[17:37] The first part of the tracking was easy with Ghregg's device leading the way. Edaaj figured out the display before the coast kavkema could get around to explaining it – it was a stylised map, with lines of equal height displaying the terrain, and the paths the visitors (and their escorting Nayabaru, by proxy) had taken superimposed.
Evenatra haltingly translated some trivia provided by Ghregg that if they were on their home world, they could have a reliable real time update of their position on the map, and a better map – this one was apparently limited to a certain radius and any details in elevation would be lost the further they left the place the vessel had come down.
The coast kavkema also explained that they were part of a kavkem organisation called Shyilun, which was organised into so-called 'shards'. Asraaban and Evenatra were not a whole shard, but a small fragment of one, two kavkema reckless enough to go on this mission while the rest of the shard preserved its integrity and kept to established patterns.
Evenatra herself was not some shard leader, but a highly respected member, and thus the leader of this expedition. Given the way she carried herself, that painted an intimidating picture of Shyilun – if a non-leader could be that confident, what were the leaders like?
But the question how they had reached the landing site so quickly remained without a satisfactory answer, perhaps largely because there was so much else to talk about that it had simply not yet been asked again.
As the pale first hints of dawn began to creep in to firmament, the small trek paused amongst the beginnings of a valley amongst scattered trees and extremely shallow hills at the extended foot of the dominant mountain range. Gregg's data ended there, forcing them to switch to manual tracking.
When they found the trail to resume, dawn started to encroach in earnest.
"Looks like it's time to hunker down. You have more experience with Nayabaru-safe locations in this environment, how much guarding do you need if we settle down here and set up shade?" Evenatra asked, glancing across the landscape.
[17:38] The area didn't provide a huge amount of cover, with how the trees were still fairly far apart – but as far as shade was concerned, they were entirely equipped to make their own, making the Nayabaru their only concern, heightened mythological anxieties notwithstanding.
"I can cover a guard shift," Evenatra offered, stifling the instinct to cover all of them. If she went entirely without sleep, after all, that was plausibility's end.
[03:29] "An extra Watcher's always useful," Edaaj murmured distractedly, peering around the site. "Excuse me a moment, I'd just like to check..."
[03:38] She examined the ground and nearby trees for anything suspicious, like the needles the Nayabaru had used elsewhere. It was something to do besides think about Ghregg's device and what Evenatra had said it would be capable of on the world the visitors had come from. What a place of wonders that must be! It almost made her sick to think about the circumstances of her own group, knowing such things were possible. That they had been done.
[03:46] Edaaj could not remember a time in her life when she had wanted to be anywhere else – oh, perhaps somewhere where there were no Nayabaru, but not any particular place. What about one part of the world would make it better than any other? But now, quite suddenly, she was faced with the disquieting feeling that, on this other world, things must be different indeed, and knowing this was so without being able to see it would be an immensely frustrating thing.
[03:52] Even worse was the very direct evidence that there was no device she could construct, or even conceive of, that would compare to what came from there. The map-device. The skyegg. Maybe, if she could go to the other world, she could learn about how they worked and how to make them.
[03:53] It was a lovely dream, in itself. But Edaaj was all too aware of how unlikely it was.
[03:54] It was with uncharacteristic dispiritedness that she said, "I see no traps here. If we can remain unseen, we should be fine."
[23:22] That Edaaj's experience turned up no traps was, in a way, a poor sign – whispering the possibility that they still had a long way to go before they reached wherever the Nayabaru had taken the rest of the visitors.
For all other purposes, it was a blessing.
Following Edaaj's 'if we can remain unseen' verdict, Evenatra asked: "What do you think our chances are on that?", casting the question across to Asraaban first, then glancing toward Nadani as if in afterthought.
Nadani took the lead on answering. "Even if we optimise our position for stealth, it strikes me as almost certain we would be spotted if Nayabaru come through this valley, assuming they're paying any attention at all. As a Watcher, I'd say it's paramount we're prepared to run at a moment's notice, moreso than usual.
"Normally I'd recommend we keep moving for a while in a situation like this, but given the landscape we've seen so far, I doubt we'll be better off a valley or two further ahead. There may be better opportunities to hide, but I would expect them to be offset by a greater chance of Hesha coming by. At least here the Nayabaru tracks are still scarce."
Said, she looked to Idarago as if hoping for confirmation.
[02:48] Idarago peered at the landscape and tried to recall everything he'd been taught. "We'll have shelter from the sun, which is good, and better than we'd get sticking to the heights instead. But if there are Naya we'll have to run. And I'm not sure we're faster if we have to stick under a tarp." Which was a terrifying thought; they may be forced to choose between sticking together in the shadow and risking capture, or scattering straight into the glare of Tarnish.
"But... if we go high and go safe, we go SLOW. And that means we go deeper and longer into danger. If we can't hide from the Nayabaru, we shouldn't stick around too long."
Asraaban huffed. "Hesha patrol in pairs, in most places. If we blunder over a patrol, there are enough of us to make them hesitate," he pointed out. "If they call for reinforcements we'd need to flee, but we need to be prepared; there's a chance we could stop them doing that." Assuming, of course, these kavkem were willing to put their claws to their intended purpose, should such a disaster be neccessary.
[03:10] This wasn't the first time in this expedition that the idea of attacking Nayabaru as a group came up – but this close to the increasingly hostile territory, it transitioned from raw theory to a matter that had to be considered in earnest. The notion rapidly unravelled into murmurs. Nayabaru, hesitate? Taking them down with any reliability before they called for backup?
Again, Nadani found herself trapped by her own initiative – this had been what she wanted... by some measure, at least. The surreality of it was just catching up to her more and more, chipping away at her thin layer of resolve.
Hurriedly and privately she focussed on patching it back up. No doubt that would become habitual as the mission dragged on.
Her mind cleared. Fighting Nayabaru was doable. Fighting Nayabaru while the world was drenched in Tarnish was bound to end in catastrophe. "A battle during the day would put us at great risk of Tarnish," she said, softly.
But what alternative was there? Her gaze aimlessly crept through the landscape... until it came to a rest against a tree and hesitantly climbed it.
"We could increase our chances by sleeping in the trees," she offered. "This scatters us far and wide, which admittedly increases the threat to us individually, but reduces it for us as a group. And it allows the only combat the Tarnish reliably permits – an ambush from above."
[05:02] Edaaj peered distractedly up into the trees. Certainly, an attack from above seemed more promising than most of the other encounters she could imagine, though she privately suspected that she personally would be marginally more likely to disable a Nayabaru by falling on its head.
"Sounds reasonable," she said.
[02:13] "That should work," Evenatra conceded. "Although it might be an unusual perch for our visitor friend." She glanced at Ghregg, gesturing to the trees. A few syllables were exchanged, containing a scattered "Shur, aigess" that seemed to be some kind of assent.
Evenatra seemed to consider the situation a while longer, regardless, before continuing with: "All right, let's get our gear up into the trees. I'll share a tree with Ghregg, keep an eye on his balance. Go, scatter and climb, and even if it's additional effort, do try not to leave too many obvious marks on the bark of the trees. Fair?"
[02:53] Tehasha had always explained how important it was to listen and observe. A part she had never gone into was how, precisely, one was supposed to determine when to stop listening and observing. It was one thing to ignore one's inherent unease for the sake of patient observation and another to carry that burden for quite this long.
[02:54] To what degree was he violating the premise of protecting his people? To what degree would he violate the premise of granting them the freedom to grow, if he spoke up now? What made 'now' any better time to speak up than the previous hours?
"If we must pause here," Athechelt interrupted the impending shuffling. "And I do believe we must," he appended. "I would rather we were not arranged in a way that reveals the all of us if one of us is spotted. Fleeing under Tarnish is a potentially disasterous gamble, one unlucky misstep away from lost cover.
"I say we form two groups, maybe three groups, with significant distance between us," he suggested. "We don't have the Watchers to cover that for the whole period of rest, but Evenatra has volunteered to help, so a partial Watch is assured even if we split into three groups."
There were so many more things wrong with the situation than just their strategy this close to enemy territory, but at least one of them was better handled in a private conversation. If Nadani was not going to ask Evenatra and Asraaban fundamental questions, he would, since one thing was certain – neither had to be malicious to potentially lead them astray.
[03:11] The sudden interjection from the group's ryrhakenem caught Evenatra's full attention. Whether she caught what was going on between the lines – whether she could tell from his current, singular focus, that there was more to his caution than where to sleep tonight – was hard to make out, but at least the culture she came from also lent a ryrhakenem's opinion gravity.
[03:12] Finally: "If your people are comfortable spreading so far, I appreciate your thoughts and concur. And Asraaban may well be able to assist with a Watch, as well...?" She glanced to Asraaban to let him confirm or deny, judging his own capabilities.
"That said, I do believe Asraaban and I should be in different groups. I say this because Asraaban and I are travelling together largely in the expectation that one might report back to Shyilun if something happens to the respective other person. Given your strategy this means resting in separate groups, in case one of them ends up targetted."
Despite the assent, Athechelt eased a tension through his arm and into the fingers holding his story staff in a subtle motion, willing his assessment to remain level-headed. He dared to make himself glance encouragingly at Asraaban, knowing and regretting that his scepticism would bleed through – had been bleeding through for their entire mutual travel time, no doubt.
[03:30] At least it was clear these strangers weren't overtly trying to undermine the clan structure – unthinkable even in theory, but not more so than stars falling from the sky to land gently and disgorge alien creatures. It was hard to navigate a circumstance where the old rules no longer fully applied. Now; now was a good time to stop observing and to find new truths.
[15:04] Hazard mitigation. As uncomfortable as separating from Evenatra was, it was the only reasonable choice. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to get back HOME to report on his own, having a desert and a mountain in the way, but hopefully it would not come to that. Since it was clear there were no local Shyilun to point out a path.
"I've forced myself to stay awake in daylight before," Asraaban acknowledged. "Rarely without distractions or adrenaline, admittedly." Still, hopefully that would be enough to help.
[18:32] Athechelt dipped his muzzle in appreciation. "A big help, regardless."
Letting his attention drift to the others, his staff tapped against the ground a few times, calling for attention. The soft surface muffled the sound, but it was distinct enough to quieten ongoing conversations.
[18:33] Rather than address everyone verbally, Athechelt quietly gestured to each person individually (customary to kavkem default strategies), then to a side, sorting them quietly into three distinct groups. Ghregg was filed into a group with two Watchers – Evenatra and Nadani; Idarago was to Watch over the group Edaaj was in; Asraaban would watch over the group Athechelt was in.
It was a lot of fuss over a single day's rest, but between the coming dawn, the unfamiliarity of the landscape, and their (lack of) distance to a hostile culture, better than any alternative. It would take a while for everything to get hoisted into the trees. It would take a bit longer still for the kavkema to wrap themselves in tarps.
They would manage before the light came; they were prepared.