As the elevator made its way to the bottom Roxton returned to Marguerite’s side and saw that she was shivering. It was a warm night and there was no reason for it other than fear and shock. He motioned to Malone, indicating he wanted the light blanket folded over one of the dining table’s chairs. “You okay?” he asked her.
“Never better.” Marguerite huffed, scathingly, as he lay the blanket on her. Actually, she was scared out of her bloody wits and contemptuous comments were her only way, right now, to keep from shrieking like a loon. “So, have Veronica and Challenger abandoned a sinking ship?” she asked.
“Hardly, they’ll be back by late morning.” he promised.
“All we have to do,” Malone said, “is keep you in one piece until then.”
Technically, Malone was right but Roxton could have punched him for his lack of tact. The woman was scared enough as it was. “We’ll watch over you. Nothing will happen, Marguerite.”
“We have the mirror right here.” Malone offered aware of his gaff and trying to make up for thoughtlessness, “If Caracte tries anything we’ll just show it how ugly it really is and send it packing again.”
“Hopefully before it plucks me bald.” Marguerite lifted a hand to her head again, the hair pulling a vivid memory.
Roxton said, “I think Challenger is right. It’s done for the night. The treehouse is probably the safest place to be right now.”
The rest of the evening went on without incident. Malone stoked the fire and made them all a tasty broth with rice and fresh, warm bread for their supper.
Marguerite, holding desperately onto the mirror, began to look a bit better, although still a little tense. She even took time out to wash her face and survey the damage. Her cheeks were puffy and still a bit discolored but as long as she did not take any further blows, avoiding a broken nose or limbs, she would heal well and no one would ever know she had once been the punching bag for a demented imp.
When it came time for sleep Roxton volunteered to take first watch. He didn’t want her to be alone. Marguerite agreed. She did not want to be alone. Malone retired to his room and told Roxton he would spell him in a few hours. Normally Marguerite would not have been so open to having Roxton invade her bedroom but, under the circumstances, there was no tentativeness. She kicked off her boots and stockings then lay on the bed, the light blanket still about her shoulders, while he sat in a chair in the corner of the dark room and waited.
After a half hour of restless tossing and turning Marguerite sat up in bed and called: “Roxton?”
“Yes.” he answered right away.
“I can’t sleep knowing you’re in the room watching me.” she said honestly to the dark.
“Not much we can do about that, Marguerite.”
“Are you sleepy?”
“Well yeah, of course. But I’ll stay awake.”
“No you won’t.” Her tone was practical, “Come over here. My bed is big enough for two and if we lay close, if something happens during the night, you’ll know it just from the movement of my body. Not to mention the blood curdling screams.”
“Let me get this straight. You want me to share your bed?”
“For sleep Roxton.” Marguerite clarified. “You’ve been through almost as much as I have today, walking through the jungle all day and fighting off evil doers. You deserve a break and if we are to do battle tomorrow I’ll need you well rested.”
Marguerite watched his hesitant outline near the bed. She took his hand and pulled him down next to her. Marguerite wasn’t sure what was making her so bold, either out of fear or exhaustion, but she lay close to the hunter and didn’t feel nervous when his arm came around her back.
“Are you sure about this, Marguerite?”
“Sh. Go to sleep.”
Roxton could see the sensibleness of what she had arranged. Laying this close, if either of them moved the other would know it but, somehow, he doubted if Malone had volunteered to watch her first Miss Krux would have suggested the same solution. On the other hand, Roxton dismally thought, maybe she would have. Still, who was he to not take what was offered? He really was very tired. Already Roxton could feel himself dozing and it seemed very right with her head on his shoulder and when her hand rest easily on his chest.
The morning arrived with all the usual jungle sounds. Roxton opened his eyes and at once realized Malone had never come to relieve him. He was reminded about what Marguerite had said; all of them were exhausted from walking about the jungle for the last three days and decided Ned probably was just never able to rouse himself.
Roxton looked down at Marguerite and tenderly smiled. The swelling about her cheeks had gone down and there was just a slight bruising on the corner of her mouth now. The woman was hardy and healed quickly. She was no China doll. That was just one of the things he admired about Marguerite. Still, when he thought of her ordeal, Roxton could not help allowing a wave of protectiveness overcome him. She would hate that but there were times when even he needed someone close, protecting his back, when forces about them proved to be too dangerous to go it alone.
“What time is it?” Marguerite asked, now awake but with her eyes closed, not moving too quickly.
He hadn‘t made any movements and wonder how she knew he was awake. “Dawn, I think.”
Blinking the sleep from her eyes, Marguerite propped herself up a bit and looked down at him. “Making yourself at home, I see.”
“Was never a man to refuse an invitation, particularly when the deliverer is so beautiful.”
“Oh, I see.” She smiled ever so slightly, warmed by the kind comment.
“This was a good idea, Marguerite.” He said, honestly.
She saw that Roxton was sincere and Marguerite felt gratified despite the circumstances, “I do come up with them every once in awhile.”
“More then that, I think.”
Roxton was being generous with his praise and she abruptly wondered why. Could it be simply because he was in her bed, their current mood calling for such comments, or because he genuinely respected her survival skills? Perhaps a little of both, she thought.
If she was smart she would probably have moved away from him at this point. They were both awake, having made it through the night. Veronica and Challenger would be back in a couple hours, hopefully with good news from the Zangas, and she could really use a hot cup of coffee.
Still, laying here like this, the warmth of such a handsome and endearing man by her side, Marguerite found she longed for sensations she hadn’t experienced for quite sometime. They were both adults, she reasoned, and he had saved her life. Perhaps a little reward wasn’t totally out of the question.
Marguerite leaned down and softly kissed Roxton on the mouth, gently and very slowly, her bruised lip making the contact painful but the act itself pleasurable. When she lifted her head she whispered: “Thank you, John.”
The expression on his face was a combination of yearning and satisfaction. He lifted a very gentle finger and drew a soft line from her temple down to her jaw. When she was like this he felt he could love her and only her for the rest of his life. She could take away his fear and self loathing just by being with him, caring for him, and appreciating him as a friend and lover.
Odd how a simple kiss could make him forget all those months of control, trying so desperately not to get close to Marguerite, for fear of a broken heart. Or no, his heart was already broken but could it be that this was the woman who could help him repair it or, perhaps, help him grow another?
With little urging he pulled her close again and gently kissed her lips, cheek, and jaw.
Marguerite thought, at first, he was being a little too gentle but then it came to her that she was battered and bruised and he was trying very hard not to hurt her further. He was being considerate, tempering his passion with selflessness. John Roxton really was quite an adorable man and if he wasn’t careful he might just make her fall in love with him.
Startled by the thought, Marguerite pulled back a little. “Maybe this is something we can explore at a later time -- when I’m not being threatened by a typically precarious plateau beastie.” she opted, hating that she sounded so nervous.
He spotted the poorly hidden fear in her eyes, not coming from the attack but from emotions she was trying to keep hidden, and knew now was not the time to press his advantage. However, Roxton was pleased that she had not cut him off completely. There was a time when Marguerite would have, without compunction, told him he was completely the fool.
“I guess we better get up and have breakfast.” Roxton said, disappointed but understanding. “I think that‘s eggs and coffee I smell. Malone must be awake …”
“Yes.” Then oddly, Marguerite started to laugh.
“What?” Roxton asked, mystified. It seemed an odd time to get a case of the giggles.
“How are you doing that?” she asked.
“Are you pulling on my toes with your feet?”
At the same time they looked down. Roxton was wearing his boots. He never had time last night to take them off before he fell onto Marguerite’s bed. Even before they made eye contact they understood.
Marguerite was pulled brusquely and roughly from the bed by her legs, and dragged down the hall and up the stairs, heading - once again - toward the elevator.
“Malone!” Roxton shouted, bounding from the bed. He looked for the hand mirror but it was no where to be seen. He could have swore she brought it down with them last night.
Malone, in the kitchen, had heard Marguerite’s screams and took action the minute he heard Roxton’s shouts. He leapt over to the chaise and grabbed the looking glass where it must have been left last night. When he heard Marguerite being pulled up the stairs, her cries and curses greeting the new day, he stood in wait.
Unfortunately, this time the creature would not be as easily confounded. While still dragging Marguerite along by her kicking legs, the woman attempting to clutch onto anything within her reach, the invisible entity slapped the mirror from Malone’s hands, it shattering on the floor beside his feet, then the creature pushed Malone out of the way, as if he was a rag doll, to get to the object of its single-minded focus, into the elevator.
Marguerite found and clutched hard onto the support beam just outside the elevator but could feel her fingers losing their grip.
“Stop!” shouted Roxton, holding another looking glass, the one Marguerite hung on the wall of her bedroom.
A familiar, loud cry was heard as the entity lost this third battle, obviously infuriated by the development, and exited the treehouse once again from the balcony.
Roxton quickly handed the mirror over to a dazed Malone and crouched down to sooth Marguerite, where she lay. She had yet to look up and she still gripped the support beam as if she was being pulled. “Come on now.” he gently touched her shoulders with one hand and eased her grip from the wood with the other, “It’s gone now. You’re safe.”
“Safe?” she whispered, turning over and looking up at him.
“Are you alright, Marguerite?”
“Am I alright?!” she suddenly blasted, livid. “Do I look alright?! No, I’m not alright! I am so far from being all right that it makes my teeth hurt!” Furious, the woman got to her feet, pushing away Roxton’s supportive hands and - breathing heavily and full of menace - said: “I’ve had enough! Get you gun belts, boys! We are going back to that damn temple! And when we get there God help whatever lives there because if I have anything to do with it that demon will die a slow, torturous death!”
“And just how do you expect to fight the thing?” Roxton asked, trying to make her see reason..
She had actually thought about it last night, while Roxton snoozed beside her, sleep not coming to her as quickly as her protector. “If there was a scroll in the temple to drive it out then, damn it, there will be a scroll there to send it back to hell -- or wherever it came from.”
“What about Challenger and Veronica?” Malone asked a bit feebly, still a little wobbly from the entity’s attack and a bit taken aback and - frankly - frightened by Marguerite’s rage.
“They are on their way back.” Roxton added, “He‘s right, Marguerite. We should wait. The Zanga may know of a way to combat this thing.”
“If we meet them before we get to the temple then that’s just dandy.” Marguerite growled, “But I am not staying another minute in this treehouse. Not until that creature is dead and buried … and so help me if either of you tell me that it’s safer here then outside … I will throw you both over the balcony!”
And she was away from them.
“Were you going to say that to her?” Malone asked Roxton, curious.
“No. Not me.” The hunter replied, and also moved away to get his hat and gun belt.
They had come to the conclusion that the hand mirror was on Marguerite’s bedside table last night - she recalled putting it there - but somehow the creature had gotten in and fetched it back to the common room. Perhaps it felt this little act of swap would give it enough time to get Marguerite away from her people before the mortals were able to use it as a weapon again. It hadn’t counted on Marguerite’s feminine vanity; that there would be another looking glass on the premises.
“During it’s rein, probably a thousand years ago or more, looking glasses were probably very few and far between.” Malone said.
“If they had them at all.” Roxton added.
“Why didn’t it just break the mirror?” Marguerite wondered. She had washed up and tied her hair, with a thin rope of leather, to the back of her head in a simple ponytail. She might have tried a braid but, honestly, her scalp hurt far too much to attempted even this simple hairstyle.
“I don’t think it can beak a mirror on its own.” Malone said as they started down the path, away from the treehouse. “When you think about it, I was holding the mirror and it was the force of it bumping me, making me drop it, that shattered the mirror in the first place.”
“At least we know it has limitations.” Roxton commented.
“Just the thought of that thing in my bedroom last night, probably looking at us while we slept ... it makes me sick.” Marguerite moved ahead of the men, moody and not caring if either replied.
Malone stepped in beside Roxton, “Oh, speaking of that …” he drawled, quietly, but couldn‘t help the jest despite their current circumstances, “I did get up last night to switch places with you, Roxton, but you two looked just so cozy I didn’t want to interrupt.” He smiled at the hunter, awaiting his response -- which was quick..
“Not what you think, Malone.” Roxton said, “I was tired and it seemed a good solution. If one of us awoke …” he started.
“Oh, of course.” Malone mock agreed.
Before Roxton could further explain the trio made visual on a welcomed sight.
“Marguerite, here!” Challenger called.
Veronica followed him and waved.
“Are we glad to see you.” Malone’s relief was genuine. He touched Veronica’s warm, tanned shoulder and she gave him an affectionate wink.
“We have some very valuable information.” Challenger spoke eagerly then, seeing Marguerite nervous and a little flushed, he asked gently: “How are you?”
She did not say: ‘Not good.’ but he could see it on her face.
“We had another visit this morning.” Roxton clarified, freeing Marguerite from having to go back over her attack. He included how they used a mirror again. They all had signal mirrors within easy reach as well as the larger looking glass from Marguerite’s room. They carried them now.
Challenger said, “According to the Zanga shaman we spoke with, Caracte is a peculiar ancient entity, quite young for its kind but thoroughly egocentric. It’s a combination of demons from the outside of the plateau; Scottish, Irish and perhaps a few more just off the British Isles.”
“That’s hitting close to home.” Roxton commented.
Challenger continued, “It was banished to the plateau during the time of the druids and when Caracte became too impossible to handle, its followers - with the aid of a priestess - found a way to lock it away. They hoped one day it would learn its lesson. Therefore there was the scroll, created to banish Caracte, and another to bring it back.”
“From what I’ve experienced it has not learned any lessons.“ Marguerite snapped.
Malone said, “Then Marguerite was right. There is a way to get rid of it and it’s at the temple.”
Challenger nodded. “The problem with Caracte is the longer it’s free the more powerful it becomes. When you woke it at the temple it was at minimum strength. That’s probably why it let you go. It needed to get used to the light and earth around it.“
Roxton, Marguerite and Malone looked at one another. If it had let them go as Challenger claimed, after the fight they had put up, this next meeting was going to be monumentally difficult.
Veronica pressed, “We need to exorcise this demon, send it back to where it was exiled, before it takes over the plateau, endangering everyone here.” She added, “Right now it’s preoccupied with Marguerite but that won’t last forever.” The jungle girl eyed her friend, noting her hushed apprehension, and felt sorry for her. Marguerite did not deserve to be abused like this and, if recent experience was any indication, the whole frightening mess was going to get worse before it got better.
They traveled for hours and spoke very little. Once in awhile, to cut the tension, Challenger mentioned a new bird or plant sighting or he would ask Veronica if she knew a short cut but, other then this, the travelers were on a mission and thinking only of their part in.
Roxton, of course, kept his eyes on the path ahead, listening for threat in the jungle about them, but he also watched Marguerite. She at first appeared strong and driven, radiating a vigor with her nervousness to get where they were going quickly. But then he saw perspiration beading the skin of her cheeks and forehead, the woman swiping it with impatience, dampening her blouse sleeve. Then he saw the obvious pain, causing her to breath heavily and stumble a time or two as she walked.
She would keep going like this if he did not stop them, “Time for a breather.” Roxton announced.
“Is it?” Malone asked, watching Roxton approach Marguerite,
He lifted her chin with a finger so he could look into her eyes. “We need to sit down for a moment, don’t we?” Roxton asked her.
Reluctantly, she nodded. Her eyes were glassy, her teeth chattering ever so slightly, and she was grateful for his intervention.
“Is something wrong?” Challenger approached.
“It’s nothing. My arm hurts.” Marguerite said, low and a bit self-conscious.
“Let me take a look at it.” Veronica said and sat down with Marguerite on the path.
Malone took the opportunity to refill his and Challenger’s canteens in a nearby stream.
“How much further?” Challenger asked.
Roxton looked about the area, recalling natural path markers. “Not too far. Maybe four or five miles.” he estimated.
Veronica could tell something was not right with her patient the moment they sat down and she got a good look at Marguerite‘s face. The woman had paled considerably, perspired profusely and she was visibly shaking. “You have a fever.” Veronica whispered and took Marguerite’s acknowledgment, a short nod, in stride. She then gently pulled up her white sleeve. Veronica looked at the gauze bandage she had folded over Marguerite’s wound last night. She could smell the infection before seeing it. The burns did not look that bad last night but as she rolled the gauze away Veronica could see what she feared most.
The burns had reddened now, tiny snake-like lines spreading gravely from the wound. ‘Contamination,’ Veronica thought. A thick green and yellow discharge was also present. It seemed impossible for the wound to have gotten so badly infected in such a short period of time but the evidence was right in front of them. Veronica cleaned the injury as best she could with cool water, noting how Marguerite bravely bit her lower lip against the pain, then added a vegetable ointment she produced from her own leather bag. Veronica then rewrapped the arm and said, “If so much wasn’t at stake I would tell the men to take you back to the treehouse at once, Marguerite. You really are in no condition to continue.”
Marguerite shook her head back and forward in a negative gesture, “Both you and I know that isn’t an option. I have to be there when we dispatch Caracte.” She indicated the arm Veronica was wrapping, “I was marked by him and I think it means more than Caracte considering me his possession. It saw something in me … it recognized something in me …” Marguerite shrugged, “I can’t explain it. I just felt and odd familiarity when Caracte took my arm at the temple and later when it tried to take me from the treehouse.”
“Time to get moving!” Roxton called over to the women.
Malone had returned with the canteens and he and Challenger were already walking down the path.
“Let’s go.” Marguerite said.
Veronica had always known that Marguerite was a brave and driven woman, given to occasional moments of kindness, but until now she hadn’t realized there was something deeper to the woman then an unwholesome attachment to gems, power and self preservation.