"Oh, no," Challenger groaned, staring at the place where the kingfisher had disappeared into the dense foliage.
Picking himself up off the ground, Roxton did his best to keep his friend's spirits up despite his own deep disappointment. Damn, damn, we could have been heading back to Marguerite within an hour! "It happens to the best of us, George. And we've got one, thanks to your birdlime. We'll find a way to get the other."
But will it be in time? Challenger wondered, but kept the thought to himself. "Yes, you're right of course. Now that we know where their territory is, and we have one as a lure, I'm sure we can capture the other."
"That's the spirit." Roxton mustered up a smile and forced a mild joke. "Now let's get this one safely caged. We definitely want to keep this bird in the hand."
The two men approached the net-covered, birdlimed branch with caution. Occasional shrill cries told them that they still had one of their targets. Peering through the weave of the improvised net, Roxton could see bright blue feathers and a bit of the beak. "Looks all right," he murmured.
"I'm sure it's quite stuck down; the weight of the net probably forced its entire body against the branch. We're going to need a lot of solvent."
Sure enough, everywhere any of the strands touched, the net had adhered firmly to the surface of the branch. The two men worked quickly and carefully to free the strands, particularly once they saw how awkwardly the bird was pinned to the branch.
Helpless, scarcely able to move, and surrounded by hostile creatures, the female kingfisher was paralyzed by fear, her mind practically blank with the shock and terror of it all. Instinct told her that this was the end. Conversely, the human consciousness buried within the mind of the bird was not at all ready to give up and this situation was hauntingly familiar.
Sticky net trapped must get free
"Pass me some more of that solvent, would you Challenger?"
I know that voice! Roxton! Rescue! Veronica blinked from within the confines of the net. Wait this isn't right. It was Marguerite.
Why am I stuck?
"Here you go, Roxton." Challenger passed the flat piece of bark that held the pile of solvent paste.
Veronica instinctively tried to duck as a giant shadow passed overhead. Comprehension came moments later. That's Challenger! What's he doing here?
What am I doing here?
She couldn't really move her head, and her vision seemed funny, but she realized she was lying up against some kind of branch, and that her two friends were outside the net, working to free her. They're huge! No, wait no they're not.
Why am I so small?
More strands lifted away, and light filtered down on her. She squirmed, trying to see more of herself. From one eye, she could see feathers twitch in time with her movements.
I have feathers? I'm a bird? How did this happen? I don't remember Veronica struggled to remember what had happened, how she came to be here. The last thing she remembered, she was traveling through the jungle with their friends, and they'd found a strange temple
More memory returned, and her heart pounded in terror as the thing she didn't want to remember, the thing that had kept her from remembering, flooded through her mind. Reflexively her body spasmed in grief, and a loud shriek of anguish cut through the air. Ned! NO!
"Shh, easy there," Roxton soothed the bird hurriedly. "We're not going to hurt you. We're your friends." Turning to Challenger, he asked, "Which one do you think this is? Veronica or Malone?"
Drowning in remembered grief, the words penetrated Veronica's consciousness enough to help her retain a grasp on human awareness. Malone? Ned's alive?
"Normally with colors and markings this bright, I'd say this was a male bird, so, Malone," Challenger pontificated.
Veronica went limp with relief at hearing Malone's name. They sound like they think he's alive!
"However, as we've seen, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of sexual dimorphism in the common kingfisher," Challenger continued, "so this could just as easily be Veronica."
Veronica yes. I'm Veronica.
"So we can't know which one escaped, Veronica or Malone." Roxton sounded disappointed.
Malone is alive? And a bird, too?
"Well, not without an examination which I am rather reluctant to make."
Roxton looked at the scientist inquiringly. "Hm? Why?"
Rare color tinged the older man's cheeks with red. "These are our friends, after all! To determine the sex of this bird, I'd have to examine its genital slit, and "
The world-famous hunter also turned pink. "Never mind, I get the picture."
Veronica shuddered. I don't think I want to know what they were just talking about.
"Quite so." The color faded from Challenger's face as quickly as it had appeared as he was distracted by another thought. "Why did you want to know, anyway? Do you think it makes a difference?"
"Perhaps," the hunter mused thoughtfully. "Veronica's instincts are much more canny than Malone's. I'd say she's likely to be a lot harder to catch than he would be, particularly after a scare like this."
"That's if they were themselves, Roxton," Challenger reminded him. "We've seen no real evidence that they know who they are, or remember much of anything about their human existence."
An indignant squeak escaped Veronica's beak. Hey! I remember! I know!
"Oh, come on, Challenger. You saw one of the kingfishers hovering near us with the V-shaped stick in its beak. And it was far too friendly at first."
V-shaped stick? Veronica tried to remember such an incident. Vague half-memories of something like that stirred briefly, but were too murky to make any sense.
"'At first,'" Challenger quoted his friend. "At first it did look that way, but then they both attacked us. That argues that they don't know who we are, or who they are."
"So you think the V-shaped twig was just a coincidence?"
"I do," the inventor nodded.
I don't, Veronica thought, her heart starting to sing with hope. I don't remember it, but it doesn't feel like a coincidence. And if I don't remember it if there's anyone in the world out there who would think to use a twig to try and remind a bird who she was, I'd bet it was Ned!
"Easy there," Challenger murmured as he lifted away the net and saw the bird shiver. The kingfisher was still quite thoroughly stuck to the branch, pressed down in an awkward position from the weight of the net forcing it onto the birdlimed surface. He frowned as he noticed tiny dark-red spots along the belly, and saw the torn-out feathers along the branch. "Just hold still and we'll get you free." Even though he didn't think the bird could understand, the scientist continued to talk in low, soothing tones, just in case. "And then, as soon as we have your friend, we'll take you back to the temple and get you changed back." He awkwardly drew one gentle finger down the edge of one wing. "It will all be all right."
Please, let it be all right, Veronica echoed Challenger's sentiment. Please, let Ned really be alive! She repeated his name in her mind over and over, only partially aware that the bird started calling out in time with her thoughts. Ned! Ned!
The fire burned gently, expectantly, its heart shining in shades of blue and green and gold. She made the offering with the ease of long familiarity, the beloved words caressing her lips as she first lifted a brimming goblet high.
"με διαρκώς αυξανόμενη επιτυχί," she chanted as she dipped her fingers into the liquid and then sprinkled droplets into the flame, once, twice, thrice. The flames hissed happily as the liquid vanished in puffs of steam.
Replacing the goblet, she next she lifted three strips of sacred bark, taking care not to let the draperies of her blue chiton come too close to the flames. "είμαι επιρρεπής σε φλόγα," she intoned as she threw them into the fire to be instantly consumed, only leaving behind the sharp, heady fragrance of their passing.
Drawing the scent deep within her lungs, she prepared to make the third offering, leaning ever closer to the fire.
The brightness of the light awoke Marguerite from her exhaustion- and dehydration- induced stupor. She half-opened her eyes, completely confused. All she could see was light
Choking, Marguerite jerked her face from the oracular fire and stumbled back several paces. Her balance failed her, her body unequal to the strain of the surprise and the sudden movement. She wound up on her knees, crying out in pain at the impact. She raised herself to a crouch and looked around wildly. Was I just dreaming?
The wine goblet next to the metal tripod quickly disabused her of that notion. It exactly matched her dream - her memory - of the one used in the offering to the fire. Her throat and lips burned with dryness, as if she'd just been speaking. She raised trembling hands to support her aching head - and started at the sight of the blue wool draped over her shoulder. She wasn't wearing the chiton, not properly, not like she'd seen, but the garment lay around her neck and over her shoulders like a towel or a blanket.
"What the hell?" Marguerite croaked.
Please, I must finish the ceremony for the fire, said the voice in her head.
"I don't understand," Marguerite started to answer, but all at once she did understand. Several pieces fell into place, and she shuddered violently. "You're using my body! That's how you got me to drink the wine! You're possessing me whenever I'm unconscious!" Memories of another time, another possession, had Marguerite flinging the chiton from her neck, only to sink to her hands and knees as she felt half of her strength drain away. Vaguely, she saw Arthur and Adrienne standing again, staring at her silently. The glow of the oracular fire reflected equally from Adrienne's dark eyes and Arthur's spectacles.
I share your body, yes, as you share my strength, but -
"But nothing!" Marguerite panted, scarcely able to raise her head, but determined not to go down without a fight. "It's my body! You can't - " Gasping, she tried again. "I won't be made to feed your damned fire!"
A wind sprang up, whistling through the cella. The fire blazed up over the tripod, angry orange tongues licking the temple ceiling. The voice in her head echoed its fierce roaring. You won't ?
Enraged past her limited endurance, trembling uncontrollably, Marguerite ignored the clear warning. "It is not my choice! You can't force me to serve!"
The wind increased in force, howling through the room like a demented creature. Marguerite's hands slipped, sending her sprawling to the floor. Twisting around onto her back with the last of her strength, she saw the flames spread across the ceiling in sheets, covering the kingfisher frescoes.
Choice? snarled the voice in her head. What do you know of choices and service? I served the fire all my life - and centuries past my death I serve it still, for none other has come to take my place! Now you are here, with the gift, and you deny it, deny the fire, and dare to accuse me of denying you choice? Do not speak to me of choice!
Abruptly the flames receded, retreating across the ceiling and back down to the tripod. The frescoes gleamed, unmarked by the fire. Marguerite felt herself sitting up without any conscious intention of doing so. Her hand reached for the crumpled chiton on the temple floor.
"No," Marguerite rasped. Horrified, she tried to stop her hand - and could only watch as it closed around the soft blue cloth. "No!" Some strength crept back into her limbs, enabling her to stand.
Do not tell me what I can and cannot do, the voice said in her head, icy now where it had been angry before. You have no comprehension of what I am capable, of what I am willing to do. Of what I must do or of the choices I must make.
But I know you understand one thing, the voice added as the blue chiton settled back over Marguerite's shoulders. In some matters, there are no choices.