Manitou Island: Part 53
Worse Than The Disease
OCRYANA'S LAUGHTER ECHOED through the woods. Charmian ran forward as Tal Natha sank to the snowy ground with a strange wheezing noise that filled her with dread. It looked as if he had been struck in the breast, yet--she'd seen nothing hit him. Ocryana hadn't even thrown anything at him!
She reached the demon and dropped down beside him, taking his arm. He panted heavily, though he seemed to be recovering from--whatever it was--already. He lifted his head and his eyes brightened a little, focusing on Ocryana. He growled and started to get to his feet.
Ocryana raised her hand and clenched her fist again. And again, he crumpled to the ground, curling up with pain. Charmian stared at him with wide eyes, confused. He had placed one hand to his chest, and if she hadn't known better she would have thought he was having a heart attack.
"Tal Natha, what is it? What's wrong?" she whispered; then glared up at Ocryana. "What did you do to him?"
The Ocryx gave her a nasty grin, her teeth glittering. "I did nothing. I didn't have to. It appears to have been taken care of for me!" She let out a cackle and clenched her fist at the air repeatedly as if she were honking a bicycle horn. With each motion Tal Natha yelped and jerked, tail thrashing and wings flapping.
Charmian ground her teeth. Tears blurred her eyes; she hated seeing him in such pain. Her fingers, numb with cold, clutched the icicle.
Ocryana's laugh suddenly broke off into a startled bark and her eyes widened. She whipped around and Charmian saw Justin backing away, blood on his teeth. Ocryana's tail bore fang marks. She raised her claws at him. "You foolish--!"
Charmian seized her chance and ran forward, stabbing the icicle into the demon's back. Ocryana shrieked and flailed around so violently that she jumped out of the way to avoid getting hit, landing near Tal Natha. He lay panting and weak, but she could tell that he saw her. She scrabbled to her feet and hurried to the sapling, breaking off another icicle. By the time she'd run back Ocryana had wrenched the first one from her back; not seeing Charmian nearby, she'd turned back on Justin. The brown Ocryx crouched low to the ground, teeth bared and horns pointed forward. For some reason she didn't seem as confident with him as she had been with Tal Natha; Charmian couldn't understand it. Tal Natha was one of the powerful Ocryxes; Justin was weak. How had she gotten so much power over Tal Natha already? And why did Justin concern her more?
She saw Charmian approaching and her muzzle wrinkled into an ugly pattern. She began to turn toward her, only to notice another form rising off to her side. She started with surprise when Tal Natha appeared, lowering his head and growling at her. Charmian came to a stop before all three of them.
Ocryana's look grew even uglier and she raised her hand.
Charmian did the same with the icicle. "If you try that again I'll stick this in your eye next time."
The demon's eyes grew slightly uncertain. "You have not this power," she grated.
"Wanna find out?" Charmian bounced the icicle on her palm. "You didn't really seem to like it the first two times."
Ocryana showed her fangs. Her tail swished over the snow, leaving a snaking trail. She slowly took a step backward.
I know not where you got this medicine. But I will have you all. When I have more power. Which I will, soon. And then your heads will be my trophies.
"Tell it to someone who cares," Charmian replied. She wished she could have thought of something more original, but she supposed it would have to do.
Ocryana flapped her wings and rose above their heads. None of the Ocryxes took their eyes off each other until she turned with another growl and moved away over the trees.
Charmian let out her breath. She noticed Tal Natha still watching the sky; his head sank and he crouched to rest against the ground. She hurried to him and put her hand on his shoulder.
"Tal Natha, what did she do to you?"
Tal Natha put out his foot and slowly pushed himself up again. She...needed to do very little.
He didn't clarify; Charmian wanted him to, but decided not to ask, as she tried to help him to his feet. She saw Justin now, changed back to his normal form; he was doing likewise with Shadow Water, helping her to stand. She held one hand to her face but Charmian could see she was unhurt. Justin must have taken care of her while she was busy with Ocryana. Both of them stared up at the part of the sky where the demon had disappeared. Justin approached, shielding his eyes from nothing.
"This makes little sense," he murmured, "why she would simply leave like this."
You have heard her. She gathers power from somewhere. For some reason she believes she has yet to reach full strength. For once I would not doubt her.
"But why was she so easily overcome in the first place?" He turned to look at Charmian with a frown, and Tal Natha and Shadow Water did the same. Charmian felt her ears growing hot. His voice dropped as if he thought she couldn't hear. "She has some sort of power...?"
I had...thought her power lay mainly in her dreams. Now Tal Natha frowned. It appears perhaps I was wrong after all...
Charmian rubbed the back of her neck. "C'mon guys, you're freaking me out. I don't have any power!"
She gasped when Justin took the icicle from her hand; she hadn't even noticed him come close. He turned it this way and that with puzzlement while Tal Natha sniffed at the bloody one lying upon the ground.
"Just an icicle," Justin murmured.
The same it is here...
"She's half water elemental, so I don't see why this would have bothered her so much."
I can see one way it would have...but it makes no sense either. His ear twitched and he looked at Charmian again. She does not have this power...
"Okaaay," Charmian interrupted. "Can we get over it? I just got lucky. Maybe it was the training. What I want to know is what that was that she did to you. Should I be worrying about that?"
In response Tal Natha turned away and moved toward the woods, sniffing at the air. Charmian's mouth twisted and she looked at Justin; he shrugged and shook his head. She noticed Shadow Water walking slowly forward and turned around.
"Oh...is she okay?"
"Yes." Justin reached out and touched the side of her face, where Ocryana had struck her. She kept her eyes down and stopped several feet away. Justin's own eyes grew dark. "Probably more frightened than anything. I can't believe I did nothing."
"It wasn't your--"
"Do not even say it. The whole time you and Tal Natha stood strong, I did barely anything but snap at her tail like a coward." He pulled his hand away from Shadow Water's face and turned away. "There is no excuse for this."
Charmian and Shadow Water watched as he walked away a little bit. Shadow Water glanced at Charmian and the teenager wasn't quite sure what she was trying to say. Those large dark eyes made her think so much of Red Bird that she found herself wondering if that was what Justin saw in her after all. Before she could wonder about it too much Shadow Water went and followed Justin.
And so now she stood in the snow, pretty much by herself.
She sighed and moved to face Tal Natha. "Well now that it's all over, maybe we should just try to get back to Sugar Loaf. Silver Eagle Feather and X'aaru have to be back there by n..."
A loud halloo caught her attention and her eyes grew. The other three all turned to look at her and she rubbed her neck again and gave a guilty smile.
"Um, you know...I kind of left Cave of the Woods without telling somebody...and I kind of think he just found out..."
Tal Natha's mouth twitched. Charmian held up one hand.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I just got bored over there and wanted to see you guys, that's all..."
A figure appeared at the edge of the woods, not even having made any sound tromping through the snow. Moon Wolf glanced over at her and she held up both of her hands now, seeing the look on his face. He spoke before she was able to.
"And so you spend your time out here all day, rather than back where you belong? Suddenly you understand everything there is to know about the Island? I suppose you can even believe you are fully equipped to take on Ocryx himself?"
Charmian whispered to the others, loud enough for Moon Wolf to hear, "See what I have to put up with?" She turned back to him and had to chew on the inside of her mouth to keep her voice level.
"Look, I didn't mean to be gone that long, but with how much you keep me cooped up, I think I deserved a break anyway."
Moon Wolf's eyes narrowed. Even Justin and Tal Natha looked uncertain. "There are no 'breaks.' Unless you would like to count those that any of the creatures here may deal your bones if you don't go back now."
"Bet it took you ages to come up with that one," Charmian muttered. She looked back at Tal Natha. "Tal Natha? Would you come? I don't like leaving you after...whatever that was."
Tal Natha's foot scuffed the snow. I should head back for Sugar Loaf to see how the others are doing. I will be fine.
Charmian bit her lip. She sensed the Ocryx wasn't being entirely truthful with her, but couldn't be sure why. "Well...okay. If you meet Mani there tell him he can come back whenever he wants, or stay there, whichever. And if you meet Pakwa tell him to drop by, I think I want to talk to him about something."
Tal Natha nodded and turned, walking off through the woods. Justin and Shadow Water watched him go before Justin came toward her, and she saw him reach around his neck.
"Here," he said as he stopped, pulling off the necklace he wore. Charmian stared at it as he held it out. "Take it."
"I'm...I'm not really sure." He paused, and she could tell he was confused himself. "I just had a feeling I should be giving it to you. I don't really have any use for it anyway, all I need to do is light a candle if I want to see where I'm going so badly. Will you take it?"
Charmian looked at the necklace. She was actually tempted...it made a better light than the fireling. But she remembered that it didn't work for her...and she noticed how Shadow Water stared at it as well. She bit the inside of her mouth again.
"No, you better keep it. I don't think I'm supposed to have it."
His brow furrowed. "You're sure...?"
"Yeah, I'm sure..." She pushed it back, and his hand with it. "Maybe you can think of somebody better to give it to someday." She hoped she didn't sound bitter.
He seemed to catch the tone in her voice despite her efforts, and looked at Shadow Water. Seeing that they were staring at her, she flushed and glanced at the ground. Justin sighed and took the necklace back.
"All right...but be careful on the way back. I hear...I hear the wind picking up." He lifted his head to look at the sky. Charmian did the same, but saw nothing; it had clouded over, and was now so dark out that if she had not been used to it by now, she wouldn't have been able to see. Justin slipped the necklace back over his head and it let out a pale golden glow. He walked away, back to Shadow Water. Charmian turned to where Moon Wolf had been and bundled herself a bit, shaking off the cold. The native wasn't there right now; of course he would have started off without her. Typical. She followed his footprints in the snow and hoped everyone would make it back all right before true blackness fell.
"Sikt," she murmured as she went. "I know that Tal Natha was lying to me. I don't think he's ever lied to me before. It doesn't seem like him. Why would he start doing that now?"
He wishes for you not to worry about him, the same as with Red Bird. He has reason.
"But what is his reason? He wouldn't tell me. I hate it when people leave me in the dark, like I don't deserve to know."
He did not wish for you to feel responsible.
Charmian stopped and cocked her head, baffled. "What? Why would I be responsible? How could--whatever Ocryana did to him--have anything to do with me?"
She could sense Sikt shifting about and sighed. "Come on, not you too. Just tell me what's going on? And what I have to do with it? It's better than just leaving me hanging!"
A pause, and then something that might have been a mental sigh. Very well...but you must remember the reasons why you did what you have done.
"What DID I do?"
Another short pause. Tal Natha's spirit stone. You remember when he was injured, by Ocryana's horn.
Charmian nodded. "Uh-huh. Of course. Moon Wolf told me the only way to heal it was to make a patch from Ocryx's spirit stone, so he gave me a piece of it and I fixed it up." She frowned. "This has something to do with it? Moon Wolf said that was the only way to fix it."
He was correct. You saved Tal Natha when you did this.
"But...?" She knew there had to be a "but."
But what you have done to help him... Sikt trailed off for a moment, before continuing. ...may be more hurt to him in the long run, than help.
"What?" Charmian felt confusion overcome her. "But--how? What do you mean--?"
What Moon Wolf told you. The cure may be worse than the disease.
"What does THAT mean!"
It means that when you helped Tal Natha you may have doomed him as well. Before she could start yelling the demon went on. The "patch" you made from Ocryx's spirit stone. This took care of Tal Natha's problem, temporarily. But Ocryx's spirit is full of darkness and hate. It is nothing like Tal Natha's. You noticed the color of the stone. Dark and murky, like the evil that dwells within him.
Think of it as similar to the medicine your people use on the mainland. When one needs something new to replace something that is injured, it is replaced with that from another of your kind. But if the two are not compatible, one may die anyway.
"You mean...Tal Natha might...reject the spirit stone?"
No. Light is more powerful than darkness, but darkness is more insidious. The evil from Ocryx's spirit will eventually overtake Tal Natha, until he either succumbs to it, or dies. The guardian of the Island will not willingly allow himself to be corrupted. If he is able, he would rather die than allow this. The choice, however, may not be his to make. Ocryana has seen this weakness, and knows. She may use it to her advantage now.
Charmian stood in the snow with the world crumbling around her. She felt her insides shrinking in on themselves as what Sikt had just said sank in. All this time, she'd thought she was saving Tal Natha, when in truth, she was only delaying the inevitable...perhaps even making it worse. Instead of simply dying and taking the Island with him, now...it looked as if he could be turned upon that very thing he'd been sworn to protect.
She sank down in the snow, landing on her knees. Her numb fingers clutched at the front of her jacket.
"Tal Natha," she whispered.
Now you see why he did not wish to tell you this. Sikt paused for a moment. Charmian...you must not blame yourself. You had no way to know.
"Why didn't...why didn't Moon Wolf tell me?"
He knew that you would have tried anyway, if you believed it was the only thing to do. And you would have. Your actions would not have changed, no matter what your foreknowledge.
"Yes...yes they would," Charmian murmured faintly, and then, louder, "Yes they would...I wouldn't have screwed up like I did. I wouldn't have made this all worse than it already is!"
She stumbled to her feet, clenching her fists. Her eyes blurred; how could she have been so stupid? Moon Wolf had even tried to warn her--she remembered it now. When she'd seen the difference between Augwak's and Pomiere's spirit stones--one murky red, the other clear brilliant blue--she should have realized what she'd done. After months here, she hadn't learned a thing.
Sikt spoke up again. Charmian--
"No. You're right. I screwed it all up." She furiously brushed the tears from her eyes before they could fall. "And instead of just telling me he's keeping it from me. So I don't feel hurt! When I'm the one who's going to end up killing him, or the Island, or both!"
She started running off through the snow, stumbling, not even sure where she intended to go. Low branches swept at her face and arms but she didn't care. The trees, the hills, Arch Rock, Fort Holmes, the lake and caves and woods wouldn't even be here come spring because of her. X'aaru and Francois and Red Bird and Red Bird's baby. All gone. She wished she'd never accepted Tal Natha's invitation to the Island.
She tripped and slammed down facefirst into the snow, sputtering. When she scrabbled to get back up she paused and held her breath, listening. The wind let out a low faint moan far over the trees. She could imagine the lake, just beginning to freeze over, rippling darkly beneath the clouds.
She rubbed her arms and jumped when something seemed to whisper to her.
Charmian glanced around wildly, but saw nothing, no one. The voice had been that of a woman--a female--yet not any she knew. Not Silver Eagle Feather, not Red Bird, not Shadow Water or Ocryana or Old Mother Manitou or even the other Ocryx. She'd never heard it before...but for some reason, it seemed to know who she was.
She was just about ready to shake it off as merely the wind when she heard it again, closer this time.
She suddenly remembered what the natives of this place had kept telling her about winter. About what came out with the wind at night, and carried people off into the sky. The Windwalkers--the Wendigoes--who appeared and disappeared as quickly as they had come. She remembered what Justin had told her about them.
I've heard that if you ever see one, then you're already gone...
Without a further thought Charmian spun on one foot and ran. Speeding through the woods as fast as she could, jumping fallen timbers and unfrozen brooks, tripping over and splashing through others. As she ran the wind grew louder behind her, then above her, then all around her. She ran faster than she'd ever run in her life, and things began to look familiar...she was not far now from Cave of the Woods, yet somehow approached it from the other side, the side with the great road that she and Justin had walked upon, in the very place he had first told her about the Windwalkers. The clouds scudded away and the moon shone down through barren branches, imprinting a jagged striped pattern upon the glittering snow. Charmian's arms pumped at the air as she ran, and as she heard her name repeated in the gust--Charmiaaaaaaannnnnnn--she finally remembered the other little detail Justin had told her, to keep away from the great road, and from other open places, in the winter.
Of course, just as she remembered this, she felt something take hold of her arms and drag her up, flailing and yelling, into the sky.