Skin Under Words

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Proximal penitents you adore / distal denizens we do implore. / Now let us dig deep to find once more / what once wide our war asunder tore.”

-Leigh Coriban, All Fallen Laws of Seeking Siren Pyres

The inherent concept of “wonder” has always been a bit challenging to properly convey. Partly a matter of communicating a gravid magnitude, partly a matter of either finding or instilling sortable order in a set.

As Ktsn and company approached the prone colossus of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur, she objectively realized that it was far smaller than the vista of Rhaagm. Whether it was technically finite or not, the Parsed City-State couldn’t fail to cover the world from horizon to horizon. It was grand, awe-inspiring, and too large of a thing to digest in a single sitting.

For its comparatively reduced size, obviously paupered level of technological advancement, and general dirtiness, the city they trekked toward still outshone Rhaagm in large part because of its lesser scale. It fit, just barely, into the mind that this was a thing built by people rather than some mystic construct effectively beyond one’s comprehension. Scalloped terraces climbed the hills, showing that the land on which the city was built appeared many-layered. Large fused-skeleton things, that one would call windmills if they were attached to something visibly like a mill, stood in empty open quarters of the city. Many – too many to count – people were coming and going from each gate of the city’s imposing wall.

At the very center, like an egg in a cradle, lay a large structure of stone and wood. It was so polished that the suns seemed to gleam from its rounded edges every time she glanced in its direction.

But in all honesty, the thing that took her by surprise was the combination of two things: noise and smell.

She’d been overloaded in Rhaagm. Mildly, granted, but when one’s whole life is spent in a combination of true isolation and business in a village whose population could fit into a single barn (assuming they were willing to stand one on top of another), anything above a sustained conversational volume is… jarring.

It sounded like the people within the limits of the settlement were actually trying to talk to her directly, despite being… what, half a kilometer away? Body-lengths were still the preferred and intuitive measurement, of course, but roughly two meters to a body length made easy enough conversion. She could hear and tease individual voices from the cavalcade of chaos they were slowly approaching. When the people nearer the sources of those voices were interested in carrying on their own conversations, they of course had to speak up, and thus began an auditory arms race in which there could be no winners.

Irony of ironies, she’d thought that the latrines in Tienla-Gaphra occasionally came over a little strong. Eihks’s discussions on the various innovations available to people in his homeland made it clear how things like mass-energy conversion and internal plumbing removed the hygenic problem of disposal from life’s day-to-day equations. What she now found was a much, much larger population than her home village – armed with the ability to put their undesirable material in one place, or at least away from the city’s more populated areas. The accumulation of reeking essence sometimes caught on the wind, and tried to rub through her fur into her very skin.

No amount of cleaning those pits would truly eliminate their stink, and she felt the same way.

Eihks occasionally crept back to the side of the wagon where she hovered in her own time, trying to make sense of what she was seeing, and passed her little messages on short coughs or little easily-disposable bits of leaf. She was able to read Rhaagmini, and write it (if one could call her scratchings writing) with some difficult mental adjustment to her cerv-mesh’s suggestions, but he elected to use her own common tongue for ease of communication.

His accent work on his scribery was atrocious, but seeing as he was apparently writing these little notes to her behind or inside of the folds of his clothing, she couldn’t fault him.

As the city began to crawl around and encircle her, Ktsn found herself looking up a lot more than she expected. In fact, almost every time she actually stopped to think about it, the standard behavior was either looking up, looking down, or looking at something so close she couldn’t help but shift so she was either looking up or looking down. Unlike the majority of buildings in Tienla-Gaphra or Goskec Tktl, these estates and franchises had multiple stories on many or most occasions. Unlike the view she remembered from the Parsed City-State, that verticality also included the ability to behold the sky.

No bright day-star piercing a metal sheath spanning the world above her, no strange tower ascending in the unmeasurable distance, no easy drawing-up of a village map in her mind’s eye. It was… new.

Fonlat stopped on occasion, asking directions or just talking to people wearing an impressive slew of different clothing species. Many of these short interactions ended with the other party pointing into the distance, telling the woman where they thought she wanted to go. It was an interesting little stageplay, the behaviors between the three out-of-townies and the locals.

Despite the spectacles large and small, Eihks and Fonlat bound their theoretical enthusiasm, and Ktsn had learned that she would have the time to examine the cornucopia of new stimulations later.

Conversely, when they noticed the karkshesh or the taller of the two humans (or even Fonlat, but perhaps that was for other reasons), the residents of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur almost always watched like they were predators separated by a strong wall. One or two expressed subtle amounts of hostility, and Ktsn actually wondered if they were going to get into a brawl when a burly looking man with hair down to his waist stepped in front of the wagon, fists hanging like curing meats. It didn’t escalate, though, and the man also pointed the group on their way as the beasts of burden lowed and turned down a neighboring thoroughfare.

The setting suns finally illuminated a half-gutted building as they cornered one last intersection. The three adjoint streets meeting before its front, all of them sufficiently busy that Ktsn’s group needed to be careful in their movement, formed a very asymmetrical web. It struck Ktsn as an unusual design choice to make the building slightly broader at the roof than the base. Large doors, small closed windows, and what might have been a shuttered counter crossing part of the bottom floor gave the place a hardy well-worn air. A metal living-water frame faced the intersection beside the front door.

Across the front of the structure was a massive painted scrawl, repeated multiple times. As a matter of fact, as their arrival brought them face to face with the building, a strange man stood before it on a ladder. They’d caught him in the process of removing the (presumed) text with hammer and chisel, and had progressed to the portion just above the front door. A rope of living-water around his wrist was saturated with the chips of paint he’d scoured away.

While she watched him attempting to scrape off the peeling glyphs, Fonlat barked something highly pungent and clearly authoritarian. To absolutely nobody’s surprise save the victim, the scraper’s next scrape swung very wide. He caught a leg on one of the rungs, swinging down to land in the dirt on his shoulder, and narrowly missed chiseling his own elbow. His dark skin had a glistening layer, accented by the patchy stains on his light-colored clothing. The karkshesh couldn’t tell how long he’d been at work just from the sweat. She guessed it had been a while.

Disentangling himself with slowly and respectfully louder declarations, the man rose from his unnatural ladder communion and practically dropped the tools on the ground. His comments to Fonlat were clipped, delivered with downcast face, and perfectly – almost musically – monotone. A slightly weathered hand pointed to the signs sluiced across the storefront. The man provided either justification or… something like justification, as he wasn’t incinerated by her temper.

Barked orders, or rebuke, hit the man with obvious but nonlethal effect, to which he replied with a curt flourish, picked up his tools, and left.

Several of the people in the area gandered at the scene, more than the usual number fixating on the karkshesh. Some of these had the good manners to keep themselves to themselves, or to at least leave before being outright caught in staring. A couple others adopted postures of silence.

It didn’t particularly matter, after all.

One quick shift of the wagon, then Ktsn and Eihks set about the task of unloading their goods, as Fonlat directed them. The faithful steeds gave occasional gaseous expulsions, only stirring in any occupation when the lean form of Tassy stretched and flowed out of her place of rest. She trilled at Eihks as he lifted the barrel she’d been using. He trilled back in the same way, although without her liquid quality.

Ktsn pulled her two biggest challenges from the melee of freight, one being the largest water cask she’d ever imagined and the other being an almost formless sack of salvaged wax. She’d come to understand just how precious her employer valued the stuff, considering how difficult the animals whose wool provided it were to cultivate. It still wasn’t easy to drag a host of shavings and little snippets around, all of it trying to sag or yaw at the worst moments. Not heavy, but the very embodiment of heft.

The excess dust and dirt both inside and outside the bag wasn’t helpful, either.

Three repressed sneezes later, the inside of the shop-to-be lay bare before her. It was roomy, dark, and drier than almost anywhere else she could remember being on this planet – including the old shop. Nothing of substance graced the walls or floor besides a huge table and a couple of small sconces here and there. Several troughs ran the edges of the room, and a set of stairs clambered up the back of the building’s interior. A taller entrance with a bar across the doors stood sullenly on its lonesome, facing one of the side streets.

She eyed those stairs with slightly more trust than a twitchy rugfos. The risers were plenty well-made for her companions’ feet, but the length of the steps would require her to go up nearly sideways… if she deigned to venture up at all.

The sack went down in an out-of-the-way spot by the corner, then she started rolling the cask over.

Sadly, the thing was too big to fit in through the door, so they made some quick plans to get it in through the broader side entryway. It worked, but mostly because the aliens’ relative brawn allowed them to brute-strength the thing sideways over its long axis, rather than rolling it. Even so, it required some planning to squeeze it by the bottom stair.

Over the next few minutes, Eihks picked up and nearly threw a number of bundles through the front entryway of the building, moving at a heart-bursting speed. More than a couple of passersby were watching by the time the wagon was half emptied. Fonlat had started organizing the rest and getting the closed-up front of the establishment prepared – well, not for business, but prepared for preparing for business at least.

The karkshesh glanced over the assembling crowd: muttering, calling a question or two, yelling at family members to come look at this newly arrived attraction. She snorted, scratched at the nostrils on one side, and kept moving goods inside.

As she started to bring her load indoors, Ktsn suddenly felt… something.

Out of the dim light, a man wearing a topaz-colored cloak and matching hat spontaneously materialized. He didn’t run, he didn’t walk; he strode at a brisk pace. Without warning, as he moved toward the middle of the intersection, she saw several forking shivers, events splintering into fibrous incompatible will-be happenings.

The man moved on by, patting his belly and casting a glance over the small gathering and unpacking store.

The man stopped, and shouted at the crowd. A couple of people shouted back. More ignored him. One threw a clod of something that fell several paces short of his feet, and he turned away with a growl.

The man looked skyward, blinking in puzzlement at something only he could perceive.

The man kept going, and nothing whatsoever distinguished him from any other stroller in the crowd.

The man ripped his jacket open, grabbing up handfuls of hidden living-water, then pushed with it; spines of suddenly-hard transparency lanced through many of the people gathering. Red ran over the rippling cones, then the man sprinted away as he let the living-water fall, and several onlookers fell dead or dying or injured with it.

The man coughed, waved his fingers in front of his face, and stopped to talk with a petite woman on something or other.

The man kicked a stone.

The man kicked the ankle of one of the draft animals, and got kicked back for his trouble.

The man cried out almost silently as his face contorted, moisture trickling down to his lips.

The man slapped at small insects in the air.

Then Ktsn fell sideways back into her own skin.

“Wh…” she started. She didn’t stop because she was afraid that the people in her vicinity might have started asking questions about the talking four-legged two-armed animal. For that matter, even a couple of words in her native language or Rhaagmini would probably sound as gibberish or regular animal-trumpeting to the uninformed crowd. Whether or not it had any impact on her socially sacrosanct semi-secrecy was the furthest thing from her mind.

No, the spectacle that arrested her higher functions was the yellow-clothed man she’d just witnessed from a plethora of different potentialities. He was striding down the one connecting road that descended a bit to reach the vertex in front of the shop, and he had a strange look about him.

She’d gathered enough of what the word “prophecy” meant to take a gamble at what she’d just experienced.

Without being totally sure of whether it was a good idea, she slapped at Eihks with one hand, then darted inside the shop. Her skin crawled with something between urgency, excitement, and bleak blasted dread. When she didn’t hear him following immediately behind, she peeked her head back out, and got his attention as he hefted another bundle.

He stared, as did a couple of the people who didn’t have anything better to do.

She racked her claws up and down the doorframe.

He continued staring, as Fonlat started making a series of very upset noises at her. Divining something from her manner or bearing, he came along indoors with a very intense expression of presumption, or knowing. Maybe a smidgen of hilarity.

It wasn’t a good expression, whatever it was.

Once his dark-clad height bent just a bit to get indoors, she moved aside and out of view of the street. Fonlat started to say something, but Eihks made a gesture and allegretto reply, which bought a moment of silence.

The people from outside having no line of direct observation on them, Ktsn hissed at her associate.

“Yellow! The man in yellow. The one coming downhill on the road.”

Eihks cocked his head to the side just a bit, and crouched a little so that their heads were closer in elevation.

“Yes?” he pushed.

“He is going to do something. Something bad. I am sure of it! No. No, I am not sure of it, but it seems quite likely. I think.”

Suddenly her eyes cemented themselves shut, and she was clutching her skull in both hands, vibrating so fast it could almost be called flailing. Everything was coming out wrong.

“I do not know who you mean,” Eihks replied, suddenly calm and sober and clean, and that was all that she needed, as it happened.

She tore her crooked digits away, not noticing the divot she carved in front of the nostrils on one side.

“I saw him,” she half-snarled. “I saw him.”

She’d never discussed anything like nonverbal prophecies, but she knew what she had seen.

Eihks blinked twice very quickly. Even so, with her blood pumping and her skin and hair running with needles, and her lungs trying to burst her skin, she processed the action with an exceptional clarity. One blink, and his face went from inquisitive and probing to analytical and academic. An almost nonexistent delay later, his eyelids rose a second time to show a mien of valuation, severity, and experienced decision.

“I assume you’re very sure,” he said. A not-question.

She clapped her palms once, very loudly.

Fonlat said something else, not so much furiously heated as maternally upset. The taller human barked something curt back at her, then so quickly it almost didn’t happen at all, he whipped around on his longest axis. Those ridiculous stick legs propelled him out the door again, and the remaining civilians watched without bothering to hide the mix of their amusement and magnetic attraction.

He spun once, so fast that it lifted his clothing from his person, stopping most of the way through a full circuit. Ktsn moved to the edge of the doorway, and followed his gaze to the man she’d foretold would be arriving. He hadn’t quite yet come down the little incline entirely, but he was most of the way between the top of the street and its bottom. His pace didn’t slow, but Ktsn thought she saw a glint and a baring of teeth in the direction of the loose cluster of citizens.

Eihks moved close to the man, saying something in a low conversational tone. It was the sort of tone, Ktsn thought, that he’d used back when he was explaining to her the truth about her people’s arrival in Rhaagm, and Gegaunli, and everything. She felt a hot-cold stripe run over her from end to end, setting every hair to standing.

The man in yellow slowed just a bit, tilting himself as though to walk right past the taller man. Only when Eihks stopped directly in his path did he examine the other human. His little flinch when Eihks did so came just a bit early, she wagered.

An exchange of coarse low exclamations. Eihks placed one hand on his hip, and the other on the fringe of his jacket. His contribution to their discourse employed many little bits of body noise, and very little in the way of spoken verbiage.

The other man made an aimless gesture, took a step back, then began moving to the side. Ktsn saw, as he continued his circuit around the alien human, a flashing eye that lanced across Eihks and toward the meeting of the three roads. Walking with a clearly visible, untroubled stride, the man kept facing Eihks and disgorging a few choice words at a time. A few emerged unusually loud, a few seemed faster than they were usually spoken. He was being berated – she thought – or doing some berating. A casual interaction between two humans; anger that manifested as something approaching a confrontational composure, not a need to distance oneself or retreat before things got heated. Perfectly normal, nothing threatening, just-

When he positioned himself so that Eihks was opposite from him, and the gathering cloud of people, he abruptly began sprinting. Clothing billowed. A hand reached beneath his garb, and Ktsn saw an enormous amount of living-water unwrap itself. It emerged from some sort of blanket or tarp he wore like a girdle, keeping an enormous quantity of the stuff safely segregated for personal use as a tool.

Or a weapon.

Lunging for the people down at the bottom of the hill, he began chanting something so fast it surely couldn’t have been understood more than in passing by the abruptly tense crowd. His hand emerged, dragging with it a pseudopod of water, then a transparent gelatinous sludge, then a living pond held up by magic. He began to thrust it forward, and Ktsn saw once more before her eyes the vision of puncture wounds aplenty.

Ryodket might have called it the ire of Gegaunli laying injustice low. Ktsn called it a fan of silver streaks accomplishing their purpose with actinic violence.

The first knife Eihks threw took him in the arm, slamming the limb sideways. She wasn’t surprised at how it disrupted his aim. She flinched when the barbs of suddenly sprouted living-water managed to miss heads and and necks, but in one case shot through two hands entirely, and in another destroyed the victim’s knee with astonishing brutal efficiency. Screams began. They got very loud.

Before he even had the chance to draw a breath in between, another blade struck the assailant just above the foot. This one merely knocked into the targeted leg and threw off the man’s balance, rather than piercing flesh.

One final knife went home in his back, slightly to the side. As it bit down, the man’s entire body curled gently toward it. It meant that his fall to the dirt terminated with his head slamming down hard. Fortunately, the angle of his neck and back meant that he didn’t land directly on the protruding hilt and jam it in deeper.

When the living-water lost contact with his flesh, it flopped apart and fell in a rolling slap. The mass retained self-cohesion, but not its shape or hardness.

The infant chaos partly obscured the aliens as they reached the would-be killer. Both of them acted in wordless concert, each having learned enough of the other’s ways to approach without need of consultation. From… somewhere, Eihks produced a nearly luminous-white cleaver with a very wide spine. Its keen side tapered forward to a point far finer than any needle she’d ever used. That particular tool she’d seen on a tiny handful of dangerous occasions; its reappearance boded ill. A sawtoothed gasp emitted from the man when the blade pointed at his arms, and she carefully stepped on them to keep them flat.

Three of the pedestrians, supporting a screaming bleeding fourth, shouted at Eihks. He gave a curt angry reply, pointing at the downed man. One of them broke off, picking up a large rock as a bludgeon. Eihks bobbed his head at the teeth-baring woman, hissing something at her, then returned to flicking his cleaver back and forth. She lowered her weapon, barely refraining from a cranial rearrangement, and backed up slowly when the blade pointed at the yellow-garbed man’s face.

The shadow of a long leggy shape flowed into the effectively-resolved fracas. Topaz cloth stilled from a flapping flag to a quiet shroud as Tassy came close enough to rip the assailant apart.

A guttural croon pulled itself up Eihks’s throat as he crouched like a scavenger stooping to feed. He outstretched the weapon with silken tenderness. It licked the air in front of the man’s nose.

When the man started sweating but remained silent, Eihks repeated his double-handful of chained mouth-sounds. A foot shot skyward, failing to connect with the side of the taller man’s head. After a deliberate placement of his own feet on the prone man’s legs, he repeated the same sounds again. Faster. Frowning.

When the man still remained silent, Eihks gave a little hmph and flicked the tip of his odd cleaver.

The man expelled a buzzing hum through closed lips, as a notch slit a centimeter split into one nostril. Cut flesh briefly sat in shock before it ripened, then fruited blood. Legs failed to spasm, trapped under the heavy boots of the surgeon. Tassy backed up a step, keening with excitement yet restraining herself.

Ktsn weathered the outburst, though she had to rest more of her weight upon the man’s arms.

Eihks growled something further at his captive, and – through the pain and the struggle – his captive warbled a short and sour-sounding rebuttal.

Just as he was about to do something that might have ended badly, the weakly flailing man stopped being their problem. An ensemble of guards with spears came hollering and running into the square. Their weapons pointed at the participants in the lunatic scuffle.

A slightly desperate look came over Eihks. When they confronted him, Ktsn somewhat expected her companion to throw off the guards, pick the ruffian up by the scruff, and shake him to pieces.

Instead, he verbally prodded the guards with what she would have called a civil attitude. When the foremost of their number gave a short reply, he stepped back from his prey. Immediate polearm-based violence met the fellow’s immediate attempts to wriggle free and run. That wasn’t what made Ktsn upset, though. Nor was it the pained writhing of the injured. Both of those did distress her, and the man with the ruined knee in particular made her feel a bit ill.

The biggest source of worry was none other than Eihks’s incredibly faint shaking, and the way his mouth shrank to insignificance.

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