More than anything else, it was the constant sound of the fountain waters that would drive her mad. The hunger was nothing compared to the thirst. She'd already reached the point where the hunger was deadened, an almost-forgotten habit of a body that felt increasingly less like something that belonged to her. But the thirst was constant, a never-ending torment, and always heightened by the sound of the water. The sound of the water would drive her mad. Marguerite knew this, and she also knew there wasn't a single thing she could do about it.
Well, that, and the need to never, ever, ever look over in that one particular corner by the fire. The need for the constant vigilance would drive her mad, too. Although looking into that corner now that would drive her mad much, much faster.
Four days. This is the start of the fourth day. I can survive this, and three more.
Four days since this nightmare started. Four days since she'd heard his voice, in answer to a question she wished she'd never asked. In all that time, she'd never once looked at him. She'd done her absolute best to utterly ignore his very existence. In some respects it was easy, as he didn't say much. None of the oracular voices did, unless she asked a question of the fire. So she didn't ask many questions, and perforce the voices were silent. It was a shame, in a way; she'd have enjoyed talking more with Summerlee and Adrienne. Even if they were just extensions of an all-knowing fire, they were still reflections of two beloved presences in her life, ones she missed very much.
Of course, talking dried her throat, and she could ill afford that. Then again, everything dried her throat. Breathing dried her throat. And since she had no intention of stopping breathing, she might just have risked talking a bit to her dear dead friends - if it weren't for him. But since he was here, it was a moot point. And she was all but mute.
Unlike that damn voice in her head !
Much to her dismay, Marguerite had discovered that the voice, unlike the oracular voices, was not limited in what it could talk about. If it so chose, it could answer questions about anything. Of course, this also meant it could ask questions about anything. And it had a lot of questions. And observations. And suggestions.
You must not let the voices of the past block you from the present, the voice was saying in her head even now. I do not know who this man was to you, but this is not he. He is a voice of the fire. You must accept him, come to peace with him, or you will never be able to fully understand the fire. Or yourself.
Never! The response was instinctive and immediate. "I told you, I will not be the oracle," she added aloud, and winced at how hoarse and dry her voice sounded. "Don't you understand that yet?"
It was a question, and the oracle answered in the voice she least wanted to hear. "Not at this rate you won't," his voice responded.
"You should leave her alone," Arthur snapped in Marguerite's defense, his voice revealing his rare anger. "You aren't helping her understand."
"You're certainly getting in her way," Adrienne agreed. "She's letting you stand between her and the fire, and the answers she's already entitled to."
Adrienne's words acted like a shock of desperately-needed water to Marguerite. The dark-haired woman sat up from where she lay on one of the padded benches and stared at her two friends sitting near the fire, carefully not looking at the farther corner where he sat. She tried to ignore the lightheadedness that immediately assailed her at her sudden change in position. "What do you mean? What answers?" she croaked.
"Answers about the kingfishers, silly." Adrienne's smile was teasing, but the look in her eyes was quite serious. "About your friends and their progress in their quest. How they're doing, whether they'll make it back in time. Answers about this fire, and this oracle."
"Of course, asking questions and seeking answers could lead you closer to becoming the oracle," his voice added.
"Asking questions about those subjects and seeking those answers will not lead you any closer to becoming the oracle," Arthur contradicted immediately. He looked solemnly at Marguerite, obviously concerned. "And I know you know how to stay within the bounds of a particular subject. Moreover, my dear, I've never known you to allow someone else to stand in your way, particularly not when the welfare of your friends is at stake." He smiled gently, reminding her without words of the occasions where Summerlee had placed her welfare above his, and those times where she'd placed his welfare above her own.
"Or your own welfare," Adrienne added, a trifle less kindly but no less truthfully.
Truth All at once, pieces clicked into place for Marguerite. "Yes or no: you're all speaking the truth," she stated rhetorically.
"Yes," Arthur agreed at once.
"Yes," Adrienne echoed.
" Yes," he confirmed reluctantly.
As I said before, all the voices of the oracle can only speak the truth, the voice in her mind chided.
"Ah, but the kinds of truth - there's the rub." Marguerite knew from bitter experience what kind of truth he offered. It was one of his most devastating tricks, to offer up a portion of the truth in such a measure and fashion as to lead the listener to do exactly what he wanted, believe exactly what he wanted them to believe; a truth far more effective than the best deceit. "I think I get it now."
Shaking off the emotional trauma that she only now realized had paralyzed her for the last several days, Marguerite sat up a little straighter and addressed the fire. "I can help my friends by asking questions about the kingfishers, their 'quest', and the oracle?"
"Yes," Adrienne agreed.
"About all of these things, yes," Arthur endorsed.
"If you ask the right questions," he sneered.
"How can asking questions help my friends?" Marguerite's voice cracked on several of her words, the dryness rasping her throat like sandpaper, but she kept talking.
"You can be prepared for when they return. You can know ahead of time exactly what to do to end the kingfisher curse." Arthur beamed at her, obviously relieved to be answering questions at last, and anxious to help her in whatever way he could. "You can know how best to conserve your strength, and how to prepare for what will follow after the curse is broken."
"You can do more than that," Adrienne added. Unlike Arthur, she was not smiling, but instead looked concerned. "You can ask the fire to see what is happening with your friends. You can see your friends within the fire, where they are, how close your Roxton and Challenger are to finding your changed Malone and Veronica."
"If you were truly the oracle, you could help them directly, not just watch them," he laughed. "And of course you could just chuck it all and try to leave. That would be far more like you."
More aware now of the nature of his truth than she'd ever been in their time together, Marguerite focused her concentration on ferreting out the exact meaning behind his taunts. "Can I just leave the oracle and the temple?" she asked carefully.
"Yes," he answered at once.
Hope beat wildly within her breast, but she forced herself to keep to the subject, to make sure that every question concerned at least one of the permitted subjects. "What about the barrier around the temple?"
"If you completely renounce the fire, the barrier will not prevent you from leaving the temple." His voice was helpful and matter-of-fact. Marguerite knew immediately that truth or no, there had to be a catch. A moment's thought suggested what it must be.
"If I leave now and renounce the fire, can I help my friends with our kingfisher problem? Can I help change Veronica and Malone back?"
"No," Arthur said sadly.
"Will Veronica and Malone be able to change back if I renounce the fire?"
"No, Madge," Adrienne replied. "They will remain kingfishers for the rest of their lives."
Marguerite cursed inwardly, only refraining from cursing aloud because the extra words would dry her throat that much more. For a dizzying moment she considered the idea of leaving the temple anyway. After all, what good will it do if I die or go mad trying to save them? They'll still be stuck as birds. But as quickly as the thought arose, she dismissed it. She might go mad or die, but Veronica and Malone were certainly doomed if she gave up. She could tough this out if she had to. Swallowing carefully past the tightness in her throat, Marguerite forced herself to reconsider what he'd said, sure now that his mention of leaving the temple had been a distraction. "Can I directly help my friends without becoming the oracle, any more than I am now?" she asked carefully.
"Yes. Probably," Adrienne admitted.
"Yes, but not without risk to yourself," Arthur warned.
"It could kill you," he said cheerfully. "And that's always assuming you could figure out how to do it on your own. We can't tell you."
"Not at this time," Adrienne acknowledged with a glare towards the corner where he sat.
"We can't tell you how you might be able to help unless you become the oracle," Arthur specified, also glaring in his direction.
That means whatever it is, it must be outside of the scope of questions about kingfishers and the oracle, Marguerite realized. And it's risky. She took a deep breath, wishing she could take a sip of water, but knowing that it wasn't yet time. She had carefully rationed out her food and water, and knew exactly when she could next take a bite or a sip. Well, anything's better than just waiting around to starve, she thought defiantly. And maybe I'll find out I won't have to ration my food and water as long, even if I can't help them. "Show me my friends," she asked the fire.
In response to her request, the unearthly flames over the tripod blazed a little higher. The multicolored hues within its heart brightened and shifted, forming recognizable images. Marguerite recognized Roxton's hat first, followed quickly by the rest of the hunter as he made quick work of breaking camp. Challenger was a little harder to spot as he rolled up blankets, his red hair blending in well with the surrounding flames. The two men were obviously about to hit the trail again. There was no sign of the kingfishers.
"But where are Veronica and Malone?" Marguerite queried.
The images in the fire shifted again, Roxton and Challenger shrinking down to a small corner of the fire. In the center of the fire, a stream came into view, heavily overhung by brush. A blue bird streaked through the air, closely pursued by a second. The two birds circled each other several times before settling on two different branches above the stream.
"How far away are they from Roxton and Challenger?"
The image of the birds shrank too, as more images of vegetation appeared. Finally the two images appeared in relation to each other, with all the intervening jungle scenery in between. Marguerite caught her breath as she realized the two groups were very close to each other, perhaps half a mile apart.
Even as she thought this, the two tiny men in the picture appeared to finish packing up and set out in the opposite direction of the two kingfishers. "Wait. They're going the wrong way?" Marguerite cried.
"Sure looks that way, doesn't it?" he replied, chuckling. "What a shame."
"Marguerite, it's only for the moment," Arthur tried to calm her.
"Will they go that direction today?" Marguerite demanded, refusing to be calmed.
"That is not their plan," Adrienne said warningly.
"The scientist has a nice, neat search grid all mapped out," he said gloatingly. "That stream's not on today's agenda. Of course, if you only knew how, you could whisper into their ears, tell them exactly which way to go." His voice lowered in vicious merriment. "But to tell you how to do that "
"That's not a question she asked!" Arthur shouted.
"You go too far!" Adrienne snapped.
"No more than you!" he snarled.
The two tiny figures of Roxton and Challenger moved further away from the stream where the kingfishers sat.
"No!" Marguerite snapped. Already weakened by fasting, dehydration, and her days under the strange spell of the oracle, Marguerite's desperate need for answers and for power found an unexpected source. The silver light in her eyes suddenly changed to a bright, emerald green. Strength flowed through her, bringing life and vigor back to her limbs. Rising to her feet, she strode to the oracular fire, her arms stretched out to either side of her. A ghostly, half-remembered tune sprang from her lips, strange words echoing in the suddenly silent cella.
As she reached the fire, the images of Roxton and Challenger grew larger, or perhaps it was Marguerite who grew smaller. Still singing, she reached into the flames and gave the image-Challenger's shoulders a mighty shove.
"We've got a lot of ground to cover again today, George," Roxton said unnecessarily as they left their campsite behind. "Are you sure that - "
A strange exclamation from behind him caused Roxton to break off mid-sentence, spinning around to see what was wrong. Much to his bemusement, he saw George Challenger sprawled in an ungainly heap upon the ground. "Challenger? Are you all right?"
The scientist sat up, an indignant expression flushing across his face. "Someone pushed me!"
Roxton looked around. They were all alone. He gave Challenger a half-amused, half-puzzled look. "I don't see anyone else, George. And I certainly hope you aren't suggesting it was me - OOOF!"
At that precise moment, Roxton felt hands on his back, hands that pushed him so hard that he literally flew through the air for a few feet before tumbling to the ground.
"John?" Alarmed, Challenger started to scramble to his feet. "Are you - whoa!" Abruptly Challenger found himself being dragged along the ground. He twisted around, trying to see who or what had him in such a grasp, and saw nothing. "Roxton!"
"Challenger!" Roxton bellowed. Rolling swiftly to his feet, he ran after the mysteriously-moving scientist. He automatically brought his rifle off of his shoulder, ready for action, but there was nothing to shoot at. "Hey!" he shouted to the nothingness. "You leave him alone!"
As if in response, Challenger felt the unseen hands release him, dropping him unceremoniously to the ground. He winced.
Seeing no further movement, Roxton spared a quick glance for his friend. "You okay, George?"
"I think so." Carefully, the ginger-haired man moved each of his limbs, making sure everything was in working order.
"Good. Any ideas what that was all about?" Roxton didn't lower his rifle.
"None at the moment," Challenger admitted, then gasped as he saw Roxton's rifle go flying out of the hunter's hands. He instinctively flattened himself against the ground, unsure of where the rifle might land, or whether it might go off when it did.
With a cry of rage, Roxton ran after his weapon, only to stop short as it landed on the ground next to a broken branch. A faint whisper of strangely familiar music hung in the air, a music he couldn't quite place. What was easy to place, though, was the fact that his rifle now formed the shaft of an arrow: an arrow pointing in the direction both he and Challenger had been shoved. An arrow that pointed almost exactly back the way they'd come.
"Great galloping guppies," Challenger breathed, coming up next to the stunned hunter and staring at the arrow on the ground.
"Don't look now, George, but I think we're being given a suggestion," Roxton quipped at last.
"It would seem so," the scientist agreed. "And given the difficult nature of our search, I think we should take it."
Roxton grunted, unhappy with the whole incident but aware that he didn't have any better answers. He cautiously reached down towards the strap of his rifle, keeping a careful eye on the weapon just in case it showed further signs of movement. Nothing happened when he grasped the strap, so he picked up the gun. As he did, he felt the lightest of touches brush against his cheek in a phantom caress. His eyes widened. He knew that touch. Marguerite?
The touch vanished, and there was no further sign of any presence. Settling his hat more firmly on his head, Roxton barely stopped a superstitious shiver. All the worry he'd been suppressing about Marguerite in order to focus on the impossible task of finding two birds in a jungle came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. I don't like this. If that really was Marguerite but how could it have been? I need to get back to her, make sure she's all right. Which means we'd better take whatever help we can get in finding Veronica and Malone, so I can get back to her as fast as possible. "Let's go."
"There. That should take care of things."
Marguerite was dizzily aware that the words had come from her mouth, but she had no idea why she said them. She blinked. She had a vague memory of walking towards the oracular fire, but that couldn't be right, because she was standing right next to the cushion-covered bench she'd been resting on for most of the last few days. Near the fire, Summerlee and Adrienne were standing, too, and staring at her. That didn't make sense, either, although she was glad of it, because it meant she couldn't see the third figure sitting behind them. Arthur opened and closed his mouth, but if he said anything, Marguerite couldn't hear it over the ringing in her ears. The fire looked fuzzy. Come to think of it, everything looked fuzzy - and dark.
"What ?" she croaked faintly, and then the blackness claimed her.