Debt Of Blood
Part 8: Through the Looking Glass
Jack shook his head. “I don’t believe this,” he said. “You want to execute Cierre? Are you out of your mind?”
Lord Nasher merely raised an eyebrow. It was the black man who responded. “She hunted down and slew Kenadi,” he said, a snarl in his voice. “She deserves death.”
“It was a duel, for crying out loud,” Jack pointed out. “Kenadi accepted the challenge and told us to stay out of it. They fought one on one, a fair fight, but Cierre was just a little bit better. And she came out of it with a sword in her gut and nearly died anyway. I don’t know what your laws on dueling are but I bet they don’t say anything about executing the winner. Would you be talking about executing Kenadi if she’d won? I’m thinking that’s a no.”
“Was it even in your jurisdiction?” Daniel asked, his eyes fixed on Lord Nasher. “I remember Kenadi saying we were ‘a league from a fort of Neverwinter’, but she never said anything about us having crossed the border. We might still have been in Luskan territory.”
“My duty to Neverwinter’s citizens does not end at the border,” Lord Nasher pointed out.
“But your responsibility for enforcing the laws of Neverwinter does,” Daniel riposted.
“You know, we don’t have to be here,” Jack said. “We stayed on here so we could kill Maugrim, get back the weapons he stole from us, and do enough damage to the Luskan army to make up for what they did with those weapons. We’ve done all that. It looks like the city’s still in danger, and I’d like to give you a hand, but if you’re going to talk about executing one of my friends I’ll just take my team and go home. It’s your choice.”
Lord Nasher pursed his lips. “I do not appreciate your attempt to put pressure on me. I do, however, recognize your concern for your comrade and I assure you that, in this matter, Aarin Gend does not speak for me. Let me put your minds at rest. I have no intention of taking action against Cierre of Luruar regarding the death of Kenadi Nefret. I will require a full account of the affair for the record, later, but that is all.”
Jack relaxed. “Great. In that case we’ll stick around and help you put an end to this war.”
“My Lord! You cannot mean it,” the black guy, presumably Aarin Gend, protested. “You are betraying Kenadi’s memory. These strangers…”
“Enough!” Lord Nasher cut him off. “The safety of the city is more important than personal feelings. We cannot afford to antagonize valuable allies. Moreover there is truth in their words. Executing Cierre would be unjust as well as counter-productive. Do not mention it again.”
“Very well, my Lord,” Gend said, dipping his head slightly, with resentment thick in his voice.
“Now, Colonel O’Neill – is that the correct title?”
Jack nodded. “That’s right, uh, my Lord.”
“I gather that you think you can strike directly at the one commanding our enemies?”
“It seems better than sitting here waiting for them to come to us,” Jack said. “Maugrim was trying to get into her, uh, pocket dimension so that he could be at her side when she comes out. He reckoned he needed four ‘Words of Power’. We took the one he had and Sharwyn tells me you already have the other three.”
“And what good will they do us?” Lord Nasher asked. “None of our sages have been able to make any sense of the damn things.”
“That’s where we come in,” said Jack, “or at least Daniel and Carter. They’ve worked out how to use them.”
“Oh?” Lord Nasher’s eyebrows, still black despite his grey hair, rose. “And what do they do?”
“Open a… portal, I guess you’d call it,” Sam said, “to the, uh, pocket dimension where Morag is holed up. Maugrim was going to go in and join her. We’ll go instead only, instead of joining her, we’ll kill as many of her soldiers as we can.”
“And blow shi- stuff up,” Jack added. “It’s what we do best. If we can do enough damage, especially if we can kill Morag, we should be able to stop them for good.”
“We just need to find something called the ‘Source Stone’,” Daniel said. “Apparently it’s somewhere in this castle.”
“There is certainly a mysterious stone object in the caverns beneath the dungeons,” Nasher confirmed. “A strange creature, somewhat resembling the lizard-folk, arrived here at mid-morning and rambled on about a Source Stone. I sent men down to investigate and they found the structure it described. The creature claims to know you, Sharwyn.”
“Is it called Haedraline?” Sharwyn asked.
“Sounds like a mouthwash,” Jack muttered, “or a cosmetics brand.”
“Yes, that is its name,” Nasher said. “It does know you, then?”
“I encountered her a couple of times when we were searching for the Words of Power,” Sharwyn said. “She claimed to be an escaped slave, the leader of a rebellion – which had been pretty much crushed, except for her – and that she wants Morag dead as much as we do.”
“And do you believe her?” Nasher asked.
Sharwyn’s shoulders jerked as if she’d started to shrug and then reconsidered. She dipped her head slightly instead. “Not entirely, my Lord,” she said. “I certainly believe that she’s Morag’s enemy. She gave us some useful information that helped us beat Maugrim’s men to one of the Words. As to believing that she’s on our side, well, that’s another story. For all I know she could be another enemy who plans to conquer us herself once Morag’s out of the way. Kenadi…” she faltered slightly, took a deep breath, and then continued, “…was inclined to treat her as an ally until she proved otherwise. As she was intangible it didn’t really make a lot of difference.”
“Intangible?” Lord Nasher, Jack, and Sam all echoed the word at once.
“A projected image,” Sharwyn elaborated. “She could neither touch nor be touched.”
“Hologram?” Sam said to Jack. He nodded.
“Well, the creature is solid now,” Nasher said. “I’ve had it locked up in the dungeons, for the time being, until I could decide what to do with it.”
Jack rubbed his hands together. “An intel source,” he said, grinning. “That’s more like it. I wasn’t looking forward to going in blind.”
Sam half-closed her eyes and directed her gaze at the ceiling. “Hmm, yes,” she muttered.
“If Haedraline was able to come out physically, and not as a mere image,” Sharwyn mused, “it is likely that the way is open for Morag’s army. I think we’re running out of time.”
The dungeons in Castle Never were less austere than the ones in which SG-1 had been incarcerated. Aribeth’s cell had a bed, although it consisted only of a mattress and blankets, a washbasin and a commode. And, most importantly, no-one would be coming round to drag her off to the torture chambers. Her armor had been taken from her and she wore a plain grey gown. Without that incredible spring-loaded breastplate to draw the eye it was actually easier to look her in the face. Jack wondered briefly if the idea of the armor had been to gain a combat advantage but decided that, no, it was vanity.
Sharwyn and Daelan made another appeal to Aribeth through the bars, trying to persuade her to actively return to duty and help them against Morag, but Aribeth turned them down. Apparently she was convinced that Morag had too big a hold over her and, when it came to the crunch, she wouldn’t be able to resist the creature’s influence and would go back to the Dark Side. Jack didn’t take part in the conversation. He didn’t know Aribeth and, from what he had seen of her, he regarded her as over-rated. She might be good with a sword but, unlike Cierre and Daelan, she didn’t seem to have the mental strength to face adversity and keep on going. She’d be a liability in combat, in Jack’s opinion, and he wasn’t at all disappointed at Sharwyn’s failure to get her back on side.
“Colonel O’Neill,” Cierre said, as Jack leaned back against a stone wall and waited for the conversation to finish, “Jack. You spoke of me as a… friend.”
“Well, yeah,” Jack said. “You came to get us out of the torture chambers, when you didn’t have to, and you’ve been a damn good member of the team. Like they say, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’. You’re a friend in my book, for sure.”
Cierre looked down at the floor. “Sharwyn also called me ‘friend’,” she said. “I am… unused to this. In fifteen years no human has called me friend before now.”
“Uh, well, if you live way out in the wilds…” Jack began.
“Even in the town of Nesmé, when I fought with them against an invasion of trolls and saved many lives, I found no friendship,” Cierre interrupted him. “Your declaration is… strangely pleasing. I am glad to call you trusted friend.”
Jack shrugged. “Well, you know how it goes. You wait fifteen years for a friend and then two come along all at once.”
“Three,” Sam put in. “You’re my friend too, Cierre.” She gave Cierre one of her special radiant smiles that always made Jack’s heart leap a little. “You lent me your pants when I needed them, remember?”
“Four,” Teal’c added. “You have the true warrior spirit, Cierre, and I too claim you as a friend and comrade.”
“I’m sure Daniel will make it five,” Jack said, and then noticed that the archaeologist was nowhere to be seen. “Hey, where’s Daniel gone? Is there a library around here I didn’t spot, or statues, or maybe wall carvings?”
When Sharwyn gave up on Aribeth, and the group moved on, they located Daniel. He had gone on ahead, found Haedraline, and was questioning her about her people’s history.
Jack wasn’t interested in the enemy’s history and culture. All he wanted to know was how many of them there were, what they had in the way of weapons and tactics, and the best way to kill them.
He studied the reptilian creature as Daniel continued to talk. She was the height of a man, but skinny, and fully bipedal. Her head was that of a lizard, except that her eyes – red and snakelike – faced forward and gave her fully binocular vision, and she had a forked tongue. And she was green and scaly. Jack wouldn’t have called her a ‘she’ if he hadn’t taken note of Sharwyn using a feminine designation for the reptilian. Haedraline was naked except for a loincloth, and headgear that looked like a towel draped over the back of her head, and nothing about her said ‘female’ to him. Of course she was a reptile and breasts, even nipples, weren’t part of her physiology.
“So,” Jack said, once Daniel’s questioning had slackened off to the point where he was able to get a word in, “how many soldiers does Morag have?”
“She has thirty thousand warriors at her command,” the reptile woman replied.
Jack groaned. Neverwinter couldn’t come remotely close to matching that, even if they put every adult capable of holding a sword into the field, and General Hammond’s offer of an extra couple of SG teams, with heavy weapons, now seemed pitifully inadequate.
“Most still sleep, frozen in time,” Haedraline went on. Jack perked up.
“Stasis chambers,” Sam muttered, “or suspended animation.”
“Queen Morag has awakened her elite bodyguards, and the adepts of her Court, but the great armies are not yet assembled,” Haedraline went on. “She had brought forth perhaps a hundred or so of the common warriors when I escaped her realm. She wakes sixteen at a time, twice each hour, and their numbers grow as you wait.”
“Thirty-two an hour, seven hundred and sixty-eight a day,” Sam calculated. “Thirty-nine days to wake the whole army, I make it, not counting sleeping and eating time. The time-scale’s not as tight as we feared.”
“Each hour we wait means we face more of the enemy,” Sharwyn said, seeing the down side. “I had hoped to sleep, that I might regain my spells, but eight hours’ rest would bring another… two hundred and fifty sarrukh to oppose us. It’s not worth the trade-off. Better to go in as soon as possible. Already, with those who will have been awakened since Haedraline left, we’ll be facing a good three hundred or more.”
“And they could send a thousand through, to establish a bridgehead, a couple of days from now,” Jack added, “and build up from there a hundred at a time.” He briefly considered returning to the SGC to pick up a tactical nuke; that would ruin the lizards’ whole day. Then again he didn’t know what effect it would have on Neverwinter. If the reptile people were indeed in some sort of other dimension it would probably be okay but, on the other hand, their hang-out might just be a subterranean hibernation chamber beneath the city. Dropping Neverwinter into a radioactive crater didn’t seem like a good plan. “I say we hit them as soon as we can,” he decided. “I want to do a little tinkering first, though. I’ve an idea for a nasty little surprise to whittle down their numbers.”
“I think I can rig a remote camera to send through in advance,” Sam said, “to see what we’re up against before we go in.”
“Excellent,” Jack said. “I knew I could count on you, Carter. Haedraline, can you draw me a map of the place where Morag hangs out? Mark the guard posts, barracks, her quarters, that sort of thing?” Carter produced a note-pad and pencil and passed them through the cell bars.
“I can, live-young creature,” the reptile woman agreed. “It will take me a little while to draw it properly.”
“That’s fine,” Jack said. “We have a few things to do before we’ll be ready to go in. I’ll pick it up then.” He turned to the others. “Okay, let’s go back to Nasher. If he can give us a platoon of soldiers, and a wizard or two to back us up, it’ll make things a whole lot easier.” He sighed. “And I can’t believe I just said that I’m requesting back-up from wizards.”
“The battle still rages against the Luskans,” Lord Nasher said. “Now that their siege engines have been silenced, thanks to you, we have the edge and have brought their advance to a halt. If I pull men out to aid you, however, the Luskans will be able to penetrate further into the city.”
“And if we don’t stop the reptile people now you’ll have to deal with thirty thousand of them later,” Jack pointed out. “From what I’ve heard they’re pretty tough customers.”
Nasher nodded. “True. I shall ask for volunteers from among the castle guards.”
“Let me go with them,” the square-jawed knight spoke up. “You have kept me in reserve thus far in the battle and I have had little chance to draw blade in Neverwinter’s service.”
“Very well, Sir Nevalle,” Nasher said, “you may accompany them on this sortie. Perhaps I can spare two or three others from the Neverwinter Nine. To hold my bodyguard back in reserve at such a time of peril serves no purpose.”
“We could use help from the Many-Starred Cloaks, my Lord,” Sharwyn put in. “I am low on spells and there is no time to recover them.”
“Most of them are on the battle lines,” Nasher said, “but I shall summon those not currently engaged. Aarin, and Nevalle, make it so, and call for clerics also. This expeditionary force must be as strong as we can make it.” His heavy eyebrows descended. “I would join you in person, Colonel O’Neill, but I must be here to rally our troops against the Luskans if need arises.”
“That makes sense,” Jack agreed. He had the impression that Nasher really would have joined the mission if his position hadn’t made that inadvisable. Maybe he wasn’t really such a bad old guy. Actually it was a good thing that Nasher wasn’t coming along, as far as Jack was concerned; he wanted to be in command and the Lord’s presence would have made things difficult. It would have been even more awkward if Aarin Gend had been ordered to join in but, thankfully, that wasn’t going to happen. Hopefully the knights and wizards would do as they were told. “One other thing, uh, my Lord. I need some kind of workshop for a little while. I want to prepare a little gift for the lizards. One that they really won’t like at all.”
“My colleagues Sir Damon, Sir Baedil, and Commander Callum,” Sir Nevalle said. The three men named nodded their heads as each was introduced. Damon and Baedil were tall knights, in the same uniform of blue surcoat over chain mail as Sir Nevalle, and Callum was a dwarf. He stood a little over four feet tall but was as broad in the shoulder as an average man. “All three are formidable warriors.”
“That’s good to know,” Jack said.
“Eltoora Sarptyl of the Many-Starred Cloaks,” Sir Nevalle went on, indicating a painfully thin woman whose tawny hair was perhaps just starting to go grey. “Durvur Thoudrym,” he went on, “also of the Many-Starred Cloaks.” This was a man who fitted the traditional wizard stereotype, bearded and wearing a pointy hat, and who held a staff. Both wore cloaks which were, not surprisingly, adorned with a minor galaxy of stars.
“Linu La’Neral, elven priestess,” Sir Nevalle continued. This was the woman Jack had met briefly in the Trade of Blades.
“So, Linu, you have put aside your prejudices,” Sharwyn said.
“It is not prejudice to be unwilling to work with the woman who killed my friend,” Linu said. “In the circumstances, however, I will set my feelings aside.”
Jack wasn’t exactly thrilled by her presence; hostility between members of the expedition could cause problems. A combat medic was a valuable asset, however, and he wasn’t going to object to her coming along.
Sir Nevalle had paused, frowning, during this interchange. He resumed his introductions. “Sumia Kaszul, High Priestess of Talona,” he said. The curl of his top lip as he spoke indicated to Jack that the knight was about as enthusiastic about this priestess as Jack was about Linu. If Jack remembered right Daniel had said something about Talona being a goddess of disease and poison, so the lack of enthusiasm was understandable, but on the other hand Sharwyn had mentioned those priestesses as being the only ones who’d been able to do anything about the plague.
“Well met, Most Debilitating Holiness,” Sharwyn greeted the woman.
“Well met, Songstress of Shar,” Sumia replied. She was an intimidating figure. Her armor was painted black and purple and had spikes sticking out of the shoulder protectors. Part of her face was hidden by the cheek and nasal guards of a helmet but what could be seen was heavily tattooed. She turned her attention to Jack and gave him a surprisingly warm smile. “Well met, Colonel Jack O’Neill,” she said.
“Uh, well met,” Jack replied.
“I am told that you killed Vhonna Truescar,” the priestess said.
“She’d been torturing us for ten days,” Jack said. “That’s really not the way to get on my good side.”
Her smile grew broader. “You have my admiration as well as my gratitude,” she said. “I shall keep you alive, if that is in my power, and together we shall destroy the blasphemers who thought to use disease as their tool.”
“Uh, yeah, we’ll do that,” Jack said.
“I like this not,” Sir Baedil muttered to Sir Nevalle. “First a Drow and now we are to fight alongside a Talontar? What was Nasher thinking of, recruiting a priestess of such black evil to our cause?”
High Priestess Sumia turned a cold gaze on the knight. “And what am I doing fighting for the benefit of those who seized Genna and hanged her when she sought only to aid them?”
“Yours is a noble act and will be remembered,” Sir Nevalle said, “and the killers of your colleague will be punished, to the full extent of the law, if they are caught. Sir Baedil, your comment was uncalled for. It was I, not Lord Nasher, who asked Reverend Sumia to join our mission. Her skills will be of great value.”
“Indeed so,” the woman wizard Eltoora put in. “Our enemies are of the scaled folk and no doubt will, like others of their kin, strike at us with deadly venom. None can counter venom as well as the clerics of Talona.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jack said. “I’m glad to have you along, Most, uh, Debilitating Holiness. As for you, Sir Baedil,” he went on, taking the opportunity to make it clear who was in charge of this mission, “if you don’t want to fight alongside her, well, there’s an easy way around it. You can stay behind.”
“What? You would choose the Talontar over a knight of Neverwinter?”
“Four knights, two priestesses,” Jack said. “Which set has the most redundancy? You do the math. Plus, Cierre and Daelan aren’t exactly amateurs at chopping off limbs. Shape up or ship out. Your choice.”
The knight’s brows lowered and his lips pursed. Before he could speak the dwarf, Callum, pre-empted him.
“Oh, let it drop, Baedil,” the dwarf said. Unlike the dwarves Jack had seen on the Luskan side Callum wasn’t bald; he had a thick shock of light brown hair, kept away from his face by a leather thong, and a beard bound into a single braid with loops of silver wire. “High Priestess Sumia is Neverwinter born and bred, she’s done good work against the plague, and we should think ourselves lucky she’s with us. I tell you, if I was bitten on the arse by a venomous lizard, and I had a choice between you sucking out the poison or her doing a proper Neutralize Poison spell, I know which one I’d choose.”
Baedil’s frown grew even deeper and he heaved a sigh. “Very well, then, I shall… accept her presence.”
“Good,” Jack said. He turned back to Sir Nevalle. “So, is this everybody?”
“Not quite,” Nevalle answered. “Nine men-at-arms and two sergeants volunteered. We also have a thief, awaiting trial for looting, to whom Lord Nasher has offered freedom and a pardon in exchange for joining our expedition. They await us in the cavern beyond the dungeons. That is where Neverwinter’s leading archaeologist, Master Ford, has discovered what we believe is the ‘Source Stone’ of which you speak.”
The name immediately took Jack’s mind to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. “Master Ford, huh? Does he use a bullwhip and is he scared of snakes?”
Creases appeared on Nevalle’s forehead. “I am not aware of him ever using a bullwhip. It would not surprise me if he was scared of snakes but I have no certain knowledge. Why?”
“Oh, no reason, the name just reminded me of someone,” Jack said. “Well, if there’s an archaeologist down there, that tells me where we’ll find Daniel. That means we’re just waiting for Carter to finish making her gadget.”
“It’s done, sir,” Sam said from behind him. “I take it you’ve finished yours?”
“All finished and as lethal as anyone could want,” Jack said. “Right, let’s get this show on the road.”
Master Ford was no Indiana Jones. He wore leather pants, presumably to protect his legs as he grubbed in the dirt for artifacts, but there was no bullwhip hanging at his belt. He was past middle age, obviously an academic rather than a swashbuckling adventurer type, and the Amish-style beard that adorned his chin was heavily streaked with grey.
Daniel, of course, was deep in conversation with him. Jack broke in at the first opportunity.
“So, Daniel, have you learned anything useful?”
“Not much,” Daniel admitted. “No-one in the castle knew anything about the Source Stone. A stranger turned up and claimed he was an archaeologist researching the Illefarn Empire. They allowed him access to these caverns – Master Ford’s predecessor had checked them out years ago and found nothing, so they didn’t think it mattered – and they never saw him again.”
“Maugrim,” Jack said.
“Almost certainly,” Daniel agreed. “There’s a chasm down here, over that way a little,” he said, indicating the direction with a jerk of his thumb, “and they took it for granted that the stranger had fallen into it. The plague broke out around that time, cutting short the attempts to find his body, and it was pretty much forgotten about until Haedraline turned up. That’s when Lord Nasher sent Master Ford down here and he found the concealed entrance.”
“Indeed so,” Master Ford said. “It was not too hard to find and I am surprised Master Buinon did not discover it back when I was his student.”
“It would have been hidden by the dust of ten thousand years,” Daniel said. “Once it had been opened that will have all fallen out of the cracks.”
“Of course, of course,” Master Ford said. “There was surprisingly little dust and debris within the chamber. It took very little effort to expose and clean up the artifact within. How it operates, however, is quite beyond me.”
“That’s where we come in,” Sam put in. “Show us to the Source Stone, if you would, Master Ford.”
“Certainly, certainly,” the archaeologist said. “This way.” He led them through a hole in the rock face, high enough that no-one other than Daelan needed to stoop and broad enough for two people to go through at a time, and into a vaulted chamber about the size of the SGC Gate room. Four man-high stone pillars stood in a line across the middle of the room. Beyond them tracks of gleaming metal ran across the floor, spiraling in from the pillars to join a Gate-sized ring set into the ground, and also connected to four curved poles resembling street lights. On the far side of the circle a twenty-foot obelisk of black stone towered over everything else.
Jack hardly spared it a glance. His attention was seized by something completely different.
Someone, rather. The eleven volunteer soldiers, ordinary guards in chain-mail, were standing to attention just short of the four pillars. With them was a figure who was, no doubt, the thief who had been pressed into service. It was that thief who caused Jack’s eyebrows to shoot up to stratospheric levels.
He had, perhaps chauvinistically, been expecting the thief to be a male. Possibly one of the same diminutive race as Tomi. Nope. The thief was a teenage girl. At a rough guess he’d put her at sixteen. Unexpected, certainly, but that in itself wouldn’t have caused him more than a second’s surprise. What had riveted his gaze to the girl was her horns and her tail.
“What the Hell?” he muttered.
“Fascinating,” Daniel murmured.
“Yes, isn’t it?” Sam agreed. “A static, one-address, Gate. The metal lines on the floor must be super-conductor connectors.”
“Okay, check it out,” Jack ordered. Sam moved off, followed by Daniel, and Jack deduced that Daniel’s comment had also been about the unconventional Gate rather than the extremely strange girl. Sometimes those two baffled him.
“Sharwyn,” Jack said, turning to his primary source of information about this planet, “that girl… has a tail. And horns. What is she?”
“A tiefling,” Sharwyn explained, “part human, part demon or devil. She probably has a demon grandparent. They’re pretty rare.”
“You mean demons like that big red guy Egeria killed? I’m not surprised they’re rare,” Jack said.
“Demons and devils are not all big and ugly,” Sharwyn said, “and they excel at tempting mortals. Remember the succubus that we saw in the Host Tower? She would not have found it hard to tempt a man such as my ex-husband.”
“Was that what happened?” Jack asked.
“No.” Sharwyn’s reply was curt and her tone definitely discouraged further questions along those lines.
“She’s very young,” Jack commented, going back to the subject of the girl thief. “I’m not wild about taking a kid into a battle situation.”
“It was only her youth that saved her from summary execution,” Sir Nevalle pointed out. “If she does not accompany us then she will be returned to her cell to face trial. Looting in time of war is a serious crime. She could still face the death penalty although most probably it will be some lesser punishment. Flogging, perhaps, or banishment.”
Jack wondered how many legitimate avenues of making a living had been open to a sixteen-year-old girl in a city under siege, recently ravaged by plague, and didn’t come up with many acceptable answers. “It seems to me your criminal justice system is pretty harsh. I don’t see the point of taking her along if it’s just to get her killed without you having to bother with a trial.”
Sir Nevalle gave him a tight smile. “I think you misunderstand. She is not some mere urchin caught stealing bread – we do not class such petty thefts as looting, and Lord Nasher is merciful toward those forced to steal to survive. No, she was caught exiting a mansion, deserted but heavily warded and trapped, with thirty thousand nobles’ worth of antiquities and gems. I doubt she is a match for your halfling companion, few are, but she is accomplished enough at the crafts of the rogue to be of value to us. An extra pair of skilled eyes to spot traps and pitfalls is not to be spurned.”
“Okay, if she’s a professional that’s different,” Jack conceded. He turned his attention to the soldiers. “Your guardsmen look like professionals too,” he said, “but just how good are they? I’ve seen Daelan and Cierre go through the Luskan equivalents of these guys like they were mowing grass.”
“They are soldiers of Neverwinter, staunch and true,” Nevalle declared. “None finer.”
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Jack said. “Their job is to make sure nobody gets up close and personal with the wizards, okay?”
Nevalle nodded. “Certainly. Sound tactics indeed.” He moved on to introduce the soldiers to Jack and the others.
Jack did his best to memorize the names of the Neverwinter guardsmen – and to keep from thinking of them as ‘Redshirts’ – but doubted if he’d be able to keep track of which one was which once they got into action. There was nothing about any of them that really stood out. For that matter he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell Sir Damon and Sir Baedil of the Neverwinter Nine knights apart if Sir Baedil hadn’t acted like an asshole about the scary priestess lady. It wasn’t as if they had distinguishing marks like… horns and a tail.
“This is so exciting,” the teenager was saying. “Going on an adventure with four of the actual Neverwinter Nine, and four of the companions of the Hero of Neverwinter, and, uh…” Her eyes flicked towards Cierre and then away again.
Jack saw Cierre’s fists clench and her head dip until she was staring at the ground. She said something under her breath; Jack thought it was “…and the woman who killed her,” but he didn’t hear it clearly enough to be sure. Sam, who was closer and probably had been able to make out what Cierre had said, raised a hand to Cierre’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“Anyway,” the girl with the horns and tail went on, “it’s a real adventure. Only I don’t have a sword. Give me a sword, guys, pretty please? I need something to protect myself.”
Sir Damon frowned. “You are a criminal serving in lieu of punishment. You have not yet proved you can be trusted with a weapon.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Jack said, “somebody give the girl a sword. If she could be a danger to all of us then you’d never have been able to arrest her in the first place.”
“That is clearly the case,” Teal’c backed Jack. “Now that I have recovered my staff weapon I have no need for this sword. You may have it.”
“Uh, thanks, but it’s way too big for me,” the girl said.
Cierre pulled that amazing bag of hers out of her belt pouch, rummaged in it, and produced a shortsword. “Breath of the Maiden,” she said. “This sword nearly slew me. Take it, child, and if you serve us well you may keep it.”
“Hey, thanks,” the girl said, beaming in delight. “That’s super great. Only, don’t call me ‘child’, okay? I’m nearly seventeen.”
“I am one hundred and thirty-nine years old,” Cierre replied, “and I will call you ‘child’ if I wish. Also I do not know your name.”
Jack’s jaw dropped. She was a year older than Master Bra’tac. No wonder she was so damn good with her sword and axe. She’d had more than a century of practice.
“Oh. I guess that’s fair. I’m Neeshka.”
The scary priestess lady swung her head to face the teenager. “That sword is sacred to my goddess, Neeshka. If you do well I shall endow it with a blessing to increase its enchantment. Betray us, or flee from the foe, and I shall cause it to turn upon you and slay you in writhing agony.”
“Oh, you needn’t worry about that, Ma’am,” Neeshka said. “I won’t let you down.”
“Good,” Jack said. “We’re all going to be counting on each other on this mission.” He pointed at the Gate. “That’s a one-way portal. According to, uh, Haedraline the Gate that leads back to Neverwinter is on the far side of Morag’s HQ. We have to get past her to get to it. So, in other words, we win or we don’t come back.”
“Okay, Carter,” Jack said, “are you going to show us your new toy?”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, sir,” Sam replied. Tomi sniggered and Sharwyn grinned.
“Fair enough,” Jack said. He unwrapped the bundle he was carrying. It was the empty launcher tube from the M136 rocket. “It’s packed with C4, sling bullets, and bits of scrap metal,” he explained, “and the ends are plugged up good and tight. If we have to fall back, pursued by a yelling horde of lizards, we leave this behind and then… boom!”
Sam winced. “That could ruin somebody’s whole day,” she agreed. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it when it goes off.”
“Yeah, ideally we’ll be round a corner and shielded by solid rock,” Jack said. “That’s why it’s wrapped in this cape. Sharwyn tells me it’s totally fireproof. Getting hit by a fireball is bad enough on its own, and if it set off this thing…”
“I don’t even want to think about it,” Sam said. “Uh, sir, what about lightning bolts? Wouldn’t one set off the detonators?”
“It’s an enclosed environment,” Jack said. “How could we be struck by lightning?”
“Wizards, sir,” Sam said. “They can shoot lightning bolts as well as fireballs. That’s what Sharwyn told me, anyway.”
“Didn’t you know, Jack?” Sharwyn said. “It’s not a spell I use often, because in confined spaces the bolts can rebound and hit you, but some mages like it. Gedlee’s Electric Loop is less dangerous to the user, although not as powerful, but Chain Lightning is the best.”
“Crap,” Jack said. “I saw one of Maugrim’s guys hit Daelan with an electric shock, back when we were captured, and I’d forgotten all about it. I need something to protect this from lightning or else they won’t find enough of us to bury.”
“I don’t fully understand what you are talking about,” the lady wizard put in, “but if you need something to shield that object from lightning I can certainly provide it. As long as you return it to me when it is no longer required.”
“Thanks, uh, Eltoora,” Jack said, managing to dredge up her name from the recesses of his brain after narrowly avoiding calling her ‘Uhura’. “That could be a life-saver.”
Eltoora produced a cloak from out of a pouch which didn’t look big enough to contain anything much larger than a cell-phone. “A Cloak of Reflection,” she said. “It will reflect any bolt of electricity back to whence it came. Well, that’s not strictly correct, as the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, and it won’t be presenting a flat perpendicular surface…”
Somehow Jack stopped himself from starting to bang his head against one of the stone pillars. It seemed that even wizards could be terminally boring science geeks. “Thanks a lot,” he interrupted, taking the cloak. “Carter, let’s see your gadget now.”
“It’s the best I could improvise to act as a MALP replacement,” Sam explained. “I had to make sure the camera didn’t end up laying flat on the floor and this is what I came up with.”
Jack stared at the egg-shaped device. “You made a… Weeble?”
“I suppose I did, sir. It wobbles, but it won’t fall down. Whichever way it lands it’ll roll so that the cameras are uppermost.”
“Nice work. As long as it’ll transmit back through the Gate.”
“Oh, it will. You can count on it, sir.”
“We’ll try it out in a few minutes,” Jack said. “If it shows two hundred lizards standing around the other end of the Gate, waving swords, then we’re sending my little toy through first. Otherwise Teal’c can carry it. He’s the one with the muscles and the giant strength belt.”
“Indeed that is the case, O’Neill,” Teal’c agreed. “I shall carry the bomb.”
“Before we fire up the Gate there’s something else we need to do,” Jack said. “Tomi, I’m looking at you here. And you, Sharwyn, and Cierre, and you too, Eltoora, and, uh,” he stared at the bearded wizard for several seconds before coming up with his name, “Durvir.”
“That’s ‘Durvur’,” the wizard corrected him.
“Sorry. Durvur. Oh, yeah, and Linu and,” he completely failed to remember the final name and improvised, “Madame High Priestess of Talona.”
The scary priestess seemed quite happy with that appellation. She turned away from Daniel, with whom she had been deep in conversation, and smiled at Jack. “How can we be of service, Colonel O’Neill?”
Jack had to take a deep breath before he could continue. “Magic items,” he said, hardly able to believe that he was saying it in real life and meaning it. “It struck me when Eltoora pulled out that cloak. I guess that most of you have several things tucked away that you’re not using. Well, they don’t do any good when they’re in your bags. Dish them out to the guys who don’t have them.”
The High Priestess nodded. “Of course, Colonel O’Neill. That is sound sense. I am afraid that I have little to offer, only three minor protective rings and an amulet – my church is not wealthy – but I place them all at your disposal.”
Sharwyn flushed scarlet. “I am ashamed,” she said. “I should have thought of this myself, especially after what happened at the Voice of the Lost, and I did not. I am not the leader that Kenadi was. She would have thought of it.”
“Yeah, well, as long as you do it now,” Jack said. Sharwyn began pulling out items of jewelry from various pockets and pouches. Cierre did the same.
“I get them back afterwards, right, boss?” Tomi said, as he opened up a leather bag.
“Sure,” Jack said, nodding. He fixed Linu with a hard stare until she followed suit and then turned his attention to the wizards.
Eltoora met his gaze with a frown. “My items are worth thousands of nobles,” she said. “Who will compensate me if they are lost?”
Jack shrugged. “Take that up with Lord Nasher,” he said. “Those guys,” he waved in the direction of the guardsmen, “are tasked with watching your back. Has it occurred to you that, if one of them gets killed by something that one of your rings could have stopped, he won’t be there to stop you from getting stabbed? You really want that to happen just so you don’t risk your money?”
“It is… not the way we do things,” Eltoora said.
“Then our ways are wrong,” Sharwyn backed Jack up.
“I shall be sure to inform Lord Nasher of your… unstinting cooperation, Eltoora,” Sir Nevalle added, a touch of steel in his voice, “or not, as the case may be.”
“Oh, very well,” Eltoora said. She opened up her pouch again and started pulling things out. That confirmed it, Jack thought. It was another one of those freaking dimensional pocket things. Something even the Asgard couldn’t match and these people regarded them as routine. And yet when it came to weapons they still used siege catapults, and swords, and crossbows – well, and honking big battle robots. It didn’t add up in any way that made sense.
Jack stared at the other wizard until he followed Eltoora’s example. “That’s better,” Jack said. “Okay, dish them out. Make sure everybody gets something useful.” He looked in the direction of the weird Gate. “Including Carter and Daniel. They’re so absorbed in checking out the portal they won’t think to ask for themselves. Then, as soon as everyone’s kitted out, we’re going in.”
Daniel slotted the final Word of Power into the recess in the pillar. At once there was a reaction. The black stone obelisk began to glow and blue streams of coruscating sparks flowed along the paths made by the metal tracks on the floor. The slender poles overlooking the central ring lit up. Wavering bolts of electricity, like those produced by a Van de Graaff generator or a Tesla coil, crackled between their tips and the ring. The ring revolved, changed direction, and revolved again. It locked into place and a ‘kawoosh’, about a third the size of the normal vortex formed when an interstellar Gate activated, shot up vertically into the air. The sparking stopped and the vortex stabilized into a turquoise pool.
“Interesting,” Sam commented. “So that’s what a wormhole to a pocket dimension looks like.”
As this was the only place where’d they’d come across pocket dimensions – Hell, he hadn’t even heard of pocket dimensions before – Jack wasn’t sure that this was really the kind of breakthrough that would pay dividends in the war against the Goa’uld. Then again he’d never pretended to understand the geek stuff; except that you didn’t let Carter or Daniel start talking about it if you wanted to get anything else done.
“Okay, Carter, send your Weeble through,” Jack ordered.
“Sure thing, sir.” She opened up her laptop, waited until the screen showed three wobbly images of the surroundings, and then lobbed the egg-shaped contraption through the event horizon.
The images blanked out briefly and then reappeared, first as static-filled boxes and then as blurs of motion, before eventually stabilizing as jerky but recognizable pictures.
“Right, let’s see what we have,” Sam said.
Daniel and Teal’c peered over her shoulders at the screen. Jack emulated them. Sharwyn took up a position at his side and followed suit. “The vision is small, and not as clear as with a scrying crystal or my spellsinging,” she remarked, “but Clairvoyance would not have worked through a portal.”
Sam brought one of the windows to the front and expanded it. A bipedal reptilian form showed up clearly, in the foreground, with other less distinct shapes behind. “Not as skinny as Haedraline,” Sam commented.
“A sarrukh warrior,” Sharwyn said. “Cierre, Tomi, and I fought them in the ancient ruins. Stronger than the average human, and their skin is as tough as a studded leather brigandine, but by no means unbeatable.”
“Can you get a head count?” Jack asked Sam.
She swapped over to another window. “They seem to be clustering around the arrival point,” she said. “Not hundreds, that’s for sure.” She ran a finger over the touch-pad.
“Wait!” Teal’c broke in. “That one there. Is he wielding… a staff weapon?”
“It sure looks like one,” Jack said. “I didn’t know they had anything like that.”
Sharwyn squinted at the screen. “It does resemble Teal’c’s weapon,” she said, “but I believe it is merely a double-headed dire mace. Fearsome in close combat, especially against chain mail or leather, but that’s all. Some of those we fought in the ruins bore them.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jack said. “If they have long-range weapons it changes things. A lot.” He bent toward the screen. “Any chance of getting a clearer view?”
Sam shook her head. “With a webcam this is the best you’re going to get.”
“Damn. I just can’t be sure.” Jack straightened up. “Haedraline didn’t say anything about them having ranged weapons other than, uh, spells. If it is a staff weapon… we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We can’t wait any longer. Head count, Carter?”
“Just a minute longer, sir.” Sam swapped back and forth between windows. “I count thirteen. I can’t rule out there being a few more out of shot.”
“Sixteen, I’ll bet,” Daniel said. “They have four fingers on each hand. They do things in eights, not tens.”
“That makes sense,” Jack said. “Ready, everybody. We’re going in.” He turned toward the Gate, took out a grenade, and pulled the pin. “We don’t need the bomb for sixteen, but I’d rather step over bodies than jump into a fight,” he said, and he tossed the grenade through the portal.
“Most of them are down,” Sam reported a few seconds later. “One or two are still standing but they look hurt.” She closed the laptop and packed it away.
“Cierre, Daelan, take the lead with me,” Jack ordered. “Finish off any of them still alive. Carter, Sharwyn, give us twenty seconds and then bring everyone else through.” He cocked his P-90 and stepped through the portal with the two deadly close-quarter fighters following at his heels.
“It’s not a staff weapon,” Jack confirmed. “Just a stick with a heavy weight at both ends. I wouldn’t want to get hit with it but at least it doesn’t shoot energy blasts.” He dropped the weapon on top of the corpse of its owner.
Sharwyn nodded. “A dire mace, as I said.”
Cierre withdrew her sword from the body of a sarrukh, wiped blood from the blade, and slid it home into its scabbard. “This cavern is almost like home,” she said. Her lips twitched into a smile. “Except that here I am with friends.”
Sam and Daniel were staring at a stone column. Sam flicked on the flashlight mounted on her P-90 and shone the beam on the rock. Or perhaps not rock, as it turned out to be semi-transparent; some sort of crystal. The light penetrated it and lit up something inside.
One of the humanoid lizards.
“So that’s how they’re stored,” Daniel said. He played his light over other columns and the dim shapes of other frozen creatures were revealed. “Fascinating. I wonder how they wake up and get out.”
“They don’t,” Jack said. “That’s the whole point of us being here, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I was speaking theoretically, Jack.”
“It is an interesting technique,” Sam said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. In suspended animation for thirty thousand years. It’s… incredible.”
“And not useful, not when we have Stargates and FTL ships,” Jack said, “so forget about it. Both of you. We’re here to bury these guys, not to raise them.”
“There could still be circumstances…” Sam began.
Teal’c’s voice cut her off. “O’Neill! They come!” A shot from his staff flared brightly in the dim light of the cavern. A sarrukh warrior staggered out of the adjoining corridor and collapsed. A wave of living sarrukh, maybe twenty or so, rushed out in its wake.
“I thought the noise might bring company,” Jack said. He raised his P-90 to his shoulder, as did Sam and Daniel, but the Neverwinter knights ruined his plans.
“For Neverwinter!” Sir Damon shouted, charging to the attack. Sir Baedil went with him, uttering the same war cry, and Sir Nevalle was only a step behind.
The dwarf, Callum, shook his head, muttered something that might have been “Idiots,” and then followed.
“For crying out loud,” Jack groaned. “You’re blocking our line of fire!”
“Foolish males,” Cierre said. She took her bow from her shoulder, bent it, and slipped the string into place. “Our advantage is at a distance and they throw it away.”
The knights reached the oncoming reptilians. Swords clashed on sarrukh blades. Dire maces swung and glanced from shields. Sir Damon thrust his sword through the belly of one of the sarrukh. As he began to withdraw the blade his shield-arm was seized and pulled aside. Fanged jaws gaped wide, lunged forward, and bit down on his bicep. The chain-mail saved him from having the muscle ripped away but fangs penetrated the gaps in the links and pierced his flesh. He grimaced, lashed out with his sword and slew his assailant, but then fell to his knees gasping for breath and clutching at his throat.
The castle guardsmen instinctively started forward to join the knights. “Hold it!” Jack growled. “Your post is here. Stay with the wizards!” They obeyed.
Sir Nevalle, his sword red to the hilt with sarrukh blood, reeled back under the impact of a blow. A sarrukh followed up, dire mace raised to smite, but Callum stabbed up into its groin with his short-sword and the reptilian went down in a welter of gore. A mace descended on Sir Baedil’s helm and shattered his skull. More blows thudded home as Baedil went down.
Jack squeezed off a single shot and drilled one of the sarrukh, who had been about to finish off Sir Damon, between the eyes. “Get the Hell out of the way, Nevalle!” he yelled.
“He’s right,” Callum agreed. He grabbed hold of the injured Sir Damon and began to drag him away. “Come on, Nevalle, help me with this damn fool.”
Cierre loosed an arrow that passed a foot over Callum’s head and hit an onrushing sarrukh. A crackling bolt of energy shot forth from Eltoora Sarptyl’s fingers, streaked toward the melee, and struck one of the foe. The target reeled, fell to the ground, and writhed in obvious agony. The energy leapt to the next sarrukh, with the same result, and then to another and yet another. Two of the victims clambered to their feet and returned to the fight. The others shuddered from head to foot, jerked convulsively, and then lay still.
Sam saw an opening and let loose with a burst that dropped two of the enemy. Teal’c unleashed a blast from his staff weapon that tore a sarrukh’s arm off at the shoulder. Daniel, perhaps less certain of his aim, held his fire.
Jack took four quick steps to the left and the knights were no longer in his way. He aimed low and opened up on full auto. He chopped the legs out from under three of the sarrukh and they fell into the hail of fire. Callum and Nevalle, no longer under direct attack, were able to carry Sir Damon away at speed.
Daniel’s P-90 began to chatter. Sam fired three more short bursts, dropping a sarrukh with each one, and Teal’c blew apart one in the middle of what seemed to be the gestures of spell-casting.
And then all the sarrukh were down and motionless.
All of that squad, anyway. More could turn up at any time. Jack glanced at Sir Damon. The knight’s face was swelling up and changing color ominously. His lips were turning blue and his breathing was a choking rasp. “Carter, Teal’c, Cierre, Tomi,” Jack ordered, “guard that entrance. Oh, and if any of the lizards are still alive...” He really didn’t want one of the bodies coming to life and biting someone in the leg with those venomous fangs.
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. “Of course, Colonel,” Cierre said. She exchanged her bow for her sword and headed for the corpses. Tomi was already holding his dagger. He grinned, nodded, and followed Cierre.
Jack turned back to the poisoned knight and saw that the scary priestess had gone to his side and was bending over him. “Linu,” he said to the other priestess, “see if there’s anything you can do for Baedil. Daelan, go with her.” They obeyed.
The tattooed priestess gave Sir Damon a quick examination, pulling back his eyelids and peering into his eyes, looking into his mouth, and placing her fingers against his throat. “Mmm, this is… oddly satisfying,” she remarked. “Not as much so as if it had been the other one, the rude knight, but not bad.” She folded her right thumb and pinky finger against her palm, inverted her hand, and touched Sir Damon under the chin with the other three fingers. “Talona’s Blessing be upon you,” she said, and her hand glowed orange for a couple of seconds.
Sir Damon, who had looked as if he was about to die at any moment, sat up. His face was once more a healthy shade of tanned pink. He gasped in a long breath. “Thank you!” he said.
“Thank Talona,” Sumia responded. “I am merely her instrument. Although,” she added, “if I hadn’t been here to be her instrument you’d have been dead inside two minutes.”
“Then thank you, and thank your goddess,” Sir Damon said.
“I gave you an extra benefit. You’ll be immune to all poisons and diseases for the next three hours,” the priestess informed him, and then she turned to face Jack. “Colonel O’Neill, perhaps I should cast the same spell upon you? I feel that it is in all our interests to maximize your chance of survival. With these… impetuous ones in command we’d all be dead already.”
“Can you do it for everybody?” Jack asked.
Sumia shook her head. “I have an unlimited number of normal cures but only two more Blessings of Talona. Of course I am totally immune to venom myself.”
“I don’t like getting special treatment,” Jack said. “Sharing the same dangers as everyone else keeps me sharp.”
“You being put out of action for a few minutes could mean the difference between victory and defeat,” Sharwyn said. “Take up her offer, Jack.”
Jack pursed his lips as he considered. “Okay, go ahead,” he said. He would have liked to request that Sumia gave the other… blessing… to Sam, or maybe Daniel, but he didn’t want to appear to be playing favorites.
The tattooed woman stood in front of him, shaped her hand into the same formation as she had used to cast the spell upon Damon, and pressed her fingers into the flesh under Jack’s jaw. “Talona’s Blessing be upon you,” she said again. Her fingers were hot on his skin and Jack felt a warm glow emanating from them and spreading through his whole body. “It is done,” the priestess said. “For the next three hours no venom can affect you.”
“Thanks,” Jack said, “but forgive me if I don’t go sticking my hand in the mouth of one of those sarrukh to test it out.” He turned his attention to the recipient of her first cure. “Hey, Sir Damon, are you fit to fight now?”
“I am,” the knight confirmed.
Jack narrowed his eyes and gave Damon a hard stare. “And you’ll stick to the battle plan next time? And you, Nevalle?” He didn’t mention Callum; he was pretty sure the dwarf had only gone with the others to try to save them from their own stupidity.
“I will.” Damon averted his eyes.
“I acted rashly, I know,” Nevalle said, “but it is how we are trained. Closing with the foe as fast as possible is good tactics against spellcasters and we are accustomed to being first into the fight. When Baedil and Damon charged I went with them by reflex.”
“And got in the way,” Jack said. “Don’t do it again. Let the bullets and arrows be first into the fight. That’s what they’re for. Some of the enemy will get through soon enough. That’s the time for swords. Right?”
“Indeed so,” Nevalle agreed. “I shall not make the same mistake again.”
Jack didn’t belabor the point. “Linu,” he said, turning away. “Any luck with Baedil?”
She and Daelan were heading back to the main group. Daelan carried Baedil’s limp form in his arms. “I can do nothing for him,” Linu reported. “Not even Raise him from the dead.”
“I can do Resurrection,” Sumia said, “and it would please me to have that ill-mannered one in my debt.”
“I too can perform Resurrection,” Linu said, “but I have to have something to work with.” Daelan laid the body down. “See for yourself,” Linu said.
Sumia looked. Jack followed her example and wished he hadn’t. Baedil’s skull had been pulverized and there wasn’t a lot left of the head above the ears. Most of the brain seemed to be missing.
“Heads that are empty, brains on the floor,” Sharwyn recited, her face seeming in the dim light to have acquired a greenish tinge. “Can’t take any more…”
“I see what you mean,” Sumia said. “I could raise him as a zombie but that’s all.” She turned to Nevalle and Damon, both of whom were drawing in breaths to speak, and shook her head. “Don’t worry, I won’t. It would serve no purpose.”
“We don’t leave anyone behind,” Jack said, “not even dead. We take him with us.”
“I have an empty Bag of Holding,” Eltoora Sarptyl said, “as you have forced me to disburse my magical items. We can put him in there.”
“Do it,” Jack said, “and then we’re out of here. This place is easy to defend, with there only being one way in, but if we stay and let them come to us then eventually they’ll hit us with so many that they’ll get past the guns. And if Morag is thawing out thirty-two more of them every hour time is on her side. We move on or we die.”
Disclaimer: song lyrics quoted by Sharwyn in this chapter come from ‘Days of No Trust’ by Magnum. Lyrics are used without the permission of the copyright holders and with no intent to profit from their use.