[00:55] Weeks passed.
The moniker 'torunyema' for Valcen's contraption was raised and, for ease of talking about with common vocabulary, adopted. The Nayabaru carved out Valcen's second eye and replaced it with a flawless twin of the delicate machinery long since established in the other socket. In other sessions invisible to Baishar, the mute grey was decorated with a finish that gave Valcen's eyes a superficial appearance of being normal. Several sessions, each easier on Baishar's psyche than the last despite the refinements probing deeper into his thought processes, let Valcen complete his command of the machinery. Toward the end, it was almost a dance – Baishar's thoughts, guided by Valcen's prompts, tracing decorative patterns into Valcen's vision that only he could see, but had by now often described to his protégé.
All the while, Valcen taught Baishar physics and the biology of a completely alien species in between the continuation of his work. All the while, Valcen kept Baishar up to date on the approaches he had taken so far to justify giving Baishar the eyes with which he might see the neutrino flux, and to include him in the immortality project, transfer him into the 'qidravem' and take him with him into one of the maturing bodies, once they were ready. The hosts were still dying, although the reasons differed – the biology was functional and developed no cognition of its own, but Valcen's methods of introducing a twin qidravem into the skull still reliably shredded their tenuous hold on life. For a while, Valcen had forced himself back to the drawing board, discussed the fundamental approach with Baishar, uncomfortable with the idea of needing to design a different qidravem, reshape the interface, leave more of the grey matter in place. Review after review passed, until 'software' changes were made, routines rewritten, part by the Darhala that Valcen had drafted into the project with the Karesejat's backing, part by Valcen himself.
[00:56] And all the while, the Nayabaru brought Valcen the occasional member of Dynash, Za'alseki, or Shyilun to interrogate.
There was no schedule to it and no way for Baishar to avoid bearing witness to the events entirely. The Hesha would drag a hapless kavkem, kicking and shrieking, not sedated since the degree to which this interfered with a good reading of a stranger's mind was prohibitive, into the Torunyema's lair, some of their last steps often accompanied by Tanak, who would knock first on the door to Valcen's office, then that of the recreational area – neither of which was necessary, as the shrieking was, while starkly muted by the walls, audible, and the bright light from the room an obvious incursion into at least the windowed office.
Somehow, word of it all reached the outside world. Nayabaru, Valcen had explained, occasionally allied with kavkema – a fleeting cooperation, but information was one of the most valuable things traded between the species in these scenarios, and the kavkema were grateful for the warning. It did not take long before they started giving Valcen a name: Vasharesh. Valcen had revealed it to Baishar calmly, unperturbed to the same degree that they spoke it with terror, hate and resentment. Baishar knew him well enough to know it was a private joke to him, knowing that it would be so much more applicable soon.
[00:57] He loathed how soon it was going to be. He told Baishar about every little delay he'd thrown into the process that he thought he could get away with. He told Baishar of the times he didn't get away with it, gone for hours on end as the Hesha did some interrogation of their own. He returned with no visible damage to his dignity – but again, Baishar knew him well enough. Valcen was quiet when he was afraid.
Eventually, they lived next to the prototype, forming an uneasy, foreboding companion. But the Nayabaru bore it no heed, themselves sceptical that a 'reprogrammed' kavkem could be of any use – even if they could make the kavkema do their bidding, it was still working with the kavkema. It was distasteful to the Hesha, but Valcen knew it was only a matter of time. He was not testing the extended Torunyema on Ryrha or Baishar; although Ryrha had repeatedly prompted him to try, eeriely reminding Baishar of what Valcen had said about her tendency to self-destruction. Even if such a consensual attempt would certainly be done on some irrelevant detail, it seemed reckless to toy with the integrity of one's mind like that. What if it didn't work? What if the irrelevant detail became your entire memory or personality? Best not risk it until fate forced their unlikely mentor's hand.
It was a frightening power Valcen wielded. But only in theory. Baishar could swear he could see it as a prayer in Valcen's eyes after every rest he allowed himself: Only in theory.
Regardless, there were still quiet days. And there was some hope that today might be a quiet day.
Valcen was crouched on the ground in his office with Baishar, under a dim light, manipulating a cloth he usually used to wipe away dust.
[00:58] "So in a way, space is topologically flat, like a sheet. But if you take a piece of fabric, you know you can, to some degree, stretch it and pinch it without disturbing its flatness. You remember that gravity, the force that gives you a reason to have a word for 'down', is a distortion like that – the grid of space is squeezed or stretched.
"But you can also bend or dimple the sheet. There's not infinite wiggle room in superspace to do this, but you can fit a couple of orders of magnitude into the creases, which is how the Anchor—"
The light in the adjacent room flared up, cutting across Valcen's explanation like a whiplash. Like a child caught with its hand in a cookie jar, he jerked the cloth up from the ground and his attention around. "—lines work," he forced himself to finish, but his mind was well elsewhere, pushing to a stand, his posture one of determination, all of his reluctance stored somewhere else.
[02:25] Somehow, Baishar had managed to find his way to the state he'd previously thought mythical, the boundary between trust and fear. Ryrha had managed it long before him, perhaps because her particular way of viewing things leant itself to that. Baishar couldn't claim his own trust was absolute, and every time he heard the struggles from the main room he was reminded why Valcen was terrifying.
In those moments, he often hid away in the recreation area, tried to ignore the muted sounds from the Torunyema's lair, repeated to himself that he was on the path to helping Tamachelu, that the suffering was finite and temporary. He tried to use Valcen's trick of claiming it wasn't as bad as the Hesha, but it was such a low bar to cross that it filled him with disgust.
Still, it didn't compare to the terror of knowing just how soon the name 'Vasharesh' would be a reasonable descriptor. It terrified Valcen, too — he'd done everything in his power to put it off for as long as possible. He'd sabotaged his own work in tiny, subtle ways, introduced what setbacks he could get away with. If he'd wanted to make it, it would have been finished by now, of that Baishar was certain.
In the meantime, Valcen had given him more opportunities to assist with his other project. Baishar had begun to understand Threadwielders as Valcen understood them — immortal, immensely intelligent, capable of thoughts and perceptions a kavkem couldn't even imagine. Able to use the universe itself as a place to store memories. A human might make a reference to sufficiently advanced technology; it seemed to be magic, but it could be understood. Perhaps not by a kavkem, but not fundamentally unknowable.
Fighting his own mythology was an uphill battle — but it was now something he was beginning to recognize as such. It was a lens he'd learned to see the world through — it focused him, but also distorted his view. He'd begun trimming away parts of his faith, and as he did so purposefully, he began to recognize that he'd been doing it reflexively since Valcen had first taken him in.
Today, Valcen was teaching him about space, using a metaphor of a piece of cloth. It was hard to visualize the cloth as everything that exists; sometimes it helped if he imagined a drawing of a kavkem on the cloth. Except that for most of what he was talking about, even the smallest drawing would be much too large, a kavkem who could step on the entire world and think it a pebble. Valcen had said that visualizing it would become easier with time, though.
Baishar winced as the blinding lights came on, eyes narrowing to slits in the glare. As Valcen rose, Baishar's heart sank. Looks like today won't be quiet after all, he privately observed. He reached for the piece of cloth, tugging it gently from Valcen's hands. "Thank you for the lesson," he intoned quietly, lowering his muzzle in gratitude. "I will think about it more, we can continue later."
He was trying to push the obvious context from his mind, the knowledge of what Valcen was about to do to another captive kavkem. Maybe the physics would be an adequate distraction. Although... it was strange. There were no sounds of struggle, no screaming or kicking.
[02:41] Even from behind the window, nearly tucked in under the desk, the shadows of emaciated limbs became apparent to Baishar as Valcen let him take the cloth.
A palpable tension seized Valcen's chest and shoulders and he slipped to the door quite soundlessly, his feathers only briefly daring to portray how ruffled he was. For a moment, the glare of the Lair spilt into the office as the door opened, itself like a reaching limb of light, mercilessly raking through Valcen's sanctuary.
[02:42] And then Valcen was outside, the door gently easing itself back into its frame behind him, muffling a conversation that began as a remarkably crisp "Fancy seeing you here", Kendaneivash across a weary, panted breath.
Mercifully, the matter was drowned into indistint mumblings – but Baishar could hear who was speaking from the pitch of their voice. The Karesejat, instructively. Valcen, firmly but hesitantly. The Karesejat, patiently stern, elaborating. Valcen, more fervently, objecting. The Karesejat, calmly cutting him off.
The situation ate as an acid pang through Baishar's gut, the harbinger and the sequence of intonations speaking to him with an unwelcome clarity.
[03:43] It took a moment for the elongated shadows to register, thin against the blinding glare; then the shape clicked into place. Baishar froze, watching Valcen approach the door, obviously tense; then there was a voice — out of breath, exhausted, but clear Kendaneivash. A kavkem.
Then the door shut behind his mentor, and the words blended into indistinct blobs of sound. Still, he could make out tones. Instructions from the Karesejat. Valcen objecting. The Karesejat cutting him off. Possibilities flowered in his mind; briefly, the possibility came to mind that Terenyira had decided Valcen's efforts to grant himself and Baishar immortality were to be curtailed — but it didn't make sense. She'd surely known about them already; there was no reason for her to suddenly change her mind. Was there?
After a long moment of holding still, perhaps hoping to evade the Karesejat's notice, he quietly crept forward, closer to the door, and leaned the side of his head against the wall. It was unlikely he was directly in danger at the moment — if nothing else, there was still a door and a wall between himself and the horrifying monster. In all likelihood, he already knew what this was about.
[03:59] By now, a dialogue had started between Valcen and whatever captive the Karesejat had brought him. Some more distinctive words make it through the muffling of the door: resourceful, prematurely from Valcen, Shyilun, mortal from the captive. ('Mortal'? From the captive? In what context?)
Finally, the uncharacteristically soft conversation picked up in volume. A sharp "No," from Valcen. And the Karesejat's voice, almost crisp, much easier to hear for the clarity with which she spoke in general: "You have a good reputation with us at the moment. You have my firm support, despite our history. I would be willing to set aside extra time to help you with your self-perpetuation to compensate. But I will not tolerate an even poorer copy of you lingering in Katal, potentially giving you ideas, escaping and making trouble.
[04:00] "I can hardly let him go and I cannot reasonably hold him in a static location.
"If it is too close, he's memetic poison for you. If it is too far, you could not check on him and convince yourself that he has not managed to escape. That second-hand hope does you no favours – the illusion that there's another version of you, with a separate chance."
"He's my only backup," Valcen whined, bristling.
[04:41] Valcen was conversing with the captive; most of the words were too quiet for him to make out, though he definitely heard the captive mention Shyilun and... was that 'mortal'? An odd thing to hear from a Shyilungadech.
It took a long moment for him to switch to processing the Karesejat's spoken Naya; his familiarity with it was good enough to get by with understanding Tanak, but there were a number of words he didn't recognize. And at least one phrase that he was certain he misunderstood at first, 'an even poorer copy of you'. But a few moments later, Valcen's response — 'he's my only backup' — sent a creeping dread up his spine.
Backup? Copy? Was there... a second Valcen? A million questions battled for primacy in his mind. What had Valcen done? How were there two of him? What did that mean? Why was there a second? Why was he here? Was the other Valcen working for Shyilun? Was he also trying to recover his qidravem?
And why had Valcen never mentioned this to Baishar?
Of course, the question he should be asking was: What was going to happen to the other one? Given Terenyira's presence, given that she was speaking to Valcen, there weren't many options. You're going to open up his mind.
[04:53] It was Terenyira that continued, with the eerie patience Baishar had since learnt was her default: "Exactly. Your backup; your dream of autonomy. He lets you sacrifice yourself if the stakes are high enough. I need that option out of the picture. You can do a lot of damage if your own well-being is optional."
Then the conversation dipped in volume again, becoming hard to make out. The captive, asking something. The Karesejat responding – a word, 'bargain', seemed unmistakable in the soft murmur. Valcen, tense. The Karesejat, giving another long elaboration.
[04:54] Disconnected words swam through the door: combined, reduced, nonetheless, innovative, quality, projects, accelerated, adept, offset and risks.
Amidst the drone, a vivid word of Kendaneivash spiked out amongst the Naya: Gazhil.
But before the context of that registered fully to Baishar, Valcen had growled Evenatra, snapping Baishar's thread of thought.
[04:55] Although the conversation didn't raise in volume, a sentence coalesced at the very edge of Baishar's comprehension – perhaps the Karesejat circled, like a predator around its prey. "And if he did, you would make very sure I wouldn't know anything useful about that."
A dead silence.
"Come now, you're more intelligent than that; don't feign surprise. To reiterate, I know more about Valcen than either of you combined. You want to toe the line – you want to be as useful to me as you can without jeopardising Evenatra. Did you honestly assume I was labouring under any misconceptions about that?"
[22:18] Baishar's head swam with the implications as the conversation droned on. You can do a lot of damage if your own well-being is optional. Valcen had a backup. He was willing to sacrifice himself, if it would take enough of the Nayabaru with him — maybe even the Karesejat herself. The Karesejat knew all of this, and was threatening the backup Valcen. Leverage.
And yet Valcen had mentioned none of this to Baishar. How many other secrets are you keeping? How many other schemes do you have? And yet, all of this was transparent to the Karesejat. How much does she already know of your plans?
A lone word of Kendaneivash pierced through the jumble of Naya: 'Power'. Out of context, it didn't make sense — but then the name 'Evenatra' was spoken, and he snapped to attention. Tamachelu. And then moments later...
The Karesejat knew. She knew he was planning to filter information. Hide what he could, reveal what he had to, be as cooperative as necessary and not one toe further. A phrase stuck out: 'I know more about Valcen than either of you combined.' Does she gain the knowledge of those she devours? He couldn't help but stumble back on old mythological ideas. A havnateh that hunts nateha, devours their minds and learns their secrets. A Torunyema for nateha.
[00:22] On the other side of the door, some desperate whisper from Valcen sounded, so soft that it was almost unclear whether anyone had spoken.
The silence inspired some hope that Valcen might have found a way to appease Terenyira despite her cunningness, that he'd found something to barter with yet again. When the Karesejat spoke, it was with a tone mostly of indifference: "I suppose. Take a look."
What take a look meant in the invisible context was clear. But how much sense did it make for Valcen to look into the mind of another Valcen, even if that one went by a different name?
The sounds that made it through the door were distorted hints at motions, allusions to breaths, and a palpable nervous air that seemed to seep through the cracks to reach out at Baishar and clutch at his throat.
It was unbearably quiet.
Despite all the horrific screams and curses he'd heard from the Lair, it was the silence now that was a hundred times worse. It was the sound of resignation.
[00:23] Through the door, in Kendaneivash, just at the edge of hearing, Valcen: "You better not give me any trouble." More quiet, like a thin slice of terror simply contemplating itself. Then it uncoiled into the tension of Gazhil's voice: "Don't. Don't play this game, Valcen."
[01:02] 'Take a look' could really only mean one thing, here. Valcen was going to open up his backup's mind, and read out its contents for Terenyira. Minus whatever he was filtering. Plus whatever she could infer from what he said, from what he didn't say.
He should stop listening, a part of him noted. What he was about to hear wasn't going to make it any easier to sleep today. Any moment now the screaming would start. Any... moment...
The screams never came. The silence just dragged on and on. Resignation. He's given up hope. This was a shard of a god, as much as Valcen himself was. Eventually, he made out a few words, softly spoken Kendaneivash. 'Don't play this game, Valcen.' Don't think you can trust Terenyira. Don't think you can work for her without losing yourself.
He should really stop listening, the voice in his head repeated, more fervently this time. There wasn't anything he could do about it, and listening would only make it worse for him. And yet, he couldn't manage to pull his head away from the door, couldn't move at all, too gripped by the terror and confusion of it all. This is a nightmare, a part of him asserted. You'll wake up soon.
[02:12] It was Valcen's voice that snapped across the silence next, like a whiplash, full of tense venom: "I said not to give me any trouble. Shut your mouth and the Karesejat might generously let us get out of this in one piece, no thanks to your reckless behaviour."
Seamlessly, Gazhil's voice, crisp Kendaneivash at the edge of panic: "You know she won't!" Another silence settled – the product of hesitation or indifference? Then the Karesejat said something softly, and Gazhil again raised his voice: "You know she won't."
A single word from Valcen, just past the edge of hearing, sharing vague outlines with the plausible word 'quiet', and the whimpered response in Kendaneivash from his captive: "Don't." When Valcen next spoke, his tone was soothing, although its edges were roughened by obvious tension: "Just be quiet. You'll be okay if you hold still. ...this won't hurt."
The deathly silence was back for far too long, filled only with the imagined sounds of the participants' heartbeats mirroring Baishar's own, sounds of tense breath.
A muttering from Valcen. "Nothing?" the Karesejat asked. More muttering, registering as laboured despite their softness. The Karesejat, in an otherworldly encouraging tone: "Anything we don't know?" And Valcen's firm, grim verdict: "No. Nothing we haven't gotten from the others."
"It was worth a try," the Karesejat commented. "I appreciate the idea and the attempt, but it didn't work out."
"Can't we solve your problems some other way?" Valcen asked, his tone heavy with sadness. Whatever suggestion followed was too soft to reach through the door, though, an indistinct murmur of regret.
[02:13] Gazhil's reaction in Kendaneivash was clearer. "Don't you dare."
"Appreciated, but I do already have my fill of subservient Valcens," the Karesejat was remarking, making Valcen's offer frightfully transparent. "As mentioned, I wouldn't trust him with a third endeavour; even if I cross-checked your work and was convinced you had done your job well, it's not a risk worth taking.
"As you know, opinions change over time. Unlike you, he's been in contact with Shyilun once before, which increases the risk that he'll do it again."
Valcen, nervously but clearly spoken: "Yes, but I could take that memory away from him. He would hardly be a threat to you. You could still lock him away somewhere where I'll be reminded of his incarceration, he wouldn't be able to memetically corrupt me, but his knowledge is preserved in case something happens to me."
The Karesejat, in tone of polite disagreement: "Your knowledge is better preserved in my mind."
Some frantic temper lost, Valcen snapped: "You said yourself you weren't built for perfect recall! You too would benefit from redundant storage."
Redundant storage. Was that all Valcen saw Gazhil's life as? Or was that all he thought the Karesejat was going to be interested in? How much was this revealing about Valcen, how much about his ability to tailor his words to his audience?
"Brother, don't play this game." Gazhil, in Kendaneivash again – why was he doing that? The Karesejat understood Kendaneivash fine. Was he trying to insult Nayabaru culture by refusing to speak their language? If so, he evidently wasn't making any dents in the Karesejat's air.
"I am trying to help you, shut up," Valcen hissed back urgently.
[02:14] The Karesejat, patiently: "You needn't temper him, Gazhil doesn't offend me. He can't be any other way. It would be rather out of character for him not to try his luck at influencing his chances, don't you think?
"Either way, I appreciate the thought you've put into your argument, but I disagree.
In any other context, in any other tone, it would have chilled Baishar to the bone. But the casual, dismissively matter-of-fact way with which the Karesejat delivered those two damning words drove a blade into Baishar's tense throat and dragged it up to split his jaw.
[04:02] 'Brother.' More than redundant storage. He's family, Valcen, don't — whatever she's — what did she want with him? What was he so frightened of that cracking open his brother's thoughts, stealing memories form him, was something he was trying to convince her of accepting instead? What level of monstrosity was he going to lower himself to in the hopes of staving it off? What was she—
Two words drove into him, throat and skull and mind sundered. Erase him.
It felt as if the conclusion was there before he'd had time to think about it; he knew. For a long moment, he was frozen, the breath catching in his chest, impossible cold lapping up his spine. Erase him. His limbs felt numb, his gut rebelled against him.
He had to do something. He couldn't do anything. He had to say something. He couldn't speak. He had to get out of here, he couldn't move, he couldn't think of anything but those two words. Words were still spilling from the other room, but they didn't mean anything. Valcen, stammering. The Karesejat, encouraging. Valcen, begging, desperate. The Karesejat, soothing, understanding.
Disgust finally overrode his paralysis; Baishar fled from the door, driven by precisely the thoughts that were necessary for his task. He found the basket Valcen used for discarding failed prototypes, and expunged the contents of his stomach into it. He clutched the sides, breathing heavily, trying to ignore the smell and taste of bile.
[04:26] In the corner with the basket, there was no light spilling in from a window and no immediate murmurs through the cracks of the door. He was still dimly aware of conversation as it happened, the faintest hints of sound brushing at his peripheral reality, but it was so far away, the heartbeat droning in his ears shielding his consciousness from any hope of analysis.
Literally sick with fear and worry, Baishar was left to himself, some instinct rocking him back and forth in a futile attempt to calm his mind. And yet, Valcen was still out there; Gazhil was still out there. What was a mere horrific mental exercise for Baishar was reality for the two of them.
[04:27] His awareness of it crawled across his arms and shoulders like a plague of ants.
The incomprehensible. It was touching his mind, dragging at his sanity, from a room away. He felt impossibly fragile, aware that it took only one such curt order from Terenyira to end him, if she so pleased. It even only took Valcen's whim. The awareness ate away at him, threatening to consume him in precisely the way he'd been warned about.
He didn't want to fall prey to the processes that transformed the world – but what did it mean to move forward, to discard resistance? Gazhil had discarded resistance and he was surely burning up by now, whispered out of existence with an otherworldly precision. What resistance could Baishar reject in hope of prevailing against this monstrous threat?
It felt like resistance was all he possibly had left to defend himself.
And yet, what could he do? He couldn't fight Terenyira if she chose to destroy him. He couldn't even fight Valcen with his flawless claws and teeth. Helpless, terrified, out of options – trapped in a corner, about to be gently turned into footnote, just like Gazhil.
[06:18] Baishar abandoned the basket, staggered a few steps away, and curled himself into a small bundle of feathers and anxiety. If this was a test on his path, it was one he was surely failing. The Progression had sunk its claws deep into his sanity, as it was surely doing to Gazhil and Valcen at this very moment. Havnateh Terenyira was surely watching over the proceedings, patient, graceful, deadly, manipulative. A part of him tried to imagine what Valcen must be thinking now, but his gut wouldn't let the thought get anywhere.
His mind scrambled for something to support him, something to hold firm to as the Progression tore into him. The songs of Dynashari, reminders of the necessity of perserverance in the path. Mythological garbage, he imagined Valcen saying. At least half of it is wrong. It doesn't matter whether you resist or not. You'll still end up the same.
"Please, kill me now," he whispered into the empty room. "I can't do this. A fragment of a god is being dissolved a room away from me, by the entity I promised unquestioning obedience to. I'm not ready for this. I was never ready for this." Maybe some kind yirh would hear his prayer and grant him qasai.
Of course, no such mercy came.
His palms reached up to his scalp, blunted claws pressing against the back of his skull. "No," he hissed, turning his laser-sharp loathing inwards. "You are a Dynasharigadech. You don't get to retreat. You must face this." Claws dragged shallow furrows in his feathers, unable to puncture the skin. Moments later, a shiver. In the weaker tone he'd used before: "How?" With no better ideas, as if it might solve something, he turned his gaze towards the door on the other end of the room.
[13:52] The blandness of the door's design and finish did nothing to lessen the semantic baggage it came with. It was a portal to a different world, a horrific reality far too few inches removed from his current position, and it was mute, letting only a threatening silence drift out of its frame.
Some high-pitched mewl made it through to him from beyond that threshold, burning into his cognition like a hot poker, searing thoughts in its path. Then the silence returned, mercifully, its predatory circling at least leaving Baishar's tattered mind guessing from where it might strike, without leaving him the uncertainty of it.
After a subjective eternity, the thin shadows stirred, wandered, briefly jolting a more primal terror through Baishar's knotted gut. Then they were gone.
And nothing happened.
No one burst into the office, demanding to know why he'd been eavesdropping. No one cautiously returned and offered, in a subdued voice, to continue the class on universal geometry. No one nuzzled up to Baishar to soothe, to gently remind him of his purpose, to provide a physical distraction from the horrors of the world. No one crept into the room's other door to seize him like easy prey.
Even Tanak, who was supposed to watch over them, was nowhere to be seen, unable to throw a snide remark into the ring, callously indifferent to the machinery of terror that Terenyira had orchestrated.
[16:43] The mewl of distress dug into him, scraping out what remained of his momentary conviction. A god is dying. You can't do anything to help. Those two thoughts chased each other in circles tirelessly, neither able to catch the other.
The silence was oppressive, each moment it lingered pressing against his skull. It was as if the world beyond the doorway had simply ceased to exist. Maybe it has, he briefly wondered. But even trying to continue that thought fell apart; there was no answer to how it might have, physical or mythological. But where was everyone? Had Valcen left with the Karesejat? The door beckoned to him, turning his natural curiosity into a weapon against him, trying to drag him into the monstrous new future that awaited him.
And yet, he couldn't move. He had no desire to see what had become of Gazhil, no strength to brave the transfigured world. The gateway imposed as much as it drew him in. Resistance was a dangerously soothing balm. Resistance was all he had left.
[16:44] And so Baishar sat in silence, watching the door with vigilance, waiting for the inevitable moment when the Progression would reach back and claim him.
[17:11] By the time two sharp syllables cut through the silence, though muted by distance and door, so much time had passed that the sound was an unpleasant surprise. At least if the world beyond Valcen's office had been torn into oblivion, it would leave Baishar in peace – but it was still there, it could still harm him.
[17:12] More silence led into more mutterings led into more silence.
Then the door to the office abruptly lurched open a few inches, awkwardly resisting the opening motion, and admitted what was left of Valcen.
He trudged into the office, body language blank, more automaton than person. A listless gaze took an inventory of the room, lingering on Baishar no longer than on any inanimate object in his vicinity. In a motion more cautious than the emotion driving it would normally permit, Valcen slouched down into a sit, then rested his muzzle mutely on the ground, closing his eyes.
[17:33] Baishar jerked back as the door suddenly opened, eyes wide and alert for danger... and Valcen, or what remained of him, entered. He looked half-dead to the world, unconcerned for what just happened. Tired. How can you sleep at a time like this? Do you care at all?
After a few moments, two hesitant syllables spilled from Baishar. "Valcen?" Slowly, cautiously, he stood up, quietly began an approach. "Valcen, what—" Too many questions swarmed, all wanting answers. What just happened? Was it real? Who's Gazhil? Who was Gazhil? Did you do what Terenyira told you to do? Is he gone? Are you going to do that to me? "Why?"
[17:46] One of Valcen's alien eyes peeled open, fixing Baishar with a single saccade. For a moment, it seemed as though he might prove altogether disinclined to speak, too caught up in his own numb pain to share even essential information with his protégé.
Then he lifted his muzzle just far enough to let himself speak without crushing the words into a mumble, and he spoke clearly but dispassionately: "This is what punishment for failure looks like, Baishar. This— this is what happens when I make a tactical mistake. Just one." He let his muzzle sink back down and mumbled, "Just one."
[19:20] In all the time he'd been here, Baishar had never seen Valcen like this. There was no energy there, no concern, no anger, just... resignation. It was one more reason to be deeply disturbed by what had just occurred. "Tactical mistake?" Baishar repeated, tone incredulous.
"Is that what that was? Just some move in a cosmic game between you and Ka resejat?" A game you're losing badly, by the looks of things. Feathers bristled, the sting of panic starting to well up in him. "How long do you think this can go on, Valcen? How long until your next 'tactical mistake'? How long until she tires of you, and decides to kill you a third time? How can you be passive after what just happened?"
[19:37] Before Baishar managed to fully finish the last sentence, lips snapped back from Valcen's teeth, his entire body rippling into a sudden motion. A forepaw shot up to Baishar's throat even as the rest of Valcen's body rose as if to follow the motion, upon him before he even knew what was happening. It only consciously registered the moment Baishar's spine cracked painfully against the edge of the nearest table, his body lifted and slammed back in a feat of temporary strength, his shoulders pushed to graze the table's surface.
Glass crinkled, complaining of the sudden intruder as Valcen bore down on Baishar, teeth inches from his face, twisted in a vicious snarl. "You'd rather I wasn't passive? I can tear your throat out right now, you disrespectful coward. You have no idea what I just went through and I'm not quite sadistic enough to wish you that first-hand experience. Gazhil was my brother. 'Just', you say? You think I'm downplaying this? How ignorant are you? You dare misconstrue my dire warning as some kind of indifference?! Are you that disconnected from reality, vermin?!"
In absolute terms, Valcen was not very strong – keeping Baishar pinned at this awkward angle was already causing his limbs to shake in exertion, but he wasn't about to let up. "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, like she just politely reminded me she could do to me. Do you understand?!"
[20:23] The motion caught Baishar completely by surprise; before he understood what had even happened, he was pressed against a table, Valcen's claws at his throat, snarling at him. His forepaws scrabbled instinctively at Valcen's grip, his wide eyes staring at Valcen in animal terror.
Baishar was wrong. Valcen wasn't calm or passive, he was deeply terrified, and deeply terrifying. In his own terror, he'd misread the signs. A soft voice in the back of his mind: This is what happens when you resist the Progression.
He coughed, struggling to breathe in his current posture. "Yes," he choked out, follwed a few momments later by "Please—- I'm sorry—"
[20:48] Valcen's snarl quivered in tension, shoulders trembling from the strain of keeping Baishar in place, but he fell silent, venomously staring at Baishar as though honestly considering rending him limb from limb.
[20:49] Gradually, the venom bled out, revealing fragments of exhaustion – until Valcen let go of his terrified protégé, letting Baishar sag painfully to the ground, the edge of the table biting against his shoulders on the way down. Breathing heavily, he looked down at Baishar for a moment of confused resentment, before buckling under whatever strain had driven him, folding down against the floor, clutching at it with all fours. Spine arched, a high-pitched whine surfaced, shifted in pitch and volume until it had become a trembling howl; his limbs drew together, bundling Valcen into an uncomfortable ball, and he wept into his feathers, his sobs shredded by futile attempts to keep quiet.
[21:50] As Valcen finally released him, Baishar fell to the ground in a heap, gasping for breath. "I'm sorry," he rasped, forepaws tracing lines along where Valcen's claws had just been. His eyes watched Valcen, his expression two-thirds of the way from apologetic to terrified. "I'm sorry," he repeated, softer.
Baishar's instincts were torn as Valcen himself collapsed under the strain. A very real part of him wanted nothing more than to reach out to comfort his mentor, his patron, his sometimes-friend. Another very real part was convinced that if he did, Valcen would simply snap his neck in rage. Surely at this point Baishar was the last person Valcen wanted comforting him.
Valcen's warning resonated in his mind. It's only a matter of time, his thoughts whispered to him. You can't play this game. She'll eradicate you before you have a chance to matter. How had he ever thought he could walk this path? How hopelessly naïve had he been, assuming it was even possible to endure this? He could barely follow Valcen's instructions, let alone his plans and schemes. What level of watching exactly what he did would keep him from ending up like Gazhil?
Baishar reached out with one forepaw, clearing half the distance between himself and Valcen, then stopped. What hope of connection did he have, what hope of comforting Valcen, of comforting himself? It was too easy for him to misread Valcen, too easy to fail at comprehending the most basic things. He lowered his hand to the floor, closed his eyes, and quietly wept.
[22:37] Mercifully, after a while, Valcen's hacked mewling quietened down. His awkward, tense posture dissolved into one resting on his side, limbs loosely outstretched in Baishar's direction, a less compact mirror of his earlier posture. He no longer looked threatening – all aggression had drained from his body.
It was easy to mistake it as resignation, that physical passivity. But behind an empty stare, Valcen's mind was racing, rearranging plans, accommodating for the new information, nursing the wound torn into his schemes from the calm, surgically excision of his plan B.
[22:38] And yet, it was altogether unclear what Baishar even knew. What had he seen? What had he heard? What was he inferring? He hadn't been in the Lair with Valcen – how accurate could his impressions be?
"I'm sorry I hurt you," Valcen said, finally, almost emotionlessly, going through some ritual of social nicety – but evidently considering it important enough to observe, as opposed to skipping over it altogether, which all things considered was a good sign. "But I do stand by what I said. You're a coward, Baishar. Even now you prefer to make assumptions rather than open your eyes.
"And you do it well, make no mistake. When you provoked me, you briefly convinced me that you'd seen it. In my rage, I thought you knew. But you don't really. You weren't in there. You weren't even looking through the window; I would have seen that," he observed, quietly admonishing the kavkem.
"And so you assume," Valcen remarked, worn out and exhausted. With a trace of curiosity, he asked: "Do you think I do this gladly? Do you think I enjoy living on this precipice?" He paused, but did not wait for an answer. "What do you think just happened? Tell me. Tell me exactly."
[23:16] Baishar winced at Valcen's declaration, as if physically stung, if only because he knew it was true. He was a coward. He'd hidden away from the Progression, as if a lifetime of adherence weren't enough preparation for what he would have witnessed. He couldn't fully bring himself to listen, let alone watch. He'd let his own physical form convince him that his terror was more important than anything else. As if Valcen weren't in a much worse situation.
Even at Valcen's question, Baishar felt himself cowering in terror, as if the very memory of it threatened to overwhelm him, to break what sanity still remained. Useless coward, a part of him remarked, carving into him with self-loathing. It's only a memory, and you're scared of it.
"She brought in a kavkem," he forced himself to say, the voice quiet, fearful. "...Gazhil. Your brother. Your... backup." He twitched at that word, uncertain what to make of it. "I take it he is... was... another... version of you? Another body, like yours, with part of you inside it?" So not exactly a kavkem, in the same way Valcen was not exactly a kavkem.
"You... tried to argue with her," he continued, every fibre of his being resisting his attempts to put the tattered memories back in order. "You tried to convince her not to do what she wanted. You looked into his mind in the hopes it might have something useful to her. You... argued that she could benefit from redundant storage." Those words had stuck in his mind, for some reason.
"But... in the end, it didn't matter. She—" The words caught in his throat; it took him a long moment to remember how to breathe. Several deep breaths later, he managed: "She had you erase him."
[23:23] Despite the matter being infinitely more personal for Valcen, despite the obvious emotional struggle he'd gone through, the summary didn't even make him twitch. He assessed it as he would any other claim, dissected it, compared it to what he knew, and drew a verdict. With an eerie calm to his voice, disconnected from all the struggle before, he asked: "And? Did I? Or didn't I?
[23:24] "What happened next, Baishar? What do you think happened next?"
[23:47] Valcen's eerie detachment sent a shiver down Baishar's spine. Divorced from emotions — that was the only way he could adequately explain it. "You—" He did, didn't he? Did he know, or was he assuming? The pieces were all there. The Karesejat wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer. She left, amicably, still in one piece, Valcen in some number of pieces. "You did.
"I don't know how much you argued, what things were said. I didn't— I couldn't—" He struggled with himself, his own terrors and inadequacies. The story fell apart. "What would you have had me do, Valcen? What could I have done? Listened as you took his mind away, knowing it could just as easily have been me? Knowing that if you were willing to do this to your own brother that— how long would it be before— I— before you or She decided I..."
[00:27] "Willing?" Valcen echoed back, a curt bark, narrowing his eyes. "What does that word even mean to you, Baishar? I'm left with the distinct impression that it means something entirely different to me." He was too tired by far for his gaze to smoulder into Baishar, but it was clear he was trying.
"What I would have had you do, Baishar, is not to half-ass your own decisions. If you want to listen in, see it through to the end. If you can't figure out that it's going to hurt your fragile soul to listen to the Karesejat order me around, you will frankly get no sympathy from me."
A hissed breath, like a physical manifestation of a memory still far too fresh and real, like a blade dragged through his flesh. "Gazhil... is— ...was a little less of what I used to be than I am.
"But he was enough of me to look me in the eye and accept that he'd screwed up. He was enough of me to ask that, if I was going to take away his mind, that I start with his fear. And he was enough of me that—" Valcen stopped, voice chipped at the edges, frozen for a moment of some undefined emotion, his gaze still locked onto Baishar.
Just before the silence threatened to mark the end the topic altogether, Valcen's gaze softened into bewilderment, wandering off into the room. "—I miss him."
[02:46] If I'd realized what she was going to demand of you, I wouldn't have listened, Baishar imagined himself replying. It didn't matter, though. He was reckless enough to endanger his own sanity, and too cowardly to let it subsume him. Resistance was a dangerously soothing balm, indeed.
And yet, it was all too easy to say that to himself now, when he wasn't in the grips of terror. When he wasn't faced with it. When he'd had the option to run away and hide, he'd taken it. He could scold himself as much as he wanted; it wouldn't change what happened when it mattered.
What kind of ally for Tamachelu did he think he'd ever become?
As Valcen spoke about Gazhil, Baishar's gaze turned up to Valcen. Take away his fear first. It was both disturbing and fascinating that Valcen could do that, that he had such fine control. It also melded with his earlier thoughts, spawning the beginnings of a terrible idea. How does one fix cowardice?
At the last few words, the same instinct to comfort Valcen made itself known to Baishar. No longer terrified that Valcen might lash out at him, there was nothing to stop it — he might think less of him, perhaps, if that was even possible. But it was hard to imagine Valcen harming him for trying to help.
Baishar rolled off his side, pushing himself into a stand, and cautiously nuzzled his muzzle against Valcen's shoulder, forepaws raising to pull Valcen into a gentle hug. Words tried to find their way to his mouth, but none made it. I'm sorry you were put through that. I'm sorry I couldn't help. I'm sorry I'm a useless coward. I'm sorry it took me this long to comfort you. The soft sounds of Baishar's breathing and the gentle preening motions would have to suffice for communication.
[03:09] The touch of Baishar's muzzle against his shoulder sparked a subtle jolt to travel through Valcen. An aborted sound spilled out of the fallen god, fragile and mortal as he had become, suspended somewhere between a plea and a sharp inhale. An erratic breath pressed itself tightly against Baishar's mane. Fragments of a whimper surfaced from Valcen.
"He's not even... dead," Valcen commented. "When we took him out again, when it was over, he just... licked at my muzzle." A desperate incredulousness lacerated his voice, a wheezing sound forcing itself out past the cracks between the bands. "He just... looked at me with those bright, expressive eyes wide open, eagerly, like— like a hatchling. Expecting who knows what?
"Pettings? How to perform some inane trick? How to—?"
His vocals twisted into a high-pitched cry and he fisted his hands into Baishar's mane, shuddering against his unwitting anchor. "Just... patiently perched as though amongst my arms, preening my tears away. Not understanding why they were even there."
[03:36] The revelation came like a punch in the gut to Baishar, wrenching a soft, high-pitched keen from him, along with fresh tears. Don't tell me this, I don't want to hear it— The thought was forcefully aborted. No. You are not going to be a coward about this. Valcen needed to talk about this, and right now, it was Baishar's role to listen, to support as much as he could. This wasn't a burden he would make Valcen carry alone. This wasn't a burden he would let Valcen carry alone.
There was a brief squeeze from Baishar's arms, ambiguous as to whether it was trying to support Valcen or himself. A long moment later, they relaxed, narrow palms tracing along Valcen's feathers. Words were still beyond him, which was perhaps for the best; they hadn't exactly been doing him any favors lately. Instead, he simply repeated the motions, transitioning into silent, gentle pettings. A wordless promise. I'm here. I may not be worth much, but I'm here for you.
[03:55] Still trembling, his breath still an erratic pant, Valcen wrestled his pitch under control. More softly, a little steadier, only the frame of it quivering: "And eventually, I asked Tanak to take him away." A soft, plaintive mewl. "I don't— I didn't really ever... understand the kavkem yearning for death.
"But today, I— I glimpsed it. I felt it. It resonated with me." Somewhere between the lines, rang the vividly obvious confusion I don't know why I'm even telling you this. "She knew this was going to— She knew it would happen. She offered to help and I was stupid and angry enough to tell her to leave me alone.
"But I don't want to feel this. It's not productive. It doesn't help." His voice hitched with regret. He continued in a pitiful tone that began to extinguish itself as it went on: "Gazhil wouldn't want this. He knew the risks, I knew the risks, we lost this round, too bad, shut up, move on, don't lose sight of where this is going, Valcen."
[05:13] There was a brief hiccup to the gentle motions, a pause slightly too long before they resumed, a mild unease threaded into them. After a few long moments, Baishar finally spoke, his voice soft: "It's okay to feel this way, Valcen." His muzzle nipped lightly at the back of his neck in a preening motion. "Especially now, right after losing someone so important to you. It's normal."
Granted, 'losing someone' usually meant losing them to the Nayabaru, or to death if they were lucky. It didn't mean losing their minds. It didn't mean having to watch them in that state. But it was a relatable feeling, at least. "Give yourself time to feel. To mourn, to recover. It will help."
A long moment passed, Baishar nipping at Valcen's mane, one hand petting his spine, the other loosely gripped around one wrist. With a soft sigh, he added: "No one ever said it was easy being mortal."
[18:11] Valcen keened, a distress part at the situation he'd just gone through, part at himself for coming apart. "No, I— I knew it wasn't," he whimpered. "That's the worst of this. I knew it was going to happen. Maybe not this; maybe not exactly this, but something. Something like it.
"And I still chose— I still decided to—" Another high-pitched whimper, aborting his agonised reflection. I still walked right into this nightmare. "Because what else can I do?" He clung to Baishar with his free arm, fingers reaching for his spine.
[03:04] Between the soothing gestures, confusion crept into Baishar's posture. Valcen knew Terenyira would do this to him? Or something else to remind him how fragile he was? He knew Gazhil would get captured eventually? He knew he'd end up feeling this way? He knew that putting himself into a mortal body would do this to him?
The confusion mingled with the dawning surreality of the situation. Here he was, comforting the shell of a god, after he'd been ordered by Terenyira to erase his brother's mind. A brother Baishar only knew of secondhand, who'd been invisible to him a night ago and was now only a gaping wound in Valcen's psyche.
A fate that, a part of Baishar continually reminded, could easily happen to him.
He wanted to beg Valcen for assurance that he wouldn't do that to him, but he knew no such promise could be made. To even request it, after what just happened, would be cruel. And yet the desire still burned inside him, a shameful proof of his own cowardice. He mirrored Valcen's motions, clinging to him with one arm, his other hand coming free to trace the feathers at the back of Valcen's skull. After a long, tense silence, he finally allowed himself to speak: "I don't know."
[20:34] If Valcen had known what questions were going through Baishar's mind, he might have summarised his thoughts with an eventual murmur of 'all of the above'. It wasn't strictly accurate, but it might have given Baishar an idea.
Regardless, the embrace was helping. Valcen's distress was palpable, but the tears that stained his feathers came silently. The shuddering breath gradually smoothed back out, laboured but steady as Valcen unclasped his hands from Baishar's feather coat.
Forepaws came down onto the smooth ground, his shoulders pushed upward, his muzzle reluctant to rise. Then he brought up his right forepaw, clasped it against his muzzle, and closed his eyes as though to steady himself.
Finally, letting the paw drop again: "I'm sorry you had to witness that." As much as the primary purpose of the phrase was clearly in reference to what Baishar had heard of the erasure, it seemed equally clear from context that Valcen was chiding himself for the breakdown.
[21:33] The dual meaning of Valcen's apology was not lost on Baishar. There was a part of him that wanted to lay the second meaning aside, to inform Valcen that no one was expecting him to be perfect, to remind him that it was natural to feel. But those words had already come and gone, and if they had helped at all, they'd done so invisibly.
He stood by his earlier claim. No one had ever said it was easy being mortal.
Baishar's forepaws gradually receded, though he still remained close to Valcen, his muzzle gently brushing against Valcen's shoulder. There was a long moment of silence, finally punctured by a soft whimper. "What happens now?"
[21:41] "Now," Valcen said, breathing deeply as though to psych himself up for what followed. "Now we get on with what we were doing before. I can only recommend you try to forget what happened – if we let it eat us up, we've already lost. Try to keep a level head."
It was clear he was giving the advice to himself as much as to Baishar.