This episode is super special. Why? Because we finally discover Connie's Azinaean form. I was going to save it for the next episode, but it fit so well with this episode's revelations that it seemed pointless to delay it any longer. Let me know what you think!
(Click here to read the last episode)
Episode 9 - The Healing Curse
For a time, all of us were silent, considering. I liked Dirk's idea--I was still steamed that the little twerp in the tree had so deliberately and sadistically targeted us with his so-called "healing" abilities--and wished that Ulysses' ink was poisonous. I retracted that wish the next moment. I really did not wish to die by "reflected" poisoning.
"We'll never make it out alive if we try to escape," Astrid said at last. "They're not stupid."
Dirk rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, groaning gutturally. "We need Merlin."
That was a matter of unanimous agreement.
"We'll let Astrid negotiate," Ulysses said at last. "Dirk is too unguarded in his speech..."
"Come on, Dirk. We all know it. In the interests of trying to appear friendly, you'll tell the Healing your entire life story and throw in a few jokes along the way."
I regarded Ulysses through narrowed eyes. "And you won't negotiate because...?"
His lips pressed into a thin line. "Negotiation isn't my strong point. I'm too forthright."
Bullying would have been my choice of a word, but I let it be. No one seemed to even consider me as a prospect for negotiation, which was just as well. I had no experience with the Healing and, frankly, they scared me witless. Besides, I remembered Astrid's deportment during high school debate competitions. She had been superb.
For a minute, we all looked at each with the same intensity with which soldiers look at one another before entering an impossible battle. Despite my hatred of Ulysses, I felt some peculiar, serene pain spread through my chest like liquid steel. I would be proud to die with them.
Somehow my comfortable, busy existence on Earth seemed utterly inconsequential.
We pressed onward, pursuing our original path, and entered the perimeter of one of the Healing. I could sense it this time: the faintest tickle in my consciousness that danger was nearby, a connection of my vitality to another person's being. I swallowed nausea.
I had hoped for negotiation, but the Healing were not so available. For a time, they simply watched us traverse their territory, intrigued but not cruel or desperate enough to arrest our progress. One of them, a woman whose eyes seemed to have absorbed the entirety of humanity's resentment, bit her own hand as we passed. We gasped, blinded by pain momentarily, our hands throbbing with the invisible sensation of keen-edged teeth.
"It's worse than it should be," Dirk grunted, his face crimson. "Do you think so many in one place amplifies the effects?"
"Keep going," said Ulysses. We hastened to remove ourselves from the woman's territory.
And then it began--the nightmare.
The Healing began to torment us, smashing their own thumbs with hammers, driving their heads into the trunks of trees, stabbing themselves with knives. With each new assault, my body jerked as though electrified, fighting the inevitable drain upon my strength and health. Dirk rested his chin weakly on the edge of the bark-boat, unable to move beyond the pain. Astrid collapsed.
"Stop!" Ulysses shouted, his voice sapped of power. "You're killing her!"
His only answer was sardonic laughter from the surrounding trees, where the waning light caught only the glitter of cruel eyes.
"Fools!" A voice called. We shifted to view the speaker and beheld an indignant, upright figure in a small round coracle, an old man seemingly so bursting with health that only his white hair and beard betrayed his age. His skin was as youthful as a child's. "What are you doing here?"
A white-hot anger shot through my limbs and I found my voice. "We are just passing through."
"Avikind," the man snorted. "The war must be raging indeed for you to dare the marsh. Or perhaps..." He narrowed his eyes. "Transients. You haven't turned completely yet. So you are fools." He studied us a few more moments, then said, "Where did you spawn?"
When I blinked in confusion, he asked, "Where did you enter Azinae?"
The old man's white eyebrows lifted several inches. "Oh? Not many come by that way. The Tree is selective of the kind it draws close to itself." He viewed us with new respect. "Come," he said. "My territory is this way. The others cannot hurt you while you are with me."
Since it was evident that I did not understand, he added, "When two Healing are in the same perimeter and one is harmed, the harm ricochets from one to the other, unable to be absorbed, and at last drives itself into the earth and poisons the ground. If you ever see a ring of utter desolation in the earth, it is where two Healing have met and one or both were injured. Whatever living thing steps into that ring is instantly annihilated, until the full measure of the harm has been consumed."
"Then why do you all live so close to one another?"
"Kind seeks Kind. We understand one another, even though we are doomed never to know the company of each other or any others. Plus, we have the ability of the Healing to communicate telepathically with each other and all Kinds. We have none of the telepathic restrictions of the Kinds."
The Healing scattered before him as he paddled his coracle across the clear waters, careful to maintain a safe distance from his invisible perimeter, flinging impotent curses upon him. We traveled with the old man for some time, Ulysses and Dirk hovering on the edge of consciousness, Astrid immobile. I did not feel particularly spry, but was not nearly as exhausted as they. I wondered if there was an Azinaean creature more protected against the Healing than other species. I had heard that cockroaches were somewhat immune to radiation.
I most definitely did not want to be a cockroach.
I noticed that the old man moved carefully, utterly unlike the recklessness I had witnessed from the other Healing. When we reached his tree, he assisted us in ascending to his tree-house, sending down a pulley-operated lift by which we hoisted my three companions to the platform that served as his front porch. Lifting Astrid in his arms as easily as if she were a child, he entered the house and we followed.
Dirk dashed forward. "Merlin!"
Merlin lay draped upon a broad bed, a giant pair of snowy wings spread from his body, his bare chest covered in white down, like the breast of an owl. And an Owl, I realized, is exactly what he was. He was barely conscious when we arrived but, at the sound of his brother's voice, he roused a little and managed a weak smile.
"You are not well," Ulysses observed darkly.
Merlin shrugged, his face twitching against some inner pain. "It is a long story."
"Then tell it," said Dirk earnestly. "I'm all ears."
"No, you're all mouth," Ulysses grumbled. "Be quiet Merlin tell it his own way, in his own time."
"Is Astrid harmed?" Merlin asked, with a flare of alarm, starting up from his bed.
"She will be well," said the old man. "No, stay where you are, Merlin. The hammock will suit her best anyway." So saying, he deposited the woman in the aforementioned hammock, and began to rummage amongst the various glass bottles that lined a nearby shelf.
"I don't understand." Dirk gaped. "Who are you?"
"Tahn Kayanu, at your service. It is not often that visitors enter my perimeter, but when they do, I am prepared with my healing remedies. I am still a healer, in the old sense, and hope that my acts of mercy may redeem my unintentional destruction of others. There are not many Healing like me." He paused, then added, "Slow Loris, will you shutter the windows? Occasionally, one of the others will shoot me or one of my guests, out of spite."
I aided Dirk, while Ulysses, at Tahn Kayanu's direction, turned on the electric ceiling lamp, which cast a bright glow over the wooden floorboards and walls. Our host's living space contained the usual Azinaean mix of tools and furniture both technologically-advanced and medieval. The electricity, for example, was generated by a modern-style generator occupying one corner, which was recharged by the use of an attached stationary bicycle, but the toilet was nothing more than a chamberpot under a stool with a hole at the center of its seat.
When Tahn Kayanu had examined Astrid, anointed her with a few mysterious oils from colored bottles, and announced that sleep would complete her healing, we held a solemn conference by Merlin's bedside. Merlin told his story.
"The Moles had secretly riddled the meadow with their tunnels, knowing that it would come into use sometime. They realized also that it was a strategy they could only use once, so they made a network of tunnels that led to various booby traps. Only they themselves knew of the safe tunnels. The plan was to evacuate us and withdraw before the Raccoons received reinforcements. Well, when the Moles pulled me down into their tunnel and we began our flight underground, we discovered that a portion of the escape tunnel had collapsed. Since the Moles are very careful builders, they surmised that the culprits had been Worms."
"Worms?" I couldn't help myself. You could be a Worm in Azinae?
"The Worms are technically Creeping-Kind, but they rarely hold allegiance to anybody," Merlin explained for my benefit, since the other listeners seemed quite familiar with the inconveniences posed by Worms. "They make tunnels where they like, and are constant troublemakers for other ground-dwellers like the Moles. In any case, while the battle raged overhead, they had thoughtlessly destroyed our escape tunnel."
"You couldn't follow the Worm's tunnel out?"
"Worms are different than Moles. They backfill their tunnels as they pass through them, essentially moving through the earth untraceably."
"Very useful for special ops," Dirk added. "When you can get the little stinkers to agree to anything."
"The Moles could not simply dig a new tunnel on the spot," Merlin continued. "They're efficient diggers, but proper tunnel-building takes time. So the three of us had no choice but to make an emergency above-ground exit and sprint for the forest. One of them was killed almost immediately by a Raccoon spear. We were close to the forest when the Beast-Kind reinforcements arrived. The Mole..."
Merlin paused for a moment, his gaze moving internally to see some deep pain. Then he spoke as though the words weighted his tongue.
"He knew that I was Flight-Kind and had the opportunity to escape if given enough time. 'Many are spawned in the fields and waters,' he said. 'But it has been many generations since anyone has been spawned near the Half-Tree. You and your companions are here for a great purpose. Save Azinae--I beg you--and the price I and my brethren pay will be worth it.' There was no time to argue with him, to dissuade him from trading his life for mine. As soon as he finished speaking, he rushed at the Beast-Kind while I expanded my wings from their shoulders. As soon as my wings were full, I took to the air. If I remained, I would only make void his sacrifice by my own death or capture. I last saw him as he fell beneath the sword of a Bull."
Merlin paused again, as though gathering his thoughts, and continued. "One of the Beast-Kind had a gun and shot my side as I ascended. I was able to avoid any further missiles until I was out of range--his particular model was notoriously inaccurate--but soon the blood loss and pain overcame me. I descended into the marsh and had the good fortune to fall directly onto the roof of Tahn Kayanu. The rest, you can guess."
"Are you feeling better now, sir?" Ulysses asked.
"Weak," admitted Merlin. "But improving rapidly. Tahn Kayanu's store of world remedies are remarkable."
Dirk whistled and shook his head. "Save Azinae? How are we supposed to do that? The Whispers are indestructible."
"The Whispers are not the immediate trouble," said Tahn Kayanu darkly. "It is the Healing. We are growing in number."
"What do you mean?" Ulysses shot our host a glance of alarm. "The Healing are the same ones who existed from before the Division, fueling their immortality with the vigor drawn, even unwillingly, from those around them. They cannot die, even if they wish to, but they certainly cannot multiply."
"You have not been here for many generations," said Tahn Kayanu. "I am not one of the original Healing, nor am I native to Azinae. I am from the world Wangajo, and I have been in Azinae for seven hundred years." He smiled wryly at our stunned silence. "The Healing are being made. The woman who is my neighbor--she used to be a Heron. The man to the other side of me--he was a Coyote. They simply begin to turn one day. Some who begin to turn choose death before they can become full Healing."
"You mean," Dirk said slowly, "Anyone can become one of the Healing?"
Ulysses was quiet for some time, then asked, "Is it contagious?"
"No," said Tahn Kayanu. "From what we can tell, it is random. But it is occurring more frequently."
Then he turned toward me and deep pity aged his face. "I knew it as soon as I saw you. I am very, very sorry."
The others stared at him, then at me, and sudden understanding flushed through their faces like darkness clouding the east at nightfall. My tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth; I could not even swallow.
"That's why it hurt twice as much," Dirk whispered. "The harm was ricocheting off of him and onto us. We got hit twice."
"And that's why he's been so energetic," Ulysses added. "And why we grew tired so quickly. He was feeding himself our energy."
"No," I stammered. "No, I..."
I turned toward Merlin, in a mute and desperate appeal. Surely calm, sensible, wise Merlin would have an answer that contradicted the consensus.
Merlin's eyes glittered with tears.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I knew it when you could speak to Brin so easily. The Healing can communicate without restriction to Kind or world of origin."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked numbly.
"I wanted to be wrong. I did not think it possible. I have never heard, until now, of Healing being created through turning."
"What do we do?" Dirk asked and I saw that he was crying too, which, coming from a man of his size and optimistic nature, almost unnerved me more than Merlin's silent tears. "There's got to be some way to save Connie. He's our friend."
"Connie could kill you," Tahn Kayanu said, and his words sounded like a death-knell in my ears. "I have killed the innocent without meaning to. If he is injured while in your company, he could destroy you all. He must find his own way now."
"You shut up!" Dirk said with a sudden burst of temper. "Connie's our friend. We decide."
"Tahn's right," said Ulysses. "Not only for our sake, but for Connie's. If you were Connie, would you want to be responsible for killing me, or Merlin, or Astrid? Why do you think so many Healing have become so dangerously resentful? They have probably killed people they loved."
I could not process. This was unprocessable. I was poised on the edge of an abyss of living horror, of becoming the creature of my worst nightmares, and I could not draw back.
Merlin shaded his face behind his hands and I read his anguish as clearly as if he wept aloud.
Why had I been drawn to Azinae just to become a killer and a curse?
Should the companions try to find some way to live with Connie, and risk the danger of his power? Or should they send him on his own way?
Don't worry. I haven't forgotten the other Half-Tree or the Time Pool. Regardless of what you choose, it'll all circle back to the decisions made earlier. But how we get there is up to you!