Manitou Island: Part 54
Queen Of The Wendigoes
WIND RUSHED UP past Charmian and her feet slammed to the ground so abruptly that she keeled over with a thud, the breath knocked out of her. She felt a stinging in her elbows and chin as they struck the rock, and gritted her teeth. The wind whistled in her ears for a moment before flitting away into a brief silence, after which she heard a soft whispering sound from all around her. Annoyance turned back into fear as she remembered what had just happened. One moment she'd been running, away from the Wendigoes, the Windwalkers, or whatever had been chasing her; and the next moment--this.
Still lying upon the ground, she tentatively opened one eye.
At first she saw only stone. Everywhere around her; everything seemed to be made of the same dull brownish-gray pockmarked rock as that at Devil's Kitchen. But there was no cackling or taunting. If this had been Devil's Kitchen, she knew there would be plenty of cackling and taunting. There was...only whispering.
Her eyes rose a bit and she could finally see a slightly glowing amorphous shape perched above, two dark pits where its eyes should be--if it were human--which she knew it wasn't. It tipped its head to the side and she could make out long feathery...ears?...coming from the sides. It slightly lifted one hand, and she could see the too-long, slender fingers. It perched atop a stone ledge and stared down at her, GeeBeelike. To its sides she now saw several others exactly like it, and above and below it more, perched all about her like penguins sitting upon rocks. They all whispered to each other as they stared.
Charmian jumped to her feet with a gasp, whirling around. The "room" or cave she was in appeared to be round, and the creatures surrounded her on all sides. Her abrupt motion didn't even startle them; several cocked their heads and then turned to whisper to their neighbors, although she never saw their mouths move. They looked like some sort of GeeBee ghosts, similar to the lost souls she'd seen at Arch Rock.
She couldn't think of anything else they could be, unless, like before, Tal Natha and the others had kindly refrained from telling her about yet another species native to the Island. She stood in the middle of the room turning and looking at them all, apprehensive. What Justin and Mani had told her of the Windwalkers wasn't very good. During her training with Moon Wolf, on several trips to Francois's place she'd learned further about the story of the Wendigo. Apparently, it was some wind creature which would come to people alone in the wilderness, driving them mad with its incessant calls. When they would try to run, it would drag them along until their feet burned off, and then drop them from high in the air. Justin's and Mani's description of the Windwalkers hadn't been quite as gruesome, but...they could always have left something out.
Her fingers clenched at her side. They hadn't exactly dropped her to her grisly death, yet they always might.
A strong howling wind suddenly rose in the room, whipping her hair all around her face. She gasped again and turned to see where it had come from, noticing the strange creatures do the same. It came from a large aperture of some sort high near the ceiling of the cave, its edges worn smooth and round but just irregular enough to attribute to the actions of nature. The wind only grew louder and Charmian chattered, clutching her clothes tightly to herself and slitting her eyes. Her vision blurred. The howling noise slowly changed until she recognized it as the voice of a woman, rising in pitch and intensity like some banshee howl on a Halloween record until it threatened to make her run screaming into the cave wall. Just as she was ready to do so the howl broke off in a startled squawk and a thump, and the wind abruptly died.
Charmian blinked and opened her eyes wider, speechless.
Something stood several yards away--or rather, stumbled to its feet from the floor, dusting at itself furiously. She blinked a few more times to see it was a young woman, not much taller than herself, wearing a far-too-ornate doeskin dress with every conceivable design in every conceivable color of beads upon it, brilliant fringes and feathers trailing around her neck and down her arms and from the hem. The showy objects lined her moccasins as well, so many of them at her waist that Charmian considered it a wonder she didn't trip or else overheat. She wore an intricate necklace or two, and bracelets, and far too much color upon her face; Charmian wasn't sure what she was wearing on her head, but it had enough feathers to cover her hair completely. She appeared to have tripped over something--her own footwear?--or else fallen; she got to her feet and started dusting and smoothing herself down, grumbling and muttering as she did so. "...damn it...stupid thing...never get used to it being there...have to move it sometime...petty menial..." She finished dusting some invisible substance off her arms and reached up to straighten the--whatever it was--upon her head, before giving her hips a little wiggle. Charmian gaped when something rose from her back. Wings. But not the great feathery wings of the Ocryxes. These were frail and diaphanous, like the wings of a dragonfly. They glittered in the strange light that filled the cave from she didn't know where.
Charmian just stared at her as she finished primping herself, then drawing herself up to her full height--which wasn't very much--and raising her head in a haughty manner. She gave Charmian an unpleasant look.
"Who the hell are you?" Charmian blurted, before she could speak.
The strange small woman blinked, her eyes growing round. Charmian didn't think she'd ever seen someone's eyes get so big. The color rose in her cheeks and her mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish, before any sound even came out.
"How DARE you," she finally managed to huff, her look one of total disbelief. "To SPEAK in such a manner to--to one such as MYSELF! No manners at all! You should be ASHAMED of yourself!"
"Well, maybe I would speak properly, if I knew who you were!" Charmian snapped. She had no idea who this might be, but she knew an attitude when she saw one.
The woman's mouth opened and closed, opened and closed again. She put one hand to her breast and held out the other as if ready to faint. "You--you--have no idea--who I am?" she stammered with bewilderment.
Charmian scowled and started dusting herself off. "How can I be expected to? You haven't exactly introduced yourself yet."
Yap--yap--yap. Open and shut, open and shut. The woman's wings rose and trembled. She shut her mouth and raised her arms out at her sides, her eyes darkening. Immediately the gusting wind rose anew, hurtling around Charmian so hard that she had to dig her feet into the ground and hunch herself over so as not to fall.
Through this, the woman stood solid and unmoved, though the feathers and beads and fringes she wore flailed every which way. Her eyes flashed a bluish-silver and Charmian had to wonder if maybe she was an Ocryx in disguise after all.
"I am Mistress of the Winds," the woman intoned, her voice carrying over the howling whistling racket. "I am Ruler of the Winter Gusts. I am She Who Reigns over the Cold North. I am Sooleawa Chepi, Queen of all the Windwalkers!"
Her voice had risen with each title, and now when she flung her arms up into the air in a dramatic flourish the wind abruptly died. Charmian's ears ran in the silence and she felt like rubbing them. Instead she just stared, and the woman lowered her arms, primly adjusting her feathers. She gave a pleased smile and patted down her collar.
"What do you think?" she asked.
Charmian only stared at her some more, dumbfounded. She searched around for her voice and it took a moment to find it.
"Just Chepi," the woman interrupted. "That's much easier to remember."
"Chepi," Charmian echoed. "So you're the...ruler of the Windw..."
"Queen," Chepi corrected, lightly shaking one finger. "I prefer 'Queen.' More regal sounding." She drew herself up to her full height again. "Well? What do you think? Impressive, isn't it?"
Charmian blinked, then started to frown. "You don't look at all like any of them," she groused, waving at the Windwalkers.
Chepi's lower lip stuck out and she huffed. "Well of COURSE not." She lowered her voice and turned away, patting at the feathers upon her head in a haughty manner. "That's because I'm not one of them. I'm apart from them, SUPERIOR to them. They are merely underlings."
"And you're their queen."
"Yes! You've got it right." She whirled around and clasped her hands with that same cheerful smile. Charmian couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. "So. You know royalty when you see it. Thank goodness, this spares me all the explaining..."
"What are you doing ruling over the Windwalkers if you aren't one of them? Isn't that kind of weird? Or are you putting me on?"
Chepi opened her mouth and stomped her foot. "I would never DEIGN to pull such an act! Where do you come off! Questioning me in such a manner! If you had any shred of decency at all--"
"So what are you doing ruling over the Windwalkers if you aren't a fake?"
The woman snorted and turned to the side, just enough so Charmian could still see the expression on her face, as if she had done it purposefully. She crossed her arms and raised her nose.
"It was given to me as a gift."
"Gift?" Charmian's mouth twitched. "You were given rulership as a gift."
"Yes." Chepi glared at her, eyes narrowing. "And don't you dare question me on this, human."
"So who gave it to you? And what for?"
"Someone who cares about me very much. And just because he felt like it, that's why." She actually stuck out her tongue before turning away this time. Charmian tried not to, but couldn't help it. She started laughing.
Chepi clenched her fists and started stomping her feet one after the other. "Stop that stop that STOP THAT!"
"How old are you? Five? Six?" Charmian had to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Because that's what you're reminding me of right now. Who gave you this 'gift,' your daddy?"
Chepi let out an awful grating sound. "It most certainly was NOT! For your information...not that it is ANY of your business..." She crossed her arms and turned her head, wings flaring. "It was someone who cared about me very much. So much so that he never gave anyone else a gift of such magnitude. He's also very powerful so you had better watch what you say about him," she finished, shaking her finger again as if warning Charmian of the boogeyman.
"Yeah...right," Charmian answered, still wiping her eyes. "You've given me a good laugh. Tell me who you are, seriously. And why you brought me here."
"I have already told you who I am. Sooleawa Chepi! Queen of the Windwalkers! And as for why I had a piddling little brat like you brought here, this is because..." She trailed off, silent for a moment, before her gaze moved up to the ceiling, then down the wall. Her head tilted a bit and she seemed to be thinking.
"Hm," she murmured after a moment. "This is most odd but...it seems to be slipping my mind...there must have been some reason...mustn't there?..."
"What?" Charmian gaped, and then ground her teeth and stalked forward. "You had me brought all the way out here and now you don't even remember why? What kind of JOKE is this?"
Chepi quickly held up her hands and stepped back, nearly tripping again. "Now, now, there is a decent explanation! I've only just forgotten it a moment--I do have more important things to think about, you know!"
"More IMPORTANT?" Charmian fumed. "Look, lady--"
"It's QUEEN CHEPI!"
"--I'm here trying to figure out how to save the soul of the guardian of the Island and here you are dragging me off to God knows where in the middle of the night! And you can't even remember WHY!"
Chepi opened her mouth. Then shut it. Then frowned. Then cocked her head. "What...what was that you said? That you were trying to do?"
Charmian tried not to scream and failed anyway. "TRYING TO SAVE THIS STUPID ISLAND!!"
The winged woman winced and put her hands to her ears. "You don't have to yell! I'm perfectly capable of hearing!"
"But are you capable of UNDERSTANDING? I could be out doing something better and instead YOU DRAGGED ME HERE!"
"It's not like it's my fault!" Chepi cried, stamping her foot and screwing up her face as if ready to burst into tears. Charmian was about to retort that yes it was her fault, when the woman's face went blank and her eyes widened.
"Save the Island? What are you talking about? What needs saving?"
"The whole place and everyone on it," Charmian snapped. "In case you haven't noticed, it's in trouble."
"I haven't noticed. What sort of trouble exactly do you mean? Explain!"
"Let me try to put it simply so you can get it all. There's this evil demon trying to destroy the place and if we don't find some way to stop her, that's exactly what she'll do. Understand now?"
"What? Again?" Chepi huffed. "That happens just about every year. I hardly see why it's any reason to panic now."
"Now? Well maybe because the spirit of the guy guarding this place has been corrupted and she's figured out how to take advantage of it. How's that for a reason to panic, stupid!"
"DO NOT CALL ME STUPID!!" Chepi wailed, hopping and flailing her arms like a child throwing a tantrum. Charmian expected her to fall to the floor sobbing at any moment now.
"QUIT CRYING, YOU BABY!" she shouted. "Just GET ME OUT OF HERE and you won't have to put up with me anymore! Just keep pretending everything's FINE and you won't have to get your eyes all red!!"
Chepi immediately stopped, but her hands went up to her eyes. "OH!! They're turning all red--?"
Charmian gave up, turning and looking around her. "Where are we? How do I get out and where does this place lead?"
The small woman stopped rubbing her eyes and pointed up at the aperture she'd apparently come in through. "Up there. That's the only way out, if you're a fleshling."
"And so where does it go?"
"It--um--goes under the water."
"Under the water--?" Charmian groaned and rubbed her own eyes. "Never mind, why am I even surprised! You mean we're underground right now? Windlings, living underground?"
"Well it's not like we have anywhere else to go that's as decent as this!" Chepi retorted. "Besides, it's not too far away and it was much easier for me to move in--"
"Not too far from what?"
Chepi's mouth snapped shut and she stared at Charmian from the corner of her eye. She gnawed on her lip.
Charmian frowned. "Come on, spill it. What aren't you telling me?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"I can tell you're hiding something! This cave here. It was part of the gift package you got, wasn't it? You moved in after 'he' gave it to you? Who is he? Spill it!"
"I don't have to. Anyway it's unimportant. Hardly matters."
"You said earlier that this guy was really powerful, now you're denying it?"
"I didn't say that."
"You're a lousy liar."
Chepi exploded in anger. "I am not lousy at ANYTHING! He DID give all of this to me! Because he LOVES me! And when you love somebody you give them REALLY NICE GIFTS! And if you insult me further I'll TELL HIM ABOUT YOU!"
Charmian's eyes narrowed. Chepi's yelling died down and she stared at the teenager, her look growing tense. They both glared at each other for a moment, the Windwalkers looking on.
"Water," Charmian said after a minute or two had passed. "You said this cave leads out into the water."
"And the guy who gave it to you is powerful. And he gave you power over the windlings."
"I think what this cave is close to is Devil's Lake. I think you were given rulership over windlings as a gift from a windling." Charmian's eyes narrowed further so they were mere slits. "I know who you're talking about now. You're talking about Ocryx, aren't you? Ocryx is your sugar daddy?"
Chepi's mouth opened wider than Charmian had thought possible. She looked absolutely mortified and both hands flew to her breast. "I--that's--OH! You take that back!!"
"I'm right! Ocryx gave you this cave and the Windwalkers!" Charmian started laughing. "What's the matter? Did you need some kind of consolation gift when he dumped you?"
The woman put her hands to her mouth and shrieked. "THAT DID NOT HAPPEN!! You have it ENTIRELY WRONG!"
"Wrong how?" Charmian knew it was petty but couldn't help it. Seeing the woman squirming in humiliation was somehow satisfying right now.
"Wrong with EVERYTHING! He CARES about me else he wouldn't have given me all of this! You are a PETTY JEALOUS LITTLE MAINLANDER!"
"If you have so much influence with him, then you'll take me to see him. Pronto."
Chepi stopped stomping and blinked. "S-see him? You?" She looked Charmian up and down and her mouth twisted. "You're hardly his type..."
Charmian tried not to grate her teeth again. "Not for that, twit. I need to talk to him. I've seen him already anyway!"
"You? You've seen Ocryx...?"
"Yes. We didn't really leave on the best of terms though." Her mouth twitched. "What about you? How did you two part ways?"
Chepi straightened herself and her wings folded primly behind her. She lifted her chin. "It was...amicable."
"So take me to him then. Shouldn't be too hard, should it? Maybe you can even put in a good word for me."
"Good word...?" Her face grew ugly. "I do not pander to mere mainlanders!"
"That's nice. If you don't pander to me, then you'll be pandering to Ocryana instead."
A bright silver flare. "That HUSSY?!" Chepi clapped her hands over her mouth, then calmed and cleared her throat. "Um...what I meant to say was..." She lifted her head and flounced past Charmian to the far wall. "Fine, follow. Though I hardly see why he would want to waste his time with you."
"Isn't the exit the other way?" Charmian asked, following. The Windwalkers had turned their attention back to themselves and were whispering again. Chepi waved her hand at the air dismissively.
"It's about time I moved that anyway. Stupid thing keeps tripping me up...ruining my entrances."
She stopped before the cave wall and raised her arms, twirling her hands. Charmian heard a faint humming sound and looked up to see the aperture high above fading away before her eyes. When she turned back, a great round hole was appearing in the wall ahead of her, the same one that had just been near the ceiling. She blinked.
Another flick of Chepi's hand. "Come." She strode off into the hole. Charmian hurried to follow. The woman may have been short, but she was quick.
They walked along a cavernlike hallway for a short time, the walls and ceiling smooth and rounded with the occasional stalactite to avoid. A weird light flickered somewhere in the distance. Charmian thought of the place where she had met Dakh and Sikt. She remembered that the demon was still with her, and felt slightly relieved.
"How exactly did you two meet, anyway?"
"This matter is none of your business." Her wings fluttered. "Though we were very close, we still are, and you had best not argue about this fact."
"You are a mere mainlander, and such ignorant gaffes are to be expected every so often."
Charmian frowned and wondered how badly she'd just been insulted.
The flickering light grew brighter and they soon came to another aperture almost identical to the first, only this one bore water behind it. Upright. Charmian stared at the weirdly glowing blue wall of water before her. It was like looking out a window, only she could tell there was no glass to hold it back. It floated upon its side instead.
Well, like I said before, why am I even surprised?
"This is an unfortunate necessity," Chepi said. "To get oneself wet on the way up. Most unfortunate. But necessary." She shot Charmian an annoyed look. "You're certain you still wish to speak with him now?"
"Look, lady, I jumped in the frigging lake before. Getting a little wet again isn't going to bother me."
The woman's wings quivered and once more she made the insulted mouth-opening gesture. With an irritated flounce she stepped through the wall of water, floating upward on the other side. Charmian put her hands out and pressed them against the water. It gave way before her and she took a breath and plunged through facefirst, feeling the tug of the liquid and paddling her way up.
It was just a moment later when her head broke the surface to see Chepi dragging herself out of the water and onto shore, shaking herself off and muttering. Charmian swam forward and climbed up onto shore as well. Her clothes had been oiled, to better withstand the snow; she was still wet, but not as wet as she could have been. Chepi, on the other hand, didn't seem too dry or happy. She shook out her wings and tried futilely to squeeze all the water from her dress, patting at her bedraggled feathers.
"Not dressed for the weather, are you?" Charmian inquired.
"Shut up," Chepi sniffed. "If you want me to continue to lead you about like some footservant then you'd best keep quiet and not bother me." She fluffed the damp feathers a bit, nose pointing at the air. "It's only because I've felt like visiting him again anyway that I decided to bring you here."
Charmian rolled her eyes. Whatever.
"Follow." Still swiping drops of water from herself, she disappeared into a darkened side tunnel. Again Charmian went after her.
"Look, you don't have to be so huffy," she called out as she caught up, the small woman striding rapidly and haughtily. "I didn't mean most of what I said. It's just that you're being such a...well...such a bitch."
"I am hardly a female wolf, though I suppose he would have liked that sometimes!" And then, realizing what she'd said, her face went bright red and she covered it with her hands again as Charmian barked with laughter. "Ohh! DON'T TALK TO ME!"
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean it that way!" Charmian wiped the tears from her eyes, trying to catch up when Chepi started into a dainty trot. "You just don't have to come across so snotty, even if you are the Queen of the Windwalkers or whatev--"
Chepi halted in her steps and let out a scream. Even her scream was tiny and dainty. Charmian was about to tell her she didn't have to fake it so much when the cave wall seemed to explode before them, something large crashing through into the opposite side of the tunnel. Charmian gaped at Ocryx as he hit the stone and slid to the floor, chest heaving and face bloody. He opened one eye and snarled at that which followed him through, rising up tall among the shattered rock and causing Chepi to flutter back behind Charmian with a small cry.
Charmian could only gape up into the glittering blue eyes of Mitchi Manitou before his muzzle wrinkled with a hideous growl, Ocryx's blood lining his lowered antlers.