Pyralsprite’s absence grips the rear of her brain, where her lusus’s voice could usually be heard. It might be that emptiness of confusion and soft-sluggish thought, or the sun’s beginnings spraying firespots onto her eyes every time they spark against the sand, but Redglare finds herself warier upon this trip into the desert than the last. The hazy moons shine tiny above her, and the dust-smell between her teeth is tawny grubmeal. She reflects upon the fact that her first test as an adult is under handicap, without the caretaker and partner for which she’d chosen a name of her own, and laughs. Who carries their custodian-beast into adulthood? But, then, who speaks with dragons?
It occurs to her that she may be experiencing dehydration.
Redglare shades the sun from her face with an arm – she had planned to wear sunglasses to suit the placronym on her breast, homemade, but one’s sign is the only personal affect admitted to this trial. As it should be, in fairness, but she can’t help the disappointment.
It is a test of one’s survival ability; she is firmly fixed to one of a few professions in business and law, and her particular propensity towards legislaceration benefits most from the lessons of the harsh Alternian landscape. As a proprietor of justice, Redglare will someday be expected to navigate the treachery of not only the soul, but her natural environment. Although at this point there is nothing more at stake than neophyte qualification, all candidates flung into the sand at dawnbreak are expected to weather two nights, one day, before returning to base.
The sun peeks out over the horizon line, and her skin begins to sting. Time to descend.
The entrance is not difficult to locate; where else would plants wander but to a cooler patch of sand, an outcropping of rock with shady cocks and crannies? The taskmasticator had advised her fellow students to seek out forested shelter, or independent caves, citing the desert’s labyrinth as a death-trap for unarmed, pisslicking, midblooded wigglers.
She had also used the word haunted. In addition: spirits, ghasthorns, and ghosts. With fiction in mind, Redglare sought out the tunnels.
Tunnels that, only now, as she squirms sideways and slips between pocked-up twists of unappetizing grey stone, seem to pose a threat: that of being unable to fit before sunrise. It’s well past her bedtime, not that she’s gone to bed on time since owning a handheld, and an insect pops from heat on the stone beside her left hand.
Warm breezes of smothering non-smell thicken the air in her mouth and she tastes mint. There is a moss of pale green upon the wall before her face. It might be laughing at her, safe in the shade! So far none of the holes she’s found are even remotely entrance-tunnel-deep, or troll-sized, even a newly aged Contributor like herself. She’s slight for a member of her eight-to-ten sweeps’ group, already.
Redglare stoops down to explore some of the less obtrusive opening-like features, pushing a clinging spider away with the back of her hand and running her fingers along the edge of a particularly deep groove. The stone is cool to the touch and carries a hint of moisture, she notes, but finds that no portion is deeper than the length of her elbow. Redglare ducks out and slips down a ledge, where the stone beneath her feet is mated to sand.
From her new vantage point, she sees the whole of the structure, and without the time-wasting muddling over of cues, realizes very deductively that the jagged central portions of her chosen outcropping actually follow an angular, patterned roughness. She postulates that this is a symptom of either tunnel drones or local burrowing wildlife.
Her strife specibus is pikekind. She is, like others engaged in this training exercise, armed with a sword and a allegedly bulletproof vest. She draws it, and crouches, prodding in the deepest crevices of the stone. Redglare is looking for a crack deep enough to take shelter in, maybe, or frightening off dangerous creatures lurking in the shade.
She is shaded from the sun, on this side of the rock, but her face burns and sweat slips on the hilt in her grasp. It never occurs to Redglare that her initial assumption could have been incorrect; she’s always known what’s best.
The encroaching morning doesn’t seem to agree: the sun’s heat comes in downy-warm waves, smothering her senses like sopor. She changes position, spiraling up the stone outcropping. Now there are more shelves and dips to search, in hope of finding entrance to these alleged, (accursed,) tunnels, but she is more greatly exposed.
Redglare bears the brunt of the sunrise’s offense on her side and shoulder and considers the probability of finding local wildlife moronic enough to be out at this hour, and following it back to its dens. She must have stirred up enough dirt to attract the attention of something by now.
There is a scraping of sand on stone on something behind her, and a shifting and a rustling. Redglare turns.
As always, she selectively proves herself right, having suddenly come face-to-face - chest-to-nose - with a beast of great size. It’s glowing scaled-white such that she has to fight the urge to spit, as though having tasted soap. The thing is a lumbering longbacked reptilian monster with six, maybe eight, legs and a sour, downturned face beneath armored brows. It could easily be somebody’s lusus, though not at the present moment.
It screeches and bounds in her direction, mouth sliding out into teeth, and she catches it in the jaw with her sword; two or all four of its stubby front legs scramble in her direction but even her arms are long enough to keep its head at that distance. Lime blood slips into the hilt-guard and Redglare smells relish when she pulls her arm back, swivels, and slams the sword into the side of the beast’s head.
Howling and whining, it hardly seems to register the blow, plowing forward into her. A claw goes into her right shoulder and its rows of teeth snap out two-by-two to find purchase on her chest; the vest resists it and Redglare is on her back, thinking to herself that a cracked rib or two will be perfectly unsurprising and just as manageable; her left hand still holds the sword and she aims underneath the first set of legs, banking on the presence of at least one blood-pumping organ.
Spit and blood coat her chest and face, four legs drive into soft flesh along the length of her body, and two more scramble on her barely-armored chest and arm. The sunlight is streaming from its skin, and she’s seeing freckles of red.
Redglare laughs. She stabs the poor fucker, and twists her weapon. The back of her head crashes against a rock.
It screams and thrashes on top of her and she holds it close, gripping its neck behind its maw as tightly as it grasps the shoulder she’s using. She pulls the sword out and it’s almost knocked from her grasp by a flailing leg, but she gets the blade between the thing’s mouth and her throat just as it dives, and slices its neck open.
There’s a lot of yellow-green blood; her own hue’s lost despite the rents in her shirt. The animal rams into her and dives at the ground. Redglare expects it to die screeching at her and squashing the air from her chest, but it runs out of ground.
She runs out of ground.
One moment her shoulder is scraping against a rock, and the next, there is simply no rock. Peculiar! For a moment, at least, she feels the absence of heat, before one of her horns connects with solid stone and her vision impossibly goes bright white and the next thing she knows, Redglare is picking herself up from under the corpse of an angry lizard-beast, smearing delicious relish-flavored blood on the perspiring stone around her. Pyralsprite would be licking it off her clothes, and giving the color to her in her own way, but Redglare has grown enough to smell on her own by now.
It had died screeching at her. It had lead her to the tunnels, even! Once again, her hypotheses had hypothesized right the heck into existence. She wipes her sword on her pants and goes to sheathe it with a self-satisfied flourish. She hardly fumbles.
Redglare follows the tunnel steadily, right hand on the stone and left at her side, never far from her weapon. It would be small in another sweep or two, assuming she grew significantly taller; as it is, she feels the press of the walls around her but the ceiling hardly whispers above her horns.
She comes to her first junction, a cavern from which several tunnels seem to lead. There’s a breeze coming from somewhere.
Redglare considers the options before her and chooses a direction at random; the blood on her shoes and hands is still wet, and for now she need not be concerned about finding a way back. She tastes only cool air and cinder grey, and does not hear ghosts.
Another fork greets her, this time just a split between three tunnels. She’s about to keep left when her half-open mouth sucks in blueberry.
It’s a color only blood and those barrel-shaped juice boxes could generate. It piques her curiosity. If there is a foe, ghast or not, blood can only indicate vulnerability, and she’s confident in her ability to fight. She’s an adult; she’s contributing, this sweep, as soon as she meets her match.
Redglare limps majestically into the center tunnel. The citrus-relish and blue raspberry on her shirt overwhelms the other color, but she presses her face to the wall and inhales it again. Why not make good use of her lusus’s favorite nose?
There’s blueberry swirls here - and, she finds, cooler air on her neck and the tips of her elbows. She advances and the blueberry fades into a bitter, dark apple, strawberry-magenta blood. The swirls are patterned, a story told in messy letters she’d have squinted to read, and the tunnel indiscriminately assaults her with sensation, dark colors dried on darker stone.
No wonder these caves were thought to be haunted. Trolls had lived here once, and in passing, left an illustrated diary of their conquests. A cruder version of some navy-blood’s autobiography. There were images of trolls, some with distinct signs and horns, and more than one so abstracted – or perhaps so primitive - that they seemed not to have horns or a sign at all! Those who stumbled across this tribe and were slain must have provided the paint, Redglare deduced. How such trolls had deserted their breeding complexes was another mystery entirely, but she suspected the clues lay in their history.
By now, she had the distinct impression that she’d drawn closer to the dwelling-place of the original painters, as colors became more varied and words more dense. She tasted a chocolatey orange and a bright blue that ground like sea salt and rubbery fruit-peel between her teeth, and waves and waves of fresh leaf-green. The text remained fuzzy to her eyes, but she occasionally pressed a kiss to the wall and drew her tongue along it when an enticing color filled her nostrils, and caught words in passing here and there. TRAVEL, for the feral nomads that lived here. EVERY COLOR, for the blood they shed. CRIMES, for-
CRIMES. What a singularly delicious word, and written in an unusually high blackberry-purple-blue at that! If one could initiate kismessitude with a syllable, hers would be this. She leaned into its sentence, and then licked the whole damn swatch.
IN OPPRESSION WE G
E CRIMES OF THE RUL
CENSION ORDERED H
D THEN SILENCE FRO
VIVOR TO LEAVE THE
She frowned, dramatic effect lost upon the empty cave, and licked along the fresh-laundry indigo of OPPRESSION.
AND IN OPPRESSION WE GAINED INSIGHT, TO S
E THE CRIMES OF THE RULING CLASS, HE FORG
DESCENSION ORDERED HIS WORD SILENCED, T
AND THEN SILENCE FROM THE SPECTATORS, SL
Redglare’s excitement mounted. She read her way down the way she’d come, this time attending to the illustrations. A story began to take form, a tale of a group of trolls who defied the hierarchies of the nobles and meant to topple the pillars of Her civilization. Redglare found herself spitting blood-flakes and grinding sand between her teeth with every movement.
Treasonous words on the walls of a cave, left by bloodthirsty ghosts. She would have her neophyte’s staff inscribed upon her affirmation for services rendered, if there were any left in this blasphemous clan to bring to justice.
Not that her devotion to the legal system could at all be described as blind! Well-educated for her blood, Redglare was well versed in the history of the Condescension’s reign, and probably knew a great deal more about the glory of Alternia than whatever disgruntled rustpalm had smeared out this story. Some people simply did not understand that things work the way they do for a reason.
She’d known good, smart trolls of a lower caste than her, and even been friends. Their talents would be applied to their available careers, just as hers. The very idea of opening channels of ascension every which way would spoil a carefully designed society; with organization so tainted at the ground level, the defeat of enemy planets would be impossible.
Redglare knows she’s well-versed in strategy. She’s very good at the big picture. She also knows that her neighbor, whose lusus helped Redglare survive Pyral’s hatching, is red-blooded, and when Redglare reaches ten sweeps and achieves official career and reproductive acknowledgement in the legislacerator track, her neighbor will be cast in irons and enter the Greater Workforce, never to exit. So, like any reasonable person, alone in a cave with the ripened-pear diary of the dead, she considers it.
Her consideration lasts just a few moments after resting her nose and lips against a climactic scene, the torture of their heretical miracle-blooded leader, signified only by the word SIGNLESS. That’s the troll recurring in most of these paintings, no sign, horns budded at best.
Theres a smear in dried red across the wall where her mouth falls when she presses her face against it. It’s a pair of spirals, the color looks fresher than the reds further back, and it’s wider than most of the lines making up the other words and pictures. The red blood only lasts for half of the circle; there’s dark green crusted to complete it, narrower. The shape’s familiar, perhaps the sign of one of the trolls on the wall, but Redglare’s busy with the rest of the story and can only dwell on one revelation at once.
With her face against the bottom of the wall’s symbol, she breathes grass stains and Sour Patch Culls in and out. Green, green. She entrenches herself so firmly in green and its pine-pang, staring at nothing in particular in the dark, that the arrival of more green goes unnoticed for just long enough to subdue her.
Redglare’s forehead decides to grind into the wall, cheek scraping on the story’s symbol. Her hand leaps to her sword just as the rest of her body presses itself into the tunnel rock.
Another hand grabs her wrist and twists her arm and she hisses and pivots to throw her attacker off, trying to stand up while being wrestled against stone. She’s shoulderchecked against the wall and, back pressed against it and one hand pinned, her assailant’s arm presses against her windpipe.
It’s a troll. An adult. A mid-green by clothing, with long pants and some kind of animal pelt on her waist. She’s slightly curled over and forward, for the sake of intimidation. Her horns arch handsomely upwards and slightly back from messy hair. They look a bit like Redglare’s imagined hers will, someday, and her leggings smell like cinders and cherries. It reminds her of Pyralsprite. She’s a bit old for that.
Redglare’s going to interrogate this prime suspect, and makes a good show of opening her mouth to speak, but the greenblood leans forward, eyes dark, and Redglare succeeds in expelling the rest of her air on the tail of a squeak. Must have been rodents living down in the caves after all.
Her fingers grab at the adult’s sleeve but her arms are just a bit too short for this and she kicks upwards to dislodge her throat but it doesn’t really work out and her left wrist and shoulder are doing their best, they really are, but they should chill the devilfuckin’ dickens out and work with her here, not grate in agony every time she tries to push herself off the wall. The adult isn’t doing much at all: how inconsiderate. Redglare’s heels catch on pebbles and she reaches across her body for her sword with her right hand, but it’s trapped against her hip.
No, wait, there it goes. She tears it out and goes for viables rather than vitals, barely scratching the adult’s chest on the backswing. But it’s enough to set the wildwoman twitching backwards for a moment and Redglare takes the opportunity to strategically pursue an exit.
Five steps down the tunnel, she’s facedown in the dirt. The adult’s got her down by the scruff, claws setting her to shiver like the hair-trimming shears she’d taught herself to use at four sweeps. Redglare growls and the adult growls louder and her scrambling hands are pressed against her own back.
She squirms and the adult presses her sharp nails into the back of Redglare’s neck. Redglare stills, heart threatening to help the troll’s knee crack her ribcage open. And to think she’d considered a cracked rib perfectly manageable when facing a similarly wild animal not long earlier.
Fortunately, she is a competent legislacerator, or at least neophyte-to-be, and is equipped for situations of every nature.
“You must be the one who drew all that on the wall,” she eloquently addresses a rock in front of her nose.
“And you must be a torturer-in-training,” the adult says, the timbre of her voice sending an involuntary twitch through Redglare’s spine. “Teal, right?”
“I read the story!” she says, because it seems the sort of thing one says in this situation, and she is nothing if not a diplomat. She tasted teal five feet back, in the account of a breeder’s desertion.
“So did I.”
“I critically examined the story,” clarifies Redglare. She’s always had decent marks. “A fascinating tale of treason and tyranny!”
“You’re not old enough to use those words,” the adult says.
“I am of contributing age,” Redglare retorts. She doesn’t expect the adult to laugh.
“Do you have quadrants waiting for you outside, then?” the adult says. “Are you meeting requirements, Contributor?” Redglare jerks suddenly and the adult presses her more firmly into the cave floor.
“A long time ago, you would be dead right now,” the adult says, voice almost in a growl. “Luckily for you, I’ve grown out of killing people, especially for stupid reasons.”
Redglare feels much smaller than the other troll. Her life doesn’t quite flash before her eyes, but she directs thoughts of disappointment towards her past self. She almost doesn’t recognize the sensation.
“I will not fight you if you get off of me,” she says slowly, the implication of such a sentiment directed towards an adult not lost on her.
The adult is quiet, and then releases Redglare’s hands and leans back.
“Imagine if I had been screwing with you,” Redglare says almost immediately after sitting up. “You would be very, very dead!”
“If there’s anything to take from this,” the adult responds, slaying the other troll’s smile while gesturing at the walls, “it’s that people could stand to have faith in one another more often.”
“You think we’re all deliberately taught to mistrust each other,” Redglare says out loud, and it sounds like something she hadn’t come up with on the spot. It also strikes her as very true.
“We are,” the adult responds, in accordance with Redglare’s thoughts. “You’re not the first one to hear what these paintings have to say and find yourself agreeing. We used to tell it orally.”
“I cannot very well disregard plain logic,” Redglare says. She wonders what would happen if she just sort of leaned forward and tasted the adult’s ash-and-basil face.
“You must have had a good lusus,” the adult says. Fondly, even.
“Have,” Redglare corrects her, and the adult’s eyebrows raise. “My lusus taught me the taste of colors,” Redglare continues. “And the value of thorough research. She is my partner in legislaceration.”
The adult frowns.
“I aspire to be only the most just and law-abiding of all professionals,” Redglare says, intending to reassure, but the adult stands, and grips Redglare’s arm to pull her into a standing position too. Redglare complies politely.
“Consider the laws you enforce,” the adult says. “Try not to take things at face value.”
“Who do you take me for?”
“A puffed-up wiggler with promise,” the adult replies sincerely. Redglare’s cinema-ready indignance is lost upon the adult, as she leads Redglare through the tunnels from behind.
“You’re going to leave now, though. I’m tired.”
“Do you think me so easily deterred?”
“You can come back someday,” the adult says to Redglare’s back. It’s a flimsy promise.
They walk in silence for a ways. Redglare shrugs her shoulder in the adult’s grip.
“My name is Redglare,” she says to the air behind her. “I am in training to become a neophyte.”
“I’ve never met one,” the adult replies. “The one time I met the arm of the law, there wasn’t much call for a trial.”
“Shameful,” Redglare says.
The adult is silent again.
“Does the rest of your clan dwell here as well?” Redglare ventures, moments later, the tang of mustard and honey in her throat weakening as the wall paintings around them begin to thin and fade with distance.
The adult’s fingers tighten on her arm.
“I cannot imagine there were many survivors, but you are obviously in posession of the resources to remain hidden,” Redglare says. “For over ten sweeps, at least. And you find yourself with enough time to rewrite history.” Her shoulder twinges sharply. What a shame, that the monster earlier had wounded it.
“You said you read the wall,” the adult says. Her words are measured as though she’s selecting syllables for a recipe.
“I skimmed it,” Redglare says. “I read a large portion of it. I ‘got the gist’.”
“You remind me of an old friend,” the adult responds.
“Not one who made a name for herself in the service of Her Empire, I would venture.”
“Himself,” the adult corrects. “And actually, you could put it that way. Not nearly with the same zealousness you say you carry.”
“I’m willing to entertain your rebellious notions, as I have already demonstrated,” Redglare says, feeling particularly eloquent and clever. “What shade was he?”
“He thought too fast for his tongue too,” the adult says. “I mistakenly thought him timid when we first met, but he sharpened our game almost immediately.”
“I’m paying you a compliment. This friend had a knack for wheedling information from unwilling sources.”
“How very useful!” Redglare can no longer smell anything but smoke-grey and soot and loam-chocolate-brown, in dips and darts.
“He, however, had the advantage of being on even terms with those he tried to interrogate.”
They walk in silence once again, but the tunnel has nearly ended. The adult steers her clear of a pile of stone and dirt.
Then Redglare tastes the promise of greens and browns, indistinct and unready, less vibrant than the cave’s walls. The woman must have these exits memorized. “Here.”
She releases her grip on Redglare’s shoulder and shuffles and then Redglare’s vision is shot with thin russet-red.
“What are you – are you peeing on the wall?” Redglare says immediately. Stupid question – she tastes the piss-tang stronger than its own color. She twitches in the urge to step back, but remains still.
“Take a good whiff,” her companion replies. “I’m leaving you a scent marker.”
“I’m not a sniffbeast,” Redglare says. She frowns. “That stain’s going to wash away the next time it rains, anyway.”
There was a pause, and then the other troll laughs. “Hasn’t that lusus taught you anything?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Redglare is pretty sure if she turned around really quickly with her sword, the adult wouldn’t stand a chance. Probably.
“Just because you’re learning to smell colors doesn’t mean you have to stop there,” the adult says. “Have you forgotten what burnt toast tastes like?”
“Ass,” Redglare says, retaining an extremely neutral expression.
“Then don’t forget what I smell like,” the adult says. “If you pay enough attention, you can learn more than just blood color from a liquid waste secretion like this.”
“I’m not licking your piss stain,” Redglare replies.
“Your loss,” says the adult. Then, “I shrugged while speaking. I know you’re half-blind in here.”
Half. “I’m going to report your illegal residence to my commanding officeviscerator. Expect cleansing drones in the next fortnight.”
“Your devotion to the blessed scripture of Alternian law is inspiring.”
“As is your noble calling in the fellowship of bloody dirt.”
“I’ll see you off now,” the adult says, her voice suddenly weighted with weariness. For the second time, Redglare finds herself starkly reminded of the generation’s worth of sweeps between them.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Redglare says, after the highblood fashion. It’s always given her a satisfactory sort of superiority in politeness to pronounce the words up into cerulean or indigo, but almost as soon as the gratifier’s left her fanghole, she frowns and her throat twirls a little, as though she’s going to be sick.
“May you never walk alone, and may both moons find you safe,” the adult replies. “May we each wear the color of peace someday.”
“That sounds like something from a book,” Redglare says.
“I’m writing it,” the adult says. “I’ve been writing it since before you had the courage to grow claws and legs and leave your cocoon.”
“I’d like to read it someday.”
“If the story ends, I’ll ensure you receive the first copy.”
“Thank you!” Redglare says, and she doesn’t smile, because it would probably be in poor taste.
“You’re welcome,” replies the adult. “Good bye.”
Redglare’s prepared to end the narrative there, and stride boldly into the sunset, hardly even yawning or blinking. It’s deadly bright outside, though, and she’s got a good few hours to go until night breaks and she can seek out a new location for the second leg of survival camp. So she waits, leaning against the cave wall, until there is no further tang of smoky-smudged avocado in the tunnel.
It is not until much later, as she drinks the dewy coolness of slate-rocks and parsley forest, that it occurs to her that the adult had not offered up a name.
No matter. Her thumb traces double-spirals on her hand.
She’ll remember the way.
I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive
I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise