Debt Of Blood
Part 7: For those about to rock…
“When we go through the portal I believe that we shall be confronted by Aribeth,” Sharwyn said. “Perhaps in company with Maugrim but it is probable that she will be guarding his inner sanctum. Lady Egeria told me of a way that I might be able to bring Aribeth back to her original loyalties and I intend to try.”
“So she was on your side originally?” Jack had gathered that was the case, from the woman in question’s words when he had met her with Maugrim, and from what the angel Egeria had said earlier, but he wanted to make sure he had the story straight.
“She was,” Sharwyn confirmed. “She was the leader of Lord Nasher’s elite bodyguards, the Neverwinter Nine, and there was none more dedicated to the service of Neverwinter than Aribeth. Unfortunately her fiancé Fenthick was duped into aiding Maugrim’s servant Desther and was executed for his part in the conspiracy, unintentional though it was, and that turned Aribeth against us.”
“I can’t really blame her for that,” Jack said, “although her choice of allies leaves a lot to be desired.”
Sharwyn grimaced. “Lord Nasher was wrong to execute Fenthick. The mob was baying for blood, however, and he could not summon the will to oppose the people. He feared that there would be riots if they did not see harsh justice done and, in the aftermath of the plague, he would not risk civil disorder on top of everything else. Yet Aribeth’s defection was far worse.”
“And you still think you can bring her back on side?”
“Lady Egeria assured me that it is possible,” Sharwyn said, “and I owe it to Aribeth to try. She was my friend once.”
“Your loyalty is admirable,” Teal’c said. “I approve.”
“Thank you,” Sharwyn said. She ran her fingers along the neck of her guitar. “I am confident that I can do it, but if she realizes what I’m doing she’ll try to stop me, and I’ll need your help holding her off until it takes effect.”
“My zat’ni’ktel would have greatly simplified the task,” Teal’c remarked. “Without it we will be forced to rely upon physical combat. It will be no easy matter to subdue her, without harming her, if she is indeed as mighty a warrior as you say.”
Jack winced. “My fault,” he said. “I completely forgot to ask General Hammond to send us a replacement zat.”
“Do not blame yourself, O’Neill,” Teal’c said. “I heard your radio conversation and it did not occur to me to remind you. Indeed the rocket launcher was of greater importance. A zat’ni’ktel would have been useless against the metal automaton.”
“She’s probably the one who has our zat,” Daniel said. “Either her or Maugrim.”
“Maugrim,” Sam said. “Evil Overlord types always go for the knock-out, rather than the kill, so that they can gloat.”
“Which means Aribeth will have the staff weapon,” Daniel predicted.
“You’re probably right,” Jack said. “Or Maugrim will have both of them, so that he can capture us, do his gloating, and then incinerate us.”
“What’s a zat?” Tomi asked.
“It shoots a ray that knocks out anyone it hits,” Jack explained.
“Oh, like a Wand of Paralyzation,” Tomi said. “I had one of those but I sold it. Too easy to counter.”
Teal’c raised an eyebrow. “You can resist such a weapon?”
“No problem,” Tomi said. “Got a Cloak of Freedom, ain’t I?”
“I have a Ring of Power that grants me the same immunity,” Cierre said, her lips twisting in a bitter grimace. “A last gift from Lady Cold Circle.”
“And I have a permanent Free Action spell on myself,” Sharwyn said, “and I can cast the spell on others if required.”
“Are you sure it would protect us against the zat?” Daniel asked. “It doesn’t work on the same principles as the, uh, spells that you’re used to.”
“Without doubt,” Sharwyn said. “I can negate all types of paralysis whether divine, arcane, or mechanical. Only physical injury could hold me in place, or render me unconscious, and I can bestow the same immunities upon you for about ten minutes at a time.”
“A second shot from a zat kills,” Jack pointed out.
“Someone who is held immobile cannot defend himself against his throat being slit,” Sharwyn said, “and so in practice there would seem to be little difference in the effectiveness. Would a second shot kill someone who has resisted the effect of the first shot?”
Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Teal’c, you’re the resident expert.”
“I do not know,” Teal’c admitted. “I am not aware of any protection against a hit by a zat’ni’ktel other than a force screen, or protective armor, that prevents the beam from reaching the body. I cannot speak with certainty about the effectiveness of a second shot if the first is neutralized rather than blocked.”
“If the first is neutralized then the second would be starting from scratch,” Sam said. “I would think that, as long as the neutralizing, uh, spell was working you could just shrug off any number of zat blasts.”
“Hmm.” Jack sucked in his bottom lip and bit on it. “I think I know a way to use Maugrim’s ego against him. Cierre, you mentioned…” Jack paused, realizing that he was going to bring up something that would be a sore point for both Cierre and Daelan, but then decided that it had to be said. “When you fought Kenadi you faked being paralyzed by her sword. If Maugrim zaps us we do the same thing. Play statues, wait for him to do his whole gloating spiel, and then we waste the sucker. I was worried about that intangibility thing he does but I can’t imagine any Evil Overlord doing the ‘grovel before my magnificence’ schtick when he’s basically a ghost. He’ll turn solid, I’ll bet on it, and then we blow him away.”
“He can do Hold Person spells anyway,” Sharwyn pointed out. “Your ‘zat’ would be of little additional use to him. He may have kept it anyway, as a weapon from another world would have a prestige value out of proportion to its utility, but it would be more sensible for him to give it to one who has no such abilities. Aribeth, probably, but perhaps to whatever commander will head the assault upon Castle Never. I believe that Maugrim would love to take Lord Nasher alive.”
“That doesn’t change the plan,” Jack said. “Whether he zaps us with the zat, or uses his, uh, spells, we play the same game. Of course that only applies if he’s light on minions. No way am I going to risk any of us getting captured for real and ending up in his dungeons again. I bet Vhonna wasn’t the only psycho torturer on his staff.” Jack wouldn’t have wished what the High Priestess of Loviatar had put them through on a Goa’uld System Lord and he was really, really, determined never to fall into the hands of another one of the crazy priestesses.
“Indeed,” said Teal’c. “Our continued freedom must be our primary consideration above all others.”
“Damn right,” Jack said, “and also us not getting killed. I’ll play along with your scheme to try to get, uh, Aribeth back on side, Sharwyn, but only as long as it doesn’t risk our lives.”
Sharwyn nodded. “That is fair enough, Colonel O’Neill. My life is important to me also.” She played a brief snatch of music and sang along to it. “…Stay alive…”
The song sounded vaguely familiar to Jack, probably something he’d heard a long time ago, but he couldn’t place it. He approved of the sentiment. “Exactly.” A thought occurred to him. “And if that thing where you get silenced happens to you again then all bets are off.”
“I can dispel it,” Sharwyn said, “but I have to cast Vocalize and then play sections of two songs. It takes about thirty seconds and there isn’t usually time in a battle. Easier to just switch over to my two-bladed sword and close with the enemy. Especially if it’s Silence 15-foot Radius, as it was last time, and if I can get close to their wizards or priests it backfires on them. Your reminder is timely, though, and I shall cast Free Action upon us all now and then we can enter the portal.” She raised her guitar and began to play.
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on now
’Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see…”
The portal led to a small room, empty and with walls of bare stone except for one door, which was obviously used for nothing except the portal. The eight members of the group filled it almost to capacity. Jack was fervently glad that he had turned down Hammond’s offer of an additional two SG teams. It would have been like sharing an elevator with the starting line-up of the Chicago Bears.
Jack had ended up right next to Cierre. From the expression on her face it was obvious that her personal space was sacrosanct, Jack was inside it, and she wasn’t happy. He made sure that he didn’t get any closer to her than necessary. Luckily the door opened outward and they could open it without any need for any further squashing together.
Beyond the door lay a much larger room. It was also pretty much nothing but bare stone. A defaced statue, about the only thing in the room that could be described as furnishings, indicated that the place probably rightfully belonged to somebody Maugrim didn’t like very much. The corpses that lay on the floor, and the two bodies fastened to X-shaped crosses with their dead mouths gaping open as if they had died screaming, implied that the property acquisition had been recent and violent.
The room wasn’t unoccupied. Aribeth, as they had expected, awaited them there. What they hadn’t expected was that she was holding the last of the missing P-90s and aiming it directly at them.
“Come no further,” Aribeth commanded.
Jack raised an eyebrow. “You realize that if you pull that trigger you’ll be dead inside a second? You might get one or two of us but we’ll fill you with more holes than a fishing net.”
“My armor is proof against your weapons,” Aribeth declared. “We have tested this.”
“And it doesn’t cover your face,” Jack riposted, “and we’ve had a hell of a lot more practice at shooting than you. We’ll give you several extra eyes before you can blink. Anyway,” he added, moving the muzzle of his M79 slightly, “we brought a bigger gun.” The grenade launcher was currently loaded with an M576 buckshot round for close-quarters anti-personnel use. It lacked the penetrating power of the 5.7mm P-90 ammunition, and would bounce off the armor, but Aribeth wasn’t going to know that and the huge muzzle aperture was definitely intimidating.
“Perhaps my life is less important to me than yours is to you,” Aribeth replied.
“Maybe,” Jack said, “but I’m betting you’re still not going to throw your life away for nothing. Right now we have a stand-off.”
Sharwyn had moved across to one side of the group, moving slowly so as not to provoke Aribeth into firing, and now she began to caress the strings of her guitar. She opened her mouth and began to chant, wordlessly, producing a sound that reminded Jack very much of Native American music.
Aribeth’s gaze flicked towards Sharwyn. “Whatever you are trying will not work,” she said. “I am heavily warded against all forms of magic.”
Sharwyn ignored her and continued to chant.
“It doesn’t matter if she carries on, then, does it?” Jack said, hoping that Sharwyn had allowed for Aribeth’s protections when she’d come up with her plan.
Aribeth did not reply directly. “You,” she said to Cierre, “the Drow freak. You killed Kenadi.”
“And you betrayed her cause,” Cierre responded. “Which of us has hurt her most?”
“Love,” Sharwyn sang, quiet chords now coming from her guitar, “Devotion…”
“Hey,” Jack put in, seeing a chance to stall Aribeth further without the need for any actual fighting, “what’s with so many people calling Cierre a ‘freak’? She seems perfectly normal to me. Okay, so she has pointy ears, but so have you. I’m guessing it isn’t all that out of the ordinary on this planet. Is it because she has black skin? We have a word for people who object to other people because of their skin color, and it’s ‘racist’. Not a good thing where I come from.”
“Feeling,” Sharwyn continued, “Emotion…
Don’t be afraid to be weak
Don’t be too proud to be strong…”
“Can you not see?” Aribeth raised her eyebrows. “You must not know the Drow. They are a small people, shorter than me by several inches, and Cierre towers over all others of her race like a giant.”
“Just look into your heart, my friend,
That will be the return to yourself
The return to innocence…”
“It is how I came to live on the surface,” Cierre explained. “I tired of the taunts, the abuse, and the scorn. I knew that I would face prejudice here but, foolishly, I thought that by showing that I was not like other Drow I would overcome that prejudice.”
“You never will,” Aribeth taunted. “My people hate and despise yours. The followers of Eilistraee will never accept a worshipper of Auril. The humans are savage brutes who will turn on you as they did on Fenthick. You will always be alone.”
Cierre shrugged. “I’m a ranger. I like solitude.”
“They will cast you out and you will face eternal solitude whether you wish it or no,” Aribeth continued.
Sharwyn had returned to chanting for a while and was now singing again. Jack vaguely recognized the song, something to do with the Atlanta Olympics if he recalled correctly, and he thought he understood what Sharwyn was trying to do. It didn’t seem to be working. If anything Aribeth was becoming more hostile and angrier.
“If you want then start to laugh
If you must then start to cry
Be yourself don’t hide
Just believe in destiny.
Don’t care what people say
Just follow your own way
Don’t give up and lose the chance
To return to innocence…”
Aribeth’s face twisted in sudden rage. “Stop that!” she yelled at Sharwyn. “You can change nothing! I am damned, beyond all redemption, and I care not. Stop it or I will stop you!” She turned the gun to aim at Sharwyn.
“Put the gun down,” Jack ordered. With Aribeth’s gaze turned away from him he had taken the opportunity to raise the M79 and take careful aim. “Otherwise I’ll blow your head clean off your shoulders.”
Aribeth made no move to comply. “Go ahead, then. Slay me.”
“That’s what she wants,” Cierre said. “To die.” She took a step forward and raised her sword. “Perhaps, though, there is something else she wants more. Am I right, surface elf? A chance to assuage your guilt, by punishing the one who struck the fatal blow against your friend, so that you can pretend to yourself that it wasn’t you who was truly responsible for her death? I offer you that chance. Put down your ‘gun’ and face me with your sword.”
“She will kill you, Drow,” Daelan warned.
“So you say,” Cierre replied. “I have faced opponents more skilled than myself before. Yet I still live.”
“For the moment,” Aribeth said. She bent and laid her P-90 down on the floor. Jack was tempted to just shoot her there and then; however he had promised Sharwyn he’d try her way first and he didn’t want to go back on his word. He could always shoot Aribeth later, if Sharwyn gave up, and hopefully Cierre could stay alive until then.
Aribeth drew her sword. It glowed red, in a similar fashion to Cierre’s sword, and it was… big. Not as big as the two-handed sword Teal’c still carried but, in proportion to her size, it was almost a match. Aribeth, however, wielded her sword one-handed. A small shield was strapped to her left arm. She was clad in full plate armor, gleaming black and segmented like a lobster, whereas Cierre wore only ordinary clothes and a lightweight leather jerkin. If Jack hadn’t seen Cierre’s devastating skill and speed in action he would have said that she stood no chance. Of course he’d never seen Aribeth in a fight.
Cierre advanced, slowly and cautiously, and Aribeth rushed to meet her. Aribeth struck first, her sword hissing through the air at blinding speed, and Cierre parried. Blow after blow followed in dizzying succession. It was soon evident that Cierre was fighting defensively, making no serious attempt to strike in earnest, and perhaps because of that she was managing to hold Aribeth at bay.
Sharwyn’s song had slowed right down and she was now reciting a spoken passage with minimal instrumental accompaniment.
“That’s not the beginning of the end
That’s the return to yourself
The return to innocence…”
Aribeth screamed. As Sharwyn’s fingers accelerated on her strings, and the tune became a dazzlingly fast instrumental passage where she somehow achieved the effect of a heavily distorted electric guitar, Aribeth launched a succession of blows, almost too quick for the eye to follow, that battered Cierre’s defenses until they gave way. Cierre’s sword flew from her hand and sailed across the room. She leapt away, her hand going to the hilt of her spare sword, but Aribeth followed up and delivered a mighty blow, holding her sword-hilt with both hands, and caught Cierre with the sword half-drawn. The blades clashed and Cierre’s second sword went flying. Aribeth released the sword with her left hand and bashed her shield into Cierre’s face. Cierre went down. She lay on her back on the floor, unmoving and apparently dazed, and Aribeth raised her sword for a finishing blow.
Teal’c dropped his gun and threw himself forward in a dive. He struck Aribeth with his shoulder, ramming into her just above the hip, and smashed her from her feet. They landed on the stone floor and grappled. Aribeth fought to get her sword-arm free. Teal’c battled to keep it pinned. Impossibly the elf woman, a foot shorter than Teal’c and a fraction of his weight, seemed to be matching him for strength. They rolled over the stone flags, locked together, with Teal’c unable to pin and immobilize her. Neither was Aribeth able to free her sword-arm from Teal’c’s grip.
Sharwyn was performing another chanting chorus of her song. Jack hoped it would achieve the desired effect soon; obviously the song was doing something, Aribeth’s reaction proved that, but not what they wanted. Aribeth’s sword, waving at random as the two grapplers rolled over the floor, made going to Teal’c’s aid hazardous. Daelan moved forward, his double-axe poised, but the constantly-changing positions of the combatants gave him no clear target. Jack turned to go to Cierre’s assistance but saw that Sam had beaten him to it and was helping Cierre to rise.
Sharwyn completed one final section of chanting, struck a chord that seemed to hang in the air and died away only very slowly, and half spoke, half sang, one final line.
“It’s the return to innocence.”
Aribeth released her grip on her sword. It fell away onto the floor even as Teal’c, taken by surprise as Aribeth’s resistance suddenly ceased, slammed her gauntleted hand down onto the flagstones with all his might. The impact cracked the stone and undoubtedly did fearful damage to the hand inside the gauntlet.
“I yield!” Aribeth gasped out.
Teal’c was drawing back his fist for a blow; he stopped, as he realized what was happening, and let go of Aribeth’s wrist. He disentangled his legs from Aribeth’s and rose to his feet.
Sharwyn let her guitar hang on its straps and raised a hand to wipe her brow. “Whew!” she gasped. “That took a lot out of me. She wasn’t kidding when she said she was heavily warded. I thought I was never going to break through.”
Aribeth struggled to rise, hampered by her damaged hand, and Teal’c assisted her. “Thank you,” she said. She looked at her hand. “It is broken and I can no longer heal myself. My god has rejected me.”
Daelan proffered her a potion flask. She took it, struggled for a moment before managing to get the top off one-handed, and drank. “Thank you,” she said again, flexing her fingers as she spoke. “You have brought me back to my senses,” she said to Sharwyn, “yet it is all to no avail. Neverwinter’s fall is now inevitable. I have seen it in my dreams. It shall disappear in fire when the Old Ones return.”
“I’ve seen a lot of things in my dreams,” Jack said, “including a nine-foot talking tube of toothpaste chasing me through the SGC, Senator Kinsey being eaten alive by rabid weasels, and Mary Steenburgen giving me a lap-dance. It doesn’t mean any of them are going to happen.”
Sam said something, under her breath, too quietly for Jack to hear. He could guess, however, but it was too late to revise his comment.
“I know that Neverwinter shall fall,” Aribeth insisted. “It cannot hope to stand against the power of the Old Ones.”
“Is that why you joined Maugrim? To be on the winning side?” Jack asked.
“My heart was empty after the… judicial murder of Fenthick,” Aribeth said. “Everything seemed dark and hopeless and my service to Neverwinter was but a hollow sham. Morag came to me in my dreams and offered me revenge and, in my despair, I accepted.”
“I can understand wanting revenge,” Sharwyn said, “and I can even understand you ditching your stern and unforgiving god, but did you have to sign up with a bunch of fucking lizards? Shar would have welcomed you with open arms. The goddess of darkness, despair, and loss was right there in front of you and you didn’t even look.”
“What would you know of despair and loss?” Aribeth retorted.
Sharwyn’s hand rose half-way up as if poised for a slap and her voice acquired a hard edge. “I miscarried and then my husband walked out on me for a prettier woman. I was twelve hundred miles from home and alone. Tell me again that I don’t know about despair and loss.”
Jack’s eyebrows climbed. Sharwyn’s husband had left her for a prettier woman? He glanced across at his comrades and saw that Daniel’s eyebrows had also soared, as had Sam’s, and Teal’c had raised both his eyebrows in an almost unprecedented show of astonishment. And, as well as the motive being difficult to believe, anyone who would walk out on their wife in those circumstances had to be a total bastard. Of course, with what Sharwyn could do with her songs and that two-bladed sword-staff thing, he was probably a total bastard with no genitals and who had fallen ‘in to a burning ring of fire’ or something similar.
“He is a man without honor,” Daelan stated.
Teal’c nodded agreement. “Indeed.”
“He still down in Athkatla, is he, love?” Tomi enquired. He was toying with his fifteen-inch dagger and something about his eyes gave away very clearly that, for all his diminutive size, he was a ruthless and deadly killer.
“Yes,” Sharwyn said, “and he has already been given cause to regret his actions.” Yep, Ring of Fire.
Aribeth held out her belt, a broad band of black leather decorated with dark metal studs, to Cierre. “Fire Giant Strength,” she said. “Take it and use it well.”
Cierre stretched out her hand but hesitated before taking the belt. “It is better than Daelan’s belt,” she said, “and Teal’c has none at all. Perhaps it should go to one of them. Teal’c, I would say, for he came to my rescue and held you off when you would have slain me.”
Teal’c shook his head. “I saw you pass up an opportunity to strike a killing blow,” he said. Jack hadn’t seen it but he was prepared to accept Teal’c’s word; the former First Prime knew far more about close combat with lethal weapons than Jack even wanted to know. “To do so in such circumstances, at the risk of your life, was an act of bravery and honor. The prize of battle should go to you.”
Cierre dipped her head. “Your kind words please me, male. You are a true warrior and your praise is good for my heart.” She accepted the belt from Aribeth and held it with one hand while she unbuckled her existing belt with the other. She passed the old belt to Teal’c. “This is a Girdle of Hill Giant Strength,” she told him. “I would estimate that it will increase your strength by roughly an eighth. Perhaps a little less.”
“I thought those magic belts made the wearer as strong as the giant they’re named after,” Daniel commented, as Teal’c took the belt and buckled it on.
“That used to be the case,” Sharwyn said, “but the magic was changed a couple of years ago as part of an agreement between Shar and Mystra. You must have read something slightly out of date.”
Jack hadn’t noticed Daniel reading anything, apart from the guide to the local religions that he’d been given by Kenadi and had read in the dungeon, but it didn’t surprise him that Daniel had picked up something else; he seemed to be able to acquire books by some sort of osmosis. “Discuss it some other time,” Jack ordered. “We still have to deal with Maugrim.”
“Too right,” Tomi chipped in.
“The Free Action will have worn off by now,” Sharwyn said. “I had better cast it again before we confront him.”
“I’m surprised he hasn’t come out here,” Jack said, glancing at the heavy doors at the far end of the room. “I’d have thought he’d have heard you singing, plus all the noise we made during the fight.”
“Nah,” Tomi said. “This is the Temple of Helm, or used to be. Walls are two feet thick and the doors are bloody great planks of solid oak.” Sharwyn raised an eyebrow and Tomi grinned. “Recognize the place from when I nicked half their silverware,” the little man admitted.
“Only half?” Sharwyn’s eyebrow was joined by the other one and both climbed higher.
“They were using the other half at the time,” Tomi said. “I’m good, but not that good.”
“Then those bodies are those of the genuine priests of Helm,” Daelan deduced. He turned a stern gaze on Aribeth. “They are newly dead. Your doing?”
Aribeth lowered her eyes to stare at the floor. “I… I… yes,” she confessed. “They had served their purpose, Maugrim said, and I slew these ones. The others he took into the inner chamber for the sacrifice.”
“What?” Jack jerked to attention. “You mean while we’ve been standing around talking to you he’s been killing people? Maybe they’re still alive.”
“It was an hour or more ago,” Aribeth said. “They will be long dead.”
“Sacrifice?” Sharwyn’s eyes narrowed. “What was its purpose?”
“Morag gains strength from deaths,” Aribeth said. “Maugrim told me that one final sacrifice was all that was needed to open the way for her return. She will burst forth at the head of her armies and Neverwinter shall be consumed in fire.”
“Which hasn’t happened yet,” Sharwyn said, “so either it takes more than an hour or the sacrifice wasn’t enough. I thought Maugrim needed the Words of Power to release her? We recovered three out of the four, and delivered them to Aarin Gend, so Maugrim can’t be using them. He only has one.”
“He needs them to enter her realm,” Aribeth replied, “but not to bring her forth into this one.”
“It sounds as if the Words are a Gate address,” Daniel mused, “or function in a similar way.”
“If the point of origin is known then that’s a possibility,” Sam said, “but it would be an inter-dimensional shift rather than traveling through space. Would four points, plus the point of origin, be enough for that?”
“That’s your department, not mine,” Daniel replied. “I don’t see why not.”
“Hmm. If point A represents…” Sam began.
Jack didn’t let her continue. “The ‘how’ doesn’t matter,” he pointed out. “The important thing is the same as it always is. To kill the bad guy and stop his plans, whatever they are, before they get anywhere.” He pointed at the door that, presumably, led to Maugrim. “I propose we start off by tossing in a few grenades and then shoot the crap out of anyone still alive.”
“A good plan, if the Helmites really are already dead,” Sharwyn said, “but perhaps I’d better check first.” She struck a series of hard, fast, chords on the guitar and broke into song.
“I know you’ve deceived me now here’s a surprise
I know that you have ‘cos there’s magic in my eyes
I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles…”
The Who. Jack could remember that song from when he had been in his early teens. It occurred to him that the guy called Giles, who had taught Sharwyn her songs, must be at least his own age. And had a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of rock music.
Sharwyn concluded her song with a flourish. She was frowning as she lowered the guitar. “The priests are indeed dead,” she reported, “but they weren’t the only prisoners. There’s a young girl in there, tied up, but alive. She looks vaguely familiar – either someone I’ve seen before or a relative of someone I… know. Got it. She’s Luce’s kid sister.”
“Luce from the Moonstone Mask?” Tomi asked.
Sharwyn nodded. “Yes, that Luce.” She turned towards Jack. “That rules out your plan of throwing in one of your blast bombs.”
“Yeah. Crap.” Jack bit his lip. “Does Maugrim have Teal’c’s staff weapon?” He’d already described it to the Neverwinter contingent.
“He does,” Sharwyn confirmed. “There are five other cultists with him and also two… things. Flesh golems, I think, constructs made from the parts of corpses, although they might perhaps be zombie warriors. Either way they’ll take a lot of damage before they go down.”
“And we can’t just open fire with everything we have, with a kid in there, so we’ll have to stick to aimed single shots and short bursts.” Jack tapped the butt of the M79 and frowned. “I figured this would give us an edge but it might be more of a liability. Unless you want to take it, Teal’c. You’re probably the best out of all of us with a shotgun.”
Teal’c nodded and extended his hand for the weapon. “I will fire only if I am sure of my target, O’Neill.”
Jack handed over the M79, pulled the bandolier of ammunition over his head, and passed that over to Teal’c too. He didn’t bother with any further warnings. Teal’c was utterly reliable.
Sharwyn was glaring at Aribeth. “You could have warned us,” she said. “If I hadn’t thought to do Clairvoyance we would have thrown explosives in there and killed the child.”
“I assumed the brat would already be dead,” Aribeth said. “In fact I had forgotten about it. I paid little attention to Maugrim’s preparations for his ritual and it hardly registered on me when his men dragged in some street urchin. After all, everyone in Neverwinter is going to die anyway.”
Jack thought that Sharwyn was going to slap her. He had pretty much the same impulse himself and a quick glance around confirmed that the feeling seemed to be pretty much universal in the group. It was hard to tell with Cierre; she was about as inscrutable as Teal’c, and her face wasn’t giving much away, but a slight curl of her lip looked like scorn to Jack and when she spoke it confirmed his guess.
“Tell me again why I risked my life to capture this surface elf alive,” Cierre said, the curl growing more pronounced and acid in every word.
She had a point, Jack thought. “Anything more you’ve forgotten to tell us?” he asked Aribeth.
“I don’t think so,” Aribeth replied. She hadn’t reacted at all to Cierre’s comment, which Jack thought was slightly odd, but he couldn’t be bothered to probe further.
“It would help your case much more if you actually helped us against Maugrim, rather than just giving us your equipment,” Sharwyn pointed out. “Stand with us and perhaps Lord Nasher will be merciful.”
“I have nothing to live for,” Aribeth said. “I will go to the gallows without fear. In death I will be reunited with Fenthick.”
“You’ll go to the Wall of the Faithless,” Sharwyn warned, “or to the icy wastes of Cania if Tyr deems you a Betrayer. Your only way out is to turn to Shar, as you should have done in the first place.”
Aribeth shook her head. “I will accept my deserved fate.”
Sharwyn rolled her eyes. “If you’re determined to be a martyr then carry on. We don’t have time for more talk.”
“Hang on a sec,” Tomi said. “I want to know something more about Maugrim. Just what is he? He’s been chucking arcane spells around, and divine spells, and I know he’s been seen wearing armor. I thought he was using rods and wands for the wizard spells but he’s been doing stuff that’s beyond that. Unless he has some major artifact.”
“He was a wizard, and a highly ranked one,” Aribeth explained, “but became a priest in the service of the Old Ones. He retains his arcane powers still.”
“Bugger,” Tomi said. “He’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”
“Then,” Jack said, “let’s get to cracking.”
Beyond the door lay a library. Shelf upon shelf of books. Jack glanced at Daniel, ready to pull him away if he became distracted, but Daniel passed by the shelves without a pause. Not many things could keep Daniel’s mind away from dusty old books but a kid in danger was one of them.
And beyond the library, through an archway, was Maugrim.
He saw them at the same moment they saw him. Their guns swung to the aim but the need to make sure they weren’t going to hit the child slowed them down by just enough to make a vital difference. Sam put two shots through the chest and head of one of Maugrim’s henchmen, and Tomi put a throwing knife into another’s throat, but then Maugrim spoke two words and vanished.
Jack assumed Maugrim had gone invisible. He could see that he wasn’t going to hit any kids and he pulled the trigger anyway, aiming at where he’d last seen Maugrim, hoping to hit him before he moved. The bullets passed harmlessly through the space Maugrim had occupied, hitting nothing, and ricocheted off a stone wall at the far end of the room. Jack ceased fire immediately and then saw Maugrim again.
He had moved all the way across the room in an impossibly short time and he had… changed. He had donned a steel helmet, he was shimmering and semi-transparent, and he was holding Teal’c’s staff weapon. He was surrounded by blood-stained dead people, no doubt the priests who had been sacrificed, but they were rising to their feet. Zombies. And, most importantly, he was now kneeling behind a scared-looking kid.
“Silence!” he commanded, his gaze fixed on Sharwyn, and the tune she was beginning to play chopped off short in mid-note. “Drop your weapons!” Maugrim went on, addressing the rest of them.
Jack wasn’t stupid enough to obey. The moment the weapons were on the floor they’d be at Maugrim’s mercy – and he didn’t have any. He aimed his P-90 at Maugrim’s face but held his fire. There was enough of Maugrim showing above the kid to hit without killing the hostage, definitely, but he’d learned a few things about the way things worked on this planet and he knew his bullet wouldn’t have any effect on the bastard. It would pass straight through, just like in the fight when SG-1 had been captured, and Maugrim would undoubtedly retaliate with the staff weapon.
It was a momentary stand-off. The edge was with Maugrim, however, because he didn’t care what happened to his remaining minions, even the ones who were actually living humans, let alone the freakin’ Undead. Five zombies plus two… things that were lurching across the room toward Jack and his companions.
“What the Hell are those?” Jack muttered, although he already knew the answer. Sharwyn had said something about ‘flesh golems – constructs made out of parts of corpses’ and that had to be what they were. Loose-jointed limbs, mismatched eyes, jaws lolling slackly, and long lines of stitches crossing every piece of exposed skin. They only needed bolts through their necks and Universal Pictures would be suing for infringement of their copyrighted Frankenstein’s Monster design.
At least the human enemies weren’t advancing. The sudden deaths of two of the henchmen seemed to have cooled the ardor of the others more than somewhat. The survivors were, if Jack read things right, busy taking measures to protect themselves. One guy in a pointy hat suddenly acquired three duplicates, decoy images presumably, and another’s skin turned into some kind of grey mottled armor. Yeah, well, Jack knew the answer to that one. Put enough bullets into the guy and the armor would fail. And Jack had a lot of bullets.
Jack’s gaze passed over the bodies on the floor and he noticed something odd. The one with the knife in his throat was still twitching and the blood spilling onto the floor had traveled only a couple of inches. Jack’s first thought, when Maugrim had managed to do so much in the blink of an eye, was that he’d somehow managed to stun everybody despite Sharwyn’s protections. But if that was the case then he’d also stunned his own side, which didn’t make sense, and how could he have slowed down the flow of blood from the dying men? It was more as if Maugrim had speeded himself up so that thirty or more seconds had passed for him while only one second elapsed for everyone else. Like the effect of the Atoniek bracelets only more so. Strange that he hadn’t made more effective use of the time, such as bashing in some heads, but Jack wasn’t going to object to an enemy making a mistake.
Maybe he could have done better but Maugrim still might have done enough. Between the hostage and that intangibility to bullets trick he was untouchable… for the moment. The ‘spell’ would run out. Also Sharwyn had said that she could get rid of a Silence given thirty seconds. Jack flicked a quick glance at the red-head and saw that she was indeed still playing and singing, although inaudibly, and all she needed was time. So, stall Maugrim. Jack could do that.
“Just explain one thing to me,” Daniel said. “If you could use a human sacrifice to get where you want to go then why did you want us to show you how to use the Stargate?”
Okay, Daniel could do the stalling.
“I can understand why you wanted the guns,” Daniel went on, “they were probably a big help to you getting through the Neverwinter defenses, but what use would Gate travel be? You’re opening a Gate with human sacrifice, I gather, and I just don’t see how the two methods of travel are compatible. I’d appreciate an explanation.”
Maugrim fell for it, like nine out of ten Evil Overlords, and he stood up a little higher behind the little girl. “My Queen gains strength from the deaths of her enemies,” he said, “and with this most recent sacrifice she will have sufficient power to open a gateway into this world. When she bursts forth the only safe place will be at her side. To reach her there I need all four Words of Power, and to control the Source Stone below Castle Never, or else to use the master portal at the Voice of the Lost. Only that one can…”
“…of salesmen,” Sharwyn’s voice suddenly rang out, accompanied by a crescendo from her guitar. “Of salesmen!”
“What? How did you…?” Maugrim gasped. He started to swing the staff weapon around to aim at Sharwyn. Daelan moved to shield Sharwyn with his own body.
Teal’c pulled the trigger of the M79. The head of the nearest of the flesh golems disintegrated, torn apart by the storm of buckshot, and Maugrim spun toward the source of the noise. He hesitated, caught between targets, and the staff weapon remained unfired.
Sharwyn segued from one tune into another, played a short riff, and then sang three words.
“Time stand still…”
An instant later Jack saw Sharwyn thirty feet from where she’d been standing, her guitar now slung over her back, and her leg blurring as she kicked Maugrim in the face. In a continuation of the move she snatched up the little girl and ran with her, off to the side, taking her out of the line of fire.
Maugrim staggered and almost fell. He steadied himself and stood up straight. He raised the staff weapon once more.
Jack grinned. Maugrim was no longer translucent and Sharwyn’s kick confirmed that the intangibility trick had stopped working. “Showtime,” he said, and opened fire.
Sam and Daniel let loose with their P-90s at the same time. Maugrim pirouetted briefly in a grotesque dance of death and then fell to the floor. One of his cultists charged at Daniel, raising a mace to strike, but Cierre intercepted him. Her sword lashed out and the man went down.
The remaining flesh golem underwent an astonishing transformation. Its stitched-together body wavered, changed shape and color, and reformed into Maugrim. He was no longer holding the staff weapon but otherwise he looked unharmed. His face contorted into a snarl. “Prismatic…” he began, raising a hand with his fingers spread out, but whatever he intended to do was cut short.
Teal’c had started to reload immediately after firing at the first flesh golem. By now he had another buckshot round in the M79 and he’d already selected the second golem as his target. The grenade launcher boomed out once more. Maugrim spun around again, half the side of his head torn off, and fell flat.
The duplicate wizards popped out of existence as bullets hit them and the real wizard, stripped of his decoys, dropped to his knees clutching his chest and blowing out bloody bubbles from his mouth. Jack proved his theory about the armor skin by giving the protected cultist a long burst. The first few shots did indeed bounce off but the last ones tore the wizard apart.
Only the zombies remained, now, and even as Jack changed targets they crumpled to the ground. The last time Jack had faced zombies, in the battle at the Stargate, the walking corpses had kept on attacking, although in random fashion, even after the death of the priest who had created them. This time, perhaps because they had been made from the bodies of Neverwinter natives who were deadly enemies of Maugrim, they died with their controller. They fell to the floor, no longer undead but merely dead, and lay unmoving.
“Bloody hell, those guns of yours are loud when you use them indoors,” Tomi remarked. “My ears will be ringing for days.”
“Better deaf than dead,” Jack said. “There are quieter ones in our world but they don’t have the same hitting power.”
“Better deaf than dead,” Tomi echoed, grinning widely. “Nice one. Okay, time to loot the bodies.”
“We need to find the ‘Word of Power’,” Daniel said. “I want to see if it really is a Gate address. I see a big chest over there. Maybe that’s where he kept it – but I guess you should check it for traps first.”
Something about that phrase rang a bell with Jack but he couldn’t place it. He put the thought aside and went to check on Sharwyn and the little girl.
Sharwyn was untying the girl’s bonds. “You’re safe now,” she said. “We killed the bad men.”
Jack was surprised to see that the child looked to be of oriental extraction. Her dark brown eyes focused on him and she gave him a slightly shaky smile. “Your weapons are very strange,” she said. “Are you from Lantan? My sister says that the humans in Lantan have red hair and green eyes, but your eyes are brown and your hair is grey.”
“My hair’s just… not as brown as it used to be,” Jack said. “We come from a place called Earth.”
“Are you with the Lords’ Alliance?” The girl didn’t wait for an answer. “I lost my sister and I couldn’t find her. I tried to hide from the Luskans but they caught me.”
“Don’t worry, kid, we’ll get you back to your sister,” Jack said.
“My name’s not kid,” the girl said. “My name is Leesa.”
For a second Jack was distracted by thinking about how many episodes of The Simpsons he had missed. He put those thoughts aside. “Okay, then, Leesa, glad to meet you. I’m Jack. Your sister’s, uh, Luce, right?”
“That’s right,” Leesa confirmed. “Do you know her? She’s the prettiest of all the girls at the Moonstone Mask. Everybody says so.”
“No, I don’t know her,” Jack said. “I’m not from round here.”
“I know your sister well,” Sharwyn said. “We will take you home as soon as we have finished our business here.”
“There aren’t any outer doors or windows,” Sam commented, over on the other side of the room. “I thought you said this was a temple, Tomi. Was the portal the only way in?”
“Nah, there used to be perfectly normal entrances,” Tomi replied. “Maugrim must have sealed them all up with Stone Shape to keep unwelcome visitors out. You can still see where they were if you look hard.”
“Oh.” Sam stared at the walls with an expression on her face that reminded Jack of a deer staring at the headlights of an oncoming car. He could see why. This planet’s mixture of the primitive and the staggeringly advanced seemed to be calculated to drive any logical thinker insane. Luckily Jack had never claimed to be a logical thinker. He turned to Sharwyn.
“How did you do that thing where you were there,” Jack gestured back towards where they had entered the room, “and then suddenly you were right beside Maugrim? And, for that matter, how did he do pretty much the same thing?”
“Time Stop,” Sharwyn explained. She grinned broadly. “In theory I shouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s a ninth level spell and bards usually can’t cast more than sixth level – things like the Ice Storm I used back at the Voice of the Lost – but I’m getting pretty damn good and Lady Egeria hinted I’d be able to pull it off. Yay, go me, as a friend of mine from Earth would say. Usually the caster of a Time Stop can’t affect anyone else – the people and the places that surround you are frozen in time and can’t be moved or injured – but there were words in the song that I thought I could use as an attack, because of it all being part of the same spell, and it worked. He let his defenses down, just as I sang for him to do, and you did the rest.”
“It was pretty impressive,” Jack said, “and getting Leesa here out of the line of fire made all the difference.”
“That’s what I thought,” Sharwyn said. “The down side is that it took a lot out of me. It’s been a long day and I’m pretty much wiped out. I have a couple of conventional spells left, and I could maybe come up with two or three minor song spells, but that’s all. I need a few hours sleep before I can do anything else major.”
“Ah. That’s… not good.” It was news on a par with hearing that the close air support for an impending assault had been cancelled because of fog.
“You have a couple of spare guns now. Maybe you could show me how to use one,” Sharwyn suggested.
Jack winced at the thought of someone untrained using a fully automatic weapon. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said. “You’d be more dangerous to the rest of us than to the enemy until you had more training than we have time for right now.”
“You’re the expert,” Sharwyn said, accepting his statement without question. “I’ll stick to what spells I have left and my double-sword.”
“O’Neill,” Teal’c called, “we have found the zat’nik’tel. It was locked away in a chest as if it was of no importance.” He sounded displeased, Jack thought, as if he regarded Maugrim’s disregard for the technology of the Goa’uld and the Jaffa slightly insulting.
“Or he was keeping it as a trophy,” Jack said.
“This must be the Word of Power,” Daniel said, taking a stone object out of the same chest. “Yes, it’s a symbol from a Gate address. It seems to be shaped as if to fit into a socket.”
“It’s made of naqadah,” Sam said. “The Word isn’t just part of an address; it’s a section of an actual Gate, presumably with a fixed destination. Find the sockets, insert the Words, and the Gate will open. Plug and play.”
“And no doubt the portal will lead to Morag’s sanctuary,” Sharwyn said, “where she will be assembling her army. The other three Words are with Aarin Gend at Castle Never. Maugrim talked of a Source Stone there; that must be the thing into which you fit the Words of Power. We can reach Morag. I would like to make a pre-emptive strike to attack her before she launches her own assault.”
“Yeah, that’s good strategy,” Jack said.
“Your own objectives have been achieved now,” Sharwyn went on. “You have slain the one who had you tortured and have retrieved the weapons which were stolen. If you decide to return to your own world now I will understand – but I hope that you will stay.”
Jack half-closed his eyes and considered. Technically she was correct, they’d done everything they had told General Hammond they were staying on to do, but the job didn’t feel finished. He remembered Kenadi’s last words; “Save Neverwinter, kill Maugrim.” He hadn’t made a firm promise to carry out those last wishes, unlike Cierre, but he’d do it if he could. The ‘kill Maugrim’ part was done but Neverwinter still wasn’t safe. He looked around the group, an eyebrow raised, and wordlessly invited opinions.
“It would greatly increase Sharwyn and her companions’ chances of success if we were to accompany them on their mission,” Teal’c said, “and to do otherwise would be less than honorable.”
“I’d hate to leave right now,” Sam said. “I have to see this self-assembly Gate in operation. Also it would feel like leaving Sharwyn’s people in the lurch if we went home now.”
“We came here to explore and maybe establish a trading relationship,” Daniel said, “and there’s still a lot to learn about this place. I want to stay a while longer.”
“I’m good with that,” Jack said. “Sure, we’ll stay on and help you blow this Morag creature away.”
A beaming smile lit up Sharwyn’s face. “Thank you,” she said. “You are true friends.”
“You helped us, we’ll help you,” Jack said. “Diplomacy isn’t exactly my strong point but that’s a principle that’s pretty easy to grasp.” He turned back to face Daniel. “I can see you drifting towards the bookshelves, Daniel,” he said, “but we don’t have time to read. You have five minutes to pick a few books to take with you and then we’re out of here. We’ll take the little girl back to her sister, hand over Aribeth to the law, and let that Captain guy – what was his name, Trascar?”
“Trancar,” Sharwyn corrected him.
“Right. Anyway, we should let him know that we’ve taken out the siege engines, and then head for the castle.” Jack raised a hand and scratched his ear. “So, this Lord Nasher. He’s in charge here, right? The top guy, doesn’t report to anyone, in sole command of the whole place. How come he isn’t a King?”
Jack had a mental picture of what a bar would look like in a place where they used bows and arrows and stabbed each other with swords. Straw on the floor featured heavily, probably a few pigs running around and squealing, the illumination would come from flaming torches in brackets on the walls, the furniture would be crudely hewn trestle tables, and there would be large tankards of ale being quaffed by hairy characters with axes. Pretty much everything about this world so far had confounded his expectations and the Moonstone Mask continued the trend.
The floor was tiled, with a mosaic centerpiece in the form of a stylized domino mask, and the tables were elegant and highly polished. Some had been upended ready to serve as cover for defenders, in the event of the Luskans penetrating this part of the city and attacking the establishment, but those still upright were surrounded by chairs with embroidered upholstery and gilded trim. The room was lit by crystal chandeliers that glowed with their own light, candles being conspicuous by their absence, and the barmaids looked like supermodels. Any hairy ale-quaffing axe-men entering this place would no doubt be politely asked to take their custom elsewhere. The bouncers, hard-faced men wearing steel breastplates and with basket-hilted rapiers slung at their hips, would make sure that the request was taken seriously.
Little Leesa scampered off across the room towards a girl who looked like Michelle Kwan. “Luce! Luce!” Leesa squealed, as the older girl ran to meet her. “I was rescued by heroes and they killed the bad wizards and captured Aribeth and they killed a giant!”
The elder sister picked Leesa up and enfolded her in a hug. “Leesa! I’ve been so worried. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, really.” Leesa wriggled in her sister’s arms. “Daniel gave me some chocolate and Teal’c gave me a piggyback ride.”
“I’m so glad you’re safe.” The beautiful Oriental girl looked over Leesa’s shoulder and smiled at Jack and the others. “Thank you so much. I’m not rich but I can give you five hundred nobles reward…”
Jack opened his mouth to decline any reward, remembered Tomi’s apparently insatiable greed, and hesitated. He didn’t want to offend the little guy.
Sharwyn was less bothered, or else merely knew Tomi better, and spoke up immediately. “We don’t need any reward, Luce. We’re just glad we were in the right place at the right time to save Leesa.”
“Wouldn’t turn down a drink, though, love,” Tomi added. The grin on his face showed that he wasn’t bothered about missing out on a financial reward.
“Of course,” Luce said. “Wine?” Tomi and Daelan accepted the offer; the others declined.
A woman approached the group. She was tall, platinum blonde, and curvaceous. Her gown had a very low neckline, displaying a noteworthy cleavage, and long slits up the sides to show off her legs. Once she drew close, and Jack got a good look at her face, he was able to guess her age as being probably in the mid-forties. She was extremely attractive, and her full lips held a welcoming smile, but there was steel in her eyes.
“Greetings, Sharwyn, Daelan, and Tomi,” she said. “Thank you for returning Luce’s sister. She has been most distressed.”
“Anyone would have done the same,” Sharwyn said. She waved a hand in a gesture encompassing Jack, Daniel, Sam and Teal’c. “My companions Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, Daniel Jackson, and Teal’c. They are strangers in this land but have adopted our cause and are deadly fighters.” She reversed the direction of her gesture. “Meet Ophala Cheldarstorn, owner of the Moonstone Mask, and a mage of no small ability.”
“Retired, and considerably out of practice, alas,” Ophala said. “Ten years ago I’d have been at your side in your missions against the Luskans. Now all that I can do is to defend my own establishment.” Her lips twisted in a grimace. “Luskan infiltrators made it to the Shining Knight forge and killed Marrok.”
“Damn,” Sharwyn said. “He was a craftsman of rare skill. His death is a great loss to Neverwinter.”
“Indeed so,” Ophala said, grimacing again. “You have my condolences for Kenadi.”
“Thanks,” Sharwyn said, her lips tightening. There was a pause for a few moments in which no-one spoke.
Jack broke the silence. “Nice place you have here,” he said.
“Thank you,” Ophala said, “although you see it not at its best. I notice that you bear the stains of recent battle. You are welcome to rest here awhile, if you wish, but I am afraid I cannot offer you beds. All spare space is occupied by casualties from the battle and the girls have had to double up to make room.”
“Now that’s something I’d pay to watch,” Tomi muttered.
“We are not open for business in that sense,” Ophala said. “I can offer drinks and meals only. Would you care to dine? I am afraid that the menu lacks variety, due to the present circumstances, but we are not yet reduced to eating rats. It will be plain food, but well cooked, and there is plenty.”
Jack suddenly realized that the Moonstone Mask wasn’t just a restaurant and bar; it was a brothel. A very expensive and exclusive one, no doubt, but definitely a brothel. The restaurant aspect was far more interesting, however, and hunger pangs struck at the mention of food. General Hammond had sent food along with the weapons and ammunition, and they were amply supplied, but they’d been on the move or in combat almost incessantly since they restocked at the Gate. All he’d managed to find time for, in the past few hours, had been to wolf down a Power Bar on the way through the city.
“Sounds good,” he said, “but I don’t think we have the time.”
“We must inform Captain Trancar that we have destroyed the siege engines,” Sharwyn said, “and then we have business at the castle. Also, I’m almost out of spells and the only way I might get some back is if I can find a scroll of Spell Trap. I don’t suppose you have one you can spare?”
“I can get one for you,” Ophala offered. “Stay and eat, and I shall send to the Cloak Tower for the scroll. There is no need for you to report to Trancar. He is already aware that the catapults are out of action – we all noticed when the bombardment ceased – and you would not find him at the Trade of Blades. I gather that he is leading a sortie into the Docks district. Two Luskan ships sailed in a short time ago and, much to our surprise, attacked their own side from the rear. Trancar is striking to take advantage of this unexpected turn of events.”
“Worshippers of Auril,” Sharwyn deduced. “The priestesses of Auril have probably spread word of the death of Lady Cold Circle and of Maugrim’s true allegiance.”
“That’s a fair guess,” Jack agreed.
“I must admit the thought of food is very tempting,” Sharwyn said. “What think you, Jack? Can we spare the time?”
“My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut,” Tomi chimed in. “I’ll fight a damn sight better if I can get some grub inside me.”
“I also am exceedingly hungry,” Daelan agreed.
“Okay, we’ll take time out for some food,” Jack decided, “and then head on up to the castle.”
The castle was impressive but its defenses were less so. The bowmen on the battlements were few and far between and they were backed up by only a couple of wizards. The mailed men-at-arms manning the gates were also far fewer in number than Jack would have expected. Presumably the garrison had been stripped of men to bolster the forces fighting for control of the rest of the city.
A mere handful of men-at-arms, led by a sergeant, escorted the party into the castle to an audience with Lord Nasher. There were no fanfares, no heralds, and little ceremony. Jack was slightly disappointed; it wasn’t living up to the Hollywood idea of a meeting with someone who was, effectively, a medieval King.
Lord Nasher was a fairly impressive figure at first sight. He wore gilded armor, had a large sword slung at his back, and wore an actual crown; a fairly plain one, little more than a slim gold circlet with four peaks, but a crown nonetheless. On closer inspection Jack noticed that Nasher was going severely bald, what little hair remained was grey, and his heavy mustache seemed to be dragging his face down.
The ruler of Neverwinter was flanked by two attendants. One of them looked like a typical Marine officer, with close-cropped hair and a jutting jaw, although the plate armor and blue surcoat would have been out of place in that role. The other was considerably darker of skin than Teal’c, although not as jet black as Cierre, and had dreadlocks. African-American, Jack might have said, except that the man wasn’t American and, this not being Earth, wasn’t even African either. He wore leather armor and had two short swords belted at his waist. His gaze locked onto Cierre the second she entered the audience chamber and remained fixed on her unwaveringly.
Sharwyn bowed to Lord Nasher, a mere slight bend at the waist and a dip of the head rather than a sweeping formal bow, and spoke. “My Lord,” she said, “we have captured Lady Aribeth and slain Maugrim.”
The Lord nodded. “Worthy deeds, Sharwyn, and you and your fellows deserve great praise, but I fear it is not enough. The spirit of the enemy is not broken and already others have stepped forward from the ranks to assume the leadership of the Luskan army. Some darker power appears to be driving them on and all we can do is hang on and hope that help arrives in time.”
“Or attack that darker power and kick its ass,” Jack said. He had no idea what the protocol was for speaking to the Lord and, frankly, he didn’t care. “That’s where we come in.”
“My Lord, may I introduce Colonel Jack O’Neill,” Sharwyn said, giving another slight bow. “Also his companions Major Samantha Carter, Daniel Jackson, and Teal’c. They have skills and weapons beyond anything we possess in Neverwinter. With their help I believe we can destroy the Old Ones and save Neverwinter.”
“Ah, yes,” Nasher said. “The original owners of the weapons that the Luskans used to slay the defenders at the outer gate and break into the city.”
“We got them back,” Jack pointed out, “and the people who stole them are all dead now.”
“Good,” said Nasher. “I thank you for your aid and welcome you as valuable allies.” He turned his attention back to Sharwyn. “There is, however, another new member of your group whom you have not introduced,” he prompted.
“Cierre of Luruar, a ranger of the North,” Sharwyn said.
Cierre dipped her head in a token bow. “Greetings, Lord Nasher of Neverwinter,” she said.
“Your reputation is well known to us, Cierre,” Nasher said. He stroked his mustache. “It is said that you are a spy for the Drow of Menzoberranzan.”
“Not true,” Cierre replied. “Long ago, perhaps, but I have long since forsworn that allegiance. My life is forfeit if I ever return to the city of my birth.”
“Perhaps,” Nasher said, “but there is one thing that is definitely true. It was you who slew Kenadi Nefret.”
“I did,” Cierre admitted, “but I was tricked into it and I have since done my best to make amends.”
“There can be no making amends for murder,” the black man put in. “Your duty under the law is clear, my Lord. Cierre must be executed.”
Disclaimer: song lyrics in this chapter come from ‘In A Big Country’ by Big Country, ‘Freebird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Return To Innocence’ by Enigma, ‘I Can See For Miles’ by The Who, ‘Spirit Of Radio’ by Rush, and ‘Time Stand Still’ by Rush. Lyrics are used without the permission of the copyright holders and with no intent to profit from their use.