Round 9 – Zakiyah
Roxton favored Tribune with a wintry smile, his eyes glinting dangerously. "I learn more quickly than you think, Tribune. If you want Cantus so badly – and I have no doubt that you do – you’ll come along with us, agreement or no. And since you’re only likely to stick to your part of any agreement as long as you think it suits your purpose, I’m not even going to bother." The smile disappeared from his face, leaving angry determination. "Shall we go?" he growled.
Tribune’s eyes widened slightly even as he continued to smile. "My, my, John, I might just have to revise my opinion of you," he murmured, then sighed theatrically. "Oh, very well. I shall accompany you, if only for the chance to see the ever-charming Marguerite."
Roxton knew Tribune was deliberately baiting him, but he couldn’t help the flash of rage that surged through him as Tribune leeringly mentioned Marguerite’s name. Clenching his teeth until he thought they might crack, he managed to wrestle his temper down. "Good," he snarled. "You can carry the tub."
"What?" Challenger asked, startled.
"It’ll be the fastest way," Veronica said, nodding at Roxton. "After all, Tribune is the strongest of us – as you’ve said time and again," she added, directing the last at Tribune himself before turning back to the others. "Now let’s move." Hang on, Ned, we’re coming!
Even Tribune won’t be able to run while carrying my auto-washing tub, Challenger realized, thinking furiously. I wish I had more time, more data, to better understand what we’re facing – but I’ll simply have to improvise as we proceed. "Agreed. The sooner we get going, the better." He favored Tribune with a glare. "Mind you don’t damage the machinery."
The three humans took some satisfaction in the look of disgust on Tribune’s face as he bent to lift the tub. "The things I do in the name of friendship and goodwill," he muttered loudly.
Three figures quickly entered the infirmary, swiftly closing the door behind them. "Oh good, he’s awake," one of them said, and Malone recognized the healer who had tended him in the cell.
"Excellent – that will make things much simpler," the second person said. To Malone’s surprise, he was a human. "Can you stand?" The question was directed to Malone.
"Wait – let me check that arm first," the healer objected.
"Do it quickly, Younus," the third person said. Malone wasn’t sure, but he thought it was the guard who had winked at him in the cell. The two lizardmen approached Malone’s cot, while the human remained near the door, obviously listening for any sounds from the corridor outside. The guard turned his attention to Malone as the healer ran a light hand over the wrappings on Malone’s arm. "Do you remember me?"
"Yes," Malone said briefly, doing his best to mask his confusion and continued lightheadedness.
"Good. I wasn’t sure how addled your wits were in the cell. Do you think you can walk?"
"Why?" Malone asked, not wanting to give a direct answer. What is going on here? he wondered, then shook his head as he realized he wasn’t likely to find out unless he started asking questions. "What’s going on here?"
"We’re getting you out of here. I need you to get some information to Tribune; he should have reached your friends by now."
"What?" Malone asked, bewildered.
"By the way, what’s your name?" the lizardman asked.
"Huh? You know it. Challenger. Professor George Edward Challenger," Malone lied. Confused or not, this was one thing he knew to lie about, thanks to Marguerite’s quick thinking in the cell. He’d been too dazed then to remember, but now he recalled all too well what was likely to happen if he was exposed as an "ordinary" human instead of a valuable asset.
The lizardman laughed briefly. "Not likely. Cantus, Lassus and their ilk might not be able to tell one human from another, but I’m not that stupid. I couldn’t do anything about the first attack, but I made sure to delay the second until after Challenger was safely out of the way. You’re one of his companions."
"I am not!" Malone denied, somewhat incoherently. "You’re mistaken," he clarified.
"Scaldus, you’re going about this entirely the wrong way," the human by the door said, obviously listening to their conversation as well as for any sounds outside the door. "You’re confusing him. You stand guard and I’ll explain."
"Gladly," Scaldus muttered. To Malone’s increased astonishment, he showed no signs of resentment about taking direction from the human, merely exchanging places with him.
The human crouched down by Malone’s cot as the healer continued his work. "I’m Demitri," he introduced himself. "Younus, Scaldus, and I are all part of the resistance to Cantus."
"Humans and lizardmen working together?" Even with the remainder of the drugs in his system, Malone was skeptical.
"Always thought Tribune was a little crazy for trying it," the healer grumbled. "Not to mention it opened the door for Cantus."
"What???" Malone didn’t bother to hide his confusion this time. Tribune??? Figures that lizard would be involved with this somehow! Malone did not have fond memories of his encounters with the arrogant lizardman.
Demitri scowled at Younus before returning his attention to Malone. "Look, we don’t have time to go into a detailed history here. The short version is that the Empire has fallen to pieces. Tribune still leads part of it, but he needed the support of the humans as well as the lizards under his rule in order to do it. We relocated here after the capital was destroyed, and he started a new way of doing things, even including some humans amongst his advisors."
Malone blinked in surprise. "Tribune listening to humans?"
"Well, at least giving one or two of us a chance to speak, and things were much better for us overall. Unfortunately, a lot of the lizards decided they didn’t like the new order, and they supported Cantus when he made his takeover bid. Tribune escaped, but Cantus became the new leader. His madness only became really apparent after that." Demitri’s expression grew grim. "He turned all those lizardmen who had opposed him into the first batch of his zombie warriors, and he’s continued to decimate the lizard population."
"He’s even killed females," Younus hissed. At Malone’s inquiring look, Younus explained further. "Unlike you humans, we have about twenty males born for every female birth. Only a madman would kill a female, unless it was a matter of treason."
Malone grimaced as he remembered Centuria’s gruesome demise. I suppose what she did fits the definition of treason but still!
Demitri rolled his eyes at the digression and continued. "Meanwhile, he’s been forcing most of the humans to mine metal for weapons and forge them in huge numbers. He intends to attack the other parts of what used to be the Empire. So now most of us are working together, human and lizard, to stop him before he destroys us all."
"Which is where you come in," Scaldus added from his position near the door. "Within the last few weeks Cantus has finally had to turn to human laborers for some of his zombie-making activities. We’ve been able to find out a little bit about what he’s doing. Tribune already knows some of it, but not all that we know now."
"It could be important in helping your scientist figure out how to stop him," Younus added, finally finishing his examination of Malone’s arm. He turned to Demitri and started wrapping bandages around the human’s arm.
"You brought me here just to send me back?" Malone asked incredulously.
"No – well, not entirely. Cantus really did want to capture your scientist to make gunpowder for his zombies. You were just convenient," Demitri admitted.
Up until now, Malone had mostly believed his story, but something in Demitri’s manner set his journalistic instincts tingling. He’s not telling me everything. I wonder what he’s holding back? Whatever it is, I don’t think I’m going to like it. Malone’s mind raced, trying to think of a leading question, then was distracted as Demitri continued his story.
"We’ve already got several volunteers down in the cells, and I’ll be taking your place here. We’ll be shuffled around by lizardmen on our side, and Younus will tell Cantus that you’re too badly injured to be questioned for the time being." Demitri grinned at the astonished reporter. "It should be at least a day before you’re missed, and by that time we’ll have rigged a convincing ‘escape’."
Younus stopped wrapping Demitri’s arm long enough to reach into a pouch hanging from his side. He withdrew a small packet of papers and handed them to Malone. "Give these to Tribune. He’ll be able to translate them for your scientist."
Translate Up until now, Malone had been carried along by the tide of words and the lingering effects of the anesthetic. That one word jolted him back to reality, helping clear the last bit of fogginess from his brain. "Wait, wait – what about Marguerite?"
Scaldus, Younus and Demitri exchanged glances that set off all of the alarm bells in Malone’s head. "Your female companion?" Younus asked.
"Yes. I can’t leave here without her."
"I’m afraid you’ll have to," Demitri contradicted. "We can’t break her out, too. Unlike you, she’s quite noticeable."
"Too risky," Younus added.
"Don’t worry – we’ll make sure she stays safe," Scaldus chimed in, obviously meaning to be reassuring.
Malone’s eyes narrowed slightly as he put the pieces together. Hostage. They’re keeping her here to make sure I do what they ask – and to make sure the others come here after us, probably – and maybe even other reasons. Whatever, they’re not going to let her go. "How do I know she’s safe now?" he demanded.
An awkward silence descended over the room. "You’ll just have to trust us," Demitri said at last.
"Trust you? Seems to me you’re asking me to trust you about an awful lot of things," Malone said scornfully, thinking fast. "How do I know anything you’ve said is true? This could all be one big trap."
"Isn’t the fact that we’re freeing you enough?" Scaldus growled irritably.
"No. That could just be part of the setup."
Younus chuckled suddenly. "You’re not as stupid as you look, human."
"Look, what we’ve told you is true. We can’t prove anything else to you, but we need you to go to Tribune and let him know what we’ve found out," Demitri said exasperatedly.
Malone took a deep breath. "Fine – but as long as I’m going to Tribune and Challenger to tell them about the zombies, I might as well bring my own observations."
"What?" The three conspirators looked at each other and then at Malone, blank incomprehension on human and lizard faces.
"You said that humans were being used as laborers with the zombies, right?"
Demitri’s eyes widened. "You don’t mean "
"I do. Sneak me in there for an hour, and if what you’ve said is true, I’ll take back my own observations to Challenger as well as whatever you’ve written to Tribune, and trust you to keep Marguerite safe while I’m doing it." He sat back slightly, wishing he could fold his arms over his chest. He settled for looking resolute. "That’s the deal. Take it or leave it."
Scaldus laughed mockingly. "You’re in no position to bargain, human. We can send anyone and leave you here to Cantus’s mercies. You’ll wind up wishing he could turn humans into zombies, I’m sure."
"You can send anyone – but ‘anyone’ isn’t going to be able to convince Challenger that you’re on the up-and-up," Malone pointed out. He was gambling everything on this, hoping his instincts were right and they really did need him, whatever their true reasons. If they’re telling the truth if they’re telling the truth, I have to get to Challenger, Marguerite or no. I’ll just have to hope she can hold out until I can return with the others. He bit back a wry smile even as guilt at the thought of leaving her behind – even temporarily – gnawed at him. Of course, this is Marguerite we’re talking about !
After a long, tense moment, Demitri sighed and nodded his head. "It’s risky, but all right. Just remember that if you’re caught, it’s not just your head that’s likely to roll."
"I’ll try to remember that." Malone stood, hoping he hadn’t just bitten off more than he could chew.
Marguerite sighed inwardly as the door to her luxurious prison opened at last. About time! I hate waiting! A number of women silently filed inside, closing the door after them. Marina was one of them, but it was a tall woman in blue who stepped towards her. "Are you feeling better?" she asked, tucking a strand of her long, cinnamon-brown hair behind her ear as she scrutinized her face.
Marguerite recognized the voice from before. This must be Sennia. "I think so," Marguerite replied guardedly, deciding it was best to play harmless and stupid for the moment. "Where is this place? Why am I here?"
A curvaceous curly-haired blonde in green looked from Marguerite to Marina, an expression of dubious disgust on her elfin face. "Are you sure this is the right one, Marina?" she demanded bluntly.
Marina nodded. "I’m sure, Eula. Scaldus had his orders, and she definitely matches the description. This is Marguerite."
Marguerite was startled enough to let some of her surprise show, but quickly covered for it, all of her wits on alert. "I have no idea what you’re talking about," she said coolly.
Eula’s face relaxed into a gamine grin. "That’s better," she muttered almost inaudibly.
"Of course not," Marina agreed, ignoring Eula, "but you soon will. I have a message for you from Tribune. Welcome to the conspiracy."