by Ryalin and Zakiyah (with a little help from DNash)

Round 2 - Zakiyah
Rated: PG

"I still don't understand why I have to hike through the jungle in order to see these hieroglyphs in person," Marguerite grumbled as she shoved yet another dangling branch out of her way. "Why couldn't you have simply copied them down, Challenger? Then I could have studied them at the Treehouse."

"Oh, come on, Marguerite, where's your sense of adventure? It's a lovely day for a hike," Malone teased before Challenger could answer. "You'll never find any excitement just sitting in the Treehouse."

"Who said I was looking for excitement or adventure?" Marguerite promptly sniped back. "That seems to be your department these days, Malone - not mine."

Challenger hastily spoke up, afraid that Marguerite and Malone might keep bickering. "I'm sorry, Marguerite, but as I said before, they're most unusual. I'm not sure I could have copied them correctly enough to be of any use in deciphering them. I'm afraid my copying skills aren't nearly as developed as your translating talents," he added judiciously, aware that a little flattery never did any harm where Marguerite was concerned.

Challenger's words had the desired effect; Marguerite was visibly mollified. "Then I guess Mohammed must go to the mountain again, as usual," she sighed dramatically, but the usual bite was missing from her tone.

Seeing Ned about to respond, Veronica gently tugged on his arm. "We're almost there," she said brightly. "Ned, I'm going to scout ahead a little; care to join me?"

"Sure," the reporter responded enthusiastically, aware that he was being diverted, but too pleased at Veronica's suggestion to care. The two increased their pace, quickly disappearing into the dense foliage.

"Don't get too far ahead," Roxton called after them before they vanished completely from sight.

"We won't," Veronica's reassurance came back to them.

"Neddy-boy's right about it being a lovely day for a hike," Roxton continued in a lower voice, meant only for Marguerite's ears.

Marguerite slowed down and favored him with a half-humorous glare. "It depends on your point of view," she replied saucily. "It's a lovely day for hiking through the jungle - if you happen to like being scorched by the sun and scratched by every bush and twig."

"Mm, there is that," Roxton agreed amiably, aware that Marguerite was now baiting him and enjoying the flashing challenge he saw in her eyes. "It does depend on your taste. For instance, I don't agree with Malone that there's no excitement or adventure to be found in the Treehouse." He stopped and eyed her meaningfully before speaking again. "I can think of plenty of excitement we might be able to find there."

Marguerite caught her breath, feeling blood rush to her cheeks even as she mentally raced to respond to his sally. "Really? I can't imagine what you're talking about, or what you and Malone might get up to that would qualify as excitement." Her eyes sparkled as she deliberately misinterpreted his words, and she couldn't keep the smile off of her face.

"Not me and Malone," Roxton rumbled in return, his voice even softer than before, but his eyes twinkling as he waggled his eyebrows. "Just you, me...and the adventure of a lifetime."

Marguerite met his gaze, refusing to back down from the game they were playing despite her awareness that they were on dangerous ground. "Why, Lord Roxton," she purred. "I had no idea your concept of adventure could be so…tame."

"There's nothing tame about it," John quipped immediately.

Some distance ahead of them, Challenger became aware of his solitude and turned to see what had become of his companions. He quickly took in the way they stood together and shook his head knowingly. He almost hated to disturb them, but his curiosity about those strange markings and his desire to have Marguerite see them overwhelmed his disinclination to interfere. "Come on, you two," Challenger called out, interrupting their tête-à-tête. "We'll never get there at this rate, and Veronica and Malone will be waiting."

"Coming, George," Roxton replied, raising his voice to be heard over the distance between them. Turning back to Marguerite, he smiled even though he was aware that the moment had been lost. "Coming, my queen?" he asked, gesturing the way.

Marguerite regally inclined her head, amusement bringing a glow to her entire face. "Of course. We don't want to keep those hieroglyphs waiting."

It wasn't long before they reached the ruins Challenger, Veronica, and Malone had discovered a few days before. While difficult to discern from the abundant plant life that grew over, around, and in some cases on the buildings, the structures themselves were surprisingly intact. Malone and Veronica met Challenger, Marguerite, and Roxton just outside the ruins of the wall that had surrounded the five buildings. "Everything looks quiet," Veronica reported. "I don't think anyone has been here since we found them."

"Good, good," Challenger enthused.

"So where are these hieroglyphs you want me to look at?" Marguerite asked pointedly, unimpressed with the ruins.

"All the buildings have some hieroglyphs, but the one in the center has by far the greatest concentration of them," Challenger replied. "I suggest we light the torches we brought and start there."

Marguerite shrugged and lowered her pack to the ground. "Whatever you say, Challenger."

After lighting the torches, the five explorers made their way to the central building. It wasn't very large, but so overgrown that the light from the entrance was minimal, making the torches a necessity. The torchlight revealed a single open room with several patches of rubble littering the floor, and the remnants of what might have once been a stone chair toppled over in the center. However, it was the walls that immediately grabbed and held the eye; they were covered from floor to ceiling in a dense, wildly colorful mass of intricate markings. In the flickering light of the torches, the complicated figures almost seemed to move and dance.

There was a moment of awed silence as the explorers took in the strange sight. Marguerite was the first to find her voice again. "I can see why you might have had trouble copying these down, George," she remarked, stepping closer to the nearest wall and raising her torch higher in order to provide better light.

"Can you read them?" the excited scientist demanded.

Marguerite frowned, scrutinizing the wall. "I think so, but it's going to take some time. It's very complicated."

"Let's see if we can get these torches suspended somehow, then," Challenger suggested.

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "Good idea, otherwise I'm going to feel like the Statue of Liberty by the time we're done."

"It looks like there's the remnants of some kind of wall-slot here that might hold a torch," Roxton said, examining a crumbling bit of masonry high on the wall opposite to the one Marguerite was studying.

"There's one here, too," Veronica pointed out after a moment of searching on another wall.

After a few minutes of hunting and struggling to get the torches securely set, Challenger, Malone, Roxton, and Veronica succeeded in placing their four torches, one on each wall. The resultant light was brighter than any of them had expected; the entire interior was plainly illuminated.

"I wonder if the walls have been coated with something to increase the efficiency of the light source," Challenger mused, puzzled by the phenomenon. He gently ran one finger over the nearest wall, looking for some hint or clue as to how it might have been done.

"That would make sense," Malone agreed. "Whoever built this almost certainly used torches, just as we are."

"It certainly makes our job easier," Roxton commented. He turned towards where Marguerite stood studying the wall, and immediately noticed she was still holding her torch up to provide better light. "Here, let me take that..." he started to say, then stopped, suddenly aware that something was very wrong. Marguerite was so still - unnaturally so. "Marguerite?!?"

Alerted by his tone, the others turned towards the dark-haired woman even as Roxton took three long strides towards her. As he started to take the fourth and last step that would bring him to her side, light suddenly flared painfully bright all around the room, and he felt himself pushed back as if by a violent wind. Around the room, he saw the others all stagger. Only Marguerite remained unmoved.

"What's happening?" Malone shouted, shielding his eyes from the multicolored glare that shifted in rapid, pulsing waves, now blue, now red, now gold.

"I don't know!" Challenger answered, trying to keep his footing and blinking rapidly.

"Marguerite! Are you all right?" Veronica yelled, squinting against the bright light. "Answer us!"

"She's not moving!" Roxton bellowed, struggling to reach her. He could see nothing in his way, but it was like trying to force himself upstream against a powerful current. Gritting his teeth, he refused to give up, inching forward despite the incredible pressure. "Marguerite! Marguerite!" Frantically scanning her, he could discern no sign of recognition or awareness, not even the tiniest indication of breath or life - except for one thing. Her grey eyes flickered rapidly over the wall, obviously still reading the hieroglyphs, the only movement in her otherwise frozen form. "Marguerite!" he shouted again, even more frightened. Fighting for all he was worth, he reached out one hand, stretching as far as he could, desperate to touch her.

As his fingers brushed the fabric of her blouse, the multicolored light flared even higher, then died completely, leaving only the comparatively dim flickering of the torches. At the same moment all the resistance vanished, and he stumbled. Off-balance, just out of reach, he could do nothing but watch. Marguerite's eyes rolled upwards into her head as she fell bonelessly limp to the floor, the torch clattering to lie beside her on the stony ground.

Continued in Round 3
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