[23:34] For Baishar, it was hard to say whether everything had gone to plan.
There was a case to be made for it, but it was lost somewhere in the sea of emotion. Just moments ago, he had been acting out the will of the Nayabaru to help secure Valcen's future in their technological framework – now he was Evenatra's prisoner, led by a short leash bound to his wrists, in her personal space in the most literal sense.
They were a little slower than the rest of the group. The kavkem he had wrestled with first — his adrenaline spiking, the urge simply to keep her from interfering with the Imitorunyema as it pursued the ryrhakenem as its goal, in a way he might have succeeded with if it weren't for Evenatra's appearance — seemed to want to linger with them, repeat her questions, pluck answers from his body by physical force. The ryrhakenem, voice taut with an annoyed flavour of fear, had finally drawn her away, to flank the path of the two humans, to lead them through the landscape while providing them a guarding escort.
Evenatra had enough wisdom to know that it was easier to get comprehensive answers out of someone who was not being stared down by a group. It was easier to open one's soul to a single kavkem's scrutiny.
It felt strange how obvious it was that he would have to do just that. Valcen was obviously pursuing worthwhile goals, Baishar's emotions would hardly have it any other way. But out here in the thicket of the forest, far from the right angles and glinting metal constructions that gave Katal its distinctive feel, it was hard not to feel misplaced and, somehow, wrong.
Perhaps it was just a subtle wrongness – one of being raised by different mentors, in different flavours of faith, such as the differences his own cosmology had proven to have from Ryrha's flavour of Leksharia.
But perhaps it was more pervasive than that.
The dangerous tension that Evenatra had initially radiated had since evaporated – first into what felt like a crushing indifference, then into something far softer, like the cautious pity directed toward a wounded predator. It was in that last state that Evenatra addressed him in Kendaneivash:
"If I'm to talk to you, we should speak the same language. Let's begin with the basics." Her voice a gentle firmness to it, like a teacher displeased with her student's error yet confident his intelligence would allow him to learn from it. "What is Valcen to you? And indeed, what do you believe Valcen is?"
[01:55] There was something undoubtedly very strange about being captured by kavkema — to say nothing of being captured by Tamachelu. For there was no one else it could possibly be; there was no one but a god who could have dissolved the Imitorunyema without even visibly touching it.
And yet when she spoke, she did not speak of the Imitorunyema. She spoke of Valcen. "He is a havnateh," Baishar replied, in answer to both questions, his tone solemn and reverent but with a calm certanty to it. "...Or at least, that is what he will be." A moment of silence, of collecting thoughts. "To me, he is also... a teacher; a guide; one who is willing to share his knowledge and the fruits of his labors." He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the lectures on spacetime, the first glimpse of the world of stars, the thrill of handling the Torunyema. "And he has. He's shown me so many things I would never have seen, if not for him.
"And in exchange, all he asks for is my obedience — which I am more than willing to give him."
[02:09] Evenatra's instinct, beyond staring at her captive as much as their forward progress across uneven ground allowed, was to ask 'Have you ever paused to listen to yourself?'. Experience smothered the urge before it as much as manifested in her body language, but the stare remained.
A guide. She tried to picture it in her mind's eye. Valcen, in his infinite hubris, taking on an ignorant protégé, teaching it little tricks and trivia, securing himself mortal-eternal reverence. Some part of her that knew the Valcen from before his exile appended the footnote that perhaps it was not hubris, but it was a small voice, easily cast aside.
All he asks for is my obedience. If she had let her emotions run unfiltered, it would have made her shudder. But it had been expected, to some degree. This was clearly a victim, so obvious in his twisted state that she had cast aside her anger at him. He couldn't possibly help what he had been coaxed into. But she hoped he could break out of his spell of his own volition.
"Has he tampered with you?" she asked, her voice soft, as though asking someone about a broken limb.
[03:21] Baishar grimaced lightly at the question, more for the implications than the content. 'Tampered'? It wasn't a terrible way of describing it, but it left a sour emotional taste in his mouth. It reinforced how out-of-place he felt, like a stranger to what had once been his own people. Cautiously, he replied: "I would not describe it that way, but yes. He has changed me... though there is much more to the story than that." If she wished to hear it, he would tell it; but he wasn't sure now was the right time, nor whether she wished to hear it at all.
... Still, something did not sit right with him. "... May I ask something of you?" A pause, to be sure he had the right to ask, then: "What do you have against Valcen?" Because it was clear she didn't like him; he imagined that once upon a time, if he'd seen what she had seen, he might feel the same way. Perhaps he could convince her that he was not as bad as he seemed?
[03:43] A vast inferential gulf gaped between them, for a moment of mortal frustration seeming far too great to ever cross. What did she have against Valcen? The manslaughter of half of her entire species. Vis discarded avatar that had turned this world into thrice the death trap it had previously been. Vis allegiance with the Nayabaru. The fine detail that ve was, by the looks of things, both capable and willing of brainwashing her people into believing his whims.
The more eternal mind tempered her responses. This was, it reminded her synapses, a victim. Hopefully he would thaw out of it eventually, but Valcen had likely been thorough. It wouldn't be easy. Remember, you're a Threadwielder. If you have anything in abundance, it is time. Be patient.
She took a deep breath. "Valcen has a longer history with my people of being... reckless," she began to explain. "He's killed hundreds of us in a single accident, and now there are not many more hundreds left. He isn't supposed to be involving himself in anyone's projects, but he's decided to come here and try... something." The equivalent of a shrug rippled through her.
"He started to try that roundabout a hundred years ago, and when he briefly left to get help, he left behind something which immediately succumbed to the Karesejat's persuasion and taught her how to use a precious resource that has made her a significantly more formiddable enemy to me.
"Meanwhile, the travel companion he chose to return with nearly incinerated the planet, necessitating a hasty stellar migration, disrupting the previous rhythms of this world.
"And now he has for some reason chosen to align himself with the Karesejat once more, threatens to bind our alien visitors to the Nayabaru by sheer diplomatic merit of his ability to speak their language fluently and, as near as I can tell from your commentary and the term 'Imitorunyema', decided to rend the souls of my people from them." A pause.
"Does any of that strike you as particularly fertile grounds for a friendship?" she asked, drily but earnestly.
[04:30] The first revelation sent a shock through Baishar; for a brief moment he stopped dead in his tracks, before nearly tripping over himself as Evenatra continued forwards. "He—" That... was a surprise. Killed hundreds of Threadwielders — hundreds of gods — in an accident. The idea of it was harrowing; it reminded him of what Ryrha used to say — that he was Q'ur, harbinger of the end of time. It was too much for him to bear. He struggled to listen to the rest of what Evenatra said — but it was hard for his mind not to keep spiraling back to that one point.
It did nothing to diminish his loyalty to Valcen, of course; he already knew that Valcen was terrifying. This only served to enforce it. Remember this. ...He would have to ask Valcen about it later, to understand it.
"...It pains me to hear that," he finally whispered after a seemingly-endless silence. "I am sorry for the loss of your people." Judging by his body language, the words were sincere — even though words could hardly express what it must have meant.
"As to the rest — perhaps I can help. He desires to help you. I desire to help you." He looked over his shoulder briefly, scanning for signs of pursuing Nayabaru, before returning his attention to Evenatra. "...But he is limited in what he can do. He — he is no longer what you are; he is no longer a Thread-wielder. The Karesejat destroyed that part of him. He's bought himself the time to help you, at the cost of aiding the Nayabaru.
"I cannot tell you what exactly he plans; he cannot share that with me, or the Karesejat would discover it. He might be able to share that with you, if it were possible to do so discreetly — but I do not know how that might be done."
[05:02] A trace of annoyance flickered through Evenatra as Baishar began to speak of Valcen's desire to help, gearing up to explain that she was entirely aware that this was his stated goal, that they had spoken about it before. The emotion deepened as Baishar continued with some narrative of 'he is no longer what you are'— until the weight of that began to sink in.
There was no Valcen.
Instead, there was merely something that called itself Valcen, like the Neivat'va from a century ago had chosen to call itself Neivat'va. It sank into her gut, gently twisting it into knots. That's why he didn't answer – he couldn't, there was no one there to answer her. That's why the creature bearing his name was aiding the Nayabaru – he was literally at their mercy.
It seemed like a pitiful continuation of the Neivat'va narrative, which puzzled her. Had Jeneth in his disdain not forwarded the information to Valcen at all?
The alternative occurred to her like a whiplash: Had it been intentional? Did this fragment call itself Valcen because there was more of Valcen in it? Had it been specifically designed to survive an encounter with the Karesejat?
It was a feat worthy of her respect if that was what he had done, but he had, as usual, not thought it through. He should have predicted that his avatar would need to bargain with the Nayabaru. He should have known that whatever plans he had for his mortal fragment, they would be hobbled, prevented from ever coming to fruition.
And yet, this kavkem spoke as if there were a chance of those plans succeeding. Perhaps it was to be expected – if he did not know what Valcen's plans were and if he had been programmed to be loyal to Valcen, it was no doubt easy for him to convince himself that they had to succeed, eventually.
With sadness in her voice, she said, with an air of finality and a worn-out, matter-of-fact tone: "...and yet, you are not helping." The look she shot Baishar was one of second-hand apology – I apologise on behalf of Valcen for what he's done to you and the people you care about. "Tell me about the Torunyemaa?" She sounded as though a part of her firmly preferred never hearing an answer.
Privately, she continued to digest the news that the Threadwielder was gone. Whatever his crimes, he had not deserved it. Ysikary, toward the end of her days many times more wicked than he was, had not deserved it. Yet in both cases, it seemed like a kind of grim poetic justice – Ysikary for creating the weapon in the first place, Valcen for the deaths of others.
But how she yearned for a world where they were both alive and well.
[17:25] The words came as a blow, their finality crushing. Frustration bubbled under his skin. 'We will,' he wanted to say. 'I promise you, we will.' Was she impatient? Or did she simply believe that Valcen's plans would fail? He couldn't tell.
Then she asked about the Torunyemaa, and a shiver went down Baishar's spine. Memories of his own time in its loving embrace came to the surface, and it took conscious effort not to get distracted and trip over the uneven ground. Where do I begin?
"The original — the Oratorunyema, you could call it — lies within Katal. The Nayabaru bring captives, Valcen uses it to look inside their minds. It's — it's a painless way to get the information the Nayabaru want. Only Valcen and I can use it; he stands as the filter, keeping any information about your whereabouts from them.
"It can also—" The words caught in his throat, momentarily lost in a pleasant memory. After a moment, he started again, more quietly, his tone almost reverent. "Valcen can use it to write; to shape their minds." Baishar squirmed lightly, trying to maintain what mental cohesion he could, trying not to lose himself in memory and burning desire.
[17:49] I can see that, she wanted to say in a tone of dread, scolding and deep concern, but it was clear that would yield nothing. She kept it to herself, digesting what he'd said, what his body language had said, what she was learning about how Valcen was putting his knowledge to use.
Not that different to Ysikary, perhaps. Not that different at all. If the mind doesn't conform to your expectations, why not simply change its composition? Ysikary at least had the good sense to do it genetically rather than rend through an existing sophont's identity.
To say it sickened her was not quite right. The visceral reaction she felt was deeper than that – a second-hand sense of violation, contempt at that someone would shape minds in the same way as it was customary to shape avatars, simply because he could and it was a convenient thing to offer to his captors in exchange for—
In exchange for what?
But she could see it now, slot it into what she had heard stories of, filtering through in fragments: Baishar's lord was Vasharesh. That is how her people had called him. Their puppetmaster, the one who held the strings.
She could see he was good at what he did.
She could also see he was proud of it. He'd put his pride into this minion, implanted it into his soul, let it fester as admiration. Baishar's body language screamed at her: It's right, it's right!, leaving a foul taste in her mouth.
Yet she still asked: "Do you think it's right that he's doing that?"
[19:00] The question tumbled through his thoughts, jarringly foreign. Do you think it's right? A part of him wanted to eagerly agree — of course it was right; it was the most right thing in the world. And yet he hesitated. Did he think it was right? It was inevitable; it could hardly be any other way. It was what Valcen was doing; he could hardly imagine Valcen doing something wrong.
But a part of him knew it was not right, not in the strictest sense, not in isolation. That Valcen had shaped him to feel that it was (—no, don't think about that, it'll only distract you—welcome as that distraction might be right now—), had shaped him to enjoy that feeling, didn't change it. It was still a sacrifice — a necessary one — but sacrifices weren't good in themselves, only in what they allowed you to do, only in what they were sacrifices for.
"...If we lived in a world where it was not necessary —" The sentence stopped dead in its tracks. If it hadn't been necessary, would Valcen have ever done what he'd done? Would Baishar have ever known the bliss of the Torunyema's embrace, of Valcen's gentle manipulation of his soul? "... It is hard for me to imagine such a world," he concluded, unsatisfyingly.
After a long pause, he finally spoke again: "I do not think he would be doing it, if there had been another option. It is the price he pays for the ability to work towards his plans." He took a breath, exhaled slowly. "I do believe it is worth it."
[19:13] The price he pays. If that was Valcen's stance, she could almost see the logic. It was very Threadwielder of him, to phrase it as a price he was paying. It was very Threadwielder to ignore the taxation on a more transient species. Neivat'va at least had understood that they were people, too, not a disposable statistic.
Maybe that was an insight to share. "Surely you realise," she said, gently. "That it isn't Valcen who is primarily paying that price." A pause, letting the statement sink in, before continuing to cautiously probe into the mental contortions Baishar had been corsetted into: "Do you think he has a right to decide that others should pay that price for him?"
[19:44] Baishar seemed confused by her statement. Then who is? It wasn't until her question that he even realized what she meant. "...The captives?" It hardly seemed to compare. "...Given the alternative is a lifetime of suffering in Katal? Those he changes have much less unpleasant lives afterwards. How is that a price to pay?"
[20:14] Oh. That was how Valcen was framing it.
She let it simmer in her thoughts for a bit, picking at it. It wasn't even strictly wrong, was it? Baishar was a shining example, in all of his... grotesque enthusiasm, even muted by the circumstances as it might be.
The only trouble was, this Baishar almost surely had nothing in common with the Baishar who had first encountered Valcen and these changes to him had almost surely been made without his consent. It wasn't as merciful as death, but it shared some of its qualities.
"From all you have told me so far, they do not live it at all," Evenatra said, in the tone of explanation. Look at yourself. Compare yourself to who you were. Are you the same? Do you share anything meaningful in common with your past self? But it was the wrong thing to say, again – no introspection into his own state would easily yield insight. To Baishar, there had always been a continuous consciousness partaking in life. To him, it was perhaps more like a very sudden intellectual enlightenment.
"I assume you've... witnessed this process in others? Tell me honestly what you've seen. Do they still strike you as the same person?"
[23:20] Baishar frowned, the notion of what Evenatra was saying scratching at hints of memories. Ryrha came to mind, the memory a lance of pain. 'There won't be anything left of me' — a distressingly true prediction.
But most of them weren't like that, a part of him insisted. What happened to Ryrha was Tanak's fault, not Valcen's. Most were still people afterwards. Were they the same as who they were beforehand?
"It is difficult to say," Baishar began, something of a shrug rippling through his body. "How much of a kavkem's mind does one need to change before they are someone else? I could say how much of their minds Valcen touched — usually not much, one or two clusters of thought. Did that change how they behaved? Absolutely. For example, they no longer screamed or struggled; they did what the Nayabaru asked them to do. Did that change who they were?
"The mind is a surprisingly malleable thing. The soul, perhaps, as well. It does not feel different on the inside; but it is." He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "... Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying: I do not know how to answer your question."
[23:57] How would you even know—?
Her thought process began in annoyance, then abruptly fell off a precipice. Her steps slowed. Briefly, a vast indifference eclipsed her, and she let go of the short leash that symbolically held Baishar at bay – her eyes closed and she sank down onto all fours, leaning into her arms, her muzzle dipping and brushing against the vegetation, her breath panting from it.
Kill him, a part of her advised – not in rage, but in both the deep mercy and pragmatism of her culture. Just one swift gesture and it all stops.
Instead, she shuddered against the ground in silence. Her simulated stomach spasmed in equally simulated nausea; she could turn it off, if she wanted, but there was no need. It was the right expression.
Another Threadwielder was gone. In his place, a pale shadow was rendering his services to the Nayabaru, taking the last solace from the kavkema – the near-certainty that they could rely on each other. This kavkem, Baishar? He would betray them to the Nayabaru at the drop of a hat. He would do it gladly, in the promise of some unobtainable brighter future.
Mutilated. The emotion she felt was as if seeing a captive with her legs broken. Here was someone who's soul had been twisted beyond all recognition, with a harrowing ease. And the device she'd destroyed—
She panted for a moment longer, steadying herself.
It was the right thing to do. It was the wrong thing to do. The humans would never understand it. Baishar wouldn't want it. He was not, at present, enough of a threat to justify it. But it clutched at her throat, begging her to take the easy way out of her tension.
"How many?" she asked instead, forcing the words past her throat. With effort, she unpacked it into its component parts: "How many Imitorunyemaa are there? How many have fallen to them? How many were mutilated in Katal? How many have you—?" Witnessed? Participated in? Brought Imitorunyemaa to? The question dangled, open-ended.
She shuddered, raising her gaze up to him, a dangerous fire in her eyes, palpably restrained by a purely intellectual forgiveness. "Why?" Her voice raised from a whisper, loud only by comparison, carrying her anger into the open. "They didn't want it. You didn't want it, once. Why?"
[01:20] Baishar shrivelled under Evenatra's burning gaze, paralyzed by fear. The questions, the tone of her voice — it spoke only one message. You've made a mistake, a voice in his mind told him. You've made a mistake, and it's impossible to fix.
What options did he have? He could run; he could try to return to Valcen and tell him what had happened. Even if could bring himself to flee, though, he was sure that Evenatra could catch him. So that wasn't an option.
It didn't make sense. They wanted to help Evenatra, and she... He didn't know how he had expected this conversation to go, but it wasn't like this. What would Valcen do in this situation? He tried to imagine it, tried to put the thoughts into order, but he couldn't. He didn't know.
He wished Valcen were here. Valcen would know what to do. Valcen would know how to answer her questions, how to carve a path forward they could all take. Instead he was a tiny, insignificant speck trying to speak to a god. Trying to explain Valcen's behavior to a god.
He could only answer her questions; the same as he had tried to do so far. But every answer seemed like it only had made things worse. Closing his eyes, wrestling with himself: "Five." A moment later: "... sorry, four, now." Imitorunyemaa, then.
"... Only three or four have been... have fallen to them, that I know for certain. He only finished the prototype not long ago; I don't think the Nayabaru have been using them yet." Extracting the numbers from memory was somewhat calming; a recollection of statistics, nothing more. "...In the Oratorunyema... perhaps a hundred, by now? I—"
He hesitated, then slowly sank into a sit, curling against the ground beneath him. "You're right, of course," he spoke, softly. "...I didn't want it, once." It hurt to think about; he was deeply ashamed of the weakness of will his former self had had. "The Baishar who Valcen first met... was weak-willed, was reckless, could not be trusted. He tried — I tried — to sabotage his work." Blunted claws pressed against the edges of his skull, wrists straining awkwardly against the rope. "...It would not be a mistake I repeated.
"...And yet, here I am, still making errors. Errors I can't understand or fix. Everything I say is making things worse. I was like this, before, with Valcen; I remember it; it was awful and frustrating; I'm sorry. It seems I'm still not useful to you."
[01:43] Weak-willed. The word struck Evenatra like a physical blow, holding her in a mental stasis, much as though she'd chosen to hold her breath. And then he spoke of his inadequacy, of making mistakes, and she shuddered for a brief moment and wept.
It was odd to see her weep – there were no tears. Whatever biology her body emulated, it was simply not enough like an actual kavkem to shed liquid tears. But it was obvious from her body language that it was what she was doing.
With effort, she pushed herself back into a stand. They had to keep moving. With a tense but deliberately cautious motion, she fished for the rope tied to Baishar's wrists again, using it to guide herself into a stand. "You're wrong," she said, softly, keeping her voice as steady as circumstance allowed. "The version of you that Valcen discarded— you had courage, once.
"And I'm proud of what you tried. Thank you for trying it. Thank you so much for trying. I'm sorry you failed, at such high a price... and I'm sorry about how wrong what I'm saying is no doubt sounding to your altered mind. But I do thank you." Numbly, she continued forward, gently tugging at him to follow, not meeting his eyes.
[02:10] I'm proud of what you tried. The words speared through his gut, laced with poison. Panic gripped at his throat. It went against everything he believed; everything he held dear; everything he had worked so hard for. "No," he whispered, closing his eyes. "You're — you're wrong." The rope pulled at his wrists, and he struggled to his feet. "You weren't there. You didn't see what I was like. I was a coward. Ryrha knew it, Valcen knew it, I knew it. Please, believe me, it was a mistake, it was wrong."
Valcen would know how to fix this. He knew how to fix everything. He could correct all the errors Baishar had made; he could figure out how to communicate to Evenatra, to Tamachelu, show her that they had to work together. "Please. Whatever you may believe about Valcen, whatever you may believe about me — whatever things may look like out here — please don't hold it against him. You need his help against the Karesejat. I promise — I promise when the day comes, when we can, we'll be there for you. I'm sorry I can't explain it better, I'm sorry I can't help you now."
[02:33] As Baishar said please don't hold it against him, Evenatra's gaze flicked across to his muzzle to burn a venomous stare into his soul. It lasted only for a moment, but it was all that was needed to convey that she very much would.
When he finished his plea, she said, softly: "Please don't take this the wrong way, I'm sure you both mean well..." – well, Baishar, at least, that much was obvious – "...but if it weren't for Valcen's purported help, beginning an approximate century ago, this planet would be much less hostile both toward me and the kavkema. Whatever the payoff, it's not worth it. It really isn't."
[03:05] Then, mercifully, she was silent. As they progressed, her bristled feathers and otherwise spiky, defensive demeanour seemed to soften again – like someone who had run out of tears to cry, had gotten over their emotional shock and had clawed their way back to coherent thought.
Finally, with a voice that betrayed none of the emotional rollercoaster she'd just been through, she asked: "How do they function?" It was clear what and why she was asking, of course: She would destroy each of the Torunyemaa she came across and she wanted to be sure she'd do it right. She wanted to defend against them. She wanted to detect them.
[04:04] The silence left Baishar dangerously alone with his thoughts.
Somewhere, he'd done something wrong. But he couldn't identify what. Surely talking to Evenatra was a good idea; she was the entire reason Valcen was on Nekenalos. But — much as it confused him — she detested Valcen. She'd given him her reasons; she'd tried to convince him. Perhaps just knowing her reasons could help; even if he could not fully grasp them, he could perhaps relay them to Valcen when he got a chance.
Assuming he got a chance; assuming Evenatra or the kavkema didn't kill him first.
When she spoke again, it took Baishar a moment to connect the dots. The Imitorunyemaa. He squirmed mildly; suddenly uncertain. This was Valcen's work; it felt dangerous to describe its function. If he told her what he knew, would she then tell every kavkem she met? Would they be able to sabotage it? If so, was this tantamount to sabotaging his work himself?
"I..." He was uncertain of himself. "I don't know if Valcen would want me to say." He looked over his shoulder, back in the direction where he knew Valcen was. What's the worst that could happen? Valcen would learn that Evenatra knew how Imitorunyemaa worked, and would make something different. Baishar might have something to answer for; Valcen might try to intercede on his behalf.
Hopefully, Baishar could take the blame without sacrificing everything. Hopefully, Valcen could change his creations so they were not so easily countered. He sighed, closing his eyes, then turned his attention back to Evenatra. Maybe he could just say a few things. "... There's a mechanism that deploys... needles made of darkmatter, which it uses to edit the neural pathways. It can detect if it's in the correct orientation — it has to be exact; a millimeter off and it would be fatal."
[04:18] By implication, the Imitorunyema would succeed if it managed to attach itself directly to the skull of a kavkem. A millimetre off and it would be fatal. Maybe they would be safe if they began grafting pebbles to their skulls.
But even as she had that grim thought, it struck her as a pointless measure – there was natural variation in bone thickness, in skull shape. No, the machinery wouldn't take the convex shape of a person's head as the resting point; it couldn't, for the exact reason Baishar cited, and so it wouldn't, and so a mere pebble wouldn't throw it off.
Still, it gave some hope – if one were present for such a conversion, perhaps with the right... yank... one might put an end to the grotesque twisting and grant its victim some mercy.
Neutrally: "Is that why you have that eye? So you can see what the Torunyemaa do?"
[00:26] Baishar perked up at the question. Oh! Of course she noticed. "...Part of the reason," he replied. "Though... seeing the needles themselves isn't directly very helpful. The Oratorunyema has an interface that only these eyes — mine and Valcen's — can see, and which uses special gloves to manipulate. That they also allow me to see the neutrino light, if I set them to, is a secondary benefit, though one I appreciate no less."
A pause, a tilt of the head in curiosity. "... I... imagine this is a strange question, but... I have never seen — never truly seen — what a god, a Thread-wielder, looks like." Not that this was unusual in any way — he doubted any kavkem ever had seen one. "... Would you permit it?" Cautiously, awkwardly, he raised his bound wrists to the side of his face, his fingers hovering near the side of his skull.
[00:38] A special interface. It wasn't strictly a surprise – it made sense that, were one to design something that could tamper with minds, one would want to have something that visualised the mind in a specialised way – but it brought the sour taste back into her mouth. You really thought this through, didn't you? she addressed the Valcen in her mind's eye, her subvocalised tone full of venom.
A brief spike of paranoia struck through her as Baishar asked to see her. At the end of the day, whatever Valcen's work was, the Nayabaru were involved in it. They were close now, breathing down their necks. If Baishar's implant relayed information to them, it was a threat to her.
But realistically, it likely relayed nothing – and if it did, it was unlikely to make a difference. If Terenyira was nearby, she could no doubt see Evenatra much more easily than through a monoscopic, cybernetic eye.
"...sure," she said, her tone still neutral, masking the sea of negative emotions that Valcen's project had triggered in her. She could cast those emotions aside if she really wanted to – but it didn't occur to her. She was right to have them. She was right to feel sick, exhausted, angry and betrayed.
[22:47] Baishar dipped his muzzle in an appreciative gesture, pausing for a moment in silent reverence. Then, in a practiced motion — albeit somewhat hobbled by his wrists being tied — he pressed a claw into the sclera of the artificial eye.
The sight of her true form caused him to jolt back for a moment — he wasn't sure what he'd expected to see, but it wasn't this. He stared at her in dumbfounded silence, shifting his head, trying to make sense of the shapes, of the ever-branching fractal arms. This is what Valcen used to be, a piece of him noted. This is what he lost. Another memory, from almost a lifetime ago, of the Karesejat's words: 'I am larger than my prey.' At the time, he'd never really seen either, but now he understood.
It seemed like something unattainable; far more than simply a qidravem. This is what he'd hoped to become, once — or at least, come close — but it cast that blind wandering in a new light; one couldn't approximate this with something like spiritual wisdom.
[22:48] No, it was clearer now than ever before: Only a god had any hopes of helping a mortal transcend. And only Valcen was in the position of doing so.
Baishar closed his eyes, dipping his muzzle again in appreciation. "Thank you," he whispered.
[23:03] As Baishar jerked away, her grip on the short rope tightened and she pulled just enough to prevent a potential escape, but let the rope slacken again as soon as it became clear he wasn't really trying to bolt. The reaction left her uneasy – despite his equipment, he had never seen a Threadwielder. Valcen's death was not some misunderstanding.
It could still be a lie, of course, though she doubted it.
Cautiously: "And what do you see if you look at Valcen?" And another question, nagging at the back of her skull: What do you see if you look at Terenyira? Had he even? Did he know what the weapon looked like, in either universe?
[23:17] A pained expression crossed Baishar's face, and he looked away. After a moment, he replied: "... Nothing. Nothing but his eyes." The implications were clear, even to Baishar: The Valcen he knew, as wondrous as he was, was merely a shadow of what he once was. "The Karesejat, she —" He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, trying to ignore the nausea of that memory. "... She ate him." He shuddered. "...I know no other way to put it; that was — that was how she put it. Ate his memories."
[23:37] Evenatra grimly considered Baishar's phrasing, her pace slowing as her attention lingered with some intensity on her unusual captive. Then she softened again and cast her gaze forward, toward where she could just about make out the motions of the rest of their small group – the humans, Athechelt, Edaaj.
"She's killed two of my kind so far," Evenatra tallied, regret in her tone. She hadn't stopped either event. With Ysikary, it was inevitable – the weapon had been vis secret weapon, by the time Evenatra knew ve was designing it, it was too late, ve was already dead. But Valcen? She could have accompanied him on his mission. She could have insisted.
Maybe if he hadn't been Valcen, she would have.
She could recognise a bad mental route when she saw one. Now was not a time for self-loathing, for regret. They had to stay focussed if they wanted to stay ahead of the Nayabaru and avoid capture. She might have more leeway than others, but it was best not to test it.
She changed the subject. "But back to our current situation," she transitioned, abruptly, her voice more distant that just moments before. "Are all of the Imitorunyemaa in the game? All four, here? And how many Nayabaru are trailing us? Are the other hyumans with them?"
[00:19] "I'm sorry," Baishar replied softly, his eyes returning to her again. "...I wish I had better news to share, on that front." But there was nothing that could be done about it. All they could do was prevent her from claiming a third victim.
As the subject abruptly changed, he raised his claw to his eye and cycled it back to normal vision. "... I don't—" He stopped, the words caught in his throat. He was her prisoner, he reminded himself. Do you think defying a god is a good idea? ... Valcen surely would forgive him for helping Evenatra. "... We only brought two," he admitted quietly. "Valcen has the other; I think the remainder are still back in Katal." He lowered his gaze. "...There was only one Nayabaru actively with me, plus two others. And... yes, there are two hyumans. Saira and ... Zheison," he pronounced with difficulty. He looked up to where he could see the other hyumans up ahead. "...I'm supposed to bring these ones back."
[00:47] The grip on the rope twisted lightly, a none-too-subtle assurance that regardless of his instructions, he was going nowhere. There was no verbal comment to go with it, suggesting that she didn't think it was necessary to give him more than a token reminder.
But the number he'd given before gave her mental pause. Just three? That seemed unlikely, given the circumstances, but he sounded sincere. If there were more, he might simply not know. If there were any up ahead, as Evenatra had postulated in her conversation with Asraaban, it was likely no one would have told him about it.
Still, there was a chance he was right. If that was all the Nayabaru were throwing at them, it might yet prove manageable. And if she knew how they were equipped, they could better defend against them. "How are the Nayabaru arm—?"
Something hit the back of her neck with the force of a punch. In reflex, she let go of Baishar's leash, hissing softly as her attention wrenched around. As she turned, feathers bristling, to glance toward the source of the attack, her forepaws plucked at the dart that had embedded itself in her skin.
Even before she managed to make out the Nayabaru amongst the trees, she thought: Bad luck, wrong target. Simulated adrenaline inspired her body to tension. Baishar was now secondary — she had to stop the Nayabaru from advancing enough to strike the others, or from calling for help.
But at this distance, the Hesh would certainly do latter — unless it thought it had won.
She took a step toward the distant foe, still glancing past its rifle. Then her posture swayed and she took one staggering step to the side, then collapsed into the foliage.
[01:09] Baishar's attention whirled around in instinct with the sudden motion, feathers on end and ready to bolt at the first sight of trouble. As she withdrew the dart, his eyes grew wide with terror. No. He froze in uncertainty as she took a step or two forward and then collapsed. No, please, not like this. He had to do something. He had to do something now, keep Evenatra safe.
'Do as the Nayabaru tell you; keep Evenatra from harm.' The commands ground against each other; clearly the latter was far more important. ... Perhaps he could pretend to aid the Nayabaru, and buy her time?
He slowly stood up, holding his bound hands in front of him to signal he was no threat, then carefully began to approach the Nayabaru. "... I'm glad to see you," he commented, switching to Naya, trying to hide his unease. "The hyumans are ahead," he added, gesturing with his muzzle in their direction, "but unfortunately the Imitorunyema is damaged beyond repair, so I am of limited use. Please, allow me to watch over this one while you go ahead."
[01:42] No, no, don't get any closer to the Nayabaru, Evenatra thought, but kept herself still, her body emulating a shallow, unconscious breathing. Her earlier thought resurfaced – you could just kill him – now promising an easy way to accepting him as collateral damage. But all the reasons she'd cited to herself earlier about why it would be poor form to kill Baishar still held true.
The Nayabaru that had fired the rifle seemed pleased with its handiwork, rising from its slight crouch, straightening itself back out and beginning to stride toward the creature pretending to be a fallen kavkem.
At Baishar's executive summary, it gave a low snort, then brought the muzzle of its gun around to point at Baishar. "'Damaged beyond repair'?" it echoed, as softly as the deep voice allowed. It focussed its right eye on the rope around his wrists, paused in a thought it was having. Baishar could guess at it – did you have anything to do with that? Seems awfully convenient – but the rope corroborated his version of the tale.
It shifted into a stand, leant the gun against its thigh, then leant down to undo Baishar's wrists. "Make yourself useful," it instructed, dispassionately, uninterested in that Baishar had, until recently, been a purported captive of the kavkema. "Occupy the kavkema up ahead."
Just give me a little distance to work with, Evenatra thought, lying amongst the ferns, four metres away from the two of them. But in truth, her original plan wouldn't work as long as she herself wasn't further away from the Nayabaru, either. Perhaps it was time to think of a different one.
The Nayabaru's back was not fully turned, so it would see her move if she tried. Maybe if she—?
She gave a soft, fluttering groan, making as though she were trying to drag herself out of her state, as though she were already coming around. The Nayabaru's attention snapped to her, left eye fixing on her. The tranquilliser gun was back in its hands with an admirable speed that spoke of rigorous training. And then it indeed stepped closer, crossing three of the four metres in two broad steps.
In a sudden motion, she sprang up, taking another ineffective dart to her belly – her arms extended toward the rearing Nayabaru, scratching harmlessly at its chest and neck. But it was in the next instant that her true trap sprung. Something hooked itself against spine and skull of the Nayabaru, invisible but for its effect on its posture.
A second later, even as it was opening its mouth to take a breath that would allow it to bellow for help, to warn its fellow Nayabaru, a hideous, singular snapping and splintering sound accompanied an imploding skull.
The dead Nayabaru fell like a sack of meat — nearly onto Evenatra in the process, who leapt back, panting from released tension. Still panting, she glanced warily to Baishar, assessing whether she would have to run after him, whether his words to the Nayabaru had been genuine, plucking the second dart out of her downs and discarding it beside the Nayabaru.
[02:34] Baishar inwardly grimaced at the Hesh's command. Of course you're going to make it difficult. Still, maybe if he obeyed, Evenatra could find a way to escape on her own. With a practiced calm that didn't reflect how he felt, he lowered his muzzle in deference.
Just as the Nayabaru had gotten his wrists free, though, the moan from Evenatra drew its attention. ...What? He'd seen her get hit; he knew Nayabaru toxins lasted longer than that on kavkema. Of course, this was Tamachelu; perhaps she was able to fight it off. He remained silent and still, watching the Nayabaru's approach until —
There was a flurry of motion; another shot of the rifle; claws against skin — and then something snapped the Nayabaru's skull, and it fell to the ground, lifeless. Baishar's eyes went to Evenatra, then back to the Nayabaru, then to the discarded dart — the second — then back to Evenatra. "...I see there was no need for concern," he commented, a nervous jitter passing through him.
... He could flee, and return to Valcen. The thought was sorely tempting; Valcen ought to know about the situation. But he'd be returning emptyhanded, with no hyumans, a dead Hesh, and an annihilated Imitorunyema to explain, without alerting them to Evenatra's presence. It didn't seem like a good option; at best, the Nayabaru would distrust and torture him. At worst, they would distrust and torture Valcen.
[02:59] Evenatra stared wearily at Baishar. He was nervous and tense, distorting the tone of his voice, infecting his body language with a potential flight, but given the forest floor was in the process of soaking up brain fluid and blood from a shattered skull that now had more in common with a crushed vase than a biological construct, it was perhaps the natural reaction.
"Come," she prompted. "I hope the silent kill bought us some time." Rather than turn to lead the way, however, she waited, evidently not yet convinced he wouldn't turn his terrified instincts into practical reality, wanting him by her side before they continued forward. "But let's hurry and put some distance between us and the scene of the crime."
[03:30] Baishar hesitated for a moment, glancing over his shoulder. No signs of pursuit — at least, not yet — and there was not really a better option. If he was with Evenatra, he could at least try to help her; every other option had too many complications. With a sigh, he shook his muzzle in acceptance, grasping the rope that had recently tied his wrists, and made his way back to Evenatra.
Remaining Evenatra's 'prisoner' didn't quite sit well with him, but it was probably the best option for now. If the Nayabaru did catch them, it gave him an excuse for aiding the kavkema. And perhaps he'd be able to figure out a way to safely return to Valcen later; perhaps he could even gather more information.
Regardless, this was his lot for now. He'd figure something out, or Valcen would. With any luck, Evenatra would remain safe — he was fairly certain the Karesejat was still in Katal, and she'd just demonstrated that Nayabaru and their darts were no match for her.
"When it's not too much trouble," he whispered as they began to move, "You should probably bind my wrists again."
[03:41] A mild surprise wormed its way into Evenatra's body language. Silently, she took the rope from Baishar, hesitating for a moment. Plausible deniability. Of all things he had said and done so far, it was the strongest indicator that he was fundamentally on their side.
But it wasn't practical. Softly, she said: "We'll be faster if you can balance your gait with your arms," even as she looped the rope into her tool necklace in what was clearly a temporary position. "But I promise I'll tie them when we've caught up with the others and changed course."