[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.
[15:58] Evenatra's logic was sound, both that aid would be valuable and that it should be only one. Which meant deciding which. Nadani had volunteered, Nadani was the better Watcher... but that, arguably, was why she shouldn't go.
"We'll be of equal use infiltrating the settlement," Idarago said with strange calm, "But if something does go wrong, Nadani will be much more valuable here." Unspoken, the correlation: in case of catastrophe, he'd hurt less to lose.
[01:56] Evenatra's gaze silently drifted to Nadani, lingering on her to await her verdict, in turn. The more elder Watcher's posture was transparently crinkled, radiating concern for Idarago a touch more than a mere professional bond might suggest – a motherly concern? A stronger than average friendship? Gradually budding amanata?
It didn't surface as an objection, ruling out a purely motherly concern in favour of one that respected more of Idarago's freedom of choice, but that only narrowed it down a little.
[01:57] Regardless what it was, there was something there. For a moment, she considered the faux pas of outright rejecting Idarago's bravery, but that was a foolish way to resolve the situation. Instead, she swerved her muzzle back to Idarago, then into a silent affirmative, appreciating gesture – before casting a soft, earnest statement to Nadani:
"I give you my word that he will safely return before daybreak."
[15:32] Excellent, they would not be hiding up a tree getting very little sleep as (hopefully) ignorant Nayabaru walked under them. Doing that once was enough for a lifetime. Doing that within pouncing distance of a Nayabaru nest was inviting disaster.
As if stalking it in the first place was not.
"How do you plan to approach this?"
[16:06] Nadani's uneasiness seemed slightly tempered, although not completely quenched – enough for her to revert to the customary silence of a Watcher, following the unspoken rule that the less was spoken, the better.
For a moment, she hesitated, then shifted herself firmly back into her position at the helm of the group – an adjustment that required only a small motion – and dutifully cast her attention toward the Nayabaru settlement and its fringes.
[16:07] Evenatra shrank back from the front, wordlessly guiding Idarago to follow her into the temporary retreat. "We will first cut a path straight through the settlement. You would help me if you followed closely, but set most of your attention to whatever lay behind me, as opposed to ahead of me.
"We'll likely have no opportunity to speak even in whispers while we're in the settlement, but I don't anticipate that this should give us any trouble, as gestures should be enough to coordinate our advance.
"One important exception to this rule is if either of us spot imminent danger, which requires more immediate signalling. I will take any nudging or tapping of my hip as a spur into prompt flight. If I in turn see something, I will strike you with my tail – likely onto your shoulders – to signal to run. This should save us from having to verify each others' sources of danger before flight."
She demonstrated the wordless gestures she meant on Idarago. There was a small chance either gesture might come in error, but it seemed sufficiently unlikely – and in either case, the worst that could happen was that they inspired each other to run on accident, which, while not ideal, wasn't likely to cause problems of its own.
Unless one ran into a trap, perhaps – but that was a risk independent of their speed, and one both of them had to live with.
Now that they were sufficiently far from the others for their soft conversation to be inaudible to them, she dipped her muzzle and briefly touched a forepaw rather than her muzzle against his shoulder, glancing at him with an expression of stern appreciation, a strange combination if there ever was one.
"I appreciate your help," she whispered. "It's extremely valuable. I don't expect we'll run into problems, this settlement's size suggests it's guarded by at most one Hesh at this time a night, but in case my intuition fails me, understand I expect no sacrifice from you. If something happens to me, run. Unusual though it may be, internalise this: I can almost certainly help myself."
[16:00] Right. Okay. Just one Hesh – and Evenatra seemed very confident in that assessment, so he was going to default to her experience – which meant hopefully all the other Nayabaru were safely tucked up in their nests sleeping. He could handle evading just one Hesh. It would be nerve wracking, but he'd done it once before. Two Hesha was where things got really dangerous, and he'd never actually seen a single Hesh before because they always ALWAYS went in pairs, but apparently settlements were considered so safe that a Nayabaru thought they were safe walking on their own.
It probably helped that there were a LOT more Hesha within bellowing range.
Still, they wouldn't be expecting to see kavkem sneaking about – most kavkem weren't this crazy – so that should also give an element of surprise. Maybe that was why Evenatra was so insistent that if they were grabbed, to run. Asraaban had certainly made it seem like a lone Nayabaru was something both of them were confident in attacking so it wasn't a guaranteed disaster. She certainly wasn't expecting him to take a message back; if they DID get spotted there was going to be a lot of noise and a lot of panic and more than enough chaos to alert the others. That he was pretty sure he could manage.
"Watch our backs, be ready to flee if required, and don't get caught even if you do. Alright," Idarago summerised as calmly as he could. "Is there anything in particular I should be looking out for, beyond hazards?"
[16:37] "We want to find Ghregg's friends," Evenatra mused, contemplatively. "Anything that looks relevant, or a building that looks best-equipped to hold them. When you come across any evidence you think I've missed, unless it's time-critical, keep it to yourself – we'll discuss it when we've reached the other end of the settlement." She issued an audible breath. "Ready?"
[16:48] Was he ready? Not really. As ready as he'd ever be? Yes. He wasn't sure what counted as 'a building suitable to hold the aliens' but it was probably going to be the most secure one with sealable windows or ones too small to crawl through and with lots of Nayabaru near it. "Ready."
Although... Ghregg WAS a mammal. And from what he'd seen, for all he walked on two legs like they did Ghregg was still sort of tubular like a mammal. A funny upright one instead of a burrowing one. But he was happy climbing head first in trees last morning so if they found these other hyumans they probably only needed a little gap to get them out. Certainly much smaller than a kavkem. And given Ghregg was about the same size as a kavkem, the Nayabaru were likely planning for similar requirements.
[18:09] Evenatra gave a silent affirmation, then dipped her posture and resumed leading Idarago through the foliage, taking him away from the others on the outcrop in an broad arc, letting leaves whisper across their feathers in silence.
When all obstacles to the settlement next disappeared, they were approaching it at a very different angle; if they were spotted now, it was unlikely the others would be discovered by implication. The settlement's source of light glowed past the buildings from a square mostly hidden from view, roughly marking the centre for the two spies – the risky waypoint of their route.
Evenatra did not confuse stealth for slowness, choosing their path by its relative concealment and their ability to stay quiet traversing it, but rapid in her motions, as though mimicking an arrow sent on a quick journey between the huts.
A third of the way in, with the light a painful presence at the edge of their vision, she stopped and bristled, quietly pressing her side against the wall of a building, briefly risking a glance back to Idarago to ensure he was in range to see the same things, then casting her attention forward again.
There'd been no whack of the tail, so no immediate danger – but her eyes were so wide a hint of white was visible around her irides.
Ahead of them, saturated in the swath of artificial light from the Kiveki's electric fire, were two humans, sat on the porch of a building... by all appearances, casually talking to a Hesh that had settled down with them.
[14:46] There was no danger behind them, but Evenatra's body language was enough to make him risk a peek forwards. She'd found the humans! Excellent. That was the only good part. Well. The part where they weren't maimed/shackled/imprisoned was good.
The part where they were unrestrained, happily nestled outside in the brightest spot they could find, and interacting agreeably with Nayabaru? That wasn't good at all.
It didn't make sense. Had the Nayabaru somehow failed to look at their teeth?! They were pointy! Ghregg had happily shared their meat! Either the humans had managed to convince their captors that they were insectivores or... well, Idarago wasn't really sure of the other option. This was all too strange. And there was no way they should be able to talk with Nayabaru unless Tarnish was much stranger than he had anticipated and exposure somehow gave victims the ability to speak in Thumak's own tongue.
...had any of them asked Ghregg if he'd seen sunlight before?
[15:46] It was hard to hear anything with certainty from the distance they still had from the incandescent light and the three figures bathed in it – but there was a halting manner to the speech of one of the humans, seemingly consisting only of rudimentary fragments of Naya, nouns combined with gestures more than with verbs.
The other human was speaking more fluently, but none of it sounded like Naya – but the angle it was sitting at made making out any words more difficult, so it was almost impossible to rule it out.
The Nayabaru's occasional low, rumbling voice was indistinguishable even just by its tonality, but it seemed a good guess that it was speaking Naya.
Evenatra shifted to cower down uneasily, bewilderment evident in her body language. For all scenarios she'd clearly been anticipating and equipped to handle, this was apparently not one of them. But how to progress sensibly, if speaking was verboten?
Gradually, Evenatra's puffed feathers settled back down, and she pressed herself silently deeper into the narrow slice of shadow provided by the building. Only a sliver of the scene she was watching was visible to her from here, but it was enough – she would, it seemed, simply wait for now, see how the scene progressed.
Of course, they were within the settlement now; it was not the safest place to linger. She gave a glance back at Idarago and a reluctant gesture of her muzzle – ambiguous, but perhaps an indicator that if he wanted to leave, he could?
[15:47] Was leaving the right idea?
[05:29] At this distance, Idarago could barely pick out words. That was Evenatra's job. His was to watch their backs, and lurking in the middle of the settlement made that vital. At least the humans were distracting the Hesh. Apparently, by potentially BECOMING Hesh, and he wondered if Evenatra and Asraaban were going to call for eliminating the aliens. That would keep things as they were. Which was terrible, but better than the Nayabaru figuring out how to breed humans and turning them into fresh weapons to capture kavkem.
[05:45] Oblivious to the kavkem eavesdroppers, Samanta was trying her best to hold an approximate conversation, using Saira as an awkward translator. To Samanta, it seemed that Saira had learnt ten nouns and change and was miming all verbs to best of her ability. Occasionally, the Hesh Nayabaru had grunted a new word at them in singular, but Saira hadn't figured out verb tenses yet and was too tired to try.
"We should have just gone back," Samanta finally sighed, raising a hand to her head, but stopping short of actually rubbing the visor of her suit as though it were her face. They were comfortable enough for up to 48 hours in a pinch, but the prospect of sleeping in them was what was keeping Samanta and Saira up in the first place.
"Excused ourselves, or something. Left instructions how to find us," she continued. "Or rotated outpost duty." She sighed, glancing down between her knees, exhausted by own own stubbornness to stay up. "Are we sure this 'Valcen' exists? What are the chances he died since he recorded that message?"
Saira paused for a moment. "Want me to ask that?" Then, as a correction: "...try asking that?"
Samanta shrugged, leaning back. "Sure. I doubt they'll begrudge us that question."
Saira made a few hesitant, mostly unintelligible noises, interspersed with equally hesitant gesturing.
[05:46] Samanta closed her eyes for a moment, then started back upright as she noticed what a poor idea the gesture was if she didn't want to fall asleep in her suit. Coffee. I'd kill for a coffee, a part of her muttered across her thoughts. Then she straightened herself into a crinkled but determined stand. "Yep," she said, to nothing in particular. "I'm going to take a stroll before I turn stiff. Can you mime that?"
Saira chuckled defeatedly. "I'd say you're doing a mighty fine job of miming it already," she offered sarcastically.
[17:10] The Nayabaru had shifted its attention to Samanta as she stood. As she raised a hand in a slow sweeping gesture and then started to saunter away, it gave a curt, soft bellow, leaning forward and extending an arm as though about to grab at her, but Saira gestured to stop, trying to calm the creature's brief bout of distress.
Hesitantly, the Nayabaru let Samanta go, although it watched after her with an intense expression Saira presumed was concern.
Evenatra carefully slid backwards, silent, watching Samanta until she disappeared into obscurity past the corner of one of the buildings. A soundless snort, a glance back at Idarago, and a wordless gesture in the direction Samanta was headed.
Were they going to try to intercept her? Judging by Evenatra backing away, they were taking the route through the cover of darkness, rather then trying to trace Samanta's path, which meant hoping she was planning to follow a mostly straight line.
[17:30] And now they were stalking the human. Stalking, not hunting, even if they were conveniently prey-sized and apparently oblivious. Or perhaps that was the odd clothing the human was wearing, like it had wrapped a tarp into garments. Which was, now he thought about it, a very sensible precaution to take if you were hauled off somewhere away from your flying egg by Nayabaru who likely wanted to park you in Tarnish but who may not know what your skin looked like, given Naya culture eschewed coverings in general.
[17:44] So much for the plan of 'recon first, rescue second'. They hadn't even established if the humans needed any rescuing and the scene they'd just witnessed cast it into serious doubt, but Evenatra seemed to be having none of it. Did she know something Idarago and the others didn't?
[17:45] Evenatra crept ahead, a building between them and the nexus of light. Halfway along the route, she let her attention dip down briefly to carve a pebble from the ground, then slunk further with the same steady purposeful motion as before.
...the plan was apparently 'attract the human's attention', although the jury was out whether its attention was supposed to be directed at them (potentially perilous) or further out of the settlement, luring it away. Telepathy sure would be useful right now.
And then the wall of the building came to an end and Evenatra stopped, casting her gaze out cautiously, feathers puffing ever so slightly, waiting for Samanta to surface somewhere amongst the beaten paths.