Pancho wakes you up in the middle of the afternoon just to tell you not to look at some videos. At first you’re just confused, but she’s your leafbro, not like you’re gonna doubt her without a reason. So you stay off the internet until she’s done trying to talk Bel down and has a moment to explain. The gist of it is that Cloris took Erskin to a rainbow drinker party, drugged him, fucked him in public, and let her undead friends paw at him until he flipped the fuck out and had to be sedated. He’s not dead or (any more than usually) maimed, and they didn’t rape him, but he’s very upset and Cloris is openly terrible to him, and he’ll have some humiliating new scars to live with. Pancho keeps you company until you’re done crying and throwing pillows, then nags you into calling room service for a small, early breakfast and a snowpack for your sore and swollen eyes. She’s such a good ashmate; you let her know how grateful you are. You can’t help sending several begging messages to the account Erskin last contacted you from, even though you know it’s Cloris’s. - armchairDesperado [AD] began trolling briarThorn [BT] - AD: = erskin pls tell me you still have net access i need to talk to you bro i’m so fuckin worried AD: = please be ok man AD: = pancho tole me what happened to you, some shitwagon put up vids, imma pop ‘em one if i ever see 'em AD: = bro please i miss you an i’m scairt AD: = erskin cmon AD: = <><><><><><><>M< AD: = ok this is cloris’s account right? ma'am please lemme talk to my moirail, i won’t rat you out, hand to god. In between frantic, hopeless pings, you lie down with the cold pack on your face and listen to calming music in the vain hope of getting back to sleep. - briarThorn [BT] began trolling armchairDesperado [AD] - BT: are you awake? AD: = like i could sleep, jegus fuck AD: = wait is this you bro or um BT: your “bro” is currently ensconced in my hive. he’s out of his head and tried to bite me the last time I tried to speak with him. BT: I need you to fix him. BT: I’m sending you a car. BT: You are to leave your sylladex in your block. BT: I shouldn’t have to explain what damage you’ll cause if you should tell anyone you’re visiting, do I? AD: = lady, i ain’t gonna kick about ditching my electronics, but i done knit erskin a pile a prezzies an imma bring them things to him so he can hide his poor clawed up face in em an settle down. AD: = i can carry 'em in my hands i reckon so you can see i ain’t got a sylladex on me. AD: = also imma tell my ashen sister what the plan is, cuz otherhow you’re gonna have five trolls after your shiny butt insteada just bel, and none of 'em is pushovers. AD: = me tellin her i’m goin willingly is what you want to keep shit quiet, dig? BT: Fine. But you won’t tell her where you’re going or why. Are we clear? AD: = i ain’t know your address anyhow. BT: I’d like to keep it that way. BT: Don’t dally. - briarThorn has logged off!- - armchairDesperado [AD] began trolling crossfireHurricane [CH] - AD: = cloris is sending a car for me, i gotta leave my sylladex behind or she won’t take me to erskin AD: = i don’t think there’s a damn thing i can do to help you find the place with the kinda time i got CH: * Don’t be stupid, Jethro, she’s going to disappear you! AD: = that’s a possibility yeah CH: * Do NOT go. AD: = not a option, man. this my moirail we’re talkin bout. CH: * Damn it, Jethro, don’t leave Pancho and Galley leafless. What would Sigmah say? AD: = you ain’t as manipulatey as you think bro heheh AD: = this is my gamble an i’m takin it, so quit arguin. i just want you to come pick my stuff up so the hotel don’t gank it. AD: = mebbe meet up with paw, let im know what’s up. CH: * At least let me bring you a tracker. I’m about an hour out. AD: = bro, the front desk just called. i gotta go. - armchairDesperado has logged off! - CH: * Fuck. Thanks to your awkward attic modus, which is kind of dumb for small items, you actually do own a few bags. You were busily packing all your knitting stuff into a duffel while you fended off Bel’s fussing, along with a couple changes of clothes and a few paperbacks. You’re sure there are other things you’re going to wish you’d packed, but your ride is here, so this will have to do. Your ride is a dark, sleek car, and you can tell it glides through traffic like a shark among minnows just looking at it. The driver, an oliveblood, you’re guessing, by the accents on his uniform, exits the car immediately and helps you put your bags in the trunk. Judging by his face, he either has no idea what’s going down or he’s spectacular at hiding what he’s thinking. You feel a bit strange when he opens the back door for you, but climb in anyway. The seats are very plush. You miss your prowler. The driver’s got the heater on, which provides you a perfectly good excuse to open the window after a minute or two. Even after unzipping your parka and taking your hat and gloves off, you’re still way overheated, and you’re not about to take your sweater off right now. You turn your face to the cold breeze and breathe deep to ward off carsickness. You dangle your hand out until your fingers start to go numb, bring it in to warm up, dangle it out again. Every mile or so, you casually drop a plastic stitch marker. You don’t know if Paw can follow a scent trail that sparse, but if any lusus can, it’d be him. After all that secrecy, she lives right here in Scorpius. Twenty minutes of cruising down unfamiliar streets with increasingly fancy hives and lawnrings, the car pulls to a stop in front of Cloris’s hive, a slender three story adobe building with an iron fence around the ring, made with iron roses and thorny vines winding their way through it. It’d be a cool bit of craftsmanship if you weren’t starting to hate roses. The driver opens your door for you again, your bag in hand. You thank him and enter the gate, following a stone path that appears to be made of some kind of deep red faceted crystal. Her lawnring is full of trees and flowerbeds and a well tended lawn, but it’s all clipped so aggressively neat and symmetrical that you kinda feel sorry for it. Also it’s way too lush for the beginning of dark season. Does she hire someone to sweep the snow off it? Creepy. Cloris opens the door the moment you step onto her hivestoop. You you look up at her – farther up than you expected, she’s almost as tall as Bel – and narrow your eyes slightly. By how Erskin described her, you were expecting his matesprit to be as meticulously groomed as her gardens, but this is a troll who looks exhausted and sad as hell: her silk green dress forms a striking contrast with her white skin, but her hair is uncombed and her eyes are dark circled and a little too bright, like she’s been drinking. She doesn’t smile or greet you. Instead, she holds the door open for you. “Follow me.” Fine by you. You’re not interested in making friends with her. You just want to get to Erskin as soon as possible. You hitch your duffle higher on your shoulder and nod for her to go ahead. You pass lots of fancy rooms and catch glimpses of soft lights and paintings and lots of dark potted plants out of the corner of your eye, but you don’t pay it much mind, keeping your eyes locked on Cloris’s back. Her walk is slightly unsteady. You wonder if she’s still fucked up from the party or if she’s boozing tonight to deal with Erskin being… how he is. Wordlessly, she leads you down a flight of stairs and down into a dimly lit room. You summon a short little auger-shaped psi knife, prepared to punch out the lock – or her eyes – but the door doesn’t slam shut behind you and Cloris makes no move to rip out your throat. Instead, she turns on the lights, and you let out a weird sort of gargling yelp as you lock eyes on the creepiest fucking lusus you’ve ever seen. It’s a pitcher plant. It’s bigger than your thermal hull and white as bones–the vines and leaves are white, tumbling over the stone border of its garden bed and spreading out to encompass the walls and ceiling. You remember how you once found a white dogwood bush up in the woods near your hive, and you thought it was so pretty, you wanted to dig it up and plant it by your garden. But when you looked it up on the net, you found out it wasn’t a rare white-leaved species like you’d thought. It’s a mutation, and plants can’t live without clorophyll, not on their own, so they either die soon after sprouting… or vampirize other plants. That white dogwood looked a whole lot less pretty once you knew its roots were drilled into its neighbors’ roots and drinking their sap. Now here’s this white pitcher plant in a basement where the light don’t shine… It’s appropriate, is all. Cloris turns to look at you, and you see a little knowing smile tugging at her lips. You think she’s going to throw some kind of sass your way, but instead she just pats a nearby vine absently. “Hello, mother.” You wait a moment; when Cloris doesn’t immediately move on, you lift your chin stubbornly. “You gonna try an’ feed me to your lusus, or did you lock Erskin in the fuckin’ basement like a cartoon villain?” You look around for passages that might lead to your moirail, prepared to charge off alone if need be. She glances at the thing, as if sharing a secret with it, before dipping her head and chuckling. “She isn’t hungry right now,” she says calmly. “I put him down here instead of in his cupe because I was afraid he would hurt himself otherwise. Once you see him, you’ll see what I mean.” She turns on another light, illuminating the back wall, where her lusus’s vines don’t reach. There is a steel door. There are visible dents. Cloris approaches it on tiptoe, as if afraid of waking something, and touches her fingers to the handle. “Darling? I’ve brought you your moi–” BAM. Cloris flinches back with a little cry and grimaces at you desperately. “Give me the key and go,” you say levelly.