Saving the Day Without Dying

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“An example from the Ord peoples’ timelines. Think about the differences of humans and dagachas, versus fregnosts (or humans, alternatively) and aarls. Humans and dagachas – forms relatively like each other, compared to other Ord races. However, the first has a palette of emotional states; the second, a landscape decorated by flexible and highly concentrated permutations of hate and revulsion and antipathy. Now, fregnosts and aarls have more similar mentalities. But look at them. A somewhat mammalian creature, and an organized collection of small-element atoms. These are different, but most importantly different in different ways. Consider how strange. Consider how alike. Consider how precious, that thing called mind.”

-Connisel Frena Frena Pjoßtet, Breaking Barriers


The man’s words were rudely interrupted by dust and paving stone. Ktsn’s stone ensured he face-planted and slid along the now-paved road. The guard’s ax-haft ensured he wouldn’t have the chance to be rude again. The sound would have made her feel unwell just a few hours earlier. Now, the destruction of a living person’s bones was simply another in a considerable list of undesirable facts.

She wasn’t exactly sure when she’d volunteered or been conscripted. The cell of people protecting the king ran at a leisurely pace. They were moving slowly, partly thanks to the bogging-down mud of the crowd, partly thanks to sporadic assault, partly thanks to efforts to remove the active volatile weeds, and partly thanks to the fact that every so often several got dispatched to address more distant targets. At first they’d headed back down the parade’s route. Then they’d had to deviate, as roadblocks and implied roadblocks started cropping up. To judge by the fact that the foes hadn’t fired on the parade originally, she suspected these were either dregs or outposts meant to receive (and currently outside the assistance of) support. But what did she know? She was a farmer.

To the fore and far beside of the group, Ktsn kept pace without leading. Goeyren’s people – possibly excepting the recruit – had concluded she was friendly. If not friendly, then helpful. In any case, the people around the king focused on their honest actual foes. They had to be breeding like some freakish cross of rugfos and the borers that infested her house’s rafters every turning of the seasons, considering the short distances between incidents. In reality, one part of her subconscious said that there were fewer than ten hostiles that they’d taken down. If that part of her subconscious were a person, she’d have fearfully clawed its face to ribbons.

She wouldn’t have jettisoned that portion of her subconscious, though. It distracted her.

All she actually cared about was ensuring nobody turned her into a limp cool collection of contiguous meat segments – and providently enough, putting the same protection on the king. Her de facto allies allowed her to do as she pleased, now that she’d demonstrably hocked a great many stones onto enemy bones. She kept doing such things, and a laundry list of flesh wounds now stood in her credit.

“Edsāl, go and alert the guard barracks past the weavers’ street; we need more people now.

The captain’s hand reached out from the group, beckoning the rest closer. The foremost member of the defensive amoeba waited a moment for the others in the detail to shrink around him, and then he sprinted off. Apparently the Upright Malformed Greshna, specimen of great and terrible oddity, could reach some very respectable speeds when given sufficient inducement.

She slammed to a halt just as the group breached an intersection’s skin.

High-sided stone garden beds stretched out from the square’s four corners. Exotic plants of several types decorated the planters. The dividers pinched together into the intersection’s center. It reminded her of the four-pronged pest traps a young Ktsn helped her father make. If she’d wanted to, she could touch one of the stone garden beds with a claw, stretch out her feet toward an adjacent corner’s garden bed, and almost span the gap.

She didn’t intend to do that, though, because six people placed themselves in the way.

It was difficult to tell which in the scramble, but one or two hastened in from the left. Four of them bore obvious contusions and weals. The one who put himself forward first, hunkering over the planter’s edge, held an ax-headed polearm. Rather, he supported an ax-headed polearm on the back of a bloody hand while the other shakily gripped it. The living-water protrusion from the metal frame at the top shimmered and twisted.

As the king and his guard came close up behind her, the group threw themselves forward.

Blood turned her insides warm.

Ktsn didn’t remember much for a while after that, focusing on the prospect of keeping herself alive. She had a glimpse of fending off the axman with her trusty pickax. There was a vague cloudy record of flinging a desperate stone straight through a woman’s teeth, and the woman’s arrow going from trained on her to chipping the stone at Ktsn’s feet. Soundness of mind returned after the woman stopped clutching her mouth with a stained hand, and took a wickedly barbed blade to the karkshesh. A nick and a shove moved to the front of the sensory processing queue. The world turned, dizzy and wavering at the edges.

Ktsn hit the planter with enough force to daze her. She gasped, a leg bending wrong under her, and then she was struggling with the crazy-eyed person trying to gut her. She was bigger, and she was stronger, but she was also accustomed to a pastoral life. Pitting herself against an entity, rather than the holistic expanse of ideation that was “nature,” wasn’t an experience she was adept at resolving. The many spikes of injury from stem to stern each sapped her focus and determination a little bit.

“Just go away!” the woman was saying – or seemed to be saying. The messy state of her jaws made it difficult to tell. “Just go away! Just go away! Just go away! Just go away!”

Periodically, completely out of time with her words, she made threadbare but insistent lunges with her weapon hand. The farmer would have liked to get her legs under herself. With a solid footing, she could easily shove the woman away and make good her survival. Unfortunately, the limb she suspected might be sprained was blatantly opposed to that plan of action, and she felt her trunk painfully hogging onto it. So she kept struggling.

Her struggling grew weaker at an alarming rate.

Huddled there with her posterior wedged into a corner, it vaguely trickled into her awareness that the knife woman’s regular attempts at battery were slowing down as well, but not as dramatically as Ktsn’s. A clawed hand scratched the air within four centimeters of her opponent’s face. Perhaps it was the dentally-maimed woman’s extraordinary straits that lent her such wretched strength; perhaps it was Ktsn’s myriad tiny hurts sapping her own endurance. With the curious useful fabric Eihks had given her slid out of the way, Ktsn came to the quick realization that she was very plausibly going to die in the next twenty seconds or so. If only it weren’t for the person trying to stab her.

… Sorry, Cursog.

Her eyes fluttered abruptly as her mind fled back along the axis of time to a place of refuge, and answers to questions of life and death and wondrous strangeness, as provided by her tall partner. Breath came in suddenly excited gasps. The most important fight suddenly became one of her against herself, a trespass against her mental sanctum.

Input. Experience. Abstraction. Magic.


Doing the single hardest thing she’d ever accomplished, she calmed her mind. Catalysis burned to life on some higher plane, channeled through her, leapt to her grasp.

The energy that would have clammed together to form a coherent conjuration of light shot forth with burnished purity. The broadside hit Ktsn’s opponent in the ocular nerve. It wasn’t terribly strong.

It sufficed, though.

The corona of lucent spines pulled a snarl from the woman, and made her rear back. Ktsn used the opportunity to push with her weakening might, and drive her pickax home as powerfully as she could. It caught the woman in her chest.

Her attacker’s dazed eyes shot wide with a thick gasp. Then she collapsed, right next to the karkshesh, and her expression became one of exhausted release. For quite a few breaths, Ktsn just lay there. Her own chest felt spring-tight and she couldn’t muster the steel to rise. Eventually, though, other voices nearby convinced her that she needed to get up. Minding her injured leg and still-stinging foot, she scraped herself off the ground.

Pulling the pickax loose was an unpleasant chore. Glancing around, Ktsn fixed her gaze on the planter soil beside her, and buried the stained blade of it deep in the clean dirt. It came free with just a hint of red-brown ringing the blade.

She felt something in her clench with a spastic… not pain, but something very like it. She – a good daughter, a pleasantly curmudgeonly farmer, a person who loved learning and generally hated drama – had killed multiple people that blustery ordinary day.

Numb except for a burning statue of a heart, she carefully turned around. The king’s people where they were conferring about the best course of action. Three of their own number had become casualties, one of them dead.

“We’re going to wait here and fortify this position,” the captain declared, retrieving an arrow from a body with a sawtoothed knife.

“Is that wise, Captain?” the king asked. The wind stretched and folded the cloth around his slim blue and black insignia, and made the special symbols he wore look almost as tired as himself. “I’m no military man, but it would seem safer to retreat behind the palace’s walls and defenders.”

“Your Highness, enough guards to storm that palace will be coming through here in less than a fifth of a water. It would take at least twice that to get ourselves to a safe place under our own power.”

He rose. A hand cleaned the blade with a living-water ribbon.

“I don’t like it, Your Highness, but it’s the best of our bitter choices.”

He gestured at two of the square’s exits.

“The lancers should be coming from the western and northern routes,” he said to his fellow fighters. “Possibly the same for Minu’s people. I want you lot clogging up the southern route. Trajentho, pick a handful and set them up on the eastern route. Gelmin, you’re going to watch both North and West. If anyone appears coming from either way, and they’re not someone you personally recognize, discourage them. Thrown rocks, fists, whatever.”

Several salutes got traded. A passel of people got dished out to two of the square’s entrances. They expanded and spread out, bread leavened with civic duty.

The captain pointed at the three others left.

“We four… if anyone gets to the king, it’ll be because we have been killed like no human being has been killed before. If we possess a single operational joint, a single FINGER capable of flexing, then that bit of us will need to be stilled to get past.”

“What about our friend over there?”

A person with hair thick enough to act as a pillow jammed a thumb at Ktsn. She felt a bit gladdened by that gesture.

The captain’s gaze lingered on her pickax.

“I think we’ll need all the help we can get.”

He pointed at Ktsn’s disfigured assailant.

“If that’s not help, then I don’t know what is.”

He stepped closer, scanning the karkshesh with a hurried glance. He crouched a bit, their eyes on a level.

“Can you understand me?” he asked, leaning on his bow. A small flower of blood adorned it above his hand.

Ktsn, after giving the matter some thought, was debating on how to make an affirmative when he shook himself.

“Wait, no. If you can understand me, take up a position over there, by His Highness.”

She contemplated the king, and herself, and thought about Eihks’s instructions to protect Goeyren at costs up to but not including her safety.

Come to think of it, she was probably more secure here with all these capable guards standing sentry. If she wasn’t, she didn’t have an obligation to figure out whether she would get better odds out in the winding streets. She wasn’t going to try and calculate the relative safety of each decision just so she might feel guilty later, and tell her partner that she threw herself in harm’s way.


She let a shake ripple its way down her length from head to hocks, and carefully moved over beside the king. Her locomotion hitched when she swung her sprained leg, as well as the leg with the little arrow nick. Even so, she felt a little hard-bitten pride standing on highlegs next to the brace of guards. Goeyren didn’t try to move past his outward-facing defenders, but his astute eyes weighed her with care.

“Huh, well, that’s either frightening or enheartening.”

The captain cut his hand in her direction.

“Just… do what you can.”

Their attention got drawn to a few figures sweeping down on them from the elbow in the northern street, and two guards following behind with drawn weapons as they shouted to stop. The intruders were a woman made of more scar than skin, a tall hulking man, and a round guy with very shiny closed shoes. Behind the guards chasing them were even more plain citizens, moving at a more sedate pace.

“You there, halt!”

The captain’s barked command coincided with the nocking of an arrow, and the string was pulled back and trained on the leading chubby figure. The other three solidified a barrier between their ruler and the oncoming trio, dead-water and living-water and metal ready for violence. After weighing options, Ktsn also peeled away to one side a bit, loading her sling and hunching her shoulders.

The trio stopped six meters away.

She had full certainty they’d have been cut down before getting appreciably closer. The tallest – who Ktsn was surprised to recognize as the illiterate blacksmith she’d visited some time ago – carried a hammer. In the woman’s hands was a pitchfork or hoe or some such thing. She didn’t know what to make of the shortest fellow’s knife, but given that he had it in plain view while approaching an armed squad charged with the king’s protection, as they were surrounding the king, he probably knew enough about it to hold his own.

Or maybe he was completely crazy.

“Gelmin, what did I JUST say?” the captain demanded, mouth and nose twisting.

One of the two jogging guards replied with a downcast face. Her words came in time to her footfalls.

“Apologies, Captain. They’re pushing back down this way en masse; a few slipped through. Pickets are stood up now, so there shouldn’t be any more getting by.”

“Hey!” the round man panted, flesh tending toward a darker color across his face. “We… want… to… help…”

Ahead of the other two by a significant margin, they pulled up beside him as he slowed. His resting his hands on his knees put the knife within a handbreadth of carving out his leg. As they stopped, the guards following them surreptitiously took up aggressive stances.

“Blessed dead give me strength – if you want to help, then get out there, PAST the guard perimeter, and don’t let anyone through unless they’re other members of the guard.”

The captain raised his voice more. The crowd stood to attention and listened carefully.

“That goes for all of you! Get back now, and if one of the guard gives you an order, LISTEN to it! His Highness is in enough danger as it is, and…”

A different, spicy voice rang out. Most of those present looked wildly around for its source.

Ktsn’s ears pulled back, and one eye alighted on a tiered roof about twenty meters away. Below the eaves rested a thin wooden gantry. Above the eaves, a carapaced and helmeted figure crouched on the shingles, clearly aiming a tool of some unclear capability. The foreigner woman from their little eavesdropping stint.

The target at which she gestured with her weapon was obviously Goeyren the Lean.

“Yes, he is. All of you get back from His Highness. He’s going to be removed, and I would like it to be quick and clean.”

The long object she held rippled green, then flashed. Whatever hypothetical projectile it delivered wasn’t visible, but the effects definitely were.

Most of the planter right and in front of the king did something between crumbling and exploding. The dirt in the container went flaming in every direction, the bamboo turned to ash and disintegrated in midair, the stone sprayed planar superheated chips. Ktsn’s teeth shuddered as she yelped, numbing her gums. The rock fragments caused lacerations, one of the guards falling to the ground howling and clutching the bleeding side of his head. Little pressurized bumps tapped the borrowed grayish shroud around Ktsn’s middle, but it deflected the shards without difficulty.

“That was a warning!” the woman shouted. The slashing vacuum that followed her weapon’s firing made the words sticky and elastic. “Doesn’t matter how many of you stand in the way, this thing will hit what I’m aiming at.”

There was a brief gaping silence. Then, the captain slid an arrow through the air neatly into her flank, where it bounced neatly off of her side.

Faster than Ktsn could have credited, the armored figure whipped up a smaller object and punched out a luminous bolt. The bolt, while visible, moved too fast for any sort of detailed observation. It slammed into the captain’s thigh.

“NO! Move or die!” the woman hollered as the captain fell.

The impact site sizzled, the victim screaming and seizing up. The wound left was seared jet, and large enough to admit a finger. The mortified karkshesh drew in a whiff of appetizing flesh.

The world dropped out from under Ktsn, rolling her back to that day her village had received a visit from a disk-mounted pohostinlat. All the unpreparedness, the ambiguous powers suddenly pitching themselves across her horizon, conditional helplessness – it swept over her once again, both less and more intimidating because of what she now understood of the unfolding drama.

The karkshesh ground her teeth together, and reloaded her sling.

A tall member of the guard with a living-water spear put himself in front of the king, shouting orders in a voice that only shook slightly.

“Get the captain out of here, Edsāl! Gelmin, take three of your best and deal with the threat! The rest of you, we’re keeping the king alive-”

The mad scramble for order stopped being important. A long curling rope flew over the building’s far side, a dark stony weight stabilizing the knot’s trajectory. It settled around the woman’s neck and pulled taut in a single motion; taking notice, she fired two more shots with the smaller weapon, the first smoking into the side of a house, the second aimed almost directly between the suns.

She was pulled around and dragged from her perch, then off the far side of the roof. The last glimpse of her was an athletic and astonishing twirl. Springing off of legs and then hands, she launched herself with two axes of rotation, and just barely managed to contact the edge with her boots before getting yanked out of sight.

It was a bit later that Ktsn realized she didn’t so much as blink at the sudden change in affairs. She came to the conclusion she’d passed beyond the point where “surprise” meant anything.

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