When Connie and four others are suddenly and mysteriously transported to the world of Azinae, Connie discovers that none of his companions are who they seem. Neither, for that matter, is he himself. While they seek for answers, they soon learn that they are not only changing, but that the greatest danger they face is within their own company.
Azinae is going to be a series!
I am currently in the process of revising the original serialized version into a full-length novel. Actually, three. This series will greatly expand the story, following Ulysses, Connie, and... someone special. I'll post updates as I continue the expansion. In the meantime, you can read AZINAE in its original form, though be aware--a great deal of it is subject to change! If you like something in particular, let me know so I make sure it stays in the story.
Also, the cover is getting a face-lift for the final version, so stay tuned for that update too!
EPISODE 1 - The half tree
The moment Dirk used the old nickname, I regretted my appearance at the high school reunion.
Constantinople sounded idiotic, full of all the egg-head pretentiousness that tweaks the jocks and tickles the nerds. Stan, the preferred moniker by which my fellow engineers knew me, sounded masculine. Strong. Decisive.
And Connie? Connie sounded like a benevolent knitting grandmother from the 1950s. Or like the jeers of four bullies in the boys' locker room. I still remembered the sneer on Ulysses' face as he held my head over the toilet, egged on by the other eighth-grade boys.
"Yeah! Dunk his face in it!"
Speak of the devil. Ulysses sat diagonally from Dirk, exactly across from the vacant seat toward which Dirk so gleefully waved me.
Darn Melinda Hayes and her grand idea of a warm and fuzzy reunion of old friends. If it weren't for Dirk and his cursed persistence, I would be home finishing that report on that project.
Right now I wanted to strangle Dirk, but that would take some doing, because he was built like a marine. Of course, he probably would not put up any resistance and would grin as he went down. Dirk was one of those types who believed everyone was his friend and did not realize that he was more their friend than they were his friends. Dirk and I had never been close, but we had kept in touch after high school. Actually, he had kept in touch with me. His genuine interest in my life and his belief that everything I did must be awesome had formed a strange reluctant friendship on my part. He was the one person in my life that I did not have to impress.
I still wanted to strangle him.
I squeezed my way between the round tables in the banquet hall, waving reluctantly to adults who recognized me and uplifted hands in greeting.
“Yo, Connie, where ya been?”
“Hey, Connie. Look at you—all grown up.”
One woman bounced up with a short cry: “My word, Connie! I had forgotten all about you! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Forgotten all about me. Classic.
Welcome to my life.
I continued to squeeze my way past them, offering tight smiles.
"Connie, I've saved a seat for you!" Dirk waved me toward the chair again and I feigned confidence as I settled into the seat. "You remember Ulysses, don't you?"
"I do," I replied, reaching out to shake the hand of the young man opposite me.
He had that Mafia look about him--black hair, olive skin, obsidian eyes that glittered from deep sockets. He moved with the old familiar indolence that pretended laziness but which actually concealed a serpentine calculating mind. The handshake was firm, but not crushing, and for a moment he met my eyes, a half-grin on his lips. He remembered me, I was certain.
"Ulysses married Astrid," Dirk pointed to the blond woman who sat next to my nemesis.
"No way!" I burst out, then stammered to hide my surprise, "You two were always--so different."
Astrid laughed, the dimples in her cheeks adding to the mirth in her green eyes. "You mean we hated each other on sight? Yes. We were very different."
"I'm not certain about that," Ulysses said in that slow, careless way that used to give me chills, his arm extending over the back of his wife's chair and his legs crossing at the knees. "Even in high school, both of us had scintillating intellects and sinfully good looks."
"And my brother Merlin," Dirk interrupted. "You remember Merlin?"
"Of course I do," I replied. "Hello, Merlin."
Merlin momentarily uncrossed his eyes and his gaping, twisted-toothed mouth opened a little wider in what I suspected might be a grin. One of the thin, crippled hands on the arm of his wheelchair twitched as though in an instinct to wave or to shake hands.
"I had a heck of a time talking Connie into coming tonight," Dirk explained to Ulysses and Astrid. "He had this project that he was working on..."
"What kind of project, Connie?" Astrid asked. Somehow she imbued the nickname with masculinity which was not inherent in its connotation. She had always managed to make me feel less like a loser and I felt that familiar flash of gratitude.
"A boring report," I replied.
Dirk laughed. “Well, if it’s boring, you had every reason to be here instead!”
“Not…” I stopped, collected myself, and tried again. “Not that kind of boring. Road boring.”
Astrid’s grin widened, an invitation to explain. So I explained.
"We're checking the stability of a riverside road with a standard penetration test. Blow counts and that sort of thing."
"Blow counts?" Astrid leaned forward.
"Basically, we pound a sample tube with a slide hammer into the ground, and count the number of blows it takes to penetrate each increment of six inches into the ground. That gives me an indication of the density of the soil."
"Old Connie," Dirk grinned. "The brains of the bunch."
"I'm not sure about that," Ulysses said in that same infuriatingly languid tone. "Merlin holds that honor above anyone I know."
Merlin made a short, choking sound and said in his hoarse voice, "Maaaw!"
He rolled his eyes awkwardly, but could not focus on Ulysses.
It was bad enough that Ulysses had once picked on me and even on Dirk. Picking on Merlin was low and I hoped that my rigid silence and the color creeping around my collar announced my indignation.
But Ulysses had picked up his menu and was perusing it. "Fish, darling?"
"No," Astrid said with a slight grin. "You know I need something...juicier."
Dirk laughed outright. "Feeling carnivorous tonight?"
Astrid tossed her honey-colored hair over her shoulder and skewered my friend with a flash of her green eyes. "Dirk, shut up and pick your dish."
Dirk laughed again.
"So what do you all do?" I asked, eager to relinquish the limelight. Of course Ulysses answered first.
"Master electrician on a naval base. Not glamorous, but quite dangerous. High voltage, which is why we have another OSHA training next week."
"Medical billing and coding," Astrid said.
"Boring!" Dirk interjected. “But not your kind of boring, Con.”
"I like the job, Master Dirk," Astrid replied. "Though it does not compare with spinning..."
She paused, flickered her gaze toward me, and lifted her water glass to her lips.
"And you, Dirk?" I asked. "Same old same old?"
"I'm up to my eyeballs in the latest commission," Dirk said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "It's funny how all the music begins to sound the same once you've worked on the soundtrack for four weeks straight. It is not easy to be creative in a competitive field."
"I think you're doing very well," Astrid said kindly. "I liked the sound clips you sent last week. They made one think of... Oh, sunset over the mountains and waterfalls in the forest. Old places."
The waiter appeared just then to take our orders. The momentary reprieve gave me a few minutes to consider something that had been tickling my mind since the beginning of the conversation. When had Dirk become such good friends with Ulysses and Astrid? Dirk had not been quite as targeted as I, but surely he had not forgotten the hazing behind the bleachers and the other works of Ulysses and his fellow thugs. Then again, Dirk had always been more forgiving than I, a trait that I did not know whether to categorize as a virtue or a vice.
But Astrid? She had no excuse. The girl was graced with all the appropriate dignity to have married a British prince, if she had so desired. Why pick a jerk like Ulysses?
More than that, all four of them--even Merlin--seemed intimately acquainted with one another. There was a settledness in their company and I tasted that distinct flavor of being an outsider. It made no sense. Intuition contended with logic.
We gave our orders to the waiter. Then, as I lifted my glass to my lips, I asked casually, "So how did you two get to know each other better?"
Ulysses and Astrid glanced at one another, as though silently deciding how much to say.
At last Astrid said with a smile, "There were some circumstances around the graduation ceremony that threw us together unexpectedly. We both changed and..." She glanced at her husband with a blush that my astonished mind recognized as girlish pride in her lover. "We realized that we were meant for each other."
I did not remember much of the graduation ceremony except that Dirk disappeared for much of it--which was not unusual, since Dirk usually disappeared, or simply did not appear at all--and that I stepped on someone's discarded gum just before I walked onstage, which contributed to a few very embarrassing moments on the steps. You could say that my graduation was an appropriate and accurate summation of my high school years.
At that moment, Merlin lifted a wavering finger, pointing randomly first at one table of alumni, then at the dim chandelier. "Ggggaaaah!"
Ulysses and Astrid at once twisted in their seats to look in the direction of his finger. Then the color drained from their faces.
"That's impossible," Ulysses said. "We're nowhere near a rift. Are we?"
He stared hard at Dirk, who glanced from Merlin back to Ulysses.
"Dirk." Ulysses' voice was hard. "Dirk, tell me we're not near a rift."
Dirk fumbled for words, gesturing aimlessly. "I... I don't know. Not unless the lines have changed. I... Stop freaking me out, Seez. I... What was that?"
"What was what?" Astrid asked, half-starting to her feet.
"Sit down," Ulysses said hoarsely and pulled her down.
"What is going on?" I asked, adding indignation to my tone to hide my growing trepidation.
"If it is happening, we cannot stop it," Ulysses said to Dirk, the calmness returning to his voice, though there was an edge of steel to it. Then: "Connie? Do you see something?"
I sat transfixed in my seat, mouth agape. What in the...?
"I… No, it’s nothing." I had to leave. Now. I groped for the edge of the table to lever myself up from my chair, but Ulysses grasped my wrist and anchored me to my seat.
"Connie," he said with familiar cold authority. "What do you see?"
"You let go of me!" I jerked my hand away.
"Connie," Astrid laid her hand on mine softly. "Please, what do you see?"
I stared down at her, then forced a laugh that I hoped to follow with a breezy comment that would dispel the rising tension among us. But when I blinked, the apparition still remained, frozen in the center of the room, as though it bled through like film that had been double exposed.
"I can see it now!" Dirk said, excitedly. "I thought I saw it before. It's the Half-Tree!"
"Dirk, do not announce it to the world." If I did not know Ulysses better, I would say he sounded nearly sick, like a man at sea. He shut his eyes and breathed out deeply. "If we must come, we should do so quietly. You never know what might be about.”
Dirk's term for the apparition--the Half-Tree--was surprisingly accurate. The powerful black locust tree thrust through the top of the banquet hall, right up from the center of a circular table, its branches spreading over the banqueters. But no one seemed to notice, even though part of the body of an alumni was trapped within the trunk, and a branch protruded bizarrely from his neck. What would have been a veritable king of trees was split down the center, one half shorn away, the exposed flesh of the tree scarred deeply with burns from some ancient catastrophe.
I glanced down at my feet, and saw a thick carpet of discarded locust leaves beneath them.
When I glanced up again, the hall was utterly gone and I sat upon a moss-covered bench of stone, the Half-Tree filling my vision. A wind swirled around my shoulders, smelling of earth and wood and damp, growing things.
At that moment, I felt a sharp tug on my sleeve.
"Quick, Connie!" Dirk gasped, jerking me from the bench. "There isn't much time!"
Glancing back toward the tree, I saw a shadow flicker amongst the branches. As we turned to go, Ulysses barred our way.
"Hold," he said, dark eyes flashing. "We should wait."
What do you choose? Should Connie follow Dirk and run from the unknown threat? Or should he listen to Ulysses' advice and wait?
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?"
EPISODE 3 - THE FOUR KINDS
I did not want to encounter the Whispers again, or the bloodless voice of Rahayar, but there was sense in Ulysses' words.
Why couldn't the bane of my childhood be as stupid as he was infuriating? Why Merlin should cast his vote with such a despicable character, I could not understand. Not that I understood much about Merlin anyway.
At last, I spoke, my tongue thick with my own conflict. "We could chase our tails all over Azinae trying to fill in the blanks on our own, or we can simply go and learn the other half of the message. Myself, I'm more than a little concerned about the 'great danger' of which he spoke and I would like to know what it is. I vote we go to the second Half-Tree."
Dirk plastered one thick, meaty hand over his face and shook his head. Astrid rubbed her lips with the silky end of a lock of her honey-colored hair, and cast me a regretful glance that made me wish I could take back my words.
"Since we've decided," she said quietly, "We had better discuss how we plan to reach the second Half-Tree."
"How far is it?" I asked.
"Depends where we are," Dirk said, removing his hand from his face. "Because I haven't the faintest idea."
He gestured toward the ravine, which sparkled with reflected moonlight. "I don't remember that at all. The peak over to the right looks like Eagle's Horn, but I don't recall that the river ran this far to the east."
Astrid squinted into the distance and said softly, "But that is what we remember. When we were here last, it was the Seventy-Fourth Year of Creeping-Kind. Now it is the Twenty-seventh Year of an unknown Kind. It could have been hundreds of years from last time. Enough time to change the course of a river and carve a ravine where there never was one before. It could have been done during the last years of Water-Kind."
"I don't understand." Admitting my ignorance wasn't something I liked to do, but I felt owed the information at this point.
"We had better explain Kinds to him," Dirk said to the others.
"Or," said Ulysses with a dark twinkle in his eyes. "We could wait until he finds out."
Dirk snickered and Merlin made a barking sound that could be interpreted either as a laugh or a protest.
"Don't keep him in the dark," Astrid said, attempting to smother her own smile.
"Besides, you remember how it works. We'll change faster than he will, and he had better have a heads-up. Especially in my case."
I interrupted. "He's still here, you know, listening to everything you're saying and wondering who will include him in the conversation instead of referring to him in the third person."
Ulysses blinked, Dirk laughed, and Astrid blushed. Merlin simply looked at me with a meditative expression. Then he made a few chortling sounds and grinned a lopsided grin. Dirk brightened.
"Right as usual, Merlin!" He turned to me. "Okay, Connie, this is how it works: You're going to turn into something. We don't know what yet, but I'm sure it will be fantastic. Hopefully nothing you're scared of."
I did not know what to say, so I said nothing at all, only stared at Dirk and wondered if he was serious or ribbing me like he often did.
Dirk nudged Ulysses with an elbow. "Dude, he is taking it way better than you did."
Ulysses pressed his lips together and lifted an eyebrow. "Wait until he grows a tail. Or a flipper. Or a pair of wings."
A shiver of alarm squirmed through my stomach.
"Just so we're clear," I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees, my voice deceptively casual. "I'm going to become an animal?"
"Well..." Dirk paused to collect his wits and his words. "Sort of. Not quite. You're going to take on the attributes of a creature. And maybe grow a few--you know--animal features. It's all very complicated."
"It's not complicated," Astrid contradicted, attempting to soothe me. "Look, Connie, there are four different Kinds. Creeping-Kind--that's your bugs and insects and creepy-crawlies. Everything from dragonflies to dung beetles."
"Good gravy!" Dirk guffawed and poked Ulysses again. "I'd forgotten all about him. The dung beetle. You remember the day we arrived in Muskrat Row and the dung-beetle dude showed up with..."
"Shut up, Dirk," Ulysses said evenly. "My wife is talking."
"Beast-Kind," Astrid continued, ignoring Dirk. "That's your mammals and other land-creatures. Foxes, cats, mice, kangaroos, polar bears, and the like. Then there's Flight-Kind. Anything feathered or winged, from hawks to bats."
"And the fourth, I suppose, is Water-Kind?"
"Right on, buddy!" Dirk gave me a thumbs-up.
At the moment, I was privately congratulating myself for reading far too many fantasy books as a child. For some reason, I had given them all up when I became an adult, as though adulthood necessarily excluded fantastic adventures and wild imagination. I still could not remember why such an error--such a mis-definition of both adulthood and childhood--had been one of the guiding principles of my life until the very moment I entered Azinae. Either I was losing my mind in this strange new world, or I was finally reclaiming it.
"So what Kinds are you?" I asked.
"We will tell you our Kinds," Ulysses said. "But not our types. It will do you good, I promise you."
"There is sense in that," Astrid nodded. "He needs to learn how to discern quickly, or the others will take advantage of him."
"The others?" I asked. "The inhabitants of Azinae?"
Dirk nodded. "We will meet them soon enough. I smelled a Raccoon-Type nearby just a few minutes ago when the wind shifted. See? I'm getting the old senses back already."
"You're Beast-Kind," I guessed.
"Bingo!" Dirk grinned.
"I am Water-Kind," Ulysses said. Figures. Cold-blooded and slimy would be Ulysses alternate form.
"I am Creeping-Kind," Astri replied. That threw me for a loop, and she laughed. "Not quite what you expected, is it?"
"Somehow I can't imagine you as a bug."
"Oh, I think it will make sense to you once you see it. Besides, I don't exactly turn into a bug. I simply have some of the abilities of... Well, you will see."
"We'll let him speak for himself." Dirk waved toward his brother, who lay upon the grass with his limbs tangled around one another.
I did not know what to expect from Merlin--certainly nothing that I could understand--but I waited patiently as Merlin uncrossed his eyes and focused his gaze on me. Then, with motions as smooth as an athlete's, he rolled to his feet, stood upright, and said clearly, "I am Flight-Kind."
I froze, gaping. Astrid gasped, leapt to her feet, and flung her arms around Merlin's slender body in an embrace of pure excitement. Dirk scrambled to his feet, eyes shining, and wrapped both Merlin and Astrid in a massive bear hug. Ulysses simply remained seated, a small smile tugging at his thin lips. Merlin untangled himself from the others and offered his hand to Ulysses, who shook it in a business-like manner.
"Ulysses," Merlin said, by way of greeting.
"Merlin. It is good to see you looking more like yourself, sir."
"When did you change?" Astrid questioned, still breathless with surprise. "I've been watching for signs this whole time and you never even gave us a clue!"
"Ulysses knew," Merlin said, seating himself. "He saw early on and kept it to himself."
"Good ol' Merlin!" Dirk guffawed. "But I thought you would take longer to change back, buddy."
"Not this time," Merlin said, his voice a surprising bass that quivered in the air. "I could taste it in the air as soon as we arrived."
"That's why you got heavier as I carried you!" Dirk pointed an accusing finger at his brother. "You were packing on the old muscle, weren't you? Sneaky, that's what you are." And Dirk beamed as though "sneaky" were a synonym for "brilliant."
Merlin turned to me and offered a hand to shake. I shook it, and, if the obvious deference of my other companions had not made it evident enough, the strength in his handshake certainly confirmed it: Merlin was the unquestionable leader of the company.
No one spoke as Merlin re-seated himself--this time upright, with limbs untwisted and relaxed--and surveyed his company with the pride of a father observing his own children. It struck me that Merlin was the eldest. I had known that he was Dirk's senior by several years, but somehow his age never registered because his disability made him seem so remote and child-like. The shame of it prickled on my cheeks. I was more inclusive than many and had always attempted to speak to Merlin politely. But I recalled now that I had spoken to him with the high-pitched sing-song tone of an adult to a child, and had kept my comments toward him very simple and meaningless. How many years had Merlin watched the world, learning more than we could ever guess, knowing far more than he could communicate, while we treated him like an accessory to the "real" business of life?
I caught Merlin's gaze upon me and, before I could conceal my embarrassment, he had dipped his head in a small nod that communicated an entire conversation in one gesture. I was accepted, even forgiven. When he lifted his chin, I straightened my shoulders. He nodded again--an affirmation--before he turned back to his companions.
"We are in the Broken Hills," he said, pointing to the ravine. "Astrid is right. The river moved."
Dirk grimaced. "And the Time Pool is all the way across Creeping territory--if the Creepers are still in the same place, that is--and we don't even know which Kind is in power."
"We will find out soon enough," Merlin said. "That, at least, will become evident before we can visit the second Half-Tree. As for the rest of the Half-Tree's message... I am with Connie. The mention of the Healing and the unknown danger concerns me."
He paused, then murmured quietly, "Ulysses?"
Ulysses glanced up and I realized that the paleness of his skin was not simply a trick of the moonlight.
"I am thirsty," he rasped. "That's all."
"Then down to the river we go!" Dirk said, rising and pulling Ulysses upright. "You Water-Kind dehydrate so quickly. Need a hand, buddy? I'll carry you on my back if you..."
"I do not need to be carried." Ulysses' tone would have withered a lesser man--at least, it would have withered me--but Dirk just shrugged. Astrid tried not to hover, but her concern could not be hidden.
We made our way down the slope, not hurrying, yet displaying the unconscious speed of those with a mission. I caught up with Dirk and poked his elbow. "How long does it take for the change to complete?"
Dirk shrugged. "The first time always takes the longest. Several days. Maybe even a few weeks. But if you're lucky enough to come back to Azinae, the long beards say that the transformation is much quicker. A day or two. Or a few hours, as in Merlin's case, though I think he has a few hours to go yet before the change is full."
"The long beards?"
"The elders of the Kinds. In Azinae, the longer the beard, the greater the authority."
"That's not quite true," Astrid called from the front. "Some women have been elders."
"And do you not remember the illustrious beard of Mistress Kite?"
Astrid scalded Dirk with a maternal glare. "She was from Goat Clan."
"Wait a minute," I interjected. "Just how long were you here in Azinae? You talk like it was years."
All four of my companions stopped and turned, their eyes probing me.
"It was," said Merlin. "We spent fourteen years here."
My breath froze.
"That wasn't the weirdest part, though," Dirk said. "The weirdest part was coming home and being eighteen again. I had to grow up twice, and somehow the second time around was harder."
"Because you felt like you didn't belong anymore," Astrid said quietly. "You had fought great battles and untangled terrible lies and fallen in love and built a life... And then you were suddenly a high school graduate again and it all seemed so wrong to fill out college applications and read your e-mails." She turned to her husband, tears in her eyes. "I know it's dangerous here but... I don't want to go back again."
Merlin touched her shoulder lightly. "We don't get a choice, Astrid. There is a purpose to our lives, whether on earth or Azinae, and we should not fear either one."
A twinge on the sole of my foot alerted me to a stone in my shoe and I dropped back momentarily to pull the shoe off and shake the rock loose. My companions, deep in conversation, continued without me. I was only about twelve yards behind them when I glanced back up, but my breath snagged in my throat.
The moonlight outlined in silver over a dozen human forms that awaited my companions, surrounding them silently on all sides, sliding through the shadows with the angular forms of weaponry in their hands. I was a stranger to Azinae, but not to the sensation of threat. My entire childhood--and Ulysses' part in it--had finely tuned my senses to danger, and these watchers were not here for peace.
For the moment, I was unseen, and two conflicting choices tore through my chest.
If I shouted to warn my companions, I would give away my position to our silent adversaries, but my companions would have warning of the approaching confrontation. If I waited and my companions were attacked or captured, I would escape, and might have the opportunity later to aid them.
You choose! Should Connie warn his companions or wait?
episode 4 - captured
Somehow my tongue made the decision before my mind became conscious of it. If I was hoping to shout an appropriately heroic warning, however, then my valiant tongue must have tripped on the words, because what came out was a stuttering squeak.
"Look out! They've got weapons! They're up to no good!"
Up to no good? Eloquent, Connie. Truly eloquent.
At the first sound of my voice, my companions glanced up at me, startled. Dirk was the first to respond, rising to his full immense height and emitting a growl that I am sure a true human could not make.
"I thought I smelled your stinking bunch! Come out and face us like real warriors instead of skulking in the shadows."
At this point, I had joined my friends and the shadows seemed to have swallowed all trace of our adversaries. For a moment, there was only a tense silence. Then a voice said from the darkness, "You are in Beast-Kind territory, but you do not all smell like beasts."
"Well, that's a blessing," Ulysses said in his usual careless tone. "Considering how beasts smell."
"Hold your tongue or it will be the worse for you, trickle."
From the hard expression on Ulysses' face, I gathered that "trickle" was the equivalent of a racial slur against Water-kind. Astrid squeezed her husband's shoulder as though to restrain him, though he did not move.
"We are only passing through," Merlin said calmly. "We will cause no harm."
"They're Raccoons," Dirk muttered aside to Merlin. "Like the one I smelled earlier. Troublemakers."
"You will cause no harm?" The Raccoon spokesman snorted. "The Whispers are swarming, and you say you will cause no harm? I can smell it on you--the scent of another world. You are newcomers."
"We are old-comers too," Merlin said quietly. "We were here during the days of the River War."
Merlin and his companions glanced sharply at each other.
"There was more than one?" Dirk asked.
"There were four," said the Raccoon spokesman. "You have been away a long time."
"I would like to speak face-to-face," said Merlin. "It is not the custom of warriors to speak like children hiding behind bushes."
"You have a barbed tongue, Flight-kind. Be careful that we do not clip your wings."
Merlin's jaw tightened and Dirk seemed to swell with fury. Then Merlin said evenly, in a tone that sent a shiver down my back, "That would not be so easily done. Take us to a place where we may talk."
"Come down the pathway and we will meet you where the rocks are flatter."
As we descended the path, Merlin dropped back slightly and whispered to me, "How many are there?"
"I saw about a dozen."
When we reached the flat place, we found that half-a-dozen warriors awaited us. The other half dozen made no appearance, but I was certain of their presence. When the moon shredded a cloud and peered through the watery gray of the approaching dawn, I had my first glimpse of a truly Azinaean face.
The Raccoon spokesman was undoubtedly human in feature, but there was a distinct quality around the eyes that hinted at some other-ness. The black eyes were too round, the set too deep, the flesh slightly too dark around them, while the nose was just a little too pointed, the teeth a little too sharp, and the face a little too round. The hands were slender yet muscled and I surmised that, if raccoons on earth were considered unusually clever with their paws, then Raccoons on Azinae might be extremely skilled in delicate hand-work. "Pick-pockets" came quickest to mind.
The clothing took me aback. Given the pastoral nature of Azinae, I expected something medieval, but the clothing was a mix of both old-time organic fibers and synthetic materials, some with styles that I did not recognize.
"It is unusual," said the Raccoon leader, "for an alliance of Kinds to travel together."
"We are from the same mother-world," Merlin replied. "It is a bond beyond Kinds."
"So you say," said the Raccoon leader. "But you will find that the current state of Azinae allows for very few such alliances."
"Which Kind is in power now?"
The Raccoon leader flicked his gaze toward Dirk. "Beast-Kind."
Dirk visibly relaxed, and profound relief smoothed his face. Everyone else looked as though great weights had been added to their shoulders.
I suddenly hoped very much that I would turn out to be Beast-Kind.
"And where is their seat of power?" Merlin asked.
"The Island Castle."
"We have heard that there is trouble in Azinae."
The Raccoon snorted. "There is always trouble, beak, but more now than ever. Many have disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Merlin could not hide his alarm.
"There are the usual Kind-wars that take lives from all sides, with many travelers fallen where none notice. But there are worse things. Whispers roam further abroad from the Half-Tree than they used to, the Transience occurs without warning, and the Healing are growing in number. The Kinds--all of them, even Beast-Kind--are not as many as they used to be."
I did not have to understand the words to feel the immense pressure of some darkness upon all of us. Even Dirk's relief faded.
Merlin considered for a time, then drew in a deep, unhurried breath. "Thank you for your honesty, sir. I now repeat what I said before. We have come for no harm and we are only passing through. Might we have a seal of safe conduct through your territory?"
"That is not how it is done," the Raccoon leader said. "We will take you before the regent of the territory to be tried."
"Tried?" Astrid burst out.
"Since you have come here before, your identities must be verified and your allegiances inspected. The annals will tell us what your part in the River War was--and whether it is friendly to our cause today."
"The annals are rewritten every time a new Kind comes into power," Ulysses said with cold disparagement. "If you mean to confirm our inevitable guilt, you can do it here and save yourself the trouble."
The Raccoon glanced at Ulysses and said icily, "A parched tongue will not speak so quickly."
Ulysses looked upon the Raccoon with a smirk that scorned every law of Beast-Kind, and, as much as I had hated that smirk was it was directed toward me, I felt a little wriggle of satisfaction to see it turned upon someone that Ulysses and I could agree to dislike. As proudly as the Raccoon spoke, even he could not ignore the chill of Ulysses' presence.
The Raccoon tore his eyes away.
"Come," said the Raccoon. "The night grows small."
Dirk, Ulysses, Astrid and I turned toward Merlin, a single question in our eyes. The Raccoons tensed and tightened their grips on their spears. Merlin gazed about him quietly, then said, "We will come."
The tone with which he spoke made it clear that our acquiescence was a matter solely of his choice, not of the Raccoon's compulsion. He added, "The Water-Kind needs water."
I recognized the look of cunning on the Raccoon's face. Ulysses was clearly a danger, and dehydration would weaken him considerably, but Merlin's calm, warning expression seemed to apply palpable pressure to our captors. The Raccoon leader shrugged at last, and offered Ulysses a canteen. Again, I was surprised, because the canteen was modern military-style.
The Raccoons corralled us forward, and we began the trek over the hills. My companions were silent, but my head was buzzing with questions that required answering. At the risk of displaying my naiveté to the surrounding Raccoons, I poked Dirk.
"Dirk, I don't understand this. What is the Transience? The Healing? This matter of Kinds?"
Dirk glanced down at me and grinned. "Sorry, buddy. I keep forgetting how little you know. Hmm, where shall I begin? You know of the Kinds, of course. What we didn't fully explain is that the Kinds have always been enemies to one another, just as they are on our world. On earth, beasts eat fish and bugs and birds, and birds eat bugs and fish but not usually beasts, and bugs eat every living thing with blood, and fish eat bugs and that's about it. We won't get into the fish eat fish and the beasts eat beast part, though that applies somewhat, clan against clan. During the River War, the Beast-Kind had to deploy Fox Clan and Rabbit Clan at opposite sides of the battle line, because they could not agree on anything. Make sense so far?"
Oh, it made sense, all right. "So our alliance is not only unusual but frowned upon. We're considered rogues, outlaws."
"Worse, we're part of the Transience--the exchange between worlds. Azinae is a sieve. It pulls people from their own worlds and, sometimes, it returns them."
"Some people come to Azinae and never go back."
As I absorbed this, Dirk continued. "Through some strange ability of Azinae, our language is unified--but we are automatically divided amongst the Kinds. While it seems random, it's actually not. Every Transient in Azinae is here for a purpose. When our group came to Azinae the first time, the purpose involved many things. We were part of a war, and our efforts changed Azinae's history--for the better, I hope. But we ourselves were changed. Ulysses and Astrid fell in love--something that would never have happened on earth--and Merlin became the leader he always should have been."
"I don't really know--yet. Maybe my first coming was to prepare me for my second coming. The Half-Tree knows."
He paused, then added, "The Kinds have warred continually since the splitting of the Half-Tree. When a Kind comes in power, we measure time by their years of leadership. The first year we arrived here, it was the Seventy-Fourth Year of Creeping-Kind, in the twelfth cycle. That means that it was the twelfth time that Creeping-Kind had been in power since the split, and they had been reigning for seventy-four years at that time--pretty impressive for the little bugs. Now, apparently, it is the twenty-seventh year of Beast-Kind. Probably the tenth cycle or so. Beast-Kind does not cooperate well enough to have many cycles in power."
"I see." I congratulated myself again for those early years of reading fantasy. I could actually understand the rules of this new world. Somehow it felt liberating. "To summarize: We are Transcients who may or may not get returned to our world, but who are here for a purpose, and we are allies, which makes us suspected by all Kinds. What about the Healing?"
The tension amongst the travelers, captor and captive alike, rose instantly. Dirk's familiar smile slipped.
"The Healing are the most dangerous beings in Azinae, and no one understands much about them because, to be close to them, is to be close to death. When one of the Healing is ill or wounded, he pulls from the life of the things around him to heal himself. If you battle one of the Healing and you wound him, your wound will return upon yourself. If you give him a killing blow, you will die by it and the Healing One will be the same as before."
"That is why," said Merlin, "it is a curse in Azinae to say 'Heal thyself.'"
"There is no effective way to overcome one of the Healing?" I asked. Both Merlin and Dirk looked hard at me and I swallowed my words. Few words were spoken after that, until the Raccoons called a halt for rest, just as the eastern sun spilled light over the distant mountains into the valleys below. Apparently, they had been awake for nearly a day as they scouted, and the signs of exhaustion were apparent. Unfortunately for us, we were no better rested.
"You might as well rest," Merlin said, and we slumped to the ground, eager to obey.
"I'm hungry," Dirk announced to no one in particular, and was asleep within moments. I envied him profoundly.
For some time, I struggled to find a comfortable patch of ground. It seemed as though every root, hillock, stone, or stick conspired against me: "Let's poke Connie!"
In the midst of my mounting frustration, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. Rolling to the side, I came face-to-face with one of the Raccoons, a younger one with glittering eyes. He held his finger to his lips, then whispered, "If you will bring a message for me to someone from Flight-Kind, I will help you escape."
I stared at him, uncomprehending, and he poked me with a bony finger. "You hear me, Transient? Go tell your friends."
All ideas of sleep fled from my mind. It took some time to sufficiently (and quietly) rouse my companions and hold a whispered conference.
"I don't like it," Ulysses said darkly. "The Raccoons are wily. This could be a test to see if we would facilitate suspicious inter-Kind dealings. We could convict ourselves if we agree."
"On the other hand," Dirk replied, "He could be some love-lorn Raccoon with a Chickadee girlfriend and simply wants to know if she made it through the last raid on her Kind. We might not have another chance to escape."
"This time I'm with my husband," Astrid said. "I won't trust a Raccoon."
"Merlin?" Dirk appealed to his brother. Merlin paused, then said, "I'd like to hear Connie's view of the matter first. Connie, you spoke with the Raccoon first-hand. What do you think?"
Should Connie vote to turn down the Raccoon's offer and wait for another chance to escape, or trust the Raccoon and take the chance now?
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 couldunderstand 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?
Episode 6 - The plan
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?
Episode 7 - Superhuman
I did not want to go anywhere without Merlin. He was the one who tied this party together, the only one whose judgments I could trust completely, and who seemed to understand me better than I did. On the other hand...
"We can't ask the Moles to go back," I told my companions. "They've just risked their lives for us. And if we go back on our own, we're likely to get caught or killed, and everything that the Moles have planned and risked would be a waste. Merlin would not want us to go back. He would tell us to go forward."
"But he's my brother," Dirk said stubbornly. It was almost childish, the way he said it, but I could not laugh at him. We all felt the same dread. What if Merlin was in trouble? What if Merlin needed us? But there was no denying that I had spoken the truth: If he knew the circumstances, Merlin would want us to leave him. And, perhaps, his need was not as great as we feared. Merlin, after all, was a man who kept his thoughts to himself and who had resources that even his brother could only guess at.
The decision had been made. We would go on.
The Moles led us through a corridor with a steep, thigh-burning ascent. I noticed that none of my companions appeared to need the light as much as I myself did.
"Can I ask you a question?" I inquired of my nearest bodyguard.
He grunted in what seemed like an affirmative, so I asked. "Why risk your lives for us? What are we worth to you?"
The Mole smiled a little. "Many people are pulled into Azinae, but very few are pulled in by the Half Tree itself. That makes you special and, therefore, valuable to us."
"Does the Half Tree pick people specially?"
"The Half Tree is the guardian of Azinae. It knows the caliber of the Transient it summons. Plus, you survived the Whispers. That's impressive enough for us to take note."
"If we're that valuable, why would the Beast-Kind wish to kill us?"
"The very circumstances that recommend you to the avikind accuse you to the Beast-Kind."
At that moment, broken morning light dappled the corridor and we pushed through a thick screen of shrubbery into the dawn. We stepped onto the spongey carpet of composting leaves shed by many past seasons, and breathed in the scent of moss and wet earth and growing things. The forest reminded me of my childhood: of my long treks with my father and brothers, seeking signs of animals, discovering edible plants and mushrooms, observing the creatures of the forest. The smell of the Azinaean forest brought it all back to me so vividly that I almost expected my father to emerge from behind the great pine to our right. I touched the trunk and my fingers came away sticky and scented with the spice of pine. I sucked it off, recalling the days I had collected as much of the resin as I could find to chew it like gum. It made your teeth stick together like taffy did.
"This is as far as we can take you," the lead Mole said. "Lynx Clan will lead you from here."
But Lynx Clan never came, though we waited longer than we dared, and the Moles grew nervous that the Beast-Kind reinforcements would soon be scouring the area in search of us.
"I know where we're going," Dirk said, rolling his shoulders back. "The smell is obvious. It's a straight shot to Eyrie."
"Lead the way," Ulysses offered.
So we bid goodbye to the Moles and set off, wading through the ferns, our footsteps muffled by moss and discarded leaves, our shoulders and heads showered with the cool dew that dripped from the overhead branches.
As we went, I observed that my companions had changed a great deal since arriving in Azinae. Dirk's eyes were becoming rounder and larger--not enough to make him seem inhuman, but just enough that someone might glance at him twice and wonder what made him seem so odd. His large nose, too, was sharpening into a more pointed shape. As for Astrid, there was something almost angular about her, her face a little flat and her eyes a little bulbous, with flexible, pointed fingers and quick, precise body movements. Ulysses was the exact opposite: His body seemed to flow liquidly, and at times, his skin seemed to ripple with different colors drawn from his environment. His head seemed a little large than I remembered it, his eyes smaller, and his limbs longer and more pliable. The ends of his fingers were dimpled, like a gecko's.
I was starting to have my suspicions about which animals they represented, but I did not want to open my mouth and look stupid (like usual) if I were wrong, so I held my peace. None of us spoke much as we forged our way past whipping branches and moist boulders.
"Bleh," Dirk said, holding up one of his gigantic hands to shade his face. "It's too bright."
I thought the light was perfectly fine--it was about time I could see something--but Dirk and Ulysses both squinted through their eyelashes uncomfortably. Astrid seemed unaffected.
After a time, I noticed that I began to outpace my companions. Something about the air--and especially the brilliant Azinaean light--made me feel wild and free and energetic. The others, however, did not share my energy. They trudged onward until the light waned and they were utterly exhausted.
"We should stop now," Astrid said. "I must eat."
It occurred to me that we had not eaten for well over a day, perhaps two. Why wasn't I hungry or thirsty?
Maybe I was a camel. That would be embarrassing.
We stopped and Astrid scanned the trees above. Ulysses found a place between two great tree roots where the damp had condensed into a small puddle. He pulled away the leaves, deepened the hollow, and waited while it filled. Then he buried his face in the puddle and drank.
"Ready?" Dirk asked Astrid.
"Ready." Astrid nodded. To my surprise, both grasped the branches of a nearby tree and began to climb. I had never seen anyone climb like that before except in superhero movies. Astrid climbed as though some magnetism kept her contact with the tree. She disappeared into the foliage long before Dirk did. Dirk climbed with a deliberate, grasping, swinging motion, the way primates do.
There was a crackle of branches and, suddenly, Astrid emerged into sight, swooping on a narrow strand of silver before landing gracefully in the next tree as if gravity had no hold upon her. She pressed a finger to a thick branch and the strand remained fixed to that point, but continued to reel out from Astrid's hand as she swung to her next target.
When I was a kid, I used to want to be Spider-Man. Now that I saw a real Azinaean Spider spinning a web from her hands among the powerful trees of the forest, Spider-Man seemed like a moped compared to a Ducati. Within a few minutes, Astrid had completed her weaving, which sparkled a silver-white in the moonlight.
Then Astrid made a quick movement with her hands and a loop of the star-like thread unrolled from her fingers toward me. When I regarded it with suspicion, she laughed. "Loop it under your arms!"
"Will I be able to get it off me?"
"It's not the sticky kind."
I tested it and she was right. It felt cool and smooth beneath my touch, like silk. I passed the loop around my chest, tugging it snugly under my arms while Ulysses smirked from the sidelines.
"But you can't..." I began. Then the line jerked taut and my feet left the ground.
Never underestimate a Spider. That woman simply leaned back and reeled me in like... well, like a spider pulling in a fly. When I reached the branch upon which she sat, my heart in my throat and my breath ragged with astonishment, she lifted the loop from my chest and smiled. Gesturing toward the web, she said, "Enter."
"What?" I asked, as she lowered the loop for her husband.
"It's very comfortable. Try it out."
The web reminded me of a cross between a hammock and a trampoline. Every so often, one of the main threads proved to be sticky, and extricating myself from it was like peeling off duct tape, but I soon noticed that those threads had a duller shine than the other threads and were thicker in diameter. Avoiding these, I found the web to be quite comfortable in a wobbly kind of way. None of the openings between the threads was large enough for my foot to thrust through, and it sagged elastically with my body weight. Ulysses soon entered the web as well, his movements bouncing the structure.
"Stop it!" I snapped, clinging to the web with clawed hands.
Ulysses only chuckled and rolled himself onto his back.
"Where's Dirk?" I asked.
"He's here," Astrid said. "But once he's in a tree, he's utterly silent and invisible. You won't even see a branch move. That's why he was a spy in Flight-Kind territory during the last war. The enemy simply could not find him."
"What kind of animal..."
"Hey guys!" Dirk's booming bass interrupted, and the web hardly moved as Dirk crabbed along it. "I found some food."
"Is it poisonous?" Ulysses asked, raising one eyebrow. "You remember what happened the first time we were here."
Dirk chuckled. "No, no. This is all edible--for you anyway." He reached into a pouch by his side--I recognized it as a Mole knapsack--and began to pour out his offerings on the web at the center of our company: an assortment of nuts, berries, tubers, and mushrooms.
"There's no clams," Ulysses said. "How am I supposed to maintain my stunning physique without clams?"
Astrid's glance scolded her husband. "Say thank you to Dirk, honey."
Ulysses tweaked a cluster of berries from the pile, grinned, and popped a berry in his mouth, rolling it over his tongue.
"You're not hungry?" I asked Dirk as I selected a mushroom that didn't look too nauseating.
"Already eaten," Dirk said, rolling on his side and levering himself up on one elbow.
He offered Ulysses a canteen of water, which Ulysses took eagerly.
"Dirk, you're a life-saver."
Dirk chuckled and stretched. "Ah, it's good to be back. It's the first time I feel really Azinaean again."
"So," I asked around a mouthful of a crunchy tuber that tasted partially like raw potato and partially like chalk. "What exactly are you? You're a primate of some kind. Monkey?"
"He'll never guess, Dirk," Astrid said. "You didn't even know what it was when you first changed."
Ulysses snickered and mimicked Dirk. " 'What is that? Are you telling me I'm a flipping monkey with a poisonous bite and stinky arms? What the heck is that?"
"You have a poisonous bite?" I sat up straighter.
"I'm a slow loris," Dirk explained, picking his teeth with a sliver of wood. "In our world, it's a nocturnal primate native to Southeast Asia, with a gland on my arms that creates poison. And, if I wish, I can transfer the poison to my teeth--as most of my clan do--and poison anyone I bite. It's pretty effective. This one Grasshopper during a raid took one look at me and turned tail. Apparently, he'd been bitten once and, having survived the experience, didn't wish to repeat it."
"Oh, it is. There are many perks that go along with being a slow loris. You'll discover them soon enough."
"There are downsides too," Ulysses pointed out.
"Such as?" I directed my questions to Dirk.
"I tire quickly. At rest, I can hibernate for a long time. That's what made me a great spy. So long as I had food on me, I could get into some hidden place and spend days--sometimes even weeks--there, moving an inch or two every few hours, just listening. When I'd gathered enough information, off I went to my Kind to bring the news."
"Dirk, that is epic. "
"Why, thank you," Dirk replied. He scanned the sky briefly, sobering, and Astrid murmured, "He'll come. I know him."
"I've tried to reach out to him. Sometimes I think I'm getting something, but either he's blocking me--afraid someone will listen in--or he's far away or too injured to respond."
The lines in his face dampened his natural exuberance. When we had all eaten, Dirk ambled away into the trees. He would, Astrid assured me, keep watch over us during the night.
"But when does he sleep?" I asked.
"He'll catch a few hours," Astrid replied. "But he can wake at a moment's notice."
Astrid took a place at the edge of the web, each hand and foot pressed upon one of the web's main ropes: "So I can feel any unusual vibrations."
This left Ulysses and I in closer company than I wished, but I turned my back to him. The web was exceptionally comfortable and I was soon asleep.
The next morning, Dirk offered us another meal from the forest, though I was still not nearly as hungry as my companions, and we continued on our way. By afternoon, we emerged from the trees to face a ridge line.
"Well," said Dirk, panting. (He did indeed tire quickly.) "We can either head down by Otters' Ravine or take the path down to the marsh. Otters' Ravine is faster and easier, but I can smell the otters."
"So can I," I said, surprised by my own instincts. "Would they be as dangerous as the raccoons?"
"Worse," Ulysses said grimly. "They usually hang out with other clans of the weasel family: wolverines, martens, badgers... They're a wiley bunch. But the marsh-way is traveled very little. At least, it was in our day."
"I don't like the feel of the marsh-way," Astrid murmured. "There's something... wrong."
We all felt it too, the way you can taste a thunderstorm in the air before it arrives.
"So what's your pleasure, mates?" Dirk asked, shifting the Mole-pack on his shoulders. "Get captured or killed by the weasels or chance the nameless danger of the marsh-way?"
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?
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?
episode 10 - pursuing the cure
Merlin pulled his hands away from his face and I read his answer in the granite set of his jaw and the burden of grief in his eyes even before he spoke it.
"Every moment in the presence of a Healing is a taunt against death," he said quietly. "I won't endanger my company."
From anyone but Merlin, the words would have cut to my spine, but I knew him too well--trusted him too much--to misunderstand him. I wanted to feel betrayed, but couldn't. I would have made the same decision in his place.
"But I don't know anything about Azinae," I protested. "What if I eat something poisonous?"
"You are untouchable by all dangers of natural life," Tahn Kayanu said quietly. "Whatever befalls you will be reversed as you draw from the vitality of those things around you."
"I don't want to."
"You will not be able to help it."
"So I will never truly be hungry? Cold? Injured? Tired?"
Tahn Kayanu shook his head. "For as long as you live--which, conceivably, could be forever--you will be in the best of health and never lack."
"Until I suck the world dry," I said quietly. "That's what's happening, isn't it? The world and the population are slowly shrinking as the Healing increase in number."
"Yes," said Tahn Kayanu. "Given enough time, Azinae will no longer have enough vigor to support the continual regeneration of the Healing. What happens then?" He shrugged. "I do not know."
"What is making the Healing?" Dirk asked. "Is it some new devilry of the Whispers?"
"I have a feeling the Half-Tree knows," Ulysses said. "We only heard half the message. But the other half may give us some insight."
"Our quest has more relevance than ever," Merlin agreed.
"You will go to the Half-Tree?" Tahn Kayanu raised his eyebrows. "No one willingly goes into the very heart of the Whispers. It is death."
A sudden thought struck me. "But I could."
The others stared at me, then Dirk slapped his thigh. "By golly! The dude is right. He could. He can't die, right? So he is immune."
"Not entirely," Tahn Kayanu replied. "The Whispers cannot kill Connie, but they can corrupt him. And a corrupted Healing is ten times the terror than any of the Healing that you have seen here in the marsh."
"If I can last just long enough to know the Half-Tree's message," I said, "Then I may do some good after all."
No one could sleep the rest of that night. When Astrid at last woke from her healing slumber, greatly improved and nearly fully recovered, her husband took her aside and told her all that had transpired during her slumber. I could not bear the quick, startled glance she flashed toward me, and removed myself to the place where Tahn Kayanu crouched over the squat wood stove, where he brewed a tea that smelled simultaneously of warm spices and comforting earthiness.
"What do I need to know?" I asked.
"Do you really want to know?" Tahn Kayanu glanced toward me, eyebrows drawn over his glittering eyes.
"I have to know."
"Then I will tell you, though there is not much good to tell." Kayanu's wooden spoon paused, and the dark liquid swirled in the pot. "Your greatest danger is anger."
"Whatever hate you have already in your heart--toward a person, toward a situation--will multiply like a disease. You will seek someone or something to blame for your outcast condition. You will chew on it until it consumes you, fantasize about harming the one you believe harmed you, obsess over every wrong done to you."
My cheeks burned and, although my eyes wished to stray to Ulysses, I forced them to remain fixed on Tahn Kayanu's face.
"You will be utterly lonely, Connie. These moments--" he gestured to the cabin's interior, incorporating my company of friends--"are very, very rare. No one keeps company with the Healing willingly. It is far too dangerous. The loneliness feeds the anger, until the soul is entirely corrupted with a plague of bitterness. Do you wonder why so many Healing harm out of spite? It is because of their great loneliness that fuels their anger. They have given up hope of all companionship or redemption. Yet the same people were once fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. Loving. Kind. Gentle."
I glanced down at my hands. "How did you escape?"
"Choice by desperate choice. There is no moment when you can let down your guard. There is no little seed or root of anger that you can afford to overlook. And when you discover that you have allowed the horror to grow in you, you must repent and take whatever measure necessary to retrace your steps back to the selflessness that guards you. You are a curse by nature, but you do not have to be a curse by choice."
My tongue felt thick. "What do you do with anger that you already have?"
"Make it right. Or it will destroy you--and anything around you."
"I... I don't know if I can."
"It is not a matter of can. It is a matter of must. "
But you don't know what he took away from me. What he broke in me. What he made impossible for me. How can I simply wipe that away?
The room was far too small for seclusion, so I seated myself nearest Merlin and poured my silent thoughts into the pool of fear that had begun to submerge my soul. Merlin said nothing, but his presence was like a buoy. I knew what he would choose and wished that I were a man more like he was.
The next morning, my companions left under the cover of the early morning darkness, accompanied by Tahn Kayanu as their guide and--oddly--as their protector.
"I'm not coming," I said to Merlin just before their departure. "If I don't leave now, I won't have the courage."
Merlin nodded soberly. Then he said, "You may be able to follow at a distance, and you can communicate with any one of us telepathically. It is the one consolation Azinae gives the Healing. Will you go to the Time Pool and the second Half-Tree as we will?"
I nodded. Without the quest, the despair that gnawed the edges of my mind would have overtaken me.
Merlin glanced toward Tahn Kayanu. "He is rare among the Healing. Whatever he says, take it to heart."
“Take this as well,” Astrid said, holding up a wide, white cloth that shimmered like captured stars. “I wove it for you, and it will keep you warm.”
Then they descended the treehouse and were gone, the water rippling in silken V's from the bow of their boat, where Tahn Kayanu crouched like a warrior, stroking the craft forward with a single oar.
I had not made it right with Ulysses. Perhaps if he had come to me again, apologized once more, I could have found the courage to mutter forgiveness. But to go to him? To initiate the forgiveness that he did not deserve, for wrongs he could never right?
I hoped that this forgiveness withheld was not as dire as Tahn Kayanu seemed to be believe it would be.
I did not wait for Tahn Kayanu to return. I took what food I could carry on my person; he had been generous with his resources with my companions, so I suspected the same was true for me. Certainly I could forego food indefinitely and suffer no harm from it, but the thought of it triggered my revulsion. Who would I harm so that I could test the limits of my self-healing? It seemed to be only the first step of many, in the dark journey that led to the sort of reckless behavior I had observed in other Healing. They had no instincts of self-preservation, and therefore held all life--even their own--cheaply.
The fullness of my Azinaean form must have ripened overnight, for when I emerged from Tahn's treehouse, descended the lift, and began to swim through the clear waters of the marshlands, no one accosted me. I was aware of them, of the rustling of branches, and of the faint, electrical tingle in my body whenever my perimeter and another's crossed momentarily. My awareness of their thoughts bloomed faintly, like the shape of a tree through mist.
Another one? Why in Azinae do we need more Healing?
Poor devil. He looks fresh now. Soon he will reek with despair.
Don't give up, young man! Find the cure to your curse.
I wished I knew how to find the cure. Tahn Kayanu was wise, yet he had not found a cure in over seven hundred years. And there were other Healing, those who had served before their corruption and the Division, who were likewise trapped in immortality. What had they not yet tried?
The Half-Tree. That was my only answer. No one visited the Half-Tree because of the Whispers, and the Healing avoided it most of all, fearful of spending an eternity of madness.
I did not want to go mad. But then, mad people always think they are sane. So at least I would never know that I was mad.
The Half-Tree was my only hope. Let the others deliver Brin's message to Eyrie. I did not care for it any more. Azinae's disease was far deeper than the petty squabbles of the Kinds. I was going to the Time Pool.
The Healing rearranged, distancing themselves from me as I swam through the marshlands in a direction that carried me away from my companions' trajectory. My newfound strength propelled me forward, and I found my eternal energy and strength exhilarant until I realized that the leaves and stalks of marshland vegetation shriveled as I passed. I was draining the land to feed myself.
I tried to tell myself I did not care. They were plants, after all, not human life.
But I could not convince myself. I did care.
The edge of the marshlands offered soggy patches of weedy ground which slowed my progress. I wrestled through it, sowing destruction in my wake, my fatigue compensated with every step.
It was evening before I reached the other side of the marshlands, where the ground was firm and riddled with shale. I was not tired, but I did not dare press on, for the width of my destructive path was widening considerably. I found a mossy bank, wrapped Astrid's Spider-blanket around my body, and attempted to sleep.
Apparently, the Healing powers enabled me to recover from pain, but not from discomfort. I tossed and turned, seeking a comfortable place until at last, when the eastern horizon was just flushing with a dove gray hue, I fell asleep.
At least the insects would not bite one of the Healing.
I roused in the afternoon and continued on my way, chewing a handful of jerky to assuage the hunger that I did not feel and quenching my thirst at still pools where the water was clear.
When I sensed a Pufferfish nearby on the second day of my journey, I reached out telepathically to ask directions to the Time Pool.
East and north, he replied. Toward those mountains. Perhaps five days' journey.
Thank you, Healing.
Even his thoughts stammered. For speaking at a distance. Not many of the Healing are so kind.
His words made me sober. How many lives had my Kind claimed?
I spent the next few days pursuing my course. Every so often, I came upon a pathway clearly burnt across the landscape by a wounded Healing. Some were new, the plants withered into ash, others were old, with green already encroaching on the edges to heal the land. The scar on the earth made me determine more than ever to be attentive to my invisible hunger, fatigue, and foot-weariness.
On the fourth day since the Marsh Way, I encountered the experience that determined so much of what I became later.
I had just crested the brow of one of the mountain foothills, so deep in the wonder of Azinaean beauty that I had not given thought to the sensation of others nearby. I came into sight of a horror of blood and death.
At least a dozen Creeping-Kind lay scattered across the bank of a rushing river, their bodies twisted in grotesque manners that I cannot describe even now. Throwing my senses onto the wind, I tasted the events--the silent attack that had occurred only moments before, the lives still ebbing away rapidly, beyond any healing skill to retrieve. A wall of nausea nearly brought me to my knees.
Then I saw it: the flash of flaxen hair spinning down the violent eddies of the river. A girl, perhaps ten or eleven. Whether she had leapt into the river to escape the attackers, who were now gone, or had fallen in during the confusion, she was now clutched in the power of the river. I caught the glimpse of terrified blue eyes before the dark waters sucked her under, only to spit her back up several yards downriver.
I stood frozen in indecision. If I did not act, she would drown. If I did act, and I spent my strength or began to drown myself, I could kill her.
episode 11 - reverse
Ever since I had arrived in Azinae, I had struggled against the threat that Azinae would change me. I had liked the idea of developing animal superpowers--that was a change I would have chosen for myself--but I had been changed into the most lethal, destructive force in Azinae.
Tahn Kayanu had said that I was a killer by nature, but I did not have to be one by choice. I realized that Azinae could change my body, but I did not have to let it change my morals.
I could not stand by and watch a young girl drown.
I powered down the slope and plunged into the water. The cold of the raging river instantly chilled my skin, and terror seized me. How much energy would I drain from the things around me--from the girl--just trying to keep myself warm? I thrust that thought away from myself and struck out through the water, my hands clawing forward and thrusting back. I was glad that I had joined the swim team at school, despite the fact that Ulysses was also on the team and had made every second in the locker room a miserable experience for me. The only reason I had stuck with the team was because I was an exceptional swimmer. My arms might not be as built as Dirk's, but they knew water intimately.
The river roared and churned around me. I bounced off a submerged rock, gritting my teeth against the bruising that subsided within a few moments. Then I reached the girl and grasped a handful of her flaxen hair, reeling her in until I could grasp her under the arms.
"I'm here," I gasped, choking water from my lungs. "I'm here."
For a moment, I forgot that I was one of the Healing. I was, quite simply, a man saving a girl. Her life utterly consumed my thoughts.
Then she gasped and shuddered in my hands, and terror seized me. Was her distress due to fear, a lungful of water, or my draining of her life? I slammed the doors of my mind against the doubts and, gripping the girl desperately, I kicked toward the shore.
The water sucked and clawed at me, now attempting to slam me against a rock, now pushing me under the surface, but each time, I flung myself back into my intended course, teeth gritted. It became a contest of wills between myself and the river, and I accepted no defeat.
At last, I reached the shore and scrambled onto the soft earth, old leaves and twigs and grass clinging to the heels of my palms and to my knees as I crawled to the higher ground, dragging the girl, who lay limply in my arms. Terror like I had never known seized me. This was the moment I had known I would have to face. Had I saved her or killed her?
I laid the girl on the ground and crouched over her, my stomach clenched.
Her eyelids fluttered and her gray eyes wandered until she found my face. They locked on my face, read my concern.
"Reverse," she whispered.
"What?" I leaned forward.
She and I felt it at the same moment. I sensed the strength pouring from her body even as I felt it enter my own, a tingling of vitality blooming through my chilled blood and exhausted limbs. I was killing her. I was killing her.
I sprang up, desperate to leave her, to remove my power from her body, but her hand clenched around my ankle. Could I shake her away when I knew that my very presence was draining her life into mine?
Then her breath froze and I knew it was too late. I realized that the grass around her body and mine had withered, sapped of health.
I do not remember the hours that followed. I recall that I dug a grave with violent energy that grasped at every living thing to fuel its vigor. I laid her to rest with a carpet of flowers, but even as I did so, I saw their petals brown and their leaves droop.
A voice whispered in my mind, distant but distinct. Killer. Killer. Killer.
Anger consumed me until I could not see, until it seemed to cast a shadow over the landscape and breath from the air around me. What had I done to deserve this? What had she done? Why must I become a victim over and over?
The whispers in my mind crowded thicker now, injecting venom into my veins. Now I understood why the Healing were the terror of Azinae. They were lost as I was lost, cut off from hope. If that was my life, so be it. I embraced the darkness. Every whisper called to me...
Whisper. The word slapped me across the face. I recognized the cloying darkness now, the same sensation of division from all that was good and true that I had felt when Ulysses pulled me away from the Half Tree.
How were the Whispers here? Was the anguish of my mind so potent that they had left the Half-Tree to sip temporarily at my despair? I fought my way past the throng of voices both accusing and seductive. This wasn't fair. I was a nice person.
But as I dug the graves for the girl's slain family and friends--the Creeping-Kind destroyed by the departed Beast-Kind--I wondered. Even on Earth, there were no nice people. There were people like me, who thought they were nice, but who, once tested beyond their endurance, revealed the darkness inside them. Now I realized that my perception of myself as a nice person was false. I was not nice.
I had thought that Azinae had changed me, made me a killer. But I was a killer before. Wasn't hate a kind of killing? And hadn't I fed and nursed and coddled my hate for Ulysses and everyone like him until it damaged me worse than he had ever damaged me? I had spent my whole life believing that I held myself back from true success because Ulysses had destroyed my confidence. That wasn't true. I had used his abuses as my excuse, absolving me from the uncomfortable choices that I did not want to have to make, comforting myself with the belief that I was a victim who was irreparably hurt, wanting other people to extend special sympathy and never expect too much of me. I did not want to pursue and fight and sacrifice because I felt I had already suffered enough, that I was owed comfort and respect.
But when did life--any life, on Earth or Azinae--promise only comfort and no suffering?
One by one, I buried my illusions and lies with the dead.
"Please," I whispered over the earth as I filled the last grave. "Show me how I can live this life as a man and not a monster."
I wasn't sure whom I asked this of, but it comforted me to think that someone, somewhere, might listen and care.
I rose at last and washed my muddy body in the river. Then I continued on my way, always pressing toward the mountains where I would find the Time Pool.
At times, the taste of war tingled on my tongue as I passed certain areas, and I avoided them. I did not want to see the ravages of war in Azinae. I did not want to see more dead.
When I came upon a village of Flight-Kind, I remained at a distance, watching. After I had observed for a time, I reached to an old Heron, a woman.
I want to speak with you.
Who are you? You are clear, but you do not feel like Flight-Kind.
I am Healing kind. But do not fear--I added hastily as she mentally recoiled--I will not harm you or the others. I simply have a question.
What question is that?
Someone said something to me that I do not understand. "Reverse." She said it twice. What does it mean?
The woman was silent for some time. Then she replied, It is the beginning of the old Song of Rahayar. You do not know it?
Rahayar? I straightened. The soul of the Tree? I did not know he had a song. Until lately, I have been a Transient.
Ah. Shall I sing it for you?
In the woman's mind, her voice was accompanied by instruments that breathed mystery and beauty into the tune, throbbing through my veins like a new life pulse. The music curled around me like wind, ethereal yet substantial.
Reverse the ancient curse.
Bear me on a tree until
I've surrendered all my will.
Make my enemy my friend,
Save him ere his darkest end.
Reverse the ancient curse.
Divide me until I contain
The depths of death and hate and pain,
Then pour me out until I am
The healing of this broken land.
Reverse the ancient curse.
When her song finished, we lingered in silence for some time, not breaking the contact, yet unwilling to break the sacredness of the song. At last, I asked, What does it mean? I know that the Tree divided himself to save Azinae from the Whispers, and that he must long for the reversal of the curse he placed upon himself. But how can he be healed and destroy the Whispers?
I do not know.
I pondered this, but felt that I had outstayed my welcome. I thanked the old woman and released her from the communication, passing on my way at a safe distance from the village.
Surely someone must have asked the Half-Tree how to reverse the curse, unless the Whispers killed them before they could learn the answer. But if at least one person survived to learn the truth, why hadn't the cure been attempted?
The only explanation I could devise was not comforting, that perhaps the cure carried a cost that no one wished to pay.
Between two of the mountains and away off to the east, I caught a glint of silver-blue. The sea was near. This area was probably crawling with watching Water-Kind.
A party of Beast-Kind crossed my path as I entered the foothills of the mountains. They scraped my body with their eyes as I approached, the fear and hate evident in their expressions, but they held fast when I called for them to listen.
"What do you want, Healing?" the leader asked warily.
"Directions. The Time Pool."
A few glanced at one another, questioning my purpose, but I merely stood before them, arms akimbo.
"Over there," the war leader, a Groundhog, pointed. "Skirt the base of the mountain until you reach the statue of the great Blue Whale. When you reach it, you will find a path. Follow it along the shore. It will lead you straight into the cave where the Time Pool lies. But your time is short."
"Why is that?"
"The pool is only accessible for another two days. Then the passage that leads to it is filled with water."
"For how long?"
"A year. The Time Pool is only accessible for one week out of every year."
"I see. Thank you." I was about to turn away, when I noted their sharpened spears and swords, and a few technological weapons that must have originated in other worlds. Observing them further, I realized that none of them was older than sixty or younger than sixteen, and all had the flint eyes and hard jaws of warriors.
"Where are you headed?" I asked.
"Breakwater," he said.
I raised an eyebrow. "I'm still a new Healing, but I do possess the Healing instincts. Answer again and try not to lie."
The Groundhog flinched and I waited. At last, he shrugged, and I read his thoughts as certainly as if he spoke them. He knew that the Healing did not concern themselves with the war. They preyed on all kinds alike.
"Eyrie," he said at last.
"Why?" The pressure of my gaze forced his tongue to answer.
"We have heard that there are avikind in Eyrie. A leader named L'K'e'tz. We have a source that will tell us how to find these avikind and destroy them."
A chill swept down my back. My companions were likely, at this moment, delivering their message to L'K'e'tz, as Brin had asked. I could go to the Time Pool and collect the water and perhaps get answers that only the Half Tree could give me. I might even learn how to make the song true and reverse the curse. If I collected the water from the Time Pool, I might even be able to prevent all of this: Merlin's injury, the girl's death, and my friends' danger in Eyrie.
On the other hand, the thought of not warning my friends, of taking the chance that I may or may not be able to rewrite their history, made me pause. I could save my friends--and lose the chance to save Azinae. I could save Azinae--and lose the chance to save my friends.
Go to the Time Pool? Or to Eyrie? You choose!
Episode 12 - The time pool
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For half a moment, a third possibility blossomed in my befogged mind like a promise of reprieve. I could hurt myself badly at this moment--grab one of those sparkling spears and thrust myself through, savage my body--until the Beast-kind lay littered around me, sapped of life. It would only consume the space of a minute, and I could continue on my way with the knowledge that I had both saved my friends in Eyrie and could reach the Time Pool in time. I could have the proverbial cake and eat it too.
Some of the intensity of my thoughts must have pressed outward to my expression, for the Beast-Kind shrank back from me. They were utterly in my power and, should I choose to harm them, none would have the time to escape. I felt the pulse of their lives within my perimeter and it nearly intoxicated me.
Is this how Ulysses had felt when he had tormented me? Had he felt this rush of strength, the morbid satisfaction of knowing that he could do as he pleased? If I made this choice, what would I prove except that I had become all that I despised?
My shoulders sagged and involuntary tears prickled in my eyes.
I am a killer by nature. I do not have to be a killer by choice. Once I crossed that line, what redemption remained to me?
The Beast-kind war party shuffled away hastily and I seated myself on a stone, swallowing hard. I felt their presence leave the perimeter of my power and, with it, came a deep relief. The nearness of the choice I had nearly made strangled me.
Suddenly, I sprang to my feet and shook my fist at the cloudless sky, anger boiling in my chest until it burned.
"I defy you, Whispers! I will not be another of your pawns! There has been enough death in Azinae. The Half-Tree pulled me here for a reason and, by heaven, I am going to find out what it is!"
The surrounding mountains flung my voice back to me and somehow the reverberations added to my fury.
Turning, I scrambled over the stones with the strength of wrath. I did not stop for hours, but poured all my energy into that single forward drive to the mountain and the sea beyond. Disregarding the damage that my expenditure of energy dealt to the organic life that I passed, I ran tirelessly until, just ahead, I recognized the statue of the Blue Whale carved from the mountain, its tail uplifted as though to strike those who passed beneath it. By its side, a second statue depicted the Blue Whale's Azinaean counterpart, a human form with a wide mouth, small eyes set far apart, large chin, and blended cheekbones. I gathered my resolve and passed by the giant life-sized image, my breath burning in my lungs and my body singing with motion.
Just as the Groundhog had predicted, a narrow path emerged from the stone, threading its way along the shoreline, just above the high-water mark and the tide pools that glimmered in the waning sunlight. My feet magnetized to the trail as I raced the sun, eager to reach the Time Pool before the waters cut me off and the darkness made my mission impossible.
The path curved around a boulder and, as I emerged from the bend, I observed that the path straggled down into shallow water, toward a crescent of white sand and the ragged wide mouth of a sea cave. Water already lapped at the foot of the cave. I would have to be quick. I plunged into the shallow spit of water that separated me from the cave that sheltered the Time Pool.
As I approached the cave, however, the water of the ocean churned near me. I staggered back, my feet sloshing, and gaped as a head emerged from the waters. A blunt face came into view, pocked with two small, round eyes and a mouth that seemed to fold together into a dour expression. With the sixth sense of a full Azinaean, I knew his form intuitively: an Electric Eel. As much as I knew I would survive the encounter, I did not particularly relish the idea of a few hundred volts of electricity charging through my body.
"I have not come for harm," I said. "I only want to reach the Time Pool."
"A dozen seekers have already come for the Time Pool," said the Electric Eel. "But they have gone back or I have killed them. The Time Pool is not permitted."
"Not permitted by whom?"
"By the mighty Conced, whom I serve."
"Why should he prevent visitors?"
"Revisions of history are dangerous. It upsets the wars of the Kinds."
"Says Conced, I suppose? What version of history is he afraid to lose?"
"You should return. Conced does not permit thieves at the Pool."
"Did he create the Time Pool?"
The Eel did not answer.
"Well, Conced should learn how to share," I snapped, losing my patience with this arrogant and dramatic farce. "I am of the Healing and I am going to the Time Pool."
"Are you indeed?" The voice was not the Eel's. I pivoted to face the new speaker and found myself in starting, gape-mouthed, into the face of a Healing with the dimensions of Hercules. Heat rushed to my face.
"You are Conced?" I asked, more meekly than I intended.
"And you're a trespasser."
The old Connie would have turned and left immediately. But either some confidence born of my immortal condition or some petulance nourished by the extremity of my need ignited my indignation.
"Who gave you authority over the Time Pool?" I demanded to know.
"You had best leave now."
"Only if you tell me that Rahayar gave you the authority to guard the Time Pool."
"And if I do?"
I considered the other Healing and read his intentions with that fortunate Azinaean intuition. I snorted. "I would not believe you."
"Nevertheless," Conced's voice grated like tumbling rocks. "The Time Pool is mine to keep."
"Because I have said so."
"Because you have said so? Please. That is the inept reasoning of a flaccid intellect."
The flicker of perplexity in his eyes betrayed his confusion. He had no idea what inept and flaccid meant and, though he sensed the insult, he did not know how to answer it without understanding the words.
"What history are you afraid to rewrite?" I asked, in a gentler tone now. "At least attempt to answer me intelligently."
Conced shrugged and I read him again. He had no particular agenda. He did not need one, for he had nothing to live for. He simply enjoyed exerting his influence and invincibility because it was the only amusement left to him.
Had he wanted to prevent a revision that might harm a loved one, I would have offered my sympathy and perhaps my aid. But my patience for bullies had worn thin a long time ago.
"I have business with Rahayar," I said. "And I will not be delayed."
As I pressed past him, he grasped my arm and twisted harshly until my bone snapped. I cried out in pain, but in the next moment, the Healing power buffeted Conced and I like pressure waves, ricocheting between us, amplifying when it found no place to rest.
My bone knit even as a whirlwind of Healing ability spread like a bubble outward, visible like a shimmering dome over us. I gritted my teeth and, with strength born of desperation, I tore myself away from Conced and leapt toward the border of the bubble. As soon as I broke it, a blast shuddered through the air, hurling me against the white sand just inside the sea cave's entrance. Sand stung my face and, for a moment, I felt as though my breath would never return to me.
When I rose, I realized that the circle of desecration lay exactly at the threshold of the cave. None but the Healing would ever be able to enter the Time Pool without harm. The thought of the evil that I had imprinted into the ground prompted nausea. Would all my attempts to redeem myself end with similar results?
At the other side of the sphere of blasted ground and the ink-black water, Conced scowled at me but turned away. There was no amusement in an enemy who did not fear him. Beyond him, the Electric Eel slipped back into the water.
Pity soothed my anger. Had they been friends before Conced became one of the Healing? Was the Electric Eel the only one who would not give up on his friend, despite the danger to himself? Or did he hope to profit from his dangerous subservience to one of the Healing?
I turned away and entered the sea cave, my eyes adjusting slowly to the dimness beyond.
At first, the way was easy, but soon the cave sloped upward and I began to climb as though I sought to penetrate to the heart of the mountain. My ragged breaths echoed from the walls around me, and I left the stone icy behind me as I stole what little vibrance it had to offer me.
At last, I realized that the darkness that surrounded me seem a little paler, and, as I rounded a curve, I emerged into a cavern where an azure luminescence glittered from every stalactite. There, shimmering at my feet, lay the Time Pool.
As I approached, I realized that the reflection at the surface did not reveal the stone icicles above, but the warped images of the two Half-Trees, wreathed in smoke-like Whispers. One was set against the backdrop of mountains and forest--the Half-Tree to which my companions and I had been summoned--and the second was set against the edge of a cliff, against a backdrop of barren wasteland, as though the desecrations of a thousand Healing death-matches had taken place around its base.
Fear turned my knees to water. I dropped to the stone by the side of the pool. What if I did not reverse far enough to make the journey to the second Half-Tree in time? What if I reversed before some small but important event? What if I arrived at a time before I had even been brought to Azinae? Would I return to Earth or wander ghost-like in Azinae? What if...?
I held my breath and released it slowly.
What if I was brought to Azinae for a purpose? I had to believe that redemption was possible, that I and Azinae could be saved from the bitter chaos and curses that the Whispers had brought.
The Time Pool shifted and its surface rippled with images of myself and my companions, as though reflecting my memories. I closed my eyes and, prompted by some intuition, scooped the water into my hands and drank. Cold, then heat, blasted through my body, shuddering through every nerve. A hurricane of time ripped through my consciousness, like the sucking back-current of a wave that retreats from shore. More. I need more. Trembling, I lifted another handful to my lips and sipped the cool liquid.
The sensation of being turning inside-out intensified and I trembled on hands and knees as my history in Azinae erased itself. The girl... the girl was still alive. The Mole who had sacrificed himself for Merlin lived. Others that I did not know zipped by my consciousness, souls revived for a second chance in Azinae. I nearly wept at the parade of life restored and at my terror that I would fail and lose them all again, and more besides.
How do I find the second Half-Tree?
Knowledge filtered into my memory, like a compass that would point forever to my destination.
More questions crowded, but suddenly, I found that the stone walls around me warped and I could see trees and moonlight and long grassy slopes bleeding through. A sickening pit in my stomach expanded as I felt my immortality stripped from my body. I was reverting to my pre-Healing body, before I had become fully Azinaean.
Then the world became solid again and the ground slapped my side hard. It took me a few moments to realize that I was tangled with Ulysses. I rolled away from him and Ulysses spat a tuft of moss from his lip.
"That was pure grace, Connie. Like a ballerina."
I stared at him. Astrid shrank to the ground, gasping for breath, and Dirk eased Merlin's twisted body to the ground.
Dirk glared at Ulysses. "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..."
I staggered to my feet, tears in my eyes, suddenly unable to breathe through the constriction in my throat.
"Connie?" Astrid murmured. "Are you all right?"
I had not thought this far. And now I had a choice to make.
I could tell my companions about all of it and we could journey together to the second Half-Tree. It was risky, because somewhere along the way, I would become fully Azinaean and my Healing abilities would endanger them. And if we made it, would they survive the second Half-Tree?
Or I could abandon them now, warning them of the dangers ahead, and risk the dangers of the journey and of the second Half-Tree on my own. I had not realized, until now, how much I thought of this quest as my own, some personal business I had with Rahayar. But should it be my own?
episode 13 - rahayar's message
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In a moment, I made my decision. Rahayar had pulled us into this world together for a reason. The quirk of my Azinaean form had separated me from my companions, but it was another trick of the Whispers, another subtle attempt to create the division that was destroying Azinae and feeding the Whispers.
I would not feed them anymore.
"Sit down," I said. "This is not the first time I have been here."
"It's not?" Dirk perked up. "You've been to Azinae before? When?"
I realized, too late, that my words needed modification. "Not before this. I mean, this is not the first time I have been here, now, at this time."
Ulysses was the first to understand. "You have been to the Time Pool." He looked at me curiously, as though trying to determine what had happened in the original layer of my Azinaean adventure.
"Oooooh." Dirk breathed the word as though its length was directly proportional to his astonishment.
"What happened?" Astrid said, arranging her legs into a comfortable, cross-legged position and piercing me with her green eyes. "I want to know everything. Even the smallest detail."
"We do not have much time. In fact..." My stomach wrenched suddenly. "I've come back too late."
But I did not have a chance. The Time Pool tore me away! It betrayed me!
"Too late for what?" Dirk asked.
"To listen to the other half of Rahayar's message," I replied miserably, simultaneously slumping to the earth and sinking my head into my hands. "Whatever he said is vitally important to us. Azinae is dying. The Healing..."
"Stop, stop, stop!" Astrid lifted her hands like a traffic policewoman. "I'm confused. Begin at the beginning!"
So I told the story. I told of fleeing the Half-Tree and the Whispers, of being captured by the Raccoons and rescued by the avikind, of meeting with Tahn Kayanu and of my transition to one of the Healing, of abandoning my companions in Eyrie while I struggled to make it to the Time Pool in time. I had to explain a great deal about the current political situation, things I still did not fully understand, and about the encroaching growth of the Healing over Azinae.
"You mean," Dirk said slowly. "Everyone eventually changes into one of the Healing."
"That is not what he said," Astrid pointed out.
"No, but it's the eventual trajectory, isn't it? Give Azinae another thousand years, and the Healing will dominate."
"The ultimate division," Ulysses said quietly. "An entire world people who cannot possibly ever have fellowship with one another, whose every interaction only diseases the land more, and whose misery can never be ended until the entirety of life on Azinae has been used up, every drop of vitality from earth and stone and plants and sea. How many other worlds have been gutted like this? The Whispers are not from Azinae originally. Did they come because they had sucked the last world dry?"
"I' aaaaah oooo..." It took me a moment to realize that the speaker was Merlin, struggling through the waning limitations of his Earth-body. Then, with a groan, he sat upright on his own, uncurling his legs and arms as much as he could. He concentrated and tried again. This time, his voice were recognizable, though slightly garbled.
"It is not too late. The Time Pool belongs to the Half-Tree. If Connie was sent back to this time, it is because this is the time appointed to him. To us. I trust the Tree, even when the Whispers will try to distort his message in our ears. There may still be a way to access the message."
"Go to the Time Pool again?" Dirk scratched his head. "Fight Hercules and his Electric Eel pal?"
"It was Conced," I said wearily. "And I didn't fight him. I just let him break my arm."
Ulysses laughed out loud and rose to his feet. "Why should we wait and talk? The Raccoons will be here soon, and every hour that slips away makes Connie more Azinaean. I would like to reach the second Half-Tree before he is fully one of the Healing, thank you."
So we began the long march. This time, I was aware of the subtle shifts in my companions' abilities and appearances much more quickly. I could smell their Azinaean forms maturing, the way one can smell the ripeness of a fruit.
Based on my information, we slipped past the Racoons without the Beast-Kind noticing our presence, and made our way through the forest of the Flight-Kind. The rustling overhead alerted us that we were under watch, but no one accosted us. Day bled into night, and night brushed past us in shades of navy and onyx and blossomed into gold and azure with the coming of the dawn. Merlin's wings grew hour by hour, from downy fledgling wings to broad spreads of white, and when he was mature, he launched himself into the air to view our way and warn us of coming obstacles. This was especially useful when we argued over whether to take the Otter Way or the Marsh populated by the Healing. In the end, I had my way.
"Have you noticed," I asked, "that all of you are tiring more quickly than usual?"
"Well," said Dirk. "I am nocturnal and naturally slow-moving."
"True," I admitted. "But Astrid is made for hours of web-spinning or," I faltered, when I noticed her baleful eye upon me, "whatever it is that human Spiders do. But she is fatigued. It is because I am more Healing than I should be. It seems that the delay in my maturing process doesn't occur on the second time around. I am becoming as fully Azinaean as quickly as the rest of you."
Merlin nodded, hanging his head wearily. "We know the risk, Connie."
"You misunderstand. In this one instance, the risk may help you. I can walk through the Healing Marsh without harm, and the other Healing will make way. They dare not destroy their home by harming me."
It was a slender hope, but one that the companions at last accepted. When I entered the territory of the Healing, I called my challenge periodically. "If anyone harms me or my friends, I will personally find him and beat him senseless. And then your marsh home will be drained of life and become unlivable even to you!"
I was not quite sure if that was exactly how it would work, but the threat seemed to work. I could feel the Healing shift away from my perimeter of influence resentfully. More than a few contacted me telepathically, and the language they used made me wince, but I answered with greater severity and more threats.
Somewhere in the mingling of many consciousnesses, I sensed the presence of Tahn Kayanu.
Briefly, I reached out to him. Sir, you do not remember me now, but I have been to the Time Pool. You aided me in the first volume of this story. I want you to know that I am going to the second Half-Tree. I am going to find a way to destroy the Whispers.
You are a fool, came the answer, quicker than thought. The Whispers will corrupt you, and you will become ten times the nightmare that you are already.
Perhaps, I replied. But what has Azinae to lose?
He did not answer, but I sensed the nature of his thoughts. What, indeed, did Azinae have to lose? Tahn Kayanu knew as well as I did that Dirk's prediction was slowly coming true, that Azinae was hastening toward the day when all of the inhabitants of this world would eventually begin to heal themselves at the expense of all surrounding life.
He was nearly outside the telepathic range when he answered. Whatever the Tree tells you to do, do it, and do not look back, no matter the cost.
I wondered, suddenly, if he had ever been to the Half-Tree. How great was the cost, if Tahn Kayanu might fear it?
We reached the edge of the marsh, and pressed onward. I had to call many rests now. My companions stubbornly refused to request times to recover their strength and only took them when I offered them. We tried for a time to travel separately, with my friends just outside the range of my Healing influence, but my companions were recognized as a band of avikind and ambushed by a party of Beast-kind. I was halfway to them when a sudden cloud of black exploded like soot from the midst of the battle. My surrounded companions had no opportunity to flee, but Ulysses' Octopus power had delayed the attack long enough for me to arrive. As soon as the Beast-Kind felt my invisible perimeter engulf them, they scattered to seek safety.
"What madmen are you," a Wildebeest shouted from a safe distance, "to keep company with one of the Healing? You have more to fear from that monster than from us."
"Not unless Connie intends to stab me with a pulse blade," Dirk muttered, referencing the other-world weapon which had nearly sliced him in two. "Feeling homicidal, Connie?"
"I'm sorry," I said, still tense from the nearness of disaster. "We should travel together from now on. Next time, I might not be in time."
"It's not your fault, Connie," Astrid said, laying a hand on my shoulder in a sisterly gesture.
"Maybe Connie could carry us on his back by turns," Dirk suggested, brightening.
"No," said Merlin. "That will tire him quicker, and force him to draw more energy from us."
"There is no way to win," I reminded Dirk sourly, irritated with him because I was irritated with myself. "Stop being so hopelessly optimistic."
Dirk snorted. "Glass half full, buddy. And if there's even one drop left in that glass, I'm gonna celebrate it."
His resilience shamed me. I had no right to steal their courage with my growing doubts.
"Do you know the way?" Ulysses asked, falling into step with me.
"I can see it in my mind," I replied. "Every mile of the way. What the Time Pool shows you is impossible to forget."
"We are with you, Connie."
I did not dare answer. I suddenly realized that his voice no longer jangled through my mind with the clamor of warning--"Bully! Enemy! Hate!" It had become the voice of a friend. Something about the realization constricted my throat and filled the place behind my eyes with heaviness.
We reached the wilderness the next day--a barren wasteland scoured by sand and scalded by sun. Anything that yet lived shriveled in the heat. Merlin opened his wings and spread them over us like umbrellas, shielding us from the worst of the sun's relentless glare. The heat burned us through our shoes, but no one complained. We pressed onward as though every drop of time expended was another Azinaean life lost.
It occurred to me that our Quest was worthy of the laughter of fools. We had no understanding of what we hoped to accomplish. The vague notion that we might somehow save Azinae seemed now a bitter mockery. A Spider, an Octopus, a Slow Loris, an Owl, and a cursed Healing--what could they accomplish against thousands of years of Whispers?
The second Half-Tree materialized from the heat-shimmers like a mirage, but the internal compass in my spirit knew it to be real. I urged my companions onward and they staggered in the oppressiveness of the wastelands and of my Healing power until we came within a stone's throw of the second Half-Tree.
From where I stood, I realized just how much was wrong with Azinae. The division of the Half-Tree had not been equal. There were far more Whispers near this half than there had been near the other half. They spun a dizzy orbit of darkness around the skeletal branches of the broken Tree, and their hissing messages reached me even at that distance, repeating every doubt I had ever harbored.
You are nothing. You are doomed. Your companions will die because of you.
"For the record," Dirk said savagely. "I chose Connie. You can shut up now."
But the Whispers did not cease. They maintained their relentless barrage as we stepped forward. A voice reached me through the clutter of obscuring voices.
My companions glanced at me. Clearly, they had heard it also. We gathered our courage, and stepped into the cloud of Whispers. A thick darkness wrapped us round, but flickered with light as though the sun trickled past the beating wings of a thousand bats. I was the first to reach the trunk of the Half-Tree, and the sensation of rough bark beneath my fingers had a grounding effect.
I dared not think. I reached up and tore a branch from the tree.
That was when I understood. The Time Pool was the Tree's, and somehow Rahayar's roots penetrated to the core of Azinae and fed from the Time Pool's waters, existing in a whirlpool of all times at once. If we could have come here, without traveling first to the Time Pool, why had the Tree not told us?
But would I have known all I needed to know, about Azinae and myself, if it had been that easy?
The Tree's sap ran with liquid time. I drank and my companions after me drank, and time reversed in us.
I knew, somehow, when the time reached the place upon which all our hopes rested. I recalled the original questions and the half-answers we received as the voice of Rahayar supplied the missing half of our conversation.
I am Rahayar. And...
"...you are the ones I have called for a purpose, though you do not know it yet."
I am Ulysses Darkcloud.
I remember you. You were the one who...
"...was prepared to become all that Constantinople would need."
What? My breath caught in my throat.
What year is it?
It is the Twenty-seventh Year...
"...of Beast-Kind, in the tenth cycle. But more importantly, it is the time of the avikind."
We were summoned. Why?
The Healing have multiplied and the Kinds have...
"...dwindled even as their wars have become fiercer and their unity weaker."
Thus they went to the Island Castle...
"...to learn if there was a cure for Azinae. But they failed to come to me, struggling vainly from a distance to understand what only I can tell. I will bring you to myself again..."
But you must beware, for the greatest danger to your company arises from...
"...among you. The seeds of your destruction are already sown within you. But I have also planted in you all you need to know. You have a choice. If Constantine alone surrenders, all five of you shall be broken, but shall live. The Whispers shall be destroyed and the Kinds will cease to turn to the Healing, but the Kinds shall remain at war. If all five surrender, Constantine alone shall be lost, but the curse shall be utterly reversed, the Kinds shall be united, the Healing shall be transformed, and the Division shall be no more."
It was the end of the conversation, and my companions and I fought our way through the Whispers until we felt as though the cloying darkness slipped away and we could breathe again.
"I will not risk Connie's life," Dirk said. "Ending war would be fantastic, but the main thing is to stop the Whispers from turning more Azinaeans to Healing. And I believe that full deliverance will eventually come."
"This matter is greater than Connie," Merlin replied quietly. "Even the Healing should have redemption."
"The way I see it," Ulysses said darkly, "We all suffer to complete half of the job or one of us dies to fully finish the job. I know what I would choose, but it is not my decision."
He turned to me. "Connie? It is your move."
episode 14 - divided
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"So that's it?" I asked. "I was brought to Azinae to suffer? To die?"
I choked back the words It's not fair. What was remotely fair about anything the Whispers did? Why should I reproach Rahayar for desiring Azinae to be saved, even from those pathetic, feuding Kinds?
"You were," said Rahayar. "So were many. And a few came this far..."
The other half of the Tree's words disappeared somewhere across Azinae, to be spoken by the other half that stood on a mountain slope. But I already could guess the words he had spoken. Some had come this far and chosen to walk away. That was the other option, wasn't it? To let someone else choose between one kind of death and another kind of death? Was that what Tahn Kayanu had meant when he told me to do whatever Rahayar asked of me? Had Tahn Kayanu come this far, learned of the choices, and lost the courage to do what needed to be done? Was that why he spent his life caring for others as best he could--to make up for the fact that he dared not do what the Half-Tree asked of him?
"What did you mean?" Merlin asked suddenly. "What did you mean when you said that Ulysses had been prepared, to help Connie become what he needed to become?"
"Yeah," Dirk nodded. "What Merlin says. What's so special about Ulysses and Connie?"
Rahayar did not answer. At last, Astrid said quietly, as though a thought had prodded her: "Oh." Her face seemed haggard with some horror, and tears glistened in the corners of her eyes.
"Astrid?" Her husband touched her gently, as though she were delicate.
"It's because of what you mean to Connie."
"Me?" Ulysses glanced toward me, and our confusion was mutual. "I am fairly certain I do not mean anything to Connie, Astrid."
"What you represent to Connie," Merlin said, suddenly understanding. "What do the Whispers feed off of?"
"Division," Dirk and I answered at the same time.
"And what do Ulysses and Connie represent?"
Neither Ulysses nor I could meet one another's eyes. Division.
In their first journey through Azinae, my companions had learned to become united. I felt it as soon as I joined them in this adventure: the sensation of being an outsider. And just when I had felt most part of their company, I had become an outcast, forced to divide from them for their own safety. And then--then Tahn Kayanu had warned me against the Division of my soul, of harboring resentment. My desire to remain innocent warred with my sense of justification. No one divided us more than myself, and no one festered the Division in me more than Ulysses. It was the ultimate test.
"I know what he wants," I said finally, and my voice cracked. "Rahayar divided himself to save Azinae. Then he called us because of our division. Because I hate Ulysses. Because when the Tree heals people so divided from one another, the rest of the land can be healed too. The great Division can be unified again."
Ulysses turned pale and spoke the words that I suddenly could not speak. "He wants us to suffer together. To die together, if need be. Not as enemies. As brothers."
I leaned forward, my hands pressed against my knees. I could appreciate Ulysses' skill and admire his cunning. After all we had been through, I could even screw up the courage to count him as a friend. But die for him? Die for the man who had destroyed so much in me? Die for the man whom I had spent my entire childhood and my adult life hating?
Who had Tahn Kayanu been asked to die for? I knew now why he had walked away.
Suddenly I was angry. He had walked away and left me with this choice. What right did he have to place the good of Azinae above his... His what? His hate?
But Tahn Kayanu had not been the first. Perhaps not even the latest. And here I stood, faced with the same choice, and doing the same thing: pathetically whining that it was not fair, that someone else should have made the first move to forgive, that I shouldn't be forced to sacrifice my carefully-nurtured resentment in order to cure the equally nurtured resentment of the Kinds.
And here I was, throwing my pity-party at the very roots of the Tree who had torn himself apart to keep the warring Kinds safe from the fate that their bloody rivalries deserved.
I had been brought. What was I here for, if not for this fate?
"How do you love them--your enemies?" I gritted out. "How do you love them when they are so despicable?"
Rahayar's message was short enough that it was not torn away by half this time. "Love acts."
I drew in a deep breath. "What do I have to do?"
"Hang upon me and I will..." The message whisked away.
"He will what?" Dirk asked, darting his eyes back and forth from me to the Whisper-clouded Half-Tree.
"It's the song," Merlin said suddenly, and began to sing.
Bear me on a tree until
I've surrendered all my will.
Make my enemy my friend,
Save him ere his darkest end.
Reverse the ancient curse.
Divide me until I contain
The depths of death and hate and pain,
Then pour me out until I am
The healing of this broken land.
At the moment when Merlin sang it, we needed no explanation. I was a Healing.
Somehow, when once I stepped into the Half-Tree and surrendered my will to his, I would be split, just like him. And then... I could only guess. And trust.
"What are we for then?" Dirk asked, white-faced. "We have to surrender as well for Connie to... reverse stuff." Dirk's powers over language had always deserted him when his emotions were most tangled.
"We don't have to know the details of the plan," Merlin said. "You heard him. Love acts. So act."
And, before we could lose our nerve, we did.
The Whispers seethed around use like a current of dark water, and their voices now shrieked in our ears.
YOU HATE HIM! WILL YOU LET HIM GET AWAY WITH EVERYTHING AND NOT EVEN PAY FOR IT?
Some of the voices were Ulysses', sneering at me in the boys' locker room, saying things that kicked me in the gut, things that had never left me, things that had broken my confidence and destroyed my dreams. Visions flashed through my mind. Ulysses hitting me until I pretended to black out just to get him to stop. Ulysses spreading lies about me, lies that people still believed to this day. Ulysses deliberately embarrassing me in front of the girl I liked, in front of the whole school, until no one but Dirk dared to notice me. The darkness I had lived in, and that had followed me even when Ulysses was gone from my life, had been bearable only because I believed that someday I could repay him. I could make him feel my hurt.
If ever there was a moment to hate Ulysses, it was now.
I reached the tree, scrambling to reach a branch, and swung myself up.
The Whispers buffeted me, their screams shredding through my mind, but I clenched my teeth and climbed onward, and soon found that the branches closed around me, thrusting the Whispers back. Then, suddenly, the branches lifted me on their own and I hung in the air, suspended from my arms and legs, completely at the mercy of the Tree.
How do you surrender when you are terrified?
I could not see my friends through the swirl of the Whispers--the Whispers could have sucked them dry, for all I knew--but I had come too far. There was no turning back.
Bear me on a tree until
I've surrendered all my will...
I mouthed the next words, trembling. Make my enemy my friend... Make my enemy my friend...
Something began to happen to me. A pressure seized my chest, almost immediately assuaged as I pulled at the life around me. I felt streamers of Astrid's vitality flow into me, pulses of Dirk's vigor, rivers of Merlin's strength, gifts of Ulysses' life. This was why my friends had been needed. They were fueling me, fueling whatever transformation was coming. I heard their agony in my mind, even though I could not see them or hear them above the chaos of the Whispers. I was killing them and they were giving themselves to me.
Dirk. Merlin. Astrid. Ulysses. Something broke inside me, like all the tears I had ever shed exploding through a dam. I had wanted to make Ulysses feel my pain. Now, at this moment, I would have given anything to save even him.
Then I felt it. It was as though someone unzipped my body, from crown to feet, and turned me inside out.
Divide me until I contain
The depths of death and hate and pain,
Then pour me out until I am
The healing of this broken land.
And I understood. I was a Healing. Everything in my warped nature sucked life from others to heal myself. But Rahayar was making me like himself, dividing me and turning me inside out, reversing me. I would give back my life to others to heal them. Even my enemies. Even Ulysses.
Darkness and death poured into me. The blood of Kinds, spilled through senseless war, stained me. The pain of a million crimes from a thousand generations slashed through my soul. The hate and resentment of long enmity ripped my capillaries and savaged my mind.
I became Division.
Beneath the utter, blinding terror, a small flicker kindled, like a star just born. This was what I was made for.
I surrendered myself completely to the Tree.
As death crept around the edges of my vision and poured its decaying taste across my tongue, I heard it: the screams of the Whispers. For a moment, the shadowy bodies cleared and I saw my friends prostrate at the foot of the Tree. Dead? No. I was healing them. Their suffering had nearly killed them, but they would be well.
The Whispers whipped into a frenzy, as though blown by gale winds. Their voices lashed me, but I was beyond their fury. Already the world was losing color and the last spasms of my destroyed body were ebbing away.
Just as my vision clouded, I heard a great wind in the branches of the Tree. Somehow it had a fuller sound that I expected a Half-Tree to make, with half of its limbs gone. Was it...?
Then, with a last shudder, I felt my life tear itself apart from my body, like a man shedding his clothing and leaving it behind.
* * * * *
I am here.
* * * * *
I sat upright. The moonlight through the branches sparkled, shifting and dappling my body. I stared down at my hands and noticed that the trails of scars traced them. I reached up to touch my face and felt the fine, thread-like ridges of scars there as well.
The scars of Azinae. I smiled. Somehow the disfigurement was a gift.
"But how in dickens am I alive?" I asked aloud. The Tree around me shook, as though laughing.
"Because I have made you like me," Rahayar's voice said. "You became Division to save Azinae. You are now firstborn of the Unified."
It took me a moment to understand all that he had said. "You did not cut off your words in the middle." I glanced down the height of the Tree and saw a deep, pale scar riveted through his flesh where his halves had repaired. "We'll never be the same again, will we?"
"No. The scars remain. But so does the joy."
Somewhere down the slope from the tree, fireworks exploded in pinwheels of color. Some of them seemed earth-like, others used a technology that I am certain originated in another world. Azinae, the sieve world, had unified different Kinds and different worlds. I knew what the people celebrated and I felt as though every scar on my body laughed with delight.
I spoke out of a deep place of contentment. "You could have done it on your own. You didn't need me."
"But you needed me, Constantinople."
The way he spoke my despised name suddenly struck me differently. Constantinople--constant and noble.
I was still pondering how I had missed the dignity of my name all these years when Rahayar spoke quietly. "Go to Ulysses, Constantinople. He does not know, and he grieves you."
"Why should he not grieve the man who died for him?"
I scrambled down the tree and, by some sixth sense, strode toward a distant hilltop where the smoke of a campfire rose. Then, tweaked by some inner need to tell him the good news, I broke into a run. He had to know...!
Merlin saw me first. He sprang to his feet, his face glowing with joy, and Astrid clapped her hand over her mouth. Dirk's mouth sagged like his jaw had unhinged.
But even in their astonished joy, Ulysses reached me first. I usually avoided hugs--even bro-hugs--but there was nothing remotely embarrassing when Ulysses crushed me in a powerful hug. His voice was hoarse. "I wasn't worth it, Connie. I wasn't worth it."
"You were to me." Then, strained: "Ulysses, I can't breathe."
He released me and laughed as I gasped for breath. We looked at each other, both suddenly dangerously close to tears. Then Ulysses cleared his throat and slapped my shoulder. "Supper? Dirk found some potatoes. They taste better than his usual muck."
If being brothers with my worst enemy was supposed to feel strange, the strangeness had not caught up with me yet.
Our reunion meal was the best meal I had ever eaten, even though the camp smoke did seem to follow me from one side of the fire to the other and Dirk did step on my foot--twice--while reenacting some of the events that occurred after my death. (The memory that I had died still felt weird to me.)
There was just one thing left.
"Sir?" Astrid spoke to the Tree, which now dominated the landscape, its massive trunk nearly as wide as four men laid end-to-end.
"Speak," said Rahayar gently.
"You called us here for a purpose. Unless I'm mistaken the purpose is over. Will you send us back?"
It almost seemed that Rahayar smiled. "This time you choose, Astrid. Each one of you will choose, for himself, to go back to your world or to stay in Azinae forever. What do you choose?"
episode 15 - The scarred reflection
We all glanced at one another, solemnity written across our expressions like age. Somehow I knew, even before they spoke, what each would choose.
"I want to stay," Astrid said. Then, turning to her husband, as though fearful of his answer, "Ulysses?"
"You know I've always wanted to stay too," Ulysses said quietly. With a quick grin, he said, "I always look my best in Azinae."
Astrid flung her arms around her husband's neck. "Can we get a little house by the water--not too close, of course, I couldn't stand it--and raise a bunch of wonderful Azinaean children?"
"Our little gang of octopods," Ulysses said with mock solemnity. Astrid laughed.
"You should stay, Merlin," Dirk said quickly. "Really, buddy. Earth is wonderful--I know you care about people there deeply--but... I just feel you could do so much good here. You're a peacemaker. Help the Azinaeans make peace."
At first I thought that Dirk was trying to indicate how useless Merlin's nonverbal, nonmobile life on Earth would be in comparison to his abilities in Azinae. Then I saw that Dirk was truly sincere and that his comment had nothing to do with Merlin's cerebral palsy, and I was ashamed all over again for thinking like an Earth-dweller. Merlin had always been a teacher. The silent lessons he taught on Earth were worth every moment in his wheelchair. But Azinae simply needed him more, to help repair centuries' worth of enmity amongst the Kinds.
Merlin thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded. "I know. I mean to stay. But you?"
Dirk mirrored his brother's posture and was uncharacteristically quiet for a long time.
"I see," said Merlin at last.
"For what it's worth, I think you're right."
"You do?" Dirk met his brother's gaze.
"Azinae needs me, Dirk. But Earth needs you. Your grit. Your optimism. Your genuine compassion."
"Shut up," Dirk said gruffly, and looked very pleased with himself.
"You won't be alone," I said. "I'm going back too."
"I thought you hated Earth," Ulysses pointed out.
"I hated it because I hated myself," I replied. "I know better now. I've had my adventure here. It's time I finished mine there. It's time I really cared about something other than myself--see if I can do some good."
Ulysses' eyes traveled over my scarred face. "I think you're off to a good start."
At our request, we shared one, last wonderful day together in Azinae. The weather was clear and the air golden with sunlight. I did not want it to end. All my life, I thought I had craved adventure, heroism. Now I realized that what I truly craved was the peace that followed the suffering, the foundation of unspoken friendship, the victor's rest.
The Tree took Dirk and I in the night, while we slept. It was the best way, really. The pain of parting would only have been magnified otherwise. I awoke in my own bed, staring at the lazily whirling ceiling fan with bewilderment and wondering why the Kinds had built a house over me while I slept. Then reason filtered into my consciousness and I thought that I must surely have dreamed the whole thing--Azinae, the Healing, the Half-Tree, the Whispers...
But the scars on my face--reflected in my dresser mirror--told otherwise, and, for some reason, I was desperately glad. I wanted to be reminded of what I had suffered, not because of its horror but because of its redemption. I was not the same Connie who had disappeared from Earth, and I did not want to be.
I picked up the phone on my bedside table and dialed a number hastily. The phone rang three times before a sleepy voice croaked into the other end. "Yeah?"
"Got home safely, Dirk?"
"Connie! I just... What the...? Oh, we're home, aren't we?" There was a long pause. "I forgot how comfy my bed was."
"Hey!" Dirk crowed. "Lookit the date, Connie! It's the day after we left, the day after the high school reunion. That amazing Azinae Tree! I was wondering how I was going to explain several months of disappearance to my clients. Guess I won't have to."
He paused. "You all right, Connie? I mean... being back?"
I knew what he meant, and my reflection gazed back at me, the reflection of a man I felt I hardly knew, but who was ready for anything now.
"Yeah, Dirk," I said with quiet conviction. "I'm more all right than I've ever been."