Disclaimer: Almost everyone in here belongs to New Line, TOTHG, et al. You'll recognize the ones who don't.
Instantly Finn dropped behind a large boulder for cover. She'd known for some time that she was being followed. The creepy-crawly feeling that trailed up her spine all the way to the back of her head was more than enough to tell her that. The snap of a fallen twig under a heavy foot only confirmed her belief.
She strained her ears for any further sound of her pursuer, but there was nothing. Even the birds were silent—more proof that something or someone was still out there. Silently, she drew her crossbow and fitted a bolt to it. Then she turned carefully and slowly rose to peek around the huge rock.
Too fast for her eyes to follow, a large, scaled shape leapt at her over the boulder, tackling her to the ground and knocking the crossbow from her hand. It landed in the bushes several feet away, firing wildly off into the underbrush. Finn cried out sharply as she landed. Then a swift backhand across her face set her head spinning. A clawed hand grasped her throat. She tugged at it ineffectually as sparkling blackness crept in around the edges of her sight.
Deeper into the thick jungle, Roxton heard the commotion. Damn it! he thought. This was supposed to be a routine hunting trip! His rifle in both hands, he turned and ran towards the noise.
It took only a moment for him to assess the situation. A figure that struck him as oddly familiar loomed over Finn. The girl struggled, but it was clear she was losing the battle. "Damn it!" he swore aloud this time. He couldn't get a clear shot at her assailant. Instead, Roxton fired into the air and shouted, "Back off!"
The figure froze and turned quickly to face him, but didn't release its hold on Finn's throat. The look of shock on the attacker's face mirrored Roxton's own.
"Tribune?!" the hunter exclaimed.
The lizardman smiled broadly. "My dear Roxton!" he exclaimed. "What a pleasant coincidence. I was just looking for you."
Roxton looked highly doubtful. "So you decided that attacking one of my friends would be a good way to go about that?" he demanded angrily.
Tribune looked genuinely surprised. "Is she one of yours?" He glanced back down at Finn, whose eyes were beginning to bug out. "Damn," he muttered wearily. He released her, and she desperately gasped in air and scrambled away from him. Tribune shot Roxton a suggestive look. "A bit young for you, isn't she?" he queried lightly.
Roxton glared at him. "What are you doing here?" he asked, deflecting Tribune's impertinent question. "Get deposed again?"
Tribune hissed and bared his teeth mirthlessly. "No."
On her knees several steps from the lizardman, Finn choked out, "Friend of yours, Roxton?"
Roxton kept his eyes on Tribune as he answered. "I'm not entirely sure. Where did we leave off last?" He knew the answer; he just wanted to make Tribune say the word.
The lizardman knew it and fought back a snarl as he spat out, "Friends."
"You've got a funny idea of friends," Finn coughed.
At that moment, a woman emerged from the thick foliage very near to Finn, startling the trio to varying degrees. She had curly blonde hair and was dressed in boots, loose black pants, and a fitted green tunic that laced on either side. In one hand she held a freshly killed fowl, and in the other, Finn's crossbow.
"There you are!" she exclaimed when she saw Tribune. Her tone was scolding as she went on, gesturing at him with the dead bird. "What do you think you're doing? I told you I'd find you a snack; you oughtn't to have gone looking for one on your own." She glanced over at Finn. "I assume this is yours?" She held out the crossbow.
Finn rose and grabbed it from her unceremoniously. "Yeah." She began to check over the weapon for any possible damage.
The woman with the bird returned her attention to Tribune and was obviously about to rail at him some more when he stopped her with a word. "Enough. Is that what you brought me?" he asked disdainfully. "It's rather small."
"It's more than you deserve."
Roxton couldn't hold it in any longer. He burst out laughing, garnering a variety of reactions from his companions. Tribune looked irked. Finn looked confused. The woman looked surprised and then ecstatic.
"Roxton!" she cried gleefully.
He caught his breath enough to reply, "Hello, Eula. Been keeping out of trouble?"
She pursed her lips. "Hardly."
Before she could launch into a lengthy and likely embarrassing tale, Tribune interrupted her once again, this time with a threatening, low growl. "Eula "
The woman promptly lost her flippant attitude. "Emperor Tribune," she said formally, deferring to his authority.
"I think we can leave the catching up for when we're all fed and comfortably ensconced at the Treehouse."
"Where's your cohort?" he went on in a contemptuous tone.
Eula bit back a sharp remark. At the same moment, Sennia stepped into view only a few yards from her. The cinnamon-haired woman was similarly clad to her fellow bodyguard, but in dark blue rather than green, and had a small, neatly trussed wild pig slung casually over her shoulder. "I'm here," she said evenly. Turning so she faced away from Tribune, she winked at Eula and went on. "I have a gift for our hosts." She presented the pig to Roxton with great ceremony, and he accepted it with equal parts formality and amusement. He couldn't be positive, but he suspected the boar had originally been intended for Tribune.
"Hang on," protested Finn, looking from Roxton, to the two women, to Tribune, and then back again. "What the hell makes you think we're taking you back to the Treehouse? Who the hell are you, anyway?" she demanded.
Tribune only smiled his cold, lipless smile. It was enough to make the girl back off a step. "You would be so tasty!" he said with relish. "Scrawny, but tasty. Mmm!"
"Tribune " Roxton's voice held the same threat the lizardman's had held moments before.
Tribune tilted his head and gave him a disparaging look. "Protective, aren't you? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You acted the same way every time I threatened to eat Malone."
"What do you want?" the hunter asked coolly.
"As it turns out, I'm here to do you a favor."
Veronica stood on the balcony and watched the approaching group with mixed feelings. "We've got company," she called over her shoulder to the other inhabitants of the Treehouse.
"What kind of company?" asked Ned, moving to join her at the balcony railing.
Marguerite didn't look up from the mending she was doing. "If it isn't Roxton and Finn with fresh meat, I'm not interested."
"Oh it's them with some fresh meat, all right," Veronica confirmed. She and Ned exchanged concerned glances. "That and more."
The group below passed inside the protective ring of the electric fence and headed up in the elevator. It was a tight, uncomfortable fit, but neither Roxton nor Finn was inclined to let their "guests" out of their sight. They found a cautious welcoming committee waiting for them when they emerged. Even Marguerite had set aside her mending and watched their arrival dubiously.
"What's he doing here?" asked Veronica coldly, almost before the lift had stopped moving.
Tribune put on a hurt expression. "My dear, you make me feel unwelcome."
"You are unwelcome."
"He says he's here to do us a favor," interjected Roxton. He headed toward the kitchen to unload the pig he carried, but Eula quickly caught him and passed him the fowl, too. He gave her a smile and she returned it slyly.
"And you believe him?" Veronica countered, stunned.
"I think it's worth hearing him out," he called from the kitchen. As he returned, Roxton looked to Ned. "Where's Challenger?"
"In his lab," the younger man replied. "I'll go get him." He headed quickly down the stairs to Challenger's laboratory.
Without invitation, Tribune made himself comfortable on the couch.
Veronica rounded on him. "I didn't say you could stay."
The lizardman clucked his tongue at her chidingly. "All this after we parted on such lovely terms last time."
"Last time," echoed the blonde warily. "Now should we talk about all the other times?"
Marguerite watched the entire exchange with well-hidden mirth. She never admitted it to her friends, but despite their earliest unfortunate encounters with the deceptive and manipulative lizardman, she quite enjoyed him. She found his casual amorality and absolute belief in his own superiority almost comforting and certainly amusing.
She rose. "Veronica, we might at least hear what he has to say." She turned an inquiring look on Tribune. "I presume from the presence of your bodyguards that you're not here on a social visit." She shot a subtly inquisitive glance at Eula and Sennia, who still stood near the lift. They both nodded minutely back, and Eula smiled secretively—a sure sign that she had more information to share with Marguerite in private.
Malone rejoined them then with Challenger right behind him. The explorers chose places around the Treehouse's main room to stand or sit and await Tribune's story. They all regarded the lizard emperor with varying degrees of suspicion and curiosity. Neither Finn nor Roxton had put away their weapons, although Roxton had set aside his rifle and instead sat quietly on the edge of the table with his holstered Webleys clearly visible.
Tribune felt ambivalent. He loved holding court like this, being the center of everyone's attention. It was no less than his due, after all. Unfortunately the news he had for them made him feel foolish. It wasn't a feeling he relished. He stretched his long arms across the back of the small couch and crossed his legs in a fairly successful attempt to look regal yet nonchalant.
"I had a visit from an old friend of yours the other day," he began. He was pleased to see the consternation on several of the explorers' faces as they tried to figure out who might be contacting him. "How easily you humans forget. I mean Professor Summerlee, of course."
Veronica was the first to react. Despite her general suspicion of Tribune, she was too excited to hold back. "You saw Summerlee? Where?" she demanded eagerly.
This was where Tribune grew less comfortable. "That's unimportant."
Marguerite's eyes narrowed, but before she could pursue her curiosity Challenger spoke up.
"If you've seen him, why didn't you bring him with you when you came to find us?" the scientist wanted to know.
Tribune visibly clenched his jaw. He had the feeling he wasn't going to get around this point easily. "He wasn't in a position to accompany me," he replied coldly.
It was Ned's turn to show his concern. "Is he all right? Where is he?"
"If you would all cease your irritating questions," snarled Tribune, "I might be able to tell you what you actually need to know." He glared at Ned particularly. "I've always regretted not eating you the first time we met. I really should rectify that one of these days."
The reporter stood up straighter under his chilly gaze. "I wouldn't taste good," he answered evenly. "I've gotten tougher since the last time we met."
Finn watched all this interplay impatiently, occasionally rubbing tenderly at her bruised throat. "He doesn't know where Summerlee is," she stated unequivocally. "If he did, he'd have said by now. He's hiding something."
"My thoughts exactly," smiled Marguerite coolly. She was pleased with Finn's observation. Her initial annoyance at the girl's abrupt inclusion in their lives had tempered into a sort of distant mentorship. Finn had qualities Marguerite appreciated and she tried to help the girl temper and hone them, but never blatantly. She suspected Finn would resist if she were too obvious in her tutelage.
Veronica turned on Tribune. "You said he visited you," she reminded him accusingly.
Tribune gave a long-suffering sigh. "He did in a dream," he finally admitted with the greatest reluctance. To his amazement, his revelation didn't garner him the scoffs and condescending laughter he'd expected. He had been certain this information would have the humans arguing with and challenging him. Instead, they all looked thoughtful—except for Finn who looked more bored than anything else. "You don't seem overly surprised," Tribune said cautiously.
It was Challenger who answered after a brief glance at Ned. "We're not. Communication with Summerlee and with others not physically present hasn't been completely impossible over the past three years."
"Now you tell me!" exclaimed Tribune in annoyance. He rose abruptly and stalked back and forth over what little open space was left in the room. "Why you didn't see fit to mention this before escapes me!"
"When would we have told you?" asked Marguerite sensibly.
"And why would we have told you?" added Veronica.
Tribune ignored them both. He stopped pacing and faced them all. "Six nights ago Summerlee spoke to me in a dream," he began. "I thought it odd at the time, but unimportant. A lizard's dreams can be quite complex and perplexing."
"What a surprise," commented Veronica wryly, and not quite under her breath.
"I thought no more about it, until it happened again the next night, and the next. Each time his manner became more insistent. He said I needed to find you and help you to find him. And " Here he hesitated, once again certain they would think he was mad. As off-handedly as he could, he continued. " something about a hat."
To his increased consternation, the explorers only looked at one another—not as if they thought he was mad, but as if they knew something he didn't, which was even more irritating.
"What?" demanded Tribune. He eyed each of them individually, hoping one would crack under his gaze—a gaze that had broken the will of so many lesser beings. They didn't even flinch. I'm losing my touch, he thought, annoyed. "All right," he went on when no one answered him right away. He turned to his bodyguards. "We're going."
Eula hesitated for a brief second, her eyes flitting regretfully to Marguerite, before she and Sennia turned and moved toward the lift.
"No, wait." It was Challenger who spoke. "What about the hat?"
Tribune paused. His own curiosity was piqued, but he didn't want the humans to know how intrigued he genuinely was. He affected a dispassionate expression. "Why don't you tell me? You seem to know more about it than I."
Roxton began the tale. "We came across a group of archaeologists about a year ago," he began.
"Almost exactly a year ago," interjected Finn. "I remember it was just after—" She stopped abruptly. Something in Tribune's manner made Finn hesitant to share too much information too willingly. "Just after I met you guys," she concluded.
"Right," Roxton agreed. "They'd found Summerlee's hat in an underground temple not far from here."
"I see," replied Tribune. He once again sat down on the small couch. "Go on."
"There's not much more to say."
The lizardman's eyes narrowed and a tiny, sly smile tweaked the corner of his mouth. "I don't believe you."
Roxton's own gaze became icy. "You'll have to."
"So where is this infamous hat?" Tribune asked, determined to winnow out all the information he could from the stubborn hunter before Marguerite decided to step in. When she did, he knew he wouldn't be able to learn anything more than the bare minimum the humans wanted him to know.
"It's not here."
Now Tribune put on a great show of indignation. "I come all this way, and you don't even have the hat!?"
"We know where it is," Veronica said defensively. Although she hadn't been with the explorers when they'd met the archaeological expedition, she'd heard the full story more than once. "We just can't get to it."
Marguerite decided it was time to take control of the conversation. "Tribune," she began silkily, "why don't you tell us more about your visits from Professor Summerlee? It could help us piece together this little puzzle we have." She smiled. "And it would undoubtedly help you sleep better."
It was this that finally won Tribune over. He'd been free of dreams since leaving the empire's Capitol City, but he had no doubt the dreams would return if he didn't continue to follow Summerlee's insistent instructions. He gave another long-suffering sigh. "Very well. Summerlee said you need the hat in order to return it to him."
Ned piped up at that. "How can we return it to him if we don't know where he is?"
"And if we don’t have it?" interjected Veronica.
"Purportedly there is a map with the hat," Tribune said, managing to answer Ned's question without actually acknowledging the young man directly. "I can only presume it will help you to find him."
"Help us to find him?" Marguerite prodded, before anyone else could reveal that the Hamilton Expedition's map, which they believed had been lost with the hat, supposedly showed a way off the Plateau.
Tribune hissed at her, but replied. "I must have misspoken. I meant it may help us to find him."
"No way!" Finn exclaimed. She had spent the entirety of the conversation watching as her friends appeared to fall under the lizardman's delusional sway. It was time for her to make them see sense again. "You guys have got to be kidding. There's no way we can get that hat or the map, and I'm sure as hell not going anywhere with him." She jabbed with her unloaded crossbow in Tribune's direction. He hissed back, baring viciously sharp teeth, but Finn felt bolder here in her adopted home and she only hissed back at him. To her immense shock, Tribune suddenly smiled and chuckled. She frowned angrily, certain he was mocking her.
"I like this one," Tribune said to the rest of the explorers. "I still think she'd make a nice snack, but she has spirit!" He regarded Marguerite slyly. "I sense your hand in that, Marguerite."
"You give me too much credit, Tribune," she replied smoothly. "She was quite the little mercenary before she and I ever met."
"Enough." It was Roxton who interrupted their banter. He didn't like the way Tribune was eyeing Marguerite—or the easy way in which she returned his penetrating gaze. "I'm afraid you've come all this way for nothing."
Tribune looked over at him. "Don't be ridiculous. She said you know where to find the hat," he said, pointing at Veronica. "You simply need my help to get it."
Challenger spoke. "That's going to be more difficult than you might think."
It was late evening in the Treehouse. It hadn't taken long to recount for Tribune and his bodyguards the story of how Summerlee's hat had been found and then just as quickly lost again when it was buried with two archeologists and a murderous demon under tons of rock. What had taken time was getting Tribune to believe there was a supernatural force that could possibly be dangerous enough to keep them from going after what they wanted. Fortunately, a hearty meal prepared by Ned and Sennia, and a couple of hours arguing with Roxton, helped to persuade the lizardman that they were telling the truth.
"Are you certain it's the hat you really need?" Tribune asked. "Surely the old man had more than one."
"It's the one," Roxton answered impatiently for the tenth time.
In the end it was agreed that they would set out for the site of the underground temple the following morning so that Tribune could see for himself the physical barrier they faced, if not the spiritual. And with that matter as settled as it could be, Veronica showed Tribune to one of the Treehouse's empty rooms for the night.
"Is this the best you can do?" he snorted at the small, simple space.
"You're more than welcome to sleep down on the jungle floor," offered Veronica. "Preferably outside the electric fence."
"I suppose this will do," Tribune grudgingly replied.
Once the gathering in the main room finally broke up, the bodyguards were released from their duties for the night. They wasted no time renewing their friendship with Marguerite. She led Eula and Sennia to another room near to Tribune's while Challenger found bedding for their guests.
Eula hugged the dark-haired woman warmly. "Mara, I'm so pleased to see you!" she exclaimed, using the dance name she'd given Marguerite during her time in the lizards' city.
Marguerite smiled and returned her embrace. "I'm thrilled to see you two, as well," she said, hugging Sennia next. "But the circumstances definitely aren't what I would have expected."
"Nor we," agreed Sennia.
Challenger arrived with blankets. "Here you are, ladies," he said politely, handing off his burden to them and quickly departing. He didn't care to get caught up in whatever the three women might find to chat about.
Marguerite helped the others make up the two narrow beds. When everything was settled, the bodyguards sat on the foot of their beds and Marguerite pulled up the room's only chair.
"So tell me what's really going on," she said. "And how on Earth did you convince Tribune to bring you along?"
"Marina didn't give him a choice on that," answered Sennia. "She said we'd be in violation of our contract if she allowed him to come looking for you alone. So she assigned us to guard him. She was also afraid that he was going crazy and might end up get himself killed without someone around to keep an eye on him."
"It's nice to have a night off, by the way," Eula interjected. She laid back on her bed and stretched. "He doesn't seem to have had any strange dreams since we left the city, so that's not a worry. And your defenses here are quite thorough."
"We've had our problems," Marguerite informed her.
"But you won't tonight." The petite blonde sat up again. "So I intend to sleep very well."
"First you need to tell me what's going on."
"What Tribune told you is true, if that's what you're worried about," Sennia assured her. "At least as far as we know."
"He certainly was insistent that he reach you all as quickly as possible," put in Eula.
"Which is further evidence that he's truly been bothered by these dreams he told you about."
Marguerite was too perceptive not to pursue the matter further. "But that's not all of it, is it?"
"Is it ever with him?" said Eula dryly. "Lizards' dreams may well be as complex as Tribune says, but I'd bet a month's pay that their waking thoughts are even more convoluted."
"The fact is," Sennia went on, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees, "we suspect he's somehow bound to help you with this. Whether by some outside force or some internal indebtedness that he can't admit even to himself, Tribune has to see this through. Otherwise, we think the dreams will drive him mad."
Marguerite nodded slowly. "I believe you. I can't imagine he would have left his empire without a compelling reason. Supernatural or psychological, we have ourselves an ally who can't afford to let us down." A satisfied smile spread across her face. "I like the sound of that." Then her expression grew concerned. "But what we told you was true, too. There's something in that cave that we can't let out, or it will kill all of us and everyone else it meets."
"That's definitely a problem," Eula nodded sagely, "but all problems have solutions."
"You think so?"
"Absolutely. Otherwise they'd be conundrums, and I cannot abide conundrums."
Sennia shook her head fondly, her long braid brushing the back of her tunic. "Eula thinks that if she refuses to believe in something, she can make it unreal or untrue."
"It's worked for me in the past," insisted the blonde, half-seriously.
There was one more thing bothering Marguerite. "So tell me, if Tribune's here, who's minding the store?"
Eula smirked. "Would you believe it's Scaldus and Demitri?"
"I'd believe it was Scaldus, but not Demitri. You can't convince me that Tribune left a human in charge of his entire empire." Marguerite shook her head.
"A human and a lizard," Sennia reminded her. "I think he felt he couldn't trust a lizard not to try to usurp the throne while he was away, but he couldn't trust a human to have the necessary ruthlessness to put down any rebellious elements."
"Which were bound to pop up had he left a single human in charge," Eula added.
"And with Marina there to keep the boys in line," Marguerite deduced, "he's got about the most secure set-up he could possibly have without actually being present himself."
"Exactly. Whatever one may think of him personally, he's definitely a clever individual."
"Too clever, but what one knows, one can guard against," said Marguerite decisively. Her curiosity appeased for the time being, she smiled warmly at the other women. "Now, tell me how you and the other dancers have been since I saw you last."
"First tell us how you and your man have been doing," said Eula, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. "Did that costume we gave you ever come in handy?"
Marguerite chuckled coyly. "As a matter of fact, it did."
Sennia and Eula nearly squealed with glee, but kept it soft enough not to be overheard by their Emperor who slept just a few yards down the hallway.
"Tell!" ordered Eula, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial tone once more.
Marguerite obliged with the less intimate aspects of the tale, and the trio chatted well into the night.
Finn couldn't sleep. It was one thing to have strangers in the Treehouse, but the trio who were now ensconced in rooms on the upper level were weird enough to leave her feeling more than a little uneasy. She rose from her bed and slipped her feet into her boots. She hadn't bothered to undress to sleep; she was far too wary for that. Picking up her largest knife just because, she moved silently along the hallway to the main room and on towards the staircase.
When she reached the upper level she paused, listening. A deep frown furrowed her young face and she crept closer, unaware of a pair of flat yellow eyes watching her from a dark doorway. She neared the room from which emanated the unexpected sound of
Laughter? she realized in surprise. She inched closer. Definitely laughter. Finn strained her ears to make out the low conversation taking place amidst the quiet mirth. Only scattered words reached her ears, however. Her frown deepened with her puzzlement. Whip? she thought she heard. Rose colored what? That can't be right. Marina. The blonde one said something about her when she was chewing out old scaly-face. She listened harder, but she was unable to make sense out of anything she heard. Giving it up as a lost cause, and deciding they couldn't be in too much danger if Marguerite was in there laughing with those two women, she turned and headed back down the staircase.
Tribune watched her go before once again retreating into the depths of his room.
"She has to go back," a quiet, gentlemanly voice said.
"You're certain that simply eating her isn't sufficient?" Tribune replied equally softly.
"That's the one thing you absolutely cannot do. We're all quite lucky that Roxton stopped you when he did. She must live to do her part."
Tribune made a disgusted noise and sat angrily on the edge of the bed. It creaked under his sudden weight, which made him snarl in displaced annoyance. "All right, all right. A lizard can still dream, can't he?" He looked at the dim, almost transparent figure in the corner. "Although I suppose that's a given."
Professor Arthur Summerlee cocked his head at Tribune and, almost as if he were consoling a disappointed child, he replied kindly, "I would say it is."
They left the next morning once Tribune and Marguerite—the two least fond of the early hours—were ready. There was a brief argument about whether they should all go, or if someone ought to stay back at the Treehouse.
"Why?" Finn said practically. "No one's around to bother the place, and we've left it empty before. Besides," she added, turning suspicious blue eyes on Tribune, "someone has to watch him. You guys are way too trusting for my taste."
For once in his life, Tribune bit back a retort—a retort about just how nice she might taste with a light sauce made of fresh fruits and chilies. Instead he simply smiled at her as sincerely as his nature would allow.
"Don't worry about Tribune," Marguerite replied as she strapped on her gun-belt over her tan jodhpurs. "None of us trust him, but he's not going to let us down this time. Are you, Tribune?"
She smiled at him too sweetly and Tribune knew she had more information than he'd given them last night. He turned cold eyes on his bodyguards, but the two women's faces were a study in inscrutability. He returned their blank expressions with a look that clearly said they would have to face some consequences in the near future. Neither Eula nor Sennia so much as blinked. I need to work on a new glare, he thought in irritation. The old one appears to have developed a fault. He turned back to Marguerite and returned her smile with one of his own. "My dear, lovely Marguerite, how could you ever doubt me?"
"I don't doubt you in the least. I know precisely what to expect from you, and you have yet to disappoint my expectations."
"While this chit-chat is lovely," interrupted Roxton, not meaning a word of it, "we need to get moving. The sun's already higher than I wanted it to be by the time we left."
The route to the underground temple where Summerlee's hat was buried was overgrown, but not impossible to follow. Roxton and Tribune took point, while Eula and Sennia followed close behind their charge. Behind the two bodyguards walked Finn and Marguerite, both wary for different reasons. Finally, Challenger, Ned, and Veronica brought up the rear.
It wasn't terribly far to the site. In fact to those who had been there before, the distance seemed shorter than they remembered. When they arrived, however, something was missing.
"Where's the cave opening?" Finn puzzled, examining the cliff-face intently. "It should be right here."
Roxton stepped up beside her. "You're right." He ran one hand over the stone, searching for signs of any opening. "Even if the temple inside collapsed completely, there would still be a sign of the opening here, but it looks like solid rock."
"Are you sure this is the right place?" asked Veronica.
Challenger answered her. "Absolutely. See just over here?" He directed the group's attention to an open area to their right. The jungle grasses had filled it in, but there were two distinct rectangular patches of ground under the fresh, young growth. A single wooden stake and a bit of string remained to indicate where a corner of one dig had been. "Those two sunken areas, you see? That was the site of their excavation."
Sennia examined the areas in question, a frown on her face. "This is a grave."
Her words brought Challenger up short. "Well, yes, it's that, too. We buried the archaeologists' bodies here. It seemed a fitting resting place."
Sennia nodded sagely, but said no more.
Not wanting to seem callous, but determined to stay on track, Veronica spoke up. "If this is the place, how do you explain that?" She pointed to where Finn and Roxton continued to comb the rock face, looking for the lost entrance.
Before Challenger could launch into a lengthy and convoluted discourse on the wide variety of possibilities, Ned suggested, "Maybe it would be a good idea for some of us to scout around the area while the rest of us set up a base camp." He eyed the wall where Veronica had pointed, an inscrutable expression on his face. "I volunteer to help set up."
"That's a good idea," agreed Veronica. "I'm happy to take a look around."
"I'll go with you," said Roxton. He shrugged off his pack, keeping only what he would need for a short scouting trip. Then he looked around the group. "Any more takers?"
Challenger nodded once. "I'll come with you, Roxton. I'd like to take another look at the Hamilton Expedition's old campsite. It's possible there's something there we missed last year."
"I think I'll pass," Marguerite replied. She gave no reason, but internally she had no desire to revisit Hamilton's camp. She didn't feel the need to refresh her memories of the grisly scene she and John had discovered there.
"I will remain here as well," Tribune announced casually. "Eula, Sennia, go scout something."
The bodyguards eyed one another, knowing as well as Tribune did that he wasn't getting rid of them both so easily. "I'll scout," offered Eula to her companion.
"Then I'll stay. Be safe," Sennia said.
"And you." They grasped hands before Eula joined Veronica and the waiting explorers.
The division of labor left one person still undeclared.
Roxton looked at Finn questioningly. "Finn?"
The young woman frowned as she weighed her options. She still trusted Tribune about as far as she could have kicked his lifeless body, but with Marguerite remaining behind Finn decided it was safe for her to go scouting with the others. And it keeps me from having to do boring stuff. "I'll come with you guys." She checked that her weapon was secure and that she had plenty of bolts for it, but otherwise she left the rest of her burdens behind. "Have fun," she shot back over her shoulder at the remaining members of their company.
"We'll be back before dark," Roxton said, and the five of them headed out.
Marguerite and Ned turned immediately to the task of unpacking what they would need for dinner. It was already mid-afternoon, and by the time the others returned everyone would be ready for a meal. Sennia set about laying out bedrolls for herself, Eula, and Tribune. She considered readying everyone else's as well, but decided that was something best left to the individuals—and couples—in question.
"Tribune," said Ned, untying a pot that hung from the pack he'd carried. "We're going to need cooking water."
"And that affects me how?" the lizardman replied.
Sennia looked at him. Her face was a study in deference and her words and tone were perfectly polite as she said, "It affects you, Emperor, in that if you don't assist in some way you'll be feasting on air tonight."
He hissed at her, and she smiled demurely back. "You do recall that I can do my own hunting," he said, snarling.
Sennia's smile never wavered. "I do. I also know that there was not a raptor, nor a pterodactyl nest, nor anything larger than a quail along our entire route from the Treehouse to this place. It would take you all night to find enough to eat if you went on your own."
The truth of her words was inescapable. Tribune had seen—or rather not seen—precisely what Sennia described. He rose grudgingly to his feet. "I will collect wood for a fire," he announced as if it were a great sacrifice on his part to be stooping to such menial labor. Then he shot a glare at Sennia. "At least then I shall have the gratification of snapping things in half." He stomped off into the jungle.
"We, uh, still need cooking water," Ned said, trying to swallow the laughter that threatened to well up and nearly choke him.
Marguerite made no such attempt. She chortled openly over Tribune's display of ill-temper. "I'll get it," she offered rising from where she knelt. She'd just finished laying out her bedroll near to where she'd already built a small ring of stones to contain a fire.
"I'll go with you." Sennia picked up three half-empty waterskins. "These could use refilling. Do you have more?"
Ned handed over a few canteens. "Thanks," he said, smiling at the cinnamon-haired woman.
"You're welcome." She took them by their straps and then looked at Marguerite. "Unless I'm mistaken, I believe I heard running water in that direction." She pointed with her empty hand.
"Then let's go." Marguerite picked up the pot Ned had untied earlier, and the two women headed off, leaving him alone.
The young man took a moment to enjoy the quiet and the solitude. He sat down next to the firepit and closed his eyes, breathing in the warm, moist air. He listened to the birds in the jungle canopy, the hum of insects whizzing past him, and the skittering steps of little lizards and rodents in the underbrush.
A shadow fell over his closed lids, but passed quickly away. He guessed it was a high cloud passing fleetingly in front of the sun, but when it came back in the opposite direction he was no longer sure. Eyes still closed, he frowned. A bird? he wondered. The shadow flitted over him again and he felt a sudden chill. Or a pterodactyl!
Ned's eyes flew open and he rose quickly, drawing his war surplus Colt .45. He turned slowly in place, looked all around and above himself.
"Nothing," he muttered, lowering his gun.
It was then he saw it. Where there had been nothing but a stony slope slowly being overgrown by vines, there was now a temple with an open archway. Many symbols adorned its exterior—so many, in fact, and from such an odd and diverse array of cultures that Ned couldn't begin to guess its origin. He made out Mayan, Incan, and Egyptian carvings and, even more bizarrely, Celtic oghams and Norse runes. The rest of the symbols were beyond his knowledge.
"What the hell?" he muttered to himself. "That's " He'd been about to say "impossible," but he'd learned better in his years on the Plateau. Instead he settled on " new."
He wondered if this was the same temple the others had talked about, but decided it couldn't be. They'd never mentioned inscriptions such as these, and what they'd found inside had been proto-Phoenician. "And that temple was underground," he muttered. "This one is right here in front of me."
The sinking sun passed below the level of the mountain-turned-temple, completely shadowing the entrance. Ned shivered although the air was warm and the chill he'd felt a moment before had vanished as abruptly as it had come.
He looked around. Everything else around him was as it should be; the bedrolls, firepit, backpacks—all the gear was right where it had been left. He scanned the jungle, hoping to see the scouting party or Marguerite and Sennia returning. At that moment, even Tribune would have been a welcome sight. But there was no one else. He was alone.
When the voice spoke, it was so soft Ned was certain he'd imagined it. He froze in place, listening. The seconds ticked past until
"Help me, Malone."
Ned holstered his gun and grabbed his rifle. The weapon had seen him through some of the most terrifying and dangerous moments of his life on the Plateau; it gave him a feeling of security to have it in his hands now. "Who's there?" he called, once more turning in a slow circle.
"Help me, Malone."
"I said who's there!" he demanded a bit louder this time.
But instead of answering, the voice only grew more insistent. "Help me, Malone!"
Ned turned to face the temple's dark opening. The voice had definitely come from inside that time, and he thought he recognized it. He was hopeful and doubtful all at once. "Professor Summerlee?" he almost whispered.
"Malone, I need your help!"
He hadn't heard that voice in years, but he knew with absolute certainty that it belonged to the eldest member of the Challenger Expedition—Professor Arthur Summerlee.
Ned looked around once more, calling out, "Marguerite? Sennia? Tribune?" There was no reply—except the one that came again from within the temple.
"Help me, Malone! I need your help!"
Giving a frustrated but determined sigh, Ned answered, "I'm coming, Professor!" and then hurried through the doorway into darkness.
Tribune muttered to himself as he collected wood for the campfire—unheard and pointless threats on which he knew he would never act. It wasn't wise to damage his own bodyguards, never mind that it would nullify his contract with Marina and her troops. And then there's the interminable paperwork it would cause, the lizard emperor thought in bitter annoyance.
He set aside his armload of wood and picked up a promising looking branch. He hefted it in one hand, testing its weight and thickness. Satisfied, he held the branch at either end and snapped it in two with a resounding and ever so satisfying crack. Tribune reclaimed the rest of his stack of broken branches and, deciding it was plenty whether it truly was or not, he headed back to camp.
A little more than half way there he paused, listening. For a moment he could have sworn he'd heard someone call his name. The moment passed and he heard nothing more, but he picked up his pace anyway.
So it was that he reached the campsite just in time to see Ned dive into the gaping black maw of a cave that hadn't been there when Tribune had left less than fifteen minutes before. His instinct was to ignore what he'd seen—at least until an opportunity arose where the information would be useful in some way. But instinct lost out to the voice that spoke from so close by that it was almost as if it were inside his own mind.
"Go after him."
Snarling, Tribune dropped his collection of timber and dove through the opening after Ned.
Eula and Finn had offered to continue to scout the area around the archeological expedition's campsite while Challenger, Roxton, and Veronica examined the site's few decaying remains.
The two short blondes paused, listening to the jungle.
"Did you hear that?" Finn asked her companion suddenly.
"Which that do you mean?" Eula answered her question with another.
"Someone shouting for help."
"No, I didn't hear that. Are you sure?"
Finn hesitated. "No—" Then it came again, indistinct but urgent. "Yeah! You heard it that time, right?"
Eula shook her head. "Sorry, no. But maybe we should get back to the others." She turned to head back to where they had left the rest of the scouting party.
"It wasn't coming from that way," insisted Finn. "It was that way." She pointed in the direction of their own base camp.
"Yeah." There was no doubt in the girl's mind. The cries for help had definitely come from their camp. "It sounded like Malone. Come on!" She started to run.
"Wait!" shouted Eula, chasing after her. She caught up quickly and ran along side the younger woman. "We should tell the others what's going on."
"You can go back if you want, but there's no time. Malone needs help!" She didn't voice her suspicion that Tribune had turned on Ned, attacking him when he was least suspecting. I should have stayed!
The pair burst through the jungle into open ground and flew into a full sprint with Eula close on Finn's heels.
As they reached the camp, Finn's eyes widened in horror and she raised her loaded crossbow. She aimed it at Tribune as the lizardman leapt after the unsuspecting Ned.
She fired, but the bolt went wide as Eula, seeing the danger, tackled the girl to the ground.
"Get off!" grunted Finn, wrestling to escape. She finally twisted and rolled out of Eula's grasp and raced after Tribune and Ned. "Get away from him, you slimy lizard!" she shouted.
Eula swore one of her most colorful curses and followed her into the temple.
Marguerite and Sennia arrived at the camp at almost the same moment as Roxton, Challenger, and Veronica. They had all heard the commotion and come rushing back, worried that their companions were under attack.
The five of them stopped dead, staring in shock as Finn and Eula disappeared through what appeared to be solid rock.
Sennia dropped the waterskins she carried and tried to follow. Her searching hands met only the cold stone of the shadowed cliff face. Roxton hurried to help her, but he too had no success finding any way through.
"What the hell happened?" he exclaimed. He used his shoulder to try and push his way in where the women had gone, but the effort was futile; there was nowhere for him to go. "They can't have run through solid rock!"
"Fascinating," said Challenger, joining them. He ran a hand thoughtfully along the rough stone.
More intent on learning what she could from the actual evidence around her, Veronica began to examine the incomplete base camp. Everything was as she would have expected it, with one exception. She turned and caught Marguerite's eye. "Who went to get firewood?"
"What? Tribune," the dark-haired woman replied. "Why?"
"Look there." Veronica pointed to the tumbled pile of broken branches and twigs. "He obviously came back—"
"But where did he go?" Marguerite finished for her, looking around.
"And where's Ned?"
Ned emerged from the darkness into a circular pool of light and skidded to a halt before one of the oddest things he'd ever seen. Before his puzzled brain could comprehend it, he was hit from behind by something heavy, and sent sprawling. He barely managed to hang on to his rifle as he landed with a painful thud. The wind knocked out of him, Ned lay on the dusty stone floor, desperately trying to suck in a breath.
Behind him a shriek split the air, and he rolled over onto his back to see what had attacked him. He lay there, stunned, as a small, vicious figure leapt on a tall, thick-set individual, trying to tackle him to the ground.
"Wha—?" Ned gasped, when suddenly a third figure appeared and joined in the fray. He watched in confusion, trying to sort out what he saw and wondering all the while if he was imagining it. Finally, he managed to get in enough of a breath to shout, "Stop!"
The trio froze and turned as one to look at him.
Finn was the first to respond. She rose from where she'd landed after being tossed off by Tribune and paused just as she was about to charge again. "Malone! Are you okay?" she asked.
"Fine. What's going on?" Ned, too, climbed to his feet and regarded them all. Finn was on his right, facing down Eula and Tribune.
"He was going to kill you," accused Finn, wary eyes never leaving Tribune.
"Hardly," the lizardman replied disdainfully.
"I saw you attack him!"
Tribune's jaw tightened. He hated admitting he'd done something unintentional or, like now, clumsy. "I didn't attack him. It was an involuntary collision."
It took Finn a moment to figure out what he meant. "You ran into him on accident?" She wasn't sure if she should be suspicious or amused. If it was true, it was certainly funny. "Why should I believe you?"
"Because he is telling the truth," said a new voice.
As one, the group turned to look at the figure who stepped from the blackness. He was an older man with a round, bearded face and wire-rimmed spectacles. He was dressed in high boots, safari pants, a collarless button-up shirt, and suspenders. In one hand he held a pipe in the casual way of one accustomed to the accoutrement, but no smoke rose from it.
"Professor Summerlee!" exclaimed Ned, smiling broadly. "It is you!"
"That's Summerlee?" queried Finn doubtfully. "He looks kinda see-through."
It was true. The botanist wavered before their eyes, revealing glimpses of darkness through his pale, translucent form.
"It's about damned time!" Tribune erupted. He glared furiously at Summerlee before turning to the others. "I have been plagued by this bloody " His brain quickly sought exactly the right epithet. " human for the better part of a week!" He once again rounded on the shimmery professor. "Well you can pester them from now on. I'm done. My bodyguard and I will be leaving now." He turned to go back the way he'd come, but the archway through which they'd all entered had vanished. His eyes saw through the darkness better than the humans', but he could see no way out of the room. "Where's the damned door?" he snarled at Summerlee.
"I'm afraid it doesn't work that way," the botanist replied mildly, with a hint of a smile in his voice. Ignoring the lizard emperor's sputtering ire, he went on. "I see you've found my hat."
In the center of the pool of light in which they stood was an altar. Atop it, looking like some bizarre sort of holy icon, sat Summerlee's pith helmet. This was what had first caught Ned's attention and brought him to such an abrupt stop. The young man reached out a hand towards it, and then hesitated.
"Is it safe?" he asked.
"Quite safe," Summerlee assured him.
Ned picked up the hat and turned it over. "'Made exclusively for Arthur Summerlee'," he read. Then his brows drew together as he squinted deeper into the hat. "There's something under the hatband "
"You'll need that later, but for now it's better left where it is. And it should make the hat fit you better. I expect it's a bit large for you."
Ned glanced at the silver image across from him. "Me?"
"What better way to carry a hat than to wear it? And you'll need both hands."
"What for?" asked Finn.
"For the rest of the journey."
Ned glanced back and forth between Summerlee and Finn. When he still hesitated, Tribune exclaimed, "Put the damned hat on and let's get going. If I am to be stuck here with you all, I would rather it be a brief experience."
Ned did as told and was surprised by how well the pith helmet actually did fit him with the added padding under the band. "How do I look?" he asked the group at large, a joking smile on his face.
"Stunning," Tribune deadpanned.
Finn piped up again. "So, Professor, you seem to know what's going on. Right?"
"To an extent, yes," Summerlee replied.
"Then tell me something. Where're all the demons? You know, the demons that should be buried in big pots all over this place."
"This isn't that place."
The girl's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What do you mean? This is where the underground temple was last year."
"You should know as well as anyone, my dear, that what is one year isn't always the next here on the Plateau."
"Huh?" she grunted, confused by his rather cryptic wording.
"Shifting geography," Ned clarified. "Challenger filled me in on what you all learned while I was away."
Once again Tribune spoke up impatiently. "This is all fascinating, really," he lied. "Now show us the way out of here."
Summerlee smiled pleasantly despite the lizardman's angry tone. "Follow the passage," he said. He gestured toward a particular patch of darkness, and suddenly the light that had been above the group now illuminated the opening to a tunnel that had clearly been deliberately cut into the rock.
"We don't have any torches," Ned pointed out. "Are we just supposed to follow the light?"
"As long as it leads you. I'll be waiting for you at the end." Before anyone could protest, the professor shimmered once more and disappeared, leaving them startled and staring.
There was the briefest of pauses before Ned shrugged and said simply, "Let's go." He headed toward the narrow, rectangular opening in the stone wall, checking his weapons and straightening the hat on his head as he moved.
"Wait for me!" Finn was hot on his heels.
Tribune gave a world-weary sigh and looked at his bodyguard. "Go on."
"I'll take the rear," Eula replied—her first words since entering the strange temple.
"Laudable, but laughable. Go."
She pursed her lips in annoyance, but gave no further protest. She joined Ned and Finn, who waited at the tunnel entrance, and Tribune followed her.
The moment they were assembled, the light slipped into the passage. They had no choice but to follow it or be left in the heavy darkness of the altar room.
Marguerite sat on her bedroll. She had successfully brewed a pot of coffee over the small fire and was bound and determined to enjoy it despite the circumstances.
More than two hours had passed since the disappearance of Finn and Eula, and it was growing dark. They had found no sign of Malone or Tribune in the nearby jungle, and no evidence that there had been an attack. Finally, they were forced to admit that perhaps all of four of their companions had disappeared in the same place.
Sennia assured them that Eula, at least, was still alive and well. Her close connection to her fellow dancer told her that much, if little else. "I know that's not a great comfort to you," she said regretfully.
"But it is something," Veronica replied, although inwardly she wasn't sure how much that 'something' was worth in the circumstances.
Challenger was skeptical. "How do you know she's all right?" he asked the bodyguard.
"I would know if she weren't," Sennia replied.
Marguerite interrupted him. She was just as concerned about their missing friends as anyone, but she couldn't let Challenger be sidetracked by something she believed was best left alone. She had her own reasons for believing Sennia. "Let it go, George. Must you always know how and why?"
"I'm a scientist," he responded with a touch of pique.
"So work on a scientific way to get inside there." She pointed to the stone wall that confounded them.
Roxton had spent more time than any of them examining the rock face in question. "I don't believe there is an 'inside'," he said, sounding discouraged. "There's no sign of the cave entrance that was here last year, and no indication of any other entrance."
"We saw Finn and Eula go in," insisted Veronica.
"We saw them go through," Roxton corrected her. "We agreed already that it looked like they went through solid rock."
Marguerite sipped at her coffee. "If they went through, why can't we?"
"It is patently impossible for a human being to pass through solid rock!" insisted Challenger for at least the dozenth time.
"Saying that over and over again isn't helping," snapped Veronica. "Either find a way to make it possible, or find something else useful to do!" She paused and took a deep, calming breath. "I'm sorry. I'm worried about the others." Mostly Ned.
Everyone turned surprised faces on Challenger.
"That's all I can think of," he explained in an oddly embarrassed voice. "Perhaps we can blast our way in to wherever they are."
Roxton shook his head doubtfully. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"It isn't a good idea," Challenger agreed. "That's why I didn't suggest it earlier."
"I've heard of gunpowder from Tribune," said Sennia. "He said it could blast a hole through the thickest fortress wall."
"A large enough quantity of it certainly could, but if we used it here and the others truly are inside, it could cause dangerous instabilities."
Veronica interpreted. "It could bring the roof down on them."
"I see." Sennia nodded thoughtfully.
"And even if we could get in, there's a chance we'd be releasing that demon who murdered the Hamilton Expedition," Marguerite interjected.
"So we must simply wait." Sennia sat down on her bedroll.
Marguerite glanced at her and reached for a clean tin mug. "Coffee?"
The small group stood staring up at the stone wall before them. It was steep. Very steep. Ned guessed it to be only a few degrees shy of completely vertical. Although there were a number of hand- and footholds clearly visible, he doubted their chances of climbing it safely.
But we're going to have to try, he thought, pushing Summerlee's hat back on his head to get a better view upwards.
The light they followed now hovered nearly twenty feet above them, gently illuminating what looked like another passage.
"If this is a temple, why aren't there stairs?" he muttered aloud.
"Temple?" asked Finn.
"Yeah. Didn't you see it when you came inside?"
She shrugged. "I didn't think about it. I saw Tribune chasing you. That was the important part."
Ned looked at the lizardman and his bodyguard. "You two saw it, didn't you?" he asked.
"No," replied Tribune at the same moment Eula said, "Yes." They looked at one another curiously.
"That has to mean something." Ned's brow furrowed in puzzlement as he tried to sort out the importance of this new information.
"You're free to stand here pondering as long as you like," Tribune informed him. "I'm going up. I have no desire to spend the rest of forever in here with all of you." He turned to the rock face and began to climb.
Ned reached out a hand to forestall him, but Eula grasped it and held him back gently. "Let him go," she said in a quiet voice meant only for Ned's ears. A sly smile quirked her bow-shaped lips. "If it holds his weight, it will hold ours, too."
He had to smile at her practical approach to the situation. "You have a point, but doesn't that go against your contract as his bodyguard?"
"Sometimes one has to bend the rules a little," she answered matter-of-factly.
They watched Tribune climb. It was only once he'd safely reached the top and shouted down at them, "Are you humans coming or not?" that the rest of them followed him up. First Finn, then Eula, and finally Ned.
It was slow going, but they all made it safely up—only to find an impatient and bored-looking Tribune awaiting them.
"Now we know why Summerlee said we'd need both hands," Ned commented, wiping dirty and scratched hands on his pants.
True to its earlier form, the light that led them didn't wait. Once they were all standing on solid ground, it quickly moved off along the new corridor.
"No rest for the wicked," quipped Tribune.
"Seems like that's the one person who did get some rest," Finn countered in annoyance.
The lizardman simply smirked at her as they all hurried after their luminous guide.
Dawn broke early over the sleeping explorers. Veronica had taken the final watch of the night and so was awake to watch the sun as it climbed slowly into the sky, filtering though the surrounding jungle canopy.
The others woke around her, one by one, with Marguerite being the last. Veronica was ready for her.
"Here," she pressed a mug of hot liquid into the dark-haired woman's hands.
Marguerite inhaled the scent and a smile spread across her sleepy visage. She took a swallow of coffee. "Thank you, Veronica. That was very thoughtful."
Roxton grinned at the blonde woman while Marguerite was preoccupied with her morning addiction. The look on his face said it all. It was self-preservation, and we all thank you for it.
Veronica just smiled and nodded minutely. "I thought we could try to find another way in today," she said. "If we follow the mountain around in either direction, we might find another cave opening."
"I thought we did that yesterday," commented Marguerite, the coffee waking her mind and loosening her tongue.
"Only for a few hundred yards. I think we should try searching farther around. If we split up into two groups, we could cover a greater distance. We could meet back here by nightfall to report what we've found."
"I agree," said Roxton. "But I think someone should stay here in case they return. We wouldn't want them to think we've disappeared, too."
"I'll stay," Sennia offered. "I can defend myself and the camp should the need arise."
Roxton nodded. "That works for me." He turned to Veronica. "You and Challenger take the south side, while Marguerite and I head north."
"Don't I get a say in this?" protested Marguerite, more out of habit than actual offense at not being consulted.
"If you like, of course," replied Roxton, playing along.
She pursed her lips. "Never mind. Just let me finish my coffee."
There was no way to know how far they went through the long, convoluted passageways. The light they followed led them on a seemingly random path, turning abruptly down side corridors that none of them ever saw coming, and passing by others entirely.
According to Ned's wristwatch, no time at all had passed. He knew it wasn't the watch malfunctioning; he was meticulous about making certain it was wound and cleaned. Something had either stopped it, or stopped time. He made the more comfortable assumption that something was affecting the watch itself.
Maybe there are magnetic elements in the walls, he thought as he walked. Too bad Challenger isn't here with his instruments. I'm sure he could figure it out. For his own part, Ned was less concerned with the composition of the walls and more interested in the variety of symbols that adorned them. He saw repetitions of the symbols and glyphs he'd briefly glanced before entering the temple. Unfortunately, their guiding light wasn't inclined to make any unscheduled stops, and he was forced to go on or be left behind in the dark.
He wished he'd grabbed a burning stick from the campfire so he could pause for a moment and copy the symbols into his journal. But I don't have my journal on me, so there's no point in stopping anyway. He shook his head at himself. It was an omission he never would have made in his early months on the Plateau. He had always been ready to take notes on anything and everything around him; copying the myriad pictographs around the Plateau was how he’d recognized half the symbols he saw here. Now, however, he only wrote in the evenings, and that only occasionally and more out of habit than because he thought his words would ever be read. He had finally become the man of action he had so wanted to be, but he wondered at how much he had lost in pursuit of that goal.
When we get back to the Treehouse, he vowed firmly, I'm going to be better about writing in my journals. He looked around the narrow space he was in. Assuming we ever get back to the Treehouse.
Up ahead of him he heard Tribune exclaim in disgust, "You must be joking!"
Ned realized he had indeed fallen behind and hurried to catch up with his three companions. He was about to ask what was wrong when a single glance told him.
They stood at the top of cliff face with no way down but another arduous climb.
"There couldn't possibly have been a tunnel that would have taken us through to here, could there?" the lizardman went on furiously. "That would have been too easy." Seeing nothing for it but to climb back down, he began his descent.
This time Ned made no move to stop him, remembering Eula's words from before.
"This is stupid," Finn declared, staring over the edge to watch Tribune climb. "I mean, I hate to agree with him, but why go up just to go down again?"
"You'd have to ask the people who built this temple," Ned replied.
She looked at him sidelong. "Temple again, huh?"
"Yeah. I admit I can't imagine how it was built, but this whole place is a temple. Just look at the all the carvings and paintings on the walls."
"You really see stuff on the walls?" To her eyes there was nothing special about the rock surrounding them.
"You really don't?" he countered.
"Whatever." Finn focused again on Tribune. "He's down. I’m going." She swung her legs over the edge, turned to face the wall, and began to climb down.
When the girl was out of hearing range, Eula again spoke softly to Ned. "She didn't see, as Tribune didn't see. I think they continue not to see now."
"What do you mean?"
She regarded him thoughtfully. "There's something different in you from when we first met. You've been to the other side and come back again. Right?"
"Did one of the others—?" he began, but Eula shook her head.
"I can see it in you, and it's why you see the temple and the others don't."
"But what about you? Why do you see it?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "It's in my nature."
He frowned. "Like the scorpion?" he asked, remembering the old fable.
"Like the owl."
Before he could query her further, she smiled again and began her own descent. He waited, watching her with confusion and deep curiosity in his bright blue eyes. He told himself that before they left, he would have a talk with her about what she meant.
Sennia sat alone at the campsite. Enough wood had been collected earlier to keep a fire burning for quite some time. She had used it to heat a small meal for herself halfway through the day. Now the sun had crept over the mountain, and the camp lay in shadow. It wouldn't be long before evening and the return of the others.
She stoked up the fire and put a pot of water on to boil. Undoubtedly they would be hungry upon their return. Hungry and discouraged, she thought. There was no doubt in her mind that they would not find what they sought. She knew that Eula and Finn hadn't disappeared through stone, but because the others appeared to believe differently, she had kept her knowledge to herself.
There had been a large, square opening. There had been a terraced wall, carved with pictures she didn't recognize. But when she had reached it, it was gone. She had been frustrated and angry, but knowing that Eula was safe—although confused—was enough for the time being. It made Sennia able simply to sit and wait for her to return, while the others needed to search for their friends to feel like they were accomplishing something. It gave them purpose. She felt bad that they didn't have the solace she did of knowing their friends were all right. She knew nothing of Tribune, of course, and that troubled her on a professional level. But that was secondary to her concern for Eula.
At that moment, there was a rustling in the bushes to her right. She tensed and rose quickly, ready to defend herself and the camp.
She needn't have worried. Sennia relaxed again as Roxton and Marguerite emerged from the foliage. Both looked tired and troubled.
"No luck?" she asked gently, knowing what the answer would be.
Roxton shook his head. "Nothing. Are Veronica and Challenger back yet?"
Marguerite sat heavily and began to unlace her boots. Her feet ached from walking all day—the ache made that much more potent by the knowledge that all her walking had in the end achieved nothing. There had been no sign of any caves, much less a temple entrance like the one into which she'd seen Eula and Finn disappear.
Ned leaned towards Eula and whispered, "Have you noticed? We're not in the temple anymore."
She nodded and answered him just as softly. "I had noticed. The energy patterns have shifted. Can you feel it?"
"I can feel something, all right," he replied. "Like an electrical charge. It almost feels like the air is humming."
"Mm-hmm. I wonder what it means. Where do you suppose our guide has led us?"
The answer to her question came in an unexpected way. The four of them emerged into a cave where the stones of one wall had been polished to such a degree that they could see themselves reflected over and over. In the center of the cave stood a low pedestal with single, curved reflective panel on top of it. A lever on its left side looked as though it would adjust the panel's angle. A few steps to its right was a second smaller pedestal with several dials. Ned moved toward this pedestal, but Finn grabbed his arm. "No!"
The light that had guided them vanished abruptly at her shout.
"What—?" Ned began, blinking in the sudden darkness.
"There's light to our left," Tribune announced, his eyes adapting more swiftly to the change.
"Good," said Finn, "I want out of here." There was a note of desperation in her voice that puzzled the other humans. Tribune heard it, too—he simply didn't care.
"That's not possible just yet." Summerlee's voice came from their left. "That light you see is only me, I'm afraid." He stepped closer so they could all see him clearly. He was still a dim, ghostly shimmer in the blackness that surrounded them, but at least it was somewhere to rest their eyes.
"There's a way out of here," Finn insisted, finally releasing her grip on Ned's arm. "I know there is. I just have to find it." But she hadn't gotten a clear enough picture of her position before the light had disappeared. "Spread out," she ordered the others. "Run your hands along the wall. I know there's an opening here somewhere." She found the nearest wall by touch; it was beyond the tiny glow of light shed by Professor Summerlee.
"You'll just find the opening we came through," said Ned practically.
"It's better than being in here!"
"Wait for morning, and sunlight will come," Summerlee said.
Tribune glared at him. "We're in a cave," he said in irritation. "Just where do you expect to get the sunlight?"
Summerlee pointed up, and all but Finn followed with their eyes. She already knew what they would see.
"Stars!" Ned exclaimed. He inhaled deeply and for the first time realized the air here was fresher than what they'd been breathing up until this point.
"I am not waiting for morning!" snapped Finn. "Don't you know where we are?" Their blank faces were her only answer, and she finally realized her mistake. None of them had been here when she'd first escaped from the year 2033. "This is Challenger's time machine."
Tribune scoffed. "Time machine? Preposterous."
"I'm not kidding. How the hell else do you think I got here? And I'm not going back again!"
Tribune suddenly went still as stone. She has to go back. Finally Summerlee's words, spoken so many times that the lizardman had become quite sick of hearing them, made sense.
Unaware of this revelation, Finn went on heatedly, still working her way around the cave walls. "I got stuck there once already. It was hard enough getting home that time. I'm not risking getting stuck there permanently, and if you don't want to get stuck there, you'll help me look for the way out!" Her voice grew increasingly panicked as she spoke until she was almost shouting.
"Finn, calm down," Ned said.
"I'm not going back!"
"No one said you had to go anywhere." He had heard about the first meeting between Finn and Challenger, Marguerite, and Roxton. The whole story of how she'd come to be a member of their little company had been told to him in great detail, and he'd dutifully recorded it all in his journals. It read like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, but with the distinction that every word of it was true.
Finn's behavior now seemed strange to him, though. No one had told him what had transpired when she'd suddenly been dumped back in her own era by an eddy of space-time. In fact, he suspected that no one but Finn knew exactly what had happened to her. This didn't seem like the time to ask.
"I can't find it!" Finn shouted in frustration. "I can't even find the passage we came through to get here!"
"That's because that passage is gone," Summerlee calmly informed her.
She rounded on the disembodied botanist. "What?!"
"Don't you remember what happened when you and the others left this cave?"
Finn didn't have to think. She knew exactly what had happened. "It disappeared completely. Challenger said it was still travelling through time."
There was a tiny, knowing smile at the corner of Summerlee's lips. "George's assessment wasn't entirely correct, but he was certainly on the right track."
The sky above them lightened from deep black to a pale grey-blue as dawn began to break over the outside world.
"Do you mean to tell us we're time-travelling right now?" Ned asked.
"Not at all. It takes precisely the right conditions for this contraption of George's to function, and it's never actually functioned as he intended. Do you know the proper coordinates for London, Malone?"
Startled by the non sequitur, Ned paused a moment to think. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure."
"Be absolutely sure," cautioned Summerlee.
Ned nodded firmly. "I know it."
"It doesn't matter," protested Finn. "This thing doesn't work over distances, just over time. It was in exactly the same place in 1922 as it was in 2033. What difference does it make where London is?"
The oval of sky above them grew paler blue with each passing moment. The shapes of the reflecting panel and the dial pedestal became more distinct, but it wasn't until the growing light began to cause the apparition of Summerlee to pale in comparison that the others became consciously aware of the change.
"It's morning," said Eula, looking up through the opening above them.
Summerlee looked at Ned. "Now would be a good time to set the coordinates."
The young man quickly moved to the small pedestal and began to set the latitude and longitude for London. "Is this how we get out of here?" he asked as he worked.
"It's the first step, yes."
"I'm not doing this," Finn pronounced firmly. "I don't want to go to London in this time or any other if it means stepping into that." She pointed to the space between the panel and the polished wall of stone. The light had grown bright enough for a chalk circle to be visible on the ground at the midpoint between them. It was scuffed—presumably from the explorers' footsteps the last time they used the device—but still clear enough to be identifiable.
Disregarding Finn's concerns about the area in question, Eula walked into the chalk circle and raised her hands in the air.
"Get out of there! Are you stupid?" cried Finn.
Even Tribune was concerned, although he hid it well. He stepped up next to Finn and looked across the cave toward Summerlee. "If I lose one of my bodyguards because of you," he said, "I will be most put out."
Ned finished setting the dials as he spoke. "You're just worried about your contract with Marina and how much it'll cost you if anything happens to Eula."
Summerlee frowned at Eula. "You should step out of there, miss."
"This is a powerful intersection of ley-lines," she replied, not moving.
"It is, which is why you should step out of it now."
"See?" Finn demanded. "It's not safe here. We need to get out!"
Eula lowered her hands and stepped aside. She joined Ned by the control pedestal.
"Anyone not standing between the two foci will be quite safe," Summerlee informed them, looking across at Tribune and Finn, and then over to Ned and Eula.
"Why exactly did I set this thing for London?" Ned wanted to know.
The light grew brighter overhead. The air between the wall and the panel began to glow an unearthly blue, making Summerlee all but invisible.
"Because that's the way it has to be." Summerlee looked at Finn kindly, sadness in his deep brown eyes. "Challenger thought that bringing you back to this time might save the world. He was very much mistaken. I'm sorry, my dear."
Too late, Finn realized the danger. She moved like lightning, but was unable to avoid the iron grasp of Tribune. "No!" she shouted, struggling against his vise-like grip. She kicked him in the shins, dug her nails into his tough skin, bit him so hard on one scaled hand that she tasted blood. All of it was to no avail. "No! Let me go!!" she shrieked.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Ned started across the cave towards them.
"Eula, stop him!" ordered Tribune. He kept his hold on Finn who continued to fight like a wild thing that sensed its own imminent death.
Eula leapt, tackling Ned to the hard ground and sending Summerlee's hat spinning off to the far side of the cave. He tried to wrestle free, but the small woman was quick and unexpectedly strong. She pinned him down and held him there.
The glow in the air was brighter now, and they squinted through it. The cave began to shake, a low rumbling sound that gradually grew near to deafening. A shower of small rocks and dirt rained down on them all.
Now completely eclipsed, Summerlee shouted above the din, "You have to go back!"
At his words, Tribune tossed the struggling, screaming girl into the light. The sudden flash blinded them all momentarily, and then vanished as quickly as it had flared—taking Finn with it.
Ned twisted free of Eula's grasp and tossed her off. She landed on her back with a thud as he scrabbled to his feet. He crossed the cave in three long, angry strides. Grabbing Tribune by the neck, Ned shoved the barrel of his .45 up under the lizardman's jaw. "Give me one good reason not to kill you where you stand," he snarled.
Eula rose awkwardly, trying to regain the breath that had been knocked out of her. She would have leapt upon Ned again to tear him away from Tribune, but she remembered too well from her first encounter with the explorers the damage weapons like his could do.
"I have one," said Summerlee in a quiet, placating voice. "It was necessary."
"Necessary why?" demanded Ned, not loosening his grip.
"I'll explain, I promise you. But not now. There's something else you must do first."
Ned still didn't move.
"Malone, please. There's very little time."
Finally, he released his hold and took a step away from Tribune. "What do you mean, Professor?"
"Set the dials to zero. Immediately."
While Ned hesitated, Eula acted. She turned all the dials to zero. "It's done, Professor."
Still Ned didn't see the point. "But the sun's already passed the opening. What good will it do?"
The shimmery apparition didn't answer, but instead stepped into the chalk circle. He looked at Ned and smiled. "My hat looked good on you, but I'm looking forward to having it back."
The light flared again, but this time remained blindingly bright. Ned, Eula, and Tribune all shaded their eyes against it.
"Professor?" called Ned, trying to see where he was.
"Help me, Malone! I need your help!" He sounded exactly as he had when Ned had given in to his cries and entered the strange temple.
Through watering eyes, Ned could just make out the shadow of an outstretched hand. He reached for it, expecting to find nothing but air, and was surprised to find instead warm, solid flesh. He tried to pull Summerlee from the brightness, but something held the botanist back.
"I can't! I'm not strong enough!"
Without warning, a small, cool hand took hold of his free one and Ned felt power well up inside him. He pulled, but it still wasn't enough.
Sennia stiffened and rose quickly to her feet. She stood very still as if listening to a distant noise that was just beyond the range of hearing.
Around her, Marguerite, Roxton, Challenger, and Veronica were all immediately on the alert. "What is it?" Roxton asked, scanning the jungle warily.
"I hear you," said Sennia softly. She held out one hand as if she were reaching for something. A white glow grew around that hand and quickly spread to encompass her entire body.
Inside the cave the ground shook. As before, pebbles, dust, and dirt rained down, stinging their skin.
The power in Ned grew exponentially. He felt the hum of energy course though his veins, but it still wasn't enough.
Quick as a flash, Sennia reached out with her other hand and grasped Marguerite's tightly. Inside Marguerite's mind, she heard the cinnamon-haired woman's voice. Hang on. Marguerite hung on. The aura of light spread again, engulfing them both.
"What are you doing?!" shouted Roxton, rushing towards them.
"John, don't!" Challenger ordered. "Remember Saros!" The scientist's words and urgent tone caused Roxton to hesitate for a brief moment.
Again Ned felt a surge of power. He glowed like a living superconductor, nearly overpowering the searing, blue-white light that held Summerlee. With all his strength of body and spirit, he gave one last pull.
Suddenly the hold on the old botanist broke and Summerlee stumbled forward. He collided with Ned and Eula, and all three of them went tumbling to the ground. The preternatural light was instantly extinguished. Only the late afternoon sun filtering in from above lit the cave.
Summerlee rose awkwardly to his feet, shaken but whole. Ned and Eula weren't so lucky. They lay in a heap on the dirt floor, unconscious and pale. The botanist knelt again and checked each one's pulse. Finding they were still alive, he gave a relieved sigh and stood again.
"You'll have to carry them," he said to Tribune, as he retrieved his hat from where it had landed earlier, several feet away.
"Oh yes," Tribune replied caustically. "Leave the heavy lifting to me. A perfect end to a perfect day."
Sennia released her hold on Marguerite and both women collapsed. Immediately their companions were beside them.
Veronica was the first to reach them. "They're out cold."
Roxton knelt by Marguerite and gently raised her to a sitting position, holding her chilled, limp body against him. He patted her cheek gently to rouse her. "Marguerite?" he called softly, his voice full of worry. "Come on, Marguerite. Wake up."
She woke slowly, opening her eyes and blinking at him. She shivered and Roxton quickly wrapped her blanket around her. "What happened?" she managed to ask through chattering teeth.
"We were hoping you could tell us," Challenger said, handing a canteen to Roxton. The hunter took it and offered it to Marguerite. Her hands shook, and he helped her to hold it as she drank.
Next to them, Sennia was coming around. Veronica reached out to help her as she pushed herself up on one elbow and gathered her bedroll about her for warmth. "Thank you," Sennia stuttered.
Veronica handed her another canteen. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"It took far more energy than he anticipated."
"What did?" Challenger asked. "And who is 'he'?"
"He is there." Sennia shakily pointed behind the explorers to where a cave had appeared in the rock face. They had been so absorbed in their concern for the two women that no one had noticed it.
Everyone turned to look as Professor Arthur Summerlee emerged from the cave. He was dusty and obviously tired, but he was alive.
Challenger was the first to recover from the shock. "Arthur?"
"Hello, George," smiled the botanist. "It's good to see you."
"I can't believe it's you. Are you really here? How did you get back? Where have you been?" Challenger babbled, as he fervently clasped his lost colleague’s hand, then gave way to Veronica as she embraced Summerlee warmly.
About to rise and greet his long-lost friend, a disturbing sight behind the botanist caught Roxton's eye. "What on Earth?"
Tribune trudged out of the cave, carrying the limp form of Eula over one shoulder and dragging the unconscious Ned behind him.
Sennia tried to rise and go to Eula, but she was still too weak to stand. Roxton took a moment to make sure Marguerite could stay upright on her own and then he and Veronica moved quickly to Tribune.
"What happened?" the hunter demanded, his jubilation over Summerlee’s return abruptly muted by his concern for Ned and Marguerite.
"I honestly have no idea," the lizardman informed him. He released Ned's arm, leaving the young man lying on his back on the ground. Then he carried Eula to where Sennia sat and set her carefully on the bedroll. Sennia laid down behind her companion for warmth as Tribune wrapped a blanket around them both. Soon, she was fast asleep.
Veronica knelt beside Ned, brushing hair from his cold, pale forehead. She looked over at Roxton to see her own worried expression mirrored on his face. He quickly collected a blanket to cover Ned and a pack to use as a pillow under his head. The younger man was now as comfortable as they could make him with what little they had at hand.
"They may be unconscious for some time," Summerlee said, a note of apology in his voice. "But I'm certain they'll both recover. They really were quite extraordinary."
"What do you mean? Extraordinary how?" asked Challenger.
But a quiet question from Marguerite forestalled any answer. "Where's Finn?" Unable to rise and greet Arthur, she was the only one who'd had time to notice one of their number was missing.
"She went home," Summerlee answered her gently.
"You mean she's back at the Treehouse? How?" asked Roxton, rejoining Marguerite. He wrapped his arms around her and for once she didn't protest the public display of affection. In fact, she leaned heavily against him, soaking in his warmth.
"No, John. I mean she went home. To New Amazonia and the year 2033."
"That's not her home anymore," Roxton protested. "She belongs here. Now."
Summerlee shook his head sadly. "No, she doesn't." He looked at Challenger. "You thought you would save the world by bringing Finn back in time, but there are things that only she can do and she must do them in her own time. Otherwise the world truly would be lost."
"How on Earth can you know that?" scoffed Challenger. His concern for his missing protégé and his annoyance at having his theory so easily dismissed made him suddenly snappish.
"I don't expect you to understand, but I do need you to believe me. I have seen certain things. You must simply accept that what I'm telling you is the truth."
The ginger-haired scientist frowned deeply, never one to take anything on faith when a scientific answer should be attainable. Looking at his old friend, he recognized the resolution in Summerlee's eyes. Years of debating with him at the London Zoological Society had made him all too familiar with that stubborn look. He decided to follow another line of inquiry. "How did you do it?"
"We used your 'time machine'."
"But it was lost."
"Lost here, found elsewhere." Summerlee turned to look behind him. The cave mouth shimmered and reverted to solid stone once more. "And lost again. This time, however, I believe it's gone for good."
"But without it, we can't get Finn back," said Roxton angrily.
"Which is as it should be." Summerlee knew his words must sound callous to his friends, but there was only so much he could tell them. If they learned the complete truth, it could alter the future yet again. He had sworn not to take that chance.
"Why?" Challenger demanded. "There's something you're not telling us. Where have you been all this time? How do you know about Finn at all? Why do you—?"
Summerlee sat wearily on a large, flat-topped rock. He removed his pith helmet, reached inside, and pulled something from beneath the band. "Here," he offered, hoping to stem the deluge of questions. "Perhaps this will help to explain things a little." He handed over a rolled up piece of paper. He took off his spectacles, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and used it to clean them thoroughly before returning both to his pocket.
"What is it?"
"A map. Now, if you'll forgive me, I'm quite exhausted." Summerlee looked around him absently, almost as if he'd lost something. "I wonder if there's a blanket left for me?"
"Oh! Yes. Of course," sputtered Challenger, instantly concerned. He absently tucked the map into a pocket of his coat and offered Summerlee a hand. He helped the older man to rise and then sit again on one of the remaining bedrolls. Immediately, Summerlee wrapped himself up in the blankets and fell asleep.
The others looked at each other, at something of a loss. Tribune regarded them impatiently. After a lengthy and pensive silence on their part, he said, "Fine. I'll take the first watch," and stomped off.
"Challenger," said Roxton softly, "let's have a look at that map Summerlee gave you."
Challenger pulled the map from his pocket and spread it out on the ground where they could all see it, holding it flat with both hands.
"I've never seen a map quite like this," Roxton commented. It was on glossy paper and looked almost like an aerial photograph, but the scope, clarity, and detail were beyond any photography he knew. Strange symbols overlaid on the image dotted the terrain at seemingly random points.
Veronica looked over, but didn't leave Ned's side. "It's the Plateau and the surrounding area below it," she said in surprise, the first to make the connection. She reached out an arm, pointing. "See? There's the river that feeds into the Inland Sea." She followed the path with her finger.
"You're right. And this is the Zanga village, and the Treehouse, and New Amazonia." He looked at the key in the bottom corner of the map. "Copyright DeLorme, 2034."
"But that can't be right," said Marguerite. She was having trouble fighting off exhaustion, but she refused to be left out of the conversation.
"Marguerite," Challenger began, "you certainly ought to know by now that—"
"Not the date, George," she cut him off wearily. "The map. Remember when we first landed in 2033? The Treehouse was gone."
Roxton nodded, remembering. "That’s right. So either someone rebuilt it less than a year later—"
"Or something in the future has changed so it never went away."
"But that doesn't make sense, either," protested Veronica. "If Finn was simply sent back to when she came from, how can something before that have changed?"
Challenger spoke up again. "Something else must have changed, and I believe I know what it is."
"This isn't going to be one of your complicated, overly analyzed explanations, is it?" Marguerite asked.
The scientist shook his head. "Not at all." He pointed to a section of the map near the upper right-hand corner. Everyone leaned in more closely to see what it was Challenger had spotted.
A silence fell.
"It's the way home," Roxton said at last.
"But is it really?" queried Marguerite. "We've been disappointed so many times."
Challenger looked at her thoughtfully. "I think it has to be. According to this map " He looked at the key to be certain he'd interpreted the symbols correctly. " there will someday be a funicular of some sort to carry people to and from this Plateau."
"That can't be there now."
"No, but that doesn't mean the path isn't there. It's not so different from the London Underground or New York's subway system. Someone had to envision it in order to build it."
"But those were both dug out of tons of earth and rock."
Challenger ignored her continued arguments, growing excited as more and more possibilities occurred to him. "Who's to say that we, ourselves, aren't the reason for the changes we see on this map? We finally have our chance to change the future we saw when we went to 2033."
"How do you expect to convince anyone? No one's going to believe it if we suddenly turn up and tell them the world's going to end," protested Marguerite.
"We'll simply have to cross that bridge when we come to it. We'll have plenty of time on the journey home to come up with convincing arguments."
As the discussion wore on, Veronica did her best to tune them out. She focused her attention on Ned, wondering what he would do and say when he learned what the others had just learned. It was a question that would have to wait a little longer for its answer.
Summerlee woke the next morning and, as he had predicted, so did Ned and Eula. All three were tired and a bit sore, but otherwise well. Tribune leapt at the opportunity to take his leave of the explorers and Veronica.
"Duty calls," he said, although his desire to go had little to do with duty. He really just wanted this whole ordeal to be over and done. Summerlee was the only one who noticed a hint of desperation in the lizardman's yellow eyes.
Marguerite was sorry to see them go, but the others were willing to part with the two women if it meant also being rid of Tribune.
Eula and Sennia paused at the edge of the clearing where they had made their camp. The petite blonde gave Marguerite a parting kiss on the cheek. "It was good seeing you again, Mara," she said.
"You, too," Marguerite replied. "You should visit again, but next time leave Tribune at home." She smiled slyly.
"I heard that," Tribune called from where he waited impatiently several yards away.
"I expected you to," she replied pleasantly.
Sennia embraced Marguerite in turn. She leaned close to the other woman's ear and whispered, "Thank you for your help."
"It brought an old friend home. I was happy to do it," Marguerite replied just as softly.
They parted and, waving good-bye, the bodyguards joined Tribune and were soon out of sight.
Marguerite returned to the campsite just as the others finished packing up.
"Perfect timing," teased Roxton. "As usual."
"It's a gift," she joked in return.
Then Roxton's expression darkened as he looked at the mountainside, lit warmly by the morning sun. "It doesn't feel right just leaving her there," he said.
Everyone knew who he meant.
"I think," said Marguerite thoughtfully, "that this is a conversation that should wait until we're back at the Treehouse." She looked at Summerlee and saw his small nod of agreement and thanks.
It was late afternoon when they finally reached home.
As they unloaded their packs and weapons in the main room, Summerlee sat heavily in a chair at the large table. "I know everyone's tired," he began, "but is there any tea? It seems like a lifetime since I had a decent cup of tea."
"It will take a little time to get the fire going, but I'll take care of it," offered Veronica. She headed to the kitchen.
When the tea was ready, she brought the pot out on a tray with several cups. "I thought maybe we could all use some," she explained, setting the tray on the table. She poured out a cup and handed it to Summerlee, who took it with a grateful smile.
"Thank you," he said. He sipped at it appreciatively as the others poured cups for themselves and found places to sit around the room. "You'd think in a botanical garden that they would have had at least one decent camellia sinensis, but it was not to be."
"Botanical garden?" echoed Veronica. "I remember you said that when you contacted us before."
Summerlee nodded. "I'm sorry I gave you all such a difficult time then," he apologized. He turned to Ned, who sat across from him. "Especially you, Malone. At least they were able to mend that broken ankle of yours before sending you back."
Ned's eyes widened. "I wondered! I thought I was just delirious from heatstroke and dehydration. It was broken, and someone did heal it, didn't they?" He frowned. "But I still don't remember who did it or where I was."
"That's just as well."
"But where was this botanical garden? Who were 'they' and how did they heal Malone's ankle? And how did you contact us in the first place?" Challenger was practically bursting with curiosity.
"Never mind that yet. What about Finn?" asked Roxton. The question had been on his mind the entire walk back and it had taken a great deal of self-control not to voice it until now.
Summerlee took another sip of tea before replying. He, too, had had much on his mind during their trip to the Treehouse. He'd thought hard about just how much he could and should tell them about Finn and the future. It was dangerous enough knowing what he knew; sharing that information with them could have dreadful consequences.
He decided to start at the beginning.
"When I was shot and fell over the cliff, a gateway opened. I can't really explain what happened. I only know that I wasn't meant to pass through that gateway. I became trapped in the spirit realm, and the longer I was trapped there, the more unstable the barrier between that world and this became." He looked pointedly at Challenger. "That was why you were able to bring Finn here in the first place. Unfortunately, her arrival made everything that much more unstable. She had to be returned to her time, and I to mine, in order to restore the balance. That was where Tribune came in. I needed his help to send her back."
"Help? He's the one who threw Finn into Challenger's time machine!" exclaimed Ned in shock.
"That's precisely why I needed him. Would you have been able to do it? Any of you?" He looked around at them all. "Could you condemn a young woman, a friend who clearly didn't want to go, to the life that you believed awaited Finn?"
It was clear from their expressions that none of them could have done it. Ned confirmed it with a word. "No."
"I needed you, too, Malone," Summerlee went on, looking at the young man intently. "Your connection to the spirit world is very strong, although it turned out not to be enough on its own. The presence of Eula and Sennia was quite serendipitous. They have an unusual gift, and I'm thankful that they used it on my behalf." He glanced towards Marguerite who sat on the small couch. It was clear in his eyes that he included her in his thanks, although he chose not to single her out and cause their friends to ask unwelcome questions. He would ask her about it later when he could catch her alone.
She smiled at him, pleased at his discretion. It was one of the many things she'd missed about him after he'd gone. Even after all this time, she sometimes found the others to be too ingenuous.
"But what will happen to Finn?" Roxton asked again, still concerned for the young woman from the future. She had joined them much later, but he nonetheless considered her a member of the expedition, and as such he felt it was his duty to protect her.
"I suppose she will live out her life. I'm not entirely certain, to be honest with you. Undoubtedly her time here with you has changed her. I have no doubt that that change is for the best." Again, Summerlee regretted that he couldn't tell them more. A thought occurred to him and he looked at Challenger. "George, did you have a chance to look at that map I gave you yesterday?"
"Map?" queried Ned.
As Challenger once again spread out the map, Veronica rose from her seat and walked out onto the balcony. Summerlee set down his tea and followed her surreptitiously.
"It was inevitable, you know," he said quietly.
She didn't look at him. "I know," she replied sadly, leaning on the railing. "Ever since we found my father's grave, ever since I learned what it means to be the Protector, I've known this day would come. I just didn't expect it to come now."
"Ned won't leave you."
"I wouldn't bet on that."
"I would," said Ned from behind them. "I'd take that bet any day. The others can go back to London. My home is here with you."
Veronica smiled, but there was a bittersweet quality to it. "You say that now, but once they've gone you'll regret not going with them."
"Maybe," Ned conceded, "but I'd regret leaving here—leaving you—much more." He embraced her and they kissed warmly. A quiet cough from Summerlee brought them back to the present. "Oops. Sorry, Professor." The young man flushed a little in embarrassment.
"I have no objections to young people in love," the old botanist said, "but if you plan to continue in your present vein I suggest you take it somewhere more private."
Veronica laughed. "It's good to have you back," she said with the utmost sincerity.
"It's good to be back," he replied.
Summerlee smiled. He would be sorry to lose his adopted family so soon after regaining it, but everyone had to make sacrifices. It was something he'd learned a long time ago, and he found it held true here on the Plateau even more than back home in England. He decided that he would cherish every moment he had until it was his turn.