Last week, you participated in the first unanimous vote of Azinae. Apparently, everyone is ready for Connie--the newcomer to Azinae--to discover his courage and begin taking a more substantial part in the adventure. You'll see that he still struggles to find his place in this new world, but he is becoming more and more a part of the team.
Also, I'm doing something a little different. I have already assigned specific creatures to Ulysses, Astrid, Merlin, and Connie--but I'm leaving Dirk up to you. What sort of Beast should he be? When you vote on this episode, suggest an animal that Dirk should be (and, if you really like someone else's idea, reply to their comment with a "Yes!"). When I release Episode 5, I will present three options from your suggestions, and everyone will vote on their favorite option. I will reveal Dirk's secret identity in Episode 6!
Episode 4 - Captured
Somehow my tongue made the decision before my mind became conscious of it. If I was hoping to shout an appropriately heroic warning, however, then my valiant tongue must have tripped on the words, because what came out was a stuttering squeak.
"Look out! They've got weapons! They're up to no good!"
Up to no good? Eloquent, Connie. Truly eloquent.
At the first sound of my voice, my companions glanced up at me, startled. Dirk was the first to respond, rising to his full immense height and emitting a growl that I am sure a true human could not make.
"I thought I smelled your stinking bunch! Come out and face us like real warriors instead of skulking in the shadows."
At this point, I had joined my friends and the shadows seemed to have swallowed all trace of our adversaries. For a moment, there was only a tense silence. Then a voice said from the darkness, "You are in Beast-Kind territory, but you do not all smell like beasts."
"Well, that's a blessing," Ulysses said in his usual careless tone. "Considering how beasts smell."
"Hold your tongue or it will be the worse for you, trickle."
From the hard expression on Ulysses' face, I gathered that "trickle" was the equivalent of a racial slur against Water-kind. Astrid squeezed her husband's shoulder as though to restrain him, though he did not move.
"We are only passing through," Merlin said calmly. "We will cause no harm."
"They're Raccoons," Dirk muttered aside to Merlin. "Like the one I smelled earlier. Troublemakers."
"You will cause no harm?" The Raccoon spokesman snorted. "The Whispers are swarming, and you say you will cause no harm? I can smell it on you--the scent of another world. You are newcomers."
"We are old-comers too," Merlin said quietly. "We were here during the days of the River War."
Merlin and his companions glanced sharply at each other.
"There was more than one?" Dirk asked.
"There were four," said the Raccoon spokesman. "You have been away a long time."
"I would like to speak face-to-face," said Merlin. "It is not the custom of warriors to speak like children hiding behind bushes."
"You have a barbed tongue, Flight-kind. Be careful that we do not clip your wings."
Merlin's jaw tightened and Dirk seemed to swell with fury. Then Merlin said evenly, in a tone that sent a shiver down my back, "That would not be so easily done. Take us to a place where we may talk."
"Come down the pathway and we will meet you where the rocks are flatter."
As we descended the path, Merlin dropped back slightly and whispered to me, "How many are there?"
"I saw about a dozen."
When we reached the flat place, we found that half-a-dozen warriors awaited us. The other half dozen made no appearance, but I was certain of their presence. When the moon shredded a cloud and peered through the watery gray of the approaching dawn, I had my first glimpse of a truly Azinaean face.
The Raccoon spokesman was undoubtedly human in feature, but there was a distinct quality around the eyes that hinted at some other-ness. The black eyes were too round, the set too deep, the flesh slightly too dark around them, while the nose was just a little too pointed, the teeth a little too sharp, and the face a little too round. The hands were slender yet muscled and I surmised that, if raccoons on earth were considered unusually clever with their paws, then Raccoons on Azinae might be extremely skilled in delicate hand-work. "Pick-pockets" came quickest to mind.
The clothing took me aback. Given the pastoral nature of Azinae, I expected something medieval, but the clothing was a mix of both old-time organic fibers and synthetic materials, some with styles that I did not recognize.
"It is unusual," said the Raccoon leader, "for an alliance of Kinds to travel together."
"We are from the same mother-world," Merlin replied. "It is a bond beyond Kinds."
"So you say," said the Raccoon leader. "But you will find that the current state of Azinae allows for very few such alliances."
"Which Kind is in power now?"
The Raccoon leader flicked his gaze toward Dirk. "Beast-Kind."
Dirk visibly relaxed, and profound relief smoothed his face. Everyone else looked as though great weights had been added to their shoulders.
I suddenly hoped very much that I would turn out to be Beast-Kind.
"And where is their seat of power?" Merlin asked.
"The Island Castle."
"We have heard that there is trouble in Azinae."
The Raccoon snorted. "There is always trouble, beak, but more now than ever. Many have disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Merlin could not hide his alarm.
"There are the usual Kind-wars that take lives from all sides, with many travelers fallen where none notice. But there are worse things. Whispers roam further abroad from the Half-Tree than they used to, the Transience occurs without warning, and the Healing are growing in number. The Kinds--all of them, even Beast-Kind--are not as many as they used to be."
I did not have to understand the words to feel the immense pressure of some darkness upon all of us. Even Dirk's relief faded.
Merlin considered for a time, then drew in a deep, unhurried breath. "Thank you for your honesty, sir. I now repeat what I said before. We have come for no harm and we are only passing through. Might we have a seal of safe conduct through your territory?"
"That is not how it is done," the Raccoon leader said. "We will take you before the regent of the territory to be tried."
"Tried?" Astrid burst out.
"Since you have come here before, your identities must be verified and your allegiances inspected. The annals will tell us what your part in the River War was--and whether it is friendly to our cause today."
"The annals are rewritten every time a new Kind comes into power," Ulysses said with cold disparagement. "If you mean to confirm our inevitable guilt, you can do it here and save yourself the trouble."
The Raccoon glanced at Ulysses and said icily, "A parched tongue will not speak so quickly."
Ulysses looked upon the Raccoon with a smirk that scorned every law of Beast-Kind, and, as much as I had hated that smirk was it was directed toward me, I felt a little wriggle of satisfaction to see it turned upon someone that Ulysses and I could agree to dislike. As proudly as the Raccoon spoke, even he could not ignore the chill of Ulysses' presence.
The Raccoon tore his eyes away.
"Come," said the Raccoon. "The night grows small."
Dirk, Ulysses, Astrid and I turned toward Merlin, a single question in our eyes. The Raccoons tensed and tightened their grips on their spears. Merlin gazed about him quietly, then said, "We will come."
The tone with which he spoke made it clear that our acquiescence was a matter solely of his choice, not of the Raccoon's compulsion. He added, "The Water-Kind needs water."
I recognized the look of cunning on the Raccoon's face. Ulysses was clearly a danger, and dehydration would weaken him considerably, but Merlin's calm, warning expression seemed to apply palpable pressure to our captors. The Raccoon leader shrugged at last, and offered Ulysses a canteen. Again, I was surprised, because the canteen was modern military-style.
The Raccoons corralled us forward, and we began the trek over the hills. My companions were silent, but my head was buzzing with questions that required answering. At the risk of displaying my naiveté to the surrounding Raccoons, I poked Dirk.
"Dirk, I don't understand this. What is the Transience? The Healing? This matter of Kinds?"
Dirk glanced down at me and grinned. "Sorry, buddy. I keep forgetting how little you know. Hmm, where shall I begin? You know of the Kinds, of course. What we didn't fully explain is that the Kinds have always been enemies to one another, just as they are on our world. On earth, beasts eat fish and bugs and birds, and birds eat bugs and fish but not usually beasts, and bugs eat every living thing with blood, and fish eat bugs and that's about it. We won't get into the fish eat fish and the beasts eat beast part, though that applies somewhat, clan against clan. During the River War, the Beast-Kind had to deploy Fox Clan and Rabbit Clan at opposite sides of the battle line, because they could not agree on anything. Make sense so far?"
Oh, it made sense, all right. "So our alliance is not only unusual but frowned upon. We're considered rogues, outlaws."
"Worse, we're part of the Transience--the exchange between worlds. Azinae is a sieve. It pulls people from their own worlds and, sometimes, it returns them."
"Some people come to Azinae and never go back."
As I absorbed this, Dirk continued. "Through some strange ability of Azinae, our language is unified--but we are automatically divided amongst the Kinds. While it seems random, it's actually not. Every Transient in Azinae is here for a purpose. When our group came to Azinae the first time, the purpose involved many things. We were part of a war, and our efforts changed Azinae's history--for the better, I hope. But we ourselves were changed. Ulysses and Astrid fell in love--something that would never have happened on earth--and Merlin became the leader he always should have been."
"I don't really know--yet. Maybe my first coming was to prepare me for my second coming. The Half-Tree knows."
He paused, then added, "The Kinds have warred continually since the splitting of the Half-Tree. When a Kind comes in power, we measure time by their years of leadership. The first year we arrived here, it was the Seventy-Fourth Year of Creeping-Kind, in the twelfth cycle. That means that it was the twelfth time that Creeping-Kind had been in power since the split, and they had been reigning for seventy-four years at that time--pretty impressive for the little bugs. Now, apparently, it is the twenty-seventh year of Beast-Kind. Probably the tenth cycle or so. Beast-Kind does not cooperate well enough to have many cycles in power."
"I see." I congratulated myself again for those early years of reading fantasy. I could actually understand the rules of this new world. Somehow it felt liberating. "To summarize: We are Transcients who may or may not get returned to our world, but who are here for a purpose, and we are allies, which makes us suspected by all Kinds. What about the Healing?"
The tension amongst the travelers, captor and captive alike, rose instantly. Dirk's familiar smile slipped.
"The Healing are the most dangerous beings in Azinae, and no one understands much about them because, to be close to them, is to be close to death. When one of the Healing is ill or wounded, he pulls from the life of the things around him to heal himself. If you battle one of the Healing and you wound him, your wound will return upon yourself. If you give him a killing blow, you will die by it and the Healing One will be the same as before."
"That is why," said Merlin, "it is a curse in Azinae to say 'Heal thyself.'"
"There is no effective way to overcome one of the Healing?" I asked. Both Merlin and Dirk looked hard at me and I swallowed my words. Few words were spoken after that, until the Raccoons called a halt for rest, just as the eastern sun spilled light over the distant mountains into the valleys below. Apparently, they had been awake for nearly a day as they scouted, and the signs of exhaustion were apparent. Unfortunately for us, we were no better rested.
"You might as well rest," Merlin said, and we slumped to the ground, eager to obey.
"I'm hungry," Dirk announced to no one in particular, and was asleep within moments. I envied him profoundly.
For some time, I struggled to find a comfortable patch of ground. It seemed as though every root, hillock, stone, or stick conspired against me: "Let's poke Connie!"
In the midst of my mounting frustration, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. Rolling to the side, I came face-to-face with one of the Raccoons, a younger one with glittering eyes. He held his finger to his lips, then whispered, "If you will bring a message for me to someone from Flight-Kind, I will help you escape."
I stared at him, uncomprehending, and he poked me with a bony finger. "You hear me, Transient? Go tell your friends."
All ideas of sleep fled from my mind. It took some time to sufficiently (and quietly) rouse my companions and hold a whispered conference.
"I don't like it," Ulysses said darkly. "The Raccoons are wily. This could be a test to see if we would facilitate suspicious inter-Kind dealings. We could convict ourselves if we agree."
"On the other hand," Dirk replied, "He could be some love-lorn Raccoon with a Chickadee girlfriend and simply wants to know if she made it through the last raid on her Kind. We might not have another chance to escape."
"This time I'm with my husband," Astrid said. "I won't trust a Raccoon."
"Merlin?" Dirk appealed to his brother. Merlin paused, then said, "I'd like to hear Connie's view of the matter first. Connie, you spoke with the Raccoon first-hand. What do you think?"
Should Connie vote to turn down the Raccoon's offer and wait for another chance to escape, or trust the Raccoon and take the chance now?
Also, don't forget to suggest your favorite land animal for Dirk, or to vote on someone else's idea!