Last week, you decided that Connie should vote for the companions to go to the second Half-Tree, to learn the other part of the mysterious message and warning. In this episode, Connie learns more about the Kinds and his own future, and must respond to an unexpected turn of events.
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? Vote in the comments below!
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