Charmian's "recruitment" efforts continue, and everyone heads to the Crack...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 102: More Flies With Honey"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND THREE:
The Frail White Flag
AUGWAK GRINNED AT Charmian and crooked his fingers threateningly. His feet pinned her to the ground and he let out a cackle.
Charmian's first instinct was to panic, and she struggled to push him off. Then her fear turned to anger when she remembered the splinter of his spirit stone that she still carried in her pocket. She reached her hand down and started digging around for it, grinding her teeth.
If this stupid moron can't learn the hard way--
Augwak noticed the movement and his eyes flicked downwards. He grinned from ear to ear and just as Charmian pulled the splinter out of her pocket, his hand smacked against hers, knocking it loose. Charmian gasped when the GeeBee caught the bit of crystal neatly in his other hand, holding it up to the light and cackling gleefully.
"Looking for this?" He yanked it up beyond Charmian's grasp when she reached out for it. "Not so cocky when you don't have me under your thumb, are you, fleshling? I think I'll just be returning this to where it belongs--and maybe taking a sliver or two of your heart while I'm at it." He threw back his head and laughed so harshly that it was a wonder all the leaves didn't curl up and die.
"Give that back, windbag!" Charmian snapped, still struggling to reach the bit of crystal. Augwak held it up teasingly and shook one finger.
"Don't think so. What's mine is mine, fair and square. And since you were so willing to take something from me, I'll just take a little something back." He raised his free hand, all five jagged nails aimed straight at her chest, and licked his pointed teeth, eyes narrowing.
"OOF--!" Charmian gasped again when Augwak was swept violently to the side, crashing in a crumpled heap, arms and legs sticking out every which way. She blinked and lifted her head to see Mani hovering over her, nostrils flaring as he snorted. Augwak untangled himself and sat up, shaking his head dizzily; the manitou stomped a hoof against the ground and tossed his antlers. The GeeBee's eyes went wide and he rolled over onto all fours, creeping back. He gasped then, glancing at his empty hands, and started to frantically scour the ground.
Charmian, picking up on his panic, flipped herself over and started looking as well. The two of them crawled around, sweeping aside leaves and grass as if hunting for a buried treasure, before Charmian found the little sliver of red-black crystal embedded in the soil. She plucked it free and jumped to her feet with a triumphant yell; Augwak's eyes goggled and his jaw dropped. He made a futile attempt to snatch it away from her, but she jumped back, out of his reach.
"Looking for this?" she shouted, and squeezed the crystal between thumb and forefinger. Immediately Augwak wheezed and crumpled in on himself like a dead leaf. Charmian released her grip and he unraveled again, gasping brokenly. He managed to lift his head, and gave her what was possibly the dirtiest look in the history of the Island.
"You don't seem to know the meaning of the word fair!" Charmian snapped. He weakly tried pushing himself up and she shook the crystal at him. "I TOLD you you'd get this back when I'm GOOD AND READY! And that means only AFTER you've done what I've said!"
Augwak bared his teeth at her. He stayed on all fours, one hand pressed to his aching breast, but she knew he wasn't a threat, for now. She put the sliver back in her pocket and gave him what she hoped was a threatening look.
"Are you ready to stop being an idiot and to start listening, now?"
The GeeBee hissed. "Why should I listen to you? Fleshling brat! You've been nothing but a thorn in my side since we met!"
"Only because YOU insist on running headfirst into thornbushes! Maybe now that you're not so tough you'll learn to listen for a change!" Charmian rolled her eyes. "Wait, I just remembered who I'm talking to here. Never mind!"
Augwak snarled and his fingers dug into the ground. Charmian suppressed a sigh. As frustrating as he was, she had to try to reason with him. "Listen. I know your skull is incredibly thick, but things have to get through there somehow. Maybe if I talk in a language you understand then you'll get it." She gestured at the sky. "See that?" Augwak's glance flicked briefly upward, though he didn't stop snarling. "That's because of Ocryana. Remember her? The one who ripped your spirit out of your chest?"
Augwak's nose wrinkled. "And you are the one who KEPT it out!"
"Shut up and focus, stupid! I know it's hard for you to follow one train of thought but you have to learn sometime!" She stuck her hand in her pocket, threatening to squeeze the crystal in her palm; Augwak noticed the motion and flinched, but remained silent. She should have tried that earlier. She pressed on before he could regain his courage.
"Now listen. I know you hate me, but I know you hate Ocryana more. SHE'S the one who broke your bargain. Not that you would've kept it to begin with, but that's just the point, isn't it? Aren't you the one who's supposed to break the bargains first?"
Augwak blinked in surprise. Then his eyes narrowed.
"That's right. No wolf-bitch breaks a bargain with me! This is MY right alone!"
"You lower yourself to the level of making a deal with her, and what does she do? Pulls the rug out from underneath you? How thoughtful was that?"
Augwak leapt to his feet. Mani took a step forward and gave a low whistle, fur bristling, but the GeeBee didn't appear to notice. He clenched his fists and shook them at the air.
"That's RIGHT! It is my place alone to decide which bargains are broken and which are kept!"
"And as if that's not bad enough," Charmian went on, "now she's using the power she's gained from everyone else to take over and destroy the Island. Ironic, isn't it? That all the dreams that you and I and everybody else gave up will be helping her along?"
Augwak's fists unclenched and he narrowed his eyes at her.
"What are you talking about, fleshling? Explain how I even remotely helped this vile creature!"
"Trust me, you don't look like the kind who likes to have pretty dreams about bunnies and flowers," Charmian said sourly. "I'm pretty certain there must have been some dreams that you dumped somewhere along the way."
"And what of it? Explain before I tear your limbs off!"
"What of it is that every single dream YOU gave up, and every single dream everybody ELSE gave up, is what's helping Ocryana along. She's going to use those, and soon--" she gestured skywards again "--poof, no Island. You do know what that means, don't you?" When he didn't reply, she crossed her arms, mouth twitching. "Basically...no more fleshlings, no more GeeBees, no more snacks. Bye-bye, din-din."
Augwak's eyes looked ready to fall out of his head. His bony hands clenched and unclenched, and he stared off into space. "But..." he said, as if speaking to the air. "But...we CANNOT be killed off! We are the GeeBees! We are Wendigoes! We--we don't just DIE OFF!"
"That's what's going to happen," Charmian replied. "And even if you did somehow make it, somehow, you still wouldn't have anything left to eat. I doubt any of the humans would make it, after the Island is gone. You might be able to turn into a puff of wind and float away, but all of these fleshlings can't do that."
"No...more fleshlings?" Judging by the look on his face, this prospect seemed even worse than dying. Charmian nodded, having to conceal a smug smile. Augwak looked even more stunned, if that were even possible. He turned in a slow circle. "But...but...this...this is intolerable! What...what will we do without fleshlings? What will we do without food?" He finished his circle and faced Charmian again; his head jerked up and he snapped out of his daze, eyes focusing on hers. To her surprise he bolted forward and grabbed her up by the collar, making her gasp; Mani whistled and jerked forward as well, but Augwak merely shook Charmian back and forth.
"What are we supposed to do? We can't live without fleshlings! Even SHE knows this! What does she even plan on doing, destroying the Island? She will not live if she does so!"
"She doesn't care," Charmian said. "Unlike you, Ocryana would rather go up in flames herself than let the Island live. She isn't afraid to die like you are."
Augwak gaped at her for a moment, then dropped her to the ground with a thud. He clapped his hands to his head and screamed.
"WE CANNOT JUST DIE OFF!! NOT AFTER COMING THIS FAR! I HAVEN'T EVEN EATEN ONE THOUSAND FLESHLINGS YET! I SWORE I WOULD DO THIS BEFORE I DIE!!"
"I can't say I'm sorry you haven't reached your goal," Charmian said, raising her voice to get his attention, "but you won't be eating ANY more fleshlings, EVER, if you don't go along with what I say."
The GeeBee continued wailing, clawing at his eyes and face, and for the briefest moment Charmian felt sorry for him, before reminding herself that he was upset because he feared he would never eat another person again. Then she just bit her lip. Her words must have finally gotten through, for he cut himself off in mid-wail, glancing at her briefly before grabbing her up again. He shook her violently enough to make her head rattle, and she grimaced, digging her fingers into his arm in an attempt to make him stop.
"You--YOU know some way to stop all of this? Fleshling? Tell me! Tell me what it is!"
"You have to agree to it first!" Charmian snapped. "No double-crossing, either! This is one deal you KEEP, whether you like it or not!"
"YES! YES!" Augwak screamed. "ANYTHING!"
"FIRST," Charmian said, and he immediately stopped shaking her, his ears pricking forward, his breath held. "You put me down," she finished, and after a confused pause, the GeeBee obeyed. He set Charmian down and she straightened herself out, smoothing down her clothes. Augwak waited just a second or two before he began shifting from foot to foot as if having to relieve himself.
"Oooohh, come on, hurry it up, fleshling! You said you know something! Tell me what it is!"
Charmian finished brushing at her clothes and gave him a critical look. "You promise you'll keep your bargain this time?" she pressed, and Augwak clawed at his face again.
"Yes, YES! Just TELL me!"
Charmian stared at him until he started writhing, looking practically ready to fall over where he stood. All he needed to do now was foam at the mouth. "Go back to Devil's Kitchen," she said, "and get your other GeeBees and tell them to follow you to Crack-in-the-Island. Then wait for me there, and DON'T CAUSE ANY TROUBLE. Just sit, and wait. That's it."
Augwak stopped clawing at himself and blinked. "That's it?" he echoed, sounding baffled. Charmian nodded.
The GeeBee lowered his hands and his eyes slowly narrowed. "This wouldn't be some kind of trick, would it?" he growled. "Send me to the Crack and have some sort of bad medicine waiting there for me?"
"If I wanted to send you into a trap, trust me, I would have done it LONG ago." She held up the sliver of crystal. "Do you want to get this back or not?"
Immediately Augwak's demeanor changed. His narrow-eyed glare melted into an ingratiating smile and he clasped his bony hands together. "Yes! Of course," he wheedled, his voice pleasant, but in a way that struck a false note. "Crack-in-the-Island, then. Whatever you say. You want all of my GeeBees?"
"Every one of them that you can find. And if I hear about any of you causing trouble along the way, then the deal is off."
"Of course! Of course they won't. Cause trouble, I mean." He grinned from ear to ear, trying too hard to look friendly; Charmian grimaced at the huge row of needle-sharp teeth. His jagged fingernails clicked against each other. "I'll go get them now, then," he stammered, and leapt up into the air, hovering for a moment. "Um..." he said, just as she started to turn away, and she turned back, giving him a warning look. He rubbed his neck meekly. "Not even one little snack along the way...?"
"Not ONE LITTLE SNACK!" Charmian shouted, making him cringe and vanish in a puff of air. She was still able to see him in his elemental form, however, and flung her arm forward, causing a gust to smack straight into him. He squawked with surprise and popped back into view, rubbing his head, tears of pain in his eyes; he clenched one fist and looked ready to scream at her, but the look on her face made him catch himself. He gave a watery smile.
"Er...I'm going now!" He waved, his voice cracking a bit. "Goodbye!" He disappeared again, but this time, feeling he'd learned his lesson, she let him go. Once the wind had calmed down Charmian let out her breath and rubbed at her eyes. She'd known that dealing with Augwak wouldn't be very easy, but she hadn't thought it would be that tedious. Between him and Chepi, bargaining with Wendigoes wasn't nearly worth the trouble it caused.
She turned around with shoulders slumped, walking back to Mani. The manitou gave her a questioning look as she climbed atop his back. She felt like just falling over, but managed to keep her balance as she turned him about, in the direction they'd been heading before.
"Two down, two to go," she sighed. "And those were the easy two. I hate to think what the next two will be like."
Where to go now, Red Land One?
Charmian got a miserable look. "Devil's Lake, Mani." The manitou flicked an ear but started to trot. "I'm really not in the mood for this..."
Mani didn't run as quickly this time as he could have, which gave her a chance to rest and gather herself before reaching Devil's Lake. The orangish-pinkish glare of the sky had only grown by the time they emerged from the woods near the shore, and Charmian shivered at the unnatural stillness of the usually choppy lake. The swirling clouds overhead reflected weirdly in the glassy water below, and she slowly slid from Mani's back, feeling anxious about disturbing the unnatural silence. The lake had always been a quiet place, but now it seemed even more so. She glanced at Mani over her shoulder.
"It's probably best if you stay here. I think I can make it down there on my own."
His ears flicked and he lowered his head a bit, brow furrowing. You are sure?
Charmian nodded. "I don't think they'll be interested in attacking me...if they do, you'll know." She paused, then reached out and placed her hand against his velvety nose. "Thanks, Mani."
Mani's ears flicked again, a bit more rapidly this time, and she could have sworn he flushed. He bobbed his head, and she turned away, walking toward the lake. She stopped on the grassy shore--there was almost no sand lining it anywhere, just a dropoff into deep water--and stuck in her moccasined foot. There was no point in undressing to go in. She could feel the coolness of the water even through the leather, and shivered, but more at the stillness of the place than at the coldness of the water. Taking a breath, she jumped and plunged in, the black water immediately closing in over her head. She thought she heard Mani whistle as she went under, but couldn't be sure; then all was darkness.
She vaguely remembered, even through the haze she'd been in then, how things had gone the last time she'd plunged into the lake, and so managed to turn herself about and start propelling herself downward, letting Apakwaanaajiin guide her. The spirit animal guided her safely toward the lake caves, and she spotted a glimmer of light emerging from one, and made that her beacon. Just as her breath began to give out she swam up underneath the hole and emerged in a wide cavern, gasping and sputtering. A massive underground lake spread off to both sides of her. She wiped water from her eyes, seeing the shore, and paddled for it, pulling herself up onto the sand and collapsing in a dripping heap. She lay there for a while, catching her breath and trying to regain her strength. Too bad Manabozho hadn't spent more time on teaching her how to swim better; that would have been a much more useful skill than talking to fish.
After a few moments she rolled herself over and managed to weakly get to her feet, still brushing water from herself. She swept the droplets from her arms and squeezed them from her hair as she wandered deeper into the twisting and turning caves. She couldn't remember the exact path she'd taken the last time, or if this was even the same spot she had surfaced in, but supposed it didn't matter. Ocryx would have to notice she was here sooner or later.
A rustling noise from off to the side made her freeze in her steps, and she peered out of the corner of her eye, toward a cave opening at her right. It was black, unlit, but she could make out several blue points of light deep within it, glittering menacingly. She swallowed but stood her ground, relaxing out of her tense pose; two of the lights grew closer until a face emerged around them, white and furry with sunken black pits which the blue lights glittered out of. She heard a guttural growl, but it seemed to be more of a warning than a threat.
The eyes flashed. You do not belong here, mainlander.
Charmian lowered her hand from wringing at her hair and slowly turned to face him. "I know," she said, keeping her voice neutral. She suspected the manitou found it difficult to speak civilly to a human. "But it's important."
Mitchi Manitou's eyes narrowed. You press your luck coming here.
"I only came because it's important. I think you would be interested, too." When he didn't interrupt, she pressed on. "I need for you to call your manitous and go to the Crack. Every one of you."
The manitou's eyes glinted. Charmian bit the inside of her mouth to keep herself from showing her frustration. "It's about Ocryana," she said, and when his eyes flared this time, she knew his anger was not aimed at her for a change. "You want to get her back for the way she treated you, don't you? If so, then this is the only way. You have to call your manitous and all go to Crack-in-the-Island. And wait for me there. It'll...be a little confusing when you get there, but you have to trust me."
His nostrils flared. And why should I trust a mainlander? When you bring trouble wherever you go?
"The reason I'm DOING this is because of all the trouble I helped cause!" Charmian retorted, unable to keep her voice level now. She took in a breath and forced herself to calm down before speaking again. "Please. You know I wouldn't even be here if it weren't important. If you want revenge against Ocryana, and if you want to keep living here in Devil's Lake, then this is the only way. Remember what she did to you, and to Kawaduk, and please at least think about it before you say no."
Mitchi Manitou's eyes narrowed once again and he stared at her ominously for a moment or two; but then, he lifted his head and turned it to the side, letting out a low whistle. More blue lights began appearing all over the caves, and Charmian felt the hair prickle on the back of her neck, seeing how surrounded she was. If Mitchi commanded the lake manitous to attack her now, she would have no way to escape to the surface.
Instead of whistling another command at them, however, he glared at Charmian again, then turned away, snorting almost haughtily. The blue dots parted as he headed back into the cave.
You will not convince another so easily, mainlander.
"That's my problem," Charmian said, and she watched Mitchi Manitou vanish into the darkness, the other blue dots blinking out as they followed him. She let out her breath, sensing the manitous drawing further away, and whispered into the stillness.
She waited a moment or two until the caves had grown still and dark again, but for the light of the torches and crystals placed at various intervals; then she turned and continued the way she'd been going. She walked briskly until she came to the brightest room within sight; the opening ahead of her was also the largest she could see, and she slowed her step accordingly. She came to a complete stop in the entrance and peered around. This cave was large and round, like the inside of an overturned half of a coconut; the walls were smoothed by the past action of water, though still patterned with lumps and the occasional crevice or niche. A fire burned near the center of the room, but this was not the only source of light; the cave seemed to be illuminated by the same mysterious presence that had lit up the tunnel beneath Crack-in-the-Island, bathing the room in a soft yellow glow, yet appearing to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Aside from the fire and a large boulder sitting here and there, and a few crystals set into the niches, the room was empty...then Charmian's gaze moved to the left side, and she finally spotted something else near the cave wall. Her eyes widened a bit, and she stepped into the room, walking slowly toward it until she could make it out more clearly.
It was a thick pile of heavy furs, tossed into a haphazard heap near the wall, not too far from the fire. At first she thought that the glossy patch of black she saw was just another pelt, until she looked more carefully, then took in a breath. Someone was lying in the pile of furs. She knelt down beside the heap and leaned over, carefully brushing away the shiny strands of hair. Charmian pulled her hand back and stared down at Shadow Water, her head the only thing visible in the mass of pelts. Her eye was still swollen and bruised, a cut on her cheek, but the blood had been cleaned away and she slept, unaware of Charmian's presence. On a more thorough examination, Charmian could now tell that the furs had not been tossed here at random. They were tucked around her, wrapping her in a tight protective cocoon. Charmian felt her eyes begin to sting on looking at this.
A shadow fell over them, and Charmian jumped up and back with a gasp. She found herself staring upwards into a pair of red-and-green eyes which glittered down at her out of a black silhouette. She swallowed and took another step back, feeling suddenly like she was trespassing. When the silhouette didn't move but for the slight slither of its tail, she found her voice and spoke up.
"I need your help."
Her voice came out much softer than she'd thought it would, and she swallowed again, as if to try to pry it from her throat. For a moment or two he didn't speak; then to her surprise, instead of doing so, he leaned down. His nose snuffled lightly at Shadow Water's hair and he seemed to be inspecting her. Charmian bit her lip and took a step forward again.
"If you want to help her, then you have to help me."
He lifted his head and met her eyes again, and though the look he gave her wasn't the friendliest she'd ever seen, at least he was listening. Charmian steeled herself and spoke.
"I know you don't want to die just yet. So there's still a way to defeat Ocryana. But I can't do it on my own." She gestured toward the cave entrance. "I already sent the GeeBees and Windwalkers and your manitous there...but I need you to come to Crack-in-the-Island with me. All of the elementals are going. Even Augwak and Mitchi agreed to go. You know it has to be important if I could get Augwak to agree to do it." She paused, but Ocryx must not have had a sense of humor, for he didn't even crack a smile. That alone almost made her lose her nerve so she pressed on. "Ocryana's getting her power from all of us, which is why we all have to work together to stop her. But I can't do that without your help, too." She paused again, then added, meekly, "Please?"
Ocryx stared down at her--or rather down on her--for a moment, and the look on his face was such that she wasn't sure what he was thinking. He turned his head to look at Shadow Water; she shifted a little in her sleep, and Charmian saw his nostrils flare. Then he loomed up a bit higher, and came back down; Charmian gasped and moved to the side when he landed on all fours and went past, tail slipping back and forth through the air. She stood and watched him go before realizing he was headed back the way she had come. Her spirits lifting a little bit, she hurried to follow him out of the cave.
By the time she caught up with him he was already standing on the shore of the underground lake, and she paused several yards away, waiting for him to jump in. He appeared to be waiting for something himself, though she couldn't tell what. When he turned and gave her an irritated look over his shoulder, she realized that she was what he was waiting for.
Charmian flushed and jogged forward. "Sorry," she murmured, and though she felt awkward doing it, she pulled herself up onto the demon's back, settling herself between his wings. She had just enough time to suck in a great breath before he plunged into the water, the icy darkness enveloping them.
"Part 104: Ground Zero"
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