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Return To Manitou Island: Part 29

PART TWENTY-NINE:
The Secret Of The Wolves


CHARMIAN STOOD IN the middle of the great tree room, staring at the strange tall woman who stared back. Her features were native, but her eyes were a dark royal blue, and her hair was long and white with pale blue streaks. She wore a long dress of what appeared to be white doeskin, decorated with beaded and quilled patterns of birds and moons and clouds. Her ears were pointed, even more so than Thomas's, and ended in feathery tufts. Behind her back rose the same sort of wings as Niskigwun's. They shifted slightly as Charmian looked at them.

"You're the owner of the tree?" Charmian finally managed to say in an uncertain voice.

The woman nodded once. Her face wasn't friendly, but neither was it as unwelcoming as Niskigwun's had been, so Charmian ventured to ask, "Where exactly are we?"

The winged woman started walking across the floor, and for some reason Charmian noticed that her footfalls made no sound. She approached one of the giant cabochons in the wall and put her hand against it.

"You are in the Sky Tree," she said, and the crystal let off a glow. Charmian, curious, went over to look at it and saw an image of the Tree itself appear. It grew closer, as if a camera were panning in toward it, and she could now see the different paths lining the numerous branches, and the entrances to various rooms all throughout its trunk. Michinimakinong moved back and forth along the branches, apparently carrying out their duties. She even spotted Niskigwun walking along one of the hanging bridges before the image faded and the glow disappeared. Geezhigo-Quae turned to look down at her.

"Why have you come here?"

Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. She hated that question by now, but at least Geezhigo-Quae didn't ask it in the same tone that Niskigwun had. She found herself scuffing her foot against the wooden floor anyway, unable to hold the woman's stare. She felt just like she had when she'd been chastised by her third-grade teacher for talking in class.

"I wanted to talk with the person in charge," she said in a small voice.

"This does not explain your presence." Geezhigo-Quae's voice was still disapproving, but sounded much more patient than she'd expected it to. She let out her breath and fiddled her fingers before forcing herself to stop and look up at her again. "The Fairy Arch was broken so that your people would not come through," Geezhigo-Quae continued. "Yet now you have trespassed on our land. Niskigwun told me how you had tried this before. The gateway has been closed for many years, and so I do not understand why you should be so interested in coming through now."

"It's important," Charmian blurted out.

Geezhigo-Quae lifted an eyebrow when she fell silent, then said, "Your explanation why?"

Charmian chewed on her lip now, then took a breath. Well, the worst thing she can do is take a ruler to my knuckles. "It's about the Island," she explained. "It's in trouble. I came here before...my name's Charmian..."

"I know who you are." Charmian blinked on hearing this. Geezhigo-Quae turned and started walking back toward the large balcony. "Do not think you were not observed the last time you were here. Your name is already known to us."

"You've...heard of me here?" Charmian's brow furrowed and she tentatively walked toward the balcony. She'd known her fame had spread across the Island, but not into the Fairy Realm itself. Where did these people get their news...?

"You are the one who defeated the demoness." The old woman held up a hand when Charmian opened her mouth to protest. "With the assistance of others. You were noticed, as you managed to persuade the demon and the Wendigoes to help you. You have earned a reputation here." She glanced over her shoulder when Charmian opened her mouth again. "Yet this does not give you permission to enter our land."

Charmian bit her tongue. Well, so much for throwing her weight around. "I came to ask you what you know about the Island," she said. "I was told that the Turtle Fairies would know more than anyone about it here."

"And who was it who told you thus?"

"Nokomis. She lives in the Crooked Tree."

Geezhigo-Quae turned her head again, frowning. She turned fully around and stepped to the edge of the room, her blue eyes boring through Charmian's.

"The grandmother of Manabozho? This is she of whom you speak?"

Charmian nodded. "He's the one who came along with me here."

"He is with you?" Charmian dared to take a little bit of hope from the change in Geezhigo-Quae's voice--if her own reputation wasn't impressive enough, perhaps Manabozho's was?--but the old woman shook her head slightly and resumed her earlier attitude. "Manabozho is of the Island. Like you he is not welcome here. I do not see why Nokomis would advise you to seek us out; she would have known better than to tell you to trespass."

"She said you...the Turtle Fairies...moved away from the Island where nobody could find you, except the old manitous. She didn't tell us exactly where to go." Charmian scuffed her foot again. "I'm the one who told Manabozho to fix the Arch. He didn't want to. It's my fault we're here."

Geezhigo-Quae raised an eyebrow again. "You feel that taking responsibility will mitigate your offense?"

Charmian shook her head. "I just wanted you to know the truth. Nokomis said you were the one to ask about the Shadow Wolves. That's why I came here. The Island's in trouble, and I wanted to know all you can tell me. I just know the Shadow Wolves are involved somehow."

The old woman tilted her head. One of her delicate wings flared and then relaxed. "Why are you so concerned about the Island? What makes you believe you must be the one to correct its problems?"

"Because I care about it, and I have friends there," Charmian said. "And if I don't try to do it, who else will?"

"It is not your place to act on the behalf of everyone here. You presume to be much more important than you really are."

Charmian's temper finally flared, despite her best efforts. "Nobody ELSE seems to be acting!" she snapped. Geezhigo-Quae's eyes flashed and her frown grew but Charmian ignored it. "I don't do this because I think I'm important. I do it because I care about this place! And right now I seem to be the only one who does! Nokomis said you and the Turtle Fairies used to live on the Island long ago. Maybe things changed, but don't you still care about it? Even one little bit?"

Geezhigo-Quae glowered at her so darkly that her resolve wavered. "What we care about is none of your concern," she grated. "Nothing within this land is of your concern. We did care for the Island, once. But as you said things have changed. It was your kind who were responsible for this; and only now do they send one little girl to attempt to finally set things right." She turned and walked back toward the balcony, her wings flaring behind her. "Things were safe once, until that balance was destroyed. The demons, and then the Islanders and your sort, only made it much worse. We tried to befriend your people once, but were turned away. None wished to change the way they acted, even to save their Island. And so we left it to them, and left while we could. I created our own land where we would simply start again without your influence. And in the meantime a demon is set up to watch over the Island itself. With one of your kind as his helper. He is now the one responsible for the Island--and if the best he can do is summon a girl from the mainland, then the responsibility lies entirely on your shoulders. Do not come here and think you will be welcomed and treated as a hero. You would not even be needed if your people had not set out to destroy the Island in the first place. If you put so much faith in your 'friends,' then ask them for their assistance. They have done well enough on their own until now."

Charmian stood through the entire speech, her fists clenching more and more tightly with every word. When Geezhigo-Quae finally fell silent, she felt like screaming to the top of the Tree itself, yet bit her tongue so hard it hurt. She forced herself to let out a breath and hated how shaky it sounded, and how her eyes burned, yet made herself talk in the most level voice she could muster.

"Look," she said. "I'm sorry my people messed up the Island so much. I know they didn't mean to. I don't know if that means anything to you...but it's not like they knew what they were doing. Ocryx and Ocryana...well, I know they did a lot of bad things...but wasn't it Gitchi Manitou who created them?" She saw Geezhigo-Quae's ear flick and knew the comment had been noticed. "And if he's the one who created them, doesn't that mean you'd have to hold him responsible, too? I don't care if you blame me, or anyone else, but when we try to set things right, doesn't it matter that we're trying? That at least we're not just sitting around and letting it happen?" She had to take a breath to steady herself again lest she start tossing out insults, and unclenched her fists. "Even if you don't care about the Island," she said, and her voice cracked, "there's a whole lot of manitous who live there...and they still care about the Michinimakinong. I asked for their help, and they wouldn't even lead me here. That's how much they care about your people. And even with as much as you hate Ocryx and Ocryana and Tal Natha, if they weren't there, the Island wouldn't be either. Gitchi Manitou made it that way. He made all of them, and he put them there, for some reason. I don't know what it was and I don't care; I just want to make sure it stays that way. You wouldn't abandon a little kid because he keeps messing things up, you'd tell him to keep trying until he gets it right. That's what I'm trying to do. Even if you don't care about the Ocryxes or about me or anybody else, you lived on the Island once and you have to still care about it. So help me! I don't know who else to turn to!"

She found herself still talking to Geezhigo-Quae's back, tears now streaming unbidden from her eyes. She hadn't even known she was crying until now. She wiped at her eyes and sniffled. "Nokomis told me this was the best place to ask," she mumbled. "I nearly got an arrow in my head, but I came back here...got stuck in a tree...I thought it would all be worth it, but I guess not. If you guys want us to leave then we'll go. I'll tell Nokomis she was wrong, and Manabozho will break the Arch again. It can all go back to the way it was here. I don't know what we'll do...but at least your people will still be all right. That seems to be what matters the most, anyway."

She turned toward the doorway, not knowing how she would exit--it had seemed to be magically controlled, before--but also not knowing what else to do to save face. She shuffled toward it and halted as if hoping it would open automatically, still rubbing at her eyes and nose, and feeling very stupid that she didn't have anywhere else to go. When a shadow loomed over her she gasped and spun back around to see Geezhigo-Quae looking down at her, and swallowed convulsively.

"What?" she blurted out without thinking.

Geezhigo-Quae merely continued staring at her, then held her hand out over Charmian's head. Charmian nearly flinched away, expecting something strange to happen, but nothing did. The old woman only held her long fingers out inches above her scalp as if feeling for something, and Charmian couldn't help but think that that was exactly what she was doing. She ground her teeth as the silence wore on and on, before Geezhigo-Quae's face grew pensive.

"You truly do care this much about the Island," she finally said. "So much so that your spirit aches as its own does."

"Of course," Charmian said, uncertain what she meant about the spirit of the Island. "I wasn't lying."

The manitou woman's brow furrowed slightly and she shook her head. "Yet why do you care so greatly for such a place? It is not your home, and its people are not your people. You receive nothing whether the Island lives or dies."

"I receive a lot if it lives," Charmian argued. "I told you...my friends are there...and the Island...I know it sounds stupid, but...it feels like it is my home. I know it isn't, but it feels like it is. I feel like I belong there. Almost like the Island called me." Her face grew miserable. "But I guess I was wrong..."

"No. You were not." This comment made Charmian blink and look up again in confusion. She couldn't read the exact look on Geezhigo-Quae's face, but the old woman seemed...sympathetic, somehow. She lowered her hand so her palm faced Charmian's chest, and Charmian glanced down to see her spirit stone glowing. It ebbed and waned, bright fiery orange-red, pulsing almost like a heartbeat.

"Your spirit is pure," Geezhigo-Quae said.

"I know that already," Charmian said with a touch of exasperation. "But it doesn't mean anything."

"It is purer than those of most others of your kind who have come to the Island," Geezhigo-Quae replied.

"Maybe, but that doesn't mean I belong there. Everything lately seems to point to me not belonging..."

She gasped when another glow appeared, this one forming around her arms and legs and waist, her entire body except the area of the spirit stone. She stared at her arms as a strange greenish mist swirled around them. It shifted hues, going from pale sea green to olive green to grass green to deep forest green and back again. She turned her arms over and watched it shift and flow in every direction, encasing her like an aura.

Geezhigo-Quae lifted her head to look at the doorway. "Niskigwun," she called out, and it opened and the other Michinimakinong stepped inside. He must have been just outside the door, with how quickly he appeared. He bowed to Geezhigo-Quae, stopping beside Charmian; the manitou woman held up her other hand toward him, and the same greenish glow appeared, although it surrounded Niskigwun's entire body, including his spirit stone, which Charmian now saw glowed red much as hers did, albeit in a deeper shade. Niskigwun briefly glanced at hers as if comparing the two, and Charmian looked up to Geezhigo-Quae.

"What...what is it?" she asked.

"The Island marks all that belongs to it," Geezhigo-Quae said solemnly. "Most who come to the Island are not accepted as the Island's own. They are allowed to stay, but the Island will never allow them to see all that it is. Should they leave, they usually cannot return. And there are a few whom the Island accepts. They are the ones who see it as it truly is, who can travel to it as they wish, and who eventually become of the Island itself."

Charmian glanced at Niskigwun again, looking him up and down. "The glow," she said. "That's the Island's...?"

Geezhigo-Quae nodded. She gestured at Charmian's spirit stone. "The Michinimakinong are of the Island, and so they have long been accepted as its own people. You are of the mainland..."

"It's not around my spirit stone," Charmian murmured with a frown.

"Yet it is around the rest of you, much more so than most others of your kind, which means you are well on your way."

Charmian's head jerked up in surprise. "You mean--the Island's accepting me? That's what this glow is?"

The old woman nodded again, then lowered her hands so the glow faded away. "I know of only one mainlander so far who has been accepted by the Island completely, even more so than you."

"Francois," Charmian said, without even having to think. "That's why he can leave and return to the Island so easily...because it lets him? It accepted him as an Islander?" She looked at her arms again, although the glow was gone. "And it's accepting me now...? Why isn't it around my spirit stone...?"

"You have not been there nearly as long, and so you do not know the Island quite as well. There are some things still which it will not allow you to see...yet it seems as if you are on your way to seeing them." The stern look returned to her face and Charmian feared another lecture coming, yet all the manitou said was, "You saw the Crooked Tree, on the Island, from the Sunset Rock. Most are unable to do this. You saw the Sky Tree as well, and this is not easily done by humans."

"Nokomis said she hid it..." Charmian trailed off, thinking, as Geezhigo-Quae turned away. "I never even noticed Chimney Rock the last time I was here."

"This is because the Island would not let you see it. The rock has strong medicine; it allowed you to see the Crooked Tree, and find your way to Nokomis."

"So there's all these things all around me that I never even noticed before because the Island thought I wasn't ready yet...?" Charmian shook her head and then lifted it, raising her voice. "Are the Shadow Wolves one of those things the Island wouldn't let me see? Or are they something else?"

Geezhigo-Quae slowed to a stop halfway across the room. Charmian saw one of her ears flick, though she didn't look back. "None were able to see the Wolves, until they first came out into the open. Yet this is why they attack you. As a dog can detect a scent, they can see the mark of the Island upon you."

"I saw something about them," Charmian ventured. "Their eyes...when they're normal, they turn blue. Like manitou eyes." She paused, fiddling her fingers. "Is that why the Island doesn't want them dead? Do they have something to do with the manitous?"

Geezhigo-Quae tilted her head forward and said nothing at first. Charmian glanced at Niskigwun, but he didn't reply either. The silence seemed to draw on forever, so long so that she started fidgeting. When Geezhigo-Quae's voice finally came it startled her.

"No," she said, and turned to look over her shoulder. "It is more than that." She let out a soft sigh and turned fully around now, gesturing. Charmian paused before slowly walking forward to join her as she went out to the balcony window. She had to take in a breath, the view was so unbelievable. Even with as high as she knew the Tree was, and with the view she had gotten from her cell, she hadn't expected to be able to see such a vast expanse before her; field and trees and streams stretched on as far as the eye could see, the sky vaulting dark and glittering overhead. Even the stars seemed closer here; Charmian didn't doubt they were, if this was truly the Sky Tree.

"Long ago, when we still lived upon the Island," Geezhigo-Quae started, "we attempted to make peace with your kind. They came from the mainland and settled there, as they believed it to be their own island, and they stayed. Yet they were too different from our people, and they could not respect our ways. Violence and strife came about as a result. Even Gitchi Manitou may make mistakes, child, and I fully believe that when he tied the fate of the Island to the demons, he did exactly this. And so we retreated into this land, hoping that we could still achieve some measure of cooperation with your people. This did not happen. And so the gateway was sealed, so that we might be safe from the outside. There were still those few on the Island who remembered us, but did not know our ways; we knew that they would present no problem to us. It was the younger ones, who had not known us well, who worried us. Even if we did not live upon the Island, its fate, and even the fate of the people upon it, was still our concern. And so before we sealed the gateway, we asked some of the elder manitous to keep watch over the Island in our absence. They would look after it and its new people, yet remain themselves unseen, to keep our secret safe; and to best do this, their form was changed..."

"The Shadow Wolves," Charmian whispered.

Geezhigo-Quae nodded. "They are the elder brothers and sisters of the manitous who now live upon the Island...this is why you recognized them by their eyes, and why the manitous do not wish to kill them. To do so would be to kill their own kin, and there are very few manitous who would do this."

Charmian's brow furrowed in confusion. "But if the Shadow Wolves are supposed to be protecting the Island...then why are they attacking Islanders now? They even went after some of the manitous--why would they do something like that?"

"You discovered the answer to this yourself," Geezhigo-Quae replied, and Charmian stood straighter as soon as she remembered.

"Someone else is controlling them. So I was right? The Wolves aren't evil?"

"Never have they been; they are among the closest friends to the Island that one may find, yet now something has corrupted that, and you yourself saw that their spirits have gone dark."

"It has only been within the past few years," Niskigwun said, and Charmian had to look back at him, having forgotten he was there. "Before then, they watched over the Island as they always had. But then they became very quiet, and we did not hear from them for many moons. When they reemerged, they had...changed."

"And so who's controlling them now?" Charmian asked.

Geezhigo-Quae gave her a pointed look. "This is what you yourself will have to find out...for we have no idea. Niskigwun and myself have been keeping track of their actions ever since they became violent, and not once has the one controlling them shown his face. We do not even know why he--or she--does this. You came here to seek knowledge--and now this is all we have to give." She turned away from the balcony edge to face Charmian. "And so, now what will you do? Knowing that you face a force you cannot name, how do you intend to help the Island you love so much?"

"I have to find out who this is who's controlling them," Charmian said. "I can't do anything until I do that."

"You realize," Geezhigo-Quae said, "that you will have to confront this being, to its face...do you not?"

Charmian's face grew miserable. "I know...and that's what's bothering me most! Even if I can face it...without it doing that same thing to me that it did to the Wolves...I don't know how I'm going to find it. I don't know where to even start."

"This force seems to have some vested interest in you," the old woman said, which made Charmian glance up sharply.

"The whole time you have been here," Niskigwun prompted, "you have not sensed it even once? It has not tried to speak to you? Try to think--you said you had thought the Island was rejecting you. Perhaps it was this other being instead...?"

Charmian stared at him, then her brow began to furrow and she chewed on her lip.

"That dream I had..." Realization dawned in her eyes. "When I was walking through the woods--with Shadow Water--I felt just like I was being watched. That wasn't the only time, either. And I had this weird dream--somebody was talking to me--or about me, or something--and it had..." she trailed off before finishing in a subdued voice, "...yellow eyes..." She shook her head abruptly and looked up at Geezhigo-Quae. "He said something about my dreams--he was trying to see into them. And Tal Natha told me he didn't send me that dream. Somebody powerful enough to create dreams--could that be him? Somebody strong enough to control the Shadow Wolves?"

"This seems as if it could be him," Geezhigo-Quae replied.

Charmian clenched her fists, her face lighting up. "Well, that's it then! I know he's out there somewhere, and all I have to do is find him." Her smile dimmed. "But all I know is that he was in a cave or something...and on the Island, that could be just about anywhere. And who's to say he's even on the Island? I don't know where to start searching."

"You already know," Geezhigo-Quae said. "You know where to first begin your search for him."

Charmian's brow furrowed again. "Where?" she asked, confused. "Where do I look for somebody when I don't even know if they're on the Island?"

"This is simple," Geezhigo-Quae replied, meeting her eyes. "You look in your dreams."




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