[02:31] Their prisoner and his guardian, owing to a slower pace, had dropped further and further away from them as they advanced. Eventually, they dropped out of sight completely, although when precisely Edaaj couldn't say, as their attention mostly faced ahead. Their route was clear and when it stopped being clear, they would stop and wait for the others.
As such it was strange when they caught up on their own, Baishar's arms no longer bound, and a severe expression in Evenatra's body language. "One of the Nayabaru caught up with us," she'd said. "It was the last thing it did, but let's veer elsewhere." Also known as 'a far less comfortable direction in the landscape'.
They took to climbing a rocky rise that didn't easily keep their trail, until that evened into hesitantly horizontal sliver that might, if one were generously inclined, be called a path through what was, here, a forest of skew trees. Athechelt lead their procession, the humans wandered immediately behind him, Edaaj behind the humans, then came Evenatra and Baishar.
Baishar's arms had been bound again as soon as the two had reached the new path, following some symbolic ritual that seemed perfectly natural to them, requiring no explanation. Whatever it was for, it evidently did not require Evenatra holding onto the end of the short leash, since she didn't bother (although it would have been difficult to remain in file if she had).
Then, finally, with the most immediate change of scenery behind them, Evenatra began to speak of her private conversation with Baishar. "Now that we've put some distance between us and the Nayabaru corpse," she said, in a volume that Athechelt could likely not make out, but didn't yet need to. "I believe I owe you a summary."
[02:47] Edaaj, by this time, had had plenty of opportunity to regain her composure, and to avoid thinking too hard about the fate of Nadani and Asraaban. Either they were all right, in which case there was no need to worry; or they weren't, in which case there was little to be done at this particular juncture. Further options would no doubt present themselves later.
[02:49] Nonetheless, there was still an unaccustomed tension in her stance, and some of it came through in her voice as well. "That would be ideal, thank you."
[03:18] "Be glad you managed to fight the device off," Evenatra said. "It would have twisted your soul beyond any recognition – most likely irreversibly." A pause. "Or Athechelt's soul. I don't think it would have been picky."
She let her attention flick back over her shoulder at Baishar, as though to make sure he wasn't changing his mind about trailing after them. "Baishar has been adjusted by something much like it," she explained, bluntly. "Which is why he's so unusual and why he attacked us.
"That said, he doesn't precisely mean to be our enemy; he's just following Nayabaru orders under the assumption..." – likely correct, if one was entirely honest – "...that if he does not, neither he nor Valcen will be able to continue what they're doing, which is working on a means to help me in particular."
Privately, she took note: And again, I am the reason the situation of my people has worsened. But Torai's admonishment still lingered in her memory. It was not her choice to torment kavkema – that was the Nayabaru. It was not her choice to destroy their souls – that was Valcen. Other than by staying on Nekenalos, she was doing nothing to attract Nayabaru ire to the kavkem population.
"Another copy of the device is with Valcen, who is accompanying the party of Nayabaru that are tracking us. There are still more of the devices, presumably in Katal, but supposedly not many.
"From what I understand of the Imitorunyemaa, our best defence may simply be to drape something prohibitively broad over our heads – an arm might do in a pinch, if you don't mind the contortion. Just something to keep in mind if we have the misfortune of running into another."
[03:36] Some of Edaaj's tension unwound itself. No danger – no immediate danger – of legions of Imitorunyemaa swarming across the landscape, and the only other one nearby had hopefully not yet been released – though the idea that it might yet be made it impossible to feel actual relief, as did the notion that it could twist souls if it were. It sounded like a small Tarnish on legs.
[03:42] In which case, the idea of covering one's head felt extremely appropriate. "The coverings we use to ward off the Tarnish might be repurposed," she mused aloud. "I had thought to manufacture bolas to try to tie together an Imitorunyema's legs, but a head-covering would require considerably less skill to wield." She glanced back, eyeing Baishar critically. "What, then, do this one and Valcen expect to be able to do to help from captivity?"
[04:00] "Indeed," Evenatra responded, evidently sharing Edaaj's broad assessment of their chances. "They're drawing plans against the Karesejat Terenyira. Given how hampered Valcen is by circumstances..." – Most notably, his death. – "...I wouldn't hold my breath that they'll ever succeed."
Baishar bristled, his Valcen knows what he's doing axiom protesting, but remained silent. The future was a matter of faith and it was plainly evident that Evenatra had none to the same degree that Baishar believed in Valcen's chances. Ideally, they would eventually simply resolve the matter by demonstration.
[04:28] Edaaj found it hard to contemplate. Planning against the Karesejat? From among the Nayabaru? Presumably dependent on the resources given by them? Perhaps Baishar and his mentor were mad after all; that sort of scheme sounded like an excellent and inventive way to be introduced to entirely new dimensions of unpleasantness.
[04:34] For all that they seemed to be able to accomplish – and the Imitorunyemaa, if they were indeed the ones responsible for them, were certainly an astonishing if disturbing accomplishment – surely they could not have the freedom of action or resources to seriously pose a threat to their captors. Surely the Nayabaru would never permit such a thing.
[04:37] If anything had been driven home to her over the past days, it was that although knowledge was there to be found, Kavkema were apparently not to be given the opportunity to find and use it freely.
[04:38] "How long will Baishar be remaining with us?" she asked, almost absently.
[04:58] Despite the physical leeway, Baishar was still Evenatra's prisoner, but for a moment the question found itself filed away as some sort of social nicety, and so Baishar responded directly: "...until the Nayabaru have calmed back down from finding their dead colleague..." – Step one on the Nayabaru to do list: Find the corpse in the first place. – "...and I can return to Valcen?"
Evenatra snorted. "No, you're not returning at all," she admonished, tone betraying irritation. "As long as you're not with the Nayabaru, they can't give you any instructions. The longer you stay with us, the longer you're not a weapon they can wield against the kavkema."
Still, there were scenarios in which she could imagine letting him go: The cybernetic eye becoming too much of a risk, too much of a potential tracking beacon despite its supposed passivity. A message needing to be passed to Valcen. A message needing to be passed to the other humans.
Or simply this group, ambushed, with Baishar the only one likely to walk free, the only even remotely able to break them out of it in the short or medium term.
But without those circumstances, she was not particularly interested in letting him return. They had only Baishar's word that Valcen was by some measure on their side and Baishar had already proven that his views were warped beyond recognition – letting Valcen manipulate this kavkem any more seemed like a dangerous and entirely preventable gamble.
[01:15] "That seems wise," Edaaj felt moved to comment, though privately she wondered whether killing him might not be even wiser.
[01:20] But there it was: Evenatra did not seem inclined to do so, and, in truth, Edaaj did not particularly have the heart to suggest it. Baishar had apparently been acting out of some misguided sense of the greater good, rather than malice; his way of thinking had come about due to a twisting of his soul, rather than his own true nature.
[01:24] Perhaps her previous idea about the Torunyemaa – that they were mechanical manifestations of the Tarnish – was not quite right, or at least not complete. If it were, surely Baishar would be more... straightforwardly unkind.
[02:12] And that was enough of a summary for polite kavkem company while on the run. If Evenatra had learnt anything else, she kept it to herself for the time being.
Nearly two hours later, the file came to an abrupt halt as their reluctant path, which had waxed and waned, finally disappeared into broken rocks.
Had the sun not disappeared behind the horizon by now, it would have been a Nitish Ynas dead end – there was no shade to hide under straight ahead or for all of what lay left and right of it that they could see. To Evenatra, it looked as though a large rockslide had taken out a chunk of the forest only a few years ago, now fortunately settled into stability.
A stream trickled between the rocks, barely accessible. They paused to wrestle with the geometries, pushing arms into gaps to refill their flasks, then began to climb the scenery up the mountain. Evenatra took the opportunity to speak to the humans in their own tongue about what she had learnt.
Up was the natural kavkem direction, of course – the obvious choice. Down would have sown more misdirection, but at cost of running into well-prepared Nayabaru that were waiting for them. Up they went.
Unfortunately, up was an exhausting direction to maintain, more so for their visitors. Well before the midnight sky loomed above them, they were running out of steam. When they came across a cluster of rocks that flanked a narrow cave-like structure, a fracture fissue with a roof, they crept into the shelter.
It wasn't large enough for the alien visitors to set up their tents by any measure, but they didn't complain – instead, they settled down into a sitting position, backs leant against stone, legs loosely splayed. Without tails to get in the way, that was a viable way to rest. Their packs were set down beside them, taking up again as much space as they did.
Edaaj and Baishar were bunched close to each other in the deepest recess, not too far from the humans, with Athechelt further to the mouth of the fissure, 'guarding' Samanta – although given their run-in with the Imitorunyema, this was more symbolic and out of social compulsion than out of any practical concern.
Indeed, he was continually nodding off even shortly after they had settled down.
Evenatra, who insisted on still having energy left, promised to patrol the area to be able to warn them if danger was catching up to them.
Greg fell asleep hugging his backpack slightly awkwardly; if it weren't for his suit, his cheek would have pressed against it. Samanta was simply hugging her knees – it didn't look like she was catching any solid sleep, but she was at least getting some rest. Athechelt had soon curled up into a ball, sitting on his story staff as though to guard it with gravity alone.
Baishar and Edaaj were also exhausted, but this was an opportunity to talk directly.
[02:45] This had been a very strange day for Baishar.
He'd finally seen a god — seen Tamachelu — in all her glory; had seen her disintegrate an Imitorunyema with hardly a thought and break a Nayabaru's skull without touching it — at least, not visibly. He'd spoken with Evenatra, and while he felt that he'd failed at communicating just how much Valcen hoped to accomplish, while it still hurt that she'd dismissed that and seemed implacable about treating Valcen as an enemy... there was still hope. Sooner or later, Valcen would find them, and he would be able to explain everything far better than Baishar had.
He'd also seen the Imitorunyema take its first true victim, its first proper field test. The memory of seeing that was delightful; it was a shame that he wouldn't get a chance to see it again for some time.
Which brought him to the strangest thing of all: Being captured by kavkema. Granted, at the moment, the bindings were more to protect him from the Nayabaru's potential wrath than to keep him contained, but it was still deeply strange. From what he'd gathered, they kept him alive to avoid unsettling the hyumans — from what Valcen had told him, they had a distaste for death not entirely unlike (but also not entirely like) the Nayabaru.
It was a lot to take in. He wondered when the Nayabaru would catch up with them; he wondered whether they had already found their fallen companion. He wondered what Valcen would do when his loyal servant didn't return.
On occasions like this, Baishar occasionally found it helpful to gaze at the stars; it helped him relax and remember that he had a place in the world. With a soft, slightly awkward motion, he raised his bound hands to the side of his face — and paused, briefly remembering where he was. He whispered to Edaaj, "I apologize; please do not be alarmed."
Without much more warning, he pressed one of his claws into his eye.
The eye did not burst, as one might expect, but rather shifted in appearance, the sclera adopting a gray sheen. A moment later, as if nothing strange had happened, he turned his gaze upward, at the solid rock of the cavern roof, a faintly relaxed expression on his muzzle.
[02:53] Edaaj had, up until this point, been studiously ignoring Baishar. So long as he did not attempt to flee or to draw attention to the group – which he seemed to have no inclination to do – what did it matter what he did? Edaaj had not yet been able to sleep, but a nap at least might be possible, to stave off exhaustion.
[02:55] When Baishar spoke and pressed his eye, she barely had time to register a sense of horror before witnessing the results. Her mouth, in the act of opening, clapped shut, until at last she said, "That is... a device? Your eye was replaced?"
[03:30] Baishar turned his attention back to Edaaj, a mild uncertainty in his body language. Was she horrified, or impressed? He couldn't tell. Perhaps it was some of both? After a moment's consideration, he dipped his muzzle respectfully. "Indeed," he replied. "Yet another of Valcen's incredible creations." He paused, uncertain how to explain its workings. "It... allows me to see things one cannot normally see." True, but perhaps unhelpful. There was a hesitance to his words, unsure as he was that they would be welcomed.
[03:33] Edaaj's hand twitched. She really sort of wanted to press the eye herself, which she doubted would be taken well. Or to examine it, which – since doing so thoroughly would involve prying it from his head – would be even less so.
[03:35] She would have to content herself with asking more questions. "Like what?" she said, curiosity making it sound as much like a demand as a question.
[04:01] The curiosity in her voice dredged up memories — memories of an earlier life, of a Baishar who did not yet understand his purpose in life. A time of embarrassing naivete and cowardice. His lips pressed to a thin line as he tried to forget that past. And yet, Valcen still took pity on me. He still taught me, he was patient. He answered my questions.
Surely, Valcen would be kind enough to indulge a kavkem's curiosity; and so Baishar should endeavor to do so as well.
But it was still difficult to explain. Like what. Start slowly, perhaps. "Well, for example, I can see the stars." His gaze wandered, scanning where the horizon would be. "... I can't quite make out where Evenatra is, but if she were closer I could see her." Interesting that he singled out Evenatra. He lowered his gaze further, then stopped, looking directly downwards.
"...Things like that," he said after an uncomfortable pause. "There's a... kind of light, I suppose, that kavkema cannot see. The stars emit it, but it passes through almost everything — rock, wood, metal, flesh — as if it were nothing. The gods, in their true forms, though, can see it; they inhabit it; and this eye can see it as well."
[04:25] Edaaj tried to imagine this. The idea of seeing the unseen, the realm of the gods themselves... she had gotten the impression, from things Evenatra had said, that the gods, besides not being as metaphorical as Tarnish generally held them to be, were not as thoroughly supernatural as other traditions held, either. In that way, she supposed, the idea of a machine that could see them made sense, even if it was not something she would have considered before.
[04:31] She was caught, briefly between the need to ask two very different sorts of question: she decided to forgo asking about what Evenatra looked like, and focused on the other. "And how is it that this Valcen is able to make things like this?"
[06:15] Baishar's gaze turned back to Edaaj, smiling lightly. "He has a workshop in Katal."
Of course, nearly every kavkem had heard of Katal. It was a place of nightmares; the largest and most infamous Pens were there. To hear it spoken of so casually was disturbing. Given the bluntness of Baishar's claws and teeth, it was a reasonable guess that he'd once been a prisoner there.
"The Nayabaru allowed him to make eyes like this, as part of his work on the Torunyemaa. Valcen was gracious enough to make one for me, and to convince them to install it." His claw reached back to the eye, which briefly shifted to an inky blackness before returning to normal. "As to how he makes them — I'm afraid I don't know all the details. He'd be infinitely better at explaining it than I would."
[02:09] Edaaj hadn't known what she'd expected. If it were easy to describe how to make things like that, they probably wouldn't be so miraculous. She'd never heard of the term 'industrial espionage', but clearly none of it would be happening just by talking to Baishar.
[02:10] The idea of talking to Valcen to find out more, however, was much less welcoming. The idea of working on such things in Katal, of all places, was terrifying.
[02:16] "Has he made other things?" she asked, changing tack. "Is there any sort of permission for him to make other things?"
[22:53] Oh, has he ever. "The Torunyemaa, of course," he replied, consciously trying to keep the tone of awe out of his voice. This was an ordinary kavkem, he reminded himself, untouched by Valcen's hands. They didn't feel the same way about the Torunyema as he did. "...You saw the Imitorunyema yourself; however you may feel about its use, you can't deny it's a technological marvel. The original Torunyema — the Oratorunyema — is even more impressive."
Baishar stopped himself. There was no need to wax poetic about the Torunyema; it would only serve to alienate him further. "...Understand, he didn't make those because he wanted to." ...Though, had Valcen wanted to? In the beginning? It was hard to tell; nor was it his place to guess at his master's wishes. "They were the price of his 'permission'."
For a long moment, Baishar was silent, wrestling internally with how to explain it. Finally, he turned his gaze to Edaaj, his expression curious. "Forgive me, I am not familiar with Nitish Ynas. You may not be familiar with the concept, but do you know what a qidravem is?"
[01:39] For Baishar to bring up the concept of the qidravem in this context suggested that certain previous speculations of hers had not been totally off the mark – much as she might have wished them to be. "Nitish Ynas as we know it," she murmured, "does not speak much of qidravema, but I know of them. I had not thought much of the idea.
[01:41] "But that, then, is what Valcen has made? Built qidravema? Things to hold the soul, and change it?"
[03:36] A toothy grin spread across Baishar's features, his tongue running across blunted teeth. "Precisely," he whispered, an electric excitement in his tone. "Although... a qidravem doesn't particularly change the soul it holds. In order for Valcen's plans to come to fruition, a single kavkem's lifetime isn't enough. So he's created a way to transfer himself into a fresh body."
He paused. There was more he could say, of course; he could explain the qidravem's functioning at a broad level, or the nature of Valcen's artificial hosts. He could share how honored he felt to be granted a qidravem of his own — though chances were the significance of that would be lost. Most kavkema don't like the idea of living forever, he had to remind himself. Most don't understand the appeal.
Of course, there was not much point in hiding the information from Edaaj; but he could at least try not to overwhelm her with too much at once. Let her ask questions, and provide what answers he could; much as what Valcen had done with him.
[03:48] So this was about another thing than the Torunyemaa. Edaaj was vaguely aware of the idea of gods using qidravema to transfer themselves into new bodies, though that had seemed the least credible part of the notion. But if a kavkem's soul could be molded like clay, then why indeed not held?
[03:49] She didn't know enough to say. She didn't know nearly enough. It frustrated her that she didn't, or quite possibly couldn't.
[04:01] "Functional immortality," she mused, sounding... not hostile, but vaguely dissatisfied. "Though, if it is a device, the qidravem could itself be damaged. Or impounded. Couldn't it?"
[04:14] Baishar grimaced slightly at the idea of damaging the Qidravem, briefly shuddering. "...In theory, it could," he admitted after a pause, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. "But it would be nearly impossible, especially without specialized tools."
... Tamachelu could do it. He'd seen what she'd done to the Imitorunyema, and what she'd done to the unfortunate Hesh who'd found her. Combining those, she could actually kill Valcen-sha. It was a terrifying thought; surely she wouldn't. She may disagree with his methods but surely she wouldn't try to destroy an ally.
"... Regardless, even if one could, there are still backups. Valcen knows what he's doing; he's planned this out. He's not going to die." And until he has no further use for me, neither will I.
[04:26] Edaaj had to wonder if that in itself might not have a downside. The Nayabaru, after all, did not kill. If ever they felt it appropriate to turn on Valcen, what torments might be possible to inflict upon someone could never have the release of death?
And yet... and yet...
[04:29] What things could be done with such a surplus of time? How much could be learned and applied when there was no interruption from a mind or a body crippled by age or infirmity?
Given long enough – given forever – could one not learn everything?
[04:32] "Very prudent," was all she said aloud, but in her distant expression it was quite possible to see the hints of a strange hunger.