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Return To Manitou Island: Part 20

Outsider, Looking In


CHARMIAN'S WORDS were cut off when a burst of blinding light exploded from her chest. She managed to gasp in surprise, catching a glimpse of Snow Bear's outstretched hand before she couldn't see anything anymore. A blaring noise accompanied the sound so for what seemed like a long time she couldn't hear anything, either, except what seemed to be a roaring and rushing of wind.

What's he DOING to me--?

The light began to die, and she was finally able to open her eyes, just a sliver. She caught sight of the wabano's face, then glimpsed down at herself to see what damage had been done. It looked as if a hole had been blown in her chest!

It took her a moment more to realize she was in fact seeing through herself, rather than inside. A glittering, fiery orange-red crystal shone there, and the dimmer the light grew, the more the stone faded as well. After another moment or two it disappeared from sight entirely, the sound and light vanishing with it, and she again stood in front of Snow Bear's doorway, her arms thrown up before her face. She slowly lowered them, her hands shaking. She pressed one to her chest.

"You looked at my spirit stone," she said, half surprised, half accusatory as if she'd caught him peeking at something he shouldn't have.

Snow Bear lowered his hand. "It is clear," he said, and turned away from her to go retrieve his walking stick.

Charmian's eyebrows drew together. "I could've told you that."

"Only one with a pure spirit and good intentions has a clear spirit stone," Snow Bear went on, picking up the stick. "Those with malice in their hearts will have a dark spirit. The greater the evil, the darker the stone."

"I knew that already. I can see these things too, you know." She held up her hand as if to examine Snow Bear's spirit stone, then thought better of it. "This is the advice you were going to give me?"

"Think." Snow Bear turned to her and tapped the side of his head. "An evil creature possesses a dark spirit stone. One's spirit can be corrupted by another's evil, as well."

"I know that. I saw it happen to Justin and Tal Natha..." Charmian's voice faded and she found herself staring at the earthen floor. "The Shadow Wolves," she finally murmured, after a long while. "You mean their spirits are dark?"

"How would you explain their behavior?"

"But animals can't be evil..." She paused. "Then that means something's controlling them. Something made them that way." Her face lit up. "Then if that's so, they can just fight it off. Justin and Tal Natha did that. All I would have to do is find a way to talk with them, somehow..."

"The long knife and the demon still had good in their spirits," Snow Bear said. "They were not dark yet."

"So how can you say the Wolves are any different? If someone's controlling them, then that means they didn't want to be that way. All I have to do is try to get through to them somehow."

Snow Bear tilted his head and cocked a brow. "You are so confident you can speak to them?"

"Well...no..." Charmian fidgeted. "I don't really know how to talk to wolves. But...well, somebody else probably does, and I bet if I just try hard enough..."

"If you had it in you to change their spirits back," Snow Bear said, "would you do it?"

Charmian frowned. "I don't know...I don't have that power." She lifted her head and shrugged. "Besides, I shouldn't have to. Justin and Tal Natha healed themselves. I bet the Wolves can too. It's just a matter of convincing them."

"And what if that fails? What then will you do?"

His questioning was starting to annoy her. "I don't know," she admitted. "Try something else, I guess."

Snow Bear approached the doorway. "Again, if you could change their spirits back...?"

"I said already, I don't have that power."

"But if you did?"

"I don't know! I shouldn't have to use it if I did. They should be able to do it on their own. It's a moot point anyway."

"You see something wrong with the thought? What makes you think they would want to change, anyway?"

"Because they couldn't have wanted to be that way. Justin and Tal Natha didn't."

"These are wolves, and wolves are different."

"They still have spirits. Animals are good...people." Her face twitched at the odd comment. "They wouldn't want to be evil. You started to say it yourself, their spirits aren't naturally dark. If somebody's controlling them, then they deserve to be set free." She looked at the large bear skull on the wall. "Then maybe one problem is taken care of, if not all of them..." she said to herself, rubbing her fingers together.

Snow Bear stopped several feet away, and she suddenly realized he had finally helped answer one of her questions. "Oh," she said in surprise; then she rubbed at her neck in mild embarrassment. "I'm not sure what I could pay you with, since all I have is this tobacco..."

She pulled her pack forward and started digging around in it, hoping to find something worthwhile. She had to cut this short when the head of Snow Bear's stick pressed against the pack and nudged her hand away from it. She looked up at him in puzzlement as he went toward the doorway.

"You're helping me for free?" she asked. "I thought I was supposed to pay something...why would you help me for free?"

"You already paid."

"I did?" She frowned. "When?"

He made a point of looking at her once more as he lifted the doorflap. "When you apologized."

When I what--?

A scene suddenly flashed in Charmian's head--she saw herself running up the slope outside of town, running smack-dab into something, then hastily retrieving all the packages she'd made the old man drop. "Really sorry!" she'd said, before running off on her way again. The incident had seemed pretty negligible, back then...

Is that what he's talking about...?

"Courtesy is something often lost on the young," Snow Bear added, before stepping out of the door. Charmian stood in his wigwam for a moment fiddling her fingers. Apologizing for being rude seemed like an odd payment to give, but it wasn't like she had much to choose from. With a sigh she did up her pack and lifted the flap to follow the wabano outside.

"Maybe I can find..."

She cut herself off when she found not the old man, but the great white bear standing just outside. It turned its head and when those little black eyes focused on her she went mute again. With a snuffling, snorting sound it turned away and lumbered off, away from the clearing. She pulled her other foot out of the wigwam and stood, watching it go. Stick-In-The-Dirt leapt down from the root he'd been sitting upon and jogged across the clearing to meet her.

"I heard a noise," he said in a distressed voice. "Did he do something...?"

Charmian shook her head in a daze. "I don't think so...I'm okay." She rubbed at her head. "Though I'm kind of confused."

"Did he use any medicine...?"

"I don't think so. I'll be all right. I just need to get away from here."

Stick-In-The-Dirt cast an anxious look over his shoulder. "He's gone now anyway. We should go before any Wolves appear."

He turned and led the way back toward the trail the bear must have first taken. Charmian followed gratefully, as she had no idea which direction to go in, having been unconscious all the way there. She did make a point of plotting the trail out in her mind as they headed back toward brighter parts of the Island, just in case she ever needed to return...for whatever reason.

The canoe was small enough that it could be hidden easily in the hollow beneath a fallen tree, and so that was exactly where it was stowed. Its owner made certain to cover it over with dead leaves just in case, then ascended the rest of the slope without it.

Several times so far, there had been volunteers to try to seek out the strange Island which floated in the mist. Two of them had returned emptyhanded, claiming to have found nothing. One had come back with addled reports of bizarre creatures which had tried to pull him down into the waters until he had fled back home. And the fourth had simply never returned at all.

Singing Cedars was the fifth to attempt the voyage. His tribe knew very little about the place he was seeking out, and the stories they'd heard from captives and fellow braves had all been conflicting. Some said the Island was always there, just hard to find. Some said it came and went with the mist. Some said it was invisible. Some said it moved all over the lakes as it chose, or that it floated upon the clouds. Some said it didn't exist, and others...well, their stories were just too strange to bother repeating.

Singing Cedars had believed in its existence at first, until one by one his fellows had returned--and not returned--with no results. By the time a volunteer was called upon yet again, he was just about certain no such place existed.

That didn't stop him from volunteering--at least he could be the one to put the silly story to rest for good. The others had not been experienced in sailing the great lake, so he would find the Island--or not--on his own. Chances were that, if it existed, it was just an isolated rock anyway.

So of course he had been quite surprised to find this large piece of land looming out of the water to the west, trees and shrubs and rocks lining its massive bluffs. Though he approached the shadowed side, he still felt the need for stealth, especially considering the stories he'd heard. Some said the Island was home to people like his own kind, only of the enemy tribe; others said it was home to only monsters. He had been of the mind that if it did exist, it was empty and abandoned. Yet the sight of the queer arched rock rising high above him, and more than one flicker of fire in the woods, had been enough to convince him to be careful. His hands had almost been shaking as he'd secreted his canoe away in the hollow. He then told himself to stop acting like a woman and do what he'd come here to do: check the place out.

And so, after hiding the canoe, he climbed up the slope to see what awaited him there.

For the most part, the Island was a mass of trees and shrubs and stone, just as it had looked like from the beach. The odd rock formations he kept coming across intrigued him, but he never stopped for long. More than once he spotted a bit of light or heard a snippet of a voice in the distance, and always retreated deeper into the woods whenever he did. It wasn't that he was a coward; he just wasn't prepared to deal with anyone here, on his own. He had to know what he would be dealing with first, after all.

Voices came from the woods again, and he looked around himself until he found another hollow down beside an old tree. He crept down into it and peered out between the roots. Something moved among the trees; after a moment or two the voices became clearer, and he could tell it was two people talking.

"...wouldn't be wise to go back there, even in good company. I know you must have thoughts about it..."

"Actually, I can't think of a good enough reason to go back, at least not yet...I think he told me all he was planning on telling me. And I don't get even that."

Singing Cedars frowned in confusion. They were speaking in his tongue! According to most stories, it was the enemy tribe who lived upon this Island, if any lived here at all; their tongues were completely different. How could they be speaking his language so fluently...? Were the stories false after all, and his own people in fact lived here...?

The idea intrigued him, and he lifted his head higher to better see who was speaking. They came even closer and now he saw it was a thin man--one like himself--and a young girl. With white skin. Her hair was the reddish-orange of a sunset and her face and limbs were pale like those of the trappers who had sided with his enemy. From the looks of the charms and tattoos and decorations upon the man, he could tell he was in fact a member of the enemy tribe, after all.

This makes no sense! How do they know my language? And why are they speaking it in private--?

The native man looked at the girl and raised a finger. "I still know you better. And I should know him, too. Even if you feel no need to return, he could always make sure you do. If you feel any urge to do so, fight it off--no good can come of it. Turning into a bear right in front of us! He was showing off his powers, you see; a medicine man with sense doesn't go doing that just for show unless he wishes to impress someone."

"He kinda impressed me," the girl said.

"That was the point of it. Don't fall for it. You should know from the wolf demons that something which impresses is not necessarily good."

"Or bad." The man gave her a reproachful look and she held up her hands. "I know, I know, Stick; trust me, I really don't feel like going back there any time soon. I just...kind of have this thing against bears." She shivered and rubbed her pale arms. The man shrugged.

"Well, I will be keeping an eye upon him, just in case. He has strong medicine; I hate to think of him trying to use it on you."

"You think I couldn't fend him off?"

"This isn't it...it's just that, with medicine, when more than one person gets involved it can get rather bothersome..."

Their voices began to fade as they wandered further from Singing Cedars's sight. He strained his ears until he was certain they were gone, then carefully crept out of the hollow and onto the path they'd vacated. He stooped down to make out their tracks; then noticed two sets of tracks going the opposite way--one exactly the same as the man's, one that of a large animal--a bear. He frowned. They'd just been talking about a man who turned into a bear.

He felt a slight, uneasy prickling at the base of his neck, and reached back to rub at it. Already this place was making him feel uncomfortable. Enemy natives and whites who spoke his language while in private...wolf demons...men who turned into bears...and he knew enough about the enemy to know that the man who had been talking to the girl had been a medicine man. Yet he had spoken to the girl as if she were the one in the position of greater power. What sort of strange place was this?

For the first time since volunteering, Singing Cedars began to have some doubts about the wisdom of this plan. Still, he couldn't exactly head back now.

Daylight was growing but parts of the woods were still in shadow, so he used this to his advantage. The Island could not be that big, judging by the looks of it from his voyage there. He would make a brief circuit of it, covering as much land as he could in as little time as possible, and then head back before the sun rose to the middle of the sky. He could likely be gone before they could even realize he was there.

He decided to stick to the woods and keep away from the trails themselves, and so trotted through the trees and ferns. A few times voices came to his ears, but it was usually groups of women and children setting out for their morning duties. He spotted a camp here and there, none of them very big, but the further he went the fewer these got until he understood that only the eastern part of the Island was well populated at all. Further to the west, things grew oddly quiet.

At one point an odd cackling sound overhead made him gasp and duck down into the bushes; he couldn't tell what it was that flew overhead, but there seemed to be several of them, and he caught the briefest glimpse of their long crooked fingers and huge yellow eyes. He held his breath until they were gone; similar noises from further off made him change his course slightly. Whatever they were, they couldn't be pleasant to deal with.

Singing Cedars retreated beneath the trees again, rubbing at his neck. Although he didn't want to be seen, he was grateful for the sunlight.

After a while the trees began to grow thicker and darker, their branches taking on strange gnarled shapes. Singing Cedars looked up into them, tense. The sound of water lapping drew his attention and he picked up his pace; he must have reached the lakeshore. There he could get his bearings, and head north or south to see what lay there.

To his surprise, it was not the great lake, but a much smaller one which greeted him when he stepped out of the woods. It looked to be nothing more than a large pond dropped haphazardly in the middle of the woods, without even what could be called beach; the grass went down to the water itself, which was black and glassy and only slightly ruffled by the breeze. It would have been a peaceful scene...yet something about it made him pause, the skin on his arms prickling.

Yet all he could see was grass and trees and water.

He shook his head to clear it, annoyed with himself over his cowardice. Imagine how his comrades would laugh if they were to hear the brave Singing Cedars had been frightened off by a lake! And hardly even a lake, at that.

As if to spite the feeling, he walked toward it and down to the edge of the water. Even when he leaned over to peer in, he could see no depth to it; it was black, as far down as he could see...which was to no depth at all. Singing Cedars frowned. He bent down and stuck his hand in, feeling for earth, but found nothing. The chill passed over him again.

A bottomless lake?

The water started roiling several yards away from him, and he gasped and jumped up. His eyes grew when two huge moose antlers broke the surface--what was such a creature doing underneath the water in a place like this? Then the horns were followed by a shock of white fur, and two hooded, menacing glowing eyes--and Singing Cedars just about fell over himself trying to hurry away from the sight.

He hit the ground, then twisted around and pushed himself up. He scrabbled to his feet but the grass was slippery and he simply fell down again. Where had all his coordination gone? He tore up handfuls of the green stuff as he tried frantically to drag himself toward the trees, when an eerie whistling sound drifted to his ears, slowing his motions. He tried to resist the urge to look back but couldn't.

The antlered creature still stayed in the lake, only its head showing. Its face was vaguely deerlike, but the menacing features certainly didn't belong to any deer. Nor did the strange blue-lit eyes. Its nostrils flared and Singing Cedars realized the whistling noise was coming from it, before he felt himself slipping into a lull, the singsong whistling bobbing in his head. His muscles relaxed and his eyes glazed over; the creature slowly swam closer, but he didn't care. He even pushed himself up again and turned toward the lake, rather than away, striving to hear more of the singing. His head felt like it floated in a dream.

Snap. Singing Cedars felt this rather than heard it, and blinked and jerked awake. Barely inches away from him loomed the baleful blue eyes of the water creature; its nostrils flared again and its eyes gave an angry glint. Singing Cedars yelped and scrambled up from the lake's grassy shore--where he had apparently been crawling on hands and knees--and this time managed to make it to the treeline before tripping over a root. This barely deterred him; with just the briefest glance back, to make certain he wasn't being followed, he bolted into the woods.

Here he nearly ran into a tree when a looming shape off to the left caught his attention. He saw a vaguely wolflike face, which was bad enough, but when he also spotted the horns and glowing eyes, that made his feet move all the faster. Before the creature could even spot him he was gone, racing back toward the other side of the Island.

Singing Cedars tripped and fell and got up and tripped more times than anyone would have been able to count on his run back toward the east bluff, but no amount of scrapes and bruises deterred him, either. Indeed, his feet didn't even stop going until he had pushed his canoe out into the lake and jumped inside it, grabbing the paddle and stroking at the water frantically. He splashed around a lot more than he actually paddled, but eventually he got the canoe under control, and it cut through the water away from the Island.

All the way back home, Singing Cedars agonized over what exactly he was going to say had frightened him away--the flying cackling creatures, the bottomless lake, the singing water monster, the horned wolf demon--before telling himself that it didn't really matter what had done the job. He'd found the Island, and he'd made it home--and no matter how much he might not want to, he was bound to be sent right back.

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