Round 14 – DNash
Challenger was saved from responding by the appearance of Younus.
"He's working for me," the lizard healer said haughtily. He pushed his way to the front of the scene to stand next to the inventor. "What do you want, Captain?" He punched the last word as if it were an insult rather than a title.
The captain of the guard noticed, and his eyes narrowed in response. "Watch your tongue, Younus, or I'll have it cut out."
Younus hissed but made no further comment. The captain eyed Challenger suspiciously before deciding he was of no importance. He continued to address the healer instead. "Lassus is in your infirmary. See to him."
The healer was happy to have an excuse to move the intruders out of his lab. He graciously gestured the group of guards to precede him from the room. "What happened to him?" asked Younus.
Their voices dropped as the lab door shut behind them leaving Challenger once more alone with his experiments. The inventor heaved a sigh of relief. That was a bit close for comfort, he thought.
Out in the infirmary, the conversation continued—with two silent observers hidden in the darkness beyond the door.
"There." The captain pointed to the insensate Lassus who had been dumped unceremoniously onto one of the infirmary cots. Contempt for the lizard in question was clear in his voice as he said, "Damn fool was locked in the women’s quarters. We found him there, unconscious. Make sure he’s fixed up properly so he’s fully aware of what’s going on when I discipline him later." He turned to the guards who accompanied him. "Move out." The captain led his team out through the infirmary’s main door.
When he was certain they were gone, Younus let out the breath he’d been holding. Malone and Veronica crept cautiously inside at the same moment.
Younus started. "Where did you two come from?"
"The garden," replied Veronica.
Ned was looking at the unconscious lizard. "Looks like Marguerite got a bit of her own back," he said.
Veronica and Younus were equally puzzled, but it was the woman who spoke. "What do you mean?"
"This is the lizard who knocked her out in the cell."
Lassus groaned, eyes opening slowly. Quickly, the two humans ducked out of his line of sight. Younus opened the medicine cabinet and pulled a bottle from one of the shelves. "Just lie still, Lassus," he said solicitously. "You’ve taken a nasty knock to the head. This will fix you right up." He poured a generous measure of liquid from the bottle to a drinking cup and held it to the other lizard’s mouth. Still half-insensible, Lassus drank. Almost immediately he collapsed back onto the cot and began snoring softly.
"What did you give him?" Malone asked, coming closer.
"The same thing I gave you," said Younus, "only much, much more of it." He gave a lipless smile, which was rapidly replaced by a look of concern. "We must check on Challenger. Time is running short."
"Why? What happened?"
"Nothing yet, but if the captain happens to mention him to the right people, it is possible he could be recognized. Cantus is well aware of Professor Challenger and his reputation."
Malone and Veronica nodded in understanding. The lizards’ desire for gunpowder was all too familiar to the expedition members.
The trio hurried to the lab. Challenger looked up from his microscope just long enough to acknowledge their arrival. "Got rid of that other lot, did you?"
"Yes," answered Younus. "Have you learned anything about the liquid they’ve been giving the zombies?"
This time the professor’s full attention was on his audience. He smiled. "Plenty."
Alman let out a bellow of rage and dove at Roxton. The hunter leapt to one side, barely avoiding the gladiator’s long grasp. He rolled on one shoulder and came up across the room, making certain Alman’s back was to the recovering Marguerite. Unfortunately, this put him between her and Roxton. Inwardly, he cursed. If only he’d been able to hide his gun somewhere on his person when the lizards had gotten him in here, this fight could be over in a split-second.
Roxton grabbed a broken piece of bed frame and used it to block the fist coming overhand at his head. The board splintered with the impact, and he tossed it to one side as he dove to the other. He took a moment to pull the gladiator’s mask from his own face, flinging it at his attacker. Alman swatted it away without a thought, a deep, savage sound coming from his throat.
My god! thought Roxton. Is he actually growling?
He was. Roxton dove again, just avoiding a wicked punch aimed directly at his head. This time when he sprang to his feet, he could no longer see Marguerite; she was hidden behind the remains of the shattered bed. Then thoughts of the heiress were pushed aside as Alman rushed him, catching Roxton in the gut and throwing him against the wall. He hit hard and slid to the floor, stars dancing in the blackness that ringed his vision. He fought them down, thinking only of Marguerite and his need to get her out of there safely.
Alman leered down at his adversary, the twisted smile making his scarred visage that much more horrible to behold. Roxton fought his way to his feet, prepared for the next attack.
It never came. Alman froze, both arms lifted overhead for a downward strike. A look of surprise crossed his face, and he fell. Roxton scrambled out of the way of the collapsing behemoth and only then spotted the knife in the gladiator’s back. He turned wide, surprised eyes on Marguerite.
"It wasn’t my first choice," she gasped, still getting her breathing back to normal. "But you and I have unfinished business, and I wasn’t about to let him ruin my plans." She removed the blade from the dead man and quickly cleaned it on a blanket. "Take his vest." Marguerite took a quick glance around the room and grabbed something off the floor, disregarding the twinge in her side in the urgency of the moment.
Her actions went unnoticed as Roxton, seeing the logic in her suggestion, removed the gladiator’s leather vest. There was a patch of blood around the gash in the back where the knife had penetrated both the vest and its wearer, but the patch was surprisingly small; Marguerite’s aim had been very, very good. Roxton filed this piece of information away for later as he put on the garment.
Next, he checked the corridor. It was empty for the moment, but he knew it wouldn’t last. Even if no one had recognized the noise they’d made for what it was, someone was bound to find Alman’s body sooner or later.
"The others are in the lab," the hunter whispered. "Hopefully Challenger’s made some progress with the sample Malone got."
"Sample? Who cares about samples?" demanded Marguerite in an equally hushed tone. "We have to get out of here!"
"Not until we stop the zombies."
Judging it safe, the two slipped out of the room and down the hallway, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the main hall as possible. They made it to the front entrance without incident, but there their luck changed.
"Damn," muttered Roxton at the sight of the two lizards flanking the wide door. "We need to find another way out."
"Your friends who got you in didn’t plan how to get you out again?" Marguerite asked bitterly. "Great. Here." She thrust something into his hands. "Put that on." It was Alman’s mask. The hunter quickly donned it while Marguerite took the knife she carried and carefully tucked it through his belt. "Just try to look gladiatorial, and follow my lead."
Giving the hunter no warning whatsoever, Marguerite let out a shrieking laugh and stumbled a few steps toward the guards. Roxton had no choice but to follow her.
The lizards guarding the door both looked up, startled.
"Oh, Alman!" she gasped giddily. "I knew you were strong, but I had no idea you were so clever, too!" She laughed again.
Putting on a lascivious smile, Roxton moved towards her. He caught her as she stumbled again and nearly fell. The hunter glanced at the dumbfounded guards. "The lady complained of thirst after her dance," he began. "I made sure she was given plenty of refreshment."
"You’re such a gentleman." Marguerite giggled and leaned into him. She turned glassy eyes on the lizards. "He’s kindly offered to escort me back to the women’s quarters," she informed them innocently.
The humans were rewarded with lecherous looks from the lizards. The two guards parted, allowing them to pass through the door into the night.
"Ta ta!" the heiress said lightly, waving at them as she and Roxton staggered out.
When they were past the shallow light cast by the torches that framed the palace entrance, Marguerite dropped the act. "All right," she said in an undertone, "where’s this lab?"
"I hope you haven’t started without us."
Challenger and his companions looked up in surprise as Roxton and Marguerite entered the laboratory. "You’re just in time," the inventor said with a smile. "Good to see you’re looking well, Marguerite."
"Thank you." Coming from any other member of the group, she would have doubted the motive behind the comment; from Challenger she knew it was sincere. A quick glance around the room was all it took the observant heiress to assess the situation. She was pleased to see Malone, battered and bandaged but still on his feet. She smiled to herself. He really does have the most amazing ability to survive, she thought. If she’d believed in guardian angels, she would have guessed his was due a long vacation in Paris.
Unaware of her thoughts, Malone was thinking in a similar vein. Relief was his first reaction at seeing her whole and alive. Guilt was close behind, and he found he couldn’t look her in the eye. Still, she was in better shape than he, and he couldn’t help wondering how she always managed to come up smelling like roses. He sniffed the air experimentally. Literally, he realized.
Roxton tossed aside his mask. "What have you found?" he asked.
"This mixture—" Challenger held up a beaker of the strange fluid Malone had collected. "—is a compound of ingredients with some fascinating properties. You recall that Tribune said the lizards shed their skins?"
Those who’d heard this before nodded; Marguerite and Malone simply accepted this new information.
"Yes," confirmed Younus. "Most notably in adolescence, when one is growing quickly."
"Exactly. Well, this compound causes the moulted skin to remain attached to the body."
"That’s why their flesh was hanging off them!" exclaimed Veronica. She grimaced a little distastefully at the remembered image.
"That’s not all," continued the inventor. "There’s also a narcotic element, which seems to make the lizards highly susceptible to another’s influence. It confuses their mental pathways and, unable to make their own decisions, they become open to suggestion."
"Suggestions like kidnapping Marguerite and me," put in Malone bitterly.
The heiress was nonplussed but unsurprised at this news. "I wondered if that wasn’t intentional. Good old Tribune. You can always rely on him," she said mirthlessly.
"You’re too kind, my darling Marguerite."
Everyone in the lab jumped at the sound of Tribune’s voice. Oddly, it was Malone who recovered first. "Is there a reason no one ever locks that door?" he quipped pointedly.
The deposed lizard leader gave him a lipless smile. "You know, it would save everyone a lot of trouble if I simply ate you now."
Malone blanched. Veronica stepped in front of him, her knife ready. She glared fiercely at Tribune.
He hissed disdainfully. "A joke. A joke," he declared. "You humans have no sense of humor." He turned to Marguerite and bowed slightly. "Marguerite, a pleasure as always. You look simply scrumptious this evening."
She returned his bow with a nod and a cold smile. "Tribune. I was just saying how reliable you are. Perhaps I ought to have said ‘predictable’."
"You wound me, fair lady," the lizard replied, not in the least perturbed. In fact, he was delighted. He gave her another—longer—appraising look and smiled salaciously, reiterating his earlier comment. "You’re looking well. Hmm. Yes. Very well, in fact."
Marguerite ignored his tone and his expression. "That is the consensus, yes. No thanks to you, I might add."
This only caused Tribune to smile even more broadly.
Roxton spoke up, not caring to see their conversation continue. "Challenger, can the effect of the drug be reversed?"
Pleased to have the attention returned to him and his discovery, the inventor said, "I can’t say. I don’t think the compound is addictive, but there’s no telling what sort of consequences its continued use might have."
"All this still doesn’t explain the effect your auto-washing tub has on the zombies," put in Malone.
"I believe it has something to do with frequency vibrations."
"What do you mean?" asked Veronica. She had sheathed her knife but was still keeping a wary eye on Tribune; and she maintained her position between the lizard and the reporter.
"Recall the effect it had on Tribune," continued Challenger. "My guess is the vibrations caused by the tub’s functioning have a deleterious effect on a lizard’s inner ear, probably in a range either too low or too high for humans to detect."
Marguerite turned a condescending look on the deposed emperor. "Oh. Poor Tribune. Did it hurt?" She smiled wickedly at the hiss and bitter glare she received in reply.
Challenger ignored the exchange. "This disrupts their balance, for a start, and appears to severely impair their ability to function."
"While I simply love hearing you talk about me as a laboratory experiment," said Tribune snidely, "I suggest you speak more quickly. It’s late, and time is running out. If we wish to strike before sunrise, we must proceed soon."
"No one said anything about striking before sunrise," interjected Roxton. "Why the sudden rush? You’ve waited this long; what’s another day?"
"Have you forgotten everything I’ve taught you, John? Lizards are not at their best in the early morning—particularly those in Cantus’s company. His appetites are best whetted in the dark hours; and that makes for late risers."
Marguerite’s expression grew suddenly grim. She thought of Sennia and Eula and the rest of the women "entertaining" Cantus and his court. "Tribune’s right," she said, startling everyone. "You haven’t seen Cantus. I have. The sooner he’s dealt with, the better off everyone on the Plateau will be." She couldn’t help getting in one more gibe. "Even if that means putting Tribune back on the throne."