Ishkode-Aanakwad offers a disturbing story about Geezhigo-Quae's past...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 123: The Right Of Revenge"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR:
THE LEADER OF the Animiki halted in his tracks, turning to look at Charmian. 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.
Charmian's mouth fell open and she pitched to the side, grasping at her head. Instantly her vision of the large group of Thunderbirds vanished, and she saw the Red Swan standing before her in what looked to be the cave, wringing her hands. The look on her face was so terribly aggrieved that Charmian instantly felt a pang of anxiety, hoping that something hadn't gone wrong. She took a mental step forward.
"Red Swan! What is it--?"
"You didn't even notice--?" the Red Swan cried. "That horrible brute did something to me! I don't even know what it was--but I couldn't get back in touch with you!"
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Who--?"
"That person you put me in touch with. Chakenapok!"
Now Charmian blinked. "Huh--? What do you mean, he did something to you--? What happened?"
The Red Swan wrung her hands even harder. "I don't even know what it was...he did something, and I couldn't reach you anymore! It was like he made me disappear!"
Charmian racked her brain a little, then remembered what had happened earlier, when Chakenapok had made her vanish, back in the tunnel on her way from the Sky Tree. Her face reddened a little. "Oh," she said, and chewed on her lip. "Um...I'm sure he meant no real harm by it..."
"No real harm?" the Red Swan cried. "Have you any idea how that feels? To just be made to vanish like nothing? I thought the three of us were supposed to be working together!" Her eyes grew wet. "Charmian! You have to promise you'll keep him away from me! What if he tries something else--?"
"Something else like what?" Charmian asked, growing confused.
The Red Swan shook her head. "Something WORSE! I saw his memories--I know what he tried to do to you! How can you even trust him in the least after he tried to take over your spirit so many times--?"
"That was ages ago," Charmian protested. "He's not like that anymore."
"Are you so sure?" the Red Swan protested. "You saw what he did! As if it were nothing! You think he would even hesitate before trying anything else--?"
"You look like you're fine," Charmian said weakly.
The Red Swan looked ready to continue arguing, then her mouth abruptly shut. She stared at Charmian for a moment, then Charmian tensed a little to see the strange look come over her face. "You're taking his side...?" she asked softly.
"Huh--? Of course not!" Charmian exclaimed. "There AREN'T any sides! I'm just saying--well--he hasn't done anything in such a long time, maybe it was just a misunderstanding--?"
"He made me disappear so he could be the only one in touch with you," the Red Swan said. "Does that sound like he's helping either of us? Does that kind of behavior sound like you should trust him?"
"Hold on a minute," Charmian said, her tension growing. "Where is Chakenapok? The last time I called him he didn't come up! Is he busy or something...?"
"He's where I put him!" the Red Swan practically snapped, her fists clenching and her eyes flashing. Charmian jumped, the change startled her so much. "Where he won't cause trouble anymore! Which is where he should've been in the FIRST place!"
"You--you mean you made him disappear--?" Charmian blurted out, and her mouth fell open again. "What did you do that for? He was my connection back to Manitou Island!!"
"Maybe he should have thought of that BEFORE he crossed me!" the Red Swan retorted, anger flickering across her face.
Charmian opened her mouth to retort to this, but something grasped her arm, and just like that, the image vanished. She found herself staring into the young lead Animiki's eyes instead, and let her breath out in a whoosh, confused beyond belief.
"...Huh...?" she said one last time, her knees feeling rubbery.
"Red Swan," the Animiki said, and frowned. "You said this name! What were you talking about--?"
Charmian blinked. She tried taking a step backward, only to nearly fall over Kenu; when she stumbled the Animiki caught her and she felt her ears grow hot. From the corner of her eye she saw the concerned look that Kenu gave her.
"Human?" he said. "Are you all right?"
"I...yeah...I think so," Charmian said, rubbing at her head. "What happened...?"
"You called out the name 'Red Swan' and then just stuck!" Kenu exclaimed. "Like the Wintermaker himself had frozen you in place!"
"I did?" She carefully pulled her arm free and the Animiki let go of her so she attempted standing on her own two legs again, albeit a bit shakily. "I don't remember..."
"You don't remember calling that name?" the Animiki said. "Or you don't remember what came afterward?" There was a pause as she continued rubbing at her head and shaking her numb feet. "You just had a vision, didn't you?" he added.
Her head jerked up and her eyes met his. "You think an Animiki can't tell when someone passes into a vision?" he said, his frown growing. "It had something to do with this Red Swan?"
"How--" She felt her face go pale. "How do you know that?"
The Animiki practically scowled. "You must think we are quite stupid not to put two and two together in such a manner! It's obvious you wanted to catch my attention when you yelled that name! What did Grandfather Nigankwam tell you?"
"He--he didn't tell me anything!" Charmian insisted. "All I know is he heard of the name--that's all I know! I thought maybe you would've heard of her too!"
"So you've seen her?"
Charmian nodded, not sure whether she should or not. "So you mean you know who she is--?" When he just gave her a dark look she bit her lip. "Could you tell me about her? Please? I've been asking people left and right and nobody has a clue!"
"Why is she so important to what you do now?" the Animiki asked, crossing his arms.
She shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "But she has something to do with all this, and it's driving me nuts not knowing what!"
The Animiki's face darkened. "If Grandfather Nigankwam did not see fit to tell you about her--then it is best for you not to know! Just go on with what you were already doing..."
Kenu hurried to jump in between them before he could turn away again, Charmian ready to start pulling on her own hair. "Perhaps--perhaps all can benefit from this sharing of wisdom!" he cried. "If you tell her what you know...and you tell him what you know...perhaps it would be best for everyone! Maybe...?" And he started glancing at both of them in turn, back-forth-back-forth, hope in his eyes.
Charmian and the older Animiki both stared down at him. After a moment the older Thunderbird let out a snort and turned away, gesturing at the rest of his men, who so far hadn't spoken up once.
"As much as it galls me to do such a thing...perhaps the fledgling has a point! The rest of you, stay near, but not too near. It looks like I might have to go converse with humans."
The other Thunderbirds began murmuring among themselves. Charmian bit down a retort--it must be second nature for Animiki to casually insult other races--and stood silent as the leader turned back around and stalked past her, jerking his hand imperiously. She began to scowl, but Kenu waved in a much friendlier manner, and trotted after him as if ready to be told a good story. She sighed and made herself follow.
"I don't even know your name yet," she said as they went, hoping that he wouldn't take that poorly, either.
"It is Ishkode-Aanakwad," he said curtly.
Kenu tugged on her sleeve. "Fire Cloud!" he whispered, sounding much impressed. "A very good name!"
Charmian frowned a little. "You don't want to know my name...?" she asked when the older Animiki said nothing.
"No," Ishkode-Aanakwad replied, and she decided not to pester him further.
More than a few faces were peering out of the little stand of trees as they approached. Charmian saw Winter Born's and Marten's eyes go especially wide; then when the two of them came running, she grimaced and waved her arms wildly, a little too late, to try to stop them. Ishkode halted immediately and his feathers stood on end; Marten hopped atop his arm and started scrambling over his shoulders, while Winter Born had the sense of mind to stop a few feet away and gawk at him, looking him up and down. The others started emerging once they saw that he wasn't going to strike them down or anything.
"WOW!" Marten exclaimed, hopping up and down on his shoulder. "A REAL THUNDERBIRD! I've only ever seen a LITTLE one before--I bet this one's all BIG and stuff!"
"Does he really come from the sky...?" Winter Born whispered to Charmian as if he couldn't hear.
The others were coming closer now and Charmian wanted to run her hands down her face but somehow managed to refrain. Ishkode looked like he wanted to murder someone. As soon as he saw how many of them there were, however, Mani and X'aaru in their company, he started to look uneasy, and Charmian saw his eyes glow a little brighter. She glanced at the crowd, then waved at Niskigwun, who hurried forward, nudging a few of them aside. If anybody had to deal with him directly, she supposed that he would probably be the best choice.
"For--forgiveness, Uncle!" he said, hastily grabbing Marten and tucking him under his arm so his legs wriggled.
"Hey!" Marten said. "From here I can see your b--"
Niskigwun readjusted him and jammed his head in his armpit. "You see--very few of us here have ever met an Animiki face to face," he explained. "Until now, this young one is the only one we've met, and..."
"Where are you all camping?" Ishkode asked Charmian with a scowl. Niskigwun paled, then blushed as soon as he realized that he'd been cut off; Charmian ground her teeth but pointed at the trees.
"There, I guess. Not that we were camping. There's--" She found herself talking to air, as the Animiki stalked on his way, Winter Born jumping to the side to avoid being bowled over. Niskigwun gave her a sheepish look as if to apologize, but she scowled herself and followed.
"You don't have to be so rude!" she said, which earned her several frantic waves from Niskigwun and Stick-In-The-Dirt in particular.
"I do not come here and waste time on humans in order to be POLITE," Ishkode replied. "Just point out the most appropriate spot, and get this thing over with so we can go back to more important things!"
"We're not all HUMANS in case you didn't notice!" Charmian retorted, and grabbed Niskigwun's arm to drag him forward, Marten dropping to the ground. The racket he made resisting made Ishkode turn around to look at them. "HE'S not human, for one thing!"
"He looks human," Ishkode said.
"F-f-forgiveness!" Niskigwun cried, pulling on his arm. "She does not know what she--"
"Does this look human--?" Charmian snapped, and pulled one of his wings out of their case. It popped upright like a Jack freed from a box, then Niskigwun hurriedly tucked it back down and gave her the most venomous glare that he could muster. But when she looked at Ishkode again, he was frowning in a much different way; he came back toward them and stopped several paces away, looking Niskigwun over as the others had looked over him.
"Michinimakinong," he said, as if perplexed. "You are truly one of these...?"
"Er--?" Niskigwun blinked furiously a few times, unable to answer coherently.
"Yes!" Charmian cut in, nodding. "A Turtle Fairy." She had no idea what the Thunderbird's sudden interest signified, but at least he wasn't carping at them anymore.
In response Ishkode began circling him, and even halted to poke at his wingcase. Charmian folded her hands together to look like a butterfly and gave Niskigwun a glare as she wiggled her fingers; he blushed again but freed his wings and flapped them a little. As soon as this happened Ishkode jumped away from behind him and fixed his stare right on hers.
"There are more of them--? Many more? Do they still live on the Turtle Island? Are they all like him? Do any live elsewhere? Have you met any more--?"
Charmian and Niskigwun stared at him as if he'd gone mad. The Michinimakinong gave Charmian a vaguely unsettled look but she stepped past him and nodded, then shook her head, then shrugged. "Uh--yeah--there's more," she said, trying to remember the questions in the order that he'd belted them out. "A whole lot more. They don't live on Manitou Island anymore, no. They're...kind of like him, but all different, I guess...I don't know if they live anywhere else...I've met a few. I mean, I've been where they live--"
She gasped and jumped; Ishkode moved toward her so quickly that it was almost as if he'd teleported. "Where they live?" he exclaimed. "Could you describe it--?"
"Hold on!" another voice ordered, and Kenu again stepped between them. He gave Ishkode an aloof look. "I believe it is your turn to share some knowledge," he said loftily.
Ishkode actually looked surprised, then he frowned--but it seemed more impatient than angry or offended--and let out a small sigh before turning away. He located a tree and strode to it and promptly sat down; the others peered at each other a little bit before drifting toward him and seating themselves a respectful distance away, except for Kenu, who sat down right at his knee, looking quite eager. Ishkode frowned at him a bit but then ignored him.
"Before I start, I kindly ask that you tell me what you know," he said to Charmian.
Charmian bit off a retort--hadn't they just established that he was to go first?--and forced herself not to sigh. Too heavily. She sat down across from him, near another tree. "I already told you most of it," she said.
"Tell me of these Michinimakinong and how it is that you know them," Ishkode said.
Charmian furrowed her brow. "Why are they so..." She trailed off when he gave her a pointed look, and started again. "On Manitou Island. They live through this thing called the Fairy Arch. There's this land of their own they live in, after they were chased off the Island by humans. If they live anywhere else, then I don't know about it. I've only met those ones. Geezhigo-Quae keeps watch over them."
"The Sky Mother...?" Ishkode appeared to drift off in thought for a moment or two. She tried not to fidget, waiting for him to snap out of it; it wasn't long before he did so, shaking his head and folding his arms, trying to look composed again. "The Red Swan is related to them," he said, and when she just stared at him he clarified. "The Michinimakinong."
"She is?" Charmian said, brow furrowing again. "I asked her if she was one, and she didn't seem to think so...in fact she said she was a manitou."
He shrugged. "All I know is what little I heard from the elders. And I was never told all, because whatever it is, it is a story told only among the eldest among the Animiki and held secret by them. No one who is not of age may be told--and certainly not humans--so this is likely why Grandfather Nigankwam did not tell you. Even I do not know the entire story. What little I know I heard mistakenly."
"You mean you eavesdropped--?" Kenu exclaimed; Charmian pushed herself forward, grasped hold of him, and dragged him back, keeping her hand over his mouth. Ishkode furrowed his own brow a little, then shrugged.
"If this is the ignoble term one wishes to use--then yes! I was barely a fledgling myself, and I've learned my lesson since then. Apparently it was an unpleasant story. I did not hear it all. The elder Animiki claim that long ago, the Pearl Feather threatened the Sky Mother, and when she refused him he attacked. The Michinimakinong came about as a result of this."
Dead silence filled the little patch of woods. Charmian couldn't stop grimacing, the little story had come out so bluntly; she peered at everyone else to see how their eyes were goggling in disbelief, even Manabozho's. She saw his stare shift toward Niskigwun, then sucked in a breath and thought to look at him herself; the look on his face was even more awful. He'd gone a sickly shade of gray, and his feathers looked ready to fall out of his headdress. Ishkode apparently noticed their looks, for he turned to Charmian with a frown.
"I take it then that all of you were not aware of this part of the story," he said.
"No!" Charmian blurted out, then shrank in on herself. "Not...not all of us..." She couldn't bring herself to see the look Niskigwun must be giving her now. "She told me a little of it in the Sky Tree," she admitted in a small voice.
"Hold on," Manabozho said, and leaned forward on his hands. "You mean to tell me that--that manitou is the FATHER of the Michinimakinong--?"
Winter Born gave Charmian a wide-eyed look. "Really?"
"This is really true--?" Stick-In-The-Dirt exclaimed, as if they were all ladies at tea gossiping about the most scandalous thing ever.
Charmian opened her mouth, only to see Niskigwun abruptly get to his feet, turn as stiffly as a soldier, and hasten out of the woods. Everyone silently watched him go, then looked back at her. She squirmed as if ants were crawling on her legs, and rather wished that some were, this situation was so awkward.
"Keepgoingplease?" she blurted out.
Ishkode pursed his lips but obeyed. "The Animiki heard tales of the birth of the Michinimakinong and how they lived upon the Island that had been restored--we all know of how our elders went out and fought the Lynxes before the flood, as to this day this is our greatest defeat--but we then heard tales that they vanished from the Island. None are known to have lived anywhere else, and so we feared that they had all been killed or had otherwise died out somehow. And so it is a surprise to learn that they are in fact still alive." He looked at where Niskigwun had been sitting, then turned back to her. "The part of the tale I did not hear in its entirety was that of the Red Swan. But it too had something to do with the Pearl Feather. Supposedly he kept her prisoner once."
"No," Charmian said, shaking her head. "That's not right. That was Geezhigo-Quae he kidnapped, not the Red Swan. She told me herself."
Ishkode's frown returned. "Then I do not know what to tell you, for this was the way our story went. Supposedly, she was locked beneath the ground, and kept there so the world would be safe."
"Huh?" Charmian exclaimed, so abruptly that several of them jumped. "Hold ON! SHE was locked away so WE would be safe--?"
"Perhaps back up and explain a bit further, Elder Brother--?" Kenu managed to say over her hand.
Ishkode looked skyward and let out a weary sigh but obliged. "As I said, I missed the details. I was caught before they could speak of such things, and learned never to eavesdrop again! But it sounded as if they said that this is the reason why she was imprisoned in the first place; because her very presence threatened the Turtle Island and everything upon and around it. The elders spoke of this in hushed voices--so I can only assume that they meant it seriously."
Charmian started chewing on her lip. "But..." She trailed off when the others looked at her, and her brow slowly started to furrow.
"What is it, Charmian...?" Winter Born asked.
"Something somebody said," Charmian murmured. She raised a thumb to her mouth and started chewing on her thumbnail instead. "The Red Swan said she felt like she hadn't existed until she came to in her cave...and based on what Little Wind said, it's almost like Mishosha was appointed specifically to keep watch over her. It sounds almost like this story could be true." Her confused frown returned. "But from the sound of it, Megissogwun has no idea about any of this--so what does that mean? If he's not the one behind it all, then who told Mishosha to keep watch over her, and why would he be so interested in this anyway?--he's trying to destroy the Island!"
Ishkode shrugged. "I do not even know these other names. I tell you all I know. Now tell me something else that you know." He gave her a dark glare and she squirmed. "About the Red Swan, and why you want to know about her."
"I've kind of been...talking to her," Charmian said meekly. "I kind of had a dream about her and she told me to come find her. I was hoping to free her once I figure out where she is."
As soon as she said the word free Ishkode began sitting up straighter and straighter, all of his feathers flaring. "You realize now how you can do NO SUCH THING?" he boomed, making the trees quake.
"I promised her I would!" Charmian insisted. "She doesn't seem that bad! She doesn't even know what's going on, I think she's more scared than anything! How--"
"DID YOU NOT JUST HEAR THE STORY I TOLD YOU?" Ishkode thundered, so that even Kenu winced and scampered back from him. "NEED I SPEAK LOUDER SO YOU CAN GET IT? IF THIS WOMAN IS FREED IT COULD VERY WELL SPELL THE END OF YOUR ISLAND AND EVERYTHING AROUND IT!"
"I don't buy that!" Charmian snapped, plugging her ears. "She's been helpful so far!"
Ishkode's eyes began burning and he looked ready to start hurling lightning bolts around the woods. Charmian's mouth snapped shut, and she realized that she had no idea what to do; which was why when someone stood up and strode toward her, grasping her by the wrist and pulling her to her feet, she simply obeyed without thinking. She blinked when she realized that Manabozho was turning and steering her out of the woods.
"She's still reeling from that vision she had, you know," he called over his shoulder to Ishkode, who was blinking himself by now. "Just give her a few moments to work it out, and then we can converse more civilly." He knocked Francois's knee with his foot as he passed and made a gesture of putting something to his mouth; Francois blinked this time, then started digging for his pipe. Charmian stumbled a little as they wandered out into open space again. She nearly started when she saw Little Wind sitting and leaning against a tree, wincing as he rubbed at his shoulder, but Manabozho ignored him and they walked right past.
"What...?" she managed to get out. In response he let her go and gave her a small shove so that she nearly tripped over her foot, and she turned to glare back at him. "Hey! What's the big idea? We were talking--!"
"And about to start arguing, then fighting, then WHO KNOWS what else!" he retorted, and jerked a hand to point further away from the tree stand. "You go deal with that! And I stay and deal with this! I know how to talk to Animiki and you don't."
Charmian bristled. "The HELL you do and the HELL I don't! What am I even supposed to be--" When he kept gesturing behind her she finally glared over her shoulder, then fell silent when she saw a solitary shape standing in the distance. Instantly her anger deflated; she recognized Niskigwun. "Oh," she said, and suddenly felt guilty for some reason.
"Maybe you should try catching him up a little more," Manabozho said, and turned and went stalking back toward the woods without her.
Charmian wasn't even listening anymore. She continued staring at the far-off silhouette, thinking over what Ishkode-Aanakwad had just said and how it had come out; as well as how she had felt when she'd first heard it. She couldn't quite keep herself from grimacing as she lowered her head and made her way slowly toward him, her heart heavy.
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