[16:10] Before the visitors had come, Athechelt had moved the group once every three nights – barring any special incidents that might have warranted additional caution. This was the fourth night they had primarily spent moving – spinning Edaaj's rope as they went. While none of it was spent running, it was beginning to tax on their energy reserves.
Kalina had been convinced they would have to keep it up for at least a yennedo, to be safe. The anonymous landscape promised to equal parts santuary and threat – they had never been here before, as they had never been where they had rested the prior day.
Here now was a short cliff of twenty odd metres, slanted, with enough of a lip to hide anyone atop it who wished to remain hidden. It afforded them with a view of the landscape for a few miles, forest thinning into shrubbery, with the hints of the arid wasteland beyond the same washing into the scenery as a faint colour, as though the outlines of the farthest vegetation had rusted.
Aching from the prolonged trek, Athechelt pressed himself against the lip of the cliff, giving in to his emotional exhaustion. He could understand Shyilun and the other organisations – perhaps despite all of the risks their methods posed, it was best to do something, to act, rather than to run all the time. It had taken the past days to make him truly aware how much they ran.
There was only little natural cover immediately near the edge of the cliff – a few trees clutched at it proudly, holding their heads up high, but all in all, this was a poor place to rest when not prepared. They had their tarps and the humans had their tents, but nature gave only minimal aid.
If one wished to give oneself to the Tarnish, this was an excellent place to do it.
Athechelt was not considering it. There was nothing to gain from such a process, be it for the group or for himself. But he did wonder what it was. And he did wonder whether Evenatra's existence meant he had been optimising for the wrong thing for years.
Perhaps it was moot – he had largely kept his people safe. Certainly, Gehki's capture would not have been prevented if Athechelt had viewed exposure to daylight with less fervent, existential fear. Serrata was Serrata; the Tarnish at most had once inspired the Nayabaru to create it, but it played negligible part in prolonging its terror now.
Still, potentially Tarnish did not exist. It was a frightening thought – how did one test that safely? Should anyone test it? If the visitors would bite them in some metaphorical fashion, was it perhaps Tarnish they would do it with?
His attention wandered. His fingers began to run through the paper slips attached to his story staff, taking note of the short phrases and keywords he had written there. A quill and a narrow flask of ink dangled from his tool necklace.
Go out and search for the lonely, the neglected, the frightened, and give them a home in your heart.
He glanced back toward the group, setting up cover for the night as they were. Evenatra was lending a hand to the humans and their tents. Yanaru and Kalina had disappeared to hunt, to bring them their evening meals.
Edaaj was very carefully handling one of the electronic devices that the humans had brought with them, trying to get it to do something interesting – Greg would often reach down to touch it on her behalf, his fingers somehow magically able to do what Edaaj's could not, as though the device recognised him somehow.
Rakashei was already sleeping, having had the longest trek of all of them; Nadani was curled up next to him, having made up for his longer time away by welcoming him back to the group and maintaining that closeness now, as well as tanking energy for the Watch she would be fielding in the afternoon. Idarago, meawhile, was looking for the best place to do so.
Athechelt's attention, however, once more lingered on Evenatra, his body language speaking of a deep wariness. It was clear he didn't mistrust her intentions – but that needn't make her a good omen, as Asraaban knew. Knowingly associating with Evenatra routinely bumped captives up a tier on the Nayabaru interest scale.
They'd spoken about it before, of course – but had they resolved it? Much had changed since then.
[18:19] Athechelt remained, as feared, his concern. Not his primary concern – as eternally, that would be the Nayabaru and those who aided them – but the Nayabaru were currently a solid day of travel behind them, and Athechelt and his fears were not.
The issue was he was uncertain how to address them.
"You seem bothered, ryrhakenem," he offered at last.
[18:41] Whatever might be plaguing Athechelt, it doesn't make him snap his muzzle around to Asraaban with any haste, suggesting that he's at least at ease with the people he's travelling with – an important trait for a ryrhakenem. His muzzle dips in response to the implicit question, tinged with apology. 'Yes', then. Still thinking about how to respond, perhaps.
Conversation was a luxury for wild, 'unorganised' kavkema. They treated words as a scarce resource to carefully ration – every syllable not spoken was a syllable fewer for the Nayabaru to potentially hear, after all.
The phenomenon wasn't as strong here in the middle of Asheenagiji, where only the mountain ranges were truly habitable and the Nayabaru comparatively scarce, but it still inspired pause in Athechelt.
"It falls upon me to know where I am guiding my people – yet I do not," he said, finally, softly. "Nitish Ynas cannot keep them safe." His body language appended something is coming and I don't know how to stop it – that deep wariness that had seemed directed at Evenatra just moments ago. "Perhaps my stories are simply obsolete here." It was a damning statement.
[16:29] He was not equiped to handle philosophical collapses. He was MANIFESTLY not equiped to coach a ryrhakenem through a crisis of faith. Asraaban felt his own faith was, comparatively, rather simple: the world was a mess, Evenatra was touched by the divine, Terenyira was Evil, and everything else was questions of detail and magnitude and origin, and occasionally a debate on gods vs avatars vs Threadwielders vs patient ancient spiders living on stolen divinity.
Evenatra could protest all she wanted that Terenyira wasn't a god; she might not be a Threadwielder, but she had a legion of spies and traps even Tkanetar could grudgingly appreciate, and surely that elevated her above the merely mortal. That, and being an immortal giant spider who had convinced the Nayabaru she was also a Nayabaru.
"Perhaps your stories are not obsolete," he offered, awkwardly. "Perhaps they're incomplete? And in this chaos you might find some of the missing pieces?"
[17:10] Asraaban's words touched on something, but it wasn't soothing. Athechelt felt the conversation press him against the serrated maw of his dream; its abstract teeth sunk into his skin. He glanced across at Evenatra once more, silently observing her, then to the humans she was interacting with.
"And yet I know stories that tell of Tamachelu in great detail," Athechelt observed, softly. "Those of Taaravahr, Akynkulla, Kiivenara... even some of the tales that have grown scarce and almost forgotten, such as those of Viyakaana. As long as we live and survive, we expand our stories; they are incomplete by that measure.
"Yet I also seek and know not of stories that would guide us on how to best interact with mammalian Yirha. Some of them have chosen, of their own accord it would seem, to remain with the Nayabaru. Some have chosen to accompany us.
"I know only of Tamachelu and her assurances that these creatures need not be our enemies – and the fervent insistance of one of my own that we help them, which has brought us where we are now. And I do observe that they are friendly, although we are clearly taxing them by keeping them awake at night.
"But if I cannot trust Nitish Ynas to be strictly true, although it has guided my people well so far, how can I trust the notions replacing it? And if I do not have this trust, what guiding role can I possibly take? I am a ryrhakenem – what use am I as reseit, thero or sekur, if my people have no ryrhakenem?"
There was no profound regret in his voice – he seemed curious about the puzzle more than he was wounded in pride by the idea. The sadness was there, the fear was there, but he was clearly set on resolving it.
Whether he could was another matter – they were all swimming blind at the moment, doing what felt right. If he wanted to find some kind of cosmological truth in this froth, it might just drive him mad.
But perhaps that was secondary – in a roundabout way, he had expressed a mistrust of the visitors. He was no doubt best dissuaded from pursing that path further, lest it put them at odds with their potential allies.
[18:03] Things would be much simpler if he could say 'nobody here has to worry about Tarnish because Tamachelu will protect us', and not have it immediately backfire.
At least he knew of other stories, which meant he knew that kavkem in other places did not necessarily believe that sunlight would corrupt them. Hopefully that meant he wouldn't react too badly to learning that Asraaban, as the only definitely-a-kavkem of Shyilun present, had also walked in daylight on too many occasions. (Not that he enjoyed it. It was too bright, too likely to be spotted, frequently far too hot, and definitely crippling. But when you were being pursued by Hesha, you kept running.)
None of which helped Athechelt. "...we're in the middle of a story, right now," Asraaban offered, at last. "Whatever you learn and share now is what will help guide your people in future. Nobody here seems to know the path so... I'm not sure. Maybe this is like tumbling down a rock scree. You don't try to guide yourself, you curl up and survive the fall, and then you pick yourself up and try to work out what happened and how to avoid doing it again. And the next time maybe you can come down on your feet and not plume-first."
[18:38] In the middle of a story. It was certainly true – in a way, it was the most mundane possible observation that could be made. It was always true. This story was just one of grave consequences. This story was one where, if they got it wrong the first time, they might not have a second chance.
But perhaps others might.
If Athechelt survived and retained his freedom through to the end, perhaps he could be the one to tell others how the story should go. It was at odds with what he felt the dream was telling him to do – to put himself in harm's way as that his people might escape instead – but perhaps the better way to look at it.
How did ryrhakenema of the coastal stretches view this dilemma? When given the choice between protecting one's people and preserving an important story, what was more important? In theory, any survivor could speak the story – the trade-off was not pitted against the story not being told at all, merely in less detail. Perhaps significantly less detail. That was the risk.
But what Athechelt actually asked was something else: "Do you think it likely there will be a next time?" It wasn't a rebuke, not by tone – Athechelt was not accusing Asraaban of a lapse in logic. 'Next time' could touch on so many facets of the current situation – there was ample room for there to be such a thing, depending on what one focussed on.
[17:25] "I think," Asraaban offered carefully, "that if a species is willing to hurl themselves across the heavens, with no disernable reason other than to see what is there... then that species is unlikely to be dissuaded by a desperate flight." Because they were crazy. Potentially a Shyilun sort of crazy, though, so not necessarily a BAD thing, but- "And also that they don't fear death; they WILL reach a point of conflict with the Nayabaru, now or in the distant future, and better for us both to have allies."
[01:39] Athechelt found the observations to equal part confusing and enlightening. Was there a next time, then? Asraaban had highlighted some of the positive traits of their visitors, but not resolved the lingering concern that Athechelt had that those traits painted an incomplete picture, and what it meant for the kavkema under his guidance.
"I would like to have allies," he said, softly, his gaze lingering lightly on the alien visitors as he spoke. By tone, he clearly meant it. "But if they do not? If, despite what you observe, they reject us, as those who have stayed with the Nayabaru already have? Will there be a next time, when this story that we might have learnt to tell might help others?"
[15:27] Asraaban, too, looked at their guests. "I do not think they have rejected us, as much as... I think they're like hatchlings, who don't like to believe things they haven't seen, and they don't realise how painful the lesson will be. There have been kavkem who thought they could negotiate with Nayabaru. I think the humans who remained are making the same mistake."
He contemplated his thoughts. Had he written off the remaining humans? Possibly. But what else could they do?
"There WILL be a next time," he decided. "...I'm not sure what it will be shaped like, though."
[00:15] For a while, it seemed as though that might have soothed the ryrhakenem, the silence less tense – almost like the pleasant silence between friends, steeped in the knowledge that someone trustworthy was in immediate reach, threaded with the unspoken awareness of everything one had in common.
Then Athechelt broke the silence with another soft question: "Should it come down to either protecting one's people or oneself, to carry such a story on with the detail it deserves, what would the ryrhakenema of your faith do?"
[15:34] Asraaban hesistated. "My ryrhakenem is... unusual," he cautioned. "She was rescued from captivity and hoards stories she was denied in her youth. I think, if she could, she would attempt to beat the threat to death with her own story-staff. But... I think she would flee." May his honesty not prove their undoing.
[03:53] Athechelt sank back into silence as well as a little in on himself, morphing into a slightly more relaxed bundle of feathers as he digested the information. It did not tell him if it was the right thing to do – flee, instead of fight – but it soothed his mind that others conceivably considered it an option, or were at least believed to consider it an option.
The stories she was denied in her youth. Athechelt considered the sentence separately, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a ryrhakenem who had once been shackled to captivity. Was that unusual? He wouldn't know. It felt unusual, as though one was vastly more likely to be a keeper of stories if they were readily available.
But maybe that was the wrong way to go about it. The only ones who could speak, first hand, of what the Nayabaru were like, were people like Asraaban's ryrhakenem.
Not that he envied her for the experience in the slightest.
"Your ryrhakenem is very brave," he said, finally, fully aware that it no doubt sounded strange in the context of being told she was likely to flee. "Would you be willing to share her story with me? In particular, I find myself wondering, was she born in captivity? How long was she in that state? How has it shaped her thinking – other than to deprive her of stories, of course?"
[19:21] This was, admittedly, not the direction he thought the conversation would go. But it was also away from dangerous plains, so that was good, yes? "Sahib knows me far better than I know her, and I am no ryrhakenem," Asraaban cautioned. "I am better at dry factual reports than stories." Although, when one travelled with Evenatra, sometimes the two converged. The moment they were living was one of them.
"She does not know what happened to her mother. The Pens somewhere, I'd hazard, or perhaps she was swift enough to suicide or even fled before she was captured. Sahib, however, was caught young. Old enough to know the Nayabaru were different, young enough not to fear them. Young enough to not recall her own egg-name.
"Apparently, a Nayabaru found her cute? And decided that since she was young enough to be malleable and had 'no bad habits yet', took her as a pet. When my shard rescued her... it took months before she'd eat food she hadn't thoroughly dissected first, because she'd skipped from crop-food to protein slurry. She still hesitates before she pounces, because she was trained not to do that, and likewise doesn't guard her belly, and when she spars she charges. And then hits you with her staff. It's disconcerting. And strangely effective for it."
None of that was really HER story; rather, it was the imprints her upbringing had left upon her. "She... talks about Manevash sometimes. And her sadness that he failed, because she can't help but agree a little with his goals, and also that the Nayabaru HAVE stories but they struggle deeply trying to SHARE them, and even their finest display, their tattoos, are desperately screaming the same short phrase over and over like a hatchling learning to talk."
[01:08] The story stirred something in Athechelt, bristling his feathers lightly, although it was not immediately obvious what. A slow, contemplative gesture ran fingers along his story staff. There were many things he didn't understand about these strangers – these Shyilungadecha. The notion of using a staff as a weapon was one of them.
But that was not what had disturbed him – it was an oddity to comment on, perhaps, but not harrowing. A ryrhakenem's greatest asset was their memory, not any physical object. A story staff had importance, was to some degree sacred, but not infinitely so.
"Do you know who rescued her?" Athechelt asked with curiosity, his gaze wandering again to their unusual guests and the one claiming to be Tamachelu, betraying his guess. He knew not to voice it – there was more coast than even a god could reliably patrol. Presumably, it was sometimes mere kavkema that rescued their captive brethren.
[20:51] "My shard did," Asrabaan answered, in slight confusion. "Or do you mean- I wasn't on that mission, personally; Sahib is older than I am. None of us are quite sure by how much." Age was less important than skill, and Sahib's skills lay in remembrance and understanding their enemy.
[00:29] That made sense, of course – and soothed his mind. It was bad enough that a ryrhakenem had to have first hand experience of captivity – it hardly seemed worth the benefit of the associated stories – but at least Sahib had, by implication, been free for a very long time now. He closed his eyes and let his body language speak of relief.
"When I learnt for my role," Athechelt remarked, his eyes remaining closed for the time being. "My mentor told me that to be a ryrhakenem was to 'go out and search for the lonely, the neglected, the frightened, and to give them a home in your heart'." He opened his eyes again and settled his gaze on Asraaban, brimming with appreciation.
"It is heartening that Shyilun is doing a better job at that than I could ever hope to attain. I do not have that mettle. But I hope I will be useful to this... mission nonetheless."