Round 18 – DNash
"Marguerite!" screamed Roxton.
Tribune spotted Marguerite at the moment of Roxton’s cry. The heiress was easy to see, suspended as she was a good two feet above the ground and dangling from the clawed hand of the mad emperor, Cantus.
Heedless of the attackers, both Roxton and Tribune waded through the chaos toward their common goal. The hunter used his rifle as a club any time someone was foolish enough to cross his path. The deposed lizard king clawed through those he could and bit through those who didn’t have the sense to fall when they should have.
Marguerite heard and saw nothing of their approach.
Before either could reach her, her captor caught first Roxton’s gaze, then Tribune's and he smiled. Without hesitation, he casually tossed aside the dead weight he held, sending Marguerite’s too-still form slamming into the side of a large wagon. She hit it with a gut-wrenching thud and collapsed to the ground.
Yellow eyes glowed with madness that was nearly mirrored in Roxton’s brown ones. But Cantus wasn’t interested in the hunter. His wild glare was locked on Tribune, and Tribune returned it gleefully.
"Cantus! You’re mine!" Hissing his fury, he bared his teeth and lunged at the usurper, tackling him to the ground. But both lizards rolled and were up again in an instant. They circled one another, the crowd of fighters giving way around them. The mob calmed to a barely contained tension, all the combatants knowing their actions were unimportant now that their leaders fought hand to hand.
Roxton was oblivious to the fight, oblivious to the audience surrounding it. Every cell of his being was focused on the motionless form of Marguerite. Her neck was swollen, the flushed skin marked with stark white stripes perfectly shaped to each of Cantus’ fingers. The lizardman’s claws had dug into her flesh just enough to draw blood, which had trickled in tiny red rivulets and dripped into the dusty ground. Slowly, color was returning to the bloodless patches of skin; if she still lived and if she survived, the resulting bruises would undoubtedly be spectacular.
John knelt beside her and reached out a tentative hand. He had to know but was afraid he might find his worst fear realized. Gently, carefully, he took her hand and placed strong fingers against the pulsepoint in Marguerite’s wrist.
She was still alive. "Thank God," he whispered. He was about to move her, shift her from her side to her back to make her more comfortable. A sharp feminine voice stopped him.
"Don’t." It was Eula. The dancer knelt next to him. "She’s alive?"
The fair-haired woman let out a sigh of relief. "Good. Let me see."
But John wasn’t about to move. "Why? What—?" he began.
"I’m not asking you to go, just let me see to her for a moment. That’s all it’ll take."
"Take to do what?" the hunter demanded.
"Dammit! Stop arguing! I need to see how badly she’s injured. Now move!"
Taken aback by the vehemence of the command, Roxton shifted to the side just enough to allow Eula access to Marguerite.
The dancer placed gentle hands on Marguerite’s face and neck. "Windpipe is intact," she muttered. "Good." She continued her examination, running her hands gently down the heiress’s limbs and torso, seeking broken bones and more. She hissed in surprised displeasure. "Dammit!" she repeated more softly this time. "We need Sennia."
"Why? What is it?"
"There’s a broken rib here," she explained, one feather-light hand on Marguerite’s side to show him where she meant. "It’s pressing against her lung."
"You can tell that just with a touch?" asked the hunter doubtfully.
Eula gave him a look he couldn’t quite interpret. "Call it a knack. But I can’t do anything about it. We need Sennia," she said again emphatically. "She should still be in the throne room."
"Then you’d better get her. Fast."
There was a brief, silent battle of wills before Eula understood. He wasn’t leaving Marguerite, no matter what. She nodded and rose, surveying the scene. Her eye caught the person she needed. Fortunately she was on the near side of the crowd. A dozen quick steps and she grasped her arm. "Marina, I need you."
The leader of the dancers looked at her questioningly. "What is it?" she asked.
"Mara and her man." Eula pointed to them. "I’m getting Sennia."
Marina nodded knowingly and hurried over to Marguerite and Roxton. She knelt. The hunter barely glanced up to note her arrival.
"She’ll be all right," he muttered distractedly. "She has to be."
Marina put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Sennia will be here soon," she reassured him.
Roxton was about to protest that they’d be better off with Younus, the lizard healer, when a gasp from the crowd brought him back from his own world enough to look around. He and Marina glanced up to see the circle of onlookers had backed farther away from the combatants. Those in the nearest ring of spectators were spattered with blood.
John stood, his rifle in both hands. He didn’t know what was happening, but he had no intention of allowing anyone to get close to Marguerite. Then, between his height and the thinning of the crowd as it backed up, he saw.
Tribune and Cantus were circling one another, each searching for the weakness in his foe. Clearly Tribune had found at least one; there were deep slashes across Cantus’s cheek. The usurper’s mad eyes glared angrily from his blood-smeared face. He was hissing.
Tribune smiled. Roxton recognized the look, and a ghost of that smile was echoed on the hunter’s face.
Cantus made his move. He was angry; he was insane. Screeching like a raptor, he leapt at his opponent. The scream was all the warning Tribune needed. A quick side-step, a low duck, a flash of white teeth, and a red swath of blood showered the ground.
Tribune stood, hands and face covered with gore, grinning. He bared his teeth at the crowd; everyone shrank back. The newly reinstated emperor watched them in glee.
He shot one look to Scaldus, which the lizard guard returned with a sharp nod. With a single barked command, his troops took control and the arrests began.
"I am not having a good week," snarled Malone.
Veronica glanced at the reporter. He was certainly looking worse for wear, from the broken elbow to the subtle reminders of his escape in the refuse cart. His face was tight with exhaustion, and dark circles stood out under his blue eyes. "When we get home, I’ll fix you a nice hot bath and nice hot meal," promised Veronica. "How does that sound?"
"Assuming we get out of here alive, that sounds wonderful. Add a cup of nice hot coffee, and I’ll be forever in your debt."
She favored him with a coy smile. "I’ll remember you said that."
The two of them were still crouched behind the racketing auto-washing tub. The assault by the lizards had slowed a bit, only the occasional crossbow bolt reminding them they weren’t safe yet. Presumably their attackers were either waiting for reinforcements or a new supply of ammunition. Whatever the reason, they were happy for the respite.
"How are you two doing?" called Challenger from his hiding place behind a stone pillar.
"How do you think we’re doing?" Ned muttered, garnering himself a surprised glance from Veronica.
"We’re all right so far," the huntress shouted, not taking her eyes of Malone. He must be miserable, she thought. That comment was almost rude enough to have come from Marguerite. "Any new ideas about how we’re going to get out of this mess?"
"Sadly, I’m still at a loss," the inventor replied regretfully.
"Wait!" said Demitri suddenly. He was peering cautiously around his own stone column. "They appear to be moving away."
He was right. The last of their attackers was backing off. At first, none of the humans could understand why. Then it became clear.
A troop of lizards and humans was approaching, and Scaldus was in the lead. A grin spread across Demitri’s face at the sight of his friend. "We’ve won," he said softly, almost unable to believe it. "We’ve won!" he shouted.
"Careful!" cried Challenger. "We don’t know for certain—" But his cry was too late.
With a whoop of joy, Demitri emerged from his hiding place and ran toward the new arrivals. Challenger saw what was coming, but was unable to stop it. He tried to call out another warning, but Demitri’s excitement and the noise of the auto-washing tub combined to make his cries go unheard.
There was a scuffle in the crowd. Scaldus saw one of Cantus’s lizards raise his crossbow, and saw where he was aiming. Lightning-quick, Scaldus was still too slow to stop him. The enemy lizard fired and missed.
Unlike Demitri, Veronica had heard Challenger’s shout and seen what Scaldus had seen. She leapt from behind the tub and launched herself at the man, knocking him to the ground. The crossbow bolt whizzed over them and embedded itself in the tub’s gears. The machine let out a noise like a strangled choke before grinding to a painful halt.
"My auto-washing tub!" cried the ginger-haired scientist in dismay. Forgetting his own warnings of seconds ago, he ran to the tub to assess the damage.
Malone cautiously rose as the older man descended on the invention. A quick look around found Veronica just rising and helping Demitri to his feet. All three looked toward the crowd that was now rapidly approaching them. "I hope that’s the good guys," said Malone with trepidation.
"It is, of course," cried Demitri happily. He seemed totally indifferent to the danger he’d so narrowly avoided—until he turned to Veronica and took her hand. "My thanks," he said with great sincerity.
"My pleasure," replied the young woman.
Scaldus reached them then, leaving the corralling of enemy forces to his troops. "Demitri!" he exclaimed.
"Scaldus, my friend!" answered the human. They clasped one another in a fierce hug. "I see you survived well," he added as he stepped back.
"As did you. I’m pleased to see all of you well and whole," the smiling lizardman said to the group. Then his smile abruptly failed. "But not everyone has gone unscathed."
Something in the lizard’s tone chilled Veronica’s blood. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Marguerite was injured by Cantus."
Even Challenger looked up at this news, his attention wrenched from his damaged machine. He and Malone both joined the small group without hesitation.
"What?! Where is she?" demanded the reporter.
"Come with me. I’ll take you to her."
It was difficult to see through the screen of armed dancers, but from where they stood the situation was clear enough to make each explorer’s heart skip a beat.
Roxton sat cross-legged on the dusty ground, Marguerite’s head cradled in his lap. Her pale face was drawn and looked small and vulnerable next to the hunter’s strong hands. He was running surprisingly gentle fingers through the wisps of dark curls that had escaped the heiress’s braid. Beside Marguerite’s still form knelt Sennia and Eula. It wasn’t clear what the women were doing, but it didn’t seem to be much as neither appeared to be moving at all.
Marina stood to one side, her attention focused on the kneeling dancers and the woman they tended. Her features were rigid and tight, her lips pressed into a thin, worried line. Even Tribune was close by, waiting, his soft spot for Marguerite not allowing him to depart until he knew her fate.
"What’s going on?" Ned asked under his breath. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt hushed tones were called for; the air held the same feeling as that of a library or a cathedral.
No one had an answer for him, so he fell silent. The street around them fell silent as well as the last stragglers moved away to their own tasks and errands. Cantus's body had already been removed to be thrown upon a refuse cart, although other signs of the fight remained. The arrests were complete, and the enemy troops had been led to the dungeons to await their sentence from the newly reinstated emperor. There was no one left but the small group of explorers and their allies, and they could do nothing but wait and wonder.
All at once, Marguerite gasped and her eyes fluttered open. At the same time, Sennia nearly collapsed over her; only Eula’s quick reflexes kept her upright. The tall dancer gave her friend a tired but appreciative smile, which the petite blonde returned.
"John?" breathed Marguerite, her voice rough and scratchy.
"Shh," Roxton hushed her gently. "Don’t try to talk just yet."
Such advice had never stopped the heiress before, nor would it now. "What ?"
The hunter guessed her question. "You were hurt, but you’re going to be all right." He glanced up at Sennia and Eula for confirmation, entreaty in his eyes. Eula nodded at him reassuringly; Sennia was too tired to do even that much. "Everyone’s here, and we’re all safe and sound." He smiled at his friends then back down at Marguerite. "Just lie quiet for a while."
Still, Marguerite wouldn’t be silenced. "Did we win?"
Roxton chuckled. "Yes, Marguerite. We won."