Well, gang, looks like most people were feeling cautious. Few people, it seems, trusts a Raccoon. And with good reason--as you'll soon see.
But first: What animal shall Dirk become? Vote "yes" to one of these three selections:
The Slow Loris has huge eyes because it is nocturnal. It is also probably the world's cutest poisonous critter. Yep, that's right. It creates a poison from a gland on its arm that it sometimes licks up and uses for a poisonous bite, or grooms it through its fur to deter predators. It's slow-moving, but capable of quick movement when it is hunting smaller animals. It is omnivorous, so it also eats plants and fruits.
Remember Rudyard Kipling's story Riki-Tiki-Tavi? My dad read that story to me when I was young and I never forgot the tale of the mongoose that made it his mission to rid the Indian garden of the cobras. The mongoose looks like a cute little rodent, but it has special muscle cells that allow it to attack some of the most world's most deadly snakes with (relative) immunity to their venom.
They look slow and stupid, but they're actually very smart and very, very fast. Their hard beak-like mouths can do serious damage. We had a baby snapping turtle once and it was only the size of a silver dollar when it bit my sister's finger. She said it felt like she had slammed it in a door. Want to find out what adult snappers can do? Well, I wouldn't get too close!
Note: Do not do what this dude does. Just watch the video and be entertained, okay?
Vote in the comments at the end of this post!
Episode 5 - The Old Rage
"Honestly," I said, struggling to find the right words to express thoughts I could barely identify. "I can't shake the feeling that there's something suspicious about this Raccoon. Well, all of them, really. I've never trusted Raccoons on earth, and I don't trust them now. We could be giving up our only chance to escape but..." My voice trailed off and I shrugged helplessly. The words were not there, but the feeling was--and it was too strong to ignore. I did not like that sneaky little Raccoon with the bony fingers who poked at my sternum. He smelled too strongly of a set-up.
Why did I keep agreeing with Ulysses?
Merlin observed me and the other companions for a few minutes, and no one seemed inclined to break into his reverie. It was as though this was an old custom: Merlin deeply pondering, the others awaiting his judgment with respectful silence. Part of me felt like an outsider again, but another part of me protested that feeling. Hadn't Merlin asked my opinion before rendering his own judgment? He could simply have gone with his own feelings on the matter, and ignored me, and he would have been justified, considering how little I knew of Azinae. But I was not prepared for what he said next.
"I trust Connie's sense," Merlin said at last. "I can see it in him--the awakening of his Azinaean self. You are young in Azinae yet, Connie, but your instincts are beginning to sharpen, and I think we would do well to heed them. We will not trust the Raccoon."
Dirk pursed his lips in a false pout--outnumbered again--but he simply laid his body down on the dew-damp earth and grunted. "Maybe they will feed us soon."
Merlin chuckled. Ulysses and Astrid tightened their jaws and Ulysses nodded tersely to me.
Was that respect--from the guy I couldn't stand?
Azinae was turning my life upside-down.
I turned back, but the Raccoon was nowhere to be seen. After glancing around for some time, I pinched and tucked myself back into the position that avoided the most roots, stones, and hummocks. Just as I was about to sleep, the bony finger poked me again. I swatted it and half-levered myself upright.
"What?" I growled.
"If your companions wish to leave, they should hurry."
I gave him a dull stare and collected my molasses thoughts. "We're not leaving."
"What?" Those beady eyes bored into me.
"We don't trust you." I was too tired for diplomacy, and turned over to go back to sleep.
"But I can help you escape!"
I rolled back over and fixed him with an exhausted stare. "I doubt it. It's broad daylight now. We're on a wide slope with little coverage. We're all exhausted and hungry. How exactly did you plan to help us escape?"
The Raccoon made some small, noncommittal gestures, uttered a few guttural grumbles, glared at me, and withdrew. If nothing else convinced me of his sneakiness, this reaction did. Someone with a real plan would have given me a little more to go on.
When we woke some time later, the Raccoons offered us food: dried meat, mostly, and some kind of nut that blossomed into sweetness on the tongue, and finished with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Then they roused us for another long night of walking. Their configuration around our company was loose and disorganized, but I was not fooled. The Raccoons were watching us closely.
Merlin rubbed shoulders with me and spoke in a low voice. "Well done, Connie. I overheard them speak while the others were sleeping. Ulysses was right. The Raccoons planned to encourage us to escape and slay us during the attempt."
A chill shivered up my back and a few choice words came to mind. Merlin read my indignation and continued, "The Water-Kind have been troublesome in this territory, and the Raccoon patrol is fearful. The Raccoons were sent to find us because there were reports that the Whispers were swarming, but the patrol went far beyond its usual reach and the danger of attack is great."
"Then why did they stop to rest?"
"First, Raccoons do not travel in daylight. It disorients them, makes them feel vulnerable. Second, they're more exhausted than we are. Which is another reason they wanted an excuse to kill us. They are threatened by the Water-Kind, but they are also threatened by us."
"Astrid and I are nearly fully Azinaean again. They can sense that."
I peered at him closely. Astrid had said something earlier about my need to discern. If Merlin was nearly fully Azinaean, what could I discern about him now? His face and frame had broadened somewhat since his arrival, though, given that he had always been thin, I had assumed it to be a part of his blossoming health. His nose had sharpened a bit--as I would expect of one of the Flight-Kind--and his eyes had lightened from brown to amber-gold and adopted a slightly rounder shape. Something about him seemed deeply familiar, yet I could not place it.
"You will learn," Merlin said quietly. "Give yourself time."
When Merlin dropped away as silently as a bird on the wing, I pondered for some time. Then I felt another presence by my side and glanced up to see Ulysses.
"Holding up, soldier?" he asked.
"Why shouldn't I be?" I asked stiffly.
"I didn't expect to walk miles in my dress shoes."
"Ah! It is too bad you don't have my knack for looking good in anything you wear." A patronizing smile teased the corner of his lips.
"Sadism doesn't look good on any one."
Ulysses smile slipped and he regarded me silently for some time, keeping step with my furious assaults on the landscape with my poor battered feet. At last, he said, "Connie."
"I'm sorry. I honestly don't even remember what I did to who. I was a different person then."
I am not sure what I expected. As a kid--even as an adult--I had fantasized about making Ulysses hurt the way he made me hurt, and humiliating him just as devastatingly as he had humiliated me. He had made my high school years torture. No one wanted much to do with Ulysses' targets. The guys considered you a weenie or avoided you because association with you made them a target too. The girls felt sorry for you, but were secretly charmed by Ulysses' good looks and debonair personality. Even when I was free of his direct influence, the poison of his persecution had continued to degrade my outlook and expectations. My therapist said that I walked away from opportunities because I felt unworthy of them or too afraid to attempt them. And he was right. Ulysses was the reason. I hated him for it.
And here he was, saying words I never thought to hear from his lips. "I'm sorry." Just like that. What did I want from him? Grand speeches of remorse? Tearful pleading for forgiveness? I realized now that they would never exist. I did not know what I wished for, but this apology seemed too composed, too short, and too late.
"Maybe you don't remember what you did to me," I snapped. "But I do. I remember every single time. Every single word."
I turned abruptly from him and bullied my way past Astrid and Dirk, striding in the front as though nothing on earth could stop me.
There was something satisfying about my anger. It made me powerful. I liked it. Yet even when I embraced it, fed it, praised it for bestowing upon me the empowerment that Ulysses had long ago taken away, something small in the pit of my stomach squirmed, something that warned and cried out in pain.
I squelched it.
It took a long time for the heat in my gut to cool and the prickle in my fingers to subside. The Raccoons left me alone, choosing wisely not to stir the rising creature of rage within me. Perhaps I was Beast-Kind after all. I hoped that I would turn out to be something appropriately savage--a bear or a wolf, perhaps.
Meanwhile, Dirk was making friends with the Raccoons. Not, perhaps, a venture destined for success, but one which he attempted with his usual zest and joie de vive.
"So there were three more River Wars, huh? Who won 'em? How did Beast-Kind come into power?"
Perhaps his being Beast-Kind helped. The Raccoons soon began to answer his questions, reluctantly at first, then with the animation and expressiveness of those who know they have a captive audience. (In our case, literally.)
The River Wars were a series of wars launched by Water-Kind upon the other Kinds, involving a great deal of politics and negotiations and land-swaps that I did not understand, but which greatly interested my Transient companions. What I could understand was that Beast-Kind was currently ruled by Tiger Clan--which did not seem to surprise my companions--and that the ruling clan currently resided on the Island Castle, which had been acquired during a fierce engagement with Water-Kind early in the current Beast-Kind power cycle. We were en route to the garrison that guarded the border with Flight-Kind, who had taken refuge in a heavily-forested region and showed astonishing resilience to all assaults.
"Why don't we just divide the land evenly amongst the Kinds?" I asked. Everyone looked at me and I wished I had held my tongue. Only Dirk seemed to understand my question and take it seriously.
"Why don't we do so on earth?" he asked. "Because people are greedy or needy, and no one can work together. And now there is so much blood to seal the enmity that the land will never be healed."
The Raccoons protested that they , surely, were not the greedy ones. It was those evil Water-Kind or Flight-Kind or Creeping-Kind. Dirk waved the objections away with his monstrous hand. "You know I'm right. The world is divided."
At the word divided , the Raccoons swallowed their words and a deep solemnity fell upon them. It reminded me of something.
"Astrid, you said that the Half-Tree had once been whole. What happened to it?"
"You haven't told him anything ?" The Raccoon leader growled. "Pah! Spare me from idiots!"
"We didn't have much time," Astrid replied. "But now is as good a time as any."
"She'll tell it wrong, newcomer. She's Creeping-Kind."
"Then tell your own version afterward." Astrid wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve and gathered her breath. Then she began the tale.
"Long ago, the Half-Tree was whole and dwelt at the very heart of Azinae. It was known as the wisest of all beings, aware of all that happened in Azinae and giving wisdom liberally to all. Disputes were settled under its branches, for in its presence, matters were seen clearly and wrong was repented of before blows were exchanged and blood shed. Because of this, the Kinds lived in harmony with one another. Trade flourished and the clans lent their strengths to each other. In those days, the Healing were the opposite of what they are now. They were the emissaries of the Tree, bringing healing to all and drawing difficult matters into the light of wisdom."
She paused, then continued, "Azinae is, as Dirk told you, a sieve. That is why you see Azinae as a melting-pot of technologies and styles. And before the Division, even the Transcients were at peace, for their were made part of Azinae and placed under the protection of the Tree and the Healing upon their arrival. Then..."
I thought that her pause was for dramatic effect, but when I looked closer, I saw the mist in her eyes, and her pain reflected on every listener's face. This part of Azinaean history was as deeply personal to each of them as though it had happened during their lifetime and unfolded before their eyes. Perhaps it was part of being Azinaean, for I felt a tug at the roots of my own heart--faint but existent.
"The Whispers came from another world. Some say they were from ours and other worlds corrupted and divided. The Whispers came in the night, invisible, with their messages of greed, conflict, and anger. The Healing could not keep up with the devastation that followed the Whispers wherever they went. Worse, the Healing themselves were being affected. They struggled against the poison of the Whispers' words and turned their healing abilities to themselves. But this became its own curse, for the Healing soon became so consumed with their own healing that they neglected the people around them, and then, in a horrific reversal of their purpose, they began to draw from the life of others in order to fuel their own healing. They became the evil that they were made to prevent.
"The Tree saw the spread of death and disease, and made its choice. It split itself into two, flinging one half away into the wilderness. As I told you before, he Whispers are drawn to all things divided, and there was no greater division--no more unnatural tragedy--than the Tree of Wholeness splitting itself apart to save the people. The Whispers flocked to it like iron to a magnet and have remained there ever since, imprisoned by their own lust for division. But the damage done to Azinae during their roaming remained. The Kinds warred. People died. And the Healing brought death to those they were meant to save."
Something like flame and ice and terrible, terrible pain burned in my chest.
"Is there no way to restore Azinae?" I asked in anguish.
Astrid hesitated. "The Tree spoke once of a way, but..."
At that moment, a voice spoke in my mind, as clearly as if someone stood next to me.
I must speak with you. When you pass the great rock to your right, slip to the side into the brush. I will be there to meet you.
My mind answered back with a garble of panic, astonishment, and confusion.
Quiet yourself! The voice admonished. Straighten your thoughts. Are you listening now? You have a choice. You can either abandon your friends or you can ignore my message. There is danger to them--and to you--either way.
What do you choose? Should Connie obey the mysterious voice and abandon his friends, or stay with his friends and ignore the message?
Also: Which animal should Dirk be: a slow loris, a mongoose, or a snapping turtle?