Return To Manitou Island: Part 34
CHARMIAN TRUDGED UP the now-muddy path away from the Crooked Tree and further into the woods, scowling at the rain which poured down, making her hair trail in her eyes. Several times she squinted and peered ahead, only to see nothing, and continued walking.
"Where the heck does he go whenever he runs off like that...?" she muttered to herself, lifting one foot and shaking it, then plopping it down again. She sighed and looked around for the driest spot available, but the trees were sopping by now. Maybe if she poked around long enough she'd find a cave or something.
After a bit of searching she found another uprooted tree instead, and huddled in the pit formed by its torn-up root system, shivering from cold. Though she tried to distract her mind with other things, she found she kept thinking of what she'd just been told back at the Crooked Tree. Even now it still seemed so unbelievable.
So Chakenapok is Manabozho's twin brother. They don't even look alike...though I guess that doesn't matter...
And Nokomis is the one who killed him. So how does one come back from the dead, even for revenge...?
Something about this question made her frown; she had started to get a feeling of déjà vu, but it was gone before she could focus on it long enough to tell where it was coming from. She sighed in frustration and wrapped her arms around herself.
Nothing seems to be making sense around here lately. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that somebody who's supposed to be dead is now trying to play games with my head!
She sat in the lee of the roots and waited for the storm to abate, but after what seemed to be twenty or so minutes it had just barely let up, and her patience had started to run out. The roots had also started dripping on her head, so she pushed herself to her feet and started walking again, trying to ignore the water as it ran down her face and drenched every inch of her.
Even more important, how does a baby get born evil? Babies are supposed to be innocent. Unless they're possessed by something...
She frowned again at this idea, then thought it over some more. Well, if spirits could inhabit the trees, maybe something could possess a newborn...?
Or am I trying to make excuses for him? Manabozho and Nokomis both seemed set on thinking him evil...are they right, after all?
Charmian turned down a path leading beside a stream, which was now almost overflowing its narrow banks due to the rain. Her feet splashed even though she walked on what must have been dry ground an hour before. If even Ocryana isn't completely evil, she continued pondering, then I don't think this guy could be either. What Noko said--something went wrong--that must be it. But how and why? Was it because of Wenonah? Or the wind manitou? Something else...?
These thoughts were getting her nowhere. She sighed again and kicked at a stone, watching it fly through the air and plunk into the stream. She paused and peered into the water to try to see where it had fallen but the water was coursing by so quickly that the bottom was obscured.
Then she blinked. Two eyes were staring back up at her, and they weren't her own.
Charmian crouched down and tilted her head in puzzlement at the face which peered back up out of the water. It looked slightly like a GeeBee, in that it had the same large eyes, thin face, and green-tinted skin, but instead of being pointed its ears were webbed and it seemed to possess gills on the sides of its face. The stream must have been deeper than she'd thought, for now she could vaguely see its body descending beneath it, and it waved its arms slightly as it floated in the water, resisting the current. She couldn't be certain but it looked as if it had a tail rather than legs. The creature opened and closed its mouth silently and a few bubbles rose to the surface. Charmian's brow furrowed.
She lifted her head. Manabozho came walking alongside the stream, somehow managing to keep himself from getting soaked. He looked down at the green-tinted creature as Charmian turned back to look at it again. "What your people would call merfolk," he explained, and she put her face down to the stream as closely as she could, watching the floating creature do the same. A few other vague faces joined the first, floating at various distances, their large lazy eyes all peering up at her.
"I wouldn't get too close. They tend to kidnap people and turn them into their own kind."
Charmian jerked back from the water. The Nebanaubae faded from sight, and she thought she saw their vague forms flit downstream before vanishing completely. She stood and wiped mud from her knees, following Manabozho away from the bank.
"The storm must have brought them out," he said. "Rainstorms are the only time they can walk about the Island, though they prefer to keep to the water."
"I've never seen them before. Were they here the last time?"
"They were, but you weren't allowed to see them."
"But what if one of them would've kidnapped me the last time I was here?"
He shrugged. "I suppose you would have seen them, then."
She fell silent but for the plopping of her feet in the mud. Eventually they reached a smallish clearing in the woods and Manabozho poked at and brushed away some undergrowth to reveal an old cave. Charmian sat down under the stone roof and sneezed, Manabozho sitting down beside her, and for a long time they stared at the blue-tinged trees dripping with rain just outside.
"I'm sorry about what happened," Charmian finally said after a while.
Manabozho cast her an odd look. "Why? You had nothing to do with it."
"I know, but I'm sorry anyway. I understand what Noko did, but it must've felt horrible, thinking that all this time..."
He turned away from her to look back out at the trees as she spoke, so she trailed off and fell silent again. She sighed and pulled her pack off her shoulders and set it down beside her to see how soggy it was. Fortunately, only the top contents were damp, and they could take the rain; she pulled out her dreamcatcher and brushed it off a bit, blowing on its wet feathers and hoping it wouldn't mildew. She held it on her knee and stared at the little stones decorating its web. Her eyes grew wet.
"You never even knew your family," she said softly.
Manabozho gave her the odd look again. Charmian wiped at one eye and rubbed a little lump of turquoise which rested near the center of the circle. "Most of us, at least we get to know the people we care about, and spend time with them...but you didn't even have that. That must feel terrible."
Manabozho furrowed his brow and stared at her in puzzlement. He looked at the dreamcatcher she held and appeared to see something in the way she ran her fingers over the webbing, then looked up at her again.
"You lost someone?"
It was hardly a question, though she sensed it was meant to be one, and nodded, wiping at her eyes again.
"Somebody I really cared about. She was the only one who really believed me when I told her about Manitou Island. She always treated me like I was normal, yet I mattered." She held the dreamcatcher in both hands and sniffled, staring at it. "That's the real reason I came back here...I just wanted to get away from there for now. It hurts too much, just looking at everything and knowing she'll never be back." She lifted her head and looked at Manabozho. "But you don't even have memories."
He turned away again, fiddling with the fringe on his moccasin as if suddenly interested in it. "I have Noko," he said. "That's enough."
"But don't you ever think about Wenonah? And your dad and Mudjikawiss and Peepaukawiss? Don't you ever think about what it would be like if they were still there?"
"Sometimes." He sounded bored, but she could tell he was acting. "But it doesn't matter. They did not care to stay, so I did not care when they left."
"And Wabasso." She reached around to tuck the hoop back in her pack, rubbing at her nose. "You must miss him most of all."
Manabozho's face grew hard. He stopped fiddling with his moccasin, crawling out of the cave and standing. "He is the one I care about the least," he said, and started to walk away.
Charmian blinked. She hurried to put her pack over her shoulders and scrabbled out of the cave, following him again. The rain still dripped, though it had finally started to let up somewhat.
"What?" she called as she got to her feet, jogging after him as she had before. "What do you mean by that? I thought that you two..."
"Could we stop discussing it?" Manabozho said, glaring at her briefly before turning back to the woods. Charmian looked at him, then put her hands on her pack straps and stared at the ground.
"Okay." A faint grumble of thunder came in the distance, and it and the pittering of rain were the only sounds for a while. She felt like questioning him about Chakenapok, but knew that he must know about as much as she did, and must want to talk about it much less. She slowed her step and eventually stopped in the middle of the trail they had found, watching him walk on ahead of her. He didn't look much different from before, though she thought she could detect a slight slump to his walk, and a slight lowering of the feathers on his head. He didn't appear to realize or to care that he was no longer accompanied, and went on without her. She watched him until he had grown very small and the trees obscured him, then turned away and took another trail.
I suppose I'd want to be alone, too.
Although she hardly felt like walking any further among the soggy greenery, still she felt compelled to keep moving, no matter where her feet might take her. As such she walked a long way, and by the time she vaguely recognized the terrain around her she was soaked straight through. She peered up into the trees, then at the hunk of broken rock rising not far from her. She hadn't taken the long forest road and so the place hadn't even looked familiar until now.
Cave of the Woods...? How do I keep coming back here...?
She stood and stared at the small cave rising from the earth, water still dripping from its craggy, mossy top and into the crevasse below. The last time she'd looked in it, it was nothing more than a cave. She thought of how Snow Bear's cave had resumed its natural appearance after the wabano vanished...was that what had happened here? Only strong medicine could have made a shallow cave appear to be a vast underground cavern, complete with the room she had lived in during her training so long ago...
She felt her eyes begin to sting again and wiped at them in annoyance. Did everything have to remind her of something painful? Still, she had to step forward and stoop down to peer into the cave again, just to be sure. She even felt around with her hands but met only earth and dead leaves. There were no hidden entrances anywhere. With a sigh, she pulled back out, brushing a few leaves from her hair and looking over the rise of the cave, trying to decide if she should bother checking out Crack-in-the-Island or not.
Whirrr. The sound registered in Charmian's brain even before she knew what it was, and without thinking she jerked her head to the side. Only when an arrow lodged itself in the tree nearest the cave did she have enough time to gawk in surprise.
Am I really that used to being attacked--?
She whirled around, pretty much knowing what to expect, but biting her lip when she saw it nonetheless. Something dropped from one of the higher branches and landed on the ground on all fours. Charmian picked up a stray branch and grasped it tightly, just to give herself something to block the next attack, if she could.
"I kinda figured you'd show up sometime soon," she said to the wolf-masked man, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. She realized now that for some reason he frightened her much more than the Wolves did, and she wasn't certain why.
I felt another test would be in order right about now, a voice in her head said, and she glanced upward, as if expecting to see who had spoken hovering overhead.
The leaves rustled, and again without thinking Charmian hurled herself to the side just as the masked man came at her; he landed on top of the cave instead, a knife drawn. He turned to look at her at the other side of the clearing; Charmian held the stick up in front of her as if getting ready to walk a tightrope.
"Maybe you should tell him to take off his mask. I think it's impairing his vision."
Aren't you the amusing one? The masked man pushed himself away from the cave, swinging the knife. Charmian held up the stick to block it, but only at the last moment saw that his other hand was armed, as well; he wielded an arrow in it as if it were a knife itself, and Charmian gasped and spun sideways, landing hard on her knee but managing to avoid being hit by either weapon. The end of the branch knocked the arrow loose and it landed in the leaves; she scrabbled backwards like a crab, stumbling to her feet and bringing the stick up in time to avoid another stabbing attack.
Charmian dug her foot into the ground and gritted her teeth. "Earth!" she yelled, and a cascade of soil shot up into the air, surrounding them. She jumped backwards to avoid being buried--only to see her attacker wave his hand at the falling soil, batting it aside as if it were mere smoke. It pelted down around him but didn't touch him, and she gasped again and dropped flat when he suddenly hurled something bright and flaring at her. She felt a heatwave pass over her back and smelled the smoke as it hit a tree behind her.
Fireballs--? He's throwing FIREBALLS at me now--?!
This realization just made her more furious. Who did this guy think he was! Remembering that Chakenapok was behind all of this--probably laughing at every move she made--she jumped to her feet and braced herself, raising her arms and swinging them forward.
Leaves filled the air now--her leaf-storm attack. The little objects seemed harmless enough on their own, but in a great swirling mass they could be as blinding as any blizzard, as devastating as any knife. She directed them toward the masked attacker, feeling a twinge of satisfaction when they started to surround him--but as he had before, he merely lifted one hand, waving as she had and causing the leaves to scatter and float to the ground like so many feathers. Charmian gaped in disbelief--then he waved his other hand, and the leaves shot to life again, zooming straight at her!
Charmian hit the ground again, but couldn't avoid all of them. She winced and hissed when several leaves grazed her arms and legs with their razor-sharp edges, opening up hairline cuts; though the wounds stung, she jumped up again almost immediately and swung her arms behind her at the nearest tree.
There was the briefest pause, then with a crackling hiss the bark on the birch behind her started peeling itself loose, spinning outward in a lengthening coil. She knew this attack would surely kill the manitou residing in the tree, but it wouldn't have granted her its power if it wasn't willing...right? The bark spun out and then at the masked man; he lifted his head and looked up at the growing coil as it surrounded him and then descended, starting to wrap around his arms and legs like linen around a mummy. He tried pulling himself loose just as it started wrapping around his chest and waist.
Charmian bared her teeth at him. "Serves you right!" She glared up at the sky. "Care to come and fight your OWN fight for a change?"
That wouldn't be much of a test, would it? A ripping sound filled Charmian's ears, and with dread she saw that her latest attack had failed to work as well. The masked man jerked his arm loose and the bark wrappings fell to the ground in a limp pile. Charmian felt the life leaving the stripped tree behind her, and couldn't believe that the sacrifice had been for nothing.
And then he raised his arms--and the barks of every birch surrounding them yanked themselves loose, spiraling up into the air and then zooming down at her.
He's using every one of MY attacks--!
Unable to think of what else to do, Charmian threw her hands up over her head--"FIRE!"--and then covered her head with her arms when the bark burst into flame, dropping ashes and burning flakes all around her. The air filled for a moment with smoke from her defense, and she took this moment to call out in desperation.
Manabozho! Where are you? Help me!!
She briefly panicked that he would not hear her, or bother responding--but almost instantly his voice came in her head. Where are you? I can't sense you anywhere!
What do you mean, you can't sense me? I'm right near--
Ah-ah, Chakenapok's voice came, cutting her off. THAT would be cheating!
The smoke cleared, and the masked man plunged straight toward her. Charmian's eyes widened and she jumped aside, avoiding the knife, only to end up sprawled on the ground when he tripped her. She hadn't even noticed his leg sticking out. She pushed herself up and held up one hand.
A blast shot from her palm--but he held up his hand at almost the same moment, and a fireball shot from his palm as well. The two met and exploded harmlessly, cancelling out her attack. Charmian gawked, then stumbled to her feet and waved her hands at the air.
All the droplets which had gathered on the remaining leaves, and puddled on the ground, swirled up around her. She jerked her arms forward and cast the wave toward him--only to see him do the exact same thing--and with a great splash, the attack was again cancelled out, doing nothing more than getting both of them wet. Charmian sputtered and let out a cry.
Manabozho! HE KNOWS EVERYTHING I'M TRYING TO DO!
I can't help you now, Manabozho said. I can't tell where you are. He must be shielding you somehow. You have to do this on your own.
On my OWN--? She gasped and ducked when the masked man hurled another arrow at her--where did he keep getting those things? "I can't fight him!!" she yelled at the air. "He knows all of my attacks even before I try them! It's like he's reading my mind!"
She continued jumping and dodging and stumbling and yelping the entire time she said this, her blind panic the only thing keeping her from getting skewered. Her attacker seemed to have an endless supply of arrows, and even after he hurled his knife at her, he had another one to take its place--Chakenapok must have been supplying him. Her legs were rapidly tiring, and she knew that what she had left in luck wouldn't last much longer. Why couldn't Manabozho sense her? How did this guy know everything she was going to do--?
If he's reading your mind, Manabozho finally said, then stop thinking! Just DO!
"Do--?" The word left Charmian's lips just as the masked man spun at her, a spear appearing in one hand and swinging at her face. Her eyes goggled and her mouth opened--and then with a scream of mixed fear and frustration she lifted both hands in front of her to block it off.
Something blasted from her palms instead, knocking the spear wide and sending it flying through the air. Both she and her attacker glanced up at it as it flew. Then--without thinking--Charmian yelled again and ran forward at him, ramming her head into his side. He fell backwards, nearly tumbling into the cave and striking his head on the edge of the rock; Charmian danced back when he sat up, shaking his head as if dazed. She picked up an abandoned arrow and ran at him again, screaming the entire way, her face livid.
He lifted his head in time to see her coming, and rolled sideways--the arrow lodged in the rock and Charmian struggled to pull it free. She felt something thud against the side of her head, and collapsed, reeling with pain; she pressed her hand to her temple, grinding her teeth as her whole skull throbbed. It was only her attacker's shadow coming at her that reminded her to move before it was too late; his knife missed her neck, but it did slice one of the straps on her pack, and as she spun around she saw it fall to the ground, spilling its contents all over. First among them was the dreamcatcher itself--she stared at it with wide eyes as it rolled into the clearing in a graceful circle, before her attacker brought his foot down on it, snapping the frame.
Charmian's eyes got bigger than they had ever been. Her face blanched, then turned furious red. A strangled sound rose in her throat and finally burst forth in the most enraged scream she'd ever let out, and even the masked man paused at the sound, it was so unexpected. Charmian made a mad dash at him, scooping up the heaviest thing she could find--a hunk of rotted wood resting near the cave--and hurled it as hard as she could. Her attacker took one step back--then the missile hit him square on the cheek, spinning his head around to the side, knocking the wolf skull mask into the air, and sending him flying backwards all at the same time. He landed hard on the little rise next to the cave, crashing as he did so; a second later the wolf skull came back to earth, thunking against the ground, rolling, then coming to rest with both eye sockets staring blindly heavenward. Dead silence filled the woods.
Charmian stood panting, her teeth still bared and her arm still outthrust from her throw. Her muscles tensed when her attacker slowly and painfully pushed himself upright, rubbing at his head; she braced herself and prepared for his next attack, whatever it might be. No amount of rage could prepare her for when he stood and turned his head to face her, however.
Charmian's eyes followed his movements as he slowly turned. Her eyes locked right on his--and though they flared yellow, like Chakenapok's--the face didn't belong to Chakenapok--but she knew it anyway. The blood drained from Charmian's face and her skin went cold when she recognized who she was staring at.