This has been promised since the early episodes, since one of the first votes, and now it is here--Connie arrives at the Time Pool. But what awaits him there, and what happens when he reverses time and begins to rewrite Azinaean history? Find out in this episode!
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Episode 12 - The Time Pool
For half a moment, a third possibility blossomed in my befogged mind like a promise of reprieve. I could hurt myself badly at this moment--grab one of those sparkling spears and thrust myself through, savage my body--until the Beast-kind lay littered around me, sapped of life. It would only consume the space of a minute, and I could continue on my way with the knowledge that I had both saved my friends in Eyrie and could reach the Time Pool in time. I could have the proverbial cake and eat it too.
Some of the intensity of my thoughts must have pressed outward to my expression, for the Beast-Kind shrank back from me. They were utterly in my power and, should I choose to harm them, none would have the time to escape. I felt the pulse of their lives within my perimeter and it nearly intoxicated me.
Is this how Ulysses had felt when he had tormented me? Had he felt this rush of strength, the morbid satisfaction of knowing that he could do as he pleased? If I made this choice, what would I prove except that I had become all that I despised?
My shoulders sagged and involuntary tears prickled in my eyes.
I am a killer by nature. I do not have to be a killer by choice. Once I crossed that line, what redemption remained to me?
The Beast-kind war party shuffled away hastily and I seated myself on a stone, swallowing hard. I felt their presence leave the perimeter of my power and, with it, came a deep relief. The nearness of the choice I had nearly made strangled me.
Suddenly, I sprang to my feet and shook my fist at the cloudless sky, anger boiling in my chest until it burned.
"I defy you, Whispers! I will not be another of your pawns! There has been enough death in Azinae. The Half-Tree pulled me here for a reason and, by heaven, I am going to find out what it is!"
The surrounding mountains flung my voice back to me and somehow the reverberations added to my fury.
Turning, I scrambled over the stones with the strength of wrath. I did not stop for hours, but poured all my energy into that single forward drive to the mountain and the sea beyond. Disregarding the damage that my expenditure of energy dealt to the organic life that I passed, I ran tirelessly until, just ahead, I recognized the statue of the Blue Whale carved from the mountain, its tail uplifted as though to strike those who passed beneath it. By its side, a second statue depicted the Blue Whale's Azinaean counterpart, a human form with a wide mouth, small eyes set far apart, large chin, and blended cheekbones. I gathered my resolve and passed by the giant life-sized image, my breath burning in my lungs and my body singing with motion.
Just as the Groundhog had predicted, a narrow path emerged from the stone, threading its way along the shoreline, just above the high-water mark and the tide pools that glimmered in the waning sunlight. My feet magnetized to the trail as I raced the sun, eager to reach the Time Pool before the waters cut me off and the darkness made my mission impossible.
The path curved around a boulder and, as I emerged from the bend, I observed that the path straggled down into shallow water, toward a crescent of white sand and the ragged wide mouth of a sea cave. Water already lapped at the foot of the cave. I would have to be quick. I plunged into the shallow spit of water that separated me from the cave that sheltered the Time Pool.
As I approached the cave, however, the water of the ocean churned near me. I staggered back, my feet sloshing, and gaped as a head emerged from the waters. A blunt face came into view, pocked with two small, round eyes and a mouth that seemed to fold together into a dour expression. With the sixth sense of a full Azinaean, I knew his form intuitively: an Electric Eel. As much as I knew I would survive the encounter, I did not particularly relish the idea of a few hundred volts of electricity charging through my body.
"I have not come for harm," I said. "I only want to reach the Time Pool."
"A dozen seekers have already come for the Time Pool," said the Electric Eel. "But they have gone back or I have killed them. The Time Pool is not permitted."
"Not permitted by whom?"
"By the mighty Conced, whom I serve."
"Why should he prevent visitors?"
"Revisions of history are dangerous. It upsets the wars of the Kinds."
"Says Conced, I suppose? What version of history is he afraid to lose?"
"You should return. Conced does not permit thieves at the Pool."
"Did he create the Time Pool?"
The Eel did not answer.
"Well, Conced should learn how to share," I snapped, losing my patience with this arrogant and dramatic farce. "I am of the Healing and I am going to the Time Pool."
"Are you indeed?" The voice was not the Eel's. I pivoted to face the new speaker and found myself in starting, gape-mouthed, into the face of a Healing with the dimensions of Hercules. Heat rushed to my face.
"You are Conced?" I asked, more meekly than I intended.
"And you're a trespasser."
The old Connie would have turned and left immediately. But either some confidence born of my immortal condition or some petulance nourished by the extremity of my need ignited my indignation.
"Who gave you authority over the Time Pool?" I demanded to know.
"You had best leave now."
"Only if you tell me that Rahayar gave you the authority to guard the Time Pool."
"And if I do?"
I considered the other Healing and read his intentions with that fortunate Azinaean intuition. I snorted. "I would not believe you."
"Nevertheless," Conced's voice grated like tumbling rocks. "The Time Pool is mine to keep."
"Because I have said so."
"Because you have said so? Please. That is the inept reasoning of a flaccid intellect."
The flicker of perplexity in his eyes betrayed his confusion. He had no idea what inept and flaccid meant and, though he sensed the insult, he did not know how to answer it without understanding the words.
"What history are you afraid to rewrite?" I asked, in a gentler tone now. "At least attempt to answer me intelligently."
Conced shrugged and I read him again. He had no particular agenda. He did not need one, for he had nothing to live for. He simply enjoyed exerting his influence and invincibility because it was the only amusement left to him.
Had he wanted to prevent a revision that might harm a loved one, I would have offered my sympathy and perhaps my aid. But my patience for bullies had worn thin a long time ago.
"I have business with Rahayar," I said. "And I will not be delayed."
As I pressed past him, he grasped my arm and twisted harshly until my bone snapped. I cried out in pain, but in the next moment, the Healing power buffeted Conced and I like pressure waves, ricocheting between us, amplifying when it found no place to rest.
My bone knit even as a whirlwind of Healing ability spread like a bubble outward, visible like a shimmering dome over us. I gritted my teeth and, with strength born of desperation, I tore myself away from Conced and leapt toward the border of the bubble. As soon as I broke it, a blast shuddered through the air, hurling me against the white sand just inside the sea cave's entrance. Sand stung my face and, for a moment, I felt as though my breath would never return to me.
When I rose, I realized that the circle of desecration lay exactly at the threshold of the cave. None but the Healing would ever be able to enter the Time Pool without harm. The thought of the evil that I had imprinted into the ground prompted nausea. Would all my attempts to redeem myself end with similar results?
At the other side of the sphere of blasted ground and the ink-black water, Conced scowled at me but turned away. There was no amusement in an enemy who did not fear him. Beyond him, the Electric Eel slipped back into the water.
Pity soothed my anger. Had they been friends before Conced became one of the Healing? Was the Electric Eel the only one who would not give up on his friend, despite the danger to himself? Or did he hope to profit from his dangerous subservience to one of the Healing?
I turned away and entered the sea cave, my eyes adjusting slowly to the dimness beyond.
At first, the way was easy, but soon the cave sloped upward and I began to climb as though I sought to penetrate to the heart of the mountain. My ragged breaths echoed from the walls around me, and I left the stone icy behind me as I stole what little vibrance it had to offer me.
At last, I realized that the darkness that surrounded me seem a little paler, and, as I rounded a curve, I emerged into a cavern where an azure luminescence glittered from every stalactite. There, shimmering at my feet, lay the Time Pool.
As I approached, I realized that the reflection at the surface did not reveal the stone icicles above, but the warped images of the two Half-Trees, wreathed in smoke-like Whispers. One was set against the backdrop of mountains and forest--the Half-Tree to which my companions and I had been summoned--and the second was set against the edge of a cliff, against a backdrop of barren wasteland, as though the desecrations of a thousand Healing death-matches had taken place around its base.
Fear turned my knees to water. I dropped to the stone by the side of the pool. What if I did not reverse far enough to make the journey to the second Half-Tree in time? What if I reversed before some small but important event? What if I arrived at a time before I had even been brought to Azinae? Would I return to Earth or wander ghost-like in Azinae? What if...?
I held my breath and released it slowly.
What if I was brought to Azinae for a purpose? I had to believe that redemption was possible, that I and Azinae could be saved from the bitter chaos and curses that the Whispers had brought.
The Time Pool shifted and its surface rippled with images of myself and my companions, as though reflecting my memories. I closed my eyes and, prompted by some intuition, scooped the water into my hands and drank. Cold, then heat, blasted through my body, shuddering through every nerve. A hurricane of time ripped through my consciousness, like the sucking back-current of a wave that retreats from shore. More. I need more. Trembling, I lifted another handful to my lips and sipped the cool liquid.
The sensation of being turning inside-out intensified and I trembled on hands and knees as my history in Azinae erased itself. The girl... the girl was still alive. The Mole who had sacrificed himself for Merlin lived. Others that I did not know zipped by my consciousness, souls revived for a second chance in Azinae. I nearly wept at the parade of life restored and at my terror that I would fail and lose them all again, and more besides.
How do I find the second Half-Tree?
Knowledge filtered into my memory, like a compass that would point forever to my destination.
More questions crowded, but suddenly, I found that the stone walls around me warped and I could see trees and moonlight and long grassy slopes bleeding through. A sickening pit in my stomach expanded as I felt my immortality stripped from my body. I was reverting to my pre-Healing body, before I had become fully Azinaean.
Then the world became solid again and the ground slapped my side hard. It took me a few moments to realize that I was tangled with Ulysses. I rolled away from him and Ulysses spat a tuft of moss from his lip.
"That was pure grace, Connie. Like a ballerina."
I stared at him. Astrid shrank to the ground, gasping for breath, and Dirk eased Merlin's twisted body to the ground.
Dirk glared at Ulysses. "That is why I said I did not want to talk to Rahayar. We could have died back there, Ulysses."
"But we didn't. And now we have information."
"Which is better than no information."
Astrid shook her head. "I vote we..."
I staggered to my feet, tears in my eyes, suddenly unable to breathe through the constriction in my throat.
"Connie?" Astrid murmured. "Are you all right?"
I had not thought this far. And now I had a choice to make.
I could tell my companions about all of it and we could journey together to the second Half-Tree. It was risky, because somewhere along the way, I would become fully Azinaean and my Healing abilities would endanger them. And if we made it, would they survive the second Half-Tree?
Or I could abandon them now, warning them of the dangers ahead, and risk the dangers of the journey and of the second Half-Tree on my own. I had not realized, until now, how much I thought of this quest as my own, some personal business I had with Rahayar. But should it be my own?
What should Connie do? Enlist his friends' help or go on his own? Vote in the comments below!