This week, I did something different. You may have noticed that there was a tie in the responses: half of you wanted the companions to take the otter way, the other half wanted them to take the marsh way. So I fell back on my father's old way of settling ties. My father often quotes Proverbs 18:18:
The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty.
So I flipped a coin. Heads, otters. Tails, marsh. The result?
Episode 8 - Where No Kinds Go
This was one decision that was not hard for me to make. I had had enough of being captured and needled and prodded by Azinaean rodents.
"Skip the otters," I said. "Let's take Marsh Way."
"Aw, but the otters are cute!" Dirk crooned in a wheedling tone, and laughed. Coming from a guy the size of a football player and with the features of a slow monkey--or whatever that thing was called--his tone prompted a quick grin from me.
I was started to enjoy my time in Azinae.
"Finally," Ulysses said. "It's about time we got into water country."
We began the descent down the marsh side of the ridge, and the stony ground soon encountered puddles that barred our way. At first, I tried to walk around them, anxious not to aggravate the blisters on my heels, which were, in fact, healing quite nicely at this point. Perhaps my animal possessed tough feet or hooves.
Astrid was the first to take off her shoes. "This is ridiculous. We'll never make it to Eyrie at this rate." She threw off her flats and socks, revealing toes with wicked-looking points at the toes. I would not want to be kicked by those feet.
The rest of us agreed that traveling bare foot was preferable to the vain attempt to remain dry-footed, so we removed our footwear, tying the laces together to hang them round our necks. Astrid abandoned her flats entirely.
"They're practically in holes anyway," she remarked, flinging them into the brush as far as she could throw (which was a great deal further than she would have been able to throw them on Earth).
Ulysses dipped his foot in a puddle and sighed, like a man arriving home after a long day. He closed his eyes and, for a moment, basked in bliss.
I had not come all the way to Azinae to watch my nemesis enjoy a foot-bath. I had seen too often a similar satisfaction on his face when he succeeded in prompting a bitter cry from my lips, a weakness for which he then taunted me.
"Well," I said briskly. "Let's move along!"
And I set the pace.
Now, it was Dirk who lagged and Ulysses who steamed forward, energized by his contact with water. The path was soon utterly swallowed up by miles of water. Most of the way allowed for relatively easy travel, with depth that either barely covered our ankles or that churned round our knees. At times, we waded through patches of aquatic weeds and grass, our progress shielded by cattails and water-shrubs. At other times, we strode by the trunks of trees, some of them skeletal, having strangled in water when the marshlands expanded many generations ago, others flourishing and green, drawing life from the constant accessibility of water.
It was, I soon realized, not the earth equivalent of a marsh, with stinking water and whining flies and mouldering life. This was Water-Kind country, with water-meadows and water-forests, and enough movement of water and wind to assuage the stink. Only the edges, where the water was still, carried the usual brackish quality of an earth-swamp, but we soon left those areas far behind in our pursuit of the northwest.
Ulysses led, using his Water-Kind abilities to approve the direction and find the swiftest path. From time to time, he plucked floating tubers from the water and chewed with evident relish.
We walked for what seemed like forever and I grew adept at not stubbing my toes against submerged roots and random poking objects.
"That's odd," said Ulysses at last, in a hushed whisper. "This place should be teeming with Water-Kind. Those pools over there should be filled with Fish and Eels and Alligators. The water is good. The food is plenty. But there is no life here."
We had been attempting to ignore the cloying sense of danger, but when Ulysses spoke his thoughts aloud, it seemed a confirmation of every twinge of suspicion we had felt since we chose the Marsh Way.
"Perhaps another Kind took the marsh?" Astrid suggested.
"Then why don't we see them? Can you sense Creeping Kind nearby?"
"There are no wings in the sky, and only a few types of Beast-Kind would prefer the water. Why would all Kinds abandon the marsh way?"
We reached a place where the water was far too deep for non-Water-Kind to pass without being forced to swim, and Ulysses stepped into the deep water without a moment's hesitation.
"I can ferry you across," he offered, lifting a dripping hand from the water. "It's only a half-mile or so."
Astrid smiled the smile of a wife who is proud of her husband.
"You look so yourself in the water," she said.
"Stop flirting and jump in," Dirk said, jittering and casting his gaze back and forth over the waters and aquatic plants. "I'm getting a bad feeling, Seez," he added to Ulysses. "We need to move."
Astrid stood at the edge of the water, her momentary happiness leeching from her face as she glanced toward the inky depths of the marsh.
I had forgotten a Spider's terror of water.
Ulysses seemed to read her thoughts and, hardly taking a breath, he slipped beneath the water with barely a ripple. I waited for him to resurface, but he did not.
"How long can a Water-Kind hold his breath?" I asked.
"A few hours," Dirk replied. "That's how he infiltrated Cauldron Island in our last war. He spent three hours squeezing through underwater tunnels that were only this big." He upheld his thumb and forefinger in a ring about two inches in diameter.
"You're joking," I said.
"Scout's honor, Connie."
My guess at Ulysses' specie was correct, then. I felt simultaneously pleased with myself and a little terrified.
A few minutes later, Ulysses arrived, pushing a broad length of curved bark, about twelve feet long.
"It will only support one," he said. "Astrid?"
His wife stepped onto the boat, stabilizing herself with spread limbs, her expression tense but her posture trusting. Dirk and I slipped into the water on either side of the bark-boat and Ulysses powered our crossing from the stern, his legs and arms spreading in a broad gesture, as though he embraced the water, then contracting to propel himself forward like an arrow.
We had traveled perhaps a quarter of a mile when Dirk pointed ahead.
"Look. Doesn't look like anyone is home."
The structure looked exactly like a giant beaver's dam, a rag-tag tangle of sticks and bark and swamp weeds, but its human origin was evident in the fact that the ends of the branches had been cut cleanly, as though with a saw or other sharp tool. Small windows--little more than jagged breaks in the walls--allowed the dim light into the interior, which was shrouded in shadow. No door was evident, but I knew enough of beaver dam structure to recall that the interior was accessed from under the water.
The sense of danger that floated in our consciousness like ink stains upon a wet surface suddenly coalesced into a single, white point of immediacy.
"Like it?" said a voice behind us. We whirled, water churning around us in our haste, to discover a boy--perhaps twelve--hanging from the branch of a tree by one hand and the crook of one knee. He had likely occupied the tree all along, but the thickness of the foliage had hidden him entirely from our view until he chose to climb lower and reveal himself. He was directly opposite of my view of a hermit or castaway. His face was ruddy, his skin glowing, his auburn hair shiny and thick. Even his teeth were straight and white. He wasn't exactly clean, but his exuberant health was indisputable.
"We're just passing through," Dirk said in a surprisingly subdued voice.
"I miss company," said the boy, almost flippantly.
No one answered, not even Astrid, whom I expected to respond with her usual maternal instinct.
"It's a nice house," Ulysses offered at last. "Did you make it?"
"Nah. Beavers left it. I touched it up a bit."
"Is it comfortable?" Astrid asked.
The boy shrugged.
"Do you live alone?" I inquired. The others looked at me as if the answer was obvious. The boy simply grinned at me.
"Guess you're a newling, eh?" he said, swinging lower. The others tensed, as though they expected him to spring upon us, but I could see no weapons.
"Are they all gone?" Ulysses asked. "The Water-Kind?"
"What do you think?" the boy returned.
Ulysses pressed the boat forward surreptitiously, keeping his eyes fixed upon the boy. The boy noticed the movement and, shifting his position, asked, "Where are you going?"
Ulysses pointed. "That way."
"Vague answer." The boy lifted himself up by his scrawny arms to the main branch and sat astride it. "You're avikind. Don't see much of your type. It's a secret mission, isn't it?"
"You could say that," Dirk answered.
Again, there was silence, as though none of my companions dared speak what was truly on their minds. The boy hummed to himself and finally said lightly, "I want a toll."
"We would give you what we could," Astrid said. "But we don't have anything."
"I want the Spider to make me a hammock. And the Slow Loris to climb the tree to get the fruit I can’t reach. And the..."
"I've had enough," I muttered under my breath. "Why are we listening to this brat? Let's go."
The tension from my companions increased exponentially. The brat glanced at me and smiled a little.
"You don't like me?" he said and, deliberately, let go of the branch. He crashed through the undergrowth, whipped by twigs and buffeted by branches, landing in the water below with the sort of limp splash you'd expect from a belly-flop.
The pain was unlike anything I can describe. It was as though every cell in my body was pricked and drained of some vital quality, as though someone had tapped into my vitality and forcibly sucked it away. It was a violation that tasted like blood in my mouth. It lasted only a moment and was succeeded by a weariness. My body struggled to recover, and, in a few moments, even the fatigue melted away, but the memory of the experience lingered.
"Go!" Astrid said breathlessly, and I saw on her face the same haggardness of expression that my body felt. “We must leave.”
"Look," Dirk pointed, though his finger shook. "There are more of them. The tree-house. The hollow tree. The nest in the rushes. All spaced just far enough apart."
Just far enough apart for what?
Astrid whimpered. "Ulysses..."
"Merlin would have seen it earlier," Dirk groaned. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."
"We don't have the luxury of entertaining apologies," Ulysses replied shortly. "Let's go. Now."
I did not understand, but did not ask. We swam hastily from the beaver's dam, and the boy's mirthless chuckle followed us across the water like a marsh-ghost.
The boy's voice captured the attention of the others, who emerged from the trees and the marsh-weeds, all of them bursting with health, all them solitary. And suddenly, I knew who they were.
That is why the Kinds had fled the marsh-lands--because every wound or illness experienced by one of the Healing triggered him to draw upon the strength and health of whatever living being was closest in the vicinity. To be with the Healing was to tempt death.
"There is nowhere to go," Astrid murmured. "They're all around us."
That is when I experienced the utter terrified helplessness of facing an enemy I could not possibly fight. At least when Ulysses had tormented me, I could have, conceivably, hit him on the jaw (as I often fantasized) and had the opportunity to escape. All the wars of earth had functioned on the assumption that fighting hurts the enemy. But what do you do when your every action of self-defense would only turn your own damage back upon you, and when your enemy had only to deliberately wound his own flesh in order to wound you?
It struck me that Ulysses could escape this all. He could slip beneath the surface of the water, hold his breath, and disappear. If they could not see him, then perhaps they would not be able to effectively harm him.
As much as I wished for no point of similarity to exist between myself and Ulysses, I admitted that suddenly discovering I was Water-Kind might be useful at this moment.
"I don't understand," Dirk said. "It was just a fall. But it was twice as bad as it should have been. Did he break his back on the way down, or have the Healing simply become more powerful?"
"We're in the middle of many Healing-Kind," Astrid said. "Who knows what that means?"
"Not all are like him," said Ulysses. "Some are merciful and retain a shred of humanity. Perhaps we can bargain our way out."
"Yes, but how will we know who to trust?" Astrid asked.
"We don't. But it is better than antagonizing them."
"Or," said Dirk. "You could ink them."
"They will still know our general vicinity."
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Ink them?"
"It's an octopus strategy," Astrid explained. "In earth-waters, octopus can produce a large, black cloud of ink, obscuring them from the eyes of their predators while they escape. In Azinae, an Octopus can cast a cloud in air as well as in water."
"The Healing could still harm us," Dirk explained. "If we are in range, so to speak. But they would not know our exact location and the confusion might be enough to allow us to pass through them unharmed."
"Yes, and if they see a series of black clouds, they'll simply follow the ink trail," Ulysses replied. "Inking can only work over a very short period of time."
What do you choose? Should they attempt to peaceably negotiate with the Healing, in the hopes of finding some who are reasonable, or should the attempt to escape using Ulysses' ink strategy?
Yes, an octopus really does squirt ink to confuse his predator. I offer this video as an educational (and fun) bonus to the story.
Plus, since this is such a cool feature of the octopus, I promise that, should the majority of votes lean toward negotiation with the Healing, I will make sure Ulysses' ink powers feature in a later episode.