Charmian seeks out Augwak's spirit--but at what cost?...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 41: Broken Spirit"
CHARMIAN TRUDGED THROUGH the woods with the fireling hanging from a stick, holding it out in front of her and occasionally swinging it this way and that to get a better look at where she was. The leaves squished damp beneath her feet from last night's rain and she yawned and rubbed her eyes. She was so tired. Sikt didn't talk to keep her company--not that she'd expected the demon to be very talkative. Several times her eyes drifted closed while she walked, and it was only because of a mental nip from Sikt or a yeep from the fireling that she kept waking up.
You'll fall into a ravine and snap your bones before we ever get anywhere.
"Like it's my fault. You're the one who couldn't wait for me to leave. You never did explain what the deal with that was. Mind doing so now?"
At a later time. Keep your mind on your walking.
Charmian yawned again. Her eyes watered. "I'd like to see you try..." she started, trailing off in mumbles.
If you need something to keep you awake, then perhaps this would help. Charmian sputtered and nearly fell over when a strange metallic scent came to her nostrils, and she dropped the fireling to the ground, where it flopped around noisily. Her hands flew up to her nose.
"What IS that!"
If my presence tires you so much, then you may sniff out Ocryana yourself. I've given you the ability to detect an Ocryx's trail, though it is up to you to differentiate the scents.
If you knew how you humans smell to us, then you would only repeat this statement. Now keep looking.
Charmian grated her teeth. She picked up the fireling and continued on her way.
She didn't have her guidebook map with her, and so again wasn't certain where she was going. The scent was in this direction though. She felt she must be walking back in the direction of Sugar Loaf and such, but it was overcast and she couldn't be sure where the sun was.
At least it had warmed up a little. She rubbed her chilly arms and came to a steep slope which she promptly started to climb. Her fingernails filled with dirt and she scrabbled and nearly fell several times, especially since she'd tucked the stick between her shoulder and her neck in an attempt to hold onto it. The fireling bobbed up and down screeching and she wished it would shut up.
She reached some clumps of grass and grabbed onto them to pull herself up. The slope grew a bit rockier near the top and her fingers were bleeding. She wiped the dampness from one hand against her jacket, and pressed it under her arm for a moment, trying to relieve the numbness. She started climbing again and when she reached the top to find a young man sitting there with a sketchpad upon his lap, staring at her, it didn't seem to be any big thing. She climbed over the edge and stood up shakily to dust herself off, plucking the stick from her shoulder. "Hi," she said.
"Bonjour," he said back, still staring at her as if wondering what hole she'd crawled out of.
Charmian checked herself for any patches of dirt before rubbing her cold hands once more and starting off. From the corner of her eye she noticed him stand up and follow, hastily tucking the pad under his arm and the pencil in his pocket. When he caught up he glanced her up and down, looking over her clothing and at her hair, before bothering to speak.
"Uh...if you don't mind me asking, where did you come from?"
"Cave of the Woods. But I'm originally from the mainland."
"You are a mainlander?"
"This is rather a poor place to be wandering around by oneself!"
"Well...actually, I'm supposed to be wandering around by myself."
That made him pause for a moment. "Truly?"
She continued walking in silence for a moment, him following and looking her over as if she were some medical marvel that belonged on display in a museum. "There is a logical reason for this, truly?"
"Sort of...I'm kind of looking for someone. Ocryana."
Another pause. They continued trudging along before he made certain the sketchpad was safely in place, brushing a hand across his brow.
"The reason you're seeking out a demon on this morning?"
"She has something I want. I'm going to take it back."
"I'm supposed to do it by myself." She scowled. "Stupid Moon Wolf."
"You realize the danger, right?"
"Uh-huh." She nodded to emphasize the point.
"And...so you're looking around for a demon, to steal something from her, by yourself."
He took the pencil out again and chewed on it for a while. She didn't say anything else. He'd seemed harmless enough when she'd first seen him, even though she knew looks were pretty deceiving around here. He was a little annoying, though. He didn't back off or leave her alone, so she decided she could either ignore him, or talk to him. Hadn't Moon Wolf said she had to do this by herself?
"You know, I'm really supposed to be doing this on my own."
He glanced down at her. He seemed older than Justin, his hair darker, his eyes a different color, and he was thinner and not quite as...well, handsome as Justin was, she thought with a flush. Not that she thought Justin was handsome or anything. This guy seemed a bit more bookish than he was, as if he didn't get out very much.
"Who has convinced you to go off and face a demon alone? If you don't mind me asking?"
"It's kind of a...task of mine. I have to do things on my own if I'm supposed to make it around here."
"So you're supposed to face her on your own? Get whatever this is back?"
"Well...surely walking along with you isn't helping you, is it?"
She thought about that for a moment. Come to think of it, Moon Wolf had never said anything about talking to people while doing her things.
"I suppose not...all right, if you're so interested in conversation...my name's Charmian, and what's yours?"
"Oh!" He rubbed the back of his head and grinned a bit goofily. "I apologize. My name is Antoine Pomiere."
"Do you know Francois LaCroix? Or the Dupries family?"
"LaCroix and Dupries? I know Monsieur LaCroix in passing--he gave me this sketchbook." He touched the leatherbound pad under his arm. "But I do not know him very well. The Dupries, I have not met them. You know these people?"
"Yeah, kind of. I'm sort of wondering where Francois's gone off to lately..."
"He merely gave me the sketchbook on learning I like to draw..."
"That's what you were doing way out here?"
"Oui, I like to go out and draw what I see sometimes. I'm nowhere near as good as Monsieur LaCroix is."
"Oh yes, of course. Surely he showed you his own sketches?" She shook her head. "Well, you must ask him, the next time you see him. He has the most beautiful pictures. Mine are nothing compared to his."
"What do you draw?"
"Oh. Mostly trees and plants and birds and such. Once in a while if I'm fortunate I'll spot an Uroona or something and sketch that instead." When she looked at him he pulled out the sketchpad and flipped through a few pages, holding it out before her. Inside, covering two pages, was a large drawing of one of the forest creatures, much better than she would have been able to draw it.
"Thank you! Monsieur LaCroix's is much better, however...you said you were planning on stealing something from a demon?"
He changed the subject rather abruptly, but she didn't mind. "Uh-huh. She stole Augwak's spirit and so I'm going to go get it back."
"Um...she...stole a GeeBee's spirit, and you're going to steal it back from her?"
"And...well, what do you plan to do with it then?"
"Give it back to him, I suppose...I can't think of what I'd want with it. Hey, you said you go out a lot to draw things? You walk around a lot out here?"
"Yes, yes I do."
"Do you have any idea where Ocryana lives? I know what direction she went in, but I can't seem to find her anywhere."
He stared at her for a moment. "Wouldn't I be helping you if I told you where she is?"
"Oh." She slowed her step and pondered her options. "Well...no, I think that would be allowed...just as long as you don't try to fight her off when I get there, or something. I'm supposed to do that on my own."
"Fight her off?"
Pomiere stared at her a moment longer before frowning. "Um...well." He glanced up the rough trail they were now walking upon. "I believe she lives in a cave, not too very far from the area of Sugar Loaf and Skull Cave...there seem to be a good number of caves scattered around that area, and she must live in one. I've tried following her once or twice, but could never find precisely where she went."
"You've followed her?" Charmian stopped walking to look up at him.
He stopped as well, turning back. "Yes, only a few times, for obvious reason..."
"So, you've gotten a good look at her?"
"Good look? Well, yes, I suppose so...why? You don't know what she looks like?"
"Oh, no, I've seen her, trust me. I just...thought of something else." She bit her lip and continued walking, waiting for him to catch up and question her, as she knew he would.
"Well...we saw this other Ocryx earlier on...a female...but it wasn't Ocryana. She was smaller, and had this--"
"Tawny fur and golden wings?" When she whirled to gape at him he flushed and rubbed his head again. "Well...yes...I've seen that one, too. I believe I've seen every Ocryx upon the Island, at least, I like to think I have."
"All that I know of...let me see..." He sat down on a rock and opened the book again, flipping through it. Charmian came to his side and glanced down at the sketches. On the two pages he stopped at were numerous small rough drawings of Ocryxes and Ocryx heads, each with random notes in French jotted next to them. Pomiere started pointing at each one, murmuring more to himself than to her.
"Ocryx himself...large and gray with dark brown wings...Ocryana with gray fur and black wings...the Dreamspinner, with black fur and red wings...this small female with tawny fur and golden wings...a male with brown fur and bronze wings...another female with white fur and wings...I saw her only once, in company with the Dreamspinner." His eyes scoured the pages. "I believe that was all...Ocryxes are so few, which is a shame, as they make very interesting subjects to study, yet I doubt you'd find anyone else who would agree with me on this matter..."
"I know...what can you tell me about this tawny Ocryx? Do you know anything?"
"Not much, I'm afraid...Ocryxes are also very reclusive. It's very odd that the alphas even had a pup of their own."
"You mean Tal Natha?"
"Oh. Yes, him."
Charmian felt a chill come over her. "You mean...you were there when he was born?"
"Well..." He flushed, scratching furiously at the back of his neck. "...No, not exactly...I was nearby, but when a wolf bitch gives birth in a cave, you don't exactly wish to be near her...I was...um...there a bit earlier than that, to know when he would be born..."
She blinked at him a few times before beginning to understand. "Oh...uh...you mean, you were there when he was...um...conceived?"
"Oui, yes, this is more accurate...perhaps we shall pursue another line of discussion! Yes?" Again the embarrassed grin.
Charmian felt relieved that he agreed with what she was thinking. As odd as the temporary union of Ocryx and Ocryana seemed, she wasn't sure she wanted to get into the intimate details just yet. "Sure, sure! Of course. Um. This other Ocryx, the female one. What can you tell me about her?"
"Well, not much. She does seem to be in alliance with the alpha female though."
"Ocryana, you mean."
"Yes. Sorry! I sometimes think of them in pack terms..."
"No problem, I know what you meant. You mean she hangs out with Ocryana a lot?"
"'Hangs out'...yes, I believe this is so. I have seen her only three times, I think...twice she was in company with Ocryana, and once she was alone."
"I figured those two knew each other..."
"I think perhaps the tawny one is her pup, though I cannot be certain of her age...you do know how things are around here, concerning age?"
"Yeah, I know. You think this is her baby?"
"She is a baby no longer, though I do believe Ocryana bore her. Of all the Ocryxes she is most reclusive, and I fail to see any other reason why she would allow another near her so often. They could kill each other, you know."
Charmian nodded. She looked around her, and noticed that she still carried the fireling on a stick. Pomiere hadn't even commented on it yet. She lowered it a bit and then shifted it so it hung behind her rather than in front; it was light enough outside now that she didn't need it. "Can you maybe point me out to that cave or whatever while we're talking? It might save me some time..."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Certainly, I believe it's somewhere in this general direction...follow me?"
She did so and they went further into the woods, away from the ledge. He didn't converse any further, and she was a bit relieved by that. What would she have talked about, anyway?
They walked for a long time, of course, considering they were headed for the other side of the Island again. It was easier this time though, in the daylight. Despite the rain the night before, the weather seemed warmer than usual, and as they trudged through the mist she stripped off her jacket and tied it around her waist. She felt like she was dripping already.
"About how far are we from wherever it is by now?"
"Not too far. I'd say a half hour. Are you hungry or anything?"
"Well, sort of...but I kinda forgot my lunch at home."
He waved at the bushes off to the side. "There are some raspberries there."
Raspberries? Charmian stopped and craned her head into the bushes to see. "Huh," she murmured, feeling stupid. She'd never thought of trying to find her own food.
"I'm willing to bet there are blueberries and perhaps mushrooms as well...you said that someone wanted you to wander this place alone?"
"Not quite...but close enough. And you make a good point. I'll probably be a walking stick by the time I get back." She pulled out the bottom of her shirt and started picking and dropping berries into it, eating a few as she went. It wasn't very filling, but it was better than nothing. While she did so Pomiere sat down near the trail and opened up his sketchbook, pulling out his pencil and doodling on something until she was done. Then they went on their way, Charmian eating a berry every now and then.
They reached rockier ground again, and she tried to see, without success, if any of it was familiar. She supposed they'd approached it all from the wrong direction. Sugar Loaf was nowhere within sight, but as they walked they passed a high cave, smaller than Cave of the Woods but more distinctive. The craggy mound of rock sat atop a small hill with a rough trail leading up to it. Pomiere led her past.
"Oui. There are more caves around here, not on any map. I found them only on accident. I don't know if anyone else is aware of their existence."
"Oh, at least several. Possibly more. I have a theory."
She waited for him to elaborate, wiping berry bits from her shirt and hands. "Which is?"
"Well, take a look, we have Skull Cave, Cave of the Woods, Devil's Kitchen, and the caves beneath the Devil's Lake...as well as the cave or caves Ocryana and this other one live in. The Island is literally riddled with caverns."
"True, I guess."
"The lake originally rose much higher than this. It was called Lake Algonquin. It's Huron now. A long time ago you could have rowed a boat out to touch the roof of the Devil's Kitchen, I'm betting."
"If this is so, if the water wore down the caves upon the surface of the Island...could there not be more subterranean caves, as well? A whole system of them extending far beneath the ground, out of our sight. Think of an iceberg. You can see the tip, but you can't see the mass far below it. If there is one cave on the surface, perhaps there are ten more beneath it."
Charmian chewed on her lip. The theory made good sense. "True..."
"I'm willing to bet that the caves in this region are just the...'tip of the iceberg,' to use a cliché. Those supposedly beneath the Devil's Lake would be a good indicator. If I could ever see them." He sighed wistfully.
"Well, Cave of the Woods itself probably supports your theory, since I've been in it."
"Uh-huh. It's a...well...it's a bit deeper than it looks."
His face lit up. "Most interesting! You'll have to show it to me sometime!"
"Sh, wait." He stopped abruptly and crouched down a bit. She followed, glancing around her. He held up his hand to his eyes and examined the grass around them before squinting and bringing his hand down again, pointing forward.
"Over here I think I see one. Just a small one. I don't know which one she dwells within, if any. Perhaps they are only stopping-places."
"Can we take a look?"
"I'm not sure if it's wise..."
Charmian sniffed the air a few times. He gave her an odd look but she ignored it. She could smell the Ocryx scent around here, especially strong; she'd just remembered the talent Sikt had given her. Could something so weird come in handy after all? She felt a bit of alarm to smell two scents, only to also remember what he'd said about the tawny Ocryx. Of course there would be two smells; that only verified what he'd said. While the scents were strong, they seemed to be a bit faded...she wasn't certain how she knew, but she could tell that whoever had been here, they had left some time previously, and the place was now empty.
"I think it's safe...would you mind coming along with me, just in case?"
"I thought you had to do all this on your own."
"I know, I know; I won't make you do anything really important, I promise."
"Well..." He shrugged. "All right, I suppose." He started crawling through the grass toward the opening. "I've never been inside a cave before, so I should like to see what it looks like..."
"Careful. Wait up!" She crawled after him, hoping there was no dropoff to surprise him as it had surprised her.
He hardly seemed to hear her anyway, crawling through the tiny opening--it must have been barely eighteen inches high--and vanishing within. She sighed and crept in too, placing her hands flat against the dusty stone, coughing at a small puff that rose up into the air.
Ahead of her, Pomiere stopped on all fours and murmured, "Hmm..."
"What?" She came up beside him and tried to see what he was seeing.
The cave entrance didn't go on very far. Indeed, several yards back it opened up into a room of sorts, though different from the other cave rooms Charmian had been in so far. It was much lower ceilinged than the others, with no hanging formations; the floor was smooth, and the ceiling may as well have been. At most it appeared to rise only about six or seven feet, though it spread out wide to both sides, tapering along the walls until one could have wedged themselves in the crack. There were a few vague shapes within, but nothing she could make out.
She heard a hiss and felt like slapping her head. DUH!
She pulled the stick out from under her arm--it had made for awkward crawling--and brought it forward as carefully as she could. Pomiere turned to watch her. The fireling still hung from it, and she couldn't help but hit its head or wings on the rock several times, wincing at each little yeep and hiss it let out. "Sorry. Sorry." She stretched out her arm and held the stick into the cavern. The two of them peered more closely.
There wasn't much to be seen. The entire cave was a dull sandy-taupe in color, parts of the ceiling worn smooth as if something had rubbed against them frequently. A few rocks and sticks and scraps of cloth and grass lay scattered upon the floor. Pomiere saw something that caught his interest and pulled himself inside, rising to his knees and then his feet, still keeping his head low as he moved toward the far corner. Charmian followed, uncertain what he was seeing.
"Aha, see this." He crouched down excitedly again, extending his hands. She squinted. A mass of dead grass and weeds lay upon the floor. "A bed. Do you not think this looks like a bed?"
"Well, maybe, for an animal or something..."
"Precisely. See this!" He plucked a bit of loose fur from the weeds and held it up. "She was bedding down here. We've found an actual nest!"
"And see this!" He scuttled over to a similar mess several feet away. "A second bed! I was correct! The two of them ARE together!"
"I think you're right."
"I can barely believe I'm within the cave of not one, but two Ocryxes...oh, this is MOST exciting!"
"Whatever you say..."
He lifted his head away from the nest and turned to look over his shoulder. His eyes grew big and he rose to his feet as if mesmerized. "Ohhhhhhh....what is that?"
Charmian looked. Then her own eyes widened and she scrambled to her feet.
Pomiere had reached the other side of the room before she could, and he stood before a root jutting out of the ceiling, something bright hanging from it, tied with another loose root. It dangled like a large jewel, glinting as an unseen breeze turned it this way and that. It looked like a jewel, as well. It was a violent smoky red in color, but some kind of light from within made it brighter. An outcropping in the wall had shielded it from her view before, but now it was unmistakable.
"That's it!" she whispered with excitement, just as Pomiere reached out to poke it with his finger. He pulled out the book again and, finding a blank page, started scribbling furiously, sketching the stone where it hung.
"That's it!" she exclaimed again, reaching him and bringing her face forward to stare at it close up. Pomiere glanced at her, then at the stone, pencil ceased in its movements.
"What is it? This is what you were looking for? The GeeBee's spirit?"
She nodded, reaching up to carefully lift it off the root. It glinted in the palm of her hand and she felt not only giddy that she'd found it, but smug as well. Ha HA! This will show Moon Wolf. I can do things without screwing up after all!
"Yep," she answered her companion. "This is exactly what I was looking for. That was easy!"
"Huh. This is...odd. I always imagined a spirit to look somewhat...different. Like a wisp of wind, or some such."
"Well, around here, things are a bit different." She put the stick under her arm again and started digging around in her pockets, searching for the most suitable place to put the stone. Pomiere shut his book and stood to join her. "All I have to do is get this back to Moon Wolf's place...give it back to him...though God knows why...and maybe then he'll believe I'm not totally useless."
"Moon Wolf. This dumb guy who--OUCH!!"
With a cry of pain she dropped the stick, the fireling bouncing off the floor and screeching as it tumbled into the corner. The creature had been too close to her arm when she'd put the stick there, and had burned her skin. Likewise, the red stone flew from her hand, and she lifted her head just in time to see it arc down toward the cave floor. Her eyes bugged.
The gem struck stone and she grimaced, expecting it to shatter into a million pieces. It didn't, but instead bounced up into the air again like a rubber ball. Relief spread through her; if it was tough enough to withstand that, it could withstand almost anything!
As if in slow motion, it arced up again, toward Pomiere, who stood and watched it approach with a curious look on his face.
"Catch it, Antoine!"
He reached up one hand, though halfheartedly, as if afraid of breaking it himself. The stone curved up through the air, not toward his hand, but toward his chest. Charmian caught the puzzled expression in his eyes just before it hit him, a blinding flash suddenly tearing through the little room, followed by a second; she tried to shield her eyes, seeing his puzzlement turn to surprise. The stone disappeared and then reappeared, just behind him, flying out from his back and striking the floor, bouncing a few times before rolling to a rest several feet away. It shimmered violently a moment before dying down, and Pomiere's eyes rolled back in his head. He fell forward to his knees, and then over onto his face with a sickening thud.
"Antoine!!" Charmian jumped to her feet, having fallen on one knee at the second flash. What the hell had THAT been? It looked as if the stone had shot right through him! When she reached him she saw no hole in his back to indicate a wound, so it must have been the shock of the impact that had knocked him down. She put her hand on his shoulder and tried to turn him over.
"Antoine! Are you all right? Speak up!"
The fireling hissed and batted around in the corner like a big bug. She glimpsed the stone and scuttled toward it. That thing was dangerous. She had to put it away before something ELSE happened. She reached it and grabbed it in her hand, only to notice--it wasn't red anymore.
She gasped. What--? Bringing it up closer to her eyes, she saw that the color, the glow, even the shape of this stone were completely different. It was smaller and rounder than the first, with fewer facets, and glowed a dim bluish-white instead of smoky red. Her eyes widened and dread filled her chest.
THIS ISN'T THE SAME STONE!
She glanced up and around her wildly. If THIS isn't it...then WHERE IS IT?
Pomiere provided her answer. She heard him groan and turned to see if he was all right. He had pushed himself up onto his arms and was just staggering to his feet, swaying so he ended up leaning against a wider section of the wall. His chest hitched and he put his hands to his head as if in pain. He ran them down his face and then his eyes opened with a start, and he pulled his hands away, staring at them. He turned them this way and that, gaping as if in disbelief, before looking his arms over, then his chest and legs, feeling his head and glancing over his shoulder and at his feet. His shoulders started to shake.
Charmian got up to help him, only to stop short in her tracks, cringing, as soon as he flung his arms up at the air, fists clenched and bellowing with fury.
"WHAT HAPPENED TO MY BODYYYYYYYY!!!"
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