[01:20] When Asraaban rejoined Evenatra, she seemed worn thin from whatever the communication with the aliens had yielded – exhausted, perhaps, from the effort, although he had never seen her exhausted before. In silence, she had drawn him aside to discuss strategy frankly, as she might back at home, amidst others of Shyilun.
"We've been heading in mostly the same direction since the rendez-vous with their landing vessel," Evenatra explained, having cleared a patch on the ground, drawn a circle to denote the settlement they had escaped from and tracing their path to the landing site, then up and along the mountain. "And I don't mean to complain – there have been few alternatives.
[01:21] "Regardless, I hope to influence the trajectory into something perhaps slower but less obvious from here on, but that can wait until we're done." There was a firmness to her tone that Asraaban knew meant that she was concerned about their chances. "How things play out from this point onward depends on who is following us, but eventually that question will be moot.
"You know as well as I do what the chances are that the Karesejat will involve herself, given the strategic value of our visitors. She certainly will prefer we don't communicate with them. We can only hope it is still a while before she will hunt us – but we need to start planning for the circumstance now."
The Karesejat's involvement was a worst case scenario that Asraaban had known might have to be anticipated at some point, but it made it no less deeply discomfiting.
"The Nayabaru are going to try to predict our trajectory," Evenatra commented, dotting a line to represent their future path. "They are going to try to cut off our path. If we simply naively continue, we'll be surrounded by traps and Hesha at some point and no amount of scattering purely to cover our tracks will make a difference."
The sketch on the ground grew to include two arrows coming in from their current bearing.
"So I've been thinking," she said. "I will petition for one of Athechelt's Watchers to join me on scouting ahead. As much as I'm valuable here to translate between the visitors and our people, I have the best chances of obliterating whatever tries to stand in our way, if it looks like we can't instead route around it.
"You I would like to head back with another Watcher, trailing after the group, paying special attention to any signs of approaching Nayabaru. At the moment there would be almost no advance warning if they found us; everyone thinks we can outrun them, which is almost surely true... as long as the Karesejat isn't involved."
Unspoken was the unpleasant subtext that if the two trailing kavkema could not individually outrun the Karesejat, it almost surely meant someone was being immolated for the good of the group while the other escaped to warn them.
It was best not made explicit.
A deep sigh. "But what I need you to understand more than anything else..." She trailed off as though struggling to find the right words. "What I need you to understand is that I may need to leave." She sounded heartbroken over it, frustrated and tense. "I'll try to stave it off as long as I can, of course. But no amount of strategy makes it safe for me to stay near the Karesejat."
[16:50] It was grim and harsh, but he had known the risks of this mission well before they left. "A query and a suggestion, before we raise it with the others," he offered, considering contingencies. "Firstly, most of this not-shard thinks you're a delusional kavkem. I think you should show them some proof before we scatter; if any of them are captured they already know enough for the Karesejat to identify you. It won't harm them to think you're *capable* of clearing a path. And I'd rather you do that while I'm still here to offer reassurances."
He struggled with how to phrase the query, looking at their motely cluster of beings. This was not a cell trained for conflict. There was nobody else in earshot, which was good, because there wass no way this suggestion would be taken well. "We... are likely far enough away that the two hyumans we have cannot rapidly communicate with their fellows. And they're unarmoured mammals. Given the risk of them falling into the Karesejat's hands, and what Valcen could do with them... if we're cornered by the Nayabaru. Should they be killed? You could convince the other humans that their deaths were the direct actions of the Naya in pursuit hunting an unfamliar enemy."
It would take some cleverness to line up all the evidence – kavkem toothmarks were somewhat obvious – but a good pounce should still be able to break the cervical vertebrae, shouldn't it?
[17:10] Evenatra quietly swerved her muzzle in acknowledgement as Asraaban asked her to prove her nature to Athechelt's group. He was right – Idarago was vouching for her, but perhaps it was best if her authority and truthfulness didn't hinge solely on his assurance.
At least said vouching had already softened the psychological blow, having already called the locals' beliefs into question. Evidence for her status wasn't entirely without precedence. If she had to unravel their cosmology, she could at least do it gently now.
She considered Asraaban's suggestion of salting the earth if they failed, silently looking toward the humans' tents. It was an option – a natural one from a kavkem perspective. But they had a culture quite unlike their own. From what the commons said, if they erred and the evidence failed to be pursuasive, they would have lost what little credibility they might have gained.
"No," she said. "It will be a great loss if they fall into the hands of the Nayabaru, but they could still vouch for us to the others of their kind. It's unlikely that their deaths, even if they were erroneously attributed to the Nayabaru, would have the same effect.
"Since we cannot prevent the Nayabaru from having some of these creatures altogether with such an action, let us instead maximise our potential gain. Let us protect not only their health, but their lives. Their culture, owed to their freedom as a species, cherishes both equally."
[18:56] He found himself wondering, abruptly, if humans were the only intelligent creature on their planet. They were mammals, they looked too soft to be dominant predators, but Nayabaru were herbivores and the undenied rulers of Nekelanos. They couldn't fly, though, and these creatures had. Had they too destroyed whatever beings the gods had placed on their planet?
If they all survived, and escaped, he'd nudge Atherchelt to ask that question. It might be important to know just what SORT of devil his people were seeking to ally themselves with.
"We might need to warn the humans then that many kavkema would prefer death to capture," Asraaban offered. "If they value lives, they might accept Nayabaru aid to preserve OURS." Which would certainly endear them to the Hesh, but he'd rather avoid that scenario too. "Alright. We need to keep the humans alive. Unless we drop them off a cliff, that should not be an issue, they have the endurance of a desperate kavkem when they're not even alarmed, we won't run them to death. The locals can handle that. We need you ahead to clear a path and me behind to act as warning. What else can we do to maximise success? Do we have anywhere we're fleeing to?"
[19:29] Evenatra swerved her muzzle in fleeting assent. "I have mentioned, cautiously, our cultural preference. I'm not convinced that they understand it – they nod agreement but I can't read their expressions well enough, even with what I can see in the Commons, to know if they mean it, to know if they truly understand."
The near-absence of emotional cues shared between the species was a general problem. The visitors had done nothing aggressive around them so far, but beyond that, Evenatra couldn't even really claim she knew they were friendly. If they were hatching some long-term ploy, she'd be oblivious to it.
Then the topic of a destination came up.
"In an ideal world," she said, softly. "I would want to take them to Vatenas; we could certainly stop for a while once there." There was nothing on Vatenas that Asraaban knew of as far as sanctuaries went, but if Evenatra knew of one – one clearly not general-purpose enough to serve as a sanctuary for her Shyilun shard – then it was no doubt there.
"But even assuming for a moment we could reach the coast and a boat were waiting to take us there, I think they would resist that effort, as it takes them farther from their landing vessel than they can ever hope to return to on foot."
Evenatra shook herself as though to dislodge droplets from her feather coat, then stared at Asraaban with the undercurrent of a sceptical reluctance. "The primary goal must be to lose our pursuers. If we find a wide river, I want us to travel along it near its shore, upstream, as far as we can, until the current exhausts us. Let the waters wash our tracks and scent away."
Would it be enough? The Karesejat was not omniscient, lest she would have found Evenatra ages ago; in theory, all the old tricks should keep working. In practise, much had changed in the past decades and Evenatra only had one variable to reliably go by: She was still alive.
[19:52] Yes, Vatenas was a little out of their way. Nearly half a planet, a desert, a mountain range and an ocean, which WOULD be a terribly effective way of throwing the Nayabaru off their tracks but was somewhat logistically challenging.
Back to the traditional methods it was. "Then we should ask the locals if they know of any rivers, or other suitable terrain." Maybe they'd get lucky and know of a cliff that could be booby-trapped, that was always a pleasant way of dealing with Hesha.
[23:41] "Our travel companions at least haven't been here before," Evenatra observed. It was hardly surprising – there was a lot of the planet's surface and many kavkema followed the conventional wisdom of never living anywhere twice. "But perhaps we'll find someone else in the area."
Privately she doubted a wide river could be found. They weren't in the deltas and there was a reason the Idiishi mountains were flanked by deserts. She couldn't remember having seen any the last time she crossed this stretch of land – but that had been approximately two hundred years ago. Landscapes were known to change in that time span.
She wouldn't rule it out. She would, however, also accept the first decent option to wash away their trail, even if it was perhaps not wide enough to lose both their tracks and their scent.
Evenatra grimaced lightly, then smiled weakly at Asraaban. "And what about you? Regretting this whole assignment yet?"