Charmian desperately seeks information on her mysterious attacker...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 34: Bitter Reunion"
CHARMIAN STARED AT the wolf-masked attacker--now masked no more--and her eyes widened in disbelief.
Part of her brain screamed that it couldn't be him--the face staring back at her only looked like him, but it couldn't be him, Moon Wolf was dead, she'd seen him die, there was no way this person could be him...
But the other part of her brain was still too stunned to even make sense of anything other than the fact that, it looked just like him. Except for the flaring yellow eyes, it looked exactly like him!
She opened her mouth to say his name again--as if saying it would somehow clarify everything swirling through her head--when something CRACKED against her cheek, snapping her head back and sending her tumbling head over heels. She landed on her back, dazed, and pressed a hand against the bruise forming on her face. A darting movement caught her attention and she looked up to see that Moon Wolf--or whoever he was--had jumped down from the little rise, holding a branch of his own--it must have hit her when he jumped down. She started to push herself upright when he came running at her again, swinging the stick up over his head.
Charmian's eyes goggled. She finished getting to her feet in a hurry, yelling "Moon Wolf--!" just as the branch flew over her head--she had ducked instinctively, and so the blow missed, but when it finished its arc it came right back at her from the other side.
She dodged it again, though more clumsily this time, falling on one knee. "Moon Wolf! It's me!" she cried. "Charmian!"
He managed to keep his balance when the stick missed her again, and brought it back in front of him. His eyes didn't waver from hers, nor did his expression change--he seemed set on something, resolved, yet other than that he conveyed no emotion whatsoever, not even recognition. His eyes were the same ugly yellow as Chakenapok's but other than that they looked like his eyes. They were blank as well.
Doesn't he recognize me--?
"Moon Wolf," she said, pushing herself up and holding out one hand. Tears filled her eyes now that she finally had the chance to see him standing before her, as solid and as real as anything. A smile broke across her face. "I thought you were dead! It's me, Charmian! Remember? You taught me--"
She gasped and dropped to the ground. The stick whooshed just inches from the top of her head, then came back again. Feeling a flare of the desperation she'd felt before, she brought up her arm to block the attack; it still hit her, smacking against her forearm and making her grimace in pain, but at least it wasn't her head. He pulled it back and looked ready to swing it from the other side. Charmian staggered to her feet and clenched her fists in frustration.
"Moon Wolf, don't you remember me?"
She held up her other arm to fend off the stick, only to see his other hand hurl a knife at her at the last minute. She swung her hand down at it, unable to think of anything else to do. He'd recognize any sort of elemental attack, and getting stabbed in the hand was better than getting stabbed in the side, she decided.
Before the knife could hit her, it suddenly veered to the side, spinning in the air and tumbling to the ground. Both of them glanced at it and Charmian noticed frost on the blade, just before she shuddered with cold. The icy gust passed over Moon Wolf--or whoever--a split second later, and even he paused and shivered.
From somewhere behind her, a voice yelled, "Charmian--?"
Moon Wolf--or whoever--lifted his head to look at something in the woods. Charmian took this chance to snatch up the knife--hissing as the frost bit into her fingers--and hurled it at him. She did this without even thinking, as Manabozho had instructed her, and it was only when the knife was already in the air that she finally thought, What am I DOING? I don't want to kill him--!
Her attacker lowered his eyes to see the knife flying at him. Charmian threw her arm forward--"WIND!"--and knocked it aside before it could strike him between the eyes. The knife jabbed into the ground, its handle quivering--and then Moon Wolf--or whoever he was--started shimmering and breaking apart, fading away as if he were made of smoke. Charmian stared right in his eyes as he did so, the yellow glow vanishing last of all until nothing was left but the knife and the wolf skull still lying on the ground.
You win this round, Chakenapok's voice said, and then the clearing fell still.
Charmian dropped to her knees, staring at the empty spot he'd left.
The rustling sound of leaves and grass came from behind her, and a moment later Thomas knelt down at her side. "Are you all right?" he asked; all she could do was continue staring numbly at first, until he touched her cheek, making her flinch. His brow furrowed.
"It's okay." Charmian picked up the broken dreamcatcher, then put her hand out and started to push herself up; Thomas took her other arm and helped. Her eyes never left the spot where Moon Wolf--or whoever--had been standing, as if she expected him to reappear...had he ever really been there at all?
"Come on," Thomas said, and he turned her away from the cave. She glimpsed the wolf skull still sitting nearby, but he steered her away from that as well, leading her back into the woods and toward the trail. She tucked the dreamcatcher back in her pack without thinking.
Cloud stood nearby, and he snorted when they approached him, stomping his hoof. Charmian started shivering with Thomas's arm around her shoulders, but he helped her atop Cloud's back as soon as they reached him, and the summer air warmed her up again. He took the horse's reins and led him up the trail.
"How did you find me?" Charmian murmured.
Thomas glanced up at her. "I heard you were in town earlier, and got in a situation with two of the locals. The Huron said he last saw you in the woods. I don't know why, but...for some reason I felt you might come back here. You seemed interested in this cave, before."
Charmian looked back, but by now Cave of the Woods was lost from sight. She rubbed her arms, although the chill she felt now was hardly physical.
"You knew him," Thomas said.
There was a pause before Charmian nodded slowly, still looking off behind her.
"Who was he?"
"He was the one who taught me the last time I was here..." She turned to face forward again, still rubbing her arms, her own brow furrowed now. "But...he's supposed to be dead. I saw him die...that couldn't have been him."
Thomas stared at her, seeming perplexed, but said nothing. He turned back to the trail. Charmian looked into the woods without really seeing anything, she was so distracted. After a moment she sat upright so abruptly that Cloud snorted again. Thomas gave her a questioning look when she pulled lightly on one of the reins, tugging on his hand.
"Thomas," she said. "Can you take me to Stick-In-The-Dirt? He's a medicine man--he lives with the same tribe as Silver Eagle Feather and Black Elk Horn. It's not too far from Sugar Loaf Rock. Can you take me to see him?"
He looked at her for a moment, as if he wanted to ask her a question, then nodded. They both turned to face the trail ahead now, and didn't speak the rest of the way.
* * * * *
Fire crackled in the middle of the wigwam as Charmian held the broken dreamcatcher in her hands, staring at the snapped frame. Thomas sat nearby, though not as closely to the fire as she did; he alternated between peering at her and watching the others with mild curiosity. Stick-In-The-Dirt, White Deer, and Morning Star were all present, doing various things; White Deer in the far corner mixing something in a bowl with a look of concentration on her face, Morning Star dipping some moss in water, and Stick-In-The-Dirt sitting opposite Charmian, staring at her and at the dreamcatcher in turn. His own look was troubled.
"You are certain it was him?" he said after a time.
Charmian nodded, then bit her lip. Her eyes welled up but no tears fell. "It looked just like him...but since he's dead...I really can't be sure. I can't tell if it's some sort of trick of Chakenapok's or not. Maybe he's just some sort of illusion or disguise or something?"
"You said that as he fought you he knew every move you were going to make," Stick-In-The-Dirt reminded her. Charmian squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her head.
"He's the only one who would understand all those moves, since he taught them to me...he wouldn't even have to read my mind..." She lifted her head and met Stick-In-The-Dirt's eyes. "How can somebody come back from the dead? I know he died the last time I was here! Ocryana killed him! It's been so long since then, he must have gone to the Spirit Land...or wherever...so how could he come back here?"
"You hit him with a piece of wood?" the medicine man pressed. "And it hurt him?"
Stick-In-The-Dirt's brow furrowed. "Then he's not a lost spirit...he would not feel such pain as this if he were. I do not know how he could have returned on his own."
Charmian looked at the fire, and for some reason it made her shiver. Her eyes grew distant.
"If Chakenapok was really killed...and died...then maybe that means he has some sort of power over that now?" she murmured.
"Over life and death?" Thomas said.
Charmian nodded, then looked to Stick-In-The-Dirt again. He rubbed a bead on one of his necklaces between his fingers.
"I shudder to think what one could do with this sort of power," he said. "I have heard that some of the most powerful wabanos possess it, but there are none that I know of. Not even Snow Bear has professed this skill. If this Chakenapok can bring back the dead, then he is more powerful than any wabano I have ever known."
"Why would Chakenapok bring back someone who's died?" Thomas cut in. "From the looks of it, he has his pick of the living to put to use; why go to such trouble as this?"
Charmian opened her mouth to speak, before Chakenapok's voice echoed in her head.
He is what you would call a "pet project" of mine. It is easy enough to control a Wolf; one of your sort is another matter entirely, yet something I thought might be amusing...
"Maybe he brought him back to get at me," she murmured, drawing their attention. She drew in on herself as if cold, still staring at the fire. "He thinks all of this is some huge game...and everybody is a playpiece. He knows how Moon Wolf taught me the last time I was here. Maybe he brought him back to get to me. After all, it worked."
Thomas and Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at her in silence. After a moment White Deer approached from the back of the wigwam and started rubbing the paste she'd been mixing in the bowl on Charmian's cuts, and Morning Star pressed the cold moss to her bruised cheek. Charmian winced but took the treatment in silence, looking down at her dreamcatcher again as it rested against her knee.
"Stick," she said aloud, "do you believe that anyone is born evil? Just born bad--right from the start?"
Stick-In-The-Dirt looked perplexed. "Bad...? I would not know. Perhaps some are, perhaps some aren't."
"But can a baby really be evil?" Charmian lifted her head again. "Do you think it would just be born that way? If so why would Gitchi Manitou allow that?"
The medicine man drew back a bit and appeared to make some sort of gesture with his hand. "It is not the place of us to question Gitchi Manitou."
Irritation twinged across Charmian's face but she suppressed it. "But assuming he wasn't the one behind it--what could make someone evil?" She paused. "Can people here be...possessed by anything?"
He frowned. "'Possessed'?"
She nodded. "Like, a spirit takes them over...they take on its personality...can that happen here?"
"I suppose that it could be possible," Stick-In-The-Dirt replied, still seeming confused.
"But Charmian," Thomas said, drawing her attention so she looked at him. "If you think Chakenapok is possessed...then what is he possessed by? Who would be controlling him?"
"That's what I don't get." She averted her eyes. "It was just a thought, anyway."
She didn't say anything else, so none of them bothered replying. After a few moments White Deer and Morning Star finished tending to her injuries and went back to the other side of the wigwam to clean up. Charmian and Thomas sat by the fire while Stick-In-The-Dirt and his family retreated to prepare for sleep. Thomas moved to sit beside her and looked at the dreamcatcher she still held, her fingers running over the break in the hoop. As she had several times before she sensed he wished to say something, yet he kept quiet, as if waiting for her to speak in her own time. Charmian couldn't take her eyes from the fracture in the frame of the little circle she held; after a while they watered again and glittered in the firelight.
"My grandmother gave it to me," she murmured after a while. "She was sick. She was the only one who believed me when I told her about this place." She lifted a hand to rub it across her eyes. "She was the only one who believed in me."
She continued staring at the broken hoop. Thomas put his hand over hers and held it. She wasn't able to wipe her eyes now without letting go of the dreamcatcher, and so the tears welled up again, threatening to spill out.
"She said she h-hoped I could get back here someday. I'm not sure if it was the dreamcatcher that got me h-here, or if it was w-what she s-said." Her lip started quivering. "But if it's b-broken..."
She hated it, but she couldn't help it. She squeezed her eyes shut again and the tears poured down her face. Her chest hitched and a muffled sound escaped; a moment later she was sobbing, choking and sniffling as her eyes and nose ran. She tried lifting her hand to wipe at them, forgetting that Thomas was still holding onto it; as such she ended up pressing her face against his shoulder, crying harder than she'd ever remembered crying. The thought of the broken circle--Moon Wolf--her grandmother--was so much that she forgot to even deride herself for breaking down so easily, and even though Thomas's arms were cold, she was grateful that he put them around her anyway. And she cried until utter exhaustion finally dragged her down into sleep.
* * * * *
Darkness swirled around her so thickly that she sensed it even with her eyes closed. It was when she slowly opened them, and saw that the darkness remained, that she knew something was different, not right.
For one thing, Stick-In-The-Dirt's wigwam was not nearly big enough to contain a large body of water.
Charmian's eyes widened. She saw something dark and glistening--a lake--standing on its side before her, defying all the laws of gravity. Then with a gasp she sat up and realized that the lake was in fact lying flat as a lake should, though that didn't explain what it was doing here, nor what she was doing here. She looked around her, but the familiar walls of the wigwam were nowhere to be seen. Just darkness stretching off around her, and the lake before her. If she'd had to guess she would have said she was beneath Devil's Lake, but there were no stalactites in view, and the only cave she could make out was the vast one she seemed to be in. Both it and the lake stretched off so far that she couldn't make out their beginning or end.
Feeling suddenly tense, she glanced up at the ceiling--or lack thereof--and called out, "Chakenapok--?"
Her own echo answered her, though even it was muted, indistinct. Charmian rubbed her arms, feeling even more ill at ease. This was obviously a dream...but Tal Natha, and apparently Chakenapok, were the only ones she knew of who could bring dreams...and this appeared to have been brought by neither. So where was she...?
Her eyes again focused on the lake. It was the only thing visible in the cave, so she crawled toward it and reluctantly peered over the edge, into the lapping water. The last time she'd been on the Island, when in the dream realm, her reflection had often shown her Red Bird's face rather than her own. She still wasn't certain what that had meant, aside from the fact that she and Red Bird had somehow been connected--but that had been so long ago. And when she peered into the water now, it was only her own face she saw, though there were tears streaming from her reflection's eyes, and when she felt her own face--her hand was steady, but her reflection's hand trembled--it was quite dry. What could that mean...?
A very soft, almost hissing noise made her gasp and jerk back, away from the water, lest an evil manitou or some such come wading out. She glanced up into the darkness and squinted, even though she wasn't certain she wanted to see what might be out there.
Two faint glowing dots appeared far away over the lake, and for a moment she thought that whatever was out there must be quite in the distance, until an even fainter shape emerged around them. Her eyes widened when she saw that it was eyes she was staring back at--surrounded by a wolf face, its fur seemingly transparent, the same dusky color as the cave and the lake. It wasn't as far away as she'd thought, as this wolf was gigantic. The yellow dots flickered and the soft hissing noise slowly changed into a far-off growling. Charmian sensed amused malevolence from the creature, and shivered in revulsion, pulling back from the lake.
It was only when she happened to glance down at the wolf's reflection and saw that it had blue eyes that she finally gasped again, and the dream snapped like a breaking rubber band.
Charmian sat upright, still gasping, her fingers clutching at fur. She glanced around herself in confusion until the familiar settings of the wigwam resolved themselves around her, and she let out her breath abruptly. The pale light filtering in a space beside the doorflap told her it must be early morning; another glance showed her that she was the only one left in the wigwam, the others having apparently gone some time before. It was probably for the best, considering how much she must have been thrashing around in her sleep--the furs she'd been sleeping on were tossed about in a messy pile.
She rubbed at her head, attempting to calm herself down, and instinctively reached for her pack, sitting beside the furs she'd been using as a pillow. Her dreamcatcher should have been there. Her groggy confusion slowly changed to growing alarm as her fingers came back empty. She turned and opened her pack, digging inside, but all she could find was her other belongings. She tossed aside the furs she'd been sleeping on, but there was nothing beneath them but earth. That was when panic really set in.
Her dreamcatcher was gone!
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