So, how DO you address a gigantic, flaming-eyed skeleton...?
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 116: Out Of The Frying Pan..."
PART ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN:
THE COOL FETID breeze wafted over Charmian's head, and all of the blood drained from her face when the bobbing glowing lights in the mist formed into the distinct shapes of two giant eyes.
She took a step back, her teeth starting to chatter, as the mist began to dissipate, revealing the gigantic form behind the eyes; her arms and legs started quaking as soon as she could make out the immense shadowy skeleton they belonged to, and it came lumbering toward her, walking on all fours as if the Spirit Road were not big enough for it. Charmian wished for once that the mist would stay, but it almost completely disappeared now, and she felt like her hair would go white.
The gigantic skeleton towered over her, its eyesockets empty but for the flaring fire which had drawn her attention in the first place. It still wore tatters of what used to be clothing of deerskin and feathers, but these were almost nonexistent by now; its ribcage loomed emptily, and its knuckles clacked as it came, but the bones were not white and pristine. They were brown and rough, and shreds of long-dried flesh still hung from them here and there, tiny bits of connective tissue still holding it all together somehow. And even though it had no lungs, it still breathed, and it was this breath that wafted over her, carrying that horrific rotting smell with it. Charmian had enough of a time taking in all of these details. But it was those strange fiery pits in its skull that held her attention the most, and it was only when the gigantic skeleton came to a clattering halt, a rasping rattling sound escaping its jaws, that she finally screamed and whirled away from it, speeding back up the Spirit Road.
She didn't get remarkably far, before tripping and falling on her elbows. A glance back showed her that the skeleton-creature hadn't even had to try to keep up; it was so huge that it came up behind her in a mere pace or two, its bony head cocking to the side in an almost comic gesture of curiosity. Charmian shrieked again and flung her arms over her head. Its teeth were so big that it could use her armbones as toothpicks!
A chilling breeze blew over her and she cut her scream off, clenching her own teeth and chattering madly, but she couldn't stop the whimpering noises from escaping her. She cowered and waited for it to do whatever it was going to do, just hoping that it couldn't be any worse than what Chakenapok had already done.
If I die on the Spirit Road--who'll bring ME back--?!
She whimpered to herself and kept her eyes shut tight, quaking like a leaf. She shook so hard that her muscles began to ache, before she realized...nothing was happening. She very slowly allowed one eye to open, her teeth still clenching almost hard enough to break. Another cold stinking breeze brushed over her, so she knew it was still right behind her, and her quaking resumed.
Still...nothing happened...and so she finally, very timidly lifted one arm, forcing her head to turn back and peer upward. All that she saw at first was one of its arms, radius and ulna even taller than she was, and she tilted her head back, back, back, to look up into its face. The gigantic skeleton still peered down at her, its mouth with its multitude of teeth gaping at her and its eyes burning. It looked like it was grinning, but then again, skeletons always looked like that, didn't they?
She cut off another whimper and stared at it. It stared back. After a moment her brow furrowed slightly.
"Y...you're..." She had to strain to find her voice. "...You're...not going to...hurt me...are you?"
The giant skeleton's fireball eyes flickered, almost as if it blinked, and it tilted its head the other way, the rattling rasping sound echoing in what passed as its throat.
The two of them stared at each other in uneasy silence for a few moments before Charmian's muscles started to relax. She looked the skeleton up and down, then let out her breath. She rolled her eyes.
"Go figure," she murmured. "Gigantic freaky skeleton guy, and he's harmless." She put her hand against the Road and slowly got to her feet, keeping her eye on the skeleton nonetheless. She peered up at it and fiddled her fingers anxiously, gnawing on her lip; the skeleton just stared back, its reeking breath fanning over her.
She swallowed. "Um...hi," she offered; it didn't speak, but at least it didn't bite her head off, either. She scuffed her foot. "Um...well...I guess it'd be polite if we introduced ourselves, or something..." She coughed. "My name's Charmian..." She paused, then repeated herself. "Charmian." When it still just looked at her she put a hand to her chest and spoke slower. "Char-mi-an. That's me. My name. Charmian."
The gigantic skeleton's jaws opened. "CHAREEAH," it boomed, and Charmian's eyes goggled, her throat nearly closing in on itself at the stench which blasted against her. She let out a gagging cough, then swallowed her nausea and rubbed at her eyes.
"Close enough," she wheezed, and fought down another cough. "So...what's your name?" When it just looked at her she put her hand to her chest, then waved at it. "Charmian. Your name--? What you call yourself--? I'm Charmian, you're--?"
This time when its jaws opened she sucked in a breath and held it. "AUGUK," it boomed, and she waited until the breeze had faded before letting out her breath in a whoosh.
"Auguk," she gasped, wiping the tears from her stinging eyes. "Well...considering that you have no lips...I take it that means your name is Pauguk, then. So...you're the giant freaky skeleton dude everybody's been talking about." She coughed and made a face. "You're...not quite what I expected."
The giant skeleton just tipped its--his?--head to the side and gave her the same odd empty-eyed look as before.
Charmian tried surreptitiously to wave the awful smell away before giving up and breathing through her mouth. "Actually, I think I was supposed to talk to you," she said, grimacing at the stupidly nasal tone of her voice. "You see, I'm not really dead, but I have to get to the Spirit Land to see somebody..."
As soon as she said not really dead, the skeleton's eyes flared and he raised himself somewhat higher, a rattling sound escaping his throat. Charmian started waving her hands hurriedly.
"It's--it's not what it sounds like!" she protested. "You see--it's really important. I'm--uh, having a vision right now--and it's really imperative that I get to the Spirit Land. I know...I know it's your job to make sure I don't get there, but...like I said, it's a matter of life or death...literally...and I promise I won't stay. In fact...uh..." She fiddled her fingers meekly. "Um...in fact, I have to bring somebody back from the Spirit Land..."
Pauguk's eyes flared again and he let out the same disapproving rattling sound.
She again waved her hands, growing almost frantic. "It's not what it sounds like!! Really! You see, he's not supposed to be dead--not yet--and I have to get him back, or the Island--Manitou Island--the place I came from will be destroyed. It's REALLY important. I wouldn't even be here if it weren't important! You won't believe all the stuff I went through just to get here!"
Pauguk's head tilted and he slowly lifted one hand. Charmian cringed--he could flatten her with it, if he wanted to--but all that he did was hold it up, bony palm facing her--she could count every one of his carpal bones, the smallest of which was bigger than her head--and she gasped when she noticed that her chest was glowing. She glanced down to see her spirit stone shining; Pauguk craned his neck forward to peer down at it, and his eyes dimmed slightly.
Charmian bit her lip and looked back up at him. "That's kind of the problem," she murmured. "You see, that's not supposed to be like that...and if I don't get this guy back from the Spirit Land...I can't fight the guy who did this to me...and it'll just get worse. And I could end up causing a lot of trouble I don't mean to. So, now you see why it's so important." She shifted from foot to foot when he pulled his hand away. "I know you have a job to do, and I promise I won't go stealing any more spirits from you or anything--all I want is this one person. Really, he's not supposed to be here. Can you please let me through so I can find him? It'll be just this one time, I promise. I won't cause any trouble."
Pauguk leaned somewhat to the side and rattled as if unconvinced. Charmian chewed hard on her lip and started digging in her pockets. "Please...?" She scattered tobacco on the Road in front of him; he peered down at it, and even lightly touched it with his finger, but did nothing else. "It's really important! It's just one person...really, you won't miss him that much!" She pulled out Wabasso's flute and held it up toward him. "This belonged to him...this is the guy I'm looking for. He came through here not that long ago...so it's not like you'd miss him much. Do you remember him? Can I please go get him?"
Pauguk leaned down to look at the flute, Charmian holding it up before him and struggling to keep from grimacing as his breath fanned over her. He tilted his head and rattled, then touched it with one gigantic bony finger.
"CHAREEAH?" he inquired.
"Huh--?" Charmian blinked, then shook her head. "No--it's not mine. It belongs to the person I'm looking for...his name's Wabasso. Maybe you saw him...?"
As soon as the name left her mouth, Pauguk's eyes flared brilliant yellow, even brighter than they had flared already, and he quickly rose, looming up into the air with a deep rasping noise. Charmian cringed and ducked back, arms going up over her head again. The giant skeleton glared down at her, his breath rattling in his throat and his bones creaking.
"AH-AH-SO?" he boomed.
Charmian winced and nodded wildly. "That's--that's right! Wabasso! Really, it's just one guy, and after I get him back I promise I won't bug you anymore--!"
He didn't seem to be listening to her anymore, instead staring down at the flute that she still grasped. He reached down and plucked it from her hand before she could protest; she gasped and flailed out at it, but he lifted it up so high that she could never hope to reach it, without climbing up his arm like Jack climbing the beanstalk. She anxiously watched him hold it up to his face and turn it left and right, his eyes flickering balefully; he turned his attention back to her, and she could swear that even the color of the fire in his eyesockets changed. She cringed.
"HAU?" he boomed, and she blinked a few times, trying to figure out what he meant.
"H...how...?" she said, uncertainly. When he didn't correct her she swallowed hard and stood up straight again. "He...he drowned," she said. "He...he was trying to save me...and he fell into the water. Through the ice. He didn't come back up."
Pauguk's breath rattled. Charmian's brow furrowed when the fire in the pits of his eyes shifted, medium yellow slowly changing into green, and then blue. Her mouth fell open at the odd change. Somehow, the cool shade made him look...sad, almost...? But why would the Spirit of Death look sad...?
He let out a rasping breath and lowered the flute, holding it back out toward her. Charmian paused only briefly before reaching up and taking it from his fingers, swallowing as she did so. Before she could say anything, if she had even thought of anything to say, the giant skeleton was turning about, all of his bones creaking loudly in protest as he did so; the noise was such that she ground her teeth and rubbed her ears, wishing that she had some oil. He turned his head and lifted one hand, bobbing his finger forward.
"OLLOH," he boomed, and started walking, the Road quaking beneath every step he took.
Charmian's confusion only grew, but she obeyed, deciding that it was for the best. She followed him several paces along the Road--though in truth, several paces to him was a long quick jog for her--before he came to a stop and turned about. She slowed to a halt and peered up at him; he held up his hand again, gesturing vaguely to his side.
"HERE," he boomed.
Charmian stared at him, then glanced down. All that she saw was the same Road, the mist obscuring its end. She looked back up at him and frowned.
"The...Spirit Land...?" she asked, uncertainly.
Pauguk tipped his head forward, and back. He extended his long bony fingers over the Road.
Charmian's eyes widened. She kept her stare focused on him the entire time that she crept forward, pausing beside him and looking hard at the Road. She wished she could see further...but that was all there was. Still...he'd said it was what she was looking for...was it really so close, then?
"This isn't a trick...?" she asked, still uneasy.
Pauguk shook his head--creak--creak--creak.
"Then...I'll...I'll find the Spirit Land through there--? Really?"
He nodded now--creak--creak--creak.
Charmian's face lit up as her hopes began to rise. She took a few steps forward, almost expecting him to jump in front of her and yell, "TRICK!" but he kept his place. She stared into the mist for a moment or two, biting her lip, before looking back up at him. Pauguk stared back down, his eyes yellow again, as if he were appraising her. She allowed herself to smile at him timidly.
"Thanks!" She dug in Laughing Lynx's tobacco pouch and scattered some more before him; he looked at it as he had before, yet did nothing else. This didn't bother her. She stuffed the pouch away, as well as Wabasso's flute, and started jogging down the Road. She waved back at him.
"Thank you! I'll spread the good word about you when I get back to the Island!"
When she looked back, she saw him still staring at her, and the look in his flaming empty eyesockets was an odd one which she couldn't place. It made her wonder, but she decided not to dwell on it too much. With her heart beating fast, she jogged along the remainder of the Spirit Road, unable to wait to see what lay ahead.
* * * * *
She didn't jog far before the Road began to climb uphill over a rise. She slowed her step accordingly, her anxiety returning, but no matter how hard she looked she saw no alternate routes indicating a more difficult path. In fact, the longer that she looked, the more things became clear around her, and she gasped as soon as she noticed land along both sides of the Road. She paused to look at the grassy hillock she was now ascending. That hadn't been there before.
Feeling hopeful again, she made her way to the crest of the hill, and started walking down the other side.
The mist began to fade, and more of her surroundings were slowly revealed. Her eyes grew to see the grassy hollows forming off to both sides, shadowy trees standing far beyond them. She slowed her step once more to take in the scenery as she walked, a great pine forest rising in the distance off to her right, open land with trees even further off to her left. She at last turned to look ahead, and then came to a stop. She sucked in a breath.
The Spirit Road continued down the slope before her, but before it could reach the valley below, it petered out into a rutted dirt trail, and then into nothing. Tall swaying grass of emerald green filled this valley, and it looked as if a multitude of feet had worn a natural trail across it and up the other side, toward where the two forests met far ahead. Even as she watched, a small herd of elk picked their way across the valley, whistling as they went. When she took a step they didn't even bolt or flee. The air was full of birdsong, the sunshine warming up her chilly skin. She couldn't see any people...but it certainly looked like the place where she had last seen Yellow Turtle.
Her eyes grew huge and her smile beamed from ear to ear. "The Spirit Land!" Without another thought she let out a gleeful yell and started running down into the hollow. Only now did the lead elk whistle in protest, leading off his herd, but she didn't even notice or care. She ran through the swaying whispering grass, almost wanting to turn a cartwheel. She hopped and yelled cheers as it was, unable to believe that she had finally made it here.
By the time that she reached the woods she forced herself to slow down, casting embarrassed glances around herself before continuing. Her enthusiasm dimmed just a bit when she realized that she had no idea where to even look for Wabasso. How big was the Spirit Land, anyway...?
She sighed and started walking among the trees. "I guess I just go on ahead," she murmured to herself. "And see if I don't run into him."
The forest was a rather open one, the trees not standing quite so close as she was used to, and she looked around herself as she walked. Squirrels and birds flitted about down here, and every so often she heard an eagle or some such fly overhead. A deer paced across the rough trail ahead of her, and as she came out of the woods she thought she heard laughter down in the hollow to the right. She craned her neck but couldn't see anybody.
She walked along the ever-decreasing trail until it vanished completely, then she was at a loss for where to go. She halted in a little grassy glade and watched a herd of manitous pass by. She cupped her hands to her mouth and whistled, and they paused and looked back at her.
"I'm looking for somebody named Wabasso!" she called out, and held up the flute. "He plays a flute like this, and he has a white rabbit necklace...have you seen him?"
The manitous shook their heads and whistled.
Charmian sighed. "Any idea where I might look...? I'm...kind of new here."
They whistled again and started nodding in different directions, all of them talking at once. When I was new, I went that way--I stayed in the trees--I went down to the stream--I just stayed where I was. Charmian finally waved her hands at them and then shooed them along.
"Never mind! I'll find him...thanks for your help." She watched them go on their way, then continued across the glade and toward the hill on the other side. A dull roaring noise met her ears and she chewed her lip as she walked, rubbing Wabasso's flute in her hand.
"If I were Wabasso, where would I go...?" she murmured pensively. "I know he liked nature...but then again, this whole place is nature." She made a face. "I first met him in the woods...but he's part water manitou." She rubbed her knuckles against her forehead. "Where the heck would I go...?"
She crested the hill and found that it was in fact the top of a bluff, descending steeply into another valley far below. Her eyes grew when she saw the large waterfall crashing into the river which intersected the valley at an angle, disappearing off to her right. The valley itself was lined with lush grass which rippled in the wind; Charmian rubbed her arms before realizing that even the wind and the water didn't make her feel cold. She lowered her hands and scoured the valley before spotting a tiny shape seated beside the pool beneath the waterfall. Her eyes lit up.
Maybe he stays near a place like where he died--? A waterfall!
She looked about for a way to get down into the valley and saw a small rough trail leading down the bluff. She carefully picked her way down this, grasping onto roots and clumps of grass as she went, every once in a while looking up to see if the figure still sat there. It did, but the closer she got, the more certain she became that it wasn't Wabasso. In fact, as she finally set foot into the valley, she realized that it was a woman, and she sighed to herself.
"May as well keep asking around," she mumbled, and started trudging toward the waterfall. The mist from it wafted over her, moistening her skin, but even the mist was warm. The woman sat on the other side of the water, but Charmian spotted a fallen tree which had been placed across it; she tested it with her foot, found it sturdy, and gingerly made her way over. By the time that she reached the other side and started walking toward the waterfall again, the woman was looking up at her, watching her progress. She held beadwork in her lap.
Charmian held up her hand as she approached, and waved. "Hi..."
The woman looked at her for a moment and then smiled. Charmian found that she liked the smile and smiled in return, picking up her pace. She brushed the mist from her clothing as she neared the large flat rocks that the woman sat upon at the water's edge, and clambered over them, making sure not to slip.
"Hi," she said again. "I came here looking for someone."
The woman tilted her head. "All this way?"
Charmian blinked, then furrowed her brow. "Your voice..." She paused, then shook the odd feeling off. "Yeah...it's a long story," she sighed. "You see...the person I'm looking for died...though he wasn't supposed to die, but it happened anyway...and I need him back, so I had a vision...and came along the Spirit Road..." She made a face. "And met Pauguk, and now I'm here..." She dug out Wabasso's flute and held it out toward the woman. "He should be carrying a flute like this one...have you seen him pass through?"
The woman's smile faded somewhat and she reached out to take the flute, turning it over in her hands. She ran her fingers along the body.
"He must play it very well," she murmured.
Charmian nodded. "Actually, he's pretty good at it...though it keeps putting me to sleep."
Another smile spread across the woman's face and she held the flute out. "A minor inconvenience."
Charmian smiled in return and took it back. "Yeah, I guess so..." Her smile faded slightly. "So...you have seen him...?"
She shook her head. "No, I have not...though I'm pretty certain I know where he would go."
"You are--? Where?"
She turned and glanced around behind herself, then pointed; Charmian's eyes followed the direction that she pointed in, and she saw a wooded hollow standing at the far side of the valley. "He likes springs," she said. "There's a small one back in there, among the trees...sheltered from everything else. If he goes anywhere, he'll go there."
Charmian's face lit up. "Spring! That sounds about right!" She started clambering over the rocks again. "Thanks! I really apprec..."
She slowed, then stopped. Glanced back over her shoulder at the woman. Charmian's brow furrowed. "Wait a minute," she said, uncertainly. "If you haven't met him...then...how do you know where he would go...?"
The woman just looked at her. Charmian frowned slightly, then, without thinking, let her eyes wander down to the beadwork in the woman's lap. Her frown grew and she crawled forward to get a better look at it. It looked to be a beaded pouch, and it took Charmian a moment to realize that the figure stitched upon the front was an animal of some sort.
She sucked in a breath, feeling her skin finally go cold. Her head popped up to meet the strange woman's eyes, her own eyes wide.
"That other voice in my dream!" she gasped. "That was your voice! You're..."
The woman stared at her for a moment, then smiled softly. Charmian suddenly realized what her eyes reminded her of, as they looked so much like eyes she had seen a lot lately. Her vision blurred, but it didn't matter, because now she was just about sure who she was looking at.
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