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Rated: 13+ · Serial · Fantasy · #422184
Charmian seeks Tal Natha, but he's not the only thing that's strangely missing...
Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island
Previous chapter: "Part 78: Counting Coup



PART SEVENTY-NINE:
Missing In Action


CHARMIAN ARRIVED AT Fort Holmes, wiping her eyes and sniffing. She felt like an idiot for getting so upset over something that should have been obvious to her from the beginning. It didn't help her feel any better to know this though. She stood at the base of the fort and waited for X'aaru to arrive; he did so meekly, ears folded back, and she reached out to pet him again to assure him her state wasn't his fault. He carried her down to the cave and she felt like crawling inside, but forced herself to walk.

She missed Silver Eagle Feather. She hadn't seen her in a while now, the medicine woman having returned to her tribe to be with her husband. X'aaru came every day to be with her, though, and she appreciated that he did so; she liked to think that if she'd ever had a little brother, he would be it, with the way he tagged along behind her everywhere she went. Of course, her "little brother" was older and much bigger than she was, with fur and claws and horns and wings, but that hardly mattered anymore...

"I'm sorry he got you upset," he murmured as they made their way through the entrance tunnel. "He seems to speak without thinking."

"It's not his fault either...I think maybe I'm just tired."

"So early? Are you feeling well?"

"Yeah, I'm okay...just a little worn out."

"I'll see if Red Bird left you any food."

He nudged his way ahead of her and she had to smile, even though she knew he hadn't meant it as a joke. Maybe dinner was what she needed. The past week or so she'd felt so tired. Training with Manabozho was no easier than training with Moon Wolf had been; if anything, it was harder. The only bonus was her teacher's slightly less aggressive demeanor. That and the fact that she knew she was better able to protect Red Bird now. She could bear a few bruises and a daily dose of humiliation if it meant doing her duty.

The cave was dimmer than she'd expected it and she ducked inside with a curious look. Tal Natha was nowhere in sight. Red Bird and X'aaru crouched before the fire, which had died down to the merest glow. Red Bird was rubbing two sticks and sniffling, tears running down her face.

"RB?" Charmian said, concerned, and hurried in. "Are you okay?"

"Oh...yes, I'm fine," Red Bird sniffed. "It's just...stupid fire...tried to make you something to eat before you came back and it went out...and I can't get it started up again." She dropped the sticks as her hands were slippery and wiped at her eyes. "Stupid fire."

X'aaru gave Charmian a meaningful look. "She's like this sometimes. She's happy, and then she gets sad."

"Oh. That's normal, I think. Look, it's okay. I can take care of it." Charmian held her hand over the fire and waited. The other two looked at her, then at her hand, then at her again; Red Bird even stopped sniffling, her nose running a bit, as they stared at her. She bit her lip as she concentrated, feeling out the few embers left smoldering on the ground; she asked them for their energy, and envisioned herself drawing it up and out, spreading it over the rest of the wood. The sticks began to glow, first red, then orange, throbbing with color; a ripple rose in the air. Charmian had to squint with the strain. After a moment there was a pop, and a small red head popped up out of the embers. Red Bird and X'aaru jumped back with a gasp.

The fireling hissed and stuck its arms out, pulling itself up from the ground; the remaining sticks burst into flame around it. It burbled and hissed again and shot upwards, bouncing off the ceiling, ricocheting off the wall, and landing upside-down in the corner, legs flailing. Charmian let out her breath and dropped her hand, slumping forward.

"Wow," X'aaru murmured. He sniffed at the crackling fire. Red Bird blinked a few times. "That was really good, Charmian!"

Charmian pushed herself up with a wince. She rubbed at her throbbing head. "I kind of wish I could learn how to do it without one of those showing up every time," she groused, nodding at the wriggling fireling. "At least they're small..."

"He taught you how to make fire?" Red Bird asked, sounding awed.

Charmian nodded carefully. "More like taking control of the elements. I've pretty much got fire and earth down. Water and wind are harder. Go figure."

"I know that you can figure them out. I hope you can," Red Bird said, and then her face scrunched up and she started sniffling and choking again. She covered her face with her hands and stood up, walking away whimpering.

Charmian started to stand up to follow her, but X'aaru touched her arm. "She'll be all right," he said, in a confident tone she rarely heard from him. "They come and go. Give her a moment and she'll be very happy."

"Oh," Charmian said. "Um...okay."

"I know how to cook the meat," he added, standing up and walking around the fire, still sniffing. "Do you want me to cook it for you? You can nap while I do. So you'll be all ready to fight Manabozho tomorrow. And beat him!"

Charmian couldn't help but to smile. "Okay. Thanks, X."

"It's no problem! I like to help!" He trotted to the back of the cave and started rooting around. Charmian piled a few furs up next to the wall and collapsed upon them with a wide yawn. Even in late spring they felt welcoming, and she felt drowsiness overtake her almost immediately upon lying down. She sank back into them and let all of her aching muscles relax, willing the pounding in her head to slowly cease. Maybe Tal Natha would give her a nice dream to soothe things over.

...And so of course, when that didn't happen and X'aaru finally nudged her awake, she sat up, rubbing her eyes and looking about, mildly confused. The demon smiled at her and moved away.

"I finished it. Here it is...you might want to let it cool though...and I think I may have burnt it a bit, but just on this corner, right here..."

"Where's Tal Natha?"

"Oh? He went out some time ago. After you left to fight with Manabozho. He does this just about every evening. I go with him sometimes, but I think he prefers to go alone. He looks over the Island before it gets dark to make certain nothing unusual is going on. Why?"

Charmian frowned and pushed herself up further. Red Bird was straightening some more furs in the other corner, humming to herself. "How long is he usually gone? It's kind of late, isn't it?"

"Hm? Well...I suppose. He is usually back by now." X'aaru cocked an ear. "You think maybe something is up?"

"I'm not sure...all I know is usually when I doze off around here, I have some kind of wonky dream, but this time it was just blank." She put her hand to the wall and stood up, still tired and weak, but a bit rested from her nap. She took a piece of meat from the plate the demon offered her and had to hurriedly swallow it to avoid burning her fingers, and burned her throat instead. "Do you have any idea where Drake is? I think maybe I'll go see if I can find Tal Natha."

"He shouldn't be too far away. He might have gone to Sugar Loaf, you know, like he does sometimes. Should I come too?"

"Please keep an eye on Red Bird. I'm probably just worrying too much, but I have to make sure."

"All right. Be careful."

Charmian walked to the cave entrance and stuck her head out, looking around. Lake Huron glimmered in the starlight, vast and flat. She could make out the dark land mass of what should be Round Island to the right, and wondered if its shadow counterpart was anywhere as weird as this one. Once outside she sent out a thought, and it wasn't long before Pakwa came drifting her way, to land silently on the ledge above, peering down.

"Mind coming a little closer?" Charmian said, rolling her eyes. "I need a lift."

He rolled his head to the side so his neck popped, then repeated the gesture the other way. Charmian sighed and dug in her pocket.

"I only have a few of these things left, you know. And it's been so long since I bought them that they're probably all fungy by now."

"Don't care."

She pulled out a mini candy bar--still in its wrapper, thankfully--which by now was partly smushed, but she'd learned that GeeBees weren't very particular about the state of their food. She tossed it up to him and he caught it and peeled it open, popping it in his mouth. She waited until he had finished chewing it and swallowed before holding up her hands.

"Now can we go?"

"Place?"

"Toward Sugar Loaf. But fly low. I'm looking for somebody."

He jumped down and caught onto her shoulders, pulling her up the cliff side and rising over the fort. She looked down into the shallow pit as they passed over it, then started perusing the woods on the opposite slope. The trees were budding so she could still see the ground. As they rose higher, the bottom of the slope coming into view, she spotted a dark dot far below and tugged on Pakwa's arm.

"Down there! Let me down--but DON'T drop me!"

He descended again, and, when she was still about four feet from the ground, released her so she fell. She managed to catch herself from falling onto her face, but still gave him an evil look as he coasted over. "Stupid GeeBee."

The dark dot--now no longer a dot--emerged and waved. "Hi, Charm!" Drake greeted cheerfully. He held up a grass rope from which dangled several fish. "Look what I got from Francois! He was at Old Mother Manitou's place. They're smoked. I love smoked fish!"

"Have you seen Tal Natha anywhere?" Charmian asked, deciding it would probably be best to just get to the point.

"Huh? Tal Natha? He usually leaves the cave..."

"I know that, but it seems like he'd be back by now, wouldn't he?" She rubbed anxiously at the back of her neck. "Would you help me look for him? You can go that way, and I'll go this way. Just to look around a bit. I'm starting to have a bad feeling."

"Okay," Drake said simply, and turned and went in the direction she'd indicated. She was somewhat surprised by how quickly he'd agreed; perhaps he'd noticed how worried she was, also. She hoped she had no reason to worry. She was so used to having strange little dreams whenever she dozed off that not having one for a change...that just didn't seem right.

She waved Pakwa away and walked down the remainder of the hill, away from Fort Holmes, trying to keep her path as straight as possible. She actually looked around with her eyes for a good while before stopping, feeling as if she should slap herself in the head. After all this time, she still wasn't quite used to what powers she had.

She took a breath and shut her eyes, driving out the evening sounds that distracted her. She tried to picture the Island in the darkness, and sent out a mental net, hoping it would strike everything in its way.

Apakwaanaajiin, let me see in darkness. Let me see.

She imagined how things would look--sound--feel--to the small creature that had chosen her, and immediately began to pick up impressions. It was much the same as she had been able to do before, with Sikt's assistance, yet more refined. She could sense more than just the general location and identity of who she detected. It wasn't perfect, but it was useful.

She picked up Drake's impression, moving away from her, then concentrated and tried to filter out everything she wasn't seeking. She was used to Tal Natha's presence. She would know him when she sensed him.

Which was why, when she finally did, she gasped with surprise at how weak his presence felt, to her.

She zoned in on his location, casting her net in Drake's direction again. She picked up his receding presence and sent out a signal.

Drake. I think I found him. I'm headed roughly in the direction of Sugar Loaf. Meet me halfway.

Ten-four, Drake said; she winced but supposed he had no other salutation to give. She didn't carry her stick, having left it back at Tal Natha's cave after training; she hoped the trees around here were hospitable should she have to face something.

She sought Tal Natha's presence once more, and went in that direction.

She had to trudge along for a while through piles of dead and decaying leaves and growing grass. She was mildly grateful for the sparseness of the leaves on the trees, else she might have missed him when she finally saw him. She stopped abruptly and gasped, recognizing Tal Natha's presence coming from the direction of a large shape lying on the ground in a hollow. Heartbeat picking up, she sent out a signal--Drake! I found him!--then hurried down the slope, crashing through branches and skinning her knees before she stumbled to a stop beside him and dropped down to look him over.

He was lying half on his side, half on his belly, panting shallowly. She pulled open one of his eyes to find it glazed, and anxiety surged through her. She started checking him over for wounds when he suddenly lifted his head, wings flaring, his breast still rising and falling quickly.

Charmian put out a hand to his shoulder lest he fall forward again. "Tal Natha?" she murmured. "Are you hurt? Did she attack you?"

She wasn't certain if she meant Ocryana or the other Ocryx, though she supposed it didn't matter. Tal Natha winced and slowly pushed himself up to his feet, and she saw now that he didn't appear to be wounded anywhere.

No, he said, and she could hear the pain in his voice. She did not have to.

Charmian bit her lip. "Your spirit...?"

Yes. He winced again and placed a hand to his breast, as if to hold it within him. His claws raked against the fur. Her control is growing...she must gain more power, somehow.

"Where could she be getting it all from? I haven't even seen her in months!"

I do not know her source of power. I never have. He dropped to all fours and started limping slowly back toward the hill. I cannot fly at the moment, as I may end up falling again...

"I'll go with you. Drake should be along anytime." Charmian hurried beside him and placed her hand on his shoulder as he went. "I thought it was too quiet without her...you think she's gathering power? From wherever?"

She must be. She was weaker than Father before. But now...I'm beginning to feel she may become stronger even than he. I do not know how. His ears folded back and he looked perplexed.

Charmian bit the inside of her mouth but tried to keep the anxiety out of her voice. "Just keep holding on, Tal Natha. I know you can. I'll find some way to figure this all out, I promise."

I do not know if you can, the demon replied, then, in a quieter voice, I do not know if I can... Yet he offered no more protest, and they continued up the hillside together.

Drake eventually emerged when they were halfway up. "Charm? That you?" he called. "I got your message! Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. We're going back to Fort Holmes. Help me with him in case he falls."

I can make it, Tal Natha said, but Drake joined them on his left side and the three of them walked in silence to the top of the slope, making their way back toward Fort Holmes. Charmian sighed and rubbed her arms.

"Tal Natha...you told me before about your dream power. That it was weakening. What did you mean by that?"

I used to believe I was the only one with any power over dreams, Tal Natha said. Lately you have proven me wrong time and again. Others now have this power as well. I do not know if it is merely my own surprise that hinders me...yet I seem to have not as much control as I used to.

"What do you mean by that? Like you can't spin dreams anymore?"

This is part of it. There is...more...yet it is much the same.

"Why would he lose his dream power?" Drake whispered, as if he couldn't hear them. The demon humored him and didn't reply. "I mean, is that something somebody can just take away?"

"I don't know," Charmian said. "Maybe it's like the spirit and it can be controlled from far away? If Ocryana could take over somebody's spirit, maybe she could take over dreams as well..." She remembered her own distinct lack of dreams during her nap, and the anxiety surged up within her anew. Was that why? Tal Natha was losing his power that fast...?

Why would Ocryana be so interested in other people's dreams? What does she have to gain from that...?

They didn't speak again as they finally reached the great hill at the top of the Island. Pakwa perched in a tree yet Charmian didn't call to him; she wanted to stay by Tal Natha, no matter how long the climb might take. The GeeBee floated up and drifted on ahead of them like some sort of ethereal guide, before vanishing over the hilltop.

It feels cold, Tal Natha murmured. Charmian put out her hand and looked skywards. The air was still warm from the previous day. She and Drake shared a look but said nothing. They took one step at a time up the steep slope. She was used to traveling it by now, after her training with Manabozho, yet it felt difficult again, slow and plodding. She supposed it was her own heavy spirit that made it seem so.

Everything's falling apart around us. What am I supposed to do?

Her foot slipped a little bit in a patch of leaves, and she tried to cheer herself up a bit thinking of when Manabozho had fallen down. If she could defeat him, at least temporarily, maybe she still held out some kind of hope.

Charmian.

She stopped at the sound of Sikt's voice, and Drake stopped at the exact same moment. They both looked at each other as if to say, Did you hear that? Tal Natha went on ahead of them a few paces before stopping and looking back inquiringly.

Charmian's gaze wandered around a moment before she said, Yes? She wasn't certain what else to say.

We thank you for protecting us over the winter, Sikt said, and from the way Drake looked around him, she could tell that Dakh was speaking to him at the same time. You did not need to do this, yet you did. We must apologize for any difficulties we may have caused you, although they were necessary.

"Um...you're welcome," Charmian said aloud, puzzled. Sikt continued.

We tell you this now because soon we must leave you.

Charmian blinked. Drake's head shot up and he looked around wildly. "Huh?" he exclaimed. "What do you mean?"

"Where are you going?" Charmian blurted out.

Soon you will know, she heard both Dakh and Sikt say at once. Then, just Dakh: You have helped us and the Island greatly with your selflessness. We regret that we will no longer be with you. Yet it is necessary.

Charmian opened her mouth to protest--she was so used to having Sikt there, she could barely imagine what it would be like without her--the few times she'd felt the demon depart, the silence had been almost more than she could bear. She saw Drake start to object as well, before sensing the Ocryx retreating back inside her, effectively ending any argument she might have had. Drake chewed on his lip and she guessed that Dakh had done the same thing. They both stood there in silence, not certain what to do or think.

Tal Natha turned around and sat, resting himself. He stared at them with his ears pricked.

Charmian waited a moment more to see if Sikt would allow her to reply, yet sensed nothing. It was as if the demon had gone to sleep. She sighed and glanced at Tal Natha.

"Sorry about that...I'm not quite sure what it was about, anyway."

He didn't reply. He stood again as she came forward, Drake following only reluctantly, a disappointed look on his face.

"Charm," he said softly. "I got real used to Dakh being around all the time. How come he suddenly just wants to leave? Did I get him mad or something?"

"I don't think so, Drake...Sikt says she's leaving, too. I guess we'll have to wait and see like they said."

Drake sighed now; she was glad he didn't decide to question it any more, as she had no answers to give him. Sikt's and Dakh's abrupt decision bothered her as well. Something about it didn't feel right. She knew she'd agreed to let Sikt stay with her, and Dakh had saved Drake's life...but now she couldn't help but feel they'd been used somehow.

Is that it? Now that they don't have any more use for us...they're just dumping us? But why would they do that after all this time? How come they never answer any straight questions?...

Atop Fort Holmes, X'aaru, Mani, and Pakwa wandered around, which was just as well since Charmian didn't like the idea of Tal Natha carrying them down to the cave, in his condition. Mani stayed upon the cliff and watched Pakwa and X'aaru carry the two teenagers down; Charmian suggested that he keep an eye open and help to guard the cave, which he agreed to do. Tal Natha made it down on his own, though he was panting heavily by the time he reached the outcropping, his wings and head drooping. Charmian had to bite her tongue on looking at him. She could tell Ocryana's hold was growing more powerful with every breath he took.

How can I help him? I can't break my promise now. But should I have even made it in the first place...?

I think perhaps Old Mother Manitou should be called, Tal Natha said as he wearily went inside. She may be needed here soon. Do I impose on you too much, Brother, to ask that you fetch her for us?

"Of course not," X'aaru said. His tail flicked and Charmian could tell he was relieved to be of some use. "I'll do it right away." He flapped his wings and went back up over the cliff. Charmian followed the other demon inside, Drake coming after.

Red Bird emerged almost immediately and wrapped her arms about Tal Natha's neck. "You were gone so long! I worried about you! Are you feeling well...?"

"He's fine," Charmian lied; Tal Natha glanced at her but said nothing. Red Bird let out a sigh of relief and hugged him again, then let go before he could grow uncomfortable, wiping a few tears away from her eyes.

"Oh...I'm exaggerating again. I so hate this. Forgive me. I had some food ready, that I hope I didn't burn too badly...I can't seem to do anything right lately..."

"It's fine!" Charmian exclaimed, forcing a smile. "Really. Don't worry. I'm hungry enough to eat just about anything right now." The truth was, she wasn't hungry, yet felt she should say something.

"Me too!" Drake piped up with a grin. "Lay it on me!"

Red Bird sniffled and rubbed her eyes. "I think you're both just saying that...but it's thoughtful of you anyway. Oh! You all look so tired and I'm keeping you up! Please, eat some, and drink, and I'll get your beds ready...I have to find something to do..."

Charmian almost told her not to bother, but remembered X'aaru's comments about her condition, and decided to let her do as she wished. Perhaps keeping her hands busy was the only way to make the tears stop. She'd never had out-of-control hormones before, so she couldn't know for certain.

Drake nudged her in the arm. "When Mom was going to have my little sister she acted like this ALL THE TIME. Only a WHOLE lot worse. I remember one day I picked her some flowers, you know, to make her feel better? And she started bawling her eyes out! Unbelievable! I'm glad I'm not a woman..."

"I'm glad you're not, either, Drake." Charmian rolled her eyes. What a weird thought.

When Red Bird brought out the meat--a little singed on one edge--she sat down and tore into it, pretending to be starving, wondering if Drake likewise pretended. Tal Natha retreated to the corner and lay down with a heavy sigh, his long tail wrapping around him and his chin settling upon the tip. Red Bird appeared to forget about them and went over to be with him. Charmian and Drake finished their late dinner by themselves, setting the plates aside silently and moving off to their own parts of the cave. Drake blew out the torches, leaving only the glowing crystals to dimly illuminate the place in a pale blue, while Charmian settled herself in under the furs. She heard him yawn and make himself comfortable not too far away. Traveling back to Sugar Loaf on foot would be too difficult at this time of night, for a mainlander.

For a while she stared up at the ceiling, the crystals there glinting in the soft light. Any other time the color would have comforted her. Now, the blue tinge made her feel lonely, sad, ashamed. She thought of what good its beauty would do the Island if the Island were without a guardian. She had to keep her eyes from going blurry.

"Drake?" she whispered. "Did you have any dreams last night?"

"Hm?" he mumbled, then yawned again. "Not that I can remember. Why?"

"Do you usually remember your dreams?"

"Well...yeah. That's what's kind of funny. Did you have any?"

"No," Charmian whispered, and felt a coldness creeping through her.

"Hm...oh well. 'Night, Charm." Drake rolled over, away from her, and his breathing slowed. She could only continue staring at the glittering ceiling, remembering Tal Natha's dream, feeling as she was certain he had felt then.

What a time to be alone. What a time to be without dreams.

She shut her eyes and waited, hoping, for them to come. Only blackness came instead. And though she slept, Charmian's unease grew.


Continue:

 Part 80: Dreams Reborn  (13+)
A pivotal moment arrives, and Red Bird goes away into the forest...
#426268 by Tehuti, Lord Of The Eight



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This item is NOT looking for literary critique. I already understand spelling/grammar, and any style choices I make are my own. Likewise, I am NOT seeking publication, so suggestions on how to make this publishable are not being sought.

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