Manitou Island: Part 85
CHARMIAN'S FINGERS DUG into the ground, her teeth almost chattering. That was as far as her body would allow her to move. The tawny Ocryx--Shadow Water--loomed over her, and although she was the smallest of the Ocryxes Charmian had yet seen, that didn't diminish the fear she felt. She was also the deadliest of the Ocryxes Charmian had yet seen--she remembered every sting of every claw slash the demon had dealt her, the pain splintering in her head as she'd gone plummeting off the cliff--and all of a sudden, her muscles simply refused to work.
Shadow Water didn't attack her immediately. Instead she snarled and hunched over, her steel-blue claws crooking.
Charmian darted a desperate glance at Justin, hoping he'd step in. He stood where he'd been before, looking startled--but not surprised. He noticed Charmian staring at him and looked in her direction.
"You knew?" Charmian cried. "You KNEW this?"
"Of course I knew!" Justin barked defensively. "The first time we were together I knew!"
"How come you never SAID anything--?!" Charmian gasped and finally managed to scrabble back a ways when the Ocryx's snake tail came whipping down at the ground, laying open a huge gash in the earth. Justin started and Shadow Water rounded on Charmian.
"You," she hissed. "Everything would have been all right if it hadn't been for YOU! Every time I let you go without hunting you down. She was right! I was foolish!"
"She--?" It was all Charmian was able to get out. She tried ducking again, but this time didn't move in time. The tail whipped against the side of her face, driving her back and splitting open the skin as if she had been cut with a knife. She gasped and tumbled onto her elbows. Even though she'd remembered every blow dealt to her before, it was only now that she remembered exactly how painful they had really been.
Justin's eyes grew and she saw him take a step forward. Shadow Water landed in front of her, cutting off her view; she remembered to move this time, and just missed Shadow Water's claws against her face. She fell flat to the ground, spotting the Ocryx's foot before her. Shadow Water crouched to jump into the air; Charmian reached out and grabbed onto her ankle so she stumbled and fell. Charmian rolled out of the way to avoid being crushed by her weight, but almost instantly Shadow Water was back on her feet, snarling and hissing. Charmian did the only thing she could think of and grabbed a stick lying nearby, jumping up and holding it out before her.
The demon barked. "Remember? You TRIED that little trick before! I'm not a woodling like my brother is!"
That just confirmed everything Charmian had been fearing. She brought the stick up anyway to parry a blow--the only blow she knew the branch could withstand--just to give herself as much time as she could. The ground was moist nearby, possibly from an underground spring; she pressed her foot into the mud as deeply as it would go, hoping the manitou that guarded it was a friendly one. Shadow Water's fist came down on the stick and snapped it in two; Charmian held up the broken pieces sharp ends out with a yell, pretending it was her only attack as the demon came at her again.
At the last instant she threw the sticks and stretched out her arms, palms outward. A sharp jolt ran up her leg, through her chest and out her fingers; Shadow Water's eyes widened and she came to a jarring stop as the elemental power struck her. That was it, though. Her muzzle wrinkled and a growl rose in her throat as she fought it off and continued forward. Charmian sought inside her for more power, but the manitou had been exhausted. She balled her fists and got ready to go down fighting.
"I have to admit one thing," Shadow Water snarled. "You learned quickly for a mainlander. At least when I kill you I won't be wasting my time like I have been already."
"Thanks for the compliment," Charmian returned. Her muscles went rigid and she shut her eyes, fists still clenched, when the demon raised her paw, snarl growing.
And another snarl came, even louder than the first--right beside her. Charmian gasped and jumped back to see a second Ocryx at her side, head lowered and hackles raised. She recognized the chocolate pattern of Justin's fur, and wondered when he'd shifted and why. Shadow Water seemed just as confused, if the expression on her face was any indication. She hesitated, her hand still raised, but didn't strike. Justin didn't point his horns at her, but his teeth looked dangerous enough.
"--Justin?" Shadow Water exclaimed, blinking.
Justin's only response at first was to continue growling. He stepped forward to place himself in front of Charmian, and she couldn't believe what he was doing, after the way he'd spoken to her earlier.
"You won't do this," he growled. "I won't let you."
Shadow Water's look grew even more confused, even more uncertain. Her hand lowered a little. "But--she's the one! The cause of all this! How can...how can you..."
"How can I?" Justin barked, and she jumped. "How can YOU? Do you not remember how she helped you before? Brought you to me when you were hurting and wounded? You're willing to kill her now? I no longer care who has told you to do what. If you wish to kill her, you must kill me first."
Charmian couldn't find any words to describe the look that came over Shadow Water's face now, even in her Ocryx form. She would have thought the world had ended with the depth of the anguish she saw there. She felt her heart twisting in her breast, when the demon spoke again.
"You...you're protecting her...?"
Justin didn't reply this time. He kept his defensive stance before Charmian, tail swishing from side to side. The look in Shadow Water's eyes began to change again, and now Charmian's heart twisted with anxiety rather than pity. The green and red orbs narrowed as anguish slowly changed back into betrayal, and Charmian could tell, even though she couldn't see his face, that Justin felt the tension as well.
"She was right," Shadow Water said, startling them both, her voice deadly low. Her hand slowly came down and she took one step back, beginning to draw in on herself. "All of you are the same. I thought perhaps just one would be different--but you are all alike, in the end."
The fur on Justin's hackles lowered and his ears rose slightly. He straightened himself up a bit, but Shadow Water continued backing away, her muzzle wrinkling.
"You are the worst of them all. At least with her, I understand her decisions. But you, I believed were better. You are lower than the rest of them for how you've betrayed me."
Justin stood up fully now; Charmian dared to take a step forward to be near his side, and glanced up to see the look on his face. She couldn't quite describe it; it was as if he were angry, yet trying to control it out of confusion. She sensed he was as baffled as she was right now.
"I've never betrayed you," he said. "I've always treated you the best that I knew how. You were the one who was never truthful with me. But never once did I turn you away because of it. You've tried to kill her before. I refuse to stand by and let you do this anymore."
"Then you have betrayed me!" Shadow Water shot back. She swung her hand through the air, gesturing. "As if you truly didn't know by now? All of this time--you only pretended you didn't know the truth? Then you never accepted me! You are the same as the rest! Take what you want, and leave me behind!" She snarled and her fists clenched. "Now I am the one who will do the taking! And the first thing I will take is her HEAD!"
She shot up into the air so suddenly that the other two jerked back, not having expected it. With a bellow she came down again straight at Charmian. Despite her earlier convictions to fight to the end, Charmian found her muscles frozen once more, and could only cringe. Even her eyelids refused to close this time; with a brown blur Justin was in the air also, and his horns locked with Shadow Water's, throwing her back so they both landed on the ground with a thunderous crash. He jerked his horns free but leveled them at her breast when she hissed and attempted to get up.
"Don't make me do this!" Justin roared.
Shadow Water's eyes grew round, and Charmian could swear they grew wet as well. Why would a cold-blooded demon weep? But that appeared to be exactly what she was doing. They narrowed once more, and still with the same venomous glare, she began glowing. Justin slowly pulled his head back when the demon disappeared, the young woman taking her place. Her chest rose and fell with each labored breath; not taking her eyes off of either of them, she pushed herself to her feet, Justin backing away. The three of them faced each other in the clearing without speaking a word, a tense silence between them. Shadow Water rubbed her arm, as if she'd hurt it in the fall, though Charmian couldn't be sure.
"I won't waste my time anymore," she said, scowling at them with her eyes watering. "You've both made it clear. I'm only sorry I didn't believe her before. The next time I see you." Her eyes turned to Charmian, who barely managed to suppress a shiver. "I'll do much more than what I've done before. What I started at Arch Rock, I'll finish. I'll make certain no one brings you back." She looked at Justin again and her eyes grew even darker. "And if you try to get in my way again, then I don't care what you do. Either way, one of us will die. And I will fight to make certain it is you."
Justin just stared at her with a pained look. She turned away from them both and started toward the woods, still rubbing her arm. Charmian stood for a moment, trying to figure out what wasn't right about this; when she realized what it was. Shadow Water had every chance to finish the job right now; with all the threats she'd made, why wasn't she doing it?
Does she just not want to? Then that must mean somebody else is giving her the orders...
Charmian lifted her head and took a step forward. Justin noticed the movement and his head jerked to the side, as if to warn her to stay where she was. She stopped and raised her voice.
"She's the one who hurt you, isn't she?"
Shadow Water stopped. She didn't turn around, but her hand froze in its rubbing motion. Charmian steeled herself and pressed on.
"The bruise on your eye and the cuts all over your arms. Those weren't cuts." She paused. "They were claw marks. Probably from when she gashed your shoulder, and you put up your arms to keep her from doing anything else to you. But you just got a black eye instead." Charmian's own hand crept up to press to the stinging cut on her face. "She couldn't have used her tail, so did she use her fist?"
Justin frowned. He stared at Charmian for a moment, then turned to look at Shadow Water. She could see realization dawning in his eyes at what she was saying, and was surprised to tell he really hadn't known before.
"When did she do that?" Charmian asked. She dropped her voice slightly, knowing Shadow Water could hear her. "Was it the first time you messed up? Maybe when you let me get away, or when you let somebody else get away? When you didn't finish the job the way she wanted you to? That was when she gashed your arm open...wasn't it?"
Shadow Water turned around. The look in her eyes was a dangerous one, but Charmian met them without a flinch.
"And then when she sliced your arms all up," she said quietly. "That was another time you messed up, wasn't it?"
"You be quiet," Shadow Water growled.
"Justin said that he saw some other times it happened," Charmian said, ignoring her warning. "All those times she was punishing you for whatever you did wrong...was she praising Kawaduk for what he did right? Or does she treat him the same way she treats you? Like a slave?"
Shadow Water balled her fists and bared her teeth. "She's the ONLY one who's ever treated me human!" she snarled. "None of the rest of you ever cared for me! If any of you had known what I was you would have killed me immediately! She was right about all of you. She is the only one I can trust!"
"You call that human?" A shimmering arose beside Charmian, and Justin was back in his regular form. He took a step forward, angry disbelief in his eyes. "What she keeps doing to you? How can you even call that trust?"
"AS IF ANY OF YOU ARE ANY BETTER!" Shadow Water screamed. "You're all just proving her right anyway. She told me so! She told me not to trust you! None of you EVER cared about me!"
"And yet you trust her?" Justin snapped. "Every time Charmian brought you to me, every time I took care of what she did to you, that means nothing? That means that we didn't care?"
"You did it only to get what you wanted!" She spat on the ground. "The same as I do now. Every one of you! You will find out how much you wish you had cared as soon as this is over!" She turned for the woods again but Charmian took yet another step forward.
"Shadow! It doesn't have to be like this!"
She saw Shadow Water's fists tighten at her sides. "This is the way it is," she hissed. "The way you wished you had never come to the Island."
"Don't you get it?" Charmian cried. "She's no better than what you think of US! What kind of person beats up the one they love every time they make a mistake? What kind of mother does that to her daughter?"
Shadow Water whirled about with a wild strangled sound, a threatening glow rising around her. Charmian felt Justin's presence increase as he did the same, though neither of them shifted. She bit her lip and faced the woman, hoping to avoid another altercation.
"Shadow Water, you have to listen to me. You don't have to do what she says anymore. Maybe before, you didn't know you had the choice--but now you have to know! You can't believe that nobody else here cares about you! What about everything Justin did? How can you forget all of that?"
"A favor for a favor. Nothing more."
"Then how about when he healed you even when you wouldn't tell him the truth? And why am I even talking to you now if you're just going to kill me?" Charmian clasped her hands. "Shadow, I wouldn't even bother if I thought you were the same way she is. I know that you're not. I know that you know what she's been doing isn't right. The way she's been treating you, nobody should ever be treated that way."
"You," Shadow Water snapped, and jerked her head at Justin. "You Islanders treated her that way. Locked her up for years and years so she could never see her freedom. Set that wolf bastard after her everywhere she goes so she'll never know any peace. Even now all you think about is trapping her again! She is the only one who has ever cared about me! Not even my father could say the same--whoever he was! From the moment I was born she was the only one to look out for me and protect me from the people who hurt her! You may try to kill me all you like--I will easily fight you off! The moment you go after her again is the moment I will chew out all your throats, even if I have to rise from the dead to do it!"
"What about Tal Natha?" The words came out of Charmian's mouth even before she knew what she was saying. "She's tried to KILL him! Her son! And Kawaduk? From what I've seen she keeps leaving him to fend for himself--Mitchi Manitou makes a better parent for him! If she's the mother you say she is, why isn't she caring for them--?"
A roaring, bellowing sound that she never would have expected to come from such a slight woman. Shadow Water leapt forward, but Justin did the same. For the briefest moment they faced each other, half caught in human form, half in Ocryx form, before both backing down again. The glow died away and Shadow Water raised her fist menacingly in Charmian's direction.
"Tal Natha is a traitor," she whispered, her voice poison. "Left the nest when he was just a pup, and has been hunting our mother ever since. Kawaduk is the only one I will ever call my brother! At the least he knows who truly cares for us!" She spat again, and though she was still in human form, the look on her face rivaled anything Charmian had ever seen on Ocryana's. "I will hunt the Dreamspinner down first. The demon, his bitch, and his pups. And the wolf bastard and his pups, and the chief of those vulgar little Wendigoes, and you and...you." This last note of contempt she flung at Justin. "I'll give her no more reason to be displeased with me. This was the only reason. That I made mistakes because I didn't listen."
"You don't have to go back to her," Charmian said, hating the desperate tone of her voice--what was she trying to prove?--but feeling she had to keep trying. Some part of her knew that Shadow Water wasn't the same as Ocryana. Tal Natha wasn't the same as Ocryana; X'aaru wasn't the same as Ocryx. Justin and Red Bird and Silver Eagle Feather were all different from their demon parents. Somehow, it had to be the same way for her.
Shadow Water just kept backing away. The tears spilled from her eyes now; despite her rage, Charmian could sense her despair even more greatly, and hated that nothing she said could seem to change it. For a moment Charmian had thought the greater part of her hatred was aimed at Justin--but when she looked at her again she could tell the truth, and felt a coldness creeping over her. Shadow Water narrowed her eyes and for a moment they glowed green.
"I always go back to her."
She turned on one heel and went running, her long dark hair flying out behind her. Charmian followed without thinking. She stumbled on a root but managed to keep her balance; yet when she reached a downward slope, she saw that Shadow Water was gone, replaced by the demon. She spread her wings and flapped them once, twice, then rose into the air. Charmian was both grateful and regretful that she didn't look back, instead rising high over the Island and soaring off in the direction of what Charmian now knew to be Ocryana's caves. She unclenched her fists and stood staring into the sky.
I could always tell before she was devoted to her mother...why shouldn't she be now? Ocryana has her brainwashed...why else would she put up with that?
Heart sinking, she turned away and started to walk slowly back to the clearing, only to stop abruptly. Justin still stood there, looking upward much as she had...only she hated to think she might have carried the same look on her face. It felt as if the GeeBees were tearing her insides into little shreds just looking at him, and she had to steel herself before approaching.
He didn't seem to notice her. He lowered his head and his gaze fell on the necklace, left lying in the grass. He bent to pick it up but didn't stand up again immediately, instead crouching and balancing the gems on his hand. Charmian stopped before him, uncertain what to say. After a moment or two of staring at the jewels and turning them about in his fingers he gave a rueful smile.
"You were right," he murmured. "Darkness and light. One wins out over the other." The smile vanished and he stood. He stared at the necklace for a moment more before scowling and tossing it back to the ground. Charmian gasped and scooped it up as he turned away.
"She didn't take it!" she hastened to say, before he could leave. "That must mean something. Ocryana gave her orders to take it but she didn't keep it. That has to mean something."
"It means that the next time we see her, she shall probably be torn half to shreds." His look darkened. "She does not care; so what is the reason that I should?"
"Because that's how you are!" Charmian snapped, drawing his attention. He glanced down at her hand and she realized she was squeezing the necklace so the metal dug into her palm; she loosened her grip and took a breath. "Don't talk like Ocryx, because I know you're not like him. Just because the dark wins over the light sometimes doesn't mean you have to give in to it. The Justin I knew before would have fought."
"Things change." His voice came out harsh, then he sighed and came toward her. She almost backed away when he reached out toward her face, until she felt a warmth against her cheek. The stinging there, which had been turning into a throb, died away. He looked at her for a moment before sighing again and shaking his head. "Why do you think that you can make any difference here at all? Why do you even bother speaking to me as if I'm worthy of your faith? Even now the only thing I can think of is the way I've treated you."
"Because Tal Natha thought I could," Charmian replied, "and because I promised him I would try. And because you are worthy. All of us make mistakes, it's whether we learn from them or not that really matters."
Justin blinked with some surprise. Then he smiled again, though his eyes were still pained. "You are certain you are only fourteen years old?" When she herself blinked he added, "Because there are times I can swear you know more than anyone else upon the Island."
Charmian flushed and averted her eyes. "Only what I've kind of picked up as I went along," she said. She felt a warmth against her hand and saw that the necklace was glowing. She held it out toward him and he took it, looking at the jewels which glowed even more brightly when he held them. The same look he had had before returned and Charmian bit her lip, but he didn't toss the necklace away. He sighed and turned away from her, taking a few steps toward the woods.
"You tried to warn me," he murmured. "Long ago. I remember that. Even back then you knew, but I didn't listen to you." His fingers curled around the necklace, hiding it from view. His voice turned bitter. "I was so foolish..."
"You only did it because you loved her." Charmian felt her ears burning, but still hated that she was the cause of all this. She swallowed down her embarrassment and forced herself to continue. "That makes us do stupid things sometimes."
He stared at his hand for a while longer as if he could still see the gems within, before letting out another sigh and pushing it into his pocket. "Perhaps it would have been best if he'd simply kept it inside me in the first place. At least then I would have known all along what I was destined to become..."
"You weren't destined to become anything." Charmian walked toward him. "I don't know how it works around here--maybe some things are preordained, or whatever--but I think we can change them, too. If we try hard enough. One of the things everybody here keeps telling me is that if something is going wrong, not to just sit and let it happen. We're supposed to fight. That was why Tal Natha brought me here in the first place. None of you would have ever helped me out if you believed we couldn't change things. That includes us, too."
Justin turned around to look at her once more, pulling his hand from his pocket. He let the necklace dangle from his fingers and it swayed from side to side, glimmering. She looked up from it to his eyes and bit her lip when she saw that they glimmered also. She couldn't remember ever seeing Justin cry before.
He stared at her a moment and his mouth moved a little, as if he were trying to think of the right thing to say; his gaze moved away from her face and it was only then that he seemed able to speak.
"Everything they believed would become of me. Everything I did to help her and to stop you. The only thing I've done is fulfill everything my father and mother tried to prevent. Why do you think there's possibly any way for me to change any of it now?"
"Because I believe you can do it." Charmian took a step forward, and made certain their eyes met again, her voice steady. "And because I need a favor from you now."