This episode was a lot of fun to write because, for the first time, I got to showcase the incredible superhuman abilities of fully-changed Azinaeans. Plus, we are just a few episodes away from discovering what Connie's Azinaean form is...and there are some important clues in this episode.
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?"