Charmian descends deep into the earth, and meets someone waiting there...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 124: Burrowers Beneath"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE:
Heart Of Darkness
CHARMIAN STARED, STUNNED, at the bizarre sight of the Borderlands that greeted her.
Gone were the expanse of flowers and grass, the emerald-green trees, the sparkling stream flowing from the ornate fountain of her dream. This place looked completely different. The field was barren of anything but dead dry grass which rustled in the breeze, the trees were withered and skeletal, the stream was muddy and trickling, and the fountain was cracked and broken, as if it had been that way for years. Water no longer spouted from it, and the stream itself looked just about ready to die. Charmian's stare wandered up toward the sky. It had been sunless but brilliant blue her last time here. Now, it was a sickly platinum gray.
If it hadn't been for the geographic similarities, she wouldn't have ever believed that this was even the same place as before.
The others standing with her, Thomas and Moon Wolf and Manabozho and his brothers, all stared out at the scenery as well, fidgeting slightly.
Peepaukawiss coughed a bit awkwardly. "It's...not quite what I was led to expect."
Thomas glanced at Charmian. "Did somebody...I don't know...forget to tend to it, or something...?"
Manabozho nudged his way around them and glanced from left to right. "This isn't right! What happened to it--?"
Charmian blinked and took in a breath. "So--you remember, too--?" she blurted out, taking a step forward; Manabozho looked at her. "The flowers and the fountain and everything--you remember it the way I do--?"
He frowned. "Of course I remember it! That's why this makes no sense!" He started to scowl. "Did we take a wrong turn after all...?"
Moon Wolf made his way toward the fountain and touched it gently with one finger. "What is this place supposed to be, exactly?" he asked, seeming perplexed.
Charmian rubbed at her head. "It's...it's the place in between reality and dream," she tried to explain, a bit clunkily. "There was a creature here named Nathalit. I don't know if she's still around or not, but...this part of the Borderlands was copied after an old dream of mine. I forgot about it for a long time...Ocryana liked to take forgotten dreams and use them for power. But I took it back." Her look of confusion grew. "So...why is it all dead and broken like this? I don't understand."
"Perhaps he has taken it over," Chibiabos suggested hesitantly.
Charmian's eyes grew. "My dream--?"
"Remember you said this wasn't your dream," Moon Wolf said. "You said it was copied after your dream."
"Well--sort of!" She rubbed her head again. "I'm getting so confused..."
"Well, does it matter so much if it's all like this?" Manabozho asked. "This isn't exactly what we're looking for, is it--?"
Charmian sighed and shook her head, lowering her hands. "The Gemfields...these are nearby. This is where dreams are born...it makes sense that Chakenapok would be nearby, since he's been intercepting and influencing dreams." She looked around again. "I have to admit, though, the last time I was here, I didn't really get to explore a whole lot..."
"I suppose we find out what it's like as we go," Thomas said, and gestured. "Which way, then?"
They fell silent while Charmian paused and bit her lip, looking at the various ways to go. To the left would take them through the field; to the right, through a small valley and up toward a stand of trees; and ahead, into the near arm of that stand, leading into the woods. Some of the trees here still had leaves, but they were all brown and dry, and made an unpleasant scratching noise in the breeze. Even the air was heavy and unpleasant.
"Forward, I guess," she said at last. "Since it's right ahead, and all."
Thomas nodded and they started walking. Charmian's step was heavy and trudging; she couldn't help but chew on her thumbnail as they walked. It was true; she didn't have much of an idea at all of what the Borderlands looked like, aside from the brief glimpse that she'd gotten her last time here; and back then, Nathalit had been around to keep watch over her. She peered skyward. Where was Nathalit now...?
It's like he killed everything, she thought, and this just made her uneasier.
They started walking up among the dying trees. Their bark was twisted into grotesque images, peeling and crumbling off in places; Puka let out an eek and clung to Chibiabos as they went. Charmian shuddered when she had to remove a dead leaf from her hair; this entire place was giving her the creeps.
"As odd as all this is it doesn't look like any of it should be leading to Cave of the Woods," Thomas said with a frown. "Maybe we passed the exit--?"
"Caves," Charmian said aloud, a lightbulb flicking on. "We should look for a tunnel, or a cave." She glanced around herself.
Puka pointed. "Well--it looks like it gets a tiny bit hilly ahead! Maybe there's something over there--?"
They picked up their pace and the forest floor began undulating around them, rising and falling in little hillocks and hollows. The roots of the trees twisted and stuck out in big sections, offering numerous hand- and footholds, and great tufts of grass and moss covered everything. It would have been beautiful, if it hadn't been all brown and gray and diseased looking.
Charmian at last halted and looked around them again. "Tell me something," she said aloud. "Doesn't it look like these roots might hide cave entrances, just maybe...?"
Everybody looked. "Maybe," Thomas answered a bit hesitantly.
Puka clapped his hands and hopped. "I GET IT! Look for caves under the TREES!" He hopped away a few paces. "Even I can handle that!"
Charmian shrugged. "Okay, then...we start poking at trees. If anybody finds anything, let us all know."
They all separated, heading toward different trees and poking at their roots. Every so often one of them would abandon a tree and seek out another and in this manner they slowly combed the woods, prodding at tufts of grass and tapping at bark. Charmian examined first one tree, then another, and was on her fifth, her hands and knees dirty, by the time that she felt a twinge of impatience starting up inside her, and chewed on her lip, wishing that there were an easier way. She even pulled out Noko's pinecone, yet it detected nothing, which didn't much surprise her since they weren't looking for a magical tree.
She sighed and started to tuck it back in her pocket when she lifted her head and noticed the trees ahead of her, at the top of a small rise. Her hand froze.
There were two conjoined trees here, their roots all entangled in a great mess, their trunks fused together at the bottom.
Charmian stared at them for a long while, then her fingers went loose and the pinecone slipped back into her pocket.
Took her deep into the middle of the Island, and buried her in a grove of trees. She always loved the earth and woods...
There were two trees, growing from the same base, and a rock...
Charmian slowly stood. She made her way toward the trees, keeping her eyes focused on them as if afraid that they would disappear, yet they stayed in their place. There was no rock nearby...yet so far, these were the only conjoined trees she'd seen. Her eyes roamed over their roots, dangling over and sticking out of and digging into the earth again, and as she drew up close to them she reached out and started pulling aside hunks of grass, trying to clear a way.
Clever, aren't you? a voice in her head said. Remembering something as trivial as that...you should actually be commended...
She started tugging on a particularly stubborn root, trying to pry it loose. It snapped abruptly, scraping the skin of her palms, and she leaned forward to stick her head in the hole left behind it. She could make out an edge of rock just beneath the sandy soil; with her fingers she started dusting it off, and saw more rock, similar to that which had been worn smooth by water long ago in Devil's Kitchen and Cave of the Woods.
Like a sea cave...
"I found it," she called, but barely managed to raise her voice above a murmur, before starting to pull on the rest of the roots blocking the entrance. She had to yank and tear, as they were great thick things, and most of them she couldn't even break, they were so tough; by the time that the hole behind them was big enough to fit her head and shoulders through she was hot and dusty and irritated beyond belief, and she pulled on the roots so hard that her hands blistered. She leaned back as she pulled on one, her teeth grinding and her eyes squinching shut, until it suddenly gave way, a gout of earth pattering against her as she tumbled backwards with a thud. She landed on another root and winced, pushing herself up and rubbing at the ache in her back. A look up showed her that her frustration had been rewarded; most of the soil had come loose now, and a hole big enough to step through loomed before her, part of the side of the hollow having collapsed now that the root system was weakened. Charmian clambered to her feet and hurried toward it to peer inside.
All that she could see from here were the sides of the tunnel, brecciated rock, extending back perhaps five or six feet before plunging into sudden darkness. She couldn't even tell if there was a ground to walk upon or not. She anxiously stuck her leg in, praying against spiders or centipedes or any other even less desirable creatures, and grimaced when her foot crunched down into what seemed to be dry leaves, but could have been a mix of those, and dead bugs, and dried guano and animal bones, for all that she knew.
I really have to stop it with the mental images.
She had to turn sideways to fit inside, and pulled her other leg in to join the first. She pressed a hand to the wall before her and one to that behind her and started edging along, alternating between looking ahead and turning away; she didn't know what would be better, seeing what creepy things might be there, or not seeing them. The air was warm and stale with a slightly unpleasant smell, like a small animal carcass had just recently been disposed of after being here for quite some time.
I REALLY have to stop it with the mental images...
She dug her fingernails into the rock. The tunnel grew narrower here, and she had to suck in a breath just to squeeze through, still scraping her elbows as she did so. She peered back the way she'd come but the passage must have turned, for she couldn't see the way back out. She hoped that it didn't branch in different directions, then winced when a tree root dangled in her eye. She pushed it away and started creeping along faster. She hated how cramped it was down in here, the smell in the air, the crunch of the dead leaves under her feet.
Now you see why it's such a pleasant place to stay in for all those years...? If I'd known that you were coming, perhaps I would have cleaned it up a little.
Charmian gasped and felt her right foot go out from underneath her. She grabbed onto a small outcropping and managed to pull herself back up, then turned her head to peer in front of her. She couldn't see anything anymore; edging away from the hole, she struggled to free her flashlight from her backpack, and flicked it on and shakily shined it into the tunnel. It continued on a ways ahead of her, but not far, from the looks of it; it seemed to have collapsed on itself, a pile of rubble and dirt blocking the way. It looked as if it had been that way for a long time. She looked down and saw the hole that she had nearly gone in; it went down a few feet, then seemed to end. She furrowed her brow.
A dead end...?
Isn't that an amusing pun? In fact, if you keep looking, you'll find it's not quite dead, just yet...unlike other things...
Charmian managed to twist herself around to face the hole, and made a face as she squatted down, the rock scraping her arms and legs. She dusted a few cobwebs away from the hole and peered down into it. Sure enough, that was not its bottom she had seen, but an angle in the hole's sides, where it bent to the side and then vanished from sight. She chewed her lip, then pulled off her pack and looked at it indecisively.
Go ahead, the voice said. You have nothing in there of use to me. I'll keep an eye on it while you make your way down for a visit.
Charmian's face set and she tossed her pack into the hole. It made a thumping noise before sliding from sight. She put the flashlight in her mouth and braced herself against the walls and stuck her feet in, sitting on the edge and easing herself down. She had to stretch her legs out before her just to fit them into the hole, sitting with her torso upright and her legs out of sight, which made her feel remarkably nervous; she started inching along until she could finally begin to slide the rest of her body past the bend, and then found herself on her back in the tunnel, with her feet slightly below her and her head pointed upwards and away. She started hyperventilating.
Come along now, the voice coaxed. You won't let a little claustrophobia ruin your chance at heroism, will you...?
I'm not...claustrophobic, Charmian thought in return, but gritted her teeth against the flashlight just the same--she HATED being in such a small tunnel, going feetfirst into who knew what!--and resumed inching along. She lost track of how long she did this, but the tunnel at last began to grow wider, so that she eventually managed to push herself up and turn around to crawl headfirst, which calmed her a little. She scuffled along on hands and knees, wincing at the way that the rocks gouged into her skin, and wiping one grimy hand across her brow. Even this far beneath the earth she crunched at a dead leaf now and then, and hated thinking of what other sorts of things might have made it down here over the years. Her jaws hurt and she was starting to drool from carrying the flashlight between her teeth, and she made an annoying slurping sound.
She blinked when she thought that she saw movement ahead, and stopped to flick off the flashlight. She nearly panicked in the darkness that then descended, but blinked again. Sure enough...the dimmest light shone from ahead and below, and it flickered as she stared at it. Her eyes grew.
Why don't you stop hesitating and come see for yourself?
Charmian shoved the flashlight in her pocket as best as she could and started scuffling along again. The light grew brighter and the tunnel walls grew more distinct; she wondered how many years of wave action had formed such a deep cave, much less how long anyone had been down here; she was starting to wonder if Justin would even bother healing all of the scrapes and scratches that she must have gotten all the way down, when the floor disappeared again, and she let out a yelp and went tumbling, her flashlight flying loose and clattering down ahead of her with a great racket.
She forced herself to curl up into a ball so her arms and legs didn't flail at the walls or get caught on anything, and winced at the sting of pain arising with each bump. She heard her flashlight fall silent, then let out another cry when she felt herself flying through open air, then with a pained thud she hit the ground and rolled head over heels, coming to a stop against a rock wall. She lay there for a moment, grimacing, before slowly disentangling and pushing herself upright. She rubbed at her head and brushed her mussed hair out of her eyes, blinking away the dust.
Her eyes widened when she saw the cave rising around her, firelight flickering upon its walls--even though she couldn't see any fire--and stalagmites and stalactites forming columns and spikes here and there. Her eyes shifted across the cave, taking this all in, before she noticed someone standing staring at her in return and let out a gasp, jerking back. She was more surprised that she hadn't even noticed him before, than anything else. She blinked a few more times and stared at him in silence.
Chakenapok tilted his head and his mouth twitched. "Congratulations," he said in an amused voice. "You actually found me."
Charmian continued staring at him for a moment more, then slowly pushed herself up onto hands and knees, then to her feet. She approached him cautiously, taking small steps and edging along as if approaching a wild animal. When he moved his hand she nearly jumped back, until she saw that he was holding her backpack by its strap; he held it out toward her, her flashlight in his other hand, mouth still twitching.
"I believe you lost these," he said; she managed to reach out and grasp hold of them, dropping the flashlight in the pack and digging around inside it as he watched. "Don't worry; as I already said, there's nothing in there of any use to me." She pulled out the skin with his skull in it and peered inside, then back up at him. His eyes remained as amused as ever. "I notice you do not carry your dreamcatcher with you anymore, however; I apologize for what I had to do to it, though I hope you understand by now."
Charmian slipped her pack on and tiptoed toward him again. This time she reached out and very gingerly touched the tip of one finger to his breast, pulling back as if he had burned her; her brow furrowed, and she reached out to touch him again. He arched an eyebrow.
"You're..." She frowned when she realized that she could feel him. "You're real."
He crossed his arms. "What were you expecting, a ghost...?"
She shook her head slightly. "If you're a lost spirit...you shouldn't have a body." Her confused look grew. "You shouldn't even be here."
Chakenapok smiled this time. "There are actually benefits to being a 'Shell,'" he replied, and held up his hand to reveal his spirit stone. Charmian stared at the glowing fiery mass, black jags jutting through it, and saw the smaller, darker spirit stone still inside it. She frowned again.
"It's the opposite," she murmured, half to herself. "With Chibiabos...the dominant spirit is on the outside. Ogimah-Quae is inside. With you..."
His smile grew. "I am the dominant spirit," he clarified, at which her head popped up and her eyes widened. He waved his hand, dispelling the image. "I'm afraid you have a few things mixed up. I am Malsum's Shell, but he hardly controls me."
"The red spirit stone." Charmian's mouth fell open. "It's YOURS! The little one is Malsum's--"
He waved his hand again as if growing bored of her ignorance. "I told you already, Mainlander, that no one controls me. Not the Wolf, not the Rabbit, not the Nathali, not you. I am a Shell but I am hardly empty and I am hardly weak."
"Nathali...?" Charmian's brow furrowed anew. "What--what do you know about Nathalit?" Her fists clenched. "This is HER land! If you did anything to her--"
"I did not have to," Chakenapok said boredly. "As it turns out, that creature left this place long before you arrived. You wonder why I have such free rein here--?"
"Left...?" The word nearly stuck in Charmian's throat, and she had to swallow hard, shaking her head slowly. "She would never leave," she whispered in disbelief. "Not after doing everything she did for this Island. Not after everything she had me do."
He shrugged. "I hate to tell you this, Mainlander, but she is gone. How else do you explain how I am able to do this so easily--?"
He waved his hand in a dramatic flourish, and lights danced up beside him. Charmian sucked in a breath and jerked back when a great mess of glowing strands appeared, looping about ankles and wrists and neck, and her eyes grew to the size of saucers on seeing Ocryana's face, the demon's eyes shut in sleep but her teeth and claws and tail just as sharp and deadly as ever. Chakenapok's smile returned.
"Your greatest fear," he said, gesturing at her. "If the Nathali were here...do you think she would let me do this...?" He sliced one of the bonds holding her aloft, and her right arm lowered a fraction of an inch; Charmian flinched. "The Dreamer left her dreamland behind," he continued, stepping toward her as he waved at the bands of light imprisoning the Ocryx, "and so at the moment, I am the one in charge of things here."
Charmian shook her head, numb. "I don't believe it. I don't believe she would do that. You must've done something to her."
"I'm afraid not, Mainlander," Chakenapok apologized. "I didn't even have to do a thing." He stopped to stand just beside her, and they both stared at Ocryana together. "Doesn't seem remarkably threatening just now, does she?" he mused aloud, the bands of light around Ocryana's limbs pulsating like a heartbeat. "Hard to believe that she caused you and this Island no end of trouble, so long ago..." He turned to look down at her and smirked. "Your greatest fear. How does it feel, being so close to her after all this time? Not in a dream, and not in a vision, but truly here. Is it everything you expected it to be?"
Charmian's fingers slowly curled into fists. "I defeated her once," she barely managed to say, her voice shaking and paper thin. "I could do it again."
Chakenapok's smile grew. "Really?" He waved and Charmian gasped, expecting all of the bands imprisoning the demon to break, yet her image merely rippled and wavered. Charmian's eyes grew when her spirit stone began to emerge into view, glowing angry violent reddish-purple, spiked through with the same black jags that she had seen so many times before. When it flared brighter, it turned almost orangy-red, and Charmian sucked in a breath once she realized how alike their spirit stones all looked, now that she had the chance to see them all together. Her hands started shaking.
"It's a little more difficult to defeat something," Chakenapok murmured, "when it's a little closer to home...isn't it...?"
He waved and her own spirit stone appeared, now almost equal looking to Ocryana's and his own. She bit her lip and winced; with each throb of the black jags it hurt, and by now the dark parts of it outnumbered the light parts. Chakenapok tilted his head to the side.
"So different, and yet so alike," he said. "Interesting how that works out. Perhaps you defeated her so easily...because you are so much like her." He waved his hand and Ocryana's image began to fade.
Charmian ground her teeth and clenched her fists. "I'm NOT like her!" she retorted, her voice finally rising. "NOTHING like her! I would NEVER threaten the Island the way she did!"
"Really?" he said again, and crooked his finger at her chest. Charmian nearly threw her arms up in front of herself, expecting an attack, but her spirit stone merely glowed again, the black parts throbbing anew so that she bit off a whimper and almost sank to the ground.
"If you are not at all like her," Chakenapok said, "then how is it that you put yourself through this, just to reach your goal? How is it that you've given me so much power over your very self, just to achieve your ends? The darker this stone grows, the more you yourself endanger the Island. Now who else was it, once, who was so mad with rage, that she did not even care what happened to herself, as long as her mission was accomplished?"
Charmian's breath hitched in her chest, and her eyes started to sting. She stared at Ocryana's vanishing image until nothing was left but rock wall, then forced herself to take a step back, even though it hurt her spirit stone even more to do so. Her eyes blurred as she planted her feet against the ground and scowled at Chakenapok.
"We're not the same," she growled. "I can control myself. And as soon as Manabozho and his brothers come, you're done for."
He arched an eyebrow again. "Oh really? After all of this talk of love and acceptance and forgiveness--?"
Charmian gritted her teeth. "I take back ALL of it. Everything I said. Noko was RIGHT in killing you! YOU killed Wabasso!"
Chakenapok smirked and crossed his arms. "I gave him a happier afterlife. You would deny him this by dragging him back into the mess--?"
Charmian's lip curled back. "Bastard!" She dug her foot into the ground. "You deserve EVERYTHING that's coming to you!"
"Everything...?" he started to say, then his stare shifted to the side a little, and amusement entered his eyes. "Ah. I suppose it was about time for a little reunion."
Charmian blinked, fists unclenching; she turned her head to look in the direction that he was looking in, and saw that the two of them were no longer alone. The figure standing in shadows at the far end of the cave stared back at them, its own fists clenched and its eyes flaring blue. Charmian looked for a minute, then slowly turned back to Chakenapok to see what he might do.
Chakenapok merely smiled. "Welcome, Big Brother."
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