Charmian and company make their way to the mysterious Scott's Cave...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 81: Deaf Ears"
MOON WOLF STARED out of the snowed-in opening of Cave of the Woods, silent. A small slice of light still shone through dimly, and he could see the snow falling outside. The wind had mostly died down by now and the woods themselves were eerily quiet. He kept his arms wrapped around himself, though he didn't even bother trying to cover himself up otherwise. The chill bite of cold barely bothered him.
He paused and listened, then crept forward and started pushing the snow away from the entrance. The cave opening yawned wider, and he dug his way out into the snow to stand upright and look around him. He almost expected to see the sky, yet when he looked upward, the trees were still so heavy with leaves and snow that the area was unnaturally dark. Only now did he shiver, and not because of the cold. He lowered his head and focused on the woods before he could see the faint forms of wood manitous wandering about, ears flicking and blue eyes glittering. They looked at him as they passed from tree to tree, as pale and silent as ghosts. He could sense their confusion, but had nothing to offer them. If the cold kept up for too long, the trees would freeze, and they would die.
He carefully made his way up the slope behind the cave, and walked through the woods for a little bit, keeping his eyes focused upon the ground. It was only the terrain that told him where he was, as what he was looking for was no longer visible. Moon Wolf knelt down in the snow and brushed some of it aside until his fingers touched stone, then scooped some out. Some more collapsed and disappeared from sight, and he found himself staring into a crack in the ground.
This is where she ended up. Right behind my cave. She's right down there.
He leaned over to get a better look, but saw only darkness. He sat back on his haunches and gave a small sigh.
This had been the place where the mainlander had ultimately faced off against the demon Ocryana. He had not been there to see it...although he knew of it somehow. Perhaps, when Chakenapok had brought him back, he'd told him...though his memory of that particular event was even hazier. He hated having holes in his memory, but perhaps it was best that he didn't know some things.
The whole time I lived here, I never knew what was down in that Crack. The Island never let me see it. Would I have done anything differently if I'd known...?
The Island did not want me to see...perhaps that tells me all I need to know.
He lifted his head to stare off toward the northeast. He'd sensed her heading in that direction, and the truth was, he somehow knew where she was going. Ever since pulling her out of her dream...he could almost read her thoughts, though he mostly chose not to hear them. It would have been intrusive, and he hated the thought of betraying her trust yet again. Still, he knew where she was going, and felt that he knew why.
She goes to face him. She is braver than I am.
It seems that all my life, I have ended up bested by others...
"Do not feel too sorry for yourself just yet, as she may be having need of you soon."
Moon Wolf bristled, eyes widening; in a split second he had leapt to his feet and whirled around. Without a thought he hurled his knife through the air; it let out a hissing noise, it flew so fast, yet before it could hit its target it halted in midair, quivered, and then fell to the ground, sinking in the snow. Moon Wolf gawked at it, then looked up.
An old man with long hair the color of the snow stood some distance away, holding onto a tall carved stick. He stared back at Moon Wolf dispassionately, though Moon Wolf scowled and took a step back, behind the Crack.
"Wabano?" he said; when the man didn't reply, he snatched hold of an icicle dangling from a tree and hurled it at him. Before it could hit the old man, it was enveloped in blue flame, and a small shower of water droplets spattered to the ground. Moon Wolf's look grew dark.
"I thought so."
Snow Bear tilted his head. "You are one to speak? And here you are, hurling icicles and knives when you could be doing much better. If it were my intent, you would be dead by now. Again."
Moon Wolf blinked, then his scowl returned. "You are the one who gave her that medicine," he said. "The medicine she did not ask for."
"The medicine which ended up saving you."
"I did not ask to be saved!" Moon Wolf nearly shouted, then lowered his voice, but spoke with no less anger. "Not at this price. She does not deserve to be in debt to you."
"She has already paid in full."
"You and I well know that some debts can never be paid. Even if she is not indebted to you, she has a price to pay. That medicine was not meant to be in such people's hands."
"You would rather it be in yours? Along with all that other medicine you let go to waste...?" Moon Wolf said nothing in response to this, and Snow Bear glanced at the small crevice in the ground. "I know you think about it. How you lusted after that power all your life, and finally got it, but then you were so busy feeling sorry for yourself that you did not use it. You should take a lesson from the girl, and make the most of what you have."
"That is NOT what she is doing!" Moon Wolf snapped, clenching his fists. "She knows how dangerous it is! She will not use it again!"
"And do you think it will be so easy..." Snow Bear's image began to shimmer "...when she again must face a dark spirit which is so close to her?" Moon Wolf stood and watched as the old man's shape brightened and then grew, until a large white bear was left standing in the snow. It still stared at him, yet when it spoke its mouth didn't move. She already told herself she would not use this medicine. Yet she could not help but use it on you. When the time comes, who is to say that you will not be the one using what powers you have been given? Before he could speak, the bear turned and started to plod away through the snowdrifts. You and she both say your medicine came at too high a price to ever use, but I have seen how people's minds change. And soon, you may very well be changing your mind, just for her.
Moon Wolf opened his mouth, but the bear was already gone. He stared at the tracks it had left behind until his eyes watered, and he clenched his teeth and abruptly turned away. He paced back to the Crack, dropped to his knees, and started raking as much snow away as he could, clearing the crevasse from one end to the other. He wasn't certain why he did it...but at least it gave his hands something to do, that didn't involve hurling knives or icicles.
If she must come back here, then she will find the way open, he reasoned to himself, brushing away the last bits of snow. He dusted the remainder of it from his numb fingers and wiped his hand across his forehead, looking into the Crack but still seeing nothing.
But what if it's as he says...and she needs me again...? What good can I do her, without using...
He bit his lip and stared at the Crack, then shook his head to clear it. He left the thought unfinished, and made his way back to Cave of the Woods, to wait.
* * * * *
Charmian huddled in her winter clothes as she and the rest of her group tramped their way through thigh-deep snow, keeping parallel to the East Bluff yet traveling slightly inland. Thomas glanced every so often to their left side, at the shape of the large dark bear which kept pace with them; Francois ignored it completely, keeping his eyes on the invisible path ahead. Charmian didn't know how he managed it, with how the snow covered and obscured everything in such a way that the Island barely looked familiar anymore. Even in her last winter here, the snow had not been so deep as this. She was wondering whether voyageurs had some sort of sixth sense when Mani let out a blasting sneeze and shook his head, Marten snapping awake and almost tumbling from his antlers. They all glanced back at him and the manitou blushed.
"Gesundheit," Charmian said; then, when everybody looked at her, "Um...bless you." Mani still looked puzzled but at least the others stopped staring at her.
She rubbed at her arms for what seemed like the hundredth time. "How much further away is it?" she called out. "And is it hard at all to get down there...?"
"There should be a path down toward the shore we can take," Francois answered. "Climbing up to the cave from below may be a bit trickier. There is no path directly to it, as it goes unvisited. Not very far now."
Charmian rubbed her arms again. "I'm feeling kind of insulted," she mumbled, "that this Island's keeping me in the dark on so many things. With all I've done for it, you'd think I'd know everything there is to see here. I never even knew about Chimney Rock until this time around!"
"Which one?" Francois asked.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Chimney Rock. You know! That big towering rock near the west shore...?"
Francois glanced at her over his shoulder and his mouth twitched. "I hate to tell you this, ma chère...but there are two Chimney Rocks. Old Chimney Rock, and new Chimney Rock, or as the Islanders call it, Sunset Rock."
"TWO Chimney Rocks?!" Charmian almost fell over in the snow. She flung up her arms. "WHAT DID I EVER DO TO THIS ISLAND?!" Her face screwed up. "And WHY did they name them BOTH Chimney Rock?"
Francois waved to the right. "The path should open up somewhere around...here." He slowed to a stop and let the others catch up. They all stared down the steep slope leading toward the shore. Francois indicated the bluff still running off to the side, and pointed downward.
"Down in that area. We can take the path and climb up, or try to climb straight down. The second way is quicker, but you already know the catch. Which way?"
Charmian chewed on her lip a bit and contemplated the steep bluff. She sighed and glanced at the path down to the shore. That definitely looked easier, yet the thought of climbing upward through the snow wasn't an appealing one either...
She gasped and let out a yelp when Mani pushed against her with his antlers so she fell back into them. Marten scrambled up onto her shoulder as the manitou turned and started picking his way across the bluff, cutting toward the cave. She cast a bewildered glance back at the others, but all they did was stare at her in surprise. After a moment, Manabozho and his siblings went scurrying after her.
Francois turned to Thomas and shrugged. "They'll take that way...we'll take the path."
Thomas shrugged in return. "No arguments here."
They started picking their way down toward the shore. Charmian clung tightly to Mani's antlers as he twined his way through the trees lining the bluff, not knowing why she felt so anxious but feeling it anyway. A couple of times the manitou misstepped but hardly even stumbled, although she cringed and clung to him even tighter each time.
"Next time you decide to hijack me, give me some warning!!" she said through clenched teeth.
Mani whistled. Red Land One doubts I can walk...? Thought you knew me better.
"Have you been hanging around Pakwa? Because you're starting to act a lot like him!"
A great hump of snow at last became visible, and she frowned and squinted at it. Mani came out atop it and waited there while Thomas and Francois made their way up the slope from below. Charmian nearly started when Mudjikawiss appeared beside them, still in his bear form, but Francois didn't even bat an eye as he reached the bottom of the swell.
He waved up at them, then gestured at the mound. "Under here. The entrance is snowed in...but it shouldn't be too hard to dig it out."
"We've had plenty of experience with that," Thomas muttered.
Charmian crept down from Mani's back, grimacing when she couldn't find anywhere to set foot. Francois climbed up beside the cave and held up his hands; she blushed a little, but took them and let him lift her down. Mani and the others came down as well and peered at the face of snow which greeted them.
"Leave it to Augwak to make everything difficult," Charmian grumbled. She held up her hands and made a face. "I can't even feel my fingers anymore."
She took a step forward, but Thomas nudged her back and rolled his eyes when she glared at him. "You sit and try to warm yourself up," he said. "I'll dig. Remember," he added, when she opened her mouth to protest, "my fingers can't go numb. So unless you want to give some sort of illogical argument, I suggest you just let me do it."
Charmian scowled. "Chauvinist," she said, but sighed and sat down anyway while Thomas and Francois started digging at the cave entrance. Mani stood next to her so she could lean against his leg without fear of falling down to the shore, and Marten sitting on her shoulders provided a little bit of warmth. She pulled him off and set him on her lap, sticking her mittened hands underneath him to keep them warm; the Mikumwesu squirmed and chattered.
"Y-yikes!" he stammered. "Your hands are colder than a witch's--"
"Found it," Thomas said, and poked his hands into the snow; with a soft hissing sound it began falling away, revealing a low irregular opening in the rock. Charmian craned her neck to see it better, and as the others cleared away even more snow she stood and approached.
"That's it!" she exclaimed excitedly. "The same cave Geezhigo showed me! This is where the Weavers live!" She knelt down in front of the low entrance and peered inside, but it was too dark to see much. She glanced up at Francois as he dusted the snow from his mitts. "Have you ever been inside it? Do you have any idea what we should expect...?"
He shook his head. "I went only a short way, before deciding to turn back. There's a large room first of all, and then several diverging tunnels or cave mouths." He leaned over and pointed inside. "There, there, and over there, I believe. As for where they lead, I'm afraid I cannot tell you. For some reason, I always thought it best not to explore too far."
The Island must have been shooing him away, Charmian thought, then nodded at him. "Okay. Thanks, Francois. A whole lot!"
The voyageur nodded, then stepped back as she crawled inside the cave, Thomas following directly behind. Mani had to clear some more of the snow away with his antlers before he could squeeze through, Marten hopping in alongside him, then the two rabbits and the little grasshopper made their way in. Francois stood aside and watched the bear as it tried to fit through the opening and got caught; after a moment or so of observing this, he pulled out his gun and whacked it across its behind as hard as he could so it tumbled down into the cave with a dull thud.
Charmian and the others all turned and glanced at Mudjikawiss as he stumbled to his feet, rubbing at his behind and giving the blackest scowl imaginable. Peepaukawiss's face screwed up and he had to clamp his hands over his mouth as he started shaking, his eyes squeezing shut. Marten just gave a huge grin.
"Wow! You popped in just like a big--"
"There's at least three tunnels I can see," Thomas said, turning to look at each of them in turn. He glanced at Charmian. "Did Geezhigo-Quae tell you which one to take?"
Charmian frowned. "No...she never described that. She just said we might have to walk quite a way, if we ever wanted to see any Weavers. I don't even know the way to the Spirit Land."
"Well..." Thomas looked from one tunnel to another. "Perhaps we should split up, then, and all report back to the cave later, to decide which way to go?"
"I don't like the thought of splitting up," Charmian murmured, but couldn't think of anything else to do. She sighed and shrugged. "I guess it's as good as anything, though." She looked to Mani. "Do you sense any Shadow Wolves or anything, Mani...?"
The manitou whistled and shook his head. No. Does not mean they are not nearby, though.
Charmian nodded. "We'll have to keep that in mind. Okay." She pointed to the left tunnel. "Thomas and I'll go that way. Mani, you and Wabasso and Mudjikawiss go that way, and Manabozho, you go that way with Marten and Puka."
Manabozho bristled. "Why do I get stuck with them?"
"Because you stand less of a chance of killing Puka, than of Mudji killing you," Charmian said. "It's the best split I could think of." She waved at the second tunnel. "You could always go with Mudji, and Wabasso can go with Puka..."
Manabozho scowled. "I lose out EITHER way!" he snapped, and disappeared into the tunnel on the right. Marten hopped atop Puka's shoulder and Puka clasped his hands together.
"OoooOOOHHH! I just KNOW we'll get to bond together NICELY!" he exclaimed with glee, and followed his younger brother. Marten waved goodbye as they went.
"I'll make sure they don't kill each other! Bye, guys!"
Mudjikawiss turned to the middle tunnel. "Better to be stuck with a weakling, than with a whiny weakling," he muttered, and stomped off. Wabasso gave Charmian and Thomas a weak look before following, Mani behind him; the manitou glanced at Charmian anxiously and gave a low whistle, but she nodded at him to go on.
"I'll be okay, I promise. I think they might need you more than I do!"
Mani sighed but obeyed and disappeared from sight. Charmian and Thomas looked at each other, then she waved at him.
"Well...let's go, I guess. Only way to figure out the right way out of here."
They stepped into the left tunnel and out of the cave proper. It began to grow darker, and Charmian started to wish that she'd brought some light, or a fireling, when she nearly slapped herself and pulled off her pack to dig in it. Thomas watched her as she pulled out a flashlight and put her pack back on.
"Duh," she mumbled. "I got so used to just calling up elementals that I forgot about the easy way." She flicked it on and frowned in puzzlement when Thomas jumped, nearly hitting his head on the tunnel ceiling. "Oh...that's right, you guys don't have these things." She tilted it to the side so he could get a better look at it. "It's called a flashlight, and it works on an electric bulb..." She saw that she had lost him already and chewed her lip. "Well...there was this guy, named Thomas Edison, and..."
"The walls are glowing," Thomas interrupted, lifting his head. Charmian blinked and followed suit, to see that faint traces of light showed all around them. Her eyes widened.
"Weaver webs!" She covered the flashlight beam with her hand. "The same as in Marten's shortcut...I wonder if that means that we're going the right way?" She looked over her shoulder. "Unless they're in all the tunnels..."
"Only one way to find out," Thomas said, and took the flashlight. He peered at it uncertainly, touched the plastic gingerly with his fingertips, then shined it ahead of them. "Try not to worry about them too much. I get the feeling that if anyone will need help down here, it'll probably be us!"
Charmian gawked. "Well, THANKS for the vote of confidence!!"
"Come on now," he argued. "In Tunnel B we have three manitous, and in Tunnel C two manitous and a...whatever that little fellow is, and in Tunnel A we have--"
"Two humans!" Charmian cut in. She waved her arms. "One half Wendigo, and one who can summon up elements! Do we sound so pathetic now?"
He rolled his eyes, but let her win the point, and they continued picking their way through the long and winding tunnel. The glowing webs upon the walls and ceiling grew thicker and brighter the further they went, until Thomas could switch off the flashlight and they could still see their surroundings, albeit dimly. The eerie greenish-blue glow reminded Charmian of the caves beneath Devil's Lake, and she shivered, wondering if they might end up wandering out into Ocryx's territory.
"Manabozho's tunnel should be taking them out under Lake Huron," she murmured, half to herself. "Mani will be going toward the west...and we should be headed right underneath the heart of the Island." She peered upward, suddenly feeling very small. "It's hard to believe this is the same place that's all covered with snow..."
Thomas squeezed her arm and they both halted, Charmian glancing up at him. "What...?" she managed to get out, but he shook his head and put a finger to his mouth.
"Something's ahead," he whispered, and pointed. Charmian followed his stare and had to squint for a moment or two before she could make out dim shadows moving far ahead, where the tunnel looked as if it opened up into another cave. They were moving about busily, waving what looked to be their arms, though there was no talking whatsoever, and that made her feel nervous for some reason.
"Maybe that's them," she whispered. "It looks like they might be weaving stuff...with how they're flailing around like that..."
"I don't hear a loom," Thomas whispered back.
Charmian shrugged. "Maybe they don't use a regular loom, way down here...Geezhigo said it's some kind of medicine, right?" She pulled off her pack and fished out her dreamcatcher. "I honestly thought it'd be a lot harder than this! Geezhigo made it seem like we'd never find them!"
Thomas frowned slightly. "You're sure you want to go walking in on them unannounced...?"
"What am I supposed to do, ring a doorbell?" She lifted one shoulder and slipped her pack back on. "Look, she said they're not aggressive--they prefer to hide rather than fight. So even if we startle them, I don't think we'll be in much trouble. And all we'll have to do is show them this and explain everything." She held up the charred hoop, and met his eyes. "So, what do you say--? This is half of what we came here for..." She made her eyes as big and pleading as possible. "And you did promise we would come through here and get it fixed...remember?"
Thomas let out a gusty sigh, throwing up his hands. "I swear..."
"That's the point." She grabbed his arm and pulled him forward. "C'mon! Before they close up shop for the day!"
Thomas followed, and they jogged down the remainder of the tunnel, toward the cave looming ahead. The shadows on the walls grew clearer, and now it really did look as if a group of people sat within, waving their arms and weaving things. Charmian's spirits rose as the glow grew brighter--that had to be them.
They can fix Grandma's dreamcatcher! It won't be the same...but it'll be good enough...and then they can tell us how to get to the Spirit Land! We're practically there already!
They came up to the entrance, and she cupped a hand to her mouth. "Hello?" she called out, and saw the arms of the shadows freeze in midair. "Sorry to bother you," she said, "but we need your help, and--"
Her voice cut off and she stumbled to a halt just inside the entrance, her eyes goggling. Thomas nearly ran into her and jerked his head up to look, and blinked. Charmian's eyes grew to the size of saucers and she let out a piercing scream at the sight of the roomful of gigantic spiders which clicked their jaws and flashed their eyes and waved their monstrous hairy legs at her.
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