Manitou Island: Part 15
The Devil's Lake
CHARMIAN AWKWARDLY DUG in her backpack, searching for her jacket, which she somehow managed to put on without falling off. After doing this she grabbed back onto Tal Natha's neck as hard as she could without hurting him. This high up in the air, at this time of evening, the air had acquired a bite that set her teeth to chattering. She looked up above her and the sight made her too dizzy so she looked back toward the darkening horizon--she thought of her mother, waiting in the Mackinaw City parking lot, and her heart sank even further--she looked down at the ground below and realized that it was too dark to make out clearly. All she could seem to see were the dark shapes of trees and the lighter shapes of rock and soil.
She wanted to ask Tal Natha where they were going, but decided against it. It was obvious he was tense about something. His ears were folded back--whether from the wind or from his current state of mind, she had no idea.
The lesser of two evils. What is he talking about?
She searched the ground for any sight of Francois or Silver Eagle Feather and their manitous but of course it was too dark, and they were too far up to hear anything except the wind rushing past her ears.
She let go with one hand to rub her arm. She wished they were on the ground...someplace warmer. She longed to be back home near the heater, with her parents, in a normal house with normal lighting in a normal world. Sleeping in the next day, and going back to school on Monday, the same as ever. She'd honestly thought this would all end up being a dream. Maybe it was. So why was it taking so very long?
She'd never had a dream this long or detailed...
She sensed them moving down lower in the sky, and looked around her again. Her teeth made a horrible racket.
Forget all my dreams of ever wanting to fly. This is HORRIBLE!
She finally leaned forward to press herself against the Ocryx's back, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his fur like she did with her dog sometimes in the winter, when it got cold. Hugging him always made her feel warmer. Tal Natha looked at her briefly over his shoulder but said nothing, and dove down toward the trees, careful to keep her balanced between his wings.
Hang on, human. We come in close now.
"All right," Charmian said, voice muffled.
She lifted her head a bit and opened one eye. It immediately flooded with tears and she had to blink to see. Below she could finally make out the dark shape of something loping along far beneath, and hoped that it was merely Francois or Silver Eagle Feather. With a start she remembered where she was. Devil's Kitchen was barely visible off to her left, and beyond that the lake. She clung to Tal Natha harder and started chattering again.
The demon made an odd strained sound. "Human...you're...choking me."
"Sorry!" Charmian loosened her grip, turning red. "Isn't that Devil's Kitchen?" she asked, unable to keep the anxiety out of her voice.
"Yes. Do not be afraid. The GeeBees are the least of our worries now."
That she decided to hold off on believing for now. She turned away from the cave so she wouldn't have to look at it--she would hardly be able to bear seeing one of those loathsome creatures after coming upon the ones feasting in the woods--and instead her eyes fell on a dark mass below, blacker and deeper than the others around it, not very large but just big enough to catch her attention. She frowned at it, wondering what it was. And then--the trickling sound of water. And she could see the stars shining up at her from below. The blackness rippled as the wind stirred it to life.
The chattering grew louder--it wasn't entirely from cold--and despite his complaint Charmian hugged Tal Natha even harder.
Charmian didn't ask Tal Natha why they were here. She didn't wish to know.
Maybe if I just keep my eyes closed I'll find out it really is all a dream?
Once more she thought of her mom in the parking lot, imagined her checking her watch and worrying about them...and the tears started welling up in her eyes again.
Until now she'd thought of all this as maybe some kind of weird adventure that would take maybe a day, then she'd go home and it would all be over and things would be back to normal...just like in the movies...nobody is ever really hurt or killed, everybody has fun, but nobody is ever in any real danger. Then the camera shuts off and everyone goes home. Back to the normal world.
Why wasn't the camera shutting off?
Tal Natha started to tip upright as he approached the ground for a landing, feet splaying out in front of him and wings spreading to catch the air. Charmian had to hold on tighter now to avoid slipping off his back. Not too far away a manitou came bounding out of the woods, only to come to an abrupt stop, letting out a whistle and shying back toward the trees. Francois whistled back and calmed it down before climbing off. He touched its muzzle and murmured something to it in the strange manitou tongue, and without another sound the creature turned and disappeared into the woods. Charmian watched it go, wondered where it went.
"Ch...Charmian. You may let go now."
She started and turned, noticing Tal Natha staring at her. He looked very uncomfortable; she realized she was holding him too tightly once more. "Sorry again," she murmured, letting go and sliding down off of him. She nearly fell backwards but his tail came up to support her on the way down. When her feet touched the ground she felt like falling over, the sensation was so strange. The ground tipped and lurched beneath her and she did kneel, pressing one hand to the earth. Francois came her way, kneeling beside her to take her arm.
"Feeling all right, ma chère?"
"Yeah, I...I think so...where did your manitou go?"
"The tribal manitous don't much like those who dwell here...this is why they usually try to keep away."
"Those who dwell here--?" Charmian glanced up toward the lake, realizing where she was again. She pulled a Drake and moved back to hide behind Tal Natha, taking hold of his wing and peering out from behind it. Her fingers squeezed into the glossy feathers.
The demon touched her hand. Do not be afraid. But do be wise and stay behind me.
Francois unslung his gun from his shoulder. "I hope I won't be needing this?"
Even if you did it would not be of much use. I thank you for coming along, though; perhaps if they give us any trouble you can convince them to stay back.
"I'll try. Though I'm not so sure I have the ability."
Charmian. She swallowed and looked up at him. His eyes glowed as he looked down at her. You do not need to...but I would like if you would accompany me. And try not to look afraid. The beings here...they sense when one is afraid, and they use this. There's nothing wrong with being afraid. But try to look as one who is not. Will you follow me?
Was it some kind of test? She couldn't be sure. All she knew was that she WAS afraid, very much so. Still, she'd made him a promise before she'd ever come to this Island...she would try to help out in any way she could. How was being a coward going to help them in any way?
So she nodded, and forced her throat to come unstuck. "Y...yes, okay."
"I'll keep watch for the manitous," Francois said, then let out another whistle, this one not a call. "Eh--too late--you two, watch yourselves."
Tal Natha and Charmian stopped where they were. The surface of the water ahead of them had started rippling ominously, and strange dark shapes began to emerge from it, slipping through the inky blackness without making a sound, little blue eyes glittering and glowing evilly as they approached.
Tal Natha lowered his head slightly, a low growl forming in his throat. Even without hearing him say it directly, Charmian received the distinct message Back off.
The manitous didn't listen to Tal Natha's mental warning. They continued approaching, a sort of subdued, wicked glee in their eyes, and after a moment one of them began singing, then another, and another.
Francois, who had been aiming his gun at one of the creatures, quickly swung it over his shoulder again. "Cover your ears!"
Charmian let go of Tal Natha's wing and did so, jamming her fingers against her ears as hard as she could. Even with them plugged she could still hear the strange manitou song, and it made her feel a little dizzy and out of sorts, but not nearly as much as it had before. She found herself thinking of stories she'd read in history class, about Greek mythology and the sirens' song...well, this wasn't exactly the same thing, but it was close enough.
She didn't know what the manitous were trying to accomplish but it couldn't be good.
The manitous, seeing the others weren't going to fall for it so easily, broke off their song and started slogging forward even faster, lips curling back in dripping snarls. Francois took advantage of the break to grab his gun again, aiming it toward the water and shooting. Everyone started at the terrific BANG it let out, even as the shot missed its target, striking the water just several inches away from one of the creatures--or perhaps Francois had missed on purpose. Whatever he had meant to do, the manitous froze where they were, blinking and startled, before starting to growl, faces turning ugly.
"You wish for more?" Francois called out to them. "I have plenty more, believe me, my friends. If my gun won't convince you to keep your distance then perhaps this would."
He cupped a hand to his mouth and let out a weird call. Within moments the woods surrounding the lake had literally come alive with answering cries from all over the Island. The lake manitous started glancing around them uneasily, baring their teeth. Charmian couldn't tell what Francois had said, if the other manitous, which had seemed so shy, would actually come out to fight their cousins, but the trick worked. The manitous stayed back, in the water.
Charmian looked harder and finally noticed Mitchi Manitou, the great white one, among them. His eyes glowed more ominously and the hate twisted his face even more greatly than the others. He stared at Charmian especially. She felt her fear growing and wanted to do nothing more than hide behind Tal Natha again. The manitou obviously remembered seeing her during his fight with X. She didn't know why but she could tell that, out of the three of them, his hatred was focused most intensely on her.
I'm trying, Tal Natha.
After a moment, she felt him take her hand. She looked down at the great clawed hand holding hers, so small and pale...and managed to find a tiny bit of courage. Tal Natha started walking toward the lake and she followed.
Francois aimed his gun at the lake again, selecting one unfortunate manitou as his next potential target.
They made it almost to the lakeshore--Charmian didn't know if Tal Natha intended to simply walk down into the water itself or what--before Mitchi Manitou finally lost it. The creature let out a maddened bellow and lunged through the water, toward them. Tal Natha and Charmian stopped--she literally felt herself FREEZE and the only thing she could seem to think was, Mom's worrying about me--and Dad--and my dog--what will they tell the teacher when I don't show up on Monday?--what will Drake do?--what about Red Bird?--
Tal Natha's ears folded and he snarled, pushing Charmian behind him. Francois whirled around, putting his eye to the sight. Mitchi Manitou barreled through the water at a frightening pace, the fluid not even slowing him down, eyes flashing and roar rising as one great paw reached up into the air to swipe them aside as easily as any leaf--
Mitchi Manitou halted immediately. His blue eyes grew wide with alarm--the same alarm he'd shown on seeing Red Bird step in front of him--and he glanced away from Charmian. He let out a strangled sound, as if in protest, but then all of the manitous cowered on hearing what came next.
"I told you ENOUGH, you stupid fool! You've failed enough for one day! Get back to where you belong and don't show your face until I tell you to!"
A horribly contrite look came upon Mitchi's face and he retreated once more. He didn't fail to shoot Charmian the most venomous glare she'd ever seen before doing so, however, and she swallowed and clutched Tal Natha's hand.
Only to notice his claws were digging into her skin. She winced with pain but he didn't let go. She looked up at him to see that he didn't appear to even realize she was there anymore. His stare was focused up above them, in the direction of Devil's Kitchen. And if Charmian hadn't known any better, she'd have said he was...afraid.
Not the same kind of fear she'd seen him demonstrate when confronted with the GeeBees or the manitous. This was similar to what she'd seen when they'd first met the lake manitous, before realizing what they were--she'd seen it in X, and she'd seen it in her dog as well--it wasn't the fear of something that may hurt you, it was the fear of something more powerful than you.
On all such occasions her dog had rolled over onto his back to show his submissiveness. Tal Natha did no such thing, but his tail crept between his legs and his ears went down. And for some reason, this made Charmian more afraid than anything else she'd seen this whole day.
She looked up toward the rock.
The sky had not gone completely dark, so she could still see the trees and stone silhouetted against the sky. And that was not the only thing. Something else was up there now, something that hadn't been there before. Standing atop the rock jutting out over a small spring, wings flared to the sides, great bull horns spreading out from its head. It remained completely in darkness except for its eyes, two glowing flecks of red and green.
Charmian felt she now held onto Tal Natha's hand to comfort him, instead of the other way around. And she was afraid she knew why.
The dark shape up on the rock said nothing, but stood taller, burning eyes narrowing.
Charmian squeezed Tal Natha's hand. Say something.
I...I try. But I can't.
Yes you can! Say something! ANYthing!
As if you can hide any such conversations from me? The same voice that had cowed the manitous into such submission now filled Charmian's head, and she could tell from their reactions that Francois and Tal Natha heard it also. The dark shape hunched forward again. You are as stupid as Mitchi Manitou is. To come here as if you are welcome. You are lucky I don't allow my manitous to tear you to shreds.
The way they did with X? Tal Natha abruptly shot back, before realizing who he was speaking to and falling silent again.
One of the creature's ears pricked up. Tal Natha noticed this and--perhaps taking some courage from Charmian, still holding his hand--pressed on. Yes, Father. This they did to poor X, your son. I had thought you cared more for your blood than that. At this moment he lies in the home of Old Mother Manitou, in agony because of what your manitou did to him.
Eyes narrowing even further. "This he did not inform me of." A glance toward the lake. "Perhaps he has some lashes coming his way." Charmian nearly started when the glowing eyes focused on herself and Tal Natha again. "You have yet to bother explaining why you are here. Speak up and tell me now before I decide to stop being so lenient with you trespassers."
"I do not trespass. I know what place is yours." The demon kept his ears back, tail tucked between his legs, the behavior of an inferior wolf in the presence of the alpha male. "I come here on purpose, to seek your assistance."
A snort, whether of surprise or derision Charmian couldn't be sure. But a moment later the creature was laughing, a harsh, violent sound. "'Assistance'? You've made my day with your joke!"
This is not a joke, Father. You know I would not come to you in jest. And I know you would not speak with me unless you believed what I say is true.
The other demon stopped laughing and his eyes narrowed again. Charmian sensed rather than heard his growl. Then get to the point, 'boy,' before I've had it with you. I have no interest in your petty little squabbles with my manitous or the GeeBees. They may rip you limb from limb as far as I'm concerned.
This does not deal with anything so minor as your manitous or the GeeBees. You know I would not bother you with such trivial things. I would not bother you at all if I felt even you alone could handle the danger that's come your way, without you even realizing it.
Now the demon looked surprised and angry. He stood up taller, eyes nearly shooting out fire. "What are you talking about? My manitous keep me informed of all that goes on on this Island, and if they miss anything, then I convince those stupid GeeBees to find out for me. So what could I have missed if anything? Speak up, whelp!"
I speak of one even your manitous and the GeeBees can't completely follow, Tal Natha said, mental voice steady. I speak of she who started all your troubles in the first place.
Ocryx fell silent for a moment, and his eyes were round. But only for a moment. He bared his teeth. "Tell me!" he hissed--and Charmian knew he was afraid.
Tal Natha's voice didn't waver anymore. "She's been busy," he said. "You've had no idea. She's been very busy lately--and all of her plans are focused on you, dear Father."