Surprise reinforcements arrive from the west...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
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PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-THREE:
The Right Of Revenge
EVERYONE GASPED, then fell to the ground, Little Wind and Charmian among them. Little Wind's manitou fireball went sailing off harmlessly over Charmian's head, then turned in midflight and immediately zipped back toward the others, steering clear of the young wabano; Charmian's fireball flew over the others' heads as they'd all ducked when the blinding light and horrific noise filled the air, almost at once. It was a few seconds before Charmian could regain her senses and realize that the noise had nothing to do with Little Wind's attack, and then she was just confused.
Her head shot up and the first thing she noticed was that her hair was prickling. She blinked.
As if on cue, Kenu popped up to his feet and pointed at the sky. "ANIMIKI!" he yelled joyfully.
Charmian blinked again, then she and Little Wind and the others all glanced westward.
It had been overcast to begin with--it seemed like the sun never quite wanted to shine in these parts--but now the sky was even darker than she remembered it being. The thick black clouds roiling in from the west made her skin prickle, and her eyes slowly grew.
Her first feeling was elation--just what they needed was good news, and who but Thunderbirds to bring it? Then she caught sight of Little Wind cowering just beside her, and a lump rose into her throat, making it suddenly hard to breathe. The phrase covering the dead popped into her head, as if out of nowhere, and without thinking she leapt to her feet and whirled around.
"RUN!" she yelled at everybody else.
Winter Born looked confused. "But--I thought the Animiki were the GOOD people--!"
"They are!" Charmian shouted, running toward them. "But not when they're PISSED OFF!!"
With this, she grabbed up Kenu and shoved him under her arm as if he were a football and went racing eastward. The clouds shimmered with lightning, and CRACK-BOOM!--everyone else scrambled to their feet and started running. Charmian managed one quick glance back to see that Little Wind had gotten up and was following as well, pure panic in his eyes--and she could think of why he might feel that way.
They must've heard Kenu's fit back in the camp! I bet EVERY Thunderbird's heard of what happened to Nigankwam by now--!
Which means that we're LIVING TARGETS!!
Kenu freed his arms and waved them, looking ready to squall. "ANIMIKI!" he yelled again. "Why are we RUNNING AWAY?!"
Charmian cast one more glance behind herself and decided not to answer. She picked up her speed as much as she could, though it hardly felt adequate.
The lowering clouds had only grown blacker and blacker, and in that one glance she'd spotted a monstrous head emerging from the front, the cloudbanks to its sides forming into giant wings behind which followed yet more monstrous heads. Lightning just started to flash before she could look away, but the image was burned onto her retinas. She could still see, whenever she blinked, those hideous yellow burning eyes fixed right on hers.
The thunder crash-boomed, forming into an awful eagle's scream which made her eardrums throb. She ground her teeth and ran desperately across the grass, trying to think of where to hide. These Animiki made Nigankwam's sounds seem almost tame in comparison!
She heard feet thud-thud-thudding after her, and Winter Born came into view. She pointed back, gasping for breath. "Ch-Charmian! Did you notice--? It's looking right at YOU!"
Charmian's brow furrowed, and she glanced over at Little Wind, who ran now with his arms over his head, whimpering the entire way. They have no way of knowing that he's behind all this... she thought, then sucked in a breath when Kenu started squirming under her arm. They're after me because of HIM!!
She looked over her shoulder at the looming mass and cried, "I'm not HURTING him!!"
"Ch-Charmian!" Winter Born echoed herself, and when Charmian glanced at her she could see how exhausted she looked. "My...my legs are hurting!" Winter Born exclaimed with a wince.
In response Charmian jerked her hand toward the nearest stand of trees. "All of you go THAT way!" she yelled. "They won't come after YOU guys!"
"What about you--?" Thomas, somewhat behind her, shouted.
She just shook her head wildly. "Just get going!! I'll think of something!"
I have absolutely nothing to think of!!
She saw the others, led by Francois now, go heading off toward the trees, and hoped that that had been a good idea and that the Animiki wouldn't follow and attack them. She veered in the opposite direction and another glance back showed her that Winter Born's observation had been correct; right on cue the cloudbank veered as well, and the monster head of the lead Thunderbird reared up and let out a bellow which shook the ground. Its wings flapped, and a peal sounded across the sky; the Thunderbirds flying behind it and off to its sides echoed this call, their eyes all flashing like strobe lights. The lead one's eyes flared the brightest of all, and a bolt of lightning lanced down from the sky and struck the ground several yards behind her. She let out a squeal and nearly tripped before picking up her pace, squeezing Kenu tighter and running faster than she'd thought possible.
"P-p-put me down!" Kenu cried. "They're MY people! I have to talk to them!!"
"If I put you down now they'll likely end up frying YOU, too!!" Charmian yelled. "And I'm not taking that chance!!" She veered left, but the clouds were much bigger and moved as well; they started lowering now, so that if it hadn't been for the lightning, she wouldn't have been able to see where she was going, everything was growing so dark. Another lightning bolt struck, even closer this time, and she felt her hair prickle again; even her teeth seemed to rattle in her skull. She brought Kenu up to clasp him to herself so he wouldn't squirm as much, and glanced from left to right, desperately trying to think of a decent place to hide--as if there were a place to hide, from gigantic birds made out of clouds!
She finally set her eyes on a little stand of trees far ahead, the land dipping into a hollow behind them; maybe they could bury themselves under leaves, at least to gain some time. Her feet flew across the ground and she sucked in great ragged breaths to try to keep her protesting lungs working, when a dull roaring noise made her heart leap into her throat, and she made the mistake of looking straight up over her head. The clouds had rolled directly over her, and even as she looked up, the lead Animiki's head turned so that it was staring right down at her, and its brilliant yellow eyes narrowed before it opened its beak. She saw lighting flashing deep in its throat, getting ready to come out, and let out a squeal, diving forward and slamming into the ground with Kenu beneath her, like a baseball player sliding to the home plate.
Something CRASHED into the ground behind her, then another crash came, and another, in quick succession, and she could feel the earth shaking and a gust of air passing over her body; the grass waved and tore away around her. She knew without looking that the Animiki had landed and was coming up right behind her, and a sudden darkening, as well as a horrific scream from overhead, just confirmed this. She shut her eyes as tightly as she could, crushing Kenu to her and hoping that at least Thunderbirds were quick at what they did. The air rushed again, and she could hear its head zooming down at her.
Kenu squirmed again and in one great effort freed his arm, throwing it up and yelling, "STOP!"
Charmian grimaced, teeth grinding hard enough to hurt. The rushing and screaming noises abruptly halted, the dull hum of electricity and a violent snorting taking their place. She shook when she felt a hot blast of air against her back; it smelled like fish. A dull rumble came, and she began shaking harder when she realized how unpleasant it sounded; she didn't dare open her eyes or turn her head, but she could tell that the Animiki was still infuriated, judging by the hostile crackle in the air.
Kenu wriggled his other arm loose despite her best efforts to control him. "It's not what it looks like!" he exclaimed. "She's just trying to help me! Don't hurt her!"
The nasty rumbling noise grew vaguely louder and raspier, then changed into an ugly growl. Charmian cringed to hear the earth gouging apart behind her and could only imagine the Thunderbird's immense talons digging into the soil, leaving giant furrows behind. The fish smell wafted over her again before Kenu shouted, in an authoritative voice, "This tiny human is my friend! I, the great war-bird, command that you stand down this INSTANT!"
Charmian's teeth started chattering and she clasped onto his middle, expecting to find herself clinging to a headless corpse. She felt Kenu's muscles relax, however, a few seconds later, and could feel the electric charge in the air begin to lessen as a soft shushing noise came; she cracked her eyes open just a bit to see a soft glowing light shining around her, and knew that the Animiki must be changing its shape. She let out a shaky breath--unsure of whether this was good or not--and eased up her grip on Kenu just slightly, before a strange voice behind her demanded, "Explain what is going on here!"
Her eyes popped open and she blinked. The voice that had just spoken wasn't at all like Nigankwam's; it was still a man's voice, but nowhere near as deep or rough. She had to let go of Kenu so she could start to gingerly push herself up and over, Kenu standing up to dust off his smudged outfit as she did so. She first saw a pair of quilled moccasins--designs of clouds and birds on them--then her stare traveled upward over similarly decorated leggings and breechcloth, and upward still, until she found herself staring the lead Animiki in the face. Her eyes grew wide.
He didn't look at all like Nigankwam, either. Bright swaths of red and yellow striped his cheeks, and around his neck he wore necklaces of what looked to be snake skeletons, their little skulls dangling in the center; solitary plumes adorned his head and swept back down into his hair. His eyes were just as yellow and unfriendly as Nigankwam's, but that was where the similarity ended. For his long loose hair was jet black, and he looked like he could have just graduated college, for all she knew, if Thunderbirds went to college.
Her heart did a quick thud and the first utterly moronic thought that flitted through her head was, OhmyGod, he's cute!!
The Animiki's glowing eyes narrowed and he glared at her for a moment, then turned to look at Kenu. "Explain what is going on here!" he demanded again, arms crossing.
As soon as he looked away the spell was broken and Charmian shook her head, also looking at Kenu. The little Thunderbird, for his part, clenched his fists and scowled at the older Thunderbird as hard as he could. "You have no right to demand anything of me!" he snapped. "I'll have you know that I am KENU, the great war-bird, soon to be ogimah of the Animiki!"
The older Animiki blinked, and suddenly his flaring feathers lowered and he seemed surprised. "Kenu--?" he echoed, and only now did Charmian notice the great number of other Animiki coming up behind him, all changed into their human form; a few of them looked to be around as old as Tooth, but most were younger, like their leader. Their faces and chests were painted with the same angry red-and-yellow swaths as the leader. His brow furrowed. "You are Nigankwam's grandson...?"
This time Kenu blinked, and sucked in a breath; Charmian saw his eyes start to water, and hurriedly got to her knees to reach out for him. The lead Animiki saw the abrupt motion and glared at her dangerously; but she grasped Kenu's hand, and this appeared to steady him enough to talk again. He raised his chin.
"Yes, I am Nigankwam's grandson! Grandson of the great First Thunder and ogimah of the Animiki! When you speak to me you will do so with RESPECT!"
The lead Animiki let out his breath. "Forgive me then, Little Brother...I wasn't aware it was you!" He appeared to collect himself and stood up straight again, looking vaguely imperious. "We heard your cries from afar and came seeking you, suspecting you might be in danger from the Mishupishus!"
Kenu blinked a few more times, then stepped forward to stand before him. He let go of Charmian's hand and fiddled his fingers. "You...you really knew Grandfather...?" he asked, his voice much smaller now, but the lead Animiki ignored the childish tone of it and simply nodded as if he were speaking to an equal.
"Yes, all of us have...there are even some among my tribe who traveled long ago from his. We heard not long ago of what happened at the hands of those vile Lynxes, out over Gitchi-Gami. But we were still far in the west and it took us this long just to reach here. The scouts we sent reported nothing amiss on the lake, but they did find Grandfather Nigankwam, and noticed how one of his feathers was missing--as well as all the strange scents in the air. The Pukwudjininees and Nebanaubae who were nearby mentioned a great battle and that you had survived! But we had no idea where to find you! We decided to head north, and sweep down toward the lake ourselves just in case we had missed something. I truly expected that you would be dead by now. But you are still alive!" He put his arm to his chest in what looked to Charmian to be some sort of salute; then he noticed her again, and his ugly look returned and he lowered his arm to point at her so sharply that she gasped and jumped. "And in the company of HUMANS! The same humans who were present when Grandfather Nigankwam was KILLED!" He glared at Kenu again, apparently forgetting who he was. "Explain this!"
Kenu also seemed to forget who he was, shrinking in on himself sheepishly. Charmian slowly got to her feet, trying hard to ignore the Animiki's hostile glare. She poked Kenu's arm, hoping that it would have the same effect as before; sure enough, he straightened right up and glared right back.
"These tiny humans are my FRIENDS! They offered to accompany me as I made my way back to search for my tribe and to avenge my grandfather! None of them have done me any harm as they are far too weak and insignificant to do so!"
Charmian made a face. Well, at least he's trying.
The lead Animiki's frown grew. He gave Charmian a strange look which made her feel uneasy, then said, "The humans who are responsible for the death of your grandfather have promised to accompany you, then...?"
The blood drained from Charmian's face and she found herself staring at him mutely. Kenu turned his head to look up at her, confused, then looked back at the older Thunderbird. "Huh...?" he asked.
The Animiki crossed his arms, still giving Charmian an evil look. "The Nebanaubae told us everything. They said that some sort of spell was recited right before the battle and that this ensured the defeat of the Animiki at the hands of the Lynxes. Apparently--it was a fire-haired girl who recited this spell!"
Charmian tried to swallow, but it suddenly felt like there was a boulder stuck in her throat. The look that Kenu gave her made her want to sink into the ground; he looked like a child who had just discovered his father playing Santa Claus. "Human...?" he said in a small voice. "Is...is that true...?"
Charmian squinched her eyes shut, wincing and looking away and wishing that she had simply handed over Little Wind after all. She heard Kenu let out a small snuffling noise; then his voice came again, cracking a tiny bit at first, but then growing louder.
"E...even if that's true...it's not as if they intended it! They've kept me company ever since Gitchi-Gami, and even before that, and have offered to assist me in defeating the manitou TRULY responsible for my grandfather's death! These little humans aren't our enemies!"
Charmian's eyes opened in surprise. Kenu was glaring at the lead Animiki again, and she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. She didn't think even she would have been so forgiving.
"Nevertheless," the lead Animiki said, "we have found you now, and will take you back to what is left of your tribe, which awaits you--so you hardly need depend on these humans anymore!" He gestured westward. "We can get going right at this moment, Little Brother..."
"Huh?" Kenu blurted out; then, "NO! I have a duty to avenge my grandfather!"
"This you can still do," the lead Animiki said, frowning. "With us at your side!"
Kenu started shaking his head so hard that his feathers flopped back and forth. "Nuh-uh nuh-uh nuh-uh! I do it on MY terms! And--and my terms are that these tiny humans keep accompanying me!!" He dashed to stand in front of Charmian, reaching one hand back behind him; she grasped it, brow furrowing, and felt his little fingers grasp hers back. "I REFUSE to leave them behind when they came to my aid at such a time! No matter HOW puny and insignificant they are!"
The lead Animiki snorted and crossed his arms again. "You truly think they can serve any decent purpose in fighting a manitou, Little Brother...?"
"We've been keeping an eye on him so far!" Charmian protested, hating being talked about behind her back...or right in front. "He's still safe, can't you tell--?"
"Oh really?" the lead Animiki growled, and jerked his thumb in the direction of Mudroot's camp. "You would really keep company with humans in the company of a Lynx? Don't think we didn't spot that thing following you in the water!"
"That's just Mishupishu!" Charmian exclaimed.
"No, no!" She shook her head, frustrated. "The Mishupishu!"
"Mishu wouldn't hurt a FLY!" Kenu insisted. "He's coming with me too! I believe he's FULLY proven himself worthy of the Animiki's trust!"
The lead Thunderbird started huffing. "Humans are one thing--Lynxes are ANOTHER thing entirely! What would your grandfather even say if he knew--?"
"He's coming and that's FINAL!" Kenu yelled, stomping his foot so hard that the ground shook; Charmian chattered, but the other Thunderbirds didn't even flinch. "If you and your tribe decide to come along--then more power to us Animiki! But I REFUSE to be deterred in my quest to defeat the hideous Megissogwun--"
Charmian saw the lead Animiki's eyes flare, and fully expected it when he drew himself up, almost seeming to puff up like an offended turkey. "MEGISSOGWUN?" he boomed, and the ground shook even harder this time; even Kenu stumbled a little. "You mean to tell me that this manitou you are going to defeat," the Animiki blared, "is MEGISSOGWUN?" He clenched his fists and lightning practically shot out of his eyes. "ARE YOU COMPLETELY MAD? Do you think you have even HALF the power to defeat such a creature as this--?!"
"You know him--?" Charmian managed to get out, but he completely ignored her and took a stomp toward Kenu, who backed into her leg with a flinch.
"I DO NOT CARE WHOSE GRANDSON YOU ARE! No little fledgling goes out to fight such a manitou ALONE, much less with mere HUMANS as his companions! You must have been dropped out of the nest a few too many times to think you stand a chance!"
Kenu's lip started quivering. Charmian grasped his shoulder and stepped around him, forcing herself to meet the Animiki's eyes; they flashed dangerously but she tried to ignore it. "Hold on!" she exclaimed. "Kenu's done just fine until now and he'll KEEP doing just fine!" A peep from the corner of her eye showed her how his own eyes went wide and wet. "But how do you know about Megissogwun?"
The lead Animiki puffed up again. "ALL Animiki of age know of this beast! HE is the one who once attempted to destroy the world with those MISHUPISHUS--one of which you keep in YOUR company! There are those who say that if he were destroyed, then our war with the Lynxes would end, and we would at last be at peace!" He leaned to the side to glare at Kenu again. "Do you hear this--? WAR! War is no place for a tiny fledgling, no matter WHO he may be!"
Kenu grasped the long silver feather decorating his hair. "THIS IS THE FEATHER OF MY GRANDFATHER, THE MIGHTY NIGANKWAM! I CLAIM EVERY RIGHT TO AVENGE HIS DEATH UPON THE MISHUPISHUS!!"
Charmian had to put her hands to her head, it was throbbing so much by now. "CAN WE PLEASE STOP YELLING?!" It fell so silent so suddenly that she grimaced, and lowered her hands. "Could you please," she said, "tell me what you know about Megissogwun? Because he's the reason why we're all here like this!"
"You mean your friends who are cowering over in the trees--?" the lead Animiki said; she winced again. "No one knows everything about him. There are only rumors and speculation passed from mouth to mouth. All we know is he came from the east, and commanded the Lynxes to destroy this land. Which they nearly did. We can keep them under control--when they act alone. According to the elders, though, when he gathered them together to attack, even we stood no chance." His eyes darkened. "We've heard reports of them gathering again, just like before! You mean to tell me that you are the cause of this--?"
"Hell no!" Charmian snapped. "I'm just trying to set things right!"
"I see," the lead Animiki said. "By getting Grandfather Nigankwam killed." She felt her face start to burn; the Animiki turned to Kenu and crossed his arms. "No doubt your grandfather told you what happens when humans get involved in affairs they'd best leave alone," he said. "If you come back west with us, I'll see to it personally that your grandfather is avenged! But whatever is going on with these humans is none of our business!"
Kenu's lip stuck out and he clutched Charmian's arm. "IT IS TOO! Oh...sorry," he said when he saw the awful look on Charmian's face. "They might be tiny worthless humans to you but they've kept me company all this while, promising to escort me to this Pearl Feather, and I in return have offered them the shelter of my great wings! Grandfather promised he would look into taking on the Lynxes again...seeing as he is gone...it's now MY duty to do so. You can't deny me my claim!" His eyes grew wet. "That would just be wrong!"
"Surely you can do this without humans--?" the lead Animiki asked in exasperation.
"Nuh-uh!" Kenu shook his head adamantly. "I find them--they--they are tiny and insignificant but--well--I like them!" And he blushed.
Charmian felt her throat stick. That was probably the nicest thing he'd ever said about humans.
The lead Animiki continued scowling at them both, then let out a gusty sigh which made their hair fly back. "FINE! If it settles this childish squabble once and for all!" He took a step back. "However, if you think that we will resort to walking about with humans, then you'd best think again. My men and I will be busy seeking out these Lynxes in the meantime. If you need us, you need merely SQUALL again!" He glanced at Charmian, and she wished he would stop making that face, as he would have looked much cuter without that expression. "Which reminds me--what it is that you people have to do with any of this--? The Sky Mother called for the help only of manitous and Animiki before. How is it that HUMANS have become involved--?"
"Somebody had to look for the Winds!" Charmian protested. "Since you guys weren't exactly around!" She gasped and took an abrupt step forward. "Hey! You guys just came from the west--maybe you know where the West Wind lives--?"
"No," the Animiki said flatly, and her hopes deflated. "Grandfather Kabeyun keeps his whereabouts a strict secret, even from the Animiki, and for good reason. The Winds have much more important things to do than waste their time on humans."
Then why the hell did he pass time with Wenonah--? Charmian thought, but didn't dare say it aloud. "Well...thanks anyway," she said, for what felt like the hundredth time.
"That is all?" the Animiki said, and when she could think of nothing to say he turned away and gestured at his men. "Just call for us when you're done doing your little things, and then let us step in and take care of the rest," he called to Kenu, who fumed but said nothing. "Perhaps you can kill a Lynx, especially that tiny one following you, but the Pearl Feather is hardly the sort of manitou you should be taking on alone--revenge or no revenge! The last thing we need is the land running red with the blood of yet MORE Animiki, especially Animiki who are meant to lead their tribe...!"
Charmian blinked, then a thought popped into her head. Red--? She took a step forward. "Red Swan!" she called out, remembering the reaction that the name had gotten from Nigankwam and Little Wind.
Just as she'd hoped, the Animiki halted in his tracks, turning to look at her. She didn't get to make out the look that he gave her, however, as a voice in her head shouted so suddenly that she gasped and nearly fell over.
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