Rule No+. 1: Avo+id tall grass and brush
You first encounter Kankri when he bites your ankle.
“Ow,” you say, because this seems like the most appropriate response to anonymous teeth in your body parts. There’s always the slim chance whoever is attempting to eat you will be filled with contrition and desist. “Let go, please.”
Your appeal to the sympathetic tendencies of your would-be devourer does not work. It hardly ever does.
You shake your foot a little, rustling the brush, but whatever wiggler has found its way into the thick vegetation just outside the brooding caverns remains steadfastly attached to your ankle. You are going to have such a welt. Gritting your teeth, you hike up your skirts and return to wading through the clinging vegetation. You know better, you really do, but you’d dallied in the sunlight until nightbreak caught you with your errand still half complete. You suppose this is your just desserts for taking shortcuts.
…Wigglers are so very hard to pry off once they latch onto a blood meal.
You tamp down on the small, utterly ridiculous urge to flail and jump around a lot until there is not a largeish parasite attached to your leg. It would not be helpful and you have had more time to acclimatize yourself to the reality of wigglers than most trolls. There is no need for nerves and squeamishness. They are just a perfectly natural part of the cycle of life. They are future people, you remind yourself. Future people who need a lot of energy to pupate and are very hungry. Very, very hungry.
Yes, this line of thought is definitely not helping. You remind yourself that wigglers pose no real danger to a troll that is not foolishly incapacitated and also that you have no room to judge. You, yourself, enjoy a small blood meal from time to time. It brightens you right up. And in these sweeps since you joined your rainbowdrinker cohorts, tending the Mother Grub in the darkest recesses of the brooding caverns, you have sometimes felt so alienated from the outside world. Set apart. Changed. The wigglers and their sanguinary appetites remind you that you are also still just a perfectly natural part of the cycle of life. In a way, you feel quite grateful to your tiny bloodsucking kin. Close, even.
There is, you reflect, such a thing as too close. You dig out one of your narrower boning knives, the one you use for cutting seams sometimes. Maybe you can lever the damn thing loose by the jaws. Maybe you will just stab things.
Kicking your way free of the last grasping tendrils of stickerbrush, you look down at the grub gnawing on your ankle. The bright red grub. The very, unnaturally bright red grub.
“Oh, you are just determined to complicate my life, aren’t you?”
Rule No+. 2: Wear appro+priate clo+thes and co+lo+rs
It takes some time to pry the wiggler’s round, sucking mouth loose from your ankle and you absolutely do not dwell on how disturbing the experience is or the need to get it off off off ICK AGH it is sucking your blood RIGHT NOW. After all, it would take hours and hours before you weakened so much from blood loss that you could no longer remove it.
Fortunately, the grub’s teeth seem to be rather short and blunt. In the short time it’s been on you (trying to eat you aaaaah), it has hardly done more than raise a ring of jade green bruises, small droplets of blood beading on your skin where the fangs worked their way deepest. You suppose it would have gnawed its way through to a cartilaginous blood tube eventually. This wiggler seems determined to make up for what it lacks in teeth with sheer bloody-minded tenacity.
Also, it squeaks every time you touch it and that’s really quite disconcerting.
You peel another two tarsal claws free from the strap of your sandal. They immediately become entangled in your skirt. A red carapaced abdomen, still sleek and flat, curves around the back of your calf, bracing against your efforts as you tug on two more claws. The wiggler squeaks like an angry tin whistle. It clings to your ankle and every graspable item in the vicinity with all six legs, unwilling to be separated from its potential host and blood supply.
“I am not your lusus,” you tell the wiggler. “Find a blood meal somewhere else.”
Big, too bright eyes look up at you, the protective lenses flicking briefly across that expanse of red. Its attention turns back to your ankle. The moons aren’t out tonight and in the darkness you are bioluminescing to quite a brilliant white.
“Appearances not withstanding.”
You sigh, and wonder again why you put yourself in these situations. You also wonder why you are taking all this trouble over a mutant wiggler shortly destined for the culling fork.
With a grimace, you return to carefully trying to pick its claws free from your hem. Oh well. It’s only a little more effort. And you’d hate to get blood on your skirt.
The grub bites you again.
You can’t really swear to anything that happens in the ensuing few moments, but it is possible you shriek, and possible you fall over flailing, and possible you briefly indulge in a fit of mad flapping and atavistic aversion reactions. There is a wiggler on your leg and it won’t come off.
Eventually, you have satisfied your baser instincts and you are sufficiently calm to re-approach the problem with your full thinkpan engaged. You believe it is time to stop working at cross-purposes with the wiggler’s natural instincts to grasp and cling. Methodically, you begin transferring the grub’s entanglement to your skirt, a limb at a time. When you finish, you still have a blood-sucking parasite slash larval person hugging doggedly to your leg, but it is now on the outside of the fabric. You will take what compromises you can get.
You attempt a stare down with the small creature hanging from your leg. “You do realize I have other things to do with my night?”
“skreeee,” the wiggler says, pricking its anchoring claws through your skirt.
You grimace again and look around for your carry packs, which you may have dropped back in the brush when the wiggler bit you. You appear to have lost them.
The wiggler starts a determined climb up your person, claw over claw.
Rule No+. 3: Learn to+ identify varieties which po+se the greatest risk
It’s a nice night out. A nice night in which you are plagued by parasites, but what can you do?
“Let’s look at this practically,” you say to the wiggler, as you pick your steps carefully by the glow from your sandaled feet. “I would really be doing you a kindness to cull you.”
The grub emits an inscrutable squeak, somewhat muffled by the layers of cloth you have swaddled it in. Those layers represent a substantial portion of what was formerly one of your favorite skirts, but you’ve reconciled yourself to the sacrifice. Clean up the hems, neaten the slit now running up to your hip, and you are confident you can rock the abbreviated length as if you designed it that way in the first place.
You’re heading down the path to the drop site, gravel crunching under your feet, stars wheeling high in the sky. You have at least two more supply runs left to complete, a cranky mutant wiggler bundled up in a sling on your chest, and you are hashing your way through a sudden attack of moral… indecision.
“No, truly. Hemotype mutation means you’ll never find a lusus to host you or collect suitable host-prey for you. You’ll starve slowly. Or you’ll try to pupate without a sufficient blood reservoir and get stuck halfway through. Or you’ll get desperate and attack something far too dangerous for you that you probably can’t digest anyway.” And starving grubs, mutant grubs, can, themselves, become a danger. Anything can, when cornered and deprived of what it needs.
“Like me,” you add. “I am too dangerous for you. And I refuse to be eaten. And I think I am ethically obliged to stick a sharp fork into you until you are dead. We have fundamentally incompatible goals in this interaction.”
In its sling, the contents of your strange bundle squeak again, a shrill, high noise that sets your fangs on edge. The sound is less disturbing when you are not actually touching it. Many things are.
“You raise a thoughtful point. But if I killed everyone I encountered who was hostile and desperate and kind of horrible to be around I would have to kill… far more people than I really want to. It’s not a very nice world.” You sigh, tilting your head back. You do enjoy the opportunity to be out of the stifling, earthy black and into the open air. It’s a nice night, at least. You wonder if this is the wiggler’s first time out of the caverns.
The grub squeaks another nonsense commentary into the silence. It peers at you, only its head and first pair of legs visible amid the engulfing folds of fabric. Two tiny horns, as short and blunt as its fangs, almost disappear in the tuft of dark hair. Below, the rudimentary features of its face are small enough to make the insectile, gleaming eyes seem even larger and more unnatural. Mentally, you try to superimpose the face of the future troll he could become. You assume you do this because you like to make your own life difficult and uncomfortable. And maybe you feel as if you owe it to him.
“This world isn’t kind to people that step out of their place. And you don’t have one at all. Except maybe as someone’s dinner.”
You get another one of those uncomfortably high pitched squeaks. His liquid, red insect eyes catch the stars and shine them back to you. Soon, you’ll return to your caste-kin and the Mother Grub, swallowed back down into the ground by your duties. Soon, this world will devour the little mutant, too, either in mercy by your hand or in suffering later.
You draw in another long breath of unconfined air, steps slowing beneath the stars. You’ve loitered this long about your errand already–you suppose your duties won’t come to harm from being more overdue.
And it is a very nice night.
“You. Are very dangerous, too. Little squishable mutant grubling.”
Rule No+. 4: Detach immediately to+ reduce po+ssibility o+f infectio+n
It turns out that your passenger prevents you from carrying quite as many supplies in a trip, and you are tragically forced to spend even more timeout and about in the fresh night air, traipsing from brooding caverns to drop site and back. You like this little mutant grub better already.
He also proves to be reasonably pleasant company for a large, leggy parasite—at least while bundled safely out of reach of your arteries. He makes for an uncomplicated audience, anyway. You find yourself speaking more than you have in a perigee, your thoughts for once unhampered by caste and strictures, spilling all your secret musings and long-suppressed doubts into the air.
“…and how does it make sense to determine life-calling based on some sort of biological quirk of fate? We have mass-cultured luminescence systems now. The ability to glow in the dark hardly grants me a unique facility for the tending of reproductives.”
The wiggler squeaks and chitters his commentary. Or possibly his outrage at not being supplied with your bloodpusher fluid. He does seem to exist in a perpetual state of indignation at the world.
“I certainly don’t feel as if I am naturally inclined to this duty and unable to truly find fulfillment in any other role.”
“Do you realize, for a creepy nonverbal bug you still provide better conversation than most of the people I know?” Some of your castemates have been in the dark for so long—well. Nevermind. Any troll might grow a little strange after sweeps and sweeps of isolation from the world outside the brooding caverns. Why, it’s like a pleasant glimpse into your future!
“…are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to be culled?” you ask the grub. He shrills and waves his free pair of legs.
“No, I suppose not.”
You let the conversation lapse into brooding silence. Well, you brood. You have no idea what might be going on in the wiggler’s head. Hunger, presumably.
It’s never wise to dwell on what you can’t have, but you suppose all things yearn.
You’re still lost in these dark thoughts as you round the last bend before the drop site–and this is where your tardiness at last exacts its price.
On the supply drone landing platform a figure startles, freezing in the act of rifling through the last carapace of supplies. Wide brown eyes fly up to yours. You—hesitate, struck for one moment, because it is your obligation to secure the empire’s supplies, but those eyes are mirror bright with desperation and for just a moment you see yourself reflected. It’s just a moment, but it hits you like a lost lifetime of revelation and you find yourself stuck, frozen as the young troll charges you, frozen as rocks and branches rise up around her to join the assault, tossed on unsteady psionic waves.
The wiggler struggles in his sling, his thorax inflating to puff out a tea kettle alarm.
A quick jump and a pivot to the side and she’s past you, faltering as her target vanishes unexpectedly. Twigs and flying debris churn through the clearing, scratching at your skin, and she wheels to send the larger items flying back your way.
You dodge and dodge again, evading easily, using no more than light glancing blows to send her stumbling off balance. And all the time you maneuver to drive her away from the supplies you were sent to collect. It’s not that you begrudge her a half measure of imperial grubloaf and extruded vat grain. You just have a job to do. (You hate your job.)
The psionic barrage has receded into an aimless tumult of small items. The troll crouches panting, her snarl a low, frightened undercurrent, punctuated by the wiggler’s sharp squeaks. This would-be thief is sweeps too young to have a chance of getting past you (undersized, undernourished). You’re hopeful she’ll give up and try her chances elsewhere. You think if you—
A stray stone clips your horn, sending agony radiating down through your skull.
Your alarm sponge squeezes out a jolt of adrenaline, your lips draw back from your fangs, and your vision hazes away into red.
You are a rainbow drinker.
You are very strong. You are very hard to kill. And, in your worst moments, you are very much the hostage of your instincts.
…To be fair, it’s probably worse on everybody else.
Rule No+. 5: Examine yo+urself after any enco+unters
You wake to dead things.
On the list of ways you wake up, this is definitely in your bottom ten least favorites. Bottom three, even. And you say this as someone who recurrently wakes from horrorterrors of being buried alive and slowly smothering.
You shake your head in an attempt to clear it and smooth hair out of your eyes with a bleary hand that glows like a tiny sun. You stare at the hand. The taste of blood is on your lips, you are radiant with health, and there is a small, pathetically sad little corpse of a troll curled in the moonlight. There are two corpses in fact.
Looks like your would-be thief had a quadrantmate.
Awareness returns with an unpleasant bump. Pressing your hands over your temples, you fold your head into your knees and don’t think about small, underfed frames or hungry mirror eyes. In fact, you don’t think about anything at all. (Where were their lusii? Surely they were too young to be out foraging on their own. Someone should have been protecting them from the monsters.)
Between your feet, on the grass ahead, you can see the final provisions-husk, one stray grubloaf spilled out onto the ground. Well. You saved the supplies at least. Duty accomplished.
It’s as you push to your feet, tangling an elbow briefly in the hanging wrap of fabric around your thorax, that you suddenly remember the wiggler. You make it the rest of the way to your feet much more quickly.
Did you—did he—
You don’t even know why you would care if you’d completed one more unpleasant aspect of your duties somewhere in the amnesiac haze of your rage, but you scour through the mess of the clearing in a blank rush.
You find him, safe and un-culled, on the second corpse. —oh, ew ew. That is so disgusting.
Not that you have much room to talk, with your own impromptu snack warm and uneasy in your stomach, but still. There is a reason nobody spends time down in the brooding caverns unless dictated by caste and millennia of imperial tradition. Grubs are disturbing.
You eye the many-legged parasite in question and note that, for an off-spectrum mutant, his blood meal does not appear to be disagreeing with him. Maybe instead of no digestible hemotype, his metabolism will luck into every digestible hemotype. Like… a lowblooded grub but even moreso.
You squint dubiously at him. The little red chitin plates of his abdomen pulsate with the rhythm of his feeding.
NOPE, no, no way, you can’t look.
You sit down with your back to him (and the corpses, two pointless, useless corpses—why didn’t they run?) and look at the sky instead.
The stars shine bright and high, white points against the wide open blackness. It’s getting late. You’re no longer just tardy; you are verging on criminally negligent in the dischargement of your Imperially-ordained duties. You need to… finish things. Clean up here and go back.
(Back to the brooding caverns. Back down into the ground where you dream that you are suffocating and wake to a job that you don’t even have the energy to despise anymore.)
You look at the grub to see if he has conveniently decided to give up on being alive and perhaps die of blood poisoning in the past five minutes. He has not. His slurps look, if anything, more lively and intent than before. You look somewhere else again.
“I don’t see why you even bother,” you tell him snippily, to hide the fact that you’re suddenly, overwhelmingly, furious at nothing at all. Your fingers tear fruitlessly at clumps of earth. "Don’t you realize that it doesn’t matter? There’s nothing for you. There’s no space out there, there’s no reason. It doesn’t matter what you want—this is just how the world works.“
The wiggler, in flagrant defiance of your incisive argumentation, continues feeding, and not being culled by you, and just generally and outrageously failing to keep to his place, or lack thereof, in the order of things.
You glare at him, your breath trapped somewhere in your thorax while your body makes muffled, needy demands for air. You are not wrong.
You are not wrong. You are just very, very tired of Being Correct.
You watch the wiggler.
You take a breath.
And you reach, all at once, a decision.
Rule No+. 6: Always secure yo+ur sleeping arrangements
“Ow,” you say, too sleep-groggy to react with more eloquence to sudden wriggler teeth in your shoulder. “Kankri, no.” You squint one eye open, brightening your bioluminescence until you can better make out the small grub gnawing sleepily at your arm. Why is there even a small grub gnawing sleepily at your arm?
A quick look around shows a tangle of shed swaddling at the base of your makeshift dry ’coon. Kankri appears to have snagged the cloth on the point of one of the garden shears protruding from your pack and then struggled and clawed until he worked his way free. You have yet to decide if your blood-feeding companion parasite is very clever or just very persistent. Perhaps it will be easier to tell after he pupates.
You turn your eyes back to Kankri, tapping him between his mutant red eyes so that the protective lens flick over them and he releases your arm with a squeak. He rolls awkwardly, little clawed legs working furiously as they lose their purchase, ending on his back. He’s fat like an oblong nutriment roll these days, blood-plumped and awkward, and he rocks a bit on his carapace as he kicks his graspers in the air and frowns at you.
“What did I tell you? We don’t eat people.”
“Skreee,” says Kankri, rocking indignantly.
“Well, yes, I know technically we do eat people, but we can choose not to.” You drag yourself the rest of the way to a sitting position, scrubbing your sleep-tangled hair out of your face to tuck behind your horns. Is it even dark outside yet? Whatever the time, you are certain it is much too early to be having philosophical conversations with your adopted parasite and/or yourself.
Kankri clicks and squeaks and hisses and finally succeeds at rolling to his front. You roll your eyes at him. He’s so round his little legs hardly touch the ground, the integument stretched between his chitin plates swollen from the perigees’ worth of blood meals you’ve been stuffing into him—mostly stray lusii, hunted from the dangerous herds roaming the plains of Alternia, sans small grub charges of their own. You’re good at hunting. You’d almost forgotten that, underground.
Kankri wriggles resolutely in your direction. You scoop his plump little form up with the ease of long practice, holding him out at arm’s length as he squeaks and flails. Even his cheeks are puffy, flushed red with indignation and good health. He’s a far cry from the hungry, sleek-bodied little grub that ambushed your ankle outside the brooding caverns that night.
“Please go back to sleep,” you direct him, firmly.
Kankri chitters back at you, a long string of nonsense noises that is starting to take on a distinct, imitative cadence of speech. Uncooperative speech. He does not look like a grub that is going to put himself to ‘coon anytime soon.
Ugh. You should never have brought him with you. You make terrible life choices.
You find you’re smiling. Rolling your eyes at him again, you kick free of your blanket pile and tuck him into the bonebend of one arm—pinned so he can’t get that ring of teeth into your skin. ”Sleep,“ you insist as you grope with your free hand for the swaddling cloth. "I know you’re not really hungry. And some of us were out past dawn ensuring that you’d stay that way.”
Out in the air and the light and the green, growing things. Above ground and free—but not alone. Because maybe, sometimes, if the world doesn’t make you a space you like, you just have to make one for yourself.
You don’t have to steal your time in the sun anymore.
…Just your sleep.
The main cause of said sleeplessness squeaks and squirms in your hold, offering token resistance apparently on principle. You murmur distractedly back at him and wait, because you’ve learned a few things in the past perigees and you know how this game goes. Sure enough, it’s only a few minutes before Kankri’s settling himself into the blood-warm crook of your body, lured by the heat and shelter and moon-white glow, cuddling up instinctively like he might to a real lusus. What an odd pair you make: imperial deserter, absconded from your service to the mother grub, and a mutant, off-caste grub. Both of you ought to be culled.
You absently pat a little fluff of dark hair back into array where it is tickling your side and can't find it in yourself to care. Best of luck to anyone who tries and all that. Your sincerest condolences to their quadrantmates.
Kankri’s still chittering, a grumpy babble of defiance that continues even as his legs fold sleepily to his thorax. The fat, squishy balloon of his abdomen tries to curl in on itself, but can’t manage much more than a slight curve. It’s kind of cute, if you don’t think too hard about it.
Definitely don’t think too hard about how he’s starting to look like something that might pop, messily.
Yawning, you set about re-wrapping him in his fabric sleeping cocoon, a task you can mostly accomplish by feel these days. You make drowsy plans to trade for some more cloth the next time you come across a market fair. Time to sew up a new one for him. This one hardly fits anymore; no wonder he got loose. He’s grown so fast.
There’s no reason for that thought to pang you. Playing lusus is hard. With any luck that increasingly blood-swollen abdomen means Kankri will be pupating soon—and even a new-molted troll, still figuring out how to use two legs instead of six, must be an improvement of a ward over a squirming, skittering, blood-sucking wiggler.
No reason at all, you think, but as you settle back down to sleep, Kankri a warm, contentedly chirring bundle beside you, you find it does pang you a little after all.
He showed you the way into the light. He made you believe things could be different.
You suppose you don’t really mind if he takes his time growing up.
Ten minutes later, you wake to tiny wiggler teeth in your arm again and you yelp and flail and start the whole midday ritual over again and inform him severely that you hope he grows up tomorrow.