Episodes ago, we asked the question: What was the other half of the conversation with the Half-Tree? In this episode, we learn the full message of Rahayar, and the companions have to make the biggest decision yet, a decision that will impact the future of Azinae--and their own futures.
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Episode 13 - Rahayar's Message
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."
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