Charmian is forced to set off alone on her strange quest...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 58: Fool's Boast"
CHARMIAN'S EYES FILLED with hope. She stared at the glowing cabochon set into the wall of the Sky Tree, her curiosity piqued.
"The Tree can help me find Manabozho's brothers...?" she asked.
Geezhigo-Quae nodded. "Manabozho himself laid the trail...and the Tree may pick it up, such as it is, and show you where it might lead."
"So, how do I get it to do that?"
"It is not something I ask the Tree to do lightly," Geezhigo-Quae said. "As in asking for anything, there is a price. But this is precisely what one must do--ask. The Tree and I are connected, yet we are separate. Just as you ask something of any other manitou, so must you ask the Tree."
Charmian looked up at the ceiling, then down at the floor, frowning in puzzlement. She stepped toward the wall and placed her hand against it.
"Um..." She paused, looking meek. "I've only ever asked things from Island trees...it never seems to work elsewhere. How do I ask it, exactly...?"
Geezhigo-Quae stared at her for a brief moment before smiling slightly; Charmian almost started at seeing such an unexpected expression on the old woman's face. She gestured at the cabochon.
"I have already asked it for you."
Charmian blinked, then stepped forward to look into the crystal again. It was the same image as before, the wide field studded with small stands of trees swaying in the wind. She could almost hear their leaves rustling.
"You mean, they're in there...?"
"This is but an image. The room of doorways would take you to where you want to go."
"So all I have to do is step through the right door?" Charmian was almost hopping now from excitement. This seemed so easy! She knew it couldn't be nearly as easy as it sounded, but at least it was better than what she'd known a moment ago.
"Keep one thing in mind," Geezhigo-Quae said, and the tone of her voice told Charmian to pay attention. She lifted a finger. "Things work much as they would in your own world. Manabozho's brothers left long ago, and so the trail may have long gone cold. The Tree may only show you the start of the trail itself. Where you go from there is up to you, and you may take one of many false paths."
Well, she'd known there would be a catch somewhere. "I think I can handle it," she said after a moment, absently rubbing the cowrie shell between her fingers. "At least it's a start." She shifted her pack on her shoulders. "I have to tell the others! I don't know how long it'll take, so we might need some more supplies again..."
"Mainlander," Geezhigo-Quae said to recapture her attention as she turned toward the entrance. Charmian turned back to her. Something in the old woman's eyes made her feel vaguely uneasy, and her earlier elation began to ebb.
"This is a journey best undertaken on your own," the manitou said.
Charmian stared at her stupidly. "You mean...by myself?" she finally managed to get out. When Geezhigo-Quae nodded she started to panic. "But--why all alone? I've never even been in that place before! What if I come up against something I can't fight? I don't even have a way to get back once I'm through--"
"When you last set foot on the Island you were on your own in a strange land," Geezhigo-Quae explained. "You faced much, yet you survived. I doubt this land is so much different. And should you find even one of the brothers, he may help you back through the entrance, if you should only remember where you passed through."
Charmian's spirits sank. She felt like protesting even more, but knew it would be pointless. "I've always had somebody with me," she tried weakly. "How come not this time...?"
"Because there will come an even graver time when you will be on your own," Geezhigo-Quae answered. "You'd best learn to prepare yourself for when you have no one left to help you."
No one left to help me--? Why would it ever get to that point...? Charmian gave a small miserable sigh, staring at the floor. "Well..." she murmured, "...could I at least let them know that I'm going? So they don't worry about me?"
Geezhigo-Quae paused, as if indecisive, before nodding. "You may tell them. Yet if they insist on coming with you, no matter what, you must turn them away."
That'll be easier said than done, Charmian thought, thinking of Mani. She sighed again and turned to the entrance. "Okay...I'll be back in a minute then, I guess."
She left the room, dragging her feet slightly as she made her way back along the network of hallways. She'd been alone plenty of times, but for some reason the thought of entering such an unknown place, with no one beside her, was an unsettling one. Even though she'd arrived on the Island alone, and even though it had changed so much, still it was a place she knew, and on her first trip there she'd been accompanied by Drake. And even when she'd been alone, she'd always known there was someone nearby. She shuddered to herself when she remembered one exception. It had been the middle of the night, and Sikt Natha had convinced her to go looking for Cave of the Woods in complete darkness. And then for some bizarre reason the demon had left her completely alone just long enough for her to go running madly and tripping over everything in the woods. It turned out that Sikt had been with her all along...but for a few seemingly endless moments, she'd never felt more alone in her life.
She realized that that was sort of how she was starting to feel now.
She could barely even lift her feet from the branches, she was so reluctant. She half hoped that Thomas and the others would have gone by now, back to the Island, just to give her an excuse to seek them out; yet when she looked up she saw that they still awaited her out near the end of the branch, all staring in her direction. She sighed again and trudged toward them. When she managed to look up again she saw that Thomas was frowning.
"Charmian...?" he called uncertainly.
Charmian stopped several feet away from the group and rubbed at her neck. "Um...Geezhigo-Quae thinks she has a way for me to find Manabozho's brothers," she murmured.
The others looked at each other. "Isn't that a good thing?" Thomas asked.
"Sort of." She dropped her hand. "I have to go through the Sky Tree, kind of like we just did, to look for them. It might take me a while since the Sky Tree might not be sure exactly where they are."
Rabbit One to seek out Fire One, Mani said. Why not let him fight his battle?
"Because that's exactly what Chakenapok's hoping he'll do. Manabozho might be powerful, but he's nowhere near strong enough to take on Chakenapok. His brothers might give him the boost he needs--if I can only figure out where they've wandered off to!"
"So you have to go back through the Tree?" Thomas said. When Charmian nodded he shrugged. "Well, it sounds simple enough. When do you plan on going?"
"Kind of...now," Charmian said, and they frowned in puzzlement. Thomas scratched his head.
"Should we gather some supplies...?"
"That's kind of what I was getting at," Charmian said, having to avert her eyes. "I have to go through alone. You...um...none of you can come with me. Not this time."
Their brows furrowed, except for Pakwa's. Thomas and Mani stepped forward.
"Why do you have to go through on your own?" Thomas asked, sounding confused.
Red Land One! Mani whistled. Do not go through alone. Mani will go with you.
"I'm sorry," Charmian said, taking a step back. "But I have to. I don't really know why...just that I do. And I know what you already promised me before, Mani," she said, looking to the manitou, "but I really can't let you come along this time. I would, if I could, but I can't."
Mani seemed to sense she was speaking on Geezhigo-Quae's orders, and his ears drooped. He looked almost ready to melt into the branch out of disappointment, and she hated herself for hurting his feelings so much. Thomas, for his part, took another step toward her.
"You're really going through with this?" he said in such a voice that it wasn't much of a question. Charmian lifted her head to look up at him.
"I have to. Manabozho might get hurt if I don't try to help him, and then the Island could die too. I have to do everything I can."
He stared at her for a moment before the corner of his mouth twitched upward. "Well...at least you always mean what you say. This feels like the millionth time you've had to do something for the Island, and you're still not letting all the false leads get to you."
Charmian blinked. I really look that calm? What if this is just ANOTHER false lead?--I think I'll go crazy! She averted her eyes again. "I like this place...that's all."
"You promise you'll look out for yourself?" Thomas pressed.
Charmian nodded. "You seem to have a tendency to get hurt," he added, and she sighed and nodded even more.
"I know! And I'll watch out. If only to keep Mani from any pain!" She said this half jokingly, though the way Mani whistled told her he hadn't taken it that way.
Look after Red Land One first, he said. Do not worry about Mani!
"I promise I will, Mani."
Thomas put his hands on his hips. "You know I'm going to hold you to that, don't you?"
Charmian gave him an offended look. "You just said I mean everything I say! How come I wouldn't mean this, too?"
Thomas smiled. "It's not that I doubt you, I've just seen that you tend to forget yourself in the heat of the moment."
Charmian clenched her fists indignantly. "I do not! Name one time I ever did that!"
In response, Thomas leaned down and put his mouth against hers. Charmian's eyes grew huge; she saw the others', even Pakwa's, eyes widen, and Mani blushed and turned his head. When Thomas pulled away she was left standing on the branch with her arms stiff at her sides and her mouth hanging open.
Thomas crossed his arms and cocked his head. "Remember now?"
Charmian could only stand rooted to the spot. After a great while, she finally managed to force out a tiny, "...Huh...?" She blinked, then saw that everyone was staring at her again, and felt heat seep up into her face.
Thomas just smiled again. "You'll be a little more prepared over there, right?"
Charmian blinked again. "Oh...uh-huh." She nodded then, a little too quickly. One strap on her pack slipped down her shoulder and she used that as an excuse to fiddle with her pack, taking several steps back and then turning abruptly away from the group. "I'lltrytogetbackassoonasIcan!" she rattled off, her voice just about cracking. "Bye!!"
She didn't even know if they said goodbye in return or not, as by then she was walking along the branch so fast that she threatened to trip over her own feet. Her face and ears were burning and she felt that if her eyes got any wider, they'd fall right out.
Did he just kiss me? I can't believe he KISSED me!! DID HE REALLY JUST KISS ME?!
At last her haste caught up with her and she stumbled over a knot in the branch, hopping forward. But at least that gave her a good excuse to go running straight back into the safety of the Sky Tree.
* * * * *
Charmian returned to Geezhigo-Quae's main room, half expecting Niskigwun to be there, as he hadn't been present outside. For some reason she felt a bit of guilt when she didn't find him there, and pondered over this feeling as she followed Geezhigo-Quae back to the hub room.
That's it, she thought. I didn't get to say goodbye to him. But it's not like I've been consistent with that before. Why did I want to see him...?
They reached the hub room and she stood back and watched as the old woman approached several of the doors in turn, holding her hand up before them. Charmian looked from one to another as Geezhigo-Quae tested their cabochons and moved on.
"How can you tell which one is the right one...?"
"The crystals will each glow a different color."
"But there's only so many colors, and only so many doors. How can they lead to infinite places?"
"They do not lead to infinite places; only to many more than one would be able to count. The colors may represent different things, so it's best to keep them in mind. The doorways shift from time to time, so while some stay relatively consistent, or shift between only a few known areas, others may sometimes open onto something completely unexpected."
"You mean...the right door might not be here?"
"This could happen, though fortunately it does not happen often. The Tree can sense when a certain doorway is needed. It is whether the other land is so accommodating or not that may present a problem. Also, if the land is one the Tree has not sought out before, it may take a while, as it is now."
"If the doors are always shifting, doesn't that mean I can get trapped over there?"
"The doorway will remain so long as you are still through it. It shifts only when everyone who has passed through it has returned to the Tree."
Well, that was what Marten kind of said...I hope they're both right!
Geezhigo-Quae approached a door one over to the left of the one Charmian had used before, and held up her hand. The cabochon glowed a light spring green and she took a step back and gestured.
"This is the one. You are ready?"
As ready as I'll ever be, which is never, Charmian thought, but kept the thought to herself. "I guess," she sighed instead, gloomily walking toward the doorway.
Geezhigo-Quae raised her hand and the crystal glowed again, the door receding and disappearing. Charmian peered out to see the same landscape she'd seen in the other crystal. She let the breeze fan across her face for a moment or two before sensing Geezhigo-Quae's presence just beside her. She glanced up at the manitou woman.
Geezhigo-Quae gave her an odd look that Charmian would have labeled sympathy, if she'd known for sure that something bad was going to happen. She hoped the look wasn't an omen. "What if I starve?" she blurted out all of a sudden, shifting her pack. "I don't have much food in this thing--"
"You were amply trained how to fight. There is bound to be much food you can pick or gather in this land, and if you must, do you not believe you could use your skills to hunt?"
Charmian's fingers froze over her pack straps. Hunt? her mind quailed. Fighting is one thing. Hunting is--completely DIFFERENT! She got a brief mental flash of herself trying to skin some small animal, and felt the blood drain from her face. Geezhigo-Quae gave her a gentle nudge and she stumbled toward the doorway, swallowing hard. She hesitated a moment more, trying to think of something to say before realizing she was stalling--and then berating herself for doing so.
What is there to be so scared of? All I have to do is go through, find three guys, and come right back out. If the Tree looked hard enough they might all be within walking distance! I could be right in and out and back on the Island in no time. WITHOUT having to relieve anything of its skin!
But...what if the Tree COULDN'T find them so easily...? What if I have to look for them forever, and I get lost, and can't find the gateway again...?
The thought of not being able to find the doorway filled her with even more dread, and her foot froze just over the threshold of the doorway. Another nudge from Geezhigo-Quae was all that kept her from backing away entirely, and before she could protest she was falling through the doorway and tumbling to the ground, landing in the midst of a sea of grass. She received a mouthful of dirt and sat up quickly, spitting it out and glancing over her shoulder. She managed to catch sight of something rippling like a wave of heat several feet above the ground, before all that was left around her was the field she now sat in.
Well...at least it didn't drop me over the side of a hill, this time...
She pushed herself up and dusted herself off, looking around. The field was mostly open to the left, though a line of small trees bordered it along most of the right. Far in the distance, she couldn't be certain if what she saw was more trees, hills, or a faraway lake. She brushed a bit more soil from her vest and straightened her pack.
"At least it's nice out," she said, and started walking across the field, toward the far side. After several steps she felt something cold ping against her nose and halted with a puzzled frown, then looked upwards. The previously blue sky was already growing wan and gray, and somewhere in the distance she heard a grumble of thunder. Another raindrop pelted against her cheek, then another atop her head.
Charmian groaned and started walking again. "Me and my big stupid mouth."
The real rain came before she had even made any noticeable progress toward the elevated blue line of the horizon, and she spent the better part of a half hour trudging through wet grass, her hair and clothing sopping wet. She scowled the entire time. The Tree hadn't even let her know which direction to head in, so for as far as she knew, she was walking away from Manabozho's brothers, rather than toward them.
She came to a halt, wiping her hair from her eyes and sighing miserably. She pulled Nokomis's pinecone from her pocket and held it up in her hand, but it did nothing. All that told her was that there were no magical trees in the area, but she'd felt it was worth a shot. Apparently not. She put it away and had to wipe her hair out of her face again, then started stomping toward the trees to her right in frustration.
"I don't care WHICH direction they're in! If I get any wetter I'm going to dissolve!"
She reached the stand of trees and sought shelter beneath their branches, only to find that such small trees didn't offer much protection. She gritted her teeth and started wandering among them, trying to find any larger trees, but those seemed to be further in the distance, only after these trees thinned out some. She tried to shove the unpleasant damp feeling to the back of her mind as she walked, her sandals squishing. This place had looked so sunny and cheerful in the cabochon. Why did it have to get all wet and icky now?
"If there's some manitou in charge here," she yelled up at the lowering sky, "then I hope you're having a REALLY good laugh at my expense!"
A low rumble of thunder came in response, and she picked up her pace, feeling anxious that perhaps there really was some manitou she'd just offended. She at last came within sight of the larger trees and noticed that they seemed to open up into a forest which spread as far to the left and right as she could see, perhaps as wide even as the meadow itself. She started jogging to reach them, even though it was a bit too late to be spared from getting soaked. Still, she let out a smaller sigh of relief when she at last stepped beneath the branches of a giant maple, feeling a distinct lessening of the rain striking her head and shoulders, and took several more steps into the woods before stopping and taking a moment to try to squeeze some of the water from her clothing. She wrung out her hair and shook off her arms and legs, rubbing at her upper arms and chattering from the chill. The temperature had dropped considerably since she'd arrived.
"I hate Michigan weather!" she snapped to herself, even though she wasn't sure if this even was Michigan. She started walking again, looking around for a decent place to rest for a while.
This far within the forest, the rainfall was nearly nonexistent, and after a while her soggy state grew less pronounced. She half forgot about her mission to find a place to rest as she pondered over what to do next. According to what Geezhigo-Quae had said, her prospects didn't seem as promising as they'd sounded before.
The Tree can only point me out to where the trail runs cold. That means I have to pick it up on my own. But I don't even know which way to go, or where they would even wander off to. Should I head west and try to find Mudjikawiss? Would he help me find the others? How far west do I even go? How do I even tell where west is? What if this place is further to the west than he is--then would I look for him in the east? What if west and east are completely different in this place...?
She felt her eyes sting, and rubbed at them in frustration. "You could've at least left me a bit more to go on!" she mumbled, unsure whether she was addressing the Tree, Geezhigo-Quae, or Manabozho's brothers themselves. She supposed it didn't really matter, since her stomach was growling and her head and feet were aching. She looked up at a mossy spot beneath a nearby tree and sighed once more. "That's better than nothing, I guess."
She approached the mossy spot and plopped down, leaning back against the tree and letting out her breath. She tilted her head back to stare up into the branches and felt a stray drop of rain strike her forehead. Her eyes watered slightly.
I'm completely lost here. I don't even have somebody to turn to anymore. Why would Geezhigo-Quae do this to me...?
The realization that she was completely alone struck her again--it was hard to keep it in mind for long--and she at last thought about what it would be like once nightfall came. Judging by the light, that wouldn't be far away. This thought made her whimper to herself and rub her arms again. No matter how harmless this forest seemed, she didn't want to be stuck anywhere alone at night...without even so much as Tal Natha's or Manabozho's voice to keep her company...
I can't even use my powers here...
She let her eyes drift shut, trying to stave off the tears. Crying wouldn't help anything, but not crying wouldn't do much either. Right now she really wanted a guide more than anything, and it looked as if guides were a rarity in this place. She hadn't seen even one sign of life higher than a plant.
The grass started rustling more loudly and her ears pricked. Her eyes shot open when she recognized the sound of something moving nearby, and her head dropped forward to see what it might be.
Some distance away, she spotted it--a large black bear nosing its way through the woods, snorting at the ground. Her first instinct was to run, but she made herself stay where she was as it drew closer. It didn't act threatening, and, she reassured herself, hadn't Noko said that one of Manabozho's brothers' emblems was the bear...?
"Mudjikawiss?" she called out hopefully as it came closer. The bear finally noticed her and lifted its head, sniffing at the air. Charmian felt a smile start to come to her face, and held out a hand in greeting. "Are you--are you Manabozho's brother?" she asked as it slowly came forward. "Because I'm looking for you, and for the others...and if you're not Mudjikawiss...then maybe you're a Bearwalker or something? A wabano?" She hastily pulled her pack off her shoulders and started digging through it. "I can give you an offering if you'll lead me to where there's some people..."
The bear halted, still snorting at the air. Charmian pulled out one of the candy bars she'd been saving for Pakwa and unwrapped it, dropping her pack and holding out the candy. "I know it's not much," she said sheepishly, "but once you try it, you'll see how worthwhile it is--"
The bear sniffed again, catching the chocolate's scent, and started ambling forward more quickly than before. Charmian stood holding out the candy as it approached, before slowly realizing that as it got closer, it wasn't slowing down--in fact now it was just about running--and the way it bared its teeth and flared its nostrils as it came told her--
That's not Mudjikawiss--or a wabano--
THAT'S A REAL BEAR! AND I'M HOLDING BEAR BAIT!!
Charmian dropped the candy bar in a panic. She turned on one heel and sprinted away as quickly as she could. She managed to glimpse over her shoulder, only to see that the bear was apparently more interested in her than in the candy, as it didn't slow its pace one bit.
She turned to look where she was running again and couldn't stop the panicked whine that rose in her throat. Her legs moved so fast she felt certain she would tumble head over heels at any moment, and of course as soon as she thought this, her leg flew out from under her and she did a clumsy somersault before scrabbling back upright and stumbling ahead. This allowed the rampaging bear to catch up by several yards, and she knew she'd never be able to outrun it for long. She glanced at the trees, but then remembered that of course black bears could climb. She couldn't even call up a gout of water or fire here--
She yelped when she tripped again, smacking the ground and rolling down a slight decline to thunk against the base of a tree. She sat upright, rubbing groggily at her head, before remembering to look back up again. The bear appeared at the top of the rise, pausing only a second before storming down toward her, letting out a guttural roar.
Charmian shrieked and threw her arms up over her head--and then something seized her mind, dragging it protesting downward into a sea of black slumber. Without a word, she toppled over senseless at the base of the tree.
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