Return To Manitou Island: Part 76
Reality, Harsher Than Dream
CHARMIAN SCREAMED AND fell over backwards in the water, clawing at the sand and scrambling toward shore like a crab. The hideous reflection which she'd just seen instantly broke apart in her panic, and she kicked at the water as she clambered onto dry land, shaking and wet.
My reflection--! Ocryana--? She CAN'T be my reflection--!
As if on cue, the strange disembodied voice spoke up.
So, it said mildly, ARE you strong enough to restore the Island...?
Charmian sucked in a breath, her chest hurting; she found one hand clawing at it, as if trying to either keep her spirit stone in or dig it out, and pulled it away immediately. "Wh--what are you trying to do--get me to free her?!" she screamed, her voice cracking with hysteria. "That's NOT my reflection! Ocryana nearly KILLED the Island! You're Malsum and you're trying to TRICK me!"
It is not a trick if it is the truth. The air rippled and Charmian steeled herself to start railing at the voice before it should retreat for good. She lifted one hand as if to punch at the air itself, then gasped and jerked backwards. Something gripped onto her wrist hard enough to bruise and her eyes goggled--she instinctively tried to pull away, only to hear a roaring noise, and the air started whooshing past her as if being sucked into a vacuum. She let out a panicked cry.
He's found you, the voice said, and Charmian felt her arm being wrenched backwards at an excruciating angle. She nearly fell over, but something stopped her and whirled her around. She gasped and choked on her own hair for a second as the wind whipped it around in her face, then whatever was holding onto her gave her such a violent shake that her head snapped back. She blinked in pain and confusion, then her eyes went as wide as saucers when she saw who held her.
Chakenapok's yellow eyes narrowed and flared hatefully. He bared his teeth, and they were all sharp and pointed like fangs. His fingernails dug into her wrist like claws.
"You think you can hide from me?" he hissed in the most venomous voice she'd ever heard. "I am the most powerful here!--and I say when you may come or go! NO FAIR CHEATING!"
With this, he dug his nails into her arm hard enough to draw blood, and yanked her toward him; she had just enough time to see that he was surrounded by what looked to be a sucking swirling black hole, and the dream seemed to end where it began, its edges flaring inwards and the fiery cave visible just beyond it. Charmian at last started to fight back, but it was like fighting gravity; she managed to slow herself, but Chakenapok stepped back through the hole and began dragging her with him.
She kicked her feet at the ground and cast one last panicked look back at the sky. "HELP ME!" she screamed, half begging, half demanding.
She blinked the tears from her eyes. She thought she caught the briefest glimpse of the blue-eyed wolf staring at her across the water--it was above this time, rather than below--and its glowing eyes seemed...sad, somehow? Resigned...? But that was all she got to see before she was pulled through the hole, and the dream collapsed behind her.
She let out a cry as she stumbled forward into Chakenapok's cave, and he wrenched on her arm so hard that it felt like it would tear from its socket. She yelped at the fiery bolt of pain that shot through her shoulder, then gasped when Chakenpok's free hand grabbed her by the throat. He brought his face close to hers, as if to kiss her, but all she saw in his mad yellow eyes was rage and hatred.
"EXCELLENT trick, Mainlander!" he snarled. "But still cheating, and still USELESS!" He snatched something from her and Charmian had to blink a few times before she saw that he held her dreamcatcher in his other hand. Her eyes widened in confusion. How--how had he gotten that? Wasn't it back in the cave--?
"Do you want to see what I think of your trick?" he hissed; and then the ugly snarl on his face was replaced by an even uglier smile, and he clamped his fingers over the little hoop as if to crush it, only it began to smoke and sizzle in his grasp instead. Charmian gasped and started struggling.
"Let--let it--let it go!"
Chakenapok gave her a nasty grin. "Gladly!"
He clutched it harder. Charmian wailed when she saw all of the little strands which formed its webwork begin to go black, tendrils of smoke rising from them, before they thinned and then snapped and curled, the heat from his grip searing away every bit of the delicate thread forming its spiderweb pattern. When nothing was left but a scorched hoop, blackened leather dangling singed beads and feathers from its bottom, he tossed it at her, and she managed to somehow catch hold of it. It was hot enough to burn her fingers, and she nearly dropped it again. Tears poured out of her eyes at the sight of the pathetic hoop.
"What did you do to it?" she yelled, grieved and enraged beyond belief.
Chakenpok's grin just grew nastier. "The next time you so lightly consider CHEATING me!" he exclaimed. "I will not be so pleasant as to dispose of only your PLAYING PIECE!" He let out a harsh bark of a laugh and lifted her from her feet, crooking his fingers at her chest. Charmian's streaming eyes grew huge and she flailed against him.
"Second time is a Charm!" Chakenapok said; then started laughing wildly at his own joke. Charmian bit her lip and shut her eyes, bracing herself for the agony which she knew was about to shoot through her chest.
Tal Natha! Wake me up! I have to wake up! STOP THE DREAM--!
Even then a tiny voice in her head spoke up, just barely audible above her own mental screaming.
He can't wake me up--only I can--and he can't take this away--he didn't spin it--
Wake up! WAKE UP!!
She gritted her teeth and fought as hard as she could to snap out of the dream, though nothing seemed to happen. A fiery heat surged in her chest and she let out a cry as she felt her spirit stone tugging to tear loose. For some reason, she would have preferred Ocryana, Augwak, anyone other than this person to take it. At least she had been able to fight them off...
Her eyes opened a slit and she saw that he was looking right at her, and once he noticed her stare he smiled, not the crazy maddened grin of before, but an almost cool, dispassionate smile. "You gave it your best shot," he said. "Which is admittedly much more than I expected. You were an interesting diversion. Good game, Mainlander."
It sounded almost like a compliment. Charmian's anger flared again and she yelled and started kicking at the air, digging her fingers into his arm.
No matter how much it hurts--I'll go out fighting! No matter HOW much it hurts--!
Chakenapok seemed more amused by her efforts than anything else. He started laughing--then she saw his head jerk forward and his eyes go wide. His fingers splayed out and she felt his hold on her spirit stone vanish, as if cut by a knife; she had just enough time to gasp and wonder what had made him stop, when he let out a cry of his own.
Charmian opened her mouth. Then gasped again when something grabbed her from behind, and pulled her backwards. Chakenapok's grip slipped away from her throat and she went sailing back toward the wall, her ex-captor staring at her with goggling eyes as she flew. She felt her back connect with the cave wall and let out a startled yelp, but rather than cracking against it, she passed through the stone, some vacuumlike force dragging her out and then upward. All she could do was cling onto her dreamcatcher and let it take her wherever it wished.
What is this--? Where am I going--?!
The rock passing around her changed into earth, then she gasped when the ground appeared below her, trees zooming up on all sides. She blinked when she saw the stone roof of a cave below her, growing smaller and smaller the higher she went, a long jagged crack forming in the earth beyond it.
Cave of the Woods--?
Whatever was pulling her instantly changed direction, and she spun about so fast that she lost her bearings. It felt as if she'd been sucked into a tornado! She felt her stomach heave as she whipped through the air, plunging down into earth again, and then this strange trip came to an abrupt end when her back and head cracked against something hard, making her cry out again. Her arms and legs went limp, then she clamped her hands to her head and sat up in pain. "OW!"
Something grabbed onto her arm, and a voice spoke--"Charmian! Are you all right--?"
Charmian ground her teeth and shook her head dizzily, trying to bite back the pain still rattling in her skull. She opened her eyes a slit and saw that the room was bobbing around her...yet at least it wasn't Chakenapok's room...
Red Bird and Thomas were leaning down, staring into her face, eyes wide. Marten peered out from behind them, and Tal Natha appeared as well, lowering his head to put his muzzle next to her face.
Charmian! You are awake--?
"Uuggghhh!" was all Charmian could get out. She grimaced and clutched her head. "Wh--what the hell happened?" she cried.
"You were having a nightmare or something," Thomas said.
"You hit your head on the rock!" Red Bird added.
"You wouldn't wake up!" Marten exclaimed. He hopped up and down. "We tried EVERYTHING!"
Charmian slowly pulled herself upright, unable to stop grimacing; her head felt like it was full of nails. Even the dim lighting hurt her eyes, and she had to blink repeatedly. "Crap...I thought I was supposed to be dreaming that...I didn't think I'd start running into walls!"
"Did you have a dream?" Thomas asked, kneeling down in front of her.
"You were thrashing and yelling," Red Bird said, "like you were talking to someone. Did you see that same dream--?"
Charmian managed a nod, albeit a slow one. "Y-yeah...it was the same one." She lifted her head and looked at Thomas, and started rattling off what she remembered. "There was this big dark lake--underground--and there was this big wolf, with glowing eyes, and its reflection...I think one of them was Malsum...but I don't know about the other one. Their eyes were different. And the wind picked up--and somebody was talking--she said it was MY fault the Island's so messed up! And I had to look at my reflection, to find what I need to set things straight--you'll remember all this, won't you?--in case I forget again?"
Thomas frowned slightly but nodded at the begging tone of her voice. "Yes...of course I will. Of course I'll remember." His brow furrowed. "What did you see, then?"
"Huh?" Charmian just looked at him stupidly.
His frown grew. "In your reflection. You just said you had to look at it. So what did you see--?"
"Oh." She felt anxiety surge up inside her, and for some reason her voice refused to work. She swallowed a few times as they all stared at her, and felt like shrivelling up into nothing.
I can't tell them what I saw...they can't know that. They can't know that that was my reflection...!
"I..." She paused, her voice coming out small and meek. "I can't remember...I never got to see it. I'm sorry."
He stared at her for a moment, and she was afraid that he'd seen right through her; then he sighed and untensed. He squeezed her arm.
"It's all right...you can't control something like that."
Red Bird nudged her way forward again. She leaned down, eyes wide.
"Charmian--you said, 'Cave of the Woods.' Did you see it? Were you there?"
"Huh--?" Charmian blinked at her. "I did? I said that?"
Both of them nodded. Tal Natha's ear flicked but he said nothing.
"Oh." Charmian's brow furrowed and her gaze lowered to her knees; she was sitting on the floor, the offending cave wall right behind her. "I...I saw it right before I woke up. Chakenapok got me...but then something grabbed me and pulled me out before he could do anything. I went all through the ground and came out and there was Cave of the Woods, and then I spun around a bit and ended up back here...that's all I remember." She rubbed at her head, confused. "Why would I see Cave of the Woods...?"
She turned her head a little, then gasped. Red Bird noticed her reaction and twitched, as if to back away, but Charmian had leaned forward before she could even move. Charmian snatched the dreamcatcher from her hands and lifted it up before her face, her hands quaking. Her eyes grew and tears slowly started to well up in them.
"Wh...what happened...?" she whispered in disbelief. The dreamcatcher was nothing more than a charred ring, with equally charred leather straps and feathers dangling from the bottom, its webbing completely gone.
Red Bird averted her eyes as if ashamed. "It...it happened while you were sleeping. It just..."
"It started SMOKING!" Marten cried, waving his arms dramatically. "Then the webs caught on fire--POOF! That's all that was left!"
"I tried to keep it from burning up," Red Bird said, her voice quivering. "But it happened too fast...I'm sorry. I don't know what happened to it..."
"It's..." Charmian's chest hitched. "It's...not your fault." Her voice cracked and she lowered the mangled dreamcatcher. The others backed away when she pushed herself to her feet. She blinked a few more times and the tears started spilling down her face. Her hands shook as she turned toward the entrance, Dakh and Sikt cocking their heads. She felt all their eyes upon her but her voice had vanished; she walked numbly out of the cave, the black hoop dangling uselessly from her hand.
Hands struck the hard cave floor and a few drops of sweat dropped to mingle with the dust there. Moon Wolf hunched over in Cave of the Woods, panting hard, sides heaving. His dim view of the ground blurred, and he gritted his teeth as he lifted one hand to weakly rub it across his eyes.
Something flickered and rippled before him, and he managed to lift his head, still breathing heavily. The yellow-eyed man stood in front of him, arms crossed, the air rippling around him as if from heat...yet Moon Wolf could tell that he was not really there.
"Good trick, Wabano," he said mildly.
Moon Wolf had to catch his breath before he could speak. "That thing...you tried," he panted, "with her spirit stone...I won't let you try that again."
Chakenapok's mouth twitched. "And what makes you think you can stop me?"
Moon Wolf's stare was pure ice. "You ensured that," he said. Chakenapok's eyes narrowed. "I learned some things from being dead. Dreams are not a huge step away."
Chakenapok snorted lightly. "Creative. I'll make certain you don't pull it again, Pawn."
"If I am anyone's pawn, it's hers," Moon Wolf said. "Every time you go after her, you'll have to go through me."
The corner of Chakenapok's mouth twisted upward. "I've done this before," he said, "and I can easily do it again." His image rippled and then faded, leaving the cave in shadows. Moon Wolf stared at the wall for a long time before sinking back to the floor, shaking weakly.
His medicine...it's stronger than anything I've ever felt. He has the medicine of a wabano, of a demon, of a manitou. How do you defeat such medicine?
He rubbed his eyes again and, grasping hold of the cave wall, managed to pull himself to his knees. He kept hold of the rock as he crawled outside into the open air.
Once outside, he stood upright and turned to stare in the direction of Fort Holmes, although from here it was not in the least bit visible, the woods being particularly thick on this part of the Island. Still, he sensed its location, and stood staring upward, the breeze stirring his feathers.
I do not know if I can keep you safe, Charmian. I'll do everything that I can...but it may not be enough.
Charmian sat in the middle of Fort Holmes, arms wrapped around her knees and her face hidden against them. Thomas and Marten peered in the doorway of the old fort and saw her huddled in the grass, a sniffle escaping her every so often. Marten made a face and started forward but Thomas caught him by the collar, picked him up, and set him on the ground again, facing in the opposite direction. The Mikumwesu looked up at him in puzzlement.
"I'd like to go talk with her," Thomas said quietly.
Marten frowned a little, not seeming to understand, before shrugging and scampering off again. Thomas watched him go, then turned back to the fort and stepped inside. He walked across the grassy hollow and stopped beside her. She didn't lift her head, so he sat down on the ground next to her, putting his arms around his own knees.
"They're worried about you back there, you know," he said.
She let out a sniffling sound but didn't say anything. The charred dreamcatcher dangled from one of her hands, and he reached out to carefully take it. She pulled her hand back toward herself and lifted her head a bit to rub at her eyes. His brow furrowed a little.
"It's really that important to you?" he asked.
"M-my grandmother gave it to me," she sniffled, not showing her eyes. "It was the last gift she gave me. It's the last thing I had left of her. It could bring me here whenever I wanted it to." She scrubbed even more furiously at her eyes. "I can't believe he ruined it. He could've taken my spirit stone, or burned me, or anything, but he had to ruin that. Why did he do that? It's the only thing I had left."
She broke off and started crying, shoulders shaking. Thomas sat beside her awkwardly for a moment or so, before edging a little closer and putting his arm around her shoulders. Charmian allowed him and kept wiping tears from her eyes. They sat in silence this way for a little while, the blue of the sky fading to an indistinct gray.
"Look," he said after her crying had abated somewhat. "It's a wooden hoop, with threads and feathers, and beads across the middle...it can be fixed. It won't be the same, but I'm betting one of the native women can do a good job of it. The hoop is still intact; it can be almost as good as new."
"It doesn't matter!" Charmian snapped, loud enough to make him draw his arm back. She snatched the hoop from him and waved it at the air. Her eyes were red and angry. "It had Weaver medicine in it!" she cried. "Geezhigo told me! I don't know how, but it did! You can't just replace that! He RUINED it! I can't use it anymore--and it's...it's just not the same as it was before." She squinched her eyes shut and pressed her knuckles to them, biting off a sob.
Thomas suppressed a sigh. "Well...we'll find more of this Weaver medicine, then," he said, uncertainly.
"Oh, sure!" She flailed the hoop again, threatening to toss it clear over the earthworks. "I have some buried in my pack--somewhere! You don't just FIND Weaver medicine! Geezhigo says they're way under the Island! I may as well just toss the whole stupid thing." She stood up, clutching the dreamcatcher so hard that her knuckles went white; Thomas hastily got to his feet as she made her way toward the fort wall, climbing up the slope. "It's useless now. Everything Grandma gave me is gone. I thought this would be the best thing to happen to me but this whole ISLAND can just go to hell!"
She stood up atop the logs lining the fort wall and brought back her arm, swinging it forward as if to hurl the hoop out over the trees far below. She gasped when her arm refused to move, and turned to see Thomas grasping the dreamcatcher; they started tugging on it, back and forth.
"Come down from there, Charmian," he said.
Charmian scowled. "NO! You can't make me!"
He rolled his eyes. "Yes I can, if you leave me no choice."
"You're too polite to go dragging me around! Let it go. Chakenapok ruined it. I'll just have Francois take me home. Then I'll never come back here again. It's obvious Tal Natha didn't want me here!"
"I never once heard him say that, and you know it, Charmian. The hoop can be fixed. Just give it to me and step down."
"You can't make me!"
"You used that line already."
"YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!" She lost her resolve and Thomas nearly fell over backwards when she abruptly let go of the dreamcatcher. She put her hands to her eyes. "He didn't have to ruin it!" she sobbed. "I would've left him alone, if he'd just let me have it back. Why couldn't he have taken my stupid spirit stone? THAT'S what he wanted, wasn't it? Why did he have to ruin something harmless like that?"
"Charmian," Thomas said, attempting to regain his balance and make his way back up the fort wall. "It can be fixed. If you'll just COME DOWN from there and--"
Charmian turned around and flailed her arms. "YOU CAN'T FIX IT!! ALL RIGHT? And if I fall from here it's--what--a ten-foot roll down a forty-five-degree slope?!"
Thomas crossed his arms and gave her a look. "I'll tell you how it can be fixed, if you'll just stop swinging around like that, and calm down."
Charmian relented a little and stopped yelling, but didn't come down from the wall. She put her hands to her eyes again, too embarrassed to show her face.
"Look," Thomas said to the backs of her hands. "When the time is right, which means when all of this...whatever...blows over, you and I can go looking for these Weavers, and get your dreamcatcher fixed."
"You can't just go looking for them," Charmian moaned. "They live way under the Island."
He shrugged. "Well, then we'll go under the Island. It's supposed to be all caves here, right? Surely there's a way down there. Geezhigo-Quae or that Turtle fellow probably knows where to find a way. Then we go down there, have it fixed, and you can have your dreamcatcher back, almost as good as new."
Charmian peered over her hands. "You'd...do that for me?" she mumbled.
Thomas nodded, looking exasperated. "Yes, I would...if you'll come down!"
She pulled her hands away slowly, still rubbing at one eye. "But they're probably so far away," she protested. "And I wouldn't know where to find them..."
"Well, that's why we'd go looking, isn't it? Trust me, if some of that Weaver medicine or whatever made it up into your dreamcatcher, then we can make our way back down to the Weaver medicine. But you've got to focus on the bigger things right now, like why this Chickenpox fellow keeps trying to steal your spirit stone, and how you're going to keep him from destroying the Island." He held up his hand. "So...? Will you come down?"
Charmian stared at him for a moment through teary eyes, then put out her hand and tentatively took his. She saw his face relax and started taking careful steps down the fort wall, being cautious not to tumble head over heels.
"I don't even know which cave to take," she said in a small voice as she descended.
Thomas sighed. "We take one, and if it doesn't work, then we take another. It's as simple as that. Once this is over, you'll have all the time in the world."
She sniffed. "Yeah, because the stupid dreamcatcher isn't working." She paused. "Did you just say 'Chickenpox'--?"
She cut herself off with a startled yell when Thomas yanked on her arm, making her run smack into him. He nearly fell over again but managed to catch himself with his leg and they skidded toward the bottom of the fort instead. Charmian found herself pressed to his chest, and she pushed herself back, face going bright red.
"HEY! What are you trying to do--?!"
She gasped now; Thomas was squeezing her wrist hard enough to hurt. She looked at his fingers clenched around her arm, then up into his face. His eyes looked...strange, somehow. He was staring upward, and she'd never seen him look so alert or...hostile?
"Thomas?" she asked uncertainly. "What is it...?"
She drew in a breath and hissed, squirming to draw herself loose as soon as she felt the iciness from his fingers seeping into her skin. He held onto her too tightly for her to break loose, though. Then she started shivering harder, a chill permeating the air around them, and her eyes widened when she noticed that she could actually see her breath in front of her face.
"What--?" Her head jerked up. "Thomas--? What are you doing?"
He didn't look at her. It was only when the wind picked up and began to moan all around the fort that she realized the cold wasn't coming entirely from him...and she slowly turned to peer up at the sky.