|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 68: Family Matters"
CHARMIAN'S EYES BLURRED. She didn't let that stop her; fear and fury welling up inside her, she reached out to tear a low branch from a tree, holding it out in front of her. She quickly swept the tears away from her eyes with the back of one hand and leveled the stick at the creature.
"You think that's funny? See if you find THIS funny!"
She had a dim hope the creature would take notice of the same sort of weapon she'd used to injure him before--his injuries were gone now, she noticed--and would back off. That didn't happen. He gave the stick an appraising look and then grinned and laughed again with what sounded like disdain. Charmian scowled. She ran at him with a yell, aiming at his chest, only at the last moment lowering the stick to aim for his belly and hoping to throw him off. She realized how effective this plan was when his hand met the back of her neck, sending tendrils of pain down her spine and crashing her to the ground.
He laughed again. Not so strong now, eh?
Charmian pushed herself up with a small groan. She couldn't believe what she'd just heard. That thing had...talked.
"Just give me a minute," she muttered. "Then you'll be sorry."
His laugh grew even louder. At least he was in a good mood. No chance, human.
He whirled about and his foot connected with her stomach. Charmian retched as she was tossed harmlessly to the side. She dropped the stick and clutched her bruised abdomen with a gagging sound. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of Lady Dupries still lying in the snow. As important as both might be, she had to make a decision--help her, or fight the monster. It couldn't be both.
She stumbled painfully to her feet, eyes streaming now, and reached for the stick. She hated making this choice.
She wasn't the one who made it after all. The creature grinned at her and raised his hand, claws extended, then gasped and collapsed with a crash. X'aaru danced back behind him, growling and bristling. He hadn't injured him aside from knocking him over; Charmian took this chance to pick up her "weapon" and get out of his way. The creature got to his feet and bellowed at the demon, who crouched low and made certain to keep out of reach. She remembered his fight with Mitchi Manitou. He most likely didn't stand a chance against this thing.
Charmian! he barked. Are you all right?
Charmian nodded. The beast let out a harsh noise that might have been a laugh.
You think I couldn't hear that, Ocryx? I can do the same. He launched himself at X'aaru, whose eyes widened. The Ocryx lowered his horns and the look the creature got was exactly the same. He skidded to a rough stop in the snow before twisting about and attacking from X'aaru's side.
"X!" Charmian shouted, catching the sudden motion. "Your horns! They must be poison to him!"
She hoped. Either that, or impaling him would cause just as much damage as a stick. The beast snarled at her interruption but dodged out of the way when X'aaru swung at him with his horns. Even with as big as he was, the demon was smaller than the other creature...but he was also faster. X'aaru leapt and coasted about, avoiding each one of the creature's blows. With each missed swing the beast seemed to grow angrier and more frustrated; Charmian silently cheered the demon on.
What am I DOING? I should be HELPING him!
She shook her head abruptly. The stick she still clenched in her hand; she ran toward the two and instead of plunging it inside the creature, tossed it as someone would a javelin. It was one of the things Moon Wolf had taught her; but she'd never been very good at it.
Well, goes to figure I would only remember that little detail right NOW!
X'aaru ducked back. The stick embedded itself in the creature's thigh. His eyes grew and he roared, gripping the branch and pulling it free. Blood streamed down his leg and the only thing Charmian could think was, It's red. Like mine.
The monster tossed the stick to the ground and came at her, snarling, yellow eyes flaring. This is the last time you try that stupid trick!
He swung his hand at her as he had at Lady Dupries. Lady Dupries! Charmian had just enough time to remember her before ducking. He missed, but she hadn't counted on him swinging at her with his other hand. This one caught her in the side, slamming into her already-aching ribs. Her face mashed down into the snow and she sputtered for breath, trying to rise. Something crashed upon her back, keeping her pinned down. She started struggling as her lungs started to burn.
This, fortunately, didn't last long. She heard a screech and the pressure let up so she could roll over with a gasp of pain. She swept the snow from her face to see X'aaru jabbing at the creature with his horns. When the monster swung at him he leapt into the air and spun about, tail crashing into his shins, sending him to the ground. Before he could get up, X'aaru's horn sank into the soft spot next to his shoulder, and he screamed in agony.
Charmian's fists clenched. Yes! X'aaru jumped back with blood trickling down his horn; his eyes were wide, and she could tell he'd never done such a thing before. She jogged over to stand beside him, picking up the stick, and they both looked at his victim. The creature stayed down on one knee, hand clutched to the hole in his shoulder, yellow eyes narrowed and bared teeth gleaming. Charmian doubted she'd ever seen such a hateful look as the one he gave them. She felt almost as if she should pity him. Almost.
When his voice came it was stilted and pained. You...will...regret this.
Charmian's mouth twitched. She grasped the stick tighter. "Yeah. Take a look. This is me, regretting."
The creature's own mouth twisted and though he let out no sound, she could tell he was laughing at them. X'aaru's ears went back and he growled. The creature slowly pulled his hand away from his wound and examined the red lining his palm before looking at Charmian again, his lip curling back. He turned to glower at X'aaru.
Hg'kai Taukka Ta-ko-ba Nodin n'ithi nnghe Kawaduk paga.
X'aaru's ears pricked up now and he blinked with surprise. The creature rose ponderously to his feet, his breath rasping in his throat, and turned away. He shuffled off toward the trees, leaving a slight trail of blood behind him. The others stood and watched him leave. It was some time, even after he was no longer within sight, before Charmian could find her voice again.
"X...what did he say to you?"
"He...spoke in Ocryx," X'aaru murmured. "Mother taught me a little...when I was young. A few words, the names of the others of my kind." He looked at Charmian. "He said that his name is Kawaduk...and that he serves Taukka Ta-ko-ba Nodin, One Who Moves Like The Wind."
X'aaru nodded slowly. "I've never heard a not-Ocryx speak Ocryx before...he learned it from her?"
Charmian let out her breath. Her grip on the stick loosened a little. "He must have...which just proves he's who I thought he was. His own name--what does it mean?"
The demon cocked an ear and racked his brain. "It's a strange word...one I'm not sure of...but it sounds sort of like another word that means Half-One."
"Yes...you know. One of two kinds. Half one, and half another." He paused, and his ears lowered a little. "Like me."
"Oh...I see." Charmian busied herself tying the stick over her shoulder. She wouldn't be caught without one of these things again. What if she ended up where there weren't any trees? "So that leaves the father a mystery...though I believe I know who it is already--"
Something in her mind sparked and she gasped and whirled around. "Lady Dupries!"
She ran toward the snowbank where the woman had been left, still lying as she had been before. She dropped down and pressed her hand to Lady Dupries's face. Her skin was cold, but she couldn't tell if it was because she was outside, or because she was dead.
Before she could get too worried, the woman's brows furrowed and she blinked her eyes open. She let out a small sound and pressed her hand to her neck. Charmian let out her breath again with relief.
"Lady Dupries? Are you okay?"
Lady Dupries slowly sat up and put both of her hands to her neck, feeling it. She tipped her head slightly to the side, winced a bit, and then tipped it the other way.
"The neck is injured...but not broken."
"Thank God. I swore I heard it break." Charmian couldn't believe how relieved she felt. X'aaru came close and sniffed a little bit, cocking his head, then moving back. "Maybe you have whiplash or something."
Lady Dupries held out one hand. "Help me."
Charmian stood and helped her to her feet. She stood for a moment flexing her neck and then examining herself. Charmian scuffed a foot at the snow.
"I'm sorry I didn't warn you sooner," she said. "But I didn't even know he was there! It's like he just sneaked up on us. I didn't even sense him...or...hear him." She flushed, remembering that Lady Dupries shouldn't know about her abilities. Which was why she jumped a little when the older woman looked at her, face completely neutral, unsurprised.
"Charmian, there is no need for apologies. I did not sense him either."
Now Charmian blinked. Then she felt like hitting herself. She sighed, still more from relief than from anything else.
"Sikt. She's really not hurt?"
"Not seriously. Perhaps it was merely the impact that caused the noise, or something else entirely. She will be in a bit of pain, but she will heal."
"So it wasn't just me...? You couldn't even sense him coming?"
"No. It must be as you thought, some of them can disguise themselves, keep their presence hidden."
"Or someone else disguises them."
"Not as likely, but possible."
Charmian looked off into the woods, at the red-tinged trail the beast had left behind him. She fiddled with the end of the stick and bit her lip.
"I think...I think I should go after it...him. Try to find out where it is that he goes when he's hurt. He was hurt before, but he wasn't now. Someone must be helping him..."
Sikt-Justine gave her a look which plainly indicated she didn't agree. "Charmian...you know that could be foolish."
"I know, Sikt. I think I know that more than anybody! But we can't just keep letting them run off to lick their wounds...we don't get anywhere. He has to have someplace where he holes up." She shifted the stick so it rested more comfortably against her back, though truth to tell, nothing felt very comfortable right now. She looked at Sikt-Justine. "You'll make sure she's okay? That she makes it home?"
The woman nodded, once. Charmian sighed and turned around, only to notice X'aaru still hunched in the snow not too far away. His eyes were uncertain, as if he weren't too sure of what had just happened, yet he didn't question her.
"Oh...X." She blinked. "Are you all right? Did he get you anywhere?"
"No...just a little scratch, is all." He sniffed at a small scrape on his arm. "Do you want me to come with you? Or go with her?"
Charmian really didn't want to head off alone after that thing...Kawaduk, she told herself. Yet she hated even more the thought of leaving Lady Dupries on her own. She considered her options for a few moments. It looked as if Justin's mother knew how to hold her own, but she couldn't be sure if she knew how to really fight or not.
Not that I do, either!
"I think maybe you should go back with Lady Dupries," she said finally. "She's kind of hurt and I don't think she could defend herself much...I think you might be better able to do that, based on what I just saw."
The demon's eyes widened a bit and his ears pricked up. He didn't dare to smile, or puff out his breast, but she could sense his pleasure. She had to keep herself from smiling. "Promise you'll take good care of her on the way back?"
He beamed and nodded. "Yes. Of course." One ear lowered a bit as he realized she would be heading off on her own. "You'll be careful...won't you?"
Charmian's mouth twitched. "You know me." She made certain the stick was firmly in place and turned away. "Careful is my middle name."
She couldn't tell if he even understood what she meant or not, but didn't have the time to see. Kawaduk had to have made good progress by now, wounded or not. She had to catch up with him.
Waving briefly at Sikt-Justine and X'aaru, she started off at a jog into the woods.
Kawaduk's trail was clear, but a light snow beginning to fall made her fear that somewhere along the way she would lose it. She hoped his injury kept him at a slower pace than her own, because his strides were certainly longer. She jogged at a good speed for quite a while and eventually noticed that his trail was taking her in the general direction of Arch Rock. What was it about that place? That was where he'd first attacked them. From what little X'aaru had been able to tell her, she knew it was the Passing-Over Place, and had even seen the lost spirits roaming about. She couldn't think of a reason why Kawaduk would keep returning.
Look at this, I'm referring to him by name already. For some reason this made her feel disgusted with herself. That hideous thing should always remain simply monster in her mind.
She forced herself to slow down as the trail grew more ragged, indicating he'd stumbled along the way. She felt a pang now before telling herself to shake it off...what was the point of pitying him? He'd tried to kill her, X'aaru, Lady Dupries, who knew who else. She knew at least part of his real purpose. To kill Tal Natha. Red Bird. Red Bird's child.
This last thought steeled her and she continued on.
Not too far from Arch Rock, as she still wandered through the trees, she spotted something small lying in the snow ahead and went to investigate. A rabbit lay upon its side, bleeding and breathing heavily, still alive. She frowned and looked around, then reached down to gently scoop it up. It left a small red smear on the snow and she sighed.
"What was the point of that?" she murmured, half to herself, half to it. Its eyes were glazed and she didn't think it would make it; but she couldn't leave it lying out in the cold. "Like you were any threat...poor thing."
She looked about for a shelter and found one in the hollow of a tree. She knelt down to dig out a bit of snow before carefully placing the small creature inside. It didn't move the whole time she held it, aside from the rapid rise and fall of its ribs. She sighed again and stroked its nose; a bit of blood from her finger rubbed off on its fur and she cringed. She wiped her hands on the snow and got back to her feet.
I have to keep going...there's some more important things at stake here besides this.
She rubbed her cold, wet fingers against her clothing now and went on her way. She couldn't look back at the pathetic animal else she would be tempted to take it with her--and what good could she do for it? The only person she knew who could probably give it a chance was Justin--and she didn't think they would be on the best terms right about now.
Justin. How come I keep thinking about him? Is Tal Natha right...I see something in him?
She scowled and gnawed on the inside of her mouth, her stride turning into a stalk. For God's sake. He's too OLD. They have laws against that kind of thing!!
Her face flushed and she told herself it was just the cold. She rubbed her arms again. Maybe it would have been better if she'd brought along X'aaru after all...only now did she realize how truly alone she was, without even Sikt to help her sense if anyone was about...
Sense. She stopped abruptly, unease rising inside. That was right. Without Sikt she may as well have been deaf and blind. She'd never realized how much she depended on the demon until now.
And of course, it was as if God--or some other--decided to prove her point right at that moment. For she heard something coming down above her, and gasped and ducked to the side just as something crashed down over her back, smashing her into the ground. She gritted her teeth but pushed herself up as quickly as she could. How could Kawaduk have gotten behind her so quickly? Unless--
Something landed in the snow before her--her vision was sideways as she hadn't lifted her head all the way--and with a hiss, she felt the same thing whip across her cheek, knocking her head back. She cried out and collapsed in the snow. Instantly she was being bombarded with a series of slashes and whips, feeling them lay open her clothing, cut and bruise her skin. She held up her arms to shield her head, getting up and running blindly. Whatever it was followed her, and she tripped and fell again.
This time she recovered herself more quickly, knowing it was imperative. She pulled the stick free from her back--somehow it had escaped being broken--and held it out in front of her, feeling something warm stream into her eye, making it sting. She blinked and gaped. This wasn't Kawaduk--as she'd started to fear. The demon's eyes slitted and she leapt into the air, tail soaring toward Charmian and lashing into her side like a giant bullwhip. Charmian screamed and stumbled, catching onto saplings before sliding down the slope. She noticed now that she was right near Arch Rock, the giant stone needle's eye framed against the clouds behind her.
It's just like what happened before! Only there's no Tal Natha or Silver Eagle Feather or X'aaru here now--
Something grabbed onto her collar and dragged her up and into the air. The female Ocryx sneered at her, muzzle wrinkling. She'd gotten her grin from Ocryana, at least.
Charmian yelled and jabbed the stick at her. She batted it aside effortlessly and her grin grew uglier.
You think that little thing can fend me off? I've dealt with much greater than you and survived. A stick can hardly hurt me now!
Now--? Charmian found herself thinking, but her mouth spoke something different. "Wh-why are you--d-doing this--?" she gasped, breath growing short as the demon's grip grew tighter.
The Ocryx's eyes glittered and her voice hissed like water on hot rocks. Because it is my duty!
With this, she lifted Charmian high, hefting her to the side--Charmian barely had time to scrabble at her arm, unable to get a good grip--before hurling her out over the cliff. Charmian yelled as she sailed through the air, and for a moment almost expected X'aaru's rainbow--or moonbow--or Pakwa, or Mani, or something--to appear, and stop her fall before--
Her head slammed into the slope. She somersaulted backwards and started rolling and tumbling, coming to an abrupt stop only when her coat snagged on a bush, leaving her upper half dangling perilously over an overhang. At first she felt only a stinging, but then it turned into a full-fledged throb; with a weak groan she slowly reached up, to try to grab onto the shrub that had probably saved her life.
And she fell.
Down through snow, through rock, through pine boughs, her body slammed into every hard and unwelcoming surface there was. By the time she stopped again she had no idea how close to the ground she might be, though she could dimly see the underside of the arch looming above her; she assumed she must have fallen halfway, at least. The bottom was still far below. But the rock didn't look normal. It kept sparking and turning staticky before clearing again, like bad TV reception. She blinked a few times, but the sight didn't improve any. She started to realize it was her own vision that was fading.
Something behind her head felt sticky and warm. She stared upwards at a few pale drifting shapes that wafted into view, peering down at her. Charmian painfully reached up one hand--her fingers were red--and held it out toward the spirits that hovered far above, looking down.
Their large eyes only stared and they cocked their heads. Charmian let out her breath and instead of pain, now all she felt was cold and sleepy. Her eyes fluttered and her arm lowered back to the ground. The arch, the sky, the spirits all disappeared as everything around her slowly faded into blackness and silence.
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