Charmian and X'aaru run straight into something unpleasant...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 48: After The Interim"
Scent Of Evil
MANI'S HOOVES SANK in deep drifts of snow as they reached Sugar Loaf, the manitou having slowed down for his approach. Charmian craned her neck and her face brightened. The rock itself rose tall and dark into the sky, but there was a faint glow from the "doorway," and she could swear she saw faint specks of light at other points upon it as well.
"Neat, it's full of holes. How does she keep it warm here in winter?"
Mani shrugged as best as he could, considering. Medicine?
He slowed down, the fireling swinging from his antler. He climbed up the incline toward the rock, puffing for breath, and as he came up close light poured from the entrance and something large came bounding out, almost startling him so he stopped in his tracks. Charmian laughed and slid off his back.
"Charmian! Charmian!" X'aaru barked, leaping around like a big happy dog, tongue lolling. His hind feet kicked up snow into the air and she almost felt like tossing a Frisbee.
"Hi, X'aaru! Who's here?"
"Old Mother Manitou of course, and the Drake, and Red Bird also. They will be so pleased to see you! Please come in, before your feet get cold? They would love for you to come in!"
"Okay, all right," Charmian laughed. She patted Mani's shoulder. "You can come in too, if you want. You might want to change back though, or you might not fit in very well..."
Oh. Of course. Mani shifted, the fireling still hanging from his antler, and Charmian followed X'aaru as he bounded back inside, ducking just in time to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling. His tail nearly knocked her over as he disappeared into the lit interior.
"Old Mother Manitou! Old Mother Manitou!" he called as he went. "Look who's come back! Look who I found outside!"
"Calm DOWN, mutt!" another voice grated. "If you don't watch where you're swinging that thing you'll knock the walls down! And then you'll be out in the snow! Who's this--? Charmian? Why what are you doing here! Out in the cold and snow! Get yourself in here before you freeze to death!"
Charmian started to protest that she was fine, only to have the old woman appear and grab onto her coat, dragging her inside and fussing as she dusted the snow from her clothes. X'aaru still hopped about--he looked ready to lick somebody--and Drake appeared from a sideroom she'd never noticed before, his own face beaming. "HI, CHARM!" he just about screamed.
Charmian winced and smiled. "Hi, you guys. You haven't changed a bit! Was that branch lying on the floor before like that--?"
"Oh, no, another one...stupid twits..." Old Mother Manitou shuffled over to pick up a branch that had fallen from the wall, taking its hangings with it. X'aaru lowered his ears contritely for just a moment, before perking up again.
"Charmian, Charmian! You've been gone ages. Where have you been? What have you been doing?"
"You didn't tell him?" She turned and looked at Drake. Her friend grinned and shrugged.
"Well, I thought I did, but maybe I forgot...or something..."
"You idiot, it's been MONTHS and they had no idea where I was?"
"Oh, me, I had an idea," Old Mother Manitou grumbled, still shuffling around and putting things in order. "The boys however don't seem to retain that information very easily..."
"Well, after I left that one morning--night--I went to Cave of the Woods and now Moon Wolf's been training me. Jeez, Drake, you really could've told them this."
"I'm sorry, I forgot..."
"Train?" X'aaru's eyes grew. "Train to what?"
"Well, to find food, and get around in the snow, and fight, for a few things..."
"You can walk across ice yet? This is a difficult one."
"Well, um, I'm not sure..."
"Would you like for me to teach you? I know how! I taught myself to walk across Arch Rock in the winter!"
"Enough, enough of that," Old Mother Manitou said, shooing him away. "Girl's half frozen, take a look, so's her manitou. Ugh." Her nose wrinkled. "Didn't I tell you to keep these things away from my rock?"
"Yes, I know, but he doesn't live with Ocryx anymore, I swear. He's been hanging out with me all winter."
"Well...he still smells something hideous." Mani's head and ears drooped. Old Mother Manitou waved a scented branch at him and pinched her nose. "I suppose he can stay, so long's he keeps himself to this room alone. Won't have him stinking up the whole place. Give me that fireling before you burn the place down." She took the small elemental and hung it on the wall. "You two are the only ones?"
"Yes ma'am...where's Tal Natha?"
"Oh, him, the old fool went out looking over the Island. Stupid brute, can't keep him in one place for long. May he fly into a tree and clip his wing." She turned away, muttering, to tend to the fire. Charmian glanced at Drake, who shrugged.
"She's, um, a little mad that he went out by himself. So Silver Eagle Feather's keeping an eye on him."
"I would have gone," X'aaru piped in, "had I not clipped my own wing the other day..." He lifted and stretched one wing, and she noticed a few feathers were missing near the edge.
"Ouch. Sorry to hear about it."
"Oh, it'll heal soon, and Tal Natha's a much better flyer than I am...I think he'll be fine!"
"I bet he will, too...but where's...?"
She trailed off as she noticed something move at the other side of the room, and turned to look. A smile spread across her face as he recognized the other face peering out at her, almost as it had in October, when she had first arrived. She received a small smile in return.
Charmian went over to greet her. Red Bird came out from a small entrance into a neighboring room and her own smile grew. She reached out and took Charmian's arm when she came close.
"Charmian! I was so worried you would be hurt...Tal Natha kept telling me to not worry...I'm so glad he was right!"
"You've changed," Charmian said in reply, and though it sounded incredibly stupid when it came out of her mouth, it was the only thing she could think of. She noticed how Red Bird's other hand rested against her stomach, which wasn't quite flat anymore. She realized she was staring and flushed, lifting her eyes with an embarrassed grin.
"Oh," Red Bird said, and her own cheeks flushed a little. "Yes, I can feel them in there now...Tal Natha says he can hear them dreaming."
"They dream? Already?" Charmian glanced down again with some awe. "Wow..."
"Yes, he says the very young can dream, even without a Dreamspinner...only when we grow older do we begin to lose our dreams."
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth and felt her eyes sting. She'd suddenly remembered the feeling that had come over her on seeing her old dream re-created in Crack-in-the-Island, right down to the strange fountain...she hadn't had that dream since she was little. Red Bird's comment certainly had some weird timing to it.
"Anyway, I wanted to hear about you," Red Bird insisted, taking her arm again and pulling her over toward the fire. "You said you've been training with Moon Wolf? To fight and things? How good do you think you are?"
"Well...not very good, yet," Charmian said, rubbing her neck and sitting down. X'aaru approached and lay down beside them so his tail draped over their feet. "I still have to learn a lot of things, especially if I'm supposed to do a good job of protecting you and all...I've been here at least two months so far and I still feel like I can't even do my job."
"Oh, don't worry about it, Tal Natha has faith in you, do you remember? He wouldn't have asked you here, if he knew you couldn't do it."
Charmian felt like squirming down inside herself. Yeah, but...what if he doesn't know?
"It was just a bunch of boring training," she said, forcing a smile. "I'm sure it'd bore you to death...what's been going on around here? Any trouble or anything?"
"Oh. The GeeBees have been quite noisy, but they haven't bothered us much. They seem to be quite lost without Augwak, wherever he went."
"Where's Pakwa? I haven't seen him anywhere..."
"He comes by often. I believe he sleeps under the top of the rock, but I can't be certain, I don't know if GeeBees actually sleep or not..." She shrugged. "Have you had any sort of trouble? It must be horrid, staying in that cave!"
"Nah, it's not as bad as you'd think it is...though it takes quite a while to get down there...we've had to beat off a weirdo every now and then, but nothing big." She felt like slime not mentioning Ocryana or even Augwak. For some reason, she just didn't want to tell them. Drake and Red Bird were far too naive and trusting, and she hated the thought of worrying them even more than she hated keeping them in the dark. Maybe not telling them was best after all? Drake had his own sort of training to worry about, and Red Bird, well...that was a no-brainer. Didn't worrying expectant mothers give them indigestion or something?
"Hey look, actually I stopped by to say hi to you guys and to talk with Tal Natha if I could...but if he's busy maybe I can see him later, or go look for him? How important was whatever he's doing?"
"He's simply flying around the Island...Ocryxes hate being cooped up for so long. Old Mother Manitou and Silver Eagle Feather wouldn't allow him anywhere." She shrugged again, not quite as much this time. "Perhaps it was for the best...he was quite weak for a while. I'm...I'm actually surprised that you could help him. I thought there was no way." She paused for a moment. "I don't believe I ever told you thank you. I don't know where I would be without him. I think you saved me as well."
Charmian blinked and now her whole face felt like it was on fire. "Oh, it's nothing, really! Just what I was supposed to do...I'll tell you what, I'm going to go see if I can find him before it gets too dark, maybe X'aaru can help me out. You don't seem to be doing anything, do you?" She nudged his tail and he lifted his head. Drake took a step forward.
"Hey Charm, you sure you can't use me?"
"C'mon Drake, I thought you were hanging out with the Uroona...haven't they adopted you yet, or something?"
"Oh, ha HA! Very funny. Okay, go on. But don't trip over anything."
"Um, that's you who does that. Stupid." She winked at Red Bird's surprised look and stood up, extracting her feet. "Do you want to come along, X? If he's way up in the air I'm not sure how well I could find him, your nose has to be better than mine."
"All right!" X'aaru rose to his feet and followed her toward the exit. Drake waved and Charmian waved back.
"I'll try not to keep him long. Glad to hear you guys are doing okay."
"Goodbye!" Red Bird waved as Old Mother Manitou muttered and shrugged them off. "Be careful!"
Charmian ducked into the little tunnel leading out. This time, X'aaru forgot to follow suit, and she winced when she heard him hit his head. He merely shook it and followed her out as normally as ever.
She carefully picked her way to the edge of the slope and slid the rest of the way down, X'aaru bounding through the snow before landing in a messy heap at the bottom. He was so much different from the other Ocryxes, even Red Bird in her Ocryx form; the only times she'd seen him as threatening were when he'd been fighting off other creatures on the Island. The rest of the time, he resembled nothing more than a big dumb dog, albeit with horns...and wings...and a snake tail... Right now he noticed a fleck of snow come drifting from the sky, and snapped out at it as if to catch it in his teeth, then at another one, and another, jumping in circles. She couldn't help but smile. She wondered why he was so much different. Even the gentle Tal Natha seemed more of a wild beast, potentially dangerous, than he did.
"Hey X, d'you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Hum?" He glanced at her, then snapped at another snowflake. "Of course not, ask me what you like. What do you want to know?"
"Well...how well do you know the other...'critters' on this Island?"
"Yeah, the other mon...um...creatures, like yourself, and the manitous and stuff."
"Oh. Well...I probably don't know them as well as Tal Natha does. So I'm not sure. Maybe if you ask me about one I can tell you what I know?"
"Well..." She trailed off a moment, uncertain, before deciding she may as well tell him.
"When Mani and I were coming back to Sugar Loaf we saw this...thing out in the woods. It smelled kind of like an Ocryx, but it also smelled kind of like a manitou. So I don't know what it was."
"You can smell us?" He seemed surprised to hear this.
"Um...yeah...Moon Wolf taught me how." She hated lying to him, but didn't know how he'd react if told about Sikt. "It was pretty big and noisy but it didn't see us...thank God. I'm not sure if both of us together could have taken it on."
X'aaru's ear cocked. "Hummm...well...I've never heard of this one. Or seen it. What did it look like? Did it look like a manitou?"
Charmian started to describe it before remembering she hadn't gotten a very good look. "Um...it had kind of yellowish eyes...but that was about it. It seemed pretty shaggy and ugly but maybe that's just because I was scared...it was too dark to get a good look."
"Perhaps it was Mitchi?"
"I don't think so, it didn't smell right..."
"Well, maybe Mitchi smells a bit like Father does? From living in the lake?" He shrugged. "This is the only thing I can think of."
"Maybe..." Charmian chewed on the inside of her mouth. The explanation was the only one that made any sense, but still, it didn't seem quite right...
"Sometime this winter, you'll have to come to Arch Rock," X'aaru said as he ambled along, still snapping at a snowflake here or there. "The ice coats it and when the sun shines, it glitters like a crystal. I just taught myself how to walk over it without trouble. You can see the Great Lake from there, and the shore. The ice breaks up at the shore and looks like slivers of glass!"
"That sounds like it would be fun. Do you go around there a lot?"
"Oh, I like to go by myself. A lot of the others won't go very often. I think they're afraid of it there."
"Arch Rock is the Passing-Over Place." He glanced around himself, as if expecting someone to overhear, before continuing. "They say the spirits of the dead pass over the rock to the next life. But one can become trapped there. So many people keep away."
"Have you ever seen anything funny there?"
"'Funny'? No, not that I can remember...it's a beautiful place, once in a while someone will go there before they die so they don't have to wander the Island searching for it...and then the others will take them away...but the rest of the time they keep away from it. So I can walk all over it as much as I like."
"Doesn't Silver ever get mad at you?"
"Mother never gets angry with me for this. She knows the rock is safe. Fa...Black Elk Horn doesn't seem to like that I go there, but he says nothing about it, so..."
"SHH." He broke off when Charmian halted and held up one hand, listening. She'd heard something out in the woods again, and realized how foolish it had been to leave Sugar Loaf so soon after arriving; that thing could still be nearby, and if her memory were correct, she could swear she smelled it again, much fainter than before, but still present.
"I think it's nearby," she whispered to X'aaru, whose eyes grew. He sniffed the air a bit before the fur on his neck bristled, but kept silent. Charmian got to her knees and hunched down in the snow, gesturing for him to do the same; with his wings spread out, one over top of her, she hoped they looked like so much debris and fallen timbers lying in the snow. Barely breathing, she watched and waited.
They crouched in the drift, the cold gathering around them, and listened. Even the air was still. Somewhere far off, snow fell from a tree branch. Aside from that, nothing made a sound.
X'aaru's wing twitched. Charmian sensed his discomfort.
She found herself feeling quite foolish. Had she heard anything, after all? That thing she'd seen before had been so large, she doubted it could move around much without creating quite a racket...yet racket there was none...what if the other noise had been simply snow falling, as well?
But what about the smell...?
Perhaps it was just the trail the creature had left earlier...she could think of nothing else.
She heard a branch overhead creak a bit--more heavy snow getting ready to settle--and turned to X'aaru. "I think it's gone. Maybe we should move before the snow falls on--"
The branch gave way above them with a shattering CRACK, far louder than it should have been. Charmian's eyes went wide when she looked up to see the branch, the snow, and something else flying down at them, giant black claws extended, four-inch-long teeth bared in a thunderous roar.
That was all she saw of it, that and a flash of fur. X'aaru yelped and leapt back from under the tree, taking her with him. She fell in the snow when he landed, only to feel him grab onto her arm again and yank her back. Her hands grasped feathers--Feathers?--and a split second later cold air rushed up around her, and the roaring and the stench of the beast began to fade as her teeth started chattering. Then her stomach lurched abruptly, she felt twigs and branches swiping at her, and her whole body felt the shock as X'aaru hit the ground.
"X!" she shouted, gasping for breath and trying to get to her feet.
"I--forgot--" the Ocryx wheezed, painfully pushing himself up. "My wing..."
A crashing, rending noise came from the woods behind them. Charmian glanced back to see trees flying every which way! She had sudden thoughts of the Tasmanian Devil whirling his way through the forest, but knew this thing was a hundred times worse.
"Come on, where are we? How far did we get? We have to keep moving!"
He lifted his head and looked around them before focusing on a small trail to their right, just slightly ahead. "There! Not far from Arch Rock. It might not follow us--"
She went running down the trail, hearing him following as well as he could. Luckily, it seemed an Ocryx could run pretty well when it was frightened enough. She didn't fault him for not fighting; that thing had looked to be fully twice his size, if not more.
The whole time they ran, the crashing noises came from behind them, getting closer. She'd hoped the creature wouldn't be able to keep up, considering its ponderous size; yet it appeared its size was its advantage in more ways than one. Her heart was ready to jump out of her throat, and not from exhaustion this time!
The sky above suddenly broke open and she looked ahead to see a giant black arch ascending into the sky, and Lake Huron, still mostly unfrozen, glittering cold and blue below.
"It's still following!" X'aaru barked. He cast a frantic glance over his shoulder.
"Never mind it, we have to get over that thing! Maybe--maybe it'll fall!"
She prayed that X'aaru hadn't been exaggerating, and that his new talent of walking over the icy bridge would come in handy...
They both reached an incline and jumped over the edge, stumbling and sliding down the hill toward the rock. X'aaru let out a whoofing noise as his nose filled with snow, then looked back up the hill and yelped.
"It's not stopping!! We can't hide here!!"
"WE'LL RUN OVER IT!!"
She made a beeline for the edge of the rock, planning on skirting the top to the other side. X'aaru bounded up behind her--she expected him to lead the way--before she felt the wind whip at her hair--something just missing her back--and heard a guttural growl and smelled the thick reek and realized, it was far too close for them to make it over the arch.
Her final thought was, Will I feel it biting into me or will it be over with fast?
Claws raked against her arm. At the same moment X'aaru's hand clamped onto her elbow and he thrust her forward, over the final ledge. She caught a brief glimpse of the shoreline far, far below as it started to hurtle upwards at her.
Scratch her first last thought; now she was thinking, Will I still be conscious when I hit the bottom--?
A furious bellow. Feathers brushing against her face. She shut her eyes as the wind rushed past her, rushing faster--and felt the thundering shock of her world ending.
Her eyes opened onto what must be the next world, and she blinked with confusion at what she saw.
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