When Connie heard a mysterious voice, offering him a risky endeavor in exchange for information which could be vital, most of you chose that he should accept the voice's challenge. Some were concerned that the voice might be one of the deceptive Whispers... which has been giving me ideas. This episode has a few surprises, but the greater ones are still to come...
In the meantime, the results are in for Dirk's animal and it is...
Cute, nocturnal, slow-moving... and with a deadly bite. It will be fun to determine how those attributes influence Dirk's character as he becomes fully Azinaean.
I glanced around me--at the Raccoon clan sliding through the night as silhouettes, at my companions, who breathed softly as they exerted themselves in the long, wearying trek.
My companions were my only link to my own world. Abandon them--to listen to the message of a mysterious entity who could speak inside my head?
What if it was a trap? What if this was some deception of the Whispers?
And what if there was necessity to it? The voice had said that there was danger to my friends and to myself no matter what I chose. So, perhaps, refusing the voice's request would only ensure some disaster which I might have averted, had I listened.
My thoughts formed a message and I reached out, tentatively, through thought alone.
I will listen to your message. But if harm comes to my companions, so help me, I will skewer you.
The voice laughed softly in reply.
Brave words, but rather useless, coming from a transitioning Transient. Still, your loyalty does you credit. It paused, then added, You are nearly to the rock. I will meet you soon.
Was it normal for voices to speak in your head in Azinae?
I recalled the many times when Merlin's opinion had been sought and considered. Perhaps my companions had learned how to communicate with one another in silent ways, as this stranger communicated with me now.
If I learned how to do the same, could I communicate with my friends even if I were separated from them?
My analytical mind delved into other regions. If telepathy was possible in Azinae, was it possible in our world? After all, all science looked like magic until one understood it better. Perhaps the Azinaeans were more technologically advanced, which made sense, considering the fact that people of many worlds now lived in Azinae. Surely Earth offered only one of many advanced civilizations. Azinae would be the perfect melting-pot of advancement.
What was the range of the telepathy? A few yards? A few miles? Unlimited?
Merlin turned and glanced directly at me and my spine prickled.
I did not have to guess. He knew.
Merlin held my gaze for a moment, then nodded, a movement almost imperceptible, almost mistaken for the general motion of his travel across the rocks and grass of the barren slope.
Suddenly, I was very afraid. How much did Merlin know, and why did his grave expression smolder darkly?
It was at that moment that we passed the large charcoal-colored boulder. At the very instant when I dipped to the side, a call shrilled through the night air.
"Wings!" The Raccoons shrieked. Several dark shapes swooped overhead, dark wings cutting angular shapes against the spangled navy sky. Raccoons ducked or thrust their spears toward the sky. I seized my opportunity and, in a moment, the shadow concealed me, and I was gone.
The path squeezed me beyond concealing shrubbery, then between two great rock faces that had previously appeared to be undivided.
For a few heart-pounding minutes, I scrambled amongst stones and darkness. Then I emerged from the other side and stepped into the pale moonlight.
"Here," said a voice aloud, and I turned to find a man crouching against the wall at the mouth of my exit, his knees nearly drawn up to his chin. He straightened as I turned toward him. The beakish-ness of his nose and the roundness of his eyes marked him as one of the Flight-Kind, and his tousled hair was so pale that it was nearly white. "I am Brin of Cathrio."
"Constantinople of Earth."
"Then I will call you Connie."
I bit my tongue, but Brin was already speaking: "We only have a few minutes before the Bats' diversion must cease, so listen carefully."
Those were bats? They were almost the size of full-grown people!
Brin hissed a breath through his nostrils. "Focus your mind, newcomer, or your companions will die."
"I'm listening." I calmed my mind and tuned it only to Brin's voice, shutting out the screeching of the harried Raccoons and the high-pitched clicking of the Bats.
"The Beast-Kind council will surely execute every one of you. An avikind--an alliance of kinds--has never been well-accepted since the Division, but it is expressly forbidden now."
"Why?" I could not help the question.
To my surprise, Brin accepted the question without another bull-like puff through his nose.
"Because it threatens the ruling Kind."
"Or they're deceived by the Whispers." My observation took me by surprise and, apparently, it did the same for Brin. He looked at me with new respect and I felt a little less like a Transient.
He was silent for a moment, then said, "There are some of us who believe it is the only hope to save Azinae. We are forming an avikind--the largest that Azinae has seen since the Division. We are willing to help you escape from the Raccoons, but we need your help first."
"What do you need from us?"
"We need your leader to bring a message from us to the Flight-Kind avikind at Eyrie."
"You can't take it yourself?"
"Do you not trust me, Transient?"
"We've already had a Raccoon offer to help us escape. You can see for yourself the results."
For a moment, I thought that Brin would strike me. Make your move, pal. I'm tired, hungry, and my blistered heels hurt like fire and I have no patience with these demented Azinaean politics. And if you can hear my thoughts, I don't care. Strike me and I'll beat the living snot out of you.
To my surprise (and great relief), Brin laughed aloud.
"There isn't much warrior in you, Connie of Earth. But I sense something in you... A darkness, and a deepness beyond the dark."
"You're as bad as the Half-Tree. And why won't you send your own message to the avikind?"
"Every man and woman here has a family to protect. We have no one to spare. And the last messenger we sent was slain."
That was more reasonable than the mute pointings and garble of the Raccoon kid, though not comforting. "And what message do you want us to send?"
"Speak the message to L'K'e'tz."
"He's from the world A'n'k'oo(click). Tell him not to take the Tide Bridge from Water-Kind. The Healing are already on their way there."
"That's all. If you tell them that Brin of Flight-Kind avikind sent you, they will know you are friends."
"This Eyrie--is that anywhere near the Time Pool?"
Brin's eyebrows twitched downward. "What would you want with the Time Pool?"
"We have unfinished business."
"If you reset your timeline, will you still bring the message?"
That was something I had not considered, but time was sliding through my fingers like water. "Yes."
"Eyrie is perhaps a day's journey to the Time Pool."
"Good." I nodded, my thoughts whirring. "How will you help us escape?"
Brin only smiled a little. "When the Raccoons reach the yellow field and I give the signal, fall to the ground and stay still, no matter what happens."
He glanced over my head, observing the wheel of the dark shapes in the sky, then nudged me back toward the rock.
"Go. It is nearly time."
I obeyed, but some instinct whirled me round for a final question. "Why me?"
"What?" Brin blinked.
"Out of all my companions, why did you want to speak to me?"
Brin shrugged. "I could get through to you the clearest. When it comes to communication of thought, those of a certain world communicate best with those of their own world, then Kind with like Kind. So perhaps you are Flight-Kind."
With another flicker of a grin, he disappeared.
I scrambled back through the narrow defile in the rock and emerged at the other side breathless and with a chill sweat on my palms.
Almost as soon as I arrived, the Bats ceased their attack and wheeled off into the sky, their leathery wings rustling dryly in the wind, the moonlight outlining the very human arms and legs of the Flight-Kind. They melted rapidly into the silhouettes of the distant forest, and were gone as rapidly as they had arrived.
The Raccoons continued to scan the sky for several minutes, then took a headcount.
Not a single person was missing, though a few had various scrapes and one Raccoon's shoulder was dislocated.
"Harassment," the leader snorted. "That's what it amounted to. Harassment. They didn't have enough numbers to do real damage but they wanted to remind us that we're in 'their' territory. Stinking beaks."
I felt like pointing out that bats don't have beaks, but I let it be.
As soon as we were sufficiently underway again and the Raccoons had ceased twitching at every wheeze and ruffle from their prisoners, Merlin strode close by me and whispered, "Well?"
"They want us to take a message to Eyrie to the avikind."
"The what Kind?"
"It's an alliance of Kinds. They didn't have an avikind when you were here last?"
Merlin shook his head, then murmured, "Tell me everything."
I told him every single word which, to my surprise, was not difficult at all. It was as though the memory was printed on my brain. Was that an Azinaean quality? I liked it.
At last, Merlin asked, "Do you trust him?"
"This offer to help us escape is genuine. He has a motive, he has a plan, and he had the right feel."
Merlin nodded. "I felt his quality, when he was attempting to speak to me. That is why I let you go."
"But you and he are both Flight-Kind. Why was the communication clearer with me and not with you?"
"That perplexes me." Merlin's eyebrows drew downward and he remained lost in thought.
Over the next few minutes, I quietly informed Dirk and Astrid of what had taken place and what was still to come. Astrid, I was sure, would tell her husband. I had no desire to speak with him myself and if he accidentally got left behind with the Raccoons, it would serve him right.
Dirk was pleased with me and clapped me on the back so hard that I choked. "You're becoming more Azinaean every moment! What do you notice now?"
"I notice that you smell worse."
Dirk and I laughed and the Raccoons startled and hissed at us to shut up, but we did not care.
Hours passed, and I had begun to believe that Brin was indeed a liar and I had been shamefully duped, when we came in sight of the yellow field. The oblique, red light of the dawning sun alit upon thousands upon thousands of yellow blossoms, so thick that the ground seemed swallowed in sunlight and fire. The occasional black boulder or copse of trees thrust its way from amidst the saffron sea, and there was no trail. The Raccoons simply waded through the blossoms.
We were fully immersed in the yellow field when the voice shouted through my head.
I dropped to the earth. My companions followed my example and the Raccoons, startled and alarmed, had only a half-second to ponder our actions before the whole field bristled with Creeping-Kind--a people with features a little too angular, with skin a little too tough, with fingers a little too pointed, and eyes a little too large. Some flashed transparent wings.
That was all I could see from the ground before the deadly melee began. In movies, battles are always loud and chaotic. My first Azinaean battle was exactly the opposite, and the lethal silence of it--the occasional grunt and hiss, the panicked, silent movement of survival instinct--was far more disturbing to me than any roar of battle. And there I was, stepped on by Beetles and Raccoons alike and wondering when some enterprising Raccoon would decide that it was the perfect moment to kill the unwanted prisoners.
And that's when I felt a nudge beneath my belly. I shifted, alarmed, and wondered if I had lain on a field mouse. Unexpectedly, the entire earth gave way beneath me. I fell into darkness in a tangle of earth and fiery flowers, plunging perhaps some ten feet. Someone grunted and stirred beneath me, thrusting me upward. I scrambled away, straight into another invisible body, who held me fast.
"Shh, stranger!" an earthy voice murmured. "We are Mole Clan. Come this way."
"I can't see."
"Hold my hand. You'll be well."
Ordinarily, holding hands with anyone is not my forte, but I had no time for questions. We rushed through the darkness, twisting through a maze of subterranean tunnels. These were not tunnels like men would make, with straight corridors and perpendicular intersections, but the sort of meandering network that real Earth-moles would make--in other words, disorienting.
At last, we halted and I doubled over, gasping for breath. A beam of light flared suddenly; a battery-powered lamp--very modern in its appearance--had been turned on. My first glimpse of Mole Clan reminded me of the actor Michael Cane, who played the guardian angel Clarence Odbody in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Their features had that quality of warmth and broadness and cheeriness that made them seem instantly like friends. Yet behind their large noses and small, bright eyes, I recognized solid hearts and strong wills. The Moles were not the least among Azinae's warriors.
Dirk beamed at me. "Wild ride, eh, Connie?"
Ulysses looked a little sick.
Astrid glanced around the room and murmured, "Where is Merlin?"
The Moles looked from one to another and two of them hurried down a hallway. After a few tense minutes, they returned. One spoke tensely.
"The scouts say that Beast-Kind reinforcements are on their way and will be here in a few minutes. The Creeping-Kind are preparing to pull out before they get here. In a few minutes, these hallways could be swarming with Beast-Kind."
"But where's Merlin?" Dirk asked stubbornly.
"We don't know. The Moles we assigned to him are gone, most likely slain. Merlin could have escaped on his own--he is Flight-Kind, is he not? Or he could have been re-captured."
"We must go back!" Dirk said.
"If we go back to seek him," said the Mole. "We risk being caught or slain. There is no more time."
"He may have flown," Ulysses said. "He is resourceful and fully Azinaean now."
"And he may be dying," Dirk said. "He's my brother. Astrid?"
"I..." For the first time in my life, I saw cool, collected, controlled Astrid utterly paralyzed by indecision and fear. It was clear she had been spent far beyond her abilities and she sank to the ground, trembling. One of the Moles cast his jacket over her shoulders and she pressed her hands over her eyes.
That's when Dirk and Ulysses looked toward me.
What should Connie choose? Should they go back for Merlin? Or should they continue and hope that Merlin finds them?