Round 17 - Zakiyah
A sudden shove sent Challenger to his knees just in time. A spiked ball on a chain whizzed by just where his head had been moments earlier. A weapon right out of the middle ages a morning-star, I think, he thought dazedly, somewhat bemused by the near-miss.
The thwack of chain hitting wood drew his attention back into focus. After pushing him out of harm’s way, Veronica had moved to stand between him and the attacking gladiator, tangling the chain of the morning-star with a discarded spear she wielded like a quarterstaff. With a determined yank, Veronica disarmed the man, and then swiftly dealt him a sharp blow to the middle with the blunt end of the spear. When the man doubled over, Veronica jerked the spear upwards, smacking him solidly in the chin. He fell down, knocked out cold.
"Are you all right?" she asked the scientist hastily, eyeing another approaching warrior. Nearby, Demitri engaged another man, snarling happily as he brought him down.
"I think so," Challenger said cautiously, slowly getting to his feet. His knees were not happy with him.
"Good. Then get up; there are more of these guys!" She stepped forward and engaged the next fighter, blocking his blows with her spear even as another rushed towards her.
A shot rang out, and Veronica’s second attacker crumpled before he could reach her. She swiftly disabled her opponent, then shot a grateful smile back over her shoulder. "Thanks, Ned!"
"Anytime," the reporter answered, then abruptly ducked reflexively as something clattered to the ground nearby. He glanced at the object. "A rock ?" Puzzled, he looked back up again just as someone screamed. One of the few remaining attacking gladiators fell to his knees, and then pitched forward onto his face. A slender javelin protruded from his back.
"The lizards – they’re attacking!" Veronica cried in warning.
Sure enough, those lizards that had stayed far enough away from the auto-washing tub not to be affected by it were starting to throw anything they could find at the humans and the terrible racketing machine. Most were hurtling rocks, but a few were throwing small, lightweight spears, not caring whether their human allies were in the way. With despairing cries, two of the three remaining attackers turned and fled, running out of the line of fire. The last, a huge man with flaming red hair, roared a battle cry and charged directly for the auto-washing tub, ignoring the rocks and javelins falling around him. Ned shot him moments before he could crash into the machine.
The explorers and Demitri quickly took cover behind the nearby stone columns and, in the case of Ned and Veronica, behind the auto-washing tub itself. Challenger quickly reloaded his rifle and started shooting, while Veronica reloaded Ned’s pistol for him, keeping a wary eye out for any more attackers. Nearby, Demitri seethed in helpless impotence; he could not defend his new friends from the lizards’ projectiles, and he had no ranged weapon.
"They don’t really have the range," Challenger yelled after watching the rocks and javelins strike the ground for a few moments. Most of the thrown objects were landing far short of the explorers and the auto-washing tub. "They’re forced to keep too far back to be effective."
"Still, they’re getting organized," Veronica shouted back. "That’s not good." She handed the pistol back to Malone before continuing. "How long will this tub run without needing to be cranked?"
"I tested the gears and springs when fully wound, and they ran for twenty-three minutes and forty-one seconds," Challenger called, "but that wasn’t with the rest of the mechanism engaged. Theoretically, it should run at least that long."
"Theoretically???" Malone bellowed.
"Well, I never got a chance to test it in practice," Challenger huffed.
"Oh that’s just great! Now I’m really worried!" Malone nearly shrieked.
"Don’t worry about my mechanism," Challenger roared over the din. "It’s been less than five minutes since we activated it. Worry instead about the fact that our foes are getting increasingly organized about attacking us – and that someone seems to be taking charge. Someone with a modicum of intelligence."
"So? They still can’t get near us," Malone replied shrilly.
Something pinged off the side of the auto-washing tub, and another something shattered against the stone column that sheltered Demitri.
"No, but they can have someone smart enough to call for real ranged weapons," Challenger called in annoyance as they all stared at the shattered remnant of the crossbow bolt.
"Oh boy," Malone muttered to himself as he tried to duck down behind the auto-washing tub as much as possible while still maintaining his ability to fire the pistol. Beside him, Veronica put a reassuring hand on his knee before returning her attention to the attacking lizards. "There’s at least six of them with crossbows," she warned.
Malone fired, and one of the lizardmen crumpled. "Make that five," he said with some satisfaction.
"I just hope they don’t have any catapults handy," Challenger grumbled to himself before aiming his rifle at one of the remaining bowmen.
"Any chance of reinforcements?" Veronica yelled to Demitri.
"For them, yes. For us, no, none planned - not unless and until the attack on the palace is successful," the big man boomed back.
"Wonderful," Veronica muttered, not raising her voice, so only Malone caught her words. "If we live through this, I really am going to have to speak to Marguerite about her planning skills." She knew it probably wasn’t the brunette’s fault, but complaining about Marguerite was a well-ingrained habit that never failed to relieve some of her tension.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Malone grinned, but prudently refrained from comment.
"Where the hell could he be?" Roxton wondered, frustrated.
"I’m thinking, I’m thinking " Now if I were a mad lizard-king, and revolutionaries were attacking my palace, where would I go? Marguerite scowled, trying to think it through, uneasily aware of her earlier feelings of being out of her depth with the insane emperor. I hate trying to guess the actions of madmen!
"Huh?" Startled, Roxton turned to stare at Marguerite. He’d meant the question rhetorically, not literally – but judging from the look on Marguerite’s face, she really was trying to figure out where he might be. There’s no way even Marguerite could know she’s only been here for a day could she? Before Roxton could muse any further on what Marguerite might have accomplished in the past twenty-four hours – including gaining contact with or insights on the erstwhile emperor – a sudden shift in the pattern of fighting put him on the alert. A knot of struggling fighters was headed directly for them, viciously attacking each other without reserve. "Figure it out later – watch out now!" He stepped between Marguerite and the oncoming tangle, raising his sword defensively against the onrush.
Marguerite abandoned her train of thought and quickly moved to stand at Roxton’s side, cane at the ready. Roxton only had time to give the brunette an affectionate, exasperated glare before the onslaught was upon them. The world quickly narrowed into a desperate focus for survival: a step here, a duck there, a quick block followed by a swift strike at an unprotected limb Just identifying friend from foe was nearly impossible. Despite their best efforts, the pair quickly found themselves separated by the flow and momentum of the battle.
Roxton cursed as Marguerite disappeared behind a wall of battling bodies, her dark hair and dancer’s outfit too easily blending in to be distinguishable in the chaos. He struggled to follow her but was hemmed in by the press of bodies. Before he could break loose, he suddenly found himself fighting for his life against three very hostile lizards. One of Tribune’s lizard fighters joined him, enabling him to survive the initial encounter, and Roxton was bizarrely reminded of teaming up with Tribune in the gladiator’s arena before he was too busy surviving to indulge in memories.
For her part, Marguerite quickly discovered that her skill with the cane was awkwardly limited in this kind of ferocious close fighting. In her inexperienced hands, the cane was far more effective for blocking opponents and yanking them off-balance than it was for actually injuring or disabling anyone. She concentrated instead on keeping herself in one piece and working her way out of the mess. It took every ounce of agility and concentration she could muster, but she managed to emerge from the tangle of fighting with only a few shallow cuts and a midriff newly reawakened to the fact that it had been badly bruised the night before. Ignoring the discomfort, she tried to find Roxton in the melee, hoping he, too, had made his way out of the thick of the fighting. A familiar voice crying out in pain distracted her, followed by another voice shrieking defiance. She quickly turned and spotted Eula on the ground, clutching a wound in her side, her face twisted in agony. Above her, Sennia was doing her best to fend off two attackers and defend the injured dancer. Even as Marguerite ran to help, she couldn’t help but notice that Sennia was nowhere near as good a fighter as her fallen friend. Bad odds, part of her mind warned her even as she moved to block a blow that would otherwise have run the other dancer through.
"Who Mara?" Sennia gasped, only getting a glimpse of Marguerite from the corner of her eye. The cinnamon-haired dancer beat back a sword thrust and slashed open the arm of the attacker with a quick riposte, buying herself a moment’s respite.
"Get out of here!" Eula choked even as she writhed in pain. She picked up her sword again and tried to get up, but only made it to her knees.
"More fighters on the way," Marguerite warned grimly in reply, seeing an alarming number of lizards heading in their general direction. From what she could judge of their expressions and demeanor, they were not on Tribune’s side. Roxton, where are you? This is not my forte! I could use some help right about now I hope you’re all right! Snarling, she rammed the crook of her cane into the crotch of an attacking lizard and wrested the heavy short sword out of his suddenly nerveless grip. Dropping the cane, she ran the lizard through with his own sword and turned to meet the oncoming fighters. Beside her, Sennia still fought off her attacker as best as she could, her slender sword badly outmatched by the lizard’s heavier weapon and superior strength. Only the dancer’s faster reflexes kept her on her feet and fighting – and she was hindered by the fact that she couldn’t move very far in any direction without leaving Eula exposed. Forget bad odds; bad odds would be an improvement over this!
The approaching lizards slowed in their charge, appearing to hesitate. Marguerite didn’t have time to wonder why, as several lizards and one dancer raced by their position, taking out Sennia’s attacker on their way to engaging the oncoming guards. Stunned, Marguerite watched with amazement as Marina carved through two of the attacking lizards in as many seconds, moving with a lithe and deadly grace that cut through the lizard’s defenses as easily as her slender sword pierced their bodies. I never realized anyone could move like that – she must not have a single bone in her body, she’s so flexible! Marguerite thought, awed. The third lizard Marina engaged actually managed to fend her off for a few moments before he, too, joined his compatriots on the bloodied floor. The leader of the dancers was splashed with blood in half-a-dozen places and sported the start of a large bruise on one arm; her blonde hair was matted with blood; and she was grinning from ear to ear as she moved to engage yet another attacker. Her chosen target visibly edged away from her and into the range of one of her lizard allies, obviously preferring to take his chances with his own kind.
"Sennia, don’t - !" Eula gasped, and Marguerite glanced down to see that Sennia had dropped her sword and now knelt by her friend, heedless of the ongoing fight.
"Shut up, Eula." The taller dancer’s jaw was set in stubborn determination as she pressed both hands over Eula’s wound, prying Eula’s own hand away as she peered at her side, evaluating the damage.
"Guard them, Mara," Marina snapped, noticing Sennia’s actions. The area around Eula, Sennia, and Marguerite was momentarily clear of fighting, so Marguerite nodded and gave Marina a mock salute with her stolen sword. Marina grinned again and plunged back into the fray.
The fighting was dying down all over the room, leaving carnage in its wake, but Marguerite still couldn’t spot Roxton. Looking around, she spied a familiar-looking object on the belt of a nearby lizard corpse. Glancing around, she judged it safe to leave Sennia and Eula alone for a few seconds. She quickly scurried over and retrieved the item from the corpse, grimacing as the movement caused her fresh pain. Stepping back to her post, she was both relieved and alarmed to see neither dancer had noticed her momentary departure; Eula’s eyes were unfocused, and Sennia was oddly still, totally focused on whatever she was doing to the wound. They really do need guarding, Marguerite thought to herself, inspecting her new acquisition with some satisfaction.
A flicker of familiar color in what remained of the fight caught her eye, and she sighed in relief as she finally caught sight of Roxton. He was rather battered-looking, and his clothes had definitely seen better days, but he was still on his feet and fighting, dispatching a lizard even as she spotted him. A moment later, her sigh of relief caught in her throat as she saw another lizard draw a knife and aim to throw it at Roxton’s unprotected back.
Roxton looked over towards the source of the unexpected sound to see a lizard grasping at his throat with both hands as he was yanked backwards, dropping his knife in the effort to stay upright as he stumbled helplessly along. Before the lizard could regain his balance, he was brought face-to-face with the person responsible for his lack of breath and equilibrium and she stabbed him with a short sword without ever losing her grip on her whip handle. A profound sense of relief swept over Roxton as he recognized Marguerite, as much from her deft handling of the whip as from the tendrils of dark curls escaping from her braid. He renewed his efforts to fight free of the remaining battle, determined to get to her and make sure she was all right.
"Wow you weren’t kidding about being good with a whip," Eula’s voice came from the floor. Groaning, the dancer got to her feet, her dark-green scarf now wrapped around her waist instead of her hips. "Nice going."
"Thanks. Are you all right?" Marguerite asked, puzzled. "I thought " I would have sworn that wound looked much more serious than that. Glad I was wrong!
"Just a flesh wound, fortunately," Sennia said breathlessly from where she still knelt on the floor. The dancer seemed oddly pale to Marguerite, and her lips were pressed together in a thin line. She stood up with an utter lack of grace and nearly staggered into Eula.
What on earth ? Marguerite wondered. Was Sennia injured, too?
Marguerite turned from her observation of the two dancers to see Roxton making his way towards her. Blood was trickling down his forehead. Alarmed, she hastened towards him, forgetting all about the dancers’ odd behavior. "John? Are you all right?" Reaching up, she tilted his head and examined it anxiously, looking for the source of the bleeding. Fleetingly, Marguerite wished for one of the hip scarves the other dancers wore; it would be useful in wiping away the blood so she could see what was wrong.
"I’m fine, Marguerite. It’s just a scratch," Roxton reassured her, a little bemused by her blatant concern. "Are you okay?"
"I’m perfectly all right," Marguerite replied dismissively. Standing on tiptoe, she finally was convinced that the bloody scratch near his hairline was the source of the blood – and that it was indeed just a minor cut. Satisfied, she quickly looked the rest of him over, avoiding his tentative attempt to pull her towards him. "You’re a bit messy," she scolded weakly.
"Next time I’ll be sure to tell the people trying to kill me to be tidier about it," Roxton jibed back. He gently traced one finger just above a cut on Marguerite’s arm. "You weren’t being very careful, either."
"On the contrary; if I hadn’t been very careful, that would have been much worse," Marguerite said haughtily, rapidly recovering her emotional equilibrium. She looked around the room, realizing the fight was over at last. "Looks like we won."
"A meaningless victory, if Cantus escapes," Tribune boomed, coming up to them. "I want him found."
"Doesn’t look like he’s here," Scaldus called from where he was checking over the wounded and the dead.
"None of his elite personal guard are here, either," another lizard spoke up from where he, too, was checking over the fallen.
Others also raised their voices, confirming that the emperor was not in the room. Marguerite bit her lip as she realized there were four dancers amongst the casualties, one of them so still she was sure the woman was dead. Sennia was already at the side of one of the others, doing what she could for her stricken companion. Across the room, Younus was doing the same for an injured lizard.
"Where is that misbegotten madman?" Tribune hissed, frustrated.
Marguerite’s face went momentarily blank, and then her eyes narrowed dangerously as the answer she’d been searching for earlier popped into her head. "He’s gone to his source of power. His creations," she said flatly. "He’s gone to summon the zombies."
"Which means Malone, Veronica, and Challenger are in serious danger." Roxton’s face was a study in alarm.
"Not for long," Tribune assured him. "Warriors! Form up!"
"Good thinking, Mara. Eula, with me. The rest of you guard our wounded," Marina commanded her dancers as all the able-bodied lizards, with the exception of Younus, hurried to surround their leader.
Tribune’s forces swiftly left the palace. Scaldus and Newton led the way, having recently come from the humans and the auto-washing tub. Roxton was right on their heels, concern for his friends driving him onwards, and Marguerite was right behind him, not intending to get separated again. A growing noise in the distance told them that at least the auto-washing tub was still running.
They rounded a corner and abruptly found themselves in the midst of another group of lizards. The fact that the other lizards were completely surprised was the only thing that prevented the front portion of Tribune’s warriors from being wiped out immediately, allowing the rest of Tribune’s forces to catch up. Then the fighting started – fighting that was at least as chaotic and brutal as the worst of the throne room battle.
Marguerite lashed out repeatedly with her whip, the stinging leather keeping the area around her and Roxton relatively clear of foes. She occasionally snared an enemy closer so she or Roxton could finish him off, but she mostly concentrated on trying to use the whip to keep them both out of the worst of the action. All around her, lizards were fighting and dying and she couldn’t tell who they’d found; just another group of lizards, or Cantus’s elite forces?
Perhaps it was fatigue catching up with her, or maybe her injuries just led her to make a miscast; or it might simply have been that her luck ran out at last. Whatever the cause, Marguerite suddenly felt a vicious tug on the lash of her whip as someone seized the end and pulled on it. Like the lizardmen she’d snared before, but in reverse, Marguerite felt herself helplessly yanked forward into the midst of the fight before she could release her grip. A powerful, clawed hand seized her by the throat, hauling her off her feet. She felt the prick of claws digging into her flesh as the hand squeezed tightly, compressing the blood vessels in her neck as her body dangled helplessly. Fire swam in her eyes, and she found herself struggling for breath and consciousness even as she tried to pry the choking grip from her neck. Her eyesight rapidly dimming, all sound of battle drowned out by the sudden thundering of her pulse in her ears, Marguerite hazily made out a pair of mad lizard eyes staring into her own with malicious satisfaction as the world threatened to disappear into the encroaching blackness.