A/N: Yes, I know it's been a long time and I'm truly sorry. You've all been so kind with your reviews and your patience. I have to admit that part of the reason it's been taking me so long is I don't really have a concrete idea where I'm going with this. I mean, I do, but I'm not sure how I'm going to get there yet. So I'll put this out, this is you're time to shine! I need help and suggestions. Any thoughts on where you want this story to go would be wonderful. Now that that's out of the way, on with the chapter.
Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize.
Eragon barely noticed his surroundings as he walked back to his quarters, lost in his own thoughts. The events of the day and his audience with the Queen had given him much to consider. Arya met him at the door.
"The meeting went well?" She asked, using the ancient language.
"Well enough considering the strangeness of the tale." I responded.
She nodded her head. "It does seem unbelievable." She said thoughtfully. "But I sense no deception from them, and we have already seen their shape-changing abilities. I do not think that this is a trick of the King. They seem to have no better idea than we of how they came to be here, save that this great entity called 'Ellimist' might be involved."
Eragon agreed. Their tale was so absurd that it had to be true. "This might work out well for us." He pointed out. "They seem to think that, if it was indeed this Ellimist who put them here, they are here for a reason. That fact may make it easier for us to persuade them to help our cause. Their 'morphing' abilities could come in very useful."
"It gives me hope." Arya smiled. "For if an entity as powerful as they describe has indeed sent them, than that entity has taken interest in our plight. With such powerful support, perhaps we have a chance after all. And you are right about the usefulness of their abilities." She added.
"You know, it's usually polite to speak in a language that everyone in the room can understand." A wry voice came from behind Arya. As she moved to the side so that they might both enter the house, Eragon saw that it was the one called Marco.
Arya smiled apologetically and conceded the point.
Just then, Saphira and her charges returned from their meal. All three looked considerably more cheerful now that they had something in their bellies.
Good hunting? Eragon asked privately.
Good hunting. Saphira confirmed. And hopefully a shedding of suspicions between our two groups.
A good thing. Eragon replied. We need as many allies as we can get.
Saphira agreed silently as Eragon turned his attention to their visitors, who were unusually silent. Jake was nodding his head thoughtfully. 'receiving a report of events from the other two.' Eragon guessed. His guess was confirmed a moment later.
"Ok," Jake started. "From what I can tell, we now all have about the same amount of background info, so we can dispense with the question and answer session. Now what?" He asked, directing the question to Eragon and Arya.
"Now the queen will wish to speak with you and hear your tale for herself. It is she who will likely decide what our next course of action will be." Arya responded without missing a beat.
The Animorphs all nodded, accepting the new development. "Fair enough," Marco said. "When's this meeting supposed to happen?"
"The Queen has summoned you for an audience tomorrow morning. After that we'll see what happens." Eragon replied. "For now though, you are to rest and make yourself comfortable. You may explore the city if you wish, on the condition that Arya, Saphira, or I accompany you ."
(Did she mention any other people like us that had been found in the area?) Tobias asked. (The four of us ended up in about the same place, even though we started out miles apart in our world, but Rachel and Cassie are missing.)
Eragon shook his head.
"We don't even know if they're here." Marco pointed out. "In fact, considering that we did end up together even though we weren't even close to each other when we started, they probably aren't here, or they just would've ended up with us."
"I almost hope that they're not." Jake said. "If we're all here, than there's no one defending Earth. It's bad enough that the Animorph presence is down by three quarters at the very least."
"If this is the Ellimist's work, I'm really tempted to give him a piece of my mind, nearly all powerful or not." Marco scowled. "I mean, it's not enough that he thinks he can jerk us around like puppets on a string and get us to do all his dirty work, but this is taking us away from a place that truly needs us. No offense," He added, glancing at the two non-Animorphs listening in on the conversation. "But this place obviously has people fighting the evil guys, Earth doesn't. If we're gone, there's no one else. While we're here relaxing in the mother of all tree forts, the Yeerks could be making serious advances on our home, and we'd never know about it, much less be able to stop it. If he ever decided to show his face here, I'm all for telling him where to stuff his get-the-Animorphs-to-run-my-errands attitude."
(Once again, we have no proof that it's the Ellimist that's behind this.) Tobias repeated. (Usually he asks before whisking us off to the other side of the multi-verse or whatever.)
(He is the Ellimist.) Ax pointed out. (No one truly understands the reasoning behind his decisions, nor the game that he plays with Crayak.)
A horrible thought stuck me when Ax said those words. I froze, feeling as if my blood had turned to ice water. "What if we're going about this all wrong?" I murmured softly, interrupting the pending debate. "What if it's not the Ellimist that's behind this at all? What if it's Crayak?"
There was dead silence as the three of them absorbed that little tidbit. Their faces displayed varying degrees of horror, none of us had considered that possibility.
"Who is Crayak?" Asked an extremely perplexed Eragon. Arya had a similar puzzled look on her face.
"You know how we told you about the Ellimist?" Marco asked. Arya, Saphira, and Eragon all nodded their heads. "Well Crayak is his opposite, the black to his white, the yang to his yin. From what we can tell, he has all of the Ellimist's power, and none of his good intentions. Crayak is evil incarnate."
(We've all seen him.) Tobias almost whispered. (Jake more than the rest of us, but still. I'll never forget that feeling when he looked at you, like he could see right through you, like you were some kind of insect he was considering squishing. And that voice, it made you feel as if you were nothing; you wanted to huddle in a corner and cover your ears…) He trailed off and all three of us shuddered at the memory.
Arya and Eragon looked fairly disturbed, but asked no further questions. Marco broke the uncomfortable silence. "I'm not sure I see the reasoning though, why would Crayak bring us here?"
"To get us out of the way." I explained, feeling more than a little ill. "Crayak is trying to beat the Ellimist and Earth is one of the games they're playing. We already know that Crayak is motivating the Yeerks, and the Ellimist has us. Crayak eliminates us from the field, there's nothing to stop him from winning."
The other three had to admit that it made a sort of terrible sense. (Why would not Crayak simply destroy us?) Ax asked. (Surely it would be easier to do so if he wished us out of his way. And well within his power.)
(Rules of engagement.) Tobias immediately piped in. (Neither side can interfere directly like that, remember? They can manipulate, they can move things around and act indirectly, but they can't just reach in and destroy the opposition.)
"Tobias is right." I agreed. "If the rules let him destroy us, he would've done it a long time ago, or the Ellimist would've just reached in and gotten rid of the Howlers before they could cause the damage they did. Either way, maybe sending us here doesn't break the rules somehow."
Arya, Saphira, and Eragon now looked utterly lost (as much as a huge dragon can look lost), but I didn't pause the conversation to explain things to them. The others had apparently forgotten that they were there.
"That could also explain why Cassie and Rachel aren't here." Marco said thoughtfully. "Maybe part of the rules says that Earth can't be left completely undefended, so Crayak could only send four instead of all six of us."
(Or perhaps we were right the first time and it is the actions of the Ellimist that have brought us here. Perhaps we have either not discovered the others' locations yet or, knowing that Earth had to be defended, the Ellimist left Cassie and Rachel behind intentionally for that very purpose.) Ax said. (There is no way to know until we have more information.)
"Agreed." I said firmly. "And all we're doing is going in circles at this point." I nodded to Eragon. "Lets do like the man said and catch some R&R while we have the chance. We can worry about the other stuff tomorrow. Lets hope this Queen can shed some light on the situation."
Back to Cassie and Rachel
I…wanted….to…FLY! I'd never realized how much time I actually spent in the air since I got my power before, but I felt crippled somehow. It was absurd of course, I had spent the majority of my life exclusively on the ground, but now that I couldn't just morph and fly away, it was driving me crazy. It had only been a few days since I had felt the wind beneath my wings, but it felt like an eternity. I suddenly realized that this was the longest I had gone without flying since I first acquired a bird. It was like I was addicted, riding under the open sky without being up there was absolute torture.
It was so weird, I remember when morphing was the strangest thing, like something out of science fiction novel. Now I had not only accepted it as part of my life, but not morphing for any period of time felt weird. Since when did my own body start to feel uncomfortable? I kept catching myself wishing I was in bear morph, or eagle morph, my skin itched with the desire to change.
The realization came like a slap in the face. I'm not ordinarily a very introspective person, but maybe it was just because for the first time in a long time I had time to think. I had hours and hours where there was nothing to do but watch the road and reflect on life. I had never questioned what the war was doing to me, I mean, sure I knew that I wasn't the average teenager anymore, but there was nothing I could do to change that or avoid the change, so I guess I never bothered thinking about it. Sure I had the nightmares and the horrors and when I looked in the mirror my eyes looked too hard to be mine, but I never really stopped to reflect on the change. It's necessary, I had thought, there's no point in dwelling on something you can't do anything about. Normally I was too busy to give the idea any space in my brain, but now that I did, I had to honestly wonder about what I was becoming. Thinking about it didn't change the fact that the sacrifice was necessary of course, but the thought itself was still disconcerting now that I had acknowledged it.
The change was even more noticeable on Cassie, I realized as we rode. Cassie was once the most gentle and conscientious person I knew. When did her eyes get so old? And I didn't remember her ever having a grim expression like the one on her face right now. I shook my head, we had all changed so much.
The leader of our little troupe (who still hadn't told us his name) was riding in the front today. Suddenly he stopped and lifted a fist to signal that we should all do the same. Everyone was still and silent, and somehow I got the idea that asking what was going on would be a bad idea. Bows were fitted with arrows and swords were loosened in their sheaths. Then I felt it, the prickling on the back of your neck, the sixth sense you develop after fighting for so long.. Something was very wrong.
Slowly so that I didn't make any noise, I slid from my horse and Cassie, catching my reasoning, did the same. We got a few glares and incredulous looks, but I really didn't care. They had bigger problems to point their bows at than us and if something was going to go down I damn well didn't want to be stuck on that horse when it did. I needed room and time to morph.
Figuring that beginning the morph once it actually hit the fan would be a little late, both Cassie and I began the change. We had gotten better at it since we had first started. Where before the morph would take full minutes, now it was much faster.
As soon as the changes became obvious, more than a few bows turned our way. As soon as I could, I used my thought-speak. (Point those the other way!) I sneered. (If there's going to be a fight, who do you want on your side, an unarmed girl or a grizzly bear?)
(And a wolf.) Cassie added, having completed her own morph. (I don't know about you, but I know what I would choose.)
The men looked unsure for a minute, but a hiss from the front brought their attention outside the group once more. "Urgals." More than one man muttered ominously.
Now, neither Cassie or I had any idea what an Urgal was, but we had heard passing references to them in Uru'bean. From what we had gathered, they weren't very nice.
The men were whipping their heads around looking for the enemy. They don't know where the attack is going to come from, I realized.
(Cassie.) I thought privately. (Can you tell where they are?)
She lifted her nose and sniffed for a moment, then gave a sneeze. (Oh! That's horrible!) She gagged, shaking her head. (That's worse than my Dad's socks!)
(Where are they?) I asked, trying to stay on topic.
(I can't tell, their smell is everywhere and the wind is wrong. I can just tell that they're there.)
Wonderful I thought, walking into a fight blind. Then again, that could describe most of our fights as Animorphs. Hey, maybe as a novelty, we won't be horribly outnumbered for once, I thought cynically. Yeah…right.
Cassie's head suddenly snapped to the side. (Right!) She cried in open thought-speak.
Most of the men jumped at hearing her voice in their heads, but to their credit and the credit of their training, most instinctively turned their bows to the side, following Cassie's instruction. A moment later, a truly ugly humanoid burst out of the bush, whooping a war cry, and was subsequently turned into a sort of living quiver. The thing gave a strangled cry, then fell dead to the ground.
There was no time to celebrate the minor victory though, the thing hadn't even finished its fall when the road was suddenly overrun with similar creatures. I found that I was almost relieved, fighting was normal and familiar. After being thrown into a strange place without warning or apparent cause, familiarity was nice. The setting and enemies were different, but a fight is a fight.
Rising back to my full grizzly bear height, I bellowed a challenge that would make most grown adults run screaming for mommy and had the satisfaction of seeing several of the creatures scramble back and away from me. I wasn't having any of that though. After days of forced inactivity, I was up for a little action. They wanted a fight? I was only too happy to oblige.
Giving another bellow for good measure, I charged straight at them, a rolling ball of fur, claws and muscle. One of the things swung its sword clumsily at my side, but there was no way I was going to be stopped once I had my momentum up. I took the hit to my side without flinching (it stung, but there hadn't been much strength behind the blow. It would take more than that to phase me) and buried the stupid thing underneath my bulk and momentum. I felt my claws dig into flesh as I ran it over. Several of the things tried to jump me at once, hoping to confuse me with their multiple weapons, but I was used to fighting hork-bajir with the odds against me. Compared to those walking salad shooters, these things were lightweights.
Behind me, I could hear the sounds of battle, swords clashing, cries of pain and Cassie's lupine growls. I had never gotten a good count of the things when they first attacked us, but there were already a good deal less of the things than I remembered. They apparently hadn't scouted their prey well enough, because while they outnumbered our little group, every one traveling with us were obviously skilled warriors. They might have had the numbers, but we outgunned them, badly.
I was almost sorry when the last of the things ran screaming into the bush in complete retreat. Despite what Marco thinks, I'm not bloodthirsty, but the small skirmish had allowed me to release some of my frustration and anxiety. It was cathartic.
As the group began to regain their wits, both Cassie and I demorphed. It occurred to me that we could use the confusion to escape fairly easily, the group was too busy regaining its composure to offer us any real resistance. Judging from the way Cassie was biting her lip, she had deduced much the same thing. I sent her a questioning look. Stay or go? She shook her head almost imperceptibly and went to recollect her horse. Nodding in agreement, I followed her. We were still limited by our ignorance, so escaping would be pointless. Besides, these seemed to be pretty decent people and we were starting to build some trust with them, there was no reason to ruin that by trying to escape. Maybe they would even allow us a little more freedom now that we had helped them defend themselves. Or at the very least, perhaps they wouldn't be so tight-lipped now that some of them owed us their lives.
None of the men around us had been killed or even seriously injured. After the minor cuts had been cleaned and bandaged, we set out again. The leader dropped back beside us after a few minutes of riding.
He obviously had something on his mind, but was silent for a long time, organizing his thoughts I guess. "You didn't have to help us back there." He finally blurted.
"No," I stated. "We didn't."
"You could've gotten away after battle was joined." He pressed.
"Probably." I agreed easily.
He fell silent again, thinking that over. After a long silence, he shook his head and seemed to snap out of it. "I saw you take a hit to the side my lady," He said directing his words to me. "Do you not need the wound bound?"
I looked at him in confusion before remembering that he didn't understand how our power worked. He had no idea that any would had disappeared with the bear. I debated blowing the question off, but we were living in close quarters and being watched every minute, it wouldn't take him long to figure out that there was no wound. Besides, we had just started to break the ice with these guys, not answering his question wouldn't help anything.
I offered a sly smile as I met his eyes. "The bear was hurt," I said. "Not me."
He could figure it out from there I thought. And if he couldn't, I wasn't going to explain it to him. He held my eyes for a long moment before dipping his head and moving off, looking to the rest of his troop.
"Was that smart?" Cassie asked beside me.
"Maybe not." I conceded. "But there was no point not answering, he would've found out anyway."
Nodding acceptance, Cassie fell silent once more.
We were just getting ready to crawl into our bedrolls that night when the leader approached us once more. "I need a scout." He started without preamble. "I don't want to walk into another ambush without some kind of warning. I could send one of my men to ride ahead, but having someone in the air as well would be helpful."
"You're letting us fly?" I asked incredulously.
"Just one of you at a time." He clarified. "From what I've seen in the last few days, you two are very close. Neither of you will try to escape if the other is still held by us. Besides, you helped us today when you didn't have to, despite the fact that we have taken you captive and you could've easily escaped in the confusion. In my mind, you've proven yourself at least somewhat trustworthy."
Without another word, he turned and walked away. Cassie and I traded looks and shrugs, then climbed into our rolls to get some rest. It took me a long time to get to sleep, anticipation was burning through my veins. Even once I did manage to drop off, I dreamed of clouds and wind beneath my wings.
A/N: There you go. I tried to make the easing of tensions between the groups as realistic as possible and I thought I did a pretty good job. What do you think? Too gradual? Too rushed? Feedback please!