- Heart of Ruin

Neither time nor science shall ever reveal the Plateau to the outside world. This extraordinary place is not some point on a map, but rather a doorway unto itself. You come here by invitation only. – GEC

The Plateau: June 16, 1932

Marguerite knelt at the river bank and let her heavy pack slip to the ground. The days had been long and the shade here felt more than fine. A gentle waterfall spilled over a high rock formation from the west and collected into a deep pool, secluded below the thick jungle canopy. She traced her fingers across the cool water, scattering her own reflections. Everything had changed. She struggled to see something familiar. This could be any pool on any number of rivers or streams that crisscrossed the Plateau; but of course, it was not.

After a life threatening pursuit through Shanghai, two months aboard ocean liners (one of them barely seaworthy), a charter flight from Panama to Brazil, a steam launch up the Amazon, mud bogged tributaries in canoe; and finally, a week long trek across the Plateau on foot – Marguerite was home.

She secured her pack and navigated the mild slope towards the clearing. She didn't know what to expect. It had been almost a decade since she had said goodbye to this home in the trees. She had walked this trail leading into the clearing hundreds of times; passed the electric fence, the work benches and storage bins, the familiar laundry drying in the breeze. But now, only broken fragments remained; the jungle had reclaimed its own. Rotting wood and rusted metal were the only evidence that she had spent almost four years of her life here.

The alcove at the base of the massive tree trunk still housed the elevator carriage. Even after years of inactivity, the ingenious lift appeared operational. Marguerite stepped aboard and pulled back on the release lever, as she had done so many times before. The counter weight groaned as it dropped free, and the elevator began its spider-climb up into the canopy.

It was hard to witness what time and neglect had done to this skyward sanctuary. Although she had always been the first to complain, she truly knew what the tree house had meant to their survival. She took a long breath and held her emotions in check.

"Well, this place has really gone to the monkeys," she said, as she stepped around the remains of a broken chair and then continued into the common area. The dining table still stood at the center of the room, although the floor here was sloped and collapsed, exposing the lab below. Relentless jungle conditions had begun to erode every corner of the structure. Even the smells had changed. The scent of freshly ground coffee beans and crushed citrus, Roxton's gun oils and wood polish, Challenger's bubbling concoctions; had all faded away with time.

A sudden clamor from the lab brought her rifle to the ready. The sound of scattering debris was followed by a distant rustling of branches. Whatever had been down there must have scurried outside and into the trees. She positioned herself with a better view through the breach in the floor; what little Challenger had left behind was now wreckage.

Marguerite smiled to think of what the cantankerous old scientist might say at this sight. "Myopic primates… no respect for science…" she chuckled at her own mockery. Forgotten warmth filled her as she recalled the father figure that he had become within this home.

"No time for sentiment," she warned herself. She had come here with a purpose, yet every bit of clutter held a memory. Malone's cherished pen and inkwell sat high on a shelf, laden in dust. She looked around the room for one of his journals, without success.

"Well, your depictions were never very flattering anyway, Ned," she said aloud.

Had he ever found what he was seeking? It had been a game for her – playing on his insecurities – reminding him at every turn of the long shadows thrown by Challenger and Roxton. When Ned had left that day, with just his rifle and a few provisions, it hadn't occurred to her that it was the last time that she would ever see him.

A gentle breeze began to stir the treetops and the window light had melted to fiery orange. She had less than an hour left now, but still enough time to poke about a bit more. She crossed to the main floor bedroom and paused in the doorway. Veronica had been the last to leave and she had packed much more thoroughly than the others. After an entire lifetime spent here in the tree house, almost no trace of the young woman remained.

Marguerite was taken by the emptiness of the room. She had spoken the words as they said their goodbyes – told Veronica that they were like sisters, but she had never truly behaved as a sister.

"Words. Only words," she whispered and she turned away. A visit to her old bedroom was more than she was prepared for – or Roxton's...

"John," her voice was barely audible. She walked out onto the balcony; her favorite bench was still secured to the wall and she sat. The heat had lifted and the canopy was alive with sound. So many evenings she had spent out here with John. If only she had known how abruptly it was all going to end. It took going back to London to truly appreciate what she had left behind on this balcony, a decade ago.

Sunset gave way to twilight and the first stars began to dot the sky above the jungle. "First star I see tonight…" she whispered.

It was time. She fished the Ouroboros from a small pocket on the underside of her vest, and held it up to the fading light. It had taken her nearly a year and countless bribes to reclaim this troublesome little scrap of metal. A snake eating its own tail – If she had deciphered the legends correctly, then there was only one way to unlock the full power of the mystical talisman. And that was here, at the axis.

Marguerite stood and went back inside. She moved the dining table clear and kicked aside the tattered old mats. The floor still bared the marks that Veronica's mother had inscribed there more than thirty years before. The epicenter, the convergence of all power on the Plateau… waited.

She knelt and placed the medallion in the exact center of the three hash marks. The reaction was instantaneous and lacked all fanfare. A modest white glow rose from the Ouroboros and took the form of a doorway. Marguerite did not ponder nor hesitate; she had made this decision years ago. She stepped into the light.

That very first night in the Tree House: 1919

"...because another voice tells me: You only meet a woman made of fire and steel once in a blue moon," Lord John Roxton was saying. Marguerite's disorientation was strong, but she had prepared herself for this very moment.

Roxton continued, "and you don't want..." She pressed a soft finger against his lips.

"Hush, John," she said, "I don't recall exactly what you're going to say next, but I do believe this is the part where you kiss me." She leaned in and placed a small tender kiss on the corner of his lips.

He was puzzled by her sudden change of demeanor. "For a moment there, I thought you might bite me," he said.

"Oh, Lord Roxton, I still might," she warned. Challenger was speaking to the group upstairs and she could barely contain herself. "But, for right now, one little kiss will have to do."

"Just one?"

"Patience, John; we're going to be here a very long time," she said. Just then she heard Summerlee's gentle voice from the gathering above, and she was almost moved to tears. There were so many things that she was going to make right. She raced up the stairs.

Marguerite looked to each of her dear old friends. She knew they couldn't understand her meaning, but still, she whispered the words...

"Let's do it all again."