One Shore or Another

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Nearly everything is conditional, in the context of existence. Integrated information theory proves inadequate as well as incomplete when describing thoughts and qualia on bound-psyche facets. Death or permanent deterioration is a frequent but non-universal happenstance. Even you are subject to change, in one sense or another. If there exists a god beyond the extrema of our means to control (save perhaps the Olds) then we have not yet found incontrovertible demonstrable evidence of their being.”

-Toothskin, addressing a polytheon of contrarian Rhaagm-housed deities

For a triple-handful of heartbeats, all of Goskec Tktl and the surrounding country lay in state, so many bones stacked in a funeral pile. Every man, every woman – all minds slain in their living skulls, watching without watching as the very heavens were obscured by the face of a mystery.

“We ask that you do not panic,” continued the image. “Personnel are arriving who will aid you.”

Ktsn, in a shocked convulsive semi-stupor, recognized it as a human face… or something very close. Two front-facing eyes, a low mouth, a curious down-bent protrusion dotted with holes. Proof if proof were needed that her dream of last night was a special kind of ominous.

“You will be met by these envoys shortly. Once they have presented themselves, then-”

It’s the end!” howled Dergas Ldnt Drthg, aged body mangling in furious horror.

The beat-up old man rolled over onto his fastlegs, and – quite intoxicated on something or other – sprinted directly into the side of the newest creation of one of the village wainwrights. The wagon came out the victor.

When one side of the wagon briefly left the ground, then thudded back down, it was like someone had thrown a half-mad rugfos into a creche. Screams, some of the villagers coalescing into groups of familiarity, more than a couple of people trying to decipher how the sky-pictured human facsimile might be assaulted as they went for slings or spears. The people who had children with them were among the first members of the congealing offensive elements.

Meanwhile, stalls nearly collapsed under the weight of people accidentally shoved against or dashing into them at speed. A cookfire near the closest building tipped over, and a bit of dry dust kicked up with the sparks.

“WHERE DO WE BRING THE FOOD?” asked a baker, just standing there in the middle of the unfolding chaos with a blanketful of wrapped bread in his arms.

“What?” asked a disbelieving woman, skidding to a stop in front of him. One of her rear legs tripped a child, and the child got up with a wail of pure and total bewilderment.

The two maintained eye contact for an instant before clouds of disorganized fearfuls began crisscrossing the square. Every one of them tried to split up into sub-entities and go in every direction at once. To one side, someone frantically pulled at a ledhuk that had been tethered to a post, quite distinctly failing to loosen the poor creature’s lead.

One scruffy-looking soul had excellent success in falling to the ground, and spinning around and around. Little chirrups of unprocessed sound poured from the separated lips.

“GET AHOLD OF YOURSELVES!” howled the voice of one-eyed Matron Kglk, among the wisest and arguably most respected of the village’s souls. Her maturity and prodigious size contributed to the attention she garnered. The strength of her voice pipes helped by rattling the organs of everyone within a ten body-length radius, and making her clearly audible even above the voices of the sky.

“We will not give ourselves to panic,” the Matron continued, as strong and proper in her expression as Ktsn’s own childhood tutor. Her eye travelled the crowd, searching for those who would further destabilize the impromptu gathering of two hundred or so. Several other venerable leader-type souls moved in her direction through the crowd. Among them was Wdondf, coming from somewhere Ktsn hadn’t noticed.

“Whatever is going on, it seems we have little recourse to respond via normal means,” Kglk continued. She flicked a glance skyward at the moving images fanning out to the edge of the world. She seemed to have a bit of the battle-fear yet left in her, as did many others nearby. However, eight or nine in ten of the marketplace’s original occupants remained, listening despite the urge to chase down and visit violence upon the alien celestial visages.

The Matron looked lower again, and indicated the ossuarial hills on the edge of the village.

“If any have better plans, let us hear them shortly, but I recommend we gather at Gegaunli’s shrine and offer her obeisance.” She held out a hand to dampen the sudden swelling in muttering and half-curses. “It does not seem that the… presences, or whatever they are, have any vulnerability to tools and weapons of the flesh-and-blood realm. At least, none that leap to mind. That being the case, it makes sense to treat this like we would treat a rogue vessel or omen of Taralngegeshet, or other unwelcome spirit.”

She paused, looking back over to the shrine herself.

“We ought to seclude ourselves, and ask Gegaunli for her intercession.”

“That’s reasonable,” one of the other leaders chipped in, whose name Ktsn couldn’t remember. “We’d also have a clear route to the woods if needed.”

The youthful apothecary was younger and less wise and not as gifted in voice as the Matron, but he knew a great deal and made up his mind very quickly. From Kglk’s blind side, he clapped his hands in approving concurrence.

Drlkt had trotted up on the fringe of the crowd. The old hunter counted among those offering approval of the plan to seek out their deity’s protection. Ktsn felt optimistic about disaster quickly fading from the possible futures Gegaunli’s bones might read for them.

“I say we need to prepare for martial conflict!” insisted Rlgts, and an inchoate sound snaked up Ktsn’s gullet.

A number of eyes aligned with the gemcutter, some of them interested, some of them at least as annoyed as the Daephod prodigal. Rlgts was quick-witted, arrogant, liked order, and liked giving orders. 

She polarized people, did Rlgts.

“That… voice, or magic, or whatever it is said something about envoys,” she continued, making a warding sign with one hand as the other pointed heavenward. Her rising tone kept her audible over the sky-humans. “If we’re going to have visitors, then waiting for them to arrive before sharpening our knives and loading our slings wouldn’t help us in the slightest.”

“Assuming that a violent response is called for,” Ktsn responded. When she got a disparaging look, she didn’t bother masking her irritation. After all, there were already plenty of other things going wrong; a few jabs at a truculent-souled termagant wouldn’t shift the world’s orbit.

She noticed her father noticing her, and hastily diverted her attention from him just as Rlgts gave her a look of unrefined disdain.

“If we’re making assumptions, it’d be prudent to assume that strange and mystic beings aren’t necessarily our friends,” she said.

Something critical of Ktsn the Mate Thief was a given. In fact, it would nearly have been a disappointment otherwise. She didn’t bother replying this time.

“Let us escort our least physically-fit and most pious first,” continued Kglk, overriding the protests and proposals. “After we have dealt with the needful and the faithful, we can turn our thoughts and prayers to more warlike affairs.”

Ktsn sided with Kglk in her heart-of-hearts. Part of this was because she wanted to keep the implemented plan and Rlgts’s plan from overlapping as much as possible. Part of this was because the fear that truly drives – that exceptionally rare fear that ensures one knows the futility of resistance – felt like it was nearly under Ktsn’s own skin.

But that was a perversion. Ktsn didn’t know what, if any, danger the strange visions in the sky posed. As the lapidary had stated, there was suggestion but no certain knowledge that the strangers meant them well. Likewise, there was suggestion but no certain knowledge that conventional weapons, or things not blessed by Gegaunli, might have difficulty in driving the hypothetically hostile “envoys” away.

One only resigned to departing in fear when one knew that danger was utterly insurmountable, after all. But that didn’t mean Ktsn was going to agree with Rlgts on anything unless she had no alternative.

“We should make preparations to depart, but cautiously,” said Wdondf. Ktsn found herself a bit annoyed, hearing her father agree with her on such a topic. It soured her guts a little for them to be on the same side, even when that side was the clearly sensible one and it set her position diametrically counter to Rlgts’s. Ah, well; she’d bear it.

But still… thanks a lot for ruining the day, Father.

“South and then East,” recommended the apothecary. “We can follow the Kregat River and use a boat as a ferry if needed.”

“Provisions!” shouted someone. The someone in question was a butcher, called Herkad or Nekrad or something like that. “We don’t know how long it’ll be before the… the… whatever-they-are get here!”

That ignited a whole series of rapidly-digressing subarguments. “Who knew how long it would be” was actually a diplomatic gambit lying somewhere between “we don’t have much in the way of information” and “wow, it’s been a while since we’ve eaten noonmeal, hasn’t it?” The concept of food and torches and clothing and other incidentals, somehow, made things far more real than the very visible sky-image of people proclaiming their peaceful intentions literally overhead to the entire world.

“What about fighting back?” shouted Rlgts. “Don’t we want to repulse these strange invaders at the earliest opportunity?”

She sounded scared, and to give her her due Ktsn was certainly frightened enough to wage war. Somehow, though, she felt a nagging confidence that waging war would be out of the question soon enough. Unlike her reluctance to listen to her fear, this sense was steelclad and impossibly sharp.

The little bit of planning and confidence-boosting discussion quickly succumbed to lots of tiny bits of planning and confidence-boosting discussion. For reasons Ktsn could never have explained thereafter, she felt that she needed to contribute to the decision-making process again, and more drastically than before. Yes, she wanted Rlgts to be exiled from her existence, and yes, she disliked her own father’s involvement. Yet, she realized with a sudden suffusion of the obvious that waffling would do very little besides leaving them squabbling and enthusiastically debating, when they needed to be ACTING. They’d get around to acting eventually, anyway. The important factor was to act immediately, and defer deferment as long as possible. She raised her strong voice over the many minor hubbubs, and the still-speaking sky-heads. She got their attention.

“If we are going to achieve anything here today, then we-”

A grinding of her mental machinery to a halt. Without ceremony, the components of her psyche were loosened, and detached from each other. New bits were threaded where old bits had been removed.

Then the machinery started up once more; an engine with different purpose.

A thousand cities have come and gone, and a small fiefdom shall them join. On the day and hour of conjoinment will be the vessel’s further conjoinment, to another vessel filled once and half less. Sympathy came to those that the Beautiful One of Bones called her own; to Gegaunli herself, less or none. Those hurt by assistance will scatter to the winds and spread innocence without the malice of forethought. This is the atrament of one book brewed from the ashes of another.

Silence. The surcease of the strange horn-deep voice that had leapt from Ktsn’s throat without her thought or knowledge or consent. She blinked once, twice. She shook herself as though to rid herself of water. Her tongues licked each other, and her nostrils spread wide and deep.


She glanced around, and realized that every single person in the village was staring at her. Not many. Not most. All of them.

She shook her head again, and felt the hand of time reach forth from the past to bring her back through the words she’d channeled.

Broken bones,” somebody swore. “I didn’t think we had any priestesses in the Daephods.”

It was precisely at that time that a figure appeared above Goskec Tktl, riding a large circular… something. Later, it occurred to the farmer that the voices from the sky muted themselves just as it came into existence.

The head peering over the edge of the circular something was that of a very strange human. Red in hue, very differently-shaped eyes, and natural-looking long ears on the sides of its face. Hovering directly over the square, the strange figure made a strange gesture with one limb that must have been an arm. Ktsn guessed that she could only see about half of its total size, but it was hard to tell, given that the thing was somehow floating between six and nine body-lengths off of the ground.

“Citizens of Goskec Tktl: greetings!” said the figure. “I am called…”

The creature emitted a string of diluted, thin sounds that pricked like a hundred thorny vines.

“… and I am here to help you. Please, do not be alarmed.”

“DO NOT BE ALARMED!” shouted Kglk.

“Do not be alarmed?” Rlgts shrieked, though at whom was a mystery never to be solved.

She followed through with a very impressive throw of a nearby support post, rendered obsolete when its awning had been torn away. The post was slightly longer and thinner than a good spear, and – considering the materials with which she had to work – the lapidary had to be commended in making her makeshift weapon drive straight at the figure’s hovering platform.

Regrettably, the wooden post shattered against its underside with nary a scuff to show for its good fortune and use.

The figure of the human turned slightly to look at Rlgts. Its hands did something Ktsn couldn’t fully see, and judging by the moving of its lips it said something that she also couldn’t hear. Then it spoke up again.

“I’m coming down, now. If you could be mindful, I’d appreciate your staying away from…”

A five-digit hand with strangely planar bone covering its back pointed at an open square between four stalls.

“That part, right there. Alright?”

Nobody said anything, but there was a great deal of scurrying and fetching of weapons.

Ktsn, for her part, kept watching the newcomer but with less automatic hostility than before. She wasn’t a genius, exactly, but she felt fairly certain that a person hailing from a culture where flight of large circular somethings was accepted fact would be more than capable of doing a place like their village enormous harm. As best as she could tell, no such intent was evident. She wasn’t relaxed, though.


The vessel moved down to the ground in a smooth, almost biological way. Its rider, as it happened, was actually shorter than first suspected, judging from how much of it appeared over the open pit of the vessel.

“Now,” began the human’s curious knifelike voice once more.

An incredibly valuable and incredibly dangerous vial of fire oil flew straight for the shortish reddish figure. Instead of smashing and cascading over the newcomer, however, the vial exploded against thin air. The fire oil slurred across a hemispherical bulb of space that reached around the vehicle’s top, nowhere touching the intended target. As it ignited, the halo effect of the dancing flames gave the strange creature a truly fearsome air.

For four or five heartbeats, the burning continued in near silence, the oil devoured in short order. Eventually, the fire’s fuel died, and the flames with it.

“Is that quite everything?” asked the rider, both front-facing eyes considering the nameless apothecary who’d administered the inflammable substance.

When no answer came, a short plosive breathy sound left the human.

“Now, I’ve got a short dissertation to give all of you, but first we need to ensure that nothing goes horribly, horribly wrong. So, before things go any farther down paths we all wouldn’t enjoy-”

The glare at the apothecary redoubled.

“-let’s introduce you to some people. Just don’t give them the same welcome, or there will be very unfortunate consequences.”

“Excuse me,” said Wdondf, in the sort of firm voice he’d taken long hence when addressing his offspring on their more wayward days. He’d flipped onto his fastlegs, and began moving toward the strange human on a disadvantaged elevation. People made way for his approach.

“Yes?” asked the addressed party, strange-shaped eyes playing over Ktsn’s father’s form.

“We have not ever met any of your kind before,” he said. “We do not want conflict. Likewise, we do not want to be subjugated.”

Wdondf used the eye on the same side as his scarred hand to examine the biped. Neither dart nor deflagrant had any lasting effect on the strange and strangely-named individual, or the vehicle used by the same. Ktsn figured it was probably time to embrace that battered, non-belligerent fear that comes of admitting one’s powerlessness to fight back. The human glanced at the hand in question several times, obviously picking up on the deliberate admission of weakness.

“If there might be any way, foreign envoy, for us to peacefully resolve-”

He was cut off by a loud snort from the creature, along with a violent diagonal thrashing of hands.

“Ah!” came the bombastic response. “There, at least, is a misunderstanding that I can resolve easily enough! I’m not one of the volunteers. No, no… that’s inaccurate, I am a volunteer. I’m not that kind of volunteer, though – that would be their lot.”

A flat and vaguely plated hand jabbed out toward the southern horizon. In the distance, Ktsn spied a fair number of newly planted trees and bushes… no.

Movement. People.

And thus, the envoys that the village had feared and dreaded arrived with a complete absence of fanfare.

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