[00:55] Five Nayabaru passed through the area while they were sleeping – two in one batch before the noonday sun burnt down on their tarps, a clutch of three near dusk – but neither discovered the resting kavkema, or much sought to look for any. They were evidently travellers, not Hesha.
The direction the Nayabaru took was almost orthogonal to the one the kavkema had been forging through the shrubs, no doubt leading from one settlement to another. Was one of them their destination?
When night time finally came and they clambered down to regroup and reorient themselves, the answer began to manifest: They would boldly go where the Nayabaru had gone toward.
It was an unpleasant thought. If they were going to go toward where the Nayabaru had come from, they could have soothed themselves in the knowledge that over the course of the day, the number of potential enemies likely had decreased. Now, the opposite seemed certain.
They stayed off the path, cautiously keeping to its side, progressing as quietly as dry shrubbery allowed.
Eventually, the thin halo of light of the settlement in question started to whisper across the trees. Athechelt stopped them on a shallow but densely overgrown hill, gathering them to look down at the domesticated ceratopsians that were resting in a state between alert and dozing at the edge of the settlement, their horns granting them a certain majesty.
Nadani whispered: "Where do you think they might have taken them?", intending the question for their new friends from Asheenagiji's coast, but not restricting it to them.
Five houses were visible from their perch, but the trees began to huddle together here, potentially hiding more. The Kiveki light (the artificial, bulbous, abstract fire, diffusing light through the darkness) suggested the settlement went on for a little while, at least, set amongst further trees rather than central to the huts they could see.
[00:56] Of course, the forest was to their advantage, should they have to flee – it was easier to dodge a bullet if you weren't forced to run across an open plain.
[13:40] The problem seemed impossible without more intelligence, and gathering that intelligence would be tricky. If this was a Shyilun operation, they'd stake out the settlement for as long as they dared, likely several days, and possibly see if they could observe enough to send Evenatra in with markings close enough to bluff being a Nayabaru from two villages away.
There was no way they could explain THAT to their friends and visiting alien, though.
"It's odd that the two groups didn't travel together. That suggests coming from two different places. Could they be gathering for a reason? If they are, the place they're meeting may be where their captives are," Asraaban speculated.
[01:30] The idea that the visitors might be the focus of attention beyond their local bubble was not strictly new, but certainly more tangible given the confluence of the Nayabaru that the Watchers had tracked visually.
The light from Ghregg's device was a distressing blemish in the cover of darkness, but in theory he was back far enough that it shouldn't be compromising their secrecy at all. In practise, Nadani cringed and glanced back with more distress than hope for intel.
A sharp, curt, directed whisper from Evenatra, translating from the abstract map to speech: "None of the foremost houses. Further past the trees."
So there was their intel, at least. Whatever magic told Ghregg where his fellow hyuumans were, it seemed fairly reliable. Of course, if finding them was unlikely to slow them down, that left only their enemies. "Has anyone seen any Hesha yet?" Nadani asked.
[15:30] Idarago was nearly pressed to Nadani's side in his nervousness. "Not yet. But this is the outskirts, we're here, there have to be Hesha. Somewhere. Hopefully not all sitting in front of the door to where ever we're trying to go." Which they probably were. Either because they expected a rescue attempt, or because these visitors were a threat and were deciding what to do with them. "Can we loop around? Get to the trees without having to go past the lights?"
[16:03] If their mythology knew such a thing, the kavkema might observe that from the right angle, Idarago and Nadani looked like the kavkem version of a Cerberus, with heads sometimes moving in unison, sometimes deliberately glancing in nearly opposite directions.
"Perhaps," Evenatra speculated, keeping her voice low. "I'm willing to scout ahead, solo, find us the safest path to the captives."
[16:04] On her own? Athechelt shot her a quiet, sceptical glance, trying to gauge her body language. This close to enemy territory, his urge to insist on accompanying a single kavkem was reduced to none, but the theory of it still applied – always have someone able to watch your back. Half the pickles a team of two could get into, they could also extract themselves from.
A single kavkem had no such assurance.
[16:29] He was stressed, he'd had even less sleep than usual (notable for a Watcher), and they were planning on ambushing Nayabaru. These were all things Idarago blamed for his lack of brain mouth filters the moment after he turned to Asraaban and asked: "Is one of the other reasons she was sent so her reckless suicidal tendancies can be useful somewhere else?"
[16:36] Without skipping a beat, Evenatra addressed Idarago, the focus of her gaze making it unmistakable she was asking him and only him: "Would you like to accompany me?"
[16:46] Personal space be damned, the cerberus impression was enhanced as Idarago pressed himself full-flank against his mentor. No, no he was not keen on walking through the settlement and hoping the Nayabaru were scared enough to run away and with her plots so far he was half expecting Evenatra to try that.
But that was silly. There was reckless, and there was actively attempting to get caught and have your family dragged down with you. He was sure Evenatra was not the latter. If only because Asraaban was scary and would have noticed and slit her throat by now.
"Um." On the other hand, you weren't supposed to go alone. If you had to investigate a daytime noise, you woke someone else up first. At the very least so when you shrieked they could rouse everyone ELSE and flee for their lives. "'Like' is a very strong word?" he offered uncertainly.
[17:05] "See, I assume it's nothing anyone here particularly wants to do, and I've done this manner of scouting frequently before, so I skipped that part where any of you might feel socially obliged to help me," Evenatra explained, her tone patient in as much as it could be discerned given the low volume of the conversation.
She continued, a little sterner: "Understand, if your scepticism will not lead you to do anything rash, I have no qualms with it, but it concerns me to the degree that my experience suggests that convincing yourself a mission will fail is often an excellent, self-fulfilling prophecy.
"So, if you're too nervous, know that I understand and respect this more than I can convey in a few words – this is a dangerous situation and it's one natural reaction any of us might have. Nonetheless, if you recognise yourself in that description, I suggest you withdraw to safer distances. If you can master your emotions, however, I would rather have your expertise here."
A pause. Then, fractionally louder: "This applies to everyone present."
[14:10] Oh no. Yes, that description DID apply to him, very strongly, and he wanted little more than to run away. And if he was a liability he should, even she said it. But just when he was reassured that staying away was the right option, she added THAT and now he felt guilty and, well, he was a Watcher. A trainee Watcher. But that meant he was the one that was supposed to move in daylight and look for traps and actually be decent at avoiding the attention of the Nayabaru, which meant of their group he and Nadani were the two honestly suited.
"I'm a Watcher," he repeated, half to himself, before looking back at Evenatra. "...but that means I'm trained to spot traps and hide from Nayabaru. They're not going to trap their own buildings. So how would I even be useful?"
[14:55] "You're also best qualified to spot trouble at the first possible moment, and know how to warn others silently," Evenatra explained patiently. "That's a quality you'll all benefit from, especially if I am discovered while I prowl the settlement and the Nayabaru come looking for other kavkema. The sooner you can identify an active threat, the better."
[14:56] It was Nadani that, with a pained undertone, added: "But someone should Watch your back." Whenever Nadani said someone, she usually meant herself – she'd not made it explicit yet, but apparently she was going to volunteer for the job. "Even if you can do this on your own, you shouldn't have to."
Between the lines resonated an unspoken 'I chose this, I claimed it was important to go, I should see it through.'
[15:58] With the stakes as high as they were, they could not afford to surrender an advantage. And if they were caught (not when, never when, if he thought 'when' he'd freeze and cause it), the advantage of more bodies was more directions to flee in and fewer Nayabaru pursuing someone. Asraaban had spoken of how to ambush Nayabaru from above. Perhaps if he was chased he could run under the intimidating stranger's tree.
He turned to Nadani. "One of us, or both?"
[16:24] "One," Evenatra said, before Nadani could make a claim either way. "I deeply appreciate the help, but three is three times the risk of being spotted – if nothing else, because it's three times the surface area reflecting the light – and that's higher than we ought to gamble." She glanced between Nadani and Idarago with an air of intense curiosity.