Round 10 - DNash
Surprise warred with skepticism, but it was curiosity that ended the fight. "I beg your pardon?" said Marguerite.
Quickly, the heiress was given an abbreviated version of the story that-unbeknownst to her-Malone had received not minutes before.
This time, skepticism was in the forefront as she crossed her arms over her bare midriff and scowled at the band of women before her. "Do you seriously expect me to believe this load of garbage?" she demanded. "While I can accept that Tribune was overthrown again, your claim that he's actually teamed up with humans is absurd."
"Why?" asked Sennia. "He's teamed up with you and your friends more than once."
"That's hardly comparable to allowing human advisors on his staff!" snapped Marguerite. "What you're saying is patently ridiculous. What are you smirking at?" she demanded then, turning on the blonde woman Marina had called Eula.
"I like you," Eula said plainly. "Someone so rude must be trustworthy."
The dark-haired heiress gave her a caustic look and said acidly, "Thank you."
Unruffled, the pert blonde just continued to smirk. Marguerite gave her up for a dead end and turned back to the other women. "What do you want from me?"
"Tribune said we could rely on your intelligence," Sennia said.
"He said you were almost as cunning as lizard," put in Eula sardonically.
Marguerite snorted derisively. "Well that certainly sounds like Tribune," she muttered. "But why should I believe you?"
Marina and Sennia exchanged a look before the blonde finally gave a small shrug. She turned back to Marguerite. "All our lives depend on it."
Tribune stumbled and nearly lost his footing. The large tree root jutted out at an unexpected angle, and the heavy tub he carried was off-setting his center of balance. Not that he would have admitted as much to his human companions.
"All right there, Tribune?" Roxton asked. The words were solicitous enough, but the tone spoke volumes in contradiction.
"Fine," the lizardman said, attempting his usual sly smile. It fell a little short, but Roxton decided not to comment. It wouldn't do to antagonize the person carrying the one defense they knew would work against Cantus's army of zombies.
The hunter puzzled on the phenomenon. Assuming there was truly a scientific explanation for these 'living dead' as Challenger insisted there must be, it stood to reason there was a scientific explanation why the auto-washing tub had stopped them in their tracks. He hadn't even a guess what those explanations might be.
Ahead of them, Veronica held up a hand, signaling the party to stop. Challenger stopped beside her, his rifle in hand. "What is it?" he asked quietly. Tribune and Roxton caught them up in time to hear her answer.
"Do you smell that?"
The men tested the air, and lizard and human eyes widened.
"It smells like the pond did just before the zombies attacked," Challenger said. "Only much fainter."
"Which means they've passed this way recently or…"
"Get down!" It was Roxton's shout, and it was immediately followed by a rifle shot. A zombie lumbered out of the jungle yards away. Another was close behind.
"Tribune! The tub!" exclaimed Challenger. Hastily and happily, the lizardman released the heavy contraption to the ground. "Mind the gears!" the inventor admonished. Tribune rolled his eyes, not deigning to respond further.
"Anytime now, George," put in Roxton, firing again and hitting the leading zombie. It staggered a step or two, then paused as if momentarily confused before continuing to approach. "Dammit," cursed the hunter under his breath, continuing to shoot.
Without further delay, Challenger activated the tub. Thumping and thudding of gears filled the air. Just as it had happened at the pond, the dead lizardmen shook violently and collapsed. The inventor shut off the machine with a satisfied yank on the lever. "Outstanding!" he exclaimed proudly.
Veronica was the first to notice Tribune. The erstwhile emperor was curled into an almost fetal position, his hands clamped tightly over his earholes. She knelt next to him, her usual dislike of the lizardman temporarily overwhelmed by surprised concern. "Tribune?"
He shuddered and lowered his hands. Veronica almost reached out to help him to his feet, but he moved away enough to avoid her grasp, rising on his own. It was not in his nature to show weakness in front of lesser species. Shaking off the experience as best he could, Tribune turned an icy glare on Challenger.
"Intriguing device," he said tightly. He was fighting to maintain a modicum of self-possession after what had just happened. "And you say you use it to wash clothes? Fascinating."
"We should go," Roxton said. He'd taken a moment to reload his rifle despite its relative ineffectiveness against the zombies. At least it slows them down a bit…and it'll still stop a raptor in its tracks, he assured himself.
Veronica nodded. "You're right. We have no way of knowing if these two…" She gestured to the fallen corpses. "…were an advance party or if they just got lost."
"Can't be easy navigating the jungle when you're dead," quipped the hunter. Normally adept at lightening a dour mood, his attempt this time was unsuccessful. "Come on."
Again Veronica and Challenger took the lead. Roxton waited as Tribune gave the auto-washing tub a dubious look before hefting it once more.
"That's it?" whispered Malone. He and Scaldus were concealed behind a large stone pillar at one end of a long, open square.
The two surveyed the scene for several moments. Across the square was a low, stone building. It was innocuous enough at first glance, but the guards at either end suggested otherwise. There were narrow windows high in the nearest wall, and steam was escaping through vents in the roof. When the wind shifted, Malone could smell the same distinct scent he'd encountered at the pond when the zombies had first attacked.
"How are we supposed to get in there?" he demanded. They'd observed no activity at either entrance.
"Give it a moment," the lizardman said.
A gong chimed loudly three times, and as they watched people began to file out of the building from the nearer door. It was an odd mix of humans and lizards, none of them looking overly happy with the situation. They trudged wearily past the guard. One of the men stumbled and nearly fell, only to be caught by the nearest lizard and helped back to his feet. Malone was surprised by the sight, but kept silent.
With his good hand, the reporter scratched the back of his neck. It was hot even here in the shadow of the stone pillar, and sweat was trickling from his hair down his back, tickling him. He was already regretting having put his shirt back on. With help from Younus he'd gotten his good arm through the sleeve, and the lizard healer had buttoned the shirt over his injured arm. Now he was that much warmer, and his arm and chest were beginning to itch against the bandages. And now I'm going in there? he thought, eyeing the steam vents in the stone building. What was I thinking?
Still, there was no backing out now. He had to learn as much as he could before returning to the others. "Now what?" whispered the reporter.
"Wait," was Scaldus's reply.
The crowd of workers cleared, and another group appeared. This time, they were heading into the building.
"Come with me." Scaldus rose and put a strong hand around Malone's uninjured arm. "Come on you slacker!" the lizardman shouted.
Malone started at the sound, but was savvy enough to play along. He moved forward toward the thinning group of workers.
Scaldus approached the guard as the last of the laborers went inside. "Got another one for you, " he said. "Not much good for heavy lifting, but useful for the easier jobs."
"Good," the guard said with a grim smile that made the reporter nervous. The lizard eyed him. "Move it!" he snarled. He shoved Malone through the door.
It was all Ned could do to keep from crying out. Great. The painkillers are fading, he thought in frustration. He was glad the anesthetic had finally cleared from his system enough to allow him to think clearly, but the analgesic that kept his arm from throbbing was going with it.
He blinked several times as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight to the dimmer lamp light within. He coughed as a wave of foul air hit him.
Then all thoughts of pain or drugs, darkness or stench left his mind as he saw what was in the building.