Deadly enemies face off, more than bodily wounds are inflicted--and a sacrifice is made...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 73: Looking For Trouble"
THE ACTION-ADVENTURE MUSIC started up again in Charmian's head. She held up her stick in front of her, eyes darting from Kawaduk to Mitchi Manitou. She swallowed.
"I hadn't quite planned on taking on two at once," she mumbled to Manabozho.
"I hate to tell you this, but you can't always plan these things." He took a step back. "You think you can do this by yourself? Or do you need a hand?"
She gritted her teeth when Kawaduk lowered his head and let out a growling noise, Mitchi cocking an ear at him as if he were muttering something. "I kind of think some help would be nice!!"
This is the one, Kawaduk said now, so she could hear him. The little mainlander wench with her bitty toy.
Mitchi didn't seem interested in Charmian. His eyes focused first on Mani, who crept back, then on Manabozho, and they narrowed. His lip curled back and he growled.
Manabozho sank down slightly into a ready posture, waiting to fight or flee--Charmian wasn't certain which. "Good to meet you, too."
"I hope you've at least fought these guys before," Charmian said.
"Not really. I did fight a giant sturgeon once."
That was all they had the chance to say. Without so much as a polite introduction, Mitchi leapt forward with a speed that belied his size. Charmian had had no idea he could move so quickly, until she remembered her trip to Sugar Loaf atop the back of one of the tribal manitous--she remembered to duck just in time. Instead of her, his hand struck Mani's antler, sweeping his head aside so the manitou squealed and fell to the ground. Ocryx rolled from his back into a shapeless heap, fur and feathers sticking every which way. She turned back around and gasped and ducked again; Kawaduk, unlike his father, was interested in her. She heard the whistle of his paw swinging over her head, and scurried under him and up on the other side just as he turned to face her. Ocryana's influence was apparent in his grin, and she nearly shuddered at the sight of his teeth. Somehow, something in him had made them longer than an Ocryx's or a manitou's could be.
Duh, you have to DUCK!!
She gasped and did so, and he just missed her again. The look on his face told her he'd expected this--and his hind foot slammed into her chest. She fell over, grabbing at her ribs with a wince of pain. It had been a while since her last encounter with him, but he no longer bore the wound X'aaru had dealt him. Who kept healing him--?
She saw him grin again and his great steel hooks descended toward her face. Instead of hitting her they sank into wood and he had to yank them free. Something else whirred over her head and she could make out the stick Manabozho held only when it landed back in his hand. How had he done that?
"Would you mind fighting off your own one?" he said. "I sort of have my hands full." He ducked, not once panicking, as Mitchi Manitou's antlers swept over him.
Charmian nodded mutely. She got to her feet and, planting her feet in the snow, readied her stick. Kawaduk's look wasn't so certain anymore, but neither did he back off. He gave her a grin that she felt was more for her benefit than his own.
Teeny-tiny little toy? You hide behind it constantly?
"I never claimed I was a big, brave halfling like you."
The creature blinked, then his eyes flashed blaring yellow. He bared his teeth and came at her, the tip of one horn grazing her shoulder. She dodged out of the way and held the stick up before her again.
"What's the matter?" she jeered. "Did I strike a nerve?"
There is only ONE who calls me Halfling! Kawaduk snarled, and launched himself forward. This time she was ready, and both of his paws latched onto the stick. She fell to her back and managed to flip him through the air, a wrestling move she'd seen on TV once...funny that it actually worked. Kawaduk crashed into the ground several yards away with a heavy snort.
Meanwhile Mitchi was still swinging at Manabozho, but he kept leaping out of the way as nimble as a rabbit, avoiding any blows. This only seemed to infuriate the manitou even more. Charmian doubted he'd ever had such trouble attacking somebody.
Mitchi's teeth flashed. Stand still, fool!
"And let you hit me?" Manabozho dodged another blow. "Who's the bigger fool here, I for dodging or you for suggesting that?"
Kawaduk pushed himself back up to his feet. He shook his head with a dazed look, and glanced up as Mitchi and Manabozho danced past him. Mitchi glared down at the halfling and snarled.
Get going! Kill the girl!
Kawaduk blinked and bobbed his head. He might have been fearsome, but it appeared he knew how to take orders after all. He whirled about and ran at Charmian just as Manabozho took advantage of the manitou's distracted state, leaping up and hurling his own stick at Kawaduk's back. It sank into his shoulder and he stumbled to a stop, letting out a bellow. He scrabbled about, trying to reach it to pull it free. Mitchi stared at him before giving Manabozho a hateful glare.
Manabozho just held up his empty hands, palms out. "You didn't know I had that power? No wonder you let that old woman beat on you daily..."
Mitchi sliced his antlers through the air. Manabozho hopped to avoid the blow, then ducked the next. Charmian was so busy watching them that it was only at the last minute that she noticed Kawaduk charging toward her, having pulled the stick free; instead of taking on his attacker, his yellow eyes were focused on her. Her own eyes widened; one pronged horn tore into her shoulder, impaling her and lifting her from the ground. She yelled from the pain as Kawaduk rushed forward, slamming her into a tree. He pulled away and she started to slide to the ground, but his paw clamped over her throat and held her up. She opened her eyes to see his gleeful leer and then she felt a searing pain spread throughout her entire body, feeling as if her very soul were being sucked from her. She grabbed onto his arm and screamed when she realized this was exactly what he was doing. A vision of Augwak, face pale and eyes vacant, flashed in her tortured mind, and she struggled uselessly to free herself. Kawaduk laughed. He'd inherited more than just Ocryana's smile.
She dimly noticed Manabozho pause in his fight with Mitchi, glancing her way with wide eyes. He ducked another blow and yelled, "Charmian! Use your medicine!"
A pale white glow began to surround her. She could feel her spirit drawing away into Kawaduk's fingers, and dug her own into him, grinding her teeth and trying to pry him loose. His laughter infuriated her; she gave up her physical struggle, focusing her thoughts inward instead. She drew strength from the solidity of the tree just behind her; with a scream of pain and rage she threw the power outwards, flinging it at her attacker. He blinked and managed to get out a startled yelp before it slammed into him, knocking him away and back into the snow with a crash.
Charmian choked for breath and slid down the tree to land in the snow at its base. Blood ran from the wound in her shoulder but she didn't notice it. The agony inside her was too great; she could tell she'd stopped the assault just in time, yet not quite soon enough. Something felt badly wrong, as if it were missing, torn from her. She clutched at her chest as if to find it, gritting her teeth and grimacing, a pained whimper escaping her.
Mitchi had stopped attacking Manabozho. He stared at the two of them with open surprise before bellowing at Kawaduk, who struggled to rise to his feet. The halfling cast a terrified look at Charmian; even when the manitou roared at him to continue, he backed away, quaking and fearful. He'd recognized the power she wielded. He cowered away from Mitchi's rain of invective, yet refused to approach her again. The manitou snarled and started forward, only to stop when the point of Manabozho's stick leveled at Kawaduk's neck.
"I have to admit, mine's not quite as impressive as hers," Manabozho said in a mild voice. "Yet it's still a woodling power. I see that he here is a woodling. How much more can he take, do you believe?"
Mitchi's face filled with pure hate. He took a step back, and jerked his head in a sweeping gesture, signaling to Kawaduk. The halfling followed, but cringed and hunched in on himself when the manitou snarled at him. Even in her daze of pain Charmian heard Mitchi's last thoughts, directed at them.
She wields a woodling power now. We retreat only so long. You see she weakens already! She will hardly be a threat to us soon!
"This I doubt," Manabozho replied. "You might think she's growing weaker, but you're quite wrong about that."
Mitchi bared his teeth. Kawaduk paused and peered back at them. I am not a cowardly whelp like the boy! She thinks she wields my power? See her face me then!
Manabozho smiled at him and gave a sort of mock-bow, brandishing the stick. "Attacking young injured girls gives you power? My what an elemental you are."
Mitchi's ears pricked straight up in disbelief at what he'd just heard. With a furious roar he lunged forward. He went not at Manabozho--but at Charmian.
Mani finally seemed to spring to life. The smaller manitou pushed himself up and galloped into Mitchi's path, rearing onto his hind legs. Charmian gaped to see their antlers meet and lock, and the two of them froze, muscles straining. Mitchi growled. Mani managed to hold him off, but it was obvious who the more powerful manitou was. The white manitou slowly twisted his head downwards and sideways, taking Mani with him, and it was only a matter of time before he would break himself free. One antler slipped loose, and he twisted to disentangle the other one. Mani's legs trembled from the pressure as he slowly sank toward the earth.
Charmian haltingly pushed herself to her feet, using the tree for support and clutching at her wound with a wince. "Mani..." she croaked.
The two manitous' growls rose like those of two circling dogs. She couldn't remember ever hearing Mani growl before. His head was pressed almost flat to the ground when Mitchi's other antler slipped and broke free, the sudden release of pressure almost making the smaller manitou fall over. He stumbled and recovered himself just as Mitchi bellowed and bore down on him. Mani's eyes grew but he braced himself for the blow, lowering his head, antlers pointing outwards. The gesture didn't deter Mitchi; he barrelled forward without hesitation, one paw raised.
And stopped abruptly at the horn that leveled itself at his breast.
Mitchi's eyes grew. He took a clumsy step backwards. Charmian blinked the growing blur from her own eyes. The growl that reached her ears was much deeper and more threatening now than Mani's or even Mitchi's had been. The manitou slowly backed away from the demon, his breath rasping harsh in his throat.
Ocryx's eyes were narrowed from both pain and something else. His bared teeth were lined with blood; she couldn't tell if he'd bitten his tongue, or suffered a more grievous wound. His breathing was still heavy and labored but his horns no less dangerous as he kept them aimed directly at Mitchi's heart.
"You dare...to challenge me?" he wheezed, ribs rising and falling. "Then...I will no longer be so lenient...with you." His muzzle wrinkled and the growl rose in his throat, the rumble of growing thunder. Mitchi stared down at the razor-sharp weapons just barely pricking his skin and swallowed. Despite Ocryx's weakened state, and his own recent brashness, Charmian could tell he knew which of them was truly stronger.
Mitchi backed away again. He hardly dared to narrow his own eyes at the demon lest he decide to attack, and slowly retreated. Ocryx cut a pathetic figure, hunched and panting with blood matting his fur, but stood his ground as the manitou moved away, snapping at Kawaduk. The two of them vanished gradually among the trees, their blue and yellow eyes flashing until they faded away. Only then did the demon let out his breath and sink to his haunches, head lowering and flared wings descending.
Charmian put out her hand to try to get up. Instantly the pain rose inside her again and she cried out, grabbing her chest. She curled into a ball as it pierced through her like flame searing her insides. She dimly heard two sets of footfalls approaching, one light, the other heavier and slower, and saw Manabozho's moccasins appear before her face. Then his own face, peering into hers. He was sideways. Something grasped her shoulder and gently lifted her up, leaning her back against the tree. She bit her lip and tried to fight the feeling down, but it only grew stronger, making her dizzy. She knew she must be passing out when she could have sworn she saw Drake looking down at her as well. Drake hadn't been with them...
Their words ran vague and half understood through her hazy mind.
"What happened? I got this feeling...this really awful feeling...like she was hurt! Charm? Are you okay...?"
She felt a light pressure on her chest, a warmth, but the pain didn't dissipate. She shut her eyes now and ground her teeth.
"Her spirit...feels as if it's intact, he didn't manage to get it from her...but injured it somehow. Possibly damaged."
"Can you fix it?"
"That's not in my power...only he could repair it, or one with a compatible spirit."
"I doubt you know how to give up part of your own; and even if you did, who knows how it would affect you..."
Their words blurred in Charmian's head and she let herself start to sink into darkness. What Ocryana had done to Augwak had looked painful, but she'd had no idea just how painful. A part of her felt...violated, somehow. Like what Manabozho had said, Kawaduk had damaged part of her in his attack, and had intended on doing much more than that, if she hadn't been able to ward him off when she had. She wished she'd deflected his assault sooner.
I should have seen him coming...should have fought him off...never should have let him get so close. I should have been paying attention...
I can't protect me...I can't protect her...?
Something touched her jaw and carefully tilted up her head. She heard a voice murmur, "What's he doing...?" before something pressed against her lips, something warm and soft as velvet. She opened her mouth to protest, or to ask the same question, when a searing heat flared in the back of her throat, filling her head and chest and belly and limbs until she felt like she was glowing with blinding light. Her eyes shot open, startled and confused.
Mani crouched before her. His own eyes were closed as his mouth pressed to hers; she could feel the energy surging from him into her, his hand touching the side of her face to keep her from breaking free. She stared at him with bewilderment, only able to get out a murmur. His ears flicked and he opened his eyes, meeting her own; and it was as if...he changed somehow.
Charmian's eyes widened. The brown, furry, deerlike face of the manitou shifted, grew indistinct, shifted again into something completely different. It was as if she stared instead into the face of a young native, not much older than she herself was, skin of copper and eyes of earth brown searching her own. She blinked at him with surprise, somehow sensing...this was what he really looked like. Not like Mitchi at all, not much different from herself.
His eyes bored into hers. Are you strong again?
Charmian nodded mentally. She couldn't believe what she was seeing.
His expression softened--she sensed him acknowledging her reply--and he pulled away, his lips leaving hers. The searing flame left her throat, but settled in her breast instead, roiling and seething and crackling with energy. She gasped to catch her breath. Mani's face shifted again, changing back to the way she remembered it from before--if it had ever really changed at all. She blinked at him a few times, rubbing her eyes, the fiery seething in her chest beginning to settle in, strengthening her and bringing her fully back to consciousness. Her shoulder still hurt--she'd forgotten about its physical ache with the deeper pain that had pervaded her--but that pain was now entirely gone. She placed one hand to her chest and it was as if she could feel the heat within, cooling now, becoming a part of her. Mani, Drake, and Manabozho stared down at her, but she noticed only the first.
"Mani...?" she whispered.
Drake cocked his head at Manabozho. "What'd he just do?"
Manabozho's mouth twitched. "Hmph. Speak of the devil. Maybe while he was following us he heard me talking about that."
Charmian pushed herself further up. The other three backed away to give her space. She looked up at Mani again, brow furrowing.
The manitou nodded a little before she could finish what she'd started to say. She bit her lip and her muscles relaxed.
"Then...that means that you're my..."
Mani lowered his head sheepishly and she could have sworn she saw him blush.
"Hmph," Manabozho said again. He leaned on his stick and gave the manitou an appraising look. "He must have known already, else he might have ended up killing himself."
Charmian shot him a look. "What?"
He nodded at Mani. "They can only do this with one other creature. If they try to share their spirit with the wrong one, they could die. So either he already knew you were the one, or..."
Charmian looked back at Mani, eyes growing. "You could've..." Her voice faltered again and she had to struggle to find it. "You could've died. Doing that for me."
His glance shifted about and his ears rotated every which way. His nostrils flared and she could tell he was embarrassed. She reached out and put her hand on his and if she hadn't seen him flush before, he did now.
"Why did you do it?" Charmian asked softly. Mani finally looked up at her and she repeated herself. "Why did you do that for me? Why did you give that up...for me?"
He blinked at her and she sensed his puzzlement, before his voice came in her head.
Because Red Land One saved Mani. Mani owes this much.
Charmian tilted her head. "And that's the only reason? You paid me back for that over and over again, already."
His eyes shifted away from hers again, and lowered a little. No, he said. Not the only reason. He paused and now she sensed his discomfort. She stared at him. The strange vision she'd seen, when he'd done that...the face that had looked back at her, so different from and yet so much like her own. She suddenly remembered that he was about her age, nowhere near as old as she'd thought. She felt the color rising in her own cheeks, and pulled her hand back toward herself.
"I...um..." She searched around for the words. "I'm grateful for this, Mani, that you did this for me...even if you never owed me." She bit the inside of her mouth, wishing very much that Drake and Manabozho weren't there to hear her; as if sensing this, Manabozho stood and flicked Drake's ear, making him wince and jump back. Charmian lowered her voice. "I hope it doesn't matter if I don't feel the same way," she murmured, and Mani looked at her. "I really do like you, Mani; you're one of the best friends I've made here." Her vision started to blur; she'd never thought she'd ever have to say something so hard. "I hope that you'll still be my friend, even if I don't feel the same way you do."
Mani blinked with surprise, and whistled. He brushed the tears away from one of Charmian's eyes.
Don't cry, Red Land One! Did this because I wanted to. Mani will always be your friend!
Charmian lifted her head to look up at him. She sniffled and smiled, rubbing at her other eye. The manitou smiled back, and she could tell he meant it. She put out her hand and he helped her rise to her feet, where she swayed unsteadily for a moment before regaining her balance. Drake and Manabozho took a step forward, the former opening his mouth to speak before a guttural growl cut him off. They all turned to look in the direction of the noise. Charmian suddenly realized there was another one present whom she'd forgotten.
The four of them stared at Ocryx as he pushed himself slowly up, one hand pressed to the wound in his side. He barely managed to lift his head, still panting heavily, and his glowing eyes met hers.
Human, his voice rasped. We must speak.
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