NSC – The Endless Night – Chapter 6 – Things We Lost in the Fire

Thank you for reading! This is an NSC written by Aia and InBrightestDay, written with my approval and reference. Discussion for this story will be primarily located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.

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Nareen couldn’t stop shivering. The air wasn’t cold, but she felt cold. Breathing hard, she hugged Anisa closer to her. The mirucain could practically see the scent of the brutal gangrape, rising off both their slumped bodies and the many puddles of semen smearing the floor. Even long minutes after the last of the demons had finished having their fun, both of the slaves were still taking quick, shallow breaths.

Blue and white drifted over the surface of Anisa’s skin. Her body had been grievously injured by the rough handling from the kthid, with streaks of the much darker blue blood running down her body. The girl’s face was still befouled by the yellowy-white seed of the demons, staining her delicate features. Anisa’s eyes flickered open, the bright orange irises unfocussed as they moved towards Nareen’s face.

Nareen’s own holes were still sore, of course, but the cum oozing out of her rear and smearing her throat like phlegm looked practically arid next to the deluge that still poured out of Anisa’s holes. Nareen put her hand over the girl’s shoulder as she tried to sit up.

“Please don’t move right now,” Nareen whispered. Her gaze drifted over Anisa’s body, finding bruises wherever her eyes fell. “Just stay still for now.”

“Miss mirucain,” Anisa began, her exhausted eyes widening weakly, “are the masters finished with me?”

“Yes. They’re gone,” Nareen said softly. Anisa’s skin continued to shift with hues of colors, the blues and the whites so reminiscent of the wide open skies above Nareen’s long-lost home. It was beautiful. How could anyone think to hurt someone like this? Nareen bit her lip as she squeezed the girl’s hand. “They’re done with us. Don’t worry. You’re safe.” Nareen said, the words feeling painfully hollow.

Anisa didn’t respond. Her skin pulsed gently with light, the faint blue glow easily drowned out by the harsh red light of the demonic warren. Nareen stared unblinkingly into Anisa’s eyes as the girl opened her mouth to speak.

“Did – did I do well?” Anisa asked, “Were my holes to their satisfaction? Was I  a good fucktoy?”

“I – I’m sorry?” Nareen whispered. She didn’t know what question she’d expected, but it certainly hadn’t been that. “I don’t understand.”

“The masters,” Anisa said, voice soft and pained. “Did they find me pleasing? Did they enjoy my use?”

Nareen was as stiff as a corpse. There was an intensity in those eyes that Nareen didn’t think she’d find in the eyes of the half-unconcious slave. An expectation. Hope, almost. Like the matriarch of a starving clan consulting a shaman about the movement of the great tuskers. Nareen stared deep into Anisa’s eyes like she was a shaman herself, staring into a bowl of dice.

Nareen knew what the girl wanted.  Anisa wanted praise from the demons; to be told they valued her as a slave.  She had attached her self-worth to the idea that she was an object, worthless beyond being a good toy for the sky demons, and she wanted that reinforced.

Nareen bit her lips, tensing up so much that it hurt.

No. Absolutely not.

The winged woman, the pale one, didn’t seem to have liked this behavior either.  She just didn’t know how to get around it.  Nareen suspected, however, that she had an advantage the pale woman hadn’t.

Nareen had raised a daughter for eighteen years.  She had sat around the fire with Tireeni, had listened to her when she was upset, and had helped her, in so many other ways a mother does every day, to grow into the woman she knew she could be. Nareen knew what she needed to say. Without a second’s thought, she chose her words and met Anisa’s eyes again.

“You were amazing,” the horned woman said, smiling warmly.  “I haven’t seen anyone do something like that in a long time.”  Nareen had answered a slightly different question than the one she had been asked, and it worked as she’d hoped.  The cephalian smiled, almost shyly.

“You haven’t, Miss mirucain?” she asked.  Nareen nodded, allowing how proud she was of the girl to show on her face.

“Long ago, sometimes someone in my clan would have to draw off a predator.  You have to be selfless, and you have to be very brave.  You were both of those just now, so very much.”  She held the girl a little tighter.  “That meant a lot to me. Thank you so much, Anisa.”  In spite of her injured state, the cephalian girl beamed.

“You’re very welcome, Miss mirucain,” she said.

“Nareen,” the older woman said.  “You can call me Nareen.”  Breaking eye contact for a moment, Nareen scanned the halls, looking for a place, somewhere in the demonic warren, where Anisa would be safer.  “When you — ran into me,” she said to the girl, “You said something about your friends, right?”

“Yes!” Anisa said, struggling to rise into a standing position.  “I knew I might not succeed, but I told them I wanted to try and bring you back.”  As the cephalian tried again, the effort visible, Nareen bent down and slipped an arm around her, supporting her under her shoulders.

“Well then, we have to get you back there,” Nareen said, “So you can tell them you succeeded.”

Krathan glared at the pair of arane, peeking around a nearby corner. The two slaves didn’t need any further encouragement to flee, scuttling down whatever hole it was they’d crawled out of. Krathan felt his scowl deepen. He really should have asked Grakrash to meet him in his quarters once they were both done with their shifts.

There weren’t many reasons for Krathan to go to the upper floors of the Night. He had just about everything between his clinic and his quarters and anything he didn’t have could just be brought to him by an arane or a drone. The only thing he didn’t have when he left his bedroom earlier this morning was the cephalian.

Krathan bit down on his tongue before he had a chance to feel annoyed, reminding himself that it was apparently normal for heitera to be allowed to wander wherever they pleased. What would happen if Grakrash’s cephalian got herself caught by one of the cretins roaming about the ship? Krathan could feel his eyes twitching just thinking about it. Didn’t Grakrash realize how risky it was to just let his slave wander about?

A guttural growl reverberated from Krathan’s throat. This was normal, he reminded himself. This was normal. There was nothing to think about here.

The vet pulled his mind away from the irritating thoughts and instead directed his attention outwards. The corridors ran wide and bright here, with stone facades covering every visible surface. Granite sculptures lined the corridor like columns, depicting slaves of countless species with their bodies held in bondage. Krathan scowled at one statue in particular, depicting an arane woman with her mouth open in an eternal silent scream. How many hours of printer time did the artist charge for that sculpture? Probably enough for Krathan to have a full organ reconstruction suite positioned right next to his clinic full-time.

The Empty Night was full of statues just like it: the work of excellent artisans rendered mundane and nondescript by their sheer prevalence. Krathan looked at the arane statue again. Krathan couldn’t paint a circle to save his own life, but he felt a strange kinship with the sculptor of the work; with the lifetime of dedication to a craft that was being plastered up on a wall like some cheap computer-generated tile.

Krathan yelped as a paw smacked his back from behind. “Brother!” Grakrash laughed, “good to see you!”

“Yeah,” Krathan said. Grakrash waited for a few seconds to see if he would say something else before speaking again.

“So, Krathan. What can I do for you?” Grakrash asked, taking his paw off Krathan’s shoulder.

Krathan closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It felt like he was steeling himself before an exam. “Grakrash. I’ve been thinking about what you said. About slaves,” he sighed.

“You’re already looking far better, brother! It’s good to see that Anisa’s been good for you.” Grakrash chuckled, smirking, “So, do you have anything else to say?”

Krathan’s eyes twitched. By Shau’lun his brother’s smirk was irritating. Krathan rubbed his neck and set his jaw, “You’re right, Grakrash. Having a heitera has been very good for me” Krathan said, “I’ve been sleeping more easily lately and my blood pressure’s down. I thought it felt wrong for me to get a heitera for some reason and now I don’t even know why I ever thought that.”

“Oh I’m sure it’s just the novelty, brother. You missed getting your first when you were still young after all. It probably feels strange just buying your first slave at your age.” Grakrash chuckled, leaning in. “You are buying a heitera, right?”

“I want to,” Krathan nodded.

“That’s awesome, Krathan! Finally taking another step towards full adulthood. Maybe we can find you a proper friend next!” Grakrash laughed, giving Krathan another affectionate punch on his shoulder. “Hey, when you finally choose one, you’d better not hold out on me, alright? I’m going to be over there and I’ll take a chance to sample the piece you buy once you’re done breaking her in. Just make sure you don’t make her too loose before I get to her!” Grakrash laughed, elbowing Krathan. 

Krathan grunted in response, glancing around to make sure that no one was listening in. They weren’t talking about anything that social convention demanded be kept away from prying ears, but he somehow couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable talking about this in public. He turned back towards Grakrash.

“So, have you browsed the catalogues for a slave yet?” Grakrash asked. “Want a terran? They’re very novel. I’m sure you’ll make plenty of friends with a slave like that.” Grakrash smirked. “Then again, I do know my little brother. Thinking of something a little more exotic, aren’t you?” he teased.

Krathan could feel the blood flushing beneath his scales. He bit down on a retort and let the reflexive annoyance fade before continuing. “I’ve been looking through the price listings for cephalians without a breeding history. They’re a lot cheaper than I expected.”

“What do you mean?” Grakrash asked. “How cheap are they?”

Krathan frowned slightly. “It depends on their age, but most of them will cost between one to two hours of printer time.”

Grakrash blinked. “That’s not cheap, brother! That’s almost a fifth of a year’s starting salary for a warrior! You could buy — how many arane heitera could you buy for that?”

Krathan shrugged. “It depends on how new she is. A young adult arane that hasn’t borne any children might sell for twenty to thirty printer minutes. An arane with ten or so children might be worth five to ten minutes of printer time.”

“I didn’t realize how much price gouging they did in the exotic slave market! That’s hilarious!” Grakrash said, chuckling. “Well, if you want to buy one anyway, then I don’t blame you. Whatever slave you end up buying, make sure that you check her breeding history. You don’t want to drop that kind of money on a slave and have her die on you after one or two children.”

“Yes, I’ll keep that in mind for my second purchase, Grakrash,” Krathan said. “Actually, that is the reason I decided to come to talk to you.”

“Oh, are you going to take me up on the offer of starting with a terran slave?” Grakrash asked, raising his scaly brow. “That’s good! Get some practice in with a new slave and then buy one you actually want to keep! I’m glad you did your research, brother. Or you might have good intuition. Honestly, I can believe either of those two.”

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Krathan said, leaning against the wall. “Grakrash, about Anisa,” he said, “I want her. How much do you want?”

Grakrash went quiet. Krathan found himself shuffling uncomfortably as the silence stretched on.

“Brother, look. I know you like her,” Grakrash said, “but I’m sure you’ll find a cephalian heitera who is just as pretty and interesting as her and who’ll give you dozens of children before she expires.”

“I know, but I want to start with her,” Krathan replied. “You’ve already trained her very well. I’d like to make use of that training.”

“Brother, honestly.” Grakrash sighed, giving Krathan a soft punch on the shoulder, “Training a new heitera is most of the fun of owning one! If you’re not going to train her, might as well just fuck a public breeding slave.”

“That sounds like a bother. I doubt I’ll be spending that much time with my heitera,” Krathan said. “I’d like one that I can use to deal with my needs and then get out of my way so I can focus on my work.”

“Great! I know someone who works with breaking in new slaves for exhibitions. They usually charge a lot, but I can put in a good word for you,” Grakrash said. “Just pick whichever squid you want and I’ll make her a perfect little fucktoy for you. She’ll be able to do the same trick as Anisa and fit a cock and a dildo down her throat at the same time!”

Krathan swallowed. That did sound intensely arousing. Still. “How about this?” Krathan asked. “Four hours of printer time for Anisa. You’re going to find a new slave that you’ll want to add to your collection amongst the terrans, I’m sure. Just leave your old heitera with me.”

Grakrash frowned,“Why do you want her so much, brother?”

Krathan shrugged. “I enjoy using her. All her holes felt good. She’s beautiful,” he said. He — probably shouldn’t have mentioned what she said to him. Krathan quickly shoved the thought aside, “I’d like to buy her from you. I’d like to own her. Four hours for Anisa.”

“Krathan, you’ll find a far newer cephalian slave for far less than that,” Grakrash said. “I’ll help you find one that looks just like her. And just because you own a heitera doesn’t mean that you can’t still come over and use Anisa while she’s still alive. With your help, I’m sure she’ll still have decades of life left in her!”

“She probably can live for a long time,” Krathan said, locking his jaw. “If four hours isn’t enough, how about five?

“Krathan, this isn’t about the money! It’s — ” Grakrash fell silent, mulling over his thoughts. “Alright, Krathan. Listen. There’s trillions of other heitera out there for you to own,” he said. Krathan frowned. His elder brother hid it well, but there was a certain tension to his jaw and a narrowness to his eyes that spoke of inward tension.  “ Anisa’s not for sale, alright?”

“I have a lot of money saved up, Grakrash. Money that I am willing to give you.”

“She’s not for sale,” Grakrash repeated firmly.

“Why not?” Krathan demanded.

“I will – I’m not having my little brother own a used slave,” Grakrash said.

“Grakrash,” Krathan started, and then stopped. He knew logically, of course, that Grakrash was absolutely right. There was a reason used slaves were rarely put up for sale and even more rarely purchased. The charitable tradition of passing unwanted slaves down to the casteless to make sure that even the least fortunate people in society had slaves to vent their frustrations on existed for a reason, after all, even if it was normally used punitively on heitera that displeased their masters. Krathan knew, logically, that getting a new slave was better in every way.

“I want her, Grakrash,” he said.

Grakrash sighed, looking away. That was a heavy and tired sigh, like that of a cultivator trying to explain a simple concept to an untested child. “Just — can you at least tell me why it has to be her? About why you’re going to waste so much money on getting this one heitera. Before you’ve even had a chance to shop around and find one you would really like.”

Krathan turned his eyes up to the statue again, to  the masterpiece that was nevertheless mundane and interchangeable. It occurred to him that Grakrash’s heitera was much the same. She was a wonderful fucktoy in so many ways, but the sheer number of those like her reduced her uniqueness down to something pedestrian.

“Can I just be perfectly frank for a moment?” he asked.

“Of course,” Grakrash said. “You can always be honest with me.”

“I usually have explanations and reasoning and justifications for things like this. My career path. Why I chose to become a vet instead of a doctor. Even why I decided to join this ship, despite the fact that it’s crawling with overprivileged sunbreaker scions,” Krathan said, an edge creeping into his voice.

Grakrash laughed nervously. “Krathan, come on. You shouldn’t speak like that in public.”

“I know. I – I’m getting to my point,” Krathan said. “I want her, Grakrash. Not a slave that behaves mostly like her. Not a cephalian that is trained to imitate her. Not even her twin sister. I want her.”

Grakrash didn’t respond for a long time. He looked pensive, like he had just been asked whether he would have his favorite heitera euthanized. When he met Krathan’s eyes again, Grakrash looked more serious than Krathan had ever seen him.

“If I sell her to you, you’ll take care of her?” he asked.

“Of course.” Krathan said. “I’ll make sure she has the best medical care I could possibly provide.” He looked down at his hand. “If there’s any reason whatsoever for me to think that she needs a certain type of therapeutic attention, I won’t hesitate to give it to her. I’ll make sure she outlives her expiration by a few years at absolute minimum.”

Grakrash went silent, dwelling on his thoughts. “Brother.”

“Yes?” Krathan asked, unable to keep the hopeful edge out of his voice.

“I – I’ll need to consider it. I’m not making any promises yet,” Grakrash said.

Krathan nodded. “I have weeks of printer time saved up, brother,” he said. “When you think of a price, just call me. I’ll pay.”

Selara didn’t ask any questions when the mirucain woman staggered back into the room, one arm supporting Anisa. The cephalian’s body had warm patches where the blood ran close to the surface of her skin. Bruises. The familiar ooze of cum ran down the insides of Anisa’s thighs, trailing over the ground. There was nothing that was worth remarking over. A few of Anisa’s tentacles held large bottles of water whilst others had sheets of wet solvent towels draped over them.

The mirucain gently guided Anisa to the ground, handling the cephalian like fine porcelain. Anisa settled down slowly, wincing as she sat down on the cushion of her own limbs. Reaching for the bottle and pulling out the cork, Anisa raised the water to her lips and emptied the liquid down her throat. The mirucian did the same, gasping in relief as she drank.

“I’ve managed to convince her to return, Miss Selara,” Anisa beamed, “as promised.” Selara nodded, her lips thinning.

“You were gone for a long time,” she said, and then added  “Is there something you want to talk about?”

“Not at all, Miss Selara. Please don’t concern yourself over me,” Anisa said.

“Anisa, just — it’s safe if you want to say anything right here,” Selara said, trying to keep her voice as gentle as she could. The umbral imagined she was approaching a skittish little animal, trying her absolute best not to startle it.  “Anything you want to say.”

Anisa nodded and smiled. “Thank you, Miss Selara,” the cephalian said.

The mirucain unfolded the solvent towels and gently wiped down Anisa’s body. She cleaned Anisa’s face first, wiping the disgusting seed from Anisa’s cheeks before moving down towards the rest of the cephalian’s body. The mirucain wiped down Anisa’s thighs and groin several times. Each time, more warm cum oozed out of Anisa’s sphincter. The mirucain eventually just folded the towel over and set it beneath Anisa.

“Don’t move too much,” the mirucain whispered, picking up a fresh towel, “and tell me if it hurts, okay?”

Anisa nodded. “I will, Miss.”

Picking up a new towel, the mirucain gently raised Anisa’s hand. Moving with more delicacy than Selara initially expected from her, the horned woman carefully cleaned up the filth between Anisa’s fingers. Selara couldn’t help but feel a warm sensation in her chest as, just as the mirucain was pulling her hands back, Anisa gently took hold of the mirucain’s fingers. The horned woman froze for a moment before she took Anisa’s hand into hers and gave the cephalian girl a reassuring squeeze.

Anisa perked up as she saw Selara staring. “Oh! Please don’t worry about me, Miss Selara.” Anisa said, giving a quick bow. “Whatever you had in mind, please go on with it.”

Selara thought about saying something more for a moment. Thinking better of it, she just nodded and quickly glanced around. Sena was still in her position at the edge of the room, looking at Anisa and Nareen with a complicated but unreadable expression on her face. She narrowed her eyes and glared as Selara looked her way.

Having apparently recovered somewhat, Anisa picked up some of the towels and began gently cleaning the mirucain’s body in return. The injuries made the process risky, but both Anisa and the mirucain approached the task with a level of care Selara had rarely seen. 

“Are you sure none of this is hurting you?” The mirucain asked.

“Not at all, Miss Nareen,” Anisa said. “Thank you very much for helping me keep my body hygienic. I am very sorry that I offended you earlier, and I hope that you will forgive me.”

The mirucain stiffened. “I should be the one apologizing,” the mirucain, Nareen, whispered. Selara blinked. What had happened?

“There is no need for that, Miss Nareen. I was in the wrong.” Anisa said softly, “I am simply happy that you were willing to return with me. I do not believe I could forgive myself, after all, if I let you depart without at least seeing the help that Miss Selara can provide to you.”

Nareen turned her way. Selara quickly sat up straighter, clearing her throat. “We’re just starting off. As you can see, we aren’t very organized yet,” she said.  “I think I should be direct. I organized this because I need the help as much as you probably do.” Selara frowned. Should she be coming out and just saying that? Selara’s eyes flickered towards the mirucain woman, the flutters of anxiety stirring in her stomach.

Something soft nudged at Selara’s hand. She looked down to see one of Anisa’s long tentacles trying to worm in between her palm and her thigh. Selara lifted her hand and the tentacle coiled around her palm, giving her a reassuring squeeze. Selara smiled despite herself, straightening up again and looking the mirucain in the eye.

 “I’ll need your help as much as you need mine,” Selara said. “I can’t work miracles. I am a slave, just like you, and the things I can do for you will be limited. I can’t protect you from your master.” She breathed out slowly. “As I said before, the best I can give you is what you can give me: someone who understands your pain. Someone who’ll listen. Someone who cares.”

The mirucain, Nareen, signed softly. “It’s not what I expected. But I know I need help.” Nareen squeezed Anisa’s hand. “And I want to help as well. However I can.”

Anisa smiled brightly, drawing Nareen closer to her body in a careful but firm hug. “Thank you, Miss Nareen.”

Nareen hugged Anisa bhack, something almost approaching a smile touching her face. “Of course. Thank you too.” The mirucain gently stroked Anisa’s shoulder as the cephalian’s tentacle wound around her legs and body. Anisa’s touch was impressively precise, carefully avoiding the dozens of injuries on the mirucain’s body as Anisa gave Nareen a massage.

“A – ah! Anisa!” Nareen gasped.

Anisa stiffened. “Is something wrong?”

Nareen’s cheeks seemed to warm. “What are you doing?”

“I – you were just so stiff, Miss Nareen. I just thought — I thought I should be able to help you relax. I – I’m sorry if I did something wrong, Miss.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I was just a little surprised. That’s all,” Nareen said. “You can – erm – you can keep going if you want.” Anisa’s face instantly lit up.

“Alright, Miss! I will!” she said brightly. “Just tell me if it hurts, alright?”

Nareen nodded. “I will. If something hurts then I’ll — aaah.” Nareen moaned as Anisa’s tentacles pressed down on her back. Even from this angle, Selara could see the muscles of the limb undulating and curling as it worked at Nareen’s body. The results were clear and immediate. The horned woman’s body practically melted in Anisa’s grasp. Even watching, Selara couldn’t help but flush slightly.

“You…well, you seem to be very good at that, Anisa,” Selara said.  “Did you do this for a living in the past?”

Anisa blinked, tilting her head. She looked visibly confused. “Before what, Miss?”

“Before you became captive.” Selara said quickly, speaking the words like she’s handling a hot pan. “Were you a professional of some sort? A physical therapist, perhaps?”

“I – I can’t say, Miss Selara. My apologies,” she said softly.

“I’m sorry,” Selara said softly, squeezing the tentacle still wrapped around her hand. “If it hurts too much, you don’t need to share.” Anisa glanced to the side, visibly ashamed.

“It’s not that, Miss Selara. I wouldn’t mind sharing if I could,” she said, tightening her small fists. “I just can’t. I’m sorry.” Selara drew her lip into a thin line, her eyes twitching.

“Is it your master? Has he forbidden you to talk about your past?” she asked. “It’s alright if you want to say something, Anisa. No one here is going to tell anyone.” Selara glanced at Sena. “Isn’t that right?”

“I won’t let anyone hear a single word,” Nareen said firmly.

“If her master has a rule against speaking, then don’t. I’d bet that collar of hers has a direct line to his computer,” Sena said. “Not sure why you’re even bothering to ask us. Do you think I’m going to waste my time tracking down the master of some slave I barely know to tattle on her? Of course not. Fuck off.”

Selara offered Anisa a smile. “Like I said, Anisa. Please don’t worry. We’re here to listen to you, whatever you need to say.”

Anisa’s eyes fell to the ground. “I wish I had something I could tell you about, Miss Selara. I just don’t. My master wouldn’t forbid me from doing anything like that. He is kind and merciful.” Anisa sighed. “I just can’t. I don’t remember. I have no idea what I used to do before Master Grakrash showed me my proper place in the universe.”

There was silence. Nareen winced, her eyes filling with new tears as she hugged Anisa to her. Selara’s mouth just hung open. Sena just stared ahead quietly, her eyes hard.

“You’ve forgotten?” Selara asked, “Did your master cause some kind of — ” Selara paused. How could she put this delicately? “Did your head get severely injured at some point? Did a – did a vet ever take a look at you?” she asked. “Did they have anything to say about your memory loss?”

“I’m afraid not, Miss Selara. None of the vets my master has taken me to has even mentioned it,” Anisa said plainly.

Selara pursed her lips. The monsters preferred their slaves to last a long time. Or they usually did, at least. She’d seen plenty to indicate that even Master Avraks’s cruelty was but a pale shadow of the sadistic appetites of some other kthid.

“Anisa, let’s not think about what you don’t remember. Can you tell me about something you do remember?” Selara asked hopefully, “Anything is fine. Was there somewhere that you used to like visiting? Was there something that you used to like to do? Some significant other in your life, perhaps?”

Anisa shook her head. “I’m sorry, Miss Selara,” Anisa whispered, genuine pain in her voice. Nareen hugged Anisa a little tighter in response, seemingly soothing Anisa somewhat. “There’s nothing I can really share.”

Selara winced, “I’m sorry, Anisa. I never should have brought this up,” she said softly.

“It’s fine, Miss Selara! It’s no trouble at all! There’s no way that you would have known about that, and I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I let you get upset over something that was quite clearly negligence on my part!” Anisa said quickly, clear panic in her voice. “Besides, when you think about it it’s far better that I don’t remember anything, isn’t it?”

Anisa fingered her collar as she spoke, her fingers drifting over the heavy metal band. “I’ve had the opportunity to see many new acquisitions that the masters have taken aboard this ship during their various harvests,” Anisa said. “I’ve seen how so many of the slaves scream and cry and weep for their lost friends and family. Metzili cries every single night because she still can’t forget about her companion. It’s awful.”

Anisa forced a smile. “Remembering friends, family, and things like that are just things that bring pain. Anisa trembled softly, the tips of her tentacles curling up like wilting plants. “Surely this means that I am fortunate, does it not?” she asked weakly. “I don’t need to feel pain or fear or loss. I don’t need to cry myself to sleep every night like Metzili does. I can just focus all of my mind and body on serving my master instead of worrying about useless things like my past. It’s better this way.”

Selara had never met Anisa’s master, but she couldn’t help growing quietly furious at him. “I’m not sure it’s good not to remember anything, Anisa,” she said softly, looking towards the mirucain. “What do you think, Nareen?”

Nareen stiffened. “About what?” she asked quickly.

“You don’t think that remembering the past is bad, do you?” Selara asked. “Don’t you have happy memories? Of the time before all of this? Memories that give you comfort and provide some warmth for when things get truly cold and dark and you can’t even see the heat of your hand in front of your face?” Selara asked, her voice’s tone bordering on pleading. “You have people who used to care about you, don’t you? People you used to care about?”

Nareen didn’t say a word, but Selara could see the response written all over the horned woman’s face.

The sound of bitter, derisive laughter filled the room. Selara turned around and glared at Sena. “Is there a problem?” Selara demanded, unable to keep the edge out of her voice. “If you want to join in on the conversation, you’re welcome to. If something’s wrong, then feel free to speak up.”

“No, there’s no problem,” the faliran said. “Why are you trying to force that woman, Narea or whatever, to play your pointless game?”

Selara took deep breaths. Lots and lots of deep breaths. She counted down from ten before turning to face Sena again. “Anisa says it’s good that she doesn’t have any memories,” Selara said, turning to glare at the faliran. “You don’t think that’s a good thing, do you?”

Sena growled. “Don’t play dumb with me, umbral.” The faliran muttered. “Do you really not see the problem with asking people about the things they used to have? The things they can never have again? Friends? Family? A home? Happiness? Do you really see nothing wrong with that?” Selara was quiet as Sena turned her head away, grim triumph on her face.

“It sure is easy to talk the big talk about how to act altruistically. It sure is easy to tell someone else to open their old wounds for you. It’s not so easy when you’re the one who needs to tear pieces off your shell, is it?” Sena demanded.

“Leave her alone,” Nareen growled.

What?” Sena demanded.

“I said leave her alone!” The mirucain snapped, holding Anisa tight. “She’s trying her best, okay? If you’re not going to help then why don’t you just shut up!” Nareen shouted, her voice echoing.

Nareen blinked, the anger quickly draining from her face as if she managed to catch herself for the first time. The mirucain breathed out a haggard breath, clinging to Anisa a little more tightly.

“I didn’t mean to shout. It’s just – I really don’t know how to – she just won’t shut up!” The mirucain woman whispered, her jaw tightening. “Shouldn’t have screamed.”

Selara took a deep breath. “It’s fine. It was my fault. Sena’s right. The past is a painful place. I should’ve known that better than just about anyone. I shouldn’t have asked this of you. I guess subconsciously, this is just something I really didn’t want to think about.” Strangely, as she said all this Selara could feel the tension in her muscles ebb away. She could feel herself growing calmer. “It was my idea to call this meeting in the first place, after all. I ought to be the one to fly ahead and make sure the sky’s clear.”

“As long as you understand,” Sena grumbled. “There’s no point talking about the things we can’t have anymore. Just do what Anisa did and forget. It’s easier that way.”

“No,” Selara said resolutely, “You’re wrong about that. Memories hurt. Thinking about people you’ve lost hurts. Being reminded of the things I’ve lost will always hurt, no matter how many more years I manage to survive in this place, but just because my past is painful doesn’t mean it’s something I should forget. I — don’t talk about this very much, but Master Avraks takes a horrible level of interest in my past.” Selara’s voice grew bitter at that. “He loves reminding me of my broken promises, of the things he and the monsters have stolen from me, and all the things I can never have now. A homeworld. A family. A lifemate. Things he stole from me, just so he could have a slave to abuse when he felt like it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Anisa said softly. Nareen’s mouth stayed closed, but her eyes spoke the same sentiments as Anisa. Selara smiled sympathetically. “You know what that’s like, don’t you?” she asked the mirucain.

Nareen stiffened, nodding grimly. “My master won’t stop taunting and mocking me about what he did to my clan. About what he did to my daughter. He just keeps repeating it again and again and I just – I can’t – I’m sorry, I just can’t.” Fresh tears rolled down Nareen’s cheek, splattering over her bare thighs and Anisa’s draping tentacles. 

“I wouldn’t make you share anything you don’t want to, not even if I could,” Selara assured. “I’ve just been reminded of something that I probably should’ve realized a long time ago: while it’s easier to just lie down and close our ears, we shouldn’t forget that we’re not suffering through this alone. We aren’t the only ones with loved ones we’ll never see again or homes that have been reduced to cinders. We’re all going through this together.”

Selara was silent as she mentally gathered herself. She was never one for speeches, but that’s not what she needed right now. She could just talk about the things she’d experienced. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could do this. She needed to do this.

“I was a soldier,” she began, “born just before the end of the Final War.” It had been so many years, and yet the memories were fresh. “I grew up wanting to be a soldier, ready to fight beneath the flag of the Eastern Union. The war was over by the time I entered puberty though.”

Despite herself, Selara couldn’t help but smile. “I was annoyed when they stopped releasing those war propaganda films. They were my favorite thing to watch on the family computer whenever I made it home. I kept asking my parents to get me my own computer like all of my friends, but my mother kept refusing. I was especially annoyed about her making it harder for me to watch that stuff, since she was an officer and actually served in the southeastern theater command. That ended up helping me a lot, though, since when dad was using the family computer, I spent the time outside practicing flying.”

The flickers of eyes towards her mutilated wings didn’t go unnoticed by Selara. She didn’t let that dissuade her.

“It was a rather surreal experience. I grew up expecting to fight in the greatest war the world would ever see, and then suddenly there was peace. Without a war to fight in, we needed to learn to live together with people we’d grown up seeing as enemies. Fortunately I didn’t have to go through most of it. By the time I was old enough to enlist, the prospect of another war seemed as far away as the stars themselves. Our military space stations were decommissioned, our big war machines were either disassembled or sent to storage hangers, and the nuclear warheads were removed from our sky cities and replaced with viewing platforms and civilian shuttles. In fact, most of that was done before I was even old enough to be interested in males.”

Selara found herself smiling softly. It felt almost childish to be talking about such things again. Her wings, strangely, didn’t seem to ache quite as much as they usually did. She turned to Anisa and Nareen and found the pair staring at her blankly. It took Selara a few moments to realize why, and the umbral woman almost laughed at herself.

“I guess you don’t understand a lot of what I just said,” Selara said sheepishly, scratching her ear. “Sorry, I’m really not used to talking to other species, as you can tell.”

“Sky — cities?” Nareen asked, chewing each syllable. Selara could see the desync between the shapes the mirucain’s lips were making and the sound that was actually reaching her ears through the implanted translators.

“It’s like a city, but in orbit around the planet,” Selara explained. “For the first ones, we dug up materials from the ground, fabricated the parts in our factories, and then launched the pieces into orbit with rockets and skyhooks.”

“Oh! I see! A bit like this ship,” Anisa said, eyes wide and sparkling.

“Yeah, I guess that’s right. It’s like a ship, but without the engines for powered space flight. The city just orbits the planet. They were some of the most amazing things I ever saw as a child,” Selara said, “though I have to admit there was a part of me that found them a bit boring at the time. I remember thinking how much more impressive it’d be if the entire station was bristling with rockets and guns and particle beams.” Selara laughed, feeling warmth flush through her chest. She reached down and touched Anisa’s tentacle again. The bells on her back chimed slightly at her movement, but that didn’t bother her very much. “Kids don’t appreciate space colonies enough, I guess.”

“Hey. It was – sorry. This is a bit — I don’t remember if you told me your name before,” Nareen said.

“Oh, sorry,” Selara said.  “I’m Selara. Sixty years old. I’ve been a captive for eight years now.” Nareen nodded slowly.

“Selara,” the mirucain said, feeling around the sounds with her tongue, “what’s a city? And what’s an orbit?”

Selara paused, and then laughed again. She quickly raised a hand at the flash of annoyance on Nareen’s face. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you. I was laughing at myself. A city is where a lot of people gather and live together, like a village or clan home, but much, much bigger, with thousands or even millions of people.”

The mirucain’s eyes widened. Nareen sat still for a moment, concentrating like she was mentally trying to work through the number. Selara wondered if the mirucain language had words for numbers that big.  Nareen looked back up with clear awe in her eyes.

“And these — cities.” The mirucain carefully pronounced each word, “they fly? Like insects do?”

“Well, sort of,” Selara said. “They don’t really fly.”  She thought for a moment, and then continued with “if you throw a stone, what happens to it?”

“It falls back to the ground,” Nareen said.

“Right, and if you throw it harder?”

“It goes farther before it hits the ground.”

“Exactly.  Well, it turns out that if you threw the stone just hard enough, it would go all the way around the planet and come back to you from the other side.  Air slows things down, so you need to go up high enough, where there is no air, and then get it moving, and then it’ll just keep going around the planet in a circle, which is what an orbit is.  That’s what we did, we got everything up there, got it moving at the right speed—what we call orbital velocity—and then we put the cities together, and they stayed up there, going around the planet.”

“That’s amazing!” Nareen exclaimed. “So your people managed to master the same sorcery that the demons did?”

“Sorcery?” Selara asked, confused.

The mirucain woman shuddered, but she kept looking at Selara. “I’ve seen the demons make their limbs regrow and make wounds vanish with their magic, use their wands to kill at hundreds of paces and see things that happened in the past and over the hill like it’s nothing,” the mirucain said quickly, her voice tinged with a mixture of fear and awe. “Can you also do that? Can your people do that?”

Selara took a few moments to reorient herself, figuring out how to explain this. “We can do some of that. Our medical technology isn’t anywhere as advanced as what you’ll see around here, but it’s enough to close wounds and injuries.” Selara said. “We also do have guns—those are probably the wands you’re thinking of—and surveillance technology. We developed that long before we were able to build the sky cities; it was technology from lifetimes before I was even born. We used it to build our…burrow cities long before we took to the skies.”

“That sounds wonderful, Miss Selara,” Anisa said softly, leaning her cheek up against Nareen’s arm like a pillow. “Your cities must have been beautiful.”

It took a long time for Selara to find the words to continue. “Yes, they really were, the historical cities especially. Some of the art from the first golden age was still standing in the museums. They had to build replicas of the heat frame, since they were afraid that if they heated the old artifacts the artwork would degrade. They reconstructed every single piece they had using the same materials and heated it with real fire.”

“Miss Selara, my apologies for needing to ask for so many explanations,” Anisa said, “but what’s a heat frame?”

“Oh, that’s a type of artwork we’ve had since we learned how to work metal,” Selara explained. “You take a metal wire frame and heat it up, using either a fire or a geothermal vent, and depending on what material you use it loses heat at different rates and so it turns different colors. Something like that, anyway; it’s not really something I’ve had much training with.”

“You create artwork that can be colored by the incandescent heat of the metal?” Anisa asked, a clear wonder in her voice, “The same way that branding iron is when it’s heated for marking a disobedient piece of property?”

“No, it’s nowhere near that hot. You just need to heat — oh!” Selara paused, feeling silly that she hadn’t realized it sooner. She gestured to her eyes. “Your eyes are different from mine. Umbrals like me perceive light differently. I can’t see some of the colors you can see. I can’t compare the skin tone between you two, for example, but we can also see colors that you can’t. If something is really cold, it looks black to us. If something is a bit warmer, like a body, then the colors are also different.” Selara glanced at Anisa and Nareen. “One look, for example, and I can tell that your body is much warmer than Anisa’s without needing to touch either of you.”

Nareen stared at her own hand like it had just grown an extra finger. “That’s amazing, Miss Selara!” Anisa exclaimed. “I never realized at all. I just knew that umbrals like yourself were really sensitive to light.”

“That’s also true,” Selara said, shielding her eyes with her hand as she glanced into the blinding corridor. “We didn’t really have light this bright. Not on our side of the world.”

Nareen furrowed her brow. “How is that possible? Is there no sun where you come from?”

“We do have a sun, but we don’t have sunrise and sunset,” Selara said. “Our world is tidally locked. It, ah, means that our world never turns. One side always faces the sun, and the other side always faces away from it. Half of our world’s always bright and hot and half is always dark and cold. My people were born on the dark side, growing up in the shadow of our world. Our ancestors evolved eyes that let them hunt down fleeing prey by tracking the body heat they give off. In the darkness of the world’s shadow, they light up like little stars.” Anisa gasped.

“That sounds so fantastical. Like it’s from a myth,” she whispered, her voice almost reverent. “It seems like the kind of thing Master Grakrash would have shown me before – well, before — ” Anisa’s voice drifted off. Nareen pulled Anisa closer into the hug. There was a quiet intimacy there, so different from the brutish way the monsters handled their mates, that made Selara’s heart ache a little.

Selara patted Anisa’s tentacle. “It’s real. Believe me, I grew up in that world. With scorching hot winds that blew in from the bright side of the world, it was easy for us to ride the winds up into the sky.” Selara wasn’t just smiling: she was beaming. The memories rushed through her like she was seeing it all over again. “I used to love to soar through the skies with my squad, the air rushing over my wings while I looked at the landscape below us. We could look down from above and see steam geysers and volcanoes from dozens of kilometers away. We’d just see multicolored rings spreading outwards as blasts of steam heated up the stone around it in concentric gradients. And when it erupted — when one of the geysers erupts, it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.”

Selara closed her eyes. The memories were so vivid that she could see the scene in front of her all over again. “The jet leaves the vent superheated and shoots up to half a kilometer into the air. The steam then turns into water droplets as it hits the cool air above. The difference in temperature means that the inside of the steam jet stays very hot while the outside is supercooled. It’s almost a standing prism, a tower of beautiful colors that would exist for only a moment before it scattered into the dark winds.” Selara went silent for a moment. “It wasn’t something we saw often. It was a rare sight; an eruption of color we’d be able to fly around, like a show the world was putting on just for us.”

Selara opened her eyes again, feeling a tear run down her face. Strangely, she wasn’t in pain. She wasn’t sad. If anything, she was relieved. The umbral woman smiled and sat up, turning her eyes back towards the cephalian and the mirucain.  Children of different worlds, and yet they looked at her with the same rapt attention.

“That sounds like such a wonderful sight, Miss Selara. If only I was able to see it for myself,” The cephalian said, her voice tinged with sadness.

“I don’t think there’d be much for you to see, unfortunately. It was a sight our eyes, evolved to track prey across the night lands, would be able to see, a sight that was born for the children of Penumbra to witness.” Selara paused for a moment. “I’m sure there are sights like that for you as well; things you can see that I’ll never really be able to appreciate the same way.”

Anisa smiled and Nareen nodded slowly, her eyes unsure. “That really does sound like a wonderful sight, Miss Selara. I would have loved to be able to see your world, even if I wouldn’t ever really be able to see it in the same light that you do.”

“I’d show you in a heartbeat if I could,” Selara said, stroking Anisa’s tentacle. “I wish I could show you all. I wish I could see it again for myself.”

Everyone was quiet. Selara did as well, looking up towards the light at the top of the room. It was dull to her eyes, but she knew that to all of the other captives in this deserted room the light would have been bright. Selara couldn’t help but wonder if they were able to picture her soaring free in Penumbra’s sky, or whether she had been beaten down so much that it would be impossible for them to imagine her as anything but a slave. Did it even matter? In this moment, she could imagine soaring over those heat-painted hills and valleys all over again while the world shifted and  exhaled its iridescent breath.

“My ancestors built their first homes in the caves. With the winds that kept blowing in and out of the day half, it was too dangerous to try to build on the surface, at least until we figured out stone,” Selara said. “We started living in natural caves, but then we spread out from there. Once we managed to start working stone and rock into tools, we began digging.”

The time Selara spoke of was something she saw through books and movies, but in this moment it felt like she had lived through it all. “By the time I was born, our cities stretched kilometers beneath the surface of Penumbra. Thousands of cities in the hollowed out underground of the world.”

“With millions of people living in a single city?” Nareen asked, voice astounded. Selara nodded.

“Several million. Almost a hundred million when two adjacent cities merged.” Selara said, “We tried to build our cities in areas where the magma veins flowed, where the heartbeat of the world would warm our homes and make sure that our crops and livestock could survive beneath the surface.  We carved the cities from softer stone by digging out and down, with large pillars left behind to hold up the plates above us. We built our overcities, the ones above ground, with tall spires that reached up so that younger adults, who weren’t very used to using their own strength or the updraft winds to fly yet, could jump off for that extra speed they needed to take off.” Selara smiled, looking up past the stone carvings of violated alien women and up towards the tiled ceiling above. “Our cities would come awake when most of us woke and when we came back to sleep. Hundreds of thousands of people would take to the air and fill the entire sky with the light of their body heat.”

Selara turned back towards her two audience members. “From above, we would be able to see the heat frames. Half roadsign and half artwork, we could use it to read our way through the city like it was all one massive map. It might be hard to tell the buildings apart from the air, but the massive heat frames made sure that you never got lost. The walls of the cave would glow as well. The heat that ran through the stone would heat up the perimeter of the city, giving the stone a natural color that we could see from the other side of the city. It was — ” Selara reached up and wiped tears from her eyes.

“It sounds truly wonderful, Miss Selara,” Anisa said softly.

“It – it really was,” Selara whispered. “That wasn’t even my favorite sight. Not even close. I could still remember it right now, like I just saw it yesterday. It was in our sky cities.” Selara made herself pause, barely able to quell her own eagerness.

“I still remember the first time I went up to the sky cities. It was with my dad. I can’t even remember what it was for. He needed to be there for work or he was meeting someone from work. He was going out of the city  so of course I wanted to go with him. I kept pestering him until he took me.” Selara said quickly, growing increasingly breathless. “I wasn’t really that impressed at first. The shuttle we rode up on didn’t have any windows to make it as structurally sound and as small as it could be.  When we got there, Dad was busy talking to some woman I hadn’t met before. I got bored and kept complaining until he said that I could go and play outside if I wanted as long as I promised him that I wouldn’t fly anywhere or try to leave the building. Honestly, I think by that point I would have agreed to do anything to get out of that room.”

Selara’s eyes remained fixed on the ceiling. The windowless exterior of the Night wasn’t unlike the shuttle. “The sky city was built in the shape of a torus. We didn’t have whatever technology the kthid use to create their gravity,” Selara said, “so our sky cities were built to be massive rings. They constantly spun, creating a centrifugal force. Everything falls away from the center of rotation, so out is down.  It served as an artificial gravity we could walk and fly in.”

Selara stopped to wipe away her tears. “The inner surface of the torus was this transparent ceiling. It looked like glass, but was actually a reinforced plastic polymer. I could see through it. The structural arches stretched across the sky. The countless buildings that were layered along the sides like the banks rising away from a river. Beyond that, I could see Penumbra. My home.” Selara’s voice became soft. “I think I’ll remember that until the day I die. The heat of the scouring winds blowing in from the bright side of the planet, painting smears of beautiful colors across the landscape. Painting the peaks of the mountains until they glowed like veins of metal. I remember thinking back then how wonderful space was. How amazing everything my people had created could really be, and I just couldn’t help but wonder what amazing things the future and the boundless sky would hold for us.”

No questions came from any of the others in their little group. Not even from Anisa. They understood. Somehow, they all understood. “If I was asked, back then, about whether or not I wanted to know what was coming my way,about what the monsters would do to my world, I’m not sure what I would have said. Would I rather live in happy ignorance, or would I have liked to know? To live with that knowledge. To try to marshall my people for a fight against an enemy we couldn’t hope to defeat. To say goodbye to my friends and to hug Mom, Dad and Ki-leth one last time. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Anisa didn’t miss a beat before crossing the brief space between them and pulling Selara into a hug. Anisa’s tentacles shifted quickly, catching Selara before she could tip over. Nareen glanced between the two for a long moment before shuffling forwards and joining the hug.

Selara couldn’t tell if she just laughed or cried, but her voice did something. She returned the hug. Anisa’s hug was firm, enthusiastic, and it bordered on being painful. Nareen’s, on the other hand, was significantly more careful and measured, done in such a way that would avoid having too much of the muscular woman’s wounded body pressing up against Selara.

“Thank you for listening. I know that was a rather long story,” Selara said softly, looking back towards Sena. The faliran was looking at the floor, a gloomy expression on her face. “You’re not wrong, Sena. That did hurt to think about. But I’m glad I did. I’m glad this still hurts, because it means that I still care. And I’m glad that you all kept listening to me.”

Selara thinned her lips. “I have no idea how much longer I can keep going on like I am now. I do have my own ambitions, even now, and I’m really not sure if they’ll work out. I don’t even know how they could. I just want to say that I’m very grateful that you’re here right now. That you heard me talk. So that even if I fail, someone might still remember I was here.”

It was honestly good to speak without a filter again. Her heart still ached, but it felt like it ached a lot less. It wasn’t so much a seething wound anymore so much as the ache of one that had been given a chance to close over. A small hand, pierced through by a sickeningly large ring of metal, reached forwards and gently touched Selara’s.

“Thank you for sharing that with me, Miss Selara,” Anisa said softly. “That was wonderful. I could practically paint those images you were describing. I might have even been able to if I just had paint somewhere.” Anisa’s eyes became dejected and she found herself looking downwards. “I’m not sure that I would like to remember what my life was before I started dedicating myself towards the pleasure and entertainment of my master. I’m grateful that I don’t remember anything. It was like my master said. I don’t even have a true brain. Trying to think for myself is just pure arrogance,” Anisa said, seemingly not even processing the words coming out of her mouth. “But I’m glad you remember your past, Miss Selara. I’m glad you trusted us enough to share it with us. Thank you.” The cephalian said, bowing her head.

“I was the matriarch of my clan,” Nareen said softly.

Selara and Anisa turned simultaneously. The mirucain glanced between them, gulping nervously but continuing nonetheless. “I was the leader of my clan. Their huntress. Their protector. I was supposed to be their protector.” The mirucain woman let out a long sigh, her voice heavy and tired.

Anisa gently took both of Nareen’s hands in hers, taking a seat right in front of the mirucain. Nareen seemed to falter for a moment, but she straightened up as she met Anisa’s eyes. As if absorbing strength from Anisa, Nareen spoke again. “I was a matriarch. I won that position several seasons before I was – before I was taken captive,” she said quickly. “The former matriarch had led our clan well, but she was getting old and it was probably better that she was given a chance to step back and get a chance to rest. She was strong though. Really strong, even though she was getting old.”

“You fought her for her position?” Anisa asked, incredulous.

“Of course. It’s the right thing to do, after all,” Nareen said, sitting up a little straighter and beaming proudly.

Selara blinked at the sight. The rare mirucains that Selara had seen were far more furtive and fearful than even the other slaves, despite their impressive physiques. Nareen  had been much like that when she’d first entered  the room. A part of that seemed to be slipping away, however. Nareen was puffing out her chest in something that could almost be described as pride, with an unambiguous smile on her face. 

“We could complain all we liked about how old she was getting and how unsuitable she was, but if none of us could best her in a simple contest of strength, then we’d need to stay quiet. It’s the matriarch’s duty to honestly defend her title against any challenger she might face with the full force of her strength, just like it’s up to anyone who has any complaint about the way the matriarch does things to hold their tongue until they can best her in the ring and rise as the leader.”

Anisa gasped. Selara smiled faintly. She doubted Nareen was much of a performer, but there were probably few audience members that were as validating as the cephalian girl. “If I may ask, Miss Nareen. Did you get a lot of challengers for your position?”

Nareen laughed. A throaty and honest laugh that came up from deep within her gut. Selara could scarcely believe that such a sound was coming from the mouth of a slave. “Of course! The day after I managed to beat the old crone, practically the entire clan’s women were lining up to take a swipe at my position! I fought them off one by one, of course.” Nareen smirked. “If they doubted that I was the strongest, I’d show them as many times as they damn well pleased!”

Nareen seemed to shrink a little as the reality of her position returned. The smile didn’t leave her face, however. “I loved being a matriarch, of course. I led my clan to expand our territory, to fell beast after beast, and to vanquish every single enemy that dared try to take our home away from us! We fought all of them off, me and my clan. We were strong. In fact, we were unbeatable. We – we thought we were unbeatable.” Gloom crept into Nareen’s voice. Anisa squeezed her small arms around Nareen’s shoulder, not quite able to hug the woman with her small limbs.

“So you were the clan’s leader? That sounds amazing.” Anisa cooed. “If I may know, Miss Nareen, what exactly does a matriarch do?”

“All kinds of things. A matriarch decides when we hunt, when we’ll need to try to go out to search for more prey, and also organizes the womenfolk who are ready for a fight when we need to fend off the clans that invade our turf.” Nareen smirked. “Of course, it’s not all responsibilities either. Being a matriarch gets you some really nice perks. You get to pick what cut of the meat you want, and you also get to pick which one of the males to have fun with.” Nareen beamed, her cheek flushing with extra heat. Selara found herself blushing slightly at that.

“You mean, you just go to one of the men of your clan and — have him?” Selara asked. “just like that?”

“Well, of course! As the matriarch, it’s only fair that I get to pick which male I want, right? Oh, I can just imagine it right now,” Nareen sighed contentedly, gently stroking Anisa’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I’m much more gentle with females,” the mirucain said softly, her eyes dancing.

“Where was I? Oh right! We’ll come home, smelling of sweat and dust and maybe even blood. The males will all be there, the cute little things, ready to greet us. They’ll blush and cry when I pounce them, of course, but they’ll end up enjoying it. They always do.” Nareen laughed. She stopped quickly, wincing as the pain lashed her body. “I do try to pick the favorite male of my latest challenger, of course, and ride him from dusk to dawn. Keeps the women motivated, you know, and makes sure that I have plenty of chances to show everyone that I’m still the best!” Nareen’s smile faded. “I could have defended that post for another dozen rains and droughts.” Nareen whispered. “Damn it. Damn it all.”

Selara put a hand on Nareen’s shoulder. The mirucain gritted her teeth and bowed her head. “The matriarch can’t just be strong,” Nareen explained. “To be the matriarch, I needed to prove that I was the strongest. Always. Every time. I couldn’t ever lose. It was the only way I was going to be able to protect my clan. That was how my mother taught it to me and how her mother taught it to her. I was supposed to be their protector. The pillar that holds up the clan. I was supposed to protect them from everything, and I thought that I would be able to protect them from everything.” Nareen sobbed.

“Please don’t cry, Miss Nareen,” Anisa said gently. “I’m sure you did your best. The best anyone could possibly have done.”

“I know! I know I did! It’s just — how am I supposed to face my clan? All our males are dead, and what few womenfolk we still have are being treated like just meat by those demons!” Nareen sobbed, her body trembling.

“I’m sure they don’t blame you, Miss Nareen. Just go ask them. I’m sure they aren’t angry at you. You did your absolute best, after all,” Anisa said softly, gently caressing Nareen’s face. “I’m sure they’ll tell you that they know you did your best and they don’t blame you for what happened.”

“I can’t do that!” Nareen protested, gritting her teeth. “I can’t just go around and beg my clan members for help. I’m supposed to be their protector, not their dependant! If they know that even I have no idea what to do and how to help them, then what am I supposed to do? How can I still call myself a matriarch when I can’t protect a single one of them?” Nareen trembled, her head falling forwards dejectedly. Anisa squeezed Nareen’s hands, looking visibly distressed.

“I came here because I thought you had some special secret. Some sorcery or something that I could take back to my clan and help them out a little.” Nareen looked down. “I guess that sounds a bit dumb.”

“If there was some secret then it would have spread long ago,” Sena said, her sharp voice like a whip through the air. Selara flinched at that. She had forgotten the faliran was there. “There’s not a way to stop this from hurting or to get us out of here. We’re stuck here. We can just wait here until our time runs out or until those creatures get tired of us and throw us away.” Sena narrowed her eyes. “That’s all there is to it.”

Nareen wilted. Selara had to forcefully restrain herself from saying something she would regret. Anisa reached out and gently touched Nareen’s face, running her fingers through the mirucain’s hair and drawing the eyes of the horned woman to her face. “What was your home like, Miss Nareen? Where did your clan live?”

Nareen smiled softly, putting a hand over Anisa’s. “We lived in warrens. We dug tunnels into the ground and then widened them out into rooms, with little holes opened to the sky to let in the light. At night, we mostly just felt our way around. No fires in the warren or we’d attract evil spirits. Large fires are above ground only,” Nareen explained. “We built our home in the hills so they wouldn’t flood when the rains came. When I was a kit, I just loved standing on the hills and looking out for the great tuskers. I loved running to my older sister every single time I spotted a herd that was grazing in our territory. Of course by the time my aunt let her join in on the hunt, she no longer really needed me to find the herds for her.”

“Miss Nareen,” Anisa asked, her voice soft, “if I may: what’s a great tusker?”

“Oh, they’re great! They’re big! It took five women all working together to carry a single leg. They’re giant things with thick, gray, leathery skin and giant tusks poking out of their mouths and long horns rolling off of their head,” Nareen said, her voice like some older soldier telling some tall tale by a campfire in front of her squadmates. “If one of them managed to corner a lone huntress, she’d be done for. It’s why we made sure to only ever hunt them as a clan.”

Nareen went silent for a long time, staring at the air in front of her face. She reached up, as if for a phantom image. “It was the part I loved most about being a matriarch. Well, apart from playing with the males, of course.” Nareen smirked. “I just loved running through those beautiful golden fields with the wind on my face and the sunlight bouncing off of those leaves as we tried to separate the great tuskers from their herd. There’s nothing quite like tasting fresh meat after a long day.”

Nareen’s face fell. “I just wish I could eat meat again. It’s been so long. My teeth hurt. My stomach hurts. I wish master would give me real food. Not that white block crap,” Nareen sighed. “It sounds petty, I know. After everything, that’s the thing I find the most frustrating. It’s just — it’s like they’re trying to make every part of our lives miserable.”

“It’s alright, Miss Nareen. It’s not petty at all,” Anisa said gently, pulling Nareen closer into another gentle hug. “I hope that your master treats you better and feeds you properly again soon. Just please hang in there. I’m sure you’ll discover something that’ll make him happy with you once again.”

Selara stiffened at the cephalian’s words. The mirucain, however, didn’t seem offended. There was a clear note of sadness in her eyes, but it was also intrinsically intertwined with sympathy. Nareen hugged Anisa close to her body again. “Yeah, I hope things get better as well,” Nareen said, clinging to Anisa.

The sound of hard claws scraping over the ground was enough to draw Selara’s eyes. Sena staggered over, wincing as each step sent clear pangs of pain through the woman’s insectile body. She put one clawed hand on her hip, glaring downwards. “You done?” Sena asked pointedly, her voice acrid.

Selara narrowed her eyes. There was a dangerous tone to the faliran’s voice, a tone Selara really would rather not deal with right now. “Yes, I’m done,” Nareen said. “Yeah. I think I feel better.”

“I’m glad,” Selara said, eyeing the faliran warily. “Sena, I’m glad you decided to come join us.” Selara was being extremely diplomatic here. “I know we didn’t really have the best of starts, but I’d rather you didn’t take any of this personally.”

Sena snorted, dropping to the ground. The faliran folded up her legs and leaned forwards. Her aggressive posture served only to accentuate the spikes and plates of natural armor covering her body. “I was a soldier by the time the kthid got to our worlds,” she said, scowling, “but I didn’t start out that way. I was actually an athlete when all this started.”

“An athlete?” Nareen asked, dumbfounded.

“I play sports and people watch me. Look, it really doesn’t matter that much. I doubt you’d know what sports are and I’m not in the mood to explain. Just know that I was an athlete before I was a soldier,” Sena said, waving her hand dismissively. There was a certain level of annoyance to how she approached the question, like it was one she’d already answered a dozen times. “My sister though? She was an explorer. She was on one of the hundreds of ships we sent out every year to look for new worlds. To search for lives or minerals and whatever. It’s not important. Point is: she was out there between the stars.” Sena clenched her jaw. “Her ship was the first one that actually confronted the kthid.”

The faliran looked up, glaring at Selara. “Do you know about us falirans and our shared mind?”

“A bit,” Selara said, licking her lips nervously as she scoured her memories for anything she could remember. “I’ve seen those monsters abuse you as a group before. They hit one of you, and another one of you feels it. Like it’s some kind of silent communication. Maybe electromagnetic waves?”

“No. It’s quantum entanglement. Our minds are — you know what? That’s also not important. You want to know about me? Then you don’t need to care about that science crap,” Sena snapped. “The important part is that we can talk to each other. Our minds are linked and shared. Every last one of us can talk to each other. No matter how far we are or whatever else is in the way, we can talk to each other like we were sitting in the same room.” Selara went silent.

“That’s – that’s incredible,” the umbral whispered, her eyes widening. “So you can look across the universe and find where all your friends and family are right now?”

“Yes. I know which ones are living and which ones are dead. I know how they died. Raped to death. Tortured to death. Sometimes both.” The faliran went on, voice bitter. “There’s no hoping and pining and imagining that things might be better for them for me. I know where they are. I know if they’re suffering. I know how they felt when the kthid killed them.”

Selara’s mouth dried. The communication sounded amazing, more in the realm of magic than something that existed naturally. It had been turned into yet another implement of torture by the kthid. Another amazing alien that was being used as nothing more than a toy. Selara gritted her teeth and that promise inside her mind echoed back towards her again.

“Do you want to know the funniest thing about it all? The greatest joke this fucking universe played on me? Do you know which bastard it was that killed my sister?” Sena demanded, the hate in each syllable of her words more forceful than Selara had heard from any woman, umbral or alien, for a very long time. “Huntmaster Voerash. Isn’t that just the greatest?”

Sena let out a haggard sigh. “I felt my sister die. Felt her last scream echo across the universe as that bastard laughed as he flayed her carapace from her body and burned a hole straight to her stomach. I felt her pulse fade; felt her disappear forever. I was there, like I was next to her, and I couldn’t do anything about it.” Angry tears streaked down Sena’s face. “My sister is never going to get justice. I’m never going to get justice. None of us are. We’re just condemned to slow death here, slowly rotting away and losing the parts of ourselves until nothing remains. Until the bastards that took everything from us have wrung us for every last drop.”

Selara and Anisa shared a look. The both of them acted without needing to say a single word, drawing the faliran woman into the group’s hug. The faliran sobbed softly, her hard body balled up, as Selara and the group of mismatched aliens that she had somehow managed to gather passed the remaining time they had together in silence, their bodies up against each other like that was meant to somehow block out the pain.

The tunnels of the demon’s warrens would always be terrifying to Nareen. It should have seemed more terrifying if anything, wrapped in darkness as she was. With Anisa’s hand wrapped tightly around hers, it wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as she thought it’ll be.

It had been a while since the meeting had ended, signaled by the beeping of Sena’s collar. The demons had placed some kind of enchantment on the metal ring that allowed them to summon their slaves whenever they wished. Nareen had been terrified by the possibility of getting lost in the tunnels. She couldn’t stop trembling when thinking of what Master Thrakur would do to her if she wasn’t in his den by the time he returned.

Which was when Anisa stepped up and volunteered to guide her.

Anisa was just ahead of Nareen in the darkness. The cephalian’s body glowed with a blue shimmer that was just bright enough for Nareen to see her own feet. Anisa’s light was irregular, swarms of tiny blue dots that pulsed and shimmered over her skin like the stars at night.

All too quickly, Anisa came to a stop. The veil of darkness, constructed by Anisa’s sorcery, peeled away with a shimmer of light to reveal a familiar red-lit corridor. Her body began to tremble as she caught sight of the entrance to Master Thrakur’s den.

“We’re here, Miss Nareen,” Anisa said.

“Yeah. Sorry, Anisa, didn’t mean to – I guess I just didn’t mean to,” Nareen said softly, unable to finish her thoughts.

The mirucain woman raised her eyes and looked towards the door of Master Thrakur’s chamber. The meeting had been the most wonderful thing she’d had a chance to experience for what felt like a whole lifetime, and yet she still had to return here. The meeting and the strange females were the exception in this hellish place, not the rule.

“Miss Nareen?”

Nareen stopped and turned, her eyes falling over Anisa again. The beautiful cephalian was still behind her, the girl’s tentacles splayed out over the floors and her eyes shimmering softly even in the lights of the tunnels.

“Anisa.” Nareen responded.

“I am only making an offer to you, Miss, so please feel free to rebuke me if it is improper. But would you like me to come visit you when I am able?” Anisa asked. “My master allows me much time for myself. If you don’t mind me seeing you a little more often, I can come over if you like.” Nareen’s eyes widened and her heart seemed to skip a beat.

“You’ll do that?” Nareen asked. “For me?”

“Of course, Miss Nareen,” Anisa beamed. “If that is what you want from me, you need only ask.”

Nareen stepped towards Anisa, coming to a stop in front of the cephalian. The girl’s captivating amber eyes met hers in the private moment. Mesmerizing blues swirled over Anisa’s face in a series of little freckly spots, the shades so subtle and soft that they almost blended into a uniform hue. Nareen’s hands drifted up to Anisa’s cheek and gently cradled the girl’s face, even the relatively soft surface of her palm felt hard and clumsy against the cephalian’s soft face.

“I don’t know what to say,” Nareen said softly.

“I’m always happy to help my fellow property find peace and rest when they can,” Anisa beamed.

Nareen found herself smiling and leaning in. “Thank you for following me, Anisa,” she said. “Thank you for making me go back.”

The cephalian’s lips were soft, cool, wet, and faintly sweet, soothing her own cracked lips the moment their bodies touched. Anisa seemed to be startled for a moment as she stiffened up, but what minor trepidation she had melted as Nareen’s warm body pressed against her. Anisa tilted her head up, returning the kiss. 

Soon, she would need to return to her master. Soon, she would have to return to her suffering. At the very least, that didn’t scare Nareen quite as much as it used to. Now she knew that whenever things got really bad, she could think of the next time she would see Anisa again.

Nareen closed her eyes as she melted into the kiss and prayed to her ancestors that that would be enough to keep her strong.

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