Round 11 - Zakiyah
Malone shook off Veronica's restraining hand, intent on the ghostly image wavering in front of him. A grunt of pain from Veronica reminded him a moment too late of her injuries, but he fought the urge to look towards her. He knew deep down in his gut that if he looked away, even for a second, the vision would vanish, lost forever.
"What do you mean? What journey?"
"Ned?" Truly alarmed now, Veronica instinctively reached for her boot knife, ignoring the stab of pain from her injured side. "Who are you talking to?"
The transparent, nearly invisible image of the shaman raised his long staff and twisted it, holding it parallel to the ground. The warning couldn't have been any clearer, and Ned froze in his tracks.
"What's going on?" Veronica's voice grew more strident as Ned's inexplicable behavior continued. "Ned? Talk to me!"
The ghostly image of the shaman shook his head, bringing the fingers of his other hand across his lips in an unmistakable gesture for silence. His eyes bore into Ned's, fierce and unyielding, compelling obedience.
Ned saw the shaman's mouth move. No sound emanated from his glasslike lips, but Ned heard his voice all the same, echoing in his mind. "Be still. Wait. Watch. Listen, and then do as I say."
Marguerite stopped dead as the shaman's staff warded her off. She shifted uneasily, the pain from her shredded, abused feet radiating throughout her body. "What do you mean, my journey is not yet ended? The blackness is right behind me! There's nowhere left to go!"
The shaman didn't even blink at Marguerite's sarcastic outburst. "Be still. Wait. Watch. Listen, and then do as I say."
The heiress bit back her automatic reaction, stifling the cutting words she wanted to say before they could leave her mouth. If nothing else, the complete sangfroid was absolutely typical of the Zanga shaman. She took a deep breath, pain, exhaustion, and adrenaline leaving her trembling despite her best efforts to remain still. "I'm listening. Tell me what to do."
Much to her surprise, the shaman did not reply in words. He twirled his staff, swinging one end to point emphatically at the torch Marguerite still held in one hand. Dreadlocks swinging with the power of his movements, he jabbed the end of the staff at the torch three times before snapping the stick sharply downwards, pointing at a spot on the ground directly in front of him.
The message was loud and clear, but the shaman didn't speak, so Marguerite didn't either. She inclined her head once in understanding before kneeling down and placing her torch in the ground where the shaman had indicated. It took almost more strength than she had left to wedge it securely enough that she could be sure it wouldn't fall over. Noticing the way the shaman stayed well clear of her, using his staff to bar the space between them, Marguerite backed away as soon as the end of the torch was firmly embedded in the earth. The flames eddied in the wake of her movement, but the torch stayed lit and upright.
An approving smile briefly creased the shaman's features. He sank into a crouch, waving his ceremonial staff over the burning torch three times in rapid succession, then twice more in a slower, more complex fashion. Only then did he reach out and pluck the torch from the ground with his free hand. He lifted it high, standing as he did so, and then lowered it, extending it away from himself as far as he could. "Take the torch from my hand, but do not touch me."
The image of the shaman gestured emphatically with his staff, three times in the space between Ned and Veronica, then once at the ground directly in front of the mystic. The reporter hesitated, unsure what the gestures might mean. They seemed too purposeful to be meaningless, but they didn't relate directly to any one thing as far as he could see. Seeing the shaman lower his staff diagonally across his body, Malone decided that he should stay clear for now.
"Malone!" Veronica's voice was edged with panic.
"It's all right, Veronica. It's the shaman."
Only slightly reassured by Ned's answering her at last, Veronica swiftly looked around for the Zanga mystic. Her fears returned tenfold when she saw no sign of him. "Where?"
"You can't see him?" As soon as the words left his mouth, Malone realized how stupid they were. Of course Veronica couldn't see the shaman; if she could, she wouldn't sound as upset as she did. "Don't worry about it. Trust me, he's here."
"No, he's inside the temple with Roxton, Marguerite, and Challenger." Veronica kept her knife in hand as she slowly approached Malone. Was the reporter succumbing to Olmec's influence, just as Challenger had?
"Yes, he is inside the temple." Ned knew that was true, in the physical sense, and he hoped that agreeing with Veronica might help calm her down enough that she would believe him when he told her what he was seeing.
"So what are you looking at?" Veronica stayed ready to move, just in case Malone turned violent.
Ned opened his mouth to reply, then stopped as the translucent form of the shaman crouched down, waving his staff rapidly in a circular motion three times. A burning torch sprang into existence beneath the rapidly-moving rod. At first it was as insubstantial-looking as the shaman himself, but as the mystic completed two more passes over it, the torch grew increasingly visible and solid-looking. "Whoa."
Veronica frowned mightily at the unfamiliar term, and at this further evidence that some outside influence continued to act upon Ned. "Whoa what? Do you mean stop?" Was he hallucinating? If so, at least he wasn't doing anything more than staring at an empty patch of air, but why wouldn't he look at her? How could she break him out of it?
"Um, no " Malone paid only a fraction of his attention to Veronica. The rest was riveted on the shaman, who had picked up the torch, raised it high, and now extended it towards Ned.
"Take the torch from my hand, but do not touch me." The Zanga's eyes bored deeply into Ned's as he offered the now completely solid torch to the American reporter.
"Right." Ned blew out his breath, steadying himself. He took two steps forward and reached out carefully to grab the torch.
"Ned, stop!" The unexplained movement was the last straw as far as Veronica was concerned. She lunged forward and grabbed onto Malone with both arms, trying to restrain him. Her injured side hampered her, turning her attempted tackle into a haphazard collision.
The impact of Veronica's body hitting his was almost Ned's undoing. He twisted as much as he could to avoid pitching into the Zanga mystic as his hand closed around the base of the torch a hairsbreadth beneath the shaman's. He cried out involuntarily as he felt himself falling, unable to keep his balance, but kept his death-grip on the torch even as he thudded to the ground with Veronica atop him.
Marguerite gripped the torch confidently, keeping well clear of the shaman's hand. Despite her caution, the man's eyes widened in what looked like genuine fear, and he leaned as far away from her as possible. His arm jerked slightly, but she didn't let that throw her off. She deftly took the torch from his hand and stepped back, holding it firmly in her right hand. She felt the sting as the cut in her palm stretched uncomfortably when she gripped the wood, but she ignored it with the discipline of experience. One dark eyebrow raised sardonically as she faced the older man. "So I have the torch again. Now what?"
The Zanga shaman leaned heavily on his staff, lines of strain showing even through his starkly patterned makeup. He looked Marguerite up and down, staring down at her feet before bringing his eyes up to her face. "Once before you were part of opening a portal between worlds, between the land of the living and the spirit realm. Now you must do so again to return all to as it should be. You must take the torch inside the temple. You must place a lit torch in each of the four holders in the wall and then place yourself in the center of the room." A bead of sweat trickled down between his eyebrows, rapidly followed by another. "And most of all, you must hurry, before my strength fails and we are all lost." His breath wheezed on the last word, and a rivulet of sweat ran down one temple. "Do not fail, and gods willing, I will be able to do the rest."
Heedless of her injured feet, Marguerite turned and sprinted for the temple almost before the shaman finished speaking, not pausing to wait to thank him. The heiress had never been one to waste time on formalities, particularly when there was no time to lose.
"Ooof!" The protest was wrung from the reporter's lungs by the weight of the jungle blonde landing on his back. Despite having the wind half-knocked out of him, Malone not only kept his grip on the torch, but kept the burning end from being snuffed out on the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the scarcely-visible image of the shaman grin and nod approvingly before he vanished entirely from sight. His disappearance only spurred Malone's sense of urgency. "Veronica, let me up!"
"Not until you " Veronica's eyes widened in astonishment as she saw the torch Malone held in his hand, and she completely lost track of what she had been saying. "Where did that come from?"
Malone twisted and succeeded in getting Veronica off of his back. He bounded to his feet and then offered his free hand to her to help her up. "Like I said, the shaman. Come on, we've got to hurry."
Veronica regarded the hand extended towards her with a great deal of wariness. "Ned. The shaman wasn't here. And I don't know where you got that torch from, but given whose temple this is, what makes you think it was the shaman you got it from, and not Olmec?"
"Did I hear someone call my name?" The smooth, unctuous voice sent chills down the spines of the two blonds.
Veronica's knife, never sheathed, flashed out protectively in front of them even as she leapt into a fighting crouch. She instinctively inched out in front of Ned in order to come between him and the dark-clad figure standing in the temple doorway. Olmec was once again dressed as a romanticized version of a French cavalier, right down to the white feather plume in his broad-brimmed hat and the long steel rapier he held in his hand. However, there was nothing at all romanticized about the threatening leer curling his lips, or the way he held the sword.
"Stop right there," Veronica warned him.
"Or what?" Olmec smirked. "You think you can stop me with your puny little knife or your pathetic jungle skills?" The rogue god laughed, the mocking sound echoing off of the surrounding buildings in the clearing. "I think not. I don't think you can stop me from anything, or even save yourself should I decide to collect you as I have Marguerite." His gaze grew predatory as he slowly looked her up and down. "And I must say you have a certain rustic, lush charm." The tip of his sword sketched a crude outline of curves, leaving no doubt to what he referred.
Veronica raised her knife, ready to block an attack, and ignored a warning twinge the motion caused in her wounded side. "You only caught Marguerite through a trick of your temple. We've already figured that out. And god or no god, I'll stop you all the same."
The god raised one dark eyebrow. "You've nothing like Marguerite's polish, but you do have a certain uncouth appeal." His sword flashed out almost faster than the eye could follow, and Veronica barely deflected the blow in time. "And I'll have you, temple or no temple."
Malone stumbled back and fumbled one-handed for his gun as Olmec charged Veronica. The lithe blonde's knife had nowhere near the reach of Olmec's sword, leaving her at a severe disadvantage. Only her speed and agility kept her from being skewered as she danced out of his reach, never giving him the opening he sought.
Ned had to do something to help! He couldn't let Olmec have Veronica! And as good a fighter as Veronica was, it was only a matter of time before -
"And most of all, you must hurry, before my strength fails and we are all lost."
Hard on the memory of the shaman's words came the recollection of another realization - his own earlier words on Olmec.
"An ancient trickster god. From what Veronica told me, a deity known for fooling mortals into doing exactly what he wants them to do, using their greatest desires - and fears - against them. Why would a trickster god just step out of the wall and tell us his plans?"
Or in this case, step out of his temple and pick an obvious target Realization of what he had to do hit Malone like a blow to the gut. He saw his chance. The fight between Olmec and Veronica had carried the god just far enough away from the temple entrance that Ned was pretty sure he could get inside before Olmec could stop him, if he acted at once. But to leave Veronica to fend against him, alone, injured, with just a knife and her agility and her wits
It was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Ned took to his heels, forcing himself not to think about the possible consequences but just run as fast as he could for the temple entrance. He didn't dare look backwards. "Keep him busy, Veronica!"
"Stop!" Olmec lunged after the fleeing reporter, momentarily forgetting all about the girl. Seconds later he was forcibly reminded as Veronica seized his cloak and wrenched him off balance, yanking with all the strength she had. He rounded on her, trying to wriggle out of his cloak and win free. He had to halt that meddling fool!
"Oh no you don't," Veronica panted, continuing to haul Olmec backwards as Malone ran pell-mell for the temple. Her breath came short, the stabbing pain in her side robbing her of both stamina and needed strength, but she forced herself to ignore it. She had no idea what had gotten into Malone, but obviously Olmec wanted to stop him - which was reason enough in and of itself for her to back the reporter's play. She only hoped Ned knew what he was doing. "You said you wanted me. Well, here I am - and you're not going anywhere until I'm done with you."
The god snarled, all his debonair charm lost in hate. "You will writhe in pain for eternity, girl. Your companion just damned you for all time." Slipping free of the restraining fabric of his cloak, he swung his sword directly at Veronica's head. "You are MINE!"
The Zanga shaman had been chanting non-stop for what seemed like hours. Roxton sat holding Marguerite's hand, watching for any sign of improvement, and feeling utterly useless. His head was still pounding fit to burst. His cut palm stung unpleasantly, pressed against Marguerite's. Nothing was happening, unless you counted the sweat pouring in rivulets down the native's skin. He wanted to call to Marguerite, pat her cheek, do something to try and coax her into consciousness, but he was afraid of disrupting whatever the shaman was doing. He gritted his teeth in frustration, fighting a growing sense of despair.
A commotion at the door distracted him from his dark thoughts. He readied his knife in his free hand but quickly lowered it as he recognized the figure running into the temple, a lit torch in one hand. "Malone? What are you doing back here? Where's Veronica?"
"She's got something she needs to do outside." Malone grabbed one of the spent torches from the floor of the temple and quickly lit it with the one he held in his hand. "And I'm helping the shaman and doing the right thing." He jammed the newly lit torch into one of the wall sockets. "Or I hope so," he muttered under his breath.
Roxton opened his mouth to ask exactly how Malone thought he was being helpful - or at least make sure he wasn't doing any harm - but a sudden rush of weakness left him giddy and voiceless. All at once all his strength was draining away, gushing out from him as if he'd somehow opened an artery. Even being nearly fatally stabbed by Veronica hadn't left him feeling this weak, at least not initially. It was all he could do to stay upright on his knees and not pitch over onto Marguerite. The searing, burning pain in the hand that held hers left him little doubt as to the source of his weakness. Between the pain, the drain, and the surprise, he reflexively started to pull away from Marguerite. Just before he let go, reason overrode reflexes. He doubled his grip, adrenaline from the near-miss flooding through him and briefly clearing his head. "Not a chance," he muttered woozily, and continued to hang on.
"What did you say, Roxton?" The torch was surprisingly difficult to place in the socket one-handed, refusing to stay put, almost as if it were resisting him. Ned turned the torch another quarter-turn, and grunted in satisfaction as it sank into the hole another few inches and settled firmly into place. Satisfied that it would stay put, Malone turned away from the wall, already looking for the next torch to light with the one he still held in his hand. "I didn't quite catch what you said " His blue eyes widened in consternation as he finally got a glimpse of the hunter. The dark-haired lord's face was pale with pain, and he was visibly wavering for balance. Even as he watched, Roxton lost his battle and slumped against Marguerite. "Roxton!"
Inside the temple, Marguerite checked briefly at the sight of her still-frozen friends. They remained in the exact same attitudes of horror and fear that she remembered so vividly from when she regained consciousness at the start of this nightmare. She swallowed against a sudden lump in her throat. "Don't worry," she said softly, forcing the words around the tightness. "I'll get you out of this, I promise. Just hang on a little longer." Her eyes burned, but she refused to shed a single tear. She had work to do.
Picking up an unlit torch from the ground was simplicity itself. Lighting it from the torch she already held was trickier, but manageable. Getting the newly-lit torch into the wall bracket without dropping either it or the other one she still held was something else again. The socket was high enough off the ground that she had to struggle for leverage, but standing tip-toe on her flayed feet was just not an option. Finally, she felt the torch twist a little in her hand and drop down a few inches, settling into place as if specifically designed for the purpose. At the same moment, a loud, shattering crash filled her ears. She almost dropped the other torch in surprise as she spun around to meet whatever new threat presented itself.
Nothing immediately registered as a threat. Peering around, raising the torch she still held higher for better visibility, Marguerite searched for the source of the sound. Nothing. The flickering light showed no changes, nothing fallen, nothing moving except the shadows of her frozen friends
The scream of horror wrenched itself from her throat. "NO!"
"You can't defy me forever." Olmec's voice was smooth, unstressed, despite the effort of the fight. The point of his sword unwaveringly tracked Veronica as she sidled back and forth in front of him, always blocking his path to the temple. "Soon I will spit you like a pig, and your soul will be mine."
"Fine words, for someone who hasn't managed to touch me yet." Sweat trickled down the back of her neck and dampened her blonde curls. Her injured side was a constant source of pain. Her arms ached from the effort of deflecting Olmec's blows. But Veronica's blue eyes burned with aggression, and there was no thought of retreat in her mind. The longer this continued, the more certain she was that Olmec's true goal was the temple, not herself. His eyes constantly flickered back to it, irresistibly drawn, and the few times she'd feinted away from the building, he'd always advanced towards it. She had no doubt that he'd kill her if he could, but his true intent was to get inside his temple. Veronica had no intention of letting him achieve either her death or access to the site and her friends within.
"Oh, I will, my dear lady. I will." Despite his swagger, Olmec felt increasingly frustrated, and he couldn't shake a slight fear of what the shaman might accomplish. He could sense the native's magic working inside his temple - his! Olmec's! - and other forces at work too, both there and in the dream-world where he'd trapped Marguerite. He had to prevent them from completing the spell. But until he could win free of this annoying female, all he could do was try to influence the people in the temple and Marguerite with his illusions. He lunged again at Veronica, hoping to injure her or force her back enough that he could run for his temple.
He sensed a surge of power between the worlds, the strengthening of a connection between this world and the one where Marguerite's soul travelled. His face contorted in a snarl of rage, augmented by his frustration as the agile blonde in front of him once again evaded his sword. Seconds later, his snarl relaxed into a smile as he sensed Marguerite's terror and grief, as sweet to him as the finest wine. Confidence surged through him. As he'd told the overconfident hunter earlier, Marguerite's own fears and beliefs would bring everything crashing down, and her resultant despair the instrument of delivering the delectable heiress into his eager hands.
Satisfaction dissolved into sudden, slicing pain as Veronica's knife carved a bloody slash down his sword-arm. Olmec shrieked in rage, and there was nothing human in his cry.
Roxton slumped as a wave of dark emotions not his own swamped over him. He vaguely felt Marguerite's body beneath his as he fell over, the smooth skin of her hand still held in his own, but those physical sensations were buried beneath the unexpected awareness of her despair and fear. Instinctively he tightened his grip on her hand even as more of his strength ebbed away. If all he could contribute was to hold on, hold on he would. He wouldn't let go, not if it killed him. His entire world narrowed down to a single thought: Hold on, Marguerite!
A sob tore its way out of her throat as Marguerite raced over to where the blond reporter had stood frozen only moments before. Now only a small pile of shattered rubble and bits of shredded cloth remained to show any indication of where he'd been, and Marguerite was at a complete loss to understand what had happened to Malone. All she knew for certain was that he was gone. The only possible correlation was the placement of the first torch in the wall. But surely the Zanga shaman would never have directed her to act in a way that would destroy her friends ?
Trembling badly, Marguerite nevertheless managed to pick up and light another torch. She picked the wall that gave her the best potential view of the others as she placed the torch in the socket. Not that she could look directly at them while facing the wall and trying to place the torch, but if she timed it just right, she ought to be able to twist around enough to see her friends as the torch settled into place. Her movements were clumsy with fatigue and uncertainty, but Marguerite's previous experience helped guide her fingers. She knew the trick now of guiding one torch into place with her right hand while holding onto the second torch with her left. She managed to set the second torch with much less of a struggle than the first. She twisted her head around as far as she could as she felt it slide home, nearly setting her long, dark hair on fire as it whipped too close to the flames of the torch she held in her other hand. But Marguerite never noticed. All her attention was riveted on her three remaining frozen friends, and the feeling of the wood of the torch in her right hand sliding through her fingers and coming to rest.
Veronica's frozen form flew apart with a shattering crash and dissolved into dust.
Marguerite screamed like a soul in hell.
"Roxton!" Ned grew increasingly concerned as the hunter failed to respond to his calls, but he couldn't spare the time to tend the fallen hunter where he lay sprawled against Marguerite. The torches had to come first.
Sparing one last, worried glance at his friend, he was slightly reassured to see Roxton's broad shoulders rise and fall slightly, proof that he was at least still breathing. Resolutely he turned away and sprinted for another torch. Malone kept his ears open even as he lit it, hoping for some positive sound, but the Zanga shaman's chanting filled his ears, drowning out everything else. Pushing aside his worries as best as he could, he ran to the next wall to put another torch in place. But no matter how he twisted or yanked or shoved, the torch just wouldn't stay put. He briefly considered trying to use both hands, but he didn't dare set down the torch the shaman had given him, and he had no doubts about the disaster that would ensue if he tried to hold that torch between his knees.
"Come on," he muttered, twisting the wall torch one-handed yet again, trying to wedge it in. There simply had to be a way to make it stay put, but what? Why wasn't it working?
Veronica's eyes never left the tall, lanky form of the quondam musketeer. If it weren't for the crimson dyeing his white sleeve and dripping onto the ground, she'd have been hard-pressed not to double-check the edge of her knife for some proof that she'd actually scored a hit. Beyond his initial angry shriek, Olmec showed no signs that he even noticed the cut, despite the fact that she was certain she'd sliced him to the bone. Instead, a dreamy, greedy smile curved his lips and sent shivers of dread down her spine.
Olmec smirked despite the completely unfamiliar sensation of pain radiating from the slash on his arm. What was that mere physical hurt compared to the exquisite bouquet of Marguerite's utter panic and rising despair? Such delicious, powerful energies could, and would, feed him for centuries. This was but a foretaste of the pleasures to come. But first, a final bit of business. "You can't hear her screams, can you? Marguerite's. But I can. Such torment. Such guilt. Such hopelessness." He allowed his smile to widen, his eyes to soften, and the point of his sword to droop just slightly, as if his attention were fully enraptured on the heiress' feelings and not focused on the knife-wielding blonde.
Her stomach churned in revulsion at the sensual pleasure radiating from Olmec. Veronica pushed it aside, concentrating on the god's wavering guard. She did her best to ignore his words, but it was hard, knowing that Marguerite could be in just as much danger as he claimed.
"It's beautiful, really. I wish you could hear it too." Olmec hadn't missed the way Veronica's eyes followed the movement of his sword, or the revulsion on her face as he spoke of his pleasure in Marguerite's pain. He let the sword-point drop a little more. "I know you hate her. I sensed it before, the last time we met. I can feel it now." He let his eyes meet Veronica's. "I'm sure you'd enjoy her agony almost as much as I do."
Injuries, fatigue - both were utterly forgotten in the heat of her rage as Olmec's words flayed open both the best and the worst of her feelings about Marguerite. Veronica snarled and lunged for Olmec - exactly as the god had intended.
Her chest heaved with sobs that she couldn't control. Her eyes burned with tears that she fought not to shed as Marguerite frantically searched for any sign that she hadn't seen what she'd seen, that somehow Veronica had escaped destruction. But the rubble on the floor was mixed with scraps of familiar brown leather, and there was nowhere the frozen jungle blonde could have disappeared to. Veronica was gone, just like Malone before her.
Two torches placed.
Two friends destroyed, shattered like glass into unrecognizable fragments.
Marguerite refused to accept that this was the answer, that the price of stopping the blackness and returning the world to normal was the lives of her friends. She raced back to the temple entrance, still carrying the torch, determined to find the Zanga shaman again and demand answers, explanations - anything that might provide an alternative to setting the last two torches in place and destroying Challenger and John.
As distraught as she was, she almost didn't see it, almost didn't stop in time. Only at the last second did it impinge on her conscious mind, and Marguerite had to fling out her free hand and grab onto the doorframe in order to stop herself before she ran out into the blackness. Not the darkness of night, but blackness - the all-encompassing emptiness that had consumed the Zanga village, the frozen T-Rex, and for all she could tell, the entire plateau except for this temple. The blackness hadn't consumed the temple yet, but surely it was only a matter of minutes before it did. There was no sign of the Zanga shaman. No escape. Nowhere to run, no way to run. No choices left but two: finish the task the Zanga shaman had given her and hope for a miracle; or be consumed like everyone and everything else.
But to finish placing the torches meant killing George Challenger and John Roxton.
The Zanga shaman continued his chant, oblivious to the physical world. All his attention was riveted in the spiritual realm, suspended there much like a spider in the center of the web, a web woven by his words. He was nearing the limits of his strength, and yet the outcome still hung in the balance. If he could not complete the ritual soon, all would be lost.
The gash on her side was not deep. For that, Veronica knew she had her reflexes to thank, and not her wits or her fighting skill. She'd fallen for Olmec's taunting like the stupidest fool. She'd lunged right into the path of his sword-strike, and only managed to avoid being skewered by a desperate split-second twist that had been agonizing even before the steel sliced through her skin. Now she had an injury to match the gunshot wound on her other side, and she could feel the warm blood soaking into the bandage around her middle from the new cut as well as from where the violence of her move had torn open the older injury. Worse, she knew she'd lost precious ground; she and Olmec were far closer to the building entrance than they had been before that exchange. She kept having to skip back to avoid his attacks, and he was slowly but inexorably driving her towards his temple. Now more than ever she was certain that she had to keep him away from there. She had to stop him - but how?
"You can't stop me," Olmec chuckled, responding to the thoughts so plainly written on the blonde's face. Even more than the others, Veronica was an open book to him, although a frustrating one. Unlike most mortals, she had very few complexities and contradictions upon which he could work. She was annoyingly straightforward, as unlike Marguerite as possible except in defying him. And he didn't like the feeling of determination he was sensing from the heiress along with her continued anguish. She should be his by now, lost to despair, paralyzed by the unending fear and mental torments into self-destruction or fatal immobility. That she should continue to resist was incomprehensible.
He lunged at Veronica again, even more determined to rid himself of her and gain his temple. First Veronica, then Marguerite, and then all the others. They would all fall to him.
Veronica evaded his strike, but stumbled in her retreat, and Olmec's eyes blazed with triumph.
A low wail echoed throughout the temple as the third torch fit into place, mingling with the sound of yet another shattering crash. Marguerite couldn't stifle the cry any more than she could stop the tears streaming down her cheeks. She couldn't bear to look, but she couldn't stop herself from looking, either. Shaking visibly, she turned to see Challenger was gone, just like Veronica and Malone. Only Roxton was left, still frozen with grief and terror distorting his face. He had been frightened for her, she knew, grieving for her, never suspecting he was worrying about the very person who would destroy him. But it was her or the blackness itself. Nothing she could do would save him. Either way, he was doomed. And it was Roxton's own words, remembered from the time when they were captured by the bandit band, that she clung to now.
"Do it," he'd told her then, urging her to sacrifice his life in order to save her own. "It's all right. You do it." His gaze had never wavered, never faltered, never shown anything other than confidence in her and acceptance of his own fate.
She couldn't end his life to save hers then, and if it were just her, she didn't think she could do it now. But it was the only hope for anyone, for everything. It was the only chance left, and more than anything else, Marguerite simply could not lie down and die if there were any chances left at all.
She felt her heart shattering in her chest as she lit the fourth and final torch, her hands shaking so much she could barely hang on to the wood. "I'm sorry, John," she whispered, her words barely comprehensible through the sobs that choked her throat, "but I just can't think of anything else to do. I am so sorry!" With one last agonized look in his direction, Marguerite forced herself into a stumbling run towards the last wall. Her trembling fingers fumbled, the torch itself seeming to fight her attempts. Shrieking in frustration, rage, and grief, she finally forced it into place. She screamed even more loudly at the crashing sound that resounded in her ears, mind, and heart as the torch sank home.
Malone had no idea what finally did the trick, but all at once the third torch slid into place as if it had been greased. He bolted for the fourth as soon as he was sure the third would stay put, deeply worried about how much time had already been wasted. The Zanga shaman was drenched in sweat now, deep lines of strain marking his face as clearly as the black-and-white makeup. Roxton wasn't moving at all, and if he was breathing, Malone couldn't see it in the brief glance he could spare for the hunter. On the other hand, Challenger was starting to moan and twitch. Malone could only hope that the scientist's bonds were secure enough to hold him - and that his revival didn't signal an increase in Olmec's power. If Veronica had failed to keep him distracted, if something had happened to her She'd been hurt and exhausted, and he'd left her behind to face Olmec all alone!
He couldn't think about any of that now. The fourth torch caught fire, and he sprinted for the remaining wall socket to slam it home. Unlike the last one, the final torch dropped into place without any trouble. As it did, light flared up blazingly bright from all the torches, and most especially from the one he still held in his hand. Squinting against the glare, Malone stumbled towards the center of the room as he'd been told to do while the Zanga shaman's chant rose to a shout.
Outside the temple, Olmec flinched instinctively away from the sudden otherworldly radiance bursting from his temple. "NO!"
That moment of distraction was exactly the break Veronica had been watching and hoping for. She propelled herself out of her crouch and inside the reach of Olmec's sword in the blink of an eye, and rammed her knife into his chest up to the hilt.
She was more than half-blinded between the brilliant light of the torches and her tears, but Marguerite didn't have to see to know that Roxton's frozen form was gone, shattered into dust like the rest. She could hardly breathe. Her entire body felt like lead, too heavy to move, but there was one last thing she had to do. She turned and shuffled towards the center of the room and the stone chair sitting there. The room darkened as she did so, and Marguerite raised her streaming eyes to search for the cause. Another scream escaped her as she saw the blackness working its way through the walls, eating away the very temple structure itself. Only the torches remained where the walls had been, impossibly still burning in place despite the nothingness around them. She lunged forward, trying to take the last few steps remaining before she, too, was swept into the churning void. Reaching the stone chair, she desperately raised her torch high against the encroaching blackness. All the torches flared even higher, turning into incandescent pools of brilliance that flowed together until there was nothing left but light.
And then, for Marguerite, everything went dark.