Wood Is Good

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“The tree uses us, just as the tree is used by us.”

-Ast aaned proverb

Waking up was Eihks’s least favorite truly regular chore. It had been in life, and unlife wasn’t a terribly radical change. The humorous thing about the scenario was that he had previously found the experience irritating – according to various secondary accounts – due to the process taking an enormous amount of time. Now, he disliked becoming lucid because it was practically conspecific with flipping a switch: from completely insensate to sight-hearing capable and fully aware.

Well, all things considered, it was worth the drastic mental lurch. For all its unnatural nuance, his awakening routine also served to remind him of those physiological ties to his living history.

The first second of the new day was spent hunting down any unusual events to which his sleeping mind might have attuned. If he had been roused before his sleep period ended, which lasted about two thirds the sleep cycle duration most humans preferred, he assumed it had been caused by the swinelike animals that resided in a nearby pen. Other possible indexed causes included the rattling of the wind and low murmuring from a few people talking, down several streets adjacent to the pleasant shelter servicing himself and Ktsn.

None of these had actually awakened him, though, since his chronometer informed him that he’d been down and out for the expected duration.

Next, he accounted for the fact that he found himself in a less familiar setting, and quickly gave tentative weights to the likelihood of various features posing dangers and inconveniences. Again, the little not-piggies were at the top of the list – they had several unknown quantities, and the quantities he could suss of them aligned with the omnivorously and unpredictably porcine. Barring sudden escape attempt and subsequent efforts to breakfast on himself and his partner, they ought to be a nonissue. He also guessed some of the supplies around their sleeping place might be chemically detrimental either alone or if spilled together.

No manacles, no hostile soldiery, no incoming hypersonic rockets (of which he was aware), no paralegals out for his financial blood. Just a community with an agricultural bent, and little more than the normal levels of strife implicit to most thinking beings’ dealings.

He watched the sinking stars of the sky a little. Eyeballing tiny portions of radians being eaten by the world’s fruit-ripe curvature. Paths whose contrails had been arguably foretold when creation’s machinery first booted up.

After a while, he checked his companion’s condition. Nominal, if a tad grungy from sleeping on a less-than-pristine ground.

Reassured, he started consulting informational utilities, a few basic tools he’d cooked up to help piece together details about strange new facets. He needed to keep his edge with assessing patterns in the structure of unfamiliar locales. In the name of practice and practical information-gathering, he performed what were essentially advanced deductive and inductive classroom exercises.

For example, the fact that he was on a planet which was part of a binary system implied the existence of galaxy-like associations of stellar bodies. Fairly straightforward. However, that plus a few things he’d deduced from the local nuances of entropy also asserted that the present universe had to have one of only two or three possible topologies.

Over the subjective course of sixteen extrafacetary minutes, he formalized fifteen major verifiable assumptions and numerous minor ones about his locale’s nature. These he examined against a broad spectrum of both physical and metaphysical factors. He deliberately avoided cross-checking his results during his investigation’s information gathering.

By the time when he did perform cross-checks, happily enough, his inferences maintained about eighty six percent accuracy. That was with an uncertainty hovering around five percent, due to unknowns. The facet on which the personalities of the Journals of Gem Pioneering found themselves proved quite close to Earth Standard in characterization. Two incidentals skewed this pattern.

Number one: the presence of native magic, at least in nearby regions. Disciplines in which he could dabble a bit, but which lay permanently outside the realm of complete mastery for him.

Number two: subdivision of the facet into what the Lonisberg hierarchy – the only system of formal classification worth knowing in the relevant academia, no matter what anyone else might say – would call different dimensions. Fractionalization less fine than “worlds,” but finer than “planes.” How that facetary subdivision might affect their plans, he could not yet say. Fortunate, then, that time was one thing with which the two aliens were blessed in abundance.

Except, of course, that time could and usually did manage to accomplish several things concurrently. On today’s docket – mulling over academics, acclimating to a new culture, improving fluency in the local lip-flappery, and meeting a crotchety lady about bamboo-craft. How fortunate that time was such a good multitasker, because it certainly wasn’t waiting for Mr. Richard to catch up to it.

A quick once-over of the morning’s dim lighting outside showed nobody coming in their direction, and the little nearby village hubbub wasn’t getting any nearer. According to their new guard-escort friends, they ought to be at Fonlat’s residence before first sunrise if they didn’t want to get categorized as either lazy or deviant and subsequently be hauled off by the village guard. He would get hauled off, rather; they’d probably make an effort to put Ktsn in a stable or something.

The thought of her telling the villagers off in her prosaically-correct fashion but via an incomprehensible foreigner’s tongue, and eventually resorting to a solid introduction of foot to face, was the first rock in the slide. He kept the noise down with some effort, but he still managed to sound like someone juggling a bunch of drunk weasels and asthmatic stipps.

A semi-solitary morning proved a fruitful time to (unintentionally) examine his companion’s reaction to being roused by an external disturbance. 

A rustling rise proclaimed her return to the waking world. The karkshesh had a moment of distraction, but no more disorientation than normal for waking alongside a lunatic.

“What?” she grunted. Even if other people were around to hear, the average listener wouldn’t have the ear to distinguish it from a livestock groan.


It came out in a greasy squirt. Just barely, he managed to rein himself back, but now it was only a matter of time.

In response he got a blank gaze, the empty eyes of the chronically sleepy.

“Would like to be woken up by less unpleasant noises,” she said, rolling over.

Yep. Laugh train going over the hill, speeding into an ocean of hydrochloric acid.

“Let’s go,” Eihks half-honked at her after a second, and to her credit they managed to reach a lacquered carved door on the village’s edge just before his barely stifled laughter finally ended.

“Ahem,” he said, eyeballing the portal for signs of how they should get the residents’ attention. The low long building had no bells or bell-like mechanisms in evidence. There was a coherent globe of magical water in a thin metal frame by its handle side, but nothing beyond that.

As he tried to concoct a greeting which would manage to introduce without also offending, the globe of water gradually lit up. When it grew to the level of a glassy ball lantern, it suddenly winked out. Several seconds afterward, the sound of unintelligible profanity snaked out from the house. Footsteps wandered around, suggesting a meandering architecture. They stopped just behind the door.

A notably long period of nothing.

The visitors exchanged a single quick glance when something between a growl and a moan rasped through the air, and then the door shot wide.

In the open space was framed a dark woman, short in comparison not only to himself but also most of the other villagers. Her face had a suspicious cast, and her lean arms and wide-fingered hands had the wiry strength necessary to take a whipping switch to anything that got on her nerves. The cowl-shaded cabochons of her eyes snapped between the two grubby things darkening her threshold, sizing them up and finding their presence unobjectionable for the time being.

“Huh,” she allowed. Her lips didn’t curl, but that might have been an intentional effort on her part.

“Hello,” Eihks began, trying to balance civility with supplication. “We were told to meet Fonlat at this location.”

“I’m her,” the self-proclaimed Fonlat said. “You’d be the foreigner looking to ‘help,’ I’d assume?”

She squinted at Ktsn, somewhat curious but not bothered.

“I’d also assume this creature’s with you?” she added.

Intentionally or not, she was giving his linguistic brain a good crash course in applied vernacular. He curbed the inclination to follow her speech patterns.

“I am Eihks, and my friend here is Ktsn. We are indeed from far away.”

Hands at himself, hands at the karkshesh, hands away from the brightening side of the horizon.

“Trehal explained that you might be willing to trade work for food an-”

“Willing? No. But I owe him a favor for getting my Tassy back last rain, when she chased after trouble and got stuck.”

A second form moved behind her, before an extremely wide head pushed its way around the woman. Probably a head. That confidence grew a bit when part of the mostly concave shape swung away and admitted a bundle of gurgling tongue-things. From the other human’s undemonstrative but affectionate behavior, Tassy was obviously a longtime pet. The fact that she wasn’t trying or failing to restrain the creature from jumping the unfamiliar entities on her doorstep felt like a tentatively positive sign.

A couple of happy seconds of patting and getting licked later, the woman clucked in her throat. Tassy immediately returned to the house’s interior, where a faint slithering sawed through the otherwise quiet morning.

“So,” the woman declared, unmindful of the thin mucus sheen by her chin. “Since I don’t have ten days’ worth of profit to pay that man, I’m willing to see if there’s some helping you can do for me.”

She squinted at him.

“What did you say you’re called? Ekks?”

Eihks pulled out the same squeaky hinge and same bag of sand he’d used for educating Ktsn. He gave the same display.

“EEEEEEEKHHHhhhsssssssss,” he elaborated.

Fonlat’s mouth puckered, her eyes bulged, and a muscle thrummed on one cheek.

“Do you do that to everyone?”

“I… do not, no.”

“What a happy coincidence,” she grated.

“Thank you for your patronage,” Eihks breathed after her expression lost some of its stone and grit. “What helping can be done?”

“Come around back,” the woman said after a short pause to look her new assistance over once more, and shutting her door. “Won’t have you doing anything that can get screwed up by the lowest cretin, so you’re going to be carrying cones today.”

As they rounded the corner of the wide building, a fenced-in yard unfolded in its rear. Bundles of bamboo, hardwood, and tools sat in piles around the enclosure. A couple awnings stood sentry, protecting various odds and ends from the elements. Well-caulked bins held piles of loose materials. One of these stood just inside the short fence’s bounds, and Fonlat made straight for it. He couldn’t guess at her age with any real certainty, but her stride was as straight as a quadratic accelerator’s shot.

“Only the red-brown ones,” she said, as though she were halfway to disappointment already. “Nothing yellow, nothing green.”

A hand grabbed hold of a very long cone in the half-empty container, and thrust it in front of his face.

“Like this! If it’s got some sap right on the end, so much the better. Try to fill this up by midday. Use those sacks by the fence, over there, and I’d suggest you start in that wooded section by the river. If you do well then maybe I’ll also have you fill some buckets. You’ll get some breakfast after second sun rise, but if you insist on being a lazy waste of space that’s all you’ll be getting.”

Her hands spidered around, tying words to directions, and ended with a blunt lance pointed at the explorer’s face.

“Are we clear about that?” she asked.

“Perfectly clear, miss.”

“Then get to it!”

Just before the hunting could begin, though, she brought the pair of them up short.

“If you find any udnura, though, come straight back and inform me. Don’t attack them even if you know how to handle a scuffle. I don’t want to have to deal with the guard about a dead drifter.”

Apparently Trehal hadn’t passed on word of how the foreigners had been found splattered in festive organic paint. For that matter, the woodcrafter didn’t mention the dried blood on their clothes either. Perhaps she couldn’t actually tell it was blood, being so old. Perhaps she assumed that cleanliness lay outside her visitors’ means.

Well… she was technically right on that count.

She gave them a not-unkind dismissive wave, before picking up a pair of thick metal rasps and heading back inside.

“Sounds simple enough even I should be able to do it,” the Bequast-born human muttered to himself. He smiled as he gauged the size of and distance to the copse she’d indicated. A hand strayed down his side, where it rested atop the most available of the many, many knives the guards had failed to uncover.

If they got jumped by another “udnura” then the creature wouldn’t have long to regret its mistake.

The empty sacks were large enough to fit half of an Eihks, or maybe a bit more. The material had an exceptionally tough waxiness to it. Four long sleeves got draped over Ktsn’s back, and two more dangled from the human’s shoulder. Weight wouldn’t cause them much trouble, considering the local gravitational pull. As a precaution against rips and tears, though, it was always best to bring spares.

Approaching the river, the ground rose up into an uneven patchy-shaded hillock. The ubiquitous grasses didn’t disappear, but they shrank and greatly thinned out. Overhead, coniferous trees stretched out to some twenty meters in height. Their bark had curious snarls and whorled ridges, and the litter around them gave the impression of hard-used rapiers tearing messily free of the planet’s skin. Stiff bushes with long leaves regularly crossed the terrain, adding body hair to the earthy epidermis.

Before letting his “beast of burden” anywhere near the copse, he stalked into the shadows, deliberately extending his timorurgical senses. Many animals across the breadth of complex spacetime shared the fears of fire and approaching predators, and he wasn’t yet familiar with the ecology.

“Watch the animals, and learn their habits when possible” had been his mantra in the past. Past Eihks didn’t have to worry about a fellow explorer, though.

If something with the mental complexity to experience aversion was alive anywhere in the thicket, he would find it, and learn what exactly it feared. It was going to either keep its distance, be chased from its hiding place by him manifesting those fears, or get murdered as dead as any animal to ever die.

“No telling what’s in here,” he muttered aloud. “Let’s start by assuming that the disturbance of a clumsy oafish intruder will do nicely for attention-getting. An aggressive hunter species has already been identified, and what’s probably another predator has been found as a domesticated animal. It’s therefore reasonable to assume there might yet be more. Time to investigate.”

When he stomped through the undergrowth, every critter within ten meters save a slow sleepy lump scurried away. The lump received his attention: something which curled into a leathery dome the diameter of his forearm’s length. Prodding it caused it to tighten its defensive pose. Levering it up and forcibly uncurling it showed him a set of eight waddling legs and either an incredibly cute tail or an incredibly ugly head. No snapping, spitting, extrusion, laceration, defecation, constriction, or magical assault met his violation of its personal space.

He still relocated it to the far side of the hillock next to another similar animal, before returning and telling Ktsn to come along. A quick overview of their task flowed out of him almost subconsciously. The sticky pointy artifacts they needed to collect weren’t going to leap into sacks of their own volition.

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