Charmian and Shadow Water prowl far beneath Devil's Lake...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 120: This Way To The Egress"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE:
The Drowned Labyrinth
CHARMIAN PLUNGED INTO Devil's Lake, eyes squinching shut as the cold water swallowed her up. She flailed her arms, instinctively; then felt something grasp hold of her leg, pulling her down. She tried not to fight against it, and then felt something go around behind her back and under her legs; the next thing that she knew, she was being carried rapidly toward the bottom--such as it was--and she opened her eyes a bit to see the underwater caves opening up before her. Ocryx's tail swished through the water as he swam and his wings stayed tucked close to his back.
They emerged through one of the sea caves, just as they had before, and he nearly dumped her onto the shore before she could regain her balance and stumble away from the water a bit. She let out a noise when he shook himself off, spraying her in the process; annoyed, she brushed her sopping hair out of her eyes and started squeezing it out. It was starting to feel like she'd spent more time in the water on this trip than on land.
Ocryx finished shaking the last of the water from his fur and let out a snort. He gave her a look that might have been a scowl--or just his regular look--before pulling something out from under his wing and holding it up. He made an unpleasant face at her.
"This is what passes as payment now?" he snapped; Charmian found herself staring at Moon Wolf's amulet.
She blushed. "I...I didn't really have anything else. Unless you want some wet tobacco." His look grew even darker and she shrank in on herself. "Actually...I brought that down for Shadow Water," she murmured meekly. His ears and nostrils both flared and she scuffed her foot at the floor; perhaps he hadn't changed quite as much as she'd thought. "I tried to give it to her the last time I was here, but she wouldn't take it...it's really important that I give it to her because it's a promise I made. You understand promises, right?"
He gave her a venomous look.
"I'll bring you a really pretty rock the next time I come by," she offered. Then in a smaller voice, "If you don't mind costume jewelry."
Ocryx's muzzle wrinkled in what looked to be an expression of disgust. He put the cord of the amulet in his mouth and turned about, stomping off into one of the caves. Charmian gawked before dashing after him--"Hey!"--and trying to keep up. Even on all fours, he was faster than she was. She trailed after him as they made their way through the labyrinthine system of caves.
"Would you mind slowing down--?" she cried when she nearly lost sight of him; he appeared again just ahead, and stormed into a lit cave which Charmian vaguely recognized as the same one that she had seen Shadow Water in before; apparently they'd approached it from another direction. As soon as she entered she halted; the demon had made his way over to the furs where Shadow Water was again sitting, and was staring her right in the face. Shadow Water, for her part, was staring at the necklace that he carried in his teeth, a stricken look on her face. Charmian nearly stepped into the room before realizing that they must be communicating with one another; after a moment Shadow Water's shoulders sank and she hesitantly held out her hands so the necklace dropped into them.
Ocryx turned about and came back toward Charmian, who jumped to attention. He didn't bother looking at her as he passed, though she did hear his voice grating in her head--The two of you resolve this issue once and for all--before he left, his tail swinging from side to side. Charmian watched him go, then peered back at Shadow Water. She sat upon the furs holding the necklace and looking as if she wanted to be anywhere other than there. Charmian bit her lip and slowly made her way to her.
"I'm sorry I'm bothering you again," she apologized. "But you wouldn't take it before."
"I do not want it," Shadow Water said softly.
Charmian bit her lip harder. "I know." She stopped several feet away. "But I made a promise."
Shadow Water fiddled with the necklace as if it were a hot potato. "Could you not just leave it, and allow me to be rid of it, and fulfill your promise...?" she asked.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "You mean lie--?" She moved to stand in front of her. "Shadow, I don't think you'd want me to lie...you know how important it was that I get that to you."
In response Shadow Water set the necklace aside upon the furs and stared down at her hands.
Charmian sighed. She reached out to pick up the necklace and ran her finger over the jagged hole near the center of it.
"This is where Ocryana got him," she said; Shadow Water flinched at the name. Charmian's mind drifted over the memory. "He hit me in the face," she murmured, and her mouth twitched. "I was too surprised to get pissed off...when Ocryana showed up, I must've spent ten minutes just insulting her...Moon Wolf kept himself in her path the entire time." Her smile faded and she tilted the silver so that it glinted. "He said he could never kill her...but he would make up for everything that had led up to that moment...and he told her what to expect from me, too..."
I won't kill you. I never claimed that I could. But for everything that's led up to this, I'll atone. And in the end, this little girl will prove to be far more of an enemy than you've ever imagined...
"He was expecting it," she said softly, her eyes blurring; she saw Shadow Water lift her head, but didn't look up at her. "I thought she caught him by surprise...but now I know he was fully expecting all of it. He had to die, for me to succeed..." She blinked the blur from her eyes and lifted her head to look at Shadow Water. "And do you know how much I hated him for that?" she demanded; Shadow Water's brow furrowed. "Putting himself in my way, and letting that happen? After I went back home, I pretended everything was okay, but I kept thinking about what he did. That was the one thing I couldn't get over. That, and the look on your face, when Ocryana turned on you. Those are the two things I could never get over. I knew you would be okay...but him..." She clutched the silver pendant. "Every night before I went to sleep I'd go over what I could've done differently so that he would still be alive. Even though I never had another dream about it. I kept missing things in class, I was so busy thinking about what I could've done, and why he had to do that. Silver tried explaining it, but it didn't make sense to me back then. I kept thinking it was my fault, that maybe if I'd just moved a little bit faster..." She rubbed at her eyes. "That was the first time somebody I really knew died. I never knew what that felt like until then."
Shadow Water's own eyes glimmered. "Why do you tell me this?" she asked.
Charmian shrugged. "Because I've never really told anybody, I guess...not even him." She looked at the pendant. "I was wrong though," she said after a moment. "He didn't do it for me. It worked out that way...but that wasn't why he did it." She lifted her head again.
"He did it for you. Every single thing, was because of you. He didn't want to save the Island. He trained me so that I would fight Ocryana...and you would be free. And he died to repay everything he did before then." She lowered the necklace. "I know he's done some stupid things...I wanted to slap him, when I found out what he did to you...but everything he's done since then, he's done because of you. He gave up everything hoping it would help just a little bit. He knew he would die, but he didn't care. That was how much you mattered to him. I know it's hard to believe, but I've seen him, and I know it's true." Shadow Water's eyes darkened and she lowered her head, looking somewhat off to the side; Charmian stepped closer and tilted her head to address her better. "I would never ask you to forget what he's done," she said softly. "And I don't think he wants that, either. But it's like you're getting a second chance now. Most people don't get that much. I think, maybe, there's more than one reason why Chakenapok brought him back."
Shadow Water didn't lift her head. Charmian paused before kneeling down in front of her. The other woman's eyes were wet but she looked as if she wanted to scowl, her lip trembling and her fingers digging into the furs. Charmian reached up a hand to touch her own and found that her fingers were cold. Shadow Water nearly pulled her hand away.
"I know you're angry," Charmian whispered. "And I know that you hate him as much as you've ever hated anything. But I know you still love him, too." She paused. "You know, he didn't even want me to keep my promise to you this time. When I told him I was going to try again...he said I was making a mistake...that you were safe, and that was all that mattered." Shadow Water hitched in a breath and clutched at the furs harder. "He didn't want you to know, now that he's back. He would rather you went on believing your dad never cared about you, than know that he had been there the whole time." She opened her hand to reveal the necklace, which glimmered in the light. "He wanted to die to repay his debt of giving you away. He never used the powers he got in exchange for you, because even those he knew couldn't save you. So he taught me to do it instead. And he kept this all to himself, and never told anybody." She lowered her head to look at the shining silver. "He was ready to kill you, so you would be free...but then I came along...and everything changed. And he died, and you lived. And he would've rather you went on like this, and never knew about him, than find out and know the truth."
She fell silent, seeing how Shadow Water's arms trembled just slightly. "He knew the whole time. He did nothing," she whispered, and Charmian lowered her head.
"I know," she murmured. "But he's here now. And he's trying. That's more than what a lot of other people would do."
Shadow Water said nothing. Charmian waited a moment before carefully pressing the necklace back into her hand; Shadow Water's fingers curled around it so tightly that she could see the jagged edge of the metal digging into her skin. Charmian stood. "I actually came here to ask a favor," she said, rubbing at her neck. "I have to get to Croghan Water...but I have to do it underwater. I heard this place probably connects to it. I was hoping maybe you could swim me through."
Shadow Water looked up at her with her brow furrowed. "Why do you not have Ocryx take you...?" she asked.
Charmian made a face. "Well...I'm already here talking to you...and I think he's rather pissed off at me right now. I kind of skimped on paying him this time around...your necklace was what I used to get in."
Shadow Water's look grew even more incredulous. Nevertheless, she sighed and pushed herself up from the furs, wandering from the room and waving at Charmian to follow after her. They both exited the cave and went into one of the tunnels, the light fading behind them.
"Where is this Croghan Water...?" she asked.
"Closer to the middle of the Island, between the swamp and the big field. It's just a little spring-fed pond. But it's really, really deep and cold."
"I have to tell you, I do not know these tunnels quite so well as Ocryx does. I prefer to keep near the lake; even he does not wander out quite so far much anymore."
"Well, maybe with a bit of poking around...? It's really important that I get through from underneath, else I'll probably end up drowning myself..."
Something shifted off to their side, and Charmian jumped and nearly screamed. The lighting was such that she hadn't even noticed the tunnels and caves opening up over there, nor had she noticed how Ocryx had been keeping pace with them until now. If you seek that little mudhole, he said, then you had best take Copper Cave, and then the far right tunnel. This leads to a wide opening I have not fully explored for there is a manitou down there.
Charmian's brow furrowed. She turned to Shadow Water, whose face lit up. "Copper Cave--?"
Shadow Water nodded. "Khiieta names the caves she comes across...she's told me that she got some of the names from her visits with Red Bird, who explored the caves as well. I know Copper Cave. It's very far out, about at the limit of how far we wander from here." She tugged on Charmian's sleeve. "I'll show you."
Charmian allowed her to lead her along, casting a glance back as they went. Ocryx paused just long enough to look after them before turning and slinking away. Charmian frowned to herself.
Was he listening the whole time...?
"Ocryx told me," Shadow Water said as they walked, Charmian having to keep close to her to avoid falling or tripping over anything. "How Red Bird used to wander the caves all the time when he was away. She would grow bored, or lonely, and so this would give her something to do. She named the ones that she liked. Khiieta does the same. There was one that she brought me to...there was a pool of water within it, and crystals in the walls, and they glowed all different colors..."
"I remember that," Charmian murmured. "That was Red Bird's favorite room."
Shadow Water smiled faintly as she walked, and Charmian could tell that she'd forgotten all about Moon Wolf. "Emerald Cave is Khiieta's favorite...Ocryx and I would go there sometimes, but I found out that it's her favorite cave, so we left it to her...there are so many tunnels and caves, that we could never explore all of them." She turned to Charmian and frowned a little. "I have not ever ventured further than the Copper Cave...and Ocryx says that a manitou lives here. Are you certain this is the way you wish to go--?"
"I think it sounds about right, considering that it's a manitou I'm looking for," Charmian said. "I didn't know that either of you ever knew about the Ogimah-Quae, though."
"Ogimah-Quae...? This is what she calls herself?"
Charmian nodded. "She and the Shadow Wolves live far beneath the water, just like you guys...they've been hiding all this time. Ever since the Michinimakinong left." She glanced at the stone walls curving around them. "I'm surprised Mitchi or one of the others haven't come out here..."
"Whoever this manitou is, we did not wish to get too close to it," Shadow Water explained. "Ocryx described to me what he knew. I have not ever wished to explore so much as Khiieta has. But even she keeps away. Mitchi Manitou and the rest are most afraid of all to venture this far."
Charmian's mouth twitched. "Go figure...she probably scares him. I wouldn't be surprised, considering." They fell silent for a while now, Charmian unable to think of anything else to converse about, and she instead watched the numerous caves and tunnels go by. From some came the trickling sound of water; others looked dry, some were pitch black, and still others were lit in odd colors. Charmian frowned to herself as they walked.
I never thought about it before...but this place is a lot like the Borderlands, too. Are they all connected...?
"Tell me," Shadow Water said after a long silence, and Charmian's head popped up to give her a questioning look. Shadow Water didn't bother looking back. "Tell me everything," she said.
Charmian chewed her lip. "I don't know if..."
"You said you made a promise." Shadow Water continued staring straight ahead. "So tell me. Why it is that he did this, and what he hopes to gain from it now."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "He doesn't want to gain anything anymore," she insisted, then, when that earned no response, she sighed and looked at the ground. "It was a bargain," she murmured. "He wanted power...Ocryana promised it to him. The payment...the payment was you."
She thought that she saw the briefest flinch pass across Shadow Water's face, but other than that nothing happened. "Go on," she said.
Charmian paused. "There isn't much else," she admitted. "Even right after he made this bargain he knew it was bad. He wanted to get you back, he really did. He just didn't know how. He knew he couldn't care for you, so he thought maybe you'd be better off with her. When he found out that wasn't so, he still didn't know what to do. The powers she gave him were strong, but not strong enough to get you back. He decided to teach other people instead. When he taught me, he knew I would fight her. He used me to free you. He died because of this, because he wanted to repay his debt. This is when he gave me his necklace. But I never got to give it to you before Ocryx took you away."
There was a long silence, and she thought that maybe that was the end of it. "So this is what I am," Shadow Water murmured after a long while. "A payment. A bargain."
Charmian moved to walk backwards in front of her. "This is NOT what you are," she insisted. "You're a WHOLE lot more than that and you know it! You were enough that he gave his life to free you, and you were enough that you convinced Ocryx not to give up and die. You're the world to Khiieta, too. Ocryana treated you like a bargaining chip but you know how she was. Everyone else knows the difference."
Shadow Water just continued walking, not meeting her eyes; Charmian thought that she saw tears in her own eyes, but couldn't be sure, in the dimness. She bit her lip and stepped out of the way, putting her hands in her pockets and staring at the floor. The silence drew out again, until the dripping sound of water came loud and clear somewhere far ahead, and Shadow Water's step began to slow. Charmian looked up to see a cave entrance lit up from within looming ahead, and Shadow Water headed toward it. She followed and they stepped through the entrance. Charmian stared in awe at the small rounded cave, similar to those in Marten's shortcut tunnel, its walls glistening with the fiery red color of copper and brilliant green water filling its bottom. The walls nearest the water level had themselves been tarnished green with verdigris. Several tunnels opened up off of the opposite side of the cave, and Charmian peered at each of them.
Shadow Water touched her arm. "I have not ever gone further than this," she said softly, a line of worry forming on her brow.
Charmian stared at her for a moment, then looked at the tunnels again. "Well...he said the far right one is the one. I take it he's checked the other ones out and didn't find anything worth mentioning." She looked at Shadow Water. "If you don't want to take me, maybe you can convince a manitou...I'm not on the best terms with any of them, down here..."
Shadow Water fiddled her fingers anxiously, then sighed a little. She stepped into the room and gestured; Charmian followed, and they sloshed through the green water and toward the tunnel.
"Can you hold your breath for long?" she asked.
Charmian halted and peered into the darkness. "A little," she said. "But not much. Ocryxes are really fast, which was kind of what I was hoping for. At least it would be better than being kissed by Mitchi Manitou..." She started to turn back, then let out a shriek and clung to the wall. Shadow Water was no longer there, having been replaced instead by a tawny-colored Ocryx which gave her a puzzled look. Charmian gawked, then let out her breath in a whoosh. She put a hand to her chest, her heart thudding a mile a minute.
"S...sorry," she apologized, wincing. "Bad memories." She looked once more into the tunnel and Shadow Water followed suit. "It looks like dry land...when does it go down into water?"
I do not know, Shadow Water said. I suppose though that we can walk, at least until it becomes an obstacle.
"I suppose," Charmian agreed. They made their way up and into the tunnel, leaving the Copper Cave behind, and started walking in relative silence yet again.
Charmian glanced up at Shadow Water several times as they walked, biting her lip and wanting to say anything that might make her believe what she'd said, but no more words would come. She saw the look in Shadow Water's eyes and felt that it might be wrong to offer anything else now.
I guess she has plenty of reason not to believe me. I remember how much I hated him when I found out. And I wasn't the one he left behind...
Dripping noises grew yet again and the tunnel began to branch out, widening into a vast but low-ceilinged cave; they actually started to stoop as they neared the water's edge, and could make out more tunnels all around them, half submerged in water. A chill had entered the air and Charmian rubbed her arms, then gasped and bent down to pick something up from the water. Shadow Water looked at it as she turned it about in her hand.
"A feather...?" Charmian's brow furrowed and she tilted it to the side. "Maybe it's Khiieta's, or Ocryx's or something...?"
Shadow Water sniffed at the feather and shook her head. No...it is the wrong color. And it doesn't smell like either of them.
Charmian stared at it and felt a greater chill settle over her. She peered across the dark water and remembered the feathers she had seen scattered across the ice that Wabasso and the Shadow Wolf had fallen through...
"Did it float all the way down through here...?" She rubbed the shaft between her fingers and chewed her lip. It seemed inconceivable that it would have been sucked into the water in the Fairy Realm...and made its way down the river into the lake...and from there through Croghan Water...only to end up way down here, far beneath the west side of the Island. Yet here it was...was it really one of his...?
This must be the place, Shadow Water said, and looked at her. Are you ready?
Charmian swallowed, and found that her throat hurt. She nodded silently and stepped toward the demon, crawling upon her back. She dug her fingers into the soft fur between Shadow Water's wings and the Ocryx stepped into the water, trotting forward several paces before sinking up to her chin and swimming across the little lake. Charmian glanced around them.
"There's still so many tunnels," she said. "How do we even know which one...?"
You said it's closer to the middle of the Island. We'll take one that goes that way...and see if it leads to the right place. Her ears flicked. Take a breath and try to hold it; I'll go as fast as I can.
Charmian sucked in a great breath and ducked her head, pressing it against Shadow Water's back and shutting her eyes tight. An instant later a chilly cold surrounded her, and a bubble escaped her mouth as she felt water rushing past her so quickly that she prayed she wouldn't slip loose. She dug her knees into Shadow Water's sides as if riding a horse and wondered if maybe it would have been easier, simply jumping into Croghan Water.
Then she remembered the look on Thomas's face as soon as they had pulled her out.
It's all right...
She chewed her lip and hoped that they would reach the end of it soon.
This tunnel goes up, Shadow Water said. I'm going to follow it no matter where it leads to, so you can catch a breath. Hold on!
Charmian clenched her teeth and pressed herself as closely to the demon as she could. She felt Shadow Water's direction change, then they were zooming again, she had to assume upward since she had no more sense of direction down here. As soon as she thought this she felt like slapping herself, and threw out a mental net, feeling around for anything nearby. At first she sensed nothing, but then something far ahead--or above--suddenly flashed to life, as if noticing her approach and signaling her. Her eyes popped open though she shut them again just as quickly.
There's something ahead--!
I can feel it, Shadow Water said. It wasn't there a moment ago, but now--
Charmian's head started to feel light and her grip loosened just slightly. I think...I'm starting to pass out, she thought faintly, biting the inside of her mouth to try to keep herself awake.
She felt something wrap around her ankle and squeeze so hard that it hurt, and she almost gasped, trying to pull her leg free. Keep awake! Shadow Water exclaimed, and Charmian suddenly realized that her tail was tugging on her foot. We're almost there!
Another bubble flew out of Charmian's mouth. I'll try...
She felt the water pressure begin to lessen, and Shadow Water picked up even more speed. Just as she at last opened her mouth and felt her breath leave her in a burst of bubbles, they broke the surface with a great splash, and Shadow Water immediately began paddling for land, using her wings and tail to move faster. Charmian coughed and sat up, shaking her head so that her hair fell in her face; she brushed it aside with one dripping hand and blinked the water from her eyes, looking around them. Shadow Water clambered onto the little shore and Charmian saw a lake that resembled the one where she had always seen the Ogimah-Quae.
"I think...this might be it," she sputtered, though she couldn't be positive; all of these underground lakes looked pretty much the same, by now.
Shadow Water halted and shook her head a little; Charmian climbed off and stepped aside and she shook herself just like Ocryx had. That being we felt, she said. Do you know if it's friendly or not--?
"I think I know who it is," Charmian said, wringing out her vest; she only just then remembered to check her pack, and sighed at how drenched everything was. "She's the one I have to meet. She must've sensed us coming."
Whatever it is, it was hiding itself. Shadow Water started to glow; by the time that Charmian turned to face her she was her human self again, and she made a face as she squeezed moisture from her hair. "Would this manitou have a reason to hide itself from you...?"
"She would if she's a Shadow Wolf," Charmian said, earning an anxious look. She glanced at the water. "She did tell me to meet her here, though..."
"The Shadow Wolves have done nothing other than attack and intimidate us," Shadow Water protested. "Do you not remember the first time you saw one? Why would you trust them now?"
Charmian opened her mouth to ask her why not, then bit her lip. "You're right," she said, and turned to look at her. "I don't have much reason to. But something tells me that I should."
Shadow Water stared back at her, brow furrowed in confusion. A soft breeze wafted over them and they both gasped and jumped.
I am glad that you do.
Charmian whirled around, Shadow Water following suit, to look toward the largest cave opening off to their left. Two glowing blue dots appeared within it and started moving forward; Shadow Water slowly crept behind Charmian, grasping her arm. Her eyes were wide and her hand shook. Charmian touched her fingers.
"It's okay," she whispered.
Shadow Water just crept behind her even more when the giant Shadow Wolf at last came into view. The Ogimah-Quae tilted her head and peered down at them as if curious, looking from one to the other before turning her attention to Charmian.
Charmian waved her free hand at Shadow Water. "She's just a friend. She helped me come look for Wabasso." Her reason for being there popped back into her head, and she bit her lip, her eyes suddenly stinging. "You said I could find him here...?"
In response the Ogimah-Quae turned and started back into the cave. Follow me.
Charmian started to walk, only to find herself impeded. She looked at Shadow Water; the other woman was clinging tightly to her arm but didn't want to budge. Charmian frowned a little, then gently pried her fingers loose.
"You can go home, if you want," she murmured, peering back in the direction that the Wolf had gone in. "I know she's kind of creepy..."
Shadow Water's face had paled, her eyes wide and glistening. She turned her head to look at Charmian, her arms shaking; after a moment she chewed on her own lip and then hesitantly shook her head.
"I...I will stay here...if you need me," she just barely managed to whisper.
Charmian let out her breath. She nodded and squeezed Shadow Water's hand.
Shadow Water nodded once more, and took a step back, fiddling her fingers. Charmian stared at her for a moment more before following the Shadow Wolf, hating to leave her behind like that, but not sure of what else she could do.
She is afraid, the Ogimah-Quae said, as soon as Charmian had caught up with her.
Charmian rubbed at her neck. "Well, you can't really blame her...I mean, after all that the other Shadow Wolves have done, you are kind of scary looking..."
This is not the reason. She is not afraid of the Shadow Wolves. The Ogimah-Quae's tail fanned from side to side as she walked. She is reminded of her mother.
Charmian's head popped up and she stared at the giant Wolf with large eyes. Now that she thought about it...the Shadow Wolf did vaguely resemble Ocryana, at least in facial features. Charmian felt a stab of pain in her chest.
She's still that afraid of Ocryana...? What would she do if she knew about me...?
Perhaps this is a question you'd best ask her yourself, the Shadow Wolf replied, and Charmian flushed, having forgotten that her thoughts could be heard, if she was careless. She lifted the feather that she had found.
"We found this down near the water," she said. "It...it kind of looks like the ones..."
You have been told, the Shadow Wolf said. All is connected. The Fairy Arch is not the only gateway in this place. She slowed and turned her head back to look at Charmian. You came all this way for the White Rabbit's spirit? You place yourself in such danger, continually, just for this Island which is not even yours?
Charmian frowned. "Of course I do. I always have! If I told you even half the things I've gone through..."
Another obstacle would not stop you now?
Charmian cut herself off, and her brow furrowed uneasily. "What sort of obstacle...?" she asked, hesitant. "I thought you said he was here!"
He is, the Ogimah-Quae answered, but he is not quite as you remember him. And with this she stepped aside, and Charmian lowered her head to find her eyes focused on a vague shape ahead of her. And she sucked in a startled breath when she recognized Wabasso, as pale and as nebulous as any of the lost spirits she had seen around Arch Rock.
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