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Manitou Island: Part 88
CHARMIAN BLINKED HER eyes open as soon as the light faded away. She lifted her head from the half-duck she'd gone into and peered ahead, at where Manabozho--and Red Bird's pups--had been. The two little Ocryxes were no longer there.
Red Bird uncovered her eyes as well. They widened and she sucked in a breath and moved close to Tal Natha, who also stared ahead.
Drake and X'aaru just gaped.
Charmian slowly lowered her hand from her brow and looked back into the eyes of the creatures now standing before her. She had the strange feeling of walking through Tal Natha's dream, though she knew this was reality.
Dakh and Sikt Natha still stood where they had been. Only now they were no longer pups. They rose taller than Charmian herself, even though they were not drawn up to their full height; their horns curved back graceful from their heads, not short and stubby as they had been before. Their wings, fully formed, flared and folded again. They stared at Charmian, coppery red and palest gray, with the same cool eyes as she had seen in Tal Natha's mind. She couldn't think of what to say.
Manabozho stepped back, out of her way. He gave her a nudge that made her stumble forward a step before she caught herself. She looked up at Dakh--the Ocryx towering over her, closer than Sikt--and swallowed.
Near Tal Natha, Red Bird burrowed her face against his shoulder and stifled a sob. Tal Natha's ears folded back and the fur on his neck rose slightly, but he made no other threatening move. It was obvious they were just as stunned as Charmian was.
Charmian swallowed again. She straightened herself and took a tentative step toward the demon--he must have been as big as Tal Natha--and for some reason, seeing him here, in the flesh, was unnerving. She was so used to the two being the stuff of dreams that it didn't seem right for them to actually be here, as she had known them before they were born. Before she could reach him Dakh lowered his head toward her in a swift motion, making her gasp and take a little hop back. She shut her eyes but all she could hear was a soft snuffling sound, joined by another, as the two of them checked her scent. She hesitantly opened her eyes; Tal Natha's fur rose a bit more and he flared his wings, but she sent him a silent signal to stay back. Sikt, now beside Dakh, lowered her head closer, and without any reason Charmian lifted her hand, palm out, before her. The two demons sniffed at it.
Then, they licked it.
Charmian's mouth slowly turned up into a smile. Her eyes went blurry to see the two fully grown demons licking at her fingers like friendly dogs, and she knew they remembered her. Tal Natha's hackles went down and he lifted his head; Red Bird peered at the twins, tears still streaming from her eyes, but didn't sob as she had before. Charmian tried hard to keep her own tears from falling--she wasn't entirely successful--and with her smile growing even more, reached up to scratch behind the Ocryxes' ears. They cocked their heads and let her do so, their tails swishing with pleasure, and she laughed.
A shuffling sound came from off to the side and the two demons looked that way, Charmian pulling back her hand. Tal Natha approached slowly, holding his head slightly lower and with his wings flared, a cautious posture. He stopped several feet away and sniffed at the air; Dakh and Sikt followed suit. They moved toward him and their muzzles barely touched as they scented each other. Charmian held her breath, understanding very well Tal Natha's hesitation. Though he was the dominant male, the other two Ocryxes combined could easily kill him, if they chose.
Instead of attacking, however, the two younger demons finished their sniffing and rubbed their muzzles against the sides of Tal Natha's head like cats marking their territory. The three of them made an odd murmuring sound, and Charmian's smile returned. She could tell they still recognized and had accepted each other. Red Bird approached, a timid look on her face, but they nuzzled against her without even checking her scent. She put her arms around their furry necks and pressed her face to them, tears squeezing from her eyes. Charmian bit the inside of her lip as she realized how difficult this decision must have been for her. She had effectively given up Dakh's and Sikt's childhood for this, yet the demons didn't appear upset.
A whining sound drew her attention now, and the twins turned to look as well. X'aaru had come down the slope from Sugar Loaf, and he too scented the air, but held his head much lower with his ears folded back and his tail tucked between his legs. Dakh's and Sikt's ears pricked and they pulled away from Red Bird to approach him. He whimpered and nearly lowered himself to the ground, but the two Ocryxes merely circled and nipped at him, backing away and moving close again in a playful manner. It took him a moment to understand what they were doing, and he rose out of his submissive posture, nipping back. They nuzzled at each other and sniffed each other over.
Drake startled Charmian--he was right beside her now--when he spoke, sniffling himself and rubbing at his teary eyes. "It's like watching a special on the Discovery Channel!"
Charmian rolled her eyes. "Since when have you watched the Discovery Channel?"
We must speak.
Dakh and Sikt--and Charmian and the others as well--turned to face Tal Natha. He stood with Red Bird beside him, and took a step forward, staring at the twin demons. The serious tone of his voice made them all fall silent. He paused where he was and continued.
I must know if what she has said is true. If you now know your purpose here.
Dakh and Sikt stared at him for a moment before rising to their feet. They shared a brief glance, as if conversing over something, then turned back to him.
Our purpose has not been clear, Dakh said, and Charmian almost started at the sound of his voice, after what had seemed to be so long. We have waited for the time when it will be so.
Tal Natha's look grew disappointed. Then you do not know why you have come? Why this needed to happen? I had thought these things were known.
In time, Sikt said. We follow Another who will make this clear as it is needed.
Another? Now the demon's look grew mildly suspicious. Dakh cut in before he could continue.
Until then, we merely do what we can to preserve the Island. This is our purpose, until we are told otherwise.
Charmian let out her breath. "So Moon Wolf was wrong," she said, and they looked at her. She stepped toward them. "He was suspicious that you two might have some other goal in mind. Like helping Ocryana. He thought that you might be in league with her and Shadow Water."
This is not our purpose, Dakh replied. The prime purpose of the Ocryxes is to protect the Island. Where some have gone wrong, others will attempt to do right.
Charmian's hand clutched at the flap of her top. "Thank you," she said quietly.
Dakh faced his father again. The Island grows weak not only because of she who bore you, he said. There is another whose purpose flags, and weakens the land.
Tal Natha's eyes darkened. Father, he said, and the two demons made a gesture of acknowledgement.
He is the life of the Island, Dakh continued. Yet he fails to fulfill his purpose. His heart has grown hard, and his spirit has grown cloudy.
"You can say that again," Charmian said under her breath. She raised her hand, to get their attention. "Excuse me...but what you're saying is that since Ocryx isn't doing what he can to help out, he's leaving the Island vulnerable to Ocryana's attack?"
Sikt tipped her head. This is what is intended.
Charmian lowered her hand and scowled. "I knew that guy's thick head would get us in trouble...doesn't he even care about things anymore?" She raised her voice. "I've faced him down a few times already. He might be blustery, but for the most part he's bark and no bite. If you need somebody to talk to him about this, I think that I can, I'm just not sure that I can actually convince him of anything."
Tal Natha frowned. You are certain you wish to do this? I know that he has made you unwelcome, repeatedly.
Charmian waved him off. "Yeah, and he says that every time I see him. He has yet to live up to it. I think he just has a problem with hitting women." She looked at Dakh and Sikt. "Do you think that if he changed his mind and started to help out more, the Island might become stronger? Better to fight off Ocryana?"
This is the purpose of his existence, Sikt said. Yet it is doubtful your words may achieve anything.
"I know, but somebody's got to try it, and I don't really think he'd relish seeing either of you down there."
Tal Natha's frown grew. Surely you do not intend to go there alone. There are still those few manitous who remain with him, and-- He cut himself off with a wince, hunching forward. Red Bird gasped and rushed to his side, taking hold of his arm.
Charmian's face went white and her insides twisted. She swallowed and tried to sound as she had before, unafraid. She wasn't sure if she was convincing. "Look, somebody has to face him sooner or later, right? It might as well be now. I don't know. Maybe all my nagging will finally get through to him." She put her fingers to her mouth and whistled; the three younger demons' ears flickered. "I don't like the idea of any of you going down there, and Pakwa is...well...Pakwa, so Mani'll take me."
"You're certain this is a wise idea?"
Charmian blinked. She'd completely forgotten Manabozho was among them, he'd been so silent. Everyone turned to look at him and they seemed just as surprised as she was. He stood with his arms crossed and his head tilted in a manner that annoyed her, somehow. When he saw he'd gained her attention he continued.
"Sometimes the wisest ideas come from retreat, not from confrontation."
Charmian's look darkened. "And who ever got anything done by running away?" she retorted; a rustling arose in the woods as Mani approached, and she went toward him, pulling herself up over his shoulder. "I already said it. I'll be fine. The most he can do is scream at me. I'm used to it by now!"
"People change," Manabozho had to call out as she turned Mani around, toward the lake. "You know it yourself."
Charmian didn't bother with a reply. "Think you can get us to Devil's Lake?" she murmured to the manitou, who twitched his ears. She sensed his anxiety, but he started to trot nonetheless.
Hope Red Land One knows what she's doing!
So do I, Charmian thought, to herself; she could feel the others' eyes upon her as they vanished further into the woods. Someone made a move to follow her, but was restrained; with greater surprise she realized it had been Red Bird. She swallowed her anxiety and rubbed at her eyes as another manitou even further off whistled into the treetops.
"The way I see it, since Mitchi isn't there anymore, you can probably make it into the lake without a scratch," Charmian said as they went. "He can't have too many more manitous left with him since Mitchi was the one who really held them together. If any of them try anything with us, we can fight them off."
Mani swallowed but said nothing. A rustling sound came behind them and his head jerked up. Charmian glanced back to see another manitou following--where had it come from?
"She," Drake said, riding atop its back, "and she came when I called her. You're not the only one who can do that; just because I can't make those fire-thingies pop up doesn't mean I can't call a manitou!"
"Drake!" Charmian hissed. She halted Mani and made a face at him. "What are you doing here?"
Drake's mouth twitched. "Well, you're welcome," he retorted. "I guess that's what I get for trying to be helpful!"
"Helpful? If you want to be helpful you'll go back to Sugar Loaf and keep an eye on the others."
"Nuh-uh, you're not getting rid of me that easily. I know what you mean by 'keep an eye on the others'--what you really mean is keep out of the way!"
"Basically!" Charmian snapped. "So will you buzz off already?"
Drake calmly shook his head, and Charmian ground her fingernails into her palms. "Nope. I'm coming with you. I heard what you said about the manitous. I figure that the four of us can do a better job fending them off than just two."
"FOUR can also get in the way more easily than two!" Charmian grumbled, but knew it was no use. She headed Mani back in the right direction and decided to ignore Drake the rest of the way there. He grinned and she felt like slapping him, but he said nothing more and only followed. Once they had gone deep into the woods the manitous picked up their pace, leaping over roots and rocks and hills as swiftly as rabbits...that made Charmian wonder if somebody else would be keeping an eye on them or not. A few times she looked back to see if anyone else followed, yet saw no one.
The Island seemed to grow darker the closer they got to the lake; it was something Charmian had noticed on most of her trips there. It was as if the land and the water couldn't tolerate each other's presence somehow, yet had to. She wondered if it had always been that way, even before Ocryx's spirit had grown dark. Would any of what was happening now have even taken place if Ocryana had never succumbed to her jealousy?
"Charm," Drake said, snapping her out of her thoughts. "You're gonna go walking right down into it!"
Charmian shook her head and Mani stopped abruptly. They stood upon the lakeshore, such as it was, staring down into the black water. The wind had not picked up yet and the surface was glass smooth, making it all the eerier. Mani stomped a hoof; the other manitou shied and whistled, jerking her head.
"I think maybe I should've said three can do it better than two," Drake said, climbing off the manitou before she could toss him. "Kinda forgot they don't really get along with the other manitous."
"Told you," Charmian muttered. She climbed down from Mani and stood staring into the lake. "This is weird. Usually it gets all windy whenever I come here...and usually there are GeeBees flying around and stuff!"
Charmian nodded and frowned. "It's not like Ocryx to be quiet...I guess we'd better just plunge in and find out." She glanced at Mani apprehensively. "Um...I remember the lake is really deep."
Bottomless, Mani verified, and she winced.
"Yeah...like I said, really deep. I almost passed out when I tried going in there on my own the last time. Chepi knew a shortcut, but...well...she's kind of...occupied at the moment." The truth was, since parting ways with her at the spring, she had no idea where the windling had gone. "But anyway while I was going down there...um...Mitchi Manitou showed up and...um..." Her face flushed red; Mani and Drake leaned forward with curious looks, which only made her ears burn hotter. "He...kind of...well, kissed me or something," she blurted out hastily. Drake blinked and then a huge grin started to spread across his face; she fumbled to think of something to say before he could start singing something asinine like, "Charmi and Mitchi sitting in a tree!"
Thankfully Mani interrupted for her. He nodded and whistled. Breath of life! Waterlings can breathe underwater. But Red Land One. Power over water? Surely to breathe?
Charmian had to think for a moment before she could figure out what he'd said. "Oh...I hadn't really thought of that," she said, flushing again. "Maybe. But I don't know. Water and wind are the two tougher elementals to get control of. I'm not sure if I can breathe underwater on my own. Yet."
Mani nodded again. All right. Will find out eventually. If not...
Charmian nodded herself before he could finish. "Thanks Mani!" she said, a little quickly; Drake started to grin again. "Oh by the way," she added, eyes narrowing, "Drake here REALLY doesn't have any power over the water...you think you can give HIM a hand if he needs it?"
One more nod from the manitou; Drake, however, quickly lost his smile and gave Mani a nervous look. Charmian didn't allow him to have second thoughts. Taking a breath, she ran forward and jumped, plunging into the lake feetfirst and praying she wouldn't hit a ledge. She went straight down into the chilly water, a flume of bubbles rising above her; a muffled sound from not too far away, followed by another, let her know that the other two had followed her, and she turned herself about and started to propel herself toward the...bottom?...wherever it was one headed while swimming toward the bottom of a bottomless lake, she supposed.
A few times she spotted blue lights in the distance, but they didn't approach, instead blinking away into the darkness. She realized now just how much power Mitchi Manitou had had; maybe that was the reason for the lake's silence. And this just made her worry anew.
Obviously he's hanging out with Ocryana full time by now...otherwise he'd be here. They already had a KID together! How could Ocryx just let all of this happen? Didn't he see it coming...?
She cocked her head back to see how Drake was doing. He wasn't too far behind, his cheeks puffed out and his eyes wide. A few times Mani approached him but every time he frantically waved the manitou off; if she hadn't been holding her breath, Charmian would have laughed.
At least she didn't grow as dizzy as she did the last time, though once the water had grown pitch black she felt her head begin to swim. Thankfully a pale glimmer appeared and she headed for it, remembering the caves deep under the surface, leading to Ocryx's caverns. She waited until Drake had caught up before catching hold of his hand and dragging him down with her, kicking her feet out. Not long after her head broke the surface and she gasped for breath; Drake emerged beside her, sputtering and coughing. Mani was the only one who made no noise, shaking the water from his ears and looking around. The shore lay nearby; Charmian pulled on Drake's arm and led him toward it, and the three of them crawled onto land, swiping the water from their clothes and looking around.
"This...this is it?" Drake croaked, and his voice bounced off the walls in a way that made Charmian wince. She waved her hand.
"Yes, it is. Quiet! Everything carries down here. I can't remember which way we went before. Mani...?"
Mani sniffed at the air and whistled quietly, then wandering off into the cave system. Charmian and Drake followed.
As they went, the scenery began to assume a familiar pattern, and for some reason Charmian felt her anxiety begin to grow. Why should she feel so anxious? The demon hadn't hurt her...so far. She remembered how afraid Stick-In-The-Dirt was of him. Maybe it would take only one more prodding before he would snap...?
Mani halted and his ears flickered wildly. He glanced back at Charmian with an anxious look. She patted his shoulder as she passed him.
"Don't worry. You can stay here. And thanks."
The manitou stared after her as she went into the lit cave ahead. Drake trailed behind hesitantly but followed. She really had to wonder why he'd even bothered coming along.
The room was the same as before, with the book on the stand and everything. Even the weird little rubbery creature with the big eyes was present again, and as soon as it saw her, it gibbered and scuttled her way. Her first instinct, truthfully, was to kick it to the other side of the room. Instead she grabbed hold of it as she had before; it wriggled and drooled and made a weird rasping noise. As freaky looking as it was, when she loosened her grip, the worst thing it did was take her arm in its mouth and slobber all over it. Charmian made a face and had to suppress a disgusted sound.
"Well," Drake whispered, making the same face, "at least it isn't...harmful..."
Charmian tucked the wriggling creature under her arm and it sucked on her hand. She looked around but Ocryx wasn't here. She bit her lip a little and started wandering around in the adjoining caves, the crystals set into the walls here and there reminding her of Tal Natha's cave.
"COOL!" Drake said, entirely too loudly, when they found a small round cave filled with tiny bright crystals lit in different colors. Charmian instantly recognized the room Red Bird had seen in her vision. She backed out of it; it didn't feel right to go in there. The rest of the caves were eerily empty. Their footsteps echoed off the walls, and the sound of dripping water came in the distance.
"So...where is he?" Drake looked around. "I figured he'd be kind of, I dunno, pissed at us just wandering around in here..."
"Usually he would be." Charmian frowned. "Which is why this doesn't make any sense. Maybe Mitchi came back and wounded him again?" She stopped and thought for a moment, then felt like slapping herself. Mani, who had been following them the whole while, stopped several yards away. "DUH! If I want to, I can just sense him out." She dropped her free arm and concentrated, shutting her eyes and turning in a slow circle. She could feel the other two watching her, perhaps wondering what she was doing, but didn't let them distract her.
Apakwaanaajiin, help me find him.
After circling a few times, she finally sensed a presence stronger than that of the few manitous and opened her eyes. "He's somewhere this way," she murmured, "though all the walls and holes down here make it kind of hard to tell exactly where. At least we know which direction by now." She headed off that way, leaving the others to catch up again. Drake panted as he jogged behind her.
"Hey Charm, how did you do that--? Find Ocryx, I mean."
"A little bat told me. Hurry it up, I didn't really intend to spend all day down here."
It was more easily said than done...only after walking through an excruciatingly long system of caves and cavelets did the presence she'd first felt finally grow strong enough to home in on, and even then there was no straight path to take. Fortunately Mani knew some of the ways, though he whistled and backed off when she sensed they were as close as they were going to get without actually seeing Ocryx himself. She could almost scent him by now; holding up a hand to tell the other two to keep back, she ventured into another cave from which a flickering light came, depositing the rubbery creature on the ground and watching it scuttle away again. She almost felt like knocking to avoid being rude...but knew it would do no good. Some people just didn't care for visitors.
She was so preoccupied thinking these things that she almost tripped over the demon before she noticed him, and jumped back with a gasp. She hadn't expected to find him the way he was now.
Ocryx lay upon the floor against the wall, his head stretched out before him and his arms tucked beneath him out of her sight. His wings folded over his back, rising and falling with his breath. His eyes were mere glowing slits and if it hadn't been for the way one slid to the side to take her in, she would have thought he was asleep.
Instead Charmian stood still while the red and green slit flickered over her, then slid back into place. The demon didn't bother moving.
Mainlander. You must not have a home of your own to return to.
Charmian's mouth twitched. "That's the best you've got?"
I have little time for a pesky fly like you, Ocryx replied, and said nothing more.
Charmian blinked. Drake tugged on her elbow.
"I thought you said he was some kind of hardass, Charm."
She slapped his hand to shut him up and turned back to the demon. "I don't know if you really care why I'm here or not," she said, taking a bit of confidence from his refusal to stand up and bellow in her face, "but you should. Have you bothered taking a look around yourself lately?" When he didn't reply she continued. "You barely have any manitous left. In case you didn't notice. Though the only way you could have missed it was to have had your eyes closed the past few months!"
Go away, Ocryx said, and rolled over to face the wall. Charmian frowned and walked over so he could see her again, her shoulder to the wall. She crossed her arms, though she felt that was pushing it.
"How are you feeling right now? Mitchi's attack still wearing on you, huh? I don't suppose you know or care what he's been up to lately. In case you're wondering, he and Ocryana...well, let's just say that this Kawaduk fellow didn't just pop up on his own."
I said to go away. Ocryx didn't even bother raising his voice. He let his eyes drift closed as if to shut her out. She felt like nudging him with her foot but decided she liked having two feet better than having one.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" she exclaimed, gesturing although he couldn't see it. "Don't you get it? The Island is falling apart and Ocryana is getting more power because you're not doing your job! Don't you remember? The life of the Island. That's what Tal Natha keeps telling me." She braced herself for an outburst when she mentioned the other demon's name, but none came. "That means you've got a responsibility here. If you don't do your job of protecting the Island, you forfeit everything to her."
Let the 'guardian' protect the Island if he cares for it so greatly, Ocryx said, still in that strangely quiet voice that made her uneasy. Since he harps on it so constantly.
"Harps? Because if he doesn't harp, WE'RE ALL DEAD!" Charmian stomped her foot, sending a vibration through the floor, which finally made his ears quiver and his eyes open to slits again, his nostrils flaring. "You manage to get mad enough when it doesn't matter. Get mad now that it does matter. She's taking the whole place over and you're just going to lie here and let her? I thought you hated her more than that. What about when you turned her into what she is? When you tried hunting her down as soon as you were freed from the lake? Where did all of that anger go? Don't tell me you're wussing out!"
The demon let out a low rumble which made her check herself, but he still refused to move. The glow in his eyes flared.
I suggest you simply go. Mainlanders like you were never meant to be here. It is because your sort arrived that our troubles even began.
"I can't say if that's so, but now it's YOUR job to help take care of it. I'm trying to do your work for you. Don't you get it? What, don't tell me that she's the alpha now and you're the bitch."
That managed to get a reaction out of him at last. With a growl he lurched up to his feet, making her gasp and take a step back. His hackles bristled and his ears folded back, muzzle wrinkling, but he didn't approach. He bared his teeth, but there was something hollow about it, something false that Charmian finally recognized.
Go back to the surface, mainlander. You do not belong down here.
"Not until you tell me why you're letting her get away with this. You got pissed off enough before to do something about it. Even when Shadow Water showed up! You were pretty mad then!" Charmian made the meanest face she could summon up. "Now that it actually MATTERS you've finally worn out all your bluster! Is that all it was after all? Just a bunch of wind? Fitting, coming from a windling."
His growl rose but he still didn't make a move on her. Drake hadn't said a word yet; he was too busy cringing back. Charmian let herself grow bolder, if that were possible.
"So am I right? You're the bitch now and she's the alpha? She did take Mitchi from you, after all."
Ocryx let out a bellow, and though it made her wince, she felt a tiny bit of triumph. His wings flared wide. "Get out! I hardly need little ants like you crawling my floors!"
"Only when you tell me WHY you're being such a WUSS!" Charmian shouted back, again stomping her foot. Drake waved his hands in what might have been a gesture for her to knock it off, but she ignored him. "Come on and just say it already! Wuss! WUSS!" Ocryx bared his teeth again and his growl rasped off the walls. "Come on and at least admit what a coward you really are. For all your roaring and snarling you can't show anything for it!" She clenched her fists and didn't let her eyes waver from his own, letting him know in no uncertain terms she wasn't going to back down so easily this time. "You've made yourself too predictable. I know you won't attack me! Because I'm female!"
"I'm not!!" Drake yelled, and skittered back into the entrance.
"It's okay, Drake," Charmian called back, not taking her gaze away from Ocryx. He glowered at her but didn't speak. "He won't hurt you, either. He's too much of a wuss."
"Um, Charm...I really wouldn't..."
"It's okay. He's not going to do anything. Isn't that right?" Red and green bored through her but she didn't relent. "You've had every chance to protect the Island, but you always failed to. I suppose this is the last big laugh you're going to get, huh?"
Leave, Ocryx grated.
"Not until you tell me why." Charmian's voice grew as flinty as his own. "Why you're going to just let the Island die. Why you won't do anything at all to even TRY to stop her. Why after all this time you're just going to let Ocryana win." She narrowed her eyes at him, echoing her own words to Justin and Shadow Water. "Just tell me that, and I'll leave you alone forever. Because we won't even be here to bother with it anymore. Because of you."
Ocryx growled. But he didn't answer. Teeth still bared, he turned away. Charmian noticed the slump of his wings, the way his tail slid listlessly across the floor, and suddenly, in that moment, it all came to her so clearly, she couldn't believe she hadn't known it before. Her eyes widened and her tensed muscles relaxed. She stood up straight and stared at his back as he shuffled slowly away from her.
"You don't want to save the Island," she said softly, and both Drake and Mani, near the entrance, glanced at her. Her voice came out quiet, yet it somehow carried across the whole room.
"You want to die."