Things seem just as dangerous in the east as they are back home...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 44: The Forsaken Path"
A HAND POKED out of the clumped grass, swatting aside a loose clump of earth and startling a chipmunk which went scuttling off among the rocks. A moment later a head popped out, red hair streaked with dirt and littered with leaves and tiny twigs; Charmian's face screwed up unpleasantly, and she spat out a few stray webs, before pulling herself out of the cramped end of the tunnel with a strained noise. She slipped and slid a bit down the slope the tunnel opened out on, before stopping herself and letting out a breath. She checked her pack to make sure it was all right while Walks-On-The-Shore squeezed out and tumbled a bit out of the tunnel himself. He landed against a jutting boulder and rubbed his head with a wince while Charmian ran her fingers through her hair and closed her pack again.
"Looks like everything made it," she muttered, and then peered gingerly upward, to take in their surroundings. She bit her lip.
The land opening up before them didn't look familiar in the least. The tunnel apparently rose up inside of a large hill, as it had been heading upward for some time, and now they found themselves overlooking a great valley choked with pine trees which faded off into the distance. The entire terrain was hilly and rocky, though not in the harsh way that Glooskap's land had been; the vegetation here was thick and almost overpowering, grasses and mosses clinging to the rounded, waterworn boulders and dampening the ruggedness of the scene just a bit. The grass further down the hill and in the valley itself was lush and green and rose almost waist high, and she could tell that merely walking would be a chore. There were no pathways to be seen; only now did she realize how she had taken such a simple thing for granted. The monotony of the pine trees was almost overbearing. She could almost envision a river down in the valley--it did look to have once had one--but all she could see was trees and rocks and grass. The slopes were such that she couldn't really make out where anything led to, and she'd never wished for a simple flat surface more in her life.
"I wish I knew how far east we are," she murmured, before standing up and reluctantly seeking a way down from the hill. This was easier said than done, seeing as the "hill" was practically a mountain, at least in her eyes. Even Petoskey with its bluffs overlooking the lake didn't have such hugely tall hills as this.
Walks-On-The-Shore grimaced and continued rubbing his head. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet as Charmian started walking. "Now you surely have a plan," he said, picking all of the errant pine needles from himself and putting them in his mouth.
Charmian shook her head. "I kind of hoped you might come up with one, but it looks like that was just too much to ask." She slowed her step and peered down the steep slope. "I don't like being here," she said aloud, and it was only when Walks-On-The-Shore cocked his head at her that she realized she'd said this out loud. She blushed and started walking again. "I don't know anything about this area!" she groused, clambering over a rock. "All I know is Michigan--and I'm betting this isn't Michigan. I don't even know Canada. All I ever saw in Canada was a mall!"
"I've seen some pretty good mauls myself," Walks-On-The-Shore said somewhat conversationally. He did a cartwheel and then put his face next to hers; she scowled but tried to ignore him. "What exactly is it you're looking for?"
"Wabun," Charmian growled.
He rolled his eyes and pulled away. "What I meant was, the means to get to Wabun...? You say you don't know this land. Well--ask away." He turned and started walking backwards.
Charmian frowned. "Huh...?" She trailed off and thought for a moment, then tilted her head. "Hold on...you mean you know this area?" When he just grasped his feathers and pulled on them she put a hand to her mouth thoughtfully. "That's right...Hurons. They used to live in the east before moving into Michigan. I read about that in the library." She gave him a challenging look. "All right. One thing I'd like to know is if you guys have manitous in this area. Because manitous might prove useful."
"If by manitous you mean manitous, then no, we don't have them here," Walks-On-The-Shore replied.
Charmian scowled again. "Then how the hell do you get anything done without any spirits?"
"I never said we have no spirits," Walks-On-The-Shore said, and started walking on his hands.
"But--!" She halted and glared at him. "You just said you don't have manitous!"
He nodded, upside-down. "That's right."
She reached up to pull at her hair. "BUT THEN YOU JUST SAID YOU HAD SPIRITS!!"
He stopped and waved his legs in the air. "We don't have manitous," he said at last. "Here, what we have are called okis."
Charmian blinked, then her mouth fell open. She got ready to yell at him but then her anger deflated and she let out her breath. "Okis...?" She rubbed at her suddenly aching head. "You mean...you have the equivalent of manitous, and they're called okis."
Walks-On-The-Shore finally righted himself and dusted a few stray strands of grass from his head. "See what happens when you ask the wrong question--?" he said, and now started hopping along on one foot.
"I wonder if they respond the same way that manitous do," Charmian said, fingering her necklace. "I might be able to talk to them, but I don't know how to address them here. That was a problem with manitous who weren't on the Island."
"The worst you can do is find out, right...?" Walks-On-The-Shore apparently fell, as he disappeared from sight with a crashing noise.
Charmian sighed and tucked the necklace inside her shirt. "I suppose." She cast a glance at the trees that began appearing along the invisible path that they followed. Things are going to be completely different here, she thought uneasily, and sighed, tugging on her pack straps and wishing that they'd at least gotten lost with a bit more help. Even Mani would serve well here. Even Kwemoo and Maang would serve well here...
A low grumble in the distance made her head pop up and she found herself staring at looming clouds which glittered in the dimming light. She watched a lightning bolt lance around inside them before another grumble followed, and found herself thinking about Kenu.
"Animiki," she murmured, and paused. "Thunderbirds...they travel. I wonder if we could get help from one of them? Kenu wanted to look for them, after all...do you have any idea how to talk to a..." She glanced at the side of the invisible path, then rolled her eyes and turned away again. "Never mind." She peered down into the darkening valley. "Crap...I think we're going to have to sleep down there."
She chewed her lip. IF we can sleep...!
"I'm going to head down toward the river valley," she called out. "Meet me down there whenever you're done doing your stuff. I'll see if I can call any mani--um--okis."
She picked up her pace, now wading through the lengthening grass and swatting outstretching pine branches aside. She glanced skyward every so often; the thunderstorm in the distance did seem to be drawing closer, though it was still quite far away, and she didn't even know how to get a Thunderbird's attention. Yell--? Flash Morse code at it? She remembered the flashlight in her pack and pondered this for a moment before sighing and shaking her head. "Going to have to come up with better ideas than that if I plan to make it for long," she murmured, and scanned the horizon as it rose around her. At least there didn't seem to be any people around. She had no clue how she would relate to them...
Night was beginning to fall, and the cloud cover growing ever heavier, by the time that she at last reached the treeline, and she slipped in among the pines with a shiver, rubbing at her arms. She peered up into the branches and slowed her step; every so often the sound of some sort of small animal startled her, and she realized that she missed Marten; at least he would probably know what to do. She also realized that she'd forgotten to ask Walks-On-The-Shore if they had Pukwudjininees and Mizauwabeekum here. Probably so...but what name would they go by...?
She cleared her throat and looked upwards. "Um...hello?" she called out, hating how the few tiny noises that had been coming immediately fell silent as soon as she spoke. "Um...okis?" she said, feeling stupid. "My name's...Charmian...and I'm from the west. Near the...really big lakes." She paused and fiddled with the zipper on her vest. "I'm looking for the East Wind...he's called Wabun...but maybe you guys have a different name for him? I guess it doesn't matter...but it would be nice if someone might help me along. I have references--a lot of manitous know me--but I don't know any okis just yet. Still, I thought it'd be nice to meet some of you...if you want...I guess."
She fell silent and listened. There was nothing but the far-off grumble of thunder; then a cricket started peeping. She waited a while longer before sighing and starting to walk again. "Maybe later, huh?" she called out. "When you trust me a little more. You'll know where to find me."
She resisted the urge to say, "Oki-dokey?" and kept walking. She fingered the little necklace which she'd pulled out from under her shirt again, and hated to admit that Walks-On-The-Shore had been right. She wished she had a better plan. Stepping into things unprepared had worked well enough on the Island; here, it was a whole new ballgame.
She glanced back over her shoulder to see if the Huron was coming yet, then turned back to the woods. It was fortunate that she did this at just this moment, else she would have missed what she spotted far off to her right then. She froze in her tracks and blinked, then squinted, staring off into the trees.
Something was glowing out there.
She felt a prickle of anxiety--had lightning struck and started a fire?--before realizing that the glow wasn't the color of flames. At least, not normal flames. It was cold and blue-white, and seemed to weave in and out among the trees, almost as if it were attached to some wandering animal. Charmian's eyes slowly widened. She'd seen something like that before.
"A fireball," she whispered. It worked its way through the trees and then into a grove, lowering and almost rolling along the ground, before rising and bobbing away again, casting a small halo around itself. Charmian's face lit up.
"Wabanos!" she exclaimed, and hurried after it, her hopes renewed.
She'd learned, during her last time on the Island, that wabanos could change their form into that of a fireball, and that they did this to travel at night. Stick-In-The-Dirt had started to tell her about Bearwalkers, or Makwamosa, wabanos who shifted between a fireball form and a bear's form. Here was a fireball floating along all on its own. And what had Shawondassee recently said about wabanos...?
It's almost like it's a sign! Charmian thought hopefully as she tried to find the wandering fireball. Just when we need a guide, that's what I find!
But...wasn't it a wabano the Mizauwabeekum warned us about...?
She slowed again and chewed her lip. Suddenly the idea of following the strange fireball around didn't seem like such a good one. Still...that wabano had been pretty far away...this couldn't be him, could it?
"I'm not even in Michigan anymore," she reminded herself. "Maybe they do things differently here!" She knew it was a stupid thought, but at the moment it was all that she had. With a small sigh she again tried locating where the ball of fire had wandered off to.
The forest grew thicker in parts, then thinner in others; she frowned and wound about in the direction that she could have sworn the ball had gone in, but all of the trees looked the same. A few times she could have sworn that she spotted it just ahead but whenever she reached it, it was gone. She began wondering whether she would even be able to find her way back out of the woods--she didn't even have a map, wasn't even sure what country she was in, much less state--when something latched onto her shoulder and she let out a bloodcurdling scream, before something clamped over her mouth and cut it off.
She bit down on a finger as hard as she could and heard a yelp, then was let go. She whirled around and punched her attacker in the gut--then blinked and sucked in a breath when she saw Walks-On-The-Shore doubling over before her. Instead of feeling remorseful, she immediately felt even more enraged, and clenched her fists and started barraging him with hissing whispers.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, TRYING TO KILL ME?!" she shrieked under her breath.
The Huron attempted standing upright, making an awful face. "Should I ask you the same?! What happened, did a Wendigo bite you--?!"
Charmian slashed her hands through the air. "I'm following something, stupid! Now that we've probably tipped off the whole forest, good luck with me FINDING it!!"
He wrinkled his nose. "You'll hardly blame me for you sounding like a dying bobcat whenever somebody tries to lend you a hand!"
"Go lend YOURSELF!" Charmian hissed, and started stomping through the woods again. "Now I bet I'll NEVER find that wabano!"
"Wabano...?" Pine needles crunched, then Walks-On-The-Shore frowned down at her. "You saw some sort of medicine man here?"
"I'm not sure what I saw," Charmian retorted. "Basically it was a fireball. I'm thinking, maybe at least it's a ticket out of here!"
He crossed his arms. "You do realize that things work differently, don't you--?"
"Duh," Charmian snapped, then slowed immediately and grabbed his arm. "Look!" She pointed ahead and they both saw something glowing and flickering in a hollow just beyond their sight. "I think that's it." She gave him a look. "I'm going to try to talk to it. Maybe if I give it some tobacco, or one of my other things, then we can at least get some directions. That can't be too much to ask, even of a wabano."
Walks-On-The-Shore shrugged. "You're the expert."
She fought down a scowl and started toward the hollow, craning her neck to try to better make it out. This part of the woods was so thick that barely any of the remaining daylight got through; when she slowed again she could hear a low grumble of thunder not too far away. The glow wavered, then began to fade; her heart shot into her throat and she started racing toward the hollow.
"Wait!" she yelled as she did so, tripping and nearly tumbling down into it. She stumbled and grabbed onto a sapling instead, swaying sideways before regaining her balance and finding herself staring into two large dark eyes set wide apart over a bulbous nose. She blinked, then the creature blinked.
Charmian took in a breath, then slowly let it out. The moose stared back at her with nostrils flaring, and one of its ears flicked. She gingerly looked it up and down; it had small antlers, but at least it seemed to be a relatively young moose, as it didn't stand too much taller than she was, at the shoulder. As they stared at each other it chewed a little and she saw the blades of grass sticking out of its mouth. It snorted.
Charmian's shoulders sank. "A moose," she said, and sighed. "Not what I was looking for." She glanced around the clearing, but the fireball was nowhere in sight; perhaps she'd seen lightning after all. She bit her lip and carefully examined the clearing, making sure to keep clear of the moose, though all that it did was watch her and flick its tail, chewing away. When she'd made a complete circle she halted before it and wrung her hands.
"I'm looking for somebody," she said. "Maybe you're a manitou--um--an oki, and can understand me? Maybe you know where the wabano went?"
The moose just continued chewing and staring.
Charmian let out her breath again and immediately felt stupid; she was, of course, attempting to converse with a large deer. "Never mind," she said, and started to turn away. "Maybe I'll have better luck out in the open."
She turned to face the little path--such as it was--out of the woods and found her eyes locked on yet another pair, only these ones were much smaller, surrounded by jet-black fur and a tan muzzle. They glinted and flared and all of the blood drained from Charmian's face when the bear opened its mouth and roared in her face, spittle flecking against her. With barely a noise she turned and bolted in the opposite direction, not quite able to suppress a panicked shriek. The moose turned and crashed off through the trees, its legs flailing every which way; Charmian twisted sideways and managed to fight her way back toward Walks-On-The-Shore, who now stood blinking at her in surprise as she barrelled toward him.
"BEAR!!" she screamed, and ran past him without a second thought. Though she did belatedly hope that he was sane enough to follow.
Crashing noises behind her told her that he was, and the two of them stumbled and dashed toward the valley; several times she tried to take different turns, but he always grabbed onto her arm and hauled her in what she was sure was the wrong direction; it was only after running along a bit further that she realized they were in fact going the right way after all. How had she gotten so messed up in this place--? She could see the lighter surroundings of the valley looming ahead, and picked up her pace, her fingers digging into Walks-On-The-Shore's--when something stepped out into their path, and the Huron practically screeched to a halt, Charmian running into his side.
The bear here was brown with a tan muzzle, but not much lesser in size--it stood on its hind legs and roared just as loudly as the first, which she could even now hear coming up behind them. Her eyes nearly fell from her head but Walks-On-The-Shore didn't bother to wait for her to recover herself; he turned and bolted left, dragging her with him, and the two of them scrambled through the grass, dodging trees and jumping over logs as the two bears turned and gave chase, snorting and bellowing all the way.
Charmian fought to catch her breath. "Th--they--j-j--just c-came--out of n-n-nowhere!!" she cried. "Are they w-w--"
"Who cares what they ARE?!" Walks-On-The-Shore exclaimed in a voice just as screechy as she imagined her own to be. "Just as long as WE aren't DINNER?!"
They started clambering up a tall hill, Charmian almost being dragged behind as her legs refused to keep up anymore; she bit back her tears when his fingers dug into her wrist hard enough to hurt and he yanked on her arm, a bite of pain flaring in her shoulder. They reached the top of the hill and started to crest it when Walks-On-The-Shore gasped and slammed his hand into her chest. Charmian's face went brilliant red and she opened her mouth to scream at him when she noticed it as well. Below them, in the hollow, was a third bear, this one reddish colored with a tan muzzle, and as soon as it saw them it growled and ambled toward the slope. The two of them stood frozen atop the hill, glancing to both sides at the three bears which started making their way up toward them.
Charmian whimpered and clung to Walks-On-The-Shore's arm.
He bit his lip and started looking at the hill they stood upon, then glanced at her. "All of the talk in town," he said, and she looked up. "Do you truly think I'm mad?"
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Huh--?"
Walks-On-The-Shore rolled his eyes and let out a gusty sigh. "Do you TRULY think I'm mad--? Crazy, insane, loose in the head, one paddle short a full canoe--?"
Charmian wrenched her arm away and bared her teeth at him. "For being stupid enough to ask that at such a stupid time, YES, I think you're nuts! What sort of JACKASS question is that--?!"
"Good," Walks-On-The-Shore said, and now let out an almost dainty sigh. "For a moment I was worried I had lost my touch!"
Charmian opened her mouth to ask him what that meant--when he grabbed onto her and hurled her at a half-gutted log lying atop the hill. She gawked and fell into it, rotten wood splintering around her; she had enough time to lift her head before he leapt up and straddled the log, jamming his foot against the ground and yelling, "Hi-yaah!" Then she told herself that yes, she fully believed he was insane. The log lurched and then started plummeting down the hill. Her scream trailed off behind them, the bear on the slope craning its neck to watch as they sailed past.
They went so fast that she couldn't even tell what exactly was happening, and could only guess; she opened her eyes just long enough to see a swath of gray sky flying past overhead, then shut them tight, not even wanting to know what was happening. She screamed between her clenched teeth and kept her hands balled against her chest, feeling the log rumbling and thunking beneath her.
It must have finally struck something, as it suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both of them with startled yells. She made the mistake of opening her eyes again and saw sky, then grass, then sky again--So this is what it feels like to fly through the air, she thought belatedly--and then grass came once more into view, and she gasped and at last thought to shut her eyes and let herself go loose. Her shoulder slammed into the ground and she winced, tumbling head over heels before landing with a thud. Another thud came just beside her and she opened her eyes, blinking the daze away; Walks-On-The-Shore made an awful face and rubbed at his neck. She saw blood on his arm, and blinked again, unable to tell if it was from his old wound, or whether he'd hurt himself again upon striking the ground.
She started to push herself up. "Are you--"
Walks-On-The-Shore's eyes went wide and he immediately threw himself atop her. She yelled in surprise, then felt a breeze waft over them; she twisted her head to the side to see the red bear snarling just a few feet away, its paw still raised. It started coming at them--thwack!--and a hunk of the broken log struck it on the muzzle, making it halt and snort, shaking its head. Walks-On-The-Shore hauled Charmian to her feet and shoved her. She managed to stumble a couple of steps before seeing the bear swing at him; it slashed through his shoulder and he grimaced, a mist of red sailing through the air and pelting against her clothes. Charmian's legs immediately turned to rubber and she could do nothing but keel over, feeling ready to be sick.
Walks-On-The-Shore whirled around and grabbed her arm, again pulling her up; his own face was unnaturally pale, and the two of them stumbled/ran through the tall grass, dodging a boulder and then running again. The bear snorted and bellowed from some distance behind them; Charmian glanced over her shoulder just once, but it was no longer following; instead it rubbed at its muzzle, snarling and trying to pull loose the splinters. Then it was gone, a stand of trees blocking it from view, and the two of them half-jogged, half-fell into the nearer end of the river valley, practically collapsing once they reached the bottom. Charmian's feet went out from under her and she did fall at last, all the breath leaving her lungs with a little puff; Walks-On-The-Shore gawked and then fell along with her, as he'd forgotten to let go of her arm. They both collapsed in the grass and she wheezed when he fell partly atop, partly across her, as if shielding her from whatever might come upon them from above. She blinked but all that she could see was sky.
"Shore--?" she managed to get out, twisting a bit and looking at him when he didn't move. She almost panicked when she saw the way that his eyes glazed over--but he was still breathing, and his fingers still dug into her wrist. Even as she stared at him his eyes started to flutter shut, and her own feelings--nausea, panic, confusion--came roaring back, making her own head spin. The blood oozing from his shoulder didn't help any, and it wasn't long before she recognized the sensation of starting to pass out. She tried fighting against it, then gave in, not knowing what else to do. Neither of them was in any shape to keep going right now. What would she do, drag him along on her own...?
She didn't even get to consider this option, before her mind hazed over and her own eyes slowly shut, her muscles going loose. The two of them lay sprawled at the bottom of the valley, but the bears didn't come; after a while a fine rain began to pelt against them, dampening the grass, and the thunder rumbled, but they didn't stir from their spots. The clouds lowered and the rain and evening set in steady, but the two of them were by then too far gone to even notice.
The night eventually fell, the sun setting at some invisible spot to the west, far behind the clouds; the thunder boomed, but no other noise was to be heard aside from the rain. Charmian and Walks-On-The-Shore lay soaking and unmoving, as nothing else around them moved but the branches on the trees...though after the longest time, something else did move, several vague shapes approaching them from the shadows, slowing as they neared, then gathering around them and staring down at the two pathetic forms sprawled in the grass. They stood still for a while, before lifting their heads to look at each other; then they reached down and grasped at the two, turning and starting to drag them off through the valley, a flash of lightning just barely illuminating the knives and tomahawks at their waists.
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