Disclaimers: Sadly, they're not mine, I'm just borrowing them for a little while.
"Marguerite! Marguerite, will you please wait a minute?" Lord John Roxton cried as he leapt from the elevator and ran after the dark haired woman.
Marguerite Krux stopped in her tracks and whirled around to face the hunter as he caught up to her. "Come to laugh at me some more, I suppose?" she demanded.
"Marguerite, I wasn't laughing at you, I swear," Roxton said, reaching forward and taking her hands in his.
"And I suppose the others weren't, either? They're all probably congratulating Veronica on a job well done up there," she shot back, gesturing up at the treehouse where the three other explorers remained.
"Marguerite, you know that's not true," Roxton said soothingly. "Veronica didn't mean to spill the jar of jelly from Assai on you. She feels terrible about it."
"Only because now she's out of her favorite berry jelly," Marguerite said, but her tone sounded a little more relaxed.
"Or maybe because of the tongue lashing you gave her for spilling it on your head," Roxton teased, fighting back laughter as he remembered the scene from only moments earlier.
Veronica had been on her way to the breakfast table with the berry jelly in a dish when she had tripped over a book that Marguerite had left lying on the floor. The dish had flown through the air and landed squarely on top of Marguerite's head. The other explorers had tried to keep from laughing, but the picture of the heiress sitting there with jelly running down her face while she sputtered angrily had been too funny for the other explorers to contain their laughter. Marguerite had screamed a few choice words at Veronica before heading for the elevator and leaving the treehouse alone. In her fury, she hadn't even remembered to take her pistols, and Roxton had immediately grabbed his hat and rifle and taken off after her, knowing how dangerous it was for her to be out there unarmed.
"Roxton, don't you dare start laughing," Marguerite warned, seeing the mirthful look in Roxton's eyes.
"Don't worry," Roxton assured her. "I wasn't going to laugh. But I was thinking that you should probably go down to the pond and wash that jelly off. You'll probably need a hand with it," he added thoughtfully. "It's a good thing I happen to love this particular kind of jelly," he said softly as he leaned forward and gently licked some of the sticky sweet stuff from her neck.
"Roxton!" Marguerite said, feeling her cheeks growing warm. "What are you doing?"
"I'm helping you get the jelly off," he told her, moving to the other side of her neck. He pulled back and looked at her face. "Wait a minute," he said, leaning forward and gently brushing his lips against her own. "Thought you had some jelly on your lips there," he told her with a grin.
Marguerite couldn't help smiling back at him and the mischievous expression on his face. "Did you really?"
"Mm-hmm," he said, returning to her neck once more. "There's some more," he murmured, gently nibbling at her neck.
"John," Marguerite whispered after a moment. "While I'm not entirely opposed to your method, I think I really should get down to the pond. I've got to get this wretched stuff out of my hair before it gets any worse."
Roxton sighed. "All right, if you insist," he told her. "Let's go to the pond."
"I guess you should come with me. I'll need someone to keep watch, anyway. For Raptors," she added teasingly, seeing the grin on Roxton's face. Roxton's face fell and Marguerite laughed as she began walking towards the pond. Roxton smiled and shook his head as he quickly followed after her.
Neither noticed the pair of eyes that watched their every move from a large section of bushes close to the treehouse. The figure that had been watching the explorers over the past few days smiled to itself. This was going to be too easy.
When Marguerite and Roxton returned to the treehouse an hour later they found Ned sitting at the kitchen table cleaning the rifles. "Where is everyone?" Marguerite asked as she sat down at the table with Ned.
"Veronica's cleaning up her room and Challenger's working on something in his outdoor lab," Ned told them.
Veronica walked into the room then and braced herself for another attack from Marguerite when she saw the dark haired woman sitting at the table. "Marguerite, I'm sorry about what happened earlier," she told the older woman. "It was completely an accident."
The others tensely awaited a harsh reply from Marguerite, but she merely shrugged. "I know, it's all right," she said. "I was able to get it all off." *And Roxton's help in that area wasn't exactly unwelcome, either,* she added silently to herself, suppressing a smile.
The others were relieved, if not a little surprised at Marguerite's calm reaction. "So, did you see Challenger when you were down there?" Veronica asked.
"No," Roxton said. "But it sounds like he's on his way back up," he added, as the gears of the elevator began working.
The elevator reached the top and Challenger stepped off and into the main room where the others were gathered. "And what have you been up to down there in that lab of yours, Challenger?" Marguerite questioned with a smile.
"I was doing work, as usual," Challenger snapped at her. "Not like you'd know what that was if it sat up and bit you. I have never in my life met someone as spoiled and lazy as you. You demand and expect things of the rest of us, but you can't be bothered to lift a finger around here unless it will directly benefit you. And even then you do it with the largest amount of moaning and carrying on that I've ever had the misfortune to hear."
The four explorers could only stare at him in shocked silence. After a moment Marguerite found her voice. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me," Challenger said harshly. "You're worthless around here. More of a hindrance than a help."
"Challenger, what's the matter with you?" Roxton demanded. "You have no reason to come in here and attack Marguerite for asking a simple question."
"And lucky for you it was a simple question," Challenger shot back in the same scathing tone of voice he had used on Marguerite. "Otherwise you'd still be trying to understand five years from now. No wonder you have such a grand reputation as a hunter, Lord John Roxton," Challenger continued in a voice dripping with sarcasm. "You and those beasts you hunt are on about the same intellectual plateau."
Roxton stared at Challenger in disbelief, but it was Veronica who spoke up. "Challenger, I don't know what's gotten into you, but it stops now," she said sternly. "I don't care if you're having a bad day, you are not going to come in here and start verbally attacking people."
Challenger turned his attention on Veronica, raising an eyebrow as he appraised her. "You're not seriously trying to tell me what to do, are you jungle girl? Take my advice and save yourself the trouble. You've spent your entire pointless existence on this godforsaken plateau; you know nothing of the real world or real intelligence. And I am certainly not going to take orders from someone as intellectually inferior as you."
"All right, stop it right now," Ned demanded. "Who do you think you are, criticizing everyone this way?"
"As usual, the last one to step in and try to be a real man," Challenger said derisively. "The little boy who only came to this plateau to prove his bravery to a woman who doesn't care if he ever returns to London. The one who claimed he could fly a hot air balloon when we first began this expedition. And a grand job you did of it," he continued callously to the young reporter.
"Oh, why do I even bother with any of you?" Challenger cried, throwing his hands up in despair as he turned his attention back to the four explorers once more. "If not for you four fools, I wouldn't be on this damned plateau right now. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to return to my lab. Your very presence is making me increasingly nauseous." And with that, he spun on his heel and climbed onto the elevator, quickly making his way back to the jungle floor.
The four explorers sat in stunned silence after Challenger's departure, each hurt and bewildered by the older man's harsh words. "What just happened there?" Marguerite asked after a few minutes. "I mean, I didn't dream that, did I?"
Her voice sounded steady, but Roxton could see the hurt in her eyes. "Not unless we all had the same dream," he assured her.
"What on earth was that about?" Veronica asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. "That was completely unlike him."
Ned nodded in agreement. "We've all seen Challenger get cranky from time to time, but that was far beyond any bad mood I've ever seen from him. I mean, he just started attacking us with no provocation whatsoever. What could have possibly brought that on?"
"I don't know, but I'm not going to waste time sitting around and thinking about it," Marguerite said briskly. "Maybe if we give him a little time alone, he'll act like a human being again. When he's ready to apologize and explain why he said what he did, I'm ready to listen. But until then, I'm going to get to my chores." She stood up from the table and went into the kitchen area to collect several water buckets.
Roxton and Veronica exchanged a look. They knew that Challenger's cruel remarks had hurt the heiress far more than she was willing to admit and that she was using her chores as an excuse to keep busy and not think about the scene that had just transpired in the treehouse.
"I'll help you, Marguerite," Ned volunteered quietly. He, too, was anxious to get away from the others and the memory of Challenger's hurtful words. He gathered up the remaining water buckets, then picked up his rifle and joined Marguerite in the elevator. Roxton and Veronica bid them farewell and then silently got started on their own chores, neither one quite ready to discuss Challenger's strange behavior.
The atmosphere in the treehouse that evening was strained. Upon his return to the treehouse for dinner, Challenger had made no mention of his earlier outburst, and instead had spent most of the meal in a state of distraction. The moment he had finished eating, he'd headed down to his lab, and two hours later the others still hadn't seen a trace of him.
"Well, as much fun as sitting around and waiting for Challenger to apologize or explode again is, I think I'm going to go to bed," Marguerite spoke up. She stood up from her chair, holding the book she had been reading against her chest. "If anything happens, let me know. Goodnight." The others wished her goodnight, and one by one they each headed off to their own bedrooms, until everyone in the treehouse was asleep.
Ned sat up straight in his bed, his heart pounding. Something was wrong, he could feel it. Something had just pulled him out of a sound sleep. He sat silently for a moment, trying to figure out what was wrong, before he realized he was not alone in his bedroom. Marguerite was sitting in a chair by his bedside, wearing a gauzy white nightgown and an inviting smile.
"Marguerite, you startled me," Ned told her, willing his breathing to return to normal. "Is something wrong? Did something else happen with Challenger? Are you all right?"
"Ever the inquisitive little journalist," Marguerite said softly as she stood from her chair and approached his bed. "Don't you ever think of anything other than your work?" she asked, sitting down on the bed next to him. "There are so many more entertaining ways to spend your time, you know," she said, trailing her fingers down his bare chest.
"Marguerite, what are you doing?" Ned cried, moving back from her touch as if it had burnt him.
Marguerite laughed low in her throat. "I know you're young, but surely you're not that naïve," she said. "I think you know exactly what I'm doing, what I want. And I think it's what you want, too," she added, leaning forward and cupping the side of his face in her hand. "You want me, Ned. I've seen the way you look at me." She grabbed one of his hands and rested it on her breast. "Don't be afraid to go after what you want."
"Marguerite!" Ned jerked his hand back so fast it hit the pile of books on his bedside table and sent them crashing to the floor.
Marguerite pushed Ned back onto the bed and sat on his chest. "Don't try to fight it," she told him. "I know you don't want to."
"Marguerite, no!" Ned grabbed Marguerite's wrists and rolled her over so that he was straddling her, her arms held tightly above her head as she struggled with him.
"What's going on?" came Veronica's voice from the doorway. She entered the room, followed by Roxton and Challenger, and froze at the scene before her. "Ned?! What are you doing?" she cried, her heart falling to her feet at what she saw.
"What the hell?" Roxton roared when he could find his voice. He'd woken up when he heard a crash coming from Malone's room and had come to make sure the journalist was okay. Now all he knew was that Malone was straddling his Marguerite, holding her struggling form down on his bed. Roxton saw red. He charged across the room, flinging himself at Ned and knocking him to the ground. "What were you doing to her, you bastard?" he demanded, holding Ned by the throat.
Marguerite, meanwhile, rose from the bed and walked towards Veronica and Challenger, who still stood by the doorway. "Looks like Ned might need a little help there," she said loftily. "It's not his fault he wanted an experienced woman, instead of a naïve little savage," she added, smiling cruelly at Veronica. "He'll take some teaching, but it'll be worth it in the end," she told her before exiting the bedroom.
Veronica was stunned, but Challenger's voice broke her out of her reverie. "Roxton, stop at once! Let him go, he can't breathe!" he cried, as he tried desperately to separate the two men. Veronica stepped forward to help him, and eventually the two men were pulled apart.
"You son of a bitch," Roxton growled across the room at Ned. "Forcing yourself on her. How could you? She trusted you!" Veronica sat beside him, ready to restrain him again if necessary, but unable to look at Ned.
"Roxton, it was not what it looked like!" Ned insisted as Challenger used his handkerchief to stop the blood flowing from Ned's nose. "She came in here and hit on me. I don't know why, but she was acting very strange, saying odd things."
The expression on Roxton's face showed that he did not believe the younger man's words. Veronica, however, wasn't sure what to believe after what Marguerite had said to her.
Just then Marguerite walked into the room. "What's going on?" she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes. "Ned, are you all right?" she asked, her eyes widening when she saw the blood dripping from his nose. "What happened in here?"
Veronica stood from her position at Roxton's side, glaring at Marguerite. "You want him, go ahead," she spat. "Just one more man for you to use and discard," she said, shoving Marguerite to the floor as she exited the room.
"What the hell is going on here?" Marguerite demanded, rising to her feet as Challenger left the room to calm Veronica down. "First Challenger insults everyone, then it looks like some kind of battle happened in here, and now Veronica knocks me down because she's angry at me for no reason. What happened?"
"Marguerite, are you all right?" Roxton asked worriedly, moving to her side.
"I'm fine," Marguerite said, giving him a strange look. "I just want to know what happened."
"Marguerite, you know what happened, you just left here," Ned said.
"No, I didn't," Marguerite said. "I just left my bedroom to find out what was going on in here that was so loud it woke me up."
"Marguerite, you came in here and tried to seduce me," Ned said. "I had to restrain you and when the others came in Roxton thought I was attacking you, so he attacked me."
Marguerite laughed in disbelief. "I came in here and tried to seduce you? Don't be ridiculous. I was asleep up until a few minutes ago. I think your writer's imagination is working overtime," she told him.
Roxton and Malone exchanged a confused glance. "Marguerite, we all saw you in here," Roxton told her.
Marguerite shook her head. "That's impossible. I wasn't in here," she insisted.
"Could you have been sleepwalking, maybe?" Ned suggested. "It might explain your actions, what you said, and why you think you just woke up when the rest of us saw you in here."
"I did not sleepwalk in here and try to seduce Malone!" Marguerite exclaimed indignantly. "You're all suffering from some grand hallucination. I'm going back to bed, and I hope you will all do the same."
She left, and Ned and Roxton were left alone. "I'm sorry for attacking you," Roxton said. "It was a gut reaction."
Ned nodded. He understood. He knew if he thought someone was attacking Veronica, he would react the same way. "There's something strange going on," he said thoughtfully.
"First Challenger, now Marguerite," Roxton agreed. He sighed. "We better get some rest, try to figure this all out in the morning." The two men said goodnight and soon everyone in the treehouse was asleep once more.
The next morning when Marguerite entered the kitchen for breakfast she found Ned sitting at the table, writing in his journal. "Good morning, Malone," she said. "I hope that the light of day has helped you to realize that you obviously imagined what you think happened last night."
Ned looked up from his notebook, a little uncomfortable around Marguerite after what had happened in his bedroom the night before. "Marguerite, I didn't imagine it," he told her as she walked to the table with a plate of fruit. "Everyone else saw you in there as well. We didn't all imagine the same thing. Something strange is going on here."
Marguerite was about to agree when Roxton entered the kitchen. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "Anyone seen Veronica this morning?"
Ned shook his head gloomily. "I think she's avoiding all of us right now."
Roxton shook his head as he bit into a piece of fruit. "That's too bad," he said. "I was wondering if I could interest her in some of what you two were getting up to in your room last night, Malone."
Marguerite and Ned stared at him a moment before Marguerite laughed. "Roxton, what are you talking about?" she asked. "Surely you're not being serious."
"Well sure I was," Roxton said earnestly. "I mean, why should you two have all the fun anyway?"
"Don't you dare, Roxton," Ned said in a low voice. "Stay away from Veronica." The tension of the past 24 hours was starting to catch up with him and he was in no mood to hear that Roxton was suddenly having amorous feelings toward Veronica.
Roxton chuckled. "Think I'm stepping in your territory, Malone?" he asked. "Don't flatter yourself. It's not like you and Veronica have a relationship. And you're certainly not what she needs, anyway. You're only a child; a naïve little boy who knows nothing about the ways of the real world. She's been stuck in this wild land, alone, for far too long. Now she needs someone with sophistication and experience to show her a few new things. And I think I'm more than qualified as the man for the job-"
"Roxton!" Marguerite cut him off sharply. "That is enough! What has gotten into you? And since when do you have these kind of feelings for Veronica, anyway? You know that she and Malone are interested in each other. Why would you say these things in front of him? Or in front of me?" she added quietly. "I mean, I thought…" She trailed off, unsure suddenly of just how Roxton felt about anyone at the moment.
"You thought what? You thought that maybe I was interested in you? That I had those kinds of feelings for you?" Roxton laughed scornfully. "As if any man who knew what was good for him could care for you. You're an ice queen, withdrawn and interested only in yourself, with ice water running through your veins and a stone where your heart should be. Is it any wonder I'm much more interested in Veronica than in you? She's a real woman, with the bodily needs of a real woman." He smiled lustily and then looked down at Marguerite again.
"You're just a rude, spoiled little girl who expects everyone around you to bow down to you. As Challenger said, you're more of a hindrance than a help, especially on the plateau. We'd all have been a lot better off if we'd lost you instead of Summerlee that day at the bridge."
Marguerite gasped and tears filled her eyes at the cruel words directed at her. She jumped up from the table, hastily grabbed her pistol from the gun rack, and climbed onto the elevator, hurrying to the jungle floor.
Malone looked at Roxton disgustedly. "What the hell's the matter with you?" he snapped. "Maybe you're still mad at both of us for what you think happened last night, but that's no excuse for what you said. That was cruel and completely uncalled for." He gathered up his writing material from the table then stormed off to his bedroom. Roxton looked around the empty kitchen a moment with a strange smile on his face, then he called the elevator up and left the treehouse.
Marguerite sat on a rock by the swimming hole trying to stop her tears. She couldn't believe the bitter, ugly words Roxton had directed at her in the treehouse. It was completely unlike him. She was used to arguing with him, of course, but she regarded that as more of an everyday occurrence, a pastime they'd developed between them with an almost affectionate undertone. What he had just said to her had been intentionally hurtful.
*This is your own fault for letting that man into your life,* she reprimanded herself. *You know the risks of involving men in your life better than anyone, and still you were foolish enough to think that just maybe this man was different from the rest. But he's not. He's just like the rest, and you're left to pick up the pieces alone once again.*
Roxton reached the edge of the clearing by the lake and stopped when he saw Marguerite before him. She was sitting on a large rock with her knees drawn up to her chest and her head resting on her knees. When she raised her head he felt a catch in his heart when he realized she'd been crying.
"I'm such a fool," he heard her say out loud. "I thought it would be different this time. I thought he really cared for me."
"Marguerite?" he called softly as he approached her. "Are you all right?"
Marguerite looked up, startled, at the sound of the familiar voice. She quickly wiped her eyes and stood from the rock. "Like you care," she said angrily. "What, did you come for another round? Didn't have your fill of insulting me back at the treehouse? Well, sorry Roxton, but I have much better things to do than waste my time listening to another word out of your hateful mouth."
Roxton stared at her, baffled. "Marguerite, what are you talking about?" he asked her.
"Oh, please," she sniffed. "Don't insult my intelligence by trying to play that game." She tried to walk past him, but he caught her arm.
"Marguerite, I honestly don't know what you're talking about. When did I insult you in the treehouse? Are you talking about last night in Malone's room? I didn't mean to insult you. I was worried about you, that's all."
"I'm not talking about last night," Marguerite spat, trying to pull her arm free. "I'm talking about this morning in the treehouse."
"This morning in the treehouse? But I was gone before any of you got up. I went to gather up some firewood. Didn't any of you get the note I left on the table?"
"Don't try to play the innocent now," she told him. "Don't try to pretend you didn't say all those horrible things. That you don't wish that I'd been the one lost at the bridge that day instead of Summerlee." To her dismay she felt tears filling her eyes once more and she jerked her arm away from Roxton and turned to leave again.
Roxton stared at her in horror. "What?" he said in a strangled voice.
He reached for her arm again, and this time she spun around to face him. "How could you say that to me?" she demanded through her tears. "I was so foolish to think that you might really care for me, that you might actually care if I lived or died. You wish I were dead!" She struck out at him again and again, hitting him in the chest and arms before he caught her arms.
"Marguerite! That's not true, you know that's not true! I do care about you," he told her passionately. "If I had lost you that day at the bridge, I don't know what I would have done. I would rather be dead myself than even think of losing you," he told her, tears welling up in his own eyes. "Marguerite, please believe me," he choked out. "I don't know what happened this morning, but please know I would never say such things to you. I don't ever want anything to hurt you, least of all me. All I want to do is protect you."
The solemn expression on his face told Marguerite he was telling the truth, and she nodded slowly, allowing him to pull her into his arms. They stood unmoving for a moment, wrapped in each other's arms, before Marguerite slowly pulled back. "John, there's something strange going on," she said quietly.
Roxton nodded. "First Challenger, then you, and now me. Something's not right. We should get back to the others." Marguerite agreed and they headed back to the treehouse together.
When they reached the treehouse Malone was once again sitting at the kitchen table with his journals. "Malone, where is everyone?" Roxton asked. "We need to talk. There's something strange going on around here."
"What was your first clue?" Malone asked mockingly. "Maybe the fact that Marguerite's standing over there with you when she'd much rather be with me." He rose from the table and walked toward the two explorers.
"What?" Marguerite asked incredulously. "Malone, what are you talking about?"
"Oh come on, Marguerite, you know what I'm talking about. Last night, in my bedroom. We were having such a good time before this Neanderthal burst in on us," he said, gesturing to Roxton. He reached up to stroke Marguerite's cheek and she shoved it away, stepping back and closer to Roxton.
"Malone, I don't know what you think you're doing, but it's not amusing," Roxton said, stepping between Marguerite and Malone.
Malone smiled scornfully at Roxton. "Are you threatening me, Lord Roxton? Big words from a man who can't even protect the five other people in his group. Oh, wait, five? I'm sorry, that's right," he said, pretending to be surprised. "We're down to only four others now, aren't we? How much longer until we're down to three others? Ever wonder who'll be next?"
"Malone, knock it off!" Marguerite said, moving around Roxton and stepping up to Malone. "Don't you dare try to make Roxton responsible for what happened to Summerlee."
Challenger entered the kitchen from his lab and found Roxton and Marguerite facing off against Ned in the middle of the room. "What's going on?" he asked.
Ned turned around to face Challenger. "Ah, the renowned Professor Challenger," he said in a bitter voice. "So nice of you to actually leave your lab for a moment and remember that there are other people living here around you. So tell me, Professor, have you figured out a way for us to get off the plateau yet? You're so brilliant, or at least you seem to think so anyway. But of course, if that's true, then why are we still here?"
Challenger gaped at Ned for a moment before he could find his voice. "Who do you think you are?" he sputtered.
Malone just smiled cruelly at him, then turned to face Veronica as she walked into the room. "And here's the jungle girl to join us. And what of your extensive knowledge of the plateau would you like to share with us today?"
Veronica gave him a strange look. "It's apparently Ned's turn to be insulting," Marguerite told her.
"Well, I've had enough of all of this," Veronica said. "What's going on around here?"
"You mean you don't know?" Ned asked in mock surprise. "Well, surely I'd have thought that you knew everything about life on this plateau. Oh wait, maybe if you think real hard or look in one of your parents' old journals, you'll figure everything out," he said sarcastically. "After all, didn't your parents tell you a story about absolutely everything that goes on in this place before they disappeared?"
Veronica stepped up to Malone until they were almost nose to nose. "Don't talk about my parents," she warned.
"Why not, Veronica? You always do," Ned shot back. "It's like you think if you keep talking about them, then you can pretend they're coming back. You can pretend that they're not dead, that they haven't been dead for the last 11 years!"
Veronica's eyes filled with hurt and angrily she drew back a fist. Challenger jumped forward and grabbed her arm as Roxton pulled Ned away from Veronica. "Stop! Stop this right now!" Challenger demanded.
"What's going on?" a familiar voice asked. In the confusion, none of the explorers had heard the elevator rise. Now they all turned to see Ned Malone standing in the elevator, staring at the five people before him with an absolutely bewildered expression on his face.
Marguerite was the first to recover. "Ned?" she asked, looking from the Malone that stood by her to the Malone standing by the elevator.
The second Ned walked away from the elevator and joined the group, staring in shocked silence at the first Ned. "What the hell?" Roxton muttered.
Suddenly, to everyone's surprise, the first Ned threw back his head and began to laugh. "What the hell do you find so funny?" Veronica demanded.
"Oh, just all of you," the first Ned said, in a strange voice. Then, before their eyes, the form of Ned disappeared and a small redheaded girl stood before them. "Oh, you should have seen all of your faces!" the little girl cried, her big brown eyes dancing. "This was fun!" She stopped laughing a moment and frowned thoughtfully. "Of course, you people do get a little boring after awhile. And I didn't even get a chance to be Veronica," she pouted, stomping her foot on the ground.
"Who, who are you?" Challenger asked the little girl.
"My name's Kaia," the little girl responded cheerfully. "I'm a Liantor."
"A what?" Ned asked, confused.
"A shapeshifter," Veronica spoke up. "The Liantors are kind of like troublesome forest sprites. They're immortal and can shape shift."
"Shape shift? You mean she was all of us?" Roxton asked. Kaia nodded. "And you're the one who said all those dreadful things to everyone else?" Kaia again nodded gleefully.
"Their main purpose is to cause trouble for those around them," Veronica said. "My father wrote about them in his journal," she added sheepishly, shooting Kaia a warning look.
Kaia shook her head. "No, our main purpose is to have fun," she disagreed.
"By toying with people's lives?" Marguerite demanded.
"Oh lighten up, Marguerite," Kaia said. "You really need to have some more fun in your life. He'd be pretty good at showing you how," she added thoughtfully, jerking a thumb in Roxton's direction.
Marguerite blushed as Ned spoke up again. "But how did you do it? I mean, how did you know enough about us all to say all of those things?"
Kaia waved her hand dismissively. "That was easy," she told them. "I've been watching you guys for awhile now, just observing you and getting to know each of your personalities. And Ned's journals were great for filling in all the blanks for me," she added with a smile. "I'm glad you keep such detailed accounts of what goes on around here."
"You read my journals?" Ned asked.
"Yeah, they were very helpful. And very entertaining. Thanks for the good read," Kaia said to Ned with a grin. "Well, it's been great knowing you, but now that you know who I am, it's just not fun anymore. I've got to go find somewhere else to have some fun. Bye!" And with a wave, she hopped in the elevator and disappeared from sight, leaving the five explorers staring after her in surprised silence.
"What an awful little child," Marguerite finally murmured.
"Do you think she'll be back?" Ned asked.
Veronica shook her head. "According to all legends about the Liantors, once they are no longer entertained by a certain situation, they leave in search of new prey. There are no records of them ever returning to wreak havoc on a tribe a second time."
"Well, that's certainly the best news I've heard in the past two days," Roxton said.
The others agreed wholeheartedly. "So that little girl, that thing lives only to cause trouble for others?" Challenger questioned Veronica. "That's why she pretended to be each of us and say such horrible things to the others?"
Veronica nodded. "Liantors are known for mischief, but it's usually of the pretty cruel variety. Something about the hurt, anger, sorrow, and angst it can provoke in its victims gives it a kind of endorphin rush."
"Fascinating," Challenger breathed. "Did you and your parents ever encounter the Liantors on the plateau?"
"No. Most of what we knew of their legend was pieced together by my father through Zanga legend. I should have realized sooner that that was what was going on around here, but I honestly wasn't sure that it was true," she added thoughtfully. "It could have saved us all a lot of pain and anger."
Ned put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "It wasn't your fault," he told her. "How were you to know it was actually more than just a Zanga legend?"
Roxton agreed. "I'm just glad that's all over with and we can get back to normal," he said.
That night Roxton tossed and turned restlessly in his bed, but found that sleep was not going to come anytime soon. With an exasperated sigh, he climbed out of his bed and headed out to the balcony in the hopes that a little night air would clear his head and allow him to sleep.
When he reached the balcony he saw that he was not the only one who had had that idea. Marguerite was standing with her hands on the balcony's railing, looking out over the jungle, seemingly lost in thought. "Couldn't sleep, either?" Roxton asked quietly.
Marguerite flinched slightly, surprised. She'd been so deep in thought about the past two days' events that she hadn't heard him join her on the balcony. "Something like that," she agreed, turning to look at him as he joined her at the railing.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he apologized.
She shook her head. "No, it's fine. I was just thinking about everything that's happened in the past few days," she said softly, turning her gaze back to the jungle below.
Her expression seemed sad, he noticed as he stared at her. "Are you all right?" he asked her. "I mean, with everything that's happened."
Marguerite sighed. "I don't know," she admitted, an uncharacteristically vulnerable air about her. "It's just a little hard to deal with some of the things that were done and said."
"But Marguerite, you know that was all Kaia's doing, right? It wasn't actually any of us saying or doing those things to each other."
"I know," Marguerite said. "But somehow that just doesn't really make it easier. I mean, when I think about what she said to me when I thought she was you…" Marguerite trailed off, unable to continue as she felt a surge of pain at the thought of the cruel words Kaia had spoken to her as Roxton.
"Marguerite." Roxton touched her arm gently and she turned to face him. "Malone told me what that thing said to the two of you when it was pretending to be me. I'm sorry that you had to think, even for a second, that I would say those things to you. I meant what I said earlier, I would rather be dead myself than to even think about losing you, Marguerite. I just want you to know that," he finished, reaching out to touch her cheek gently.
Marguerite nodded almost unconsciously as she stared back at him, unable to tear her gaze from his. Finally, she forced herself to look away and shifted her gaze back into the treehouse. Roxton saw a slight smile curving the edges of her mouth. "And just how do I know that you're really John Roxton this time?" she asked, her tone light.
"Well, I think that after all that's happened, it's a perfectly valid question. Prove that you are who you say you are. Tell me something that only Lord John Roxton would know."
Roxton saw the playful look in her eyes and decided to play along. "Hmm, only something I would know, huh?" he said thoughtfully. "Well, let's see. I guess I could tell you what really happened to my mother's favorite crystal candy dish when William and I were children. Or maybe I could tell you about the time William and I decided to pretend our grandmother's mink stole was a tiger we were hunting in Africa the Christmas he was eleven and I was seven. No, wait, I've got it," he said, snapping his fingers. "I know how to prove to you that I'm really John Roxton. You want to know something only I know?" He gently cupped her smiling face in his hands. "I love you, Marguerite Krux," he said softly. "I will always love you and want to protect you."
Marguerite quickly blinked her eyes in an effort to conceal the tears that had sprung to her eyes at Roxton's declaration. She swallowed nervously. "Silly," she said, trying to sound casual. "Everybody already knows that."
Roxton held her gaze with his own. "Do they?" he asked, staring deeply into her eyes, conveying more with one glance than he ever could with words.
Her casual façade dropped as she stared back into his loving gaze. "Yes," she breathed, a smile beginning to creep across her face.
Roxton smiled then leaned down to kiss her tenderly before pulling her to him in a warm embrace. They stayed like that for awhile before Marguerite spoke up. "John?"
"Just what did happen to your mother's candy dish?"