[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 it 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.>"
[04:26] Traces of confusion touched Baishar's posture. Why was Valcen apologizing? Baishar had overstepped his boundaries, Valcen had firmly told him so, there was nothing more that needed to be said. Was he trying to spare his feelings? It felt like a mixed message — simultaneously trying to rekindle his recently-doused hopes while encouraging him not to let them get too high.
Hope, too, is a dangerously soothing balm. It had kept with him all this time in Katal, somehow; it had soothed him in the brightness of this place, when all seemed lost. It had been hope of rescue that had made him first mistake Valcen for a Shyilungadech. It had been hope of mattering, on a scale worthy of the term, that had made him accept Valcen's offer. And now it had been hope of true knowledge that had earned his
benefactor's ire, if only briefly, and nearly ruined his own plans.
At this point, it seemed a fool's errand to maintain the hope that Valcen might reconsider his request. It was setting himself up for disappointment. Kind words, and nothing more. A small part of Baishar wanted to lash back: How dare you offer me hope after making me abandon it? But he stifled that urge, limiting his response to a neutral "<Understood,>" — though his tone failed to mask his skepticism.
[23:47] Perhaps the kavkem had come to understand that his assistance likely wasn't needed on the technical side of the project. He still seemed hurt by that implication, still sounded as though something important had been taken from him by the interaction.
[23:48] Valcen could ask, of course. There were benefits to asking what Baishar was expecting of their arrangement – it would let Valcen selectively cater to those expectations and keep Baishar tame in the process. Conversely, the downside of not asking was that depending on what emotions the rough nature of their dialogue so far masked, Baishar could be a mortal threat.
On the other hand, in asking, he would be forced to engage with the thoughts and either dismiss them as he just had, or accept them and be bound by his word. It would trim another strand of the vagueness that had brought Baishar here, eroding their questionable bond with the mundane. There were still many more strands to go, but it served to be cautious with their destruction.
Valcen smiled. "<Perhaps this trinket isn't the proper topic to start with,>" he commented, although with a tone that marked the statement as a genuinely uncertain supposition, rather than a politely restated fact. "<No doubt it's interesting in its own right, but I imagine you have some questions now that you've conversed with Ryrha?>"
[01:33] With some effort, Baishar pushed the discomfort from the conversation aside, shoving his goals and hopes away. Focus on the path, not the destination. He thought back to the conversation with Ryrha, sifting through his recollection of it.
The first and most obvious question was 'Are you Q'ur', but it struck him as an asinine question to ask — the answer would be devoid of meaning. The second was to ask about how he'd ended up in his current situation — which, given his comments about mortal frustrations earlier, seemed like a topic he'd best broach at a later point, once they were somewhat more comfortable with each other.
What did that leave? His plans were still largely a mystery — he knew the broad strokes of 'Help the Nayabaru', 'Regain godhood', 'Help Tamachelu (eventually)', but few of the details. The second of these was obviously the most interesting, but also the most fraught with potential for missteps — probably best to avoid it for now. The third would be excellent to know more about, but given Valcen's comments in his cell, it was far enough in the future that he likely didn't have fully concrete plans.
That really only left one topic. And given the situation, he should probably get used to the short-term implications of Valcen's work. He hesitated, tongue running nervously along blunted teeth, certain he wasn't going to enjoy the answer. Finally, with a soft sigh, he asked, "<What are your plans for helping the Nayabaru?>"
[01:21] Admirably, Valcen didn't flinch, although a mental simulacrum of himself stiffened in his stead. This question. He'd been bracing for it for a while now, even half convincing himself that it wouldn't bother him if it cropped up. But here it was, every part as unpleasant as predicted.
On the other hand, now was the best time for it to crop up. This was hardly something to delay for later. The more freedoms Baishar inherited as the project progressed, the more damage he could cause if he decided that he found the whole thing distasteful. Best take that risk now, while the consequences could still be snuffed out.
Valcen cautiously set his tools down, freeing his paws, then gathering his forelimbs against his chest in a posture far more casual than he felt. "<First of all,>" he began in a steady tone. "<I intend to help them precisely to the degree I must to be given both resources and freedoms I need for my own plans, give a thin buffer to account for their moods.>
[01:22] "<Given those constraints,>" he continued. "<The best course was to combine my personal endeavours with their interests. Their interests include – and in fact are dominated by – their concern for the protection of Nayabaru settlements from kavkem incursions.>
"<Note that for this line of thought, it's irrelevant whether this is a realstic concern of theirs – it's only important that they have it. And they verifiably do. You know they do – every kavkem knows they do, and if they don't, they surely find out very rapidly and rather unpleasantly.>
[01:23] "<Traditionally, the Nayabaru have used pain, coercion and emotional manipulation to extract information out of their captives, justifying the action to themselves as a protection of their people. Whenever they could find out where other kavkema were hiding, they could move to apprehend them, thereby further diminishing the kavkem threat.>
"<I don't need to tell you how misguided this is. What you may not know is how misguided it's been from the Nayabaru perspective – it rarely yields reliable results. Part of that is that any kavkem that can give useful information has some form of training that lets them prevail just long enough for the information to cease being useful.>
"<But another part is simply that a kavkem under torture will admit to anything they think the Nayabaru wants to hear, whether it's true or not. And Hesha must follow up on all leads, even the false ones. Indeed, they mostly follow up on false ones – to large degree because the number of kavkema that could tell them anything useful is simply very small.>"
Valcen waited for a moment, letting Baishar's mind catch up with the narrative so far, letting him appreciate the problem the Nayabaru faced – irrespective of that their culture was inherently distasteful and their methods were inherently deplorable. Then he probed his teeth with his tongue for a moment, and continued:
[01:24] "<But if I can offer them a reliable way to extract information, not only do I solve their problem – but once my methods proliferate, your people too are bound to suffer less, as the convenient excuse to torture your kind evaporates.>"
He broke up his posture and brought up a forepaw to touch two claws to one brow for a moment's silent gesture. Then: "<As you already surmised, I necessarily know my way around kavkem neurology – the biology of the mind, the way your thoughts work as a machinery – lest I could hardly be scheming how to map myself into a kavkem body, let alone an heir.>"
He let his forepaw descend again, his gaze still anchored to Baishar, carefully gauging his reactions. "<I offered to use that same knowledge to extract the information the Nayabaru want, with methods neither painful nor lethal, simply by touching their captives' minds.>" A pause, then, matter-of-factly but subtly tinged with traces of scientific fascination: "<And they were interested.>"
[19:11] The long lead-up wasn't doing Baishar's discomfort any favors, his feathers slowly puffing out reflexively throughout. 'Protection of Nayabaru settlements.' He knew, first-hand, what that phrase truly meant — though even as a hatchling he'd known in broad strokes what the Nayabaru were willing to do in the name of 'protection'. As if the Nayabaru knew what that word meant, hardly having needed it for centuries.
Did Valcen understand what this all entailed? He spoke of torture as if it were a distant curiosity, unpleasant but at worst an eyesore. He spoke of it as the Nayabaru did, a regrettable necessity. (Not that they ever seemed to regret it.) You still have your teeth. You still have your claws. He forced his resentment down, reminding himself that he was — mostly? — free of the Nayabaru now, and it was thanks to Valcen.
[19:12] Baishar couldn't help but offer a bleak, spiteful chuckle at the comment about torture being misguided from the Nayabaru perspective. Of course their only problem with it was the lack of results. So sorry to waste your precious time hunting down false leads.
As Valcen finally revealed his plans, Baishar's eyes grew wide in shock; his lips drew back in a gesture ambiguous between confusion and rage. "<...You're going to... what will you be able to... extract? Our thoughts? Our memories? Everything?>" Horror sunk into his gut as an earlier phrase took on knew meaning: "<You're going to teach the Nayabaru how to do this?!>"
What possible defense could a kavkem have against such an intrusion? "<And any kavkema anyone's met— anywhere they've been— anything they've learned...>" Whenever a kavkem was captured, everyone who knew them would have to never return to anywhere they'd been. Would they even know? The information would have to get out eventually, somehow. What would this do to the lives of those still free?
And then the next blow connected, as he realized the obvious implication of all this. "<...You're going to destroy Shyilun.>" His gaze was blank as he said this, staring through Valcen unfocused. "<...You're going to destroy Shyilun and there's nothing they can do about it.>"
[20:34] Baishar's response registered crisply, without distortion, his horror apparent, far more vivid than anything Ryrha had ever reacted with. A numbness crept through Valcen's mind, slowly but methodically rending empathy out of his thought processes.
[20:35] As the scene unfolded, he reflected on this – was it a kind of mental immune reaction? The mind, protecting its own ability to reason? Regardless what the cause was, he welcomed it – after letting emotions jerk him around on a chain earlier, this distance brought a certain serenity with it, felt right.
A soft motion of his muzzle, ambiguous, formed a response to Baishar's last observation. "<I'm sure the Nayabaru would like that,>" he observed. "<But I don't think a complete eradication of Shyilun, nor an appreciable dent in their organisation, is likely, even if I were actively interested in that.>
"<That's a surprising conclusion only because you're confused about one thing – I am not going to teach the Nayabaru how to read kavkem minds. Certainly, they will have the technology to do this, but what use is a scroll to someone who can't read the script?>"
A sharp flick of the muzzle. "<The Karesejat will learn, I can't prevent that, but for the time being and possibly all appreciable time, I intend to be the only that handles these interactions. It's my insurance, both for my own freedoms...>" – and then his voice dipped, as though he were at least mildly concerned someone were listening – "<...and to... filter... the results.>"
[21:37] Baishar's gaze snapped back into focus at the sound of Valcen's voice, staring at him intently — certain that one of them must be confused. "<You said that your methods would spread,>" he replied, tone carrying a hint of a challenge to it despite efforts to keep it neutral. "<How do you intend to do that?>"
The Karesejat will learn. That phrase whispered horrors into his mind, splintering, fractal threads of nightmares. The havnateh Terenyira, equipped with the power to listen to a kavkem's thoughts. What horrors she might visit on captured kavkema who were unfortunate enough to have knowledge of interest to her. What horrors she might bring in the name of protection.
"<...Do you think you can keep this from> Ka resejat?" he asked incredulously, voice dropping to match Valcen's volume more out of instinct than anything else. "<What do you think happens to Shyilun when she learns how to do this? How long before she uses your gifts on you, to find out what you've been 'filtering'?>"
[21:50] The question prompted a soft chuckle from Valcen – it would have been a sound of patience had it been any less cool. "<Don't you think she already knows?>" he asked, his body language expressing an abstract regret. "<But like any creature of appreciable intelligence, even the Karesejat thinks twice before striking down an enemy.>
"<I can be useful to the degree I am willing to cooperate – as long as she's lucid of the degree, there is no deception. She still gains more information than she would have otherwise had – it's still a net benefit.>
"<But I can't expect the other Nayabaru to appreciate this balancing game, which is why we'll need to be cautious about where and when we speak of such details.>
[21:51] "<The Karesejat, however... despite all appearances, she is a very... rational being. I will retain my freedoms exactly for the duration these freedoms make me a useful tool, not one moment longer. My task, thus, is to prolong this time as long as I'm able.>" Despite all of his distance, a certain intensity and determination had entered his expression.
[22:35] And you're okay with being her tool? Baishar nearly asked, but managed to hold himself back. It didn't matter whether Valcen accepted it or not, he had no other choice. And Ryrha thinks I'm the foolish one?
"<And once she knows how to read the minds of kavkema?>" he reiterated. "<What use will she have for you then?>"
[22:37] "<Exactly,>" Valcen said, without a trace of irony in his voice. "<You're beginning to appreciate the razor's edge this is all balanced on.>"
[22:59] Baishar stared at Valcen, trying to come to terms with what he was saying — or, more precisely, what he was not saying. There was a long pause, as if expecting Valcen to continue, punctuated by a tentative: "<...Do you... not have a plan for what to do when that happens?>" That thought was nearly as terrifying as the others. How long had Valcen been at this? Weeks? And yet he hadn't planned for something that would certainly happen, sooner or later?
[23:14] Valcen closed his eyes, raising his muzzle and sighing so softly as that it was nearly inaudible. "<I have a lot of plans,>" he remarked, almost tiredly. "<Not all of which are safe to discuss with you. Some of them the Karesejat can deduce, so I need a couple of them, as tightly guarded as I can get away with.>
"<Regardless, over the course of your mortal life, you won't need to worry about that scenario. I have enough delays planned – enough, even factoring in that several are no doubt useless given the Karesejat's deductions – that she will not dare tire of me while you're alive.>" At least not to the point to threaten the project; I'm less sure about my well-being.
[22:32] Not safe to discuss? Baishar balked at that phrase. Given everything Valcen had told him, what could possibly be not safe about these particular plans? He was willing to trust Baishar with the full extent of how he'd help the Nayabaru, but not with this?
Anger threatened to flare up at the comments about his own mortality. Nothing you need to worry about, you'll be dead by the time this matters. He resisted the urge to snap back, 'You don't know that' — it would only earn him another reprisal. Patience. He squeezed his eyes shut, taking several deep breaths, trying to center himself.
He was at a loss for words. Valcen seemed convinced he could prevent his plans from drastically changing the shape of things outside the Pens, and equally convinced it would lead to less suffering inside. The latter felt like a rationalization, a way to convince Baishar that it wasn't as bad as he might imagine. Or maybe a way to convince whatever emotions Valcen 'suffered' from that this wasn't repugnant.
Slowly, Baishar's words returned to him. "<...Even if you somehow manage to keep this balancing act up,>" he began, struggling to put his emotional objections into words. "<...What makes you think this is going to reduce our suffering? They'll just torture us anyway. With fewer false leads, more and more kavkema are captured, and more Hesha have nothing better to do.>"
[22:47] "<What makes me think it'll reduce your suffering?>" Valcen asked with a trace of bemusement. "<Even assuming the absolute worst case, ignoring all additional information I have about the Nayabaru that make your fears ridiculous, individual kavkem suffering is reduced by simple mathematics:>
[22:48] "<Would you rather be an individual kavkem in a scenario where ten Hesha tend to ten kavkema, or one where ten Hesha tend to thirty kavkema?>" A pause. "<And time is finite. Would you rather be an individual kavkem in a scenario where you're tortured ten times, or one where you're tortured nine times and one time someone painlessly whisks information out of your skull?>
"<Keep in mind that's just the absolute worst case scenario – and I can tell you that's not how Nayabaru culture works. Make no mistake – they're awful, but they don't exist primarily to torture your kind. Most of them would rather do something else, given the option.>"
[23:11] Baishar stared at Valcen, trying to wrap his head around what he was saying. After a long, thoughtful moment, he replied: "<That... that doesn't make sense at all.>" There was a brief flick of the muzzle to accompany it. "<In the first case, that's twenty more kavkema in pain and misery. It matters to them. And in the second... there's hardly any difference if I die after being tortured ninety-nine times, or if I die after being tortured one hundred times.>
[23:12] "<And even if most of the Nayabaru would rather do something else, some of them would — and the ones who would have more time to do so, not less.>"
[23:45] Unsurprisingly, the remark did not cause Valcen to exclaim that he had been wrong all along and to abandon his project, delivering himself unto the mercy of the Nayabaru and his own mortality. It did, however, cause him to utter a sound half sigh, half growl.
In a laboured tone of voice: "<I understand... that you have a vested interest in this, to say the least.>" That makes two of us. "<I also understand that superficially, I look no different to you, and you might surmise we have a... comparable education, and your opinions are automatically of equal value.>
"<While that's not true, the inferential distance could be bridged. I can start at the beginning. We can derive this entire setup from first principles.>
[23:46] "<But just for a moment, ask yourself this – were you a 'deity', tell me... do you think you would rather spend your time justifying your choices to a kavkem, or working more on a project you have spent months devising, months agonising over already?>" He shot Baishar a glare, although the gesture was one of brief annoyance – nothing like his earlier bristle.
"<I am happy to tell you everything about my projects, in any detail you like, inasmuch as it doesn't threaten the projects. I am happy to treat you and Ryrha with kindness.>
"<And I am loathe to ask you to simply bring yourself to blindly trust the judgement of a creature that's lived in more cultures than you have fingers on your hands over a span of billions of years, which is precisely why we were having this conversation up until now...>
"<But for the love of night, regardless how much I understand your fear and frustration, I have better things to do than assuage your fears. So I ask you now: Can you get a grip on yourself? Do you have the capacity? Does your imagination extend so far that you can imagine that Valcen knows what he's doing?>"
[01:20] Valcen's exasperated response cut deep, piercing through layers of frustration and fear and confusion to lodge into hiss gut. The precise words didn't even need to register for the message to be unambiguously received: Stop wasting my time.
It didn't carry quite the same sharpened edge his earlier pronouncement had, but it hardly mattered. The implicit command was there. Baishar's feelings were his own limitations, his own burdens; they mattered no more now than they had when he was in his cell. The Progression will tear the feathers from your flesh and the heart from your chest, but you must embrace it regardless, or be consumed by it.
Baishar lashed his heart and mind and body together by force of will, holding them together for as long as would be necessary. "<Of course,>" his mouth spoke, as his head lowered in a gesture of apologetic submission. "<I apologize for wasting your time. I'll let you get back to your work.>" Without looking at Valcen, he pulled himself away, walking back towards the comfort of darkness where he could safely let himself come apart.
[00:00] No, of course you can't. Valcen grimly watched Baishar recede, the kavkem's unease more than apparent.
Could he blame him? Imagination was surely the one thing that didn't lend itself to understanding Valcen.
Indeed, Valcen's own imagination hardly went that far. He had rationalised everything, certainly, he knew why everything was necessary, however distasteful the details... but if he had to imagine another faced with the same choices, he would not easily comprehend it. Imagination simply did not span a long enough time.
[00:01] Valcen let his stern gaze trail after his guest, his attention invisibly faced inward. It will get worse before it gets better. I'm sorry.
[20:32] The darkness of the tent swallowed him, soothing the strain on his eyes that was only noticed due to its sudden absence. He managed another two steps before collapsing into the soft ground, doing his best to muffle a soft keen of distress.
Ryrha was right — he'd been a fool to make the deal he'd made. He was no closer to attaining godhood now than if he'd rotted in a cell for the rest of his life. He had exchanged his obedience to what could only be a havnateh-in-waiting, for a meagre dose of freedom — and nothing more. His opinions didn't matter. His beliefs didn't matter. His hopes didn't matter. Valcen would do what he would do, and he would be powerless to affect it.
The worst part was the sincerity. Valcen believed that this truly would make the kavkema suffer less. But even if Baishar tried to imagine the best possible scenario, the sheer fact that more kavkema would be in Katal than would otherwise be tipped the scales so far that he couldn't make it balance. Even if the Hesha never directly tortured them, short of grinding their teeth and claws to uselessness. Even if the kavkema were trapped in dark rooms of reasonable size. Even if you doubled the number of kavkema in Katal and halved their individual suffering, that was only success if you ignored that the kavkema came from outside the Pens; it wasn't creating yria from scratch, but replacing qanu with it.
Baishar buried his head under a pillow. What use was having an imaginary argument with a deity? It wouldn't change Valcen's mind. What place did he have arguing with Valcen? His purpose was to obey. His purpose was to follow the Progression where it led him. This was the only way forward.
Was this a test of his resolve? He could feel it starting to erode. Valcen's earlier words came to him: 'Things will get worse before they get better.' And yet if he thought this was 'better'... what did 'worse' look like?
[20:59] For a long while, Baishar was left alone with his uneasiness, the consequences of his aborted conversation with Valcen. When Ryrha returned, briefly letting the light from the room outside whisper through their dark sanctuary, it was with the respectful silence of any predator.
His mood must have been obvious – as soon as her eyes adjusted to the merciful darkness, her muzzle slipped to rest lightly across his shoulders, breathing quietly for a moment, as though to let him collect himself.
After another moment, she addressed him: "<You're frightened?>", spoken with the warmth of a mother to a fledgeling still vulnerable. "<Don't despair – of all kavkema, we now have the greatest influence,>" she soothed, perhaps unaware that such a statement, even if one supposed it true, was frightening in itself, a crushing responsibility.
"<Although I can't tell if you're horrified by your relative freedom given what else these prisons promise, or if you spoke to Valcen in my absence.>"
[22:33] The physical contact tugged his thoughts away from the cycle of frustration and despair. Her initial diagnosis felt confusing — was this fear? It didn't want to register as such, but fear could find many forms. Perhaps it was fear, of a sort — fear he'd made the wrong choice, fear of Valcen's alien mindset.
There was a soft snort at the mention of 'influence' — he'd tried to 'influence' Valcen, twice, and it had only earned his ire both times. Maybe they had more influence than nothing, but it couldn't be by much.
He inhaled sharply, trying to translate thoughts into words. "<Valcen told me his plans,>" he replied to her implied question. "<For helping the Nayabaru,>" he added, to clarify — unsure how many plans Valcen had that might lead him to this state. "<He's convinced himself that this will make things better, and no 'influence' is going to change his mind. I tried to change it, to at least convince him that his conception is wrong. It's a waste of time. He will do what he believes he must, and we will watch helplessly.>"
[23:01] Ryrha digested Baishar's tirade in silence, rubbing her muzzle across his shoulders, then dragging her jaw along his spine a little, before settling her muzzle back against his shoulders. Her breath was steady, subtly tangible through his thick feather coat, pleasantly mundane, like a promise of reality's permanence.
Finally, she offered: "<Valcen thinks many things, as you might expect from someone who has lost all of himself but his mind. Yet there isn't enough room for all of them – so sometimes, they overlap and mingle. Sometimes, that means that he conflates the long term with the short term.>"
Her head shifted and she nipped at the feathers of his mane, carefully restraining her wandering to its fringes given Baishar's agitated state. It was a brief gesture only before it was punctured by the continuation of her thoughts: "<You've only just met Valcen. He's given you freedom, yet you haven't given him anything yet – you can't expect him to yield to your ideas this soon.>
"<Give it time. Learn to trust him – for only trust will get you close enough.>" Her muzzle drew back and she brought it around to glance at Baishar with curiosity and compassion. "<I've learnt that fear and trust are not mutually exclusive.>"