It turns out that finding Wabasso's body is only half the problem...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 119: Hide & Seek"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY:
This Way To The Egress
CHARMIAN, NISKIGWUN, MANABOZHO, and Peepaukawiss stood on the bank of the dark river, peering down into the water anxiously while Mudjikawiss watched from among the trees. Vague shapes appeared far beneath the surface, slowly drifting upward and carrying something pale between them. Charmian took in a breath, and peered just briefly at the two brothers, long enough to see their eyes grow wet; Niskigwun nudged them back with his spear just as the Nebanaubae's heads broke the surface of the water, their gills and fins flaring. They swam closer to the bank and lifted something out.
Charmian sucked in another breath as soon as she saw Wabasso's face. Manabozho's eyes grew even glassier, and Puka let out a small whimpering noise. Niskigwun stared at him in silence.
Charmian forced her mouth to work. "He...looks..."
"Like...he just sleeps," Puka said in a broken voice, and the tears started flowing down his face. Aside from the fact that he was much paler than she remembered him being, and his clothing and feathers were slightly mussed and drenched with water, Wabasso did look as if he were merely sleeping. Charmian couldn't believe it. She'd heard of what people looked like once they were pulled out of the water--snowmobilers went under the ice all the time around where she lived--and so to see him looking so took almost all of the words from her.
"The water...must've protected him," she murmured, her vision blurring. The Nebanaubae held up their arms and Wabasso tilted forward; immediately Niskigwun and Manabozho reached out for him, grasping hold of him by the arms and easing him down onto the bank. His moccasined feet stayed in the water; as soon as Puka noticed this, he stifled a sob and bent down to pull them out. They stretched him out on the ground and then stood numbly staring down at him. Even Mudjikawiss, still lurking back in the woods, stared at him with furrowed brow.
Charmian bit her lip. It's like all the color's been bleached from him, she thought absently. Like he's an...echo, or...reflection...or something. She looked up to see the Nebanaubae still floating with their heads bobbing above the water; "Thank you," she said softly, and they turned and vanished beneath the river, swimming slowly out of sight. She turned her head to look at Wabasso again.
Manabozho knelt near his head, holding one hand out as if he were going to touch him, yet was unable to. He chewed on his own lip and Charmian could see the tears in his eyes. She reached out and grasped his sleeve and he pulled his hand away from Wabasso's face, rubbing at his eyes instead.
There was an awkward pause. "We will take him back to the Island now," Niskigwun murmured at last, and stooped down to pick him up. Puka and Manabozho sat where they were, unspeaking, as the Michinimakinong grasped hold of him under his arms, hoisting him up so his head fell forward; Charmian cringed and jumped up to grab hold of his legs. Before she could, something shoved her aside so hard that she nearly fell over; stumbling, she glanced up to see Mudjikawiss stomping toward Niskigwun. Niskigwun looked up at him as well, surprise on his face, as soon as the big man gripped Wabasso's arm and shoved the Michinimakinong away.
"Back," he growled, and caught Wabasso before he could fall over again; without any effort at all he scooped him up and turned around, stomping away from the river with him cradled limp in his arms. The other four stared after him with wide eyes before scrambling to their feet and following. Charmian still couldn't believe it. She could've sworn that his eyes were wet, too.
"I thought you thought he was a weakling," she said as they picked their way back through the woods in the direction of the lake. Niskigwun cast her a disapproving look, but she shrugged, unable to help it.
Mudjikawiss didn't even bother looking back. "He at least did one brave thing," he muttered. "No matter how stupid."
Charmian quickly glanced at Manabozho and Puka, but they were too busy crying--silently, as in Manabozho's case--and whimperingly, as in Puka's--to bother getting angry. She supposed that it was probably the nicest thing he had ever said about one of them.
They weaved their way among the trees, which slowly began to grow thinner. Charmian heard Puka gasp softly and lifted her head to see that he was staring off to the side; a look in this direction showed her the tiny blue dots following their progress. She almost stopped in her tracks before Niskigwun's voice said, Keep walking, and she obeyed, peering off to the other side and seeing them there as well. They were too low to the ground to be manitous. As the light grew they could make out the shadowy shapes keeping pace with them on all sides. Even further away among the trees, Charmian could just barely make out the Michinimakinong, also keeping pace, their spears at the ready and their movements perfectly silent. Puka huddled close to Manabozho, who stared straight ahead just as Mudjikawiss and Niskigwun did. As they left the woods, Charmian peered hesitantly over her shoulder to see the Shadow Wolves halting at the treeline, staring after them as they went on their way.
We are sorry, Charmian thought she heard, and she reached up a hand to touch her ear, but she couldn't be sure whether she had really heard it or not. The look in the Wolves' eyes was completely different now, and as soon as she turned away, she heard one of them let out a low howl. Puka cringed and Manabozho and Niskigwun both stiffened; Manabozho's eyes glowed blue when the rest of the Wolves joined in, but none of them said anything. Charmian's eyes blurred and stung and she hurriedly wiped them dry as they approached the lake.
Niskigwun touched her arm when they reached its bank. You are well...?
She glanced up at him and saw the open worry in his eyes. She nodded quickly, and rubbed her arms as if cold. "Y...yeah...I'm fine," she murmured. "I just...want to go back home."
"The Island?" Niskigwun prompted, and without even thinking she nodded, before realizing what he had just said. Her face grew warm but his eyes softened and he pulled his hand away.
I understand, he said, and she let out her breath, relieved that she didn't have to explain. They started up the slope away from the lake and Charmian slowed her step a little to let the others pass so she could rub at her eyes without being looked at; she took a breath or two to steady herself, then started tramping up the hill, Niskigwun looking back at her to make sure she was coming. She held up her hand to wave at him halfheartedly so that he wouldn't think she was being left behind.
"Com--" Her foot slipped out from underneath her and her eyes goggled, then she tumbled backwards down the slope. When she did a complete somersault she caught the briefest flash of Niskigwun's face, eyes wide and mouth open in surprise, before she somersaulted again and landed smack on her back on the shore, her head splashing into the water. It hit the bottom and she yelped in pain, sitting upright and grabbing at the back of her skull with a grimace. Everyone but Mudjikawiss was galloping down the slope now, coming straight at her.
"CHARMIAN?!" Puka screamed at the top of his lungs. "ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?!"
Charmian made a face. "Yeah, I'm fine!" she yelled, pushing herself up. As she did so she put her hand in the water to try to get to her knees, and her fingers dug into the pebbles on the lake's bottom.
Charmian's eyes goggled and she sucked in a breath. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell over backwards with a splash. The sky gleaming above faded into black and she blinked a few times in bewilderment.
You lost him? After everything you have done, you make such a simple mistake--?
Charmian took in another breath. I--I didn't know! How could I know? I've never brought somebody back from the dead before--!
If you wish to save this Island then you will have to use your head! BEFORE things go wrong! Now you have lost him, when you were so close!
I'm sorry! Charmian's eyes welled up. I'll find him! I just have to look--!
You will use your head this time, won't you? As it is, I do not see you using it! Where do you even plan on looking?
I--I don't know!! I thought Arch Rock would be best of--
I TOLD YOU TO USE YOUR HEAD, STUPID MAINLANDER! You found CHAKENAPOK, so why is WABASSO so beyond your understanding--?
What--? Charmian's brow furrowed in confusion and she racked her brain, trying to figure out what was wrong with the idea. Chakenapok was underground, near Cave of the Woods! she said. Just like I said he'd be! So how come I'm wrong with Wabasso--?
A frustrated snort. You forget so quickly--? How did you find the Flint? Where did you know you would find him?
He wasn't on the Spirit Road--so he was at the place where he'd been left! The last place his spirit knew--
Think, fool! Did the White Rabbit die at the Arched Rock?
He-- Charmian's eyes widened abruptly. He died in the river!
Think! Where does this river lead to?
It--it leads to this lake--
Think again! What do you see whenever you come to this lake?
I keep seeing you--
Think once more! Where else have you seen me--?
In the-- She blinked. Croghan Water--? She took in a breath. They're--connected--?
Think of why else you see me here, when I am elsewhere. Many things are connected. NOW consider where you will seek the White Rabbit.
Croghan Water--? Just as she thought this, she blinked, and the sky was gray-blue again, and faces appeared over her, Niskigwun and Manabozho and Puka all reaching down to pull her up. She grimaced at the flash of pain which shot through her head; a second later everyone was brushing the water and mud from her clothes, and she had to struggle a bit just to get free.
"Are you all right--?" Niskigwun asked in a shaky voice.
"Yeah--I'm--I'm fine!" Charmian made a face and rubbed her head, nudging Puka's hand away. "I just...slipped or something. My head's fine." She looked up the slope and saw Mudjikawiss standing at the top, still holding Wabasso, and blinked once more. She pulled her arm from Manabozho's grasp and waved at them, starting to tramp upwards again. "The Island," she blurted out. "We'll find Wabasso there."
They all gaped at her, then hastened to follow. "This is the exact same place you saw something before!" Niskigwun cried, keeping pace beside her. "You saw something again--?"
"The Ogimah-Quae," Charmian said as they crested the hill; Mudjikawiss started walking again. "She's in charge of the Shadow Wolves...she talks to me through the water. She says this is where I have to look for Wabasso. I have to look at Croghan Water."
"The spring near the middle of the Island--?" Niskigwun frowned. "What could one possibly find there--?"
"A lot," Charmian answered, and rubbed at her hands as if they were cold; the memory of nearly drowning in the little pond still clung unpleasantly to her mind. "Moon Wolf will understand," she said.
Niskigwun wilted a little bit, and turned away. Charmian chewed the inside of her mouth for a moment, then coughed. "It must've been really hard getting all those spirit stones back," she said; he peered at her and she made a face. "Fifty-seven of them--? And you rounded them up by yourself?"
He blinked, then flushed. "I had help," he insisted; then, "But the bulk of them, I got on my own."
Charmian smiled. "That must've been something to see."
Niskigwun's face went bright red. He hurried to move on ahead of her, but she could tell that her comment hadn't completely embarrassed him. She glanced up to see Puka's face screwing up, and let out a gusty sigh, but thankfully Manabozho grasped his ear and twisted it, pulling him along after him before he could start singing or laughing or whatever he intended to do.
The walk back to the gateway was uneventful, and they passed out through the Fairy Arch without incident. As soon as Charmian stepped out she looked up to see that Moon Wolf still waited here; Thomas and Pakwa had joined him. When Mudjikawiss emerged all eyes shifted to him, and Charmian saw Thomas and Moon Wolf pale slightly. She waved at the former to get his attention.
"Did you guys spot anything...?"
Thomas looked at Pakwa. "Well...after I managed to find him, I had him go looking out toward the west side of the Island."
"Where did you find him?"
Thomas got a sour look. "At the voyageur Gautier's place. He was helping Mr. Gautier make short work of his whiskey."
Charmian's mouth fell open. Pakwa hiccupped and said nothing. She looked back at Thomas but he simply shook his head. "I didn't even ask. I did not want to." He gestured westward. "In any case...apparently Augwak has made his way back to Devil's Kitchen, and started thrashing out the rest of the GeeBees for not covering his back, not that I'd blame them...and Chepi is hanging about at Devil's Lake, but the manitous are keeping her at bay...and the Iroquois are hanging about at Badin Grove, and seem very perplexed."
Now Charmian looked at Moon Wolf. "You had any better ideas?" he asked.
"Not really." Charmian chewed her lip. She glanced at Mudjikawiss, who was scowling by now, as if regretting his decision to get involved. "We have to go to Croghan Water," she said, at which Thomas and Moon Wolf both opened their mouths at once.
"ARE YOU CRAZY?" they both yelled in unison; everyone else winced and took a step back. Charmian grimaced and then took a step forward again.
"No, I'm not crazy! It's the only way to get to Wabasso! If we want to find his spirit--we'll find it down there."
Thomas stepped toward her now. "And how do you plan on going DOWN in there--? I doubt it's gotten much shallower than LAST time!"
"It's not frozen anymore!" Charmian protested.
"It's still just as deep," Moon Wolf snapped. "You have learned how to breathe underwater so much better--?"
Charmian flushed. "Well what would YOU guys have me do--?"
"If Wabasso died in the Fairy Realm, then how did he end up at Croghan Water...?" Niskigwun asked in puzzlement.
Charmian turned to him. "The Ogimah-Quae said they're all connected. Remember how the Nebanaubae were there? The lake in the Fairy Realm is connected to Croghan Water here. Apparently...Wabasso wandered down this way...or whatever."
"Hasn't this Wolf attempted to trick you in the past?" Niskigwun asked.
Charmian shook her head. "So far she's been honest, just...really evasive." She made a face, then gasped and hopped back when she nearly ran into Moon Wolf. He pointed westward and she looked before realizing that he wasn't pointing at anything within sight.
"If everything is connected, then take another path," he ordered.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Huh--?"
"This Croghan Water is a spring fed from underground. You found Chakenapok's bones through here, which connects it to Cave of the Woods. The caves and springs are connected beneath the ground." He waved westward again. "You have another entrance there if you're willing to look. The demon's lake should take you there as well."
Charmian's mouth fell open. "Devil's Lake--? What makes you think THAT would be any easier--?"
Moon Wolf's face darkened. "For one thing," he said, "manitous."
Charmian opened her mouth, then closed it. Then made a face. "Eugh." She shuddered. "I just went THROUGH that with a FISH PERSON!"
Thomas's brow furrowed. "What is all this...?"
Charmian grimaced once more. "You don't want to know!!"
"If you don't wish to end up nearly drowning again, then you will take this way," Moon Wolf said, in the same voice which left arguing out of the question. Charmian sighed and scowled.
"FINE, then. But I'll have OCRYX take me through, not Mitchi! He's a lot faster, and so far he hasn't stuck his tongue in my mouth!"
Thomas's own mouth opened so wide that she thought his head would split open. "I'M EXAGGERATING!!" she yelled, making even Pakwa wince, and whirled away to start stomping westward as quickly as she could. The others hastened to catch up.
"He wasn't remarkably friendly the last time we were there!" Thomas exclaimed. "Do you really think he'd take so well to everybody showing up there at once--?"
Charmian slowed and glanced back at the others. "True..." She looked at Wabasso, his head resting against Mudjikawiss's arm, and gave a small sigh.
"You guys would be better off at Croghan Water itself," she admitted. "And I'll try to get through from there."
Moon Wolf opened his mouth as if to ask something, then shut it. She saw the vaguely troubled look in his eyes but didn't question it.
Mudjikawiss scowled and turned on his heel. "I will drop him off there," he muttered, and stomped off through the woods.
Puka clenched his fists and his eyes flashed blue. "I just KNOW he'll dump him off like so much firewood!" he huffed, and spun about to follow him. Manabozho took a few steps after them, halted, and glanced back at Charmian with a torn look.
Charmian waved him ahead. "Go on. I'll be there. I promise."
He gnawed on his lip but obeyed, turning and slipping away among the trees.
Charmian glanced at the remaining four. "You guys are coming--?"
Thomas gave her a dark look. "Leave you alone with that demon...? Not to call you a liar, but I've heard stories about him!"
"If that windling is there then I will take care of her," Niskigwun promised. "And then head on to the spring."
Pakwa just floated up into the trees and out of sight. They all frowned up at where he'd disappeared, before shrugging and looking back down again. "Moon W--" Charmian started to say, but he blinked and then flushed, as if realizing something, and abruptly turned to go in the same direction that the others had gone in.
"I will wait at the spring," he said, not even glancing back as he left. Thomas and Charmian watched him go, glanced at each other, then started walking west.
"You know," Thomas said as they went, "it seems like every time he's around you, he goes all funny, and then wants to leave." He paused and glanced over his shoulder. "Only he usually never gets the chance..."
"He just realized the hole in his plan," Charmian said; when he gave her a questioning look she dug out the silver necklace. Thomas frowned.
"Didn't you have that the last time you went there...?"
She nodded. "Didn't quite go as I planned, though." She sighed. "Third time's a charm." She frowned and glanced over her shoulder. "What's taking Niskigwun so long? I thought he was helping..."
"So why's your medicine friend so reluctant to head over there? I thought this whole thing was his idea."
Charmian sighed and stared at the ground, fiddling with the pendant now. Thomas stared at her for a moment or two before giving up, and they walked in silence.
The air didn't fill with singsong as they neared the lake, though another noise drew their attention. They lifted their heads to see a pathetic shape pacing along the shore, back and forth, muttering and mumbling as it went--"Stupid demon. Don't know what I saw in him. Love them and leave them. Same old story..." As soon as Chepi saw them coming her eyes grew, then she threw herself down on the shore and started keening loudly, pressing her hand to her eyes and flailing her wings. "MY LOVE! MY ONE TRUE LOVE! MY POOR, MY DEAR, MY HEART--!"
"Oh, gag me," Charmian moaned, looking ready to fall over. Thomas's mouth twitched as they neared the lake, and Chepi got to her feet, trotting daintily toward them and waving her hands; Charmian thought that she spied all of one tear glimmering in her eye, though she sniffled and whimpered as if someone had just beaten her with her own wings.
"Ch-Ch-CHARMIAN!" she cried. "I've been trying to get through to him for AGES, and all he does is IGNORE me! Whatever do I DO--?" And she threw herself forward; Charmian reached out her arms to grab her, only to notice that she had thrown herself at Thomas instead. Thomas had just enough time to open his mouth before Chepi was flying backwards and landing in the grass with a thud. Charmian's face was brilliant red, her fists clenched so tight that her hands felt like they'd implode.
"BACK OFF, BITCH!!" she bellowed so that they both cringed.
Chepi pushed herself up, brushing a stray feather out of her eye. She gasped and huffed and gasped again. "I--I--cannot--believe--this--this--shoddy--shoddy--"
Thomas slowly crept away from her and back toward Charmian. "I'll just...stay over here," he murmured. "Way over here."
"Good idea," Charmian snarled, and turned to the lake. She dug in her pockets, then blinked, then took in a breath and felt her ears grow warm.
Oops! I only brought him ONE bauble...!
Am I going to have to make out with a manitou after all...?
She stuck out her tongue. "Ew." She poked in her pocket again just to make sure, though she well remembered that she had packed only one gem in her pack. She pulled Moon Wolf's necklace up again and peered at it, then chewed hard on her lip and looked uneasily at the water.
Well...it can't be much worse than the alternative...getting this down there is half of the point, after all. I just hope Ocryx doesn't mind sharing a gift...
She tossed the silver pendant into the lake and waited. After several long moments she thought that she saw a bubble rise to the surface, but no demon emerged. She frowned and leaned forward, Thomas and Chepi following suit. Nothing happened.
Charmian's face screwed up. "Don't tell me he's ripping me off--!"
Mainlander. Is that creature still out there--?
Charmian and Thomas both gawked at the voice which entered their heads. Chepi alone didn't seem to hear it. "Um..." Charmian glanced at her, then back at the lake. "Yeah...I guess."
"Huh--?" Chepi's wings flared, then she gasped. "HE'S TALKING TO YOU, ISN'T HE--? HE'S HIDING FROM ME--?!" She dashed at the lake. "HOW DARE YOU TREAT ME LIKE THAT AFTER EVERYTHING I'VE--"
Fwip. Chepi staggered to a halt, peered down at her arm, and then vanished in a puff of wind. Charmian and Thomas glanced back toward the woods; Niskigwun rolled his eyes and waved them on.
"She should not bother you for at least another hour or so. Go on! I will be here if she comes back."
Charmian's mouth twitched. "I think I really like that medicine." She stepped toward the lake. "She's gone now, in case you were wondering..."
I do not care what that Turtle Spirit says. That wench will not desist. If you wish entrance to this lake, then you will have to jump into it yourself. I am hardly coming out now.
Charmian frowned, perplexed; Thomas gave her a questioning look but all that she could do was shrug in return. "Well--?" he prompted; then waved much as Niskigwun had. "Go on! I'll head back with Niskigwun...and wait for you on the other side."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "You're not coming--?"
Now he rolled his eyes. "'Alpha male,' remember? I'll be fine, and in case you aren't, then I'll be on the other end to give you a tongue thrashing. Now go on! I don't get the feeling he likes waiting too much!"
Charmian sighed a little, then nodded. Thomas turned and joined Niskigwun and the two of them started walking off together; she heard them talking, and they both glanced back, before vanishing into the woods. She felt like running after them just to demand to know what they'd been saying.
Well--? an impatient voice snapped in her head, making her gasp. Are you going to be all day--?
"N-not really!" She turned back to the lake and hastened toward the shore. "Coming!" She hesitated very briefly at the edge, then sucked in a great breath and plunged into the water, hoping that the demon would keep his promise as the lake swallowed her up.
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