|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 98: The Little Ice Age"
The Bad Little Fish
NO AMOUNT OF snorting, stomping, digging, and bellowing was opening up the tunnel--and the mitchi manitou wasn't blessed with the ability to change himself into a stream of water, like that other piddling manitou. He knew this, quite well, but it still didn't keep him from dashing his antlers at the now-collapsed opening in a rage, gouging out great hunks of earth and tossing them every which way. Then, for good measure, when he was done he lifted his leg over the remains of the tunnel and stared toward the trees with a foul look on his face.
Just barely escaped! BARELY! If I do not stop that winter-haired girl he will rip me apart!
He finished with his business and went stomping down the little hill, steaming. His muzzle still hurt from the last time Mishosha had whipped it. He wrinkled it now and kicked at a pebble. Even the wolves were gone. The wolves who had taken a good bite out of his shoulder, and he hadn't even been able to get in one gash in return. His eyes glowed as he picked his way through the swamp. When he came across the other mitchi manitous and they whistled at him questioningly, he growled and swung his antlers at the nearest one, making it jump back. There had to be a way to find them.
He halted at the edge of the woods and whistled loudly to draw their attention so they gathered around him, ears flicking. Will have to find out which way they went and how! he snapped. If Winter-Haired One uses her medicine, our hides will be tanned!
Noticed something odd, one of the others said rather meekly; when the lead manitou glared at it, it gestured with its antlers, vaguely eastward. Odd smell--that way.
Smell--? the lead manitou barked.
A nod. Lynx smell...and other. It paused thoughtfully. Dog smell.
Lynx and dog...? The lead manitou frowned, then his ears flicked upward. That's right...they'd had a Mishupishu with them. Just a little one, nothing to fear much, but a Lynx just the same. He glanced back at the hill covered in white flowers. Lynxes couldn't travel but through water. There was no water here...
He blinked. Dog! When the others looked at him he snorted and started stomping eastward. Earlier, had a big dog-demon-thing with them! When leaving--dog is gone! So is Lynx! He whistled and tossed his head, gesturing at them to follow. Look for water!
Understanding, the other manitous fanned out and started searching. It wasn't long before the stream was located, and they gathered around it, murmuring to themselves as their leader paced along the bank, still scowling. The stream, like the tunnel on the hill, led south-north. He knew how certain kinds of sympathetic medicine worked, and had seen the little white flowers covering the hill. It was the same principle behind the other tunnel, the one he'd left intact, just in case they needed to use it. The one leading to the strange Tree so far away. The little white flowers had reminded him of snow, as well.
He snorted and pawed at the water. Will be a tunnel down there somewhere, he muttered. But although he was part waterling, he wasn't as gifted with such skills as the manitou accompanying the other group, and so couldn't figure out how to make it down there without a lot of difficulty. He started growling to himself.
Have gone to see the Wintermaker...? one of the other manitous asked. It jumped back when the lead manitou snarled at it.
Of course! Should just let them GO to him and get their skins scoured off with ice--or eaten by Wendigoes--or SOMETHING! he said testily.
The other manitous peered at him, then their hackles prickled and they started lowering their heads. The lead manitou blinked at them, frowned, then felt the difference in the air, and his own fur prickled. He hastened to duck his head to the ground, practically bending down onto his forelegs, when three shapes appeared from the woods, ambling their way.
The giant black bear halted not far from the stream, bending its head down to snuffle at the water. Did I hear you correctly...? its voice asked. That you were planning to simply let them go, and to let the Wintermaker deal with them himself...?
The mitchi manitou started groveling, even though he hated it.
The bear snorted and stared at him with little glittering eyes. And what is it that you've been told about the Wintermaker? Namely, that he is not a manitou we can trust to do our job for us. You know as well as anyone that if he even learns that someone else has anything at stake, he is likely to sabotage any efforts they make. He does not take sides. He breaks them. It turned its head to look at the other bear, which was smaller and brownish colored. How many times, do you think, do we have to clarify these things to a stupid little manitou? Don't they ever learn...?
Apparently not, the second bear growled in a woman's voice. She stepped toward the mitchi manitous; the lesser ones shrank back, scraping their antlers across the ground as they did so, but the lead one held his place. He did grimace and shift from hoof to hoof somewhat anxiously, however; he still had old scars from those claws. The bear halted before him and her eyes glittered just like those of the first.
You already know we hardly have the time and resources to follow you every single step of the way, she said in a too-pleasant voice. I suppose you're going to need guidance--? She glanced over her shoulder at the third one who had accompanied them. Perhaps you can prove a bit more useful yet again...?
The moose standing behind them blinked, then actually glanced to the side. Me--?
The smaller bear snorted. You ARE the only other one here, aren't you? she snapped.
Don't dismiss him as a fool just yet, the bigger bear interrupted. He continued staring at the mitchi manitou. Somewhere, among all those scrolls of yours...surely you have something useful in case of water...?
Water--? Oh! The moose shook its head a bit abruptly, and then started glowing. The others held their places until it was gone...and a young man shot up from the ground, patting at his numerous dangling scrolls and pouches. "I--I think maybe I do," he said hastily, biting his lip as he searched. He started pulling scrolls open and peering at their contents before letting them fall again. "'Blood'...no...'hair'...no...'rock'...no..." He frowned and pulled open a small torn one near the bottom of the set. "'Lakes, streams, and rivers'...here it is!" He struggled to untie it from the rest and held it up, holding it open. "A spell for command over different avenues of travel over water..." He frowned. "What do I do with this...?"
Simple. The black bear nodded toward the stream. You follow them.
"Me--?" The young man blinked, then paled a little.
The bear looked at the mitchi manitou again. And him.
Me--? the mitchi manitou exclaimed without thinking, before gasping and ducking his head again, biting down a scowl.
You are the one who allowed them to escape, the she-bear growled, her claws gouging into the earth. It's fitting that YOU follow them first, and find an appropriate way through!
"What...what about me?" the young man asked, sounding confused.
Use that silly spell of yours, the black bear said, and figure out the location of this tunnel. And then the two of YOU will be the first to go through it.
There was a pause; the mitchi manitou knew that they were both thinking the same thing--Why us?--yet neither of them dared say it aloud, or even directly think it. Of course, he said instead, barely able to raise his thoughts above a mutter, and turned to the water. The young man bit his lip but followed, keeping the scroll open and halting beside him as they stood on the streambank; the other manitous watched curiously. Their leader wanted nothing more than to swing his antlers at them and make them do all the hard work for a change.
He saw the young man's hands shaking as he straightened the scroll, and suppressed a sneer. "Stream," he said, and coughed. He ran his finger along the pictures. "'Provide safe passage over water--whether great lake, or roaring river, or meandering stream.'"
That's it? the manitou asked when he rolled up the scroll, frowning. THAT piddling thing is it--?
I suggest you start paying attention to your surroundings, the black bear said, and they both stood straight, noticing now that a small whirlpool was forming in the midst of the stream. Their eyes widened; the young man peered at his scroll as if he'd never seen it before, then tore it into little pieces and tossed it in the water. He glanced back at the bears and bit his lip.
"So...we just...go in? And follow them?" He paused. "What do we do when we find them...?"
Leave that up to us, the black bear replied. Your only task is to find them, and keep an eye on them. He turned his head to look at the mitchi manitou, giving him a pointed look. And keep the girl from using her powers...which you have so far failed to do. Miserably.
The mitchi manitou ground his teeth. He hated how the young man peered at him from the corner of his eye, yet said nothing; they stepped down the bank and toward the water, hesitating, then stepped down into it. The whirlpool tugged at their legs and they hesitated again. Then jumped and flinched when the she-bear bellowed.
STOP BEING COWARDS AND GO ON!
The young man leapt into the whirlpool first of all, plugging his nose and vanishing from sight. The mitchi manitou ground his teeth hard enough to hurt before following, hating that he was the second to go. He heard the black bear speak as he was tugged forward into the swirl of the water.
If that girl uses those powers of hers one more time--consider that one more slashmark across your nose. Every mistake you make will be plain for everyone to see if you keep this up.
The mitchi manitou allowed himself a spiteful glare within the safety of the whirlpool, before allowing it to suck him down into the stream, and along with the current, heading northward.
* * * * *
The whirlpool of course attracted attention at first, though it took only a moment or two for the several Nebanaubae to realize that it wasn't natural, thus of little interest to them, and they turned and drifted away.
One of them remained behind, peering at it curiously. Its fins swished at the water as it watched the swirls, so unnatural to such a shallow stream...then it happened to glance up, and saw something even more interesting overhead.
Some little bits of something were hitting the surface of the water, and drifting northward.
The Nebanaubae blinked, then peered around itself, seeing if anyone else was about--for if its find was spotted by one of the others, there was no doubt that they would get there first. Seeing no one, it swam up and gingerly plucked a few of the little objects down into the water, sinking as it looked them over.
They appeared to be bits of bark. With little scratches and sketches on them. The Nebanaubae's eyes lit up on seeing its prize, and a wide smile came to its face when it spotted part of the drawing of a lake, a bit of the drawing of a river. Water symbols. Whatever this had been, it had to do with water, which made it even more prizeworthy. A free gift, simply tossed into the water as if not wanted anymore. It clasped the bits of bark in its hands and did a twirl in the water, turning to head back in the direction of the others.
Something plunged down into the water and grabbed the Nebanaubae by the neck. It managed to let out a startled squeal before being dragged out of the stream with a splash, its tail waving over the water. It blinked and gasped, gills dilating and arms flailing.
Mishosha gave the Nebanaubae such a glare that it started shaking. "Well," he said, and his face twisted into an ugly sneer. "Look who's come back."
A rustling noise came from beside him and a woman stepped up to stand on the bank. She gave the quivering Nebanaubae the same look.
"Is this that one you struck that deal with?" she inquired.
Mishosha's mouth twitched. "That would be the one. I do remember that I told him to head back to his own people...and now here he is...in the very same place as that girl and her friends. Now why would that be?" He tilted his head in mock curiosity. "How is it that you just happen to show up here...?"
The Nebanaubae had to squirm and struggle just to speak, its voice coming out paper thin. "I...I was only looking around! Not following or anything! I didn't know they were here! I just..."
"An awful lot of excuses," the woman sneered.
"A great mouthful of excuses from a tiny fish," Mishosha added. His grip on its neck tightened and it started wheezing, grasping onto his hand and futilely trying to pry itself loose. "Normally bears like to eat fish...but this one is rather small...so I say we toss it back and wait until it gets bigger."
With this, he swung the Nebanaubae through the air and it let out another squeal before its body slammed into the stream, striking some nearby rocks. It could suddenly breathe again, but this mattered little, seeing as its ribs cracked and the breath whooshed out of its lungs in a burst of bubbles. It spun about in the water a few times--though not of its own volition--before slowing and beginning to drift with the current, slowly sinking toward the bottom. A thin trail of little bubbles followed it for a moment before dying away. Mishosha and the woman stood on the bank, staring after it until it vanished from sight; then the woman snorted and crossed her arms.
"Rather too easy on the little runt," she groused. "I think he rather would have made a good dinner."
Mishosha rolled his eyes but smirked again. "You would say something like that!" He began glowing, and the woman followed suit; a moment later, nothing but two bears stood there. They glanced toward the remaining mitchi manitous; noticing their attention, the manitous lowered their heads and quickly drifted away into the woods. The black bear turned to the she-bear and let out another snort.
Just leave them to do the simple work. It's obvious where they're going. As soon as they're tracked down, then we can take care of the hard part...seeing as those two are hardly equipped.
Again, I think you're a bit too easy on them, the she-bear replied. THEY would have made an excellent dinner, also!
The black bear let out a noise that was probably a laugh, and turned and started lumbering northward. Come along! We may as well get started. I'd like to see the look on that girl's face as soon as she realizes just how helpful that little fish was after all.
Before we eat her? the she-bear said, and with that they both let out bear-laughs and disappeared among the trees.
Deeper and further along in the stream, the Nebanaubae swirled head over fins, being carried along by the unusual northward current, which grew faster the wider that the stream grew. It at last opened its eyes, just a little, to peer at its surroundings; it managed to tilt itself a little bit and slow its progress, gasping and looking blearily at the submerged banks. It opened its mouth to taste the water.
It's obvious where they're going. As soon as they're tracked down, then we can take care of the hard part...
Nebanaubae had excellent hearing, even telepathically; the Bearwalkers' words hadn't been entirely missed. The Nebanaubae's gills flared as soon as it tasted what it was looking for.
Something that shouldn't have been here--two things that shouldn't have been here--had recently been here. It tilted itself a bit more, twisting around to end up in the strongest part of the current, and let itself be carried away downstream. As it went, it sank further and further, not bothering to check its progress this time; its eyes drifted shut and it went limp, the water dragging it along. The stream grew to almost the size of a river, deep and dark and swift...but as the Nebanaubae was swept along, two small shapes appeared far ahead of it, wiggling along as they swam. When the Nebanaubae's presence was noticed, they slowed down, peered back, and then turned and swam toward it. They poked at it gently with their beaks, swirled around it, shared curious looks, and then stationed themselves on both sides of it and escorted it toward the opening in the bank which had been located ahead.
* * * * *
Charmian bent down over the unconscious Nebanaubae, her eyes wide. "X!" she exclaimed, glancing up at the demon who still stood in the water. "What happened down there--?"
X'aaru lifted one hand and shook it, obviously fighting the urge to shake himself off like a dog. He shifted from foot to foot instead. "I don't know! We found it following along after us! Just like that! Like it just--fell in, or something!"
"It's in such poor shape!" Mishupishu, out further in the water, exclaimed. "Can you help it--?"
Charmian looked the Nebanaubae over. She bit her lip when she saw the gash to its fish tail; she pressed her fingers to it and they came back coated with a thin red film. Her throat tightened.
"I...I don't know," she said. "It looks like it ran into something." She looked into its face, frowned, then leaned closer. She took in a sharp breath.
"I know this one!" she said, disbelief in her voice.
Winter Born and Moon Wolf both came closer, leaning down over it; Kwemoo and Maang paddled around in the cold water, tails wiggling. "You can tell them apart?" Moon Wolf asked.
Charmian shook her head. "Not really, but...I made a bargain with this one back at the river! After Barrington blew up that Lynx!"
Moon Wolf frowned. "Bargain...? What did you bargain for?"
"Information...though it wasn't very useful. I think I got ripped off." Her frown grew. "But that was so far away...how come it followed us here? After what happened on Gitchi-Gami I rather got the impression that they were trying to steer clear of us!" She looked to X'aaru and Mishupishu again. "How did you guys find it?"
"Oh--actually it was Kwemoo and Maang who found it," X'aaru replied. "They said it came floating along in the current, way under the stream!"
"It looked hurt so we thought we should bring it along," Mishupishu added. He fell silent, and they both peered at each other, then back at Charmian. X'aaru's tail twitched and one of the Lynx's spines bobbed a little.
Charmian frowned. "What else?" she prompted.
They both opened their mouths. "It smells funny," they said in unison.
"I thought it smelled like you," Mishupishu said.
"And I thought it smelled like you after you got back from that funny island," X'aaru added.
Charmian blinked. "Huh--? Funny island--?"
They both nodded. "The wabano's island," they said.
Charmian had to shake her head; they spoke so alike that it was starting to freak her out. "Then I guess it really is the Nebanaubae I talked with! But why would it be in the same stream as you guys...and hurt like this...?" She cupped its face and tilted its head a bit this way and that. "Hello...? Wake up? Please...?"
She gently tapped its cheek with her fingers. After a moment or so the Nebanaubae's eyes slowly opened a sliver, and it took in a small raspy breath. Charmian pushed herself onto her heels and pulled it back toward the water; she started shivering when she stepped in it, it was so cold, but bit down the feeling and splashed the Nebanaubae a bit in the face. That seemed to revive it slightly, and it started blinking and looking around itself sluggishly. It saw her face and its eyes grew a little, gills flaring.
"Hey!" Charmian exclaimed softly. "Are you okay? What happened?"
The Nebanaubae stared at her for a moment or two, then let out a weak breath. It took in another one and placed its hand against the water; Charmian did the same while the others watched, curious.
I am sorry, it said in a small voice. Charmian bit her lip at how weak it sounded. I thought it was just a tiny bargain...not important...but...
"Huh?" Charmian shook her head. "I'm worried about you! How did this happen? Are you going to be okay?"
Its gills continued dilating and closing. Its eyes grew glassy as it stared up at her, and she could have sworn that she saw its lip tremble. It drew one fist up to its breast, looking almost ready to cry.
I'm sorry, it echoed itself, even more weakly than before, but I did tell you the truth...a little of it. It offered its hand. Found this...maybe...
Charmian took its hand, and felt something fall into her palm when its fingers went loose. She frowned when she opened her hand and saw its contents. The others crowded close to look at it.
"Birchbark...?" Charmian murmured, staring at the tiny fragments.
Moon Wolf reached down and picked one up. He turned it this way and that, looking at it closely. "Birchbark scrolls," he mused.
"Scrolls--?" Charmian's eyes widened. "Like the one Little Wind gave me--?" she blurted out.
Moon Wolf paused to examine the bit for a moment before his eyes grew dark. "Exactly like it." He turned it so she could see the fragment of drawing on it. "The writing is in exactly the same style as the other one."
Charmian took in a breath. "Little Wind is nearby--?" She had to keep herself from shooting to her feet lest she dump the Nebanaubae in the shallow water. "Then--that means Mishosha is nearby--!"
She found herself talking to air. Winter Born and the others turned to watch Moon Wolf as he splashed into the water and toward Mishupishu's tail. The Lynx drew it forward, and a little whirlpool formed; Charmian blinked when Moon Wolf halted before this and started kicking at it as if it were a bad dog. A moment later, he was hurling fireballs down into the water, which steamed and sizzled and splashed all over. Charmian did shoot to her feet now, clasping the Nebanaubae in her arms--it was unusually light--and wading toward him.
"Moon Wolf!!" She ran around his side, watching as he demolished the tunnel opening; she gave him a half-furious, half-bewildered glare. "Are you CRAZY? That's the only way BACK! The manitou WRECKED the other one--!!"
He halted in his motions and glared at her. "They aren't FOLLOWING us through that one--they're following us through THIS one!" He hurled another fireball, making her cringe. "That Nebanaubae LED them right here!"
Charmian started shaking her head. "No it didn't! It didn't say that!"
"There was nobody behind it!" X'aaru protested. "We even looked!"
"It came to WARN us!" Charmian sloshed through the water and halted again. "Don't you see--? It showed me the bark...it didn't have to...it obviously endangered itself to tell us this!" She squeezed it. "Somebody hurt it and so it came to warn us! If it did lead them here it was on accident, I just know it!"
Moon Wolf turned to give her another glare. He hesitated, however, looking at the Nebanaubae...then the anger faded from his face and his shoulders sank slightly, water dripping from his feathers and clothing. Charmian let out her breath. "You believe me, right...?" she asked. "I bet it can even tell us more once we get it back to the others..."
In response he reached out toward the Nebanaubae's head. "Do not bother," he said in an oddly subdued voice, and Charmian blinked, then looked down. The Nebanaubae still stared up at her, but its eyes had gone closed; her brow furrowed and she jiggled it a bit in her arms, receiving no response. She looked at its gills, but they weren't moving. Her eyes started welling up.
"Hey," she whispered, and shook it a bit more. Its head rolled slightly to lean against her arm, but other than that it did nothing. Her vision of it went blurry just as Moon Wolf took hold of the little creature and took it from her. She rubbed her eyes and watched him turn and walk out into the water several paces, until it was up to his waist; he held the Nebanaubae out and let it go so that it drifted gently to the bottom of the bay. He sloshed back toward them, shivering slightly and rubbing at his arms.
Charmian couldn't stop rubbing her eyes, taking a step or two back toward land. "He killed it," she said, and the others looked at her. "It!" She lifted her head and her lip curled back. "And the Pukwudjininees, and the Mizauwabeekum, and who knows who else--he keeps killing ALL of them just because of us!" She clenched her fists. "What sort of PERSON does something like this? When we're right here to fight him?"
Moon Wolf stared at her for a moment. "Now perhaps you understand what sort of person you're dealing with," he said, still in that same odd quiet voice, and her own voice disappeared. "You understand now why I left the wabanos? Because this is what they can do. They get much more power than they could ever wish for--but the price is never worth it. I was one of the lucky ones. I saw what the price ended up being. Many never even see this far. They see only themselves and not what they do to others. Perhaps now you understand why your approach will not work here?"
"My approach--?" Charmian blurted out.
"You seem to think that you can make friends out of all of your enemies," Moon Wolf said. "As much as it's served you in the past, I doubt this will work for you here. You're dealing with a completely different kind of being. And you are going to have to find a completely different way to deal with him. Because, even though you may look at him and see a person like yourself, he will look at you and see absolutely nothing."
Charmian blinked. She opened her mouth, then promptly forgot what she'd been about to say. Her eyes squinched shut as a splinter of pain gouged through her head; she clasped onto her skull and started sinking to the shore.
X'aaru was fully out of the water immediately, he and Winter Born surging toward her. "Charmian--!"
As her knee hit the pebbles she felt Moon Wolf's hand on her arm. "Charmian--? What is it?" His voice had taken on a panicked edge.
"M...my...head!" Charmian cried, her fingers digging in. She ground her teeth. "It's...killing...me!!"
Moon Wolf's grip on her arm tightened, and then she felt him pulling her to her feet; smaller hands--Winter Born's--grasped her other arm. "We have to get her back to the others," Moon Wolf ordered. "And get out of here as quickly as possible. I don't know how--but I believe that he's behind this. The sooner we leave here, the better."
"She can ride on my back!" X'aaru exclaimed, and she was placed atop him. She managed to dig her fingers into his fur, but the demon didn't start flying; instead, he began trotting quickly along the shore, and she could hear the gravel crunching as the others followed. Splashing noises in the water told her that Mishupishu accompanied them as well. She felt a small hand on her own.
"It'll be okay, Charmian," Winter Born said. "We'll take care of you! Promise!"
I'm usually the one making the promises, Charmian thought she said, but the voice was only in her head. She gritted her teeth and tried not to think too much as they made their way back to the others.
Please REVIEW if you rate.
Please DO NOT RATE if you won't review.
This item is NOT looking for literary critique. I already understand spelling/grammar, and any style choices I make are my own. Likewise, I am NOT seeking publication, so suggestions on how to make this publishable are not being sought.
This item IS looking for people who are simply interested in reading, especially in long/multipart stories, and who like to comment frequently. My primary intent is to entertain others, so if you read this and find it entertaining, please let me know so and let me know why.
If in the course of enjoying the story you do find something that you feel could use improvement, feel free to bring it up. Just know that that's not my primary purpose in posting this here.
If you have any questions about the story or anything within it, feel free to ask.
I do hope you enjoy! :)