|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
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The Forsaken Path
MISHUPISHU SWAM UP and down the river, every so often sniffling at the bank before submerging again. Far overhead, Kenu flew back and forth as well, and from north to south, scanning the ground with a frown on his face. The remaining members of the group, having gathered back at the entrance to the woods, scoured the ground, calling out, though all that they could hear were their own echoes.
Thomas stared at the ground pensively while Stick-In-The-Dirt wrung his hands and kept calling out Charmian's name. Thomas didn't bother yelling anymore. If Charmian could hear them...
"She would've answered by now," he murmured, not lifting his eyes.
Stick-In-The-Dirt opened his mouth. "Char..." His voice died off and he lifted a hand to rub meekly at his neck. "She would have," he said in a small voice. "By now..."
Mishupishu swam up to the riverbank, spines drooping. "She's not in the water--I've looked all along it! She's not even on the bottom."
Kenu landed with a crashing noise, toppling a small tree or two before he managed to right himself. "I can't see her from up in the air," he said gloomily.
"Walks-On-The-Shore is missing too," Thomas said, "and Winter Born! Didn't they all go off together in the woods--? How far could they have gone by now?"
"We only looked partway through the woods," Stick-In-The-Dirt said. "Perhaps we'd best look deeper! If they lost track of time..."
They all halted and turned toward the trees. A small furry shape came bounding through the grass, launching itself at Peepaukawiss, who snatched it up. Marten clambered onto his shoulder and waved his arms, panting for breath. "GUYS! I heard all sorts of AWFUL noises in the woods and something smells funny and I have a REALLY bad feeling--!"
Mani appeared from among the trees now with a troubled look on his face and whistled. Cannot smell her anymore, he said. But smell...others. He waved his antlers at one of the nearby trees. Forest manitous say there is something bad here...
Stick-In-The-Dirt began gnawing on his lip. "Something bad...?"
"Stick! Francois! Everybody...!"
Stick-In-The-Dirt and Thomas stood up straight when a faint call came from the woods, followed by thudding footsteps. They started toward the trees only to see Winter Born come running out, her eyes wide and her face pale. "Ev--everybody!" she gasped, stumbling to slow down, her braids mussed. "In--in the woods--something bad!"
"What was it?" Francois asked as they all surrounded her.
She panted a little, rubbing at her head. "Big...big manitous," she managed to get out. "A whole bunch of them! I saw them first and thought I could talk to them--but they attacked us! For no reason at all! They were all huge and black, and they talked like they knew us, but I've never seen them before--then they ran after us--Charmian told me to come find all of you--and the manitous chased her and the crazy man off--"
"Which way did they go?" Thomas demanded, making her flinch. Moon Wolf shot him such a look that he wilted a little; Winter Born chewed on her lip and fiddled her fingers.
"I...I'm not sure," she said in a small voice. "They just went running off...and told me to get help...I didn't see where they went. I'm sorry..."
"You came running immediately--?" Moon Wolf prompted; when Winter Born nodded he frowned. "Then they couldn't have gone too far...you said you could sense these other manitous?" he asked Mani.
Mani nodded and whistled. Several of them...they smell strange...like they do not belong here. He frowned as well. Can't explain it other than this. He turned and took a few steps toward the woods and halted, lifting his head to test the air. Can still smell them. Waterlings. He cast a confused glance back at the others. Why so far inland...?
"You're a waterling, are you not?" Francois asked; Mani blushed a little and lowered his head. The trapper halted and peered into the woods. "Perhaps they have the same thing in mind that the rest of us do."
"Or the opposite," Manabozho said; they all looked at him and he blinked, eyes darting from face to face as if he hadn't expected any of them to notice him there. "Well--what else do you think?" he blurted out after a moment. "They're obviously related to Megissogwun and everything else! If they knew them--then he sent them! Why else would they be after us--?"
"Perhaps this means Wabun can help us after all," Moon Wolf said. "If they're trying to stop them."
"Guuuyyyyys," Marten whined, drawing their attention. He waved at the trees. "I said I smelled something BAD back there!"
"The manitous," Thomas said shortly.
Marten shook his head and his lip stuck out. "I know manitou stink when I smell it!"
"He's right, you know," Puka said, wrinkling his nose. "I think I smell something OTHER than those brutes!"
"Something else in the woods--?" Thomas managed to get out; Mani bristled and dashed off, his hooves thudding and a blaring whistle escaping him. Thomas watched the manitou race off with a surprised look on his face; Stick-In-The-Dirt followed immediately after, then Manabozho and several of the others. He had to hurry to catch up.
The woods were eerily silent aside from the sound of their footfalls striking the ground; Mani crashed straight through the trees, plowing bushes out of the way with his antlers and blaring loudly enough to hurt their ears. It was only when Marten hopped off of Puka's shoulder and landed on his rump, scrambling up toward his neck, that the manitou at last slowed his rampage, swinging his head from side to side and snorting. Everyone slowed down, gasping, and looked around as well.
"Anybody...?" Kenu's voice called from far overhead, out of their sight. "Is anybody down there...?!"
"What..." Thomas had to struggle to speak. "What...are we stopping for...?"
Puka clapped his hands to his face. "Do you not SMELL that?! Eeewwww!! What is it--?"
Niskigwun stepped to the front of the group--he had remained silent until now--and lifted his head to test the air. His brow furrowed a little.
"Pukwudjininees," he said, perplexed.
Marten hopped up and down on Mani's shoulders. "I TOLD you I smelled something bad! No offense, but Pukwudjininees aren't the best-smelling fellows in the world!"
"That is not it," Niskigwun said, and started walking now, passing Mani and heading deeper into the woods. He kept his spear ready. "They should be making a racket by now," he said, and everyone glanced at each other anxiously, then followed. He was right. There wasn't the sound of a single Pukwudjininee anywhere near them, despite the slight scent in the air.
Mani lowered his head and started snuffling at the ground like a dog, X'aaru joining him. "They were just here not that long ago," Winter Born insisted, twisting a braid around her finger. "There weren't any Pukwudjininees! What happened? I thought they would be coming right after me..." She trailed off when Thomas put his hand on her shoulder, though the look on her face didn't brighten any.
Augwak nudged his way to the front of the group and made a face. "We're looking for her and she's off running around--?" he groused, shoving Pakwa when he got too close. "I THOUGHT we were supposed to be heading EAST! Where all is she taking us now--?" He cut himself off, face screwing up, then turned and headed toward Mani and X'aaru. They were busily sniffing at the rough trail which Winter Born must have run along; the manitou whistled angrily, X'aaru snorting, when Augwak shoved his way between them and tramped off into the woods. Everyone stared at him as he tilted his head back, sniffed, then continued on his way, muttering as he went.
Niskigwun and Moon Wolf shared a look, then followed.
Thomas frowned, nearly a scowl. "What's going on...?" he asked when everyone began moving again. "Why isn't anybody saying anything?"
X'aaru lifted his head a bit, his ears low. "Something...doesn't smell quite right," he said meekly.
"I thought we'd already gathered that," Thomas muttered, stepping forward.
The demon lowered his head again and averted his eyes. "Well...it smells kind of like..."
"BLOOD!" Augwak's voice came from far ahead, making their heads jerk up. "Blood! Are you happy now--? Can we get GOING now--?"
They ran to catch up with him. The GeeBee stood in the middle of a clearing, scowling and scuffing at the ground; he jerked his hand at the trees and Mani snorted and nearly tripped over his own hooves trying to stop. Everyone slowed down, eyes growing wide at the sight which met them. Their stares wandered from the trees and up into the branches; after a moment Stick-In-The-Dirt hurried to Winter Born's side and covered her eyes, although the action was a bit belated, considering how obvious their surroundings were.
Tiny furry bodies littered the branches and parts of the ground, draped over the roots, dangling from the twigs, lying in pathetic little tatters in the grass. The Pukwudjininees' spears had been snapped like toothpicks; they themselves looked as if they had been tossed around like so many ragdolls and left to lie where they'd fallen. Winter Born peered over Stick-In-The-Dirt's hand and her eyes welled up; Marten whimpered and burrowed into Mani's ruff.
"What happened...?" Winter Born asked, her voice small.
X'aaru lowered his head to gently nudge at one of the tiny bodies. Augwak tramped forward and swatted one aside; Thomas and Niskigwun both bared their teeth as if to bite off his arm. The GeeBee halted and waved his hands.
"What's it LOOK like, dumb brat? Whatever was after those idiots apparently KILLED these little rodents to get at them." He poked at one of the Pukwudjininees, sniffed it, then made a face and nudged it away. "Too bad they couldn't've killed something a bit more palatable..."
Thomas opened his mouth and Niskigwun lifted his spear, murder in their eyes. "He's right," Francois said, and they all turned toward him; he was crouching near one of the trees at the far side of the clearing, peering at its twisting root system. He lifted his head to meet their eyes.
"The action seems concentrated around this area," he said. "Whatever they were guarding...I think it was over here."
They drifted his way. "Guarding--?" Thomas echoed; they peered at the roots, which had been shredded and torn, great gouts of earth clumped around them and the remains of one unfortunate Pukwudjininee atop them.
"What could be here to guard?" Stick-In-The-Dirt asked, the question that was on all of their minds.
Francois poked his hand in the earth, then drew out a piece of stone. They readied themselves to ask him what was so special about it when he tilted it up toward the light and they saw that it looked exactly like a tiny hand clasping a tomahawk. They jumped back with a startled gasp.
"I've never seen something like this before," Francois said quietly, frowning. "I could not say what it is."
Niskigwun slowly nudged past the others and stared at the little stone hand, his face pale. "It...it looks like...it belonged to a Mizauwabeekum," he said in a faint voice. "The stone people. They live beneath the earth...in tunnels in the soil and rock...but...why would they be here...?"
"I assume they're friends with the little people of the forest," Francois said, starting to dig in the fallen earth.
Niskigwun nodded and bit his lip. "Yes...quite close. They are cousins to each other. But the Pukwudjininees remain mostly in the trees, and the Mizauwabeekum rarely come above the surface! I must have seen them all of two or three times in my entire life. Why would they be out here in the middle of the woods...?"
"I think they started out further underground." Francois tossed a few handfuls of soil aside and squatted to peer under the roots. He lifted his head and gestured. "What does this look like--?"
They all looked. "A tunnel," Marten exclaimed, hopping down and peeping inside. He leaned in so far that only his fluffy tail showed twitching from side to side. "There's...more of them in here!" he said, his voice cracking. "Oh...poor little cousins!!"
"Why would someone want to kill such little creatures?" Moon Wolf asked. "They don't look as if they would present much of a challenge...and whatever attacked them was certainly much stronger than they were!"
"Overkill, maybe...?" Thomas suggested, rubbing at his neck as if hating the word.
Marten stuck his head out of the tunnel. "It looks like it used to go WAY back," he said, "but I can't get through it because it's all CRUSHED! Like something STOMPED all over it!"
X'aaru pawed at the earth behind the roots. "Whatever it was stepped all over the place over here," he murmured. "The ground's all mussed up...and there are a few little sinkholes, like something sharp poked through..."
They started standing up. Mani stepped over toward the demon and bent his head to sniff at the disturbed soil, then bristled. He snorted and kicked at a clump of earth so that it rolled into the woods and everyone stared at him.
"What is it...?" Winter Born dared to whisper to those standing nearest. Thomas shook his head with a frown.
Mani paced in a circle, huffing, then faced them and tossed his antlers. Manitous! he blared. Just like everyone says! He pawed again at the ground. What these look like--?
X'aaru realized that he was the one being addressed, and flattened his ears, creeping to peek down at the soil again. His meek look faded into one of perplexity and he reached out one hand to gingerly touch the ground.
"Hoofprints," he said with a bit of surprise.
Everyone looked at the ground with a renewed sense of interest. "Why would manitous be attacking them?" Thomas exclaimed. "I thought you just said they were GOOD manitous!"
"There are two sets of manitous here," Moon Wolf said, silencing them. He bent down to look into the tunnel but couldn't see much. "The ones we've spoken with...and other ones. The ones who do not belong."
"He says that they're water manitous," Francois said, glancing at Mani as he huffed and paced in angry circles, every so often glancing further into the woods. "We'll just have to assume the obvious, that they're connected to those other Mishupishus that are causing trouble."
"That--that Pearl person is FOLLOWING us?!" Peepaukawiss screeched, and threw up his arms so that his feathers flared every which way. "Oooooohhh!! Can he SEE us right now--?!" He grunted and collapsed when Manabozho hit him on the head. Manabozho then stomped toward Mani and the tunnel.
"He SAID he would be watching us!" he snapped, stooping to look into the tunnel. "Why is anyone even surprised that he sends mitchi manitous to do his bidding--?"
Mani frowned a little, lowering his head a bit. But... He scuffed the ground. Do not sense the Pearl Feather One here. Not in the least. He has not been here.
"I never said he would have to come here in person," Manabozho said, sticking his head in the tunnel entrance.
Mani shook his head and snorted in frustration. Not listening to me! Don't sense the Pearl Feather One in the least. When Manabozho pulled his head out to look at him the manitou tossed his antlers. He is NOT the ogimah here!
"Ogimah...?" Thomas echoed, then glanced at the others. "What does he mean by that--?"
"Someone else is commanding them...?" Niskigwun asked in a soft voice. He too looked at the tunnel and bit his lip, seeming confused.
Manabozho stared at Mani for a moment in silence. "Why do you think that?" he said after a short while had passed. "Megissogwun's the one behind all of this. Why would somebody else be here all of a sudden...?"
"Maybe..." Stick-In-The-Dirt took a step forward, wringing his hands. "Maybe there is another one who obeys this Pearl Feather...? Another servant...?"
Thomas lifted a hand to rub at his head. "So...somebody's here controlling the manitous...while Megissogwun controls him." He looked at them. "But where does that leave us? And where does that leave Charmian?"
Francois stood and turned, heading back toward the entrance to the woods; Remy followed without a word. The others stared at them before looking at each other and reluctantly following suit, although Thomas, Manabozho, and Mani glared at them as if insulted; they were the last ones to follow, aside from Marten, whom Puka had to pluck from the tunnel and dust off before carrying him along.
"Where are you going?" Thomas blurted out, jogging to Francois's side.
"Back to the river," Francois replied.
Thomas blinked. "The river--? Why?" When this drew no response he grabbed Francois's arm and the voyageur finally halted, giving him a warning look. "Charmian disappeared back there!" Thomas nearly shouted; everyone gathered around them and watched on in silence. "And you want to go back to the river--?"
"We continue as if they are still with us," Francois said. "We keep heading east, and look for this Wabun. This is the plan she left us with--and so this is the plan we follow."
"With respect," Niskigwun said, suppressing a scowl, "it rather looks as if the plan has changed! SOMETHING could have dragged her into the ground for all we know!"
Red Land One needs help! Mani protested.
"We're not just leaving her there, are we...?" Marten asked in a small voice, and sniffled.
"She left us with no alternate plan," Francois said. "Her goal was to reach Wabun, first of all. If we stay behind here, there may be no Island left for us to return to. You think this is what she wanted?"
Thomas clenched his fists. "I THINK you don't really know WHAT she would've intended now that things have changed!"
Francois's eyes darkened. "You would like to split up, then--?" he said, and Thomas blinked, opening his mouth but not getting any words out. "There are three options open to us," Francois went on. "We all remain here to follow the tunnel as best as we can--which would not be far at all, seeing as the manitous did a good job caving it in. Or we split up, and half of us stay here and half go on, and it would be doubtful if we would meet up again in any timely manner. Or we continue with the plan we were left with, and go on as if she is still with us. With luck, she will be following the same plan and we'll all head toward Wabun."
"But what if she can't reach Wabun because she's in TROUBLE?" Thomas retorted.
"You would want to wait around and find out?" Francois returned. "One thing I have learned about that girl is that if the Island is in danger, she will go to any length to help it. Even endanger her own life--in fact--this is always what she does first of all." He put a hand on his hip. "And so you would like to be the one to tell her, once this is all over, that it was your idea to stay and wait for her, while the Island was being threatened...? I can tell you already, I've faced my share of terrors, but that's one thing I would not want to face."
Silence filled the air. All eyes shifted toward Thomas; his face slowly reddened and he lowered his head a little, rubbing at his neck. "And you think we should just leave her behind?" he finally managed, though he sounded more frustrated than angry.
Francois finally stood down a little, and gestured toward the river. "I have a feeling," he said, "that those manitous didn't even touch her. Trust me, Monsieur, when I tell you that out of everybody to ever visit the Island, she's the one most likely to hold her own the longest. And she has the Huron with her, so she should be doubly safe. It's a pity about the little people...but I think they were the only casualty the manitous inflicted. There was a reason why they collapsed that tunnel. That's the way she went, and they don't want us following. And so we continue with the plan--we head east." He turned and started walking. "Because that's where she'll be going."
He disappeared through the trees, and the others started to slowly filter after him. Thomas remained where he was, clenching his fists and hating to leave the tunnel behind...but the longer that he stared at it, the more he could tell that he would never make it through, at least not in any timely fashion. He bit the inside of his mouth and racked his brain fruitlessly. Wasn't there some other way to get to her...?
He felt something slip around his hand and blinked, glancing down. Winter Born stood beside him, looking back up; her dark eyes met his and she chewed on her own lip.
"I think maybe...he's right," she said in a soft voice. "I have a feeling too...and I think she's okay." Her face lit up slightly and her grip on his hand tightened. "I know she's okay! And we'll find her in the east! Just like she planned it!"
Thomas stared at her for a long moment, his emotions warring against themselves. Finally he let out a defeated sigh and clasped Winter Born's hand in return; she started tugging, and they followed the others, though he couldn't keep himself from glancing back at the trampled tunnel before it faded out of sight, and his anxiety only grew.
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