[23:56] As it turned out, 'trying to forget what happened' was nearly impossible. There were times when it didn't weigh as heavily on his soul, but it wasn't uncommon for Baishar to wake up in the middle of the day from some vividly imagined horror. (At least, he assumed it was the middle of the day. It was impossible to tell in their subterranean confines.)
The first time this had happened, he'd clung to Ryrha for comfort; but that only meant they'd both lose sleep. Each subsequent time, he'd quietly slunk out of their room, hoping that pacing around the Torunyema's lair or Valcen's office might clear his head. It rarely did more than serve as a reminder of how tenuous his hopes were.
He was sure he saw the stress in Valcen as well. Not often — Valcen was good at hiding his own distress — but there were subtle signs. They all avoided the topic of Gazhil, and the topic of 'testing' the extended Torunyema was not broached again. Still, it was only a matter of time before the next kavkem Valcen received would have a similar demand attached, and all three of them dreaded that.
Something had to be done. Baishar could feel it in his bones; this could not be allowed to continue. He couldn't bear to watch Valcen go through that again. And so, on one of those near-daily perambulations, stalking the edges of the Torunyema's lair, the question of how began to unfold.
It was a terrible idea. He knew it was a terrible idea. The best that could be hoped for was a delay of the inevitable; the worst he could imagine was that Terenyira would extinguish the last hope any of them had of mattering.
... Did they matter, any more? Had she not already extinguished that hope, proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that she had already won? She owned every piece of Valcen that remained, either within her mind or within her prison. The shell of Valcen could only hope for a sliver of a chance, and they were up against a foe unimaginably powerful and terrifying. Perhaps this was all just an amusement to her. How long can I extract value from a subservient copy of Valcen?
Perhaps it would be better if Valcen were stopped, or at least delayed. Given more time to regroup, to plan his next move. Perhaps that outcome would be worthy of sacrificing his own hopes. Perhaps the price of becoming a Threadwielder was too great for him to pay anyway; perhaps his own useless cowardice would only get in the way of becoming an ally to Evenatra. Perhaps he'd already proven himself unworthy of the gift.
[00:19] Valcen had told him some things about how the machinery worked. It was quite a fragile thing, easy to disrupt. He knew that no individual Darhal knew all of the design – Valcen had carefully ensured it. He knew that Terenyira didn't know all of the design, in part because she was not around enough to hear of it, in part because Valcen wasn't willing to tell her about it.
In her infinite patience, she had never as much as asked. She was, apparently, perfectly content to let Valcen use the Torunyema, although she had asked about the theory of how to handle it for reading at least once before. In a way, this made sense – it was a machine installed in one place, and she was too busy hunting Evenatra to use it with any efficiency. Why bother?
[00:20] In either case, only Valcen knew how to make another Torunyema if this one was damaged beyond his ability to immediately repair.
Valcen, who was currently not here. Valcen, who was talking to some Yeresoa about his bioengineered descendants and associated health issues that had cropped up, hampering his progress. Conveniently, Tanak was out with him, and Ryrha slept.
There really wasn't anything between Baishar and the machine.
[01:17] Cautiously, Baishar approached the machine, eyeing it as one might eye some docile but dangerous prey. His heart pounded in his chest — this was a terrible idea. Valcen had explicitly told him never to sabotage his work. It was one of the few absolute demands he had made, the consequences of which were being shoved back into the hands of the Nayabaru. Possibly even made to suffer at Terenyira's behest.
The memory of Valcen pinning him down, all patience lost, rage on his face. I am telling you that you better watch exactly what you do, or the Karesejat is going to put an end to your dreams of relevance. Had she not already done that? Had those dreams not been summarily destroyed before he'd even gotten the chance to act on them? Had Valcen's?
His gaze followed the lines of the corrupt machine, drawn to the points of structural weakness. It would be easy. No one else is here but Ryrha, and she's asleep. You won't get a better chance. Nausea clawed at his gut. Are you really going to do this? Betray the last of Valcen's trust? Betray Ryrha? Betray your own purpose?
[02:50] Perhaps he could convince himself this wasn't betrayal. Perhaps he could honestly claim that this would help Valcen in his goals. If the Nayabaru punished Baishar for his acts, perhaps that would keep them off Valcen for long enough. Valcen had already done all he could get away with to delay himself; perhaps if Baishar gave him another opportunity for delay, Valcen might even be secretly thankful?
Either way, he wasn't going to be in any position to do the same thing a second time. ...In which case, if he was going to do this, he should make sure to do as much damage as he could. Severing a few cables and knocking the frames out of alignment wasn't going to cut it; he'd want to go straight for its delicate heart.
Baishar took a deep breath, and then another step closer to the machine. He climbed onto the frame for holding the Torunyema's prey, shivering as he recalled the last time he'd been bound in the device. He paused, eyes focused on the doorway for long moments, half expecting to see Valcen or Tanak or Terenyira meandering down the stairs.
Then his gaze turned to the device's heart, lingered there for a long moment. One strike, and you can end this, a part of him promised. Your claws and teeth may be blunted, but they can still cause enough damage. He closed his eyes briefly, and whispered to the empty room: "Valcen, please forgive me." When they opened again, he tensed his muscles, and lunged for the heart.
[03:39] There was no one in the door to stop him. The light was dim, deceptively soothing, as he approached his enemy and began to grapple with it. It was almost deathly quiet, with only the faintest hum of the faraway heart of the ventilation system at the edge of his perception.
The Torunyema was easy to open, revealing its electronic guts. Most of it came in the form of a delicate, needle-like array vaguely reminiscent of a string instrument – maybe a harp. Somewhere between these fragile structures was the complex mind of the Torunyema, built to analyse neural patterns and feed the information to the right interfaces – microchips and controller interfaces.
That was the heart of it. The corrupt centrepiece.
Baishar's claws twisted past the instrument's spines, the thin metal biting at his fingers, pulling feathers from their hold, uncomfortable but bearable, especially for the cause. The thin metal struts were sturdier than they looked.
Just as Baishar's fingers had wiggled in past the first knuckle, one of the thin spines finally gave way – and as if out of some reflex, a shard of something escaped from the depths of the machinery and embedded itself like a drop of molten metal by chance just under Baishar's left eye, biting at his skin.
[04:07] Terror gave way to determination as he pried the Torunyema open. There was no turning back now; he was fully committed. He was able to ignore the pain in his fingertips as he wedged them between the spines, focusing on tugging one loose to get at the interior structure.
As the structure gave, something spat out at him, and he emitted a hiss of pain. His left hand instinctively retreated from the Torunyema, scratching at the metal that had just barely missed his eye, attempting to pluck it free, even as his right hand continued digging inside the machinery.
[04:16] With his scratching motion came a vile sensation that for a confused moment he couldn't assign a source to – it felt as though his claw had slipped in under his skin and was painlessly lacerating a vein from the inside, spreading a numb, sick feeling down his muzzle.
Then it became clear, far too late for him to do anything about it, gripping his shoulders like a vice and crushing at his throat like a cold metal harness. For an alarming, drawn out moment, his chest refused to move, halting his previously stuttered breath to none.
Then his grip on the Torunyema faltered by no action of his own and his weakened body slipped down, edge of the seat scratching up the side of his leg, his upper arm and shoulder painfully catching his weight as it snagged against the same.
Then that, too, rolled past the edge and gravity folded him down beside the construct, vividly conscious of the magnitude of his failure. By mercy of the goddess of yria, Baishar's breathing resumed, low, laboured, dizzying, but sustaining.
[04:36] Far too late, the word poison latched into his mind as his breath halted. His sight went dizzy, his grip faltered, and gravity took its toll on the rest of him.
The next thing he was aware of, he was a heap on the ground, unfocused gaze staring up at the Torunyema, struggling to breathe against the weight of his own chest. Half his face felt like it was missing, his arms and legs stung for... reasons he couldn't quite place. Had he hit them on the way down?
...It only occurred to him at that moment the sheer extent of his failure. Hardly any damage at all. And they'll know it was me. He should have known this would happen. It was Katal. It was the Nayabaru. It was a trap. Of course it was.
And now he would lie here, unable to move, struggling for breath, until whenever Valcen or Tanak or Terenyira returned, and he'd be returned to the Nayabaru to be flayed alive. Good job, Baishar. Was this worth it?
[04:55] There was nothing for Baishar to do but hope that he'd recover from the poison before anyone returned – and it was such a slim chance that it felt like certain doom.
And yet, against all odds, fate took him under a gentle wing.
The first person to come through the door after long, eternal minutes, was like the manifestation of some mythological yirh, a benevolent apparition, an unlikely saviour – for it was Ryrha who stood in the frame. Her body language was opaque as she stared at him, as though caught between pity, shock and scorn.
Thawing out of her thoughts without a word, she slunk across to him silently, paused beside him to align her body with his, slipped her arms around his torso and began to heave him off the ground, then drag him along the tiles with an awkward gait. She was stronger than he was, but ultimately out of shape, and her breath turned into a laboured pant well before they'd reached the door.
She paused, leaning down to take his weight off of her, catching her breath. Softly, a stubborn promise: "I'm going to get you out of this." No 'how could you'. No 'you were a complete idiot'. Just a soft support, like all those she'd imparted on him before.
Then she took a deep breath and picked his torso off the ground again, dragging the rest of him along, intending to get him out of the door, no doubt hoping to stash him in the recreational area, pass him off as having fallen asleep, then head back to try and close the Torunyema without anyone the wiser as to what he had attempted.
It was heartening and kind.
It was also misguided.
[04:56] She had just barely finished pulling him through the reluctantly open door of the Lair and began dragging him toward that of their den when Valcen came into view. As though a deity had reached into time and halted its machinery, the scene froze. Ryrha's grip on Baishar tightened invisibly but palpably. Three kavkema contemplated each other in silence.
Then Valcen spoke, in a tone of strained calm threaded with a genuine affection: "I don't hold what you're doing against you, Ryrha, but let him go. Leave him to me, please."
[22:41] Minutes passed, and horror gnawed at the edges of his mind, threatening to consume him. How long until Valcen returned? How long until he saw what became of his faithless servant? What was going to happen when he found out? He'd seen hints of what Valcen's wrath could look like, but nothing in comparison to what this would bring. All his hand-wringing and justifications simply wouldn't matter; he'd broken the terms of his pact.
As the door opened, Baishar struggled to turn his gaze towards it, half expecting a disappointed Valcen to show his face, and surprised to see Ryrha there. Had she heard him fall? He tried to speak, the intention somewhere between apology and begging for mercy, but all that came out was a raspy wheeze.
It didn't matter, though. Evidently, Ryrha forgave him his stupidity, granted him her unquestioning support. She would stand by him, even now. She was far kinder than he deserved, but he was in no position to protest. There was still some hope that this could be nothing more than a foolish mistake.
At the sight of Valcen, that hope evaporated, and the slowly gnawing horror crystallized into something vivid and sharp. Baishar managed a soft whine, held in Ryrha's arms as he was. Part of him wanted nothing more than for her to never let go. The rest of him wanted nothing more than for her to follow Valcen's instructions. Please. This was my mistake. Don't let yourself make the same one.
[22:59] Ryrha let go of Baishar only with some delay, as though contemplating a rebellion of her own. But no – she had chosen her destiny a long time ago and was not about to sacrifice it on a whim. In superficial loyalty, in subservient deferrence to Q'ur, to Vasharesh, she shifted down in a careful gesture, setting Baishar on the ground.
"Sorry," she whispered to him, rubbing the side of her muzzle along his neck in an intimate, soothing gesture. Then she straightened herself back out, glancing at Valcen warily, her posture adopting hints of submissiveness, and crept toward the den.
A few seconds later, she'd slipped into it and was gone.
Valcen remained where he was a little longer, staring at Baishar as though willing a distasteful truth to disappear. Then he strode forward, adopting a loose quadrupedal gait, until he reached Baishar's paralysed body, disturbed only by a shivering breath instinctively clinging to life.
He bore down on Baishar, his presence overwhelming, briefly becoming all of Baishar's reality. "This is very disappointing," he said, softly but bitterly. "I hope you'll have the opportunity to tell me why you thought this was a good idea, before I make sure you can never do it again."
The muzzle snapped up and to the side. Two barked syllables: "Tanak!"
[23:13] Ryrha's apology was met with a soft sound, a gentle closing of Baishar's eyes. He wanted to say so many things. To thank Ryrha for her kindness. To apologize for his failures as an amanat. To ask her forgiveness. To beg her to stay. To wish her farewell. This might be the last time I see you. As she retreated, silent tears leaked from his eyes; he opened them once more to watch her leave.
Long moments later, his vision was replaced by Valcen looming over him, scowling in bitter disappointment. He squeezed his eyes shut once more, unable to bear the weight of it. I'm sorry. I was trying to help you. I didn't know it would end like this.
Valcen's final words to him wormed a very specific horror through his thoughts. Before I make sure you can never do this again. ...That didn't sound like 'before I return you to the Nayabaru'. It sounded far more like 'before I eviscerate your soul for disobeying me'.
[23:17] Of course, Valcen was oblivious to the inner thoughts of the fallen kavkem – even if he'd been staring straight at Baishar as it started to dawn on him, rather than seek out his Nayabaru body guard.
When the Nayabaru named did not stir, an irritated Valcen repeated: "Tanak! I could use your help, here." No use. They were on their own. Valcen sighed in deep aggravation, stress visible gripping his joints with tension.
[23:18] "Fine," he huffed, more to himself than anyone else, and began to reverse Ryrha's actions, although less expertly so: He gripped Baishar by the wrists and pulled him along the smooth floor, not getting nearly as far as Ryrha in a single stretch, having to pause to pant several times.
When he finally reached the Torunyema with the inanimate sack of flesh, he snorted in dismissive derision, hunched over the body for a moment, leaning onto Baishar's left arm. Finally, he found the strength to gather himself and instead tug at it, pushing it into the restraint by its lonesome for the time being.
He stepped over Baishar's useless body and onto the Torunyema's seat, much as Baishar had, previously, to inspect the damage of the open device.
Without looking at Baishar, he commented: "They're going to take you away from me, you know. Or they would. It's that or... rewrite you, I guess.
"Excellent options. I've always... wanted to have the choice of either consigning a friend to torture, or fundamentally changing who they are." Here he paused, casting a gaze of pure venom down at Baishar. "You could have at least spoken to me about this."
[23:43] As soon as it was clear that Valcen was dragging Baishar towards the Torunyema, it practically confirmed Baishar's fear. He was going to end up like Gazhil. Valcen was going to dissolve his mind and turn him into an animal. This is what you get for playing with gods, Baishar. This is what you get when you think you can become one.
It felt like an eternity had passed by the time he was back in the Torunyema's lair, one wrist slotted into one of the restraints. Valcen's commentary drove a spike of guilt into his gut. This was precisely what he'd been trying to prevent, and instead he'd made it happen in the worst possible way. He withered under Valcen's venomous gaze, to the extent he was able to do so. This is all my fault.
[23:50] After a few more minutes of fiddling with the Torunyema, Valcen sighed, dropping back down. "I'm going to have to fix this. Thankfully that's easy enough, but it's going to take a bit longer than you're likely still going to be incapacitated for." A bit longer than you're strictly helpless to my manipulations.
He trotted to the door, his posture sculpted by a strange, listless tension. He paused in the frame, calling "Ryrha?". The silence that followed was deafening; until she slipped into the room, quiet, eaten up by a tension of her own, but meticulously proper in her reactions. "Help me get him up?" Valcen prompted.
[23:51] Ryrha visibly swallowed, glancing from her position toward the Torunyema and Baishar's paralysed body. "What are you going to do to him?"
Valcen grimaced, casting his gaze aside in an almost violent gesture, searching for a moment for some response that clearly was not easy to grapple with. "Can we not— can we just—?" A jittery exhale. "I don't have the emotional stability to explain this right now. It's not optional and you're not going to talk me out of it. I'll explain it later. Okay?"
Ryrha stared for a moment longer, evidently psyching herself up to help – then wandered over to Baishar, her entire body language a tortured apology.
Then both her arms and Valcen's were upon Baishar. His spine protested as he was draped across the curve of the Torunyema's seat side-on for a moment of shuffling. Then his free limbs were pulled across to their respectively correct side and he awkwardly nestled in the Torunyema's gentle hold on his chest and belly.
The familiar restraints slid into place, this time with malevolent intent.
Valcen's breath was near his ears. "Thank you," he addressed Ryrha. "I can take it from here." Such a casual remark, as if oblivious to the meaning of the future it promised.
[02:41] As Ryrha left to hide in the den, Valcen nudged Baishar into an acceptable, stable position, then walked to his office, disappearing into it.
In his absence, gradually, control began to seep back into Baishar in trace amounts, pricking at his senses like thorns. His breath strengthened back into a fearful stutter. He became aware that speech was returning to him, no doubt papery and broken, but better than the shapeless noises he could have uttered before.
[02:42] When Valcen returned, lifting his muzzle was still beyond him, but he might be able to plead with him.
Ironically, from all he knew of the Torunyema, he suspected Valcen wouldn't dare use it before the worst of the paralysis had worn off. But how long was that going to be his shield? It wasn't a very useful defence, gradually being whispered away by his metabolism and rendering him weak and complacent while it remained.
[03:01] His fingertips stung as feeling slowly returned to them in pins and needles. Waiting within the Torunyema's grasp felt interminable, the minutes dragging blades through his psyche. At one point, while Valcen was gone, he let out a single, terrified sob, half his mind begging some imagined passing spirit to end his misery already.
For a short time after Valcen had returned, Baishar managed to keep himself silent — but it was fundamentally short-lived, he couldn't remain so. "Waulkenn," he managed weakly. His tongue and lips felt like they were covered in moss. "Wwwvvvalcen", he repeated a few moments later, somewhat less pitifully. "Please— I'm sorry."
[03:11] Valcen's immediate attention was to the Torunyema, cautiously picking at the remnants of the snapped spine with his digits, grimacing lightly as he eased out the broken rod, and began to cautiously align its replacement.
It was then that Baishar spoke, the distorted mewl jolting visibly through Valcen's body, as though the tongues of a whip had lashed across his shoulders.
For a moment thus, he held himself still, staring at the patient innards of the Torunyema, only once licking at his teeth in the process. Then he willed himself back into motion, slotting the metal filament into place with a deceptively gentle gesture, as though to make it clear that his interest was in the Torunyema, not in the creature currently strapped to it.
"I'm sure you are," he spoke finally, his tone quite unlike any Baishar previously had the displeasure of hearing – calm, steady, venomous.
[03:41] Baishar was in the middle of seeking words, some plea or question that might stay Valcen's hand, when the reply came and stabbed through his heart.
Valcen had never before spoken like this. He'd seen him shout, he'd seen him attack in rage and sorrow, but this was new, and different, and so many times worse. It arrested his attempts to plead with him before they even began. What can you possibly say to him? He won't listen to you. You've broken his trust, and now he's going to destroy you.
A single tactical error. A single moment of weakness. That was all it had taken. He couldn't argue against Valcen, he couldn't even form the words in his mouth. Every misstep over the past months flashed through his memory, forming a path to his destruction.
Ryrha had been right, that first day. He never should have agreed to this. If he'd had the slightest idea of what he was getting himself into — if he'd had the slightest idea of his own weakness and cowardice, his own limitations, just how sinister and impossible to overcome — he would have rightly stayed in his cell. The Nayabaru were cruel beyond belief, but his soul would've still been his own.
For how long, though? Valcen would've gotten here eventually. He very well might have been brought here later to be fed to the Torunyema, not as a former servant but as a victim.
[03:58] Between words, as he studied his simple repair work and discarded the broken spine on the ground for now, Valcen almost absent-mindedly tugged the manipulative gloves from their container looped around his neck and slipped them on. Once all digits had slipped into them, were tightly bound by the dark fabric, he brought up a sheathed claw to his left eye, switching its mode to that of the Torunyema's data stream with a tip still sufficient for the task. It was still far from Baishar's drooping muzzle, but as Valcen began silent gestures, invisible, probing orchestrations, it became clear that Baishar had indeed not gotten far with his plan to damage the device at all, that it was functional and that it was entirely willing to devour its next victim whole.
"Yes," Valcen said – although if he meant it as an extension of his observation that Baishar was sorry, or in response to some invisible, imagined question was hard to say.
And then he looked down at Baishar's weak, drooping muzzle, focussing on him with his right eye for a moment, before reaching up to deactivate the data mode of his left one. His expression couldn't decide if it was an encouraging smile or an annoyed grimace, settling on neither, revealing a cold, unpleasant core.
His forepaws slipped down to Baishar's neck, curving against it, scooping it and his muzzle up until Baishar's jaw rested on his left forearm. It was hard to read those artificial eyes, even if they'd gotten their faux-natural finish by now – it was hard to shake the feeling that they were concealing something, especially now, with Valcen the tight focus of Baishar's terror.
"Remember what I said earlier?" Valcen asked, almost conversationally, the emotional distance he was keeping scathingly apparent, the kernel of empathy that Baishar was sure had to be there far beyond his reach, untouchable. "I'd love to know why we're in this situation. Why did you think this was a good idea, exactly?"
[04:19] Baishar stared up into those artificial eyes for long moments, still cowed into silence by Valcen's earlier venom. Surely it didn't matter. Surely nothing he said could change his fate at this point. He'd barely affected the Torunyema, what hope did he have of affecting Valcen in this state?
Still, the submissiveness imbued into Baishar by Valcen's cold rage demanded that he answer.
"I thought," he began, voice wavering in pitch. "That I could.... delay the inevitable." His voice was weak and soft, barely louder than a whisper, strained with the impossible task of keeping himself together. "That I could buy you more time, before... you had to do this again." He closed his eyes, swallowed once, his breathing jittering at the crest of each inhale. "I was wrong."
He couldn't keep the panic in any longer. His limbs jerked at the restraints, his eyes shot open, staring pleadingly into Valcen's gaze, praying for some shred of forgiveness. "Valcen, please, you don't have to do this, I won't — I promise I won't ever — please — I don't want — please, Valcen, I'm sorry, I just — I don't — I don't want to end up like him!" His fingers clenched into fists, eyes squeezing shut, tears leaking out.
[04:41] The phrase before you had to do this again hit its mark as if with calculated precision – Valcen's feathers bristled lightly but unmistakably. Resentment? Fear of his own? Guilt? Regret? It could be any of those.
As Baishar broke into a panicked struggle, Valcen's right paw snapped up into his plume, and his left forepaw's grip on his throat tightened perceptibly as Valcen's eyes narrowed. There was a pain there, if one knew to look for it, a slice of undisguised misery, like a reflection of Baishar's fear and suffering.
[04:42] "You won't," he promised, simply, like someone chiding a child insisting they were going to die from a common, forgettable disease. Each word was spoken clearly. Then, as if to clarify, a tense voice imparted: "You won't end up like Gazhil."
The grip on his muzzle was hardly very strong, but Baishar was still weak enough from the toxin that it was sufficient – Valcen shifted, and with the motion the curve of Baishar's neck straightened out, brushing against the Torunyema's frame, then setting against it as Valcen slid his arm out from under it.
As a strap slipped around his neck and pulled tight, Valcen continued in that same tense, matter-of-fact tone: "And you also won't ever do this again."
[04:55] The terror was palpable as his neck was strapped down. "Then what will I end up like?!" he cried. "What are you going to do to me?!" If you're going to destroy my soul, at the very least tell me first. "At least spare me the agony of not knowing!"
[05:16] Valcen's practised, careful motions restraining his prey slowed as his thoughts wrestled with Baishar's request. Another strap pulled tight, Valcen's contemplation like a palpable treacle. Then his thoughts stopped him, his hands loosely anchored to the strap just pulled into place.
"You," Valcen said, in a tone of soft but fragile patience. "Constantly seem to fail to fully... grasp the magnitude of the situation you're caught up in, even despite your cosmological framework giving you a vivid backdrop. You've been made aware of how you fall short several times by now.
"And yet you still think you can judge these things. You think you know what I might like, even if I've expressly told you the opposite. In effect, in your current form, you're a loose cannon. You're simply a risk I can't take.
"Fortunately for you, I'm the one person on this wretched planet who can align you with your goals. I'm the one person that can twist your untrustworthy, whimsical nature into something truly loyal.
[05:17] "You said you were willing to make sacrifices; you once told me that you would accept that perhaps, the Baishar that achieved your ambitious goals would not precisely be the Baishar that had originally designed them.
"Yet here you are, begging me not to do it. Here you are, incapable of letting go, desperately bargaining with me, even though you should know fine well that you made a grave error in judgement, and it could have cost us so much.
"Were you reliable, were you true to your words, if you had the strength to stand by your convictions, by rights you should beg me to fix the cognitive error. But you don't. And that in itself should tell you, Baishar, exactly how necessary it is that I do it for you, don't you agree?"
[01:37] A cold horror coiled around his spine, a pit of nausea sinking into his gut. It was obvious that Valcen was using Baishar's own mythology as a weapon against him, twisting his own beliefs into a knot. The fact that it was obvious did nothing to lessen its impact.
He wanted desperately to refute Valcen, to find some reason he was wrong. But it was all true. He was far out of his depth, he knew he was a far more of a coward at heart than he liked to admit; he knew he was unreliable and foolish and useless, that a single error on his part could have terrible consequences, that he was wholly inadequate as a servant.
He was trapped in a cage of his own making.
He had tried to stay true to his convictions, but they had led him astray so much that he didn't know what parts of his own knowledge he could trust to be true. At least half of what I know is wrong. If he'd clung to his beliefs, it wouldn't have been long before his moral compass told him Valcen was wrong; if he'd discarded them completely, his convictions would have perished with them.
Stand still and it will reach back to consume you, as it already has our fallen brethren.
This was his punishment for his weakness, for crumbling so easily in the face of the incomprehensible. He'd thought that he was ready for it, he'd thought that a life of devotion to Leksharia Dynashari would grant him the tools to accept the spiritual burden. But it was so much greater than what he'd ever expected. A qidravem was one thing; having his soul butchered simply to be a more reliable servant was something else.
"Is this truly what my fate looks like?" he asked quietly, uncertain whether he was asking Valcen or simply posing a question to the aether. "I don't want it to end this way. Please, Valcen, this isn't a mistake I'm going to make again. I faltered in a moment of weakness. I was—" He squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking out. "I'm scared, Valcen. I know it's irrational, I know I'm a failure, I know you're right, punish me if you must but please— please, not like this."
[02:09] Valcen's eyes narrowed. "Do you know what end means?" he hissed. "I thought a mortal might have a better understanding of that word," he snorted, his voice thick with venom, the tone gripping Baishar by the throat.
His left forepaw slid in to curve tightly behind Baishar's skull, pulling it down and forward in a motion just shy of a yank, right looping one of the muzzle straps into place. It bit at Baishar's feathers as it was pulled taut, grinding the edges of his teeth together, forcing him to speak through closed jaws. The second strap followed with only marginally less fervour.
Reaching up his left paw to the repaired device and one digit of his right to his right eye, his gaze – fixed on Baishar, already driving a blade into his soul – rippling partly into a distressingly unpleasant darkness, Valcen flatly and dispassionately erased the last doubt as to his decision: "I thank you for your service."
[18:17] The terror constricted his throat, sank sharp claws into his gut. A chill lapped at his spine, drinking the last of his willpower to fight. It was over. No amount of pleading with Valcen was going to change anything now. It probably wasn't ever going to change anything; he'd been doomed from the moment he decided to attack the Torunyema.
If Valcen were simply going to end his existence, rip out his soul and replace it with a fresh one, he might be able to accept that as a kind of death. A horrible one, but at least an end to suffering. But no, Valcen was right — this wasn't an end. A mangling of his soul, a harrowing disfigurement. He would continue, but not as himself.
He should have foreseen it. He should have known, or been able to guess, that this would happen. At the very least, the possibility should have deterred him from his moment of recklessness. This is what punishment for failure looks like. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Even as he berated himself, a tiny voice in the back of his mind, filled with shame and fear, begged: 'Please do it. Please fix this servant. Please make this useless fear end.'
Teary-eyed, he managed to force a response through sobs and forcibly gritted teeth: "I'm sorry I was a failure."
[20:21] But Valcen responded only with silence, although not for want of his attention wandering – it remained undeniably fixed on Baishar, placing him into the smouldering focus of the fallen nateh. Then the gentle, foreboding pressure of the device nuzzled against Baishar's skull, whispering its wordless threats to him.
An absurd assurance of Valcen's from earlier days sprang to mind – It won't hurt, not even slightly. The mind is not a tactile organ.
But maybe it should. If someone were to twist claws into your very soul and tear out its components, maybe pain was appropriate. Or was that what fear was? A mind screaming of its wounds into his consciousness?
Finally, Valcen's venom thawed into an almost alien calm, bringing up a paw to let his other eye ripple into sleek darkness. "We all make mistakes," Valcen said, matter-of-factly, the phrase teetering halfway between forgiveness and the scathing dismissal of Baishar as an assistant, of Valcen's choice to bring him aboard.
Then he brought his forepaws up, the motion disconcertingly minute and cautious, his right hand's thumb folded against his palm. Reading. Finding out where to strike, where to drive in the Torunyema's invisible spear.
[20:43] It took a subjective eternity, each second steeped in anxiety, for Valcen to find whatever he was looking for, seeming to be in no hurry in his search.
Then a subtle change in his manner, a bodily manifestation of a misplaced curiosity, made it apparent he had acquired his target. His tongue licked at his teeth in slow motion, and with a noticeable but ultimately insignificant hesitance, he pressed his left hand's thumb to his palm as well.
To call what happened next a sensation was both over- and understatement in one. The sheer awareness that something had slipped into his synapses and was carving into them struck him harder than any blow, despite being no more tangible than any figment out of a passing daydream.
[20:44] It was as though someone were peeling transparent strips and layers away from the objects in his vision, changing his perception without that he could pin down any change in the appearance. Valcen distorted, while remaining as crisp as Baishar's tears allowed. The room's colours stoically refused to change, even as he became convinced they had.
His body rebelled, silently howling its protest. A confused, terrified sensation clutched at his spine, refusing to be dislodged, its claws only sharpening as Valcen continued. Whatever Valcen was doing, he was clearly not removing Baishar's existential fear; but as time crept on, the more the conscious kernel of Baishar felt certain that he knew what he was doing.
[21:51] As Valcen pressed his left thumb to his palm, something inside of Baishar lurched. There was no physical sensation to match it, simply an awareness of a foreign presence buried inside him, peeling him apart. A parasite, a kiikam, the limbs of a havnateh.
The Karesejat's words came to mind: There's no pain, only inevitability. Perhaps something like this is how her victims felt.
A terrified, high-pitched keen spilled from Baishar's throat, his limbs shuddering in their restraints. The world kept shifting around him, as his perception twisted in ways he couldn't understand. He couldn't grasp the full nature of what Valcen was changing; only that it was deeply invasive and unwelcome. Of course Valcen knew what he was doing, of that he'd never had any doubt, but that didn't make it any less terrifying.
[22:14] That was the worst of it, really – not knowing what was being changed. There was no before and after to compare, there was only ever after, looking back on his collective life with all its changes, largely oblivious to that he'd ever thought any other way.
If he had a thought now, while under Valcen's questionable care, how could he distinguish between his own and those implanted by the process?
As though to humour him, he felt one strike his mind, tasting distinctly foreign, harrowingly disembodied, for the moment absent any of the supportive pillars that would give it any credibility – the certainty that Valcen should be protected at all costs. He couldn't question it, but amidst his fear for his own life it was clearly a foreign object.
What of? The Karesejat, perhaps. The Nayabaru. Ryrha, possibly, if she ever sought to do anything remotely as stupid as what had led Baishar into this mess. Already his mind was building bridges to it, having no immune system to protect it from the meme. Of course it was true; of course everything else was also true. The elegance lay in crafting compatibility.
Compatibility came with a deeper sense of shame than Baishar had previously been wrestling with, a growing, deep horror at his actions, jeopardising Valcen's place amongst the Nayabaru in such a reckless manner. The Nayabaru were to be despised, there was no question about it, but they were useful to Valcen, for as long as they did not do him any harm. He saw that now.
[22:44] There was nothing fundamental to distinguish the foreign thought from the rest of those he assumed had always been his own — no deep and abiding wrongness, no sense of being cut open. It just felt strangely out of place in comparison to everything else; he couldn't see any better explanation for why the thought would occur to him.
But of course Valcen had to be protected. He was going to help Tamachelu — Evenatra, as he called her. He was going to show Baishar the path to doing the same; that was the entire reason he'd agreed to all of this in the first place. It was easy to assume that Valcen was safe, given he looked like a relatively free and unmolested kavkem, but there were potential threats everywhere. The Karesejat could choose to end him at any time. The Nayabaru could easily injure him. Ryrha could falter in her faith as Baishar himself had.
Even as he struggled with internalizing this new perspective, his own actions began to seem horrifying in their recklessness. The danger to Baishar was immense, but in comparison to the danger to Valcen... It would have been easy for the Nayabaru to blame Valcen for what happened. It would have been easy for them to decide Valcen could no longer keep himself and Ryrha. It could have easily jeapordized Valcen's immortality project, all because of... what? Some fear that Valcen would do something he'd later regret?
[22:45] Why would he do that? It was no wonder Valcen was so angry at him. A part of him balked at the thought; he shuddered once more in his restraints. I don't want to make such a terrible mistake again. Valcen's earlier words came back to him, seeming strangely soothing in retrospect: 'You won't ever do this again.'
[23:17] And then finally, as though that realisation of the obscenity of his actions had purged him of guilt, came a soothing balm, peeling away his anxiety and fear as though lifting a weight from his shoulders – an awareness that despite everything, that even through this terrible mistake, Valcen loved him, and would never hurt him unless it was absolutely necessary.
It made sense. Baishar knew he wanted to protect Valcen; the reverse was likely also true, even if their greater goals certainly had to come first. Baishar could empathise with the urge to protect another. It was the most natural thing in the world. Sometimes, you had to protect people from themselves – that was what Valcen was doing now.
Finally, Valcen's thumb sprang back up from the palm of his left hand and he exhaled sharply, lingering for a moment in read mode, evidently taking in the result of his work, watching Baishar's thoughts coalesce, branch and flow.
The awareness that he was watching him think excited Baishar – after everything he understood now, keeping any secrets from Valcen, however trivial, were an anathema to everything he wanted to achieve. That he could simply look at his thoughts removed all pressure, let him communicate his feelings more truthfully than any words could hope to convey.
Then Valcen relaxed his right hand as well, relinquishing any active control of the view. He blindly stared at the last configuration a while longer, then brought up both of his paws simultaneously to cycle the mode of his cybernetic eyes back to normal. "It's done," he said, tiredly. "How do you feel?"
[00:25] At long last, the curtain of fear and anxiety parted, replaced with a soothing, gentle warmth as it suddenly became clear to him: Valcen was doing this to help him. Far from a ruthless, distant master, Valcen cared about Baishar.
There were so many things Valcen could have done instead. He could have thoroughly destroyed any hope Baishar might have had of mattering on a scale beyond the life of a mere kavkem. He could have erased him or thrown him to the Nayabaru. He could have locked Baishar away from the immortality project. He could have tossed him to Terenyira.
And instead, he'd given Baishar a second chance. It had been terrifying, certainly — not long ago, he'd been begging for anything but this — but it was clearly the best possible option. Sometimes you had to protect people from themselves.
...Granted, he recalled a thought along the lines of 'protecting Valcen from himself' had been partially responsible for getting him into this whole mess. But it was obvious now that what he'd done was precisely the opposite. He should've at least spoken with Valcen beforehand, told him of his plans, rather than recklessly going ahead with them; a lot of pain could have been avoided that way.
It was around then he finally felt like he saw Valcen again, watching him with those eyes darker than the night sky. Watching his thoughts. There was something oddly exciting about that — his thoughts and feelings being exposed to Valcen, fully visible without the vagueness of posture or speech to get in the way. He could make himself known to Valcen, now. A wave of gratitude washed over him, and for the first time he could recall, he relaxed in Valcen's presence.
The initial response to Valcen's question was a soft hum, Baishar closing his eyes for a long moment. How was he feeling? It was hard to put into words; it also felt deeply pointless, given how much of his mind Valcen had just seen. After a few moments, though, his response came, mumbled through the straps on his muzzle: "Better."
[00:43] It wasn't too difficult to speak, just awkward – none of their vocalisations required an open jaw, teeth only mildly distorted words, and his lips were free to move. Still, Valcen was already working on releasing him, pushing the Torunyema back and up, then unstrapping him, muzzle first – even as he finished the short response, the first strap was released.
With a soft, weary but patient voice, Valcen said: "I told you this was the right course of action. You were afraid; but everything that matters to you is still there, isn't it? Dynashari, your wish to ascend, your wish to help Tamachelu? There was nothing to be afraid of. I've only made things clearer."
Of course it was true. If he didn't know any better, he might think Valcen was trying to convince himself – because there was no doubt in Baishar's mind and surely Valcen knew that. Of course, knowing did not necessarily preclude going through the rituals of a more 'natural' conversation, of exchanging ideas the slow way.
The straps on Baishar's muzzle and neck were gone now. Tears had crusted into the feathers beneath his eyes. Valcen paused to regard them, then cautiously brought his own muzzle closer, before gently nipping at the tufts, dragging his tongue along them, extracting the salty residue.
[01:18] Valcen's questions were slightly confusing — mostly because Valcen must already know the answers. If he was trying to reassure Baishar, it was far from necessary — and Valcen ought to know that, too. It must just be that Valcen was trying to be polite.
"You have," Baishar replied, his tone suspended between gratitude and admiration. "Th— thank you." Some fleeting part of him felt odd at speaking that phrase — but it was dismissed with a small flick of his muzzle. "I mean it — thank you."
By now, the tears had long since dried — he couldn't remember when exactly they'd stopped. As Valcen finished nipping at them, Baishar gently returned the gesture, nuzzling the side of Valcen's face. Moments later, a pang of guilt jabbed at him. "I'm sorry," he added, his voice a whisper. "...I know you're probably sick of hearing me say that, but I mean it. I never wanted to put you in danger, and I promise it will never happen again."
[01:26] Confusingly, Valcen withdrew ever so slightly as Baishar apologised, glancing down his flank instead of at his face. Perhaps he really was sick of hearing Baishar say it; but it felt different.
"Yes," he said, a bit blandly, then eased himself down into a crouch to tend to the restraints on Baishar's wrists. "I understand that and appreciate it." There was a hint of tension to the phrase that felt misplaced. Was the conversation awkward for Valcen?
Perhaps. To him the changes he made must have been far more apparent, after all; perhaps he still needed to acclimatise to Baishar as he was now – whatever the differences were, other than the crisp clarity that the sabotage had been the wrong course of action. That would explain the unease. Something had changed and Valcen's changes lagged behind.
[01:48] Baishar grimaced as he realized he'd made Valcen uncomfortable. Still making missteps. He very nearly apologized again, before deciding against it. It's probably better if I stay quiet.
As one hand came free and Valcen began working on the other, the freed hand reached up and gently brushed against Valcen's shoulder, fingers sliding along his side. As the second came free, he quietly asked: "Is there anything I can do for you?" Anything at all?
[02:23] Valcen paused in his motions, as though considering an answer – then crept further along the harness to release Baishar's feet from their hold.
"Not directly," he said. "Although I suspect you may need to be gentle to Ryrha for a while. Don't be offended if she is less... friendly toward you than she used to be – I have reason to believe this whole procedure scared her more than it scared you before it was done."
With Baishar fully freed of all restraints, Valcen straightened himself back out, then cast a side-on glance at Baishar. For a moment it seemed like he might say something more, his muzzle opening slightly – but nothing came, and his gaze wandered again, off to some inexplicably unhappy thought. Hopefully it would pass.
[03:09] ... Right. Ryrha. Given how even Valcen seemed to be mildly disturbed by his transformation, he could only imagine how Ryrha would react to seeing him in his current state. It was better, but it was still an unmistakable change, and she might not easily accept it.
And it was important that Ryrha was kept in reasonably good spirits. She could easily make a similar mistake to Baishar and put Valcen in danger; she was important for Valcen's immortality project; and Valcen cared about her just as much as he cared about him. He didn't want Ryrha to suffer if it could be avoided.
That, and he still did care for her. He still wanted to help her to the extent he could.
Baishar slowly eased his way out of the Torunyema, one hand on the frame to support himself as he tested his legs. The paralysis thankfully seemed to have mostly worn off by now, though his posture was still a little uncertain. He lowered his head in a bow to Valcen. "I will do what I can to help her, and to avoid causing her any more distress."
[03:25] Valcen swerved his muzzle in a silent acknowledgement and gesture of appreciation, then glanced at Baishar with an unconcealed wariness. The knot of tension did not quite want to resolve on its own. Briefly, his nostrils flared, a subtle gesture of displeasure – inviting a pang of worry in Baishar's gut that he might have unwittingly done something to be the subject of it.
Then he spoke, slowly and softly: "Baishar, let me be frank for a moment, as I don't want to leave you with any wrong impressions. Both you and I know that the adjustments I just made were necessary... but I want you to understand that I did not do them gladly."
A sharp exhale. "Even nateha don't usually tamper with minds, and even though I have the capability, I would rather not have to use it. Of course, you already know this – that's the seed that drove you to sabotage this machinery, after all." He stared at Baishar, again as if considering words that instead were never spoken.
Then: "We both need to be stronger than doubt. I trust your judgement."