Round 10 - DNash
Before Challenger could voice his shock, the hooded figure in the corner of the room awkwardly put finger to lips, indicating silence. The stranger's robed arms held Challenger and Roxton's weapons. The sound of one of Roxton's Webleys clanking against the barrel of the rifle had woken the scientist.
The newcomer carefully placed the assortment of guns under the bed out of sight, surprising Challenger further by whispering, "I will bring your clothes when I can. Be patient and wait."
"It seems I have no other choice," Challenger replied with equal softness and some added irony. Even if I had my clothes, I'd probably exhaust myself just putting them on.
"It's difficult, I know. The next time someone brings you food, eat it. It will build your strength." The figure stood up straight and Challenger caught a brief glimpse of smooth jaw and soft lips under the shadow cast by the person's hood.
Realization struck him. "Wait! Who are you? What's your name?"
"It's best you don't know. I must go. Tell them nothing." Swiftly, the stranger departed.
"Blast!" muttered Challenger. He was thoroughly fed up with his infirmity. The need to learn what was going on, where Roxton was, and whether or not he had found Marguerite was overwhelming. Taking strength from his frustration, he shifted onto one side--and immediately regretted it. The damp oilskin that had once held melting ice, and which now held only cold water, gave out under the pressure as his body rolled onto it. A chilly wet spot now soaked the furs. "Damn!"
He gave it up for a lost cause and laid back, squirming out of range of the dampness. When he was finally settled in the middle of the bed, he sighed heavily and allowed himself to relax once more. He found this helplessness more than a little infuriating. Seemingly at random, he thought of Malone. A feeling of empathy washed over the invalided scientist and he suddenly had a greater respect for the young journalist. All the times the poor boy was knocked unconscious or bed-ridden from injury, he thought with new appreciation. It never occurred to me how frustrating it must have been for him. When he returns from his travels, I must remember to apologize for my abominable lack of understanding.
"I hate to spoil your plans," Finn said, "but how are we supposed to get anywhere with that in our way?" She waved her arm expansively towards the avalanche fallout.
"Your friends went that way?" Ardo asked.
Veronica nodded. "As far as we can tell. This is where their trail ends unless they got through here before this happened," she added with a mixture of hope and doubt.
Ardo knelt, placing a hand atop the snow. He tilted his head, and even Veronica was unsure whether he was listening or looking for something. Next, he stood up straight and inhaled deeply, almost as if he were tasting the air. "When did they go?"
"Huh?" grunted Finn.
"We expected them back the day before yesterday," Veronica answered, ignoring the younger woman.
Ardo's face grew solemn. "I don't believe you will find their tracks on the other side. But there's another possibility. Come with me." He started up the slope, staying a step or two away from the edge of the avalanche flow. Veronica noticed that he walked with a strange gait, never quite lifting his feet from the snow. She followed, trying to imitate his movements.
Finn, on the other hand, trudged ahead carelessly. "Hang on," she said. "Where are we--? Whoa!" Her query was cut short as one leg suddenly sank thigh deep into the snow. "Crap!" she exclaimed, trying uselessly to extract her buried limb and only succeeding in digging herself in deeper.
"Be still!" ordered Ardo. Both women froze, startled by the command; Veronica had never known Ardo to raise his voice. He moved smoothly back toward Finn. Then, heedless of the cold that undoubtedly seeped through his thin coverings, he laid down on his belly and reached his hands out to her. "Give me your pack. Carefully."
Finn did as told. Ardo took the heavy pack and shoved it towards Veronica. That done, he reached out to Finn once more. "Take my hands." Finn did, and he began to inch away from where she had fallen through, pulling her with him. When she was finally out and lying spread-eagle atop the snow, he released her hands and stood, rising up and away. He gestured her forward, and Finn--the look of annoyance plain on her face--crept towards him.
"Now it is safe to rise again," Ardo informed her.
She did so quickly, but not so quickly that her movements would send her plummeting again. "That was cold!"
Veronica almost laughed at the expression on Ardo's face when he replied. "That is snow. Now follow me--lightly."
"Come on." Veronica returned Finn's pack to her. The girl teetered for a moment, afraid she would once more fall through the thin layer of ice that crusted the snow.
"Thanks," was Finn's sarcastic reply, but she was much more cautious now as she followed the others up the slope.
"There is a cave not far from here," Ardo said as they walked. "My mother and I used it many times when we returned here to hunt."
"And that helps us how?" muttered Finn under her breath.
"Deep into the cave there is a narrow passage that leads into the mountain."
"And again I ask--?"
This time Veronica shot her a glare that clearly meant "shut up".
"I told you my former tribe lives inside these mountains," Ardo went on. "This passage will lead us to a tunnel that was rarely used when I was a child. From there you can begin to search for your friends."
"I thought you were coming with us," Veronica said.
"I will, but I can only take you so far. If nothing has changed with the Matozóide, there is little I can do to help you beyond guiding you to the women. You have the waterstone Kai gave you?"
Veronica nodded, putting a hand in her pocket and running her fingers over the gem.
"Good. Then they will at least hear you out unless they have forsaken Yemanjá." There was sadness and fear in his voice. "Mother of Waters, let it not have come to that," he added ardently.
For the first time since finding himself inside the mountain, John awoke refreshed. His muscles still ached, but now the pain had receded to a manageable background level. It took him only a moment to orient himself and discover that Marguerite had also fallen asleep as they sat there, leaning against the cave wall. At some point as they'd slept, they had shifted so that now his arm was around her and her head rested on his shoulder. He smiled slightly at the comfortable feel of her body against his, taking pleasure in the moment even under such unusual circumstances.
Unfortunately, his feeling of contentment vanished when he looked up and discovered Luisah and Tereza watching them. The first smirked at him, but the second had a look of tender benevolence on her face.
He sat up straight, trying not to look as embarrassed by their scrutiny as he felt. His movements jostled Marguerite, who half woke but didn't open her eyes. "Go back to sleep," she murmured, wrapping an arm around his waist.
John cleared his throat deliberately and Marguerite opened one inquisitive eye. "We have company," he informed her.
Marguerite straightened up, appearing fully composed despite having just woken, and said, "Breakfast time already?" in a sweet yet slightly mocking tone.
Tereza smiled, amused. "You are welcome to eat, but first we have something you must see." She waited expectantly, and the couple stood.
"Lead the way."
With Tereza before them and Luisah following behind, John and Marguerite were led out of the cavern and along a narrow tunnel. About fifty yards on they turned down a cross tunnel that curved so they could never see more than a few steps ahead. Finally, that tunnel turned one last time and widened suddenly into the largest cavern either explorer had ever seen. It's even bigger than the cave where Holt and the Kobolds built that horrible machine, Marguerite thought. She tried to keep the amazement from her face, but it wasn't easy. The ceiling vaulted over them, cathedral-like in its vastness, but no man-made structure could match this tremendous work of nature. What appeared to be natural fissures high up in the stone let swaths of daylight filter through. Marguerite shivered as a cool breeze was also carried in through those openings.
In this cavern, as in so many caves they'd seen already, a shallow stream ran though the center. It exited through a low hole in the wall only a few steps off to their right. Marguerite's eyes followed the water upstream to where it originated. She inhaled sharply when she saw it.
At the far end of the grotto, the cathedral feeling was enhanced by a gigantic altar carved directly from the rock wall. It was so large that it dominated even in that huge space. On one side of the altar a woman was carved, emerging mermaid-like from the frothy stone water below her and reaching up to the night sky and the crescent moon. On the other side, a man in a long robe descended from the sunlit sky, a dove perched on one hand and a staff held in the other. Yemanjá and Aganju, I guess, or maybe Oxalá, Marguerite thought. They're
"Amazing," breathed John, awestruck, unknowingly completing Marguerite's thought.
She nodded in silent agreement and scratched idly at one of her wrists. The blue spirals had both begun to tingle. She decided not to mention the phenomenon to her companions just yet.
It was from the base of the altar, halfway between the two figures, that the water emerged.
When Tereza spoke, it was in a hushed tone. "This way." She continued to lead them across the cavern to an opening below the carving of Yemanjá. It was concealed in the waves, and neither Marguerite nor John spotted it until they stood directly before it. Tereza led them through and, with Luisah behind them, the explorers had no choice but to follow.
Ardo looked cautiously around the corner of the narrow passage. Seeing no one either to his left or right, he stepped out into the wider, torch lit tunnel. Veronica and Finn inched out of the passage to join him.
"You must remove your boots now," he told the two women.
"What?" protested Finn in a quiet voice. She felt exposed in this brightly lit tunnel. It didn't help that it curved, hiding anyone who might approach until the last possible moment.
More trusting of her old friend, Veronica knelt and began unlacing her boots. "It's still awfully cold here, Ardo," she said softly. "Are you sure this is necessary?"
"Not even the waterstone will be of help to you if you don't."
"Then why don't you?" Finn wanted to know, although she acquiesced to his command and began removing her shoes.
"Because this is where I leave you," he told her. He watched each end of the tunnel warily. "Please hurry."
Finn had her boots off quickly and tied the laces together, hanging them from one strap of her pack. Veronica's knee-high boots took a moment longer. Once she had them off, she rolled up her pant legs so as not to walk on them. She stood up straight and, grasping Ardo's shoulders, smiled. "Thank you for all your help."
"You're welcome. I hope you find your friends."
"Me, too." Before Ardo could slip away, Veronica removed a rolled-up blanket from her pack and pressed it into his hands. "Here. It's not much, but it's more than you have now to keep you warm."
Ardo smiled his thanks. "Yemanjá's blessing on you."
"Follow the tunnel that way to find the women of the Matozóide," he added as he pointed off to the left.
Ardo smiled again, but this time it was tinged with concern. He slipped back into the narrow passage and was quickly gone from sight.
"Come on." Veronica tucked her boots into her pack where the blanket had been, settled it on her back under her fur cloak, and turned to the left. She strode cautiously yet purposefully forward.
Finn was close behind her. "So, Vee, what do we do when we find 'the women of the Matozóide'?"
"We ask for their help."
"Okay, but Ardo didn't make it sound like they were big on strangers these days."
"Well, if it was a stranger who disrupted their society, you can't really blame them. At the same time, if they have found the others, the Matozóide may be happy to have us come take them away."
"And if they haven't found 'em?"
There was a brief pause before Veronica replied. "I don't know."
They walked in silence for several minutes until they reached a branch in the tunnel. The pair paused, considering.
"Funny Ardo didn't mention this," Finn said suspiciously.
"He may not have known. If this way leads to the women, and the women and men have been separated for most of his life, he might never have been in this exact place himself."
"You mean he sent us this way without even knowing what he was getting us into? Great!" the younger woman exclaimed in disgust.
"He got us this far," Veronica snapped, immediately defending her old friend. "Maybe both ways will get us where we need to go." She didn't necessarily believe it, but it wasn't an impossibility. "He said to the left, so I say we just keep going left." Suiting her action to her words, she took the left hand tunnel, trusting that Finn would follow.
Finn hesitated and went after her.
It didn't take long before Veronica began to doubt her choice. The tunnel grew narrow and the torches infrequent until the light from one failed before the next began.
"I have a bad feeling about this," muttered Finn. She hated this feeling of being trapped and exposed all at once. They'd seen no side passages, they'd be lucky to see anyone coming at them, and their avenues of escape should someone attack were extremely limited.
"Shh!" ordered Veronica.
They held perfectly still, listening.
There it was: a quiet whisper of heavy fabric; the sound of a light footfall. But from which direction? The curve of the walls made it impossible to be sure.
Veronica and Finn drew their knives and stood back-to-back, waiting. For the first time, Finn was pleased that they were in a dark patch between torches. They might actually see whoever it was before that person saw them.
As it turned out, it didn't work that way. The figure was upon them before either woman could react.
"Oh!" the stranger exclaimed. She was so intent on getting where she was going, she hadn't seen them there in the darkness. Her eyes widened at the shadowy sight of the long-haired, fur-clad warrior woman before her. "Iansá!" she exclaimed, backing off a step in surprise. She fell to one knee and lowered her head deferentially, causing her hood to fall forward and completely hide her face.
The young woman's manner made Veronica uncomfortable. "No," she said more harshly than she intended. "Veronica. Who are you?"
"Fia." She looked up cautiously and pushed back her hood. Her round face was very still as she looked Veronica up and down. After a tense pause, she rose to her feet again. "You are not Iansá," she said decisively. "Your color is wrong."
"My--?" Veronica let the odd statement pass. She relaxed marginally when it seemed clear the woman wasn't planning to attack or raise an alarm, and she sheathed her knife as a sign of good faith. "My name is Veronica. This is Finn. We're looking for the Matozóide."
Fia frowned. "What is your business with them?"
"We're not here to do any harm. We're looking for some friends we think might be with them." Veronica peered at the woman, wondering if her hunch was correct. She took a chance. "You're part of that tribe, aren't you? Here." She dug into the pocket of her pants, causing Fia to take another wary step back. Veronica held out the waterstone Kai had given her. "Please. Can you help us?"
Again Fia's face became very still as she scrutinized the stone and then the two strange, yellow-haired women. Her searching gaze took in their weapons, the fur cloaks that half hid their bizarre attire. Then it fell to their bare feet. It was the confirmation she needed to make her decision. "I know where your friends are. The one with hair the color of Iansá is tended by the men of--" She cut herself off for a reason neither Veronica nor Finn could understand.
"The men of what?" Finn asked.
"I will not say his name. Speaking it will only increase his power."
"Ooo-kay." Finn looked at Veronica and used her knife to inscribe small circles in the air next to her ear.
Veronica only looked at her with a puzzled expression. She shook her head, dismissing her young companion's strange actions, and turned back to Fia. "I don't understand. The color of Iansá?"
"Red, of course."
"Of course," muttered Finn sarcastically.
But Veronica understood. "Challenger. You mean Challenger."
"I don't know his name, only that he is red-haired and lies recovering with the men."
"Recovering? What happened?"
"I do not know."
"Can you take us to him?"
Fia frowned again. "Not now. First you should meet with the elder women. They are wiser than I, and will know what to do." But there was a hint of scorn in her tone at the last. "This way." She pointed and gestured for them to lead the way, as the tunnel was too narrow to allow her to pass.
Veronica ignored Finn's look of "I told you so" and gently pushed the younger woman ahead of her back the way they'd come.
Marguerite and Roxton looked around them. This cave was much smaller, but it held the same feeling of power as the cathedral grotto they had just left. Roxton immediately realized what it was they had been brought there to see. Where water had once flowed, there was now only a dry stream bed. A large pile of stones, obviously fallen from the wall and ceiling, covered the place where it should have bubbled up out of the ground. A cave-in, he thought. But a very small one, and very well contained. He wasn't an expert on the physics of it, but he'd seen enough caves brought down by natural and man-made methods to recognize certain signs. This cave-in had been very well orchestrated to bring about a specific result.
Marguerite paid less attention to the stone mound and more to the dry streambed. Along the bottom were markings that struck her as familiar. She knelt to look closer. Runes! The same runes I saw before. She shivered involuntarily at the memory of the freezing water she had drunk while examining those earlier runes.
"Do you understand?" It was Tereza's voice, speaking from only inches away. Marguerite started. She hadn't heard the old woman step up behind her.
"The words? Yes. The meaning "
"Read them aloud."
Marguerite frowned a little, but read the runes out, translating as best she could. "I am the beginning. I am the source of life, Mother of Waters. Here water and earth meet, opposite and equal. The two must be joined in their journey from the mountains to the sea. I am the beginning and the end. I am Mother of Waters." She reached the end and looked up to see Tereza, Luisah, and John all watching her intently. "Yemanjá's Blessing?"
Luisah nodded. "Taken from us by that son of Obaluaiê."
Challenger looked up at the sound of footsteps. "Domblé," he said, delighted to have someone with whom he could converse at last. "Have you seen Roxton?"
Domblé frowned. "No." He set down the tray he carried on the floor by the bed. Challenger felt a sudden jolt of worry that he would see the weapons hidden beneath, but Domblé was too preoccupied to look for anything unusual.
"Do you know where he is? Have you found Marguerite?"
Domblé's frown deepened. "No."
It was clear he had an idea, however, so Challenger decided to press the matter. "You said Roxton would return soon."
"I'm afraid I was mistaken." Now the man took on a deliberately solicitous demeanor. "Are you hungry?"
Challenger wasn't fooled by the obvious attempt to distract him, but he remembered the words of his earlier mysterious visitor. "Yes, I am." For the first time since waking in this strange place, he found he had the strength to sit up on his own. Domblé handed him a bowl of hearty stew and a spoon.
"You're feeling better."
Challenger nodded, his mouth already full of the flavorful stew. He swallowed before replying. "Yes, thanks to the care you and your acolytes have given me." While he ate, he watched the other man, hoping for a sign or a hint as to what was going on. But Domblé gave no such sign. Not willing to let the opportunity to learn something pass, he asked, "How long have you been living here?"
"And the young men I've seen--your acolytes--what do you teach them?"
"Such as Newtonian Physics?" Challenger prompted, not willing to let the other man's deliberately vague replies go without scrutiny. Domblé looked momentarily put out, so Challenger reminded him, "You mentioned you were familiar with his work."
Once again Domblé took on an overtly pleasant manner. "Yes, but only to a limited extent." He smiled self-deprecatingly, but there was a veil behind his eyes that Challenger found subtly disturbing. "I'm no great mathematician. I am just a simple man with a simple mission."
"Mmm," grunted Challenger around another bite of stew. He was the first to admit that he wasn't a great reader of people, but there was something in Domblé's behavior and words that sent a chill down the scientist's spine. No matter what the man said, Challenger was sure he and his "mission" were anything but "simple".