Round 11 - Zakiyah
Challenger turned from watching Tribune lift the auto-washing tub and prepared to follow Veronica. As he did so, a reflection of sunlight off of moisture near one of the zombie's bodies caught his attention. Looking again, his eyes widened. "Wait a moment," he called to his companions. "I want to examine the corpses."
Veronica wrinkled her nose. "Really?"
"We shouldn't stay out in the open like this," Roxton warned.
"We need to know what we're fighting," Challenger answered absently, kneeling down next to the first corpse. He reached out and shifted the corpse over onto its back, the better to examine both it and the liquid pooled beneath the body. "Now this is most curious "
"What is it, Challenger?" Roxton asked, sparing the scientist a glance before turning back to keep an eye on their surroundings.
"Unless I am much mistaken, this is blood!" the lanky man exclaimed, gingerly touching the sticky liquid and sniffing it. "Well, blood and perhaps something else; it seems overly watery "
"But corpses don't bleed," Veronica pointed out, her eyes widening at the implication.
"Indeed not," Tribune murmured, fascinated in spite of himself. He moved closer to Challenger, shifting the auto-washing tub in his arms so he had an unimpeded view of the proceedings. "Most interesting, Professor."
Doubly determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Challenger reached out and ran his hands over the decaying flesh of the corpse, examining the area where Roxton's rifle bullet had entered the chest. The small entrance wound was oozing a tiny bit of blood, but when he pressed the area around it, the scientist could feel the surface move as if a much larger amount of liquid was trapped right beneath the surface. Pulling out his field knife, Challenger delicately probed the area of the wound. The knife tip slipped in quite easily, then snagged on something. Tugging gently, the scientist was astonished when the knife abruptly ripped a shallow cut several inches long, releasing a torrent of fluid. "What on earth ?"
"Ew!" Veronica recoiled from the overpowering stench. "That's even worse than it was at the pond!"
"Fascinating," Challenger murmured, not even noticing the smell in his preoccupation with his discovery. He lengthened the incision, grasped the edges, and gently pulled them apart to reveal whole, healthy-looking lizard skin underneath the decayed surface layer. The bullet wound was still evident, but at this level it looked like a normal bullet wound. Clear liquid seeped from underneath the surface layer, mingling with the blood from the wound. "Tribune, do your people shed their skins whole, like snakes?"
"Hardly like common reptiles," Tribune sniffed, offended, "but yes, we do moult, particularly when we are younger and growing quickly."
"Then I'd say this decayed outer layer is nothing more than a partially shed skin, which for some reason has adhered to the body, rather than shedding off as normal. That's what makes them appear to be dead - the decaying outer skin."
"You mean he's not dead?" Roxton exclaimed.
"Oh no, he's dead all right - but I'd say it was your bullet that killed him," Challenger explained. "It wasn't an immediately fatal hit, but it was enough to cause death fairly quickly." He reached into his coat pocket, brought out a small sample jar, and proceeded to take a tissue sample.
"He didn't even flinch when I shot him, much less drop!" Roxton objected.
"True, although others did earlier, back at the Treehouse and then there's the strange collapse caused by my auto-washing tub not to mention the attacks themselves," Challenger mused. He stood up, shaking his head. "I don't have all the pieces yet, but I can say one thing. We're not dealing with animate corpses, but living lizardmen."
"Can you reverse the process?" Tribune asked, forgetting his arrogant disdain in his excitement.
"I don't even know what the 'process' is, if there is one, much less whether it's reversible. I need more information." The scientist leveled a challenging look at the lizard. "You called it a process. Do you have more information?"
"No," Tribune denied, shifting the tub again.
"Well, we won't get more information standing around here," Roxton pointed out. "Let's move." He wrinkled his nose and gave the scientist a wry look. "First, though, we find you a stream."
Challenger ruefully looked down at his dripping hands and nodded agreement.
Malone couldn't believe his eyes. Wooden bunks were stacked all along the long wall of the room, from floor to ceiling, three or four high. In each bunk was a decaying corpse. There must be at least fifty of them and this is just one room. What if there are more like it?
A few of the workers had already moved to a long, low table set up near the bunks. The table was covered with flasks filled with a pale blue liquid that glowed in the dimly lit room. Others were moving to large vats that took up most of the rest of the room. Malone paused, confused as to which way he should go. Before he could make up his mind, the choice was taken out of his hands.
"Here, you," one of his fellow workers muttered. "You must be new here. Get moving to the table before the overseers spot you standing around. You're no good for stirring the vats, not with one arm."
Obediently Malone shuffled over to the table, doing his best to look inconspicuous. Watching carefully, he saw that the first workers had already picked up flasks from the table and had moved to the bunks containing the corpses. He made a show of carefully picking up his own flask, giving himself time to see what the others did with theirs. His eyes widened as he realized that the workers were raising the flasks to the lips of the corpses - and that the corpses seemed to be drinking the fluid! At first Malone was sure his eyes were playing tricks on him, but blinking didn't change what he saw, and he realized he could delay no longer. Okay, so I'm about to feed the dead. Better this way than some others I could think of, I suppose.
He approached his first corpse with some trepidation. Seen up close, the lizard was a repulsive sight. The eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, and the skin was showing some signs of decay, particularly around the face and extremities. Still, this corpse was in much better shape than those he'd seen at the pond and the Treehouse, and it didn't smell nearly as bad. Imitating the other workers, he gingerly brought the flask of liquid to the corpse's mouth and tipped it so the contents ran down into it. He couldn't suppress a shiver as the corpse swallowed audibly.
Looks like the others are giving the entire contents of the flask to a single corpse, Malone mused as he continued to feed the corpse the liquid in a steady stream. I wonder what's in this stuff?
It wasn't until he was carrying the now-empty flask back to the table to pick up another that the idea hit him. Challenger needs a sample of this! The flask was too large to smuggle out, even under his shirt, and Malone did not miss the fact that one of the overseers was keeping a regular eye on the flasks arriving and leaving the table. With my luck, they're keeping count, he realized as he carefully placed his empty flask on the table and picked up another full container. I need some other kind of container something really small, that I can hide in a pocket.
Pocket pocket wait a minute! The sudden flash of inspiration was so brilliant that Malone almost dropped his flask. It's going to be tricky, but if it's still there I'd better try this right away; if it doesn't work, I'll need time to think of something else. Shuffling over to another lizard bunk, this one in deeper shadows, Malone set the flask down next to the body. Reaching into his pocket with some difficulty, he couldn't help grinning as his fingers closed around a familiar shape. Thank goodness! It took a bit of squirming, but eventually he was able to withdraw his trusty fountain pen. Now I just need to empty it I wish I could rinse it out, but I'll just have to hope that a bit of ink won't ruin the sample.
It felt like it took forever. Malone could feel the sweat trickling down his neck as he struggled first to empty the pen, and then refill it from the flask - no simple task, as one-handed as he was. No one seemed to notice his delay, but he heaved a sigh of relief all the same as he finally returned the pen to his pocket and picked up the flask. Sorry for the delay in dinner, he apologized silently as he started feeding the corpse, but then again, what does it matter? I don't suppose you have much appetite when you're dead.
It wasn't much later when the door to the outside opened again. Malone looked up from the corpse he was feeding and squinted against the daylight. Wonder why they keep it so dark in here? He could tell the newcomer was a lizard, but that was all. He went back to feeding his corpse, warily keeping an eye out - then stiffened as the newcomer strode purposefully in his direction. Uh-oh
Marguerite took a deep breath, looking over at the other women as she tried to settle the churning in her stomach. Great. 'All our lives depend on it.' - and so I should risk mine. I felt safer in the Great War! The similarities between this situation and some of the situations she'd found herself in then did not escape her, adding to her tension. Specialized instincts that had relaxed somewhat during her time on the Plateau came sharply awake, and she didn't like what they were telling her. Not enough information enemy territory dubious allies with hidden agendas oh yes, very much like the Great War. Except for the zombies I hate unknown variables. I can handle this. A cool smile settled over her face, completing the serene mask that let nothing of her thoughts show. "Very well then. What's the overall plan? I assume you must have one."
"We do, although it's not entirely complete," Marina admitted. She eyed Marguerite warily.
"Of course not."
Eula and Sennia exchanged grins at the subtle sarcasm in Marguerite's voice, but Marina chose to ignore it. "As long as Cantus has control of these zombie troops, there's not much we can do. They're virtually unstoppable. Additionally, Cantus still has a core of loyal followers who are just as eager as he is to try and reclaim the whole Empire." She paused, obviously considering how much to tell.
"Go on," Marguerite encouraged after a moment of silence.
"We're hoping that your alchemist friend will be able to work out a solution to the zombies. In the meantime, we're continuing to prepare the way for an overthrow of Cantus and his followers, which we'll put into effect as soon as the zombies have been neutralized."
Before she could elaborate further, a soft bell began tolling. All the women in the room stiffened.
"What's that?" Marguerite asked. "What does it mean?"
"It means we're out of time to explain things - at least everything," Marina snapped. "Follow me."
The other women hurried from the room. Hiding her exasperation, Marguerite quickly followed. As Marina stopped to close and lock the door, Marguerite moved to her side. "Go on - I need to know what's happening!" she hissed.
"What you need to know now is part of the plan involves getting some of the resistance members into Cantus's palace at the right time to help incapacitate his followers. Unfortunately, Cantus is extremely wary of anyone that isn't already part of his loyal group, and access to the palace is restricted to those he's familiar with and a few human slaves - servants and two or three favored gladiators." Marina smiled thinly. "Fortunately, Cantus doesn't see human females as threatening, and he likes to keep his followers entertained."
"So that bell means "
"We're being summoned to the palace," Marina confirmed, then frowned. "I don't suppose you know how to dance?"
Marguerite was fairly sure that Marina didn't mean formal ballroom dancing. "I'll manage."
Marina looked skeptical.
"Eula and I think we can work her into a routine, Marina," Sennia said, dropping back to join them and catching the last bit of their conversation. "All she has to do is hold on to the veils and smile, and we'll do the rest."
"Good." Marina smiled at the tall woman, then turned back to Marguerite. "One other thing you should know, Marguerite. Most lizards only find us appealing aesthetically but there are a few perverts. Eula and Sennia should be able to steer you clear of them, particularly since Cantus disapproves of that sort of thing. If one of his humans approaches you, though "
"I get the idea," Marguerite finished dryly when Marina didn't continue. "Don't worry about me. I know how to work a crowd."
"How much further to your city?" Veronica asked as the group reached the summit of a small hill. The shadows were lengthening rapidly; it would be dark in another hour or so.
"Not far. If I were not burdened with this ridiculous contraption and forced to keep to your slow pace, I could easily reach it within a few of your minutes," Tribune sneered, his voice dripping with irritation. "Even given your inferior physiology, we should be there before dark."
"Good," Roxton rumbled, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of his tone. Between Tribune's incessant sniping, the seemingly interminable journey, and continued worry for his friends, his temper was sorely tried. It's been over eight hours since Marguerite and Malone were taken. Anything could have happened to them by now.
"How are we going to get into the city?" Challenger wanted to know.
"One of my still-loyal subjects should be waiting for us close by, with messages, including the latest information on ways in and out of the city." Tribune smirked. "Before I left to warn you, I arranged for a number of potential meeting spots. We're very close to one now." A slight rustling in the bushes on the downhill slope caused the lizard to smile. "In fact, that might be him now."
"Or it might be someone or something else," Roxton pointed out, raising his rifle.
Tribune's smile faded a bit. The explorers tensed for action, weapons aimed and ready.