long black skirt and a Jade green Himation.

Sewing came natural from sweeps of practice, though the specifics felt- terribly familiar. Dolorosa glanced at the unconscious alien. Breathing shallow and faint sweat staining her brow. She was his height when he had stopped growing outright, though much leaner.

The memory of crimson had come rushing back. The human had tasted different than her ward had, metallic rather than sweet. The taste thicker than troll blood.

A hiss came when she involuntarily licked her lips, the Colour-Eater starving from exertion and the faint tasting of blood just outside of its grasp. The Ancillae crushed the instinctual wanting biting into her own lip. The taste of blood stopped the worst of the hunger pangs. Driving back the miserable core of herself down to the depths, Dolorosa returned to the task at hand.

Dressing the Avarayri in the skirt and chemise came slowly as the matron did not want to wake the alien a third time. She had removed the girl's hefty boots and socks, pulling off her now thoroughly sullied pants still biting her lip. She left her undergarment, the loose fitting clothes the matron had fashioned fitting easily with little modification needed. Dolorosa’s own belt had been cut down to fit the skirt around the human’s waist.

When Dolorosa finished a bitter smile came to her fangs. The Avarayri cleaned and clothed only highlighted the maiming. Her future would likely be short.

But for now she would survive. The matron could not help but tell herself that as she contemplated what to do now.

Did humans require sopor to sleep? What if the alien was allergic to the day-horror stealing slime? The Jade's own natural toxins had put the pale girl out for now, but Dolorosa struggled with what to do next. Rumors of human habits worth little to nothing as she gently picked up the alien. Cradling her careful to avoid waking her, Dolorosa wandered out into the slave blocks.

Considering her own reviled status with the other slaves it would likely be unwise to bring the human to the communal slave blocks. Too many things that could go wrong flowing through her mind. Everywhere too- too open and exposed for the matron's liking. She was not a fearful thing, fear was for those with something to lose. Treacherous hope had returned that, try as Dolorosa did to curse it.

Perhaps it would be best to simply leave the human girl somewhere open and let whatever was to come, come. The alien was evidently more capable than its pitiable form revealed.

The thought dug the Jade's fangs a little further into her lip.

She walked back to her own small block. As cramped as the room was, the matron could at least ensure nothing befouled the human. Awaiting as she had left it when Dolorosa had retrieved the skirt to re-purpose for the human. The closet in right corner wide open, filled with the pleasantries and appareling Mindfang had endowed her with. Little more than dressing her as a toy, but considering the sudden use Dolorosa did not feel as bitter over the clothes as usual. Her small cerulean recuperacoon in the corner was opposite corner one person, not that she would tempt the human's already precarious health. Aside that there was nothing else but a solitary towel on the floor for cleaning.

Dolorosa trilled softly as she shifted the human into one arm, opposite withdrawing a number of the thicker skirts and her extra cloak from the closet. A small layout of bedding kind to something for a beast or a Lusus was laid out beside her coon against the wall. Enough to cushion her from the ship floor at least. When she was finished Dolorosa laid the human down. Cloak saved to provide some cover for the Avarayri.

The matron found she could not bring herself to stand.

This was foolish, Dolorosa knew better than this. Experience had been her teacher.

She did not need Sopor to sleep anyways. Such was a luxury. Once a rarity in travel.

Dolorosa leaned back against the wall. Unwilling to separate herself, sitting down beside the pale alien's head where she could trace her hand freely through her hair. Perhaps- if she tried hard enough this time she would be able to save someone. The Avarayri was like herself in Mindfang's chattel, while the Cerulean was an arbitrary mistress at the best of times perhaps she could be taught to survive. Or would that simply crush the life from the girl? What options did she have?

Bereavement now, or bereavement later. The matron stopped herself, hand pausing halfway through the soft brown hair. She did not own this girl, the memory of violence in the arena reminded Dolorosa that the alien was filled with struggle.

Her own person, much as an alien could be a person. A troll slaying creature of either incredible bravery or mind numbing foolishness.

Yet Dolorosa could not chase away the unusual possessiveness that had warped her. No more than she could the yearning to ensure this Avarayri survived. Was it the similarity in figure? The helplessness? Or was it something more perverse- a pity for the doomed? Disgusting as the final thought was she could not fully dispel it.

Dolorosa's hand withdrew slowly, looking over the pale face beneath her one last time before she closed her eyes. Leaning back against the wall, she forced away the inner turmoil. Nothing but a slow death of heartache would come from it.

But when sleep finally overtook the matron, her dreams were captivated by a pair of small brown eyes.

Chapter Text

The mire no longer held any cohesion, any sort of stability was felled, any sort of center had been banished. Was this what death beyond the body was like for a watcher? No. Death was peace, death was the end of Bethany Gale Murdoch. But it had to be on its way.

She'd done her part. Surely. Whatever came next would never have to wake up to the madness that was the space between and all that could be seen from the unyielding eye. This was the final prelude but not death by any stretch of the imagination.

Spiraling out of control, without reason, without sense. Again, tied to the horns with a hold that Gael had never known. Fluttering in and out across it all. Trapped with them, the horns as they struggled to persist. Sights, sounds, smells and sensations, all passed Gael as it was lived, had been or would be. The only division and separation allowed by the disjointedness.

That much at least was something, but not much. The level of- voyeurism stung Gael whenever enough of the scattered human's mind drew in on itself long enough to hold some self. She shouldn't be doing this, hands not hers rubbing a loved one but felt nonetheless like hers. The same closeness kept with the sensation of being strangled, clawed hands not her own struggling to pry the murderous grip from her neck.

It seemed to be without end, the unrelenting flow of information depriving Gael of everything. The taste of huskloaf and dorsal tube sauce, dull but filling. The shriek of untenable woolbeasts, high and warbling. The warmth at the sight of a beloved moirail. The thorax splintering hatred for a long held rival.

Foot bumping against a rock, bringing pain and trilling laughter from others. Body embraced against another, smell and taste of a crimson tinted body filling the head. Eyes blinded, hands bound, screaming as the tendrils wormed under her skin. Body shattering underneath terrible weight, impossible to tell what it was as things faded. Run through, a dozen blows stuck before the final strike stole away sensation.

Hands cradling a small indigo grub, chittering sweetly as it rubbed itself against her talons. Panic filling every pore and crevice, get her on the ship because she couldn't leave her Lusus behind. Hate, low and pure for the Fuchsia that coloured her uniform. Mud, blood, howling filling her ears as the alien's pathetic body shattered under her fist. Regret, darkness. Fire burning, consuming everything before her. The world coming apart by its hinges, the sand turning to glass, the sky deprived of colour as Alternia died.

Disgust, murderous going on genocidal fury under her glare for the warm coloured glances shot her way. Denial of gambit, telling rage, she knew her rifle would strike through that marked bitch. Intoxicating black glee, the look on his face was priceless. Weariness, one hand holding the chains the same as any other. Contempt, Condescension, Condemnation, that was all the jerking underlings were good for. Mind splintering laughter filling the skull, her quarrel rising despite the fact she'd mother fucking culled it.

Shovel's handle was cold, the hard ground colder, still, needed this done. Annoyance, the nubby looking fellow knew how to haggle. A sigh, the tea was actually nice this time.

Soft white fur nuzzling against her cheek, feeling safe like she was the happiest troll in the world.

It all trailed away, too fast to be held onto and kept. Carried, that others might remember. Perhaps for some unknown grand design. Perhaps simply so no one had to die alone, as she had.

The sights, the sounds, the sensations alien to her perceptions, but felt nonetheless.

Eventually all faded, leaving the watcher in merciful darkness.

Time meaningless, until pain biting through everything brought Gael back. Pain the ever familiar companion, like death but far less pleasant. Death was the end, the weary conductor who greeted you amicably as you got off the train. Pain was a biting gnawing worm that took inordinate amounts of time to remove, and was quick to crawl back into whatever hole you'd dug the son of a bitch out of.

Even before Gael was actually awake the pain registered in every part of her body. Left arm hurt the most, a pulsing stabbing sort of pain. Felt as if it was wrenched out in the wrong way. Head came next, matching side with it. Not that they were alone. Everything felt like it hurt. Physical, all of it tied to her now present body. Gael doubted she'd even be able to stand from the way her legs screamed at her.

Fucking fuck. The first coherent thought formed in the back of her dully throbbing skull. All of that, all of that work and she was still here. Was it really so fucking hard to kill a single human? This was no example being made of, this was the slowest and most poorly handled execution in the whole damned universe.

The memory of the strike ran back, consciousness had been stolen for a moment. Replaced by a blinding whiteness kind to the High Legislacerator's striking prods. But rather than the back of the neck it came everywhere. But the singular ringing demand had come back, don't bow. Don't ever bow until they break your legs. Never stop struggling until that final blow. That singular command which had held Gael for so long binding her to consciousness.

Rising was hard, moving harder. The human body wasn't meant for this, it was over. But until she was dead, it actually wasn't. It was no rational command that bound her, driving her forward past breaking points mental and physical. A beast that could devour the pernicious imp and all the weakness that infested her, that could disembowel the weariness and the yearning for an end.

A part of Gael wondered if she could hope to kill it, allow herself to just die finally. Humiliation be damned she was tired.

But she couldn't, worse she knew she couldn't. Grit her teeth at the thought.

Actually gritting her teeth was also painful, it felt as if some of her molars on the left side had been shattered. A cursory lick confirming that one or two were simply missing, a few broken. Behind the canines at least. Didn't feel like anything else was broken, missing or cracked. Still, it wasn't as if anyone saw the inside of her mouth. A gentle shift of the chin came, wasn't broken though her muscles still protested the motion.

A cautious readjustment, a groan she couldn't really hear properly accompanying it as Gael's back and legs shifted ever so slightly. Left flank felt so bruised that breathing hard would probably hurt, left arm just a non-presence with its constant pulsing at least continuous. Probably so fucking mangled that it was useless. Right arm at least was functioning, moving it gently no pain came. Ache as her shoulder did that much was tolerable. Carefully Gael shifted again.

Hand prodding herself she noted her unusual shift, soft bedding with something hard beneath. Her probing revealed she was wearing clothes not her own. A small noise of indignation, irrepressible as pain. They'd taken her guns, her shirt and now her fucking pants. Feet were bare, thieving horns hadn't even left her with her own socks. She was clothed her at least, and her top was actually covered this time. Touch revealed it a loose fitting shirt and skirt, odd. Soft. More tolerable than expected.

Kept feeling, nudging her legs ever so slightly as she tried to work out the damage. Left Leg was broken for sure, somewhere up in the thigh. Either that or every fucking muscle was ripped in half from the way it sung. Right was at least functional, even if it felt like she'd stuck it in a moving washing machine. Nothing at the hips, something positive anyways.

Gael consciously whimpered for the first time in years when her hand reached her left shoulder. Self-disgust overwhelmed both the pain and the simpering mewling that didn't belong in her. Gael bit down on her own lips as she forced herself to prod over the mangled limb.

It took a moment to realize her left arm was no longer attached to her body, even though the limb was still screaming at her. The Self-disgust only grew as she felt wetness on the fringes of her eyes. Half-formed curses came from her mouth as she attempted to drown out the mewling. Hand re-gripping the bandaged remnants of the shoulder disarticulation in an attempt to drown out the simpering growing inside. It only ended up bringing the tears faster.

The seeping and the cause of the seeping feeding the overwhelming shame. Only thing she'd had going for her was the physical. It should have been enough. Should have been fucking enough at the bridge though, her prodding jabs enough to get that glass mouthed Legis to cut her down. Should have been enough to get her squashed under the Indigo's foot the first time.

But it wasn't, Gael had been dragged on by her own beast and these fucking Horns. The blow should have been enough, she'd hit hard enough that her fucking torso should have popped like a balloon. But she was just fucking mangled now, likely not even able to stand to meet the end. Denied. By that miserable indigo blooded hrafnasueltir. What were the fucking odds she'd ever actually end up at the back end of a raven starver?

The memory only deepened the simpering, hand finally failing as Gael's core stumbled. Brought the remaining hand to her face, trying to cover herself.

He'd broken her. He'd won. He'd evidently wanted to rip out Gael's fucking intestines and use them to jump rope. All he had to do was make one last hit. One more and they'd both get what they wanted. But no- he'd stumbled falling back. Eyes- his eyes had paled back to yellow. Had he lost his nerve? No, the demented murderous fucking bastard had painted his own throne with the blood of what must have been dozens. Struck down his own subordinates. It just- didn't process, feeding the misery and the whimpering and the tears that came no matter how hard she rubbed her eyes.

Bullshit, all of it. Whatever the fucking reason had been for the Grand Highblood suddenly abandoning the fight, he'd left her behind to bleed out in the dust. But it seemed she'd even been denied that too. Hands clawed had stolen her. Sight unseeing of everything except the shadow that had loomed overhead. The unsettling creep of something coming and- latching itself onto her neck carrying a sob to her front. Why hadn't it killed her? She had no answers for any of this, and it made it all the more- everything. Frustrating, exhausting, infuriating. Humiliating most of all.

Gael finally broke, without even a remote understanding or a quick end in sight now. Lost as her sobs grew, the pain of which forced her to shift, onto her right side and crumple up as she vainly attempted to stifle the shaking haggard breathing. It was pointless, the weight of her own situation cracking the normal resistance to showing any interior. No one needed the emotional baggage of a corpse.

"Dolent midge." The voice was dimmed, not by anything external but by her own ear. Left ear wasn't picking up anything.

That only deepened the miserable struggle, worthless simpering Gael couldn't control, mangled by the struggle to contain it. It was bad enough this was happening but having someone witness this state was worse. The only consolation was the voice's clicking. Alien.

Any consolation was snagged when she felt a clawed hand brush through her thoroughly diminished hair. "Hush, it's alright dear." The softness reminded Gael of the jade eyed horn enslaved in the Grand Highblood's ship. The speaker chittering softly as Gael's will eroded down to nothing.

It fucking knew what it was doing. It didn't withdraw, no matter how much Gael wanted it to just leave her alone. Tears fading with the fight to contain the tears, leaving her empty. But even then the xeno didn't leave, its clawed hands remained in her hair. Felt like her hair been chopped. Nothing to do about it now.

Gael finally opened her eyes, if for nothing else then to aquatint herself with the one that was with her. It was impossible not to look at her left shoulder though. "Fuck." Bandages covering what little stump remained. Even now she felt it, like it hadn't been lost but was still there troubling her.

"I'm sorry, but there was nothing I could do to save that." The soft undulating words made Gael look up at the Jade sitting only a short ways from her head.

Jade eyes drew her gaze before anything else, soft things for an apex predator. Her sclera a brighter shade of yellow than anything Gael had seen thus far, to the point where they almost gleamed in the dim light. The yellow highlighting the jade core of vertical slit pupils. Her skin was dark, darker than the High Legislacerator's had been but not on par with the onyx black Grand Highblood. Her hair was tufted and styled with unusual care, accentuating her long red horns. One was plain and sharp, the other with a sharp splinter that looked like a harpoon. Her ears were wide, pierced with small pieces of what looked to be silver. A pair of sharp and unpleasantly familiar fangs jutted out from the Jade's upper jaw.

The oddity of Gael's unwanted savior only grew as she noted the ornamented collar wrapped around her neck. It looked to be silver, decorated with embellished carvings and black stone, marked by a symbol resting in the dead center, ken to a cerulean Scorpio. Her clothes were black and jade in colour. Shirt wide collared enough to note her bare scarred shoulders, sleeves rolled up above her elbows. Legs guarded by a pleated long skirt. Her feet were out, unclothed by boots or shoes. Odd things with the 'toes' closer than human feet, more kind to a tiger's paw but still situated for plantigrate walking. Like her fingers, her toes were clawed, albeit cut down significantly. To allow shoes?

By normal human standards she wouldn't exactly be beautiful, her face bore marks of age. To say nothing of the actual 'xenoness' to her, eyes and ears evolved for a darker environment. Teeth evidently meant for tearing meat. Striking would be closer, but even that falling short for a sudden awareness found under the alien's gaze. A little self-disgust returned, not enough to be a craven invert but one that reached beyond racial boundaries.

Gael shuttered the unwanted thought as the alien's clicking came, lethargic. "I was worried you wouldn't wake up. I didn't want to deal with intravenous supplementation and-" She shook her head, clicking even slower. "And you don't have any idea what I'm saying do you? Forgive me, I imagine this must be tiring."

She stared as the alien looked away, look growing weary as her brow fell. The level of shared facial emotional tells between humans and horns was a bit disconcerting. But at least it made understanding their intent a bit easier.

"I suppose we need to start somewhere. Unfortunately." The Jade shifted a little, hands hanging idle for a moment. Gael recoiled on instinct as the Jade eyed horn moved to grip her remaining arm. The Jade trilled at the motion. Withdrawing her hands chittering. After a moment she gestured. Planked hand raising to a vertical position. She wanted Gael to sit up or stand. Standing was impossible, sitting up a difficult task now.

Still, wasn't like there was anything else to do. Maybe if she was lucky her broken fucking femur would finally cut something important.

"Indigo Douchcanoe." Gael hissed hoarsely as she pulled. The loss of her spare hand making the process arduous. Struggling a bit to balance herself.

All the while the Jade stared on, hands still wide. The alien it seemed near ready to grab Gael, willing or not, in the event she failed.

Gael managed to right herself, back leaning against the wall as she looked at the hovering alien. The Jade leaned back. Purring. There was no way the soft rumbling noise could be anything but purring.

Her look softened a little. "Not riven to the point of immobility. That's good but-" The Jade chittered to herself as she shuffled over, hands prodding at Gael who couldn't escape if she wanted. There was a deft purposefulness in the way the horned woman moved, checking for injuries perhaps. When her clawed finger graced the broken thigh Gael couldn't contain an involuntary inhale. "Recreant void. I was worried that something was amiss with that leg. But-" The Jade's voice broke as her hand came to her mouth.

She withdrew for a moment, looking Gael over.

The Jade gently poked a clawed nail against her chest. Two taps. "Anci-" The Jade's snarl was enough to make Gael flinch. Couldn't tell why she'd done that, the noise seeming involuntary and out of nowhere.

The alien closed her eyes, breathing slow for a moment before it repeated the gesture. "Dolorosa." She then pointed her finger at Gael's chest, tapping twice.

Name, had to be a name. It seemed she wanted Gael's. Seemed. Had to hope that was what she meant.

She repeated the taps herself. "Gael." Keep it short, keep it simple.

"Ktg... Tkg..." The Jade slowly worked her way through Gael's moniker. It took her a moment to stop the clicking that came naturally in her words. "Xael?" Two taps on Gael's chest.

Eh. Close enough. She was trying. Gael nodded, repeating the taps and her name again.

The Jade- Dolorosa if that was her name nodded, gesturing again. This time Gael couldn't understand what it conveyed, hand traipsing about upwards in a scooping motion. "Dear, Xael, don't panic but I need to get that leg dealt with. For both of our sakes." The Jade rose to her feet, well over ten feet tall with horns adding even greater stature. Before Gael could voice protests the Jade leaned down and scooped her up.

The xeno was careful in its grabbing, but even still Gael's wretched body shrieked at the forceful motion. She herself did not, Gael did not make any noise, little comfort as it was she dug her remaining functional teeth into her lips. Her hand gripped into the Jade's shirt as the alien re-adjusted herself.

Dolorosa seemed to be mindful of the human she carried, shifting Gael slightly to keep her ruptured leg in a position it wouldn't cause the human grief. Gael's self-disgust only grew as she realized the alien only needed one arm to hold her. The Jade was cradling and even had she been in a position to fight Gael couldn't. If the Legislacerator could beat her to death this one could probably rip her in two. But rather than something so pleasant she was carried about like a baby goat. Gael wondered if she should hate the Jade for that.

No.

Gael couldn't muster up the will for hatred. Couldn't even muster up resent for the Dolorosa that invigorated and sustained her misery. It was just another one with chains around her neck if the collar was anything to go by.

Her hand returned briefly to her own collar as the Jade smoothly carried her out of the room she'd woken in. Dark, heavy and plain. The weight of it was familiar now. Gael managed a half-hearted snort as she noted the manacle still wrapped around her wrist, only a single pathetic link of chain remaining. The memory of the last and only blow against the clown Goliath coming on. It was something at least. A consolation prize for her mangled self.

Gael leaned back into the Jade's grasp, looking over her surroundings as she was carried to some unimaginable location. The dingy walkways and passing rooms of this place more kind to the underground of the arena in their filth and the numerous hurried horns that dwelled here. Many were marked by collars ken to Dolorosa's own, albeit less embellished. All of them warmer than green in eye colour, dressed in functional if ragged clothing. Gael noted scowls and unwelcome chittering, more aimed at the Jade than Gael herself. Social hierarchy, slaves. The very notion should be laughable and archaic.

Their destination turned out to be a room significantly cleaner than the rest of the ship she'd seen so far. Small, near empty aside from a singular padded bench like thing hung against the far wall. The flanking walls bearing counters covered with objects that looked to be wrought from living parts, though Gael could clearly see parallels to common medical equipment like hypodermic needles, scissors and a stethoscope. Albeit a Stethoscope that occasionally pulsed. Chitin metal compartments lined the walls above the counters.

There was only a single resident of the possible medical room, a red eyed horn with great ibexian horns that seemed too large for his head. Gael didn't even notice the horn from where he sat in the corner, until the Dolorosa gently sat her on the bench.

The rust made a noise like a bursting water hose when Gael looked up at him. "Oh merciful void that thing's actually alive?"

Dolorosa did not even look up at the other horn, hand pulling up Gael's face. Gentle enough Gael could find no will to resist or even protest as the Jade looked over her. "Are you certain you're a medicutioner Cuaril and not an overly confident Maggotitcher?"

The Rust hissed over whatever Dolorosa said. "Matron you brought in a half-dead alien last night. The thing was two scratches from culling."

"Medicutioner I can safely say she's survived and is currently awake as you can plainly see. Evidently she's not so close to the void as the whispers I heard suggested."

More hissing from the rust as Dolorosa clicked for Gael's attention. Extending a single clawed finger that she waved for a moment in front of Gael's face, opposite holding her chin. Checking for a concussion or something of the like perhaps? Funny, it seemed the only part of Gael that had escaped intact was her mind.

"That thing is the Avarayri isn't it?"

"She has been called that yes. She is a she, Medicutioner, petite as she is."

The rust eye seethed at the Jade's words, giving one last tooth barred look to Gael and then to the Jade before departing. "If that cullbait-xeno bites anyone and infects them with parasites you'll be dealing with it."

"I always deal with parasites you squeamish wretch." Dolorosa hissed as she walked away from Gael. Opening one of the overhead compartments, withdrawing a short flat piece of metal that seemed kind to a tongue depressor.

The alien returned, gesturing for Gael to open her mouth. Gael complied, the alien mercifully not prodding long as it chittered to itself. The alien depressor tasted faintly like shitty vodka, burning a little. "Fangs were going to be an issue I suppose. But we aren't in a position to do anything about that now." Gael grimaced and closed her mouth when Dolorosa finished examining her maw, walking off to deposit the xenos tongue prod into a jar of something. Taste of the alien disinfectant remaining as the Jade continued her examinations.

It seemed simply an in depth examination, mostly hands and eyes though occasionally basic tools were employed. Gael assumed that this was an irregularity, the Jade careful to avoid using something that could possibly damage her. It made recognizing alien parallels to human equipment possible at least. A thermometer made of wax-like glass took her temperature. A tuning fork wrought of unknown metal confirmed her left ear useless.

The jade left her left leg for last, Gael happy to ignore the broken limb. Dolorosa seemed concerned, out of duty, fear of punishment or possibly something kin to sympathy it was impossible to tell.

Dolorosa moved slow when it finally needed to be done, carefully pulling up Gael's skirt to examine her thigh. The skin near entirely covered in a black purple bruise that stretched over much of her side. The Jade's click's almost sounded like tsks as she withdrew what looked to be an orb of flesh attached to a small chitin metal box, a minute yellow-glass screen visible. Dolorosa ran the flesh part of the contraption along her leg, clicking only growing louder as Gael's hand clenched against her flank.

"Comminuted. Of course it would be comminuted." She hissed and withdrew the device, looking around the room for a moment before letting out an ailing trill. "Xael?"

The roughly spoken name drew Gael's eyes up to the jade's. She gave a small nod of understanding.

Another trill as the tall alien tapped the bench Gael sat on. "I need you to stay here for a moment. I'll be back as soon as I can." She tapped the bench one last time, head bowing low enough that Gael could make out the razor tipped teeth hidden behind her lips. Her breath smelled sweet, something like citrus. Gael nodded after a moment, likely the Jade was asking her to stay. It was not as if she could easily move about anyways.

The Matron returned the hopefully affirming gesture and rose to her full stature turning and making her way out of the xenos infirmary. Leaving Gael with a last look before shutting the door behind her.

If Gael could drag herself over a ways, she could likely find a blade or something sharp to kill herself with. She'd lost enough blood it wouldn't take much at all to finish the job.

Even without the incurable beast she lacked the energy for that. Oddly the thought of the Jade returning to her dead or near dead form made Gael queasy.

Gael's hand idly traced up to her neck, to a small bandage half hidden by her collar. For some reason the Jade blooded Dolorosa had sunken her teeth into Gael's throat. Not killing her, but dragging her back. For some reason the Jade had saved her. The question of why brought too many possibilities to even entertain in her current state.

Gael closed her eyes and waited in silence for Dolorosa. Stretching her remaining arm as she could. Right hand alone. Couldn't do much with one hand. Couldn't shoot a long gun, couldn't reload a gun proper, bathing if she ever ended up in a human bath could be an issue. Basic functionality would be difficult. If she lived that long.

Overtime, Gael reminded herself. Didn't matter if they left her with half a thigh she'd still need to squeeze every ounce out of it.

The Jade eye returned after only a few minutes, look remaining sullen and worried as she carried in a small carapace box, as well as a few chitin water bottles and a small bag. She set everything down on one of the counters, withdrawing a round white porous looking ball. About the size of a man's fist and marbled with dull orange veins. Dolorosa walked over and handed her the Chitin bottle and the ball. An experimental squeeze of the later revealed it to be even softer than it looked. Food.

The ball was unlike the protein ball's Gael had eaten in the Legislacerator's prison. The core was filled with some sort of meat, albeit a meat dark purple in colouration and heavily marbled with fat. Salty, extremely salty with the fungal like covering tasting much the same. The aftertaste was faintly bitter. But it tasted like something, and considering she'd last eaten in the Legis' cell she wasn't in a position to complain. Fungal-meat sphere thing passed fast, enough to satiate her for the moment.

She opened the alien water bottle with her canines and watched the Jade as she worked with whatever was inside the box. Occasionally she would look over at Gael. Faintly aware the furtive glances should be worrying.

Even had she been in a position to worry though, bloodloss would have stalled Gael. Not that it mattered, if she was going to put her down like a dog then there wasn't much to be done. That prospect wasn't terrible, honestly.

Dying at the hands of Dolorosa at this point would at least be smooth. Those fangs of hers could have opened Gael's neck like it was made of paper. But considering the troubling lengths she'd likely passed keeping Gael alive the prospect wasn't likely, maybe that was for the better. Attempting to struggle would only ire the amicable Jade.

Nervousness seeped into the Jade's body language when she finally approached, uneven steps, tenseness of the figure. In her hands she carried a capped tube, the same fleshy device she'd used last and a small black object, shaped like a garden hose nozzle and tipped with a rather sharp looking blade.

"I'm glad you've eaten, you're going to need to start building your strength back up." The tall alien clicked softly as she placed the items beside Gael, pulling away and returning with a cloth of rough white fabric. Dolorosa plucked the water out of her grip, setting it aside. "I'm afraid that we don't have time for normal healing. Even if we did the shattered core bones are- disconcerting." Clicking went on as she lifted Gael's skirt up again, pulling the black folds all the way up to her hip exposing Gael's thigh entirely.

Though the air was warm Gael shivered.

The alien either didn't notice or more likely ignored the shakes, picking up the fleshy testing device again running it over her battered thigh until she reached the spot where the pain sang the deepest. The Jade's free-hand reached over and grabbed the tube, popping off the cap to reveal it as what seemed to be a marker analogue. She traced a small circle around the flesh ball, withdrawing both tools and capping the marker. Dolorosa's fingers shook ever so slightly until she grabbed the black handled device.

Gael tensed, but the Jade did not push the small bladed tip into the marked circle, blade stopping above her skin. "Xael." Dolorosa whispered. Again drawing her face up. She was close enough now Gael could see small faint scars on her face, biting into her brow and cheeks faintly. Glass maybe, from a long time ago. Lips shifted downward, fangs pressing against her lower lip. "Dear I'm sorry but there is no other way I'm going to be able to keep you in one piece."

Her words were soft, Dolorosa close enough Gael could hear the creaking in the xenos woman's chest. Still no clue to what she said, but the tone said nothing good. Without another word the alien pushed Gael's head against her shoulder, free hand briefly grasping her leg and before Gael could even move the bladed tool pressed into the flesh of her thigh.

Had it not been for all the pains she'd endured and the blood-loss she'd have probably screamed outright.

She still screamed, only managing to keep her mouth shut as something sharp and burning dug its way into her leg. A living coiling worm that burrowed into her leg without pause. The Jade holding Gael in place so she couldn't writhe, Gael's hand gripped into the Jade's shoulder. It only lasted a few moments, but it was the worst thing she'd felt since this bondage started. Something burned in the core of her thigh, entire leg vibrating until finally the burning worming thing withdrew itself.

Pain tears were better than misery tears. Gael managed to kill the scream before it became a whimper, hand wiping her eyes as her body shook. Again thankful for a general lack of incontinence in moments like these.

"There, it's over midge." The Jade hissed as she pulled away, setting the blood tinged boring tool aside. There was no hole like Gael expected, instead a small slash no wider than a penny that seeped blood before Dolorosa wiped away the crimson. Gael looking up at the ceiling as the jade leaned down with what could only be needle and thread. "You'll be able to stand soon. Just stay with me." With the pain of the- whatever that had been the stitching felt like nothing, the alien's hold tight enough to keep her problem leg from shaking.

The rest of her did, try as Gael might to stop it. Exhaustion at least did away with the worst of self-disgust. Gael able to do little but be molded by the Jade as she bandaged her thigh. A tight binding affixed afterwords.

Bone treatment, had to be bone treatment. Must have been something serious to warrant that. Or maybe all the horn anesthesia was arsenic and the Jade still needed her alive.

Didn't matter now that it was done, the pain fortunately fading fast. When Dolorosa finished returning the surgical tools she returned. Sitting down beside Gael on her functioning flank. Movements slower, relaxed hopefully. A small smile on her face even though her brow remained creased. "Here."

Gael dimly took the chitin bottle from the Jade. Even as she drank the Jade didn't look away, clawed hand falling to Gael's head. Not in a pressing way, or one to move her. Dolorosa's hand just rested there as Gael slowly finished off the water bottle. Occasionally running her fingers through Gael’s hair.

She had no energy to protest both physically and mentally. The future was blank, peace replaced by whatever Gael could scrape together until her snatcher's handler revealed themselves. No anxiety but no peace either. Nothing, not even the energy to do anything but lean against the Jade alien, whose hand carefully fell to the nape of her shoulder. Mindful of the stump. At least the phantom pain was gone, banished by time or by the much closer pain of- whatever had just happened.

The alien was purring again, deeper and softer. Exhaustion and an unusual ease drew her eyes shut. "I'm here for you child." For a moment it felt like sleep could claim her. Gael was able to kill all the swirling whys and possibilities. Fatigue dampening all the pain, pulsing still as it did.

Then the door opened.

~~{†}~~

All of the labours Mindfang had undergone, plotting, subterfuge and guile had been rendered worthless as the Avarayri fractured under the Grand Highblood's club.

Despite the Avarayri's tiny form she had nerves the likes of which the Marquise had seen only a few times in her seasoned sweeps. The xeno anticipated every swing, fearless of culling by the Grand Highblood. Fearless to the point of stupidity, trolls like her didn't last long. For good reason.

Only in the heat of the ritual strife did the Marquise realize her sudden lack of control. The Grand Highblood's rage had grown so terrible she could no longer reach into his mind, the shrieking high laughter of his mirthful Messiahs pushing the Cerulean out. Even more worrying was the human's virtual non-presence of mind. It was there certainly, but there was nothing for Mindfang to grab upon. No wall to hold her out but instead its mindscape was flat and unassailable.

She could only watch as her Avarayri was culled by the Grand Highblood.

The black fury in Mindfangs gut and groin burned when Dual-Scar began roaring with laughter, the crowd jeering as HER property coloured the arena. For the first time in several sweeps Mindfang felt the urge to shove the sea-blood to the floor and try her very hardest to asphyxiate him on the end of her fucking bulge.

She may have been the only troll in the whole empire, barring outright heretics whose blood-pusher leapt when the Avarayri rose. Still Mindfang could not grab anything, the howling alien advancing without regard for itself, seeking the void. The Grand Highblood had proven more pliant.

Shock at something or other sculpted quickly in Mindfang's hold. Shock twisted into panic and disgust, shifting the normally shrilly laughing voices in the Indigo's head to revile the alien. All things considered it was almost deplorably easy turning the indigo in on himself. Belief he had ingested sacrilegious blood already in his thoughts, exacerbated by Mindfang to the point of mania. Perceived sins turned into lashes wielded by the manic laughter in his skull. He'd turned absconding, Mindfang herself springing into motion, leaving a baffled Knyaz and a terribly indignant supreme admiral behind her.

The priests as expected went raving mad. The ground technically sanctified for bloodshed meant none needed to hold back, allowing the Gamblignant free reign to direct them on themselves. Her pet Ancillae returned back only a short while before she found a priest who technically was in a position to sell of the Avarayri.

It was no secret most priests had no idea over the antiquarian laws they were bound too. Quick words and the mindgrip folded the Rhapsodist Cogitate down like a house of cards.

She'd sent her pet off, no one else would be willing or trusted to save the Avarayri. As fortuitous as it was that the alien's crash landing had marked it with such magnificent heresy it was likely half the empire would consider the alien sacrosanct now. In that regard her luck was eightfold, Mindfang's Ancillae cared little for such things.

Waiting had proved to be the most frustrating part, by the time her Dolorosa returned Mindfang had been near ready to go after the Jade herself. They'd left immediately, leaving the now rioting arena behind, making their way to the Desolation of Flesh's docking yards. The crowds of the living ship both residential and visiting flushed with a panic that had filled the arena. On return to the Impudent Arachnid Mindfang had sent her Ancillae off to attend to her newest purchase. The human couldn't be allowed to die, not now.

Their departure had come quiet and fast. Rejoining the Gamblignant formation a ways out of the planet’s orbit had come without incident. Word eventually being sent up from the slave quarters that the Avarayri probably wouldn't perish. Most were nervous about it, xenos carried a well-deserved reputation for weakness.

But this one had proved itself different. Mindfang accepted the report without question, the Gamblignant Marquise sending orders off to the other ship captains and petty marcher-lords before she retired for the morning. Already musing how to mold her little purchase into something useful.

Prestige and ire-bringing aside the Avarayri was quite dangerous, its crippled state even taken into account. Of course such a state could be undone with a few visits to an expatriate blue-blood that still owed a her a few favours.

Perhaps she could be made even more dangerous. The humans excelled in ranged warfare on or above highblood ability, properly restored and equipped with human weaponry she would be terrifying to deal with in large ship raids. A metal clawed arm to back her handed blows could have been enough to blind the Grand Highblood. Oh yes, that could be very useful.

Mindfang's sleep had been peaceful and pleasant. Dreaming of choking the once orphaner in a puddle of his own urine clashing with a crimson shadow.

Dusk had brought even more pleasant surprises, the translator module arriving early in the night, coupled with word that more free-horn captains had come to offer the Marquise the roll as 'First-Among-Equals'. Her fleet swelling and the rest of the empire was flailing about. Diminishing with every hour as the starved fleet admirals turned on each other.

With a little luck she might be able to have both that chastening little Legislacerator's head on her wall and Dual-Scar under her boot before the sweep was up. It seemed luck just kept rolling Mindfang's way.

The irony of the translation module highlighted it, normally only space-faring empires received translation systems, to keep track of their fleets and worlds as the relentless imperial warmachine tore through them. Humans having only dipped their hooves in the void hadn't received such treatments at first.

This quickly proved to be a massive mistake, leaving the already out of depth foot armies overwhelmed by the natives who had all the terrain benefits crisped down, the purifiers with none. Mindfang herself coming in and collecting the fruits of the Lygtagtii mistakes. Only a few strings needed to be pulled to get one of the ground translators, loaded with the dozens of human languages that had been deciphered.

The Marquise did not have to wait long in order to test out the functionality of her new toys, gloamfast ending with the arrival of her slave’s medicutioner. Not that he was much of a medicutioner, he'd found his way into Gamblignant service having been dismissed in humiliation from the navy. Something about gastral worms.

Harried and nervous he'd informed Mindfang and her hands about the wakening of both her Ancillae and her soon to be Janiseri. An unexpected but not unpleasant surprise, considering the amount of blood the creature had lost. Evidently the alien was lucid enough she'd had unnerved the mediocre medic.

Finishing what little scrambled Ova remained on her plate, Domeadig and Herakles were left behind as Mindfang went off to collect her translator. A small petty earpiece with a microphone that wrapped under her cheek, coloured Cerulean and marked with her symbol in shined onyx. What was the point of aesthetics if a troll didn't make them the standard?

The Marquise walked alone down to the slave quarters, not needing an escort. She wasn't the sort of troll to leave her slaves half-broken in. Their thoughts were foul, nervous and chittering high. Her Ancillae was either despised or avoided here, the stench of rumor suffusing the air as Mindfang walked. The human was an unknown, trolls of all castes did not take kindly to that. Fools, the unknown was a whip best learned and wielded.

Turning a corner the slave's surgical block came into view. A half-dozen slaves idly milling about the entrance, most silver-skinned. Young enough that they didn't have any true resent towards the Ancillae. Medicutioner Cuaril was there too, perhaps waiting for the human and the Jade blood to leave his work space. The slaves broke off at Mindfang's approach, even though they likely had no duties assigned to them they were properly fearful of their mistress.

"I trust you're here to get those two out of my hair?" Cuaril was unusually quiet, the stench of fear and unwashed perspiration sharp on him.

"I can see why you received so many commendations medicutioner." Mindfang snickered, a cruel warmth brought from the rust's discomfort. Normally this sort of irritation was only reserved for intestinal serpents.

Cuaril did not raise his voice. "I'll take humiliation to- whatever it is you bought." He turned and walked off fast as his legs could carry him. Normally she'd have most subordinates flayed for that kind of disrespect. But normally an actual trained medicutioner wasn't available for hire, disgraced or otherwise. If he did it again though, she'd make him lop of one of his own non-vital extremities. Maybe an ear.

Without any further issue, the Marquise entered the block. Sitting on the enucleationplank was both her cherished Ancillae and her new purchase. The Ancillae looked exhausted, brow low and creased. But Mindfang found her gaze drawn to the human, resting against the older Jade's side. It seemed the task of care had pushed the matron above the normal nattering, going as far to clothe the fragile looking thing.

The Avarayri was pale as a lusus, the loss of her arm making her appearance even leaner than it already was. But when she looked up the glare aimed at the Marquise was entirely lucid. Black as pitch.

That only made Mindfang smile wider.

At her approach the Ancillae rose nervously chittering, one hand remaining to the keep the halved alien from tipping. "Mistress-"

"Do not fret pet, I'm not here to cause overt harm." She clicked. She'd managed to break in most of the Jade's poor tendencies, aside from her tendency to dote on young slaves. "At least as long as it isn't due."

The Ancillae was pliant to her grip as always, needing little more than suggestion to walk to the side of the room. Leaving Mindfang looming above the Avarayri. The Marquise fiddled with her translator for a moment. The prescribed settings the most obviously apparent language from the human's capture region came slowly with a moment of dialing. While not the worst species in the universe linguistically, human languages were annoyingly numerous and varied.

A small humming came, finally awaiting input. Mindfang cleared her throat and addressed her purchase with as strict a tone as she could muster. "Avarayri, do you understand me?" Human words layered her own. The human raised an eyebrow, mouth opening a little. Shocked at superior Troll technology perhaps. "I will repeat myself once, do you understand me?"

The human opened its mouth blankly, a hiss coming before it spook. It's voice was small, its words strange, made with a paltry mouth of flat fangs in mind. "Je ne parle pas français. Anglais. Si vous le pouviez?" The translation was not as immediate as Mindfang wanted, the translator whirring in her ear for a moment.

Finally the words came through. "Regional Entanglement; I do not speak French. English. If you could."

The Marquise adjusted accordingly. She supposed she couldn't expect immediacy. "Is this more coherent for you Avarayri?"

The alien snorted, this time her meandering flat words meshing properly under their Imperial translations through the earpiece. "Coherent enough. Why am I not dead?"

Ooh, blunt. That could be twisted well if she could reorientate the alien entirely. "Partially because you're quite the little abominable survivor, partially because I wanted such an abominable little survivor in my chattel." The alien's look lowered to the point where Mindfang could no longer see her face, murmuring something low enough the translator didn't pick it up.

Before the Marquise could order her Janiseri to speak up she did just that. "So, that begs the question of who you are that holds my neck now?" The human looked up, undampened. The way a properly broken slave couldn't.

"You may address me as Mistress, Owner, or if you prefer my Marquise-Captain. Depending on your preference." Mindfang chuckled, though the human's look did not break. "But my proper title is Marquise Spinneret Mindfang my dear Avarayri."

"Pray tell me how you were responsible for the Grand Highblood denying me [Er] Walhalla [End-Er]?"

Perhaps it was not fearlessness or stupidity but a fatalism. That would be ideal, it was the easiest of the three to break in from the inside.

"You might say I have a way with thinking creatures, trolls and aliens alike. Observe." Already Mindfang's prongs were sunken into her Ancillae again, a snap of her fingers stilling the Jade sharper than death. The human growled as another snap of Cerulean painted claws undid the hold on the Jade, panting now that she was able to breathe again. "It was nothing for me to break into the Grand Highblood, just as it is nothing for me to break into you. Mind you I think that just a tad- undesirable."

"Explain why that is undesirable?" Though the translation was monotonous the human's voice lowered.

"Well, it should be obvious, your danger comes from your mind. You should by rights be little more than a stain on some planetside soldier’s boots. But you've killed a few hundred of my kind. Lowblood and Highblood alike. It would be such a waste to break your mind in, make you just another scuttling bug." The human's look did not change as the Marquise explained her interests. "You could be quite useful, a Janiseri without equal, and in that you would be rewarded."

"What could you possibly have that would reward me?" The Avarayri asked, though her gaze had already fallen on Mindfang's chromium plate arm.

Mindfang flexed the dully gleaming fingers for the staring Avarayri. Pulling back her sleeve to reveal the sleek bio-mechanical limb, Mindfang chuckled at the alien's hungry gaze. "Impressive no? I can see to it that your current deficient state is undone. I can bring you the human tools of war you are oh so proficient with. A Janiseri that is loyal is a slave only in name, with all respects and dues that would come from it. If you prove yourself in loyalty I could even see to it that you are rewarded justly."

The alien was silent. Gaze falling back to the floor.

"Well? I can promise more than you could ever wish to imagine, and all I ask is absolute obedience."

"Obedience?" The human made an odd soft noise. Looking up over to the tight faced Ancillae. "So you offer a new body, weapons and autonomy. So long as I swear absolute fealty to you? Humans have had positions like that, in the past." The Avarayri turned to face her, a flat toothed smile coming to her lips. "With all this said you are still thinking, and perhaps rightly so, that you'll just be able to rip into my mind if I refuse."

"Of course I can." The Marquise chuckled. "But I would prefer to do this smoothly. And I can certainly offer trolls to kill if that is your fancy, I've been wanting an executioner of my own for a while now."

"Such a weighty offer, only a fool would turn it down. But-" The human made a noise like laughter, coming from a withered fulk beast. "I'll have to ask a single thing of you, and make a request before I can accept."

The switch of tone made Mindfang pause. More curious than annoyed, the human evidently understood its state and who was in charge here.

"You understand that you are in no position to be making requests?"

"Of course I do. But your interest in compliance speaks you'll allow a small thing like this."

The human's beady brown eyes dug into Mindfang as she considered the proposition. Perhaps she wanted the Grand Highblood's horns, or the High Legislacerator's head? The notion made the Marquise snicker, what a deliciously ironic end to the diminutive wretch. "Alright, you've peaked my interest. Speak your question."

"Does your species possess a sphincter at the end of your gastrointestinal tract for the purposes of solid waste disposal?"

For a moment Mingfang had thought her translator was defective, but the sheer purposeful direction of the question shot down the thought. "Yes. What of it?"

The humans grin widened. "Then my request is such, oh grand Marquise-Captain. That you would fit your entire head, well up to and past the chin up into your gastrointestinal tract through that sphinctor. After that you'll have my obedience."

The Marquise was torn for the moment when she realized the Avarayri's meaning. On the one hand the Avarayri was completely unbroken by its stay in Legis company, something Mindfang herself could not say she herself had managed. On the other hand the little shit had blatantly disrespected her. That had to be treated in kind.

"I suppose if you insist." Mindfang hissed and forced her way into the human's mind.

At least that had been the Marquises intention. Reaching in to seize control of her remaining arm. What Mindfang wanted to do with the arm had been percolating about, perhaps simply to have the Avarayri slap herself about. Perhaps to seize the Avarayri's neck until she began to panic.

Enough to remind her who was in charge and consequences for disobedience. If more was needed she would content herself to patiently twist the little alien into her most loyal servant. A project that would be complete when every thought of the Avarayri was directed towards her. Of course as possibly damaging as it was she couldn't simply tolerate contempt from her chattel.

That had not happened.

Mindfang had been assailed by pain that gripped every sense she had, as if she was freezing and burning to death at the same time.

It felt as if she'd been thrown into space, dropped facing towards a star.

What little awareness she could scrape together through the blinding and shrieking that filled everything was small brown eyes.

Unmoved by this insanity.

But the Avarayri's gaze was not the only one the crawled under her skin, disrobing Mindfang of her skin and flesh.

Everything was bared here. Nothing made sense.

Oh.

So many eyes.

Towering in the abyss.

The physical floor greeting Mindfang's backside tore away the void without end or beginning. She smashed down ungracefully. "Mistress!" Dolorosa was on her in a moment, but the slow return of her senses did away any damage from the fall. Mindfang found herself panting like she hadn't in sweeps, beads of sweat trickling down her face, underneath her coat her shirt felt wet.

It had only been a second in the human’s mind. Fury filled the Marquise, shoving aside the Ancillae as she stood. Cracking clicks of anger filled Mindfang’s chest as she turned on the alien. The Avarayri sitting there unmoved by the display, though a steady stream of blood ran down from her nose now.

The moment she was close enough, the Marquise backhanded the wretched thing. Hard enough blood from its nose splattered her and the wall beside, toppling the pale alien. She could hear her overtly sensitive pet trill in panic, but it did nothing to abate her fury. She wrenched the alien up by its neck.

"What was that?!" Her words came close to an attack tone.

Still, the too soft laughing came again. The Avarayri was smiling, even as metal fingers tightened around her neck. "Mistress you're going to kill her!"

The Marquise did not look back, noting any response couldn't come with the strength of her choking grasp. Loosened her grasp, just enough to let the alien speak.

Even still the Avarayri snickered. "That's my function Marquise." The laughing of the human took an unsettling note. "I'll never be a dog."

The second slap was much harder than the first, hard enough the Avarayri bled from the corner of the mouth. "It seems we're going to have to do this the old fashioned way." Before the wretch could open her mouth Mindfang jabbed her fist into the Avarayri's grub-soft gut, keeling her over. The instinctive curl made it all the easier to yank the alien to the floor, falling face first to the ground with a dull thud.

“We didn’t have to do this but you forced my hand.” Mindfang's boot smashed down into the alien's head one last time, the alien wincing and shaking on the ground silent. A part of her wanted to spit on the alien, but Mindfang resisted the temptation as she turned on her panicked Ancillae. "Make sure she doesn't die pet."

Without another word she left her possessions behind, trying to sift through what exactly she had just purchased. The weight of an uncountable number of gazes following the Marquise as she stormed out. No matter how far she walked they remained. Watching. She’d need to break the Avarayri in fast.

Chapter Text

One of Evocator Ebonveil's psi-worms exploded in its tank, the shrieking burst of psionic energy casting bright green sparks all over the cockpit. Walling chitin shattering in burning chunks all over the panicked Rust. "Are you kidding me!?" Ebonveil barely heard her shout over the next strike of the Demoness. Brutal impossibly bright energy blasting its way through the back of the shuttle. Sounded like she was piloting half a cursed shuttle now the way the craft shuddered.

Ebonveil had been running, flying and fighting for nearly a full Imperial Night-Day cycle. The blaring multi-coloured hallucination tearing through half her fucking deployment ship like it was made of grubskin. Without warning, or discernible reason. The cat and mouse chase had claimed dozens before the Demoness nearly caught her. Ebonveil had managed to escape to a half-functioning orbital squad shuttle, taking off as her former ship ruptured in a fiery rainbow.

But still the Demoness followed. Blasting out of the burning wreck, crackling shots knocking out anything in her way to get at Ebonveil.

Ebonveil never placed much faith in legends, not unless she was digging around in the bones of said legends. But the Demoness was very much real, as much a Rust as she was and incensed with fury that burned across the entire colour spectrum. Ebonveil didn't really question why she was following her, but with a troll that could resist the vacuum of the void it didn't really matter. All she knew was that she didn't want to die, and that her weird sweaty fuck of a matesprite would be pissy if she died.

Faintly Ebonveil admonished herself, he wasn't so terrible seeing as she was thinking of him as she careened towards the alien planet's surface at-

"Cursed-piece-of-Shit!" The speed gauge was shattered. The rapidly expanding patches of once living city working greeting the panicked Rust. It was late day on this section of the planet, dull orange light tinting the cockpit as she hurtled downwards. Cursing Ebonveil wrought up what little psionic ability she had herself to supplement the shuttle's rapidly diminishing worm supply. Rather than slowing and let the Demoness finish her off, Ebonveil kept the ship going fast as possible while attempting to level her approach. When the atmosphere finally hit breathable levels, Ebonveil could hear the blare of an impossible roar behind.

Another psi-worm burst, shrieking as it died, further back but violently enough to compromise the cockpit's seal, air shrieking past blotting out anything else as oxygen was stolen from the cabin. Ebonveil had no time to curse as she warped a small psionic bubble to keep her head from popping. Outside the Rust could now make out alien roadworks and individual hives, the green fields rapidly fading as her approach leveled towards what must have once been a human population center. Hives running for clicks and clicks in all directions. The forced upward incline shook the shuttle as it fell apart. She was going to by flying a cockpit soon from the way the balance of the ship warped under the control wheel, lighter and lighter as more of the back was blown apart.

A missed crack of chromatic lightening passed, ripping apart alien roadway below. An indignant howl somehow reached Ebonveil’s ears as superheated shrapnel from below pocked the underside of the shuttle. Ebonveil couldn't be more than a few dozen yards above the surface when she finally stabilized.

It would be impossible to run forever. The still smoking remnants of a human city blew past the roadways providing a clear path for Ebonveil to shuttle down, Demoness still at her back. Another bolt, shattering a building just to her side, dust grey and brown temporarily clouting Ebonveil's view. With a snarl she pulled up hard enough she could feel her blood rush back, without the psionic helmet she'd have passed out. Leveling as fast as she could Ebonveil directed the shuttle down into another valley of burnt out alien buildings. No back camera, Ebonveil hissed as she turned about. Hoping for a moment that she'd shaken off the monster.

Hope was cowardice, as Darkleer said. From the blast of dust and smoke the blaring demoness emerged. Just as terrible as she'd been when she first arrived. A small form, shining out iridescent hateful light. A bolt of chromatic lightening filling the space where Ebonveil's shuttle had been seconds ago. The monstrous troll still howled. "Nyog'sothep!" Ebonveil cursed as she felt blood run down her nose. Couldn't hope to keep this up, had to hide.

Any thoughts of hiding were cut off as the Demoness finally punched a final hole in Ebonveil's dying shuttles. The remaining psi-worms popped like overly ripened grubs in an oven. The shuttle lurching hard to the side as the psionic propulsion seized. "Cursed-" Any attempts at piloting were abandoned, every last ounce of energy directed down towards keeping a small tight shield around the strapped in pilot. Curling into a ball just before the craft crashed through a human building. A silent curse was placed on her past self for grabbing a shuttle with a front window, as said front window shattered under the weight of impact. Treated Maggot-pane shards blew past, with dust and other debris from the alien building filling the cockpit.

A moment of odd inertia came as the shuttle passed through the fucking hive. Then falling fast again. Ebonveil bracing as what was left of her escape shuttle hit the planet's surface, shrieking coming as the void treated metal of the shuttle's underside met human asphalt roadway. The crashed shuttle skidded for a long horrible minute, Ebonveil wincing as burnt out human vehicles were smashed aside. One final hard smash came as the ship hit another alien building and finally the smoking shuttle stopped. Ebonveil unbuckled herself from the pilot's seat as her shield failed, wheezing from all the dust that filled the cockpit. Rust red streamed from her ears and nose, energy reserves were gone and her eyes were heavy. But she'd survived.

Not for long though, if the monster had her way. Ebonveil jumped out through the shuttle's once window, now a glorified skylight. Hissing as the burning heat of the ship's hull seeped into her boots. Legs carrying her running fast as she could, only taking a single wayward glance back.

The shuttle had blasted through a four story building of ashen grey and sand beige stone, her passage having cloven it down to two stories in the middle. Dust filled the air behind, but already the rainbow glow of her pursuer was shining through. Ebonveil turned ahead, everything she had left put into her charge forward.

The residential would have been pretty once, maybe. It was unlike an Imperial city dominated by towering communal hive-blocks, outskirts composed out of whatever scrap poor lowbloods could gather. Not built with psi-vehicles free of ground constraints either. Long streets flanked by three or four story block buildings of stone and glass. But its glory days were gone, with the majority of its inhabitants. Many of whom remained in the streets, Ebonveil charging over their bones and charred decomposing corpses. The buildings were burnt out, dampened by violence, weapons of both humans and trolls alike scarring the stone faces lining the streets. Long since emblazoned and charred vehicles filled the roadways and walkways, hampering her vein escape.

Ebonveil ran, ragged and dusty. Behind, the Demoness followed.

The Demoness no longer blasted about, no longer howled. She knew as well as Ebonveil did the evocator would run out of stamina eventually. Already she could feel herself running down near empty. She'd collapse soon. Couldn't give the fucking monster any satisfaction though.

Only too late did she realize her entrapment. The road ahead filled by the debris from the blown out buildings flanking the roadway, burnt out vehicles piled high, the largest a scorched proverbial shell-beast mounted on treads and blackened by Imperial torches. Cannon more fit for a ship than any land vehicle. The peeling off road just at the debris mountain's edge likewise filled with the remains of the slain alien hives. Burnt out vehicles stacked high with a deliberateness. The blockade just far enough away to give a measure of hope before one rounded the corner. Human bones and corpses numbered in the hundreds in the murderous cul-de-sac, culled likely by the same entrapment Ebonveil found herself in now.

Ebonveil wished she'd had her whip, panicked going on now terrified her rush towards one of the buildings sides ending when a misplaced hunk of wall tripped her up.

Scrambling through the rubble and fallen human remains, Ebonveil managed to stand and face her pursuer as she rounded the corner.

The flesh mad myth was as terrible as she'd been described. The Demoness was as tall as a highblood, towering over Ebonveil even had she not been hovering in the air. Her horns larger than Ebonveil's dark red, curling over her ears great twisting circles. Her skin was black as onyx, but without other marks of age. Hair braided into two long braids that trailed behind her feet. She wore nothing besides a shockingly bright lime green dress, but it was tattered now, chunks and pieces blown out of, staining it with rust. The Demoness's eyes glowed, shifting to all colours of the hemospectrum, more than the hemospectrum.

She looked absolutely furious. Ebonveil braced herself, last thoughts going to a weird sweaty creep and a drugged out wader as the Demoness raised a blinding white wand.

The wand did not come down, the Demoness turning as a terrible rumble came from behind her. Ebonveil look and realized the burnt out human war-machine was not defunct or empty. The monstrous cannon now aimed their way. The Demoness howled, blinding killing light filling the air. Ebonveil jerked down, hitting the ground hard. Hands covering her ears.

Even still the blast that came stole away all noise, so loud it hurt. A blast of light just as blinding as the Demoness's fire coming from behind. It felt like the whole planet shuddered under her.

The ringing in her ears thrummed as the heat behind faded. No noise, no culling pain. She didn't actually feel much anything besides the possibility of being deafened. Pity that would be. Darkleer could fix that. Probably fix that, it wasn't like he had much else to do.

Slowly she turned on her back, looking to where the Demoness had once hovered. The ground before her was scorched and pockmarked by shrapnel, the Demoness had withstood much, most of the human weapon's blast knocked aside. But not enough, the Demoness was still mortal it seemed.

She'd been tossed a ways back, hitting the debris pile. It was unknown what had killed her, most of her chest was burned black and shredded by shrapnel, pipes and metal puncturing her from the rubble. Faintly, the fire that burned around her faded, still eyes of hemochromatic brightness fading too. When the light finally died, Ebonveil noted rust eyes. The bright white thorns she had carried shattered with the death of the light, ash spreading in a soft wind.

Without the blinding light, crumpled as she was the Demoness looked small. Just an old dead rust. Disconcertingly she looked a bit like Ebonveil herself.

Faintly Ebonveil realized the human warmachine was still there, silent. She managed to get to her feet as a hatch on top of the steel shell-beast popped open, sending her toppling back in panic. From out of the vehicle emerged a single human.

She'd only heard reports and stories of the human aliens. They were small things that broke easily, compensating for their natural weaknesses with terrible weaponry. She'd heard all manner of things, never seeing one as her battle group had been held in reserve. She hadn't really expected what it- he? What he looked like. He was a tall lean thing to the point where he would look starved on a troll, pale skinned like a rainbow-drinker in the late alien daylight, almost shining a little. That was probably his perspiration though.

His face was hidden behind ruddy mass of curling red-brown hair that grew from his head and face, Ebonveil saw his white set green eyes wide. The whites of his soft fangs wrapped in a grin the only thing she could see through the mass of fur. He had no shirt, only a pair of shorts on, with dull black boots and a green helmet in his hand. "I TOLD YOU WE'D GET THE FUCKER TORG!"*

His shout was so loud that Ebonveil faintly heard it. Not that it did her any good as she managed to stand for the third cursed time. The human it seemed did not pay attention to her, more focused on the corpse of the Demoness. She watched as a second human emerged from the metal war-machine. "I hate you. Devil. Inbred shitting moron." He was entirely different from his fellow, his hair short, form low and muscled. His skin was shaded like russet blood but his hair was a platinum white. He wore heavier clothes, pants kind to an imperial soldiers if grey and seemingly covered in pockets, along with a plain grey smock and a brown beast-fur vest. His eyes were a sour near ice blue on white. "If it wasn't for the fact that you lead us out of Nantes, got us this fucking tiger and actually got this thing? I would fucking stab you."

Oddly neither was armed as they slowly disembarked their fighting vehicle, a closer look revealing most of the debris and scorch marks were tacked on. They didn't seem hostile, yet they'd blown their way through the Demoness's psionics and actually managed to kill her. Ebonveil braced as the taller hairy one helped the shorter tanned one to the ground. Approaching, the hairy one stood a head above Ebonveil, the shorter on eye level with her. The hairy one- waved. That had to be waving, wild waving without regard. At her. "Eh, Miss? Uh- fuck what did I say her name again?"

"Something like a stag- no a girl stag? Like it sounds like that in English a bit."

"You don't sound very happy Torg."

"You're a fucking horse cunt Vasara. That was the last PzGr-40/43 we had and we're down to six fucking general explosive rounds."

"Shut up you're scaring the Grey. Besides now we just need to roll out of Paris and let her do things in Dieppe." The hairy one stopped talking and turned Ebonveil. Waving again. "Sorry about that."

"I still hate you." The short one growled, anxiously looking about as the hairy one began sorting through its pockets.

It would probably be a good idea to cull these two, while she had the chance. Physically she'd be able to overpower both of them. They didn't have functional claws and their fangs were useless in a fight. But- everything had been thrown off the table when the Demoness had ripped the IV Mounting Equation into pieces. Ebonveil wouldn't even be surprised if they culled her on return for desertion. She tensed as the hairy alien finally withdrew his hand. He extended his open palm, holding an-

Imperial Translator. The small earpiece was stained with a little cobalt around the edges but that was a translation device. The hairy one offered it again, it's shade-maker smile creeping up. The intent of the gesture worryingly simple.

Well. Not like she had anything to lose. Besides her life.

Ebonveil swiped the device from the alien, examining it for a moment. Besides the blood it seemed perfectly intact, unaltered. Though the humans had evidently prodded about the tech she noted nothing of issue. It fit easily, shaking hand noting a chunk missing from her ear. Not time to worry about that.

A small click came as she turned the translator on, ears ringing still but she'd hear them. Somewhat. "Do you two understand what I'm saying?" Her voice was diminished, but she could hear herself at least.

The small human jerked back a step but his companion didn't. Worryingly jovial look turning even brighter. "Yes! I told you it would fucking work! [Er] Loviatar [End-er] is fucking good to us!"

"I fucking hate you so much." The smaller one hissed, turning back to the war machine. "Get your freak spiel done and over with, I'm waiting in the Tank."

Ebonveil watched him walk, the the tall one whistling through his dull teeth. "Alright then." He turned smiling and offered his hand to Ebonveil. "You guys do handshakes right?"

"Who are you and what do you want human?" Ebonveil took as step back as the human made a disconcerting blowing noise and withdrew his hand. The exasperated motion peaked the rust. "No, I get to ask the questions for a second I just-"

"Just got your ass chased by a Satan bitch who wanted to incinerate your ass. Yea, I got that part." The human shrugged as Ebonveil struggled to process where exactly these humans were coming from. Psionics would explain the general state of the invasion, but she'd never seen psionics like this. "Look, ease up a little I'm not your enemy, neither is the Mountain boy."

"Fuck you reindeer fucker!" Both looked over to the short human, attempting to struggle his way up the side of the war vehicle, unable to raise himself over the treads.

The hairy one laughed again. "Ignore him. That's [Er] Torg Solheim [End-Er]. We've been together since you horn looking greys showed up. I'm [Er] Vasara [End-Er]. As for what I want, to be honest I just want to go back home. But I can't really. Look, your name is M- Mji- Megido?"

The human fuddled his way through the name, but it was her name without a doubt. "How do you know that?" The worst of the unease was replaced by bafflement. The number of people that knew Ebonveil's genetic name could be counted on her hand.

"Eh, you could say I'm just a guy with big ears. Metaphorical ears. But the why isn't all that much important. See, Megido-"

"Just- call me Ebonveil." Void be cursed she'd worked to get a given name. She'd have it used in this insanity, bad blood curse the human and everything else. "If this is going to be a big thing than let's fucking go somewhere not exposed and not a cull pit alright?"

The human slapped his hands together. "Very well! I can work with that Ebonveil. Come on."

Ebonveil followed the human over to his vehicle, which his ally was still trying and failing to climb over. With little abandon the Vasara human grabbed his partner by the scruff of his vest and helped him scale the monstrous metal treads. "Give me some fucking warning next time!"

"Shut up and get in there, we need to roll." Vasara said as he himself climbed up, turning and offering Ebonveil a hand up. Balance was a little off, no reason to refuse. What a shame it would be to get all this way and just crack her facial plates on the side of a human warmachine. The human was stronger than expected, half lifting her up to the side. "Jeesh, you're almost as heavy as the mountain boy."

"Alien if you want to slap him I won't stop you." His partner hissed before descending into the machine. Moirails? It felt like it, the way Vasara shrugged off the insults of his ally and their unusual cohesion. He himself vanishing after a moment down into the hull.

If Ebonveil was going to flee, now would be the time. But she couldn't run now, the humans knew too much to just leave them. Ebonveil spared one last look to where the Demoness had fallen, before she shuffled over and descended into the monstrous war-machine. Careful to avoid bumping her horns on the rim of the hatch. The inside was more spacious than expected, but still tight. She dropped into the top section was where the cannon was operated. Only a few rounds for the massive weapon remained, though what was left was nothing to scoff at. Each round was the length of Ebonveil's arm. Empty shells were piled high. Descending a little deeper the humans were waiting. The under section of the body was less cramped, the metal mechanics of the war machine laid out to drive the thing, and re-position the cannon.

It looked as if the humans had been dwelling in here for a while, the ground was covered in garbage of what Ebonveil assumed housed human foodstuffs, many patchwork screens were laid about as the vehicle was more primitive than it seemed in its make. She could see all areas of the outside. Along with a few screens covered in unreadable human gibberish. Towards the front of the war machine were two sunken seats, all manner of screens were arranged in front of them, allowing the humans full visibility to pilot their alien armour. Already both were wearing their helmets again, Vasara turned when Ebonveil reached them. In his hands was what looked to be a pair of ear-covers, a microphone attached.

"Put these on, the tank's fucking loud." Ebonveil took the ear covers.

It took a moment of shifting to get the covers on, her curling horns and wide ears making the alien designed things a pain. When she finally managed the task however, the human's voices came through clearly, lightened by crinkling static.

"Sorry about that, we'd offer you a helmet but I don't think we have any to fit you. How are your ears by the way? Cannon blast didn't deafen you did it?" Vasara asked as his ally fiddled with the controls of the 'Tank.' A wide array of mechanical switches, levers and wheels that would make a noble mechanic salivate to examine, were it not Xenos engineering.

"Not all the way at least." Ebonveil said. "So- I don't suppose you'll tell me how you know my name?"

"That's all his fucking territory alien." Torg hissed as he pulled a heavy trigger, the roar of the engine coming dulled under the protective ear covers. Must have been deafening without them. "This fucker got us halfway across [Er] France [End-Er] into what might be the last working [Er] Königstiger panzer [End-Er] and got the fucking munitions for it. This thing's seventy fucking [Er] Years [End-Er] outdated! Fucking wouldn't be piloting it if it wasn't for the fact the transmissions are [Er] French [End-Er] Made!"

"What?" Ebonveil had no fucking idea what he was talking about. The number of human terms clashing with the roughly translated imperial making her already weary head spin.

"Ignore him, he's always grouchy. Been that way even more since we got to the City of Light." Vasara said as he shifted and stood, making his way around Ebonveil into the turret section of the Tank vehicle.

"Lights. City of Lights." Torg hissed. His partner said nothing as Königstiger lurched forward, the entire body of the warmachine rumbling. "Inbred Satan."

After a moment Vasara returned, handing Ebonveil a glass bottle of bright pink liquid and a brown box with human words scribbled all over it. He passed the same to his compatriot before he returned to his seat. His look fell on the rust who stared at the- foodstuffs? It smelled odd, but already her mouth watered. "Don't worry is good and simple. Won't give you the shits or anything."

"Bit of constipation if your shit track looks anything like ours though."

Her own growling gut betrayed Ebonveil, and after a moment or examination she tore open the small box, inside a large sealed square- thing. It looked like a grubsquare sandwich. Opening the bag and taking the confection she tested it. Softer and stronger smelling than a grubsquare. A cautionary bite revealed it housed a core of thick beast flesh, flavored with reddish sauce. Spicy, but not terribly so. After a moment of chewing it became apparent the confection actually tasted better than imperial rations. Any trepidation was gone by the second bite and she quickly scarfed the food down.

"See! Someone likes the fucking colonial rations!" Vasara laughed, his ally only giving a small grunt. "But I guess you want to know how we know who you are right?"

"That'd be nice." Ebonveil said and licked her finger for a little of the sauce that escaped the confection's breading.

"Alright." The hairy human paused and scratched his chin. "Do you want the toned down version or the truth?" The second's going to take a- it'll be very confusing."

"It isn't as if I'm going anywhere. Let's hear it." Vasara grimaced while Torg made a sound like a squashed grub.

"Alright- so I'm either insane and running on luck and conviction in my own insanity. Or. I'm part of a giant eldritch mental abomination that stretches across- a lot of living things. In that mind, I'm brood to some woman out east who I've never met who fucking sees all sorts of insane balls lopped off things. I'm basically a living tuner that sorts through that mess that this person who I've never met drags under. From that making every decision based on what I've sorted through. Including buying a ticket to this country, before your invasion began. Running halfway around across this country, entering this dead city to- well. Bail your ass out. Because- well. How do I put this?" The meandering rambling of the alien paused.

Ebonveil blinked slowly. "Yes, that sounds entirely insane." Somehow the universe was finding new and interesting ways to continue baffling her.

"Now you know how I feel." The Torg human hissed. "But for some reason he actually got to you. I thought he was filled with shit up until I saw you and that- whatever that was. Glowing giga-Satan thing."

"Yes, so we need you to go save a fish. Well- a fish lady alien who is going to get shot to death. Or else we're all completely fucked."

There was no way it could be anyone but- "Tiralx Zgaigk?" It was ludicrous. The constantly inebriated seadweller was scarcely tolerated by Darkleer.

But the Vasara clapped at the mention of the sea blood. "Yes! She's fucking important and I'm sorry I can't give you anything else but I know she is. That's where my information ends- maybe because I get shot on the way there. We need you to go fucking save her and- uh- what's the creepy fucker’s name?"

It was time to drop the word impossible from her vocabulary for the moment. The alien knew too much. "Darkleer."

Again the hairy human nodded. "Yea, him. I'm sorry I can't give you anything else but you need to get off and save those two because otherwise I think it all goes belly up. Uh- more belly up than it currently is."

There was a pause, the roar of the engines registering dully. Underneath the war machine crawled over the bones and debris of the human settlement. For the first time maybe she was anxious over the pair of highbloods. The way the human's words trailed left a nervousness. It was stupid, they were on the fringes of the fleet, the expiate cold bloods could look after themselves. But considering everything that had just happened if the human that knew things it shouldn't said... "So. I don't suppose you'll help with that?"

"It's not like we have anything better to do." Torg growled, the Panzer shuddering as it rolled over what felt like an enormous pile of debris. "I'm in the same fucking boat as you are alien. I don't know what the fuck is happening and I don't want ask. All I know is this fucking inbred somehow predicted the future. We better hope lightning strikes the same place twice."

"Honestly, this is the first time it's done anything like this." The shirtless alien said as he leaned back. "Mostly I just got information diarrhea and [Er] menstrual [End-Er] pains."

Ebonveil looked over the two humans for a moment. An idle thought passed that this might just be a particularly bad dream or a hallucination brought on by a blood-clot in her brain. That would actually explain all of this. But the unpleasant truth remained. She'd been saved by a pair of possibly insane aliens that wanted her to save her matesprite. Her big creepy matesprite. For reasons.

"What the fuck is happening?" She wasn't really asking the humans. More to the void and the universe in general.

"Welcome to the club alien. I've been asking the same thing I've been asking since you fuckers arrived."

Chapter Text

Literal slavery was surprisingly easy for Gael to grow accustomed to.

Perhaps it was the sheer bluntness of it, the Horned slavery was blatant in its structure. Slaves held no rights and functioned as property, forced to endure whatever abuses were thrown their way by the captain and crew. There was no preamble to it, no half hearted reasoning. The chained were chained and entirely helpless in that regard. Gael was chattel, at least for all the intents and purposes of the Marquise.

Shuttered deep within the ship's core with the other slaves. The quarters of the chained were communal for the most part, beside the Jade's unique accommodations most ate, slept and lived together in the cramped and filthy space. Little more than rooms of the perverse pod beddings, a singular wide dining hall, a room for medical necessities and a single bathroom analogue.

The ship that Gael found herself enchained within had what must have been over a hundred slaves, their purpose ranging wildly depending on blood colour. The rust eyed slaves seemed to generally be used for monotonous cleaning, labour that none of the crew cared or were unwilling to do. Browns and greens were trusted with higher but still 'unpleasant' labour, caring for the half-living ship and often returning to the slave quarters spattered in colours and juices. Yellows were the rarest of all, rarely being seen as the glowing horned aliens spent most of their time outside the slave quarters. Not that Gael was able to see much of it. The new collar that she had been fitted in was set to 'impair' any attempts to leave the slave quarters. An unpleasantly heavy thing of black metal shaped with that accursed Cerulean sigil marked in bright kyanite.

The Marquise's terming put the reprimand lightly, without the Jade dragging her back Gael would have been left spasming on the floor.

Dolorosa had been a constant in the few days Gael had spent as a slave. The alien when she was not busy with whatever it was she needed tended to hover over Gael. She was a conundrum, Jade blooded horns seemed a rarity, their function in the alien society largely unknown. Even dreams had revealed little.

Dreams. Gael dreaded sleeping again, for the first time in years. Though the mire had turned once again mercifully incoherent, the memory of white eyes remained. Being overwhelmed by things was a mercy compared to the chafing binding that had come to haunt her memory. Rest was rare, which was a good thing considering the length of alien days and nights. The cycle was likely styled to fit their homeworld, dragging on for hours longer than earth's own rotations. There was little to do most of the time but look over the function of the other slaves from afar. They glared back at her, but often skittered away at her approach. Nervous, fearful maybe. Disgusted perhaps.

The only one that remained beside her was the Jade. Dolorosa.

A part of Gael had come to despise her, wanted to embrace the abhorrence in full. She was the one who stopped Gael from bleeding out, and she never seemed to fucking leave her alone. Despite her proven capacity for gentleness, Dolorosa was incessant in her function. In spite of Gael's attempts to stay out of her room the alien was capable of literally picking her up and carrying her back. Whatever Dolorosa had done to her leg had fixed it, allowing her some mobility in short order. But she hung over Gael's head when she craved solidarity. The jade poked, the jade prodded. She filled Gael's head in a way that made the invert she'd spent years trying to ignore squirm under her skin.

Yet the human still couldn't hate, not in full, not with any effort. Her proddings seemed to be out of concern or something kind to it. Her purring dampened resentment, and though it disgusted Gael she found herself almost craving the presence of the Jade when she wasn't around, making the resent grow with it. Though the greater resent remained for her invert self. Self-disgust at least for the time being remained stronger than even the resent for the Marquise. Frailty did that.

Unable to live, unable to die, unable to understand anyone but the alien that held her in bondage. The Marquise had seen to her once again, being largely absent since their first encounter. The eight pupiled Cerulean was admittedly more willing to abuse physical methods on Gael, she had an entire torture chamber to herself because apparently that was socially permissible.

There was a consolation to Gael's current state at least, after everything that had happened there was little else the Marquise could do to her. Draw it out as she tried. What else could she do? Maim her a bit more? Eventually when the Cerulean realized that Gael wasn't shifting she'd simply left the collar on a low setting and left the room for a long while. Specifics weren't really possible without focus under the collar's bite. Time dragged on as Gael curled herself into a ball and tried to shift the metal to no avail. Waiting blank minded and trying not to move, it took away from the existing pain and drew her away from everything. Little more than a faintly spasming worm, finally being left alone at least.

The Marquise's annoyance had been palpable when she'd remained obstinate. Afterwords she'd booted Gael back to the slave quarters, promising to add more time next she came for her.

The words were largely ignored as Gael focused on making her way to the alien bathrooms without tipping and rebreaking her leg. Pathetic as the victory in passage was it was still a victory.

The alien showers were communal for slaves. The space wide and open without any sort of barriers or coverings. The red and black plating on the walls and flooring kind to tile. Albeit tile wrought from shell from from some alien shell of an unknown creature. The space had analogous sinks at the entrance, holes in the ground on the opposite side of the room that were only slightly more functional than the High Legislacerator's cells being sloped faintly. The back of the space was equipped with nearly two dozen showerheads, grates lining the edges of the floor around the shower area. There was no curtaining in sight, no privacy here at all. Gael couldn't tell if that was a cultural thing or something meant to dehumanize the slaves. Depersonize? Humiliate and degrade them, whatever their term for that was.

Gael limped her way to the shower area, the lights were dimmed as it was the alien's rest period. Night and day held little meaning here, the only advantage of the current hour was the emptiness of the space barring a single horn. Yellow eyed and naked. Her horns were three pairs of layered spines that pointed backwards behind her head, covered little by her short hair. Her skin was light grey, bits of yellow chitin sticking out of her flank, her eyes were glowing a soft yellow, being entirely pupiless. Gael did not look long, the usual disgust keeping her from it as she stripped herself of everything but the collar and the remaining manacle.

The black clothes and her boxers were laid down on the floor, bandages quickly undone and rolled up atop. A small glance paid to the stitches marking her stump. If it could be called such, the 'stump' was little more than a centimeter of bundled flesh remained. Unfortunately it was healing properly if slowly, the bruising and other marks of abuse fading beside. Faint twinges still came from the lost limb, try as Gael might to ignore them. She made her way to the back corner of the showering area, opposite to the yellow eyed Horn. The facet handle was up high enough Gael had to rise to the tips of her toes to reach it.

The sudden loss of balance came without warning, gravity vanishing for a moment. Promptly followed by the floor rushing up to meet her. She landed hard on her right flank, hand coming up to protect her head though everything else sang on impact. The delirium lasted only a second longer, vanishing and leaving her alone with pain. Any tears or simpering were stopped by her hand smacking her still bruised flank. A wince of pain was always preferable to weakness.

Rolling back up was a challenge now, motions still unconsciously made with wholesomeness in mind. The struggle paused by damp footsteps approaching. Gael managed to get to her knees when the yellow eyed horn stood overhead. She spared a small glance up at the alien, which stared down at her blankly. Water rolling down her naked frame. Almost feminine in form, but still alien. No nipples, or belly button. Her slit was blank and featureless without a button, roundings on her chest faint and without marking. Just a little bit under eight feet tall, plating and muscle under her skin shifting with her movements. The yellow eye chittered softly.

"Freaking cull-bait."

Before Gael could respond or stand the xeno walked around her, turning on the facet with a quick tug. She flinched at the spray. The water was cold, not enough to be particularly unpleasant, but more than enough to earn a shiver. The yellow eye walked off without preamble, returning to her own shower. Didn't question it, the alien said nothing else and considering the total and complete lack of communication Gael was content to leave it at that.

Bathing had come easier than expected with the unwholesomeness, barring the standard humiliating height of the shower's control valve. Hair was easy to wash through, and her left flank couldn't be washed much anyways with the stitches. It wasn't as if anyone cared for the few spots on her back she couldn't reach. Cold water had become the standard, rinsing Gael of the pain and stress sweat. Dirt from both the Marquises' entertainment and the floor coming off with it. When she was done she shifted, squatting down to let spray run down the right side of her body.

Cold as the water was, fatigue found her. Gael shifted down again to one knee. Blinking she cast one last glance to the yellow eyed horn. Busy washing her hair.

Gael closed her eyes. But without pain other things filled the blackness. Bridge covered in bodies. Legislacerator's grin. Roaring noise of the arena. Unable to get away from it. Singh, Sarah, fucking Ralph. Were they still alive? Was anyone from that damn escort left? It was pointless, entirely pointless to think on it. She could do nothing for anyone now. Futility was an old teacher, old as the strange remembrance. Gael wanted to finally embrace that, like the death of fear. Want was a cur really. A real fucking bastard that fed the beast.

The yellow's shower shut off abruptly, sparing Gael from the sordid recollection. Steps of damp bare feet coming her way a moment later. Gael looked up at the alien's second approach.

"Hey, cull-bait. You want that off?" The yellow-eye clicked and pointed a finger at the shower valve overhead. Gael rose as the clickin turned low, the xeno reaching over and turning off the shower with the same abruptness it had done with its own. "Freaking pity-bait." The alien chittered as it walked off. Wished she knew how to say thanks, or maybe the ability to say thanks. Gael imagined ripping off the Marquises ear with the translator, an impossibility but the thought earned a little smile.

The yellow-eye had already walked out of the bathroom by the time Gael reached her clothes and bandages. She didn't put her shirt back on, instead using the garment to towel herself off. Hair and the stitches mostly. She didn't need the shirt for the most part now, what felt like weeks of shirtlessness under the High Legislacerator and the entire spectacle of the Grand Highblood's confrontation had killed any issue from people seeing her topless. When she finished she slowly pulled up her boxers, the process of putting on her skirt now requiring Gael to lean her hip against the wall while she fastened it. Bandages were a bit harder, the wall and her armpit used to make up for the lost limb, but practice at least had made the process manageable.

When somewhat clothed, Gael walked out of the bathroom. No sign of the yellow-eye or any Horn about really. The lights dimmed for the horns were near total darkness. Another net-plus of the Legislacerator's captivity. Darkness was tolerable. Almost comforting even, the memory of Pyral remained. Her remaining hand was kept near to the smooth chitinous wall, tracing her way back as much as keeping her from tipping again. The sudden bouts of delirium and lightheadedness were random and prone to happening at the worst of times.

Gael's remaining working ear strained for noise, but there was nothing but the usual now. The organic hum of the ship's workings, the faint snores of slumbering horns and a distant set of footsteps. A crewman on patrol likely, or perhaps the yellow-eye. The steps faded as Gael reached Dolorosa's room. Door opened easily, and waiting inside was the Jade eye herself.

Eyes closed, sitting back down against the wall. Dressed in a skirt of Jade and a wide collared Cerulean coat that seemed entirely out of place for the tall alien that sat beside the makeshift bedding. Her breathing was soft. Gael managed some gentleness in closing the door behind her.

Still the alien woke from the noise, Gael turned back and already the tall xeno had perked up, hand covering her mouth as she yawned. An oddity, the horns yawned but it sounded like a wood bending at an odd angle, chest creaking loudly as it seemingly protested the action. The first time Dolorosa had yawned Gael had worried that the alien was near to attacking someone. The hand came away, the jade blinking dully as Gael approached. "One of these days I'm going to find you a towel dear." Her words creaked as she patted the cloth bedding on her left side. "Come here."

She processed Gael's partial deafness better than the human had, Gael resigned herself to sit down back against the wall. Her intact flank facing the Jade who looked over Gael for a moment. "Dolent midge. If you just complied with mistress you'd not have to suffer this." The jade chittered as a claw traced past one of the fresher bruises. Hand's idly fiddling with Gael's bandages for a moment. Satiated after a minute the Jade chirped, reaching inside of her dress pockets. Fumbling for something. Gael said nothing as she watched the Jade.

"Ah, here we are." A small square slate of coarse black material came, a small stick of white powdery chalk a moment later. A smile came to the Jade that Gael had never seen, warm if she'd been human. Even if she wasn't, the smile looked more fitting than the creased and line riddled grimace she usually wore. Gael wrapped her hand against her side to keep it from shaking as the alien spoke. "It isn't much of course, but I've done this before with nothing at all. This should speed up the process."

Taking the slate in one hand and the chalk stick in the other, Dolorosa wrote something out in an odd script. It reminded Gael of a few languages. Manchurian in its linear binding, albeit with horizontal lining rather than vertical. Arab in the flowing style of the script, but with a sharpness to it, markings along the bottom lining turning up starkly. A language of curling thorns. The Jade turned the slate to Gael, claw tapping on the individual characters as she sounded out the syllables. "Do. lo. ro. sa." Her name. She repeated her name slowly, staring down at Gael expectantly.

Gael's first attempt made her cringe up as the first character require sharp clicking she didn't think was humanly possible as it required a sharp deep click mingling with actual tone, the low end to the first three syllables was possible if harshly low in her throat. Enunciating came slowly, but Dolorosa didn't press, walking Gael through her name slowly. Maybe that should have infuriated Gael, all this and she felt like more of an idiot than when she'd actually been alive. But now it brought nothing, might have even brought a desire to try. Unexpected as the effort was, kindness had to be paid in turn.

"Rusa?" Gael gave up on the first half, but the back half of Dolorosa's name was at least somewhat manageable. Poor as the wording and clicking was the Jade still purred.

"Rosa dear. Ro. Sa."

"Rosa?" It was thick and sharp to speak the half-name, but that was enough to make the Jade horn chitter warmly.

"Rosa." The Jade said as she wiped her name from the slate with her hand. She offered the black plate to Gael. "Xael?"

"Piss." Gael took the slate first, resting it on her leg as she took the chalk with shacking fingers. The Jade stared as Gael readjusted her, trying to get into a position where she could rest the slate on her thigh. The unwanted shake in her hand slowing her enough to earn a grunt of frustration. Her first attempt at the letter 'G' looked more kind to a malformed circle than an English letter. She moved to wipe the letter and start again as the Jade chittered. One handedness made the motion even more awkward than the writing.

The constant man-handling at least left Gael somewhat prepared for Dolorosa's grasp. The Horn picking her up with little effort, seating Gael in her lap. Before she could turn to even look up at the alien the clawed hands reached down and plucked up the slate. Wiping away the hackled attempt at a 'G' and holding the slate even for Gael. "That should be a bit easier dear." The chittering right above didn't help as Gael again readjusted. The alien waited patiently as Gael wrote out her name.

"Gael." The human managed to spit out her name without choking on it. Only a single syllable, her moniker was easy at least. Dolorosa leaned forward a little, reading over the written name from above.

Her index claw tapped the slate. "Xael?"

Close enough. "Yea. Gael."

The names were just the beginning. Gael and Dolorosa moved onto numbers next, the aliens at least used a ten set number system that made things somewhat easy. Of course it was more in line with Roman numerals the way increments were added and some of the sharp scraping characters was beyond Gael's grasp at the moment. One couldn't be picky though.

Letters came next, the alien language used a thirty one character script with sharp punctuation, four characters lacking human equivalents entirely as they were entirely composed of clicks, one being an overly sharp trill that stung her ear. Dolorosa ran Gael through the entire script twice, writing it out for her. Afterwords the positions were again reversed, Dolorosa handing off the chalk allowing Gael to walk her through English characters.

Slow, the whole alphabet took too long to write out. Gael's traitorous hand actively seeming to shudder and tremble when it was most needed. But again, the Jade was patient. Allowing her all the time she needed to walk through her alphabet and quick to wipe away malformed attempts at letters. The worst letter being 'x' which needed to be redone three times. But eventually Gael reached the end, granting Dolorosa at least a cursory understanding of English characters. When they finished on Gael's alphabet Dolorosa took back the slate.

Words followed, slow as deciphering the intention of the words was difficult. It would have been impossible without the shared positive symbolism of nodding and the Jade's competence in sketching.

Yes and no, please and thanks. Ship, room, help. Slowly as the chalk diminished and time passed the words for both English and the horned tongue were traded back and forth. Allowing at least some communication, even if the majority of the horned language was impossible for Gael to pronounce, Dolorosa would at least understand some of what she said. They were down to a small nub of chalk when they stopped. The Jade's smile fading with a low clicking. From where Gael sat she could feel the creaking of her noise passing through her body.

For the first time there was a pause in the Jade's writing hand. Dolorosa drew out the symbol of the Marquise slow, drawing a line underneath. Below the line she wrote down a symbol kind to another zodiac mark, kind to a virgo. "Dolorosa." The Jade tapped her claw against the Virgo. A second tap to the symbol of the Marquise. The tapping finger came up, talon tracing up to the collar wrapped around Gael's neck. Down, tapping against her chest and then to the slate, underneath the line. She offered Gael what was left of the chalk.

Of course, the reality hung over, waiting for the reprieve to end.

The horns use of symbolism seemed to be a cultural thing. Gael took the chalk, the Jade above trilling softly.

The Triskelion came after a moment of thought, shaking hand leaving the three legged Celtic symbol a little rough around its ends. Close enough at least. Before the Jade could stop her, gael used the back of her hand to wipe away the line and the Marquises' Scorpio. Dolorosa hissed immediately. "By the bad blood you are utterly-" The sharp hissing was cut as the Jade pulled away the slate. Dolorosa forcefully extending a hand for the chalk. A pang of Guilt came as Gael relinquished the white nub, the alien's clicking sharpening as she hid the objects behind her pod.

"Surely you understand that she is going to start cutting pieces off you? Xael please."

Only the last word was understood, the word's skittering growing high. Nervous or anxious. Of course, it probably wasn't pleasant for the Jade's handiwork to be wasted by Gael's own obstinate beast. It made the weight in her throat grow. Shaking hand returned to be pressed at her side to keep the rebellious appendage from shaking in full.

"Sorry." Gael managed, leaning back onto the Jade who fidgeted.

It would be prudent to remove herself from Dolorosa's lap. Prudent to get some sleep as Gael had no idea how long she'd been up. Had no idea when exactly the Marquise would return to drag Gael back off to try and break her. But she couldn't really find it in herself to pursue prudence now though. She looked up to the Jade. Brow creased again, reduced to the same state. Who knew how long she'd been a slave? A full guilt came for the first time in a long time. "Rosa?"

Dolorosa's chittering came near to squeaking, a firm hand coming to rest on Gael's good shoulder. "Yes dear?"

"Thanks." What else could she say?

The Jade said nothing for a moment, free hand wrapping around Gael.

Her words came soft enough Gael could only barely hear them. "Just as intolerable."

Pretense of escape was abandoned, partly because Gael found she had no energy, partly because the thought of moving away stung. Her eyes closed after a while, a focus on the slow breathing of the Jade behind her keeping the meandering biting thoughts away. Gael couldn't tell when sleep claimed her.

Chapter Text

Sayrii Maryam woke to the stench of human blood in her nose. The human that had fallen asleep in her lap was gone.

Panic came immediately, there was no sign of Gael and the irony tinge of the blood was overpowering.

Dolorosa had once been ward to the most ridiculously stubborn creature in the entire universe. The brown eyed Avarayri was not level with Kadarn in that yet. But the accursed girl was trying. An entire barter-hive of slaves would beat each other to death for the opportunity to become a Janiseri.

Often that was how Janiseri came to the position, it was not an uncommon practice for a wealthy Highblood to purchase an entire barter-hive's surplus slaves. The survivor of the resulting battle would being taken as a retainer. But when given the chance the alien girl had not only refused but had gone as far as to enrage the Marquise. Dolorosa still did not know what exactly had happened when the Mistress had tried to reach into the Avarayri's mind, nor did she care to find out as the fallout was more pressing.

Mistress Mindfang had been incensed, and the Avarayri remained precariously near the void. Both needing attendance in different forms. Gael's first waking so early had felt near to a miracle in hindsight, the second perhaps a grievous misfortune. The Avarayri was trapped now. Even if she managed to kill whatever foolishness had infected her to refuse the Marquise's offer in the first place, the Cerulean would be unsatisfied. She had a reputation for such, one Dolorosa had been privy to personally. The Marquise would offer openly once, refusal meant unthinkable humiliation before one was finally allowed to submit.

But- it was apparent like humiliation and reputation meant nothing to the human. Dolorosa supposed Gael shared that much with Kadarn. Likely the block-headed girl had no idea the reputation that came with her. There was a bluntness to her motions, either not understanding the weight of what she went up against, or simply not caring. But that was were the similarities ended.

Where Kadarn could talk the matron's ears off for hours on end Gael was quiet to the point of being a non-presence. Where Kadarn was fiery and open Gael was restrained and direct. Warm iron to cold stone. Both cursed with that idiotic stubbornness that brought them into fights they could not win, bringing them over those fights to a place where they could stop but keeping them going still.

To say nothing of the memory of the arena. Her once ward's accursed mark hung over Gael like a shadow, the girl herself oblivious to it. But it was impossible for Dolorosa to ignore it.

The delirious and unnerving closeness was fortuitously culled in part by the human's odd mannerisms. When she'd been barely able to stand she'd attempted to just get up and walk out of the room in the middle of the day. She did not actively shy away from the other slaves who hissed and cursed but had proved largely cowardly when approached.

Gael ate what must have been entirely alien food without complaint. She'd gone without hesitation when Mindfang had come earlier. Almost moving mechanically sometimes, her interior was hidden. But it was there, a softness one wouldn't expect possible in a xenos killer. She stayed close to Dolorosa after the worst of her mistress's uses, or when she'd been forced to feed on a living crew-member. She certainly didn't know of such things, but Gael didn't need to. She obliged Dolorosa for things the stubborn creature would well have been able to refuse.

Last night had brought her so far and yet- even then she rejected the Marquise. Gael had to know what she was doing to herself. Dolorosa had gone to sleep holding her, trying to kill the pallid pity for the foolish girl entirely without success. Trying to think of something, anything to break the foolish girl of her contempt for chattel.

Now this. The abrupt absence was nauseating and the stench of Gael's blood impossibly heavy in the air. Surely something must have been wrong.

Worry drove Dolorosa to her feet and out the door in short order, only her long history of being collected keeping her from shouting out to the foolish midge. If Gael had gotten it in her head to attempt to leave the slave quarters again she could accidentally fry herself. If she tread the path of the wrong slave or worse a gamblignant patrol she could have her skull split. If she simply fell on the wrong angle she could leave herself near entirely helpless. A dozen 'ifs' drew a glowering to Dolorosa's mind as she scoured the halls. Forcefulness at least allowing her to ignore the potential causes of the smell.

The other slaves noted the stench of alien blood, nervousness in their steps and an unease in their eyes. Even without a Colour Eater's nose for blood the smell was faint but present in some of the hallways. Disconcerting in the heavy metallic tinge.

Gael was nowhere to be seen in the halls or the communal blocks, nor on the fringes of the doorways leading beyond the slave blocks. The jade's claws began to dig into her palms, the missing weight of Mindfang in the back of her mind leaving her uneasy. The Marquise wouldn't try to break her again so soon would she?

Turning a a corner Dolorosa almost ran into two other slaves. The first was one familiar, a petite Sakaliba Rust by the name of Juchen. A soft handed little rust that had been under Dolorosa's needle more than once. The other was unfamiliar though Dolorosa faintly recognized the yellow eyed low psion as an Auxilask.

Both looking on edge.

"Matron Ancillae?" Juchen chittered. "Is something wrong?"

It took effort to breath and answer, trained self-control beating down the worry. "To put it lightly. The Avarayri is missing and I worry she may be hurt."

"It's alien blood isn't it? That smell?" The low psion's clicking was soft, words surprisingly articulate considering the way some of the perpetually worn down psion's spoke. "I thought it was old channeling fluid at first."

Dolorosa nodded. "Yes, but it isn't usually this... heavy. Have either of you-"

"The xeno's in the expulsion chambers."

Another Sakaliba approached, taller than average for a Rust, not that that was anything to boast about, and lean to the point of looking malnourished. Ioueen was a ragged troll with a shaved head and pierced short horns. He stank of garbage and sweat near to the point he overpowered the smell of alien blood. Near.

He clicked as he looked over to the other lowbloods, fangs wrapped in a tight grimace. "It's been in there for a while and its saying- things. None of the other Sakaliba are going in there with that thing."

"Wow." The low psion snorted, even as Juchen herself tittered. "That alien is so short it can't even reach the shower valves proper. Is it really scary enough that the entire septic crew just saw off their horns and throw them off whenever it gets close?"

Ioueen's growl was at best half-hearted. Slaves, particular monotonous Sakaliba had little in the way of pride. "Hey, I heard what that thing can do, I don't want to get any closer than I have to." He tittered back as Dolorosa snarled. Walking quick towards the chamber, Juchen and the low psion in tow, Ioueen trailing behind a moment later.

The information did little to do away with worry, but at least it allowed Dolorosa a point to focus upon.

Dolorosa had missed the expulsion chamber and it's hallway on her first pass through the slave quarters, but on arriving noted a half-dozen trolls hanging around outside the doorway. Most of them were other Sakaliba, though an Olive Sakaqiba hung out in the back.

The matron paid them no mind, most skittering back away at Dolorosa's approach. The only difference between this being the standard treatment the Jade received was the stark lack of hissing. The Sakaqiba even whimpered.

Only a single held his ground at Dolorosa's approach, a taller brown blood with crossed knees. "Fucking get it out of there Ancillae. If I wait any longer I'm going to shit myself." The Sakaliba hissed as Dolorosa reached the door.

Peering inside the expulsion chamber the space seemed wide and empty. Silent aside from low monotonous hissing and a single running shower in the back corner. Gael sat knees up to her chest, leaning back against the wall half under the cold flow of water. Naked and hissing, clothes and rolled up bandages a few steps away. The girl seemed to be speaking to herself it seemed than any of the trolls huddling about near the doorway.

"Bloodloss, stress. Fucking should be enough. Should be. God damn it." The tone wasn't pain, Dolorosa had the misfortune of being familiar with such. But whatever it was it certainly wasn't a light tone. Dolorosa looked on as it grew apparent that Gael wasn't moving, thoughts of an accidental fall or some grievous malady at least partly dispelled. However the heavy smell of blood remained. Something was amiss.

"It’s still in there?" Ioueen's chittering took a whining tone. "Why isn't it leaving?"

"It's almost as if I never left the caverns." Dolorosa hissed after a moment before marching forward into the expulsion block. Followed a moment later by the Auxilask and Juchen. Ioueen's whining audible as he remained behind.

The Jade's dampened footsteps paused Gael's indecipherable grumbles. She didn't look up, burying her head in her knees as Dolorosa came close. Remaining arm wrapping around her legs tightly. Dolorosa did not notice anything physically amiss, barring existing injuries.

"Xael?" Though Dolorosa kept her voice soft, the girl shuddered faintly. She said nothing. Burying her head a little deeper into her knees. A pang of annoyance came with the retreat. How frustrating it was to be unable to call Gael by her name.

"Is she dying or something?" Juchen's question came without malice. In the sort of way an ignorant cave-junior spoke. Not that such was necessarily unexpected from an unlearned rust slave.

Dolorosa creaked in frustration. "I should hope not. I did not sew her back together so she could just bleed to death on me." The Jade rolled up her sleeves and with little pause turned off the water shower Gael.

"God all fucking mighty." Gael hissed. Still she remained passive, huddled into a ball.

Dolorosa leaned down, looking over the human. Again, nothing seemed wrong. She'd kept her stitches out of the water, no more bruises were visible than before. But if nothing was wrong Gael wouldn't be here, nor would there be any smell of blood.

She kept her words to what little they'd gone over. "Xael. Do you need help? Yes or no?"

"No. No help." Gael hissed after a moment.

The answer did not satisfy Dolorosa, looking over the girl carefully. After a moment the source of the metallic smell became apparent. Without the flow of water to rinse it away a small trickle of blood came tinted with small black dots, slipping down past the human’s feet towards the drain. Anatomically there were few options for the source. None of them good.

For once, Dolorosa was glad her stomach was full. The Jade dropped down, hand carefully coming to the human's manacled wrist. "Dear please. Something is wrong, I want to help. Or at least to get you out of here." She pulled the manacled limb off Gael's knees, finally getting the human to look up. Her tiny brown eyes were half lidded, she blinked for a moment.

"No. Look there's nothing you can do. No help." The girl mumbled what seemed to be the same answer. The matron hissed loud enough Xael recoiled, prompting an even louder hiss directed at herself as Dolorosa rose to her feet. The matron did not even consider the proposition leaving Gael here in this state. She turned to the doorway filled staring eyes.

"No one is stopping you bootless coxcombs from relieving yourselves!" None replied or even moved. Before Dolorosa could shout again though the bow legged brown-blood squawked, skittering his way into the room a moment later. Finally breaking the unspoken fear that possessed the labouring slaves.

The matron turned back to Gael just before the brown blood could reach the expulsion holes, Juchen and the psion approaching a little closer behind behind. Gael's head dropped the moment her eyes met Dolorosa's. Cheeks tinged with a flush as she grumbled.

"Juchen? Be a dear and bring me the Avarayri's clothes and bandages? She'll be leaving with me."

"Oh. Yes matron." The rust skittered back while Dolorosa knelt down again. The distant memory of a roaring fearless beast came as the Jade drew her hand under Gael's chin. Either the beast had been slain when her body was broken or no such bravado was directed at Dolorosa.

Her eyes shifted down until a soft purr brought them back up to Dolorosa's. She just seemed tired and miserable. Duress under Mindfang was enough, ignoring whatever alien affliction graced her. With a little purring she was able to bring Gael up to her feet, a cautionary glance confirming the source of the blood. While the bleeding had at least stopped the smell remained.

Juchen handed Dolorosa Gael's things and without hesitation the Jade redid her bandages and dressed her. Dolorosa keeping herself between the human and the staring eyes of the slaves. While the worst of their trepidation had been battered away there remained a nervousness to the stares directed at Gael.

Fear, though at the moment it hardly seemed deserved. The Avarayri could be defeated by a deep purr.

When she was dressed, Dolorosa took Gael's hand and led her out of the expulsion chambers. Panic was gone but a furtive worry remained. Blood from the front recess, on a troll it would likely be an infection or a sign of something more sinister. Considering the abuses Gael had received internal bleeding was entirely possible and there was nothing Dolorosa could do about it.

But Gael wasn't a troll, the lack of information on humans left an unpleasant worming under the Jade's skin. Did she mean Dolorosa couldn't help or that she didn't want her help? Was blood secretion normal for humans? They lacked hemo-tinge in the rest of their fluids. From what she had seen, at least.

The wave of worried thoughts that ran through Dolorosa's mind faded with a small hand squeezing hers.

"Hey Rosa?" Dolorosa looked down to see Gael looking up at her. "You mind if I grab something to eat?" A conscious poke at Gael's mouth reminded Dolorosa of the hour, likely the dusk rations had already been delivered.

Juchen recoiled at the roughly spoken back half of Dolorosa's given name. "Matron Ancillae is it- is it talking to you?"

Dolorosa relinquished Gael's hand, after all she wasn't a wiggler. "She's hardly a dull beast dear. With a little effort I should be able to teach her standard." Brown eyes came up again, was it familiarity or Dolorosa's perverse affliction that made them comforting? "Hm. I suppose it would be best to get something into you. She seems to be the only one here who doesn't complain about the Salis Orbs. Unless either of you need something?"

Juchen looked up at the psion who shifted stiffly, rising to her full height. "Actually yes." Though devoid of pupils, the Jade noted the faint shift of the psion's head. A look cast down at Gael. "I was just- wondering if the Avarayri's being moved to the general pods?"

Perhaps on a less harrowing evening the prospect would have almost been funny. The question tonight however just made Dolorosa weary of the psion's intentions. "If the trolls who regularly deal with anintrobites and literal sewage are unable to deal with her when she's unclothed and alone then by the bad blood how are they going to sleep around her?"

Juchen squeaked. "But you don't have an issue matron? She's-"

Dolorosa cut the rust off. "She's a midge that thinks herself a talon beast. It would take a great deal more to intimidate me."

"Ancillae." The psion clicked flatly. The brave facade crumbled when confronted by Dolorosa's glare. "Forgive us, we only worry for your health. If you or the Avarayri have need of anything, let me know."

Dolorosa allowed herself to soften a little with the psion's abatement. "Very well. But I believe the two of you have your own commands that you should worry over?"

"Yea." The low psion creaked, giving Gael one last look before turning and walking.

Juchen looked at her departing companion, trilling as she turned and bowed to the Jade. "Have a good night Matron."

"And you as well Juchen." With the parting words the rust took off skipping after the low psion. Leaving Dolorosa alone with the human beside her.

The matron cast one last look to the expulsion chamber. A familiar brown blood walking out with a sigh of relief, the curling horned creature going as far as to cast a small bow in Dolorosa's direction. She supposed that a frankly silly gratitude was preferable to the usual disdain.

Dolorosa looked down at Gael, a small click drawing her attention. "Come along then dear. The last thing I want out of you is malnutrition." She grave the human a small scratch on the head and started walking. Gael needed no further prompting and walked beside into the communal space.

A little paler in the face, a little slower in step. But nothing quite as serious as Dolorosa’s overactive imagination had dredged up.

The early debacle had left Dolorosa ignorant to the hour, and arriving in the gorging block it seemed the gloamfast rations had arrived long since arrived and been largely consumed. Only a few slaves, mostly olives and limes loitered about. Unneeded for the moment, content to wait for their duties in dully flickering light of the block. Even if a Sakaqiba's life tended to be short with the more dangerous work, none would complain for the small accommodations they were afforded.

Before Dolorosa could make her way to the battered box of rations, an unfortunately familiar olive approached. A thick woman that while not overly big was as wide as she was tall, a square block of muscle and inner plating that must have been waiting for any latecomers. There were no gamblignants around, and the olive was eager to capitalize on that.

"Ah, the jade Ancillae reveals herself along with the freak. Has the xeno caught ill or something?" The thick olive clicked warningly down at Gael. The human did not move at all however, earning a cursory hissing out of the aggressive troll. The olive turned back to Dolorosa, a long claw sharpened to tear through ship chromaworks poking the Jade dead in the center of the chest. "Just because the mistress whets herself on you that doesn't mean you get to go around without paying your dues-"

"Hey." Both Dolorosa and the olive hissed at the flat human word, though for entirely different reasons. The troll's discontent did little to pause the human however, who raised her hand up to extend a single center finger in the olive's direction. "Fuck off."

While Mindfang was quick to punish Dolorosa for blemishing herself or others it seemed like for a moment there was little to be done as the Olive loomed over Gael, hissing lowering dangerously while the human herself tensed. Gael's hand drawing down her side as Dolorosa tensed.

"What are you-" Before Dolorosa could move to act the olive blood shrieked and jumped back. Hands over her eyes. Gael's hand had moved faster than expected, flicking something into the Olive's face. "Grub-fucker!" The howl did little to dampen the worrying smile that had risen in the Avarayri, all too familiar to Dolorosa who took a step between herself and the Olive who had cleared her eyes.

The mid caste slave's hissing was venomous, but her lack of advance conspicuous. "You little-" Dolorosa did not look behind, but whatever Gael did made the olive blood flinch. The Avarayri's cackle brought green tinges of humiliation to the face of the Olive, who finally turned and walked out. Hissing curses at the pale skinned human, even as she turned the corner out of sight.

Magnificent, another potential threat.

Dolorosa sighed, turning to the still laughing alien. "Oh boy, I'm basically just a xenomorph." Dolorosa kept the smack soft and on an unbruised side of the girl's head. "Sorry Rosa."

"Don't antagonize them. They need no more ammunition against you." Even if Dolorosa couldn't get words through, stern tone at least allowed for some admonishment. To the matron's credit the Gael's head did sink. The recoil of the olive had been sharp, a thought came. "Xael. That wasn't- wasn't that?" Dolorosa hesitated.

The Jade shook her head and pointed down at the human's skirt.

Gael stared blankly for a moment. Her eyes jerked open and she coughed. "No oh fuck no. Just water." The human running her hand through her still damp hair, flicking a few drops to prove her point. Ah, likely it had just been water then. But the olive had not known that.

Dolorosa gave a look to the remaining green bloods, torn between nervous stares at Gael and eagerly chittering about how nice it was to see a certain Olive humiliated. With another sigh the Jade walked over to the box of rations, quickly picking out a paired set. The water seemed untampered with even if the bottling was somewhat dented. The remaining Salis Orbs though were small dirty things, the coating fungus near entirely bruised and dusted with brine. Not that Dolorosa could be picky, she was lucky this much was left.

She turned back to Gael who stood waiting on her, mumbling to herself. "Species probably doesn't have the blight of menstruation. I mean why would they? They don't do live birth. No nipples or fetal cord markings. Eggs or something?" The words came too fast to even be remotely decipherable, but likely they were not meant for Dolorosa.

Dolorosa tapped Gael on her good shoulder as she walked out. The human followed behind, muttering ceasing as she allowed the Jade to lead. The unusual and disconcerting start to the evening was at least made somewhat better by the absence of Mindfang.

She could feel the weight of her mistress banished, the psionic presence far enough away there was little worry of the mindgrip drawing Dolorosa anywhere. The absence was a twofold blessing. Dolorosa did not have to worry that her mistress would attempt to break Gael in again tonight.

The Jade's small block was the same as it always was. Yet, it didn't feel as cramped as it usually did. Whether it was Gael's company or Mindgang's mental absence, her block was not as chafing as it usually was. Dolorosa quietly handed off the larger of the Salis Orbs to Gael who took the food without comment. She sat down, staring up expectantly at Dolorosa. Shifting a little she put her food in her mouth and patted the space where Dolorosa had come to usually seat herself.

A part of the Jade reminded herself that nothing good would come from closeness. But it had become worryingly easy to roll over that cautionary voice. The voice was not a presence with physical engagement. Dolorosa seated herself, leaned down back against the wall, Gael digging into her food a moment later.

What to do tonight? The matron still needed to get her claws on more chalk, but the only time that would happen was over the walk between the slave quarters and Mindfang's private blocks. The Rust Medicutioner would likely be in the surgical block making any attempt to acquiesce a set of scissors an unpleasant proposition. It was not as if there was anything pressing Dolorosa herself needed. It was not as if the jade was a social creature or had any concerns that needed to be sated at the moment.

She spared a look down at Gael, the earlier malaise for the most part was gone. Even if the smell remained. The bandages could come off soon, head and thigh first, stump a while later. Dolorosa looked over her clothes, the black skirt and chemise were a tad dirtied from constant wear. But unstained by blood. When the human finally finished the Orb Dolorosa poked at her skirt.

Gael at least seemingly understanding the taps. "Menstruation." The word was odd and heavy, Gael eager to move away from the question picking up the water ration and tearing the top open with her teeth.

"Ah." Dolorosa clicked quietly. "I suppose I'll have to rouse up something later. If this is a regular occurrence." The human's relative return to normalcy implied this was perhaps a minor inconvenience. Alien biologies were often perverse, but the idea of bleeding from between the legs being a normal occurrence was just a tad horrific. Doubly so for Dolorosa who found the potential for Gael's misfortune to invoke hunger abhorrent. But it was not as if there was anything she could do about it.

Dolorosa watched the human forcibly drink down her water. After a moment she tore open her own water ration. Though normal food was unnecessary for the Jade, she still needed water. When Gael finished her own bottle Dolorosa offered her the leftover Orb.

"Here. It’s not as if I can actually eat these."

Gael stared for a moment. Of course, Dolorosa was hardly able to impress the nuances of her condition onto the alien. Fortunately, any notion of refusal was broken down by a faint growl of the human's stomach. "Alright. Two cakes." Gael said before biting into the salty rationing ball. The first taste breaking her to a voracious state of eating.

"Hm. At least your appetite isn't dampened." A smile came as she found herself simply watching the girl.

It was difficult not to compare her mannerisms to young trolls she'd once cared for. Where Kadarn was meticulous and Libaax had been a ravenous eater the human ate quietly and quickly. Strange to watch the initial awkwardness fade into resumed pattern. The closest Dolorosa could place it to was the time Kadarn had broken his left arm's core bone in his late seventh sweep. He'd spent almost a whole perigee with his arm in a sling, somehow becoming even more vehement and indignant. The only advantage was his (temporary) willingness to be somewhat less picky. But as she finished more of Libaax shone through. Gael licked for any salt that had been left over on her hands. In spite of the Jade's coaxing, Libaax would always go back to hands and claws at meals. It was possible to take a feral troll out of the wilds, but the inverse was much harder.

A poke brought her out of the memory. Dolorosa blinked. "Dear?"

Gael had finished the ball, looking up at Dolorosa with a sharp frown. Her first attempted words disintegrated into hissing. "I'm so bad at this. Look. Do you need anything? I mean- is there anything I can do to help?" The meaning of the last word did not escape her, Dolorosa tensed as Gael backtracked. "No I- shit." The human tapped her leg. "Rosa, help?"

The intention of the gesture puzzled the Jade, Gael seemingly needed no help. The inverse notion passed Dolorosa by entirely at first. But the resting hand eventually made clear the direction of Gael's intent. "Goodness no." Dolorosa chuckled, hand falling to the human's hair. "But thank you midge."

For a moment it looked as if Gael was about to say something. Either she realized it futile or could not find words, falling back against the wall after a moment.

Dolorosa's eyes fell, down to the heavy black collar wrapped around Gael's neck. Glance dropping further to avoid looking on their shared mistress's symbol. Falling to the last remnant of her initial imprisonment.

"Dear? Let me see your hand." Dolorosa tapped a claw against the metal binding on Gael's wrist. Gael passively offered her arm, allowing the Jade to examine the manacle. Solid dark grey metal with what only seemed to be a small mechanical lock. Marks of chafing ringing the pale skin underneath. "I should get this off. There's little reason for it with the way they collared you."

Dolorosa retrieved a pair of hair pins from the closet, resting Gael's hand on her knee as she slowly picked her way through the workings of the lock. It was strange to see another mechanical lock like this, likely some remnant or a product of the antediluvian imperial factions. Seadwellers or priests perhaps.

It was a slow awkward process, one that even in ideal circumstances would take a long while. Gael remained quiet allowing the Jade to work uninterrupted. In that light, reminiscence came easy.

The slow methodical work had always fallen to Dolorosa, stitching, lookout, and eventually lock picking had all fallen to the matron. Once the very thought of picking a lock would have made her nervous. But emergencies, both dire in immediacy and toxic slow had eroded such restraints. It was never good circumstances when such sculldugery was needed. But Dolorosa had never failed.

A faint sough from the human drew another smile to Dolorosa's face. "Ha, I remember trying to get a beast trap off of my little Libaax once. I thought every blue blood in a hundred clicks was going to hear her the way she kept yowling." Libaax, fierce brave foolhardy little Libaax. The memories soured as they went on, a final blur of hair, vanishing in the distance. Dolorosa's smile faded. Foolish. The human didn't care for her sorrows. Couldn't even understand them. "That's a little beyond you right now, isn't it midge?"

Gael said nothing, head sinking. A twinge of annoyance came, a wordless string of curses coming with. Good memories always carried down to the end of them, remembering those nights only left her tired. Dolorosa knew that. But it seemed everything she'd learned had come undone with the arrival of a creature willing to put up with her worthless doting.

"Cursed-" One of the makeshift pins snapped in the manacle lock. Dolorosa managed to keep herself silent as she carefully picked out the snapped head from the lock and stood. Another hairpin was withdrawn from the closet and folded in short order. When Dolorosa sat back down she was unprepared for Gael's shift.

"Stupid invert." The girl murmured something as she turned to face her, leaning her forehead wordlessly against Dolorosa's side, hand falling palm up to into the Jade's lap.

The unexpected closeness paused Dolorosa. "Dear?"

Gael said nothing.

After a moment of consideration Dolorosa noted the position made it somewhat easier to work on the manacle. The closeness pausing the chained self-flagellation as the Jade shifted a little. Dolorosa found herself unable to protest or push the human away, returning to work on the manacle after a moment.

"Thank you midge."

Focusing on the soft breathing beside her, Dolorosa worked. The quiet form leaning against the matron grounding her and keeping worn memories at bay. Allowing herself to be blissfully lost in function.

Chapter Text

Gael started doing circuits around the slave quarters as the lights dimmed. There was no reason to stop, no obligations or purpose for anything else. The glares and hisses of the Horns did nothing. Her captor was not interested in trying to break her now and Rosa was nowhere to be found.

The Jade eyed horn had left with a worrying swiftness in the 'morning' if it could be called such. The memory of the Marquise's hold on the Jade made Gael's skin crawl, the same vacant look in her eyes coming again earlier. It was impossible for Gael to deny the effect it was having on her. Heart was beating like a war drum in her chest, mouth was dry and she was worried her nails were going to start digging into her bare shoulder.

Even without the sudden and stressful absence Gael felt like she was slowly being ripped in half. Slowly, oh so slowly. Rosa herself was part of the problem, maybe the core of it. Without her there would be nothing to care for, it would so damn easy to be indignant and as much of a pain for her captor as humanly possible. The Marquise wanted submission, Gael couldn't bend and eventually the freak eyed horn would slip up ending this pointless extension. That should be how it went.

Should be. 'Should' was a word that at this point ought to be dragged into the street and shot.

First it had been the end of the world, then it had been Singh, Ali. Sarah. Then the promise of the void. The position was taken, job was done and Gael would finally be allowed escape from nightmares and her current wretched extension. But no. The High Legislacerator had seemingly been the next out. Being murdered by an alien murder lawyer was fine. Laughable but still perfectly acceptable. The Red-glare's treacherous interest in legalism and morality stayed that exit. Which was fine. There was still the promise Gael would perish fighting one last Indigo.

The Marquise had denied her that. Which should have been fine. While exasperating it was only temporal, Gael was human. The Marquise would fail and bite down too hard, or alien bacteria would eventually infest Gael's lungs, or her injuries would turn foul, or someone would finally snap and end this miserable redoubt. Rosa had stopped that.

She was worse than Sarah, Singh, Ali and every other worth person Gael had encountered on the long road here. Worse than the rest combined. Dragging her off the road toward the end and holding her from it. Worse she couldn't be pushed away. They were both stuck under the Marquise, but where Gael's state was transitory before the promise of expiration the same could not be said for the Jade. Someone worth always came before her, that was true even before the Horns arrived.

But even that wasn't enough. It was becoming harder and harder to untangle the invert from the part of her that forced function. Closeness had only emboldened the part of her mind that Gael had spent little over a decade trying to bury. It was hard, and Gael just wanted to die without anyone understanding. That would be enough.

But Rosa had made it impossible to pursue that end.

Thrice more the Marquise had dragged her back to the chamber. It was evident the Marquise still thought she could break Gael and hadn't made the transition to maiming yet. There was caution, perhaps borne of the unknown intricacies of human biology. But that hadn't stopped her from using the collar's electric discharge to full effect, nor had it stopped her from making use of methods that were frankly medieval. Whips, pillories, water. Salt.

Not to say such things did not have effect, but there was not much that could be done. Gael's back was crossed with long scabs from cutting strikes and the subsequent salting. Neck and wrist ringed with bruises. Water was perhaps the easiest. Evidently the horns were not even remotely comfortable with water, horned 'waterboarding' did little to Gael. She did not prod back with the eagerness that she'd had in the Legislacerator's den, bearing it silently.

But there was something there the Marquise had in her hands. A worry that infested Gael, not of pain but removal.

Gael couldn't deny a worry there would come a day when the Marquise simply left her in her little interrogation cell, and she'd never see Rosa again. Silly, stupid, infantile, feeding the invert function that held more sway but Gael couldn't kill it. Couldn't kill the way her heart pounded when she got dragged back and Rosa would be waiting. Horned worry, Horned anger, Horned disgust, Horned joy and Horned sadness were apparent to Gael now. The look on the Jade's face when she'd arrived after the whipping stung more than the bite of the whip.

Refusing Dolorosa was entirely impossible now. The horrible sinking sensation that came with the fanged frown and downed eyes more effective than any tool the Marquise had. But the inverse was also powerful. Rosa's rare smiles made everything at least temporarily function. Even if any ease that came would eventually be undone by self-disgust.

It was a horrible balancing act with no out. Gael couldn't even hope to escape the slave quarters, let alone the ship she was on. The Marquise would keep at her efforts until Gael's body finally gave out. But it wouldn't come with satisfaction. Rosa cared about her worthless corpse for reasons beyond Gael, it would probably hurt her when Gael didn't return at some point. The only thing she could give to Rosa was time before that eventual betrayal.

On that front at least there was something. Slowly, whenever the Jade produced chalk the two would further their understanding of the other's language. As tedious a process as it was, there was concrete use to it. Gael speaking the horned tongue was basically impossible and try as Rosa might English was beyond her. But there was some understanding now. Mostly between themselves. Most other residents of the ship had other- accents if they could be called such. Rosa's clicking was distinct, slower and more articulate compared to the other horns.

When the language sharing burned out and there was leftover chalk the two occupied themselves with simple games. Rosa quickly caught on, and was actually worryingly competent with math.

When the Jade was absent Gael made use of her time and recovering form. The slave food was at least kind to the High Legislacerator's prison feed, portioned for creatures with three or four times the body mass of Gael and weighty enough to last the long spans between them dropping the slave food. Even if the 'meals' were spaced out in serving it left Gael with enough energy to drag herself back to working out.

A little pride was allowed when Gael managed to perform a one armed inverted pushup. Of course the by the third her head was spinning but progress was progress and some measure of capability was recaptured. She wasn't uneasy on her feet anymore, the stitches on her head and thigh gone. Gael's left arm however still haunted her. Unfortunately in a literal sense. The fucking phantom pain came at random and pulsed hard enough to pause her. Waking still came with the assumption she was whole.

Pain was at least familiar, better than the current feelings Gael was having. Unease flowing freely from the lack of information.

Gael still had no idea what Rosa's function was. She'd worked out almost all the others, physical labour, servile action for the crew, technical work. But Rosa? She'd shown herself skilled in all manner of ways. But none of them really fit. The nothing space made the absence worse. In spite of all their technology the Horns functioned like a fucking iron age civilization. Human slave uses weighed down on her back.

All Gael could do was pace along. Trying not to think and frequently failing to do so.

Initially the other horns caught up in the Marquises bondage had paid her some mind when it had begun with pacing in the halls. While most of the irrational fear was gone there remained a pleasant distance the horns kept from her. Chained and unchained alike left her with space. Avarayri whispered from the distance. A name for her, the Marquise also referred to her as such. Its meaning was alien, and Gael did not bother questioning it.

With the dimming of the lights most of the Horns had left. By the third lap around the slave space none remained. They had retreated to their pods of slime to sleep out the dark hours.

How they didn't drown in the slime, what exactly the slime was and the exact purpose of it was so far above Gael's head she ignored it outright. The weak meandering thoughts with no place to go were easy prey to worry. She focused on the physical. Complete familiarity with the small section of the ship coming from the forced effort to do something that wouldn't lead her mind back to the Jade. The vents in the ceiling made of pock-marked bone, the twitching vein pulsed orange light orbs, the stains of ancient blood marking the floor. Skids and scratches of past violence on the walls.

But it wasn't enough, Gael's body betrayed her as did the back of her head. Couldn't wait quietly or try sleeping that would just leave her alone with her head without reprieve. Possibly leave her with dreams, didn't want to test the shifting winds tonight. Even the possibility of mundane sleep was unwelcome.

Traitor unconscious, weak form, absence. Worse of all nothing to do about it. That was the worst part of it all. Gael was useless.

Around the thirteenth lap faint steps came, a pair, slowly walking. Even deaf in the one ear as Gael might be she heard them coming. Neither was Rosa, quicker and heavier steps than that of the deliberate jade. Booted feet, Dolorosa usually wore no shoes, instead relying on foot wraps. Gael ignored the pair and kept walking.

Halfway through lap fourteen when the pair started talking. Faintly Gael recognized them as Crewmen.

"Are we going to stop that thing?" The first voice was scratchy, but not overly loud. "I was watching it on the cameras earlier. It just keeps circling, like a cursed carrion beast."

The second voice was a little louder, but softer. The skittering clicks rhythmic. "Hey, I'm not going to try. I saw the thing fight on the fee-square before they redacted the feed. I think its still got the arm it punched that priest with."

"Yea. But- you know? Curfew?"

"As far as I'm concerned that only applies to Troll slaves. It's not like the beast is going anywhere."

The voices fell silent. The booted steps coming and going as the pair walked through the slave quarters. Gael ignored it. Focusing on her own feet. Around the time lap seventeen became lap eighteen the paired steps faded. At lap nineteen Gael closed her eyes, hand tracing along the wall to guide her. It was all she needed at this point, attempting and at least partially succeeding on focusing on her own steps.

She gave up on counting steps after a while, miscounts and decreasing energy left her to focus on laps, a faint distinct gouge marking the point of counting laps. Twenty went up to twenty five and then to thirty thirty laps. Felt like some blisters were forming on her feet, didn't care though. The only noise came from herself and occasional rumbles from the sleeping slaves. Occasional snoring squeaks punctuating the stagnant air.

Lap thirty two brought more steps, a single walker without shoes but with a sharp step. Not Rosa. Gael ignored it, even as the source of the steps drew closer. They stopped after a moment, ear strained caught faint breaths.

The walker shifted. Walking closer. Deliberate or not Gael opened her eyes and waited.

Gael recognized the gait a few moments before they- she walked into view. Blank yellow eyes staring. She wore a dull sleeveless tunic of the dark brown cloth the rest of the slaves wore, a pair of pants of similar cloth worn with. Tired from her step but still active. Purpose and want unknown. The yellow eye'd Horn stared for a moment at Gael, frowning faintly.

She opened her mouth as if to say something. But no words came. Gael didn't know why, nor did she care as she turned away from the strange slave.

"Cull-bait." The word was familiar but its meaning unknown. Gael ignored it as the yellow eyed horn's steps faded.

Lap thirty six. Thirty seven. Thirty eight. Thirty nine was no different from the past three but after making it past the gouged wall her legs failed her. Not catastrophically, but their protest finally grew to the point of stopping her. Gael had neither the fire or the energy to curse. After a moment of pause she stumbled back in the direction of Rosa's room. Slowing out of a vain hope the Jade's footsteps would appear. They did not.

Gael nearly stumbled into the door itself. Hand fell upon the dull brown exoskeletal doorknob but Gael found herself unable to open it. Her forehead came to rest on the cool metal of the door itself as she relinquished her hold.

A breath in, a breath out.

It did not kill the burning in her gut or the rough heartbeat or the beading sweat on her brow. But Gael did regain some self control. She turned about, back leaning against the door she slowly sank to her haunches. Gael had done enough waiting, a little more wouldn't kill her.

Gael didn't even notice her eyes close. Sleep came shallow and fast.

Black sand, orange stone. The thick smell of wood burning and a red horizon. No control, but no weight either. A skidding presence of mind kind to an insect. Or someone without much mind left. Everything fading dark after a time. Lightless and abyssal in depth. How merciful it was.

Was.

Uneven steps tore through the abyss like a burning blade.

Long strides, soft steps. But uneven, halfway to limping. Gael jerked up fast enough she almost tipped, the lights were still dimmed and she hadn't any idea how long she'd been asleep. That didn't matter much to her though. The steps were familiar, the odd missteps in the pace enough to bring- panic. Yes it was panic and no even if she wanted to she couldn't kill it no more than anything else. All she could do was smother it as she forced herself up and forward.

Ironically, the sight of Rosa actually made the beating in her chest louder. The wrongness of her step was apparent immediately even at a distance. Right leg favoured over the left slowing the tall horned Jade to the point where she shifted awkwardly with each stride.

A little closer and the depth of Dolorosa's state became apparent. Her normally shaped hair hung low and damp. The cerulean and black dress she'd left with was disheveled, torn around the collar. Rosa's eyes seemed sunken into her face. Staring at something that wasn't there when she walked. Hands balled up into fists at her sides.

The bite marks that ringed her neck and shoulders were glaring. The space where her collar rested ringed with bruises of Jade.

Words failed, actions failed. Eyes fell back to those horrible fucking bite marks. A set of sharp spiderish incisors responsible for the worst of the tears into Rosa's dark grey skin.

The Jade's low growl forced Gael's focus upwards as Rosa's face twisted unpleasantly. She stopped limping as her hand came to cover her face. "Bad blood." The Jade's words came with an unpleasant creaking in her chest.

Rosa slumped against the wall, cracking as Gael struggled to think of- anything.

"Curse it all." Gael didn't even notice the tears at first. Drops of jade tinged water rolling out from under her hand.

Gael wasn't even conscious of the step out into the corridor. A moment later the panic induced motion was promptly rewarded. The flooding pain immediate and blinding. But its sting was no longer fully paralyzing. Gael forced herself back, head spinning as her arm caught the wall. When the pain was cut sensory control came, though her body still shuddered from the after-shock.

Rosa was hissing with the sharpness of tearing metal. Hand no longer covering her face as she limped forward. "Are you trying to get yourself killed!?" The Jade loomed overhead, Gael faintly aware the bright yellow of her eyes was literally glowing in the darkness. Brighter than anything natural she'd seen in horns so far. "Go. Just go away. I should have- curse it." The command was understood but not fully processed by Gael. A stubborn panicked creature refusing inside to even consider letting her move her feet. The fevered beating of her heart loud enough Gael feared Rosa could hear it.

"Can I help you?" She could barely hear herself the way her own words came out. Yet it was all Gael could manage as it felt difficult even to breath now.

Dolorosa's scowl deepened, fangs barred outright as the creaking in her chest turned loud enough it almost hurt. "What?"

"Is-" Speaking was harder than it had ever been, self-disgust and shame biting down and urging her to just obey and flee. Gael had never dealt with something like this, never wanted to. But want had nothing to do with it. There was only one person she knew of worth here. Gael's worthless hide was forfeit but Rosa was still- still alive. "Is there anything I can do?"

The Jade stared down, yellow eyes cutting down through the darkness. Shame crumpled willpower, in a way it hadn't done in years. Faintly aware she'd probably committed some horrible fucking taboo Gael's head dropped.

Tried to drop. Would have dropped. A clawed finger found her chin. Tilting her head back up to the battered alien.

The growling passed, the scowl dampened. She looked Gael over with a precision that only invigorated the desire to beat her own head against the wall. The claw under her chin kept Gael from anything so merciful as self inflicted pain. Kept her from anything even as tears welled up in her eyes.

Rosa's clicking was slow. "Foolish dolent thing." The words were half mixed in with the soft clicking as the Jade mercifully released Gael's head. "Go wait outside my room. That's help enough."

Gael's head dropped, obeying what was understood without a word. Leave, at least for now.

She walked as fast as she could. Broken teeth sunk into her cheek as she struggled to contain the storm that welled up inside. The overwhelming sensation of uselessness that burned like oil igniting the rest of herself was like a rolling tide Gael had no control over.

~~{†}~~

Most often Dolorosa was able to hide the marks Mindfang left on her. Most often she was tolerable, while certainly eccentric Marquise Mindfang usually did not cause undue harm. Sadly the prior night had been far from the norm. Dolorosa was no fool, it was obvious the Marquise's ploys across the fleet were souring. Her original owner wanted Mindfang's head on a wall, the Legislacerators in spite of the chaos throughout the fleet were circling.

It was not unexpected that her owner's frustrations were taken out upon her, but rare were the times that the Cerulean so openly marred her. Rope biting into her wrists much as Mindfang's fangs bit into her neck. For better or worse it was nothing she had not endured before.

As was expected when the Cerulean finished she dropped Dolorosa like a beast dropped a gnawed bone. Where she left for the Jade did not know nor did she care. Only a cursory glance was paid to the mistress's mirror before she left, marking what needed bandages and what could simply be covered. The usual stops and a brief trip to the surgical block would be enough.

The slow descent was made slower by a brief detour down through one of the gamblignant relaxaxication blocks. The low lit space filled with a few leftover smoking free-horns inebriated to the point they paid Dolorosa no mind. The relaxaxication block had a small expulsion room that while it stunk of urine was at least functional. Dolorosa washed her face and cleaned the stains from her dress. With little abandon she washed her hair out as well. Better safe than some stray slurry be left behind to dry.

She exited the block slow as she had entered, filching a small stick of chalk on the way out. The remaining walk down mercifully quiet. Even if the fleet beyond the ship's hull was ready to tear itself apart, at least now at this hour of the day cycle there was peace. Few gamblignants graced the halls, those that did ignored her. Dolorosa did not think of much anything besides her recuperacoon as she descended the stairs.

Perhaps in hindsight that had been a mistake. The missed running steps ahead, the missed shadow that had appeared before her. A combination of forced thoughtlessness and wariness made her simply ignore them. Dolorosa had banished any thoughts of the alien from her mind. Thinking of pleasantries was something she'd avoided in Mindfang's presence. Mindfang could twist a thought as easily as she could make a troll twist their own neck.

It felt like Gael simply sprang up from the ground in front of her. Her presence not processing for a moment as she looked like a completely different creature to the one she knew. Dolorosa had never seen her eyes so wide, the white contrasting the black circles surrounding. A shaking she'd not even seen in pain.

There was only a single silver lining to Dolorosa's wretched position. No one that she had cared about would see her as she was. Kadarn was gone, his suffering was long since over. If Libaax and Jiixan were out there they would think she was dead. The other slaves largely resented her, the crew ambivalent as Dolorosa was only chattel.

Gael had stolen that comfort and she likely didn't even know it. Of course why would she?

Dolorosa hadn't teared up since her first sweep under Mindfang, when she'd finally been 'broken' in to the Cerulean's satisfaction. The slow and nauseating realization that the human girl finally would know her disgusting position was more than enough to see that removal undone. It would be foolish to think she could hide the truth of it indefinitely.

She failed for a moment, mentally.

At least until Gael foolishly took a step forward. The burst of electricity was came with a sharp click, the girl falling back immediately as her body shuddered and reeled. The step roused Dolorosa from self-pity. Drawing her into anger.

The best option was for the fool gnat to leave, better that she finally understand the Jade's grotesque state. She'd felt the Colour Eater slip out, in her current state though it only meant the alien would flee a little faster. Faster to rightly distance herself.

Or, perhaps that was just a terrible excuse for her sudden baseness? It hurt, finally having this be known.

Gael didn't run. Her name was Avarayri, perhaps that was to be expected. A foolhardy alien girl that had never learned when to stop. What left Dolorosa entirely paused though was the fool sentiment that persisted. The human's desire to help was just so-

Baffling. What could a tiny mangled alien do to assist her? Why would she even ask?

Why. Oh so many 'whys' without answers to fill them.

Dolorosa had been left at a loss, the foolish alien girl near to tears when the Jade had finally gotten control of herself. Dolorosa sent her back to her room, to wait outside. The very last thing she wanted was for Gael to see the extent of her abuse. When she was gone the Jade walked, making her was as fast as she could over to the surgical block.

The slave quarters were largely silent, even though the end of the Imperial cycle was near. Likely those with duties were already up and off. Those without left to recuperate from the day before. Sleep was the only real escape for most of the slaves, temporary as it was.

Slipping inside the surgical block the Jade found Curail was not only inside but up and awake. Leaning back against the wall on his stool, looking a little shell-shocked. The matron didn't even notice the lack of an ear on his left side until he shifted to look at her. A simple bandage covering the arched grey absence.

Stranger, he snickered. Not in the usual mocking fashion, nor something tinted with lechery. It was something softer. "Perhaps I should feel relieved I'm not the only one marked today."

"You're a free troll Curail. You can leave at any time." Dolorosa creaked, herself lacking any malice. Only one troll on the ship would rightly be able to do such to the medicutioner.

"Ha. I wish I could believe it." Curail's hand came up to the bandage on his head for a moment, shaking his head. He chortled and stood, hand rummaging in his pocket as he approached the jade. He withdrew a set of marked purple chitin keys from his pocket. "Locks were changed. Low crewmen kept coming in and borrowing things. Here." He offered the keys to Dolorosa.

For a moment Dolorosa wondered if he needed someone dead. "You've never been known for your charity."

"Nor do I intend to be. Just so happens you've caught me precariously aware of the void. And if I do something stupid again you'll be taking my place until they can find a replacement." The rust medicutioner chortled mirthlessly, offering the keys again. In spite of her concerns, Dolorosa was hardly in a position to refuse and took the keys after a moment. With a nod Curail put his hands in his pockets. "If you'll excuse me, there's a bottle of fermented sack-honey out there with my name on it. I trust you'll be able to lock up after yourself?"

Seemingly without interest in a response or anything else Curail saw himself out, a low rumbling tune unfamiliar to Dolorosa hummed as he simply walked out of the block and closed the door behind him. The oddness of the dour medicutioner was not questioned.

True in his word the locks had been changed, a few moments of key testing needed to retrieve gauze and disinfectant. A cursory glance was paid to a particularly deep bite, half-hidden under her dress. Yes, disinfectant would be needed. Even if the Jade was due to feed come tomorrow the possibility of infection was never something Dolorosa cared to risk. She pocketed both a roll of bandage and the bottle of disinfectant.

She hastily filched a set of scissors too. Something better to have on hand, consequences be banished to the void now. Locking the cabinet behind her Dolorosa left as quick as she had come, closing the door softly.

But Dolorosa found herself unable to move forward, a thought gripping her. What to say to the pitiable alien? Trying to find words that would be understood. But there was nothing really that worked. They still worked in basics, the most she could hope was that Gael would be- tolerable. With a sigh, Dolorosa forced herself to walk. At least until the final corner.

She could hear and smell the human already. Breathing hard, heart beat loud and worryingly erratic. The now unpleasantly familiar smell of human stress filling the air. Without blood the scent was distinct. Another biological oddity, such a smell on trolls would reveal only weakness.

What could she say? Dolorosa had never even thought of what she would say if she encountered a remotely familiar face. The thought of such an encounter, even one minor with an acquaintance of old was more humiliating than the Marquise's usual treatment. Bad blood, what could she have ever said to Libaax?

Dolorosa's internal mediation broke with a small voice. "Rosa?" The faint call made the Jade flinch.

No time to think. Dolorosa stepped forward, biting her fangs into her lip to keep herself from doing something that could make this worse. Not that there was much else she could do at this point. Gael looked as unpleasantly alien as she had earlier. Perhaps worse. Before had been shock. Now her eyes were reddened, hand gripping into her stump and huddled down beside the door. Her himation looked dampened around the collar.

The surge of pallid pity was unexpected and immediately repulsive, but at least strong enough she was able to ignore the other slurry of emotions. Slow coerced steps to the alien came, as much as the jade could manage. Hand falling to the girl's head before she could rise.

"Dear just stay here for a moment." Dolorosa clicked. Gael looked up, a jerking nod came and she slumped back down. It stung, but it was better than the alternative. Without another word she entered her room.

Disrobing came quick and without any sort of grace. After retrieving her scavenge from her pockets, the ragged mess that Dolorosa had been caught wearing when Mindfang had beckoned was quickly tossed to the floor and kicked to the corner, underclothes with. At least she hadn't liked the dress.

The bite of the disinfectant was toothed, but Dolorosa bore it silently. A wordless half-formed curse laid upon the Marquise for her refusal to clean her forsaken fangs. Bandaging came automatically. Dolorosa's sweeps in purchase had at least brought the skill of self treatment. Little of the bandaging was left when she finished, a proverbial scarf of white swathing her neck. Feeding tomorrow would at least speed the healing.

For a moment Dolorosa found herself staring down at her arms. A shifting tone catching her eye. Her ringing black tattoos were becoming increasingly obscured by her aging skin. Scars of white fading out to nothing. Such silly souvenirs of youth. The matching rings of curling black ink on her thighs and stomach likewise growing indistinct. Likely the ink on her back was suffering the same fate. The Jade sighed, such things were best left covered anyways. After stowing the remaining bandaging and the scissors Dolorosa looked through her closet.

"Hm. Something warm." The mumble came as her palms drew over fabric black, jade and cerulean. Entozoon silk, mountain wool and other fabrics graced her fingers. Eventually Dolorosa's hand found the shoulder of a xenos fur lined dress. Jade green fur with the dye most certainly being of chromatic make. More than a tad repugnant but at least the fur and wool were warm and covering.

A pair of foot wraps were retrieved beside. Dressing came slower, a weight pessedas Dolorosa felt her mistress's presence fade. Low and lower until she vanished. The day must have been near to its end, and her mistress was already off. A small thing at least. She looked over to Gael's crude bedding, a circled spot near the base a reminder of the Jade's inability to leave well enough alone. At the very least she'd weaned herself off sopor again, though the inclination remained in the back of her mind. It was oh so tempting to simply return to the slime.

But it seemed old habits had come back with full force. With a sigh Dolorosa returned to the sitting spot. Nothing to do now but face the music. "Xael?"

Even from the other side of the door Dolorosa heard the human girl's jerk. Steps uneasy and inflexible. The door creaked open and she stumbled in. For a moment Gael stared at the Jade's neck. Body shivering slightly she approached, awkwardly seating herself down on her bedding. Close enough Dolorosa could reach out and run a hand through her hair. Pick her up if she wanted to. Dolorosa restrained herself. Bad blood, she had no idea how old Gael was, to say nothing of the absolutely unacceptable power dynamic. The Jade was an old Ancillae and in no position to force anything pallid upon the xenos girl beside her.

But she could not just leave her like this. "Forgive me midge, snapping was heedless." Dolorosa chittered softly as she could.

Gael didn't reply and Dolorosa found herself unable to say anything more. Their lessons had hardly been extensive. Had she been too complex in her wording? Dolorosa found herself unable to press. Gael said nothing, still shaking slightly and breathing hard.

Seconds rolled on, tension growing unbearable. Again and again a half formed letter came and Dolorosa found herself unable to go anything beyond that. Not that Gael was able to do much better herself, as she fidgeted, hand hanging in the air as she tried to do- something.

Finally Gael's hand came up to her own collar, tapping against Mindfang's symbol. Finally she looked up at Dolorosa, as her hand came up to the Jade's neck. A gentle finger running over the gauze, her eyes half lidded now stained with red. Clumsy words at least were not needed for her question.

Dolorosa nodded. "Yes."

The human's hand withdrew back to her side as the shaking in her form grew. She tried saying something, her voice failed, Gael's words degenerating into a rasping inhale. The sight only served to inflame the pity in Dolorosa, the jade forcing her hands together as she waited on the human's response. But nothing came. The self constrained convulsions growing to the point the Jade feared she would simply flee. Though perhaps that would be best.

She had braced for the worst, being caught off-guard when the xeno finally moved. Jerking forward, Gael's arm wrapped around Dolorosa with a strength unexpected of such a small body. The closeness immediate before the Jade could move to stop her, let alone protest. Not that Gael had been distant, but- she knew what Dolorosa was.

"I'm sorry I can't do anything." Her words were muffled, face buried in Dolorosa's side.

It couldn't be pale pity, surely. It must have been some alien strangeness. Or something so simple as a relation kind to ward and kept.

Regardless, after a moment it became clear she wasn't going to leave. Tears came again, though the matron's sleeve came to wipe them away before Gael could look up to see them. Dolorosa shifted to return the embrace. Foolish as it was. Having knowingly given up on any hope of pity. Still, there was still someone who needed her. She could hardly abandon someone willing to ignore her repugnant state.

Or was that just a lie to placate the closeness she was now fearful of losing?

Chapter Text

- Somewhere under the Northern Highlands of Wisconsin

Layman Lepzig was coming around to like the Earth planet he'd sort of invaded.

Human food was actually pretty good, most of it was so far above Imperial rations it was amazing. It came in many more varieties than troll food and even if he was eating the bum-leftovers the sheer number of options were baffling. They had half a dozen variants of grubsquares alone, each with a different creature and a different sauce to core them. His sleep schedule was back to something comfortable and only on occasion did humans look at him like their bulges were hard for a culling. All in all a vast improvement over the soldiers life.

Really, the only downside was that he hadn't been allowed to keep his communicator. Which was slowly snuffing the life out of him like bug beneath a shoe. But having a moirail helped with the stress. Sometimes he'd still get weird moments where he didn't believe that Sarah was actually there.

It was weird having an alien moirail, odder to have one that so easily slipped into the role. Most of his life he'd figured he'd be without pale pity. His relationship with Tiralx was an anomaly he'd only pursued because she was usually as far from danger as a troll on the fleet could be. She wasn't going to get culled on some alien world by a day terror or some Vykjiit commander and he was replaceable. Common rules for the soldiery; don't learn anyone's names or come to care for anyone. Then maybe, just maybe you get to retire and spend your old nights on a colony somewhere. Without regrets and chronic dayhorrors, if you're really lucky.

Sarah kind of broke those rules. Humans had to have similar circumstances. But then again she wasn't really a soldiering type. The sheer- ease of it was enough to make Layman uneasy at times. Sarah was always there when he needed her. Maybe it was because of the alieness of her, she didn't realize what an intolerable fucking weenie he was that brought on the queasiness. More likely it was the inability to return anything real.

Layman didn't really have any experience with a pallid relationship but curse it he was trying. Which was hard to do when you were stuck in a room and your moirail literally needed nothing out of you. The humans evidently wanted him to be able to work for them, which was probably really bad for the fleet. After all, they weren't running any serious encryption modules because why would they be? Humans (apparently) weren't psionic and were largely primitive in biological understanding. There wasn't any need to, and that line of thinking just played to human advantage. They were freaky like nobles in metalwork.

Layman himself couldn't really bring himself to care about anything besides Tiralx upstairs, it made working with the aliens a non-issue. The only thing he could do to compensate his moirail.

Every time Sarah came in she'd bring sheets of paper and little metallic drawing sticks and they'd go through things. They worked fast together now, at least she said that. Sarah, even if she sounded like a tone deaf colonial caught on quickly and could actually speak a fair bit of Imperial tongue. Layman himself was a bit- hopeless at speaking her languages. English was bad, Polish was worse.

Eventually he'd given up on actually speaking and let Sarah do the talking. He could write alright inEnglish now and read just about everything thrown his way, something he was just a little proud of. At least until the load of information passed through and he started understanding humans.

Conceptually he'd been at a bit of a loss with what Sarah described to him. They didn't have any caste systems and their society was a cluster fuck with apparently skin colour and skull shape being a fixation of 'superiority' in the past. Stacks of human linguistic groups considering each other inferior and themselves superior while on average they were all sort of average.

Even if they were all basically runty Rusts at best, humans had apparently still tried some mass scale cullings along those lines less that a hundred sweeps ago. According to Sarah they still relapsed. It was just- freaking weird. The Xavier character with some horns and proper eyes would probably be some admiral if he was a troll, height be cursed he carried himself like one to the point he made layman's sphincters clench up. The weird hat wearing Singh was a sure olive from everything Sarah had said. Sarah herself was as jade as they came.

The easiest course of action was to just keep going with it because void curse it all even if they were weird and fucked up they were actually way better to be around than ninety percent of the fucking fleet. He didn't think about Tiralx probably freaking the fuck out because Layman hadn't been able to talk with her in who fucking knew how long. Didn't think about the entire 'planetary invasion and extinction of their whole species' thing. He forced himself to focus on translating. To think about how not to be a massive piece of loufabout beast shit.

But it was kind of hard to focus on translating the pages when his moirail was braiding his hair. He sat on the floor with his paging in his lap and a book in hand, while above on the sleeplank Sarah sat with her fingers in his hair. Layman didn't really have much hair to braid, nor did he particularly think he looked good in some fropped up Jade stuff but hey it made Sarah smile and that was enough.

The current page was to 'enhance his literacy' with a bunch of excess human words they'd mostly stopped using but would 'help him learn to guess.' Which, he supposed he was doing. Humans despite being not really intimidating actually had some fucked up literature. The 'Tell-tale Blood Pusher' which he was near to finally finished translating for instance was about a human murderer losing his mind because his victim was now undead and really quite peeved. At least that was what he'd thought at first, humans despite being day dwelling terrors didn't have to deal with Shade Makers and Rainbow Drinkers according to Sarah.

The final bits revealed the murderer's confession, a death sentence in the empire considering the victim's description made him sound like he'd be a Cerulean for sure. The narrator would be a rust or maybe a brown, and one not really with a functioning think pan. The last few words transcribed into Imperial with little effort. Layman clicked a few times, drawing Sarah's attention away from his hair.

He passed the translated page up to Sarah alongside the book itself, waiting patiently while she read through it.

However any hope of completed translation was swiftly swept aside with a knock at the door. "Miss Piłsudski?" The rough voice of the Singh human came not unexpected. He was the most regular visitor. The only plus was that he was not that unpleasant a guest. His leers were more curious than anything else, and his relationship with Sarah was friendly.

Sarah did not seem bothered at all, not even looking up from the translation page. "Door's open." A cursory chitter of concern was suppressed by Sarah's hand in his hair.

The bleak metal door opened, and Singh stepped in looking unchanged since last Layman had seen him. His look immediately went to Layman's head and the swift memory of being flailed for greasy hair came back. It had been Layman's first night of soldiery training, the many past shames skimming past earning a grimace.

No beating came, Singh only smiling a little as he looked up to Sarah. "I see you two have been busy."

"Ya. Basi." Layman croaked out, earning a look of what the rust hoped was pleasant surprise out of the human soldier.

Behind Sarah chuckled, scratching at the base of his horns. "Busy." Any retort to the correction was lost in a scrape-induced purr. Sarah herself turning her full attention to her human ally. "Progress. I told you we'd get it."

"You are the only woman brave enough to braid an alien invader's hair." Singh remarked blithely.

"He's more of a layabout at this point I think. Besides I think he looks good with canerows."

Singh glanced down for a moment. "I suppose if you say so, sadly I'm not here for pleasant conversation. Commander Xavier wants to see you two. I've been asked to escort you down." The name brought an immediate wave of worry. Layman moved to stand, but a particularly strong scratch of Sarah's kept him sitting. His huff went ignored by the humans who pressed on.

"Not to shoot LaymanI hope?" Sarah asked.

Singh shook his head. "Were that the case I'd have the courtesy to do it myself. As it stands I think they've finally found a use for him. Ali got something he can't decipher. We think it might be spacial." He gestured to the door, Sarah herself popping up without hesitation.

A single pap atop his head the only ceremony Layman received. "Come, we're needed." She chittered.

"Lead the way." Layman squeaked and stood, allowing Sarah and Singh to lead him out of his glorified cell and once more into the depths of the underground human fortress. Only stopping passingly to look at himself in the polished sheen of the front of his room's door.

The bandages on his shoulder were gone, rapidly fading rusty scabs the only reminder of his Imperial bindings. His hair was now wired tightly down to his skull in sharp waving rows. It wasn't all that bad a look actually. He turned quick as he could to avoid suspicion from his escort and followed after. Tight as comfortable with his eyes trained on Sarah's back to avoid looking at any glaring humans.

As they proceeded downwards Singh quietly talked with Sarah. "If I may ask how exactly you can do the- clicking?"

"One of my co-workers was from Namibia. She taught me a bit about Khoekhoegowab."

Singh coughed at the rough jumbled word. Faintly familiar as it was it didn't sound like the common human jargon. "Pardon?"

Layman could feel his moirail's smile. "It's one of the languages that still uses clicking. Old Khoisan branch of South African Language. I'm still just using those clicks more to imitate his own clicks but it works."

"Ah." Singh did not sound like he had understood anymore than Layman and let the matter lie as they reached the rusting metal stairwell. Descending further into the base.

"You have no idea what I'm talking about do you?"

The soldier human shrugged. "I didn't exactly join the CAF because universities were bursting to have me."

Their destination proved to be deep in the underground base, down the stairs past the human barracks. If the space Layman had been allotted was meant for prisoners sleep the room before him was meant for interrogation. At the end of a guarded hallway was a single room, door blank metal with a camera scouring the hall above. There was a single guard beside the door, eyes obscured behind a pair of black glasses. Layman gulped.

"So this is it then?" Sarah asked, unbothered by the sight.

Singh nodded, tone only somewhat doured. "Yes, I am afraid so."

"Void please keep fucked off?" Layman chittered.

Sarah papped him on the cheek. "Come on you big baby, they aren't going to do anything to you while I'm around." She said and took his hand, Singh opening the interrogation block's door. Waiting inside were two dark skinned humans. The commander of the xenos rebels and one of the more amicable soldiery. The commander sat at a table in the dead center of the room, two chairs waiting in front for his guests. If Sarah was worried about her commanding officer she didn't show it. "Commander. Horace."

They sat down, Layman trying not to show any fear and failing miserably as the Xavier alien eyed him with a day terror's hunger. Small eye's piercing his flank. "Is the grey ready to start translating?"

Layman forced a jerking nod. "Yes I mean... shit." He chocked and tried again in the language the alien commander could understand. "Ya. Radi fa work."

Behind the commander the guard whistled, Sarah jumping in. "Even if he can't exactly say things well he does understand a fair bit of common English now."

"And can he write it?" Commander Xavier asked stiffly, eyes unmoving from Layman.

Sarah spoke up even as Layman nodded. "He can."

The commander snapped his fingers, the human guard from outside walking in at the prompt, laying a sheet of paper in front of the intimidating human. Xavier pushed the page over to Sarah. "Alright then Piłsudski. Have him translate this."

The human woman stared down at the page for a moment. "Sarah?"

"Here." His moirail passed the sheet over to him.

The page was a number of intercepted communications. Evidently shifted through a number of human languages as some of the wording could be considered 'crusty.' Written out with human characters evidently not meant for such things, but Sarah and Layman had already worked through that. He saw the failings and saw the actual words. More pressing were the unsifted coordinates laid out across the page, heights and resting depths. Callwords to fleet-groups without human parallel, coordinates that the voidless humans were entirely estranged to.

Layman groaned when he read the the communicating callsign of the transmitter. "Fuck me to death."

The commander hissed. "What's he talking about?"

Sarah said nothing as Layman quickly ran through the entirety of the message, the transcript seemed to have been sent by that monstrous freak Gobayl, a complete re-spec of the resting position of the fleet in orbit. No wonder the humans hadn't been able to sift through the message. Something sharp in his gut turned when he noted Tiralx's own fleet group in the shift. Sarah's hand fell on his shoulder as he turned to her. "Fucking shithive maggot-assholes. Seems like they're freaking re-positioning the whole fleet." For the first time in his entire life Layman was glad he'd listened to his matesprite's occasional intoxicated rants on void sailing. "Cursed- the fleets already way off point and drawn up. Things are bad if they're ordering around everyone." The coordinates didn't mean anything without visualization though, human's had their own systems they'd be able to translate to with that. "Shit can I get a- a- what would you call it- shit."

"A map?" Sarah asked cooly.

Layman nodded. "Yea, but- one that's got the proper planet one to one."

"Can I get a map for him? One that's representative of the globe?"

"Why?" The human commander asked harshly.

"Because of the fleet. Sir."

"So this is about the damn ships?"

Sarah scoffed. "Of course."

The commander looked at Layman then back to his guard. "Horace?" The guard nodded and walked out. When the Horace human was gone he turned again to Sarah. "The communications we've had deciphered indicate serious command disjointedness. Ground movement's and coordinates are largely understood and we've been able to shift the balance favorably, and if this is fleet work it could be our ace. Does he know why it is that his people are suddenly being shifted like this?"

"From what I can tell Layman's fleet is basically dealing with discount fish nazis."

The commander opened his mouth but said nothing, behind Singh choked. "You'll need to repeat that."

"It's exactly what I said. A bunch of gilled alien supremicists are one of the factions upstairs. There's a bunch of factions up there vying for control, and the fish nazis are the worst of it. Vykjiit right?" Sarah looked up to Layman.

The rust nodded. "Ya. Raving fucking lunatics."

He left the explanation to his moirail. "Things are shifting drastically up there from the look of it. If they're ordering around the rest of the fleet then either they've got official backing from their monarchy or other factions are joining on with them. Which is really bad for everyone because apparently they're willing to throw everything they've got at earth."

Behind the door opened, a page of paper with the human homeworld marked out was placed in front of him. Mercifully with an actual globe model on it.

"Here you are." The Horace said before returning to his standing position.

Mercifully the map had human 'latitudes' marked out. Recalling the planet's resting axis made the task of translating troll atmospheric resting positions possible. A little hamnidness needed to push out day-night resting positions. Layman quickly marked out the orbital resting spots of the fleet, initial, what had been and what the Vykjiit had ordered the rest of the fleet towards. Hissing to Sarah as he went. "When I left I got word we were moving out of a standard orbit over earth for a decimation. Basically hanging over the equatorial dusk region in geostationary orbit. Let's the fleet deal with the initial bombardment over the course of a daily cycle. But now it looks like the Vykjiit-" He tapped the upper half of planet. "Are shifting the entire fleet to actively orbit the upper hemisphere while keeping to the shaded side of the planet." He pushed the translated page and the coordinate page over to the Sarah who scanned it with a nod and passed it off to the human commander. Layman's hands were shaking. "Shit. Ask him if I can have my comm-piece back."

Sarah papped him. "In a second." Both troll and human stared at the leader who silently looked over the translated page and then over to the map. "Commander?"

Layman licked his lips. A nervous thought coming to mind. Tiralx was upstairs somewhere and the Vykjiit were calling the shots. There was no place for an addict seadweller up in the fleet, and it probably wasn't a coincidence her fleet group was far closer to the core now.

The Xavier human held up the pages to his guard. "Horace I need you to get word from someone who still has an observatory. If the bugs are actually there then the Ruskies will have a fucking target hanging over their heads. Caucasians will be able to target and the French retrofits will be able to handle minutia." Horace took the pages swiftly, leaving as Layman bundled up his hands together. It did nothing to stop the shaking, the commander noticed with a glare. "What's wrong with him?"

"I'm pretty sure he's worried a partner of his is going to get whacked by the fish nazis."

The commander scoffed and shook his head. "Can you call them something else?"

"Gill-Gestapo?" Sarah spoke bluntly earning another scoff from her commander.

"That is actually worse."

"It's a lot less silly if your informant has his best ally murdered by a bunch of alien supremacists."

"And what can we do about it?"

"For a start you could give me the communicator he voluntarily handed over when he came in with me."

Layman bit his lip as the commander's hand rose to his chin. "And how does that help?"

Sarah remained undaunted by her leader's cold tone. "Mister Salman's translations have given us an edge but he's on there nearly twenty hours a day and he's unable to get everything. I think it's obvious everything isn't exactly put together up there. I'm also pretty sure it's obvious Layman and his partner aren't exactly loyalists. Layman's given you the altitude and the resting latitude of the Invaders. Imagine you having ears on their fleet?" Xavier stared down at Sarah. Her palm fell onto Layman's shaking bundled hands as she returned the commanding alien's look. "All your gambles with me have payed out."

There was a moment of silence.

Behind the Singh human spoke up. "Considering what's happening in Greece sir-"

Xavier cut off the other human. "I still don't know if I believe the Greek report Singh." The human muttered something to himself. "I'll be sending down everything to you two that our translation crew can't process. If this keeps up then-" An out of place cough, the stare down at Layman's moirail finally broke as Xavier choked for a moment. He shifted and stood, hand coming up to his brow. Layman noted the massive hand gun still resting on his hip. He turned back to Sarah, tone spliced with a hint of mania. "Would you be able to understand what his- partner says?"

"Certainly." Sarah did not hesitate in her response. Her hand was warm. "It isn't bugged or traceable if that's your concern. As I said, Layman and his partner weren't exactly clean."

Xavier hissed something to himself, looking up to Singh behind, the unseen chocolate skin human making no noise. Layman couldn't bring himself to turn to look. The alien commander shuffled through a pocket on his breast, after a moment withdrawing a small green box. He handed the box to Sarah. "Take it. You use it Piłsudski I don't want him to touch it. Everything you hear you bring to me personally. You've got bottom floor access. Use it."

Sarah took the box, hand squeezing around Layman's as she nodded. "I promise you won't regret this."

"Don't say that, the last person who said that I lost at Milwaukee. Along with half of the First Team. Xavier scoffed. "Dismissed. Both of you, bring the grey back to his cell."

Layman rose immediately, the contents of the small box near certain and he was ready to begone. Sarah rose a bit slower, pocketing the green box and turned to face Xavier. "Commander?" She gave a small bow to the commanding alien. "Thank you, we're going to win."

Xavier said nothing as Sarah turned, leading Layman and Singh out of the room. Layman's thoughts falling back to the slow and dreadful state upstairs.

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

"Lygtagt-Kaigari!"

The coarse call made the receiving psion beside Rymmyl jerk back with a flush of lime green sparks, the Blue blood commander himself did not shift. The bright day outside and the long period of focus removed the capacity for such. The receiving psions and the lesser Lygtagti throughout the command block hissed and growled as a familiar Lygtagt burst into the room. Lygtagt Trskow looked halfway into the burial pit, arm in a sling and his commander's attire stained with blue and olive. He'd been caught in a xenos ambush three Imperial nights ago. But still he kept going, even now with the way he looked like he was half out of his mind as he scanned the room. "Lygtagt-Kaigari- Rymmyl!" The blue Lygtagt barked as he finally saw Rymmyl.

"Lygtagt Trskow?" Rymmyl asked as the haggard Lygtagt stumbled forward, his attempt at a bow nearly sending him tipping with a fall prevented only by a receiving psion grabbing the back of his shirt. Trskow jerked up, and for the first time Rymmyl saw fear run through his Lygtagt.

His pupil's shook, his voice wavered. "Bad blood Arhwyx the accursed High Legislacerator is descending! What do we-"

Rymmyl spoke immediately, voice calm and loud. There was no a single troll in this room that would survive in the event the High legislacerator found something. "Go hide everything in the lofts. Feed what you can't hide to that fat bastard Goerin's lusus. I'll deal with the Legis myself." He pressed forward, hissing into Trskow's ear. "Get to your pod, you look half culled and you'll only get yourself killed if she gets at you."

The overly proud Lygtagt's hiss sounded near to a death rattle. "Sir-"

"Do it Trskow." Rymmyl ordered and walked, leaving the command center behind as every troll in the room hustled to see everything they had put together destroyed or hidden.

Behind Trskow's growl was choked and only half heard. "Yes sir."

The walk out of the mobile command center came impossibly slowly. Rymmyl's thoughts immediately going to Marcyg, Leijon and Degaal. He hissed as he walked out into the daylight. The exterior of the command center mercifully devoid of trolls, the day bright and the air fresh. He pulled his hand up, accessing the small purple communicator on his wrist. He detested such things, particularly when he was now a stone's throw from everyone he actually wished to speak to but in times like these one had to do away with petty wants.

The olive linked in on the first ring, Rymmyl spoke immediately. "Marcyg hide yourself and the Disciple in the upper venting."

The rough voice of his moirail spoke up more indignant that confused. "Why on-"

"Pyrope is here. If she gets one whiff of her we're all dead. On the books you're off on another continental body."

There was not a second of static. "Understood Arhwyx. I'll word to Degaal." The communicator clicked off. Rymmyl hissed as he took off the communicator, hiding it in an inner pocket of his coat and taking off as fast as he could to the command sight's landing zone. Eyes scanning the bright blue skies for an unwanted pale ship that carried a terror lizard trapped in a troll's body.

Rymmyl supposed he should have expected this, after all it had felt like things were proceeding too quickly. It had been woefully easy bringing his Lgytagti into the fold, some like Trskow had been with Rymmyl for sweeps and would follow him into the void and back. Everyone besides that idiot Goerin who had been sent off to pursue alien's in their most contested territory stood beside him in his plotting. Something had been bound to happen, Vykjiit exacerbating the situation, Haeiig attempting to put his foot down. Perhaps even lesser Legislacerators.

But the High Legislacerator? That felt baffling.

Few were trolls with any authority over a Lygtagt-Kaigari, the hand of the Empress's Justice was one of them. It had been sweeps since he'd last seen her in the flesh, but the stories were many and filled the space between encounters. Fearless, merciless and more than willing to cut down sea bloods just as easily as any Rust. Worse Rymmyl had no idea what to expect, her usual reputation had been shifted by a wild series of hunts as of late. Truthfully he'd only half paid attention to the news. It seemed like she had been busy cutting a swathe through the admiralty.

Throw in a rather nasty falling out with her Moirail and Pyrope was the last troll Rymmyl expected at his proverbial door.

He reached the landing zone, the large empty space muddied and blackened by supply shuttles and troop transports. Outside and in the daylight he felt naked and exposed. He forced himself into a state of control. Mind already rolling on how to contain the situation. Pyrope could smell weakness, his subordinates would crack if she had at them. He would have to shoulder this. Oh Void, he preferred to be the hammer rather than the anvil, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

The high pitched shriek of a shuttle far above cut his thoughts. The forced calm like something when he'd first piloted armour. Panic and fear would fill the void if he flinched. One wrong move and it was over. Rymmyl shifted and watched the blaring white shuttle grow in size, a pure white living beast descending with all the swiftness and focus of a terror lizard. The shriek of the craft winding down as it slowed to a heavy rumble. Stopping outright overhead and blotting out the alien sun.

Rymmyl did not move as the white ship dropped. Hand coming up and adjusting his cap. One last thought payed to the two olives sitting on his shuttle. Do it for them.

The pale shuttle landed with a final thrum before him, casting dust all about. The smell of ozone mixing with the smells of sea and troll. Rymmyl cleared his mind and stepped forward.

The perfect leader, simply seeing to his victory.

The ivory doors before him pealed open with a casualness kind to a terrible predator, the crimson gaze of the High Legislacerator greeting the Lygtagt-Kaigari. The sharp smile of cutting fangs widening as Hyralx Pyrope slowly stepped out of her shuttle. Dressed in the teal and black attire of a common Legislacerator, Rymmyl would not even recognize her outright were it not for the bright red glasses, the white cane of office and the unusual crimson boots. Perhaps a slight against her once moirail dyed in human crimson?

Rymmyl's smile was genuine, it was only fair to greet the void with a usual giddiness. His bow to the teal was short but low. "Hail to you, your Honourable Tyranny in the blood."

The High Legislacerator cackled and paid him a courtesy bow in turn. "And to you Rymmyl. It has been a long while hasn't it?"

"Indeed, a dozen sweeps at least." Rymmyl nodded slowly as the shuttle doors behind the Legis shut. "I'll assume that you aren't visiting out of dalliance or anything trivial of the like, High Legislacerator. I've heard you've been very busy."

The Legislacerator's cackle was not doured in the slightest. "Yes. You could say that. So many crimes to prosecute, so many lawless brigands to kill." Pyrope stepped past Rymmyl, looking over the many landed ships of the joint command center. She turned, looking out at the alien island. From here, one could see most of the land, in the distance below were the command center's of the Genitori and Degaal. "Quite the setup you've made for yourself Old-Beast of the Desert."

"It is little enough but it has served its purpose quite well, this island has proven useful for our organizational retrofits."

"Is that what you're calling this insubordination now?" The High Legislacerator laugh dug into his ears like the noise of an enemy shell glancing off his Armour.

Rymmyl returned a dour chuckle. "I should hope our beloved Suprek Lygtagt-Kaigari hasn't been gracing your ears with his dribble. The man has put this off for sweeps."

Hyralx snickered. "Oh he's been utterly inconsolable. However you understand you are technically committing treason?"

"If we're committing treason then I should hope we will be accompanied by the rest of the army when it decides it doesn't wish to throw itself to the meat grinder. Along with Haeiig and those Vykjiit for their own technical treasons." The Lygtagt-Kaigari shrugged. The perfect leader taking things into his own hands.

Worryingly the near giddy look of the High Legislacerator did not sour. "I'd forgotten you had quite the mouth. Normally you'd lose your tongue for that type of talk. Void permit me I've taken out quiet a few Sea dweller tongues this perigee."

A biting worm came in the back of his gut, Rymmyl showed nothing. "Normally we'd be well and goodly finished. But our circumstances are hardly normal High Legislacerator."

"I will give you that." The High Legislacerator turned to face the command center. "Walk with me would you?"

Again Rymmyl nodded, with all the speed a weary commanding officer was due for a 'superior.' "Very well."

Though she was petite, Hyralx Pyrope walked quickly. Fast enough he had to push himself to keep pace with the Teal. Rymmyl noted faint adjustments of her head, likely her eyes were scanning everything. She seemingly paid no mind to Rymmyl at first, her words admittedly catching him off-guard. "Tell me, do you know why I'm here Lygtagt-Kaigari?"

"I'd assume that you've come to remind my people of their duties to the throne and a certain Sea Blood." Rymmyl said.

The High Legislacerator's cackle was vicious. "Hardly kind of you to play the idiot Rymmyl."

A small wince, contained to the hands he quickly wrapped behind his back. "Perhaps I've been infected by a strain of optimism."

The High Legislacerator either did not notice the gesture, or more likely said nothing of it as she pressed onwards, seemingly at random. "I'd advise you get that treated, I've been told it's terminal. No, I have reasonable evidence that a number of fairly significant officers have been plotting treason. To an unknown extent and of unknown numbers. But I can smell something foul."

Rymmyl's brow lowered, the Legislacerator was prodding. "I'd heard of an extermination group placed under priest command going rogue. Perhaps-"

The Teal cut him off with the sort of impudence reserved for Priests and Sea Bloods. "No, it isn't the solid sort of treason. Nothing so pleasant and easy to cull." Her laugh turned humorless, perhaps even a little bitter. "No, it's not even liquid treason, the sort that seeps through the cracks but can still be dealt with." She stopped outright, turning on Rymmyl. "It's a vaporous treason, that, that without the core being found out? It's the kind that will keep spreading until it is burned from the air."

The High Legislacerator's unseen glare bit into Rymmyl, it felt like something hard was building in his throat. A little accommodation needed. "Followers of the Sufferer?"

Hyralx laughed as she turned and began walking again, forcing Rymmyl's increasingly stiff stride to keep pace. "Clever blue. But hardly the only ephemeral bunch out there. Perhaps it is void seekers who have become obsessed with such a soldiers cult. Perhaps it is something older, ancestral worshipers kind to those Vykjiit." Another laugh, more kind to a beast than a troll. "Regardless of what they are, I know they're here. And I intend to deal with them."

"And what evidence do you have of that?" Rymmyl asked dourly, perfect leader tired of interference.

Hyralx did not give any pause to the stop, as the pair turned about to a worryingly familiar path. "Enough I'm certain. Enough I'm not going to give you anything as in this investigation it's better to assume the worst."

"Ah." The Lygtagt-Kaigari managed. "I'll hope you're not simply leading me out behind the proverbial farming equipment block to be stabbed to death."

The hum of the High Legislacerator came forced. "Not yet, though perhaps I'll change my mind." A moment of pause. "What do you know of Lygtagt Trskow?"

Of course. Rymmyl did not need to act to roll his eyes. "A good soldier, a better leader but stone horned and lead skulled. I can see how you would suspect him."

"And I assume that you'll be putting your hide out for him?" The High legislacerator questioned as they reached the mobile command center, mercifully the teal did not turn or pause. The pair kept walking.

"If we lose someone I'd rather have him as an option for a replacement Lygtagt-Kaigari. If Haeiig gets his way-" The teal let out a flat chittering tsk as she slowed. The sharpness in Rymmyl's throat growing as he realized the entrance to his shuttle was only a few steps away. "Pyrope-"

The High Legislacerator's tsks cut the half formed words down. "I can't believe you still fly about in this old model Rymmyl. I'm surprised the old thing hasn't crashed on you." She paused, tapping her cane against the ground as she turned to face him. Expression flat and unreadable. "Why don't we talk inside?" Rymmyl found himself unable to say anything. The teal's soft hiss of dissatisfaction came as venomous as a serpent. "Unless you'd prefer I open the door?" Pyrope withdrew a small white orb from her pocket.

Had to trust in them. Rymmyl kept his voice much the same as he could, unable to flatten a faint back chitter. "Very well, but I can tell you you'll be disappointed. Likely disgusted as well, I've not had much time to clean up after myself." He stepped lightly forward, opening the door without pause. Before he could even say anything Pyrope walked into the shuttle, with the confidence due of a High Legislacerator. Rymmyl followed a moment later.

Mercifully Marcyg and Lejion had cleaned up after themselves, leaving only Rymmyl's bedding on the floor behind. The plating above that Lejion had ambushed him from done up tightly. Like nothing was wrong, and Marcyg Petang was far away. But the High Legislacerator's sniffing cut away any confidence like flesh under a blade. She walked around the shuttle, scanning like the predator she was. Rymmyl stood silent and still, the doors behind shutting with a press of the Legislacerator's master key.

Her pause came relaxed, she turned to Rymmyl. "Quite the humble boarding I must say." The cane prodded at the dull woven sheets on the floor. "Sleeping on the ground like some common lusus?"

Rymmyl was quiet for a moment, as the High Legislacerator approached. Cane in both hands. He forced a shrug. "What can I say? I'm not exactly interested in anything greater at the moment." The High Legislacerator smiled as she twisted the cane, hand pulling up on the canehead to reveal a long and wicked blade. All fast enough he could barely move before the edge of the hidden short sword rested on his neck. "Ah. So it will be like this then."

Again the High Legislacerator tsked, but without an edge now. "Now now Rymmyl. I haven't culled you yet. We're simply having a nice little chat." The blade dug into his skin enough to draw blood, Rymmyl's hand paused halfway to the sidearm at his hip. "I'd really like to just have that Old-Beast. But if someone tries to stop that conversation?" The petite Legislacerator's fingers flexed around the handle of her blade. "My hand? It might just- slip." Rymmyl kept his hand still, it would take only a second to grasp his gun, another to level it. But that meant little here. After a moment Hyralx chuckled humorlessly. "So, how long have you been a traitor Arhwyx?"

Rymmyl forced a smile to his face, void a single slash away now. "I wouldn't say ever really. Unless you're taking Haeiig seriously. He whines like I personally cooked and ate his moirail."

The High Legislacerator cackled. "Oh please, we both know what I'm talking of." Rymmyl could not speak for a moment, the dig of the blade coming with an automatic precision of a troll forged for interrogation. "Remember who is holding the blade Lygtagt-Kaigari."

His smile remained though Rymmyl barred his teeth. "When I realized my soldiery were going to bleed for nothing on this world's soil."

The teal's laugh bit into Rymmyl as the blade withdrew a claw's length back. "That wasn't that hard was it?"

There it was, nothing to do now but struggle or die. Experience in armoured warfare had taught that blades and hammers were just as effective as bombs and ranged weapons in enclosed combat. Two trolls could kill each other pointlessly in the belly of a ship, but he himself could at least give everyone else a chance. "You know that it will take me a few seconds to go into shock if you slit my throat?"

The High Legislacerator's grin widened. "Yes, maybe you'll even be able to blow my head off, leaving the two of us dead. I want to keep this nice and civil. Neither of us want to perish."

Rymmyl scoffed. "Am I to believe I'll survive? I know well enough how this dance ends."

"Perhaps. Perhaps you simply make it known as to why you decided to turn treasonous. Perhaps a miracle happens." The blade rested against a vein on his neck, scratching against his skin. "Hand away from the gun, all the way up. Nice and easy." The little space gained by the slow approach of his hand was relinquished, he raised both his hands up. "There we are. Now. Who are you working with?"

"Alone. I tried to avoid implicating anyone else in my actions. The Genitori would kill me himself, the others are blunt but loyal. Even my Lygtagtii are blind."

A slight chuckle, mirthful as a priest in painting. "But are they deaf?"

"Much as I can make them."

Pyrope sniffed the air, her teeth barred outright. "What is your end game?"

"Putting my foot firmly and squarely up the ass of your former moirail and the Vykjiit high command Madam Pyrope." Rymmyl responded bluntly.

"No Imperial ambitions?" Pyrope questioned with a note of incredulity. Out of the corner of his eye Rymmyl noted movement.

Words came automatically in response, keep her occupied. "Imperial ambitions only get trolls killed, particularly when its fighting against other trolls." A questioning trill came from the High Legislacerator. Rymmyl chittered in frustration as a nervousness finally began seizing hold of him. "Surely you've noticed the foolishness that has gone on since we landed? The culling counter hasn't stopped rising. When we began this reconfiguration the cullings might have dropped but open desertion has skyrocketed. Haeiig's ineptitude and the upper brutality of the irregular forces is ripping the soldiery apart. This struggle is unsustainable."

Grating laughter chewed at the Lygtagt-Kaigari's ears. "Odd phrasing wasn't that?" The blade scraped down the edge of his neck. "Dare I imagine I have a traitor that's against the Empire itself? Oh it has been a very long time since we had something so brazen." Rymmyl flinched as the blade dug into his neck, near to his core and not vital but it was enough. With it came a low and horribly familiar growl. Pyrope's response was almost giddy though she kept still. "Hello there, Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul. A little out of place aren't you?" Marcyg's growling came at an attack pitch but he didn't move. "Eloquent as always. You looked near to culling yourself the last time I saw you at an Imperial Dawnbanquet. Was that two sweeps ago now when you were dragged in?"

The growling finally started to resemble something akin to speech, Rymmyl casting a look over to the Olive blood. He was crouched low, prepared to strike, but unmoving. Only half dressed Rymmyl could see the scars laden across his chest, the punch dagger in his striking hand. "About that."

"Quiet the standoff we have here." The High Legislacerator chuckled, her confidence either an unnerving bluff or genuine. "But you know you can't win Petang."

"I wouldn't say that-" The words disintegrated into violent cracking as the blade in Rymmyl's neck dug in a hair's length deeper, bringing another flinch.

"He's your moirail isn't he?" The glib tone of the Legislacerator was more suited to a game of chirp-creatures. Still, the Olive remained paralyzed, unable to do much else but growl. "I thought as much. Tell me what I want to know and I won't cull him."

Oh that was bad. "Marcyg-"

"Shut up Arhwyx." Marcyg spat, red eyes trained on the back of the High Legislacerator's head. "What do you want to know?"

"Just what exactly do you two want?"

"An end to the empire. Everything it stood for." Marcyg growled, Rymmyl winced at the bluntness of the words.

Pyrope's laugh was deep and loud. "Ambitious." The teal said.

Marcyg's growling took a fevered tone. "Hardly, we're dying down here for nothing. I just-" Rymmyl looked away as Marcyg's words became desperate. "I just want to stop this bloodshed."

The Legislacerator tsk'd like a jade chastizing a grub. "And what would come from that? You two would create an anarchy from which another monarch would rise. Without the hold her Imperious Condescension has. Something dominated by trolls kind to the Vykjiit. I could have sworn you hated them, not wanted them in charge." Marcyg's cracking snarls were joined by another snarl, up above in the shipwork. Pyrope whistled and looked back up to Rymmyl. "Goodness, do you have a fetish for olives or something?"

Sweat ran down into the cuts on his neck, blue staining his front. Rymmyl managed a faint shrug and a half hearted smile. "That's just the state of affairs I've been dealt."

"So." Pyrope laughed and turned back to look at Marcyg. "Are you truly committed to this treason?"

"Yes." No hesitation, void have mercy.

"Marcyg-" Rymmyl hissed.

"I said shut up Arhwyx!" Marcyg howled, olive in the face and with a look of murder aimed at the High Legislacerator. "I'm going to fight and die fighting if need be so no troll ever has to die fighting on some void forsaken alien world. So we never have another like you, you red eyed scallowterror."

The bite of the blade into Rymmyl's neck kept him still, kept Marcyg from moving. Above Lejion's snarls had cooled. The High Legislacerator looked back up to Rymmyl for a moment. Her laughter came with that unnerving giddyness. Rising to take a tone expected out of an Indigo Subjugglator than a teal, loud enough her small body did not seem to be the source of it. Rymmyl braced for the final bite of the blade, for the seal to break and for everything to fail. Yet it did not.

The mania drained from the laughter, souring in the absence of glee. The fanged grin of the Legislacerator aimed up at Rymmyl. "Interesting. Isn't it? Tell me Roaring Beast, how much would you sacrifice for this fever dream?"

"Everything." Marcyg spat.

Rymmyl breath stopped, a half formed plan to retreat as the- Legislacerator's blade dropped. His body tensed in confusion. The withdrawn blade hung in the air for a moment. "Well." The High Legislacerator laughed as the mania in her tone returned, the blade sheathed back in the cane. "Then do I have an offer for you traitors."

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere under the Northern Ural Mountain Range

Borya considered the state of his liver as he soured the glass of water in his hand with a few drops of gin. Likely it was the rust and lead in the pipes he should be worrying over. But he could not bring himself to care about his liver or lead poisoning as he drank the bitter cleansed drink.

Borya Smirnov was not a tall man at five foot five, nor was he particularly intimidating. At least he did not think himself to be. He still wore the frayed police uniform he'd worn on the day the world had suffered the 'Süülchiin tsokhilt'* as the east technicians called it. His uniform front stapled with medals he did not deserve handed off to him by men who did the actual fighting. Behind his desk he imagined he cast an undeserved aura of authority. His face was rough, marred by scars from a car accident in youth, enhancing his heavy jaw and low brow. His head hair shaved low but his beard was long and ragged. Dark brown eyes nearly black and his vacant look easily mistaken for one of malice. It was why the big man holding out in what was left of Saint Petersburg had sent him here.

Perhaps the stern faced general whose name escaped him had realized there was not much substance to Borya. In fairness to the general there was little fighting needed here, only observation and security. Allow the intellectuals and engineers to do their work. A few hundred feet of stone between the invaders and one allowed a small ease to them. But to Borya the depth of it made him a little ill. It was not the only thing bothering him. Many things bothered Borya, thoughts of the outside world, the current predicament he found himself in, the sweaty bulky man doing pull-ups on the other side of the room.

Sasha Timoshenko was the second in command of the RVSNRF and one of the few people to not stumble into their position by virtue of the rest of the senior staff being obliterated. Six and a half feet tall, shaved platinum blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a form built more closely to silverback gorilla than a human in terms of muscle and fat. It seemed whenever things were not pressing Sasha would simply return to his pullups. Not to say he was stupid, he was some kind of rocket scientist which Borya supposed made sense, with him being partially responsible for the Federation's nuclear arsenal. It was just that he had all the social reflexes of an actual Gorilla.

He looked like something out of a cartoon in the old office, the paired wooden desks and chairs artless and plain, lockers dusty in the back with the only other furnishing a picture of Stalin and Lenin on the wall Borya was certain had been there for decades.

Borya finished his cup of bitter water and placed the empty glass down on his desk beside the teal bottle of Bombay gin. On his desk was all manner of important papers that were run past him despite the fact he was just a police man from bum fuck nowhere. Or maybe that was why they used him, as the idiot to make sure nothing blaring stuck out.

Retrofits. Always about the retrofits. The tricolour stamped on most of the papers made him uneasy. Commandement des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques had handed them their last hope. Whoever they were. "Ey, Sasha? Should we worry were the Franks got these STAM** templates?"***

Sasha said nothing for three pullups. Borya thought that the bulky man was ignoring him again until the groaning response came. "No."

"No?" Borya questioned, half wanting talk just to fill the fucking emptiness of the Brezhnev styled office.

Another two pull-ups until finally Sasha dropped from the metal bar. He turned to Borya with a look of mild annoyance, red in the face and body pealing with sweat. "If those mongoloids sent us terrible conversion templates it's on them when the extraterrestrials wipe them out." Sasha walked over to his own desk, blank besides a number of old cans of tuna and a dirtied towel. He picked up the stained cloth and began wiping himself down. "Seems like the rest of the planet's stockpiles were neutralized. I sincerely doubt the Levant alliance's total three missiles are going to do much against the aliens."

"All I'm saying is that we're placing a lot of trust in the Euros." Borya asked as Sasha tossed the towel aside.

The muscular man laughed. "They're trusting us with a nuclear cache of ICBM's that have been sitting underground since Chernenko was in office. The situation unfortunately requires we all play nice." He shook his head. "To be honest, I'm amazed that these things weren't in worse condition. Considering how some of the storage locations out west looked we're lucky this isn't a Grigoryevich job."

The buzz of the phone on the wall made Borya shift, Sasha walked over to the small internal comm and answered. Silent as always. After a moment he placed the receiver back down.

The quickness of the message brought a pang of worry to Borya's gut. "Whose it? Not another fucking suicide I hope."

"Yuri wants us. Says some of the Americans have finally gotten into contact proper." The giant man shook his head as he walked to the coat rack in the corner, tossing on his uniform coat.

Borya couldn't keep himself from scoffing. "To offer help or to ask for it?"

"Offer." Sasha almost smiled as he opened the door.

Still Borya rolled his eyes as he rose to his feet. "Oh good. I was worried they'd finally gotten their civil war cocks off."

Together they walked out of their 'office.' They were stationed near to the front of the underground base, outside they walked down a roadway meant to supply the base from the outside world, the giant hulking doors behind had been welded shut a decade ago when the base had been 'decommissioned.' Ahead down the roadway tunnel flickering lights the walls were stacked high with debris from the missiles. Occasionally they passed labourers who ignored the odd pair. Sasha liked that. The humility earning a slightly softer look. "It's a strange time to be living in. Moscow no longer exists, the Levant is unified and we're proper pals with the Americans."

"And all it took is a global patriotic war." Borya snorted.

The base itself opened slowly before them, like the bloodworks of the ancient Leviathan. The vast complex had housed many ICBM's before this and now it held what might have been the human race's last hope. Buried far beneath the earth, being worked upon by weary men from afar. The concrete floor turned to soft-shaded tile, and through the corridors many voices from the west and east hissed and spat. Bickering was constant. Translators few and far between. Oh, the delirious irony, most of the Federation nuclear personnel had been lost with the rest of her nuclear caches, forcing them to bring half a hundred Finns and Mongols to oversee the retrofits.

Ultimately that was just fine for Borya, who couldn't understand a fucking word of it. Sasha and Yuri could handle it. He was just there to look scary and ensure things were kept clean. In time the technicians were passed, and the only noise that came was the hum of the fans and their own footsteps. The door to the big man's room was open and waiting. The guard outside sallow eyed, not even looking at Borya and Sasha as they walked in.

Yuri Levin preferred the quiet of the desiccated interior. The enigmatic head of the RVSNRF seemed half like a terrible super villain from some western move. It did not help that he dressed himself in an old Brezhnev era officer's uniform. He was a thick fat man that seemed to be constantly smoking, never running out of cigarettes. His hair grey and mostly gone leaving his head shiny and dark with moles. His jowels hung heavy and he possessed a second chin. But Yuri's green eyes were sharp as knives and piercing as radiation.

If there was a man in this glorified bunker Borya was afraid of, it was Yuri.

Sasha however seemingly held no fear of him, walking in and addressing the older man, who sat leaned back in his chair. "Yuri. What have you got for us?"

The wry devil's smile looked natural on the older man's head. He turned in his chair to face them, pushing a page over to the second in command. "Oh, I'm sure you gentlemen are going to enjoy this."

Sasha picked up the paper, frowning as Borya tried to peer over his shoulder. He cursed when he realized what language the message was written in. "Sasha what does it say? You speak English right?"

"Is this just-" Sasha began, but stopped. "No. They actually did it?"

Yuri cackled and leaned back and exhaling like a chimney. "What did I say Doctor Timoshenko? Peruvians and the Caucus bunch confirmed their resting orbit. But we're going to need to step up the retrofits. Fast or they'll dart off on us again." He snapped his fingers and shot Borya a piercing look. "I'll be expecting things to speed up around here, mister Smirnov!"

Borya nodded, even if he could do literally nothing but glare at the technicians.

Beside him Sasha shook his head. "We still need to come up with a way to keep the missiles from getting skull-fucked by their point defense weapons."

"One thing at a time Sasha."

Chapter Text

- Somewhere in the rubble of the Near East

The dulled explosions in the distance rumbled constantly. Night and day, east and west and north and south. A rolling thunder of mortar fire and anti aircraft guns that never really stopped. Constantly on the move. To the point where Yossi could ignore them most of the time. Occasionally though a close one would draw his attention, if it was close enough his ears would begin ringing. He was one of the lucky ones. Moshe had been left near deaf from his time with the mortars, Sayid may well have been entirely deaf considering his mute state.

Yossi supposed he should be grateful for his fortune. But it was hard to be grateful though when you were huddled in a half collapsed building. The debris strewn courtyard ahead empty. Only recently had Moshe pointed out their strange locals. To his right the collapsed church of the Holy Sepulcher, the halved minaret of the Mosque of Omar stood on the left. Most of the prayer tower had tumbled down, its crumpled form responsible for the battered layer of rubble in the courtyard before him. Dreadfully, both had fared the best of the Old city's buildings. Most of the streets had been turned into tunnels and canyons of debris, most structures crumbled under the day of bombardment.

They'd been here for two weeks, the battle for the Old City demanded it. Little support, to the point where Layla and Moshe had needed to scavenge for food. Rare where the times when Front command sent orders, those that were mere shufflings of holdings, being pushed back deeper and deeper into Jerusalem. Apparently the majority of their forces had been focused around securing Nabitieh up north. At lease Moshe claimed that, there was no way to confirm it as the squad radio had died a few days ago.

Yossi been lying on his stomach for what felt like since dawn, a pilfered and dust sodden red rug the only thing between him and the rocks that filled half the doorway. The doors had been a casualty of the bombardment, and the rubble piled up forming a makeshift bunker.

The air stank of smoke and human sweat, the day was windless and cloudless. The sun hung directly overhead, scorching the earth with an unnatural heat. Sweat beaded down Yossi's head but he did not move. His finger remained resting on the trigger of his IWI Negev. The compact machine gun the only thing cared for at the moment.

Yossi Ben-Zvi himself was in a rough state, his field uniform was covered in so much dust one would think it coloured a uniform light brown, his boots scuffed and battered. The only part of his uniform not covered in dust was the Kalifah scarf wrapped around his neck, dark grey and green, sodden with sweat. He did not look any older than he was at nineteen. His dark brown hair shaved down to his head, sporadic scruff covering most chin and neck. His skin was dark with a heavy tan, his blue eyes half lidded.

Beside, the man spotting for him was entirely different. Still dressed in civilian clothes, Hussein Kanafani had so much wiry black hair he resembled a lion. His once green jacket and blue jeans were browned by the dust, his running shoes near to failing from the abuse of the old city's streets. Despite being only a little younger than Yossi his beard was full and scarcely contained, his abandoned hair long enough it now rested on his shoulders. His skin was dark, his eyes a soft shade of mossy brown. In spite of everything there was still something soft in Hussein's look. It made the old Galil rifle in his hands a bit jarring.

Still, Yossi couldn't have asked for a better spotter. It was never uncomfortable to have Hussein at his side, unlike Saul who radiated contempt. If they actually survived, Yossi would need to find some way to recompense both Moshe and Sayid for putting up with the intolerable dickhead. Find some way to compensate Hussein for- everything.

An explosion beyond, perhaps only a street away shook the ground beneath them. Brick and motor shuddered as the Minaret of Omar shrank another foot. "They're getting close."* Hussein murmured, nervously licking his lips."Think they're actually hitting those flyers?"

"I should hope so."** Yossi said softly, ears straining for any sound beyond. He heard nothing, the rumbles shifting off a ways. "This waiting is getting ridiculous. We're going to starve to death in this hole before they reach us."

They watched together on their bellies side by side, scanning for any movement as the rumbling softened. But like the past few days there was nothing. Nothing aside the waves of tumultuous warfare abroad. Always looking, pressing for the lean horned figures to traipse past.

None came, and after a while Hussein slumped back, scanning the shadows.

The tap on the shoulder came not unexpected. "Eh Yossi, do you mind if I?" Hussein turned his head back for a moment.

Yossi nodded. "Yes. Just get Saul."

Hussein shifted, rolling back down behind and out of sight. Much as it might take his focus five times a day, Hussein's prayer schedule at least kept track of time. Time for Yossi was no longer measured in numbers, but by sunlight and Salah. He licked his lips as Hussein's steps paused, a tapping coming behind with a grumble following. Yossi managed to avoid wincing as Saul Steiner managed to call Hussein something incredibly foul but not out of the ordinary.

Hussein said nothing, at this point he and his sister had come to shoulder the soldier's verbal abuses. Another thing Yossi would have to pay back if he actually got out of this. Half recognized mumbles came behind, as another set of steps approached. Saul slumped down, hand clearing the sleep from his eyes. A scowl aimed out at the courtyard beyond. He wore the same IDF uniform as Yossi, but significantly less dusty. Helmet already affixed to his head, hiding his light brown hair. Dim brown eyes filled with the usual contempt.

"Anything?" Saul Grumbled.

"No." Yossi replied.

Saul scoffed and flattened himself down against the debris. "Of course. Thief's a working clock at least."

"For the last time Saul he didn't touch your fucking pudding."

The other soldier grumbled something that rhymed with Tamil-Pucker in English translation and fortunately fell silent. A faint breeze bringing more smoke and dust past overhead. Gone in a few moments providing little relief as the sun's light dimmed beneath the artificial cloud cover. Yossi blinked as some sweat reached his eye, bringing a stinging sensation. Nothing new at this point.

Hussein's prayers finished, sounds of small talk between himself and Layla coming, Moshe's voice distinct too, faint enough the words were indecipherable. Steps. "I brought water." The canteen was pressed at his side, Saul eagerly pulling up as Hussein laid back down in his usual position. A few shuffled footsteps back and Saul squatted, breathing low and heavy enough he seemed near to sleeping again.

The sharp burst of rumbling that heralded a wave of blasts was unexpected, a continuous roar encroaching on the squad of holdouts. The shrieking overhead half-hidden by the concussive blasts, blaring past as the earth groaned. Hard enough a prayer was paid to the old stone building, shaking with. Something tumbled down out of sight up ahead, bring a black cloud of smoke down with it. Hussein cursed as the shrieking faded. But from behind a deep laugh came.

"Ha, they finally brought out the old Neshers! Those have been sitting in a hole somewhere since Seventy three!" Heavier steps behind, Yossi managed to relinquish the hold on his Negev, hands coming to the back of his head to keep away the trembling. Moshe Reichmann was a tall lean man, hair long since turned grey with his brow heavyset, half hiding his near black brown eyes. His officer's uniform torn and ragged but his beaming smile in spite of his broken front teeth. "Seems we're finally getting back air superiority. Sounds like their flyers aren't prepped for air to air."

"You're people actually have planes left?" Layla sounded surprised more than anything else, like Hussein she seemed out of her league. Her medics uniform had long since lost and she wore civilian clothes like her brother, a plain once white shirt and grey vest, khaki shorts discoloured with blood. Like her brother her hair was thick, but braided tightly behind her head in a strict bun, eyes more amber than green. Look typically serious, but it seemed to fit her well.

"I imagine we had a few arsenals prepared for whenever the next war broke out and things soured." Moshe chuckled grimly, looking out of the bunker at the ruins of Jerusalem's old city. "Hopefully this means the rest of front's put together as much as it can. They must have secured the Lebanese and the Iranians finally have gotten off their butts."

"Speak fucking Hebrew would you?" Saul growled. Yossi turning back out to the open courtyard before the other conscript could start bickering.

"No. You bitter Tkuma shit." Yossi wiped his hands off on his scarf and his finger returned to the trigger, arm releveling the machine gun as his eyes scanned the courtyard.

Truthfully he passed by the small pale grey skinned figure on his first sweep of the outside. He didn't know if it was the roiling clouds of dust and the fresh encroaching smoke from the aerial bombardment still ongoing in the distance or simply the sheer mundanity of the creature. It was not until Hussein seized up that he noticed it.

Small, smaller than he'd ever seen from the aliens. And he'd seen many in the past few months. Mostly dead ones. All dressed in grey, bleeding ever colour of the fucking rainbow. Armed with torches that could melt through an armoured car in moments and wicked blades. Giants all, beside the tiny grey that stumbled forward. It- she couldn't have been more that three feet tall. Half covered in black course hair from her head. Stumbling forward seemingly blindly. She had four horns curling softly upwards, and her arms and legs dripped a thick dark yellow. Blood.

"Tell me you see that thing right?" Hussein sounded almost desperate, and Yossi could do little but stare. "Yossi everyone one of those demons has been a soldier right?"

"Fuck I think that's actually a kid." The feeling of illness grew as the small alien stumbled and fell. Naked aside from a small sheet of grey cloth wrapped around her waist.

The click of a galil's safety behind Yossi made him turn, Saul was already aiming at the alien. The disgust came immediately. He pushed aside the barrel before he could get a hold and for a moment Yossi wondered if Saul was going to shoot him instead. "What are you doing you fucking idiot!?"

"Just fucking hold on one-"

"Cover me." Hussein's growl drew the attention of both men, his Galil laid down and old model ten revolver drawn. Before Yossi or anyone else could say anything, the other man darted out into the courtyard.

"You fucking Idiot!" Layla howled as Yossi darted back down to his Negev, unable to do anything but cover Hussein as he stumbled over the ruble towards the yellow blooded girl. She jerked back in panic, stumbling and falling on her face.

The red eyes came into view behind, the half rounded pupils immediately familiar. It's form half hidden by billowing smoke, massive like an otherworldly goliath. "DROP!"

Hussein fell immediately, and Yossi opened fire.

Yossi had learned the hard way how the alien's reacted to bullets. Only time a single shot ever killed them was when a sharpshooter or a sniper put something into their head. Even the small ones usually took three shots to the chest to put down. One to stop, one to drop, and one to confirm. Everything upwards in height got stronger and more resilient. Yossi had only seen a round pupil'd giant only once. A five meter creature that had ripped the entire turret off a Palestinian Panhard AML and used it to swat aside an IDF serviceman like a fly.

The spray of fully automatic five point fifty six by forty five millimeter fire found the monster's horrific face. The roar of three Galils behind lodging round after round into the giant. It managed to take three steps forward before it final tumbled down in a spray of Indigo that coloured the dusty rocks. The moment Yossi stopped firing Hussein rolled over to the yellow blooded girl, scooping her up and darting back to the impromptu bunker.

"Tell that fucking Camel Jockey if he does that again I'm going to fucking-" Saul was cut off by Moshe.

"Leave discipline to you're superior Steiner." The taller man hissed as he half dragged Hussein inside, the small alien chittering low, a faint whirring noise coming with it. Like an ancient radio near the end of its life. "Kanafani I will kick you out of this hole and use you as bait if you do anything so stupid again."

"Gladly gladly." Hussein nodded, carrying the alien child inside to the back. Yossi jerked when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

Sayid it seemed had been woken, a stern looking man who had not said a word in the weeks Yossi had known him. Dressed in only in a sweat stained blue t-shirt and pair of thick brown camouflage pants, he was perhaps the cleanest person in the room. His eyes were dark brown, hair short and black mixed with some small grey white strands, though it was hidden under the helmet and brown mitznefet cover. Another tap on the shoulder, fingers darting to Saul and where Yossi lay.

"Thanks." Yossi rolled up, allowing the other man to take his place and the machine gun. Saul quickly filling in Hussein's place as watcher.

While not exactly comfortable, the holdout room was at least 'lived-in' at this point. The back of the room entirely covered in debris from the partially collapsed ceiling, any furniture long since tossed with the rugs used to make the watch position somewhat more comfortable. Three worn out light patrol sleeping bags laid out in the corner beside the various scavenged supplies and what was left of their assignment gear and all the remaining ammunition. The only source of light was the exterior, Yossi blinked as his eyes adjusted.

Hussein had carried the alien over to the sleeping bags, sitting her on top of one as Layla hovered overhead. Moshe watching over, casting a look Yossi. His frown was unreadable as Yossi walked over. "Have any idea why this one's here?"

"Might have been on a flyer. Might be what got knocked down out front." Yossi managed as he finally got a good look at the alien.

Her skin was a softer paler grey than any of the other alien's he'd seen, eyes still shut tightly. The source of the blood on her arms and legs apparent now. Her arms were covered in numerous small spiraling lacerations. Scars of such similar nature decorating her limbs, like wood that had been tunneled through by termites. Layla's proddings eventually got the girl's attention.

Her eyes opened and Yossi's jaw dropped. Devoid of pupils, they were a glowing teal green that illuminated the startled humans.

Before anyone could say anything the blare of Galil fire shook the room. "Company!" Saul roared as Sayid beside him opened fire. The alien closed her eyes and pressed her hands over her ears, Yossi turned back to the entryway as the invader's press finally hit them.

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Peloponnese

Never in Andoni Vlahos's life did he think he'd end up serving in the army, nor in any position of respect. Little more than a thug and at one point a bank robber that had been lying low in a small mountain village when the end of days had hit earth. His quick thinking had saved him, movement automatic bringing down half a dozen of the twisted xenos that had invaded his planet, quicker thinking making him seem a captain in civilian clothes to a number of soldier's he encountered.

Of course, he hadn't expected them to 'escort' him back to their base. The lies had kept coming, and only the constant forward motion he'd learned in youth kept the facade together as everything became increasingly bleak. But that was where Andoni thrived. The speed and the overwhelming false confidence of his orders had the men under him turn to him for more orders, and when they started calling him 'Napoleon' and 'Ares' he'd accepted it. Externally gregarious, internally baffled none had realized he was a crook.

Halfway across his native Hellas, out of Thesseloniki and Athens as the upper command structure of the Republic's army melted. Somehow he'd ended up in charge, well aware the rest of the army was two steps to disintegrating. He remembered how his father had drooled over strongmen leaders when he was actually around. Andoni had built up this 'Napoleon' to that end. Even if he was not a particularly sound leader he could make himself sound like one.

The cult of personality and his roars of 'Freedom or Death' worked better than expected. Frighteningly well if he was earnest. In the scorched out cities and mountains and across the islands his people received word, all asking for orders from him. When the rest of the world finally keyed in they sent them to Napoleon. Somehow he became the face of Hellas. When what was left of the Turkish army contacted them, they asked him for assistance. He'd overseen the evacuation over the Bosphorus Bridge, collapsing the bridge with a few hundred xenos that had been in pursuit. The baffling loyalty the Turks placed in him was only slightly less baffling than the other forces in the Balkans turning to him for 'orders.'

Good Christ it was absurd. But Napoleon had been powerless to stop them, listening to the tacticians and running by the skin of his teeth in his directions. They'd taken back cities and lost them, they'd made the chromatic bastards bleed for every inch of land they took.

When the report came in of a Jade eye'd deviless seeking to Parley with 'the Napoleon' it hadn't been believed. The automatic ordering coming as his unconscious momentum moved him still, while internally he'd wondered if someone would tell him the Jackalope's had come to bargain. The reality only sinking in when he'd faced the alien. Towering over him in a uniform that was immaculate and alien as she, surrounded by lesser's of her kind that glared at him. The faint internal screaming coming as she bowed, and started prodding to the cost of an alliance in his own tongue.

Surely there must have been someone more suited for this job then Andoni fucking Vlahos. Christ, he hadn't completed secondary having dropped out of school at age fifteen.

His acting and function became indistinguishable at some point, it was impossible to tell where Andoni who occasionally cried in private when he was drunk ended and where the lion called 'Napoleon' began. Napoleon whose title was known and respected by the aliens traitor and loyalist alike now. Napoleon who had had a fucking scimitar in hand when he'd been on the streets of Larisa. Napoleon who wore the outfit of a general from the fucking Balkan Wars, a gilded scimitar and an old Mauser pistol at his side.

Napoleon who was desperately trying to keep his knees from shaking as he looked over the map of Athens, blocks representing observed xenos positions and his own forces covering the surface. Tens of thousands under him, a single mistake killing dozens if not hundreds. All there willingly. Were it not for the five energy drinks in his blood and the handful of others in the command tent with him he might have passed out.

He looked up at them, those others that commanded some respect. Captain Zogu half grinning from exhaustion more than anything, General Tekirdağ beside stonefaced as he looked at the positioning of his people. The towering Dictationer Servas, yellow eyes pressed upon the map, fanged teeth hidden behind her black lips.

All taking orders from him. Somehow. Andoni cleared his throat, bringing his most authoritative tone to bear. “Well then people. In eighteen hours we begin the assault on Athens. Unless any of you have objections?”***

The Dictationer said nothing for a moment, staring silently at the map as Zogu quickly relayed the words over to the Turkish general. When Servas's words came, they came with the hissing biting xenos words behind the sharp translations. "Are you certain Napoleon that your sharpshooters will be able to keep the Imperials busy until my people reach them? We've never operated across this large a front before."

"Once they hit the streets proper it won't matter the length of the press, artillery and our long ranged forces will be able to keep them dug in." The Dictationer nodded. She was much the same creature that she'd been when he'd first met her. Enigmatic, glaring. But on her breast lay a Hellas blue symbol of Ares. A 'tribute' to her new leader.

Napoleon did not stare as Zogu spoke up. "I myself see no issue, the Albanian second and my Commandos are with the aliens on the east flank. Along with the Irregulars of the Hellas third they'll be untouched when they hit Athenai proper." The short Albanian captain gestured to the general beside him. "Speaking for Captain Tekirdağ; he is concerned over our automotive situation. Should this assault fail we'll be liable to lose half of our trucks and more of our armour."

Napoleon grimaced. "Tell him if this assault fails there will not be another redoubt. Lamia is going to be lost just as Larisa, and we've nowhere else to run."

The translated message was not taken well by the Turkish General who audibly cursed. Napoleon's command of the Turkish soldier's had at least brought a passing familiarity with Turkish. "Tell Osmangolu not to fear. Last we lost Athens it was out of unpreparedness. We retake the capital and we'll be able to hold out until the world police finally decide to get off their asses."

"And you are certain the hegmonic human nation-states will be able to strike the fleet?" Servas asked. Napoleon and Tekirdağ shared a look, a foul grin shared between them.

"If there is one thing that I have faith in outside of our forces, its the old world powers finally their heads from their asses at some point. But they require time, something only we here can give them." Napoleon looked the Jade blood in the eyes. "We will win this. Your faith and service will not have been given for nothing."

The Dictationer looked away, back to the map as a sharp pair entered the room, a human captain from the Greek army a blue blood dressed in black armour, scratched and marred by blade and bullet. The captain saluted Napoleon while the alien noble bowed. "News from the front Supreme Marshal. Four-Hellas and Five-Türkiye are in position. We're just waiting for Eight-Joint and Nine-Irregular to fall into position when they disembark on the other side of the peninsula. Zero-Joint sent word their assault in the north was a success and most of the invaders have moved north to combat them." The captain inhaled, nervous. "As well the last evacuation group has sent word they've left Lamia. Only the Dare to Die group remains."

"Excellent, dismissed." Napoleon adjusted the map accordingly as Zogu again relayed the information to Tekirdağ, the paired commanders leaving with the same haste that they'd arrived with.

The resistance forces had surrounded Athens, the outer area's of the urban zone already breached thanks to the distraction placed out in the north. The forces in the south, east and west were all but ready to instigate the second battle for Athens proper.

When Napoleon had finished, Zogu cleared his throat. "General Tekirdağ says that this will make you either a Saladin or a very dead Crusader, master Napoleon."

"Not really much grey space in this equation is there?" Napoleon laughed morbidly.

"In so long as your kind do their jobs, we shall not fail you. Void be merciful, the house of your ancestors on the hill shall be ours by the setting morrow sun."

Napoleon nodded. "We are all committed then. The two of you should head off, your respective task forces will be needing you before the dawn. God Bless."

Zogu relayed the words to the general, while Servas bowed and left the tent without another word. When the Albanian captain finished translating Tekirdağ gave one last look and salute to Napoleon. Leaving Napoleon almost alone. Zogu had been with him first, well before any of the others. Perhaps it was appropriate that they enter this terrible thing together.

Napoleon looked back to the map one final time before slowly walking out, Zogu following behind. The tent drape pushed aside, Napoleon looked over the camp, dark on the hillside. It would be prudent to get some sleep. Prudent to prepare for the most desperate move they'd pulled off. His knees still shook, but cool night air at least eased it. He walked, all the way to the fringes of the camp. In the distance he could hear distant gunfire. Afar the lights of Athens blazed, flame and invaders only.

“Hm. Wish I had a cigar somewhere about.” Napoleon said as Zogu walked up beside him.

“A cigar?” The Albanian questioned.

Napoleon- Andoni shrugged. “It would seem appropriate.”

“I did not think you smoked.”

“I don’t. I detest cigarettes, nothing but a waste of money. But at this point I’d be willing to take a cigar. Rum too. That is what the great leaders smoked and drank before the end, no?”

Zogu snorted dryly. “All the alcohol has gone I think, went out to molotov cocktails for the zero taskforce. It's a little late to pillage for smoking to. I think.”

“I’m aware.” Andoni sighed.

“Are you nervous Napoleon?”

“My knees are shaking in a way they haven’t since I first rode a motorcycle.” He hissed bitterly. “Do you think we can do this?”

Captain Zogu was silent for a moment, contemplative in a way few under Andoni were. “With respect I thought we were all going to die when we were pushed out of Athens. The sky had been blackened with their ships.” He shook his head. “Somehow you’ve managed to keep this going Master Napoleon.”

“Andoni please.” Andoni choked, for the first time in a whil. “Napoleon, Aras. I’m not some war hero.”

“This is a war, you’ve managed to pull this force together and keep it together. The soldiers who follow you consider you a hero.”

“Ha!” The irony was bitter in his mouth as coffee grinds. “I’m just some jumped up car-jacker kept wearing an old soldier’s uniform.”

“Jumped up car-jacker you may be, if you’ve succeeded where the rest of the planet has failed-”

“I appreciate the words Zog, but there is no point. Tomorrow we see if I actually live up to those big names.”

Zogu was mercifully quite, looking out with him into the night. Both looking toward the distant flickering of war on the horizon where Athenai lay.

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Hills of Sichuan Province

The last of the 'Banded Beasts' tumbled down, its attempt to flee ending with it body being ripped apart by machine gun fire. Ripped torso buckling under lead. Colonel Commandant Yu Ping watched it hit the muddy earth, the dirt toned blood mixing in the brown water and soil beneath. Dead like the rest of its comrades.

The ambush had been executed perfectly, the rain not obstructing the early day's light leaving the alien's half blinded. The thick foliage and high hills perfect for laying out the ambush below. The noise of the rain came mixed with the breathing of Ping's men as he scanned the edges of the xenos encampment. Fringing a terrible crater, the battle was at least won. Ping felt comfortable for the first time in many years, despite it all.

Ping was a soldier. Truthfully a better squad leader than the high command he'd been promoted to. His father had been a soldier, as had his father. His great grandfather had been a hero in the civil war. But none of them had ever amounted to anything, his grandfather dying in squalor. Ping had not desired much either. But desires and wants had not meant much when so many had 'appraised his skills.' He savored moments like this, operations where he was able to carry a T81 beside the conscripts.

Ping was of average height and build, his face blockish but not outstandingly so. Black hair shaved out after an outbreak of lice at HQ. Eyes black and without glasses. Ping cared little for looks, less for aesthetics.

Ping whistled sharply, eyes trained for movement on the xenos encampments. But nothing came. Satisfied he signed off the advance. More whistles from the lesser officer coming as the soldiers all around him pushing forward, rifles barred as they dashed out of the underbrush. The VN-4 armoured cars pulling up behind, machine gunners on top ready for further gunplay. After a moment of reloading his own rifle Ping followed his men.

The defensive earthworks and chitinous purple fortifications of the xenos were taken with ease, as it seemed the well planned ambush had thoroughly wiped out the defenders. Such battles had proved largely easy to win. The aliens did not fight like any army Ping had studied. They were not like Russians in fortification and large front operation. They did not fight like Americans with overwhelming firepower and air superiority. They did not even fight like the English making use of their overships like great battleships. They were a one sided force, capable of attacking anything in a moment and shattering it in short order. A combination of horrifying physical ability and speed. One only survived battles when the aliens came, one did not win.

Their defensive abilities on the other hand were pitiable. Their ranged soldiers and weapons were few in number, the great horrifying black bloods easily spotted and their fleet was seemingly absent now. But by virtue of numbers they had pushed Ping and his men back all the way from the Canton into the heartlands of China.

Ping passed through the grotesquely organic walls, rain pouring down hard now as the sky darkened. A slow drumming turning into a dull roar of water. Feet trampling through puddles of muddied water and chromatic blood alike, over the bodies of the aliens while his men secured the perimeter. The crater was massive, nearly a hundred meters across and at its core a ship of the invaders. It's bleak grey exoskeleton hide charred from reentry. Shaped kind to the body of a beetle it was almost as large as an old submarine.

A look was paid down to one of the defenders, a long limbed creature with still yellow eyes, their cores brown as the mud beneath the body. Bullets had torn through his chest and neck, four shots before he had fallen. The sight was pitiable, in a way. All this effort, to die in the mud of an alien world to him. A revenge for all those that had already died, but one without fire. Phyric almost. This creature was just another dead soldier.

Ping turned, marching towards the downed shuttle. Most squads had been assigned to secure the area surrounding the crater. The squad directly under him was already there. A pair of VN-4's already disembarking soldiers. Only his unofficial second in command was waiting for him. The rest captivated by the xenos vessel.

"Took you long enough sir. Perimeter is secure."**** Colonel Eiichiro said looking back to the ship. In many ways he seemed entirely unjapanese until he spoke and his thick accent became apparent. Tall and tanned with a heavy beard, he stood above most of the conscripts and petty officers by a head. Despite the complaints of many of his inland subordinates Eiichiro had been with Ping since the day after the Great War had begun. Allegedly only a 'simple labourer,' Eiichiro's knowledge of weapons, strict discipline and potent stubbornness had kept them both alive until they were able to rejoin the liberation army's forces in the interior.

"I'm a steady walker pirate." Ping replied. "Do we have an entry point?"

"Hole on the side is wide open. Seems like they were already doing some of the heavy lifting for us."

Ping nodded to his second. "Good. Hui, radio back to Yunnan central and inform them the scout reports were accurate."

The communications officer jumped at the order, making his way back to his deployment VN-4 to get to the radio gear. Beside a pair of conscripts finally spoke up. Zhang and Chiang were their names if Ping recalled correctly. Both ragged, armed with old type 63 rifles and dressed in uniforms not used since the Korean War.

“Unbelievable.” Zhang murmured, pressing a hand to the ship's hull.

Beside him Chiang shook his head. “Black fur devils have been getting sloppy if we were able to get to this.”

Ping looked over to his third, a one Captain Fu. His beard had long since overtaken his cheeks and neck creating proverbial scarf of brown hair, one that mingled freely with the terse hair on his balding head. He was glaring at the ship. “What do we do?”

Ping had his orders. However the situation was not as he had expected it to be. This ship was not some low orbital thing but one they had arrived in mankind's solar system with. Ping could disregard his initial orders.

“Zhang, go tell Hui to radio in and tell them that the downed ship is a big one that was in orbit. We'll require more serious excavation methods if we want it. Chiang, Fu, Pirate, you’re with me. The rest of you wait here and wait for our other detachments to arrive.” Fu's eye's bulged, Conscript Chiang whistled. “They were guarding this place for a reason. I want to know what it that reason is.”

Eiichiro spoke up. “It could be radioactive, or something else. Could all die down there.”

“I’m aware.” Ping said.

Eiichiro, like always nodded, the requisitioned M1-Carbine brought up to hand. “In that case let’s get moving, if those gliding bastards return we want to be able to pull out.”

Zhang ran, the group leaders cast their orders while Fu cursed. “Damn it all.”

Conscript Chiang patted his commanding officer on the back. “Cheer up. We get to die in an exciting way Canton man.”

The entry doors had been pried open by something strong enough to leave finger indentations in the organic grey metal. A cursory glance inside the ship revealed an interior that reminded Ping of an intestinal tract, the only inhabitant a single alien that had managed to crawl inside of the ship before he'd expired. Tracking dark green blood in with him, a pool of which now dampened the floor. The lighting, or rather the fleshy bulbs that looked to be the ship's lighting did not function, hanging down like stalactites of muscle.

Ping heard nothing but the downpour outside as he walked into the organic vessel, his own steps and the water dripping off his form. Behind Echiichro followed directly, Fu and Chiang taking up the rear. Once inside, Ping turned on the flashlight mounted on his rifle, leading the way deeper into the ship. Chiang and Fu followed suite.

The ship felt like it had been alive at some point, along with most things they found. Now dead, just like the once crew. Battered alien corpses that looked to have been made unliving on impact scattered the ship's floors. Furnishings and even food looked to have been wrought from dark vibrant coloured insects. Despite it, Ping did not feel unnerved. Not even when he heard the buzzing. Shrill and faint. He felt alive.

“Hey, Pirate.” Ping stopped, the others following automatically. “Do you hear that?”

Eiichiro nodded, scanning about. He tapped his superior's shoulder after a moment, pointing at the wall. Ping turned his T81 up, the flashlight revealing an evidently unnatural rectangle of cut aside walling. Revealing a tangle of vein-like wiring and pulsing tubes, some of which had seemingly been cut. “Seems like they were doing some serious work. Stripping it.”

“Why?” Fu hissed.

The colonel shrugged apathetically. “Two possible reason I can think of. Reason one, they need the material as we are actually doing attrition damage. Reason two, they want some things to stay out of human hand.”

“Either or both.” Ping hissed.

“Yes.” Eiichiro's nod was dour. After a moment the buzzing from the ship's interior redoubled. “Seems we’re not the only ones here.”

Ping led them on deeper, more and more deconstruction coming up as the buzzing grew louder. Closing in on something. Ping did not know what, nor could he even guess. Nothing was predictable with these creatures. Black Haired Devils, Banded Beasts. Like when one dealt with Americans, common sense could not be applied.

Indeed, the stench of something burnt and nauseatingly sweet came upon Ping like a wall, earning a curse and a spit. He hissed and pressed, turning a corner to discover an alien corpse so blackened that it could have been mistaken for a human if one pulled off its horns. A closer examination revealed that nothing surrounding it had been torched, the creature alone in its incineration. “Burnt. But not by plasma or our flamethrowers.”

Ping didn't see Fu shudder, but he felt it in his voice. “Pretty sure I’ve seen movies with this exact plot.”

The buzzing grew, like the source of some sadistic child's game. And Ping followed. The source when they finally reached it seemed to be hidden behind a closed door, made in likeness to the one that they had entered the ship from. Another corpse burnt black lay before it, so large it could only be a black blood. The sweet smokey stench so heavy Ping could feel his eyes watering.

Behind Chiang unslung a crowbar from his side. “Coming from in there, do I-”

Before Chiang could finish speaking the buzzing died, so sharp was the absence of noise that Fu jerked back. Ping brought his rifle up, silent and waiting, ears straining for anything. But there was nothing, aside four breathing humans. The door ahead opened without noise. Half blinding the humans with the pulsing neon orange light coming from within. No alien's lept forth to cut him down, no twisted otherworldly beasts rushed forth.

Ping pressed squinting, and his people followed.

The room was filled with tangled and pulsing cords and pipes, if they could be called such. They seemed alive, much as the ship was but still clinging to the mortal coil. Organically growing to cover the entire far side of the room. Faintly Ping recognized the same pink tubing had been stripped away throughout the rest of the ship. But the recognition was only half present as Ping realized where the tubes and wires and cords and pipes of pink flesh ended.

The alien was malformed, mouth half open to reveal sharpened teeth kind to a cat, fangs set in two pairs like a snake. Hair so long that it covered half the creatures body, providing modesty to the otherwise naked creature. Dark yellow drained from it's mouth and batish ears. It's eyes were devoid of pupils, one bright red, the other neon green. It coughed and choked at Ping's approach, head turning to face him.

The tubing wiring and cording all burrowed under the skin of his arms and legs. His back pockmarked by intrusions in his flesh.

“Govorit' po-russki?” The creature's voice sounded like nails on a chalkboard, but the intent was aimed purely at Ping. It was speaking to him. In a language unlike the chirping trilling the creature's usually made.

Fu jerked back. “Did it just-”

"Net. Khorosho.” The alien cracked. A large groan came, like a noise made by a whale. The alien flinched and jerked as if it were in pain, panting for a moment before it looked back up to Ping. “Hangug-eo?”

Ping recognized the word, but found himself unable to speak. Eiichiro pressed a hand to his shoulder, as Chiang choked. Crowbar still in hand. “How is it doing that?”

The creaking noises from the alien came again, another groan, another spasm of pain in the xenos creature.

Eiichiro shook his head, eyes traipsing all across the room. “It’s plugged into the ship. Might have access to translation software. Computer, living. Makes sense in a wrong way.”

“Extremely disturbing.” Ping murmured.

“Fuck.” Of all the things it could have said, that was perhaps the most assuring. The alien looked up to Ping once more, a fresh steady stream of yellow blood draining from it's eyes. “Mandarin?”

“The black hair devil talks.” Chiang whispered, hand bracing his crowbar.

The creature's laugh hurt to listen to, a proverbial core of broken woodwork and splintering brass. “Same to you shroom climber. Let’s keep this brief, because I can fry you just like I fryed the fuckers trying to bring me back upstairs.”

Ping nodded to the creature, a signal coming for his people to drop their weapons. If it spoke the truth there was nothing to be gained in a fight. If it lied it was not like it could even move. He spoke less firmly, more as if the creature were an acquaintance. “Do you have a name I can call you then?”

The glowing alien chittered it's teeth together for a moment. “Used to have one. Forgot it.”

Fu's look of incredulity looked near to giving the captain a case of lockjaw, Eiichiro was obviously wrapped up in thought and Ping was momentarily taken aback. The concept of forgetting one's name more silly. It was Chiang that spoke up, with the usual charm of a conscript farmer. “I think he looks like a Zhou.”

“Zhou?” The alien creature clicked, staring at the unabashed conscript. Before Fu could shout at Chiang the alien's unpleasant laughter came again. “I can work with that. So, you aliens want to really fuck over the Imperial Fleet? Those ships in the atmosphere?”

The prodding was forced and pointed. “Are you making us an offer?”

“Depends. Are you going to make a hat out of my skin?”

Eiichiro's chuckle was morbid. “That’s a little out of fashion.”

“Let me make it straight to you then, sir.” 'Zhou' croaked. “If you soft-skins can get me out of this fucking ship I can give you all the information on the Empire’s forces you could ever want. All I’m asking is you keep me out of their fucking hands so I never end up in a fucking ship ever again.” The alien stared at Ping, behind Ping could feel Fu's eyes digging into his back. It's look was almost- desperate. The alien tubing pulsed under Zhou's flesh.

“Your call Ping.” Eiichiro said after a moment.

Ping had decided the moment the offer was laid down, but there was no need for the alien or his fellows to now that. “I think we can work something out then.”

~~{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Forêt de L’Ituri

Annalist Lahoia swore that if she ever got back to the IV Galopoli that she would grab that stupid fucking dirt blood Tarsus and choke him in the cushions of that stupid fucking loungeplank he slept on in the rec-room. Maybe she'd also chain Puloin to a doorway and pail that cute historian's brains out.

Not that it felt much like that Lahoia would make it back right now.

Being the youngest member of the Annalist Officery basically meant that she was the rest of the fucking Galopoli's fucking lusus. Her 'senior directioner' Annalist Purvue made Lahoia brush and braid her hair. Which she at least said 'thank you' for unlike that insufferable dickhead Lorkan who had been blinded attempting to dye his own hair. Oh sure. Ask the Jade because they all automatically know how to fucking use hair dye right after they molt.

When the Annalist Officery had been ordered to survey planetary cave systems Lahoia had been the automatic choice. Even though Purvue had freaking volunteered that seahorse nook of a seadweller Sekmet had either made up a rule or remembered some pre-collapse bullshit about Ultimogeniture assignment for the biology department and kicked Lahoia off the Galopoli.

Even if she was a glorified lusus to Purvue's village two wheel device the parting had been decent. Most of the biology department came to see her off, Lorkan even if he was a dickhead gifting her a dagger. Puloin had sent Lahoia off with a hug and a tome on alien survival. Then Lahoia had been shuttled down into what must have been the worst place imaginable.

The only fucking singular consolation prize she'd received was her escort. She'd spent a full three imperial night-day cycles waiting on an island of intolerable humidity surrounded by sweating blue bloods as the local Imperial forces tried to find someone to escort Lahoia. Of course no one actually was going to be able to considering the current status quo, and when it seemed like she'd have to get carried around by some fucking clowns a weird jade noble had stepped up.

Knyaz Puissant was a jovial old jade that, despite being able to just leave the fleet, didn't. As he put it, it wasn't proper for a troll, particularly a Jade to just lie down waiting for death in old age. The only 'proper' way for a Jade to die was fighting on the defence. Not that it felt like he was close to death the way he went about his nights. Puissant was always up when Lahoia woke up, making gloamfast out of whatever horrible fucking alien edible's he'd scavenged. He stayed up when Lahoia went to sleep, watchful as a winged beast.

In the leased Threshecutioner shuttle they'd travelled across the deepest jungles in search of the cave systems Lahoia had been tasked with cataloging. Some nonexistent much to her disdain. But others? They went down far beneath the surface, deep and dark and it felt like a place she'd never known but still somehow missed. The ones far beneath the jungles proved to be the most effective, a combination of heat, moisture and cave structure all accounted form with many instances of creatures kind to this world being cataloged.

Lahoia wasn't stupid. She knew why they needed this world. The population of the empire was unsustainable, and in spite of all their attempts to manufacture environments kind to Alternia's 'jade belt' of caves, the population only continued to shrink. But the threats? There was so much hostile flora and fauna it would seem preposterous that all of it would so actively reject trolls, but it did. The forests were so thick and fast growing they seemed to be alive. The beasts came in all shapes and sizes, some monstrous in height, others tiny burrowing things just as dangerous. Unlike Alternian wildlife they came in all colours, bright greens and heretical reds, deep blues and thick skinned greys.

The weather even seemed to be against them. Flash floods and raging storms could break out in moments, the natural resting humidity and sunlight enough that anyone but a Jade would likely fall sick from staying here.

There were alien's here too. Dark skinned as elders with all manner of shape and size. Lahoia had seen diminutive archers pocket the bottom of the shuttle with arrows and rust sized humans clash head to head with Imperial forces. Fighting hard as if they were Indigos in blood rages.

It made the ground she was currently standing on the last place in the fucking galaxy she wanted to be standing on. The final samples had been collected from the caves below, Lahoia bundling them with the rest in the heavy case resting on her back. Over a dozen cave systems pegged all there. All the evidence needed to prove the value of this planet.

Lahoia's pieced horns were hidden in camouflaged socks per the advice of the Knyaz, overcoat of an Annalist replaced with old soldiers pants, beside a dark green breathable shirt and the thickest pair of black boots she could find. The Knyaz had been kind enough to also braid her hair, the tight black rope wrapped around her neck to keep it out of the way. Lahoia had to admit she actually like the look, and might keep it when she made it back to the fleet.

The Knyaz looked much the same, albeit fitted for a man of his standing, his chromium limbs tinted with drops of water by the humidity, his fanged grin perpetual. He carried no weapons, as the claws on his fingers were not for show.

The journey back to the shuttle site was slow in the thick forest, unable too see more than a few feet ahead from all the fast growing Flora. The sun descending rapidly far above bringing with it sallow orange light and the promise of darkness. The noise of insects came from all over.

"So, it's going to be like this then?" The Knyaz's voice was barely heard over the calls of the wildlife. Lahoia hadn't even noticed he'd stopped moving until she turned to look at him.

"Knyaz?" The Knyaz didn't respond, sniffing the air a moment and chucked.

"Lahoia, you're a good sort you know." The Knyaz walked fast over to her slinging his bag off his shoulders, handing it to her. "When you make it back, have them know you as Periapte. Get going, head in one direction and keep going until you hit the water. Fallow it. Avoid the shuttle, it will just get you killed." The calm words of the Knyaz clashed against the sudden sternness of his look and the direction of his orders.

Before Lahoia could reply the Knyaz gripped her by the scruff of her shirt and tossed her back into a thicket of bush. "Knyaz what are you doing!? Puissant!"

The old jade did not respond, turning and vanishing into the brush, faster than she'd seen him move before. Lahoia only half processed his words as she untangled herself from the leaves and vines. Following came automatically. Lorkan's knife drawn in hand. She was not fast and was unable to keep pace with the elder.

Her knees were scrapped and burned, arms coloured by the plants of the jungle when she finally reached the fringe of the clearing where they had landed, panic bringing her to hide behind a massive trunk between it's roots. Ahead the Knyaz walked out in a way Lahoia had never seen him move. Like a predator in his gait. With every step he took he clashed the claws on his right hand together, sparking the air. "Well?!" The roar came loud, coarse unlike the usual soft tone. "Come on out then! I want to see who it is that's here to kill me!"

For a moment there was silence. Lahoia's knuckles cracked as the foliage on the other side of the courtyard shook. Ten in total emerged from the greenery, their white uniforms stained green, everyone of them carrying a sparking two handed cannon. Aimed squarely on the Knyaz who laughed at the sight.

"I'll take it the Orphaner sent you then?"

"Where's the Annalist?" The tallest of the Iconoclabductors sneered. The weapon in his hand crackling with radiant energy.

The Knyaz laugh came unbothered by the weapon. "As if I would tell you that."

Aqueous sneers and hisses came, the leader aiming his rifle squarely at the old Jade's head. "Fine. Any last words gulper?"

The Knyaz stopped laughing, a creaking in his voice as he cracked his hands together in a burst of sparks. "Tell the Orphaner I'm not so easy to pierce as an Ancillae chained to a wall."

The sea dweller's howl came with the burst of directed psionic energy. Lahoia ducked down as a blast of white fire hit the trunk above her, showering her in burning bark. Howls and roars came, the distinctive shriek of the leader cut in half. Another scream of a seadweller with a dull thud coming. The sea dweller fire stopped.

Lahoia vomited, she wasn't exactly squeamish but the Knyaz's body hitting the forest floor did it. Bitter, she could taste the alien fruit from earlier. Lahoia wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and peaked up. Three sea dwellers had fallen, purple from their throats colouring the dirt and foliage on the fringes. The Knyaz himself face down in the dirt, neck torn out. Still.

The urge to vomit came again, nearly coming to full as one of the Iconoclabductors shot into the body.

It hit Lahoia that if they found her they'd cull her too. If she ran now they'd see her for sure, if she hid they'd find her eventually. Only the roar of something unnatural coming kept her still, making her mind run a blank. She'd never heard anything like it, curses and foul hisses from the sea dwellers made it sound something beyond them.

Rumbling. Run or stay to attempt to make it to the shuttle? For some reason Lahoia's legs weren't working, defaulting her to the latter option. She peeked up, the roars loud and all around, gone were the bugs and their noise.

The Iconoclabductors looked all around, twelve of them remaining now, rifles drawn and snarls payed as they formed a tight circle.

The blare of alien weapon's discharge filled Lahoia's ears. The great white metal vehicle appeared from the brush with all the speed and ferocity of an enraged lusus. The Iconoclabductors evidently did not expect this, nearly half of them being caught by the vehicular charge, one flying a dozen feet into the air where his body shattered against a tree. Blaring alien weapons firing from all around finally shirked by howls terribly familiar, death chants of the planet's inhabitants.

The paralyzing terror was gone now. Lahoia jumped to her feet, turning to get into the bush as fast as possible. The wooden stock of an alien rifle crumpled her nose with enough force the back of her head hit the floor before her feet did. The world was spinning as two sets of alien hands seized her shoulders, picking her up and dragging her into the clearing. Her knife was gone. Mouth was filled with blood.

She hit the ground again. The alien sky of early night greeted Lahoia, who stared for a moment. Things were quiet again.

The noise of a blade meeting something fleshy jerked her back to reality, the jade struggled to roll up, for a moment hapless as an overturned shellbeast from the weight of her armoured cargo and the Knyaz's bag. A second thump of a blade was joined by the sound of a body tumbling to the ground. Lahoia looked up to the headless body of a seadweller. Slowly looking up at the one who culled him.

Before her stood a human with stark black skin. Tall for a human though if Lahoia had been standing her eyes would meet the top of his head. He wore nothing besides a bandoleer and a pair of blue pants. His chest was stained with Sea Blood purple, in one hand was a long curling blade, in the other the still twitching head of an Iconoclabductor. He smiled when he noted Lahoia staring. Teeth bright and marked with silver metal. White of his eyes stark against the growing darkness.

"Well hello there."

Chapter Text

"DEAD!?" The Marquise was growing very tired of surprises. Certainty had been an unexpected casualty of the invasion. Not at first for Mindfang, perishing under an alien bomb or a Vykjiit blade. It had been slow. Terribly slow to the point she had not noticed until the proverbial floor had given out under her. The memory of the abyss haunted Mindfang's days, the sheer lack of understanding and the burst of foreign sensation had tunneled a hole into her sleeping mind. Still she could feel someone watching her when she closed her eyes. But that had just been the start. The startling blast before the shrapnel hit.

'Anomalous' ship losses had gotten nearly a quarter of her 'second among equal' captains pulled off to fill in the gaps the fleet couldn't fill in on their own. The 'Anomalous' thing in question either a ghost of Alternia or a pair of ship captains getting each other and several surrounding ships blasted apart in a black feud. The latter option ultimately the more likely and the official story, but the superstitious were near to snapping from it. Everywhere were signs of the 'Signless' and heresy to the priests. It seemed as if the Indigos were near to losing their collective minds, a mercy most of them were on the alien world.

The loss of ships and unease in the remaining captain had brought with it a brazenness in the Marquise's enemies. Dualscar and Pyrope's people were prodding, and her disorganized command structure was no longer able to deal with it. Two of her Gamblignants on Dualscar's flagship IV Achelous Culled had already been caught, the third abandoning the Marquise outright. The Legislacerators of the accursed diminutive red-glared bitch had been emboldened by their leader's seeming madness. It felt like nothing was really certain from them anymore, no target beyond their grasp. Mindfang receiving the heads of two of her lesser captains last night who'd been clawed for thieving Imperial supplies.

Such a thing would have been unimaginable a sweep ago, but now it seemed par for the course. As did the news her transmitting supervisor brought. The lesser Cerulean cowered before Mindfang, absolutely terrified of her but that brought no satisfaction as it usually did. "That's what the Orphaner's men said! The Knyaz was culled and then they lost contact with their assassins entirely!"

There had been little to the feud between Puissant and Dualscar. Little to nothing, no more contempt held for the old Jade than any other land dweller. But to see him dead? Surely the Orphaner had better things to do?

Mindfang knew well the unknowable twixting of the void had shifted in Dualscar's favour. Only two of his lesser ships had been conscripted directly under fleet command. He beside a handful of Pasha's were nearly untouched by drafts and rampant misfortune. It was impossible to tell if it was stupid bravado or something more sinister, but if the Knyaz was dead then there was no doubt an attempt on Mindfang's own life was inevitable.

"I'll double up guard shifts, as well I'd recommend you don't leave the ship captain." Herakles hissed across the table from her.

Mindfang's trill barely showed the fringes her current annoyance. "I'm the one with the Mindgrip here."

"And I know how this plays out. If the accursed chumbucket is willing to play on the planet, he's liable to strike on other ships. He might even launch a fleet engagement if things sour further." Mindfang glared but the lime had been entirely honest.

"If that is the case then send word to my seconds, I'm not interested in an ambush." Mindfang hissed and turned on the petty communications officer. "Get back to your post. Report everything to me when you can."

The lesser Cerulean bowed her head and turned, the stench of her relief unsatisfying, only serving to agitate the Marquise further. When she was gone Mindfang was left alone beside Herakles, the cold remains of Gloamfast on the table before them. Domeadig was already gone, off to oversee a thorough search of the ship for both contraband and anything that might be treacherous in nature.

Mindfang found herself no longer hungry, the arrival of information had stolen what appetite she had left. Herakles however had no such issue, greedily shoving cold broiled ova into his mouth. When he spoke he did so with a mouth full of food. "Have any orders for the night Marquise?"

"Yes, find me some way to drop my ex kismesis into a pit filled with blood drunk priests." Mindfang's left hand chittered as she stood, pulling on her coat, sword and sidearm. She left Herakles behind to finish off the meal and walked out. The ship stank of tension, worry, fear. Which should have been fine, that was how a Gamblignant should smell. But since it was not directed at the Marquise it stung. Her ego was bruised, more by Dualscar's unexpected turnabout rather than the theft of fear. His mediocrity was immense, just another sea dweller thinking himself the Empress' chosen. There were hundreds of them.

Even the diminutive High Legislacerator was more deserving of the Gamblignant's collective fear and focus. Her- erratic shift was disturbing to say the least. But she was operating on the planet below, out of sight for the time being. For someone no longer under the Grand Highblood's protection she seemed emboldened. But diminutive creatures seemed to have a habit for that.

Mindfang entered her extraction block scowling, Avarayri where she had been when Mindfang had left her. Pyrope was all fangs and immediacy, Mindfang had realized the teal's error in attempting to break the alien. Whipping did little but tire the Cerulean's arms, salt ineffective and water dousing pointless. Continuous was the way to go. Mindfang had left the slave's collar on last night and left her in the extraction block for the whole day.

Evidently unable to do anything more than curl up into a ball. Twitching faintly. Her footsteps made the alien creature jolt. The sight at least brought a half smile to Mindfang's face. She circled around her pet Avarayri slowly, noting the pale skin damp with sweat. Eyes half open and vacant, staring blankly ahead until Mindfang stepped before her face. The slightest turn of her head upwards.

Not braindead, oh she could feel something radiating and it wanted the pain to stop. "You know what to do pet. This can all end if you just bow. Nothing but me, everything for me. All of it." The controller was pulled from Mindfang's pocket as she rested the tip of her boot on the alien's head. "You tried, foolish as it was. I'll even give you credit, you're more obstinate than most highbloods."

The kick hit the alien in the shoulder that once had an arm attached, hard enough to flip her onto her back. She made no noise. Mindfang's booted heal rested on the Avarayri's chest as Mindfang leered down at her chattel. The click of the controller immediately stopped the alien's twitching, a lucidity returning to her gaze. Eyes shooting up to look up to the Marquise with some small light returned.

She waved the controller in front of the Avarayri. "You aren't proving anything to anyone though pet. I can keep doing this over and over. You can make it stop, all you need to do is accept your place. Right under my boot. Kiss it perhaps, lick it. Maybe then I'll let you up." The human cast a shaking look down at the black boot in front of her, a choking rasp of breath as the Avarayri weakly wiped some of the sweat from her face. She looked back up to Mindfang.

The glob of white spittle caught the Marquise right in her seven-fold eye. Burning with salted sweat, the phlegm blinded her for a moment. The action catching her off-guard as the Avarayri looked like she'd had less energy now than when she'd been bleeding to death.

The first kick brought some satisfaction, the second little and the third only left her feeling more angry as Mindfang struggled to find her handkerchief. One last kick dashing what felt like the alien's soft gut knocking her aside. The alien did not move at all as Mindfang cleared the disgusting pale secretion from her eyes, first conscious thought a relief she'd received the fullest antigenic ministrations available. No bacteria or chemicals to seriously harm her, the action seemed simply done to annoy her.

In that regard the alien had succeeded. Much to Mindfang's Ire. When she finally cleaned away the spittle and blinked she turned to glare at the still form of the Avarayri.

The kicking had knocked her a foot back, face down she was still, breathing faint. "Grand." Mindfang hissed and tossed the soiled handkerchief on the back of the alien's head. A few shocks to the collar revealed the Avarayri unrousable for the moment. It was tempting to turn on the collar and just leave, but the creature might perish of dehydration. The aliens perspired worse than a certain blue blood. With an annoyed sigh Mindfang reached out and gripped her Ancillae. Pliant and drawn easily she sent the Jade running up, her orders already known. Keep her eventual Janiseri from dying. Again.

Mindfang left, heading up to her private quarters as she burrowed herself into the back of her Jade's mind. More out of boredom than anything else as her plans for the night had evaporated with the news of the Knyaz's culling. It was always enjoyable to watch the regal Colour Eater squirm, once so high and mighty now made into whatever the Marquise wished. But something felt different this time, Mindfang had broken Rusts in the past just to feel the Jade's discomfort and revulsion mingling with her hunger. She'd even starved the Jade until she'd culled a rust in a fit at one point. Her programmed dignity clashing with a ravenous beast always proved entertaining.

But there was none of the usual revulsion, even the Rainbow Drinker was silent now. The Jade's mind burned white. Mindfang's pet was in a state of panic as she made her way up to the extraction block. How curious. Mindfang kept watching as she passed into her quarters, finding her most luxurious and comfortable chair to watch her pets play. She rarely used the Cerulean dyed and xeno feather-stuffed seat, but for the moment it felt appropriate.

Mindfang leaned back into the soft cushioning as her Ancillae reached her destination. The shriek that came from the Jade was delightful. Her panic more blatant than Mindfang had ever seen, her imagination pumping out image after image of the human. Dead, maimed, broken. Seeing the Avarayri's state sent the Ancillae running. The burning in her pet was all consuming. Oh, how had she hidden all this away?

The gentleness wasn't the usual sort of nattering the Jade so easily defaulted to around young trolls and shorter lowbloods, not at all. The burning was pale, the pallid crush ravenous. Mindfang found her mood dramatically improved by the Jade's pathetic motions, picking up the Avarayri like she was her own moirail. Mind running fast as a void vessel hurtling through the stars. Her low profile in the back of the Jade's mind still allow Mindfang all sorts of passing memories. Tight pale embraces, seated upon the Jade's lap, head pressed against her leg.

Her Ancillae struggled trying to rouse the subject of her Pale affections. Desperate memories of the past coming with, things Mindfang knew of the Dolorosa but had never managed to dig deep enough to find. A grinning face deep beneath the earth, a grub found marked cursed crimson, a promise of hurried words and blinding sunlight. Desert sand, blood and stone. Eyes olive, mustard and heretical red. Fury, indignation and despair.

All cleared away with the opening of small brown eyes. A tidal wave of relief brought with it. Mindfang let go of her Ancillae's mind, laughing. A deep laughter at the silliness of it. The key to breaking the alien had been right before her this whole time.

~~{†}~~

The ash sand was soft beneath her feet. The wind cool and gentle, pleasant reprieve against the heat of the night. Commiseration, Umbrage and Recalcitrance lit up Alternia as they always did, revealing the desert wastes that went on for all directions. The wind and the distant bugs that dwelt here the only noise, for the time being at least. The wind smelled of smoke and distant salt.

"Oh come on." Gael hissed as she looked up at the triumvirate of moons. The horrible disjointedness of this place filled her still. But it was second to the general annoyance she was ass naked again. It would be really nice to have some pants on when she inevitably was allowed to bite the dirt. Gael looked about for some landmark, the black stone hills and the bone piles of her last forced visit were nowhere to be seen. There was nothing but ash, great dunes and mounds of it. Going off in all directions a grey landscape bleak as any human desert.

Alternia. A memory, or a nightmare, or an Alternia belonging to someone somewhere else it mattered not. All Gael knew was that she shouldn't be here.

She started walking after a time, not because she was interested in moving but because it was better than waiting around for Rosa to smack her and get her out of this- whatever this was. Motion was better than stasis, walking better than standing around making malformed ash angels like an asshole. Definitely better than thinking about what was happening to her body. Maybe the Marquise would finally snap and break her neck soon but for the moment she was pretty sure Rosa had her.

Gael thought it was the Jade picking her up, but everything had been blurred to the point of non recognition. Out of pain, dehydration or actual damage from the Marquise kicking her in the head. Spit might have actually hit the spider considering the retribution. Dark, nothing and unable to even move. Then it felt like it had been Rosa maybe, her hands were softer than any of others. She'd filled down her claws a bit after accidentally opening up some of the scabs on Gael's back earlier.

Ha. What a miserable corpse Gael was. At least the Jade blood was getting some use from her.

A fluttering white dot in the distance drew Gael's attention, peaking above the bleak ash and the dark sky. Walking towards the creature came automatically. No screaming or howling or any other vestment of something unspeakable came from it. Even from afar it was easy to see its diminutive form, no larger than a teacup poodle.

It's pure white body was covered in soft short fur, all aside the wings, dainty ivory hooves, small curling horns, blank white eyes and an odd band of flesh that fell down from the front of it's head in a shape like a ring. It's wings were like that of dragon fly, but thicker and wider. Four legs, and a small tufted tail. Devoid of a visible mouth, or any sort of major defenses besides its dulled horns. It hovered only a few feet in the air above the sands, ignorant at first to Gael's approach. A little closer and it turned, making a small squeaking noise. Somewhere between a sparrow's chirp and something a small dog would make.

The term 'fairy bull' came to mind with little explanation. Along with a sense this creature only ate small bugs and plants. Another known without reason. But that was not all that terrible now, as the fluttering bull came close enough to touch. It didn't fear her, even one handed a good kick would probably be enough to break the poor beast. The small thing fluttered up, squeaking again before it started rubbing the side of its face against Gael's brow. Almost like a cat would.

Gael snorted, reaching out to scratch the flying cow-like beast. The critter squeaked as it flew down, eventually landing on Gael's shoulder to nuzzle against her cheek. "Good coo." Maybe the wildlife of Alternia felt badly for her, might explain Pyral not eating her. Or maybe the inverse, no one payed attention to the poor beasts. Regardless of it, the little thing brought a smile to her face. Scratching the creature offhandedly as she looked about for anything, anything at all really. Still, there was nothing but ash in all directions. Gael kept walking.

The fairy bull at the very least distracted Gael from the vast emptiness and the constant vague sensation that every cell in her body was going to fail at some point for being here. Small squeaks and chirps rewarded for her scratching. Even on her bad shoulder the coo was light enough to lie there without issue. The why and how of its presence just another set of questions in this already nonsensical situation. Oft with the dreaming and sight of her half understood core, it was better not to think about it or a person would eventually just die of stress.

Then again she'd dealt with nonsense already. Maybe the dreaming was a part of this, no normal sane individual dreamed of Alternia through the eyes of its denizens. No one remembered dying, or what was yet to be. Gael just kept walking, eventually focusing on the memory of pants. Underwear. Hell even the skirt she was ninety percent sure Rosa had put on her would be welcome.

The smoke almost went unnoticed at first ignored behind a memory of flannel trousers. A long spiraling trail off in the distance, like a grey string from some nonexistent cloud. Ignored as she descended into another basin. Only cresting the height of the next dune did it draw her conscious eyes.

Smoke of course meant fire. Fire most likely meant thinking creatures. Horns.

The memory of what felt like burning to death made it almost tempting to not walk in the direction of the smoke. Almost. The more pressing reality was that the red eyed Horn was most likely connected to- this. It would be best to seek him out. To what end Gael did not know, the memory of last time a disjointed thing. But there was something there, a mania at the water's edge, either borne of the sensation of wrongness or something else.

Gael tried to avoid thinking about it. Focusing on the smoke and the squeaky fairy bull on her shoulder. Focusing on pants to clear the gaps. Man pants were fucking great.

Breaching the last dune's height brought a more human sense of Déjà vu, below the small oasis was as it had been. Minute against the backdrop of the desert, towering earthen toned mushrooms swaying softly in the breeze. Was it them that scented the air with something sweet or something else? It didn't really matter now.

Unlike before there was a fire down below. Not large, using something sodden material from the way the smoke carried up but the bright burning cast shadows in all directions. Hidden somewhere down there, amidst the towering fungal groves. Gael kept walking, thoughts kowtowed by a forced hold on herself. Watchers might be led, but never bowed. The bigger ones had revealed that. The Marquise had proved that when she'd nearly given Gael an aneurysm.

Closing in she heard voices. Horns, softspoken if hoarse in their chittering. Words drifting along with the breeze. "I'm sorry about earlier. You're presence just startled me. The last whose path I crossed I fear perished."

"A sentiment shared. I- the shape of you-" The second voice was softer, but no less rough. Speaking with a certain structure. It reminded her a bit of Rosa's voice. "It's overwhelming you know?"

"It's fine. Besides we'll be bettered by each others presence as we sort through- all of this."

"Have you ever seen anything like this desert? Were it not for this place you'd have starved or burned again. The water and the wood are more than a little fortuitous."

"If we can starve. I'll not discount the possibility we're amidst the void itself."

The fairy bull on Gael's shoulder was silent, body pressing low on Gael's shoulder. Her own hand balled into a fist at her side as she finally reached the water's edge. Across the water the small fire revealed an equally small camp, a tent formed from dull grey cloth behind a minute circular flame. Resting before the fire were a pair of Horns. The one terribly familiar, the other so like the first Gael thought she was seeing double for a moment. She was taller than he was, but only by an inch or two. A little more muscular. Everything else though was the same. Same grey clothes and wrist-guards, same blade at her side. Same beads and ornaments. Same crimson eyes. Both had their hoods down, revealing short black hair and soft nubby horns of red.

When the man of the seeming twins saw her he jerked, jumping to his feet as he grasped his sickle. "You!"

No compulsion gripped Gael, she held her ground as the horn's opposite rose. Staring at her with eyes wide. "That's the mutant you saw earlier?"

Both were staring at the shoulder that had once been host to an arm. The man's look one uncomfortably reminiscent of the one Rosa had given Gael on return from Mindfang's company. "There isn't anyone else with mutations like that. Curse it if I'd-"

"There's no point to 'if' now. We should just be glad she's even alive considering what's out there." The woman counterpart chittered softly. The man shook his head, stowing his sickle back to it's resting place. The first step bringing a sharp huff from the pale animal perched on Gael's shoulder. The fairy bull glared as much as a Pomeranian sized cow could at the alien man.

The man put his hands up slowly, not looking at Gael but at the fairy bull. "Forgive me lusus, I mean no harm to you or your ward." The words did not stop the snorts of the small creature.

Admirable in a way considering how small the animal was, but unnecessary. She scratched at the nape of it's head. "It's alright coo, I don't think they're dangerous." Gael said softly.

The words brought stares from the horns. "Have you ever heard a language like that?" The woman asked her counterpart quietly.

The male shook his head. "Never. 'Eym might have if known if she-" He broke off hissing a dejected tone, walking a little closer but still keeping a healthy distance from Gael. Not such a bad idea considering last time. "Do you understand what I am saying miss?"

Gael nodded, Rosa had taught her enough of the insectile language she caught their intentions and confusion.

The crimson eye'd man nodded, looking over her. His eyes fell back to her shoulder that had once been host to an arm. "Curses, forgive me for whatever it was that happened last time. If I'd been able to help you wouldn't have been-" More hissing, the woman approaching behind.

"There's no use blaming yourself." She placed a hand on her male counterpart's shoulder, looking up at Gael. "At the very least you've found your lusus. Come, I think we have some spare cloth around."

They walked back around to their campsite, and after a moment Gael followed. In spite of the angry but still adorable snuffs from the bull on her shoulder. The man slumped down at the fire, while the woman walked into the tent. Gael followed the man, sitting down in the ashy sand. The smell of smoke mixed with the smell of the watering hole, the flames warm but not uncomfortably so. But perhaps that was the lack of clothes. The man kept staring at her marred shoulder, frowning.

"I'll admit that I've never seen mutations quite as advanced as yours. In truth I thought I- I thought we were as low as one could diverge. I suppose I was wrong. At the very least I can hide my mutation." He spoke quietly, Gael had nothing to say as most of it was above her still. Annoying as it was it seemed he wasn't looking for any answers she couldn't physically speak. Both content to leave things wordless until his counterpart returned.

"It isn't much but it's better than nudity." She carried what looked to be a sheet of grey cloth, similar in make to the material both near identical horns themselves had their cloaks fashioned from. The horn frowned as she offered Gael the sheet. "Forgive me as this is all we have, 'Eym always dealt with clothes. I'm a bit helpless with a needle."

Gael nodded, taking the cloth from the alien and rising back to her feet. The critter on her shoulder taking flight as she adjusted herself. Some small practice had made the one handedness only a minor delay, a rough toga-like setup coming after a moment. Gael sat back down, bowing her head to the Horns as she considered how to proceed. The pair stared at her silently, waiting for her to speak.

She looked about for a moment, a dried out mushroom stalk a few feet away coming to hand. "Gael." Two taps upon the chest. She wrote the name in the Horned language as close she could phonetically, the fairy bull fluttering down beside her as Gael worked. When she was done she tapped the ashen sand twice, then tapped her chest again.

Both alien's nodded in unison. "What an odd name." The male said softly, looking at his silent partner before tapping his own chest. "Kadarn Maryam, I'm afraid my brood here shares my name."

"I mean I could take 'Eym's genetic name. If that would be alright with you?"

"To avoid confusion I think that might be best, this brown blood is evidently not from around here."

The man nodded. Two taps on his chest. "Kadarn."

"Maryam." The female tapped her chest, still frowning. "So- where did you come from?"

The names sounded familiar, but Gael could not place them. The question itself hardly answerable in the current circumstances, to deep and convoluted. All she could do was shake her head. The woman hissed in anger.

"Curse it."

"I suppose it's to be expected. I fear if what you told me was correct we're both little more than Shade Makers."

"I know. That doesn't mean I don't like it, no more than I like my reflection telling me to relax."

The man laughed at that mirthlessly. "It is hardly any better for me."

The woman looked up to Gael again. "Well, then do you have any idea where we are now? Both of us remember being near to death before we woke here."

Again, too much. Gael shook her head frowning, much to the ire of the red eyed woman.

The alien chittered softly, hand running through her hair. She sounded near to whining. "Do you think we'll ever see them again?"

"We can only hope." The man said quietly, staring up at the sky. The woman joined him for a moment.

Gael sighed, all the way for little near to nothing. Coveredness a paltry thing around the distressed looking twins. The ignored fairy bull found it's way into Gael's lap, curling up into a ball. A small yowl given for attention. Gael scratched the small thing as she herself looked up at the quiet night. The purple moon was further along to the horizon than its siblings. Dark season on Alternia would begin soon, when it no longer shared the night besides it's sisters. Gael knew that, somehow.

She stared with the horned pair up at the distant moon and stars, unable to do anything else. Stared as the fairy bull started to snore softly. Still trapped, even here.

Chapter Text

Dolorosa roused herself with all the haste of chilled inerticanth, gentle snoring beside her nearly lulling her back into slumber. Much as the short term pleasantries of rest tempted her she couldn't afford such time lost. Dolorosa stifled her yawn as she rubbed her eyes, clearing the jade crust of sleep away. She blinked moving slow, looking down she saw her caution was not misplaced. In the night Gael had curled up into a ball at some point. Back pushed up against the wall, her head had come to rest on Dolorosa's thigh. Bad blood the little thing could be adorable.

Entirely improper as it was, Dolorosa smiled at the sight. Until the reality of their situation returned with wakefullness. The lack of intricacies and definition to their relation were still there, but Gael's presence in moments like these made up for it. Almost made up for her foolhardy pride and Dolorosa's lack of force to break it. Pride or something else that kept her from breaking. Their mistress demanded prostration, surely it wouldn't be so terrible to give it?

The thought stole away what little ease was restored by the misplaced pale affection. Gael was going to get herself culled, and Dolorosa had to find some way to keep it from happening. Somehow. With a sigh she carefully shifted the girl's head off her leg, faint murmurs in a language she didn't recognize coming as her head came to rest on the impromptu pillow.

Gael kept snoring fortunately. Considering the beating she'd received she needed all the rest she could.

Dolorosa stood, stretching for a moment before walking over to her closet. Already the Jade could feel the faint pulls and lulls of her mistress in her head. Orders given to her sleeping mind remembered on waking. Unusual but not unexpected, when the Marquise stayed in one place for overlong she tended to grow restless.

Her mistress wanted something Cerulean and white, of a very certain make. All entozoon, with a direction of certainty that left few options. The jade shuddered as something matching the description graced her hand. The dress was needlessly tight around the chest with a skirt that came to rest just below her knees. Undignified and vulgar, there was little doubt that the Mistress had meant this.

Dolorosa changed after a quick check to make sure Gael was still sleeping. She changed fast, afterwords fitting her ears with studded silver and kyanite piercings, open shoes of cerulean colour coming to her feet. She felt exposed, but Dolorosa's feelings did not matter in this equation. She grabbed a brush and closed the closet door. A quick check of the hall revealed the dim hour of day, not night yet but soon enough it would be on them. Dolorosa returned to her sleeping spot, the secondary cloak long since replaced by the undone fabric of a black mountain wool skirt. Three skirts and some stray pompous bundling more than worth the price of fixture for unpodded sleep and the comfort of her continued guest.

Sitting, Gael's unconscious murmurs remained distant and alien beside her drew on. The closeness weighed on the Jade. It had become evident that the Avarayri had to consider her something, surely she must have, considering the undue trust she placed in the Jade. But what exactly 'that' was Dolorosa did not know. Her inability or unwillingness to communicate about such this was more than a little aggravating, nearly as much as her obstinance. What was permissible, what was not and how exactly to proceed remained strenuous. The Jade ran her talons through the girl's hair, which had grown out another claws length since her arrival. Showering had at least had kept it soft and clean.

Thoughts on cutting came half focused, idle as she pulled her hand back. A personal reprimand came with a small hiss. Just because Gael did not pullback just like her old travelling companions had did not mean she was willing to play a passive lusus to be dolled upon and trimmed. Now if Gael consented to such that was another thing entirely. Communicating her intent was quite doable now even if the inverse was tepid.

Gael looked fine with short hair, hornlessness accentuated the look which most often did not function well for trolls. The unusual disposition was also to be considered, skin paler than any wiggler, she could wear it a number of ways no troll could. Dolorosa brushed her own hair to its usual default as she considered the possibilities. If of course Gael allowed the Jade to indulge in such things a little could be done.

The faint yawn beside her drew her attention. Closest to Libaax than anyone else, even then the alien yawn was kind more to a silent predator's than anything of troll make. "Mornin'." Gael murmured as she rose up just enough to lean her back against the Dolorosa's side, still wrapped up in the makeshift blanket.

"It would be best if you kept sleeping." Dolorosa whispered. Gael looked up, black bruise their shared mistress had left on the side of her head visible now. A nasty mark with fringed yellow and purple around it, the only kindness it seemed was no damage to her interior. A benefit of her thick skull. More bruises were hidden beneath Gael's chemise, less severe but no less sharp against her skin.

Gael said nothing, slumping a little lower against Dolorosa, closing her eyes. Her breathing slow and heavy, sleep came back slowly. But she didn't move, still lying against the Jade's side. Dolorosa sighed and kept brushing through her hair. When she was satisfied the brush was placed down at her side, apprehension and pale pity mixing in her gut as human snores eventually filled the room. The greedy hand fell back to Gael's hair as she considered what to do. A mental checklist of things needing to be done coming on. More chalk, more thread. The only net positive of Dolorosa 'entertaining' the Marquise was this could be done tonight on return.

Maybe with a little luck she could finally save the human from a culling by sheer foolishness. The thought of some tenable future for Gael, even if it was under the Marquises' boot was more than worth the risks. But more and more the question of her own stake in that future bothered her. Dolorosa did not know if the human even knew of pale relations, but it was difficult to deny she'd treated her like one. Or like a ward. The grotesque thought remained remained in the back of her mind, it only survived there by virtue of Gael's ability, she was no child certainly.

But that could at least be sorted out if they had time. Dolorosa would have no time if she let Gael perish.

The call of the mindgrip came unexpected, fingers wrapping around the soft parts of her neck and mind with all the gentleness of a starved scorpion. The hour was wrong, the mistress was never up so early. The direction wrong, a door marred with crimson blood the destination instead of the mistress's quarters. A chill washed over the jade when she realized she was not going there alone.

~~{†}~~

The door to the extraction block slammed open. The Marquise felt a little giddy at the wide eyed panic stricken through her Ancillae's form, even controlled as she was she stunk of it. Dolled up with that pretty skirt so easily pulled up. The human half dragged along by the collar was actually scowling for once, clothes of black and Jade ragged.

The jade dragged the Avarayri to the center of the room, dropping her without mercy and backing off before Mindfang released her. The Ancillae choked when she did, her training clashing with an obvious attachment. The depth of which was finally showing, even as the threat of control kept her back. Oh, her dainty little Dolorosa had built up a little shell to hide things, trying to hide the human under it had cracked the whole thing. The Cerulean cackled openly, she should delve a little softer more often, who knew what her underlings were hiding.

The human struggled to her feet, tripod form and exhaustion slowing the rise as Mindfang checked her translator. The delectable look of anger was better than anything she'd gotten out of the human with physical means. "Are you honestly expecting different results or did you just want an audience Marquise?"

"Such brave words Avararyi, if I didn't know any better I would say that you have a taste for punishment." The choke of the human made her laugh again. "But in honesty I would prefer you to just give up now. I've only been prodding with you up until this point. Get on your knees and this doesn't have to go any further. You know what to say."

Mindfang gripped her Ancillae to keep her silent, the shudder of the jade not going unnoticed by the Avarayri. Human snarling really was pathetic. "What part of never didn't you understand? Does your species reject the notion of perpetuity or something?"

Mindfang rolled her eyes. "Oh please, stop bluffing. I can and I will break you. You're mind may be detestably alien in make but I can well enough break your form. In more ways than you can imagine." Her Ancillae flinched at the words, but the human didn't relent. Out of ignorance or its fool bravado.

"You can break my body but I'll never serve you. It doesn't matter what you offer or if you start lopping off my limbs because you think you can make new ones. It's not happening and it never will."

"You're a better sea blood than an alien in terms of pride." The Marquise scoffed.

"There's nothing proud about this. It's my state you unworthy-" The human broke off, looking at the floor. Intriguingly her face was burning with red, the thought the Jade's pale feelings were actually shared by the alien creature was another added bonus. The human's voice was reduced to a whisper. "You're beating a corpse Marquise-Captain. Nothing you do is going to change that."

"Let's see about that then, shall we?" The Marquise snapped her fingers and seized her Ancillae entirely. Mindfang hadn't needed to do so in sweeps she'd broken the Jade in well enough. But here there could be no error. The Ancillae stepped forward eyes glowing, one hand grabbing the struggling human by the neck. The other tearing off the Jade himation with one swift pull. Next forceful tear ripping off the human's shirt. The third tearing off her skirt and undergarment, the Jade pushed the human to the ground hard. A pleasant crack coming as the Avarayri's nose snapped under her. She managed to raise her head up before the Ancillae fell upon her.

The human must have realized what was happening at that point, as she struggled harder than the Marquise had ever seen to escape the Jade atop her. Unfortunately she was as helpless as a wiggler. There was iron under the ancillae's docility, a Rainbow Drinker far more willing to act under the mindgrip than matron was. The Avarayri's flailing limbs were pinned one by one with the typical starved precision, the jade pausing to hike up her skirt.

The howl that came from the human was delightfully furious. Mindfang noted the burning red of what must have been humiliation, a healthy flow of crimson blood running down from her nose. "What the fuck is wrong with you!?"

"I told you I was willing to do this but you decided to play stupid. You should know Avarayri I always get my way-"

"You won't though! You aren't changing anything! You're just making her fuck a corpse you piece of-" The jade hand wrapping around the Avarayri's throat cut off the words in a sharp choke. Mindfang could feel the soft skin as if it were own hand. Easing it oh so slightly to keep her alien pet from choking. "If you think this will get you anywhere do it yourself. It won't." The human managed to hiss through the grip.

Her head hit the ground hard, the out of body sensations of her pet more than making up for the hidden mind of the alien. The human's body was burning hotter than any lowbloods to the point of intoxication, still squirming to try to escape. Her Ancillae was panicking, nothing hidden from Mindfang any longer. Mindfang could feel the dull grip tightening around the human's throat, claws digging in just enough to draw blood. The stench of it bringing on as much hunger as arousal. She was already hard, free hand attempting to unceremoniously remove her undergarments. Though the human's body was as undesirable as they came, the senses of her Jade brought on a dampness beneath the Marquise's own leggings.

The one handedness of the Avarayri reminded her a bit too much of her own crippled years, but the Ancillae's bulge was already erect beneath the subligaculum. The stained garment undone and finally torn aside, Mindfang holding the Ancillae still. The faintest shaking of her slit pupils the only thing to confess the internal panic. "You're hardly the only one who I'm dealing with here my precious Avarayri. You see, my delightful little Ancillae is obtusely pale for you."

"What the fuck does that even mean?" The hiss came out neutral in translation, but the failing scowl marked a certain ignorance to the alien. Of course that should be expected, her species seemed to be without such relations, primitive as they were.

"Dote as she may she's grown quite attached to you. I wouldn't have though an old jade would have a pallid crush on you like some sort of deviant, I will admit I was wrong. But now that I know of it, I think it's best to snuff it out. Don't you agree?" Her Ancillae's body moved as if it were some higher noble's mechanical construct, sharp and relentless as she ground her member against the alien's backside. Mindfang could feel her on the inside, oh the Ancillae was nothing but a spectator at this point and her horror was tearing her apart.

The human did not reply, face falling to the ground. "I'm going to kill you."

"Hm?" Mindfang's smile widened as the human's body shuddered under the weight of the Jade. Her Ancillae's breathing was heavy now, dark face flushed with jade. "You'll have to speak up, I didn't quite catch that."

Before the human could speak the Marquise released the Colour Eater. The shove inside the human came with terse shriek. No doubt in spite of her pet's excessive leaking she was a little big for the diminutive alien. A wordless command was given, and the Ancillae yanked the Avarayri's head up by the collar. Black, black as pitch and directed in hate. "I SAID I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU FOR THIS!"

Mindfang feigned an overbearing sigh, her Ancillae smashing the human back down as it seemed the alien's proverbial damn had broken. Her words no longer translated from the speed and malformations in them, but the tone of the xenos language screamed a blind fury. Oh well, she hadn't bought the alien because she was easy. It would take a few more of these, but there would be progress.

"Bite her pet, hard enough she'll stop struggling, but not enough she passes out. I want the both of you to learn something here." The human struggled harder as the Jade stopped pumping. The struggle fierce and entirely pointless as the tall Colour Eater leaned down, griping the collar and pulling it back. The bite was unceremonious and short, the Avarayri's struggling slowing as the fangs sunk into her neck. By the time her Ancillae pulled her fangs out, the human had fallen still. A cursory lick drawing over the incisions to keep them from bleeding. But the Avarayri's eyes still glared up at Mindfang, still filled with hate. Good. "You're mine, both of you. If I want my sweet jade to do this to you Avarayri she will. You may be a freak that I can't mindgrip, but there aren't any other exceptions. I suggest you both remember that."

The burst of unadulterated terror in her Ancillae brought an undeniable hardness on Mindfang, her body greedily indulging itself on the alien. The stench of jade arousal filled the room now, both of her slave's bodies flushed. Mindfang's grip remained on the Ancillae as she considered what to do now that any entertainment from the human was gone, at least until the toxins wore off. The combination of unwanted pleasure and horror in the Ancillae she needn't be here to watch. Mindfang walked out, eager to ride the high of experience off from her own private quarters. After all, the night had only just begun.

~~{†}~~

The tall body pulling itself off of Gael wasn't acknowledged at first.

She wasn't 'there' mentally to be able to acknowledge anything. Not at first. Whatever it was that had happened when Rosa had bitten her neck, it had been enough to slip away. Mentally she wasn't lying on a floor in an alien space ship. Mentally she'd been nowhere. Years of living with the weight of strange dreams had given that small talent.

None had found her, letting her hold out in the proverbial nothing until it was done. Slowly Gael came back to a body that ached everywhere. Some places worse than others. Gael ignored that, with unexpected ease as she tried to resolve something. Her self disgust was only a little worse than it usually was. Maybe that was just the secretion's of-

The external disgust and anger was redirected at the cerulean. All this was on her.

Gael didn't have the strength to stand, not at first. She didn't even have the strength to sit up. The bite kept her weak. Rolling came first, arm pushing her up off her back, the brightness of the light overhead forcing her to close her eyes. Gael lay there for a moment, breathing hard and taking stock of herself. Didn't feel like anything was torn but certainly bruised. Her nose had been broken again, her hand wiping off some of the dried blood that covered her mouth.

Wiping her hand free of the crusted flakes on her hip, she considered wiping elsewhere. The thought was immediately struck down. Showers. Gael could feel it between her legs, the stuff coating the inside of her thighs was drying. Mucusy almost, but viscous. Grotesque as it was it could washed off, but she needed water for that.

She forced everything but what was needed from her mind, a half formed attempt to decrypt it all abandoned. Shower. Water. Food. Then Gael could smash her head against the mental wall of what had just happened.

Rising came with another roll as her arm lacked the dexterity to bring her up from her back. Legs shaking as Gael forced herself up. The awkward motions only highlighting the bruising. Opening her eyes Gael noted the drying green stain of the viscous slurry on the floor, a little ways away her clothes. Gael didn't look at herself, no point right now. She forced herself over to the ripped clothing.

The shirt was ripped to the point of uselessness, now little more than a rag with a hole in it where a sleeve had once been. Her skirt likewise ripped outright, the impromptu belt's buckle shattered. A faint parting was paid to her underwear, the abuse of wear had left them weak enough they'd been ripped in two with the skirt. The only thing remotely usable was the Jade robe, which even then had a serious tear around the shoulder that the whole thing rested on. It took a moment of knotting the thing together to make it work, Gael making use of her teeth to bind the shoulder back together.

Clothing herself removed what little excessive self disgust remained, the usual level of which returning almost a comfort. Taking the rags of what was left in hand she checked the door to the torture room. Oddly it was partially ajar. Gael adjusted her collar, and carefully pushed the door open.

No punitive shock came, no burning whiteness arriving on her as Gael took a careful step outside. The function of the collar's perimeters were unknown. Evidently it had a big red button system and the expected sensor wall. Perhaps it had disabled states.

Tempting as it was to go find some sharp implement to shove into the Marquise's freak eyeball the thought of a cold shower was more tempting in attainability. The passage back down to the slave quarters coming to mind as Gael shuffled forward. Able to ignore everything else but the perverse chitin hallways, occasional staring aliens and the thought of how nice it would feel to put a screwdriver in the captain's eye socket and twist it about. Half fitted thoughts of what had happened beaten down.

The slave quarters seemed dingier than usual, the slaves a little wide eyed. The moment she walked past the threshold of the quarters, the collar clicked at its reactivation. Gael kept walking without pause to the xenos washrooms. The only one inside the room was a brown eyed troll squatting over the waste holes pantless. She paid him no mind as she stumbled over to the showers. The ruined clothing was dropped, the robe pulled off with a little effort.

The water as always was cold, but Gael had long since not cared about that. It was clean and that was more than enough for her at the moment. The blood on her face and the dirt of the floor came off, as did the dried jade secretions. The long years of general inability to deal with sexual matters because of her own detested invert nature set aside as she cleaned herself. The coloured slurry was at least water soluble, fortunate considering the excessive amounts of it.

She washed herself twice over and when she was certain no trace of green remained, Gael hopped up and turned off the shower. A quick look revealed the brown blood was gone. With a sigh Gael cast a look down at herself. Her front was covered in bruises and scratches, a touch of her entrance making her wince. Nothing that would kill her though, and if the Marquise's intent was to humiliate her she was a while fucking late to that party. Gael toweled herself off with the ragged skirt, putting the jade robe back on afterwords.

The first step outside the bathroom came with the noise of Horns hissing. Two tall lime eye'd creatures glared down at her, but did not advance. Walking out of the door frame the two jerked forward into the bathroom. Well, the rest of the chattel at least still thought she was still a xenomorph. Smallest thing in the world right now but it was still something. Gael limped on, towards the place where the slave food was dropped off.

The room was near empty, most already off to slave at their functions whatever they were. The only inhabitants the brown blood that had been using the restrooms and a familiar yellow eyed horn, chittering to each other quietly. Gael paid them no mind, thirst and hunger the only things she wanted to focus on now. The box of rations sat on the ground, a pair of dented water bottles at the side.

The only thing inside the box was a half eaten orb some dick had taken a bite of, the mushroom layer was dull purple contrasting with the salmon toned meat. But Gael still ate the ration in two bites because it was better than starving. The burning salty flavour drowned as soon as she'd smacked the water bottle open against the corner of a table.

She kept drinking, until the flavour of salt was gone and her broken teeth started screaming from the cool water. She stopped drinking, breathed in and then finished off the bottle. She dropped the empty bottle in the empty box. All done, everything she needed to do. No that wasn't it, that was everything she needed to keep herself alive. Now came the bad part. Gael managed to take a few deep breaths before she started going back to- that.

It was simple, maybe that was what made it so unpleasant. Rosa had been forced on her. That was it. The Marquise had made it sound like it was a punishment for the Jade eyed Horn as much as it was for Gael. She'd panicked before when Rosa's position as what amounted to a concubine had become apparent, the Jade had not taken any of that well. Maybe that was when she stopped shoving the invert away, fear was enough to crush the self disgust. Others before the self, that was enough to keep Gael going no matter how bad it got. Rosa one of those types worth enough to keep going. Even if Gael was dead, the jade wasn't.

Gael didn't really know when she'd started walking, much less running as the panic hit. No, not panic. Fear. Blatant, vibrantly afraid that what had just happened would destroy any binding she had. The Jade was alive. Rosa was a person and the freak of nature had forced her on Gael and who fucking knew what she might do now. It wasn't fucking fair to meet someone Gael literally was obliged to throw away everything for and to have them be made to-

Rosa's door came into sight, Gael almost crashed into, feverishly grabbing the handle and yanking. But the door did not open. Not that the handle was locked, it had always been devoid of locks because why the fuck would a concubine's door have a lock. It felt instead as if something was keep the door from opening, some terrible weight Gael's worthless fucking body couldn't hope to push aside. The mania was alive like fire as she hammered her fist against the door because any self-control was dead because no this wasn't going to fucking happen.

No response. Gael felt like she was going to scream. That wouldn't help. She forced herself to breath before trying to call. "Kh-Rosa?" No response. The urge to scream came again, stronger but the stupidity of doing that was enough to keep it down.

The tears were ignored, as was the sensation Gael was going to be sick. That shit didn't deserve acknowledgment. Only the weakness of her knees was paid any mind as she slumped against the door. "Rosa please talk to me."

The wordless trill of discomfort made Gael hit her head against the door-frame. Rosa was in there and she wasn't responding and fuck everything but most of all fuck her for not just dying. This entire fucking overtime was worth less than nothing if she'd gone and fucked up someone else's life worse than it already was.

If it hadn't been for the paired steps coming from behind Gael the mental breakdown would have started in the hall there and then. "Jeesh. What the fuck happened to you cullbait?"

"It can't really say much you know."

"Wasn't expecting an answer really." Gael turned to see the glowing yellow eyed horn and the brown blood. The latter looking nervous, the former with the same prodding look it usually wore. "Shit, you just get fucked up all the time." The yellow eye chittered while his companion hissed nervously.

"Man should we even be here? The last guy who fooled around with that green situla got dropped out the airlock." The brown creaked while his companion took a step forward, looking up from Gael to the door.

"I'm not going to fuck around. Maybe I just want to throw this thing a bit of internal plating. Cull bait could eat someone's face for us down the line, maybe." The yellow eye hissed. It looked as if it was glowing but it was hard to tell if that was the bizarre creature or the sudden blurring of her vision from the tears. "Shit, feels like a whole pod got leaned up."

The groan of moving furniture brought Gael to her feet now with all the personal volition of a scared animal. Shaking hand pushing at the door, which finally fucking opened. Whatever the yellow eyed horn did was ignored as Gael stumbled into the room. It looked as if Rosa had pushed her pod up against the door, the terrible insectoid furnishing deceptively heavy. Rosa wasn't in sight, the blankets likewise were gone and the dress she'd been wearing tossed to the corner. But she was here.

Another unsettling trill came from the closed door of the closet. Fight crushed flight, the desire to run dashed against the desire to do- anything. Something. Gael told herself that at least as the very act of walking became difficult. The door handle of the closet was cerulean, rounded and triangular. When Gael touched it the high pitched trill actually paused her.

The punch hit one of the nastier bruises on her side, killing the panic long enough for Gael to wrench open the door.

Rosa had covered herself in the blankets, half hidden beneath the clothes hung in the closet. Knees up to her chest with her arms wrapped around them. Her eyes were so bright they almost reminded Gael of Pyral's gaze. Bright yellow neon lights that stared at her, vacant for a moment. When the gaze focused another pained trill came, hands coming up to cover her face. "By the void I- just- I can't ask you to forgive me just- just-" The nausea, the panic and everything else was battered aside by a sudden force. "I can't-"

It didn't have words to be named with, none now anyways. It pushed aside disgust and fury and everything else. Gael's entire body was shaking but that was ignored as she stepped into the closet, shutting it behind her even as Rosa's hissing hit a pitch that made her functioning ear ring. "Please just GO! She'll just use me again and-" The trill and the words and the Jade herself fell still, her eyes opened lighting up the lightless closet with the glowing yellow. Her own tears were tinged jade, rolling down her front freely. "I was an utter fool to think I could protect anyone."

Words, half managed and misunderstood wouldn't work here. Physicality had never been Gael's forte, or even something she could deal with. Discomfort made it easy to live that way, keeping worthy people at a healthy distance. Their lives were their own. Not here though, that wasn't something she could afford. The collar was the only clothing that remained on Rosa. That worthless fucking sigel a mark of who kept her here. Gael forced herself forward, even as the jade eyed horn hissed. Clawed hands attempting to keep her away but lacking any strength as she rose and wrapped her arm around her. Head resting under her chin when strength finally failed.

Rosa choked, clawed hands hanging in the air as she processed what was happening. Her willpower crumbled under the closeness. Choking breathing slowing as the embrace was returned. Long arms pulling her close as the Jade's sobs slowed. Their collars clinked softly against each other as Rosa pulled her close, cheek resting against Gael's own.

The beast that clung to physicality coiled up inside Gael, as the alien woman held onto her like she was the last real thing in the universe.

Chapter Text

Ebonveil had never really fit in among the contingent of evocators on the IV Mounting equation, most constantly moody and morose from the interference of the deceased. Not that she couldn't hear them on occasion, but it was hard to be dour when one was still alive and not intent on perishing anytime soon. That glibness had gotten her flogged a few times, twice having her sent off to patrol beside a musty old scouting ship with a few other vagrants. The second time had been deliberate. Third visit made on leave.

As it turned out, aliens made for better company than most of the evocators. In the short time she'd been on earth Torg and Vasara had been the best squad she'd ever fought with. Both had served in their nation state's armed forces before the invasion, both more than capable of operating the armoured beast they used. But it was their cohesion that truly made them dangerous. Twice they'd been forced to go head to head with imperial extermination squads. Only twice had they fired the monstrous canon. Constantly communicating and anticipating they ran a five person vehicle with themselves alone. Pressing onward as their supplies dwindled near to nothing, munitions near to empty. Logistically they were doomed, yet that only seemed to invigorate the humans.

Ebonveil had managed to become a small part of that cohesion, and with it had come a- as Vasara termed it 'comradeship.' A romance between battle brood. Little was held back from the aliens, who it seemed already knew about some personal details to a disturbing degree. She told them about life aboard a life vessel on the fleet, conscription and service and her much missed lusus.

The humans had at least returned the detail. Vasara was a half mad beast in a human's body, his ancestry tied up in a great many wars and influenced by his perverse psionics. Or whatever it was that let him see things outside himself. Half the time he seemed boisterous and loud, the other half quiet but still good-natured. Torg on the other hand was constantly moody but not with any malice. He may have been the more thoughtful of the two, laying out short term plans and giving the order to fire. He'd apparently joined the army to make a name for himself, but his excessive cursing and general resentment for others had prevented him from advancing up the ranks.

Willingly joining the army, the thought seemed a little perverse to Ebonveil. Humans seemed in line with rust caste trolls, who tended to grease the Imperial armies wheels with their blood. Despite being only physically a single caste though they fought amongst themselves to no end. Humans were odd like that, between Torg and Vasara they could have a three opinion argument. The strange inhabitants reflected the world, Earth was so varied compared to the fleet. Ebonveil had to admit she kind of loved it. Conversely, and conversely hated the state of it now.

In what little time they'd been together Vasara had been eager to point out the sights of the country they scrambled through, finding a primitive image making device for her to capture some of it. Towers of stone and old works of art, nearly impossible in make without psions or highblood might. Made melancholic by the surrounding ruins, everything abandoned and broken. Human food and music at least made it somewhat easy to ignore beside the weight of their task. Torg started putting together meals when the American or 'colonial' rations ran low. All canned of course but a lot could be done with spices and heat.

Escargot was really good, no matter what Vasara said.

Out of Paris, the City of Light that had finally been snuffed out, up to Rouen equal in it's destruction and from there off the beaten path to avoid detection. Imperial patrols all over, hunting the remaining humans to fully control the world. They'd rolled on through overgrown human fields and woodways scrapping by somehow, Vasara's craftiness, Torg's blunt focus and her own psionics had been enough to get them to the coast. Still they went on, half hidden by brush with the white stone cliffs and rolling pale beaches at their left as they rolled on towards the human settlement of Dieppe.

The prior evening they had rolled through a largely untouched estate Torg had called the Le Bois des Moutiers, he'd had a book of tourist attractions in his hand, sitting beside her as Vasara drove the armour. The place was thick with groves of plants and wood they'd carefully pushed through. Ebonveil had to admit the smell of the place had been amazing, alien plants from half a hundred places, flowers all manner of colours and leaves turned to an alien summer. Listening to the buzz of insects and the chirps of beasts made it seem for a time like the Earth had been untouched.

The contrast between the estate and Dieppe had been overwhelming and repulsive. If the City of Light had been burnt out, the city by the sea had been ground down to nothing. The city proper had been nearly obliterated outright in the opening troll salvo of heavy explosives and poisonous gas. Any remaining opposition along with most of the city being flattened when the Imperial Army had established the place as a base of operations. The small band had reached an ancient fortress Torg called the Château de Dieppe under the cover of dusk. From there with a set of human binoculars Ebonveil had taken stock of the base.

When the Demoness had arrived for Ebonveil she recalled the base camp being one of the largest on this continental body, but now it seemed a shell of itself. Centered around the core of what had once been the city proper poking out of the crumbling ruins, the bay at the heart of it and the coastline. Things seemed stretched terribly stretched though, the fortifications were largely unmanned, Vykjiit and Suprek directed forces below unable to even occupy the surrounding terrain. Patrols were sparse, few in number. The shuttle landing site was only a stones throw away below the old fortress and the cliffs it sat upon. The shuttle site rested near to the beach, close enough that if a person descended the cliffs and ran along the beach they would reach them in moments, but it seemed to be the only location in the whole base properly guarded. Of course it had to be fucking priests watching, red eyed and starved looking.

When night arrived they'd retreated back to the brush and their armour, hidden in the ruins to lay out a plan that wouldn't get them all killed. Which had proven troublesome. There were only three of them, the tank needed two operators to function and Ebonveil needed to get into a shuttle quietly or she'd be struck down before she left the atmosphere by orbiting patrols.

Vasara had come up with something and naturally, Vasara's plan hadn't been received well. "I am not letting you fucking pilot the tank on your own reindeer fucker." Torg looked near to throwing the fork in his hand at Vasara who shrugged. Between them the map of Dieppe lay, Ebonveil's own knowledge of the imperial fortifications scratched out in red ink.

"We don't have many options and an encounter right now is death. I take the tank, get to the other side of the city? I can launch a shell and retreat before they can mount a proper response. Things will be disorganized enough you'll be able to get to those ships." Varara was soft-spoken in the face of Torg's anger.

"If that's the case then why are you piloting the fucking thing alone? Even with all the sets we've added to the tank you'll still need to fucking head up to the turret and load the shell. Jumping back and forth between the turret and the hull is stupid!"

Vasara looked over to Ebonveil, smiling as usual with a little flat tooth showing. "If you don't get that ship, into the air and out then all this was for nothing. She'll need cover, from up on the cliffs you'll be able to rifle anything that tries to stop Ebon."

"The Satan can handle herself fine, after she gets into the air I'm still stuck in the stupid castle and you'll have every fucking alien in that base after you you inbred. Paris is a no mans land but we got through it. We've got nowhere to run if this goes tits up." Torg shoved his fork into the heated can of escargot like it had offended his ancestor and shoved the snails in his mouth with the same anger as Vasara rolled his eyes. "The tank is almost out of use and nearly out of gas. Transmissions are going to fail in a bit and it will be a fucking pillbox when the shells run out."

Ebonveil swallowed the rest of the canned Foie gras and spoke up. "If the three of us reached a shuttle I could take you two with me. Then it's just getting to the junker Tiralx and Araxus are on."

The bearded human shook his head. "You saw the devils guarding those ships Ebon, there's no way we'll get anywhere even if we leave the tank behind. You're either dead or wanted for going AWOL and we're freak aliens. We need a distraction."

"Then I set up an IED out of what's left of the tank rounds, we drop that fucker on the other side of the river, book it when the guards peel off." Torg turned, pulling open the small trash can they and smashing his near empty tin in. "We don't need to risk this. It's stupid, even for us!"

"We don't have time to set that up and we certainly don't want to hang around here, just because they're not patrolling the heights where we are now, that does not mean they won't eventually. We can do this tomorrow morning and it's our best chance, everything else just ends with us getting caught at some point." Vasara exhaled slowly, a bit red in the face. "I don't like it Solhiem anymore than you do, but you're the better shot."

"Are you sure that you can get away in time?" Ebonveil questioned.

Vasara looked away from Torg and Ebonveil, down to the map. "Of course. I know what I'm doing."

"At least one of us does." Torg hissed checking the small timepiece on his wrist, a fancy silver thing taken from the Parisian rubble. "If we're doing this than we've got about seven hours until dawn. You'll need an hour to get into place on the other side of the city if you want to get there quiet."

"Yea, just need some fresh air first." The bearded man sighed, rising high as he could in the body of alien armour, quickly scaling up to the turret and out of sight. The noise of the hatch opening earned a grumble out of Torg who shifted over to a small locker half hidden in the back by machinery. The space seemed tighter somehow, more garbage on the floor, lit by the screens near the pilots seat.

But it probably wasn't physical. Tension. Everything had been certain up until now. Ebonveil leaned back against the hull. "Torg?"

The human didn't reply immediately, opening the locker to reveal two stacked green metal boxes of munitions, a small crate of cleaning materials and a number of human rifles. Torg withdrew one weapon composed of rust red wood and black metal, alongside one of the munition boxes. "Inbred fucking bastard is lucky. M14 and a whole thing of bullets. I could cover your ass all the way up to the harbor at Dieppe if needed." He looked up at Ebonveil, teeth grit and frame held together too tightly. "Sorry. Just feel like shit right now. Up until now it feels like- like we had a path. I don't know what the fuck will happen now that we're actually about to get your ass back up there."

He dug through his vest for a moment, withdrawing a small black human gun and a similarly sized barrel extension. With little effort he attached the barrel to the gun, before flipping it in his hand to offer it to Ebonveil. "I already have a weapon you know." The weight of the human revolver had been a constant at her side for a few nights now. Her shot had been decent, it required precision like a whip.

The cough noise Torg made might have been a laugh. "One shot of that stupid colonial Anaconda and the entire fucking army down there will know where you are."

"Even if it's stupid it's going to be just about the only thing that will take out a highblood if I run into one." Ebonveil relented and took the human pistol from Torg, looking over it quickly. Human firearms had been something she'd learned of through both humans. She'd learned fast, the mechanism and reload patterns at least somewhat kind to lighter models of plasma launchers. This gun was particularly light, though not small enough Ebonveil wouldn't be able to use it properly like some dainty human pistols. "Silenced?"

"Suppressed as it's getting. Nine by nineteen parabellum model. Seventeen shots and that is it."

"It's not like I'm much better off, six chambered and another seven on hand." Ebonveil said, tapping the holding pocket on her chest. Long ranged weaponry was something she wouldn't have been equipped to carry even if she'd been outfitted before the Demoness found her. Fortunately she'd been able to make up the difference, unfitting the suppressor from the gun and storing it in her pocket, the gun was secured in the bandoleer wrapped over her shoulder. Gone was most of her imperial uniform, replaced with the biggest human clothes she could find. Camouflaged vest and a dark grey shirt covered her torso while a set of human 'jeans' covered her legs. Bandoleer and belting supporting what little she had to carry, only her boots had survived the time on earth. "Mind if I pop out for a second?"

"I won't stop you." Torg said. "Just get in quick, I want the both of you prepped for tomorrow."

Up through the turret and out the hatch, the night was dark. The noise of insects only coming from behind them, distant lights ahead marking the fringes of the army camp. Of what had once been a human city. Ebonveil blinked as her eyes adjusted. Vasara was sitting on the back end of the hull, near to the body. For a moment it looked as if he was holding something in each hand. When her eyes adjusted the human was holding nothing, looking back at her.

"Nervous?" The question came flat, without any of the normal fire the alien had.

"I've been having a low panic attack since you told me my matesprite's roommate was going to have her head violently perforated at some point, but other than that I'm fine. What about you?" She trudged over the burnt camouflage covering the tank's turret, down onto the hull where Vasara sat. "You two aren't really doing that well."

"Eh, the mountain boy always had more bark than bite. Justifiably he's a little out of it." He fell silent. The noise of insects was joined by wind, and the murmurs of the ocean down below. A low sigh. "Maybe I am too. This is where the road I was given ends. Then it is freedom, again." He slumped off the tank for a moment, looking down Ebonveil noticed the human had hidden a small bag under the exhaust pipes.

"I don't suppose you've got a miracle in there or something?" Vasara's chuckle was a fraction of its usual self.

He tossed the bag up to her, jumping up himself a moment later. The bag was light, simple alien polymer and fitted to be worn on the back. Black in coloration the mud and dirt covering it made it seem like it had been there a while. No weapons or armour from the weight of it. "I wish. No, this is in the event that things keep going as they are. Desperate I mean." He opened the bag. Rustling his hand in it for a moment he withdrew a single enclosed envelope.

A pang of unease hit her when she noted who the letter was addressed to. Erraum Megido, in rough Imperial script. "Spooky isn't it? Still gives me chills when I look at it."

Ebonveil took the letter carefully, looking a little closer it became apparent the letter had been sealed for a while. The paging was yellowed, the imperial lettering a light grey from time. But it was entirely of human make. "Did you write this?"

"Yea. A long time back. Couldn't have been more than six or seven when I did." Vasara said, looking up at the sky. Above the stars were half hidden by distant light and the clout of once civilization. "You're usually that young when you start remembering. Or whatever it is I do. Don't open it."

Ebonveil put the letter on her leg for a moment, cracking her knuckles to try and clear her mind of the sudden nervousness that had found her. It didn't help. She folded the letter and stuck it in one of her pockets. "Do you know what's going to happen tomorrow?"

"No. But I feel like I've been here before." Another long moment of silence, a half heard curse from the depths of the tank behind them came. Vasara finally smiled in full again. "Ebon can I ask a favour of you?"

She nodded. "I'm not really in a position to stop you from asking, unless you're going to ask something freaky out of me."

"Nah, nothing spooky. You two, Torg and you are going to wait until I get that shot off right?"

"I was listening you know."

"Then I need you to do something. There's something in this bag, if it goes-" The human winced. "If this goes downhill I want you to open this bag. You'll know what it is and what to do if you see it go bad, doesn't matter if Torg tries to tell you otherwise. If it does go bad then when you get into orbit open the letter and read it. If not then you can burn it for all it matters."

He stared expectantly at her, still smiling. Ebonveil looked down at the bag, ominous as it was she hadn't been given an actual reason to deny the request. "In that case let's hope things work like you planned them."

"We can only hope they do."

~~{†}~~

The weight in his pockets was killing Vasara. The depths of the Königstiger had no natural light, everything had been bolted up. On the monitors though it was a beautiful day outside, the sun just on the horizon, the sky bright with a dusting of distant clouds in the east. The jarring distance made from the earth vast, buildings shattered on all sides and the road ahead dusted in the remains of structure and human. All the same. Like he'd been here before.

The muffled roar of the engine behind Vasara felt terribly familiar, as had the parting as he rolled along the fringes of the Dieppe. Ebon's wave and Torg's gruff shouts. Not that the past weeks had not been spent with the overbearing weight of the tank pushing onward, but something else. Every twitch, every look. The wretched sense he'd been here before, that he had no control, it was burning in him again. Only once had it been so strong. When he'd agreed. He didn't know what he'd agreed to, who he'd agreed with to or why he'd agree'd. But he had. He didn't remember when, never having asked anyone of it.

Vasara had simply had the letter in hand one day. He'd felt sad when he'd looked at it, so he'd buried it for a time. Focused forward, half aware of something terrible going on behind. Pain not his own, memories not his own.

Mostly belonging to one person, girl that had grown up beside him. Who smiled most when she was imperiled, and struggled to smile anytime else. Did she even know he existed? Vasara didn't think so, for she had been blown far by the winds that buffeted them both. He'd remained grounded, only half seeing the weight of it. Who could believe such maddening sights? No one, there was no proof it was not insanity, barring the rare moments like these. Déjà vu was nothing before this.

He paused the tank's advance. The action coming unconsciously as he checked the monitors. Ahead was the D925, the highway that led to the heart Dieppe and out of the city. Left would take him to the coast and Dieppe and certain doom at the hands of a few thousand twisted aliens. Right would let him creep along the fringes, as he had promised he would.

"Loviatar." The familiarity of the curse made him wince, the wince itself also terribly familiar. Even the pause of his hand reaching to hit the advance once more was familiar. He clenched the paused hand for a moment, breathing hard. Even this felt like it was some terrible repeated step.

Vasara didn't want to die. He wanted to go home to Rovaniemi, crawl under his pile of blankets and sleep for a few months. No one wanted to die though, barring a few exceptions.

He remembered dying twice, first choking on his own blood second in slow agonizing pain as a gangrenous wound spread its bile. The weight of action hung over him.

Vasara managed to crack his knuckles, shaking his head running a hand through his beard. Hopefully the letter would explain things, even if he couldn't read it perhaps it would be enough. The goat girl and the mountain boy wouldn't be able to go anywhere if this didn't happen next. Half sorted memories of failure weighed there. Slaying the last of his hesitation he cranked the speed of his treads up, the roar of the engine and the rumbling advance and the world just beyond the helmet making him snort and laugh. In the distance he could already see the black and purple shell of the alien barricades.

Vasara shifted the treads even when the turn was done and locked the acceleration into place, rising fast as he could up to the turret, kicking aside spoiled wrappers and loose wiring. "Oi šermukšnio šermukšnio kur tu augai tarp balių," Nothing to do about it. Couldn't even hear the words through the tanker helmet. "Ei ei aj aj aj, kur tu augai tarp balių?"*

But that didn't matter at all, maybe it never mattered. "Kur tu augai tarp balių, tarp šių žalių samanų, Ei ei aj aj aj, tarp šių žalių samanų?" Pulling himself up into the turret of the Königstiger, Vasara could already see the flurry of movement off in the distance on the cannon monitor. He'd already loaded one of the last four Sprgr.43 rounds, high explosive but not good for much. Not that he needed much.

"Oi motuše motuše, kam tu mane auginai," Ha. A Finnish man in a German tank singing in Polish, fighting on in France all to save a Norwegian. His grandfather would have laughed. "Ei ei aj aj aj, kam tu mane auginai?"

A man who fought Germans, Russians and Japanese. His only regret was he didn't get to kill any Swedes during the wars. He'd be proud, maybe not about the whole 'saving a Norwegian' but he would be about the rest.

The process of aiming the colossal tank gun was made simple by the numerous retrofits that Torg had installed, cameras and leveling equipment, automatic rotations at the push of button. The eighty eight millimeter cannon came to rest on the center of the xenos fortifications, Vasara fired without hesitation.

He did not pay any mind to the burst that shattered the ignescent black walling that had blocked off the hallway or the shattered alien bodies struck apart by force and shrapnel, for he had already pulled to the back of the turret, tossing the discharged shell down into the lower hull and turning to where the remaining three shells were waiting. Cursing as he lugged the nearly twenty pound shell to the waiting cannon. Loading came automatically, Vasara jumping back down into the hull and bouncing into the pilot's seat. The shattered barricade was only a few meters away.

Vasara smashed the acceleration up as far as he could, bracing as chunks and layers of alien barricade shattered under the charge of the sixty nine tonne antiquated war machine. What was left collapsed under the weight of the tank's front, ground under the old Tiger's treads like some enormous half dead centipede the way it creaked and shuddered. Vasara did not dwell on it, already jumping up and moving back up to the turret, familiarity and the self shifting into one. Everything one and the same as it had always been as Vasara re-seated himself and spun the turret about, mechanics and electrical parts whirring in unison as he took in the base from the cameras. Ships more alive than the brown sodden earth and grey rubble around them in all directions. Alien buildings crudely set up, worn in now lining the streets. Alien's running panicked as the Tank barreled onward.

He waited, holding his breath as the tank rushed on. Vasara held his breath as the petty ships passed and a larger ship came into view, across a broken courtyard the thirty meter tall monster was painted with terrible white faces and vast swathes of dark red paintings. A dozen tall red eyed creatures had emerged from the ship, dressed in odd clothes reminding him of clowns. Vasara didn't much like clowns.

He hit the shot at their center of mass. The shell smashed into the side of the ship, perverse alien creatures blasted apart in an instant. Bodies hurled aside little more than leaves before an open flame. The closeness rocking the side of the tank as pocks of shrapnel dotted her armour. Alien shrieks reaching him under the layers of metal and the noise cancelling helmet. Vasra did not dwell on it as he jerked out of the gunners position for one last time, rolling into the back of the turret and scooping up the last two shells. Terribly familiar, no options though. Disconcerting was fate now that it had been embraced.

Maybe that was what he had agreed to now. He ignored the thought as he stumbled back down into the hull. The shells were laid against the pilot's seat, Vasara taking the gunners seat as he full stopped the right track, turning the old Tiger as hard as she could. From the cameras he could see the burning hole he'd left in the side of the bloodied alien shuttle. Vasara could also see two of the larger aliens bleeding what looked like black blood from the monitor pulling themselves up.

The Tiger II back in the day had made use of the Maschinengewehr34 as its secondary armament, but when Vasara and Torg had recovered it the machine gun had long since been removed unlike the main cannon. They had replaced it with an old 'La Nana' AA52 machine gun Torg had salvaged from a French Armoured Car. About three thousand rounds left, Vasara found no reason to hold back as a red eyed beast glared him down.

The alien's head burst black, horns shattering but the beast did not fall, it's comrade missing an arm and a good chunk of it's face was already charging.

Vasara shifted, locking the charging creature full of NATO rounds. Knees blasted apart by fire, Vasara smashed the tread acceleration forward to send him hurtling into the courtyard. The gigantic clown disappearing from sight as the tank burst forward. Despite the enormous weight of the tank it still jerked up when it crossed over the alien's body. Turning the 52 came fast as Vasara could, but the other survivor was already gone from sight.

Something smashed up on top of the turret shaking the body of the Tiger, several monitors blacking outright. One by one the cameras started to shatter.

"Loviatar bite them!" Vasara snarled, leaning over and stopping on of the tracks forcing another shift. Cursed thing was already on top of him, a camera informing him others were surrounding the tank. He'd be blind soon. They'd torch the tank, that thing on top would get in.

Not much to be done about that though. He shuffled over to the pilot seat, inverting the tank tread rotations, forcing the tank to rotate as fast as it could while Vasara struggled for a moment with his pant pockets, the two troublesome weights he'd picked up back in Rouen finally coming to hand.

The DM51 Handgranate in his left hand, M34 white phosphorus grenade in the right. Both were tossed to the pilot's seat beside the spare shells as Vasara checked the cameras. Three left, one immediately cutting the feed from the back as a brown eyed alien bashed it in with the butt of a plasma thrower. MG camera was out too a moment later. The roar of the engine was joined by the roar of the AA52 as Vasara blindly fired.

Alien screams came, footsteps atop the tank coming over the fire of the machine gun and the engine's overbearing noise. Not like he was going to need his ears much longer. Sorry Ebon, sorry Torg.

Metal shrieked, the gun jammed and all was falling into place. The tearing of steel like it was little more than flimsy brass coming from above him. Vasara signed, abandoning the gun as he picked up the weighty cannon shells. He leaned back into his seat, ignoring the noise all around as he shifted a little. The M34 would burn through the shells and set them off, the DM51 made sure he wasn't alive for that. He picked up one grenade with each hand.

Something popped overhead, like a can of tennis balls the size of an industrial crate being opened.

No hesitation paused Vasara as he ripped off the DM51's pin, looking up over the seat as something unnaturally large slunk down through the turret. Body too massive for such a small space . The M34's pin came out beside as burning red eyes fell on him, face stained with dark blood and marred by shrapnel. It's upside down smile was kind to a shark's.

Vasara returned the smile, raising the hand holding the grenades above his head.

~~{†}~~

Ebonveil closed her eyes as she muted the feed, but she still felt it. Looking back at the ship's under feed the human armour had split upwards and outwards, turret being dislodged outright and sent flying alongside the lower half of the final highblood. Flame danced over what remained of the burnt out war machine. Surviving soldier's pulling out their plasma torches prompted her to cut the feed entirely. The controls of an imperial ship felt clunky for the first time in a long while as she pushed the acceleration and tipped the incline upwards. Pulling them from the planet's surface at a speedy pace. Fast as she could, without being suspicious.

Torg said nothing, the Imperial army cloak still worn. The hood had been fitted with stitching that peaked up at the corners, as if the wearer had horns. His look was vacant, sitting at the copilots seat staring at the black screen with his mouth slightly open. Focus on something else, somewhere she couldn't possibly see. Ebonveil said nothing for a moment as she checked the various ship information feeds, patrol quadrants and fleet orders.

Their escape had gone perfectly, soldiery sufficiently distracted and the priests gone. They'd snagged a Vykjiit shuttle with all her clearances, likely nothing was going to bother them in the ship. Fully outfitted, there were emergency rations, extra psi-worms on hand and relatively high security clearance. But there were no patrol quadrants set, it seemed like a glitch until Ebonveil looked over the fleet orders. "That's bad."

"What is?" Torg slumped back into the chair.

She looked up at the human. "Fleet's moved up to a very tight formation. Emergency formation I think. Shit hold on." The exact specifications of fleet group Nameless, only ship within the IV Nameless came up after a second. The Valknut marked vessel behind worryingly close. "Oh come on."

"I can't read that remember."

"It's-" Ebonveil snarled, cutting back the Vykjiit shuttle's mapping to their location, noting their position and the total lack of ships surrounding them. There wasn't anything outside of the fleet patrols, the rest of the planet largely uncovered.

There weren't any whispers in the back of her mind, just like when her evocator unit and the whole fucking ship she'd been on had been sent mercilessly into the void. There weren't any whispers now. Only a faint sense she'd been here before, the letter burning a weight in her pocket. Ebonveil engaged the autopilot, running a hand through her hair before she pulled out the letter. She rose out of the pilot's seat, as it felt like everything was oh so slight vibrating. It wasn't, ship was running smooth and clean but she felt like it was.

Erraum Megido, there was one single asshole in the whole fucking universe who actually knew her moulting name. But there it was written in crude scratchy writing addressed to her. Torg stood up after a moment, finally looking at her. "Vasara wrote that right?"

"Yes." Her claw scratched against the binding for a moment, uncertain of how to go about this. Didn't want to tear what was inside.

"I can open it." Torg withdrew a thin knife from his side, Ebonveil handed him the letter. The top was slit open, easier than the flaying of a beef grub, Torg handed her the letter back. She withdrew a single folded page, curling it open there was more Imperial, written out in pink ink.

'torg will probably want you to read this out loud ebon.'

"Really?!" Her voice almost hit a grub's pitch.

"What's it say?" Torg was glaring at the page more than her, beginning to pace.

"Nothing. Look, I'll just read it for you alright?"

"Thanks for entertaining my blindness." The human growled.

Ebonveil breathed in once before she started reading. 'so first off sorry. there was no way you were going to get into that ship without someone literally burning down the front door. dont worry it was fast and i went in there gladly.'

She jumped as the human human turned and smashed his head against the wall, chitin cracked under the second blow as Torg finally broke, half screaming at the floor. "You fucking reindeer fucking BASTARD INBRED!"

"Torg!" Ebonveil grabbed the alien by the back of his collar, lifting him up off the ground. He spun, attempting to swat at her with a balled fist. But there was little he could do, even if he was strong enough Ebonveil's psionics would have been enough to overpower him. The second swat was redirected with a thought back on him. "Try it again and I'll do it again."

Torg said nothing, Ebonveil dropping the alien after a moment. Breathing hard as if he'd been fighting he didn't look up at her. "I should have been in there with him."

"If you were you'd be dead too and I would be on my own!" She pulled out the letter covering, offering it to the man who still would not look at her. "See this? He wrote this sweeps ago. It wasn't your prerogative to go out there and die with him. I don't even know if it was his choice."

She offered the empty envelope again half shoving it into his face before he finally took it in both hands. Examining it closer than when he had opened it. A stray drop of blood rolling down from his forehead onto the yellowed paper. He mouthed a curse before he finally looked up at her. He'd opened a long cut on his forehead, dousing the front of his pail hair unnatural crimson as drops of blood rolled down onto his face. "How is this fucking possible?"

"I don't know." Ebonveil managed, the only answer she could sum up. "But you said it yourself, you've done the impossible for a while now." Torg said nothing, hands falling to his sides.

"Would have been better if it was me." He choked as a translucent tears started to roll down his face. He stumbled back to the copilots seat, shaking his head.

Glad he wasn't looking Ebonveil wiped the fringes of her own eyes, walking over. "It wasn't you though. You're still here and I need you functioning."

"Yea. Still need to save your guy." Torg choked, wiping his face. "What's in the rest of that freak note say?"

Ebonveil had half forgotten the note in hand. She pulled it up again. 'torg i get that youd want to be there with me but youve still got a lot to do. you too megido. things are going to get rough right away. your first instinct is just going to be to jump over to your matesprite. cant because vykjiit will wipe you out for violating an ambush order. you need to wait until they make a move, go in after them and wipe out the bastards. tiralx will know where to go from there.'

She choked, the half thoughts formed when she'd boarded the ship breaking in consciously now. Ebonveil hadn't even considered that. It made sense to the closeness of the Vykjiit vessel, made sense to what they were doing. It stung having a dead person she'd kind of liked talking sense. Normally the dead were easily ignored pricks. "Alien?"

"Yea just-" Her voice failed her for a moment. Ebonveil fell back into the pilot's seat. One last cough and she was able to speak again. "Sorry. That doesn't usually happen."

He shook his head. "No issue."

'dont bother thinking too much about what happened. there was nothing either of you could do about it. all that matters is that you two can make it. stick together and use your heads and nothing will stop you. love the both of you fuckers.'

She looked down at the page, not recognizing the symbol crudely scratched on the paper. Chuckling halfheartedly when she finally realized what it was. "He left a little heart at the end there."

Ebonveil offered him the page as she turned back to the ship controls. The human took the page, staring at it for a moment. The snort that might have been a laugh came again. "Of course he did. He's a damn weirdo." Readings all in the positives, slowly crawling out of the lower atmosphere. No imperial ships for a worrying number of clicks. Alone for the moment. Ebonveil took back manual control as Torg spoke up. "Do we listen to him?"

"I don't think we have any other options." Ebonveil shifted their direction, speeding them out of the atmosphere towards the fleet and the waypoint of this mad journey. The faint sense of familiarity remaining all the while.

Chapter Text

"Honourable Tyranny personal investigation is hardly necessary in this matter." Sub-Lygtagt Hylene chittered from behind Hyralx Pyrope. A lean Sea-blood woman with large sharp eyes and pragmatically shaved horns, the Sub-Lygtagt likely did not appreciate her presence.

Unfortunately for her, her appreciation and interests were not of concern to Hyralx.

"Eleven dead priests is worth my time when I am in the area Sub-Lygtagt." Hyralx hissed as she walked forward.

The scene grew more curious as the teal walked on, eyeing everything that had been left in the wake of the suicidal assault. The local hour was late, sun setting behind colouring the world dark red even outside of the Legis' glasses. The small courtyard before the priestly vessel was marred with corpses of lowblood and highblood alike, the warped form of the alien armour lay broken and burnt in the center of it all. A curious thing, larger than most any human battle armour the empire's forces had encountered. How exactly it had gotten here, into the center of this camp an odder tale. Somehow it had snuck its way here, operated by a singular human who had taken advantage of the manpower shortage.

The barricade the battle armour had smashed through had been in ill repair, it would function perfectly against lesser human weapons fire and concussive blast but the weight of human weaponry had shattered the poorly maintained walls. Guards had either failed to respond properly or been run down and buried in the charge. The lack of communicating had proved just as devastating a blow as the armour itself which had nearly reached the center of the base before it made its final stand.

The bodies of the soldiers and priests had begun to smell, alien flies buzzing about the fetid bodies, marred by shrapnel and by metal alien bullet. Only a single priest had survived the salvo, being knocked unconscious by the blast of the armour's main gun. He had fared better than his companions, the Legis had noted what looked to be a pair of scorched legs underneath the torn asunder turret. The top half of the highblood had been nearly unrecognizable, alongside the human corpse.

The question of 'why' stunk in the air. Why had this human decided to throw its life away so recklessly. Suicidal assaults were not unheard of, but the half mad stand held greater reason than terror and desperation. She'd requisitioned the exact stock records of the camp beside records of passage, but had not received records from any faction present. Likely the Imperial army didn't have any records to give considering their disorganization, the Vykjiit would stall and make up something about corrupted banks while the priests would send her a refusal after she was gone. This suicidal assault was not for nothing, Hyralx could taste that much.

Hyralx could spend a full night-day cycle poking about, but likely that would just induce cardiovascular palpitations in the troll behind her. The truth was out there but too much trouble to extract. As the Legis drummed her foot against the corpse of a priest missing a jaw, the Sub-Lygtagt finally found her voice. "Legis there are people in this camp who-"

"Eleven dead priests of notable rank and age, all at the action of a single war machine? It seems suspicious." The lesser officer's gill's jittered. She stunk of panic, the twitching nervousness though spoke not of guilt but an inability to answer anything. Clueless, hopeless to deal with the Grythkympters and Subjugglators that had run of the base.

While Hyralx didn't need anything truly from her as the scene spoke well enough for itself, it was enjoyable to watch her squirm. "I understand that. But this is not a place you want to dwell."

The Legis didn't respond, walking away from the corpse, passing by the charred hole left in the side of the unshielded priest ship over towards the human armour. Scorched by plasma as it was it was an impressive thing. Weighty, to the point where it was a wonder how it ran properly. Were it intact many in the nobility would covet it, while entirely mechanical in its construction the steely body formed like it was a functioning creature. Humans were typical in lesser mechanical construct, but their efficiency was great. One human and this warmachine had battered down the front door and culled priests like they were meal grubs on the conveyor line. Ironic.

She drummed her cane against the melted flank of the melted hull. "They already named it didn't they?"

The sub-Lygtagt hissed in annoyance. "Gossip columns already pushed it out upstairs. I've had enough Avarayris, Napoleons, Maccbaeis and Qarmatias to last a cursed lifetime. They called this one the Ignatius." She paused, looking at the armour. "Vykjiit already shot the shifty lookers that might have leaked it, but its out there now. Feels like nothing is off the table at this point."

Someone was watching, anxious and getting desperate as the Legis noticed the faintest whisper behind her. Hyralx had noticed the unspoken satellites following since she had landed. Seemed as if they were growing tired of waiting. She turned, waltzing over to the tense lesser officer. "Sub-Lygtagt Mylene I think it's about time you took some leave. Preferably all the cycles you have available."

"Legis-"

The lesser officer jerked as Hyralx's hand gripped her shoulder, pulling her down far enough that the Legislacerator could properly hiss into the seablood's ear. "That wasn't a suggestion."

Hyralx chuckled at the look of fear that hit the petty officer, who jerked back up when her shoulder was released.

"Very well. Best of luck then, most Honourable Tyranny." Mylene hissed, turning and carrying herself stiffly off, passing out of the courtyard the noise of her footsteps turned into a panicked run. It was impossible not to cackle as more footsteps came, their owners thinking their chance to strike had come.

Hyralx walked with all the urgency of someone unsuspecting of an ambush up to the scorched entrance to the priest ship, withdrawing her orb-key from her pocket as she did. The blast doors yielded under the near universal opening clearance of a Legislacerator. She did not bother to close the door behind her, they would come anyways. The halls were painted in troll and human life fluid, paintings dedicated to the mirthful messiahs covering most of the walls. Dim, seemed like most of the lights were out or non-functioning. Despite the wretched local, the imminent assault and the stench of the blood, Hyralx cackled.

She felt alive and eager for the first time in sweeps. How strange it was the shift, no longer worrying for the concerns of her moirail. Only now did she notice how much time had been spent ablating him for the promise of protection. The giddiness the hallmark of justice. Her justice. She was still an organ in the empire, but there were more palpable pursuits than culling petty criminals for mild offences. The path was unsustainable, even now she'd tread on toes that would seek her culling but that only served to invigorate her.

These half mad aliens pushed to desperation helped, there was no hope or future for them and it let them fight more ferociously than blood drunk priests. The Avarayri had been correct, she wasn't special. That made her functions- palpable. The notion of dissent was not out of reach. If the pitiable creature could struggle against the highest of trolls, why could the High Legislacerator, Honourable Tyranny in the flesh not do the same?

The hallway ended, a low storage bay ahead, devoid of life. Filled with various crates and human skeleton parts. Dim, oh so many places to strike from. Hyralx snickered when she heard the steps behind, how stealthy they must be thinking to themselves. "Enough slinking about then." Hyralx looked up, the ceiling was a few stories up, taller than the hallway and lined with pipes, walls corrugated to allow the hanging and locking of boxes. Climbing up was easy, little holding her back as she shuffled to hang just above the doorway.

She did not have to wait long as the steps picked up below, six, one particularly heavyset. Hyralx unsheathed her cane's blade, sheath held in her teeth, as much to hold onto it as to keep her manic laughter at bay.

The steps slowed as they came near, the barrel of a seadweller rifle poking out beneath her first. Slowly, the seadweller stepped out. The Vykjiit armour immediately recognizable, valknut coloured the regal fuchsia emblazoned on his right bicep, white trident on the left. Three more followed behind, harpoons drawn though they were of lesser nobility. Number five carried a similar rifle, also a sea dweller. Hyralx bit down into her blade's sheath when the heavy stepping sixth walked out beneath her. The last surviving highblood followed, face covered in bandages and horns shattered. Club barred as he growled low, he must have stood twice the size of the Legis.

Two steps was all the indigo managed before the Legislacerator struck. Silently hopping down onto the shoulders of the highblood she drove her blade into the delightfully puncturable back of the indigo's skull. A half-shriek all he managed before the blade ripped into his brain. Dead instantly. The giant tumbled forward, the Vykjiit already howling as they turned to face their foe. Their focus was, however, terribly below Hyralx. The High Legislacerator was already in the air. The indigo's body hit the floor, burying the second rifler while Hyralx's feet made contact with their leader's head.

She was something of a lightweight, diminutive even among teals. But her weight was still enough to loudly snap the seablood's neck as the entirety of her weight came down on top of him. He tumbled, Hyralx tucking and rolling forward as the remaining Vykjiit screamed, finally realizing the direction of their doom. Coming to her feet a moment later she turned, knocking aside the panicked spear jab as the remaining Vykjiit pressed. The first fell in two steps, two jabs hitting him in the neck, body shoved into the one behind knocking him to the floor. The third, to her credit attempted to block Hyralx's assault.

The quality of her spear was lacking, the Legislacerator's blade passed cleanly through the weapon's shaft. Blade passing up near instantaneously through the Vykjiit soldier's exposed chin into her head. Cerulean splattered Hyralx's face as she withdrew the blade, stabbing down into the final fallen member of the party in the same motion. The weak armour at the back of his head gave way like petty hide, a little dark blue draining out at her feet as Hyralx snapped the sword up.

Hyralx breathed hard through her noose, the lack of motion pausing her. Snickering around her sheath as she noted a muffled shout from under the indigo's carcass. One of the assassins remained alive. However he was entirely incapacitated, no longer a threat. He'd escape or suffocate, either way it was no longer her problem. Hyralx relinquished the now toothed scabbard of her sword cane, wiping the mix of cold chroma off the blade onto her sleeve before she sheathed her weapon. Her Legislacerator's uniform was already filthy. A little more blood wouldn't ruin it. A small skip came to her step as she walked over to the indigo's corpse.

"Tell that freak Gobayl to send more next time." Hyralx chittered to the survivor whose noise fell silent. She might have felt bad for him were it not for the attempted murder. A whistle came to her lips as she made her way out of the ship.

No beasts troubled her, no pause found her. Outside the smell of burning and fetid troll flesh remained, sun's light fading rapidly to the onslaught of darkness. The world undisturbed by the more recent bloodshed inside. Hopefully whoever replaced that Mylene would be able to deal with that. Perhaps command of this would be able to pass unscathed, the cleaners were likely already on their way.

None troubled Hyralx on the return trip to the ship. Considering the state of things and her status nothing came beside the typical looks of horror and shock on the faces of passing trolls both Vykjiit and soldiery alike. Hyralx's ship remained as it was, duller perhaps from constant use and imminent night. She scoured the exterior of her ship in a quick lap, no evident tampering or issue in sight. It was typical of seabloods to attempt 'quiet' assassinations, but they were getting bolder.

Hyralx entered, closing the door behind her. Things had changed greatly since her focus had shifted. She'd removed most of the chains from the walls. The empty space filled now with supplies and boxes of human goods stacked high on the benches. Her sash, tunic and shirt coming off shorthandidly, laid out on top of a stack of 'cereals' to be cleaned at some point. The cold storage chest half hidden in the corner opened.

Admittedly it was a tad basic and entirely inappropriate to commandeer human contraband because she couldn't be bothered to return to the Executive Prosecution to restock. On the other hand alien carbonated beverages were amazing and anyone who said otherwise had no sense of taste.

A can of 'Bepis' in her left hand and a bag of 'instantaneous starch strands' in her right retrieved, the cold storage chest was kicked shut as Hyralx turned and walked into the lightless cockpit. Slumping down into the pilot's seat, she opened the can. Three drinks all it took to drain the sugary contents. Meant for humans but still more than enough for her. The can tossed into the back corner with the others, she opened the bag of starch strands a little more carefully. The bag's tiny sack of seasoning was slit by a claw and drained into the bag. Emptied, the plastic sack was dropped as the contents of the larger bag were ground into dust. Odd as the setup was the taste made it worth it. The flavour of 'spicy chicken' burning as per usual.

Vowing to clean up the filthed cockpit at some point, Hyralx tossed aside the now empty bag. Leaning foreword the ship came to life with the tap of a claw, screens lighting up flooded with information, cameras on all sides revealing a number of nervous soldiers staring. She chuckled as she set up a destination a few clicks up into the atmosphere and engaged the autopilot. The ship rumbled to life. In the air in a moment before the auto grav kicked in. The ship rose and took off.

Cutting the cameras, she opened her data stream, Legislacerator reports coming in from across the fleet waiting for her. Hyralx's fervor it seemed had been infectious, as was her focus on the upper castes. She felt a little proud looking over the status reports focused on highbloods and leadership. Nothing urgent, the independent agents taking advantage of their autonomy allowed her to focus on her own issues. The ones who needed help knew where to go for it. She pulled away from the reports, activating a covert comm program, already keying in the Lygtagt-Kaigari she'd found useful.

Fools though they were, they could do some good with a little guidance. Organs they may be a proper tumor could weaken the body. The line went through, active comms engaged, silent for a moment. The camera remained blank, visual link offline.

She tapped the small microphone on her chair. "Rymmyl? Are you hearing me?"

The rough coughing of the armoured commander came after a moment. His voice creaking with exhaustion. "I am, I hope this isn't about the Napoleon issue. That idiot Haeiig blocked our overhead comms and I lost some of my best threshecutioners in that cursed settlement."

The situation out east doured her chuckle only faintly. "Oh no we have another one. Ground base Keagar six. The Ignatius is our latest xenos manebeast."

"Curse it all." Rymmyl creaked as noises picked up behind him, voices. "Just a moment, I'm putting you on screen."

After a moment the visual link was established, the inside of Rymmyl's ruddy little shuttle popping up. Rymmyl looked as if he hadn't slept since last she'd seen him. Petang sitting beside looked the same and only slightly more grumpy than usual. The only one who actually seemed somewhat better off was the olive woman standing behind the two, leaning against Petang's seat. Some of the circling on her eyes had diminished, her hair had been cut and she wore a fresh imperial soldier's uniform. "Miss Lejion, Mister Petang. Pleasure to see you both."

Petang scoffed. "Bad blood woman what happened to you?" Faintly Hyralx was aware she was shirtless and still splattered with drying high-chroma blood. Oh well, nothing to be done about that now.

She leaned back, putting her hands behind her head. "Gobayl is advancing the timeline a little faster than expected, priestly backing is in the open now. They tried to gut me at that site without success. They're getting bolder."

Rymmyl immediately leaned over, taking out a message to his compatriots. The olive blood beside clicking mirthlessly. "So I'll finally be getting to muddy the soil with highblood fluid then?"

"So it would seem." Hyralx cackled, attention drawn by the fidgeting dissident behind the two men.

"I-" She was quiet enough neither of the commanders noticed, but Hyralx did.

"Something to add Miss Leijon?" The pleasant jerk of the olive was banished as she stepped forward, her caste kind looking up as she leaned down towards the camera. There wasn't much weakness at all left in her look. When roused of course.

"Can I make a request of you Pyrope?"

Curiosity moved her more than anything else, Hyralx leaned forward. The kitten wanted something. "I'd be willing to consider one, all of the easy targets are out of the way, free-horns are recoiling and my people are rattling their blades. Now is the time for it, as soon, we will be all out in the open."

"Do you know of the Helmsman?"

~~{†}~~

"Leer?" If it wasn't for the two bottles of fermented Elapidae venom and the small jug of likewise fermented honey fluid Tiralx Zgaigk would probably be having the worst panic attack of her life. Which was almost impressive considering her life had been filled with panic attacks.

When the only people you'd lived with were ancient sea terrors who let you scrape by off their food scraps, being drafted was basically the worst thing imaginable. A bad situation somehow made infinitely worse by the fact the planet had collapsed behind Tiralx. Everything she knew just non-existent, leaving Tiralx surrounding by glares of her 'blood.' Drinking seemed like the best option, being somewhat better than huffing sopor. It didn't take her long to crash her way out of the Moiety and into exile. Her only company a weird noble guy who never said much and barely tolerated her big old treasons. Things stayed miserable, stuck on the fringes of the fleet attempting to drink herself to an early demise. The only time things had perked up was getting penal duty for a bunch of soldiers. One of whom almost made it possible for her to consider sobriety, a whole bunch being just plain old cute.

Things had started looking up, even for Darkleer. Tiralx had started looking for an out, connecting those like minded or at least similar in goal.

Of course that hadn't lasted, hope was a treacherous feeling. The planet of the Human Xenos had proved to upset everything. Gentle decay in Highblood attention was wiped out in short order, the Vykjiit ordos coming down hard on many of her contacts as panic spread. Laym' was gone. Avarayri Affair the reason he was gone. She'd wanted to watch the alien get culled, but even then she'd lost her nerve during the opening previews. Intoxication got worse somehow, it was easiest to persist when she was trying to stand up and not thinking about how the only person who'd really liked her in spite of her constant non-functionality had gotten culled.

Yet somehow that wasn't even the end of it. No, it wasn't bad enough that she'd lost her matesprite. It wasn't stopped at the loss of the majority of the network she'd spent half her life working on or even the fact the Moiety was going to probably cull her at some point for her disgraceful existence. Now the only companion and sort-of-ally Tiralx had was at a similar loss. Ebi, her squadron and the entire ship she'd been on were gone.

But it wasn't just that Ebi was gone like Laym, it was that they'd been blind to her fate until recently. IV Mounting Equation according to the official report had been lost with all horns after an inter fleet scuffle. Except no scuffle existed, somehow a bunch of ships were fucking burnt out and there was no explanation for it. At least, no explanation Tiralx could wrap her head around, there were dozens of theories percolating about but most just made her brain squelch. Nothing at all to comfort Darkleer.

He'd just sort of crumpled inwards. Darkleer was the perfect blue in a lot of ways, most of all in his rigidness. He didn't really process it, just shutting down in function. The report of the Mounting Equation's 'fate' had pulped what was left of his social ability. Not that Tiralx had been able to do anything herself, Ebi had been pretty nice to her too. She'd only clued in to how bad it was when she'd noted Darkleer was just gone. Not more reclusive than usual but just not anywhere. Only by checking the security cameras did Tiralx find Darkleer had just sort of locked himself in his workshop and not said a word or come out. At all. In a few nights.

She'd knocked, called, gone back and forth between her retrofitted communications room and the engines and kept coming back to the workshop. Another night passed and it became apparent there was only so many times a troll could go back and forth optimizing things until they started pulling their hair out. Time lost its effect, the IV Namless' lighting never shut down and Tiralx had just sort of slumped down in front of Darkleer's door at some point. Food and intoxicants were quickly plowed through.

Eventually Tiralx had decided it would be best to actually say something when she could make words again.

"Leer c'm'n. op'n th' door." No response.

"C'm'n please." No response.

"Leer." No response. The urge to go grab that last bottle of sweet sweet fermented venom in her block came on strong. She'd probably just pass out on the way back though.

"If you die 'm alone. C'me on Leer." No response.

No response, at first.

After a moment footsteps came, didn't really calm the panic buried under the inebriation. Steps came up to the door. The lock clicked and the steps went off again. "Leer?" Still no response.

Tiralx pealed herself off the wall and stumbled over to the door. A quick check of the knob confirmed it was open. There was a second where she half thought Darkleer was going to belittle her for her appearance again. All she had the focus to put on was a chest wrap and a cloth she'd wrapped around her waist. Her long squeak beast nested hair knotted behind her head. Then again his belittling would actually be a comfort now.

She entered Darkleer's unlit workshop, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dark room. The only lighting came from the tiny Diodoxa embedded in half finished machinery scattered throughout the workshop and hanging from the ceiling. All the lights had been smashed.

Without his glasses Darkleer was little more than a dark column, standing still in the back corner of the room. Looking at her. Without any of the usual contempt. Or anything. The near pitch blue eyes stared past her as she approached.

"Zgaigk." Finally he acknowledged she was there. Tiralx stumbled up to him. Swaying until she finally reached the wall to lean up against.

She tried to think of something to say, but nothing came besides the most basic of sentiments. "'M sorry. Ebi was really nice."

"She was." The giant blue blood creaked saying nothing more.

Tiralx should probably have been a little worried. Darkleer was a blue blood still in his prime compared to her miserly situation. Her horns were fragile, one cut while he could puncture an olive with his arrowed horns. Tiralx was diminutive for a seadweller being a little under nine feet, while Darkleer was twelve feet tall and half that across. But his focus was somewhere else. His hair hung about his head wildly, his imperial uniform damp. Despite the half focus though, every muscle in his body bulged. The blue wasn't really built for this sort of thing.

But she really wasn't either. "'S th're 'nythin' I c'n do?" Tiralx chittered prodding the solid flank of the blue.

"No." The awkwardness of it was starting to seep into her skin, Darkleer mercifully shuffling away for a moment. A small thump coming as the blue hit his toe against a sawing table.

The howl that came from him was bloodcurdling, loud enough it made Tiralx cover her ears. Darkleer turned instantly, driving his fist down onto the offending table. The force of the blow crumpled the metal surface as if it were glass, sparks flying briefly illuminating his face. It was impossible to tell where the exhaustion lines ended on his old features. Sharp teeth bright and look of fury illuminated for only a moment. Then it was gone, left in the dark aside the mechanical lights and the half-open door.

He stumbled back as what was left of the table's surface crumbled, brittle supports below giving way. His chest heaving as he put both hands to his head. Tiralx didn't say anything, slowly letting her own arms fall. He'd done this before, the only thing to be done was let the big blue sort himself out. He did slowly, bringing his breathing back down, letting his hands slowly uncurl. A trickle of blood running down his knuckles the only sign of any reprisal damage.

"I shouldn't have done that." Darkleer groaned softly.

"D'n't help did 't?"

Darkleers head shook slowly. "No. I'll have to weld it back together soon."

Tiralx managed to take a step forward. "Leer 've lost every'ne. I don' wanna lose y' too." Finally Darkleer looked at her.

When he found his voice he sounded a little annoyed, almost like normal. "I don't intend to cull myself if that is your worry. After all my state is hardly unique."

"I d'n-" Words descended into gilly warbling, Tiralx coughed a moment before pressing on. "'S b'n a bit. 'M better. It t'kes a b't 'f time t' cope."

"I do not need to cope Zgaigk." Darkleer started strong but trailed off clicking. Discomfort struggling against his highblood programming that disallowed softer pities. "I only wish I knew her true fate. The charade they played for us is repulsive. The peasants deserved better for their service."

Tiralx nodded, approaching again. A bit slower, out of caution rather than inebriation. "Sure th'res nothin' I c'n do?"

"No." The giant blue sighed, shaking his head slowly. "But this is foolish. I should-" He clicked derisively, turning back to her. Glare focused now, aimed on her neck. "When did you douse yourself last Zgaigk?"

The question caught her off guard. Tiralx felt at her gills for a moment as she mumbled out an honest response. "I d'n't rem'mber." Her branchial spines were short enough the entirety of Tiralx's gills could be hidden under a scarf. Touch confirming an unpleasant dryness to her flitting brachia.

She grimaced as the old Darkleer came back a little bit to lecture her. "For someone who requires salt water to survive you have an idiotic tendency of avoiding it. Were it not for me you would have succumbed to some wasting ailment sweeps ago." He paused, looking at the half open door, shifting awkwardly and growling he looked back to Tiralx. "I needed move anyways."

He pointed at the door, Tiralx content to shrug and go with it. "Th'nks."

When she was sure Darkleer was following, Tiralx left. Down into the lower decks of the ship. The Nameless was an old ship, retrofitted for seadweller habitation. Too long spent outside of the tank and Tiralx started losing the ability to breath properly. 'Beaching' remained to be a popular method of execution for seadwellers, even if the prospect wasn't all that terrible for her. Tiralx kind of hated her 'water' if it could be called such. Too shallow and filled with lights that never dimmed. The entire ship was like that. Lights never fucking failed anywhere unless you broke them.

"You need to take better care of yourself." Darkleer clicked remorselessly as they entered the tank room. Everything was shoddily walled and floored with a dreadful pale blue tile that felt insulting to the memory of old Alternia. The stench of simulated ocean and too bright lights making Tiralx squint while her nostrils tightened shut. The pool little more than a converted water tank. "Starting by staying in here whenever possible."

Why seadwellers had ever agreed in the first place to leave Alternia still escaped Tiralx. "D'n w'nna. S'm'n might call."

"Your treasonous network has crumbled down around you and you yourself have scarcely avoided culling. It would be best to simply abandon it." She rolled her eyes as the noble seadweller creaked on, dipping a toe into the water. Room temperature, as always. "You should consider that, you have a single Lygtagt, a handful of peasants and a fool hardy blood cult bound by you."

Her clothes were already waterproof, and her hair wasn't going to get any worse. Tiralx flopped into the water with all the grace she possessed. The water bright and miserable as always. At the very least she could breath easy in here. Tiralx did a small lap around the bottom of the miserable little pit, eyes closed flapping her gills.

She missed the dark spaces of Alternia's ocean where one didn't need to see. Growing up she had never needed her eyes. Down there where most seadwellers were afraid to go was where Tiralx was most at home. This pity pool was an insult to all that and all the things that had lived down there.

When she couldn't take any more of the pool she surfaced, and of course Darkleer was still talking. "Are you listening Zgaigk? You are one hundred and twenty three sweeps old you should have some basic sense."

"Ye' I 'm. J'st don' wanna giv'up." Tiralx glubbed swimming over to the edge of the water where Darkleer stood impassively. "'Sides, n't like y'r full'a c'm'n s'n'ce."

The blue made a noise of disgust. "You didn't spike your own tank did you?"

"Na'." Tiralx snorted as the last of the water drained from her throat. "Th's a good idea tho'."

"Typical." The giant noble rolled his eyes but was paused for a moment. "I will concede though."

"'Cede wh't?"

Darkleer clicked softly. "Truly, were I as proper as I wished I wouldn't be here." Another pause, Tiralx could feel the gears in his head grinding against each other. "Likely you would be under my aim."

She couldn't really contest that. Tiralx didn't even want to. "Prob'ly."

"Does that not bother you?" Darkleer asked, a little creaking agitation slipping through the awkwardness.

"N' really. J's' gonna g't culled a' s'me p'nt. N'..." She slumped against the edge of the tank. "Jus' miss-"

The noise of the ship's communication line shrieking made both highbloods jerk. Something Tiralx was used to, less so for Darkleer. Were it not for the severity beyond the walls of the Nameless she might have found that funny. Now though, not so much.

Tiralx hauled herself out of the water as Darkleer scoffed. "So your dogged brood call for you again."

"C'n y' pass m' m' to'l?" The blue didn't waste time complaining like he usually did, reaching behind him to one of the plain white towels hanging from the wall and tossing it over. "Th'nks." She mumbled already walking out. The towel was really only for her hair. It wasn't as if there was anybody but Darkleer here with her to complain about salt stains on the hallway floors.

His agitation was leaking through more now, clicking marred by lower growls coming from the depths of his chest. "I wonder will it be that Lygtagt or someone informing us he's finally been culled?"

"D'n' be s' bleak." Tiralx chittered to the blue blood following her. The sentiment though weighed on her. Trskow was one of those trolls that hit the top or got stabbed. Not really much space in between and there were a whole lot of stabbings out there right now.

Something Darkleer was also aware of. "Her Honourable Tyranny was prodding the dissident leadership. His culling is all but inevitable at this point."

Most seadwellers sounded like they were part ichterror when they hissed. Tiralx sounded like a deflating puff-squid. "Sh'd 't."

"Pardon?" Maybe he hadn't heard her or maybe he just didn't understand, the seadweller didn't really care.

"I s'd sh'd it." Tiralx hissed as they reached the door to the comm room.

Half hidden behind a shelf of musty old records which Darkleer properly pushed aside. The communications room had taken half a sweep to put together, made out of a storage closet low to the point Darkleer had to stoop inside. The walls were lined with blank screens and data hives, a single communications desk all that functioned now beside the psi-rack laid up against the far wall that ran the whole thing. She'd have never gotten it all running without Darkleer and the Cultists helping.

Tiralx stumbled over to the comm desk, turning off the shrill blare of the messaging alarm. A few clicks bringing up the sigil of the individual calling. Except there wasn't any troll's symbol on screen. Instead there was a picture. Of a troll with dull rusty eyes and a thick form. When recognition finally came Tiralx shriek came half drowned and mangled. Panic punching through inebriation in a way it never really did. The unusually loud and damp noise making Darkleer recoil. Hissing when his horns cracked against the ceiling. "What is it?"

"Laym'!" Both the only thing she could say and the only thing she could think. "I's Laym'!" shaking hands hit the keyboard, opening the comm link and hitting the encryption, hissing the name over and over to herself as she waited for the link to come through. "Laym' Laym' Laym' pl's' b'-" The minute noise of the line cutting instantly made Tiralx shriek. "C'ME 'N!" She smashed the reset, literally vibrating as the line cut out again. She tried it again, the third failure following in short order.

"Here. I can reset the tuner." Darkleer growled, pushing past behind her to the Psi-rack. Hands quickly popping several of the worm tubes open as he reset the functions of the signal booster. "Cursed worms are all dying of sores. We'll need new ones soon." He snarled, resealing the tubes and reactivating the whole rack.

For the first time in a long while Tiralx decided she would appreciate it if the world didn't sway around her. She hit the encryption again, re-opening the line once more. A moment of pause and finally a soft click came. 'Connection established' set just under her matesprite's picture. "G't 't!"

But it wasn't Laym's voice that came through. It was something entirely different, flat sounding in its other-worldliness. "There I think we got something." A pause. "Hello? Is T- Tiralx there? I'm saying it right?"

Tiralx tried to say something, she really did. But the combination of drowned squalling and drunken chittering wasn't really language. Thoughts no longer really came out as words as a wave of everything made her stumble. Not Laym. But who had his communicator? The imposition of a worded question just sort of made everything stop working.

Darkleer however had no such trouble speaking into the microphone.

Well. He had no trouble yelling. "Who is this and how did you get this line?!"

The alien creature however wasn't dampened. Or at least it didn't sound like it with the weird consistency of its words. "My name's Sarah. I'm-" Tiralx didn't mean to sit or even lean back, but her legs just sort of gave out beneath her, the squealing and the chittering mixing now with panic trills. "Are you okay?" The imperial words came malformed, but still sympathetic. Tears came openly now.

The effect was the opposite of Darkleer now blue in the face with fury. "Xenos creature state your purpose or I'm terminating this frequency!"

"I'm Layman's moirail you jerk! I'm not going to call him anything else no-"

"Laym h'd a 'rail?!" The statement was incredulous, only half processing in her head. But enough it cut the worst of the panic.

Darkleer kept growling. "That is a lie xenos. Lepzig had no moirail."

An alien noise that sounded like a scoff came through. "This is a recent thing. Just hold on." There was a moment of silence, scuffling feet and alien words came a moment later. "Horace can you turn away for a sec? They're freaking out a bit." Another pause as it sounded like the communicator was passed about on the other end of the line. Darkleer took the moment to lean down and pick Tiralx back up by her shoulder. She was on her feet when the alien finally spoke again. "Thanks guys. Here's Layman."

"Tiralx?" It was Laym', there was no way it was anybody but him. He sounded a little rougher than usual, and the little hope and the panic and the everything just sort of poffed Tiralx Zgaigk.

If it wasn't for the Blue blood holding her should she probably would have tumbled again as an involuntary and distinctly seadweller trilling came out of her chest.

Alien noises joined Layman's snort on the other end. "Jeeze would you stop being weird."

"Where have you been peasant!?" Darkleer roared with culling intent into the microphone. Though the hand holding Tiralx's shoulder was firm, the one on the edge of the comm table was now digging into the chitin. "We'd believed you culled since the culling of the Master of Mirth!"

"I've been busy being nearly dead Darkleer you huge bulge. I haven't been able to get a link in for-" He broke of clicking in annoyance. "Shit how long has it been?"

Tiralx finally managed to force herself into speaking. "T'- T' long. Laym' 're y' okay? I though'- I though' y' go' c'll'd!"

Layman clicked penitently. "I've been pretty close to dying a few times. Sorry." He chirped up before more panic trilling could emerge from Tiralx. "But- right now I'm pretty good! Some of the aliens kind of- well they captured me but some of them are alright."

Panic trilling came anyways. The thought of Layman being down on the planet below stuck with a bunch of Alien Legislacerators prodding him unwelcome but still filling her head.

"I'm alright Tiralx!" Layman squawked, chittering like he didn't have some alien spear in his back. "I'm fine, don't worry."

Tiralx swallowed, above she could hear Darkleer's teeth clenching against each other. For a man who could scarcely work a quadrant with someone outside his caste the idea of an alien quadrant probably was tantamount impossible. It seemed impossible to Tiralx herself, but if that- that Sarah thing was his it meant his position wasn't so dire. It was Laym, Laym was a bad liar. "'S- th't al'ns really y' 'rail?"

"Yea and she's really good. I'm not even supposed to be using this communicator." Layman clicked.

"So you are a war prisoner then?" Darkleer questioned, slowly relinquishing his hold on Tiralx's shoulder.

Tiralx slumped foreword against the desk as the response came. "More of a collaborator really. The humans are fighting like crazy but they need help."

The blue blood shook his head. "Why am I not surprised peasant?"

Layman ignored him. "Tiralx I need you to trust Sarah alright? She's pretty great. I think you guys would get along."

Her matesprite wasn't dead. Her matesprite was alive and even if he was trapped on an alien planet with a lot of freaky aliens that would cull him in an instant he had a rail looking out for him. Tiralx finally remembered how to breath. "'Lr'gh' Laym'. 'L- 'l trus' y'."

"Thanks. I'll try to get another call in soon." He chittered softly, the comforting voice disappearing after a moment as the noise of the communicator being passed about coming again.

The alien- the Sarah spoke once more. "So are we good now?"

Her cold blood response time was unneeded with the speed of the blue blood beside her. "Speak your case quickly xeno. We are listening."

"Tiralx you're in contact with the people who want to- shit what's the word- to break the fleet up there right?"

She nodded. "Y' 'm up w'th th'm."

"Can you get us into contact with the bigger groups? My leaders have a serious proposal for them."

~~{†}~~

"What?" His word came groaning and creaking like another shrill troll lived inside his belly. The big, ugly, tooth filled maw of the giant turned to face Mazdak. On a deep genetic level he was afraid, he could feel it worming under his hide. Afraid of the monstrous pupils perpetually coloured red, afraid of the stench of the beast that was the highblood. But Mazdak wasn't consciously afraid. In the working mind of the brown blood there was only fury at the beast that tramped about like the world and everyone in it were his demesne.

He should have been afraid, half the size of the beast, only his Lygtagt uniform covering him and only his plasma caster in hand. But the Grand Highblood was alone, and Mazdak wasn't. A half dozen of his threshicharger soldiers were behind him, a few others scuttling their way up the ruined buildings flanking them as Mazdak spoke. "I said enough."

The hour was late on the imperial cycle, but on the surface of the alien world it was the beginning of a beautiful day. Cloudless and warm a soft breeze ran over the world, the above was inverse to the below. Battered bodies of humans shattered by the Grand Highblood caked the broken street with their life fluids. Broken like they were made of fragile porcelain, they had only been a dozen in number. The highblood had been hunting for nights in Mazdak's sector, smoking them from their holes as if they were squeak beasts to be caught for his own torment. His clubs and armour were coated with the crimson. Fainter stains of soldiers who had gotten in his way covering much of him. Rust. Olive. Lime. Brown.

They had to be paid back in full for their service.

"Your grandness." Mazdak hissed as the threshicharger's behind him leveled their lances. "Your blithe stupid fucking grandness we are done with your personal crusade. Get off this fucking planet and let us do the extermination ourselves."

The Grand Highblood stared silently, head turning from Mazdak to look up at the streetside building, where another two threshichargers with leveled lances were hissing from the windows. another turn of his head to the one standing atop a rooftop, lance aimed down at him. He blinked, a faint smile coming to the giant's face. "Who do you think you are talking too?"

"A big dead freak." Mazdak signaled the order to fire before he had even finished speaking, the space before him filled with white hot plasma. Only too late did the brown blooded Lygtagt realize that the monster was gone. Simply gone, without any pause, or commotion that came from transit. He'd seen the highblood move before. But that should have been enough. There was nowhere for him to go.

The shriek from above was Mazdak's only warning. The hurtling form of the threshicharger not registering as the Lygtagt jumped aside on instinct.

The soldier's skull and horns shattered with a burst of olive blood against the dirty concrete, hurtling body taking out another two behind him. Mazdak was on his feet again in a moment, but it was already too late. The charred frame of an alien vehicle hurtling into the building where the other soldier's had been. Their screams buried alongside themselves as the structure gave way, the roar of the collapse leaving them unprepared.

He was already there, already behind them. Only then did it hit him that he was jumping. Mazdak had no time to react to the back handed slap that hit him, sending him hurtling forward over human bodies and smoking plasma to the ground. His soldiers had no time to fight or even react as the titanic club shattered them. "BRAVE IF MOTHER FUCKING IDIOTIC SWINEBEAST!" The monstrous hand of the Grand Highblood found the last soldier's head, a clench pulping it as if it were ripe fruit. Brown blood covered his fingers as he let the body fall. Turning on Mazdak and slowly walking to him the Grand Highblood's smile was unnatural in its width. "Tell me, who is the mother fucker worming in the dirt at my feet?"

The alien ordnance came to hand, another gift from the beyond and the prophet within. He undid the pin as the creature loomed overhead. "Mazdak Nitram, former Lygtagt. Catch." He tossed the tiny metal tube, and rolled. There was no explosion, but instead a shriek like a deep horror and a blast of light like the sun brought to earth. The giant howled, foot shattering the concrete where Mazdak had been a moment ago. Mazdak was already on his feet.

The binding restraints of his shirt came undone in a moment, panicked hands ripping away the bindings that kept his massive mutations hidden done aside with. The wide wings unfurled, and the ground passed him as Mazdak flew up. Up higher than the Grand Highblood could ever hope to jump before he turned and roared. "Highblood! I'm going to bury you and the rest of your caste on this planet! The Sufferer will finally be avenged!"

Chapter Text

Still struggling, the little thing kept going.

Even as the Colour Eater's claws dug into the soft hide on its flank, body buried under the form of the predator. A word mumbled over and over again, half familiar to the hungering one was ignored. Translucent tears ignored as well. Nothing at all existed in the world besides the thirst. Nothing mattered but the thirst. No longer goals or satiating drink or anything else but the coursing heat beneath the pale skin.

It was impossibly hot, the heat radiating from it's form was like a flame to the cold skin of the Colour Eater. The struggles marred by its broken figure ignored in the face of need. Already the thirsting creature could taste the pungent metallic liquid, the smell heavy in her nose as her fangs brushed against the little thing's cheek. The cry that came from the prey was already intimately familiar to the Colour Eater, the response immediate. Her grip tightened around the alien's neck, hand at the meal's side digging in under the skin. Warm ambrosia already covering her claws. Still kicking, still fighting, still whimpering that familiar name.

Not that it mattered.

Tired of the struggle and the hunger the Colour Eater bit down. Swiftly tearing through the skin and flesh like nothing as the final spasms of the creature came with the encroachment of mortality. Faint pain registered from a final kick. But it was nothing compared to the filling taste. Warmth and satisfaction passing down her throat as the creature's spasming slowed. That pathetic little arm wrapping around the Colour Eater, slowly falling still, heart beat fading down. Until, finally it stopped.

The creature fell still. The Colour Eater kept drinking.

~~{†}~~

"Matron." Sayrii Maryam jerked upright, the half starved hallucination passing from sight like mist under sunlight. But still, for a long while she could still taste human blood. Remember it, feel the warmth as if it were still on her tongue. Revulsion brought with consciousness came quickly as the Jade picked herself up off the stool to look over to Medicutioner Cuaril. He pulled off the surgical mask, gloves stained with rust blood coming off after. Not that much of him was clean now. "Thanks to your needling the Sakaliba should pull through. I appreciate your assistance."

Dolorosa looked away from the weary Medicutioner and over to the medical office's enucleationplank. Juchen seemed smaller somehow, neck and back covered in bandages. Rust, everywhere. The flailing she'd received one of the worst Dolorosa had seen in the miserable sweeps in bondage. The matron forced herself to look back to the medic. "Will you require anymore assistance then Medicutioner?"

"No." Cuaril clicked hoarsely. "Again you have my thanks. We've managed to avoid fatalities today because of you."

"Keep her alive will you?" Curail nodded softly as Dolorosa turned and left the surgical block, outside a number of other slaves were waiting on hold. Anxious Sakaliba, who had likely been present for the assault. Nothing was said by them, indeed most fearful of the worst. The Jade couldn't blame them. Her black dress was stained with rust, sleeves rolled up with a crusting layer of the blood on her hands. "She will live."

Dolorosa walked off before they could respond, passing them quickly. Passing the ones too haughty to wait by the door, the crew Ancillae, Auxilaskii and Sakaqiba alike were ignored by the matron, at least at her approach. Once passed she could feel them staring at her back.

The strong sensation to start licking her hands buried by the possibility that she'd be allowed to feed off whoever had broken the Rust.

Of course, Juchen was an object. On most Imperial ships corporal punishment was kept for violence against trolls. However Mindfang did like to set an example, and the thought was enough to keep her swelling hunger down. Until at least she reached the expulsion block.

Despite the miserably late hour of the day she was surprised to discover she wasn't alone. An Auxilask was already there, drying herself off. Flat yellow eyes turned impassively on the matron. "Juchen?"

"She'll survive. Scarring will be an annoyance but that should be the worst issues she faces." Dolorosa clicked dryly as she approached the low psion.

The yellow eyed troll chittered thoughtfully. "Good. Murtah would be at it in a bad way if we lost her. Good pupa she is." She shifted, awkwardly scratching at the base of her head. "How's your xenos doing matron? Haven't seen her as of late."

"Alive for the moment." That was perhaps the only truthful answer Dolorosa could give, a lack of information and a lack of willingness to give what little she had forbidding everything else. Even still the low psion grimaced.

"Not going to last much longer then. Figured." Before the matron could respond the yellow clicked up sharply. "Could I offer you something tomorrow that might help? I mean- I don't have it now but I could get if for you. If you want."

Were it not for the gnawing hunger and the desire for a shower it might have been tempting to leave. Dolorosa clicked pensively. "And what would it be that your offering? I'd prefer to not be the one sewing you up after they flog you for theft."

"No, it wouldn't be anything that... Look, you wouldn't have to clean up after me for it. I'll promise you that."

"And what is 'it'?" The matron chittered in annoyance with the sudden obtuseness.

Still, the low psion revealed nothing, releasing her hold on the towel as she started to dress herself. "Nothing good. But to actually do the talking you'd need nothing good. It's better than chalk I think. I've got a small window, I'll only take it if you say you want to keep that cullbait breathing."

"Fine, if you think 'it' will do any good then please. Otherwise I would prefer you be off now. I've enough to clean off myself that I would prefer to be without spectators for it." Mercifully the yellow nodded. When she finished pulling her shirt on she was gone, an unusual haste in the troll that Dolorosa had not seen. Thinking on it she realized she'd never even gotten her name, for all she'd seen of her as of late she knew dreadfully little of her. Other than the fact she seemed to find company with the rusts and browns.

A pang of hunger drew the matron from her considerations, annoyance coming quickly afterwords. Disgusting as it was to hunger after such creatures she could not rid herself of her own monstrous shade. The matron didn't even bother pulling her clothes off as she turned on one of the shower valves. Cold, comforting as it was did not wash away anything but the blood today.

When the Rust was washed from her body and her dress the matron turned the valve off. Half a thought was paid to her underthings and the dress itself. Nothing that she had not been 'gifted'. Dolorosa left the soaked undergarments off as she wrenched cold water from the dress, reducing it from sodden to mildly damp before putting it back on.

Thoughts of concern for her outward appearance were banished for the time being. The weight of everything else allowing Dolorosa to move with a utility she hadn't had in sweeps. But there was the weight of everything else. No, that was not accurate. The weight of one as it seemed like the world was straining itself to the point of coming apart at the seems. Dolorosa had heard rumors of what the pilot was screaming. Of what was going on outside. Proved by the radiating changes in the Gamblignants. Juchen's word should have earned a slap, a singular backhand. The overwrought highblood had turned it into a near death experience. Her mistress's comings and goings turning erratic, only alleviating absence relieving her of the fear Dolorosa would be made to do something terrible again.

How ironic it was that such seemed almost distant now. It was not the worry of her mistress that kept her unmoving in the expulsion block. Not the fear of doom and the suffering of the slaves around her that had flitted in and out of her life like distant stars beyond the walls of the ship.

It was the alien. Cursed, wretched, foolish to the point of now driving Dolorosa up the proverbial wall. The alien who in spite of literally everything the matron had done to her refused to leave.

Her mistress had succeeded. There wasn't much pale pity left at all for Gael. How could there be?

But the pity hadn't necessarily vanished. Instead it had instead morphed into- something else. A bit of it was black now, black as tar and just as noxious. There was a part of Dolorosa that had come to hate Gael, both in the prosaic sense and the caliginous sense. All it would have taken her was a single word to Mindfang, and nothing would have come upon her. Mindfang would have a new toy but that toy would be safe. Made functional as the Cerulean had seen herself made so. No more suffering, for either of them.

Whatever kept Gael from submission surely wasn't worth the weight of humiliation and torment. What could possibly motivate her to refuse now? Even if rebellion was her motivation, surely a hasty positive reply and her own obstinate mind would have allowed an unexpected stab in the back later.

How could that unknown be worth this treatment? She had no answer to the question of 'how.' The non-presence of that answer Dolorosa couldn't even hope to comprehend made the hate palpable. Dolorosa could kick the alien from her block and focus on the plight of the slaves that was spiraling downwards like a perverse layer of fat comforting the Gamblignant fall.

Dolorosa could also just as easily snap herself free from Mindfang's grip and waltz off the ship, such was the same in attainability. The non-presence of what staved off submission did away with hate when the alien was close. Whatever held Gael up to Mindfang's abuse held terrible weight to her. Cut from the same cloth as the resilience to Dolorosa's own- foolishness.

Something else had been hatched in that horrible moment Gael had found her. Something she'd buried and used the black tar hate to hide. A care that was so far from proper it approached Mindfang's atrocious behavior in grotesqueness.

Red. The realization had been hidden, deep as she could. Ignored as the very prospect was unwanted. Always though it returned. Not a paltry red but something unreasonably deep. Gael always returned to her side, no matter what was wrought on either of them her closeness never diminished. If anything it had intensified. Much as the matron wanted to hate Gael, the touch of another living creature uninterested in petty debaucheries was enough to keep her sane. She cared, why she cared too terrifying for Dolorosa to grapple with.

That made the inclinations and phantasms of the Rainbow Drinker all the more disturbing. One moment was all it would take and the human would be culled. If things continued as they were, perhaps that was the best she could hope for. The Colour Eater was efficient and fast. A pulse in her gut reminding her of its presence. Dolorosa hissed in disgust, finally forcing herself to move. The first step the hardest, conscious effort required to walk out of the expulsion block.

"Recreant void." Dolorosa cursed. She was over two hundred and thirty sweeps old at this point, she wasn't some swain youth with their first flush crush. No matter what she told herself though, red remained. In her head and in her heart. All she could do was bury it. Focus on the now, hide it with hate. Keep it from her mistress's prodding gaze or both their fates would turn unbearable.

The half conscious thoughts and the weariness almost led her past her block, Dolorosa cursing silently as she stopped. Apprehension slowed her motions to a crawl as she opened her door.

It was a simple enough action to turn a doorknob. Surely there should be no pause in that.

She couldn't move until another hunger pang made her hiss, forcing the door open.

Despite the mess of earlier, the room had more or less been returned to the strange state that had arrived with Gael, albeit with the now unused recuperacoon shoved aside allowing the pile of blanketing to be extended. Sleep came easier when she was lying down, something easier when she had an admittedly clingy alien hanging on her flank.

Gael was still sleeping where she had been left, unwoken by the turbulent passage of the matron that had come with Juchen's fellow Sakaliba arriving at the door. Huddled against the wall. The girl was buried under the covers aside a few tufts of brown hair and still snoring softly. Content to sleep next to a creature that could and would drain the life from her. Dolorosa shook her head, tip toeing over to the closet and opening the door as silently as she could. Nothing was going to be answered this day, truthfully she hadn't even been sleeping before the Juchen situation.

The damp clothing was cast on top of the displaced recuperacoon to dry, a pair of leggings and an undershirt retrieved and put on in short order. Mercifully dry and clean, that was all that really mattered now. She did not close the door to the closet, not wanting anymore noise than was necessary.

Careful claws lifted up the covers, and the matron shuffled under. Gael's snores slowed as Dolorosa shifted beside her.

Soft brown eyes opened, looking up at her. Curse it. "Rosa?"

"Forgive me dear, go back to sleep." Dolorosa chittered softly.

Gael blinked dimly. "Sorry." The unnecessary apology was half heard as she pressed unreasonably close, head coming to rest against Dolorosa's shoulder. Her eyes closed and in a few moments her soft snoring came again.

Two urges came, one to push the girl off, the other to pull her even closer. From where she lay the matron could smell everything, faint twinges of irony blood, a waft of brine tinted sweat, and something softer underneath. The oils of human hide and skin perhaps, not unpleasant in the least. The instinct to hiss in annoyance came the matron realized she was doing 'it' again. 'It' being the treatment of the human as either a carton of fermented blood. Or other things.

She'd been doing this before, now she was doing it again. Dolorosa forced it all from her mind, unable to move and unable to do anything at all. She closed her eyes, forcing away everything but the black space of her closed eyes. Eventually exhaustion caught the matron, dragging her down away from it.

~~{†}~~

The inside the psion's head was only blaring static and a garish yellow light. Nothing else was left. "Oh just cull her already!"

Domeadig swung down with all the speed and force expected of a Gamblignant swordsman, scimitar glimmering. The Auxilask's body jerked, head tumbling to the ground as the brown tinted blade severed it cleanly from the body. Yellow blood splattered the floor as the decapitated body was relinquished by the the hissing crewmen that had held her in place, hitting the ground with a thump.

"Seems as if we're hitting a breaking point Captain." Herakles growled from the side. "I'd heard about psion's panic scrambling themselves but I had no idea they could do it intentionally."

"Was he a wader plant?" Domeadig hissed as she withdrew a stained cloth from her pocket, wiping away the hemo from the blade.

"Everyone but my hands get out." Mindfang's command came with some psionic weight, the low crewmen that had restrained the vandal Auxilask responded immediately. Jerking as if Mindfang herself had shoved them, the lesser nobles and lowblood gamblignants removed themselves from the extraction block. Leaving Mindfang alone with Domeadig, Herakles and the headless corpse of the Auxilask.

The moment the crewmen shut the door behind them, Mindfang turned and kicked the dead slave's head with all the force she could. The decapitated head smacked into the wall beside Herakles. The crack of the skull made both of her Hands jump. "Do either of you have an explanation for why that slave trashed my block!?"

Her left hand was already hissing on the retreat. "I don't know! We've never had an issue with this Auxilask, she was even on the list for ascent at one point!"

"It might have something to do with that Sakaliba that got flogged half to death the other day. There's still a good amount of dissent down there." Domeadig chittered as she finished cleaning her blade, checking the weapon once over before sheathing it. "Or it might be Dualscar's work. But this isn't really- this wasn't really much else but an inconvenience. Nothing was taken right?"

Mindfang scoffed. Just as the topor seemed to be about to undo itself the inconceivable had arrived. Inconceivable should start paying for room and board on the ship now. "My translators, communications lounge and my private terminals are destroyed Domeadig, the intent hardly seems to be based in theft."

"Inconvenience as it was it was directed and planned. She left at the hour of the SoE's* arrival, had a good while to romp around your quarters and went back to the slave den before we found it. Seems like she wandered around the quarters a bit before she fried herself but it doesn't seem like she did anything." Herakles remarked. "The problem is there's no motivation for it I can taste. If this was one of your enemies she'd have been waiting for you."

"Distraction." Mindfang chittered after a moment. "Either for something in her personal issues or something else. Something important if she was willing to functionally kill herself over it. I want another full shakedown. Everyone below the two of you is open to investigation. Cover even the pilot, for all we know the psions were getting juuuuuuuust a bit too fucking chummy. Clear out the slave quarters, upturn the crew bunking, and assume nothing."

"The pilot hasn't done anything but scream in-" Herakles began but was interrupted by Minfang's Right.

"It'll be done." Domeadig hissed, looking up at Mindfang in the eyes. Though she was a brown, she remained one of the few capable and willing to do such. "Marquise-Captain would you kindly reach in my mind and run me through? I want my loyalty to be known."

Herakles hissed in annoyance but Mindfang exactly what was requested. Not one to be ordered about the Cerulean wasn't gentle in the least, and nothing was closed to her. Domeadig's body failed her, collapsing as Mindfang ran through everything her subordinate remembered in the past few nights. Truthfully, she was a boring woman, pursing in the most basic of goals. A fat purse, the strange dream of retirement and her own skin the limits of Domeadig's goals. But she remained loyal, true to her words. Mindfang withdrew, letting what was left of her Right Hand slump, panting from the burrowing.

"I guess I'll be the one expecting a stab in the back then if I don't peel open my proverbial sphincter for you Marquise?" Herakles sounded annoyed, in other circumstances she might have mocked the uptight Left however at the moment she simply went straight to the point. Mindfang reached into the lime's skull without hesitation, gripping him without subtlety or grace. Herakles was much the same as he usually was, gluttonous, greedy and just the right amount of cowardice to step lively. But there wan't much treacherous rolling around in his head besides a desire for a hefty pay-raise that had been rolling around in his skull for the past sweep and black bouncing a few of the junior officers. Mindfang released the lime with a noise of disgust.

Mindfang adjusted her coat as Herakles fell to his knees. "I'd advise you keep the lechery for leave if you intend on keeping your bulge for the duration of your service my dear Left." The lime was unable to do anything but groan in response, Mindfang turned to Domeadig who'd managed to stand back up. Sweat covered her brow but she snickered at Herakles' shell shocked state. "I'll expect that search to be done in the next few hours, if this psion wretch was covering for something or someone I want it sniffed out immediately."

"Yes Marquise." The brown chittered.

Mindfang cast one last look down at the broken slaves' body before turning. She moved to open the extraction block's door but was unpleasantly surprised to have it open before her hand even graced the handle. She faintly recognized the petty cerulean communications officer. The panic practically radiating off of her like heat from a pulsing engine. "Oh what is it now!?"

"The Vykjiit just started a civil war mam. You're needed in the bridge."

Chapter Text

The klaxon of the proximity alarm breaking the quiet did not come as a surprise to Araxus Zahhakk. The older noble whose disgraced given name was Darkleer had been waiting for this moment. Not specifically for the most recent brand of bottom-feeding sorts, no he'd been waiting for the herald of assassins for sweeps before the Vykjiit arrived to prominence. Darkleer was a living mark of failure, scraping out a cursed existence on the fringes of the fleet waiting for his end. Such was the only existence he could follow.

At least, he'd arrived here waiting for the end. Things were not what they had been. First he had been alone, those sweeps passing fast. He only remembered the visits of the nobles seeking him for owed favours. Some of which he was obliged to entertain. His isolation had been slowly broken open, like a nut being cracked. First by an inordinately wigglerish sea-dweller woman who had more in line with a drunken polypilla than a proper sea-dweller.

Though it pained him to admit it, ensuring Zgaigk did not perish and entertaining her treacherous constructs was- satisfying. Foolish as she was, simple and outright rebellious she was, there was a satisfaction in her requests. Tasks completed were treated with respect he did not deserve. A kindness and giddiness. He abated his loyalty at first, reminding himself of her ineptitude. Bargained later, drawing the line of culling further and further back. Until there came a point where Darkleer realized he didn't care. Perhaps he hadn't cared of the Empress since his self-imposed exile had begun. Only the weight of his shame kept him there.

Then much later had come the petty soldiers, the lowblood peasantry that arrived for admonishment. Try as he might to admonish them Zgaigk always coddled them. Most of them.

He regretted caring again. Curse the Evocators and curse the peasant temptress that still remained in the back of his head. Even as the klaxon signalling his imminent demise came, Ebonveil remained in the back of his head.

Darkleer sighed, placing the organic rod of flux down on the floor. He turned off the small welding torch in his opposite hand, placing it beside. The half-restored sawing table's face before him had been shattered near to the point of uselessness. But these days there was little he needed to do, the extensive and unrewarding task the only he could occupy himself with.

Such might have been busywork once, had they come in the early sweeps he would have stayed and waited. But now there was an indignation in him. Resent, that forced him out of his workshop and beyond. He already knew where they would come, the back of the ship was structurally weak and easily secured. A simple task to bolt through the weaker walls of the engine block. On exit they'd be able to detonate the ancient sublight worm engine with ease. He made his way to the front, long empty halls and empty blocks ignored until he reached the paired residential blocks of the ship's inhabitants.

Tiralx Zgaigk's sleeping block was devoid of its regular inhabitant. Walls lined with odd soft coloured cloth, refurbished naval recuperacoon in the corner and floor covered in a few empty bottles of imbibing venom. The room smelled of salt and fermented toxins. Darkleer turned silently, entering his own room.

Empty, no lights for he did not need them when he was here. If there was a light he might of seen the singular metal enucleationplank chained up against the wall for sleep, and two large metal chests on the opposite side of the room. The left which held his clothes had a framed photo upon it. A silly thing, taken by a soldier whose name was unknown to Darkleer. Ebonveil, grinning in uniform, sharp toothed smile free of worry. He ignored the left chest, and what rested upon it, as he opened the right chest. Inside, he felt armour not worn in many dozen sweeps, the disassembled recurve bow of an executioner and a quiver of arrows.

It felt as if he had only worn the noble armour the other night as he dressed himself. Only a few hours since he'd last assembled the culling bow. An experimental draw felt natural, as familiar to his arms as his legs were familiar to walking. A shaking breath escaped Darkleer as he slowly eased the draw.

What had been escaped him, the clashing discomfort coming from somewhere else. Darkleer did not regret what he'd done, he told himself that frequently. Now was hardly the time to engage in such backward pursuits.

Pulling the quiver over his shoulder came with the same ease as the rest of his equipment, Darkleer went off.

Darkleer's exit was greeted by a louder klaxon, and the mechanical words of the ship. "WARNING, HULL BREACH DETECTED IN THE; [ENGINE BLOCK]! EMERGENCY ACTION REQUIRED!"

The conspicuous presence of breathable atmosphere and a lack of noise aside the alarm only confirmed the obvious. They had been boarded, likely by the Vykjiit. Darkleer jogged now, down towards the room where Zgaigk housed her treasonous network.

The IV Nameless had three 'layers' so to speak. The upper floor with housing, crew supplements and his own makeshift work space, the middle housing the vacant pilot room, command deck, loading bay and engine-works. Last the lower layer. The lowest housed the basic utilities of the ship, along with both Zgaigk's tank and her treasonous network's control block.

Down the stairwell, Darkleer ignored the middle deck entirely footsteps approaching in the distance. Below there was no one, the entirety of the deck connected by a singular and terribly long hallway. Ideal, perhaps to an old fashioned Archeradicator type like himself. At the far front end was Zgaigk's poorly hidden room, Darkleer could smell the sea-dweller's stench from fifteen paces. A half dozen emptied bottles of poison resting just outside the door.

The whir of electronics graced his ears as he stooped down to enter. It seemed like everything had been activated, every neural bank and link binding active. Even from the doorway he could see the many dozen connected communication lines, hidden from sight by the sum of his labour. Zgaigk was seated in front of the small desk that displayed it all, ignorant to his presence in her focus. Darkleer stepped into the room, still she did not acknowledge him.

"Zgaigk."

The Sea-dweller made a noise kind to a startled seahorse, turning on a dime bristling. "F'ck! Don- Don' st'rtl' me li' tha' Leer." He ignored her, stepping close to get a better look at what she had wrought.

Much to his surprise, the treasonous network was alive. More active than he'd ever seen it in his admitted disconnected observations. Perhaps they had simply kept quiet, a wise decision. He noted the symbols of both admirals and land force leaders, free-horns and unknowns. Evidently, the situation on the IV Nameless was not unique. "Is h'pp'n'n. All over. Vyk's 're gonna' kill a l't'a trolls t'day."

Darkleer realized faintly if there was any loyalty to the empire left in him, the only proper thing would be to lodge an arrow into Zgaigk's head and to smash the system. Who knew how many traitors and heretics would perish from the sudden lack of communication?

But it was a little late for that. "How long will you be able to keep these channels open for?"

Zgaigk chittered nervously, look parsing over the data-hives with her look resting on the Psi-rack that regulated the tuning system. "Si' lon' s' th' grubs st'y? While. Bu-"

The crack of metal drew the attention of both highbloods. Zgaigk was shaking, aware of the void now. For some reason the wretched seadweller's discomfort made him-

Angry. Darkleer growled as the first steps came. "Then we stay and keep these lines open. I will see to it they are delayed."

"N'ne's comin' f'r us." Zgaigk was near to panic trilling, chittering loud. But now he could see her barred teeth, serrated things that could rip the flesh from a troll's hide as if it were warm butter.

"I am aware." Darkleer turned, the deliberateness of his training sweeps coming back to him.

Truthfully, Darkleer's mind went all the way back to those early nights as he stepped out into the hallway.

He had been trained by an old teal, so ancient and small she seemed a living shadow. However the memories of her venomous tongue and lessons remained. Drilled in, even now. Face from the side, so as to decrease the target you present to the foe. Bow hand an inch back to whatever cover you have. Draw and pull, without hesitation. So clear and familiar it was as if he was a grey skinned youth, the old teal yelling at his back.

The hallway only had two of the wretched trolls that marked themselves as Vykjiit, fresh from their descent into the lower deck. Eyes focused on the sides of the hallway, not on the highblood that emerged. Were they not so repugnant in intent, Darkleer would have almost pitied the wretches. The arrow came up with automatic motion, bow drawn in short. He released, the crack of the shot joined by the shriek of the arrow. But for only a second.

The arrow caught the closer of the two Vykjiit right in the neck. She was a sea-dweller, of average height for her noble caste with a long arc-caster in hand. Black armour polished to a shine, horned helmet dark as the void itself. It did her nothing, as the arrow punched through the armour as if it was little more that sheet aluminum.

The meaty thunk of the arrow finding the head of the Vykjiit soldier behind brought a little satisfaction, Dark noble blue splattered the wall beside as the armoured soldier tumbled behind his already dead comrade. Darkleer almost smiled, as the retributive howls of the invaders came.

~~{†}~~

Libaax Leijon would never have expected to be resting easy in an imperial camp, let alone in the ship of a Lygtagt-Kaigari. Then again she hadn't expected to still be alive, sweeps of isolation had been cut short by the word of weakness in Imperial ranks. Libaax, once the Disciple hadn't wanted to die on a dusty data-ship alone on the fringes of Imperial space being coddled by petty dissidents.

Truthfully she'd wanted to die beside Kadarn. The executioner and her own stubborn instincts had deprived her of that. She wasn't a coward, but the loss of her other half and the second followed by the equally devastating loss of Sayrii had just- sucked the will to do anything from her. Libaax had spent sweeps in a dreadful haze, recording what had happened and binding out many books of the collected verses. Not because she had wanted to, not because she believed in the words anymore. More on programming than anything.

It had been a young brown Lygtagt with the genetic name Nitram that had roused her from the mental stupor. Alternia had been made into a chasm before the void by the Empire, but somehow life for many of the lowbloods on the fleet had grown worse. The nightly day-terrors faced by the people were not what finally brought Libaax to action, rather it was the precarious situation. There were only a dozen or so trolls that stood between the Empire and a total civil war. If they were culled, Her Imperious Condecension's empire would collapse under the weight of its own bloated cruelty.

Escaping her 'followers' had been easier than expected, even if she wasn't exactly young anymore Libaax was more than capable. She'd trained hard in her transit to the fleet, making contacts in the underground under a few different names. They provided much information and the little equipment she'd needed to get in close. It seemed like fortune had favoured Libaax when she'd finally arrived, the Fleet was locked still in a particularly nasty decimation, paralyzed. But looks were deceiving.

All of the targets Libaax truly wanted dead were hidden in the safe bosom of the Fleet's core ships, security too tight to even consider striking. The Grand Highblood, the Empress, the leaders of the navies and the ground forces were all one way trips with little chance of actual success. She'd opted to attempt to cut the heads from the Ground Forces, without the competency of the on-planet leadership the empire's forces would fail against the monstrous aliens. Allowing for opportunities on the others.

Things hadn't exactly gone as planned in that regard.

The Old-Beast of the Dunes and the Roaring Beast of Vsyerxuul were surprisingly easily found for Libaax. Sawed down horns and a dirty imperial uniform had proved to be extremely effective for infiltration. Down on the alien world, the soldiery were bound together tight, trusting her when they rightly shouldn't have. Libaax had thought she'd taken a wrong turn when she'd found Lytgagt-Kaigari Rymmyl's shuttle.

Then again, Rymmyl himself hadn't been what she'd expected. He looked the part of a dashing Imperial loyalist, but the look was only skin deep. The idea that Rymmyl followed Kadarn's words was alien as the world Libaax was on. But he remembered the verses almost as well as she did.

Rather than culling the Imperials Libaax had found allies in them. Things had only grown stranger from that point on. Arhwyx Rymmyl and Marcyg Petang had stopped being monolithic engines that drove the Imperial engine onward and had become people. Arhwyx talking the her when he returned, interested in the finer things of her past verse didn't cover. His interests in history and detail not prodding to the point of annoyance.

When he was done he simply passed out on the floor. Much to the annoyance of his moirail.

Marcyg gruffly looked after him, taking care of the things behind the scenes. He'd embraced dissent with an eagerness that his subordinates had followed in, digging in deep in preparation for the inevitable. But he still found time to be a good moirail and had proven willing to help plan out Libaax's 'demand.' The thought of Captor being stuck as the engine of the Empress's own ship still sent shivers up her spine. But the weight of it had been diminished by the level of planning the Lygtagt-Kaigari had laid out. Somehow Rymmyl had gotten the layout of the crude Imperial capital ship, the patrol vectors and the shifts of the guards. They'd formed a plan.

The rescue had almost become palpable, until the High Legislacerator had come crashing down. The chiding and mocking teal had come out of nowhere, and Libaax had feared that everything she'd worked for would, again, fail. While she understood the reasons for the Lygtagt-Kaigari collectively turning against the Empire, the legislacerator's turn was less easily understood. She termed an 'infestation of a xenos borne madness' for her revolt. Whatever it was thorough enough for her to throw her lot in with the rebels.

She was the key that made the heist finally able to move forward. Rymmyl and Pyrope would go to the Empress on her ship, presenting a entirely futile case against the Priesthood and the Vykjiit. A cover for Libaax to ascend into the substructure where Captor was trapped. Libaax would be able to cut him out, replace him with a temporary battery and get him back to Pyrope's shuttle. The Lygtagt-Kaigari and the High Legislacerator would leave in 'defeat' and hopefully the treachery would realized when they were back on the planet.

They had planned it to start three Imperial Night/Day cycles from now, Libaax content to wait in Arhwyx's word. He hadn't lied to her so far, even on the unpleasant things. A little trust had been earned.

Outside it was dark, few soldiers or support personnel about and nothing to do had left Libaax with little in the way of passing time. Delving into Arhwyx's book collection was natural at this point. She knew more about Armour components and engines than she cared to admit, the dull writings of the blue blood almost drawing her to sleep.

The first rumble registered as part of a dream, the second rousing her from drowsiness.

Third came paired with an earth shattering blast beyond the ship. The entire shuttle had rolled, as if some giant had simply kicked it. Instinct kicked in, Libaax's arms coming up to protect her head as the force of gravity sent her flying all about the cabin.

The full weight of her body smashing against the ceiling had knocked the wind from her. Stunned, the noise of screams and crashes found her ears, rumbling coming from the floor, or rather the wall that had become the floor. Muffled, as smoke filled the shuttle. She didn't know what was burning, Libaax didn't really have time for it as she tried to force herself up.

The noise of the displaced doors opening behind her forced her to look. Marcyg Petang looked at first like he'd spilled oil all over his front, but as he approached Libaax realized it was indigo blood. The foppish gold trimmed command cap clashed sharply with the punching gauntlets on his hands. He looked absolutely furious. "ON YOUR FEET LEIJON! WE ARE LEAVING!"

"Marcyg?" She choked, unprepared for the older olive to seize her by her shoulders, yanking her up.

"UP! GET UP LEJION!" He snarled setting her on her feet, looking her over for a moment before releasing her. Without gentleness he opened up a cabinet that, once had been near the ceiling now tossed to the floor. He withdrew Libaax's claws, not so much as offering as shoving them into her hands. "It's Vykjiit, they pulled a full assault and we need to go!"

The daze was gone, Libaax quickly pulled the long metallic claws, following the furious general out into the alien night a moment later.

Truthfully, the full extent of the group known as the Vykjiit had been largely foreign to her, Imperial army tactics only known to the point of emulation. The attackers had come in shuttles and crashing pods, the defenders firing back with ground based flack cannons and plasma launchers. Outside the once quiet night had been disrupted by fire, overhead a Vykjiit drop-ship was illuminated by a shot lodging into it's flank, spitting green fire as it cracked, the fractured shuttle tumbling down into the sea. The noise of trolls and weaponry was all around, Libaax could see the shot that had sundered the landed ship beside Arhwyx's shuttle, hull torn apart with the smaller shuttle sent flying a ways off.

Libaax only paid the scene a moment, before turning to Marcyg. "Where's Arhwyx?"

"Fool is with the Genitori and Degaal at Degaal's headquarters. I'll lead, stay close." The older olive replied tersely, taking off with Libaax following behind.

Sticking to the shadows and the edges of the command center that now rang with violence, the two olives only made it a few steps before Vykjiit emerged from the darkness. A trio, one wielding a titanic mace of indigo make, flanked by a pair of crossbow wielding seabloods. Only one of the seabloods saw them. He didn't even have time to shout before Marcyg's fist found his throat, the sight on the fringes of Libaax's vision as she pounced.

Not again, she wasn't going to be denied again. Meaty was the neck of the indigo as her left hand dug claws deep, thumb on her right hand biting into the back of his skull. The force of her jump sent him tumbling, Libaax already rolling off before he fell. She landed on her feet, behind the remaining seadweller dispatched by Marcyg as the leveled rifle was batted aside, opposite gauntlet finding the face of the occultist in a swift punch. He tumbled, and again they were off.

"Not a terrible display for a Calligraphist." The half compliment was unexpected. Half heard over the distant crash heralding the death of another Vykjiit ship.

Libaax snorted. "The same can be said for you old man."

She barely heard the dry chuckle. "Fair enough."

They kept running, avoiding the Vykjiit they could and quickly overcoming what ones were unavoidable. While many bodies of Terrene soldiers coloured the ground, just as many Vykjiit were felled. The assault had relied on speed and surprise, but the soldiery were dug in. Plasma burned through highblood bodies and blades struck the invaders from the shadows. The advantage of aerial dominance sundered by ground based guns. All passing in and out of Libaax's sight. They reached the edge of the command camp largely unscathed, a melee greeting them on the fringes. Only one Terrene was left, half dead as the bloodied Vykjiit Cerulean raised a hatchet.

The offending limb came off at the elbow, opposite claws finding the soft of the invader's back. The few Vykjiit that had survived were cut down by the rampaging olives in short order, the last going down without a neck courtesy of Libaax's claws. Marcyg was already on the survivor, who Libaax recognized as a Lygtagt. "Trskow!" Marcyg snarled, pulling the stunned noble up. "TRSKOW!" It was not the roar that roused the noble but the slap.

He blinked, looking up at Libaax first, then over to Marcyg. He choked a smile. "My condolences Petang, I overestimated my firmness." Before either olive could speak Tskow jerked, hand rummaging around in his coat for something. The sealed letter came out stained noble blue on the corner, Trskow hacking a cough as he offered the letter to Marcyg. "Here, bring this to Rymmyl. It's his prerogative to authorize this for release. Now go. I'm just going to slow you down."

"Nope." The simplistic blunt response made Trskow hiss, Libaax took a step back as Marcyg manhandled the troll, Pulling him up over his back in a fireman's carry.

"Petang I'm-" The creaking snap cut off the Lygtagt as Marcyg turned to look at Libaax.

"None of this sacrifice nonsense, we're leaving! Leijon take point!"

Libaax nodded, turning and moving as fast as she could without leaving the other olive behind. The landings seemed to be concentrated around the command centers, few trolls Terrene or Vykjiit were out in the empty alien island. Titanic alien sculptures passed by silent in their observation of violence. No conflict found them, Vykjiit who had landed far from their intended targets easily circled, more focused on the roving armoured patrols filled with giddy soldiery launching shells into their number.

The once alien city turned into the Lygtagt-Kaigari Degaal's command center came faster than Libaax expected. Or perhaps that was the panic of the situation that made it seem that way, Libaax noted her chest heaving as she reached reached the fringes of the ruins, a shattered alien hive providing enough cover for her to turn and look back.

Marcyg jogged behind reaching her a moment later, Trskow on his back silent but still alive from the way he jerked. The heavy breathing of the Lygtagt-Kaigari reminded Libaax of a bark beast, he took a few steps ahead, peaking around into the streets.

He jerked back a moment later. "How many of you accursed Saltbleeds did Higmar send!?"

"Doesn't matter. We're almost there." Libaax hissed between exhales. Marcyg forced a nod, unslinging the blue noble of his back. He took a nervous hand clenching his side, but he did not fall. Drawing a small pistol from his side Trskow gulped and nodded. Again Marcyg took point, leading the through the back alleys of both shattered xenos hives and more recently landed troll ships. The struggle down here was just as intense as up on the hill, flashes of violence passing too fast to be processed as they went deeper and deeper.

The landed ship that was the command center of Degaal jutted out before them, from the darkness of the alley burning plasma illuminated most of the street. The Terrene defenders had fought hard from the amount of still burning plasma, but still they were felled. The shattered remains of ground armour pierced and upturned lined the street ahead, a few Vykjiit remained.

One of whom turned, black armoured with a plasma lance almost as tall as he was, demented grin eager as he turned the weapon on them. "Ancestors send-"

Trskow's shot found the troll's forehead, bolt of energy carving into his head and bursting the skull like wax. Necessity moved them, charging forward across the battle scarred street into the Imperial ship. The scattered invaders did not have time to respond, for the blast of Terrene canons nearby divided their focus. A few cracks of energy and plasma behind came. Libaax first, Marcyg second with the heavily wounded Lygtagt tumbling in behind. When he stumbled inside Marcyg closed the door, locking it with a punch.

Libaax only half noticed the action, more focused on the hall ahead. Bodies of soldiery, officers and lower command alike had been torn apart, colouring the walls in a rainbow of colour. Bodies smashed in such a way it could have only been Indigos leading the charge. The sight made her hiss, Libaax slowing as she tried to avoid stepping on the dead. Marcyg's growling growing as they made their way forward towards the command block.

No one had survived. The bodies were stacked high, Vykjiit bodies few. Everyone of them had been Indigo, priests mixed in with Vykjiit purists. The massive display screen had been smashed and shattered by the body of a large blue, dressed in attire Libaax recognized. He'd fallen, body broken with a blade still clenched in his hand, eyes vacant. Marcyg jerked forward, stumbling over a rust soldier's body to the blue. Silent.

Libaax approached slowly, unease at the unusual quiet and tension from imminent threat clashing together. Unable to make words. It was strange, to see the shift. Stranger came an odd pity for the older olive. "Marcyg?" She placed a bloodied hand on his shoulder. Cerulean with a bit of teal.

He creaked like old wood. "Genitori. Figured you'd outlive me." Marcyg turned to look at her, a deep discomfort etched into his features. Eyes running over the massacre. "Degaal and Arhwyx aren't here. They must be out in the streets, left the Genitori to hold out. Or, maybe he sent them off."

"Sounds like the Genitori if I may say so Petang." Trskow chittered, walking carefully over, wincing a little. "We need to get to the others, another quartet head needs to be added and we-" A shiver took the blue, he shifted, nearly falling as Libaax jumped to brace him. He swayed, bloodied flank adding more blood to Libaax's stained shirt. "Thank you."

"It's no trouble." How terribly odd to value a Lygtagt's words. The Libaax of twenty sweeps wouldn't recognize her now.

"Come along on then, I can only imagine where those lead-skulls are." Marcyg paid one last look to his fallen fellow and turned, making his way back the way they had come. Libaax followed, supporting the Lygtagt beside her.

Exit came slower than entrance, everyone slowed as the only noise remained careful steps on the blood stained floor. At least at first, as they neared the door the noise of shells striking found Libaax's ears. Ahead, she saw Marcyg's ears flittering. His pace picked up, forcing Libaax to half carry the slowed Lygtagt.

Reaching the door the crack of a shell made the ship around them quake, noise of rolling psionic presence just beyond bringing a jittering in the older olive's hand as he opened the door.

Outside the Vykjiit that had remained were either crisped or blown apart, Terrene armour rolling on in a hard push. Four or five rolling out of sight as a particularly massive vehicle slowed to a crawl. The size of a mammotlicator with spikes to match. The hatch on the top popped open, and a familiar goggled face popped up a moment later. "Marcyg!"

Arhwyx called, stumbling out of the armour, Libaax stumbled after the old olive who dashed ahead. By the time Arhwyx had reached the ground Marcyg had already cleared the distance. The old relationshipper in the back of Libaax's head giggled at the pale couple's embrace. Relief joining, Captor's rescue wasn't yet halted.

"Wonderful. I told you Petang would be fine. Not even the Vykjiit will rid us of him." Another troll had emerged from the armour, double chinned and teal eyed he glared down at Marcyg as he descended. "Where is Jifryg? He insisted on-"

"The Genitori has fallen, the entirety of your supports with him from the look of it Degaal." Above Libaax Trskow chittered.

Both blues took the news hissing, Arhwyx almost unheard under the groaning snarl of the teal. "Cursed leeches. Petang I trust your people are prepared for this?"

Marcyg nodded. "My Lytgagtii are all off island with their respective commands. Already dug in but I can't confirm until we get communications channels back. Your concern should be with the local, the only one I ran into here has been-" He gestured to Trskow, hissing as he stumbled out of Libaax's grasp, pulling out the letter once more to offer to Arhwyx.

"Rymmyl we need a miracle or else this war is over before it begins. Authorize the information transfer and you will have it." Arhwyx stared, taking the bloodied letter after a moment. Degaal glared down at it.

"Trskow are you still on about that xenos nonsense-"

"IT ISNT NONSENSE YOU MOLDED-"

"Trskow." The sharp click of Arhwyx cut off the indignant snarling of the bloodied Lygtagt and the hissing of Degaal. "We don't have time for this. Have you received any word from the alien leadership?"

Trskow's head jerked with a touch of mania. "Yes! Yes I have, they've requested proper and current fleet positions and if we supply them with Vykjiit and monarch aligned positions they could hit them out of nowhere. I've compiled everything we just need to release it to the xenos!"

"Their fission weapons stockpiles were neutralized on first strike as protocol demanded, there's no way that enough of those weapons remain that have orbital capacity to damage the fleet."

"I am aware of that assertion Degaal." He looked away from the sealed envelope, turning up again to his bloodied subordinate. "Trskow do you actually believe the xenos capable of seriously damaging the fleet?"

"I'd stake my life on it."

Degaal gave a hiss of annoyance. "You've staked your life on less."

Again, Arhwyx cut him off. "As have I Degaal. As have you."

"Don't tell me you actually believe that nonsense?"

"Every option must be pursued now." He offered the teal the envelope. "Degaal get him to a transmitter and send out the most recent coordinates. I think it best our newest Lygtagt-Kaigari is allowed to pursue this foolishness."

The double chinned teal seized up for a moment, a desire to press the matter obvious. The crash of a shell and screaming in the distance cut the desire, and he snapped up the envelope. "Very well. I'll take the heavy then." He hissed, quickly climbing up the armour followed by the slower Trskow. "Come on then you Blue Hun, we don't have time to frop about!"

"Rymmyl-" The blue winced as Arwhyx slapped him on the back.

"Get moving Trskow." Trskow said nothing more, skittering up the side of the armour and disappearing after a moment. The skittering engine rumbled to life and the psionic armour pulled away. A whistle from Rymmyl drawing another rumbling psionic vehicle over, lighter in make and faster. The armour's Cerulean gunner popping out as it slowed and stopped. "Sir?"

"I'll be joining you in there in just a moment soldier." Arwhyx chittered cooly before turning to look up at the sky. Libaax noted the Vykjiit flyers were gone, at least for the moment. Though an unknown shuttle was approaching, what little light afforded by the alien stars and moon it looked like a pale dot. "Forgive me you two, but the timeline had been shuttled forwards and our plans have changed. Marcyg I'll need you to escort Leijon for me. I'm needed here."

The noise of the descending shuttle finally reached Libaax's ears, slowly overpowering the noises of violence on the land. Marcyg hissed at his moirail now green in the face. "Me!? Arhwyx I'm not suited for the court!"

"You're-" Arhwyx was stopped by the sharp tone of a voice amplified by loudspeeker, coming from above.

The biting tone of the High Legislacerator rang out as the shuttle descended low enough that Libaax could the Legis herself, the back doors open as the shuttle slowed only a few feet from the ground. "Hello my darlings! It seems the timetable has been tightened!"

Arhwyx hissed, grabbing his moirail by the shoulder. "No arguing Marcyg, Pyrope needs capable back-up and my people are scattered. Degaal and I can handle holding the chain of command together. You're just about the only one I trust to see this done. This is now a hot war, my words are nothing compared to actual to physicality."

Libaax had avoided really thinking about the hard action. Actual planning was easy to focus on compared to the task of hanging onto a murderous imperial agent's ship. But no one else was going to save Jiixan.

She grabbed the other olive by the spare arm. "Come one we need to move."

A yank finally made the other olive stumble, forcing a response. "Void curse you Arhwyx you'd better be in one piece when I return." He turned, snarling and quickly jumping into the Legis' ship.

Libaax gave a small bow to blue blooded officer. "Thank you Rymmyl."

"Thank me when the ship of the Empress is adrift madam." Libaax turned, hopping onto the ship. Marcyg's open hand grabbing her and pulling her on as the Legis cackled.

The doors to the shuttle slammed shut behind, leaving them in near absolute darkness, reprieved only by the glowing from the cockpit. Something which did not bother the red-glared Legis in the least, fast steps carrying her to the front of the shuttle.

Libaax hadn't known what to expect, she'd pictured chains and bars, things typical to a high figure in the empire. In reality the back was filled with boxes of alien origin. Alien smells filling the whole ship. Neither olive was really prepared for the sharp jerk of the ship, followed by cackling. "Buckle up my Greens, the ride is about to get very bumpy!"

~~{†}~~

Torg Mortensen Solheim silently drummed his finger's against the barrel of his rifle. M14, automatic, maple wood stock, American make. Twenty round box magazine, one already loaded with another three in his pockets. The specs for the gun running in the back of his mind. Like clockwork almost, beaten into the back of his skull. Almost like he was back at training in Terningmoen.

A part of Torg almost wished he was back there. Even if there was little point to that now it still popped up again and again. Wishing got a person nothing. One had to seize existence, biting and clawing at it. Particularly these days. Less so right now, the alien vessel was silent aside the occasional chirps of the machinery and the breathing of the Satan. He sat back in the corner of the cockpit, rifle leaning against him as he waited. Waited for the inevitable. What Vasara had died for.

Reindeer fucker.

Why had it been Torg who was here? He was an impulsive bastard who'd dropped rank three times because he couldn't keep his fucking mouth shut. He wasn't confident, Torg's anger just looked like confidence. Explosive and constant enough it was a somewhat functional replacement. Almost everything was worth contempt, the aliens, the humans, the whole fucking world maybe.

Except those two. Vasara had been a stupid Lappish mother fucker who'd been with him since this nightmare began. Vasara who laughed when he was faced with the genocide of mankind, who walked an insane road and dragged Torg with. Vasara who never backed down or broke and always knew what to say. Vasara who was there when he'd woken up screaming because his nightmares smelled like burning flesh. Vasara who'd died alone.

Then there was the Satan. Ebonveil. Calling her the Satan, or literally just Satan made it easy to deal with her. She was another of the kind that had invaded old mother Terra. But she was- one of those types like Vasara, who Torg had always avoided. When faced with hell and highwater they smiled and acted and it stung to act as he was around them. He'd initially been willing to just cap her, she'd looked like the freak mega Satan Vasara had dragged him halfway across France to put a tank shell into. Aside the horns and the skin colour they were nearly identical.

But, the Satan had grown on him. She picked up on earth quickly, earth measurements, earth words. Not distant, or too close. Tolerable to be around, the Satan walking beside him through hell. Even now she still was translating to Finnish, continuing a level of social interaction Vasara had started. A normal. In a situation unbelievably far from it. It was enough to make him tolerate the alien rations, which basically amounted to balls of fat, soy and salt in terms of flavour. Tolerate the fact he was so far above the planet that thinking on it made his head spin.

If Torg ever got back to earth he was never going to get on another plane or fucking eat another MRE for the rest of his life. Starvation and travel be damned to the deepest coldest hell available.

The odd noise of Ebonveil drew up from the pilot seat, a bit like the noise of a Madagascar hissing cockroach. The actual translation kicking in a second later. "Torg I think it's happening."

"Finally fucking go time." Torg stood up, walking over to behind the pilot's seat too get a look at the bevy of camera feeds. The organic ship of massive size remained little more than a child's toy, but the tiny dot of the problem shuttle was moving fast, disappearing behind the mass of the larger ship. A feed of xenos letters had popped up on one of the side screens, marked by an ominous purple trident and a symbol like a Pisces.

The Satan banished the message, hissing as she took manual control of the ship. The ship that housed their VIP's grew. Ebonveil had told him at one point the actually size of her boyfriend's ship, but it hadn't translated properly. The child's toy became a breadbox, the breadbox an oil drum, the oil drum a car, the car a yacht and larger, until the grey-green hull was all that he could see. The entryway doors like the closed jaws of some terrible long dead megafauna.

Torg's grip tightened around the rifle's stock. "Great. Old password work?"

Ebonveil clicked at a few keys of an alien keyboard, waiting a moment with held breath. The motion on the camera drew Torg's attention, jawlike doors opening. "Seems like it." The alien chuckled.

"Wouldn't they be worried about the freaks getting through the front door by cracking the password?" Actually speaking it the question probably sounded stupid to the alien, but if it was she didn't show much contempt for it shrugging.

"Tiralx might not be all there in the head but she's a decent pass-setter." She rolled up out of the pilot's seat, pulling the Glock-17 out with the silencer with it. The ship's autopilot bringing them into the open jaws of the alien vessel. "Not even going to bother trying to hail, Darkleer doesn't answer calls at the best of times."

Torg nodded, eyeing the pistol with a snort. "Should we be worried about accidentally putting a hole in this ship?" The dainty pistol wasn't what he was worried about, not even his rifle. The Colt Anaconda remained on her hip, large enough to put down even one of the Satan's kind with one shot. Decompression was a bitch.

Again she didn't seem worried. "Considering the way Imperial weapons work I think we're safe. Nameless has weathered worse than a few pocks from the inside."

The shuttle shifted, cockpit shuddering slightly before a vacuous shucking hit Torg's ears. He waited, a clasping shaking coming from outside, noiseless. Alien words from the alien ship reached his ears. The voice automated in its clacking. Ebonveil flicked the safety off on her Glock, taking it in both hands. "Remember. Follow my lead, and don't shoot unless I tell you to. There's an entire stormshuttle of highbloods on here with us who think we're less than vermin."

"Understood." Torg pulled the M14 up to his shoulder, firing finger hanging onto the rim of the trigger guard as the Satan walked out of the cockpit, back into the body of the ship. A bit like the belly of a Chinook, if the Chinook had been alive at some point. The back doors pealed open with the press of a button, and the two entered the perverse ship properly.

The 'Nameless' was much like the nameless shuttle in its construction, but on a titanic scale in size difference. Where the shuttle was made in the form of a wasp the alien cruiser seemed like it was made from the shells of xenos turtles the size of houses. The air smelled like welding, heavy from the period of airlessness the room had experienced. It was dirtier than expected, the floors covered in fine layer of grey dust, blotches of something black and mold-like marred the ceiling and walls. Footsteps left behind in frozen dust from their strides.

Torg did not have time to dwell, following two strides behind the Satan as she led him to the edges of the room, another sealed chitinous door leading beyond. They'd already gone over breaching, Torg moving to the opposite side of the door to the keypad. Finger on the trigger as the Satan punched in the password.

The door wretched open, crusty noises of the retractions half-noted over heavy footsteps. "Shit." The footsteps faded, though a chittering howl made the alien beside Torg flinch.

"BRING ME THAT FUCKING DEGENERATE'S HEAD!"

Both strained their ears for a moment, Torg noting no noise coming from the right, aliens all on the left. "Might be our chance. Check?" Ebonveil nodded, head peaking out.

She chittered as she pulled back a moment later. "Ten in the hall, don't think anyone's behind us. Now anyways."

Ten, ten big alien's that just ate bullets. Aliens that apparently could still use medieval weapons when they were flying space ships and actually function. Couldn't afford to miss, but couldn't afford to dally. "Let's do it then, take top." He hissed and squatted. She nodded again.

Finger on the trigger he turned, peering out rifle leading into the hallway. Satan had been correct, ten of them milling about beside what looked to be a stairwell. Suits and uniforms reminded him a bit of SS style truthfully, if the rims were pulled down, eyes covered by shaded layers of glossy black metal. Different from seeing them dead, listening to them hiss with his ears. Real.

No old tank was here to protect him if he missed.

Behind he heard the Satan take a step, felt the motion of her aim.

Breath in, breath out.

Most noise was taken by the the first shot, striking a tall creature with Axolotl-like gills in the upper neck below the chin. No time to confirm hit, for if they closed in it was over. The alien's jerked into action, noises of clicking roars ahead and below dampened by gunfire. They moved fast, but in the tight space of the hallway there was little space to spread out.

Fish in the barrel as number two fell, first shot cracking off black armour, second off the helmet, third punching through the eye cover with a splash of dark blue. Stumbling charge began, a wall of black armoured bodies storming forward, one raising a blaring white weapon tumbling as his Satan's shot's plucked at his face. Third one took four shots to tumble, none missed, fucking thing just didn't stop. Wasted the next shot, two shots bringing down Cerulean. Five shots splintered sparks upon the neck of a charger only a few steps away, six finally finding the flesh.

Two tumbled to glock fire, Satan fired slower but couldn't do much about that. Three more shots, cracking against the second last one, dark blue biting into neck with the forth instinctive shot coming up nauseatingly empty. A few steps away, glock fire dropped the bleeding target of Torg's fire leaving one left.

A whopping eleven foot creature with red eyes, piranha mouth the only flesh showing, grinning like some kind of nightmare. Hammer, mace like thing in hand. For a moment Torg's mind went blank, couldn't even move, let alone hope to reload.

The thing stopped as if it had hit a wall, flat and immediate it dropped it's bludgeoning weapon as it's clawed hands came up to its neck. It did not shriek, possibly unable to as it jerked and flailed. Torg's mind kicked back to function, magazine falling to the ground released as his guiding hand pulled a full magazine from his pocket. Loading came automatically, permitting him a glance up at the Satan.

He couldn't tell what was more disturbing, the fact she was glowing the same colours as her Giga-Satan cousin or the fact that she was grinning. Smile of carnivorous teeth hiding a dull chitter as her extended hand tightened into a fist. A meaty crack came, turning the giant's head was turned at an off angle, dead before it hit the floor.

"I've always wanted to do that." Torg snorted at the Satan's insectile laughter, pulling up as the M14's bolt clicked into place. "Come on, we need to move."

Torg managed a nod before the alien took off, evidently familiar with the terrain. The term Gigeresque came to mind as they jogged through the alien halls. Though a great deal 'flatter' than expected, and a level of disrepair and neglect that made the place feel empty. Torg didn't pay much mind, ringing ears were focused on locating the sources of distant alien howls, eyes focused on motion.

It seemed like they had circled about the entirety of the ship, all they way up a flight of stairs and then towards what must have been a more central flight of stairs. The alien rooms were largely empty, those not empty of furniture equally devoid of life. Much to the discontent of the Satan. "Fuck they're not up here!"

"Where are they going to be then?" Ears strained, nothing up here but they were many below. Another confrontation all but inevitable now.

The response was immediate. "Downstairs all the way in the bottom, Tiralx has a hidden room they might be hiding out in. Come on."

The noise of booted steps came from behind, an alien soldier with another rifle like weapon bursting out into the hall. Before Torg could even take aim Ebonveil swatted her hand, glow in her eyes. The gilled soldier was sent flying as if struck by an invisible wrecking ball back into the stairwell it had emerged from, another shrill scream indicating it had not been alone in its ascent.

It struck him that a cat and mouse game risked them getting shot in the back at some point. They'd shown up with a handful of targets in mind expecting to storm in and kill the residents quickly, they didn't expect a full offensive at their backs. "Got enough devilry juice to punch through to the bottom?"

"I can make enough."

"Let's blitz the fuckers then."

The clicking came out positive, Satan jumping ahead with Torg hot on her heals. The Stairwell housed a half dozen blues, paused thinking that they had a moment as the ones who had been slapped back in roused themselves. This proved to be a terrible assumption. Urban combat focused around preparedness and cover, spacing of one able to clear the door and area denial. The Satan called Ebonveil sent the one closet flying back down the stairs before he could react, Torg circling her with a quick step and opening fire.

The fish in a barrel analogy became literal now, a few meters below on the landing became a slaughtering ground between gunfire and the mental threshing wrought by Torg's alien ally. Armour splintered under sharp slaps of psionic force, and where he saw grey skin Torg fired. By bullet sixteen they were all dead, a mess of cold colour dampening the stairs. Torg spent the remaining four 'checking.' When he turned up to look at the Satan he noted a drip of blood rolling down from her nose, dark red tongue flicking out to lick it away. "Can't keep doing that."

Steps, howls from down below, Torg hissed as he let another empty magazine tumble to the floor. Two left, forty rounds. "Rest of the strike team down there?" Ebonveil nodded, back of her hand wiping the rest of her face.

"Probably split into a pincer motion. Think we can run them down?"

"No choice but. Get that Anaconda out." He took the first step, a cautious head peaking out. Instinct put two bullets down, first catching nothing, second earning a satisfying grin as the horrible alien noise of pain hit his ears.

The spacing between the floors was about ten feet, two landings in between each floor's entrance with a little space between the stairwells. Below he could see the motion of many, ten maybe twelve of the horned aliens. Scattered, between the stairs. Yellow eyes wide looking up at the source of the mixed cold blood now dripping down, still recoiling alien shot once dead with the second bullet.

Torg in that moment realized how absolutely terrifying it must have been, to be caught off guard by an alien where one shouldn't possibly be. Boot was on the other foot. "COME ON THEN YOU STAG FUCKING DEVILS!"

It felt like a haze of cold toned blood as he descended, roaring as he laid his shots down. Tight, oh so tight was the stairwell and the advance did not come immediately. When it did it was much too late. Ebonveil behind diminished the charge shots few and far between, deafening from the heavy pistol. Blood dripped from above as he descended. It felt like no time had passed when the magazine ran out again. Reloading automatic, a dashing teal tinted thing tumbling back a short ways with her head skewed at an off angle. Gilled man behind caught by the first shot.

Then, they were at the bottom, he was breathing hard, voice gone as he put the last bullet he had into the felled corpse of another gilled monster. Something was amiss, even if they had an advantage the alien's should have pulled back. The hall was empty.

Torg stumbled back, tripping over a dead alien's body as a black arrow punched through the frame of the door way. If he was a foot taller the arrow would have struck him in the head. "Fuck me to death."

"Torg!" Stumbling steps behind came, Torg looked up to see Ebonveil navigating the last few steps now covered in alien corpses. A stream of dark blood running down from her nose, covering her chin and neck. "Are you alright?"

It took him a moment to process the question. His ears were still ringing. "I'm alive. I'm out of bullets though." He grunted, rolling back up as he looked around. Rifle left where it had fallen. "One's left though."

"Of course there is. Hang on a second." Ebonveil popped the cylinder open, emptied shells falling onto the armour of dead alien's chest with dainty clinks. Handful of .45 bullets withdrawn and loaded in as quickly as she could.

"You know the swords I kind of understand but the arrows?" He hissed as he leaned back against the wall, faintly Torg realized his front was stained with a dozen shades of blue and purple, a few drips splattering down from above. "Your species is fucking insane."

"Highbloods, don't look at me they're weird like-" She stopped, dead still. Fourth bullet partially chambered as she looked at something above Torg's head. To the black arrow. "Wait." Ebonveil finished loading the Anaconda, rolling the chamber back into place and taking a step forward. "Darkleer!? Is that you?"

For a moment there was no noise but dripping. Then came a noise that Torg had no real ability to compare to anything. The closest noise he could say he'd heard was the noise of a lynx being forcefully drowned. But the Satan beside him peaked up. "That's Tiralx!" She holstered the pistol, took a step forward. "Darkleer I'm coming out don't shoot!"

A clawed hand found Torg's shoulder, and despite the instincts that had been beaten into the back of his head with the butt of a rifle he let himself be pulled into the hall. He noticed first the corpses with black arrows embedded into them.

"Shitting Satan." Second he noticed the brick shithouse of an alien at the end of the hall. The English phrase 'brick shithouse' was probably the most appropriate term he could think of as it was literal. Torg was tall, pretty muscled. He was the same size as Ebonveil, if you ignored the horns. The brick shithouse was twice his height and thick like a fucking oak tree. The black armour only made him look bigger, eyes hidden behind a glowing white visor on his helmet. The bow in his hands as tall as Torg.

Even if he'd picked up emptied M14, it would probably do him about as much good as a damp pool noodle. The Satan pulling him along though was absolutely fucking delighted from the way she was chittering. When they were only a few steps away from the silent giant Ebonveil finally let go of him, jumping up on the titanic alien and climbing up his armour to kiss him on the lips.

Ah. That was Darkleer. Actually speaking fizzled for a moment as Ebonveil pulled away, dropping to the ground leaving the giant's lips covered in rust red. His voice was like boulders grinding against steel plate. "They reported you were dead."

"I'm not that easy to kill."

"EBI!" Torg jerked as a towering grey blur swept up Ebonveil in a hug. Not as tall as Darkleer but still a few fucking heads over Torg. Dressed more like someone on a beach in the south rather than an alien he noted faint dark purple lumps on its side, fluttering gills on its neck and a smile made him as fearful as- well. He gulped as the weird fish thing let Ebonveil down. "Ebi, o' nan' 're y'lrigh'? Th'y said th' 'vocat's 're-"

"Yea, they're all dead." Ebonveil chittered. "It was the Demoness. She was real and she tore them and the entire ship I was on apart. I managed to escape but I'd be dead without..." She looked back at him, the stares of the towering aliens falling on him. "Well. This is Torg. He and another human called Vasara saved me, not only that but they got me back up here. You can thank them for the rescue as much as me."

For some reason the stupidest thought in his head was the only one he could actually vocalize. "Are you the fun size for your species Satan?"

A mirthless click, but she was still smiling. "I guess you could say that."

"Were it not for the fact I thought you were dead peasant-" Darkleer's growling creaked as he took a step forward, even though Torg couldn't see his eyes he could imagine the giant's glare on him. "This wretched xenos creature actually saved you?"

"They did a lot more than save me, they got me here. Vasara died for it." The hard clicking actually paused the giant. Opening his mouth to speak Torg could see broken fangs. But he didn't say anything, while the gilled alien bubbled.

Darkleer finally let out an insecticide whisper. "I see. Does- does the creature understand us?"

Ebonveil tapped her translator. "Not you two, just me. I'm running translations. And don't worry he won't bite."

"S'- th's's a humie th'n?" The towering gilled creature took a step closer. Eyes pressed down on him. It finally struck him this was Tiralx, the 'drunken fish' Vasara had told him about. "Cuuuute." A combination of combat wind-down and no idea what was happening kept him frozen as a clawed hand with webbed fingers ran through his blood stained hair. Was this what it felt like when humans petted wild animals for the animal?

"Satan help." He managed to croak.

Mercifully Ebonveil did help, look growing serious. "He's not a cuttlefish either Tiralx cut that out." A batted hand knocked aside the webbed fingers, in spite of the noise of puffing protest from the gilled alien. "We need to get moving now. Torg and I took care of the Vyks but they'll probably just put a torpedo strike into this ship when they realize what happened. We have one of their shuttles to escape with."

Darkleer gave a grunt that might have been affirmation, while Tiralx tittered. "Sh't. Ye' hol' on a sec'." She took off, not entirely steady on her feet back into the room it seemed Darkleer had been guarding. After a moment there was a noise like pain. "Oh." It turned back into the weird trilling. "Oh no no no no no I- f'ck I c'n't c't y't!"

"What is it now Zgaigk!?" Darkleer growled, following after the gilled woman a moment later.

"Th's- th's's big! Is Trski'! I- I c'n't leave 'till is' done!"

The alien chittering was so far above Torg's head it might as well have been on another fucking spaceship. He followed Ebonveil into the now cramped room. Alien equipment was all over, the tech reminding him of a beehive. The Satan beside him whistled. "Bad blood I knew you and Layman were into some shit but this is fucking serious."

"What the actual fuck am I looking at Satan?"

Ebonveil chittered over Darkleer's growling. "It's a communication's network, data transfer can't be cut now or a whole bunch of trolls will get killed. Leer?" The giant didn't respond, prompting Ebonveil to smack her fist against Darkleer's back. She hissed shaking her hand as Darkleer turned. "Leer can we get the network on our shuttle?"

"There is no can. I will be moving this. I pray your xenos comrade can carry his weight."

~~{†}{SOL|58:03|IMP|0.99}{†}~~

Chapter Text

- Somewhere under the Old City of Jerusalem

A few streams of dust-tinted light from the roof overhead informed Yossi Ben-Zvi the sun was up. It was morning proper outside, the air clear of smoke enough the sun was getting through. Another morning, still here somehow. Some mornings when Yossi was alone he wondered if it wouldn't be better if he simply didn't wake up one day. But people nearby did away with such thoughts. Even without Hussein sitting half asleep beside him, Saul pacing and a glaring Moshe, the half-collapsed church was filled with people.

Dozens like them waiting, hundreds passing through. IDF and PAF personnel being ironically few and far between. Far more numerous were civilians of all stripes. Circassian colours and Shashka blades. Flat topped Druze hats, Kippah, Taqiyah and helmets marked with all manner of colours caught Yossi's eye. Hair of all colours and skins of all shades, most tinted by dust and filth. Above them the massed black hair and stark fiery horns of strange aliens struck the eye sharply.

Initially, Yossi had feared that the little alien Hussein had rescued would be shot on sight. On reunification with United Front forces it seemed that the defections and desertions among the aliens was a rising trend. Little Mona was mercifully ignored, as most attention remained on the titanic cold eyed beasts that stood beside the humans. Paranoia was rampant, but even the most xenophobic and murderous could not deny the leveling of the playing field. In depth defence had been made full, for the invading legions now had to contend with their own kind in close quarters.

It seemed most in the large emptied space were listening in on a broadcast from high command, a motley crowd huddled around an old HAM radio setup being operated by a Bedouin boy who could have been no older than thirteen. A ways away from where Yossi's squadron sat, he could still hear it. The broadcast had first been in Hebrew, second in Arab and was now being done in the odd language of the aliens. Clicking and chittering all while the crowd listened, humans captivated by the bizarre display while the otherworldly allies listened on.

Beside him, Hussein shifted, eyes opening up all the way. "Yossi, what are they listening to.?" He gestured over at the crowd as a yawn hit him.

He'd listened the first time, tuning out after the Arab translation had begun. If the alien language was anything close to the speaking time of Arab or Hebrew he could guess what was being said now. "Motivational nonsense." Yossi kept his voice to a whisper.

Still, the words finally broke Saul's silence, his steps failing. "I don't like this. There's no way an offensive is going to do anything but get us all killed."

Yossi didn't even turn to look at the other man, he could almost feel Moshe's eyes rolling as the leader of their small group spoke. "This is a global war, everyone is going to be pushing in sync."

"It's insanity though! We've been biting back for weeks and we're running low on everything! Our functional manpower is going to be cut in half in the first hour!" Saul didn't sound like his usual racist self, his words carried a shiver.

Moshe's voice however remained firm. "The rest of the planet is going to be fighting at the same time, at the same hour at the same fucking minute. We're one of the few in positions with support so cut the complaining."

There was a pause. Normally Saul would curse, not at Moshe but simply because he could. "Aren't you afraid?"

"Of course. But we can't afford it right now. In two days this ends. One way or the other."

Yossi finally looked over at the other two, Saul was running his hands through his hair as he slumped down to his knees, Moshe staring at him silently. Look hard, but otherwise unreadable. Yossi didn't look long at either of them, Hussein mercifully drawing his attention.

"Hey. Yossi?"

He turned back to look at the man beside him. "Yes Hussein?"

His hair and beard were singed in some places, the rest covered in dust. Yet he was still smiling, if only faintly. "Do you have any family left?"

The question caught Yossi off-guard. Truthfully, he'd not thought of his parents or any of his family in days. It was easy that way. "Parents got out of Tel Aviv, don't know if they're still with us. Can't say anything about anyone else though."

"Well." Hussein leaned back, form slumping against the wall. "That's good. At least."

For the first time in a while, Yossi felt capable of actually holding a conversation. "How are you holding together man?"

"Well enough I think." Hussein said passing a look over to Saul, looking over Moshe had helped the younger man up. He looked back to Yossi. "When we win, do you have any plans?"

The question made him snort, for there was a single thing he'd do if the armada orbiting the earth mercifully fucked off. "Food. Something that isn't canned. Then get myself some nice tea, none of this Turkish shit we've been issued."

"I mean in the long run of it."

"I figured that was what you meant." The longterm, if there was indeed a long term- was difficult. Yossi did not think he had the mental fortitude to think on it long. If at all. "There's not much I really care to commit myself to. When this is over it will be different, more than anything. I can't even imagine what the world will look like."

"Are you worried we'll go back to..." Hussein trailed off, thinking. Finally his smile failed. "To being like we were?"

Oddly all Yossi could do was snort again at the question. "I don't think so. We're too fargone for that. Brothers in the camps and all that." He paused, a thought had come to him weeks ago, one that had come back on occasion in the strange space between sleep and waking. "Tell you what, when this is all over I'm taking you, me, your sister and the little one out to somewhere nice."

"Think anywhere nice will be left?"

"Oh there will. No matter what, the good will always pop back up. Good food, good wine. Maybe I have to actually start making wine or learn to cook or something." Hussein snickered, a little high for a man his age but he couldn't complain. "What?"

"I just find the thought of you on a wine press silly, that is all."

Admittedly, Yossi couldn't really picture himself at the back of a wine press or in a kitchen. But he couldn't really picture him doing anything in the far future. If there was a future like that. Despite the brevity it was clear Hussein knew as well as he did that there probably wasn't going to be a future for either of them. He didn't press anyone for thoughts on it, unable to think himself. He couldn't actually think on it, whenever Yossi tried his mind turned a blank.

And again he would be drawn back, back to the chittering marred by radio static. Back to the dusty church emptied of pews and Christian relics to make way for those desperate and foolish, restocking themselves and preparing for the horrors outside. Back to the smell of discharged ordnance, distant sewage and human bodies.

Considering Saul's state he probably should be grateful for that. No past, no future. For Yossi, there was only the now, with the sound of approaching footsteps drawing his attention.

Hussein waved at his approaching sister, and the mute walking beside. Layla was worn down, a dark brown painted munitions box carried in each hand. Sitting piggyback style was the small alien that had been with them for a long while now, chin resting on Layla's head. Eyes closed, might have been sleeping. The tiny alien's black curling hair cut down to her shoulders, her bare arms and legs were still covered in yellowed scabs. A small child's coat of brown leather and a floral skirt clothed her now, little and filthy as it was it was all that they had been able to scrounge up. But she didn't seem to mind at least.

Behind, Sayid was laden with the rest of the equipment and provisions they had been due, silent as always. He still hadn't said a word to Yossi or anyone else, but at this point he and everyone else had grown used to the mute behavior.

Sayid started unloading the supplies down beside Hussein, Layla gently setting down the munition boxes beside. It still roused the little alien, her eyes opening still glowing like teal tinted light-bulbs. Immediately she looked over to Yossi, chirping. "Just a second you impatient child."

The alien girl was already clicking as Layla leaned down, allowing her to climb off the human woman's back. She didn't so much walk as hop over to Yossi, jumping onto his lap hard enough to make him cough. Still, that wasn't unusual. He ran a hand through her woolish hair as she buried her face into his chest. Clawed hands kneading into his uniform.

It was impossible to do anything but smile at the sight. "Hello Mona."

Rumbling purring was the only response he received, but that was enough for Yossi.

"I swear the way she treats you you'd think she was half cat." Layla's tone was only partially sarcastic as she pulled a can of asparagus from one of the bags Sayid had carried with him, offering it to her brother. The comparison was more than apt, considering Mona's lack of speaking skills and tendency to yowl.

"There are worse things to be I suppose." Hussein murmured as he pulled out a long knife and crudely cut out the can's lid.

Was this breakfast or an early lunch? He didn't have the exact hour, and with the imminent 'end' he couldn't bring himself to think much as the others started eating. Truthfully, Yossi couldn't think about much at all besides the small purring ball in his lap. A scratch behind Mona's ear loudening her purrs. Yossi closed his eyes, listening distant, far distant rumbles, failing before the noises of the small girl happily clawing at his shirt.

~~{†}{SOL|53:03|IMP|0.91}{†}~~

- Somewhere under the Ural Mountain Range

"Are we certain this isn't going to screw with the payloads Timoshenko?"

Borya visibly winced at the immediacy of Sasha's answer. "I'm certain."

On the scaffolding that ran between the missile silos, Boyra Smirnov was actively considering withdrawing the bottle of gin stashed in the messenger bag on his back. Saint George of Botanivore gin, Yank stuff if he was still able to read. Gift from one of the weirdos passing through. How terribly basic it would seem to the Chinese and the disturbing creatures they had escorted here if he were to just take out the bottle and start at it, like some caricature of a Russian. Dreadful, really.

But at the moment, the thought was becoming tantalizing. Observing the launching silo chambers, filled with enough fission ordnance to make the underground complex and the surrounding mountains into a lake was bad enough. But the aliens and the glaring Chinese handlers? Borya was going to develop an ulcer at some point in the near future.

How they'd even brought the dozen glowing creatures remained a partial mystery, the Chinese passed over a few thousand kilometers of land humans no longer controlled, across the plains and forests all the way here. Something something cold war bullshit likely. But Borya couldn't say for certain. The only consolation was that when the Chinese and their chained pets were finished with their- task they'd be gone again.

Even if they hadn't been so tight lipped about the details, for Borya it would have likely run in one ear and out the other.

The past few nights had run past fast. Faster than he had ever imagined. Suddenly the Yanks had thrown out a date that they had to strike, the Chinese throwing in their support, the entire world preparing for the end and a desperate push. All while Borya sat in this miserable pit waiting for them to hurry up and push the button.

It made him more than a little ill, if he somehow survived the launch it would either be liver poisoning or a stress induced hernia that claimed him shortly afterwords. If the aliens didn't just retaliate and turn this part of the Urals into a lake.

"How much time left?"

Sasha Timoshenko checked his watch, unmoved otherwise. "About two days, soon enough it will be two days."

"How many STAM's should be operational by that point?"

The information came automatic as if the large man was a vocal calculator. "Four Hundred and Thirty, the last six will be completed in the next two hours if things work at planned. Nothing else is worth the retrofits."

"Then we just wait for the xenos to finish their- you know their-"

"I believe the term we coined was 'dead-zoning'."

"Yea. That." Borya hissed, a PRC soldier passing behind, glaring at both men. The People's Republic soldier's all had dead eyes, or horrible fucking stenches. Which was all things considered, probably expected with the horror stories from the east. Still didn't mean Borya liked them. "Then the aliens go, the brainy types and soldiers go after down to Persian country and we all wait here to push the button."

"So it would seem."

"Think this is enough?" Borya managed to vocalize a thought that had been in the back of his head since before even his conscription. If an alien fleet composed of a few thousand ships was capable of striking the planet out of nowhere and decimating the globe's military structure in a few hours, was there really much hope that nukes would work? Borya had kept the thought to himself, poor for moral, worse for productivity.

Oddly, Sasha managed a half smile. "It had better be. If a few hundred five megaton nuclear warheads don't end this war I don't think we ever actually had a chance at survival." Sasha's grunt may have been his version of a hearty laugh. "Still, it was a nice way to spend the time before the end. If this doesn't work."

The flash of Sasha's teeth finally pushed Borya over the edge. "Oh damn it all."

He could feel the unsettling gaze of the second in command as he unslung the messenger back, withdrawing the clear bottle from within. "Are you sure you should be doing that?"

Shaking hands popped off the sealed cork top. A careful swig filled his mouth. Nintey proof and horribly fucking bitter on the tongue but hey, a man could't be picky. When Borya finished swallowing he managed to reply. "Certain as a man like myself can be. Considering the circumstances. I think I should do my job now."

"Glaring at Orientals and Finnish barbarians?"

"If I do not then no one will." Borya took a second drink and walked, Sasha left behind. The Right hand man did not complain, allowing him to escape.

At one point, this base had housed two thousand missiles capable of striking the northern United States. Hidden from the prying international community. At least that was what Sahsa had told him, sometimes it felt like the place was much bigger. Hundreds of missile bays sat empty and silent, devoid of cargo. The long railing corridors between them and the command centers throughout largely empty. All of it just aging concrete and rusting steel floors, bodies few and far between. Occasional guard patrols who avoided his gaze, technicians skirting past. Chinese escorts and the occasional gaunt staring creature flinching aside. Borya kept walking, deeper and deeper into the labyrinth.

If Borya's mother had seen him like this she would have belted him. If father had he would probably do the same. Not for the drunkenness like mother, but for drinking gin.

Around the sixth drink straight from the bottle he half ran into one of the aliens as he tried to enter one of the missile bays, a tall gangly thing with a shaved head. Glowing like the rest of the freaks. One eye was dark red, the other dark green. Like a particularly fucked up cranberry bush late in the summer. He realized the Gin was going to his head now, but there was little to be done about it. It let him just walk firmly, even when he probably should recoil.

The alien did not have that benefit as it jerked back from the near miss. Like the others, its arms and legs were bandaged. It swayed, ever so slightly. Despite the lack of pupils Borya could feel it staring.

For some reason Borya spoke his mind. "They really put you fuckers through the ringer eh?"

The crude words came out closer to Chinese than the rest of the perverse bug noises the aliens usually made. "Sorry pinkie, they didn't let me keep a speaker and I'm stuck on Mandarin." Thinking on it a moment he realized the thing was actually speaking Chinese.

Borya stood there for a moment, before taking a look into the doorway the xeno had stumbled into. Inside was a technician with a Finnish armband, waving what looked to be a fleshy gieger counter around the head of a submerged STAM, beside a bearded Chinese soldier was muttering. Borya snorted and stepped back out, allowing the alien to stumble into the hall proper.

The heavy breathing it made, made Borya think the thing was-

Either exhausted or extremely uncomfortable. For some reason he figured the latter, the aliens tended to sweat, but this one was dry and chittery. "Hey, you and me both glowy."

For just a moment, looking at the alien, Borya felt at ease. Then it was gone, and the worry was buried with another sip.

~~{†}{SOL|48:02|IMP|0.82}{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Subway of Athens

Tafsut Servas, Dictationer of the twenty ninth extermination dictatia was actively restraining herself from pulling her own hair out. She thought she'd broken the habit sweeps ago when she'd ended up in the armed forces. Increased automation in the caverns and the need for bodies in uniform had gotten many jades drafted. One in particular, had broken her heart. Enough to save her from the misery of the fleet by taking her place.

Sometimes Tafsut wondered how Ursama was doing on that shithole of a colony they'd been hatched on together. Hopefully alright. Surely it had to be better than her own situation. Not that there were many situations worse than the one Tafsut found herself in.

She'd only received the title of Dictationer because everyone above Jade caste had gotten themselves blown up or gunned down in a human dusk raid. One hundred and seventeen command officers cut apart or blown to bloody tatters beside eight hundred and thirty seven Threshecutioners and Mercullers. Command had been passed down to her. She hadn't even been the next one in line to take command, the other Jade's ahead on the command chain had simply deserted.

It had forced her head above the water so to speak. Being trapped on an alien planet with dwindling resources and plummeting morale forced a clinical sort of thinking. The lives of nearly twenty thousand soldiers all in her hands, and she could see it.

Naturally, when the Vykjiit Lexicweller had come to order them into a charge that would most certainly get them all killed, Tafsut had pulled the woman's head off her body.

It had been a 'in the moment decision' really.

Something only processed with the insufferable seablood staining her hands and sleeves. She'd expected shots to the back, some other jades hoping to climb the ladder. After all she had just culled a priest agent, a member of Vykjiit high command. Tafsut hadn't expected the entire dictatia to join in her treason. The priests and Vykjiit had been blindsided, the few in camp cut down under a literal sea of whiling blades and striking sickles. Much as she appreciated not being shot, it only promised the rest of Dictatia a shared end under mutual execution.

Joining the aliens hadn't been Tafsut's first option. She'd first considered the xenos beasts half the reason she and the rest of her forces were in this mess. It hadn't really become a feasible possibility until she received word of the 'Napoleon.' A highblood human with great sway. Terrible in command for the empire's forces and effective enough it had unified most of the peninsula under its command. The peninsula in which her ditctatia was now trapped. The offer had been cursory, she hadn't expected a rejection, much less a response.

How quickly that end had turned in on itself. The Napoleon had been significantly shorter than expected, but it- he carried himself with a poise well deserving of its reputation. There came a point where his command had become natural. Even through the translation he spoke with a strange sort of conviction. Listening to him in the flesh, sometimes Tafsut thought she'd survive this horrible war.

It made the loss of Napoleon and the rest of the Albanian quarter all the more jarring. In their impromptu command center established in the subway terminal below the city streets where the battle raged, the old stress habits were bubbling back to the surface. Tafsut, Dictationer Tafsut Servas was about to lose it.

Officialese Uthram did not help in that regard. The younger jade was pale as she delivered the bad but not entirely unexpected news. "I am sorry Dictationer. Still no contact with Napoleon or the Albanian Quarter."

"Bad blood." Servas cracked, claws digging into her arms locked behind her back. In the small culvert she'd taken as her own 'office' the three petty officers shifted awkwardly. Perhaps to be expected, the way she kept growling.

Already, Officialese Hainut and Yurkui were hissing at the younger petty officer. Neither of the jades had enjoyed the prospect of an alliance with the humans, but now their notes had taken a desperate turn.

"We should begin entertaining the notion of a tactical withdrawal." Hainut growled, Uthram growling back even as she shook with a combination of exhaustion and fear.

"There is nowhere to withdraw too unless we intend to start the full collapse of our forces!"

"If we don't begin to pull out now-"

Yurkui's dissent was cut as the Dictationer found her voice. "We are not going anywhere." The preemptive hissing argument between the officers finally broke the dictationer's outer veneer of calm. "ENOUGH! ALL OF YOU!"

"Dictationer-" Yurkui's tone was still unbidden, the Dictationer lashing out at the smaller jade.

"By the Sufferer and the Pythones I would expect the two of you to understand the weight of our situation! We've nowhere to run, the empire's forces have full air supremacy and this city is surrounded! We either drown them in their own blood or we'll be culled well enough on our own!"

"Forgive us we simply-" Was it her glare or the cracking of the Dictationer's knuckles that made Hainut flinch? Dictationer Servas did not know, nor did she particularly care as Hainut gulped and took a step back. "We can't hope for even abatement now."

"If you intend to abandon post or something more cowardly I would expect you two to of you to put up stiffer replacements."

Yurkui stiffened. "Never."

"Then do not act as if the possibility is tantalizing the both of you." Servas growled.

For a moment there was silence, Servas considering what to do now. Napoleon had led them here, overseen the assault that had let them take the city. Laid out the defenses. If he was gone then who was in charge? The illusive alien general Tekirdağ was not, only commanding his own detachment. The petty Zogu? No, while he was evidently high in the command despite his actual rank being low in the xenos hierarchy he was only a mediator. Skilled, but also missing with his native quarter.

The thought of filling the space Napoleon held was nauseating but all encompassing for a moment.

"Dictationer!" The call broke through the mental miasma, sharp and loud enough it made her jump. Dictationer Servas snarled as she turned and forced herself from the small culvert that was her office. The headquarters of the combined forces were filled with the bodies of trolls and humans alike, cramped bodies filling the underspace. No longer did the day dwelling beasts bother Servas, for their desperation was terribly familiar to her now. "Dictationer!" The call for her rang out again, past the majority of the depths and up to the re-purposed chitin barricade that led up the stairs to the city proper. A sallow eyed yellow blood was the one responsible for the hollering. "Xenos Armoured car, Bosnian make!"

The crudely pronounced alien word did not draw her as movement caught the Dictationer's eye. She didn't recognize the humans at first, covered in ash and crimson blood, stumbling down the stairs. Zogu looked dead, carried by a human soldier and a bearded human with a demented look. Napoleon was covered in white and black like a shade maker from the old stories, hauling the limp captain down the stairs. The barricade forced open by the guarding threshecutioners as they realized the identities of the humans. "MEDIC!" Any pause was thrown aside by the booming voice of Napoleon. "Someone get me a human medic now!"

The human soldier relinquished his shoulder carried to a troll threshecutioner, Servas herself letting the forced dictation seize her, ordering the petty officers and scattered bodies aside in the struggle to reach the wretched hospital set far down in the human rail system cars.

The smells of dying drowned out the stench of smoke as they descended, finally Napoleon allowed his carrying to be handed off to a curly horned rust. Zogu remained limp, as he was carried into the rail car. Napoleon stumbled at the doorway, beside Servas the transition to shade maker looked literal. Hand clenching the open door-frame to the primitive rail car, his stare was vacant. Not an inch of him was untouched by filth, be it white ash, black filth or perverse human blood. He made no move to clean himself, or even to move. The Dictationer found herself unable to say anything, dismissing her subordinates with a wave of her hand.

The only one who remained was the human who had arrived beside Napoleon. Dour black eyes trained on his commanding officer. Standing away he was somewhat less stained than Napoleon, but still there was too much blood covering his once green-grey uniform.

It felt like only a few moments later when a human emerged from the medical car, light brown face emaciated and brown eyes dampened by some unknown malady. His face was straight, as he addressed the vacant Napoleon. "Captain Zogu passed before you arrived sir, most of his upper torso was perforated with shrapnel. I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do."

The Dictationer's choked clicking was dampened by expectation.

Napoleon did not move, or even look as if he'd heard the human medic. "Sir?"

"Phone." He relinquished the hand holding onto the door-frame, only then it became apparent it had been half supporting him. He reeled back almost tumbling before he steadied himself. For a moment he just stood in the middle of the subway terminal looking at his hand, dyed with red.

Humans, while creatures of stamina could reach a point where they cracked, the half heard word and the stillness prompted Servas to take a step forward. "Napoleon?"

His head shook, hand wiped on his uniform only coming off stained in ash. "No- no I mean broadcast. Where's that fucking radio broadcast-"

"Stop." The shaking uneven words were paused, Servas taking a slower step forward. "Napoleon please breath, you look near to death."

"Servas we can't afford that."

"We can't afford you losing your mind now either. What exactly happened out there?"

Napoleon's breath caught in his throat, and his words came out as little more than a whisper. "Zogu's detachment doesn't exist anymore, rest of the Albanian quarter has been ordered to fall into the Greek and Balkan detachments. Now where did we set up the broadcasting equipment?"

"The entirety of Zogu's direct command is gone?" Servas hissed.

"Yes. Albanian's took the broad drop in the east for us. More than that they received word first from the outside. Have you here gotten word from the Russians or Americans?"

"No." For the first time since he'd arrived, Napoleon was looking at Servas, not through her.

His nod was somewhat firm, hand falling to the sword hilt at his side. "They've posted us a reprieve date. I need to deliver it personally to everyone. Now."

For a moment, Servas entertained the notion of stopping the human. After all if Zogu's people had received international word it would only be a matter of time before it reached them. Napoleon looked to be in dire straights. But Zogu was gone, and some of Napoleon's self was on hand now. "This way."

Napoleon jerked and nodded as the Dictationer placed a firm hand on his shoulder, as much to guide him as to keep him from tumbling. "Thanks. Servas thank you."

"Think nothing of it." They walked, as the Dictationer comm'd ahead to inform the communications people of their impending arrival and of the 'Grand Marshal's' intentions. Under her hand she could feel the alien shake, only force of will and necessity of task keeping a somewhat competent outward appearance.

Before they could reach the door to the communications center, the Dictationer stopped, Napoleon halted under her hand. "A moment if you'd allow me." Servas pulled the translator from her ear, the small earpiece had been worn and battered by its use, but for the most part remained functional. The overhook needed to be pulled in tightly to accommodate, a few clicks made to make sure the 'additional functions' she'd installed were functioning. "If you're intention is some small motivation, then my coterie will be needing some as well."

Napoleon didn't reply as she affixed the translator to his ear, adjusting the minute microphone and speakers to function. "Does this even work?" He started at the sharp noise of the translator functioning. A click readjusted the volume, so more of his native tongue poked out.

"More than well enough I think."

"These have inverse settings?"

Servas almost smiled. "Not by Imperial manufacture."

For a moment the human was at a loss for words. "Thank you. Again, Servas." Napoleon managed as he turned back to the Communication room door, uneasy breaths taken as he opened the door and walked in. Stooping for the detestably low hanging alien door Servas followed. The room was covered mostly in Troll made data-hives, communications efforts had mostly been focused on maintaining constant word between divisions prompting heavy use of captured Imperial equipment. Human equipment was few and far between, but still there, operated by the handful of aliens capable of doing so. The man in charge approached without ceremony.

Officialese Tongva was a short round ball of muscle and fat, turning at their arrival with the usual unreadable look. Mostly that was from the bionic lower jaw that covered most of his lower face. The noise of his artificial voice crackling to life came as he looked over Napoleon. "KH- figured it would be nothing good. This way sirs." He led them deeper into the room, to where a desk half covered in human electronics and surrounded by Imperial data hives had been had been laid out. A half dozen microphones were laid out with a rusting office chair for sitting. A human woman with wiry red hair and speckled skin was inspecting the system. "KH- Dragica are we good?"*

"Very." The alien quickly removed herself, passing a small switch to Tongva and allowing Napoleon to step forward.

The yellow blooded Officialese nodded, breathing heavily. "KH- Impromptu, this one goes through a- cursed ass- I think we don't have time for explanation." He pressed the switch into Napoleon's hand, turning to the bank of human equipment. A few pushes and clicks came, and he turned back to the now seated human. The switch was again taken, and hooked up to the mass of microphones. "KH- Live, whenever you push that. All thirteen HQ's on hold. Thirty eight c-sets and everything linked through is the same. Even got the local announcement system set up for this."

Napoleon blinked, looking from the microphones back to the beaming Officialese. "What's your name sir?"

The yellow blood clicked. "KH- Tongva, at your service."

"Thank you Tongva." Napoleon let out an uneasy breath. Shifting to allow his hand to fall to the sheathed sword again. Another breath, now more controlled. He closed his eyes as he began speaking. Gone was wavering and weakness, as a confident and warm tone reemerged.

Click.

"To those of you listening to this broadcast, my name is Andoni Vlahos. Some of you know me as Ares, Napoleon, or most simply as leader. I am broadcasting to you now to inform you of three things. First that Captain Fatos Zogu has fallen in the line of duty." A pause, intentional or not Servas couldn't tell. Outside she heard humans cursing. Panicked troll chittering beside. "Those formerly under his command are to move to follow the nearest Greek and mixed Balkan detachments if they have not already done so. The Paiania approach is lost, and all in the surrounding area should be aware of that."

Another pause, this one purposeful as Napoleon's tone shifted. Warmer and louder. "Second, our struggle is not in vein with certainty now. In thirty seven human hours, little over half an Imperial cycle we will not be alone in our assault. Indeed, the end is drawing near. The most terrible of blows awaits our enemy, one that will mark the end of this invasion."

Third. Third is that we have woken something in our foes. Brothers, sisters. We have weathered the assaults of our foes at every hour now. Body after body is thrown at us, with a severity second only to our own. This is not out of rage, or a desire to kill us all. No. Faintly, Servas noticed a shaking in Napoleon's leg. An unconscious vibrating disparate to the voice of the man as it swelled filling the room. "They are afraid. Terrified of what awaits them. They fight not out of genocidal fury or misbegotten jingoism but out of mind numbing fear that has afflicted each and every one of them."

Napoleon's whole body was shaking now, but it did not diminish his roar. "And you have done that! For they have lost this ground beneath your assault! A burning flame has risen up in a continent all but broken! A flame they cannot extinguish! You! Out there! You Bosniaks and Serbs! Croats and Albanians! You Greeks and Turks and Soldiers of this world who have come from afar to fight here! You horned lions who have stood beside us, against this bloated and monstrous evil you defied! It is you who have done this! When they speak of these nights and days in the future, they will speak first of the defenders of Athens! Of your sacrifices and valiance! Our victory is at hand, but we must hold this city! With it the fall of an empire that spans across the stars will begin at the doorsteps of Athenai!" Finally, Napoleon's voice failed him. He silently swallowed, roar diminished to what he had begun with. "We must only hold now, as we have. As we will. Thank you. All of you."

After a moment it became apparent that Napoleon was attempting to turn off the broadcast feed, hand fumbling. Servas took a step forward and did it herself. A dull click coming with the turn of the switch.

There was an audible silence for the moment, even beyond the noise of bodies and voices had fallen considerably. Ultimately it was Tongva who broke the silence with a long mechanical whistle. "KH- Was that planned?"

"No." Napoleon attempted to stand. Attempted to, at the moment only his arms seemed to be working. "I should-"

Again, Servas placed a firm hand on the alien man's shoulder. "With respect Napoleon you need to get yourself looked at. It will do us no good if you tumble over dead and leave this mess to Tekirdağ and I." He hesitated, but still Servas pressed. "Come now. The sooner you get this addressed and some rest, the sooner you'll be able to return proper to your duties."

"I only do this because I respect your council, you understand?"

For the second time tonight, Tafsut Servas almost smiled. "Of course."

~~{†}{SOL|37:00|IMP|0.63}{†}~~

- Somewhere in the Hinterlands of Nigeria

"Put her head a little lower down, high caste cervical vertebrae are difficult to hack through."

"YOU DEGENERATIVE WHO-" The cobalt managed to howl before the ebon skinned leader decapitated her, in a single clean stroke. The body slumped to the ground as the humans holding the highblood pulled back. Head rolling a little ways away, still locked in a look of utter rage.

Light of day was just on the horizon, in the crude camp of innumerable parked human vehicles vegetation had been worn down to nothing. The blood coloured the ground, dark blue on reddish brown.

"Magnificent." The crackle of translated Imperial came as the executioner wiped his blade down in a fashion that could only be described as warm. Doting even.

Despite the fact that Annalist Lahoia was trapped in a cage strapped to the bed of a human hauling vehicle, she wasn't really afraid. Mostly tired, mildly annoyed but very glad to be alive was more the current tune. The human in charge was far from expected. Capable of taking lives as easily as any highblood, he had spared Lahoia, odder he'd left her with the small chest containing the Knyaz's belongings and what she'd been captured with. All bunched together at her side. Even her knife had been returned.

It wasn't like she was particularly dangerous in the cage, the humans had enough ranged weapons to reduce her to a pulpy mess. But the gesture was at least appreciated, making up for the white stares and the cramped space. And asking for how best to behead a highblood.

This was the first time he'd actually managed it, properly with a single stroke. Not to say he wasn't a capable butcher, it was just captured trolls tended to wiggle around a bit. Staring as two of the humans grabbed the corpse by the feet, the notion of actually feeling bad for the captured highblood came to mind. It was shuttled down as the third underling picked up the head, a juvenile human. Two heads below the leader and malnourished looking, Lahoia had heard what she thought was bargaining earlier. Troll horns seemed to be prizes, and the boy carried the head off smiling wide.

The Annalist didn't notice it was just herself and the imposing leader alone again until he spoke. "What is it that bothers you girl? Are you still grieving for the steel armed one?"

"Grieving?" The question left her blank, she'd avoided thinking about Puissant.

"The function of coming to terms with the loss of your blood?"

"We have our own understanding of grief human. I'm just not really sure of the answer." Lahoia kept her voice neutral, even if the question was xeno prodding it felt like a dig. But at least it left a bit of fervor to finally talk to the alien. "Why did you let me keep my things?"

He laughed, voice high as he finished polishing his blade to a sheen. As he stashed the blade in the sheath at his hip he leaned back onto the bed of the human transport vehicle. "Tell me. Do your kind have rules of war?"

It was her turn to laugh, though Lahoia was without mirth. "Culling aliens isn't officially considered war to the empire."

"Ha! I am familiar with such thinking." He turned to look at her. In the orange'd light of morning Lahoia could actually see the hinting of colour in his eyes. Brown so dark at the core it seemed black. "But, I've always found it lacking girl. Some things are owed to the living. What was belonging close