Round 16 – DNash
Eula spoke up at that moment; she'd been listening to the exchange as she limbered up. "I'll get Mara kitted out," she offered, stepping forward. "Doreta's holding down the fort here in case we need to retreat, so you'll be able to borrow her rehearsal costume just like you borrowed the one you're wearing. Come with me, and you can change clothes."
The thought flitted through Marguerite's mind, That's going to disappoint John. She ignored it and followed the blonde dancer to Doreta's room. Once there, she quickly traded her rose-colored garb for the more utilitarian black. The heiress gave Doreta a somewhat apologetic smile as she wove her long hair into a simple braid in imitation of the dancers, saying, "I'm afraid your costume is a little worse for last night's wear."
"Nothing beyond the cosmetic," replied the dancer/bodyguard good-naturedly. "It'll be a snap to fix it right up. And it will give me something constructive to do while I'm stuck here waiting." The last was said with a hint of disappointment; Doreta would much have preferred being in the group going to the palace.
"Ready?" asked Eula, impatient to be off.
"I think so." Marguerite looked around. "Marina said something about a weighted cane?"
"Here." Doreta handed one over to her. "I have two." The woman gave a wink.
Eula grabbed Marguerite's empty hand and pulled her toward the door. "Let's go," she said.
"You're in an awfully big hurry," commented the heiress as they rushed back to the rest of the troupe.
"Of course! We haven't had a good fight outside of practice in months. I'm well past ready for a bit of action."
They rejoined the others, and Marina gave them a final appraising look punctuated by a nod of approval. "All right. Move out."
Malone was keeping his eyes peeled. He was useless in helping to carry the auto-washing tub, so he and Veronica were the designated look-outs. Not that there was much to see; the lizards' city was a ghost town at this early hour. Then his eyes caught a flash of movement across the compound. He blinked, wondering if he was asleep again and suddenly dreaming.
"What the hell?" the reporter muttered. About a dozen black-clad figures were walking toward the palace. Malone caught the occasional flash of silver as one or another casually spun a cane over her head or in front of her. Dancers? he wondered. He turned to their escort, asking in an undertone, "Scaldus, what's that?"
Scaldus looked where Malone indicated, then he smiled. "Marguerite has reached Marina. Good. That means they'll be ready when Tribune needs them."
Ned was still lost. What did dancers have to do with Tribune's part of the attack? I knew I should have paid better attention when everyone was talking! he chided himself. Not wanting to give away his ignorance, he nodded knowingly and watched as the women passed almost soundlessly out of sight and, presumably, into the palace.
Their own strange group reached its destination. Demitri and Challenger set the heavy, awkward tub down several yards outside the entrance to the zombie barracks. The door was guarded by a single sleepy lizard. Careful that there were no observers, Scaldus knocked the guard in the head with one heavy fist wrapped securely around the hilt of his knife. Quickly and quietly, he and Demitri opened the barracks door and shoved the insensate lizard inside.
"Shame we can't just lock them all in," said Veronica.
"We have." Scaldus held up a key and winked. "That doesn't mean they won't simply come through the door."
"Hang on!" exclaimed Malone, suddenly remembering. "This place has two doors! What if they go out the other way? And where's the other guard?"
"That won't be a problem," Scaldus said reassuringly.
"The zombies are conditioned very carefully, down to the smallest fundamentals. If they try to leave at all, they'll come out this door—right over the top of the guard, I might add."
"And the other guard?" the reporter persisted.
"He's one of us." The lizard raised his voice just enough to carry around the building. "Newton?"
A green-scaled head poked around the corner, and a grin cracked this new lizard's face. "Scaldus! Wondered when you'd show up." He left his post and joined them. "What's that?" he asked, gesturing at the tub.
"I'll explain later."
"So now what?" Veronica asked.
"Now we wait," Challenger answered. He glanced at his pocket-watch. "Shouldn't be too much longer now."
It turned out to be even less time than the inventor had anticipated. A loud chiming rang out in the pre-dawn light. Scaldus, Demitri, and Newton stiffened at the sound. "Alarm," Demitri informed the puzzled humans.
"Alarm?" Challenger pulled his rifle from where it hung across his back, and checked that it was loaded. "The others?"
They all listened closely to the deep-voiced bells.
"Escaped slave?" Demitri suggested after a few moments.
"And a dead body," put in Newton.
"Alman." It was Veronica who spoke up. "Remember what Marguerite and Roxton said? The guards must have found Alman."
Tribune turned a cold eye on the hunter. "It seems your activities last night have been discovered."
Roxton's first thought was of Marguerite, disheveled and beautiful as she'd sat astride him the previous night. He forced the image away. Those aren't the activities Tribune means, he told himself. Besides, it was just an act to fool those lizard guards. He held firmly to the thought although he knew it wasn't the whole truth.
Once he'd cleared his mind of the distracting heiress, he realized the full extent of what Tribune had said. His eyes widened. "They've found Alman's body."
"Very good, John."
Roxton ignored the lizardman's tone. He drew his .45. "Then I suggest we pick up the pace, wouldn't you say?"
A single look was all Tribune needed to send the third member of their party ahead. Gekus scurried along the edge of the building they were skirting and peered around the corner.
"Nothing, your excellency," he said, waving them forward.
Almost too late, they realized it was a lie.
"Get down!" shouted Roxton. He shoved Tribune to one side as he dove the opposite way. A crossbow bolt whizzed past, just missing the lizardman's head. Roxton rolled to his knees and fired. The armed lizard guard fell with a satisfying thud. Unfortunately, this opened up the way for the four behind him.
"Gekus, you worm!" snarled Tribune. He leapt at the turncoat but came away empty-handed as Gekus quickly slipped beyond his reach. Oblivious to the bullets flying by, Tribune continued his pursuit.
"Dammit, Tribune!" Roxton snarled as the former emperor ruined his shot. The hunter barely managed to keep from firing and killing him instead of the guard. Roxton felt a brief twinge of regret, but let it pass. Instead, he ducked a poorly aimed bolt and took fresh aim at his own target.
The firefight didn't last long. Having felled the guards, Roxton quickly reloaded his weapon. He looked around for Tribune and saw the lizardman wiping blood from his chin in a disconcertingly dainty fashion. "Thanks for all your help," said John sarcastically.
"When a meal presents itself, a wise lizard always accepts." Tribune smiled.
Roxton fought back a shudder. He caught a glimpse of what was left of Gekus, and quickly turned away. "There'll be more guards here any second. We need to get to the others."
At that moment, another half-dozen guards appeared at the far end of the narrow street, directly in their path.
"Looks like that's going to be easier said than done," muttered Roxton. He and Tribune exchanged only the briefest of glances before they both charged screaming toward their attackers.
"What do those bells mean?" asked Marguerite quietly. She and Sennia stood at the edge of the dance floor only inches from where the heiress had first encountered the late gladiator, Alman. To a casual observer, they were merely taking a short break and watching the others rehearse a routine.
"They'll be looking for you again. That's assuming they stopped at all last night," the cinnamon-haired dancer replied. "They've found Alman."
Marguerite took a firmer hold on the heavy cane she carried, desperately wishing for a whip or a gun, anything more reassuring than, essentially, a shiny stick.
A sharp noise reached their ears.
"What was that?" demanded Sennia abruptly.
Even muffled by distance and the palace's stone walls, Marguerite recognized the sound easily. "Gunshots," she answered.
The lizards' city was reluctantly coming awake. Indistinct shouts could be heard between the ringing of the alarm bells. The party that surrounded the auto-washing tub tensed. They were sitting ducks should anyone decide they were a threat. Fortunately, no one had yet bothered to question their presence.
A guard appeared and made a beeline toward Scaldus. He was the youngest lizardman Malone had ever seen, and the reporter wondered briefly how he'd managed to avoid being made into a zombie.
"Scaldus!" the guard cried out. "The Captain is looking for you! What are you doing here? You're needed in the search!"
"What are you talking about, fool?" demanded Scaldus roughly. "The Captain ordered me here to supervise these humans."
"But but " The young lizard was at a loss. "But what are they doing?"
Malone felt a pang of sympathy for him. His confused expression was one he knew he, himself, had worn during his early days in the Great War. Silently he wished the young lizard luck and survival.
"That's none of your concern!" barked Scaldus, causing the guard to wince and take an involuntary step back. "Now move along! You'll be needed in the search," he added, turning the confused lizard's own words back on him.
"Y-yes, sir!" he stammered and sprinted away.
Demitri stepped close to Scaldus. "They won't all be that easy to get rid of," he murmured.
"I know," was the lizardman's subdued reply.
There was a sudden thudding noise behind them, and as one the group turned. It was coming from the zombie barracks. The heavy door shook with the force of their pounding.
"It won't take them long to get through that," said Challenger. He looked to their guide. "Perhaps you and Newton should make yourselves scarce."
Newton looked puzzled, and Scaldus shook his head. "Not yet. When the zombies break through, we'll go. Until then, we may still be needed."
The door creaked, its heavy hinges beginning to strain under pressure.
"Go, Scaldus!" insisted Malone. "You've done enough. More than enough!"
Wood began to crack and splinter. Demitri took a firmer grip on his staff; Veronica drew her knife; Challenger double-checked his rifle; even Malone awkwardly drew his gun.
"Go, my friends!" insisted Demitri. "They'll be through any second. You need to get out of the range of this machine, and Tribune will need your help with Cantus."
Reluctantly, Scaldus nodded. "Good luck. Come on, Newton. Let's go." Quickly, the two lizardmen turned and jogged off toward the palace. Their departure was just in time.
The barracks door was torn from its hinges and sent crashing to the ground. Zombies poured through the opening, heading directly at the nearest target—the humans. Challenger aimed and fired at an onrushing zombie. The lizard stumbled back, taking two more down with him. The fallen trio were immediately trampled by those coming behind them.
"Veronica!" shouted the inventor. "Start the tub!"
The blonde woman reached out her empty hand and activated the auto-washing tub. Immediately, the zombies began to shake, gobbets of moulting flesh falling from their convulsing forms. Veronica put her hand up to her mouth, choking back a gag at the foul sight and equally foul smell that accompanied it.
Across the square, a new sound arose. Malone looked to the noise. "We've got more company!" he yelled over the thudding of the tub's mechanisms. Coming toward them was a large, angry-looking group of lizards and humans. "They have gladiators with them!"
"Zombies to the left of us, lizardmen to the right," muttered Challenger, reloading his weapon. "Roxton's going to be sorry he missed this." He raised the gun, aiming at the new threat.
About a hundred feet away, the lizardmen stopped. Clearly the auto-washing tub was having the predicted effect. All were clutching their earholes, and several had fallen to their knees. None continued their approach. Only the gladiators were left.
The explorers and Demitri surrounded the tub, facing attackers on two sides. Malone fired into the crowd of zombies only when it looked like one was going to break through their quivering ranks; he had to conserve his ammunition as he was unable to reload with only one hand. At his side was Veronica, her knife at the ready should any of the zombies somehow get too close in their mad press to exit the barracks. The reporter was resolved not to let anyone get near enough to force her to use her blade. As absurd as he knew it was, in light of the auto-washing tub's effects on the zombies, her own skills as a fighter, and his current infirmity, he was determined to protect her.
Opposite them, Challenger and Demitri faced the gladiators. The inventor felled two with his rifle and then three more with Marguerite's pistol before they were too close. He offered silent thanks to whichever of Tribune's supporters had retrieved the handgun as he quickly tucked it into his belt. Then, using his rifle like a club, he took a fierce swing at the nearest attacker. The man fell hard, knocked senseless.
Another gladiator roared in anger at his compatriot's fall. He swung his heavy mace around over his head and charged the inventor. Challenger ducked, but he needn't have bothered. Quick as a flash, Demitri had put himself between the older man and the gladiator. He landed several blows of his staff against the attacker's gut, then swept the staff around and knocked the man to the ground. A sharp thrust at his head, and the gladiator was as unconscious as his friend.
"Thanks!" exclaimed Challenger.
"My pleasure," Demitri replied with a smile.
Challenger couldn't be sure, but he suspected the young man was actually enjoying the combat.
"Look out!" Eula leapt forward, knocking Sennia and Marguerite to the ground. A heavy spear zoomed overhead, passing through the air where Marguerite had stood a split second before. The three landed heavily, and the blonde rolled off her darker-haired targets. She was on her feet and cursing before the others had caught their breath. "Dammit, Salandrious!" she said angrily. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" She glared across the room at the big lizard and his companions.
"That one," the captain of the guard said, pointing a clawed finger at Marguerite, "has killed a gladiator!"
"Her? Don't be ridiculous! She could no more kill a gladiator than I could!"
Eula was stalling, giving the heiress time to recover. Marguerite knew and appreciated it. She took a deep breath and rose, pasting on her most innocent expression. "Me? I I don't understand!" she exclaimed, apparently horrified. "I've never done such a thing in my life!"
Eula turned away, offering a hand to Sennia. This effectively put her back to Salandrious and his cronies, hiding the smile she was fighting back. "Oh, she's good," she whispered to her friend as she helped her up. The taller woman nodded in agreement.
"You lie!" The captain was on a tear. He'd had a rotten night, what with one thing and another; he wasn't about to let this dancer get the best of him. "You were seen leaving this room with Alman last night. If it wasn't you who killed him, it was the slave who followed you!"
"Slave?" Now Marguerite adopted an offended look. "How dare you?! I wouldn't be caught dead with a common slave!"
"That can be arranged!" the lizardman bellowed. "Seize her!" The two guards who flanked him stepped forward. Not expecting resistance from a group of mere human females, they were unprepared for what happened next.
Roxton smiled to himself. He was on time as he'd promised Marguerite, despite the temporary delay caused by Gekus's treason. They were fortunate the scurrilous lizard had only had a short time to inform anyone of their plans. They'd dealt with this first wave of opposition easily.
Now the hunter peered around the corner of the palace. There was no guard at the door. He glanced back over his shoulder to Tribune. "Looks like Marina got the message," he said in a whisper. The pair crept forward cautiously. After their earlier adventure, neither was prepared to take anything at face value.
Roxton took hold of the door handle and pushed, opening the door enough to look inside. At his shoulder, Tribune stuck his head in, too.
"Where's Marguerite?" wondered Roxton softly. "She was supposed to meet us here."
"I wouldn't worry," answered Tribune. "I'm certain the delectable Marguerite is fine as always." He turned and waved his troops forward. Over two dozen lizardmen and humans approached. Tribune traced a long line in the air indicating the middle of the crowd. "You come with me," he ordered, sweeping his arm to the right. "The rest follow Roxton. We'll meet in the great hall as planned."
Without waiting for a response, he gave Roxton a parting leer and led his group of conspirators to find Cantus.
Roxton looked at Younus, who waited near by. "I have a bad feeling about this. Let's get to the hall."
They made their way quietly down the corridor. As they approached the great hall, they could hear sounds of a struggle. The hunter drew his trusty Webleys and put on a burst of speed, leaving Younus and the others to catch up.
The scene that awaited him wasn't at all what he expected to find. Three lizardmen were neatly trussed and arranged at the foot of Cantus's throne. A closer look showed they were bound and gagged with brightly colored fabric. He looked around for Marguerite. She was difficult to spot, dressed in black as the dancers all were. A flash of regret at her change of costume crossed his face and was quickly replaced by relief and concern. He holstered his guns and approached her at the same time the lizard conspirators charged into the room behind him. They stopped as abruptly as he had at the sight before them, unsure what to make of the situation.
"Marguerite!" Roxton said as he came up to her. "Are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm fine, and just a little excitement," replied the heiress breezily, a small smile playing at the corner of her lips. She casually spun a silver cane in one hand. "I promise I'll tell you later."
Younus stepped forward and looked around at the dancers. "Marina?"
"Here, Younus," the fair-haired woman said, coming to meet him. "My troops are ready."
Roxton gave Marguerite a puzzled look which she returned with a too-innocent expression.
Younus smiled at Marina and nodded toward the trussed guards. "So I see," he replied. He took her hand in one of his. "Nicely done." The woman returned his smile with one of her own.
Roxton watched the scene with interest. "Marguerite," he whispered. "D'you see—?"
The heiress cut him off. "Indeed I do," she said with a small smile. "Who would have thought it?"
Marina was still speaking. "Now that you're here, Younus, what is the rest of the plan?"
But the lizard was stayed from answering by the sound of battle—battle that was coming closer. Everyone looked toward the noise.
"The rest of the plan," Younus said loudly to the room, "is to fight!"
"To arms!" shouted Marina, drawing her sword from its camouflaged sheath within her cane. Around the room dancers, men, and lizards all prepared for action.
Roxton's eyes widened. Marguerite almost chuckled, he looked so astounded. "Tribune's secret defense," she informed him. "Didn't he tell you?"
The hunter glanced at her, took in the tiny smile and the twinkle in her eyes. "Not as such," he admitted wryly.
Before either could go on, the fight reached them. Tribune and his troops were in fierce combat with a large number of Cantus's guards. They were being pushed back into the great hall. Or rather, Tribune and his forces were allowing themselves to be pushed back, knowing their allies were waiting for them there.
Among the fighters, Roxton could make out Scaldus's familiar face. If he's here, he realized, that means Challenger has activated the auto-washing tub. He drew his Webleys once more. For a moment he was torn. The others might need his help, but the immediate threat was here. Keeping Marguerite half shielded from the fray, he asked her, "You've seen Cantus. Is he here?"
Marguerite peered into the seething mass of lizards and humans, trying to spot the ersatz emperor.
She was silent so long, Roxton finally prompted her. "Well?"
The heiress shook her head in dismay. "No."
"What?! You're sure?"
"I'd recognize Cantus anywhere," Marguerite said. She quelled a shudder as she remembered the cold madness in the lizardman's yellow eyes. "He's not here."