The Storm’s Fringe

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Some people mistakenly call a decision problem, or its solution set, a ‘gray area.’ I pity these people. What they are so painfully oversimplifying is the essence of morality: the clear of good implication entwined with the opaque of bad implication. Decisions should never be made based on ‘taste’ unless there is no moral element whatsoever to the resolution – and rest assured that nearly every problem, however trite, contains the seeds of moral repercussions. Measure the black portion and the white portion of each volitional branch. Measure and step forward with increased confidence, but never hubris.”

-Toothskin, Living Philosophy

Ktsn pointed at the distant shape of the Tower of Rhaagm; the shape that had been hounding her and Eihks ever since they’d left his home. It had not been something she’d seen from her own residence when she’d awoken in the morning. Now, it was something she couldn’t and wouldn’t escape. No matter how many times on their journey that she’d been sure a building would move in front of the structure and hide it from view, the buildings instead grew see-through and clear, and then it would stare down at her once more.

“Look at that artifice,” she demanded of her kinsmen.

They did not.

“I urge you to contemplate what kind of creatures could concoct such a strange and awesome thing. A building whose outward appearance cares nothing for distance or space or in-between obstacles. Consider that such a thing is indicative of the sort of power that might rival Gegaunli herself.”

The near-blasphemy obviously sat poorly with her family and other close ones. That was fine; it sat very poorly with her.

“Very well,” said her father. He looked like a man who had come back from the boneyard. Two hands outstretched and arraigned her in formal condemnation. When he spoke, it was as one of the elders of Goskec Tktl passing woeful judgment.

“If you should return to this place, Ktsn Wdondf Daephod, know that you are unwelcome among us elect. Leniency will be given in the unlikelihood that we elect decide to lavish you with gracious mercy, and will otherwise prove unattainable.”

She felt herself tense on the inside. Her claws dug into her palms.

“Go with the blessing given all pariahs: may Gegaunli favor you, Taralngegeshet fail to notice you, and you never set foot upon our ground again until the stars should change.”

He sounded, in all honesty, like he would be lamenting this evening for a very, very long time.

“Very well,” she echoed.

Her human companion stood back a short distance, arms collapsed across each other, as he watched the sun’s slow decadence.

“Let us go, Eihks,” she said, and each word seemed to stuff a bundle of cloth into her chest between her lungs. “I am no longer welcome, and you have expressed no interest in remaining.”

And like that, she left the site of her family’s farm – and everything she’d ever known as a young and then less-young woman.

“Thank you for not saying anything,” she begrudged the lanky form.

“Happy to oblige.”

It would be quite a time before she really trusted him, between the variously unsettling features of his kind, his curious personality, and his feverish demeanors. That incident with the owl-of-the-mind was a thoroughly educating one, on several levels. He’d kept her from harm, but prevention of a problem and negation of problematic mentality were two very different things.

Of course, there was the aspect of suspicion that she’d felt on learning that her beneficiary had a predilection for the dangerous. His obvious liking for knives was very unhelpful on that score, if more understandable on a pragmatic basis.

Perhaps most disorienting and debilitating, though, was the fact that she was devoting so much time to thinking with such attention on the far-reaching implications of relationships.

On the more immediately actionable level, she was having difficulty with her newly learned language. The Rhaagmini for “owl-of-the-mind” had no sooner been heard than her mind’s newly broadened base reached out, consulted a lookup mapping, and dragged her lexical attention over to the definition of the term. When she had wondered what that definition meant when it compared the creature to a “normal owl,” the process recurred. She had garnered (in a delirious instant) descriptions for the subtle association of many human cultures between owls and wisdom, several words for mind predators such as the one which had assaulted her, a fair number of phrases involved with the fields of epistemology and sentience, and the very interesting term “psychopomp.”

Given that she didn’t have a lick of Rhaagmini before today, that kind of verbal spelunking had happened on several other occasions thus far, and it had gotten no less disorienting.

However… what she’d learned from the name Crippled False – and how oaths given the way Eihks had sworn before her were evidently unbreakable on usual pain of death or worse – had brought him back into her favor somewhat.

“So,” she said, most certainly not in the name of distracting herself from her distractions from her family. “What are we to do now?”

“Now? We lay low for a while and let the political dust settle from my little problematic situation, through the prime solution of running away. It’ll allow us to put off your integration finalization a while longer. To do that, some preparations are necessary. If you and I are going to be getting into troublesome collaborative misadventures, then you ought to receive credit for your efforts.”

Eihks tapped the fore of his head.

“We need to get in touch with the fellow responsible for distributing my work, and whose job it is to minimize my publicly visible stupidity while maximizing my stupidity’s public visibility. He’s the only person capable of officially giving you attribution as my co-author.”

Ktsn didn’t stop, but she slowed down very steeply as her mind started ratcheting over words that had and hadn’t just been said, and the cooling breeze whipped the sea of tall grasses about in crazed hyperbolae.

“Wait. How… many people are aware of your…”

She did stop then, and looked at him more directly when he halted to check on her progress.

“Actually, what is it that you write? Or is it even writing?”

She realized she’d begun falling into the habit of cutting off multiple successive trains of thought in her discussions with Eihks. She resolved to stop.

He merely made discordant mirth-music at her.

“It’s writing, in a fashion. My creations are mixed-media; some purely text content, some sensory recordings, one or two in-person presentations at a convocation of other like-minded people every so often. Other occasional types of material.”

A hand flicked out, and in a trick of beautifully mundane deftness conjured a brick of metal on one palm.

“If you want, you can check it out later; not right now, though. It’s a bit of a trick to watch or read while keeping up a traveling pace.”

His face scrunched up and almost rubbed against itself.

“You should eventually see something made by one of my peers as well, for reference’s sake, but that can happen later.”

“That is one of those things which one can digest if they have a cerv-mesh, correct?”

“Yes, but you don’t need to activate those functions if you don’t want to. You can play them back on a standard holojector, or any of a hundred other types of hardware.”

He handed the brick across, and she slipped it into her belt with care.

“You’ve read or heard stories and recountings on ‘exploring the wilderness untamed’ at some point in your life, correct?”

She gave a handclap.

“Well, imagine that, but… actually, it’s exactly that. Just different kinds of wilderness from what you’re probably thinking. My focus has usually been on teaching people about the places I visit in an academic sense. ‘Oh, look at this strange way these plant-analogues behave like zooform life,’ and ‘This culture appears to have some kind of perennial blessing from a local deity-or-magical-nexus.’ Part of it – and this was actually the original way some of the material was supposed to get released – centers more specifically on showing how to survive in conditions of deprivation. Suppose this thing got ripped out of my neck and a series of massive coincidences stripped most of the utilities to which it gives me access.”

A tap on his own cerv-mesh. They both started walking again, against the stream of clean wind and the prickings of plant stems.

“That’s almost certainly never going to happen. Suppose that it does, though, or someone who doesn’t have one (and there are a considerable number of those people to be found in our little community) wishes to try their hand at seeing some untamed wilderness. It’s a potentially – often actually – dangerous world out there. Elucidating precisely how that danger manifests, or could manifest, is something that garners more than a passing fancy for the average audience.”

His teeth showed again, in something that she was sure wasn’t happiness or excitement.

“Now as for how many people are counted in my readership, that’s tricky to answer. It’s a number subject to a good deal of change – there are a lot of people being born or otherwise added to creation over time. That means that in the extrafacetary climes, we tend to think more in terms of ratios and portions than hard figures as far as populace. It’s not exactly an expensive production I put out, though it’s not terribly costly to make either.”

Both eyes swung upward, trying to peer at the top of his own head.

“Agh, that’s right; I’ll go over how differently-scarce economics works if you’d like sometime, but for now just take my word that our monetary system may sound strange and awkward. Anyway, that strange and awkward system means a lot of people can get on top of my work if they want to. If we had a group of ten trillion people taken from around here, for example, probably a million would know who I am and what I do. In the neighborhoods around my place of residence, that might rise all the way up to half a billion, perhaps one billion outright.”

“You have a very, very large number of people in this city if these numbers are not being arbitrarily chosen.”

“Of all kinds, all creeds, all nationalities. Yes.”

The idea of a halfscore swatches of a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand people merely existing boggled the mind.

“I do not know if is a good idea to become publicly known to that large of an audience,” she half-mumbled.

She started, looked about. Without realizing it, she and Eihks had returned to the mountains and canyons of buildings. It was both a relief and a sorrow to leave familiar meadows and forests behind.

“Don’t worry about that! I won’t mention or even hint at your involvement until and unless you voice desire and assent for doing so. Illicit sponsorship from an unwilling abductee might help bring popularity with a certain ne’er-do-well crowd, but putting aside the question of morality it would lose probably as many people as it gained.”

“Well, thank you for that.”

Ktsn scratched an itch; she worried she might be getting a bit of a scaly patch by her armpit.

“If there is…” she began, as they passed crooked-backed buildings and strange expansive arcane architecture. She stopped because she realized, to her joyful horror, that “if” was a word she was going to have to relegate to a less-used part of her vocabulary.

“I will assess whether that is desirable when there is time,” she said instead.

Quickly it was becoming clear to her that she could only feel so much amazement at a stretch before her mind began shunting that amazement out the back entrance. Their journey to their next objective had a hundred wonders, big and small, even considering that it was her third time traversing the wide thoroughfares of the city. Each time she thought that she must simply burst with curiosity, there happened along another thing about which she could only be yet more curious. Eihks mentioned that she could do lookups of things of interest on the basis of unfiltered sensory input, when her cerv-mesh usage became more experienced. She, for her part, found such an idea inherently suspicious and questionable once she grasped its implication – even more so than the incident with Xelat.

The farmer – possibly ex-farmer, she supposed – and accompanying human stopped at the foot of another mammoth construct of baked clay and metal and lesser-known material. It bulged up in tiers and away in every direction, a series of tumors so lazy they leeched off of each other instead of the city’s fleshy base. By coincidence or design, traffic through and around the structure was not nearly so great as what she’d noticed elsewhere in Rhaagm.

Many floors later, they stepped out of an elevator into an organic-looking foyer, arteries of travel branching off upward and downward and slantwise. One of the ascending paths was selected apparently at random by her associate, and she followed his ungainly yet brisk stride.

Within a handful of heartbeats, they were funneled toward a lineup of almost featureless doors.

“… so it’s imperative that that fat mar-luph and her strange little family get going again soon!” came from a door which opened as Eihks slowed in front of it. “We have too many other things juggling around right now to support ‘might-bes’ without good reason.”

“Will do,” replied a similar-sounding voice. “She’s got a lot of boring stuff. A lot of VERY boring stuff. But there are a few gems in it. Stitching those together seems to have produced a worthwhile episode or five. Pity about how she’s gotten slower than glue lately, though.”

“Avinovler, I respect your opinions even when they become stupid. Stop letting them become stupid.”

“I’ll consider it. No promises, though.”

“And tell her-”

The voices quieted when Eihks and Ktsn barged into the little dirt-colored hemispherical room on the other side of one of the sliding portals. She noted that the speakers were two instances of that same kind of creature who first visited Goskec Tktl – pohostinlats. Reddish, four-limbed, strange-eyed, and covered in plating, the short wrapped in form-fitting white and red garments and the tall garbed with a solid eye-searing color between blue and the color of dirt. They both turned to see the new visitors as they entered, slightly out of sync.

“Shelilafior, you’re looking horrible! I’m so happy to see you, sir!” Eihks suddenly boomed, raising both arms over his head. One thumb ascended his forehead in that way people greeted each other around this strange alien city.

“Eihks! You incompetent, you got found out!” replied the presumed Shelilafior, the shorter of the two pohostinlats, who sat behind a table or desk of some kind. They approached each other, and the human’s chin met the top of the pohostinlat’s head. The human extended a forearm, and the pohostinlat’s chin rested on top of that.

“I shall be taking my leave, then. I hope you improve over your current dire straits, Mr. Richard,” said the taller pohostinlat. “Editing to do, dreams to make more realistic and depressing.”

Eihks turned away from, and sent a hand in a short vigorous circle.

“Eh? Oh! Take care, Avinovler. Good luck with your clients, and say ‘hi’ to the bird coop for me!”

The other pohostinlat departed, flicking a glance at Ktsn with whiplike suddenness. She met the quadrangle eyes’ gaze, and then the creature ran a thumb up an armor-plated forehead. Lacking a forehead proper, she tried to reciprocate regardless.

“I hope he’s been doing well,” said Eihks, watching the departing figure as steps vanished into the intestines of the building.

“He has been doing terribly, in relative terms,” answered Shelilafior. “But not nearly as badly as you.”

The shorter figure made a clenching diagonal together-and-apart of two rust-colored hands, looking up.

“First your unintentional coming-out, then your…”

He paused, gesturing at Ktsn, and she felt herself bristle a little at the implication.

“… not to mention…” the red figure said, considerably quieter and with a brushing of his clothing, “… that I got a visit from none other than that odd-smelling Ms. Duspink and her cumbersome associate.”

“Really? When?”

“Earlier today. Not an enormous amount of time, for that matter, between then and when you had that incident of yours.”

“Huh. She was over at my residence, harassing me and my friend here, not long after that… incident. The Way give me strength, but she’s plenty quick at sticking that long nose of hers where it doesn’t belong. Ktsn – may I introduce to you Shelilafior Seventy-six-centimeters, the individual responsible for most of the successes, failures, and oddities of Ghost Grid Caliber Publications.”

Shelilafior looked at her, then pointed a single digit.

“So what did you bring this one along for, then? Some sort of harebrained scheme to nail your own reputation in place by holding a person hostage?”

“No!” barked Eihks, slapping his own midsection, as Ktsn’s ears went back and her inner teeth started to show and her anger started propelling her back toward the door. He motioned at her to stop, and she did. Reluctantly.

“This is one of the new karkshes, correct? Not some ill-tasteful fad?”

Shelilafior’s head tilted, flicking ears that were nearly as pointed as her own. More pointed, even.

“Yes, she is.”

Eihks pointed in her direction, turning full toward her.

“Ktsn, if you want to be accredited as a conspirator in my productions, then you need to tell this absolute wretch of a man that you’re interested. Ignore his rudeness, he can’t help himself – and more than half of that is his personality, not the caprices of his biology.”

“I am interested,” she growled, mustering a modicum of enthusiasm at the thought of the desk-entrenched figure before her vanishing into the infinite distance.


Shelilafior gazed more intently at her, the curtainlike lids of his eyes drawing up and sideways several times. His long ears twitched once, and his hard hands’ digits rasped across each other. He looked back up at Eihks without turning his head.

“Am I to understand that you are accepting a costar, in the form of this intriguingly ugly creature?” he half-mumbled slowly in an upward direction.

“You are to understand that she is going to have coauthor status with myself, conditionally. That’s where the tricky part comes in – but you’re a publisher, you’re used to unusual circumstances of production by now, aren’t you?”

An incoherent snarl-growl bubbled up from the man who seated himself back behind his desk.

“That’s no less than I expected from you. What’re the terms?”

A clap, and a low slow tone lacing the response.

“If she agrees to allow use of her likeness and identity, then I’m going to need you to retroactively shift attribution of everything from today until… well, potentially whatever time I get you notified, so that it reflects a two-person team behind it. Basically, keep alternate sets of authorial identifiers on hand until confirmation or denial arrives.”

Two weird maroonish eyes swerved in their beds, looking up at the tall human.

“You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“Just that, and that you keep doing the superlative job you’ve been doing. Maybe a bit of improvement there too, actually, come to think of it.”

You don’t ask for much, do you?

“Well, how does this sound: I will be supplying the licenses.”

As Eihks’s teeth ground together, the pohostinlat’s expression changed.

“Hmmmnnnnngggggg,” the man begrudged. “Oh, very well.”

A swinging beckoning by the skinny human.

“Ktsn, we’ll need you to write your name, if you please,” said that skinny human. He held out a writing utensil and medium for her use.

She crossed the room, took up the tools. With careful design, she set the one to the other, and marked down the graphemes which meant her.


Shelilafior glanced between them.

“I’ll get this done quickly, Ms. Daephod. Try not to be any more of an inconvenience than you can help.”

“Show me that you are capable of the slightest amount of courtesy to prove yourself deserving, and perhaps I will try,” she snapped back, taking a step toward the exit.

Eihks eventually, after what felt like several seasons, managed to stop laughing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: