Summary: Gibbs and the NCIS Major Case Response Team investigate the brutal murder of a Marine and the trail leads them first to a Congolese immigrant named Cierre LuaLua, working for a secret Air Force project, and then to a deadly, seemingly invulnerable, assassin who might be a literal devil. Chapter 9 is 8,550 words, rating 15.
Sorry for the extremely long delay in posting this; I had intended to wrap everything up in an Epilogue but, when I started to write it, I found that it was going to be very much longer than any other chapter. I spent months fiddling with it, trying to cut it down in size, but every time I chopped it I found that I’d been forced to leave out something important, or funny, or interesting. Then – just last week – it occurred to me that TV series often have a double-length Season Finale. I decided to follow that model, scrapped my attempts to shorten it, and immediately found that I was making good progress. So here, at last, is the first half of the Epilogue and the second half should follow very soon. *Added 26/10/15; or, as it turned out, not*
Bodhi materialized in Baator lying flat on the ground. She grimaced, shook her head, and clambered to her feet. She found herself facing the hostile stares of a score of other Erinyes.
The commander of this legion of Erinyes was unlike any other member of the race of she-devils. She was a sultry brunette who stood five feet nine instead of six feet tall, with the curvaceous body of a bikini model rather than the slender super-model figure common to the usual Erinyes, and her wings were white. Rumor had it that she was, in fact, a Fallen Planetar – or perhaps even a Fallen Solar – but it wasn’t a topic she was willing to discuss. And trying to push her on the issue was… discouraged. Often terminally.
“I take it you failed?” Hezebel’s voice was deep, husky, and sensuous.
“Give me a moment, Boss,” Bhodi gasped out. “Getting shot to pieces hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.”
“That’s an answer in itself,” Hezebel said. “Did you, at least, succeed in eliminating any of the targets?”
Bodhi shook her head. “I’m afraid not. They suckered me totally. Our… clients… had compromised one of the opposition and she was leaking information to them. She gave them the time and place of the meeting and I went in armed to the teeth. Except it was a set-up and I found myself opposed by elite warriors in protected positions. I stood no chance.”
Hezebel stared at her for a moment, her face impassive, and then she broke into a smile. This wasn’t necessarily a good sign; Hezebel, like Bodhi herself, found her greatest delight in extreme violence. “The agent, then, was exposed and fed false information. No blame can attach to you,” Hezebel said, and Bodhi relaxed. “The fault is with our clients and they cannot hold us responsible for the failure. And they had already violated the terms of the contract.”
“I used that to pressure Charlotte Mayfield into signing over her soul,” Bodhi said. “She might be a useful recruit, I think, if we let her keep her memory and personality the way I did. Her knowledge of Earth technology, and that of the Goa’uld, could be very valuable. I picked up some from Athena, the Goa’uld parasite they implanted in me, but there wasn’t time to absorb everything and she didn’t reanimate here with me. She’s dead for good and a great deal of the knowledge she had is lost. But Charlotte knows plenty.”
“That’s good,” said Hezebel, “as long as she turns up here reasonably soon. Otherwise the Earth people will have cornered the market.”
“Oh, she won’t live long,” Bodhi assured her. “The Earth law enforcement people are competent and, now the mole is exposed, they’ll be bound to back-track and get to Charlotte. And then either she’ll resist arrest, and Special Agent Gibbs will blow her head off, or her superiors in the Trust will decide she’s a security risk and shut her mouth permanently. Or Cierre will kill her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s here with us inside a ten-day.”
“Excellent,” said Hezebel. “You can consider your… failure… forgiven.”
“Not by me,” Sshinda put in. Now that she was no longer impersonating Bodhi she resembled her only superficially. “You set me up, Bodhi. You got me killed and now I can’t go down to the Prime for a whole century. And I’ll never find out how that magic picture show ended.”
“Yes you will,” Bodhi said. She slipped a hand inside her waistband, pulled out her folded-up Bag of Holding, and opened it up. “I have brought a copy and a portable device on which it can be shown. And there are two sequels and I have both of them. Also I have many other movies, including ones much more violent, that I am sure all of us will enjoy. Just wait until you see ‘Scarface’.”
“In that case,” Sshinda said, “I think I can forgive you.”
“From what I’ve heard Earth devices operate on stored electrical charge,” Hezebel said, “and we have no way of renewing them once the charge runs out.”
Bodhi grinned. “I thought of that,” she said. “The Trust came up with a device that converts our spells into a form the DVD player, and other appliances, can utilize. We can use Shocking Grasp, Gedlee’s Electric Loop, even Lightning Bolt if we’re careful with it. They hope to sell Earth machines on Faerûn once the SGC people are out of the way. And I bullied Charlotte into getting one for me.”
“Excellent,” said Hezebel. “Not that entertainment devices are what the High Command wants but we could well be able to use them to influence mortals.”
“And that’s not all,” Bodhi went on, pulling more items out of her bag. She handed a gift-wrapped package to Hezebel, tucked the Heckler & Koch USP Compact that she’d taken from Charlotte Mayfield into the rear of her waistband, and then produced a bag that bore the legend ‘Secret Pleasures Boutique’. “I’ve brought presents for everyone. Lots of presents!”
“I have brought gifts,” Eilistraee said. She held out an empty hand and a minor cascade of small items poured down onto the table. Large gemstones in settings fastened onto thongs of black leather, resembling the translation amulets SG-1 had acquired on Faerûn, but the colors were different. Most of these gems were green, a few were black, and one was black flecked with white and turquoise – leopard opal, Jack thought, although gems were hardly his area of expertise and he could have been wrong.
“The green ones translate between English and the Common Tongue,” Eilistraee explained. “The black ones between English and Drow. And the one that is black dappled with colors is… special. It has additional enchantments upon it, protections against weapons both kinetic and energy-based, and it is reserved for Akorynrae.”
“Akorynrae?” Jack queried, struggling with the pronunciation.
“It is a Drow name,” said Cierre.
“Indeed so,” Eilistraee said. A sheet of paper fluttered down from her hand. “This is a list of people on Faerûn who might well be interested in working for you, and have the qualities I’d expect you to look for, together with their affiliations and the locations where they can be found. You’ll find Akorynrae in Ust Natha, beneath the Forest of Tethir, far to the south of Neverwinter. She’s less experienced than the other prospects and might need a little bit of an edge to help her survive. But her youthfulness, and that very lack of experience, should mean that she adapts to a new environment quicker than most. Just… take good care of her.”
“We try to take good care of everybody,” Jack said. “Maybe we don’t always succeed… but we try.”
“I know,” said Eilistraee. “We noticed on your first visit to Faerûn. If you weren’t like that we wouldn’t be having this meeting.” She produced another sheet of paper from nowhere and it floated through the air, like a self-propelled paper plane, and touched down in front of Sam. “I think you’ll find this interesting, Colonel Carter.”
Sam stared at the paper. Her eyes widened and she picked the paper up and held it close in front of her face. Her jaw dropped and she snatched up her PDA.
“Watcha got, Carter?” Jack asked. “A prediction of who’s going to win the Super Bowl?”
Sam gave him one of her resigned little smiles. “A little more important than that, sir. It’s an equation that fills a gap in my work on localized sub-spaces. With this I should be able to get a lot closer to re-creating a Bag of Holding. No more need for a constant power source.” She performed a calculation on the PDA. “And no necessity for it to be spherical.”
Sam’s TARDIS spheres already had been immensely useful. Using them meant you could shuttle insane amounts of supplies through the Gate in a single operation. But if they could be any shape… they could replace the fuel tanks on the F-302s and give them eight times the operational range and duration. There would be hundreds of other uses, Jack was sure, but he could think about that later.
“For you, Daniel,” Eilistraee said, “it has to be… books.” Seven thick volumes materialized in front of Daniel. “And for Teal’c – what else but a weapon?”
A black wooden rod about nine inches long, with a silver arrow painted along its length, appeared on the table and rolled across to Teal’c. It didn’t look like much of a weapon – unless you’d been to Faerûn and seen Sharwyn’s telescopic two-bladed sword. Teal’c had, of course, and he picked up the rod, held it out so that it didn’t point at anyone, and said “Grow.”
“Actually the command word is ‘Engorgio’,” Eilistraee informed him.
Teal’c raised one eyebrow and carefully repeated the nonsense syllables. And, just like Sharwyn’s double-sword, the rod extended. It grew to six and a half feet long, the same length as a Ma’Tok staff weapon, and the ends swelled to become formidable-looking spherical bludgeons. It was very similar to one of the weapons the lizard warriors had used in their pocket dimension lair below Neverwinter. Sharwyn had called them ‘dire maces’.
Teal’c stood up, moved away from the table, and twirled the dire mace like a majorette twirling a baton. He changed to a wider grip and went through a few Mastaba moves at incredible speed. It was… intimidating. At close quarters there wouldn’t be a person on Earth, except maybe Cierre wielding Angurvadal, who he couldn’t turn into tenderized steak in a few seconds. Of course a lot of SG-1’s combats weren’t at close quarters, which limited its usefulness, but it was still pretty damn sweet.
Teal’c stopped with the staff upright in front of him. “Indeed this is a fine weapon,” he said. “I thank you, Princess Eilistraee.”
“It’s enchanted to Plus 3 on the Xander Scale,” Eilistraee informed him, “and therefore can damage creatures vulnerable only to magic weapons. Bodhi and her kind, for instance. And it has other functions too. Say the command word ‘Lumos’.”
Teal’c gave the command and the ends of the staff lit up. It was hard to tell how bright the lights were, as the conference room was brightly lit already, but Jack estimated that they’d be equivalent to forty-watt bulbs or thereabouts. Bright enough to light up the surrounding area but not so bright that they’d dazzle you if you looked straight at them. The Jaffa’s Ma’Tok staffs had a light built in, too, but Eilistraee’s version was superior. A better hand-to-hand weapon, judging by Teal’c’s reaction, a better light source… hold on a minute… what else might it be better at?
Eilistraee gave him a radiant smile. “Oh, you’re smart, General O’Neill,” she said. “Shar was right about you. Yes, it can do everything the Jaffa staff weapons can do, and more.” He hadn’t voiced his thoughts out loud so she had to be reading his mind. “Yes, I am,” Eilistraee admitted, “but only surface thoughts. Don’t worry, I’m not peeking at the SGC’s secrets.”
Of course that was what she would say if she was peeking… but she hadn’t needed to say anything at all. And he was already committed to trusting the Bridesmaids. He glanced around at the members of SG-1 to see their reactions to the revelation that Eilistraee could read minds.
Carter’s gaze was fixed on the weapon. Jack guessed that she was preoccupied with trying to work out how the shape-changing worked. Either she hadn’t caught on to the mind-reading, which seemed unlikely given how smart Carter was, or she regarded it as of only minor importance; after all, with worship of Shar spreading through the Free Jaffa like wildfire, the Faerûnian gods already had full access to Goa’uld technology and Carter’s own research, these days, was pretty much concentrated on being able to replicate with technology what Eilistraee probably could do just by twitching her nose.
Teal’c had merely raised one eyebrow. Cierre was almost as hard to read; her face was pretty much expressionless a lot of the time but then, when something stirred strong emotions, she’d suddenly break out into a beaming smile or bare her teeth in a snarl that would intimidate a tiger. At the moment she was wearing her default impassive expression. Certainly she wasn’t showing any sign of being surprised or alarmed.
Daniel… was blushing. Jack grinned. He could make a guess at what Danny had been thinking and, really, he couldn’t blame him. Certainly Eilistraee was extremely beautiful. On the down side she was seven feet tall, probably more powerful than a locomotive, and a goddess. Who could read minds. And perhaps he’d better think about more innocuous topics. Concentrate on Tealc’s new weapon.
“The command word to extinguish the lights is ‘Nox’,” Eilistraee informed Teal’c. “Now, point the end indicated by the arrow at me and give the command ‘Flagrate’.” Teal’c did as she said and a small spot of red light appeared on Eilistraee’s dress at waist height. It was, unmistakably, the red dot of a laser sight.
“The command word for the Disintegrate ray is ‘Reducto’,” Eilistraee went on, “but I would advise against testing it out in here. It wouldn’t do me any harm, of course, but it would ruin my dress.”
“What would it do to, say, one of us?” Jack asked.
“Reduce you to dust,” Eilistraee answered. “Cierre’s magic resistance might save her. She’d have about a one in three chance of survival. Anyone else would be reduced to dust particles about the size of grains of pollen. It can blast a hole ten feet across through a wall of granite blocks ten feet thick.”
Jack nodded. “Right. That's bad,” he said. “Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Eilistraee.”
Daniel grinned. Sam rolled her eyes. Teal’c raised one eyebrow. Cierre’s brow creased briefly and then, a few seconds after the others had reacted, she smiled. “Ghostbusters,” she said. “You would get on well with Agent DiNozzo, General Jack.”
“You are quoting from a popular work of entertainment,” Eilistraee said. “We have few such widely-recognized references. A few books, such as ‘Death of a Sailorman’, and the play ‘Sorcerer’s Bane’, are well enough known that people will quote from them in conversation but only among the educated classes and within fairly limited areas. Literacy is not universal and troupes of actors often re-write plays to their own preferences. Your movies could find a market throughout Faerûn.”
“Distribution might be a problem,” said Jack, “not to mention dubbing them into your languages.”
“Problems are made to be overcome,” Eilistraee said. “I’m sure you’ll work something out. I have one more gift, this time for Cierre.” A wand appeared in her hand and then floated across the table to the Drow member of SG-1. “A Wand of Mending. The command word to clean garments is ‘Scourgify’. To mend them, or repair broken items, say ‘Reparo’.”
“Excellent,” Cierre said. “I thank you, Lady Silverhair.”
“Those command words are from ‘Harry Potter’,” Sam observed.
“Are they? I wouldn’t know,” said Eilistraee. “I didn’t choose them.”
“It had to be someone from Earth,” Sam went on. “Their name?”
“You know, I’m not sure these boots really go with this outfit,” Eilistraee said. “Shar and Egeria said they do but they may just have been being polite.” She stared down at her feet and the red boots changed color to a shade of teal darker than her skirt and top. “What do you think, Colonel Carter?”
Jack recognized evasion when he heard it. If Eilistraee didn’t want to tell them about the Earth people in Faerûn there was no point in trying to push her on the issue. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to offend Eilistraee. Establishing a firm alliance with the Bridesmaids was too important to risk for the sake of what was, after all, little more than curiosity. He caught Sam’s eye and tried to convey to her, non-verbally, that she should drop it.
Sam responded with a fractional nod. “I’m not sure,” she said to Eilistraee. “The red did go with the teal quite well. So does this but it’s… lacking something. I saw some boots recently that…”
Eilistraee nodded and the boots changed again. Now they were patterned like snakeskin, the dark teal mottled with a brighter color that matched the skirt, and with black laces running all the way up the front. Her top changed color as well, now mottled with the same dark teal as the boots, mirroring their pattern. “How does that look?”
Sam looked the goddess up and down. “That’s… perfect,” she said. “They’re just like the pair I saw… you took the image out of my mind, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Eilistraee admitted. “Your visualization was very clear.” She turned to face Jack. “As are the questions that you are posing, in your minds, but have not voiced aloud. I shall answer them shortly, but first there is still one more feature of the dire mace that needs to be explained.”
“Let me guess,” said Jack. “Recharging?”
“That is my thought also, O’Neill,” Teal’c added.
“You are half right,” Eilistraee said. “Are you familiar with ‘Spell Trap’?”
“Yeah, Sharwyn used it to… recharge… herself when she started running low on power for her spell songs,” Jack remembered. “She got us to hold back on shooting the lizard wizards so she could soak up the power from their spells. Is that built into the disintegrator ray?”
“You are correct, General,” said Eilistraee. “The weapon has fifty charges. The length of the silver line along the shaft indicates how many charges remain. When the Spell Trap is activated, by the command word ‘Protego’, it will absorb spells and any energy-based attacks and use them to recharge the Disintegrate function. Be warned, though, it offers no protection at all against physical weapons such as arrows, or bullets, or swords.”
Jack could live with that. It was still far better than anything else man-portable that they had and he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Although it did raise the question of why Eilistraee was giving them such a super-weapon as a free gift. She had to want something in return.
“I had intended to answer Teal’c’s unvoiced question next, but I think I’d better deal with General O’Neill’s thoughts first,” Eilistraee said. She looked at the chair that had been intended for the visitor, but which was far too small for someone seven feet tall, and twitched her nose. The chair grew to the appropriate size and Eilistraee sat down.
“General, I have been fighting a brutal and merciless war for over thirteen thousand years,” Eilistraee went on, “and losing, most of the time, barely holding my own at best. And then, six years ago, everything changed. To paraphrase the Hymn to Vhaeraun, ‘For thirteen thousand years we lived, without hope and without pride; And then they came from Planet Earth, to raise the torch for those who died.’ Now my side is winning, and it is my mother who is clinging on desperately to the last vestiges of her power. But a cornered rat is at its most dangerous – and new foes have arisen. Both in the Realms and in the galaxy outside.”
“Anubis,” Daniel put in.
“The Trust,” said Cierre.
“The warlords who are seizing power as the Goa’uld empire breaks up,” Daniel added. “And Ba’al, maybe.”
“All of the above,” Eilistraee agreed, her use of the expression reminding Jack very much of the way Sharwyn dropped terms learned from Earthmen into her conversation. “Anubis was defeated and humiliated by Shar, and my brother, and inevitably he will seek vengeance. Galactic warlords would seek conquest and loot. Ba’al is unlikely to make any overt attack, he is preoccupied with holding the remains of his empire together, but he might conduct espionage operations or seek allies on Faerûn. That could go horribly wrong. And the Trust would like to obtain Faerûn’s magical treasures any way they can; by trade, by theft, or by force. Already they have visited to carry out a reconnaissance mission.”
Jack had suspected as much but it was useful to have confirmation. With no access to the Stargate the Trust must have used a starship; they might have gone directly to Toril by ship but, as it was 2,700 light years away and that was a two-month round trip at normal Goa’uld hyperdrive speeds, it was more likely they’d gone to a much closer planet and made the rest of the journey by Gate. That meant they would have come out at the Voice of the Lost and there were four cities within a reasonable distance of that Gate. Jack didn’t think the Trust people would have been admitted to Neverwinter, if they’d gone to Rilauven SG-1 would have heard about it when they visited to set up the meeting with the Bridesmaids, and Mirabar was further away and no-one from the SGC had ever been there. That made the likeliest destination… Luskan. And Jack knew what the Luskans would ask for in exchange for healing potions and Bags of Holding.
“Your people have scruples,” Eilistraee went on. “You worry about destabilizing the civilizations with which you make contact. And that’s why we will do business with you; trade with you, permit you to recruit personnel for the SGC, and allow you to travel freely throughout Faerûn. Whereas the Trust can… bite my shiny metal ass. My knowledge of your planet’s history is limited but I do know that your industrialized nations conquered, exploited, and enslaved less advanced peoples. No doubt the Trust would like to do the same on Faerûn.” She gave a short laugh that held little mirth. “They know not what they would face. The Zhentarim, the Shadow Thieves, the Arcane Brotherhood – and Bodhi’s superiors.”
“Surely they’ll have learned their lesson from what happened with Bodhi,” Daniel said. “No doubt they thought they could control her but they soon found out how wrong they were. They’d have to be idiots to risk another disaster like that.”
“They are idiots, Daniel,” Jack said. He’d been thrown for a minute by hearing the Drow goddess quoting from ‘Futurama’ but now he was back on track. “How many stupid stunts have they pulled in the past? They never learn. They keep thinking they can pull off the old buying Manhattan for a string of beads trick even when the aliens they’re dealing with have big honking space guns, or matter transmitters, or invisibility spells and battle robots. I’m almost tempted to let them get on with it, and then laugh myself sick when they end up as playthings for whoever’s taken over from that psycho bitch Vhonna, but too many other people would get hurt in the process. No, we need to stamp on them… hard.”
“NCIS will do that, General Jack,” Cierre said. “The Trust kidnapped the sister of one of their own. Agent Gibbs will wreak a terrible vengeance upon them.”
Gibbs looked down at the papers spread across the desk. “Free Electron Laser Weapon System Project,” he read out. “Intended to be installed as an anti-missile system in the DD-21 class stealth destroyers. A multi-billion-dollar contract. Bids from Raytheon, Boeing… and Farrow-Marshall.”
“And the Farrow-Marshall bid is the lowest,” said Jenny Shephard. “Hardly surprising as they had forced Agent Lee to give them the details of the other two bids.”
“Which is something we can get them for without any need to mention the Stargate, or alien parasites, or devils,” Gibbs said. He rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. I’ll round up the team and we’ll head off to Bethesda.”
“Not today,” Jenny said. “You were up all night and you’ve already been in a gunfight this morning. I want you as sharp as possible when you face Charlotte Mayfield. We can’t risk any slip-ups that might enable her to wriggle out of the charges.”
“She won’t get off,” Gibbs said. “Even if she does beat the rap… Cierre will kill her.”
“Obviously you’re not thinking clearly if you regard that as an acceptable option,” Jenny said. “I want Mayfield dealt with by the law. Not by someone after personal revenge.”
Gibbs grimaced. He’d killed for personal revenge in the past, and he had every sympathy with Cierre wanting revenge for not one but two murdered boyfriends, but he could see Jenny’s point. He’d hate to have to arrest Cierre. “Okay, I’ll hold fire until tomorrow,” he said. “McGee’s still getting information off of the Weatherman’s computers. Some of it’s bound to be relevant. I’ll spend the afternoon going over the paperwork and trying to work out what the Hell we’re going to do about Agent Lee.”
“No,” said Jenny, “you’re taking the afternoon off. That’s an order. You were supposed to be off today anyway, after working the weekend duty, and I want you fresh for tomorrow. Go do your Christmas shopping, work on your boat, catch up on your sleep, whatever, but take a break from work. Tony and Ziva too.”
Gibbs glared at her but Jenny glared back with steely determination in her eyes. She wasn’t going to give in on this and he had no choice but to go along with it. “Oh, all right,” he said. “I’ll take the afternoon off to go shopping. And most of the Christmas presents I buy will be… silver.”
“Lady Silverhair,” Cierre said, “answer my question, I implore you. Why did you keep it secret that it was you who would attend this meeting? Bodhi would have refused to risk confronting you and thus Mike would not have died.”
“I sympathize with your grief, Ice Warrior,” Eilistraee said, “but you do not have all the facts. It is true that Bodhi would have melted before me like snow before a fire, and even she is not arrogant enough to believe otherwise, but she is not the only sword our enemies possess. They would have found someone else. A Lord of Pit Fiends, perhaps. Malkizid the Fallen Solar. Jasmine, who craves dominion over Earth and whose most recent attempt at conquest was frustrated, accidentally, by Bodhi. None of those could have defeated me but there would have been considerable… collateral damage, I believe you call it. The worst case scenario would have been if they had managed to summon a god.”
Jack couldn’t help visualizing Gozer the Gozerian. Of course there’d been plenty of collateral damage from the rampaging Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, although no on-screen deaths as it was a family movie, and the thought of it happening in real life was… disturbing.
“I am not totally familiar with your ‘superheroes’, but I have picked up a little knowledge from one of the Earth people,” Eilistraee said, “and the appropriate image would, I believe, be The Mighty Thor versus the Incredible Hulk. I would not wish to bring such… carnage upon your capital city. After all, in the words of Spiderman, with great power must come great responsibility.”
Superheroes. That was a clue to the identities of the Earth people in Faerûn. And she’d mentioned the Xander Scale of enchantment, as Sharwyn had during SG-1’s eventful first trip to Faerûn, which tied in with what they’d found when they’d followed up on Sharwyn’s mentions of ‘Rupert Giles’, ‘Buffy’, and ‘Willow’ and investigated Sunnydale California. Alexander Lavelle Harris, known to be a comic-book enthusiast, and his associates. Including Buffy Anne Summers, who had disappeared – presumed dead – for five months and then, shortly after her return, had legally changed her name to Joan Summers. Then Bodhi had turned up in Sunnydale and put Willow Rosenberg, and Summers’ fiancé Randolph Giles, in the hospital before disappearing again. There was definitely a connection to Faerûn but SG-1 had never figured it out; between other commitments, and the fact that Sunnydale was possibly the most dangerous place on the planet, they hadn’t been able to investigate in depth. Maybe, with this additional information, they could get further – or maybe it wasn’t worth the risk.
But that was a matter for another time. Jack returned his attention to Eilistraee and found that she was speaking to Teal’c. Apparently he had been wondering about the differences between false gods and real ones and, in particular, what made Eilistraee a real goddess. That was the sort of question that would have a Goa’uld reaching for his kara kesh and pain stick but, of course, they were faking godhood and were terrified of anyone seeing through their deceptions. Whereas Eilistraee certainly seemed to be the real thing and, if she wasn’t, she was doing a much better job of faking it. She just smiled and answered the question.
Apparently Ascension was more complicated than the Ancients thought. There were multiple levels, like rungs on a ladder, and you couldn’t reach the topmost rungs without interacting with mortals. The Ascended Ancients, who had a strict policy of non-interference and tended to come down hard on those like Oma Desala and Orlin who did get involved, consequently were stuck half-way up the ladder and would never get any higher. To reach the highest levels, and become what in Faerûn was termed a god, you needed mortal worshippers.
Perhaps, Jack speculated, that was why the Goa’uld had their god complex and compelled their subjects to worship them; although, as Eilistraee explained, it would do them no good whatsoever as only Ascended beings could benefit from worship.
Daniel was listening with rapt attention; Sam, too. Some of what Eilistraee told them duplicated things they’d already heard from Cierre, or was covered in books Daniel had found in Faerûn, but hearing it in a context that included the Ascended Ancients put a new perspective on the knowledge. Teal’c’s face was impassive, only an occasional nod or raised eyebrow indicating when he found something pleasing or surprising, until Eilistraee informed him that she would not seek to recruit him as a worshipper.
Teal’c’s eyebrow ascended high enough to attract the attention of the Ancients. “In what way am I not worthy?” he asked, sounding somewhat aggrieved.
“Would I have given you the dire-mace of destruction if I thought you unworthy?” Eilistraee responded. “I meant only to make it clear that we of the Bridesmaids are not like the Goa’uld. We desire only worshippers whose beliefs and interests are in harmony with our ideals and the concepts we represent. I am the goddess of female Drow, sword-fighting, moonlight, and of dance. You are male, and though you are a skilled warrior the sword is not your weapon… and you don’t dance and if you don’t dance, well, you’re no… worshipper… of mine.”
By this time a goddess quoting from ‘The Safety Dance’ seemed almost normal to Jack. He was more surprised at the idea of a deity not trying to grab as many worshippers as she could.
“In fact I’m not sure any of the other Bridesmaids would be suitable as your patron deity,” Eilistraee went on. “You’re not a mage, or a ranger, a medic, a professional pirate, or a party animal. I suppose Eldath might accept you, as you fight only to protect others, but really I think the best fit for you would be Shar. You have suffered loss, as have many of your people, and would find solace in her worship.”
“I will… consider it,” said Teal’c.
Eilistraee nodded. “Two of the names on the list of possible recruits are Darkcloaks of Shar,” she said. “Have a word with them, once you have found them, and see what you think.”
“I shall do so, Princess Eilistraee,” Teal’c said.
“It might take a while,” Jack said, scanning the list. “One of them is in Baldur’s Gate, which is a long ways south from the Voice of the Lost, and the other is in Westgate. That’s way over to the south-east, if I remember right, a couple of thousand miles or more. I can’t see us getting that far any time soon.”
“Will this help?” Eilistraee said. Another sheet of paper appeared from nowhere and hovered in front of Jack. Even before he took hold of it he was fairly sure he knew what it was.
“Dialing codes for local Gates, right?” A closer look confirmed that his deduction was correct. “Sweet.”
“They’re not all conveniently sited,” Eilistraee warned. “One of them is thirty miles from where you would want to be, and a couple of them come out in places that are moderately dangerous, but nothing you can’t handle.”
“Better thirty than two thousand,” Jack said. “Thank you, Princess.”
“Two thousand miles… is very far, in the snow,” Eilistraee said.
Jack knew that one. “It must be Christmas time,” he responded. “That reminds me. Carter planned to take the representative from the Bridesmaids for a shopping trip. It would be a good idea except that we didn’t figure on it being you. No offense, but you being seven feet tall would attract a whole lot of attention in the shopping district. Not to mention the pointy ears and the hair.”
“My physical form is not fixed,” Eilistraee told him, smiling, and she… transformed. Now she was five feet nine, the same height as Cierre and Carter, and her skin color changed to a brown hue only a little darker than that of Teal’c. Her waist-length silver hair became black, wavy, and cropped to about the same length as Sam’s short bob. This revealed her ears clearly but their points had gone and they were now the same shape as those of a human. Her skirt and top changed size to match her body and, rather to Jack’s relief, so did the chair on which she sat. He had been a little worried in case she left it giant-size when she departed; not many seven-footers joined the military, the NBA being a much more profitable career option, and the super-size chair would have been redundant except as an object of wonder and gossip.
“Now that’s a neat trick,” Jack remarked, wondering if it was an illusion or if she had physically changed shape and size.
Eilistraee grinned at him. “If you think this is something you should see the one where I change into a giant spider,” she said. “Or a snake.”
“I think I’ll pass on that,” Jack said. “I don’t like spiders and snakes.” His brow furrowed slightly. “You actually want to go shopping? When you can just, you know, conjure up anything you want?”
“To create something one must understand it,” Eilistraee told him. “If I conjured into existence a brand new car it might look like a Jaguar, and have leather seats, and a CD player, but it would have no internal combustion engine and the CD player would be merely a shell that would not function. And if I summoned one from Earth then it would come from the shop of a merchant and he would suffer its loss. My brother might regard that as acceptable… but he is, after all, the god of Thieves. I have a more stringent moral code. But I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
From the rhythm of her voice, and a certain twinkle in her eyes, Jack deduced that Eilistraee was quoting from a song. If so it was not one he knew. “Well, now that you can pass for human, a shopping trip won’t be a problem,” he said.
“I would like that,” said Eilistraee.
“But first, lunch,” Jack said. “Uh, you do eat, right?”
Eilistraee smiled. “It is not a necessity for me,” she said, “but in this physical form I can eat and enjoy it. I would be delighted to partake of Earth food. I am particularly eager to try the Earth delicacy called a ‘Cheeseburger’.”
“I think we can manage that,” Jack said, “although it’s the first time I’ve heard a cheeseburger referred to as a delicacy. And then we’ll take you shopping.” Taking a woman on a shopping trip was something Jack would have dreaded, in normal circumstances, but he didn’t think Eilistraee would make it too much of an ordeal. With her ability to transform things she wouldn’t need to spend hours trying on clothes and he guessed that in fact she’d be much more interested in music and movies. And he had a few ideas along those lines. She was a princess, a Bridesmaid, and the goddess of sword-fighting; he was confident that she’d love ‘The Princess Bride’.
The Erinyes were watching ‘Shrek’ and loving it. Most of them, anyway; a few had departed to try out the sex toys Bhodi had handed out. A barely audible buzzing, coming from in front of the DVD player, indicated that at least one of them was combining both activities.
Hezebel was looking at herself in a full-length mirror. She cupped her hands under her breasts and then stroked down along her sides. “These garments are… delightful,” she said. “More erotic than nudity. Thank you, Bodhi. I am well pleased.” She was wearing a bustier, black with sheer semi-transparent panels, matching thong and garter belt, with stockings and high-heel shoes completing the ensemble. The bustier was low enough at the back not to impede her wings, showed off her impressive breasts to advantage, and the lingerie looked as if it could have been designed for her.
“I knew you’d like the outfit,” Bodhi said. “You look absolutely fucking gorgeous. I haven’t got the tits for something like that myself.”
“It makes me want to have sex and then kill someone,” Hezebel said.
Bodhi laughed. “Admit it, Hezebel, you’re like me. Everything makes you want to have sex and then kill someone. It’s your default state.”
“True,” Hezebel agreed. “Once the… movie… is over I’ll see if I can find a willing male. Or an unwilling one.”
“I can’t imagine any male being un…” Bodhi began, but broke off as a circle of fire flared a few yards away and a massive being stepped through.
Male, certainly, but unlikely to be Hezebel’s first choice of sexual partner. This was a Pit Fiend, twelve feet tall and shrouded in flame, horned and fanged and with huge bat-like wings and a barbed tail. He glared at the two Erinyes.
“Temenos,” Hezebel greeted the fiend, her voice cold and unwelcoming. “To what do we owe the… pleasure of your company?”
“Word of Bodhi’s failure has reached my ears,” Temenos growled. “This is not to be tolerated. You promised me that she would succeed.”
“As I recall, my words were ‘If she can’t do it, no-one can’,” Hezebel replied. “She made a valiant effort but was overcome by superior forces. And she has returned with a contract for a soul and much valuable technological information. I would count that as a win.”
“I would not,” Temenos said. “Our clients are displeased.” He cast a disparaging glance over the crowd of Erinyes clustered around the DVD player. “She may have bought your favor with baubles but I am not so easily bribed. Bodhi will be… disciplined.” His fangs showed as he smiled.
“My decision was that she is blameless,” Hezebel said, “and I made that decision before she presented us with her gifts. She died, and cannot return to the Prime for a century, and I deem that as all the punishment that is necessary. Bodhi is not in your chain of command, Temenos, and I will not tolerate my authority being usurped.”
“The operation was mine,” Temenos replied, “and I will not tolerate failure.” He took a stride toward Bodhi and raised his clawed hands. “She must learn obedience… and submission.”
“We’re fucking Special Forces, lack-wit, we don’t do submission,” Hezebel snapped. “Someone who meekly followed orders without thinking for herself would be useless to me. Back off, Temenos, or I’ll take this higher. Invadiah, Mephasm, all the way up to Glasya if I have to.”
By now all the other Erinyes – except for Sshinda, who was making desperate but unsuccessful attempts to pause the DVD – had turned away from the screen and were watching the confrontation. Several of them were fingering the hilts of weapons, and glaring at Temenos, but not daring to openly take action against the might of a senior Pit Fiend.
Temenos sneered at Hezebel. “Are those names supposed to intimidate me? Invadiah’s rank is no higher than mine, Glasya cares little for the fate of underlings, and Mephasm is contracted to the service of the Still Lord and so has almost no influence.”
“There is a place for those who underestimate Mephasm,” Hezebel said coldly, “and it’s called the grave.”
Temenos ignored her warning and resumed his advance toward Bodhi. She slipped her right hand behind her back as she stood facing him, head raised, her expression proud and unafraid.
“You have spirit, Elf,” Temenos said, “but it will avail you naught. I will teach you to quail before your betters. I’m going to enjoy breaking you.” He reached out with a massive clawed hand, seized Bodhi by the throat, and lifted her from the ground.
“Do you feel lucky, punk?” Bodhi gasped out. She brought her hand out from behind her back, shoved the muzzle of her Heckler & Koch into the fiend’s groin, and pulled the trigger.
Temenos screamed. His grip on Bodhi’s neck released and she dropped to her feet. As Temenos doubled up Bodhi raised the gun, aimed for the head, and fired twice. Temenos jerked and fell forward onto his face. Bodhi had to step aside quickly to avoid being knocked flat by twelve feet and eight hundred pounds of toppling Pit Fiend.
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” Bodhi said, and tucked the gun back into her waistband.
The rest of the Erinyes gathered around the body. “Is he… dead?” asked a red-haired devil named Charylis.
Temenos was motionless except for some spasmodic twitching, only a few feeble flickers of flame remained of his fires, and the back of his skull was a shattered mess. One of his horns had been blown off from the inside.
“It certainly looks that way,” Hezebel said, “but let’s make absolutely certain.” She had set down her sword when she donned the lingerie; now she extended her left arm and summoned her whip. She flicked it out and the lash curled around the sword hilt, pulled it from the scabbard, and brought the sword to her right hand.
Bodhi watched enviously. She couldn’t match that skill with a whip; it was an art at which she lagged behind the other Erinyes. Their other principal weapon, the bow, was another skill at which she’d never been much good. On the other hand she was better with sword or knife than any save for Hezebel herself and her unarmed combat proficiency was unrivalled. And she had a gun.
Hezebel stepped over to the prone body of Temenos, walking a little gingerly on the high heels, and brought her sword down in a vicious chop across the Pit Fiend’s neck. His head came off and rolled away. The last vestiges of his flames died out. “If he wasn’t dead before, he is now,” Hezebel said. “Silver projectiles, I presume?”
“Charlotte Mayfield was worried that I might take her place so that I could stay on Earth, and she had silver bullets made to insure against that eventuality,” Bodhi confirmed. “I found out and confiscated them.”
“How many… bullets… do you have?” Hezebel asked.
“Twenty-five, less the three I’ve just fired,” Bodhi said. “Not enough to do anything like staging a coup.”
“Luckily I’ve no plans along those lines,” Hezebel said. “I could have been promoted centuries ago, if I’d wanted, but it would have meant giving up this body and I have no desire to do that. I like the way I look.” She cast a glance at the one Erinyes who had not rushed over to the dead fiend. “You’d better go and help Sshinda. The poor thing is practically in tears.”
Sshinda’s attempts to pause the DVD had resulted only in exiting Play altogether. She’d restarted it but somehow managed to select ‘Español’ from the menu and ‘Shrek’ was now playing again, from the beginning, dubbed into Spanish. “I don’t understand what it’s saying!” Sshinda wailed. The Comprehend Languages spell that enabled the Erinyes to listen to the DVD had been set for English. “Can you fix it?”
Bhodi exited to Menu, reset the language to English, and went to Scene Selection. “What point had it reached before we were so rudely interrupted?”
“Shrek had quarreled with Fiona and Donkey, and was miserable, and there was a song about tying the singer to a kitchen chair,” Sshinda explained.
“I’ll find it,” Bhodi assured her. She fiddled with the controls for a minute and found the right place.
“I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?”
“Oh, thank you!” Sshinda exclaimed. “I forgive you for getting me killed.” She sat down on the ground and gazed, entranced, at the screen. The rest of the Erinyes gathered around again.
“It’s just as well that we have no missions pending,” Hezebel remarked, “for I doubt that I will get any work out of them for some time.” She glanced down at the corpse of Temenos, which was crumbling away as if decomposing at hundreds of times the natural speed, and then back at the DVD player. “Earth would seem to have much to offer. I had no desire to return to the Prime, after spending three years trapped there bound in the service of Ammon Jerro, but my enthusiasm has been rekindled. I think I would enjoy a visit to Earth.”
Bodhi grinned. Hezebel might enjoy such a visit; the inhabitants of Earth would not, unless they were masochists with a strong death wish. “I’d love to come with you but, alas, that’s impossible for the next century.”
“Perhaps not,” Hezebel said. “There is a rumor that Nyphithys knows a way around the hundred-year limitation. Something to do with her links to the Arcane Brotherhood. I don’t know how true it is, and she’s on a mission to the Silver Marches at the moment and not available to question, but I’ll have a word with her when she returns. If she does know of a feasible loophole then I’ll get it made available to you, and Sshinda, and the girls who were killed by the Knight-Captain and her followers.”
“Thanks, Boss,” Bodhi said, her grin growing broader.
“But in case there is no such loophole, or I have an opportunity to go to Earth before you could accompany me, I want you to teach me all you can about how to act there. Especially,” Hezebel grinned wolfishly, “how to operate a gun.”
“We do not have enough ammunition for marksmanship practice, but I’ll instruct you in the basics,” Bodhi promised. “There is, however, a lot more to learn than that. Even shopping is different. The shops do not accept gold pieces and robbery is not an easy alternative. The people of Earth are far more organized than any society in Faerûn and they have instantaneous communications. I found the most effective way of obtaining local currency was to take it by force from thieves.”
“Are thieves so easy to recognize upon Earth, then?” asked Hezebel.
“If they try to rob me, they’re thieves,” Bodhi said. “I used myself as bait.”
“Bait, and trap, all in one,” Hezebel said. “Perfect. I shall, if the need arises, follow your example.”
“But the most important thing to remember,” Bodhi advised, “is ‘Don’t kill any US Marines or Navy sailors’. That would bring NCIS down upon you and, as I learned to my cost, you don’t want to fuck with Special Agent Gibbs.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Hezebel. “Is he handsome?”
Gibbs was feeling old and tired. He had to admit that maybe Jenny Shephard might have had a point when she insisted he take the afternoon off. If simply walking around a few shops had this much effect on him then indeed he might not have been up to a confrontation with Charlotte Mayfield. On the other hand situations like that were what he lived for, and he had a feeling it would have recharged his batteries rather than draining them; whereas shopping for Christmas presents was something he’d always regarded as an ordeal to be endured.
An ordeal that he could only get through with the aid of coffee and it had been too long since he’d had a cup. It was a long way to his favorite little diner but in Metro DC you were never far from a Starbucks. There was one on the next corner and, as soon as he reached it, he entered. The coffee shop was not busy, the weather being cold enough to deter casual shoppers but not so bad as to drive them to seek warmth and shelter, and Gibbs decided that, rather than get a coffee to go, he’d sit down and take the weight off his feet for a while.
He placed his order and then turned around to cast an eye over the place. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and if he had been holding a coffee cup he would have dropped it.
Two women had followed him into the Starbucks. One appeared to be in her late twenties, thirty maybe, with skin that was so pale that it was almost white. Her hair was jet black and her eyes were purple. The other was younger, early twenties, with equally pale skin but blue eyes and blue hair. She wore tight black leather pants and a matching jacket. Two swords hung at her hips.
Both of the women were seven feet tall and the younger one… had wings.
Gibbs had a horrible feeling that Bodhi’s big sisters had come to get revenge. He still had a magazine of silver bullets, just in case Charlotte Mayfield had summoned up another of Bodhi’s kind to act as a bodyguard, but it was in his pocket and his SIG was loaded with conventional bullets. And, although he had bought two sets of silver pens and propelling pencils, they were in gift-wrapped boxes and impossible to access quickly. If his guess was right then he was in big trouble; the winged girl, in particular, looked strong enough to pull Cierre’s arms and legs off and she had the poise of a martial arts expert. Oddly none of the staff, or the customers, seemed to notice anything at all unusual about the two giants and the barista merely asked for their orders.
“A Latte Grande for me,” said the one without wings. She nodded to Gibbs. “Special Agent Gibbs,” she said. “I am pleased to meet you. We shall join you, if you have no objections.”
“I’ll have the same,” said the other woman.
“Your names?” the barista asked.
The purple-eyed woman turned back toward the counter. “I am Shar.”