|The Most Dangerous Game
Author: Liz4 PM
A big game hunter arrives on the plateau with a new prey in mindRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Angst - Words: 10,561 - Reviews: 19 - Favs: 2 - Published: 06-13-01 - id: 316523
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: The Most Dangerous Game
Disclaimers: I own no one Lost World. This story is based on Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924). To Steffi, TLWROX, Danielle, CAP, and everyone else who read my first LW story and sent me feedback. Thank you so much for the positive, encouraging feedback.
"Do you see them yet, Malone?" Marguerite called from Challenger's lab.
The young reporter sighed. "Not since you asked me five minutes ago, Marguerite," he muttered to himself. Nevertheless, he stood up from his chair in the kitchen and walked out to the balcony to look for the three other members of their group. After a moment of surveying the land by the treehouse, he walked back to the table and his journal. "I don't see them, Marguerite," he called back to her.
Roxton, Veronica, and Challenger had gone out earlier in the day to hunt and collect medicinal plants, while Marguerite and Ned had drawn cleaning duty for the treehouse. Ned had cleaned the bedrooms earlier in the day, leaving Marguerite with the kitchen and Challenger's lab. After much complaining about the mess others made, the heiress had finally gotten around to cleaning, and was just finishing up in Challenger's lab. Ned had prepared dinner and was now writing in his journal while they waited for the other three to return so they could eat.
Fifteen minutes later Marguerite emerged from Challenger's lab and threw herself down in a chair. "Well, I'm glad that's done," she said. "Cleaning this place is absolutely exhausting." Ned smiled to himself, but said nothing, thinking that when they had first arrived on the plateau, Marguerite probably wouldn't have even cleaned her own bedroom, much less the kitchen and Challenger's lab.
Marguerite was about to say something else when they heard the elevator. "Finally," Marguerite said dramatically, standing up to bring the plates of dried raptor meat and fruit to the table. Ned finished what he was writing in his journal, then took it into his bedroom. He returned to the kitchen in time to see Challenger, Roxton, and Veronica stepping off of the elevator.
"Well?" Marguerite asked them.
"It's good to see you, too, Marguerite," Roxton said sarcastically.
"It was a very successful trip," Challenger said. "I'm going to go put these plants in my lab before we have dinner."
He walked off to his lab and Ned turned to the others. "Did you have any trouble?" he asked. He was a little worried because of the length of time they had been gone, but tried not to show it.
"We had a minor run in with a Raptor," Veronica told him.
"Nothing we couldn't handle, though," Roxton added. "And we brought back two Raptors with us for food."
"Only two Raptors and you were gone all that time?" Marguerite asked in mock amazement. "Why, Lord Roxton, I do believe you may be losing your touch as a world renowned hunter."
Roxton gave her a rakish grin. "Why, Miss Krux," he said as he walked towards her. "You know that's not true. I always get my prey."
"Is that so?" Marguerite asked archly, but she was smiling as she moved toward him.
Veronica and Ned exchanged a look. "Um, we're just going to go down and get the Raptor meat before we eat," Veronica said. While she preferred Roxton and Marguerite's flirting to their constant bickering, she was still uncomfortable watching their exchange.
Roxton and Marguerite both turned to them, each looking disappointed a moment, but quickly covering it up. "We'll help you," Roxton volunteered.
"Right. The more of us that do it, the faster it'll get done," Marguerite said. The others stopped and stared at her in disbelief. "What?" she asked.
"If I hadn't been here with you all day, I'd be tempted to ask if you'd found another shining cave today," Ned said.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Marguerite demanded. "I happen to be very hungry, and I know that the sooner this gets done, the sooner we can eat."
"Marguerite's right," Veronica said, elbowing Ned gently. "Let's just go get the meat so we can eat." It was rare that Marguerite actually offered her help, and Veronica was going to take advantage of the offer while it stood.
The four explorers made quick work of dividing and storing the Raptor meat, and soon joined Challenger in the kitchen for dinner. They discussed what Challenger, Roxton, and Veronica had found in the jungle that day and talked about plans for the following day. After dinner Veronica and Ned cleaned up the dishes and Challenger headed down to his lab to do some work with the plants he had gotten that day. Roxton settled down in a chair to read one of the books left behind by Veronica's father and Marguerite headed off to bed early, claiming that all the cleaning she had done that day had left her "utterly exhausted." One by one, the others drifted off to their own bedrooms and soon the treehouse was silent, its inhabitants sound asleep.
The next morning Marguerite was the last one in the treehouse to wake up and join the others at the breakfast table. Ned and Veronica were waiting for Marguerite to eat breakfast so that the three of them could go do laundry at the lake. Roxton was going to chop wood after he finished eating breakfast and Challenger wanted to make adjustments to the electrical fence that surrounded the treehouse.
An hour later, Marguerite, Ned, and Veronica were finishing up with the last of the dirty laundry. Marguerite was rinsing out one of Roxton's shirts, when suddenly she froze. "Do you hear that?" she asked the other two in a voice barely above a whisper.
They paused a moment, and then they heard it, too. A low, humming noise. "That sounds like a motor!" Ned exclaimed excitedly.
Veronica searched the tree line a moment, then raised her hand to point. "Look!" The others followed her finger and saw a plane flying low over the trees in the distance. "It looks like it's in trouble," she said. Black smoke was billowing out of the plane and as the explorers watched, the plane dipped even lower and then disappeared from view.
"Come on," Ned said, gathering up the wet clothing. "We have to get back to the treehouse and get Roxton and Challenger and see if we can help the people in the plane."
Marguerite and Veronica also snatched up the clothing around them and the three hurried back to the treehouse. When the elevator reached the main room they found Challenger and Roxton waiting for them. "Did you see it, too?" Roxton asked.
Veronica nodded. "It went down about an hour or so from here," she said. "We've got to go and see if anyone survived the crash. They're going to need our help." They quickly hung the wet clothing around the treehouse while Roxton and Challenger gathered up weapons and supplies for their trek through the jungle. A few moments later they were all ready to go, and they headed out through the jungle towards where Veronica was sure the plane had gone down.
When the explorers reached the plane a little over an hour later, they saw no movement coming from inside the plane. Surprisingly, they didn't see any dinosaurs around the craft, either. "All right, let's see if there's anybody still on board," Roxton said, cautiously making his way towards the plane, rifle poised and ready for any predators. The others followed behind him, each keeping a careful eye out as well.
When they reached the plane, they saw that there were three men on board. They were all still strapped to their seats, struggling with the straps they held them to their seats. Roxton pried open the door of the airplane and stepped inside. "Are you all right?" he asked the men as he leaned forward and began to cut one of them free of his straps with his knife.
"Yes, thank you," the man whose straps he was cutting answered, finally freed from his bonds. He stepped over to the man next to him and quickly cut his straps away. Then he turned to the man in the pilot's seat and cut his seatbelt as well.
"You three are very lucky," Roxton said to the men.
The first man nodded. "I believe we are." He and Roxton exited the plane and the man tipped his hat to the other explorers. "General Albert Reinhardt," he introduced himself. "And these are my associates, Andras," the stocky blond man on his left, "and Phillip," the tall, lean dark haired man to his right.
"Professor George Challenger, Ned Malone, Marguerite Krux, Veronica, and I'm John Roxton," Roxton said, introducing each of the explorers in turn.
"Lord John Roxton? The world renowned hunter?" Reinhardt asked, his face lighting up.
Roxton nodded. "Have we met?" he asked, looking at the other man closely.
Reinhardt shook his head. "No, but I've heard so much about you. As a hunter myself, I have such admiration for a man of your skill and talent," Reinhardt said.
"Um, thank you," Roxton said warily as Reinhardt enthusiastically shook his hand.
"We should be getting back to the treehouse," Challenger said. "You men may need medical attention, and it's not really very safe to be standing out in the open like this."
"We'll explain on the way back," Ned said in response to Reinhardt's puzzled expression.
"Of course. My men and I just need to grab some of our things from the plane, and we'll be ready to go," Reinhardt said. He nodded to the two other men and they re-entered the plane. A few moments they rejoined the others, each carrying two large bags. "All right, we're ready," Reinhardt said jovially. "Lead the way."
As they walked back to the treehouse, Reinhardt told the explorers how he and the two other men had been out on a hunting trip when they had encountered a storm. "Phillip was flying the plane and he just couldn't control it in the weather. The next thing we knew, we were crashing down here," Reinhardt told them.
He was about to say more when Veronica hushed him. "Get down," she told everyone.
The other explorers dropped to the ground without question, and after a moment's confusion, Reinhardt and his associates followed suit. A moment later a large Pterodactyl flew overhead, swooping down towards the explorers. Veronica pulled a knife from her boot and threw it up at the dinosaur, catching it cleanly in the chest and sending it crashing to the ground nearby.
Everyone stood up and Reinhardt gaped in amazement, first at the downed predator and then at Veronica. "Miss Veronica, that was simply amazing," he said, looking at her with newfound respect as they continued on to the treehouse. "But was that what I think it was?"
"A Pterodactyl, yes," Challenger said.
"But, but that's a dinosaur!" Reinhardt exclaimed. "And they're all extinct."
"Not here on the plateau they're not," Marguerite informed him dryly.
Reinhardt looked at her in disbelief. "My dear, you can't really expect me to believe that dinosaurs are not extinct here," he said.
Marguerite shrugged. "Believe whatever you like," she told him, mirroring the condescending tone she heard in his voice. "But if you don't believe that, then how do you explain what just attacked us?"
"It's true," Roxton told him. "Somehow on this plateau dinosaurs, along with many other creatures, still exist."
Reinhardt's eyes lit up. "That must make for an absolutely fascinating hunt," he breathed.
"Well, it sure keeps life from being boring," Marguerite said wryly. She didn't exactly know why, but there was something about Reinhardt that she just didn't like. The way he kept staring at both Roxton and Veronica, almost as if he were sizing them up, was also making her slightly suspicious and she vowed to herself to keep an eye on him. *Better to be safe than sorry,* she told herself.
"We'll explain it in detail once we get back to the treehouse and settled," Challenger assured the three men.
The rest of the walk back was spent in relative silence, with Reinhardt asking a question here or there about the landscape around them. When they finally reached the treehouse, Challenger and Malone took the three men to Summerlee's old room to put their bags down and change, while Veronica put the kettle on for tea and Roxton got some food together to tide their guests over while dinner was being prepared.
"I don't trust that man," Marguerite announced to Veronica and Roxton in a low voice when they joined her at the kitchen table.
"What are you talking about, Marguerite?" Veronica asked. "What's wrong with him?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Marguerite said. "There's just something strange about him. Didn't you feel it? He kept staring at the two of you the whole way back. It was very strange."
Veronica looked skeptical, but Roxton nodded, surprising both of the women. "There is something a little off about him," Roxton said. "I don't know, he makes me a bit uncomfortable. I'll talk to him, see what I can find out."
"Be careful, John," Marguerite said, and Roxton couldn't help but smile at the obvious worry he heard in her voice.
"Why, Miss Krux, are you worried about my well being? I'm flattered," he teased.
"I'm sorry, did you get the impression I cared?" she teased back. She was smiling, but she couldn't hide the undercurrent of worry in her voice. "I mean it, John. We don't know anything about him."
"Don't worry, I'll be careful," Roxton told her. "We'll all just have to keep a close eye on him."
They agreed with him just as Challenger and Malone returned with the other men. "We thought you might like something to eat and drink while we prepare dinner," Veronica told the men as she, Roxton, and Marguerite stood up from the table.
"Yes, Roxton and I were about to prepare some of the Raptor that he and Veronica killed yesterday," Marguerite said.
"You were going to make dinner, Lord Roxton?" Reinhardt said, his tone incredulous.
"We all do our share," Roxton said. He shot Marguerite a look, sensing her annoyance at Reinhardt's comment.
"Well, I was hoping we could discuss hunting," Reinhardt said. "But I'm sure there will be plenty of time for that after dinner."
Roxton nodded, then headed to the kitchen area with Marguerite to prepare dinner while the others sat down to fill their guests in on life on the plateau.
After dinner, Reinhardt's associates, Phillip and Andras, retired to their bedroom. Both Challenger and Veronica also said they were going to bed, while Ned headed to his room to write in his journal. Marguerite pretended to be reading one of Veronica's father's books, but in reality she was keeping an eye on Roxton and Reinhardt, who had withdrawn to the balcony after dinner to discuss hunting.
Marguerite promised herself that she would not leave Roxton alone with Reinhardt, but after an hour she felt herself dozing off in her chair. Reinhardt glanced in from the balcony and saw Marguerite fighting sleep. "Miss Krux, you look worn out," he called in quietly to her. "Maybe you should get some rest."
Marguerite roused herself and walked towards the balcony. "Don't be silly," she told him, trying unsuccessfully to hide a yawn behind her hand. "I was only resting my eyes a moment so that I could continue reading this lovely book."
"Marguerite, really, we won't be up much longer ourselves," Roxton told her. He was touched by Marguerite's concern for his safety, but he could tell she was exhausted. "You should go to bed." He looked at her, trying to convey with his eyes that he would be all right for a few moments alone with Reinhardt.
Marguerite seemed to understand because after a moment she nodded. "Perhaps you're right. Goodnight, General Reinhardt. Goodnight, John."
"Goodnight, Miss Krux, it was lovely to meet you," Reinhardt said with a smile that made Marguerite shudder inwardly.
"Goodnight, Marguerite," Roxton said, smiling warmly at her. "I'll see you in the morning." She returned his smile, and then headed off to her bedroom to get some rest.
The men returned to their conversation and Roxton casually mentioned to Reinhardt that he was surprised the man had recognized his name. Reinhardt smiled at him. "You see, Lord Roxton, I have but one great passion in my life, and that is hunting. I have read every book on hunting published in both English and French, and I keep up on different hunting expeditions and who is at the top of the field. I shall be most honored to hunt with you, Lord Roxton. And I would like very much for Miss Veronica to join as us well. I was very impressed by her skills earlier today. I dare say we will have a thrilling time."
"Well, yes, hunting the dinosaurs on the plateau can be quite exciting," Roxton said carefully. "But they're very dangerous, as well. Probably the most dangerous game a man could ever encounter."
Reinhardt smiled strangely at Roxton. "No, sir, I believe you are wrong. I believe there is more dangerous game to hunt."
Roxton looked at the man skeptically. "Well, I'd certainly hate to encounter it."
Reinhardt chuckled. "Lord Roxton, I hope you do not think me a braggart, but I believe I have invented a new sensation in hunting. You see, my entire life, ever since I was a small boy, has been dedicated to the hunt. However, on my most recent hunting trip I came to a realization one night in my tent that quite saddened me. Hunting was beginning to bore me! Imagine, the very thing that has driven my entire life, beginning to bore me. It was quite a terrifying thought, to be sure."
"Was there any particular reason you could think of that it bored you, General Reinhardt?" Roxton asked.
"Well, I turned it over in my mind many times, and finally realized that hunting no longer seemed sporting to me. I always got my prey. Always. The animals never had any chance with me because they had only their instincts, and against my ability to think and reason, they were quite helpless. And I realized what I must do," Reinhardt continued. "I must invent a new animal to hunt."
"A new animal?" Roxton questioned. "You're pulling my leg now, General Reinhardt."
Reinhardt smiled at the hunter. "No, Lord Roxton, I am in earnest. I decided to try my luck the next day in the jungles of Africa where we were at the time, and I was most pleased with the result. No animal comes close to the excitement this animal provides me with. Now I have a prey which can match its reasoning and wits with my own."
Reinhardt laughed at the obvious puzzlement on Roxton's face. "I wanted the perfect prey," Reinhardt explained. "So I found myself an animal that has courage, cunning, and the ability to reason."
"But aside from some of the creatures we've encountered only on the plateau, no animal has the ability to reason," Roxton said.
"My dear Lord Roxton, there is one animal that can," Reinhardt told him.
Roxton's mouth dropped open as he stared at the general in shock. "General Reinhardt, you can't mean what I think you mean. That is a very sick joke."
"It's no joke, Lord Roxton," Reinhardt said smoothly. "I never joke about hunting."
Roxton stood from his chair. "What you're talking about is not hunting!" he objected. "It's murder!"
Reinhardt laughed. "Such an unpleasant word. Lord Roxton, I had hoped that after your time in this savage land you would have abandoned such fanciful ideas about the value of human life."
"Forgive me if the idea of being a savage murderer does not appeal to me," Roxton said stiffly.
Anger flashed momentarily in Reinhardt's eyes, but was quickly replaced with a mirthful light once more. "It's not as awful as you make it seem," Reinhardt told him. "It's a game you see. I give my prey a hunting knife and an hour head start. I then follow with only a pistol. If my prey eludes me for three days, he wins. If I find him, he loses," the general finished with a smile.
"And what if the person refuses to be hunted?" Roxton asked.
The general raised an eyebrow. "I have insurance, so that the prey cannot help but agree to the hunt. Really, Lord Roxton, I find your attitude quite discouraging. I had hoped you and Veronica and I could go hunting tomorrow."
"No," Roxton said, shaking his head. "I will not hunt with you, and I don't believe Veronica will, either."
"Are you so certain of that?" Reinhardt asked.
"Yes," Roxton told him, not liking the smug look on Reinhardt's face.
"Andras! Phillip!" Reinhardt called loudly. A moment later Reinhardt's two men stepped into view. However, they were not alone.
"Marguerite! Malone!" Roxton cried. Andras stood with a very disheveled Marguerite in front of him. Her hands were tied and his gun was trained on her head. Phillip was meanwhile depositing an unconscious Malone on one of the kitchen chairs. He then proceeded to tie his arms and legs to the chair.
"The other two are unconscious in their bedrooms," Andras told Reinhardt.
"Get your hands off of me," Marguerite growled at Andras, struggling with him.
He pressed the muzzle of his gun against her temple. "You wouldn't want me to use this, would you?" he asked her ominously. Marguerite immediately stopped struggling and looked at Roxton pleadingly.
Roxton turned to Reinhardt. "Let them go. Immediately!" he demanded. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I told you, Lord Roxton, it's a game," Reinhardt explained. "These two, along with Challenger, are my insurance, so that you and Veronica will have no choice but to play." He turned to Phillip, who by now had finished tying up Malone. "Tie her to a chair and then go get the other two," he commanded him.
Phillip took Marguerite from Andras and tied her into the chair next to Malone while Andras kept his gun leveled at her. Roxton looked to the gun rack to his left, but Reinhardt's voice stopped him. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Lord Roxton," he said. "One wrong move from you and Miss Krux will have to pay the price for your actions. That would certainly put a damper on our game, now wouldn't it?"
Roxton glared at him, but did as he was told. Phillip disappeared into Veronica's room and returned with her unconscious body. Once he had tied her up, he retrieved Challenger's body from his bedroom and tied him to a chair as well.
"Lord Roxton, if you'll have a seat, please," Reinhardt said, gesturing to the empty chair beside Marguerite. "And keep your hands where I can see them, please. We wouldn't want to spoil the game."
Roxton took a seat next to Marguerite, shooting her what he hoped was a reassuring look as he sat. "All right, wake those three up," Reinhardt instructed his men.
The two men each pulled out a vial of smelling salts and held them beneath Veronica and Ned's noses. When Veronica began to rouse, Phillip moved his vial beneath Challenger's nose. Finally, the three began to awaken, and in moments all were wide-awake.
"What's going on?" Veronica asked.
"It seems our friend Reinhardt here is a murderer," Roxton said flatly.
"Now, Roxton, you make it sound so barbaric," Reinhardt said, chuckling. "I think I had better explain it to them all."
He repeated the tale he had told Roxton earlier to the four other explorers. "Don't you see?" he asked. "It's brilliant. This prey will finally be able to provide me with sport again and hunting will no longer be boring!" He poured himself a glass of Roxton's brandy and raised the glass to the others. "I drink to opponents finally worthy of my talent as a hunter. Roxton and Veronica, in you two I will finally be well matched in my choice of prey."
The explorers stared at him in shocked silence. Marguerite was the first one to recover her voice. "So you're going to hunt John and Veronica like beasts and you call it a game?" she asked. "You sick, twisted, bastard!"
Reinhardt looked mildly shocked. "Miss Krux, really," he admonished. "Such language. That kind of talk shall not be tolerated in polite company."
Marguerite stared at him incredulously. She would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious. This madman who wanted to hunt her friends down like dogs was going to chastise her for using coarse language?! Roxton could feel Marguerite tense next to him and knew she was preparing for a verbal tirade against Reinhardt. He put his hand on her leg to calm her as he whispered, "Marguerite, please. Let's try not to antagonize him."
Marguerite glared at him momentarily, but her anger dissipated almost immediately. "John, what are we going to do?" she whispered to him.
"Why, you're going to play the game, of course," Reinhardt boomed cheerfully. "At first light John and Veronica will be given an hour head start. Then I will follow them. At the end of three days or less, we will have our winner. And no cheating," he added, waving a finger at Veronica and Roxton. "No going off to any of those villages you told me about and getting their help. Remember, my men will be here with your friends while you're out here. I'll return to the treehouse every evening after the day's hunt, with or without you. If my men do not see me at nightfall, or if they see you approaching with a band of savages, I'm afraid your friends will have to die."
Marguerite thought she was going to be sick. This man was standing in front of them talking calmly about hunting human beings like it was the most natural thing in the world. She shuddered. She'd known she didn't trust him, why hadn't she acted on her instincts earlier? Maybe then they could have been spared the horrible events that were about to transpire.
The rest of the night passed with what the five explorers regarded as an amazing swiftness as they tensely waited for the dawn and the departure of Roxton and Veronica. At first light Reinhardt signaled to Andras to untie the ropes that were tying Veronica to her chair. Roxton turned to Marguerite who was looking at him with terrified eyes. "John, be careful," she whispered.
He reached up a hand to gently stroke her face for a moment. "I will," he assured her. "Watch out for yourself here with those two. And try to behave yourself," he teased, hoping to get a rise out of her and remove the fearful expression on her face. Her only response, however, was a shaky smile.
Reinhardt told both Roxton and Veronica to stand. Phillip produced two large hunting knives that had been in Reinhardt's luggage and handed one to each of them while Andras stood with his gun still trained on the three other explorers.
"All right," Reinhardt said, taking a pocketwatch from his trousers. "Let the games begin. You two have an hour head start before I will follow after you."
"How do we know we can trust you?" Veronica asked. "For that matter, how do we know that if we do survive for the next three days, you'll let our friends live?"
"I give you my word as a gentleman and a sportsman," Reinhardt said with a deep bow. He straightened. "Now, say goodbye to your companions and then you must get started. I would hate to waste any time in the game."
Veronica and Roxton turned to the other three. "We'll be back for you in three days," Veronica told them. "That's a promise."
Reinhardt laughed heartily. "Such confidence and youthful arrogance!" he exclaimed. "Oh, this shall make the game even more exciting."
Veronica cast him a dirty look, but said nothing more. "Goodbye," Roxton said to the others. "Like Veronica said, three days. Take care of yourselves."
The others nodded even as Reinhardt continued chuckling to himself, and wished Veronica and Roxton luck. Then Phillip herded them towards the elevator with Reinhardt right behind him. "Until we meet again," Reinhardt said to two as the elevator began to descend. And then they were gone.
An hour later Reinhardt, who had checked his pocketwatch several times already, announced that an hour had passed and it was time for him to go after his prey. Marguerite shuddered at Reinhardt's use of the word "prey" to describe her friends.
"Wish me luck," Reinhardt said cheerfully, as he gathered up his pistol. The explorers only glared at him. "Oh, don't be such spoilsports," Reinhardt scolded. "This is a game, after all. You should try to get in the spirit of it."
"You are absolutely mad," Marguerite said in a low voice. "This is not a game, these are our friends' lives. You are a disgusting, sadistic, subhuman-"
Her words were cut off with a resounding slap when Phillip backhanded her across the face. There was a coppery taste in Marguerite's mouth and she realized that Phillip's blow had caused her lip to bleed. "Hey, what the hell are you doing?!" Ned demanded. "Get away from her!"
"There's no need for that!" Challenger cried out at the same time.
"Really, Miss Krux, I warned you about using such impolite language," Reinhardt said with a sad shake of his head. "I'm afraid you have offended Phillip with it, and you don't want to do that. He tends to get aggressive when he's upset." He smiled coldly at Marguerite and she repressed a shudder. "Now, I really must take my leave. We've wasted enough time as it is. I shall see all of you this evening," he said, as he stepped into the elevator. "And remember the rules," he said to his associates. "If I don't come back tonight, you'll have to kill one of our lovely hosts." The elevator descended to the jungle floor once more, and Reinhardt was gone.
The day that followed was the longest one of Ned's life. He jumped at every sound, constantly looking to the elevator, wishing it would rise and Veronica and Roxton would step out, unharmed. Phillip sat out on the balcony, keeping watch with a rifle in his lap, while Andras sat in the kitchen keeping a watch over the explorers. Ned looked over at Marguerite and saw that she looked as tense and jumpy as he himself did. There were dark circles under her eyes and she looked rather haggard to him. On his other side Challenger had his head on his chest, but would jerk awake every few minutes as if from a nightmare, his own countenance looking pale and worried as well.
Finally darkness fell outside the treehouse. Phillip and Andras exchanged posts, and Phillip lit several candles around the kitchen area. The elevator rumbled and the five occupants of the treehouse turned to it expectantly. Phillip and Andras had their guns raised and Marguerite was holding her breath. She let it out in a disappointed whoosh when Reinhardt came into view.
He stepped jauntily from the elevator, looking only slightly dirty from his day out in the jungle. "Well, that was certainly exciting," he told everyone. "I even had to hide in a cave from a very large dinosaur at one point. I thought I might have one of them a few separate times, but they always managed to elude me. You have very talented friends," he told the explorers. "You should be proud."
"Good, you've had your thrill, now why don't you end this?" Marguerite said, trying to keep her voice as calm and level as possible. Maybe now that he'd had his fun, maybe he'd be willing to call off the "hunt."
Reinhardt looked at her disapprovingly. "Miss Krux, really," he said. "You are such a poor sport about this all. I don't imagine you're much of a hunter yourself, are you?"
"I hunt when it's necessary for survival," she answered sharply. "If we need food or if the creature is attacking me or my friends."
Reinhardt shook his head. "Such a disappointing attitude to encounter, even out here in the middle of this wild country," he murmured, almost to himself. "Oh well, it was a good day of hunting overall. Phillip, if you would be so good as to get our dinner. And I suppose the prisoners may be untied for a little while to use the facilities and eat. One at a time, though," he cautioned his men. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to taint the game now, would we?" he asked rhetorically. He turned to the explorers. "It's just starting to get interesting." The smile on his face made Marguerite's blood run cold.
That night Marguerite, Ned, and Challenger were forced to sleep tied to their chairs while Reinhardt slept in Summerlee's bed. Phillip and Andras traded off shifts during the night so that they could get some sleep as well. Challenger seemed able to sleep decently in the chair, but Ned woke up many times during the night. Several times he woke because of his own nightmares, which involved the horrible deaths of Veronica and Roxton. Other times he woke up when Marguerite cried out Roxton's name in her sleep. Ned did his best to comfort her when she would wake, sweating from these dreams, and she in turn would try to comfort him when his nightmares woke him. They each offered the other reassurances that their friends knew what they were doing in the jungle and that they would be all right, and then they would once again attempt to sleep until the nightmares would come again.
When morning finally came, both Ned and Marguerite were exhausted, but Reinhardt entered the kitchen area looking well rested and happy. "Good morning," he said to the explorers. "Another beautiful day, isn't it? Perfect for a day of hunting."
Marguerite ground her teeth, but said nothing. Reinhardt didn't seem disturbed by their silences, however, and after eating a quick breakfast of fruit, he grabbed his pistol and left the treehouse once more.
Veronica shook Roxton's shoulder. "Roxton, wake up," she whispered. "It's light out, Reinhardt will be setting out from the treehouse soon. We've got to get moving."
Roxton opened his eyes and groaned. "Damn, I was hoping it was all a nightmare," he muttered.
He and Veronica stood up, grabbed the hunting knives, and headed to the mouth of the cave they had slept in the night before. "All right, are we keeping to the same plan as we used yesterday?" Roxton asked. "You know, covering tracks, lots of doubling up, keeping off the ground as much as possible?"
"I think today we should split up," Veronica replied. "We need to do something different, throw him off his game a bit, so we should separate and each head to different parts of the plateau. We can circle up tonight and meet at the cave by the Summerlee River."
Roxton nodded. "Sounds like a good plan. Be careful," he told her.
"You, too," she told him, and took off, heading West.
Roxton decided to head east, and began his journey, his eyes and ears alert for the slightest sound that Reinhardt could make. He spent the entire morning and well into the afternoon carefully making his way, covering his tracks as best he could, leaving fake markers in some areas, doubling back in others. Around late afternoon, however, he heard slight noises and movement nearby, and realized that Reinhardt was close.
"Damn," he swore under his breath. "Now what?" He quickened his pace, heading through denser foliage for a little while, and then changing his tack and heading towards a large open expanse that he knew was a favorite place of the T-Rexes. Perhaps for once those beasts could be useful to him by providing a distraction to Reinhardt that would allow him to escape.
Roxton circled around the outer perimeter of the open meadow before him, heading for the small, craggy hills on the far side of the field. When he reached the foot of the first hill, he climbed up, his eyes darting between the spot in the jungle where he had last heard Reinhardt and the three T-Rexes who were devouring the body of another large dinosaur below him.
He didn't have long to wait for Reinhardt to appear at the edge of the field. He made his way cautiously across the field, his awe filled eyes focused on the dinosaurs before him. His focus was so intense, he didn't see the stick in his path, and stepped across it. The T-Rexes looked up at the sharp crack they heard, and began moving toward Reinhardt when they saw him. Reinhardt looked down at the small pistol in his hand a moment, then turned and raced from the field, the dinosaurs in pursuit.
Roxton chuckled to himself as he leaned around the edge of the hill, watching the scene below him with relief. A gust of wind came up at that moment and snatched Roxton's hat from his head. "Damn," he muttered to himself again. He lunged for his hat, and a harsh cry escaped his lips as he realized he had reached too far forward and lost his balance. He tumbled head over heels down the rugged slope towards the T-Rexes' temporarily abandoned meal. *I hope Veronica's having better luck and that she'll be able to get back to them tomorrow night,* he thought to himself, seconds before his head hit a particularly jagged rock and he lost consciousness.
That evening, the three explorers nervously awaited Reinhardt's return. *Surely John and Veronica could outlast that madman another day on the plateau,* Marguerite thought to herself, her stomach in knots.
Marguerite looked over at Ned and Challenger when she heard the sound of the elevator. "Please, God," she murmured under her breath. The two men heard her and tried to smile reassuringly at her, but they, too, looked extremely anxious.
Reinhardt stepped off of the elevator, his mood clearly more subdued than it had been when he had left the treehouse. He held something in his hands, and as he came closer Marguerite gave a cry when she recognized the object as Roxton's hat. The hat was tattered and had a great amount of blood on it. "I found this in an open meadow area today," Reinhardt said. "I was trailing Roxton and he led me there, presumably to use the dinosaurs to divert me. The dinosaurs kept me busy for a time, but I protected myself from them and returned to the area. Apparently Lord Roxton was not able to save himself from these beasts. I found it at the foot of a hill around the meadow, traces of his blood all over the side of the mountain. He must have taken a nasty fall right into the thick of things with the dinos. A pity, truly, he was a worthy opponent." He sighed and turned to his men. "Prepare dinner, if you would, while I go wash up."
He retreated to Summerlee's room while the explorers sat there in shock. Neither Challenger nor Ned wanted to see the pain they knew would be on Marguerite's face at the news of Roxton's death, but they turned to her when Reinhardt left the room. Her face was white and tears were streaming down her cheeks. "Marguerite," Ned started gently, tears threatening in his own eyes.
She turned to him and Ned saw the anguish in her eyes. "John can't be dead," she whispered. "He just can't. He never even knew… Oh God, why didn't I say something? Why didn't I say something about how much I didn't trust Reinhardt? Oh God, this could have all been avoided if I'd just said something."
"No, Marguerite," Challenger said. "Don't blame yourself for the actions of a lunatic. This is no one's fault but that loon, Reinhardt."
"Challenger's right, Marguerite," Ned said softly. "It's not your fault. You know Roxton wouldn't want you to blame yourself."
Marguerite said nothing, only stared at Roxton's hat where it sat on the table. Reinhardt re-entered the kitchen area and sat at the table nearest to Marguerite. "It's a great tragedy, I know," he said, following Marguerite's gaze to Roxton's bloody hat. "He was a great hunter. It is unfortunate thing to have happen."
Marguerite looked up at him with pure hatred in her eyes. "It's your fault," she said in a quiet voice. "It's all your fault!" she screamed. "None of this would have happened if it weren't for you! You chased them out there, you caused his death. You monster! How can you live with yourself?" She spit at him and was pleased to see her spittle hit his face, right before Phillip's hand connected with her cheek in a stinging blow.
"Now, now, Miss Krux," Reinhardt said mildly. "I warned you not to upset Phillip. He tends to be protective of me. I understand you're upset, but spitting at me is really not the way to deal with it. And it's rather an unrefined gesture, don't you think?" He didn't wait for her response, but stood and took the plate Andras offered him. "I believe I'll take my dinner on the balcony tonight," he said. "It's such a lovely night." He walked out onto the balcony with Andras, leaving Phillip behind to watch over the three explorers.
"Marguerite, are you all right?" Ned asked her in concern.
Marguerite only looked at him wordlessly. *John's dead, how could anything possibly be all right,* she thought to herself, but she couldn't bring herself to say the words. She knew if she tried to talk right now she would start crying again and she was afraid she'd never be able to stop.
The next day Reinhardt entered the kitchen at daybreak and sat at the kitchen table with the explorers while he ate a simple breakfast of fruit. "Day three," he said cheerfully to them. "Isn't this exciting? I knew I'd finally found opponents worthy of my skill. At least one, anyway," he added, his eyes looking slightly disappointed that Roxton hadn't lived up to his reputation.
Marguerite refused to look at him and instead stared at the floor while she tried to block out the sound of his voice. "Well, I must dash," Reinhardt said, standing up and holstering his pistol. "It's the final day and I'm anxious to see what kind of a hunt Veronica can give me today." Marguerite could see Ned tense up beside her at Reinhardt's excitement in hunting Veronica. "Oh, don't look at me like that, Mr. Malone," he said with a laugh. "We'll know by the end of today if your jungle girl was as worthy opponent as I had hoped she would be. And Miss Krux, for goodness sake, please cheer up! You look as if your world had come to an end." He set his hat on his head at a jaunty angle and climbed onto the elevator. "Goodbye, all," he called. "I'll see you tonight with the final results."
When he was gone, Marguerite released the breath she had been holding. "I hate that man," she said venomously.
"You're not alone," Ned muttered.
Hours later the three explorers in the treehouse were ready to scream from the tension and fear they were all feeling. "This is the longest day of my life," Ned said quietly to no one in particular.
Challenger nodded in agreement, but Marguerite remained silent, as she had been since Reinhardt's departure. "We have to come up with something to help Veronica," Challenger said quietly. "The plateau itself is dangerous enough without the added threat of Reinhardt out there."
"I agree," Ned said. "But what can we do?"
"Whatever it is, we'll have to do it soon," Challenger said. "It's getting close to nightfall, and I don't trust Reinhardt to keep his word, no matter what he says. That man is not right in the head, I seriously doubt that keeping promises is something he does."
Marguerite said nothing but the other men could practically see the wheels turning in her head. Suddenly, she smiled a small, cruel smile.
"Marguerite, do you have an idea?" Ned asked.
She nodded shortly, not looking at him, then turned her attention to Andras, who sat across the kitchen reading. "Excuse me, Andras, is it?" she called. He looked up and she smiled sweetly. "I don't suppose you could untie my hands, could you? I'm afraid they're beginning to lose feeling, and with all the things they're capable of, that's quite a pity," she added, a seductive smile on her face.
Andras seemed to think about it a moment, then came closer to her. "What are you offering?" he asked.
"What are you interested in?" she asked, looking at him through lowered lashes. "I just thought that maybe before your boss returned, we could have some fun of our own. You deserve some, you know. You've been working so hard for Reinhardt these past few days, it's time you get to do something for yourself. My bedroom's right over there," she added, gesturing with her head and leaving no doubt about what she meant.
Andras looked to her bedroom, then down at the beautiful woman before him once more. "I definitely deserve to enjoy myself," he said with a smile. He untied Marguerite and dragged her to her feet. "Let's see what you can do for me."
"Hey, get your hands off of her, you filthy bastard!" Ned growled.
Andras pulled out his pistol and struck Ned across the face with the butt of his gun. "Better learn to hold your tongue, journalist," he said. "This little lady and I are gonna go enjoy ourselves."
Phillip walked into the room. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Why did you untie her?"
"Look, we've been working hard for Reinhardt, but he always gets to have all the fun. Now I'm gonna have a little fun of my own with this one. Don't worry, you can have her when I'm done with her," he told his companion, seeing the upset expression on Phillip's face.
"All right, but hurry up," Phillip grumbled, sitting on one of the kitchen chairs.
Andras only smiled, then walked to Marguerite's bedroom, dragging her with him. Once they got inside he threw her onto the bed and then began removing his pants. Marguerite sat up on her knees and wrapped her arms around Andras's neck. "Now just take your time and let me spoil you," she purred, leaning in to kiss him.
Andras returned the kiss and began to push her back onto the bed. Marguerite's hand darted out towards her bedside table and she snatched up the vase that sat there and brought it down on Andras's head with a crack. He looked at her in surprise a moment before his eyes rolled back in his head and he blacked out. His unconscious form fell forwards onto her, and she shoved him to the side, quickly getting to her feet. "Well, I know I enjoyed it," Marguerite said to the unconscious Andras, as she took one of the pistols from his holster. "Now, to deal with your friend."
Phillip jumped to his feet when he saw Marguerite re-enter the kitchen with a pistol in her hand. "Where's Andras?" he demanded.
"He's taking a little nap," she told him, pointing her gun at him. "Now, you're going to untie my friends."
"You won't shoot me," Phillip said, his hand reaching towards the table where his gun lay.
"Oh no?" Marguerite asked with a raised eyebrow as she cocked the hammer on her gun.
"You told Reinhardt you weren't much of a hunter," Phillip reminded her. "You don't kill for sport. You won't shoot me."
Marguerite's hand never wavered as she held the gun level to Phillip's chest. "That's not what I said," she told him. Phillip never took his eyes off of her as he edged towards the kitchen table. Suddenly his hand shot out and he grabbed his pistol from the table. Before he could raise it, however, Marguerite fired off three shots directly into his chest. "I said I would shoot something if myself or my friends were in danger," Marguerite corrected him as his lifeless body fell to the ground.
She hurriedly made her way over to Ned and Challenger. "Are you all right?" she asked them as she untied Ned.
He put his hand up to wipe away the blood from the wound he had received on his cheek from Andras's gun. "We're fine. What about you?" he asked as she moved on to untie Challenger. "What did you do to that other goon?"
"Like I said, he's taking a little nap," Marguerite said. "Unfortunately, I had to break one of my favorite vases, but I think it was worth it."
"Well done," Challenger told her as he stood from his chair. "Now, we need to-"
He was cut off by Ned throwing Marguerite and Challenger to the floor. "Look out!" he cried as a bullet flew over their heads. He grabbed Andras's pistol from Marguerite and fired off two shots in quick succession towards the bedroom door where Andras stood, his gun aimed at the explorers. His body crumpled to the floor and lay there unmoving. Ned cautiously made his way to the body on the floor and checked for a pulse. "He's dead," he announced soberly.
"This one is as well," Challenger said, checking on the body of Phillip.
"All right," Ned said, coming to stand with the others again. "We need to get rid of these bodies, get dressed, and then go out there and try to stop this madman."
The other two nodded their assent. "Marguerite, why don't Malone and I take care of leaving these bodies outside for the scavengers while you get dressed and gather up some supplies?" Challenger suggested gently. He could tell that Marguerite was still in somewhat of a state of shock between losing Roxton and having to kill Phillip.
She nodded wordlessly and went to her bedroom. Ned and Challenger quickly loaded the two bodies onto the elevator and took them out of the treehouse. They lugged the bodies as far away from the treehouse as they dared and left them there for the scavengers. Then they returned to the treehouse to get dressed so they could try to help Veronica.
Ned came out of his bedroom once he was dressed and found Marguerite sitting at the kitchen table. She held Roxton's hat in her hands and was staring at it vacantly. "Marguerite." Ned sat down beside her and put a hand on her arm. Her eyes met his and Ned was struck by the lost expression in her eyes. "Marguerite, I'm so sorry," Ned began.
Marguerite cut him off as Challenger walked into the room. "We need to get going," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "We have to help Veronica."
Ned nodded and stood, helping Marguerite to her feet. Then he walked over to the gun rack and pulled down three rifles. He handed one to Challenger and set the other on the table by Marguerite. Suddenly, they heard creaking and saw that the elevator was rising. Ned and Challenger moved protectively in front of Marguerite with their rifles pointed at the elevator.
The two cocked their rifles as the elevator prepared to come into view. Then they froze and stared with their mouths open as the elevator stopped in front of them and its occupants stepped off. A slightly dirty and disheveled Veronica was supporting a bedraggled, weary looking Roxton.
Ned and Challenger quickly hurried to their friends' sides.
"How did you survive?"
"Are you all right?"
"We were so worried!"
The explorers' questions and exclamations overlapped each other as Challenger hugged Veronica while Ned patted Roxton on the shoulder. Then Ned hugged Veronica tightly while Challenger greeted Roxton. "God, I was so worried about you," Ned told Veronica, before leaning in and kissing her softly.
"I was worried about you, too," she asked, her eyes shining as she leaned forward to kiss him sweetly.
Roxton looked up from Challenger and the happy scene in front of him and saw Marguerite standing motionless by the kitchen table, his bloody hat clenched in her hands. "I see you found my hat," he said as he made his way towards her.
She savagely pinched the skin on her forearm, and looked at it in delight when a red welt appeared. "John, is it really you?" she whispered. "Are you real?"
"I don't think a ghost or a dream could hurt the way I do," he told her as he stopped in front of her.
She tentatively put a hand up to touch his cheek and gave a cry of joy when she felt his warm skin beneath her fingers. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately, her fingers tangling in his hair. Roxton kissed her back fervently, trying to convey everything he felt for this woman that he couldn't put into words.
When they at last separated Roxton saw that tears were streaming down Marguerite's face. "We thought you were dead," she choked out, before she buried her head against his shoulder and sobbed.
"Shh, it's all right, love," Roxton murmured as he stroked her hair soothingly. "We're back and we're safe and everything's all right now," he told her as he kissed the top of her head.
The other three were still standing by the elevator watching the scene before them with smiles on their faces. Ned felt a lump in his throat when he realized how close they'd come to losing these people that he cared so much about. He held Veronica's hand tightly in his own, comforted by her presence at his side.
After a few moments Challenger, Ned, and Veronica approached Marguerite and Roxton. "I hate to interrupt," Challenger said. "But whatever became of Reinhardt?"
Roxton and Veronica exchanged a look. "He's not going to be hunting anything anymore," Veronica said finally.
"We'll tell you everything," Roxton promised. "But first we need to get something to eat."
"And we need to take care of that dreadful gash on your forehead," Challenger added. "What happened to you, Roxton?"
"Leave them be, George," Marguerite said. "Right now they need to sit down." She pulled Roxton over to a chair and sat him down in it. Then she hurried to the kitchen and came back with two plates of dried Raptor meat and fruit for Veronica and Roxton. Challenger went to his lab and returned with bandages, cloths, and a bowl of water to clean the wound on Roxton's forehead. He was surprised when Marguerite took the bowl from his hands, but let her administer to Roxton's wounds. She tenderly cleaned out the wound and spread some of Challenger's healing salve over it.
Once Veronica and Roxton had eaten a little they were ready to talk about what had happened to them in the last three days. "The first day we stuck together," Veronica told them. "We covered our tracks as best we could and doubled back a lot. We also spent a good deal of time in trees."
"The second day we decided to split up," Roxton continued. "About midafternoon of that day I realized that Reinhardt had found my trail and was following me. I led him toward that part of the plateau by Summerlee River where the T-Rexes like to feed. I thought if I could distract Reinhardt with the Rexes, then I could get away while he was distracted. I watched from one of the hills on the far side of the area, and sure enough Reinhardt ended up being chased by the T-Rexes. However, the wind blew my hat off and when I reached forward for it, I lost my balance and ended up falling down the cliff. I blacked out, but Veronica found me there a little later, because we'd agreed to meet back up at the cave by Summerlee River that night. Reinhardt must have come by later and found my hat in the middle of the Rexes' lunch," he added thoughtfully.
"And he thought you were dead, and told us as much," Marguerite said, shivering as she remembered Reinhardt presenting them with Roxton's bloody hat.
Roxton squeezed Marguerite's hand, which he had not let go of since they'd begun their tale, and smiled reassuringly at her. "We spent that night in the cave, and then decided that we should stick together today," Roxton told them.
"But we knew we didn't trust Reinhardt to keep his word," Veronica said. "So we decided we had to stop him before he could get back here and hurt all of you."
"What did you do?" Ned asked. He hadn't taken his eyes off of Veronica since she had returned, afraid that if he did she might disappear again.
"We decided to let him trail us," Roxton said. "We made sure not to make our trail look too obvious, but we weren't overly careful about hiding our tracks, either. We led him right to the Raptor breeding ground on the west side of the plateau."
"We led him right into the middle of a nest and then got ourselves out of there," Veronica told them. "A Raptor jumped in front of him so he tried to run, but you know how smart those things are. They surrounded him immediately. It was over pretty quickly," she finished, a slightly nauseated look on her face.
"How did you know it was safe to come back to the treehouse, though?" Challenger asked. "Surely you knew that Reinhardt's men were still here with their weapons."
"Well, we were prepared to fight if we had to," Roxton told them. "But we came across their bodies out there. You must have just put them out, the scavengers hadn't gotten to them yet. But we knew then that it was safe to come back, and we only hoped all of you had managed to stay safe." He gently stroked the bruise on Marguerite's cheek. "Looks like you didn't behave yourself as I asked you to," he added fondly.
She smiled at him. "What can I say, I'm a very opinionated person," she said. "Unfortunately, Reinhardt and his goons weren't always happy to hear my opinions."
Roxton smiled. "I'm just glad you're all right," he told her, wrapping his arm tightly around her shoulder. "I'm glad we all are."
The others agreed wholeheartedly with his sentiment and Ned filled Veronica and Roxton in on what had taken place in the treehouse while they were gone. "Are you all right?" Roxton asked them all when Ned had finished his tale.
"We're fine, don't worry," Marguerite assured him. "Besides, it's all over now and everyone's back here and in one piece." Roxton still looked concerned, but he didn't say anything more on the subject.
"I think we all need to get some rest," Ned suggested.
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Veronica said as Ned helped her to her feet. "Goodnight, everyone," she said. Ned bid everyone goodnight as well, and he and Veronica went into her bedroom hand in hand.
"I do believe they have the right idea," Challenger said. "I'm going to go to bed as well. John, I'm very glad you and Veronica returned safely."
"So am I, George," Roxton said, looking at Marguerite.
"Goodnight, John, Marguerite," Challenger said as he walked to his bedroom.
"Goodnight, Challenger," they called after him.
"I believe sleep is just the thing I need right now as well," Roxton said to Marguerite.
Marguerite agreed as she stood. "In your current state, the best thing for you is a nice, soft bed."
Roxton raised an eyebrow. "Would you know where I could find one of those?" he asked, a teasing light in his eye.
"I might have an idea," she told him as he slid his arms around her waist.
"I had hoped you might," he told her, leaning down to kiss her tenderly.
"John, I'm so glad you're all right," she told him when they broke the kiss. She cupped his face gently in her hands. "I can't even describe how I felt when Reinhardt showed us your hat and we thought that-" She stopped as tears filled her eyes and she quickly blinked them away.
"I was so worried about you in here with those goons," Roxton told her softly. "I know you can take care of yourself, but that doesn't mean I don't want to protect you anyway. I love you, Marguerite, and I just want you to be safe."
A tear slid down Marguerite's cheek and Roxton reached up and gently brushed it away. "No more tears," he whispered, gently kissing the tearstain on her cheek.
"Even happy ones?" she murmured, reaching up to stroke his cheek.
Roxton smiled and leaned down to kiss her once more. Then he blew out the lamps in the kitchen and arm in arm, he and Marguerite retired to her bedroom together.