Charmian goes in search of the Fairy Arch, but doesn't find what she expected...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 15: Into The Crooked Tree"
CHARMIAN AND SHADOW Water cleared a small bush and stumbled as quickly as they could toward Chimney Rock. Charmian couldn't help glancing over her shoulder every few seconds, even though she knew it was losing them time. Their pursuer kept himself low to the ground as he sprinted so she couldn't get a clear look at him, but he still wore the same wolf's skull mask as before, obscuring his face. He pulled a bow off of his shoulder and just when she'd convinced herself he couldn't possibly fire from that position or while running so fast, WHOOSH!--she cringed as an arrow almost nicked her cheek. Immediately she put on a burst of speed, practically dragging Shadow Water behind her.
"Climb up the rock!" she yelled, pushing the other woman forward. "Or fly! Or something! I'll try to fight him off or--SOMETHING!"
"Hurry!" Thunk! Another arrow bounced off the rock ahead of them and Charmian whirled around, ducking low to the ground. She expected to run into him head on, but as soon as he noticed her posture he skidded to a halt.
Charmian brought her fists down against the ground. "EARTH!" A split second passed in which nothing happened, and she started to panic; then a rumble arose, and the ground before her undulated, seething like a wave of water, hunks of grass tumbling to the ground as it sped forward. Before it could knock their pursuer off balance, he leapt into the air, landing safely to the side. Charmian ground her teeth and spread her arms, swooping them forward.
With a whishing sound, all the grass in her immediate area tore itself loose, flying forward like missiles. The masked man paused to watch this as if curious, then held up his bow. He looked ready to fire an arrow, but didn't fit any to the notch.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "What the--"
WHOOSH! She gasped and pressed herself to the ground when the grass she had just sent flying at him came flying back, most of it missing her, a few blades scoring her skin. She dug her fingers into the earth in frustration. Somehow she knew that it was the bow that had propelled the grass back at her, just like a barrage of arrows.
How did he DO that--?
She gritted her teeth again; apparently Shadow Water hadn't left, as she'd asked her to. She hurriedly pushed herself up to her feet, swinging her arm again as she retreated toward the rock and hoping the gesture would at least hold him at bay for a moment or two. Seeing her attempt to escape, he started forward.
WHAP. Charmian heard the air smack against him, forcing him to a stop as he held up his arms to protect his head. She took this chance to turn and run--but something wrapped around her ankle, tripping her and dragging her back. She spotted Shadow Water just briefly, her eyes wide with surprise, as she started sliding across the ground.
She twisted her head around to see the masked man holding one hand aloft as if pulling on an invisible rope. Rage and confusion filled her head.
He's using MY attack! He's using ALL my attacks against me!
Charmian struggled to turn herself over onto her back, trying to grab at the invisible band of wind that secured her leg. She found it and pulled as hard as she could, but it cut into her fingers and she couldn't feel it growing any looser. Her attacker, seeing her getting close, pulled out his knife again and held it up, getting into a striking pose.
Something flashed behind her, and Charmian knew without looking what it was. A low growl filled the air, affirming her suspicions; a moment later a large tawny shape bounded past, its wings spreading. Shadow Water raised one hand, claws extended, ready to swipe it across the stranger's face or else knock his head off.
The stranger saw her coming, and immediately broke off his attack. The band of wind snapped loose of Charmian's leg and she tumbled backwards from the loss of pressure. Shadow Water just missed hitting him when he ducked, still holding the knife; Charmian quailed, ready to see it plunge upward into her breast, but the masked man didn't take advantage of the obvious opening. Instead he rolled to the side, avoiding her next attack, and came running at Charmian again. Her eyes goggled.
Is he NUTS?!
Shadow Water's baffled expression told her she thought the same thing. Although he appeared able to outfight Charmian, she didn't think he could possibly be strong enough to fend off an Ocryx--at least, he had retreated from her, hadn't he? Yet now he came bolting at Charmian as if having forgotten the demon was even there!
The two of them were so surprised by this kamikaze attack that they hesitated to react. He raised the knife and Charmian felt the band of wind wrap itself around her ankle again, holding her tight. She kicked against it and tried to lift her hands to fight it off, only for more bands to wrap around her wrists, and one to fly around her mouth, choking off her yell. A muffled sound came out--she couldn't even call out the name of whatever elemental might be of use, though by now she was starting to think none of them would work. The most she could do was move her arms slightly in front of her to try to take the brunt of the attack, shutting her eyes and getting ready for the pain.
KA-WHAP! Charmian gasped, the band of wind snapping loose of her mouth as the others broke away from her wrists and ankle. Immediately the tiny hairs in her nose prickled and her lungs burned as an icy gust swept over her, slamming into her attacker and sending him flying backwards. Shadow Water was buffeted as well, though she managed to hold her ground, her teeth chattering as she hunched in on herself. The wind Charmian had called up dissipated, weak and useless compared to that which passed over them now. Then almost as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, a wave of summer warmth following it, though Charmian's skin still prickled from the chill. She sat upright and her first instinct was to grasp hold of her upper arms, shivering and chattering like mad.
"Wh-wh-what w-was th-th-that--?"
Did I do that? Did I call that up out of...somewhere?
Charmian? Shadow Water thought it, rather than said it. Charmian lifted her head to see her attacker staggering to his feet, shaking his head and trembling with cold. Fury at being so easily embarrassed surged up inside her and she jumped to her feet with a yell.
The stranger lifted his head to look at her. The air began to ripple as waves of heat gathered around her upraised hands, then it burst into flames, a fireball shooting straight at him. He stood as if stunned and Charmian gritted her teeth in anticipation of the attack striking him. And then...he vanished.
Charmian gawked. The air around him rippled--whether from the heat, or what, she couldn't tell--and it was as if his entire body turned into mist, evaporating and leaving nothing behind but a faint shadow which disappeared as quickly as the rest of him. The fireball struck the tree standing a ways behind him, scorching its limbs and curling the leaves; Charmian yanked her hand back to withdraw the attack before the tree could be too badly damaged, and started glancing around in confusion.
"Where did he go?"
Both she and Shadow Water stood in the little clearing, looking around. Charmian even cast out her thought net, but couldn't sense the strange person's presence anywhere nearby. In fact, now that she thought of it, she hadn't been able to sense his presence in the first place. But...that was impossible.
"Shadow Water?" she said. "Can you feel him anywhere?"
The demon sniffed at the air, then shook her head. "No, nowhere. He's not here anymore. It's as if he's left the Island."
"But he couldn't have gone that far that fast! Why can't I pick him up anywhere?" Charmian lowered her hands, clenching her fists in consternation. "It's like he doesn't even have a presence to pick up!"
EVERYBODY has a presence! Unless they're dead!
Charmian let out her breath, frustrated. Shadow Water shimmered and returned to her human form and the two of them looked around themselves a little bit more out of sheer habit before Charmian sighed and waved her hand.
"Come on, at least we don't have to worry about him for now. I was going to tell you about this thing I just heard abou...ow."
She glanced down at her foot to notice the little rabbit had bitten her toe. Shadow Water looked down at it as well. It sat up on its haunches and wiggled its nose.
Don't tell her about it! You're going to go blabbing to everyone on the Island, aren't you?
Charmian surreptitiously looked at Shadow Water to see if she'd heard the comment. The other woman appeared to be merely puzzled by the rabbit's behavior. She turned back to Manabozho.
Why not? I think she's trustworthy enough! What's your problem, anyway?
Just trust me. This isn't a matter to go talking to anyone and everyone about. There's more than one reason Nokomis lives alone in a tree that most Islanders can't even see. You'll have trouble if you go talking around about this.
Charmian sighed and bent down to pick the rabbit up. "Then again it's kind of late," she said aloud. "I thought I heard a GeeBee on the way back here."
Shadow Water nodded vigorously. "I think I did too. This is the time of night they like to gather around here." She clasped her upper arms as if cold, and Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. Although half demon, she still appeared frail and timid, not too different from Red Bird. Charmian tucked the rabbit under her arm and glanced at Chimney Rock before starting to step through the tall grass.
"How about we call it a day, then? I think we did enough for now. I found a few things out...I'll just have to look into them in the morning, is all."
Shadow Water looked as if she wished to ask what Charmian had discovered, but only nodded. Charmian sensed she was more interested in getting out of there than in asking questions. "You're heading back to Devil's Lake, right?" she asked, and Shadow Water nodded again before slowing to a stop.
"Oh...that's right. You're probably staying on the other side of the Island." She looked pensive. "I could fly you back there if you want..."
Charmian opened her mouth to accept the offer when the rabbit nipped at her finger. "That's okay. I know a...shortcut through the woods, and...somebody is supposed to be waiting for me."
Sheesh...lying starts to come easier when you get used to doing it!
Shadow Water seemed anxious but Charmian held out one hand and a tiny flame appeared atop her index finger. "I can use this if it gets too bad," she said, hoping the other woman wouldn't call her bluff.
Shadow Water's shoulders untensed a bit and she finally nodded, though with seeming reluctance. "Please be careful," she said. "I know you are good now at fighting on your own...but these Wolves, and other things...I just find it very strange that they're so interested in you. And whoever this was who disappeared...I can't help but feel he's a part of this, too."
Charmian frowned. "You do? That's weird, because I was starting to get the same feeling. How do you think they're connected?"
"I'm not sure...if I knew, I would say. Please just be more careful than you usually are." She blinked and her face went red. "I didn't mean it like that..."
Charmian grinned. "I know how you meant it...and I will. You too. I really hate us splitting up this late, but like I said..."
"I understand." Shadow Water raised one hand in farewell, and Charmian echoed the gesture. She stood and watched as Shadow Water turned and stepped off through the woods, the grass rustling softly behind her. She vanished in the dimness and Charmian watched after her for another moment or two to make certain she was all right.
Nip. "Ow!" Charmian jerked and dropped the rabbit to the ground. She gave Manabozho a reproachful look and rubbed her sore finger. "What did you do that for? I didn't tell her anything!"
"You're dallying. I thought you were interested in finding the Fairy Arch."
Charmian made a face at the rabbit. "Yeah, well, I don't see you hurrying off anywhere either. Any idea where we should start? Is it on this side of the Island?"
"How would I know? To the best of my knowledge, before today, I assumed it was just a story. Nokomis can get carried away sometimes. I am only looking for it because you are so set on finding it."
"Remember what you said happens when you doubt your grandmother!" Charmian took a bit of satisfaction in the twinge that passed over Manabozho's face, then sighed and turned in a circle. "So we have no idea where to start. I guess we should just head back the way we came." She rubbed her head and winced. "If I could even remember that by now..."
"Oh, let's just go back to the other side," Manabozho groused, and started hopping along the trail in front of them. "I haven't had a decent bite to eat all day. The people on the east side are far friendlier than those on this side."
"But what about the Arch--?"
"Can't it wait until the morning? How much do you expect to find this late at night? And it's only going to get darker...and GeeBee'er...ugh, my head hurts just thinking about it."
Charmian had to hurry to catch up with the disappearing rabbit. "But you said that we could look TONIGHT! I'm not even tired! I don't want to waste all night when I could be looking for the dumb thing; I didn't do all that fighting for nothing, you know...!"
Something velvety and wet brushed against her arm, and she jumped and screamed. Two glittering eyes stared at her from the darkness, a long narrow face surrounding them. Charmian lifted her hand and squeaked, "Fire!" Her fingertips lit up and the face neighed.
Charmian blinked in confusion. The creature didn't possess the wide moose antlers of most manitous--and to the best of her knowledge, manitous didn't neigh.
Her brow furrowed and she stared at it. "Cloud--?"
Charmian blinked again. "You can talk?"
Cloud's ear flicked. The grass further behind him started rustling and another shape appeared, sweeping it aside with its hand. Charmian let out her breath as soon as she could make out Thomas coming toward her, and her confusion started to melt. An immediate sense of anxiety and guilt started to replace it.
Thomas halted and gaped at her. "Charmian, you're on fire--!"
"Huh?" Charmian stared at him, then looked at her hand to notice the little flames still dancing atop her fingers. "OH!" She made a show of slapping her hand against her thigh, rubbing her fingers against her clothing and making little noises as if burnt. She stuck them in her mouth for good measure and tried to smile, knowing she must look like a total idiot.
"Heh!" she mumbled around her fingers. "Must'f toufed somefing I shouldn't haf."
"Are you all right?" Thomas resumed his approach and looked her over. "I heard all sorts of commotion not that long ago, but the woods around here are rather thick..."
"Oh. Um...yeah, I'm fine. Most of me." Charmian removed her fingers from her mouth and grinned, feeling her face go red. "There was a...um...bear. And...um, you know how they can be when...um..."
Thomas's face screwed up. "You fought off a bear...?"
"Well, no, not really, 'cause all I had to do was scare it a little bit and...uh..." Charmian's mind went blank as she tried to finish her sentence, to no avail. "Um...well, then I burnt my fingers." She grinned wide enough to show her teeth this time. "And here I am."
Thomas put a hand to his head, appearing confused by the story. Charmian nearly kicked Manabozho when she felt him tugging at her foot, but managed to restrain herself. Thomas caught the motion, however, and glanced down at the creature in puzzlement as Charmian picked it up and tucked it back in place under her arm, still with a foolish smile.
"I'll stop bothering you now..."
"I stopped by Fort Holmes the other day," Thomas said. "I waited for a little while, but..."
"OH!" Charmian flushed. "That's right--I forgot." Manabozho started squirming and she turned him around so his head was buried in her armpit. "I'm really sorry about that...I wanted to be there, really, but something came up and..."
Thomas laughed. "That's all right. I assumed it was something like that. We can't always help what happens here. I was just worried if you were all right or not. I've been looking all over for you today but nobody knew exactly where you were. What are you doing way out here at this time of the night? You must know this is when the GeeBees start flying about."
"I know; I was on my way back to the other side. I was just looking around for something." Manabozho started squirming anew and Charmian had to fight to keep herself still. She turned toward the trail. "I thought I'd head back before Augwak or anybody shows up..."
"Would you like me to give you a ride back...?"
"That's okay!" Charmian started walking toward the trail, her pace hurried as the rabbit was kicking her by now. "Thanks for the offer, though! I really am sorry about the other day--maybe in the morning I can stop by your place to make it up?"
"It's not necessary," Thomas had to yell, cupping his hands to his mouth. "Only if you want to."
"I do want to! Really!" Charmian hissed under her breath; it felt like the rabbit was trying to chew through her clothing. "It's just kind of a bad time right now--but as soon as I get everything cleared up I'll be sure to stop by. Thanks again, I really mean it!" She gasped when she felt something twang against her side and abruptly dropped the rabbit to the ground, clamping her hand under her arm. "That was my BRA, you PERVERT!" She kicked at Manabozho but he leapt away into the underbrush. "You wait until I get my hands on you for that! I'll just go find that stupid Fairy Arch on my OWN!"
Charmian gasped and clamped her hands to her mouth, falling as still as a deer in headlights. Two tiny glowing dots peered out from the grass, but didn't approach.
The grass behind her rustled and she heard Cloud stomp. She slowly turned to see Thomas still standing on the trail with a perplexed look on his face. Her ears felt as if they were on fire.
"Did you say Fairy Arch?" he echoed.
Charmian stayed frozen as she was a moment more before lowering her hands. She swallowed and almost choked on it. "Um..." This time even a bad lie wouldn't come to mind. She cringed mentally as she went over what she'd just screamed for anyone within earshot to hear.
Oh my God, I don't know what's worse, that I blabbed that, or that he heard me talking about my BRA!!
The little glowing dots in the grass flickered as if mocking her. Thomas took Cloud's reins and approached.
"If you're looking for it, I can tell you where it is," he offered.
Charmian blinked. The little eyes glowered but she ignored them and turned to face him. "You know where it is?" she asked in disbelief.
Thomas smiled. "I've never seen it, but I've heard stories about it. I understand if you're on your way back...home, or wherever...for now, but I can help you find it. If you want."
Relief surged up inside Charmian's breast. "Yeah! I would!" She bit her lip and her enthusiasm dimmed a little. "The thing is...um..." She shrank in on herself a bit. "I was kind of planning to go there by myself first off..."
Thomas's smile didn't dim as she'd expected it to. "That's all right. I'll still help you find it. The only thing is that you have to promise me you'll do something in return."
Charmian stared at him for a moment or two. "Like what?" she asked, and hated that she sounded so guarded, but couldn't help it.
Thomas crossed his arms. "Well, even though I've lived here my entire life, it looks like you know a lot more about the place than I do. You seem to be able to fight off wolves and bears and such well enough on your own, at least." Charmian blushed. "As soon as you're able I'd appreciate it if you showed me around the Island. There's bound to be some things that I've missed."
Charmian's brow furrowed in disbelief. "That's it?" she asked. "That's all you want? For me to show you around the Island?"
Thomas nodded. "Like I said, you seem to know even more about it than I do, and I think that's kind of a shame. As if I've been living here the entire time, yet don't even know half of the place."
"Oh! I know that feeling." The words came out before Charmian even knew she was speaking them, and she felt her ears grow warm. She smiled. "All right. It's a deal. As soon as I get all this stuff cleared up I'll be sure to show you around." Thomas held out his hand and she shook it. "And you'll tell me where the Fairy Arch is?" she prompted, still skeptical that he would actually know. "Where did you even hear about it? I never heard of it until a little while ago, myself."
"I've never seen it, but I've heard a few stories. When I was younger I liked to hang about at the Fur Company and listen to the traders." He gestured and they started walking along the trail together. "One time an odd old fellow showed up with some pelts to trade. He looked like one who should know stories. And he did. But he wasn't very talkative about it." Cloud snorted and bobbed his head and Thomas patted his nose to settle him. "I can't remember exactly how the conversation started, but someone else in the room caught his attention with something they said--probably about the spirits that supposedly live around here. He scoffed at them and said that they would not be so dismissive of such things if the Fairy Arch were still open."
That goes along with what Nokomis said, Charmian thought, then nodded. "Go on."
"Well, this other fellow just laughed at him, and called him batty, but the old man said that such a thing did exist, not too far from Arch Rock. I've been to that side of the Island; it's covered with hidden springs, high up on the bluff. But the trees are so thick one can hardly get through. I tried finding this Arch a few times myself, but never could. Still, I wouldn't doubt that it's really there. I guess you would just have to be very patient to find it."
"Near Arch Rock?" Charmian echoed. "I know that place like the back of my hand! I never really scoured the bluff, though...I just assumed it was all springs and stuff. You're sure that's where he said it was?"
Thomas nodded. "But it's likely covered over good. I don't know how you could make it up in there, even if you knew exactly where to look."
Charmian had to suppress a smile. "Don't worry, I have some ideas." She patted Cloud's nose and then skipped down the trail a few steps, turning to wave. "Thanks, Thomas! You'll get a tour of the Island soon, I promise!"
Thomas smiled and waved in return. Charmian turned once more and started running down the trail, cutting through the woods and heading east. She kept up this pace until she'd left the grassy area around Chimney Rock far behind, then slowed to a walk. The bushes beside her rustled.
"You left him behind?"
"Duh, of course I did. You said not to tell anybody about the place, didn't you?"
"A lot of good that did!"
"YOU'RE the one who snapped my bra, jerk! You're lucky. The last person who snapped my bra had to get a splint put on his finger!"
The little brown rabbit hopped out of the bushes and made a face. "Are you a girl, or are you a savage?" It started glimmering and grew in size until Manabozho stood beside her again, dusting glitter off of himself. Charmian wrinkled her nose.
"Let's just go find the stupid thing before anybody else shows up. Okay?"
Manabozho made a sarcastic gesture. "Oh-kay." Charmian brushed past him and let him carry up the rear as they trudged to the other side of the Island.
"I never really got used to walking around here at night," she muttered when they had come within sight of the high bluff overlooking Lake Huron. "It just seems like every time I did, something really bad happened."
"Don't say that!" Manabozho groused, grasping her hand as she lowered herself down the slope. "You'll mess up the whole thing!"
"Well, I've already been attacked by God knows what God knows how many times, so I hardly think I can mess it up any WORSE! If we had Shadow Water with us I bet this would be a lot easier..."
"I doubt it. Stop whining. You're lucky I'm in a good enough mood to help you out with this; I already told you there's probably no such place. Nokomis likes to send people on stupid quests like this..."
"I bet you've never even gone on any of her stupid quests. Am I right?"
"That's right, because they're STUPID!"
"You can hardly even speak if you've never even followed through on anything she says! Sheesh! No wonder your own grandmother can't stand you!"
The entire time they snapped at each other, they climbed down the slope, grasping onto saplings and roots as they went. A few times one or the other slipped and threatened to fall but caught themselves just in time. Gurgling, trickling sounds began to arise, and Charmian grimaced when her foot splooshed into what she had thought was a patch of moss.
"Ew," she said, pulling it out, dripping wet. "Watch it, I think it gets a little mucky down here."
"A little mucky," Manabozho grumbled. "My fingers are practically turning green."
"And here I thought you LIKED nature and stuff!" Charmian scowled at him and took a step down. "It seems every time you open your mouth it gives me just one more reason to..." Clack. She frowned and tapped her foot against a hard surface. "Hey, I think I hit rock."
"So? There's rock all over this part of the Island. It's probably the Giant's Stairway."
"The Giant's--GAH!" Manabozho slipped and disappeared into the greenery. Charmian sighed and let go of the roots she'd been holding onto. She started to fall, but was safely caught in a tangled nest of roots and saplings somewhat further down the slope. Manabozho had been similarly saved, though he was in a somewhat more uncomfortable-looking position, his arms and legs twisted every which way. He scowled at her in turn when she picked herself out of the shrubbery.
"If you'd wanted down so fast you could've just asked first."
"Ha ha," he snapped. Charmian snapped her fingers and the tangle around Manabozho's limbs began to untwine itself.
"I just now thought of asking the manitous to help us out. If anybody around here knows where the Arch is, it's them. All we have to do is ask them nicely."
"Uh-uh." Manabozho shook his head. "The Arch--if it exists--is guarded closely from humans like you. Manitous do not give up the locations of such sacred places--if they exist."
Charmian stuck out her tongue. "Then I'll just ask them to help us along in the right direction. That's not asking too much as long as we find it on our own." She took a twining root in each hand and an even larger one rose out of the earth beneath her, lifting her into the air. Manabozho hung still and watched as the trees transported her further diagonally down the bluff, then started kicking and struggling to get himself free.
"Stupid weeds!" he barked. "How come she gets all the assistance and I don't? Haven't I done all sorts of good for you people?"
In response the shrubs withdrew, and Manabozho yelped and tumbled down into the trees.
Charmian held tight to her guide until it gently settled her back on the uneven ground a little distance from where she'd been before. She waited for Manabozho to climb his way back up, his arms laced with scrapes and scratches. He muttered all sorts of unpleasant things under his breath, which Charmian ignored, waving at him to hurry up.
"C'mon, I think I might see something rocky over there. Let's check it out."
"I TOLD you there's rock EVERYWHERE around here!" Manabozho wasn't in a good mood. He rubbed his sore arms and made a face. "One can hardly be told from another!"
"Yeah, but what if it's arched? I think I see something. Now come on."
She started poking her way through the undergrowth. Manabozho sighed and followed. Charmian practically had to tunnel her way across the bluff, the plant life was so thick. The faint moonlight glimmered on something whitish ahead of her, and she recognized the bumpy pattern that indicated the odd breccia formations that were so common on the Island. She ducked her head and saw what appeared to be two sides to it, rising up opposite each other with a hole in the middle, and her heart rose. She hurried toward it.
"That's GOT to be it!"
Manabozho drew close and peered curiously forward. Charmian stood up taller to push back a heavy branch obscuring her view, and jumped out of the bushes to land several feet away from it. Immediately her heart sank, and she lowered her arms, staring in shock and disbelief. Manabozho appeared beside her and they both stared at what must be the Fairy Arch.
"No wonder the fairies don't use it anymore," Charmian said miserably.
Standing before them, shimmering in the pale light as if mocking the newcomers, rose the two curving sides of the Fairy Arch, its bridged top long since collapsed to the ground below.
"Part 17: Night Arrival"
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