|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 80: Parting Words"
THE GAPING OPENING of the Grand Portal loomed further and further away in the distance. Several of those in the group still cast it looks over their shoulders now and then, as they'd had to pass it some time ago. They walked close to the shore, where the trees were thinner, yet stuck to land, as the mist over Lake Superior grew thicker and thicker, obscuring their view of Grand Island, huge and oddly menacing. Nowhere near as menacing, however, as the other island that should appear sometime soon. At least, this was what Charmian thought, as they picked their way across tiny streams and cascades of water, clambering over tumbled rocks and weaving between stands of pine.
She was grateful for the now near-constant presence of the pine manitous, who occasionally drifted into view, whistled, and then vanished again as silently as clouds; she felt somewhat comforted by them, and preferred their friendliness to the curt dismissal she'd gotten from the cave manitous so far back. They seemed quite curious of the newcomers, eyeing them every time they appeared, vanishing, and then reappearing to look at them again. Several of them drifted after Mani in particular; he walked in an oddly stiff-legged way, his hackles bristling, as if he didn't like their attention, though the two okis who trailed after Singing Cedars were just as curious in return. Whenever any of them started to wander away from the right path, the manitous would appear in greater numbers as if outlining the way, and then would fade away again as soon as the correct route was resumed. Charmian sighed and rubbed at her eyes, wishing for sleep.
"It didn't look this far from back there," Winter Born murmured, then yawned.
"The lake can play tricks on the eyes, ma chère," Bouchard replied; his voice came out hollow, as he, along with several other voyageurs, was carrying one of the large canoes; Charmian couldn't figure out how they managed to keep going without running into any trees. It was like they had x-ray vision or something. "Things that are afar can look near, and things that are near--"
"Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear," Charmian recited, earning several odd looks. She peered over her shoulder through the sparse trees and sighed when she caught a good glimpse of the Portal. "Wish I had a camera. Where exactly are we headed?"
Francois pointed. "Mosquito Beach isn't too far this way. From here there's a good view of the island. I suspect that if this 'Mishosha' has his own island in the area as they claim, it could appear between here and Grand Island. It should be easily spotted, in any case."
"Islands that disappear," Lieutenant Barrington grumbled under his breath. "Fan-bloody-tastic."
"Wish I could've eaten just a tiny drumstick of that Thunderbird," Augwak moaned; then, "Ouch!!" Charmian glanced boredly over her shoulder again to see that both Kenu and Marten had hit him at once, and he was covering his head with one arm and wincing. She turned back, peering again at the water. Every once in a while a long black shape emerged from the lake, snorted, then vanished again. At least Mishupishu appeared to be handling himself well; X'aaru trotted alongside him on the shore, keeping the wounded Lynx company. She looked around to see how the others were biding their time. Stick-In-The-Dirt was scribbling something in his journal with a piece of charcoal that Francois had given him. Singing Cedars was stopping every so often to stare at plants, appearing to take mental notes before moving on. Kwemoo and Maang were asleep in Mani's antlers, heads tucked under their wings; Peepaukawiss was trying to straighten his feathers, Niskigwun was checking his spear tip, and every so often Remy would hurry forward, tug on one of Winter Born's braids, and then fall back again, earning a grumble every time. Charmian rubbed her eyes.
"Any further word from Chakenapok and what's-her-name?" Thomas questioned; he walked at her side, hands in his pockets, though he did look a little warm himself.
"Nothing yet," Charmian admitted. "Though I do have this weird feeling...like she's closer." She looked once more at the lake. "She hasn't said anything yet, though," she murmured with worry, and sighed.
"Perhaps this is a good thing," Thomas suggested.
"Can't really tell," Charmian yawned. "Maybe no news is good news!" She glanced back at Kenu and bit her lip. "Though I do wonder how he's holding up," she said, thinking of how witnessing Nigankwam's death must have affected him. Every so often he would sniffle and rub at his watering eyes, but he would just as often shake himself out of it and start carrying himself rather arrogantly again, evidently putting on a brave face. She thought that was sweet, yet sad as well.
"I hope we can find the rest of his tribe," she sighed.
"First things first," Thomas said. "I suspect it might be quite a while before anything goes back to normal!"
They made camp not far from the shore as the sun began to set, and Charmian couldn't help but creep out of the woods to peer at the lake. The mist had burned off during the day, and it looked as if the fog that Moon Wolf had promised might not make it after all. She knew that they had to locate the floating island, but still, she was grateful for the tiny reprieve. As soon as they noticed how clear the air was, they moved their camp to the shore and sat down under the boughs of the pines, Winter Born and Marten running around along the terraced stone beach and splashing each other. Kenu sat haughtily on dry land for a while, but Charmian, who decided to join the others in the water, saw how his resolve seemed to waver now and then; finally, Marten appeared beside him and dumped a makuk of water atop his head. Kenu blinked and goggled in disbelief, then shoved the Mikumwesu into the water. A moment later he was splashing the others just as assiduously. Mishupishu swam into the little bay, and Winter Born clambered atop him, seeking shelter between his horns. X'aaru bowled Remy over with a splash and started bounding in giant circles, sending out waves that nearly knocked Charmian and Kenu over; then Kenu climbed up Mishupishu's neck and shoved Winter Born off. She fell into the lake with a splash, and Charmian commenced tossing handfuls of mucky sand at her. Winter Born shrieked and hurled it right back, then gasped and hurried out of the way; Charmian screamed when Thomas grabbed hold of her from behind and carried her out where it got deeper, then dropped her so she vanished from sight. Winter Born, Remy, Marten, and Kenu all started laughing; several of the others on the shore smiled as well. Charmian's head shot up from the lake and she sputtered, then hurled a hunk of seaweed at Thomas's head. He ducked and it smacked right into Singing Cedars, who had stepped down onto the shore. Charmian sucked in a gasp and covered her mouth, eyes going wide.
Singing Cedars stood where he'd stopped, the green dripping plants still dangling off his head; he very deliberately pulled them loose with a messy sucking sound. The blackest look imaginable darkened his face and he started to scowl.
Smack. Charmian sputtered again, seaweed trailing down her face and getting in her eyes. The others screamed with laughter. She pulled the seaweed off and tossed it into the lake, then started sloshing toward the shore, teeth gritted--but Thomas started splashing her, and Singing Cedars was already stooping to dig up gouts of sand and hurl it at her. Then Mishupishu flicked his tail and a wave knocked each of them over, sweeping them almost to the other side of the little bay, and everyone on the shore started laughing as well.
Niskigwun stood where it was relatively dry and watched as he leaned on his spear. He couldn't help but smile faintly to himself as he watched the ridiculous actions in the water, even Mani and the two loons joining in now as Peepaukawiss shouted and hooted and tossed pebbles into the water from a rocky overhang; he would never subject himself to such silly behavior, but it was still amusing to watch. He heard the others chattering as they readied the camp for the night, and started to turn back to see what he might be able to do, when the sight of something off to his right, at the opposite side of the bay, caught his eye, and he halted, peering at it more closely.
There was a rocky overhang here as well, similar to the one off to his left where Puka stood; a figure was perched atop this one too. Niskigwun frowned a little when he made out the hunched form. Pakwa was busily ransacking a hapless voyageur's pack in the camp behind him, so the shape could be none other than Augwak. He was huddled over as GeeBees typically tended to do, his shoulders hunched up and his eyes fixed on the lake. He seemed pensive, somehow. Niskigwun was ready to write it off as homesickness or hunger when he happened to peer out over the water and see just what it was that the GeeBee was staring at.
Mishupishu was circling the bay, Winter Born, Remy, Kenu, and Marten atop his back; the others sloshed along after them, trying to catch up and pull the others down into the water without getting splashed too much themselves, with only minimal success. Charmian was the last in the line, gasping and laughing as she tagged along, occasionally throwing a handful of water at Thomas's head...and it was she who Augwak was staring at.
Niskigwun frowned, brow furrowing. He couldn't believe that the GeeBee actually looked somewhat sad, in a way, almost like he wanted to play right along with them. Somehow he could tell that that wasn't what was on his mind. And so what...?
Augwak suddenly tensed, then turned to look at him. He blinked as soon as he caught the Michinimakinong staring at him, and his eyes went wide. Then an ugly scowl came to his face and he turned around, storming off of the ledge and back into the camp, out of Niskigwun's sight. The noise and laughter in the bay continued unhindered, and after a moment or two Niskigwun finally turned and headed into the camp as well, just as he'd planned to do.
It had to have been the sunset, he told himself. Because for just a moment he could have sworn that the GeeBee was blushing.
* * * * *
The waves shushed softly against the rock shore as everyone slept under the pines. Several of the pine manitous had even settled down around the camp as if to watch over it, so Charmian rested easily, knowing that nothing could sneak up on them with the manitous and Moon Wolf around; he had set up another barrier, just in case the wabanos returned, though Charmian doubted that they would. They hadn't run into anything suspicious since the death of the last Lynx further east along the shore.
She found her thoughts wandering easily now that they were here, and wondered if Chakenapok's dream connection was even needed anymore. She knew she was dreaming the entire time that she found herself climbing up a neverending mountain just to try to find Shawondassee, and then swimming around beneath a gigantic waterfall while trying to keep the fire that Wabun had given her from going out; and so when these and a few other, lesser dreams finally faded away, and she found herself staring at something glowing in the clearing, she wasn't too surprised or startled.
Her eyes shifted from left to right first of all; the clearing looked the same as the one she'd fallen asleep in with the others, but on a second glance, a few minor details had shifted, and she could tell that she was still dreaming. The main difference was that the Red Swan was standing between the two great pines overlooking the shore, her hands clasped and her eyes wide.
As soon as she noticed Charmian's attention her face lit up--literally, seeing as the rest of her was already glowing. "You made it here," she exclaimed softly. "I can feel you so close now! I don't even need any help!"
Charmian slowly pushed herself up. "Then you are on the island," she murmured. "Mishosha's island."
The Red Swan lowered her head a little as if ashamed. "I did not wish to tell you so much," she admitted. "I know I said I wished for you to come...but the thought of endangering any of you brings me a bad feeling. You've all gone to so much trouble--I would hate for him to cause more!"
"He's already causing us trouble," Charmian said. "It has to do with a lot more than just you." She nudged her pack behind herself. "So that's where we'll find you--? Beneath his island? Is there anything I should look for in particular?"
The Red Swan bit her lip. "I'm not certain that you should seek me so hastily," she said. "There are more important things to deal with first..."
"Does he know that we're coming for you?" Charmian asked.
The woman in red furrowed her brow a little. "I...I'm not certain." She fiddled her fingers a bit. "He's given no sign...but it would be best if you assume he does. He finds things out so quickly...he always seems to know when to be somewhere..."
"I kind of figured that much," Charmian said, rolling her eyes. "Well...we're going to be there to deal with him, soon enough. Is there anything you can tell me about his island? Just so we can be prepared?"
The Red Swan nodded earnestly. "Oh, yes! It's smaller than the Island you come from--not very big at all. But it's strange in the same way...sometimes it seems bigger than it is. It hides things, and then reveals them when it sees fit. It does what it can to frustrate and confuse anyone who visits it unannounced."
"Sounds familiar," Charmian said.
"And just like your Island, it wanders with the fog. It's nothing but rock and pine forest, all over. Mishosha has his home there. Among the trees. But make no mistake. There are no friendly manitous there. Only those who serve him. Even the island itself serves him. They say he--" She cut herself off with a sharp breath, staring off into space. Charmian waited for a moment before frowning and pushing herself forward a bit.
"Red Swan?" she asked. "What is it?"
The Red Swan stared for a moment, then peered back at her. Her fingers crept toward each other and started fiddling again. "He...he knows you are coming," she said, simply...and her image faded away, so that Charmian found herself staring between the trees and out at the lake, at a hazy cloudbank from which something suddenly emerged, a hunk of stone and weeds and trees appearing as if out of nowhere. It moved toward the shore as if to come sliding up onto land to run her over.
Charmian gasped and sat up, blinking awake. She had to twist her head around to locate the lake, and she rolled herself over to get a better look; a fire or two still burned in the camp, and in their light she could see a thick haze over the water, just like in her dream. She stared at it for a moment, then clambered to her feet, knocking against her pack as she did so; it fell over with a soft thud and one of her trade items fell out with a clink.
The pine manitous lifted their heads and whistled as if in question. Mani and the okis blinked themselves awake immediately, and a split second later the big manitou was at her side, fur bristling.
Red Land One--? Something in the water?
"Not sure yet," Charmian whispered, taking a few creeping steps forward. She stared at the fog until her eyes hurt and she could've sworn that she saw the way that the fog swirled in patterns. She heard a bit of movement, and a moment later Thomas joined her, yawning and rubbing his eyes, and Moon Wolf appeared on her other side. For a while they all stared at the fog in silence.
Charmian squinted and then focused on something tall and dark. "Is it just me, or..."
Thomas shook his head. "I see it, too."
They watched a bit longer and finally Charmian began walking toward the lake, taking tentative steps; the closer she moved, the better she could see the tops of pine trees protruding from the haze, the rest of them nearly invisible. She thought that she could hear water lapping against a distant shore, but wasn't certain. Faint noises came as the rest of the camp awoke, everyone stifling yawns and creeping forward to get a better look. The manitous lined the shore, fur bristling. One of them looked at Mani.
Mani nudged Charmian's shoulder. Say this is fire-throwing one's island, he murmured.
Charmian nodded. "I kind of thought so." She stood up straight and looked over her shoulder at the others. "Well...we did say we would head out, didn't we--?"
"It just so suddenly shows up, just like that?" Lieutenant Barrington asked. "What makes you think it isn't a trap?"
"They said it moved in the fog," Singing Cedars protested. "When else would it show up?"
"No. He's right," Charmian said. "Mishosha knows we're coming." That resulted in silence for a brief moment, then fidgeting; Bouchard and the voyageurs seemed nervous now, and she regretted getting them involved when they were merely trying to make a living. "So how do we get out there safely?"
"Well...this fog is still pretty thick," Thomas mused. "Why not use it as a cover?"
"It could lift at any time," Stick-In-The-Dirt argued.
"Perhaps if you sail around the island and head at it from the other side," Singing Cedars suggested.
"Flight would probably be the best tactic," Niskigwun retorted. "Which means only a few of us could make it there!"
"Awfully convenient," Thomas groused, and they started arguing quietly. Charmian stood gnawing on her lip for a moment or two, before tightening her fists and taking a breath.
"Enough!" she whispered sharply; the discussion ceased and everyone looked at her. "He knows we're coming," she said, her voice cracking a little. "So it doesn't matter how we approach. Any way, he'll still see us." She paused. "I think we should just take the easiest route," she stated. "Head right out to it. No hiding, no sneaking. Just go."
Everyone stared at her for a moment as if she were nuts. "Are you serious?" Barrington asked, at which Thomas gave him a look.
"Need you even ask?" he said under his breath.
Stick-In-The-Dirt took a step forward, wringing his hands. "Charmian...are you certain this is the best idea...?"
She lifted a shoulder. "No matter how hard we try he'll still see us coming. At least if we head right out there, then maybe he'll take us seriously. He'll see that we're not hiding, and he'll know that we mean business. At least we won't come across as cowards."
Another uncomfortable pause. "Well," Barrington said, crossing his arms, "she finally makes some sense."
"This is a foolish idea," Singing Cedars muttered.
"No," Moon Wolf said, and Charmian blinked, then turned to look at him in surprise. He stared at the fog, frowning; had she really just heard him say what she thought he'd said? "He is a wabano," he said, "and this means he is bloated full of himself. The only way to approach such a person is on his own level. If you sneak to the island, you are beneath him and not worth his time. He showed his island for a reason."
Holy crap, Charmian thought. He's actually agreeing with me for once...? "If this is the case, then who's going out there?" Thomas asked. "I assume it won't be all of us..."
"I think it'd be best if just a few of us went," Charmian said. "Not putting all the eggs in one basket, so to speak." She peered at them. "I'm going to have to go...obviously..."
Mani whistled. Will not be left behind, he insisted, giving her a look when she met his eyes. She didn't bother objecting, knowing it would be useless.
Thomas started to step forward, but Moon Wolf put out a hand and held him back. Thomas blinked and furrowed his brow at him, frowning; Charmian did the same, but Moon Wolf gave her a look as plain as Mani's had been.
"Just as you said," he said. "Too many of us will tell him that we are too wary. It would be best for the party to be as small as possible." He glanced at Charmian and Mani, then back at the others. He gestured; Charmian turned her head, then her eyes grew when she saw Winter Born peering from side to side and then lifting a finger to press it to her chest questioningly. When Moon Wolf nodded she bit her lip but stepped forward, stopping a little behind Charmian and digging her toes into the sand.
Charmian turned back to Moon Wolf. "Are you nuts--?" she hissed. "She's just a kid!! Why not Francois or somebody--?"
"I know how to paddle a canoe just as well," Moon Wolf said. "The manitou comes only because he'll be too much trouble to leave behind, and he can protect us. She comes because this is what you promised the Sky Mother you would do. She can hardly learn if you insist on leaving her behind at every step."
Charmian's face went bright red and she felt like everyone was staring at her. She bit her tongue so as not to say something she knew she would regret, and avoided looking at Winter Born; she realized that she'd just called her a kid out loud, and immediately felt ashamed. Sure, she was just a kid, but how could she have said that aloud...? What if she gets in trouble, or hurt? she thought instead, glaring at Moon Wolf. Black Elk Horn will kill me! And I can't even stand to think of what Silver Eagle Feather would do!
I already told you that protecting her is the least of your worries, Moon Wolf said back.
"AHEM!" Thomas exclaimed, crossing his arms. "Out-loud talking for the REST of us regular blokes would be nice!"
"It's okay," Winter Born said in a small voice. "I don't have to go..."
"No," Charmian forced herself to say, "it's all right." She looked back at her. "Just...keep behind me," she said, trying to hide the anxiety from her voice. "And stay nearby, and do what I say! Okay? Otherwise..."
Winter Born nodded quickly, but Charmian could see her eyes light up, and had to suppress a sigh. "I promise!" she vowed. "Everything you say!"
"So, just the four of you--?" Thomas said, glancing at each of them with a frown. "You're sure that's enough?"
"I doubt he'll try anything just yet..." Charmian started to say, but had to cut herself off with a wince; she really had nothing on which to base that, going on what he'd tried already. Moon Wolf, however, spoke up again before anyone could protest.
"This much I expect to be true. I feel he'll wish to judge us for himself, in person, first off. But once he has done this...there is no telling what he will do." He looked at Charmian again, so intently that she ducked her head. "And then you will have to watch everything you do."
Charmian nodded, just to get it over with. "Well--let's do it, then, before he starts getting antsy," she said. She turned back to Francois. "Do you think you guys could pull out one of the canoes--?"
Francois tensed as if to turn around and get one of them, then paused. He looked at the lake and frowned, then glanced at her.
"I somehow feel that won't be necessary, ma chère," he said; then, when she gave him a puzzled look, he pointed. "It seems a ride has already been provided."
"Huh?" Charmian asked, and turned once more to the lake, everyone else following suit. Her eyes widened when something pale came drifting out of the fog, and they only widened even further when she at last made out what it was.
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