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Return To Manitou Island: Part 80

The Road Less Taken

CHARMIAN HAD EXPLORED a good part of the large field surrounding the Sky Tree by the time everyone at last made it through into the Fairy Realm, first Marten, then Manabozho and Wabasso and Peepaukawiss, then Mudjikawiss and finally Niskigwun. Thomas and Mani sat dozing in the Tree's shade, coming to when Charmian stopped near them, dusting at her hands and shielding her eyes to watch the others approach. They got to their feet to join her.

"It's about time," she muttered. "I was starting to think the Island would be in the next ice age before they would show up!"

Niskigwun was still dusting snow from himself when he reached them, the group of them milling about and looking up into the Tree's branches. "She will already know you're here," he muttered, shaking ice from his wings. He gave Manabozho and his brothers a dark look. "You four already know your way up into the Tree."

Manabozho and Mudjikawiss gave him the same sort of look. Manabozho turned into a bluejay and flapped up into the branches; Mudjikawiss scowled, made a face, then changed into an eagle and followed suit. Peepaukawiss rolled his eyes.

"He ALWAYS has to show everybody up!" he groused, and put a finger to his mouth. "Hmmm, what should I...? Ah, I have it." With a little poof he changed into a brilliant little indigo bunting and fluttered out of sight. Wabasso gave the others remaining an apologetic look.

"Everything is a contest to them," he explained. "You would think they would grow out of it...but no." He turned into a plain little sparrow and followed them.

Marten hopped up and down. "Well, DUH! I can do that, TOO!" And as if to prove it, he was soon replaced by a hummingbird which buzzed up into the Sky Tree's branches.

Thomas's mouth twitched. "This is starting to get kind of old." He glanced at Mani, only to let out a loud cry when the manitou dissolved into water and slid up the Tree's trunk. Charmian and Niskigwun looked at him and he rubbed at his neck in embarrassment. "Well...that wasn't old."

Niskigwun turned to Charmian as if he weren't even there, and gestured at the Tree. "You would like to go first...?"

"Huh?" Charmian blinked, then blushed. "Oh--no. It's okay. Thomas can go first. I'll, uh, have a little more time to figure out what I'm going to say to Geezhigo."

The Michinimakinong furrowed his brow as if he hadn't expected this answer, then turned to Thomas. Charmian caught Thomas's look, but they said nothing; she stood and waited while Niskigwun grasped hold of his arms and carried him up into the Tree, and waved at the panicked look on Thomas's face all the way up. She poked at the grass with her foot.

I hope I get at least a little bit of alone time. I don't know how I'm going to explain those dreams I had...

She lifted her head again when Niskigwun returned, and held up her arms. He took hold of them and slowly started upward, his wings making a whispering noise as they went. Charmian tried not to fidget, and tried to see the look on his face, yet he was staring upward so she couldn't be certain what he might be thinking.

"Um...Niskigwun?" He nodded almost imperceptibly, so she continued. "I'm...sorry about what happened back there," she said, flushing a bit. "With the fur. I didn't mean to offend you; I just didn't know that it..."

"You did not know the custom," Niskigwun interrupted her. "This is understandable. You need not apologize."

"Oh." Charmian frowned a little at the flat, matter-of-fact tone of his voice. "Okay." She wondered what else to say, but fortunately the lower branches began to appear around them, and he carried her up to the main branch into the trunk. Only Thomas and Mani stood here, waiting for her; she could see Manabozho hovering just inside, peering out, though the others were gone. Her feet settled on the branch and she leaned on Niskigwun's arm for a moment to regain her balance before walking forward to join them.

"Got your speech all figured out?" Thomas asked as they stepped inside.

"As much as I'm going to," Charmian said.

He opened his mouth to say something else when Manabozho elbowed him out of the way and fell into step beside her. Thomas shot him a dark look but didn't protest. "You never wanted to come back here unless it was important," he said. "And so what is it? Did something happen?"

"Not really..." Charmian felt her ears grow warm.

Both Manabozho and Thomas frowned at her. Mani came up on her other side and whistled.

Red Land One learn something new--? What will you say to Sky Mother One?

"I--really, I don't know! Jeez, will you guys lay off it?" Charmian hastened her pace to try to get ahead of them; they all looked ready to catch up, when Niskigwun stepped in between them, holding up his spear to cut off their path. The other three nearly tripped over themselves trying to stop; Niskigwun kept pace just behind her, holding them at bay.

"You will know when Geezhigo-Quae knows," he snapped. "Now stop pestering and be patient. You all act like greedy children."

Charmian gawked, then hunched her shoulders and scuttled forward into the main room of the Tree. The others were here, Mudjikawiss and Wabasso standing at the side of the room while Marten dangled from one of the large cabochons. Puka was exclaiming over the decor; Charmian caught sight of Geezhigo-Quae, standing not far from her balcony. The manitou woman had a hand to her head and looked as if she needed aspirin. Charmian bit the inside of her mouth when she lifted her head to look at her.

"Charmian," she said, as if relieved to see her; Charmian couldn't believe it. The manitou waved her forward and Charmian obeyed. "I have been told," she said, casting a sideways glance at Puka, "that you have some information to share, and a request to make...? Please do so, before..." She trailed off when a loud KSSHH sounded from the side of the room, and everyone glanced over to see Marten meekly picking up the cabochon which he'd broken out of its socket and scurrying into a niche with it. Charmian cringed; Geezhigo-Quae sighed and rubbed at her forehead.

"Before any more untoward events occur," she finished, and Charmian hastily nodded.

"Sorry. You probably know already, but I tried a little experiment to try to figure out about that weird dream I keep having--every time I have it, I forget it. It's got a large wolf in it, just like a Shadow Wolf but with yellow eyes--just like Malsum--and a reflection--and I think Chakenapok keeps stealing it from me. He even showed up and tried to get my spirit stone again, but I got away from him...somehow." She frowned at the vague memory of Cave of the Woods, but didn't elaborate; it confused her just as much as anyone.

Geezhigo-Quae nodded. "This much I am aware of. I am also aware of another development." She started to wave at the cabochon, then, seeing Marten cringing in the niche and trying to hide the gem behind his tail, sighed and waved at an adjacent one. Charmian and the others looked up into it to see the Island, covered from Fort Holmes down to the shore with a heavy blanket of snow. Charmian's eyes widened and she stepped toward the cabochon, staring at the sight in disbelief.

"The whole Island...?" She turned back to Geezhigo-Quae. "He got the WHOLE Island--?"

"If by 'he' you mean Augwak, then yes." She waved the image away. "I will assume Chakenapok is the one who gave him this sort of medicine? At least, that medicine which I sense is just like that of the old Wendigoes, who have been dead and dust for so many moons that even I have lost count. The GeeBees were never meant to have such a power. They were not born to handle it."

"Well, he's certainly handling it now," Thomas said; Charmian waved at him to be silent, then bobbed her head.

"I'm...I feel like it's partly my fault," she said, adding in response to the woman's puzzled look, "Chakenapok gave him that medicine with the stipulation that he kill me first off. I feel like he's freezing the entire Island, just to find me."

"Your shoulders should not be so burdened," Geezhigo-Quae said. "Augwak has many...'axes to grind,' as your people would put it. You are his chief concern, but he has many other things to keep him distracted from his duty."

"Still, it's because of me that this even started." Charmian tried to curb the frustration in her voice as she remembered what the wolf in her dream had told her. She lifted her head. "I was hoping you might know a way for me to contact Chakenapok on his own turf--to settle this once and for all."

Geezhigo-Quae frowned. "You have already attempted this," she stated. "Twice. And both times, you nearly lost your spirit to him."

Charmian shook her head. "That's not quite what I meant. I mean really go to meet him. Wherever he is."

Geezhigo-Quae stared at her hard and for a long time. Charmian felt like fidgeting under that dark blue stare, but managed to hold it. After several long moments the old woman started forward across the room, her dress swaying as she walked. Everyone parted out of her way as she passed, waving her hand slightly at Charmian as she did so.

"Follow me and walk for a bit."

Charmian blinked, frowned, then obeyed. The others started to follow, only for Geezhigo-Quae to hold up one hand, not even looking back at them. They halted and glanced about in puzzlement.

"We will speak alone. Niskigwun, keep an eye upon them until we return."

"Yes, Grandmother." Niskigwun watched them go, but Charmian could tell that he was just as confused. She and the manitou woman made their way out into the hallway, then into another, and another, until they came out upon a wide branch not far from the top of the Tree, along which they walked in the fading sunlight.

"You have matters weighing upon your mind, which you do not feel free to speak of," Geezhigo-Quae said.

Charmian's eyes widened. "But...how..."

"I do not need a crystal to see when something bothers you, and you do not feel comfortable sharing it in front of just anyone. We may talk in peace here." She waved at a line of crystals dangling from a higher branch, and they lit up in different colors, showing their path more clearly. "I assume there was more to that dream than what you are telling me."

Charmian flushed, feeling oddly caught. "Well...sort of. That...and something else, too." She paused. "You don't know a way for me to face Chakenapok...?"

"I may know of something," Geezhigo-Quae said, "but you must speak with me first." She frowned. "There is a reason you do not feel safe to share what you know?"

Charmian rubbed at her neck. "It's nothing personal...it's just...it's not quite what I was hoping to hear." She paused, then said, "Geezhigo-Quae, if I told you it was completely my fault--everything that's happened here--Ocryana and Chakenapok and the Shadow Wolves and everything--what would you think of me? Would you...would you hate me because of what I did to the Island?"

The manitou woman's brow furrowed slightly. "Perhaps you'd best explain why it is that you believe you would have such a power," she said. "As I recall it, the demoness attacked the Island long before you came. And the Shadow Wolves were active in your absence. And from what I know, Chakenapok's matter is with Manabozho, not with you."

"But what if it's still all my fault?" Charmian insisted. "I know I'm not responsible for Ocryana, but...everything after. The Shadow Wolves going all weird, and Chakenapok taking control, and all of this." She waved her hands helplessly. "What if everything I've done to help the Island just messed it up even more? You yourself said that the Island was better off before my kind messed it up."

"You are not responsible for what the other mainlanders may have done." Charmian opened her mouth to protest, but Geezhigo-Quae held up a hand to silence her. "This dream of yours," she said quietly. "With the wolf which speaks, and the water. Tell me what has convinced you this is your fault."

Charmian found that her voice had disappeared. She averted her eyes, then sighed and sat down on a knot of the Tree. Geezhigo-Quae stared at her as she fiddled her fingers between her knees. The leaves made a soft windchime noise around them.

"That wolf in my dream," she finally murmured. "At least, I think it was her...she told me. She said it was my fault that this is happening."

"The wolf who speaks...?" Geezhigo-Quae's frown grew. "Your dream is what told you of this?"

Charmian nodded. "I never saw her this time...but it must have been her. She's the only one who's ever been in that dream." She lifted her head to meet Geezhigo-Quae's eyes. "She's the one who's been sending the dream in the first place. She looks just like a Shadow Wolf, and she says she's been around a lot longer than the Ocryxes. And she says I'm the one who messed everything up. She told me that she tried sending the dream to others, but it always went missing...Chakenapok's been stealing it all along. He must be trying to figure out what she's telling me. She..." She trailed off, hating to say what she had to say next. "She made me look at my reflection...it looked just like Ocryana." She raised her voice now, growing anxious. "Why would Ocryana be my reflection, Geezhigo-Quae? The last time I was here, it was Red Bird--and Nathalit explained that. We were reflections of each other--she was everything in me that I couldn't see, and I was everything in her that she couldn't see. So what does that mean? I'm like Ocryana--? Is that how I've ruined the Island--?"

The old woman placed a hand on her arm to calm her. "Do not guess at the meaning just yet," she said. "It will become clear in time. Until then, you cannot let this prevent you from doing what you've been doing. For all you know, this dream is a trick sent to fool you."

But she said she wasn't Malsum... Charmian bit her lip, feeling her eyes grow damp, but didn't protest. "You said there was another matter," Geezhigo-Quae prompted her, and she gasped and sat up, remembering.

"Oh. That's right. I had this...well, it was like a dream--but I wasn't asleep. It was after we got caught in the storm. I passed out. Right before I woke up though I...heard somebody talking." She paused. "One of the voices was the exact same one from my dream. She was talking with somebody else. Another she. I don't know who it was, but...they were talking about me like they didn't know I could hear. Then the other voice told me that I had to..." She struggled to remember the exact words, racking her brain to dig them up. "...'Remember where the barrier is thinnest. And when.' She said that was all I needed to know, to figure out what to do." She frowned in confusion. "But the other voice told her to stop helping me, and then I woke up...and that's it. I don't even know who it was, if it was another trick or not." She didn't bother adding how the strange voice hadn't seemed like a trick...how could she know what seemed like a trick or not? That didn't make any sense, did it...?

Geezhigo-Quae seemed to have gotten lost in thought. Charmian fidgeted a little before the manitou woman lifted her head and met her eyes.

"You said you were willing to face Chakenapok upon his own ground?" she stated; Charmian frowned a little, as she didn't offer a word whatsoever on the dream, but nodded.

"I already tried through my dream and it didn't work," she said. "There has to be some other way. He can get through to me, so I have to get through to him. So we can get to Malsum."

"You are aware that he is dead, so any path you choose to take is a dangerous one."

"I kind of figured that," Charmian said, subdued.

"That having been said, you have two paths open to you."

Charmian blinked. "Two--?" She stood up. "You mean, I can do it one way, or the other--?"

Geezhigo-Quae held up her hand again. "Both are difficult," she said. "And one is obviously the more difficult. That would mean your death, and passing along the Spirit Road. That is the straightforward way."

Charmian winced. "I was actually hoping it wouldn't have to go that far," she murmured.

"The other way is more roundabout, yet you would not have to take the Spirit Road, nor give up your life." Geezhigo-Quae stepped toward the trunk of the Tree, and Charmian noticed a cabochon set into the outside; it was dark and rather dusty, as if it had been forgotten there. Geezhigo-Quae dusted it off and it glowed dim grayish-blue. She waved Charmian forward, and Charmian looked into the crystal. She saw a faint outline of the Island.

"There is a forgotten way to the outsides of the Spirit Land," Geezhigo-Quae explained. "From long ago, when the land of the living and the land of the dead were not so distinct as they are today. One may travel to the Spirit Land through this gate, yet upon entering the Spirit Land, you would be in constant danger of losing your spirit. For the body and spirit of the living are not meant to be in the land of the dead."

Charmian nodded.

Geezhigo-Quae waved again, and the view of the Island tilted, so Charmian could see its entire surface. Small points of light began to appear in various places; frowning slightly, she leaned forward to make them out. One was upon the west shore...one inland...one near Fort Holmes, and another deep in the woods...

"Do you understand?" Geezhigo-Quae asked.

Charmian pursed her lips, then nodded. "It's the caves...that's Devil's Kitchen, and Skull Cave, and Tal Natha's cave, and Cave of the Woods, way over there..." Her frown grew. "But...none of those are gateways, are they...?"

"Not the one you are looking for." Geezhigo-Quae gestured. "Yet this one is."

Charmian's stare focused once more on the map, and she saw another glowing spot appear. Her confusion grew as the map increased in size, as if she were flying down toward it. This cave was near the shore, like Devil's Kitchen...yet it was far to the northeast, nowhere near any of the caves that she had seen so far. Her brow furrowed as the Island grew closer, and she turned to look up at Geezhigo-Quae.

"Another cave...?"

A nod. "There are others...yet this is the only one you need to know." She waved, and the view shifted to show a low cave mouth opening out from beneath a large rock. Charmian tried in vain to remember having seen it, but it didn't resemble any of the miscellaneous caves she'd ever seen. It was so close to the bluff, she didn't know how she could have missed it.

"The Island did not want you to see," Geezhigo-Quae said, clarifying. "Yet you may see it now, if you go looking for it..."

"Northeast..." Charmian examined the view in the cabochon as it changed into the map again, and memorized the location of the cave. "Right beneath the bluff. This is a gateway to the Spirit Land--?" She glanced at the old woman again, hopefully.

"To the edges of the Spirit Land," Geezhigo-Quae corrected her. "It passes through the land of the Weavers, far beneath the Island, so you may have a long voyage ahead of you."

Charmian's head whirled around. "The Weavers--?" she exclaimed, and pushed herself away from the cabochon. "The same Weavers who make Weaver medicine?" she asked, her voice growing excited.

"Yes, the same." Geezhigo-Quae's ear twitched. "I noticed what became of your dreamcatcher, and thought that you should know whose realm you would be passing through."

Charmian's face lit up. "Then--I can ask them to fix my dreamcatcher, while we're on our way through!" A smile broke across her face and she had to keep herself from hopping up and down. "Thank you, Geezhigo-Quae! I knew you would know something!"

Geezhigo-Quae held up her hand. "Just because this path seems easier," she said, "does not mean it is."

"But at least I won't have to kill myself, and I can get my dreamcatcher fixed," Charmian said. She couldn't keep herself from grinning. "So--if I try to find the cave, it'll be there? I'll see it?"

"It may be covered in snow by now..." Geezhigo-Quae made a slight face "...yet the Island will let you see it, if you have seen it in the crystal. If you can reach it, you may enter."

"Then that's where we'll go." Charmian made certain that her pack was secure before smiling up at the manitou woman gratefully. "And I'll make sure to keep an eye on my spirit--just in case. Manabozho and the others should be able to help me." She took a step toward the path they had taken. "I'll do everything I can to get to him, I promise. So Glooskap can get to Malsum, and then the Island will be safe."

Geezhigo-Quae tilted her head. "You feel up to this task?" she inquired. "Remember, the easiest way to reach a destination does not mean that the arrival will be simple."

Charmian nodded. "I have to try," she said aloud, feeling a bit stupid but not knowing what else to say. Geezhigo-Quae responded by setting foot upon the path again, and Charmian followed her on her way back to the main room of the Sky Tree.

"I will describe to all of you then exactly where this cave may be found, and what you may expect in the Weavers' land. None have taken this way in many ages--so there are some things that you may not expect."

Charmian nodded once more, hardly listening by now; the thought of finally finding a way to Chakenapok, and of fixing her dreamcatcher, was good enough to keep her mind preoccupied, so that all of her earlier worries had faded by the time they returned to the main room where the others still awaited them.

Chakenapok paced back and forth in his cave, steaming. Every so often he flung up his hand to steal a peek at the Island, but by now, the gusts and flurries did little to make him feel any better.

Where is she! That damned GIRL! Why can't I see her anywhere--?

He had seen her at Fort Holmes--before she'd fallen asleep. And he'd seen her in her dream, of course, although he still hadn't been able to tell where it had come from, and whatever she had been speaking to before he'd arrived had fallen silent. He regretted having ruined her dreamcatcher so soon; perhaps if he'd let her keep it, she would have tried the same trick again, and then he could have found out who had sent the dream. For he was starting to get very peeved not knowing who else had a power such as this.

He halted in his pacing, glanced at the Island...snow still swirled down from the sky...then waved the image away with a dark scowl.

It is that wabano. HE is the cause of this! Would that I had just KILLED him again when I had the chance!

He concentrated, trying again to pick up the mainlander's presence, and failing. He couldn't even tell if she were still upon the Island; he couldn't sense her thoughts, and he couldn't even see her anywhere, with or without the snow. It felt as if...he'd gone partially blind, somehow, not being able to find her. He tried Fort Holmes, Sugar Loaf, the Dupries house, the tribe, the town, and came up empty each time.

He tried Cave of the Woods, and all he sensed was the medicine man, still sitting within. He waved up an image of it. The cave was nearly invisible by now, just the slightest opening peeking out of the snow; he zoomed in closer and could see a fire within, with Moon Wolf seated next to it. As soon as he peered inside, the medicine man lifted his head and met his eyes. Chakenapok nearly started. It was almost as if they could see each other.

Before he could wave the image away, Moon Wolf gave him a humorless smile, and waved his own hand; the vision faded into nothing again. Chakenapok bared his teeth and clenched his fists, hissing.

"Damned pawn! You are the one shielding her from me! I do not care if I have to steal your spirit just to get to her! You will regret EVERY moment you try to thwart me!"

Out of frustration, he cast out his own mental net, catching a brief glimpse of everyone else that he could sense upon the Island. The GeeBees remained near Devil's Kitchen, the demon and his family within the lake; the mainlanders in their small town; the Islanders in their tribes. Everyone was huddling down to wait out the storm, while Augwak paced across the Island, hissing and howling. Chakenapok watched the scene with little interest, his lip curling back in rage.

"If you keep hiding from me, Mainlander," he growled at the air, "if your wabano friend keeps hiding you from me...then I will hunt down every last one of your friends...I will tear this damned Island open from top to bottom...and you will be lucky if you aren't the only one left alive once I am through."

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