[00:07] Their acceptance of each other inspired a fleeting, mutual exploration – nothing that went any further than a loose friendship would permit, but given both of their rational willingness to partake in Valcen's plans, it seemed like a gentle promise of something more; perhaps not yet set in stone, but surely they were not going to be a hindrance to each other.
[00:08] Once the excitement of the day took its inevitable toll, both of them seized the opportunity to nap.
At some point, Ryrha softly excused herself, slipping out of the tent to walk up to Tanak to request food and water – providing Baishar's nap-haze had registered the event correctly.
And then he was somewhat awake, alone in the tent, and nearly alone in the large room, with Valcen still engrossed in undefined tasks, almost soundlessly tinkering with his tools while leant against his desk.
[23:23] So much had happened over the past... whatever amount of time had passed in this place, since Valcen had approached Baishar in his cell. Less than a day, gauging from his internal clock. The nap was essential — it gave his mind a chance to grapple with the events, the revelations, the situation.
A fallen god has asked you for help. The implications of that first part were still disquieting, but there were still too many unknowns around it for him to fully grasp. The question of how it had happened still loomed large in his mind. Undoubtedly, it would continue to do so until he knew the answer. Was he ready for it? Perhaps not, but at least he could try to put together the rest into something coherent, if temporary.
The nature of the help was easier to manage — at least, the part he and Ryrha knew about. The initial strangeness of the request had worn off; he was perfectly willing to comply in the abstract, and Ryrha seemed like a compatible enough mate. There had been an initial hurdle to mutual understanding, and there would be more in all likelihood, but nothing insurmountable. If nothing else, they both wanted to help Valcen, even if their reasons differed.
Ryrha thought Valcen was Q'ur, or perhaps that he would become Q'ur once he finished his work. She also was hopeful she could affect him, and these effects could survive his transition to havnateh. Baishar was less certain of both of these, but Ryrha knew more about Valcen than he did. If she was right about the first, he'd have to be cautious. Her assessment that he'd been foolish to agree to Valcen's initial offer made more sense from this perspective. Another gap in his knowledge to patch over.
There were more gaps, of course. His understanding of qidravema, and of nateha, were clearly incomplete. Or perhaps it was his understanding of Valcen's true nature, being a shard of a god. Valcen needed bodies that could support his mind — or what was left of it. How difficult would it be to follow that path? How different was what Valcen needed from what he would need?
Then there was the matter of the Karesejat, and Valcen's dealings with her. That was a concern — another place to be cautious, given his own goals. At the moment it was still a distant concern for himself, though less so for Valcen. He at least seemed aware of the danger.
The rebuilt structure of his thoughts seemed dangerously fragile. There were too many holes in it, too many ways for it to break again. It would serve him for the moment, give him enough to build on and patch some of the holes. He pushed himself into a stand, yawning and giving his mane a shake, before venturing out of the comforting darkness of the tent.
The first few steps were taken blindly, eyes squeezed to narrow slits as they tried to adjust to the far-too-bright room. Soon, though, Baishar found his way across to Valcen's desk, then stopped a short distance from him, wordlessly shifting into a sit, his gaze studying the scattered materials and tools.
[22:56] Valcen was attentively working on the inside of a hollow half-sphere, armed with a magnifying glass, a pair of tongs that kept the subject of his attention still, thin, hair-like wires, and a selection of what appeared to be slightly uneven grains of slate-grey sand.
It took him long moments to notice Baishar's presence. When the peripheral anomaly resolved and drew his attention, at first, he only briefly snapped a gaze across at his kavkem guest, bristling lightly as if in confusion. He let out a soft sigh, almost completely inaudible, as he struggled to keep his mortal attention focussed, but his mind resisted his act of will.
With his focus eroded, he closed his eyes and battled down frustration. Even my attention is transient. He imagined himself snorting. Like everything about this mortal existence. Reluctantly, he acknowledged the source of his distraction, properly shifting his glance at Baishar.
Baishar's patient posture gave him the superficial appearance of an eager pupil waiting for his master's guidance. It kindled a pang of irritation in Valcen's gut, although he knew, rationally, both that he should appreciate the gesture and that he likely would have reacted the same way to any other posture, just the same.
The problem was hardly that specific, after all. Baishar's unspoken problem was simply that he had made Valcen acutely conscious of his mortality on two separate occasions, becoming a symbol for everything that was wrong with his current situation.
[22:57] Worse, Valcen had carelessly opened up to this kavkem about his memory problems; as long as he sought to keep his status as someone of metaphysical importance, such admissions were likely a poor idea. Balancing his tendency to honesty with the picture he wanted to paint would take some skill – but, most importantly, the will to keep them carefully separate in the first place.
After a moment's pause, he smiled. "Did you and Ryrha find enough common ground?" ...on your ridiculous superstitions. Inwardly, he brushed the irritation aside. He could feel a feedback loop threatening to spawn, a frustration at his frustration at his frustration...
He flicked his muzzle, sternly setting the emotion aside. "Forgive me," he said. "If my body language is conflicted. This body has emotions I can't claim to have fully mastered." How did mortals put up with this sack of hormones and neurotransmitters? At least when he'd been his Threadwielder self, he had been able to distance himself when it became too bad.
[03:42] Whatever Valcen was working on, Baishar's initial attempts to make sense of it were unsuccessful. Something electronic, from the looks of it. Not his qidravem, almost surely — though Baishar couldn't claim certainty, having never seen the legendary device. Perhaps a tool that would help him build it? Or was it something to help the Nayabaru?
He straightened slightly as Valcen glanced at him briefly, body language showing... confusion? Apparently Valcen wasn't expecting him to show an interest in his work? Or was it something else?
Eventually, Valcen turned his attention fully to him, some discomforted emotion giving way to a smile. (A forced smile?) Baishar hesitated for a moment at his question, considering it. They certainly didn't agree on certain fundamentals; though precisely which things those were he was only dimly aware of. Ironically it was recognizing that which helped him find what things they did agree on.
Before he could respond, Valcen's comment about his body's emotions shunted his train of thought onto a side rail. "...I'm sorry," he replied, tone halfway between regret and apology — as if he felt guilt on behalf of his mortal body. "That... must be frustrating."
A pause, slightly too-long, before he flicked his muzzle upward, dismissing the discomfort in his gut at that thought. "Sorry, I... yes. Yes, I think Ryrha and I are..." Another pause, this time to find the right words. "It will take some time to become more used to each other, but there shouldn't be any complications to your plans." He lowered his muzzle respectfully; then, hoping a change of topic might lighten the mood: "...May I ask what you're working on?"
[18:24] Valcen's immediate response to Baishar's question about what he was working on was to stare at Baishar in a stupor of disbelief, for the time it took him to untangle that the kavkem probably didn't want to know all the details. And yet, how to describe...? His expression became pensive for a moment, although his gaze stayed rivetted on Baishar, giving Valcen an air of a teacher carefully constructing an answer to a student's enquiry.
Finally, he set down his tools, wordlessly reaching toward the prior inanimate subject of his attention with one hand, cautiously prising the tongs apart with his other. For a moment, he nearly fumbled with it as the tongs snapped together a fraction prematurely, but nothing happened other than his feathers puffing out in a brief, aborted distress.
A moment later, back to radiating nothing but calm certainty, he brought the hollow, partial sphere around, raised it to his face, and then paused to hover the item near his eye, eclipsing it in the process.
[18:25] "<More efficient senses.>"
He paused just long enough to let it parse properly, before explaining: "<I should be able to work much faster if I won't constantly be forced to consult external gadgets that may be all kinds of inconveniently aligned with my current position.>"
[19:33] As Valcen first raised the object to his face, there was a brief moment of confusion — but the next words caused a startled puffing-out of feathers. This is an eye. The instinctive horror at that realization intertwined with fascination. A metallic eye. "<How does it work?>" A moment later, somewhat more hesitantly: "<...and what would it allow you to see?>"
[20:09] Valcen's mind immediately began to construct an explanation, akin to the stressful time when he tried to explain to the Darhala of Voskudat how to handle the impending apocalypse. He reeled its efforts back in, trimmed large swaths of details from his intended depiction. Would you know what a neutrino detector is if I described it? Hardly.
"<Most of the magic is in the way the nerves will be wired up to it,>" he revealed, compromising with himself. "<Most of the rest is ordinary sensors – perhaps smaller than you might otherwise encounter them, but fundamentally not much different from, say, a camera.>"
The second question was more interesting, of course, and much less easy to answer. "<As for what it would show me... at the moment my design is for three different modes – one roughly equivalent to normal vision, one for abstract feedback from compatible machinery I'll be designing later, ...>" He's going to ask, you know. And he might not take as well as Ryrha has.
[20:10] "<...and the last is so I can see...>" he trailed off. His mind amused itself for a moment with its first feeble attempts to translate it into phrases Baishar might understand. The plane of the gods? The darkness between the stars? "<...I suppose you might call it a world parallel to the one you inhabit?>" No doubt he'd be so disappointed if he knew how empty that world was.
[23:11] How the nerves will be wired up to it. The phrase conjured a distrubing mental image of Valcen, missing one eye, patiently connecting the nerves in his own skull to wires in the small device. Are you going to replace it yourself? The question remained unvoiced, simply expressing itself as a concerned stare.
The 'abstract feedback from compatible machinery' comment earned a quizzical muzzle-tilt, as if confirming Valcen's suspicions. Halfway through formulating a question about it, though, Baishar's thought process was jolted to the side. "<A parallel world?>" he asked, tone suspended between incredulous and intrigued. He stood slowly, taking a small step closer to Valcen, eyes focused on him. A dozen questions battled in his mind, all wanting to be asked. "<What... is this other world? What does it contain? Is... is it possible to go there?>"
[23:23] "<In any appreciable sense of 'going there', no,>" Valcen responded, a hint of amusement in his tone. "<In another sense, you're already there.>" He probed at his teeth with his tongue, fishing through his mind for a suitable analogy. "<You know how... a haze of dust will show you how the light is falling?>
"<You can't see the shafts of light themselves, but they're there, waiting to strike something and reflect off of them. You can pass a limb through the light – it doesn't obstruct you in any way. You see it indirectly, from where it falls. You might feel its warmth.>
"<But if you had no sense of temperature and if you were blind, if you interacted with the world only with your ears, touch, taste and smell, it would take you a very long time to guess that such a thing as light even exists... and longer still to guess colours and the way the natural world has evolved to use them to signal information.>"
[00:05] Baishar's gaze was fixed on Valcen, rapt, even after the explanation was complete. After a few moments of thoughtful contemplation, he tentatively guessed: "<So... this 'other world' is here, but we're blind to it because we don't have the right senses? And this—>" he gestured his muzzle to the metallic hemisphere, "<—will give you those senses?>"
The explanation made sense. It fit comfortably with what he knew, with his worldview. It must be that this was some sense nateha had that kavkema did not — how else would Valcen know about it? "<...What will it let you see, then? Or perceive, rather? What's... there?>" The last word had an uncertainty about it; he knew it was an inadequate term for it, but he couldn't think of a better one.
[00:16] The kavkem seemed more interested than Valcen had been willing to give him credit for – but was he reading some mythological significance into the analogy, fervently pursuing his own confusion to its conclusions, or did he have a proper appreciation for the problem?
Valcen manoeuvred the half-sphere back into the tongs as Baishar spoke, curtailing his scepticism – as well as a chuckle that threatened to form. Ah yes, what was there? A vast, parched desert, inimical to life as you know it.
"<A different kind of light,>" he finally chose to say. "<Flowing through you and me, right now, unobstructed. Sifting through the entire planet as if it weren't even there. Effortlessly passing through everything on its surface... except Tamachelu. Except the Karesejat.>"
[01:20] The description still communicated the barrenness of the place, though the language gave the mental image a haunting beauty — at least, until the mention of the gods. "<You'll be able to see them?>" A moment later, a realization struck, and his feathers puffed out in fear. "<Can they see each other?>" In a place with no visible ground, with nothing to get in the way, wouldn't they stick out to each other like beacons?
It's only a few moments later that the next obvious question occurs to him: "<...And what about the other gods? Where are they?>"
[01:50] So many questions. So many inane possible answers. Valcen took a moment to sort the questions into a reasonable order, staring at his desk absent-mindedly in the interim. Finally, dragging his attention back to Baishar: "<None of your other gods are here, Baishar.>
"<Tamachelu, Terenyira,...>" – possibly my lifeless corpse, – "<...then nothing for a distance so vast that even light travels it for twenty minutes.>" Inwardly, he stumbled across his own words, a spur of doubt lodged in his gut. ...do you even know light has a finite speed, Baishar? Stubbornly, he pressed on, ignoring the potential disparity.
"<Then Tkanetar,>" he continued. "<Then Maenona, somewhere between one to four hundred years out of a direct light ray's way.>" He smiled, although he had to admit it wasn't a very pleasant smile, ever so subtly tinged with a sneer. "<You've been planetbound for most of your life. It's hard to appreciate these scales.>
"<Even this planet is vast. From Terenyira's perspective, Tamachelu is at most a faint star against the backdrop of the sky, wandering paths that the stars could never take.>
"<Have you ever tried to make out a single tree glancing from the peak of a tall mountain down into the far valley below? Can you, in either case, fathom how hard it would be to spot the same tree on the other side of the planet, even if the planet itself were not obstructing the view?>"
[01:51] That there was at least once obstacle, a small, uneven core of dark matter collected at the heart of Nekenalos, sprouting tattered arms in various directions – the shredded skeleton of the planetary harness – was likely not worth mentioning. Relative to the opaque electromagnetic universe, the view was crystal clear.
[02:29] It was hard to conceptualize the distances Valcen was describing. How fast did light move? When the sun rose, light crept through the landscape at a slow pace, but a Nayabaru could sweep a beam of light as fast as its arm could move. But neither of those was the light itself, the... substance, or rays, or phenomenon moving from source to tree to eye. How fast was that? Immeasurably so, surely?
And yet he spoke of light taking minutes or years to travel. How far was that? Distances only a god could comprehend. It may as well be infinite.
Valcen's questions left Baishar in pensive silence for a long time, his mind trying desperately to grapple with the scales at play. His gaze dropped to the ground, but as much as he tried, he couldn't visualize the size of the world. Eventually, frustrated, he closed his eyes, his muzzle jerking haphazardly upward. "<No, I can't,>" he replied, tone dejected. "<...Not yet, anyway,>" he added quietly afterwards.
[02:54] It felt like something had gotten through to Baishar. The only problem was that Valcen wasn't sure which part it was. Was that a problem? He thought about it for a moment, watching Baishar's posture with some empathy and concern.
Then the long moment passed and he turned back to his tools, although his voice was soft when he said: "<Don't worry; I doubt it'll become relevant.>" And he reached back for his tools, to work on the eye component.
[03:22] There were still so many questions. He couldn't make out a tree from across a planet, nor could he even imagine the difficulty of it, but could the Karesejat? It sounded like the answer was 'no', which was surprising — it suggested even havnateha had limits to their power. (Or at least Terenyira did. Who knew what Q'ur might be capable of.)
There were questions about distances, and about light. How large was Nekenalos? If light could pass through it, the way this other, phantom light could, how long would it take? These were worthwhile questions, but perhaps with patience he could learn the answers himself, rather than simply begging for knowledge from his benefactor.
One question was still standing out to him. "<I still don't understand something.>" More than one thing, really. Much, much more than one. "<If the only things you'll see with this... extra sense are the gods, why are you including it?>" A moment later, the thought occurs to him: "<Is it to help you make the> qidravem?"
[03:34] "<Precisely,>" Valcen responded, an instant before he noticed that he was lying by omission. Keeping his attention meticulously focussed on the device holding his future sight, concentrating perhaps a fraction too hard on his work for it to feel wholly natural, he considered that it would probably be more useful when counted in number of uses, for his Nayabaru project.
[03:59] Baishar gently shook his muzzle in acknowledgement. ...Well, that certainly made the path clear, didn't it? He closed his eyes, steeling himself. If he wanted to acquire a qidravem, he'd have to be able to see it, to know how it worked. He'd have to be able to see what Valcen could. Sooner or later, he'd need to take the first step — and there were no good reasons to hesitate.
The Progression would not stop for him.
"<Then... if it isn't too much trouble,>" he began, his tone much calmer than he felt. "<...Would you mind... making one of these for me?>"
[04:17] Valcen's pretense of concentration faltered so completely as if he'd had no grasp on it in the first place. He sucked in a breath, easing a step back from his desk, raising his forepaws very slightly. What? But even on first reflection, he wasn't sure why the question had caught him off guard – it had no right to.
Baishar was a kavkem. If Ryrha had been any indication, they were deeply masochistic – a collective character flaw that he wasn't about to transcend with some well-meaning concern.
[04:18] "<Maybe you weren't listening,>" Valcen said, although in a tone of patience. "<This isn't something that's going to slip onto my eye. This is a complete replacement.>" He bore a stern glance into Baishar. "<Even if we do the surgery under anaesthetics, it will take days to heal, in which you'll be effectively blind, and your eye socket is going to hurt badly.>
"<This is nothing to adopt on a fancy. Understand, I need this, or I wouldn't bother. You, on the other hand, don't even need it. Now, with that in mind, do you really want to torture yourself?>"
[22:39] A thread of irritation wound its way through Baishar's posture, prompted by Valcen's dismissive remarks. "<I'm fully aware of what I'm asking for,>" he snapped back, his eyes finding Valcen's, staring back with burning intensity. "<I'm not doing this on some whim. I will need it, sooner or later, to understand your work.>" To follow it myself.
After a long moment, the intensity cooled, and he lowered his gaze, almost seeming apologetic. "<...And if it's going to blind me for several days, better to do it when there's less you need me to do. I thought it better to ask early, so you can plan for it.>"
[23:27] For an instant, Valcen's feathers puffed out into a threatening air, lips drawn back from teeth reminding Baishar that Valcen's maw was full of fully functional teeth. He kept still until Baishar's own manner subdued, tensed, then gradually let his feathers drift back down. Slowly, he tempered himself, sorted the thoughts that had run through him like a whiplash.
[23:28] "<Your purpose,>" Valcen reminded him with a cool venom. "<Is what I decide it is. Don't ever use what you think I need you for as an excuse for your own interests; don't ever talk to me like that again.>"
[05:33] A cold wire of mingled fear and resentment crawled through his flesh, winding around his spine. Stupid, he berated himself. Too much, too far, too soon. His gut roiled in protest. Did this mean the goal was impossible? Had he erred, had he strayed from the path? He'd thought he'd seen a glimpse of what lied ahead, he'd tried to rush forward....
The path was narrow and winding. The goal was within sight, but he couldn't walk there directly. He would have to follow. He would learn what he could, observe what he could, and hope it was enough. He would have to be careful not to misstep again. He would have to be patient. And at least for the time being, he would have to obey, even as it felt like he was walking away from where he was trying to go.
"<I understand,>" Baishar replied, lowering his muzzle apologetically. ...Did he? No, not fully, nor was he sure he would ever truly understand. "<I... apologize for my outburst.>" He carefully sealed his hopes in a box and buried them away. "<It won't happen again.>" That, at least, he could be reasonably certain of — this wasn't a mistake he'd soon repeat.
[22:31] Valcen watched Baishar's reaction with a curious detachment. What did you think was going to happen, Baishar? I liberate you from your cell, trading your complete obedience – and then just because I've been friendly to you, you think you can muscle in on my projects? But he said none of these things.
[22:32] Consequences. Most mortal creatures weren't the best at assessing those and Baishar had even less information than Ryrha. Context. Baishar didn't know what he was asking for, likely not even why. It seemed clear by now he thought he was on some kind of spiritual quest – he wouldn't have been as fervent and sacrificial for anything less, surely.
Had he been too hard on his unwitting protégé?
"<I apologise for my vehemence,>" Valcen said, finally – not having rid his air of all of his displeasure, but less threatening by far. "<And I do appreciate your frankness, if not your misconceptions about your role.>
"<I don't currently need your assistance with any technical aspect of my projects, but should that change...>" – what were the chances, though, really? – "<...I will remember what you've told me today. The offer may yet be useful. But please don't be disappointed if that time never comes.>"