The group faces a hostile band of manitous...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 11: Sheep In Wolf's Clothing"
CHARMIAN AND DRAKE backed away from the woods, moving behind Silver Eagle Feather. Red Bird moved behind Tal Natha, but a gentle nudge from the Ocryx sent her back to stand with the others. X backed up until he stood beside but just slightly behind the other Ocryx. Charmian could tell he was frightened, but she could sense that Tal Natha was, too. Their fur and their wings stood out, making them look bigger than they really were.
She didn't like the look Tal Natha had gotten on his face. He looked like a rabid dog just ready to start foaming at the mouth. It wasn't at all the way she was used to seeing him. Noticing Red Bird's expression, she could see she didn't like the change, either.
Charmian opened her mouth.
Keep quiet. Don't speak. The thought entered her head before she could say anything, and she recognized it as Tal Natha's. Silver Eagle Feather, Red Bird, and Drake lifted their heads slightly as if they heard it too. Tal Natha turned to X and the two stared at each other for a moment before Charmian realized they must be communicating--and as soon as she realized this, she could start to "hear" what they were saying to each other, eavesdropping on their conversation.
X's thoughts, apprehensive. Is it him?
Tal Natha sniffed at the air. No...not him. Almost as bad. He looked back at the others. Stay back and keep silent. Perhaps they'll move on. If not, you'll have to make your escape.
Charmian sensed a telepathic "nod" from Silver Eagle Feather rather than heard anything. What startled her even more was she sensed something from Red Bird as well. The girl started forward, holding out her hand, and Charmian could have sworn she started to say something in her mind--only to have the older woman take her arm and pull her back. Red Bird's brow furrowed with worry but she said nothing and meekly returned to her place. Charmian frowned. Had she really sensed what she thought she had? She cast a look at Drake, and realized it hadn't been just her. He stared at Red Bird, confused, as well.
What's the deal, Charmian thought to herself, are they ALL psychic here or something? She tried sending the question to Drake, but he didn't respond. So much for that theory, or else Drake's head was thicker than she thought.
The crashing noises in the woods resumed. They huddled closer together and the two Ocryxes crouched lower. They've sensed us; they're coming this way, Tal Natha said. X, do not attack them unless I tell you to; I doubt you could handle them as easily as you did the GeeBees.
Who are THEY? Charmian thought as hard as she could, hoping somebody would pick it up. Silver Eagle Feather and Red Bird looked at her, then Red Bird quickly looked away. Silver Eagle Feather turned back to keep an eye on Tal Natha.
We're not too far from Devil's Lake. Someone there must have heard the fight. Try to keep quiet, and try not to ask any more questions like that. They can probably hear you; you aren't masking your thoughts very well.
Charmian flushed. Well, she'd never HAD to mask her thoughts before coming to this place!
The crashing noises subsided a bit, only to be replaced by a sudden long, low moaning sound. After a moment it was joined by another, then another, rising and ebbing in a strange singsong way. X's eyes widened and he shot nervous looks all over the woods, tail whipping back and forth. Red Bird whimpered and burrowed her face into Silver Eagle Feather's shoulder. Tal Natha's look became angry.
They're all around us. More than I thought. He must know we're here, to send out so many of them. A quick look back at Red Bird, and Charmian was surprised by the sudden aggrieved look in his eyes. Stay away. This may get worse than I feared.
As if hearing Tal Natha's warning, the strange singsong moaning suddenly trailed off and an eerie too-silence filled the woods. Not even a bird sang. When Charmian strained her ears she could have sworn she heard the trickle of water somewhere far in the distance, but then couldn't be so sure. The weird moaning had done something to her head; she felt foggy and distracted somehow. She shook it to clear it, felt Silver Eagle Feather grasp her arm, then it cleared immediately.
The next time you hear it, block your ears. It doesn't affect Ocryxes but they can gain control over you this way.
Charmian nodded a bit dizzily. Got it.
Both Tal Natha and X stood up straighter, staring ahead into the trees, ears going up. The others looked as well. For several moments nothing happened, but after a while Charmian noticed that what she had thought was merely a darker shadow among the leaves wasn't really a shadow at all. There was something in there. What she'd thought to be two spots of sunlight flickered and glowed blue, too cold, the wrong color to be sunlight on the leaves. She sucked in a breath and cowered back.
Moose antlers. A clawed hand reaching out of the dripping water. Those evil blue eyes...
Flickering blue lights started popping up all over in the shadowed woods, like little lighters flicking on. Tal Natha's fur rose again and he began to growl, first low and quietly in his throat, then louder when the rustling noises started up and came closer, the little blue lights following. When one of the shadows moved near enough to the edge of the clearing for Charmian to get a better look at it, she was surprised they weren't making much more noise than they had been.
Whatever it was...it still stayed half hidden in shadow so she couldn't see it clearly...it must have been seven or eight feet tall, not counting the giant antlers that rose from both sides of its head. Charmian could make out only its general outline and those cold little blue eyes, but her imagination filled in the rest with what she'd seen in her dream on the way over. Her heart pounded against her breastbone and her fingers dug into somebody's hand; when the hand squeezed back she realized it was Red Bird's. She suddenly appreciated the others' presence, and very much appreciated the two Ocryxes standing guard in front of them...and only hoped they were strong enough.
Tal Natha bared his teeth. Cowards. Cowardly brutes. Taking lessons from the GeeBees? Sneaking up like snakes crawling on your bellies? I suppose you would turn yourselves invisible like them as well if you had the ability, simply to make this all much easier for yourselves?
A brief silence, followed by a low guttural sound, which, only after a moment, Charmian realized must be laughter. Tal Natha's look turned to one of disgust. A few murmuring sounds arose from the other shadows in the woods, and the Ocryx looked around at each of them.
I thought as much! Too afraid to come out into the light. You live too close to your dust-brothers the GeeBees. They've rubbed off on you too much, I think.
You grow soft, another, unfamiliar voice suddenly came to Charmian's--and the others'--minds. Tal Natha looked startled, as if not expecting to hear the other creatures speak. You pass too much time among the humans. Forgetting what you really are. You--the creature's cold blue gaze turned to fall on X--do likewise. Living among weakling mortals. Pathetic. How much more both of you could be, if you'd only remember what good the humans are really for.
An angry snarl from Tal Natha. He hunched over, nose pointing forward. Like any of you are any better. Little tiny puppets. Living in your lake and believing you're truly free. Wait until you realize what slaves you really are.
Whatever he'd said, it had done the trick. The shadow reared up and let out a bellow that shook the trees and the ground they stood on. Before Charmian could regain her footing it had come charging out of the woods, the light finally falling upon it, and its massive antlers lowered like those of a charging moose, aiming straight at Tal Natha.
"No!" With a cry, Red Bird started forward. Silver Eagle Feather caught her arm and yanked her around and back, shoving the girl behind her so hard she almost fell to the ground before Charmian and Drake caught her. Charmian looked out toward the woods again, eyes wild, trying to see what, if anything, had happened yet.
Red Bird hadn't been the only one to make a move. Even as the manitou charged and Tal Natha stood his ground, lowering his horns, another flurry of movement caught her eye. X had leapt into the air at the first sign of the attack--she couldn't tell if it had been an instinctive gesture or a conscious motion--but whatever it had been, he landed square in the manitou's path, in front of Tal Natha. The bigger Ocryx lifted his head with surprise, eyes going wide, and Charmian thought she heard What are you doing--? before the manitou struck.
Wide, many-tipped antler slashed forward and plunged through X's side, ripping through fur and muscle and laying him open to the bone. The snarl disappeared from X's face and he looked just as surprised as Tal Natha. They all watched, stunned, as the manitou carried him along several feet before flinging him off like a limp rag. The Ocryx flew through the air, hitting the earth hard and rolling several times before landing in a jumbled heap. Charmian could see his face from where she stood. His eyes glazed and he let out a breath, a little puff of dust rising in front of him. Blood began to pool underneath him, staining the earth dark.
Silver Eagle Feather's face went white but when Charmian and Drake cried out and tried to run for him, she held them back.
The manitou--a tall, white, shaggy, menacing brute--came to a stop at the other side of the clearing, turning around on one foot to face them again, blood and fur lining one antler. Its blue eyes flashed malevolently and Charmian could feel its contempt and its laughter even as it made not a sound. She heard Red Bird's rising moan of fear and squeezed her hand even tighter, Drake taking her other hand. She couldn't believe what she'd just seen.
Tal Natha whirled around to face X's crumpled form. "What did you do that for?" he snarled. "I told you not to attack! These aren't GeeBees, you FOOL!"
The manitou bellowed and, lowering its head again, came charging at the remaining Ocryx. Tal Natha managed to spot him just in time, leaping into the air, wings pounding, the antler just grazing his leg as he rose. He spun around fast as a whirlwind, tail lashing out and striking the manitou in the back of the neck--it let out a startled cry and fell to the ground heavily. After a brief second, realizing what had happened, it lumbered to its feet with an enraged scream, throwing back its head, mouth yawning wide and row upon row of jagged teeth gleaming. A chorus of wails joined in, and the rest of the manitous emerged from the woods, ready to attack.
Tal Natha hovered in the air, snarling and barking at all of them. As useless as it looked, he was the only thing standing between them and Charmian and the others.
He spread his wings and landed on both feet with a thud, hackles rising. Do you want me, cowards? his voice grated in their minds. If so, you'll have to come and get me first! I'm not running like your little friends the GeeBees!
Drake let out a tiny whimpering sound. "Ch...Charm..."
The manitous--they surrounded the group on three sides, the cliff face on the fourth--started moving in, waiting for a cue from their leader. The white manitou shook its head roughly, rubbing its neck--the look on its face was absolutely mad--and let out a final, commanding ROAR. In that instant the rest charged forward, crouching as if ready to lunge at Tal Natha and tear him down to the ground in a hundred pieces.
Charmian's hand was freed. She lifted her head from where she'd been cowering behind Silver Eagle Feather to see Red Bird run into the clearing, past Tal Natha, straight into the path of the lead manitou. She flung out her arms as if to block his attack--all Charmian could think of was what a pathetic figure she cut, the small frail girl standing up to the giant menacing monsters--the second thing she thought was how brave the motion was--the third thing she thought was, how CRAZY Red Bird must be!
"Red Bird!" Silver Eagle Feather shouted.
Even as the manitou charged closer--Red Bird didn't move. Charmian's hands went to her mouth--she knew she'd start vomiting as soon as she saw what was going to happen, the antler slicing Red Bird in two as clean as a knife, hurling her broken body through the air as effortlessly as it had X--only--that moment didn't arrive.
The manitou, hearing Silver Eagle Feather's cry, lifted its head just enough to see Red Bird, and immediately got a panicked look on its face. It stood up straight and dug its heels into the ground, just about screeching to a halt. The other manitous, ready to jump into the air, halted as well, some of them almost falling over each other in their haste to stop.
The white manitou regained its footing and glanced up at the girl, expression both confused and angry.
"I won't let you touch him," Red Bird said, voice low and just as threatening as anything an Ocryx could growl.
It was as if she'd spoken some magic words; within moments the manitous were retreating back toward the woods, not running away, but keeping their distance. They all glared at Red Bird as if she were some strange spirit sent to attack them, but none of them attacked in turn. Charmian and Drake gaped. They couldn't believe what they were seeing.
Tal Natha came up behind Red Bird so suddenly that she gasped and almost jumped away from him, hands fluttering to her chest like two captive birds. He let out a mad bellow and the manitous finally turned tail and fled, back to wherever they'd come from. Drake let go of Charmian's hand and she was just about ready to run forward and hug Red Bird, Tal Natha, whichever, when the Ocryx rounded on Red Bird and roared directly in her face.
The three watching put their hands to their ears and ducked away, startled. Red Bird shrunk in on herself, suddenly looking very tiny and terrified. Charmian blinked and brought down her hands but didn't have to, with how loudly the Ocryx spoke.
"What were you doing?" Tal Natha bellowed. "Do you think you can fight them all off? Are you as stupid as X is now? They could have torn you to shreds if they hadn't been such cowards! You had no way of knowing if they would charge or run! You've behaved STUPIDLY! If THEY had not managed to kill you, then I would have just to sate my anger toward you right now!"
If it had been any other situation, some other person yelling at somebody, Charmian would have immediately stepped forward to say, "HEY! Knock it off!" Such as it was, she was too stunned to say a word this time. Tal Natha's anger caught her off guard and frightened her. She'd had no idea he had it in him to be so furious.
Red Bird held her hands up to her face as if expecting him to attack her and Charmian could hear the little snuffling sounds she was letting out. "I'm...I'm sorry..." she managed in a tiny, quavery voice, but Tal Natha didn't let her finish.
"You are not sorry! If you were truly sorry you never would have done any such thing! What were you thinking? Have you lost your mind? You truly believe that they would leave you alone just because of what you are?"
Something sparked in Charmian's mind as he spoke. What you are. She remembered words Red Bird had spoken before, just after they'd met. Just because the others have it doesn't mean I would. I'm different from the rest anyway. Even you don't know what to make of me sometimes. And her words to Tal Natha before they left the cave: I'm not like you, I'm not like Silver Eagle Feather, I'm not like anybody. I'm only me. I don't fit in anywhere...
She didn't know why she thought of this now, but for some reason it nagged at her...
Red Bird continued sniffling and now her hands started wiping tears from her eyes, though she kept her face hidden as if too ashamed to show it. Seeing this, Tal Natha finally relented. His wings lowered and he almost scowled, as if upset by his own reaction. "We finish this later," he said, turning away from her and back to the others.
Silver Eagle Feather finally moved away from them, going over to see to X. She walked all the way, but Charmian could tell she was keeping herself from running. A moment later Tal Natha joined her, then the others followed, kneeling down to look.
When Charmian reached them Silver Eagle Feather was turning the wounded Ocryx over so he didn't lie with his face in the dust. Charmian finally saw his wound up close and had to press a hand to her mouth. X was still breathing, sucking in weak ragged gasps; his side had been flayed open, the ribs showing beneath. Blood matted the fur all along his side and belly where he'd been lying on the ground and a thin line ran from his mouth, staining his teeth red. His eyes had taken on a strange milky color which Charmian didn't like. She found herself reaching out to take his hand, and found that beneath the fur his skin was cold.
"He's badly hurt," Tal Natha said, from above her. "He'll live though. But I need to get him to Old Mother Manitou, quickly."
Silver Eagle Feather had been holding her hands over the wound in an attempt to stanch the bloodflow, but she looked up and nodded at his suggestion, face still white. "She can take better care of him than I can. Take him there, please."
"I'll have to leave all of you behind. I detest doing this but I have no choice." His ears folded back and he scowled again. "GeeBees on one side, manitous on the other, Devil's Kitchen beneath us and Devil's Lake just a short distance away. None of you are going to be safe here."
Silver Eagle Feather stood. "We won't stay. You take X. Go to Sugar Loaf. We'll follow, on foot. We won't get very far by the time you return but at least we'll be on the move."
"Your medicine's powerful but I don't think even you could ward off a pack of GeeBees, let alone a horde of manitous." Tal Natha cast an apprehensive look up at the sky. "Else you would have tried already. If X hadn't been so damned foolish..."
"I'm..." Charmian nearly swallowed her tongue when X attempted to speak, chest heaving and blood bubbling from his mouth, voice as thin as tissue paper. "I'm...sorry..."
"We finish this later," Tal Natha said again, abruptly, looking away. "Right now we have to find a way to best get out of here. To find the safest route of escape for all of you, while I make my way to Sugar Loaf. Charmian or Drake. If you still have your 'guidebook,' perhaps you can find the best trail to take..."
From far off in the woods, a shouted halloo caught their attention. NOW what? Charmian moaned to herself. It was starting to look as if this day would never end!
Silver Eagle Feather spoke up this time, and for once she sounded relieved, not anxious. "I don't think we'll have to fend for ourselves after all, Tal Natha."
"Part 13: Sugar Loaf"
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