Last week, you voted that Connie should listen to Ulysses and wait at the Half-Tree. Now you get to find out what happens next--and help Connie make an even bigger decision.
Episode 2 - The Whispers
It was instinct, I suppose--the old habit of listening to the one who had the power to make me hurt if I disobeyed. I froze, and Dirk, confused, tugged me again, but not as forcefully as before.
"Connie! We've got to move!"
Something rebelled internally: Are you nuts? Dirk's the only one you can trust. Ulysses can go to...
But Ulysses stepped forward and the dark fire of his gaze pinned Dirk where he stood.
"We should talk with him." A flick of his head indicated the shadow fluttering in the ghostly branches of the Half-Tree. Whatever it was remained indistinct, as though obscured in a cloud of dense black odorless smoke, tangling amongst the branches nebulously. Behind the tree, mountain slopes carved billows in the landscape, and forests swayed with the night wind. A pale gibbous moon shredded the dark clouds to breathe a wavering white light upon the strange world.
Dirk relaxed his hold on me and ran his hands through his short blond hair. "Ulysses, you know every second we spend here is a death-threat.”
"Remember the Whispers," Astrid said quietly. "You know we are not ready to deal with those."
Ulysses pursed his lips stubbornly. "He helped us once."
Dirk rolled his eyes. "I would hardly call that helped."
"We do not know what we are dealing with," Ulysses insisted calmly. "We don't know why we were summoned. We don't even know what time we are in. If anyone has answers, he will."
"Half answers," Dirk grumbled, but in the tone of one who would not object further.
Ulysses turned abruptly and strode towards the Half-Tree, his back rigid and his shoulders coiled.
"What is going on?" I hissed to Dirk, masking my fear with anger.
"Shh!" said Dirk. He glanced back, to the place where Merlin lay upon the ground, the young man's twisted limbs lifting and twitching as though he attempted to pull himself upright but could not find the coordination to do so.
"Where is his wheelchair?" I asked.
"That sort of thing usually gets left behind."
Dirk glanced at me, then back at the Half-Tree, and simply replied, "Help me get him onto my back, will you?"
When Dirk hoisted his brother's thin body to his shoulders, I helped to arrange Merlin's limbs, balancing the weight evenly so that the young man could ride piggyback-style on Dirk's broad back.
"Ennnnn," Merlin droned in Dirk's ear, his arms flopping over Dirk's powerful shoulders.
"I know, buddy," Dirk said. "I'm going as quickly as I can."
Dirk settled Merlin's legs at his hips, then hurried to the Half-Tree, which Astrid and
Ulysses were now circling slowly, their gazes trained upon the cloud.
"He is older," Ulysses said quietly, pointing upward at the swirling cloud. "See how much bigger he is."
"Like I said--dangerous," Dirk reminded. "But Merlin won't stop you."
Dirk always talked as if Merlin could do anything and had opinions on everything. It was his way of including his brother in the adventures of life. Ulysses glanced at Merlin, whose face hung over Dirk's shoulder, and flash of amusement twitched over his dark expression. I glowered. Sure, laugh at the guy with cerebral palsy. Smooth, Ulysses.
Ulysses turned his attention away from Merlin.
"Rahayar!" Ulysses called up. "Rahayar! We come with questions."
For a moment, no sound interrupted the soft sighing of the wind through the distant trees. Astrid's jaw tightened and she stepped a little nearer her husband.
Then a voice spoke from the black cloud, wreathed in whispers and echoes, yet still distinct.
"I am Rahayar. And..."
The voice cut off as suddenly as though his sentence were a physical thing that had been sliced in two with a blade.
Ulysses spread his feet and spoke with authority. "I am Ulysses Darkwing."
"I remember you. You were the one who..."
Again, the voice disappeared. I suppressed a shudder. The bodiless voice--Rahayar--seemed somehow utterly emotionless and colorless. Until that moment, I had never realized how much color we put into our every sound. Even non-verbal Merlin could convey gladness, anxiety, or congeniality in the few sounds he could make. But this Rahayar seemed beyond any emotion, either positive or negative, and the absence of it felt like the absence of life. It was a voice without a being.
"This is useless," Dirk said nervously. "We should go."
Ulysses shared a tense glance with his wife, whose fingers tightened into fists.
"What year is it?" Ulysses asked.
"It is the Twenty-seventh Year of ..."
"Of what?" Ulysses snapped, when the voice disappeared. "Of what?"
But the voice was silent.
"The Twenty-seventh," Astrid said tensely. "A new cycle. It could be any one of the Kinds."
"I know." Ulysses rubbed his clean-shaven jaw, his eyes narrow as he calculated things that I still did not understand.
"We were summoned," Ulysses said at last to Rahayar. "Why?"
"The Healing have multiplied and the Kinds have..."
The words cut off, but the effect upon the listeners, despite the abbreviation, was as though an electric pulse traveled through the company.
"The Healing?" Astrid turned upon her husband, her green eyes desperate. "How is that possible?"
"I do not know," Ulysses answered. Dirk's expression chilled and the color seeped from his face.
Rahayar spoke again, as though continuing a conversation.
"Thus they went to the Island Castle and..."
We waited, unwilling to speak lest we miss any of the words that should come next. At last, Rahayar said, "But you must beware, for the greatest danger to your company arises from..."
As Rahayar spoke, I heard a whispering in the background, increasing in strength and volume, and seeming to pulse in the very air around us. I could determine only scant words amongst the whispering, yet the cacophony drowned out Rahayar's speech.
"...fear... sleep... dark..."
A great dread swept over me, tingling through every nerve and prickling every hair on my body and surging into an instinct to run, but my own limbs seemed beyond my control. My knees buckled and a deadly lethargy filled me, accompanied by the blank horror experienced by one who knows that he has been drugged and that he can do nothing to combat it. I remained on my hands and knees, desperately fighting not to take that final plunge to the earth that seemed to warp and ripple before my eyes.
Then I felt a rush of motion and my mind registered that someone was shouting at me. Then my arm and stomach hurt and I realized that someone had picked me up and slung me over a shoulder. I dangled limply, inwardly rebelling that I was so helplessly forced to look down upon a backside that I now recognized as Ulysses'.
My addled mind could not measure time, but at last came a moment when I realized that my senses and bodily control had returned and I gave a great wrench. Ulysses and I fell together in a tangle of limbs, his elbow somehow bruising my ribs and his head cracking me on the jaw. I rolled away from him.
Ulysses cast me a dour glance as he bent over his knees, gasping for breath. "That was pure grace, Connie. Like a ballerina."
Fury erupted inside me and formed words. "Shut up, Ulysses!"
To my great irritation, he simply rolled into a sitting position and chuckled to himself.
Astrid and Dirk sank to the ground, their breaths ragged, their skin glimmering with a sheen of sweat. Dirk gently eased Merlin from his back and settled him on a patch of moss. Absorbing our surroundings, I found that we were on a grassy slope populated sparsely by trees and more liberally by mossy boulders. The moonlight glittered from the waters of a river that flowed through a narrow ravine to our left. Beyond that, the ghosts of distant mountains shaded the horizon.
Dirk glanced toward Ulysses and shook his head. "That is why I said I did not want to talk to Rahayar. We could have died back there, Ulysses."
"But we didn't. And now we have information."
"Which is better than no information."
Astrid shook her head. "I vote we..."
"Wait!" All eyes turned toward me as I staggered to my feet, the last cobwebs of the whispers clearing from my mind. "Now it's my turn. I want information. I want to know what is going on."
Dirk glanced toward Ulysses and shrugged. "He has a right to know. Poor Connie. In the dark this whole time."
"Don't 'poor Connie' me, Dirk. Just give me answers."
"I'll explain," Astrid volunteered. "Sit down, Connie."
I remained standing and crossed my arms across my chest. Astrid sighed.
"It was after the high school graduation ceremony," Astrid said. "We were in the school parking lot afterward when the Half-Tree arrived..."
"What the...?" Ulysses snarled. "Dirk, is this your idea of a joke?"
"Huh?" Dirk halted Merlin's wheelchair and trained a perplexed glance on the tall senior.
Then his eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
"What did you do to my truck?" Ulysses snapped, starting toward Dirk with long, rigid strides.
Dirk's attention snapped away from the incongruous sight and toward Ulysses' dark expression. "Boy, I dunno, Seez. I just planted a mysterious seed in your seat cushions and--bam!--it grew up as a creepy tree through your truck cab during the ceremony."
"You're hilarious, Dirk." The cold voice was not amused. "You're telling me you didn't see..."
"Oh!" A woman's gasp startled both teenagers, and they turned to see an athletic blond, her bright blue heels dangling from her fingers, her feet bare.
She gaped at the half-shorn tree planted firmly through the body of Ulysses' black pick-up truck. Then she turned her startlingly green eyes upon the taller of the pair. "It's Ulysses, right? What happened to your truck?"
Merlin gasped suddenly, a sound like someone who had just been plunged into cold water. His limbs flailed and his voice made garbled sounds, as though an unspoken message choked him.
"Merlin?" Dirk swiveled to face his brother. "Merlin, what's the matter?"
Some instinct drew their eyes to the tree once more, and when they at last tore their eyes away from it, the school parking lot was gone, and they stood on a moonlit hill overlooking the twinkling lights of a city.
"That is how we first entered Azinae, a world in which everything you think you know about reality turns upside-down," Astrid explained. "I can try to explain, but some you will simply have to see, to absorb, before you can understand."
"What about that voice?" I asked. "Rahayar?"
"He is the voice of the Half-Tree. We became acquainted with him later. You noticed how it seemed that everything he said cut off in the middle?"
"The other half of the tree exists somewhere else in Azinae and the rest of Rahayar's words were spoken there."
"So," I said slowly. "If we had been able to be in two places at once, we could have heard the whole message?"
"We can still hear the message," Ulysses broke in. "We can go to the Time Pool, collect enough to go back to this point in time, then take it to the second Half-Tree, and..."
"Wait--we can go back in time?"
"I told you, Connie," Astrid said. "The rules of reality change in Azinae."
"Okay." I drew in a deep breath. "So we find the other half of the tree and go back in time to listen to the other half of the message, in order to have the full message."
Ulysses nodded, but Dirk shook his head vehemently.
"That's insanity, Ulysses. The Whispers, remember?"
I interrupted. "Explain the Whispers."
"They're exactly what you experienced," Astrid explained. "When the Half-Tree was whole, it was the strength of Azinae. But when it broke in two--there is a story to that--it attracted to itself a whirlpool of all things divided and corrupted. That is when the dissent among the Kinds began, resulting in great bloodshed and disunity. The Whispers were among those evil things that came to the tree. They feed upon your confusion. They cast you into a deep sleep and eat your mind when it is divided against itself and against others. There are a very few who can withstand the Whispers, but it takes great unity of mind and purpose."
"Which is why we should not go to the second Half-Tree," Dirk said. "We should go to the Island Castle. It sounded like others had gone there. We will have a better chance of discovering what is going on--and of staying alive--if we go there."
"I'm with Dirk," Astrid said. "Sorry, Ulysses. It's not worth it. We've survived the Whispers twice already--once for Connie--but we cannot count on surviving another time. And something about the feel of Azinae--there is more wrong than just the Whispers. What else may be near the Half-Tree?"
"Only the Half-Tree knows the full truth," Ulysses replied. "We may go to the Island Castle and learn a partial truth through other means, but we may never understand all that we need to know if we do not risk it."
"Or we may simply learn that the Half-Tree has betrayed us."
"Or that the information may save lives."
Dirk and Ulysses stared at each other, unblinking, measuring one another other. At last, Dirk turned to Merlin. "What do you think?"
Merlin made a sound that I could not interpret and, from Ulysses' expression of triumph and Dirk's glower, I gathered that Merlin had cast his vote with Ulysses, though I could not see how they determined that.
"Well, Connie," Ulysses said with what I can only describe as a smirk. "Looks like you're the tie-breaker."
I got a vote? I was swimming in mysteries about Half-Trees and Whispers and Kinds and Healings and realities that contradicted everything I knew--and I got a vote?
"Connie?" Dirk leaned forward. "What do you choose? The Island Castle or the second Half-Tree?"
Vote in the comments below! Voting closes at midnight on Sunday, January 31, 2016.