An Illusion Spun: Part Four
"You did this! You monster!"
But Cherry was on Karik in an instant, clawing at him, snarling, with all the rage she'd held inside while she watched her friends disappear one by one -- first Dash, now Adriana.
She'd be next.
"How could you?" Cherry had never heard her voice like this; wrung and distorted with a hate so passionate that she scarcely recognized it as her own. "You did this! You did this to Dash and Adriana!"
"I didn't do anything!"
Karik seized her by the arm and whipped her around with the strength of the toughest Battledome pet. Cherry was slammed into the trunk of a gigantic tree and saw stars.
"What are you talking about?" Karik demanded. He had dropped the coconut and was standing above her, breathing heavily, looking bewildered and slightly wild-eyed. She gazed at him now with a mixture of hate, and... fear. It had to be said. She was afraid of him. He knew something she didn't; she was sure of it. She regarded him cautiously, thinking him dangerous.
"Adriana!" she spit, struggling to right herself. But all the fight went out of her. She had nothing left to give. Karik could take her. "She's... she's gone." Her voice cracked, and the reality washed over her like a crushing tidal wave bent on obliterating her. Dash was gone, Adriana was gone...
Cherry was alone with Karik. Whom she had just discovered was someone else entirely.
"Gone where? To Faerieland, for a spin?" His attempt at a joke only infuriated Cherry further, but she made no motion to stand and fight. She only wanted answers; the truth was more powerful than any blow to the head.
"Whenever someone disappears, you're always in the jungle! You're always somewhere else!"
Karik looked impatient. "Well, there isn't much to do but explore around here. There isn't exactly an arcade around every tree."
"Where were you when Dash disappeared?" Her words were a snap in the otherwise quiet of the jungle as she situated herself on her knees, glaring at Karik with a burning hate.
"I was taking a walk! Honestly, I was just getting a bit of fresh water and then I went back and saw you and Adriana struggling with the shelter." He returned her glare. "I was with you, remember? I was helping you guys out when you said we should look for Dash -- "
"He was in the jungle before then! When you were in the jungle too!"
"And you think I did something?" Karik looked shocked.
"Look around here! There are footprints! Adriana's footprints! This is where she disappeared, and your footprints are right there too!"
"How do you know they're mine?"
The Xweetok attempted a laugh, but it only managed to sound like a sharp, echoing shriek. "You're the only Kacheek on this island."
"So what if I've walked here before? Those could be from days ago! The wind doesn't blow much in here, there are too many trees in the way! I told you, I've been exploring." Karik paused for breath, and then broke into a smirk. "Here I go again. Arguing with a dream pet."
"There you go! You put on this 'everything's-just-a-dream' act to make us look the other way! A decoy! You didn't want us to suspect anything!"
Karik eyed her with distaste, shaking his head in bewilderment. "You've certainly put a lot of thought into this."
Cherry choked back tears. "Yeah, I have! Like you said, there isn't exactly an arcade around every tree! There's not much to do but think!"
"Or explore. Which is what I've been doing. I didn't have anything to do with Adriana or Dash disappearing." Karik glanced around. "It's a shame about Dash. Really. But, honestly, how do you know Adriana disappeared? She could be skipping around on the beach, doing a dance and making a swim for the nearest island."
"Because she called to me," Cherry snapped, tears streaking down her cheeks and into her matted fur. "She called to me and told me there were three coconuts in the jungle... three coconuts, Karik! And I only found two here, where her footprints were!" She choked on her words but charged onward. "And then you came, carrying the last one..."
"I was carrying a coconut, not the coconut," Karik said readily. "I spent ages chucking branches up at a tree way back there, trying to get it to fall so I could bring it back to you guys."
Cherry recognized this token of kindness from Karik but shook her head, letting the tears fall freely.
"What can I say to make you believe me?" Karik said eagerly, with a note of urgency in his voice that surprised Cherry, but nothing could redeem him in her eyes for what he had done. She saw him with a new set of eyes, and she was shocked and terrified of who she saw. A monster. A creature she did not know. Someone who held the most terrifying of secrets, and she wanted answers, but she was afraid to get them.
She stood shakily, glaring at Karik, shattered with flashes of emotions as they seized her. "You've said enough," she whispered, and bolted for the cover of the trees.
Cherry sprinted through the jungle, leaping over logs and scraping herself up without a care. She had to run, because if she stopped, the tears would fall and fall forever.
She wanted to see her owner. Her brother. Her house. Her very own bed. Her old plushies. She wanted to leave behind this island, this memory... this traitor. Whatever Karik had done, Cherry could find no way to interrogate him into telling. She didn't know who he was, really, or what he was. Some form of evil in the shape of a Neopet?
Of course, he'd sounded sincere, but weren't the evil ones always clever and cunning and all the rest?
The unspoken had been discussed. To bring out her suspicions into the open was like opening a shaken soda that was ready to explode in a rush of fizz.
Exhaustion began to take its toll upon her, as she reached the other side of the island. Unfamiliar territory. Nothing was the same. And neither was she.
She shuddered at the thought of it all, and then the tears came in a torrent, and her soda overflowed. She sobbed until sleep finally claimed her, but tears still stained her cheeks.
When Cherry awoke several hours later, it was to see the pink-gold tinge of dawn on the horizon over the shimmering, glassy, golden waters. Waves gently lapped the shores.
But overhead, the sky was all wrong, churning with clouds that threatened a downpour, heavy and ready to erupt in raining frenzy. Cherry felt her heart race. The sky wasn't all that was wrong.
The tone of the entire island was off. Suddenly, she felt completely, totally, and utterly alone, for the first time since she had been forcefully embarked on this crazy journey, she felt the desolate pressure pushing in from all around, looming in the air like the threat of rain.
And she knew the truth.
She stood on jelly legs, gazing up at a sky that released what it had been holding back -- and Cherry did likewise. The raindrops slipped off her cheeks, mingling with the renewed teardrops, because that was when she knew for certain that everything was all wrong.
She had been wrong.
She could feel it. She could feel it in the atmosphere.
"Karik!" she cried out, but her call was lost amid a roll of thunder as it roared across the sea, ripping through the air, and lightning pierced the sky. "Karik! No!"
The downpour was suddenly alarming, beating upon her as she sank to her knees, weighted down by rain and dread. She'd had it wrong from the start. Karik hadn't been a traitor. Karik had been taken.
And now she was the only one left, the only prisoner the island still held.
"Why don't you take me?" she cried, her shoulders shaking with repressed sobs. "Why? Karik, Adriana, Dash -- no, no, no!"
The thunder rolled overhead, fighting, like some monstrous beast forming in the clouds. "Take me!" pleaded Cherry. "Take me instead!"
And suddenly she was running. Running from the fear, the heartache, the pulsing fury, the fleeting joy... she was whirling from a streak of lightning followed by a rumble of thunder overhead, reeling backward, unable to make sense of anything anymore. This was more horrible than the most twisted of nightmares, an illusion she couldn't break away from.
And then the panic struck her. She was suddenly gripped with a pain so intense, she fell to the sand, unable to move, unable to cry out. She fought for breath, feeling an overwhelming pressure, a sense. Her vision was darkening. She was going to pass out. It was going to take her.
Just as she was about to be pulled under, she woke up.
Really woke up. For the first time.
To be continued...