Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the
property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, The SciFi Channel, MGM/UA, Double Secret
Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is written purely for my own
entertainment, and that of anyone else who may happen to read it. No
infringement of copyright is intended. It is not intended and should never be
used for commercial purposes.
The original characters, situations and ideas contained within this work are the property of the author.
This story is a sequel to Stone and Ash. It is part
two of Nike, and is followed by The Hidden One and The Black God.
Shakhshukha is a North African dish, usually described as a kind of lasagne, although it is made with minced lamb or calf's brains and filo pastry rather than pasta.
I want to thank my beta reader, Sho; the Academy; my ISP...
Jonas Quinn sat in the SGC commissary, eating his coriander chicken, talking to Captain Amy Kawalsky. Amy was becoming quite agitated, and while Jonas had conquered his fear that the young woman might try to kill him at any time, he was a little worried that she was about to spray him with shakhshukha.
"I'm just saying that if you're right about this, it could be big," Amy told Jonas. "We've never had much success with the Prometheus File before; if you can find something it would go a long way towards vindicating the entire study."
"Does it need vindicating?" Jonas asked.
"God, yes!" Amy replied. "We've had a kind of grace period during which General Hammond has just glowered at anyone who suggests shutting down one of Daniel's projects, but the suits want to cut costs and that's never good for the anth lab." She shook her head, sadly. "We're considered something of an indulgence by our intrepid budgeteers," she explained. "Always have been, and right now the SGC anthropological and archaeological team is as large as it's ever been. They're looking to slash our budget, and from what I hear they're threatening to refuse the formation of any new field units until our team is scaled down."
"That's ridiculous," Jonas scoffed. "With the nature of the things we deal with going through the Gate, archaeological knowledge is one of, if not the most valuable resource we have."
Amy harrumphed. "Well, a lot of people don't agree with you. They sent a ten point memo with guidelines for 'rationalising' the anth team: Reduce non-military assets; minimise non-essential offworld activity; de-prioritise the retrieval of non-functional and non-military artefacts; multiskill essential anthropological assets; limit indispensable non-combat assets to on-station consultancy positions...Gah!" She waved her arm angrily, and a healthy dollop of minced lamb landed on Jonas' forehead.
"Thank you," he said.
"Welcome," she replied, passing him a paper napkin. "Anyway; it basically boils down to sacking the civvies, cancelling all ongoing studies, bringing back only working weapons and making all anthropology staff join combat and exploration teams or stay on base all the time." She snorted angrily. "In other words, they want to scrap my entire team, sack my doctoral supervisor and confine you to the lab."
"You're really worked up about this," Jonas observed, wiping the last of the lamb from his brow.
"I hate it when they start hacking at the SGC over money. I mean, this is only the most important project in the history of the human race. Besides," she added, softly, "they're talking about taking an axe to Daniel's legacy. I won't let anyone destroy that; not without a fight."
"Well, I certainly hope I do turn up something concrete," Jonas said.
"So do I," Amy agreed. "Like I say, for all the work that's gone into the File, we haven't had much to show for it. Three no-shows, nine dead ends and a whole lot of mysteries, wrapped in an enigma, folded in half and shoved into an olive foolscap file folder."
"Well, it's a long way from concrete as yet," Jonas said. "But I think I have a chance; or I will have if I actually get to the briefing," he added, bolting down the last of his food and leaping to his feet. "I'll see you later," he said, around a mouthful of chicken.
"Knock 'em dead, Tiger," Amy said, encouragingly, watching as Jonas made his way out of the mess with his characteristic blend of awkwardness and precision. He was still no replacement for Daniel Jackson, but Amy found it hard to recall how she could have hated him so much.
"Is he done with that?"
Amy looked around at the scowling face of Mess Sergeant Tabor, then back at Jonas' tray. "Ahh, yes," she replied. "Yes he is. He was in a hurry so I said I'd rack it when I was done."
Tabor gave her a look that suggested he did not believe her in the slightest, but the scowl softened slightly. "You're supposed to put the tray away before you leave the commissary; he knows that as well as you. It's always the civilians," he added.
"I'm sorry, Zehavi," Amy said, penitently. "It won't happen again."
"It had better not," the sergeant warned. The son of an immigrant French-Algerian chef, Zehavi al-Tabor acted more like a chef himself than a mess sergeant sometimes. For starters, he should by rights be showing a little more respect to a Captain, however young. "By the way," he added. "Did you hear anything else about that planet?"
"P2E-981?" Amy asked, innocently. "Yes, as a matter of fact. According to Paul there's a bean with a slightly sweet, vanilla scent. If Dr Fraiser clears it for toxicology he'll bring you a bag or two."
Tabor smiled, transported as always by the prospect of a new kind of coffee. "I'll forget the tray this time," he said. "But next time he leaves it, you call him back."
"I will," she agreed. "The General will just have to wait a little longer."
Tabor nodded. "Damn straight," he said.
Jonas stopped off at his office for his files, then headed for the elevator. He hurried into the briefing room with moments to spare, the rest of his team already there but not yet seated.
"Afternoon, Jonas," Jack O'Neill said. "Cutting it a little close aren't we?"
"Sorry, Colonel," Jonas replied. "Lost track of time."
"You lost track of time?" Sam Carter asked, astonished. "I thought you always knew everything that was going on around you."
Jonas smiled. "Having sheep's brains thrown at me tends to affect my concentration. Captain Kawalsky decided to share some of her shakhshukha."
"You didn't get into another fight, did you?" Sam asked, concerned.
"No, no; she was just...enthused."
"Shakalaka is brains?" Jack asked, queasily.
"Did I not suggest that you have the chicken?" Teal'c reminded Jack.
"You didn't say the alternative was brains!"
At that moment, General Hammond emerged from his office, and SG-1 came to attention. "At ease," Hammond said, taking his seat.
"General, permission to make an urgent trip to the bathroom?" Jack asked. "It appears I may have eaten brains?"
"Anyone's we know?" Hammond replied, coolly.
"Well, not personally, no."
"Go if you really have to," Hammond allowed. "Otherwise I'd like to get started."
"Yes, Sir," Jack agreed, fighting down his nausea. "Although I may raise the issue of proper descriptions on the commissary menu at the next mess meeting."
"The US Air Force catering service makes allowance for dietary requirements, food allergies and religious stricture. Sergeant Tabor is not required to provide you with something you like; just something that won't kill you or taint your soul."
"You always stick up for him," Jack muttered. "Just because you get the good coffee..."
"Colonel," Hammond said, his tone carrying a mild warning.
"Yes, Sir," Jack replied. "Just trying to avoid Jonas' briefing, which I have unfairly prejudged to be dull. Please continue, Jonas."
"Thank you, Colonel," Jonas said, without a hint of offence. "General?"
"Carry on, Mr Quinn."
"Thank you, Sir. Now, as you may know, the anthropological and archaeological team have for some time been carrying out an extended project which Dr Jackson dubbed the Prometheus File."
"As in the space ship?" Jack asked, baffled.
"No, Colonel," Jonas replied. "The project predates the X-303 programme by several years; Dr Jackson began the file in 1997, following your first mission to P3X-974."
"Cimmeria," Sam realised. "Daniel told me about this; he was studying Earth mythology to produce a catalogue of culture bearers."
"Of what?" Jack asked.
"Daniel Jackson theorised that Earth had experienced intervention from aliens of two kinds," Teal'c replied. "Tyrants and culture bearers. Do you not recall this from his briefing before the mission to Cimmeria?"
"Oh, yes," Jack said. "In great detail. He said...Um, that there were two...kinds of alien...and..."
"Exactly," Jonas agreed, sharing a grin with Sam as he came to Jack's rescue. "And the Prometheus File began as a list of those 'gods' that Dr Jackson believed to be benevolent towards mankind; or at least benign. Thor and the other Aesir were on the list, as were a number of fairly minor European and African deities, Mesopotamian, Dreamtime and Native American spirits, Taoist immortals and genii loci. Prometheus was the first god on the list; hence the name.
"After that, Dr Jackson's team continued to compile any and all information gathered on offworld missions which might pertain to these culture bearers, in the hopes of establishing contact and forging alliances. To date it hasn't had a great deal of success, but I think that may be about to change."
"Explain," General Hammond invited.
"Well, Sir; I was crosschecking the account given by Hesther, the Keplan woman who helped us locate Colonel O'Neill during his latest absence. She captured Athena's spy, Ara, an Aradan Clayth by all accounts a pretty slippery and dangerous breed and claimed that she was aided in this effort by a local spirit called a Rusalka."
"These Rusalka are mentioned in the Prometheus File?" Hammond asked.
"The plural is Rusalki, and no," Jonas replied. "Not as such. However, one of the entries concerns a Slavic water goddess named Kupala, whose name I believe to be the root of Keplo. Kupala was a benevolent river deity and her domains as a goddess were flowers and purity."
"Just from curiosity," Jack said. "They assign these godly domains at random, don't they? It's like a draw or something: 'Congratulations; you get to be god of bloodshed and...'" he tapped a drum roll on the tabletop "'footwear!' Right?"
"Something like that," Jonas allowed, "although there's usually some connection. In Kupala's case she was worshipped with offerings of flowers cast into the river and seen as a bringer of purity, because the river washed away the impure. She taught her followers the importance of bathing and proper hygiene, and so the Christians naturally disapproved."
"Naturally?" Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Mediaeval Christians believed bathing to be a form of vanity," he explained. "It didn't help that her male counterpart, Kupalo, was a fertility god. They were both essentially gentle deities; although like all gods not to be angered. Their cults were non-violent, and thus fairly easy for the Christians to wipe out if they wouldn't convert. The last traces of Kupala were absorbed into the Cult of the Virgin and Kupalo became a saint named Ivan."
"I take it that they had some kind of connection to Russell Crowe?" Jack asked.
"According to the old legends, the Rusalki" Jonas stressed the name "were their daughters. They were spirits of life, powerful magicians and helpers of humankind, although the Christians later portrayed them as the ghosts of drowned girls particularly of those who drowned themselves for love betrayed or unrequited who lured young men to a similar fate.
"Anyway," Jonas said. "I figure it should be worth checking this out. I'd like to go back to Keplo and try to contact the Rusalka that Hesther encountered. If we can track Kupala or Kupalo down they might be useful allies; although not in battle, I'd guess."
"And if the Rusalka proves to be what the Christians believed?" Teal'c asked, warily.
"Well, I'll just have to try to resist her watery embrace," Jonas said. "It should help if I have a woman 'of pure and noble spirit' with me," he added, turning to face Sam. "I thought I'd take Hesther along," he told her, mischievously.
"Major Carter," Hammond warned, sternly. "You will refrain from throwing doughnuts in the briefing room. Mr Quinn, I agree that this bears investigation. I'll give you a week to conduct your initial search on Keplo."
Jack led the way through the Stargate and was immediately unhappy about what he saw.
"Ah; will you look at this place," he muttered.
"It's...lovely," Sam replied, following close behind him. After her came Teal'c, Jonas, then the men and women of SG-5 and 11. "Trees, sunshine, a cool breeze," Sam went on. "The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing; there's zero air pollution. You're right; we're doomed."
Amy looked confused. "I don't understand, Major? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Jack replied. "And that's the problem. Nothing good has ever come of nice-looking planets where we hoped to find powerful allies; from Cimmeria onwards it's been nothing but mistaken imprisonment and vanishing babies."
"You're exaggerating, Colonel," Amy scoffed. "No-one got imprisoned on Keplo for more than a couple of days...except you," she admitted. "Oh; and the exploration of Shayara was virtually trouble free except that I got abducted and the Major still limps a little when it rains." She looked around, warily. "I think that tree is watching us," she said.
Settle down, Captain," Major Patterson warned, indulgently.
"You're certain this is the place?" Jack asked.
"Well, as certain as I can be," Jonas replied. "The Rusalka I met on Keplo was...a little flaky, but she gave us this address, and the descriptions match."
"Also we checked and this planet has a number of very persuasive traits," Amy said. "It's close to Keplo in the Stargate system, the address appears in no known Goa'uld databases and the star we're orbiting forms part of constellations associated with water, purity and river spirits in six recorded mythologies on four worlds. Jonas and I agree this is the most likely place."
"And that last should really be enough for anyone," Jonas pointed out.
Jack shook his head, sadly. "He used to be such a nice boy," he said. "You're a bad influence on him, Kawalsky."
"I can't take all the credit," she assured him. "I just do my bit."
"O'Neill!" Teal'c called out. Jack turned and headed for the Jaffa, who was standing before a large, carved stone. Dr Lauren Collister was crouched before the stone, studying its inscriptions.
"Road sign?" Jack asked.
Lauren shook her head. "More like a warning sign," she said. "It's a Goa'uld stela, cautioning all Goa'uld and Jaffa against setting foot on this world."
"According to the finer inscriptions, the Goa'uld Daszbog, son of Svarog, came here and tried to build a palace," Teal'c said. "He was driven off by a terrible foe, who could not be defeated even when the Goa'uld unleashed their most potent weapons. The planet should carry the mark of korush-nai, but no radiation or poison could be found that would propagate."
"Goddess of purification?" Lauren suggested.
Jack nodded. "Carter; open the Gate and get them to send us a survey UAV."
"In the meantime," Jonas suggested, "the initial survey showed a ruin just south of here I'd like to check out. Maybe SG-11 and I could take a look while you get the UAV set up?"
"I shall accompany you," Teal'c said. "If the Goa'uld were defeated so completely that all mention of this Stargate was removed from their records, then there may be great danger."
"Four of you can go, plus Teal'c," Jack allowed. "I want one of you to brief me on what we might expect from Kupala."
"We did that at the mission briefing," Lauren pointed.
"Yes," Jack replied, patiently. "But as it was boring and possibly unimportant I didn't listen. This time I will."
"Okay," Jonas said, quickly. "I'll stay and brief the Colonel; you guys have a great time at the ruins and call us if you find anything good. Or bad," he added.
"Yeah, sure," Lauren sniffed. "We'll type it up on soft, strong and absorbent paper so maybe the Colonel can find some use for it as well."
"Hey!" Jack protested.
"Lauren!" Jonas interrupted, in a firm but gentle voice. "Not here; not now." As the archaeologist walked away, joining Major Patterson, Captain Kawalsky and Lieutenant 'Duck' Caldicott to head for the ruins, Jonas turned and glowered at Jack.
"What?" Jack asked.
"She doesn't get it," Jonas said.
"You," Jonas replied. "She doesn't get the way you are, so what you just said was about the worst thing you could ever have said to her."
Jack looked shocked, no less by what Jonas was saying than by the fact he was angry enough about it to get in Jack's face. "I say stuff like that to you all the time," he said, weakly.
"But I know you," Jonas replied. "I'm also not the head of the anthropology and archaeology team; I'm not facing an imminent budget slash and my own redundancy; and I'm not supervising three students who are all looking at the premature termination of their doctoral studies.
"Dr Collister is under a great deal of pressure at the moment. She was hired to take some of the heat off Dr Jackson, but after he...left no-one was brought in to help her. She's working fit to bust on the most incredible archaeological discoveries of the modern age and the Pentagon is telling her that her whole team is dead weight, so she's feeling pretty unappreciated. You treating her like a tedious but necessary evil isn't going to help."
"These people put a great deal of work into producing reports for the SGC's military personnel and to keeping them interesting and to the point, and please believe that it is absolutely the most boring part of their jobs to present them to you," Jonas went on. "Do you really think they're going to take it lightly when you tell them you don't even listen? When you treat them like a...a walking text book to be opened and closed at your convenience?"
"I was joking!"
"I know," Jonas assured him. "She doesn't; and like I said, she could use a little support right about now."
"No one ever said anything to me about this," Jack said, with honest contrition.
"They can't," Jonas replied. "Air Force personnel can be reprimanded or even court-martialled for insubordination if they argue policy decisions with their COs; civilian consultants to projects like this can be dismissed without recourse. I'm an alien refugee; I enjoy a certain latitude to tell you where to get off."
Jack sighed. "So tell me what I need to know about Kupala; besides what I learned from Dr Collister's informative and riveting talk this morning."
"Okay," Jonas allowed. "So with Hesther's help I got to speak to the Rusalka on Keplo; Lyuba was her name. She was happy to help but really very old and a little senile.
"From what Lyuba said, Kupala's race do not age and are both powerful and resilient, but they are scarce. Most of them have been killed by powerful enemies, or simply...faded away. In order to keep them company, some members of this race create children, spawning them in some fashion from their own bodies; the Rusalki call themselves Kupala's Tears."
"So if they're formed from her body, Kupala is a water-creature too?" Jack guessed.
"If the Rusalki are in fact made of water," Jonas qualified. "Major Carter has a theory that they're more likely energy beings, very like Oma Desala's race in many ways. Their watery appearance is probably due to a kind of protective 'skin' similar to the event horizon of the Stargate."
"Right," Jack said. "You said that Kupala's race don't age which seems to fit with the comparison with Oma's race but the Rusalki do?"
"That's right," Jonas agreed. "According to Lyuba they live about six centuries, all else being equal, although some weapons can kill them. They are incapable of spawning young as Rusalki, but apparently they can adopt a human form, take a husband and have children. By doing so they constrain themselves to a mortal span of years, however, and their children are human, so the race can not be perpetuated without Kupala. Lyuba told me that she was more than five hundred years old, and looking forward to returning to Kupala to die; she wasn't clear what that entailed, or what happens to a Rusalka who dies without being able to return to Kupala."
"And what about Kupala herself?"
"Well, Lyuba said that she was a defender of green and growing places with a long history of fighting Svarog's faction," Jonas explained. "Likes running water and green trees; dislikes pollution and deforestation."
"'Handing one of' and I'm quoting Lyuba verbatim here 'Svarog's butchers his own black heart, scattering his forces and undoing all the horrors he has inflicted', followed by a long period of recuperative hibernation. Lyuba was worried that after Kupala's last confrontation with Czernobog a clash which occurred four centuries ago on a planet quite near to her beloved Keplo Kupala would remain dormant until after her death. She told us that Kupala left her and a handful of her sisters to watch over her favourite worlds, then retreated here, to her homeworld, to sleep until she was renewed."
"Well, I like the part about handing Goa'uld their hearts," Jack said.
"Don't get too confident," Jonas advised. "Kupala probably won't think too much of our environmental record either."
Jonas gave a weary sigh. "Of course," he agreed, not wanting the argument that invariably followed any suggestion that Jack should not be taken as a representative sample of humanity.
Sam set up and launched the UAV, guiding it from a small ground station. Jonas watched the feed over Sam's shoulder, occasionally asking her to change course.
"I think we've got something," Sam hazarded, after about twenty minutes.
"I'd say so," Jonas agreed. "Colonel!"
Jack sauntered over to see what the fuss was about. "Think that's it?" He asked, looking at the screen.
"It's a safe bet that's the most important structure we'll find on this planet," Jonas replied. The UAV was circling over a steep-sided, forested valley. In the centre of the valley was a lake, in the centre of the lake was a small, wooded island, and in the centre of the island was a white-walled temple roofed in green slate. "The design is unlike anything we've seen from the Goa'uld, but resembles a few ruins on Keplo."
"Where is it?" Jack asked.
"About three miles east," Sam replied.
Jack nodded. "Okay; let's move everything out. Major Parker; SG-5 will stay here and keep the Gate secure."
"Yes, Sir," Parker agreed.
"Keep in touch," Jack added. "I want to know straight away if anything comes through. Jonas; call SG-11 and tell them to get back here now; we're past noon by the look of things and I want to be at this temple well before nightfall."
"The road loops south past the ruins," Jonas said. "We can pick them up en route. Also, I think we've got about nine hours until nightfall; if my estimation is right then the days are about thirty hours long around here."
"Well, let's shake a leg anyway," Jack suggested. "Let 11 know we're on our way."
SG-11 were packed up and ready to go by the time the rest of the group reached them at the ruins, a scattering of rounded, crumbling stones, surrounded by the vast trees that flourished everywhere on the planet. They fell in without comment and avoided Jack's eye, aside from Amy, who paused in her conversation with Teal'c to scowl at him.
"Find anything of interest?" Jonas asked Lauren.
"This was once a Goa'uld temple," Lauren replied, "maybe a thousand years ago. Not much but the ground plan to go on though. All the carvings are weathered away; no way to say if this was Dazsbog's or not."
"Wow," Jack said, with exaggerated bonhomie. "I don't think I've ever seen a Goa'uld structure worn down this much. Daniel once mentioned that they use a process on their walls that hardens them and makes sure that they only erode very slowly; that the oldest Goa'uld structures would still be clearly identifiable, even if blasted to the foundations."
"Well, that's normally true," Lauren agreed, accepting the olive branch. "I'll need to run some tests to be sure, but it looks as though these walls were treated in the same way. That being the case, and judging by the degree of water damage, I'd say this site must have been subject either to regular, massive flooding or to a year-long typhoon."
"Only problem with that theory," Caldicott said, motioning around him, "is that some of these trees look like they've been here almost as long as the palace."
"Meaning?" Jack asked.
"Meaning that it would have had to have been the most localised flooding and/or typhoon ever recorded," Lauren told him.
"Or the palace was destroyed by some alien force capable of rapidly abrading Goa'uld-tempered stone," Sam added.
"I like the sound of that option," Jack agreed. "We've found an intact temple," he added, addressing SG-11. "Up for the walk?"
"Well whatever is here has been wiped away," Lauren told him. "So sure; why not."
"Glad to have you along," Jack assured her.
"Colonel; if I forgive you, will you stop being so nice?" Lauren asked. "It's creeping me out."
"Gladly," Jack replied.
A three mile hike through heavy forest could be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but on an alien planet, it just made Jack nervous. The trees also unnerved him; taller than anything he was used to, more like the giant sequoias of California than the familiar broadleaves of the north, they seemed to bear down and enclose him. He was glad when they at last emerged from this primeval setting, and found themselves in a grassy meadow, one hundred yards wide, that led to the edge of the valley. A low ridge rose up at the end of the meadow, and a dense hedge grew along its length.
"Jonas?" Jack asked.
"There should be an opening in the hedge about thirty yards west of us," Jonas assured Jack. "There was probably a track once, but it's become overgrown with disuse. The break was large enough to be visible from the air, though."
The group followed Jonas around the meadow, and as he had promised an opening appeared. Amy was on point as they pushed through the branches that had grown over what had once been a wide and welcoming breach. Rambling wild roses covered the valley sides, and the green leaves of trees waved peacefully about thirty yards below. Amy led the way down a timeworn flight of steps, cut into the side of the valley and set with weathered flagstones. As they passed through the canopy she gasped in amazement.
"What?" Jack asked, coming up beside her.
"Look at this place," Amy murmured, gazing down into the valley. "It's not a forest; it's a garden."
"How much do you think a place like this goes for?" Jack asked.
Amy smiled. "I think this looks like the kind of place the owner will never sell."
Jonas came through the hedge and whistled in amazement; Amy was right, this was a cultivated garden. The trees here were smaller than in the forest and less densely packed, allowing the sunlight to filter down to the ground so that smaller bushes and carpets of blue and gold flowers could grow in rich abundance. Unseen birds sang merrily, and somewhere to the left they could hear water. It was light and airy, without a trace of the claustrophobic feel of the towering forest.
"You know, I think these steps are paved with stones from Dazsbog's temple," Lauren said, coming up behind them. "They...Oh my."
Standing beside the archaeologist, Sam frowned. "Someone still lives here," she said.
"How do you know?" Jack asked.
"This garden hasn't been left to grow wild," Sam explained. "It's been planted and tended; even if the plants have been allowed to grow over their original borders it was part of a plan. Trust me," she said, in response to Jack's doubtful look. "It's a...plant thing."
"So what do you suggest?" Jack asked.
"Stick to the path," Sam replied, indicating a winding trail through the undergrowth, "and don't pick any flowers."
"Actually," Lauren said. "I think we should pick a few; we shouldn't present ourselves to Kupala empty-handed."
Sam nodded. "Okay," she said. "But I still think we shouldn't take too many from any one plant."
"Agreed," Lauren said.
"Right," Jack said. "Well, if the rules for this nature walk are all arranged...? Okay then, we'll head through the garden to the temple. Lauren, Jonas; pick some appropriate flowers. Everyone else stay on alert and keep your hands to yourselves. Don't get distracted by your surroundings, and do not let your guard down."
Jack moved ahead of Amy, leading the group as they worked their way along the path. A spicy, floral aroma filled the air and Jack felt slightly light-headed. "Carter!" He called, after about a quarter mile. Just ahead the stream that they had been able to hear all along emerged from the undergrowth and crossed the line of the path at a shallow ford.
"Is this...stuff dangerous?" Jack asked.
"Stuff, Sir? You mean the pollen?"
"Yes; the pollen."
"Well, Daniel would have been in real trouble," Sam replied, following her CO across the ford. "But I think we're probably safe. It is pretty heady though, isn't it?"
"You can say that again."
"It is pretty heady though, isn't it?"
"Sorry," Sam said. "Little joke there."
"I know," Jack assured her, coolly. "I'm just a little worried. I don't exactly feel at the top of my game and..." Jack stepped up onto the far bank then stopped as a light breeze ruffled his hair. The air around him suddenly seemed clearer, his breathing easier and his mind sharper. "What was that?" He asked.
"It's like the whole forest just got turned down a notch," Sam replied. "Almost as though it heard what you wanted."
"I wish it were lighter in here," Jack said. Nothing happened. "Okay; now I feel embarrassed."
"Light would be good," Amy agreed. Almost as soon as she had spoken, another breeze ruffled the leaves, and somehow the light falling on the path was greater now.
"What?" Jack asked. "Do we get one wish each?"
"No," Amy replied, splashing her feet in the stream. "But Kupala is a river goddess. It makes sense that she would hear supplicants when they're standing in her medium." She reached out and plucked a spray of flowers from the bank. "Thank you," she said, casting the flowers into the water so that the current whisked them away.
"Did you just say thank you to the creek?" Jack asked.
"To Kupala," Amy replied, stepping out of the current. "Or her representative. It seemed the thing to do, since she granted our prayers."
"We didn't pray," Jack insisted. "We just...said."
"No reason to be impolite," Amy replied. "Sir."
"Did you just let a junior officer sass you, Colonel?" Sam asked, as they moved on.
Jack shrugged. "It's just such a huge improvement on earlier this year," he said. "Besides; I'm still feeling..." He tailed off.
"Guilty?" Sam suggested.
"Is that what this is?" Jack asked. "Wow; it really sucks. But okay, so I don't want to piss of any more archaeologists on this trip; I worry about them, sitting in that little suite of labs, studying artefacts and watching CSI. Who knows what they're planning."
"They're happy," Sam assured him.
"Which in itself is kinda sad."
Sam sighed. "You know, we really need to do something about your conviction that 'fun' is just what you want to do, Sir."
"Not as long as I remain the senior officer here we don't," Jack corrected her.
Up ahead, the trees thinned out, and Jack led the way onto a narrow, stony beach. The sun shone, glittering on the surface of the lake as it rippled peacefully in the breeze. From the end of the path a stone causeway ran out to the island, small waves lapping at its sides.
"Well, this looks inviting," Jonas said.
"Yes, it does," Jack agreed. "I'll go first; everyone else follow thirty feet behind."
"Are you ever going to stop being so suspicious?" Jonas asked.
"If I do it'll be on the day I would have been right," Jack told him. "Trust me on that. The ambush that kills you isn't the one that's too well-laid to spot; it's the one you don't look for."
Jonas shook his head, sadly, but Sam gave him a disapproving look. "He's right," she said, "and that's pretty much why we've outlasted every other SG team."
After Jack was half way across the lake, they followed. The causeway was narrow, but the top was dry and the footing was good. Jonas looked into the clear waters and saw a great, dark, striped shape moving beneath the surface.
"Big fish," he noted.
"Pike, I think," Amy replied. "The lake must be teeming with life to support a major predator like that. If the Goa'uld tried to eradicate the ecosystem of this world, I'd say they failed, big time."
The woods on the island were more open still than those surrounding the lake, and Jack was evidently more at ease among them. "You know," he noted. "This would be a nice spot for fishing."
"I disagree, O'Neill," Teal'c replied. "There are many fish here."
Jack waved his hand dismissively. "Doesn't bother me," he said. "Half the challenge of not catching anything is gone if there's nothing to catch."
The island was a low hill, rising from the body of the lake, with the temple set at the summit. The structure was almost two storeys in height, the walls shining white and decorated with intricate carvings, but to Jonas' surprise they were not made of stone.
"Oh. My. God," Lauren breathed.
"Small, isn't it," Jack sniffed, surveying the temple's faηade. "And the columns are kind of wonky."
"That's because they're not columns," Jonas told him. "They're tree trunks. The walls are tree trunks, the roof is branches and leaves; the whole building must be alive."
"Cool," Jack said.
"Just look at the inscriptions," Lauren said, choosing not to let Jack's casual attitude dampen her own enthusiasm. "These are characters, similar to the Keplan writing system. This could be a history of this entire planet."
"They're not even inscriptions," Amy corrected. "They look as though they've just grown into the bark."
"That's great," Jack said. "I'll put in a word for a full-scale survey, but for now we're here to find an alien." He headed towards the door, which gaped invitingly behind a columned portico.
"Colonel!" Lauren called, urgently. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Whether this is a place of worship or just the home of Kupala, it is a sacred space. We've seen evidence of the power of this race; don't you think it might be a good idea if we examine the outside of the structure before marching in? These don't seem like people we want to offend."
Jack paused, then nodded his agreement. "Alright; Patterson, we'll make camp while you and yours do the brain thing. Jonas can give you a hand and I'll give you five hours to find something."
"Excuse me, Sir," Amy said. "But would a convincing reason to remain cautious count as 'something'?"
"Yes," Jack agreed. "Yes it would."
"Right," Amy said. She stooped down in the long grass beside the door, and lifted up a skull; seemingly human, but with the bone polished smooth and worn down to near-translucency.
"Looks like we'll be here overnight then," Jack sighed, taking out his radio. "Parker; you might want to make yourselves comfortable. When General Hammond makes contact inform him that we have located the shrine and are investigating with caution."
"Roger that, One-niner," Parker replied. "We'll make camp and organise watches for the night. Good luck out there."
"What've you got?" Jack asked, a few hours later. The sun was sinking fast, and he was eager to crack on, but the archaeologists were taking their time with the translation of the temple's extensive carvings.
"The script is related to that used by the Ancients," Lauren replied. "But the language is quite different, more closely connected to the Slavic languages than to Latin."
Jack stared at her for a few moments. "What does it say?" He asked, patiently.
"It looks like a prayer to Kupala," Jonas said. "Most likely written by the Rusalki. Actually, not so much a prayer and more a vote of thanks. The gist of it is roughly 'thanks for creating us'."
"Does it have any bearing on how we should go in?"
"Not as such," Lauren admitted. "But we won't know for sure until we complete the translation."
"Lauren!" Amy called out. "Jonas!" The two of them stood and moved around to the front of the temple, with Jack following. Amy stood before the door, beaming with pride. "Look here," she said, "in the wood of the portico."
Four great trees formed the corner columns for the temple's portico, and their roots spread out and interlocked to form the floor. In the fabric of the floor, the roots twisted and wove into letters, similar to those carved elsewhere on the structure. Behind this, the doorway stood open, a trough of water rippling gently on the threshold.
"And what does this say?" Jack asked, impressed in spite of himself by this incredible feat of arboriculture.
Amy traced the letters as she read: "The Bower of Kupala; enter freely with an innocent heart and blameless tread."
"Okay," Jack said. "And what does it mean?"
"I'd guess it means that any may enter so long as they mean no harm and do not defile the purity of the ground," Lauren suggested.
"Are you sure?" Jack asked. "If the 'innocent heart' requirement is any more demanding than that, maybe I should wait out here?"
Lauren shrugged. "If it's more demanding, we might all be in trouble," she said.
Jack looked shocked. "You? Surely not?"
Lauren grinned. "I have my moments of weakness," she assured him.
"I think that's enough information," Jack told her. "Okay; Carter and Teal'c hold the door. Patterson; pick two of yours to stay with them while the rest of us go in."
Major Patterson nodded. "Kawalsky, Dr Collister; you're up. Duck" he went on, addressing Caldicott by his nickname "we'll stay out here and pitch for the night. There's only one approach, so security should be fairly straightforward."
Jack motioned an acknowledgement of the Major's assessment. "Anyone who's going in, boots off and think happy thoughts," he ordered. "I guess we'll just have to hope for the best on the innocence."
There was a brief flurry of activity as the two teams dumped their packs. Those remaining outside dug out their camping gear, while Amy and Lauren retrieved their tools. Lauren unbuckled her gun belt and set her sidearm down with her pack.
"Dr Collister?" Jack asked. "What are you doing?"
"Well, we're supposed to enter with an innocent heart and a blameless tread. Toting guns over the threshold might be seen as a gesture of bad faith."
"And if we're attacked?"
"Colonel," Lauren said. "If Kupala or one of her Rusalki takes exception to our presence, a pistol or even a machine gun isn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference. A zat might hurt one of them, or it might make them stronger. Any which way you slice it, pointing a gun at one of these beings is not going to get us anywhere."
"This is an unexplored and potentially hostile world," Jack told her. "Damn this all feels familiar."
"I understand, Colonel," she agreed. "But this is my job. Whatever the Pentagon may feel on the subject, I am not employed on this project for my staggering good looks alone. Trust me."
Jack held the archaeologist's gaze for a long moment, then grudgingly removed his P90 and his sidearm. His zat he kept holstered at his left hip.
"Colonel," Lauren protested. "You must believe that carrying a weapon into this place will only make you the priority target."
"I know that," Jack assured her. "But they don't employ me for my staggering good looks alone, either. If things turn nasty, you run; that's my job."
"I...Yes, Colonel," Lauren replied, with profound respect.
The inside of the temple was dark, but not completely so. A shaft in the ceiling allowed sunlight to fall on a pool of water at the far end of the single chamber, scattering a soft, blue illumination to every corner. The air was cool and slightly damp, with an earthy smell like a forest after the rain. The floor beneath their feet was nothing more than earth, and the chamber was empty and unadorned save for the pool, and the pale figure beside it.
Jack was taken aback by this figure. She had a soft, grey radiance about her, and knelt as in supplication before the pool. She wore a long gown, and a shawl covered her hair, but although their shapes were plain to see, the clothes, like the woman herself, were composed of what certainly looked like water. Looking at her, Jack saw every fold and knot in the coarse woollen weave of the shawl, yet through it he could see the shimmering pool, and if he squinted a little he could even make out the tangles of her hair in between and the inverted contours of her face.
"Um...hey there," he said.
The woman turned and stood, the surface of her body rippling like water, or like the event horizon of the Stargate, Jack noted.
"Hey there," she replied, her tones matching Jack's precisely, a beatific smile on her translucent lips. There was something slightly faded about her, and Jack instinctively knew that this particular Rusalka was old.
"Jonas, you're up," Jack said. "Kawalsky; would you ask Carter to come in, please. She'll want to see this."
"Yes, Colonel," Amy replied, although clearly she wanted to see it as well.
"Hello," Jonas said, approaching the Rusalka with his hands held out before him in a gesture of peace. "I'm Jonas Quinn. We are peaceful explorers form a planet called Earth."
"Ahh," the Rusalka sighed. "I am Vedreya," she said, "the Custodian." Her voice was low and light, with a hint of gentle laughter behind it. "You and your friends are welcome here; all are welcome in the hall of Kupala. Will your other friends not come inside? I can make you more comfortable here than in the clearing."
"That's very kind of you," Jonas said.
Vedreya's smile deepened. "I am the keeper of this hall; it is my task to make visitors welcome. May I offer you refreshment?"
"Yes, thank you," Jonas said, anxious to be polite.
Vedreya waved her hand and the earth at the centre of the hall began to bulge and crack. In a matter of moments a small tree had sprung up, eight wooden cups held by baskets of loosely twined twigs. The branches bowed under the weight of wine-red plums. "Water and fruit," she said. "There is little else I can supply at such short notice, but if you plan to stay I can gather and prepare a more varied menu."
"Uh, this is great, thanks," Jack assured her.
"Oh my god!"
Vedreya looked past Jack as Sam entered. While Jack sipped cautiously at one of the cups, Sam moved forward to stand before the Rusalka. She reached out a hand, and then stopped.
"May I...?" She began.
"Please do," Vedreya replied. "I have not felt the touch of another soul in many years."
Sam reached forward and touched Vedreya's 'sleeve'. The surface rippled under her hand, and gave easily to allow her fingers to press into the Rusalka's body. She felt a charge pass up her arm, making all her hair stand on end; an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. She had felt such a connection only once before, in the arms or rather the luminous pseudopods of Orlin, when he had melded his essence with hers. His words came back to her now: It's not about specific thoughts or memory. It's sort of an exchange of spirit.
Two years ago, Sam might have been worried about an alien trying to establish such a connection. Even now, with the memory of her violation at the hands of the Replicators fresh in her mind she was wary, but she felt that she had nothing to hide from the Rusalka. She knew also that this link must run both ways. Instead of drawing back therefore, she let herself go with the bond, feeling out the heart and essence of the other being, barely holding off from the level of intimacy she had shared with Orlin. What she found was cool and welcoming, like plunging into a clear, still pool on a hot day, or running to her mother's arms with a skinned knee. The gentleness and the absolute good of the Rusalka were breathtaking.
Vedreya closed her eyes with a pacific sigh. "You are a pure soul," she whispered, too softly Sam hoped for anyone else to hear. "Oh, but so many scars."
Feeling a little self-conscious, Sam withdrew her hand; her fingers were quite dry, although her eyes glistened with tears of rapture which she hastily wiped away. "It's like touching the event horizon," she said, distractedly, concentrating on the physical sensation. "When you don't quite put your hand far enough through for the Gate to get hold of you and begin the molecular deconstruction."
"Ah, Carter," Jack said. "Do you think it might be nicer not to talk about the lady as a science project?"
Sam blushed, but Vedreya laid a hand gently on her cheek, and Sam felt that tingle of connection again.
"I do not mind," the Rusalka assured her. "It has been a long time since I have heard any voice but my own and any voice is sweet to hear if it speaks with honest passion."
"How long has it been?" Lauren asked.
"Nine hundred years," Vedreya replied.
Lauren frowned. "But I thought that Rusalki only lived for six hundred years?" She said.
The old Rusalka nodded her agreement. "In any other place I would be dead by now, or at least greatly diminished, but the air in this chamber in this garden is of such purity that it does not age me as the touch of unclean air would. A Rusalka's life is limited only by the integrity of her skin," she explained, "which as you correctly surmise, Samantha, is a tensile energy barrier like the event horizon contained within the circumference of a Stargate. When the elements do not ravage that barrier, we can last much longer.
"For nine hundred years I have waited here, Vedreya of Kupala's resting place, and I was alone for most of that time. I tend the garden and I keep the temple clean; a peaceful life, but a lonely one sometimes."
"You say this is Kupala's resting place," Jack said. "Is she dead?"
"She is not," the Rusalka assured him. "The Voya the Lady rests, and has lain in her current slumber for almost four hundred years."
Jack frowned in bewilderment. "Where?" He asked.
"Here." She stepped aside and turned, gesturing with a sweep of her arm to the pool.
Jonas and Sam stepped forward, and saw within the water the body of a young woman, blue-skinned and black-haired. Great, white wings rose from her shoulders and folded down behind her. The water was crystal clear, and it was hard to say how far down the woman lay. Sam felt compelled to try and touch the pale, still face, but as she reached towards the pool Vedreya caught her gently by the arm.
"Those waters are deep," she cautioned. "Even to gaze into them for too long can be perilous."
Sam turned away, feeling dizzy. "Thanks Vedreya," she said. "I don't know what came over me."
"Still waters hold a strange appeal, and the pure of heart are always drawn to Kupala." As she spoke, she gently drew Jonas away from the pool.
"That's Kupala?" Jack asked, coming forward to look. "I thought she'd look more like you."
"She does," Vedreya assured him, "when she stands in the air." She reached her hand into the pool, and seen through the water her skin appeared opaque and grey.
Jack stared down at Kupala, feeling the same compulsion that had drawn Sam and Jonas. As he began to lean forward, Vedreya caught him by the shoulders and drew him back. Almost at once she released him again, and fell away from him, shivering as though cold.
"Are you alright?" Sam asked, concerned.
"Kind of dizzy," Jack replied. "I wouldn't have thought I was that pure of heart."
"Not you, Sir," Sam explained, looking pointedly at Vedreya.
"I am well," the Rusalka assured her. "But I am unused to such violence as John holds in his heart. I was made to tend these gardens, and such emotions are alien and terrifying to me."
"What are you talking about?" Jack demanded. "And how do you know my name?"
"My apologies," Vedreya said. "Although I have been preserved, I have grown a little thin-skinned it seems and I can not completely maintain the barrier between myself and those I touch. For a few moments I touched your soul; please forgive this intrusion."
"It's alright, Sir," Sam promised.
Jack was wary, but accepted Sam's recommendation. "Okay," he said. "But I think we should get on with the business in hand. We'd like to talk to Kupala," he told Vedreya. "We're interested in negotiating an alliance against the Goa'uld." He looked uncertain. "You say you don't know violence? I understood that your people could be quite aggressive towards the Goa'uld?"
"Some can," Vedreya assured him. "You would not find such an alliance, if forged, unprofitable. However, I was born without malice or violence in my being. Such is not true of all Rusalki; we have our warriors just as you do, but I am not one of them."
"I see," Jack lied. "So then; can we speak with Kupala? Is there any way of waking her up?"
"There is," Vedreya assured him. "I shall rouse her. I am certain that she will be pleased to speak with you."
So saying, she turned and dived smoothly into the pool. For a few moments she was clearly visible, an elderly woman swimming with amazing strength down towards the bottom of the pool, which Sam realised must be much, much deeper than she had realised. As she went deeper, Vedreya's body began to dissipate, her hair and dress streaming out further and further behind her, becoming fainter and fainter until little more remained than a ripple of water, moving towards Kupala.
SG-5 were just settling in when the Stargate thundered into life. Sergeant Fowler, who had been assigned first watch, readied her rifle, while her comrades-in-arms scrambled up and took position.
"Time to check-in?" Parker asked.
"Four hours," Fowler replied.
Parker frowned as the wormhole whooshed open. "Artemis," he said. "Fall back to the treeline; go to sniper and cover us. Duke, Boomer, be ready to fall back, one-by-two."
His team responded without discussion. Wayne and Thomas readied their weapons. Fowler rose and made a dash for the edge of the forest. Once in cover she swapped the M16 in her hands for the PSG-1 sniper's rifle slung on her back. She lay down and drew a bead on the shimmering surface of the event horizon.
"Colonel O'Neill," Parker reported. "We have activity at the Gate."
"Hold tight and look sharp," Jack's voice came back. "We're just dealing with the fall-out on some kind of suicide pact here."
The Gate rippled, and a small globe dropped out and bounced across the ground.
"Fire in the hole!" Lieutenant Wayne cried.
"Get down!" Sergeant Thomas echoed, and the three men pressed themselves hard to the ground behind the scrub and grass.
"Where's the flash?" Parker asked, after a moment.
"No flash, Sir," Thomas replied. "Not a grenade; scanner."
Watching from the distance, Fowler saw the ripple of light from the globe as it scrutinised the area around the Gate with its electronic senses. "I think it's made you, Daredevil," she warned, as the beams did a second sweep over the marines' hiding places. "And it's definitely spotted the MALP."
"Roger that," Parker replied. "We'll fall back if it gets too heavy. Keep us safe."
"Yes, Sir," she replied, snapping off the rifle's safety and easing her finger onto the trigger.
The first Jaffa emerged moments later, and at once raised his staff weapon to fire at Thomas' hiding place. Fowler's bullet caught him high in the chest and he fell halfway back through the event horizon. Parker rose as the next warrior arrived, snapping off a short burst from his M16. As two more Jaffa stepped from the Gate, he realised that they were not dealing with a light patrol.
"Fall back!" He shouted. "Keep Arty's sightline clear and don't stop until you hit the trees. Go! Go! Go!"
"Everyone get ready to move out," Jack ordered. "The Gate may be compromised."
"Colonel," Lauren protested. "Something's happening. Look!"
Jack turned, and saw that the pool was beginning to glow, as though a brilliant light source were rising from deep beneath the surface. With a burst of silver spray, a shining figure emerged; a woman of water and light, with great numinous wings spreading from her shoulders. Her face was fair and wise, and even had it been a face of flesh and blood Jack doubted he could have put an age to it. She hung above the pool, gazing down on the humans like a benevolent angel for a long moment, before she stooped to the floor, folding her wings around her body like a robe. In so doing, her light seemed to dim, so that it was possible to look directly at her.
"Good God," Lauren whispered.
"Wasn't that what we were looking for?" Jack asked her.
The woman smiled, kindly, an expression very reminiscent of Vedreya. "Welcome," she said. "I am Kupala, and you are all of you most welcome in my shrine."
"You are most kind," Jonas replied, sounding a little awestruck. "I'm Jonas Quinn, and these are..."
"I know your names," Kupala said. "Vedreya communicated to me all that she had learned of you."
"That's nice," Jack said. "Where is she, by the way?"
"She is still here, John," Kupala assured him. "She is within me; a part of me, as she always was."
"A part of you?" Jack asked, suspiciously. "You mean you absorbed her? So you could rise again."
"That is correct," Kupala agreed, "in as far as it goes. But I sense that you disapprove, John, and believe that somehow I have abused Vedreya. Please understand that all Rusalki begin with me, and so they end with me; unless they choose to live a mortal life."
"Are you saying that you own them?" Jack demanded. "And FYI it's Jack, or Colonel O'Neill to strangers."
"Colonel..." Lauren began.
"I do not own them, Colonel O'Neill," Kupala replied, without offence. "I contain and encompass them. I am uncertain that I can make you understand the distinction," she added. "But I believe I know someone who can."
Kupala smiled again. "Watch," she said.
The shimmering figure turned and knelt on the ground before the pool. She bowed her head, and a brilliant spark leaped up inside of her, rising through her body to her face, and falling from her eye like a tear. This spark dropped into the water without a splash, and the pool began to bubble as though boiling. Kupala stepped away, and moments later another figure rose from the pool; a Rusalka, with the appearance of a young woman.
"Who are you?" Jack asked.
"I am Vedreya," the Rusalka replied.
She smiled, impishly. "Older?"
"If a raindrop falls in the river, the water does not cease to be," Kupala said.
"Aah!" Jack cried.
"Of course," Sam realised. "You said your age was a matter of the integrity of your...skin."
"I'm glad one of us understands what she's talking about," Jack grumbled.
"Well, Sir; the Rusalki exist as a consciousness embodied in a perishable approximation of Kupala's body. It makes sense then that when they are reabsorbed by her they don't cease to exist; their consciousness remains in her."
Kupala bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Vedreya's assessment of your wisdom was not undeserved, Samantha," she said, drawing a blush from Sam.
"That's incredible," Lauren said. "You're not just their god then; you're their heaven."
"I am their mother," Kupala corrected, "and I am the sum of their existence and mine. I still retain Vedreya's knowledge, even when she is reborn this way. I claim no divinity, however, and I seek no dominion. I know that you battle the Goa'uld, as I have done in my time. I am prepared to aid you, but I must explain to you that I will not participate in a war of aggression or conquest. I only defend that which is mine to protect."
"We understand," Jonas assured her. "We only want to protect our worlds."
Jack's radio hissed. "Sierra-Golf-one-niner, this is Sierra-Golf-five-niner, come in please."
"Go ahead, Five-niner," Jack replied.
"SG-5 is falling back under heavy fire; I say again, heavy fire," Parker reported. "The enemy took casualties from Artemis' covering fire and have broken off pursuit for now, but they looked determined and I'm not going to put money on my boys against Jaffa in an endurance race. We'll try to make the hedge before they catch us but..." Parker broke off, and the sounds of gunfire could be made out over the channel.
"Parker!" Jack called.
"Looks like the first scouts have caught us," Parker explained. "We're clear again but I don't know how long."
"Just keep moving," Jack said. "We'll meet you on the road and bring you home."
"Roger that," Parker replied. "Daredevil out."
"Damnit," Jack snarled. "Jonas, Dr Collister, stay here and carry on negotiations with our new friends. Carter, Kawalsky; you're with me. We're going to get our people back."
"Yes, Sir," Amy acknowledged.
Jonas turned to Kupala. "Is there anything you can do to help?" He asked.
Kupala shook her head. "I am still weakened by my long sleep," she said, regretfully. "I will not be able to act until I have gathered my strength. Vedreya can heal your wounded, but she is a creature of peace, and unable to fight. Within my garden and my temple I shall have some power to protect you, but I can not strike at those without and my ability will be limited."
Jack nodded. "Alright then," he said. "We'll hole up here. Major, Captain; boots on and let's move out."
"He cares deeply for the ones who are under attack," Vedreya noted, as she watched them go.
"Yes he does," Lauren replied. "Turns out there's a lot more to him than violence and sarcasm."
The Jaffa caught up with SG-5 again less than a mile from the hedge and they shifted their tactics to a fighting retreat. Fowler laid down covering fire while her team mates fell back in a staggered pattern. By all rights a sniper's rifle should have been of limited use in a forest, and Parker was even wishing for a P90 in place of his M16, but Fowler was the finest shot he had ever served with, and was keeping the Jaffa at arms length, where the inaccuracy of their staff weapons outweighed their power.
A sudden intuition gripped Parker. He was never quite sure why, but he was always aware of an enemy's presence before anyone else and he knew for a fact that they were being flanked.
"Duke!" He yelled. "Eleven o'clock! Artemis, get out of there!"
Fowler began to move, Wayne readying to cover her, but a staff blast flashed from the forest and hit the tree the Sergeant had been using as cover. There was a bright flash and the side of the tree caught fire. The far side of the trunk exploded, showering Fowler with fragments of bark and splinters. The Sergeant fell to the ground.
"Man down!" Wayne called. "Man...!" As he returned fire, a second staff blast took the Lieutenant in the leg. Thomas closed up and got a shoulder under Wayne's arm, and they struggled for cover. A volley of fire forced Parker down, keeping him from providing cover.
"Boomer!" He barked into his radio. "Can you get to Artemis?"
"Negative," Thomas replied. "We've got so much incoming I can hardly get to Duke, and I'm carrying him."
Parker listened as the staff fire grew closer, the Jaffa advancing inexorably on their position. He managed to put his head up and fire a few shots, but then he had to duck down again and wriggle sideways to avoid the saturation fire that came in response.
The Jaffa were almost on them when a new sound ripped through the forest; the harsh bark of P90s and MP5s. As the Jaffa turned to face the new threat, SG-5 rose, firing, from their cover. The warriors assessed the situation and fell back at once, disappearing into the trees. Parker watched them go, noting the long tendrils that waved like dreadlocks at the backs of their helmets. He had seen something similar once before, but could not for the moment place the memory.
"Colonel O'Neill." Parker rose to greet his CO, his M16 still sweeping the trees where the Jaffa had vanished.
"How many?" Jack asked.
"I don't know," Parker replied. "At least a dozen."
Jack nodded. "How many did we..." He looked around, and stopped in alarm. There was not a single Jaffa body on the ground.
"They take their wounded and dead with them," Parker said. "We saw it each time they fell back, although after they cleared the Gate I can't be sure we got any kills at all. They'll regroup and return soon. They fight more tactically than any Jaffa I've ever faced but they still just keep on coming. We need to get Duke and Artemis to cover; they need medical attention."
"We're making our stand at the shrine," Jack said. "There's someone there who can treat the wounded." He surveyed his forces, and saw that three more Teal'c, Sam and Lieutenant Caldicott were injured.
"Who were those guys," Caldicott wondered aloud. "I've never seen Jaffa shoot like that, present company accepted," he assured Teal'c.
Jack shook his head, filing the issue for later attention. "Didn't get a good look. Carter and Patterson; get Sergeant Fowler up and let's..." He turned to Parker. "Where is Fowler?"
"She's over by the burning tree. She took a load of wood shrapnel and..." He stopped. "Oh my God," he whispered.
"Back to the shrine," Jack ordered. "Everyone; at the double."
"Sir," Parker protested, staring at the empty patch of bloodstained ground where his sniper had gone down. "We have to..."
"Have to what?" Jack asked, bitterly. "Listen," he pressed, when Parker looked ready to argue. "The Jaffa must have taken her for a reason; the Goa'uld have her for now, but that means she'll still be alive and we can break her out when they make camp. But there's nothing we can do right now," he added, "and you know it."
"Yes...Yes, Sir," Parker replied, hating the necessity but knowing that not only was the Colonel right, it was no easier for him to say these things than for Parker to hear it.
True to Kupala's promise, no sooner were the wounded returned to the lawn before the shrine than Vedreya had crouched beside Wayne and laid a hand over his leg. A spark of light flared beneath her watery palm, and when she took her hand away the wound was all but gone.
"Still hurts," Wayne commented. He tried to make it sound light, but he was clearly still in considerable pain.
"I can not heal such a wound entirely," Vedreya apologised. "The tissue damage is extensive. I can ease the hurt however." She placed her hand on his forehead, and after a moment he smiled.
"That's much better," he said, gratefully.
"Just do not try to walk on it too soon, and I would advise seeking the attentions of a physician of your own species when you return home."
"If we return home," Sam noted, as Vedreya moved to her.
"I will do all in my power to protect you," the Rusalka promised. Her hand lingered on Sam's brow a little longer than on Wayne's, and she seemed reluctant to move on to Teal'c.
"It's okay," Sam promised, taking her hand. "I know they seem aggressive to you, but they're good people."
"I am...afraid of them," Vedreya admitted. "You do violence when you must, but you are not violent as they are."
Sam squeezed the Rusalka's fingers supportively. "Take a look," she invited. "Try seeing them how I see them; maybe you'll be less afraid."
Vedreya smiled. "Thank you," she said, setting her hand on Sam's cheek. She closed her eyes, and Sam felt their essences touch for a moment. When Vedreya drew back, she nodded her thanks once more, then went to Teal'c.
Within the shrine, Jonas and Lauren were explaining that they had convinced Kupala of their good will, but that she had doubts about their futures.
"It's not that she doubts us, per se," Lauren explained. "Just our ability to get out of this alive. It seems that not only is she weak when she first wakes, but by creating a new form for Vedreya so soon after rising she has dangerously depleted her energies."
"Will she be alright?" Jack asked.
"Do not fear for me, Colonel," Kupala said. She was sitting by the pool, trailing her hand in the water. "It is for you and yours that I am afraid. I do not wish to see you come to harm in my domain, but I have little capacity to defend you."
"We've gotten out of worse," Jack assured her.
"You have?" Lauren asked.
"Yes," Jack replied, defensively. "And we'll get out of this. I just need some time to work on it."
Amy burst into the shrine. "Colonel O'Neill!"
"Looks like we may not have time," Lauren noted.
"What is it, Kawalsky?" Jack asked.
"It's the Goa'uld," Amy replied. "The leader of these Jaffa. He wants to parley, but he says he'll only speak to you."
"Parley?" Jack asked, suspiciously.
Amy nodded. "He's standing in the middle of the causeway; out of easy rifle range, and out of staff range from the far shore as well. He's wearing a white robe over his armour; Teal'c says that's a sign of truce."
"It's a trap," Jack said, with certainty, as he headed for the door.
"What are you going to do?" Jonas asked.
Jack shrugged. "Walk into it, of course. What else is there to do?"
Jack walked slowly out into the middle of the causeway. Ahead of him stood the white-robed figure of the Goa'uld captain, still a little too far distant to make out the shape of his helmet. He appeared to be unarmed, but then so did Jack. In fact Jack had a grenade tucked into the back of his belt, and he had little doubt that the Goa'uld had something up his sleeve either literally or figuratively. Behind Jack, the marines held their M16s ready, but to hit the Goa'uld at such a range would take something beyond human marksmanship. Fowler could have done it with her sniper's rifle, but Fowler was a prisoner and the rifle had been taken. It was Jack's greatest worry that somewhere in the wooded garden behind the Goa'uld was Fowler's PSG-1; perhaps the only weapon on the planet which could reliably kill someone standing in the middle of the causeway without the firer leaving the shore.
At a hundred yards or so, Jack saw that the helmet of the Goa'uld's armour had a human face, and was topped by a domed helmet. At fifty yards, Jack realised that the Goa'uld was a woman, and as he walked up in front of her he knew exactly who she was. Something in her bearing gave her away; an unmistakable air of quiet dignity that set her carriage apart from the usual Goa'uld swagger.
"Nike," he said.
"Jack O'Neill," she replied. She reached back and touched the stud to retract her helmet, revealing the olive skin, dark eyes and boyish bob that Jack remembered. "We meet again."
"More's the pity," Jack growled.
Nike's eyes flashed dangerously. "Come now," she chided, with a warning edge to her voice, "you have less cause to complain of it than I. I have lost four regulars and two of my Gorgons; for now, all of your warriors live. If either of us has cause for complaint, it is not you."
Jack bit back a retort, knowing that this was no act. Nike truly cared for her warriors, and whatever else he might do, he would never mock that. "So what do you want?" He asked.
"I am here for Kupala," Nike replied. "The defeat, capture or death of you and your warriors holds no interest for me at this time. If you surrender the shrine and its occupant to me, I will grant safe passage to the Chappa'ai for all of your force. I shall also return to you the warrior whom my Jaffa captured, alive and well."
"That's sweet of you," Jack told her. "You don't mind if I question your motives?"
"Not at all," she assured him. "However, I swear to you as a soldier that my offer is genuine. I have lost six warriors and I have no wish to have to fight my way across this causeway. I will do so if you press me, but I would rather see you go your way and allow me to take the one I seek prisoner. I know that you will need to think this over, and so I give you fifteen minutes."
Nike turned to go, but looked back over her shoulder. "Your warrior-women accounted for the lion's share of my slain Jaffa, but she has been healed of her most grievous wounds and not mistreated," she said. "If you decide not to take up my offer then I promise you that she and all of your companions will receive as swift and clean a death as it is in my power to grant you." She touched her collar, and the helmet slid back into place. "Fifteen minutes," she reminded him.
"So that's what we're up against," Jack explained. "Nike's elite and trust me that this is one Goa'uld who does know how to plan an assault. She wasn't expecting us and she especially wasn't expecting Fowler's rifle, but that edge is gone. If she decides to dig us out, she'll hit us hard and fast, and probably from range. We can hold her for a while, but given the current situation, she'll dig us out pretty quickly."
"In time I will be strong enough to aid you," Kupala said. "With each moment my powers grow."
"I know," Jack assured her. "And so does Nike. That's why she's only given us fifteen minutes to decide."
"Then you must accept her offer," Kupala said, "for that will not be time enough. I can take care of myself. Even if this Nike is able somehow to hold me prisoner, she will never extract from me any information which might aid her."
"Don't be so sure," Amy cautioned. "Nike serves Athena and Athena is allied with Anubis. Thor didn't think he'd break, but Anubis got something out of him with that brain spike."
"A brain spike?"
"A device implanted in Thor's brain which tapped directly into his consciousness," Sam explained.
"Ah. This would be Thor of the Asgard, yes? While any device which could wrest the secrets from a mind such as his is to be feared, my resistance would be far greater than his," Kupala assured them. "My neurology is non-physical, and so the device would have nothing to tap into. It will certainly not be worth your lives to protect me, and I will not allow such sacrifice."
Sam frowned. "Well the real problem is that even if we go, we're trusting that Nike won't break her word and kill us."
"She's kept her word before," Jonas reminded them.
"Exactly so that we would trust her in this kind of situation," Jack insisted.
"Do you think we should fight?" Lauren asked. "I thought we'd established that that was suicide. And what about Sergeant Fowler?"
"Sergeant Fowler is a marine," Parker assured her. "She knew the risks, same as we all did. Now, I want to get her back as much as any of you, but we can't make a deal to get her released if there's every chance it'll just be to die with the rest of us."
"Well, do you have a better idea?" Lauren asked. "I'm serious," she added. "I mean, as far as I can see we're trapped, outnumbered and outgunned, and this offer is the only chance any of us have to get out of this alive."
"There may be more at stake than just our lives," Jack reminded the archaeologist.
"I know that," Lauren replied. "I know we need what Kupala might be able to give us, but if we die here, we get nothing and the most we could possibly hope to achieve is to force a situation in which Kupala is killed, denying Nike the chance to capture her. If Nike grants our free passage, we still have a chance to salvage this."
"How?" Sam asked.
"The MALP antenna is down, but if the camera is still functional then we can angle it at the Gate and return for the video later. If we can record the coordinates of the world Nike takes Kupala to, we can go after her."
"You're not just a pretty face," Jack commended her.
Lauren gave a self-deprecating shrug. "A lot of people make that mistake," she assured him. "I guess 'cause I'm so pretty. Also," she added, "not to put the rest of us down and don't let this go to your head, but I think very few people would think that Earth wouldn't always be better off if your team gets back alive."
Jack smiled, slightly. "Carter; get everyone ready to move out."
"Colonel," Kupala said. "Please take Vedreya with you when you leave."
"Voya!" Vedreya protested.
"You may be of help to them," Kupala explained, gently. "And I fear that if you remain you will be slain."
"Then let me become one with you again," Vedreya pleaded. "Let my strength return to you."
Kupala smiled and touched Vedreya's face. "Your offer is kind, but you know that you can not return to me before your time. At this moment, the effort of breaking down your form would all but kill me."
"But what will become of us if you are taken?" Vedreya asked, her voice tearful although her watery body did not seem to be capable of weeping. "What of my sisters across the galaxy who already grow tired?"
"Gather all that you can find here in one month," Kupala said. "I shall be here then, or I shall not come again. If the latter, you must usher them across with my regrets, then take a mortal form that you may at least live a life before your own end."
"Obey me this one last time," Kupala begged, clasping Vedreya's face between her hands. "And trust in me, my Rusalka."
"Mother..." The glowing figure fell to her knees before the radiant goddess.
"Colonel," Kupala asked, tearing her sorrowful gaze away from her child.
"We'll take good care of her," Jack promised.
Anne Fowler was torn between fear at being captured by a Goa'uld and relief that she was still alive. There had been a long, dark period when she had been certain that she was dying, before she came to herself in a Jaffa camp. So far as she could tell with her hands and feet bound in front of her, she was uninjured.
Around her, the Jaffa were ordering their camp just as Marines would have done; standing guard, pitching tents and lighting fires. Their armour was bronze in colour and looked highly practical. Most of the Jaffa wore their hair either short or tied up, but a small number sported long dreadlocks; presumably the same ones who wore the demon-masks in combat. To Fowler's surprise, a fair number of the Jaffa were women.
The Goa'uld in charge of the camp approached Fowler. "How do you feel?" She asked, tersely.
"Fowler, Anne B. Master Sergeant, US Marine Corps," Fowler said.
"Ah; dumb insolence," the Goa'uld observed. "You must be feeling well. I am Nike," she added. "You are a warrior of exceptional skill, Master Sergeant Anne B. Fowler of the US Marine Corps. You will no doubt be pleased to hear that you killed five of my Jaffa in battle; an outstanding performance."
"I'm glad I did my duty well," Fowler affirmed. "I'm not glad that they're dead, though," she added, honestly.
"Well answered," Nike said. "I mistrust soldiers who revel in death; I find them unreliable and unstable. Tell me about your weapon."
Fowler was confused. "My weapon? My rifle, you mean? What do you want to know about it?"
"It's function is simple, yet elegant," Nike observed. "Yet I sense that it is not merely another weapon in your arsenal; it holds some special significance to you. Such an attachment to a specific weapon is commonplace among the Jaffa, for whom battle is a sacred rite, but more unusual among the Tau'ri. Will you tell me how it came about? Did this weapon serve you well in some great victory?"
"Not as such," Fowler replied, struck by Nike's insight. "I used to say I'd never use a semi-auto rifle," she explained. "Even that one, the PSG-1, isn't quite as accurate as a bolt-action, although it's damn close. I'm just a sergeant though; I don't make that decision and I was ordered into action with that weapon.
"My patrol was cut off and surrounded, most of my buddies killed or injured. We holed up in an old bunker and had to hold off an enemy mechanized infantry platoon for four days before our side caught up with us. I was almost the only one left firing, and a bolt-action rifle would have been too damn slow. For four days I never missed a shot, and for all the sand in that place the action never jammed once. I've never taken another rifle out since; orders be damned."
Nike nodded, approvingly. "You clean it yourself? Care for it? See to its maintenance?"
"I do," Fowler replied, a little awkwardly.
"And something more," Nike realised.
"I...sometimes talk to it," Fowler admitted, squirming inwardly under Nike's penetrating gaze.
The Goa'uld nodded again. "No wonder you slew so many of my warriors," she said. "You are as one with your weapon, as a true warrior must be."
One of the Jaffa, a handsome woman of middle years, approached and bowed her dreadlocked head. The ornate decoration of her armour marked her as something more than just another Jaffa, but her tattoo a winged circle was merely marked in black ink. "Captain," she said. "Colonel O'Neill has signalled his readiness to answer your ultimatum."
Nike nodded and handed the rifle to the Jaffa. "Medusa," she commanded. "Take Sergeant Fowler to the head of the causeway and bind her. I thank you for your honesty, Sergeant Fowler," she added. "Your fate will soon be decided. I hope that Colonel O'Neill chooses wisely."
True to her word, Nike signalled her troops to withdraw, allowing Jack's patrol to leave the garden. Despite the Rusalka's continued pleading and the fact that it was clearly tearing her up to deny her child, Kupala refused to allow Vedreya to remain with her. The glow within her body had grown steadily brighter, but she was certain that she was not strong enough to battle a Jaffa platoon.
Standing before the Tau'ri, Kupala lifted her head and threw back her wings, allowing her radiance to shine forth. Each of the humans felt their skin tingle where the light touched it and all weariness and fatigue was banished.
"Go with my blessing," Kupala told Jack, "and with my thanks. Had they taken me sleeping it might have gone badly for Vedreya. I hope that her knowledge can be of help to you, and that we might meet again one day."
"I hope sooner rather than later," Jack said. "Don't give up on us yet; we're still going to try to get you out of this."
"I wish you every success in that endeavour," Kupala assure Jack. "However, I must urge you not to take too many risks. I should not like to think that your people had died to protect me."
"It's what we do," Jack assured her, "and you could be very important to us."
"I hope I can be of help to you," Kupala agreed. "But I should caution you that my race has long since transcended the use of technology as you understand it. I can teach you, in time, to do many incredible things, but I can not give you weapons nor anything that you can simply pick up and use. Nor do I have the strength to fight for you; not more than once in twenty or thirty years anyway."
"I understand," Jack said. "But I was the one who insisted you recreate Vedreya's body. I feel a little responsible."
"You have a great heart, Colonel," Kupala commended. "I hope that we shall meet again."
Jack nodded. "Likewise," he said. "Vedreya?"
The Rusalka bowed her head in acquiescence.
Jack took point, leading his patrol away from the temple and across the causeway. The possibility that this was all an elaborate trap nagged at him, but having chosen his path he would have to walk it. "Spread out," he cautioned. "Stay close but don't clump up."
The patrol spread out along the causeway, although Vedreya refused to stray from Sam's side.
About a hundred yards into the trees on the far side stood Sergeant Fowler. Her hands were bound behind her back and her eyes were covered but as Nike had promised, the marine seemed in good health. Her rifle stood against the trunk of a tree.
"Parker?" Jack asked, warily.
"We're clear," Parker said. "Boomer; check her."
"I'm pretty sure I'm clean," Fowler said, but she still held very still while Sergeant Thomas searched her for booby traps.
"Clear," Thomas reported, moving on to check the rifle while Jack stepped up to cut Fowler's bonds.
"Good to have you back, Sergeant," Jack said.
"Yes, Sir," Fowler replied.
Thomas pronounced the rifle clear and passed it back to Fowler. Lauren approached and handed the marine her sidearm.
"You'll be more use with this than I will," she said, honestly.
"Thanks," Fowler acknowledged the gesture with a nod.
"Let's move," Jack said. "Before the Jaffa decide it's easier to just pick us off."
"I don't think they care, Sir," Amy said.
The others turned to look back through the trees, and Vedreya cried out: "No!"
A column of Jaffa were already moving across the causeway; three on point followed by six carrying a heavy, oblong object. Nike and three more Jaffa followed.
"Is that a sarcophagus?" Jack asked.
"It is not," Teal'c replied. "It is a Goa'uld stasis device."
"A freezer?" Jack asked, suppressing a shudder. "Like the ones Hathor put us in?"
"You must do something," Vedreya pleaded.
"Sir," Parker warned, tightening his grip on his M16 but keeping the weapon held low.
A moment later Jack felt what Parker had felt. A blend of sight and sound and instinct honed by years of experience until it produced a less tangible awareness that warned him of an enemy presence before his individual senses could identify it.
"What we need to do is keep moving," Jack decided, reluctantly. "If we turn back, they'll kill us all. Let's get back to the Gate; double-time."
Nike's communicator crackled into life. Such devices were rarely used by the Goa'uld, but Nike found them all but indispensable. "They are moving off," Medusa reported. "But they have taken one of the aliens. Should we stop them, Captain?"
Nike turned to look back at the valley garden, her eyes straying to the trees where Medusa was concealed. "No," she replied. "The servant is unimportant, and I gave my word."
The lead Jaffa reached the far end of the causeway and fanned out, holding their staff weapons at the ready. As the bearers stepped onto the island's shore Nike raised her right arm, sheathed in the metal frame of a complex and delicate energy weapon. She could not help noting that there was a rare beauty to the device, but she would have preferred something more robust. Unfortunately, there had been no time for Athena's weapon smiths to convert this archaic device and there was no other weapon in her arsenal which would serve against one of Kupala's race.
Nike looked up at the inscription over the door. "Stay here," she commanded the escort. "Set the casket by the door and wait for me."
Nike turned to the Jaffa who had questioned her and laid a reassuring hand on the man's arm. "Your weapons will not avail me in there," she said. "Have faith in me."
"Yes, My Captain," he replied, casting his eyes downwards, ashamed of his doubts and fears.
Alone, Nike crossed the threshold into Kupala's temple and beheld the radiant majesty of the river goddess. "My Lady Kupala," she said, politely. "I am Nike, and you are now my prisoner. Please come with me."
"Do you know what happens to those who enter my house with malice in their hearts?" Kupala said, darkly.
"I bear you no malice, My Lady," Nike assured her.
"Yet you come to take me captive?"
"That is a necessity," Nike apologised. "Please come outside, My Lady. I have no wish to harm you, but I can not allow you to gather your strength."
"You are at least a courteous intruder," Kupala allowed. Her eyes drifted to the weapon wrapped around Nike's arm. If she recognised it she made no comment, but she nodded her head and followed Nike out into the sunlight. "It is a long time since I have felt the kiss of the sun," she said.
"You may enjoy it for a few moments," Nike allowed. She nodded to one of her Gorgons. "Ha'he," she said.
The technician bowed his head and knelt beside the stasis casket, activating its internal systems and checking its readouts. "The converters are operating at full efficiency, Captain," he reported. "The containment field is ready."
"What will you do to me?" Kupala asked, warily.
The ha'he looked to Nike, who nodded her permission.
"The stasis chamber has been modified to contain you, My Lady," he said. "It will absorb all ambient energy to keep you from gaining strength while you are within."
Kupala stepped forward and ran her fingers across a glyph on the surface of the casket. "Daszbog," she said. "You are his servant."
"I am not," Nike replied. "But I am to deliver you to him."
Kupala hissed in defiance. Her wings spread and her inner light blazed like a sun as she rounded on the Jaffa.
"Hold your fire!" Nike ordered, as the Jaffa raised their staff weapons. "You shall only make her stronger."
Kupala turned on Nike, who levelled her own weapon.
"This one will not feed you," Nike said. "Surrender, My Lady."
"You won't fire. You want me alive."
"My life is far more important to me," Nike assured her. "Surrender, or you and the lives you contain will be destroyed."
Kupala took a step back and folded her wings. "You know much of me," she noted. Her light grew faint and the Jaffa let out the breaths they had been holding. Nike touched a panel on the casket and the top slid open, retracting into the sides. Without further protest or struggle Kupala climbed into the casket and laid herself down. At another touch from Nike, the casket closed over the recumbent goddess, blotting out her radiance.
The ha'he studied the readouts again. "The containment field is holding," he said, with clear relief.
Nike nodded in satisfaction. "Let us go," she said.
General Hammond gave Nike thirty minutes to get off Veska before he sent SG-1 back, accompanied by units 3, 5 and 7, as well as one of the Falcon UAVs, piloted by Lieutenant Waverley. Vedreya would not be talked out of accompanying them. From the MALP's video they identified a target planet and went through, the Falcon taking point.
The world beyond the Gate was desolate and barren, reminding Jack of Czernobog's ravaged home world of Chλrt. Sure enough, they soon found a marker post, claiming this world in the name of Jack's erstwhile captor, the Lord of Stone and Ash. Daubed on that post was a fresh graffiti.
"What does it say?" Jack asked Teal'c.
"Be seeing you," the Jaffa replied. "It is signed with a winged circle the sign of Nike and addressed to...I do not know this glyph, although it is similar to that of Heru-ur."
"Heru-ur's dead," Jack insisted.
"It's not Heru-ur," Jonas said. "It's an eagle. A colonel's eagle. It's your glyph, Colonel," he explained. "The message is to you."
"She knew we'd follow," Jack realised. "Damnit! Back to the Gate, everyone; this is a dead end. We've lost her."
"It was a long shot," Sam reminded him.
"It was a good plan," Jack replied, "but hers was better." He shook his head. "I hate it when Goa'uld start thinking."
"Do not be too downhearted, Colonel," Vedreya said, fighting back her own grief. "Kupala knew the risks of what she did. My sisters and I will offer you what aid we can, and please believe that my Voya can take care of herself."
Jack looked at the Rusalka. "Do you really believe that?" He asked.
"I must," she replied.
"What will you do?" Jack asked.
"Find my sisters," Vedreya explained. "Go back to Veska and wait."
Nike's warriors stepped out onto the dark and dismal world of Czerny. Black soot coated the stones of the open-air temple which surrounded the Chappa'ai, and black clouds blotted out the sky.
First came the Gorgons' commander, a powerful woman with her face covered by the visage of a howling demon; the mask of Medusa once worn by Nike herself. The six bearers, their masks lesser copies of Medusa's, followed with the stasis casket, with the he'ha, Nestor, standing by. Finally, Nike herself strode forth, still clad in the white robes of parley.
Before them stood the garrison of the Chappa'ai, a squad of Jaffa bearing the mark of Svarog, watching over the Gate with energy cannon and staff weapons held at the ready.
"Kree Jaffa!" Medusa snapped. "The goddess Nike comes at the invitation of your master, Dazsbog. Lower your weapons or pay the price of your impertinence." She glowered at the leader of the guard, the burning gaze of her gorgon-helm boring into his eyes.
"Y-you are welcome, Lady Nike," the man said, struggling to cover his discomfort. Warrior women were rare enough that Medusa always enjoyed an edge in such confrontations, even without her peerless confidence.
As the weapons were lowered Medusa withdrew her helm and planted the butt of her own staff on the ground at her feet, her dark eyes scanning the line of Jaffa for any sign of danger. At a signal from Nike the bearers laid the casket down and lined up before the Chappa'ai. Nestor stepped through the line of Dazsbog's Jaffa and walked to the dialling device; as the squad leader moved to follow, Nike stood forward.
"Kree ta, Jaffa," she said, in a soft and dangerous voice. "That information is not for your eyes."
"I...No, My Lady."
Nike nodded in satisfaction.
The Chappa'ai surged into life and at another signal from their captain the bearers filed through the event horizon.
"I was told that My Lady would bring no force of warriors beyond the sacred circle of the Chappa'ai," the lead Jaffa said, uncertainly, eyeing Medusa and Nestor, who had made no move to leave.
"My Lady does not travel without a bodyguard," Medusa replied. "Such would be beneath her dignity. I scarcely constitute a force of warriors, do I? As for Nestor, he is here to watch over our burden. We would hate for the casket to fail so close to delivery."
"Of course," the man allowed, declining to meet the challenge in Medusa's eyes. "My Master's fortress lies yonder," he added, pointing to a dark shape looming on the horizon. "My men will load the casket onto a wagon for you."
"Thank you, Jaffa," Medusa said. "Your service will be noted."
While they waited for the wagon to be loaded, Medusa noticed that her mistress was looking about her in concern. She approached with deference. "My Captain," she said. "Is all well? Is there danger here?"
"There is danger everywhere," Nike replied. "But this world reminds me of Chλrt, and I do not care to have that particular memory brought to my mind. Do not concern yourself with my state of mind," she added. "There are too many external dangers for you to allow yourself to be distracted."
"Yes, My Captain."
Nike nodded, encouragingly. She turned to her technician. "Nestor; you shall drive," she said. "And do not spare the...whatever," she finished, eyeing the strange, reptilian beasts yoked to the wagon.
Dazsbog's First Prime met them at the gate of his black-walled fortress and conducted Nike and her servants to the throne room, where the lesser lord sat, surrounded by guards and concubines. He adorned himself in the trappings of a System Lord, but even had she not known the limits of his power, Nike would never have taken him for such. His bearing was that of a petty lordling; a small creature without the force of personality to wield true might.
"Fair Lady Nike," he greeted her, rising from his throne but making no bow. His gaze lingered on the casket rather than on her. "We give you all of our thanks for this most kind service."
Allowing his disrespect to slide, Nike bowed to the ruler of this place. "Lord Dazsbog," she said. "I commend you on a most excellent hiding place; surely Czernobog will never think to seek you in one of his own abandoned palaces."
Dazsbog's eye twitched a little at the implication that he was hiding from his enemy. It was true, but he would not wish to think of it that way.
"Your thanks are of course most welcome," Nike went on, "and the loan of your weapon was most appreciated" she laid the fragile device on top of the casket "but we agreed upon a price for this service and I wish to be paid, not applauded."
"Naturally," Dazsbog agreed. "However, I do not see any need for hurry. Drink with me first; I have much I would discuss with you. You would be a powerful ally, My Lady. I believe we could be of great value to each other."
Nike's lip curled slightly as she replied. "You have no value to me beyond that which you have promised me. Deliver that information and our association shall be concluded."
Dazsbog sat down again and waved his hand dismissively. "As you wish," he told her, snippily. "I had thought you a woman of greater ambition. First Prime; see to the Lady's payment and escort her from my home."
Medusa's hand tightened on her staff weapon to hear her captain spoken of like a common whore, but Nike motioned her to be calm.
"Many thanks, My Lord," she said.
Dazsbog ignored her, his attention now fixed on the casket. Nike bowed once more then followed the First Prime from the chamber.
"Out," Dazsbog ordered. "All of you!" He waved his hands, shooing away his Jaffa and his concubines. "Go! I would be alone with my prize." He stood and walked down towards the casket, rubbing his hands with glee.
Dazsbog's First Prime led Nike through a guarded door, behind which lay his master's computer core. He went to a terminal and worked for a few minutes, then came back and proffered a data crystal to Nike.
"Here is the information that you were promised," he said.
Nike reached for the crystal, her gaze locked on the First Prime's. Something moved deep within his eyes, and quicker than thought she reacted. Her hand locked around the Jaffa's wrist and twisted, wrenching him off balance. She spun, holding the First Prime in front of her, so that the staff blast meant for her took him instead. Medusa turned to the door and shot down three of the guards who had hoped to take them unawares; Nestor took the fourth.
"Well done, Medusa," Nike commended. She leaned down, pried the crystal from the First Prime's dead hand and threw it to Nestor. "Good shooting," she told him.
"Yes, My Captain," he replied, already slotting the crystal into a display tablet. "Nothing," he said.
Nike nodded, unsurprised. She motioned to the technician and he passed her his staff weapon so that she could watch the door with Medusa while he went to the data terminal. "Swiftly," she reminded him. "We do not wish to be caught out by our own surprise present."
Dazsbog had planned for this moment for almost a thousand years. Standing triumphant over his helpless foe, he felt the power of his ancestors welling up inside him.
"You defeated me, Kupala," he said, caressing the faceplate of the casket like a lover's skin. "You stole my power from me; made me weak in my father's eyes and robbed me of my rightful place as the heir of Svarog. When you drove me from your world you made me a laughing stock; my brothers mocked me, although none of them could have done better. They mocked me because you held a piece of my strength, without which I could never be complete. Well; no longer.
"Now at last my shame is expunged and I reclaim my power from you, my defeated foe. For now enjoy the quiet of your tomb, Kupala. As yet I can only bind you or kill you, but in time I shall know how to hurt you, and then I will make you beg for death." He smiled, cruelly. "But at present it is enough for me to know that your power is mine to command. This casket will bleed you of your strength and capture all of the energy you try to absorb. That energy will be mine to use as I please. You, my enemy, will fuel my weapons as I ravage the worlds you once loved."
Dazsbog bent low over his prisoner, gazing through the faceplate into Kupala's frozen eyes as he ran his hand down the metal sides of the casket. "You are mine, Kupala," he breathed, kissing the transparent plate possessively. "I will..."
Kupala's eyes moved.
The Goa'uld started back as the face beyond the glass twisted into a look of disgust.
"This can not...This is..." Dazsbog turned towards the door. "Engineers! Bring my enginee...!"
Light blazed behind him and the casket shattered, scattering fragments of metal and crystal across the throne room. Dazsbog gazed into the void of his own shadow, cast sharp-edged on the door, and shuddered. He willed himself to turn, but he was too afraid of what he might see.
"Dazsbog," Kupala called, teasingly. "Please tell me again; what will you do to me, my victorious foe?"
Now the Goa'uld wanted to flee, but instead found himself drawn to turn around, to face the being that had defeated him once before. Inexorably, his body turned, until he was gazing up at the radiant form of Kupala, hovering over his head with slow beats of her wings. The light which shone from her breast was dazzling, and cast its light into each gloomy corner of Dazsbog's throne room.
"Please," Dazsbog whispered. He fell to his knees in awe. "Goddess..."
"I showed you mercy once, when I let you flee my world with your life. If this is how you repay me, I feel disinclined to do so again."
"Please spare me," Dazsbog begged. "I shall worship you; build a temple to your greatness. My armies will be your armies, and they shall march to conquest in the light of your power."
Kupala shuddered, appalled, and she dropped smoothly to the floor. "No," she said, folding her wings about her light. "No. I do not want such power. I do not want armies or conquest and I do not wish the worship of one such as you."
"But you are a goddess!"
"I am not," she protested in horror.
His devotion spurned, Dazsbog's reverence turned to rage. "Then die!" he screamed. With a lunge, he swept up the weapon and slipped his arm inside. He raised his hand as Kupala opened her wings again and he pulled the trigger. The weapon glowed, gave a sharp hiss, then fell silent. "No!" Dazsbog protested, trying again and again to fire the weapon, the secrets of which his engineers had laboured five centuries to unlock. "This can not be. This can not...Guards! Help me! Guards!"
Kupala's wings snapped up, her face black as a storm cloud amidst the savage radiance of her body.
"Noooo!" Dazsbog screamed. Behind him, the Jaffa guards threw the doors wide, then slammed them shut again in terror.
With a powerful beat of her wings, Kupala lifted into the air, then stooped towards her cowering foe, uttering an inhuman shriek of rage. Dazsbog screamed once, and was silent.
Outside the throne room, Jaffa hurried to buttress the doors. There was a moment of silence after the scream had faded, then the doors burst asunder, and Kupala swept out in a blaze of fury.
The Jaffa at the Stargate were startled to see Nike return, and were easily over powered by the Goa'uld and her two warriors.
"Nestor; the Chappa'ai," Nike ordered. She and Medusa turned to guard the road from the fortress.
"Goddess preserve us," Medusa whispered, touching her fingers to her tattoo.
Nike frowned disapprovingly at the superstitious outburst, but let it pass.
In the distance, the black shell of the palace of Dazsbog was cracking like an egg. A shaft of brilliant, white light shot from the palace into the sky, and the black clouds that hung like a shroud over the palace began to boil. The same unearthly radiance began to spill in waves through the breaches in the fortress walls, rolling fast along the road towards the Chappa'ai.
"Nestor!" Medusa cried, urgently.
A shaft of lightning split the air, slamming into a stone right by Nike's head, and the crack of thunder was deafening.
"It is open!" Nestor yelled.
"Go!" Nike commanded. "Go!" She repeated, when her warriors hesitated.
Nestor stepped past the dialling device and leaped into the event horizon. Medusa followed more slowly. Nike turned to go after them, but another lightning bolt struck in front of her and she fell backwards. As she lay in the sooty dust, rain began to fall in thick, black sheets.
Nike struggled to her feet and started for the Gate, but a tall, radiant figure stood in her path, face still dark with fury. The rain was so heavy now that Nike could barely see a thing. Only Kupala, and the event horizon of the Chappa'ai shimmering behind her, were clearly visible, each giving out their own radiance.
"You can not kill me," Nike said. "You owe me."
"I owe you nothing," Kupala replied.
Nike smiled, concealing her fear. "Dazsbog would have come after you sooner or later," she said. "If not me, someone would have come, and you would have been taken."
"But it was you who did it, Lady Nike," Kupala reminded her. "You who imprisoned me."
Nike held up a small piece of metal. "And I who set you free," she said.
"What is that?"
"A component from the stasis chamber. Did you feel the energy flowing into you, instead of being held within the capacitors? That should not have happened. Did Dazsbog try to destroy you with his relict weapon? That should have killed you." She held up another piece of metal.
"Then you used me," Kupala hissed. "For that I should kill you."
"But you do not want to," Nike pointed out. "If you think that you need a reason not to, then I shall give you one. As you noted, I know a great deal about you, Voya. I know what it is that you have started here and I know that you will need to rest soon. I will keep the locations of your worlds off-limits to the Goa'uld, but if I do not return then Medusa will bring an army and destroy you in your sleep. Will that suffice for you?"
"You are less clever than you believe," Kupala cautioned Nike.
"But this time, I am right."
"You are." Kupala rose up until she hovered over the Chappa'ai. "Go now, and never return."
"One more thing," Kupala added. "If you ever hurt my people, I will destroy you. Do you understand that?"
"I do," Nike replied. "Fare you well, Voya."
"Fare you well, Lady."
The rain fell on Czerny for over a week, utterly depleting the cloud cover and leaving the skies clear and blue. The palace of Dazsbog was razed to the ground, and from its foundations grew a grove of white trees, which twined together into the form of a hall. Within days of the rains, grass began to grow outwards from the walls, binding the sodden ash into a nourishing topsoil. Within weeks there was barely a patch of bare ground to be seen from the Stargate. The few surviving Jaffa fled in terror at this unnatural growth and never returned, but many of Dazsbog's human slaves remained to watch the wasteland become a paradise.
After a week the first of the Rusalki arrived.
Two weeks later
It was Jena of the Tok'ra who brought word of Dazsbog's death to the SGC. Knowing that he had once abducted Amy Kawalsky the Tok'ra believed that the news would be of some interest. It was not known how or where he had died, but his surviving Jaffa were very clear that he had been destroyed. Unwilling to discount this as coincidence, Jack led his team back through the Stargate to Veska. To his surprise, Vedreya met them at the Gate.
"I wasn't sure we'd see you here," he admitted.
"I am the custodian," she explained. "It is my place. I have companionship now, and a strong arm to defend me."
"Another Rusalka?" Jonas asked. "Then Kupala...?"
"Is well, but now sleeping once more. However, she has renewed our sisterhood, and blessed me with a fellow custodian. My new sister is here somewhere, but for all her strength she is shy. Perhaps you will see her before you go, but perhaps not."
"Kupala's okay?" Jack asked. "Then Nike...?"
"Is alive," Vedreya assured him. "Dazsbog, to whom Kupala was delivered, is not. I am not at liberty to divulge our mother's current resting place, but she asked that you or your descendants be brought to her when she is ready to rise. In addition, my sister and I will gladly speak to your scholars and try to teach you something of our ways."
"Thanks," Jack said.
SG-1 returned to Earth after spending a few hours of what Jack deemed well-earned R&R in Keplo's idyllic surroundings and conveyed the Rusalki's offer to General Hammond. After the debriefing, Sam and Jonas packed up their lab work before collecting Teal'c for an evening out. Finding Jack proved more difficult, and when they did he told them he would not be joining them.
"I've got work to do," he explained.
"Are you alright, Sir?" Sam asked.
"Hey," Jack protested. "I do work, you know."
"I know, Sir," Sam apologised, although Jack had certainly been working overtime a lot more than usual lately.
"Have fun, kids," Jack said. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"That does not significantly narrow our options," Teal'c noted.
"Thanks, Sir," Sam added. "You have fun too."
"Didn't you hear me? I said I'm working."
Sam smiled. "Of course, Sir. I don't know what I was thinking."
Jack waited until his team had left, then booted up his computer. He opened a document and read it through; at almost sixty pages it was probably the longest single piece that he had written since high school and he wanted to get it right. In deference to Air Force guidelines he had broken the whole thing into sections, including bullet-point summaries, an abstract, a preamble and a concluding paragraph. The whole thing had taken him the best part of a fortnight, but it was just about done.
A few hours later, Jack knocked on the door of General Hammond's office. The General looked about ready to pack in for the night, but he waved Jack in.
"By my reckoning, you went off duty at sixteen-hundred, Colonel," Hammond noted. "Is there a problem."
"I just wanted to get this to you tonight, General," Jack replied, holding out a confidential envelope. "You asked me to compose a memo to the Area 52 Budgetary advisery Commission to the Senate Defence Acquisitions Subcommittee regarding necessary military asset expansions in the SGC," he explained.
"I did," Hammond agreed. "I asked for an assessment from each of our unit commanders, although I have to admit I wasn't really expecting to receive one from you."
"Well, you know I like to keep you on your toes, Sir," Jack replied with a grin.
Hammond took the envelope and frowned. "Colonel; this would have to be one of the longest memos I've ever seen," he said. "Or at least the heaviest."
"It's all important, General," Jack assured him. "I added a section laying out a detailed military basis for the retention and expansion of the SGC anthropology division. It kind of ran on, Sir."
Hammond looked Jack in the eye for a moment, then nodded. "So I see. I'll see it gets to the right people," he promised. "Thank you, Colonel."
"Yes, Sir," Jack replied. "Oh; and General..."
Hammond smiled. "Don't worry, Jack. The anthropology division will never hear about this from me."
"Thank you, Sir," Jack said, with a sigh of relief. "Wouldn't want them to think I was going soft on them."
The Hidden One