The late afternoon sun sparkled brightly on the white marble of the ruined colonnade and gleamed bluely on the radiant barrier surrounding the temple itself. Emerging from the jungle into the temple clearing, Roxton suppressed the urge to hurry even more. Challenger was near exhaustion. As hard as Roxton had pushed the pace, the scientist had gamely kept right with him, exerting himself to his absolute limits. He'd only asked for a stop once, to collect what the Zanga called teogarda, a particularly refreshing fruit unique to the Plateau. Extremely juicy and strongly flavored, the hand-sized, green-and-gold skinned fruits made a welcome addition to their scanty rations. They even proved appealing to one of the kingfishers, which happily pecked at the pink flesh of the small slices the scientist worked into the cage until only the thick greenish-gold rinds were left. The other kingfisher, still sluggish, only nibbled at a few pieces. Still, Challenger was elated enough with that tepid response that he packed at least half-a-dozen of those fruits for later, "just in case."
There'd better not be a reason for 'just-in-case', Roxton thought grimly, shifting the makeshift bird carrier to his left hand, unconsciously freeing up his gun hand. This had better work. If it doesn't He refused to consider it, knowing he didn't have the least idea of what to do after returning the birds to the temple, and fearing that this time George didn't have any ideas either. Challenger's always come up with a plan before but I don't know if even his genius can figure out a way to change back Veronica and Malone if this "petition" doesn't work. And how are we supposed to "petition," anyway? It was a question he'd fretted over on and off ever since he'd heard Marguerite say the words: "Bring the living birds back to this temple and petition for their release " He had a few thoughts about it, made a few plans, but he hadn't managed to discuss them with his friend. If Challenger had any ideas about what this petition might entail, he'd kept them to himself. Roxton hadn't pressed the issue, preoccupied with the hunt and with the need to keep everyone safe during their trek. Now, with maybe thirty yards between themselves and their destination, the hunter wished he'd quizzed the scientist a little more.
He set his jaw and banished the doubts from his mind. We'll get them changed back, and Marguerite out of that temple - if I have to rip the place apart with my bare hands to do it.
"Steady, Roxton," Challenger puffed, recognizing the danger sign in the hunter's too-stiff face. "We're here in plenty of time. It will be all right, but we'll need to stay calm, keep all our wits about us."
"I'd feel better if we had a plan," Roxton muttered.
Challenger staggered a little, but quickly recovered. "I have some ideas," he said shortly.
"I don't suppose you care to share them?" Try as he might, Roxton couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
He sounds like Marguerite, Challenger thought, bemused. Oh dear. He had considered going over some basic contingencies with the increasingly tense hunter, but he didn't dare tell Roxton that his ideas all hinged around what condition the heiress was in when they reached the temple. "Just follow my lead, and be ready for anything," he panted instead, then winced as another thought occurred to him. Now I'm sounding like Marguerite!
"Oh, I'm ready." There was no mistaking the building threat in the hunter's tone, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. Roxton visibly tamped down his emotions and forced himself to relax, loosening stiff muscles in preparation for action. He gave the scientist a rather grim smile. "I'm ready for anything, George. Lead on."
The two men approached the temple quickly but cautiously. The temple appeared unchanged, right down to the glowing barrier surrounding it. There was no sign of Marguerite.
"Don't call Marguerite just yet," Challenger warned, seeing Roxton take a deep breath. "Set the carrier down here first." He pointed to the last, largest flagstone on the path to the temple, a scant two feet from the blue radiance that sealed off the temple from the rest of the world.
Roxton looked askance at the scientist, but gently placed the bird carrier where Challenger had indicated. He could see the birds moving restlessly inside. "Easy," he murmured soothingly. "We're here. It's almost over."
Challenger adjusted the placement of the carrier slightly, then nodded. "Good. Now we just need Marguerite."
Taking that as his cue, Roxton lost no time in calling for her. "Marguerite! We're here!" He waited a few moments, but there was no response. Anxiety deepened the furrow between his eyebrows. "Marguerite? Marguerite!"
Beside him, Challenger peered around worriedly for any sign of the heiress. This isn't good. This isn't a good sign at all, he thought, his fears rising nearly as rapidly as the hunter's growing panic.
After more than a minute of calling, Roxton was ready to rush the glowing barrier and trust to speed and luck to get him through. Only Challenger's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Let me try something," the scientist asked persuasively, trying to calm his friend.
"Whatever it is, it had better bloody work," Roxton growled, holding still with an effort.
Challenger absently nodded his understanding, most of his attention already on calling up the words he'd been trying to piece together for days now. He inhaled deeply, then flung his arms wide and shouted for all he was worth. "μαντείο! ιέρεια! παρακαλώ πρόσεξε τα λόγια μου!"
Roxton stared at him in extreme surprise. "George?"
"It's just a theory," the scientist said, deflecting the question he knew Roxton was asking. He dropped his arms, feeling rather self-conscious. I just hope I got that more or less right, and didn't wind up saying something insulting. It's been a very long time since I studied Euripides.
γιατί είσαι εδώ?"
The cracking, rasping voice didn't sound remotely human. Both men turned their heads back towards the temple, their eyes automatically seeking out the source of the words. At first they saw nothing, but then a slight motion drew their attention to the shadows of one of the pillars that flanked the temple entrance. A blue-robed figure stood there, swaying, one hand braced against the pillar as if for support. The face was mostly obscured by strands of lank, stringy hair - or were they stripes of shadow? The men could clearly see the sharp edge of one cheekbone, the gaunt hollow beneath its starkness, and the glowing eyes turned in their direction. Unlike before, there was no definition in the eye sockets; iris, pupil, and sclera were all a uniform, shining silver. The figure looked blind or like the classical Greek statuary of gods and oracles.
For a moment, Challenger literally could not accept that this strange, quasi-mystical figure was Marguerite, but Roxton had no such difficulty. "Marguerite," he said, his voice nearly as hoarse and strained as hers had been. "We're here."
She cocked her head slightly, regarding him with those weirdly shining eyes. Challenger could see the color and texture of the light on Roxton change as she looked at him, as the silver sheen added to the natural sunlight and the reflected blue glow of the barrier. "Why are you here?" she croaked.
Roxton flinched, thinking she didn't recognize him, but Challenger understood that she was merely repeating in English what she had first said in Greek. He took it as a hopeful sign and quickly spoke up before the hunter could think of a response, very glad he didn't have to try and continue to speak in Greek. "We have come to petition for the return of our friends to their natural shape," he intoned as impressively as he could, gesturing at the two birds inside the carrier.
The birds shifted restlessly as silver light fell on them. Then Marguerite looked up at Challenger, and he had to fight not to twitch, too. He could feel that light, that look, like the cold touch of a kindly hand. "What do you offer?" she asked sternly.
Offer? Challenger's mind raced frantically. An offering, of course! All the Greek ceremonies to the gods featured offerings, usually animals or some libation why didn't I think of this?
Roxton reached into his pack and pulled out a small, handkerchief-wrapped bundle. "We offer this," he said, carefully unwrapping the item to reveal a bundle of bright blue feathers, and inwardly thanking the long-dead, elderly tutor who had kept the young Roxton boys entertained with some of the livelier Greek legends. He spread the feathers, revealing that it was in fact a fan made from long, thin strips of wood and the clipped wing feathers of the two birds, carefully pieced together during the late-night watches on the return journey. He fixed his eyes on the figure by the pillar, his expression a mixture of demand and pleading as he extended the fan. "Let them go. Please."
If Marguerite understood the double meaning of his words, she gave no sign. She looked at the fan, then inclined her head once. "Lay the offering on the stone next to the birds, and release them from their cage."
The two men exchanged uneasy looks, but faced with little choice, did as she asked. Roxton carefully laid the fan down on the indicated stone, never taking his attention from Marguerite. Challenger opened the bird-carrier and withdrew the birds, starting with the still-sluggish one in the hopes that it would not run away while he withdrew the other. Both birds were unexpectedly docile, hardly struggling at all, and remaining more or less where he placed them on the ground. Tasks completed, the two men unconsciously took a step backwards, warily watching for whatever might happen next.
Marguerite straightened, pushing off from the pillar. Weaving precariously, she staggered forward until she stood at the center of the temple entrance, just above the steps leading down to the birds, the offering, the two men, and freedom. She stretched out both arms, palms towards the birds, lowered her head, and closed her eyes.
είμαι ελεύθερος," she whispered hoarsely.
A searing blue light streamed from her hands and surrounded the birds, brighter by far than the glow around the temple. The two men squinted furiously against the glare, trying to see what was happening to their friends even as the sky darkened with clouds and a fierce wind sprang up from nowhere. The light increased in size and intensity, engulfing the fan and the bird-carrier and creeping towards Challenger and Roxton. Both men stepped back hastily, instinctively avoiding the radiance. Within the light, shadows formed and elongated, shifting into tantalizingly familiar patterns before being lost to the brightness.
Between one heartbeat and the next, all the blue light vanished. Blinking furiously to clear away the glare-induced tears, the two men realized that the bird-carrier and the fan were both gone - as were the birds. Sprawled on the ground in their place lay Veronica and Malone, limply unconscious and utterly nude.
"Good heavens!" Shocked out of his bedazzlement, Challenger reached automatically for his pack-straps, intending to remove his pack so he could cover Veronica with his jacket. Just as he touched the straps, a shrieking, rasping cry rang out, freezing him in place.
Roxton only caught a glimpse of the blue-robed form as she half-ran, half-tumbled down the temple steps before rushing by them, ignoring everyone in her flight towards the edge of the clearing. As she stepped from the temple onto the path, Roxton felt the earth sway drunkenly beneath his feet, and had a sudden understanding of her urgency. Adrenaline rushed through him, emphasized by the sudden crash of thunder, or maybe it was falling marble. Grabbing Malone by one flaccid arm, he hauled the reporter bodily to his feet and somehow managed to lift him up over one shoulder. "Get Veronica, George! We've got to get out of here!"
The earth shook again, and the scientist lost no time in lifting Veronica into his arms. Groaning at the strain, he staggered after Marguerite as quickly as he could. Roxton followed behind, equally hampered by the greater weight of his unconscious friend. Neither man could move very fast, and the continual shaking of the ground and gusting of the wind only made it more difficult. Ominous cracking and crashing sounds only emphasized the need for speed. Neither man dared look back to see what was happening, concentrating instead on the difficult task of moving forward. In front of them, Marguerite's unencumbered blue-clad form staggered and wove uncertainly as she continued towards the jungle at a scarcely swifter pace than her heavily-burdened friends.
They reached the shelter of the jungle just as the crashing sounds increased to an ear-deafening, continual roar. All at once Marguerite stopped running, turning instead to face the direction from which they'd come. To his horror, Roxton saw that her eyes were still a blank, shining silver.
"Marguerite?" he shouted over the din, trying to make himself heard even as he stumbled closer to her. "Marguerite! Keep running!"
είμαι ελεύθερος, whispered the voice in her head. Be free. You have refused the fire, and I will not buy my freedom at the cost of your own. But remember, Marguerite, though you have refused the power of the oracle, you still have the gift. Use it wisely, and live well.
With a sigh like water over flames, Marguerite felt the presence within her mind flicker and fade away, taking the oracle's borrowed strength and leaving her alone. "We're safe here," she gasped, sinking to her knees. Her grey eyes met Roxton's briefly before her eyelids fluttered shut and she fell.
A final, powerful tremor sent Roxton and Challenger crashing to the ground, unable to stay on their feet. Silence descended over them, followed quickly by sunlight as the unnatural cloud cover vanished as quickly as it had come. Almost simultaneously, Malone and Veronica groaned, stirring slightly as they returned to consciousness.
Roxton spared the twitching reporter only the briefest of glances before scrambling the few remaining feet between himself and Marguerite's fallen form. Seen in the ordinary light of day, the heiress looked terrible: pallid skin and cracked lips both tinged with an unhealthy gray, cheeks deeply sunken, dark purple shadows like bruises under both eyes. Taking her hand in his, Roxton felt for a pulse, and found one; barely fluttering against his fingers like the brush of a bird's wing. "Challenger!"
The scientist had already struggled out from underneath Veronica and removed his pack. Gently helping the recovering blonde sit up, he tactfully dropped his expedition jacket over her shoulders before grabbing his pack and hurrying to Marguerite's side. Quickly checking her over, he found exactly what he'd feared. Marguerite was deeply unconscious, breathing shallowly, with clammy, loose-looking skin. Taking her other hand, Challenger was unsurprised by the weak pulse, or by the fact that when he pinched a fold of her skin, it stayed raised instead of quickly returning to position. He was a little startled to realize she was wearing all of her usual expedition clothes beneath the Greek robe. I wonder why she did that? Cold, perhaps? He dismissed the speculation as unimportant. Rummaging in his pack, he quickly found his canteen and one of the teogarda fruits. "Help me get her mouth open," he ordered. "We've got to get some fluids into her right away." Not wasting any time, he quickly split the fruit he held and started dabbing the juicy part of one of the pieces against the heiress's lips, hoping to stimulate a licking response.
Roxton went almost as pale as Marguerite as he realized what was wrong with the heiress. Oh God. Oh, no! I didn't We left without Oh, God, what have I done? Silently he raised Marguerite so she rested in a half-reclined position against his chest and opened her mouth with gentle, trembling fingers. "Dehydration?" he choked, forcing the words past a throat suddenly locked with horror and self-recrimination.
Challenger spared him a supportive, understanding glance even as he brought the canteen to Marguerite's parted lips. "Extreme dehydration is my guess, combined with a general dehabilitation brought about by inadequate food. But she's strong. I'm sure she'll be all right in a few days. Now help me get her to swallow, small sips only, we don't want her to choke "
A short distance away, Veronica finally regained enough of her senses to realize Malone lay sprawled on the ground just a few feet away. Shakily, she crawled the short distance between them, unsure that she could walk, or even if she could remember how. "Ned?"
The reporter's eyes were open, staring upwards at the sky. He had a terrible bruise over the left side of his face, starting high on his forehead and extending well beneath his cheek. He blinked slowly, gradually focusing in on the worried face hovering above his. "Ver - Veronica?"
She gave him a brilliant smile. "Yes, Ned. It's me."
For a minute, with the sun turning Veronica's golden hair into a shining aureole around her head and the pale linen of Challenger's jacket swathing her shoulders, Malone was sure he'd died and gone to Heaven, despite the absolutely splitting headache, the vague nausea, and the blurry vision. Then Veronica moved to gently touch his forehead, and Malone realized that she was wearing an open jacket, and that he was seeing a lot more of Veronica than he was used to. He valiantly shut his eyes, which helped the headache a little. "Wha' hap'nd?" He couldn't quite make the words form properly. A slight breeze made him shiver. His eyes popped open again as he realized just how much of him the breeze had chilled. Glancing downward, shock flooded through him, momentarily clearing his speech. He hastily covered himself with one hand. "What happened to my clothes?"
Roxton and Challenger heard the reporter's startled question. "It's a long story, Malone," the scientist answered him briefly, noticing the blush that was creeping over the supine man's entire body before returning his attention to the unconscious heiress. "We'll tell you later."
They camped where they had stopped for two days while Marguerite slowly recovered her strength and Malone continued to heal. At first Roxton was deeply uneasy at the idea of remaining so close to the site of their near-disaster, but a brief survey just before the sun set the first evening revealed that not only was there no remnant of the temple complex left, there was no sign it had ever been there in the first place. No slide marks, no steep cliff; just a long, forested downgrade to a small lake far below.
"Fascinating," was Challenger's comment, but even he felt no real desire to explore the changed landscape. Not with two patients needing his attention, one of whom he felt directly responsible for placing in her condition. Fortunately for everyone's peace of mind, both Marguerite and Malone showed signs of gradual improvement that first night. Early morning brought a definite lessening of Malone's concussion symptoms. Late morning finally saw Marguerite open her eyes and bestow a faint smile on Roxton, who had scarcely left her side.
Marguerite's recovery after regaining consciousness was fairly rapid, enough so that she noticed Challenger's unusual solicitude and Roxton's obvious guilt far sooner than either man would have expected. It wasn't easy finding a moment to speak to either one of them alone. They both hovered nearby most of the time, and she still tired far too easily by her way of thinking, falling asleep seemingly between one word and the next. Eventually, though, Challenger left her alone long enough to go prepare some new variant of nurturing tea or broth or whatever he wanted to call it. Taking the chance that he wouldn't overhear them from his spot by the campfire, or that Malone and Veronica wouldn't decide to move from their sunning-spot a short distance away, Marguerite reached out to where Roxton sat beside her and squeezed his knee.
"What is it?" he responded immediately, looking down at her with a concerned frown. He set down the knife he was examining and leaned over, brow furrowing in concern. "What's wrong?"
"You," Marguerite replied succinctly. "You're worrying over something. What is it, John?"
Roxton flushed uneasily, glancing around at their companions. They didn't have much privacy here, but he needed to talk to her, to apologize, before any more time could slip away. Before he could make another stupid mistake that might jeopardize her life. "I'm sorry, Marguerite," he confessed quietly.
"For what?" She too kept her voice low, but the intensity in her gaze made up for her lack of volume.
"For failing you. For leaving you alone in that place. For forgetting to make sure you had adequate food and water before leaving you! How I could have made such a stupid mistake - "
Roxton's voice started to rise as his guilt threatened to overwhelm him, and Marguerite quickly reached up and placed a gentle hand on his cheek. "John, no," she interrupted. "You had no choice about leaving me there. We both had tasks to do that only we could do. And as for the supplies I don't think the oracle wanted it that way."
Roxton stared at her, surprise and confusion furrowing his brow. "What?"
"I think that was part of the test," Marguerite went on. "You took an awfully powerful jolt from the oracle yourself, you know, when you tried to cross the field. I wouldn't be surprised if that brief touch knocked the very thought of provisions out of your head."
Listening to their conversation with half an ear from his place next to the campfire, Challenger nearly dropped the pot he was holding in surprise at Marguerite's words. Is that what happened? Is that why I eventually thought of it, and why Roxton never did? Looking at Marguerite's face, Challenger realized he couldn't tell if that was what Marguerite actually believed, or if it was simply what she knew the hunter needed to hear. Flushing slightly at the blatant emotions he saw on the dark-haired pair's faces, he hurriedly returned his attention to his cooking pot. Whether Roxton had an excuse or not, I didn't. And I owe Marguerite an apology.
"Maybe it was part of what was needed to break the curse, I don't know," Marguerite continued, dropping her voice even further. "But I do know she was very determined to play the game by her own rules, and no one else's."
"'She'?" Roxton quoted, puzzled. "I thought you were alone in there. There was someone else?"
Memories flooded through her, and Marguerite couldn't help shivering. "Oh, I wasn't alone," she said softly. "There was definitely a very feisty priestess there - in a way." A strong woman, strong enough to respect my choice and let me go free despite the personal cost, she admitted in the privacy of her thoughts. And the others my beloved dead. All three of them.
Seeing the shiver and the shadows on her face, Roxton cautiously put an arm around her waist. "I won't pry," he offered quietly, "but if you feel like telling me any of what happened in there I'd be honored to listen."
Surprised, Marguerite studied Roxton's face. He means it, she realized. He trusts me to tell him when I'm ready. If I'm ever ready. And he'll accept my decision. He trusts me enough to let this go. Staring at him with the echoes of the past still sharp in her memory, Marguerite realized something else deep down where it most mattered. He isn't him. He's Lord John Roxton - and I've never known anyone else quite like him in my entire life. She leaned into his partial embrace, content to trust in his offered support, certain now that it was the truth. "Thank you, John. I think I'd like that sometime. For now, though, can we just sit here and be glad we're all together again?" She gestured lazily at Veronica and Malone, still sitting with their faces turned into the sunlight.
"Of course, Marguerite," Roxton replied, feeling a gentle warmth replace the tension and guilt that had haunted him. "We can sit here as long as you like."
"Mmm," Veronica stretched, reveling in the feel of sunlight on her skin; skin, not feathers. Her stomach was still quite tender, but her brown leather top and skirt rested comfortably against her skin, and her boots encased her lower legs and feet - all familiar sensations and therefore delightful. "This feels good."
"Uh-huh," Malone agreed, understanding exactly how she felt, even though he wasn't exactly in his normal clothes. "Feels good to be human again, doesn't it?"
"Yes," she agreed, unsurprised that he understood her thought. She looked over at him, admiring the way the sunlight played across his human form, a hint of mischief in her eyes. "I must say that blue suits you."
Malone looked down at the blue chiton in half-appreciative disgruntlement. His boots looked ridiculous sticking out from underneath its bottom edge, although probably not as silly as the gun-belt girdling his waist and the ancient garment. "Well, it sure beats the heck out of feathers, even if it is a dress."
"Mm-hmm." Veronica's expression turned serious for a moment. "But dress or feathers - thanks for sticking by me, Malone. I don't remember all of what happened when we were birds, but I do know that you stayed with me."
Malone smiled gently, only wincing a bit as the movement aggravated the soreness of his blackened eye and cheek. "I seem to keep doing that, don't I?" he answered honestly. "I guess it's just in my nature."
Overhead, two blue kingfishers chased each other across the sky.