Manitou Island: Part 63
Roadmap Of Pain
CHARMIAN SLOWLY BACKED away a step from the dark trail and felt around for a branch lying in the snow, picking it up and brushing it off. She glanced about the woods.
I sense its thoughts, the Ocryx responded. They are weak. I do not know if it conceals them or not.
"You'll let me know before I go walking into any trouble, right?"
That's what I expected, Charmian thought, and started forward again, very slowly. The trail led toward the woods, and the longer she followed it the more obvious it became that it was in fact blood. From the looks of it, some wounded creature had come up to the rock in the middle of the night, and had wandered back the way it had come. Some badly wounded creature.
She thought of the body in the woods. Ocryana, or Mitchi, or the strange hybrid Ocryx-manitou could have done this. She didn't put it past the GeeBees, but felt she wouldn't be having any problems with them for a while. So that left the first three. And the other female Ocryx, their partner in crime. How these four were tied together baffled her; it just didn't seem right.
She cast one look back at Sugar Loaf and hoped X'aaru wouldn't come bounding after her unless she really needed it. Should she call him out? She bit her lip and then decided against the idea. If it was Ocryana or the hybrid or Mitchi, she felt she could take them on with what little she knew of their powers. It was the other one that made her nervous. She had no idea how the other Ocryx's powers worked. That wasn't good at all.
She gripped the stick tighter in her hands and entered the darkened woods.
Out here it was completely silent, but for the occasional falling of a patch of snow or ice to the ground far below. Every little creak made her freeze, so the going was very slow. There was only one trail to follow so either the creature had been wounded after reaching the rock, which she doubted...or it had somehow kept itself from bleeding all over before getting there...or perhaps it had taken pains to conceal its origins, yet hadn't had the chance to do that on the way back. Why had it lapsed like that? She realized after a few moments that she was thinking in terms of it being some sort of monster, which was why when she finally spotted something far ahead of her that she found she hadn't been expecting it. She frowned and then dropped the stick and started jogging.
The shadowy shape turned and looked straight at her. Somehow even in the darkness she could make out the eyes that widened, the toss of black hair as it ran off again.
"Wait a minute! It's me!" Charmian cried. Why would Shadow Water run away like that? Didn't she know her by now? As she picked up her pace she had to keep herself from snorting with frustration. It seemed the native woman was trying every way she knew how to keep away from her. If this kept up much longer she wouldn't even bother saying hello next time.
It was the bloody trail that Shadow Water left behind that made her keep going, instead.
They came to a steep slope where the trees grew thinner. Charmian reached the top of it just as Shadow Water was slipping down to the bottom. Her foot went out from under her and she fell down onto her breast, snow flying around her. She stumbled to her feet and staggered away a little bit before exhaustion struck her and she sank down again. Charmian winced at the dark red patch she'd left where she'd first fallen, and had to keep from falling over herself, the snow was so deep. When she reached the bottom Shadow Water made a last futile effort to stand up and failed. She clutched her arms to herself and panted hard.
"Shadow Water," Charmian gasped out, having to catch her own breath. She put her hands on her knees and bent over, wincing again at a stitch in her side. "Why did you run like that? It's me. Charmian. Don't you remember me--?"
Shadow Water nodded and grimaced. She managed to stand up now and swayed a bit.
"I...I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you very well, from way back there..."
"It's okay. Are you all right? I saw this trail of..." She cut herself off and tromped forward. The woman tried to back away and fell over in the snow. Charmian knelt down beside her and sucked in her breath. She couldn't believe what she saw.
The sleeves of Shadow Water's dress had been torn to ribbons. The same went for her arms. The skin looked as if it had literally been flayed, blood streaming down and dripping from her elbows and fingers, staining the front of her dress dark. A gash marked the back of her shoulder as if something had raked across it violently. Her face was pale, the one eye that Charmian could see fearful.
"I can't believe you're even able to walk," Charmian whispered. She blinked and started scooping up snow, pressing it to the bloody wounds. Shadow Water winced again. "What happened?"
"I...I slipped on the ice."
"On the ice?"
"On the lake. Near the shore. It breaks up into sharp pieces. I went out to search for...for fish and slipped and the ice cut my arms when I tried to catch myself."
Charmian couldn't stop grimacing. She tried as best as she could to wash the blood away from Shadow Water's arms, only for it to flow anew. She tried to tear off part of her coat but found the leather far too tough.
"Damn it." She tore off a small bit of Shadow Water's flayed sleeve instead and tied it around her upper arm as tightly as she could, doing the same with the other. "You could have passed out out here and nobody would have ever found you until you froze to death. Don't you have someplace to go? Why are you wandering around like this?"
"I...I hurt myself--my head--when I fell on the ice and just came to. I thought perhaps I could find help at Sugar Loaf but you were all sleeping..."
"We would have helped you anyway!"
"I didn't wish to wake any of you up."
"Well...it's kind of a moot point, now. There's no way you can keep walking around by yourself like this. I can get you bandaged up properly at the rock. Come on." She took Shadow Water's elbow and helped her to her feet, letting out a great sigh and looking up at her. "Think you can walk back with me? Or do you want to lean on my..." She frowned and squinted; when Shadow Water noticed her attention she quickly turned her face away. But Charmian caught hold of her chin and turned it back. The woman didn't meet her eyes, but instead stared down. Charmian felt her heart squeezing in on itself.
In her hurry to get Shadow Water's arms tended to, she hadn't even noticed the large ugly bruise around her eye.
"Shadow Water...?" Her eyes flicked but she said nothing. "Where did you get this from?"
"I...I fell on the ice."
Charmian's heart squeezed tighter. She may as well have been told, "I ran into the door." "Shadow...you don't get a black eye from falling on the ice."
"I told you. When I fell I...I hit my head and just came to. This is all."
The teenager stared at her for a moment more, then sighed. She knew no amount of badgering would get her to change her story...something had her frightened. Someone had gone to the trouble of cutting up her arms and punching her in the face. Who was to say they wouldn't do worse next time? She just wished she knew who...she had a feeling she would want to keep as far away from them as possible. And keep Shadow Water away from them as well, before she ended up like that body in the woods.
"Do you have anyplace to stay? Somewhere safe?"
"You can stay at Sugar Loaf. I don't think you're safe where you are. I know you don't know many people around here, only your mom and Jus--"
She blinked when it struck her. Justin Dupries. That was where Shadow Water had been spending her time lately. She remembered seeing them walking through the woods not far from where that creature had first appeared. She thought also of the cut she'd had on her arm earlier. She'd said she'd gotten it in a fall. This had happened more than once. But...that had been before she and Justin had met. Did she really think he was capable...?
Her face set and she pulled the woman along. "I'll get you back to Sugar Loaf. I want you to stay there while I'm gone. Don't go out anywhere. If you have to, then take X with you."
Shadow Water protested weakly while Charmian led her away, up the slope again. The walk back to Sugar Loaf was both quick and seemingly neverending for Charmian. With each step she took the anger rose in her higher. She was furious that somebody on the Island would be callous enough to do something like this. She was even more furious, suspecting who that someone was.
I can't be thinking it's him! He's ALWAYS been nice to me!
...But who else could it be...? He's the one she's been hanging out with. And all of a sudden she shows up with her arms just about flayed off! I want to just sit around and hope it isn't him? Wouldn't I rather be wrong than sorry?
She suppressed a sigh. She'd wondered, in the real world, what she would do if she ever found herself in this situation--or at least, in one highly similar. It looked like she'd find out soon enough.
By the time they reached the rock Shadow Water had stopped protesting and only followed her silently, head hanging. Charmian looked up to see that X'aaru waited at the entrance with an anxious look on his face. He backed inside when the two of them made their way up the slope, and sniffed at Shadow Water as they came in.
"Her arms are hurt. Can you wake up Old Mother Manitou?"
X'aaru turned and disappeared into one of the other rooms Charmian hadn't noticed before. Mani, in the corner, lifted his head and yawned, ears wiggling. He blinked and looked at Charmian and Shadow Water and his eyes grew, but he said nothing.
Drake appeared as well, rubbing his eyes and looking Shadow Water up and down. "Jeez, Charm, what happened? Did you run into that weird Ocryx again?"
"I found her in the woods. I'm going to have to leave for a bit. Again." She sighed and tugged on the sleeves of her coat. The few times she did get to sleep, some demon or other was too busy talking to her to let her get much rest. And now she was just awake again. "You'll keep an eye on things around here?"
"You're going out by yourself?" Drake frowned. "I know you don't want to hang out a lot, Charm, but that just sounds stupid..."
"I'm sorry I'm always ditching you," Charmian said. She then thought, I prefer you here keeping an eye on her for now. I'm not sure who or what did this yet.
Drake blinked. Holy crap. I didn't even know we could do this.
Thank Dakh and Sikt. You'll stay here for now? I'll make sure to call you if I need you.
Okay. Keep your eyes open, that Ocryx is SNEAKY!
Charmian nodded. Shadow Water gave her a look that told her she'd seen the gesture, but hadn't heard the thoughts; she must be getting better at this. X'aaru came back into the room with the old manitou in tow, muttering and yawning as she hobbled toward them. She nudged the Ocryx out of the way and squinted at Shadow Water with a scowl.
"What? You dragging things in here again? Wasn't that GeeBee and that manitou enough?"
"She's hurt. I thought you might help like you helped X."
"Agh, I tell you, where you come from, you probably bring in a new lost puppy every day and then make your mother care for it." Charmian bit her lip but didn't reply. Old Mother Manitou took the woman's elbow and pulled her forward. "Come on, come on, haven't got all night, have to get my sleep too, you know...not like I have anything important to do, like tend to the sick and lost and wounded..."
Charmian let out her breath. Shadow Water's large dark eyes stared at her as she and Old Mother Manitou went to the other side of the room. Charmian waved at Drake and left the rock again, making certain she was bundled up tightly.
The dark trail in the snow was still clear, yet had melted a bit and blurred around the edges. Her breath clouded her vision a little. She waved the clouds away as she started walking toward the woods.
She blinked and turned. Two small glowing lights showed up at the entrance again, but it wasn't X'aaru.
The demon stared at her for a moment before following her down the slope. She stood and waited for him, and when he went on ahead of her she followed.
The Drake is right. If you do not know what it is you will face, it is unwise to face it alone.
"Shouldn't you be resting...?"
I recover already. He paused in his thoughts and his ear flicked. I know without asking you that you have suspicions as it is.
"I don't like them...they feel all wrong."
Go on your instincts first of all, and apologize later.
"That hardly sounds like you."
Normally, it would not. But these are strange times. You have considered what you wish to say?
"Not really. All I know for sure is that both you and Sikt seem to agree that I--" She cut herself off, noticing her slip. Her eyes grew and a flush rose in her cheeks. "Um."
I know already that she speaks to you.
Charmian looked up at him with some confusion. "You...you do?"
He looked down at her now as they went. Remember, where you found her first. And Dakh as well. He turned back to the trail in the woods. We may fly there, or we may walk. Which would you prefer?
"I know it's cold but I think I'd prefer to walk...to think for a little bit."
They continued in silence now, Charmian mulling over both what Tal Natha had said and over her own thoughts. Sikt left her alone for once. Half of her was angry and suspicious of almost everyone. The other half of her was ashamed for even suspecting anybody she knew. She couldn't believe Justin would do such a thing. But if he hadn't, he had to at least know something about it. And hadn't done anything to stop it. If it had happened more than once, that meant he had to know by now.
He's helped me whenever I needed it, even if I didn't deserve it. Why won't he help her if she's the one he cares about so much?
"Is he at home, Tal Natha, or is he somewhere else...?"
I believe I sense him in the woods. He may be hunting.
"Well at least I won't have to face him in front of his parents..."
You are certain you wish to face him at all? The demon peered at her. Remember, Charmian, sometimes you may be forced to face things you do not wish to see.
"I've already seen more than I wanted to," Charmian said miserably. She thought of the rage it must have taken to cause the gashes on Shadow Water's arms. "Hardly seems like it can get much worse."
Tal Natha said nothing, but she could tell he didn't agree. After a time Sikt began to pick up Justin's thoughts not far away, and she knew they were getting closer to him. She thought she spotted a dark moving shape ahead, as she had spotted Shadow Water, and cupped her hands to her mouth.
Her voice bounced off every tree in the woods so she was certain everyone on the Island must have heard. Her ears burned.
The shape turned and stopped. She could tell it was him from the way he stood and waited but something about the darkness of the woods around him bothered her; for some reason she felt she should be able to see him better. She brushed the feeling off and broke into a jog. A couple of crimson feathers drifted to the ground when Tal Natha flapped his wings. By the time she reached him the moon had moved enough to shine down through a break in the trees and she could see him staring at her with his gun over his shoulder, a curious look on his face. He followed her steps as she came and lowered the gun's barrel to the ground.
"Charmian...? What are you doing out here so late?"
"I could ask the same of you," Charmian said, unable to hide the anger in her voice.
Justin blinked but didn't respond in kind. "I was hunting. At least, attempting to. There seems to be little to be had around here lately for some reason. Don't tell me you've taken up hunting as well?"
"Hardly." Charmian kicked snow from her boots. "I wanted to talk to you about Shadow Water."
"Shadow Water...?" His look grew guarded; she couldn't tell if it was because he knew, or because he didn't trust her to speak objectively on the subject. He must have picked up on her jealousy somehow...but she gritted her teeth and told herself there was no jealousy.
"Have you seen her today?" she asked.
"Earlier, while it was still light out."
"So I suppose the light was good enough that you could see her arms?"
Another blink. "Her what--?"
"Her ARMS, Justin. Don't tell me you didn't see that?" His eyes averted briefly as Tal Natha approached and sat down in the snow behind her. Charmian held out her arms for effect. "You mean you were so busy doing something else that you didn't notice all those slashmarks down her arms? Or that big rip in her shoulder?"
"What?" His eyes grew and he stood up straighter as if genuinely surprised. "What slashmarks? What rip?"
"She had blood all over her, Justin, so I can't see how you failed to notice it."
"She was bleeding?" He shouldered his gun again and took a step forward, stopping only when he saw Tal Natha again. "Where is she? How bad is it?"
"If she'd been wandering around out here much longer she probably would have bled to death," Charmian snapped. "A lot of good you did, for a change."
"I never saw any slashmarks!" Justin retorted. "Or a cut on her shoulder! This is the first thing I've heard of it!"
"Oh. So you missed it just like you missed her eye, too, huh?"
The guarded look returned to his eyes and he took a step back, to be where he'd stood originally. "That...that I saw." He paused and looked away. "But no slashmarks or blood or anything like that."
"You saw her black eye and not the cuts?"
"Listen. Whatever these slashmarks are, that you keep speaking of as if I should know, they must have come along after I last saw her. You..." He trailed off and stared at her for a moment as realization dawned. "...You...think that I did this...?"
Charmian gave him a black look. Tal Natha's face remained neutral.
The guarded look left Justin's eyes and he held out one hand in a supplicatory gesture. "Charmian, you can't believe I hurt her. I would never hurt anyone! You know this!"
"I don't really know anything anymore."
"You know that I try to help people, not hurt them! X. He could easily have impaled me if he wished to. I healed him though. And the manitou. He could have killed me also, but I tended to him. And you and Shadow Water! And now you think I'd want to hurt any of you? You know I would never do such a thing!"
"Then how come you didn't do anything about her eye?" Charmian blurted out, fists clenching. "Even IF you're telling the truth about her arms, you said you saw her eye. And when I saw her, it was still black! How come you didn't do anything about that while you're going on about being so thoughtful?"
Justin took the gun down from his shoulder and slammed it to the ground where it sank into the snow. Charmian jumped at the gesture; Tal Natha's ears folded back. Justin took the step forward again and held up his fist with a threatening look.
"I would never hurt her," he grated.
The fear in Charmian mixed with the anger she still felt to fuel one more response. "Then how come you didn't help her?" she shot back.
Justin now kicked the gun away from him as if wanting to kick something else. Both of his fists clenched and Charmian backed into Tal Natha when he shouted at the air.
"BECAUSE I WON'T PRETEND IT'S NOT HAPPENING ANYMORE!"