Someone knocked on the door.
Kanaya had never before disapproved of something so fiercely in her life. While it brought to her waking attention that she was, in fact, cuddling a soft sleeping Rose, it threatened to disrupt that peacefulness. She opened her eyes only when she heard the small creak of the door, and looked at John from over the top of Rose’s head.
He leaned in with his mouth open wide, but he stopped short of speaking when he saw them in the still flickering light of the lantern hanging above. Instead, he grinned and waved.
She lifted a brow at him.
“We’re gonna dock in about half an hour,” he whispered.
She blinked slowly.
He chuckled. “I’ll try to make it an hour.” His grin became a smile. “Go ahead and keep snuggling.” With another wave, he closed the door; his retreating footsteps were carefully light.
She sighed and closed her eyes a moment. Rose had barely moved in her sleep, legs still drawn up to hold the arm draped around her waist where it was. The most that had changed was that her head had burrowed down into the covers: they had been pulled up at some point and her face was half covered. It was typically how Kanaya found her upon waking, and she smiled to see it then. She curled her hand up, keeping it beneath the covers, to stroke her face. With the backs of her fingers, she felt the softness of Rose’s skin.
Rose mumbled quietly, shifting to hide her face further. Kanaya couldn’t help the small chuckle that left her mouth. She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear and smoothed the line of her brow. She tipped her head down to touch her lips to Rose’s neck.
“If you’re awake now, you’ll have to speak clearly.”
Her voice was muffled when she mumbled, “I’ve neither the desire to be awake, nor to speak clearly.”
“And you’re adorable.”
“How does that segue from what I said?”
“It doesn’t, admittedly.” She kissed her cheek. “But it’s still very true. I thought I’d share.”
She opened one eye, turning her head slightly. “Why are we awake?”
“John came to tell us that we’re going to dock soon.”
“That’s a terrible reason.”
“At least it was John who came to tell us, as opposed to Vriska.”
“Point.” She let out a long sigh, closing her eye and dropping her head back to the mats. “How much long can we stay here?”
“He said he could stall for an hour or so.” She returned her hand to Rose’s chest, pulling her closer. “I’m surprised. You’re usually very quick to rise after waking.”
“Seeing as this is the first time I’ve slept and not had nightmares in weeks—without the aid of sopor—I’m disinclined to get up.” She sighed again, turning her head this way and that to try and hide under the covers. “You’re holding me when we sleep from now on.”
“Gladly.” She squeezed her around the waist. “Would you like to go back to sleep?”
“I won’t be able to. Besides, lying right here is good.” A pause. “We should probably discuss what we’re going to do once we’re in the city. I vote for leaving Serket in a grimy alley somewhere and absconding as fast as we can.”
Kanaya chuckled. “That’s not going to do anyone any good. And I think John would be upset.”
Rose sighed loudly through her nose. “I don’t understand why they insisted upon coming with us.”
“John said it’s because he doesn’t want to abandon us.”
Her voice was flat when she muttered, “How sweet of him.”
“He’s rather chivalrous.”
“An excellent example of a goodhearted and sentimental person. If he wasn’t my friend, I’d probably be truly aggravated. As it stands, I’m only annoyed. More with Serket.”
She laughed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had a black infatuation.”
“She pisses me off. I’m not attracted, and I’m not interested in anyone but you.”
“Flattery is very becoming of you.”
She nuzzled against Rose’s hair. “We’ve come here for information on Noir, correct?”
“How are we going to find it?”
“Information dealers. They’re always willing to sell rumors.”
“People buy and sell rumors?”
“Careful, Kanaya. Your rural roots are showing.”
She poked Rose hard in the chest.
“Ow.” She reached up and caught Kanaya’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “Yes, information is a commodity. How do you think I came to your town in the first place?”
“You had said it was a rumor.”
“Correct. We’re here now to find a dealer. Hopefully, if the royal trolls are starting to be interested in Noir, there’ll be information for sale.”
“And how are we to find these dealers?”
“Look for extremely shady individuals. I’ve found slavers are often aware of every kind of dealer in large cities.” A long pause; a deep breath and exhale. She extracted herself from Kanaya’s arms slowly and rolled over quickly. Letting out another deep breath, she put her head beneath her chin, folding her arms between them to rest her hands at the center of Kanaya’s chest. “I really don’t want to get up. This is very comfortable.”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for cuddling.”
“You didn’t peg me as a lover of women, so I’d say we’re even at this point.”
“I was misinformed about standard romantic human relationships.”
“John, despite his adoration of women, is not exactly the best person to consult on matters of human romance and sexual preferences, let alone those of his friends.”
“I see.” She moved her hands, putting one in Rose’s hair and the other on the small of her back. “May I ask you something?”
“You called John an example of a sentimental person. Why is that?”
“Recall what I said about the piano on deck being the one that he and his father created shortly after our arrival. The fact that he shrinks it to fit in his bag shows that he is loathe to discard it.”
“But the same could be said of your hat, given how you’re rather protective of it.”
“How did you come to have that hat?”
A pause. “It was a present from my mother. She gave it to me, and then presented me with Maplehoof. That was about a year—half a sweep—before we attempted my alchemy.”
“You’ve had that hat for over three sweeps? Are all your clothes that old?”
“I stopped growing around that time, so it’s not like I’ve necessarily needed new clothing.”
“I’m astonished they haven’t dissolved by now.”
“I patch everything with alchemy.”
“That’s what you do when you check your clothing every night? I suppose that’s why I’ve never seen an inch of wear or damage on that scarf of yours. You spend more time inspecting it than anything else.”
A long pause came and went. Her voice was very quiet when she said, “Actually, that’s because it was my mother’s scarf. I took it from her things after she was killed.”
Kanaya had no words to give in response. She chose to hold Rose closer and kissed the top of her head. The breath that washed against her throat was warm; it was steady. With slow strokes of her fingers, she combed her hair. “When we have a moment, remind me to make something for you.”
“Surely we’ll have some kind of free time together in the future where we aren’t on gamblignant ships or hunting down alchemic demons. When we have a moment, I’d like to make something for you.” She hummed, smiling. “I think you’d look beautiful in a dress.”
“I haven’t worn one since being cast from Earth.”
“All the more reason to make one for you.”
There was a small inhale, as if preparing for an argument. Then Rose let out a small sigh and pressed a kiss to Kanaya’s throat. “All right. If the promise of making me play dress-up in the future makes you happy, then I acquiesce.”
“I’ll start sketching the designs.”
“That would require getting up.”
She rolled them over, kneeling up over Rose. Still smiling, she brushed the tousled hair from her face and tucked her fingers beneath her ear. “Later, then.”
There had been a chuckle building in Rose’s throat, but the abrupt banging on the door murdered it. Her hand flew out from beneath the covers; a needle appeared in her fingers to let her flick lightning at the door. The metal of the doorknob shifted, and the lock clicked shut just as the door’s assailant attempted to complete their attack by flinging it open. The knob rattled a few times before another bang, much lower on the wood, rang out.
“Oh ha ha, alchemist!” Vriska barked through the door. “John’s pulled that trick before! Get out of your rest sack and haul Fussyfangs out of her recuperacoon! We’re gonna disembark soon, and I don’t feel like kicking a hole in a door on my ship to make yoooooooour scrawny ass get off!” There were more banging noises after that, but only those created by feet stomping away.
“I see John was unable to stall his captain for us,” Rose muttered.
“He did what he could.” She sighed, moving to rise. “All right, I suppose we should get up before she returns and really does kick a hole in the door.”
She caught Kanaya’s face in her hands, holding her still. She leaned up and kissed her, slow and deep. When they parted, she smiled and stroked at the hair that had fallen before Kanaya’s eyes. “Remind me of this when we stop for the day. I believe we promised something before that I would like to fulfill.”
Chuckling, she murmured, “Of course,” and kissed her.
Standing just off the docks, they all stared at one another. John had a black hat on his head and had pulled a blue scarf over his face at Rose’s insistence; she wore her usual ensemble to match. While Kanaya stood in simplicity, black blouse emblazoned with her color and sign and vivid red skirt, Vriska posed in her extravagant long coat and black trousers. Maplehoof was in their midst, entirely incognizant of the argument quietly building between human and troll.
“If I don’t get to ride the hoofbeast, no one gets to.”
“You do understand that we’re not on your Godforsaken ship and you have no call to order me around, yes?”
Vriska chuckled, hand drifting toward her temple. “Hey, I can still make you do whatever I want.”
John caught her hand and brought it back down to her side. “Vriska.”
“Oh come on! She’s asking for it!”
“I told you about using the Mindgrip on Rosie. It’s only been ten minutes since we got on land. Can we please try to get along?”
“Okay, here. Vriska, you scared the hell out of Maplehoof back when we met Rosie and Miss Kanaya. She probably won’t let you ride her. Rosie, it’s been almost two weeks since Maplehoof really got to walk around. If you ride, it’ll probably make her tired pretty fast. So the best thing to do is just lead her and let her get used to land again. Okay?”
Kanaya poked Rose in the ribs; John poked Vriska in the back. They both jumped and frowned at their respective attackers. For another thirty seconds, the silence persisted.
“Fiiiiiiiine,” Vriska grumbled.
“All right,” Rose sighed. Kanaya smiled at her for it.
Grinning, John clapped his hands together once before taking hold of Maplehoof’s reins. “Great! So where should we go first?”
“The seediest part of the city,” Rose replied.
He grimaced. “Rosie, Miss Kanaya’s in a pretty dress.”
“I am entirely aware of this.”
“Why do you want to take your nicely dressed squeeze to the wrong side of town? It’s ungentlemanly.”
She sighed. “Gallantry aside, we’re looking for people that have information on Noir. Short of kidnapping and interrogating highbloods, our best bet is to walk into a lesser hell.”
A long groan left him as he put his hand to his forehead. “Rosie, you are terrible.”
“I’m all for the grab and grill plan,” Vriska said. “Waaaaaaaay more fun than going and looking for that dumbass lowblood dealer.”
“‘That’ dealer?” Kanaya asked. “Are you saying you already know someone who deals in information?”
She rolled her eyes, crossing her arms. “Well, duh. Why else would I bring us all the way here if I was gonna make us run around?”
“You just said that trying to kidnap a highblood would be fun,” Rose said.
“Compared to trying to get on this guy’s good side, it would be a hell of a lot of fun.” She smirked, elbowing John gently. “Bet we could scare them so bad they’d piss themselves.”
“I don’t really want to scare people, Vriska.”
She paused, looking up in thought. “What if you think of it like you’re pulling a prank?”
“Kidnapping someone hardly sounds like a prank,” Rose said.
Vriska laughed, throwing back her head to let out eight sharp barks. “On Alternia it is, little alchemist!”
Rose put her face in her hands, shaking her head.
Kanaya took one of her hands away and smiled, raising a brow. Still holding her hand, she turned to Vriska. “Let’s assume, for the time being, that japery is a less desirable form of action. Who is this informant that you know, and where can we find him?”
Her gaze drifted to their hands. For a long while, she looked at their fingers, the way Kanaya had enfolded Rose’s in her own. Eventually, she shrugged. “The bad part of town, of course. It’s where all the little lowbloods live anyway, so it makes sense that a mustard-blooded psychic freak would be there.”
“Doesn’t your having the Mindgrip place you among those ‘psychic freaks’? And if you’re so obsessed with your blood status, why do you know a lowblood in the first place?”
“Rosie, be nice.”
“Look, whatever,” Vriska said. She shrugged one shoulder, waving the hand of the other in the air dismissively. “I ran around with eeeeeeeeveryone in the city when I was a little wriggler. Captor just wound up being the most interesting when we got older, and he’s always got his nose in some kind of information a lowblood shouldn’t. If we want to be boring and get info from someone without tying them up and threatening them, then we can go find him.”
The grin returned to John’s face. “Great! Lead the way, captain!”
After a moment, she reached up and, smiling, pinched his cheek through the scarf. She started away with a crook of her fingers over her shoulder, and the others followed. The streets were navigated as well as they could be, given the vast traffic conducted within them. Trolls of all builds moved here and there, bickering loudly between themselves, bartering louder at warestalls, and barking loudest as they tried to move around each other. Vriska turned aside those lower on the hemospectrum with the Mindgrip, and aimed kicks at those who could not be grasped when they did not move out of her way. John did his best to reach his long arm out and push the offenders to one side before they garnered boot marks on their shins.
Theirs was a makeshift chorus line with Vriska at the front and center of things. John walked near her right side; Kanaya and Rose trailed only slightly at her left. As their line was forced to shift in accordance with the winding road, Kanaya was reminded of a small fact: Rose hadn’t let go of her hand. The streets grew narrower, the occupants quieter, and the stones beneath their feet grimier; the grip around her fingers tightened. Though she herself glanced down at their hands every so often, Rose did no such checking; she simply held tight.
Vriska made them halt in front of a tall building, its surface peppered with many windows and pock marks of indeterminable origin. She faltered, crossing her arms and tapping at her biceps with her thumbs. “Aw, Jegus, where the hell did he wind up in this stupid hive stem again?”
“You don’t know what respiteblock he lives in?” Kanaya asked.
“Hey, I haven’t actually needed to get into cahoots with him for over a sweep. And the last time I came around, he accidentally ate some mind honey and blasted a big chunk out of this place. Killed a few trolls and nearly took my arm off.”
Rose lifted a brow. “‘Mind honey’?”
Vriska ignored her to uncross her arms and wave her hands over her head briefly. “Whatever.” She looked about a moment before striding forward and lifting a hand to her temple. A troll with cross-shaped horns halted in his exit from the hive stem and swung about to face her. “Do you know a guy named Sollux Captor?”
She jerked a thumb at the building. “He lives here, right?”
“Second floor up, twenty second respiteblock.”
“Is he here right now?”
“Good boy.” She released him and shoved him aside. Once Maplehoof had been tethered to an alchemized post and the three others joined her, she shook her head and muttered, “Him and his Gog damn twos.”
Even in their ascent, Kanaya could not help but notice the complete lack of her hand being released. Though Rose strode up the stairs ahead of her, she let her hand trail behind to keep hold. Once, she glanced back. Kanaya smiled and was able to see the tiny change of her gaze to know the smile was returned.
The moment they arrived, Vriska knocked by way of kicking the metal door. “Captor! I know you’re in there! I want to buy some rumors!”
She kicked the door eight times in rapid succession; Kanaya thought she saw a ding form in the metal. “Caaaaaaaaptor! Open your stupid door and talk to me already!”
Rather suddenly, the door swung open. A man of height between Vriska and Kanaya stood there in a plain black shirt, short sleeved and baring a mustard colored Gemini sigil. His four horns swept up in gentle curves to the sides, sharply pointed at their tips. He looked at them from behind glasses with opaque red and blue lenses, and the top row of his fangs jutted out over his lip. With a faint trace of a lisp in his voice, he said, “What the fuck do you want, Serket?”
She grinned. “Information, Captor! What else?”
“What, this isn’t a friendly visit or something?”
A pause. “Are you serious?”
“No. Like I expected Spider-Bitch to drop in on me for a visit.” He tipped his head to one side and lifted a brow over his glasses. “Other than her, these are the freak brigandrifts, right?”
She faltered, lips parting. “No, these are members of my crew.”
He pointed past her shoulder. “I’m not stupid, Serket. They don’t have horns and they’ve got pale skin and shit. I figured they’d be with you if you ever came to buy any time soon.”
In the silence of Vriska’s mind failing to provide words, Rose stepped forward. “Why would you figure that?”
“Look, unless you’ve got a lot of boondollars on you, you’re not getting more information than what you probably really want.” He glanced up and down the hallway. “Get in here before you draw a crowd. And don’t bother the bees.” They followed his first order before fully considering the second. Once he had closed the door behind them, a faint buzzing drone suffused the quiet.
“I can’t believe you still mess with bees,” Vriska said.
“The honey keeps my lusus quiet, and their structures contain my info in coded form.” He moved into a room further inside; through the door, he could be seen closing the shutters of the windows. When he returned, he put his hands in his pockets and dropped his voice into casualness. “So you guys want to know about Jack Noir, right?”
“Why do you know that name?” Rose asked. Her scarf was suddenly tugged down her face by nothing, and she could not pull it back up. She stared at Sollux, at the single hand he had lifted and the red and blue energy flickering purple around his fingers.
“Same way I know you’re not a troll.” He shrugged. “Info broker.”
“Where did you get that information?” she asked.
“I don’t like having buyers in here too long, so we’re not going to haggle. You get one chunk of info and get out. You want more, you come back some other time.”
“That seems a terribly inefficient business model,” Kanaya said.
He looked at her; his withering stare was obvious through the glasses. “I’m still running my business.”
John stepped forward, pulling down his scarf and lifting his hands to placate. “Okay, okay. We did come here to get info on Noir, so let’s cut a deal.”
“Two hundred boondollars.”
He looked at Sollux’s outstretched hand blankly.
“You and your fucking twos,” Vriska muttered.
“And you and your fucking eights, Serket. Are you paying or not?”
“Fine,” Rose said. She took her bag from her back and reached inside. In short order, she produced two crisp bills of many colors and put them in his hand. “Tell us everything you know about Noir.”
“Well,” he said, looking closely at the bills and the way their ink shifted in the light, “the highbloods are pretty interested in him. Rumor has it that he’s killed at least ten highbloods—nearly indigo blood—and a shit ton of everyone below that.” He pocketed the money. “Now, a while ago, people thought he was just some wild lusus or beast or something. Royals were pissed that some of their own were dead, and they took it out on the lowbloods. Lots of new slaves made outta whoever didn’t get slaughtered over it.”
John scowled. “But it’s obvious it’s not any troll’s fault.”
He lifted a brow. “You think everyone doesn’t know that at this point? He fuckin’ fills the streets with blood wherever he goes. Not even the subjugglators do that, but they’re always looking for new paint.”
“Have you heard where he is now?” Rose asked.
“The last anyone really heard was that he had leveled some dumpy town in the desert.” His head turned slightly toward Kanaya; he sighed and shrugged, rolling his head to rake his eyes along the ceiling. “But it looks like he went underground or something. No one’s got any new rumors on his movements, but I think there’s been some killing somewhere to the north, maybe further west. Either way—”
Rose interrupted him in a quiet voice: “Why did you look at her?”
“I’m not looking to take your matesprit, brigandrift.”
“I didn’t insinuate you were. You looked at her when you spoke of the desert.”
“I’m looking at all of you. You’re all looking for Noir.”
“But there’s no one who knew there were survivors from the desert who wanted to find Noir—except for us.” Her eyes narrowed slowly. “Who are you selling us out to?”
“What? I’m not doing that.”
“Then why look at her like that?”
“Rosie, I think you’re being overprotective of Miss Kanaya.”
“No,” Vriska said. “I don’t like it either.” Her hand moved toward the pocket of her coat. “Why’d you figure they’d be with me?”
“Because you’re always the one in the middle of the newest and fanciest shit storms. Alchemy’s pretty fancy.”
In less than a heartbeat, Rose had drawn a gun and a Thorn; Vriska held her shining set of dice. John needed no prompting to bring out his hammer, and Kanaya only needed an instant to reach into Rose’s bag and take out her chainsaw.
“I made my crew swear to keep alchemy a secret when it wound up being just John and me who could do it,” Vriska said.
Kanaya and Rose started in unison. Kanaya whispered, “John and you?”
“Shut it a minute, Fussyfangs.” Her frown darkened. “And I’m damn sure that these two never told anyone about what Lalonde doing being alchemy. None of my crew would ever sell us out, and there’s no way these two would ever go blabbing about this. How do you know what they’re doing is alchemy?”
He shrugged. “Information broker.”
“Not good enough,” Rose murmured. “Where did you get your information about us?”
“Got any more money in that weird ass bag?”
“Certainly more than enough to pay for the bullets I’m going to put in your skull if you don’t answer me in the next thirty seconds.”
“Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen.”
“You think I can’t just make you not pull the trigger?”
“I might’ve only ever controlled you half the time when we were little, but that was when we were little,” Vriska said.
“Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Nine.”
With a long sigh, he said, “Fine. I got it from—”
A powerful voice rattled through the shutters and the other room: “Sollux Captor.”
He spun about to stare into the room.
Vriska’s mouth dropped open. “Oh holy fuck.”
“We are aware of your current patrons, lowblood. If you do not surrender them to me, I will take this building by strong force.”
“Oh holy fuuuuuuuuck!” Her look of shock vanished; rage filled her face. “You sold us out to Zahhak?”
“No—that’s not what’s going on!”
“You have ten seconds, Captor!”
Vriska opened her mouth to shout an order. Sollux moved first. One hand he thrust upward, toward the wall opposite the room; the concrete shattered and was blasted away clean through to the outside. The other he swept up and closed tight. They were each lifted from their feet. With his empty-handed throw, they were launched through the hole. They landed on the roof of the next building, but not before seeing the hive stem rattle and crack. A deep rumble sounded; the building tilted. Before it collapsed, Sollux flew through the hole and came to hover beside them, surrounded by flickering purple energy.
“Run!” he shouted.
“To fucking where?” Rose shouted in reply.
He opened his mouth, but the building trembled beneath them. He caught them again, flying up and around the next building before bringing them down to the streets. “Get the fuck going! I’ll get to you after you’ve gotten away from him!”
John’s arm shot out to grab him by the collar. “We’re not going anywhere until you tell us why you sold us out!”
“I didn’t sell anyone out, you colossal tool! Pyrope knows you exist, and she wants to hunt you down! Zahhak is just her hunting woofbeast when she can’t use her dragon!”
“Just—just get the hell out of here before he brings down a building on you! I’m going to get us out of this!”
Rose and Vriska opened their mouths to argue, but Kanaya and John caught them by the wrist. They hauled them down different alleyways, sprinting away in a clatter of feet and harsh breathing. Eventually, Rose pulled her hand free; she only pulled up her scarf and did not stop running. They burst onto a busy square, dodging around trolls or simply shoving them aside. There was little more reaction than the rare snarl of a reprimand or a stream of cursing, and they crossed the square with little delay.
In the new labyrinth of alleys, they pulled each other in uneven turns this way and that. They backtracked and zigzagged; they followed straight paths and swerved around sharp angles. Rose glanced backward so often Kanaya was forced to halt her far more than once before she slammed against an obstacle. Behind them, the sounds of shouting grew louder and were swiftly drowned out by more great smashing of stone and roars of Sollux’s name.
Kanaya stumbled. Rose caught her smoothly and stopped their sprint. She looked around before pulling her into a dead-end barred by a high chain-link fence. She pushed Kanaya up against the wall and held her there by the elbows. They panted together in broken rhythm. While Rose bowed her head, Kanaya looked about and swallowed down the muggy air.
“I don’t,” Rose gasped, “I don’t think—no, we’re probably still being followed.”
“It’s impossible—for one troll to track three targets—targets at once.” She swallowed hard, letting her head drop. “Listen. Listen—the shouting is growing quiet.”
Her head lifted slightly. “I can’t hear—much breaking rock.”
“But...now what do we do?”
She did not respond.
“Where do we go? There’s—nowhere we agreed upon meeting if we were ever separated.” She looked toward the fence. “Should we try to get back to the docks?”
“I don’t think Captor would think to go there.”
“But now we have something. Noir may be to the north.”
“May be. We need more information before we—” Her breath caught; her grip weakened. She looked to the way they had come. “Oh my God, Maplehoof. My—my horse, Jesus Christ she’s going to get killed!” She turned to run. When Kanaya caught her elbow, she was naturally jerked back. Her gaze rose; her eyes widened. She spun back about and shoved Kanaya toward the fence as hard as she could.
The wall they had been pressed against exploded with a screech.
Kanaya slammed down on the ground beyond the molten remains of the fence, sliding painfully on her back as shattered bricks fell around her. She fumbled in her rolling over, ears ringing as she pushed herself up to hands and knees. Shaking her head once, she looked back.
Rose was half buried in rubble, hands still holding the Thorns. She was not moving.
Past the muffling quiet of the stone dust, Kanaya heard the strike of boots on the street. She scrambled back to some semblance of standing and rushed back to the rubble. Dropping her chainsaw, dropping to her knees, she snatched at the bricks piled on Rose’s back and began to fling them away. She saw the strange angle that spoke of broken bones in one arm; she saw blood blossoming on the white sleeve. She kept digging.
A voice broke through the dust: “I want the alchemist!”
The bricks were piled high; she could not see Rose’s legs. Her eyes fell upon the Thorns. In fiercest haste, she grabbed Rose’s hand to keep it wrapped around the needle and pulled it back and around to stab at the stone. Nothing happened.
“Whoever the fuck you are, lowblood, you get the hell out of here before I blow your head off!”
She held back the scream that was building in her throat and stabbed the stone again. Nothing. Panic swarmed in her chest. She hit the Thorn against the stone faster and faster. Nothing and more nothing. Her eyes widened. In a breaking whisper, she said, “Just disappear!”
Lightning crackled over the stone, flashing bright green in the new dust of the destroyed bricks. A bolt of blue energy screeched and flashed by, so close to her head she felt the heat on her ear. Scrambling, she pulled the Thorns out of Rose’s hands before grabbing her chainsaw. Both she crammed into the bag on Rose’s back before hauling her bodily into her arms. She ignored the way blood came from her mouth to stain her scarf and sprinted back over the ruined fence and around the nearest corner.
Heavy footfalls began to follow. Another shout of “Lowblood!” echoed along the alley walls. She slipped on a grease slick leaking from garbage receptacles, spinning so she landed on her back. Rose’s head knocked hard enough against the bottom of her chin that she felt her fangs slice her lip. She rolled to one side and got her feet beneath her.
“You fuckin’ lowblood!”
Kanaya did not turn around to face the man who screamed. She bolted down another alleyway, dodging the blast that threatened her legs. More corners were weaved around; more shouts were ignored; more blasts were avoided. Her breathing began to catch in her chest. Glancing back for just an instant, she turned another corner. When she turned back, another fence lay before her. She tried to skid to a halt, but slid on another grease slick. She managed to spin on her heel enough to bear the brunt of their crash on her shoulder. It left her staring back at the way they had come, and she panted. Her legs trembled with weariness and terror alike. She could hear the footfalls drawing closer.
A crack rang out from above. It was not the sound of a gunshot. When she looked up, she saw a feminine figure with long, lush hair and great curling horns standing on the low rooftop with a long whip in hand. She snapped it once more, and the footfalls halted immediately.
“Up here, highblood!” she shouted.
“Where’s the fuckin’ alchemist?” he roared.
A much higher voice rang out with great cheer. “Here I am!”
Another crack; there was a green flash that sped by, and a massive explosion of stone sounded off. If the man made a noise, it was lost in the racket. Behind her, the fence suddenly rattled. She jumped back, turning about. A tall man with a mohawk and enormous horns, spreading out and curving up sharply, stood there. Grimacing, he tightened his grip on the fence and pulled. The bolts holding it to the walls creaked. He relented a moment, took a deep breath, and heaved. The fence broke away, and he threw it aside.
“Come on!” he said.
More noise behind her made Kanaya whirl about once again. The troll from above had jumped down; a human woman with long black hair and a rifle came about the corner. At the sight of Rose, the woman faltered and a pained grimace came to her face.
The troll woman caught her shoulder and shook. “We’ve gotta go!”
She swallowed and nodded once. She dropped the rifle; it disappeared. Kanaya took a step back, eyes widening. When the man touched her shoulder, she jerked away and put her back to one wall. She bent at the waist, holding Rose closer, tighter.
“We’re here to help!” the human said. She pointed past the man. “Come on, this way!”
Kanaya frowned. Rose’s breath was slow against her throat. She felt heat spreading through her blouse where her broken arm was pressed between them.
She glanced down at Rose’s face. Her skin was ashen.
“Miss Kanaya, please!”
She started, looking up at the woman. There was pleading in her eyes behind her round glasses, and skittishness in her gaze when she looked to the side.
“We don’t have time to argue about this,” the troll woman snapped. She surged forth, pushing the human with one hand and Kanaya with the other. The man caught Kanaya when she stumbled, steadying her and guiding her forward. When the human ran ahead, Kanaya hesitated for only a moment before following.
The alleyways were slipped through, but abruptly abandoned at the turn of a corner. They came to a stop before a small, dingy bar, and the human threw open the door; she remained to slam it closed behind them. They dashed through a deserted main room and past the bar. The next room seemed another dead end, but the man stood on his toes to pound a fist on one of the bricks. The wall slid aside with noisy grinding to reveal a door. The troll woman pulled the door open and ushered Kanaya inside.
A staircase carved into the stone stretched down into the ground, winding until it was lost to sight. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, glowing brightly. The man took point, hurrying carefully down the stairs with the human behind him, Kanaya behind her, and the troll at the end of the line. They made their way down, down, down so deep Kanaya could feel the deep chill of the stone seeping into her skin. Eventually, they arrived at another door, crafted of metal with a slat at eye level. The man bent slightly after knocking firmly.
The slat slid open to show muddy eyes. “Who cried the Vast Expletive while bound in irons?”
“The Signless Sufferer, preacher of a united and equal hemospectrum,” the man replied.
The door squealed when it opened to reveal a small, smiling woman. “Welcome back, Tavros.” She stepped aside to let them pass. When Kanaya walked through the door, she stared.
A cavern lay before her, stretching wide and deep. More lanterns hung here and there, casting light down upon the trolls gathered within. There were clusters scattered about: bent over tables; examining maps affixed to the walls; or simply talking fervently amongst themselves.
“Oh holy hell—Rosie!”
A man with blood smeared all down his face was standing before her, skin pale and damp with sweat where the blood did not sit. Kanaya retreated when he reached a hand toward Rose. Heart still pounding, she could only think to bare her teeth at him. Slowly, he lifted his hands.
“Calm down, Miss Kanaya,” he murmured. “It’s me. It’s John. I’m not going to hurt her.”
The human woman moved to stand at his side. They were greatly disparate in height, but she felt the need to look back and forth between their faces. They were befuddling in their near identicalness, and she stared. The woman said, “It’s okay. I promise we won’t hurt her—we’re going to help. Here, we should put her down.” She gently touched Kanaya’s hand. “Come on. You’re really worried about her, right? You’re worried and scared, and that’s okay. Let’s put her down. Then me and John can start patching her up.”
Kanaya breathed. Slowly, she nodded. John and the woman led her to a table, swiftly vacated by its prior owners. She set Rose carefully upon its surface. Gingerly, she pulled the scarf from her face and took the hat from her head. Almost as an afterthought, she shuffled the bag from her shoulder. She stared at the break in her arm and the dust coating her clothing. Standing by, she watched as John and the woman moved in on opposite sides of the table and laid their hands on Rose. In a daze, she stared as they started to examine her. A great desire to pull them away filled her, and she stepped forward to do so.
A hand closed on her wrist. It pulled her back and turned her around. For a moment, she did not recognize who stood before her. Even the growling sigh did not fully register. It took the man’s words to reach her.
“Gog fucking dammit, Kanaya. You told me you weren’t going to go on a ridiculous fucking adventure with this witch-bitch. Now look what you’re getting into. You make me look like a complete nooksucking waste of a moirail.”
Kanaya wrapped her arms around Karkat as tightly as she could. She put her face against his shoulder when he returned the hug.