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Dirt in the Sky, chapter three
1677 words
PG-13 for some violence

In which Our Hero comes to the defense of his beloved moirail; he is then forced to make a tough decision that will determine the course of the rest of his life.

Equius’s pulse roared in his ears and a blue haze settled over his vision, blinding him for what later evidence suggested was less than a second -- but at the time it seemed like hours. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe; Kaylen had ordered Nepeta’s death, and Equius’s mind was filled with one long, anguished howl at the thought of any harm coming to her because of him. He would have gladly given his life in exchange for hers; but then he blinked once, clearing his vision, and realized with sudden clarity that there was no need for either of them to die. He reached out and grabbed Kaylen’s arm, the one holding the sharp little knife to his throat, and snapped it like a brittle twig.

Kaylen shrieked and fell, clutching her shattered wrist; Equius had one brief glimpse of boney white poking through her sleeve, nearly obscured by a torrent of green. Then he was turning to face Cidres, whose finger had fallen from the trigger of his crossbow as Kaylen’s cry drew his attention – but Equius wasn’t needed there. Pounce had seized the moment and lived up to her name, forcing Cidres to his knees with her weight and momentum, and rending his throat with one mighty snap of her twin jaws. Nepeta had left her mother to it, turning to Aurthour’s aid – for, Equius saw to his horror, his lusus was in very dire straits indeed. The twin-tailed scorpion, Petet, had struck lightning-fast, and though Aurthour had crushed its head under his hooves a split-second later, and Nepeta had assured the kill with a stab of her barbed claws, Equius’s lusus had already fallen to his knees, a sickly blue flush discoloring the flesh of one foreleg. Worse yet, Kaylen’s bear lusus had taken the offensive, roaring with rage and planting all six feet on the ground in preparation for a ponderous charge that could only end in mass destruction. Nepeta and Aurthour lay directly in its path.

This time Equius truly acted without thinking. He rushed the bear, ducking beneath its snapping jaws and wrapping his arms around its throat, digging his heels into the sun-baked soil and twisting for all he was worth. All the world seemed to hold its breath; the bear roared, and he could feel its thick muscles shifting under his arms as it prepared to shake him off and make an end of him. But he persevered, Nepeta’s name on his lips as he dug in with his fingers, hard enough to puncture the bear’s thick hide, and PULLED --

The crack of bone came suddenly, and without warning. The struggling lusus went limp in Equius’s arms; he hastily released it and stepped back, watching it fall ponderously to the ground, dead. Then he turned back to Nepeta, who had remained by Aurthour’s side the entire time. It was immediately obvious that the ever-faithful lusus was in a bad way; he had never been one to be bothered by the cold, but he was shivering now, and his sides heaved as though he couldn’t quite get enough air. Equius fell to his knees by Aurthour’s side, and might have remained that way, frozen in place by the suffering HIS error had brought down on his beloved custodian, if Nepeta hadn’t spoken.

“What do we do?” she asked him, eyes wide and frightened, and it was that which got his brain working again. What COULD they do? The scorpion lusus’s venom must have been potent indeed to already have such a dramatic effect, and the nearest town large enough to have a hospital was miles away. Their only hope was that Cidres had done the sensible thing, and carried antivenom for use on people his lusus had poisoned by accident; he himself would have of course been immune from long exposure to the venom. Equius conveyed this information to Nepeta in a single, stuttering rush; the full weight of everything that had just happened was falling on him like a heavy stone, staggering his mind. It would be several nights before he would feel as though he could think clearly about the situation – but sadly he didn’t have that long.

The two of them turned as one to Cidres’s body, which lay where it had fallen, Pounce still worrying at his throat with her teeth in a desultory way. A cry of alarm burst from two throats, but it was Nepeta who surged to her feet, lunging at their one remaining enemy. Kaylen had, it seemed, recovered partially from the shock of her injury and was trying to crawl into the cab of the motorized four wheeled device. Nepeta seized her by the coat and pulled her back with a shout; the two girls fell to the dusty ground, the receiver of the device’s radio clutched in Kaylen’s remaining hand. The wire stretched and broke; Kaylen shrieked with rage and tried to attack Nepeta, but with only one working hand she didn’t stand a chance. Nepeta pinned her to the ground, needle-sharp claws pressed against her throat; Kaylen snarled and spit in Nepeta’s face.

“You think you’ve won?” she snapped, face flushed viridian with rage as she continued her futile struggle against Nepeta’s grip. “My kismesis knows where I am, you little bitch! He’ll come looking for me, and when he does –“ But Nepeta wasn’t interested in hearing more from the woman who had tried to take her moirail away. She drove her claws straight into Kaylen’s eyes, silencing her threats forever. Then she turned and, with an unnatural calm that chilled Equius as much as it soothed his own nerves, shooed her own lusus away from Cidres’s body and began to search his clothing, quickly uncovering the antivenom Equius had hoped he carried.

Aurthour recovered quickly, a welcome relief to all concerned, for it allowed Equius and Nepeta to turn their minds to a far greater problem. Try as they might, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to doubt Kaylen’s dying words. What were the odds that a troll of her age and intellect would remain unattached in all but the pale quadrant? Sooner or later someone would miss her, and come to investigate. Perhaps they might even get the Legislacerators involved; children might be left to themselves, but the murder of a nearly full-grown businesswoman was a far different matter. First the townspeople would be the questioned, then the inhabitants of the nearby lawnrings…And sooner or later, someone would mention the strange hermit who lived out in the wilderness, and her blueblooded companion.

Just the thought of facing a Legislacerator turned Equius’s blood to ice. He could not stay in this region, that much was certain – and of course Nepeta refused to let him leave alone. He put up a token protest, concerned for her safety, but secretly he was glad of her insistence. He wasn’t at all sure of his ability to live without her. But still another question remained: how to avoid another confrontation like the one they had but lately survived?

Thinking clearly was difficult, after everything that had just happened. He seemed to be moving in a daze, even as he and Nepeta made sure their tracks were as carefully covered as possible. A search of the motorized four wheeled device’s cab revealed insurance documentation; the vehicle was registered, meaning they didn’t dare keep it. They did, however, take all the cash from Kaylen’s strong box, some extra clothing, and a handful of high-quality tools that Equius had been missing from his collection. The rest was burned with the device and the dead bodies, after Equius had carefully rewired the engine just so and pushed it into the ravine. Both he and Nepeta regretted seeing such a treasure trove go, but taking it all with them would have been impossible. They’d have to leave behind most of the items that were properly theirs; it didn’t make any sense to weigh themselves down with stolen goods.

The subdued trip back to their shared hive was an ordeal; his thoughts seemed disconnected, disjointed, beginning with a review of what had just transpired and trailing off into nothing, only to begin again. He couldn’t let anything like that happen again, that much was obvious. It was too dangerous, both to himself and to Nepeta, who was of course his first concern. He knew she wouldn’t hesitate to fight for him, just as he would do the same for her – but the dangers she faced as a greenblood defending a blue seemed so much greater than his own fears. He had to protect her, but how?

It had to have been the shock that kept him from latching onto the obvious solution right away; as it was he suddenly stopped in the middle of packing up his things, feeling as though the bear lusus had struck him a blow between the eyes. It was such an elegant solution that he cursed himself for not thinking of it sweeps ago. There’d been no need to hide himself away in a cave after all, not when he could hide in plain sight.

Nepeta protested, of course, but they both knew there was no real choice to the matter. He couldn’t simply hide his sign; not when the smallest injury would expose his blood for all the world to see. He needed to change himself, make his presence permissible, blend in so well that nobody would even give him a second glance – and there was only one way to do that.

Explosions weren’t his specialty, but he knew enough about chemistry to manage the collapse of their hive. Even if anyone made it this far, they would most likely assume he and Nepeta had died in a cave-in…and it would take nights to prove otherwise. The two of them left hand in hand, without a backward glance, just as it should have been – and if Nepeta insisted on frowning and fretting over the green band he’d strapped around his neck, well. There was nothing to be done about that.