[18:03] For Athechelt, there was no mistaking the dream for reality. Even subtracting the surreal elements from the landscape left his visual impressions flowing, the edge of objects revealing themselves as a turbulence between colours – a subtle tempest vivid only in its details, but unmistakable all the same.
The sun had risen during the night, quite out of schedule, uncharacteristically shy in distributing its light, keeping it close. The dome of the sky was dark and spattered with stars, fraying into greys in immediate vicinity to the misplaced sun. The greys in turn rapidly transitioned to the yellowed white, then fully yielded to the golden disc. It was like a thin smoke had settled over the sun, as if it sought to hide itself.
It was all metaphor, of course – he could look at this spectacle without the Tarnish affecting him, there was no real light here. It was his job to understand the metaphor, to brave his unease about the scene and greet it with open eyes and an alert mind. A wind was whispering through the trees. Most of the group rested in a small, sharp valley between rocks not far behind him, a tarp spanning across the gap. There were no Watchers, and no one appeared to be awake, though that was to be expected in a situation neither day nor night – at least it formed one of two plausible options.
And then a new light filtered through the branches, a gleaming fragment of the sun – the sun itself too bright even in this timid state for the wound to be visible even if one had been left behind – streaking down toward a point only slightly nearer to him than the horizon. After less than a minute, it had disappeared behind the features of the landscape, imprecise in its announcement of where to it had fallen.
[20:48] There was a strong instinct to close his eyes to the impossible sunlight, to flee into the safety of the shade behind him, perhaps to try and awaken members of the group. If he hadn't been granted the lucidity to recognize the dream for what it was, he may even have done that. Instead, that very lucidity was what made it imperative that he not do that; it meant there was an important story this dream was meant to tell him, and he had the duty to listen. He tightened the grip on his story-staff, glancing briefly at the fragments of paper fluttering in the breeze, taking what comfort and resolve he could from its presence; then his gaze turned outward, taking in all he could see, hoping to hold it in his mind long enough to remember it when he awoke, that he might be able to make sense of it.
The sun, a stranger in the nighttime sky, strangely shrouded and dim in spite of its brightness. That in itself felt significant, reminiscent of strange and terrible events in the recent past. And then — there, a tiny splinter of it began to fall, making its way towards the horizon ahead, and with it a sense of urgency. A shard of Thumak, sent to Nekenalos? Fear fluttered in Athechelt's gut. A quick glance behind him confirmed the group was still slumbering, and seemed to be safe for the moment. On a whim, or an instinct, or some vague sense he might need it, he reached for the tarp and tore off a chunk, small enough that it wouldn't endanger the others' rest but large enough to cover himself, just in case. Then he turned back towards the falling sunshard, and ran after it, hoping he could find it before it was too late — whatever that might mean.
[21:05] The landscape was quick to give way to the harshness of Sinukaaj, those infertile, bleached stones – far, far quicker than was reasonable, given their current position was quite a few kilometres away from the edge of the stretch of arid savanna that separated Sinukaaj and their loose territory, and said stretch in turn quite a few kilometres across. Nonetheless, it was only a few hurried steps that brought him to Sinukaaj, spilling him onto a ground that seemed simultaneously too hot and too cold to traverse. The gradient that ringed the smoky, golden disc of the alien sun began to pulse, as though the night and sun were now dancing; it was too steady to feel like a struggle, a slow but powerful heartbeat of the world.
[21:06] Under the tarp, the cold of Sinukaaj dominated, as though the landscape had been transplanted into the mountains that were their true origin. It bit at his feet, although dulled by the perceptive filters shrouding the dream as a whole. The sunfragment was still descending, its fall slowed by the breath of the land as though it had wings to glide on. The harsh stretch of land was almost entirely flat – an unforgiving desolation offering only as much as occasional shade. By the time the light had set down, it was still in clear view.
[21:44] Athechelt let out a hiss as his feet set down against the harsh ground of the desert, confused more by the ambiguous temperature of his newfound surroundings than by the rapid change in landscape. At least the tarp seemed to make the ground consistently cold, though even with the natural insulation of his feathers the cold still found ways to sink its claws into his flesh. Nonetheless, he pressed on, staff held firmly in one hand and tarp in the other, draped over most of his body.
[21:45] His gaze followed the now slowly descending shard of sunlight, guessing at its path and judging that it would still land before he could get to it — probably a good thing, since having such a thing land on top of you was likely unpleasant. Still, he hurried towards it, willing himself to move despite the terrible cold creeping through his feet, only beginning to slow as he came close to it, uncertain what he expected to find. Kiikama, perhaps?
[22:00] He's still more than hundred metres away from the glistening sunfragment – its appearance oddly shapeless, like a strange, static flame – when the silhouette of a kavkem begins to limp toward him. For a moment, the initial concern, kiikam, flares up as a vivid fear; then the shape resolves, taking on the unmistakable features of— Nadani? Tired, limping slightly, but otherwise conforming to all of her body language cues. Truly, nothing about her registers as off, other than her strange location. Once she's crossed half the shrinking distance between them, she lets herself sink down into a sit amongst the barren stones, panting in exhaustion.
[22:18] The appearance of a kavken-shaped silhouette makes him pause, the dark shape against the frozen flame giving the impression of a pyreraptor — but it's quick to resolve itself as an illusion, instead becoming a familiar member of the pack. "Nadani?" The suspicion is quick to evaporate, though it's quickly replaced with concern, especially once she sinks to the ground. He approaches quickly, glancing briefly up at the dim sun and then in the direction of the fallen shard, before turning his attention on the pre-dusk Watcher.
"Are you all right?" he asks as he catches his breath, leaning slightly against his staff. "Are you injured?" Never mind the obvious question of 'what are you doing here', such questions never had meaning in dreams.
[22:36] There's no verbal response. In itself that's not necessarily concerning, as Nadani's role is one that trains for non-verbal communication between Watchers, even preferring none at all. Her gaze rises to him, forming a friendly expression. It's a look of a friend beyond help, but not in pain. On closer inspection, her feathers seem to glisten slightly, as though covered in a thin film.
In an abrupt change of posture, she's dipping her muzzle, her body contracting forcibly, as though in the process of dislodging eggs, though lying on her side is all wrong for that process. Before Athechelt can intervene or even ask what's wrong, something moist rolls a few inches across the ground – about the size of an egg, but covered in a thick, black fur. The creature unwraps itself almost immediately and yawns, revealing hideously mishapen mammalian jaws. It's too small to be any threat, though, and seems preoccupied with itself rather than the two kavkema beside it. It has big, dark brown eyes. It looks like no mammal Athechelt has ever seen – and gradually, three siblings follow.
[23:06] Nadani's lack of verbal response itself isn't worrisome, but the look she gives him instead does nothing to dispel his concern — A look that says 'sorry, my friend, but there's nothing you can do to help me.' And then she's convulsing, and then —
And then a small, living bundle of fur, roughly the size of an egg, unrolls itself. A creature with misshapen teeth that defy reason, more mammalian than anything else. A deep sense of horror hooks itself into Athechelt's gut, wide eyes not quite able to pull themselves away from the creature, or the three that follow it. Both hands grip at the story-staff with whitened knuckles, too unsettled by the scene in front of him to move, or speak, or do anything but stare at the tiny creatures.
[23:15] At least the number stays at four, rather than increasing any further. Nadani's exhaustion makes sense now, her thighs matted with blood from a mammalian birth. Her panting is steady, though, and she doesn't seem to be in any pain. Her attention is also on the critters, though absent any revulsion. A quiet moment later, she's reached forward with her muzzle to tug one of the tiny creatures close... and begins to lick it clean, nibbling at the fur occasionally, in some semblance of feather-preening. Meanwhile, she's humming a sound; not a song, just a single note that rises and falls with how much breath she has available for it.
[23:43] After a few moments of watching Nadani's strange behavior, Athechelt closes his eyes, forcing himself to breathe steadily, trying to keep his feelings of disgust at bay. The story is not yet over, he reminds himself. He needs to see this through, even if he doesn't like it; but hopefully a short moment to recenter himself won't hurt anything.
Soon enough, he opens his eyes again, looking down at Nadani and the small furry mammal she'a licking clean. A long moment of silence passes, before he interjects softly, tone apologetic, "I'm not sure this is wise. Are you sure you want to take care of these... things?"
[23:56] "Of course," Nadani says, with a soft authority and matter-of-factness of a wise matriarch – an aura she distinctly lacked back in the real world. She doesn't look up to rebuke Athechelt, still preoccupied with the bundles of wet fur. "They're my children." There's something simultaneously humbling and haunting about the phrase – as though it could not possibly be any other way, though promising a slow, gradual doom. A moral obligation? With no shell to hatch from, these are effectively hatchlings. If they were still in eggs, one could easily argue for their merciful death or simple abandonment, but it was more difficult now – effectively impossible given the mother had not rejected them.
[00:29@bnc] Athechelt let out a slow sigh, gaze sliding between Nadani and her odd 'children', a troubled expression on his face. It was hard to shake the feeling that these creatures were a bad omen, but what could he possibly do? He couldn't in good conscience leave Nadani out here, not after the trauma of a mammalian childbirth.
There was really only one option, and much as it didn't sit well with him, he had to take it. He shifted the tarp to attempt to cover both himself, Nadani, and the 'hatchlings'. "In that case, we should return to the others, and perhaps along the way you can tell me how these children came to be. Can you walk?"
[23:15] Given their teeth, how did one tell mammalian predators apart from their tamer cousins? Weren't all mammals omnivores, even? Most of them were too small to ever be a threat, but Athechelt knew of no kavkem that would let mammals of any species close to their eggs or the freshly hatched – whether that was just out of superstition or out of collective subconscious experience, he couldn't swear. But in this case, the hatchlings were mammalian, confusing the usual order of things.
[23:16] Nadani was taking her time to clean the young creatures, though she rumbled in appreciation as he brought the tarp across them. A friendly shake of her head acknowledged the question; then she pushed herself to a stand, dipping her muzzle to pick up one of the creatures, reaching for two others with her forepaws, then tucking one against her chest and trapping it there loosely with her arm, freeing up a forepaw to pick up the final one.
Behind her, the fragment of the sun continued to shine like an anomaly in the landscape. Parts of it seemed to be seeping into the ground, spreading through the cracks of the thin baked surface layer of Sinukaaj, beginning to creep dangerously close.
[03:00@bnc] Athechelt glanced back towards the fallen shard of sunlight, a sense of dread creeping into his gut — the light seemed to be spreading out from it, corruption spreading into the blasted land itself, creeping dangerously close. Luckily, it seemed Nadani was at least able to move on her own. "We should hurry," he commented, gesturing briefly at the spreading sunlight with his muzzle, before shifting into a brisk walk, keeping the tarp spread between the two of them.
[00:28] Bizarrely, the light leaking into the cracks to the time of the sun's unnatural pulse seems to be drawing more warmth out of the scenery, the corrupted desert night biting at Athechelt's joints.
Unfortunately, Nadani's idea of hurrying seems more like a leisurely stroll, perhaps even a limp, though her face betrays no discomfort or lethargy. The creature pressed to Nadani's neck is squirming, although with only token vehemence – perhaps the metaphorical cause for her sluggish motions?
[00:29] The light passes them, gradually dimly illuminating the ground in ways that the timid sun could not. As though the cracks had been transformed into a tight necklace of stars, the display has a haunting beauty, half threatening, half invigorating – but it's around them now like blossoming frost, and it doesn't look like Nadani is paying enough attention to avoid the cracks. As she blunders into her first inevitable 'misstep', the light creeps up her foot a few inches, blooming into threaded patterns like a fungal infection.
She doesn't seem to notice.
[01:26] Athechelt clenches his fingers tightly around his staff, shivering in the cold, fighting the urge to pull the tarp around himself for warmth. His eyes dart between the fringes of spreading light, fearful of their own lethargic pace, fearful that the light will suck all the warmth of this place and trap them here if they don't move.
But Nadani doesn't seem concerned. She's walking along at an ordinary pace, seemingly oblivious to the encroaching danger, not looking where she's going....
Before he can think to say something, it's already too late — she's stepped in one of the cracks of light, and it's begun spreading to her. "Ada!" he shouts, pulling her away from the crack while there's still time, cautious to watch his own steps.
[01:27] "Nadani, please, listen to me," he says, pausing their trek to work at the tarp, quickly pulling strands from it to wrap around her feet, hoping it's enough to protect her in this strange place. "We are in grave danger here. We must move swiftly and carefully, or the Nitish Ynas will claim us." His eyes dart around them, watching the encroaching light. "I can help ease your burden, if it will help you move quickly. Please." He shifts his story staff into his other forepaw, then reaches out another for one of her children, eyes pleading with her. Please take this seriously. Your soul is at stake.
[01:58] Nadani glances at him in bewilderment. Evidently trusting him despite her odd detachment to the scenery and altered personality, she lets him fumble with her feet, raising them helpfully but hesitantly, peering at him with an ongoing curiosity, as though it were his behaviour that were opaque. At least the fungal reach of the light doesn't seem to be spreading any further while they stand amidst the frigid desert, between the cracks.
Once he's finished putting the impromptu shoes on her, she seems to consider his offer. While she seems frustratingly oblivious to even his explicit urgency, she offers another symbol of trust – her muzzle reaches toward his outstretched forepaw, depositing one of her mammalian offspring into his narrow palm with an absurd gentleness.
"Eche," she addresses him, softly, her tone guided by a gravity more befitting a conversation with a dying friend. "You're confused – it is night. There is no Tarnish in Maenona's embrace."
[02:50] A cold dread sank into Athechelt's gut at her reply — she can't see it. Somehow, she's been rendered blind to the light encroaching around them. Would the others be able to see it? This was a dream, and he was a ryrhakenem. His gaze shot up to the shrouded sun, then down to the cracks of light infecting the landscape. Maenona above, protecting them; but She could not protect them against the shard of Thumak below.
Athechelt jerks his muzzle upwards in disagreement. "It is day and night both." He gestures with his story-staff towards the shrouded sun, and then behind them, towards the fallen shard. "A piece of Thumak is here, below Maenona's shroud. You may not see Him, but I can. Trust me. We have to move, quickly, before it's too late." With that, he begins moving again, trying desperately to get Nadani to keep up a quicker pace, eyes scanning the ground ahead of them to avoid making the same mistake she did. Please don't let it already be too late.
[20:46] Before Athechelt can quite finish his plea, the creature he's holding bites at his wrist. The tiny, misshapen teeth sink in through his skin, barely held off by his feathers. For the brief moment of the most intense pressure, a light seems to pulse outward from the wound, not quite reminiscent of what Nadani's foot seems to have adopted – it's brighter, fiercer, and it doesn't linger. Adding to Athechelt's alarm is that the little monster refuses to let go.
[21:49] Athechelt lets out a sharp cry of pain, his attention focusing on the small mammal biting into his wrist. "No! Let go!" he scolds; he begins to shift his staff into the nook of his elbow to free up the other hand, then winces and averts his eyes as the burst of light spills from the wound. A pit of cold horror forms in his stomach. No. Please not this.
What can he possibly do? Nadani is blind to the dreamscape around her, blind to the implications in all this. These creatures are dangerous, they are spawn of Thumak, they will corrupt everything he loves. But he can't abandon Nadani, not here, not to the fate he's sure will befall her in this place. His free hand clutches at the bundle of fur, grasping firmly at its jaws, and tries to pull the offending creature away, ideally without damaging it.
[22:24] Fortunately it takes on a little force to pry the little monster off – much as it seems adamant at keeping its nasty little fangs sunk into Athechelt's wrist, it's too weak in its newly-born state to see the plan through. With a twang of pain, Athechelt manages to pull it free.
The pain is not the only effect from the bite, though. For a moment, it feels like perhaps the creature that's bitten him has poisoned him in some way, that something vile is spreading through his blood stream – then the ambiguous crawling sensation resolves into warmth. There's something almost soothing about it – as though the unexpected encounter with the critter's teeth, while an odd method of delivery, was perhaps a positive thing.
[23:47] Athechelt winces as the small mammal is pulled free, then twists his injured hand to rearrange his grip on the beast, knuckles of two adjacent fingers pressing firmly against the sides of its skull, trapping it in a position that made it difficult for it to maneuver those nasty misshapen teeth towards his skin.
The spreading warmth is worrisome — perhaps even moreso for how soothing and welcoming it feels, a venom that threatened to lure its victim into a false sense of security. His eyes dart down to the wound, watching for a moment to make sure no more bursts of light come from it, then he glances outwards at the slowly spreading taint of sunlight. No time to worry about this now. He made a mental note to keep vigilant about the spreading warmth, uncertain whether to call it positive or not — it could easily fall either way. Back to moving. Hopefully they hadn't lost too much time yet.
[00:12] With the frost being gradually peeled away by the gentle warmth comes a change to the flow of the dream – turbulent swirls and eddies tugging subtly at his perception. It's not a change in lucidity, not like the lull of a neural poison; instead, it manifests as a new form of emphasis, drawing outlines where there were none before. Ahead of them, at the edge of the forest, something is not quite right – there's something with too many angles beyond all that which is strictly visible. And Nadani is walking forward again, nursing the creatures in her arm with gentle licks, again paying little attention to the ground, though that threatens to feel almost secondary now.
[00:37] There's too many things to keep track of — the cracks of light, Nadani's safety, the creature wriggling in his palm, the spreading warmth.... The dream is shifting, tugging his perception with it. Nadani is relatively safe from the cracks now, at least — as long as she doesn't decide to lie down on one, and as long as they don't open further and spread into the air above them, at least. He still has to worry about them, but at least he can see them, and therefore avoid them. Distrusting his perception would be a poor choice, even if it's being interfered with — for in dreams, perception and 'reality' are the same.
[00:38] And so when the sensory shift points out something wrong, something he can't quite see... there's reason to be concerned. His attention focuses on the invisible shapes, wary of them, and he subtly nudges Nadani onto a slightly different path, leading her forward and to one side, trying to skirt around the sense of looming danger.
[00:52] Abruptly, the flow of colour and perception shudders, jolting into a kaleidoscopic motion, the edge of the trees dissolving into vortices smearing them into the sky. The moment brings a force like a gust of wind that first tears the tarp out of Athechelt's grip, then lashes against his staff like an invisible sword, casting it out of his grasp and across the barren landscape as if it were merely a stray leaf. A sharp pain shoots up his arm as something strikes at the creature he's holding, a dagger-like sensation cutting into his palm and tearing it from him. A curt squeal is the last sound the creature makes, attracting Nadani's attention, her posture finally alert, her feathers puffed out in instinctive attention.
[19:34] Athechelt cries out in alarm as the kaleidoscopic wind tears the tarp from his grasp, then lunges after his story staff out of instinctive duty to protect it — but it's already too far gone for him to catch it. The sense of dread only has a few moments to sink in before an invisible spike of pain drags down his arm to his palm, wrenching the small creature from his grasp in a swift and surely painful death.
If their attacker were visible, and if there were more kavkema here to help, and if Nadani didn't have her hands full, perhaps there might be some chance of fighting it. In a situation like this, though, there's only one possible answer. "Ada, RUN!" he barks, urgency and fear in his voice; then he takes his own advice, chasing after his lost staff, hoping that whatever this is, it can't follow them both.
[19:45] Two steps into his flight, an invisible branch sweeps against his feet, catching against his ankles and tearing him down. Something ripples into appearance, more limbs than recognisable body, all at the angles of a dead tree, an enigmatic silhouette against the sky – then something strikes at his chest like a spear, absent the full intensity of the necessary pain, and casts him out of the dream.
[20:51] Athechelt awakens with a start, his dream-self's cry of pain muffled into little more than a grunt, heart pounding in his chest. It's still light out, causing him to squint in the glare, but the tarp above still shields them from Thumak's gaze. His mind races to recall the dream, to piece the fragments together before their memories are washed away. He fiddles with the toolchain around his neck, unhooking the small pouch of pigment and his writing-quill, and begins scribbling the essence of what he remembers onto one of the spare pages on his staff.
A time of neither day nor night. A fragment of the sun, fallen from the sky, landed in Sinukaaj. A journey into the desert, scorching and freezing. Nadani emerging from the fallen shard. He pauses, trying to find the words for what happened next. She gave birth as a mammal does, to three children, tiny furred creatures with misshapen teeth. The shard of sun began to spread its corruption through the desert. She moved with lethargy, unaware of the danger. She couldn't see the Tarnish, and stepped in it accidentally. She let him carry one of the children, and it bit him. A flash of light, then spreading warmth. A change in perception, perceiving the invisible danger. It claimed the life of the one he carried, and then revealed itself to claim his own.
[20:52] He set his writing tools aside, and looked at what he'd written, finally taking the time to try and make sense of it. What did all of this mean? What was the dream trying to tell him? What did the mammalian children represent? Were they a danger, or something else? Why was Nadani in the dream? Did it mean he should keep an eye on her, or was she just a representation of something else — the familiar giving birth to the unfamiliar, perhaps? And what was the thing that claimed the child's life — it wasn't the Tarnish, so some other threat? Not the Nayabaru, for they refused to kill. A disaster of some kind?
The questions swim around in Athechelt's head for a while, unable to find answers. And it's still the middle of the day. Perhaps come nightfall he'll be able to make more sense of what he saw — in the meantime, he should probably try to get more rest. He takes one last look at his notes, trying to see if he left anything out... but if he did, his thoughts are too confused to pick up on it now. With a soft huff of exhaustion, he curls up again, and tries to get some more sleep before nightfall.