Atop Arch Rock, Charmian and X'aaru face off against mysterious enemies...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 50: The Land In The Bow"
Atop The Arch
CHARMIAN PEERED BACK over her shoulder at the large shaggy creature not too far behind her. It hadn't attacked yet, but she knew why.
X'aaru perched in the middle of Arch Rock, hackles raised. At the other end was the tawny Ocryx. From the way the two of them kept Charmian and X'aaru pinned over the rock, she knew they were working together.
This was only proven further when the other Ocryx bared her teeth, and seemed to be grinning. Another glance at the monster behind her showed it was doing the same thing.
Charmian's mind reeled. She knew the Ocryx was not stupid...but this weird creature? And how could they be partners in this? What did it mean? Who had set this up?
A low rattling growl. X'aaru's fur rose higher and he bunched back on himself, edging closer to Charmian. The tawny Ocryx approached slowly, and Charmian gasped and moved as well, the other creature following suit.
What do they intend to do--push us off?
This one here has to know X'aaru can't fly--they're going to kill us!
This meant they must have communicated via telepathy. She could do that too. She sought out X'aaru's mind, making certain to keep the thought private to just the two of them.
X. We're going to have to fight.
The Ocryx peered back at her, eyes wide and frightened.
We don't have any other choice. She started looking around, searching the snowy ground. Do you think you can hold her off?
I...I'm not certain...but I can try. What about you?
I already hurt it, I think maybe I can fight it off again...the trick is KEEPING it off!
She located what she was looking for--a loose branch lying on the slope--and picked it up, leveling it in front of her, point outward. The monster looked uncertain, but then snarled again. Too bad; she'd hoped it might be a bit frightened of her. She could almost hear action theme music playing in her head as they backed toward the rock.
Um...Charmian...what do we do after we fight them off?
X'aaru again. She didn't reply, only because she had no idea what they would do. She hadn't thought ahead that far!
Just trust me. This is the only choice we have right now!
She faced the shaggy beast again, and X'aaru growled at the Ocryx. They edged ever nearer. The action theme music in Charmian's head grew louder. And at just the right moment, when the drums were pounding and everything, the tawny Ocryx leapt forward, fangs and claws bared.
Charmian turned just in time to see X'aaru dodge back so she landed upon the rock, before they started lashing at each other, and before she remembered HER little problem!
With a gasp she whipped back around and held up the stick to block a blow. Luckily, the wood held; she didn't know why. Likewise the second time the beast struck--the branch still didn't break. She must have picked a good one! All she could do was block its attacks while it roared at her and drove her back. She jumped rather than stumble on an outcropping and skidded backwards, trying desperately to keep her balance on the slippery, jagged surface. Sikt barked in her mind and she just barely missed X'aaru's tail whipping past her. She ducked and it slammed into the monster's face so it slipped and started to go over the edge of the rock.
But it still held on, scrabbling and snarling. Charmian stumbled off of the rock toward land, glancing back at X'aaru who still backed in her direction, the female Ocryx slashing at him with her horns.
Fool! Use your wings!
She heard the command in her head, and with a start realized it had come from the other Ocryx. She'd actually spoken. But not to X'aaru--instead, the beast hanging from the rock stopped scrabbling and she heard a flapping noise. Her heart started to sink. How had she not noticed it before--it had wings, too?
It made its way ponderously up to the surface again, landing with a thud--its wings were nowhere near the size of the Ocryxes'--before turning and growling at X'aaru.
Never mind him, he's easily taken care of! Get the girl!
The beast obeyed the command and whirled back on her. She was slightly relieved--she didn't think X'aaru could handle both of them together. Much better that they were fighting separated--perhaps they stood a better chance this way. She lifted the stick again and waved her hand.
"Come on, Ugly! You want a piece of this, then come get it!"
The action theme music abruptly cut out and she winced. Jeez...that was lame.
The monster raised its head and bellowed before charging.
Charmian stood her ground, though her heart was crowding up into her throat. It raised its paw in the air, black claws glinting in the dim clouded light.
Charmian ducked and rammed the stick forward. She misjudged, or else the creature moved, as it failed to plunge through its breast but instead gouged a path through the fur on its side, laying open the skin over its ribs. The beast let out a sound full of pain and fury and swept the weapon from her hands. Charmian watched it fly away from her and looked upward stupidly--thinking, Well, at least I got one shot in--as those wicked claws came at her once more. At the last moment she decided to make everybody proud and go out fighting, and shut her eyes and swung her fist with a broken yell.
WHUMP. She heard next a thud and opened her eyes. The beast had fallen to the ground with a dazed look. Charmian's eyes widened.
"Did I really do that--?"
Something--wind--brushed over her. She gasped and remembered X'aaru and turned to run to him. "I'm coming, X!"
X'aaru didn't even look at her. He ducked a swipe from the female Ocryx's horns before glancing upward with surprise and leaping out of the way. The tawny Ocryx raised her own hand, snarling, before something slammed into her head, knocking her off the rock and over the edge.
Charmian gaped. A gleaming shape appeared where the demon had been--an Ocryx, another Ocryx!--and vaulted itself over, after her. A growl rose from behind her and she turned to see the shaggy monster shaking its head and trying to push itself to its feet before something came down from the sky and landed hard upon its stomach, knocking the wind out of it. Claws slashed at its face, tearing the skin over its eye; it bellowed and pushed the dark shape off, stumbling blindly.
And now--hissing noises. Back at the rock, the tawny Ocryx had clawed her way back up, the other Ocryx, its fur a gleaming gray-silver and its wings the color of chrome, snarling and lashing out at her. The two of them fought their way back to solid ground, but the silvery Ocryx--slightly larger than the tawny one--seemed to have the advantage.
X'aaru stood still on Arch Rock, watching the action with mouth hanging open.
Charmian pushed herself up and ran toward him. She had no idea what was going on, but the thought of dealing with another, stronger Ocryx--one she didn't even know--didn't appeal to her very much. The creature had moved so quickly, it had somehow knocked out both her monster AND had taken on the female, almost as if it had been in two places at once!
"X'aaru!" she shouted again. He turned now to look at her, and his eyes grew. His wings flared as she drew closer.
"Charmian! The ice--!"
She didn't have time to heed the warning. Her foot slipped out from underneath her and with a short scream she went over the side.
She had time to scream longer as she plummeted toward the lakeshore, knowing no moonbow would rescue her this time. She kept her eyes shut tightly and none of her worries from before--how long it would take, how much it would hurt, whether she would feel it--seemed to matter anymore.
Her back suddenly struck something--but not hard. Something else seemed to grab onto her arms and pull her upright, and she felt herself rising again. She was almost too afraid to open her eyes--what if it was one of the Ocryxes--? She did so anyway, peering out of one eye, and gasped again to see what it was that carried her back up through the cold air, back to Arch Rock.
A pale glowing white thing held onto her left elbow, eyes looking upward. Likewise one held onto her right elbow, and the two of them slowly lifted her up. They looked much like the strange white things she had met in Crack-in-the-Island, only slightly different. They still resembled GeeBees, but the one on her right appeared to be more manitou. They said not a word as they carried her back up--as she rose she saw the two Ocryxes, oblivious to her, still fighting, X'aaru still perched upon the rock staring at her with mouth and eyes wide open. He started hopping from foot to foot and his tongue lolled out as if happy to see her. Charmian felt relief flood through her.
The pressure on her elbows released as the white things let go. She had a brief surge of panic before something else gently grabbed hold of her shoulders and carried her over, releasing her over solid ground so she fell to her knees in the snow. She started to rise when she felt the wind breeze past her again, and something--the dark shape she had assumed was the silvery Ocryx--soared over her, toward the other two. It wasn't the dimness, but rather the darkness of the shape itself that made it difficult for her to make it out clearly. Still, her heart worked its way up into her throat again.
It landed near the two battling Ocryxes and suddenly the tawny one looked not so confident anymore. Her eyes grew and she leapt back away from the two of them, hissing and growling. X'aaru pushed himself off, half-flying, half-stumbling toward them, lowering his horns; she snapped at the air in panic, backing away, the other three advancing. It looked like a scene out of a gang movie. Finally she let out a bark that Charmian felt was meant to be threatening, but came out sounding frightened, and leapt into the air, wings spreading and carrying her aloft. They beat hard several times and she rose up toward the clouds, out over the lake.
Charmian got to her feet. The female Ocryx snarled one last time and twisted about in midair, flapping away. The three remaining turned as one to look in the direction the shaggy creature had been left. Charmian looked as well to see it back slowly away toward the woods, one eye shut and bleeding. It didn't seem as afraid of them as the other Ocryx had been, yet it could tell it was outnumbered. It lowered its head with a low rumble and vanished among the trees.
The white creatures perched upon Arch Rock preening themselves like birds. Charmian heard a whistling noise. The dark shape lifted into the air slightly and came back toward her. The silvery one, and then X'aaru, uncertainly, followed. She took a step back when it landed, but now that it was closer, wings folding in behind its back, she finally recognized it. Her face lit up and she ran forward.
She threw her arms around him and hugged him as hard as she could. The Ocryx's claw just barely touched her face. For how long it had been since she'd seen him, he seemed none the worse for wear, and she pulled her head away from his furry breast to look up at his eyes. They glowed, and it looked as if he smiled at her.
"It's been so long! It's so great to see you!" She laughed and actually jumped from foot to foot before noticing the strange Ocryx approaching behind him. Her laughter died away and she found herself reaching down into the snow, hoping to find another item to use for a weapon.
X'aaru approached as well, from off to the side. He kept his head low and his ears back flat. The silvery Ocryx stopped and looked at him and he stopped as well, sniffing.
"X..." Charmian warned.
She fell silent and blinked. The voice was female, but it hadn't been Sikt. She even sensed the demon in her mind peering about with curiosity as well. X'aaru's eyes grew and he moved forward again so he touched muzzles with the Ocryx. The other responded by licking the side of his muzzle and his ears. He gave a whimper, but didn't sound afraid.
Charmian blinked again, stupefied. What she was beginning to think seemed too farfetched to believe.
The silvery Ocryx lifted its--her--head to look at her, eyes green and red, slightly slanted like Tal Natha's. She lifted her head and a light surrounded her, enveloping her until she vanished. Charmian shielded her eyes as it faded. She pulled her hand away and the native woman stood there, reaching out to touch X'aaru's muzzle. He whined and pressed his head against her hand.
"Wow," Charmian said.
Silver Eagle Feather took a step forward and seemed to teeter a bit in the snow. Tal Natha cocked an ear and snorted but she regained her balance and held up her hand to reassure him.
"It's all right...I merely need to get used to it yet." She looked at Charmian and gave a slight smile. "I thought of something that you asked long ago. If Red Bird could shapeshift, it seemed I would be able to as well. I decided to see if it would work. It took some trying though..."
Of course, Tal Natha added. Red Bird only discovered her own power while... He paused for a moment, ear twitching. While her emotions were at their strongest. Without this stimulus she at first found it difficult to change.
"So...you have to practice it?" Charmian asked, intrigued.
"To an extent, yes. Shapeshifting comes more naturally to pure Ocryxes. However even they have their limits."
"I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised," Charmian said, feeling a little stupid now over her reaction. She kicked at the snow. "Considering that so far Red Bird and Justin can do it, too."
"Justin?" The two of them stared at her.
"Um...yeah. Justin Dupries? He changed...back when I was on the way to Cave of the Woods. A couple of months ago. Freaked me out at first, until I found out it was him. He has this funny necklace..."
Charmian, may we speak? Tal Natha dropped to all fours, the easier to move about in the snow. Alone.
"Uh, sure, okay." She tried to hide her puzzlement over their odd reaction, only stopping from following him toward the woods as soon as she realized she'd forgotten to ask about what else bothered her. "Oh. Wait a minute."
She turned back to look at Arch Rock. The white things still perched there, both of them staring back with their odd moon eyes. One of them sneezed and shook its head; the other started cleaning its arm.
"I was kind of wondering if you knew what those things are. I've seen them before."
"You have?" From Silver Eagle Feather; she moved to stand beside Charmian. "Where? This is the only place I know of where they dwell."
"Well, it's kind of a long story...but it was at Crack-in-the-Island. Those same funny white things were there too. Different ones though. Um. I hope you know what I mean. So...what are they? They look like GeeBees."
Spirits, Tal Natha said, turning and sitting in the snow. He brushed at his ear and didn't say further when she looked at him.
Silver Eagle Feather nodded. "This is difficult to explain, but I suppose your people would call them 'lost souls.' Arch Rock is where spirits cross into the land of the dead. Those that make the journey successfully begin a new life."
Charmian frowned. "So, I'm supposing those guys are the unsuccessful ones."
There are some who do not or cannot make the journey, Tal Natha replied. For one reason or another they fail, and they are trapped between worlds. This is the result.
"What kind of spirits are they?"
Spirits, the same as any you may find upon this Island. GeeBees, manitous, humans, Uroona, any other creature which may die. If an Ocryx were to die, it too would pass this way.
"So...why do they look so funny?"
This is what happens when one fails to make the journey. He rose and moved toward the rock a bit, drawing the creatures' attention. They looked up before jumping into the air and flying down beneath the arch, disappearing so abruptly that Charmian shook her head and blinked. Spirits pass beneath this rock every day, as soon as someone dies. Those that are trapped between worlds exist fully only in the same reality as others of their kind. What happens to your hand, when you swirl it through a pool of water?
"Huh?" Charmian blinked again. "Well...it gets wet?"
But what truly happens. Does your hand pass through the water, or does the water pass through your hand?
"Well I could just give you the easy answer and say my hand passes through the water, but technically, all I'm doing is displacing it since two things can't exist in the same place at once." She paused. "Well. At least that's what I thought, before I came here."
No, you are actually correct. Two things cannot exist in the same place within the same dimension. At least, that is how it goes in your dimension, and in mine. He nodded at the hole beneath the arch, where the creatures had disappeared. This rule does not apply to them, where they come from. They may exist whenever and wherever they like, at whatever time. Sometimes, two of them or more exist in the same space at once.
Charmian felt like rubbing her head, or else taking some aspirin. "Soooo...what you're saying is...they're...hybrids, kind of? Like...one day a GeeBee spirit was passing by and it sort of floated through a manitou spirit and they, um, mingled, or something...?"
Yes, I suppose this is what I'm saying. He got up and headed for the woods again. If you would follow? I wish to speak with you.
"Oh. Sure." Charmian followed him again--X'aaru took a step forward as if he wanted to follow, yet stayed put--but she barely noticed him. Every day this place got just a teeny bit stranger.
Tal Natha walked down into the woods on all fours, wolflike, tail slowly sliding through the air. Charmian checked herself over as they went, just to make certain she hadn't been hurt anywhere. She wasn't quite sure how she should feel; on the one hand she'd appreciated his and Silver Eagle Feather's rescue, and yet on the other hand she was a bit annoyed that she hadn't been allowed to take the monster on by herself. When was she going to get the chance to do something on her own? Was she even meant to? She kept thinking of what Moon Wolf would think if he found out. She cringed to hear his harsh reply in her head.
Charmian. You mentioned Justin Dupries.
She brought her head up, snapping out of her thoughts. "Oh--yeah. He can change into an Ocryx too. Though...you probably knew that already."
When, aside from him coming to Sugar Loaf Rock, have you had chance to meet him?
"Well, I ran into him on the way to Cave of the Woods and he walked me there. He warned me about the Wendigoes. He's helped out Mani and this other lady we met, like he helped out X'aaru."
Do you trust him?
"Huh?" Charmian stopped walking and he stopped as well, turning to look at her. She flushed when she found herself staring into his eyes and broke the stare, glancing at the ground. "Well...he's been okay so far, he's helped us out a lot. Why? Don't you...don't you trust him?"
No. I do not.
His answer was rather abrupt, so even though she had expected it, it still startled her. She thought of asking him whether this had anything to do with Red Bird, but decided against it. Jealousy could be an ugly thing, especially if the jealous one was a demon who could wander through your sleeping thoughts.
And this does not concern Red Bird or whatever feelings he may have for her. I have my own suspicions.
Charmian flushed again. Drat. She had to learn to control that.
"So, what does it concern? Why don't you trust him if it isn't about Red Bird?" She had to bite her lip to keep her voice even and nonaccusatory. "Look, he helped X'aaru when he needed it, and Mani too. He and his mom and dad welcomed me in for dinner. Why would he do that if he wasn't trustworthy?"
I only tell you to not place your trust in every kindly face you meet. He paused. You will find more friends upon the Island than foes. But our foes are not as easy to make out as our friends. You should be very careful who you decide to trust, no matter who they are.
"So where does that leave you? Or Red Bird?" Charmian clenched her fists, unable to keep her voice level anymore. "Or Silver Eagle Feather, or Old Mother Manitou? You wanted me to trust all of them, now you're saying I shouldn't? If I can't trust anybody, what's the point of saving this place?"
He stood up. I wish only to protect you from trouble. You are new here, and do not know the Island's ways yet.
Charmian stomped her foot so snow flew around her. "I'm not new here anymore! And I'M supposed to be the one protecting, not you!"
Tal Natha's ears flicked. He seemed surprised. Then a look of resolve came to his eyes.
Very well. You believe you are better equipped to guard the Island? And you place your unquestioning trust in someone who has caught your eye. This is what you do and what you decide?
Charmian suddenly felt like sinking into the ground, and stammered to correct him. "I--I didn't say that! You're putting words in my mouth!"
I barely need to put words in your mouth, when these are merely the thoughts in your head. The thoughts you have hardly tried to conceal. You are an open book for everyone. You have been here at least two moons now, and you have yet to learn this fact.
Charmian's fingernails dug into her palms and she chewed on the inside of her mouth, humiliated.
Tal Natha turned about again. You wish to know who it is that you trust? Follow me then. I'll show you.
"I already know Justin."
You know the part of Justin that you wish to know. I will show you the part you most likely wish did not exist. Follow.
He ambled down the slope and off deeper into the woods. Charmian chewed on her lip so hard she thought it would bleed, and considered staying behind just to spite him. However, her curiosity began to get the better of her--What does he mean, the part I wish didn't exist?--and, berating herself in advance, she ran to catch up with him.
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