Manitou Island: Part 68
X'AARU'S FIRST INSTINCT was to duck his head and whine. Charmian's first instinct was to squinch her eyes shut and thrust out her hand, clenching the blue gem as if it were a shield.
She felt a blast of hot breath and heard another bellow, just managing to catch from the corner of her eye, before it closed, the demon's claws lashing out at her face. His hand stopped in its downward arc, just before it could strike her, and he let out what to her sounded like a pissed-off growl.
She opened her eyes again. Her head was turned so she saw Chepi and Augwak first. The two of them huddled in the snowbank, eyes large. As soon as Augwak noticed Chepi was clinging to him he grimaced and shoved her head down into the snow.
She remembered to look back at Ocryx, just in time. His muzzle wrinkled and his teeth looked three inches long.
"What sort of PETTY trinket do you attempt to bribe me with today, human? You think I am some servant to be bought?"
Charmian lifted two of her fingers to show him the stone. "I--I got it from..."
He didn't let her finish. She jerked her arm back when his fist swept the jewel from her fingers, and he held it up before his face, squinting at it furiously. It was tiny in his hand, and once more she wondered what his fascination with sparkly jewels was. His scowl turned into a frown and his squint died a bit.
"Dupries..." he murmured.
Charmian finally dared to let out her breath. She relaxed from the on-your-mark position she'd just been in, but stayed ready to run just in case. "She gave it to me and told me to come here and give it to you. Because she can't come today."
"Today?" He darted a glance up at the sky and his own look darkened. He glared down at Charmian again.
"It is only daytime. You lie!"
"Would I have that stone if I was lying?"
He looked down at it again now and his look grew uncertain. His fingers tightened around it and his muzzle wrinkled a second time. His eyes were red and green slits.
"The reason she could not come! Speak!"
"She's busy. She's looking for Justin. It's important," she added, when he began to look as if he were going to yell. "Which is why she had me come here instead of--rescheduling--or whatever." She drew back a bit. Just in case. "I was supposed to tell you about him."
"Justin." She bit the inside of her mouth--He still thinks of him as a boy? "I was supposed to tell you about his necklace." She noticed how she had his full attention once she mentioned the pendant. "He gave it away and he doesn't have it anymore."
The last time she'd seen him look so surprised, admittedly, was when she'd given him--or rather, when he'd taken--the picture of Red Bird. For a moment all anger left his face and he gawked at her, stupefied.
"G...give...he gave it away?" He blinked and his voice immediately rose as his wings puffed and flared. "He--gave--IT--AWAY?"
Charmian flinched and covered her head. "Hey! It's not as if I had anything to do with it!!"
Ocryx turned away from her to look toward the lake. His face contorted in a snarl but his voice was low as he started muttering under his breath. "...stupid whelp...never should have given it to him...should have given it to her instead...brainless human..."
"I thought you might want to know," Charmian ventured, hating being left in the dark.
He turned back to glare at her, and growled. He tossed the little gemstone over his shoulder into the water where it disappeared beneath the surface; Charmian gaped. She was also surprised that she'd never noticed before how he floated over the water when he wished to; he came toward her now and his fist clenched in her face, his voice threatening.
"Tell me where he went! Who he gave it to! When! Now!"
"I don't know where he is," Charmian said. "Lady Dupries went looking for him. That was a little while ago. The necklace, I think he gave it to a lady named Shadow Water."
"Shadow Water?" He said the name as if he'd never heard it before, and then paused and appeared to be racking his brain. His expression wasn't very pleasant when he was busy thinking. He muttered her name a few times but apparently came up blank. He growled again and his wings rose. "I'll simply find this little wench and take that thing back..."
"Wait a minute!" Charmian retorted, holding up one hand before he could take off. "What are you going to do--? I said Lady Dupries is going to talk to Justin, so--"
"I care little about that!" Ocryx snapped. "She is the one with the necklace! SHE is the one who will be dealt with!" He flapped his wings and rose into the air, away from the lake, and Charmian bolted toward X'aaru. Chepi and Augwak just sat where they were, dumbfounded.
The demon yelped when she grabbed onto his back. "What--"
"Back to Justin! We have to find him first!"
"But he said he was looking for--"
"If I know those two, then they'll be together. Ocryx doesn't know that--yet! If we hurry maybe we can get to them first. I don't think I like what he might have planned for Shadow Water!"
X'aaru looked as if he wanted to protest, yet refrained. He rose up into the air after Ocryx, but dove away in the opposite direction. Charmian was thankful that the lake demon had been so hasty in his departure, not sensing the others' whereabouts--yet! X'aaru was slightly smaller and less bulky than his father, but he was also carrying her. She hoped he could outfly him.
"I don't know where they are," he cried as they went. Charmian shut her eyes briefly and concentrated. She picked up Justin's presence not far from where she had been before, and assumed that Lady Dupries must have been right. They were headed in the right direction.
"Keep going this way! We'll run into all of them, I bet. Fly down near the treetops so he can't see us if he comes back!"
X'aaru dove down and soared over the trees. He ducked between them when there was room, moved above them when there was not. His wings made the branches thrash and creak as he passed, tail snapping like a whip, ice wind coursing over them.
The snow had mostly let up by now, leaving the ground and trees heavy and white, though dark clouds still loomed overhead. Charmian squinted at the ground, Sikt helping her senses. She focused on Justin's presence, growing closer, until a tiny shape appeared far below. She pointed so X'aaru could see.
"Lady Dupries! Justin's just ahead. Shadow Water too! I told you they'd all be together!" She almost smiled, pleased with her abilities, yet the chill in her face prevented her cheeks from being able to form the expression.
X'aaru did it for her. "You're right! That was good!"
He began to descend. As he soared over Lady Dupries's horse, it shied a bit, stamping backwards in the snow, and Charmian hoped it wouldn't toss her. The woman put her hand out upon its muzzle to calm it and glanced up and over her shoulder at them as they coasted down into the clearing. Justin and Shadow Water stood about a hundred yards away, also staring at her. If they had continued uninterrupted for a few moments more the three of them would have run straight into each other. X'aaru nearly crashed headfirst into the snow again, yet managed to make it a breast landing, his breath wheezing out of him when he crashed into a bank, wings crumpling. Charmian felt like biting off her tongue. The demon certainly needed to work on his landings.
Even as he was attempting to push himself to his feet, Lady Dupries was dismounting her horse and stumbling their way. "Charmian! Are you all right--?"
"Ow...I think so..." Charmian rose carefully and rubbed her head. X'aaru flopped about like a fish for a moment before gaining his balance. Lady Dupries took her arm to make certain she wasn't hurt, looking her over.
"You seem in such a hurry. You went to Devil's Lake already? You told him?"
"Yeah," Charmian said. "I gave him the stone and I told him about Justin."
"Told him what?"
They looked up. Justin and Shadow Water were entering the clearing. The look on Lady Dupries's face proved she hadn't been aware they were so close by. She let go of Charmian's arm and approached them; Charmian rubbed her head again and followed, not wanting to be left out of the conversation another time.
"Mother?" Justin said. He stopped and gave her a puzzled look. "What are you doing out? We were on our way back because of the storm when it decided to settle a bit."
"I needed to speak with you," Lady Dupries said. She stopped and folded her hands; Charmian hoped she wouldn't start wringing them, else she'd look like Red Bird. Why was everybody always reminding her of Red Bird? "About something Charmian told me this morning."
"Charmian?" Now Justin--and Shadow Water--looked at her. Charmian felt like melting into the snow; she wished her name hadn't been tossed out like that.
"Justin," Lady Dupries said, drawing his attention again. Her hands grasped each other so tightly that the knuckles went white. "I heard that you've..." She trailed off, and instead walked toward him. He started back when she opened the front of his coat, her hand patting at his chest. He blinked a few times with surprise and glanced up at her with a questioning look when she took a step back, her face pale.
"It is gone..."
"What are you talking about? What's wrong?"
Lady Dupries met his eyes. "Your necklace. Where is it?"
"What?" His face screwed up. "Why? You're looking as if the world has ended."
"Just please, tell me where it went. What you did with it? Is it lost?"
He stared at her for a moment or two. Something in his eyes began to bother Charmian; it was as if he started to slowly realize what his mother was getting at, and a wall was going up. His voice was more neutral when he replied this time.
"No. I gave it as a gift."
Both Charmian and Lady Dupries let out their breath. His mother clasped her hands again.
"Justin, you have to get it back. You shouldn't even have given it away."
"Why not?" Now a bit of defiance rose in Justin's voice, and he frowned. "It's just a trinket anyway. Something Father gave you to tide you over for being stuck with me, and given to me to tide me over for not being stuck with him. I don't see why it's bothering you so much what I did with it. It's just some flecks of stone."
Lady Dupries's face grew even paler. Charmian bit her lip on hearing Justin's words. They certainly didn't sound like something he would say, especially to his own mother...
"You think it's a trinket...?" she whispered, after a moment. "That I gave it to you to tide you over? He gave it to you for a reason. You were supposed to keep it. As I told you."
"As if it matters!" Justin snapped. Shadow Water lowered her head and crept back behind him, hand on his arm. "I don't see why when you never had a word to say of it before. Surely he can give you another one? You visit him often enough. Perhaps instead of making him offerings he should be making them to you."
"Don't speak this way!"
"I'm not a little boy. You can hardly tell me how or how not to speak!"
Now Charmian winced. Her earlier wish of being included in the conversation was quickly fading; she hadn't expected a family argument. She took a few steps back to be beside X'aaru, who stood watching with wide eyes. Apparently, he hadn't expected a fight, either.
Lady Dupries parted her hands, but they now clenched at her sides. Charmian had a brief bizarre vision of her punching Justin in the face. "I told you. Early on. It was important that you always keep this upon your person. That you never part from it. You never disbelieved me until now. Why now do you decide it's not important anymore? Why do you decide to just give it away like a trinket?"
"Maybe because it never mattered before," Justin replied, voice dangerously low. "Maybe because no one else deserved it, until now. You know, perhaps I made a mistake after all. I would much prefer I had something of greater worth than that useless bauble, to give as a gift. She's hardly deserving of something so worthless."
"It is not worthless!" Lady Dupries shouted. She shook her fist at him, and Charmian was reminded of when he had done the same with her. "If you knew its importance, you would never have tossed it away on some whim!"
"This is HARDLY a whim!" Justin shouted back. The whole time they argued, Shadow Water hid behind him, yet held on to his arm. Charmian expected her to be cringing uncomfortably as well...but her eyes were wider and clearer than she would have figured. Rather than being afraid of the fight, as her timid motions appeared to indicate, the look in her eyes seemed to say she was more intrigued than anything else. Like a spectator watching a sport.
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth.
Lady Dupries took a breath and attempted to calm herself down. She stepped toward him and put her hand on his other arm.
"Justin, please listen to me. You have to get it back. It's not worthless. I would never give you something so petty as you say. Neither would he. You know this. If you gave it away, you have only to just ask for it back--"
Justin knocked her hand away. She took a startled step back, eyes wide with disbelief. He scowled and clenched his own fist.
"I don't give and then take things away."
"Justin..." Her own voice was faint.
"Don't look so surprised." He placed his hand over Shadow Water's. "Maybe you find it acceptable to keep serving someone who abandoned us long ago. I don't. He gave me that as a gift? I would have given it back to him if he had appreciated me visiting his lake. This wasn't so, and neither could I tell you to give it back--see how you act now?" He snorted. "He's still got you under his thumb, Mother, when it's obvious you served his purpose long ago. Me! That's all there was to it, right? Surely you got the short end of the bargain, when he went back to his lake, and you were stuck with me."
Charmian grimaced now and covered her face. "I think I'd feel more comfortable on Jerry Springer," she moaned.
"Justin," Lady Dupries said again. One hand clutched at the neck of the cloak she wore. "You know this isn't true."
"I do?" He snorted again and turned away slightly, still holding Shadow Water's hand, not taking his eyes off his mother. "Funny, but it doesn't seem that way. Maybe that's simply you wishing it were so." He turned his back on her completely now and started off the way they'd come. "If I thought you were concerned at all, that there was one small part of you he didn't have under his control, I'd tell you to do as I've done. Give up on him, Mother. He serves you no purpose. You're the only one doing that now."
The two of them walked away from the clearing. Shadow Water kept her gaze on the trio as they went, but Justin never looked back. They disappeared among the trees and the woods were left in silence.
Charmian uncovered her face. X'aaru's ears were back and he looked mildly uncomfortable at what they'd just witnessed. She couldn't blame him; she had the sudden urge to go wash out her ears and forget the whole thing had happened. She knew she had a look on her face as if she'd just eaten earthworms; she peered at Lady Dupries, hoping the woman was all right.
Lady Dupries still stood with one hand pressed to her breast. She stared off where Justin and Shadow Water had vanished, saying nothing. Charmian approached slowly, and it was only when she stood at her elbow that she finally spoke, still in the same soft voice.
"I see it happening already...he was right. He was."
"Huh...?" Charmian's brow furrowed. "Who was? Justin...?" She swallowed. "I hope you know, he couldn't have meant all of that. He's never acted like that before...I think he's just...mad or something."
"No." Lady Dupries spoke now with certainty, a conviction which surprised Charmian. "He's not." She looked down at Charmian, who almost backed away, surprised at catching her eyes so suddenly. "Charmian. You said he gave his necklace away. To whom did he give it? Do you know?"
Charmian nodded, and then shrugged. "That lady who was with him...? I think it was her. I think he gave it to her. If it helps any...she did kind of hint that she wanted it from him."
"Shadow Water?" She frowned with some confusion and looked again at the spot where they'd last been. "But...what would she want with it...it's useless, to her..." Her eyes grew as she seemed to realize something, and she looked at Charmian again. Charmian gasped when the woman grasped her arms. She knelt so they were face to face, and shook her slightly.
"I have to ask you. Why did you come back here? Why did you come to us?"
"B-because I wanted to warn you," Charmian stammered. "At the lake. I told Ocryx and he got mad and came looking for all of you. But Shadow Water especially. I thought I should tell you before he decided to do something--but it looks like it didn't help much..."
"He's coming?" She looked over her shoulder in the direction of Devil's Lake, then back at Charmian. Her eyes held the teenager captive; she wanted to squirm and get away, but couldn't. "Charmian. Listen. I hate to ask you for so much in one day--but you have to do this for me. I want you to follow Justin."
"I know it sounds insane but you must do it. He's in danger, and he doesn't even realize it." She let go of one of Charmian's arms and pressed her hand to the base of her throat again. Her eyes wandered and her voice grew distant, as if she forgot Charmian was even there. "He would never have given it away if he knew...we should have simply told him, back then." Another glance, focused, intense. "Keep your eye on him. And on this Shadow Water. There must be a reason she wanted that necklace. A reason why she knew."
"I cannot tell you just yet--though I suspect you'll find out on your own, soon, however much I might wish that you won't." She stood and brushed the snow away from her. X'aaru lifted his head. "I'll go see if I can find Ocryx. Before he finds them. I dread it but I have the feeling all of us may end up meeting again today."
"It's that bad?"
Lady Dupries nodded and closed her eyes briefly. She looked pained.
"Yes...it is that bad."
"I'll go find him," Charmian promised. She didn't know why, but something in the woman's voice told her it was indeed as serious as she said. She had the sudden urge to go see what Justin and Shadow Water might be up to, no matter how voyeuristic it might make her feel. "I'll keep an eye on him and make sure he's okay."
Lady Dupries let out her breath. Her eyes were grateful. "Thank you, Charmian. I know you have more important things to do right now...which is why I know I cannot repay you for this."
"Look, it's just like they keep telling me. Everything's connected. If something's wrong with Justin, it's going to come back to all of us. I'll make sure he's okay."
Lady Dupries's expression softened and she nodded. "You're wiser than one would expect for your age, Charmian. Thank you again. I'm going to see if I can find Ocryx now."
Charmian nodded as well as Lady Dupries turned away, and she herself turned to X'aaru. The demon stood and stretched one wing as she came close, rubbing the cold out of her arms. "Looks like we have to take off again, just as soon as--"
Just as she touched his shoulder X'aaru jumped away from her, barking and bristling. She was about to ask him if her hands were too cold when he snarled. She knew it couldn't have been meant for her, unless he'd just gotten rabies. She turned around.
Lady Dupries hadn't gotten far. She stood with her back to Charmian, though Charmian could imagine the look on her face. Her horse was already bucking and shying, eyes panicked; she didn't even appear to notice it. Instead her gaze was focused on the giant hulking form that loomed before her, wind rustling its matted fur, yellow eyes glittering, fanged mouth twisting in an ugly sneer.
Lady Dupries just stared up at it. "What..."
Charmian felt her heart cram up into her throat. She flung herself away from X'aaru, sprinting forward with arm outstretched.
"Lady Dupries! Get away from him! He's--"
The beast raised his arm. Lady Dupries followed the motion with an almost curious look. This vanished as soon as a great paw slammed across her face. Charmian felt the pain, searing through her head as a hideous snap filled her ears, Lady Dupries flying through the air and crashing into the snow, arms and legs going limp.
And the beast threw back his head and let out a bellowing laugh.