Hot Water
A Round-Robin Collaboration/Duel between Zakiyah and DNash

*****

Round 11 - Zakiyah
Spoilers: The Secret (mild)

"When did this happen?" Marguerite asked, gesturing at the evidence of the cave-in. Her own experience in geology had her frowning at the pile of debris. It looked wrong, unnatural.

"Two summers ago," Tereza answered sadly. "We survived one winter without Yemanjá's greater blessing. Now winter comes again, and I fear without the blessing's return, we will not survive a second."

"The pool isn't sufficient," Roxton realized. "You need the streams to stay warm throughout the caverns during the winter months."

"Some of our passages and caverns have been abandoned; we can no longer tolerate the cold there," Tereza agreed.

"Worse, we lost a great deal of our livable territory to that plague-spawn of Obaluaiê and his followers that first year. They sensed our weakness and drove us from some of our most ancient dwelling-caves. After our losses, the younger ones began to doubt the gods, the goddesses, and us." Luisah sighed and rubbed her forehead. "As bad as the loss of the blessing is, the loss of faith is worse. Some have abandoned our caverns entirely to live solely in the outside world, leaving the gods behind. If more turn away from us, turn away from the gods…" Luisah shook her head. "As we forget the gods, so the gods forget us. And soon we shall all be forgotten in the dust."

"Haven't you tried moving these rocks out of the way?" While not unsympathetic to the older women's fears, Marguerite's practical nature wondered why they hadn't pursued the obvious solution. She pulled her robe a little closer to her body, feeling the chill in the air despite the thick fur lining.

"Of course we have, but the stones themselves are only a small part of the problem. The true cause is the strife between the gods. That is what we must address." Tereza sounded unusually snappish, almost like her twin.

"Of course, keeping the men from attacking us and replacing the stones we remove will also help," Luisah added dryly. "We know they know of this cavern, and despite the need for the blessing on both our parts, they show no interest in restoring it. Indeed, the last time we tried feasting the gods in hopes of appeasing Yemanjá, they attacked us. But if the gods are reconciled, the stones will no longer be a problem."

"So where do we come into this?" Roxton wondered. Unconsciously, he stepped nearer to Marguerite, both to emphasize his protection and to conserve warmth.

Tereza and Luisah exchanged a long look before turning to answer the hunter. "Today we will feast Aganju. You must make the offering to him in his sacred cavern and petition him to allow Yemanjá's blessing to return to us." Luisah's voice was flat. "If he agrees, then you must petition Yemanjá to reconcile with Aganju and return her blessing."

"We will instruct you in what you must do," Tereza added, noticing Marguerite and Roxton's unease.

"And while you make the offering, we shall act to distract that twister of Ex˙'s messages and his followers, so that they cannot interfere." Luisah smiled, a chilling, bloodthirsty grin.

"How will you do that?" Marguerite asked warily, disturbed by that smile. The spirals on her wrists were tingling more than ever.

Once again the two old women stared at each other so intensely that Marguerite could almost hear the thoughts flowing between them. Finally, Tereza spoke. "Do not concern yourself about that. That too is in the hands of the gods."

Marguerite opened her mouth to question further, then stopped as both Tereza and Luisah stiffened and looked upwards. After a moment, the two old women relaxed. "I am needed elsewhere," Luisah announced abruptly. "I will return when I can." She scurried away with surprising speed, disappearing back up the staircase that had led them to this cavern. Her twin watched her go, a frown on her normally pleasant face.

"I wonder what that was about?" Roxton murmured just loudly enough for Marguerite to hear.

"Nothing good, I bet," Marguerite whispered back.

Tereza turned back to them. Her face bore its customary smile, but both Roxton and Marguerite sensed that it was forced. "Come, follow me. I have more to show you, and then you must begin to learn what you must do at the feast."

*****

Challenger was bored.

In and of itself, that wasn't an entirely unusual condition. He'd been bored frequently when teaching in Edinburgh. But this was an entirely new kind of boredom, one he'd never had to cope with before, either on the Plateau or back home. It was the boredom of the bedridden, and Challenger utterly despised it.

Domblé had left him as soon as Challenger had finished the stew, murmuring that he was needed elsewhere but he would return when he could. Left to his own devices, the inventor quickly discovered that while he felt much better for having eaten, he was still too injured to move much…and too wide awake to be able to sleep. He'd tried distracting himself. Always before, he'd been able to relieve boredom by simply allowing himself to think about his work, his latest theories, his latest discoveries. This time, however, there were two things that kept distracting him: his physical discomfort and his mental worry over his still-missing companions. Try as he might, he couldn't dismiss either from his mind long enough to get lost in his contemplations as he usually would. In desperation, he tried calming himself by performing simple calculations and speculations about his environment; the cubic footage of the cave-room he was in, the type of rock that made up the walls, the amount of heat being supplied by the brazier in the corner, the possible fuel sources of the brazier, the venting mechanisms that kept toxic fumes from the burning brazier fuel from building up within the room, the likely metallurgical composition of the brazier, the probable degree of metallurgical sophistication of the culture that devised the brazier based on what he could see of its construction…

None of it worked. Knowing that the room was 768 cubic feet (more or less) did nothing to stop his right calf from aching abominably. Recognizing the cave structure as typical of limestone did not stop him from worrying about Roxton. The hunter should have been back long since. He wouldn't have left Challenger behind. He'd have returned for him - if he were able to do so…

"This is ridiculous," Challenger scolded himself. Worry was a waste of time and energy. He wouldn't worry. And since he didn't have enough information to effectively speculate on what to do next, he simply had to force himself to relax, to recuperate his strength so that he'd be ready for action when it came. "Mental discipline. That's all that's required." Shrugging to try and relieve some of the pain in his shoulders, Challenger set himself to the most basic task he could think of. "Hydrogen. Atomic number, 1. Atomic symbol, H." No matter how the periodic table might have changed since we left England, I know hydrogen will always be first. I wonder what new elements have been discovered? I wonder whether John's discovered any trace of Marguerite. If he has, perhaps that's why he hasn't returned - he's following her trail, trying to find her. If he hasn't… He sighed but forced himself to continue. "Helium. Atomic number, 2. Atomic symbol, He." Too bad the Americans have an essential monopoly on helium; it would be so much safer for dirigibles. But what if it's something else keeping Roxton away? What if he collapsed again? He couldn't even keep on his feet the first time. What if he didn't leave voluntarily at all? Perhaps he was taken away - no, I would have woken if they'd taken him. I think. "Lithium. Atomic number, 3. Atomic symbol, Li." Such a difficult element to synthesize… But would I have woken up if Roxton was unconscious when they came for him - if we were both unconscious? Maybe drugged? It's not like Roxton to have left without saying anything…if I were able to wake up enough for him to tell me, I've been very groggy. Maybe that's all it was, John not wanting to wake me, or my not waking up. "Beryllium…"

"You are a learned man."

Challenger started. He'd been so lost in his worrying that he'd failed to notice Domblé's return. "Yes," he acknowledged briefly, without a trace of modesty. It was a fact.

"And you are not distracted by a female. You follow the ways of the aesthetic, the learned."

Completely confused by the non-sequitur, Challenger nonetheless managed to avoid belying Domblé's initial assumption by simply raising his eyebrows and looking at the other man inquiringly.

Domblé took the hint and clarified his statement, absently tugging on a lock of his long, graying hair as he did so. "Your companion, the one you call Roxton. He was distracted by a woman - I believe he and you called her Marguerite."

Something in Domblé's eyes made Challenger choose his next words with care. "He was distracted by her absence, yes."

"And you were distracted by his, but now you are not." Domblé nodded with approval. "You return to your studies. You do not worry."

Something's definitely not right here… With an effort, Challenger maintained a mask of casual inquiry. "Should I worry?"

"No!" Domblé's lips curled briefly with scorn and revulsion before smoothing out again as the older man made a visible effort for calm. "Of course it is natural that you should worry about the one you call Roxton, and his absence. He is your companion. But I am sure that you saw the signs."

"Which signs?" Challenger couldn't help feeling that he was playing a particularly dangerous game of blindman's bluff.

Again, a look of deep disgust crossed Domblé's face. "The signs of his obsession with the female."

"Ah." The scientist felt it better not to comment further, although inwardly he was more puzzled than ever.

"And now he has deserted you," Domblé continued.

"Nonsense. Roxton would never desert me." George's denial was as automatic as it was heartfelt. It was only after the words left his mouth that he worried that it might not have been the right thing to say, given the other man's strange behavior.

Domblé's pleased expression increased the scientist's worry, and his alarm only grew when the other man's expression changed to sympathy. "Your mistake is a natural one. Of course you would think that. It is obvious that you are loyal to him, and expect his loyalty in return. No man likes to think that he might be abandoned by his companions - and for a female, no less." The scorn heaped on the word female was impossible to mistake.

The memory of Challenger's clandestine visitor, combined with Domblé's odd behavior, gave Challenger an idea of what might be going on, but he decided to continue to play it cautiously. "I have not been abandoned."

"You have. My acolytes have confirmed that Roxton has gone to the women." Domblé's disgust with that was only matched by the relish with which he pronounced his next words. "He is lost."

"Lost?" Try as he might, Challenger could not keep his alarm entirely out of his voice. "Poppycock. Roxton never gets lost."

"Lost to us," Domblé clarified. "Even if he meant to return to you - and with a woman involved, you can never be sure of that - he has gone to the caverns of the women. They will surely kill him." Seeing Challenger's horrified expression, the older man squeezed his shoulder gently. "But do not fear. You obviously have not succumbed to folly. You are a wise man, a learned man. You are safe here. We will care for you, and you will stay with us, always."

*****

I hope I can remember my lines, Roxton thought uneasily to himself as he followed Tereza and Marguerite down the twisting, narrow corridor leading away from Aganju's cavern. The feasting ritual Tereza had shown them was not overly complicated, but it did require him to speak several lines in a foreign tongue to the vaguely man-shaped stone figure above the altar, as well as place various food and drink items in specific places on the altar itself. Remembering where things should go didn't worry him half as much as remembering words in a language that made no sense to him. He and Marguerite also had several phrases they had to intone together, but he was less concerned about those; Marguerite certainly had them down, and he could rely on her to cue him if needed. Whatever the language is, it sure isn't Portuguese. I wonder if Marguerite understands it? She usually does, and she acted as if she did. But then again, she would act that way even if she didn't. I'll have to find a moment alone with her and ask her. Friendly or not, he instinctively wanted to avoid letting Tereza know whether Marguerite understood the ritual words.

The friendlier of the two old women continued to instruct them even as they squeezed single-file through the increasingly narrow passage. "You have already been immersed in Yemanjá's blessing, so it will only be necessary to bless you with Ex˙'s fire, Oxalá's smoke, and the most important aspects of your own egum and patrons before we can begin the ritual for feasting Aganju. The feast must begin at the sun's zenith, so we will need to hurry." The elder twisted about, managing to look at both Marguerite and Roxton despite the constricted passage, and raised the torch she carried a trifle higher. "Do you carry anything of your egum with you?"

Roxton reflexively looked down at the signet ring on his pinky finger. The gold glinted dully in the flickering light, the shifting shadows obscuring the faint engraved lines that still traced out the family crest, even after hundreds of years of continuous wear by the ruling lords of Avebury. "Yes," he answered, raising his hand to show the ring.

Marguerite also raised her hand, in her case to unconsciously touch the base of her throat where her locket would have hung…had she been wearing it. She had left it in the Treehouse for this expedition, previous experience having taught her how icy-cold the silver could become in the mountains. Just as well, I suppose, even if it would have been useful now - it would have tarnished terribly in the hot spring. "No," she replied.

Tereza's expression was difficult to read, but her tone conveyed some sympathy. "Yemanjá has left her mark on you, even if your egum have not. That, and Roxton's egum, should provide enough protection and blessing for you." The elder turned and started walking again, but did not immediately continue instructions.

Marguerite did not move forward immediately, distracted by some of Tereza's words. "…Left her mark on you, even if your egum have not"… Yemanjá's mark is the spirals on my wrists, but I have other marks on me, too - my birthmark. Is that carrying something of my "egum", my family, just like my locket?

Seeing Marguerite standing still, Roxton took the opportunity to walk closer to her and bend to murmur into her ear. "Apparently you're going to have to take my ring, Marguerite." He waggled his eyebrows, the innuendo plain, but a more serious intent behind it.

Marguerite's attention immediately snapped outward, away from her birthmark. She met Roxton's dark eyes with a trace of surprise, a surprise that grew as she discerned that he was not entirely joking. Even with the uncertain light of the torch rapidly lessening as Tereza walked away, she could tell. Roxton was flirting with her, as he often did - but underlying it she sensed a purpose to his pursuit that she hadn't seen since…since before Callum and the debacle with the ouroboros. Is he - he can't mean it! "Careful, Lord Roxton," she murmured, trying to deflect the situation with some familiar humor of her own. "With an offer like that, a lady might just get ideas."

Roxton's voice deepened. "And if she did?" he asked, undeterred.

Marguerite lifted her chin, a combination of excitement and uncertainty setting her skin tingling. As always, she refused to back down from a challenge. "A man might find himself in trouble."

Taking the chance, Roxton leaned closer yet, inching towards a kiss. "I've been in trouble before."

"Are you coming?"

Roxton and Marguerite jumped apart, startled. Tereza was standing five feet away, torch held high, an exasperated look on her wizened face. "Yemanjá's cavern is only a little way further, but we have much yet to discuss."

The two explorers sighed almost in unison. "Yes, of course," Marguerite answered, regaining her self-composure with an effort. "We're coming."

*****

"How long are we gonna stand here?" Finn's low-voiced complaint was perilously close to a whine. They had been forced to relinquish their packs and their fur cloaks, and she was getting cold.

Veronica fought hard not to roll her eyes. "For as long as they have the spears and we don't, Finn." Her reply was equally low-pitched, but much less querulous.

She hadn't meant to be overheard, but apparently Fia had keen ears. "Do not worry," she said, obviously trying to reassure the two women. "We only wait for the Elders."

Finn snorted derisively. It's easy for you to say that, lady - you're not the one with spears pointing at you! You're the one who led us into this mess! she thought, but had the good sense not to say any of it aloud.

The two blondes had followed Fia's directions to a large cavern, where they had been promptly surrounded by a number of other young women, all armed with long spears. Some of the girls looked no older than ten, and none of them appeared older than their late teens. Fia had said something to them in another language, stepping outside of the ring of spears and gesturing urgently. One young woman had handed Fia her spear and sprinted off, leaving Finn and Veronica standing in a ring of unfriendly faces and sharp points. Only Fia kept her spear pointed upright, away from the two women.

"Who are these strangers?"

The voice was harsh, weathered with age, and at least half an octave lower than the voices of the other women they'd heard. A small figure pushed her way through the spear-carriers. Her appearance confirmed the impression of great age; her long hair was streaked with white, and her scowl was surrounded by a truly impressive number of wrinkles. Her long, heavy robes appeared to both weigh her down and prop her up.

"Veronica and Finn, or so they said. They claim to have come in search of the Matozˇide, MŃe Luisah," Fia answered her submissively, "and for three of their own. They came respectfully, and gave me this." Crossing over to where the old woman stood, Fia reverently extended the waterstone.

Luisah scowled at the waterstone for a moment before taking it and turning it over in her hands. She then transferred the scowl to Veronica and Finn, raking them over with her eyes. She grunted as she took in the sight of their bare feet. "Perhaps it is as you say, and perhaps not. What do you call those you seek?" she demanded.

Veronica kept a firm grasp on her temper despite the old woman's provoking tone. "Our friends' names are George Challenger, John Roxton, and Marguerite Krux. They would be dressed much as we are." She gestured at her trousers. "Fia told us she has seen Challenger. Have you seen him, or Marguerite, or Roxton?"

"I have not seen the one called Challenger," Luisah replied after a long pause.

"Yeah, well, Fia has. So just tell us where he is, and we'll go get him," Finn growled, thoroughly annoyed and unwilling to play the old woman's game, whatever it might be.

"Foolish child," Luisah snapped. "You would perish long before you ever reached him. Even if you did find him, your very presence with him would ensure his destruction as well as your own."

"Says who?" Finn challenged. "What the heck is going on here, anyway?"

"Finn," Veronica said warningly, shooting her younger companion a quelling glance. She sympathized completely with her attitude, but it was getting them nowhere.

The blonde girl subsided into sullen, threatening silence. Okay, Vee, we'll try it your way for now - but if we don't get any answers out of these clowns soon, I'm gonna start busting heads, she thought to herself, fuming.

Veronica turned back to Luisah. "You said you had not seen Challenger, but you said nothing of Roxton and Marguerite. You've seen them, haven't you?"

Luisah lip curled scornfully. "And if I have?"

"Are they all right?" Veronica tried to keep any obvious tension out of her tone, but she doubted she succeeded. "We've been very concerned." Beside her, Finn stirred restlessly, and Veronica suppressed a mad desire to step on her toes or kick her shins or something of the sort - anything to get the girl to calm down and behave. Doesn't Finn realize we're trying to negotiate, not start a war? she wondered. This is hard enough for me as it is - she's not helping! Hard on the heels of that thought came a dizzy, crazed moment of wondering if this was how Marguerite had sometimes felt about her!

The ancient woman stared at her intently, and Veronica felt her skin crawl. There was something uncanny in the intensity of that stare. She unconsciously held her breath and absently fingered her Trion pendant. Perhaps attracted by the motion, the old woman finally glanced away from Veronica's eyes and towards the pendant. She stiffened, looking up once again into Veronica's eyes. At last Luisah transferred her gaze to Finn.

Finn met Luisah's stare with one almost as formidable, if not as tangible. Yeah, you go ahead and try and stare me down, you old bat, she thought, fighting a shiver. I've stared down tougher chicks than you - and if you think some creepy stare is going to keep me from finding my friends, you've got another think coming. And they'd better be all right, too, or there's gonna be hell to pay. She suppressed another shudder as the old woman's eyes bore into her own, feeling that gaze down to her soul but refusing to yield. You better stop staring and start coughing up answers, or I'm gonna forget all about being polite.

All at once Luisah's face crinkled up into a mirthful smile. "Your concern is genuine - but unwarranted," she said. "The ones you call John Roxton and Marguerite Krux are well. They were sent to us by the gods, and we have kept them safe. And now Yemanjá and Iansá sent you to us, as well, in order to help rescue your other companion and restore harmony between the gods. The spiral on your necklace, the waterstone, the weapons - all are clear signs, and we respect them." She nodded to the other women in the room, who relaxed visibly, lowering their spears.

"I knew it," Fia crowed.

"You did very well, Fia," Luisah acknowledged.

Veronica smiled uncertainly, glad of the lessened tension, but unsure what was happening and not convinced that all was well. "So where are Marguerite and Roxton?"

"Preparing for the feast of Aganju," the old woman said, as if it explained everything. "Now you must begin preparations for the diversion that will free your friend."

"Of course," Veronica tried to humor the old woman, "but first we need to see our friends."

Luisah dismissed the suggestion with a brusque wave of her hand. "That is not possible."

With one smooth motion, Finn detached her crossbow from her belt, disengaged the safety, and brought it up to bear on the old woman. "It'd better be possible," she snapped, her miniscule patience at an end. "'Cause we're not gonna be doing anything else until we know they're safe and you're on the up and up."

Spears rose threateningly all around the room. "You cannot strike us all down," Luisah said softly, warningly, "before we strike you down."

"Yeah," Finn agreed with a cold smile, "but I can sure put a hole in YOU before anyone could stop me."

Damnit, Finn! Veronica raged inwardly even as she scrambled to save the situation. "All we want is to see Marguerite and Roxton and know that your words are true," the jungle-raised blonde said as calmly as she could. "You have offered us no proof that they are well, and - " She hesitated, searching for something else to add that might win through to the old woman. Inspiration struck, and she continued on almost without pause. " - and we have seen no signs to show that the gods have brought you to us."

Only long years of survival kept Finn from glancing over at Veronica in astonishment. Vee, what the heck are you on about now? What gods? You must be playing along, but do you really know what you're saying - and what this crazy old woman will make of it?

Luisah, however, nodded slowly. "Perhaps this is so." She stared intently at the two for another moment before her lips curved up in a bitter, knowing twist. "And perhaps you are wise to be cautious. If you saw your two friends, would that be a sufficient sign to you that the gods mean us to work together?"

"It would certainly help," Veronica agreed cautiously. "I'd still want to know what kind of diversion you meant us to help with, and what kind of danger Challenger is in."

"Then we shall wait here for your friends to arrive."

Finn raised her eyebrows. "You'll send for them?"

The old woman remained silent, staring at Finn with a mocking smile on her face.

Oh great, Finn snarled inwardly. Just what we need - a Mexican standoff, with no solution in sight. We're gonna stand here until Hell freezes over - which feels like it oughta be any minute now.

*****

"Oh." It was a weak exclamation at best, but the scene before him robbed Roxton of any further words.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Marguerite's voice was soft. Although she'd seen this particular cavern once already during her egum ritual, Yemanjá's grotto still took her breath away. It was nearly as tall as the cathedral-like space with the gigantic altar and statues hewn into the rock, but otherwise there was very little resemblance between them. The path to the cavern emerged to a small, altar-like ledge halfway between the ceiling and the floor. The floor of the cave was actually churning, swirling water, constantly moving from the impact of a small waterfall on the opposite side. The waterfall filled the enormous space not only with its musical sounds, but with constantly shifting clouds of spray. Thousands of delicate stalactites hung from the ceiling of the cave, although none were directly over the altar area. The stalactites and the walls of the cave were a glistening, glittering white, amplifying the light of the one torch into a bright, shimmering radiance. The waters below also reflected the light, but in ribbons and streaks as the surface constantly changed with the waves.

The hunter took a deep breath. The air was filled with a familiar tang. "Is that…?"

"Salt water, yes," Marguerite finished for him. "This whole cavern is covered with salt from the spray." And makes my hair stand on end - not to mention what it does to my wrists. The mysterious blue spirals were practically burning, only made bearable by the cooling mist in the air. Marguerite's entire body felt warmed and invigorated, almost boiling over with energy.

"This is Yemanjá's place," Tereza intoned unnecessarily. "Here you will…" Her voice cut off abruptly as she suddenly turned her head to stare upwards and slightly to the right.

At the same moment Marguerite felt a pressure beating against her and a sudden stabbing headache. She instinctively shut her eyes, wincing away from it, trying to push back against whatever it was. "Ow," she mumbled, trying not to stagger.

"Marguerite?" Roxton took one look at her pained face and hastily wrapped one arm around her waist, supporting her. He could feel her tremble even through the thickness of both of their robes.

As suddenly as it had started, the pain stopped. Marguerite opened her eyes carefully, hoping the headache would not return. When it didn't, she gave Roxton a small smile. "I'm all right, John," she tried to reassure him. "Just a brief headache. It's gone now."

"We must go." Tereza's voice was as unexpected as it was harsh.

"I beg your pardon?" Marguerite raised one eyebrow at the suddenly agitated elder.

Tereza stomped one foot, her long gray hair flying as she vehemently shook her head. "We must go," she repeated.

"But what about showing us the ritual?" Roxton wanted to know. He wondered if he had somehow offended the old woman by his gesture of support - but he still kept his arm around Marguerite.

The old woman scowled at him, her hands fisted into her robes. "We will have to hope there will be time for that later," she snapped. "Now we are needed elsewhere. And there is no time to lose."

*****

Continued in Round 12
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