“Though it has qualities of separation and pain, the Fire River does not usually signify on its own. Instead, it often acts as a modifier. In such circumstances it can be interpreted as an illuminating or delineating force. For example, if it occurs across from the World or Death, Solemon has shown it correlates with reception of guidance on momentous life occurrences, in a statistically significant number of livable field interpretations. She also demonstrated that in conjunction with the Empty Scabbard, the Fire River indicates the favor of providence, or luck, or some other metaphysical component of reality. Unfortunately, this favor – as with many other qualities of the Fire River – often comes in the form of averting a very near disaster.”-The Expanded Tarot, Zhaoqi-Solran Compendium
Ktsn was relatively well-educated. She could usually hold her own in a debate, even if “winning” an argument seemed both incredibly difficult and often unsatisfying. She knew how to process an animal carcass for meat and leather.
She had absolutely no experience with averting an overwhelmingly large crowd of people from their intended path.
This fact came up and started trying to strangle her from behind as she approached the increasingly louder crowd. She rounded the bend and saw… well, she didn’t know how many humans. Actually, no; it was “too many.” Too many and making enough noise she swore the ground under her was vibrating.
The fat street no longer had a long distant figure slowly wading through a living lake, like when she and Eihks had last seen it. Instead, she found herself on the bank of a rain-swollen river, and the river was well into flash flood season. It was a parade of violently happy-drunk loudness. A parade directed at a nauseating and twisted “holiday” of an observance, yes, but she could still identify happiness even without sharing it.
The no-longer-long-distant figure, trimmed in black and blue – possibly the only tangible example of blue in the city – rode a creature Eihks would have called a pig thing. It too bore useless decorative black and blue livery. The figure of the king was in constant motion even without the jouncing of his mount, waving and leaning into the press of his subjects. If he could actually hear what he was thinking, let alone saying, he must have a preternaturally fine ear. Daylight danced on bits of jewelry littering his person. His smile was clean as a pure bone.
The feelers at the massive multicellular amoeba’s front took notice of her. Some were normal residents of the city. Some were armed and armored in the service of King Goeyren’s protection. The good news was that she didn’t have to worry about what she was supposed to do if she got trapped next to him. The bad news was she would quite possibly get trampled or speared. This close, she could swear she felt their heat. Dust rose from the humans’ footwear and started making her itch.
When they were about ten meters away, she started backpedaling. The crowd began to compact itself, hitting a junction that demanded a thinner profile as it moved from a road six or seven meters wide onto a street roughly half as broad. Several of the procession moved her way on the leading edge of the group. Hostile? Curious? Defensive? She couldn’t tell.
She pulled herself away, not needing any prophecy to determine where they were headed. Eihks’s warning was well-taken. Within a minute or two, they’d be down the street and moving toward the house he and she had cased.
She wasn’t going to stop the parade from going where it pleased by standing in the middle of the road. Pretty soon, if not already, they’d reach saturation density. Threatening people would probably get her shot by a bowman or something. She didn’t want that. For one, getting shot. For another, she still wasn’t completely clear about the implications of that oath her fellow explorer had taken, and she didn’t want to be responsible for harming him – physically or otherwise.
A grimace, thinking about his stated reasons for exiting Rhaagm. But he hadn’t raged at her for causing irreparable reputation damage, so she couldn’t beat herself up about that either.
A child’s shriek sobered her up. The eye not focused on the approaching vanguard took in the close-pressed houses, the clumped and single pedestrians tramping and standing around the edges of the bright street. She hadn’t noticed them when she’d come this way with Eihks, or her mad dash back down the road. Their curiosity about the festivities led them to slowly seep from the neighborhood’s pores. For not a couple of them, Ktsn herself was the object of their curiosity.
At the far end of the street, a squat building no longer had a tall man standing in front of it. Instead, the door was knocking against its jamb, slowly rebounding with smaller and smaller inaudible thunks. No indication of how her associate and the residents had interacted.
Then a wobbling splintery wheelbarrow crossed in front of her, barely supporting a mountain of clothes or fish or clothes made out of fish. The rake of a woman pushing it set it down next to a massive wagon, panting and watery-kneed. She told one of the nearby children something, and the child brought a bucket over.
Ktsn eyed the wagon beside the wheelbarrow, and the numerous clay jars and pots precariously standing on each other. There had to be upward of a hundred of them.
Almost any cost? Like ruining a family’s livelihood?
Then, seeing the blue-decorated figure peeking around the bend, she imagined what would become of Goskec Tktl if the village’s leaders got killed. Then she extrapolated that to a much larger community, more varied economic niches. It was a bad image.
A couple of bystanders spooked, one with a croaking cough, when she whirled around the wagon, and shoved against it with her flank, arms braced on the lip of the solid side. A heave, with every scrap of her strength, didn’t cause the thing to tilt or slowly wobble around on a wheel. No, her brawn was more than sufficient for the task of pushing hauling equipment.
She would have sent it halfway across the road if a few larger jugs hadn’t hit the road and stayed intact. Heavy sentinels declaring their immobility in the face of a mere wagon. Their shapes made decent substitutes for solid wheel chocks, and the obstructions flipped the vehicle. Baked clay, a tiny bit of glass here and there, some wood, some straw, and a great deal of noise vomited over the street. Ceramic pieces moaned as they died, a painful “ooohhhwww” whose pitch was a function of size. The shrapnel didn’t cover the whole width between opposite buildings, but it did a serviceable job.
The panic that she might prove utterly ineffective fled her. It was a buckling relief. She couldn’t think of another time she’d been so happy to scatter sharp-toothed debris with deliberate malice of forethought. It would take far more than a broom to clean up the minefield. The king’s mount would surely cut its feet to ribbons, just as his companions would surely rip out the soles of their footwear.
The howl of the owners of the wagon and earthenware was a thing to behold. A stout man and equally stout woman rushed to look over the debris, sifting through it to uncover anything worth salvaging. A tiny jug here, a minuscule dish there.
After picking up a single urn scratched across its circumference, the man’s huge eyes fixed on Ktsn, then flickered between the wagon and her and the mess and the crowd.
“Whose beast is this!?” he screamed, pointing at Ktsn and spinning around. A black and green sash around his middle flapped about. If someone had distinguished themselves at that moment, she was pretty sure he would have caved their face in. None did, of course.
She could tell when the parade first took consequential notice of her obstruction. Shouts, reduced speed, some people coming forward while others kept their distance.
“Your Highness, remain there, please. Absfin, hold the line,” she heard from a bow-carrying guard in Goeyren’s company. He stepped in front of the whole group, gesturing to a tall full-helmeted figure.
The man the guard singled out gave a salute.
With… some kind of arcane skill, the indicated guard turned and – by doing nothing more than planting his spear on the ground – convinced the people following behind and beside the king to stop moving forward. The crowd got louder as their pace diminished.
“Shakarob, clean that up,” the bow-wielder instructed yet another member of the guard. “Keep an eye out while you’re at it.”
A man with hair down to his midsection and a club of some sort stepped forth with chest upthrust.
“I’ll keep it… smooth,” he said through a smile.
“Mairsail, you help him. He’ll need it.”
A robust feminine figure hefted what looked less like a spear and more like a warhammer on the end of a staff. She and the wiseguy moved down the road toward Ktsn’s mess. Each pulled a wide band of living-water from a bicep. Watching the crowds, the rest of the coterie drew close around their monarch. The guards used skilled flick-snaps to scoop up handfuls of debris, and flung it to the sides of the lane. Clinking handfuls of clay seed un-sowed themselves.
Well, that was unfortunate.
“HELP, YOU OAFS!” commanded the distraught ex-owner of pottery, or maybe owner of ex-pottery. “This thing destroyed our stock!”
He indicated Ktsn, his face wrinkling into angry fractals. His female companion, and others from the neighborhood, started pointing at the karkshesh, yelling at each other, yelling at the king’s guards, even yelling at the king.
The detail kept tidying things at a dismaying rate. As their disregard for the few intact pieces ran afoul of the potter couple’s increasingly vocal ire, the bow-wielder cut a hand at the karkshesh responsible for the mess.
“And you, recruit – go secure that… thing. Carefully.”
A knobby-limbed man gave a salute as well. Said creature turned a rough-textured face, and he gave a throat-bobbing gulp best described as unsettlingly organic. Eventually, he took his first step.
“Captain, I don’t think this is necessary,” Goeyren protested. “If this is going to be a problem, then we can simply adjust our route a bit.”
He pulled back on a lead or some similar contrivance fastened to the animal. With a drawn-out yodel, it completed a drawn-out backstep, making a drawn-out blink.
“No, please don’t-”
The guard commanded several other members of the coterie to keep an especial eye on the flux of the crowd, and called one of the pair doing cleanup back into the cordon. Ktsn found herself distracted by an indistinct overhead shadow, and didn’t pay the crowd much attention. She spent a second slightly worried, searching for any possible winged shapes above her. Her brief anxiety dimmed at catching a glimpse of dyed fabric flying away to the wilderness with the wind.
A hand fell on her shoulder. The grip on the seam of her jacket was probably about as strong as a human could manage with only fingertips.
“Okay, there, just come along, now,” the recruit said. His nostrils appeared to be the size of his eyes, and his chest flexed like a bellows.
Ktsn pulled her lips back, revealing her crushing inner teeth between the outer set’s minute gaps. She gargled a snarl fit to chafe her throat, crouching a bit, and spread her arms and shoulders to give herself a bigger profile.
Not just the guard, but everyone within eight meters reacted. She might find it sometimes unintuitive how fear often manifested in these people, but at least she could understand and exploit it. Most of them jolted away. A couple others froze up. The man trying to pick up his pottery’s forlorn remains looked like he would have thrown a jug, but the woman beside him pulled him through a doorway.
“Alright, everybody get back!” the captain demanded, following his own directions and moving within arm’s reach of his king’s steed. Like someone clearing crumbs from a table, an invisible hand swept the people on the street to the side. That was what tended to happen when someone drew an arrow. Ktsn hadn’t grown up seeing compound bows, but she recognized that the arrow – several arrows – pointed her way would hurt. Maybe they’d kill her.
Her chagrin didn’t distract her from plucking her gifted blanket-thing across her body, just as the archers steadied their aims.
Three arrows bit through the eleven or twelve meters of insulating air. The first missed outright. The second stabbed a foot flagellum, and she let out a blistering hiss. The third impacted the strange cloth over her middle, clapping off with a rocky sound, but the bleeding cold of her foot distracted her from that turn of fortune. Her flinch at the pain saved her from a fourth arrow loosed after the others.
Moments later, amid a rising tumult from the crowd, another arrow flew. This one was a bit different, though. As best she could, she blinked to fight the sharp lasso from her foot as it squeezed her brain. Perspective told her that the pain fell within technically acceptable parameters. A quick check confirmed that hunch – her flagellum had a very distinct but quite thin bleeding wedge.
When she looked up, she saw a thick-fletched arrow piercing one bow-wielder’s waist. Had it been a quarter meter to the side, it would have gone neatly into the flank of the king’s mount. Half a meter past that would have had far grimmer consequences.
The following screams made her want to shut off her ears. Among the pandemonium, though, some kernel of focus planted itself and grew to fruition. Distress. There was a reason for distress besides herself.
She mustered the power to make simple observations. She mustered the power to think. She married the two.
Another arrow, but not aimed at her, hailed from a different source. Different source, different motives, clandestine needs. Shouts, screams, a crowd in egress, the warm taste of anxiety. She knew she had all the important bits, but she couldn’t get them to fit together.
The eye not facing the parade caught another flicker of skylined movement.
She keyed to the disturbance just in time to see a figure on a roof. Hands fumbled a longbow, and a cloth mask whispered in the wind.
On the other side of her, the king’s guard had contracted. Their injured fellow and monarch both found themselves in as solid a barrier as circumstances permitted. A shout and a hand went up from the living annulus. Following the pointer, her gaze was drawn to another armed figure, drawing a bead with fevered patience from a narrow window.
When Ktsn’s attention returned to the roof archer, the combination of her foot’s pulsing burn and the abstract psychological demands of a concrete goal meant she didn’t realize she’d drawn her sling until she loaded it with polished violence.
The parade was no longer advancing down the street. She was so relieved her objective was satisfied.
“Your Highness, get down! Edsāl, you clear a path back, we need-”
She stopped paying attention to the noise, the panic, the wind, the DUST, and the turmoil storming in her skull. There was the head-bobbing of honing distance and azimuth, and the weight depending from her hand, and an objective. She aimed, she swung, and she released.
The stone crashed into the roof.
She’d learned from the last time she’d slung a stone at a human on a roof. Whereas she’d attempted to get Eihks off her house with one solid smack to the head, she aimed at the archer’s feet. The stone cracked a shingle and bruised the ankle of her target. There was a shout. The bow dipped as its owner struggled for her balance.
Ktsn’s second stone took her in the shoulder.
Happily or not, her vantage was at least a street away. It meant whatever the result when she blundered sideways and fell from the roof, the karkshesh didn’t see.
Snaps and twangs rasped across the street as the prelude of a tumbling slow-motion brawl. Archers of the king’s guard started returning fire, while a handful of other assailants began emerging from the terrain. Some were archers, a couple of whom resumed cover upon realizing the king and his party lay outside their range. At least one figure in the crowd madly pushed against the current, wearing long heavy clothing perfect for secreting weapons. Fifty percent of the king’s guard were acting as living shields for their monarch.
By the time Ktsn had loaded another stone, the parade was approaching the point of being a riot. She identified her next target. He intended to get in close past one stocky guard, and with so many protectors occupied, it seemed he might succeed. Her eye narrowed as her head tilted, performing trigonometric wonders with just a couple centimeters’ movement.
When the attacker stabbed the guard with a living-water spike and pushed the bleeding man aside, a stone connected with his knee joint at the side. Ktsn felt rather annoyed. The shot would have taken a karkshesh’s footing from under him, but the human knee only permitted action along the plane of forward and backward motion.
She gave a huff of surprise when his foot landed, and the trauma spectacularly collapsed the knee hinge sideways.
No, she probably couldn’t actually hear the snap of biological compromise. Even so, the sideways failure made her shiver.
Then she threw away her concern, and abruptly stopped caring about everything except fighting to win.