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Return To Manitou Island: Part 18
All Bark & No Bite
THE SHADOW WOLF leapt, and Charmian flung out her hand, fingers extended.
FWOOM. She nearly fell backwards from the force that cut loose from her hand, a huge mass of fire leaping directly into the Shadow Wolf's face. Charmian stumbled, trying to catch her balance, before sitting down hard. A crackling, popping noise filled the air, and the rest of the Shadow Wolves, watching from the trees, hopped from foot to foot as a yelping sound came from the midst of the inferno. Charmian wiped one hand across her sweaty brow and let out her breath.
If that fireball thingie can fry a Wolf, then I can too!
The fire started to fizzle and die down, and a thick smoke filled the air instead. Charmian coughed and waved her hand to dispense with it, pushing herself back up to her feet. "How did THAT feel, furball...?" she started, only to trail off a second later. The smoke dissipated, but a large soot-black shape remained. Charmian blinked when she found herself staring into the mildly singed Shadow Wolf's eyes. Its lip curled back and it growled, as if to laugh at her.
"What...?" Charmian managed to get out. The Wolf shook the smoke from its fur and came running at her. She turned on one heel and sprinted several yards for distance, then turned and hurled her hand at it again.
A second fireball shot out, seeming to bounce off the Wolf's head and slide down its back. It puffed into smoke on reaching the end of its tail. The Wolf hardly slowed its approach; Charmian threw up both hands and started flinging them back and forth in a gesture that would have been comical if she hadn't been so desperate.
"FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!"
One after another, blasts of fire spouted from her fingertips, each striking the Wolf. They slowed it down a little and singed the fur from its ears and snout, but none came close to doing the damage the fireball from before had done. Charmian started running now, still tossing fireballs over her shoulder--"Fire! Fire! Fire!"--but by now the rest of the Wolves had recovered from their nervousness and were running from the woods as well. With Francois's cabin now behind her, she didn't have anywhere left to go except into the woods themselves.
Charmian skidded to a halt and scooped up a hatchet embedded in a log sitting behind the cabin. She skipped backwards to place the building's back wall behind her and held the weapon up in as threatening a gesture as she could manage. She realized how pathetic she must look, wielding a little ax against a pack of giant wolves, but she couldn't think of anything else to do.
She waited until the smallest one got close enough and then--"FIRE!"--launched a fireball at it, hoping that perhaps an injury to the runt might make the rest of them think twice. She gawked in surprise when even that Wolf simply snapped at the fireball, making it spark and fizzle into thin air. She couldn't believe it.
Charmian grated her teeth in frustration and tried again. "Fire!" She felt her fingers throb with heat, then--to her utter disbelief--the sensation retreated back into her hand, her fingertips going cold. The throbbing that had previously filled her wrist vanished, and her arm was left weak and shaking. Her very legs started trembling as she felt all the fire medicine leave her--even though she could still sense it in the area.
"What the--?" Charmian looked at her hand in confusion, wiggling her fingers. The Wolves stood and silently laughed, tongues lolling. She shook her hand and tried a few more times--"Fire!--Fire!"--but nothing happened. Not even a spark. She sensed the fire elementals retreating from her. They hadn't given up all their power. They were simply...leaving.
But--they can't do that!--what do they think they're doing--?
A loud growling noise distracted her and her head jerked up, eyes wide and face pale. The large Wolf she'd attacked first was at the front of the semicircle now surrounding her, and it tilted its head and grinned in a gesture that was oddly human. Its eyes and teeth glinted as if mocking her.
Where is your medicine now, girl?
Charmian sucked in a breath. That voice--!
The Wolf let out a rasping noise and came at her. Charmian tried to ready herself to throw the hatchet--at least she could take one of them out--but her legs gave out and she collapsed to the ground in a heap. She lifted her head as the Wolf sailed into the air and came down at her--she'd never seen a throat so deep before.
An exploding noise made her jerk--she briefly wondered if Crooked Creek had fired from the cabin again--before the descending Wolf yelped and spasmed in midair, flying off course to tumble to the ground several feet away, legs jerking; Charmian stared at the blood streaming down its side. The rest of the Wolves' ears pricked and they started bolting when more shots filled the air; one or two more of them fell, though the rest scampered off uninjured. Charmian let out her breath and fell over onto her side, grass brushing up against her face.
The firing noises began to die down, then she heard a creak and somebody shuffling across the yard. A moment later she was grasped by the shoulder and pulled upright; Crooked Creek started looking her over, eyes wide and mouth open.
"Are you hurt? Did they bite you? Are you bleeding--?"
Charmian wanted to ask her how she had repeatedly reloaded the gun so fast, but no words would come. It felt as if every bit of strength had left her body. She was barely able to sit up on her own, and merely stared at her hands as more footsteps approached, running from the direction of the woods. After a moment she could make out two different sets of them, and then two more shadows fell across her. To her right, Francois scanned the woods, a long gun similar to the one Crooked Creek had had resting against his shoulder. The second person stooped down in front of her, beside Crooked Creek, and Charmian was so exhausted that she didn't even exclaim aloud when she saw his face.
"Justin," she mumbled, instead, as if just waking up; Justin Dupries looked her over as Crooked Creek had done, lifting her arms and seeking injuries.
"None of them are from the Wolves," he said. "It looks like they didn't get her." He held his hand over the scrapes and cuts she'd gained before and his fingers glowed; the injuries faded away and Charmian felt herself grow somewhat stronger, though her confusion lessened not a bit. She rubbed at her head, looked at her hands, then glanced at the clearing. The dead Shadow Wolf was the only one that remained; the rest had vanished, but not because of her.
"I aimed right at him," she murmured.
"Let's take her inside," Francois said, turning away from the woods. Justin grasped Charmian's elbow and helped her to her feet; Crooked Creek walked over to the dead Wolf, gave it an evil look, and kicked it in the ribs. She picked up the little hatchet Charmian had dropped and raised it over the creature's head but Francois stopped her, taking the weapon away. She gave him a puzzled look; he stooped down to peer at the Wolf while Justin tried to lead Charmian toward the cabin. They made it only as far as the side yard before she sat down, forcing him to stop beside her. He knelt down and looked her over again with a concerned expression.
"Are you all right?"
Charmian just stared at her hands. "I know I hit it. I was aiming right at it." She looked up at the Wolf which Francois was inspecting, then pushed herself up and walked over to it, a confused Justin following. She bent down to look at its fur and saw the burn marks her fire blasts had left, but aside from sizzling some of the fur away, they didn't appear to have done much damage.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "I don't get it. I gave it everything I had!"
"They were attacking you?" Justin queried. "This is strange enough in itself, since they don't go after mainlanders."
"They go after her!" Crooked Creek exclaimed, nodding and pointing at Charmian. "They go after her a lot!"
"It all left me," Charmian murmured, drawing the Frenchmen's attention. They glanced at her questioningly. She still stared at her fingers.
Justin stooped down beside her. "What left you? What is it that you're talking about?"
"The fire." Charmian's voice was distant, preoccupied. "I called on it, but it left me. I couldn't use it anymore...not like it ran out, but like...like my gun jammed, or something." The analogy didn't feel right until she added, "Like somebody took out all the bullets," and then she felt a chill settle over her skin. She rubbed her arms. "The fire elementals left me. They wouldn't let me use them anymore. They all just left!"
Now Justin's brow furrowed. Francois tilted his cap to scratch at his head, but Crooked Creek shifted from foot to foot, wringing her hands.
"Fire?" she echoed. "You can use fire? With your hands?" She turned to Francois and started talking in what sounded like gibberish. Charmian's head bolted up and she whirled to look at the woman, who was pointing back at her; Francois and Justin seemed just as baffled by her unintelligible yammering. Charmian slowly rose to her feet just as Crooked Creek spoke a word that sounded like, "--wabano."
"Wabano?" Charmian said. Crooked Creek turned to give her a tense look. Charmian took a few steps forward, then looked at Francois. "What just happened?"
Francois slowly shook his head. "I don't know." He peered at Crooked Creek. "It sounded as if she was speaking the Chippewa tongue."
Crooked Creek blinked, then her eyes went wide. "You did not understand me?" she exclaimed in surprise; then, as if asking Charmian, "What is Chip-pe-wa?"
"Something's not right here." Charmian rubbed her arms again, feeling suddenly anxious. One of the first things she'd learned about the Island was that there were hardly any language barriers; once in a while a foreign word got through, but for the most part, everyone could understand everyone else. To hear an entire speech given in the native tongue couldn't be normal. "First Wolves chasing me, then the fire, then this." She shook her head and turned to Crooked Creek. "You said wabano. When you pointed at me. What were you talking about? What did you mean by 'wabano'?"
Crooked Creek wrung her hands again, looking nervous. "Fire-jugglers," she mumbled, slowly shuffling closer to Francois. "They can toss fire with their hands...make it do things. Only wabanos do this. You..." she moved back behind Francois now, peering around his arm "...you're not a wabano...are you?"
"What? Me?" Charmian stared at her incredulously. "No! I'm not a wabano!" She looked to Justin. "Tell her! I can use fire and stuff, sure, but I'm not a medicine man or anything!"
"You said it left you," Justin said, taking a step toward her. "The fire. Right when you were using it?"
Charmian nodded, trying to clear her head of Crooked Creek's nervousness. "Like it all just...wandered off, or something. It's never done that before! I could always call it up whenever I wanted to!" She looked down at the Wolf's body and shivered. "It's almost like...it didn't want me to kill the Wolf."
Can that really be true...? But...if the Wolves are evil...why wouldn't the Island want them gone...?
Crooked Creek hastened forward now, waving her hands and startling them. "An offering!" she cried, seizing Charmian's arms and then letting go, almost dancing around her by now. "You have to give an offering!"
"The manitous won't lend their medicine. You've offended them somehow! They are angry with you!" She hurried into the cabin, leaving the other three outside, each equally confused.
"But how did I get them angry?" Charmian asked, her face screwing up. "They've always answered me before, and it's not like I was rude or anything...!"
Justin shook his head. "I don't know...I suppose it's as good a theory as anything else. Maybe you asked for too much?"
Charmian looked at her fingers. "I did kind of overdo it a little..." She lifted her head to look at Justin, and finally the full impact of his being there hit her and she blushed a little. He seemed only slightly older than the last time she'd seen him--certainly not ten years older--but other than that, he was the same. "How did you know to come and help me just then? I thought for sure I was toast...if you'll pardon the expression..."
"Monsieur LaCroix and I were out hunting," Justin said. "When we heard all sorts of noise, and thought perhaps Crooked Creek was in trouble. Until we came up and saw you instead." He frowned. "How long have you been here? I had no clue you were even on the Island!"
"Little Dove was supposed to tell you!" Justin blinked when she mentioned the woman's name, and Charmian waved her hand. "Long story...I've been here a few days. I still can't figure out how nobody's even noticed me yet, unless I get right in their face."
"But there's been no fog lately..."
"I didn't really use the fog this time..." Charmian's mouth twitched. "And that's an even longer story."
Crooked Creek came bustling out of the cabin now, carrying a pouch. She pressed it into Charmian's hands; when Charmian lifted it she smelled something sweet, and wrinkled her nose.
"Ew! Is that what I think it is--?"
"Tobacco," Crooked Creek affirmed her suspicions. "Take some and offer it to the manitous you've offended! They might not give your medicine back, but at least they will not get any angrier!"
Charmian gave Francois a skeptical look. "Does that really work?"
Crooked Creek turned her around and pushed her toward the trees. All Francois and Justin could do was remain in the yard, staring at the spectacle. "Go on! Go! Before they get REALLY mad!"
Charmian allowed herself to be steered toward the woods before snapping out of her daze and digging her feet into the ground. "Hold on!" she protested, struggling to free herself from the woman's pushing. "Go where? It's not like I know where these manitous live or anything--!"
"That's up to YOU to figure out! You called them--now you have to find them!" Crooked Creek gave her one last shove, propelling her into the trees where she nearly tripped over a root. Charmian caught herself just in time and whirled back to give her a venomous glare. Crooked Creek stood her ground with an equally peeved look. "You feel free to ask them for their medicine--now you have to pay them back! You can't get something for nothing, you know!"
Charmian stomped her foot. "That's always how it worked before!"
Stormclouds formed over Crooked Creek's brow, and Charmian froze. She started stumbling further into the woods when the woman came at her once more, waving her hands and swinging her arms; Charmian had to watch out to keep from running into trees and falling over rocks to avoid being hit. "Wabano! Go on! Go pay for your medicine! You don't just take! That's not the way it works!"
"I'M NOT A WABANO!" Charmian yelled in return, but she didn't dare head back into the yard. She got a final glimpse of Justin and Francois, but they seemed just as wary of the stout woman as she was. They gave her sympathetic looks but didn't follow, and Charmian had to turn back to her course, stomping and muttering under her breath.
"Stupid! How am I supposed to know where to go? Like I know where the spirits live! They were always a-OK giving me their medicine before without any tobacco in return! What spirit in its right mind takes tobacco, anyway? Don't they know that stuff gives you cancer? And what is this crap about me being a WABANO...?"
She tramped through the woods for a time before finally locating a large rock and sitting down on it hard, crossing her arms and staring off into the trees with a very peeved look. After a moment or two she lifted her gaze upwards, into the treetops, to spot a few fireflies floating around. She bit her lip, then swallowed her hesitation and reached into the little pouch she'd been given. She pulled out a pinch of tobacco, gave it a critical look, then meekly held it up toward the tiny flickering lights.
She waited. The fireflies wove and bobbed a bit, then flickered off into the woods. Charmian scowled and brought her arm down, tossing the pinch of tobacco onto the ground and shoving the pouch away.
"Stupid tobacco. Like that would work." She heaved a sigh and wiggled her toes, chewing the inside of her mouth and trying to figure out what to do. By now, she really wouldn't have minded trying to seek out the fire elementals. But how on Earth was she supposed to find them? With rare exceptions, it wasn't like the manitous just popped out of nowhere and showed themselves whenever she asked them to. She could sense them all around her, but with her humiliating loss earlier she didn't dare call on them now.
What if she's right? What if I can't call on them anymore? What if I really did get them mad...but how? What did I do wrong?
Did it have something to do with that voice...?
She sighed to herself, then felt at her side. The tobacco pouch wasn't the only one there. With puzzlement, she dug in her pocket until she pulled out another, smaller pouch, and blinked at it in surprise before remembering what it was. The small bag Yellow Turtle had given her on his deathbed.
He said not to open it until I really know when to open it, she reminded herself; then, So...what if now is when?
Maybe he knew I'd have trouble here? Dying people can see things...can't they? What if it's something that can help me?
She sighed again. "I guess this is as good a time as any," she convinced herself, and pulled the tiny pouch open, reaching inside. Her fingers clasped onto something smooth and rounded and she frowned in curiosity as she pulled it out. She twisted her fingers into a leather string looping the object into a necklace and dangled it before her eyes in disbelief.
"A cowrie shell?"
Instantly Charmian's hopes deflated and she rolled her eyes, letting the little shell necklace drop into her lap. "Oh brother." With a huge sigh she put it back in its pouch and put the pouch back in her pocket, getting to her feet. "I think that's a little NOT the element I was looking for," she complained aloud as she turned back onto the trail with a heavy step. "Good for water, maybe, but definitely not for fire...why would he give me a cowrie shell, anyway? I thought those went out in the Seventies..."
She resigned herself to having to walk at least part of the Island in search of whatever manitou she might have offended, though she had no clue which one. Perhaps Manabozho would know, but she'd lost track of him on their run away from the Fairy Arch. Where had he gone and how come he hadn't popped up yet?
"Maybe he's the one I pissed off," she muttered, knowing the comment made no sense, but wanting to say it anyway. She then felt all the hairs stand up on the back of her neck, and glanced over her shoulder apprehensively.
The trail was empty. She strained her ears, but couldn't hear so much as a pant or a rustle.
Am I being paranoid?...it's kind of hard to tell, in a place like this...
She stared at the empty trail for a moment or two before turning to face forward again. She let out a little gasp when she saw the ball of fire from earlier drifting far ahead, swaying between two trees as if suspended by a string. She stared at it for a long while before it began to slowly fade away into the woods, and only then did she feel her muscles untense. She looked down at her fingers for some reason, then noticed they still smelled like tobacco.
There is only one other I know of, and I can't be certain if the rumors are true. He may or may not be a wabano. All I know is that he practices in secret. I couldn't even tell you exactly where he lives, as nobody knows. I do not even know if he has always been here or not. His name is Snow Bear...
Fire-jugglers. They can toss fire with their hands...make it do things. Only wabanos do this. You...you're not a wabano...are you?
The fireball flickered out of sight around a bend in the trail. Charmian felt her fingers clenching as she tried to summon up the courage to make her feet move, then followed the path the light had taken.
All I can guess is that if there's anywhere to start on this Island, this must be the best place.
She faltered a little bit when she thought of how Manabozho had reacted on seeing the fireball, then shoved this thought out of her head. He wasn't here to give her advice, was he? For all she cared he gave up his right to advise her against anything the moment he ran off.
And he hadn't killed off a Shadow Wolf like the fireball had, either.
After a while of walking she caught sight of the light again, though it was getting a bit harder to see with daylight growing. She brushed some leaves aside and yawned. At least she didn't have any bumps and bruises to deal with anymore, thanks to Justin...she felt a pang of guilt that she hadn't been more talkative with him. And then she wondered why she should feel guilty about something like that, anyway.
She shook her head to clear it of its daze and examined the trail. The light had disappeared again, and the trail forked ahead. Charmian stopped and peered around, standing on tiptoe and craning her neck, but it hadn't left any trace. She chewed on her lip and thought.
Well, I guess my math teacher was right when she said I'd get in trouble someday if I didn't pay attention, though I bet she didn't think I'd be fighting off Wolves and following weird fireballs rather than doing equations.
"I don't see algebra helping me get out of this," she muttered aloud. "'Real-world skills,' my ass. Real-world if you're not stuck in this place."
A snorting, shuffling sound from off in the woods beside the left-hand trail caught her attention, setting her nerves on edge. She turned toward the sound and could tell it was coming closer...and if it was a Wolf, it was a very big one. Even from this distance she could see saplings bending left and right as something lumbered through the undergrowth, heading in her direction. She lifted her hand before remembering that using fire, at least, would be futile; what about the other elements? She wasn't certain if she should bother with them right now, following Crooked Creek's suggestion. She bit her lip again and searched around at her feet, then looked up at a nearby tree; she snapped off a low branch, started to turn away, then turned back to the tree with a pained face.
"Sorry. I...uh...need this."
The tree said nothing, so she turned back to the source of the noise. She dreaded the thought of facing yet another Wolf, so soon after the last...and so soon after finding out she had no real way to fight them off. Shadow Water had been pretty good at fighting them...why couldn't she be in the area?
The shuffling noises grew louder, and she finally spotted the furry back of some great beast coming toward her. She frowned in confusion to notice it was not coal black like the Wolves. It appeared to be white, but perhaps that was just the early light reflecting off its fur. She held up the stick and decided to wait for its approach rather than run away; she knew from experience that dogs and wolves could run faster than people, so aside from being torn open from the back rather than the front, and making a pretty corpse, she supposed running would serve no real purpose.
Still, her arms started to shake a little as the sounds grew ever closer, before a great snout poked its way out of the bushes, nostrils flaring. Charmian stared. A head followed, then a neck, then shoulders, paws, and body. Every drop of blood drained from Charmian's face as the creature rose onto its hind legs, looming over her even higher than her ceiling was at home. No wolf was that big...but the little glittering eyes that stared down at her didn't belong to a wolf.
Charmian's arms started shaking even harder, and the long stick suddenly felt very puny, as she realized she was staring into the eyes of an immense, towering, ghost-white bear.