Charmian and Justin make their way through Cave of the Woods...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 37: Shattered Facade"
Beneath The Surface
JUSTIN JUMPED BACK with a startled shout. Charmian had just enough time to cry out his name when he pushed her roughly to the ground; she inhaled dead leaves and started choking. Something brushed against her hair, nearly tangling in it, and she sat bolt upright, before gasping and ducking again, throwing up her arms.
Whatever had launched itself at Justin, there was more than just one. At least half a dozen of the things, or more, zoomed and zigzagged around the clearing, bouncing off trees and rocks, screeching and hissing. One just missed hitting her in the face before careening in the opposite direction; after a moment of this, but no attack, she dared to open her eyes and peer around.
Justin was doing the same thing, still holding up his arms to shield his face, but staring between them at the small speedy creatures zipping around them. One smacked the ground and a tiny flame leapt up; he rose and hurriedly stomped it out.
"Are they dangerous?" Charmian cried.
"No--I don't think so--" He stamped out another small fire, looking upward. "Annoying, but not dangerous. Not unless they start a forest fire."
"What are they?"
"I'm guessing elementals of some sort. Firelings? Where did they come from!" He ducked one as it sped overhead, then grabbed at its leg. The creature whipped through the air, protesting raucously; Charmian now saw that they looked similar to humans, or GeeBees, with their long arms and legs and vaguely round heads; but attached to their arms were leathery wings with a span of about a yard, and their jaws were elongated, filled with needle-sharp teeth. Their fingers and toes looked like a GeeBee's and their skin was ruddy.
Justin must have taken this all in before the creature screeched and he yelled, "Ow!" and let it go, shaking his singed hand at the air.
Charmian cautiously rose and moved over toward him. The little elementals still bounced around the clearing, only not as loudly as before, and they didn't seem interested in attacking. "They came out of the cave," she said, keeping her eye on them. "Do you think they're like--guards or something?"
"Guards?" Justin seemed surprised. "Well--that's a theory. But I think they were probably just living in there. Like bats. I've never seen firelings before, only sandlings like the Uroona, and my kind."
"I guess this is what they look like, then!" Charmian shrieked and stomped out a fire that leapt up next to her foot.
"Let's get inside," Justin said, grabbing her hand. "Before they decide they really aren't interested in just zapping around."
He moved back toward the cave and she followed, grateful that the creatures didn't accompany them. A few more flew out of the opening when they reached it, and they batted them away; Justin squeezed inside first, then helped pull her through. The necklace lit up the crevice before them, but she still couldn't see the...back?
"I've been to your island once," Justin said. "Francois took me. I know what this cave looks like there. It's much different here."
"Different?" Charmian squiggled ahead of him, wanting to be through. "Different as in ho--"
Her question broke off in a scream as she felt the ground disappear beneath her--it had never been there in the first place--and her hands and head fell into nothingness. The rest of her followed and she flipped once through the air, reaching upward--she hoped--a sudden terror filling her. She couldn't see anything below her, just the gaping darkness. The thought of ending up alone down there, hurt, was more than she could take.
Something snagged onto her wrist and yanked her up. She swung forward and struck something hard, knocking her breath out; tears sprang to her eyes, and not just from pain. "Justiiiiiiiinnnn!" she yelled.
She felt his fingers curl around her wrist. The gold light tinged his face. "I won't let you fall!" he called back. "I promise!"
All she could do was sob. He grabbed on with his other hand and pulled her up. As soon as she sensed ground before her she started scrabbling to reach it, and the two of them ended up falling over in the dust, panting and dirty. Charmian pushed herself away from the ledge, whimpering down at the void below.
"Are you all right?"
"I..." sniff "...I think I am..."
Though in the back of her mind a voice clamored, The ledge--he's been here before--so why didn't he TELL me about it?...
"I can't remember that being there before," Justin murmured, peering down over the edge with a frown. He pressed his knuckles to his forehead and growled. "I should have known, it would probably change...magic or something..." He looked back down at Charmian. "If it hasn't changed as well, there should be a path down along the other side; I swear that there was never this ledge before, just a sort of steep slope...I can't explain it...do you feel up to going, still?"
"I...yeah, I guess..."
He dusted himself and moved off to the left, the glow going with him. Charmian stood shakily and followed. Though she had no idea what he was getting her into, anything was better than being left alone in this place.
They kept themselves close to the cave wall--he'd been right, and the place was much more open now, too open--and followed a sort of path carved out of the rock. After a while Charmian began to notice that it descended very gradually until they ended up down at the bottom, where she assumed she would have fallen had he not grabbed her. In the dim light, she looked around them with some wonder.
This was more like a cave. The jagged grayness outside hadn't prepared her for the weird scene before her now. She and Justin wove their way around stalagmites which cluttered up the floor, all orange and yellow and pink; she could barely move an inch without running into one. She didn't even want to look upwards. Glancing around some more, she noticed that dark passageways seemed to line the irregular walls, and Justin looked around at several of them, rubbing his temple, before deciding on one.
"That one. Right over there." He pointed ahead and to the right. "I think they all lead to him, but that one's the shortest. This place is just like a maze. If we go through there, we should reach him within several minutes." He started forward, only to stop as soon as he realized Charmian wasn't following. He turned back to look at her. "Charmian?..."
She stood between the stalagmites, wringing her hands. Though Sikt still refrained from speaking in her mind, she thought of what the demon had said earlier--I am not certain yet if he is friendly or hostile...keep on your guard with him. That incident at the ledge had seemed just too convenient.
As if reading her thoughts, she saw him frown and lower his offered hand a little. "You don't trust me?" he asked.
She shook her head furiously. "Oh--no! It's--it's not that. It's just--I--well, I don't much like caves...after everything we've been through so far, and all..."
"Oh." He seemed puzzled, as if not certain if she told the truth; she let out her breath when he shook his head and appeared to brush it off. "Well...the nearest way is this way. Are you ready to come?"
"Yeah!" she said, a bit too hastily, taking his hand and letting him lead her through the rest of the maze toward the exit. The floor leveled out just before the "doorway" and she nearly stumbled over nothing, being so used to something being there. Justin stood and waited for her to gain her bearings; she felt her ears growing hot to find him staring at her curiously, and kept her eyes down as she caught up with him. They started walking down a long tunnelway, the necklace light flickering on the walls like a candle.
"I hope I chose the right way," he murmured. "If that ledge changed, then everything else might have changed too..."
"You mean that the whole place just shifts around, like some big Rubik's Cube?"
"A Rubik's what?"
"Uh...never mind. After your time." She glanced at the ceiling several feet overhead.
"So..." he continued, as if to converse with her. His voice echoed. "Training. You're supposed to see him so he can train you?"
"Yeah. They said I'm not trained properly to keep an eye on Red Bird, so maybe this guy could help me out so I can help her."
"They really did choose you to protect her?"
"Mm-hm. She's supposed to do something to help the Island, and I have to keep an eye on her until then."
Justin seemed to chew on the inside of his mouth. "I can't see why she can't protect herself..."
"What d'you mean?"
"Well...she has power. If she would only realize it." He sighed. "I hate to say it...but I think she was sheltered too long, all those years...when she could have been learning what she can really do. Now, she's like some small animal afraid of its shadow, not even aware a shadow is just part of itself."
"Tal Natha thinks the same thing."
"Mm." His look grew slightly cross and she hastened to move on.
"Even if she did realize I still think she'd need some protection, at least for now. She has to make it safely through the winter so she can have her ba--" She halted on seeing Justin do the same thing, head whirling and eyes drilling into hers--and immediately wished she could shrivel up and blow away. She chomped down on her lip but he still didn't look away.
"...oops," she finished, in a tiny voice. And again--DOOFus! DOOFus! DOOFus!!
"Red Bird is..." Justin's voice trailed off for a moment as he stared at her, seemingly dazed; then again, "You mean...Red Bird is...is going to have a baby?"
Charmian gnawed on her lip harder. "Well...you're like the hundredth person I've told so far." Her face dissolved in misery. "I'm sorry."
He blinked, once, twice, then shook his head a bit, reaching up to rub his eyes. She hated the look that had just appeared there on hearing her news. She wished she'd never spoken a word.
"No, it's...it's all right." He sighed and pulled his hand away from his eyes, forcing a smile that didn't even resemble a smile. "I'm...only surprised. I know she would make an excellent mother."
"Yeah, of course she would!" Charmian agreed, desperate to salvage what little bit of respect she had left.
He stared at the tunnel wall for a moment, then nodded slightly and continued on his way. Charmian stood behind for a moment, hating herself for making him feel something that made his eyes look like that. She chewed on her tongue and followed him again.
He didn't try to make any more conversation the whole time they walked; she commented a few times, and he always replied politely, but seemed distracted, until she fell silent herself with a sigh.
Well, looks like I did it again. You'd think by now I would have learned to keep my mouth shut, especially around here!!
Biting her lip again, she jogged forward to catch up with him so they walked side by side.
"Look, I really am sorry I said anything. I keep opening my mouth and all that ever comes of it is trouble."
He blinked at her. "You think that I'm angry with you? I'm not. Truly. There's nothing wrong. Please, don't worry about it."
"There is something wrong. I know how you feel about her. Red Bird told me." He averted his eyes and seemed to ignore her. "And I know it's...complicated and all...I won't even get into any of that." She shivered and waved it off. "But...I don't know...I know that it must hurt, knowing somebody else..."
"Have you ever had a...friend, a 'boyfriend'?"
Charmian glanced up at him, and she couldn't begin to imagine what shade of crimson her entire face turned. "Um--uh--" she stuttered, feeling as if her teeth would get sucked back into her throat. "I'm--um--not allowed to date. Yet."
"How old are you?"
"Fourteen." She suddenly wished she could die.
He looked surprised. "Fourteen? For some reason I had thought you were younger. And yet older. You act much more responsibly than some your age." He smiled wistfully. "At least you seem to have your wits about you more than I did, at that age..."
Charmian swallowed and nearly choked on her tongue. She started coughing and had to hit her chest.
"So I'm guessing from your reaction," Justin went on, "you've never had a 'crush,' either."
Charmian just coughed harder. He stopped walking to allow her to catch her breath. She held her arms up as she'd once been told to do when swallowing water down the wrong pipe, and kept them up until she was able to breathe. She started wiping tears from her eyes and scuffed her feet against the floor to get him to start walking again.
"I--um--" cough "--don't think so." WHY CAN'T I STOP ACTING SO STUPID!!
"Well, you needn't feel so uncomfortable about it; sometimes I envy young people like you. I think some of us would be better off without someone else."
She glanced up at him again. "You don't really mean that--do you?"
"Why should I not? Think of it this way. Some people are alone, and they have done nothing to deserve it. Others are not alone, and they have done everything not to deserve it. Some people are simply meant to be alone."
She stared at him a moment, hoping he'd clarify, but he simply stared ahead; she couldn't read his emotions. Everything he'd just said she found immensely depressing, and she looked at the ground passing beneath her as they walked.
All this time I've been thinking about preserving what HAPPINESS the people have here. Red Bird, Tal Natha. I just assumed they were meant to be together. I thought that by helping to save the Island, I'd help save that. But what about the unhappy people? Are they just going to be stuck that way?
She remembered what Tal Natha and Silver Eagle Feather had said about the Ocryxes being alone. By preserving the Island, would she help preserve that, too?
"Ahm..." Justin said, and she looked back up at him. He seemed embarrassed. "I apologize...I didn't mean to upset you like that. Just...not feeling like my cheery self at the moment." He forced another smile, and she did the same.
"It's okay...I was just wondering if Moon Wolf had any ideas about how to help me figure out what's best for all of you guys."
"All of us?"
"This Island's a whole lot more than just Red Bird and the Ocryxes and the GeeBees and such, isn't it? If one of you is happy, another one of you is unhappy. I've always hated that...I wish everybody could have it both ways."
"Well...you must have learned in your own world that this isn't possible, anywhere. Don't feel you have to fix that which cannot be fixed."
"I know...still it bothers me."
"If you beat yourself up over every little thing you can't change, then you will get nowhere." He glanced around. "It's growing light ahead, somewhere. We must be coming to the end."
"Finally?" Charmian squinted ahead also when Justin covered up the pendant with his hand. He was right; a rosy light flickered ahead, not blue, and not yellow like regular flame; they both picked up their pace to reach it all the sooner. She realized now just how tired she was from all the walking, and her sandal was giving her a blister that hurt more the more she thought about it.
"Are you holding up?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks."
As they neared the light, now coming from somewhere off to the left, a few sparks seemed to shoot from the end of the tunnel and several more firelings screeched past, causing them to duck. The creatures vanished into the darkness behind them. They looked at each other for a moment, then continued toward the light.
"Perhaps they are like rats..."
"Yeegh. I think I'd get a trap then."
He smiled wryly. "Perhaps...until they would burn their way out of it."
She found herself smiling again in spite of herself, and was relieved he didn't appear to be as upset anymore. They reached the source of the orangish light and turned left, stooping as the tunnel grew narrower and lower, then opened up into a small round chamber. Justin came in behind her and she looked around to get her bearings.
The first thing she saw was a native--Moon Wolf, she recognized him from Tal Natha's dream--turning to look in her direction, hearing her enter. She didn't get the chance to speak to him. For the second thing she saw was two blue lights flickering in the other corner, their owner rising and looming up, broad antlers almost scraping the ceiling. The manitou's cold eyes focused on Charmian's and it immediately came at her, the blue fire flaring.
"Part 39: Basic Training"
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