Round 8 - Ryalin
"Wake up! I need you - come back!"
Marguerite spun around, hearing the familiar voice of John Roxton resonating through the temple. The sudden wave of hope quickly dissipated as she realized that the hunter, along with the others, remained frozen and unmoving, their matched expressions of concern seemingly etched into their features.
"I really must be dead .and in hell," she heard herself say. The words, unintentionally spoken out loud, reverberated off the silent walls like the dying echo of a memory. "Nothing else makes sense, and Lord knows I probably deserve it."
A slight movement to her left and Marguerite found herself spinning again, desperate for some reassurance that she wasn't alone in this Godforsaken place. Nothing terrified her more then being alone, and she almost found herself wishing for Sean's company again. Almost, but not quite. Nevertheless, she could have sworn she had seen a figure in the shadows, just out of the corner of her eye. There was something oddly familiar about the build. Or was it the hair? She thought she has seen wild strands of long, dark hair. Come on Marguerite. Think! Why did you get this rush of familiarity?
As if in answer to her mental question, Marguerite heard a shift of pebbles behind her. Wheeling around, she managed a decent look at the figure before it disappeared again. However, realizing whom it was only confused her more.
What in the world is the Zanga shaman doing here?
Deciding suddenly that the vision of the shaman might possibly be a sign pointing her in the direction of help, Marguerite determined that the time for self-pity and inaction was at an end. It was time to look for answers, as there appeared to be nothing more she could do here. With one last sorrowful glance at her frozen friends, she took a deep breath and left the temple, headed for the Zanga village and, with any luck, help.
With immense effort, Roxton opened his eyes. Expecting to peer into the face of a concerned Malone or Challenger, to his surprise he found himself under the intense scrutiny of the Zanga shaman. Thinking that Veronica must have returned with the old man at some point during his hypnosis-induced dream walk, it was with sudden panic that Roxton realized he had not awakened in Olmec's temple. Marguerite, Challenger and Malone were nowhere to be found, only the shaman staring at him from across a fire as the two sat under a canopy of starlight.
"Do not fear," the shaman spoke aloud, as if reading Roxton's thoughts. "You continue to dream, John Roxton. I have simply entered your dream for a brief time to warn you."
Relieved that the shaman seemed to be aware of their dire circumstances, Roxton tried to settle his heart rate back down to something that didn't feel like his chest was about to burst open. "So you know what's going on? Is Veronica there? Are you coming to help Marguerite?" The words spilled out in a rush, Roxton not caring that he was near babbling with worry.
The shaman quieted Roxton with an impatient stare. "I can only maintain this connection for a moment more. You must be quiet and listen. The woman, Marguerite, is in grave danger. The spirit dream she walks is defilement, a blasphemy. That which has taken her to walk the dream against her will is a monster of proportions you can not even begin to understand."
"We know who has her," Roxton blurted out before the shaman could go on. The panic started to increase again. With every word the shaman uttered he felt the woman he loved slipping away from him. "It's Olm "
"Do not even speak the name," the shaman spat, cutting Roxton off with a hiss. "My powers are limited so far away from you. He is aware of your dream walk, though apparently not so pleased with the outcome. Somehow you were able to keep him out of your dream. I'm not sure how you accomplished this, but I know that the same thing strives to block me as well."
"Malone added some drawn symbols to the ritual, maybe "
For the third time Roxton found himself soundly silenced by the Zanga shaman. "Listen to me, hunter. We haven't time. Even now I travel toward you. I know where the Fallen One's temple lies. You will need my help if you expect to save your woman. Do not under any circumstances attempt the dream walk again. The Fallen One was fooled once. He will not be so easily fooled again."
The old man's words seemed to ring in Roxton's ears as he began to notice that the stars were no longer just above him but all around him, too. As if from a great distance he could hear the shaman's last words; a warning about Olmec's influence over those close to him. The stars and the dark seemed to envelope him, the stars becoming brighter and brighter, his eyes closing and watering in response to the stinging light. Suddenly, the whole world felt as if it abruptly lurched to one side. When Roxton opened his eyes again, it was the anxious faces of Challenger and Malone that gazed back.
Veronica was roused out of a light doze as the shrieks of hunting raptors abruptly stilled the familiar nocturnal sounds of the plateau. She was alert within seconds, without a sound or movement that might betray her position to the predators. Nestled within the branches of a large tree, Veronica listened carefully for further telltale signs that would give her a better idea of the raptors' current position. After what felt like hours, she heard another set of hisses and shrieks further down the nearby canyon, relaxing a bit as she realized that the raptors were tracking other prey.
Leaning back against the tree trunk for support, Veronica half closed her eyes and allowed her weary body to ride out the aftereffects of the adrenaline surge that had awakened her. Since leaving the explorers at the temple, she had pushed herself to the absolute limits of her abilities, estimating that she had traveled a little more then half way to the Zanga village before nightfall had dictated that she stop and rest. Concern over her friend had battled jungle logic as Veronica begrudgingly realized she wouldn't do Marguerite any good if she became some dinosaur's midnight snack. If she set out at first light, and barring any unexpected dinosaur induced detours, she hoped to reach the village by early afternoon. Once there, she assumed the trickier part of the journey would begin; a concern that she had purposely kept from Roxton, Challenger and Malone. The reality was that it was going to be extremely difficult to entice the Zanga shaman away from the village. It was bad enough that Olmec was involved. A notoriously superstitious people, the Zanga were strongly reticent to discuss the evils embedded in their own history. She wasn't entirely certain, but Veronica suspected that there were ancestral ties between the Zanga and the doomed people that Olmec had destroyed in a rage fueled by betrayal and spite, ties that the Zanga would sooner just forget. During the one attempt Veronica had made to discuss their near disastrous encounter with Olmec, the Zanga shaman had waved her away in a frenzy, muttering protective charms guarding himself from the evil eye.
Veronica gingerly rubbed her temples in a firm circular motion, trying to soothe the headache that had been threatening for the last two hours. No, the shaman wants nothing to do with Olmec, she thought with a deep sigh, but lately he wants even less to do with Malone. The relationship between Malone and the old man had once been a close one; different aspects of storytelling forming a bridge between two men who couldn't have been more different if they had tried. But Malone's near disastrous spirit dream had marred that bond and his later prolonged visit to the spirit realm had been the demise.
Veronica sighed again as she rested her head against the tree trunk as gently as possible. She would most definitely have her work cut out for her when she arrived at the village tomorrow. Convincing the shaman to help me is going to take a miracle. I think I'd have better luck getting Marguerite to share Roxton with that voodoo priestess. The image the ludicrous thought created couldn't help but generate a slight grin before Veronica was claimed by a dreamless sleep.
The angle of the rising sun illuminated the outer half of the temple in a burnt orange glow as Challenger stiffly got to his feet. The old body didn't take to sitting in one position for hours on end, especially when that one position was on a hard stone floor. The pace had certainly slowed to a crawl since Roxton had awakened from the hypnosis with two concerned men hovering over him like expectant fathers. The hunter had been a bit dazed and strangely tight lipped about the experience, only mentioning that the attempt at a dream walk had been a success for reasons other than the expected ones. Though Challenger and Malone had responded with confusion, their not-so-transparent attempts to garner further information had proven unsuccessful. Roxton had stared sadly at the woman still lying beside him in a deathlike state and had drifted off into a troubled doze, the physical link between the hunter and heiress unbroken with their hands still tied together.
There was nothing to do at this point but wait for Veronica to return with the Zanga shaman. However, sitting and waiting was certainly not one of George Edward Challenger's strong suits. He paced around their small enclosure, trying to work the kinks out of hips that vehemently protested their recent treatment. Challenger looked to where the young, blond reporter had finally succumbed to boredom and napped, his quiet snoring cutting through the stillness of the temple confines. No, it looks like Malone isn't too terribly fond of sitting and waiting either, Challenger thought with a bit of amusement as he realized that even his thoughts resonated with the tedium of their situation. He was a problem solver. Not necessarily a man of action like Roxton, but a man who took great pleasure in rising up to the challenge of answering the most difficult questions. There is a solution here, he thought to himself. I know there is.
Turning to the most obvious key, Challenger couldn't help but notice the light from the rising sun was at the perfect angle to filter past the vegetation covering the front of the temple. Consequently, some of the hieroglyphs were now suffused with an almost radiant, orange glow. A more sensible, more cautious part of his brain told him that he was playing with fire. He summarily ignored it. There would be no harm in quick glances. I'll simply make sure my eyes don't stay in any one place for long.
Challenger focused on small pieces, glancing from one wall to another quickly, trying to take in as much as possible with brief glimpses. He was disappointed to find no proverbial lightning strike, no flash of insight that would help him reign victorious against the mysteries of nature.
Releasing a sigh mixed with equal parts disappointment and frustration, Challenger again sank to the stone floor of the temple and waited, completely unaware that a fallen god was nearby, cackling with glee.
"I am an idiot," Marguerite spoke out loud to nobody in particular. It felt vaguely reassuring to hear the words pierce the silence that blanketed the world around her. Setting out towards the Zanga village had seemed like a good idea in theory. In practice, however, it was proving to be difficult, as she hadn't stopped to consider the time of day. It was already well past dusk. The normal hazards of the Plateau multiplied exponentially once the sun went down; a fact that was proven all too soon when her foot became snagged in an exposed root, hurling her indelicately to the ground. Her brief yelp was followed by a string of inventive curses as Marguerite slowly righted herself, pain resonating up her right arm from her palm. Fearing a sprain or worse, she settled herself back again a tree trunk and carefully examined the damage done to her hand. Even in the faint light, it was easy to see the two-inch thorn embedded in the center of her palm, blood already oozing from around the puncture site.
Could this day possibly get any better? Marguerite thought, oddly finding a bit of comfort in the familiar refrain.
Realizing that the thorn needed to be removed, she hesitated briefly until she remembered a booby trap that had sent her tumbling into a pit and onto on a bed of deadly spikes. Come on Marguerite, she thought to herself with exasperation. You ripped your own body from a floor of three-foot long spikes. If you can do that, you can do anything.
Grabbing the thorn with her left hand and silently cursing what appeared to be her own personal brand of bad fortune, she firmly pulled it out in one swift motion.
From the confines of his temple, Olmec smiled triumphantly. The missing piece of the puzzle was now in play, the ironic part being that it was not of his doing. The woman had handed him what he needed without even realizing it. Now the stage was set, and he was going to enjoy watching the drama unfold as he ushered Marguerite and all of her friends to their doom. Lying back lazily, his smile only grew wider as he focused his concentration on the old scientist.
Challenger was fairly certain that someone had groaned. He had been dozing when something had roused him, a feeling of anxiousness chasing the lingering tendrils of sleep away. Something was very wrong. Danger was a palpable presence. Panicked, he made his way over to where Marguerite and Roxton still lay with their hands secured by Roxton's shirt, and immediately noticed the blood. The shirt that bound their hands together was soaked with crimson at its lowest point, and small rivulets had made their way to a small burgundy pool on the stone floor.
Marguerite must have injured herself in the dream, the scientist realized with dismay. He remembered a similar instance during Ned and Veronica's dream walk when Veronica's hand had suddenly started to bleed as if it had been cut. Veronica had told him later that in the dream she had cut her hand on a piece of broken glass. The injury had manifested itself outside of the dream walk. The shaman had actually warned them that death in the dream would mean subsequent death in reality. Uncertainty flooded through the scientist as he realized that there was no telling what kind of danger Marguerite was facing in her dream, or how badly her hand might be hurt. Even without Olmec's influence, with the heiress's history, her own mind and memories could have created a dreamscape that he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy.
Scanning quickly for other obvious injuries, Challenger immediately noticed that her features appeared to be locked in a grimace of pain. Uncertainty was quickly replaced by helplessness as he realized that there was no way to help her fight this battle, at least not until the shaman arrived. If he arrives, Challenger wondered hopelessly.
A faint groan caused Challenger to turn toward Roxton, instantly noticing the same grimace of pain on the sleeping man's face. Realization hit the scientist mere seconds before he noticed the growing red stains on the shirt securing Marguerite's right hand to Roxton's left. The injury must be affecting both of them!
What should have been a difficult decision was reassuringly simple. He knew Roxton would be furious, but once he explained his rationale, he was certain the English lord would understand. Challenger could do nothing for Marguerite. He didn't like it, but he had to accept it. What he didn't have to do was allow the situation to progress to where Roxton's life was in danger as well. This was the right decision. The logical one. Yes, he was certain that Roxton would understand.
Ned remained propped up against a piece of the overturned stone chair, soundly asleep. A small voice in Challenger's head suggested running his course of action past the journalist, while a much louder voice insisted that valuable time was being lost by hesitation. Being careful not to waken the sleeping hunter, Challenger gently untied the shirt holding Roxton and Marguerite's hands together.
Roxton fought hard to open his eyes, fatigue battling to keep him in the soothing folds of sleep and dreams. He dreamt of Marguerite. The couple sat on the shore of the inland sea, enjoying a day of perfect sunshine. He said something charming and witty, and the beautiful brunette was staring up at him, her silver-gray eyes brimming with love. They sat in the sand side by side, the only physical contact the feel of her hand in his. The sun illuminated the long strands of dark brown hair, teasing out shades of auburn. It was perfect, or at least it should have been. Try as he might, he couldn't shake the wisp of anxiety that coiled through the idyllic scene. Something was very wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. He turned to say something to Marguerite, only to find that she wasn't there. Looking down to where her hand had rested lightly in his, he saw only blood. A cry in the distance, and he was looking out at the crystal blue water, where a lone figure fought valiantly to stay afloat. Panic seized him as he realized that Marguerite was drowning. Without a moment's hesitation he flung himself toward the water, only to find his arm in the unyielding grasp of George Challenger.
"Challenger, let go, damn you! I have to save her!"
The vice-like grip on his arm only strengthened as Roxton fought to get to the water's edge. "Marguerite!!! Marguerite, hold on!!!" he cried out to the still struggling woman. Turning to stare at the man who prevented him from saving the woman he loved, Roxton realized in horror that it was not the familiar eyes of the scientist that stared back but rather the cold, black eyes of Olmec.
Marguerite leaned over the small stream, washing the remnants of dried blood from her injured hand.
"Marguerite!!! Marguerite, hold on!!!!"
She heard the words a split second before she felt herself toppling into the chilly water. Expecting to land in a couple of inches of water, it was with a combination of both confusion and terror that Marguerite found herself completely submerged. She fought to get to the surface, but the weight of her clothes and her boots dragged her further and further down. Vigorous movements became sluggish as she found her limbs turning numb. Her body too tired to fight any longer, Marguerite succumbed to the inky blackness.
Marguerite awakened slowly to the feeling of being enveloped in soothing warmth. She lay nestled in soft down and could hear the crackle of a nearby fire. The heat, however, came from neither the down nor the fire, but from the body lying behind her, spooning her in a loving embrace. A rough and callused hand caressed absently up and down the length of her naked thigh while the slow, soft breathing tickled the hairs on the back of her neck. The familiar scents of musky sweat and lavender shampoo quickened her pulse while her mind desperately scrambled to connect present circumstances with past. The absurdity of the situation wasn't lost on her, but the hand that had left her thigh and was now sensuously stroking her bare breasts seemed to expel every coherent thought from her already bemused brain. She felt her body becoming fluid, every inch tingling with sultry heat as the voice of the man she loved whispered sensuously in her ear, igniting wave after wave of lust with the carnal images described.
"Roxt ..," she managed to whisper between long sighs of pleasure before a long finger was placed in front of her mouth and the voice beside her ear gently shushed her.
Never one to turn down an offer, Marguerite took the finger in her mouth, gently sucking on the tip, and was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath from behind her. In a dreamy daze, she could hear a voice in the distance, a voice that sounded vaguely like her own, screaming that this wasn't right. Despite an intense sexual attraction suffused with a wide array of innuendo and flirtation, Marguerite and Roxton had yet to make love. Both recognized the reality of something much more then a casual affair, and though Marguerite understood the emotional precipice she was standing on, the unfamiliarity terrified her. To his credit, Roxton understood her fears and didn't push, patiently allowing her the time to acclimate to the foreign soil of growing love and devotion.
The 'wrongness' of her current situation danced around the periphery of her awareness, carried on the wings of fleeting memories. She tried to remember what had led to this dramatic turn of events, but it was like chasing a shadow.
As the sensual exploration continued, it was becoming more and more difficult to not give in to what she had wanted since that momentous day in a London drawing room. Ignoring the nagging voices in her head, she focused on the hands that were weaving magic with her body. Fingers in both her mouth and at the junction of her thighs began a matched rhythm that, with a final cry, had her soaring into a languid oblivion.
Marguerite could have been asleep for five minutes or five hours. Frankly she didn't care. Her body felt heavy and sated. And her nose itched. Careful not to awaken the man sleeping soundly behind her, she gingerly pulled her arm out from beneath the heavy covers. It was only halfway to her nose when she smelled the blood. There was no mistaking the cloying, coppery tang. In a daze, gray-green eyes slowly opened and stared at a delicate hand covered in deep crimson. She could feel her pulse as it pounded in her ears, the pleasant indolence of her body now forgotten. The blood had jarred open some mysterious door of which she had previously been unaware. She slowly turned to look at the man sleeping next to her, noticing for the first time the trappings of a hotel room she had spent a lifetime trying to forget. Pulling the bedclothes away Marguerite realized quickly that smears of blood covered most of her naked body. But it paled in comparison to the blood pouring from the chest wound of the red-haired man in the bed beside her. Completely oblivious to the seemingly mortal wound, the man looked up at her with emerald green eyes full of malice.
"No!" Marguerite cried as she flailed backwards and off the bed onto the floor. She could taste acid in the back of her throat and wondered if she was going to throw up. Her mind worked frantically to try and piece together what had happened.
"Good morning, lover," Sean Fletcher cooed with equal parts mischievousness and spite as he effortlessly rose from the bed and walked towards Marguerite, blood continuing to drip down his bare legs onto the pristine white of the wool carpet. The traumatized woman had no idea where to look, as repulsed by the gaping chest wound as she was by the sick look of lust in Sean's eyes.
"Get away from me, you traitorous son of a bitch!!!" Marguerite screamed as she scrambled away from the man approaching her, whimpering quietly when she found herself backed up against the far wall of the hotel room with nowhere else to go.
"Poor pathetic Maggie," Sean chuckled, obviously amused by the woman's apparent terror. "So, I take it another round in the sack is out of the question?"
Functioning on senses dulled from exhaustion, it wasn't until the second snapping twig that Veronica realized she wasn't alone. Unfortunately, the mental warning came an instant too late as she was thrown to the ground by the weight of a body dropping out of a nearby tree. Momentum carried her attacker over her prone form, giving Veronica a split second to scramble to her feet with her unsheathed knife in her hand.
"I should have known that where Olmec was, his flunky couldn't be far behind," Veronica said with obvious revulsion in her tone. Unlike Olmec, Blum was still dressed in his musketeer-like apparel, unmistakable contempt in his pudgy face. Veronica was pleased to note that her attacker was armed only with a short dagger and not the foil he had carried on his previous visit.
"I'm nobody's flunky," Blum hissed as he faced the jungle beauty. The leer on his face as his gaze ran up and down her body made Veronica shudder with revulsion and wish for a little less exposed flesh.
"Your boss seems to have a bit of a problem with obsession," Veronica chuckled, trying to infuriate her attacker enough to make a mistake. "Last time I checked he was ready to send you packing just to get his hands on Marguerite. Loyalty doesn't seem to by very high on Olmec's list of attributes, does it?"
Veronica's words had the desired effect; Blum lunged at the blonde with his dagger, only to find it soundly kicked out of his hand. Off balance, Blum righted himself quickly, turning to stare at her with naked hatred in his eyes.
"I don't give a damn what Olmec does with that lousy woman. If he wants her so badly, he can have her."
The two continued to circle, each looking for a weakness, an opening. Knowing that he was at a serious disadvantage without his dagger, Blum turned to verbal weapons instead. "I know where Olmec's loyalties lie, and I also know that he has given you to me to do with as I please. I'm certain you'll find my plans for you " Pausing for a moment as if to come up with the perfect word, his reptilian smile caused Veronica to cringe as he silkily finished the thought with "stimulating."
Veronica flared with anger. Taking advantage of what she thought was a weakness on his right side, she rushed at him with her knife. It only took a moment to realize that she had grossly underestimated the former chef. Turning to his right, Blum not only avoided being stabbed but managed to grab Veronica's wrist sharply, wrenching the knife out of her hand. Continuing the motion, he swung both her arm and his own around her neck, effectively catching the young blonde in a stranglehold.
Trying to remain calm, Veronica fought common sense and half turned into that same arm. Catching Blum off guard, she wrenched her body around to the left, leading with her left elbow. Satisfaction filled her as she felt the shattering of bones and cartilage and the warm rush of fresh blood as her elbow connected solidly with Blum's face.
The hold on Veronica's neck disappeared as Blum fell to the ground, blood spurting from the pulpy mass that had once been his nose. Despite the obvious pain he was in, Blum managed to get hold of Veronica's right leg, pulling it tightly against him. Caught off balance, Veronica fell to the ground, her leg still imprisoned in her attacker's grasp. Using her arms to raise her upper body off the ground, she lunged backward with her left leg. The ensuing moan followed instantly by the release of her right leg confirmed that Veronica's foot had connected with the exact piece of anatomy she had been aiming for. A glimpse at the pathetic heap rolling around on the ground in a fetal position had her wondering briefly if she should simply finish the job. It wasn't in her nature to kill. She fought, yes. But taking a human life was something else entirely, even a life as miserable as Blum's.
It took a moment to recover her lost knife. As she approached the still moaning man, his eyes grew round as saucers and the moaning became more of a whimper.
"Today's your lucky day, Blum, because I have more important things to do then worry about you," Veronica said with a deliberately nasty smirk. With a practiced flick of her wrist, she flipped the knife in her hand, catching it by the blade end, bringing the handle down on the man's head with a firm 'thwap'. Blum's eyes rolled backwards as he abruptly stopped his whimpering. Confident that Olmec's henchman would no longer pose a threat to her journey, Veronica sheathed her knife and turned to resume her original course. Later, she would always wonder which startled her more, the sudden sound of the gunshot echoing along the canyon walls or the sudden, sharp burn along the left side of her ribcage. Whichever it was, all she could do was turn toward the man who had fired the shot; disgusted that yet again her battle instincts had been dulled by fatigue.
"Where there was one, the other couldn't be too far behind," Veronica mumbled more to herself then to Condillac. Her own voice reverberated through her skull as the edges of her vision began to mist. Veronica was ushered into unconsciousness by the sounds of evil laughter that seemed to be coming from several different directions at once. Sadly, she was unable to witness the laughter abruptly stilled by the unmistakable sound of solid wood connecting sharply with flesh and bone.