Red Bird and Tal Natha make the same fatal decision...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 98: Force Of Persuasion"
CHARMIAN SHUT HER eyes tightly when the ground shook, a wave of light and heat washing over her. She could almost imagine the flesh melting from her bones from the power of Tal Natha's self-destruction, and couldn't tell if the tears that came to her eyes were from an outer pain or an inner one.
The light and heat slowly died down, replaced by a coolness that was almost agonizing; then silence. Charmian kept her arms over her head, gritting her teeth. She was so absorbed in this that it took her a while to realize that she was even still alive, and once she found that out, she tentatively opened her eyes.
It was still dark. She lifted one arm, then felt something lift from atop her and move aside with a swishing sound. She watched as a few feathers drifted to the earthen floor in front of her. Another moment passed and she now noticed Drake and Red Bird, pressed to the ground on both sides. She put out one hand and slowly pushed herself up onto her knees as they uncovered their eyes. She could still see cave walls around her, the weird blue glow still in the sky outside; so what was going on...?
The swishing noise came again, and Charmian turned her head. Dakh and Sikt stood over her, their wings stretching and flexing. Sikt shook her head as if she were drenched in water, and Dakh sniffed at the three on the ground.
You are all right?
"Y...yeah," Drake said in a quavery voice, rolling over onto his back. Red Bird pushed herself up as well, brushing back her disheveled hair. They all looked around themselves, confused; then Charmian gasped and jumped to her feet. She pushed past the two demons hovering over them, halting at the opening to the next room. She'd forgotten about the very reason for their fear.
She almost expected Tal Natha not to be there anymore...almost. For if she and the others were still alive, his plan couldn't have worked the way he'd said it would. The Island was still here; what had gone wrong? Had his medicine been too weak after all?
She sucked in a breath as soon as she saw him. He still lay beside the wall, upon the furs; only now he wasn't moving, his whole body, even his wings, lying limp and lifeless. Charmian chewed on her lip and wrung her fingers. She both wanted to go see to him, yet didn't want to, at once.
She finally took a hesitant step forward, then another, until she stood beside him, looking down. He didn't lift his head to greet her; his tongue still lolled out, and she dreaded having to find out if he was really as poorly off as he looked.
She knelt down beside him and put out her hand, her fingers just barely grazing the fur along the side of his face. Her hand shook, and she had to draw it back; she reached it out again, straining to make herself see if he was still alive.
The tip of one finger touched his ear. At that moment Tal Natha's head jerked up so abruptly that Charmian screamed and fell back, landing on her elbows with a jolt. She blinked in pain to see the demon glancing from left to right, his ears pricked and his eyes wide, nostrils quivering. She will know, he said, and Charmian scrambled toward him and threw her arms around his neck.
"Tal Natha!" She burrowed her face against the coarse fur of his neck, feeling his muscles tense. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt her tears dampening his fur.
"I thought you were dead," she murmured, not sure if he could hear. "I really thought you were dead."
There was a slight pause, then she felt him put his arm around her and she hugged him tighter. It was a moment or two before he seemed to be able to talk. I am...sorry I had to fool you. You left me little choice...I had to convince you to back away.
"Back away?" Charmian pulled away from him, brow furrowing. She wiped a hand across her eyes. Tal Natha stretched one wing with a slight wince.
I did not know if you could be hurt or not when I did that.
"You mean you...you never intended to kill yourself? Or destroy the Island?" She couldn't believe he'd lied to her. "You...you made that all up?"
No. I did not make it up. He drew his wings in, and now she noticed the meek look on his face; it was an odd look for such a creature to bear. I had fully intended to destroy myself when you came.
"But..." Charmian stared at him in confusion. "But you didn't. Or, it didn't work...but why not...?"
Tal Natha sat up and held his hand before his breast. A glow appeared, and Charmian looked toward it. The shape of his spirit stone slowly emerged, swirling and blue-white; Charmian's eyes widened to see the few faint tendrils of black that were left, shriveling away before the glow of the crystal and dying before her eyes. They finally vanished entirely, and Charmian stared at the glowing stone with awe.
"It's all gone," she whispered. "You healed it."
You were right, Tal Natha said quietly, letting the glow disappear. He lowered his hand. If I had listened to you, perhaps I would not have had to frighten you so.
Charmian's head shot up. "But if you were going to kill yourself--then why--"
She will know, Tal Natha interrupted, rising to his feet. He winced again, but Charmian could tell it was from lying so long in the same position. She got to her feet as well, frowning at him.
Ocryana. She will know that her hold has been broken. That she can no longer control me. His ears flicked. She will be...angry.
"As if she wasn't before?" Drake called from his spot still on the ground. He and Red Bird stood up, dusting themselves off; Dakh and Sikt stepped aside to let them through.
What she was before will be very little compared to now. Tal Natha sniffed at the air again. She does not know yet...but she will soon. When she becomes desperate, she will try anything.
"What does she have left to try?" Charmian countered. "I can't think of anything...she can't get Ocryx, or Mitchi, and Kawaduk and Shadow Water are out of the picture. And she's lost you. What could she do now?"
I do not know...but it is certain to be everything she has left. She will not give up, even if she has tried all. He glanced toward the cave opening, with the strange blue swirling outside. I've felt something gathering in the air recently...
He turned away as he said this, wandering toward the mouth of the cave. Charmian followed, the others having to move out of his way. He stopped on the ledge outside, nose pointed skyward; Charmian stopped beside him, fiddling with the fringe on her top.
"I noticed it too. I assumed it was her..."
Part of it may be. But part is...something else. The Island is not right.
"So how do we fix it?"
The demon lowered his head, looking to be at a loss. I...I do not know. I am merely the guardian; none have ever taught me to do otherwise.
"So who taught you to be the guardian? Maybe they can help us out..."
Tal Natha's ears flared. I do not know this either. I have simply always done this.
A faraway whispering sound caught their attention, and they looked skyward again. A pale shape came flitting down through the air, skimming over the treetops, and Tal Natha's frown grew.
A Windwalker? I don't believe I have ever seen one near this part of the Island, at this time of the year...
"She might be headed toward Crack-in-the-Island," Charmian offered, and he gave her an odd look.
Why would a Windwalker be headed there? This is not where they dwell.
"I know, but that's where everyone's been going lately."
He gave her another look, and it was clear he was confused; Charmian had to keep herself from squirming. It wasn't good when the guardian of the place had no idea what was going on. Instead of saying anything, he turned back toward the cliff face and appeared to be thinking to himself. He headed back into the cave before she could speak, and she went to follow him.
"You didn't tell me why you didn't kill yourself like you said you would! Why did you change your mind?"
"I spoke to him."
Charmian paused and turned to Red Bird. She stood a few feet away, clasping her hands together; Tal Natha ignored Charmian's remark and went inside. Red Bird looked after him before coming toward her, her voice quiet.
"Before he decided to use his medicine. I spoke to him in his mind. I told him to listen to you. To try what you said, before he gave up."
"You convinced him...?" Charmian stared at her. "You told him to listen to me?"
Red Bird tilted her head and blinked. "You've never lied to me yet," she said, simply, and Charmian flushed. She rubbed the back of her neck.
"Well...thanks. I don't think he wanted to listen to me, so it's probably because of you that the Island's still standing..."
"Of course not," Red Bird retorted. "You were the one who found out how he could help himself. I know that we would be dead if it weren't for you."
"Guys," Drake interrupted, and they glanced toward him. He pointed out over the woods. "Um...is that normal?"
Charmian and Red Bird--and Dakh and Sikt, who still stood nearby--looked out in the direction of the lake. Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. Not only was the sky swirling oddly, but the lake was now glowing as well. A few more Windwalkers sped over the trees, vanishing in the opposite direction, and she backed away from the ledge.
"No...I don't think that's normal at all." Charmian turned and jogged back into the cave, where she found Tal Natha sitting before the great crystal. She was about to point out what she'd seen outside, when she saw that he knew already. The same eerie glow she'd seen outside was reflected in the crystal.
It is the same as before, he said. Something that Ocryana has done has disrupted the balance. The Island is much like a spirit stone. When a part of it is dark, it will fight to overcome it, or succumb to it.
"Does that mean we need some kind of patch?" Charmian blurted out, and he lifted his head and looked at her as if in surprise. He peered at the crystal again.
"Yeah, you know...like what I tried to have Ocryx do for you. Or maybe the Island's supposed to heal itself..."
Despite what you have taught me, the Island is only as strong as those who live upon it. It cannot heal itself. Only we can.
"Then we look for a patch. What would fix up the Island when it's hurt?"
The life of the Island is in danger. Thus it is the life of the Island that must be protected.
"The life of the Island...?" Charmian thought for a moment. "Do you mean Ocryx?" she asked, growing uneasy.
Tal Natha nodded. Yet you have seen what has become of him...his spirit has grown dark. Perhaps...perhaps this is what went wrong. The life of the Island should not have a dark spirit. This leaves the whole open to attack. He shut his eyes briefly and his ears flicked. Why I did not see this before, I do not know...
"So all right, then Ocryx is the one leaving the Island open to attack." Charmian took a breath and tried to keep her thoughts straight, when in fact she had no real clue what she was talking about anymore. "And Ocryana is the one attacking it, through his weakness. How do we fix that? Because I don't think Ocryx is willing to heal himself, if he's even able to anymore..."
A force purer than the life of the Island is needed. Tal Natha's voice was subdued, though Charmian didn't consciously pick up on it. This is the only way I can think of to make up for what my father has allowed to happen.
"Do you mean somebody would have to take his place?" She didn't like that thought...
This, or one would have to sacrifice their spirit to...'patch' the Island. He paused. A spirit that is pure enough could undo the damage Ocryana has caused, but for how long, I do not know. Perhaps it could repel her completely.
"This is confusing," Drake said, and it was the most sensible thing Charmian had ever heard him say. She rubbed her forehead.
"Yeah, well...that's an understatement. I think I get it though...the Island is like the Earth, and there's a hole in the ozone layer that Ocryx put there. And now Ocryana's letting all sorts of nasty rays through. So we need somebody's spirit to patch up the hole and bounce her rays back out at her." Drake nodded and appeared to understand, but Tal Natha only looked more confused by her comparison. She waved it off.
"I think I understand what you mean. But whose spirit do you think would work to do this? Whose would be pure enough?" Even as she asked it, she hoped it wasn't her own...she rather needed her spirit, and though she guessed she would be willing to give it up to help the Island, still she didn't relish the thought. She had started to resign herself to this idea...perhaps the other Islanders would look upon her as a hero in years to come...which was why, when Tal Natha held up his hand, a glow appearing, the thought vanished from Charmian's mind, a cold dread taking its place. The blue-white light emerged before her, and now Charmian realized which spirit upon the Island must be purest. That of the guardian.
Red Bird took a step forward, her face gone pale. Evidently she'd realized the same thing when Charmian had. She shook her head slowly, as if dazed.
The demon lowered his hand, his gaze on the ground. Even if Ocryx were willing...he cannot give his spirit for the Island, as to do so would give his life...and he must live, for the Island to live. Ocryana must live. Perhaps I have found my true purpose after all...
"You can't," Charmian said, her voice coming out surprisingly flat, considering how she felt. "Not after what you just did."
He lifted his head now to look at her, and it was difficult to hold his stare. If it had not been for you, then this would not be possible. My spirit would be too dark to help the Island. So I owe you my thanks. Yet this is most likely why I was spared at all. The Island can take a new guardian. He pointed his nose at the other two Ocryxes near the entrance. I know that they would be able to fulfill this role, perhaps better than I have. If I had not caused such trouble as a guardian, perhaps I would not have to even consider doing this now.
Charmian opened her mouth to try to protest, but couldn't think of anything to say that she hadn't said before. She'd already used up all her arguments just a few moments ago. She couldn't believe they'd even be having this argument again so soon. Luckily for her, Red Bird stepped forward instead, wringing her hands. Tears filled her eyes.
"You can't, Tal Natha...you can't, not now."
Tal Natha's look grew pained. Little Bird, he said, and Charmian flushed, feeling as if she were eavesdropping. If I knew of any other way...
"There is one other way," Red Bird cut in, her voice quavering but clear. Tal Natha and Charmian stared at her, confused; in response she lifted her hand, and Charmian saw that it trembled. She managed to steady it, and a glow appeared from her breast, a soft pinkish-white, as pale as apple blossoms. Charmian sucked in a breath with disbelief. Tal Natha stood, his hackles rising.
You will not.
"I'm supposed to save the Island," Red Bird protested, and her voice cracked. "What other way? I knew you would not kill yourself before--but I know you will now. I won't let you."
And I will not let you. He took a step toward her, his stance threatening; Red Bird took a step back, but didn't lower her hand. The demon paused and tried to gather himself.
Little Bird...you cannot do this. I could never let you.
"Not even to save the Island?" Red Bird challenged, and he faltered for a moment before answering. His ears folded back.
No...not even for the Island.
"And what am I supposed to do?" The tears spilled down Red Bird's cheeks now, but she still held her hand up before her like a weapon. "Watch you give yourself up? For the Island? You can give yourself up for it, but you can't give up me? Do you know how that feels?" Her voice faded, and she looked at Charmian, her chest hitching. Charmian could barely see her anymore; her own eyes had blurred over. "I don't want to be the reason the Island dies. You told me I have power. That I shouldn't be afraid of it. If this is what it takes, I would gladly do it, for the Island, and for you." She turned back to Tal Natha and fixed her eyes on his, and the tears stopped flowing down her face. Tal Natha flared his wings until they brushed the ceiling.
And I! You would expect me to live here, to guard the Island without you? To give up the one thing that has meaning to me?
"The Island is supposed to have meaning," Red Bird whispered.
It will have no meaning without you! Tal Natha's voice grew biting, and Red Bird cringed. She clenched her fist and the glow flared brighter; Tal Natha lifted his hand, and his spirit stone appeared as well. They glared at each other as if facing off--which, Charmian realized with dread, they were doing.
"You lost sight of your mission then," Red Bird murmured. "You were to guard the Island. I distracted you. Just as you knew I did. You never meant to fall in love with me." She took a breath. "And I'm not angry, that you did. Because I know how you felt." Her hand stopped shaking again and the glow brightened; Tal Natha growled in frustration and his glow matched her own. "You know your mission. You are the guardian of the Island. I never knew my purpose, until now. I'm the one who has to do this." She stepped back to the wall of the cave and the glow grew almost to blinding. Charmian and Drake shielded their eyes, Dakh and Sikt ducking their heads. Charmian flung up one hand.
"Red Bird! I'm sure this isn't what was meant--!"
"You taught me to stop being afraid of myself." Red Bird's eyes glittered with tears, and for some reason that hurt Charmian's eyes more than the glare. "Thank you."
Her voice was drowned out. The glow again filled the cavern, this time brilliant pinkish-white rather than blue-white, a loud hum accompanying it; Tal Natha surged forward but had to shield himself from it. Charmian blinked the tears of pain from her eyes to see the two of them staring at each other across the light, and for once Red Bird looked to be more powerful than Tal Natha. Her hair whipped around her in the chaos raised by the spirit stone, and though Charmian couldn't be sure she was meant to hear what she said next, she heard it anyway, and the words stabbed straight through her heart.
I love you, Tal Natha.
Tal Natha's wings flared again and his own light surrounded him. Charmian was shocked to see tears flood his own eyes--she'd never seen the demon cry--and his own voice cracked when he spoke aloud, over the throbbing hum.
"I will not let you go without me!"
Charmian started forward, but Drake grabbed her wrist. She sensed his own fear when he touched her and her feet glued to the ground. She'd never felt so useless before.
Red Bird's glow enveloped the entire cavern, but Tal Natha's easily matched it now, the light combining into a bright glaring lavender. Charmian could still somehow make out the two facing off against each other; Tal Natha raised himself, his fur pricking, and Red Bird screamed at him.
He gave her no reply--at least, none Charmian could hear. His only response was to concentrate until he vanished into the glow; seeing this, Red Bird did the same, as if by increasing their power they hoped to make the other back down. This didn't happen; Charmian knew they both meant what they'd said. One of them would not live without the other. They were both going to sacrifice themselves.
She managed to fling her arm outward again as she felt one of the other demons' wings wrap around her protectively. She screamed at the top of her lungs, but it seemed to come out as a mere whisper against the assault of light and sound surrounding them.
Too late; in a surreal moment she felt time repeating itself, only this time in double, and she knew that this time it was intentional. Two lights, two lives, expanded and exploded, taking away the scream in Charmian's throat, and everything else, along with them.
"Part 100: The Dreamer Speaks"
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