|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
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Persona Non Grata
OCRYX PUT ONE clawed hand to the floor and slowly pushed himself up, teeth bared and growling. The skin was slashed open over his left eye, which was shut tight, blood streaming down his muzzle. Charmian and Chepi backed away as he made it to his feet, panting and battered. He and Mitchi Manitou stood and growled at each other.
Charmian gaped and blinked at the two of them. "What the..."
"I think maybe we came at a bad time," Chepi whispered, tugging on her arm. "Maybe another day!"
Charmian didn't budge. Though she certainly thought moving might be a good idea when Mitchi reared up, bellowing, and lunged forward at Ocryx.
Ocryx had enough time to crouch before Mitchi was on him. The rest was a blurred tangle of gray and white as the two snarled and slashed at each other. Chepi gave a little shriek and jumped back when Ocryx's tail whipped through the air, nearly slamming into Charmian's head; just in time she remembered to duck and it struck the wall instead, dislodging great hunks of rock. Mitchi swung his great antlers at Ocryx's head and missed; Ocryx slashed open his breast with his claws. The manitou roared with pain and this time his antlers hit their mark, ramming against the side of the demon's head. He fell to the ground immediately, chest heaving.
Charmian wasn't really sure which side she should be rooting for or why, but for some reason she really wanted Ocryx to get up at that moment.
He slowly started to do so though it was obvious the movement pained him. Looking closer now Charmian could tell the fight must have been going on a while before she and Chepi had shown up; feathers were missing from his wings, and his tail and body both were slashed and bruised in more places than one. Mitchi also bled from more than one wound, though his injuries didn't seem as bad. He stepped over the rubble and toward the fallen demon and towered over him. His glittering blue eyes narrowed and his lip curled back. This didn't make any sense.
Ocryx is STRONGER than Mitchi! I know he is! So why does it look like he's LOSING!
Mitchi raised his paw and bellowed again. He swung down at Ocryx. Charmian couldn't be sure--but when Ocryx looked up at him she thought she saw fear in his eyes.
Ocryx snarled and lowered his head and lunged upward, straight into Mitchi's attack. Mitchi's eyes flashed wide and blue. Charmian gasped and Chepi's hands flew to her mouth to see one long dark horn protruding from his back. Ocryx pulled back and before the manitou could recover himself--if at all--his tail whistled through the air, slamming into Mitchi and sending him flying backwards. When he landed Mitchi hit the ground with a dull thud; Charmian heard him let out one little breath. His head rolled to the side so one antler rested against the ground, and he fell still.
She and Chepi stared at him for a moment, eyes goggling.
Ocryx didn't appear to notice them standing there. He turned ponderously and started back down the tunnel, stopping after a few steps and leaning against the wall. Charmian found her feet again and slowly walked toward the fallen manitou, ignoring Chepi's wordless protests. She leaned over him to look down into his face. She knew she was violating every rule of a horror movie doing this, and if things went the same way a movie did then he would leap up into her face, but right now he did no such thing. His eyes were still slightly open, blue and glazed; his tongue hung out of his mouth and blood trickled from his side and back where Ocryx had impaled him. She placed two trembling fingers against his neck with a grimace. He was still breathing slightly, and she could feel a pulse.
Well, he wasn't a goner, yet. Only temporarily taken care of.
She stood straight again and let out her breath. Ocryx's wings tensed and he turned his head to look back at them. His eyes grew when he saw Charmian standing over Mitchi, and he turned to face her.
"You," his voice rasped. Charmian jumped and blinked at him and immediately started fiddling her fingers. The demon limped her way, wings flaring and eyes glowing brighter the closer he came. His muzzle started to wrinkle. "Did I not...tell you to never come here again?" he snarled, his voice rising as well.
Charmian swallowed hard. "Well, uh..."
Now he noticed something behind her--Chepi, Charmian realized--and his eyes grew more. Chepi hovered behind Charmian with one hand on her arm. The woman gave a guilty-looking smile and lifted one hand in a tiny wave. "Um...hello, sweetie...!"
"And YOU!" Ocryx roared. The two jumped back and cringed. The demon lowered himself to snarl in Charmian's face. "I hardly have time to deal with you, much less HER!" his voice grated, and he turned away again, limping back down the tunnel. Charmian forced her breath to come slower and scowled at Chepi.
"I thought you said you parted on good terms!" she hissed.
Chepi scowled back. "It was amicable!"
She pushed the woman's hand away and followed Ocryx. He was leaving a trail of blood upon the floor and she worried that he would end up the same way as X'aaru after his attack from Mitchi. Chepi fussed and fluttered a bit in consternation before tagging along.
"Ocryx," Charmian called as she jogged after him. He didn't slow his step, though it wasn't very quick anyway and she caught up with him. She could see his ears folding back and slowed her pace to stay behind him, out of reach of his tail. She'd seen how easily he'd felled Mitchi with that thing.
"Ocryx!" she called again, stopping as he continued. "I saw all of that. I know there was more to it before we showed up. What's going on? Mitchi's your servant. He shouldn't be attacking you, unless you're losing control of him!"
The words slipped out of her mouth before she even knew she was saying them. As soon as they were said, her mouth shut. Ocryx halted and she could tell they'd had the same effect upon him as they'd had upon her. What had prompted her to say that? How could she know that was what was happening here? One little spat between a demon and his manitou, it didn't have to matter that much...did it?
"What Tal Natha said," she found herself whispering. She lowered her raised hand and her gaze drifted to the floor.
Ocryx turned back and his hackles rose. "Do NOT say that name to me!" he hissed.
He started to turn away again but as he did Charmian lifted her head and took a step forward.
"I don't think it's safe for you to be here anymore."
Now the look he gave her was one of anger tinged with disbelief. Chepi blinked at her a few times before giving a small false laugh and taking her arm.
"The girl's obviously quite crazy. I'm sorry I let her come barging in here...we were just on our way..."
Charmian pulled her arm loose and stepped closer to Ocryx. "You've known it's been coming for a long time. When Mitchi attacked X. You didn't order it. He's not supposed to do anything unless you order him to. And he hurt him more than he should have been able to. Old Mother Manitou said this."
His muzzle wrinkled. "You are a paranoid and unwelcome little fool!"
"You don't want to face it because it's the truth and because you know YOU'RE not in charge anymore! Let me guess what happened before I showed up here. Mitchi challenged you, didn't he? You can't keep a close rein on him anymore. That's because his will is weak. You used to control him, now someone else does. Someone MORE powerful than you."
"I HOLD THE POWER!" Ocryx bellowed.
"You USED to hold the power!" Charmian shouted back. "Until you let it slip away because you didn't want to ADMIT it could happen! The whole time you've been here growling at the walls Ocryana's been gathering power. I don't know where from, but for all you know she could be getting it from YOU! You can't figure out why Mitchi's acting up? It's because SHE'S controlling him now! The same way she controlled Augwak, and the same way she plans on controlling YOU!"
Chepi covered her mouth and gave a little jump. Ocryx got the same surprise-just-about-to-turn-into-fury look on his face that he'd gotten the last time she'd visited him. She hurried to speak before the shock could wear off.
"I know it's a bitter pill to swallow but you'd better learn how to face up to it. Ignoring her won't make her go away! Every time you deny her her power she just gets stronger. You know I'm right. She controls Mitchi now. Maybe not completely, but she will soon. And she'll let him get just as powerful as she wants him to be, so he can take you down for her. And if he can't do that, then he's got a whole ARMY of manitous right here to help him out!"
He bared his teeth, but instead of bellowing his voice came in her mind. You walk upon thin ice now, human, and I seriously suggest you leave.
"Why? You can rip my head off just like that. Yet all you ever do is threaten. Is it because you don't want to fight?" Rather than let him answer she pressed on. "Look. I know I'm pissing you off but I've got a suggestion too. If Mitchi can't take you on, he's going to enlist the other manitous. You're practically living right in the middle of them! You couldn't be a better target if you had a big red X painted on you!"
CRACK. Charmian jumped and flinched when the ground before her shattered to pieces. Ocryx's tail slipped through the air back behind him, and he leaned forward so his muzzle was inches from her face. She had to shut her eyes; she couldn't stand looking at him.
"This is your final warning, mainlander," his voice came, very soft and deadly. "I've been patient with you so far though you barely deserve it. The next time you come running to me to shout who is more powerful than whom, I will gladly prove you wrong. Take this THING with you--and leave."
Charmian felt him move away, and opened her eyes a bit to see him limping off down the tunnel again. Chepi fluttered to her side, fussing and patting at her damp headdress.
"The absolute NERVE!" she twittered. "To call me a--a THING! I gave him some of the best nights of his..."
"I guess we do what he says, then," Charmian interrupted, her face darkening as she turned back the way they'd come. "If he wants to stay blind, who am I to argue."
"What?" Chepi squawked. She fluttered around in front of Charmian as if to block her way, but Charmian continued walking so she ducked aside. "Wait a moment! You're going to give up just like--like that? You hardly even tried! I mean, I've been in MUCH bigger arguments with him than THAT--!"
"I've already tried arguing with him before. He hasn't changed. No reason belaboring the point, I'd just be battering my head against the wall." Her own voice came out calm and resigned, though inside her guts were absolutely twisting in knots. She knew the truth--Ocryx was the life of the Island. If he didn't care what happened to himself, then the Island was doomed.
"Well, batter your head some more!!" Chepi was snapping. "I hardly think we ALL deserve to die just because of one thickheaded--"
"I thought you might try using some of YOUR influence, but a great help you were!" Charmian retorted, glaring at the woman. Chepi hemmed and hawed and fell back a little bit.
"Well...it's a bit more complicated than that. You're young, so you wouldn't understand. Suffice it to say that demons are a lot more trouble to deal with than one would believe, they think differently from the rest of us, it's like being from two different planets and all--OH! Hello, little Schmookie-Pie!!"
She dropped to her knees with a delighted cry, holding out her arms. Charmian glanced at her to see the strange little creature that had first come after her when she'd come to speak with Ocryx on her own. Eyes goggling and tongue lolling, it scurried along the ground, letting out a harsh panting drooling sound until it bounded into Chepi's arms. The woman squeezed it tight and it showered her with kisses. "Yes, you little sweetie-poo! Mama missed you, yes she did!" She tucked the weird little creature under her arm, scratching its chin and gazing at the ceiling. "Now where was I...? Oh yes...anyway...demons and spirits simply aren't meant to make the best companions, it must simply be something fundamentally different in our basic natures..."
Charmian tried to ignore her as they made their way back to the water. Mitchi hadn't moved since they'd last seen him, and she hoped he stayed that way for quite a while. Along the way though she thought she spotted several dim blue dots following them here and there, and crossed her fingers that they wouldn't come any closer.
"...and the only real reason I ever decided to become involved with him anyway was because he has such a fondness for gems and jewels, and I have this fondness myself; plus, well, his eyes, they're very, hm, enticing; oh!--I can't believe I'm blushing!..."
They reached the water and Charmian gingerly stepped in. Her teeth started chattering immediately; it felt a lot colder than it had been before. Chepi set the little slobbering creature down upon the ground, tapping its head with one finger and cooing at it--"Now you stay here with your daddy-waddy, awright little pooie-woo?"--before following. Charmian waded in until she sank below the surface, and sought out the round aperture leading back to Chepi's cave. It was easier to find than she'd thought; she just followed the strange light and swam through, emerging on the other side and almost falling over when she hit air. She started patting the water off of herself as Chepi climbed out behind her, shaking her wings.
"...and I suppose it simply wasn't meant to be, perhaps we were too much alike, both of us being waterlings and all..."
"I thought you were a windling," Charmian said, squeezing out her sleeves.
"Oh! You really do think so? I do make a passing good windling, don't I?" Chepi held her arms out and looked back at her wings as if inspecting them in a mirror. "Well, I was a waterling, like Ocryx is...though he's only half so, I suppose...but when we made our...hm, 'deal'...he gave me powers as a windling instead. I probably could have had both powers, but that would have been most tedious, it can hardly be fun having to keep control of all of that...and it must be terribly draining as well...I have absolutely no idea how a dimwit like Mitchi even handles it..."
"What?" Charmian gave her an odd look. "What do you mean by that? Mitchi's just a waterling, isn't he?"
"Well, now he is, though he wasn't always so...at least that's what I heard...I heard he used to be a woodling at one time, until Ocryx took command of him..."
"Wood? That's not an element, is it?"
"Wood? Well, it's rather a subelement, not an element...I believe wood is related to earth...or perhaps water...or both?...I really have no clue, elements simply aren't my thing unless I'm controlling them...but anyway as I was saying, perhaps we were too much alike, water and water, you know, there's just not much spark anymore, so we decided to part ways--and like I told you already, it was entirely amicable, he was just in a rather poor mood today, which is completely understandable considering how very rudely you coerced me into acting..."
Charmian's hands fell still. She stared ahead at nothing, not even noticing the Windwalkers upon their perches whispering and glancing down at her. "Wood," she murmured.
"...and I do so hope he doesn't decide to take out his anger on poor little--what? Wood? Oh--yes. Not a very pleasant element, I must admit...water is much more suitable...though wind is also good, I suppose...and wood must be better than earth..."
"Mitchi was a woodling." For some reason she found herself staring down at her hands, and her fingers flexed, curling against her palms. It was almost as if she felt something solid within her grip--first dry and coarse, then cold and slick like glass. She also thought of Tal Natha, pinning a stray scavenger GeeBee to the ground with little effort. And something Pakwa had said to her, long ago. Caught by Ocryx, trapped by bad medicine. Wind controls wind.
And her own then-flippant reply: And paper covers rock...
She turned to Chepi and pointed up at the wall where the hole had first been. "Put it back up. I need to go back to Sugar Loaf."
"S--what--Sugar Loaf?" Chepi stammered with consternation. Her wings trembled. "But that's on the other side of the Island!"
"You brought me here, so you take me back."
"Well...this is most inconvenient, especially since I know I brought you here for some important reason, if I could only remember it...but I suppose I could spare a few of my Windwalkers..."
"Not your Windwalkers. You bring me back."
"My--I--what?! I dare say!! This is a MOST rude request to make of the Queen of the Windwalkers!" Chepi huffed, placing a hand to her breast with an offended look.
"I don't have time to watch you be a prima donna," Charmian replied. She pointed at the wall. "Put it back, and take me to Sugar Loaf."
"I absolutely REFUSE to be treated this way by a mere flesh--"
Her protest broke off abruptly in a tiny cry of pain when Charmian seized her wrist, twisting it. "Ow ow ow ow ow--!" Chepi squeaked, bending into the twist. She grimaced and Charmian could tell the action really did hurt her. She let go and the small woman stepped back, rubbing her wrist and looking ready to cry.
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. What had just happened seemed to confirm what she was already beginning to think. Still, she didn't like seeing anybody in pain like that, and wished she could have found a better way to convince her to cooperate. "Come on," she said. "I didn't mean to squeeze so hard. But put the doorway back, and take me to Sugar Loaf. I don't think you'd be very safe this close to Devil's Lake, either."
Chepi blinked and her lower lip trembled. "You...you're worried...about me?"
Charmian nodded. It was only half the truth; she hadn't been much worried until she'd thought up the excuse to get her to take her back to Sugar Loaf, but now it was as good an explanation as anything. "The Windwalkers and the GeeBees both could be in trouble being this close to the lake if Mitchi decides to lead the manitous. I can't really speak for the GeeBees, so maybe you can try to convince them later on if you've got any standing among them at all."
Chepi stuck her nose in the air. "Hardly. Those pathetic little wisps are hardly of OUR standing."
"Then tell your Windwalkers to lie low until you come back, and let's get going to Sugar Loaf. I have to talk to Tal Natha."
"Tal--Tal Natha?" Chepi stammered. "You're on good terms with the Dreamspinner? Oh! You should have told me this sooner!" She blushed and started patting her feathers down hurriedly, looking herself over. "Oh, I'm such a hideous mess--I do so hate arriving looking thus--one must always look one's best before Ocryxes--"
"Look, you look just fine, even better than you did before. Can we just go? This is kind of important! I need YOU to help me with the important task, okay? For the good of the Island and all?"
The woman ceased patting at herself and blinked a few more times before lifting her head again, chest swelling out a bit. "Oh...well...since you put it that way...who is the Queen of the Windwalkers to turn down a favor for the good of the Island...that is me, always looking out for the well being of the pitiable little Islanders, gracious being that I am...well, what are we waiting for?--we hardly have time to dawdle any further, mainlander! For the good of the Island, as I always say!"
She gestured and the hole disappeared behind them, reappearing up in the wall. She took Charmian under the arm and rose into the air like a balloon; Charmian pressed her feet together and tried not to get too dizzy looking down at the floor as it descended below them. The Windwalkers watched them as they rose. By the time they reached the gaping hole, Chepi's wings and entire body beginning to glitter and shimmer brightly, Charmian was already going over in her mind what she intended to tell Tal Natha. She just wasn't sure how right she was--or if she even wanted to be right.
Just imagine, ME wanting to be wrong, she thought as they went, anxiety rising inside her. She squeezed her hands shut again as if afraid of hurting somebody else, including herself. But then again...I hate to think what it might mean for everybody if I'm actually RIGHT!
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