Manitou Island: Part 31
CHARMIAN GASPED. THE woman in the clearing did the same, jumping up and back slightly, staring at her. Her hands were red with blood.
Charmian gawked at her a moment before the manitou let out a low sound, startling them both. She then rushed forward, forgetting about any danger; this creature was in trouble. She dropped to her knees beside it, turning its head up to face her. Blood encrusted its nostrils; awful gashes lined its chest and stomach, brown fur hanging in tatters.
Vague, eerie images of the mangled corpse in the woods outside Sugar Loaf returned to her...
"Horrible," Charmian whispered. The manitou's breath rattled in its throat and she bit her lip with anxiety. She'd heard of the death rattle before. Was that what this was?
"He was lying like this," the strange woman said, abruptly reminding Charmian of her presence. "I tried to help him..."
Charmian sat up, pulling on the creature's arm. From the looks of it it was a young manitou only, not nearly as large as Mitchi, but still too heavy for her to carry. She turned to the woods and whistled.
"X! Pakwa! Come on!"
The two emerged, both peering forward cautiously. X's sight fell on the manitou; his eyes widened and he picked up his pace. Pakwa, however, sniffed as if with distaste and hung back.
"It's hurt," Charmian explained to X, who leaned over the unconscious creature, nose twitching. "We need to get it back to Old Mother Manitou."
"No luck, fleshling!" Pakwa interrupted.
Charmian glared at him as X carefully picked up the manitou. "What do you mean?"
"Bad smell, fleshling. Lake manitou. No fix."
Charmian's face fell. "Lake manitou? You mean this is one of Ocryx's?"
She let out a small frustrated sigh, grounding her knuckles against her forehead. Well...as much as she wanted to believe Old Mother Manitou was a humanitarian, the old woman had made it clear she disliked Ocryx's manitous. She had no idea if the old manitou would be charitable or not. Either way it didn't seem worth the waste of time it would take to get it back to Sugar Loaf, if all she would do was kick them out.
I need a medicine man, Charmian thought, a healer...Stick-In-The-Dirt, I don't know where he is or if he can help...nor Silver Eagle Feather...a healer...
She caught sight of X, shifting from foot to foot anxiously as if trying to get her attention without being too obvious. A thought hit her and her face brightened again.
X's expression turned somewhat relieved.
"We can take it to Justin," Charmian said, signaling to Pakwa. "His place can't be too far from here. You know the way. We get him there, and he'll take care of everything."
Pakwa looked skeptical but said nothing. That had to be a good sign. She motioned X toward the woods but then remembered--"Oh." She peered back behind her.
The native woman still stood there, staring after them. Charmian realized they must make a pretty odd group--a young girl, a wounded manitou, an Ocryx and a GeeBee--but the woman hardly looked surprised. Charmian finally got a good look at her. She reminded her somewhat of Red Bird at first, but then Charmian couldn't put her finger on why. Her hair was dark, and even her skin and eyes were darker than Red Bird's; plus her eyes had a slight, strange slant to them, unlike Red Bird's which were large and round. She was young, yet appeared more knowing. Charmian supposed it was merely the way her hair cascaded free over her shoulders that reminded her of the other native.
"Um..." Charmian said, at a loss. The woman continued staring silently. "What's your name?"
A blink, as if she hadn't expected Charmian to ask. Then she quickly regained her composure.
"Shadow Water. I live not far..."
"If you want to come with us, maybe I could try to call a manitou..."
"No." A slight pause. "I must get back home. My mother will worry." She glanced at her hands then folded them behind her back.
Her mother?... Charmian shook it off and nodded. "Okay." She wasn't certain she'd be able to duplicate Francois's call anyway. She put up her arms, waited for Pakwa to pick her up. "Thanks for tending to it!"
Shadow Water stood still and watched as they rose into the air, the Ocryx beating his wings, the GeeBee carrying Charmian. She was glad for him now, with how easily she'd become lost before, she didn't doubt it could happen again!
This time she actually got to see the way to Justin's house, not being preoccupied with fighting the GeeBee. It looked deserted, but she had to remind herself that here, an absence of cars didn't necessarily mean anything. X landed first, Pakwa dropping Charmian off close after; she stumbled to her feet and ran up the porch steps to the door, ringing the bell madly.
Answer, answer! Somebody answer!
Why did the fate of a lake manitou bother her so much?...
When no answer was immediately forthcoming she started pounding on the large door with her fists. "Hello! Justin! Justin! Somebody, help! Justin? Anybody!! Help!!"
She felt the heel of her hand beginning to sting and knew a bruise was coming on. Still, she kept pounding until a rattling noise alerted her to the door being unlatched. She dropped her hand from the door and started to reach out to grab Justin's arm, only to realize--it wasn't him. A woman, perhaps in her forties, brown hair done up in an intricate bun, looked out at her, a thoroughly confused expression on her face. "What is it? What's wrong?" she asked, before Charmian could ask her anything first.
"I--I was looking for Justin Dupries," Charmian gasped. "I need his help..."
She had no way of explaining what was going on, and couldn't even try. Nonetheless the woman's eyes roamed up over her shoulder and to the porch and yard beyond, and Charmian heard her suck in her breath when she saw X. She felt like swallowing her tongue.
I'm sorry I just ruined your whole day, lady!
"Oh my," the woman said instead, brushing past Charmian and out onto the porch. Charmian turned to watch her descend the steps, holding the edges of her fancy dress up out of the dust, then loping over to the demon and the GeeBee. Her first action was to put her hand to the manitou's forehead as if feeling for a fever; then she pulled open one of its eyes, examined its gums, and pressed her fingers to its neck.
What--? She's acting just like Old Mother Manitou!
The woman stepped back, making her way back up to the porch. "Follow me," she said as she went past Charmian, waving her hand. Charmian glanced at the others and shrugged, then went inside. X, glancing at Pakwa as if asking what to do, snorted with bafflement and followed.
This was Charmian's second time inside Justin's house, so she didn't take much time to marvel at the decor. The woman led them into the parlor and gestured at a small velvet-lined couch sitting against the wall. X entered the room behind Charmian, having to duck his head low to avoid hitting it on the archway. He stepped in sideways so as not to knock the manitou even further unconscious.
"Put him here," the woman said. "I'll be right back." She turned and disappeared from the room, and for a moment the others could hear her footfalls echoing further away into the house.
Charmian nodded at X's inquisitive look and he stepped forward, laying the pathetic creature upon the couch. Charmian flinched as he did so, blood trickling down onto the lush velvet surface. She wished she'd thought of grabbing a sheet or something; it was a shame to see that thing ruined.
God, now I'm worried about the FURNITURE?
The woman finally came back into the room, carrying several bandages and a bottle of something. She set them down on the little end table beside the couch and pulled up a small stool, seating herself by the manitou and setting to work cleaning and dressing its wounds.
"Um..." Charmian took a step forward, raising her hand, before stopping. She'd wanted Justin to come down, and now...this person was taking care of the creature. Whoever she was. Why did she even think she knew anything about manitou medicine?
"Could you please hold his arm up for me?" the woman said, and Charmian did so while she wrapped it in bandages. She then started cleaning off its chest, ignoring the hitch in its breath.
"His?" Charmian finally managed to get out.
"Yes, ma chère, this is a male. Very badly wounded as well..."
"I was hoping to find Justin here..."
"My son is upstairs. He has not been feeling well."
His MOTHER! She felt like slapping herself for not realizing it sooner. She'd been told he lived with his parents and a servant or two. Well, who else would this woman be?
"Barely an adolescent," the woman--Lady Dupries, Charmian decided to call her--murmured, frowning over the wounded creature. "How he got himself into such a tussle is beyond me..."
"We found it--him--in the woods. Whatever it was left him there. We thought Justin might be able to help him."
Lady Dupries finally lifted her head and looked up at Charmian. Her eyes were a pale blue, her skin--to use the cliché--almost like porcelain. Charmian figured it had taken several hours just to get the delicate braids in her hair. "Please to know what is your name, and how you know Justin?"
"Oh." Charmian flushed, averting her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm Charmian. I met Justin--yesterday I think it was--and he helped out X here." She waved at the Ocryx, but Lady Dupries had turned to look at him even before she did so. The demon snorted a bit under her gaze and averted his own eyes, scuffing the floor before realizing he might leave a mark, then just staring at the wall.
"Oh, I see. Justin told me he was out yesterday and met a few people. He did not go into detail though. I had no idea he was so busy." She wiped off her hand and held it out in Charmian's direction. "You must be the young girl he spoke of. I am Justine Dupries. I'm very pleased to meet you."
Charmian took her hand, flushing again. "Likewise. I'm sorry we just barged in on you like this, and all over your nice couch..."
"Oh, it's nothing at all. It can be cleaned, replaced. He, however, cannot." Her look became troubled and she turned back to the manitou.
"Mother?" a voice came from above. Charmian blinked and looked upwards. She'd never noticed the stairway landing overlooking the room from the upper level, and up there Justin appeared, hand on the bannister. "Mother, what's..." He caught sight of the strange scene in the parlor and his eyes widened. A moment later he had jogged down the steps into the room, crossing toward them briskly.
"What happened?" he asked, joining them and peering over at the manitou.
"He was wounded somehow, mon cher. They brought him here believing you could help..."
Justin glanced back at Charmian. She felt like burrowing into the ground, but held his stare anyway, silently pleading. After a moment his look changed and he gave a little sigh, turning back.
"Let me take a look at him, Mother."
"Of course, of course..." Lady Dupries leaned back, away from him.
Justin leaned over and stared at the creature a moment, pulling open his eye as his mother had done, then looking over his wounds. He bit the inside of his mouth as if uncertain, before placing his hands palm down against the ragged tears. Lady Dupries looked up at him, a question in her eyes, but before he could answer it a strange colored glow like the one Charmian had seen with X enveloped the manitou's body in a bright shell.
Lady Dupries gasped and stood up, knocking over the stool. She and the others watched the glow grow and then die, seeming to disappear again within Justin's hands, when he pulled them away from the manitou's body, rubbing them as if they hurt. No blood lined his palms. The great tears had completely vanished.
Charmian could tell his mother was just as surprised as she had been.
Justin turned away from the creature and glanced at her briefly. "He should be all right now. I'm not certain if it's safe for you to be here though..."
As he said it, Charmian noticed X's ears go straight up. She looked at the manitou to see his eyes open, and he let out a startled snort. A second later he had bolted upright, darting bewildered looks all around the room at them.
X whined and actually stepped back behind Charmian, as if she could protect him. The manitou was much smaller, but he had good reason to fear him, she supposed.
She wished she had someone to hide behind!
As if sensing this thought Lady Dupries suddenly stepped forward, holding up one hand. She let out a strange sound somewhere between a murmur and a whistle, and Charmian instantly recognized the odd manitou language Francois had used earlier. How was it everyone on this Island seemed to know that thing but her?
The manitou stared at her for a moment, blinking, as if not quite knowing who she was; then his stare turned toward Justin and his eyes widened a bit. He let out a similar sound and Justin nodded shortly, then jerked his head at the door. His hand made a strange fluttering motion.
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. What...
The manitou seemed to understand, whatever he had been told. He got up from the little couch, inching his way around them, eyes darting from one to the other. When he saw X especially he seemed nervous, and even bared his teeth. The Ocryx responded by whining again and creeping even further behind Charmian. That was when the manitou noticed her for the first time, blinking again and stopping.
"Yes," Justin said aloud, suddenly. "She's the one who saved you."
Charmian's head whirled to gape at him. He didn't look back at her, but only stared at the manitou. When Charmian looked at the creature again he was still staring at her, but his look wasn't quite the same. He appeared to be trying to sort out his thoughts before he gave a low whistle and then turned and vanished from the room as quickly as he could. Charmian craned her neck to look out the parlor window and could see him making his way across the lawn, back in the direction of the lake. A moment later the bushes parted and he had vanished from sight.
"Well," she muttered, hardly even aware she was speaking aloud, "that's gratitude for you."
"He could be punished for straying away from the lake." Justin folded his arms. "He wishes to get back before his absence is noticed."
"What do you suppose even did that to him? We came across someone earlier, and they were mangled up all in the same way..."
"Someone else?" He stared at her now. "What do you mean? You found someone's body, on the Island? With tears like that?"
Charmian nodded. "It was the day before you helped X, right after he was hurt. We found a body in the woods...Tal Natha said he thought she had been nearby..."
She hoped she didn't have to explain who she was, but the other two seemed to understand. Evidently Ocryana's threat spread further than she'd thought.
"If this is so," Justin said, "then you're not going to be safe here. She'll likely find out what became of the manitou and will follow once she realizes it's not dead. She would never leave a job unfinished."
"But that means you guys aren't safe either."
"We can fend for ourselves." He cast a look at his mother, though she continued staring at Charmian with that strange gaze that seemed somehow familiar. "We'll have ways to deal with her should she show up. You, you are new here and don't yet understand how things work. Go back to Sugar Loaf and warn the others, and try to prepare...and be careful on your way back, as I'm afraid I can't accompany you this time...all right?"
Charmian nodded. "Okay...but later on we're going to come back here and make sure you two are all right. Really, Red Bird would probably worry if she thought something would happen to either of you."
She said it more to get his reaction than to tell him her plans. Either way, it worked; his eyes widened for a moment, then he blinked and averted them, flushing as if caught.
"Take care and watch out after all of them...and don't worry about us too much. There are more important things to worry about. Be on your way and good luck."
Charmian turned to the door before she could think of anything else to say. X followed, ducking his head as they went out, and after they had left the porch she glanced up at the gables. Pakwa was perched there, as she'd expected him to be. As soon as he saw them he drifted down to the ground.
"We have to get back to Sugar Loaf," she murmured, rubbing her arms. The air seemed to have taken on even more of a chill since she'd woken up. "Justin says we might all be in trouble since Ocryana probably knows we know she's up to something...or whatever..."
"Told you it was a bad smell, fleshling. Didn't listen."
"Yeah, yeah, I did too listen, just shut up and get me back--"
From far in the woods, a voice suddenly echoed--"Chaaaaaaaa-aaaarrrrrmmmmmm..."
She frowned and turned to the woods. "Huh? That sounded like Drake."
Pakwa cocked his head, pointy ear up, listening. He sniffed the air. "Smells like him, too."
"Bleh, that's disgusting, Pakwa." She moved toward the woods. "Well, we'd better flush him out before he runs into that manitou...I wonder how he even managed to find his way here all by himself, it's a wonder he didn't fall off of any logs..."
X and the GeeBee followed her, Pakwa floating up into the air again, as she trudged through the grass and entered the woods. "Drake!" she yelled a few times, waving her arms to gain his attention when she finally spotted him far off behind the trees. "Can't you ever just stay where you're at and let me do whatever we have to do? Is that so hard?"
"I thought you might've gotten lost again!" Drake yelled, loud enough for the entire Island to hear. Charmian ground her teeth. "So I asked Red Bird which way I should go and--"
"SHUT UP!! It's still morning, stupid, you're waking everybody up!!"
"Huh? Naw, they're all awake by now, these native types are always up way early! Right?..."
She didn't bother replying until they'd finally reached each other, and then she smacked his arm and they headed back toward Sugar Loaf. "How did you even get this far without losing yourself, Drake?" she muttered as they walked. "You could get turned around in a closet, for God's sake."
"Huh? That's not true, Charm. At least, I never got lost at home..."
"Never mind, never mind...I'll just accept it as a fluke and leave it alone. Look. From now on, no more mindless wandering around by ourselves. That goes for both of us. Got it?"
"Huh? Oh, sure...anything you say. But I wasn't wandering mindlessly, really I wasn't."
She rolled her eyes at the sky. "Whatever you say, Drake. Let's just get back..."
He fell silent and the two of them continued walking, the blanket of leaves crunching beneath their feet. Charmian was surprised by how many were still on the trees, even this late in the year, before remembering that this was Manitou Island and perhaps the seasons were different here. She shouldn't be surprised if autumn led into summer again, with the way things worked around here. Perhaps when she woke up tomorrow it would be spring...
Or maybe she'd be home instead.
She felt like stopping to think that one over a bit.
"Charm, c'mon, you're falling behind!"
Drake walked backwards ahead of her, waving his hands. "Okay, okay," she said, just to keep him from yakking even more. "You really shouldn't walk like that, Drake."
"Why not? It's good exercise, Mom always says I should get more exercise though I don't know why--"
"Knowing you, I'm shocked you haven't tripped over anything yet."
"Ha ha, funny, Miss Perfect. Just because I trip over things sometimes doesn't mean I'm a total kl--AAAGGHHHH!!" He screamed and tripped over backwards, scrabbling at the ground with eyes bugging out.
"See?" Charmian said smugly. "You just proved my point."
She didn't get to hear his reply--if he even had one. Something feathery just barely brushed against the back of her neck and she froze, skin going cold. A second later a shadow had passed over her and she saw Drake finally scramble to his feet, running like mad through the woods, fit enough to win any marathon.
X yelped and jumped to the side. Far ahead of her, Drake skidded to a halt so abruptly she could swear she heard his sneakers squeal when something large landed in front of him, teeth snapping and claws swinging. He shrieked and ran back her way, arms pumping, eyes ready to shoot from his skull like Ping-Pong balls hit by a paddle.
"Drake!" she managed to croak.
"RUUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!!" he howled, grabbing her arm and dragging her along behind as they scrambled off through the trees. She didn't have time to see if X and Pakwa followed, but whatever had startled them was coming up behind, and fast.
Charmian's own eyes bugged as she saw the tawny fur and recognized the telltale horns and wings. "Ocryx!!" she screeched, feet flying every which way, kicking up a storm of dead leaves.
"I don't know where she came from," Drake rattled back at her, "but she's PISSED!!"
Even as he said it, she wondered how he knew it was a she, but then realized she'd assumed so too, that the demon pursuing them, because of its smaller size compared to X and Tal Natha, was female. Her horns were smaller, curving back from her head in just the hint of a spiral, but they--and her teeth and claws--looked just as deadly. And her eyes carried the same mad green and red glow as her cousins'.
Charmian's breath--already seemingly long vanished--caught in her throat. "Ocryana!"
"It's gotta be," Drake panted. "We've gotta get out of here!!"
She finally gained control over her own feet and he let go of her arm, the two of them speeding through the woods. She could hear the creature's wings beating, the gusts of air sweeping the ground clean of leaves as she came closer. She could even hear the blasts of air coming from her nostrils, the snort of her breath. She'd apparently found out about their discovery already--and like Drake said--she wasn't too happy about it.
"HURRY UP, CHARM!!" Drake screamed.
"I'm coming!" she gasped back, lungs burning. Her legs felt ready to give out already, and she realized that perhaps his mother had been right, exercise would have been good not only for him but for her as well--if she wanted to survive in this place she'd have to be in pretty good shape, well, getting chased by a demon was a good way to burn off some pounds, wasn't it?--maybe it had been a good idea to give her candy bar to Pakwa, after all.
Where were these bizarre thoughts coming from?!
She screamed herself and dropped to the ground when the demon dove at her, claws raking out, missing her face by inches. Instead, her face hit the ground and she snorted dirt up through her nostrils, choking on it. She coughed, seeking air and feeling the sharp sting in her elbows, before noticing that the scream continued--but it wasn't coming from her. She shook her spinning head to see the creature still chased Drake, and he still ran from it.
"Drake--!" she choked out. She pushed herself to her feet--all her muscles groaned in agony--before stumbling after them. "Keep running! Lose her!"
Despite her exhaustion, she followed them, desperate to keep them within sight. She couldn't lose them now; Drake was likely to hurt himself running from that thing. Visions of the mangled body--and of the wounded manitou--worked their way insidiously into her brain. What if she did the same thing to Drake that she'd done to them?
She shuddered internally. Tal Natha had been right, she was absolutely mad. Nothing sane could inflict such horror as she had.
They must have slowed down--Drake dodging around trees, attempting to lose the creature--as she started to catch up with them. She gasped and nearly fell over herself trying to stop when the demon landed directly before her--facing not Drake this time, but HER. With a snarl her claws whipped out at Charmian's face.
The demon hissed and whipped her head back when Drake jumped up and grabbed onto her wings, impeding her. "Run, Charm!" he yelled, fingers digging into her feathers as she started swinging around, trying to throw him off.
"Are you NUTS?!" Charmian shrieked. "She was after YOU, I'm not leaving you here!!"
"She wants you now, she just realized YOU'RE the one she wants! Run before she--"
He didn't get to finish what he was saying as she whirled around so abruptly he was flung loose, striking the ground and rolling to a stop. Apparently he'd been correct, and she wasn't interested in him anymore--as she just came after Charmian again. When Charmian tried to turn and run away, her legs gave out a final time, too exhausted from running, and wouldn't let her get back up.
Oh my God, this is just like a scene in a horror movie, get up, GET UP!!
Drake--unbelievably--launched himself at the demon again, arms going around her neck. Her eyes went wide, then she roared and started flinging her head side to side, shaking herself terribly. Drake was tossed this way and that, but still held on, eyes squinted shut, bawling with terror.
"Drake!" Charmian shouted, eyes stinging as much as her scraped arms did. "LET GO!"
Was it because he had heard her, and for some reason decided to obey? Was it because she finally heard X--or Pakwa--or both of them, whoever--coming up behind her, startling the creature? Or was it because he had no choice? Either way, the Ocryx flung her head one final time and Drake was thrown violently through the air, as if in slow motion, and it was only as he began the descent of his arc that Charmian noticed they had been headed straight for a dropoff, leading how far below she had no idea, but now Drake was falling down toward it as well. She felt her heart tear up into her throat, nearly blocking her trachea, before feeling something resembling strength, but which was merely panic, enter her legs, allowing her to push herself to her feet, first one, then the other, pounding against the ground as hard as her heart pounded in her ears, pushing her slowly and ever more slowly toward the cliff. Her own voice came to her ears, as if from far away, and she couldn't even see the Ocryx anymore, if she was still even there, as everything off to her sides and above and below had gone black, and the only thing she could see was Drake drifting slowly through the air, down, down, disappearing from her sight. "DRAKE!"
She fell to her knees, skin shredding against rock, palms pressing into earth as her head shot out over the ledge. It had been much, much higher than she feared. Even as she watched she still saw Drake, only he was far below her now, and she felt something tear from inside her--her own heart now, escaping her chest?--before he first struck the rocks below--the Island was just full of rocks--twisting in the air and falling some more, striking rock again, before coming to rest with a sickening thud, eyes open and neck bent at an unnatural angle.
Charmian would never be able to describe the feeling that rose up inside her now. Her pupils dilated wildly, heart--still intact--first struggling behind her breastbone like some trapped animal, then coming to a halt entirely.