Round 9 - Zakiyah
A strange sound roused Malone from his light doze. Groggily, he opened his eyes even as his sleep-muddled brain identified the noise. Someone's panting. And that's a low moan? Looking around, he realized that Challenger was kneeling by Roxton and Marguerite, and that the hunter was the source of the distressed sounds. Alarmed, but somewhat reassured that the scientist was already aware of the problem, Malone started to get to his feet just in case there was anything he could do to help. A second later he jumped up, adrenaline jolting through his system as he realized that Roxton and Marguerite's hands were no longer joined! "What the hell?"
Challenger swiftly turned in his direction and stood up. "It's all right Malone, I don't think any permanent damage has been done. Roxton's hand wasn't injured after all, and Marguerite's wound is messy, but essentially superficial."
If anything, the scientist's air of calm resolution disturbed Malone even more, particularly because he could see no obvious signs of wounds anywhere on any of his three friends. "All right?" he echoed. "Challenger, Roxton's not holding Marguerite's hand! Who knows what Olmec might be doing right now? We have to wake up Roxton and get them back in contact!"
"Rubbish!" Challenger's normally pleasant features twisted into a snarl of disdain. "Honestly, Malone, I know you Americans are a superstitious lot, but how any adult human being could spout such utter folderol is beyond understanding."
"But " Malone protested, hastening to his prone friends. Up close, he could see Roxton thrashing his head back and forth, obviously distressed and struggling to awaken. Next to him, Marguerite still lay unnaturally still, the only change in her condition a small wound in her right hand that seeped a tiny amount of blood.
Before the reporter could finish his protest, Challenger leaped for his throat, hands outstretched to choke him, teeth bared in a terrifying snarl.
The Zanga shaman lowered his ceremonial staff and looked down at the three sprawled figures in the jungle clearing. Concern darkened his eyes as he saw blood welling from Veronica's side, but even from where he stood he could see that the blonde woman's chest rose and fell reassuringly with her continued breaths.
"You will be well enough for the moment," the shaman told the unconscious woman. "I will tend to you soon." His features hardened into implacability as he stared down at the two unconscious men. "But first, there is something else I must do."
Groaning, Roxton finally managed to open his eyes. His head pounded unmercifully, as if an entire troop of infantry had marched across his skull. His mouth was dry, his vision wavered, and his heart throbbed in his chest with a painful rapidity. What happened? he wondered hazily. This feels like the worst hangover ever, and I've known more than my share of hangovers. Grimacing at the thought, he forced his eyes into focus and assessed his surroundings. He was staring up at a stone ceiling. The uncomfortable hardness of the ground beneath him suggested he was lying on the ground. And the sounds reaching his befuddled ears were definitely characteristic of some kind of fight?
Alarm gave him the strength to lever his head upwards a few inches and crane his neck, searching for the source of the sounds. Sheer astonishment kept him paralyzed there for long seconds, even while his neck muscles screamed in protest and his head felt like it was about to roll off of his body. Challenger and Malone were locked in a frantic, fierce struggle, twisting and staggering around the room. Even as he stared in stupefied astonishment, George Edward Challenger let out an infuriated howl and staggered back, clutching one ear and glaring at the American reporter. For his part, Malone reeled back two steps from the enraged scientist, holding out one hand in a warding-off gesture and gingerly rubbing his throat with the other.
"Ch - Chall " Malone choked, gasping for air. Before he could finish the word, the scientist lunged at the reporter.
"What the hell? Challenger! Malone! Stop it!" Roxton bellowed, lurching to a sitting position. A sudden wave of dizziness forced him to put a hand down for balance. He flinched involuntarily as his hand pressed down on something soft and giving instead of the expected stone. Startled, he glanced down and froze once again, this time at the sight of Marguerite lying disheveled and limp on the ground, blouse undone, strange markings marring her pale skin, and utterly still except for the frantic motion of her eyes behind her closed eyelids. Memory hit him in an overpowering wave, and he gasped in horror as he realized his left hand resting on Marguerite's thigh, bracing him upright, was the hand that should have been bound to Marguerite's!
"Marguerite!" Quicker than thought, Roxton seized Marguerite's hand in both of his own and gripped it tightly, never taking his eyes from the heiress' face. The pounding in his head only intensified as he saw no change in her condition. Her eyes continued to move back and forth rapidly, her eyelids quivering with the intensity of the motion beneath. Somehow, whatever power or protection he'd had before was gone, the connection no longer sufficient to stop whatever Olmec was doing!
"Marguerite! Marguerite!!!" He called her name repeatedly, desperately, hoping for some kind of response. His grip tightened involuntarily, and he felt one palm slip slightly as an unexpected texture impinged itself on his consciousness. He pulled that hand away to look at it, careful to keep his grip on Marguerite with the other. It might still be helping somehow The desperate thought came crashing to a halt as he saw what was on his skin.
There was blood on his palm. Not much, but it was unmistakable. He'd had blood on his hands far too many times not to recognize it. Instinctively flinching away from the memories of the worst of those times (William! The battle at Loos! ), he realized that he felt no physical pain in his hand, although his head was still throbbing. Which meant it wasn't his blood.
He gently turned Marguerite's hand over, cradling it in his hoping he was wrong. The sight of the small gash in her right palm killed that hope.
It was Marguerite's blood.
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
The unexpected recollection of his dream left Roxton reeling, close to retching as his head reverberated with agony and bright sparkles flared in his vision. If he'd been standing, he'd have fallen; as it was, he nearly fell from his sitting position. Only his grip on Marguerite, and determination not to fall on her, kept him upright.
Blood. It's the blood. Roxton didn't know where the certainty came from, or how he knew, but he was suddenly sure. Somehow, it was the blood that was the problem, that was somehow keeping them apart. And it was the solution as well.
Olmec chortled with glee as the images in his sacred pool reflected the chaotic happenings in his temple. It was all going so perfectly, far better than even he could have expected. He snickered again as Challenger charged Malone, sending the younger man crashing back against a wall. The noise apparently didn't register on Roxton, who frantically shifted his now-useless grip on Marguerite. The reporter stumbled away from the scientist, gasping for breath and looking around wildly - probably looking for help, the young fool.
"There's no one who can help you now," Olmec chuckled. "Unless, of course, you're looking for a grave in which to escape me. Challenger might help you to that - if I let him."
An unexpected gleam of light caught Olmec's eye, distracting him from the ongoing fight. "Now what's this?" His dark eyes widened in astonishment as he watched Roxton awkwardly finish drawing his hunting knife and raise it shoulder-high. "What - ?"
Excruciating pain lanced through every part of his body. The very walls shook as Olmec screamed in agony.
Veronica groaned as a horrible stench roused her back to consciousness. Instinctively, she raised one hand to cover her nose and mouth, only to grimace as the motion brought fresh pain from her side. "Ugmgh," she moaned incoherently in double protest.
The touch of a gentle hand on her shoulder kept her from trying to rise. "Hold still for a moment longer, Veronica," said a well-known voice, speaking in a language as familiar to her as English. "I must see to your wound."
Surprise helped Veronica open her eyes. It was indeed the Zanga shaman kneeling over her, pressing a poultice to her left side. The pressure caused her to gasp in pain even as the healing herbal mixture soothed the burning edges of the wound. "How did you get here?"
"Your friends are in great danger. It was fortunate for you that I was already on my way to them." The Zanga shaman pulled his hand away from her side and reached into his satchel, bringing out a small roll of cloth. "You are even more fortunate that your attacker was not more accurate with his weapon. The wound is minor, and should heal well." He started wrapping her torso with a light bandage.
Veronica knew better than to ask how the shaman knew about the trouble. "Can you help Marguerite?" Her mind abruptly caught up to what the Zanga shaman had said, and she bit back a gasp. "Wait - my friends are in danger? All of them?"
"All of them - and all of us." The Zanga shaman got to his feet and extended a hand to Veronica. "I do not know if I can save them, but if we are to have any chance at all, we must hurry."
Gritting her teeth against the pain, Veronica made it to her feet with the shaman's help. True to her nature, she ignored her injury, focusing instead on the danger to her friends. "Then let's go." She turned around and took a step forward, only to stop at the sight before her eyes. Two decaying masses of what might have once been human bodies lay on the ground. Rotted, insect-riddled flesh sloughed off in putrefying rivulets even as she watched, exposing sickly-yellow crumbling bones. A tattered remnant of a white plume near one of the bodies was the only recognizable aspect of the remnants of Condillac and Blum. Her stomach heaved once more at the sight - and the stench.
The Zanga shaman gripped her arm firmly. "This is the fate of all of the Fallen One's followers, when they finally come to their end."
Swallowing, Veronica nodded, trying to banish the thought of the same thing happening to any of her friends. Determination replaced nausea as she focused on her goal. "Let's go," she repeated.
This is crazy! Malone would have spoken the sentiment if his abused throat would have allowed it. He didn't want to hurt Challenger, but it was obvious that the scientist didn't return the sentiment - and that he was a far tougher opponent than Malone ever would have believed.
A sudden movement distracted him from Challenger. Roxton was kneeling over Marguerite, but what was the hunter doing? His breath caught in horror as he realized the hunter was slowly but deliberately lowering his knife towards Marguerite! Panic lent Malone strength, and he warded off Challenger's next attack with a fist to the scientist's jaw even as he mustered up the remnants of his voice. "Roxton, no!"
Roxton hesitated only briefly before bringing his knife down. He was still gripped by that strange certainty, but he'd only seen this done once before. And it was devilish difficult to do one-handed, particularly with the horrible headache still throbbing behind his eyes and the shouting and clamor of the fight. But he had to do it, and so he managed, cutting a small gash on his left palm while continuing to rest that hand on top of Marguerite's.
Unlike the natives whom he'd watched perform this ceremony, Roxton knew no magic words to say, no special chants or rituals. As he had done before when at a loss for words, he fell back, instead, on the words of a poet - Kipling this time. Turning his hand, he carefully grasped Marguerite's wounded one so that the cut on his palm pressed directly against the gash in hers. "We be of one blood, ye and I," he whispered softly. Involuntarily, his hand tightened its grip as he stared at her, desperate for any sign of improvement. "Marguerite, please!"
A sickening lurch, and the sensation of the world dropping out from underneath her. For the second time in as many days, Marguerite was irresistibly reminded of roller coasters. A moment later she felt like she'd been hit with one, and her eyes reflexively closed.
At the same time, she recognized the sensation of a familiar touch. There was nothing gentle in it; she felt positively flattened underneath its force. But she'd felt that force before, always in her defense; tackling her out of the way of a native arrow, shoving her from the path of a maddened triceratops' charge. She believed without questioning that somehow she was being saved in much the same way now, as she felt the ground pressing into her face. She even thought she heard his voice, ever so faintly: "Marguerite, please!"
"Please what?" she mumbled, and opened her eyes.
She was lying by the bank of the stream with a pounding headache. She remembered losing her balance. She remembered falling. And she remembered
Marguerite gagged, clamping one hand over her mouth to keep from throwing up. All at once she felt violated, filthy inside and out. She shuddered, curling in on herself, feeling sick tremors travel up and down her frame, verging on panic but refusing to give in to it. She hugged her arms to herself tightly in a vain attempt to find comfort. "Oh, God," she muttered between clenched teeth when the worst of the feeling started to fade. "What an utterly vile dream." With an effort, she found a vestige of morbid humor. "That's it. No more falling and hitting my head for me. From now on, I leave that strictly to Malone."
As soon as she could, Marguerite got to her feet. She wasn't sure how long she'd been unconscious, and her sense of time was completely muddled. How long had it been since her friends had become frozen? Was it today, or had it been longer? She couldn't shake the sense of disorientation. Hadn't the sky been darker before that awful dream? With an effort, she ignored her confusion. What time it was, how much time had passed, wasn't truly important. Time was all out of whack, that was obvious. She couldn't be certain about anything about time, except that time was her enemy. Even more than she had before, she felt a desperate sense of urgency. Roxton needed her. The others needed her. And, thankfully, she wasn't that far from the Zanga village. If she hurried, she should make it there just before she lost the last of the light. With any luck at all, the Zanga could help her free her friends from their frozen imprisonment.
Challenger staggered back, stumbling from the force of Malone's blow. For a moment the reporter hoped he'd shaken some sense back into the scientist, but then the red-haired man lunged once more. Seeing what he'd seen, Malone knew he couldn't afford to waste any more time. "Sorry, Challenger," he rasped even as he delivered a lightning-fast right cross to the older man's solar plexus. As Challenger grunted and started to fold over, Malone followed up with a left to the temple, and the scientist crumpled to the ground.
As soon as Malone was certain Challenger wasn't going to attack again, he spun and ran towards Roxton and Marguerite. The hunter was still kneeling over the heiress' limp body, holding the knife in one hand. A few red drops dripped from the blade. The other hand gripped Marguerite's hand so tightly the skin was blanched white with the force. The abnormally pale skin made the seeping crimson droplets even redder by comparison.
"Roxton!" Malone didn't want to believe what he was seeing. "What have you done to her? Drop the knife!"
Startled, Roxton looked up, instinctively raising the knife, ready to defend or attack. "Malone?"
"Not Malone!" Challenger coughed from his place on the floor. "Attacked me! Olmec must be controlling him somehow!" The scientist scooted closer to the hunter and the heiress, staying just out of Malone's reach. "Keep him away!"
"No!" Malone shook his head emphatically. "You attacked me! Roxton, he's the one under control!" He edged closer.
For a moment the hunter hesitated, prepared to throw the knife if he had to but uncertain which of the two men might represent the real danger. Maybe both of them did
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.
Even as the fragment of his dream flashed before him, Roxton sensed as much as saw the scientist reaching for the gun at his belt. "Malone!" he shouted in warning even as he twisted, trying to shield Marguerite's body with his own.
Marguerite eyed the darkening skies as she pushed herself to walk faster. The last of the sun was just slipping over the horizon, but ahead she could see a dimmer glow than the blazing sunset. The light of the Zanga's torches and cookfires was increasingly visible in the growing gloom. "Just in time," she sighed. Fatigue pulled at her muscles, but she did not slow down. She was almost there. Any minute she would hear the familiar sound of Zanga voices
She should be hearing Zanga voices.
Marguerite broke into a run, suddenly terrified of what she might find. Oh, no. Oh, please, let them be there, let them be all right!
But it was worse than she had feared. The Zanga nearest the gate were caught motionless in time, just as her friends were. But the Zanga further into the village, the vast majority of the Zanga village itself, and all the jungle beyond - all of it was gone. A shimmering, amorphous blackness swirled where everything else should have been. Even as she stood, staring in horror, Marguerite realized that the blackness was expanding, slowly but surely engulfing more and more of the village - and the frozen, timeless Zanga inside.
Sobbing in fear, she tried dragging some of them - any of them - out of the village, out of harm's way. But she could not budge them. Whatever force held them frozen held them beyond her power to move as well. Men, women, children; she was helpless to save any of them. Finally, driven beyond her physical and emotional endurance, she gave into the inevitable. She snatched up a torch and ran just before the darkness swallowed the last of the village.
The Zanga were gone, and with them, her last hope.
The midday sun burned brightly in the sky, beating down unmercifully on the two figures emerging into the tumbled, overgrown clearing that housed the temple ruins. Veronica's injured side burned fiercely, and sweat poured down her tanned skin. Still, all her physical discomfort could not mask her triumph. "We're here," she breathed. "Now we can help them."
"Perhaps," the Zanga shaman intoned. He looked chilled despite the heat of the day and the sweat beading his black and white makeup. "And perhaps not. But now we can begin."