Return To Manitou Island: Part 3
The Gateway Opens
CHARMIAN FROWNED IN her sleep, her nose wrinkling. She tried squinting her eyes shut even more, but as they were already shut, that didn't help much. It felt as if somebody was shining a light across her eyelids, dragging her up out of sleep, and she couldn't believe how annoying the feeling was. She brought her arm up over her eyes, and that managed to block the light, but the damage had already been done. She was awake. With an irritated sigh she removed her arm from her face and blinked upwards, trying to find the source of the light, as well as a way to block it.
Moonlight was filtering in above her head, striking her face and making patterns on the far wall. Charmian sighed. She knew she should have kept her blinds closed, but there was no way she could have known the moon would be so bright tonight of all nights. She pushed herself up and stood, yawning, reaching for the pullstring. Just as the blinds began to descend, she noticed her dreamcatcher again, and turned toward the opposite wall to see its shadow before it could disappear completely.
And her hand froze on the pullstring, suspending the blinds in midair.
On the opposite wall, where a spiderweb shadow should have been, there was instead...nothing. Or rather, a void, opening up cavernously before her.
Charmian stared at this void in confusion. She rubbed at her eyes and looked again, but it was still there.
She pulled on the string so the blinds would stay open, then made her way slowly and cautiously toward the hole. It opened up where her wall and a small stand should have been. She stopped off to the side, afraid to step in front of it; when she gingerly reached her hand out in the way of the dreamcatcher's shadow, nothing happened. Yet she knew that somehow it must have been the dreamcatcher that had done this. Where else could it have come from?
Still, she wasn't quite convinced that this was real. She experimented by going back to her bed and pulling the dreamcatcher down. Then she watched as the cave began to fade from view. With a gasp, she hurried to hang the hoop up again; and then the darkness solidified once more. Her eyes widened.
A dreamcatcher. And a...cave?
Grandma didn't say ANYTHING about a cave!
Or had she...? Charmian's mind started to race. Her very first dream of Manitou Island...it had taken place inside a cave. She'd first gone to the Island through her dreams. Hadn't her grandmother said that it was a dreamcatcher's duty to capture the bad dreams...and let the good dreams slip through?
What better way to let a good dream slip through...than to plant it right on her bedroom wall?
Charmian felt her heart start to beat faster, climbing up into her throat. This was it! It had to be! Maybe a dream of the Island had been awaiting her all along...it just hadn't been able to get through to her. The dreamcatcher had caught it and given it to her. Here it was--the way back to the Island! Exactly what she'd been hoping for!
Her spirits starting to soar, she rushed to change into more appropriate clothing--shorts, T-shirt, pocketed vest, sandals--and grabbed up her backpack, making sure it contained everything she wanted it to. It would be heavy, but she didn't care. She had so many things she wanted to do, so many people to talk to, that she had to go while she had the chance.
Her anxiety grew a bit when she saw the moonlight start to fade as clouds began to move in, and she hurriedly fastened her second sandal and tossed the pack over her shoulder. She started toward the cave entrance, then halted and turned back, uncertain.
The dreamcatcher still dangled from her bedpost.
Charmian stared at it for a moment or two before biting her lip, then walked toward it. She pulled it down from the bedpost and glanced at the cave. The darkness began to waver and fade, and she made up her mind. Without another glance back, she dashed forward, through the opening, and let the darkness consume her.
She nearly tripped and fell, the blackness became so overpowering. Instead she crouched down onto her knees and fished around in her backpack until she located a smooth cylindrical object. Twisting it, a little beam of light appeared, and Charmian shone her flashlight behind her. There was no longer a cave opening, and her bedroom had vanished. Behind her there was nothing but rock.
Instead of feeling anxiety again, Charmian merely grinned. She picked up her backpack, making certain not to drop her light, and went on her way.
Luckily for her, the cave formed into a tunnel which went in only one direction. Once in a while she thought she spotted the occasional opening off to the side, but these she ignored. She knew she must be heading the right way. She wasn't certain how she knew, but she did.
She didn't let the little details deter her. All she had to do was follow this trail, and everything would work out. It always had, before.
The tunnel went on a long way, gradually sloping upwards as it did so. After a long while Charmian stopped and shut off her flashlight, squinting. It was no longer pitch black in here; from far ahead she could detect the faintest gray light, dim and diffused.
Only now did a twinge of anxiety return--what if she was wrong?--but she bit her lip again and pressed on.
The tunnel grew even steeper the further she went, and narrower and rockier as well, so she found herself almost crawling and pulling herself along, getting sweaty and dirty. She hated the claustrophobic feeling the place was beginning to give her, and wished she'd get to the exit already. The light grew brighter and brighter, until finally she squinted when an opening appeared ahead of and above her, leaves framing its edges. Her heart leapt into her throat and with renewed energy she scrambled up toward it. It was just big enough to allow her body passage, and she dragged herself out, scraping her elbows and knees on the jagged rock.
This hole opened out onto a rocky slope, and she scrambled up this as well, seeking level ground. She slipped and nearly fell a few times as she went, and it was only when gravity told her that she could rest without toppling over that she finally stopped, panting, and pushed herself weakly to her feet, wiping her brow and lifting her head to look around her.
Her eyes grew as large as dinner plates. To the left, she saw rock and scrub and bushes, leading downward to a steep slope lined with trees far below. To her right there stretched a seemingly endless expanse of rainbow-colored water, glittering under the sun. Beneath her feet, a frail arm of rock, joining two sides of the land together, almost a rainbow itself, petrified in time.
Charmian found herself standing upon Arch Rock.
An uncontrollable giddiness began to surge up inside her--and before Charmian could control it, she was leaping into the air and yelling, waving her arms with glee. She didn't even care about falling off the rock--that didn't even cross her mind now. Instead she turned in circles, hopping up and down and waving and shouting, her voice echoing off the bluffs. This only stopped when her foot slipped and she remembered where she was--then she jumped to the edge of the rock, which joined it with solid land, and, scurrying up the slope, made her way to safer ground. Then with hardly a pause she was off, dashing across the grass and down into the woods, yelling the entire way.
Charmian jumped down into a hollow and went sprinting through the trees. A flock of birds, startled by her rampage, flapped away into the air. A deer bounded off for safety, whistling angrily as it did so, but she paid them no notice. Her heart felt like it was going to burst out of her chest at any moment--she'd never felt so happy to be anywhere in her life! She could have run through the woods forever, if something hadn't suddenly knocked her feet out from under her, sending her sprawling to the ground. Her face smacked into the dirt, and she sputtered at the taste of soil and leaves.
She coughed and started trying to push herself up, her pack weighing her down, but something grabbed hold of her under the arm and wrenched her into the air so abruptly that she winced. She felt claws digging into her skin as she was whirled around, and her eyes opened and blinked in disbelief to see two large yellow eyes glaring back. A hideous toothy grin greeted her.
"Hello, fleshling," a raspy voice spat. "I had a feeling you would be back!"
"Au--Augwak...?" Charmian whispered, unable to believe it. The GeeBee chief's eyes narrowed and his grin widened from ear to ear, and when she again felt his fingernails digging into her, she knew this was real. "Augwak?" she said again, louder. "Is--is that really you?"
"Who do you think I am?" Augwak hissed. "You didn't hit your head THAT hard--your brains have yet to fall out. I can quickly fix that!"
"It IS you!" A huge smile came to Charmian's face, and Augwak squawked and sputtered when she launched herself at him, her arms going around his neck. He immediately let go of her and landed on the ground--they had been floating several feet in the air--but Charmian didn't let go. If anything, she hugged him tighter, and he started choking and gasping for breath. A few more GeeBees landed around him, staring at the two with some curiosity.
"I can't believe it's really YOU!" Charmian cried. "Do you have any idea how much I've MISSED you guys? I can't believe I'm really here!"
"Y--you--DID hit your head that hard!!" Augwak managed to gasp out. He took hold of her by the arms and started tugging on her, trying to pull himself loose. She clung to him like a vise. "Let...GO OF ME!!"
"I never really thought I'd say it but I even missed you! I know you don't care for me that much, but--"
"HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?!" The other GeeBees started to grin and snicker as Augwak hissed and pried at Charmian's arms. "LET GO, STUPID FLESHLING! LET GO!!"
It took a lot of work, but he finally managed to pry himself loose of Charmian's grip, and with no further ceremony dropped her to the ground, shooting up into the air. Charmian got to her feet as Augwak frantically dusted at himself, hissing in disgust.
"What is wrong with you? Stupid fleshling! I would tear your arms from your body if I were not incredibly repelled by you right now!!"
"Oh, come on!" Charmian shouted cheerily. "It's not like you didn't miss me, too!"
Augwak bared his teeth. "YOU LIE! As if I would miss a pathetic scrap like you! I don't know what I was even thinking, believing you would be worth the trouble! I bet you taste like DEAD SKUNK!"
"I won't even ask you how you know what that tastes like," Charmian returned, and Augwak screamed and clasped his head in his hands, disappearing in a puff of wind. The other GeeBees yelped in surprise and followed suit, so Charmian was left alone.
She decided not to let the encounter bother her. Still with the same cheery grin, she picked up her pack and, dusting herself off, jogged on through the woods again.
For the first time in a long time, she remembered how it felt to be able to run without any worries, without even tiring for want of breath. She had felt so free back when she was on the Island, even when faced with a seemingly undefeatable threat...the moment she had overcome that, with the help of the other Islanders, of course, she had felt...as if she could overcome anything. It was a cheesy feeling, she had to admit, but a good one. She relished the sensation of the wind rushing against her face as she ran. The Island was the only place that had ever felt remotely like a home to her. Even more than the real world, she felt she belonged here. Truly belonged. There weren't many people who could easily claim there was one place where they truly belonged...but she was one of them, now.
And she'd been beginning to think that she would never feel that way again. Well, by whatever means, that had all changed now--she was back home, where she belonged.
She lifted her head and bothered to at last look ahead of herself, before she could trip again. And what she saw this time had much the same effect the cave entrance had had. All motion seemed to cease, and not entirely of her own volition.
Charmian froze and blinked, one knee raised, one foot still planted on the ground in midrun. She'd been so busy rushing through the woods in her excitement that she hadn't even noticed she wasn't alone anymore.
A creature crouched before her, blocking the path--a demon, an Ocryx, its fur a pale mixture of tan and gray, which sparkled gold and silver in the sunlight shining through the undergrowth. Its wings were the color of slate, its tail the same dark shade; it stared at her with wide eyes, caught as offguard as she had been. The two of them simply stood where they'd frozen, gaping back at one another. Charmian didn't know whether to be cheerful at meeting a new face, or to throw a screaming fit. She had never seen this Ocryx before...and that could mean trouble.
She swallowed and tentatively held up one hand. "Um...hi."
Well, it was as good as anything else she could have done.
The Ocryx blinked. A noise came from the far end of the woods, behind it, and they both lifted their heads, craning their necks to see what the cause might be. Charmian got the sudden feeling that this was a female, and her confusion only grew; she knew all the Ocryxes on the Island, and this wasn't one of them. So whose could she be? And was she friendly or not?
How much have I missed while I was gone, anyway?
The rustling grew louder, and then came a voice, calling out almost in a howl--"Khiieta!"
The Ocryx's ears popped up and she turned about, just as another large shape lumbered into view. Charmian's heart squeezed into her throat before she recognized it, and a wide grin spread across her face. The second Ocryx just entering the clearing spotted her as well, and his eyes lit up.
Charmian laughed and dashed past the female Ocryx, intending to throw her arms around X'aaru's neck as she had with Augwak--only X'aaru got to her first. He knocked her flat on her back, knocking the breath out of her, and before she could stop him he was sloppily licking her face. She only laughed louder and grabbed onto his arms, trying to avoid his tongue. The female Ocryx stood off to the side, looking perplexed.
"You came back!" X'aaru barked, letting go of Charmian and bounding about excitedly. "I knew you would! I knew you would!"
"It's SO great being back here!" Charmian exclaimed in return, pushing herself up. She couldn't stop herself from grinning foolishly, she was so happy to see him. "You wouldn't believe how thrilled I am!"
The demon only continued bouncing about, tongue lolling like a big dog's. "I told Mother I had a feeling you'd be coming--and look, it came true! You've been gone so long! Oh! I know she'll want to see you! Everyone else too! Come on! I'll let them know you're here!" He turned around and started bounding off, but Charmian's eyes flicked to the side to see the other Ocryx staring after him still, and she bit her lip.
"Hey, wait, X!"
X'aaru skidded to a stop and turned his head to look back at her, cocking an ear.
"Um..." Charmian's gaze shifted between him and the female Ocryx. "...Are you forgetting something?"
"Huh?" X'aaru saw the female and now he blinked. "OH! I'm sorry! Khiieta, you come too!" He turned away again.
"But X!" Charmian hurried to catch up with him--and with the female as she bounded after him, her own tongue lolling as if she were happy just to be noticed. "You haven't told me who--who she is!"
"Huh? Oh! You mean her?" By now he was far ahead of her, down the trail, and his voice just barely came back to her as he--and the other Ocryx--disappeared over a rise. "This is Khiieta! She's my mate!"
Charmian nearly tripped over her own foot, catching herself just in time as the breath whooshed from her lungs in her state of shock. "M-mate?" she croaked, stunned, her head spinning.
What the hell else had she missed while she'd been gone?
It took her a short while to catch up with the two demons, and she only did because they had stopped in a small clearing under the trees, both of them sniffing excitedly at the ground. The female was speaking as Charmian arrived, panting and exhausted by now; she was surprised by the sound of the strange Ocryx's voice. She spoke aloud, rather than in thought form as most Ocryxes did; her voice was high pitched, and just as cheerful and naive as X'aaru's was.
"What do you think of this one?" she was asking as Charmian entered the clearing. "It looks just right!"
X'aaru paced in circles around something in the ground. "It's near the trees, and not too far from the camp, too...I think it could be good!"
They both dropped their heads and started sniffing furiously at the earth. Charmian had to wait a moment to catch her breath before approaching, frowning in puzzlement. She noticed now that it was a crevice in the ground that held their attention. This must be one of the possibly hundreds of underground caves which riddled the Island like holes in Swiss cheese. Charmian cringed to think that this was the best simile she could come up with, but it was true. The caves were home to all sorts of strange creatures, here.
"X?" she asked, the two Ocryxes still sniffing around the cave opening. "What're you looking for?"
X'aaru's head popped up and he smiled. "A cave to move into!" he said, and Charmian's brow furrowed.
The female Ocryx--Khiieta, Charmian reminded herself--nodded now, looking just as excited. "To raise a family!" she added.
"Oh." Charmian felt her ears grow warm and wasn't certain why. "So, does that mean that you...?"
"Oh--no, not yet." Khiieta's ears flickered and she lowered her chin to her breast with a shy smile. "But sometime soon, I hope!"
X'aaru blushed now, but Charmian smiled. "Well, congratulations then. You two look like you were really meant for each other!"
Both of the demons beamed this time and Charmian nearly laughed. Her last time on the Island, X'aaru had been one of the most timid creatures she'd ever met, despite his fearsome appearance, with a wolf's head, a snake's tail, and an eagle's wings, and sharp pointed horns growing from his skull. If she would have had to place him anywhere in the Island hierarchy, she would have called him an omega. It looked as if he had managed to do well enough in her absence, however; Khiieta was rather pretty for an Ocryx.
"So, X," she said as they rooted around the cave. "You haven't really introduced me to...Khiieta yet." Khiieta lifted her head to look at her, one ear cocking. "Who are your parents?" Charmian asked her directly, not wanting to be rude.
"Oh," X'aaru answered; his voice echoed as his head had vanished into the ground. "I'm sorry. My f...um...Ocryx is her father. And her mother--"
"You're wounded!" Khiieta exclaimed suddenly, startling Charmian. X'aaru raised his head, and the two of them crowded toward her, peering at her arm. Charmian looked down to see a line of blood trickling toward her elbow. She hadn't even felt it until now; Augwak's nails must have punctured her skin.
"Oh," she murmured, covering the puncture marks with her hand. "It's just a scrape."
"But it's bleeding," X'aaru said, his voice now filled with concern. "We were headed back toward the camp; I bet that Mother or Stick-In-The-Dirt can tend to it..."
"That's okay," Charmian said. "It's not that bad; I've been through a lot worse." She smiled. "I really would love to go back to the tribe with you...but there's something else I want to do first. I promise I won't be long; I can't be long when there's so many people I want to say hello to!"
X'aaru grinned and his tongue lolled out. "You promise you'll have somebody look at that?" Khiieta asked, nosing the wound, and Charmian was surprised by her concern. She nodded.
"Yeah, I promise...I should be meeting with somebody who can take care of it. I'll be okay! But thanks!"
"You promise you'll come back to the camp?" X'aaru pressed, and she had to nod again and laugh.
"You know I will, X. I want to see Silver Eagle Feather again so much! And Stick and everybody else. You'll tell her I'll be along, won't you?"
X'aaru nodded quickly. "Of course! Don't be too long!" He hopped back from the cave and flicked his wing at Khiieta. "Come on! She'll want to hear about this, too...we'll see you back there soon, Charmian!"
"You too!" Charmian called back, and the two demons bounded off into the woods, as if having forgotten they could fly. She watched them go, and her heart had never felt so light. Everything was exactly the way she had remembered it.
Her spirits still cheery, she turned and set off in what she hoped was the right direction. She had a lot of people to meet before the day was through, and not nearly enough time to meet them all today.
There was one person, though, who she wanted to make sure she met before the day ended. She felt a bit fortunate to have been dealt this wound, no matter how minor, as it gave her the perfect excuse to seek him out.
Charmian even started to whistle as she walked through the woods. It felt good not to be running, she had to admit; though it had felt easy enough before, now her muscles were starting to feel the ache of too much exercise all at once. She took in a huge breath and let it out, relishing the scent of the air. Everything was so fresh and clean here! Nothing at all like Petoskey, so drab and mundane...
She halted when she thought she heard a rustling noise somewhere in the bushes off to her side...but when after a few moments nothing showed, she went on her way. Probably a rabbit, or something.
This thought brought another smile to her face, as she remembered Manabozho. She would have to figure out where to find him...he hadn't even let her say goodbye the last time she was here, the jerk...
She whistled the rest of the way through the woods to her desired destination...and it was only when the large ornate house in the woods was finally within sight that her resolve began to waver, and her step slowed once more. She stopped at a shielded spot under the trees and stared at the house with a quiver of anxiety in her throat. The place was quiet, but she could hear the sounds of a horse in the stable behind it, so she knew at least someone was present.
Am I really prepared to meet him again? After last time...?
She took a breath, let it out. Clenched her fists. Dallied by taking another breath.
Come on, Charm. You knew the LAST time you were here that nothing would ever work out with him...but he did think of you as a friend. That's good enough, isn't it?
With a sigh...she realized it would have to be. Justin Dupries was about five years older than she was...and she had just entered high school. There was a name for that kind of relationship back where she came from, and it wasn't a pleasant one. She mentally chastised herself for thinking like an idiot--of course she and Justin could be just friends, that was how it had always been, hadn't it?--and forced herself to approach the house again, though her step wasn't as light as it had been before.
She crossed the lawn and ascended the porch steps. At the door, she reached out one fist to knock, hesitated, then did so, very softly; then she bit her lip and did so again, harder.
Why am I being such a wuss? You'd think my guts just turned into jelly or something! I only came here to say hi, and see how he's doing. That's ALL.
I can dream though, can't I? an annoyingly desperate voice replied. Charmian ground her teeth and knocked a third time, trying to drown it out. "Hello?" she called out. "Anyone home?"
She finally heard movement inside, and through the side window, although it was draped, she saw a vaguely feminine shape coming toward the door, and took a step back. Justine Dupries, Justin's mother, must be the one present. Justin might be gone, but she could always catch him later...maybe Lady Dupries had something nice to eat in the meantime...
A smile started to grow upon her face as the door rattled and opened, the occupant peering out at her. But the smile just as quickly faded away once she saw who it was.
Dark hair done up in a delicate bun, just like Lady Dupries's...
A hint of rouge on the lips and cheeks, just like hers...
An exquisite Victorian-style dress which swept all the way down to the floor, just like hers...
But her eyes were dark instead, as was her skin, a reddish-copper hue. Those dark eyes widened in recognition on seeing Charmian, and Charmian's mouth fell open in disbelief.