The Sign of the Crane
"I don't like this," Bridget said as they waded through the underbrush. The trees of the Minnesota forest were tall and spaced far apart, allowing sunlight to pass easily through their branches and foliage to grow thick and clingy. Oftentimes it felt as if they were hiking through a temperate jungle. Even in July it was quite cool.
"I know," Michael answered, swatting at yet another mosquito. He was careful to use his ball cap to wave the tiny monsters away from his head, having used the last of their bottled lake water to change back at the camp. "These things are going to eat us alive before long." Behind him Katie was going hoarse shouting for her brother.
"No, I mean them," she lowered her voice as she gestured towards the Clearskys as they led the way along the faded path. "There's something going on with them."
"You think?" Michael said, only half paying attention as he skirted across a patch of poison ivy that had sprung up in the path. "I'm under a Native American gender bending curse and Pocahontas has yet to try to kill me today."
"Exactly," she proclaimed, missing his sarcasm. "She's being too nice. She actually sounded concerned when she was trying to get the old man to let us come along. She's gotta be up to something."
"Or she feels bad for what's happened because she's really a nice person," Katie squeaked, already displaying the first symptoms of laryngitis.
Michael and Bridget considered that possibility for all of two seconds before shaking their heads in unison. "Nah."
The blonde huffed an angry sigh. "You just don't like other girls hanging around Mikey. You get crazy jealous so easily."
"I do not!"
"Yes, you do," the words formed in Michael's throat but survival instincts prompted him to swallow them.
"And what about the old man?" Bridget continued to complain. "He's been acting suspicious too. Never mind the stuff at the camp or the clearing; he hasn't even used the radio since we split up."
She was right about that. They had arrived at the last known location of the missing at least an hour before. The manmade clearing was filled with the stumps of trees and saplings the Crane tribe had planted to replace them. An old Chevy pick-up hitched to a trailer, several new-felled trees and a pair of chainsaws proved that the missing had been there.
A dozen tribesmen had come for the search but they had brought nothing Michael would have associated with a manhunt. No GPS or whistles or even the hunting dogs from the resort. Even the atmosphere had been wrong. Anticipation had been evident on their faces, but not as much worry. He seen something else too, something almost like reverence. That feeling had intensified when they found the footprint, and only then had the sensation of fear become palpable.
He was by no means an expert of footprints, and the sight of them staggered him all the more for it. Prints like massive bare human feet appeared from the northern edge of the clearing to the abandoned logging equipment and back, the smallest toe was twice as big around as his thumb. Their depth suggested enormous weight as well as size. Both chainsaws were out of gas, but one was much further away from the other and looked as though it had been dropped from high up. It did not require much effort for him to conjure up an image of the footprint's no-doubt massive owner sending the tool flying out of someone's hands when it had been used as a weapon. The deepening lines on Morgan's old face told him that the old Indian had reached the same conclusion.
"Bigfoot tracks," Katie had said, her worry lessening a bit in flighty wonder.
"There's no such thing," Raven had snapped, but with little conviction.
Martha had almost burst into tears, but the stout woman had bit her lip and held her head high. There was no blood to be found, but few expressed doubt that whatever had made those tracks had something to do with Shawn and Andrew's disappearance
They had split off soon afterwards, Morgan and Raven following the massive tracks. They had offered no resistance when Michael and the girls declared they would be going with them. The others broke up into their own four person hunting groups and went off in other directions, but assured that they would remain within "running distance." The whole thing just seemed too casual to Michael, but with a clear trail to follow it was hard not to be optimistic about finding them quickly. What they would do when they found the tracks' maker was another matter, and one he had chosen not to dwell upon for long.
His optimism had long since dried up, though. The tracks had followed no path, and it had not been long before the underbrush had devoured them. It was starting to feel more and more like they were wandering about at random, the way they seemed to alternate between clear path, crushed game trail, and thick underbrush. He finally told Morgan as much.
The old man actually chuckled, the first sign of his former good humor they had seen since the cabin had blown up. "I suppose it does. This trail is very old, and I don't believe anyone but us has had reason to use it in decades. It's been maybe a hundred years since anyone's used it regularly."
A deer stepped out onto the now-clearly defined path, noticed them at once and disappeared in a blink.
"Hold on. You're saying you know where this goes?"Bridget said, her distrust returning at once.
Raven shrugged. "Of course. It's the forest guardian's lair."
Bridget made a derisive noise in her throat. "Forest guardian? What the hell's that?"
"Just what I said," the other girl matched Bridget's frigid tone precisely. "Something's agitated the spirit that protects our land and he's taken our friends to get our attention. So we're going to go get them back and see what he wants."
"So one of your people is a kidnapper! I get it, now. No wonder you didn't call the cops."
Raven spun on her heel, her face livid.
"What was that?"
"You heard me."
"Nope, Bridget doesn't get it," Katie said, tired resignation in her voice. The redhead whirled about with a hurt expression on her face. Michael used the break to try to diffuse the situation further.
"Spirit guardians leave tracks?" he asked without sarcasm.
"Ours does," Morgan said and went on without another word.
The clearing appeared as if by magic. One moment they were tripping along an overgrown pathway and then the next they were knee high in wild flowers on a hilly meadow. The flowers were blinding, as if they were giving off their own light. Everything had a strange clarity to it, the way the world looks after a heavy rainstorm except there was no moisture. No one could speak for several minutes, overwhelmed by the beauty around them. The air was heavy with the aroma of sweet flowers and pine.
"What is this place?" Michael breathed. He had only a vague awareness of Bridget and Katie behind him saying the same thing.
"This is the dwelling place of the guardian," Morgan said and gestured wide. "Many good spirits live in this place. In times past, shamans and tribesmen hoping to open up to the Great Spirit would come here to train and purify themselves." With a tired breath he added, "Though very few come here anymore."
"Except them," Raven used her rifle to point to the far side of the meadow to the one blemish upon the sanctuary. The five began to run.
They found them at the forest's edge, Shawn, Andrew and the Blackcrows brothers each suspended on their own individual tree. For one terrifying instant Michael thought that they had been nailed to the trunks, but then he noticed the thick, bark-covered vines that held them fast. They all looked the worse for wear, but except for the purple bruise the right half of Shawn's face had swelled into they seemed alright. They were also asleep.
Katie did not stop running until she had run right into her brother and wrapped her arms tight around his neck. Andrew awoke with a gasp and a panicked cry.
"Shawn! Put that chainsaw down and run! We have to—huh? Katie? What are you doing here? Where am I?" His head whipped back and forth in utter confusion. "Where'd that monster go? And why am I tied up?"
"That's a good question," Bridget said, leveling a suspicious glare at the Clearskys. Raven ignored her as and her grandfather each took a large knife out of their belts and began to to saw through the thick vines. Shawn began to stir under Raven's not quite gentle ministration to the vine.
"What happened?" Michael asked them. He helped Katie to keep her brother steady as the first vine broke.
"I'm not really sure," the blond boy said as he looked out across the beautiful meadow, a look of baffled uncertainty spread across his expression. "The sun was going down, and we were thinking about quitting. Then this big hairy…I don't know what it was, a gorilla? Something jumped out and attacked us."
"Bigfoot?" Katie suggested.
The former captive shrugged as best he could. "Yeah, I kinda think it was."
"It's not Bigfoot," Raven said with a slight growl. The vine holding Shawn snapped loose and Bridget stepped away, grinning wickedly as she let the half-conscious boy to slump into the Indian girl's chest.
Raven snarled and stepped back to drop him on his face. She scowled at the redhead, who looked away and whistled.
"So," Michael said as they moved to the still slumbering Blackcrow brothers, "where's this forest guardian you were talking about?" The question was no sooner out of his mouth than he felt the hot, snorting breath behind him. How typical. He ducked to the side just as a fist the size of his head came down where he had been standing.
The monster stood almost twelve feet tall, an ape-like creature that stood erect like a human. Thick black hair covered its body, unwashed and unkempt. Powerful, leathery hands clenched and unclenched with enough strength to snap tree branches, and its yellow fangs were bared in hatred. Brown eyes exactly like a human's were narrowed in a very human expression of intelligent fury.
"Wookie?" Shawn blinked each eye individually, still groggy as Bridget and Andrew lifted him on their shoulders.
"The hell is that?" Bridget half-shrieked.
"Bigfoot!" Katie declared with excitement.
"For the last time, it's not…," Raven faltered and tilted her head a bit. "Yeah, okay. He's pretty much Bigfoot."
Whether the roar was one of protest or bestial fury was difficult to determine but the intent of its smashing fists was not. The group scattered as it tore deep scores into the earth and then charged, straight at Michael.
"Why does this keep happening to me?" he whined, leaping aside of another mighty swipe. The flowers were slippery on landing, sending him skidding beneath a decapitating blow and sliding several feet on his face.
The rumbling thud of the monster's approaching feet prompted him to his knees. A look like satisfaction was on the brute's ugly face. In a final, desperate ploy, he tilted his head and made his eyes wide and sparkling, his hands resting meekly over pursed lips.
"You wouldn't hit a girl, would you?" he said in the cutest manner he could muster. Then thrust out his boobs for good measure.
The monster gave a derisive snort and rolled its eyes.
"So much for that," the feminized-boy said, and flinched away from the fist that came hurtling towards him. Strangely, the crackling sound that followed did not come from his bones.
"Mr. Clearsky?" Bridget's voice caused his eyes to snap open. How old Morgan had gotten between him and the monster was something he could not understand, but of more concern to him was the crackling light that haloed the monster's fist as it hung suspended in the air. It took several seconds of hard staring to realize that the creature was putting all of its weight forward, as though it were trying to smash through an invisible wall, or that Morgan had his eyes closed while whispering something at a rapid pace. A piece of vine was in the old Indian's hand, straight and rigid like a gnarled wizard's staff.
"Raven, some assistance please," Morgan grunted, opening his eyes to look the monster in the face. Rivulets of sweat were beginning to run down his neck.
Michael watched with wide eyes as Raven took aim, pausing just long enough to mutter something over the chamber. The monster turned just as a streak of purple lightning thundered forth and struck him square in the chest. As the monster stumbled back Morgan struck it in the side with his staff. A sudden blast of wind radiated out from the blow, throwing everyone but the old man back and pitching the monster a dozen feet across the ground. Flower petals swirled through the air like victorious confetti.
"Hurry, children," Morgan's voice was harried as he strode towards Michael, "Get Phil and Jim down and get out of here. Raven will show you the way. I will stay here to defend Mr. Stantz."
"You want me to stay here?"
"You want him to stay here?" Bridget echoed and surpassed his incredulity.
"Grandpa, you can't beat him like this by yourself."
"What do you need me for?"
"I don't have to," Morgan ignored him, meeting Raven's anger with patience. "I just need to convince him to calm down and talk."
"Talk with that thing?" Drew bellowed in outrage. "It just tried to kill you. It's a monster, whatever it is."
Raven almost lifted Drew off his feet as she snared his collar with mountain lion fury. "You don't even know what you're talking about. That's my brother you're talking about."
"Bigfoot's back." Before anyone could even respond to Katie's call a massive fist lifted Morgan into the air. The old man cried out once as he hit the ground and then fell still and his breath came in daggerish gasps.
"Grandpa!" Raven hurled Drew aside and reached for a gun, but the monster's untraceable movements brought it standing right before her, a massive hand between her own and filling much of the rifle's length. The two stared at one another, Raven's eyes watering in pleading fear and the beast's set in unyielding resolve before picking her up and slamming her hard into the ground. Then it turned upon Michael, giving the other humans no more attention than a gnat.
He crawled backwards on his hands. His mind was blank with fear. Each stomp of the monster's crushing feet was like the hammering of his heart, a finite counting of his life's remainder. A human hatred rolled off of its massive form like a miasma, choking him as surely as its terrible fingers would around his neck, paralyzing him. The monster raised its arm, ready to hammer his life away and render all of those questions pointless. Michael raised his own hands in front of him, a futile gesture of defense. Then he heard a voice shrieking, and he had no fear left for himself.
"Get away from my man, you!"
"You mean your woman."
"Shut up!" Bridget looked like a barbarian queen, a large hunting knife in each hand and her face red in rage. Michael's protests caught in his throat as she charged.
"Bridget, don't!" He didn't see the monster shrug and turn back to him, or see its stare as the crane brand shown through his shirt sleeve with a red light. All he saw was his girlfriend rushing into danger for his sake, while he sat and cowered.
"Get away!" he shouted. A ball of sunset colored mist cannonballed out his upraised hands and struck the monster's chin. Its eyes glazed over for a moment's stupefaction and then widened in pain as Bridget's knives plunged into its sides. The monster roared, a terrible apish call which caused the air to shudder and drove the humans to their knees. It came to a halt as a lasso of purple lighting settled about its arms, pinning them and all their strength down as easily as a child's. Roots like steel cables burst from the ground and wrapped themselves tight and crushed the monster flat against the meadow floor.
"That's enough Swift Crow," Michael was relieved to hear Morgan Clearsky's voice, though he was also relieved to still be hearing anything at all. When he looked up it was to find the old man on his feet once again, though a wizened hand clutched at his chest. Raven, too, was on unsteady feet.
Drew and a very bewildered Shawn ran to help Michael up, though he wanted to shrug them off and go to Bridget, who sat in the grass and holding out twitching fingers with a look of extreme discomfort. The knives lay at her side, only the tips bloodied. Before he could say a word of thanks to any of them the monster silenced them all by speaking.
"Why are you interfering, Morgan? The carrier of Stantz's curse is here. He has to be killed before further harm can be wrought upon our people." The monster's voice was heavily accented and croaked a bit with disuse, but it was the voice of a young man, not at all the snarling rumble that Michael would have expected. He would have called it a pleasant voice had it not been so bitter.
"Why do you think he must die?" Morgan countered. He sounded as if he had been expecting the question, but was in no better mood to answer. "Yes, this boy is of Stantz's blood, but that bloodline cannot harm us. He triggered the curse by accident."
The monster spat. It spoke well for having to get a mouthful of dirt whenever he spoke. "Accident or not, you heard Crazy Duck's prophecy before you left."
"And I took no more stock of it than you or anyone else did at the time." Morgan's spoke with clear paternal disappointment. Michael looked to Raven for an explanation, but she paid no attention to him. She looked nauseous.
"I suppose that's why you failed to notice. That's why I had to steal these people away to get your attention. You, our greatest shaman, and you have failed to notice what's been happening. The calamity is already here, drawn by that Stantz and the taint on his blood."
"What are you talking about?" Raven demanded, "What calamity?"
"What more calamity do you need than his being here?" the monster sneered. "I thought you'd kill him out of principle. Or did your journey through the mists make you forget about mother?" Tears sprang into Raven's eyes and the monster was not sorry.
"Can someone please explain what the hell's going on?" Shawn called out. Both the Clearskys and the monster jumped, apparently having forgotten about their audience.
"Isn't it obvious?" Drew answered, though his expression made it clear that he was no less puzzled. "Morgan and Raven are some sort of wizard or shaman, and the hairy one's a shape changer." From his expression, it was clear that explanation had only left Shawn even more confused.
"Heh, wizards, magic," Bridget said with a forced laugh. "There isn't anything like that." Her face was chalk white.
Katie, of all people, gave her a pitying look. "You know, this forced skepticism is starting to make you look kind of dumb." Michael just indicated the female body he had not been born with.
Morgan answered with a solemn nod. He looked older, more waxen. His shoulders seemed to slump with the weight of past regrets. "Indeed. The Great Spirit has blessed the White Crane tribe with a long tradition of exceptional medicine men, what you might call magicians. But our power has diminished since the Spirit departed from our land. But perhaps that is for the best."
"And that is where you're wrong," the monster, Swift Crow, argued. "Especially now. Enemies are here—"
"Harmless teenage boys?"
"Forget the Stantz! Our people may still possess their sacred land, but they don't respect the old ways anymore. I've watched for a hundred and fifty years as the White Cranes have become more and more like the white men who once threatened us, forgetting to give thanks to the land which blessed them." His voice became more and more bitter as he writhed against his bonds. Michael could almost taste the venom.
"No one comes to the forest's heart to train or seek guidance anymore, or leave offerings for the spirits. They tell me that it is the same amongst all the Old People's descendants. Our most sacred rituals are preserved only for the amusement of tourists, and there have been no new shamans for almost seventy years now. There is only you and my sister, and you have far less excuse to fall away than any of them."
"And you're blaming all of that on me?" Michael demanded through clenched teeth. He could sympathize with the creature's concerns, but only to a point. "How is flattening some stranger related to a dead guy you hate going to fix any of that?"
The monster stuck its nose out and refused to be sorry.
"Why didn't you just remind them from time to time?" Drew asked. "I'm sure a talking, magic sasquatch could—"
"Fool, I am the forest guardian. I can't leave, not unless the tribe is in immediate danger. That is the sacrifice I made when I chose this path. And few come into the forest anymore, except to cut down trees." He gave an angry jerk of his head towards Jim and Phil, who were still slumbering away tied to the trees. It had to be some kind of spell, Michael realized. No one could have slept through that commotion.
"Alright," Michael said, and now he turned to stare at Morgan and Raven. The Clearskys returned the look, one with expectant patience, the other with tearful irritability. The dark haired Indian girl looked as if she had been reminded why she disliked him. Her rifle was slung over her shoulder. The sight of the antique weapon caused something to click inside his whirling brain.
"Hold on, hold on. You're saying you used to be human?"
The monster refused to even acknowledge him, but Morgan nodded.
"He was. He met your ancestor, Captain Stantz."
His large eyes widened even further. An idea trickled in, but it was too incredible to even be considered. Then again…"But he talks like he's known you all his life. And called Comanche Girl his—"
"He did," Raven answered, "Because he really is my brother."
"We've wasted enough time. I believe you had something worth kidnapping people for," Morgan interrupted them, glowering at the bound monster.
"Indeed," he grinned, "but first, release me. It's undignified for the forest guardian to be snared like a rabbit. I promise that I won't attack the Stantz."
"I have a proper name. It's Michael."
"Actually, it's Michelle right now."
"Not now, Katie."
"Very well," Morgan said, apparently satisfied with the less than enthusiastic oath. He struck at the roots with his staff, causing them to release the guardian and slither back into the ground.
The monster vanished in a flurry of leafs, and in its place stood a tall, powerfully built man. His features were sharp and wooden, held high with an air of prideful scorn. A doeskin cloak was draped over his broad shoulders and wrapped tight across his body, hinting at sculpted muscles beneath. Every eye from Missouri was on him, shocked by the display of power and the strength of his bearing. Even if they had not just witnessed the transformation they would have seen that he bore an otherworldly quality, an aura of majesty like that attributed to the gods of ancient cultures.
Shawn was the first to find his voice. "Too bad you didn't get that kind of power," he offered Michael a small shrug and an even smaller laugh.
The shapechanger's imposing glare snuffed the grin like a guttering candle. "You would not be so impressed if you understood the full cost of my duties, modern boy. Your people so easily forget that power never comes without proportionate price. The spell which the Stantz lies under was itself once part of a training regime for aspiring shamans, and he now has power as they did; miniscule though it may yet be."
He remembered the ball of light that had flared from his hands, but as the question formed on his tongue Swift Crow turned his attention on Morgan.
"You asked what danger could have compelled me to take hostages for your attention. My answer is thus: A danger great enough that I feel compelled to ask how you could have missed it."
Though Morgan stood even with the tall nature spirit's sternum, the old man looked as if he were speaking to an excitable grade schooler. "I have been a bit preoccupied of late. It is tourist season, after all." Swift Crow snorted, unimpressed by the attempted humor, and made Morgan's gentle smile grow warmer. Whatever fond memory occupied his thoughts, it soon dissipated and Morgan's voice grew stern. "What has happened?"
"Strange men walk the woods."
"That is not so odd. Have you seen some of the people who stay at the resort?"
"Men with strange machinery, who only come late at night, trying to avoid detection."
Morgan rubbed at his chin. "That is suspicious."
"It's more than suspicious," Swift Crow was growing impatient, "I have overheard them talk of searching for something, a kind of energy unknown to them. Worse, I stopped one of them from entering the Great Spirit's dwelling place. They came back the next night."
Raven's mouth hung open and her brown eyes widened in a look of purest terror. "But that means what they're looking for is…But how could they have found it?"
"There are other spirits, Raven." Morgan was able to keep his expression even but his old body trembled in clear apprehension. "When was this?"
"Two nights ago. I have sent you a number of messages, but—"
"Can someone explain what the hell's going on?" Michael said, stamping his foot. He hated being ignored at the best of times, but the sudden fear in the air made him even more apprehensive. Worse yet, the crane symbol etched into his arm had begun to prickle since the conversation had begun. "I didn't bring any calamity, I just came here to relax and hang out with my friends. All of a sudden I get turned into a girl, and then everyone's blaming me for something my great-great-whatever grandpa did and trying to kill me for it. And now I'm at fault for a trespasser problem?"
"I'm afraid we have reason to resent your ancestor's actions," Morgan said. The canyons of his aged face deepened as the shadow of worry passed over it. Neither Raven nor her brother flinched as his gaze swept over them. "It's unfair to make you carry the burden for that. However, your unintentional triggering of the curse may have attracted some unwanted attention.
"As I explained before, the strange powers that lay over our land has protected us from invaders for generations. But this 'magic,' as you would likely call it, is not restricted to the people of my tribe, and there are others in this world who might want to use our land's power for their own ends. And now men who before might only have suspected what was once here, contact with you in your transformed state— or perhaps even the very act of transforming—has confirmed their suspicions."
Michael's next angry retort came to a halt.
"Wait. So this is my fault somehow?"
"Of course," Swift Crow said, "If you hadn't come—"
"If he hadn't come, they'd be here anyway," Morgan interjected. "You're acting like a fool, which is exactly how Raven behaved when she first met this boy. Deplorably, I might add." Raven snorted through her nose and looked away. "Nothing has even happened yet, how can you condemn him for—."
A burst of static burst from the radio at his hip.
"Morgan, are you there?" a garbled voice came from the plastic box. "Have you found them?"
Swift Crow's face could not have been more smug as the old man reached for the radio.
"Yes, they're fine. Everyone's fine," the old man's voice was tentative and worried. "What's happening?"
Static twisted the answer beyond comprehension.
"I that you need to get over here fast. Something's happened."
Author's Note: This chapter really kicked my butt, and not just because it's been too since I've worked with these characters. It was just a really awkward transition to make, going from gender swapping/exploding cabin hijinx to a semi-serious action story and I don't think that I pulled it off very well. I also feel like I'm starting to twist stuff into illogical directions to fit the ending that I want. It'd probably help if I went back and redid the earlier chapters, but I have no intention of doing so. My writing projects have already piled up too high to be worrying about the older half, and I'll be having school and work stuff to worry about as well. This isn't going to be one of my better pieces, I'm aware of this, but I'll just make do and try to have fun with it. If nothing else I've learned how cumbersome a story can get when you have a whole bunch of characters right off the bat.
Really, though. The long and the short of all this is that I've just been a bit of a funk lately, and just have very little confidence in my own skill at this time. So please bare with me for the time being if I seem a bit off.