Charmian and company get too close to an odd discovery...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 63: Severed Ties"
NISKIGWUN SAT MISERABLY beside the wall, his wings hunched over his back. The two old women had been harping at each other for what seemed to be hours now, and still nothing had changed; he wasn't even certain why he was still needed, since neither seemed to know what to do.
"I knew of course you'd have some dealing in this!" Nokomis crowed. "Things always go downhill when you stick your grubby little fingers in them!"
"For the last time, I DIDN'T DO IT!" Old Mother Manitou railed in response, waving her arms. "It was THIS fellow who dragged him in in the first place! Slander a poor old woman for taking care of someone!"
"Oh, don't give me that 'poor old woman' routine--you know as well as I do that you're not poor, and while you're certainly old, you still get by just fine!"
Old Mother Manitou flared with indignation. "Who are you calling old, you bat?"
This time Nokomis waved her arms. "IT'S IN YOUR NAME, FOOL!"
Niskigwun dropped his head into his hands. Manabozho lay on a pallet not too far away, and the two old women were squabbling over him as if he were a carcass and they were vultures. He'd felt that bringing him to Sugar Loaf might be a mistake if his grandmother found out, but the Crooked Tree was on the other side of the Island, and he really had thought the two would get along wonderfully...
Stab out my eyes the next time I decide to be so thoughtful.
"YOU THERE!" both women suddenly squawked, and Niskigwun jumped, his head popping up. They glared at him with their eyes practically flashing blue, and he swallowed hard, wishing he could sink down into the ground. Immediately both of them were right in his face.
"YOU'RE the one who brought him here, after all!" Old Mother Manitou fumed. "I say you're the one responsible!"
"You Turtle Spirits have always been a bit on the shady side!" Nokomis added. "Now all of a sudden one of you decides to show up, just when my 'Bozho needs help? Awfully convenient, I say!"
"I wouldn't be surprised if YOU were the one that slipped him that stuff!"
"I heard the girl got a bad batch of it herself! What's in that, mushrooms--?"
Niskigwun leapt to his feet. "Intolerable! I go out of my way to assist someone who has endangered himself, and for that MY reputation is called into question! If this is what awaits us here, then no wonder we left the Island!"
"He got sick on YOUR medicine!" both of them accused.
Niskigwun clenched his fists and bared his teeth, wings flaring. "I do not make the medicine! And it is perfectly SAFE if taken in moderation--your friend had to go and take the whole LOT of it! Just because he could not wait for it to kick in!"
Old Mother Manitou and Nokomis stopped yelling, giving him a narrow-eyed, critical look. Then they both peered at Manabozho, and their faces twitched.
"Sounds like something the idiot would do," Old Mother Manitou mused.
"He's never been the best at using his head," Nokomis added.
They mumbled something under their breath, then turned away from the Michinimakinong, seeming to lose interest in him. He stood and stared while they bent over Manabozho and poked at him a few times before starting to fuss.
"Well then, I have no clue how to rouse him out of this mess! He sleeps the sleep of the dead!"
"If he ever wakes up I should knock some sense into his head. Fool boy! He always gives me trouble!"
"Trouble? If you really wish for trouble, then try opening your home to a pair of love-starved demons! Then you will see what trouble really is..."
"You think I do not know trouble?! Try raising FOUR screaming kids! All on your own! And ending up with one like THIS!"
Niskigwun rubbed at his forehead, feeling a headache arriving. He turned and crept from the rock, slipping into the woods. For now, they could argue all they wanted. But if he wished for Manabozho to get some help, he would have to find someone less argumentative.
* * * * *
After leaving Sugar Loaf Rock, the group which had accompanied Charmian had dispersed, each to his own business elsewhere, though Mani returned to the Fairy Arch as if awaiting her return, and Thomas couldn't help but stop by it himself. He kept a greater distance than Mani, as the flicking of the manitou's ears told him he wasn't exactly welcome, though Mani made no moves other than that to indicate that he knew he was near. Thomas sat on a stump and stared at the Arch for a long while, wondering how long it would take her. Where had she even arrived this time? He hoped that wherever it was, it didn't have a long fall...
A very soft rustling noise came from the path behind them, and both of them turned to look. Thomas frowned when he saw the person who had apparently been trying to kill Charmian before--Moon Wolf, she'd called him--peering out from the trees. As soon as he noticed them both staring at him he blinked, then retreated, as if he hadn't meant to come there after all. Mani's nostrils flared but he refused to leave his post; he looked at Thomas when he rose instead, waving his hand vaguely.
"You stay, I'll go. I've been wanting a word with him anyway."
He followed the path Moon Wolf had taken, and caught up with him a moment later. He could tell his presence was noticed yet Moon Wolf didn't even turn his head. Thomas's mouth twitched in irritation.
"For someone who teaches fighting, you certainly act cowardly enough."
That made him halt. Moon Wolf turned his head to look back at him over his shoulder, a dark look in his eyes. Thomas stopped and crossed his arms.
"She told me you were her teacher. And while she seems to be all right with it, I still have a few little issues with you trying to kill her."
Moon Wolf turned around to face him. "This was not my doing," he said.
"I sort of figured as much." Thomas lifted his head. "Still, it doesn't explain why you've been creeping around like a whipped puppy ever since you got back. I know the two of you had some words back there on the cliff."
Moon Wolf's dark look grew even darker. "This is none of your concern."
"I believe you're wrong on that," Thomas replied. "Because if something upsets Charmian, then it's definitely my concern. Whether you say so or not."
Moon Wolf said nothing. Thomas heard another rustle and looked back to see that Mani stood at the edge of the path behind him, and the look he gave Moon Wolf was the same as the one Thomas imagined must be on his own face. He whistled, and though Thomas didn't understand it, he guessed its meaning, and judging by the look on Moon Wolf's face, he got the point as well. The two of them stared him down until he at last turned away.
"I have nothing more to say of this," he said, and walked away. Thomas and Mani stood to watch him leave, and only after he was gone did Thomas let out his breath, not even having known until then that he was holding it. He glanced back at Mani and raised an eyebrow.
"I thought you were keeping vigil by the Arch...?" he questioned.
The manitou whistled something in response. Thomas still couldn't quite understand it but guessed at its meaning, and his mouth twitched again, this time in a hint of a smile.
"Well, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I'm not the only one willing to jump to her defense so easily. It looks as if I'm last in a long line of admirers."
With this he turned and started back toward the Fairy Arch, Mani one step ahead of him.
* * * * *
Charmian rubbed at her ear. "I get the feeling someone's talking about me," she murmured absently.
Wabasso and Marten--who sat upon Wabasso's shoulder--both glanced at her. They were trekking across yet another of what seemed to be an endless expanse of fields separated by stands of trees, and another patch of forest waited ahead. Charmian thought she would grow sick of the monotonous scenery at any moment. What was more, the forest ahead didn't look quite so cheery and welcoming as the rest, its trees standing stark and almost black in a thick spiky bunch which made her want to shiver.
"How can you tell?" Wabasso asked.
Charmian touched her ear again. "It's ringing." When they looked puzzled she waved it off. "It's an old superstition we have..."
Marten sat up. "When my ears ring, Glooskap says it's my brains trying to get out! And then he tells me to hold my hands to my head for as long as I can, and I do!"
Charmian made a face. "Glooskap sure tells you some weird things."
Marten's tail flicked. "But it's true! I haven't lost my brain yet!"
One can never be too sure about that... "Not everything he says has to be right, you know," she said as they descended a little hollow leading into the woods.
Marten looked aghast. "Are you kidding? EVERYTHING Glooskap says is right! Well--except for what he says about my shortcuts. But everything else is right!"
"Actually I think I agree with him on the shortcuts..." Charmian murmured under her breath.
Marten frowned uncertainly. "What did you say...?" he asked, as they entered the woods, the black spiky trees immediately closing in behind them. They all shivered and looked around themselves as they went. A path led through this area, and they could even see a patch of sky here and there, just enough to keep the trail lit; but aside from that it was almost like walking through a maze of briar bushes. Charmian made sure not to get her clothes caught on any of the protruding branches.
Marten seemed to like the atmosphere even less than she did. He huddled on Wabasso's shoulder, baring his teeth and glancing from treetop to treetop. "I don't like it here! This place give me the creeps!"
Charmian glanced at Wabasso, and saw that even he didn't seem to like the woods they'd entered. He kept looking up at the sky, which had taken on a peculiar gloomy look since they'd set foot on the path. "It's almost as if the trees do not want us to be here," he murmured.
"Maybe they're just not used to too many people...?" Charmian couldn't help glancing at them herself. "I get the feeling people don't pass through here very often, at least..."
"No wonder!" Marten said. "They probably didn't like it either!"
Wabasso walked without speaking for a moment before the feathers on his head tilted upward. "That's what it is," he said suddenly, and paused. "Take a listen."
Charmian stopped, and the three of them strained their ears.
"I don't hear anything!" Marten said.
Wabasso nodded. "That's exactly it...there is nothing here. No songbirds, no owls, no mice or squirrels or anything. It's like...nothing lives here."
Charmian shivered. "I think I prefer that to the alternative!" She started walking, which forced them to follow. "Come on. From the outside these woods didn't look too big. The sooner we get out, the sooner we get out, and then..."
Her ears pricked when a soft whooshing sound, almost a moan, from ahead of them caught her attention. Immediately the three of them froze, eyes wide.
Marten cowered behind Wabasso's feathers. "Wh-what was that?"
"I don't know," Charmian said uncertainly. She rubbed her fingers together, suddenly cold. "Probably just the wind. Come on, we can't be too far now."
They resumed walking. The woods were silent for a short while, when the whooshing sound came again, louder this time, and definitely with a distinct moan to it. Charmian and Wabasso nearly stopped but she forced herself to keep going, and he followed. "Take a look at these trees," she said, feigning a confidence she didn't feel in the least. "The wind's bound to make some weird noises in trees like this, isn't it? I really bet that's all it is. There's no need to freak out just yet."
Marten's teeth chattered. "I th-think we should've taken a sh-shortcut!"
"If it's not the wind," Charmian retorted, "then you can just turn into a wolverine or something! Remember?"
The Mikumwesu didn't seem convinced by her argument, but Charmian wasn't about to start bickering with him. The third time the noise came a rustling sound joined it, just ahead of them, and once more they halted. Even when they stopped moving the noise continued, unabated. It sounded as if something were sitting just behind the trees and brush, moaning aloud.
Marten grasped Wabasso's feathers and covered his face with them, still chattering.
Charmian and Wabasso stood and stared in the direction of the noises, undecided. Charmian's fingers picked frantically at the corner of her vest and she chewed her lip.
"Look," she said in a faltering voice. "If we go back now, it's likely to take us a whole lot longer than if we just keep moving! And if we freak out, then we might lose the trail. We should keep moving ahead."
"I say we get lost!" Marten cried.
"What if I cannot talk to it with my flute?" Wabasso asked. "I get the feeling this is no normal creature..."
"We don't know what it is," Charmian insisted. "Look, I'll go ahead...and then you two promise to follow me...all right?"
She looked to them for agreement. The looks on their faces made her sigh and turn back to the noise. "A vague 'Okay' would do," she mumbled, and started walking hesitantly toward the sounds. After a moment she heard Wabasso start to follow her, and even though Marten chattered like mad, at least she wasn't being sent in to face it on her own.
The noise arose from a point lying just off the trail, behind a thick stand of crooked trees and weeds. Even the weeds were blackish colored in this place, and Charmian hesitated brushing them aside for fear that they were coated with something icky. They were wet, but she guessed it was just from rain; she got snagged a few times pushing her way through them and past the trees, the noises getting louder. At last she and Wabasso stopped just behind a crisscrossing of shrubby branches, the noise moaning loudly behind them. They looked at each other anxiously.
"On the count of three, we part them," Charmian said. "Agreed?"
Wabasso slowly nodded. Marten whined and hid his face.
Charmian slipped her fingers through the branches and Wabasso followed suit. "One, two, three," Charmian called, and they parted the shrubs to peer beyond them. Their brows furrowed.
As soon as they looked behind them, the moaning and rustling noises stopped--but there was still a soft shushing noise, and it seemed to be coming from a large black flower of some kind, growing in the middle of a small hollow. It stood perhaps five feet tall, two large leaves extending from its base and its head bobbing slightly like some freak dandelion. When they frowned at it in confusion it stopped bobbing, but continued shushing.
Charmian's face screwed up. "That's it? That's what was making all that noise...? Do they have magical flowers here?"
"I've never seen something like this," Wabasso confessed, equally confused. "Every plant I've seen is just as normal as any other."
"Can your flute talk to plants?"
"Not that I know of, no."
Charmian pushed her way through the shrubs and stepped into the little hollow. Wabasso looked ready to protest but refrained, instead carefully crawling out himself. Charmian stopped several feet from the flower and looked it over as he joined her.
"How is it making that noise...?" Her brow furrowed and she craned her neck from side to side. "The wind isn't even blowing! Does it make that sound itself? Was it moaning earlier--?"
"I say we go back!" Marten exclaimed. "Glooskap says bad things about weird flowers, like they make all your hair fall out if you get too close!"
Charmian stared at the flower. "I don't think it wants our hair...but I want to know what it does want. Wabasso...?" She looked to him.
Wabasso nodded, his face set. "It must be here for a purpose."
"Leave me OUT of this!" Marten jumped down from Wabasso's shoulder and scampered up to the lip of the hollow, turning back and hopping from foot to foot. "NOTHING good can come of messing with weird flowers! Glooskap says so!"
Charmian ignored him, and started stepping very slowly toward the plant, Wabasso doing the same. They edged ever nearer, keeping their footfalls as silent as possible and not taking their eyes from the flower. It shushed and shushed at them yet didn't move. They stopped just inches before it and leaned their faces even closer, frowning in puzzlement. As they did so its petals opened to expose its center, and after a brief glance at each other they peered inside. Nothing happened.
POOF. A thick cloud of black dust erupted from the flower, exploding in their faces. Marten clapped his hands to his head in alarm, then started chewing on his claws and hopping from foot to foot. "Ohhhhh! Charmian, Wabasso, are you all right?"
The cloud of black dust slowly dissipated, leaving the two of them standing, still leaning over the flower. They stared ahead, blinking, their faces the color of soot. Marten gawked. Charmian let out a cough, a tiny plume of dust puffing from her mouth.
Instantly, raucous laughter erupted from the treetops.
All three of them looked upwards, heads swiveling around. The laughter seemed to come from all over, a loud, braying cackle which filled the woods. A few words made their way out among the crowing--"Oh...that was a CLASSIC! The looks on your faces...HAHAHAHAHA!! I'll never forget that look! HAHAHAHAHA!! Priceless! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!"
Charmian started dusting the soot from her face, her earlier anxiety quickly being replaced by irritation. Marten only continued gawking; Wabasso frowned uncertainly as he dusted at his face, peering upwards from left to right. Charmian clenched her fists as the shrill laughter went on and on.
"I'm gonna KILL whoever did that...!"
A noisy rustling started somewhere overhead, as something seemed to jump from tree to tree like a large flying squirrel. Charmian picked up the nearest branch she could find and hefted it into a striking position. Marten crouched and puffed up with a hiss, but Wabasso didn't reach for his bow and arrows. He simply stood and watched the shape progress toward them, still cackling wildly as it came.
Charmian tugged at his clothes. "Do you WANT to make a good target--?"
Wabasso didn't even look at her. Instead, Charmian and Marten found themselves gasping and toppling backwards when something swiftly plopped to the ground from the trees, a crazy mass of grass and feathers and colors pointing every which way. It flung its hand in Charmian's face, and she fell over with a startled gasp--and then the screeching insane laughter filled her ears again.
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