It's a faceoff between three Ocryxes, and Ocryana appears to have the upper hand...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 51: Atop The Arch"
CHARMIAN WORE A scowl on her face as she trudged after Tal Natha through the snow, her hands folded in her sleeves. She didn't care what he said. She'd seen how he'd acted when Justin had first shown up, how he'd acted when the man said goodbye to Red Bird. If that wasn't jealousy plain and simple she didn't know what was. Just because he was a demon didn't mean he couldn't feel the same way a normal guy would when someone else checked out his girl.
She made certain to keep these thoughts carefully to herself, since she didn't want to get him mad. She didn't agree with him, and believed he was wrong, but that didn't mean she had to hate him. In fact she was rather regretting the comment she'd made about who was protecting whom. What a stupid thing to say, to the one who was supposed to be looking after them all.
She jogged a bit to catch up with him, slowing again so they walked side by side. The clouds had parted so the moon shone down through the trees.
He didn't say anything, though she thought she saw his ear flick in her direction.
"I'm sorry about what I said. About me knowing better than you."
He finally turned his head a bit, and she could see his eyes, pale ruby against emerald. This is of little concern.
Her face brightened a bit. "You're not mad?"
No. I know you did not mean it that way.
Charmian let out her breath. "Good...because...that's really not what I meant."
I know this also. However, I do mean what I say. Your eyes and your mind have been clouded by your heart, and you cannot see what is truly before you.
She flushed. "Where do you come up with this stuff! The guy's got to be at least five years older than I am!"
Justin Dupries will reach his twentieth year sometime in the new year. And so yes, you are correct about this. It means little though.
Charmian ground her knuckles against her head. "How many times do I have to say it? I don't have a crush on him!!"
And so what are your reasons for being blind? I will admit I am wrong when you provide another explanation. He turned and stopped, sitting in the snow. Charmian blinked at him and flushed even harder.
"I...I don't know! I just think he's a nice guy. He's helped us out a lot. Why are you so down on him all the time? Really, this has nothing to do with Red Bird?"
His nostrils flared. I am not upset by this as I know that Red Bird is loyal to me. What Justin thinks is his own concern. Unless it affects how a guardian of the Island feels and acts. While you are here, you are meant to be a guardian.
Yes. You are here to protect Red Bird, and so you share a measure of my duties. He stood again. If you cannot think straight, then you are not fit for the task.
"I am too fit! You said so yourself!" Charmian hurried again to catch up as he trudged off. "Look...so we disagree on the whole Justin thing, okay? I can handle that. But I really don't think there's any problem."
We will see.
"Why don't you trust me anymore?"
Because I have seen how you react when you think of him. Perhaps you do not do this consciously, yet you still do it. I wish for you to know the truth.
"I already said I can handle it, can't we just give it up and head back?"
Charmian heaved a gusty sigh and obeyed, but made certain to kick up a good amount of snow, a bit noisily, for good measure. Men! Always so childish and suspicious when it came to women...
They trudged through the snow for a while, the sky growing lighter and then darker as the moon peeked out from and then moved back behind the clouds. Even with her winter clothing Charmian felt chilly now. She thought about the strange creature she'd seen and realized that not only had she forgotten to ask Tal Natha or Silver Eagle Feather if they knew what it was, but they hadn't asked her the same thing. Had they seen it before, themselves, or had they just not gotten the chance?
She was starting to believe that the thing was at least part manitou. It resembled Mitchi so much it was scary. Come to think of it, she hadn't had any trouble with Ocryx or his manitous for quite some time; she supposed Ocryana was the one who caused more trouble in the winter. Perhaps in the colder months Ocryx ended up frozen under his lake or something.
But would Mitchi work with that female Ocryx? We already think that she works for Ocryana. Why would one of Ocryx's manitous work for her? Doesn't it stand to reason that Mitchi would hate Ocryana, too?
And why was she centering on Mitchi so much? She had no idea if he had anything to do with any of this, aside from the resemblance...
She frowned a bit and chewed on her lip.
Tal Natha halted, crouching. Charmian.
She sensed the words "Come here" in his thought and moved forward silently. He had stopped just at the edge of a small clearing, peering into the trees. Charmian bent down to look as well.
A small light was moving through the woods. Charmian's frown grew; the way it wandered around, she knew someone must carry it. A lantern or a candle? It wove around the trees before stopping, then moving back a bit. She blinked and squinted, and after a moment she could make it out.
The glowing light. Justin's necklace. He was walking through the woods carrying a bundle under his arm--she assumed he must have been visiting with the natives, perhaps haggling as his mother did, and was now headed back home. He turned and stopped and went back a few steps. Charmian heard a slight gurgling noise and realized a tiny stream must be nearby, somehow not yet frozen over from the cold. Justin reached out his arm, leaning over the water toward the other side; someone took his hand, and he helped them across as they jumped over the water, landing on his side. They stumbled and he helped them regain their balance.
Her balance. It was Shadow Water. Her foot slipped in the snow and Justin grabbed onto her arm to keep her from falling back into the water. She cast it a look, then looked back toward him with a tiny smile, as if to silently thank him. He smiled back.
Charmian didn't know why her fingers curled into her palms and her heart sped up, but they did, and she felt like chewing her tongue. It couldn't be anger, although it sure felt like it. Why would she be angry? It was only Justin and Shadow Water. He took hold of her hand and they continued through the woods together, the glow from his necklace lighting the way and turning the icicles in the trees into golden spikes. The light began to fade as they wandered off. But even though they moved away, the strange feeling didn't leave Charmian's chest. She stared after them.
Tal Natha shifted. This is what I wished to show you. Justin and the native girl. Shadow Water. While you have been at Cave of the Woods, I have seen them. They have come to know one another, and now they spend much time together.
"So?" Charmian forced her fingers to uncurl, took a deep breath and let it out. She kept her voice nonchalant. "What does this have to do with me?"
Tal Natha cocked his head, giving her a cynical look. You cannot deny, Charmian, how you feel simply when you look at him.
"How I feel what? So he and Shadow Water are hanging out together. Big deal. It doesn't bother me any." She turned away, rubbing her hands. "Can we head to Sugar Loaf or something? I'm starting to freeze out here and I think I'm hungry."
Charmian. The demon turned and sat down. Please do not brush this off. I'm concerned about you and your judgement.
She sighed. "Look, Tal Natha, you don't have to worry, okay? I'm all right. Seriously."
He paused. Seriously?
"Seriously." She stuck her hands in her sleeves. "Can we go now? I'm not covered with fur like you are."
The Ocryx continued staring at her for a moment before sighing and rising to his feet. Very well.
He trotted past her, back the way they'd come. Charmian pulled her hands out and blew on them before covering them and following. She couldn't quite keep her fingers from digging into her palms again, and picked up her pace just to give her legs something to do. As if in some kind of belated consolation, her mind offered up a pathetic mumble.
He's too old for me, anyway.
It heartens me to hear that you will not allow any of your personal feelings to get in the way of your duties here, Tal Natha said as they went. Charmian rubbed at her elbows.
"Yeah, well...what are personal feelings anyway..."
You were in a bit of trouble when we came upon you earlier. What have you been getting into while you've been gone?
"I keep running into this Ocryx. I have no real idea who she is, but I think she might be tied in with Ocryana. And now she's got some kind of partner, too."
The other creature.
"Yeah, the one you tackled. I've been meaning to ask you. Have you ever seen that thing before?"
Not that I can remember, though it smells vaguely familiar.
"That's what I was thinking. I just can't place it. It keeps making me think of Mitchi."
Tal Natha's ear flicked. All I can say for certain is that Mitchi would not willingly work with Ocryana...although...
"Huh--? Although what?"
Well...remember what I told you before. Both Ocryx and the manitous may be easily influenced if they are not on their guard. You may recall the manitous' song which began to affect you.
Manitous are not the only ones who may do something like this.
"Wait..." Charmian slowed to a stop. "You think Mitchi really could turn his back on Ocryx? And work for the dark side? Sheesh, that sounds like Star Wars...sorry," she hastened to apologize when the demon gave her an odd look. "What I mean is, you think he'd take his chance working for the enemy when there's so much at stake? Mani's let me know pretty clearly that the punishment for those who leave Devil's Lake isn't pretty."
Mitchi would not necessarily know what he is doing. His mind is much weaker than Ocryx's, and the other manitous are weaker than he is. He let out a slight snorting sound that she knew was a frustrated sigh. I jump to conclusions. Perhaps it is merely something we've never come across before. I may have to look about a bit more before it causes much trouble. He got to his feet from where he had been resting and pushed ahead. Come, it grows later and you must need sleep.
"Oh. Right." Charmian started walking after him. "Do you think Old Mother Manitou might have something to eat...?"
If not, one of us may ask. She may complain, but she will complain anyway.
Charmian couldn't help smiling. "Funny, am I sensing annoyance?"
Tal Natha gave her a look that told her he was half-joking as he replied. You may sense many things, Charmian, but this does not mean all are--
A short scream stopped them in their tracks. The demon's head swiveled to look behind him, ears pricked. Charmian did the same. Tal Natha sniffed at the air and his hackles rose; she'd caught the scent even before he had.
She turned to look at him, heart squeezing in her chest.
"That sounded like Shadow Water."
The scent is Ocryana.
Without thinking she bounded into the woods, hoping Tal Natha would follow. She could hear him running after her in the snow, and took a tiny bit of encouragement from that. At least he hadn't decided to let her run in on this alone.
Charmian! he called after her. You barely know this girl. How can you be certain she needs your protection?
"I think I'm more worried about Justin," Charmian yelled back. "If they're in trouble and he turns into an Ocryx, she'll kill him!"
She came to a small rise and trampled her way to the top, then slipped and slid down the other side, falling forward on her hands. She pushed herself up and stumbled a ways before stopping and nearly tripping over her feet. She may as well have been trying to run through water.
Her sight immediately fell upon Justin. He stood several yards away near the treeline, slightly to her left; he heard her fall and glanced at her with wide eyes. Shadow Water cowered behind him, and she stared at Charmian as well. Justin had dropped the bundle and brought his gun down to aim forward, but didn't seem too inclined to fire it. Her eyes moving to look in the direction they were facing, she understood why he would feel the weapon was useless.
A large shadowy form perched up in the trees, tail sweeping from side to side, its eyes tiny red-and-green pinpricks in the dimness. She could see it bare its teeth and hunch forward with a low growl. Charmian couldn't find any big broken branches lying about, but she broke an icicle from a shrubby sapling standing at her side. Pathetic weapon, but better than nothing.
Justin's look now told her, What do you think you're doing? Get out of here!
Charmian ignored him and held the icicle out in front of her. The dark shape spread its--her--wings and drifted down from the trees like a leaf, landing with a dull thump in the snow. She started to walk forward, and Charmian did the same.
Justin's lip curled. "Charmian..."
"I'm supposed to be helping to protect the Island," Charmian muttered at him. "Now if you don't let me start doing that I'm never going to make it anywhere, and neither will you guys."
"I can handle her."
"No you can't."
Tal Natha stood where he'd stopped at the edge of the woods, staring at all of them with an odd curiosity. Shadow Water moved further back behind Justin and kept looking between Charmian and the dark shape, as if trying to choose the lesser evil.
And damn but that stupid action music started up in Charmian's head again.
The dark shape raised herself up to her full height, and for a moment Charmian quailed. She seemed taller than Tal Natha even, rivaled only by Ocryx. Charmian thought of a too-tall Christmas tree her dad had tried to fit into the living room once. Ocryana would never have made it through the door.
The demon snorted with contempt and her eyes narrowed. "You think you can fight me off with that little thing? Stupid fool." She turned and walked toward Justin as if Charmian weren't even there, and Charmian's fear dissolved into irritation. She felt her fingers tighten around the icicle and ground her teeth.
So what if I'm a wimp, can't I at least get a little bit of RESPECT--?
Ocryana stopped before Justin and Shadow Water. Justin held his arm out to keep Shadow Water behind him, and dropped the gun to the ground. His fists clenched and the necklace around his neck started glowing brighter as his eyes did the same.
Charmian's annoyance instantly vanished. "Justin, don't--!"
Too late--Shadow Water gave a tiny gasp and stumbled back when the brown Ocryx appeared where Justin had been, snarling with wings flaring. A grin came to Ocryana's face and she started laughing.
"Oh, too predictable. The moment your territory is threatened, out come the claws. Just like your father."
Justin growled and paced slowly to the side. Ocryana didn't seem threatened in the least. Charmian knew this had been a bad idea.
She clenched her own fists, nearly shattering the icicle. "Justin, if she stabs you--"
Justin snarled and jerked his head. "Back away and leave us! You only make this worse!"
Charmian had just the briefest chance to feel hurt before Ocryana leapt into the air, descending again with horns pointed forward. Justin whirled to gape at her, offguard, his sudden motion knocking Shadow Water down into the snow. He managed to skid to the side to avoid the first blow, but couldn't regain his footing quickly enough. He didn't seem to be as good a fighter as Tal Natha was.
Ocryana roared and came down at him.
Shadow Water pushed herself up and stumbled forward, putting herself in front of him. "No! Wait!"
Ocryana's roar cut off but her eyes slitted. One great paw sailed through the air, slamming into Shadow Water's face with a resounding crack and sending her flying through the air, landing in the snow in a limp crumpled heap.
Charmian's eyes widened and she gasped. Without waiting to see what Justin intended to do, she gritted her teeth and yelled, running forward with the icicle clenched in her hand like a knife. Ocryana stopped snarling and stood up and--watched her come. She even smiled with surprise, like a child opening a present, being granted some small diversion. The unconcerned look only angered Charmian further. She brought the pathetic little bit of frozen water down at Ocryana's arm, hoping her own punishment wouldn't be quite as painful as Shadow Water's had looked.
The icicle connected with the demon's arm and Charmian shut her eyes and waited for the blow. Instead, she felt a resistance beneath her hands--her elbows locked--and a bloodcurdling scream filled her ears. Her eyes popped open and she fell back into the snow. The icicle protruded from Ocryana's forearm, blood streaming through her fur. Her eyes flashed with an odd mixture of pain, confusion, and rage. She clutched at the piece of ice, ripping it free.
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, YOU STUPID GIRL?!" she screamed, and Charmian had exactly the same answer the demon herself had--I have no idea!!
Justin still crouched on the opposite side of her, looking as if he had been ready to pounce before Charmian interfered. The expression on his face told her her confusion wasn't unfounded--a piddling little icicle shouldn't have caused her that much pain!
The scream grew into a snarl. Charmian's head jerked up. She saw Ocryana's eyes narrowing and her teeth glittering before a blinding pain filled her head. She felt snow against her cheek, and suddenly realized she'd landed not far from the trees--the blow had been so hard she couldn't even remember flying through the air. She groaned and tried to lift her head, but it hurt too much.
A snuffling snorting noise came from just behind her and she caught an interesting view of something jumping over her--black fur and a long tail--Tal Natha. She heard him hit the ground and continue running, then a harsh snarling noise. She couldn't tell if that was him or Ocryana, until a second snarl responded.
Charmian put out her arm and slowly rolled herself over, attempting to push herself up again. She winced; her ear and the entire left side of her face felt like they were on fire. She staggered to her feet, pressing her hand to her cheek and glancing around; her vision blurred and broke apart a few times until she could make everything out. She shook her head once more and it cleared completely.
Ocryana was still where she'd left her, her lip curled back and blood still running down her wounded arm. Justin still crouched on the other side, indecisively; Tal Natha likewise crouched, on Charmian's side, hackles raised and wings flared in a threatening posture. He had a clear shot at her belly and breast, but didn't take it. Charmian wasn't sure she would have taken it either, considering. Ocryana simply snarled at him, and at Charmian when she saw her. Charmian could sense her fury.
A soft groan. All four of them turned to see Shadow Water turning herself over as Charmian had. She felt a twinge of relief; she was certain the blow would have broken the woman's neck. Justin whimpered and stumbled his way toward her. Charmian looked back at Ocryana and something in the snow caught her attention. The bloody icicle lay upon the ground where the demon had dropped it, still unbroken, and she picked it up again, face set.
Ocryana's expression grew ugly, but she was looking at Tal Natha instead.
"Pathetic little whelp," she hissed. "You never know when to keep your snout out of anything. Predictable. Pissing on trees, marking your territory. Just like your father."
Tal Natha didn't justify her insult with an answer either. He responded by growling louder, circling a bit to the side--so the demon didn't face Charmian anymore. Charmian noticed this, and took a step forward.
"Tal Natha, if she gets you, we can't save you again!"
Tal Natha didn't reply. Ocryana, however, blinked, and then her eyes narrowed in a nasty smile.
"That's correct, isn't it? Your spirit stone. Ocryx's. You can try that trick only once, I hear. Quite interesting." Her eyes narrowed further, mere glowing slits, and Charmian felt her chest tighten with anxiety. "I wonder..."
She drew herself up to her full height again so abruptly that Charmian and Tal Natha ducked back, expecting an attack. Instead Ocryana swept her hand up into the air in a commanding gesture and her eyes glittered.
Tal Natha bared his teeth and lunged forward.
Ocryana grinned and clenched her fist hard at the air. And it was as if--something invisible struck Tal Natha in the breast, just as he leapt at her. He froze in midair, eyes widening and jaws gaping. Instead of a bellow, a pained broken gasp escaped him, and Ocryana started laughing as he crumpled limply to the ground and Charmian ran forward.
"Part 53: Worse Than The Disease"
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