[21:29] Akuned was hard to dissuade from continuing the journey once the dawn came, and equally hard to dissuade from an early start before nightfall. Her idea of 'shelter for the night' was usually far less rigorously shaded than the niche they'd found – dumb luck, in hindsight.
Along the route, they caught, plucked and devoured a large bird and stopped by a river to drink. Despite the detour and despite Akuned having likely estimated her travel time by her own travel habits, they reached their destination a quarternight before the next dawn.
The settlement was tiny, consisting of seven houses, all wood and baked clay. It flanked a thin river, and its inhabitants evidently put it to use, having connected a simple stream water wheel to one of the houses. From the roof of the house, a wire reached into a tiny central plaza, feeding electricity into the bulbous Kiveki light, from which a diffuse illumination emanated.
A few trees near the edge of the settlement reached up high – no doubt these were some of the trees Akuned had once sat in to observe Nayabaru at daytime.
Akuned had led Serademar through the foliage, past a few traps she quietly narrated as they passed by – metal jaws, fine toxic spines on the trees, net traps, and a few nearly easily missed plates that would have, if triggered, made a loud enough sound to wake the settlement.
She'd stopped far closer to the settlement than was customary by general kavkem wisdom, wiggling onto a mossy boulder with a cratered top. From there, they could observe the settlement in silence.
Each of the houses had their own characteristic, but none of them looked like an obvious candidate to keep a kavkem captive.
Akuned whispered directly into Serademar's ear. According to her, one squat, sprawling building nearby was a kind of storage area, which was one place to check. The others were likely inhabited by Nayabaru... and which Nayabaru would volunteer to keep a kavkem in the house?
[21:38] And whatever kind of Nayabaru would volunteer to do so would not be one they would want to tangle with anyway. He turned to her and whispered just as quietly in her ear, "What about the wheel house? It probably wouldn't be occupied normally, unless something went wrong, though it may be in use during the day." He was concealing his nerves rather well, though a slight quaver in his voice might indicate just how much he's suppressing those nerves.
[21:55] "We can check that, too," Akuned responded, the syllables barely audible despite being spoken directly into Serademar's ear. It was softer than any conversation Serademar had ever participated in – but they were also closer to the settlement than he would have ever dared to be and still speak to another. It panned out.
"For now we should watch and wait to see if the Hesh appears. We should wait one and a half matters and stay attentive. If you spot it, give me a nudge and use your muzzle to point at it. Don't say a word. I'll do the same. If it shows, we watch to track its routine. And if it does not show in that time, it is probably sleeping like the others. Then we can explore."
[22:10] He nodded, remaining silent while watching the settlement. A spider craweled across his toes, nearly straining his overtaught nerves to the breaking point, and only the most iron of will kept him from leaping from their too-close, ill cover. He froze, holding his breath, then waited for his heartbeat to finally ease off before resuming his vigil.
[22:29] It turned out that time passes really slowly when you're nervously pressed to the cool surface of a moist rock, trying to catch a glimpse of a Hesh that may or may not be patrolling the settlement, while the Kiveki light – however poorly lit this one had to be from Nayabaru perspective – is a constant bright distraction.
At one point, Akuned thought she'd spotted something down one of the trodden paths – but it turned out to be a long-limbed, skittish herbivore of a completely different species.
And then as approximately one and a half matters had passed, Akuned decided their wait was over, quietly but deliberately rising from her tight crouch. Her muzzle dipped back down to Serademar for another impossible whisper: "Together or separately? Together lets us watch our backs, separately is done quickly. You decide."
[22:37] The answer was instant, "Together. All or none." Staying behind wasn't an option, after all.
[22:32] "Together," she confirmed. Her voice was far too low to have an inflection, but judging by body language alone, it was a matter-of-fact delivery – no surprise, no amusement, no frustration, suggesting she would have been all right with either answer.
Withdrawing from Serademar, she slipped over the cusp of the boulder's cratered top, onto the ground, more fluid than solid. The ground between the houses was almost completely flat, even the grasses meek but for the edges, little weeds and shrubs scattered against the walls. For kavkema used to the cover of forest, it felt far too open.
Akuned didn't seem to care. Having convinced herself that the Hesh wasn't around, she advanced cautiously and quietly, but without much hesitance.
The squat building she'd announced as a storage space had several thin ventilation slits, vertical, at a height. Rather than try her luck at the door immediately, she set her sight on these 'windows', then leapt up to them. Her claws audibly scrambled against the wall, revealing her if anyone were actually listening, but she managed to catch herself against the slits.
[22:33] She spent a silent moment trying to peer into the building, before dropping back down, striding over to Serademar for another close whisper. "Nothing immediately visible. Let's see if we can open the door."
[22:14] Seradamar nodded, then slid along the wall silently until he reached the door. The temptation to yank it open and rush inside was strong, but also suppressed into his persistent jitters at this entire situation. If they were discovered... The thought actually stilled him for a moment, heart beating thrice irregularly. Finally, he slowly opened the door, peering with one eye through the slowly widening gap. The shrill squawk of the hinges sounded louder than a volcano exploding to his ear, though in reality, it was just a minor complaint. He paused, waiting to see if anyone or, worse, anything responded to the noise.
[22:41] The open door rippled through Akuned as a visible disappointment. What were the chances the Nayabaru were keeping a captive in an unlocked building?
On the other hand, what were the chances of sensible Nayabaru not even putting locks on their storage space? Any kavkem could plunder this easily! Dynash would have a field day hiding a contact bomb in the middle of this.
On the yet further hand, Dynash would have an equally great time just sticking one on the threshold to the building. There also likely wasn't to be anything of worth to plunder – what did kavkema want with dried vegetables? Not bothering with a lock no longer seemed so outlandish.
Akuned was not above stealing the one or other gardening tool. A good enough metal tool might help them whenever they came across an actual lock, as long as they were willing to lose any pretense of stealth.
She slipped into the building, poking her muzzle into crevices, drawing scents out of the cracks in crude barrels, quick and alert in her assessment.
There was no kavkem here, nor any trace of one having been kept here.
Quietly, she clambered into a wheel barrow to be able to better look at a raised ledge with tools, silently and cautiously running a paw through the near perfect darkness, brushing fingers across the foreign shapes.
Finally she withdrew, holding a sturdy pair of pruning shears meant for Nayabaru hands. They were worn from use but the quality proved the settlement was in contact with others; nothing in this one could have produced a tool like this.
[22:42] Quietly, she hopped back down, silently offering the unwieldly potential weapon to Serademar handles first, should he want to take it, while her gaze gave the room another cursory glance, playing with the idea of setting it on fire on their way out of the settlement later.
[23:13] Seradamar took the pruning shears with a grimace. "Better than a pointy stick. Where else?" He looked around to see if anywhere else caught his eye.
[23:25] Akuned twisted around to look at him, then reached with a forepaw to his muzzle, touching her palm to it – more of a gentle gesture than a physical restraint of his speech.
As she withdrew her hand, she moved to slip past him, back out of the building, evidently convinced this was not where they would find the captive – if they were still alive, if the gross incompetence hadn't killed them.
No dawdling it is, then.
Serademar's guess had been the mill, and sure enough, Akuned was cautiously leading the way to it. If she was miffed about having been wrong, it was invisible in her body language – as easy as it was to get under her skin with religion, she didn't seem to have too much of an ego to offend.
[23:35] The reminder was quite apt, and he reminded himself to stay quiet. Seradamar slipped after her quietly, looking left and right as he did so... just in case. Their success thus far at not being caught was helping in some respects, the nervous tremble was finally abating, but driving his nerves taught with the continuing expectation of a shout, a dart, or worse. A glance over Akuned's shoulder at the mill house just to make sure it hadn't moved, and he kept checking behind them.
[00:00] As they came closer to their target, Akuned slowed in her approach, her attention slipping to the side and back. Almost risking impact with Serademar, she stopped, then looked back at an angle, at a strange wooden lattice beside one of the otherwise unremarkable buildings.
It was hard to tell in the dark of night – was that just an orderly arrangement of sticks, or some kind of grate set over a hole in the ground? And in either case, was her curiosity worth the detour?
Deciding against it for now but resolving to return to the puzzle later, she turned her attention back to the mill house, trotting the last couple of steps up to its door. This one was locked, although secured with a pitiful wire running through the wall and a small hole in the door, the loops of which were gathered in the grasp of a crude padlock.
Nothing the shears couldn't handle, probably.
[01:41] Seradamar slid up to the door, opening the shears experimentally to figure out what grip would work. A bit of horsing around with the tips finally finagled them into position that brought the cutting surface to bear. A hard squeeze, and the wire parted with an audible snap. He stepped aside and looked back once more, touching Akuned's shoulder lightly.
[21:00] Still no Hesh or other roused Nayabaru – everything remained flawlessly quiet. Akuned didn't seem bothered by it, as though she expected this lack of diligence on part of the Nayabaru here; if she had truly observed them repeatedly, perhaps she knew better than instinct?
She swerved her muzzle in voiceless thanks, then softly butted it against the door and pushed at it. The hinges permitted the inward motion and the door gradually opened, revealing that the building held a basic generator fed by the turning waterwheel and the gears it twisted in one corner and stables in the rest.
Narrow ceratopsian faces snorted softly, alert eyes watching them mutely. Horned heads dipped in a hesitant defence, then rose again as the instinctive motion brought their eyes below the fencing. Feet stepped about, driven by a creature trying to ascertain the best position to attack or defend, without losing track of its enemy.
But kavkema were small and not too much of a threat. If they'd been encountered in the wild, the posturing was meant to dissuade them from trying – there was no deep fear in these creatures.
Akuned slunk further into the building, her muzzle under the stable doors, in part sniffing at the ground for a foreign scent, in part to see if there were ceratopsian feet to see. She paused at an empty stall. The means to open it was too far up to reach.
She stepped back from it, squatting herself down for a moment, like a coiling spring – then leapt up, launching herself at the door, hoping to simply catch against the top edge. Instead, she hit it with a dull thwack, her claws missing purchase, and fell down like a sack of meat. Huffing, she shook straw out of her feathers, then receded again, repeating the motion.
At the third try, she'd leapt high enough to hang by one forepaw, and her hindclaws scrambled against the wood, making unpleasant sounds, each of which just barely threatened to be loud enough to seal their fate. Then she hung across the edge and looked into the stall, huffing quietly.
[21:01] Her muzzle swerved a few times, but her expression didn't change; when she let herself drop back down, it was obvious that she hadn't found the supposed captive there.
Stood in the middle of the mill house, she glanced across at the generator. It would be so easy to destroy, and likely not trivial to replace. She ran her tongue across her teeth, casting a predatory leer at the device. Then she crept toward it.
This had not been part of the agreed-upon plan!
[21:45] Seradamar, having been carefully watching for trouble as Akuned worked, glanced over to check on her. The noise had been horrendous, and the fact that there were no shouts of discovery was practically miraculous to his mind. He winced with each new noise until they stopped... which was even more disturbing than the noise. A look back revealed Akuned's oncoming intent, which would surely bring the entirety of the village down upon their heads. He stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder once more, shaking his head, hoping she would be kept back from her destructive intent for long enough to find the captive and escape.
[22:21] Akuned snapped her muzzle around to glare at him, but the gesture softened almost as soon as she made it – some kernel of rationality evidently assessed his caution as adequate. She stood for a moment, simply to stare at the device powering the settlement's weak Kiveki light, her resentment for what it represented obvious.
Then she turned away, licking at her lips, and moved back out of the building. No dawdling and no double standard about dawdling.
Their next target was the grating on the ground that Akuned had spotted on the way here. The light spilled across it at an almost horizontal angle, highlighting each of the rungs. She kept her body low as she approached, no foliage nearby to give her or Serademar cover, out in the open as it was.
Then her gaze cast down into the hole in the ground that it covered. A twitch ran through her and she raised her right paw in a quick gesture, beckoning Serademar over.
[22:22] Down in the pit lay a kavkem, its feathers more grime than not, sometimes outright missing in patches. It looked pitifully emaciated. A collar around its neck had a few large links on it, suggesting that might be the means the Nayabaru fished it out of the pit whenever they had to convince it to eat.
Between the dirt and the haggard composure, it wasn't even clear if it was female or male. Currently, it was pressed into a corner of its prison, a dirty, malformed ball of feathers more than anything else. Sleeping?
Akuned picked up a pebble and flicked it into the pit. The pit wasn't too deep – a bit of careful clambering should get the captive out easily. Presumably, they just had to remove the grating.
The captive twitched as if struck as the pebble clattered softly against the side of the pit, then thumped quietly onto the ground. Its eyes opened with effort, revealing themselves to be somewhat crusted at the edges. It squinted up at Akuned, staring dumbly for a moment.
[23:51] Seradamar looked down into the pit as well, wincing as he realized the... depths of depravation to which these Nayabaru would stoop, even to one who was captured and held by them. No honor, no honor at all, and worse. There was too much of the light in these ones to realize what they had done. Not even treated as well as well as the cattle in the millhouse. He winced in anger, regretting for a brief moment that they hadn't destroyed the generator after all. Still, there was a task at hand. He checked the edges of the grate to see how hard it might be to pry up.
[00:14] Akuned moved to help him as soon as he was at it. Lifting the whole of it enough to slip through seemed impossible even for the both of them, but 'an inch off the ground' was possible, and allowed them to drag it to the side.
The kavkem at the bottom of the pit shivered, flicking its muzzle upward a few times as if to dissuade them from what they were trying to do.
Then they'd opened a triangular gap large enough for a kavkem to comfortably clamber through. Akuned swung herself down into the pit, secure in the knowledge that getting back out required only marginal climbing effort.
Given the prison was open to the air, the deeper hole set into one corner didn't have much of a stink about it, though its purpose was still fairly clear. The captive was crowded into a different corner, now looking warily at Akuned, as though perhaps suspecting her a hallucination or kiikam, or simply expecting the Nayabaru to appear at any moment to pull the grate shut.
From up close, it was clear the captive was a female, making her crinkled state even more alarming, given more muscle must have withered away to give her her current appearance.
Akuned dared a whisper: "It's okay. We're getting you out of here."
The captive glanced at her incredulously, then silently flicked her muzzle upwards again. No?
[00:37] Seradamar remains up top, pressed down to the ground while he awaits Akuned's actions with the imprisoned kavkem. What might happen next is anyone's guess, but he would not be allowing a Nayabaru to interrupt their little rescue mission at this point. He gripped the hedge cutters tightly, muzzle sweeping the small amount required for his eyes to see everything around him.
[22:24] Akuned crept a little closer still, cautiously so, unsure if there was something threatening about her own demeanour that was making the captive not trust her. She couldn't quite place the body language; the lightly bristling feathers could mean any number of things.
"Come with us. We can get you cleaned up," Akuned encouraged. "It's easy to climb out of here."
[22:25] She shouldn't have to say this. The grate was open, the route to freedom clear. Akuned had heard of kavkema that had lost the will to struggle, but this seemed different somehow.
"I can't run," the captive whispered back, barely audible.
"Okay, we'll walk," Akuned encouraged. "There is no Hesh on patrol right now. We can leave without that anyone will stop us."
The captive flicked her muzzle again, then shifted, the motion an obvious strain, unbundling herself from the corner. For a moment, it looked like she'd chosen an uncomfortable posture to perch in in the first place, but a second glance revealed the source of her reluctance – the bones of her shin and foot had clearly been shattered and left to grow back together all wrong.
[22:26] Akuned bristled, backing away in a moment of shock, eyes wide enough to generously reveal the whites from their corners. She reared up a few inches, then settled back down; briefly she glanced back at Serademar with a lost body language.
An instinctive revulsion held her at bay for a moment, before she could bring herself to approach the captive again, to whisper: "We'll... think of something. Let me... – let me discuss this with my companion."
A nervous breath caught in her throat and she backed away again, then turned to leap up and clamber up the pit until she was hanging against the edge, her head poking out of the gap Era and her had shifted into the crude prison. "Her legs are broken," she whispered, haltingly. "What do we do?"
From a Nayabaru perspective, it was highly effective – not only did it prevent the captive from running away on their own, it likely deterred any rescue attempts in the same way it was doing now. What would she do if she'd been freed? She'd starve in no time if left on her own. She couldn't live the nomadic life normal to kavkema.
She'd simply been removed from the equation.
[01:06] Seradamar froze. Broken. Broken legs, broken eggs, broken, broken. He looked around, panic welling at his throat for several moments as he checked for any Nayabaru. The silence both helped and heightened the anxiety. He looked down again, conviction finally rising in his heart. He'd been saved. He would save another. Near silent whisper, "I'll carry her."
[02:06] Akuned stared at him for a moment, her expression heartened but incredulous. "I'm stronger than you," she whispered back. "...and there was a wheel barrow in the storage room." Her gaze flitted about for a moment as she grappled with thoughts, her tongue running across her teeth nervously. Then, anxiously: "But where to? Where is safe for her?"
[02:16] "And you can defend us better. I'll get the wheel barrow, the where... well, we will find a where. Even if I have to push her there myself." He began to rise, determination flooding his face. This may not have been the rescue they had hoped for, but it was the rescue that was at hand. And if he changed his heart now, no amount of light would make things any worse.
[02:30] Akuned bristled slightly, doubting that they'd find anywhere adequate to put a crippled kavkem. But they'd come here to rescue her and there was little reason to abort now. They could still get cold feet after they'd wheeled her a way's out of the settlement. No reason to lose momentum now. Still no Hesh in sight.
By way of acknowledgement, she slipped back down into the pit, returning to the captive to negotiate getting out of the pit with her, convince her it was at least worth trying, and do most of the heaving.
The ghastly collar might even help get her out in a pinch, if Akuned's brute force efforts themselves would somehow not suffice. But she hoped it wouldn't come to that.
[03:04] The return to the storage shed alone was... not comforting. The squeaky hinges were remembered and the noise minimized as best he could, then the wheelbarrow checked before bringing it out. It bounced a bit, unburdened as it was, an excited puppy tugging at the leash of the kavkem that was using something entirely unlike his physiology was intended to handle. On arrival at the hole, he whispered down, "Back."
[03:30] It was the wrong size for easy handling, for one, what with Nayabaru gait so vastly different to those of the kavkema, a Nayabaru twice as tall as any kavkem. But it would be easier to push the wheelbarrow than to carry a crippled kavkem on one's shoulders.
As he returned to the pit, he could see that Akuned had dragged the captive from her corner over to where they had opened the grating, and was busy trying to lift her onto her arms and shoulders in a way that would allow them to clamber up together.
The captive's arms worked, so she could steady their ascent, at least – she wasn't completely immobilised. Even her legs worked, strictly speaking, they were just unfit for walking, with strands of muscles attached to the wrong parts of bone, the signals that would normally translate to walking motions simply twisting the mangled limbs.
But she knew how to crawl, and that would help them get up and out.
"Any rope nearby? Something she can hold onto?" Akuned whispered up to Serademar, barely audible from the distance she was necessarily at.
[21:31] Another glance at the light-blasted supply shed. "There was some in the shed, hang on." He stole back to the shed one more time, nerves stretched tighter than thumpskin over a gourd. In he went. As he bent down for the rope, the night breeze picked up, rattling the shed and Seradamar alike. Heartbeat nearly thrust from his chest, but after several breaths, he managed to return once more to Akuned and the rescuee. He spooled out a short length and fed it over the side to Akuned, holding on at the top, still alert for Nayabaru. A cough from one of the nearby homes boomed into the silence.
[22:12] The sound from nearby drove a jolt through both Akuned and the captive. Latter broke into a frantic shiver, but managed by power of will to uncurl from Akuned enough to reach out her arms at the dangling rope. She clung to it for a moment, then started to weakly use it take some of her weight off Akuned, who was struggling to push her up as she climbed.
A rock came loose under Akuned's foot and tumbled into the pit, hitting the ground with an audible thwack. She bit down a whimper, realigning her posture, crawling up the wall with the captive awkwardly clung to her shoulders.
Then the weak bundle of feathers and bones reached past the edge, snapped a paw up and toward Serademar, was met with a steadying gesture, and was finally hauled out, collapsing for a moment on her side, panting.
Akuned crawled out after her, pressing low to the ground and sweeping her attention around, as though unsure if the rock might have done their secrecy any damage.
[22:47] Seradamar's nerves nearly broke. Every step, every step! Still, with Akuned and the rescuee now above the grate, he allowed them both a moment to recover while he returned the grate to it's previous, ignoble position, as close to undisturbed as he could make it look in a few moments. "Time to get in the wheel barrow." It might have sounded cheery, if not for the near hiss it was delivered in.
[23:09] For a crippled kavkem, currently collapsed on her side, the wheelbarrow's side formed an impossible, towering obstacle. Still, she snorted softly, righting herself as much as was possible, before Akuned snaked in under her again, heaving her malnourished body up toward the edge of it.
The wheelbarrow shifted precariously for a moment as the trembling captive clambered over the edge, but stayed upright. For a moment, Akuned peered into it, tugging at the tool necklace around her neck, then handing the loop to the rescued kavkem, waterskin and all, a silent prompt to drink something, possibly clean up her muzzle.
So far, so good.
Then Akuned let go, stepped back from the impromptu vehicle and inspected the wheels and handles, trying to see if she could help push it without getting into Serademar's way.
[23:23] Seradamar licked his muzzle, then went for the handles once more. The added weight actually helped in the control, even if it added to the overall burden. The brief practice moving it here did help, and he moved off at a slow, but steady, pace towards the edge of the tiny hamlet. Considering the size of the handles, Akuned could probably stand behind Seradamar and lift in conjunction... as long as they stayed relatively in step.
[23:36] Akuned seemed to consider something much like it, but the handles were pretty far apart and Serademar's tail a very real obstacle to finding a good position to grasp them with. She reasoned she had a chance to contribute to a lopsided push, but that wasn't in their interest, so instead she trotted close to Serademar, alert, ready to intervene if for some reason he slipped in his stride.
Once they'd driven it between the trees and the foliage began to nip at its wheels, Akuned nudged her muzzle against Serademar's shoulder gently. "I'm going back," she said, in a tone of agitated determination. "Break the generator, give them something to focus on."
[00:08] "Akuned... please," Seradamar's voice is soft. "That would attract so much attention. I want to destroy the whole village because of what they've done, but... but... right now, I need you more than the desire to hurt them." A long pause, "We both know that I alone won't make it nearly as far nor as fast pushing alone, and we would be targets that would be easy to find and capture." He turned his head to one side, and quietly added, "I will not stop you, of course. But, please, save your wrath for... after."
[00:17] "No, if we break it, they'll be too busy dealing with that, they won't come after us," Akuned argued, her voice tense. It was wishful thinking – she should know that. Nayabaru specialisation meant they would send their Hesha after them; the Hesha would be no use at all in fixing the generator. Akuned had to know that. She'd proven observant before – why not now?
[00:22] "They have Nayabaru to spare, even in that tiny clutch of houses, that they can chase us without losing those who can work on the generator." He paused a long moment, then put the wheelbarrow down long enough to touch her shoulder. "I will return with you as soon as everything is done. We will destroy the generator together. And everything else we can destroy, too."
[00:27] Akuned hissed, but it was a half-hearted sound, feathers reluctant to bristle. Here was a kavkem that was not used to having to follow a consensus – she did what she wanted, when she wanted it. If she was feeling generous, she informed others of her intentions beforehand.
But Serademar had one advantage in this – he was right.
"Later," she agreed, though she spat the word with a displeased derision. "We'll do it later."
[00:31] He nodded in quiet assent. The emotions that ran through him were intense, but he couldn't allow those to cloud what remained of his judgement. "Come on, we have more night left, we should use it as best we can."