Grave Awakening

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Salty Snakes

There were no dreams, no visions as he slipped away. His life didn’t flash before his eyes, nor did he have any fond memory to recall. Instead, he had nothing but the soothing presence of darkness, of calmness, of being one with nothingness as he faded further and further away. He was no longer in pain, the fire he felt before quenched by that abyss, rocking him, lulling him along the abyssal river. Truly, he had never known better rest than this, peace finally understood, transcending his idea of sweet serenity.

If only it lasted a bit longer.

The fire returned in a vehement swathe, washing over him, reminding him of what had happened. His muscles were already sore, never having rest, but now his bones had reason to add to the choir, all of it screaming at him that he was very much an idiot and an imbecile. His back, also, had seen better days, but at least he could feel it. That was a good sign, at least. He could also feel his head, but he would gladly give that away right now. It didn’t matter how much it rang and buzzed, he wasn’t going to answer it.

However, it was his chest that gave him the most fit- and that’s when he had no choice but to remember what transpired. Fully. He gasped, sitting up, wincing as his sudden surge caused a wave of fresh screams to erupt around him. The shrieks did not help his vision clear, instead adding to the pulsing lights that danced across it, blotting it out. However, he could feel that he wasn’t on the mountain floor anymore. He wasn’t nestled in the bosom of the braided elevator, either, moved out into the sunlight and onto something wooden. He adjusted a little, slid a bit forward, and heard that he was in a wagon, groaning, shifting with him.

Nick blinked a few more times, the screams gone... but heard the drawing of strings, the clatter of arrows. As his vision cleared, he sighed, finding exactly what he expected: Bren and her lovely welcoming party. This time, though, her brooding, stern exterior was betrayed by how pale her obsidian face became seeing him up and pretty much fine. His tunic did a well enough job of patching up his chest wound, but even he could see that he lost a good bit of blood, dying his tunic a nasty brown color.

Of course, who was he kidding? He was just as mystified that he was alive at that moment. The way she pierced him, it was precise, methodical; a quick thrust in, twist, then pull out. No fuss, no muss. Perfect accuracy; his heart should be a crushed raisin right now, and him very much off on his way to the afterlife. Again.

Well, he saw how well that worked out the first time, and it seemed the second time was even less a success. He was still stuck on the same planet. He sighed, shifting a bit more- and felt a familiar edge just under his chin, pulling his gaze back up to Bren’s. That was probably not the best thing for her own sake; he was already finding it hard not to laugh at her ashen, scared little exterior trying to masquerade as bravado but feeling her quivering through the spear? He couldn’t help but giggle, and bring a few new spots of blood to the tip as he shook with that laughter.

“Still yourself!” She barked, which only made things worse. Her voice squawked, cracking, forcing him flat against back, now fully guffawing. “Q-quiet! Quiet, I say!”

But he would not. The more she squeaked, the harder he laughed. The harder he laughed, the more her voice broke; a terrible cycle, to be sure. But one would have to give, and Nick wasn’t one to lose composure as such, so he came back to his senses soon enough. He sighed, feeling the wagon gently tilt as he did-

And kicked out.

Bren cried out. Strings loosed, arrows flew out, pelting into the sides of the wagon as it teetered over with him, capturing both him and Bren in its embrace. Nick had dug his left heel into it, putting the rest of his weight over the lip right into her chest, making the entire wagon turn over, so now it was only him and his lovely would-be killer. He had his arms again, untied when he moved, and he wrenched her spear away, thrusting it against her throat. It didn’t take long for her lackeys to pull the wagon off, but none of them dared to move seeing the events that had transpired in that small window.

“You know, you should have used a cart,” he said, standing upright while forcing Bren to stay on her knees. “Stowing me in the equivalent of a wheel barrow? Really?”

He clucked his tongue, shook his head, and glanced to each of the archers, keeping his grip firm, the tip aimed at Bren’s throat.

“Have I gotten the point across now?” He said. “Do you believe me now? Can we stop this petty nonsense and focus on what to do next, because I would rather be building new bridges than sowing salt in the foundations of where ones could be.” He looked down to Bren, raising the tip, pushing it hard into her chin to raise her gaze to his. “Well? As you can see, you cannot kill me. You can’t kill that which has already died.”

A bluff. A large, possible bluff, but a bluff regardless, one that he had no want to actual test. Thankfully, it didn’t seem they were in any place to really argue with him. Bren looked to miss piss rock, shook her head, and her and the other archers put their bows down, put their arrows back into their hip quivers. Nick eased the spear away from Bren, allowing her to her feet, and even handed back her spear.

“By the way, where’s my pointy stick?” He said.

“It broke when you fell,” Bren said, and cried out as he wrenched the spear away from her again. “H-hey!”

“My pointy stick now.”

Again, she didn’t argue. It was for the best; they had extra, and he had grown attached to this one. One might say it was close to his heart. The welcoming party finally disbanded, leaving him to follow Bren and be introduced to the quaint village and all that was expected to be done there. Which was the same spiel all over again, from the last two villages, just with a stony-faced trainer this time –and not because she was like stone. No... ever since he got one over on her, ever since he raised back from the dead, she has tried her best to keep everything bottled up and hidden behind an angry scowl.

They got through the kitchen, the market, and the lake before the first sun set. Nick followed Bren back to the kitchen, humming softly, smirking as he knew the very sound of his voice must have been agony to her. He met several people like her in the past, both men and women. They were the ones too proud, too strong to let anything be out of their control, even for a second. He might have control issues, himself, but he even knew there were some things completely out of his grasp... Them, though? Well, let’s say that he was still breathing was an affront to her very existence. The fact he got one over on her, though, made her agree to his way of seeing things? He knew she wanted nothing more than to rip off his head, clean it up, and use the skull for sordid, seedy, if not downright macabre reasons.

He felt nothing but dread the entire day, but, man, did he enjoy watching people like her seethe. It was almost... erotic.

But, he was so absorbed with this, so much in-love with his victory over the proud woman that he never stopped to think aout what the mountain-dwellers ate. He didn’t really pay attention to anything that happened at the lake; it wasn’t the first body of water he was shown on the planet and it most likely won’t be the last. It seemed very convenient, though, that there was always a lake or river located close to these villages, but that’s usually how it is, isn’t it? That’s how villages, cities, society grow someplace. The problem with this one, though, was that it sat on its own. There was no river leading to or from it. It was just a large body of water nestled against the mountain

He did wonder if there was anything actually living in it, but there were fisherman there, with rods and nets so there had to be unless they were that delusional. He doubted an entire species could be, so he presumed there would be some kind of fish on the menu, but what else? He didn’t see any farms for the poisons he was forced to tolerate. No cattle, no wildlife as far as he could tell; the lands around the mountains were eerily barren of life. He didn’t even see any insects come from the shorter grass to its ashen bases, which, again, made him wonder how the fish stayed alive in the lake.

He pondered all this while sitting with Bren at one of the nine stone tables that were placed on the square foundation that was the kitchen. There was a distinct contrast between the smooth, sleek tables and the cobblestone it was placed upon, the latter not dissimilar to the road he had walked so many times. It was separated from the road, though, by five, thick, hefty steps, each one long enough to allow seven people to walk up them with room to stretch their arms, with each of the nine tables seating at least twelve sets that would do such. For having stone chairs, they were surprisingly comfortable, their seats smoothed and rounded downward to let one simply slide into place. Their backs received the same treatment, showing a level of artistry that solidified to Nick that these were the people that maintained the roads... and was still baffled that, though, they have this great skill, they still couldn’t figure out how iron could be made.

It all started to feel like one large, sick joke. This was a species that could easily catch up to humans if given the proper guidance, but none of them had the drive to do such. Even when they did, the mob mentality kicked in and shut down dissent instead of encouraging growth. The exceptions, those that gave change a chance, those that were willing to risk it, were exactly that. The exceptions. These people were exactly the evidence of that. Nick spoke nothing but the truth to them, and he was almost murdered because he sounded so alien, so foreign, so STRANGE to them. There was no way he was telling the truth about it all... and he had the sinking feeling, that perverse, invasion suspicion that Ralai would have treated him exactly the same if traders hadn’t told them about his time in Leyshun.

Which raised an interesting question, one that he couldn’t stay silent about any longer.

“Do traders come here?” He blurted, and couldn’t help but chuckle a little. Bren jumped at his sudden voice, having been quiet so long. Her stoic demeanor cracked to show the scared girl under, but it was only a moment, returned to its hard mask as she glared at him beside. Still not answering his question, though. “Well? Do they?”

“Rarely,” she said, blunt and sharp at the same time. “The dregsao see to that.”

“Must be a hard life, then, to be basically cut off from the rest of the world.”

“The soft-skins are a pellagia upon it, so not really.”

“A... pellagia?”

“A strodesven, a loreos... You have no idea what I’m saying, do you?”

“I’ve never heard those words before, so no.”

“Blast those dorstraft belaronz... How do I put it in their tongue... They are... duram! They don’t have any herash words in their tongue, do they?”

“I’m going to assume herash means ‘harsh’, and... now that you mention it... huh. They didn’t. But I think I’m getting the idea of what you are trying to say what they are. Why do you think that, though?”

“None of them know the meaning of sirka, of living, knowing that any day could truly be your last. They idle on for yarro, guzrashrating their tasks and simply livrotan. None of them want to push to new luswei, content with their whole life being in one long path. Even their ‘soul tenders’ only come from that path, from such soft livro.”

“So... what I’m gathering from you is... they are weak.”

“I don’t know that word, but it has the feeling of what I am saying. ‘Weak’... Tell me. You seem to be made of stronger stuff than those soft-skins; are all humans like you? Do you find the soft-skins just as strodesna?”

“Let’s just say I have had... conflict with how they handle things, yes.”

“Cone flick; another word I don’t know. Another word with strong feelings behind it... Humans must have it hard.”

“We did. Once upon a time. Now, though, the most down person where I come from would have it better than those even fifty years before... At least, when I was still there. I can’t imagine it got worse. It would take a world-sized epidemic to truly collapse that level of comfort.”

“Epi dem ick... Perhaps I had you wrong, human. I believed you to be soft like those others, believed your words were a well-strung story. There was no true heart to it, no emotion, but the words you use that truly have fera behind them show that you are used to worse. You were recanting a time that almost berasu to you... I’m sorry for trying to kill you.”

“No need. If I were in your shoes, I would have done the same.”

“... And once more your words ring true.”

He huffed, shaking his head- and both jumped a bit as his stomach grumbled. Threatening someone takes a lot out of a person; Nick cracked his knuckle, stretched his back, and felt a bit embarrassed as the pull made his chest eject a bit of blood onto the table. He was absolutely mortified at his own incontinence, but it was wiped up in time for his meal to be placed before him... and was confused by it. It looked to be like one of the butter scorpions from the forest, but had a thick, brown, plated shell. Its tail had been cut off, but appeared to have been longer and thinner, almost tapered to be like a sword. Its legs were shorter though much thinner and covered in tiny hairs, but he was more focused on the head. It didn’t have fangs, instead a pair of frills peeking out behind a pair of curled legs, and had a pair of black, stocky eyes with large, white pupils.

If he didn’t know any better, he would say this was a crustacean. Given the entirety, though, it seemed closely related to a brine shrimp, but how could that be? They can only live in salt water, and even the size of the thing puts it well above the meager, almost microscopic, size of its Earthen cousins. Size was never an issue, since everything seemed proportionally bigger here, as if this was Space Texas, but it was its ecological factors that caught his attention. If that lake was salt water, then these Reyla have learned to survive on such high salinity, which, besides an obvious comparison to how it had affected their personalities and growth of such, that meant he had to find a way to desalinate some for his own use. Fast.

But before that there was the matter of eating. Which he had no issue with; he ate his fair share of crab, crawfish, and lobster before. Being from Maryland or any state in that general part of the states would give you a taste for the river’s and ocean’s bug infestations, and it tasted exactly as he expected. The problem was breaking through the shell. At first, at least, but it turned out those plates made it far easier than he expected to rip and tear into the succulent flesh under. As he finished it, he realized that there were vegetables surrounding it, little, round, red orbs... A familiar kind of orb.

He picked at one with his fork, sniffed it, and couldn’t help but smile as he put that potato into his m- It was not potato. Instead, it had the flavor of an onion crossed with broccoli, with the texture of carrot. Far harder, courser than he expected, but at least it was edible. Just not what he was expecting. Then again, that pretty much summarized his first impression of these people, and tomorrow was going to be the true test to see if he actually stays... or follows up with his threat.

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