Author: Findswoman Title: Spikes; or, Chitin Deep Era: Saga–PT (approximately 10–15 BBY) Characters: Zuckuss, OC, mentions of other OCs Genre: Romance Summary: A young apprentice Gand Findswoman’s curiosity about her fellow (and more senior) apprentice’s newly acquired chitinous enhancements leads to a romantic encounter. (PG bordering on PG-13 for “making out” of an alien nature.) Author’s notes: Posted with some trepidation for Evil Author Day 2021—it came to mind as I mulled over the prompt, but when I looked at the file again (dated May 11, 2014), I cringed more than a little—and it’s possible that you will, too! It is actually a finished story, or at least a finished scene. I had an idea at one point of eventually incorporating it into The Book of Gand; it is part of the same universe and the notes on that story will explain several of the fanon elements. But now that some time has passed, I think I would take a different approach to writing the burgeoning relationship between these two characters now. So, consider this an “outtake,” of sorts. That said: because this scene is so closely tied to my fanon universe and OCs, and because I may still mine it for future story material, please note that I am not necessarily releasing it as a “wild bunny” at this time. High in the mist-shrouded mountains of the pocket colony of R’Kalýma, in the temple of the Lhúdanswani Findsman sect, the ceremony began. The assembled apprentice Findsmen and Findswomen stood at attention and turned to face the entrance of the sanctuary. As the processional chant began, four Master Findsmen in ceremonial attire entered, two by two, each bearing a shockstaff and a hanging incense lamp. At last came two temple-servants in the customary slate-blue jackets, leading between them a well-looking young male apprentice with brown chitin and silver eyes, clad in dark brown temple robes edged with copper-colored embroidery. His head was bowed, and his hands were clasped before him in an attitude of humility. The other apprentices saluted and reverenced him as he passed. A young female apprentice with bright golden eyes, the youngest and smallest of those assembled, raised high her light, clear treble voice in the customary refrain of the processional chant. She had awaited this day with great anticipation, and had donned her newest, best ceremonial attire: a red velvoid outer robe adorned with floral embroidery over a tunic and underrobes of blushing septsilk, all fastened with a sash of green satyn wrapped twice around her waist. The young male being honored today was well known to her; Findslady Luyen Dzi’kel, dean of the Lhúdanswani temple, had assigned him to her as a sort of mentor in beginning her own studies in the Sacred Trade. Zuckuss was his name, of the ancient family of Ng’xvi-Ta’al-Lhúd, and he was one of the most gifted apprentices ever to grace this ancient and venerable sect. Three days before, he had immersed in the Waters of Defense, the bath of precious chemicals and minerals that caused the growth of the Findsman’s natural weaponry—the chitinous spikes and protrusions on his limbs that could be used in combat. Now that his convalescence was complete, he was coming before his teachers and elders to have his newly grown weaponry consecrated to the service of the Mists. She raised her voice higher as he approached. He turned briefly as he passed, hearing her, and she almost tripped on the hem of her robe as she bowed to him. She watched intently as the ceremony continued, straining to see over the taller apprentices in front of her. Upon reaching the front of the room, Zuckuss prostrated himself completely on the ground, with each of his arms out to the side. Gray-green mists poured over his prone form through metal vents set low in the walls. As a new chant began, four of the officiating Findsmen positioned themselves around him, one at each arm, one at his feet, and one just below his neck, each pinning him down with one foot and the sharp tip of the shockstaff. After the chant, the mists receded. Zuckuss rose and tested his new weaponry by punching, kicking, forearm-striking, and elbow-striking through various materials presented to him by the officiants, even plasteel and various kinds of stone. Last of all, he knelt before the Findsmasters, holding his bared arms before them to receive both the customary anointing oils and their blessings. The young apprentice stood on tiptoe and craned her head, eager to catch a glimpse of his bare, spiked arms, for she had never seen natural Gand weaponry before except in books. But it was impossible with his back toward the assembly. After the ceremony, the other apprentices gathered around Zuckuss to greet him and congratulate him. The young female in the red robes hung back shyly in a shadowed alcove at the rear of the sanctuary, watching as he exchanged pleasantries with the others and clasped their clawed hands in his. She knew they held him in high esteem, for his great talent and because he was one of only two apprentices in that temple who had earned the use of both given name and family name . . . “There you are, Telfien.” She turned suddenly at the sound of her name—her given name, known only to a few of the elder Masters and to him. Immediately she made a deep obeisance and took his hand in both of hers. “Findsmaster Zuckuss Ng’xvi-Ta’al-Lhúd.” Although Zuckuss did not technically possess this rank, she had been instructed in no uncertain terms by Findslady Luyen that she must address him with the same respect as she would a more senior Master. “Please accept Telfien’s humblest congratulations on the sublime honors you have received today. May the Mists always grant you triumph.” “Telfien Viurraanvi, your kind words give Zuckuss great joy,” he replied. “Your presence made the occasion complete.” Telfien said nothing. Her eyes were turned downward, fixed on the fierce-looking dark brown claws that rested in her slender, golden-brown hand. She had always been fascinated by those claws, always secretly relished feeling them on her shoulders, neck, and back as they adjusted her meditation posture or corrected her combat technique. Yet this time they seemed larger and longer than she remembered, and they were now darker even than the rich brown of the rest of his chitin. His entire hand had changed: his knuckles were now crowned with two formidable-looking chitinous spikes, one above each finger. And there at his wrist, disappearing into the darkness of his sleeve, she could see the beginnings of another spike . . . “Curious about Zuckuss’s natural weaponry, are you?” Quickly she dropped his hand, turning away in embarrassment and clasping her own hands tightly behind her. “Gand offers deepest apologies, Findsmaster Zuckuss . . .” Her voice wavered with shame. “No need to be ashamed, Telfien. “The Mists have already told Zuckuss of your curiosity about him.” He glanced about quickly, then gestured with his claw. “Here.” Telfien clicked her mandibles a few times. Of course it was no surprise that someone of his talents, so close to full-fledged Findsmanhood, could sense her curiosity. She followed him to a shadowy alcove toward the back of the sanctuary, where he gestured for her sit beside him on a low upholstered bench. Then, without saying a word, he carefully rolled up his three layers of sleeves just past the elbow, revealing two brown, chitinous male forearms. “Findsmaster Zuckuss?” Still saying nothing, he held his arms up for her to see. They were not completely unfamiliar to her, for she had seen him uncover them in order to apply healing tape to arm injuries. But they had never looked like this. The lower edge of each forearm, from wrist to elbow, was now lined by a row of jagged and fearsome-looking spikes, some almost as long as Telfien’s finger. They grew directly from the brown chitin of his arms, darkening slightly toward the sharp tips. “You may touch them if you like.” She jumped to hear these words, her mandibles popping open in surprise. Was her young master actually giving her permission to touch him? She knew well—as did all apprentices in the Sacred Trade—that no student was allowed to initiate physical contact with his or her master in any way except in the prescribed gestures of greeting or reverence. Those who transgressed that rule faced the punishment of penitential seclusion at best, indentured servitude at worst. And she feared she had already gone too far in taking his hand . . . “But Findsmaster Zuckuss—” He lunged toward her scoldingly, antennae bristling and mandibles grinding. “Zuckuss has told you before that you don’t always need to call him that.” “Apologies . . . Zuckuss.” She said his name quietly. “But you are Viurraanvi’s teacher—if you were Findslady Luyen or Findsmaster Volokoss—” “How fortunate that Zuckuss is neither of them.” Then more quietly: “Go ahead, little one—Telfien.” Telfien reached out a tentative claw and brushed it first over the spikes of his knuckles, then the arm-spike closest to his wrist, tracing their form. As she did, he twitched his arm and shifted in his place on the bench. She drew her hand hastily away. “Is it . . . painful, Findsmaster Zuckuss?” she asked, almost in a whisper. “Oh no, no, not at all—in fact . . .” He broke off and turned his head away for a moment, then said quietly, “It feels rather pleasant.” Hesitantly, she put out her hand again; he took it in his own and laid it back on his serrated forearm. “Go ahead,” he said, clicking gently. Telfien inhaled deeply. She began once again to draw her claw slowly along his row of spikes, letting it rasp over each one till it reached the paired protrusions at his elbow. Then she began again at the wrist, this time slightly faster; and again, faster still; the motion of her chitin against his made the strange, husky sound of perforated plastoid being pulled apart. And again, and again, and again, tracing his rugged topography. She followed her finger with her eyes, studying each ridge and crenellation along which it moved: up it went along one sloped edge of each jagged protrusion, then suddenly down again, then up the next . . . again, and again. Each motion of her hand drew a reaction from him: a twitch, a squirm, a gentle shudder. She could hear the inner-mandible-clicks of pleasure that he was trying unsuccessfully to hold back. “They are wonderful . . . beautiful,” she said after a few minutes. “You are most kind, Telfien.” “Though . . .” She tapped one of the spiky protrusions on the back of his hand. “Telfien would not want to receive your Piercing Touch.” “Fortunately there is more than one Piercing Touch.” His reply was breathy, barely audible. “But how can that be?” Her mandibles opened with a little pop of incredulity. “The Book of the Martial Way says—” “Never mind, little one,” he said quickly, grabbing her hand and sliding it upward through his rolled-up sleeves along his upper arm. There were no spikes here—there was no need for any here—but the chitin had a slightly rough and crenellated feel to it that was totally unlike the smoothness she knew her own arms possessed. At his shoulder, Telfien felt him guide her fingers over another chitinous spike, thicker than those of his arms, and then another, before releasing her hand and withdrawing his. She paused for a moment, feeling his jaggedness press against her palm. Her little hand on her Findsmaster’s shoulder—was it really possible? Slowly she traced the two shoulder spikes with her claw, back and forth, then began even more slowly to slide her hand higher. She clacked in surprise to feel her fingers grate against a third spike, larger than the other two and situated directly at the crown of his shoulder. “You have three!” “Yes, all the Ng’xvi-Ta’al-Lhúd Findsmen since Zukfel have had three.” “What for?” “Only the Mists know for sure. But Zuckuss has a guess.” “What is that?” “More for your sweet claws to touch.” Telfien clicked softly and began to draw her claws gently back and forth over Zuckuss’s three shoulder-spikes. His clicks of delight were louder now, and she could feel him twitching at her touch. Slowly she became aware that he was touching her too: his arm had slid around her, and his claws—those claws!—were drumming rapidly on the small of her back. The pleasant vibrations formed a counterpoint to the rasp of her claws on his spikes. They made a strange kind of pleasure grow inside her—a pleasure that seemed to push her green satyn sash ever closer to his brown filg-leather belt . . . Had the Mists hinted to him of her secret delight? For now had taken her shoulder in his other hand and was lowering her onto the cushioned upholstery of the bench. She gazed steadily up at him, offering no resistance. How close he was now; his faceted silver eyes flashed down at her, his forearm-spikes—still exposed—pressed into her red velvoid sleeves, his palps brushed against hers . . . “Telfien, I love you.” Telfien had no time to react to this shocking utterance, this breach of her homeworld’s traditional self-reference protocol. In one sudden motion, all three layers of Zuckuss’s mandibles interlocked with hers, tightening around them, pulling on them, and grinding into them. The motion of his jaws against hers sent spasms of strange joy through her; the firm but tender rasp of chitin on chitin seemed to make everything around her—the stone, the glass, the bench—blur together in waves of sweet heat. All the while his one spiked arm still rested on her, holding her down, and his strong claws gripped her. But was that a spiked male knee—yes, also spiked!—pressing into her leg? Was that his other hand traveling down her side toward her delicate green sash? Was that his claw—his Findsman’s claw—hooking inside it, seeking its knot, loosening it? Oh, how close it was to her core, her tender little womb, the source of the growing, glowing, melting warmth that was poised to overpower her . . . just as he was . . . Just then the melody of the temple’s signal-chimes sounded far overhead, piercing the silence even as it traveled through several hundred meters of stone. Silver-blue mists began to seep slowly into the sanctuary through the mist-vents in the walls. Zuckuss disengaged as quickly as he could from his languid Findsmaiden without hurting her, then hastily rolled down his sleeves and smoothed out his robes. “May the Mists guide you, lovely Telfien,” he murmured, waving his hand over her head in blessing. Then he hurried off. She remained draped over the bench in half-reverie, letting the coolness of the infiltering mists waft over her, still seeing those bright and terrible silver eyes looming above her, still feeling his warmth pressing upon her, his spikes driving into her. Had it been naught but a dream, a misty vision . . . ? Her head dropped wearily to one side. Just below her shoulder she noticed a small hole in her robes, where the red cloth had been pierced by her Findsman’s natural weaponry.