Kenu makes the most important decision of his young life...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 79: Cloudburst"
CHARMIAN FELT EVERYONE'S eyes on her before they turned their attention back to Lake Superior, and she did so as well, glancing over her shoulder, still holding tightly onto Kenu. 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.
She had to grip Kenu tighter when he began to wriggle. "Grandfather--?" he blurted out, his voice confused.
Charmian's eyes stayed fixed on the big Animiki. As she watched, his cloud form seemed to leave him, wisps of mist trailing away up into the sky, and she could see that he was in fact a real Thunderbird--at least, as real as she supposed he could be, considering that as he'd fought he'd apparently been made entirely of thunder and lightning. He was still at least the size of a giant airliner, but long, brilliant silver feathers adorned him from head to foot, and his talons looked like they could have easily crushed one of their large canoes. Despite the change, he continued falling as gently as a leaf, until he hit the surface of the lake, at which a low splash arose, the water swelling and making its way toward shore again. It lapped at the rock and spilled over a little onto land before swelling back out, nowhere near the tsunami that the Lynxes had caused, and she watched in awe as his exposed wing slowly settled atop the rippling water, as peaceful as down falling. A soft shushing noise escaped him and then he fell silent.
Everyone stared at him. Kenu wriggled his head loose and peeked over Charmian's shoulder. As soon as he saw the giant Thunderbird, his eyes went wide and he sucked in a breath. "Grandfather--?"
Charmian tried to tighten her grip, a little too late. Kenu wrested himself free and went racing toward the lake, tears welling up in his eyes. "Grandfather Nigankwam! GRANDFATHER!" he yelled, and jumped off the rock beach and into the water.
Charmian got to her feet. Then nearly fell over again when something shot out of the lake with a horrific hiss. She gaped at the Mishupishu that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, a gash across its muzzle but otherwise unharmed; it glanced down at Kenu and opened its mouth with a snarl, lunging down at him before a fireball smacked it in the side of the head and it collapsed with a yelp. Kenu kept on running, not even glancing at it.
Charmian started jogging as well, casting a glance at Moon Wolf as he made his way toward the squirming Lynx. She decided that he must know what he was doing, and splashed into the water after Kenu. Nigankwam had fallen in a shallow section of the lake, so that by the time Kenu reached him, the water was only up to his knees, and not even that deep for Charmian. Kenu splashed his way to Nigankwam and collapsed against his breast, sticking his hands in his feathers and grasping onto them. Charmian slowed her step, her own eyes stinging, and paused to catch her breath. Kenu was sniffling.
"G-G-Grandfather?" he stammered, and pressed against him as if trying to shake him; the Thunderbird ogimah was so huge that he didn't even budge. Charmian finally looked at his head, which wasn't even half submerged, and felt somewhat sick when she saw how his tongue hung over his beak; his eyes were open only a sliver, and they were dark. She turned back to Kenu and bit her lip to see him still pushing futilely. "Grandfather Nigankwam?" he begged. "Please get up! The Lynxes are all dead, just like I knew they'd be!" He looked up at Charmian when she came up behind him, and her heart hurt at the look in his eyes; they were brimming, but somehow he kept the tears from falling. His lip quivered.
"Why won't he get up...?" he asked in a small voice.
Charmian could only stare back at him, her throat stuck. Kenu's eyes welled up and then spilled over at last and his breath started hitching. He turned back to the Thunderbird and his grip on the feathers loosened; he lifted one hand to wipe it against his eyes, and his shoulders shook.
"B-but..." he stammered, "Animiki n-never lose..."
She stood and watched as his face dissolved in tears, and Kenu sat down with a splash, pressing his face against Nigankwam's breast and sobbing. Charmian lifted a hand to rub at her neck, having no idea what to do. She reached down to touch him a few times, always withdrawing her hand at the last minute; finally she bit her lip and decided that to leave him alone would be the best thing. With a heavy sigh she stepped reluctantly away, then turned and trudged/splashed back toward shore. She glanced up at the surviving Lynx and paused when she saw Moon Wolf stooping down to look it in the face. Eyes growing wide, she waded over to them, several of the others now gathering around as well.
"Moon Wolf--?" she asked.
In response he stooped down and grasped onto the dying Lynx's jaws, straining to pry them open. The Lynx writhed a little, its tail splishing in the water--it was just a small one, even smaller than Mishupishu himself, she realized--but Moon Wolf managed to open its mouth wide enough to fit a hand inside. He lifted his head and glanced at several of them, then nodded at Stick-In-The-Dirt, who blinked. "Help me!"
Stick-In-The-Dirt's eyes went wide. When he did nothing else, Moon Wolf's lip curled back and he had to dig his feet into the shallow sand to avoid slipping. "Help me!" he snapped again; this time Stick-In-The-Dirt shook his head and took a panicked step back. Francois splashed forward instead and stooped on the other side of the Lynx's head, grasping onto its jaws as well; everyone watched in silence as they pried its mouth further open, Francois jamming his gun between its jaws to keep them propped up. The Lynx continued squirming and hissing feebly, but Singing Cedars and Niskigwun splashed out into the lake to grab onto its body and tail and keep it from thrashing too much. They sputtered when it splashed them but held their places.
Charmian crept around to peer at Moon Wolf as he put his hands on the Lynx's jaws and stuck his head inside its mouth. Her eyes grew. "Moon Wolf?" she asked again. "What are you doing--?"
He still said nothing, just stuck his hand down its throat; the Mishupishu's own eyes widened and it struggled harder, and Charmian had to remind herself that it had been just about ready to kill Kenu, just so she wouldn't feel too sorry for it. It let out a rasping noise and then Moon Wolf drew his hand back, and it was dripping with slime; he frowned, then a very strange look came to his face, then he pulled out of its mouth. A sharp gesture made Francois remove his gun and the Lynx clamped its jaws shut, hissing and snarling; another gesture made Niskigwun and Singing Cedars let go and back off. When Moon Wolf held his hand up over the Lynx's head, Charmian's eyes goggled and she turned to rush back to the shore. Despite her haste, the blast just barely caught her, a gout of water slamming into her from behind and propelling her forward with a startled cry. She ran into Thomas, who grabbed onto her and braced himself so they wouldn't fall over; she sputtered and blinked a few times, her hair falling in her eyes, and then glanced over her shoulder. Moon Wolf was already making his way back up the shore. He was drenched from head to foot but apparently didn't care, only wrinkling his nose slightly as he lifted a sliver of raw meat from his shoulder and tossed it back into the lake. Charmian's face screwed up and she pushed herself away from Thomas's chest.
"I wish you guys would STOP DOING THAT!" she screeched.
Moon Wolf stopped nearby and swept another piece of skin from his arm. "There was some...purpose...to that?" Singing Cedars asked, panting as he came sloshing forward, his own clothes soaked. Niskigwun didn't look much better, and had to keep pffting to keep his sopping feathers out of his face.
Moon Wolf started attempting to dry himself off. "That Lynx was using wabano medicine," he stated.
Charmian's fists unclenched and her muscles started to untense. "W...wabano medicine...?" she echoed, brow furrowing.
Niskigwun frowned. "Lynxes don't use fire medicine! You heard what the Animiki said. Fire is their opposite element!"
Moon Wolf shot him a dark look. "Nonetheless, he was using wabano medicine," he stated again. "Fire is what they used to kill the Animiki."
Charmian crept closer to the remains of the Lynx, chewing on her lip and rubbing her hands together. "I thought I saw them using fire during that big attack..." she murmured uncertainly.
"But where would they get such power?" Singing Cedars asked. "I assume it doesn't come to them naturally--?"
Charmian let out a gasp and whirled around. "Those wabanos who've been following us!" She pointed out at the island. "Mishosha! And that other one! THEY must've done it! I mean, it makes sense, if the Lynxes serve them, right--?"
"But what about that scroll that was given?" Stick-In-The-Dirt asked, wringing his own hands; he stood a safe distance away, on relatively dry land. "I thought this was meant to ensure the Animiki's success!"
Charmian's spirits deflated and she cringed, shrinking in on herself. "I..." She fiddled her fingers and her eyes stung again. "Maybe..."
"Perhaps this wabano or whatever used some sort of similar spell," Singing Cedars suggested before she could speak.
"I suppose," Niskigwun admitted reluctantly.
"These Lynx-thingies do serve him, right?" Thomas put in. "So it rather makes sense that he would outfit them with whatever they need to keep us from reaching him. That scroll we got just happened to counter that plan."
"And so now what do we do?" Stick-In-The-Dirt asked. "The lake is obviously full of these things! If we try heading out, surely we'll be attacked--?"
"I think he made the mistake of sending his strongest ones out to greet us first," Moon Wolf said. "You saw the trouble they gave the Animiki, and Manabozho said this is rare. This is Mishosha's first mistake. But he'll make certain not to do it again."
"Either way, mes amis, this island isn't even here right now," Bouchard spoke up. "So whatever you wish to do at the moment is MOOT!"
"We'll have to wait until it appears," Moon Wolf said. He glanced at the lake. "During a fog. Which from the looks of it could be as early as tomorrow morning."
Augwak, perched atop one of the fallen trees, groaned and wrapped his arms around himself. "More moving--?" he moaned. "I can barely even move as it IS!"
"We will be heading out as soon as the fog appears," Moon Wolf said flatly. "So we'd best start regathering our things."
"Do you think it's best to stay here tonight--?" Thomas asked with a frown. "What if the fog arises then and this island appears and he attacks us in our sleep--?"
"Perhaps we should head inland a little," Bouchard suggested.
Mani whistled. Is a fall nearby, where friendly spirits dwell. Felt them while passing through. Could probably stay there for now.
"The pine manitous did say there were friendly spirits at Tahquamenon," Charmian murmured. "Maybe there's others here too."
"If you plan on settling down for the night, then it's best to figure it out now," Moon Wolf said a little shortly.
Mani turned and started stepping westward. This way, he said. Not far from the great arch.
"But--this is closer to that island," Bouchard protested; Mani gave him a withering look and he sighed. "All right! Fine. Who am I to backtalk a manitou. Except somebody who knows the place."
They all started poking around for their scattered belongings; the canoes had survived mostly intact, but had been pushed further back into the woods, and one even had to be hauled down from the boughs of a tree. Charmian mostly stood with her wet pack hanging off of her shoulder, watching their progress with guilty eyes. She went over the words that Little Wind had taught her, again and again and again, trying to be sure whether she had gotten them just right or not. For all that she knew, she'd said something wrong. She winced and rubbed at her neck, then peered back out at the lake.
Nigankwam's body still lay in the shallows, and she hated the thought of just leaving him here, but there was no way that they could hope to move him. She saw Kenu still huddled beside him and bit her lip, then grasped Niskigwun's wing as he went by; he glanced at her.
"The other Animiki," she said. "Where did they all go?" When he didn't answer immediately she said, "I saw the clouds break apart--but I don't know where they went. Maybe...?"
The Michinimakinong's expression changed and she felt her heart sinking. "Then...they're all dead?" she whispered, and slowly let go of him to rub her arms. "Every one of them...?"
Niskigwun sighed. "If there had been any left...they would have stayed to finish the battle. Animiki never leave, or quit, until they are finished, or until..." He trailed off and shook his head. "I am sorry...but if there were any left, they would have come back by now." He stared at Nigankwam for a moment, then bit his own lip. "I worry for the little one..." he murmured.
Charmian blinked, then her eyes went wide and she sucked in a breath. "He's alone here--!" she exclaimed, and whirled around. "He's the last one left! Where will he go now--?"
"He has no one left in his tribe--?" Niskigwun asked in alarm.
Charmian put a hand to her head, trying to think. "I think--I think there were women and children and old people there, but--I don't think he remembers the way back! That was why he was in that cave in the first place--because he got lost! I just figured--Nigankwam would help him back!" Her eyes started to water. "What do we do with him? We can hardly just leave him here!" Without waiting for an answer, she went down to the shore and started sloshing through the water toward him. Niskigwun blinked, then hurried after her. Several of the others lifted their heads to watch them but held their places, securing their goods and the canoes.
"Kenu!" Charmian called out, nearly sinking in a soft spot and having to struggle to her feet again. She stubbed her toe on a piece of driftwood and yelped, nearly falling over a second time. "Hey, Kenu!" She reached him panting and dripping, and dropped to her knees beside him. He sat in the water, huddled against Nigankwam's breast, his face buried in the damp feathers. Little sniffling noises still occasionally escaped him. She bit her lip but touched his shoulder gently.
"Kenu...?" She shook him a little. "Are you okay?"
Kenu gave a loud sniff, then lifted a hand to rub it across his nose. "I'll be...I'll be all r-right. A-Animiki are meant to be brave...Grandfather N-Nigankwam was only d-doing what Animiki do best...he brings our whole t-tribe honor this way."
Charmian's face softened. "Of course he does." She moved closer. "Kenu...what are you going to do now? Do you know your way back home?"
He finally lifted his head and peered up at her, his eyes puffy and red. His lip trembled so much that her heart nearly broke; despite all his bragging, he was still just a little kid, after all. "I'll find my way," he mumbled, wiping his eyes. "I'm a big Animiki...the mighty Kenu. I don't need any help from tiny beings."
For once Charmian didn't feel any irritation with the comment; she sighed inwardly and pulled her hand back. "You're sure...?"
"Charmian," Niskigwun called from behind her, "we should get going now."
"In a minute," Charmian said, waving at him. "Kenu, you're sure you want to head back on your own? I mean--not that I doubt you or anything, but--well, it's a long way--and even I wouldn't remember it by now."
"I'll figure it out," Kenu said a bit stubbornly. "I always do! If I had been left in that cave, I would have found my way out eventually...I'm not a baby! Grandfather Nigankwam would've believed me." He blinked as if in surprise, then his fingers clenched at Nigankwam's feathers again, and his face once more dissolved into tears. He started crying and hiccupping and Charmian had to gnaw on her lip to keep from crying herself. She paused when he started bobbing from side to side a little bit, between Nigankwam and herself, and tried to figure out what exactly he must be doing; when she saw how he seemed reluctant to let go of the Thunderbird's feathers, she inched a tiny bit closer, and a moment later found him clinging to her leg instead, wailing out loud. She put her hand on his head, wishing that she could think of anything more useful to do.
"G-G-Grandfather Nigankwam's the only one who believed in me," he sobbed, his voice breaking.
"That's not true," Charmian insisted.
He let out a particularly loud sniffle. "Yes it is! When the other A-A-Animiki would poke at me he ALWAYS told them off! He said I would be o-o-ogimah of the tribe someday! He taught me everything I kn-kn-know! I can't do anything without him!"
"That's not true!" Charmian echoed herself, helplessly.
Kenu snuffled. "Yes it is! I can't go back to the tribe now! Not without him! I don't know the way, and he's s-s-so big..."
"We will have to leave him here and get going," Niskigwun called out. Charmian made a face at him and waved again.
Kenu's head popped up and his eyes went wide. "I--I can't LEAVE him!!" he cried, digging his fingers into her knee. "Please don't make me leave him!!"
"But--it's like you said," Charmian protested. "I mean--look at him! He's huge. We can't carry him with us--"
"Can't we stay?" Kenu begged. He clutched her leg tighter. "Not everybody! Just you and the nice ones! Please--? Until--until the others come for me?"
"This could be ages!" Niskigwun exclaimed. This time Charmian dunked her hand in the water and splashed him; he took a step back, sputtering, but scowled and then whirled away, stomping back to shore. She put her hand over one of Kenu's, barely able to meet his large pleading eyes.
"Kenu, we have to keep heading north," she said. "It's our mission. You can come with us if you want, but we can't stay here beyond tomorrow morning or so."
"Please?" Kenu begged. "I can't just leave him here!--but I can't stay here on my own! Please--?"
Charmian opened her mouth even though she could think of absolutely no more words; arguing with him now was like stepping into a shelter and trying to remain chipper while eyeing all the homeless dogs. Even his eyes were the same. She had to avert her own, grasping his hand and attempting to get to her feet, when a splashing noise from behind surprised her and she glanced back, ready to hurl wet sand at Niskigwun if she had to. She was surprised to see that it was Manabozho instead; he came sloshing toward them with a dark look on his face, and she took pause on seeing it, wondering what it could mean. Before she could ask, he stopped just beside her, reached down, and grabbed hold of Kenu by the front of his outfit. Charmian watched with wide eyes as he lifted the crying little Animiki into the air so that they were face to face, then opened her mouth to ask, "Manabozho--?"
CRACK! Her jaw fell so wide open that it nearly hit the lake, and her eyes nearly fell from her head, all of the blood draining from her face. Kenu blinked in surprise as well, a red welt arising on his cheek where Manabozho had just smacked him; Charmian shot to her feet, fists clenched. "'Bozho!!" she yelled, her voice going oddly high pitched.
Manabozho brought Kenu right to his face. "Are you just going to sit here crying all damn day?" he snapped, eyes livid. "And holding the REST of us up when we have more IMPORTANT things to do--?"
Thomas was hurrying out into the water now, which was a good thing, as Charmian's face was going redder and redder; he reached her just in time to grab her arm and keep her from launching herself at Manabozho. He had to strain just to hold her back, and dug his feet into the sand.
"Easy girl," he murmured.
Kenu stared at Manabozho for a moment, then his eyes welled up again. "B-b-but, Grandfather--" And he glanced over his shoulder toward Nigankwam. "I c-c-can't just leave him behind--!"
"Look at him!" Manabozho whirled him around and held him out toward Nigankwam's body. "He's DEAD! And he's NOT COMING BACK!"
The tears started running down Kenu's face and he began sniffling again.
Charmian tensed and Thomas pressed his shoulder against hers. "Am I going to have to freeze you?" he hissed between his teeth.
Manabozho yanked Kenu back toward himself and bared his teeth at him. "Use your head for more than feathers, stupid! You really think that just SITTING here and whining is going to do any good? Nothing you do can bring him back. No matter HOW long you sit here and hold us up! I thought Animiki were BETTER than that, to just sit and CRY when things get hard!"
Kenu's lip quivered. "B-b-but he's dead! What am I supposed to do without him?"
Manabozho snarled. "Be an ANIMIKI for once!" He practically hurled Kenu at the water, and the little Thunderbird struck it with a splash, blinking in confusion. "That IS what he would've wanted--isn't it?"
Kenu's face screwed up as if he were getting ready to yell--then he deflated and stared at Manabozho with wide eyes. "Wanted--?" he echoed.
"DUH!" Manabozho snapped. "THINK about it! His men are dead! Every best one of them! You yourself just said that he expected YOU to be ogimah someday--well--guess what today is!"
Kenu's eyes flooded again and he got to his feet, little fists clenched. "But--me?!" He looked back at Nigankwam, then at Manabozho, and then finally at Charmian, who blinked as soon as he met her eyes. "I don't have any idea what to do!! I don't know how to lead a bunch of Animiki!!" His voice cracked and he started sniffling miserably. "And they'd hardly want me leading them knowing that I left Grandfather behind!"
"Do you think that you could lead them much better with them knowing you didn't even fight?" Manabozho retorted; when Kenu fell silent, he pointed across the lake so viciously that the little Animiki jumped. "You can do one of two things! You can sit here and keep an eye on your grandfather's body, which hardly matters as HE'S not going to use it anymore, and wait for the REST of your people to come pick you up--and probably get eaten by Lynxes in the meantime! Or you can do what HE would've done!"
"Wh-what Grandfather would've done--?" Kenu stammered.
Manabozho dropped his hand and clenched them both into fists, stalking toward him so that he yelped and stumbled back, falling down against Nigankwam's breast. "FIGHT!" Manabozho blared at him, and Kenu flinched. Manabozho pointed again. "Out in that lake is an island! And on that island is one of the people behind what just happened here! We're going to go fight him, and THEN we're going to go fight the REAL one responsible! The one RESPONSIBLE for killing your tribe!"
Kenu's eyes slowly widened. "Fight...fight the one responsible...?" he murmured, and turned his head to peer at Nigankwam's face. "The one who killed Grandfather?"
There was a pause. Charmian untensed, and Thomas let go of her; she sloshed toward Kenu and stooped down beside him. "Kenu?" she said softly. "You can come with us, if you want. We're going to find the people behind this and put a stop to it. We won't stop until we do. You can help us out...or maybe one of us can try to take you back to your tribe...?" She started glancing at the others. "Maybe Niskigwun...or Mani...?"
Kenu let out a noisy sniffling sound and wiped his nose against his arm. He got to his feet, fists clenched. "No," he said, his voice still quavering but stronger than before. "Grandfather Nigankwam was right," he said. "He said someday I would be ogimah of my tribe. Well...I have to believe what Grandfather said." He rubbed his eyes and sniffled again, then turned to look at her; she was surprised by the resolve that she saw there, despite his runny nose and the tears still dampening his cheeks. He drew himself up as much as he could, which wasn't much, but still, she knew it must be difficult to do even that.
"I will help fight and kill the one responsible for the death of my tribe," he stated. "And restore honor to Grandfather Nigankwam and my people!"
So saying, he turned to Nigankwam and strode toward his wing, halting and grasping onto it. Charmian and the others watched, puzzled, as he took hold of one of the smallest wing feathers and started pulling; it resisted at first, then came loose, and he let out a cry as he splashed back into the water with it. When he managed to get to his feet, grasping the dripping feather in his hands, Charmian saw that, despite its diminutive size on Nigankwam's wing, it was about half as long as Kenu was tall; still, she said nothing about this as he started affixing it to his head.
Thomas cocked his head to the side. "I rather thought they did that after they'd gained some sort of victory--?" he mused aloud, and Charmian shushed him.
Kenu gave a loud sniff and turned around. "I merely prepare myself!" he said. "For I will not likely make it back this way...after I KILL THE MANITOU RESPONSIBLE!"
Presumptuous, much--? Charmian thought, but the look of determination on his face was such that she didn't dare challenge him; maybe he did have it in him. She couldn't help but smile a little at the change that had come over him; he still strode back to shore with the same braggadocio as before, yet something about it seemed a little less forced. She just wished that it hadn't come at the price that it had... She peered at Nigankwam for a moment or two, feeling an ache in her chest when she thought of the silver-haired old man who had been so rude and snappish toward them up in the sky. Despite his character flaws...she knew that he was a good ogimah, and she would miss him.
She stooped down beside him as the others started turning away, and placed her hand upon his great beak. She opened her mouth to say something, only to find her throat stuck; no sounds would come out. She got it working again but then no words would come, and she stood there feeling utterly stupid, having no clue what to do.
Something touched her arm. "It is all right if you have no words," a voice said, and she peered back at Stick-In-The-Dirt. Her eyes watered a little at seeing the look on his face; she sniffed and rubbed her own nose, before trailing her fingers over Nigankwam's beak and then pulling away. As she turned toward the shore, she could hear Stick-In-The-Dirt shaking his rattle and murmuring something over Nigankwam's head; she decided not to turn back to see what he might be doing. The waves lapped quietly and the rattling sound continued as she splashed her way back to the shore, eyes stinging and a soft mist beginning to rise from the lake.
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