Charmian and Walks-On-The-Shore flee underground, with some unusual help...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
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The Underground Railroad
THE TREES STARTED rustling and then crashing, the blue dots coming rapidly forward. Charmian gasped and dragged Winter Born to her feet; they managed to take a step back before the forest burst open and several large black manitous came out, blaring loud whistles at the air. Charmian gawked at the sight of them--they were huge, much bigger even than Mani, and their antlers spread out wide enough to carry a horse in their span. Their fur was as black as jet, gleaming in the light; when they crashed into the little clearing, their eyes flashed electric blue, and their nostrils flared widely. Charmian met eye to eye with the biggest one of the four or so, and it gave her a very strange look which she would have been tempted to call a leer, had she been in any mind for describing things.
She staggered backwards instead, shoving Winter Born behind her; Walks-On-The-Shore took up a stance beside her and they stared at the group of manitous as it edged closer. The lead one--he must have been at least a head taller than Mani--lifted his head and snorted, his breath blasting against Charmian's face and making her flinch.
Little Island girl? he said, and Charmian blinked. You are out of your element, little girl. Should never have talked with that Swan and come here. You wish to go back home the hard way--?
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Huh--?" she blurted out--this manitou was making absolutely no sense! "What are you--"
The manitou lowered his antlers and charged at her. She gripped Winter Born's arm, then Walks-On-The-Shore slammed into her side, shoving them both in the opposite direction. She twisted her head around quickly enough to see the manitou's wide antler gouge at the Huron's arm; he grimaced, then fell atop them when they collapsed in a messy pile. The manitou halted in his charge and turned around to aim at them again; their heads popped up, then they jumped to their feet and dashed somewhat sideways, having to avoid the big manitou as well as the smaller ones still standing nearby.
"What the hell did we do?!" Charmian wailed. "Are they really mitchi manitous--?"
"They're real, at least," Walks-On-The-Shore said, wincing and clasping a hand to his bleeding arm. Charmian opened her mouth to speak, but the big manitou tossed his head and whistled, catching their attention.
Brave but stupid! Should have stayed on your Island, stupid girls. He lowered his head before Charmian could retort, and came running.
Charmian gawked, then shoved Winter Born as hard as she could toward the opening into the little clearing. Winter Born fell over, wincing when she hit her knee; she glanced over her shoulder at Charmian, lip quivering. "Charmian--?"
"GO!" Charmian yelled, waving at her as if shooing a very big, very frightening fly. "Go get the others! Tell them--"
She cut herself off with a gasp; the big manitou just missed ramming her, then she had to dodge one of the other ones when it decided to join in the fray. Winter Born scrambled to her feet and took off; Charmian wanted to follow, more to make sure that she was safe than to get away, but by now the other manitous were starting to belatedly surround them, and all that they could do was look from one to another, uneasily.
"Don't suppose you've ever fought manitous," she said to Walks-On-The-Shore.
"Don't suppose you've ever spent the night in a hollow tree and then gotten a kink in your neck," he said in response.
Charmian clenched her fists. "As tempting as that is, I think we have bigger things to worry about! Do you know how to kick or bite, at least--?"
He grabbed her arm and yanked her aside. One of the smaller manitous missed her, then snorted and came running back. "HAVE AN IDEA!" Walks-On-The-Shore yelled, and with that went running, dragging Charmian along with him. She tried not to stumble as they sprinted, the crashing and whistling of the other manitous following close behind.
Charmian gritted her teeth. "HOPE THIS ISN'T THAT IDEA!!"
He threw his free hand up in the air. "HAVE A BETTER IDEA?!"
She hated to admit even to herself that she didn't. And so barrelling through the woods willy-nilly was apparently the best they could do. She leapt over a large root, glanced at the trees closing in on both sides, then a real idea struck her. "I think I have one!" She slowed her pace and grabbed onto a low tree branch, then turned and headed sideways into the woods. Walks-On-The-Shore must have understood her idea, for he did the same thing on his side; when the manitous came within sight, she waited until they were practically on top of them before letting her branch fly. The big manitou skidded to a halt, blinked, then grunted when the branch slammed into his face. Walks-On-The-Shore's branch hit one of the smaller manitous on the shoulder and it stumbled and nearly fell. They started running again, now that they'd stunned the lead manitou momentarily, though she didn't know for how long; it didn't seem like nearly long enough when she at last heard him snorting and bellowing and charging after them again. She chewed her lip furiously but no more ideas came to mind.
Should I try to call up a manitou--? she thought, then nixed the idea; the dominant manitous here were obvious, and either they were the ones whose power she'd end up calling, or they might block any lesser manitous from helping her. She glanced from left to right in a panic, then up into the trees; then she hurriedly dug the little face necklace out of her pocket and hung it around her neck. She cupped a hand to her mouth, not even knowing if this idea would work.
"HEY!! NEBANAUBAE! NEBANAUBAE!!"
Walks-On-The-Shore turned his head to give her what was quite possibly the most sensible look he'd ever given her, and it told her that he thought she must be nuts. Still, she kept up her screaming--"THEY'RE GOING TO CHANGE US INTO FISH!!"--even as they veered left to try to throw off the manitous.
The lead manitou snorted some distance behind her. Are you TRULY that stupid--?
She darted him a venomous glare before turning back to the woods. "NEBANAUBAE! THEY LOOK LIKE MANITOUS! ALL OVER THE PLACE!!"
I just hope this far east, it's the same as where we CAME from...!
She stumbled on a root and nearly tripped. The manitou snorted again as if with laughter, then--a loud whistle cut through the air, then a startled noise, and she glanced back in time to see the manitou stumbling himself. His long legs tangled against each other and he fell forward with such a crash that the ground shook; Charmian thought she spotted something that looked like a bola wrapped around his ankles. Little chittering noises started in the treetops, and she spotted the tiny figures of the Pukwudjininees appearing everywhere, shaking their spears and making their popping noises. She didn't bother looking at them longer. She put on a fresh burst of speed to try to get away from them, and Walks-On-The-Shore followed. They ran as deep into the forest as they dared before bothering to slow down at all, coming to a staggering halt and gasping for breath. The trees pressed in densely around them and blotted out almost all of the sunlight; Charmian stood and shakily ran a hand across her brow, panting hard.
"Not such a bad idea," Walks-On-The-Shore managed to say after a moment, "but I could have done better, had I had time to think."
"Whatever." Charmian rubbed at an ache in her back and scanned the trail they'd left behind; she could hear the dim crashing noises of the manitous trying to break free, and the chittering pops of the Pukwudjininees, but they were far away by now. "This just reminded me of the last time we ran into these guys," she said with a faint frown. "They were talking about a group of bad manitous themselves. They said they were heading north though...maybe there's more than one group?" Her frown grew. "But why would they be after us? And why..."
"Little Island girl"? Why would they KNOW about us--? We must be hundreds of miles away from there! How could they possibly know we're from an Island...?
The branches above her rustled, and she gasped and hopped back, grabbing up a rock. She let out her breath when a Pukwudjininee scrambled down from the tree and landed directly in front of them, waving its spear and chittering. She blinked, then adjusted the necklace and bent down to listen to it better. It talked for a moment before she could begin to understand it, and she gestured at it to slow its rapid chatter. "Could you say that again--? I didn't get it the first time."
Mitchi manitous, the Pukwudjininee said, and waved its spear. Like a great infestation of blackflies they fill the forest, and like accursed blackflies they remain until chased off! Once was the forest mighty and beautiful and untainted by such creatures, but long gone are such halcyon days, and now all poor creatures live beneath their cruel burden. As cruel as the winds in the wintertime!
Charmian made a face just trying to follow its overly dramatic speech. "You mean they haven't always been here--?" When it shook its head and opened its mouth to talk she hurriedly pressed on. "When have they started moving through? Where are they going? And why would they attack us?"
The little person gesticulated wildly. Like the stealth of the predator seeking its prey they came, unannounced, unnoticed, even by the people of the forest! One by one they came, then two by two, until great leering flocks of them descended, like the evillest of birds from the sky. By land they came though, among the trees, striking fear into all! Northward they go, why none of us know, like a malevolent flock on their return from the sunny south. Why they attack, we cannot say, as we do not know you, nor what your issue may be with such beasts, who are wholly unwelcome in our woods. It waved its spear and squeaked. Evil, hateful, horrid flock!
Charmian rubbed her head, wishing that their speeches were as tiny as they were. "They know about us somehow," she said, and the Pukwudjininee cocked its head curiously. "They knew we came from an Island! How would they know where we're from? We haven't run into any mitchi manitous yet, and we're heading east!"
The Pukwudjininee frowned a little and scratched its head. East...? It pursed its lips. Perhaps the mitchi manitous alter their course and their plan of darkness! Eastward! To the great sunny land! To--
"How can they know about places they've never even been?" Charmian asked desperately.
"You may as well ask a raccoon to carve you a smoking pipe," Walks-On-The-Shore said.
The Pukwudjininee tapped its chin thoughtfully for a moment or two, then snapped its fingers and squeaked. The mitchi manitous cover the land like a great swarm of--
"Blackflies," Charmian cut in, making it blink. She fought down her frustration. "I get it. Go on."
It coughed and continued, obviously a bit flustered. --Like a great swarm of blackflies...where was I?...oh. Like gnats, like hideous mosquitoes! Perhaps like unto a plague of insects they speak as well--? Not a buzz, but an awful chilling whistle, with which they speak to one another, and keep each other apprised--
"Different sets of manitous," Charmian said, then her eyes widened. "Wait a minute--different creatures entirely!" She waved her hand at Walks-On-The-Shore, though he didn't seem overly interested in anything. "The Mishupishus! I bet that's how they're keeping on top of everything! The Mishupishus learn of something, and they tell it to the manitous..." She turned back to the Pukwudjininee and crouched down to face it. "Think! Have you heard about somebody commanding these manitous--?"
The Pukwudjininee's eyes went rounder than they already were, and it bobbed its head and squeaked. Why--yes! A one who commands them all! Great, dark, and evil, wielder of bad medicine, doer of bad things, maker of--
"Is his name Megissogwun?" Charmian asked, expecting the answer.
The Pukwudjininee shook its head, startling her. No--not Megissogwun! From whence do you draw such an odd name--? This is not he who commands the mitchi manitous! He who spins darkness, and brings fear, and--
"Not Megissogwun...?" Charmian echoed, growing utterly confused now. "But...who would it be if not him--?" She started chewing on her thumbnail. "Who ELSE has something against us--? We only just GOT here and already somebody's got it in for us--?"
A new crashing noise made them all jump and look back in the direction of the commotion. The blood fled Charmian's face; the Pukwudjininee hurriedly ran at her and tapped its spear against her foot, drawing her attention. You must flee this place at once! Or else face the unending wrath of he who commands the dark manitous! It lowered its spear to point at the base of the nearest tree. That hole!! Right there! Git!!
Charmian blinked, then decided not to bother. "Where are we even going?!" she yelled as she scrambled toward the opening under the roots, the Pukwudjininee hopping atop the main root and waving its spear.
The little people who live beneath the earth! it exclaimed. We live among the trees and air, while they live among the roots and soil! When the trees are not safe, we take to the ground. When the ground is not safe-- It cut itself off and started hopping up and down, screeching. Just get going already!! Does it really matter where you end up?!
Charmian stuck her feet in the hole and was surprised when she discovered how wide the tunnel actually was. "We'd BETTER not end up even WORSE off!" she threatened. "And what the heck are YOU going to be doing--?"
It waved, staring ahead toward the crashing bellowing noises rapidly approaching. I will fend it off, valiantly, to my last breath if need be! I will smite it down and play baggitiway with its skull-- It hopped up and down again, waving the spear. I'll smash its damned head in if I have to!!
Charmian decided that it was better to just get going rather than speak with it further. She pushed herself into the tunnel, gasping and almost fighting, then making herself go along with it when she practically zoomed down into it; she heard Walks-On-The-Shore above her, and shut her eyes, hoping that at least she wouldn't break her neck. It took her a moment to realize that she wasn't falling or sliding after all, but rather, she was being propelled, and she at last felt scores of tiny hands passing her along like a person surfing over a mosh pit. She blinked in surprise and twisted her neck to glance at the wall; it was practically black by now, but she did see countless tiny yellow dots glowing around them, glittering back at her.
She shut her eyes again and ground her teeth, fighting a whimper. Just a tunnel. Just a tunnel, she started saying to herself, and hoped that it wouldn't go on like this too much longer.
She couldn't believe how many little people there must be under the earth like this, nudging them along; were they working in relay teams, or running ahead and taking up new positions--? She was too flustered to think about it too much, and let out a yell of surprise when something hit her in the head. "Watch it!!" she shouted back, assuming that it must have been Walks-On-The-Shore; she heard the little people start talking to each other, and blinked a few times in the darkness. Their eyes were all that she could see.
"Where are we going--?" she finally thought to ask them. Their speech made no sense at first; she fiddled with her necklace and at last the noises began to fade into English, and she was surprised to learn that they all seemed to be talking--or rather jabbering--at once.
--East--east--keep going east--
--Gotta keep moving--
--Really really fast--
--Keep going east--
"Um--? Guys--?" Charmian glanced from side to side. "Where--AAGH!!" She suddenly pitched over forward and landed on her face in a small opening, and sputtered out a mouthful of dust; she yelped when she was pelted by a barrage of pebbles, then shot upward, hitting her head on the low ceiling and then collapsing again with a grimace. Walks-On-The-Shore promptly slid into the room and fell on his face as well.
Charmian whirled around and clenched her fists. "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!" Her voice rang loud in her ears and she suddenly realized just how small this space was, and immediately fell silent, peering upward uneasily. She held up her hand and opened her mouth to call for fire, but something pressed against her mouth and she nearly yelled again.
Something sparked in front of her, and the room lit up; her eyes focused on a piece of flint held in a tiny hand. Then moved to the side to take in the tiny creature standing in front of her. Her eyes grew and she noticed the scores more tiny creatures surrounding them on all sides, even coming out of the walls and ceiling. She felt the blood drain from her face.
They were about the same size as the Pukwudjininees, with the same basic build, and the same large dark eyes with the little yellow pupils, but that was about it. Instead of being furry, their bodies were dark and glinting, and she started when she realized that it looked like they were all carved out of stone and minerals. They didn't even possess the regular soft curves that most creatures had; they were all angles, like someone had hurriedly chopped them out of a hunk of rock and left them unfinished and unpolished. They didn't carry spears like the Pukwudjininees. They all seemed to be carrying tiny tomahawks also made of stone, and they waved these and started talking.
Charmian winced, shoving Walks-On-The-Shore's hand away from her mouth and waving her hands. "HOLD ON! One at a time! This thing isn't a party line, for cripes' sakes!" She pointed at one of the little stone people, its body black striped with red, and gestured it forward. "You! Um--striped...rock thingie. Where am I? Who are you guys?"
The little stone person held up its tomahawk. You are friend of the forest people, yes--? Are we mistaken--?
Charmian shook her head. "No, you're not--if you mean the Pukwudjininees--we know them! They shuttled us down here! Who the hell are you guys?!"
We are the stoneling people, the Mizauwabeekum, the little stone person answered. You have never heard of us--?
Charmian's face screwed up. "Can't say as I have, sorry! Do you mind me asking what the heck the plan here happens to be?"
The little stone people pointed at the wall ahead of her. Keep going east--? they suggested.
Charmian stared at them for a moment, then rubbed her neck. "Do you guys know where to find Wabun?" she asked a bit hesitantly.
Wabun is in the east, several of them said in unison. Don't you wish to go this way?
Charmian sighed. "Well--"
Walks-On-The-Shore clambered to crouch beside her, rubbing at his head and grimacing. "Do they know the name of a good medicine man--?" he said; she shoved him so that he fell over, and frowned at the little people.
"That doesn't help me much," she muttered, but sighed and shook her head when they opened their mouths to speak. "Yes, we have to go east--far east--we have to find Wabun and he's probably so far in the east that I have no idea! I was hoping somebody could help, but those manitous attacked us--"
The wabano controls them, the black-and-red stone person said, and that shut Charmian up immediately. She blinked at it, then her brow slowly furrowed and she leaned forward, the Mizauwabeekum taking a hesitant step back.
"Wabano--?" she echoed.
The little stone person frowned a bit, then nodded. Everyone knows this, that a wabano commands the black manitous to do his bidding. He is not from here. He comes from far away, and the manitous follow him--this is what we know.
"Not from here." Charmian sat back and stared into space. "That means...either we just crossed paths somehow...or he's...following us?" She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "It makes sense...if he's sending his manitous to try to stop us...he's a wabano...so...we must be on the right path!" Her face lit up and she sat up straighter--having to stop herself just short of hitting her head again. "THAT has to be why they're attacking us! We are going the right way!" She bent toward the lead Mizauwabeekum. "You! Um--little--stone guy. This wabano. Do you know his name?"
The stoneling nodded. His name is Mishosha, and he commands all these manitous. There are other wabanos who serve him. He came not long ago, from the north, and brought unrest with him. It pointed again at the wall. You wish to keep heading east? We have a way to travel quickly, if you wish to use it.
The Mizauwabeekum nodded. Strings. When Charmian frowned it pointed, then scuttled toward the wall and gestured into the tunnel opening up on this side. See--?
Strings...? Charmian thought skeptically, but peeped into the tunnel just the same. Her skepticism died immediately as soon as she saw what lined the tunnel, and her face lit up anew.
"Not strings!" she blurted out excitedly. She pulled her head out and beamed at the stone person. "WEBS! You guys had WEAVERS down here before!" She looked into the tunnel with renewed hope. "So this takes us east? Far east?"
The Mizauwabeekum nodded. Not quite to the great salty water, but far. Very far; we do not know well those who live in that land. But if you're looking for Wabun, he may be somewhere near there. It is as far east as a Mizauwabeekum has ever ventured.
Charmian put her hand in the tunnel, then chewed her lip anxiously; she pulled back out and looked at the little stone people. "Um...actually...we were with some others," she said after a moment, earning a few puzzled looks. "A bunch of others. We got split up...I don't know where they are. Either the manitous are after them now, or they're looking for us. They won't know where we went..."
The black-and-red Mizauwabeekum shook its little tomahawk. We will speak with the forest people, and they will speak with the good manitous, and we will try to find them and send them east after you, it offered.
Charmian felt her throat hurt, and managed a smile, nodding. "Do you guys take payment--?" When they tilted their heads in puzzlement she started digging in her pocket. "The Pukwudjininees didn't take payment. Do you guys? Do you like tobacco--?"
Tobacco...? the lead Mizauwabeekum said doubtfully, and they started peering at each other as if she had said something quite odd. Charmian's enthusiasm faltered; she glanced at Walks-On-The-Shore, but all that he did was cross his eyes at her. She sighed, wishing that she'd at least been stuck with someone a bit more helpful. She looked the little stone people over and then pulled her pack down to poke around in it.
"I really don't know what little rock people like..." she muttered, and pulled out a little velvet bag. She reluctantly opened it and pulled out part of its contents--something she'd brought along in case she had to deal with Ocryx--and held it down toward them. The Mizauwabeekum peered curiously at the dangling necklace with its glittering geode. "Would you take this?"
The little stone people's eyes grew and they gathered around the necklace, ohh'ing and ahh'ing. Charmian let the necklace fall and they picked it up and looked it over in great interest as she gestured at Walks-On-The-Shore and started for the tunnel with the glowing webs. "C'mon," she said, "before they realize it's not even a semiprecious stone."
"And your grand plan for heading eastward--?" he inquired as they crawled into the tunnel.
She bit her lip. "I don't have one! But at least I can admit it. We just continue as if the others are doing the same. Go east, and hope they catch up. In the meantime we keep looking for Wabun." She glared at him over her shoulder. "You'd BETTER not be looking at anything you shouldn't be! I still remember what you did the last time I was on the Island!"
Walks-On-The-Shore rolled his eyes and let out a gusty sigh. "Is it so bad to see someone in the skin that the Great Spirit gave them--?" He winced when a rock hit his head, and Charmian started crawling a little faster.
"Just keep your eyes AND your hands to yourself, and that'll be the last thing I hit you with!" She turned to face ahead again. "I wish I'd asked how long this thing goes on..."
"What do you have against crawling--?!" Charmian let out a cry when the Huron crowded up beside her and shoved her against the side of the tunnel; she started struggling against him, but all that he did was push his way past her in the crowded space, then take up the lead. She steamed silently before dusting soil from herself and following; she hated being in second place, but at least he wouldn't be staring at her backside anymore. "All the best creatures crawl!" he added. "Turtles--mice--snakes--leeches--I think actually that leeches just suck, and cling, but when you think of it, clinging is just an alternate form of crawling, and--"
"Oh SHUT UP!" Charmian yelled, and her voice bounced so loudly off of the walls that she made a face. "GOD I hope this tunnel isn't nearly as long as the last one--though with YOU, it's bound to be longer than ANYTHING!" she muttered, and her hand tangled in one of the Weaver's webs, as if to prove her point.
* * * * *
The little Mizauwabeekum went running back along the tunnel, gasping and panting for breath. They chattered as they ran, about the strange flesh person and her flesh companion--they'd never seen some so close before--and wondered aloud what their purpose could be in seeking out the East Wind. Most of all they chattered about what they were going to tell the Pukwudjininees; they repeated their mission over and over, as if afraid of forgetting it, and even passed it along as they ran, as if running a relay.
Find forest people--tell forest manitous--tell flesh people--go east--find the other two there--
A bit of daylight shone from above, and they slowed their approach, their chatter growing quieter but by no means dying down in the least. The little black-and-red Mizauwabeekum crawled up the tunnel first, popping out of the ground and tilting its head back to address the Pukwudjininee who had been standing atop the large root when they'd left.
It blinked, then frowned. Then felt the first stirrings of unease enter its breast.
The Pukwudjininee was lying atop the root now, its little arms and legs sprawled out around it. Perplexed, the Mizauwabeekum crept out and climbed up to look it over. Three or four of them gathered around it and murmured to each other. The Pukwudjininee didn't move; it lay facedown where it was, its spear broken, and they poked at it a little bit, cheeping at it to get up. It didn't move. As soon as they realized that it wasn't breathing, they tensed and slowly stepped back, climbing back down the root.
A great blasting snort from overhead startled them, and they all glanced up with wide eyes. They only grew wider at the sight of the massive shape with the giant antlers and glinting blue eyes which glared back down at them; its eyes narrowed, and the Mizauwabeekum had just enough time to take in a breath each, before it swept its antlers at them and demolished the little stone people with barely one blow.
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