Tal Natha tells the truth, and Charmian heads back to the Crack...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 123: Crossed Signals"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR:
I DID NOT refuse to call you because I never wanted you here, Tal Natha said. I refused to call you because you did not want to come back.
Charmian stared at the demon, eyes wide and stunned. She blinked a few times in utter disbelief before the meaning of his words began to dawn on her, and her breath slowly returned, her voice coming faint in her throat.
"Wh...what...?" she whispered; then a hot searing of rage seeped up into her breast. "What--? I didn't WANT to come back--?" Her fingernails dug into her palms and her face twisted up; everyone around her, except Tal Natha, took a step back. "How can you say that?" she yelled, making the demon's ears flick. "How can you EVEN say such a thing--? EVERY DAY I WANTED TO COME BACK!! AND YOU NEVER CALLED ME!!"
I did come to call you, Tal Natha said quietly, and that effectively silenced her. Her fists unclenched and she stared at him with her mouth hanging open and her chest hitching; Thomas reached out to squeeze her left wrist, and Red Bird still held her right, as if both of them expected to hold her back from attacking the Ocryx. She didn't even notice them. Her eyes and Tal Natha's stayed focused on each other.
"How...?" Charmian's voice was the merest whisper again. "How can you think I never wanted to come back when this was the one thing I wanted the most...?"
There was one thing you wanted even more, Tal Natha said, then sighed and slowly sat down. His wings sank a little and his tail shifted across the sandy floor. He lowered his eyes, and Charmian blinked as if coming out from under a spell.
When I made you that promise, I meant every word of it, he said. I had hoped never to need to call you for such a reason...but if ever I felt you wished to return, for whatever reason, I was willing to come and get you. I do not bring dreams to those upon the mainland...but I kept my ears open just the same. I could sense when you would want to return, and I was willing to bring you back the moment you called out to me.
Tears filled Charmian's eyes. "I called you almost EVERY NIGHT! How could you think I didn't want to come back--?"
The demon gave her the same strangely sympathetic look that he had given her before. Because, he said quietly, even as you called for me, you called for something else even more. He paused and his tail swished. Then the Shadow Wolves came...I watched them at first, hoping it was only a small thing, as I did not wish to bother you...yet they became even more powerful. I went to you, and looked into your dreams...I was going to call you then, most of all...but I saw what was there already and I could not. I could not bring you to the Island if you did not want to come. And after this, your dreams faded from me, until I could no longer sense them anymore. I just assumed...you did not wish to return. I had no way to know otherwise. He lifted his head. Even now I cannot sense you here. If I had known your dreams had grown weak, perhaps I would have rethought my decision to leave you alone. If not for the other matter...
"What other matter?" Charmian's face screwed up. "You said you could sense me, at one point! And you think I didn't WANT you to call me back--? What makes you think that? All the nights I waited to get some dream to come back here! I was absolutely MISERABLE waiting for you to call me back! I thought you'd forgotten about me, or maybe the Island had never existed at all! How could you let me feel like that? How after everything I did could you think I wouldn't WANT to come back?"
Because something even stronger kept you tied to the mainland, Tal Natha answered. Every time you called out for me, your call to it was even greater. I could not pull you away from this. When I came to tell you of the Shadow Wolves, your pull to remain on the mainland was greatest of all. You did not want me to call you. I could not bring you here at such a time. You would not have been where you wanted to be most.
Charmian threw up her hands in frustration. "On the MAINLAND--?"
Beside your grandmother, Tal Natha said, and Charmian's breath vanished from her lungs completely, her eyes going wide and her mouth working soundlessly. Her legs started to feel weak; Thomas and Red Bird grasped her arms more tightly, and it was only this that kept her from falling. She stared into Tal Natha's eyes, but he held her stare, blue looking at red and green.
You knew she would not be with you much longer, Tal Natha said, his stare not wavering. Even before your waking mind knew, your sleeping mind knew. Even as you called out to me before you went to sleep, you called out to her as you dreamed, and she is what kept you tied to the mainland. By the time the Shadow Wolves had come, you knew, waking as well, that your time with her was short. You could not admit it to yourself until the end. But you still knew. I saw this, in your dreams. You dreamed of her, all of the time.
Charmian continued staring at him in disbelief.
I--I was the one blocking him--? Blocking his dreams--? But--I asked for him to come EVERY DAY! How could I have been the one keeping him away--?
Even as she thought this...she dredged her brain, trying to remember what she had actually been dreaming over the past months, and one by one fragments of dreams half forgotten began to resurface in her mind. She and her grandmother, walking along the lakeshore...her grandmother, pushing her on a swing hanging from a white tree...herself, hiding in the closet in her grandmother's old house and wiping tears from her eyes...she did remember a dream where her grandmother had not been present at all, but when she thought of it a little longer, the image she remembered, that of a great mountain with snow covering its top, did remind her of her grandmother, great and ever present and comforting, and always watching over her...the images started to fade again from her head and she found herself again in Tal Natha's cave, her vision somewhat blurrier. She blinked her eyes a few times and now felt Thomas's and Red Bird's hands, and reflexively clutched at them, feeling them squeeze slightly back.
You became caught up in the thought of her, Tal Natha said softly. She consumed your sleeping thoughts...it would not have been right for me to intrude. If I had called you back when the Wolves came...you would not have been there for her when she went to the Spirit Road.
"But..." Charmian had to force her voice to work. "But...but about...after...? The dreamcatcher...that was the only way I could get back...you still didn't come for me..."
He slowly shook his head. By then, I could not sense you anymore. I had thought...perhaps, you were merely preoccupied. I would have understood, if this were so. Perhaps your sleep was not well. He frowned. But this was not so...your dreams themselves had grown weaker. I tried to follow them, but by then, I could not find you. It was as if you had vanished completely. He paused, then shifted his tail. I actually began to believe you had forgotten this place...or no longer believed in it. This was the only thing that made any sense to me.
Charmian sucked in a breath and shook her head wildly, the tears streaming from her eyes. "That wasn't it! I NEVER forgot! I--I know I doubted, sometimes--but I never stopped believing! I thought that you forgot about me!"
I could not ever forget about you, Mainlander, Tal Natha said in return.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "So--you mean--all of this was my fault--? It's my fault that I could never come back--? All that time I thought I was trying to come back here, I was keeping myself on the mainland--?"
I know you did not intend it, the demon said. But there are some attachments which are stronger and more enduring than others. In this case...for very good reason. He tilted his head forward. I would never forgive myself if I had kept you from your grandmother's side...simply the fact that you preferred to remain on the mainland with her, when your heart wished to return here so much, tells me how greatly you cared for her. If I had kept you from this, I do not know how I could even face you.
All that Charmian could do was stare at the sandy floor, breath hitching in her chest and her fingers flexing. She found it impossible to believe that she'd kept herself from the Island this whole time--it was her fault!--yet the explanation did make sense, more sense than thinking that Tal Natha had broken his promise. She had never known him to betray her trust, and he sounded truthful enough now. She knew that he was telling the truth...no matter how difficult it was to believe...
A shuffling noise came from behind her, and Moon Wolf stepped forward. "Wait then," he said, a perplexed look on his face. "You said that her dreams became weaker--you could no longer sense them. And even now, you still cannot. Her tie to the mainland is broken now--how can you still not sense her dreams--?"
Charmian lifted her head, and Tal Natha frowned. I admit that I do not know why this is, he said. It makes no sense to me, either. The moment her grandmother died, I should have sensed her again. Even if her ties to the mainland were slow in breaking, her thoughts of her grandmother should never have weakened her dreams. The very fact of her being here now tells me that I should sense her...yet I still do not. His ears flicked. It makes no sense to me.
Unease settled in Charmian's breast. "Then you mean--something else is blocking me from you--?" she asked in confusion. "Not my dreams? If you didn't weaken them, then what did? And how come you can't sense me--?"
Tal Natha shook his head. I do not know. I have thought over everything, and the only thing that would explain how I cannot sense you is... He trailed off, then looked uneasy himself. ...Is that you are dead.
Charmian blinked, then felt the blood drain from her face. "What--?" she blurted out; the others looked just as startled as she did. "What do you mean, DEAD--?!"
Tal Natha quickly shook his head. I know very well that you are not. I can see with my own eyes that you are very much alive! But... He shrugged helplessly. But the only ones here whose presence I cannot sense are those who have the power to shield themselves--or those who no longer exist. He peered at her. I suppose by now I can be positive that you are not attempting to hide yourself...
Charmian shook her head. "Of--of course not! Of course I'm not! But--I'm not dead, either! How--isn't there any other way you can't sense me--?"
Chibiabos stepped forward now, on her other side. "Your dream power is not weak," he said, and she cut herself off and glanced at him. His blue eyes shimmered. "I think you merely became distracted by what happened, and so your dreams faded. But I believe you still have this full power, if you can only concentrate upon it."
"Concentrate--?" Charmian's face grew confused. "You mean, work on it, and the tunnel will appear--? But...that seems so basic..."
Manabozho shrugged. "Maybe basic is all that's needed--? If we go back into the Crack, I bet you if you think about it hard enough the tunnel will return!"
"THINK the tunnel into existence--?" Charmian grimaced. "Do you realize what that sounds like?"
Whichever the case may be, I am afraid I cannot help you with this, Tal Natha said, drawing their attention. I wish that I could...but if it is indeed as your friend has said...then you are the only one who can find this tunnel again. I would suggest that you return to the Crack and try again. I know you--you tend to grow...frustrated...when things do not work well the first time. Perhaps, if you are patient, you will be able to see the tunnel again.
Charmian flushed in indignation, even though she knew that he was right. "I...I guess I'll try, then," she mumbled, feeling utterly stupid now that her accusations had proven groundless. She cringed to herself as they started turning and heading back toward the entrance, Red Bird accompanying them. "It can't be any stupider than anything else I've tried lately..."
The others moved out of her way and she started slowly walking back toward the outside ledge. "You have to go so soon...?" Red Bird asked, then sighed. "Yes, I know you do...still, I wish you could stay longer than a moment or two..."
Charmian's ears grew warm. "I'm sorry--I'll be sure to spend a longer time here, once this is all over." She winced. "If...if this is okay," she said, turning her head just slightly in Tal Natha's direction.
The demon looked at her, then came forward. You are always welcome here, Charmian, he said. No matter when or why. I would never keep you away, especially not now. This home is yours as well as ours.
Red Bird's face lit up. "Thank you," Charmian murmured, still feeling a sting of shame at her treatment of him. "Um..." She peered at Tal Natha meekly. "I'm...sorry I..."
The demon's eyes softened. You do not need to apologize, he thought, and she could tell that only she had heard it. I understand. You only love this Island; I would likely have done the very same.
Charmian lowered her eyes. Thanks, she thought at him; his ear flicked, showing that he'd heard, and she turned to the entrance. The others filed out after her and began departing from the ledge; Moon Wolf helped her atop Dakh's back again, and the demon rose into the air. Charmian rubbed at one chilly arm as they rose over Fort Holmes and descended toward the other side.
Something preoccupies you, Moon Wolf thought. You're still thinking of what he said, about not sensing you.
Charmian didn't answer him until the demons had landed and deposited them on solid ground again. "I'm wondering if there's some sort of connection between everything here," she murmured as the two flew away, and they were left to descend the hill once more. Night had fallen by now, but there was enough moon- and starlight to see their way down among the trees; as soon as she stubbed her toe, he lifted his hand and a ball of fire appeared to light the path. "Tal Natha couldn't sense me anymore right around the time my grandmother died. Chakenapok is dead, and Wabasso died, and Wenonah is dead. You were dead, too. And Tal Natha can't sense me. For some reason, we're all tied together. But I don't understand how? What would any of this have to do with me, and why wouldn't he be able to sense me?"
"He sensed your dreams the first time around; you are still remembering them?"
"Here? Not really; but I never had any trouble on the mainland. Tal Natha doesn't bring dreams to mainlanders anyway, not usually at least. He didn't have any trouble finding me the first time. I would understand it if it was the Ogimah-Quae's influence that he couldn't sense, but why not anything else? I mean, even if I'm not dreaming, I'm alive, and that counts for something..."
He seemed just as perplexed as she was, and shook his head with a shrug. "It makes no sense to me either," he murmured.
"I would say maybe Chakenapok is shielding me," Charmian added, and bit her lip, "but that doesn't make sense, either. Number one, I never got that impression from him. And number two, he couldn't sense me as long as you shielded me. So even he isn't the one doing it."
He said nothing in response this time, and they remained silent for the rest of the walk, Thomas and Manabozho casting her furtive looks every so often. She didn't meet their eyes. She stared at the ground as they walked, and wished that this piece of the puzzle would fall into place...but maybe it simply didn't matter that much? When she thought over all of the things that she had never known about the Island until this trip, it made sense to think that there might be yet more things she wouldn't understand for a while, or possibly ever.
Maybe this is just the least of them all, she thought, and sighed. She noticed Thomas hanging back waiting for her, and picked up her pace a bit; she blinked as soon as Moon Wolf slowed down to fall behind her, and glanced around herself to notice that the others had moved away a little bit as well, even though Manabozho didn't look like he wanted to; Peepaukawiss ended up grasping his arm and pulling him aside, making a face at him. Thomas slipped his arm around Charmian's before she could do so, and the grass rustled against their feet.
"You know, this would be almost romantic," he said, "if it weren't for the creepy Wolves, and giant cannibals, and people who turn into rabbits and throw fire and such."
Charmian flushed. "Sorry," she said, without even being sure why.
Thomas started laughing. "You keep interesting company," was all that he said, and they started picking their way along the nearest trail to Crack-in-the-Island.
It was with a distinct sense of déjà vu that they crept down into it this time, Charmian getting out her flashlight once more so she wouldn't batter her head against the rock. There was still no tunnel at the end, and she sighed miserably, but Thomas gave her a disapproving look and pushed on her shoulder so that she sat down. The rest of them followed suit and all stared at the rock wall.
"And so what am I supposed to do, exactly?" Charmian asked, feeling dumb.
"Tal Natha said to concentrate," Thomas said; then, "He was right, you know, about you and things not going your way the first time around."
"I can't help it that things have to be so slow!" Charmian protested, but chewed on her tongue and turned to the wall anyway. She stared at it for several moments and frowned a little. "How do you concentrate on a wall, anyway? At least on the Spirit Road, I had Wabasso's flute..."
"I can always sing!" Puka exclaimed, and cleared his throat. "'Therrrre--'" That was as far as he got before Manabozho hit him on the top of the head with his fist.
"That reminds me," Niskigwun, near the back, said, and made a face. "I will go find the stupid one." He turned and weaved his way back out of the Crack.
"I think I like him more than I used to," Manabozho muttered under his breath.
"Try to concentrate," Thomas coaxed. "You didn't have Wabasso's flute playing the second time around, and that time you had a vision."
"I am sorry I do not have my flute," Chibiabos apologized, and they all jumped, having forgotten that he was even there. Thomas and Charmian flushed, then he turned to her and shrugged.
"It can't be too difficult to do it over again now, can it...?"
"Speak for yourself," Charmian murmured, but rested her chin on her arms and sighed anyway. She stared at the wall until her eyes hurt, and the sound of the others occasionally shifting made her feel rushed and impatient, even though they said nothing. She hated making people wait, even more than having to wait herself.
It doesn't make sense, she thought in frustration. I saw it easily the first time! And I was new here then! How come the Island hides things from me when I've been here for ages? It's almost like it--doesn't even trust me anymore! But all I'm here to do is to help it! Why would the Island not trust me...?
I'm just being paranoid, aren't I? Of course the Island trusts me! Why wouldn't it, after all I've done? It has to be something else...if I could just figure out what...
I'm supposed to be concentrating here...!
She scowled to herself and pressed her hand against the rock. Nothing. If she couldn't see it, yet it was there, why couldn't she at least feel it? Or did the opening disappear until--whenever? She hated not understanding how something worked, and right now, this tunnel wasn't being very understandable.
She continued pressing her hand against the rock, hoping that it would give way, and concentrating on it as hard as she could, but all that she could do was feel increasingly peeved by its reluctance to appear. She sensed the others growing restless, and forced herself to relax and try to concentrate without feeling so irritated, yet that resulted in nothing either. She felt her fingernails digging against the rock but barely even noticed the pain.
"Charmian...?" Thomas asked.
"Is it showing up yet--?" Puka asked, craning his neck a little.
"No," Charmian muttered, and felt her eyes sting. "It's not."
They furrowed their brows. "Maybe you need to think harder," Manabozho suggested.
Charmian started to scowl. "I think she's done that already," Thomas said to him. "Twice over."
"Perhaps Chakenapok is shielding it," Moon Wolf suggested with a small sigh. "It would make sense..."
"Charmian?" Thomas asked again, and touched her shoulder. "Are you all right...?"
"No," Charmian said. A bitter note arose in her voice. "I'm not. I'm getting tired of this."
He frowned slightly and gestured behind himself. "We can always go back up--maybe there's another way..."
"That's not it." She ground her teeth and let out her breath abruptly. "There should be a tunnel here. I want there to be a tunnel here. There was before, and there should be now. Tal Natha said it would be here. I said it would be here. I bring you all down here TWICE and it still doesn't show up. I feel like the world's biggest idiot."
Thomas furrowed his brow. "So...what do you want to do--?"
Her fingernails scraped against the rock. "I want to blast the dumb thing open," she snapped. "I want to start kicking this dumb rock because I'm TIRED of things not making any sense!" She yanked her hand away from the stone and turned to the others, angrily swiping tears away from her eyes. "Cave of the Woods," she said. "Maybe if we try from there..."
She trailed off when Manabozho, Puka, Chibiabos, and Moon Wolf all raised their hands and pointed behind her, eyes wide. She turned to look at Thomas, who frowned slightly, then they both turned to look behind themselves as well. Charmian blinked at the sight of the tunnel there, as if it had been visible all along.
"Huh...?" She blinked a few more times, yet it didn't disappear. "When...how did that get there...?"
"It just appeared," Manabozho said in puzzlement.
"Poof! Out of nowhere," Puka added, cocking his head curiously.
Charmian's own confusion grew. "What did I even do...?"
"Does it MATTER?" Puka exclaimed, and started nudging on her and Thomas's backs. "Come on, come on, let's go! These Gemfields sound ENORMOUSLY interesting...!"
"Okay! Stop pushing!" Charmian turned herself about and started crawling toward the tunnel. Thomas followed, then Moon Wolf, then the other three; Charmian hated the thought of abandoning Niskigwun, but had the feeling that he would likely be fine finding his way back on his own. She sighed and made her way along the low tunnel, her surroundings growing comfortingly familiar the further that they went. It was easy to see, as the tunnel was lit somehow, though she had never managed to figure out from what; perhaps Weaver webs, now that she thought of it, though she couldn't make out any, and the glow was a different color. They reached the cave of crystals, and its connecting tunnel...they worked their way deeper and further underground, Manabozho grumbling and Puka making whimpering noises at every shadow. Giant crystals protruded from the walls at odd angles, and Charmian started wincing when she felt more of them cutting into her hands as she crawled.
"I forgot this part," she mumbled, and jerked her hand up to shake it with a wince. "Ouch!"
"Are we there yet?" Puka cried, then echoed her--"OUCH!" When they glanced back they saw him rubbing his head and Chibiabos shaking his hand; he noticed their attention and flushed.
"Sorry," he said in a small voice. "I guess...I am used to somebody always doing it."
They all stared at him for a moment, then turned back to what they were doing. The tunnel began to grow lighter ahead, and Charmian let out a small sigh. "Almost there," she murmured, and picked up her pace, having to duck her head to avoid hitting it on a crystal. "Now when we get out, there should be this big field of flowers, and a stream, and a fountain...and not too far away from all that there's a big field of crystals..."
"Ooooo!" Puka exclaimed, rubbing his hands. "That sounds GORGEOUS!"
"We're not here to pick flowers or dance or anything," Charmian reminded him. "So stop getting ideas."
He pouted but fell silent, and Charmian took in a breath in anticipation of finally getting out of the tunnel. She had never been claustrophobic, but crawling in tunnels wasn't one of her favorite activities. She started paying more attention to her hands, picking her way around the sharpest crystals the best that she could and keeping her head low.
"Here it is," she said, when the tunnel at last opened up, and she grasped onto its edge and pulled herself up and out. She turned back to help out the others, who all started looking around themselves, frowning slightly. Charmian helped Chibiabos out last of all and he too frowned.
"I thought you said it was going to be all pretty," Puka complained.
"Of course it is," Charmian retorted. "What, you don't like flowers now...?"
Her voice trailed off. For at that moment, she too turned around, and at last noticed the rolling fields of dead brown grass, the skeletal trees, and the muddy shallow stream leading away from the cracked and broken fountain.
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