All of the locals that were helping had bailed out at the last minute, so Bernard was the only one left. There was too much equipment for them to pack, so the group had decided to just take the essential things. Besides, their camp was already on the outskirts of what was considered "Leopard Country" by the locals, so they would have to stay light on their feet in case something happened.
Climbing. Repelling. Wading through waist-high running water. More climbing. Nasty insects. Close encounters with random predators...
"What a morning," Marina said, plucking a thorn from the back of her thigh and cleaning the area with an alcohol swab. They were resting near a stream and had just finished a light afternoon meal. It was just about time to get moving again. After one last equipment check, Marina stood suddenly. She seemed to be listening to something. Something distant.
"Wait... Do you hear that? That voice? That..." Her own voice trailed into an eventual slur, and then her eyes went dull and glazed over. Dropping her backpack to the ground, she sluggishly began walking toward a thicket. All expression had drained from her tanned face and her arms hung at her sides, and all she could do was just walk...walk...walk... Bernard tried to stop her, but she wouldn't listen to him. When he tried to grab her, she turned on him with a crazed expression and slapped him repeatedly, fury distorting her features. Afterward, she turned and ran into the woods, throwing caution to the wind.
On the other side of the thicket... Channaluha...
The glistening waterfall cascaded into the rippling pool below, its spray of white where falling water touched waiting pool as beautiful as any postcard. More beautiful, in fact. The large flat rocks on either side of the fall guided the spraying water daintily into the pool. The pool of water was open on one side to an expanse of beaten-down shrubbery and grass, and on the far side of it stood a man draped in leopard skins. He held a scepter of sharp onyx cradled in his arms and addressed two spear wielding men wearing nothing more than grass and black spots of war paint. The two men nodded and disappeared into the thick bushes.
Moments later, they emerged with more men, guiding a tied-up line of prisoners. The tourists. Six of them left. Six out of eight. There was no emotional proof that Marina had seen them when she walked out into the clearing, however. Her presence set the armed men on guard, but they quickly lowered their spears when they noticed the look in her eyes. Quickly, they went forward to receive her, guiding her over to the man in the Leopard skins. The man was chanting something. Something inaudible to most, but hypnotically rhythmic to others. The armed men didn't hear it. The X-Men didn't hear it. Marina and the tourists--normal people--heard it. They heard it loud and clear. In fact, it guided them to Channaluha and right to the Leopard King.
"I am Channaluha," The Leopard King said in a language that sounded like Spanish mixed with gibberish. In the very back of her mind, Marina's consciousness stirred. Being fluent in Spanish, her fumbling consciousness had caught the fact that the man had called himself Channaluha. That was his name, not the name of the place... Channaluha went on to address Marina and the tourists in his native language. "Those of you who hear my song have been chosen by the Great Leopard, an honor of most high recognition. You shall become part of him now with your bodies and souls. You shall be remade in his image now. Now, you shall receive my blessing..."
In reverence to the ceremony, the armed men knelt down and bowed their heads, averting their unworthy eyes from their king. With his onyx scepter, he lightly brushed the forehead of one of the tourists. Instantly, the hypnotized man fell and began to shake wildly. Before he could bring down the others he was tied to, a guard sliced the rope that bound his hands to free him. Slowly, seemingly painful, the man's legs and arms drew in on themselves and his chest began to stretch and writhe. Carefully, a guard sliced away his clothing with a hooked knife and stood back. After agonizing minutes of frothy struggling and writhing, what emerged was no longer a man, but a leopard.
The large, lean spotted cat stood up on shaky, stalky legs, pawing at its own face in confusion. Its tail swished as a purr of a growl escaped its sharp-toothed maw. Right away, two guardsmen rushed forward with a length of rope and a thick leather collar to restrain the newly reborn beast. Promptly, they guided it away. The remaining guards urged the next tourist to step forward. Marina stood in line behind the tourists, still as dazed as they were, staring dreamily into nothingness...