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Manitou Island: Part 46
CHARMIAN LIFTED HER head higher, though the tunnel prevented her from doing so very much. "Sikt?" she called out, and again, louder, "Sikt!"
Her voice echoed down the tunnel and into the room beyond, but aside from that there was no reply.
She sat down and wrapped her arms around herself. Though Sikt had been with her only a short time, she felt so...empty without the demon there. Her heightened senses were gone, and she could no longer sense danger but for the ominous feeling this place gave her.
An idea slipped into her head. That mist. Sikt had been with her before that. The Ocryx had growled when it had approached, and once it had gone...so had she. Coincidence? Charmian didn't think so.
Her face set and she crawled forward, toward the cave. Her heart was just about struggling out of her throat but she couldn't leave the demon behind.
That mist is responsible for this. It TOOK her. I'm NOT letting it get away!
She had no idea how she'd fight such a thing...what if it sucked her very spirit out of her, too? She swallowed at the thought but kept moving. With her luck she'd end up in Augwak's body, instead.
Augwak's body! She'd almost forgotten that!
She slipped into the room again and got to her feet. Augwak still lay where she'd left him. He'd have to wait for now. Sikt was her top priority. She made her way toward the other exit before stopping abruptly. Several pale faces peered back out at her, eyes wide.
Those white things!
"Hey!" she shouted, lunging forward. They'd been carrying Augwak away and seemed to know this place; maybe they knew something about the mist. On hearing her cry they immediately opened their mouths wide and turned, leaping away down the tunnel. Charmian stopped at the entrance and peered into the darkness at their receding shapes. She clenched her fists with some frustration, but told herself to be happy that at least they hadn't attacked her. Yet.
Forcing herself to remain calm, she unclenched her fists and let out her breath. The tunnel leading away was wider than the one she had just departed, but it wasn't well lit like the other one. This one faded into dimness and she couldn't see the end. What was with this place? The mist must have gone that way, so she had to go in, one way or the other. She put her hand against the edge and crept inside. The air was warm and dry, nothing like what she'd expected. And she still smelled flowers.
I must be going nuts...what would flowers be doing way down here?
No time for questions like that...she started off down the tunnel, keeping her eyes open for...whatever.
The walk seemed a lot longer without Sikt inside to keep her company. She'd never realized until now just how lonely it was to be alone, not even when in the dark on her way to Cave of the Woods. At least then Sikt had been there to show her the way. Now she didn't have even that.
This thought made her pause.
What if Sikt had planned this?
She bit her lip and moved on. Yes, it was always possible, what with how Moon Wolf had been haranguing her to do everything by herself...but how would he have known about the demon inside her? Or had Sikt decided to do this herself? Why would she do such a thing?
Had she been a little too quick to trust the Ocryx with her mind?
She worried about Drake now, with Dakh still inside him, and Dakh seemed the more powerful of the two...
A hissing, whispering noise caught her attention. She stopped and found that she'd wandered into another cave, this one much smaller, just a hollowed-out rounded part of the tunnel. It was dim, but the pale figures at the other side she could make out clearly. The same things that had been carrying Augwak away when she'd caught them in the act. There were two of them here, huddled against the wall, and she felt her skin crawl just looking at them. They were so like GeeBees it was uncanny; the same large round eyes and skulls, the same pointed ears and teeth and gangly limbs. But their skin glowed a pale white, as did their eyes and pupils and everything else. And...she couldn't quite explain it...there was something distinctly non-GeeBee about them. Or something aside from the GeeBees. She scoured their features, trying hard to determine what it was, only to notice that one of them had tufts of fur at the tips of its ears. The other had heavy claws upon one hand--only one. And its face had a slightly different shape--its mouth and nose projected somewhat, like a muzzle. Looking more closely she even saw that the first one with the furry ears had a tail as well.
"What...?" she murmured, confused.
As soon as she spoke they gave a whispering hiss once more and vanished from the room. "Hey!" she shouted again, throwing up a hand. She ran after them as they bounded away.
"Wait up!" she yelled, hoping they could understand. "I just want to talk to you!"
The creatures didn't stop moving. They had an unusual method of transporting themselves, by bounding along not just the floor, but the walls and ceiling as well, like a cross between a gazelle and a Ping-Pong ball. They hissed and whispered the whole time they went. Somewhere along the way they met up with the third of their kind that she'd seen, and she saw that this one had wings. They started increasing the distance between her and themselves.
"Would you just WAIT UP?!" she shouted as loudly as she could, frustrated.
No response. They disappeared from sight far ahead of her. She groaned with annoyance and kept following, even though her knees were starting to ache and her lungs were burning.
She thought she heard a sound behind her and briefly turned her head to look back--what was it, Augwak?--something else?--before her foot snagged on a rock and she plunged forward, her ribs slamming into the ground. Her teeth sliced through her lip, jaws cracking together, and she could swear she broke something.
"Oohhhhhhhh..." Charmian groaned, and very slowly pushed herself up. Her hand grabbed onto something soft that crushed as soon as she grasped it and she froze. She opened her fingers and rubbed them together a bit. Whatever she'd just squished fluttered to the ground and she turned with much trepidation to see what it had been.
Little flecks of pink lay scattered over the rock and she realized that green was spread amongst them. Grass. Flower petals. In her hand the pathetic remains of a stem remained stuck to her palm. She picked at it with her thumb and it too fell to the ground.
A flower? Grass...?
She lifted her head further. Her eyes grew.
Just ahead of her--in fact, mere inches away--the tunnel she still lay in ended, and beyond it lay...a field?
Where a cave by all rights should have been, instead lay a large rolling field flowing with grass and flowers. The strange light permeated here as well, though she couldn't tell where it came from...the cave ceiling wasn't visible either, instead replaced by blue that looked just like sky, yet had no sun, and misted down into the cave walls near the ground. She could even hear birds singing. It was as if someone had...created a field, deep under the Earth, for whatever purpose.
But who...? And how...?
She carefully pulled herself to her feet, hesitating in the tunnel exit. This was all too strange to go running into unprepared. She figured she shouldn't be surprised by now, so her awe was replaced by suspicion. This couldn't be what it looked like.
Movement far off to the right drew her attention and she again saw the white things. They bounded up into a tree and hung upside down, faces peering out at her, before disappearing into the branches. Well, still nothing was attacking her. She prepared herself to wade through the grass after them only to realize a cobbled trail of sorts led the way right there.
As she walked down it, her sandals clacking, she examined her surroundings. This was all very weird. She'd had a dream once a long time ago that she'd gotten lost in a meadow and this looked almost exactly like it. Except in her dream there had been a fountain. A large gleaming stone fountain spouting numerous arcs of water. It was rather silly to expect something like that out in the middle of nowhere, but then again, in her dream she had always had the feeling that somebody else was nearby. She just hadn't known who.
She also hadn't had that dream in ages. This field was just like any other except that it was underground; she had no idea why she'd remembered that dream again. She hadn't even thought about it in years.
Another noise reached her ears and she stopped again. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as she recognized the sound of gurgling water. There had to be a stream nearby.
She turned to look.
Yes...a stream. Just as she'd thought. She let out her breath and looked to see where it came from.
That was impossible!
The stream--just a small, almost artificially blue-green rivulet winding its way past her--came from ahead of her, to the right of the tree. Soft green grasses waved over its banks. Its source lay hidden beneath a dark stone aperture. Around its mouth, a wide stone circle. Above it, numerous fluting projections, each spouting a stream of water into the air.
It was the fountain. The same one she'd just remembered.
But...that's just nuts!
She chewed on her sore lip while she thought it over. She'd found this place before she even remembered her old dream, so her dream couldn't have influenced what she saw. Except for the fountain. And the fact that it had shown up, so suddenly, and exactly as she'd remembered it--except for the stream--just proved that something strange was up. She briefly considered Tal Natha, but...as far as she knew he was still unconscious. And what would he be doing down here? And why would he suddenly be influencing her waking thoughts?
Had she just hit her head when falling? Maybe this was a dream after all and rather than wander off toward Tal Natha's dream, she'd retreated into her own instead?
She pinched herself, skeptical of the method's efficacy. Nothing happened, as she'd expected. She still didn't think this was the case. She'd hit her jaw, not her cranium.
Sikt Natha or Dakh Natha? They had the ability to travel dreams...maybe they could deliver them as well? She tried to remember what their names meant--Render and Wanderer. She had no idea what a Dreamrender did...and a Dreamwanderer didn't sound like someone who would spin their own dreams. Besides--neither of them was even here!
She clenched her fists and growled out loud. "What the heck is going on!!"
A rustling noise alerted her to the pale creatures in the tree again, and she made her way toward them without any hesitation this time. They scurried up further away from her and she glared up into the branches at their pale moonlike eyes.
"If one of you doesn't come down here and tell me where the heck I am, I'll come up and MAKE you!" she shouted.
They shifted about a bit but their demeanor didn't change, nor did they appear cowed by her threat. They blinked and stared at her like dopey lemurs.
Charmian ground her teeth. "I'm going to figure out where I am whether you HELP me or not!"
One of them offered a soft hissing sound, but that was all.
"Fine then!" Charmian snapped. "I'm going! And if any of you come down again, don't think I won't come back here to make you sorry!"
Even as she turned away she made a face. What a lame comeback.
She headed for the stream, and the fountain at its mouth. No better place to start than that. As she drew close her step slowed and she almost stopped. Seeing the thing in a dream was one thing. Seeing it in real life...no matter which dimension...was something completely different. It looked almost like a giant flower with petals outspread over a round pool, and the spouts poured water down into these petals with a soft gurgling noise. The water was clear coming out, but in the pool it shone a dark amber color. She leaned over to look at her reflection.
Red Bird peered back out at her.
Charmian jumped back with a gasp. What had that been! She pressed one hand to her chest in an effort to stop her heart from beating so hard. Sure, she'd expected something strange, but not that. She shook her head to clear the paranoia--how stupid, to get scared off by a reflection!--and peered forward again, looking down.
There was no mistaking it this time. The face that stared back out wasn't her own. That is, unless she'd suddenly changed into Red Bird.
The water being the only reflective surface here, she had no way to know for certain that that hadn't happened. She felt her face, then pulled on her hair, and it seemed to be the same length as before, much shorter than Red Bird's. She looked her clothes over and compared them to those in her reflection. No match. So what was going on?
So obviously something's wrong with the water. I don't have TIME to be worrying about this. I came here to find Sikt, remember?
True. She pulled herself away from the fountain and glanced around, fiddling her fingers to keep her hands from shaking. This whole place looked peaceful, but something was screwy about it all. And she didn't like it.
The white creatures peered at her out of the tree again. She started to move toward them.
Something probed at the back of her mind.
She gasped anew, jumping and spinning at once and looking around wildly. At first nothing was there, but then she...sensed something. Similar to what she'd felt when the strange mist had first appeared. Was it coming back? She tensed, whether for fight or flight she didn't know, but knew she had to be ready the moment it arrived.
When it did, though, she in no way felt prepared.
She didn't even notice it at first, until it had almost completely coalesced right before her--where had it even come from?--a shapeless foggy mass, glittering like confetti, shifting like smoke. Charmian's eyes grew wide and her hands and feet felt numb. She couldn't have fought the thing off even if it attacked her. This realization made her start to panic, even as she couldn't find her voice to let out a yell. The mist floated closer and stopped, just inches from her face. She sucked in a breath and held it, fearful of inhaling the thing.
I will not harm you.
She blinked. The mist...had it just...talked? She felt a tingling in her limbs and her throat started working again, though no words came out. She lowered her arms, bringing them in and rubbing her suddenly cold hands, all the while staring at the shifting mass. If it had spoken to her...it must be intelligent.
"Wh...who are you?"
It was a moment before the mist answered her, and then it "spoke" in her mind, again in the same soft feminine voice it had used to greet her. I cannot tell you this now.
"Where am I, then?" Charmian asked, voice growing louder. She rubbed her numbed fingers furiously. "Can you tell me that?"
You approach the Gemfields. You are within the Borderlands.
"Borderlands? What is that?"
You are in the space between dreaming and life. The mist shifted a bit, breaking apart, then re-formed. I cannot tell you more right now.
"Are you a...good guy or a bad guy?"
I will not harm you. The Nathali is safe.
"Huh?" Another blink. Charmian wasn't certain she'd heard correctly. "You mean...Sikt? Sikt is okay? Where is she?"
She is safe. They are safe. The Spinner, the Render, and the Wanderer all. The cloud shifted a bit more, and then Charmian started back when she saw two glowing shapes staring at her. Eyes? In a cloud--?
I give her back to you, the voice said, and Charmian put her hands to her head when she felt a presence settle there, far in back. She sleeps, for a moment. The glowing shapes--eyes--whatever they were--floated within the cloud, every so often growing hazy but remaining focused on her. Please protect her.
Charmian's hand clenched in on itself. "I already was," she murmured.
Thank you. The cloud started to drift off to the side.
"But--but why do you care about her?" Charmian asked, following it. It floated slowly toward the stream. "Why do you care about any of them? What are you? What is this place?"
I will tell you, once new dreams have been born, and once the path to the Gemfields has been opened for you by He Who Brings The Arcing Trail. The little cloud floated over the water.
"Huh?" Charmian almost shouted this time. She waved her arms. "Well--what does all THAT mean?! Dakh and Sikt I get, but--what's all that other stuff? I don't understand! Are you here to help me or hinder me?"
The little cloud finally stopped and hovered over the stream, casting a pale reflection. Charmian stopped as well, staring at it. The glowing spots reappeared and turned her way.
The death of the Island is the death of the last Great Dream, it said. Please protect it. I will watch. A slight pause, more mental than actual. They will help you, with the burden you must bear to the surface.
The glowing spots shifted to the side as if pointing. Charmian turned to see where. She found herself looking at the tree with the pale creatures hanging from it. On seeing the two staring at them, they swung out and dropped to the ground, landing on all fours. They came her way, capering like monkeys. Charmian felt a brief surge of revulsion before the mist spoke again.
They will not harm you. They are of the Borderlands. The mist started moving away again, this time toward the fountain. They will help you. Please be safe.
"Wait a minute!" Charmian ran after it a ways. "You haven't answered anything! What are they? And how come this place looks like my dream? Come back!"
The gleaming vapor reached the fountain and dissipated between the streams of water, vanishing from her sight. Charmian slowed to a stop and lowered her raised hand, a despairing feeling rising up inside her. She sensed that the...mist...or whatever it was...had been truthful with her, if evasive. She hadn't sensed any deviousness. Then again, her senses weren't always the best, especially around here. It had snatched Sikt away from her, and the Ocryx had reacted threateningly when this happened. Yet...it had also given Sikt back. Could she trust it?
The white GeeBee-like creatures, rasping and squeaking, gamboled past her. She spun around to watch them spring through the tunnel entrance that still lay behind her. They disappeared into darkness and she heard them getting further away.
Her fists clenched again. "Hold up!" she shouted, and ran in after them.