The Shape Of The World
[19:27] Athechelt had been observing the rescue in silence. At all times, his greatest responsibility had been to speak, but it was precisely that which nursed his silence – when speech was your weapon, you knew to keep it sheathed until circumstances demanded. The group would listen to him if he made suggestions and would outright do as he asked if he made a request.
In Evenatra and Idarago's absence, the group itself was mostly quiet. Ghregg, proving that he was without a doubt not a kavkem, was one to whisper, 'speaking' with a curious Edaaj about the technology that had brought them here, albeit in a tongue that was opaque to them all. It conveyed a friendly tone, regardless.
He'd been reminiscing about the dream and its troubling implications. The parallels were making him uneasy, but at least Nadani was here, with the group, as opposed to accompanying Evenatra.
But how close had that been? It had been her or Idarago. His dream was a crude template, there was no reason Nadani-in-his-dream could not simply refer to any of the Watchers, however new to the task.
Prophetic dreams were descriptive, not warnings. He almost surely wouldn't be able to stop the progress of events, leading to the rippling geometries that had struck him down.
The friendliest thing he could do is provide approval and encouragement along the way and, if his people were threatened, take the fall for them. Just as the dream had promised he would.
When the Watcher and Evenatra returned with another human, Athechelt watched with his anxiety carefully concealed. It was important that he keep a look out for the first signs of threat, the first signs that his intervention might make a difference.
He cautiously lifted himself himself off the ground – not into a full, proud stand, given it would make him visible above the rise, but enough to announce his attention and intent to speak, then crept over to the triad, warily watching the newcomer, as though wary that the bite from the dream might be quite literal.
Whispered: "Good to see you've returned safely. ...were there no others?" He was privately expecting another two at least, after all, but even without a dream to guide him, there was a group of humans to rescue and this was clearly just one.
[12:49] "There's at least one other human," Idarago confirmed with a grimace. "But they weren't sure if we were safe to go with. I'm not sure what they've been told by the Nayabaru, I'm hoping Ghregg can convince this one and we can go back for the others."
Going back was a daunting thought, and plausibly enough explaination for the younger Watcher's anxious feather fluffing, but he kept glancing over at Evenatra uncertainly.
[13:51] Athechelt clutched himself close to the ground, glancing up at the human in a kind of inter-cultural reverence, perhaps hoping to gesture a kind of humble servitude without the benefit of clear speech to do the same. His posture gradually reverting to normal, he whispered, bewildered and disconcerted: "Is it a matter of choice for them?"
Nadani had shuffled over to them by now – close enough to catch the conversation. Despite there being no venom in Athechelt's voice and only a hint of flustered alarm, she cringed as if personally scolded. After all, she'd led the group here with the full intent of rescuing the humans from the sunlight and the Nayabaru.
If they had free rein, she might have endangered them all for nothing.
[13:52] She looked at Athechelt pleadingly, but his expression wasn't soothing – he glanced back at her with confused displeasure, although it seemed as though he wasn't blaming her personally for it. This was, perhaps, simply difficult to predict and an unfortunate turn of events.
"Yes," Evenatra responded. "We think it might be a temporary ruse, but the Nayabaru haven't yet imprisoned the hyumans." Apparently, she wasn't going to go on the 'but I know something more' tangent without Idarago paving the way; perhaps out of respect whether he really wanted to go down that path.
[01:28] Edaaj, for her part, was vaguely aware that conversation was happening. What it was about, and the tension that had entered into it, entirely bypassed her. She was too busy watching Ghregg.
[01:38] Possibly he had recognized in Edaaj the kavkem equivalent of an engineer, or possibly he had (correctly) guessed that her undisguised interest in his device applied to the hyumans' other technology as well. Regardless, he had felt moved, despite the linguistic barrier, to try to explain how the hyumans had gotten to her world.
[01:39] Since his device was otherwise employed, he had resorted to hand gestures to try to aid him. It was hard for either Ghregg or Edaaj to escape the feeling that this was woefully inadequate to the task.
[01:53] For all that Edaaj watched Ghregg's every move with a desperate hunger, so many things escaped her. How did their vessel fly so far that it could go between worlds? Why did such a heavy thing not fall down during so long a trip? It seemed that it had to travel around the sun: what kind of protection did it have from the Tarnish?
[01:57] It was maddening. All the more so because it was dawning upon her that whatever world the hyumans called home, if it had made such vessels and devices as these merely to hurl into the sky, must have even more astonishing wonders that it had kept on the ground.
She wanted to see them. Every last one of them.
[02:17] Greg was in the middle of trying to trace out the concept of gravity-assist trajectories in the thin layer of dry soil between them, if only guessing whether she could follow along, when he began to pause and twist his attention away. For a moment, he sat still, staring toward the arrivals – it was almost immediately clear why he was staring.
Another of his kind was there.
He raised a hand high – it seemed like a bit reckless a gesture, but apparently he'd done it almost on instinct – and gave a small wave to the other. Then he dropped his hand and said something. Something in his suit sprang to life in response as the other human spoke – they apparently had something to carry their voices a little further.
Almost absent-mindedly, his attention only gradually returning to Edaaj, he brought one gloved hand around to try to touch the top of her muzzle to rub across it gently.
[02:37] Edaaj tensed when Ghregg turned his attention away, but seeing that the arrivals weren't Nayabaru, she began to relax, until she realized that he was touching her muzzle.
[02:43] She jerked away, baring her teeth, but her thoughts caught up to her before she could follow through with the implied threat. Biting him might cause him to cry out, which – single-minded though she was – she knew would not be a good thing.
[02:44] And, it occurred to her, it hadn't felt bad.
[02:48] Noting his tense stance, she closed her mouth, and then muttered quietly, "Hostile territory is a poor setting for surprises, Ghregg." It was probably pointless, but, she thought, maybe context would convey the message.
[02:50] She stuck her muzzle under his hand again, and, rather more cautiously, he resumed rubbing.
[03:02] Greg watched as Samanta, Idarago, Evenatra, Athechelt and Nadani formed a very quiet discussion group, running his fingers lightly through Edaaj's plume, the short feathers of the top of her head and the very top of her mane.
Unfortunately, he seemed to have forgotten about the drawing he'd begun in the dust, disturbing it a bit with some of his shifting since. But as unfortunate as that was, perhaps it was to be expected that he wanted to pay attention to what was happening to his pack-mate.
[10:32] "I think..." Idarago paused, then continued hesitantly. "Even if we wanted the other humans, we couldn't get all of them, because one was within touching range of a Hesh." There was sneaking past a Nayabaru and there was trying to get caught, and that was the latter. "So. We let the humans talk. And while they do we figure out how to escape after, because grabbing them ALL will mean causing a distraction and I'm not sure what we can do. Can we put the lights out, somehow?"
The alternative was to sneak out as many humans as they could and leave at least one to the Nayabaru's non-existent mercy, and that was where pure kavkem plans would end. But if they could do THAT, and then Evenatra make the Hesh run, perhaps they could pull off the impossible and flee with everyone intact.
[14:09] "Not without essentially announcing our presence to the Hesha," Evenatra commented with a tinge of frustration. She knew they had the numbers to take the settlement down. What they did not have was the training, and without the training, they were at least as likely to fail as they were to succeed at scorching the earth.
"But if you permit it," she gestured her muzzle toward Athechelt. "Then I would like to stay. I do not get the impression that those hyumans still with the Nayabaru are likely enough to change their mind after they've spoken about it. But I can try to extract them individually."
From Athechelt's perspective, those deceptively simple statements were packed with data: She explicitly deferred to the local ryrhakenem, knowing her statement was contentuous. She wanted to pry the humans from the Nayabaru's grasp regardless whether they were in personal peril. She was willing to do it at high personal risk.
She thought she could succeed.
He carefully sorted his thoughts about it, trying not to let the shock of the visitors' 'choice' – that the Nayabaru somehow treated them as neutral parties rather than as enemies, be it a temporary ruse or not – distract him from the new insights.
This was not the first time Evenatra had given off the eerie vibe of a khalei kava; those were usually kaarua, but she was different. Her insanity was a different flavour. Whatever fuelled it, Asraaban, whose intelligence he did not doubt – even if he did question his motivations – thought Evenatra was worth supporting.
If she was willing to defer to local decisions, he had to address it.
"...you believe you will succeed," he observed, with a quiet scepticism.
Evenatra glanced at Idarago, in the simple gesture betraying that he knew. He knew something Athechelt had yet uncovered. In the short span of time Evenatra and Idarago had spent extracting Samanta from the settlement, Idarago had learnt parts of the puzzle Athechelt was still only putting together.
But it was Evenatra that spoke. "I understand it's my fault you're confused and I apologise. Asraaban and I have kept something from you." She'd shared it with Idarago, she could share it with Athechelt – but of course, Idarago was no Nitish Ynas ryrhakenem. "But first, I must stress that I have no interest in harming your people.
[14:10] "I will not stop you if you want to part ways. I don't intend to take the hyumans from you if you wish to travel with them, alone, though I ask you take good care of them if you do.
"You know of Taaravahr and you know of Akynkulla," she said, even as she settled herself into a sit, tucking her limbs under her body, posture the opposite of defensive. Her muzzle swerved up to the human and she flicked it over to Greg in a gesture for the human to join her friend.
But her speech was to Athechelt, steady.
"You consider Akynkulla dangerously misguided. And you're not wrong about its strict veracity. But at the moment, the danger to our common understanding is Nitish Ynas, and it does not make it easy for me to find a framing of this that you will not reject. The short form, the one you will regrettably dismiss as delusional until I prove otherwise, is that I am Tamachelu.
"I can succeed because I am not a kavkem, and your admirable concerns about kavkem safety do not apply to me," she said, delivering the disclaimer and summary with an alien calm.
[15:06] Asraaban bit back a hiss of frustration. He'd have been astounded if Evenatra pulled this off without revealing herself, but this is NOT how she should be doing it. Not to a ryrhakenem surrounded by his pack in a situation where they had to focus on swift and quiet above all else. Much better to tip off the Watchers – although the younger seemed already aware, with how cautionly he'd been eyeing her beforehand – and then let the rest wake up to see her irridescent and spined and clearly still her, so they recognised her while still sleep-fogged and were less able to deny.
Well. That had worked magnificently on HIM, at least, much to his shard leader's unending amusement.
He'd follow her to Katal (and hopefully back), but if Evenatra got them kicked out of this group and forced him to try ambushing a convoy of Nayabaru to stop this mess, he was going to be Upset.
The young Watcher was tentatively stepping forward. "I don't know if she's Tamachelu," Idarago offered, gaze fixed on Athechelt. "But she showed me... she ungrew her feathers in favour of crocodile scales. Maybe she's a friendly, delusional kiikama. A friendly kiikama who wants help rescuing mammals from Naybaru?"
Asraaban mentally sighed again. He could almost hear the poor thing's religious world view unravelling.
[15:35] Athechelt's instinct was to dismiss her claim as obviously false – here was a creature that was undeniably a kavkem, feathers and all, claiming to be anything but. His feathers had bristled into tension even before Idarago had a chance to speak and for the briefest moment, he was convinced the only way out of this was to run her off.
And then the Watcher spoke.
Athechelt's feathers almost quivered in uncertainty and confusion. Crocodilian scales? Melting feathers? He felt a horror clutch at his mind, drawing out the possibilities – corporeally manifested Tarnish being transferred to Idarago in his absence, a shared madness; or the truth, a harrowing promise that at least some forces shaping the world had personalities.
The cosmologies clashed. Could you bargain with Tarnish? No. Could a deity embodied in a kavkem form permeate through the night to protect them? No. One couldn't possibly believe both in Akynkulla and Nitish Ynas at the same time. And those who did not believe in Tarnish were likely lost to it.
It took effort to keep his composure, but he did.
It took greater effort to quash his instinct to send her and Asraaban away, along with the humans. In his mind's eye, the light crept through the cracks in the rocks around them and crept into the waiting kavkema like a fungal growth.
What would happen if he sent her away? He would lose sight of it all. When the danger came to strike them down, there would be no more warning signs. He had no illusions that he could simply banish it by sending two potential embodied spirits away.
Embodied spirits. The notion still threw his mind into contortions to even consider it. Was it more likely Idarago had, in the brief time the two had been alone, contracted madness – or more likely that he was telling the truth, as it had happened, not only as he had seen it?
I have no interest in harming your people. I will not stop you if you want to part ways.
He wanted nothing more than to part ways.
But he said something else, tempering himself by side-stepping the cosmological underpinnings: "...understand, my concern is for my people. We've stayed here long enough. The risk from any further interaction is too great – perhaps not for you, but for us.
"What do you suppose will happen if you indeed manage to extract the hyumans after we've left? You will surely have the attention of the Nayabaru. They will already want to track us, given the hyuman you have brought us now; we knew this would happen before we came here, but we risked it out of the belief the hyumans were in some kind of peril.
"Those same Nayabaru will track us with greater fervour if Tamachelu has taken all of the hyumans from them." Fearful of the amalgam wrath of an embodied, Tarnished deity, it took effort to keep the authority in his voice, but he did: "Leave the other hyumans here – if they are not at personal risk, we have no business here."
[19:27] Idarago did not want to contradict his ryrhakenem, but he didn't want to be in the way if Evenatra went through him, either. Would she do that? He didn't think so... but he didn't know.
And Asraaban had talked casually of killing Hesha.
"...what if leaving them puts us at greater risk?" Idarago asked tentatively. "What if the Nayabaru can use the hyumans against us?" That was what Evenatra feared. But... they were mammals. And two were here. "Or if the ones we already have object?"
[00:56] "The hyumans won't object to being split," Evenatra remarked, a tinge of frustration in her voice – it was, after all, undermining an argument in her favour. "They arranged their separation, after all. But I agree with your Watcher that we're at a very real threat of the Nayabaru using the remaining hyumans as hostages."
Athechelt bristled – the idea mingled with his preconceptions, only increasing his wariness. His lips drew back slightly from his teeth in a silent gesture of stern intent. "Regardless, I insist we leave. We will gladly be hosts to these visitors and we will treat them as we would our own, but this is on the condition that you come with us.
"If you return to the settlement and try to retrieve any more of them, we will leave these two to Asraaban's sole care."
Nadani had adopted a posture much like a cringe, partly as though unjustly wounded, partly as though scolded, even though the conversation had hardly been about her so far. "Eche," she addressed him, quietly. "If she is Tamachelu, don't you think she can also protect us from the consequences of her being Tamachelu?"
Athechelt glanced at Nadani for a moment with a look of contemplation tinged with a dangerous venom – but contemplate it he did. Then he cast his gaze back at Evenatra, asking, flatly: "Can you?"
Evenatra hesitated, perhaps just a little too long.
[14:56] A very small, very hatchling part of Idarago was disapointed he wouldn't get to see a real life Tyrant on a rampage. Or a god assuming the form of one, which was arguably even more impressive. It would probably be corrosive to his worldview but that was already a little wounded and not even Athechelt could argue against something so... definitive.
Practically... well. His ryrhakenem had a point. It was better to rescue several kavkema than to try for all and lose yourself too. They could stash their humans somewhere safe and then decide how to proceed. There would be more nights. They had to balance the risk. And when the Nayabaru turned their rage on the remaining humans, it would be easier to conceal the next rescue as a simple, unaided escape attempt.
[16:37] Evenatra's first instinct had been to dismiss the line of thought, announce that she was going back on her own, then make her first tracks so obvious as to draw Nayabaru attention away from Eche's group, or some similar convoluted idea to let her have her cake and eat it, too.
But there was an important insight in Eche's objections that had additional implications:
If they humans are not at personal risk. She was almost sure they weren't – which meant that she had to weigh the risk that they would count it against the kavkema if they were taken from the Nayabaru a little more forcefully against the propaganda that she would enable the Nayabaru to weave if they had access to even one of the humans.
It wasn't equally risky – any unpleasant 'first' impressions could be smoothed over easily if you were the only one doing the talking – but perhaps it was even enough that it was cleverer to keep her new allies.
"...likely not to the degree that the danger would increase," she said, simply, glancing at Nadani with a fleeting look of apology. "Understand, though, that if we get this wrong, it does affect the fate of our entire culture, whether you realise that or not," she said to Eche, her voice softer than the content of the words might warrant. "Regardless, let us do this your way.
"Let's bring our new friends to safety."