Malone closed his journal as soon as he was certain the others were inside the temple and that some plants held Veronica's attention a little distance away. Setting the slim volume down next to his pack on the bench, he carefully made his way down the path towards the circular pool. Seen up close, it was even more beautiful, lined as it was with small, jewel-like tiles in varying shades of blue and green. Reaching the circular colonnade, he saw a break in the low wall surrounding the pool on the side nearest the statute. It was obviously deliberate, as there were steps leading down into the water and flat, smooth squares of stone to either side of them just above the surface of the water, perfect for sitting on and for storing items that he didn't want to get wet. It was just what he'd been looking for. Walking over to the steps, he settled down on one of the stones and gratefully peeled off his boots and socks. Grimacing a little, he lifted his right foot and bent his leg so he could examine his heel.
"So that's why you were lagging behind and moving strangely," Veronica's voice came from right behind him.
Ned was so startled he nearly lost his balance and fell into the pool. Recovering, he swiveled around and faced the blonde huntress. "Veronica! I didn't hear you!"
Veronica gave him a small I-know-you-didn't smile before returning her attention to Malone's heel. "That's a pretty bad blister. Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't want to be a bother. It's really not that bad," Malone explained.
Veronica shook her head. "Ned, you should know by now that even a small blister can fester into a serious problem."
"I know. That's why I was taking a look at it. I was going to wash it and treat it." Malone tried not to sound as defensive as he felt, and gave her a strained smile.
"With what?" Veronica wanted to know.
"I - I guess I left the medical kit back on the bench," Malone admitted, feeling even more foolish. "It's in my pack."
Veronica couldn't help chuckling. "I wouldn't want to carry my pack around either, with a big blister like that on my heel," she acknowledged kindly. "I'll go get the kit for you. And some of the herbs around here should be useful for a poultice."
Despite the laugh, Malone felt his defensiveness dissolve into gratitude. Veronica wasn't telling him he should have known better, or treating this as some kind of major transgression. Ruefully, Malone came to the conclusion that she wouldn't have if he'd spoken up earlier, either, and his heel would be less sore if he had. "Thanks, Veronica." His smile this time was far more genuine.
"I'll be right back." Veronica moved off, already looking for the telltale greenish-grey foliage of thyme. This area seemed more favorable to the chamomile and mint-like plants, probably due to the damper ground near the pool. She spotted one thyme plant near the base of the female statue that stood at the broken-off edge of the clearing. She hesitated, debating whether the ground was stable enough to risk harvesting it so close to the precipice. Although she stood nearby, she still couldn't see any part of the drop-off, which meant it had to be steep. The most she could see was a glimmer of blue far below. Must be water down there, she mused, somewhat surprised. A lake, perhaps?
Almost involuntarily, Veronica's gaze traveled up to the statue itself. She was close enough to see it clearly, although the face was still mostly angled away from her. Still, everything about the statue spoke of anguished yearning: the outstretched arms, the stone draperies and hair flowing backwards, the tracks of stone tears traced into one cheek. Shivering slightly, Veronica decided to backtrack to the patches of thyme she'd found earlier. She'd have denied being superstitious, but she didn't like the possible omen of using the plant growing right beneath such a work of sorrow. I need to get Malone's first-aid kit, anyway, she rationalized. She started back towards where Malone had left his pack, keeping her eyes open for any signs of thyme.
At the pool, Malone carefully stacked his boots and socks on the highest and largest of the smooth, square blocks of stone lining the stairs into the pool. The last thing I need to do now is get my boots and socks wet, he thought, adding his gun belt to the pile. If I do, I'll have more blisters than I can count. He shook his head, still puzzled about how he'd managed to get a blister in the first place. It wasn't as if his boots were new, after all! Maybe something about my socks has changed? Did one of Marguerite's darns come loose? He almost stopped to check, but then decided he'd rather soak his feet first. It'll wait. If it's a bad darn, there's nothing I can do about it right now anyway - and I'll enjoy Marguerite's reaction more if my feet don't hurt quite as much. With a slightly wicked chortle at the thought, he rolled up his pant legs and then eased his aching feet into the waters of the pool. Oh, that's better!
The sound was as much felt as heard. Veronica stumbled as she spun around to try and pinpoint the source. Along the path, Challenger put a hand down on the bench to steady himself even as Roxton shot to his feet. Inside the temple, Marguerite jerked backwards from the wall she was reading and reached instinctively for her pistol. And at the pool, Malone tumbled into the water before he could even realize what was happening, jarred from his perch by the violent tremor. He came up sputtering for air and completely disoriented. "Wha ?!"
"Ned?" Veronica shouted, hearing his cry. She turned to sprint back to the pool, then froze in horror. The statue at the edge of the precipice was moving, leaning forward as if finally reaching out for whatever she'd yearned. Around the statue, the ragged edges of the colonnade also tilted forward, slowly crumbling away as the earth slid out from under the foundations. Just beyond Ned, the far wall of the pool started to sag drunkenly. That last sight jolted Veronica into action again. "NED!" she screamed, running towards him. "GET OUT OF THE WATER!"
"Sounds like trouble," Roxton snapped, leaping to his feet and charging down the path towards the pool.
Just behind him, Challenger had a better view of what was happening. "Roxton, stop! The entire lip of the cliff looks like it's giving way!" Knowing his companion as he did, he was unsurprised when the hunter showed no signs of hearing him, or of slowing down. Lunging forward, he tackled Roxton, sending them both sprawling to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Roxton's hat tumbled off to lie unnoticed next to lie unnoticed a short distance away.
Inside the temple, Marguerite started to run out of the cella, only to stop as blinding light flared from the opposite end of the room. Dazed, she turned to see brilliant, opalescent fire burning in the air above the metal tripod, fire that had images dancing in its blazing heart. Abruptly Marguerite could see what was happening outside in the midst of the flames; the statue toppling slowly over the cliff edge, the pool wall cracking, Ned floundering helplessly - and she knew what would happen next. Catching the reflection of the unearthly flames, her grey eyes glowed pure silver.
"What the hell?" Ned gasped, spitting out water. What happened? And why is there a current in this pool? Clearing the water out of his eyes, Malone realized he was being dragged forcefully towards one edge of the tiled pool an edge that was rapidly disappearing into nothingness. "Whoa!!"
"George, get off! We have to help him!" Roxton snarled, trying to fight to his feet.
Half-stunned by the fall, Challenger still kept a death grip on one of Roxton's legs. "We'd only add to the collapse - what on earth?" As Roxton's struggles flipped him over onto his back, the scientist had a sudden glimpse of the sky. What had been a perfectly clear, sunny sky was now suddenly boiling with clouds.
Roxton continued to struggle, getting to his knees, completely focused on the disaster unfolding ahead of them. "We have to try!" he shouted. With another effort, he broke free and stumbled down the path.
Malone lunged for something, anything that could help him fight the deadly pull of the suddenly rushing water. His bare feet scrabbled briefly against the bottom of the pool, but could find no purchase on the smooth tiles. His hand closed on one slippery side long enough for him to get a glimpse of Veronica racing towards him, face anguished, heedless of the danger.
"Hang on, Ned!" Veronica gasped for breath, running as fast as she could even as she felt the earth vibrate beneath her feet.
"Ver-" Malone started to shout, warning her away, or maybe calling for her help. Then his hand lost its grip, and the waters pulled him away and over the edge.
"NED!" Veronica screamed again as she saw the reporter lose his brief, tenuous grasp on the side of the pool. Tears sprang unnoticed from her eyes and spilled over her cheeks as she continued to run forward, knowing she was too late. Stumbling to a halt a few feet from where he'd been, she could see Malone plunging helplessly through the air, tumbling towards a certain death far below. "NO!"
A single tear slipped off of her face and struck the ground.
A massive wind sprang up, blowing Veronica's hair back and freezing the tears on her cheeks. She heard a voice shouting something in the wind, or maybe it was the wind itself. The voice seemed vaguely familiar, although she couldn't understand anything it said. A burning sensation swept over her, starting with her tear-wet cheeks, and matching the splintering, crushing pain she felt in her heart.
" επανειλημμένες φορές επέπρωτο θα γίνει μια μεγάλη θύελλα είναι στο χέρι σου "
Less than twenty feet away from Veronica, Roxton stopped running as the voice sounded on the wind. He was stunned with horror at seeing Malone go over the edge and with the recognition of that voice. "Marguerite?"
Right behind him, Challenger also stopped, transfixed as Veronica started to glow with a blue light. "Mother of Science!"
The wind shrieked, drowning out yet more of the voice, which nonetheless rose in volume until the few words they could hear shook the listeners' bones like thunder. " αποταμιεύω μεταμόρφωση αλκύονα "
The blue glow around Veronica intensified until the two men could no longer look directly at it. All at once, the wind dropped away, leaving one final set of words ringing in their ears.
" καταργώ, καταλύω τη μοναρχία θάνατος!"
The blue glow vanished. The clouds vanished. Sunlight poured down, and a shrill, piercing cry rang through the air. Where Veronica had stood, a blue, dagger-billed bird a little bigger than a robin hovered, beating its wings in a nearly indistinguishable blur as it rose from a pile of crumpled clothing. The bird turned slightly in midair, revealing rusty-brown feathers on its belly, a red base to its bill, and a white splotch beneath its throat. Then it uttered another high, squeaking call and flew over the edge of the cliff.
As one, the two men ran towards where Veronica had been, straining to catch a glimpse of the bird. As they neared the edge, they could see a small blue form flitting above the waves of a body of water far below the edge of the precipice that had claimed Malone. A pale blob on the surface of those waves brought both their hearts into their throats for a moment, until its strange, jerky action showed that it couldn't be a dead body. The pale shape gave one more jerk, and then a second blue shape appeared. Flapping its wings, a second bird rose from the water and joined the first in the air. The two birds circled each other a few times before arrowing upwards, flying back up the cliff face. They skirted past the ruined pool and flashed within a few feet of the stunned men before flying on, past the temple and into the jungle.
Roxton's hunting-trained eyes automatically tracked the flight of the blue birds until they were lost to view, then snapped back to the temple. To the glowing temple. The entire building was surrounded by a visible blue aura that extended a few feet out beyond the structure itself. He swore. "Damn! Marguerite!"