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

Round 13 - Zakiyah

"Hah!" With a fierce cry, Fia jabbed her spear directly at the small statue of a five-faced, four-armed seated male and lifted it high into the air, knocking over the flaming bowl of coals it had been placed beside. She had hooked the statue between two of its delicate-looking arms, and the hoist sent it sliding down the shaft of her spear into her waiting hands even as burning bits of embers scattered everywhere. Shouts of pain, rage, and confusion filled the air even as Fia flung her spear at the lone standing man and sprinted for the exit, the statue held securely in her hands, Veronica and Finn right at her heels.

"Wow! They sure sound mad," Finn exclaimed as the cavern behind them erupted in an incoherent roar of outrage.

"Knock down the torches!" Fia gasped as they raced out into the wide tunnel.

Veronica and Finn each instinctively took a different side of the cavern, knocking torches out of their holders even as they ran. Intent on their task, they almost missed seeing Fia's hasty turn-and-dodge through a dark, narrow opening. Veronica couldn't be sure, but she didn't think it was the same one they'd taken to get here. She hastily changed directions and ran after the other woman, trusting Finn to follow.

"Fia, wait!" she called, unable to see the young woman in the sudden change from light to dark.

"No time! You must hurry - and be silent!" Fia's voice was a hissing, sibilant whisper, barely an echo in the dark of the narrow passage. A hand came out of nowhere and seized Veronica's upper arm in a powerful grip. "Hold on to the other and come now!"

Veronica hastily reached out and just managed to snag Finn's shirt before she was jerked forward by Fia. She stumbled along, trying to see in the gloom and keep from bashing into the walls. Behind her, she heard Finn swallow a curse as one of her bare feet banged painfully into Veronica's calf. Thankfully, the sound was drowned out by the increasing ruckus of the infuriated men massing somewhere behind them. There was no sign yet that the men had discovered the cramped tunnel the three women were taking, but Veronica couldn't help but believe that it was only a matter of time before they did. It had been hard to see, yes, but any kind of persistent search would discover it - and she had no doubt that the men were going to be persistent.

Fia stopped so abruptly that Veronica couldn't help but run into her twice - once when the young woman stopped, and the second time when Finn crashed into Veronica. She managed to avoid crying out either time, but it was harder than she would have expected. Maybe it was the dark, the extremely close quarters, or the bodies pressing in on her from both sides, but she felt an unfamiliar flutter of panic deep down in the pit of her stomach. Unconsciously she bit her lip, and then nearly drew blood in surprise as warm, damp lips brushed over her ear.

"Listen carefully, and then pass on what I say to your friend before doing as I say," Fia's voice rasped in her ear. "You need to let go of me, cross your hands over your chest, hold your shoulders tightly, breathe out, and step forward three paces. And hurry!"

"Wha…?" Veronica started to question in a confused whisper, but Fia pulled away, immediately vanishing into the near pitch-darkness of the passage. Biting back a curse, Veronica hastily whispered the instructions she'd been given to Finn, adding at the end "And don't ask me what it's about, because that's all I know."

"Then we'd better do as she says and then haul ass, because those guys sound pissed," Finn hissed back.

Shrugging mentally at the unfamiliar slang and the situation in general, Veronica crossed her arms over her chest, grasped both shoulders firmly in her hands, and slowly let her breath out as she counted paces: one, two, thr…

The third step slipped out from under her foot. Veronica had no breath to shout in surprise as she felt herself sliding down a steep, slick slope. She felt the fabric of her unfamiliar shirt and pants abrading against her skin, but cushioning her from the worst effects of her slide. Air rushed past her face as she picked up speed, unable to see, much less stop herself. She drew a quick breath to cry out a warning to Finn, hoping she wasn't already too late…

…and a dim green light flashed into view as the slide came to an abrupt end on a soft, sandy surface. Veronica instinctively tucked and rolled, turning the momentum of her slide into a rapid return to her feet without even a bruise to show for it. In the murky light, she saw Fia's astonished, admiring look at her rapid recovery.

"Ooomph!" Finn dropped out of the same hole in the wall that Veronica had just slid through and landed firmly on her rear. The younger blonde bounced gingerly to her feet, rubbing her hip with one hand. "That was some ride!" she whispered enthusiastically. "You could have warned a girl she was about to go on a water slide, though."

"What?" Both Fia and Veronica stared at her uncomprehendingly.

"Oh, never mind, it'd take too long to explain anyway," Finn said, shaking her head. "So where do we go from here? And why are the walls glowing?"

"Won't they follow us down here?" Although she appreciated being able to see, Veronica was more concerned with the practical considerations of possible pursuit.

"I don't think so. This passage is normally filled with water - and it will be again, very soon now, gods willing." Fia's brow furrowed with urgency. "Now come on - run!"


Challenger pulled the thickly-furred robe around himself with a profound sensation of relief. It had taken some doing, but he'd finally managed to convince one of the two spear-armed acolytes he'd found standing just outside of his door that he needed something to wear. He'd hoped for his own clothing, but the robe was better than nothing. It was warm, it meant he would not be nude the next time he encountered Domblé (a fact that reassured Challenger more than the scientist would consciously admit), and its voluminous folds provided plenty of concealment for both his pistol and Roxton's Webleys. He didn't quite dare try to hide the lone rifle under the robe, but he hoped it would remain safe under the bed until he had a chance to carry it openly.

Assuming I have a chance to do anything, the scientist mused in frustration. His strength was still minimal, and the acolytes guarding his door presented a complication that he hadn't yet figured out how to overcome. He didn't want to hurt the boys. But if it came right down to it…he didn't think he could just shoot them in cold blood, and he wasn't sure he had the strength to overpower them otherwise. And so far he'd been unable to think of a way to use anything in his chamber to help overcome them - short of setting the bed on fire, that was, which would endanger him just as much.

Impatience drew a scowl across his face even as he forced himself to sit down on the bed, conserving his strength. Come on, Roxton. Come on, whoever you are, the one who brought me our weapons. Help me escape from here, so I can help you - and help myself.


The old, cold gold was an unfamiliar weight on her right index finger as Marguerite lifted the first of the ritual offerings high above Aganju's altar. The shiny, crudely-faceted, grapefruit-sized lump of quartz she held between her hands sparkled in the light of the cavern as she spoke the phrase she'd been taught, a sparkle dully echoed in the worn face of the signet ring - and even more brightly in the twinkle in Roxton's eye as the glitter of the metal caught his attention.

Despite herself, Marguerite felt her insides flutter a bit in response to the grin that quirked his lips, a flutter that threatened to turn into an actual shiver as she recalled his initial attempt to put his ring on her finger. He'd moved to put it on her ring finger, with a glint in his eye and a challenging set to his chin that told Marguerite louder than any words that his choice was far from accidental. She'd immediately made a tart comment about how the ring was far too large, and that it would never stay put (and it wouldn't have, and not just because Marguerite would never have allowed it), but he'd made his point. What it all really meant, and what she was going to do about it…

That would have to wait until later. She completed the phrase and set down the lump of quartz on the altar precisely where she'd been told to put it, in the most leftwards of the shallow depressions in the stone.

Roxton smoothly stepped forward then, just as he'd been shown, stopping by her side and raising a colorful clay jar full of sand above his head. Marguerite watched him carefully, ready to mouth the words for him if he had any trouble, but the hunter's voice was surprisingly confident as he spoke the first of his ritual phrases, rattling off the ancient words with ease. He carefully poured the sands into the divot in the altar furthest to the right, and set the empty jar precisely above the hole where he'd poured the sands.

Marguerite inwardly raised an eyebrow at his unexpected proficiency, and the rustling of robes behind them suggested that at least one of the twins was surprised as well. She felt a twinge of uneasiness as she took the next offering from Luisah, a wariness immediately amplified as she lifted her hands again and her wrists began to tingle. She almost dropped the dish of salt she held, but managed to steady herself and complete the third offering with no further incident.

If Roxton noticed her momentary bobble, he gave no sign. Indeed, his confidence and concentration only appeared to increase as he made the fourth offering, she the fifth, and then he the sixth. By the time he turned to her to make the seventh, final, and joint offering, Marguerite's wrists were afire with shooting, tingling pains, and the sense of presence in the cavern was so thick that she was a heartbeat away from suffocating with it. Her hands trembled uncontrollably as she reached for the hands he extended towards her, but she managed to place them as the twins had shown: palms up, the backs of her hands cradled against Roxton's rough, callused palms, cupped within the curve of his own to make a receptacle for whatever came last. This was the one offering they hadn't been shown in practice, and despite her increasing agony and rising panic, Marguerite still had curiosity left over to wonder what it would be.

Luisah and Tereza stepped forward, carrying a heavy-looking iron pot between them. Together they hoisted the container high enough to pour out some of its contents into Marguerite and Roxton's jointly cupped hands. It was a grayish-white, gritty, powdery substance, and Marguerite tried to distract herself from the pain by briefly considering what it was. As she took a deep breath and opened her mouth to utter the last phrase jointly with Roxton, she was struck forcibly by two things: the faraway, distant look in Roxton's dark eyes, and the literal meaning of the words they were saying in unison:

we make this offering in both the spirit and substance of those who have gone before, in the humble hope that you will smile upon us once more…

Bile burned her throat as Marguerite made the instinctive, intuitive leap of understanding about what they held, but there was no time to allow any reaction. She forced herself to finish saying the words, to take the deep breath, and to jointly blow and sprinkle what she and Roxton held over the entire altar.

A blinding flash of light, a rumble as much felt as heard, and then the pain in Marguerite's wrists abruptly faded into nothing more than a dull ache. She sighed in relief, only to gasp as she felt Roxton stagger. She blinked rapidly to clear her sight even as she gripped his hands tightly, pulling him closer, ready to help steady him further if he needed it. "John?" Her voice was sharp with concern.

"Aganju?" the twins' voices said together in the same moment.

The hunter regained his footing and straightened even as the last of the red pinwheels dissipated from Marguerite's vision. "Yes," Roxton said softly. His voice sounded the same as ever, but it echoed throughout Aganju's cavern in a way that none of the rest of theirs did.

Ice congealed in the pit of Marguerite's stomach as she stared at Roxton's face. The two parallel creases above the bridge of his nose that she'd always considered a permanent part of his visage - lines caused as much by stress as too many years spent squinting against the sun - were gone, smoothed out by a tranquility that she'd never seen from him even at his most relaxed and happy moments. His entire bearing radiated a serenity and a presence that were no part of the man she knew. Horrified, Marguerite realized that the man standing next to her, holding her hands, was no longer John Roxton.

She started to wrench her hands away, crying out in rage, but the calloused fingers tightened their grip and refused to let her go. "Easy, Marguerite," Roxton's familiar voice rumbled in calm, comforting tones. "I'm all right."

Marguerite stopped struggling in order to stare at him again, suspicion and hope warring within her. "Are you?" she demanded. "Are you even you?"

Roxton gently traced the back of Marguerite's hand with one thumb. "It's a little crowded in here, but I'm still me," he reassured her as best as he could, trying to alleviate the fear he could read plainly beneath her anger. Truth to be told, he knew at some level that he ought to be just as frightened as Marguerite. There was definitely another presence within him, sharing his body and encompassing his mind even as it remained somewhat apart, distinctly its own powerful self. However, some deeper instinct told him all was well even as he tried to get used to the heavy, nearly overwhelming sense of other he now carried inside him. That other sent his gaze towards the elderly twin priestesses, nodding in acknowledgement of their greeting and their deeds even as he brought one hand to Marguerite's face, gently framing it in a familiar, reassuring gesture.

Marguerite shuddered, partly in relief as the words and gestures helped convince her that Roxton was at least largely still with her, and partly in revulsion as some of the gritty powder that had clung to the hunter's palm was transferred to her cheek and hair. She fought the atavistic urge to wrench free and wipe the remnants away, and instead focused her ire on the twin priestesses. "I take it that this part of the ceremony is complete?"

The elderly women ignored the sarcastic lash of Marguerite's words. "Will you accompany us now to Yemanjá's cavern?" Tereza asked, her voice trembling.

Once again Marguerite opened her mouth to retort, only to be forestalled by Roxton. "We will," he told the two before turning his full attention to the heiress. "Come on, Marguerite," he said coaxingly. A faint smile creased his face as he spoke the next words. "After all, the sooner we finish, the sooner we can go rescue Challenger and get out of here."

"You say that like it's going to be simple," Marguerite grumbled, but inwardly she felt vastly relieved by this proof of Roxton's relative normality even under these bizarre circumstances. "All right then, what are we still standing here for? Let's get this over with."


The green-lit darkness seemed to stretch on forever. Finn felt a stitch forming in her side, but she continued to run full-tilt, determined not to fall behind Veronica. She didn't trust that Fia tart one bit, but she was even less inclined to hang around and wait for their pursuers. And she was pretty darn sure there were at least some men chasing them through this hellishly lit murky cavern. The shouts and cries of "shee-va, shee-va" had faded away in the distance, but every now and then she heard a scrape or scuffle against stone from somewhere behind them.

"How much further?" she hissed, hoping her voice would carry enough to reach the guide she couldn't see and didn't trust.

"We're close," Fia's voice gasped from somewhere ahead of Veronica.

"And what do we do then?" Veronica growled.

Finn grinned at this sign that Vee wasn't exactly pleased with the current state of affairs, either. "I tried to tell you so," she muttered under her breath softly, needing to relieve her feelings but not really wanting to be overheard, particularly not by the irritating Fia.

Fia's answer, when it came, did nothing to heighten the confidence of either blonde running after her. "Pray."


It was hardly more than the faintest susurration, a brief shaking of bed and frame, but the vibrations sent Challenger up and off the bed he'd been lying on like a gunshot. "Mother of Science!" he exclaimed to himself. "That's never a good sign in an underground system." He hastened to the doorway and pulled it open, for once not caring if he startled his guards. "Did you feel that?" he demanded to the young man nearest him. The only young man, he realized as he looked for the other one who'd been with this fellow on his earlier visit. Well, one is better than two, that's certain!

The young man looked quizzically at the scientist and dumbly shook his head before setting aside his spear and bringing his hands up in an easily interpreted gesture. Felt what?

"The earthquake," Challenger clarified. "There was a tremor in the earth just now, faint but quite distinct. I was wondering…" The scientist broke off as he saw the young man's eyes widen with unmistakable fear. His hood slid off as he shook his head violently, backing away from Challenger. Puzzled, Challenger took a step towards him, reaching out one hand. "Wait a minute, I didn't mean to scare you. But earthquakes are nothing to take lightly, and if that was a foreshock, we could experience a much larger quake at any time…"

If anything, the acolyte's eyes grew even wider. Without warning, he turned tail and ran pell-mell down the length of the tunnel, leaving the astonished scientist standing all alone. Challenger opened his mouth, instinctively wanting to call him back, then shut his lips with a snap. "How very odd," he muttered to himself. "Still, this is no time to look a gift horse in the mouth. I'd better take this chance to find Roxton."


This time the approach to Yemanjá's cavern was doubly painful for Marguerite. Not only was the fire in her wrists even more excruciating than it had been on the previous visit, but the increasingly unavoidable knowledge that Roxton wasn't entirely himself was salt on the bleeding wounds of anxiety, guilt, and helplessness raging in her soul. She never should have agreed to this, not without understanding what was really entailed in this "feast." But she had, blithely confident in her own ability to cope with whatever might arise, and now Roxton was paying the price.

It might not have been obvious to a casual observer, but to Marguerite, every step provided additional proof of the change in him. It was a million things, an uncounted plethora of tiny changes, but most of all it was in the way he did - and did not - look at her that truly brought the shift home. She hadn't realized until now just how used to Roxton's constant attention she'd become, the nearly ever-present knowledge of his eyes on her, his keen hearing attuned to her slightest sound, some fraction of his consciousness always turned to, and tuned to, her own self. Now, however, Roxton's focus was elsewhere, drawn in part to the twin priestesses, but mostly channeled within, irresistibly pulled towards and consumed by the other presence now sharing his body. He wasn't entirely unaware of her, even now; every so often she'd sense his gaze on her, or feel the touch of his hand as he steadied her over a particularly rough patch of ground. But it was a far cry from his usual actions, just as the expression of serene, untroubled contemplation on his face was nothing like his usual alert, ready-for-action manner.

Another stab of pain radiated out from her wrists, reminding her yet again that they were getting very close to the entrance to Yemanjá's cavern. Marguerite distracted herself from the searing discomfort by sourly wondering what might be in store for her, once they completed the rest of the ceremony. If Yemanjá thinks she's going to grab a ride with me like Aganju's done with Roxton, she's going to be in for a hell of a surprise, she thought grimly. I'm not a cart or car or a horse, and I don't take passengers. We're going to have a few words, particularly around the subject of Roxton. I might be in her debt, but Roxton isn't in hers or in anyone's.

A tangy blast of salt spray roused her from her thoughts, and she realized that they'd reached the entrance to the cavern - and that Roxton's eyes were fixed on her with an altogether familiar expression of concern. "Are you all right?"

Marguerite couldn't contain a snort. "The question is, are you?" Roxton met her query with a baffled expression, and Marguerite realized there was no point in pushing the issue. "Never mind. Let's just get this over with." She moved to push past him, only to be stopped by his hand on her arm and an increased look of worry creasing the frown lines back into his features. She summoned a shaky smile, determined to reassure him and put the best face on things as possible. There wasn't any point to doing otherwise. Like it or not - and she didn't - she still couldn't see any way out of the current predicament except by finishing what they'd begun and negotiating from there. "It's all right, John."

"Okay, if you say so." Roxton lowered his hand, still a bit worried about Marguerite's odd behavior, but knowing with that other part riding along with him that things would be all right again. "I believe this time it's ladies first." He gestured towards the altar with a courtly bow and a familiar waggle of his eyebrows.

Seeing the waggle strengthened Marguerite's smile, and she inclined her head courteously to him before moving to stand at the farthest edge of the altar-ledge, with her toes practically dangling over the side. She didn't look back, and the noise of the waterfall drowned out any telltale sounds, but from the earlier rehearsal she knew John had moved to stand a few paces behind her, with the two elderly priestesses standing on either side of the entrance. Nodding slightly to herself, Marguerite took a deep breath and then raised her arms straight up, wrists flexed so that her palms faced the ceiling, the blue spiral marks scarcely an inch apart. Unlike the previous offering, this one had no tangible components, just words. She offered up the first phrase in a clear, ringing voice that soared above the water's clamor. As she did, she felt energy rise through her once again, flowing up through her feet, travelling through her body, and flinging outwards from her upturned palms. All the pain she had been feeling vanished, replaced by an incredible sense of well-being.

Roxton spoke up the moment Marguerite fell silent, the ritual words flowing smoothly from his lips. His voice was deep, even, the words spoken hardly above a conversational tone, but they resonated throughout the chamber, echoing into her very bones just as they had in Aganju's cavern. If she'd had any doubts before, this would have resolved them. It wasn't just Roxton speaking, but the spirit these people called a god. But god or spirit or mere mortal, he was pleading just as she had for his beloved Yemanjá to return, to turn her smiling face to him and their people and let their love flow once more. The language was ancient and the words archaic, but the yearning in his voice was unmistakable, both in the unearthly echoes of the god-voice and the purely human tones of the man she'd come to love, however reluctant she was to admit it. A warm glow rippled through her as the longing and desire in his words and voice sparked her own. The sexual chemistry that always existed between herself and Roxton flared to new heights, and a part of her mind cynically wondered if that too wasn't a necessary part of this ritual. An irresistible urge to smile quirked her lips upwards as she spoke the third and final ritual phrase, extolling the virtues of two, of man and woman, of god and goddess, and the people longing for their loving care. As the last syllable left her lips, she slowly lowered her arms as she'd been shown until she was reaching out expectantly, limbs outflung to their fullest extent as if waiting for an embrace from the waters below. She was more than half expecting to see the ancient crone she'd met before rise up from the waters and into her arms, possibly even try to enter herself, as Aganju had done to Roxton.

Nothing happened. The waterfall continued to pour down, the waters below churning and sending the reflected light of their torches scattering in golden, sparkling waves. Momentarily, Marguerite started to panic, and then a calm certainty settled over her. It was nothing she had been told, but she suddenly knew that there was one more step to take in the ritual. Everything that they'd done so far pointed to it. A faint tremor passed through her, but Marguerite kept her hands steady and her arms stretched wide in welcome as she turned to face Roxton, who was also Aganju. He was right behind her, having moved closer sometime during the ritual, and the open, joyful smile on his face was like none she'd ever seen from the British lord. The eyes, though, both hopeful and concerned, were all Roxton, and Marguerite kept her attention fixed on those eyes as she stepped into his embrace. She felt his arms come around her waist as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pressed her kiss to his lips.

The heat and energy she'd felt a moment previously were nothing compared to the blazing power that passed through her the moment her lips touched his. The roar of the falling waters increased a hundredfold as unbeknownst to her, the waterfall doubled and tripled in size. Her entire body ignited with passion and joy and love and long unfulfilled desire. She parted her lips and ground against him, feeling him cup her close with possessive hunger as his tongue darted in to twine with hers. The marks on her wrists burned more strongly than they ever had before, but it was an insignificant pain, a grain of sand on an infinite beach compared to the enormous wave of blissful sensations that threatened to lift Marguerite out of her body entirely. Only the gold ring on her finger remained cold in the wave of that heat, a heavy anchor keeping her from being swept away.

"Step away from her!"

Marguerite returned to herself with a jerk as the unknown male voice grated harshly on her ears, understandable even over the clamor of the roaring deluge. The sudden change left her feeling dizzy and astonishingly weak, scarcely able to stand. She felt Roxton go tense within her embrace, his arms tightening protectively around her as he lifted his head. His eyes were practically all pupil, dark with desire and shock and concern, but none of that was reflected in his voice. "Domblé." He turned to face the man, keeping Marguerite sheltered behind him, standing between her and the newcomer. Steadying herself with one hand against his back, Marguerite peered around him just enough to be able to see. The first thing that caught her eye was one of the twins slumped limply against the cavern wall, blood running down her forehead. There'd obviously been some kind of fight, one the twins had lost, but she hadn't heard or sensed a thing. She couldn't see the other elderly priestess, but she could definitely see the older man standing at the entrance of the cavern, eyes wild, face pale, grey-streaked hair rumpled and rising on end, an ancient pistol pointed at them in one visibly shaking hand.

Roxton still felt that otherworldly presence within him, unshakably calm, almost detached, supplying a name for the man standing in Yemanjá's sacred chamber. The hunter, however, was entirely alarmed at the sight of the gun-waving madman who bore little resemblance to the self-assured, almost arrogant figure he vaguely remembered refusing to answer his questions when he first awoke in this place. The gun connoisseur part of his mind was almost equally taken aback, both at the ancient vintage of the gun the man held in his hand - double-barreled flintlock pistol, two triggers, muzzle-loaded…My god, that could be Waterloo year! - and at the way the man was shaking it. A gun like that could go off any second! All parts of him, spirit and man, were unified in keeping their body between the gun and the woman sheltering behind his back.

The man, Domblé, looked at Roxton with a mixture of disgust and horror. "I realized as soon as the attack came on my lord Shiva's temple that those barbaric slatterns were undoubtedly trying yet another of their pagan rituals to defile this place," he snarled. "I have worked for years against their influence, to purify this new land and dedicate it to the All of All, for here of all places I wandered the people knew that there is no gap between God and the world. God is the world, and the world is God. There is no difference between them. And yet the people here had fallen into worship of many false gods instead of just the supreme creator, as has happened before." Domblé's eyes grew glazed as he stared at some memory or concept that only he could see, and when he next spoke, his voice was monotonic. "I knew Lord Shiva had brought me here through the storm to create that perfect unity between matter and consciousness, where all worship Shiva as one. There could be no other reason. I have worked so hard, and come so far, but the filth - the female - arises again and again." His gaze sharpened and his tone grew bitter. "I came directly here after the theft of my lord's statue, to stop whatever wickedness these hags were attempting. I just knew they were trying their foul practices again. But although I knew you were lost to us, ensnared by a woman's charms, I never expected another MAN to attempt to help them in their sacrilege."

The presence within him sighed, and Roxton found himself shaking his head. "You see much, but you misunderstand," he said, the words coming without any volition or understanding of his own. The hunter could feel the other's regret deep inside of him, permeating the calm but not disturbing it.

"You fool!" One of the twin priestesses staggered to her feet, clutching one arm to her chest, her face twisted in pain. "You say God is the world, and the world is God, one reflecting the other. This is so! And yet you claim that the female is no part of it? Stupid man, female and male alike exist in this world, in Aiye, because they exist in Orun. Male and female together in divinity! You cannot have one without the other!"

"NO!" Domblé roared, spinning around to backhand the wavering priestess and send her crashing to the ground. Roxton started to spring forward, but his reflexes were logy and slow, thrown off by the continued presence within him. He missed his chance, and had to pause as Domblé whirled back towards him, gun aimed at the hunter's chest. Behind him, he sensed Marguerite stagger slightly, brushing up against him briefly before standing on her own. With all the shifting of positions, he was no longer entirely between her and Domblé, and fear for her congealed like ice in his gut. He wanted to sidle sideways, get more thoroughly between her and the wavering pistol, but another jerk of Domblé's arm froze him in his tracks.

Behind Roxton, Marguerite fought the continued weakness that threatened to send her to her knees. She looked around frantically for something, anything that could be used as a weapon, but the salt-glazed rock was bare, and there were no conveniently loose chunks to throw or send tumbling in a distracting clatter. Frustrated, she balled her hands into fists and listened, hoping to hear something that might give her an idea of anything she could say or do to lower this madman's guard. Unfortunately, his rampant misogyny was all too plain, which limited her options considerably.

The mad priest's chest heaved up and down as he visibly fought for control. When he spoke again, his voice sounded almost normal. "No, you stupid cow. Shiva is the ultimate, the creator and destroyer of all things, the end and the beginning and all that lies between. He is all, and he is He. He is the one who is eternally pure. He is fire and earth and water and air and spirit. No others are necessary. Certainly no female, no pretend wife or wives or other gods or goddesses."

Roxton had some passing acquaintance with the Hindu gods, picked up from his travels in India and Tibet. He was fairly certain that Shiva was part of a whole pantheon of deities, including a wife and sons. However, it was hardly worth pointing this out; Domblé was clearly deranged. Contradicting him would only lead to more violence. He had to distract him somehow, calm him until he found an opportunity to get the gun away from him or convince him to put it down. He improvised a question, all the while wishing he had Marguerite's facility with words. "Who is this Shiva?"

Domblé's expression changed from enraged fanaticism to pure surprise. He stared at Roxton for several seconds, mouth slightly agape as his eyes bored into the hunter. Finally he smiled, a look of faint satisfaction glittering in his eyes. He did not lower the gun, but the barrel drooped slightly. "It is as I hoped, then. You err from ignorance, and because these women have seduced you, not from intentional evil. You are not entirely unredeemable, but you must know that you are in grave danger."

Well of course I am, you've got an ancient gun pointed right at me, Roxton thought in exasperation, but did his best not to let any of that show on his face. Asking questions of Domblé appeared to be calming him, and might just give him an opportunity to get the man away from the others. "I don't understand. What danger?"

"Of course you don't understand." Domblé's voice was impatient as he gestured with his gun-hand. "You can be taught, but first you must choose, now." The insane priest's voice dropped in pitch, and when he spoke next, his voice was low and coaxing. "Your friend Challenger is already with us. He misses you, and would welcome you back with open arms, just as I would embrace you as a brother. But you are at the moment of crisis. You must choose us now, choose to learn the ways of Lord Shiva and leave this pollution behind, or perish with these other infidels." He gestured again, this time bringing the gun muzzle to point towards Marguerite.

The hunter reflexively stiffened, unable to keep the horrified outrage at the direct threat to Marguerite off of his face. Domblé's eyes widened as he saw it, and then his face twisted in maddened disgust as he redirected the gun to point straight at Roxton. Knowing it was too late, the hunter still reflexively tried to dodge as Domblé's finger tightened on the first trigger.

And then the world went mad.

He heard Marguerite scream, felt her hands on his back as she tried to shove his body out of the line of fire, but it was as if it were happening to someone else, something he was watching from a far distant place. The other surged through him, power humming in a deep basso note as the presence within him acted at last, taking over in a way Roxton couldn't even begin to explain. The shot went wild, missing Roxton as the earth jerked beneath him in response to that note. He sensed great protectiveness towards him from the other, and gentle determination, and above all that persistent, unshakable serenity, an unearthly calmness that overflowed just enough into the British lord to hold him fast. His body fell to its knees, unable to stand as the earth continued to shake violently. Power poured through him in waves, and the earth tilted and rippled in response. He saw Domblé stagger, pitching forwards as he struggled to stay upright, gun flailing wildly, and then Marguerite was there, wrestling with him for possession of the weapon. Seeing that, the hunter struggled, wanting to go to her aid, but found himself helpless to do anything but watch. More power passed by him, keening in response to his silent cries. The ledge beneath his body spasmed like a living thing, shaking like a dog shedding water. But it wasn't water that flew off; it was Domblé and Marguerite. The portion of the ledge they were standing on dropped away, sending both of them tumbling downwards to the churning salt waters below.

The two disappeared with a mighty splash, and all at once the earth was still. The unearthly presence within him vanished, and Roxton pushed upwards to his knees, frantically scanning the frothing, rapidly-rising waters for any sign of the woman he loved.



Concluded in Round 14
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