The Animiki surely have the Lynxes beaten, haven't they...?
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 78: Gitchi-Gami"
"TAKE A CLOSER look," Charmian said, and pointed skyward. "I think that's Grandfather Nigankwam right there!"
They all looked. The cloudbank advanced over Lake Superior dark and rumbling, rolling forward like dust rolling over a plain, lighting up here and there with flashes of lightning which didn't emerge from the clouds. Something flickered in the nearest section of the bank, and Charmian stared upward in awe when a glowing yellow eye appeared, then the shape of a beak, and the shape of a wing. Lieutenant Barrington's own eyes grew and she could tell that he saw it as well. They all stood and watched as the advancing clouds boomed and began shifting into the gigantic forms of the Thunderbirds.
Charmian couldn't quite believe it. She'd seen one of the Animiki in their bird form up in the clouds, when visiting with Nigankwam--and she'd seen Kenu in that shape plenty enough--yet this was something entirely unexpected. Instead of birds, the Thunderbirds seemed now to be almost birds made of cloud, their forms shifting and changing as they moved, one part of a wing breaking off here and joining another Animiki there. She tried to focus on what she assumed was Nigankwam's face, and while it shifted continuously, his beak growing short and then oddly long, nearly breaking apart and then forming again, the bright yellow of his eyes told her it was really him. They flashed, then he opened his beak and a BOOM filled the air, making the ground quake.
Kenu hopped up and down, waving. "Hooray! Grandfather Nigankwam!" He pointed almost accusingly at the Lynxes out in the lake. "There they are! Kill them all, Grandfather!!"
The yellow eyes shifted a little and Charmian could have sworn that the Animiki was looking right at them. She shivered a little--even in this strange shape, he seemed disapproving--then he turned his head to face the lake, and opened his beak. A horrific CRACK split the air, and lightning bolts hurled down at the lake surface. They struck the water near the furthest Mishupishu and it hissed and plunged under and out of sight. The others bristled and coiled, their spines flaring wildly and tails slapping the surface of the lake.
Charmian rubbed her arms; the temperature had dropped abruptly as the humidity broke, and the eerie sight of the clouds shaped like giant birds gave her an additional chill. "Are they sure they brought enough reinforcements...?" she murmured uneasily as the lake started to churn up, waves lapping and then splashing against the shore.
Kenu turned to her and made a huffing noise. "Believe me, pathetic tiny human!" he exclaimed, and pointed at the clouds. "Grandfather didn't even have to bring ONE other Animiki with him! He ALONE is more than enough to fight off these piddling creatures!" He whirled back to the lake. "GET 'EM, GRANDFATHER!!"
Charmian ground her teeth. "He really doesn't need to call me 'pathetic' or 'insignificant' or something every damn time..."
"I think this is an Animiki thing," Niskigwun admitted. He lowered his spear and looked at her. "I rather believe it would be best for us to retreat somewhat. The Animiki are excellent fighters...but sometimes a bit negligent. It is likely that when they strike, they will not stop to make certain the way is clear of pathetic creatures like us!"
Charmian blushed a little but nodded. "Agreed!" She grasped Kenu's arm, as he wasn't making any move to retreat, and hauled him after her, the little Animiki protesting the entire way. Once they'd dropped down behind a nearby fallen tree, still within sight of the lakeshore--there was a large enough clearing here that they could see a good swath of both water and sky--she and Niskigwun had to struggle just to keep hold of him.
"Hey!" Kenu cried. "I should be out there helping my grandfather!" He opened his mouth and she knew to grimace ahead of time. "UNHAND ME, TINY HUMANS! Ow!!" His eyes welled up with tears as soon as Niskigwun smacked him on top of the head and made his feathers spin. He promptly stopped fighting, but he did put his hands atop his head and start sniffling, lip quivering. "Wh--wh--what did you do that for?" he whimpered.
Niskigwun gave him a venomous glare. "I am hardly a HUMAN, you stupid little nestling! If you must insult others, at least insult them right!" He clambered over the log. "I will go and see if the others are safely away from the water!"
Charmian glanced to the right to see X'aaru poking his way along the small stream; Mishupishu's head slipped out of the water, he blinked, then disappeared again. X'aaru looked back at Charmian.
"I thought--maybe it would be good if he came back here too," he said meekly.
Charmian nodded. "It's a good idea, X'aaru. Kenu says those Animiki should do the job well enough." She turned back to the lake just in time to see a lightning bolt descend, snapping one of the Mishupishus right in the head; it let out a bloodcurdling screaming cat sound before plummeting sideways into the lake with a terrific splash which made even the other Lynxes back away, bobbing on the waves. Charmian's eyes grew.
"Wow," she breathed. "Maybe he's right after all!"
The sky opened up then, and they had to cover their ears and wince at the terrible sounds that came from the lake and the sky; the booming and cracking and crashing of the thunder became almost constant, and the Lynxes hissed and roared and screamed, and for a brief absurd moment Charmian was reminded of the storm that had started all this, the one back home on Lake Michigan when she thought she'd first seen one of the Lynxes. She crouched behind the log and watched the growing tumult in awe. That thunderstorm had been nothing compared to this one. The clouds roiled ever closer to the Mishupishus, who were weaving through the crashing water, and Charmian felt a twinge of smugness--it seemed like all that the Lynxes could do was swim around and hiss--when one of them lurched from the water, opening its mouth and spitting out something that looked like the world's biggest loogie. It struck the wing section of one of the Animiki, making it let out a terrible crashing scream before it veered and broke away from the cloudbank.
Her mouth fell open. "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!" she yelled.
Kenu started gnawing on his fingernails. "That's how Lynxes attack!" he exclaimed. "They spit out great gouts of water that they swallow--but it mixes with noxious things inside their bellies--bile and phlegm and guts and blood and dirt and everything! It turns into a HORRIBLE poison that they can regurgitate and throw at will!"
"Ew!" Winter Born called from nearby. "You mean they're going to PUKE them to death--?"
Kenu clenched his fists. "THEY ARE NOT GOING TO DEATH ANYTHING!" He sat back down behind the log. "Nothing except themselves! I fully trust Grandfather--I needn't even watch the proceedings since I already know how they will turn out!" He shut his eyes tight. "Wake me up when it's over!"
Charmian glanced down at him, then decided not to bother. She looked back up at the battle, still awed by the chaos and yet order of it all. It played out almost like the world's biggest, noisiest ballet, the Animiki seething forward and then retreating, forming together and then breaking apart, as the Lynxes writhed and coiled and twisted about in the water, rising and falling, hissing and spitting. It seemed that for every bolt of lightning hurled, one of the poison balls was hurled as well, and she felt a tightness in her chest when she realized that the battle looked evenly matched. She glared at Kenu although he couldn't see her; he was even pretending to snore, now.
"I thought you said this would be over in a snap!" she barked at him.
"Can't hear you!" Kenu retorted. "Too busy yawning from the sheer DULLNESS of it all! What a PIFFLING little battle! Grandfather Nigankwam will surely be terribly bored once this is over..."
"Confident, much--?" Thomas muttered to Charmian.
She squeaked when Manabozho landed beside them and squatted behind the log, shoving Kenu aside so that he yelped and fell over in the grass. "Forgive me if I'm wrong," he groused, "but doesn't it look like the two of those are pretty even? I thought these Animiki were supposed to be the most excellent fighters of the Lynxes!"
"I figure it was all an exaggeration," Charmian grumbled.
Manabozho frowned and shook his head. "As much as I hate to say it--I've seen Animiki fight Lynxes--and they won every single time! And the battle always goes one of two ways--either the Thunderbirds beat them in a flash, or play with them a bit, and THEN beat them! Whatever the case, the Lynxes ALWAYS end up beaten."
"Well, it's early yet," Thomas suggested.
Manabozho glowered at him. "They've been fighting for at least ten minutes now," he said. Then, to Charmian, "Have YOU ever seen a thunderstorm that lasted very long at all--?"
Charmian blinked. "No," she admitted. "They usually die out pretty fast." She turned to look at the roiling lake, a fresh bite of anxiety rising in her chest. "Do you mean that they're having trouble--? That they CAN'T beat these Lynxes--?"
"Don't say that!" Kenu shot to his feet, baring his teeth; his feathers flared and his eyes flashed yellow. "Don't EVER say that!!"
"That scroll thingie of yours!" Thomas urged, shaking Charmian's arm. "Try it again, why don't you? Didn't that fellow say it would help?"
"But I used it already," Charmian protested.
"Well, another shot of that couldn't hurt, could it--?" He gestured at the tumult taking place on the lake. "At the very least!"
Charmian gnawed on her lip, but pulled out the scroll again and unrolled it. She stood up and took a deep breath. "Animiki!" Her voice echoed over the shore. "In the sky like lowering clouds! Hurl your lightning, and bring death among the Lynxes!"
The biggest, darkest section of the cloudbank--Nigankwam--raised his head and let out a terrible thundering crashing boom. His eyes flashed and lightning shot down at the lead Mishupishu, grazing its neck and making it lurch and hiss. It lashed up at him with its copper horns but couldn't reach; the flanks of the cloudbank started moving forward now, and everyone watched in awe as the Animiki began to surround the flailing Lynxes.
Winter Born waved her arms. "HOORAY! It's working!"
The rest of them--even Kenu, now--craned their necks forward to watch. The Lynxes gathered in a huddle in the middle of the lake, hurling their poison balls, but each fell short of the cloudbank which moved in around them. Charmian could clearly see the forms of the Animiki encircling them from the north and east, Nigankwam's lowering shape on the right the largest and most menacing of all; when he flapped his wings, a gale of a wind blasted the trees, and they had to duck their heads and shut their eyes in the onslaught.
"Now I see why people better get out of their way!!" Charmian exclaimed, chattering.
"Wow," Winter Born breathed, eyes wide. "They've got them beat for sure!"
Manabozho dug his fingers into the mossy log. "Don't count your partridges just yet," he muttered, earning an odd look from Charmian, and not just because of the weird phrase.
The Lynxes continued writhing and coiling, hissing and spitting and splashing their tails against the surface of the lake; Charmian was surprised by how helpless they seemed, but remembered how they had tried to attack her, and had wounded Mishupishu, and she tried not to pity them too much. The lightning and thunder were almost constant now, and the surface of the lake roiled in the wind and blasts; Nigankwam himself hurled the most lightning bolts, and Charmian found herself awed by his power. It was hard to believe that this gigantic thing was the same old man she had met up in the sky lodge. Even as she thought this, he cocked his head back, and flung a fiery blast at the biggest Lynx; it struck it atop the head, and the Lynx screamed and crashed into the others, throwing them into disarray before it sank beneath the waves. The other Lynxes hissed and started straggling together again, flinging poison balls that seemed pathetically puny compared to the lightning bolts. Nigankwam started to circle around the Lynxes from the north, heading around and turning to come at them from the west, where the cloudbank had been thinnest. He opened his beak and flapped his wings, causing a boom of thunder, and wispy feathers arose on his neck, making him look even bigger. His yellow eyes flared and he aimed at the next-biggest Mishupishu.
Kenu threw up one fist and shook it. "YEA GRANDFATHER! BRING THEM DOWN!"
A fiery bolt of lightning shot from Nigankwam's beak. At the same instant, two of the Lynxes raised their heads, arching their necks back and flinging poison balls up into the air. Charmian blinked and nearly missed them striking the Animiki in the side of the head--the shape of his beak broke apart and then re-formed, and he let out a bellowing crash. Everyone covered their ears, wincing. Kenu shot up again and cupped his hands to his mouth just as Nigankwam again opened his own, his eyes livid. A glow of lightning started to form in his throat and then shoot forward.
Kenu yelled as loudly as he could. "BOOOOOOOO LYNXES! GRANDFATHER NIGANKWAM! ARE YOU GOING TO LET THEM--"
That was as far as he got. Nigankwam hurled another lightning bolt, the Lynxes spitting poison balls, and in the next instant, there was a flash so blindingly brilliant that everyone watching in the woods was bowled over from the force of it. Charmian made the mistake of opening her eyes, and saw bits of flame go soaring overhead, striking the trees and setting their needles on fire; a swishing noise came, and she saw the fires go out, leaving only trails of smoke behind; she could tell that Mani must have done this, perhaps with a little help from Mishupishu. Then, she let out a yelp and clamped her eyes shut, rubbing at them with her hands, they stung so much. An acrid smell filled the air and she could hear coughing.
"Is--" She tried to sit up, coughing herself. "Is--everybody all right--?"
She blinked blearily, and hazy shapes started to appear around her; she could see everyone pretty much where they'd last been crouching, albeit slightly more singed and surprised than before. As soon as she saw that Winter Born and Thomas were all right, she turned back to the lake. And her mouth fell open.
The cloudbank was starting to break apart. She could make out the smaller Animiki splitting away from the bigger ones, letting out booming shrieking sounds as they did so--and just as they did, the smaller Lynxes likewise separated from their fellows, following them across the lake as the Thunderbirds attempted to regain their bearings. The Lynxes opened their mouths and started spitting poison balls which struck the little Thunderbirds, and the clouds burst apart, their booms evaporating into echoes and nothing but wisps of smoke and mist drifting upward in the air. Charmian's eyes grew as wide as moons as she watched in disbelief. She hurried to dart a glance at Kenu, and could see the same disbelief on his face as well.
"Are--" Winter Born's voice came out choked. "Are they--killing them--?"
Charmian blinked. She yanked out the scroll that Little Wind had given her and yelled as loudly as she could, so that her lungs and throat hurt.
"ANIMIKI! IN THE SKY LIKE LOWERING CLOUDS! HURL YOUR LIGHTNING, AND BRING DEATH AMONG THE LYNXES!!"
Nigankwam let out a horrific crashing booming shriek, and wheeled around toward the Lynxes again. He spat a bolt at the nearest one, cleaving its head and sending it splashing into the water; he hit one that tried to turn and swim away, and it seemed to wither into charcoal before vanishing from sight. He beat his wings and flew down over the remaining few Lynxes, which all stared up at him with wide eyes. His own eyes lit up murderously and Charmian clenched her fists. He'd killed the other two so easily, she knew the remainder couldn't be that difficult for such an Animiki.
Kenu yelled again. "KILL THEM, GRANDFATHER!!"
Nigankwam circled once more and opened his beak. Charmian could see the lightning forming in his belly, surging up into his long neck and shooting from his mouth--the lightning split into tendrils, each one aiming at a different Lynx--and she jumped to her feet along with Kenu and Winter Born, all of them waving their hands.
The Lynxes all opened their mouths, eyes wide with panic. The lightning bolts entered their jaws and struck--and then something happened that Charmian couldn't quite explain. She couldn't tell if the Lynxes managed to fire off one more round, or if the lightning backfired, or struck something foreign, or what--but it was as if balls of fire shot from the Mishupishus' mouths, zooming back up at Nigankwam's head. The Animiki's eyes blinked, and the lightning flickered--and then with another horrific BLAST, her sight of him vanished, and her voice stuck in her throat.
There was the tiniest split second of dead silence, and then a deafening roar--a shockwave raced across the lake surface, piling the water atop itself and sending it crashing into the trees. Something grabbed Charmian's arm at the last second and her breath was knocked out of her when the water swept over them. She felt herself being pulled backwards by the wave, then jerked to a halt so abruptly that the muscles in her shoulder screamed; then she was moving upwards, and she sputtered when she could suddenly breathe. Sound again came to her ears, the rushing roar of the water and then a splashing sound as it began to die down; her eyes shot open and she coughed and spat, glancing around herself. She was impossibly high in the air, and had a good view of the pine trees surrounding them--some had been knocked over, some stripped bare, and yet others were coated with slime and seaweed which dripped down with sloppy plops. Water was draining back away from the woods and into the lake, and she could now make out the others--they'd been swept back a bit from where they'd been crouching, and they were soaked straight through, but other than that, they appeared to be fine. She blinked at them in confusion before thinking to look up.
Her eyes widened. "Augwak--?" she blurted out.
The GeeBee let out a huffing noise, grimacing, and then suddenly started plunging back to earth. Charmian let out a yell of surprise as they plummeted toward the ground; thankfully, she landed in a patch of boggy pine boughs which had been stripped from the trees, while Augwak crashed down behind another log with a splash. Charmian sat up and rubbed at her throbbing head, grimacing herself; she glanced at the others, who were starting to stagger to their feet, seaweed and muck draping their clothes. Peepaukawiss saw the state that he was in, every feather bedraggled, and started whimpering loudly.
She looked around. "Is--is everyone okay--?" she croaked.
Thomas appeared from a pile of stripped boughs beside her, making a face and shoving them aside. "A little waterlogged," he grumbled, "but none the worse for wear..."
Charmian spat out a bit of seaweed and pushed herself to her feet. "Singing Cedars--? Francois? Shore? Marten--?" One by one everyone began to appear, even the voyageurs whose names she didn't know, and she let out a sigh of relief. "Nobody was swept back out?" Alarm lit up inside her. "Winter Born! Winter Born--?" Thomas turned and dug in the pine boughs a bit before hauling the girl out, and Charmian's relief came flooding back when she saw her white hair, now stained dirty offwhite by lake sludge; her eyes were wide and her teeth were bared, and as soon as she saw her dress she started letting out the same noises as Puka. Charmian took the time to wipe a dead plant from her hair, letting out her breath.
A bird fluttered down and landed on the nearest log, then with a glittery poof changed into Manabozho; he dusted himself off and looked around at them. Charmian's jaw fell and then he yelped when she hit him.
"YOU COULD'VE PUT YOURSELF TO USE, MORON!!" she yelled stridently.
Manabozho held up his arms to defend himself. "I--I hardly needed to! That stupid windbag grabbed hold of you before I even could--!"
He did--? Charmian thought, before gasping and remembering to turn back to the lake. "The Lynxes! Are they--?"
She cut herself off when she at last saw how the lake had been left in the meantime. She could see steam rising from the waves, which still kicked the shore, and after squinting a bit through the mist she could finally see the steaming shapes of the remaining Lynxes. They had been charred beyond all recognition, and as she watched, they began to sink one by one into the water, a soft hissing escaping them--but not from their mouths. More gouts of steam arose as they sank, and she could tell that each one of them was dead. Her heart leapt up into her throat and she threw her fist up, starting to let out a triumphant yell.
Then she saw Nigankwam, and her voice fled her.
Motion made her turn her head a little. The cloudbank that had contained the Thunderbirds was almost completely gone now, but for the giant dark mass that composed Nigankwam's body; as she watched, the remaining Animiki lifted his head, beak opening and eyes flaring, and she waited for him to let out a boom of thunder. When the smallest rumble escaped him instead, her heart clenched, and she saw the fiery flicker in his eyes dim, before they went dark, and slowly, the cloud-shape began to sink.
The cheer of Kenu, who stood a little off to her side now, began to fade as well, and uncertainty entered his eyes. He lowered his own raised fist and blinked.
Instinct took over. Charmian launched herself at him and grabbed the little Animiki up, mashing him against her chest and turning away from the lake so that she hunched over him, as if to shield him from gunfire or some such. Kenu squirmed a little bit, managing to get out, "Grandfather--?" before she clamped his head to her shoulder, her heart thudding hard.
She felt everyone's eyes on her before they turned their attention back to the lake, and she did so as well, glancing over her shoulder. Her eyes stung and her throat hurt, and she could barely swallow as the gigantic shape of Nigankwam slowly sank over Lake Superior, the last of the lightning and thunder having fled him.
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