DISCLAIMER: All characters from "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World" series are the property of John Landis, Telescene, Coote/Hayes, DirecTV, New Line Television, Space, Action Adventure Network, Goodman/Rosen Productions, and Richmel Productions. (Whew!) They were borrowed merely to relate a long lost tale and they will be returned to their rightful place upon completion. No profit has been made by this venture. I own all other characters new to the storyline. Please don't use them without asking permission.
WARNINGS: Violence and a bit of language.
NOTES: This story takes place after "Tourist Season" and before "The Prisoner."
COMMENTS: I started watching TLW only at the season one cliff hanger and was finally hooked. Unfortunately, this means I have little knowledge of what transpired in the first season. Which gives me the plea of ignorance if I've made any serious blunders in storyline continuity.
Lord John Roxton eased through the damp foliage, a silent man in a jungle that teemed with raucous life. He held his rifle in easy hands, sure and deadly as if it was a third appendage and not just an inanimate object.
He stopped abruptly and then, finally satisfied, motioned to the elderly man and raven-haired woman a few feet behind him. The elderly man with a face lined with a straw yellow beard strode forward with surprising speed for someone of his age. Professor George Challenger was the man behind this expedition to the Lost World. He had been waiting his whole life to see it and had made damn sure that he would be ready physically to greet it. He had hired John Roxton as both protector and guide. He trusted him with his life. Roxton was a professional hunter and Challenger conceded to his expertise in surmising the danger of any situation.
The woman however waited with obvious impatience. With a barely muffled, exasperated sigh, she rose from where she squatted and came forward.
"About time," she griped, wiping the rotting vegetation from her knees. "You do so enjoy your theatrics, Roxton." Her dark eyes rolled slightly.
"No more so than you, Marguerite," he replied casually.
Her eyes flashed with irritation. "Was there a reason for this prolonged wait in the mud?" He loved playing Mr. Big Game Hunter, sometimes just to spite her.
Her name was Marguerite Krux, wealthy, sophisticated, and well removed from her natural surroundings in the cultured city of London, England. She was only interested in two things, returning home one day to civilization and bringing back some incredible wealth when she did so. She would then be able to pay off those annoying debts that plagued her. Something she wasn't going to accomplish sitting on the damp ground.
Roxton held back his grimace at her snipe. By God, you'd think he'd learn by now not to take her biting remarks so seriously. It was just her way. He drew in a deep sigh. "I'm not sure," he told them, bringing his attention back to the jungle around him. He shook off the feeling. "It seems alright now. Challenger, does this place suit you?"
Professor Challenger glanced around. The clearing was large enough and a nearby stream was running strongly. "Yes, yes, this place will be just fine." He shrugged off his pack and began pulling out some equipment for his newest experiment.
Roxton still scanned the jungle, his sharp eyes looking deep into the dark foliage.
Challenger glanced up at the adventurer. "What do you think it was? Raptors?"
"Oh pish posh," Marguerite stated. "If there were something out here, it would be quiet. Even I know that."
"Thanks to me," Roxton reminded her. "Glad to see you were paying attention to my little survival lesson the other week. Regardless, it didn't sound...normal."
"It sounds like it always does--annoying. It never shuts up except when there's danger, and then you want it to be noisy so you're not scared half to death because you think you're alone with whatever it is that's hunting you. Lord, I hate this place."
"Yes, Marguerite. We all know that," consoled Challenger. There were times Marguerite's tirades could be quite maddening. To Roxton, he said, "In what way was it not normal?" He paused in his unpacking.
"I don't know. It was a sound that wasn't natural," said Roxton, still listening for whatever it had been to repeat.
The way he said it made Marguerite's skin crawl. She eased closer to him and let her hand fall to the pistol at her side. "What on earth do you mean, not natural?" she hissed.
Roxton shrugged his broad shoulders slightly. "I know a great many of the animal sounds here on the plateau." He fixed her with a look. "What I heard, I didn't recognize." They all remained absolutely still waiting for Roxton to make his determination. But after several minutes, he did not hear the noise again. Finally, he nodded to Challenger to continue with what he was doing.
Challenger complied, moving quickly with Marguerite's assistance. He knew the jungle didn't afford them a lot of time in getting things accomplished. It never paid to dawdle. He wanted to try a new experiment, one that would benefit them all greatly if he could get it to work under real conditions.
It was a defensive device. With enough energy generated by a water-powered motor, he could create the electric fence he had long promised his fellow explorers. His first experiment with a wind-generated motor had failed miserably. The Lost World's odd weather proved that such a device was far more dangerous than the weather itself.
However, the water-powered motor was much more feasible. He had discussed the matter with Veronica, a long time resident of the Lost World. Her family had been the first explorers to discover the plateau. After their disappearance, Veronica had survived all alone and yet had developed into a remarkably clever survivor, well versed in the ways of the plateau. The stream by the treehouse in which they all lived ran perpetually throughout the mild seasons according to the young woman.
With that knowledge, Challenger dove with gusto into creating an automatic motor that would help in the treehouse's defense. He was certain he had found the answer to their problems. However, he didn't want to risk damage to the treehouse in case the experiment went badly, so he had asked Roxton to escort them to an area where he could experiment in relative safety.
He quickly hooked up his equipment. Within moments, he had the thing operating. He placed the motor in the water and as the water rushed through, it generated the necessary mechanical energy, which was then transmuted into electrical energy. A few feet distant, a metal wire woven between two steel rods crackled with energy, linked to the motor by a current carrying line.
Roxton stepped back. "It's working, Challenger."
"Yes, indeed it is!"
Suddenly, the wire threw massive sparks into the air and onto the nearby foliage. Luckily the trees weren't large enough or dry enough to be engulfed quickly.
Marguerite gave a small shout and jumped behind Roxton. "Not any more it isn't."
"Too much power," Challenger tried to adjust it but it was too late. The motor exploded and the two short trees burst fully into flame. Roxton ran forward to swat out the flames with a blanket. There wasn't much danger of the fire spreading over the plateau due to the all the moisture present in the jungle, but it was better safe that sorry.
Roxton took off his hat and wiped the soot from his brow. Challenger dragged the broken motor from the stream.
"Back to the drawing board, eh Challenger?" Roxton said wearily, his regret clear. It was a priority project that had long eluded them. Without it they were vulnerable to many of the predators that inhabited the Lost World.
"I'm afraid so. Very disappointing. I thought I had the problem solved that time."
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Roxton encouraged the older man.
"It's all so very frustrating," the Professor admitted. "Perhaps it is just a matter of reducing the flow of...."
Roxton heard movement to his left and he jerked his head and his gun barrel in that direction. Marguerite immediately crouched low and drew her pistol, her eyes casting about wildly in a panic.
"What is it?" she whispered fervently. Roxton was so jumpy all the time. It wore on her nerves.
Roxton went perfectly still, letting the sounds of the jungle wash over him, past him, till all he heard was the one sound he was isolating.
"I'm not sure," he told her in a voice no louder than a breath. "We're being watched."
Instinct told him that it wasn't raptors. When raptors moved, there was little or no other sound in the forest beside them. Most animals fled or hid in terror; others, high out of reach of the beast, would sound an alarm. But now the animal sounds of the jungle went on as if it was a normal day and no predator walked among them.
There was no cry of alarm and sounds of earth bound animals conversed as if nothing was wrong. But there was.
Roxton immediately started going through options, seeing the upcoming battle for survival from every angle possible. The three of them were alone and far from the treehouse. At least far enough not to expect help from the rest of their party. This would be a battle just between them and whatever was hunting them. If it were raptors, he prayed there was only one. Sometimes the creatures hunted in packs.
The bush in line with Roxton's weapon moved and a man suddenly emerged, hands held out to his sides. He was clad in rough-hewn clothes and a long robe. He was bald yet distinctly marked with dark ritual scars down both sides of his face.
"Greetings," he said in a deep, rasping voice. "We mean no harm." Two more men followed him into the clearing.
Roxton kept his rifle up and primed. "What is it you want?" He had long since lost his ability to trust citizens of the Lost World. Most of them were petty, manipulative, and highly feudal.
"We heard a loud noise," explained the bald man. "We came to investigate."
Challenger didn't recognize the tribe. It wasn't one that was local to their side of the plateau. From experience, he also knew that the unknown was something to be wary of. The tribe might be friendly, but it was safer to assume for the moment the worst about them, even though he loathed such rudeness.
"We apologize for disturbing you," he offered. "We were merely conducting a small experiment. Is this your territory?"
The man smiled, showing rotten teeth. "Yes, it is. My name is Bekin, warlord of the Cumcin clan."
"I am Professor Challenger."
"You are a man of magic?" Bekin glanced between the smoldering trees and the device in Challenger's hand. There was a gleam in Bekin's eye that immediately put the Lost World explorers ill at ease.
"Yes," Marguerite said abruptly. "Great magic." Roxton glared at her, but she ignored him. She knew what she was doing. The threat of powerful magic would frighten the newcomers into leaving them alone.
"Great magic," Bekin mumbled, nodding his head. "We need a man of such power. Ours failed to make me powerful so I sent him to the Beyond and now our village demands a new one."
Roxton scowled at Marguerite who merely shrugged helplessly. How was she to know it was the wrong thing to say? It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Usually the tribes were very superstitious.
Bekin regarded Roxton. "What is your price for your sorcerer?"
"What?" Roxton exclaimed. "He is not for sale." He was offended by the very thought of slavery.
Bekin angered. "Then we will take him."
Quickly trying to diffuse a bad situation, Challenger tried another tact. There must be an important reason to need such a man of knowledge. He pressed the warlord. "Is your village in need of protection?" Perhaps he could help them through their difficulties.
Bekin was bewildered by the question. "No, but I must be protected when I go into battle against my enemies. Your magic is strong. We have witnessed it first hand."
"Into battle?" Roxton repeated. He shook his head. "Sorry. We're for defensive purposes only."
Bekin's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You are protecting some other tribe?"
"Yes. Ourselves," Marguerite said firmly. "I suggest you go find yourselves another sorcerer. This one is taken."
Bekin and his men took a step forward, weapons raised, but Roxton swiftly fired his rifle, shattering the tree nearest them. Wood splinters showered the warlord who ducked in surprise.
"That's far enough," the adventurer warned. "We'll be taking our leave now." He started backing away. "Challenger. Marguerite. Let's go."
"What about the equipment?" Marguerite asked. "We shouldn't leave it."
Challenger assured her. "Don't worry. It's ruined. They won't be able to make anything of it." He took her arm and steered her after Roxton, making sure he didn't block Roxton's aim on the warlord.
When they were sure that Bekin and his men weren't following, they moved faster down the path. Roxton kept his eyes and ears open for sounds of pursuit. There wasn't any for now, but he still had a bad premonition. He turned off the main path abruptly.
"Roxton," Marguerite said, "where are you going? This is the trail home."
Roxton continued on in the new direction. "We're taking a different route. Just in case our guests were watching us longer than we thought."
"You think they would ambush us?" Challenger asked, following after Roxton.
"They looked awfully desperate to me, Challenger. And you're far too good a fortune for them to just walk away with a simple no. We'll head up toward the base of this cliff then swing back around. Maybe it will buy us some time and distance."
Bekin studied the shattered tree beside him. The devastation was impressive. This sorcerer had made his lord very powerful. He had given the man a fire stick of great destruction. Bekin would have one for his own. Then he too will rule this plateau with an iron hand.
He turned to one of his guards. "Find the other hunting parties. Bring them here."
The guard balked. He too had seen the power in the small group they had come across. He was in no hurry to take on such might. "You intend to go up against these travelers? Lord, the risk is too great."
Bekin backhanded him. "You dare question my judgement!"
"Only to offer counsel!" the guard on his knees stammered. "We have lost the advantage. Our losses against them now would be many."
Grabbing the guard brutally by the jaw, Bekin glared at him. "Such losses would be acceptable if it gained me a sorcerer of such magnitude. You are only a coward." He shoved him aside and nodded to his one loyal subject beside him. "Show him how we deal with cowards."
"Yes, my lord," replied the second guard quickly.
Bekin didn't even watch as the coward was dispatched. He was too intent on how he was going to rule the plateau once he had this sorcerer in his hands. All the tribes would bow down before him. All would chant out his name is exaltation. Yes, this sorcerer would be his to command before the day was done.
Challenger and the others trudged on quietly, the heat of the jungle weighing on them. An hour into their journey Marguerite noticed that Roxton continually glanced behind them. She said nothing until he picked up their pace a second time.
"What's the matter?" she asked breathlessly, pushing damp strands aside from her face. "It's too hot in the day for all this activity."
"I hate to rush you, your highness," Roxton apologized. He pointed. "But I'm afraid my little stratagem didn't quite outsmart our determined warlord."
Challenger and Marguerite looked behind them and saw figures moving up the same path. There were at least six of them now. Bekin had somehow gotten more help. Roxton cursed and nodded to their left. A second group was trying to cut them off.
"We have to move," he told them.
"Damn it," Marguerite cursed. She was much too tired for this sort of game. Why was life in the Lost World always so dire?
"Looks like Bekin is most determined," Challenger noted, struggling up the hill.
"He must want you very badly." Roxton gently pushed the others forward. "Come on, you're our way off this plateau some day, and I'll be damned if I let some annoying warlord use you to make him a king."
"Yes, if you're going to make anyone royalty, it should be me." Marguerite commented wryly, struggling up the hill with game determination.
"But of course, your worship," Roxton answered with a quick, condescending smile.
The three explorers ran toward the cliff. Roxton hoped to get to the high ground with a solid wall behind them. They could hold off the small army for a time. He had enough ammunition for a good fight if Bekin truly wanted one. Both Marguerite and Challenger were armed with rifles and pistols and both were good aims.
Challenger spied a cave set in the cliff wall. "There!"
Roxton liked it. It was high enough to give them the advantage. So long as nothing was already in there to attack them from behind. A great many things in the Lost World liked small, dark places. But they had no choice. "Go!" he shouted.
They ran for the small slope leading up toward the cave. An arrow thunked into the tree at Roxton's head. So, the enemy was well armed as well. But arrows wouldn't go through stone. If they could just reach the cave...
"More climbing?" Marguerite moaned, her muscles aching as she stumbled up the steep slope.
Roxton eased a hand around her waist and helped her up. Sweat dripped down his angular face. "You can do it," he encouraged.
"We are almost there," Challenger shouted back over his shoulder.
They stopped at the cave's dark entrance. Marguerite was thankful until she looked into the spooky interior. She too knew what things hid in caves. They could be walking from the frying pan into the fire "Oh, please tell me we're not going in there!"
"'Afraid so, Marguerite."
Challenger disappeared into the cave with his pistol drawn.
She looked back at their pursuers. "Why couldn't we have two Challengers?" she griped. "Then we could give them one and keep the other for ourselves." She stepped up beside Roxton.
"I personally would be happy to have ten men like Challenger in the Lost World. This place could certainly use all the geniuses it can muster."
"Yes, but the world only needs one Lord John Roxton," she responded snidely.
Roxton's eyes flashed but then an evil gleam appeared. "The one thing it probably doesn't need is a Marguerite Krux."
Fury sparked in her expression but she quickly relented, as always, enjoying their friendly sniping especially in the face of danger. It was the one thing she counted on. He always managed to make her forget her fear and instead fire the anger in her, giving her the necessary resolve to see her through. She knew it and it warmed her to play the game.
"Well, on that I must agree," she answered him firmly. "And I, for one, would be ecstatic to leave this world to its merry little fate. But first I must find something of value to take back with me."
With a sweep of his arm, Roxton gestured into the cave. "After you then, Marguerite. Go forth and find your treasure. The sooner you do, the sooner we shall all breath a sigh of relief."
The heiress gave a snort of derision and slipped inside the cave. Roxton followed immediately after her, his gun held ready.
It was dark inside, but Challenger had already shook loose a torch from his pack and lit it. The shadowy interior flickered into view. It was a low ceiling and rubble littered the floor along with cobwebs and dust. The cave had not been used in some time. Luckily, there were numerous tunnels going further back in case they needed to retreat.
Roxton planted himself at the main entrance to the cave and laid out some ammunition. He looked over at Challenger. "I'll hold them here. You go see if any of those tunnels lead outside somewhere, preferably away from Bekin and his group. Marguerite, go with him."
"But what about you? You need help."
"I'll be fine. Help Challenger." He'd rather have her safe than in the line of fire. "I'll hold them as long as I can then I'll catch up."
Marguerite hesitated, hating how he always placed himself in danger, almost as if he relished the chance to face death. There were times he acted as if he enjoyed living on the plateau. She believed that he had found civilized life a trifle boring. As a well-traveled hunter, he had brought down every conceivable animal and had rarely felt threatened. Here on the other hand, living was a daily peril, and Lord John Roxton was finally able to test his true mettle.
There was always something driving him. His guilt over his brother's death, no doubt. He took such things very seriously. He had pledged an oath to his brother and failed to protect him. She remembered reading about it in the papers back home. And now Roxton had made the same oath to Challenger, and the lengths he took to protect the Professor were sometimes frightening. Guilt. It made rational men insane and totally beyond her understanding. With a sigh, she followed after Challenger, knowing there was little she could do to change Roxton's mind.
Roxton turned his attention back to the upcoming fight. Bekin and his followers were coming up the path in two groups, one to the left, one to the right. He picked up his rifle and sighted Bekin. Best to remove the head as quickly as possible. It would be an easy shot. He called down.
"Bekin! Come no farther or I'll be forced to take action!" He fired. The dirt kicked up a few feet in front of Bekin. "This is your sole warning!"
Bekin's men crouched lower at the loud noise, but the warlord quickly had them up and moving forward once more, keeping himself suddenly far to the rear and behind his men.
"Determined buggers," Roxton mumbled and then took aim. He gently squeezed the trigger and the lead man fell. He drew back the bolt and ejected the cartridge. Then he slammed it home again, shoving the next bullet into the chamber. He fired again and another man spun to the ground. Then another and another.
He had expected the Cumcin to be more intimidated by the gunfire. Either they had seen it before, which he doubted, or Bekin had fired them up as any good warlord could. He cursed his earlier moment of honor in not taking out Bekin when he had the chance. Now, it was going to be a tough fight.
It became a rote action. Fire. Eject. Load. Fire. The pile of empty cartridges grew around Roxton's boots. Finally, Bekin and his men faltered and fell back. Roxton let them. The barrel of his rifle was smoking and hot. He reloaded and checked his ammo. He had enough for another assault and then about twelve rounds for his pistol.
What he needed was a more permanent way of slowing them down. He wished he had brought some dynamite along with him. He didn't have enough gunpowder from the remaining bullets to create an explosion large enough to block the entrance.
He looked back where Marguerite and Challenger had disappeared. He hoped they had found a way out. Since they hadn't come back to take another tunnel, he figured they had chosen wisely. Standing up, he erased their tracks to confound Bekin so the warlord would not be able to determine which way they went. He would take another tunnel and lead them even further off track. He would hide, let them pass and then slip out behind them.
He turned back to the mouth of the cave and frowned. Bekin and his men were emerging from the jungle once more, but this time they had their bows cocked and notched with flaming arrows.
"Using your head for a change, Bekin," Roxton observed dryly. He wasn't concerned since stone did not burn. One warrior let loose his arrow and it sliced through the sky and sped into the cave. It hit the wall behind Roxton and exploded upon impact. He shouted and ducked down to avoid the flaming oil that flew at him. Several more such arrows followed after and Roxton was forced to take refuge behind a stone. The arrows were tipped with reserves of oil that erupted upon impact and caught fire from the flames. It was ingenious and deadly.
Fire and black smoke quickly filled the cave. Coughing, Roxton slapped at his shirt where the flaming hot oil had hit. His skin burned where it caught fire. He grabbed his gun and moved back to the mouth of the cave and fired blindly, hoping to disrupt and shatter the warriors' ranks.
He knew it was time to retreat. He couldn't hold them any longer. He fell back, still firing. Figures rushed through the entrance and Roxton fired into them. They must have been waiting off to the side of the cave till he was distracted. When one fell, more took their place. When he ran out of bullets, he swung his gun like a club as they surged forward. He felt the stock shatter at the impact. He pulled his pistol but it was knocked from his hand. Now weaponless, blow upon blow rained down upon him, merciless and agonizing. Through burning eyes, he saw Bekin step forward with a bludgeon of some sort. Snarling, the warlord looked down at the now kneeling Roxton with pure contempt.
It was the last thing Roxton remembered.
Marguerite and Challenger waited for Roxton to appear. They had found an exit on the other side of the cliff. Challenger knew they were a fair piece away from the treehouse but he recognized some landmarks in the distance. They would be able to find their way home easily enough. But they would not leave without Roxton.
They were at the edge of a clearing, hidden in the trees, but watching the exit. They had been waiting for a half hour, but no one came out.
"He's not coming," Marguerite stated numbly. She felt it. There was a sudden hollow place in her soul that hadn't been there before.
"Don't give up hope, Marguerite. He'll make it."
She said nothing. She appreciated his encouragement, but she knew it was for naught. Roxton wasn't coming back. A small flare of anger flickered. He had left her alone in this God forsaken hole. He alone understood her and even though they argued and bickered, there was a sense of comradery between the two. She respected him, though she swore he would never find that out. It would upset the delicate balance between them and she refused to jeopardize that all for the sake of a deeper relationship. Her anger died as quickly as it rose. Instead, she felt only dead inside.
Challenger pulled her down when he spied four figures emerge from the cave. It was Bekin's men. Roxton wasn't with them. They wouldn't be able to see Challenger or Marguerite since they were hidden in the tree line and there was nothing but rock between them. They wouldn't be able to track them without serious effort.
With a heavy heart, Challenger took Marguerite's hand and pulled her quietly to her feet. "We should go. Roxton bought us some time. Let us make use of what's left."
Marguerite nodded, afraid to speak at the moment. She stood and followed Challenger as he led her toward the treehouse still some miles distant.
"We'll come back," Challenger was saying. "He might be alive and hiding in the caverns."
She wanted to grab at whatever hope Challenger was offering but it seemed so far out of reach. The Lost World was a harsh taskmaster. It had taken poor, sweet Summerlee from them and now it had taken Roxton. God, how she hated this place. All the wealth and riches that had called to her over the past year now seemed so much like just dirty rocks and minerals. She had never imagined the price for them would be so high. She never imagined that she'd care.
Challenger wisely steered her in a serpentine path that would hopefully confound any further pursuit. They made the treehouse around midnight with a very anxious Ned and Veronica to greet them.
"Where have you been? You should have been back hours ago," Ned Malone said, a sandy haired young man. The intrepid American journalist had obviously been out looking for them, but had given up the search in the pitch darkness.
Challenger related the whole story while Marguerite sank into the nearest chair. She hadn't said a word the entire trip back. At the mention of Roxton's possible fate, they all turned to look at Marguerite. She didn't look at them; instead she opted to gaze out of the treehouse into the somber night sky.
"Do you think you can find your way back to the cave in the dark?" Ned asked Challenger.
"I'm willing to try. By the time we get there it would light."
"I'll pack some more supplies. Rest for a moment and then we'll head out," Veronica said. "Ned, keep watch in case they were followed." She threw out commands as easily as Roxton. She was a tall, lithe woman, mostly muscle and conviction, gained by years of living by the rules of the jungle. The others rallied to her, relieved to have someone take charge.
"I used most every trick I could think of to confuse them," Challenger said, feeling a little like this was all his fault.
Veronica patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry so, Professor. I'm sure you did all you could. Get some rest. Both of you. We'll leave in a few minutes." Veronica went to the upper level to collect their things. The treehouse settled into a quiet state of sorts as they waited while Marguerite sat in the chair and listened to a strident world that no longer seemed quite as rich with possibilities.
They traveled most of the night, and despite a few confused turns, they made the cliff base by daybreak. Circling it, they maneuvered to where they had first entered the cave. Marguerite stood in horror, watching the distant, black smoke drifting into the air from its mouth.
"I'm sure Roxton is all right," Veronica offered coming up beside her.
Marguerite jerked her attention back to the slim, blonde woman. "Of course, he is," she said abruptly, trying to dismiss any misconceived notion of concern. "He always comes out of situations like these smelling like the proverbial rose."
"Exactly," Veronica agreed. "He's as proficient in the jungle as I am." She smiled a little for her friend's sake.
Malone paused up ahead of them, urging them on. "Come on. We're almost there."
Challenger paused between the two women, laying a paternal hand on both their shoulders. His small smile drew the crow's feet at the corners of his warm eyes. He squeezed gently and then moved past them to catch up to Malone. The young journalist was already heading quickly on.
With her heart heavy and aching, Marguerite followed with Veronica close behind.
You better be fine, Roxton, she silently told the missing adventurer, or I'll never forgive you otherwise. During the night, she had clung to the fact that maybe her intuition was wrong and Roxton was still alive. He just needed their help. The group's constant reassurances this morning had finally seeped in and offered her hope where there was none before. She hadn't wanted it but there it was. She would be furious now if it was all for nothing.
A few minutes later, they all stood before the cave's entrance. It looked even worse up close. Smoke poured out of the opening, visible and dark. The heavy smell of burning oil assaulted their nostrils.
"Do you think he's still in there?" Malone quietly asked Challenger.
"I hope not," the Professor returned. "There's no place for the smoke to go. It's trapped in there, robbing whatever stale air there is." He remembered the foulness of the oxygen as he and Marguerite had traveled the cavern. "Between the smoke and the oil, it would be a miracle if he survived."
Malone paled at the thought that they had lost Roxton. The man's fortitude and quick decisions had kept them all alive in this desolate place. It was a more frightening world suddenly without him at their side. Malone pulled out a cloth and poured some water from his canteen over it, drenching the material thoroughly.
"I'll go in and check," he said.
Challenger nodded and shook out a rope from his pack. "Tie this around you. If you feel overwhelmed by the smoke, tug on it and I will pull you out. If you run into trouble, we'll also be able to find you." He handed one end to Malone.
Veronica quickly stepped up beside the journalist. "I'll go with him."
"No," Challenger told her. "It would be safer to put only one of us at risk. Besides we only have one rope. You and Marguerite scout around to see if you can determine if perhaps he made it out somehow."
Veronica hesitated, staring at Malone. She didn't like the thought of him facing danger alone. It didn't matter to her that he had proven himself to be a most able fighter these last few months, at heart he was still a quiet writer, fairly newborn to this world of danger and violent death. His experiences in the War were mainly regulated to taking aerial photographs. Something far removed from the savagery this world could wield. She wanted to protect him fiercely. But she also saw the wisdom of Challenger's words. If anyone could have escaped death, it would have been Roxton. They shouldn't just follow one angle.
She locked eyes with Malone who offered her a reassuring nod. He would be all right. Veronica relented. She stepped back and tugged on Marguerite whose eyes were pinned to the dark cave. "Come with me, Marguerite. Maybe he got out another way. We should look for him around the base."
Still clinging to that small shred of hope, Marguerite allowed herself to be led away. Her stomach bottomed out. This was just like it had been when they thought the men had been lost at the bridge. She had felt so utterly lost and alone. It took her by surprise. She had dismissed the feeling last time as only a reaction to the fact that the two women were all alone in the Lost World. But now that same feeling was back and everyone was here except Roxton. The ramifications of that fact disturbed her.
"If he had gotten out, wouldn't we have spotted him on the way here? He'd have taken the same trail home, right?" She mentally cursed her sudden lean toward pessimism.
"Not if he had gotten out another way. He might also be injured and lying low. Come on, we'll look around and see what we can find."
The two women disappeared into the surrounding rocks and bushes. Malone watched them depart before turning his attention to the matter at hand. He tightened the rope around his waist and then tied the saturated cloth about his nose and mouth. Challenger played out the rope and Malone vanished into the dark, smoky maw of the cave.
The smoke was thick near the mouth. Walking further in, he found it hadn't dissipated; it clung to the stone ceiling with no place else to go. Through watering eyes, Malone searched, calling out Roxton's name repeatedly.
There was no answer.
There were a few bodies lying about, all marauders, shot by Roxton in defense of Challenger and Marguerite, but there was no sign of the adventurer. Heading deeper in, Malone hoped the rope was long enough. He rounded a corner and his heart stopped. There was a form on the ground, pinned under some rocks. He couldn't tell who it was. Using his vest to protect his hands, he shoved the still smoldering rocks aside. They were dark with a coating of thick, black pitch. The wounds he saw on the body were too extensive for the poor soul to be still alive, but he checked anyway. Roxton was a survivor. If anyone could have lived through such destruction it was the stoic adventurer.
The body was face down and still partially pinned. Malone fumbled for a pulse on the side of the neck in the dim light. He felt nothing. The flesh was rubbery and slick. He grimaced. The person was dead. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he eased the body over for identification purposes.
It wasn't Roxton.
"Thank God," he murmured.
He coughed roughly and searched as much as he could, but he could sense himself weakening from the smoke. His cloth was dry now from the heat and doing a poor job of filtering out the harmful gases. He tugged on the rope and with a heavy heart wound his way back out of the cave. Daylight blinded him momentarily as he emerged and hunched over in a fit of coughing.
He shook his head at Challenger who waited impatiently. "I didn't see him. Give me a moment and I'll go back in."
Challenger straightened, untying the rope. "No, this time I'll go."
Malone was about to protest but his chest and lungs seized, and he had to cough again. He realized that he had done his best. Someone else would have to take over now.
Veronica and Marguerite burst from the bushes and ran up, out of breath.
"Did you find him?" Marguerite asked with apprehension.
"No, not yet."
"We found some tracks," Veronica stated. "Looks like the marauders. They were dragging something."
Malone looked at Challenger. "Maybe they captured Roxton."
"They would certainly want revenge if they felt he was responsible for keeping me out of their hands," the Professor mused. He regarded Veronica. "Do you think you can track them to their village?"
Challenger glanced back at the cave. Malone knew what he was thinking. "If they don't have him, Professor, then he's dead. No one could have survived for long in that cave."
"Then there's no other choice. We follow the marauders and hope they haven't killed him yet."
Marguerite had gone as pale as Malone had ever seen her. Could it be she really cared for Roxton? It surprised him. He quickly gathered up their stuff. "We better hurry. There's not much daylight left."
Reality came slowly to Roxton. He didn't move, but instead just remained where he was, letting sounds and sensations wash over him. It smelled horrible and reminiscent of something he should be concerned with, but he couldn't grasp it just now so he moved onto something else. It was cold too; he could feel it in his limbs. They were numb. In fact, his whole body felt slightly numb. Except for his head.
It felt like a railroad spike had speared it. Every small sound, from distant voices to the tiniest drop of water falling beside him, only made it worse. He could feel the dampness beneath his cheek. It felt like a stone surface, rough and painful.
He dragged a heavy hand to his head and gingerly touched it. He wished he hadn't. His vision, despite his eyes being closed, erupted into a series of bright flashes and excruciating agony.
He heard someone moan nearby and it was a moment before he realized the sound came from him. With a Herculean effort, he raised himself up on an elbow and pried open his eyes. Shapes and images wavered before him but remained blurred. He squeezed his eyes shut again and tried to force them to work. He had a feeling it was very important that they do so.
When it finally settled into something resembling normal vision, he took in where he was, desperately trying to figure out what had transpired since the attack at the cave to his current predicament.
Suddenly, he remembered. Marguerite! Challenger! He looked frantically around for them, but he was alone. He prayed that they had gotten away. He drew up his legs in hopes of standing, wanting to face this on his feet rather than sprawled on the damp floor. His hand reached out and came in contract with cold iron. Prison bars. Using them for leverage, he dragged himself shakily to his feet.
A glance around showed him to be in a high ceiling room of sorts. It was split into three cells. His prison was set across the center of the room, going from one side of the wall to the other in a long rectangular shape, around eight foot in width and twice as long. It was a rather odd design for a prison. On either side of the bars, Roxton could make out heavy, stone doors in the walls. He could see no way of opening them from the inside.
It was dark and frigid and he could feel his skin prickle with a chill. He clamped his teeth down to stop them from chattering. The walls around him were solid stone also. He must be underground which would account for the conditions. There were narrow slats of light above him, giving him just a smattering of illumination in the darkness.
"Roxton, old boy," he muttered to himself, "you have certainly gotten yourself into a fine mess."
A quick, cursory check verified that he was weaponless. Glancing at his hand, he discovered it was stained black and he looked at it oddly. Blood. Then it dawned on him. He was probably bleeding from a scalp wound. He decided not to check because his head hurt so bloody much.
He stumbled down the length of his cage, looking for a weak spot in the bars, but he found none. By the time he had gone up and back twice, his strength gave out. The room spun crazily about him, and he sank to the floor with his back against the iron.
He wasn't going to get out of this on his own, he realized. His only hope lay with Challenger and Marguerite. It was a long way back to the treehouse, but he had faith in them. Marguerite's obstinacy alone would see her through safely. And Challenger was intelligent enough to find his way to the treehouse. From there, the rest would take over. He merely had to wait for rescue.
However unwillingly, he sank into a deep oblivion.
The ceiling rattled open above him and light streamed down to stab at Roxton. He groaned and covered his eyes with a hand. Squinting into the brilliance, he could just barely make out figures standing at the rim of his underground prison. Even though his cell no longer had a ceiling, it was too high up to scale, fifteen feet at least. He struggled to his feet. He didn't feel ready to take on an army but he'd be damned if he went out with a whimper, huddled on the ground.
"Who's there?" he shouted up from the pit.
"Your executioners," responded a voice that Roxton identified as the warlord, Bekin. "You are about to pay for your crimes."
"I haven't done anything but stop you from kidnapping an old man," Roxton responded, knowing that a simple defense like that wasn't going to stop a murdering, power hungry individual like Bekin from taking his revenge.
The warlord pointed at Roxton. "You robbed us of his wisdom. He could have helped this village, made us powerful enough to rule this plateau. But instead you killed him, taking him from us to serve your own purposes!"
"That's a lie! He didn't want to go with you. You were going to force him to do your bidding all for the sake of your own greed." Roxton saw with dread that Bekin carried his pistol.
"Enough!" Bekin shouted. "You have been sentenced for your crimes against the Cumcin!"
There was a rumbling before Roxton and one of the doors on his level slowly opened. Roxton's skin turned even colder when he heard an all too familiar sound. The hunting cry of a raptor filled his ears; the smell of death and heavy musk overran his senses. That was what his poor, addled head had been trying to warn him of prior.
Roxton fell back on the far side of his narrow cage, hoping it was far enough to keep the raptor's long legs and mouth away from him.
The beast sprang into the room, green reptile eyes glaring, quickly taking in its new environment. Its keen nose immediately sensed warm blood in the area. It stalked toward Roxton, sharp nails clicking on the stone floor.
Roxton pressed back against the bars, but he could tell there was plenty of room so that the raptor would not reach him so long as he stayed far enough back.
The raptor crashed against the iron spaced wall, its long snout snapping at him from between the bars. It fit almost all the way through except for the width of its skull right at the eyes. But still three feet of pure muscle and teeth gnashed the air in front of Roxton.
An icy sweat broke over him. A long, clawed, hind leg slashed at him, missing him by only a couple of feet. For all its efforts though, it remained ineffectual in capturing its prey.
Roxton offered up a weary smirk at Bekin only to find he didn't like the way the warlord was returning it.
There was another rumble from behind Roxton and he twisted around. The door on the other side was opening also and the triumphant bark of another raptor could be heard. It leaped through the opening door and immediately rushed at Roxton, its shrill cry echoing around the chamber.
Roxton threw himself backwards to avoid the slashing teeth and claws of the newcomer. They missed by mere inches. However the one behind him, already primed to attack, didn't. Roxton felt a deep slash down his spine. He had fallen back too far, right into the reach of the other raptor.
He was trapped between the two with nowhere to hide from their savage ravagings! It was a cruel, sick way to die.
He stumbled forward from the force of the raptor's blow and was abruptly brought up again as the beast before him snapped at him, ripping his shirt in its teeth. Its foul breath washed over him, rotting and sickly sweet.
To his surprise and salvation, he realized that there was a two-foot space in the center of his cell where neither could touch him. He stood in it, gasping in pain and utter relief. He had outwitted all the bastards. He looked up in triumph at Bekin.
The warlord's face held a furious scowl. Usually most prisoners learned that fact far too late, giving in to panic and fear. He sighed and allowed a satisfied smile to eventually worm its way around his features. A man could only hold out for so long. Exhaustion and pain would all play a part in causing the victim to slip, and bring himself within the reach of the raptors' teeth and claws. No one can stand in one place forever. Eventually he would fall.
But he let the man think he had won for now. It wouldn't take long to realize that he was only prolonging the inevitable. His prisoner's torture would be long and sweet and Bekin didn't want to miss a moment of it. It would also please the crowd.
Roxton knew his victory was short lived, but in his mind every second alive was time given to Challenger and the rest. He had no doubt someone would come. From the way Bekin had spoken, Roxton knew Marguerite and Challenger were not prisoners. He just prayed they were still alive and still free. If so, then there was hope and so long as there was, Roxton would count every extra second of life as a victory.
He could feel blood dripping down his spine. The back of his pants was already soaked with it. Every breath in was agony and his head swam with dizziness from the head wound and the growing loss of blood. His body swayed and he barely caught himself before he took a step forward.
The raptors were incensed at the smell of blood so close within their reach and yet denied. They were thin, half starved by Bekin in order to make them more voracious. They would be patient and Roxton knew that he could never outlast them. Marguerite and the rest had better hurry.
The Challenger expedition heard the village long before it came into view. They could smell the wood smoke of cooking fires. There were people shouting and laughing as though a huge celebration was in full swing.
They crept up closer to it. The village was walled, as were most residences in the Lost World. The better to keep out unwanted guests, like the T-Rex and the raptors. The main gate was open but guarded.
"What do you think?" Ned asked the Professor.
"We first have to find out if he's in there."
"How are we going to do that?" Marguerite asked. "They know both Challenger and myself."
"Yes, but they don't know Ned or Veronica." Challenger turned to the two young people. "Do you think you can get inside and take a look around?"
Veronica had been studying the activity at the gate. They weren't stopping anyone, but all those passing through were obviously from the village. She shook her head. "Not dressed as we are." She eyed Ned's cotton white shirt and slacks held up by suspenders. They stuck out like a sore thumb.
Ned met her gaze. "We left the perfect disguises back at the cave. We'll go get them. Be back in an hour."
"In the meantime, Marguerite and I will concoct a little diversion for when we need it," Challenger said.
"We don't even know if he's in there or even if he's still alive," Marguerite noted, fighting back the hint of frustration.
"You have to have faith, Marguerite. Faith in luck and faith in John Roxton." Challenger understood Marguerite's despair. They all felt it. The explorers would have been dead many times over if it weren't Roxton's skills. To be cast adrift in this world without his survival wisdom and protection would be harsh indeed.
"My faith only goes so far in this place," she replied bitterly. She turned away and concentrated on unclenching her hands. She could feel where her nails had bit deep into her palms. She then regarded Challenger coldly. "I want this distraction to blow Bekin to kingdom come."
Her ruthlessness took Challenger by surprise. He had never seen Marguerite like this before. It was most curious.
"We'll certainly give him a surprise he won't soon forget," he assured her. "Come now. We've got much work to do before nightfall."
Roxton has lost his sense of time spent in the hellish hole. The raptors hissed and snapped for hours and then had suddenly given up. They stalked to the other side and scoured the floor for easier prey. Roxton watched the left one closely. It was the farthest away from the bars yet still within his range of vision. When he decided it was far enough away, he sank down to the ground, biting through his lip in an effort not to cry out and attract the beast.
His leg muscles had locked and the effort to bend them was excruciating. He tried to massage them to restore circulation. Reaching out with his hand, he steadied himself against the bars.
There was sharp bark behind him and immediately the left raptor sprang at the cage, desperate to take him unawares.
Roxton jerked back to his feet, yanking his arm away with only inches to spare from the gaping jaws of the raptor.
Smirking almost giddily, Roxton gasped, "Sorry, old girl. You're going to have to try harder than that to get me." He had been expecting them to try something like that. If he hadn't been in such agony, he wouldn't have even attempted such a move. Raptors were uncannily intelligent. His year on the plateau had shown him that. They worked in tandem to solve problems and hunt prey. It was amazing really for reptile behavior. He had only witnessed such behavior before in mammals and birds.
There was noise above him as the onlookers booed and hissed at the near miss. They had waited a long time to see some action. They wanted a show. Roxton's long inactivity had made for a boring spectacle.
Evening was descending and Roxton could see his breath hanging in the air within the stone pit. People were leaving to go home to their warm huts and eat dinner due to the inactivity of their entertainment.
Roxton was thankful. Maybe some peace and quiet would calm the raptors down. Of course, the bad news was that the pit would soon be pitch dark and he wouldn't be able to see anything, which was far more dangerous. He had made marks on the stone floor with his boots to indicate his limited range of motion within the cage. However, if he couldn't see it, he could make a fatal error.
He slowly edged toward the far wall where he could lean against it and perhaps keep himself steady. The dizziness was so bad he felt as if he was going to topple forward at any moment. Throughout the day, the guards had kept him in the center of the cage, jabbing at him with long spears in order to keep him away and unbalanced. But now, that the crowds were dissipating, the guards didn't seem to be too interested in doing so, especially since their own dinner had arrived.
The raptors followed him with their eyes, but they had quickly learned not to chase effort after foolishness. Roxton was very careful not to cross the lines. He stumbled the last foot to the wall and leaned against it, nearly sobbing with relief. He slumped to his knees and eased a shoulder against the stone. His body ached and his back burned. Tremors coursed through him, but he couldn't tell whether it was exhaustion or a result of his injuries. He was burning up despite the cold air, which indicated that he was running a fever. He processed this information and then promptly forgot it. There was little he could do about any of it. Instead he concentrated on things he could address.
He needed to stay alert but it was difficult. His body was betraying him as darkness continued to creep over his vision. He knew he wouldn't last too much longer. Weakened as he was, he was bound to make a mistake eventually, and even a small one in this game was deadly. He accepted his fate fearlessly so long as he vowed that he would go down fighting. He carefully formulated a plan and then slipped guardedly into a restless doze.
Two figures moved through the village, smoke from the day's smoldering fires drifted around them. They blended in with the few people still moving about despite the late hour. Veronica and Ned maneuvered toward the one place inside the walls where guards were posted. One man stood with a spear beside a large pit.
Veronica could smell the raptors and knew that was what they held in there. What she couldn't figure out was why. It seemed odd to keep such ferocious creatures inside the village. Suddenly she got a very bad feeling.
Ned glanced at her, his blue eyes perplexed and holding the same amount of horror as he too came to a similar conclusion for the presence of the raptors.
"If they had already thrown him to the raptors, they wouldn't be guarding it," she told him.
He nodded, trying vainly to hold onto that small belief. What a horrible way to die, he thought morbidly.
Veronica boldly stepped up to the pit, waving to the guard and smiling broadly. She let her robe slip a little to reveal a bit of cleavage. She learned from Marguerite that men were very susceptible to such things.
The guard immediately smiled back and made no move to stop either of them from peering in.
"He's still alive," he told them, believing them to just be last minute stragglers of the huge crowd. "He's smart. The smartest one yet according to Bekin. He's lasted for nearly twenty-four hours. Yarmel is still taking last minute bets."
Ned's color fled from his face. He could barely see inside the dark pit, but the guard lifted a torch and the horror of the prison became clearly evident. The two raptors hissed and flung themselves up at the guard, rattling the cage as their tails swiped it. It shocked awake a still form at the wall.
Terrified that he had slipped within the raptor's reach, the adventurer jerked upright and tried to get his bearings. When he realized that he was relatively safe, he sagged back against the wall. Shading his eyes from the glowing torch, he looked up at the commotion above him, but could see little past the glare.
"They haven't fed yet, you bastards," he rasped out.
Veronica grabbed Ned's arm at the sound of Roxton's weak voice. He was alive!
"Yes, but they will soon," the guard assured his prisoner. He slapped Ned's shoulder. "He still has some fight left in him!"
Ned fought down the rise of bile in his throat at the cruelty he was witnessing. Not trusting his voice, he merely nodded as Veronica led him away.
"That's good. We're ready for some action." Veronica, ever calm and stoic, raised her hand to the guard. "Till then"
"Till then," the guard said.
She quickly led Ned away, knowing that his morality wouldn't stand by and let such a thing go on. But it wasn't yet time to strike. There were still people about the pit and the guard was wide-awake. Besides, they didn't know if Challenger was ready with his diversion. He was planting explosives around the wall with Marguerite. He also had something else up his sleeve that he wouldn't say anything about.
"My God, Veronica, did you see him?" Ned blurted out when they were far enough away from the pit. "We have to help him!"
"We will, Ned. But for right now, we have to wait. We'll signal Challenger that we've found him and he's still alive. If he gives us the sign, we'll free Roxton."
"These people are vicious. I can't believe they would do such a thing to a human being."
"They're going to pay for what they did to one of our own. We already lost Professor Summerlee. We won't lose Roxton too." Her voice had turned to icy steel and she fingered her dagger at her side. "I swear it."
Ned saw her visage change into the huntress. He had witnessed such sides of her before, all power and lithe cunning. She frightened him sometimes when she was like this, but tonight he welcomed it. He wanted her to let loose. He wanted to see fear in Bekin's face as he realized he had made a terrible mistake in attacking the Challenger expedition.
His sudden sense of savagery surprised him. One could only hold onto a semblance of civilization for so long in the Lost World, he supposed. He was angry and he hated what was being done here. He couldn't imagine being in that pit, constrained as Roxton was, sick and wounded while people laughed at him, crying out for his blood. It was sickening. He shook his head. The primitive state on the plateau never ceased to shock him, and it was a struggle every day not to succumb to its barbarism. But at this instant, he almost felt he could.
Veronica and he climbed the wall since the main gate was now closed. After a moment they spied Marguerite and the Professor. Via hand signals, Veronica quickly related what they had found out. The relief in their posture at hearing that Roxton still lived was most evident. Challenger was swift to respond that he was almost ready. Veronica hoped that by the time Ned and herself had made their way back to the pit all would be in place.
They climbed down off the wall. Ned caught Veronica's arm, and with a subtle gesture with his chin, pointed out a group of men approaching the pit. The man in front they easily recognized from their companions' description.
The warlord strode directly to the pit followed by a large crowd. Veronica's bad feeling got worse. Something was about to happen. Roxton didn't have much time left.
Veronica and Ned ran up to the crowd and blended in. Veronica shoved her way to the front of the pit to stand near Bekin. She didn't see where Ned went but she did notice that people were carrying things in their hands. Rotting fruit and vegetables by the smell of it. Then she spotted another person's object and Veronica's blue eyes went wide with horror. Some carried stones!
She understood all too well what was going to happen next. They were going to force Roxton to step into the jaws of the raptors by pelting him with anything they could find. He would be disoriented and off balance by the barrage. Obviously, Roxton wasn't dying fast enough to suit the bored mob.
Glancing around there was no sign of Ned and she had no idea whether Challenger was ready. Not that it mattered now. They had run out of time. Whatever was going to be done had to happen right now or Roxton was a dead man.
Her grip on her knife was tight and cold. Bekin was the key. If she could threaten him, perhaps the rest of the village would kowtow to them, at least until Roxton was free and they were all safely on their way. She slipped the knife out from between the folds of her robe, and edged closer to the warlord.
Pulling out Roxton's pistol he carried as a prize, Bekin thrust out his arms as if to embrace his beloved subjects. "People of Cumcin. You have waited long for justice and the time has come for justice to be served."
The crowd roared at Bekin's speech and stepped closer to the pit. Roxton scrambled to his feet. He knew that his luck had run out. He stayed near the wall, still hugging his two feet of relative safety. His face was hard and angry, letting harsh emotions feed him the adrenalin surge he needed to fight. He was only going to get one chance at this. He braced himself for the coming battle.
"This man has denied us a sorcerer. In this time of war, he has left us defenseless against our enemy. He has doomed us! When the hordes of apemen fall upon us, remember who it was that turned his back on us! Let this man feel your fear, your anger, your pain!"
The crowd roared and several people at the front flung their objects into the pit. The first volley only contained the rotting vegetation and not rocks as far as Veronica could tell. Roxton, to his credit, barely flinched at the onslaught, holding up an arm to protect his face and bracing himself against the wall. This act further enraged the crowd. The raptors snapped hungrily at the downpour only to find it lacking. They kept their attention on Roxton as if understanding what the villagers were trying to do.
Finally Ned could stand it no more. He shoved his way forward and grabbed a man's upraised arm, this time holding a stone.
"Are you people mad? This man has done no crime! Bekin has lied to you! It was he who attacked us."
The crowd paused, unsure as to who Ned was and what he was spouting. They turned to their leader.
"*He* is the deceiver," Bekin shouted, pointing the gun at Ned. "He is an outsider come to harm us.
Ned was momentarily surprised to see Roxton's pistol aiming at him, but then he noticed that the safety was on. Bekin had obviously not figured out how to take it off, and therefore, the weapon was useless to him. He stepped forward bravely. "I'm only here to rescue my friend from the likes of your insanity."
"Seize him! He will join his companion."
Two men behind Ned grabbed him and muscled him towards the edge of the pit.
"You people are barbarians! This is wrong!" Ned protested. He looked frantically around. Where was Challenger's diversion? He tried a new tactic. "If you kill us, you will be cursed. Our sorcerer will not let such a thing go unpunished! You will all die!"
This time there was genuine fear and hesitation in the bloodthirsty crowd. Ned faced Bekin. "Do not incur Challenger's wrath!" He continued. "No mercy will be shown if harm befalls us!"
Bekin snarled. "Enough!" He pointed the pistol again at Ned and was furious when nothing happened. He had no idea how to make the weapon work. "He speaks nonsense! Throw him with the other. Let the beasts eat them both."
But Bekin's command went unheeded as an arm encircled his throat and a sharp blade lay under his adam's apple.
"My friends will not be the ones who die tonight," Veronica said, her knife making it perfectly clear who was in control at the moment. "Tell your men to let them go."
Bekin raised his hands and the two men holding Ned released him and stepped back though they didn't back away far enough to suit her. She still felt a level of apprehension.
"Veronica! Ned? Is that you?" cried out a weary voice from the pit.
"Hang on, Roxton. We'll have you out in a moment," Ned answered encouragingly.
Roxton offered up a short, harsh laugh, then it faded into silence. Finally, he said quietly, "I knew you'd come."
"Glad you waited for us."
"I've been trying. Get me out of here."
"Working on it," Ned told him. He pulled his gun and fired into the air. People fell back from the pit. The loud sound of the weapon terrified them. Ned looked at Bekin, bringing his own pistol to bear on the warlord. "Your move."
"Yes, isn't it," the warlord answered still showing bravado. Bekin felt a sense of honor exuding from this man and he could play that weakness to his advantage. "Release me or I will remove the cage and allow your friend to be eaten."
Veronica pressed the knife deeper. "You move and you die," she assured him.
"Yes, but either way your friend Roxton dies. Is that what you want?"
"Let him go and no one has to die here."
"You won't kill me," Bekin sneered at her. "You fight with honor, something to which I don't hold. Open the cage!" he shouted to the guard.
A guard hit a lever and the cage that protected Roxton from the raptors slowly rumbled down into the ground. The raptors threw themselves at the disappearing cage sensing a meal soon within their grasp. They had seen this before. The expectation was driving them into a frenzy.
"No!" Veronica knew that Bekin had called her bluff. She wouldn't kill him outright but maybe she could use him to save Roxton's life. She bodily shoved Bekin into the cage with Roxton. He fell with a terrified scream. She spun to the guard. "Raise the cage or they both die!"
"I cannot! The only way it can be raised again is for the cycle to complete. By then it will be too late!"
Landing roughly, Bekin cried out as he felt his leg twist harshly beneath him. But he had little time to dwell on it. Shrieking, he scrambling frantically away from the excited raptors as they lunged at him through the descending bars. It would take another few seconds before they lowered enough for the raptors to easily get the prisoners. Meanwhile, their claws raked Bekin's robes, catching some flesh beneath. Struggling to stand, he desperately shirked out of the robe before the raptor pulled him closer.
Roxton reached out and steadied Bekin, keeping him within the space of safety. He kicked the raptor away with a booted foot, helping the warlord to his feet. The sharp agony of the effort almost made Roxton himself stumble against the bars, but he used Bekin to anchor himself.
The warlord shoved him away angrily, shouting to his guard. "Help me!"
Roxton fell against the wall, striking the wound on his back. He clamped down on a cry of pain and glared at Bekin. They didn't have much more time before the raptors had free rein to attack. Just then, he saw the pistol on the ground. Unfortunately it lay within reach of the raptor's snapping jaws. Without hesitation, however, he grabbed it, flipped off the safety, and primed the weapon. With a fluid motion, born out of years of practice till it was mere instinct, he turned and fired at the raptor reaching for him. It stumbled back in a cloud of red spray, staggering to the side, still alive.
Leaping to obey his warlord, the guard reached down with a spear. He stabbed at Roxton to shove him aside and make room for Bekin. He would then use the spear to haul the man up.
With a feral snarl, Roxton grabbed the spear's end and yanked. The unprepared guard tumbled down into the pit as well. He fell shrieking onto of the disappearing bars now well within the reach of one of the starving raptors. His gurgling scream fell quickly into silence as the beast attacked.
Ned fired his pistol into the other raptor, which was trying to leap over the bars, now only five feet high. The caliber of bullet in the gun wouldn't be enough to stop the monster unless he hit a vital area. The darkness and the close press of bodies above and below made such an accurate shot difficult.
"Roxton!" he shouted down. "Give me the spear! I'll pull you up!" Roxton was right below him and the weakening adventure lifted the spear up. Ned tossed his pistol to Veronica who caught it and waved it at the crowd shouting angrily behind them. She knew if they pressed their luck, they would be easily overwhelmed and join Roxton in the pit. She fired at a man rushing her and he dropped to the ground beside his sword.
Suddenly the main gate exploded in a shower of smoke and fire. The people of Cumcin crouched down, crying out in fear. Then a roar shattered the air and out of the smoke burst a T-Rex!
People scattered with pure terror in their faces. The courtyard was in chaos. Veronica smiled, recognizing the T-Rex for what it was. Challenger and Marguerite had come through. He had done this trick before with mirrors, but this time she didn't see an actual T-Rex for casting the image, not to mention that it was dark with no sun to reflect the image. It was obvious Challenger had thought of something to overcome such obstacles and the result was impressive.
She ran over and helped Ned raise Roxton from the pit, grabbing hold of the back of Roxton's belt to heave him up over the side. Roxton had no strength left and the spear was an awkward means of rescue for Ned. A raptor leaped up after its disappearing prey but missed Roxton's foot by mere inches. The small group lay at the lip of the pit, panting and exhausted.
There was another scream and Ned realized it was Bekin. He scrambled to his feet and offered the end of the spear to the warlord. No one deserved to be eaten by raptors.
"Grab hold!" Ned shouted.
Bekin clutched the spear and Ned hauled back on it, but it was too late. The bars had slid down fully into the ground now and the last raptor to feed finally had his chance. It fell upon Bekin with the same show of mercy the warlord had shown to Roxton.
The beast's weight pulled Bekin back, but the warlord's grip on the spear was still firm, causing the raptor to pull Ned along with it. Ned refused to let go, hoping he could still save the warlord, but the raptor was too strong. Veronica threw herself over the sliding journalist before he too fell into the pit. Ned finally realized the futility of it and let go of the spear. It was over in seconds. Ned turned away from the blood and savagery below him. Veronica pulled a barely conscious Roxton into her lap.
"We have to go, Ned. Challenger's illusion won't hold them at bay for long."
"How do you know it's an illusion?" Ned asked regarding the T-Rex with just a little trepidation.
Veronica pointed. There was Challenger standing at the side of the dinosaur, arms pointing at the village. He was angry and when he raised his arms up, the south wall erupted into a fierce explosion. The villagers cowered in fear.
"This is what your warlord has wrought," Challenger shouted. "I am not something to be purchased or kidnapped. I am a sorcerer! You people must be taught to respect me and those like me. See your village in ruins!"
Ned looked at Veronica. "Remind me not to make Challenger angry."
She smiled for a moment and then examined Roxton. His eyes were closed but he was still conscious.
"Challenger's putting on quite a show, eh?" he whispered, his jaw clenched.
"Grandstanding * is * his forte," she said.
"For once I am sincerely grateful. Grateful to all of you."
"Well, we're not out of the woods yet," Ned told him. "Let's go."
Being as gentle as they could, they lifted Roxton between them. The adventurer offered what miniscule support he could, but Veronica could tell the man had little left. She used her strength to take what she could. Ned did the same.
Thanks to Challenger, they exited the village uncontested. The Professor followed them out, covering their retreat with a rifle. Marguerite emerged from the jungle where she guarded the detonators that set off the explosives. It was all very dramatic and thoroughly effective. The T-Rex illusion was even more clever. Challenger was a genius.
But her joy over their victory was short lived as they eased Roxton to the ground.
"Oh my God," Marguerite whispered at the sight of his torn body.
"We can't stay here," Ned said, casting a glance over his shoulder at the village.
"But he needs medical care," Marguerite argued.
"We have no choice," Challenger told her. "Those villagers won't stay subdued for long. They could easily lose their fear and come after us. Ned, help me with the equipment." They quickly stripped down the detonator and also the strange device Challenger had rigged to throw the illusion of the T-Rex into the courtyard.
Marguerite offered Roxton some water from her canteen while Veronica did some very cursory field doctoring. The younger woman pulled out some of her yarrow root mixture and spread it over the worst of his wounds. There was so much blood, but she wiped most of it away. The smell of it would be dangerous in the journey through the jungle. Far too many beasts were attracted by it, but there was little choice.
Her features were locked into a grimace as she worked over the brutal gash on his back. Veronica cursed her hesitation at not killing Bekin before he had ordered the bars to descend. It made her feel like she had failed Roxton in some way. But then she knew that the fault did not lie with her. Bekin had done this long before she had arrived and the vicious warlord had paid the ultimate price for his brutality. His life. She took comfort in the fact that she had not slid those last few feet toward barbarism. It brought her too near to Bekin himself. Pushing away her futile thoughts, she concentrated on helping her friend as best as she could
Roxton hissed as Veronica touched his wounds, barely able to stand the added torment, but then Marguerite grabbed his hand and squeezed it gently. Even with a fever-addled brain, Roxton noticed that amazing fact. With curious eyes he regarded the dark haired woman holding him and was shocked to see the concern so blatant on her face. She turned away from him for a moment, watching instead Veronica's ministrations, and so he took the moment to silently observe her.
She was startlingly beautiful in the moonlight. Her veneer of spite and disdain had fallen and it revealed a most glorious acknowledgment to womanhood. Again he felt that insane surge of emotion towards her, the one he continually tried to forget, the one that continually got him in trouble. Usually she did a fair job of dissuading such irrational thoughts on her own with her biting comments and snide remarks. But this time it was different. He wanted to revel in it. It helped him forget for just a moment how dire their situation still was. He closed his eyes, keeping hold of that beautiful image for just a moment longer.
Marguerite glanced down at Roxton, his eyes shut and his breath still ragged. She was disturbed at how silent Roxton was throughout the rescue. She wasn't used to seeing him sedate like this. His presence was always larger than life. His ego at times was even more so. This abrupt change was terrifying.
Ned and Challenger came up, their packs filled, rifles slung over their shoulders.
"We're ready," Challenger announced. "Let's go."
"Roxton," Marguerite called softly. She could hear the fear in her voice and she hated the sound of it, and the fact that the others could also, but the thought of losing this man again after they had finally found him alive once more would be unbearable. "John."
He jerked awake and then settled quickly once he knew he was with friends instead of in the pit. He understood that the time had come to travel.
"If someone could offer me assistance," he muttered. The weakness in his baritone voice was horribly apparent.
"Sorry to have to do this, old boy," Challenger told him with genuine regret. "It'll just be for a bit longer. We'll rest when the sun rises. It will aid us in treating your injuries."
They eased him to his feet but he swayed so badly that Ned and Challenger practically carried him. Veronica took point and Marguerite covered their retreat. She glanced back at the village and was relieved that still no one had come out to pursue them. The reflection of the flickering fires of the village blazed in her eyes, but she felt no regret for what they had done this night. She was willing to let them burn for their barbarity.
The Lost World may be a brutal place, but there was no reason for the maliciousness shown to Roxton. This plateau seemed inundated with such cruel public displays. Far too many examples came to mind. Tribune, Hargrove and Drakul. Savages all. She had no compassion for any of them. Without another thought, she abruptly turned her back on the village and followed her companions into the jungle.
It was late at night at the treehouse and it was deathly quiet. Only Marguerite was awake. She sat beside John Roxton and watched and waited. They had done all they could for him. Sewn up his wounds, washed away the blood, and removed the last vestiges of his brutal incarceration. It had been a long trip home with their injured comrade. At the first break of day, they had stopped to tend to him as best they could. But their efforts were as primitive as the plateau upon which they now lived. The wound on his back from the raptor's claw was deep and by far the most serious. It carried an infection that was currently ravaging Roxton.
Raptors were not particularly clean animals. Roxton had once told her that the teeth and claws of most carnivores held a great deal of disease. Raptors were even worse being as much scavengers as hunters. There was no telling how bad this infection would become.
They were taking turns soothing his fevered brow with cold spring water and changing the healing poultice on his back. He had regained consciousness only sporadically since his liberation. Marguerite doubted that he had even recognized them so caught up in the throes of his fever. He murmured incessantly about London and Africa, calling out his brother's name. He was caught elsewhere in another time and place.
Roxton moaned and Marguerite quickly drenched the cloth and ran it over his exposed face and neck, being careful not to touch the cut and bruise on his temple. He lay on his stomach, his face toward her. His head thrashed weakly, his fists clenching and unclenching the blankets. She had been silent throughout all of her ministrations, unsure of her voice and afraid for the others to hear anything she might say. But now, in the stillness of the night, she leaned forward and whispered to him.
"Shhh, John, you're safe. You're here with us in the treehouse." He leaned into her hand, cool against his burning flesh and sighed even though his eyes did not open.
She brushed a lock of his damp hair away from his forehead. She remembered when it was longer, wild and unruly. So much like him it was. She had regretted cutting it at the time when he asked her. The new look though was just as appealing, even more so. She would never tell him that, of course. But her heart knew that she might not have another chance. There were no hospitals here, no doctors. Veronica only could use what skills she had learned from her native friends, but they were primitive at best. A wave of fear washed over Marguerite again.
"Don't you leave me, John Roxton. Do you hear me?" But he remained silent and unresponsive. "That's so typical of you," she scolded him in a quiet voice. "Stoic to the end." With a sigh, she went about changing the poultice, drenching a new one in the thick mixture upon the table and laying the soaked cloth across his raw back.
A groan of agony fell from Roxton's lips and his eyelids flickered open. He could just make out a dark, blurry form leaning over him.
She knelt quickly beside the bed. "John!" She was relieved. It was the first time he had actually spoken one of their names. "Yes, it's me."
"What are you doing?" he asked weakly.
"Trying to take care of you."
"Stop it. It hurts," he admitted.
"Of all the..." she stuttered, angry that the only thing he could think of to complain about was her tender ministrations. She would have thought he'd be ecstatic since it was her attending him. "Is that all you have to say?"
Roxton's dry lips lifted for a second into a smile. "No. You're beautiful when you're concerned."
Stunned into speechlessness, she remained so for only a moment. Then her eyes narrowed. "You're delirious. You'd say that about a toad right about now. Besides, I got stuck with this duty because everyone else wanted to go to sleep."
"Anyone ever tell you, your bedside manner is atrocious."
"Just wait. It gets better." She reached for a glass. "Veronica said you were supposed to drink this if you woke up. Here." She helped him lift himself gently onto his elbows, trying to ignore his grimace of pain.
He drank the mixture and his face twisted even further. "Uhh, that stuff tastes awful."
Marguerite's smirk almost glittered. "Does it really?"
"You knew that, didn't you?"
"Perhaps. But it's good for you." She set the glass back down on the table, and then added, "I think."
He eased himself back down with a sigh, closing his eyes. "You'll stay with me a while longer, won't you?" He drew comfort from knowing she was nearby. It made the darkness he was slipping back into not nearly so terrifying.
Marguerite looked at the clock. She was supposed to have waked Ned over an hour ago. Putting on a bored expression, she turned back to Roxton and said, "I have another few minutes before I get relieved from this tedious duty. Just go back to sleep. Ned will be here when you wake up."
"I'd much rather wake up to your pretty face than his," he mumbled, already fast on his way to a deep slumber.
"Oh, you're delirious all right." His eyes remained closed and his breathing had deepened, indicating that he was no longer awake. She allowed herself to smile. "You're kind of nice when you're like that," she mused. She reached out to touch his relaxed face once more. It seemed cooler. She prayed that his fever was breaking. Wiping at a tear, gently forming in the corner of her eye, she laid her cheek gently against his, her lips brushing against his ear. "Live, John Roxton. Going back means nothing if you're not with me." The tear fell from her eyelash and rolled down his cheek.
Five days later, Roxton was still recuperating, but well out of danger. His fever had ended and his strength was slowly returning. He had woken to find Marguerite still beside him, fast asleep. He couldn't tell if she had been there the entire time or whether it had been just her turn again to watch him. He liked to believe the former.
This was the first day they had allowed him downstairs for which he was appreciative. He was not a man who enjoyed being bedridden. There was a pot of tea on the fire and Roxton enjoyed the steady bustle of life in the treehouse as everyone went about their duties. Well, everyone that is but Marguerite who sat at the table with her magnifying eyepiece, scrutinizing a pile of stones.
The Professor exited the elevator with a box of specimens. He nodded at Roxton. "Pleased to see you up and about," he told the adventurer.
"No more so than I, Challenger." He made room on the table for the large box. "I hear you put on quite a show back at that village. I'm sorry I missed it."
"It was amazing," Ned said coming up behind the Professor. Veronica was still outside with the rest of the supplies. "What did you call it again, Professor?"
"A phenakistiscope. It consists of a disc with images of successive phases of movement on it, which can be spun to simulate movement. I used a variation of one actually. With a little ingenuity, I was able to project the moving picture of a tyrannosaurus rex with the help of some mirrors. That combined with a little smoke and the light of the fire, and well the effects can be quite realistic."
"And terrifying. There was a moment when I even believed it." Ned poured Roxton a cup of the hot tea.
Roxton acknowledged Ned with a nod, sipping the hot liquid carefully. "Well, it worked brilliantly for which you have my eternal gratitude. If I hadn't said it enough, thank you. Being a meal for a raptor is certainly not my first choice for departing this world."
Challenger laughed. "I personally don't think it should be on the list at all." He patted the adventurer lightly on the arm. "And you are more than welcome. Think no more about it, old boy."
"Looks like I finally owe you one, Challenger," Roxton said quietly, raising his cup in a half salute.
"Yes, but I still have a great deal of catching up to do." The Professor smiled almost paternally at Roxton for a moment and then turned to Ned. "I have some more things to bring up. Would you terribly mind helping me, Ned?"
The young journalist groaned and rolled his eyes. "Not at all, Professor. It's what I live for." But there wasn't much enthusiasm in his voice. He cast a glance in Marguerite's direction.
Marguerite raised a contrary eyebrow and then commented. "What a convenient excuse you possess, Lord Roxton. I'd milk it for all its worth," she advised.
"Perhaps I shall. I'm long overdue for a vacation."
Ned pointed at Roxton. "Enjoy your respite while you can. Soon enough, you'll be back to lugging samples along with the rest of us."
Roxton laughed and watched the two men depart down the elevator. Soon Roxton and Marguerite were alone. She went back to studying her own samples. Looking, he supposed, for that elusive vein of wealth that apparently would solve all her problems.
He couldn't understand why it was so important to her. She was wealthy. Or at least wealthy enough to finance their expedition, which was no small feat. So why was she so hell bent on returning with a chunk of additional wealth?
There was more to it. He could feel it. He could only surmise that she was in trouble. Financial trouble most likely. Perhaps she had funded the expedition to the Lost World with the last of her money in one huge gamble to find more. Enough to pay off whatever debts she may have. But this was all speculation. And being a gentleman, Roxton could only conjecture. He would never come out and question her on such matters, nor would he expect a truthful answer if he did. She was Marguerite, after all.
"Find anything of interest?" he asked her, looking at her attentively over the rim of his cup.
She sniffed with annoyance. "I'm beginning to believe that this stupid plateau is as devoid of precious minerals as it is devoid of decent amenities." She tossed the useless rock back onto the table with a clatter.
"Oh ye of little faith." He shifted carefully in his seat to face her, his back still sore. "We have done very well here, Marguerite. And we have many fine amenities. Challenger has made many improvements."
"Oh please, you can't really call these * decent *?" She waved a hand around the treehouse.
"All is in the eyes of the beholder. What is sub par to one is a monumental achievement to others." He held her gaze a moment with his sharp, green eyes. "Not all amenities are readily appreciated."
She was silent a moment, studying him. She understood full well the point he was trying to make. Once again, he was simplifying the issue. He believed that there should be something more between them. She smoldered just thinking about his gall.
However, it wasn't that she disagreed. It was just that it was impossible for many reasons. Reasons she couldn't bring herself to think about. She was ashamed at her own foolishness and ineptitude that had brought her to this state. She should have known better than to...
She stopped herself. It was best not to dwell on what awaited her on their return to civilization. If she didn't find what she needed here, she would have to think of something else to solve her problems. Though returning home empty handed was not an option, not if she wanted to face some very ugly consequences.
She regarded Roxton who was still watching her with those probing eyes. There were many times she wanted to tell him everything. Honorable bastard that he was, he would immediately leap to her defense and offer all that was his, but that wasn't her way.
No, Marguerite Krux needed to stand on her own. Men had gotten her into this mess and she'll be damned to allow one to get her out of it. She could do it herself. If only one of her many prayers would be answered.
Though she shouldn't expect many more prayers to be answered in the near future. She had used up a good number of them these last few days. Her lips curved up into a genuine smile. She watched the surprise in Roxton as he cocked his head at her quizzically, warily returning her smile, unsure of what she was thinking. She liked keeping him on his toes. He never knew if she was just being civil or whether she was debating clawing his eyes out. Both were viable options at times.
She laughed lightly. Yes, at least one prayer had been answered and for now that was all that mattered. Returning home to civilization, finding her wealth, and solving her dilemma, all these could wait just a little while longer.
"What are you thinking about?" he finally asked her, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"Just drink your tea, Roxton." She picked up another rock and began her scrutiny once more.
He complied and let out a satisfied sigh. "Yes, thank God for tea. A glimmer of culture in the face of all this barbarity."
"Oh, do shut up."
He smiled gently. "Yes, your highness."