CHAPTER 23: Ringing the Changes
Getting Dengana back to his hillside had not been easy. As soon as they had reached the proximity of the Interface, Lusi had sensed creatures in the area which belonged in Darx Circle rather than here. She didn’t know how; she simply had.
With all the precautions they had followed, no difficulty had been found in getting to and through Safah Ring to the point where the right-angled turn needed to be taken in order to reach the Interface. Then, however, there was a lot of open grassland and rocky areas to be crossed, and she somehow knew that these parts were under surveillance.
She and Dengana went to the limits of where there was still cover, and then she was able to make out rhaxen and other strange creatures lurking in almost every bush and fissure overlooking the glade with its ring of flowers.
They retreated a short distance while thinking what to do. ‘How I get you through nobody see?’ she wondered. ‘Night, maybe …’ Even as she suggested it, she could tell that it probably wouldn’t work.
Then Dengana called urgently, ‘Quick; we hide!’
For a second she thought he had taken leave of his senses, but then she, too, could hear the merry sounds of voices coming from behind them. The voices arrived long before their owners, and they were able to find a good vantage point from which to witness the approach of nine Breena, all on foot and stopping to peer at plants every now and then. There were five ordinary silvery ones – three female and two male – and two of each sex in the glowing princess ones. She was happy to note that they were all of the same features and colouring as she and Dengana.
‘You smaller yourself!’ Lusi demanded urgently..
He merely gaped; and she squinted in concentration. Then, suddenly, she was clearly just an ordinary princess with no High about it. He thought he had got some vibrations as to how she had set about it, but after a bit of experimentation gave up and concentrated on hunching himself up a bit instead.
Lusi gave a ‘You’ll do’ shrug, and stepped out into the open to greet the oncoming group, who stopped in surprise when they saw her.
‘We see you,’ she gave the polite greeting which is plural even when it isn’t. ‘We happy to find you. We need Interface nearby?’
‘We see you. You not sense it?’ a prince responded in a surprised tone, pointing in the direction they knew it to be.
‘Maybe we confused; many strange creatures nearby look-look. Make us worry,’ Lusi responded.
He and his party concentrated for a second, and then all nodded. ‘Bad things nest here,’ he said. ‘Come, we all go with you. We want go there, anyway.’
Seconds later, they were just two of a group of flying fairies heading for the Interface. Dengana stayed in the middle of them, trying to look as small as possible.
Nothing interfered with them as they flew across the circle and into the Interface. On the way, she had managed to say, ‘Between!’ urgently to Dengana in a voice which she hoped had only carried to him, and she was relieved to find he had heard her and had managed it. She could just imagine what a fright the others would have had with a human boy suddenly arriving in their midst.
She didn’t need to do anything to influence the other Breena to move away from the Interface. They immediately spread out and continued to peer at plants as they had done on the other side. She began to do the same; in fact, she had guessed that they were doing one of the regular inspections. These were undertaken to ensure that mutations were not occurring on one side or the other which would signal instability in the Interface.
A while later, from a distance, she saw Dengana-as-boy moving off down the hill. The other fairies hardly glanced at him.
Her relief that he was back safely was tinged with sadness at the parting. She realised that she had enjoyed his company enormously, and that she would miss being with him.
‘Now,’ she said to herself, ‘if I go back again not-noticed with the others, then all is well. Then I must go fast-fast-fast back to Queen of Queens.’
No long after, the group gathered in the circle to return to Safah Ring again. No surprise was shown at her attaching herself to them, or curiosity at where the one who had been with her had got to. She went on chatting to them until she could no longer sense any watchers, and then she set out for the shortest route she could find back to Honour Ring. Just to be on the safe side, she kept her appearance as that of an ordinary princess.
Lusi flew as fast as she could to the point of exhaustion, and then still well beyond that point. She managed, in one full day, what had previously taken the best part of two,. When she reached Aiennea Palace, she made no attempt to approach it but instead headed for the group of trees and rocks with the secret door. She made sure no creatures were in sight or sense. Then she held her breath as she shifted and twisted a section of rock in a way she hoped she remembered correctly from the Queen’s instructions. She had, and with the lifting of the latch the rock door opened slightly.
Then came the long passage walk, and the climb up those seemingly never-ending steps, until finally she let herself into the chambers of the Supreme Queen.
Speedy as she had been in her return, Felin had been even quicker. He had arrived about half-an-hour before, and was still sniffling after having told Aiennea about Avinia. Soon Lusi was sobbing, too.
After ensuring that a few fairies had ‘accidentally’ caught sight of Felin and Lusi, so that hopefully it would still be believed that Hugh, Tye and Dengana were also still guests, Aiennea sat them down and insisted that every detail of their recent journeys be repeated several times.
Then she said, ‘I can see from patterns that they have been successful in entering Darx Circle and that already they are having an influence. There are some problems, though. A major one of those affects you, Lusi.’
Aiennea got a far-away look and lapsed into a long silence. Lusi had been holding her breath after that announcement, but had to un-hold it in a sudden rush in order to keep living.
Eventually the Queen gave a deep sigh, and said, ‘It has come out that all the indications pointing to your involvement were seriously misread. I thought that your part after witnessing all you had done in the valley would simply be as the means of bringing Higher Prince Dengana to our land, and of getting him safely on his way to Darx Circle. This you have carried out admirably; but if only I had realised …’
Another silence had the normally easy-going Lusi on the verge of bursting out with what would have been unwise words, but when Aiennea did finally come out with it, she did so quickly and to the point.
’It has now become clear that for the best results you should have accompanied the others to Darx Circle. That being so, it must mean that you are also able to assume a Darxta alter ego – to Adapt as a Darx. There was not a hint of that before, but it is one of the possibilities I should have considered for everyone tied closely into this part of the pattern – oh, and,’ she turned to Felin with a slight smile, ‘you can relax. It is almost certain that it doesn’t apply in your case.’
A stunned Lusi stuttered for a while. Then she got out, ‘Is n-n-now too late.’ Aiennea looked at her. ‘Is now too late?’ she added.
‘Perhaps not. What may be read is that it would still help the course of things were you able to join the others; but also reveals that to do so, although just possible, will present you with enormous difficulties. The only foreknowledge I can give you is that the others will be heading for Darrex Palace, which is two or three days north of the Rhino Valley entrance.’
Lusi considered this, and then said simply, ‘I try,’ and rose to her feet.
‘Good girl,’ Aiennea said. ‘Don’t even think of starting right away, though. You need time to relax and eat, and to have a good night’s rest.’
She gave a deep sigh and said, ‘There is another thing of grave concern you should know about. You remember, Felin, that you and … Avinia … did have reservations about Tyrentia? Still, she was so strongly marked in the pattern that I developed confidence that she would be as important as Hugh and Dengana in bringing matters to a resolution. Now, indications are that this is so, but in the wrong way.’
Felin raised his eyes. ‘She’s having selfish tantrums again, I suppose,’ he said, ‘and saying the wrong things, and doing her best not to make friends.’
‘It’s worse than that, I’m afraid,’ Aiennea said with a noticeable loss in her normal calm confidence. For her, that was the equivalent of another person throwing a full set of hysterics. ‘There are strengthening signs that she is deviating from the pattern.’
‘Tye she try do things her way,’ Lusi nodded.
‘That wouldn’t matter if her way was still in harmony. The trouble is that from what I can see she is becoming a part of what can carry the pattern into areas that, for us at least, are wrong. Worse still, this hasn’t just happened. I am disappointed in myself for having missed a negative link she has been carrying with her. I only noticed it now, in fact, because she has been building on it steadily in some manner.’
It turned out that this was about as much clarity as they were going to get from the queen. She had no idea exactly what Tye had been up to or was going to do; only that it was wrong.
Her final words on the subject, were, ‘The further I try and look into the pattern that is emerging the more dread I feel. It can drag us towards a vortex of unimaginable evil.’
As a nice, cheerful bedtime story, this could certainly have been improved upon.
After a surprisingly good sleep followed by a leisurely breakfast, Lusi and Felin allowed brief sightings of themselves as themselves and also, giggling a lot, dressed up for a glimpse of Felin to look as much like Hugh as possible, and for one of Lusi to give an impression of Dengana. There were several fairies who seemed to have nothing better to do than snoop regularly, and at least one of them was probably a spy or else a loose-tongued source of information.
Felin wanted to accompany Lusi at least to as far as the Safah Ring Interface. Lusi was tempted - she would have loved the company - but felt that he would be of more use continuing to be ‘guests’ of the Queen of Queens. Aiennea agreed, so that was that.
‘Take all the same precautions as you did for the previous trip with Dengana,’ Aiennea had advised her during breakfast. ‘Better to spend a bit more time than to be recognised, especially near Honour Ring where you stand out more even if you demote yourself. Handy skill that, by the way. Not all of the High ranks have it. I think Hugh and Dengana do too, though, and I hope they recognise and use it.’
The trip was tiring, but a bit shorter due to sensing a handy shortcut Conjunction through Boar Ring, which had now replaced the Tya Ring one. Boar Ring had a lot of wild pigs, but little else of interest. It did, though, have some of the usual rhaxen watchers, but in woods on the approaches to the Conjunctions rather than within sight of them. The right-angled-turn trick did the trick again.
The final approach to the Safah Ring Interface had Lusi with her heart in her mouth. ‘Not likely be so lucky find group they act as screen, this time,’ she told herself glumly. She was just about to land and do the closer approach to the open area on the ground, as before, when she saw a fairy flying ahead with a silver glow and a familiar ‘feel’. She caught up, and sure enough it was one of her unwitting protectors from before.
After the ‘see you’ greetings, she asked Lusi if she was going to the Interface again. ‘I not;’ she said when Lusi nodded, ‘but now no need worry about nasty things from Darx they try to make home there. We angry, and all from near villages they came to send all away. Some then come back, so we make them sleep.’
The kind of sleep she meant led directly, in the Rings, to fading, so after an exchange of, ‘Go well,’ Lusi had no hesitation in heading directly for the flower ring. She still kept her senses on the alert, but this time felt no alarm.
Soon she had left the Ring and was in Terra on the hilltop above Dengana’s new home village. She could make out that some particularly early risers in the distant village were dressed for church, so with the variable effect of compensating interstices, as she had explained at length to Dengana, it meant that a full three days had elapsed in the human world since she had left him here.
Flying in Terra was not as pleasant as in Breena, but at least the route to Rhino Valley was a great deal more direct than the one Dengana and the others would have had to follow. Also – and her spirits lifted with the rest of her as she discovered it – there happened to be a favourable thermal taking her all the way up to a fast current of air in exactly the right direction.
When approached from the angle she was now coming from, The Rhino looked more like the head of a unicorn, but it still made an unmistakable landmark. She zoomed above the peak, and then circled into Rhino Valley, on the lookout for any signs of Faie life.
There was a trace of Darxem coming from somewhere near The Sad Ones. There was also something she recognised instantly as a Fear Spell, so she quickly recited the ditty she had learnt as a child:
Fear go away and frighten,
And frighten, and frighten,
Fear go away and frighten
Yourself right out of sight!
Fear go away and frighten
And frighten, and frighten
Fear go away and frighten
Yourself till you die of fright!
It worked, instantly.
Then, in spite of a shield on the probe she had sent, something touched her mind.
She shied away mentally, but as she did so she received an impression of *?* and a faint mental picture of a leopard.
‘Ingwe!’ she said aloud, inadvertently opening that part of her mind again.
The sense of receiving an actual reply was strong, and also that the ‘voice’ came from an area directly below her – the farm of Two Old Frogs. Sure enough, she could make out one of the leopards she had seen before, lounging on a branch near the house. She flew down to settle warily on another branch near him, but outside of swatting range.
The leopard blinked at her amiably. *You small-shiny have purrs for human cub?* came to her not only as a shock but also as a faint mental picture of Dengana - which came as a further shock.
She managed to avoid falling off her perch only by a miracle. ‘Yes; I follow that one,’ she said aloud.
*Too late. Gone into hole with others.* Brief snapshots of Hugh and Tye. *Back soon.*
‘I must follow, fast-fast,’ Lusi ‘sent’ to him rather than spoke, this time.
Ingwe blinked at her. *Two bat-humans wait just inside hole. Hate bat-humans. Make leopards do wrong-leopard things. You want me to eat bat-humans?*
This did strike Lusi as being rather an extreme way of dealing with the guards, even after what she had seen these Darxem capable of doing. ‘No,’ she said aloud again, ’perhaps better not. It might give an alarm, anyway.’
She sent a wave of affection at him. ‘It would make me happy, though, if you could make them come away from hole for long enough for me to fly in?’
*Sleep time now,* and the leopard gave a great yawn, and went into thought for a while before adding, *but will do this for small-shiny. Like small-shiny.*
Ingwe jumped lithely from his branch and had a good stretch before setting out at a flowing run up the slopes of the hill towards the summit where The Sad Ones hunched.
Lusi flew around the hill for a while, so as to come up behind the rock where Ingwe had pictured the entrance for her. She found the right one, and crept round to where she was as close to the entrance as she dared. There she waited until a twitch of ears told her that Ingwe was now lurking below, in sight of her and of the entrance, but as yet unseen by the Darxds.
She was just about to signal him to start his diversion when she heard voices coming clearly to her. ‘Wait;’ she sent to the leopard. ‘They talk; I listen.’
‘… shifts of guarding are much too long,’ one was grumbling.
‘It is our duty to The Cause,’ came a response, ‘and we must be proud that we are among the few brave enough to pass that terrible feeling from that other tunnel.’
‘One who follows The Cause does not feel pride,’ the first one said in a smug ‘that-will-teach-you-to-go-“The-Cause-ing”-at-me’ tone of voice, .’but satisfaction at immersing the self in duty.’ Then his tone changed to one of worry, ‘To be honest, though, I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to do it. Each one gets worse rather than better, and I dread the return.’
‘This last one was terrible, indeed,’ number two agreed, ‘and it was only by keeping my mind on The Cause and on His Greatestness that I was able to carry myself past it. I long for the moment when that dreadful magic is taken away and we can all move on towards our magnificent destiny of ridding the universe of all enemies of The Cause.’
‘Do not forget, though,’ the other said reprovingly, ‘that it is also our duty to convert those who show themselves worthy, or,’ in a voice of eager anticipation, ‘who can be made worthy through prolonged pain and suffering.’
A grunt of agreement was followed by a long silence, and Lusi was again poised to give the signal when the first spoke again. ‘A woman;’ he said, and Lusi gave a jump, ‘that is one of the hardest parts of our duty. Even though it is not for me to question our orders, I wish I could understand why our army cannot have women in the field with us to fetch and carry and cook and keep us in proper comfort. Surely that, as much as caring for the young, should be part of their duties.’
‘You had better not let one of the princes hear you say that,’ said number two, ‘but I too find it hard to understand. It is said that any appearance of females in the army would weaken and pollute it. I should introduce them to my wife’s mother. One smile from her would be enough to chase away a flock of darxtyls.’
There was coarse laughter from the two, and then they lapsed into a long silence which showed no signs of being broken again.
‘When you are ready,’ Lusi sent to Ingwe, and in a blink the leopard had vanished from view.
*Go well.* came from him. Then, from the direction in which he had vanished came a great clatter of falling and rolling rocks.
‘What .. ?’ both Darxds said at the same time, and also as one they jumped to their feet and ran forward to peer over the edge.
‘I see nothing; can you see anything?’ was the last Lusi heard from them as she zoomed round the rock and into the yawning entrance, flying at full speed into the blackness and lighting up her body in the briefest of flashes to stop her from colliding with walls or obstructions – not that there were any of the latter. Only when the tunnel curved so that she could no longer see the entrance over her shoulder did she land and take stock.
She had really been lucky in what she had learnt – or had the pattern been bent in her direction? All of it had been most discouraging, like that fact that an all-male army with a low opinion of females was probably on the other side of this tunnel, and the grim impression of this ‘Cause’ and those involved in it. At least she was forewarned, though, and in the matter of this barrier of fear at the other tunnel she had learnt that, whatever she felt, she must simply keep going.
In fact, she could already sense some of the terror-inducing waves from ahead of her, and they became steadily worse. Her ‘Fear go away’ ditty had no effect whatsoever on this one, and she gritted her teeth and forged ahead regardless.
By the time the fork in the tunnel became visible she thought that her head would split under the battering and that her wings would give way and leave her stranded in the worst effects of it, but somehow she put on a spurt … and then she was past, and the awful sensations were receding.
She was filled with wonder as things gradually became visible, and then expanded into colours and shades more varied than she would have believed possible. Then, at first she imagined that continuing feelings of strangeness in her own body had come as a reaction to the tunnel terror. It was only when a distant pinpoint of light in a still-darkened section of tunnel ahead showed that she was nearing the other side that it occurred to her that she might have been in the process of Adapting.
She landed, and examined all parts of herself which could be examined without a mirror. Sure enough, she was now a Darxta.
By experimenting with how many grades she could demote herself by, she decided she must be a Higher Princess, which rather thrilled her. It struck her as a good idea for the present, though, to go right down to princess, and then she decided that something needed to be done to tone down the brilliant shades of all kinds of ‘black’ in her costume.
It took her some frustrating mental exercises before she was able to dull her clothing down to something which would be as close as possible to what she had seen on the backs of the two Darxds at the other end as she had darted behind them. Then, at last, she flew towards the end of the tunnel again.
She had no idea what she was going to find or do when she got there. She would simply have to rely on instant observation and reaction to keep her out of trouble and put her on the right course.