“Don’t speak of the fifteenth age, for mistakes can teach where regret only hinders.”-Bequastish adage
Ktsn Wdondf Daephod snapped awake like the closing of a rugfos trap. She was comforted at first, relishing the feeling of her bed against her legs.
Then her eyes widened when she remembered the circumstances that had led to her unconsciousness.
The farmer darted a look around her cabin, and saw absolutely nothing different about most of her home. One notable exception came in the form of the human figure on the ground by her door. Eihks’s head drooped, elbows on his simple knees, and his legs seemed to be doing that same knotlike under-over thing his arms had done earlier. It was the kind of posture she might have taken a hundred times as a child before realizing it was the opposite of comfortable. He didn’t move even when she rose, and stepped back, and loaded her sling with a particularly heavy stone she remembered collecting four days prior at the brook.
She took a careful step closer once she realized he wasn’t going to leap up and throttle her. She still felt uneasy, though.
Ktsn wasn’t completely and totally sure that he’d personally brought her back into her house after she’d collapsed, but she was absolutely certain that he’d removed his head, using her pickax, and remained conversant afterward. Maybe humans were like some of the field pests that lived for quite a while without some parts of their bodies? Or maybe they didn’t actually require their heads at all in the way that her own people did?
That was beside the point, of course; not a trace of scar or blemish was on the straight pale neck. She distinctly remembered the off-color vista she’d seen when her pickax’s blade got to the center of his being, and revealed some of his inner workings and tissues.
Now that she thought about it, she realized, he hadn’t bled a bit. Or maybe he had, and it only started after she fell, senseless. Still, it didn’t explain how he could have grafted his head back on without so much as a trace.
Either biology, or something far more fundamental, was different about the world she now occupied compared to that very morning.
Then her unease shifted in a slightly different direction, as it signified that the biped wasn’t breathing.
The head of the human went upright, and she tensed as his legs drove him to towering above her. Two eyes, glancing at her, moving over the rest of her house, jittery with whizzing whirls and hardly staying on any one thing for more than a tenth of a heartbeat.
“Welcome back to the world of the waking,” he said, when they both settled on her once again. She really couldn’t shake the sense of wrong, having a person look at her with two eyes while speaking. There was the occasion when watching a play, when she had the opportunity to see an intelligent and bright soul put together a stage with mirrored walls. Allowing both the eye facing the audience and the farther eye to be seen was the objective, yes, but that was for dramatic effect. When you exercised that irony, you were quite deliberately subverting the basic fundamental principle that when looking at something straight-on, one eye was always hidden.
“Are you alright?” asked the human, arms crossing.
“No,” Ktsn answered.
She sat down, haunches flexing.
“Well, take your time.”
“You are not like what I expected a human to be,” she said, without having meant to say it.
“Ah? Yes… about that. Earlier, you alluded to my not being the first of my kind you’ve encountered. I’ve got to ask, under the circumstances, where that might’ve happened.”
He stepped back, his head nearly brushing against her ceiling, and his neck quirked.
“You have to understand that that’s a bit concerning, for several reasons.”
He stopped, and Ktsn suspected that the way his mouth moved, and his teeth showed, were not meant to be the same strange positive-attitude manifestation she had seen in her encounter with Thomas.
Internally she resigned herself to the ridicule she somehow knew was forthcoming, and replied, “I saw one in a dream last night.”
Tone of voice meant little to her, especially given his other eccentricities, when coming from her uninvited houseguest. Nevertheless, he started making a rolling gesture with one hand, that she watched with flummoxed curiosity until he said, “Apologies, that means ‘continue.’ I’m listening.”
“There was a dream that I had, in which I was supposed to tell you… ah. I am going to help you, and you are going to help me, it seems.”
“Another human was going to help you?” asked Eihks, and his voice went softer than the coat of a baby rugfos.
“No. I was told… I suppose, to keep a watch for you. Eihks Richard. Your name, specifically.”
All the little twitches, tics, small spasms of unnameable muscles, everything flew away and left the human a bipedal statue.
Unless she was mistaken, that was the sound of disbelief, or at least skeptical confusion.
“You were supposed to be… someone with ‘good intentions,’ and… who is sick, and who apparently wants to find a compatriot or partner, or something.” At his violently catalyzing face, she hurriedly added, “I am just saying what Thomas told me.”
“Thomas the Librarian, he called himself,” she half-snarled, getting ready to walk away in a huff. HE was the one who’d asked, and she was approaching her capacity for frustration.
She couldn’t have possibly predicted the man’s level of upset. Eihks literally fell to the ground, mouth gaping, eyes getting wider and wider. Three times he started to make sounds, speech stillborn, before he finally asked, “Are you sure that was his name?”
Dumbfounded, she clapped an affirmation.
“He said he was… a Being of Old, unless memory fails me,” she muttered.
Blinking furiously, Eihks grabbed something from… somewhere on his person. Brandishing the thing hidden in his grasp, he pointed at her table, looking between her and the place he indicated on the flat surface.
“Did he look like this?” he asked, before an image conjured on the tabletop like a portrait done in light instead of paint. It was precisely the same manifestation that she’d seen with the pohostinlat back in the village. Carving itself out of the air in knife-edge swaths and filling the whole scene with vivid unreal colors, the picture showed a sunset against the foreground of an unknown locale. Even closer in the foreground, a colossus of a statue defied the dictate of gravity. The image it captured was that of a human holding a slate in one hand and a quill or stylus in the other. The figure stood tall, and staring ahead with only one eye open. A strange glow vomited forth from the bared orb, fuchsia and indigo wrestling each other with bladed fury.
Even stylized in the essence of stone, Ktsn couldn’t fail to recognize her supernatural visitor.
“That is him,” she affirmed.
Eihks stepped away, hands knotted, and said something likely vociferous in a language she couldn’t understand. He tromped around the room for a few heartbeats, looking like a ledhuk that was about to start kicking things, before he clasped his palms together and came to a standstill.
“This’ll be more interesting than I’d anticipated,” he growled in a low, dental register.
“Is there a problem?”
“Not as such. Or rather, this is the sort of problem I don’t even know where to begin finding a solution.”
He blew a sudden burst of air through his downturned nostrils, and they expanded.
“Tell me everything you remember about this dream,” he said.
Something about the way he said it, perfectly deadly serious, was just hilarious. Ktsn, despite the very real sense that he was on the cusp of some incredibly grave territory, couldn’t help but rattle her claws at him.
“Well. He asked if I was interested in having adventures. He gave me a carpet and pillows for a seat, before we began talking. He told me to not be alarmed when he appeared. Actually, the whole thing felt like a memory from somebody else, in a way; dead emotions and distance.”
She paused a moment again, considering.
“He told me that he would give me a gift, but that he would not – or perhaps could not – say what it was.”
The tall creature almost slithered over, leaving space between them yet exuding his presence so heavily that it was like a violation of her personal space. He still did not breathe that she could see – assuming that one could normally see one of his kind breathing – and yet he was almost vibrating.
“What, precisely, did he tell you about that? As specific as you can get.”
She wracked her brain.
“I was in a bit of a daze for this whole dream-thing – and I have been more than passingly disturbed for most of the time since – so forgive me if this is not precisely perfect. He said that he needed to give it to me, and that… telling me about it would be problematic in some fashion. It would malfunction in some way.”
“The Way preserve us,” Eihks murmured. “A run-in with an Old. This is exactly what we needed. No, no; it’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known. It’s just…”
His eyes closed, and he began rocking back and forth. It gradually accelerated and gentled to a thin vibratory blurring.
“What was it that was giving you consternation earlier?” Ktsn found herself asking the shivering figure. “Something was upsetting you – or am I wrong about that?”
Eihks dropped down to her floor again, silent except for the rustle of his clothing. He sat there, unmoving, until she was certain he’d fallen asleep. Eventually, just as she was about to repeat her inquiry, he replied in a faraway manner.
“Let me tell you a story.”
He shifted around on her floor, leaning back against the wall beside her spare pithoi, hands coming around to his front.
“Once, there was an interesting place occupied by an interesting people, which had interesting properties that were worth studying. A foreign nation took notice of that interesting people, their interesting home, and – inevitably – grew intrigued. Trying to generally be minimally invasive, those foreign nationals decided that yes, investigation was called for in this instance, and began making studies, taking notes, observing those curious properties that had fueled their intrigue. It turned out that the locale in question had an odd… architecture to it, if you will.”
He shifted again, head bent around in a curling serpentine crook as though for protection.
“These studies were eventually expanded, by slight degrees, to include more and more metric-gathering. It wasn’t long before the observers discovered the presence of several deities and deity-like entities in the environs being observed. Beings, according to the tongues of the locals, called things like Gegaunli and Do-Ag-Dr-Susup and Taralngegeshet. The foreigners’ scientific minds decided to delve into the matters of these strange beings, and in so doing drew attention to themselves that they had not bargained gaining.”
The dual fore-facing eyes flickered open, stabbing Ktsn.
“The simple truth of the matter was that they had the ability to curtail the activities of these entities, or at least exercise some caution that would keep the deities’ interactions from causing trouble. The foreigners decided that they could certainly do such things… but in their avarice for knowledge, procrastinated just a bit too long. Instead, the one called Gegaunli exerted her will, and turned some of the studious individuals into thralls. Not out of malice, as such. For that matter, we cannot say for absolute certain precisely what those individuals underwent, besides the fact that it wasn’t voluntary.”
Dipping a digit upward into the air, Eihks’s mouth ripped open briefly, showing those mixed sharp-and-blunt instruments of its toolkit.
“Sadly, that was not the end of it. ‘The just desserts of meddling are meddling and more meddling,’ as some of my countrymen say. So when the entity’s understandable desire to convert more believers to her cause led her other thralls to ‘spread the word,’ the thralls in question began creating disruptions in their organization. Some basic disturbances like trying to proselytize their colleagues, and some less basic disturbances like sabotaging some of their own work. One of the side effects of this chain of events was what we call a ‘type nine event.’ Specifically, an uncontrolled type nine event.”
Eihks stopped talking, then, his outstretched hand curled into a fist.
“You’ll learn about type nine events soon enough. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that an uncontrolled type nine event is close to the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the natives. It was with some contrition that the foreigners, once they’d managed to free their people from Gegaunli’s clutches, found that the situation had spiraled far out of the intended progression, and decided to do what needed to be done. They gathered up a planet and all its inhabitants, and uplifted them.”
A gritting sound followed, as his jaw worked his teeth together.
“Therein, you see, was justice served. In part. The natives could, theoretically, have been given reparations in the form of completely nullifying – as though having never happened – the preceding chain of events. Get set back to before any meddling minds started drawing Gegaunli’s attention. That might have happened, except that the necessary precautions hadn’t been observed. Those little missteps couldn’t be repaired. The next-best thing was for the perpetrators to make their misused victims part of their own elevated social clique; that, they did. But – and here’s the sticking point – although they implied their guilt and contrition by way of making that effort to remedy their victims’ misfortune, nowhere did those fateful foreigners explicitly admit to their folly being the sole root of the fiasco.”
A tiny ringing silence suffused Ktsn’s home for a short while.
“I’m sure I don’t have to clarify which of these players represents you – the creatures we call karkshes – and which represents us.”
Eihks showed his teeth.
Thumb went sideways on his forehead.
“I’m so very sorry.”
Then there was the snap of silence fermenting into something greater and more rancid.
“You – your people are guilty of creating in us a social caste of victims. You gave us a certain amount of assistance without asking or demanding anything in return. Why did you not simply abandon us to our fate?”
Eihks skinned the air with his fingernails.
“We are many things,” he replied. “Among them is not ‘a collection of truly amoral creatures with a vendetta against all thinking feeling entities unfortunate enough to not be one of us.’ We couldn’t adhere to that mentality, even if it weren’t totally abhorrent and detrimental on a level of personal integrity. The concept of ‘do unto others as unto yourself’ is one with very wide traction, across a wide span of cultures. When you become outed as a creature which doesn’t comply with the principle of reciprocation, then you become known as the sort of tolerable evil that must be jettisoned at the earliest opportunity. ‘Making an effort to better the world’ is a flavor of social survival imperative.”
Most of the lower half of his face was covered by a mask, formed with cupped fingers and palm.
“But that’s it, as far as you’re concerned. No need to admit to actual blood guilt. I assure you, within a handful of years, there won’t be a single person whose accusations that we were guilty of mismanagement and legalistic appeasement won’t be met with the argument that ‘Rhaagm was just doing the right and charitable thing!’”
A sudden change in timbre and skittering exaggerated gestures with the non-face-holding hand managed to convey something approaching disgust. Ktsn wasn’t sure if that was a vestigial sense left over from the rest of her Thomas-imbued grasp of human traits and quirks, or that was something she’d come to understand over the duration of her so-far brief acquaintance with Eihks Richard.
She steeled herself, and tried to reorient. A mental flip over, highlegs and fastlegs repeatedly exchanged in rapid succession, put her in a clean state of mind.
How did she feel?
Numb. That part was going to be around for a long while. She was less confused than she might’ve expected. She was also, oddly enough, vaguely happy at the civilized way the end of the world was progressing. Some of the non-confusion was probably directly resultant of her numbness. Other bits – actually, the majority – descended from how weirdly well her academic leanings prepared her to accept her current plight. These people from Rhaagm were being almost baldly forthright, she noted – with just one glaring absence, if Eihks was accurate. The problem was now learning which components of these aliens’ introductory moves were false and which were genuine.
What did she want?
Truth, for one. Or, rather, the ability to identify which bits and pieces of the big stage put together in front of her were legitimate. She’d ideally like to go back to the way things had been that particular morning, but that was far more of an impossible dream than her confrontation with… a Being of Old? She wanted people to listen when she asked for reasonable favors, especially when she was willing to exchange for other reasonable favors. In short, she wanted respect and all the things that came with it. She’d even put up with Rlgts hounding her for the rest of her days, if she could reliably expect a better resolution to the recent complications.
That brought up a related question. What degree of objectivity of perspective did she actually possess in her current mindset? Surely she, a ‘karkshesh,’ wasn’t being given much beyond what knowledge was necessary for appearances. She certainly didn’t fully trust the human sitting against her house’s dry floor, but his forthrightness led her to believe he was circumstantially reliable. Whatever that dream had done, or been, it inclined her to give him some benefit of the doubt. She wasn’t hardly ready to just sign herself away to his whims yet, though.
Just like that, it hit her; of COURSE she should be pressing for more data right now. Who cared if it was false? That alone would tell her something… in time, at least.
“So, now what happens?” she asked the human.
As he looked up into her own stare, Eihks made a small snort.
“In what sense?” he responded. “Are you asking what will have to be done to get an actual apology from those…”
He broke off and growled something half under his breath. Momentarily he rediverted his full attention to the farmer.
“I assure you that won’t be happening unless there’s very specific pressure applied from outside. Maybe from some lesser players in the government, but not those ultimately responsible. You and your people won’t be able to put that pressure in the right places, even if you knew exactly what needed doing. Any efforts in that direction would just get a general response that you poor distressed foreigners are poor and distressed and out of your element. This needs to come from…”
He stopped again. Muscles up beside his eyes strained.
“Look. All I can say is thus: you are going to have to let others stand up on your behalf for this farce. Not because you’re weak of will, or you aren’t worthy people. You don’t know how things work just ye-”
He stopped a third time, but in this instance it was to whirl around, shifting into a crouch, looking through the wall in the direction of her berry garden. Before she actually asked him what he was doing, she paused, listened, heard. A little breathy sound came in through the cracks and seams of her dwelling, indicating a close and unwelcome visitor. Very close, as a matter of fact.
That snuffling in the near distance could indicate one of several things. All of them happened to be gpsl-nuson-related.
“I assume you don’t want a… gpsl nuson, I think you call them… knocking around your yard, do you?”
The tall human was brought to a height where Ktsn could easily see his whole form without angling her skull at all. He held out one hand to the side, and she saw his head jerking occasionally, as though he was watching the intruder on her property with great care.
“I do not!” she said, whispering with vigor. “This is not good! I do not have what I would need to-”
Eihks interrupted her, speaking very quickly, and with an inordinate amount of the sounds coming from that neck box of his.
“Is it a problem if the creature dies?” he asked. “It’s pretty close, so this will get violent I’m sure, but I don’t know quite as much about them as I’d like to safely remove it without being needlessly cruel.”
She gaped at him.
“No, but… do you know what you are doing?” she pressed, as he began slinking for the door at speed.
Just before exiting, he looked over one shoulder. The distance his neck needed to turn in order to peer at her gave it an unnatural, crawling-creepy feeling.
“I’ve dealt with wildlife before.”
Then he pushed out into her yard, and the sound of a gpsl nuson protesting a contender in its territory filtered into her home.
Ktsn cursed everything she knew or thought or suspected might have to do with the way her day was collapsing, and followed at a short distance.
In retrospect not too many heartbeats later, she thought the confrontation lasted all of four or five breaths. In that moment of seeing the gangly spoke-riddled form rushing around her yard, though, time stopped. The bull was at least two body-lengths from end to end, and counting the forward-pointed sets of horns probably two and a half. It had gone through her land like a small half-thinking storm, and was now menacing the little plots at the far end of her house. How she hadn’t heard it before was a mystery, but it was a mystery that mattered relatively little. She’d gone rushing across the countryside, and almost certainly had attracted unwanted attention from her solicitor in the process. The rest was just cause-and-effect.
As it pawed through the dirt and clods trying to find something else good to eat, she saw how far up the beast’s horns the staining went, and realized that this creature was both very old and very good at digging up food. Those horns probably had done a great deal of disemboweling in their time as well. It had already destroyed most of her berry bushes, torn through her tubers, and gotten a start on marking up her better-quality orchard quadrant. She didn’t often harbor hate for animals – they were dumb creatures with little or less concept of “consequences” – but seeing the way her efforts at cultivation had been desecrated, she felt mad enough to start backing into the house once more, and perhaps pace a new rut into her floor.
Her soul cried out the instant that she saw what it was doing, and noticed the demolished bits of jars where it had unmade her experimental setup with appalling thoroughness.
To one side of the lanky form, another lanky form closed in with great speed. The way Eihks was sprinting made her wince inside, every step looking like it would put him over on his face. No wobbling newborn’s pace, this; it was actually on par with a swift trot on one’s fastlegs.
The gpsl nuson must have heard his fast-moving feet, because it gave a short bugle, then reared up and fell onto its opposite legs (highlegs, she thought) with its leading eye already trained on the man. The bull’s thin mouth showed both sets of teeth as it hissed, making very short twitches in the human’s direction.
The human in question took a running leap that by rights no two-legged creature should have been able to achieve. He collided with the growling form in a way that nearly left one ivory spear gaily protruding from his flank. The terrified creature started trying to flail and rip him apart as he pulled himself closer, right up until he came within reaching distance of its slender head, and touched it.
Then, it died.
One instant the thing was thrashing about with its large rhombus feet stamping the ground, the next it fell completely still and collapsed. There was no sound from it, no final expulsion of breath. It just stopped being alive and its flesh started being meat.
Ktsn watched, silent and unmoving, as the human made a little snorting noise and stepped back from his work.
Ktsn looked between the man who was going to his flat feet, and the detritus of her life as a farmer.
“Sorry about the mess,” began Eihks with that wretched tooth-baring happiness, looking around at her.
Eihks cut off as he followed her gaze toward the upturned patches. He looked back at her, and knew. Not how bad it was, she felt sure, but some inkling.
“Ah. Here, let me…”
He stepped away, grabbing hold of the bull’s thickest horns, and made as though to start dragging the body off to the side.
“Where do you want this?” he asked. Then, when she didn’t respond, he let go and clambered closer. No closer than a body-length, though.
“What can I do?” he probed, soft like unstretched gauze.
The memory of a gaping hole where glass had sat, the thought that in the twinkling of an eye… she lay on the ground, legs splayed, eyes closed so hard they were almost gummed shut.
“I suppose that most of my life has been rendered moribund at a stroke,” she added, knowing that she was pathetic and feeling all the more powerless for it.
“Oh?” asked Eihks.
Something in his voice, and the fact that she heard him standing, made her open her eyes. He bent at the waist, leaning over her prone form, and his hands were clenched together into one ten-finger fist.
“If you think that, you’re very sadly mistaken.”
He pointed, and as she followed his outstretched digit, he started walking in the indicated direction.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said over one shoulder, “if that’s what you honestly think, then let’s put your leisure to good use. No, don’t bother refusing; I INSIST. I will show you… a wonder. If you’re still certain that things are just as bleak later, we can get into constructive discourse then. And when you’re feeling better, of course.”
The voice rose a bit.
“We can be back before the sun’s down, if that’s what you feel like doing. Maaaaybe a short time after, but not by much.”
Ten body-lengths away, he rotated. The clad shapes of his feet had disappeared into the churned soil, and it made her wince inside.
“Unless you have some obligation you need to take care of before leaving, of course,” he added, arms out in a cross. His head canted to the side, before he asked, “Well… are you coming?”
Ktsn thought of her family, and Cursog. She counted the countless faces spanning the sky of her now-alien home. She grew hot at the thought of her aborted treatise, and then cold as she saw the human’s twirling fingers gesturing outward. She grew numb considering the improbable tale that he’d recounted for her benefit.
Without even dwelling on why she did it, she thrust herself to her feet.
Not a word was spoken between her and her strange companion-keeper for quite some time, but then they arrived at the wonder of which he spoke.
“I do not know… it is… how can…”
“Yeah,” said Eihks. The suddenly-appearing halfway transparent world stretched out before them both, and that was all he needed to say.