Manitou Island: Part 37
CHARMIAN STARED. "YOU...can't be," she whispered.
The creature stared back at her a moment before taking a staggering step forward. Its ribs heaved with each breath and she could tell she'd wounded it badly. Instead of attacking her, it placed its feet wide apart to gain its balance, and seized hold of the branch protruding from its shoulder. Grimacing, its grip tightened and it wrenched the stick free so abruptly that Charmian almost gagged. Blood streamed freely from the wound. It looked down to examine it, breathing hard, then placed its hand over the hole. A pale gold glow, flecked with all colors of the rainbow, engulfed its fingers, the blood ceasing its flowing and the hole closing up on itself, vanishing. When it pulled its hand away, nothing remained but the blood that had already smeared there.
Charmian let out her breath.
The Ocryx looked up at her again, as if it had forgotten her. It stood up straighter.
"The necklace," Charmian said. "I recognize it. I know it's you."
The demon blinked. "You didn't know sooner?"
"What you just did gave it away completely." She shifted, nervous. "Why were you chasing me?"
The Ocryx lifted its head as she'd seen Red Bird do, and a glow surrounded it, growing smaller. When the light died, the demon--now human--stood down among the trees.
Justin Dupries dusted himself and came up her way.
"Chase...I never meant to chase you. I saw you down there in the dark, on your own. Do you know how foolish that is?"
"I was fine until you started chasing me. Like I wouldn't recognize you, with that on!" She waved her hand accusingly at the ruby and emerald necklace he still wore. It still glowed, now seeming to light up the entire area around them, though the light didn't seem unnatural.
He glanced down at it briefly, then back up at her. "You thought I was trying to hurt you?"
"What else would I think? It's not like you said 'Hi!' or anything!"
"But--I thought you knew." He seemed genuinely surprised.
"How would I?"
"You mean no one told you? Red Bird, Tal Natha? They didn't let you know?"
"No," Charmian said sulkily.
Justin let out his own breath. "Well...of course they didn't, I suppose. To spare you the trouble." He looked back behind him as if something were there. "Though looking back on it now, I admit I was less than forthright myself. Apologies for this."
"So...that thing." She pointed at the necklace again and again he looked down at it. "You said it was a gift from your dad. Do you mean--?"
"Yes. It was he. Which is why it was all the more surprising to receive it." He fingered the small silver pendant. "Like I said, he doesn't often like to give things away."
"So does this mean that you and Tal Natha..."
"Tal Natha?" His eyes met hers again, sharply, then they grew merely wary and he seemed to suppress a scowl. "Well...yes. I suppose technically you could call us brothers. Though there is little that is alike between us."
"I kind of noticed..."
He gave a short sigh. "Again...I have to apologize for my bluntness. You must have noticed, there is little friendship between us, as well."
"I know. I'm sorry. It's just...well, I never would have guessed, you two."
A wry smile came to his face. "Yes...I suppose this is true." He blinked. "Forgive me! I can't believe I was so rude. There must be some sane reason you were out here in the middle of the night, so far from Sugar Loaf--surely you didn't just wander off again?"
"Actually I was staying in Yellow Turtle's camp. They wanted me to go visit Cave of the Woods in the morning, but Si--" she broke herself off, chomping down on her tongue painfully "--but I felt I should go earlier, for some stupid reason...then I got sidetracked and lost somewhere in the dark...and I don't even know if I was still headed in the right direction, when you startled me."
"Cave of the Woods? They want you to meet with the man who lives there?"
"You know about him?"
"Somewhat, yes. I went to him once to...well, it's rather silly. I wanted to learn how to traverse thin ice without falling through. That was a long time ago. I must have been insane."
Charmian couldn't suppress a smile. Justin saw it and smiled back, and she felt her earlier anxiety melt away. She let out a small sigh.
"Well, they want me to go see him, so he can train me to look after Red Bird until she can look after herself."
"Are you supposed to make this trip by yourself? It simply doesn't seem safe to try it alone, at night."
"I know...I guess I was being dumb. I must get it from hanging out with Drake." She looked around. "Well, now that you're here...which way am I supposed to go?"
"Oh. That way." He pointed out a smaller trail to her right. "I think perhaps you would have gone that way, if I hadn't interrupted you first."
"Are you certain you'd prefer going alone?" he asked, jogging to reach her side as she started off down the trail. "It's pitch black out here. You'd almost definitely become lost."
"Could you maybe let me borrow that, then? I promise I'd return it."
She said it before she even knew what she was saying, turning and pointing out the pendant. They both paused and stared at it, both of them with surprise at what she'd said. Charmian covered her mouth and flushed red.
"Um--I'm sorry! That was really rude."
"Oh--no, it's all right," Justin stammered. "Why not? I don't really have any use for it out here...so long as it meant you don't go wandering off any cliffs..."
He reached up to remove the necklace, pulling it over his head and holding it out to her. Before she could refuse it, however, it seemed to let out a faint ringing sound, and the glow rapidly died away.
"Huh?" Justin said, as baffled as she was.
Charmian waved her hands, though she wasn't certain if he could see her. "Take it back, take it back! I get the feeling I'm not supposed to wear it, or something. Really, I'm okay. Keep it."
"Oh...all right." He brought it back toward himself, and as he did, the glow rose again, filling the small clearing. They frowned at the odd pendant swinging from his hand.
"Well," Justin said. "If it isn't the strangest thing."
"Maybe it's why he gave it to you? It seems to react to you for some reason."
"I suppose it does...though I can't think of why..." He sighed and shrugged and put it back on. "Well...I guess if you'd like a light, I'll have to accompany you. It's still quite a long way off, you know. At this rate it could take you all night to get there. And it seems as if it may rain, soon."
"I know..." Charmian's voice came out more miserable than she'd intended. She glanced upward at the black sky. She hated getting soaked.
Justin bit his lip. "Well...how about I take you there, instead. It would be much quicker. You've already got a good start on scraping your legs to shreds." She flushed again, rubbing her knees together. "I could have you there within moments, if you wished."
"I don't know...it feels kind of like cheating."
"Cheating?" He paused, then smiled. "If they didn't say no one could help you get there, then I don't believe it would be cheating. Did any of them say you had to make the trip alone?"
"No...not that I can remember."
"Then I don't think you have anything to worry about. This 'training' is for him to do, once you get there. But you can hardly train if you're dead on your feet."
"That's true...all right, you're sure it wouldn't be too much bother? You must have been busy with something already..."
"No, I merely wished to escape the house for a while...ahm..." He looked mildly uncomfortable. "You seemed quite startled when I first saw you...surely my appearance didn't frighten you that much?"
"Oh--no, no, it wasn't that...I just thought you might be with her--you know--the one that probably attacked that manitou."
"Oh...that's right. You don't know." She shifted from foot to foot. "Can I tell you while we go there? I'm getting kind of nervous just standing around."
"Of course. Just give me a moment..."
He lowered his head and Charmian covered her eyes when the brilliant glow surrounded him and then died away. The chocolate-brown Ocryx stretched out one wing, and for the first time Charmian noticed it was of a dark bronze color with flecks glowing golden in the necklace's light. He was about Tal Natha's size, only slightly stockier, as X'aaru was; his horns curved up and outward to the sides, like a cross between those of a bull and those of an antelope. The glowing red and green eyes, however, were the same. He glanced over his shoulder as she climbed atop his back, grabbing hold of the fur at his nape. She knew it wouldn't hurt him, from having roughhoused so many times with her dog; he even asked, "Are you holding on tightly?" and she nodded.
He turned away again and lurched low to the ground before pushing off, spinning upwards through the treetops almost instantly; Charmian had to gasp for her breath, feeling as if her lungs had been left behind. The air whipped icy around her and she ducked, burrowing herself between his wings. She heard them beat hard, once, twice, then a thick cold moisture surrounded her; that soon vanished, the spinning slowly abated, and she opened her eyes and lifted her head, her ears ringing. Her eyes grew and she looked around her.
The moon shone above, half bright and half dark surrounded by navy blue. Below them, it was as if they flew over an endless expanse of cotton stained the color of midnight by the sky above. She searched around for the Island, but couldn't find it.
"Where are we?" she asked, stupidly.
"Above the cloudcover. It's quite low tonight. It will be quicker this way."
"But we can't see the Island, or the cave, from way up here!"
"Don't worry. I can tell if we wander off course."
As if to punctuate this statement he swooped down toward the clouds, earning a tiny shriek from Charmian, and she saw her feet and the bottom half of his body disappear into the mist. He dipped his head and the cloud swirled around him like dry ice melting. She couldn't help laughing with amazement, reaching out to snatch at the air with her fingers. He didn't laugh, but she could tell he grinned.
"This is so cool!" Charmian cried, then laughed again. "And I sound sooo stupid!!"
This time his laugh joined hers. "Don't be ashamed of it--you should have seen me the first time I tried this. I must have looked like a silly puppy trying to eat the air!"
They both laughed together, and Charmian made certain that she still held on tightly, but not too tightly to choke him. He swept up from the clouds again, straightening his path, and his wings beat a few times before he caught the current and they sailed on silently for a time.
After a while he lifted his head and she caught sight of his eye looking back at her. "Her?" he said again, voice raised so she could hear him over the chill wind rushing past her ears. "Do you mean Ocryana again?"
"Well...I thought we did, at first, but now I think we might be wrong. Silver Eagle Feather told us what she looks like. She's got gray fur and black wings."
"I have yet to see her for myself, but this is what I've been told as well. What did you see?"
"An Ocryx chased us, but she had tawny fur and gold wings. I think maybe she tried to kill that manitou. And maybe she works for Ocryana."
"I've never heard of this one!"
"No...nor have I ever seen her!" His muzzle wrinkled with confusion. "She must be Ocryana's, for I feel I would have known of her, sooner, had it been otherwise."
Charmian fell silent for a moment, staring out at the clouds and the moon, sinking behind them.
"So...what's your story?"
"Mine?" He glanced backward, then forward again, ears lowering slightly. "I suppose it must be obvious for you to see..."
"I know...but how did it happen? What about your dad--your human dad? You said that you live with him..."
"My father...my human father could not father children. At least this is what my mother told me, when I found out."
"Yes. When I found out what I was." He paused. "I didn't know until I was around fourteen, and even then I discovered it only on accident." Another pause before he continued. "My mother told me then...though I'd suspected things before that, with the way the natives always looked at me. I long knew I was different from the rest of them." He glanced back at her again. "You truly couldn't tell?"
"Well...maybe when you healed X'aaru I got some suspicions...but for all I know that was something normal around here!"
"No, but I suppose you know that now...I don't know whether I got that from him or not. You can tell that with most of us there's something different from others. Perhaps it's a facial feature, perhaps an ability, but we all seem to have at least one thing noticeable."
"Red Bird's red hair!" Charmian exclaimed. "And Silver Eagle Feather's green eyes!"
He nodded. "Perhaps this, this ability, this is what I have...I can't be certain, though." He turned back to watch the clouds pass below them. "In any case, she told me it would not be a wise idea to go see him, but I decided to anyway. He is my father."
"How did he take that?"
"You assume he would take it poorly?"
"Well, he didn't like Tal Natha or X'aaru showing up..."
"He...tends to be like that. At least from what I can tell. I've never come to know him very well, yet. I have seen him only a few times."
"So how did he act?"
"He didn't threaten me, but nor did he welcome me, either. I could tell he was uncomfortable, so I left. I had merely wanted to meet him."
"Why did he give you the necklace? He really doesn't seem to like giving things away."
"This is true. I believe my mother had gone to see him." One of his ears twitched. "As he did not keep me after my birth...then she still owes him payment."
"What sort of payment?"
"This I don't know. She goes to speak with him sometimes, and always returns, but she has yet to tell me what they speak about. I believe it would be best for me not to ask. I followed her once," he added, "down to the lake. She always goes at night. The manitous won't harm her, though I've never trusted Mitchi."
"Don't worry--I don't trust him either!"
"When I got there, she was speaking with him already. But I couldn't hear what they said. And they noticed me creeping up behind them, even though I'd been careful to be quiet. They both looked right at me." He gave a small snort. "You must be able to imagine what that felt like."
"Yeah, I think I can..."
"I stood up then and came out of the bushes for hiding had no real point anymore...they stared at me a moment before she turned to him and said something, which I still couldn't hear. He looked at her--he seemed to scowl--and then he disappeared beneath the water. She stood waiting for him. And soon his head broke the surface of the water again and he carried something in his mouth." He tucked his nose down to touch the necklace trailing beneath him. "This. He gave it to her and said something, then sort of nodded his head in my direction, though not at me. She said something back to him and he went back under the lake, and she came back to me." He shrugged, difficult as they still flew. "When she reached me she gave it to me and said it was a 'gift' from him. Though from what I saw, it looks as if she asked him for it. I don't know why he gave it to her, or why she gave it to me. It must have been a prized part of his collection. It glows like this sometimes, so there must be some sort of magic in it."
"Well, remember how it seems to glow only for you? Maybe that's why he gave it to you. It's a thought."
"I suppose..." His ears perked up again and he sniffed at the air. "Hold on. I believe we're about there; I'll move in closer."
Charmian hugged herself to him and he plunged down through the clouds, the mist spraying them again. She chattered. The air grew dry but no warmer and she opened her eyes a sliver to peer around, but the land was still cloaked in darkness as it had been before; though the necklace still glowed, the light didn't reach what lay beneath them. She didn't know how Justin could tell where they were, unless he really did use his sense of smell, or some other Ocryx talent.
"Are we there?"
"Yes, it lies just below a ways, but into the woods. It would be impossible to fly down there. I'll take you as far as I can." He cocked his head. "I could still accompany you, though not in this form. At least you would still be able to see. Would you like me to come along?"
Charmian considered her options. She'd wished to finish the trip to Cave of the Woods alone, and possibly to poke around to find out where Sikt had gone; she didn't feel safe doing that now that Justin was here. On the other hand, the thought of walking around in complete blackness again was even more unappealing. Sikt had been inexcusably rude just running off like that. She could wait until later.
"Charmian?" Justin said. He swooped into a hard right, golden light surrounding them as he entered a tunnel of trees lining a long wide path.
"I--yeah, okay," Charmian said, trying to stop her teeth from clacking. "So I don't get lost or anything. Thanks."
"It's no trouble."
He tucked his wings in closer and coasted to the ground, claws digging into the earth. Charmian grabbed onto his neck to avoid falling off when he came to a stumbling halt, tail and wings flailing for balance. He stretched one out again and she carefully climbed off.
"Ahm..." Justin said, voice apologetic, as she tried to rub the dampness from her sleeves. "I apologize...I have yet to learn how to land properly while carrying someone. I don't get much practice..."
Charmian tried to bite down a smile and hoped he didn't see it. "It's okay. You must have more important things to do than carry people around." She glanced about her. "Where are we, anyway? I can't see any cave..."
She felt a bit nervous at first, wondering exactly where he'd brought her and why; maybe she'd accepted his offer of help a bit too quickly. She didn't see him hurrying to change his shape back as he sniffed at the ground and ambled on ahead of her. She tried to keep her thoughts from his mind as he replied.
"I'm afraid this road has no name...it has only recently been put here, I believe. From the last year or so." She hurried to catch up with him. "Still, I've heard that in the wintertime the GeeBees or Windwalkers tend to take people from the road while they walk...so it's best to always keep yourself alert, just in case..."
"Windwalkers? What are those?"
"Wendigoes. Kin to the GeeBees, from what little I know. Moon Wolf warned me about them when I visited him. People rarely see them, if they see them at all. More often than not they seem to appear from nowhere, and no one gets a glance at what they look like." He lifted his head to sniff at the air; Charmian strained her ears, and though it hadn't been windy before, right now she heard, far off, a dull, forlorn moaning, as of the wind in the treetops. She shivered. Justin continued. "I've heard that if you ever see one, then you're already gone. They pick people up and carry them away into the sky. I'm not certain if any of them are ever seen again."
"I think I'm gonna have to tell Drake about this," Charmian muttered.
"I've heard they seem to favor the open spaces, of which there aren't many on the Island; but there is one not far from Cave of the Woods, and this road is just long and wide enough for them to peruse it. So you see, you have not only Ocryxes and GeeBees and manitous to deal with here. This place literally crawls with monsters."
"It doesn't seem to stop you from getting out."
"Well--" He cast a look at her, fanning his wings as if wondering what he could do to make himself more obvious. Charmian had to bite back a grin again.
"I know...when in doubt, shapeshift."
"The ability obviously isn't innate to your kind."
"I know. I guess I see what you mean...stay away from lonely roads and open spaces in the winter."
"I think it would be best to keep away from them entirely, unless accompanied by one who has been here longer than you." He started sniffing the ground again. "I believe we head in the proper direction. This walk may take some time, and then we reach another trail into the woods, one not quite so wide and open. But at least there will be less chance of being set upon."
"Lead the way, I guess..."
Justin ambled off down the road. Charmian followed, still rubbing her arms. Even though she wasn't certain she could trust him, she was thankful for the light.
She nearly started when the faintest voice in the back of her mind suddenly said, Charmian.
She opened her mouth to reply but the voice continued.
Do not acknowledge me. Not even with a thought. I did not mean to leave you so abruptly, but I sensed him nearby. I am not certain yet if he is friendly or hostile. I speak only to you now so he cannot hear, but if you should reply he will likely take notice. You are not used to communicating this way, yet.
Charmian kept her mind as blank as she could, though she was dying to ask questions.
I know you have questions for me, but they must wait. I will remain silent until he is away. There is no point in taking risks. Keep on your guard with him.
Charmian wanted to nod, but refrained. She felt Sikt retreat again and let out her breath. Justin glanced back at her with a questioning look and she waved a hand at the air, offering an embarrassed smile.
"Sorry...not used to lots of walking."
His ears lowered a bit. "I'm sorry...perhaps I should have carried you further."
"No, no, that's all right! Heh heh!" She gave what she was certain was a doofy grin and jogged to catch up to him, rubbing the back of her neck. "No problem at all...Mom always said I should get out and exercise more."
He smiled slightly. "My mother would seem to prefer that I stay in more."
She laughed, a bit too nervously. He didn't seem to notice, and turned back to look where he was going. They continued on this way in silence for what seemed to be a good while, and Charmian simply retreated inside her head again, wishing Sikt were there, not having to pay any attention to where she walked anymore. The road was straight and wide and roofed overhead by tree branches, as if they walked down a long tunnel, the cave, their destination, waiting at the end.
Using this method of distracting herself, it didn't seem so very long after all that she heard Justin say, "We turn here."
She shook herself awake and peered off to the side. Justin lifted the glowing pendant in his teeth and pointed it at the trees, where she could see a small sidetrail opening up before them. He'd been correct in describing it earlier...it was nowhere near as wide as this one. Charmian felt her fear of the dark come creeping back.
"What if there's something out there?"
"The question isn't if, it's where and what." He shook his head. "Forgive me. Most often the creatures here really aren't dangerous. But it's the ones that are that you must watch out for." He took a breath and the light enveloped him so he became himself again. "I'll walk in the front, and light the way, if it makes you more comfortable."
She nodded. "Um...yeah. Thanks. I'm not good at walking point..."
Another half-smile. "Well, I never would say that I am, either, but I suppose it's better than nothing. Please follow, another ten minutes or so and we should be there." He turned and stepped into the woods, almost immediately disappearing from her sight. Gasping at the blackness that pulled in around her, she jumped in after him, having to bite her tongue to keep from calling out, "Wait up!"
They went on as they had before, only with him in human form this time, keeping silent. The only sounds Charmian could make out were the rustling of damp leaves beneath her--had the rain reached here, somehow, already?--and that faraway moaning. It made her feel cold and depressed. She thought of home for what seemed to be the hundredth time. Why had she come here so quickly, given up her real life on such a whim? That wasn't even like her. Out of all her cousins and friends, everyone in her family always remarked about how sensible she was, the most clearheaded one in the family. So how had she lapsed so much, to end up on this strange disappearing Island now, walking with a half-demon, half-human through the woods, looking out for cannibal wind monsters, searching for a man living in a cave in the middle of nowhere? What kind of sense did all of this make?
I'm in need of a SERIOUS talk with myself, she thought with a mutter.
She tripped over something, and put out her arms, bracing herself to fall on her face. Justin grabbed her arm and shoulder and helped her back up, pulling her toward him and looking her over briefly to make certain she was uninjured. She found herself flushing furiously, uncertain why, and was glad he had turned away to look down the trail so he couldn't see the color in her face.
"Not much longer now...can you see where you're going?"
"I--um--yeah, I can...I think I got distracted...sorry, won't happen again."
He moved on and she followed, slapping herself upside the head mentally. DOOFus! DOOFus! DOOFus!!
After several more moments he slowed before her, and she made certain to do the same; she was too embarrassed to make an idiot of herself again so soon. He glanced sideways, to the left, then stepped back to the side several paces and gestured.
"This way. Right over here. There's a bit of a rise, and some rocks and such, so watch your step."
"Thanks." She took his hand when he offered it and helped her up the small slope. Despite her best efforts she tripped again and scraped her knee; he helped her up and she dusted it off, looking around. The gold light finally crept around the trees and she could make out a large hulking mound off to her left. She squinted at this.
"Is...is that it?"
"Yes, Cave of the Woods."
She frowned and stepped toward it, rubbing one eye. Somehow it just...wasn't what she'd expected. Instead of a giant looming cave hung with stalactites, there was merely a large rock with a small black space beneath it, barely more than a crevice large enough to fit a grown person's body in, rising a few feet or so from the ground and tapering off at the edges like a big frowning mouth. She would be lucky if she could wedge herself in there and avoid a windstorm, it was so small.
"Um..." she said, as Justin came up beside her. "I'm trying to picture this in my head...but I can't quite figure out how anybody can actually live in there."
"Oh. It's bigger than it looks on the outside, trust me. It's a tight squeeze getting in, but once inside, it's more spacious." He held out his hand. "You'd like some assistance?"
"Well...if you think it might help, but really, I don't see how we're both going to fit in there, much less me alone..."
He didn't reply, but they both approached the cave. He started to duck down inside it, pulling her along, when the scraping of something against the rock caused him to jerk back, nearly pushing her over. Charmian was about to ask him what was going on when something small and fast--all arms and legs and eyes and snapping teeth--flew from the opening, screeching and launching itself straight at Justin's face.