[21:33] It was strange for Rakashei and Serademar to sleep without Watchers to guard them. Rationally, they were much better hidden than they had been in a larger group with its entire nomadic inventory, yet Aka's instincts demanded they were vulnerable now. Perhaps if they were truly alone, they could simply fend for themselves, but his instinct insisted two was exactly the wrong number of kavkema.
They were travelling without accessories. If they changed their mind and wanted portable shade, enabling them to head out of the forested areas, they would have to hunt themselves a source of hide. For the time being, with just the two of them, it was enough to simply tuck themselves into natural niches and cavelets for a day's sleep.
A night after they had parted way with the 'rescue party', they came across a footpath through the underbrush that looked well-travelled enough that it registered as a threat – after all, Nayabaru would be using it. They took care not to be seen crossing it (easy enough, given the only obstacle at the time was their own paranoia) and moved on with an increased vigilence.
[21:34] When a light flickered through the underbrush in the distance, ahead of them and a ways off to the left, Aka's heart sank. He remembered this game. He'd lost it the last time he got into it. He sank into the underbrush, partly gesturing, partly guiding Serademar to do the same, and they watched the distant specks of light, hoping for an indication of where it might be headed.
After several long, silent minutes, they had to conclude it wasn't heading anywhere at all.
The light was moving, there was no doubt about it, but it did so at irregular intervals. Perhaps it was a Nayabaru laying traps, or prising an unintended victim of a trap out of it. Unintended seemed more likely than intended, at least – there was no sound of struggle. On the other hand...
"What do you think is happening?" Rakashei asked Serademar, his voice so low as to be barely audible, his focus rivetted to the dancing light. He couldn't risk looking away while he was talking, that much was clear. If he roused a Nayabaru's attention, they would have to get up instantly – and run. But the light stayed tame.
In theory, it could also be a decoy, but those were usually static, not mobile – or at least definitely not moving about irregularly. They couldn't see the Hesh Nayabaru from here, but at least to Aka it seemed clear there had to be one. And probably another not far away, given how they tended to come in pairs.
[21:42] "A guard or sentry, perhaps. Or a working party that is after some task." He shrugged. While he'd been out and about enough to have some idea of the goings on, they were well outside his normal area. No Watcher was he, for certain, though at this rate, he might have learned enough to become one. A slight snort as that thought was quickly quashed. "Either way, if it stays in that general direction, we can easily pass around them, give them a wide circle."
[21:53] Easily seemed like such a misleading term, but Aka could think of no reason why it wasn't accurate. "Let's," he confirmed, softly. Cautiously, he lifted his hips off the ground, and tentatively began to creep forward through the foliage, veering slightly to the right.
Veering sharply to the right was also an option, but keeping the light roughly within view was perhaps prudent, as to keep tabs on what one was avoiding.
[22:23] Seradamar followed suit, trailing in the path of Rakashei and stepping in the same places. It was going to be tedious staying close enough to monitor the light, slow enough to not make noise, and yet still fast enough that they were not at a virtual standstill. "It does seem odd they'd be here, though."
[22:45] There was an odd scent in the air, hinted at as they not-quite-approached the light. Rakashei found himself bewildered by it – there was something familiar about it, without that he could quite put a claw on it. He paused despite his fear, staring into the direction of the light, almost as if mesmerised.
From this new angle, he could make out that there was, indeed, a Nayabaru between the trees – bent over and thus not nearly as threatening or imposing as one that had straightened up, but still to be avoided, even with what seemed to be mostly its back to them.
And as Rakashei paid greater attention to the subtle sounds near it, the source of the scent abruptly snapped into place: A nest.
[22:46] A nest with crushed eggs.
Rakashei's eyes widened, revealing a hint of white at the edge of his irides. "It's a nest," he whispered tersely to Serademar. "It found a nest. I think- I think it isn't sure if there aren't still any viable eggs in there."
What had happened? Had the mother been surprised, acted in haste, but been subdued before she finished breaking the eggs? Surely if there was nothing to be taken, the Nayabaru would have already left the site. Or was it simply counting the dead eggs? Keeping tally, so to have a numeric excuse to keep the mother captive?
Aka struggled with himself not to hiss.
[23:03] "Barbaric, disgusting creatures." The light-corrupted Nayabaru never ceased to find new ways of being nasty beyond measure. A full reckoning of their evil would come someday, but how and when, only the shadows knew. "Come, there is nothing we can do for those destroyed eggs nor their mother now."
[23:11] The wording confused Aka for a moment, and he pressed himself to the ground in a wordless gesture of distress. Then, whispered, before Serademar could disappear: "But what if she didn't manage to destroy all of them?"
[23:51] That paused Seradamar for a moment. "...what do you propose, then?"
[00:09] Rakashei dithered. Was he proposing anything at all? In all honesty, he didn't want to try any heroics, not after the incident he'd experienced while scouting with Edaaj. If he was struck down again, Serademar was unlikely to be able to help him the same way Edaaj had. This was different terrain – too flat. In this foliage, it was too easy to follow fleeing prey.
[00:10] And yet, this scenario still seemed easy by comparison – this Nayabaru hadn't spotted them. It didn't know there were two kavkema nearby. They could selectively reveal themselves. "Maybe we can draw him away. One of us goes check out the nest?"
There was another wildcard in regards to the Nayabaru's likely companion, but no speck of light had surfaced in any direction. Perhaps this one was on his own after all – confident that he could handle any kavkema on his own. Or his companion had captured the parents and was bringing them back to wherever they'd come from. Either way, there seemed to be only one Nayabaru now.
[18:59] Seradamar gazed at Rakashei for a long moment. Finally, he said, "Suppose I circle the camp and raise a keening cry from the other side. It might attract the Nayabaru enough to allow you to check the nest. And if done right, can be done from enough distance to make locating me difficult."
[21:53] Rakashei dipped his muzzle, considering the option. The simplicity of the plan was alluring, but what about the second Nayabaru? If there was one. With no sign of it, it was reasonable to assume it was simply not here, but...
And if he continued to dither, this opportunity would evaporate.
[21:54] "Okay," he whispers. "I'll approach the nest, see what I can do to help." It felt like he was agreeing to Serademar's plan, even though it was initially his own proposal – it felt foreign, troublesome, dangerous. Consciously, he reminded himself that it had been his idea, and that its risk was as small as Nayabaru encounters were likely ever to get.
[21:26] Seradamar twitched slightly, actually surprised that the suggested plan was so easily accepted. "Ah, okay, then. We meet back here when all is done, then?" If all went well, then that simple statement was utter truth, even trivial. But should something go wrong in any way, the plan as outlined would quickly end up baked in the harsh, corrupting light and left to shrivel into naught but dust faster than Nadani running down a falling star.
[23:45] Again, Rakashei found himself halting, again scolding himself inwardly. The odds were as good as they were likely to get. Two of us, one of them. Silently and with finality, Rakashei flicked his muzzle to gesture assent and for the both of them to part. Without rising much from his posture, pressed against the ground, he began to inch forward, hoping to find a position that would minimise the time and noise he would need to get to the site once the Nayabaru was distracted.
[19:06] Circling around the Nayabaru without either being heard nor seen was a challenge. He had proposed this idea in hopes of inspiring some better plan than this one, but it seemed that inspiration had failed to show up for breakfast. Still, there were worse possible plans: a frontal assault, surrender, throwing rocks... well, yes, there were worse plans out there. Seradamar's attention flicked to the light as he passed through a few bushes, making sure there was no significant change in the light as he did so. When finally he arrived at a larger tree wide enough to conceal his presence, he paused. Nerves taut, he finally inhaled, steeled himself, then began the traditional cry. One eye watched the light for reaction while the other scanned for other interlopers. Divided attention was better than singular focus as long as other predators may be about.
[23:01] The sound had an almost immediate effect – the light lanced his way, spilling against the large tree, then past it to the right, painting abstract shapes of light into the dark underbrush like scattered gold, then past the tree to the left. So far, so good – with the exception of that it had honed in on his position far too well. If he crept away in the shadow of the tree, it should grant him enough—
The light swerved further out to the side, travelling in an arc through the underbrush. Shit. The Nayabaru was expecting company, rather than a single kavkem. Hopefully Rakashei was keeping low enough not to be spotted. There were some kavkem instincts that, if they misfired in this moment, would cause Aka to shoot up from the underbrush to leap backward as if stung – but there was no sound but for an almost mournful bellow from the Nayabaru.
[23:02] For a moment, the light continued its search for signs of kavkema, then the rummaging of the Nayabaru resumed, by the sound of it a little hastier this time, as though it was expecting to be attacked any moment.
Rakashei, meanwhile, kept himself pressed close to the ground, not yet trying to rush any closer. The situation had him bristle – he wanted to shout across 'try again, sound like you're hurt and crying for help', but of course that was a poor idea. Instead, he clacked his teeth together silently and set his jaw, trying to channel his tension into concentration.
[00:03] ~What is this?~ Seradamar was puzzled. The keening sound should have brought this hunter to a full search, and yet the light was once again stationary. An annoyed grit of teeth, and Seradamar finally concluded that he had to move closer. Around a few trees, then just behind a large rock, and the keening cry once again was allowed to come forth.
[00:28] Again the light jerked up – that, at least, was reliable. Whatever the creature's mental failings, its ability to figure out where a sound came from was apparently above-average – or at least, above what was expected of Nayabaru. This time, it lingered in his direction longer, though the source of it didn't seem to move any closer.
[00:29] After a long, tense moment with only slight jiggling of the shaft of light, the Nayabaru bounded forward with a sudden, surprising speed, heading toward Serademar as if there were no obstacles in the way. There was no way it could have seen him – was there?!
Rakashei watched the Tarnished creature storm off, but only cautiously rose from his crouch, easing forward silently, carefully. After a few tentative steps, he sped up his motions a little, managing to do so without compromising on silence. Gradually, he came close enough to the site, the scent of crushed eggs significantly stronger now—
And there was another kavkem, strewn across the moist, uneven forest floor at an unnatural angle, its chest rising and falling. No doubt it was the mother. For a moment, Aka felt a panic well up in his chest. If the mother was still here, where was the Nayabaru's companion? They'd reasoned the companion might have left to take her away, but she was here right now.
As he eased across to her, he calmed himself with rational thought. It took two parents to make eggs. It was just as likely that parents would stay together to tend to a nest as it was that they would part in mutual understanding, reduce their visibility. Maybe these had stayed together. There were some marks in the bushes that suggested something had been dragged. The father, then?
Her eyes were rolled upward in their sockets, only narrowly visible through mostly closed eyes. He nudged at the body, resisting the urge to vocalise distress. Wake up, he thought, clearly, distinctly, hoping some miracle might give him the power of telepathy. He brought his muzzle down and nibbled on the feathers of her neck, tugging gently at the tufts. Wake up, please.
[00:48] The sudden movement of the Nayabaru surprised Seradamar, a brief hesitation between run or hide... but whether fear or practicality was the reason, Seradamar remained still behind the large rock, hoping the Nayabaru would storm past in its speedy manner. If it became clear the creature knew his exact location, then he would flee, he decided. Light-blasted luck.
[01:35] Could Rakashei drag the mother to safety? Probably not without attracting attention. Bring down the Nayabaru? In theory, that ought to be possible. In practise, the idea was terrifying – one wrong move and he'd end up like this fallen one. What other options were there?
Rakashei forced himself to look at the nest, to take note of the eggshells, picking at them to see if any of them hid whole eggs. He found one, gingerly taking it between his teeth. He forced his breath to stay stedy, slow, continuing to search for eggs, quietly brushing the shards aside.
Then his attention swept back up to where the Nayabaru had disappeared to, watching the dancing light nervously, and back down to the mother. Maybe if he tried to wiggle under her, he might be able to pick her up? Unlikely, but what else was there? A mercy kill?
[01:36] His tongue flexed against the egg, unable to squirm past it to lick at his teeth in a nervous gesture. He hunkered down, pressed his arms down and forward, trying to slip his head under the fallen kavkem. Ugh. Were all kavkema this heavy? He swallowed the urge to whimper in frustration.
The Nayabaru meanwhile had trotted up to the rock, following its far too well-calibrated sense of hearing. A low rumble of discontent sounded from it, like a listless threat. It seemed hesitant to simply peer right behind the rock – but there was a sharp clang against the rock, frightfully close, suggesting it was armed with some metallic weapon.
[02:20] The twitch was automatic, but soundless. Metal against rock, probably done intentionally to scare him out, perhaps? The silence stretched. The Nayabaru was reluctant, perhaps? Well, so was Seradamar. Still, this stalemate promised to only hold for so long... timing, timing was everything at this point. He would have risked a peek to see which way he was moving so he could slip around the opposite side, but that was a risk... another stone, perhaps? A long moment, and he gently picked one up, a flick upwards and over the rock in the direction of the Nayabaru; with luck it would distract him just long enough for Seradamar to make a break for it. He listened for the telltale sign, muscles tensed to run.
[02:33] The Nayabaru reared up, bellowing, then swung down and to the side, coming around to aim its weapon at the kavkem – thankfully misaligned in that first moment, having to adjust...
Back at the nest, Rakashei cringed at the bellow, pressing himself further against the kavkem's body, trying to wiggle under it in a slow-motion squirm, struggling both for purchase on the body as well as for silence.
[02:41] The bellowing Nayabaru came around the opposite corner Seradamar was expecting, not only surprising him, but scaring the everloving light out of his soul. He yelped, a sharp keening bark, then fled, darting through and between the trees as fast as his legs could carry him. The lashing branches dealt slicing blows throughout his face and arms as he did so.
[03:09] Elsewhere, Rakashei wrestled down his urge to whimper, his efforts uselessly nudging the sedated kavkem's body across the leaves, rearranging its geometry without having the desired effect. He glanced up at the commotion further away, caught a glimpse of Serademar's graceful flight, and felt his gut tighten.
The whole egg still gingerly held between his teeth, he glanced down frantically at the kavkem. The only way he could save her from the Nayabaru at short notice was with an irreversible gesture. Again he hesitated, trying to make sure that it was the right compassion to impart.
Then he grabbed the limp muzzle with his forepaws, pressing it against the ground, bringing his right leg forward, to stab the sickle claw into her neck, rending at the artery. He squeezed his eyes shut in a short, cathartic grief, all of his attention focussed on his posture – not letting his tension crush the egg, not letting his sorrow form a sound.
Just as he let go and began to withdraw from the scene, a soft shot sounded through the trees, jerking his startled attention to the source.
Several metres away from the mangled nest, a dart struck Serademar on the shoulder, biting into his skin for just an instant, before the foliage brushed it back and out of his feathers, its tiny barbs burning at his skin, not sufficient this time to stay firmly lodged in its prey.
...whatever its payload, it wasn't registering yet. He might still escape, as long as he took a clever path, as long as he lost the Nayabaru pursuing him immediately.
Back at the nest, a muffled sound barked through the air, a distorted howl, hoping to draw the Nayabaru's attention. It slowed, hesitating, cursed in Naya, itself obviously distressed by the presence of enemies – but then resumed trying to track Serademar, now a few extra metres behind him.
[03:25] A single glance backwards, and, for an instant, Seradamar thought he was opening the distance. That instant proved an ill omen, as the shoulder that now burned with a light dose of the unknown poison careened into a tree. The force of his own motion knocked him off balance, the unstoppable force ricocheted by the immovable object. A few shaky steps, and he darted in the new direction, losing ground, but hoping those thicker trees ahead would shield him from further of those burning darts.
[03:42] Dual spikes of anxiety seared through Rakashei's gut – where is the second Nayabaru? and why does the Nayabaru insist on following Serademar?. The answer to the second occurred to him an instant later, running as a chill down his spine: That shot hit its mark.
For a moment, the thought paralysed him, kept him uneasily balanced on his limbs beside the growing pool of blood, consequence of his previous decision. If he tried to intervene, surely the next shot would hit its mark as well, except that the mark would be him. If he did nothing, he'd just traded one kavkem yria for another.
He snorted softly, confused by conflicting emotions – he had to help Serademar, he had to prevail, he had to bring the egg to safety. Some even more useless part of his mind chanted patch up the kavkem, you can still save her.
An abrupt revulsion tore him away from the dying kavkem and the shards of her nest, hurtling him after the Nayabaru and its prey, casting aborted, angry warcries toward the herbivore, carried forward by some crooked semblance of courage that he knew would leave him the moment it turned its attention to him.
Meanwhile, a dullness lapped at Serademar's thoughts. His muscles still worked flawlessly, his perception was still crisp, but he could feel something between his volition and the actions his body was performing threatening to sheer, to slip out of alignment.
No, his pursuer wasn't going to need a second dart. The first was just going to have to finish what it started, and there was no doubt at all that it would.
[03:48] The trees turned into no sanctuary at all, movements detached from thought, thought detached from will, will detached from action. The trees ahead loomed one moment, then seemed impossibly distant the next, perception divorcing itself from reality while demanding alimony and visitation rights at strangely inconsequential moments. A root that would have not even been an obstacle caught him, it's tendrils
having darted upwards and pulled his feathers. They were his feathers! Those bastard roots, always after his feathers, and ever bothersome about it, too, yelling about how they were really the root's feathers, and how could Seradamar take them from him like this.
[03:49] The final collapse not three steps later became a welcome release from the shouts of the roots, silencing the complaints with scarcely a whimper.
[04:18] A moment's lucidity punctured Rakashei's actions and his muzzle snapped down, dropping the egg into the foliage, freeing his teeth. Soaked in terror of what he was about to try, momentum drove him forward, all instincts somehow tricked into thinking this was the only possible way he could get out of this situation.
Like a cornered animal.
A low hanging branch swept toward him on his path and he bounded onto it, the motion more instinct than not, then leapt from it toward the weapon-wielding monster twice his size. His jaws slammed against shifting shoulders, claws catching against smooth skin, scratching deeply without truly finding purchase.
Just before gravity fully lay claim to him and put an undignified, terrifying end to their mission, his hindlimbs slammed their claws into the Nayabaru's thighs. Momentum unelegantly crushed him against the creature's spine.
what are you doing what are you doing what are you doing!
It twisted under him, trying to reach back with those vicious thumbs to strike at the assailant – but by sheer dumb luck he clung to its back in a position that made the thumb-spikes only glance at his arms, tearing at the top layers of skin without doing any damage his adrenaline cared about.
what now what now?!
[04:19] He cast up his arms, trying to reach for the creature's neck, seeking a firm purchase and finding none. Finally, one forepaw found the back of the Nayabaru's skull, latching onto it just long enough to steady his body against the writhing creature bellowing in terror beneath him.
This was why the Nayabaru feared them. For a brief moment, in the rush of it, Rakashei understood it, deemed it correct.
Then he freed a foot long enough to kick at the creature's left kidney, gouging deep into the skin. The bellow's pitch skewed – before he was fully aware of it, an instinct of the Nayabaru's successfully threw him to the side, smacking him hard against uneven ground, rattling his spine almost with enough force to fatally damage it. But only almost.
He wheezed, held still by the same instincts that had guided him through this so far, glanced up in dumb terror at the looming creature, expecting it to raise its gun...
Instead, it clutched the weapon to its chest and ran.
Rakashei panted, unsure what had happened, blinking back tears – relief? Pain? Grief? He wasn't sure, but whatever they were, they were marring his vision, blurring the landscape, making it difficult to see where Serademar had—
[04:20] "Era?!" he dared to voice, a little louder than the kavkem average, hoping his friend might hear him, give a sign of life. Dizzy, he tried to pick himself up, for a moment of complete exhaustion unable to, most of his wind still knocked out of him. He blinked again, clearing his vision.
Era lay a few metres away, a sack of listless feathers amongst the foliage. Breathing steadily. Possibly still conscious, if not fully able to control his body.
Rakashei hissed a breath and twisted up from his awkward, belly-up position, wincing at protesting joints. "Era," he repeated, softer this time, hoping for an echo. Confusion swam through his skull. Had he run off a Nayabaru? Had he had the blind luck to come out of the encounter almost unscathed? A snort, trying to clear his skull.
Then he hovered over Era, inspecting his companion for any damage. Numbly: "Are you okay?" And then: "Will you be okay?"
[04:24] Eyes twitched, open and staring before finally succumbing and closing. All wounds were minor, of course, but the drug had ensured that he couldn't share that. Or warn him about the yelling roots. Or... well, anything.