An icy wind and an awful shadow descend over Manitou Island...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 76: Reality, Harsher Than Dream"
Return Of The Ice Chief
CLOUDS DESCENDED OVER the little town at the south end of the Island, and the sky darkened so drastically that people began coming out of their houses to look upward in puzzlement. Horse carriages halted and men carrying their furs stopped to see what was happening to the light. The women in their fancy dresses grasped their arms and shivered in the sudden cold. After a moment or two the horses began stomping and jerking their heads, and it took everything the carriage drivers had to keep them from bolting.
The doors of the Fur Company opened and several people came out to peer up. Francois LaCroix shielded his eyes, though there was hardly any reason to; the clouds roiling overhead were almost black, and as heavy as a smothering blanket. A chill bite had entered the air, and the wind picked up, whipping at his cap so he had to hold it in place. He frowned as he stared at the clouds.
By now the street was crowded with townspeople, all murmuring in awe. Chief and One-Eyed Pierre made their way to the edge of the crowd, scratching at their heads. Movement off to the side caught their attention, and they turned their heads to see Francois getting atop his horse and turning it about. He did so so abruptly that it nearly ran into a hitching post, and it let out a startled noise and threatened to rear up. Instead the trapper smacked at its behind and it took off up the street in the direction of the bluff and the woods.
The two natives frowned, then peered at each other uneasily.
"If he's all off in a hurry, then what's that mean for us?" Pierre asked.
Chief shrugged. "I don't know...but at least it means fewer people inside, and more drink for us!" He turned to the doors of the Fur Company standing behind them.
The air fell dead silent, for just a second. Then a howling, hissing, screaming wind descended, whipping around everything that wasn't nailed down, and everybody threw their arms over their heads, yelling and scrambling for cover. A roaring noise came from the sky and more than a few people tripped and fell into the mud or ran into each other in their haste and confusion. The roofs started rattling; horses whinnied and reared onto their hind legs, spilling furs and clothing and packages to the ground. Shingles and planks began tearing loose from some of the more rickety houses as the street at last began to clear, and a moment or so later, ice began to form on the corners of the buildings, the windows frosting over.
Francois's horse galloped up the trail into the woods. He managed to glance up at the trees as they went, and saw how the leaves whipped and flailed, the wind whistling at a hideous pitch all around him. He turned away too soon to see how the branches began to grow shiny with ice, though the creaking and groaning sounds they made were obvious enough.
By the time the horse cleared the open trail and vanished into the trees of the deep woods, the path itself had gone white with frost, and snowflakes began whipping down from the sky.
* * * * *
Thomas pulled on Charmian's arm. They fell back against the earth wall of Fort Holmes, staring up at the darkening sky. The wind screamed over the open top of the fort; after a moment Thomas went running, and she was forced to go along with him. They took shelter in the small doorway of the fort, peering out. The tops of the trees around the hill whipped back and forth.
"What is it?" Charmian had to yell above the noise. She craned her neck out, only to have him pull her back in.
Charmian grasped her upper arms in her hands and chattered. Her eyes widened when she saw icicles starting to form on the doorway's overhang, then she yelped when she thought she saw snowflakes descending.
"SNOW?" She gritted her teeth. "IT'S PRACTICALLY SUMMER!"
Jeez, I knew Michigan summers sucked, but not THIS bad--!
In response Thomas grasped her wrist again and ran out the door. She yelled as they went, shielding her head with her free arm; something stung her skin, and she realized in bewilderment that it must be hail. They stumbled to the edge of the cliff and Thomas finally let go.
"Go back to the cave!" he yelled over the tumult, jerking his hand down toward Tal Natha's cave. Charmian opened her mouth to protest, only to feel something tugging at her leg; looking down, she could just barely see Marten pulling at her.
"C'mon! C'mon!" he cried, tail puffed up.
Charmian looked back at Thomas. "But what about you--?" she shouted, before Marten hopped over the cliff edge. Thomas turned to look at the sky and she gasped when he was suddenly not visible anymore. For a moment she thought she'd gone blind, until she realized that everything was white, not black. She took a step back and felt the ground disappear beneath her feet; before she could scream, something clasped onto her arms, and she sailed through the air to land on her knees on hard ground. Marten was here again; she could tell when she felt him hop onto her shoulder, and somebody else took hold of her arm. She stumbled toward them and a little oval of light became visible. Just as they entered it she recognized Red Bird as the one leading her, the woman's red hair flailing wildly around her face, her eyes large.
"Come inside!" she cried, needlessly; Charmian followed.
Once they'd entered the little passageway leading into the cave the roar of the wind abruptly ceased, changing into a hollow growl; she glanced over her shoulder to see Dakh Natha just behind them, shaking the ice from his fur. Charmian couldn't stop shaking, herself; Red Bird led her into the middle of the room, rubbing Charmian's hands between her own.
"Wh-what h-happened?" Charmian stammered, confused.
"The sky just got ALL DARK!" Marten cried. He had to shake the ice flakes out of his own fur, his tiny teeth chittering. "And then, it got all COLD--"
"I kn-know that part," Charmian interrupted; Sikt Natha enfolded her in her wing, and she had to hold her head up to avoid chewing on her feathers. "What I d-don't get is wh-what it means!"
Thomas did not return with you? Tal Natha asked, frowning.
Charmian shook her head. "He s-stayed outside." Her eyes grew. "He's still out there, then! He'll probably FREEZE in weather like th..." She trailed off, then rubbed at her nose meekly. "Um...never mind."
I do not like that he stayed out there. Tal Natha lifted his head, and Dakh responded by turning back to the entrance. He halted, cringing back as soon as a gust of wind buffeted him in the face; he turned away from the opening, teeth bared, and flared his wings up to block the wind and snow from coming in.
No one can fly in wind like this, he said. No one but Wendigoes.
"Then Thomas should be..." Charmian sucked in a breath now and pushed her way free from Sikt's wing. The others stared at her as she took several quick steps toward the entrance, staring at it as if Dakh Natha were not even there. The male demon peered at her as if he could read her thoughts.
Charmian only stared into space, eyes wide.
"It can't be," she whispered.
* * * * *
Thomas fought his way down the side of the hill, further away from Tal Natha's overlook, though by now he wasn't certain which way he was headed. He shielded his eyes as best as he could, and tried to make out the shapes of the trees and rocks around him, to gauge his location; a neighing noise came from off to his side, and a moment later he felt something large bump against him. He put out one hand and found it pressed to a horse's flank.
"Cloud?" he had to yell. "About time you showed up!" He fumbled around for the horse's reins, and managed to pull himself up upon his back; Cloud turned about and started trotting. They headed perpendicular to the wind, weaving along in the blizzard; when he grasped at Cloud's mane he felt ice crystals prickle his fingers, and brushed them away.
"What sort of..."
The howling wind overhead slowly turned into a rising shriek, and then a faint cackling came, breaking apart and forming again as if the wind itself continued to tear it to shreds. Thomas's head jerked up, but he still saw nothing but white. He scanned the sky--or at least, what he assumed to be the sky--as best as he could. The cold didn't affect him, but the wind was so strong that his eyes stung, and he had to fight to remain upright. He thought he saw two faraway lights forming in the sky, and focused on them, trying to determine what they were. He pulled on Cloud's reins and attempted to urge the horse toward them, yet Cloud fought back, whinnying and rearing. Thomas gritted his teeth as he tried to regain control of the panicked horse.
"Cloud--? What is it? Stop acting so..."
His voice died as the wind began to do the same, at least a little...the raging blizzard abated just enough for the lights in the sky to become clearer, and Thomas's eyes widened when he saw now that there was something dark around them. The faint cackling came again, and the lights began to bob in an odd swaying motion.
Cloud tossed his head, tugging on his bridle. His eyes rolled as if he'd gone mad, and Thomas dug his fingers into his mane.
He shielded his eyes once more to look at the vague shape looming in the blizzard, and after a moment, it seemed as if it...noticed him? For the two lights flared brighter, and began bobbing again, and with a start he realized that they were not two lights but something else entirely, and they were not just bobbing but coming closer.
Whatever it was was not so very far away after all. Rather, it was bigger than anything he had ever seen, and it rose high over the Island, the insane cackling rising all around him.
Cloud suddenly jerked, almost bucking Thomas from his back. Thomas grabbed onto the pommel to keep from falling when the horse jerked again and turned in an anxious circle. The third time he noticed it was not the horse making the move, but the ground itself quaking, every few seconds; after a moment he could even hear it, a faint boom arising with every tremor. Looking up, he saw that the noises corresponded to the swaying motion of the shadowy shape. His heart struggled up into his throat on looking at it.
It's coming this way.
The blizzard abated a bit more, and Thomas had to crane his neck back at an uncomfortable angle as the giant boomed ever closer, the trees quaking all around them and Cloud whinnying in panic. The lighting was such that as the snow lessened, the giant shape cast a shadow over Thomas, and both he and the horse and everything in their immediate area was draped in darkness. Still the shape loomed larger, and ever larger, until he was looking almost straight up into the sky. The flailing snowflakes dissipated, and Thomas found himself staring up into the largest pair of yellow eyes that he had ever seen.
They narrowed and the great mouth split open in a hideous, sharp-toothed grin, a grin huge enough to have swallowed both Thomas and Cloud whole with more than enough room to spare. When it spoke, the air itself reverberated, a haze of ice crystals puffing out around it.
* * * * *
In the Sky Tree, Geezhigo-Quae's head jerked up and she stared into space, eyes wide. Her ears quivered as if she heard something, then she shivered and clasped her own arms. A line of worry knit her brow. Something twinged inside, as she sensed the Island itself. The Island was...hurting.
"No," she whispered in disbelief.
* * * * *
The look on Charmian's face was so determined that Dakh didn't bother trying to detain her; he stepped aside as she bolted out onto the ledge. She would have tried climbing up the cliff herself had he not flown out and caught hold of her, carrying her up; she dropped from his claws and landed in a seeming cloud of snow, sinking down to her knees. She had to fight her way toward Fort Holmes, unable to see it, but trying her hardest to keep Thomas's presence in her mind. She nearly ran into the doorway of the fort and circled around it to the other side and started stumbling blindly down the hill. She fell down repeatedly, each time sputtering snow out of her mouth and clambering to her feet again. She heard a faint neigh, and ran as best as she could in that direction, yelling at the top of her lungs.
The wind howled, then she could swear she heard a voice yelling--"Charmian! Don't come closer!"
"Thomas? Where are you?" Charmian shouted in return, stretching out her arms toward the voice and trying to ignore the pained chill biting against her from every angle. "I can't see you anywhere--!"
Abruptly the storm died down around her, and she almost fell over, as she'd been leaning into the wind. She caught herself and glanced up to see Thomas standing several yards away, staring right at her, eyes wide. Relief flooded through her and she stretched out her hand again.
He clenched his fists. "Go back!"
Charmian's brow furrowed in confusion at his shouting...then she noticed how a gigantic shadow fell over him, and only then thought of looking up. Her eyes rose as high as they could go, and then she had to tilt her head, back further, and further...she sucked in a shaky breath at the familiar face which greeted her, towering above as high as a building.
Augwak grinned. His voice both hissed and boomed. "Well, well...if it isn't the mainlander." Every one of his teeth showed, and they looked as long and as sharp as machetes; his eyes looked like two pits of fire. "Somehow, I knew we'd be seeing each other again...did you miss me?"
Charmian swallowed. "Augwak." Her voice came out tiny and faint with disbelief; the GeeBee loomed almost as tall as the Sky Tree! "What happened to you?"
She wasn't certain if he would even hear her, considering how tiny and far away from him she was; his ear pricked, and he grinned again, eyes narrowing.
"Merely a little gift someone was thoughtful enough to bestow on me...someone who, I take it, you've met before?" He lowered his head to come closer to her, and Charmian felt Thomas take her wrist and pull her back a step or two. Augwak crouched down until his head was as high as a one-story building, and she could feel his icy breath wafting across her face. "At least, I take it you are not friends...seeing as he seems to want you dead."
Charmian sucked in a breath. "Dead?" She struggled to regain some of her senses and clenched her fists. "So you're just acting on someone else's orders, all over again, huh? Just like with Ocryana? Can't you ever do something on your own?"
Augwak let out a rasping noise that might have been a laugh or a snort; whichever it was, it blew a gust of snowflakes right in her face, making her chatter. "Ah, so out come those little claws again. Be careful, fleshling, or I just might cry." His mouth twisted. "As a matter of fact...I act on my own. This 'gift' was always mine to begin with...and this person is hardly the only one who wants you dead."
Without any warning, his hand swept through the air, and five fingers as long as logs wrapped around her. Thomas fell back in surprise; he then jumped forward and yelled, protesting, as Charmian was lifted bodily into the air, the GeeBee's fist big enough to envelop her entire body from her shoulders down to her legs. She let out a pained cry as he squeezed, his grip constricting her lungs.
"Wh-wh-what the h-hell did you d-do to your h-hands?!" she managed to stammer as he brought her up before his face. "R-r-rub a w-walrus--?"
Augwak's gigantic teeth gleamed just several feet from her face. "You've always had a sassy tongue, fleshling. Too bad you're so tiny now that I'll hardly even be able to taste it!"
Charmian gritted her teeth. "P-PERVERT!"
"Let her down!" Thomas shouted from below.
"I'll get to you when I'm good and ready," Augwak said to him, narrowing his eyes. He turned his attention back to Charmian and gave his most gracious smile. "At least it'll be over with quickly, fleshling, and I won't have to tear you limb from limb...although that sounds highly amusing!" He cackled, and she grimaced at the blasting noise, making a horrible face.
"Don't you ever b-brush your teeth--?" she snapped when his laugh died down. "Your mouth smells like the horses dumping on Market Street!!"
He brought her closer so she could see her reflection in his eye, which was as big around as a beach ball. "Like I was about to say--that mouth of yours won't exactly do you any favors." He reared up, taking her with him, and squeezed her tightly as he opened his mouth, making her cry out.
"I'll open up, and YOU say, 'Aaah'!" he exclaimed gleefully, and tilted back his head, holding her over his mouth.
A gust of icy wind slammed up against his chin, almost making him drop her; his fingers crushed around her again so she whimpered and struggled, but his eyes widened in surprise. He had to shake his head and blink, looking around himself.
"What...? Where did that come from? I didn't do it!"
He frowned and took a step to the side, ears twitching. A second later another icy blast struck the back of his neck and he yelped, clapping his free hand to his nape and rubbing at it with a grimace. His grip on Charmian loosened just enough that she could breathe properly, and she started trying to wriggle herself free. The GeeBee looked under himself, then up in the air, then to the sides, starting to turn in confused circles; another cold blast snapped across his wrist, and he let out a startled yell. His hand flew open and Charmian fell with a short scream.
Just as soon as she was sure that she would hit the ground, she heard the muffled sound of someone trying to run through the snow, and felt Thomas's arms go under her; her weight brought him down with her and they collapsed in a snowdrift, sputtering. Charmian made a face and tried to brush snow out of her eyes as Thomas stumbled to his feet, looking upwards; she followed suit, to see Augwak grimacing and shaking his head violently from side to side, batting at the air. Something was whirling around his head like a mini tornado, lashing out at his ears and eyes, and he let out a frustrated growl as he tried to knock it away from him.
"What in the hell is that!!" he screamed.
The small thing zooming around his head finally slowed just enough for Charmian to make out what it was--"Pakwa!"--and she tried getting to her feet, wallowing in the snow. Pakwa was almost invisible in the fresh fall of snow which was again descending, and his size was such that Augwak could hardly see him. He hovered near Augwak's ear and swung his arm out, sending a chilling whip of wind straight at him, and the giant GeeBee roared and smacked at his ear.
"KNOCK THAT OFF!"
Charmian heard Thomas snort. "Of course; why didn't I think of that?" he muttered, and waded through the snow a few paces. Charmian looked up at him and he held his arms up, palms pointed at Augwak; he jerked backwards, as if recoiling, and Charmian could barely see a long line of white shooting up toward Augwak. A second later the GeeBee screamed in rage and rubbed at his face. Thomas and Pakwa started pelting him with ice and wind, and all he could do was shriek and lash out at them futilely, waving his great arms in the air.
Charmian's face lit up. Fight fire with fire--and fight ice with ice! Sometimes a little opposition can go a long way, though! She managed to get up and held her hands out in front of her--Please let this work--before yelling, "LOOK OUT!" Thomas glanced at her and then dodged back. Pakwa disappeared in a puff of wind and Charmian shouted, "FIRE!"--sending a great bolt of flame zooming upwards into Augwak's breast.
The firebolt slammed into the GeeBee's breastbone and flared up around his shoulders; he screamed and flung his arms up in obvious pain, trying to shake the fire away. Charmian readied herself for another attack but by then Thomas had grabbed hold of her arm and was pulling her away, back toward Cloud. Pakwa sat in the snow just beside the horse, a neutral expression on his face. Augwak stomped in circles, screaming and howling in rage. He kept flinging out his hand, sending snow flurries every which way, yet so far his aim was poor.
"Come on!" Thomas yelled over the noise, pushing Charmian atop Cloud's back. "Let's get out of here while he's distracted!"
But then what--? Charmian nearly asked, then decided not to. Thomas climbed atop Cloud's back as well and grabbed hold of the reins, snapping them sharply and nudging the horse in the flanks; he turned about and galloped around the base of the hill and into the woods to head east. As they made their way into the shelter of the woods Charmian glanced back up and behind them. Augwak's giant shape was still impossibly visible upon the hill near the fort, and his bellows echoed all the way across the Island. The snow finally obscured him from view and Charmian turned to face forward again. Pakwa's shadow flitted overhead in the branches.
"He's bargaining with Chakenapok!" she cried. "He said he got this power from someone who wants me dead! Who else could give him that power--?"
"I'm taking you to that big rock with the old woman living in it," Thomas shouted over the noise of the wind. "Then you can have a talk with her and figure out whatever the bloody hell you have to do next!"
"But Old Mother Manitou can't help me--!"
"MAKE her help you, then!"
Charmian tried to protest, but found that her lips were going numb. She shook so hard that she could barely keep her balance atop Cloud, and when she grasped at his mane, she couldn't even feel her fingers anymore. Her teeth clattered and Thomas reached his arms around her, but that only seemed to make things worse. She swayed, suddenly feeling drowsy, and it was only his arm that kept her from tumbling into the snow.
"Charmian--?" he yelled.
Charmian chattered and tried to get her mouth to work. "I f-feel so t-t-tired," she managed to get out; Thomas looked at her over her shoulder and she saw how wide his eyes were. Why was he so awake, while she was so exhausted all of a sudden--?
"Charmian!" he shouted. "The cold! Try to keep awake--I might not be able to wake you up--!"
"What...?" Charmian tried to say, since the wind carried away whatever he'd just shouted; but her mouth seemed to go completely numb even as she spoke, and it felt as if somebody wrapped her entire body in a soft dark towel just then, and her eyes drifted shut as she slipped into unconsciousness.
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