<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“You need to kill something of yourself to get any kind of freedom / and freedom’s only worth something when it’s bought in blood and bone.”

-Shear Boot, Blood and Bone, Day Despite Dreams

I signed onto this project for the sake of improving my community. Who knew that doing the right thing could unexpectedly get difficult?

Eihks had heard the predator’s rustling shortly after he’d become aware of its presence, and yet he’d allowed himself to get distracted. He’d fallen back on his veteran pioneer status, told himself that it was likely just some herbivore watching them with caution, and should it prove otherwise he had countless successes fending off hungry wildlife. If it was in fact interested in claiming some meat and did try ambushing them, it would surely go for the closer target – him. Clearly his estimates had been wrong, and thanks to his arcane cap’s influence he had no sense of instinct upon which to depend for second-guessing his more cerebral assumptions.

Only experience, planning, and the often half-baked influence of emotion.

Maybe the whole partner thing would cause more problems than it eased. Maybe he should consider alternative ways they could collaborate. Maybe more contingencies needed to be given an IMMEDIATELY HIGHER PRIORITY.

In any case, his thoughts had no bearing on the way a lean form came out of the bamboo with a huffing snarl. Waist high on him, it kept to the side of the human and aimed straight for the karkshesh. The thing was, unless he had lost his eye for taxonomy, a variety of sillywolf. Granted, it had only wrinkled skin where its “relatives” had scales or fine greasy hair. Granted, it had four limbs where a sillywolf would have six. However, it had the same hungry jerky loping stride, and the same warped skull which looked like it had been hacked apart and then partially skinned before getting boiled.

The creature had no qualms about its heritage. No, it wanted flesh.

It was three quarters across the gap between itself and Ktsn before either of them moved. A flowering sextuple-petal head distended to maximum width, and its lobes almost collapsed on one of her arms. With respectable speed, she whipped out her pickax and jammed it into the sillywolf’s radial gullet. Her quick thinking didn’t prevent the creature from biting at her hard enough to break something if it actually caught her, but it did keep the jaws from connecting. Her strength accomplished a lot more for a lot less effort thanks to her acclimation to her home’s near-standard gravity. Even so, she was wrestling a desperate predator. It barged into her with all its weight, disregarding the sharp blade in its throat in favor of the karkshesh head less than four centimeters away.

Eihks decided, right there, that such a situation was what he would call an emergency. Yes. Yes, it was. He had no intention of letting his partner get gnawed, and while he did allow his trips one fairly regular indulgence in the form of thaumaturgical faculties, the present crisis needed a more immediate solution. He didn’t qualify as an atypical except for uncommon unsavory undeadness; magical (or otherwise) unusual talents to deal with the oncoming disaster were patently lacking. For a mad instant, his dæmon cluster seemed to be the appropriate level of response. Happily, sense reasserted itself.

So instead, he enqueued a very large number of foldings and slivered the beast.

A couple similar past run-ins had needed similar solutions, and they’d taught him to be generous with his dispersal. A swath of millimeter-thick outlines of the explorer’s lower body got bitten out of the sillywolf in the sort of time usually used to comprehensively measure discarding-sabot weapons fire. He worked from one side of the beast to the other in several passes. The exchange of his current position with another somewhere in the clearing, every other folding operation putting him just a little farther into the beast’s trunk, proved effective.

The thing howled at the pain, distorted by the blood leaking around its esophagus wound. It stopped once it was very messily everywhere.

An eyeblink after the predator got the business end of Ktsn’s hard iron, most of the middle two thirds of it lay spread out over a five meter lotus. A not inconsiderable portion of its liquid contents had soaked into Mr. Eihks Richard, and thin-sliced meat and bone formed a grim carpet beneath him.

Ktsn, valiant in her determination to see the thing properly dead, didn’t notice how the head and shoulders suddenly stopped giving resistance or trying to savage her. She kept chopping and cutting as best she could, with one limb trying to fend off phantom mastication even while her weapon remained stuck in deep. The fact that she didn’t make any noise besides grunts of effort and a quiet purr of a growl made the display all the more primal.

It was only when her human associate came around the side of the creature’s cadaver that she took notice of anything besides the pliant head. He couldn’t blame her.

“Hey,” he said, far off enough to the side to avoid a slash or gouge. “Hey! It’s dead!”

She diverted her attention to him for a second. Her eye took in his lower body, and how his bootpants were far, far more blood-covered than not.

She gave the cry of a soul convinced that it was not long for this life.

Eihks helped her out by slapping her solidly across the skull, forehand and back.

When she gave the impression of having even odds of retreating into a state of freak-out or calming down, Eihks helped her out once more and wrenched her pickax free. Then, as a blatant and instructive display of his contempt for a vanquished foe, he booted the dead head as hard as he dared. It didn’t fly as much as sort of inelegantly tumble, dragging the tatters of shoulders and chest along, but it communicated the point.

“I killed it,” he told her very slowly. “It is dead.”

She took notice of the carnage sloughed around the clearing. Thankfully, she didn’t start trying to flee or inflict harm on anybody. She did give a little start when she saw the splattering of sillywolf blood on her lower body and clothing. It was shock more than disgust, unless he missed his guess – she was probably used to getting filthy when tending the fields.

“Slivering,” he told her, and saw her gaze unfocus in a consulting-her-mesh fashion.

“Oh,” she answered. “That sounds dangerous.”

“It’s very effective against things with the need for physical form – say, creatures made of meat – but it’s hardly a panacea. Also, I can only do it to entities that don’t have a mesh. Can’t do it to a person or thing with the proper tuning field setup; physics literally, across any combinatorial mess of configurations, forbids it. Couldn’t do it to YOU, for example. One of several things you’ll be capable of doing as an individual with a cerv-mesh, if you feel like enabling the functionality.”

He didn’t push her about it. Instead, he and she got free of the abattoir slung about the clearing. Eihks doctored the evidence somewhat, so the remains were mashed and sundered instead of clearly disassembled through highly unnatural means. Then, without any fuss, he led them down the adjoining path through the stiff thick forest.

“You broke your principles,” Ktsn accused as they trudged; he turned a bit around.


“You claimed we would be forgoing crutches. Was what you just did not the use of a crutch?”

Eihks raised an eyebrow, and she grew briefly quiet, before she half-muttered, “I am thankful for your intervention, in any case.”

“Not unilaterally forgoing, but preferring to avoid. Proportionally, very few places have access to technologies such as fully arbitrary teleportation. It’s blatantly impossible for most facetary cultures, so slivering things without compelling reason will almost always be a hard ‘no.’ However, I saw that you were in imminent danger. You’ll probably be able to recall that I also claimed to reserve judgment when necessary. In times of utmost need where we absolutely cannot implement any other solution to a critical problem – such as you expiring – I will make use of my highest and most indulgent faculties to see that problem solved.”

When she made a skeptical sound, he forehead-swiped his thumb sideways.

“Oaths to Crippled False are taken seriously,” he told her with the flat non-emphasis such a profound understatement deserved. “I don’t intend to be doing stuff like this on a regular basis. I’d prefer to not freak out any natives we might meet – but you are my priority.”

Windy air-scuffles rose up and died down. The sound of dirt getting compacted underfoot was all that one could hear for a very short-lived time. Then the bamboo chorus began singing once more.

“What sort of natives are we expected to meet?” Ktsn eventually prodded. She sounded shaken, in multiple senses. Probably wasn’t doing wonders for her ability to trust him.

Not that she’d shown special inclination toward giving him the benefit of the doubt this far.

Not that he could really hold it against her.

“Don’t know,” Eihks answered. “Might be none. We didn’t pick up any distinct signs of sapience from our cursory pre-travel simplex connection assessment. Got enough information to know that coming here wouldn’t kill us immediately. If I bled money, POSSIBLY I could have afforded a scan with sufficiently loose parameters to canvas the majority of this planet, and say ‘yes here life caution thank you.’ But I don’t, and I couldn’t.”

He smiled at the karkshesh.

“We pioneers need some sort of reason to earn our keep, after all!”

“I suppose that is sensible,” Ktsn muttered, half-listening.

She shook her feet a little just after each step, trying to get them dry if not necessarily clean. She had little success.

“Anyway, presence of sentient life hasn’t been confirmed yet. That’s one of those things we’ll probably find out sometime after we set up camp.”

A short way down the path, the both of them briefly paused. He spent a little time on several things in the informational ether. A dummy Monolith node went up, redundantly woven into nearby quanta. Updated, the node would serve as an on-site signpost for anyone with a mesh who somehow stumbled onto the facet, out on their edge of the explored gem.

The mated simplex pair linking the facet to their last jump point permitted a few important concessions. One was setting up a temporal lockstep so that he and Ktsn wouldn’t skip several hundred years of extrafacetary time when their subjective selves returned to Rhaagm. Granted, it wasn’t proof against sabotage, but he’d get an alert from a carefully-wrought Ktarebte machine if the lockstep’s tooling failed for any reason.

Last, he erected a memetic flag on the Monolith node, then put the same flag on the on-facet half of the simplex pair. It drew just shy of vainglorious, and sported a ridiculously opulent certificate. It read “This Place Found by the Journals of Gem Pioneering” with toothed curlicues and the digital equivalent of blisteringly bright metallic trim. He’d had the byline altered from “Eihks Richard” to reflect the recent changes in his publication’s fortune.

The alteration was rather fetching.

“Shall we go?” Ktsn probed, interrupting his appreciation. Her gaze roved the area, probing and omnidirectional.

Both of them went.

They emerged from the grove to a sea of cloudless sky. It turned out that they had arrived on a small hill, rolling down to a sprawling prone expanse which was punctured by countless woody needles in every direction. Thicker bamboo lanes curled around aqueous channels, tattooing the view with river-veined octopus footprints. The far geographical southeast-ish boasted a sizable forest of what many homo sapiens would identify as the temperate-clime variety. A series of mucky dark splotches harbored other sorts of life: lonely trees and shrubs and boggy mosses. The suns shone down on both creatures that grazed the fields and creatures that hunted them.

What really drew the eye, though, was an awkward yet clearly artificial skyline.

Crouching in the middle of a broad rise in the terrain, a silhouette of what he was pretty sure were buildings clumped into a very thickly-populated extended family. In the distance, people engaged in the non-urgent necessaries of day-to-day life. A place a lot closer to the size, and maybe volume, of the hamlet that Ktsn had called home.

“That looks like a settlement of some kind,” she observed.

“It does,” Eihks allowed. “Seems like we found our shelter.”

He pointed.

“We can head on down there, but… hmmm.”

The finger curled, a strip of paper in a fire.

“Actually, I have a hunch that these people are either human or near-human. Legally identifiable as human by Rhaagm standards, anyway.”

“What has that to do with the taste of fruit? It does not make the buildings any less buildings. Or do our ambitions not include sleeping under a roof?”

She bristled, showing all of her teeth.

“Whatever you think of my simple people, we do not enjoy spending the night out of doors when danger wishes to offer us to Gegaunli.”

“Offer t…?” Oh. Oh. Bones.

Eihks had much more interest in roughing it in the wilds than she, but… well. The time-to-exceptional-peril on this expedition didn’t fill him with joy at the prospect of anticipating nighttime ambushes. Yet, he saw many details she had overlooked – although not nearly as many as he might have anticipated. She was a decently quick study.

“Let’s put it this way: you found me odd to the eyes when we first met, yes? Or at least you thought such about Thomas. Like I said, humans: striking but only erratically attractive.”

Ktsn gave a handclap.

“I assume the first reaction you had to my species didn’t look upon that strange mostly bald creature in a perfectly positive light.”

Another handclap, after a delay.

“Well, consider: I’m used to a very eccentric spectrum of variations on the idea of ‘people,’ thanks to my place of upbringing. However, these natives might not have the same comprehension of you as a thinking, feeling individual. It mightn’t go over well if you reveal you ARE a thinking, feeling individual – the first time a culture gets definitive proof that there exist actual alien beings which can converse and reason, it usually polarizes them.”

He squinted an eye and cast his face sunsward.

“Polarization, when we’ve got some validity and acceptance in this place’s culture, can probably be managed. Polarization of small and highly contained groups is something we could also deal with. Borderless polarization as the starting point of our interaction with the natives, though, has the potential to get messy. So, I have a proposal.”

“What is it?”

“You probably won’t like it.”

She didn’t like it.

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