[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.
[16:37] This seemed a bad idea. This seemed a terrible idea. All the human had to do was make noise – and their Ghregg had been deliberately trying to stay quiet, meaning they had no idea how a human reacted to being pounced on – and the whole settlement would be on their tails. What was Evenatra planning on doing, picking up a being as big as them and running?
Maybe the human would be reasonable. They were certainly curious, if they were a species willing to fly across... he wasn't quite clear where they'd come from, but apparently there was no great evil chasing them and that was the only justification he could think of for risking so much Tarnish just to crash into a desert and be abducted by Nayabaru.
[17:04] And then the human appeared past the edge of the building, its back highlighted by the Kiveki light. Evenatra glanced at Idarago as though briefly hoping to assess whether he was going to try physically wrestling her down if she pursued her obvious plan, then, clearly deciding he wouldn't dare, cast the pebble across the path hugging the building and into the cluster of shrubs almost directly opposite to their current position, for a rustle that was entirely noticeable in the dead silence.
There was no going back on that one.
The human's pensive stride came to a halt. From here, it was hard to see exactly it was looking, with the visor of its suit reflecting some of the light. Its body language was almost completely opaque to the kavkema – was it anxious, curious or simply confused? None of the above?
It cast an obvious glance back to where it came from, perhaps to assess if the Nayabaru was paying any attention – and then walked quietly over to the bushes.
[17:10] Okay. The human's attention was attracted. And curiosity confirmed. He wasn't sure what exactly the human was looking for, because 'noise rustling in the bushes at dark' was... well. It was a very mammal sound. Small mammal, yes, and it was a small bush, but what did the human think it was going to do with the prey? Because if the rock did, in fact, flush some small furry relative out of hiding and the human caught it then every scrap of friendly treatment from the Nayabaru would vanish and they'd be going back to "snatch the alien and run for your freedom".
...surely Evenatra had an ACTUAL PLAN and it was the necessity for silence that was keeping her from sharing it. Please?
[17:34] And then the human stood near the bushes, having pinpointed the sound with the uncanny accuracy that only mammals consistently had – the trait that had made it trivial for kavkema to design Howlers as psychics, who could always know where you were, even if you didn't do anything to give yourself away.
Evenatra used the opportunity to slink forward, her motions at once graceful and cautious, moving more like a liquid than a kavkem; not tense enough to be preparing to pounce, nor using quite the angle of approach. Instead, she tried to come toward the human at a deliberately visible angle, even if circumstance made it only barely so.
[17:35] The human turned its attention around, easily spotting Evenatra.
Idarago's strange Shyilun companion veered almost instantly, moving to lead the human along the path, seeking the quietest route to gain distance from the Nayabaru Hesh that was clearly awake and alert back near the central light.
The unspoken prompt worked – the human sauntered after Evenatra, evidently unafraid. Was this one of the ones that Nadani had encountered? Whoever it was, it didn't seem to be surprised to see kavkema here, and it didn't seem inclined to call upon the Nayabaru to ward them off. Perhaps, then, not yet Tarnished.
Once they were far enough away, Evenatra paused, gave the area they were in and its flanking lush vegetation a glance over as though to check for hiding Nayabaru (as though Nayabaru had much of a chance of hiding in the undergrowth that was clearly too low for them), and then finally whispered, in the same inscrutable tongue that she spoke to Ghregg as:
"Knot saif hir. Ei khann help. Biringh the othas?"
The human crouched, then seemed to rethink the posture and sat down instead. For a moment, it seemed a bit confused, as though perhaps trying to figure out what it meant that Evenatra was brokenly speaking its language – but even that seemed to be to some degree expected, which was strange. Idarago certainly knew no one else that spoke human.
Then the human spoke, slowly and softly: "(Thanks, I appreciate the offer – but we're supposed to stay put. They don't seem to want to harm us? And I think we might get access to a very good native translator if we stay. We won't forget you, don't worry – we won't let them talk us into doing you any harm.)"
Evenatra loosely and haltingly translated the text for Idarago, herself looking mildly distressed and confused by what she was passing on.
[16:30] She was good at this. Even with a foreign species Evenatra drew them smoothly away. It didn't take much to imagine her doing the same with a Nayabaru, of successfully separating a pair and leading straight into an ambush. Perhaps that was why she and Asraaban were so confident?
What the human said, though, was distressing. She was wrong. She was so very clearly wrong, but she'd been tricked, and the Nayabaru clearly thought she was a herbivore so they were being nice for now.
"How can the Nayabaru have a native translator?" he asked in bewilderment. "My mother said they can't even speak Kendaneivash! How can they speak hyuman when they can't even trill?!" A bellow was not a trill. Humans couldn't bellow either. (He thought. He wasn't about to ask Ghregg.) So if kavkema were more vocally nimble and still having some phonetical issues, there was no possible way for a Nayabaru to do better than them, but hopefully Evenatra could convey this and they could rescue the humans before the imminent trap arrived.
[17:00] Evenatra, on the other hand, seemed to have completely different thoughts on the matter. Her feathers had tensely raised, ever so slightly, as though perfectly suspended between an aggressive puff and a sleek surface meant for sneaking away undetected.
[17:01] The body language only made sense if the human had inspired a deep dread.
Without directly looking at Idarago, her attention transfixed by their temporary human companion, Evenatra said: "No, they... might." She sounded distrought well out of proportion to the idea that the Nayabaru might soon communicate with the humans more efficiently than she could. "They honestly might, and it's the worst news I've heard in a long time."
Her gaze climbed back up to the human's face. "(Who?)"
The human seemed to need a moment to unpack the minimalist question. Then, in a friendly tone: "(Um, the translator? You mean the translator?)" Evenatra twitched her muzzle downward, like a gesture meant to denote the stark opposite of the upward-flick dismissal and a plea, both. "(Um. It was a recording, they identified themselves as Valcen.)"
Evenatra bared her teeth as if physically threatened, for the moment not translating what she'd understood back to Idarago.
"We need to get the hyumans out of here," she said, flustered, backing away from the alien by a few inches. It was a platitude – getting the humans out of here was what they'd come here for – but there seemed to be a new urgency that wasn't there before.
[18:27] She was frightened. And that seemed like a name? He wasn't sure if he'd heard it before, but Valcen wasn't a Naya term, it sounded like a name. A name Evenatra recognised.
Someone she knew? One of her shard, previously captured? That didn't explain the sudden urgency to get the humans out of here, though, unless she'd encountered them since, but that made no sense either. Captured kavkem didn't turn against their own.
[00:12] To the human, Evenatra said, in a measured, borderline stern tone: "(Dangerous person. You do not want to meet.)"
To Idarago, she shot a sideways glance. "If what it tells me is true, the Nayabaru have an incredibly powerful ally," she explained with urgency, then hissed lowly, as though out of fear the human might actually understand her if she spoke too loudly and clearly: "And I have no doubt he can win them over to their side if they get to talk freely. We can't let that happen."
Which didn't answer what had made her infer all this, what recognition it had sparked. If Idarago wanted a concrete explanation, he might have to ask, much as it might risk some friction between him and Evenatra, in the middle of what was an ongoing mission.
Of course, the mission had just palpably shifted gears. If he wanted to understand what the shift was to, while Evenatra herself seemed to find the change perfectly transparent (to the point that the explanation she'd given seemed sufficient for her to get him into the loop), there was probably no way around asking.
[17:34] "You aren't making any sense!" he hissed, agitated. "There are us, and there are Nayabaru, and there are these aliens and we know where all the aliens ARE-" presumably "-so who could this ally BE?!"
They wouldn't accept a kavkem as an ally. Pet, slave, perhaps even servant if they'd been bound in sunlight until sufficiently Tarnished. But even a corrupted kavkem required meat, and that was enough.
[18:16] A hot dual wire of anxiety lashed through Evenatra. A human was watching her, presumably closely – how much body language could it infer from their shared evolutionary history? How obvious would it be if she got into a spat with Idarago?
And how could she avoid a spat? Deep in Nitish Ynas territory, the inferential bridge she had to cross seemed like a huge obstacle.
With some effort, she managed to keep her outward posture calm, her feathers smoothed down. There were benefits to emulating kavkema almost exactly with her avatar, but easy control over her emotional body language was not one of them.
[18:17] "Idarago," she addressed him, softly and sincerely. "I apologise for what I'm about to say, as it may well upset you, but you really need to listen." A deep breath, closed eyes. "I'm not a kavkem.
"I know I look like one right now, but it's quite trivial to disprove, though I'd prefer maybe not directly doing that right under this alien's nose, given they have enough to digest just from learning about Nayabaru and kavkema." The barest tremble touched her shoulders, a brief manifestation of her awareness of the thin social ice she was balancing on.
"I realise you and your group believe in Tarnish. You've abstracted Tkanetar, Garukaron, Maenona and me away." Tamachelu. "Unfortunately, I'm real, if only about eighty percent of what The Shape Of The World says about me, and frankly, I've just learnt one of my kind is helping the Nayabaru."
Tensely, apologetically and slightly pleadingly, she fixed her gaze on Idarago, visibly bracing herself for his reaction.
[18:47] This was... hang on... what?! No, no, this did not make sense, this was clearly the delusion that Evenatra suffered and explained why she was willing to put her life at risk. If Tamachelu did exist in... in EMBODIED form, then she wouldn't be skulking around like an ordinary if suicidally reckless kavkem. Not when they were risking combat with Nayabaru. Not when the Nayabaru had weapons entirely capable of disabling them, and Evenatra's very actions had shown she was equally vulnerable.
If she were Tamachelu and approaching with the dark, she'd be in the guise of the long-dead Tyrants, the savage storms-made-flesh, who could eat a kavkem with one bite and a Nayabaru with two. Yes, they were all gone now, because if you put enough terrified Nayabaru in one place – or enough terrified kavkem, for that matter – then even an avatar of nature's fury will fall. (And YES, they had existed: he'd TOUCHED a tooth that was as long as his finger! No kiikam was that large!)
Terrifyingly powerful Tyrants were still animals and still capable of being tricked off a cliff. But the Nayabaru did not HAVE a handy cliff, and definitely wouldn't have weapons to hunt something long dead, and a god would be smart enough to eat those Nayabaru first.
But Evenatra was not a Tyrant, she was a delusional kavkem, and so she could not be Tamachelu.
Idarago thawed from the frozen posture his Watcher training had instilled in him. "I don't believe you," he said, because how could he? "But that doesn't matter," because it didn't. Unless she did decide to throw subtlety to the wind and perform a divine rampage through the settlement, then it would matter and he would sincerely apologise. "If... if Tkanetar really does exist, and is helping the Nayabaru, how does that change things? The plan is still to rescue the humans, yes?" He kept his body language calm but that was probably more shock than his efforts being successful. "Or are you suggesting we need to offer the humans mercy before this ally reaches them?"
[19:10] Evenatra bristled lightly, her pleading expression tensing further. "Trust me when I say I wish it didn't matter whether you believed me – because then I would have kept up this charade," she grumbled, letting her gaze nervously slip to the human. "Please give me a chance to show you... while we're not trying to persuade these visitors to come with us."
Another tense breath. "And this is Valcen, not Tkanetar. Ve doesn't feature in your pantheon; ve never interacted with Nekenalos until about seventy-two Passes ago, and even then, ve's been mostly absent." Her voice fluttered. "But ve's made mistakes before – just casual oversights, not even malicious.
"Vis last mistake gave us thousands and thousands of metal spiders, running along the coastal stretches, looking for kavkema and for me, further eyes for the Karesejat." She spat the word, but it was more fear than resentment. She shot a stern glance at Idarago. "And ve's making a mistake now, and it's to play translator for these creatures.
"Understand, ve's been to their world. I have no doubt ve speaks their tongue better than I do. And you may not know it, but these creatures are as we are in this regard and much more likely to believe someone who speaks their language fluently. It's an intolerable advantage ve's giving the Nayabaru. It'll crush our chances."
There was desperation in her voice, threaded into a far more pronounced firm determination.
[19:11] The human meanwhile was looking at them in some confusion. "(Um. I don't understand what's going on. Can I get some cliff no— uh, can I get a summary?)"
Evenatra snapped her gaze up at the creature. "(Sorry. Valcen is complicated. My friend not know, so I explain.)"
[11:10] It was a very complex and thorough delusion and Evenatra's very confidence shook Idarago's certainties. But it still did not matter, did it? The plan was to rescue the humans. In her eyes it was now more urgent. Alright. It was still the original plan. Probably.
"The Nayabaru have another advantage. That hurts, they always have ALL the advantages, but..." Idarago. Snap out of it. This wasn't helpful. He shook himself slightly. Theology could wait. "What do you need me to do?"
[15:55] "I need you to trust my judgement," Evenatra said. A simple request and simultaneously the most difficult to field. "If Valcen is allowed to talk to the visitors, the probability that we'll have another enemy on our hands is way too high."
"(...ca-a-an I also get the summary?)" Samanta was asking.
Evenatra whipped her anxious glance up at the human's face, struggling first for a narrative, then for the words to express it. "(We meet Valcen before. He make mistakes. His mistakes are very dangerous, kill people before. The Nayabaru are not friendly to non-Nayabaru over a longer time, but Valcen think so.)"
"(...okay, so why does he think so?)" Samanta probed, cautiously, her opaque human body language expressing her bewilderment and the certainty that she was on thin ice.
"(I not know. Valcen is not Nayabaru and Valcen is not kavkem. Probably he think because he is not kavkem, he is safe. Probably he think because you are not kavkem, you are safe. He convince you to stay with the Nayabaru, then things go bad for you,)" Evenatra explained, haltingly.
"(What kind of badness are we talking about? I like that you want to help, but we're adults, we should be able to handle ourselves,)" Samanta mused.
"(Slow, painful death. Not honorable. Or lock you up, never let you leave. They find out how to harm your people through you. They do not care if you scream. Indifferent.)"
Whatever Evenatra had just told the human made it go very quiet – although whether that implied that it believed anything she'd told it was a different question altogether, of course.
To Idarago, with the rapidness of a nervous tension: "I tried to give this hyuman the cliff-notes of how the Nayabaru treat kavkem captives, extrapolating that it might happen to them as well. I'm going to ask this one if it will bring its companions to us so we can leave."
"(Please. We come here at very large risk to ourselves, to save you. Bring the others and we leave? The Nayabaru not find you, we promise.)" It wasn't anything she could promise, but it wasn't the first small lie she'd spoken, and likely wouldn't be the last.
[16:06] He wasn't sure what he could do. Don't let Valcen talk to the aliens. Easier said than done. "They're a pack-based species, right? Maybe she'll listen more if we tell her Ghregg sent us?"
And... maybe they could limit the damage to him only capturing some of the aliens, in the worst case scenario. "And if we can't get them out in time, how much damage can the Nayabaru do with half the captured humans and a destroyed flying-egg?"
[16:29] "I don't know," Evenatra said, distrought. How much damage could the Nayabaru do? But if the Nayabaru spun the capture as a safety measure after the others were 'abducted' by the kavkema, they might well be back at square one. "Let's make sure it doesn't happen. I'll mention Ghregg, see if that helps."
To Samanta, she said: "(Already Gregg is here, with my friends. If it help, I can bring Gregg?)"
For a moment, it seemed like Samanta was acknowledging, but the way she shook her head was qualitatively different, and she dismissed the idea as she spoke: "(No, if the situation really is dangerous, let's not make the scene more busy than it needs to be, if you're discovered, it might tip the Nayabaru off that we're leaving. I'll go back and get the others.)"
[17:11] 'Surely a goddess would know,' Idarago thought snidely, but refrained from voicing it. Besides, he could acknowledge that another god could muddy the waters. There wasn't anything he could do but keep watch and hope Evenatra was more persuasive.
[17:40] Evenatra found herself sifting through the Commons for the scarce few behavioural information Jeneth had left on recent human developments, trying to square any of the information she found with Samanta's reaction. Something was wrong, but it was well beyond Evenatra's ability to diagnose.
"(Please,)" she said, dipping her shoulders down further and tilting her muzzle upwards. A deference the humans would understand. "(Be careful. Stay safe.)"
The human lingered for a moment longer, perhaps trying to make sure that the conversation was over, then jerked its head once, before gradually walking back the way it came, at about the same leisurely pace it'd meandered the path before.
Evenatra slumped into a sit. "Okay," she said. "Now, you go to a safe distance. If the human decides to call the Nayabaru after all, I'll take care of them." But it took only a brief pause for Evenatra to raise a forepaw to beckon for Idarago to stay for the time being. "Just a second."
An audible breath, the forepaw remaining raised, fingers stretching outward, her gaze clambering across to Idarago. "This is not going to be as exciting to look at as it should be, but pay attention to my palm," she said.
As Idarago watched, the tiny white feathers of her palm visibly receded, slow in pace but after a few seconds quite unmistakable even in the dim, spilled illumination from the Kiveki light. When a patch of smooth skin was left behind, itself dark, as kavkem skin ought to be, it rippled, dimpled, becoming like the scales of crocodiles – pronounced, hard, unmistakable.
"More magic tricks later," Evenatra promised, but left the paw outstretched for him to investigate, if he dared to linger any longer to do so.
[14:34] And the human was leaving. Quietly. That was positive? It meant they hadn't made things worse, unless the human was intending to fetch Hesh and attempt an ambush, but they were prepared for that and even a reasonably sized group of Hesh would hesitate to pursue an unknown force of kavkem during the night.
That was what they had lookouts for, and most of why he was here, so Evenatra's order to hide was expected. Her second order to pause was not.
Had she stolen something from the human? He couldn't se- what? Idarago darted his eyes back up to hers and down again, struggling to comprehend the reverse molting. That was some trick, a weird and disturbing trick, because what purpose wou
Scales. Not the small interlocking ones of a kavkem's foot, or the delicate lace of a lizard. Hard, pebbled ones, the embryo of armour, cool and slick under his tentative touch to test if this was some deeply cunning illusion.
Idarago fought the urge to quake in terror. He'd never considered what sort of skin a Tyrant might have, but clearly Evenatra knew and had she... had Tamachelu been reading his mind?!
[15:09] Evenatra watched Idarago's silent reaction for a while, holding herself perfectly still. The crocodilian scales were perhaps a very slight bit warmer than they would be if they had been naturally grown – an effect of the motion that had brought them about, perhaps, or simply a mark of their current imperfection, having been conjured up as a quick demonstration only.
As no verbal comment was forthcoming, Evenatra took the flustered, subtle puffing of feathers and wide eyes as an answer.
"Perhaps you can now see why I initially wanted to go alone," she said, softly and encouragingly, even as she began to reverse the process on her palm, restoring its previous texture. "Please keep the secret for now; I need your group as allies and rearranging their worldviews at this point in time will do more harm than good."
[15:10] She tucked her palm against her other forepaw and loosely cradled them both to her chest, resolutely staring at Idarago.
"I know Valcen. Understand that ve is more like me than ve is like you. Ve may not be our enemy, but in this situation vis indifference is just as dangerous – ve will not fight for us, ve will not correct the hyuman's first impressions, and ve is somehow allied with the Nayabaru.
"No doubt it's to have access to technology, but vis motivations don't matter. Ve's a problem. We cannot give ver the hyumans."
[15:54] How would the others react to learning there was a god walking with them? If she proved her abilities, that was. Idarago wasn't sure, but he suspected it would end poorly. The flavour of poorly was the question.
"I'll keep your silence, this night and this Watching," he pledged. That gave at least a full night for them to reach a place of safety and discuss whatever needed discussing, or to agree to postpone it further, and right now was a terrible time for talking.
Her desire for secrecy also suggested she intended to, as far as possible, rescue the humans in a purely kavkem manner. Which made sense if there was another god who was, however temporarily, allied with the local Nayabaru. Another god. He did not want to think about that. One malicious god blighting the world with Tarnish was enough, he did not wish to think of a second carelessly spreading disaster while pursuing... he wasn't sure WHAT this Valcen was pursuing. Tricking Nayabaru into making things for him, apparently.
...if two gods were real and present, did that mean Tkanetar was too? Surely mammals would be at even greater risk, being partially under his sway, so yes. They absolutely had to get the humans somewhere dark and safe right now.
Idarago dipped his muzzle in acknowledgement, and slid back into the shadows to Watch.