Another unanimous vote! Everyone is in favor of Connie striking out on his own. Blessed--and cursed--with the inability to be harmed, Connie now faces his first major decisions in his Azinaean form. Will his own darkness swallow him?
(Click here to read the last episode)
Episode 10 - Pursuing the Cure
Merlin pulled his hands away from his face and I read his answer in the granite set of his jaw and the burden of grief in his eyes even before he spoke it.
"Every moment in the presence of a Healing is a taunt against death," he said quietly. "I won't endanger my company."
From anyone but Merlin, the words would have cut to my spine, but I knew him too well--trusted him too much--to misunderstand him. I wanted to feel betrayed, but couldn't. I would have made the same decision in his place.
"But I don't know anything about Azinae," I protested. "What if I eat something poisonous?"
"You are untouchable by all dangers of natural life," Tahn Kayanu said quietly. "Whatever befalls you will be reversed as you draw from the vitality of those things around you."
"I don't want to."
"You will not be able to help it."
"So I will never truly be hungry? Cold? Injured? Tired?"
Tahn Kayanu shook his head. "For as long as you live--which, conceivably, could be forever--you will be in the best of health and never lack."
"Until I suck the world dry," I said quietly. "That's what's happening, isn't it? The world and the population are slowly shrinking as the Healing increase in number."
"Yes," said Tahn Kayanu. "Given enough time, Azinae will no longer have enough vigor to support the continual regeneration of the Healing. What happens then?" He shrugged. "I do not know."
"What is making the Healing?" Dirk asked. "Is it some new devilry of the Whispers?"
"I have a feeling the Half-Tree knows," Ulysses said. "We only heard half the message. But the other half may give us some insight."
"Our quest has more relevance than ever," Merlin agreed.
"You will go to the Half-Tree?" Tahn Kayanu raised his eyebrows. "No one willingly goes into the very heart of the Whispers. It is death."
A sudden thought struck me. "But I could."
The others stared at me, then Dirk slapped his thigh. "By golly! The dude is right. He could. He can't die, right? So he is immune."
"Not entirely," Tahn Kayanu replied. "The Whispers cannot kill Connie, but they can corrupt him. And a corrupted Healing is ten times the terror than any of the Healing that you have seen here in the marsh."
"If I can last just long enough to know the Half-Tree's message," I said, "Then I may do some good after all."
No one could sleep the rest of that night. When Astrid at last woke from her healing slumber, greatly improved and nearly fully recovered, her husband took her aside and told her all that had transpired during her slumber. I could not bear the quick, startled glance she flashed toward me, and removed myself to the place where Tahn Kayanu crouched over the squat wood stove, where he brewed a tea that smelled simultaneously of warm spices and comforting earthiness.
"What do I need to know?" I asked.
"Do you really want to know?" Tahn Kayanu glanced toward me, eyebrows drawn over his glittering eyes.
"I have to know."
"Then I will tell you, though there is not much good to tell." Kayanu's wooden spoon paused, and the dark liquid swirled in the pot. "Your greatest danger is anger."
"Whatever hate you have already in your heart--toward a person, toward a situation--will multiply like a disease. You will seek someone or something to blame for your outcast condition. You will chew on it until it consumes you, fantasize about harming the one you believe harmed you, obsess over every wrong done to you."
My cheeks burned and, although my eyes wished to stray to Ulysses, I forced them to remain fixed on Tahn Kayanu's face.
"You will be utterly lonely, Connie. These moments--" he gestured to the cabin's interior, incorporating my company of friends--"are very, very rare. No one keeps company with the Healing willingly. It is far too dangerous. The loneliness feeds the anger, until the soul is entirely corrupted with a plague of bitterness. Do you wonder why so many Healing harm out of spite? It is because of their great loneliness that fuels their anger. They have given up hope of all companionship or redemption. Yet the same people were once fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. Loving. Kind. Gentle."
I glanced down at my hands. "How did you escape?"
"Choice by desperate choice. There is no moment when you can let down your guard. There is no little seed or root of anger that you can afford to overlook. And when you discover that you have allowed the horror to grow in you, you must repent and take whatever measure necessary to retrace your steps back to the selflessness that guards you. You are a curse by nature, but you do not have to be a curse by choice."
My tongue felt thick. "What do you do with anger that you already have?"
"Make it right. Or it will destroy you--and anything around you."
"I... I don't know if I can."
"It is not a matter of can. It is a matter of must. "
But you don't know what he took away from me. What he broke in me. What he made impossible for me. How can I simply wipe that away?
The room was far too small for seclusion, so I seated myself nearest Merlin and poured my silent thoughts into the pool of fear that had begun to submerge my soul. Merlin said nothing, but his presence was like a buoy. I knew what he would choose and wished that I were a man more like he was.
The next morning, my companions left under the cover of the early morning darkness, accompanied by Tahn Kayanu as their guide and--oddly--as their protector.
"I'm not coming," I said to Merlin just before their departure. "If I don't leave now, I won't have the courage."
Merlin nodded soberly. Then he said, "You may be able to follow at a distance, and you can communicate with any one of us telepathically. It is the one consolation Azinae gives the Healing. Will you go to the Time Pool and the second Half-Tree as we will?"
I nodded. Without the quest, the despair that gnawed the edges of my mind would have overtaken me.
Merlin glanced toward Tahn Kayanu. "He is rare among the Healing. Whatever he says, take it to heart."
“Take this as well,” Astrid said, holding up a wide, white cloth that shimmered like captured stars. “I wove it for you, and it will keep you warm.”
Then they descended the treehouse and were gone, the water rippling in silken V's from the bow of their boat, where Tahn Kayanu crouched like a warrior, stroking the craft forward with a single oar.
I had not made it right with Ulysses. Perhaps if he had come to me again, apologized once more, I could have found the courage to mutter forgiveness. But to go to him? To initiate the forgiveness that he did not deserve, for wrongs he could never right?
I hoped that this forgiveness withheld was not as dire as Tahn Kayanu seemed to be believe it would be.
I did not wait for Tahn Kayanu to return. I took what food I could carry on my person; he had been generous with his resources with my companions, so I suspected the same was true for me. Certainly I could forego food indefinitely and suffer no harm from it, but the thought of it triggered my revulsion. Who would I harm so that I could test the limits of my self-healing? It seemed to be only the first step of many, in the dark journey that led to the sort of reckless behavior I had observed in other Healing. They had no instincts of self-preservation, and therefore held all life--even their own--cheaply.
The fullness of my Azinaean form must have ripened overnight, for when I emerged from Tahn's treehouse, descended the lift, and began to swim through the clear waters of the marshlands, no one accosted me. I was aware of them, of the rustling of branches, and of the faint, electrical tingle in my body whenever my perimeter and another's crossed momentarily. My awareness of their thoughts bloomed faintly, like the shape of a tree through mist.
Another one? Why in Azinae do we need more Healing?
Poor devil. He looks fresh now. Soon he will reek with despair.
Don't give up, young man! Find the cure to your curse.
I wished I knew how to find the cure. Tahn Kayanu was wise, yet he had not found a cure in over seven hundred years. And there were other Healing, those who had served before their corruption and the Division, who were likewise trapped in immortality. What had they not yet tried?
The Half-Tree. That was my only answer. No one visited the Half-Tree because of the Whispers, and the Healing avoided it most of all, fearful of spending an eternity of madness.
I did not want to go mad. But then, mad people always think they are sane. So at least I would never know that I was mad.
The Half-Tree was my only hope. Let the others deliver Brin's message to Eyrie. I did not care for it any more. Azinae's disease was far deeper than the petty squabbles of the Kinds. I was going to the Time Pool.
The Healing rearranged, distancing themselves from me as I swam through the marshlands in a direction that carried me away from my companions' trajectory. My newfound strength propelled me forward, and I found my eternal energy and strength exhilarant until I realized that the leaves and stalks of marshland vegetation shriveled as I passed. I was draining the land to feed myself.
I tried to tell myself I did not care. They were plants, after all, not human life.
But I could not convince myself. I did care.
The edge of the marshlands offered soggy patches of weedy ground which slowed my progress. I wrestled through it, sowing destruction in my wake, my fatigue compensated with every step.
It was evening before I reached the other side of the marshlands, where the ground was firm and riddled with shale. I was not tired, but I did not dare press on, for the width of my destructive path was widening considerably. I found a mossy bank, wrapped Astrid's Spider-blanket around my body, and attempted to sleep.
Apparently, the Healing powers enabled me to recover from pain, but not from discomfort. I tossed and turned, seeking a comfortable place until at last, when the eastern horizon was just flushing with a dove gray hue, I fell asleep.
At least the insects would not bite one of the Healing.
I roused in the afternoon and continued on my way, chewing a handful of jerky to assuage the hunger that I did not feel and quenching my thirst at still pools where the water was clear.
When I sensed a Pufferfish nearby on the second day of my journey, I reached out telepathically to ask directions to the Time Pool.
East and north, he replied. Toward those mountains. Perhaps five days' journey.
Thank you, Healing.
Even his thoughts stammered. For speaking at a distance. Not many of the Healing are so kind.
His words made me sober. How many lives had my Kind claimed?
I spent the next few days pursuing my course. Every so often, I came upon a pathway clearly burnt across the landscape by a wounded Healing. Some were new, the plants withered into ash, others were old, with green already encroaching on the edges to heal the land. The scar on the earth made me determine more than ever to be attentive to my invisible hunger, fatigue, and foot-weariness.
On the fourth day since the Marsh Way, I encountered the experience that determined so much of what I became later.
I had just crested the brow of one of the mountain foothills, so deep in the wonder of Azinaean beauty that I had not given thought to the sensation of others nearby. I came into sight of a horror of blood and death.
At least a dozen Creeping-Kind lay scattered across the bank of a rushing river, their bodies twisted in grotesque manners that I cannot describe even now. Throwing my senses onto the wind, I tasted the events--the silent attack that had occurred only moments before, the lives still ebbing away rapidly, beyond any healing skill to retrieve. A wall of nausea nearly brought me to my knees.
Then I saw it: the flash of flaxen hair spinning down the violent eddies of the river. A girl, perhaps ten or eleven. Whether she had leapt into the river to escape the attackers, who were now gone, or had fallen in during the confusion, she was now clutched in the power of the river. I caught the glimpse of terrified blue eyes before the dark waters sucked her under, only to spit her back up several yards downriver.
I stood frozen in indecision. If I did not act, she would drown. If I did act, and I spent my strength or began to drown myself, I could kill her.
What should Connie do? Vote in the comments!
P.S. Awesomemama, you once told me in person that it'd be nice for Connie to face a serious moral dilemma. Here it is! Though you probably don't like it any more than I do.