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

Round 12 - DNash
Spoilers: The Secret (mild)

Challenger awoke disoriented. He looked around the cave and collected his scattered awareness. He didn't remember falling asleep and had no way of knowing how long he'd dozed. Blast! he thought in irritation. Where has Domblé got to? And why did he scuttle out of here so quickly? He was fed up with his convalescence. Unfortunately the mysterious visitor who had brought his weapons had yet to return with his clothes. Even if he could stand--a theory he hadn't yet tested--he would have nothing to wear but the fur blankets that covered him. Still, it's worth a try to at least walk from here to the door.

He sat up slowly. This at least he knew he could manage. He swung his bare, bruised legs over the side of the bed, shivering a little as the cooler air outside the covers touched them. Remembering the fall Roxton had taken on his first attempt to walk, Challenger moved with great caution. He leaned heavily on the edge of the bed as he pushed himself to his feet. He stood for a tentative moment, legs shaking under him. All too soon, it was too much. He sat heavily on the bed. "Damn and blast," he muttered in impotent frustration.

All further thoughts of escape were quashed as the door began to open. As quickly as his sore and weakened muscles allowed, Challenger laid back and pulled the covers over himself. "Hello," he said, knowing he would get nowhere with the silent acolyte who entered the chamber. The boy carried a tray of food, for which Challenger was grateful. He sat up. "I can feed myself. Thank you."

The boy smiled and set the tray on his lap. He turned to go.

"Wait!" Challenger called. The boy stopped and looked back inquisitively. "Is there someone out in the corridor?"

The boy poked his head out the door, looked back, and shook it. No.

There was a short pause while Challenger listened intently, and then the scientist shook his head. "Never mind. Thank you," he said again. The boy nodded and departed, pulling the door shut behind him.

Challenger sat for a moment without touching the food before him. He could have sworn he'd heard voices while the door was open. They were very faint, but he'd been sure… He shook his head again. "Impossible," he said to the empty room. "It must have been my imagination. Wishful thinking combined with some sort of aural illusion. No one here speaks but Domblé ." Then another thought occurred to him. "And the person who brought our weapons. Hmm." Despite the dead end, he smiled. It was a puzzle to which he didn't have all the pieces, but at least it was something to keep his mind occupied. He tucked into the bowl of thick stew with renewed vigor.

*****

Finn felt decidedly antsy. She didn't understand how Veronica could remain so calm and collected. She didn't know that her companion was just as anxious as she to be moving, to be doing something that would reunite them with Roxton and Marguerite.

"This is getting stupid," muttered Finn in a low, frustrated tone. "We've been standing here for ages." It was an exaggeration, but she didn't care. It felt like ages, therefore it was ages. "Let's just go rescue Challenger and get out of here!"

Luisah looked at her. "You cannot." The elder's demeanor was placid, but energy flashed in her eyes. Finn couldn't tell if it was anger or amusement or something else entirely. "There is not long to wait now."

As if on cue, they heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Veronica strained to identify them. She thought there were three pairs of bare feet treading on the hard ground. She waited, senses heightened in anticipation. It took longer for the newcomers to arrive than she expected. They'd sounded quite close when she first heard them, but minutes passed before three people emerged from an opening in the opposite wall of the cavern.

"Roxton! Marguerite!" exclaimed Finn. She shot Luisah a brief glare. "About damned time."

Roxton and Marguerite approached quickly, calling excited greetings as they came. Veronica smiled in relief to see that while her friends were oddly dressed, they appeared to be otherwise well. Then she noted their escort. A quick double-take confirmed her first impression; this old woman was the twin of the other one. Twin matriarchs, thought Veronica. That's a new one on me. She set the thought aside. Marguerite and Roxton stepped carefully over the small stream that ran through the cavern, and she embraced each of them in turn. "Are you two all right? What happened? What's going on?"

"There is little time," Luisah said shortly. "You have seen your friends. Now you must help us with our diversion so that the feast of Aganju may commence."

"Hang on a minute," protested Veronica. She turned back to her friends. "Are you all right?" she asked again.

"We're fine," Roxton assured her, although he wasn't entirely convinced of it himself. Too much had happened in a short time, and Marguerite's brief episode back in Yemanjá's cavern worried him. "How did you find us?"

"It was Ardo," Veronica began.

"Ardo?" echoed a dark-haired girl. She stepped out from the small crowd of armed women.

The blonde turned to her, excited. "Yes. Do you know him?"

"No, but I know of him. He is my mother's brother's son." The young woman's dark eyes were thoughtful. She seemed older than her years, which Veronica guessed to be barely fifteen. She looked to the twin elders. "Măes, if Ardo is out there, then perhaps not all who left us are entirely lost."

Tereza's expression was soft and she reached a hand to cup the girl's cheek. "You are blessed with great faith, Asya."

"Now is not the time," Luisah said firmly but kindly. "We must act swiftly if we are to survive."

"Then let's stop wasting time. What is this diversion?" demanded Finn, more than ready to get down to business and get out of there. These women are nuts, she thought in irritation. "Are we going to go get Challenger or what?"

"It is not so simple."

Finn fingered her crossbow. "Why? Is he guarded? Because I can handle guards."

"Wait." Roxton's sharp interruption caused every head to turn to him in surprise. Something had been bothering him, niggling at the back on his mind for some time. He'd pushed it so far to the back, dealing with the urgencies of the moment, that he'd all but forgotten about it. But the cavern they were in brought everything back to the forefront of his thoughts. He was on the verge of puzzling out a mystery. He could feel it. It was just out of reach and if he stretched a little farther, he was certain he could reach it. "You said that whenever you try to fix the problem--restore Yemanjá's blessing--the men are there to disrupt it."

"Which is why we need this distraction for you to safely carry out the ceremony," snapped Luisah.

"But how do they know?"

"It is the foul magic of that cursed son of Obaluaiê! We are wasting time!"

"John, what is it?" Marguerite asked him quietly. She was familiar with that look of stern concentration and knew better than to simply dismiss his concerns, especially when they paralleled her own. The marks on her wrists tingled almost painfully, and she rubbed them. A warning? she wondered. Or a sign that we're close to the solution?

A tense silence filled the cavern as everyone waited in varying degrees of impatience and curiosity for Roxton's response. Finally, his eyes widened in sudden realization. "I can't put my finger on it," he said, at the same time shaking his head to negate his words. As he spoke, he searched the ground for a small stone. "There's something I'm missing." Finding one and taking it in his hand, he knelt and began to scratch in the sandy cave floor. The men can hear us, he wrote.

Marguerite looked at him in surprise that was mirrored on the faces of the old women. She spoke up, continuing the ruse he'd begun. "If you don't know, then perhaps it's just your imagination."

They looked to see what he'd written while she talked. Where else can we talk?

"We should return to Yemanjá's cavern." Marguerite fixed her eyes on Tereza and Luisah, willed them to understand her thoughts. She strained to feel again the connection she'd felt the first time the women had looked beyond her eyes and into her mind. The noise, she thought. The water will hide our speech. To her relief, the old women nodded.

"This is nonsense," snapped Luisah, but the sharp light in her eyes belied her words. "Your friends must distract the men. They must rescue your friend Challenger."

"But you just said--oof!" Finn began to protest, but Veronica's elbow to her gut stopped her.

"You heard her, Finn." She put a finger to her lips.

Tereza turned to rest of the company of women. "Fia."

Fia looked up proudly. "Yes, Măe Tereza?"

"Come with us." The old woman took in the explorers with a glance and nodded once towards the tunnel down which she had so recently led Roxton and Marguerite. With Tereza and Luisah in the lead, the remaining company followed her to Yemanjá's grotto.

Veronica and Finn couldn't help but marvel at the sight of the swirling waters below them being churned by the waterfall, the delicate stalactites hanging from the vast, vaulted ceiling, the sparkling salt on the cavern walls and the white mist in the air. But Tereza's quick speech drew their attention back to the matter at hand. "Tell us what you know," she said to Roxton.

"When I first left the room where Challenger is being held, I heard voices. Women's voices," he added pointedly. "I was only a few steps from the door, but they were clear. I thought they were just around the next bend, so I followed the sound. By the time I found Marguerite, the people I'd heard speaking were long gone."

"And you found me--" Marguerite began, filling in the blanks in her mind.

"In the cavern we just left," confirmed Roxton.

Veronica nodded. "That makes sense. Just now I could hear you approaching long before you arrived in that cave."

"So," began Tereza, "he has no magic to discover our plans. Only human cleverness." She shook her head sadly. "How many years have been wasted searching to counter magic that does not exist?"

"This may not be magic," agreed her twin, "but he has still bewitched the men who remain. It is time we dealt with him, and at last we have our chance. We must move now. They will be expecting a rescue attempt. We must take advantage of their mistaken belief."

"Wait!" interrupted Finn. "So now we're not going after Challenger?"

Marguerite ignored her. "But there's still a danger that they'll attack us when we try to perform the ceremony. They're expecting the wrong diversion, but they still know there's a diversion coming."

"Then the sooner we act, the better," declared Veronica. She was done with talking and was ready for action. She hadn't seen much of this strange, divided tribe of the Matozóide, but she knew that the sooner they could find Challenger and go home, the happier she'd be. "We can't give them any more time to prepare."

"Agreed." Luisah looked at her, Finn, and Fia. "You three will infiltrate the caverns occupied by the men."

Finn piped up impatiently. "That's it? That's your plan? Call me crazy, but I could use a little more to go on."

"Of course not," snapped Luisah. "Impetuous child--"

Tereza broke in, interrupting her sharper-tongued counterpart. "Fia will lead you to a cavern where the men have a temple. It used to serve Oyá, but the interloper has perverted it to his own purposes and now it serves as the temple to the single god whom he worships. And the other men, our men, worship and follow him."

"Not even god himself, but an avatar, a weak and mortal man," muttered Luisah.

"Traditionally we would not be so against new spirits. One cannot know what power each new god may bring. But this one has only brought imbalance and with that comes destruction," Tereza explained.

Luisah continued to mutter angrily. "One male god. As if male could create without female. Preposterous." She gave a snort of contempt.

"Just what do you expect us to do when we get there?" asked Veronica, doing her best to ignore Luisah's grumbling. She wasn't keen on disrupting anyone's religious ceremonies, and it sounded suspiciously like that was just what she and Finn were expected to do.

"They will be in prayer before their attack," Tereza explained. "You must enter the temple and make your presence known."

She frowned as her suspicions were confirmed. But if it gets us Challenger so we can leave… She didn't like it, but it seemed to be their only option. "And then? That can't be all of it."

Tereza looked wry. "It is likely you will be forced to defend yourselves."

Roxton frowned. While he hadn't seen signs of weapons in his brief time before leaving Challenger, he had no reason to believe the men weren't just as well armed as the women. "Are you saying their mere presence in this temple will cause the men to attack them?"

"Yes."

Marguerite had been silent a long time, considering everything she heard. "Don't you have any men on your side? Someone within their ranks who's your ally?"

Luisah's already dark expression grew positively stormy. "Any who would have helped us are long departed. They either fled with their families or were killed by that spawn of--"

"And you're just going to send them in there?" burst out Roxton. Logically he knew someone had to create a diversion, but the idea that Veronica and Finn might be facing battle while he and Marguerite were stuck praying to the orixás for help chafed at his protective nature. "What if they become trapped?"

Fia smiled encouragingly. "I know the tunnels better than anyone--better even than our respected elders." She gave a small bow of deference to Tereza and Luisah who nodded back. "I certainly know them better than him." The last was said with disgust and contempt. Then her tone grew sad. "He has caused much damage to our people."

"Which we hope to rectify with the feast of Aganju," concluded Tereza.

"So," said Finn, seeking clarification. It all sounded a bit too simple to her. "We just sneak in, show our faces, and then run?"

"Essentially," Fia confirmed.

Finn shrugged. "Okay. But that still doesn't get us Challenger."

"I will take you to him. In the confusion that follows our discovery, we can rescue him."

"But they're expecting that," put in Veronica doubtfully.

"Our attack will come from within rather than without. Trust me." Fia's eyes were fierce and her tone sincere. "They will not see us coming."

"How can you be sure it will work?" asked Roxton.

Tereza spoke up. "It is a risk we must take. Balance must be restored. We will not survive another winter without Yemanjá's blessing."

*****

Challenger felt strengthened by his recent meal. The same young acolyte had come and cleared away the dishes, leaving him alone once more. Once again the scientist sought a way to pass the time. Instead of his usual intellectual pursuits, he decided to engage in the physical. It stands to reason, he thought. When Roxton and Marguerite come to get me, I shall need to be ready to depart quickly. While Domblé hadn't directly threatened him--Other than his absurd assertion that I'll be here for the rest of my life.--Challenger had been in enough similar situations since coming to the Plateau that he knew circumstances could change without warning. Just as prevention was the best medicine, preparation was the best defense.

Roxton's first instinct would have been to check the weapons, but Challenger decided to leave them for the time being. Better to work instead on his own condition. It didn't matter if the guns worked if he couldn't wield one. As before, he sat up and carefully swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Slowly he straightened one leg and bent it again so his foot rested once more on the cold cave floor. He repeated the motion with his other leg. Then, with painstaking and painful concentration, he continued to alternate legs, stretching, lifting, bending, and lowering until he was panting with the effort. He sat still for several moments, holding the edge of the bed for stability, until his breathing evened out. Then he began again. He repeated the routine three more times before deciding that enough was enough. It would be counter-productive to overdo it and injure myself further.

He reached out to the water pitcher and with a shaking hand poured himself a mug full. He drank it down thirstily and hefted the pitcher again, planning to refill the mug. Instead he hesitated, testing the weight of the earthenware vessel. He judged it to be roughly three pounds. Not much, but enough for his purposes.

Careful not to spill, he raised the pitcher up with one hand until his arm was straight over his head. Then he lowered it, arm still straight, until he held it out before him. He brought the pitcher back towards his body. He repeated the whole circuit several more times before switching the jug to his other hand. Again he went through the routine--raise, extend, lower, return. Not until he nearly dropped the thing did he cease his exertions. It took both hands, but he refilled his mug, set the pitcher aside, and drank deeply.

The door of the chamber opened again and Domblé entered. The man's grim expression morphed into instant gratification upon seeing Challenger seated on the edge of the bed. "Your condition improves," he said in approval.

"Yes," confirmed Challenger, trying to surreptitiously pull the fur covers over his bare lap. Until the other man had arrived, he'd been able to forget that he was still naked. Now his Victorian upbringing reasserted itself and he sought a bit of decorum. Domblé 's eyes flickered to the movement and back to Challenger's face so quickly that the scientist wondered if it hadn't been a trick of the light. Confident that he was sufficiently decent, he asked, "Have you had any news of my friends?"

Domblé 's expression darkened again. "They are coming for you. But we will be ready for them."

His portentous tone set off alarm bells in Challenger's mind. "What do you mean?"

"They send women to 'rescue' you," the man explained, his tone contemptuous. Challenger couldn't decide if the contempt was for the women or the rescue attempt. He finally concluded it was both.

"Surely there's no need for rescuing of anyone," Challenger said, trying to keep the tenor of his voice light.

Again Domblé smiled. The look sent a shiver down the scientist's spine. He fought to hide it and deemed himself successful when Domblé 's manner didn't change.

"I'm pleased you see it that way," Domblé said. "A man like you is welcome and worthy to join our society. And I must admit it has been long since I had someone of like mind with whom to speak."

Challenger refrained from pointing out that it was easier to speak with someone when everyone around wasn't sworn to a vow of silence. A scuffling of passing footsteps and the sound of metal scraping stone caught his ear. "What's going on?"

"We prepare to meet your 'rescuers'."

"Do your preparations include weapons?" he asked, guessing it was a sword or spearhead he'd heard a moment before.

"Yes. It is unfortunate. Our lord teaches peace, but sometimes we must fight to defend his teachings." He looked genuinely regretful, but Challenger couldn't quite bring himself to believe the man's display.

"Surely this can be resolved without fighting. Allow me to talk to them. I'm certain a peaceful solution--"

"No," snapped Domblé sharply. "The women will not listen to reason. They are creatures of flesh and filth, not of sense and spirit as we are."

Challenger's instinct was to contradict him, but he held his tongue. It's he who won't see reason, he thought. I need to find a way to warn the others. But even his intellect couldn't find a solution to that problem, not with the obviously limited time and resources he had. The best he could hope for was that his friends would be ready for an ambush. But with our guns hidden under this bed, how ready can they be? Perhaps Marguerite managed to retain her pistol. It was a dim hope, but it was what he had.

Once again Domblé 's demeanor softened. "Rest now. I must go to our temple and lead a prayer for our success in the coming battle. We will deal with the intrusion, and then all will be peaceful again. I will return to you when I can."

Challenger forced a smile through his unease. Domblé nodded, returned a more genuine--and more disturbing--smile, and departed.

"Oh dear," muttered the scientist. "What have we fallen into?"

*****

Roxton paced the altar cliff--three steps out, three steps back. Tereza had hastily instructed them in their petition to Yemanjá, which they would have to perform after the feast of Aganju. Now they waited for word that it was time for the feast. Why can't we just do this one first? he thought in frustration. We're here now. But the old woman had made it clear that there was an order to this and they had to follow it. There were so many foreign, incomprehensible words in his head that he doubted he'd get any of them right when the time came. If only we could have feasted Aganju and then learned the petition to Yemanjá, at least I would only have to worry about one set of lines at a time. What he really wished, though, was that it was someone other than himself who had to perform the rituals. He wanted to be with the others rescuing Challenger, not here, pacing and praying.

"A penny for your thoughts," Marguerite said softly, placing a hand on his arm.

He stopped in his tracks and looked at her. Her eyes were tired and her expression slightly pinched as if something pained her. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Just a little headache," she answered. "I think it's something about this cavern." She looked out over the churning water below.

"Yemanjá is strongest here," said Tereza, startling them both. "This is her source within our world, and you have been marked by her."

"Yes, I know," replied Marguerite with a touch of sarcasm. The spirals on her wrists practically burned in the damp, salty air of the grotto. I need to repay this debt just so I can get a little peace, she thought, rubbing at them.

Luisah appeared beside them. "All is prepared beyond. Are you finished here?"

"We are," confirmed Tereza.

"Good. We must hurry to Aganju's cavern."

"Are you sure I can't serve you better on the front line?" asked Roxton, knowing it was futile. But he had to ask. The thought that a few dozen girls--all less than half his age--were protecting him while he was idle bothered him.

"So that's it. I'm keeping my penny," joked Marguerite, trying to ease his tension with her teasing words. "You want to be fighting instead of praying. Why, Lord Roxton, I thought you were a man of learning as well as action."

"This is the only way that you can serve us," declared Luisah. "Male and female must balance, remember?"

He nodded. "Of course. Let's get on with it."

The four of them hurried from the huge, salt-crusted cavern and through the narrow passage that gradually increased in width as they traced their steps back out.

"This way," said Tereza who was in the lead. They'd been there once before, but neither Roxton nor Marguerite could have found the way back without a guide. "You have the symbol of your egum?"

"Yes," confirmed Roxton.

Marguerite's head cleared and the burning in her wrists faded to a dull itch. Yes, she thought, once more remembering her birthmark but keeping the thought to herself.

They followed the old women along tunnels that branched and intersected often.

"This place is more convoluted than the London Underground," muttered Marguerite.

Finally they reached their destination--the temple cave of Aganju. It was the only cave they'd seen that was open to the outside world. High in one wall slim shafts of daylight cut the space into almost perfectly vertical stripes. The light caught motes of dirt kicked up by their footsteps, making the room look almost hazy. A vaguely man-shaped figure carved from the stone wall opposite loomed over them, and several items were arrayed on a low stone table to their right. Marguerite and Roxton had to put the offerings in the correct places on the altar while reciting the prayers they'd been taught.

"The sun reaches its zenith," Luisah announced in her sharp voice. "We must begin now."

*****

With Fia in the lead, the three young women moved stealthily through the tunnels towards their goal. Veronica and Finn had left most of their gear behind them, taking only their weapons and borrowed cloaks to conceal their identity as outsiders until the crucial moment.

Fia paused and turned to look back at her companions. She held a finger to her lips and jerked her head towards a small side passage. When she headed down the dark, narrow tunnel, Finn and Veronica followed. Before long they could hear someone speaking. It was a single, male voice and it seemed to be chanting.

Veronica strained to make out the words, but they were unclear as they bounced from one stone wall to another, giving the illusion of many voices repeating and overlapping one another. It was almost hypnotic in its repetitious rhythm and tones that rose and fell. Through the jumble she finally managed to catch a syllable here and there. That's not English, she thought. It's not anything I've heard on the Plateau before. I wish Marguerite were here to translate. I really want to know what he's saying.

Fia paused again and looked back over her shoulder at the two blondes. Rather than speaking aloud, she mouthed the words, "Around this corner. Do as I do." She pulled her hood up, shadowing her face. Veronica and Finn nodded and followed suit.

They emerged from the passage into a wide tunnel, well-lit with torches. The chanting became suddenly louder and was clearly coming from off to their right. The women walked with heads bowed towards the sound. Entering the cave temple, Veronica stole a moment to look around. The place was filled with men, all kneeling and with their heads bowed. Her own head still lowered, she looked up towards the altar where the chanting man stood. His arms were wide, head thrown back, and eyes closed, almost as if he were in a rapture. Then her eyes fell on the only ornamentation in the cavern and she almost exclaimed aloud in surprise. Before she could say or do anything, though, Fia threw back her hood.

Veronica and Finn followed her lead. No one's looking at us, Veronica thought. They don't even know we're here. This isn't what I expected. What are we going to do now?

But Fia made that decision, too. She raised the spear she carried. At the top of her clear and feminine voice she shouted, "Cursed spawn of Obaluaiê, I call down the justice of Obatalá upon you!"

Continued in Round 13
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