[01:51] Day 41, Attempt 17. How quickly mortal volition erodes.
A part of Valcen had watched his own mental progression with a certain detached interest. Neither the count of days nor the count of attempts were near triple digits and he was already considering turning today's scheduled meeting into an ultimatum.
Already willing to undermine the reason you're going through this ritual at all? Weak.
He was disappointed in himself. He was disappointed in the biology that wrought these emotions. It amplified how fragile he felt. It made it frightfully clear how fleshy morals were, how tied to his biological machinery. A construct of the mind no more than hunger or exhaustion. Far too easy to get sick and tired of. A burden.
[01:52] He wasn't willing to give up on his just yet. He had sternly told himself he would at least try to make it to the count of fifty, but if the trend continued, realistically, he would be lucky to make it to thirty. Stubborn willpower would only get him so far.
He weighed the dim, glowing orb in his left forepaw, observing how useless it was in the bright light of the corridor. He'd convinced the Nayabaru to turn off the lights in the cell, although they promised there would be hell to pay if he ever let go of the orb while in it, more so if he dared to vanish into the darkness for even a moment.
[01:53] Their cameras would be nearly blind, but they wanted to be sure they could at least identify Valcen – that Valcen could be held accountable.
And so it was dark in the captive's cell when Valcen slipped into it, cradling just enough light to his chest that his thin mane was tainted with dull gold, and the right edge of his jaw was awash in an odd, warm glow.
[03:08] Before the door to his cell had even opened, the captive was jerked into alertness by the sudden, blissful darkness. Something unusual was happening. Nayabaru never shut off the lights in his cell — or anywhere else, as far as he could tell. He wasn't even aware they could be shut off until now. Was this some kind of trick? Sabotage? Or — possibly — a rescue attempt?
He knew that such things did happen occasionally. That they could happen, that they were possible. He'd never heard a story of such a thing happening in Katal, though. Given the size and complexity of this place, though — and given its reputation — he couldn't imagine anyone being reckless enough to try. But hope seldom bothers listening to reality, and his had somehow refused to die in the — months? — it's been since he was dragged in here.
[03:09] And so, when the door to his cell opened, permitting entry not to a Hesh but to a fellow kavkem, there was a jolt of surprise. He immediately tried to stand, before the metal collar fastened around his neck and the deceptively short chain attaching it to the floor reminded him precisely why that was a bad idea. He scrabbled his dulled claws against the chain in frustration, then turned his attention back to his potential savior.
"Shyilun?" he whispered hoarsely, a hopeful pleading in his expression.
[03:21] The phrase cut across his chest like a blade, part spike of frustration, part mangled empathy crying out in silence. It took him a moment to gather himself, to realign himself with the strategy of the day, inasmuch as it could still be called that.
Might as well.
Finally: "No." A single deep breath, clearly audible in the eerie silence of the cell. "Not anything like that, not for a long time, I don't think. No, I only have some questionable privileges.
"The good news is that one of the privileges is the ability to extend the privileges, although not for wholly arbitrary reasons.
[03:22] "No, rather, I am here to offer you a shocking degree of autonomy and far less of the poking, prodding and bored Hesh torture you would otherwise suffer – for the low, low price of your absolute obedience to me personally, whenever I choose to invoke it."
[04:22] The reply drove a blade into his gut, puncturing the hopeful narrative. Naive, foolish, shameful. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to bury the remains of his ideas about what sort of interaction this was and instead focus on the words coming from his visitor's mouth.
Not that those words painted a picture that made much sense. It was odd that he was speaking Naya. It was odd that he spoke of having 'privileges'. And the offer — the offer drove a shiver down his spine, sounding entirely unlike something a kavkem would ever request. Enough to make him question. The whole thing felt confusing and dangerous.
For a long moment, he simply stared at the visitor, as if studying his shape could impart knowledge of his motives. He was kind of mangy, with an uneven coat of feathers; evidence of prior dealings with Hesha? "What... do you mean, 'privileges'? How does a kavkem get 'privileges' in Katal?" If a kavkem is even what you are...
[04:32] "Presumably," Valcen quipped, drily. "A kavkem would get privileges in much the same way I've gotten them – by helping the Nayabaru innovate technology they desire but lack the intelligence to create."
[04:33] Leaving the implication that he was not a kavkem to dangle, he let his gaze drop down to the orb of light he was still clutching to his chest, directing a moment of resentment at the inanimate object in the form of a glare. He twisted the device a little, as though it were a crystal ball he might scry the future out of, then brought his attention back to the captive.
Sweetly intoned: "Do you know what a qidravem is?" Somewhere in Valcen's mind, he considered the various interpretations a kavkem might have of that mythological concept, musing on one of them: Dealing out potential threats now, are you?
[08:36] Not a kavkem. Or one so far removed from the ordinary to both speak in such a manner and to offer help to the Nayabaru. His mind began constructing other possibilities. A yirh? Possible, though unlikely. A kiikam? Perhaps. Nateh? ... If a god was helping the Nayabaru, it was probably one of the Havnateha, so hopefully not that. ...Or it was Tkanetar, though if that were the case, he'd probably be on fire and begging for a swift death by now, right?
The next question prompted a panicked jolt from the captive kavkem, accompanied by a wide-eyed stare at his unlikely visitor. A havnateh wants to use your body. A mental image of his soul torn to shreds, of his body hollowed out to make room for a malicious divinity, lodged itself in his psyche. As if his body language hadn't already answered Valcen's question, a nervous voice replied: "I'm aware of what such a thing does. And what its purpose is." ...But if you wanted to take my body, surely you would have done so already? Unless... "I... take it that's the alternative to your offer?"
[22:29] Panic was perhaps not what he had expected. A little strong. He watched the cowering kavkem with curiosity, taunted by the invisible thought processes in a skull only a very countable number of inches away from him. He could reach out and touch it. It wouldn't tell him anything about what the captive was thinking; not yet. Not for a while.
As the captive uttered a nervous question of his own, Valcen tilted his muzzle and his facial expression adopted a subtle disappointment. There really hadn't been any cause to believe this dabbling in a mysterious air would work, had there? But what else was there, but to vary the themes?
He resisted the immediate urge to simply end the conversation prematurely, even if it was only a single step not taken. Instead, he showed the way: "The alternative is that we simply forget about it. Nothing changes. You stay here; I move on."
Meanwhile, Valcen's fingers lodged themselves into the irregularities that made up the surface of the orb and he let it dangle from his wrist a little, as though considering casting it aside.
No. A thought like a whiplash. His attention swerved back up, a hard gaze latching onto the kavkem. The grip on the orb tightened, then flared into brightness purely by vicinity alone as he stepped across to the chained bundle until he was looming over the captive, tongue running along unblemished teeth.
[22:30] "Listen," Valcen leant down in disregard for any damage the captive might cause him, hiding the resultant nervous flutter of his mortal heartbeat. "The qidravem will shackle me, not you. But while it's one thing to craft one, it's another to ensure it has adequate hosts. I cannot do latter on my own.
"So I ask you now: Do you want to make a difference for your people? Or do you want to be the number the Nayabaru designate you as?" Or the number seventeen. You can be the number seventeen as well, if you prefer.
[05:42] Valcen's initial answer seemed to calm the captive somewhat, enough to let him consider his options. There wasn't any immediate danger here — at least, not yet. Though that did raise the question: Why would he bring up qidravema at all?
Before he had much time to ponder that question, his visitor was advancing threateningly, wielding the glowing orb like one might a sacred artifact. ...For all he knew, it could be one. An arm twisted up to partially shield his eyes from the glare, as his gaze shot back and forth between the orb and the kavkem-shaped visitor, attention focused on every word.
So many subtle, critically important things in so few words. So many questions raised. His mind struggled to put them all into some kind of order. The being looming over him knew how to craft qidravema. It also sounded like he didn't have one — yet. He needed a host — 'hosts', plural? What did that mean? How was he going to be involved? Not reincarnated by the qidravem, but possibly still with his body as a host. Possibly not, though.
And then, of course, that question. The answer was so obvious that he couldn't help but parse it as rhetorical, but there was an enormous gap between 'Sort-of-freeing one kavkem and demanding obedience and possibly a body in return' and 'Making a difference'. (Not to mention a worthy distinction between 'Making a difference' and 'Making things better'.) "Are you... Does that mean you're going to help?" A moment later, as if
realizing the ambiguity of his question: "Help the kavkema? Help Tamachelu? After you make your qidravem, and... have your hosts?"
Even after the words had left his throat, a part of him chastised himself: Did the answer even matter? What was the alternative? A lifetime of torment by the Hesha. Worse, a lifetime of torment by the thought that here was a chance, a moment when he could have taken the next step. A quest, a purpose, and all he had to do was reach out and take it.
Any Dynasharigadech worth his soul ought to leap at this opportunity. Why was he hesitating? Fear of the unknown? Fear of annihilation by a qidravem? Fear that whatever this being was, it might not have Tamachelu's or the kavkema's best interests at heart? If he could learn what it knew, if he could use or transmit that knowledge, if he could influence it...?
[20:29] Valcen's mind was cast into a sharp detour, parsing the question as orthogonal. He lingered in his posture – as if paused but for his breath and strictly physiological processes. Perhaps too long.
The truth was seductively close. It would be easy to give yet another neutered explanation of what he was hoping to achieve in the long term. An explanation that had in its previous sixteen variants gotten him precisely nowhere.
But lie? Could he lie yet? Had his patience eroded to the point where he was willing to say anything at all? It might have been a more appealing option, had he known what to say – what the magic words were that would yield enlightenment in the captive, that would yield what he wanted.
The theme du jour came back to him – mystery. There was no mystery in the hard statistics. 'There are too many variables in this equation as that I could give you any guarantees, but I am taking measures that I hope will have positive effects in the long run,' hardly fit today's narrative.
[20:30] With a mixture of nausea and aggravation coiled in his gut, Valcen offered: "I plan to live a very long time – but right now, in the immediate future, I am going to make matters worse."
[01:30] The response drove a spike of nausea into the captive's gut. "I see," he responded quietly, letting his gaze fall from the visitor's face to a spot on the opposite wall. Of course. Of course it wasn't going to help in the short-term; it was helping the Nayabaru after all.
And yet... it really wasn't the short-term he was as concerned about. 'Making a difference', if that difference could be felt in the distant future — that still counted. A part of him sought to clarify, to ask yet more questions. But what good would that do? Hadn't a part of him already made up his mind? Wasn't every additional question just an opportunity to dissuade him from the only true path forward?
Eventually, his caution and curiosity managed to win out over his devotion to his ideals. "...You spoke of making a difference for the kavkema. What kind of difference are you promising?" His eyes struggled to fix on the kavkem face looming above him. "Are you going to help us? Eventually?"
[01:55] There it was, the inevitable hurdle of statistics. Mortals always used that word – eventually – without really grasping what it meant and what a diluting force the progression of time was, a constant gnawing on carefully made plans.
[01:56] Valcen took a small step back, although the cell didn't leave so much room behind him as that he had all that much choice in the length of his stride, making the variation mostly meaningless. "If you want a promise, I can't give you one. Timescales, circumstances, events... they complicate things.
"Right now, I don't have a qidravem, and if you decline, then I will ask the next kavkem, and if they in turn decline, and this chain of events continues..." – ...then I'll probably just stop caring about your consent. – "...eventually, I die, and belie any promise I made.
"My interest is in Tamachelu, not in the kavkema. But if I can affect the status quo in your people's favour, this would please me." And if it means qasaia, so be it.
[03:17] With that, the pieces finally started to fall into place, laying his worst fears and misgivings to rest. This wasn't a havnateh — at least, not yet. Some other sort of shari in a kavkem's form, one who knew how to make a qidravem and — in spite of helping the Nayabaru, at least seemed to want to help the kavkema and Tamachelu. The earlier statement that things would become worse in the near future at least painted him as honest. What more could he ask for?
His nervousness wasn't entirely gone, of course — there was still the chance this could end horribly. There was still a chance he was making a preposterously huge mistake. But the unknown always held these terrors, and it always would. Instead, he focused on the alternative, the hopelessness if he refused, the lost opportunities he'd never have a chance to reclaim. Squeezing his eyes shut and taking a deep breath, he exhales the words: "I accept your offer."
[03:36] For a moment, Valcen's mind simply went blank. With a supreme mental effort, he stopped himself from uttering a 'What?' out loud. His earlier frustrations slammed into his confusion and melded into a brief spike of anger. He fought that down as well.
A strange hollowness invaded him. "Great," he said, politely and with a positive undertone that bore no relation to anything he was feeling. Fingers tapped against the glowing orb-light in a casual rhythm, expressing a disembodied excitement.
[03:37] Then it caught up to him as a surge of relief and elation. He let his eyes close, taking a deep breath, scolding and mocking himself lightly for having doubted, scolding and mocking himself equally lightly for the scolding and mocking, then dipped down his muzzle well below the height of Baishar's in gratitude.
The top of his head bumped deliberately against Baishar's shoulder and collarbone, contact softened by the mane. Sound partly muffled by the strange posture, Valcen murmured: "Okay."
He repeated it more softly, before withdrawing and gathering himself into a more professional posture, guiding all of his giddiness into a carefully arranged tension. "My name is Valcen," he introduced himself, as if all of this had come in reverse conversational order. "Let's get you out of here."
[09:13] There was a long moment of silence — long enough that he was wondering if he should repeat himself a bit louder, before his visitor finally replied. The initially simple-sounding response gave way to something else, a deep bow of gratitude, a sense of relief. It was puzzling — mostly for how little it fit with his earlier behavior. It felt deeply kavkem.
Finally, a name to place on his... whatever this relationship was. Savior? Mentor? Master? Guardian? ...Time would tell. "Valcen," he repeated, testing the sound. Like 'valcee'? an internal voice offered. Perhaps, even if he didn't look particularly strong. "My name is Baishar."
[18:16] "Well, thank you, Baishar," Valcen half-mumbled the near-platitude, meaning it as a gesture of appreciation, his mind wandering off. In a fleeting, absent-minded gesture, his free forepaw brushed against Baishar's muzzle near its tip, like an aborted petting gesture, and then he was turning.
A moment later saw him facing the entrance of the cell, reaching up with his free forepaw, then thumping against it a few times. "I have my volunteer," Valcen said loudly, although it was unlikely it could be heard outside – perhaps as a very soft mumbling.
Indeed, for a while, nothing happened. He was just about to repeat both gesture and call when the light came back on – abruptly, without transition, biting in his eyes, prompting a soft hiss. He staggered back from the door, mostly in an intentional motion, to leave space for whatever—
[18:17] It snapped open, and a Nayabaru, standard Hesh weapon in hand, stepped first in, then past Valcen with a snort, leering at Baishar. The wicked spike at the end of the spear-hook hybrid swerved dangerously, coming to rest near Baishar's muzzle, as though intent on gauging his eye out.
But instead, the Nayabaru had crouched, though casting suspicious glances back at Valcen occasionally, clearly tense. Baishar was less of a threat, of course, claws and teeth blunted as they were. "Make us any trouble," the Nayabaru growled. "And we stop caring about your privileges." The tone made it clear us referred to the Hesha, not Valcen.
One arm roughly pushed into Baishar's side, brushing him aside to tend to the anchors of the shackles.
Valcen had crowded away from the Nayabaru as much as the cell's size allowed, pressed into a thin corner, but effectively still in the way. The orb of light was presumably still lit – but with the regular light back on, it just seemed like some kind of ball he'd been carrying, devoid of any mysticism.
[20:54] The brief affectionate gesture felt unexpectedly nice, after what must have been at least a month of captivity and the anxiety of their introduction. It had been a while since he'd last experienced something resembling kindness.
As Valcen banged on the door and shouted to whoever was listening, thoughts began to coalesce around the recent shift in behavior. Something Valcen had said began to stand out: 'If you decline, then I will ask the next kavkem, and if they in turn decline....' It was very unlikely he was the first kavkem Valcen had asked. Cautiously, quietly, driven by curiosity, he asked, "How many—?"
Before he could finish that thought, the world returned to its familiar blinding brightness. There was a yelp of distress from Baishar as he covered his eyes with his forepaws, the required posture making the edges of his restraints dig into his skin.
He felt the Hesh's motion before his eyes could adjust, instinctively tensing up as it entered his cell, halfway convinced that despite his mysterious benefactor's 'privileges', this would only end in more pain. The other half clamped down on his fear, focusing it. Don't fight. Don't make any sudden motions. His eyes squinted open, and he was greeted with the sight of a familiar spike, dangerously close to his face.
The Hesh spoke, unclear which of them it was addressing, but it didn't really matter. If they even bothered to speak to a kavkem, it was always the same promise of torment, even if they used different words. A massive arm shoved into his side, pushing him into an even more awkward position to a muffled sound of protest; but he did everything he could not to complain, trying to make the Hesh's work as easy as possible. Just a little longer, and then you won't have to worry about this so much.
[22:04] The chain anchors came loose with a snort from the Nayabaru. Before Baishar could fully appreciate the freedom of movement, a smack struck him – no doubt light from the perspective of the Nayabaru, but reverberating through Baishar's body. "Get up and out of my sight," it bellowed. Well, apparently 'respect' was not part of his new set of privileges.
In a motion frightfully quick for a creature the size and weight of a Nayabaru, the Hesh veered to look at Valcen, slamming the weapon to trap him against the wall, one end of the metal implement clanging against the wall, the prongs caught against the door's frame.
"We're done," the Hesh grunted at him. "Two." His free paw raised to gesture with two fingers. "Not a single one more."
"Yes, yes," Valcen assured, a nervous arrogance to his voice. "Two is fine and all I need."
The Hesh glared. "Not a single—"
"Yesssyesyes," Valcen assured, trying and failing to shrink a little further into the corner.
[22:05] The Hesh snorted, its aggravation somewhat soothed. "I trust you won't be needing access to the Pens any more," it concluded, tone suspended between scepticism and command.
"Sure," Valcen responded. "That's fine."
[22:29] Baishar winced at the smack, curbing an instinct to hiss and bare his teeth — it wouldn't do him any good. A few moments later, he began scrambling to his feet, trying to navigate through the crowded space while dealing with cramped muscles. The Hesh had told him to leave, and he didn't need to be told twice. He slunk out as surreptitiously as he could, taking care not to as much as brush the Hesh with a wayward feather.
Then he was free of the cell, in a broad hallway, lights still too bright but his eyes were beginning to adjust. For a moment, he considered running — but that would be a fool's errand, surely. There were Hesha everywhere in Katal; running would net him a dart, followed by a loss of anything he'd hoped to gain in this encounter, followed by more torture by a Hesh with nothing better to do than to make his life miserable.
Instead, he took a few cautious steps from the door and flattened himself against the outer wall of his former cell, hoping this was good enough to be considered 'out of the Hesh's sight'. It seemed a strange request from one who was presumably supposed to keep an eye on the kavkema, but he knew better than to argue.
[22:30] Meanwhile, the overheard conversation granted him some additional context. Two kavkema — so there was another Valcen had already found. Why did he need two? 'Hosts', plural — but a qidravem only needed one. At least, all the stories suggested as much. Perhaps there was something he didn't know. (Of course, there were many things he didn't know. Soon, he would be able to fix that.)
[22:43] There was a Hesh immediately beside the outer door – as soon as Baishar's aching eyes were aware of that Nayabaru, it was also clear that those were the eyes that were going to linger on him. It seemed as though that were all the Hesh was meant to do, however – there were no words, no poking or prodding, no demands.
Apparently he'd chosen a spot that had this one's approval.
It took a few more arduous moments for Valcen to resurface – sans orb. He kept his posture low, although there was still a certain grace to his motions – the mark of a kavkem who had freedom of movement. "Come," he prompted, softly – but still in Naya, shooting a glance back over his shoulder at the door-guarding Hesh.
And then they were walking through the corridors – already a partial freedom, a space many times greater than Baishar's cell had been, if greatly subdued by the presence of the Nayabaru they encountered on the way. Not yet anything one would call privacy, but surprisingly devoid of active oppression, the remnant chains dangling from him notwithstanding.
[23:08] Once he noticed the second Nayabaru, there was a moment of terror that he'd done something to earn their ire — perhaps simply existing in their general vicinity. For a few tense moments, his eyes darted between the second Hesh and its weapon, halfway expecting some punishment — but as none came, he allowed himself to relax a tiny bit, eyes coming to rest on the weapon.
As Valcen emerged from the cell and bade him to follow, he took a single step to follow, then glanced briefly in the direction of the Nayabaru, as if seeking some secondary confirmation that this was acceptable. When there was no obvious motion to stop him, he turned and followed Valcen nervously down the corridor.
It was strange, walking through the hallways of Katal without a Nayabaru dragging him along. His gait had a bit of a limp to it at first, owing to extended poor posture in a too-small cell; it took some time for his tail to realize it had its full freedom of movement and didn't have to stay awkwardly angled to one side. He tried to mimic Valcen's posture, staying as low as he could while they were still in full view of the Hesha, trying not to enjoy his newfound freedom of movement too visibly. Short of the sounds of footfalls and the soft chinking of chains, he remained silent.
[23:21] It's quiet enough that he can hear Valcen breathing whenever he's close by, smothering their route in an eerie air. Valcen at least seems to be very sure where he's going – perhaps to a cell that 'belongs' to him, although if so, hopefully larger than the one Baishar had been crammed into.
At some point, Valcen slows, approaching a larger doorway, the guard of which glances at him with only passing interest – used to his presence?
[23:22] Without that words are exchanged, the Nayabaru twists to the side, tending toward the magic needed to open the door; nothing Baishar understood. They evidently had technology that could identify Nayabaru – perhaps from their markings? – and opened only in their presence.
Beyond the door was a stairway with two right angles, leading further down.
Further down. Baishar had been lucid enough of his incarceration here to know that they were underground – that true freedom lay in the opposite direction.
"<We can safely switch to Kendaneivash now,>" Valcen commented as they had meandered halfway down the broad stairs, designed for Nayabaru as they had been.
[00:01] Baishar glanced nervously up at the Nayabaru guarding the door to what he presumed was Valcen's cell — as he'd glanced nervously to essentially every other Nayabaru they'd passed along the way. The fact he was being escorted by a kavkem — or by a shari in a kavkem's shape, rather — touched the entire journey with a surreal, eerie air.
The door opened — through the same mysterious means all other doors in this place operated — revealing a surprisingly large space, with broad stairs leading downwards. Deeper into the earth. For creatures so fond of sunlight, the Nayabaru seemed to enjoy making their Pens as far from the outdoors as possible. How much dirt and stone lay above them even now?
There was a sigh of relief from Baishar at the switch to a more intimately familiar tongue. "<Thank you,>" he replied, tone one of deep gratitude. The Nayabaru couldn't stand the ancient language, for reasons he still did not fully understand. It wasn't as if they ever listened to what the kavkema said, regardless of whose language it was in. The switch signalled that, for now, they were safe from the Hesha.
A moment later, he added: "<...And... thank you for freeing me from there.>" It felt like a premature thanks, as if he wasn't really free of the Hesha, as if he might yet wake up to discover this all a dream. He considered a third aspect of this to be thankful for, but he should probably save that for when he actually learned some of the secrets Valcen knew.
Instead, given the freedom to speak, it seemed a good time to ask one of the many questions he still had. "<I... am curious. You mentioned to the Hesh that you needed two kavkema? Why?>"
[00:15] Valcen made as though to respond, but was cut off before the first syllable. "The community grows!" A Nayabaru lingered near the base of the stairs, glancing up at the two of them, wearing an expression awkwardly mixing respect and mockery.
"Tanak," Valcen addressed the Nayabaru, weaving a sigh into the syllables. "This is Baishar. Baishar, this is Tanak. You can think of him as my supervisor. He won't touch you without my consent." The inherent threat was so subtle as to be easily missed. Valcen's consent, not Baishar's.
"Are you sure you want to promise something you can't directly enforce?" Tanak asked, although without any malicious leering that Baishar might have otherwise expected of a Nayabaru – it seemed more as if he were casting an intellectual exercise at Valcen.
"Positive," Valcen dismissed it flatly, paying no detailed heed to the Nayabaru as he continued along his way.
[00:36] The sudden sound of booming Naya was enough to make Baishar jump, skittering to the back of his current stair-platform. Eyes darted back and forth between the Nayabaru and Valcen, a twinge of betrayal in his expression. You said it was safe. Even here, there were Hesha. Or, at least one.
Introductions were exchanged. Tanak. This one had a name. Presumably the others did too, but their shifts changed often enough that he'd never bothered to learn any. The promise of safety from this 'supervisor' felt dangerously tenuous — there was never safety from Nayabaru, as Tanak himself seemed eager to point out. Though the jovial attitude was unusual. Which was probably not a good sign.
Valcen was already walking past the Nayabaru without giving him a second glance. Baishar hurried to catch up, keeping low but not letting his eyes leave Tanak until he was past him. Don't confront the Hesh.
[00:57] Tanak seemed to eye Baishar curiously, but kept his distance, only loosely tailing after them. "It may be counter-intuitive," Valcen commented, seeming much more relaxed now that they were down here – wherever here was. "But Tanak has been assigned to me as a body guard.
"As you might have noticed from what happened in the Pens, there are quite a few Nayabaru that are driven by their prejudices and, amongst those, quite a few that don't necessarily trust I intend to stay true to my word. Any benefits I reap before I've proven my worth increases the chance that someone will override the Karesejat's word.
"So the Nayabaru that best understand the Karesejat decided that Tanak was to watch my back for me." He sighs at the absurdity of a Nayabaru protecting a kavkem. Flatly: "Which is why I get to enjoy the fantastic luxury of Tanak's presence."
[01:36] Tanak's gaze was far from comforting, but as long as he was simply watching from a distance, he was presumably not in any immediate danger. He quickly caught up to Valcen, happy to keep his distance from the unexpected Nayabaru.
The revelation that Tanak was a bodyguard for Valcen, of all things, was surprising. Especially since that might have been helpful in the Pens. Why had he been staying he—
At the mention of the word 'Karesejat', Baishar stopped dead in his tracks. Surely he must have misheard...? No, there it was again. "I... I'm sorry, but... the Karesejat?" His eyes, wide in fear with a mix of concern, found Valcen's. A moment later, his voice lowered to a whisper, as if afraid speaking the name might summon her: "... Terenyira?"
[01:39] "The Karesejat," Valcen confirmed, biting down any urge to quip that there was only one and the deduction was entirely logical. He bit up the follow-up remark of 'Was there a question in there?' and instead tried to guess at what Baishar was baffled by that would be helped by some explanation. With some amusement: "How do you think one gets privileges around here?"
[02:03] Baishar's mind balked at how flippant Valcen was being. Was he even aware of what he was dealing with? Was he aware, and simply ignoring the consequences? Was he reckless? Was he mad? "...I would think," he began, cautiously, all too aware of the heartbeat racing in his chest, "That one who sought to build a qidravem, would do well to avoid the attention of— of—" His grasp of Naya failed him. Glancing nervously back at Tanak, hoping that Valcen's earlier comments were truthful — "juna havnateh yria'is," he concluded. "That there would be some other way."
[02:22] Valcen chuckled drily. "<Now if only I could impart those words of wisdom unto my past self,>" he observed, letting Baishar's phrase nudge him back into Kendaneivash mode. "<It really doesn't matter now,> Baishar. Terenyira <and I, we understand each other, in the way close enemies do.>
"<We trust each other exactly to the degree it makes logical sense for us to cooperate and not a single inch further. She expects that I'll inevitably betray her, I expect she'll try to make my eradication complete and permanent shortly before I manage to do anything of the sort, and we both patiently wait to see how it all plays out.>"
[03:44] The switch back to Kendaneivash resolved one source of his anxiety, while the contents of Valcen's response added several more. What have I gotten myself into? From the sounds of it, Valcen had already made the mistake of getting involved with the Karesejat, possibly without realizing what a mistake it was. There was enmity between them — but also an alliance? A delicate balance that could only tip in the wrong direction.
There were hints at a deeper truth, as well. 'Make my eradication complete and permanent' was an unusual phrase that raised a lot of questions, all connected to the mystery of what exactly Valcen was. Perhaps he should just ask, once the pit of dread in his gut had subsided, once he had the strength he suspected he'd need to understand the answer.
Eventually, he managed to string more words together. "<I hope — for your sake, and mine — that you know what you're doing.>" His eyes locked onto Valcen's for a long moment, unblinking, concerned, as if gazing deep enough could grant him insight. Do you know what you're doing? Do you understand the magnitude of what you're dealing with? It sounded like he did, and whether through arrogance or skill, believed himself up to the challenge.
[04:07] "<Unfortunately, I do,>" Valcen remarked, even as he led Baishar into a spacious, circular room.
In the tradition of Nayabaru-designed spaces, it was too bright by far, although something like a tent of dark drapes had been set up near one end of it, with pillows peering out of the construct, with two or three having spilt out. The fabric otherwise gave no indication of what was behind it – it seemed quite suited for the task of keeping the light out.
[04:08] Near the other end of the room was some kind of desk, currently decorated with scattered, cryptic metal shrapnel, some kind of magnifying glass, and various items that even from a distance could only be a craftsman's tools (albeit far more advanced than wild kavkema had to contend with).
The room was divided into thirds by currently withdrawn sliding panes, potentially isolating the area Valcen presumably used for sleeping from both the 'office' and the thus far empty centre of the room.
The 'tent' stirred. The tip of a muzzle wiggled under the edge of the fabric, then eased it up, revealing the vague impression of another kavkem. For a moment, it kept itself still, staring directly at Baishar as if in scrutiny (although the glare of the room made it difficult, as well as no doubt the imagined scrutiny).
Then the person pushed forward and upward, dragging the tip of the fabric with themselves for a few inches, before the structure had enough and began to unravel from the soft shoulders, gradually revealing the rest of the body to the light.
It took her coming close enough for him to guess at the narrow whites of her eyes for her expression to register fully. She was sizing him up, as though trying to gauge his fitness for a particular purpose.
"<He's a little stiff-limbed, but I suppose that's to be expected; he looks healthy enough,>" she commented to Valcen, before dipping her muzzle in a brief greeting. With a meticulously polite tone: "<Welcome, thanks for joining us. I go by Ryrha.>"
[08:51] More frustratingly cryptic statements. Surely knowing what one is doing was better than the alternative...? Or was this a puzzle he was meant to untangle? If it was the latter, it would have to wait — he was still reeling from the shock of the last revelation.
He attempted to pick apart the knot of anxiety in his gut, trying to place his feelings in some kind of context. He had promised obedience to a shari of unknown power and provenance. This shari had already allied itself with Terenyira (yet had intentions to betray her), intended in the long term to help Tamachelu but would make things worse for both her and the kavkema in the short term, wanted to construct a qidravem (and knew how to do so), and needed him for... some purpose related to acquiring hosts. Possibly even using his own body as one. He still hadn't entirely ruled that possibility out.
When he put it like that... the pang of nausea didn't change at all. It's too much, a part of him insisted. He clenched his teeth. No. This was a Quest. He had to remember that — keep the goal fixed in his mind. You're going to help. You're going to make things better. All other concerns were transient, ephemeral, finite things. So long as he kept the goal in sight, The Progression would drag him along, panting and screaming, inexorably into the future.
It took a few moments for him to notice the change in surroundings, the contrast near the far wall catching his eye and pulling him from his contemplations. Blessed shade! A comforting sight amid all the upheaval. He resisted the urge to cling to that comfort — it could wait.
Instead, his gaze explored the space. Yet another massive room in comparison to what he'd just left behind. The toolbench caught his attention — he took a step towards it, trying to parse the scattered objects on it in the glare. Some were recognizable as tools — though they mostly looked Nayabaru-sized. Others seemed like random junk. How does one construct a qidravem? Surely not from metal.
Motion from the tent tugged at his gaze, where he saw someone emerge — another kavkem. The other kavkem. He studied her as she approached, not quite managing to place her expression in the glare until she was close. Studying him. Gauging him. Then she spoke, first to Valcen, commenting — oddly — on his health, then greeted him. "<Thank you, Ryrha,>" he replied, lowering his muzzle in return. "<I am called Baishar. You must be the other kavkem.>" His gaze turned back to Valcen, questioningly. "<Speaking of which, you never answered my question. Why two?>"
[13:39] Baishar's question led instantly into a part stern, part confused glance from Ryrha toward Valcen. Valcen shrugged. "<We were interrupted,>" he remarked, thumbing across to Tanak, who had now grabbed a lonely chair near the entrance of the room – outside it, but in good view of everything in it – and was settling down.
[13:40] "<What did you ask of this one?>" Ryrha countered, somewhat incredulously.
"<Complete obedience,>" Valcen summarised.
Ryrha glanced back at Baishar. With a motherly patience, she admonished the newcomer: "<You're an idiot for agreeing to that.>" There's no worry or distress in her voice – presumably, she means that it was an idiotic thing to agree to in theory, not in practise. Her next words confirm: "<You're lucky> Valcen <doesn't need you for that much.>"
"<I might,>" Valcen interrupts, briefly. "<Having a general-purpose kavkem might simplify some things.>"
[13:41] "<You already have a general-purpose kavkem,>" Ryrha shot an irritated glare at Valcen.
"<Oh,>" Valcen mused, seemingly pleasantly surprised by this revelation – Ryrha must previously not have made it explicit. "<...well, now I have two.>"
A sound halfway between a snort and a sigh escaped Ryrha, then she flicked her muzzle to dismiss that line of thought. To Baishar, she said: "<Thanks to his mother's care,> Valcen <is sterile, so he can't contribute to making> yemmysaa. <He has been told, by the likes of> Tanak, <to simply subcontract the Seklushia, but he considers this cruel.>
"<Hence our volunteer work.>"
[21:14] Baishar responded to Ryrha's admonishment with a soft snort. "<Given the alternative of rotting in a cell for the rest of my life, I would have been an idiot not to.>" Strictly speaking, not a contradiction of her earlier statement, but at least a justification for his actions. Not that a justification was necessary, but it might be helpful for whatever would come next.
Listening to Ryrha's explanation, he noticed a piece of interesting data: Valcen had a mother. Something to keep in mind. At her mention of eggs, things began to click. "<Hosts,>" he said, as if understanding the meaning of that word for the first time.
This wasn't what he'd been expecting. What exactly had you been expecting? If this was indeed his Quest, there should be physicalities to transcend; this seemed like the opposite. His gut couldn't quite decide whether to feel relieved or subtly horrified. On one hand, it wasn't his soul at risk of being eviscerated. On the other, the thought of bringing life into this place....
[21:15] Things would get worse before they got better. And it wasn't as if he had much choice in the matter; merely the choice of how he would feel about it. "<I see,>" he replied, tone suspended between stoic acceptance and disappointment. Did he? Really? "<How... many do you need?>" The wrong question. But maybe it would still lead him to the answer to the right one.
[21:48] "<However many it takes,>" Valcen responded. "<Ultimately, what I need is a biology that's suitable amenable to the technologies needed to transfer a mind – a soul, if you will – from one host to another, ideally without having a consciousness of its own that needs any subverting at the adult stage, but without dying from the lack of intellectual stimulation.>
"<The eggs will let me explore these genetic underpinnings. Most of them will die – given the broad swaths of changes I'll be making, their average viability will drop sharply. Once I have a genetic basis, once I know which chromosomes to tweak to make hosts a useful reality, I may still need Ryrha, but your participation would become optional.>"
...well, some of those words made sense.
[22:12] Valcen's response was... almost comprehensible. Several of the words he'd never heard before. Baishar glanced to Ryrha, briefly, wondering if she understood more than he did. He tried to summarize what he could grasp from that in words he understood. "<You need to experiment with the eggs themselves, to make them... receptive?>" It was a valiant attempt. A moment later, he frowned. "<...Why? A qidravem is a qidravem; does the nature of the host matter?>" There was a burning curiosity in that question, a level of fascination Valcen hadn't yet seen from this particular kavkem.
[22:16] Valcen glanced back at Baishar with a certain degree of dispassionate confusion. Then: "<Maybe you missed a part of the narrative, so let me stress it again: I have no interest in destroying a functioning consciousness. Nevermind that a body not designed for my mind would be far more difficult to control.>
"<See, for example, all motions you make with your limbs? They're controlled by your mind. But the pathways running into your limbs are subtly different than mine. If I were to put my current mind into your body in its entirety, I would have to learn how to walk all over again.>"
[22:50] Baishar bristled slightly. "<No, I... understand why you'd use eggs,>" he replied, trying to sort out where he'd miscommunicated. A moment later, he added, "<And I appreciate that you're not planning to take my body, or anyone else's.>" He shut his eyes, blocking out the glare to help him think; his tongue idly ran across blunted teeth. "<But... I still don't understand why you need to... design a body.> Nateha <do not have this problem with their> qidravema, <do they?>" His eyes opened, gaze finding Valcen again. "<...And that is what you intend to become, is it not?>"
[00:08] Valcen flicked his muzzle in dismissal. "<Resume being,>" he corrected, with a loose smile and intense stare. "<As for the design question,>" he continued. "<The mind of a> nateh <is very, very different to that of a kavkem.>
"<If Tamachelu decided to take you as an avatar, most of her mind would not reside inside your skull. On the other hand, my skull is all that's left of me.>
"<Normally, when a> nateh <dies, their body, bereft of all thinking apparatus, ceases to function. If it does survive the death of the> nateh, <it will be an imbecile, a doddering idiot, likely incapable of as much as simple language, often incapable of hunting and sustaining itself.>
"<That I'm talking to you at all is a miracle. It's a carefully designed miracle, planned and executed with great caution. I am only a fraction of my designer, though I continue to carry ver name, and enjoy a certain... continuity of thought. But I am a carefully selected fraction, self-sufficient and intellectually capable of continuing what ve came here for.>"
[18:57] Those first two words rammed into his thoughts like a charging Rheshjere, splintering everything. Resume being? He stared at Valcen, dumbfounded, hearing his words but not entirely processing them. You were a god. A former god. The idea at first sounded like an oxymoron, a paradox, a sick joke. But as Valcen spoke, it began to make a certain kind of sense.
If a kavkem could, under the right circumstances, with the right tools and the right knowledge, transcend mortal flesh, then there was no reason to believe the reverse could not happen as well. That a god — or rather, a shard of a god, a piece that could fit fully into a mortal-shaped vessel — could become mortal.
The very concept of it made him nauseous. Had this happened willingly? Unlikely; what god would do this to itself? And yet it had been carefully designed. Why? And if Valcen was merely a piece of a god, where was the rest? His earlier comments — 'the Karesejat will try to make my eradication complete and permanent' — hinted at the horrifying truth.
Baishar was dimly aware of his body's posture, sunk down on all fours, gaze turned down toward his shadow, blunted claws seeking purchase on a surface that offered none. He was dimly aware of the moisture clouding his vision, making the overwhelming brightness of the room that much worse. "Siigu—" he began, but the question was stopped short by the lump in his throat. "Zetu ta'—" The phrase was aborted by a whine of distress, his resolve buckling under the weight of it all.
[18:58] A long, tense moment later, Baishar's gaze snapped up to Valcen. "<How can you bear it?>" he sobbed, voice raised and as filled with emotion as Valcen had ever heard him speak. "<Everything you've lost, for— for this, this miserable finite existence!>"
[19:39] The empathy was unexpected, visibly startling Valcen. Muted, he stared back at Baishar, his expression and body language cycling through confusion, disgust and appreciation, feathers puffing out in irregular intervals, jaw working.
Of course Baishar couldn't know what it was like, couldn't fathom it, but here he was, willing to try. Thinking to try. The words struck Valcen as hollow and subtly false, a painful mockery of the whole process, but it was clear it was unintentional.
Then he shook himself as if to rid his feathers of water, eyes fluttering briefly as he composed himself. Softly: "<In the first shock of the moment, for better or worse, I didn't have the luxury of dwelling on it.>" His tongue probed across his thin lips for a moment's pause, before he added, audibly trying to keep his tone meticulously matter-of-fact: "<The worst is the... erosion.>
"<Every day is a mental decline. The... format of a kavkem mind, of any nyaqen mind, does not lend itself to any permanence. When you come from a format that allows perfect recall, where you can choose what to remember and what to discard, it's...>"
He trailed off, blinking – to suppress tears? The topic seemed to have shaken him; his voice was subtly frayed at the edges. But when he spoke again, it was an almost aloof finality: "<No matter. Such musings won't help you help me.>"
[21:25] Baishar watched Valcen's expression with uncertainty, the silence feeling eternal. Have I gone too far? At moments it felt that way, like he must have upset Valcen in some way, but it seemed like Valcen himself wasn't entirely sure how to feel about his question. Has no one ever asked you this? some part of him wondered. Am I the first person to care? A second thread of thought, split off from the first: How long have you been in this state?
The first few words of Valcen's reply only made the circumstances of his mortality more mysterious. What caused this? How was it both planned and sudden? Was the havnateh Terenyira involved? He had no desire to know the answers to these questions — not now, not at this very moment. He would need time to process all of this. Hopefully that was a luxury he'd be able to afford.
As Valcen expanded on what he meant by 'erosion', a sense of awe mixed itself in with the horror in his gut. To choose what to remember and what to discard. He could just barely imagine it — impossibly distant, comprehensible only as an abstraction; he couldn't make it visceral, real. He could imagine what it was like to lose it only by analogy. Was it like losing all sense of memory, living with only an understanding of the present, devoid of context? Of course not; any metaphor could only be a sketch of what it must be like, a drawing of a kavkem in the dust compared to the real, living thing.
Of course, he had the real, living thing here, before him. He didn't entirely have to imagine what it was like; from what he could gauge of Valcen's manner, the answer was 'traumatic'. There was something fragile there, well-hidden at most times but briefly exposed. He could reach out and grasp it, pull it close, do what he could to protect it—
Valcen's final words had a cold edge to them. They didn't sound defensive, but that was one purpose Baishar was certain they had. Something constricted in his chest. He inhaled sharply, then let his breath out slowly. "<Of course.>" His mind scrounged together the bits of debris, the broken thoughts and hopes and fears. He would deal with them separately. "<Of course,>" he repeated, softer, pushing himself into a stand, squeezing eyes shut and shaking away what remained of his tears. Another inhale, slower this time. The Progression beckoned to him, hooks sunken into him, dragging him forward. "<...Is there anything you require of me at this time?>"
[21:38] Valcen seemed to consider the question for a moment, as though rolling options around in his head – or perhaps merely pondering the curiosity that it had been asked at all. Finally, he flicked his muzzle upward in a light dismissal. "<Come to terms with your new situation; spend time with Ryrha, exchange ideas. If you need anything, summon Tanak. I'll approach when I need your assistance.>"
[22:25] Baishar glanced over in Ryrha's direction when her name was mentioned, his mind having been so preoccupied that he'd nearly forgotten about her presence. There was a hint of concern in his expression, but she seemed to be unfazed by his recent outburst. His gaze turned back to Valcen, and he lowered his muzzle deeply in gratitude. "<Thank you.>"
His gaze turned to the makeshift tent on the far side of the room, the darkness within inviting. Come to terms with your new situation. He was not expected to be ready yet. He could allow himself a modicum of comfort as he did so. He was permitted to take his time. He was obliged to take his time.
He paused there for a moment, indecisive, then turned his attention to Ryrha. "<May I enter your home?>" he asked, tone polite, if mildly uncertain that he was asking precisely the right question. 'May I enter the makeshift pile of furniture that looks like the only decently habitable space I've seen in over a month' felt like it lacked a certain tactfulness.
[22:37] Ryrha twitched her muzzle back in the kavkem equivalent of a quirked brow. "<Such a strange question, given we're supposed to be mates,>" she commented, bemused; glancing instead to Valcen to assess if he needed anything unspoken. As the nateh-sunates turned his attention away, she, too, broke off, and gestured for Baishar to follow.