[17:49] A thin crimson band of sluggish daylight was beginning to encroach on the horizon by the time their glide eased them onto the ground. With corrective wing beats, the journey had lasted longer than a glide on its own would have, but the design that carried them across the desert was not optimised for active flight and had grown tired. A blue-tinged mountain range had eased itself into view ahead of them, forming a wall that promised to accompany them as a flank to their right.
Where Evenatra's form was not designed for active flight, it was even less suited to walking unaided across the arid planes, the large wings a hindrance to a gait that was already ill-suited to extended journeys on land. If it had not been for her need to rearrange herself, they could have easily continued, sufficiently trained to handling the glare of the morning hours – but this was the territory of Nitish Ynas and they were best advised not to let themselves be seen touched by broad daylight.
The combination urged them to seek shelter, and they found a niche amongst a few boulders that promised to shield them from the sun and let them rest. After rearranging herself, Evenatra, feeling sufficiently familiar with the general ecosystem, had crept out for long enough to return with two "entirely edible" lizards just before dayfall; their flesh tasted unusually dry, but perhaps that was to be expected of the creatures in a desert.
[17:50] Their day's rest ended with a half-hearted sand-storm that gnawed listlessly at the rocks, and Evenatra tucked Asraaban against her side to shield him from its bite. It forced them into an early evening's rise, but not to the point that it dampened their resolves. Once direct daylight had shrunk away again, they rose and continued along their way.
Here, their plans began to conflict, reality forcing their hand in choosing one over the other. It would take them a little over half the night to reach the assured shelter of the band of forest nestled against the mountain, the habitat of their Tarnish brethren – but that was not likely where their alien visitors had landed. The flat stretch of arid plains further away from that new ridge, though, was better suited for a safe landing.
[17:51] At first, Evenatra compromised by looking for hints – even subtle signs of disturbance in the distance were cause for hope in finding the landing site – while gradually meandering into the direction of the forest.
Then: "I think we need to decide what to pursue." A pause, both in speech and in stride, glancing resolutely out into the landscape. "They're unlikely to still be at the landing site, but clearly identifying the landing site would grant us better means to guess where they may have gone..." – or been taken. "Since in either case, we should find shelter before dawn, our radius is perhaps not as generous as it otherwise would be, and any error in judgement less easy to correct. Where do you see our better chances?"
[18:50] "Do we know what sort of habitat these aliens like?" Asraaban asked desperately. The glimpses of the strange planet had not helped. Apparently it had wet bits and dry bits and tree bits, and their visitors could prefer any of them. At least if they knew the creatures were arboreal or semi-aquatic or really really hated sand that would be a hint.
Eying another one of the local bloodless lizards (yes he knew it wasn't bloodless, but lizard was not supposed to be that dry and stringy) the kavkem wondered what they ate. Would THAT help? So far all he knew was that they weren't protective of their landing craft and were from a place Thumak claimed dominion over.
[00:42] Out of reach of Asraaban's perception, a fractal structure branched out, reaching into alien memories, sifting through fragments of information.
Evenatra's avatar simply canted its head as though in reflection.
"Habitat?" she echoed, thoughtfully. "From what I understand they are not aquatic and cannot linger in oceans or lakes for longer than a few hours without either taking structural damage to their dermis – or, if sufficiently protected from those effects, tiring of having to stay afloat." A pause. "They cannot fly," she added, carefully. In afterthought, dwelling on the status quo: "Well, not without technological aid, apparently."
Then, finally, flicking her muzzle up in a soft gesture of regret: "No, I can't say I'm aware of any preference, per se. As far as I understand, they evolved amongst plains, but have allegedly conquered more biomes than even the Nayabaru. That said, assuming they are not bound by conflicting instructions, they almost surely would hope to escape the desert for more moderate climes in the mid-term."
[00:43] Her distant gaze returned to Asraaban, starkly alien in its quizzical quality given the depth of information she had just disclosed. This was not the first time and unlikely to be the last that she revealed access to knowledge that her current form had no means to attain. As far as Asraaban knew – from anecdotes, from the tales of ryrhakenema, but also from Evenatra's own claims – she had never since the sapient advent of the kavkema left Nekenalos, never had any opportunity to observe the creatures she spoke about directly. Somewhere, somehow, her mind had access to this data, as though the cosmos whispered it to her.
And despite all that, she was looking to him for help. For inspiration.
[03:58] He felt like she was not asking him for guidance as much as asking him to be a muse. It was disorienting. Not as disorienting as her listing facts that she could not have learnt in person, but one learned to make allowances for the mind of a god. Maybe she'd stolen the knowledge from Thumak. Or most likely that Thumak had boasted how his creations were 'better' than the Nayabaru, which was... a displeasing thought, if "have conquered more widely" was a thing to boast of.
"Do they hunt?" Asraaban asked. A hunting species would not be as cruel, would be willing to kill, may be more willing to work with the kavkema once the Nayabaru turned against them... and more relevantly, may have moved in the direction of things that could be eaten. "Is it likely we could shelter in their craft for the day if it is empty and we run out of time?"
[21:51] "If they have locks they will likely use them," Evenatra mused. "And we do not know if they fancy littering their vessels with traps. If we do go there, it may be best to contend with the shadow the craft casts if we seek shelter and are not invited inside-" She trailed off for a moment, brooding. Then she continued the sentence where it had left off: "...but for the Nayabaru. That said, I imagine the Nayabaru might yet become a problem even if we reach the aliens and they offer us shelter – after all, we do not know how the aliens come equipped and if they could turn our knowledge of the Nayabaru into adequate protection."
Then she flicked her muzzle upward briefly. "And here I am, rudely ignoring your first question," she chided herself, letting her eyes close for a moment. The silence stretches – contemplative? Searching? The eyes open again. "They were quick to wrap themselves in skin for added warmth as they expanded into mountainous areas and one might describe their diet as starkly varied, so they do have hunters."
[03:36] Ah. Yes, being trapped in a small vessel with nowhere to run to was a poor idea if the Nayabaru arrived. Not the poorest – a small opening to funnel them made killing each in turn a challenge but potentially doable – but not a good result. They did not need an army on their tails. Presumably, neither did their aliens.
Aliens who at least were comfortable wearing hide, and so were potential victims of the Nayabaru. Asraaban wondered if his relief was cruel. But that meant they were not like Nayabaru, there would be no instant alliance, and that meant there was still hope.
That did not help decide where to go next. "Approaching this like I would a lost hatchling..." the kavkem began slowly, "I would try the forest first, then move back towards the craft. The craft is safer to shelter in only if the Nayabaru do not reach it before us. The forest is shelter and food and resources." He grimaced. "And in the likely event others have reached the craft before us, the aliens will already be gone and we risk an ambush."
[23:41] Evenatra seemed to roll the remarks about in her mind for a while, quietly peering ahead of them, into the arid landscape.
Superficially, the forest seemed like a counter-intuitive decision given the strong incentive they had not to let the aliens fall into Nayabaru hands at all, but they were no use to the aliens if they caused them to fall into Nayabaru hands and be considered enemies, by forcing them to take their side in an early conflict. Evenatra was unfortunately all too familiar with the effects of being a negative catalyst – if she could avoid that effect with a suitable application of caution, it was welcome. And as long as the Nayabaru in the area were unaware of her presence, she was blessed with the element of surprise if they had to interact to correct a poor decision.
It seemed the safer option – strategically, diplomatically and from the vantage point of personal safety. Whether it increased their odds of an encounter or not was secondary to most of those points.
She reeled her attention back in, peering at Asraaban. "The forest it is, then," she agreed, and resumed her stride toward it. "Let us keep an eye out on anything that may be important. We may cross signs that either Nayabaru or kavkema headed out toward the landing site just as likely as signs that our alien visitors wandered toward the forest; either of those may be hard to spot.
[23:42] "Furthermore, Nayabaru population in this area may be sparse, but there may still be traps, possibly of local design not immediately comparable to those on our previously wandered paths, near the coast. With how far we are from our Damakei brethren, I suggest we increase our usual diligence proportional to how habitable the environment becomes. Should something happen to you, I should be able to protect you, possibly heal you as long as I have some time for analysis, but I acknowledge this might be of limited help if a contraption causes you to lose a limb." The matter was no joy to speak about, but not strictly a surprise. It was certainly only a matter of time before their carefree wandering came to an end.
[14:00] It had been refreshing to not have to worry about traps and instead worry about being blown off a mountain or dropped from great heights by an impossible giant bird, but all good things must come to an end. And he had the protection of a goddess. A goddess calmly talking about avoiding dismemberment, but any good Shard leader would do the same.
Keeping a steady pace beside Evenatra, Asraaban pondered the tracks they could seek. What sort of print would aliens leave? They were mammals, presumably they would move on four limbs and scurry, but there were some that moved in long bounds. Would that be more effecient for a species that evolved to live in many biomes? They had hunters, so presumably they could run, but perhaps they mostly ambushed instead. How many toes? How large their claws?
That decided it: the prints that made no sense would be the ones assumed to belong to the aliens.
[14:50] It took them a few hours to cross enough of the plains to reach the forest. Between starlight, airglow and a dim hint of gegenschein it refused to get completely dark, but it was still tricky to see details, even with fully night-adapted eyes. If one paused to regard them, there were a few faint patches of skyglow indicating either Nayabaru settlements or waypoints. The artificial lights were warnings to avoid, but not an exhaustive list – artificial light wasn't free, and not every settlement had easy access to the necessary energy.
[14:51] It was prints that made sense that they came across first, although poor to differentiate – a dirt path wound its way down the shallow sloping landscape and veered off to the side, snaking along what one might consider the edge of the forest if one considered it from enough of a distance. There was a mess of prints along it, the order they had come in and the creatures they belonged to only obvious in stray cases.
They followed the path for a while, given that it did not take them too far from their destination, then paused after it curved out to avoid a cluster of boulders and they discovered at least two recent sets of tracks from ceratopsians that had spilled off the path at the point where it bent to return to the forest's edge.
Evenatra glanced into the landscape in the direction that the tracks led. "It looks as though they were not in too much of a hurry," she observed. What would Nayabaru leave their roads for, if not to make new roads? Their cosmic visitors seemed like one obvious answer, in which case the landing site was likely not too far away as that they could not spare the detour, assuming they could continue following tracks to it. "Before either of us misjudge the signs – what might they have been up to, if not to head to the landing site?" she mused aloud.
[15:43] "There's very little they'd do with such a small group," Asraaban agreed, peering at the tracks. "If they were chasing kavkema, their mounts would be running. Although if they were chasing aliens I would expect more numbers and greater caution. Maybe they did not know that it was a craft that crashed?"
[16:20] "And were they chasing kavkema," Evenatra reasoned. "There would likely be kavkem tracks." The second part of Asraaban's observation gives her pause, though. "But you're right – this is a very small group. The barest minimum of a scouting party, if that is what this is."
[16:21] Nayabaru would not travel alone if they could help it. Two was plenty for travel purposes, but more was always a benefit. It left the riddle why only two had gone this way – surely such an unknown quantity as 'alien visitors' demanded at least a backup party following soon after?
As if in reflex, Evenatra glanced back along the path, but all was quiet. At this time a night, a follow-up party was extremely unlikely, and would undoubtably announce itself with a flashlight.
"It looks too orderly a path as that they might have left the path for play," Evenatra added. "Perhaps they saw something other than the vessel and investigated," she pondered. "There is still plenty of night left – I suggest we follow the tracks and see where they lead us."
[16:39] "Agreed." At least in the dark they would have the advantage over any Nayabaru. Their enemies could not see in the dark and in terrain such as this, the lights they carried would be visible from a safe distance. There was little risk unless they stepped on a sleeping Nayabaru's tail.
And the day Asraaban managed to do that on open ground was the day he quit his Shard as a clear danger to his fellows, and a clear failure as a hunter.
[17:06] Another glance back along the path, unnecessary, but born of a useful habit, yields no approaching dangers. Evenatra started to follow the impromptu dirtpath the potential scouting party had carved into the landscape, mindful of any traps (unlikely as they were), most of her attention on the tracks as they led them through the shrubbery.
There were still occasional trees braving the landscape here, if not as tall as their forest brethren. All in all the hardy vegetation was established enough that they couldn't see too far – unless what they were looking for was a large, bloating carcass of dead megafauna, or indeed a spaceship of grand design, either of which should be trivial to spot.
[17:07] Of course, the shrubbery would thin the further they got from the forest, but Evenatra was only willing to go so far without a certain destination in mind.
"Nothing a short way from the path," Evenatra commented after a minute. "So nothing they glimpsed from up on their mounts brought them out here. They had an actual goal in mind," she surmised. "So a settlement or the landing site, which is definitely further out from here. Any other options?"
[17:14] He considered that. "What is communication like in this place? Is it possible they themselves did not see anything, but were told of it while travelling elsewhere? ...not that that will narrow down our search area."
[17:35] "It's possible, but I suspect that would still lead them approximately to a settlement, or to the landing site. I don't think a less drastic event would warrant summoning people from a different town," she mused.
Then, a realisation: "Unless they lost a Seklushi and someone fell ill – or any other shortage on a central profession?" Her emulated feathers bristled a little in bewildered curiosity. "But most would follow established paths, surely?"
[17:05] "I don't like it when Nayabaru behalf illogically. Nayabaru don't like it when they behave illogically, so when they do something has gone dramatically wrong," Asrabaan complained. "Or their Karesejat has ordered them to do something and of course they obey even if it is illogical and frightening, which is usually terrible for us. Both are bad for us."
The tracks were calm. That was the most disturbing. It meant there was a clear purpose and no panic, no pushing their mounts for greater speed. Surely if a Nayabaru were at risk of dying and a Seklushi required they would rush? Their ludicrously disproportionate fear of death would ensure it.
[17:23] "Then that leaves that the tracks will indeed likely lead us to the landing site," Evenatra observed, agreeing with Asraaban's assessment and drawing her conclusions from it. "Yet it is dark now – I would expect them to have returned to their homes, potentially with our visitors in tow as prisoners." She left the potential consequences uncommented – if the aliens had been imprisoned, it was up to Asraaban and Evenatra to rescue them. "Shall we try to find the corresponding returning tracks?" she asked, even as she visibly dithered between the option of simply following the outbound traces back to their source or following them into the arid landscape until return tracks became discernible. Could they assume the Nayabaru would bring the aliens home? Their orders could be more refined than that.
[17:30] If they'd returned this way, that was the better option. If. If they had not, it was a tremendous waste of time. "I don't know the geography of this area well," he admitted. "If they had captured kavkem, would they return the same way? Or in a different direction? If these aliens are unknown non-herbivores, will the Nayabaru treat them as potentially greater threats than us?"
[17:48] "There is no obvious city anywhere around the central Asheenagiji mountain ridge that would be best equipped to hold alien prisoners," Evenatra mused. "But I cannot guess how likely that makes the return journey the same as the outward one. It would seem the situation defies our templates – by definition, even." She cast her gaze down for a moment, introspective. "If we were safer, I might suggest we split up to find evidence of the aliens, then meet back here tomorrow night." She glanced out toward the landscape where shelter from the light became increasingly scarce. "But we are not." A pause, pondering their options. "Let us follow these tracks out and search for the return tracks as we do. We lose time if it routes us back to the source, but seems the safer course."
[03:35] He shook his head in agreement, pacing beside the tracks towards the desert. It would be better if they could disguise their own footsteps from the Nayabaru, but it was unlikely they would cross this path again. And if they did, it was likely the pair of them would be forced to do something dramatic to rescue the aliens, and any hopes of stealth would be lost.
"If there are no nearby cities, that buys us time," Asrabaan mused. "To be captive of the Nayabaru is a terrible fate, but it is not a changing one. They would not break an unknown research subject until they were back in a true laboratory. Two days or ten days may not make much difference, and still gives us a window to rescue them."
[04:26] "I would rather the two days," Evenatra muttered, keeping any elaborations to herself.