Last week you answered the question: Should Connie attempt to save a life, knowing that, in the attempt, he might destroy it? This week, Connie faces another difficult decision: What is he willing to risk in order to discover the answers that could not only save him, but all of Azinae?
(Click here to read the last episode)
Episode 11 - "Reverse"
Ever since I had arrived in Azinae, I had struggled against the threat that Azinae would change me. I had liked the idea of developing animal superpowers--that was a change I would have chosen for myself--but I had been changed into the most lethal, destructive force in Azinae.
Tahn Kayanu had said that I was a killer by nature, but I did not have to be one by choice. I realized that Azinae could change my body, but I did not have to let it change my morals.
I could not stand by and watch a young girl drown.
I powered down the slope and plunged into the water. The cold of the raging river instantly chilled my skin, and terror seized me. How much energy would I drain from the things around me--from the girl--just trying to keep myself warm? I thrust that thought away from myself and struck out through the water, my hands clawing forward and thrusting back. I was glad that I had joined the swim team at school, despite the fact that Ulysses was also on the team and had made every second in the locker room a miserable experience for me. The only reason I had stuck with the team was because I was an exceptional swimmer. My arms might not be as built as Dirk's, but they knew water intimately.
The river roared and churned around me. I bounced off a submerged rock, gritting my teeth against the bruising that subsided within a few moments. Then I reached the girl and grasped a handful of her flaxen hair, reeling her in until I could grasp her under the arms.
"I'm here," I gasped, choking water from my lungs. "I'm here."
For a moment, I forgot that I was one of the Healing. I was, quite simply, a man saving a girl. Her life utterly consumed my thoughts.
Then she gasped and shuddered in my hands, and terror seized me. Was her distress due to fear, a lungful of water, or my draining of her life? I slammed the doors of my mind against the doubts and, gripping the girl desperately, I kicked toward the shore.
The water sucked and clawed at me, now attempting to slam me against a rock, now pushing me under the surface, but each time, I flung myself back into my intended course, teeth gritted. It became a contest of wills between myself and the river, and I accepted no defeat.
At last, I reached the shore and scrambled onto the soft earth, old leaves and twigs and grass clinging to the heels of my palms and to my knees as I crawled to the higher ground, dragging the girl, who lay limply in my arms. Terror like I had never known seized me. This was the moment I had known I would have to face. Had I saved her or killed her?
I laid the girl on the ground and crouched over her, my stomach clenched.
Her eyelids fluttered and her gray eyes wandered until she found my face. They locked on my face, read my concern.
"Reverse," she whispered.
"What?" I leaned forward.
She and I felt it at the same moment. I sensed the strength pouring from her body even as I felt it enter my own, a tingling of vitality blooming through my chilled blood and exhausted limbs. I was killing her. I was killing her.
I sprang up, desperate to leave her, to remove my power from her body, but her hand clenched around my ankle. Could I shake her away when I knew that my very presence was draining her life into mine?
Then her breath froze and I knew it was too late. I realized that the grass around her body and mine had withered, sapped of health.
I do not remember the hours that followed. I recall that I dug a grave with violent energy that grasped at every living thing to fuel its vigor. I laid her to rest with a carpet of flowers, but even as I did so, I saw their petals brown and their leaves droop.
A voice whispered in my mind, distant but distinct. Killer. Killer. Killer.
Anger consumed me until I could not see, until it seemed to cast a shadow over the landscape and breath from the air around me. What had I done to deserve this? What had she done? Why must I become a victim over and over?
The whispers in my mind crowded thicker now, injecting venom into my veins. Now I understood why the Healing were the terror of Azinae. They were lost as I was lost, cut off from hope. If that was my life, so be it. I embraced the darkness. Every whisper called to me...
Whisper. The word slapped me across the face. I recognized the cloying darkness now, the same sensation of division from all that was good and true that I had felt when Ulysses pulled me away from the Half Tree.
How were the Whispers here? Was the anguish of my mind so potent that they had left the Half-Tree to sip temporarily at my despair? I fought my way past the throng of voices both accusing and seductive. This wasn't fair. I was a nice person.
But as I dug the graves for the girl's slain family and friends--the Creeping-Kind destroyed by the departed Beast-Kind--I wondered. Even on Earth, there were no nice people. There were people like me, who thought they were nice, but who, once tested beyond their endurance, revealed the darkness inside them. Now I realized that my perception of myself as a nice person was false. I was not nice.
I had thought that Azinae had changed me, made me a killer. But I was a killer before. Wasn't hate a kind of killing? And hadn't I fed and nursed and coddled my hate for Ulysses and everyone like him until it damaged me worse than he had ever damaged me? I had spent my whole life believing that I held myself back from true success because Ulysses had destroyed my confidence. That wasn't true. I had used his abuses as my excuse, absolving me from the uncomfortable choices that I did not want to have to make, comforting myself with the belief that I was a victim who was irreparably hurt, wanting other people to extend special sympathy and never expect too much of me. I did not want to pursue and fight and sacrifice because I felt I had already suffered enough, that I was owed comfort and respect.
But when did life--any life, on Earth or Azinae--promise only comfort and no suffering?
One by one, I buried my illusions and lies with the dead.
"Please," I whispered over the earth as I filled the last grave. "Show me how I can live this life as a man and not a monster."
I wasn't sure whom I asked this of, but it comforted me to think that someone, somewhere, might listen and care.
I rose at last and washed my muddy body in the river. Then I continued on my way, always pressing toward the mountains where I would find the Time Pool.
At times, the taste of war tingled on my tongue as I passed certain areas, and I avoided them. I did not want to see the ravages of war in Azinae. I did not want to see more dead.
When I came upon a village of Flight-Kind, I remained at a distance, watching. After I had observed for a time, I reached to an old Heron, a woman.
I want to speak with you.
Who are you? You are clear, but you do not feel like Flight-Kind.
I am Healing kind. But do not fear--I added hastily as she mentally recoiled--I will not harm you or the others. I simply have a question.
What question is that?
Someone said something to me that I do not understand. "Reverse." She said it twice. What does it mean?
The woman was silent for some time. Then she replied, It is the beginning of the old Song of Rahayar. You do not know it?
Rahayar? I straightened. The soul of the Tree? I did not know he had a song. Until lately, I have been a Transient.
Ah. Shall I sing it for you?
In the woman's mind, her voice was accompanied by instruments that breathed mystery and beauty into the tune, throbbing through my veins like a new life pulse. The music curled around me like wind, ethereal yet substantial.
Reverse the ancient curse.
Bear me on a tree until
I've surrendered all my will.
Make my enemy my friend,
Save him ere his darkest end.
Reverse the ancient curse.
Divide me until I contain
The depths of death and hate and pain,
Then pour me out until I am
The healing of this broken land.
Reverse the ancient curse.
When her song finished, we lingered in silence for some time, not breaking the contact, yet unwilling to break the sacredness of the song. At last, I asked, What does it mean? I know that the Tree divided himself to save Azinae from the Whispers, and that he must long for the reversal of the curse he placed upon himself. But how can he be healed and destroy the Whispers?
I do not know.
I pondered this, but felt that I had outstayed my welcome. I thanked the old woman and released her from the communication, passing on my way at a safe distance from the village.
Surely someone must have asked the Half-Tree how to reverse the curse, unless the Whispers killed them before they could learn the answer. But if at least one person survived to learn the truth, why hadn't the cure been attempted?
The only explanation I could devise was not comforting, that perhaps the cure carried a cost that no one wished to pay.
Between two of the mountains and away off to the east, I caught a glint of silver-blue. The sea was near. This area was probably crawling with watching Water-Kind.
A party of Beast-Kind crossed my path as I entered the foothills of the mountains. They scraped my body with their eyes as I approached, the fear and hate evident in their expressions, but they held fast when I called for them to listen.
"What do you want, Healing?" the leader asked warily.
"Directions. The Time Pool."
A few glanced at one another, questioning my purpose, but I merely stood before them, arms akimbo.
"Over there," the war leader, a Groundhog, pointed. "Skirt the base of the mountain until you reach the statue of the great Blue Whale. When you reach it, you will find a path. Follow it along the shore. It will lead you straight into the cave where the Time Pool lies. But your time is short."
"Why is that?"
"The pool is only accessible for another two days. Then the passage that leads to it is filled with water."
"For how long?"
"A year. The Time Pool is only accessible for one week out of every year."
"I see. Thank you." I was about to turn away, when I noted their sharpened spears and swords, and a few technological weapons that must have originated in other worlds. Observing them further, I realized that none of them was older than sixty or younger than sixteen, and all had the flint eyes and hard jaws of warriors.
"Where are you headed?" I asked.
"Breakwater," he said.
I raised an eyebrow. "I'm still a new Healing, but I do possess the Healing instincts. Answer again and try not to lie."
The Groundhog flinched and I waited. At last, he shrugged, and I read his thoughts as certainly as if he spoke them. He knew that the Healing did not concern themselves with the war. They preyed on all kinds alike.
"Eyrie," he said at last.
"Why?" The pressure of my gaze forced his tongue to answer.
"We have heard that there are avikind in Eyrie. A leader named L'K'e'tz. We have a source that will tell us how to find these avikind and destroy them."
A chill swept down my back. My companions were likely, at this moment, delivering their message to L'K'e'tz, as Brin had asked. I could go to the Time Pool and collect the water and perhaps get answers that only the Half Tree could give me. I might even learn how to make the song true and reverse the curse. If I collected the water from the Time Pool, I might even be able to prevent all of this: Merlin's injury, the girl's death, and my friends' danger in Eyrie.
On the other hand, the thought of not warning my friends, of taking the chance that I may or may not be able to rewrite their history, made me pause. I could save my friends--and lose the chance to save Azinae. I could save Azinae--and lose the chance to save my friends.
Go to the Time Pool? Or to Eyrie? You choose!