Round 10 - DNash, pinch-hitting for Ryalin
Malone reacted without thinking. He dove at Challenger, catching him around the middle and tackling him to the ground. They landed hard with a thud and a grunt. Challenger's gun discharged wildly as his hand hit the floor. Knocked free by the impact, the weapon skidded away and slammed to rest against the overturned stone seat. Without missing a beat, Malone grabbed a handful of Challenger's unkempt and overgrown locks, and slammed his head backward into the stone floor. The scientist went limp and still.
Breathing heavily with exertion, Malone quickly checked the fallen man's pulse. It was fast but strong. He would wake again, undoubtedly with a blinding headache. That was all just fine with Malone.
"Roxton?" he called in a raspy voice. He turned and rose to his feet in one painful motion. Before he could assess the hunter's situation, Veronica dashed into the temple, nearly knocking him down in her haste. They grabbed one another to keep upright.
"Ned?" she exclaimed in a mix of worry and relief. "I heard a gunshot!" She took in the bizarre scene at a glance: the battered reporter; the unconscious scientist; the hunter huddled over the supine heiress. "What the hell happened here?"
Malone shook his head. He cleared his throat and coughed. "Long story. Tie up Challenger."
"What?!" Her blue eyes widened in shock.
"Or see to Roxton and Marguerite." He was being curt, but he simply didn't want to speak any more than was necessary.
Veronica decided explanations could wait. "You tie up Challenger, and then go. The shaman is outside. He won't come in if you stay here."
Malone nodded, but before either of them could move, the light from outside was blocked by the Zanga shaman. He seemed to hover at the entrance before stepping purposefully into the temple. Turning his back on the two blonds, he went to Marguerite and Roxton and stood between them.
Veronica and Malone exchanged a silent look. The huntress tipped her head towards Challenger, and the reporter nodded once in understanding. While she went to join the shaman, he knelt and used his belt to tie the unconscious scientist's wrists securely. His work done, he looked up to see what the others were doing.
The shaman was kneeling now, blocking Malone's view of Roxton and Marguerite's tightly clasped hands. But Ned could see the knife still in Roxton's other hand, its tip wet and red. His instinct was to help, but the energy emanating from the shaman kept him back. Malone felt it like a wall between them. The old man was deliberately ignoring the reporter's existence. It hurt, but he understood. There was nothing more he could do for his friends but stay out of the shaman's way. Exchanging another brief look with Veronica, whose eyes were filled with sympathy, he collected up Challenger's gun and stepped outside.
Why me? Why me? The thought echoed through Marguerite's mind with the rhythm of her pounding feet until she wanted to scream. Tears dried on her cheeks as she ran. Her lungs ached with each breath and tired muscles shook, near to failure with exhaustion. She dared a moment to glance back over her shoulder. The encroaching blackness wasn't so near now; she had outpaced it soon after passing the frozen T-Rex. For the time being, her cynical mind rebelled.
She slowed her frantic pace to a quick jog, hoping to catch her breath a bit without having to stop completely. Stopping simply wasn't an option. Think, she ordered silently. She looked around her and almost laughed-would have laughed had she the breath to spare. Her blind terror had sent her sprinting from danger, but her innate sense of self-preservation had directed her fleeing feet towards the one place where this insane problem might be solved. The temple. It had all started there. If she could find no help outside, then the answer must also lie within. With renewed determination, she hurried on, ever aware of the creeping blackness that followed her.
The Zanga shaman placed a hand over Roxton and Marguerite's clasped ones. He looked into Roxton's worried eyes. "You do right," he said, using some of the little English he knew. He held his ceremonial staff above Marguerite, parallel to her body. She was as still as stone, only her eyes continued their rapid movement behind tightly shut lids. He closed his eyes, lifted his head, and began to chant.
Roxton shot Veronica a questioning look. The huntress could only shrug and shake her head. The words the shaman spoke weren't in the Zanga language. She didn't recognize them any more than Roxton did.
"No, no, no!" It was cry of protest that was half fury and half whine, the sort of sound that could only come from a petulant god whose plans were rapidly unraveling around him. Olmec shook his head as much from frustration as to clear it of the agony that had so abruptly engulfed him.
He blinked fierce black eyes crazed with anger and pain, commanding the errant orbs to focus once more on his sacred pool. The surface reflected only inky stillness. "No. No!" Using powers frayed by pain, he forced an image to appear. Roxton, Marguerite's shell, and A sneer of loathing curled his thin lips in a sick mockery of a smile. "You'll not win this time, old man," he snarled.
He'd lost Roxton before he'd quite caught him. Challenger was abruptly unreachable and therefore useless. He hadn't the strength left to turn Malone or Veronica to him now. He had one option left; the ace in the hole that a gambling god like him always held up his sleeve. He still had Marguerite. While the accursedly persistent hunter had somehow re-established the link between himself and Marguerite that had stymied Olmec before, some of the heiress' blood was on the floor of his temple. No matter what strange connection or protection the hunter's touch offered, Olmec could still reach her somewhat through that blood, if he tried hard enough.
The picture in the pool shifted, squirming like a thousand black centipedes, until he found the image he sought. His sneer became a smirk of satisfaction as he watched Marguerite running, torch in hand, towards her friends and the temple, the blackness inexorably expanding towards her. "Run all you like. You'll fail them all, and in your despair I will have you at last."
Marguerite's foot caught in a hole and she slammed to the ground, her torch landing a foot beyond her outstretched hand. Its flame flickered, but thankfully kept burning. The little wind she had left was knocked out of her, and she fought desperately to get it back. Her vision blurred by the shock of impact, she didn't see the hand held down before her until it was mere inches from her face. Gratefully, she grasped it and took the help to rise.
When her eyes met Sean's she pulled her hand back as if burned. This time, at least, he was whole and clothed-a slightly less sickening image in his white shirt, tan slacks, and brown boating shoes. He looked like he was dressed for a trip to the beach or canoeing on the Charles River.
"What's wrong, Maggie?" His tone was solicitous, but she could see the nasty gleam in his eyes. He took a step towards her and she sidestepped out of his reach, keeping her gaze locked with his. "You look all-in. Let me help you."
"No, thank you," she ground out through clenched teeth. He put out a hand, and again she stepped back and to the side. Her chest heaved and her heart pounded, but she kept her expression cold and even.
"I'm the only one who can help you, you know. You're not strong enough on your own. You never were."
Another step towards her. Another step away.
"I'm stronger than I was when you knew me." Keep him talking. Doesn't matter what he says. Don't listen.
"But there's so much more I can teach you." The glint in his eyes turned lascivious and Marguerite fought not to look away as her stomach lurched sickeningly and bile rose in her throat. "I taught you so much, but there's always more a clever student like you can learn."
Again he reached out and again she sidestepped. Her goal was so close
"Cleverer than you, you sick bastard." In a flash she scooped up the torch and drove it into his leering face. He screamed and fell back, clutching at his head as the flames caught his hair like kindling and erupted about him in a hellish halo.
Marguerite pursued him, forcing him back towards the darkness that continued its relentless pursuit of her. "How many times do I have to kill you?!" she demanded, her eyes flashing as brightly as the flames. She thrust the torch into his chest, and his shirt caught light. He screamed again, writhing as the flames engulfed him until at last he crumpled to the ground. Marguerite felt a sick thrill of satisfaction followed by a cold emptiness. The darkness swept over his body and she turned and ran.
Malone paced the ruined wall that surrounded the five stone buildings, circling and circling like some sort of vulture waiting for a meal. The idea forced him to stop. There might be nothing he could do to help the Zanga shaman, but he would be damned if he would hover about the place waiting for death. He turned to head back towards the temple, only to find Veronica approaching from that direction.
"What's going on?" he asked, his voice still rough from recent abuse.
"I don't know. But there was nothing I could do to help, so I came to see how you're doing."
He shrugged and for the first time noticed the bandage around her middle. "What happened to you?"
"I had a run-in with Olmec's toadies." At his look of concern, she hastened to reassure him. "It's okay. I'm fine and they're dead. Very, very dead." She shoved away the unbidden and sick-making image of their decaying bodies. "But what about you?" Her face was full of worry. She placed her hand lightly on his shoulder, near the base of his bruised throat. "Did Challenger do that?"
Malone gave a small shrug. "It was Olmec. He used Challenger. He-" He stopped short, blue eyes wide in surprise as he caught sight of something behind her.
Veronica turned to see what he was looking at, but saw nothing out of place. "What is it?" She looked back at him, and then out again. Still nothing. "Ned? Ned, what is it?"
He only shook his head in mute astonishment.
There it is! Marguerite was giddy with relief as the temple and surrounding ruins came into view. She'd left the blackness behind her, but she knew it was coming. She felt it in her very core.
She passed through the broken ring of the outer wall and stopped abruptly. An old man stood before the temple, a long staff in one hand. Marguerite recognized him at once-the Zanga shaman. She gasped a laugh that was more than a little hysterical. "I was looking for you," she said, instinctively using the native's language.
"Your journey is not ended yet."
"Ned!" Veronica shook his arm until he snapped out whatever trance he'd fallen into and looked at her. "Where did you go?"
"I thought I saw someone." He shivered as an icy chill ran through him despite the afternoon heat. "Come on." He strode towards the temple.
"Malone, wait!" Veronica caught his arm, but he didn't stop. "You can't. The shaman-"
"I have to."