Charmian enters the darkness alone, and encounters another presence...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 35: The Council Of Elders"
Alone In The Dark
CHARMIAN BLINKED HER eyes slowly, uncertain if she'd heard Red Bird correctly. "Moon Wolf?" she echoed.
Red Bird nodded, then she and Drake peered at her curiously. "You act as if you've heard the name before...have you?"
"Oh--no, it just sounded funny, that's all." She forced a smile and waved it off, though in reality her mind wasn't exactly reeling, but kind of pitching back and forth a bit. Moon Wolf? That's the name of the guy I found through Tal Natha's dream!
"Well...I'm certain you'll learn more of him tomorrow." Red Bird smiled brightly, then stood to place her basket in the corner when the door pushed open and Silver Eagle Feather came in, carrying a wooden pallet loaded with steaming meat. Charmian's mouth watered; she didn't even care that they didn't have potatoes. The woman reached into a pack hanging over her shoulder and brought out a long loaf of bread, at which Charmian blinked again.
"From Lady Dupries," she explained. "She trades with us sometimes." She broke it in three, handing a piece to each of them, then brushed her hands off on her dress. "I leave this with you here. Eat, and then drink..." she pulled a waterskin off her other arm "...and when you're done, sleep. We'll wake you when it's time to decide to go or not."
"All right, thanks. For the food too!"
Silver Eagle Feather nodded. She stood, bowing her head to go out the door, and before it had even shut the three inside were tearing their dinner apart ravenously. Charmian certainly wasn't used to eating with her hands, but it appeared that Drake and Red Bird had no problem with it. Ignoring the sting from the heat, she pinched it between her fingers and pulled at it with her teeth. She assumed it was venison, though truthfully she didn't really want to guess what it was. Who knew, on this Island!
When they had done, Red Bird revealed that the contents of the skin were not water, as they'd thought it would be, but something that Charmian figured must be wine. Red Bird took a drink and made an odd face, sticking her tongue out and in a few times before handing it over. Charmian made certain to take only a few swigs--she was underage--then giving it to Drake, who would have finished it off had she not taken it from him and smacked his hand. He hiccupped and rubbed his mouth, blinking and yawning as if sleepy.
"Well, be that way," he murmured.
"You want to wake up with a hangover or something? Maybe wine after dinner is okay for the French, but NOT for teenagers!"
"Whatever..." He yawned again and fell over, snuggling down into his furs. Charmian could swear she heard Dakh Natha growl with annoyance.
She sighed and set the skin against the wall, pulling out her own furs. "Well...I guess I'll talk to you in the morning, Red Bird."
Charmian carried the furs over to the other side of the room so she didn't have to sleep next to Drake, who was snoring already; dumping them in the corner, she smoothed the bottom one out before snuggling under the top one, resting her head on a bundle. She didn't even have enough time to realize she was in fact falling asleep, not even long after she did so...
From somewhere, far, far off in her mind...
Leave me alone, leave me alone, Sikt; I have to sleep...
You have slept, Charmian. Already it is the middle of the night.
Then let me sleep some more. You and Dakh are so selfish.
You must get up.
No. Charmian yawned. I'll do whatever it is tomorrow.
It is already tomorrow. You must get up.
And WHY must I get up, right NOW?
It is important. You must leave now.
Why NOW? Charmian whined, struggling to hold onto sleep even as Sikt dragged her closer to reality. And Sikt replied, just like an annoying parent:
Because I said so.
Charmian let out a frustrated growl and sat up abruptly, hoping the demon was jostled in the process. "FINE! I'm awake!" she groused, rubbing her eyes. The little oil lamp still burned in the corner, much lower now, shrouding them all in shadow. "Happy now?"
You must leave. Now.
"And where am I supposed to go?"
To Cave of the Woods.
"Look, I was going to do that--in the MORNING! How come I have to leave right now? Are we on some kind of schedule or something?"
Time is of the essence, as your people would say. Now go to the door, open it, and exit.
Charmian scowled. "I know how to exit a building, thank you." She stood up, foot tangling in her bedding before she kicked it away, stumbling toward the door and scooping her jacket up at the same time, slipping it on. No way she was forgetting this again. Only after she'd opened the door and peered outside did a bit of anxiety rise inside her--it was dark out there, the dead of night--and she began to retreat, feeling around for the lamp.
"Huh?" Charmian paused, knowing she couldn't have heard correctly.
"Why?" She balled her fists. "Look, it's the middle of the night, it's pitch black out there, there's no way I'm setting foot outside without a--"
You will be easily found if you carry a light such as that. Go without it.
"Found by what?"
She suddenly felt a sharp pain sting through her head, the way she figured a migraine might feel. Wincing and clutching at her temples, she let her breath out. Just as abruptly as it had arrived, the pain vanished and she dropped her arms again, nails digging into her palms.
"What'd you do THAT for?"
You fail to understand the importance of anything that happens here. Stop asking questions and go.
Grinding her teeth and forcing down any curse words she may have been thinking of, Charmian stepped outside and let the door go closed behind her.
She blinked, then looked around, then upward for any trace of starlight.
Aside from the dim glimmer of light beneath the door, and beneath those of the other buildings, everything seemed black. Even the sky, which she was so used to seeing as dark blue, appeared as the deepest onyx, with not one star-shimmer upon its surface.
She shivered and rubbed her upper arms. "Where's all the light?"
It grows cloudy. You must go now.
"So could you at least tell me where you want me to go?"
To Cave of the Woods. As you planned to do this morning.
"I really can't just wait until then?"
Charmian waited a moment for the demon to clarify, feeling her shifting around restlessly. She sighed and shrugged.
"Well...how do you propose I get there?"
"It's on the other side of the Island!" Charmian cried in disbelief. "You want me to walk there in the dark?"
Yes. You start to waste time. Now go.
"You know, you remind me an awful lot of someone I know."
The twinging pain again, only not as hard this time. Go now.
"I WOULD, if I knew the friggin' way!" Charmian snapped.
Before her eyes--or more like in her mind's eye, as it didn't materialize from the air--she saw a floating, glowing image begin to appear, growing brighter. Squinting at it with confusion, she slowly recognized the outline of the Island's lakeshore from the map she'd seen in the guidebook. It glowed pale blue upon the darkest obsidian. A jagged glowing line suddenly appeared, slashing the Island in half and coming to an abrupt end far to the northwest.
This is the trail you will follow. Now think of no more excuses and go.
Charmian chewed on her lip to avoid yelling but obeyed. She carefully picked her way through the clearing as best as she could remember it, stubbing her toes a few times on scattered stones but otherwise making it to the other side, and the woods, unscathed. When she stepped past the first line of trees, she stopped once more, hugging her arms. Her eyes, large as marbles, scanned the woods.
Why do you stop?
"It's...it's completely black out there."
You are afraid of the dark?
"No...it's just...well, usually I have some kind of light, or something...what if I trip and fall?"
You have more important things to think of right now. I will not lead you off of any cliffs. Go! Now!
It was the only time she'd heard the Ocryx raise her voice. Teeth chattering, she put one foot forward and stepped into the darkness.
She walked haltingly, eventually putting her hands out in front of her, moving along mummylike to avoid running into any trees. She tripped a lot less often than she thought she would, but she did fall down a few times, clenching her teeth at the rustle of the leaves as she landed, the absolute stillness surrounding her unnerving her even more. Her ears strained to make out any noise, any sound at all; it was as if cotton had been shoved inside them. Where were the birds? Or insects? Or forest creatures? Didn't they bother coming out at night? Or did the night belong to creatures a little less of her world?
She tried not to think on that too much. Putting out her hands again, she resumed her slow walk down the bumpy trail, further and deeper into the woods. She imagined being swallowed alive, and felt this wasn't too far from the truth.
She thought to herself, but made certain not to let any of her thoughts solidify and reach the Ocryx dwelling inside. What was the deal with her, anyway? To make Charmian leave in the middle of the night, sans light? It was almost freezing out here; even this early she could hear the occasional crunch of frost when she stepped upon a leaf. Why couldn't she have waited until morning? What was this thing up to?
Referring to Sikt as a "thing," she felt a brief twinge of guilt on sounding so much like the other natives in the meeting lodge. This was followed by a soft question-thought from the Ocryx, which Charmian carefully brushed off.
"Am I still going the right way?" she murmured miserably.
Yes. Slightly more to the left. Keep going.
Charmian sighed and obeyed.
She didn't know how long she walked, but she must have been making poor time. It seemed like forever. She'd heard once it would take all day to walk around Mackinac Island's lakeshore. Sure, this wasn't Mackinac Island, and it wasn't the lakeshore, but she felt she would have preferred that. The open water to this swallowing forest any day. Every time her hands met a tree stump, she almost gasped with fear, and had to change her course. Sikt Natha didn't even bother talking to her anymore, so of course by the time she'd been walking for what seemed to be an hour or so--but was most likely much shorter--she'd grown quite lonely.
"Sikt?" she murmured, poking her way through some grass or weeds. "You have to have a reason why I had to leave so early. Can you tell me what it is?"
You will learn of it in time.
"So you won't tell me?" Another sigh. "Then could you at least let me know how far I am? My fingers are going numb and I think I have to go to the bathroom..."
She trailed off, waiting for a reply. Sikt was certainly taking her time. She frowned, then chewed her lip, then sighed gustily, then frowned again. Why wasn't the Ocryx answering?
She slowly came to a stop. "Sikt? Did you hear me, or are you mad at me?"
Charmian's insides began to twist. She started wringing her hands again, and looked around in circles, even as her mind probed around inside itself, searching for signs of the demon. There were none.
"Sikt?" she called; then, more loudly, "Sikt!"
Dead, blanketing silence, and dead, blanketing blackness. Charmian started to panic, taking a step back and nearly tripping over a root.
"Sikt, come back! Where are you?"
More seemingly endless silence. Then--
Snap. A twig broke, raining pine needles upon her which caught in her hair and bounced off her arms. She sucked in a breath, instinctively filling her lungs with air, and by the time the soft breeze from something large--a wing--flapping had struck her face, she was already off and running, deeper into the woods, feet sometimes flying over the rocks, sometimes failing her and sending her tumbling down small embankments. Each time she scrambled back up as quickly as she could, fleeing anew.
She'd recognized the soft rustle of feathers, the faint odd wolf smell that had filled the air. Ocryx!
She had no way of knowing if this were the same one who had attacked them earlier, or another one. In any case it didn't matter. This thing meant business and it meant it now!
She ran into a tree almost headfirst and stumbled backwards, gasping and shaking her head. The leaves started rustling and a great snorting, puffing sound filled the air. Out of habit, she looked up. And couldn't believe that, despite the pitch blackness, she could somehow see it. Not that high above, in fact, flying at treetop level as if purposefully scanning the woods, a large dark shape flew, its eyes glowing red and green and an odd glowing object around its neck. It was this object--a necklace?--that illuminated it enough for Charmian to see. And she could tell it wasn't the female. This one was bigger.
It looked down and spotted her, eyes widening. Then it swooped toward her.
Charmian gave a soundless shriek and went running again. She felt a low branch or broken stick gouge at her leg but kept going. Just like before her legs screamed and her lungs burned, but now she was the only one running and had to face this thing...alone.
Alone! Sikt, where are you!!
She missed a tree only to trip on--something--and go tumbling over a small incline, off the trail. She flipped and rolled several times before striking the bottom. Sputtering out more pine needles, she tried to push herself up, to see the Ocryx land suddenly several yards from her. It lifted its head to look at her, and she noticed its brown fur, turned chocolatey golden in the glow of the strange necklace. It opened its mouth.
Charmian didn't give it the chance. Able to see now, she seized a big broken stick lying on the ground beside her, turning back and hurling it at him, broken point first, as hard as she could, as if it were a javelin. Fear must have made her aim true. For just like a javelin, it struck the creature right in the fleshy part below the shoulder and above the armpit, sinking into its fur as if slicing through butter. The demon yelped and doubled over on itself, hand wrapping around the wood. Charmian seized her opportunity and scrambled up again, clambering up the slope toward the top, foot raised to send her whirling off down the trail.
A familiar voice, edged with pain, cried out--"Wait!"
Charmian froze, leg still raised. Everything felt like it was shriveling up inside her. She knew that voice. Turning slowly, she peered back behind her to see if it had come from where she thought it had come from. On the ground below, a dark shape hunched over and then struggled to its feet, the glow obscured beneath its reaching arm. When it looked up at her again, moving its arm so the light glowed upon it, blood trickling down into its fur, she finally recognized it.
"Part 37: Shattered Facade"
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