Charmian makes a bargain of a different kind...
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The Enemy Of My Enemy
CHARMIAN CRINGED AND backed away, clasping the glowing jewel. Pomiere flung his arms up and screamed with fury--the very cave walls seemed to shake with the rage of the sound he let out. He suddenly stopped and started glancing around him, his eyes on fire. He spotted Charmian inching her way back and his eyes narrowed, and he came straight at her. A second later his fist lifted her up into the air by her collar and she almost choked.
"YOU did this!" he hissed, his face ugly. "Stupid bat-brained little FLESHLING! What sort of medicine is this? ANSWER ME!"
Charmian gasped and grabbed onto his arm to avoid falling when he shook her violently. He'd seemed so wimpy before--how had he suddenly gotten so strong? "I--I don't know! I dropped the stone and something happened! If you hadn't touched it--"
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!!" He screamed directly in her face and then tossed her to the ground, where she fell heavily on one elbow. A shattering pain danced up through her arm. "If you don't find a way to get me back to normal VERY SOON then I'll be decorating the treetops with your entrails, FLESHLING!"
Charmian bit her lip and blinked the tears back from her eyes as she staggered back to her feet. "Look, it was your fault that you touched the stupid stone. Maybe if you'd left it--"
What he'd just said, exactly what he'd just said, replayed itself in her mind. Antoine? Antoine Pomiere? In the very brief time she'd walked with him, he hadn't talked at all like that. She took a closer look at him and felt the dread enter her again. He still had Pomiere's face, and body, and clothes, but the expression there was different...yet familiar. The way he snarled at her hatefully, she had seen not that very long ago...
Who ELSE used that word!
Beginning to realize now what had really happened, she looked down at the stone in her hand. Glowing pale blue-white. She remembered the bit of Ocryx's spirit that she'd seen. Smoky colored. Polluted with evil.
The eerie smoky blood-red jewel of Augwak's, signifying his own chaotic, cannibal nature.
And now this one, glowing brightly...who did it belong to?
She'd clearly seen the red jewel blast its way through Pomiere's breast, while the white one came out the other side...
"...Um..." She grasped the jewel a little tighter, pondering how best to break the news to him. Mistake. His eyes caught the motion and he glanced down at her hand, noticing the glow. They narrowed again.
"What is that you're hiding? Is that what did this? Give it to me!"
He'd swept forward and wrenched it from her hand before she could even protest. He brought it close to his eye and peered at it this way and that, before putting it to his mouth and chomping on it.
"NO!" Charmian cringed, grabbing it away from him. "Don't EAT it! If you break this then you'll never get back to normal!"
He bared his teeth at her. "So you DID do this? I knew it was your fault! You stupid MAINLANDERS! Give it to me and tell me how to get rid of--THIS!" He flailed his arms at himself, literally seething with disgust.
"It's not that easy!" Charmian snapped. "The only reason I came here in the first place was to get your spirit back. I can't help it if your spirit was such a spaz that it ruined the whole thing. Until I figure out how to get it out of there, you're stuck!"
He hissed and she clenched the stone tighter. "I suggest you don't mess with me. I'm the only one who can get you back to normal, buddy."
Pomiere-Augwak stood up out of his crouch, blinking with surprise. He'd started to regain his hostility when she reached for the fireling and turned back to the cave entrance.
"LOOK. Before you decide to start arguing, I think we'd better get out of here. She brought you here, and she can take you back."
"'She'? Stop speaking in riddles, twit!"
"I'm not speaking in riddles. You know who I'm talking about! Make a bargain, break a bargain! You're an expert at that yourself, right?" He scowled and she went on. "Well it looks like you're not the only one who can break a bargain. Looks like Ocryana pulled a fast one on you back there, right in front of everybody."
His scowl grew and he started muttering under his breath.
"Your body is still back at Cave of the Woods, if Moon Wolf hasn't done anything with it."
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, DONE ANYTHING WITH IT?!"
"Like throw it into the Crack, stupid! How would I know? I wouldn't blame him though!!"
He started screaming again and the fireling almost evaporated the stick when it started flapping its wings and screeching.
"If you're going to be a big baby about it then fine!" Charmian yelled. "I was going to do this for you, but now I think I'm doing it more for Antoine instead!"
She turned and crawled back out of the cave, bumping the fireling on the stone again. Pomiere-Augwak stopped screaming to gawk at her, and she glanced at him over her shoulder to see if he was going to follow. He scowled again and moved forward a bit too abruptly. As soon as he reached the cave exit his head slammed into the ceiling and he fell to the ground in a daze, a bloody gash appearing over his eye.
Charmian sighed. "You can't float through walls anymore, idiot."
He shook his head and if his face could have turned any darker he would have vanished. "Shut up, fleshling, and get me back to that cave before I gouge out your eyes!"
She ignored him and continued crawling out, into the damp leaves. As soon as he appeared, she tucked the stone in her pocket while he wasn't looking. If he got hold of it, he could very quickly decide she wasn't necessary anymore. She didn't think she really was the only one who could help him, and she didn't know what she'd do even if she could get the glowing stone out of Pomiere's chest. Best not to let him know any of this. The longer she appeared helpful, the longer she'd stick around!
"You know the way back to Cave of the Woods?" she asked him as soon as they got out.
He hissed at her. "Do you think I'm asking you to take me there because it's fun? Everything looks DIFFERENT from up in the air, stupid!"
She snorted at him. "If you're going to be ungrateful, then I won't let you come along."
"YOU TRY TO STOP ME!!"
"Sikt," Charmian said aloud, looking up at the sky. It was blue, clear now with a few fluffy clouds floating overhead. "Mind letting me know which way I'm going?"
Pomiere-Augwak peered at her as if she'd just gone insane. He looked around him, saw no one else present, and then stared at her again.
Turn a bit more to your right, Sikt said, and now Pomiere-Augwak stood bolt upright as if he'd actually heard her. His eyes grew and he squeaked. That is the trail you followed to get here. If you wander off course I'll tell you.
"Thanks, Sikt." She turned and started walking down the trail, partly hidden in the undergrowth from where she was. She heard him hastily attempt to catch up with her, tripping several times; she could tell he wasn't used to walking on the ground, and had a private laugh about it at his expense. When he caught up he reached out to grab her arm but she pulled away just in time--surprised by her own speed--and he almost fell over again.
"What was that?" he snapped. "You just spoke with somebody! And they spoke back! Who were you talking to?"
"None of your business."
"It IS my business! You have some sort of helper with you? Where is she? Tell me who--"
He squawked and fell over a rock. She went walking on without him.
"Like I said, if it bothers you so much, you can stay behind."
"It's an OCRYX, isn't it!"
She started mentally before Sikt said, to her alone, As a windling he has his way of telling the nature of others' shared thoughts. I knew that he would identify me as an Ocryx. Do not worry.
So why didn't he just do that to start with?
You should know by now that GeeBees are quite lazy, and will not put themselves out more than they have to. He apparently did not expect you to fight back.
Behind them, a growl. "I know that you are talking about me! Who is she? Is she some whelp of Ocryana's?"
"Nope," Charmian replied. "Stronger than that."
He blinked. "S...stronger? You lie!"
"No lie. Telling you the truth and seeing that look on your face is a lot more fun."
"Who is she!!"
Charmian opened her mouth to speak, only to hear Sikt start growling in her mind. Pomiere-Augwak stopped in his tracks.
I suggest you stop questioning us and do as we say. One would think that an Ocryx's removal of your very spirit would make you appreciate that more, windling.
Pomiere-Augwak stood gaping at her for a moment, face pale, before his fists started to clench.
"Look," Charmian said, turning to him and raising a finger. "Who is it who got you into this mess to start with? Besides yourself. And don't even suggest it was me."
"I'll answer for you. It was Ocryana who caused all this--right? You were stupid enough to make a deal with her--"
"I am not stupid!--"
"--and what did she do once you couldn't carry out your end? When you didn't kill Tal Natha. Did you talk with her after that? I bet she wasn't very appreciative of all the trouble you went to, was she?"
His lip began to stick out and his nostrils flared. "Hardly," he muttered.
"And when you're only trying to do your duty again, what does she do? Reneges on her promise and rips out your spirit, to boot."
His look started to darken again.
"And what exactly was she planning on doing with it? If I didn't know any better I'd say she planned on using its energy somehow. Your energy. Leaving you a pale empty corpse."
His fingernails dug into his palms and he started growling. "Vile Ocryx wench. I offer my services and she plans to suck me dry. No one treats Augwak this way."
"Must've been pretty embarrassing, huh? I bet she chewed you out right in front of all the other GeeBees, too."
He bared his teeth as if they were fangs. "NO ONE gets away with this!"
"So what're you going to do about it?"
He whirled to glare at her, then flung out one arm to point down the trail. "FIND THAT CAVE! Get me my body back and then she will REGRET the day she ever decided to cross me!"
Charmian shook her head. "Uh-uh, not yet. First of all there's going to be a different bargain. I'm not going to just take your word for it either." She picked up a dull regular stone from the ground, about the same size as his own, and held it between thumb and forefinger. "Here's the way it goes. Until you help me figure out what Ocryana's up to your spirit, the body it's in, belongs to me. Got it? You don't get it back in your own body until I say so. If you try anything, then you may as well have this in your chest instead."
He started growling and hopping from foot to foot with frustration. "Stupid twit, my body will die without this stone!"
"Then I'll give it the other one until then." When he started sputtering she continued. "Antoine's body seems to be surviving just fine with your spirit in it--if you can just keep from bashing his head anymore like that. If we quit dawdling and get back to the Cave, and if Moon Wolf hasn't tossed your body in the Crack by now, then it'll be fine if I can put this thing in it."
"I DO NOT WANT that--fleshling's spirit inside my body! I REFUSE IT!"
"Then you'll be walking around on your feet for quite a long time, buddy! Get USED to running into walls!"
Now he looked as if he wanted to cry. His eyes grew glassy and his mouth trembled. Charmian rolled her eyes and turned away.
"It's your decision. You work for me now. Like it or leave it, and leave your body too."
"No! Wait!" he cried when she took a step away. He held out his hands in a supplicatory gesture. "Wait. Please," he wheedled, smiling in a way she felt was meant to be friendly, but looked ghastly and insincere instead. "Tell me what you need. Anything at all. If it's within my power it's yours!"
She frowned at him. "How do I know you won't try anything?"
"Augwak recognizes a superior medicine! Truly, fleshling. No one has ever outbargained the chief of the GeeBees! You've done this before, yes?"
Charmian snorted. "I don't buy flattery, so no thanks."
"And intelligent, as well!"
"How about this. Like I said, you don't get your body back, or your spirit back in your body, until I get what I want. You do what I say, and if you try to pull a fast one on me, I'll do some creative decorating with your body parts. And what I don't use, your guys will consider the main course. I'll have you delivered to Devil's Kitchen in a little box via Fed-X'aaru. Got it?"
His face went white and his eyes goggled. He nodded hastily.
"Y--you truly do drive a hard bargain, fleshling!"
"Better a hard bargain than no bargain at all." She glanced back at the trail and pretended to swat at a fly to hide her smile. "Right, Sikt?"
The demon offered a general agreement, and Pomiere-Augwak stepped forward again.
"'Sikt'? That is her name? Where is she?"
"Somewhere you won't be able to drive a stick through her chest." He began sputtering anew and she started walking. He made a great noise attempting to catch up. When he spoke he was out of breath already.
"Wh-what happened with the Dreamspinner--I was merely fulfilling the bargain! You cannot hold this against me, yes?"
Charmian sensed Sikt's disgust, and the man recoiled. "I don't know. See if Tal Natha buys it. He's still in the coma you brought on."
"But--but this is merely her doing! You cannot fault me for keeping my word?--"
"I don't know what's better, Augwak, you breaking your word or you keeping your word. But keep in that little brain of yours that if you try anything you'll be getting very used to being a fleshling."
He let out an agonized sound. "Please! STOP THREATENING me with that!!"
"If it's the only way to get it through that thick skull, then I'll just keep it up! Now come on! I want to get back to that stupid cave sometime today hopefully!"
"Of course," he said meekly, and followed, keeping his head hunched down. He seemed to be sufficiently cowed, so she focused again on the path ahead, turning her thoughts back to the Cave.
They walked in a brief silence, before--
Charmian, I hate to interrupt you--
Pomiere-Augwak looked up again. "What is it?" Charmian murmured, slowing to a stop.
Someone is nearby. The thoughts seem familiar, yet...
...For some reason I cannot read them clearly. It is as if they attempt to conceal their thoughts, though not with complete success. This means they are both inexperienced, yet know we are here.
Pomiere-Augwak started looking around. Charmian did the same.
"Where are they?" she whispered.
Nearby. You may sense them as well.
Charmian stilled herself and listened. After a moment she did sense it, and had to admit that even while she'd never sensed it before, it was familiar. "Someone we know?"
I believe so. But they are not open. They may hide something. A pause. If you go to look, be careful.
Charmian nodded. "Sounds like an invitation to check it out." She turned off the trail and went into the woods. Pomiere-Augwak's mouth fell open and he scrambled after her.
"But--what about my body, fleshling--!"
"It can wait a few more minutes. It won't start to stink. Yet."
He let out a growl but offered no more argument. Charmian followed where her mental "lead" took her. In her mind she went over all the people she'd met so far--Justin, Francois, Stick-In-The-Dirt, Silver Eagle Feather, X'aaru, and on--but none of them seemed to fit what she was sensing. Which of them was "inexperienced"--whatever that meant--and yet suspicious enough to hide something?
Red Bird can communicate telepathically. She might want to hide something from others...but if she can tell it's me, why would she? And isn't she back at Sugar Loaf? Why am I rambling?
They came to a patch of woods that rose into a small hillock which she for some reason assumed must plunge down into a hollow on the other side. Someone could be hiding back there, but she couldn't be sure. She started to ask Pomiere-Augwak if he could tell when it hit her.
She dropped to the ground almost instantly, all senses alert as soon as she recognized an Ocryx scent. The fireling and its stick bounced off to the side. Pomiere-Augwak fell to the ground as well, but she couldn't be positive it wasn't just an accident. She started scanning the trees.
I think that's Ocryana's scent, so she was around here, nearby, not long ago.
She is not here now. I cannot sense her.
What if she's hiding her thoughts, Sikt? Couldn't it be her we just picked up?
I...doubt this. She would not be so poor at disguising them from us. The demon fell silent a moment before adding, This does not mean she could not have done so as a trap to lure us to her out of curiosity.
"Wouldn't put it past her," Pomiere-Augwak muttered, and Charmian realized he'd heard the whole conversation.
She swallowed. So...you're saying it might be Ocryana, then?
This does seem to be a slight possibility...perhaps you should not be so curious after all.
I wish you hadn't pointed this out...now I feel like I have to see what it is just in case!! She ground her knuckles to her forehead and thought for a moment. All right...we take a peek over the hill. If it's her, we run. If it isn't, we...well...I'll figure that out once we get there!
Your plans-- Pomiere-Augwak seemed to search her mind for the right word to use, before saying, --SUCK!
She scowled at him this time. Oh yeah? If you think THAT sucks, Plan B was to toss YOU over the hill to see who it is!
That shut him up. Keeping low to the ground, she crawled up toward the top of the hillock, the leaves rustling only slightly due to their dampness--and was she starting to get better at moving silently? She liked to think so. By the time she reached it, Pomiere-Augwak behind her, her fingernails were full of dirt and her front was all wet. She put her hands on top and peeked very slowly over the edge--she'd been correct--into the hollow beyond.
And her first thought on seeing what lay below was, We've got to stop meeting this way!!
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