[20:17] Sometime during dinner preparations, a star had fallen from the sky.
Ever since the Dawn Watcher incident, Nadani had grown restless. She had resisted all responsibility with the kill, instead keeping watch, regardless how much Serademar had asked her to pay attention to the kenakhorra the hunters had brought in. It was best if they focussed on getting it disassembled before dawn, before the sunlight encroached on their territory and their less predictable daytime enemies surfaced and might find the carcass – Watching could wait until they were done, the skin flayed, the poisonous innards removed, hunger slaked, and bones either buried or taken along as resources for future use.
But rather than contribute to that process, she had deemed herself superfluous, perhaps even harmful by taking up limited space around the kill, and Watched – and so she had seen the star, and everything had slipped askew.
What had possessed her – literally or otherwise – to seek out a fragment of light that had cut through the night was hard to fathom. The path was all wrong, she insisted. She had seen falling stars before – this was nothing like any of them. And so now she was running down the slope, a tarp fluttering from her shoulders like a cloak where she hadn't yet pulled it close enough, casting herself toward the desert, following an intuition that had alarmed Athechelt and confused the others. There was, after all, almost no shadow in the desert during daytime.
[20:18] It was Serademar that tracked after her, occasionally calling for her with a subdued voice that did not quite dare attract too much attention – not this close to dawn.
[20:30] Why, why had Serademar decided to follow after Nadani? It was counter-productive, splitting off like this after a fools-errand of fractured illumination. The dark was comfort and peace, the light was chaos and pain, everyone knew that. But no, nadani just had to be that thorn that would prick the unwary. Still, their friendship had many moments of joy amidst the pain, and that drove this near futile search. One more call, and another. "Nadani! Nadani!"
[20:39] To be fair, there were probably others that simply weren't quite this desperate to get to the desert before Nadani. While he might have mistaken Athechelt's actions, it seemed like the ryrhakenem had paused mostly to consider how much protection from the sun to take for himself. Serademar had none – he simply had the hope that he'd catch up to Nadani before the dawn came. It wasn't a high gamble – neither of them could keep this speed for long – but there was still an unease that came with this progression of events.
Then one loose end abruptly found its end – the Dusk Watcher veered to the side and into Serademar's path, almost colliding with his left shoulder. "Go back," she panted, bewildered and alert, pausing in the landscape to glare at him as though he were an errant child. "If you follow me, you share my risk," she insisted, even as she started trotting down the slope again, angling herself to slide down a particular steep section that gravity could assist her with.
[22:07] "No, you need to come back. Leaving you out here alone," he shuddered, glancing skyward and frowning. "I wish you wouldn't take this risk... it would leave you in the brightness, alone, and vulnerable to predators." He finally jogged after her and slid down behind, touching her shoulder. "We can come back tomorrow right after the nightfall, and look."
[22:12] Nadani snatched the previously fluttering edge of the tarp in one forepaw and tugged on it. "I'm guarded against the Tarnish," she insisted, then flashed her teeth, opening her maw demonstratively. Her jaw clacked back shut. "And against our enemies." She skittered down a muddy flank of the scope, then gave herself a shake, taking off toward the desert with greater speed again.
[22:36] "Why, by all that is dark, do you insist on these expeditions?" It was soto voce, though, and only paused his movements for the briefest moments. He was on her flanks and running easily with her. "What do you expect to find?"
[22:43] "It's not a star," she insisted, even though he hadn't made that misconception explicit. "Something landed. I don't know what it is, either." And then the two kavkema spilt out of the trees and into the low grasslands. The slant of the environment had lessened considerably by now and Nadani had slowed to a steady trot. "If it's nothing, we can make it back before dawn, as long as we hurry," she remarked between breaths.
If it's nothing was a tall order, given her observation of a hypothetical landing. Dawn was an hour and a half away and it would take them half an hour to reach the desert. If she'd misjudged where the fragment of light had come down and it no longer gave off a glow, arguably they could easily squander enough time to lose their precious buffer.
This behaviour only made an inkling of sense if she thought there was a chance something out there might need their protection.
[23:07] "And are you sure you're not out looking for something else entirely?" He growled slightly, dodging a thorny bramble bush and skipping over a rock then back in line behind her. "Something 'landing' seems unusual by itself. What does that even mean?"
[23:45] Frustration gnawed at Nadani, subtly slowing her stride as it eroded some of her attention. What was she supposed to tell Era? That she'd seen enough of the world to doubt Tarnish in its pure form? That there might be tangible spiritual beings beyond kiikama? It would take much explanation – and she knew of no approach of how to begin to explain it. There was no narrative to embed it in.
Worse, she didn't believe the arguments of this alternate cosmology herself. There was more Tarnish in her subconscious than she was willing to admit to herself.
[23:46] Regardless, something compelled her to keep moving, something that might be a dream, a memory, or an amalgamation of either: We are not from here; this world is not our home and it rejects us like the foreign body we are.
Were Athechelt here and privy to her thoughts, he would patiently explain that what she was chasing after was a fragment of Akynkulla – a fantasy, perhaps intriguing, but ultimately dangerous in that it distracted from the true threats the world had to offer. Only Tarnish understood the existential threat of the light of day, of Tkanetar's essence burning down from the sky each day. Only Tarnish could offer intellectual protection. Everything else was mere mythology.
"I- I don't know," Nadani panted. It felt true on nearly all levels, answering both of Serademar's questions while standing in for her own inability to comprehend her actions. Intuition. She had always been able to rely on her intuition. It had yet to steer her wrong.
Abruptly, her opinion fractured and fell away, giving way to the one beneath. "I remember something, from long ago," she said. "I think we may have to help." A pause, verbal silence padded by her footfalls and pants. "Era, I hope I'm wrong."
[03:53] The temptation to grasp Nadani by the tail and throw her around was strong, but if there was one thing he knew, that would be... unwise. After several more long strides, he asked, "What are you expecting to see? Or hoping not to see?"
[18:41] With gravity no longer helping them along as much as before, Nadani slowed to a pace that would allow her to transition to conversation less interspersed with panting – and that was easier to keep up for most of the way that still lay ahead of them. The motion masked her uncertainty, her dithering. "Allies," she offered, after a while, helplessly, fully aware that she was giving the whole game away – that she believed, at the very least, in yirha, in guardian spirits, and in relatable, corporeal gods in the worst case. But even if such things existed, why would they come of the light?
[20:03] The pause this time as they still moved was longer. Catching his breath? The thoughts that tumbled through his mind wouldn't allow such a heretical light-thought to take root. The next several paces were a little uneven, though, as he dodged a rock and then a tree, possible cover for his deeper thoughts. In the end, his voice said, "Then let's find out what there is to know, shall we? You never seem to lack for curiosity and adventure. Of course, that's how we ended up neck deep in the mud pits, that one time."
[20:22] "This is..." she started, the flicked her muzzle upwards, dismissing the thought. "This is bigger than some mud pits." At least she has the good sense to realise the magnitude of what she's suggesting, even if it seems like a fantastic and deranged fabrication of her own imagination. "You don't have to travel this way with me," she said, after a pause. "You don't need to endanger yourself. I don't know what we'll find – I don't even know if we'll find anything at all." Perhaps she was altogether more lucid than she seemed in her strange vehemence.
[20:25] A twitch of his own muzzle, and he shook his head. "Don't slow down. We've got ground to cover."
[20:41] Hampered by the cloth draped around her, Nadani gave herself a shake as though to dislodge physically whatever thoughts were slowing her down. The grassland was easier to run through, providing fewer obstacles and resistances, but the ground grew harder and less familiar as they moved on.
By the time the desert started, the barest threat of dawn infected the horizon, a dim, barely perceptible blemish against the firmament. Nadani shared the load of the tarp with Serademar. While the distance crossed was gradually eroding her certainty in which direction to proceed – with no obvious fragment of light visible amongst the arid plains – she was still sure-footed enough to lead Serademar.
They were safe, of course, in theory. Even if this was a complete fool's errand, even if they were caught out here during the daytime, they could survive a day without hunt and the minimalist flasks of water that hung around their neck amongst the other tools was likely to suffice to keep them alive. They had brought their shade. They would be all right.
Nonetheless, when the dawn began creeping up the sky in earnest, they had to stop to unravel those shadows, get ready to wield them as shields. The initial rushed tension made way for a more guarded one. A search started, with both of them never parting from each others' side, careful for signs of anything in the barren landscape that might be considered alive.
[20:42] By the time was it was getting hard to see from the ambient light, an unnatural bulge disturbed the silhouette of the horizon, not quite stone hill, not quite lost, lumbering prey of the size of a species long extinct. "There," Nadani whispered, gesturing and crouching amongst hardy shrubbery. Scattered boulders disturbed a clear view to the distant artifact.
[20:49] Serademar hunkered down next to Nadani, eyes squinted in the indicated direction. "How do you see in this infernal light?" Still he managed to resolve the distant object from amongst the scrub and sand. "Is it new?"
[20:55] "See? Badly," she admitted, her voice betraying how tense the purported discovery had made her. She stared in its direction, having trouble tearing her gaze away to keep a look out for threats. "I don't know, but it looks out of place. It doesn't have the irregularity or slant of rock. It doesn't have the proportions of a beast."
[21:01] Serademar nodded, then said, "You look at it, I'll look around." This was unfamiliar territory, but he was familiar enough to at least recognize trouble coming. Nadani, of course, was practically expert at it, but she was... focused right now. "It's certainly no beast I've ever seen."
[21:27] "No," she said, shuffling close to Serademar to nudge her shoulder against his, deliberately closing the gap between them. "We need to look out for each other," she insisted. "If we separate our efforts and this structure is dangerous, neither of us may have a chance to realise it before it's too late if we move in on our own."
[21:44] He inhaled, then nodded, no words being necessary in this circumstance. Heart was certainly pounding harder than before, though the running certainly had taxed it, the fear of the unknown was even more powerful.
[21:52] Ahead of them, somewhere to the left of the mysterious shape, between the boulders and what seemed closer to their position, something moved. By the time Nadani had shifted her gaze across to the motion in instinct, it disappeared behind the features of the landscape. "Something's here," she said, half warily, half sceptically. Even if the mystery object near the horizon was anything other than an oddity of the landscape, whatever she'd seen in the corner of her vision didn't necessarily have to be related. "Follow?" she said, a hopeful prompt as she cautiously started toward where she had seen movement, keeping her profile as low as being covered in a prophylactic tarp allowed. Direct sunlight was still several minutes away, and it certainly wouldn't be coming from above initially.
[21:57] "Yes," his voice was even quieter now, wary. A claw held the tarp just a little closer, pushing him closer to her so they could move as one.
[22:09] Nadani was not a hunter except on instinct, and her approach betrayed a certain naivité – while not linear, it was a wholly predictable trajectory. If something even slightly intelligent had seen them, it could effortlessly extrapolate their movements. Fortunately, there was been no indicators that anything had spotted them.
Again, a sliver of motion between boulders, their approach bringing them in at a sharper angle, the space between the rocks shorter – concealing both them from whatever it was that moved through this desert, and whatever it was that moved through this desert from them.
Silently, Nadani paused her approach beside one of the larger weathered rocks, moving in a way that tried both to simply press her profile to it and to ascend its uneven surface. A few steps into the process, she stopped, then backed down in irritation – climbing while holding a sheet against herself for protection from the light was not at all easy. Her muzzle twisted in a silent hiss and with mild distress she glanced around for a different approach that might give them an edge.
[22:29] Serademar nudged her lightly and pointed to a slight depression, past the rocks before them, that would at least let them pass the current barrier without climbing up and silhouetting themselves on the horizon. Silence was safety, darkness the warm blanket that would cover them, and that provided a little more shadow.
[22:41] As a hatchling to a nest, Nadani wiggled into the depression, peering at the band of landscape visible to her between the edge of the sheet and the ground. No motion. Nothing obvious ahead of them. Nothing obvious around them as far as she could reasonably sweep her gaze. Nervousness made it difficult for her to hold still, but she remained where she was, stubborn to spot a fresh lead to what they were ostensibly tracking.
And then, in a transition that came without warning, it occurred to her that she was staring right at it. It was a way ahead of her, itself hidden mostly by the edge of a rock. Upright like a Nayabaru, but only half as short. Her feathers bristled. She couldn't make out the details in the growing ambient light. She couldn't see its eyes. There was a head, easy to see, but where were the eyes? What she saw bewildered and frightened her – it was as if she were looking at something without a face or muzzle. "I think it's staring at us," she whispered, her words dragging laboriously, barely audible, her gaze fixed on the horrific sight.
[22:56] "...What is that horrific thing? It looks like... like..." His voice trailed off into nothing, mind finding no 'like' to match the view before them. He rotated his head, checking left and right before returning his attention to the fore.
[23:01] A shape moved across the front of the creature, a white mass, possibly some kind of offspring of the creature? It moved to one side, the light now showing it as separate from the creature proper. Maybe an appendage instead? A strange series of mid level tones with a gutteral edge floated over the air, lasting several seconds, steady pace and even-toned, though slurred and muffled somehow at the same
[23:12] Identifying the threat is far from Nadani's mind at first. She's frozen, taking in the landscape without as much as moving her muzzle, terrified to let the creature out of her sight. If it's anything at all like the Nayabaru, there's no reason it might not have similarly effective projectile weapons – the distance between them might be for naught. Circumstances might already have conspired to trap them, without that the trap itself had sprung.
One thing was clear – there was probably no realistic hope in running. But she could, if circumstances demanded, ensure Serademar got away.
[23:13] When the noises drift their way, the first of it strikes her like a curt physical blow, letting her muzzle twitch back. Then it dawns on her – it's talking. It's talking in some tongue that's neither Naya nor Kendaneivash, some bewildering sequence of syllables... but it's talking. Whatever it is, it's similar enough to them to have verbal communication. What is it? "I'm sorry," she whispers to Serademar, barely parting her teeth to speak.
[23:38] The... voice, presumably, continued for a shorter time, tone falling deeper at the end. It moved towards the larger monstrosity. "It is light-spawned, it must be hideous beyond comprehension." His whisper was nearly inaudible, replying to her apology.
[00:03] Nadani's own focus drifted from the wandering Nayabaru-alike to the structure behind it, only gradually realising how far toward they had drifted in their approach. In the twilight, the texture of the desert was confusing – she must have lost her bearings, curved further than she'd intended. She bristled, but lost some of her overall tension when her impression that the eyeless, walking thing was looking at them dissipated. It was not acting as though it had seen them – though even as that thought formed, she realised how absurd it was to try and read purpose into the actions of something so alien. "Maybe it hasn't seen us," she corrected herself. "Maybe we can leave."
The top of the tallest of the nearby rocks adopt a dusty pink and orange glow as the dawn starts to touch the land, not just the sky. It was hard not to feel trapped. She regretted coming out here – not for her own sake, aware that if she'd ignored this strange intuition it would never have given her any rest, but for Serademar's. He did not deserve to be in any peril just because of her whim.
Even as she's plotting to withdraw back into obscurity behind the boulder that had previously shielded them from view, a different motion appears to their left, threading through the landscape, sudden and almost close enough to touch. Her muzzle snaps up, maw opening in a display of threatening teeth, her posture kept low to the ground – and the faceless creature startles, jolting back and almost catching its awkward gait against the landscape. Its hands raise, sweeping outward and upward slightly, fingers spread. Some abstract syllable repeats, low, soft, muffled in some way – she can't see if it's a mouth making the sounds, hidden away somewhere, but it's definitely coming from the head. Two other syllables follow, calling like a name, quizzical and cautious.
[00:18] The other creature came closer, some kind of object emerging from it, though staying at its side. It's response was longer, with a rising tone, similarly quizzical in nature, but less cautious. Serademar, for his part, hunkered down lower, claws digging into the dirt.
[00:31] In a motion far removed from grace, the creature that Nadani had startled into a partial retreat now seemed to shrink in on itself a little, without outright dropping into a kneel or sit, or even as much as an obvious crouch. Words suspended somewhere between wonder, alarm and surprise seemed to be uttered – it was hard to be for sure with how drawn out it was. It still sounded... muffled.
Nadani strained her eyesight, staring at the creature, even though her heartbeat warned her not to narrow her focus to too much of a detail. There! Her eyes widened – it had a face, it was just hidden behind... glass? A glass mask? Her curiosity flared up, wrestling with her distress.
Cautiously, she shot a glance to the spreading brightness bleeding down from the top of the rock – then in a single bold motion pushed herself up a short way from her crouch, pressing one forepaw against the ground for support, straightening out her spine to crane her head and neck forward and upward, deliberately exposing both, her muzzle closed. Her other forepaw was fisted into the edge of the tarp draped around her, now dragging across the ground like the ends of listless, long feathers.
[00:32] "...hello?" she said, taking care to pronounce the word's constituent syllables – 'do' and 'rach' – clearly and crisply. At least, that was her intention. Her own perception of the word was muddied by her own heartbeat's frantic sounds.
[00:41] The second one backed up a step, grasping its device in two appendages, though still in a down-like area. His responding low comment was tinged with urgency, about 10 syllables, ending in a lower tone. Seradamar, for his part, remained down, now clutching the tarp tightly.
[01:00] What was the chance that the first creature they spotted was wielding a projectile weapon? The posture the device was being held in certainly didn't rule it out. But if it was so, it seemed deliberately pointed away from her – ready to change its orientation at any moment, certainly, but putting an effort into being non-threatening. The Nayabaru would never think twice about directly pointing the muzzle of a gun at a kavkem.
Again, another glance at the creeping sunlight, fleeting – then back at the two creatures in their glass masks. What else of what she was seeing was garment or protection rather than their natural pelt? But the sunlight— Nadani tensed. "Era... Era, the light. We need to protect them from the light," she insisted, dipping her muzzle in a submissive, uncertain gesture. She wiggled forward a little further, then grasped at the tarp with both of her forepaws, spreading and raising it, gesturing a pleading beckon to the creature ahead of her with her forepaws... deeply unsure she wanted to share close proximity with it, but not willing to risk leaving them exposed.
[01:29] The other one was now speaking very softly, at a slow and steady pace, but not apparently speaking directly to his mate which Nadani was approaching with the tarp. Serademar rose slowly as well, coming up behind Nadani. "I don't think they understand your gestures, but if these are light people, do you really think they need protection from the light?"
[01:36] "Maybe not," she said, her voice trailing into what was almost a high-pitched whine, moving her muzzle only slightly to make it clearer to the aliens that her words addressed her fellow kavkem. "But what if they do need protection? That's not a mistake we can afford to make." Again she raised her arms, beckonning the creature ahead of her closer, without herself advancing. She gave a plaintive sound, flicking her muzzle to the illumination of the rock to indicate the danger. It would touch their heads soon.
[02:03] The second one has a series of short sentences, mostly a few syllables. Finally, he raises his voice and one hand releases the object, waving slowly at the other. A longer series of now louder words had an imperative tone to them, but not the briefly urgent one that had come before. The object slowly disappeared into the outer fur, then both appendages were spread slightly apart, ends downward. He began to step forward.
[02:24] The tension running through Nadani's body was beginning to ache in her bones – the gesture of her arms in particular had her muscles begin to tire, but her mind did not allow them the luxury of resting. No, no, you need to come closer, at least if you want reliable shade!
When the first creature Nadani had spotted started to creep closer, albeit in an open, vulnerable posture, confusion trickled through her. Was this some elaborate trick after all? But again, there were risks she could dare take with potential deities and yirha, and those she could not. Her own life, her own death – these were of little consequence if this interaction might truly be of celestial proportions. Softly, she snorted, but kept still, tracking the closer creature with her gaze, resisting the urge to flee. "I mean you no harm," she said, softly, fully aware that her words would not be understood – but perhaps the tone would be.
[23:50] "Nadani..." Serademar's voice was soft, looking at the weird creature in front of them. "...do you know what that even means?" The creature had finally approached close enough and extended an appendage towards the tarp, slowly. A few more soft noises from the creature, and he slowly lifted the tarp up, using a bit of wispy plant to secure a corner to it.
[00:00] As the edge of the tarp partly escaped her control, a spike of anxiety drove itself through her, kindling an urge to seize it back – but she held herself still instead, petrified. The motions were slow and non-threatening enough to keep her still, despite the metaphysical alarm she was feeling. As the creature began to spread the tarp, without directly stepping into where it would cast its shade, she gave a soft sound of distress, confused by the gesture. Reluctantly she surrendered the tarp to the creature, then used her free forepaws to beckon both of them to come closer. In a strike of realisation, she pointed toward the sun, flicking her muzzle up in agitated negation. "Come into the shade," she pleaded, again aware that they would likely not understand her, but too desperate not to try communicating.
[00:06] A few brief murmurs from the creature as he tied off another corner, makeshift shelter at least mostly complete, enough that it would afford shelter from the oncoming sun. However, he stepped back when he finished, turning toward the other creature. "Nadani, it's not getting it..." Seradamar was getting agitated for many of the same reasons, but mostly that he himself didn't want to be out here in the accursed light.
[00:13] In a gesture part haste and part caution, Nadani nipped toward the creature's arm, trying to gently lock her teeth around it and pull it into the certain shade.
[21:12] The creature finally gave up, some kind of noises coming from it as it crawled under the shelter to join the two of them. Serademar, for his part, just shrugged. Apparently, the creature had gotten enough of the message, though he wasn't too keen on getting close to it, either. He held as much distance as he could while still remaining under the shelter.
[21:25] With the creature's motion came a relief deeper than Nadani had anticipated. Her gentle grasp of one of its limbs relented and she crept back to make more room. Her breath almost snorted out of her nostrils, as though her tension were something to forcibly exhale. Her gaze leapt to the other alien – it seemed like they had finally gotten the message.
By the time the sun reached low enough to touch their faces behind those glass masks, they were safe in the shade.