Summary: The final battle for the future of the Plateau has begun; the Protector and the Chosen One are determined to win once and for all, but at what price?
Disclaimer: The Lost World does not belong to me. *Regretful sigh* It belongs to Coote/Hayes, The Over the Hill Gang, New Line Television, et al, …
Author's Note: This story is set toward the end of the fourth season. It includes spoilers for multiple episodes of the first three seasons as well as J&G's generously provided TLW Summary.
The Final Battle, Part I
Wherein there is a battle for the future of the plateau…
A runner came crashing through the underbrush, weaving around the tree trunks but returning unerringly to his course, uncaring of the noise as he approached the site of the siege. Indeed, he wanted to draw attention to himself. Impatient to declare the news he carried, he didn't wait to make a formal report to his leader on the front lines. As soon as he was within earshot of his comrades he shouted, "It is done! The Chosen One is coming! It is done! The Chosen One is coming!"
Closer and closer he raced, and the warriors nearest his approach turned from their efforts to break into the compound around the massive tree. Their distraction was noticed by the others encircling the fence, and a momentary silence fell.
"It is done! The Chosen One is coming!"
As his message was discerned, the men broke into raucous cheers that spread like a wave, fists raised in triumph, swords, knives, and cudgels thrust over their heads.
Up in the treehouse that nestled amongst the lower branches of the ancient tree at the center of the compound, Veronica could neither see nor hear the messenger from her position on the balcony, but the gleeful crowing of her enemies made her heart sink. No! That sound meant reinforcements of some kind. She was already feeling the strain of the effort it was taking to channel the energy lines of the plateau through her Trion into the translucent shield that held the men back. How could she exert more energy than she already was? The weary blonde wasn't sure she had enough strength to support the shield against the assault of even more enemies, not while retaining the reserves she held for the opportunity to take the offensive. She had eluded them by the skin of her teeth five hours earlier, barely making it inside the electric fence in time to utilize the location's energy convergence to call forth her defenses.
The attacking force had tried every hand weapon possible against the golden-hued shield, including the Xan-controlled Triad's oriental-styled weaponry. But although Veronica felt the pricks where their blows impacted against the shield, they had not found anything that could break through the barrier – until now. From the sound of their cheers, they thought they'd found the answer. What would it be this time?
Hordred, the son of the man who had murdered Veronica's father thirteen years ago, had tried to vanquish Veronica more than once since she'd fought and killed Mordren. The new leader of the dark line had caught her away from the treehouse half a dozen times over the last few months, as he had today, seeking to cut her off from the nexus of the Plateau's power lines. During their previous encounters, Mordren's heir had exhibited skill at using the various mystic artifacts that abounded on the Plateau… but she'd seen no such weapon yet today. She'd been watching for it, expecting something more – they had to know they couldn't fight the Trion's power with mere human force – and from their cheers, another of the Plateau's never-ending mythical weapons was about to be produced. She braced herself. But then the messenger drew close enough for her to make out his words, and the battle-bruised blonde smirked.
The Chosen One – they meant Marguerite, of course. The treehouse family had garnered a lot of information about the roles of both the Protector and the Chosen One over these last harrowing months, and Veronica now understood the excitement of her attackers. But they were about to be disappointed, because the Chosen One had already decided to side with the Protector, not the dark line. If Marguerite was coming, Roxton would be with her and possibly the other two men as well. All four of them had left together this morning, but they'd intended to part ways near the river to continue on to their separate tasks. Marguerite and Roxton planned to mine some salt to replenish the dwindling supply in the pantry, while Challenger and Malone had been headed toward the children's arboreal village to do their semi-annual check on the youngsters' progress.
They should have journeyed too far from the treehouse to have heard the noise of the battle when she'd been attacked today. Veronica wondered what had alerted them to turn back before they were due to return. Roxton may have noticed tracks left by the extraordinarily large group of Hordred's followers as they gathered for today's siege on the treehouse. Or perhaps Marguerite had experienced another of her eerie premonitions.
Whatever the reason, she was thankful that help was on the way.
Of course, it would be best if Challenger and Malone were still with them, but even if it was only Marguerite and Roxton, they'd be welcome additions to the fight. When the dark haired couple arrived, it wouldn't be long until the three of them taught these Chaos-loving usurpers that the Plateau wasn't safe for the likes of them! The blonde huntress had been watching for just such an opportunity to switch the use of the power at her command from defensive to offensive, and the arrival of her housemates would be exactly what she needed to turn the tide in her favor.
"Look at her – she thinks the Chosen One will side with her!" jeered Mordren's son, crossing his arms over his broad, powerful torso and laughing as he looked up at her. "But she will soon learn that we have had the upper hand all along!"
Veronica ignored him. She'd learned, all right. She'd learned that the dark line was expert at twisting truth, at playing on the fears and weaknesses of their victims. She'd learned that doubt can poison you, can give your enemy just the one second of lowered defenses that they needed to turn a battle to their own advantage. But she'd also learned, over the past four years, to trust Marguerite Krux. Although she'd kept it well-hidden for most of that time, beneath the beautiful brunette's stony exterior was a true and noble heart.
Certainly there had been times when a past generation's Chosen One had used her abilities to steal the victory away from the Protectors, allowing Mordren's line the ability to unbalance the creative force, to create chaos for their own profit. They were still close enough to the start of the current cycle of creation that the balance of good and evil could be tilted in their direction. According to the instruction she'd received from Avalon, the scales were particularly vulnerable to manipulation for another full moon before this cycle settled into a pattern that would remain stable until the next creation cycle. And since Marguerite was the Chosen One, the person linked to both lines, the one with the power to tip the scales of balance in either direction, Hordred needed her.
But unlike her ancestor Morrighan, Marguerite would never side with her distant cousins from the 'dark side'. Perhaps she might have been tempted to join them four years ago, if they'd offered her the knowledge of her real identity, or given her the riches she'd once sought for her own security – although knowing what she now knew about Marguerite's work during the Great War, Veronica thought that Mordren couldn't have convinced the brilliant brunette to help them even if they'd promised to reward her with every single one of her heart's desires. The wily former triple agent was too aware of the evil nature of the men that plotted to usurp Veronica's role as guardian of the balance of good and evil.
No, even years ago Marguerite wouldn't have helped those who would seize the power of the Plateau and use it to enslave the world. Hadn't she closed the doorway to the tunnels off the Plateau once she'd learned from Catherine Reilly that going through would doom the entire world to a plague that would ravage humanity for generations to come? Walking through that doorway would have been a surefire route to the wealth she'd coveted, but the beautiful and then-mysterious Miss Krux had refused to take that path. Instead, she'd shut down the device and then allowed Roxton to permanently close the doorway to the tunnels that could have taken them off the Plateau, not willing for so many others to pay such a cost.
And that had been back in the early days, when Marguerite thought she was facing the world all alone and couldn't trust anyone else. She knew differently now. Thanks to Roxton's ex-wife, she knew her birthright had been stolen from her, but that she'd once had parents who loved and wanted her. She might not have the proof to lay claim to her real name, and she would probably never be able to reunite with the family from whom she'd been taken as an infant, but they'd learned enough during their recent contact with Avalon to know that not only was Marguerite distantly related to Mordren's line, but also to the Protector's line.
Marguerite's lips had twisted into a dismayed grimace at the revelation that she was a distant cousin to the man who had murdered Veronica's father. "It figures I'd be related to that!" she'd sighed in disgust. At the discovery that she was also Veronica's cousin, she had brightened considerably… but had feared that her connection with Mordren's line would damage the slow-growing relationship built between herself and the fiery Protector.
The jungle-born blonde had dealt quickly with her friend's obvious concern that the news of their kinship wouldn't be well received; she'd enveloped the older woman in an enthusiastic hug and gushed, "No wonder we've always fought like sisters! We practically are!" Much to the men's amused approval, her words had proved prophetic, and the pair had grown as close as sisters during their time exploring their histories and their unique gifts over the last months.
Moreover, Marguerite and Roxton were so much in love that the formerly-restless beauty was a picture of contentment these days. Well… as contented as the feisty heiress was every likely to be, at any rate. She could still be prickly on occasion, still hated mornings with a passion, and was still outwardly acerbic… but her mercurial temper and her tendency to provoke others for her own amusement had almost disappeared. Since the individual trials they had all endured when the shifting planes of reality had separated them during the renewal of the creation cycle, Marguerite had publically accepted and returned Roxton's devotion. She was even openly, if shyly, affectionate to her "adopted family", as she wryly labeled her housemates these days.
No, Veronica had nothing to fear from Marguerite. Hordred was in for a shock if he thought otherwise.
Veronica kept the shield up around the perimeter, invisible but for the slight shimmering effect , protecting the treehouse and its intersecting lines of energy from the encircling black-armor-clad warriors. They'd ambushed her in the garden this time, and it had been a fierce struggle to reach the fenced compound, where she'd been able to draw on the power of the nexus to drive them back. This was the first time they'd caught her without the others, and if she hadn't made it back here… but she had. All she needed to do was focus and maintain her mental discipline until Marguerite and Roxton arrived. Then they'd see who would be laughing at whom.
"No, don't relax the assault," Hordred ordered as some of his men eased off on their battering of her psychic barrier. "The more we wear her down, the quicker the victory when the Chosen One joins us!" He didn't bother to lower his voice; he wanted the Protector to know he had no mercy.
Veronica braced herself and held the shield firm against the renewed assault, thankful for the mental and physical discipline of all the training she had undertaken in the last few months. With the encouragement of her housemates and instruction from the elders of Avalon, she'd learned to wield the powers of the Protector's Trion, but this was the first time she'd faced a full frontal attack alone, or indeed, endured a battle with such numbers or of such prolonged length.
A flicker of movement caught her eye.
It was Marguerite, striding into view through the forest from the direction of the Summerlee River, where that runner had come from a few minutes ago.
And she was alone. Alone? Veronica frowned with sudden trepidation. The dark-haired couple had been inseparable since Challenger had figured out how to retrieve Roxton from the past while he simultaneously dispatched Captain Roxton, Lord Roxton's pretender, back to his own time. Once reunited, John and Marguerite had barely left one another's sight. Why was she alone now, especially with so many of the enemy out in plain sight?
Hordred laughed with satisfaction when he saw the shield flicker. The Protector had sensed her danger at last! "Our time has come, my brethren!" he shouted. "Ready yourselves!"
Uneasily, Veronica noted that Marguerite wasn't surprised to see the warriors surrounding their home of the last four years. The former Great War triple agent didn't falter or slow down, just maintained her quick, steady march through the forest toward the treehouse, unfazed at the sight of some of the very same men she'd fought at Veronica's side half a dozen times already. She strode on as if she was confident that these men would not harm her. Marguerite, the most distrusting, cynical and suspicious person the blonde had ever met, wasn't even drawing her handgun at the sight of known enemies? This was so wrong!
Where was Roxton?
Veronica's blue eyes scanned Marguerite's back trail, then the jungle around them. Was the hunter sneaking up on their enemies from another direction while his lady played decoy?
If so, then he was certainly waiting until the last minute.
Veronica felt a particularly threatening series of blows, and refocused on the wavering shield. She had to trust her friends; it was essential to devote her main attention to defending the source of the Plateau's power. Still, her gaze strayed to the advent of the Chosen One.
Marguerite, stiff-backed, pale and tightlipped, reached the dark line's rear guard, still without touching her weapons. She refused to look directly at the men who smirked at her as she neared, and she ignored their cat-calls and laughter. "We've been waiting for you, Chosen One!" "What took you so long?" "Now we'll finish this." "It's about time you joined us, Chosen One."
Veronica shivered; although their words heralded the arrival of an ally, their attitude toward that supposed comrade-in-arms was mocking and derisive. They clearly believed Marguerite was on the side of those who held that Chaos should rule, yet they also jeered at her? It made no sense to the blonde observing the interaction from her balcony.
Ominously, the brunette accepted their insulting tone without a single retort. Equally disturbing to her watchful friend, she didn't hesitate to step into their midst; the men parted to allow her to pass, and she stalked on, looking neither to the left nor to the right as they continued to sneer.
When she arrived at the compound perimeter, the banter of Hordred's men eased off as they stared in anticipation. They braced themselves, and a few ducked for cover as if they expected some kind of explosion. But Marguerite didn't hesitate outside Veronica's shield; she simply reached into the shimmering gold aura, opened the gate, and walked right in. The barrier yielded to her, where it hadn't for the men – Veronica's doing; it was something the two women had practiced for exactly this type of occasion, although they had expected Marguerite to be running for shelter from their enemies, not walking calmly through their unholy ranks.
The men closest to where the brunette penetrated the shield instantly tried to follow her through, but found the barrier as intractable as it had been for the last five hours. There were a few moments of disorder as the ranks shifted and men howled in pain at their futile contact with the shield, but Hordred quickly called everyone back into formation. Marguerite moved stiffly further into the compound, ignoring the men until she drew even with Hordred himself.
As she stopped moving, the men quieted again. She briefly bowed her head, and then she looked sideways at the warriors who were watching her so expectantly from the far side of the still-shielded fence.
"What are you waiting for?" demanded Hordred hoarsely, eyes narrowed as he glared at the dark-haired woman whose smoldering green eyes focused directly on him. His chin tilted arrogantly upward, his hands on his hips, his stance utterly confident, and once again he didn't bother to lower his voice, wanting his words to be fully audible to Veronica up on the balcony. "You're in! Take her down! You know what will happen if you don't!"
His words caused a renewed round of spiteful, cruel laughter that sent new shivers of foreboding up Veronica's spine. She realized that every last man down there was aware of something she wasn't, although she had the horrid feeling that she now suspected what it might be. If she was right, this could be ugly… very, very ugly. She caught her breath and held it, more than half expecting the mercurial Marguerite to strike out at their enemies any second.
Apparently, the leader of the dark line anticipated the same possibility. Veronica saw Hordred's face twist in a snarl as the brunette remained motionless. "Watch yourself!" he snapped at Marguerite, apparently not liking the look she was giving him – a look which Veronica could well imagine, if her suspicion was correct that there were more of his men somewhere else, threatening harm to Roxton. With a sneer, the leader of the dark line added, "If you care nothing for the name and riches you've sought all your life, remember that pitiful lordling of yours!"
For the briefest moment, Marguerite's slim shoulders hunched as if he'd struck her. But then her head lifted again, and her back stiffened in determination. She swung on her heel and marched on toward the elevator. "Veronica, I'm coming up," she called, her voice strangely strangled.
Without hesitation, Veronica allowed the elevator to descend, in the same practiced way she'd weakened the shield to allow Marguerite to pass safely through. If Marguerite was going to turn traitor, she wanted the brunette to have to tell her face to face. If it was as bad as it sounded, and Hordred had Roxton in his clutches,… well, as Ned liked to say, this might be an entirely new ball game.
Marguerite had been granted so little love in her life, who could blame her if she chose to fight her sister to save the man she loved? But until Marguerite struck the first blow, Veronica would hold fast to her faith in her best friend.
She turned to face the opening as the elevator rose, careful to maintain her mental discipline over the shield even as the lift came to a stop and she had her first good look at the other woman.
There were bruises on Marguerite's face and arms, several ragged slashes on her blouse and skirt where she'd suffered near misses in hand-to-hand combat, and even a few traces of blood where she'd been nicked… not favorable evidence. Concerned for her friend's well-being, Veronica took came in off the balcony. "Marguerite?"
The slender brunette stepped off the bamboo cage and raised a shaking hand to remove her hat, then seemed to sag. The black hat fell from her fingers; she staggered, barely caught herself, and then stumbled to the bared floorboards where Veronica's mother had painted those arrows so many years ago to teach her daughter where "home" was, where "safe" was. With a moan, she dropped to her knees there, head hanging, body shaking, her hat forgotten on the floor behind her, only her pale hands and shaking arms braced against the floor keeping her from collapsing altogether.
"Marguerite!" With several quick steps, the blonde was near enough to lay a gentle, concerned hand on the visibly trembling silk-clad shoulder. Despite her compassionate concern for her friend, the Protector still held the shield in place, even when the Chosen One raised a now tear-drenched countenance and revealed tortured green eyes and an expression of such misery that there could be no other further doubt. "They have Roxton?" Veronica whispered, aghast.
Marguerite nodded, unable to speak as she battled her heartbreak.
"George and Ned are out there," Veronica said firmly, swallowing hard. "They'll find him. They'll help him."
The brunette shook her head, tears falling faster. Sobs wracked her as she sank lower onto the floor and curled into herself, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Veronica stood helplessly. This was the unthinkable, the one possibility they'd never dared discuss. A threat against Roxton was the only thing that might make Marguerite turn against her. How could the fiercely-loyal woman possibly condemn the man she loved more than her own life? Still, Veronica knew Marguerite well enough by now to know that the choice wouldn't be that simple. If the Chosen One helped Hordred, she could save Roxton, but she might never be able to forgive herself for betraying her "sister" and unleashing the dark line on the world. And if she saved him at such a cost, would either of them ever overcome the regret? And if she didn't save him – how would she get over the grief and guilt?
Which of these no-win situations would Marguerite choose?
The young blonde closed her eyes, willing herself to control both her rising terror at what this might mean for the entire world, and her increasing rage at these people who would use such cold-blooded tactics to manipulate Marguerite into doing their bidding.
Holding her temper with effort, she gritted her teeth and said, "Marguerite, you know we've overcome all kinds of dangers, faced death a hundred times. The men are out there, making a plan, working their way through this, just like we're doing here." There was no sign that this encouraged her sister-friend, which incited a whole new realm of worry. This was a woman who had learned to trust her companions, just as she'd learned to love John Roxton. If she was acting like there was no hope… Veronica hesitated, and her voice cracked just a little as she forced out the words, dreading the answer. "What happened? Where…? Have you seen the others?"
Marguerite visibly fought to regain some semblance of her usual composure.
Veronica waited, partly because she could see how difficult this was, and partly because she was afraid to push for an answer, concerned now for Ned and George as well as for John.
After several interminably long moments the brunette struggled to her knees again, her hands braced against the planks of the floor to steady herself. Head still hanging, her dark tangles falling in disarray around her face and hiding her expression, she found her voice, although it was raspy from her crying. "We… we were attacked. Separated." Veronica's hand returned to its place on her shoulder, both comforting and encouraging her. "There were too many of them, so many coming from every direction. They surged between us, drove Challenger and Malone one way, John and I another. The last time we saw them, George was d-down," She drew a shaky breath, still not looking up, all too aware of how Veronica would feel about what she had no choice but to tell her. "And Ned was standing over him, defending him… We couldn't get back to them. Hordred's men were pushing us further away. Veronica," she took another quick breath and blurted raggedly, "They hit us with so many men… none of us should have stood a chance. Of course they wanted me alive. The only reason Roxton isn't dead already is because they needed him to make me help them." This time her gulp for breath was deep and quavering. "But Hordred had no reason to spare the others. We heard the victory cries. We've already l-lost Challenger and M-Malone."
Swallowing hard herself at this confirmation of her suspicions, and knowing her friend was right that there was no mercy in any member of the dark line, Veronica forced herself to speak past the despair welling up in her heart. "Did I hear Hordred right? Did they offer you genuine evidence that you can use to reclaim your name? Do you believe that they'll give it to you and spare Roxton if you help them?" She extended a hand to help the other woman rise, wanting to show Marguerite that she understood, that she still accepted her… because it was the right thing to do, even if it made her vulnerable to Marguerite.
The Chosen One wiped her eyes on her sleeve, which Veronica noticed was already marred with blood from wounds that had been inflicted during her earlier battle with their enemies – her blood or Roxton's? – and accepted the Protector's hand to help her rise to her feet.
Once she was upright, Marguerite's swollen and reddened silver-green gaze met Veronica's sky-blue eyes steadily, honestly. "You have to hand it to them; they know my weaknesses, don't they? And they're going all out, offering everything I've ever wanted. Yes, they definitely promised me my birthright, my inheritance, and John. Of course when dealing with the immoral, there are no guarantees. They might reward me. Then again, they might not. The odds of my gaining anything of substance would have been better if I'd helped them willingly." She drew one more deep breath, let go of her friend's hand and straightened, squaring her shoulders. Her eyes darkened, and her voice when she spoke next was firm and clear. "But since I don't intend to have any part in their scheme to loose chaos on the world, it's a moot question."
The young Protector's breath caught, and she had to blink to clear her vision of sudden relieved tears. She'd known, she'd clung to hope… but here was the proof positive. Veronica regarded her friend with mingled compassion and pride. "Marguerite… are you sure?"
"What, you want me to kill you?"
The acerbic response was so classic-Marguerite that the blonde almost laughed. The devastation on the dark-haired woman's chalk-white face was all too real, though, so Veronica's amusement at her friend's words and familiar attitude faded without being expressed.
Despite her pallor, the Chosen One's voice was steady and filled with determination as she added, "Besides, do you think even a man of Lord Roxton's big-hearted loyalty could continue to love me if I betrayed not only my sister but the whole world just because his life was hanging in the balance?" She summoned the ghost of a smile. "We both know he'd want me to do the right thing, not throw the world into chaos just to save his life." She didn't bother to mention the dark line's promises to bestow upon her the documents she'd need to prove her identity and claim her family's estate; neither meant anything, compared to John. "I've always known that I only had him for a little while anyway. I knew all along that it was too good to last. If it hadn't been this, it would have been something else. Everyone I've ever loved has left me or been taken from me."
"I know the feeling."
Marguerite blinked back renewed tears, this time in sympathy for Veronica's grief instead of her own. Now it was she that reached out and gripped the younger woman's hands in a comforting squeeze. "It's not right, what keeps happening to us," she growled bitterly, then smiled grimly, a wrathful gleam growing in her now storm-grey eyes. "Isn't it too bad for them that you and I have the power to make them pay this time? So come on, Veronica: let's do this thing." She waved a hand toward the balcony around the treehouse, gesturing at the enemy that surrounded them and continued to hammer against Veronica's shimmering almost-invisible canopy.
Veronica's lips compressed in determination, but she hesitated, searching Marguerite's face. "Maybe there's another way? Something we haven't thought of yet?" They owed it to Roxton to at least try to come up with a way to save him, didn't they?
But Marguerite shook her head. "No. We've never talked about it, and I'm sure if you thought about it at all, you pushed it aside with the hope that it would never come to this, but it wasn't so long ago that I was no better than Hordred and his line, remember?" She waved off Veronica's instant protest; she might have had different motivations, but as Parsifal she'd been as ruthless as the dark line in pursuit of her goals. "I've known there was a good chance they'd hold Roxton hostage in exchange for my cooperation ever since we found out about me being the Chosen One. I've devoted far too many hours to thinking through a scenario like this, and I promise you that I've considered every possible option for saving John. Trust me; there's only one thing we can do. We have to stop the dark line, right here, right now."
There wasn't a shadow of doubt in her tone or her expressive face, and Veronica, remembering that Marguerite was indeed intimately familiar with the depths to which the unscrupulous could sink, shivered. She'd seen no sign that the former triple agent had been considering a choice as dark and dreadful as this during the last few months. This was clearly another example of the wily woman keeping a secret to protect her companions from what she knew, bearing a burden alone to save the others from worry over something she'd known they could do nothing about.
Marguerite grimly and earnestly continued, "They've taken far too much from us for far too long, Veronica, and now that the moment is actually here, I'm in the mood to deal out a little justice of our own. In fact, I'm strongly of the opinion that we need to hit them so hard that they'll never be able to deprive anyone else of loved ones like they've taken our parents and our family. But it's not just about losing Arthur, Finn, and now George, Ned, and John, or the families we should've had while growing up. No one and nothing good in the world will be safe until is over, once and for all. Let's wipe the whole lot of them off the face of the earth."
Intrigued, Veronica nodded slowly. "I like it," she said. "But can we do it? We haven't prepared for anything on that scale." They'd practiced expanding the Trion's power by utilizing the life-energy Marguerite could draw forth, but they'd only worked on local applications, nothing involving longer distances.
Marguerite quirked a brow, her sudden grin utterly humorless. "The two of us, we're just the women for the job. After all, I'm the reincarnation of a Druid priestess who conjured a storm that destroyed the world, and you're the Protector of the Plateau, guardian of the origin and source of all life-giving energy. If we summon the power and use it right, we can keep your descendents and the world from facing a new generation of power-hungry fiends like those who've made a mess of our lives. Together, you and I have the ability to put an end to this madness once and for all. I'm ready, how about you?"
For a second longer they faced one another, hand in hand, allowing each other to see the deep-seated pain they were feeling, and drawing strength from one another. Then Veronica squared her own shoulders and nodded. "Let's do it."
Standing there at the nexus of the power lines, at the center of the white arrows Abigail Layton had painted on the treehouse floor all those years ago, the two women closed their eyes and concentrated. Wind began to swirl around them, and almost immediately Veronica felt the intense power that flowed from Marguerite as the dark-haired woman started to chant softly in the unfamiliar tongue of her ancestors' ancient language. The jungle-born blonde gathered the spiraling energy volume, and focused on creating and building a wave of combined justice and retribution to send through the Trion that was clasped between her palm and Marguerite's.
There was a tangible shift in the feel of the air around them, and golden light encompassed the two women.
Veronica could sense the exact second when the men below realized that the Chosen One had thrown in her lot with the Protector instead of with them, could feel their stunned disbelief that the woman they thought they controlled should selflessly discard the bribes they had offered, felt their anger that their manipulation of Marguerite's life had culminated so unexpectedly in failure, and winced at their hatred of the Protector's line, but her focus didn't waver as their enemies solidified the pressure of their attack against the shield she still almost instinctively maintained around the compound.
The women's joined power enabled Veronica to know precisely when it dawned on Hordred that he'd been overconfident that his capture of Lord Roxton would force Marguerite to do his bidding. He belatedly mustered all of his power and all of his men to bring them to bear in a desperate attempt to neutralize the combined power of the Protector and the Chosen One before it became insurmountable. Furiously, he directed all of his formidable abilities on killing the Protector and punishing the Chosen one before they could unleash a retaliatory blow against their mortal foes. His desperation caused a tenfold increase in the effects of his power and his men's strength, and he laughed in triumph. But even as the multitude's might slammed into the barrier, the leader of the dark side could see the golden light pulsing, growing, in the treehouse.
Infuriated, Hordred sent forth a psychic command to kill their prisoner. Veronica would have given anything to shield Marguerite from that knowledge, but because of their physical and emotional bond through the Trion, such a mercy was impossible. She felt the devastating loss that sheared through her friend at the knowledge that Lord Roxton's death sentence had been issued – her beloved was now dead! But the vindictive order was no more than the she'd expected, and she quashed her anguish and redoubled her focus on empowering the Protector against the dark line.
Veronica staggered back, almost breaking the link with the other woman when the unexpected, astonishingly infinite burst of energy surged forth from the Chosen One.
But Marguerite didn't lose hold of Veronica's hand or the Trion. Her solid stance enabled the younger woman to regain her balance. "Focus," she said simply, and even before Veronica adjusted to the new power level and had wholly re-centered her attention on their task, the golden light intensified under Marguerite's icy determination. All that Lord Roxton believed in, all that he had lived and died for, was threatened by the dark line. His lady threw herself into their effort to eradicate that threat of chaos, to defend the Plateau where she had found love for the only time in her life, to make certain that Veronica's children would never have to go through this. She concentrated every ounce of her considerable willpower on the survival of everything that Roxton represented, all that was good and right and true in the world, for now and forever, represented by the line of Protectors.
In that instant, Veronica realized that Hordred had sealed his fate the moment he threatened Lord John Richard Roxton; he'd misjudged the character forged in the Chosen One when she'd been forced to face everything the dark line had thrown at her in their attempt to turn her to their side. The masters of the dark line had read their own motivations and beliefs into Marguerite's tough mercenary façade, and underestimated the better nature that had dwelt deep inside her all along, as well as Roxton's influence on her life. Marguerite was true to the man she loved, even in this, the bitter end of their brief time together.
And in sudden exultation Veronica knew that she and Marguerite could indeed stop the line of Mordren. With the power Marguerite was channeling, not only the Plateau but the world itself would be safe. The two women could deal the dark line such a blow today that it would be many generations before the cycle repeated itself again, if ever. The Trion's bearer smiled, albeit sadly for the loved ones they'd both lost, and then she firmly, with deadly accuracy, directed the super-abundant flow of energy outward. The shield dropped, replaced by the golden wave of light that poured forth from the pair in the treehouse, radiating outward in every direction.
Under the combined condemnation of the Protector and the Chosen One, Hordred and his men didn't simply die. That would've been too easy, too good for these adherents of the dark line who were directly responsible for the loss of the treehouse men. The warriors fell to the ground, writhing and screaming in agony as the purifying power literally purged them from the Plateau. They were consumed from within by heat so incendiary that the only remains of their bodies, clothes and weapons were small piles of ash.
Then the glowing pulse of energy spread like ripples across a pond, over the surface of the Lost World hidden on the plateau, seeking out and destroying every descendant of Mordren and his kin – with the exception of children whose hearts could be cleansed of the dark line's influence, a purification that was accomplished gently by the golden light, freeing them from the dark line's taint – overpowering every charm and spell that had been devised to withstand any onslaught of the Protectors, clearing the Plateau of every foothold that the forces of Chaos had managed to insinuate into the new cycle of life – but leaving all other living things unscathed.
And still the energy surged forth from Marguerite to Veronica and the Trion.
There seemed to be no limit to the power she drew forth from this central point of all the world's energy lines; magnified and directed by the Protector, the golden light streamed across hill and dale, glided over the mountains, dipped into the craggy canyons, and cascaded over the edges of the plateau, spreading across the world beyond and finding even in the outer world that plotted against the Protector and that over which she stood guard.
Aided by her unprecedented connection with Marguerite, Veronica could map its progress in her mind's eye. Time seemed suspended as she worked. Only once the rippling power covered land and sea from pole to pole around the globe, and the Protector was positive its full cleansing purpose had been accomplished, did Veronica began draw the beam inward again. She double-checked for any tendrils of the dark line as she drew the light back, ensuring that she hadn't missed any trace, until the power was fully retracted to its source, to the two women holding hands in the treehouse in the lost world at the heart of South America.
She guided the power back into its proper place with a nod of satisfaction, and opened her eyes. "We did it! It's done –"
With an exclamation of alarm, she caught Marguerite as the other woman collapsed. She sank to the floor with her friend in her arms. "Marguerite! Marguerite!" Only now did Veronica realize just how much of herself the Chosen One had given. Her skin was nearly translucent, her lips gray, her skin clammy and cold now that the power was no longer passing through her. She was barely breathing!
"No, Marguerite, don't you do this! John wouldn't want to you give up, he'd want you to live!" she protested, knowing instantly what was happening as she clutched the limp body against her breast. "Marguerite!" Veronica placed her trembling right hand over Marguerite's heart, laying the Trion directly against the fragile skin, and her brow furrowed as she concentrated on transferring warm, life-giving energy into the drained body that sagged against her.
The faint, uneven breathing seemed to steady a little, but the green eyes did not flutter open, and Veronica could see that the life force was not being absorbed.
With the horrible feeling that there was nothing she could do, she bowed her head and wept over this woman who had earned her love and devotion. "Marguerite, my sister, my friend, please, please, please live…"
Desperate not to lose what might be her last living family member, she refused to give up; she tried over and over to share her warmth, her life-sustaining power. "John may be dead, but he'd have wanted you to live. And I still love you – I still need you. Please choose to live!" She kept talking, tears rolling down her cheeks unheeded, as she infused energy into Marguerite time and again, without making headway as her frail body continued to fail.
Five minutes passed, ten… fifteen…thirty… Her efforts were keeping Marguerite alive, but no more. She'd always wondered which of them was stronger willed, if it came right down to a contest between the two of them. It looked like she was going to find out, because she was determined to continue pouring strength into Marguerite until the older woman gave up and accepted it, no matter how long it took to brow-beat her back into living. She wouldn't accept any other alternative, even if Marguerite hated her afterwards.
The desperate blonde had no idea how much more time had passed when her attention was dragged away from her efforts to feed energy into the dying brunette. The sun was descending toward dusk, she saw. What had distracted her from her efforts to save Marguerite? She concentrated, and located the sound that had caught her subconscious attention; the elevator was descending in response to a signal from the ground. Someone had activated it.
"What now?" she growled, her head snapping up. She shifted into a defensive posture over her unconscious companion, and reached inward for still more reserves of power. What could be left for the fates to throw at them? Hadn't they faced enough today? Of course, that wouldn't matter to whatever remnant of the dark line was taking advantage of her preoccupation with Marguerite to come against them yet again.
Where could these enemies have hidden themselves? How could their purifying wave have missed anything? She'd been so sure they'd completely purged the earth of the filth of Mordren and his dark line!
By the time the bamboo cage had risen to the treehouse doorway again, the weary and grieving young blonde had erected a small domed shield that cupped the two women in safety, and she was warily braced to resume battle against whatever remnant of the dark line had somehow been overlooked.
But another fight wasn't necessary. The elevator's occupants emerged from the bamboo cage, battered and helping one another, but alive, and she lowered her defenses with a shriek of relief. "Ned, Challenger – oh my! Roxton! Oh, Roxton! Marguerite!" she cried joyously, looking downward again, giving her friend a gentle shake as renewed hope bloomed in her heart. "He's alive! John's alive! You can't give up! John is here!"
"Marguerite!" the brunette's lover broke loose from the supporting arms of his friends and stumbled to Veronica's side. His initial alarm at his lady's lifeless appearance was abated by the realization that the blonde wouldn't be talking to her if she was dead, but her lack of response sent a shaft of terror through him. Unmindful of his own bruised and battered condition, he dropped to his knees and gathered the dark-haired beauty into his arms. His anxiety rose again as his first impression was confirmed: she was wholly limp and looked like death warmed over. He tenderly embraced her and scanned her body as he urgently repeated, "Marguerite!"
Relief washed over Veronica at the sight of the dark haired couple together again, against all odds. Roxton was here! Marguerite would be alright now; she would respond to him. She'd thought she'd run out of tears ages ago, but more streamed down her face as Veronica jumped to her feet and into Ned's arms. "We thought you were all dead!" she marveled, clinging to the journalist as if she would never let him go again. "Marguerite said you were overwhelmed by Hordred's men!"
Ned hugged her close, soothingly rubbing her back. "And so we might have been, if not for Challenger's quick thinking. He certainly lived up to his status as a genius today!" he praised their leader, smiling over her shoulder at the ginger-haired scientist who limped past them toward John and Marguerite.
Challenger waved off the words, his sky blue eyes focused on the other couple even as he said, "What I did was nothing compared to what was accomplished by that astounding light that passed through. Utterly fascinating! I assume that was you two women. But we can discuss it later – was Marguerite hurt during her efforts to get back to the treehouse?" Wincing at his aching joints, he lowered himself carefully to kneel beside Roxton so he could probe her limbs for whatever injuries had rendered Marguerite unconscious.
The nobleman looked up at the others, staring from one to another in bewilderment, having already searched for obvious wounds on his beloved's body. "There's not a mark on her other than the scratches and bruises from our earlier battle, before they took us prisoner."
Veronica turned in Ned's arms, her back pressed to his chest, her hands resting on his forearms where his arms crossed around her waist, and gravely answered their unspoken questions, her voice thick with weariness and sorrow. "Hordred and his men taunted her when she arrived, but they let her walk right past them without hurting her. They were so sure she would do what they demanded, but she fooled them. I don't think she hesitated for an instant," she proclaimed loyally, and then added thoughtfully, "Although there was a moment right after I let her through the shield when I thought she was going to take them on single-handed, she was so angry with Hordred. But she held her temper, and came up to join me so we could work together, just like we'd planned and practiced."
John looked down at his lady and smiled. "I knew she'd do the right thing," he said proudly.
"Of course she did," Challenger said brusquely. "No one who knows her could doubt it. But why is she unconscious? What did Hordred do to her?"
Quietly, still nestled safely in the circle of Ned's embrace, Veronica explained, "We both felt it when he gave the order to kill you, Roxton, and we were positive that you were dead in that same instant. Instead of breaking her, it seemed to make her more determined than ever to stop him. She gave me more power than I ever imagined she could summon, more than enough to cleanse the Plateau of its enemies. Before we started, Marguerite said we shouldn't just put a halt to their plans now, but should make sure the next generations will never have to face what we've faced. She never wavered from that goal, not even the moment Hordred ordered the execution. It was incredible how much energy she drew forth and channeled to me. It felt so right that I didn't think to question it, I just used it… but once the cleansing was complete, she…" She gestured to her still unmoving comrade. "I think she gave me her own strength, too, to make it possible to cover the entire world. I think she gave me way more of herself than she should have."
She briefly related how Marguerite had crumpled as soon as they'd finished. "I've been trying to restore her, but she won't accept the life-force."
"Restore her?" Challenger asked, looking up sharply. "So my hypothesis was correct that it was your power that healed the worst of our wounds while we were bathed in the golden aura?"
"Healed you?" Veronica repeated, blinking in surprise and renewed concern as she scanned the three men again. "You don't look healed," she frowned. There was blood streaked on all three men's clothes and skin, and they each had an abundance of bruises, cuts and abrasions.
"We were way more battered than we are now, before that golden light covered the plateau," Ned explained. "Among other things, I'd have sworn I had a broken arm, Challenger took a wicked blow to the head that opened the skin to the bone, and Roxton's ribs were definitely broken when we reached him. But between when the light covered us and when it faded away again, the most serious injuries we had… were just gone. It wasn't complete, but we're sure in better shape than we were before the light came. You didn't do that deliberately?"
She shook her head. "No, it must have been the Trion." Veronica opened her hand, the artifact still resting in her palm and still glowing.
"The Trion can restore life energy of its own volition?" Challenger frowned. This was a new aspect to its power, one that no one from Avalon had mentioned in any of their instruction.
"I don't know," Veronica shrugged, glancing down the symbol of her status as Protector. "One of the things we wanted to do was cleanse the effects of the dark line from the lives it touched, so maybe that's why you were healed. But I know I can deliberately use the Trion to channel life force. I don't know how I knew; it was just instinctive. And it worked. Well, sort of worked. I know it's kept Marguerite alive, because I can see how it steadies her breathing at least for a little while. But it's as if she's rejecting the healing… I'm afraid she's given up because…" her gaze flitted to Roxton. "…she thinks you're all dead."
"You think she doesn't want to live," Roxton said flatly, staring down at the woman he loved. He knew as well as the others did which man's death in particular would sap Marguerite's will to survive.
"Talk to her, man. Let her hear you," Challenger urged, ginger brows drawn together in concern as he reached over to take one wrist and check her thready pulse.
"She may be too far gone to recognize me," Roxton replied, fear thickening his voice to a harsh rasp. "She hasn't responded to either my voice or my touch so far." He gently rocked her in his arms, heartsick at her colorless complexion and fragile frame, so different from the vibrant woman he so loved.
Veronica tensed, and her gaze sharpened and focused on Marguerite again. Her brow creased as she saw that he was right. There'd been no improvement in her condition since Roxton had embraced her. How could that be possible? She'd been so certain that the brunette would improve as soon as she knew he was alive!
But Ned was shaking his head. "She probably hears you, Roxton, but she's going to take some convincing. She's never really believed the two of you would be together."
Roxton and Challenger's heads snapped toward him, and Veronica twisted in his arms to gape up at him in amazement. Malone blinked, startled and puzzled by their reaction to his simple statement. "What?"
Lord Roxton spoke up gruffly, brows drawn together in a frown. "What are you talking about? Marguerite can't possibly doubt that I love her!"
"No, I'm sure she knows you love her," he replied quickly, flushing. "That's not what I said. There's a difference between knowing someone loves you and believing that you can be together forever. I'm not sure she's ever believed that she's destined to have a happy future."
Veronica swallowed hard, recalling her conversation with Marguerite that very day. "She did say earlier that she'd always known she would only have you for a little while," she breathed, her heart going out anew to her friend. She could remember all too well how painful it had been to know she loved Ned and yet harbor doubts about whether he cared enough to stay with her here. It had taken a long time and multiple separations before she'd believed that the reporter meant it when he said he wouldn't leave her behind, that he'd always come home to her. And she hadn't anywhere near as many issues with abandonment as Marguerite. "She also said she knew it was too good to last, because everyone she's loved has either been taken from her or left her."
"Hmm. That would certainly support Ned's theory that she believes she's destined to lose you, John," Challenger agreed, brow furrowed.
Roxton frowned. "But I told her over and over –"
"Yeah, but it's not about whether you love her. It's a question of whether she believes she'll have the chance to live a life with you. Does she believe that God, or fate, or whatever, will allow her to have such happiness?" Ned reiterated. "I don't think she does, Roxton." When the hunter shook his head in disbelief, the younger man provided a specific example drawn from his observations of the other couple. "When you've talked about the future, has she been her usual opinionated self? Or has she made the occasional demure and just let you talk?"
A dozen recent conversations ran through his mind, and suddenly it was clear as day. Stricken, Roxton stared down at his lady. Ned was right. Why hadn't he suspected this before? He'd expected the knowledge that he loved her to provide her with the security she needed, and to open the door to the future he wanted with her. Of course he'd mostly used vague generalities when talking about their prospects together, to avoid pressuring his skittish lady, but she'd rarely responded with anything but excuses to avoid making any definite plans for their future. She'd always told him her life was too complicated beyond the Plateau to make commitments – as if they could face more dangerous or complex situations than here! He'd thought that little by little he'd overcome her hesitation to make future plans with him, just as he'd gradually won her heart. But Ned had seen the truth: she'd never stopped thinking that the other shoe was going to drop and she'd be alone again. She'd thought that "today" was all she could hope to have.
She'd actually said as much to him when they'd been talking on the balcony one night, months before she'd finally admitted she loved him, too. He hadn't interpreted it that way at the time, of course, when she'd told him she sometimes wondered if there was anything else she could possibly ask for, given what they shared here and now. They'd been standing in the very same place where she'd once told him her soul was a little the worse for wear, and she'd been astounded when he'd said he'd always keep her straight – not just because "always" was beyond her experience as he'd thought then, but because it was beyond her expectations. The evidence of her outlook had been there even in their earliest days on the plateau, when she'd labeled herself the evil stepsister… a fairytale character, but one who never had a happily ever after.
He'd taken at face value her diligence at working toward a secure future, so fascinated with unmasking the woman she was deep down, and then with conquering her heart, that he'd failed to grasp the significance of her doubts about whether she deserved or was destined to achieve a happy future. For him, loving Marguerite and being loved in return automatically meant they would forge a future together. When faced with their imminent deaths, he'd finally insisted on declaring his love for her, and she'd finally admitted her love for him in return… because it was the end, and neither of them had thought there would be a future beyond that cave.
Since then, while he'd been looking to the future, she'd still been bracing herself for the end. Yes, she was still skittish about their relationship, but while she'd accepted his love, she'd never shared his assurance about their future.
And in his ignorance he'd let her go on living that way, moment by moment and day by day.
How had he missed this when Ned had seen it so clearly?
Mentally cursing his ineptness, he clenched his jaw as he reviewed his tactics and realized he'd gone about the next step of his courtship all wrong. Clearly, he shouldn't have worried about scaring her away with the weight of his hopes and plans for their future; he should have shared it all with her, shown her that he believed in their future as much as he believed in their love. He should have shared his dreams, given her his strength, his confidence, until she could believe in their future as she'd learned to believe in his unconditional love.
What an idiot he'd been! Was it too late? No, it couldn't be! He had to believe that she could sense his presence, even in her catatonic state. She was still limp in his arms, barely alive – but she was alive. He wouldn't give up on her, not now, not ever!
"Marguerite," he said softly. "What can I do to help you believe that there's nothing that can separate us? You and I are meant to be together, my love."
Despite his firmly reassuring tone and his gentle touch, there was no responsive flutter of her lashes, no catch in her shallow breathing, no hint of faint color on her cheeks to show that she'd heard him even on a subconscious level. No! It can't end like this! If she couldn't or wouldn't hear him, what chance did she have? The Plateau now had a good future thanks to her, why couldn't she have the same?