Round 7 – Zakiyah
Even as she spoke, the door was flung open, the hinges squealing in protest. The sudden increase in brightness made both explorers squint, fighting to see.
"You! On your feet!" a voice barked from the doorway.
Marguerite rose to her feet in one swift move, knowing Malone was in no condition to stand. "Why? Who are you? What are we doing here?" she shrilled, allowing her temper full rein. The figures in the doorway stepped closer, and her eyes finally adjusted. Lizardmen. Of course. At least these ones are alive.
"You are the prisoners of His Glorious Excellency, Cantus the Magnificent, commander of the living and the dead," the first lizardman intoned perfunctorily. "As such, you will not speak until given leave to do so."
"And what does ‘his glorious excellency’ want with us?" Marguerite fired back, ignoring his admonishment.
The second lizardman snorted, either amused or irritated – it was difficult to read his alien features. "From the scientist, Cantus requires the secret of the exploding powder you divulged to his predecessor, Tribune. From you well, you’re a female. You’ll do well enough, once you’re properly dressed and no longer reek of the dead."
"Oh no, not again. I can’t " Malone mumbled. He’d been mistaken for Challenger last time he’d encountered the lizardmen, and he couldn’t make gunpowder any better now than he could then.
"He can’t do anything with that arm in the state it’s in," Marguerite snapped hurriedly before Malone could confess his ignorance – or his identity. Malone, shut up or pass out! she raged inwardly, giving him a meaningful glare. She hoped he wasn’t too out of it to miss it. Leave the lying to me!
"What nonsense is this? Injured? You lie!" the first lizardman snarled, a hint of panic in his voice. Marguerite’s eyes narrowed at the implication of that fear.
"Your monsters broke his arm when they brought us here," Marguerite lied blithely as she watched his reactions closely. "He’s not going to be able to work any experiments for a month or more without help. He can’t even stand because of the pain."
"Ow," Malone groaned helpfully. He wasn’t sure what Marguerite was up to, but he didn’t have any better ideas. His groan turned into a cry of pain as the other lizardman reached down and shook his shoulder, jarring his arm.
Marguerite lunged forward, her nebulous plans forgotten for the moment in the face of Malone’s agony. "You idiot! Leave him alone!"
"Be silent!" the first lizardman roared and backhanded her, sending her flying into the wall. She crumpled to the ground and lay motionless.
"Marguerite!" Malone croaked, dizzy with suffering. The dark-haired woman didn’t move.
"She wasn’t lying, Lassus. The male is definitely injured – and now, thanks to your actions, so is the female." The second lizardman glared at his companion in disgust.
"Stupid humans – so fragile," Lassus grumbled defensively.
"Which is why we were supposed to be careful. What do you think Cantus will say if he finds out neither human is fit enough to be useful? Bad enough the zombies knocked them out during their capture – that at least wasn’t our fault. But I doubt this one could answer even the simplest question in the state he’s in, much less create the powder – and now thanks to you the female can’t answer any questions either. Shall I inform the commander of why this is? I’m sure Cantus is waiting on his report."
Malone ignored the conversation going on around him, more concerned about Marguerite’s continued stillness. He tried to move towards her, only to sink back against the wall as darkness threatened to overcome his senses. He concentrated on breathing, hoping the pain would subside enough to allow him to move.
Lassus turned pale. "No, Scaldus!"
On the ground, Marguerite continued to hold still, trying to ignore various aches. She’d seen the blow coming soon enough to relax into it, preventing it from knocking her out, but she’d been unable to avoid the collision with the wall. The combination of blows had left her momentarily stunned. Now it looked like she might be able to turn her "unconsciousness" into an advantage. Certainly the conversation was enlightening. She breathed shallowly and listened for all she was worth, wishing she dared open her eyes.
Scaldus snorted. "No, of course not. And if I didn’t think he’d kill both of us for this, I wouldn’t hesitate. Fortunately for you, I have no desire to become one of Cantus’s undead warriors."
"What do we do?" Lassus whined.
Scaldus looked down at Malone again, eyeing Marguerite’s improvised sling. "We get the healer in here to tend that arm, and then send some of the slaves to get him cleaned up. You take the woman to the women’s quarters and see that she’s tended to and made presentable. I’ll think of something to tell the commander."
"Yes, Scaldus. Thank you," Lassus said humbly, moving to pick up Marguerite’s body from the ground. He lifted her over his shoulder with little effort despite the dead weight of her slack form. "I won’t forget your mercy and cleverness."
"No!" Malone protested weakly as Lassus turned to leave the cell with Marguerite. Despite being flung over Lassus’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes, the heiress still showed no signs of consciousness. Her hair and arms dangled limply down past the lizardman’s waist like some obscene human cape. Malone couldn’t just sit by and let his friend be dragged away to to to who knew what!
Not that Malone had much of a say in the matter. The other lizardman put a heavy hand on his good shoulder, effectively pinning him down as the lizardman carrying Marguerite disappeared from view. "That’s enough out of you," the lizard hissed ferociously. "Just because we need you in one piece doesn’t mean you should push your luck."
Malone glared at him as best as he could, then goggled in surprise as the lizardman distinctly winked at him. "Huh?" he mumbled, completely confused.
The hand on his shoulder tightened briefly. "You heard what I said," the lizardman growled, even as he brought his other hand up to hold one finger over his lips – an obvious gesture for silence. In total opposition to his harsh voice and threatening words, the lizardman winked again and gave him a quick smile.
"Uh, okay," Malone mumbled, befuddled.
"That’s better," the lizardman nodded. "Just do what I tell you and everything will be fine."
"So you’re telling us that this Cantus fellow can raise the dead?" Roxton asked Tribune again even as he continued to pack weapons and supplies. He didn’t want to waste a moment; once they had enough information, they needed to hit the trail. The memory of turning from threatening Tribune only to see the zombies disappear into the jungle, leaving no sign of his friends, burned in his mind’s eye. They must have knocked Marguerite out or we’d have heard her long after we couldn’t see them, he mused, bitter humor warring with the cold knowledge of his failure to protect her. She’d been the one doing the protecting, staying with Malone despite the fact she could have easily made it back behind the electric fence without him. She’s a fighter. Even after they grabbed her, she’d have been fighting them all the way. The fact that she hadn’t been screaming and cursing only increased his worry. Every minute was precious.
"In a matter of speaking, yes," Tribune’s voice brought Roxton’s attention back to the sardonic lizardman.
"Sounds like black magic," Challenger scoffed, "but of course there’s no such thing. There has to be a scientific explanation."
If Tribune had possessed eyebrows, he would have raised them. "Leaving aside the question of, ah, magic, it’s precisely a ‘science’ answer I’m looking for, because it seemed to me like a ‘science’ problem."
Everyone stopped to stare at the lizardman. "What?" Roxton asked finally.
"It’s why I came to you. From what I was able to observe of Cantus’s methods, what he’s doing looks far more like what I’ve seen of your ‘science’ than any magic I’ve ever seen."
"Can science raise the dead?" Veronica asked Challenger, a bewildered look on her normally confident face.
"Of course not," Challenger replied, but with less confidence than usual.
"Only temporarily," Tribune answered at the same time.
Challenger gave him a curious look. "What do you mean by that?"
Tribune shrugged eloquently. "What I said of course. Whatever Cantus is doing, it only works for so long. The bodies deteriorate, and eventually they stop working. It happens faster if they aren’t fed regularly."
"That does it. Dead men definitely don’t need food," Challenger muttered to himself.
The lizardman ignored the scientist, caught up in the enjoyment of showing off, even if it was for a lesser species. "I imagine that’s why there were so few of them when they attacked the Treehouse. Their living commanders must have forgotten to feed them." He tsked. "So careless. But Cantus really has no idea how to pick a good commander. He killed most of those first thing."
"Oh, there were more of them," Veronica interjected, glad of a chance to contradict the arrogant lizard. "We ran into another bunch at the pond."
"Why Veronica, you astound me," Tribune said mockingly, covering his own surprise. "However did you contrive to escape? No one else has found a way to even slow them down. They’re quite determined. They stop for nothing once they’ve been set to a task. You must be more resourceful than I’d thought." He smiled at them. "I knew I was right to come here."
The three explorers suddenly looked at each other, and then over to the auto-washing tub lying abandoned next to the elevator.
Marguerite cautiously opened her eyes a fraction after she felt herself hoisted over Lassus’s shoulder. From her position she couldn’t see much, but she caught a glimpse of Malone as Lassus turned. He was still sitting up, protesting and obviously distressed as Scaldus kept him down with one hand. Sorry, Ned, she apologized inwardly, but we stand a better chance if one of us gets out of this cell, and it looks like this is our best bet. I just hope you can keep out of trouble long enough for me to figure out a way to get us out of here.
She kept her eyes open slightly as she was carried through what appeared to be a small prison area and out into a courtyard. There seemed to be very few people about, and the majority of those she saw were humans, not lizards. Without exception, everyone looked frightened – or like they were trying not to show what they felt. The whole atmosphere set off warning bells in Marguerite’s mind, and she had to fight not to tense up in any way. Still, she refused to close her eyes again, not wanting to miss any possible advantage that might help her escape.
They passed into another building, and here Marguerite saw a few women dressed in fine gauzy clothes. She recognized the kind of concubine outfit she’d been given once before, the first time they’d encountered the lizard society. The women scurried out of Lassus’s way, keeping their heads down. Only one dared approach him, a beautiful woman with long straight blond hair and sharp eyes. Marguerite felt instinctively wary.
"How may I help you, my lord?" the woman asked quietly as Lassus carried his burden into a small bedchamber. Sensing other watchers and guessing that her ride was almost at an end, Marguerite lowered her eyelids the remaining fraction, resigned to relying entirely on her other senses until it was safer.
Lassus slid Marguerite off of his shoulder and laid her carelessly on the bed, then turned to the other woman. "This woman is to be kept isolated from the others," Lassus huffed pompously. "Make sure she has clean water and suitable clothes when she wakes – and that she uses both. Send a runner to my commander when she is presentable."
"Yes, my lord."
"Do not speak to her, or allow anyone else to do so."
"Yes, my lord."
"Good," Lassus grunted. With one last glare at the woman on the bed, he turned and left the room. Marguerite could hear his heavy footsteps fading in the distance.
The room was silent for a moment after he left, and then Marguerite heard several other light footfalls, accompanied by a waft of floral scents. "Who is she?" an unknown female voice asked.
"Is she hurt?" a gentle feminine voice asked.
"She’s beautiful," another female voice said, not sounding pleased about it.
"What strange clothes!" still another light female voice marveled.
"It’s none of our concern," the blonde woman’s voice said sharply. "Doreta, you’re about the same size; bring her one of your outfits to wear. The dark-rose colored one; it should suit her coloring. Geia, bring rose-scented water in a basin; we'll match color and scent. Caola, fetch an extra comb; she’ll need to do something about her hair when she wakes. Sennia, look her over quickly and see if she’s likely to need more than rest to recover. Now move!"
Marguerite forced herself to remain limp as unseen hands felt her brow and head, touched her throat, and started to unbutton her blouse. "Never mind that," the blonde’s voice snapped.
"She has a bump on her head, and a few bruises and scrapes. I should put ointment on her cheek, or it’ll bruise up badly for sure. She might have other injuries," the gentle voice said, and Marguerite tagged the voice as Sennia. "Should I not look?"
"No, there isn’t time."
"Yes, Marina." Marguerite added Marina’s name to the image she carried of the blonde woman.
Marguerite kept still as she heard the other women return and scurry around the room, but no further information came her way. At last she heard all of them leave, followed by the sound of a door closing and a lock being turned. "Now stay away from this door," she heard Marina’s voice, muffled by the door. "We’ll check on her again after we return. Now hurry and " Marina’s voice was lost as the woman moved away.
After waiting several more minutes, Marguerite cautiously cracked an eyelid. Surreptitiously she scanned the small room. It was opulently outfitted and quite secure, with one tiny barred window and a heavy wooden door. She sighed and allowed herself to relax a trifle. Good thing Marina didn’t allow Sennia to check me over, she thought grimly. It would have been hard to explain why I had Lassus’s knife up my sleeve. The lizardman had never noticed her theft of his belt knife as they left the prison. Well, I suppose I won’t learn any more just lying here and I don’t feel like having an audience when I get dressed. Particularly not when I’m hiding the knife!
Rising from the bed, Marguerite first examined the door–solid, locked, and judging from the break in the light, barred on the outside to boot. She didn’t have anything with her that would pick the clunky metal lock, either. Giving it up as a bad job, she took advantage of the rose-water and the comb, finding a small brass mirror on one wall. Turning to the clothes, she raised an eyebrow at their scanty nature. Covers more than Veronica’s outfit but not by much, she thought ruefully, but there was no help for it. Stripping quickly, she put on the cropped, sleeveless halter vest that ended just below her breasts and the flowing skirt whose "waistband" rested so low on her hips that even Marguerite felt scandalized. Still, it was obviously designed to fit that way and was in no danger of slipping, fitting snugly around her hips and securing with three hooks. At least the skirt reaches down below my knees! Finding a place to hide the knife was no easy task, but Marguerite used two of the many hair ribbons left with the comb to strap it to the inside of her thigh. Slipping on the delicate sandals that matched the outfit, she realized there was nothing left for her to do but wait.