Tehuti's Per On The Web 2.0!

Manitou Island: Part 47

Breaking The Surface

BY THE TIME Charmian had caught up with the white creatures, they had already reached Augwak's body and were looking it over again, poking at it and pushing it around a bit. When she entered the cave they picked it up and, carrying it between them like paramedics with a stretcher, scurried out of the room.

She followed them again, hoping not to lose sight of them. She wondered how they'd fit their burden through the narrower tunnels, but somehow they managed. They chattered to themselves the whole time as if in conversation.

The trip back up to the surface, unfortunately, didn't seem to be any shorter than the way down. Charmian kept looking upward, agonizing over when they'd reach the top. A long time seemed to have passed, but in this place she could never be sure. She hoped Pomiere-Augwak hadn't gotten too antsy waiting for her.

Eventually the tunnel grew dimmer and dimmer, leaving the light behind, until a long while later a dim circle appeared ahead. Charmian recognized where she'd first entered the tunnel from the Crack itself. The GeeBee-things took up most of her field of vision, but they appeared to pick up their pace, which to her was a good thing. She wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.

They crawled out of the tunnel and stood upright, the others still carrying their burden as if it were as light as anything. The light still hadn't appeared overhead, but Charmian knew it would soon. She felt like pushing the others out of her way and running up on her own, but knew that wouldn't be very helpful for her situation.

She heard a whistling sound from far ahead and her spirits rose slightly. Of course she'd forgotten about Mani. He was still in here waiting for her? A shadow emerged ahead and the GeeBee-things stopped, making soft whispering noises. Mani stopped as well, cocking his head and blinking his blue eyes at them.

"Mani," Charmian called, and waved over their heads so he could see her. He whistled. "They've got Augwak. Lead them up to the top, will you?"

He seemed a bit puzzled, but obeyed. He turned around and trudged out of her view, the rest of them following.

She ran her hand along the wall, wanting to avoid any further accidents--her whole body ached by now--and stared upward, walking carefully. She awaited the moment the Crack would present itself again.

When it finally did, she noticed it had clouded over again, very unlike that morning. It must be early afternoon already, and she knew it would get dark soon. This thought filled her with dread for some reason and she hurried along, finally giving one of the GeeBee-things a nudge. It squeaked and hopped, bumping into Augwak, and bumping him into the other. They did pick up their pace, but stumbled into the walls a bit more, slowing them down again. She wished this thing were wider!

By the time they emerged into daylight--or what was left of it--she could hear the wind blowing overhead. It had picked up a lot since she'd last been on the surface. Another glance upward revealed a tiny face peering down at them, and it moved along the edge of the Crack as they moved closer to the end. She shivered and rubbed her arms. The temperature had dropped as well. Well, winter was on its way. First snow usually came around this time of the year in northern Michigan.

Pomiere-Augwak hopped back and forth at the edge of the Crack when they crawled up and out onto solid ground. He immediately started flailing his arms and screeching so loudly she winced and had to cover her ears.

"WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG! Have you any idea how HUMILIATING this is? Listen to that! They're out now! Without me to lead them! They don't even know where I am right now! STUCK IN THE BODY OF A FLESHLING! If they decide to eat me, I'LL HAVE YOUR HEAD!!"

"Chill out!" Charmian snapped. "I got it back, what are you screaming for? See? It's still in one piece. I just have to get the right spirit back in it."

"What are THESE things?!" He started shrieking aloud, waving at the pale creatures who just stared at him dumbly. "GET THEM AWAY FROM THAT! HOW DARE YOU LET THEM TOUCH ME!"

"It was either that or leave you down there, stupid! Now shut up or you'll never get it back!!"

That effectively quieted him down. He scowled and hissed at the white creatures, who carried his body away from the Crack and settled it on the ground. Then he hopped about, fussing and snapping like a hostile squirrel. Mani stared at him and his hackles rose a little but he kept silent.

Charmian knelt down beside the body and stared at it. He looked the same as before, only his breathing was shallower, and his eyes paler. Pomiere-Augwak groaned.

"See! It'll start falling apart if we don't fix it soon! Give me that stupid rock, fleshling, and put my own back in there!"

"I don't think it's that easy."

"What do you MEAN!!"

"You've already got a spirit inside you," Charmian said, glaring at him crossly. "How do you suggest I put this one in Antoine's body when you're already in there? I doubt two of them could be in the same place at once."

"Try it then, idiot! Surely it can't be that difficult!"

Charmian sighed and stood up. She pulled Pomiere's crystal from her pocket and glared again at his drooling look. "Not a chance. You try to get this, you're dead meat. Got it?"

"Fine, fine, just try it out! We haven't got all day!"

She walked toward him, making sure to keep on guard. He looked down as she held the crystal up to his chest, and...nothing happened. She tapped it against him a few times. No results. She even took a chance and tossed it at him, and it fell to the ground. She picked it up before he could snatch it away, and shrugged.

"See? Told you."

"But--MINE got in here just fine while that one still occupied this body! How do you explain that?"

"I can't. Like I said, your spirit was just a spaz. I think Antoine's had no choice but to bail out when yours showed up!"

He growled and clenched his fists. "Well, FIND a way to get it back where it belongs! I have very little patience left, IF ANY!"

Charmian stared at the little glowing stone in her hand and then looked back at Augwak's body. She'd figured the only way to keep track of it would be to put it in there, but now that she had the chance...she wasn't sure she wanted to do it. The idea might not work, but then again it might backfire. She didn't like the thought of doing it out here on her own, and...

"No way Moon Wolf would be any help," she muttered, rolling the stone around the palm of her hand. "The only person I took part of a spirit from was Ocryx, and the only person I gave it to was Tal Natha. I can't go to either of them." She reached up to rub her forehead and felt something sticky, bringing her fingers back with surprise. That was right. She'd hit her head in the tunnel.

Mani offered a soft whistle and cocked his head at her.

"Yeah," Charmian murmured with a sigh. "I haven't been the most coordinated one around here lately, have I."

She looked at Augwak's body again, and then nodded at the white things. "You guys. Are you...elementals or something? Can you carry him really fast or far?"

They stared at her. Pomiere-Augwak stepped around in front of her with a scowl creeping up his face.

"What have you in mind now, fleshling? I told you to keep those things away from me!"

"It's only because of them that I even got you out of there. Now shut up. Mani, would you mind terribly if...well...if you changed? I need to take a trip and it would take a while to get there. Sorry about all the inconvenience."

The manitou shook his head hastily and shapeshifted so he stood in his secondary, mooselike form. He whistled as if to ask if this were acceptable. He wasn't as big as the other manitou Charmian had ridden, but it had to do for now.

"Yeah, that's fine. You guys, can you carry him after us? Oh, and you--" she turned to glare at Pomiere-Augwak as she climbed up "--you can stay here if you want, or try to keep up. Truthfully, I don't really need you right now."

His eyes goggled. "You little--!!"

"You're stuck in there for now. Deal with it. I'll let you know as soon as I can get you out." She offered a too-sweet smile. "You can always stay with Moon Wolf if the trip's too strenuous for you."

He bared his teeth and hissed. "You are all alike! Ocryxes, fleshlings, all! The moment I have my body back I'll--"

"Save your threats. You should say if you have your body back." That quieted him, again, and she turned Mani in the proper direction. "You know the way to the Dupries place...right? You were there before."

Mani nodded and bounded into the woods, carrying her upon his back. The white creatures stared after her a moment before she looked back to see them hopping along after, somehow managing to carry Augwak between them. They traveled almost as well aboveground as below. Back near the Crack, Pomiere-Augwak stood screaming and waving his hands in a temper tantrum. Thank goodness she wouldn't have to deal with him for a while.

She shut her eyes and rested her head against Mani's neck as they traveled. She remembered when Tal Natha had carried her, and then Justin. She wondered how Tal Natha was doing.

It's all because of him that he's hurt. Why I'm going to all this trouble for him, I have no idea.

No, it's NOT because of Augwak...it's because of HER.

...Why do I have to remind myself of this?

She frowned to herself but didn't answer her own question.

As it hadn't taken very long for the other manitous to transport her and the others to Sugar Loaf, so it didn't take long for Mani to reach the Dupries house near the edge of the woods. He bounded through the field and into the trees, glancing this way and that, before whistling to get her attention. She opened her eyes and looked up to recognize the big house with the long porch and many gables. Mani slowed to a stop on the front lawn, leaves crunching beneath his feet, and she carefully let herself down while the white creatures arrived and stopped just inside the treeline. She dusted herself and stepped forward only to stop again. From not too far away came a cracking noise which echoed sharply off the trees, then another one, and a moment later another. She tried to figure out what it was.

Nobody came to the front door, so she made her way around to the back of the house, where the noise was coming from. She recognized it now. An ax hacking into wood. Somebody must be chopping something.

"Justin?" she called, since she couldn't imagine Lady Dupries out here chopping wood in the cold wet air. She rounded the corner and came into a smaller yard behind the house. A horse was tied nearby, eating grass, and it made a whuffling noise as she passed it. "Ju--" she started to yell again, but cut herself off and halted.

The man standing chopping at a small log turned to look at her with a puzzled expression. It wasn't Justin; he was older and somewhat stockier, and appeared to be dressed more for...well, chopping wood than Justin had been dressed. He wiped a hand across his brow and rested the ax against the log.

"Oh...hi." Charmian walked toward him, trying not to look too stupid. "I'm...uh, looking for Justin. I hope I'm not trespassing or anything..."

"No, not so far...I'm his father, Gerard Dupries." He held out his hand and she hastened forward to shake it. "May I ask who you are? How you know Justin?"

"Oh...I'm Charmian. I, uh, met Justin earlier, and he's helped me out a bit."

"Oh. You must be the one Francois mentioned." He set the ax down now and wiped his hands. "He said that you've come to...how did he put it?...fight the demoness?"

Charmian flushed. "Uh...well, somebody else is supposed to do that...I'm just here to...keep an eye on things, or something."

"Justin is within at the moment...was it something very important?"

"Kind of...I have another little problem and I thought maybe he or Lady Dupries could help me out."

"'Lady Dupries'?" He seemed amused by the name but merely turned and waved his hand at her. "Very well...come in...we have dinner soon, so perhaps you'd like to stay for a while."

"Oh!" Charmian's stomach suddenly growled, as if on cue. She clutched at it and hoped he didn't notice. "I don't want to impose or anything--"

"No, it's no trouble...you look as if you need to clean up anyway. I'll see if we have any clean ban--" He cut himself off and stared across the lawn toward the front of the house.

Charmian cringed. Nuts! She raced to catch up with him and saw what he did, the manitou, plus the white creatures carrying Augwak's body. What a lovely scene that must make. "Um...don't mind them. They're, kinda the reason why I'm here."

He stared at them a moment more before lifting his head slightly. "Oh..." He shook it a little bit and gave a forced smile. "Well...all right then. Just as long as they stay outside. Come along."

Charmian followed him up onto the porch, making the OK sign at them and hoping they got the point. They stared after her as she went inside.

"Justine?" Dupries called, passing the large staircase and going into the side parlor where Charmian had been earlier. "We have a guest. She might need some fixing."

Charmian looked up to see Lady Dupries appear on the landing. "Charmian," she exclaimed, and came down the steps. Justin appeared a moment later from the other end, and when he saw her his face lit up. Charmian flushed and looked at the floor, scuffing her foot. She caught a glance of her clothes as she did so. It looked like she'd been wearing them for weeks.

"How are you?" Lady Dupries asked as she reached the bottom of the steps and approached. Dupries walked toward a hallway, dusting his hands again and glancing over his shoulder.

"She said that she has a small problem she thinks Justin can fix. I thought perhaps to clean her up as well and give her something to eat..."

His voice trailed off as he moved further away into the house. Lady Dupries looked Charmian over briefly before standing straight and waving her hand to follow, turning toward the hallway on the other side of the stairs.

Justin followed her as she went, looking her up and down. "What happened? You look frightful!"

She hoped the dimness of this part of the house hid the color that crept up in her face. "I...kinda had a few accidents in the Crack."

"So...that was where the gentleman lost his pencil? In Crack-In-The-Island?" He frowned. "It seems like an awful amount of trouble to go to for a pencil..."

"OH!" Charmian put her hands up to her face. "I'm sorry...I lied earlier. It's kind of hard to explain. I wasn't really looking for a pencil, I was looking for...well...you remember when I left, after Ocryana took Augwak's spirit?"

"Yes, you did so rather abruptly, also...though Moon Wolf wasn't exactly treating you most hospitably."

"Well, you can't really blame him, I guess...but anyway, what I was looking for was...um...Augwak. You see, Moon Wolf threw him in the Crack."

Lady Dupries looked back over her shoulder as if to ask her what on Earth she was talking about. Justin wore the same expression. "Go on..."

"See, I wanted to get his spirit back so that's where I went when I...disappeared. I went to find it at Ocryana's cave."

"Ocryana's cave? By yourself?"

"Please don't yell! I had to get it back! Besides, there was this guy, Antoine, who was with me, and he helped me find the place...and we came across Shadow Water on the way back...I met her earlier so I knew who she was--"

"How is she?"

She grated her teeth. "Oh. I don't know. I think she's okay but she went back home so I'm not sure. Uh--anyway, Antoine and I went into this cave and I got Augwak's spirit back--it looked like a little red stone--but then something happened and it...uh..."


"...It kind of...went into Antoine's body, and knocked Antoine's spirit out."

The other two slowed to a stop, both staring at her.

"See, I knew it would be kind of hard to explain," Charmian said, rubbing her neck with a sheepish smile. "I guess there can't be two spirit stones inside somebody at once. So when Augwak's went into Antoine, it knocked his out. And since Augwak's body wasn't there, it...sort of...fell out onto the ground."

She pulled the little glowing crystal out of her pocket as evidence and showed it to them. They both leaned close and looked at it.

"So that's what they look like..." Justin murmured. Lady Dupries gently picked it up and held it between thumb and forefinger, turning it this way and that in the dim light.

"Well, at the very least, he...appeared...to have a pure spirit."

"But he's not dead--not yet!" Charmian hastened to add. "See, since Augwak's spirit went inside his body, he's still alive. It's just that it's Augwak controlling him. While Augwak's body doesn't have a spirit in it, and could die soon." She rubbed her forehead. "Agh, this is really hard to explain..."

"No...I believe we understand." Lady Dupries handed the crystal back. "You wish to put the crystals back where they belong...correct?"

"Yes! That's it. Exactly. Only I'm not sure how. Like I said...Augwak's spirit went kind of funny...and it knocked Antoine's out, and now I'm not sure how to put it back in. Oh. I've got Augwak's body with me, but I'm not sure if I can put Antoine's spirit in it, or if I should...what if I can't get it out, either?"

"You have Augwak's body?" Justin asked with surprise.

She nodded. "Outside. With Mani and a couple of...whatever-they-are's."

"Whatever...?" The two looked at each other, then headed back toward the door. She followed silently. They reached the front windows and peered out, lifting the curtains aside. After a moment they looked at each other again, then back at her.

"You...don't know what those creatures are?" Justin queried.

Charmian shook her head. "No...I found them in the Crack. They seemed...friendly, so I had them help me bring Augwak back up since I couldn't carry him."

She hated lying to him yet again, but decided not to mention the strange mist she'd seen. He'd probably think she was crazy!

"Why, do you know what they are?" she asked instead.

They shook their heads and peered out again. "They seem part GeeBee," Lady Dupries murmured, "but as for the rest of them...I cannot be certain..."

"Well...we should probably bring the body in, at least. God be willing it doesn't have some awful smell to it yet."

He went and opened the door, descending the porch steps and striding across the lawn. His mother and Charmian watched; he reached the three waiting at the edge of the lawn and appeared to be saying something to them. He crouched down and peered at the white things a bit closer as if examining them; they stared back at him. Then he reached down to take hold of Augwak's arm, lifting the body up and draping it over his shoulders. Augwak's head lolled to the side and the two at the window cringed. Justin made his way back to the house and came inside, pushing the door shut behind him with his foot.

"You know--" he said as he moved toward the parlor, "--he's not nearly as heavy as one would think."

"It must come about from his being a windling. Place him on the couch and leave him there for a moment. We have yet to see to Charmian."

"Oh. That's right." He let Augwak roll off his back onto the little couch--it had been cleaned somehow--and rubbed his shoulder. "I'm sorry about that...it looks as if your head took quite a bump, and your lip, and...I don't want to guess about your hand..."

"Sorry...it got a little rough down in the Crack, and I wasn't watching where I was going..."

"Come back to the washroom." Lady Dupries turned once more to the hallway. "We'll wash you up...then Justin can take care of those, I assume. Dinner will be served soon; you should be ready by then. Afterward we can try to figure out what to do about the GeeBee."

"Thank you, ma'am..."

Charmian followed her down the hallway and to a small room on the left. She felt quite self-conscious, but thankfully Lady Dupries drew the bath herself and pulled forward a curtain that allowed her some privacy. She'd stayed over with friends before, but she'd never even thought of having to take a bath at a complete stranger's house. Embarrassing!

She hoped Lady Dupries wouldn't do anything with her clothes while she was cleaning up, even dunking her head under the water a few times; it felt so good to sit in something warm for once, and she knew she soaked a little longer than she should have. It was only when she heard a knocking far off in the house that she lifted her head and decided to get out and dry off. She pulled down a towel and wrapped it around herself, not certain how to drain the tub...she decided to leave that for Lady Dupries. When she pulled the curtain to the side a little bit she saw her clothes remained as she'd left them, only folded neatly. It looked as if a bit of the dust had been shaken out of them as well. She scrubbed herself dry and put them on, knocking some dirt from her sandals and combing her hair through with her fingers. She looked at herself in the mirror--she hadn't done that in quite a while--and shuddered. She looked awful with her scraped forehead and split lip.

She put her sandals on and opened the door, feeling a rush of cool air that made her shiver. She stepped into the hallway and walked silently toward the dining hall on the right, where she heard the sounds of plates clanking and people talking. She reached the doorway and peered inside.

Justin, sitting at the long table, saw her first and brightened again, waving her forward. "Here she is! I thought perhaps you drowned in there. Come here and let me see that, it looks as if it must ache something awful."

Charmian obeyed. When she stepped into the room she stopped abruptly, noticing that, besides the servant bringing out the food, there were five of them there.

"Fr-Francois!" she exclaimed, nearly running forward to meet him. The trapper stood near the side of the room, previously out of her view, and he smiled and even bowed a bit when she came up.

"Bonjour, ma chère. I was told there was another guest, but I did not guess it was you."

"You're staying here to eat, too?"

"Oui, I was invited by Monsieur Dupries when I spoke with him earlier...you look as if you've had a few adventures since then, no?"

"Yeah, a few...they might be over but I can still feel them." She smiled and offered a stupid smile when Justin reached out and took her hand, turning it palm up to look at the cut there. She winced.

"You got this in the Crack, I assume?"

"Yeah...sliced it on a sharp rock. The other two I got down there also...kind of a dangerous place."

He folded her hand in his own, causing her to blush again. A soft glow surrounded their hands and both Dupries and Francois leaned forward, one surprised, the other curious. When he let go of her hand the cut had disappeared.

Francois murmured something in French, sounding impressed. Dupries just gaped. Charmian had to assume Lady Dupries hadn't told him about their son's talent.

"Where else?" Justin asked, and she pointed at her forehead. He placed his palm against it as if feeling for a fever, and after a moment she could no longer feel the ache there. Her ears turned bright red when he put his fingers to her lip and she prayed none of them noticed. They seemed more interested in what Justin was doing anyway. The throbbing in her lip vanished, and he moved away, looking her over.

"Well...seems as if I got the worst of it. Anything else?"

"N-no, that was it, I'm fine. Thanks," she added hastily, dropping her gaze so he couldn't see the mortified look in her eyes.

There was a brief silence, before Dupries coughed and brought them out of it. "Well...dinner is served, from the looks of it. I say we eat before it grows too cold. You're going to have to explain this to me later, Justin."

"Oui, Father..."

Charmian tried to speak as little as possible the whole time they ate--some sort of meat, perhaps venison, with mashed potatoes and a thick gravy and buttered biscuits and even pie for dessert, and of course wine, which she politely refused, being given milk instead--they were surprised to hear that the legal drinking age where she came from was twenty-one: "You must wait until you are a certain age before you can even drink wine?" Dupries asked with astonishment. The rest of the time as she ate she just listened to the rest of them talk, even while Justin and Francois and then Lady Dupries went over what they knew of her situation so far. They knew very little by themselves, and once they'd shared what they did know they all glanced at her, seemingly impressed. She only flushed harder, feeling like a phony.

After they had finished eating, leaving the servants to clean up the table, they went into the parlor and the Dupries had stared at the GeeBee while first Charmian, and then Francois, took turns pressing the little spirit stone against his chest. It didn't seem to want to go in. Charmian was about ready to give up when Francois stood up straight, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Well...it appears perhaps one must have some sort of medicine or some such to get this thing straight. You said the GeeBee's went into Monsieur Pomiere automatically?"

"Yeah, it just hit the floor and then him and then zoom, out came Antoine's. Neither of us really did anything to it..."

"Maybe there's something we miss. Perhaps we should keep the stone out of him for now?"

"But his body might...you know...die and then start to..."

He made a face. "Well...that wouldn't be good. I'll tell you what. We'll bring him back to my own place. This is not far from here. I would hate to impose on the Dupries so much, so we can keep his body there until we figure out what to do. In the meantime I'll ask around a bit to see if anyone has ever dealt with something like this. It can't be new."

"You mean it?" Charmian asked, her face lighting up.

"Oui, of course. You keep the crystal with you however, just in case. I'm certain we can figure out what to do before it's too late. If not, winter is coming, so perhaps we could simply place him in the snow."

That made Charmian laugh, even though she knew it was mean. She told the Dupries goodbye and they stood at the door as she left with Francois, him carrying the GeeBee to the edge of the lawn, where Mani and the pale creatures still waited. Mani whistled and the white things hopped aside; Francois hardly paid them any attention. They walked the rest of the way to his own cabin further into the woods, and the walk only took about twenty minutes. Which was good, as by then Charmian felt almost dead on her feet. This day had been a long one, just like the rest.

"There is a place inside by the fire where you can take a nap," Francois said as he unlatched and opened the door. "You can go ahead and do that while I see to some matters. You must be exhausted by now, wandering all the way down into the Crack and out."

"Yeah, I am kind of tired...thanks, Francois."

She rubbed her eyes and went to sit down on a log bench in front of the fireplace, yawning. Francois put the GeeBee down on a pallet in the corner before coming over to stoke the few embers, slowly building up the fire until it heated the whole room. His place was modest, compared to the Dupries'; but Charmian was too tired to much notice. She put her head down on a bundled fur and shut her eyes, just for a moment, but it was a long moment. If she had awoken just then she would have sworn she'd had a dream, but perhaps it was merely Sikt waking up and speaking to her in her mind, keeping her company. For when she finally did drift back to consciousness she felt she hadn't been alone.

She sat up and rubbed her still-sleepy eyes--the fire was low--and noticed a blur sitting before her. Blinking harder, she saw it was a tied bundle, left as if for her. She pulled it forward, up onto the bench, and undid it, and a set of clothes, made of doeskin and edged with fur, came undone, falling in her lap. She lifted up the top with a look of astonishment. They appeared to be just her size.

"Wow!" She stood up and noticed further a pair of leather--moccasins?--perched before the fire. They were simple, but cozy as soon as she put them on and flexed her toes. They were as flexible as if her feet were still bare, yet warm as well. "Cool!" She checked out the rest of the clothing and couldn't stop a huge grin from spreading across her face. It felt like Christmas!

"Ma chère? Are you awake?" Francois appeared in the doorway with a razor. "Ah, good morning. You looked so comfortable I didn't wish to wake you. I hope those fit, I noticed your clothing is rather tattered and so spent the night sewing them up for you. How do you like them?"

"They're great, Francois! Thanks!"

He smiled. "It's no problem...bring your friend around sometime and I'll see if I can make him up a set also, those mainlander clothes aren't very comfortable around here."

"You can say that again." When she stood up and looked around he stepped out of the doorway and motioned her to go inside. She did so and changed out of her old soiled clothes into the clean new ones. They felt wonderful next to her clean skin. She almost felt completely rejuvenated now!

"I thought perhaps now that you're all fixed up," Francois said as she came back out, all in leather, "that we would head back to Cave of the Woods...Justin said this is where you've been staying, and that the medicine man there is training you. You intended to stay there all winter?"

Charmian felt another pang of homesickness. "Well...not quite...but with the way things are going, I'm probably going to have to. He's pretty strict."

"Ah, do not worry. You've made it pretty far for a mainlander, if I say so myself." She flushed, but this time with pleasure. "I noticed that manitou of yours waited outside all night for you; loyal creature, he is. Those other beings, I have no idea where they went."

"Oh...well, they weren't really with me anyway. Just along for the ride."

"Very well. Bring along your things and we'll head back. Augwak will be fine here, until I can figure out what to do with him. Once I do I'll come straight to you about it."

"Thanks, Francois. You're great!"

They headed outside, Charmian carrying her bundle of clothing under her arm, to meet Mani, who of course whistled good morning. Francois whistled himself, and not long after a manitou came ambling from the woods, whistling back; the two creatures shapeshifted and let them climb atop, turning then in the direction of Cave of the Woods. Charmian was so cheered up from the bath and the dinner and the surprise gift that she didn't care how long the trip took--or how short, considering the manitous' bounding strides. When they reached the cave, to meet Moon Wolf coming out--Pomiere-Augwak was nowhere in sight--she didn't even mind his disapproving look. At this point...she was eager to start training!

"Will you be very hard on her?" she heard Francois murmur as she ducked into the cave to stash away her old clothes.

"The girl has to learn," Moon Wolf replied. "Otherwise she'll never get anywhere."

"Well, at least promise me you won't try that snake trick on her. You had me frightened for weeks with that one."

"Well...all right. No snake trick. But anything else goes..."

Charmian pushed her clothes under an outcropping--she still had no idea where Augwak was, and by now didn't care--and stepped back outside into the crisp air. It was mid-October by now, with November on the way, and after that December. Moon Wolf and Francois both looked at her when she came out, and Francois smiled and held up his hand. She smiled back even as he turned to go. She'd made it this far, like he said; maybe the rest of it wouldn't be so hard. If she could prepare herself.

Moon Wolf signaled to her and walked off into the woods. Charmian hurried to follow. She didn't know what he had planned, but she wasn't going to give up now. She'd made a promise. She'd intended to keep it, and she still did.

You wait for me, Tal Natha. You won't be sorry!

As they disappeared among the trees a wind blew and several more leaves drifted to the ground. With them, a tiny fleck of white which landed atop the red and yellow. Then another, and then two more.

For now, autumn still reigned, but winter was coming soon to the Island.

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