Challenger started, turning his head from the jungle to look towards the temple. "Interesting," he commented finally.
"'Interesting'?" Roxton echoed, outraged. "George, Marguerite's still in there!" He started walking rapidly towards the glowing temple with Challenger at his heels. Only the complete strangeness of the situation kept the hunter from breaking into a run that, and the necessity of scooping up his hat from where it lay upon the ground next to the path. "That - that What just happened, George?" Roxton asked uncertainly. "Surely we didn't just see - I mean - that was impossible!"
Challenger shook his head, pointing backwards to the scanty pile of crumpled brown leathers. "I know it seems incredible, but there's the evidence of our own eyes, and these are Veronica's clothes. I'd wager that light-colored object we saw floating below is Malone's shirt, and the strange movements were caused by the bird trying to free itself from its folds as it floated on the water." The scientist gestured vaguely towards the nearly-empty pool. Sitting on a still-level square stone, familiar shapes provided an incongruous note to the destruction they'd just witnessed. "And there are Malone's boots and his gun belt, just where he must have left them. As impossible as it seems, I believe that was Veronica and Malone we saw. As birds."
Roxton opened his mouth to protest. After all, people didn't just turn into birds! Then he closed it again, as he remembered his own brush with transformation into a wild beast - and Challenger becoming a goat - and an entire people reverting to frogs. He swallowed instead, relief that Malone hadn't just perished in front of his eyes coursing through him. "But how did it happen? And how do we get them back?"
Challenger looked at Roxton, his blue eyes full of determination and the keen intellectual thrill of a challenge. "I don't know yet, but there has to be an explanation for all of this."
"Yes, well, we'll start looking for answers as soon as we get Marguerite. Maybe she has some ideas." Roxton slowed as they neared the shining aura in front of the temple steps. "Marguerite?" he called, even as he carefully reached out towards the glowing blue light. His fingers barely brushed the light before he jerked them back, bringing them to his lips in an instinctive reaction to the burning pain.
Challenger also reached out, unable to resist testing the apparent barrier himself despite having seen Roxton's reaction. "Good Heavens, it's incredibly hot!" he yelped, dropping his arm and rapidly shaking his hand from the wrist in an effort to cool his stinging fingers.
"So I noticed, George," Roxton snarled, frustration evident in every line of his body. "What in the name of all that's holy is going on?"
"πεπρωμένο. επέπρωτο," came a familiar voice in response to the hunter's words. The two men turned as one to face the speaker and stopped short in astonishment.
A female form stood in the shadows at the entrance to the temple, eerily lit by the blue glow of the barrier surrounding the temple. It was Marguerite - and yet it wasn't. Her complexion had changed to the same hue as the shining marble columns. Her dark, curly hair was now a mass of streaming shadows, eddying and shifting in response to some unseen current. And the irises of her eyes were no longer grey, but shining pools of gleaming quicksilver that literally glowed in the shadows as she looked through the two men as if they weren't even there. If the two men hadn't just heard her speak, neither of them would have believed that the shadowy woman was alive, much less their companion.
"Marguerite!" Roxton gasped. Unthinkingly, he stepped forward to reach her, then jumped back from the radiant barrier that separated them. Half-blind with agony, Roxton stumbled and fell backwards, hitting the ground with a pained grunt. His hat tumbled off again.
"Roxton!" Distracted from the spectacle at the temple, Challenger instinctively knelt to help the stricken hunter.
At the involuntary exclamation of pain, Marguerite flinched and suddenly seemed much more human. "John, no!" She took a half-step towards the two men, emerging slightly from the temple shadows. In the slightly brighter blue-hued light, she was pale, but no longer looked carved from marble. Her hair resumed more of its usual appearance, too, stray curls looking more like sun-touched hair and less like moving shadows. Her eyes, however, remained shining silver points of light. She took a deep breath, looking directly at Roxton and Challenger for the first time. "Do not approach the temple."
An unnecessary warning if I ever heard one, Challenger couldn't help thinking as he helped Roxton into a sitting position. The hunter was still dazed, but appeared relatively unharmed. And as I suspected, this temple must hold some of the answers to what's happened here to Malone, to Veronica, and evidently to Marguerite as well. "We will not approach," he reassured the woman standing half in the shadows and half in the light, keeping his voice calm and gentle despite his need for answers - and his concern. "You obviously know some of what's going on, Marguerite. What can you tell us? What is this place?"
"πεπρωμένο - " Marguerite started to answer, then closed her eyes briefly as a spasm passed through her frame. When she opened her eyes again, the silver light in them was somewhat dimmed. "Destiny," she said, obviously making an effort to speak in English. "This is the oracle of Alcyone and Ceyx, built by their descendants to honor them and the gods."
Challenger frowned, trying to remember where he'd heard those names before, then brightened as the memory surfaced. "Of course; King Ceyx and his queen, Alcyone. Legendary Greek lovers who angered the gods by referring to themselves as Zeus and Hera."
Marguerite nodded, her expression growing increasingly remote. "For their impiety, King Ceyx was drowned on his way to the oracle of Delphi, leaving Alcyone to mourn. But so great was the power of her grief, and their love, that the gods took pity, restored Ceyx to life and transformed them both into kingfishers."
"And somehow this tragedy is being enacted again, this time with Malone and Veronica in the roles of Ceyx and Alcyone," Challenger concluded. "But why?"
"What can we do to bring them back?" Roxton rasped, his voice rough with echoes of lingering pain. "And what about you?"
Marguerite turned slightly to look just at Roxton, and for a moment she seemed entirely herself. "You would ask that," she said, her expression wry. "I'm not the one who got turned into a bird." She returned her gaze to Challenger, and a little of the animation left her face. "Malone profaned the sacred pool, which awoke the oracle, in a manner of speaking, and invoked the curse."
"Then that wasn't your voice we heard on the wind, but that of the oracle?" Challenger interrupted.
Marguerite favored Challenger with her usual irritated glare, which contrasted oddly with the lingering marble-like pallor of her features and the strange light in her eyes. "It was my voice," she snapped.
"But then " Challenger was confused.
"Let's just say I had to help the oracle along a little, or the transformation wouldn't have taken place in time to save Malone."
Instead of placating his need to know, Marguerite's answer simply further fueled Challenger's curiosity. "But how "
Roxton squeezed Challenger's shoulder tightly, distracting the scientist from his question. All his instincts were screaming that time was of the essence. "First things first, George." Using Challenger's shoulder as a prop, he gingerly levered himself to his feet. "How do we change them back?" he asked, simplifying his earlier question.
All traces of personality vanished from Marguerite's expression, and although the light falling upon her didn't change, the shadows in her hair grew darker and moved with a life of their own. She regarded Roxton with irises that shone brighter than ever with the eerie silver light. "You must hunt them down and capture them alive. Bring the living birds back to this temple and petition for their release, and perhaps the gods will listen."
"'Perhaps'?" Roxton quoted sharply. Challenger was startled by the bite in his voice, and the almost antagonistic glare he sent towards Marguerite. A split-second later he nearly smacked himself in the forehead at his obtuseness. Not Marguerite, he realized. The oracle! Just as Malone and Veronica are caught up in the roles of Ceyx and Alcyone, Marguerite must be fulfilling the part of the oracle - and Roxton's picked up on it!
"They'll listen if I have anything to say about it," Marguerite answered dryly, and Challenger did not miss the lessening of tension in Roxton's posture at her characteristic response. He too felt like sighing in relief as he clambered to his feet. Whatever part she's playing in all this, that's still our Marguerite.
Despite the reassurance he felt at Marguerite's words, both for her current state and for the increased likelihood that they might actually be able to help Veronica and Malone, Roxton continued to press for answers. Hunting down two small birds in the jungle was no trivial task. "How long do we have?"
This time her reply gave him no comfort. Marguerite's eyes blazed with light, and her voice scarcely sounded like her own. "Seven days. If you bring them back to the temple within seven days, then all will be well."
"And if we don't bring them back within the seven days?" Challenger demanded.
Marguerite shrugged, and once more the light in her eyes diminished. "I'd rather not find out," she drawled.
"Fair enough." Roxton's entire body reflected his resolve. "We'll bring Malone and Veronica back here within the seven days." He stared at Marguerite, obviously searching for words.
For once Challenger picked up on an emotional cue. "I'll go collect Malone and Veronica's things," he said hurriedly. "We'll need to store them before we leave." With a last curious look at the temple, he left to give Roxton and Marguerite a few private moments together.
Even with Challenger gone, Roxton still moved instinctively to stand as close to the glowing barrier as he could tolerate. "I don't like leaving you here alone," Roxton confessed abruptly.
Marguerite shrugged, a rueful smile tugging at her lips. Looking at Roxton, her eyes shaded back to grey with only a hint of the silver light in them. "I don't think we have much choice." She pointed at the glowing barrier, then shrugged. "It's not so bad, really. Just think of me as if I'm staying in the Treehouse with the electric fence on full."
Having felt the power of the barrier, the hunter could vouch for that. He relaxed somewhat, the analogy comforting him as Marguerite had intended. But to leave her here, alone, with whatever magic or curse or damned Plateau weirdness was in effect "Challenger could stay," he pointed out.
"To do what?" Marguerite asked with asperity. "It's not like he could come on in for a visit." Briefly, her eyes shone quicksilver-bright. "Besides, you'll need him."
Roxton sighed, scrubbing one hand through his hair in frustration. He knew she was right. "Promise me you'll stay safe."
"I'll do my best. I always do." Marguerite walked down the four steps of the temple until she stood on the lowest one, and reached out one hand towards the barrier where Roxton stood. "You be careful too, John."
Roxton mirrored her gesture, bringing his palm as close to hers as he could. He could feel the sizzle in the air between their palms, and he didn't think it was just the barrier. "I'll be as careful as I can," he promised. "And I'll be back before the seven days are up."
Marguerite smiled tremulously. "I'll be here." She dropped her hand long enough to point to the ground. "And in the meantime, don't forget your hat."