Charmian confronts Chakenapok on his own terms, with bizarre results...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 45: Devil's Advocate"
Into The Shadows
CHARMIAN NEARLY FELL over with fright when something appeared seemingly out of nowhere and fell to the ground in front of her, yelping as it did so. Almost immediately the wind that had been whipping around the fort died away, and both Charmian and Moon Wolf lowered their arms from their faces. Charmian gaped when she saw it was Thomas who had landed in front of her, and he looked equally bewildered to be there.
She opened her mouth again, but a thud from the log parapets drew her attention. She saw Pakwa land and start cleaning his ears as if stopping in for a visit.
"Pakwa--?" she blurted out; then, "Thomas?"
"Thomas?" Moon Wolf echoed.
"Charmian?" Thomas exclaimed.
Charmian shook her head abruptly; she'd been just about to introduce Moon Wolf. Instead she held out her hand and he took it and got to his feet, wincing and rubbing at his knee. He looked around himself in great confusion. Charmian turned to Pakwa.
"You should really learn to work on those landings!" she snapped.
The GeeBee merely finished cleaning his ear and started on his foot.
Charmian turned back to Thomas. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I wanted you to come here, but Tal Natha was supposed to get you. I guess he couldn't find you...he must've sent Pakwa. Maybe he could find you easier because he's a GeeBee?"
"Is that what he was supposed to be doing?" Thomas exclaimed. "I could have come here much more easily on my own--and I wouldn't have had to land like that!"
"I didn't know where to find you, and I couldn't seem to reach you. My senses are all wonky lately." She blinked, then turned slightly red. "I hope he didn't drag you away from something important!"
Thomas rubbed at his neck. "Well, if you consider sleep important..." He relented on seeing the look on her face. "Actually I finished helping White Deer a little while ago, and decided to go back home for a nap. But I heard this tapping on my window, and when I looked over I saw that." He nodded at Pakwa, who was busily cleaning his toenails. "He didn't exactly explain what he intended, either," Thomas added.
"I'm sorry. Pakwa's...like that sometimes. Most of the time." Charmian paused. "All the time." She glanced him over. "You're not hurt too bad, are you...?"
"No, nothing I can't live with..." He peered around the fort and finally saw Moon Wolf, then raised an eyebrow at Charmian.
"Oh. Yeah." Charmian waved at the medicine man as he drew close, looking Thomas over in turn. "This is Moon Wolf. Um...Moon Wolf, this is Thomas." She could tell he remembered both Moon Wolf's name and his face, and sighed. "Long story."
Thomas leaned slightly toward her and murmured, "You'll really have to tell me your long stories sometime." He stood straight again, leaving her flushing, and glanced at Moon Wolf. "I take it there's been some sort of...reconciliation." When neither of them spoke, he said to the medicine man, "The last time I saw you two together, it rather looked like you were trying to kill her."
Moon Wolf had enough time to blink before Charmian jumped in front of him. "Bygones!" she cried with a too-bright-verging-on-frantic smile. "Like I said," she said to Moon Wolf, waving and trying to look disinterested, "it's a really long story...I'll have to catch you up sometime." She whirled to glare witheringly at Pakwa. "Next time, GIVE SOME WARNING!"
"You said you wanted me here for something," Thomas reminded her, and tilted his head with a puzzled look. "You mean you actually want me to stay around for a change--?"
Charmian felt her face start to burn, and would have sunk into the ground had she been able. Instead she grimaced. Moon Wolf was still watching the whole thing; she wished he would turn away, for just a minute. "I thought you might worry if I didn't let you know what I was planning to do," she explained, and took out the pellets to show them to him. "I just thought it would be the polite thing to do..."
Thomas raised his hand and offered a disarming smile. "I didn't mean it, really. Besides, what are those?" He looked curiously at the pellets and Charmian poured all but a few back into the pouch, tying it shut.
"Niskigwun...he's that...guy with the wings...gave them to me a little while back. He said they'd be a lot safer than whiskey if I had to fall asleep again." She made a face. "And considering how that ended up, I think they'd be a lot less embarrassing, too!"
"Fall asleep?" Thomas echoed, brow furrowing.
"That was how I contacted Chakenapok the last time."
Thomas's expression changed and she could tell that, true to her prediction, he was wary of her plan. "You truly think that's a good idea...?" he started.
"Not really, but it's the only way I can directly get in touch with him--and that's what I have to do." She looked at the few pellets in her hand and rolled them around. "I think I figured out how I can get through to him."
"Through to him--? You mean, without fighting?"
Charmian nodded. "Snow Bear...that...old guy in the cave..." Jeez, I really need to start introducing everybody. "...Said that he can't be defeated by fighting. That means appealing to something else. I think I figured it out, but the only way I can prove it is to go see him. I've only met him in dreams, so falling asleep is the only way to get back there on my own terms."
"You do have a way to defend yourself should he try to attack you, don't you?" Thomas asked, and she opened her mouth to tell him that she didn't know of any real way to protect herself...when she thought better of giving that answer, and closed her mouth. She smiled at him when he frowned, and waved her hand.
"Of course." The lie tasted bitter coming off of her tongue, but it was better than getting into an argument. "I wouldn't go in there without any sort of backup plan, would I?"
From the corner of her eye she caught Moon Wolf's expression, and almost lost her nerve; he clearly saw through her lie. Thomas, on the other hand, appeared to take her at her word, and relaxed and nodded.
"All right. There was something you thought I could do...?"
"Actually, I want you to help Moon Wolf keep an eye on me. He could do it on his own..." she trailed off for a moment, then continued, "...but I didn't want you to worry about me when word of this gets out later." This much was the truth, and instead of tasting bitter, she found it just made her ears grow warm.
Thomas stared at her in surprise, then grinned. "I must be growing on you," he said, and fortunately turned away before he could see the rest of her face follow her ears' example. He looked at the fort wall and at Pakwa, then turned back. "So what do you have to do? Do these things put you to sleep...?"
"I'm guessing so, though Niskigwun never exactly told me just how they work..." Charmian frowned at the little pellets. "I don't even know how many to take. I'll have to err on the safe side and say one." She rolled the tiny balls around again. "Jeez, if my parents were here they'd ground me. First whiskey, now these. So much for the DARE program."
She sat down with her back against the grassy wall of the fort before either of them could ask what she was talking about, and popped one of the little pellets in her mouth. She held it on her tongue for a moment; then, when it refused to dissolve, started chewing. After another moment her eyes squeezed shut and she made a horrible face.
"How does it taste?" Thomas asked.
Isn't it kind of OBVIOUS? "'Ike coffee grounds," Charmian mumbled around the pellet, and her face screwed up. "Eehhhhhhw..." She opened her eyes and nearly jumped back when she saw that both Thomas and Moon Wolf had drawn closer and were leaning forward, staring into her face as if expecting her head to shrink. She managed to finish chewing the pellet and swallowed its remains, sticking out her tongue and gagging.
"You think they could make it TASTE better!" She started digging in her pack for anything to offset the taste, then remembered Pakwa, and decided it was best not to interfere with the medicine. Who knew what wonky reactions it would have with some other substance. "I think I'd've preferred fairy dust or something...ugh, ew, echh."
The two just kept staring at her. She stared back, feeling like squirming, but the truth was she was as curious as they were. When a long while had passed in silence this way she finally fidgeted and spoke.
"Do I look more tired to you?"
Thomas frowned a little. "Do you feel it working?"
"I don't know. How long am I supposed to wait?"
"He told you nothing whatsoever of how it works?" Moon Wolf asked.
Charmian shook her head. "All he said was that it wasn't as unreliable or dangerous as some of the Island medicine--which is good, but if I have to sit here and wait like three days just for it to kick i--" Her vision of Thomas and Moon Wolf suddenly blurred over and she blinked, then saw that they had changed colors, and along with them the fort and everything else. Then the sky filled with stars. Then her hands started glowing. "Ooh," she managed to say, and then slowly started to lean to the side.
One of the weird glowing color-shifting figures hurried forward--leaving a strange afterimage behind--and she felt him take her arm and settle her back against the fort wall. "Charmian?" he said--only it sounded like "Charmian-an-an-an." "Are you all right-ight-ight-ight?"
"Are there mushrooms in these things...?" Charmian murmured, then smiled at how goofy her voice sounded. "Listen, I'm echoing. Echo-echo-echo...!" Her head slumped to the side and she started drooling.
"Charmian-an-an-an...?" the voice said again, only it sounded much further away this time. Then, seemingly to somebody else: "Is it supposed to do that-at-at-at...?"
...at--at--at--at...where am I? What happened? Charmian opened her eyes again, but Thomas and Moon Wolf and the fort were gone. She looked around herself at the swirling gray mist, which then started shifting colors and glowing and breaking apart. She stared at it, entranced. Cool. That's never done that before.
She put a hand to her head and blinked. Wow. Now I'm talking to myself, too. My mouth isn't even moving! Cool! She started opening and closing her mouth and pretending to talk, all the while hearing her voice in her head. La-la-la-la-la--om-om-om-om--deedee-doodoo-dee--
Something cuffed her in the side of the face and she finally yelled out loud. "Ow!" The swirling mist broke apart and then changed back to gray and she found herself staring at Tal Natha, who stood right before her. She rubbed at her cheek in confusion.
"Tal Natha...? Did you just hit me?" Her eyes grew damp. "What'd you do that for?"
The demon's ear flicked and he gave her an irritated look. I thought you said this Michinimakinong claimed this medicine had no ill side effects, he said.
Charmian looked around herself, then rubbed her cheek again. "You mean all that was a side effect...?" She flushed and lowered her head meekly. "I thought that was how it was supposed to work...sorry."
He sighed, but slightly raised one wing as if to brush it off. It matters little...it appears to induce some mild visionlike symptoms, but nothing more. You are awake now--so to speak?
Charmian nodded. "I think so...at least, nothing's glowing and changing colors anymore..."
Then I'll set you on your way. His image began to break apart and fade now, and she stared at him as he slowly disappeared. Be careful.
Charmian nodded again, looking at the spot where he'd been. She rubbed her arms a little and then shut her eyes, trying to focus on the memory of the caves as well as shrug off a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Just as before, she started to sense the atmosphere of the place changing, and kept her eyes closed and her fists clenched as she "listened" for the feeling of the cave walls and flames to emerge around her.
A shock of heat suddenly buffeted against her, making her gasp and grab her arms as if with cold. Her eyes flew open and she almost jumped when she saw that Chakenapok stood right in front of her already, a sour look on his face. She didn't know if she preferred that or his smirk.
"Cheating again," he said, not sounding very pleased.
Charmian scowled at him. "You said you could use your powers, and I could use mine. If you can make somebody fight for you, then it's just as fair for me to get somebody to help me."
Chakenapok's mouth twitched--and not from a smile--but he said, "A rather loose interpretation of my rules. But at least you know how to listen." She noticed now that she was kneeling, rather than standing, and he crossed his arms as she pushed herself to her feet. "That was quite an interesting trick you pulled, as well. Clearing your friend's spirit like that. I'll have to keep that one in mind."
He didn't know that was going to happen...? Charmian made sure to keep her surprise hidden. "Moon Wolf's not your pet project anymore, so you can deal with me instead. It's dirty fighting, working on someone's head like that."
"Whatever wins the game."
"This isn't a game," Charmian said, feeling as if she'd been through this argument a million times before. "When are you ever going to grow up and learn that?"
"Grow up?" Chakenapok laughed. "You are one to talk! Tell me, do they allow you to marry or drink where you come from?"
"At least I don't always act like a baby!" Charmian retorted. "Game this, game that. Only little kids play games all the time!"
Chakenapok smirked. "If you are trying to insult me, then you're doing a very poor job."
"I didn't come here to insult you."
"That's right. I suppose you came here to confront me yet again--trying to save the Island, and this and that. All of your little hero things."
Charmian frowned. "You don't know why I'm here? I thought you watched everything."
Chakenapok made a bored face. "It would hardly be fair to watch everything. Even a gamemaster has to take a rest every so often. I must let you surprise me once in a while, though a lot of good the element of surprise does you so far."
Wait a minute...now he says he isn't even WATCHING me all the time...? Charmian struggled to keep her confusion concealed. Is he telling the truth or is he just not ABLE to see me everywhere I go? If so, then why not...?
"You think I am not being truthful?" Chakenapok gave her an amused look, and she shook her head to clear it, knowing he'd overheard at least part of her thoughts. "If so, then go right ahead and tell me what your little plan is. I'm dying to hear it."
Charmian managed to fight back her annoyance. "If you never tell me your plans, then I shouldn't have to tell you mine. I can't help it if you have to take a nap rather than find out what's going on."
She gasped and jerked when he threw a fireball at her, the flames just missing her arm as it struck the wall some distance away. "Go ahead," he challenged, still looking amused. "Since you believe you are so good at that. Or water, or wind, or whatever else you think you can call up. It's entertaining the first few moments, but then you grow quite tiresome, calling up all your little manitous."
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. "I'm not here to fight you," she said.
Chakenapok's amused look faded just slightly, and with a start she realized he had been telling the truth. "And so what do you call it now, coming all this way for nothing?" he said. "That will be even more tiresome, if you decide to simply stand there and let me do whatever I wish. It's hardly fitting behavior for a game."
"I'm not here for your stupid game, either!" Charmian flared.
Flames glowed in Chakenapok's hand and she sensed she'd finally gotten on his nerves. "Then perhaps you'd better come up with a reason to be here! Arriving without a plan is very poor form!"
She felt like slapping him or stomping on his foot--but trying to beat the crap out of Moon Wolf hadn't exactly snapped him out of his trance, so she doubted that would work here. Instead she chewed on the inside of her mouth until it hurt, then took a breath and let it out. "You can try to insult me or scare me all you want!" she said. "I know you're just bluffing, else you would've killed me by now!"
"Bluffing?" Chakenapok spat the word out as if it had a bad taste to it, and the flames flared even brighter in his hand.
"I know all about you," Charmian added. "I know where you came from, and what happened when you were born. I know how you got hold of Moon Wolf, and why you want to play this game. I know how you hate Nokomis, and why you want this revenge. I know because I hate what she did to you, too."
The flames still dancing in Chakenapok's open hand faltered somewhat, and the furious look on his face changed to one of mixed anger and confusion. "You claim to know what I feel?" he snapped.
Charmian nodded and took a step toward him. "I know because everybody's felt it at some point. You're hardly the only one. Everybody's been hurt and has wanted some kind of revenge. And you know what? I can't blame you. I don't think you knew what you were doing when you were that little. I don't think you intended to kill your mother. I don't think you meant for any of that to happen at all."
The fire died completely now and Chakenapok lowered his hand. He took a step back, away from her, and continued doing so as she moved toward him. "What is this you're getting at?" he grated in a harsh voice. "This is not a part of the game!"
"There isn't any game," Charmian said. "You made that up to justify getting back at Nokomis, remember? For what she did? But it doesn't matter if you get back at her or not. You're already dead."
Chakenapok bared his teeth. "You're not playing by the rules!"
"There aren't any." Charmian stepped toward him again. He backed against the wall and stopped there, though the way his fingers grasped at the rock behind him made it clear he wished to go right through it. "You made them all up, and that's all they are, is made up. What happened to you is real, and that's why it hurts so much. You're not the only one who's ever felt like that. Other people hurt, too. They hurt all the time." She held out her hand, and he looked at it as if it were a spitting viper. "I won't tell you to stop hurting, Chakenapok, because I know you feel like everyone's betrayed you. You were just a baby back then. People didn't mean to hate you, they just didn't understand." She nearly trailed off when he started letting out a strange noise--it took her a moment to realize it was growling--but pressed on. "You haven't given them any reason to understand, either. But I know you can fix that. Just try to forget your game--just for a minute. People will understand you better, if you talk, instead of playing some game."
Chakenapok dug his fingers into the rock so hard that it chipped. "Stop breaking the rules!" he snarled.
"I'm not the one breaking them. You have to break them. That's the only way you can ever stop feeling like this!" She moved closer, still holding out her hand; he hissed and pressed himself flat to the wall. "I know it hurts," she said, as if taking him into confidence. "It feels like your heart's being sucked right out of your chest sometimes. And you want to make everybody else pay, and play by your rules. And that'll make you feel better for a while, but it'll never get rid of that feeling. When the game's over, you'll still be hurting. It doesn't do anything." She offered him a smile and he bared his teeth, though she thought she saw fear enter his eyes--the same look a confused child might have. "Just forget about the game for a minute. Stop hiding behind all this. I know you're not really like this. You might think everybody hates you, but they don't. Most of them are just afraid of you."
Chakenapok drew himself upright and pushed himself away from the wall. He almost seemed to grow in size, his eyes flaring brilliant yellow so that she had to squint to avoid the glare. "THEY HAD BEST BE AFRAID!" he bellowed, his voice echoing off the walls, and flames leapt up all around him. Charmian nearly drew back to escape them, but made herself stand where she was, wincing at the bite of heat but ignoring it. She couldn't hold her smile, as his sudden change in appearance unnerved her; yet she bit back a cry of fear and instead held out her hands again.
"I'm not afraid!" she had to yell over the noise of the fire, and when he gave her a brief gawking look of disbelief, she shouted it again. "I'M NOT AFRAID OF YOU!"
Chakenapok's eyes goggled. Charmian seized her chance and ran at him, straight through the flames, and before he could recover himself she threw her arms around him, pressing herself as close as she could. Abruptly the flames all shrank back from the two of them and Charmian thought, He's warm. Not hot. Just--warm.
There was a brief second of silence, then she felt every muscle in his body tense, and he gripped her arms, digging his fingers in so she grimaced. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" he screamed, the sound hurting her ears, but she just clung to him even more tightly.
"I'm not afraid of you!" she shouted back. "I'm sorry for what Nokomis did to you! I'm sorry you're hurting!"
"WHAT?" She felt his fingers gouge into her now and heard him hiss in rage. "LET GO OF ME, YOU LITTLE FOOL!!"
"I'm sorry everyone's so afraid of you!" Charmian fought down her fear as best she could when Chakenapok snarled and let go of one arm, flailing his own in the air to call the flames forward again. She felt their heat surrounding them, and though he didn't react to them at all, they stung her skin, bringing tears to her eyes. She started shaking, some more basic part of her brain telling her to go running for safety, yet she struggled against it and kept holding on. The flames practically danced over her by now; she didn't know how she didn't start screaming in pain, yet she stayed where she was.
"I'm sorry you've been alone all this time!" she cried. "I'm sorry so many people hate you!"
"If you don't let go of me I'll MAKE you let go!" Chakenapok screamed.
"I'm sorry your spirit's so dark!" Charmian yelled so loudly that her voice cracked. The flames pressed in even closer. "I don't hate you! I'm not afraid of you! I'm sorry!"
Chakenapok didn't even justify her with a retort this time, merely shrieking and hurling both hands upward. The fire roared and engulfed them completely. Charmian opened her mouth to scream in pain, but instead words came out--"I'M SORRY!!"--and instead of the searing agony of the fire, she felt a sudden pressure in her chest. Her eyes flew open and she saw the by-now familiar bolt of light shoot out and strike Chakenapok in the heart. The force of the blast made her let go of him, and she nearly fell over backwards. She blinked and pushed herself up, looking around in confusion. The fire had completely vanished--had it ever really been there at all? Now that she looked at her arms and clothing, she couldn't see any trace of a burn, anywhere. Had it all been an illusion--?
That's right! This is a dream! He CAN'T hurt me!
His screaming was what drew her attention next, and she turned to stare at him in awe as the beam of light revealed his spirit stone--she blinked again in surprise to see that it looked much like her own, flaring orangish-red, except that it was spiked all over with ugly tendrils of black. Chakenapok's scream grew even louder as the beam began to surround him with its light, and Charmian started to scramble for safety, ducking behind a stalagmite while still watching the process. Trying to stop it wouldn't do any good. All she could do was stare, and wonder if it really did hurt as badly as his screaming made it seem. She saw the blackness start to shrink back from the spirit stone, and covered her ears, waiting for the final blast.
Only--something else happened, instead.
There was an odd pop, and Charmian gaped in astonishment to see what looked like two spirit stones--one within the other. The smaller of the two seemed to be prying itself loose of the bigger, brighter one, and this was what made the popping sound as it pulled free. The swirling white ball of light surrounding Chakenapok started to ripple and waver, and then suddenly collapsed in on itself, sucking back into the beam; Charmian gasped when it slammed back into her chest, almost knocking her over again. She clung to the stalagmite and held her hand to her chest, panting and wincing; her heart felt heavy for some reason. A thudding noise drew her back to the present and she gasped again.
She jerked her head up to look back into the cave. The two times before, whatever that beam was had cleared the spirits of the Shadow Wolf and Moon Wolf--yet she had the nagging feeling that something different had happened this time. She hadn't seen the spirit stone go clear--and there hadn't been any explosion. Did that mean something different, or did it just depend on who it was...?
Chakenapok had landed in a heap at the far side of the cave. She would have thought him dead, or possibly unconscious, had not his eyes been wide open and his ribs heaving. One of his arms was flung out away from him. He looked like he was in shock.
Charmian stared at him for a moment, then, when nothing changed, slowly got to her feet. She edged toward him until she could look down into his face almost from above. His eyes were still yellow, though she knew from her experience with Moon Wolf that that didn't necessarily mean anything. Maybe they hadn't cleared yet.
"Chak...Chakenapok?" she stammered in a soft voice, and only now noticed that she was shaking. She held her arms tightly to herself to try to stave it off. She thought she'd really meant it when she'd said she wasn't afraid, but right now, she was nearly petrified.
Chakenapok didn't answer, simply kept staring at the cave ceiling and gasping for breath. She couldn't tell if he could see her or not.
Maybe he won't even recognize me? If his spirit's been dark all this time, he could be just like Moon Wolf. He might not remember a thing about me. He might not remember anything at all.
This thought filled her with anxiety for him. She couldn't imagine how frightening it would be to wake up with every trace of one's memory gone! She knelt down beside him and looked into his face, then touched his shoulder, then nudged his arm. He didn't respond to any of these, and she wondered if maybe she'd hit him a little harder than the light intended.
She started to reach for the flint arrowhead around his neck when his outstretched arm suddenly shot up and his fingers clamped around her wrist tight enough to bruise. Charmian cried out and jumped to her feet, tugging frantically, but he held her like a vise. No matter how hard she tried to yank her arm free, it was like being encased in stone!
She froze in her struggling when Chakenapok sucked in a breath and slowly turned his head to the side. His yellow eyes focused on her own--and immediately, she could tell he recognized her.
Charmian's skin went cold. Her muscles tensed to try to pull free, but what Chakenapok managed to wheeze out next made her freeze all over again.
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