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

Round 4 - Zakiyah
Rated: PG

Revulsion and rage flooded through Marguerite, the familiar mask of anger shielding her from the deeper emotions brought back by the shock of seeing Sean again. Marguerite welcomed the shelter as she sought further refuge in her most reliable weapon: words. "Sean," she snarled. "I suppose this must mean I am dead and in hell after all."

Sean laughed that deceptively carefree and boyish laugh that had once dazzled her. There was no malice in the sound of his mirth, just as there was no trace of anything deceptive or devious in his open, honest features. It had been his greatest gift as a spy. So convincing was his appearance of simple integrity that even with proof of his treason in her hands and first-hand knowledge of his far-from-simple sexual prowess in her bed, Marguerite had not quite been able to believe the worst of him. Not until that last, awful day. With a momentary flash of insight that unsettled her almost as much as the sight of her dead lover, Marguerite dimly realized some of the nature of the long-standing antagonism she'd always felt for Ned Malone. Shoving that thought firmly to the back of her mind, she continued on the offensive. "Well? Aren't you supposed to sprout horns and a pitchfork or something? Or is this more like a visit from the ghost of Christmas Past?"

Still chuckling, Sean shook his head even as he rose from the stone chair and strode towards her. Instinctively Marguerite backed away, sparing one agonized glance towards her frozen friends before refocusing her attention on the approaching American.

"Oh, Maggie. Dear, sweet, stupid Maggie. Haven't you learned yet that nothing is ever that simple?"


Already off-balance, Roxton let himself fall to his knees in order to reach Marguerite's prone body faster. He ignored the sharp jab of pain as his kneecaps met stone. Scrambling awkwardly to her side, he shoved the fallen torch away from them both before brushing the hair back from her face. The linguist was ghostly pale, her eyes were closed, and she was completely limp. His frantic fingers found a pulse, but only after a seconds-long delay - several eternities to his panicked mind. "Challenger!" he yelled, not taking his eyes from Marguerite's still form or his fingers from the faint, steady pulse in her neck.

Despite his call, it was Veronica who immediately plunked down beside him, not the scientist. "How is she?" the huntress asked, already reaching out to perform her own checks.

"Still breathing, but she's out cold," Roxton muttered. He began patting her face, trying to revive her. "What the hell just happened?"

Veronica shook her head worriedly. "I don't know. I've never seen anything like that."

"It must have had something to do with these markings," Malone interjected from where he was standing, puzzling over the nearest wall.

"Maybe," Challenger said, easing himself down to kneel beside the others with the caution born of older and more ache-prone bones. "Or it might have been triggered by the torches. We can't know anything for certain." He lifted Marguerite's wrist even as he glanced back over at the reporter. "All the same, be careful."

"Careful of what?" Roxton snapped, unable to help himself. Marguerite showed no signs of regaining consciousness.

"Yes, that is indeed the question," Challenger agreed. "John, you were the first to notice something wrong, and you were the closest to Marguerite - what did you see?"

Sighing in frustration, Roxton gave up patting Marguerite's face and irritably shoved his hands through his hair. As he did so, he thought he heard a sound - a sound so strange, so improbable, that it made him blink. Was that…? No, it couldn't have been. There's nothing at all funny about this. "There wasn't much to see, George. She was just standing there, completely frozen - all except for her eyes." He swallowed heavily. "I'd swear she wasn't breathing, but even so, she kept reading that damned wall."

Even as he finished speaking, he heard the sound a second time. He froze momentarily, unwilling to believe his ears, but he saw confirmation of what he'd heard in the confusion on Veronica's face. Spinning around furiously, he vented his anger at the American reporter. "It's not funny!!!"

Startled, Malone looked away from the wall only to be met by Roxton's furious glare, Challenger's puzzled look, and Veronica's expression of disappointed disapproval. "Huh?"

Roxton wasn't finished; his outrage - and underlying fear - demanded expression. "What is it this time, Malone? Another joke about raptors? A quip about sleeping in? Or have you just decided to stop all pretense of giving a damn when she's hurt?"

"What?" Malone's jaw dropped in utter bewilderment. "What are you talking about?" As Roxton's words started to sink in, Ned's cheeks flushed with indignation. "I care!"

Veronica gently laid a restraining hand on Roxton's shoulder. "Of course you care," she said, giving each man a stern look in turn before focusing all of her attention on Ned. "But you did laugh."

"I did not!" Now Ned was outraged.

"We all heard you, Malone," Challenger contradicted, almost apologetically.

Ned shook his head stubbornly. "You must have been hearing things. I did not laugh."

"It would be somewhat out of character," Challenger admitted.

"Hardly," Roxton growled, almost too quietly for anyone else to hear.

Challenger and Malone both missed it, but Veronica heard. Suddenly uncomfortable, she glanced down and noticed Marguerite's eyelids moving. "Marguerite?"

Startled, Challenger and Roxton also returned their attention to the stricken woman. Her eyes did not open, and she gave no sign of being aware of Veronica or anyone else, but they could clearly see her eyes moving rapidly behind her closed lids.

"Marguerite!" Roxton called her name urgently, to no avail. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded of no one in particular. "She's unconscious, and she's still trying to read that bloody wall!"

"Fascinating," Challenger murmured, leaning closer to get a better look at Marguerite and completely ignoring the hunter's frustrated glare. "I can't say I know what's going on, but I do know I've only ever seen something like this once before," the scientist continued.

"When?" Roxton demanded impatiently.

"In the Zanga ritual," George answered absently, then stretched out and grabbed Roxton's wrist as the hunter started to reach towards Marguerite. "Wait - it might be best if you don't touch her."

Roxton frowned. He desperately wanted to touch Marguerite again, to reassure himself in the most basic way that she was still alive. However, trusting the scientist's instincts, he reluctantly withdrew his hand. "Why? What's happening?"

"What Zanga ritual?" Veronica asked, still unsettled over Roxton's words and wanting to get to the bottom of things.

"The one Malone went through." Challenger gestured absently towards the reporter, not taking his eyes from Marguerite. "When he was under the influence of the Zanga dream ritual, I noticed his eyes moving in a very similar fashion to how Marguerite's are now."

Still angry and confused, Malone nonetheless drew closer in order to see what the scientist was talking about. Naturally enough, he had no idea what he had looked like while undergoing the Zanga ritual. As he came close enough to see the movement of Marguerite's eyes behind her still-closed lids, he heard a chuckling sound. He froze in his tracks, eyes going round in surprise. The others' heads jerked around to stare at him, and he swiftly held up both hands. "Hey. That wasn't me," he quickly averred.

Veronica had looked up quickly enough to see that Malone's lips weren't moving as the snickering remnants of the chuckle settled into silence. "It wasn't," she agreed, quickly getting to her feet.

"Then who the hell was it?" Roxton rumbled softly, standing up in one fluid movement. His eyes narrowed in anger. "Someone's playing tricks here, and I for one don't like it." Raising his voice, he bellowed: "Come out, whoever you are!"

His challenging cry was met by silence. He lowered his voice and looked at Veronica and Malone. "Let's search this place and find our funny friend. Maybe he has some answers about what's happened to Marguerite." He shifted his restless gaze to Challenger, still kneeling by Marguerite's side. "You stay with her, just in case."

"Of course," Challenger agreed. The other two simply nodded.

Veronica looked quizzically at the simple chamber with its inscribed walls. "There isn't any place to hide in here," she pointed out. Something about how the walls looked caught at the corner of her eye and teased the edges of memory. She stared at the walls for a moment, seeing the intricate characters writhe in the shifting light, then shrugged. I guess they look so sinister now because something's happened to Marguerite.

"That we can see," Roxton agreed, "but there might be some kind of hidden alcove or false panel."

"Or it could be someone watching us from just outside," Malone suggested. He reached for his holster and pulled out his pistol. "I'll check the entrance."

"And we'll check in here for any rats in the walls," Roxton agreed, drawing one of his own Webleys.

The three split up and started cautiously searching the confines of the chamber. Another faint snicker froze them in their tracks. They looked around wildly for a few moments trying to pinpoint the sound, with a notable lack of success. Leaving the other two to continue the search indoors, Malone had just reached the entrance when a clattering sound brought him spinning back around, his pistol at the ready.

"Easy, Malone," Roxton cautioned immediately. "No rats yet."

One of the four torches set into the walls had come loose, and now lay flickering feebly on the floor of the chamber. Standing in the entrance, Malone looked from it to Veronica to Roxton. "Did you go anywhere near it?"

"No," Veronica answered, glaring at the fallen torch.

"Neither did I," Roxton confirmed.

"That makes three of us, then." The trio suspiciously eyed the area from which the torch had fallen. The room was much darker now that two of their original five torches were lying half-snuffed on the ground and with Malone blocking most of the light from the entranceway. In the dimness, there was nothing immediately suspect about that portion of the wall.

"Stay where you are and cover me," Roxton ordered. He carefully approached the wall and its now-empty bracket.

Malone kept his gun at the ready, prepared to aim and shoot at the first sign of trouble. "Don't worry, I've got your back."

Veronica half-crouched, one hand on her knife, ready to spring into action, and watched the wall like a hawk. It was harder to see, but that was fine with her; with less shifting light shining on them, the flickering figures weren't nearly so distracting. Suddenly her eyes widened as the pattern her artist eyes had sensed minutes earlier snapped into place. No longer masked by wild and shimmering colors, the individual figures coalesced into larger groupings of simple dark and light…groupings that resolved themselves into a stylized figure that was horribly familiar. She gasped, involuntarily taking a step backwards. "Oh, no!"

Roxton and Malone immediately turned to her even as another laugh filled the room - a laugh both Veronica and Roxton recognized at last. Veronica put the name to it, spitting out the syllables even as she drew her knife. "Olmec!"

Continued in Round 5
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