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Return To Manitou Island: Part 25
No Return Policy
THE LIGHT BUBBLE which had enveloped the Shadow Wolf had burst, so abruptly that it knocked Charmian and the other watchers into the woods. As they stood and shielded their eyes the light began to fade, and even though she could hardly walk, Charmian found herself preparing to run, or fight, or do whatever she had to do to fend off the enraged creature once he realized he was free.
The trees came into view first, as they were closest...then the manitous standing near the edge of the clearing, their ears upright and alert...then a dark mass lying on the forest floor. Charmian tensed and felt Thomas do the same next to her. She dared to hope for a moment that the Wolf was dead, when he started quivering, then put his legs out to shakily push himself upright, first onto his front legs, then onto all fours. He swayed where he stood, his head hanging and what looked to be mist rising from his fur. He finally lifted his head and Charmian saw he was panting heavily. He shook his head and turned, starting to walk, only to weave from side to side and nearly fall down.
Thomas squeezed her arm. "I think you stunned him," he whispered. "We should get out of here before he recovers himself."
Charmian allowed him to start pulling her away from the clearing, when the Wolf turned to look at her, still swaying unsteadily. Their eyes met and she gasped.
She dug her good foot into the ground, making Thomas glance back at her in confusion. "I don't think he's stunned," she murmured, carefully pulling her arm free and staring at the Wolf. "I think he's...confused."
Thomas's brow furrowed. "Either way, don't you think we should get going--? I saw how it affected you when he attacked Mani. If he starts doing that again, there isn't much I can do to help you."
Charmian shook her head slowly. "I don't think he's going to attack." She stepped to the edge of the clearing and watched the Wolf as he paced in circles, shaking his head as if to clear it, pausing, then circling again. The manitous drew a little closer as well; Mani whistled, and the Wolf froze as if startled, glancing at him. They stared at each other for a moment before he took a step back, paused uncertainly, then turned and loped off into the woods, in the opposite direction from that the other Wolves had taken. He faded into the shadows and Charmian's tensed muscles finally relaxed.
Thomas seemed more confused than ever. "I don't understand why he wouldn't attack, when he's obviously got the upper hand..." He looked down at Charmian, his eyes questioning. "How did you know?"
Charmian still stared at the clearing, as if the Wolf still stood there. "His eyes," she said after a moment. "They weren't yellow anymore. They were blue." Her own brow furrowed as she realized how odd her assumption had been. "I don't know what that means, but..." She trailed off, not sure what to say. She looked down at her hands instead, turning them this way and that. "I don't even know what I did...did I really do that?"
"No one else could have," Thomas said. "Remember, I didn't have the chance to attack him again--not that I could have done that trick anyway. What kind of attack was that?"
Charmian shook her head. "I don't know...I didn't even call any elements." She bit her lip and tried to remember exactly everything she had done at that moment, but it was mostly a blur by now. "I remember I got really mad...and I didn't call anything because I didn't think anything would work...I just held out my hand like I wanted to hit him, and..." She blinked when she remembered the feeling she'd gotten in her chest right before the light appeared, and pressed her hand against it, her look of confusion growing. "I think my heart skipped a beat or something, because..."
No, that wasn't it...it wasn't my heart doing anything...
Her hand lowered from her chest and she stared at her palms.
If you had it in you to change their spirits back, would you do it?
I don't know...I don't have that power...
"Their spirit stones." The words came out before Charmian even knew she was speaking, but all she could do was stare at her hands as if she'd never seen them before. Thomas looked uneasy, but said nothing. "I did it," she whispered after a moment. "I changed him."
Charmian lifted her head to look back up at the clearing. "I changed him," she said again, louder this time. "His spirit stone. It was dark, and I changed it."
Thomas looked perplexed, but didn't ask her to explain. "What sort of element do you call up for that?" he asked instead, at which she dazedly shook her head.
"There are none. I didn't call any." She glanced at her hands again, and a feeling of panic started to seep up into her chest. "I'm not supposed to have this power. I've never been able to do that before."
"Maybe it's something new you picked up...?" He moved to stand in front of her and took her hands. "Why ask where it came from? Just as long as it helped fight the Wolves? Shouldn't you be happy to have it?"
"You don't just get powers." Charmian pulled her hands away and held them out in front of her as if afraid of them. "They always have to come from somewhere. And I've never been able to change spirit stones! There's no way I could've just picked that up!"
"Why does it matter, then? Like I said, nothing else could defeat the Wolves, but this apparently can--why not try using it again--?"
Charmian shook her head abruptly, the thought horrifying her. "I can't do that!" she blurted out, without being certain why.
Thomas's brow furrowed and he looked at her as if she were nuts. "Why not?"
"Because it's--" she faltered, still staring at her hands, before saying lamely, "because it's not right."
Thomas gawked, then shut his eyes and rubbed at his head. "And why isn't it right, if you can do it? I thought you would use any power you had to fight them...?"
"Not this one." She shook her hands, knowing it was a futile gesture but feeling sufficiently creeped out anyway. "You can't just go around changing people's spirit stones," she explained. "It's not right."
"But if they're evil, why not do it--?"
"Because!" She clenched her fingers now, without even thinking. "You just don't!"
A little voice in the back of her mind groused, Wow, Charm, you've pulled a one-eighty, but she ignored it and shook her head. The skeptical look on Thomas's face was starting to irritate her. "People are supposed to change their own spirit stones," she said. "You don't change them FOR them. It's just not right to do that--it's like--invasion of privacy--or something. It's doing something to somebody without their consent."
"But what if their spirit stones were light to begin with?" he countered. "And you just changed it back to the way it was? What's so wrong about it then?"
"They're still supposed to change on their own," Charmian exclaimed, growing frustrated. She hated that she had no better argument, but something about what had happened didn't feel right.
Is that it? Is that why this is bothering me so much...? That I have this power in the first place? Sure, it was just one Shadow Wolf, but what if I start to go overboard...?
"Besides, who's to say the Wolves aren't SUPPOSED to be evil?" she retorted, at which Thomas blinked, then crossed his arms.
"So you're saying that even if it were best for the Island--you wouldn't do such a thing to anyone else, even to help?"
"It wouldn't be right. So no, I wouldn't do it. Some spirits are just meant to be dark."
"And so if Ocryana were attacking again, you wouldn't change her spirit stone."
"No, I wouldn't."
"And if Augwak were trying to eat somebody, you wouldn't do it?"
"Especially not on Augwak. I already told you, some people are just meant to be that way! Changing them only upsets things even more. Trust me, I know!"
"But you still don't seem to think these Wolves are meant to be evil," Thomas said, and she opened her mouth to object but couldn't think of a single objection.
You know he's right, Charm...you told Snow Bear yourself that you thought they were good creatures, but something was controlling them...
She blinked now, then gasped and lifted her hands again as if just noticing them. "Snow Bear," she said aloud, then looked out into the woods. "That's it! That's why!"
Thomas opened his mouth to say something, but she was already moving. She started walking toward Mani, only to grimace and sink to the ground on one knee. The manitou came toward her and whistled, and only now did she finally notice that he walked on only three legs, keeping his hind hoof off the ground as much as possible. She touched his antler.
"Sorry about that, Mani. I forgot...it's just easier for you, with four legs and all..."
"Charmian...?" She turned to see Thomas take a tentative step toward her. "What is this 'Snow Bear'? You think it had something to do with this...?"
"He's a wabano. A medicine man," she clarified, seeing that he didn't seem to understand. "I visited with him earlier and..." She glanced at her free hand, then curled her fingers in toward her palm and used Mani's antler to pull herself to her feet. "I think maybe he might know what's going on..."
She paused when Thomas turned and retrieved Cloud, leading him forward by the reins. He gave her a fixed look which puzzled her until he spoke.
"All right then. Do you think that he can handle you...?" He gestured at Mani, whose nostrils flared. "Or would you like a ride?" And he patted Cloud's nose.
Charmian blinked again. She flushed a little and scuffed her sore foot against the ground.
"Um...Mani should be okay. He seemed fine enough earlier, as long as he's got three other good legs to run on..."
Thomas nodded and climbed atop Cloud's back. Mani knelt so Charmian could pull herself atop him, then rose, Charmian holding onto his antlers. She looked at Thomas as he pulled Cloud up beside them.
"I'm guessing you know the way to this Snow Bear's place? If so, we can head there straightaway and you can get this figured out."
Charmian's mouth just about fell open. "How did you know that..." She shut it, then shook her head to clear it. "All right," she said instead, steering Mani in the direction of the wabano's cave. With a slight nudge the manitou was leaping and bounding through the woods, Cloud close behind. She looked back to see the other manitous disperse, probably headed back toward their tribe to make sure it was all right. She turned to face the forest again, grateful that she'd been spared a lengthy explanation of where they were going and why.
How did he know I wanted to go there next...?
They took several wrong trails before finding their way to the right one, which came out into the clearing with the tree-topped cave. Thomas and Cloud stopped not far from the tree where Stick-In-The-Dirt had stayed before, while Charmian climbed down from Mani's back, wincing at the pain which still lanced up her leg. She started hobbling toward the cave before feeling an arm go around her back, and gasped and almost fell over.
"You're going to make it worse if you just keep ignoring it like that," Thomas said. "So you may as well let me help you inside."
Charmian swallowed--she hated how red her face must have gone--but nodded. "Th-thanks." She allowed him to guide her toward the cave, leaning on his arm the entire time. He frowned when he saw the wigwam hidden within, but again he didn't question. She stopped limping in front of the doorflap, making him stop as well.
"Um..." She gestured at the wigwam. "He's a little...strange. I don't know if he'd like somebody else going in his house..."
Thomas nodded. "Understood." He placed her hand against the side of the wigwam and waved at the cave entrance. "I'll stay right here then...all right?"
Charmian nodded as he sat down just inside the entrance, and pushed the flap aside and crawled in. The large round room from before greeted her, and almost immediately, as if she had not even left, she saw Snow Bear again tending to a pot sitting over the central fire. The thought that he might have stayed like this since the last time she saw him jarred her a little and she had to shake her head to rid herself of the odd feeling before approaching.
"You did something, didn't you?" she demanded as she limped toward him, knowing she must look ridiculous with her cut arm and bloody neck and swollen ankle and messed-up hair and clothing, but ignoring the mild look he gave her over his bowl as he sipped. "The last time I was here, when you looked at my spirit stone. You didn't say you did anything else, but I never had that power before I saw you. You did something to me!"
Snow Bear simply lowered the bowl and wiped his mouth. Charmian ground her teeth.
"I know you know what I'm talking about. The Shadow Wolves! Remember? How their spirits are dark? You brought that up right after looking at mine. Then you asked me if I had the chance, would I change them? And I DID!" She waved her arms, nearly falling over and grabbing onto the pole as he started ladling another bowl of soup. "There's NO other place I could have gotten that power except from you. Why did you do that? What's in it for you?"
"I told you," Snow Bear said, sipping again. "You already paid."
Charmian clenched her fist and let out a strained, furious noise. "All I did was say a STUPID apology!! And that was only for the packages! Stick and Creek and everybody made it clear that wabanos don't give something for nothing. I didn't ask for this, so there has to be something in it for you and I want to know what it is!!"
"You find a way to fight the Wolves and all you can do is ask what does it cost?" Snow Bear said, still in that annoyingly calm voice.
Charmian gave him an evil glare. "If it means it's going to cost something BIG, then damn right I'm going to ask it! I didn't even ask for this anyway! I told you. People change their own spirits. We don't change them for them!"
"You seemed quite willing to go with the idea before."
"Yeah, well, I changed my mind. Take it back."
Snow Bear shook his head.
Charmian scowled. She dug in her pocket and tossed the pouch of tobacco Crooked Creek had given her onto the floor in front of him.
"There! Payment! Take it back!"
"It's yours now," Snow Bear said with a sip. "There is no taking it back."
She gawked at him in silence for a moment or two before finding her voice. "You...you mean I'm stuck with this...?" she asked in disbelief. "You can't make me normal again...?"
The medicine man nodded. Charmian stared at him a moment more before looking down at her hands. They didn't seem like her hands anymore, not now that she knew what they could do. She curled her fingers in toward her palms and suddenly wished to tuck them out of sight, but it wasn't as if she could hide her hands forever.
"What are you going to do now?" Snow Bear asked.
She continued staring at her closed fists. Anxiety twinged in her chest--What am I going to do?--followed by a twinge of anger. She lifted her head and met his eyes.
"I'm not going to go using it on every Shadow Wolf I can find, if that's what you're asking!"
He raised an eyebrow. She hated the questioning look and lowered her clenched fists to her sides.
"You can doubt me all you want!"
"You really think you can just pretend it doesn't exist?"
"Of course not. But just because I have it doesn't mean I have to use it. And it's not right to just go around changing other people's spirits, so I'm not going to."
"You believe it will be that easy?"
Charmian scowled. "I've done harder things before. I can learn to fight off a Shadow Wolf without resorting to spirit medicine!"
"And what if the one whose dark spirit you must fight off is not a Shadow Wolf...?"
Charmian blinked. "What do you mean--?" she managed to get out, before she found herself talking to Thomas instead, standing in the entrance to the cave. She blinked again in confusion when he jumped up with a yell of surprise, then automatically looked back at the wigwam. It wasn't there.
She turned around again. Thomas gaped at her as if she were a ghost before tentatively stepping forward.
"How did you do that...?"
Charmian opened her mouth, then shut it. Looked back, saw the wigwam was still gone. Looked forward again. Opened and shut her mouth a few times like a fish, then glanced over her shoulder and yelled into the cave.
"REALLY FUNNY! I'LL REMEMBER THAT THE NEXT TIME I RUN YOU DOWN!!"
She turned back to Thomas, who still stood staring at her in confusion, and started limping up toward the entrance. After a few steps she halted and lifted her sore foot, blinked, then unwrapped her arm and felt at her neck. All of her injuries were gone.
Thomas appeared beside her and lifted up her arm to look it over. He seemed just as perplexed as she was, so she felt a small bit of comfort knowing she wasn't the only one. He let go of her arm and she continued toward the entrance.
"I think we should get out of here."
His brow furrowed but he nodded, and they exited the cave.
"So did you learn what happened, exactly...?" he asked as they made their way back to Mani and Cloud at the other side of the clearing. Mani was sniffing at his front leg with a puzzled look.
"Yes and no," Charmian sighed, reaching to pull herself up onto the manitou's back. "I guess I'll just have to get used to having it."
"The power, you mean...?" He climbed atop Cloud, taking the reins. "I don't understand why you seem to think it's such a bad thing," he commented as they turned back toward the trail; she opened her mouth to retort and he held up his hand. "All right, never mind. Forget I mentioned it."
"I just don't think it's a good idea to go changing things that shouldn't be in our power to change," Charmian sighed. "It just doesn't feel right."
"But isn't any other kind of power you use the same thing? When you toss fireballs or call up water or whichever thing you do, isn't that changing something?"
"It's not the same. Those are just elements. The manitous let me use them because I ask. Spirits are different. Nobody should touch them except the owners themselves."
She felt a twinge as she said this, remembering her last time on the Island...due to some curious mishaps, Augwak's spirit stone had ended up in her hands, and she recalled how she had used part of it against him, managing to hold the hostile GeeBee in check until the time came to leave the Island. Sure, she'd given the piece of crystal back to him then, but she had still been using his own spirit against him. Suddenly everything she was saying to Thomas rang hollow, and she flushed, feeling guilty.
Things were different then, though. If I had that chance again I wouldn't necessarily take it, would I...?
"I think I need to get back to civilization and take a little break," she said aloud instead, not making eye contact.
"Sugar Loaf, for now...maybe Old Mother Manitou can fill me in on a few things, I hope."
Thomas nodded and turned to face the trail. They meandered off into the woods, the trees closing in around them.
Their watcher's yellow eyes narrowed a bit and he tilted his head to the side with a slight smile.
"Well, you're rather noble, for a mainlander of your age. I believe your wabano friend just gave me an interesting idea, though." He glanced back into the fire-lit cave behind him, looking at the shadowy figure crouching near the back. The firelight just barely lit up its wolf-skull mask and his smile grew.
"If she thinks changing a Wolf's spirit is such a moral dilemma...then she should have quite a fun time with you."