Tales are told, and plans made, as the storm rages at Sugar Loaf Rock...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 77: Return Of The Ice Chief"
Shelter From The Storm
BLACKNESS SWIRLED AROUND Charmian's head, calm and blissful after the raging white of Augwak's storm; she didn't even know if her eyes were open or closed, but didn't really care, either. She sighed to herself as she seemed to tumble head over heels through nothing, but the feeling didn't even bother her. At least she wasn't freezing anymore.
A familiar voice said, She isn't ready yet for such things. She will probably die because of this.
Another, unfamiliar voice replied, She is stronger than you think. If she dies, it is only because her will failed her...and it is not as if she has never been there before, for she almost was, once...
Charmian frowned to herself. Am I dreaming?
She sensed the others becoming aware of her noticing them, and they both spoke up, though only one of them spoke to her, the other cutting in, as if interrupting the first.
Remember where the barrier is thinnest. And when. This will help you more than you can know.
Stop telling her! It is not your place to tell such things--if she is to find out, she is to find out on her own!
I only tell her what she should already know. I know she does. She just has to look for it...
The voices faded, and the blackness around Charmian slowly started to feel not so soft, not so comforting, anymore; she felt a twinge of cold start to creep in around her, making her shiver, and then her hands hurt, and then her feet hurt--
"OWW!" Charmian started flailing when stinging pains shot up through her fingers and toes. Something gripped her--she was being carried--and she felt her foot strike against something hard and jagged. Light bloomed in front of her still-closed eyelids, but she couldn't open them to look around; as soon as she opened her mouth, her teeth almost clamped on her own tongue, and then started chattering as noisily as a tapdancer. She managed a pathetic whimper before she was at last able to pry one eye open. Her eyelashes were frosted.
X'aaru and Khiieta were the first two faces she saw. The demons immediately crowded up to her, poking their wet noses in her face, their eyes wide. "Charmian! Are you all right?" they cried.
She chattered. She felt the arms beneath her knees and back again, and tilted her head to the other side; Thomas was the one carrying her, and he looked down at her with an odd mixture of concern and guilt. She could feel the icy cold seeping into her from his arms and started shaking wildly. A pained look flitted across his face and she wanted to apologize, yet couldn't form the words.
"Come on, come on!" Old Mother Manitou's voice came now, and Charmian could see her shadow waving on the wall. "Bring her over here, right now! You aren't doing her any good just holding onto her like that! Set her down by the fire--I'll stoke it up--and you three, make yourselves useful!"
Thomas hurried to the firepit and carefully settled Charmian down upon some furs; she saw the strange sight of the old woman leading Cloud across the room and into the back hallway behind him. A moment later Stick-In-The-Dirt appeared and covered her up with some more furs--then X'aaru and Khiieta crowded on both sides of her, sandwiching her between them so only her head stuck out of the great pile of fur and feathers. The heat from their bodies started soaking through her immediately, and she shook even harder, her limbs tingling painfully.
"Good thing they brought you in when they did," the old manitou groused. "About near got frostbite! Your kind is way too soft to be running about half dressed in a storm like this."
"I'm n-n-not h-h-half d-d-dressed," Charmian stammered, though truthfully she would have liked a coat and some snow pants right about then. She shakily turned her head to look at Stick-In-The-Dirt, who was tending to the fire. He was shivering and rubbing his hands as well. "S-S-Stick? Wh-wh-what are y-you d-d-doing here?"
"He got caught in the storm, just like you," Old Mother Manitou said. "Humans! So sillyheaded all the time. If you didn't have my rock to run into, you'd all be icicles." She waved her hand at Thomas. "Except you, dearie."
Thomas's face went red and he averted his eyes.
"We were out cleaning out the cave," X'aaru said, "and then this great shadow fell over everything, and then this huge wind came--!"
"And then snow!" Khiieta added needlessly. "Mountains and mountains of snow!"
"It's all o-over the I-Island...?" Charmian asked, teeth clacking.
The demons nodded. "Both Tal Natha and Mother spoke to me," X'aaru explained. "They said the snow was all around where they were. Tal Natha said you went out into it, and I would have looked for you, but I couldn't see where I was going..." He hung his head a little.
"Father called me from the lake," Khiieta added. "He said that they got it over there, too. The GeeBees on the West Bluff were jumping and hopping around and everything."
"Well, what d'you expect?" Old Mother Manitou said, waving her hand dismissively and shooing Stick-In-The-Dirt away from the fire; he sat down beside it and wrapped a blanket around himself, chattering. The howling noise of the wind came dull and moaning down into the rock. "Wouldn't be too surprised if the twits were responsible for this incredible mess..."
"It...it w-was Augwak," Charmian said.
Everybody but Thomas turned and looked at her immediately. She squirmed a little on seeing all the eyes staring at her.
Stick-In-The-Dirt's brow furrowed. "Augwak...? You're sure?"
Old Mother Manitou waved her hand again. "Nonsense! That old coot doesn't have half the medicine to pull off a storm like THIS one..."
"Th-that's just it." Charmian carefully nudged X'aaru's wing aside and craned her neck. "Thomas and I saw him at Fort Holmes. He was huge. He was taller than Sugar Loaf."
Old Mother Manitou looked skeptical. "Taller than my rock...?" she echoed; both Charmian and Thomas nodded.
"He was flinging ice and snow about," Thomas added. "Even I could hardly see my way around. He would've made Charmian into--"
"He said he got this power from somebody else," Charmian interrupted, putting her hands against the two demons and pushing herself up so her torso was free. "Somebody gave it to him, as a gift, so he could kill me."
The others looked uneasy. Stick-In-The-Dirt glared at the old woman and waved his stick.
"I told you only a Wendigo would have such power! Who else? But no, you never want to listen to me..."
"Oh, hush up!" Old Mother Manitou made a face at him and then looked at Charmian again. She came closer, frowning. "What exactly did he say? Can you recall it?"
Charmian sat atop Khiieta's back and pulled one leg free. "He said the power was a gift he got from somebody who knows me--probably meaning Chakenapok." She tugged on her other leg. "Then he said this person wanted me dead. I told him he was taking orders from somebody else, just like always. I thought that might insult him." She got her foot loose and let out her breath, stretching her legs out across X'aaru's back. "He said he was acting on his own and that his power was always his own, and that he wanted me dead too."
"Mmm." The old woman rubbed her chin. The others turned to look at her as she picked up her own walking stick and started pacing around the perimeter of the room.
"Makes sense now that you put it that way," she mumbled.
Charmian frowned. "What way?"
"Augwak's claim. That that was always his medicine, to begin with." She tapped her stick against the floor. "You've heard of the Wendigo GeeBees, haven't you?"
"Of course I have," Charmian retorted. "They're all around here!"
"No, no, not those ones," the manitou woman muttered. "The OLD ones. The really old ones! Haven't you heard the tale--?" When Charmian just stared at her she blinked, then put a hand to her chest. "Well, they say that in the old days--"
"Upon the first Island," Stick-In-The-Dirt interrupted, earning a harsh glare from the old woman, "in the very old days. Those who lived there were plagued by terrible wind giants--giant Wendigoes. They were as tall as the trees, and taller, and would have eaten everything alive if Gitchi Manitou had not cursed them into dust!"
"Hey, who's telling the story, you or me?" Old Mother Manitou snapped.
Charmian's brow furrowed and she glanced from one of them to the other. "But...that was the old Island," she said. "Geezhigo-Quae said that Island was destroyed. In a flood. She created the new Island, this one, with a little bit of dirt."
"Yes, that she did." The old woman nodded. "The old Island was a lot different from this one. No Ocryxes, for one thing. So I've heard. But the Wendigoes were something fearsome." She gestured at the west wall. "When the Island was destroyed, everything disappeared. They were dust then already. But when the Sky Mother used her little bit of soil to make the new Island, I'm guessing it contained a bit of the dust from those old Wendigoes. That's where the GeeBees came from--same creature, but a lot weaker."
"Gitchi Manitou had cursed them for their greed," Stick-In-The-Dirt said. "He took away a great deal of their medicine, and when the springs near the Devil's Kitchen started to flow, they came back to life. But they were not the same."
"So..." Charmian swung her legs down off of X'aaru's back. "You mean some of that old medicine still existed? From the old Wendigoes? And that's what Chakenapok gave Augwak, and why Augwak's so powerful now?"
"Sounds like it," Old Mother Manitou mused. "Nothing else that could make a stupid little GeeBee so strong. They were simply atrocious in the old days, so I've heard, but ever since Gitchi took their medicine away, they've become almost a joke to us manitous. Flitting about and hissing and laughing all the time. Like that's something terrifying. They get one look at their old selves, they'd keel over from fright."
Thomas frowned and glanced at Charmian. "Charmian, isn't Augwak the chief of the GeeBees...?"
Charmian was already onto him. She got down from the demon, her face anxious. "Khiieta said the other GeeBees were still flying around out by Devil's Kitchen," she said. "That means they weren't with Augwak--he was up at Fort Holmes. And Ocryx didn't say anything about them being any bigger, did he--?"
Khiieta shook her head, eyes wide. "No, he didn't--he said they were shrieking and screaming and jumping around like crazy!"
"It doesn't sound like Augwak let the others in on his windfall--no pun intended." Charmian looked at Old Mother Manitou. "Where would Chakenapok get hold of that kind of medicine? I assume it's not just lying around the Island somewhere...?"
Old Mother Manitou frowned. "What? Of course not. That medicine died with the old Island." She made a face. "At least, it was supposed to have."
"Died." Charmian thought. "I wonder if he got hold of that medicine like he did with his power over Moon Wolf. Because he's dead." She clenched her fists. "This is really starting to piss me off! He wants to play a game, then he keeps pulling out all these surprise moves! And I don't have ANYTHING new to use on him!"
"Do you know any way to take this power away from Augwak?" Thomas asked Old Mother Manitou.
The old woman rubbed her chin again. "Sorry, afraid not. Stone's always been more my medicine. And Gitchi never really saw fit to make me privy to any of his doings..."
"Maybe Geezhigo would know, if she's the one who remade the Island..." Charmian looked toward the entrance, then shivered and rubbed her arms. Old Mother Manitou shook her head and took her by the arm, leading her back to sit down near the fire.
"There's no way you'll be heading out in THIS weather. You're going to have to wait it out."
"But...if we do that, he'll probably end up destroying the Island AGAIN!"
Old Mother Manitou turned and poked at the fire. "A little snow never hurt anything."
Charmian's face screwed up. "A little? Have you even LOOKED out there--? Besides, it's summer--!"
"Ach, do whatever you want then!" She turned toward the small back hallway. "But I'm getting you some proper clothing first...leggings...and a long-sleeved coat...and a fur hat, and snowshoes..."
Charmian grimaced and wrapped herself up in a loose blanket sitting near her. "Snowshoes? Soon I'll be drinking beer and saying, 'Eh'..."
Stick-In-The-Dirt stood and moved to sit beside her, wrapping himself back up in his own blanket. "What do you plan to do in weather like this?" he asked, looking concerned.
She sighed. "Well...if I want to talk to Geezhigo, then I have to find the Fairy Arch. If it's even still accessible in all this snow! I don't exactly think they have snowplows on the East Bluff..."
"I do not even know how anyone is doing." The medicine man sighed miserably, almost disappearing into his blanket. "I was away from the camp when it hit..."
"If Silver was there, then I bet they're all right. Black Elk Horn, too. They'd both know how to take care of it." Charmian glanced over toward Thomas, then saw that he wasn't where he'd been standing earlier. She looked around a little, puzzled, before spotting him standing in the little hall leading to the entrance. Her brow furrowed when she noticed the look on his face. He was leaning against the stone wall and breathing heavily, running a hand across his brow as if tired. His face had gone a sickly shade of gray.
"Thomas!" Charmian jumped up, everyone glancing at her. She hurried toward him and had to step into the little hall, as he took a step back from her. "Are you okay--? You look sick! Did he hurt you--?"
"No...I'm fine." He seemed mildly uncomfortable as she looked him over for any injuries, finding none. She frowned in confusion and looked up at him.
"You're sure...? I missed a lot before I got there..." She trailed off, remembering how he and Pakwa had fought Augwak off, and then her eyes grew. "Your power! You used it on him! You..." She paused, then cringed a little. "You're getting weak, aren't you?"
"I'm all right," he said, in a please-stop-arguing-with-me voice.
Charmian's eyebrows drew together. "No you're not. That was ages ago when you drank that! How long does it take for it to wear off--? And you used your power, so that must speed it along too..." She made a face, then bit the inside of her mouth and looked at her arms. "I'm not sure where I should do it from...I'm not really good at this..."
Thomas put his hand out and pushed her arms away, leaning down toward her. "I said I'm all right. I'm not going to have you go around tapping yourself like a wine cask every time I feel a little bit tired!"
"It's not a little bit tired!" Charmian retorted in a whisper-hiss. "If you don't get any then you'll either die or pass out on me, probably when I need you MOST! So shut up and pick an arm!"
Thomas threw up his hands. "I'm hardly going to go eeny-meeny-miny-mo and take a slug from your arm! You're not a blood factory!"
Charmian opened her mouth to snap something back when she noticed Thomas glance behind her, and turned her head. Stick-In-The-Dirt had gotten up and now stood several paces away, watching them warily. Charmian's eyes roved around the room and she saw the two demons--plus Pakwa, whom she hadn't even noticed hanging from the ceiling--all staring at them. Both her and Thomas's faces went red.
Charmian rubbed her hands together. "Um..." Her eyes flicked from side to side. "Just having a little conversation."
"Nothing interesting," Thomas added.
X'aaru and Khiieta were polite enough to turn away, though their ears flicked before they did so. Pakwa stared at them a moment more before losing interest and shutting his eyes. Stick-In-The-Dirt frowned a little uneasily, then started to turn back to the fire.
Charmian suddenly jumped out of the doorway and grabbed hold of his wrist. The medicine man gasped and nearly pulled away in surprise. Thomas furrowed his brow when she stepped away from him and closer to Stick-In-The-Dirt, whispering in his ear.
"Stick," she whispered, "I need a little favor from you."
His brow furrowed. "From me...?"
She nodded and waved her hand a little at Thomas, who scowled and crossed his arms. "Actually, it's Thomas who needs it...this is going to sound kind of strange, but...well, he needs something to drink. So he doesn't get weak, and pass out out there in the snow."
Stick-In-The-Dirt looked puzzled and gestured at the fire. "I'm certain Old Mother Manitou could warm up something..."
"Well...not exactly that kind of drink." Charmian held out her arm and tapped her fingers against the hollow of her elbow. Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at her arm for a moment before his eyes grew, and she could have sworn that the feathers on his head quivered. He met her eyes, then peered over her shoulder at Thomas, then his face went gray.
"He's a...?" he murmured weakly.
Charmian was quick to wave her hands. "Only half." When he looked at her again she sighed. "Long story." She heard Thomas sigh and turn away from the room. "Look, it's only a little bit...you don't even have to let him bite you or anything, he can drink it right from a bowl..."
"Bowl?" He looked incredulous. "Do you mean--all those bowls they left out for the Wolves--"
"I know, I know...long story! He never meant any harm in it, and besides, you'd be providing a service." She put on her best pleading face. "Please, Stick? He won't take any more from me, and you're the only other one in here who would work..."
Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at her for a moment, then swallowed hard. He looked almost ready to be sick, but drew his knife from his waist anyway and trudged miserably toward the doorway.
"Thanks, Stick," Charmian called after him. Old Mother Manitou reentered the room and she turned back to her. Her arms were piled with winter clothing which she started spreading out on a log seat near the fire.
"There you go. Leggings, coat, boots, snowshoes, mitts, wrap, cap..."
Charmian sighed and went to put on the heavy clothing. She wrinkled her nose at the fur cap offered her and shook her head. "No thanks. I can do WITHOUT the head accessories!"
Old Mother Manitou shrugged. "Suit yourself, I couldn't care if your ears fall off."
Charmian scowled at her, but when she turned away, snatched up the cap and headed for the entrance. Stick-In-The-Dirt came walking back into the room a little unsteadily, holding his hand to his arm; Charmian had never thought a native could look so pale. She paused to say, "Thanks, Stick," again, but all he offered in response was a small muffled noise before returning to his spot by the fire and collapsing in a heap. Charmian stared at him for a moment to be sure that he was all right before stepping into the little hall. Thomas gave her the same look a disapproving teacher might give a disobedient student as she slipped on her backpack and tried to figure out how to put on her snowshoes.
"You hardly had to put the poor man through that," he said. "I would have been fine."
"For now, maybe," Charmian muttered, giving up on the intricate lacework and strapping the shoes on as best as she could. "But like I said, what if you decide to pass out right in the middle of something? It was either his arm or my arm, and Stick's been itching to do a good deed for a while now."
Thomas rolled his eyes, but didn't offer any argument. He accompanied her out into the blowing snow and stood to the side as she pulled the fur cap over her head. She put on the mitts and then cast herself a brief look before grimacing and starting to tromp through the snow, feeling like an idiot. Thomas easily kept pace, though she couldn't quite get used to the sight of him walking through such a raging bitter blizzard, dressed as if he were merely going out for a picnic in the park. He held a hand up to shield his eyes but the cold didn't seem to bother him any.
"You've always seemed reluctant to head back through there," he had to shout over the noise. "You really think it'll be worth the return trip?"
"Geezhigo's the one who seems to know the most about what's going on," Charmian yelled. "I think it's time we stopped beating around the bush and met Chakenapok on his own terms--his own turf."
Thomas frowned. "You mean, go to him--?"
Charmian nodded, then held her arms up to shield her face. Even in the middle of the woods, the wind stung her skin. "I'm getting tired of all this yanking around he's doing! He steals my dreams, and tries to rip my spirit stone out, and laughs the whole time, and says it's supposed to be some kind of game! Well, if it's his game then I want to be able to play with him face to face! Enough of this stupid using others to get his own work done! I got my share of that with Ocryana!"
"Let me guess--she tried to rip your spirit stone out too, right?" When Charmian scowled his mouth twitched. "Remind me never to get on your bad side."
"I don't have a bad side," Charmian said. "Just a good side that gets really pissed off now and then." She glanced up at him. "You're leaving Cloud behind--?"
"He's safer in that big rock. Unlike you and me he isn't properly equipped to head out in weather like this." He paused, then gave her clothing a curious look. "You know, you look rather cute in all that."
Charmian felt all the blood rush to her face; her eyes grew bigger as her mouth grew smaller. She started walking faster, which was considerably difficult, considering that she had latticework attached to her feet. "No I don't!" she retorted. "I look like a big stuffed muskrat!!"
Thomas easily matched her pace and started laughing. "No you don't look like a muskrat, and yes you do look cute. Like you should be paddling a canoe, and singing chanteys."
Charmian's ears felt like they were going to burn off. She tried walking even faster, then her foot slipped and her snowshoe plunged sideways into the drift. Thomas caught her elbow before she could fall on her face and pulled her up.
"Careful now, they might help you walk but it's not like you've got rabbit feet or anything!"
Charmian gasped and halted. "RABBIT!" She glanced around them, but all she could see was white, and the vague ghosts of trees, and more white. "Manabozho and the others! And Marten--and Niskigwun! I have no idea where any of them are--!"
"You can figure all that out once we get there!" Thomas exclaimed. "You can call them--right? Like that demon did with us at Fort Holmes--?"
Charmian bit her lip but started tramping through the snow again. "I hope so...and just hope Augwak hasn't picked up any new talents BESIDES this!"
"Right now what we should worry about is the state of that Arch. If it's snowing as hard on the bluff as it is out here, we might have some digging ahead of us."
"I don't know when we'll reach the edge of it," Charmian said. "What if we go falling right over? Can you see any better than I can?"
"I'm afraid not...could you call anyone who can?"
"Pakwa might, but he's such a log, I don't think he would come." She bit her lip and lifted her head, then tried to snap her fingers, only to realize that they were still encased in her mitt. "I'll see if I can call Mani. I get the feeling he's used to walking around in weird weather."
She put her hands up to her mouth and first gave a loud whistle--which the wind just as quickly seemed to carry away--then shut her eyes and thought as hard as she could, sending out a message. She sensed the manitou somewhere far out toward the northwest part of the Island, and concentrated on that impression for a few moments before opening her eyes and letting out a sigh.
"Well, I just hope he could hear me. This snow might blow everybody's sense of direction off, if you'll excuse the expression..."
"Um..." Thomas wasn't even looking at her. He pointed a little off to her side. "I think it got through...maybe."
"What? Already?" Charmian turned her head and noticed two little blue lights in the blizzard, perhaps several yards away. She frowned in puzzlement and then saw several more start to appear at various spots around them, before a few whistles came. Her brow furrowed.
"Oh, I see," Thomas said. "You called the big buggy, and all the little buggies showed up instead."
Charmian blinked. Thomas started laughing and she blushed a little, then waved the manitous forward. They came out of the snow like wisps of smoke, stepping delicately through the drifts and flaring their nostrils. "They said he'll meet us wherever we're going," she said. "But in the meantime they'll show us there."
"I thought they were averse to taking strangers to the Arch?"
"It's already out in the open, so there's no real point in avoiding it anymore."
Thomas shrugged. He put his hand against one manitou's shoulder, but Charmian scrabbled atop one, feeling ridiculous with the way her snowshoe-bound feet dangled awkwardly over its sides. She almost wished that she'd decided to walk like Thomas had, before the creature started moving, and the manitous all stepped through the woods toward the bluff's edge.
"Marten was up at Fort Holmes," she called out as they went. "So he should be easy enough to call. The others, I have no clue whatsoever, and that might make it kind of difficult!"
"What exactly do you intend to ask of Geezhigo-Quae? That you haven't asked already?"
"If maybe she knows a way for me to get to Chakenapok--really get to him."
"Are you sure that's all?"
Charmian's lips pressed together. She remembered the odd little snippet of dream she'd had right before coming to in Sugar Loaf Rock, and considered telling it to him--just in case it ended up stolen, like all her other dreams--but for some reason her mouth wouldn't move. She hoped they could get through the Arch and into the Fairy Realm in a hurry, so she would still remember it.
How come Chakenapok hasn't stolen it yet? Better not ask...just be glad he hasn't, and keep repeating it to myself...keep repeating it...remember where the barrier is thinnest...
"I'll think of something else when we get there," she said aloud, knowing how lame it sounded but not knowing what else to say. Thomas didn't press the issue, and a moment later the manitous began to slow their pace. The one carrying Charmian turned its head and whistled loudly, though she still had to lift her cap a little to hear.
"They'll take us partway down the bluff. The Arch should be right below, but they don't know if it'll be visible at all."
"Sounds as good as anything. I'm ready to shovel if you are."
Charmian whistled back at the manitou and they carefully started picking their way down the steep slope. The trees rose ghostlike on all sides, their tops invisible; more than once, huge mounds of snow collapsed around them, and Charmian only then noticed how the branches sagged beneath their immense burden. Her eyes widened to see that they were still green with leaves--why shouldn't they have been?--but the sight of them was just so strange, all encased in snow like that.
She scowled. "If Augwak kills off all the wildlife, I'm going to kill HIM!"
"He's already off to a smashing start," Thomas shouted. He reached up to help her down when the manitous stopped again, and they had to be extra careful now to keep their footing on the treacherous slope. A vague mound stuck out of the bluff not too far away, snow whirling in eddies around it, and Charmian waved.
"That's got to be it! The snow's covering up almost everything but the top!" She made certain her mitts were on tight and they started trudging toward it. The wind wasn't as harsh over here, though the cold still made her nose hurt.
They reached what remained of the Arch after a moment or so of wading, and grabbed onto trees and saplings to work their way around it. "Maybe the drift is shallower on the other side!" Charmian yelled, edging past the buried formation.
"I'll start on this side, and you dig from over there," Thomas returned, and she nodded to show her agreement. He disappeared and she approached the Arch from the opposite side, checking her mitts again and moving forward.
Just when she was a few paces away, a lump of snow right in front of where the Arch itself would be suddenly quaked and burst open, and Charmian let out a shrill shriek.
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