BY NOW, CHARMIAN had no idea where Justin would be. He'd been hunting before, but he should have returned home long ago. And he could always have just gone again with Shadow Water...Charmian thought she remembered hearing the woman say she would meet him again later that day. The wind was blustering and the sky had gone slate gray, so she wondered if the two had kept their plans after all. She felt she would have to find him soon, before the weather grew any worse.
She hated leaving Red Bird and Drake behind again, also; X'aaru struggled through the gust, and she hoped his wing didn't still bother him too greatly. Perhaps she should have taken Pakwa instead.
She bent low and buried herself between the demon's shoulderblades. His ears were flattened back against his head, his eyes narrowed to slits. When he spoke, she could tell it was only with difficulty, the wind pummeling his face making it difficult to breathe.
"Lord Justin's necklace - you think there's something special about it?"
"I know there's something special about it," Charmian shouted. "I've known almost since I first saw it. I don't know what, though."
"You think something will go wrong, now that he's given it away?"
"He tried giving it to me once already. I think maybe Ocryx intended for him to keep it. But I still can't think of why. I just know he wouldn't give away something like that unless it was really important!"
Charmian, Sikt said, and she almost started; she'd forgotten the demon was even there. X'aaru's ear flicked to indicate he heard her as well, but he said nothing. I'm sensing much activity on the Island. Justin appears to be ahead a ways. Wherever you go, be alert.
X'aaru swooped low over the trees, scanning the ground with watering eyes. Charmian did the same. She kept her mind open, hoping Sikt would help her; and true to the Ocryx's word, she sensed all sorts of things going on all around them. She could easily recognize the hysterical activity of the GeeBees back at Devil's Kitchen; on the far side of the Island was a stronger presence that she realized must be Augwak, another presence pursuing him. She snickered; it had to be Chepi. No wonder the GeeBees were restless, without their leader to keep them in line.
"Hey, this is kind of cool," she murmured aloud. "Almost like radar or something."
She focused her thoughts on Devil's Lake. It was filled with presences of varying intensities; she recognized Ocryx's, so knew he must be keeping to himself. She couldn't be certain about Mitchi Manitou's location, however, and this bothered her. It was obvious the two of them were on the outs with each other, with how they'd been fighting last; but how long would it go on? She knew that the dispute must have been caused by Ocryana...if that strange creature she and X'aaru had crossed was truly the offspring of the manitou and the demon. She shivered at the thought and then grimaced. That would explain its horrid looks...the monster had received the worst of both worlds.
But her thoughts kept returning to the other female Ocryx. That was the one she couldn't explain. Everyone else on the Island seemed to have a past...except for her. Her connection to Ocryana and the hybrid creature was apparent...she must be Tal Natha's half-sister. But who she truly was remained a mystery.
Why am I thinking about all of this? I'm supposed to be looking for Justin.
"Ch...Charmian?" X'aaru chattered. She craned her neck to see the Dupries house below, a small dark blot moving away from it. She tried to shield her eyes and yell at the same time.
The shape stopped and peered up at her, wind whipping around it. It couldn't have been later than noon, but already the Island was almost as dark as evening. She didn't like it at all...this storm had arisen far too quickly to be a brief squall. X'aaru attempted to come in for a landing, only to almost fall on his face when the wind threatened to knock him over. His wings flailed at the air, billowing like sails.
"Charmian?" the dark shape yelled back. A woman's voice. Charmian slid off of X'aaru's back with a startled look.
She swept the blowing snow from her eyes and trudged forward. She could see now that the person before her was more slender than Justin was, even considering the dark heavy robes draped over her, falling in folds to the ground. She pulled back her hood a little bit and blinked a few times. Charmian's anxiety melted away and she hopped through the snow, attempting to quicken her pace.
"Lady Dupries! I thought you were Justin!"
"He's not at the house right now," Lady Dupries replied when Charmian reached her, puffing and panting. "If you came by to see him, you may have to wait a while. I'll ask Gerard to let you in - "
"No, it's okay. If he's not there I have to find him and talk to him. Ma'am, I'm still really sorry about your house..."
"It's all right. Easy enough to fix." She frowned and tilted her head a bit as if puzzled. "Why are you out, in this weather? You could have sent a message with your GeeBee, and I would have made certain to get it to Justin."
"I was going to ask you the same thing," Charmian admitted.
"I was on my way to Devil's Lake."
Charmian blinked. Since that was what Lady Dupries had to say, she hadn't expected her to be so forthright.
"Yes." The woman bent a bit to gather her clothing about her. "Why did you need to speak with Justin, to bring you out in this? It sounds as if it's an important matter."
"Well, it is...maybe. I'm not sure. I just know it's making me uneasy."
"You would like to talk about it?" Lady Dupries started walking again, so Charmian accompanied her, X'aaru trailing behind.
"I'm not sure...I don't want to cause any trouble if there isn't any already. I just wanted to ask him something..."
She peered down at Charmian with a questioning look. Charmian sighed.
"I noticed that he wears it everywhere he goes...and it glows in the dark when he's wearing it."
"You mean his pendant? The emerald and ruby one?"
"Yeah, that one. He wasn't wearing it yesterday. He gave it away."
Lady Dupries now halted abruptly and turned to face her. Even with her hood up again, Charmian could see her face, her eyes like large pale moons hidden underneath. Her startled look was much the same as Red Bird's.
"He...what?" This second word came out as if she were certain she hadn't heard Charmian correctly. Charmian frowned inwardly at the reaction - which only seemed to verify her own fears - but repeated herself anyway.
"His necklace. He gave it away to someone."
"He...gave it away...?" Lady Dupries stared at her for a moment, before her gaze drifted down to the snowy ground. She blinked once, standing silent.
Charmian squirmed and nodded. Perhaps she should have confronted Justin himself about this. It probably wasn't a good idea to tell his mother.
The older woman only stared at the snow for a moment or two before she seemed to snap back to life, shaking her head. She glanced about them as if seeking something, even peeling back her hood a bit to see better. Her brows knitted together.
"He can't have gotten too far from the house just yet...perhaps if I take the horse I may find him..." She turned back to Charmian, hand digging in a pocket deep in the robes she wore. Charmian jumped and backed away a step or two when she fell to her knees before her, looking in her eyes imploringly.
"I need for you to do me a favor. I was on my way to the lake...but I can't go there just now. I have to look for Justin. I would be in your debt if you would go to the lake for me."
"Devil's - Devil's Lake - ?" Charmian squawked, panicking. "But - I can't go there! He practically tore my head off the last time!"
"He won't hurt you. No matter what he says." Charmian looked down to see Lady Dupries pull something out of her pocket and press it into Charmian's cold hands. She opened her stiff fingers to see a glittering jewel, perhaps a blue topaz, set in an intricate design of silver.
"But he told me to keep away," she protested. "He told me to never come back or I'd be sorry."
"He'll let you in, if you give him this," Lady Dupries insisted. She wrapped Charmian's fingers around the stone. "He'll recognize it, from me. Tell him I could not come. Let him know about Justin and his necklace."
Charmian's brow was the one to furrow now. As Lady Dupries stood, dusting the snow from herself, she couldn't help but think, Why should Ocryx take Justine's word over anyone else's? How come he would let her visit him at the lake, but no one else - ?
"Where are you going?" she asked, unable to argue further.
"I go to see if I can find Justin. Perhaps he merely misplaced it." She was busy tucking her hair in her hood and pulling down her sleeves to cover her hands. She placed one upon Charmian's shoulder and looked her in the eyes. "You will go to the lake? And let him know?"
Charmian sighed again and nodded. What the heck, not like I use my head for anything other than to hold my hair.
Seeing the gesture, Lady Dupries didn't look quite so anxious anymore. She bent and gave Charmian a quick kiss to the cheek; Charmian's hand went up to touch it almost as soon as she'd pulled away. "Thank you, Charmian. This means much to me." She pulled her hood up further. "I must go now. Be careful; the clouds are still gathering."
"I will," Charmian murmured, rubbing her cheek. Lady Dupries turned and hurried back in the direction of the house while X'aaru came up beside Charmian, the two of them watching her go until the snow had obscured her once more.
"Back to the lake...?" he asked.
One more sigh and a nod to go with it. "Looks that way...just when I thought maybe all this yo-yo'ing was over. On your back, I guess." He lowered his wing and she put the gem in her pocket and climbed atop him, grasping the fur at his neck. "Maybe if I kowtow enough he'll be lenient and only rip off my arm or something."
X'aaru's ears flickered. He flapped his wings and pushed off into the air.
She wasn't certain how they even made it back; Ocryxes must have had a sense that allowed them to navigate even when the ground below them was practically invisible. She remembered Justin being able to find his way above the clouds...and as soon as she thought of him her other thoughts derailed. Apparently she'd been right, somehow, about the significance of the necklace. Nothing else could explain the look Lady Dupries had gotten on her face. Had she been going to the lake to talk to Ocryx about it?
Suddenly, a conversation she'd had with Justin popped into her head.
Why did he give you the necklace? He really doesn't seem to like giving things away.
This is true. I believe my mother had gone to see him. As he did not keep me after my birth...then she still owes him payment.
What sort of payment?
This I don't know. She goes to speak with him sometimes, and always returns, but she has yet to tell me what they speak about. I believe it would be best for me not to ask. I followed her once, down to the lake. She always goes at night...
Charmian glanced upwards. The sky was dark. Perhaps she'd been on her way to the lake...because with the storm, it may as well have been night?
But still, what for?
X'aaru dipped and his wings folded in to his sides. Charmian expected the snow to part as the clouds had, but this didn't happen. Instead the demon plunged headfirst into the ground, tumbling head over heels, sending Charmian into a snowbank. Her face slammed down into the snow, yet even with the twinge of pain that shot through her she was worried about X'aaru first of all. She struggled to her feet and wallowed through the snow back toward him. He was little more than a large furry shape quivering on the ground; he lifted his head and shook himself off like a dog, a miserable look on his face. He winced and whimpered, rubbing at his neck, and a bit of blood trailed from his nose, but he appeared to be all right otherwise.
"Are you okay?" she asked, anyway. The landing felt as if it could have broken his neck!
He nodded, then winced again. "I...I think so. It hurts when I move my head though..."
"You just stay here then. She said I'd be okay if I showed him this gem. Try to keep away from the shore a little bit and - "
Something else slammed to the ground behind her. The two of them jumped and whirled around. Another dark shape crouched there - it looked small at first, but then unfolded and rose up, towering over her head. She almost panicked when it hissed and clenched its fists at her - until a third shape descended behind it, drawing its attention. The tall shape screamed and tried to stumble away, falling over.
"W-wait!" Chepi's voice cried above the howling wind. Charmian gaped. Augwak scurried about in the snow, eyes wide with panic, as the little woman fluttered after him. "Why do you keep avoiding the inevitable? I'm telling you it's DESTINY! The two of us wouldn't have met, otherwise!"
"BACK OFF FROM ME, WOMAN! !" Augwak shrieked.
Charmian tried to suppress a laugh. She gasped instead when the GeeBee's hand snatched onto her collar, yanking her up to his face. His fangs flashed at her in one of the ugliest looks she'd ever seen.
"I blame YOU for all of this, fleshling! Because of YOU I have gotten not ONE moment of peace! She WILL NOT GIVE IT UP! !" He raised his other hand, and several more shapes descended, landing in a semicircle around them. Charmian recognized the other GeeBees, a few of which had been whirling about Devil's Kitchen earlier. "You find my misfortune so amusing? I'll find it amusing when we are snacking on your brains!"
The GeeBees licked their teeth and grinned. Charmian dipped her hand into her pocket and raised her own fist, squeezing it. Augwak's eyes bugged and he dropped her to the ground with a gurgling gasp. He doubled over almost instantly, hands grasping at his chest.
Chepi gasped as well, hurrying his way. Charmian stepped to the side as she dropped beside the GeeBee. When he glared up at her she held up the sliver of crystal between her thumb and finger.
"Remember this?" she said mildly. "Keep this in mind. Until I'm done on this Island, you belong to me. Which means that every time you decide to get pissy, you're gonna regret it."
Augwak's lip curled back and he snarled. She couldn't believe he was still fighting about this when it was obvious who was in control. Either he was pretty stubborn, or he was stupider than she thought.
"Damned little fleshling," he hissed. He smacked away Chepi's arm when she tried to help him to his feet. The other GeeBees stared, grins vanished. "I will make you REGRET you ever met me!"
"I doubt it. Like I said, clean the wax out of your ears, you're doing what I say until I'm through here. Then, you can get this back." She showed him the sliver of crystal again before closing her hand around it.
He jumped to his feet and his nails dug into his hands. "I WILL NOT LIVE UNDER A FLESHLING'S THUMB!"
Charmian's response was to squeeze the crystal. Augwak's body crumpled in on itself and he sank to the ground once more. Chepi gasped and bent down to take his arm. She glared at Charmian and struck her fist against the ice. "Stop it! You're hurting him! I command you to stop!"
"Consider this me doing you a favor," Charmian muttered. She released her grip anyway, leaving the GeeBee gasping. He weakly pushed himself up onto one elbow. The other GeeBees just gaped.
"Consider this 'bargain,'" Charmian continued. "I quit doing that, and they don't get any ideas to turn you into an hors d'oeuvre. I don't think they're exactly afraid of a leader who falls over whenever a simple fleshling puts the squeeze on him."
He snarled again, but at the same time shot an apprehensive glance at his own men. They cocked their heads stupidly. Apparently he was thinking the same thing she was - there was a reason they were called cannibal giants. He scurried up and jumped at them with a hiss, driving them back as if to let them know who was really boss; Chepi grabbed his arm again as he did so, nearly making him fall over.
"Careful, careful, honey! You can't overexert yourself..."
"Would you LET ME GO?!" He smacked her arm away again and now jumped back himself. Charmian and X'aaru watched on with some amusement. "I am NOT YOUR HONEY! ! I never WAS, nor will I EVER be! !"
"You're just speaking out of anger!" Chepi cajoled. "I completely understand. I was like yourself once! Well, only not as odd looking, but - trust me, this is a thing that will work! You worry about your men? There must be at least one of my Windwalkers for each one of your GeeBees! We - we could have a mass wedding!"
The GeeBee's face contorted and he let out a weird strangled sound. He lashed out at one of her wings and it snapped off in his grasp. He gawked at it with bug eyes.
"Ooohhhh!" Chepi cried. Far from being in pain, it looked as if she were happy. She hopped up and down and clapped her hands. "You want to keep a memento of me! So I can always be near you when you're away!" The stub of wing still left on her back quivered and glowed, and another wing replaced it. "I'll gladly give you this gift! Will you give me your heart - ?"
Augwak's hands flew to clutch the sides of his head and he screamed.
Charmian winced at the horrid sound and cocked her head at X'aaru. "You think maybe she has him under her thumb, rather than me?"
The demon opened his mouth to speak when the surface of the lake erupted as if with a massive explosion. The GeeBees squealed and scattered. Augwak and Chepi leapt back with wide eyes, while Charmian and X'aaru did much the same. A great gout of water crashed to the snow, spraying them all in an icy chill; Charmian had to cover her head. Metallic claws rent at the air, glinting even in the low light, and the eyes and muzzle that both snarled in unison only verified her earlier fears of being unwelcome here.
I gave you two generous warnings, human, an enraged voice grated. Yet I suppose that you WISH to die! If this is so, I will GLADLY grant it!