You are the Disciple, and your name is irrelevant. The air is steadily growing warmer, but the sun won't rise. It's the wrong season for that.
You roll over onto your back, relishing the feel of the soft grass beneath you. To your left, the rest of your clade is busy cleaning up after a sermon.
"Di! Get your lazy ass up and help us!"
You sit up and stick your tongue out at your sometimes-pale-sometimes-ash-mate, but he merely blinks lazily at you. You love all of them in a way you hadn't thought possible, because your beloved saved you and Rosa nurtured you and the Psiioniic completed you.
You get up and make a show of dusting dirt from your leggings, making sure that he knows you're taking your time on purpose. He lets out a string of expletives and the Dolorosa says automatically, "Language, dear."
The Psiioniic groans loudly and you snort with laughter. "Yes, Mituna! Watch your fucking language!"
The Dolorosa raises her eyebrows at you and you flash a smile at her. Before she can say anything, the Signless' voice comes from across the clearing. "Did anybody else hear that?"
You tilt your head, listening, but you hear nothing but the breeze. Rosa's hand falls to her side, where she can grab her knife fastest, but you can see from her expression that she doesn't hear anything as well.
After a long silence, the Psiioniic comments, "Yes, that was weird of you."
The Signless makes a face at him and starts walking over. "It sounded like some kind of anim—"
But then he stops.
You nearly screech because there's suddenly another troll there. In retrospect, you'd seen her drop from the trees, but in the moment your mind is half-convinced that she'd just appeared from thin air. Your attention is grabbed immediately by the blades in her hands. The one in her right hand is long and elegant, topped by a dragon head. The second is short and sharp and pressed casually against your beloved's skull.
You drop into a fighting stance, lips drawing back into a snarl, and the Dolorosa flicks her dagger out, her skin glowing moon-pale. The air is suddenly thick with electricity and red and blue sparks flicker around Psii's eyes and hands. They jump to his double horns and arc between them, but he's completely still.
The troll is almost as bony as Psii, but she radiates danger. Her bones are wrapped in muscles pulled taut and she stands like a predator, feet evenly placed apart and head tilted. Everything about her is pointy: her chin, her elbows, her glasses. What makes your blood run cold is her uniform: teal, black, and violent red.
Fuck. She's a legislacerator.
Not one of you move, but you can see the same question running through your clade-mates' heads. Your first instinct is to tackle her, but legislacerators are fast. She'd slice your beloved's throat before you would even have left the ground, and you know that even the Psiioniic won't be able to move fast enough.
You fear subjugglators for their brute strength and savageness, but legislacerators terrify you. Any living troll would do well to stay away from them; they're killing machines, more refined than clowns, more dangerous than drones, and more efficient than seadwellers. Only a tenth of their recruits survive to adulthood, and only a tenth of those survive their first sweep in the Bar.
She smiles, a crescent-moon smile with sharp teeth and wild, unrestrained joy. "Pleasure to make your acquaintances!" she declares. Her voice is grating, rough and delighted. "Please put all of your weapons in a pile over there!" She jerks her head in Rosa's general direction, and Rosa's skin flares bright.
None of you move, and she casually flicks her dagger. It draws a narrow score along your beloved's collarbone, and you snarl. Goddamn him, he's completely calm. His expression is only mildly confused, and his eyes meet yours. You know immediately that he knows it’s a lacerator, and you also know that he'll want you to run.
Goddamn him. Of course he'll want you to run.
The legislacerator's smile is still bright, and she draws the long sword around so that it lies across his shoulders. "You might want to do what I say. I can't promise that I'll be as careful next time!"
"Go to hell!" the Psiioniic hisses, low and angry, and you see a flash of red and blue out of the corner of your eye.
She calmly presses the point of her short dagger behind your beloved's ear and you want to scream. "Hmm. I'll get there eventually, but not for a very long while. Now! Please put your weapons in a pile."
Rosa gives first, throwing her dagger aside. You're more hesitant, still wondering how quickly you'd have to move to take her out before she can hurt your Signless.
She says sharply, "I am more than happy to have my dragon raze this forest if you don't comply! I'm sure that not all of your followers have made it out yet."
You let out a growl and toss your claws away, frustrated beyond belief. But your beloved's brow furrows and he asks, "Your lusus?"
The legislacerator tilts her head in his direction. "Yes. Believe me, I am more than capable of killing you and escaping with my life! Please stop sparking, Firecracker."
Indignation flashes across Psii's face, but he does take a trembling breath. The sparking diminishes, but doesn't vanish. You look at Rosa, asking if a dragon lusus is even possible. From her wary expression, it is.
Your beloved looks like he's trying to puzzle something out and you hope to god that he's able to talk her down. Suddenly, his expression clears and he says triumphantly, "Latula!"
The legislacerator falls completely still, but her knuckles go white around her blades. Voice now frosty, she orders, "You're going to tell me how you know my hatchname. Now."
You look blankly at your beloved, because there's only one reason that he'd know her name; it's the same reason he knew yours, and Rosa's, and Psii's. Your blood-pusher starts to pump, because everybody you've ever met from his visions have somehow changed all of your lives. There's a reason, you know it. You know, somehow, that all twelve of you are destined to change Alternia.
Your beloved begins to talk, his voice level and gentle. "You're Latula Pyrope, aren't you? Did they send you to bring us in? You must have known they were sending you to your death. There's no way a single legislacerator could take down a dangerous heretic, a powerful psion, a rainbow drinker, and the girl who was once the Church's finest."
The legislacerator's face pales and she hisses, "You underestimate me."
But your beloved shakes his head. "I promise you that I don't. You're powerful, and you're so certain of yourself. You have been ever since you were a wiggler. How could you not, with a dragon for a lusus and such a determination to succeed?"
You have no idea what he's talking about and you hope desperately that he does. Both the Dolorosa and the Psiioniic are watching him, but you're watching the legislacerator. Lacerators work with the Mirthful Church. They serve as the lightning to the clowns' thunder, accurate and deadly and precise. But she's young, you realize with a start. She's younger than you, for all that her veins run with teal. She's only in training, but her skill far surpasses her age.
There's only one reason the subjugglators would send such a skilled student on a suicide mission: they're testing her. They're testing her will, her ability to survive, to endure, and to struggle. They're testing to see whether she'll accept failure or death, or whether she'll miraculously succeed.
The legislacerator hasn't backed off, but she hasn't killed him yet, so that's good. Her expression is puzzled now. "You haven't told me how you know all this."
His eyes find yours and you know it's your turn to talk. You can't talk as nicely as him, but you can get your point across quicker. "You're his new favorite, aren't you?"
Her eyes snap to yours, their color indistinguishable behind her glasses. "What are you talking about?" There's clear hostility in her voice. She knows of the Signless and his visions. Few don't, and she must have read his files before coming after him. But you? You're ordinary. You're not psychic in the slightest.
You bare your fangs in a smile at her. You'd been in her position once, the Grand Highblood's star pupil. "He did the same thing to me. Sent me on a hunt I wasn't ready for. I almost died."
She shakes her head. "You were a wiggler." She's right of course. You hadn't had the easy danger she already has, but at least she's listening.
The Signless says gently, "We don't want to hurt you." Psii snorts at that and you have to mask your own skeptical look. Your beloved glares at both of you and quickly adds, "I promise that we won't. But you don't have to hurt us either. The Grand Highblood—"
You snarl at the name and the legislacerator's eyes snap to you. She says coolly, "Stop. I've decided I don't care. I'm bringing you in! I don't need all of you alive. You—" She nods at Psii. "Tie the other two up."
The Psiioniic looks insulted that she thinks he would listen, but then your beloved throws his head back. She hadn't been expecting that, and she cries out as his skull connects with her nose. Psii seizes the opportunity and wraps his psionics around her, pinning her to the ground. You snatch your claws and race over, rolling her onto her back and jabbing the claws against her neck. Her glasses lie in the grass next to her, and her eyes are wild with anger and fear. All of her careful ease is gone, and suddenly all you see is a wiggler in a legislacerator's uniform. "How old are you?" you ask, startled.
She bares her fangs at you and the rest of your clade as they gather around. Rosa confiscates her blades. She looks reluctant to forgive anybody who threatens her children, but she'll default to Kanny's judgement.
The Signless examines Latula's face, his brow furrowed. "Sorry about that, but I couldn't risk you hurting my friends."
She shoots a glare at him. "Either kill me or release me."
You repeat the question. "How old are you?"
She shoots you a glare wrapped in fear. "Nine. Almost ten."
The Dolorosa murmurs, "Poor child."
She flashes her teeth again and snarls, "Either kill me or release me!"
Psii snorts. "After what you did?"
But your beloved says, voice quiet and powerful, "Let her up."
You shoot him your best are you fucking kidding me look, but his expression is deadly serious. Making a show of your reluctance, you get off her. Psii releases her and she scrambles to her feet, snatching her glasses and placing them gingerly atop her bleeding nose.
"Don't go." Your beloved's voice is still quiet. "Don't you want to hear how I know you?"
Behind her glasses, her eyes flash from Rosa to him, clearly wondering if she can grab her swords. But Rosa's fangs are long and even a legislacerator will think twice before attacking a rainbow drinker.
"Latula," your beloved murmurs, "you can trust us."
And so she sits down, and your beloved tells her of his dreams, of his aspirations, of his beliefs.
She leaves with a promise to return, and you feel sorry. You quietly go after her, alone. She stops and doesn't turn. "I know you're there."
You step out from the trees and shrug. "I know."
She looks back, wary despite everything that she'd learned. "I promised not to turn you in."
Again, you shrug. "I don't care about that. We've dealt with subjugglators before." You fix your eyes on hers, trying to show her how earnest you're being. "I do care about you, because you're one of us now."
Her expression warms slightly at that, and you think quietly that she's never been part of an us before.
You continue, "If you ever need out, just tell us. We'll come get you."
She laughs, sharp and bitter. "I'm not like you! I'll survive."
You shrug, because she's right. You'd been just six when the Grand Highblood sent you to die. But you also know that while Latula might survive, she will never be the same. She will become a corrupted, power hungry person doomed to fail.
She falls silent, and you know that she knows the danger that she's in. She knows that she walks the fine line between justice and death, and you know she thinks she can survive. Quietly, she says, "Thank you, however. I'll keep that in mind."
You nod. "That's all I asked."
But then she nods, and you suddenly see the terrifying legislacerator you'd seen earlier.
And then she's gone, vanished into the trees without even leaving a trace.
Rosa saved your beloved, who in turn saved you and Psii. You're determined to save Latula Pyrope, to protect her from the cancerous blackness of the Mirthful Church.
You only hope you can.