Manitou Island: Part 14
A Body & A Mission
RED BIRD LOOKED at Charmian and her eyes widened. Her face immediately went crimson. It suddenly appeared she couldn't stand Charmian looking at her anymore, and she averted her stare back to her hands, which started fiddling in her lap, in search of something to do.
"I..." Her voice was even fainter than before, and almost cracked when it came out. "We...didn't want anybody to know."
Charmian sat up and propped her head on one hand. "You mean, it's not just you? Him too?"
Red Bird only looked more embarrassed, so Charmian felt guilty having asked it. "It's okay," she said quickly. "I could kind of tell...when we first left Tal Natha's cave, I kind of overheard you two talking, and you seemed really worried about each other...I just thought, well, you know."
Red Bird's glance moved over to the others in the group. "Do--do they know?"
"Them? No, I don't think so. Guys are clueless, trust me. And don't worry, if you want it to be private I promise I won't tell anyone. But...am I right?"
Red Bird's hands kept fidgeting like two small trapped creatures trying to escape. She stared at them. "Yes...not just me...both of us. I love him, and...and he loves me."
"For how long?"
"For some months now...almost a year. Not very long after I met him. He's been so kind to me, even with...even with what I am. Who I am. He keeps telling me I have power, if only I'd learn how to use it. I thought that was the only interest he had in me, bringing out that power to help the Island. Maybe he thought so too. But somewhere, things changed..."
"Why don't you want anyone to know?" Charmian asked.
Red Bird looked at the ground. "Because of who we are. Who he is, and me. Most of the people here would not look too kindly on the two of us...no matter what I may be on the inside..."
Her continued comments about "what" she was kept needling into Charmian's brain. What could she be talking about? She seemed to think that her possession of this "power" made her somehow...different from others, fundamentally different even though she was the same on the outside. Could that be what she was talking about? She felt she would be prying too much to simply ask...
"You know," she said instead, "just because you've got the ability to do something nobody else can do--just because you might be able to save this place--it doesn't mean you're some kind of freak or something."
Red Bird finally looked up at her. "'Freak'?"
"Yeah." Charmian tried to rephrase. "Different. Strange. Weird." The girl looked as if she understood. "Just because you've got this power nobody else has, it doesn't mean you're strange or scary or anything. Heck, we've all got something that nobody else has, and it doesn't make us horrible monsters just for having it. I think it'd be really cool to have some great power like yours."
Again Red Bird averted her gaze. Now Charmian was surprised to see that she looked...sad, somehow.
"Not if having it meant that you're what I am," she said softly, and again Charmian was thinking, What? There she goes with what again. What is she talking about?...
A loud whimpering sound from the other side of the room. They looked up at the group hovering around X. Old Mother Manitou stood back when the demon moved, taking a pained breath and letting it out with a slight rattle. He whimpered again and she pressed some more moss against his wound.
"He'll be fine," she said, Charmian and Red Bird getting up and joining them. "A nasty wound, yes, but thankfully only a manitou wound...he is lucky indeed that he has one of his own kind for a brother, one not quite so inclined as his father."
One of Tal Natha's ears twitched. Yes. Well, he appears to have inherited our father's impulsivity, as well. Taking on a manitou...and Mitchi Manitou at that...what were you thinking, Brother?
X forced open his eyes and just barely managed to focus on Tal Natha. "I...told you...I was sorry...what more...can I...do?..."
The other Ocryx let out a short, resigned sigh. Recover, then. That's what more you can do. And the next time I tell you to do something, listen to me. Do you promise me this, Brother? Taking on a manitou...utterly foolish.
"I...promise." He coughed weakly, then let out a long sigh, eyes fluttering closed. A moment later his head rolled to the side and his muscles relaxed. Silver Eagle Feather started forward but Old Mother Manitou held her back.
"He's just resting. Let him get some sleep. He won't be better all at once but he'll recover eventually."
He stays here, Tal Natha said. We were on our way to get things done. Yet we've accomplished little. This whole day has gone to waste.
Old Mother Manitou waved a hand at him dismissively and started cleaning up all the materials she'd retrieved when tending to the wounded Ocryx. "These humans have rubbed off on you. You fidget and fret just like they do now. I'd say that Francois is more of our world than you are."
Francois actually flushed a little, and averted his eyes, coughing and pretending to be interested in the bat hanging from the wall.
If this is so it's only because they're so much trouble to deal with. Mitchi was right that X has dwelled with them too long. He barely knows how to defend himself anymore. A slight snort. In any case...please take care of him...and Red Bird, as well. Red Bird lifted her head and looked at him, opening her mouth. No, Red Bird. This was our first purpose in coming here. You stay. You are still weak. I doubt even the manitous would come after you here.
"Why not?" Drake inquired.
Old Mother Manitou lifted up a large gnarled root that leaned against the wall and had been carved to serve as a sort of walking stick, shaking it at him. "Because if they do, they'll have to deal with me." Her face cracked in a wicked smile. "I don't think even Mitchi would like that prospect very much. The last time he tried fooling with me, I sent him back to Devil's Lake with half of his horn cracked off. He wasn't very happy, to say the least."
We have things to do. Someone we must speak with. Tal Natha looked toward the entrance. Charmian. I wish for you to come with me. You are the one who will have to learn the ways of this Island if you're to help Red Bird in any way.
"All...all right. But where is it that we're going, anyway?"
This I cannot say right now. He looked at the others. If any of the rest of you need to come--
"I'll stay here for now, thank you very much," Marcott said, casting a nervous look around. He started fiddling with the messed-up papers sticking out of his case. "Somebody...er...somebody needs to help keep an eye on the beast here--make sure he causes no trouble, or anything."
Tal Natha's nostrils flared and Old Mother Manitou rolled her eyes, muttering something about having to protect him should the need arise. Drake opened his mouth this time but the old woman spoke up.
"Here, boy. Why don't you help me out as well? I doubt this buffoon can do much except mix things up. He's got too much of the air of a scholar about him and I don't need that right now."
"Wha--?" Marcott interjected, but Drake's face lit up and he beamed at her. Then it dimmed a little and he peered back at Charmian.
"Sure, okay," Charmian said. "You stay here and help out Old Mother Manitou. I bet there's something good you can do." At the very least, it doesn't look as if she'll lose her temper should you break something!
Drake smiled again. "Okay! I'll be here keeping an eye on X. Make sure he's all right. I'll be here when you come back, I guess!"
That left Francois and Silver Eagle Feather. Tal Natha and Charmian looked at the Frenchman. He shifted the gun slung over his shoulder, rubbing his neck.
"I believe I know where you're headed for," he said, musingly; "in which case you'll likely need me. I'll ask one of the manitous to kindly help me along. So as not to slow you down at all."
"I'll do the same," Silver Eagle Feather said, glancing back at her son.
All right. I thank you. He turned back to Red Bird, who still stood beside Charmian, staring at the floor. Charmian watched as he came up to her, placing a claw under her chin and tipping her face up to look at him.
You'll be safest here. Of this I have no doubt. I leave you behind only to protect you.
"I know, Tal Natha...I'll be all right."
Please help out Mother Manitou and keep an eye on X.
"I will. Please be careful. He's not..." her voice trailed off momentarily as she looked at Charmian, then finished, "...he's probably not in the best of moods...especially not after all that...so please be careful and watch yourself."
He? Charmian thought. We will, Tal Natha replied. He turned for the entrance. Follow, Charmian, Francois, Sister. We still have much to--
Outside, as if in response to his summons, the eerie manitou singsong started up again, only this time with an ominous tone to it. Everyone froze, and then Tal Natha had very nearly flown out the entrance, disappearing outside. The others ran after him, following.
Charmian was outside fourth, after Tal Natha, Francois, and Silver Eagle Feather. Drake and Marcott came next, followed by Red Bird and then Old Mother Manitou, who simply hobbled to the entrance and peered out, cocking her head as if listening.
"Wait up!" she called, and they all stopped in their tracks. Francois also cocked his head at an odd angle, and the two of them paused, listening.
The manitous were nowhere in sight--they must have moved further off into the woods sometime while the others were inside. Yet their song indicated they were not far away. Tal Natha growled. I've never completely understood their whining babble. What are they saying?
"Hush, impertinent one, and perhaps we'll tell you," Old Mother Manitou said, and the Ocryx looked both taken aback and chastened.
Francois frowned, eyes growing cloudy. "Not good...they've sensed GeeBees in the area. Nearby. Not too many of them, only a few, but not that far off either. Up to nothing good."
The manitou woman started muttering again, thumping her staff against the ground and turning in circles in the doorway. "Stupid dumb brutes...no idea what purpose they serve...only good for trouble..."
One song rose higher than the others, and she stopped, lifting her head and looking alarmed. Francois's look mirrored her own. "They've got someone!" he said, starting off into the woods before the others could stop him. Charmian's heart felt as if it were being suddenly squeezed inside her chest but she followed him and Tal Natha. She remembered the panic she had felt when the GeeBees had so brutally snatched Drake and herself away. What if someone else was feeling that terror just now?
Tal Natha bounded ahead of her, unable to lift off from the ground--he tried once only to slam into a low branch, and Charmian swore she could feel the pain of it ramming into his head. He dropped back to the ground, shaking his head dazedly, before taking off running, tail keeping him balanced. She couldn't believe how wide his strides were--he loped along in a very ungainly way, but made good time. Francois sprinted along beside him, dodging saplings and branches. Silver Eagle Feather was not far behind and she made not a sound as she ran. The others were considerably slower and clumsier, and by the time they caught up they were all panting and scratched and sweating.
Tal Natha had to plant one foot against the ground to grind to a halt, wearing a groove into the earth. His wings flared and he nearly fell over. Francois came to a similar stop beside him and as she joined them Charmian saw the color leave his face. She looked ahead and clamped a hand to her mouth.
A tiny clearing was ahead and in it she could see...something...lying upon the ground. A small group of GeeBees, perhaps three or four, hunched over it, squabbling and fighting and pushing at each other, every once in a while managing to reach down and tear at it, hands coming up red, going to their mouths. They were so absorbed in what they were doing that they hadn't noticed the manitous' song, or else hadn't cared, and now they still hadn't caught sight of Tal Natha watching them.
Everyone looked at the demon at once. Charmian's heart felt ready to squeeze in on itself and disappear. The Ocryx's eyes grew round, his pupils opening wide and red--the fur all over him rose and his wings spread until he looked almost twice his size, and he let out the most ear-shattering bellow Charmian had ever heard. She clamped her hands to her ears in pain as the ground shook. Tal Natha looked ready to foam at the mouth, spittle dripping from his teeth. The GeeBees' heads shot up, their eyes like little moons, and immediately two of them disappeared in tiny "puffs!" of wind. A third squealed and jumped several feet, also vanishing. The fourth...wasn't so fortunate.
As the GeeBee hesitated, watching, Tal Natha leapt into the air and came down upon him, hind feet slamming the creature down into the dust. It let out a frantic squeal of pain and fright and tried to wriggle free but was trapped--Charmian supposed that it was Tal Natha's elemental nature, having already caught the GeeBee in his grasp, that held him captive. One massive paw slammed down on the GeeBee's chest, knocking the breath out of him and pinning him to the ground. A second later Tal Natha leaned over him so his face was just inches away, teeth dripping in a feral snarl. The others watched in silent awe as the pathetic creature started babbling and trying to explain himself.
"It's--we--we're hardly to blame!" he stammered, grinning in an attempt to look innocent, holding out his hands, even as his eyes were panicked and red lined his teeth. "I mean--all we were doing was what we do naturally, you s--"
He wheezed with pain when the Ocryx's claws dug into his chest; his eyes looked ready to pop out of his head. "Filthy little carrion-eater!" Tal Natha snarled. "How dare you tell me this is not your fault? You still have its blood on your mouth, whatever it may have been!"
Charmian took a brief second to take a closer look at whatever the GeeBees had been tearing at. She had to cover her mouth again. Francois was kneeling beside it, and she could tell it had been a person...once. Whoever they had been...they were now definitely dead. Deep bloody gouges ran down their face, their eyes missing; their throat and stomach had also been torn open, though she couldn't be certain if this was from the original attack or from the GeeBees' feasting. Barely one part of their body had escaped being mangled; if they had shown up just a few moments later, the GeeBees would probably have picked the bones clean just like a school of piranha.
She turned away. The captive GeeBee still tried to explain himself.
"No, no...you see...'carrion-eaters'...you're absolutely right!" He had to gasp and choke the words out as being pinned under the demon's full weight made it almost impossible to speak. "This one we found dead already...we didn't kill it...we were only doing...what comes to us naturally...finishing off the waste! It had...no other purpose, did it?"
Tal Natha's snarl grew and his eyes looked positively mad.
The GeeBee panicked and started babbling anew. "All right--all right--so we made a mistake--perhaps we should have left it--but I swear, it was already dead when we found it--we harmed no one--you can plainly see for yourself--something else attacked it first--"
"I believe he's telling the truth." Francois cast a look over his shoulder at the others. Drake gaped at the carcass, face chalk white. Red Bird hid her eyes, cowering behind Silver Eagle Feather. Marcott looked green. "Come and see."
Tal Natha looked over at him, then down at the GeeBee; he lifted his foot. The creature started thanking him when he seized its pointed ear--ignoring its piteous howls of pain, he dragged it along with him, over toward Francois.
"Look." Francois pointed out the gashes on the person's face. Whoever they had been, they had died in a state of fear, mouth wide open, fingers stiff and crooked. "Something came after its face--deep claw marks--too large for a GeeBee. Tore open its throat, as well." He made a slashing motion at the person's throat. "The damage to its stomach was done afterwards--the GeeBees' work, I'd say."
"Yes! Yes! See?" The GeeBee was writhing in half-circles, trying to pull his ear free, tears springing to his eyes. "All we did was try to finish the task--no sense leaving good meat to go to waste--we hardly did any harm, hardly any at all--"
You mutilated what was once a living breathing person. Tal Natha's look was venomous. For that you're guilty enough.
"But--I swear to you!--all we did was what we thought was best! Would they have preferred going to good use, or being food for the worms?--"
At least worms have more use on this earth than your filthy kind. Still, he let go of the GeeBee's ear. The creature nearly fell backwards on being released so suddenly; he rubbed his stinging ear and shot the Ocryx a reproachful look, before remembering his circumstances and vanishing as abruptly as the others had. Tal Natha appeared to have forgotten all about him. He moved closer to the body, eyes hard but worried, and bent down to examine its face.
He sniffed at the carcass tentatively, attempting to pick up the scent of whatever had done the deed in the first place. He must have found it, for--
His ears went back and his pupils dilated as they had on their encounter with the manitous. The fur on his hackles rose and he stood, darting looks around the clearing. Charmian didn't like the look on his face at all. It resembled what she'd seen from him just before the manitous showed up to attack them--when he appeared to have been expecting something else to show up.
His teeth bared and he stepped away from the body as if it were contaminated. His tail whipped along the ground, nearly tripping Marcott, who had to jump out of its way.
Nearby. The word entered Charmian's head so abruptly it startled her. Not too long ago. She may still lurk. We must leave now. Get help.
Help? Charmian thought at him. But the demon didn't reply directly.
He glanced at Francois. Human. Go with my sister. Protect her. Red Bird-- she looked up at him as he spoke, her hands balled to her chest --go back with the others. Stay inside no matter what you hear. Tell Old Mother Manitou to use her most powerful medicine. Seal the door shut. Do not come out for anything.
Red Bird looked frightened but nodded, obeyed. She turned and ran back to Sugar Loaf. Marcott followed.
Drake stayed behind, wringing his hands. "Charm?"
Follow them, Tal Natha shot at him. Drake ducked his head. You have little power. Stay with them. Charmian comes with us. See to the others and make yourself useful.
"O...okay," Drake said, biting his lip and disappearing from the clearing. Charmian listened to the sound of his footsteps crunching in fallen leaves until it faded away. She looked back at Tal Natha.
"Who did this? Where are we going?"
We go to get help. From someone more powerful than she who did this. He cast another look down at the pathetic ruined body. I do not know who this was...but they are fortunate that they died quickly. At least, I hope they did.
Francois whistled. "I'll have a few of the manitous take care of it. We hardly have time to deal with its proper disposal right now, I assume."
Yes, Tal Natha agreed, as the manitous started emerging from the woods again, peering around for any sign of the GeeBees; at a motion from the Frenchman several moved toward the body, sniffing it over and examining it before picking it carefully up and carrying it off into the woods. Two more came forward, the two that had carried Francois and Silver Eagle Feather before, and transformed themselves into deer again.
Charmian looked around, growing worried. "Where's mine?"
You come with me. Charmian looked up at Tal Natha. I won't take the risk of losing you right now. Not when we're in such danger. I had thought we had more time, but perhaps I was wrong...perhaps she knows that you are here, already.
"She?" Charmian paused, then a chill started creeping into her bones. "You mean...she...?"
Yes. He knelt down on one knee, holding out his hand. Climb upon my back, between my wings. It will be easiest to carry you that way.
"I'm not too heavy--?"
No. Please, hurry and do as I say, no more questions. I had hoped I would not have to do this, but it looks like she leaves me no choice.
"What do we have to do?" Charmian asked, despite his warning for no more questions, even as she put a hand on his shoulder, stepping into his own cupped hand and climbing up to sit between his wings. She dug her hands into the thick fur at the base of his neck and hoped she didn't hurt him.
We have to choose the lesser of two evils, Tal Natha replied, and before she could wonder what he meant he had pushed himself off and plunged upward through the trees, branches whipping around them and stinging Charmian's arms and legs, before bursting out in a shower of reds and yellows, straight up into darkening blue.
As he adjusted his course and coasted back down to fly over the treetops again, soaring back over the Island, Charmian looked up at the sky, then to the west, her heart sinking rapidly in her chest as she realized what she should have sooner.
Stars were pricking the blue around them.
Nightfall had come to the Island.