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It's (Not) Just a Game

Chapter Text

It all began with five little words. “I'm starting a D&D game.”

Colonel Sheppard looked up from his paperwork. His office was in the usual state it took when he was in residence. The laptop that represented an overflowing inbox of paperwork unfulfilled sat closed on his desk, the screen still stubbornly on. He held a tablet in his hands, one that he could tilt toward his chest in case of curious passerby so no one would see the internet chess game he was in the middle of. McKay knew he was supposed to be working on forms and either didn't care or took pity on him by goading him into game after game over the network. He tilted the tablet now and surreptitiously removed his feet from his desk.

As though Colonel Carter hadn't just walking in and seen it all. And said those five little words.

“A what?” Sheppard asked.

“A Dungeons and Dragons game,” she said. “I think. I'm leaving it up to Dr. Rowan to decide what ruleset we use. I was wondering if you'd like to play.”

“Dungeons and Dragons,” Sheppard said. He'd heard of it before but he'd never... “I've never played it.”

“We're starting at level 1 so that's not an obstacle,” Carter said. “Wait, you never played?”

Sheppard shrugged. He'd never had the opportunity. Imagination wasn't exactly encouraged in his family life and in his experience the Air Force seemed to attract people who used to beat up D&D players in high school. It wasn't something he thought about so it wasn't something he missed.

“You're playing,” Carter said. It almost sounded like an order.

“So what is it?” Sheppard asked.

Carter grinned and sat on the edge of his desk. “You play a character in a story,” she explained. “You don't know the story. You don't know what happens next. Only the Game Master, Dr. Rowan in our case, knows the whole story. Dice add an amount of randomness because luck is always a factor.”

“What kind of story?” Sheppard asked.

“Fantasy. Save the world.”

Sheppard was not impressed. He felt like did that most days. Doing the same on his day off just seemed tedious. “Pass,” he said.

“You don't want to save the world from an evil wizard?” Carter tempted.

“Not big on fairies and unicorns,” Sheppard said.

“Suit yourself,” Carter said ominously. She left without a word.

Sheppard was just about to make his next move, McKay had moved Queen to Queen's Rook 4 and Sheppard had to come up with a proper answer, when his office door opened again. Sheppard hid his annoyance and looked up.

“I can take over,” Lorne offered.

Oh. Oh! That was much less annoying. Now Sheppard could properly trounce McKay from his bedroom.

“What did Colonel Carter want?” Lorne asked.

“Hmm?”

“I saw her in the hallway,” Lorne explained. The logical deduction was implied. “What's up?”

“Oh, she asked me to a Dungeons and Dragons game,” Sheppard said.

“You should join,” Lorne said.

Sheppard felt an eyebrow raise. “What?”

“Yeah, you should join,” Lorne said. “If it's anything like the D&D games SG-1 was supposed to have under the mountain it'll be a riot.”

Sheppard's expression changed to something that generally questioned the sanity of the person in front of him.

“What?” Lorne asked.

“You're serious,” Sheppard realized.

“Absolutely. You should. It'll help you unwind.”

“I'm not wound,” Sheppard muttered. He sat up and felt his back twinge in protest. His eye twitched as the irony hit him. “All right, fine, the thing with the Replicators has me a little... tense. How is killing imaginary dragons in a dungeon going to help?”

“Just try it,” Lorne said. “You'll be surprised.”

*****

Sheppard found his team in the mess hall. McKay and Ronon seemed to be in the middle of some sort of competition, or perhaps McKay was just hungry and Ronon found it amusing to try and out-eat him. That did seem to be happening more than it used to. Sheppard sat next to McKay before it devolved into the both of them growling and trying to steal off of each other's trays. It would inevitably end with Ronon winning and taking all spoils while McKay pouted.

Teyla sat nearby, her tray out of reach of the competitors. Sheppard took the hint and slid his own tray out of their reach before they noticed it. He almost succeeded, only losing a jello cup and a forkful of mashed potatoes.

He cleared his throat. It did nothing to distract the eating frenzy. So he sighed and just said it. “So, um, I won't be able to go camping this Sunday,” Sheppard said.

That stopped the eating. Ronon gave him a suspicious look. “What's up?” he asked. A fork then stabbed into Ronon's tray. Ronon's focus returned to his opponent and he growled, teeth bared, at McKay. McKay answered, shoulders back and fork in hand. Ronon struck, his own fork stabbing into the bulk of what might once have been a salsbury steak and dragging the entire plate away. McKay attempted to defend his tray but was unsuccessful. He sat back with a 'hmph' and held what pudding cups he could salvage. McKay's attempt to look dignified was somewhat lessened by his need for a napkin.

“It is impressive watching them eat,” Teyla said with a distinct tone. Sheppard couldn't tell if she was being diplomatic or sarcastic. “Has something happened, John?”

Sheppard had been looking for some excuse to avoid camping on the mainland, it was true. But this time he had a valid reason. “I was asked to join a... well, a game.”

McKay wiped his face with one hand. Then he wiped his hand with his almost completely neglected napkin. “You're not playing Ancient Civ,” he said.

“I'm not playing Ancient Civ,” Sheppard agreed. Nobody should be playing Ancient Civ. There were real cultures in Ancient Civ. It made the cultural victory disturbing and the economic victory worse. The military victory was just a nice name for 'genocide'. “Carter asked me to play D&D.”

“Dee and dee?” Teyla asked.

“It's a storytelling game,” McKay said as he peeled open one of his salvaged pudding cups. He looked around for a spoon but it was with the rest of his tray in Ronon's possession. Sheppard held out his own spoon in offering. McKay took it. “A bunch of you play characters and someone tells the story.”

“We had those,” Ronon said. “The storyteller was the only one who knew the story. The other players, we called them player-characters, had to decide how to react as events unfolded.”

“Huh,” McKay said. He tried to reach for his tray to steal it back. Ronon slid it out of McKay's reach.

“Was it played by nerds in basements?” Sheppard asked.

“Of course not,” Ronon said. “We had storyhouses. The storyteller told the story from a balcony while the player-characters acted the events on a stage. For some of the larger battles the entire audience would be involved.”

McKay groaned. “The Satedans invented LARPing.”

“I take it Earth has something similar?” Teyla asked.

“You could say that,” McKay said.

Sheppard wasn't entirely sure what he was getting into. But he was sure he would be getting out of camping on the mainland that Sunday. That alone was a win.

*****

Sheppard found the game room in its usual spot, the North-East Pier at the false end of a corridor.

Dr. Tomson sat in the back surrounded by tiny bottles of paint and an army of tiny people. Some were painted, some were not, some looked half-painted. She used brushes that did not seem small enough to paint tiny details on these tiny people and Sheppard still had no idea how.

Half a dozen people were clustered around a table while Dr. Parrish dealt. Given the hat he wore and the cards it looked to be some sort of poker variant. A few noticed him and started eating their jellybean winnings, possibly to disguise their betting or maybe to make the sizes of their stacks less intimidating.

Several board games were in use, a couple of tables were covered in army men and...

“Ronon?” Sheppard asked. Yes, Ronon was indeed peering down the side of a table and waving a measuring tape around. On the table before him an army of bird-headed warriors faced off against bipedal crocodiles wielding giant mallets among spindle-shaped dice.

“Hey Sheppard,” Ronon said.

“I thought you and Teyla were going camping,” Sheppard said. He looked around the room. At least she was nowhere to be found. Carter was there, though, sitting at a table with a collection of books and papers and weird dice.

“Decided to watch you guys,” Ronon said. “Colonel Carter said if I was going to be here I needed to be playing a game.”

Sheppard felt his stomach roil with nerves. It was an unfamiliar feeling. “Ronon, I don't know if...”

“I can play this and watch,” Ronon said.

Sheppard sighed. Ronon wasn't going to leave. At least he wasn't going to mock him. Hopefully. He headed over to the table where Carter sat waving him over.

He recognized everyone here. They were all scientists. Dr. Pete Rowan ran the local brewery out of the chemistry labs, Dr. Branton was one of the anthropologists at the base of the East Pier, and Dr. Simpson was an engineer who had delved so deeply into the puddlejumpers' base code it was hard to get her out. Even Carter was a scientist hiding under her rank. “McKay coming?” he asked. It made sense for McKay to be here.

“He said no,” Carter said. “Don't worry, we've got enough people here. What do you want to play?”


Ace stood in a town square, a lone elf surrounded by what felt like a thousand humans. The Swallowtail Festival was usually an excuse for these small coastal towns to hold a street fair and throw open their temple doors. The street fair seemed to be accounted for but the temple was closed. Instead a podium stood before the temple doors.

Although to be fair, those were ornate doors. The rest of this town seemed to be made of wood and stone, where did they get glass like that?

Ace felt out of place here. His greatsword was peace-bonded into its sheath, a compromise with the city guard. He hadn't wanted to leave it in the tavern, too many bad experiences with bar staff helping themselves to his stuff while he was out. His chain shirt jingled merrily against his chest as he walked through the stalls and looked at all the wares he didn't have the money to buy. His ears had the food vendors trying to offer him leafy things and teas while perfectly good meats roasted over hot coals.

The local priest, who still hadn't opened the temple, gestured to a large wagon being wheeled into the square by acolytes. Or maybe they were apprentices. Ace wasn't sure of the terminology.

He didn't pay much attention to the speech the priest gave. He'd heard it before. Desna, the goddess of travel and dreams and Varisian humans, fell to the world and washed ashore 'here'. Every town and hovel and city on the sea claimed Desna washed up there. She was nursed back to health by a blind child. Desna repaid the child by turning them into a butterfly, beautiful and ethereal and constantly being chased by children.

Speaking of, the acolytes pulled the cover off the wagon and a veritable swarm of butterflies rose up in a riotous cyclone of color and wings. The crowd cheered. Ace clapped his hands politely, more interested in those great smells coming from the large dishes being hauled from carts and taverns. And kegs...

This place knew how to throw a party.

The food lasted almost until sunset. The beer less so. Most people were attracted by the spicy curry salmon put out by the lady with the weird hair so Ace was able to get his fill and then some of the lobster stew put out by the guy with a wooden leg. He seemed genuinely willing to talk about how he lost the leg but Ace noticed the story was different each time. Just today the stories said his leg was bitten off by a gigantic fish, lost in a duel with a wizard, and that he cut it off himself while the 'Sandpoint Devil' tried to drag him off by that foot.

Eventually sunset brought everyone back to the still-closed temple. Ace stood in the back with a stick of roasted meat, cold leftovers he was able to con off of the stoic guy who ran the tavern with all the deer heads. At least, he thought it was a con. This meat was pretty good, even cold. Kind of a sharp taste to it though... Wait, this wasn't fresh...

Ace shrugged to himself and kept eating. The peppercorns covered the funky taste of rot really well.

The priest took to the podium and slammed stone against the wood. Ace jumped. Nothing that small should be that loud.

The priest cleared his throat. “Welcome, everyone, to the Swallowtail Festival. Today we forget the Late Unpleasantness and the darkness it brought to Sandpoint, for today we consecrate--”

A piercing scream stopped the priest's words before the speech truly began. Everyone looked around for the source. Then another scream and in the distance, tittering chanting scratching voices. Something small ran through the crowd, then something else, and another as they started singing.

“Goblins chew and goblins bite. Goblins cut and goblins fight. Stab the dog and cut the horse, goblins eat and take by force!”

People began to panic and run while dogs barked and horses screamed. Ace stuffed the stick of meat in his mouth, holding it like he was a dog himself as he reached back to break the string that peace-bonded his weapon. He pulled the greatsword from its sheath.

He was not alone. He spotted a blonde human standing on a cart tossing knives into the melee. She saluted him with a knife before throwing it right at him.

Ace ducked.

He had not noticed the goblin as it climbed the wagon behind him and jumped at him from the high ground, its small sword raised. He did notice it now that it was pinned to the wagon like a grotesque doll.

Ace saluted back and entered into melee with his sword swinging.

Suddenly his sword vibrated with... music? He looked around and saw a human with a buckler strapped to one arm, hands and voice raised above the din. He'd taken the steps of the temple and defended it with voice and rapier.

A goblin raced by him, running for its life from a large dog. The dog was in turn being chased by three more goblins, all with weapons raised. Ace accepted it and chased after the lot. The cart full of fuel for the night's celebratory bonfire burned, casting an eerie light over the scene as the sun sank to the horizon to be swallowed by the sea.

And then something next to him exploded.

Ace stopped in his tracks. He just noticed his snack was missing but that was no longer important. Who was blowing things up? With what?

A glowing ball of anger shot in front of him, impacting a goblin in the chest. An unassuming man with a staff and a glowing hand stood in the middle of a pile and was shouting 'come get some'. Given the lack of attackers it seemed few wanted some.

Then Ace felt the music change. His sword rang with music that wasn't good, it upset the balance of his sword. This upset Ace. The goblin bard sang her creepy song even as Ace realized she held his snack in one hand.

“Chase the baby, catch the pup. Bonk the head to shut it up. Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed, we be goblins! You be food!”

How anyone could sing and eat at the same time Ace had no idea. Nor did he want to find out. He shouted a challenge, raised his sword to try and shake off the upsetting music, and charged.

What followed was not something he was proud of. Others might tell the tale but he never did. He would never admit to having a prolonged swordfight with a goblin, not when he had his greatsword and she wielded a stick of meat. Worse, it was his stick of meat, he conned it from the tavernkeep fair and square! He would have won that swordfight, too, if the blonde woman hadn't taken the opportunity to impale the goblin on a dagger. A dagger! His weapon was three times as tall as his foe and said foe got felled by a dagger.

But at least it was over. Mostly.

The fire was doused, the temple remained locked, the crowed was dispersing to the local taverns for something to calm their nerves, and Ace found himself left in the square with the three others who had successfully defended themselves.

“Charlie,” the blonde woman said, indicating herself. “You can buy me a beer for saving your life.”

Ace scowled. “I had it,” he said. “Ace, by the way. And I totally had it. I was just setting it up for a proper skewer.”

“Right,” Charlie said, her grin getting wider.

“Reggie the Bard!” said the man from the temple steps. He flicked the blood off of his rapier and sheathed it. “Tales, songs, random knowledge, at your service.”

“I like your music,” Ace said.

The fourth one stayed quiet. Charlie looked at him questioningly.

“Thomas,” he said. “I'm a sorcerer.”

“It's hard to beat a Magic Missile to the face,” Charlie said. “Let's hit the tavern. After that I could use a drink.”


Sheppard sat at the table while the other players talked about themselves. Rowan described the scenes using more voices than any one man should possess and more imagination than Sheppard thought possible. He wasn't even looking in the adventure book, it lay closed next to him with post-it notes stuck in any number of pages.

Simpson played the mysterious sorcerer Thomas who was described as far too ordinary to be as mysterious as she was making him out to be. Maybe she hadn't thought of a backstory either.

Branton, on the other hand, had an entire past behind him that involved failed wizard training, piracy, and a stint in a traveling circus. Also, his name was apparently 'Reggie the Bard!' complete with capitalization and punctuation.

Carter, thankfully, seemed more realistic in her backstory. Something about growing up on the streets of Magnimar, some big city to the south. She only ever used daggers because they could be found anywhere and hidden in more places than that. Sheppard wasn't entirely sure that knowledge was fictional. He'd heard stories about the exploits SG-1 got up to.

Sheppard... had not thought of a backstory. Or a character. Or a personality. He had an elf fighter with a greatsword who enjoyed drinking. Suddenly he felt very stereotypical.

“Next Sunday?” he heard Rowan say.

“Next Enforced Sunday,” Carter said. “Whenever that is.”

“I'm game,” Branton said.

“I... might have work,” Simpson said.

“McKay doesn't enforce the Sundays?” Carter asked. “He's supposed to.”

“No, he does,” Simpson said. “But... I just... There's some stuff I need to get done and...”

“We understand,” Rowan said. “Come if you can.”

“I will,” Simpson said before gathering her things and leaving.

“Not bad for your first session.” It took Sheppard a moment to realize Carter was talking to him. The game room had changed while they were playing. Ronon was in a corner pretending to read a book, the book was upside down. The poker table had changed to blackjack and a completely new set of players. Dr. Tomson was painting a different set of tiny people. The armies fighting each other on tables now wore power armor and too many skulls on their belts. Wait, who went through the effort to paint tiny skulls like that?

“Think you'll be back for more?” Carter asked.

Sheppard had to admit, it was fun. Even when he and the goblin bard were rolling badly their failure had been twisted into a comical swordfight against his own kebab. “Sure,” he said. “I'll be back.”

Chapter Text

The roar of the glassworks' furnace rumbled through the entire building. The corridors were lit only by the light streaming through the admittedly broad and expertly crafted windows. But that didn't help the eerie dimness in the enclosed hallways or the storage rooms.

Something was terribly wrong here. First it was broad daylight. The owner Lonjiku was missing, thought at home by his workers, thought at work by his house servants. His daughter Ameiko was supposed to meet her brother Tsuto here last night but she never returned home. Then there was the little factor of the glassworks doors locked tight during business hours even as the furnace chimneys belched thick black smoke into the air.

Reggie the Bard! had said that was wrong. A proper furnace shouldn't blow black smoke like that, he said. A proper hot coal furnace wouldn't blow smoke at all.

Ace took him at his word. Reggie the Bard! was always good for random information like that. Charlie had just shrugged and fiddled the door open like it wasn't even locked. Thomas volunteered to keep watch outside while the others did their thing.

Ace didn't like that but he had to admit, Thomas was the logical choice. That and Thomas had mumbled something about an experiment and “day off or no day off McKay's gonna bite my head off if I don't get those figures in on time”. That left Reggie the Bard! as their only magical backup in case something went wrong. But that was okay, Reggie the Bard! couldn't blow things up like Thomas could but Reggie the Bard! had that healing touch and the music that made Ace hit harder.

Ace wanted that music as soon as they saw the blood spatters in the servant's quarters and the demolished kitchen. A dogslicer, a goblin's sword, stuck out of a sack of grain where it had been forgotten during looting. “Goblins,” he hissed.

“I'm not surprised,” Charlie said. “When hasn't it been goblins?”

“Sandpoint's environs host several goblin tribes,” said Reggie the Bard! “They're not usually known for targeted attacks like this. They tend to focus on small caravans and lone travelers.”

“You think they've got a leader?” Ace asked.

“Goblins always have a leader,” Charlie said. “Even I know that. No, this is worse. Think someone's united the tribes?”

“I hope not,” said Reggie the Bard! “I got shit to do.”

Ace ignored the discussion behind him. He didn't care much for the state of goblin politics, all that mattered to him was that there were goblins screwing with his town. That was enough.

The loading room was in delicate disarray. Sacks of chemicals and pure sands were stacked on the floor here, vials of shining powders on shelves. An empty safe hung open, the key still in the lock.

“What the hell?” Charlie muttered. She moved to listen at the doors leading to the glassworking room. “They're in here,” she hissed.

“How can you tell?” Ace asked.

“The little shits are giggling and breaking things,” Charlie said, giving him a look that clearly detailed how thick she thought he was being. “On three we bust in and bust them. Reggie, get ready to sing.”

“Ready,” said Reggie the Bard!

Ace pulled his sword. Charlie took several throwing knives from her bandolier and readied them.

She threw open the door.


“Roll initiative,” Dr. Rowan said.

Carter rolled her die. “Charlie gets a 17.”

Sheppard picked out the right die, a strange 20-sided thing, and rolled it. He scanned his character sheet for the right modifier. “Ace gets a 12.”

Dr. Branton rolled his die. “Crap. Reggie the Bard! rolled a 4.”

“Greased lightning,” Rowan drawled while he rolled for the enemies. “Thomas is outside so... Charlie, you're up.”

“What do I see?” Carter asked.


Eight goblins cavorted through the room, reveling in their disgusting chaos. Two wielded tongs still oozing with molten glass pulled right from the open furnace, dueling with each other until the glass cooled and then they called a time out to stick the tongs back in the fire before pulling out fresh ones to continue. One attempted to juggle a collection of bottles of various colors, dropping most of them. The total number in the air stayed about the same as he had a spotter tossing new bottles into his hands.

The other four goblins were much less innocent.

Bodies in various states of dismemberment were scattered about the room. Limbs were missing from the collection. A glance at the open furnace gave a horrible realization but at least these poor people were dead before being fed to the fire. The man propped up against the wall did not look like he had been so lucky. He was encased in fresh glass, his seared flesh visible through the disturbingly tempered transparent cage. His limbs and skull were twisted in nauseating rictus, almost as though he'd been alive when the glass was poured.

Four goblins crouched over a dead body, busy with their work. One held a thumb up to the encased man like he was critiquing art while barking orders to the other three who poured ladles of molten glass over the body. Then he'd smack them and scold them and send them back to the furnace for more glass to try again.

A half-elven man watched the entire tableau with a distinct air of boredom. He was the first to notice the door open and the people coming through. He sneered as he recognized the local 'heroes' and shouted at the goblins. Chaos stopped dead as eight pairs of goblin eyes turned to the door. Glass shattered as all the juggled bottles crashed to the floor, the table, and to the goblin's heads.

Charlie smirked and threw a throwing dagger before diving behind an overturned table. A squeal told her she'd hit something alive or at least important.

Ace charged in, sword raised. The two goblins with fiery tongs met him on the floor, trying to fight with searing oozing glass as their weapons.

The half-elf raised his bow.

And then Reggie the Bard! began to sing as chaos began again.

Everything was going so well. The goblins were inept, though their small weapons still drew blood. Ace kept trying to wade through the chaos toward the half-elf, this villain who dared work with such annoyances. Surely he was responsible for all the death here. The goblins certainly didn't burn Lonjiku Kaijitsu alive in molten glass.

And then everything went so wrong.

“Reggie!” Ace shouted.

The half-elf seemed to flow across the battlefield and took Reggie the Bard! by surprise, punching him in the face. But that shouldn't have caused the music to fade from Ace's sword. That shouldn't have put Reggie the Bard! on the floor. That certainly shouldn't have set three goblins on Reggie the Bard! as they gleefully carried his unmoving body to the open furnace.

Ace's scream of fury didn't drown out the screams from the fire. Nor did it make the sudden end of those screams any less terrible.

Charlie's knives flew in from nowhere, catching the half-elf in the shoulder. Ace took the opening to leap over a downed table and impale the villain on his sword.

Goblins squealed and scattered as their de-facto leader fell. Ace let them run, too exhausted to do anything.

The furnace belched thick black smoke up the chimney into the sky.


Sheppard watched in horror as Branton laughed, grinned in satisfaction, and then shook Rowan's hand. “I know you said you'd make it memorable but wow,” he said.

“I aim to please,” Rowan said.

“What the hell?!” Sheppard demanded.

Carter gave him a calculating look. He didn't notice.

“I got called back to Earth,” Branton said. “I'm scheduled to leave on the next dial-out. I asked Pete to make my death a memorable one.”

Sheppard looked aghast at Rowan.

Rowan's easy satisfied smile fell as he realized something was very wrong here. “You okay, Sheppard?” he asked.

“I'm fine,” Sheppard said as he got up and left.

“Not your fault,” Carter said as she got up. “I'll talk to him. Good death, Branton.”

Branton's grin had not fallen even as she left.

Carter followed Sheppard down the hall as he stalked toward the labs.

“Sheppard,” she said.

He kept fleeing.

“Sheppard!” she snapped.

Sheppard stopped in his tracks, back far too straight. Fury flowed off of him in waves. “What?” he snapped back.

Carter approached, eyes taking in his stance, his expressionless face, his toneless voice, his barely contained rage. “You're taking this too seriously,” she said. “It's a game, Sheppard, you're not supposed to take it seriously!”

At least that got Sheppard to react. “Not supposed to take it seriously,” he repeated dully. Then anger flooded his words. “The last time I didn't take a game seriously Rodney and I found out after the fact that we were toying with real people!”

“How is this the same thing?” Carter demanded. “I haven't seen an Ancient device that turns fantasy into reality yet, have you? It's not real! It's pen and paper and dice and books. Nothing is real.”

Sheppard didn't back down. “I don't like losing people like that,” he said.

“I know you don't,” Carter said. “I'll talk to Pete about it.”

Sheppard made a noise in his throat that might have been a hum or a growl. There was no way to tell.

“Branton asked him for something 'memorable',” Carter said. “Pete was just delivering. It's a game, Sheppard. Things happen in the game, they don't mean anything out in the real world. It's fantasy.”

“It's... weird,” Sheppard said, looking away.

“It's healthy,” Carter corrected. “Back when I was heading SG-1, Dr. Robinson got all of us into role playing games to de-stress. It lets us be something else for a time. For a few short hours we can forget the gate and just run around in a fantasy world slaying dragons. Or sneaking around megacorps. We can be superheros, we can cast spells, we can stab the people who deserve it and not be arrested for it.”

Sheppard had to admit that last one. Carter played her character as a bit too knife-happy to be right in the head.

And it had been nice beating up goblins. They even got to save a kid. And Pete was good with the imagery.

“It's not real, hmm?” Sheppard allowed.

“None of it matters,” Carter said. “You die, you can roll up a new character. I'm sure Pete will make sure you go out in a suitably impressive explosion.”

Sheppard couldn't suppress the smirk at that one.

“How about this, I have Pete wrap it up for today and we play again next Sunday? Whenever that happens to be...”

“No, I'll go back in,” Sheppard said.

When they got back to the game room even Branton's grin had fallen to concern.

“It's nothing,” Carter said dismissively as she and Sheppard sat down. Still, she gave Rowan a look. He nodded once.

“Okay,” Rowan said. He opened the adventure book and pulled his notes out. “The remaining goblins ran out through the loading room and down a set of stairs into the basement. What do you do?”

“I check this guy here for information,” Carter said. “I want to know who he was and what he was doing with a pack of goblins.”

*****

Sheppard found himself in the labs. McKay was busy directing the traffic of a dozen scientists all demanding attention. The latest crisis had been minor, barely even worth mentioning, something that should have been handled without waking McKay up in the middle of the night. Now the science team was paying for it with his ire and an extra dose of micromanagement.

Zelenka looked up from where he'd been hiding behind his laptop and visibly sighed in relief when he saw Sheppard at the door.

Sheppard nodded. The signal was seen, decoded, and accepted. Not like it needed much decoding, Sheppard could see McKay was getting ragged around the edges. The man hadn't taken a day off since Sundays became enforced. Something about 'someone needs to be in charge of this nightmare'.

“McKay,” Sheppard called.

McKay waved at him bitterly. “Go away, Colonel, I need to fix this.”

Zelenka's hopeful look turned desperate.

“McKay,” Sheppard said again. He pulled a powerbar out of his pocket. It was still malleable from being in his pocket all day but he doubted McKay would notice.

“What!” McKay snapped. He turned to begin what might have been a truly epic rant about incompetence but it fell flat.

Sheppard waved the powerbar like he was baiting a fish. He pulled it away when McKay tried to grab it.

McKay pouted, his eyes narrowing. If Sheppard didn't know any better he would have expected a petulant growl.

“You missed breakfast,” Sheppard said. “And lunch.”

“Wait, I missed lunch?” McKay asked.

“They're setting out dinner. Come on, you need a break.”

“But lunch was supposed to be those little meatballs with gravy!”

“I'm sure there will be some leftovers,” Sheppard placated. It was a blatant lie, the marines had gotten to the meatballs within twenty minutes of the announcement. “But we won't know unless we check.”

McKay looked conflicted. He shifted from foot to foot until he came to a decision. “Make them fix it,” he ordered, pointing to Zelenka.

“It will be easy without extra harping,” Zelenka scolded.

McKay waved off the perceived insult and followed Sheppard out of the lab.

Dinner had nothing to do with the illusive meatballs. Instead it was something with pasta and chicken and vegetables all tossed in oil and cheese. McKay accepted this fate with an extra handful of cheese and a chocolate pudding cup.

Sheppard sat down across from McKay with a tray less loaded with cheese. He never liked the cheese in this dish, it felt too much like it was trying to hide the vegetables. Sheppard disliked the subterfuge and the inability to find all the broccoli so he could pick it out.

McKay dove into his dish, shoveling large forkfuls of pasta and chicken and he even ate the broccoli. Sheppard shook his head in bemusement, he couldn't comprehend anybody being hungry enough to willingly eat broccoli.

“Wha?” McKay asked, mouth full.

“Nothing,” Sheppard said, a smile forming despite himself.

McKay ignored him and went back to eating.

“McKay, when was the last time you took a Sunday off?” Sheppard asked.

McKay paused, his fork held halfway to his mouth. He set it down. The last Sunday he'd taken time off had been Carson's last Sunday. He sighed and pushed his tray away.

“That long?”

“I don't want to talk about it,” McKay muttered. “If I'd...” He looked down at his hands and sighed. “'M not hungry anymore.” He got up and left, leaving his tray on the table in front of Sheppard.

Sheppard watched. That was unexpected.

He waited an hour before taking a couple of beers to McKay's quarters. He knocked.

The door opened. McKay stood there looking exhausted. “Oh, it's you,” he said.

Sheppard rolled his eyes and raised a beer bottle to eye level. He made offering motions with it. McKay sighed and took the beer. “Come in,” he said.

McKay's room was a bit of a mess but that was nothing new. A couple of days worth of dirty clothes were scattered on the floor, trailed in a well worn track from the bathroom to the bed. The desk had the induction charger that went missing from the artifacts catalog that first year, a couple of laptops sat on it receiving wireless charge. The bed was hastily made, a tablet among the sheets where it had been tossed. Shoes were in a pile in the corner, socks stuffed inside in an attempt to hold the foot funk contained.

Sheppard sprawled out on the bed. It was the only logical place in the room to sit. It also made McKay give him that petulant look that amused him so. Sheppard sat up and twisted the cap off of his beer.

McKay looked at the beer in his hand, something unfortunately American and watered down, and sighed. He wrapped his shirt over the neck and twisted off the cap. He took a long swallow.

“You need to take the chance to relax,” Sheppard said.

McKay huffed. “And when I do someone else I care about dies.”

Only then did Sheppard make the connection. He looked down at his bottle to cover the fact that he hadn't known.

“I relax enough,” McKay said. “It's not like I'm constantly in there fixing the incompetence of the idiots I'm supposed to call 'colleagues'.”

Sheppard felt guilty. If he'd had known he would have dragged McKay off some Enforced Sunday and made him relax. RC cars in the corridor, chess in the mess hall, the kitchens at midnight to steal all the pudding cups they could carry, a offworld market, anything. Even camping on the mainland with Ronon and Teyla would be enough, at least it would give McKay something new to complain about for a day. He tamped down the guilt. He knew now.

He could do something about it now.

“Radek could handle the labs for a day,” Sheppard said. “Heck, I bet Dr. Kusanagi could do it.”

“Oh yeah?” McKay demanded. “And when someone fucks up who's going to yell at them?”

“You can yell at them later,” Sheppard said. “If yelling at them worked they wouldn't do stupid stuff in the first place.”

McKay looked about ready to argue that but he couldn't. Instead he covered the action by taking a drink. “Fine,” he said sullenly. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, Carter has me playing this game...”

McKay rolled his eyes. “Fine. I'll play.”

“Great! Enforced Sunday at noon. Pirate Pete will get you set up.”

McKay scowled. He'd play a game or two. Then when something blew up he could say 'I told you so' to everyone and never have to take a day off again.

Chapter Text

McKay sat in the game room with an empty character sheet in front of him. It had been suggested he be the first one in to make his character but he didn't know the system, the world, the whole point of this game was not something he had experience with. Instead he was stacking the polyhedral dice on top of one another in an attempt to make the tallest most varied dice tower possible. He was just about to put the pyramidal 4-sided die on the very top as a capstone when the table was knocked by someone else. The whole tower collapsed. McKay looked up with a glare.

It was Dr. Rowan, one of the organic chemists. Rowan's past willingness to bribe him with stims despite medical advice was what kept McKay from delving into a rant. Instead he stuck to a huff and a glare.

“Have an idea for a character yet?” Rowan asked as he sat down.

McKay looked around the table. There were empty chairs, several large books, a blank character sheet, scratch paper, and a small bowl filled with dice. The game room itself was much less abandoned. The betting table in the back seemed to be hosting a game of craps complete with shouting, bouncing dice, and loud wagers. Dr. Tomson came in with her case of painting supplies. She set out the little bottles of paint, a painting palate, a small cup for water, and brushes. She pulled miniatures from the case for painting, sat down, and with a grand gesture took her thick glasses off.

The rest of the room was slowly filling out as people awoke from their chance at sleeping in. Enforced Sundays were known for starting late after a big breakfast of whatever the KP staff felt like that day. Today it was omelets from a strange purple egg laid by therapods on one of the uninhabited planets, day-old muffins, and a tasty crunchy fried thing re-purposed from one of the mashed vegetables served earlier in the week. McKay figured he had a good half an hour before Sheppard and Carter came in with whoever their fourth player was.

“What are we even playing?” McKay asked. “What is this game?”

“Pathfinder,” Rowan said. “It's a Dungeons and Dragons variant based on the 3.5 rules. The world's called Golarion.”

“No, I mean, I've never played anything like this before. What am I supposed to do?”

Rowan's eyebrows shot up. He would never have guessed. “That's okay,” Rowan said, covering his surprise. “Sheppard had never played before either. Here's the thing...”

McKay sat through a vague explanation of the rules, the whole idea of playing a single character in a story that the player didn't know. The world was a place where magic existed and was controlled through various means, most often the careful study of arcane forces, the wild chaos of bloodlines, or the devotion of the self to a deity or nature or something equally esoteric and unknowable. The world was post-apocalyptic, having survived the destruction of its major civilizations eleven millennia before and the death of humanity's god a century ago. Most of the glories of the past were forgotten, held only in legend and stories passed down in isolated pockets or among the wandering travelers of Varisia.

That gave McKay ideas.


Mira sat in the wagon, its shifting and creaking a comfort as she studied the text she'd cobbled together from forgotten stories and the carvings on old monuments. The language of magic was an intricate one, difficult to read on its own. It was a self-feeding cycle, the language of magic required the spark of magic itself in order to unravel the symbols into words, the allegory into stories, the runes into power. Without the understanding of magic the language of magic couldn't be understood.

It had taken her years to understand that. She still had the charcoal rubbings of the ruined spires that allowed her that breakthrough. They were tucked among the unbound parchments she carried in case of more ruins.

Magical study took time, an hour of study and contemplation every morning to choose which of her spells she'd prepare for the day. It was nothing like her cousin Vinyamar. Nooo, he was 'blessed' or something. Mira huffed as she carefully turned pages. Something in his blood gave him the magic in his fingers, there was none in his mind. She knew, she'd tested it. He couldn't read the magic in her book. He might be able to throw half a dozen balls of fire at bandits but he was no wizard.

And yet those fire balls made everyone love him more than any of her cousins or brothers or sisters. He got to ride ahead on the horses and he always danced the best when Baba Rann sang the songs at nightfall when the wagons were still and the smells of food and family drifted from the campfire's edge.

But Baba Rann hadn't given him her cards even though she was old, very old, too old to dance anymore. Mama said she was waiting for one more good prophecy and then she'd give the cards to Vinny and her soul would fly up to the stars to dance with Desna.

Suddenly there was bright light. Mira jumped and held her spellbook to her chest. “Vinny!” she scolded, scowling at her cousin.

“Little book moth,” Vinny taunted. “Baba Rann's calling for you. Bet it's to get you to give up the books.”

“Bet not,” Mira said. She carefully closed her spellbook and wrapped it up in one of her scarves. “If you touch it I swear...”

“Yeah, yeah, you'll set my hair on fire.” Vinny sat in the wagon as she stood up, arranged her skirts and her scarves, glared at him once more for good measure, then jumped out of the wagon onto the road below.

The three wagons of their small caravan plodded along. The ocean was visible to the west, the morning sun glinting off of the waves. Farmland and grasslands stretched to the east, little houses dotting the endless yellow sea of grains with their heads hanging heavy for the harvest. The horses snorted, tails flicking in protest against their yokes. In the distance a town was visible on the shore, cute and small and without a gate blocking the road. Beyond, on a cliff over the shore, an ancient ruin stood as tall as the seabirds flew.

The wagons were plodding ahead without her. She ran with them, past them, up to the lead wagon. Her father waved down at her from his perch in the driver's seat. Mira smiled at him before grabbing the floor of the open wagon and pulling herself into the darkness.

She sat on the floor panting. A globe of light flared to life in the darkness. Mira knew now what that spell was, Baba Rann called it Dancing Lights. The lights did dance, flickering like stars that she could touch. “Baba,” she said.

Baba Rann was an old old woman. Her hands were gnarled, her nails like claws. Her face looked like a withered apple so dry even the horses wouldn't eat it. Her wispy white hair was hidden underneath the scarf she wore, beautiful blue and purple silk that carried the stars and the sun in gold tassels and silver thread. She sat on a mound of pillows on the wagon's floor, a low table before her. That table was draped with a simple blue cloth. In the middle of that cloth sat a deck of cards even more ancient that Baba Rann. These were her prophecy cards, her harrow deck.

“Come, child,” Baba Rann said. She gestured with a bony arthritic hand to the pillows before her, across from the table.

Mira sat down obediently. Nobody disobeyed Baba Rann.

“Tell me, Mira, do you know the town ahead of us?” Baba Rann asked.

Mira shook her head.

“That is... Sandpoint.”

Mira nodded. She waited for Baba Rann to say why this was important.

“Do not be fooled by its beauty, child. Sandpoint is a place of blood. The stones seep red with the blood of forever.”

Mira cocked her head. The town outside had seemed very pretty. But many towns in Varisia were the result of Chelaxian foolishness, of stonebound imperialists who couldn't comprehend the Varisian's ancient claims. The wheels of a thousand wagons crisscrossed these lands, marking this place as theirs. What the Chelaxians couldn't claim with words they took by force. Now their god was dead and they'd fallen to diabolism. Soon their vaunted 'civilization' would collapse in on itself like all others before them as the wheels of a thousand wagons continued to turn.

“That blood awakens,” Baba Rann said. “There is an ancient evil there.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Mira asked. She was getting suspicious and excited. Baba Rann always stayed away from ruins and the old magical runes, she claimed they were evil. Maybe the Sandpoint ruins were an evil Mira could learn from? After all, magic itself wasn't evil otherwise Desna wouldn't grant it to those who could hear her.

“I see a man,” Baba Rann said. “Tall, pale, hair as black as the starless night. He has stones sewn into his skin and his spear is on fire. I fear him, child.”

Mira felt her blood run cold as Baba Rann's face went slack and her eyes wide and unfocused. Mira pounded the roof beam of the wagon three times. Everyone knew to bang the wagon beam three times when Baba Rann went into a prophecy trance.

The wagon slowed to a stop.

And then bony claws gripped Mira's scarves and pulled her close with a strength Mira didn't know someone so old could have.

“The burning spear!” Baba Ran shrieked. “The world on fire behind him! The living fire of nightmare! Mhar!”

Mira's father looked inside from the wagon's roof. He called for the caravan to stop, that this was important.

Baba Rann screamed, long and loud, before she went limp. She drew rattling breaths as her hands went limp.

“It's okay, Baba, you're all right,” Mira said, trying to calm the woman down before the entire caravan got excited. She glanced up at the Dancing Lights spell, flickering in the corner like a firefly.

“Someone stands before him,” Baba Rann whispered. “The old magics. The living fire can be quenched...” She pulled on the blue tablecloth, the cards sliding close. “These... are yours... Mira... Stop... him...”

Baba Rann's hand went limp.

“Baba?” Mira asked. “Baba?!”

The dancing star in the corner flickered out.


McKay looked around him. The game room was filling up with people and sound. But this corner was absolutely quiet. Only then did he realize he and Rowan were no longer alone. Carter sat at the gaming table with a pleased grin. Sheppard stood nearby, his mouth hanging open in shock. Ronon stood next to him, also grinning broadly. At least Simpson wasn't looking at him funny. McKay glared at them all. “What?” he demanded.

Rowan gave them all an easy smile. “He's never played before,” he said innocently.

Carter's grin turned to absolute shock. “No way,” she said.

“Neither had I,” Sheppard defended.

“Yeah but you weren't that good,” Ronon said. Sheppard elbowed him in the ribs. Ronon kept grinning.

“You've never played?” Carter asked.

“You need friends to play,” McKay said and his expression turned to one of detached disdain, as though he dared them to say anything.

Carter's shock turned to something uncomfortable. She swallowed and looked away. Rowan's discomfort was less visible even as he matched McKay's gaze.

“You have friends now,” Ronon said. “You're good at this game.”

Sheppard sat next to McKay and nudged him out of his thoughts. “Wait, Conan's not going to watch is he?” McKay demanded.

“It's a good story,” Ronon said. He took Carter's annoyed expression for what it meant and went off to find someone to play the wargame with the little animal-headed armies. He liked that one.

Simpson sat down on the other side of Carter. “I don't know how long I can stay,” she said. “I have... stuff...”

Sheppard glared at McKay. McKay shrugged.

“All right,” Rowan said. “McKay has his character all set up so let's get started.”


Ace awoke to the feeling of hard floor under his back and something boot-shaped nudging his side. The clanging sound of bells rang in his ears. Or maybe that sound was the remains of last night.

No, it was both. He blinked up at the ceiling timbers. Sunlight streamed through the windows to light the wood aflame with reds and golds and brown. A lot of brown. And yellow. Oh wait, that was just Charlie looking down at him. Wait, why was she in his room? He had a room at this here inn and he'd even paid for it. With real coins. She couldn't just barge in here.

Ace rolled over to try and get back to sleep but there was a distinct lack of blanket and a table? Benches? Chairs? What gives? Ace sat up into a slow sitting position. “Who brought me downstairs?” he asked.

Charlie rolled her eyes. “You never went up,” she said. “You passed out on the tavern floor.”

“Why... are there church bells?” Ace asked. “It's morning.”

“Elves don't do morning bells?”

“Put 'em at noon,” Ace whined. Whether it was because of a true cultural difference or his hangover Charlie couldn't tell.

“I think they're funeral bells,” Charlie said, looking out the window. The bells were ringing longer than the standard morning bells.

“We did tha' yesserday,” Ace slurred as he tried to stand up. It didn't seem to work but he did find a tankard. He sniffed at it, wrinkled his nose, and took a deep swallow. He coughed and wiped his mouth.

“Not Reggie,” Charlie said. “Not locals either. We should go look.”

Ace hoisted himself to his feet with the help of a barstool. He belched and made a face at the taste.

“I should go look,” Charlie amended gracefully, her own nose wrinkling. “I didn't think elves could smell so bad.”

Ace glowered at her and walked out of the tavern. He almost managed a straight line through the crowded streets toward the cathedral.

The glass panes seemed strangely ominous for a moment but Ace shook it off. It was just an unpleasant reminder of yesterday and Reggie the Bard!'s sendoff. There hadn't been a body so there was nothing for Father Zantus to bless. Just empty words to an empty shrine and three lonely strangers honoring the death of a companion they'd fought beside for mere days...

Ace shook the melancholy from his head and stepped inside.

The Sandpoint cathedral was here for a reason. That reason was in the large open courtyard. Seven ancient standing stones stood guard around a stone altar. On that altar laid the body of an old woman. Only then did he realize the cathedral was full of people. Ace slunk into the back, hoping to go unnoticed.

These people must be Varisians. He'd heard of them, seen a few in town, but not like this. These were real Varisians, the ones who lived in caravan wagons and wandered like nomads.

A woman stood near the altar. Her thick red hair hung in riotous curls underneath a dark blue scarf decorated with silver and gold threads. Father Zantus kept putting his hands on her shoulders as he spoke.

Ace snuck back out of the cathedral. He found Charlie and Thomas outside. “Funeral,” he said. “Big one.”

“There's a Varisian caravan parked near Madame Mvashti's place,” Thomas said. “Looks empty.”

“Might be them,” Ace said, gesturing back to the cathedral.

After a bath, a meal, and a proper morning's sleep, not necessarily in that order, he was ready to greet the day just in time for the noon bells.

What was it with humans and their day bells? At least elves weren't obsessed with the sun like these night-blind humans were. Elves properly appreciated the moon and timed their prayers to the opening of the moonflowers.

For a moment he felt like someone was laughing at him. Then the feeling passed.

Thomas was missing again when Ace walked out of the tavern feeling somewhat more alive. His throat didn't taste like sour beer anymore and he smelled no worse than these humans. He spied the red haired woman in the street looking somewhat lost. Strange, he could see the funeral procession leading into the boneyard. Shouldn't she be in there?

She wore far too many skirts and scarves to be practical. She carried an overstuffed satchel with a loose scroll of parchment dangling almost to the ground. The dark blue scarf on her head was different from any of the others she wore, neither blue nor purple but somehow both with silver-threaded symbols embroidered into the silk and gold tassels hanging from what seemed like random ends. Still she kept it wrapped around herself like it was the most important thing she owned.

“Why aren't you at the funeral?” Ace asked.

The woman jumped, wide blue eyes turning to him like she hadn't expected to be addressed. “Oh, I, um...” She looked ashamed? Why? “Baba Rann's last prophecy. I... can't stay with my caravan anymore. There's something I have to do first.”

“Prophecy, you say?” Ace mused.

The woman nodded. “I can't go home until I...” She sighed. “Of course, divination hasn't been the same since... well, you know.”

Ace sort of knew. He was an elf, he was old enough to remember when Aroden, god of humans, died and took prophecy itself with him. Although it was better than the alternative. Nobody wanted the human's god living on this world, they'd get even more insufferable.

“So you have to do this thing otherwise you can't go home, even though divination hasn't worked right since the human god died,” Ace said.

“Yeah, that's about right.”

Ace had to smirk at how little fazed she seemed by all this. In fact she seemed almost irreverent. “So what will you do until then?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I'm decent at blowing stuff up,” she said.

“You know, I appreciate people who can blow stuff up.”

A blinding grin spread over her face. “My name's Mira,” she said. “I specialize in evocation magics.”

“I'm Ace. I hit things with swords. The others are inside. Let me introduce you.”


Sheppard scowled as McKay was still laughing at him.

“'Moon flowers',” McKay gasped. “God you're such an elf.”

“You're playing a woman,” Sheppard shot back.

“At least he's not playing a blonde,” Carter said.

Sheppard had a mental image of Carter's implication.

“I am not that narcissistic,” McKay said defensively.

“I don't know...” Sheppard said, drawing the words out with mocking amusement.

Rowan noticed Simpson get up. “I should go,” she said.

“What's up?” Carter asked.

“I should... I have to finish the analysis of the last solar storm.”

Sheppard glared at McKay.

“What?” McKay asked. Then he figured it out. “Wait, that analysis doesn't need to be done for another two weeks. It's not even going to take you two hours.”

Simpson excused herself anyway and left.

“I sense a pattern,” Rowan said.

“So do I,” Carter said. “Be right back.” She left, following Simpson down the hall.

“What's going on?” McKay asked.

“I'm not sure she really wants to play,” Rowan said. “She's quit every session early claiming work. Apparently work she doesn't even need to do.”

“And we're down a player again,” Sheppard mused.

“I planned on something like this,” Rowan said with a shrug. “Players come and go. Adventures can take months to finish and we have a rotating staff. Any of us can be called back to Earth for a month, a year, permanently. They don't even have to tell us before recalling us en masse.”

Carter came back in. “She's just not having fun,” she said. “So she's officially quitting.”

“And Thomas rides off into the sunset,” Rowan said. “Good to know. You're at a good point for it. Now then, where were we?”

Chapter Text

Dr. Rowan looked around the lab.

This was the main lab, usually full of engineers, Ancient tech experts, physicists, and McKay. Now was an exception simply because it was late in the day and there hadn't been an emergency in a couple of days. Privately he thought there should be a sign on the wall like those at oil refineries, '__ days since last emergency'. It could be a white board so people could keep the number updated. He was sure the mathematicians would enjoy having data to back up their claim that major emergencies only occurred when McKay was available. Then maybe Sheppard would let Teyla back onto active duty and AR-1 would get out of the city more often.

McKay was tapping away at something on his computer screen. Rowan tried not to notice it was a freecell game. The lab was mostly empty, Zelenka at his own computer and a couple of scientists in the back. Kusanagi waved at him, Rowan waved back.

“What is it, Rowan, I'm busy,” McKay said.

Rowan rolled his eye yet now the freecell game was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were real reports half-finished on McKay's screen. Fair enough. “I was wondering if you had time to talk about the game,” Rowan said.

McKay's hands stopped dead in mid-word. For some reason the half-finished freecell game popped back up. He turned to Rowan, his expression carefully neutral. “What's wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing's wrong,” Rowan said. “I just... had something to ask you.”

Those words might have been a mistake. This whole thing might have been a mistake as Rowan watched something close to dismay break out from behind McKay's eyes before he turned away. “I... thought it went rather well,” McKay said.

“It did,” Rowan agreed, keeping his voice calm and level. He was deeply curious as to what made McKay act like this. At the same time he knew he desperately did not want to know. “I thought it went spectacularly.”

McKay then looked at him, torn between confusion and betrayal. “You're... not kicking me out?” he asked quietly.

“Of course not,” Rowan said. “Heck no.”

“You're not quitting are you?”

Obviously Rowan should have thought this through more. “I don't plan on it,” Rowan said. “Is there anything I should know?”

“No, no, nothing,” McKay said. “Then... why are you here?”

Rowan sat down on a lab bench. He wasn't sitting on anyone's computer so it was fine. He ignored the sensation of being glared at from Zelenka's direction; this wasn't a chemical lab, he wasn't going to dissolve his pants again. “I expect the game will have some... delicate events in the future,” he said. “Something that could get me punched if I sprung it on Colonel Carter. And Sheppard's out of the question entirely.”

“Why?” McKay said, getting suspicious. Rowan could see the scenarios evolving.

“He's playing a dude,” Rowan said.

“Oh,” McKay said. “Oh!”

Rowan smirked as he realized the scenarios in McKay's head did not take that into account.

“So you're asking...” McKay trailed off.

“I'm asking if you'd be offended if someone decided to hit on Mira,” Rowan said. “You don't have to respond favorably, just...”

“Oh,” McKay said. “Why would I be offended?”

Rowan was not entirely sure why McKay seemed unable to comprehend the situation. But then he'd heard the rumors, that McKay met Carter by hitting on her like every bad stalker joke imaginable before she punched him for it. At least, that was the rumor. They seemed to work together well enough now so either Carter was a bigger man than he was or the rumors weren't quite so accurate. But then, the exile to Siberia totally happened, that was a matter of public record. Rowan shook off his confusion. Now was not the time. He didn't need to know the ins and outs of his superiors former lives to work with them. “Some people might be,” he said with a shrug. “It's a good way to get punched.”

Soft snickering came from behind them. They both looked over to see Zelenka pretending he wasn't listening while trying not to laugh.

“I'm comfortable with my sexuality,” McKay said dismissively. “Do whatever. I'm sure it'll be fine.”

Rowan nodded. McKay had no idea what he'd just agreed to but Rowan wasn't going to argue with an affirmative like that.

“Was there anything else?” McKay demanded. The freecell game on his computer disappeared again. Rowan noticed the keyboard hadn't even been touched. Had McKay been augmenting his machine?

“The next batch of product is ready,” Rowan said. “I figured you'd want to know before the requisition order came in.”

“I will go take a look,” McKay said. He closed his laptop and left, making a beeline for the transporter and the beer Rowan had just admitted to finishing.

“I will fetch my share later,” Zelenka said. “Trends show the military will learn in half an hour. I have until then.”

“If you want to risk it,” Rowan warned.

Zelenka smirked. He held up a radio. It was not his own. He glanced at McKay's workstation.

Rowan grinned as he realized.

“You know, I might be interested in this game of yours,” Zelenka said. “And not just to watch McKay fend off his own poor tactics.”

“I'm gonna get punched,” Rowan lamented.

“Perhaps by Sheppard,” Zelenka agreed.

“I probably won't be able to get you into the story immediately,” Rowan admitted. “We can wait until next Sunday if you'd rather...”

“I will find ways to entertain myself,” Zelenka said. The radio next to his computer beeped. He held it up to his ear then put it down. “Is not important,” he said. “Will solve itself.”

“Somehow I'm not assuaged.”

Zelenka smiled. “Then let us leave this here and go distribute your product properly. Remove ourselves from the solving.”

Rowan could agree with that. He did not want to explain why he was complicit in Zelenka stealing McKay's radio to protect illicit beer distribution.


Charlie and Mira watched the commotion with various expressions of mirth. Charlie didn't even bother to hide her gleeful grin at the antics in the fenced pasture behind the Goblin Squash Stables. Mira, on the other hand, couldn't help but interject. “You're doing it wrong!” she shouted.

In the pasture Ace was running for his life. Or at least that's how he was acting.

The three of them were at the stables on the invitation of some local lord. Charlie and Thomas had saved his life during the goblin raid and now the lord was looking to repay the act with some frivolity. At least, that's how Charlie described it.

Mira looked at the horses she and Charlie had been 'given'. Rented, more like. The horses were to be returned by the end of the day. They both had bored mares, calm and docile, draped in full bridle and saddle. Mira's horse snorted.

“I know,” Mira said, patting the horse. “I should.”

“Should what?” Charlie asked as she hoisted herself onto her horse's back. She wasn't very good at it and ended up facing backwards. She scowled and dismounted.

“I should take pity on him,” Mira said.

“Wait, what?”

Mira walked out of the stables to the pasture fence where the Stablemaster Daviren was shouting random tips and laughing at Ace's failure. “Are you sure he knows what he's doing?” Mira asked.

“He hasn't a clue,” Daviren admitted. “But Stormhoof won't really hurt him.”

Mira hoisted herself over the pasture fence.

“Are where are you going, lady?”

“Ace can use my horse,” Mira said. She whistled to catch Ace's attention. “I'll ride this one!” she shouted. “Try my horse!”

Ace ran for the pasture fence and vaulted it while Stormhoof reared and roared behind him.


“You have an eight in strength, McKay,” Sheppard said.

“I know,” McKay said defensively. “Ride is based on dexterity. Unlike you I have ranks in Ride.”

“Why?” Carter asked, craning her neck to get a look at McKay's character sheet. “You're a wizard.”

“A wizard's absurd intelligence means Mira has an absurd number of skill points,” Rowan said as though it was obvious.

The game room around them continued on with its activities. Poker in the back today, a game of Risk in the corner, an argument over who got to be the thimble in Monopoly, Ronon sat one table away not even bothering to pretend to play a game. Instead he sat next to Zelenka with a tray of various snacks pilfered from the mess hall. Zelenka had a tablet in front of him, occasionally consulting with Ronon in hushed tones. It would have seemed more suspicious if Ronon was quiet at all about their discussion. The random “druid sounds good” and “McKay's already a wizard” and “stabbing's always good” gave away their activities.

“I'm going to wait until the horse stops lording his victory over Ace,” McKay said. “Then, once he's calmed down I'm going to take out an apple.”

Ronon picked an apple off his tray and tossed it toward the gaming table. Sheppard caught it and looked at it, wondering what was going on. McKay took the apple from him and bit into it.

“What do you do?” Rowan asked.

“This, mostly,” McKay admitted. “I'm going to stand here slowly eating an apple. What does the horse do?”

Rowan rolled a die, one with expressive faces on it instead of numbers. The face came up somewhat happy. “Stormhoof will approach. Remember, he's naked. He's no bridle, no bit, and no saddle. You'll need to get him back into the stable for saddling if you want to ride him.”

McKay smirked and took another bite of his apple. “I have a better idea.”


Mira dangled her half-eaten apple in front of her, coaxing Stormhoof over to her. He stepped closer, wide nostrils sniffing. She held the apple out and let him take it.

Stormhoof ate the apple and snorted. His tail swished behind him.

Mira reached out to gently rub his nose. He stepped back once then let her pet him. “You're bored here, aren't you?” Mira asked.

Stormhoof didn't answer, not with words anyway. She didn't know Speak With Animals but she'd grown up around horses. Every caravan relied on its horses, treated them like family. She knew the basics of calming, riding, and caring for a horse. Stormhoof just wasn't used to the attention and had to be handled with care. “You don't like the saddle, do you?” she asked. “You're not the only one. My caravan has a horse, Nightmoth, who can't stand the feel of reigns or a saddle. She walks next to the wagons. Sometimes I got to ride her when my cousin and I scouted ahead.”

Stormhoof rumbled. She knew it was a happy noise. “Will you let me ride you?” she asked.

Stormhoof didn't answer. But he didn't shy away when Mira moved to his flank, petted his shoulders, put her hands on his spine and hoisted herself onto his back.

Then everything changed. Mira buried her hands in Stormhoof's mane as he reared and ran around the pasture.

In the stable Charlie and Ace watched in shocked appreciation. “You sure she's not a druid?” Charlie asked.

“She said she's an evoker,” Ace said.

“Huh.”

Ace had to agree. Mira rode sidesaddle, bent low over the horse's racing back. Her skirts fluttered, her feet tucked underneath as hooves thundered without the malice that had chased him. Instead there was something different, something almost gleeful with her scarves trailing behind her, her red hair bouncing and blowing in the wind.

“You're staring,” Charlie said.

“Hmm?” Ace shook himself out his reverie. But the effects remained. He watched Mira as she pulled the horse back under some semblance of control, or maybe she was simply taking credit for his actions as he slowed down to a trot then a triumphant stop, head tossing gloriously.

“A beautiful specimen.”

Ace started at the new voice. The man who stood beside him was familiar, a human lord who had to be rescued during the goblin raid. Ace tried to remember the name.

“Lord Foxglove,” Charlie said. “So glad to see you're well.”

“And you of course, my dear,” Foxglove said. He took her hand and kissed it, lingering at a strange leer that made Ace feel uncomfortable. “I see your companion Thomas has moved on. Such a shame.”

“The untimely death of Reggie the Bard! affected us all,” Charlie said, pulling away from him. “If you'll excuse me, my lord.” She mounted her horse correctly this time. She pulled on the reigns and kicked the mare's sides, guiding the horse out of the stable.

Ace turned his attention back out to the pasture where Mira was arranging herself properly on the back of Stormhoof. He still wasn't entirely sure how she managed it without a saddle or without straddling the horse securely. Wasn't one supposed to straddle a horse?

“Who is she?” Foxglove asked as he too leaned against the pasture fence to gaze at its occupants.

“Her name's Mira,” Ace said. “She's a wizard, I think.”

“An enchantress, no doubt,” Foxglove said.

“An evoker,” Ace corrected. He was feeling uncomfortable again. Foxglove had a look he did not like.

“A pity,” Foxglove said. “She's certainly bewitching enough.” With that he left, leaving Ace alone in the stable with a bad feeling about this.

That discomfort did not lessen after mounting his own horse, Mira's boring old mare Socks, and joining the hunting party for this boar hunt. It was a small hunting party for such challenging quarry, no one even carried a boar spear, but then maybe Lord Foxglove didn't plan on succeeding. He certainly wasn't very interested in the hunt. Rather he kept trying to ride too close to Mira, sending her horse snorting and trotting off. Mira either didn't seem to notice or maybe she didn't care that Foxglove was content to spend the day hunting her instead of their actual quarry.

Then Ace got his first look at the 'boars' of the Tickwood and had to admit, these were not dangerous. The wild pigs were hairy and tusked like real boars but they were small, stunted. Was this some sort of forest playground? Ace knew of such things, forests stocked with tame game for bored nobles to play hunter in, but he thought only the elves of Kyonin were the right mix of vain and lazy. Apparently the humans had their own versions.

Foxglove wasn't even involved in the actual hunt. Ace tagged it with a bow and then the chase lasted some pitiful amount of time until Foxglove's manservants cornered the animal with spears and put it down.

“Most excellent,” Foxglove crowed, clapping his hands in delight. “You all must join me at the Rusty Dragon this evening, I'm sure the Madam Kaijitsu can create something simply divine with this trophy.”

Mira came up nearby, Stormhoof glaring sidelong at Foxglove's large black charger. The charger snorted in warning and stamped once.

“Perhaps you could charm my horse the way you did yours, my dear,” Foxglove said. He guided his charger alongside Stormhoof, his hand drifting across to her waist.

“It's no secret, my lord,” Mira said. “A simple bribe with an apple and a promise not to saddle him. Horses do enjoy their finery.”

Foxglove leaned in close enough to whisper. “As do we, my dear.”

Mira dug her heel into Stormhoof's side as she felt Foxglove's hand drift much lower than was proper. Stormhoof leapt into a moment of sprint before turning on Foxglove and his black charger. Mira looked as unimpressed as Stormhoof did. Foxglove merely winked at her.


“You're gettin' grabby there,” Carter warned.

Rowan grinned unabashedly and pointed to McKay. “I... have permission.”

Carter gaped at McKay who had the audacity to look proud of himself.

“Why?” Sheppard asked.

“I am comfortable with my sexuality, Colonel,” McKay said. “I don't need to prove anything.”


The Rusty Dragon was more subdued than it might have been. Ace understood why. Ameiko's father had been killed by the same man who murdered Reggie the Bard! Both of them suffered horrific deaths and even though nobody told her that her father had been alive when he was encased in molten glass, well... That was the kind of horrific realization the mind jumped to on its own without needing any outside help.

It explained the lack of Ameiko's distinctive singing. Not that Foxglove wasn't prepared, he had a couple of musicians on hand to provide some background music.

At least it seemed like background music. It was less than audible over the din of conversation, of plates banging, of laughing and cavorting, of one of the locals standing on the hearth telling the most exaggerated story Ace had ever heard. Okay, that itself was an exaggeration. Some of the stories Jargie Quinn down at the Hagfish tavern told about how he lost that leg were worse.

And then he heard the slap.

Ace could have sworn the entire tavern went silent, but maybe he just didn't hear it all anymore. All he saw was Mira looking flustered, like she'd just pulled herself out of unwanted arms. Considering the look on Lord Foxglove's face that scenario seemed so much more likely. Foxglove descended, grabbing both of her wrists and pulling her against him even as she struggled.

Ace was on his feet before he knew it. He didn't have his sword but he didn't need it. There were plenty of other weapons nearby. Even just a fist.

Foxglove's nose made a satisfying crunch against his fist.


“Sheppard!” Carter shouted.

The entire game room was indeed quiet, most eyes watching the game in the corner. A few enterprising poker players took the opportunity to shift a few jelly beans among the stacks. At the Monopoloy game a scientist still absently shook the dice cup, the rattle loud in the silence.

Sheppard realized he had not in fact punched Rowan. Even though Rowan had McKay's wrists in a vice-like grip and had been whispering something obscene in McKay's ear while he put up a token struggle. But he realized he had wanted to.

Then delighted applause broke the tension. Everyone turned to see Ronon with his eyes shining in glee, giving a standing ovation. Zelenka looked up at him, eyebrow raised.

McKay slumped and easily twisted out of Rowan's grip. Rowan merely bowed, which did not help the situation at all.

“He warned me you might punch him,” McKay said, glaring at Sheppard as he plopped down in his seat.

Sheppard looked confused then sheepish as he realized it had been an act. Rowan had spun McKay out of his seat, arms around him like iron bands to hold him still against his will. McKay obviously knew what was going on because he hadn't panicked, he'd stayed in character and didn't simply duck out of the enforced embrace. Not until Rowan whispered something in McKay's ear and got slapped for it. Then it went further and...

Sheppard had to remember, this wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

“So Ace seriously gets up and punches Foxglove?” Rowan asked.

Sheppard cracked his knuckles. He still felt the need to hit something, real or no.

“Okay,” Rowan said. “That shocks the tavern into silence. Foxglove lets go of Mira and puts his hand to his face. You bloodied him a bit, he does not look impressed. 'You should have said something, my clever enchantress,' he says. He looks Mira up and down and smiles. It's creepier with the bloody nose. 'Once he's recovered from your charms you should come to Magnimar. I'd love to show you a proper city.' Then he turns, snaps his fingers once, and leaves. Most of the tavern's occupants leave after him.”

“Good riddance,” McKay said. “An enchantress, can you believe him?”

“One person doesn't leave,” Rowan continued. “There's an elf woman in the corner. She's got hoops in her ears down to her shoulders, hair tied at the top of her head, and she looks like she's been enjoying the free food until now. She gets up and saunters over.”

“Can I help you?” Carter asked, taking on Charlie's minor drawl.

“'I'm looking for someone who can help a girl out,' she says. 'The name's Shalelu. I scout the Hinterlands around here and I got a lead on your goblin problem.'”

Chapter Text

Ronon's grin followed them out of the gaming room, down to the transporter, up to the mess hall, and all through the lunch line. It continued even when a table was selected and McKay began unwrapping a pile of sandwiches.

Carter finally couldn't stop herself. “Why do you watch us game, anyway?” she asked.

“We're Satedan High Theatre,” McKay said before growling at his frustratingly wrapped sandwich and tossing it into the middle of the table. He went for another one, resolutely ignoring how Sheppard took the wrapped sandwich, unwrapped it easily, then somehow ate it with a distinct smugness.

“On Sateda you'd have costumes and prop weapons,” Ronon said. “Every scene would be acted like Rodney did with Foxglove. An entire audience would be watching, hanging on your every action.”

Carter looked like she needed to say something but it wouldn't come out.

“This would be done in playhouses and everything,” McKay explained. “Pete would have his own balcony and minions.”

“Storyhouses,” Ronon corrected. “For big scenes the entire audience would be involved. And only the storyteller knows what happens next.”

“Jack needs to hear about this,” Carter said.

“Oh god no,” Sheppard said. He hid underneath his sandwich, not even reacting when Ronon stole it and ate it. “Don't tell him about this.”

“Why not?” Carter asked.

“I'll never live it down.”

“Jack played a half-orc barbarian named Berry for a year and a half,” Carter said, completely deadpanned. She ignored the snort and the painful-sounding coughing next to her. It turned into a wheeze as McKay stopped choking on his sandwich and stared, open-mouthed and speechless.

Sheppard did not look any less disturbed by this statement. “Jack O'Neill,” he clarified. “General O'Neill. Played this game. As a half-orc barbarian named...”

“Berry,” Carter confirmed. “Berry had the most annoying plot-armor imaginable: giant tits and a chainmail bikini.”

She looked around the table. Interestingly enough McKay had recovered from trying to inhale his sandwich and was now grinning while pointing at Sheppard, as though he'd just proven something. Sheppard looked disturbed, his entire worldview shifting. Ronon was the only one unaffected by her statement, instead he was stealing sandwiches off of McKay's tray and stuffing them into pockets she didn't know he had.

It was to this tableau that Teyla entered the mess hall, cocked her head at the display, and came over to their table. “I appear to have missed Rodney proving Sheppard wrong?” she said as she sat down. She patted Sheppard's shoulder. “This is not the first time, John.”

McKay sat back, smug rolling off of him in waves. “I told you it didn't mean anything,” he said. “So I'm playing a girl. Doesn't say anything about me.”

“You're playing the closest thing Golarion has to a scholar,” Carter said. “You specialize in blowing stuff up.” She recognized McKay's character as a gender-switched version of himself. Not that she could talk, Charlie was her personified desire to stab people who deserved it. And Sheppard was... also playing himself to a certain degree, the version of himself he wanted most people to see. “You're playing what you know,” she finally said.

McKay's smug did not fall, at least not until he saw his empty tray. He glared at Ronon who returned one sandwich.

“Perhaps you'd like to join us?” Carter said to Teyla. “I know I've kind of co-opted them and...”

“I have little desire to act out a fiction,” Teyla said. “Athosians do not tell stories like yours. Our stories have a basis in history. This idea of inventing a story without purpose is strange to me. I am not comfortable with it.”

“Sorry,” Carter said.

“It is not your fault,” Teyla said. “It is something your people do to comfort each other. I understand.”

Sheppard felt a little guilty at her easy dismissal. He looked around the table. They were breaking for snacks and for Rowan to do 'GM prep stuff, you understand' for an hour. Maybe he should skip out on the second half of the game and spend the time with Teyla?

“I have agreed to a sparring session later today,” Teyla said. “Rodney, you did not tell me Dr. Kusanagi was such an expert with her weapon.”

“Kusanagi?” McKay asked, confused. “Miko Kusanagi? She has a weapon?”

“Yes, the bladed polearm she calls a 'naginata',” Teyla said. “She claims it is a traditional woman's weapon of her culture. It is delightful to spar with an expert of her caliber.”

Sheppard could tell he was being insulted. He decided to take the high road and sulk quietly even as Carter glanced at him and grinned. Fine then, he wouldn't skip out on the game to spend his Enforced Sunday with Teyla.

Besides, it sounded like they were finally going to be able to kill stuff. He was looking forward to that.

*****

“How will you introduce me?” Zelenka asked.

Rowan gave him a knowing smirk. “Goblins take prisoners,” he said. “It's easy enough.”

Everyone else was gone for an hour. Rowan and Zelenka were alone in their corner of the game room. The poker game in the back had devolved into arguments over shifted stacks and stolen jellybeans and ended up with everyone eating their winnings out of spite. Now a new poker game was forming with Dr. Parrish dealing and stacks of miniature chocolate bars. The Monopoly game continued, having progressed to the 'disgruntled glares' stage. Airman Roberts sat in a corner with a board game box, grinning hopefully at people while gesturing to the box and the empty table around him in an attempt to acquire players.

“So you want to be a cleric?” Rowan said.

“Yes, I was looking at the gods,” Zelenka said. “This Mother of Monsters seemed interesting.”

“No,” Rowan said. “No for reasons.”

Zelenka didn't exactly pout. “There is this god of murder...”

“Still no.”

Now Zelenka pouted. He looked back at the book. Most of these gods didn't interest him, they were too... wait... “What about this one?” he asked, pointing out the correct line. “The goddess of vengeance. And prostitutes.”

“You're already making this hard for me,” Rowan complained, sighing. “Yes, I'll allow you be a cleric of Calistria. No you can't be chaotic evil.”

“Now why would I do that?” Zelenka asked. He almost sounded sincere. Rowan wasn't fooled one bit.


Ace was getting tired. He knew if he was tired the others must be exhausted. Okay, maybe not Charlie, she seemed to be able to sneak and stab and lurk without ever losing stamina. But Mira...

She'd fallen back on minor spells and her crossbow, a sure sign that exhaustion was sapping her magic right out of her. They would need to rest soon. But they couldn't afford to retreat, not yet, not while the goblin leader lived.

The warrens outside were bad enough, short tunnels in spiny brambles that had felt like suicide. Too wet to burn, too thick to cut, too short to fight in. It was sheer luck that got them to the rope bridge to the main compound. Unfortunately the frontal assault left them with few options other than victory. Immediate victory.

But there were noises beyond this next door. Charlie listened at it, her face scrunched in confusion. “It's not goblins,” she said. “Someone's fighting in there.”

Before Ace could stop her she had the door open.

The large courtyard was open to the sky. Tenacious clumps of partially trampled grass grew fitfully in the hard-packed earth stained with blood. In the center a trio of goblin dogs circled a man with a shield and club, weapon raised as he swore and goaded the creatures. One lay dead behind him, its head bashed and bleeding.

Charlie jumped into the courtyard and threw a dagger, embedding it to the hilt in the spine of one of the goblin dogs. Ace rushed in. And then it was over.

The man fell to his knees, gasping from exertion. “Thank you... strangers...” he said. “I have prayed for the tools of my vengeance... And now you are here...”

Mira paused while trying to reload her crossbow. “I'm no tool,” she said. “I've been insulted.”

The man looked shocked. He bowed to her. “My apologies, my lady,” he said. “I have meant no insult.”

Mira had the feeling someone somewhere was laughing at her. The feeling faded quickly.

“I am Cela,” he said. “Devotee of the Lady Calistria.” He stood up. Cela looked like he'd lost most of his gear at some point in that he was wearing pants and not much else. He wielded a large stick as a club and a shield that was one size too small. He had tattoos but no proper holy symbol. His pointed ears marked him as a half-elf.

Meanwhile, Mira was investigating a barred door in the back of the courtyard. It seemed to lead to a shed that was vibrating with barely controlled anger.

“Bad idea,” Charlie called. Mira ignored her and lifted the bar. She opened the door.

“Mira!” Ace shouted but she was already inside.

The expected sounds of dismemberment did not happen. Ace crept forward, in some loud manner of creeping, and drew his sword. He jumped in front of the door, weapon ready to rescue Mira from...

Oh.

Ace's shoulders fell and he sheathed his weapon. “Are you sure you're not a druid?” he demanded.

Inside the shed the goblins had imprisoned a gigantic horse. It was thin and panting, its gray coat ticked with white, its giant hooves wreathed with fur. Mira was feeding the thing apples from Desna knows where, apples the gigantic horse ate daintily from her hands.

Mira gave him a look. Ace could have sworn the horse looked as unimpressed as she did.

Charlie looked at the horse, remembering the rickety rope bridge between Thistletop and the mainland, the dense warren of thickets, the fact that the courtyard was surrounded by buildings too small for a heavy warhorse of this size. “How?!” she demanded.


Carter fixed Rowan with a glare that clearly called bullshit. Meanwhile McKay ate another apple while Sheppard made faces at him. Zelenka was the only who didn't seem affected by the ridiculousness of that particular encounter.

“There's a secret to that rope bridge,” Rowan said, justifying himself to Carter's glare. “It can be rigged to hold a lot more than it looks. It's less stupid than it seems.”

Carter sat back, continuing to give him a sidelong glare.

“There's a second storage shed off of the courtyard,” Rowan said, turning to the other players. “Cela's stuff is in there. You have your holy symbol again and you can cast spells.”

“Great, we need a cleric,” McKay said between bites. “We got beat up getting in here.”

“Are you going to be eating an apple every time we find a horse?” Sheppard asked.

“Should I not?”

Sheppard couldn't find an answer to that.

“I will do this... ah, yes, 'channel positive energy',” Zelenka said. He rolled the indicated dice. “Everyone heals five points.”

“It's something,” Carter said. “We might get through this.”


Cela was proving to be a more capable fighter than Mira, although he had little to no talent for wanton destruction. And Cela had the presence of mind to go into battle wearing armor, unlike the wizard. Mira had explained it once, something about armor interfering with the complex patterns and delicate energies needed to conjure the power needed to cause a goblin's head to explode at 30 paces. Ace wasn't sure why she wore all those skirts and scarves, then. Surely they interfered just as much?

Regardless, they fought their way through Thistletop to the locked doors of the goblin's throne room. Charlie made quick work of the locks and then they were in. Ace had his sword drawn ready to take down the little monsters, Charlie had knives at the ready, and Cela had a spiked bullwhip at the ready.

“Stop!” The voice had the toothy annoying quality of a goblin but the words it spoke were Taldane.

The throne room was exactly as disgusting as Ace thought a goblin throne room would be. The 'throne' was a heap of pelts and skulls, a large horse skull over the back. Pillars studded with iron spikes held up the ceiling, human hands dangling from some of those spikes. Large skins covered the walls, only somewhat preserved as leather. The entire place had a distinct stench of goblin and decay.

On that throne sat a tiny thing, teeth filed to points and chunks ripped from its ears. A guard or adviser or both stood nearby, a giant lizard lay curled up in a corner sleeping.

The goblin leader stood up. It wasn't Ace's imagination, the leader was somewhat shorter than the others. “You have not earned the right to approach me, for I am Ripnugget, warchief of the Thistletop goblins and you! You are trespassers here in my domain. You steal my things, you take my trophies, you kill my people! You, longshanks, have much to answer for.”

Charlie glanced up while this self-styled 'warchief' was talking. She saw movement in the shadows of the ceiling. She looked at the others but no one else seemed to have noticed. She knew Elven, one and a half of her companions were elves, surely one of them would understand...

“Ceiling,” she whispered in Elven.

Cela's ears twitched as he heard the rustle above them. He winked at Charlie.

“You!” Ripnugget shouted, pointed at Mira. “Veiled one, you look like you understand the value of parley over battle. You may approach. No one else, you! Alone, you!”

Mira sighed. “Fine,” she said.

“Bad idea,” Charlie warned.

“I know,” Mira muttered. She didn't even have any magical protection, not since her scroll had run its course.

“Ceiling,” Cela whispered in Elven.

Ace craned his head up even as Charlie and Cela both winced.

“Now!” Ripnugget shouted.

“Mira!” Ace shouted. He'd seen the ambush above them, the bows all trained on her. She looked up just in time to see them.

Ace charged right into Mira, knocking her to the ground as the arrows flew down. He felt fiery pain as one of them found its mark.

And then everything happened at once. Charlie threw knives into the rafters, Cela flicked the tongue of his bullwhip to wrap around a goblin's ankle while he swung the creature as a weapon in and of itself. Mira struggled beneath Ace, hands shoving at his shoulders. Ace slowly painfully got to his feet, picked up his sword, and raised it as the goblin warchief mounted the sleeping lizard, hitting it with the butt of his weapon until it awoke.

Ripnugget spurred the lizard on, charging at the fighter and his precious wizard.

Mira stood up. Wrath rolled from her in waves as she pulled a card from her harrow deck, screaming Thassilonian obscenities at the charging goblin and then...

A bright flash of light, a riotous spray of color...

The lizard tripped in its charge, twisting and curling as it fell. Its rider did not fare much better as he went slack, sliding out of the saddle and landing on the floor of the throne room.

The room went quiet. Only Mira's furious hissing breaths broke the silence. Then sound descended again as the battle ended quickly. Charlie and Cela took to stripping the bodies of their valuables, quietly arguing over who should get what. Mira looked at her harrow deck, Baba Rann's prophecy cards, and the card she'd pulled in anger. In readings the Peacock was a card of beauty frozen in time, of swift societal change. Today the glare of the cockatrice had sapped her enemies of all strength and will with a splash of color. The spell Color Spray was in her spellbook but she hadn't prepared it. She'd never even used it before. Yet here were the results, the goblin's warchief laying on the floor in a pool of his own blood where his throat had been slit without fuss or bother, his riding animal dead beside him.

She heard a commotion and all introspection fell away, given over to laughter. Ace had been shot during the ambush. The short shaft of a goblin's arrow still stuck out of his ass.


The entire table was laughing at him. Sheppard made a face. “Just for that I'm taking all the pickles,” he said.

“The goblin pickles?” Carter asked. “You can have 'em.”

“Eugh.” McKay made a face to accompany the sound. “They have smoked side of Boromir in there, not interested.”

“Nerd,” Sheppard said.

McKay looked affronted. “Well then I guess I won't invite you to blow stuff up with me,” he said, sniffing.

“In or out of character?” Sheppard asked.

“Either. Pete made a bad batch of C4 and I was going to dispose of it properly but...”

Sheppard looked to Rowan for confirmation. “It was a bad batch,” Rowan admitted. “Didn't come out right. Safest thing to do is take it out onto the mainland and blow it up.”

That was confirmation enough. He nudged McKay with his shoulder. “I'll bring beer,” he offered.

McKay seemed to consider the offer. His eyes betrayed him. “Good beer,” he said. “None of this American water.”

Sheppard grinned hopefully at Rowan. “Yes, I'll get you the good stuff,” Rowan said, voice dull as though this was some extreme effort on his part. As though he didn't have his own private stock for barter, excuse, and emergency.

Sheppard sat back, smug and satisfied. He was going to get to blow stuff up with McKay. Better yet, since this was an official disposal of dangerous explosive chemicals he could claim this was a part of his actual job. Carter was right here not objecting and everything.

*****

“Fire in the hole!”

A muffled FOOM and a puff of dirt betrayed the charge of poorly mixed C4 as it was destroyed, consumed in the fire of a proper RDX charge.

The jumper sat on the edge of the treeline, far from the field that by now was pocked with nearly a dozen small holes. Pete's 'bad batch' was not particularly large but it was being broken down into small charges for 'safety' and each charge set up and set off individually. Near the jumper, downwind from the flying dust, Ronon and Teyla sat around a fire with these strange tubular 'hot dogs' roasting on sticks. A bag of marshmallows sat nearby although those looked like they might not make it to nightfall and the traditional time for roasting as Teyla kept eating them by the handful.

At the edge of the field sat a cooler of beer, a brick of RDX, and a plastic bucket filled with what Peter Rowan assured them was an imperfect C4 mix. It seemed strange for Pete to mix a bad C4 batch but it had to happen eventually. McKay used rubber gloves and a lack of common sense to shape the C4 mix into a new charge while Sheppard hooked up a new detonator to the small charge of RDX that would be used to blow the C4.

A new spot in the field was chosen, the collection assembled, and then the pair returned to a safe distance.

“Fire in the hole!” Sheppard shouted.

FOOM

A shower of dirt sprayed in the air and splattered on the ground, the various small craters, and the pair who gleefully watched. They seemed to be giggling.

Teyla rolled her eyes and stole another handful of marshmallows. Half the bag was empty. “I am glad they are enjoying each other's company in this world,” she said.

Ronon raised an eyebrow and tried to take the bag of marshmallows from her.

She snatched it away, holding it close. “I know you enjoy their fictional world,” she said. “But it is fiction. It is better that they live here rather than there.”

“It's just Enforced Sundays,” Ronon said. “Nobody's living in it. Colonel Carter says it's healthy to be someone else sometimes.”

Teyla made a humming noise, perhaps of disapproval. Or maybe of dismissal. Or maybe it was an order for Ronon to get her more marshmallows. “Did she say why that is?”

Ronon shrugged.

“Fire in the hole!”

FOOM

Ronon picked up the stick of a roasting hot dog. It was charred black from the flames, split and weeping juices. It didn't seem to have any internal anatomy... He bit into it anyway.

In the field Sheppard and McKay built another bomb as the great orange sun sank low on the horizon.


Night fell in the fields outside of Sandpoint. The lights of the town glittered behind them. Here, under the moonlight, Ace watched and giggled while Mira drunkenly flung charges of magic into the fields, charges that exploded with flashes of fire and lightning and color.

She cackled, laughing manically at her own power. She leaned against him, leaned so much they fell to the grass laughing.

Ace reached for the bottles of wine they'd liberated from the tavern. Their glasses were elsewhere, maybe back inside? No matter. He handed her a bottle, keeping another for himself. It tasted like honey and flowers.

Mira looked at him under thick eyelashes, blue eyes clear in the moonlight. He wondered what she saw, if she could see what he did. He wondered if he could show her.

“Hey,” Ace whispered. “What is it?”

Mira laid her head on his chest and sighed. “Nothing,” she said. She nuzzled his tunic, it still smelled like the lining of his breastplate. They both needed a bath, there was no way they didn't still smell like Thistletop. “Just... thinking.” She yawned.

Ace let his hand rest on her back as he took a swig of wine. He felt her arms curl around him as...

“Mira?” Ace asked. She didn't answer, instead groaning as she stuffed her face into his chest. She'd fallen asleep.

Ace smiled. He petted her hair as she slept. It had been a long dungeon, she needed sleep. And the night was beautiful.

Chapter Text

Mira pounded on the door of the room. The noise echoed in the inn's hallway. She could almost hear the voices on the other end of the hall's many doors grumbling about the time. It was early, what's the ruckus, tell the witch to go back to sleep... She didn't pay attention, pounding harder. “Ace!” she shouted. “Get up! This is important!”

The door unlocked and unlatched. Ace stood there, dark hair in disarray, eyes half shut, shirt missing. At least he wore pants. “What is it?” he asked, yawning.

Mira still held her fist up as though to continue pounding. “I didn't think elves slept,” she said.

“'S a myth,” Ace said. “Why am I awake?”

It took a moment for her brain to kick back in. By the time it had her mind was back to screaming at her about the urgency of horrible recent events. “The Crows is missing,” she said.

“Crows.” Ace leveled her with a sleepy glare. “There's crows missing. It's night, I'm sure they'll fly back in later.”

“No no no, not birds,” Mira said, trying to get him to understand. “The Crows! The cards aren't complete! How am I supposed to read if the cards aren't complete?”

Ace obviously didn't understand the importance of this development. Mira debated trying to make him understand but Charm Person would be rude. And she didn't have it prepared. The cleric did, though, Cedric or Seela or whatever his name was. “I have to talk to the cleric,” she said, running off down the hall.

Ace debated going back to bed. But if he did that she'd get even weirder. So he followed her as she ran down the hall to Cela's room.

She didn't even knock, she didn't have to. Cela's door was unlocked. He was also... occupied.

Cela was wide awake and so was the barmaid in his lap. She tried to cover herself from the sudden intrusion, hands going to her breasts, but Cela merely thrust deeply into her, making her moan while he turned sultry eyes on Mira.

“I'll wait,” Mira said, leaving. She shut the door behind her.

Calistria was a lustful goddess, the lady of prostitutes and wanton passion. Vengeance came with that portfolio, born of the same hot passion that fueled affairs and one-night stands. It made sense that a cleric of Calistria would seek to honor his goddess by bedding a barmaid.

Ace walked up, almost awake. “Thought you needed to see the cleric,” he said sleepily.

“He's in the middle of 'midnight prayers',” Mira said. “Don't want to interrupt.”

Ace gently pushed her off the door and walked in. It took a moment for him to realize what he was seeing and then Ace was wide awake. “Oh holy fuck!”


Sam Carter nearly fell out of her chair laughing.

McKay was not much better. First he fell against Sheppard while laughing. Then Sheppard shoved him over and McKay actually fell out of his chair. He didn't seem to notice or mind, choosing instead to lie on the floor laughing.

Rowan had his head down on the table. It did not muffle his own laughter even as he tried to pull himself together so he could salvage the game.

It took Sheppard a moment to realize what he'd said. Then he grew red and tried to hide behind his hands.

Zelenka, on the other hand, was managing to maintain an air of indignance despite the situation. “You are an elf,” he said with an imperiousness that made Carter clutch at the table and her own belly. “You know the duties of a priest of Calistria.” Zelenka's expression changed with ominous slowness to a mighty leer. “If you are going to interrupt my prayers you might as well join. It would do you good.”

Sheppard scootched away, taking over McKay's chair. McKay was on the floor, he wouldn't miss it.

“Five... minute break...” Rowan muttered.

Sheppard didn't trip over his own feet, honest, he must have tripped over McKay. He didn't go far, only to the table where Ronon sat watching them with a bowl of snacks.

McKay sighed and clawed his way back to his chair. He sat, panting and gasping. A glance at Carter, who was similarly less than hinged put him back into giggling.

“They're good at this,” Ronon said.

Sheppard gave Ronon a wary look.

“It's in the game,” Ronon said. “It's not in real life.”

At the table Zelenka leaned over, laying his head on the table next to the other players'. “Are you done?” he asked innocently.

Carter snorted before managing to hold in her mirth and sat up. “I'm okay,” she said. “I'm okay.”

McKay laid on the table and sighed happily. A few minor chuckles escaped him before he bottled it away and sat up, his red cheeks and breathlessness the only sign he'd been laughing at all.

“The way I figure, Pete's not really interested in McKay,” Ronon said. “He just acts like it when he has to play Foxglove. Same way, Dr. Z isn't interested in you like that. He's just acting like it because his character's a whore.”

“Hey,” Carter warned.

“Is not inaccurate,” Zelenka allowed.

Carter glared at Rowan who pretended not to notice.

“You can flirt without meaning it,” Ronon said. “It's what they're doing.”

Sheppard thought about it. He was still thinking about it when Rowan got control of the table again and called everyone back.


Mira's room looked ransacked. Ace forgot his flustered state as his blood ran cold. Had she been in here when the thief did this? What had they taken?

Charlie looked out the window, checking the sill and the street below. There were some faint marks but she couldn't tell how old they were. This room was on the second floor, a convenient slope of the lower floor's roof just there within easy jumping distance. She shuddered. This room wasn't secure at all. “Someone broke in and did all this?” she asked.

“What? Oh, no, I did most of this.”

Ace stopped in the middle of putting the straw mattress back on the bedframe and gave her an exasperated look. He dropped the mattress on the frame with a grand gesture of distinct frustration.

“What?” Mira demanded. She pulled a deck of cards out of her scarves and jumped on the mattress. She folded her legs below her and spread the cards out before her.

“Is that... are they real?” Cela asked. His eyes were wide and he looked afraid to touch.

“They were my Baba Rann's,” Mira said. “They're older than she was. Older than our wagons.” She looked sad, gazing at something or some time no one else could see. “She gave them to me. With her last breath.”

Cela looked like he was gazing at some terrible, wonderful thing. Ace wondered what these cards were to elicit such a response.

“Are they magic?” Charlie asked.

“They're my magic,” Mira said. “They wouldn't work for anyone else.” She pointed to an ominous gap in the cards. “The Crows is missing. I searched everywhere for it, tore this room apart to find it, and it's not here. I read for a man downstairs earlier and I had the Crows then. I checked them afterward and I had the Crows then. I went to sleep and I had the Crows then. I had a nightmare, Desna was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't, I couldn't stop it, and when I woke up the Crows was gone.”

Only then did Ace realize this might mean something more than the loss of just some card. Perhaps it was the utter seriousness that Cela displayed despite barely wearing his small clothes. Or maybe it was the gentle way he sat across from her on the bed, carefully stopping himself from even touching the cards without permission.

Charlie had the same sense of dread. “You can stay in my room,” she offered. “This one is too open, the window isn't secure.”

“Thank you,” Mira said. She looked like she was about to cry.

Cela gently touched her arm. “They are your cards,” he said. “They can tell you who took the Crows.”

Mira nodded. She spread the cards out further and pulled out the eight cards of the suit of keys. There should have been nine but the Crows was a card of the suit of keys. She overturned the eight cards and swirled them around, eyes falling closed in something between relaxation and concentration. A sense of magic so strong it made Ace's hair stand on end filled the room as she pulled a single overturned card and revealed it.

“The Rabbit Prince,” she said, voice subdued. “It's useless, my skills won't find it.”

“Desna wouldn't do that to you,” Cela whispered. He moved to sit behind her, his hands gently stroking her shoulders, her arms. She didn't move away or toward his touch, instead seeming to accept it. “Continue. You may not find it but perhaps you will find the one who will.”

Mira took a deep breath and nodded as she collected the cards together and shuffled them, delicate hands working expertly against the ancient waxed paper. Despite their age the cards were bright and vibrant, their colors as pure as the day they were painted. But there was no way to know their age, nothing but vague caravan tales.

She closed her eyes, flipped over nine cards in a grid, and then opened her eyes. She wasn't done. Her fingers gently touched each card, pulling some out of the spread and replacing them in the deck. The Uprising, the Waxworks, the Dance, and the Sickness all returned to her deck, unread.

“I've never seen one of these before,” Charlie said, watching from the window.

“The Rabbit Prince is the guide card,” Mira explained. “He's struggle personified, the second son left untitled, his broken sword represents the capriciousness of battle. There is no victory against the unending struggle. Bravery, skill, luck, all are useless against him.”

She ran her fingers down the cards that remained in the spread before her. “The Tangled Briar and the Rakshasa,” she said. “These events did not begin recently. This is something from some ancient past come back to haunt us. It's already done terrible things, enslaved the weak to its will.

“The Demon's Lantern,” she continued. She pointed back to the Rakshasa. “This enslavement continues even now. There is great evil at work and we will all suffer for it as we grope through darkness for an answer none can see.”

She pointed to the last two cards. “The Survivor and the Beating.” She shuddered. “Absolute loss... and eventual recovery from that loss. That is a faint comfort.”

“Destruction of this 'great evil'?” Ace asked.

“Not without sacrifice,” Mira said. The Survivor was a solemn card, a single wounded knight on a throne surrounded by his worldly treasures and the ghosts of his fallen comrades. It contrasted with the darkly comical tableau of the Beating, a screaming man being dragged underground by thirteen undead hands.

There was a knock on Mira's door.

Charlie ducked into shadows and palmed her daggers, ready to throw them. Ace realized he wasn't carrying his weapon, instead he cracked his knuckles and helped himself to Mira's crossbow. Cela patted her shoulders and stood up to get the door, his holy symbol hanging visibly from his neck. He put on an air of elven detachment and opened the door.

The entire room... fell out of battle-readiness as Sheriff Hemlock stood there, looking exhausted and haggard.

“What's wrong?” Cela asked. “It is not yet daylight.”

“This can't wait until morning?” Ace asked, tossing the crossbow back into its corner and scratching his bare torso. He yawned though it seemed exaggerated.

“It cannot,” Hemlock said. “This is a situation of utmost seriousness.”

“Murder,” Mira said. She held up the Rakshasa and raised an eyebrow. A crocodile-headed man leered smugly from the card where he sat on the back of a naked slave while daintily drinking tea.

Hemlock looked shocked that she knew about it. Then his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he said. “We have a murderer in our midst – one who, I fear, has only begun his work. This town nearly tore itself apart during the Late Unpleasantness when the Chopper's slayings went on unanswered. I'm afraid we might have something similar brewing now.

“A few hours ago the murderer struck at the sawmill. There are two victims and they're... they're in pretty gruesome shape. The bodies were discovered by one of the mill workers, a man named Ibor Thorn. I've got my men stationed there now, keeping the mill locked down, but the thing that bothers me isn't the fact that we have two dead bodies. It's the fact that this is actually the second set of murders we've had in the last few days.

“I come to you for help in the matter. My men are good but they're also green. They were barely able to handle themselves against the goblins and what we're facing now is an evil far worse than that. I need the help. But I'm afraid you'll need the help, too. You see, this particular murderer knows one of you as well.”

Hemlock pulled a folded piece of parchment out of his coat. He unfolded it to reveal a smaller bloodier scrap of parchment with Mira's name scrawled on it in blood.

Mira waved the others away from Hemlock and his twisted bloody note. Without getting up from her perch on the bed she gestured for the note to come closer. Hemlock moved to give it to her but started and scowled as the note went without him, gently floating into her hands. She unfolded the note to find its blood-lettered contents.

“You will learn to love me,” she said, voice dull with an odd lack of surprise. “You will desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to the Pack and it all shall end.” She turned dark unreadable eyes to the sheriff. “Signed Your Lordship.”

“The note was found pinned to the sleeve of the latest victim,” Hemlock said. “It's my belief this note was left to throw suspicion onto your friend here. While I don't believe any of you had anything to do with the murders, well, your friend here is a Varisian, a sorceress, and a fortune teller.” He glanced at the cards before her. She sat up straight and seemed to dare him to say something. He did, but not what she was expecting. “If word of this note gets out the rest of the town might not be so... understanding. I trust you'll agree, this needs to be kept quiet.”

“Of course,” Charlie said, stepping forward to guide the sheriff out of Mira's room. Her fingers twitched as her hand went to the small of his back. “We'll get on this right away. But first we need to get the cleric some pants, you understand.” She smiled and nodded and got him out the door. Then she tossed the coins she'd lifted from the sheriff's beltpurse to Mira. “In the meantime you're staying in my room.”

“Good idea,” Mira said. The bloody note was a poor substitute for her missing Crows.


McKay glared. He glowered. He growled. Through it all, the subject of his ire grew more and more sinister, taking on a wide grin and low hiss that only added to Rowan's ubiquitous eyepatch. Rowan leaned forward, hands steepling in front of him, grin deepening as he said those words that had seemed so innocent at the time.

“But Rodney... I have permission.”

McKay's anger drained into horrified realization.

Rowan leaned back and laughed, evil laughter that caused the rest of the game room to take notice. The poker game in the back paused, Parrish holding the river card in the middle of the deal. The game of Clue paused mid-turn, the marines around it all looking like they were suddenly faced with a real murder. Even Dr. Tomson in the back stopped painting long enough to put her glasses on to see what was up.

“Kind of a dick move,” Carter warned.

“I can be kind of a dick GM,” Rowan admitted. “After the first session I knew he was skilled enough to handle it. And that he wouldn't punch me.”

McKay's horror faded under the smugness of an ego-stroking.

“No, but Sheppard will punch you,” Zelenka warned. “He already has in metaphor.”

“Wait, that guy...” Sheppard sat back in something akin to awe as he realized Foxglove was the murderer. The whole thing from the previous book was setting up this murder case. And he couldn't let that knowledge alter how his character would act. Yes, he could see where the urge to punch Rowan would come in. He looked over at McKay and saw he'd made the same realization.

“All right, none of us know Foxglove did it,” Carter said. “Let's get this train wreck going.”


A growing crowd collected around the sawmill with the rising sun. City guards stood at the doors, barring access to all but those with permission to be there. The rest had to make due with craning their necks and maybe bribing a halfling to sneak around back.

Inside was the gruesome scene hinted at by the town crier. Machinery sat idle, toothed gears frozen even as the waterwheel continued turning merrily in the stream below. Sawdust splashed with blood and disturbed by a desperate struggle coated the plank floor. A log splitter loomed ominously on one wall, the body of a woman in several pieces on the floor among bloodstained firewood. The sight was stomach-churning but it didn't have the same impact as the man nailed to the wall.

The body of Banny Harker hung limp from the long nails used to hang him in place. The arms were nailed at the hands, the wrists, and the shoulders, the legs dangling free. His jaw was removed, his face clawed off to reveal the bare muscle and bone beneath. His shirt was torn open, sleeves dangling from his arms while his bare chest bore some sort of mark. The mark was not one he bore in life, or at least he had not been alive for long after its carving. The instrument that made this mark was sharp, all the better to make clean, neat, visible slices in the skin.

Mira went still, her breath falling and her face hardening in something almost like cold resignation. She knew that symbol, the seven pointed star.

Cela busied himself with examining the wounds, splaying his own hand against the claw marks on the body to show how they were made with disturbingly human-like hands. Ace followed the footsteps around the room, feet dancing lightly in a reenactment of the struggle that had been this man's last defense. It was Charlie who noticed Mira as she pulled a necklace out from her blouse. She hadn't owned it long, she'd looted it from the caverns beneath Thistletop, but it was the same symbol.

“Mira?” Charlie asked.

“It's the Sihedron,” Mira said. “It's an ancient symbol of Thassilon. The seven schools of magic.”

“There are eight specialties of arcane magic,” Cela said. He paused in his examination and looked at her. She did not look well. Not ill, but not well.

Mira shook her head. “Divination is a modern specialty,” she said. “The ancients thought everyone should know a little bit of divination. It was considered foolish to specialize in something so mundane.”

Ace stopped acting out the murder and noticed the strange tableau unfolding before the body. He came up behind Mira and lightly touched her arm. “Hey, you all right?” he asked.

“No,” Mira said. She tucked her medallion back inside her blouse. “No I'm not.”

The body of Harker hung on the wall, jawless skull mocking them with its silence.


“You planned for me to pick up that amulet,” McKay accused.

“I did not,” Rowan said gleefully. “Any one of you could have picked it up. You're just the only one who knows what it is. Good roll, by the way.”

“Hmm? Oh, thanks.” It took McKay a moment to register the deflection. “Don't change the subject. You planned this!”

Rowan laughed evilly. It did not help his case one bit. “I didn't, I swear, but I am willing to use circumstances to my advantage.”

“Mercilessly,” Carter said.

“Of course.”

The game session had reached a natural ending at the reveal of the first corpses. The next session would begin next Enforced Sunday with the sheriff bringing up all the little tidbits of information he couldn't say because the group wasn't following the adventure book with arbitrary exactness.

McKay left to get food, Sheppard following close behind. Zelenka thanked Rowan for a good game and left, claiming he had an 'experiment' he needed to run. Rowan supposed 'I have to distill or we'll run out of Jumper Fuel' was an experiment, nobody knew what the military would do if their rotgut dried up. Nobody wanted to know.

Carter stayed behind, feet up on the chairs next to her. She waited until the room had returned to their normal activities. The game of Clue had finished long ago, replaced by Airman Roberts and his successful attempt to get a game of Arkham Horror running. The gambling in the back was finished, Parrish and Lorne playing a two-man card game at the table instead. Dr. Tomson was stretching in all sorts of strange bendy ways that did not look healthy.

“Something on your mind, Colonel?” Rowan asked.

“You could say that,” Carter said. She stood up once Rowan was all packed up. “Walk with me.”

Rowan followed her out of the game room. They didn't take the direct route to the transporter at the end of the third hall. Instead they headed further out along the North-East Pier toward the Banned Balconies, an infamous collection of balconies without intact railings or windows.

“You need to tread carefully,” Carter warned. “McKay is much less together than he seems.”

“There's a lot about him I don't know,” Rowan said. “Oh, sure, he'll talk your ear off about himself but none of it means anything. It's rare that he lets anything important slip and when he does...” He trailed off, not wanting to think about some of the things he'd heard.

“You see what I mean,” Carter said.

The Banned Balconies blew salt air into the hallway. The view here was spectacular, the large gibbous moon visible above the horizon despite the daylight.

“You remember your first character,” Carter said.

Rowan smiled as he remembered. “I was an AD&D wizard in the 90s,” he said. “We ended up trapped in a mushroom demiplane because the DM didn't want to run the game anymore. That was a short game.”

“But you remember it,” Carter said. “I was a 3rd edition ranger named Fletch. Archer. Lieutenant Franklin ran the game until...” She didn't have to say it. Lieutenant Franklin had walked through the gate as part of SG-8 and never come back. “This is McKay's first character.”

“None of them have played before,” Rowan said. "All of them are on their first characters."

“Sheppard's playing a self-insert,” Carter said. “Zelenka's playing to get something out of his system. McKay's put together a whole backstory with a family he never had, a history he never appreciated, and a mastery of the world he's always wanted.”

Rowan leaned against the wall. “Is this a plea not to kill Mira?” he asked.

Carter leaned against the wall next to him. “A bit,” she admitted. “Moreso, it's a friendly warning. Watch where you step. Remember why he's never played before.”

Rowan stared out into the rising moon. Later in the night its mate would rise after it, ten degrees to the south, a pale crescent in resonance with its closer friend.

Friends. Without the outer moon the inner would loop around and crash into the planet's Roche limit. Without the inner the outer would spiral away into deep space. Together, along with the Unseen Moons, orbits were kept in check. Pete Rowan was a chemist but he knew enough about orbitals to make the metaphor work. Nobody wanted McKay to spiral into certain doom or to fling himself away to lonely nothingness. They needed him to keep the city running. No other CSO would have approved of Rowan's extracurricular chemical production in exchange for a cut of the product. McKay kept Sheppard from getting serious.

Serious was bad out here.

“I'll see what I can do,” Rowan allowed. “But I'm not letting up. He'd notice and he'd be rightfully insulted.”

“Fair enough,” Carter said.

Chapter Text

The Deadalus was in port and Colonel Carter was stuck in her office coordinating. Major Lorne was on the East Pier handling the supply offloads, Dr. McKay was supposed to finishing any last minute experiments to prep them for their journey to Earth, Colonel Sheppard was surely supervising something important and not just hiding from work, Dr. Keller was inventorying medical supplies, and she was here coordinating it all.

The Daedalus was on the ground and she was stuck in here. It wasn't fair. The Daedalus never landed on Earth, there was no way to maintain secrecy. She hadn't even got the chance to observe its assembly; Edgeworth Station was out in the Kuiper Belt where nobody would see, its orbit logged by the Hubble so it could be properly ignored by the various space observatories. She'd attended its christening but that was done in Earth orbit after its first Atlantis mission, hastily repaired battle scars still visible in the titanium alloy plating.

She'd seen it land once, only once, when the landing required her attention and the Daedalus was listing due to internal damage. Repairs took a week, a week where she'd spent every chance she got looking at the giant ship dwarfed by the Ancient city, sitting wounded and half-assembled on the open Pier. Jack understood why she volunteered so much of her time on the ship's repairs, time when she 'should' have been running the city. Atlantis was a well-oiled machine by this point, it ran well enough without her interference.

At least, until something went wrong.

A general alarm sounded through the gateroom. Personnel rushed around for half a second before calming down and watching the monitors. Not life-threatening then. Carter tapped at her laptop to bring up the past few incident reports. On average there were two or three of these minor alarms every week. Sometimes they were interesting. Usually they came out of the science department.

McKay would handle it.

*****

His lab was on fire.

That was McKay's first thought as he heard the alarm sound in his ears and in his mind. Then he realized it was a small fire and it wasn't technically his lab, it was the second storage unit off of the main science lab. But it was his lab and things were on fire that shouldn't be.

Those thoughts ran through his head as decades of training kicked in. He forgot to drop his dry-erase marker, instead sticking it between his teeth to free up his hands as he reached for the big fire extinguisher. The thing weighed a ton but he hoisted it over his shoulder and thought the doors open as he jogged the three doors down to face the closed door of the second storage unit.

The door wouldn't open. He glared at it and commanded the city to open the damned door, insisting he had fire suppression equipment of sufficient caliber.

The door slid open and he ignored the sounds of coughing and choking coming from inside. Instead he sprayed down the electrical fire that had burned in what was once a perfectly serviceable Ancient electron microscope.

McKay's first thought now that the fire was out was one of angry frustration. Where was he going to find a desktop electron microscope now?! One that didn't require an entire building and self-contained vacuum chamber? One he could make marines lug into the field for him?

Then he turned on the two idiots who were in the room when the fire started.

He slowly reached up to pluck the dry erase marker from his teeth, holding it like a cigar as he glared at the two. These weren't scientists. These were military. He didn't recognize them. The Daedalus was berthed on the East Pier. This equipment had been scheduled to be loaded for transport to Earth. It all made sense.

It all made him very, very angry.

*****

Sheppard ran up with a half dozen marines, fire gear at the ready. But the door to the alarmed area was open, the fire obviously wasn't raging out of control, the acrid stench of burnt wiring and suppression foam stung the eyes.

Instead the emergency appeared to be over. The dressing-downs had already begun.

“--the most insipid, idiotic thing I've seen this week! You do not have permission to be in here, what the fuck were you on?! Neither of you hosers have the slightest clue where you even are, do you!”

Sheppard winced as a victim within decided to defend himself. He heard a vague 'bu--' that was cut off by an impressive-sounding clang. That got Sheppard moving; if there were weapons involved...

“You! Shut up! I don't care what drivel you think your commanding officer said, this area is restricted! Which you'd know if either of you could read.”

Sheppard caught a glimpse of the room. The storage unit was pretty well demolished. The fire's damage was difficult to gauge, that would require cleaning the unit from the absolute mess caused by zealous overuse of the fire extinguisher. Two men stood in the middle of it, their uniforms trashed under a thick film of fire retardant. Piles of pale purple foam obscured the room, the damage, the men's feet... McKay stood before them, fire extinguisher resting on his shoulders. In one hand he held a dry-erase marker like a cigar, waving it about as he kept ranting.

“Your orders, or I assume these were your orders since they were the orders Caldwell forwarded to me, were to wait until my science team had everything ready! Then you were to stand around looking pretty while we did all the work! You utter plebes couldn't even manage that! Did you flunk basic training? Is the Daedalus staffed by semi-trained monkeys? Is the SGC sending us their flunkies because brainwashing your dumb asses is too expensive now? That's it, isn't it! The SGC sent you imbeciles here because letting prats like you die in the field is less paperwork than re-education! Well I would be happy to oblige but then I'd have to sweep your deaths under the rug and you are not worth my time.”

“Be nice,” Sheppard warned.

McKay turned on him and Sheppard regretted it. McKay clamped the dry-erase marker in his teeth and two-handed the fire extinguisher, dropping it at Sheppard's feet with an ear-splitting CLANG. He stood straight, slowly reaching up for the marker. He pulled it out of his mouth with a low dangerous sigh, still holding it like a cigar. “If Caldwell can't keep his dunces under control we will have to rethink the Daedalus's landing privileges.”

Sheppard knew then that something nice had been destroyed. “We'll talk to Caldwell about it,” he said. “Now let's just--”

McKay pointed at him with the marker. “You're not talking me down this time, Colonel,” he warned. “There were Nice Things in there. These empty-headed wastes of skin--”

“Rodney,” Sheppard said, not quite shouting.

“Fine,” McKay snapped. He stepped out of the storage unit and thought the doors closed.

The frantic pounding from within was somewhat satisfying.

*****

Caldwell entered Carter's office with a file box in his hands. It did not seem like it was particularly light. He put the box on Carter's desk. “Your contraband, madam,” he said, oddly formal.

Carter grinned and ripped the tape off the box. She rifled through the contents, a collection of books, banned substances, a chocolate stash that rivaled McKay's, and best of all... She pulled the glass bottle of artificial lemon flavoring out of the box and hugged it before placing it on the floor where no one in the gate room could look up and see it.

Caldwell stood there looking like he was trying not to be amused.

“You'd be surprised what you miss out here,” she said. “I have been craving grapefruit for a month.”

“I'll let O'Neill know,” Caldwell said. “He kept suggesting orange flavor.”

Carter made a face. “Artificial orange, bleh. I'm not that desperate yet.” She opened the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a glass flask of Zelenka's Best. “And your contraband, sir,” she said, mirroring Caldwell's earlier formality.

Caldwell grinned and slipped the flask into a large pocket of his flight suit.

Both of their radios crackled. Caldwell's call seemed more sedate or at least there was less screaming than Carter's. She winced and shook her head once McKay was off the line.

“Fire in the second storage unit off the main lab,” she said.

“Already put out,” Caldwell confirmed. Sheppard had said as much.

“We should go rescue your men,” Carter said. “McKay was looking forward to some of the tech in unit two.”

Caldwell winced.

“I was too,” Carter said darkly.

“Luckily no one was hurt,” Caldwell said. They both heard the 'yet' despite no one saying it.

“Let's get on it,” Carter said with a sigh. She hid her bottle of fake lemon flavor in the bottom desk drawer. Then she and Caldwell left to go rescue two Airmen from the wrath of McKay.

*****

The game room seemed more crowded today. The Daedalus was in port, its departure delayed by the fire in the storage unit and the resulting need to enforce a Sunday before the science department decided something rash.

Sheppard was not looking forward to it. Maybe he should rethink today and offer to spar with Teyla. But she was pregnant and he didn't feel comfortable sparring with her, not when a bad hit might really damage her. Her insistence this wasn't a problem didn't help. Her quiet frustration with him wasn't helping either. Worse, she was right. He could feel a drift apart there, her impending motherhood causing him to change how he thought of her. It wasn't entirely his fault, at least he didn't think it was. It was just...

This was easier. Even if this did mean he would be sitting within strangling reach of three fuming scientists, all of whom had been dipping into a bottle of Zelenka's Decent. The bottle was right there on the table under the watchful rationing eye of Pete Rowan, who as a chemist was not fuming, he was merely angry on principle.

There had been Nice Things in that storage unit.

“Let's get started,” Rowan said as Sheppard sat down.


Mira held her scarf over her face. She tied it tight and whispered a spell to keep the air around her clear of stench.

The sacrifice at the sawmill had not been the first.

“No one in this town has access to Gentle Repose?” she asked.

Sheriff Hemlock gave her an annoyed look. “Father Zantus has more important things to attend to than your delicate sensibilities,” he said.

Mira gave him a look that said she was not amused.

Ace wasn't amused either. It made sense to him that preserving the bodies against decay would have made finding clues easier. This storage basement was cool despite the lingering heat of early autumn upstairs, but it was not cool enough to preserve against rot.

Cela didn't seem to mind as he handled the bodies with his bare hands, splaying his hands against the same claw marks as before. The same Sihedron rune was visible on the bloated corpses, the carefully scored lines distorted by stretched skin.

“How long ago did they die?” Charlie asked.

“Three days,” Hemlock said.

“Their stench is more than three days' worth,” Cela said. “I agree, Gentle Repose would have been helpful. You could have come to us sooner. Calistria is always willing to avenge a murder.”

Hemlock scowled. He seemed to blame Mira for this. She smirked at him.

“Were there any witnesses?” Charlie asked.

“One but I wouldn't recommend it,” Hemlock said. “Two days ago a patrol of guards on the Lost Coast Road were assaulted by a deranged man near a barn on the banks of Cougar Creek. The man was obviously sick and insane, feverish, eyes wild, frothing at the mouth, caked in blood. The guards subdued him and checked out the barn.”

“These three,” Ace predicted.

“Correct,” Hemlock said. “They'd been dead at least a day by the smell. We identified them as Tarch Mortwell, Lener Hask, and Gedwin Tabe, known con men and swindlers.” He glanced at Mira. “I'm sure you're familiar with the type. I wasn't surprised to find them dead. It was only a matter of time before they tried to swindle someone worse than them. But given the mill and this 'Sihedron' rune...”

“You think they're connected,” Charlie said.

“It's possible,” Hemlock admitted.

“Where is this witness?” Ace asked. “Can we speak to him?”

*****

The Saintly Haven of Respite was a squat stone building with a stone-flagged roof built under the lee of the Ashen Rise. Limestone cliffs ringed the sanatorium, blocking it from the gaze of the curious and the suspicious. Cela shuddered. He did not like this place.

He liked it less on the inside. The place stank of sour cleanliness, incense burning in every hallway. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the floors scrubbed clean, but that sour smell set Cela on edge.

Erin Habe, the esteemed doctor of this sanatorium, led them through the halls giving a vague yet pointless description of the workings here. The incense was meant to soothe deranged minds, the location was excellent because it allowed for the privacy and safety of the patients, Sandpoint offered such easy seclusion from the distractions of Magnimar. Of course, that meant difficult cases were rare. In fact, the sanatorium only had a handful of patients. Grayst Sevilla was a most interesting case. He'd witnessed murders most foul and the experience drove him completely insane. Habe couldn't possibly let anyone put themselves at risk by questioning Sevilla alone, of course not.

Cela rolled his eyes and allowed the doctor to insinuate himself into the situation.

The attic room was small yet so much bigger than it seemed it needed to be. Sevilla was curled up in a corner, wrapped up in a straitjacket.

“Mr. Sevilla, you have visitors,” Habe said cheerfully.

“Skinsaw...” Sevilla whispered. “Skinsaw, the skinsaw man, he's coming, he's coming he's coming he's--” Sevilla's eyes were wide, pale, bloodshot. But then he laid eyes on Mira. “You...”

“Interesting,” Habe whispered.

Sevilla fell forward on the floor of his cell, dragging himself forward on his elbows. A strange delight crossed his features as he crawled toward Mira. “You... It's you... It's... He said. He said he said he said! He said you would visit me. His Lordship. The one that... He unmade me... He said so... He has a place for you. A precious place. I'm so jealous. He has, he has a message for you. He made me remember it. I hope I... haven't forgotten. The master wouldn't approve if I forgot. Let me see... He said, he said if you came. If you came to his Misgivings, that if you joined his pack, he would end his harvest. In your honor.” He shuddered even as he fell on his face.

The attic room was far too small after all.

Sevilla ripped the straitjacket open from the inside, torn straps swinging free, and launched himself at Mira, laughing in his madness.

Mira raised her hands and shrieked in answer, anger bubbling out of her at this situation, at the sheriff showing himself to be a bigoted hypocrite, at this murderer and his obsession with her, all of it channeled into her magic. When Sevilla grabbed for her she slammed her hands onto his chest and let go. And then...

It was over.

Cela watched in fascination as Sevilla fell to the floor twitching, his flesh still burning where she'd touched him. He knelt next to the body. The man was still alive although he would not be for long. Not without healing magic. “Take Mira outside,” he said. “The doctor and I have something to discuss.”

Ace and Charlie left, not quite dragging Mira out with them. Cela and Habe were alone.

“This man will die without healing,” Cela said. “But then, you knew that already. His ghoul fever would ensure his death.”

Habe's expression was carefully neutral. “I did what I thought was best,” he defended. “Father Zantus doesn't have the power to cure this. This man's already insane. Why shouldn't I take the opportunity to study the disease before he died?”

“Quite pragmatic,” Cela said. “Immoral but sensible. I can appreciate that. Surely as much as you can appreciate his death was his own doing.”

“Your witch killed him,” Habe said.

“In self defense,” Cela said. “Surely you would have defended yourself. I see no crime here. From any angle.”

Habe smiled. “Neither do I, sir.”

Cela's grin seemed to know more than he let on. “Then perhaps he died of his fever. Such a shame. But now he can be at peace, perhaps with his sanity restored in death.”

“I'd never thought of that,” Habe said. “Would raising the dead result in restored sanity?”

“I have no idea,” Cela said. “But today is not the day to find out.”

The two men left the attic cell as the twitching man behind them seized and then lay still, his final breath rattling in the empty room.

*****

The sanatorium door slammed open. Mira stormed out, her skirts in her hands. She ran down the steps until there was grass under her feet and the stench of sour clean was gone. She dropped her skirts, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sky.

Charlie stood on the sanatorium steps, shocked into silence. She looked at Ace and did her best to let him know she was going to stay out of this.

Ace must have taken the hint because he went after Mira, walking softly through the tall grass. Her red hair and blue-purple scarves blew free in the wind that tried and failed to carry her screams away from her. There were no words, only the unending sound of fury, frustration, the impotent fear of this murderer who taunted her into a twisted chase as she sought her own... death? Was that what the notes meant?

He waited until she ran out of breath, or maybe she'd just run out of sound. She slumped over, breathing deeply as she stared down at her hands.

Ace settled down in the grass next to her. Her scarves wrapped around him of the wind's accord. He reached out, slowly so she could pull away if she wanted, and took one of her hands in his. She leaned against him and wrapped his arms around her waist. She was shaking.

Ace held her close as the faint stench of a dead thing drifted along the wind.

Charlie watched them from the sanatorium steps. She was still watching when Cela came out of the building. He sat down next to her.

“The good doctor will not hinder us,” he said.

Charlie slowly turned to look at him. He seemed far too satisfied with himself for her comfort.

“We should return to town,” he said. “It is no longer safe out here at night.”

Charlie could agree with that.

*****

The crowd at the Hagfish was smaller than normal. The place had a sense of anticipation, as though everyone were waiting for something bad to happen.

Mira was knocking back pints of beer at Ace's insistence. She wasn't quite sitting in his lap but it seemed the more she drank the closer she got to just that. Ace didn't seem to mind. In fact, his own efforts at drinking were rather awkward to accommodate the woman trying to use his chest as a pillow.

Charlie was trying to ignore the situation in the corner in favor of Quinn's story of how he lost his leg. This time he'd started with harpies and went on from there.

Cela was unconcerned with the story's twisted yarns. Instead he watched the corner where Mira kept trying to slide drunken hands underneath Ace's tunic while she nuzzled his neck. Ace, to his credit, was finally giving a sign that he wasn't made of stone.

And then it all shattered as the tavern door slammed open. A man in ripped clothes stood there, covered in mud and dripping with sweat and blood. His eyes were wild, his mouth forming words without sound.

The bar swung into action. The man was brought to a seat and given a drink for his nerves. Frantic patrons gathered around him, all wanting to know, all demanding answers, all shouting over each other.

Ace sighed, gently lifted Mira off of him, and stood on the table. “ENOUGH!” he bellowed.

The tavern went quiet and finally the man could be heard as he muttered words barely heard in the silence.

“Mumble mumble... scarecrow... scarecrow... mumble scarecrow...”

Mira picked herself off the bench where Ace laid her. She shook her head but the room didn't entirely stop spinning. Still, she had to get up. She knew those words. She stood up, staggering and weaving in a movement with a creepy rhythm to it. Her words did not help at all as she spoke the rhyme the man was trying to recite.

“Mumble Mumble Scarecrow alone in the maize. Sleeping in the daytime, a stitched man he stays.”

The man looked up in terror as Mira began to move with more deliberateness. It might have been a dance if the room wasn't slowly filling with dawning horror.

“But when the moon she rises, up Mumble gets. He shakes his hands at first and moves his feet the next.”

The man jointed in the recitation, his own terrified voice a creepy counterpoint to Mira's singsong rendition of the twisted rhyme.

“And when the dog is snoring, and when you're fast asleep, Mumble Mumble Scarecrow will find you good to eat.”

The man slumped onto the table as Mira twirled in the room, giggling like she'd gone mad. Ace jumped off the table and grabbed her, dragging her out of the tavern into the cool night air, away from the whispering and the pointing and the speculations.

Ace shoved Mira against the wall. “What's wrong with you?” he demanded.

Mira was still giggling. “It's a nursey... nursery rhyme,” she said. “My brother used to scare me wit' it when I was little. 'E's scared of a nursey... of a childrens' poem.”

“Mira, someone's trying to make you look responsible for murder,” Ace said. “You're not helping.”

Mira pouted. But the mirth was gone from her eyes.

“Someone's sacrificing people, Mira. You knew what the symbols mean. You knew the nursery rhyme. The murderer is leaving notes for you. Can't you see how bad this all looks?”

Ace felt terrible. She was shaking in his arms, she looked like she was about to cry. “Why are you still here?” she whispered.

“Mira...”

“You're right,” she said. She couldn't look up anymore, eyes falling to the ground. “Someone's killing people and... and they want me. If I give myself up... it'll all stop.”

“No!” Ace put a hand under her chin and tilted her head up, forcing her to look at him. “You're not giving up. We'll stop this, Mira, I promise you. We'll put a stop to this and you'll be okay. You'll be just fine. I promise.”

She believed him.


Rowan gripped his chest in a grand gesture. “Ow my heart!” he cried.

“Calistria approooooves,” Zelenka said. Carter snorted and hid halfway under the table as she tried not to laugh.

The bottle of Zelenka's Decent was mostly empty. There were no cups on the table, only the bottle that had changed hands so often that nobody remembered who'd partaken and how much they'd each had.

The game room regulars had learned to ignore the table in the corner. Members of the Daedalus crew could be identified by the wide eyes they cast in the direction of the corner table where Sheppard realized he'd shoved McKay into chair and had one hand under his chin like they were about to do something scandalous. Sheppard pulled away as McKay blushed and reached for the bottle.

They'd all had a lot to drink.

Carter sat up and sighed happily. She was almost too drunk to play. Then she saw someone in the room who normally wasn't. “Calistria may approve but I doubt Caldwell would,” she warned.

Sheppard quickly hid under the table. It was not a smooth movement. The thud and the faint 'ow' from underneath caused Carter to collapse into giggles again.

“Smooth,” McKay said. He didn't fall over while trying to look under the table but it was close.

“What wouldn't I approve of?”

The table thumped again. Sheppard rubbed his head as he climbed out from underneath and sat on his chair, trying not to visibly sulk.

McKay stood up to face down Caldwell properly. It would be easier if the man stopped moving from side to side. Or maybe that was on McKay's end. “We... are relaxing,” he stated with too-perfect enunciation. It didn't help that he still had the bottle in his hand. “So we don't kill your... mindless minions... for their lack of any sense.”

“Pathfinder game,” Carter said. “If you wanted to I'm sure we could find a chair...”

Caldwell sighed. “I'm in the city once every six weeks,” he said.

“I offered,” Carter said. She reached over and plucked the bottle from McKay's hands, taking a swig.

Sheppard looked confused. That answer meant... Caldwell played? When? How?!

“Don't let me interrupt you,” Caldwell said. “I'm sure I can find something to do.”

Rowan took the bottle from Carter and took a drink. “Now then...”


All clues should be so obvious, Ace thought.

The fields were full of scarecrows. Those scarecrows were all monsters in disguise. Those monsters all fell to a sword to the chest as well as any other monster. Were it not for the rotting sacrifice in the farmhouse it could have been just another monster hunt. The note was almost an afterthought against the simple acts and actions of hungry dead and sharp steel.

Charlie sharped her knives, buffing out the nicks caused by so many undead ribs. Cela searched the bodies for clues aside from the obvious. Ace wiped down his sword, keeping an eye on Mira as she stood on the knoll overlooking the corn fields and the dead scarecrows hanging from their posts.

He did not expect what happened next. She started laughing. She laughed and spun in the wind even as it brought the stench of so much death up to them. He watched her as she lost her balance and fell in the grass.

He smiled though he felt less mirth than he perhaps should. If not for the events of the past few days her actions would have seemed almost elven. He walked up to her and loomed over her, blocking the sun from her eyes.

She looked almost serene. It was a good look for her. Even beautiful.

A shout of triumph behind them stole his attention.

“What is it?” Ace shouted.

Cela held up an iron key on a leather neck cord. “I have it!” he shouted. He ran down the knoll, flopping to the grass next to Mira in a barely controlled slide. He gave her the key. “We await the next murders no longer,” he said. “This is all the proof we need to seek your vengeance, my lady. We have the key to Foxglove Manor. At your word, we shall invade his sanctum and take payment for his actions.”

Mira reached out and took the key. The iron key still carried a family crest, a bell-shaped flower surrounded by thorns. Was this the demon's lantern the cards warned her of? Or was this the end of the swamp of taunting notes? She had to trust herself, trust her friends. Trust in Ace's promise.

“Daybreak,” she said. “None of us are at our best right now. We rest, we plan, and at daybreak we strike. We will burn Foxglove Manor to the ground if we have to but we will end this.”

It would end. One way or another it would end.

Chapter Text

Dr. McKay trudged into the conference room, coffee in hand and eyes closed against the cheerfully bright lights that kept not dimming no matter how much he begged. This had to be some sort of punishment, it had to. The city itself was punishing him for drinking and gaming all last night or the fire in the storage unit or some other such reason. Maybe he wasn't spending as much time as he needed to stuffed in the conduits elbow-deep in circuits and crystals.

He'd have to send Zelenka to do it. He was smaller, he fit better.

McKay scrunched up his scowl to something epic and mentally screamed at the lights. They marginally dimmed, just enough that he could open his eyes.

Oh. That was the problem.

Stupid sun. Stupid orange subgiant sun shining bright yellow-orange sunlight through windows and balconies. Stupid Ancients and their architectural styles emphasizing open spaces and natural light.

People were looking at him. McKay sat down at the table and made a mighty effort to pretend he hadn't just shut off all the lights to no appreciable avail.

Sheppard didn't look bad at all. But then the bastard was wearing sunglasses inside like he was making some sort of fashion statement. McKay still felt the need to wipe that smirk off his face though.

Keller looked all high and mighty, all disapproving of his life choices. She probably didn't even know what the Daedalus marines destroyed otherwise she'd be just as pissed as he was. He ignored her as she was obviously not qualified to pass judgment on his hangover.

Zelenka, the bastard, he didn't look like he'd been drinking at all. Probably grew up on the stuff.

At least Sam Carter looked tired. She also sat with the sun to her back, strategically placing her chair so as to keep the bright out of her eyes. She was drinking tea, tea of all things. Weird. What was weirder still was the... smell... McKay's eyes went wide as he moved to the furthest seat from her, not caring that it put him perilously close to sunlight.

The meeting was useless, nothing new to report. There was the little issue of the fire day before yesterday and McKay did get a moment of vindication when Keller heard about the losses for the first time. Shock, outrage, simmering fury, then low anger and sullen acceptance. McKay thought she accepted it rather quickly, he was still in the 'simmering fury' stage. It helped that the marines in question were under orders to clean every bit of debris, crystal, plastic, wall, and wire of fire damage using their toothbrushes. Caldwell had drawn a line at locking them in the unit until they were done though.

The meeting ended with a sullen agreement. The Daedalus needed open clearance to land in order to deliver supplies. Thus they couldn't be banned from the city no matter how many Nice Things they broke. McKay had agreed under protest, at least until he remembered coffee still came from the Daedalus. Coffee plants were still on the list of banned substances, probably in an effort to control them all.

Well, it worked. Sort of.

McKay fled as soon as the meeting was dismissed. His headache was almost completely forgotten but he had a whole new reason to flee the bright sunlight of the conference room.

*****

“She was drinking lemon,” McKay hissed.

Sheppard stabbed his fork into his macaroni and cheese. The macaroni were of a strange consistency, they kept sliding away from his fork. Or maybe it was the artificial cheese. Maybe even the plastic fork.

Lunch was just beginning in the mess hall. Sheppard and McKay had gotten there just in time to snag the freshest, hottest, presumably the tastiest offerings before the lunch crowd stormed in and picked over all the good stuff. Sheppard and McKay had a table in the corner, the empty tables around them giving the veneer of privacy.

“Sort of,” Sheppard admitted.

“Sort of? Sort of?! Look, either it'll kill me or it won't!”

“Probably won't.” Sheppard managed to spear enough noodles to make a mouthful and took the bite. He lingered, making the effort to lick all of the fake cheese from the fork before going back to stabbing noodles.

“How do you know?” McKay demanded.

“I asked her,” Sheppard said as though it were obvious. “I smelled it too, wanted to make sure. She assured me her source doesn't smuggle in anything banned, just the compromising things. Such as her disgustingly artificial lemon flavoring. It's so artificial I bet you could drink it without problem.”

“I see no need to test it,” McKay said. He slapped Sheppard's hand away from his tray where a wandering fork was attempting to steal his fake cheese.

“Nor do I,” Sheppard said. He speared the last of his noodles and pondered the grainy puddles of fake cheese on his tray.

“So who's her source?” McKay asked.

Sheppard shrugged. He ran his finger through the fake cheese and licked it off.

“That's not food,” McKay said.

Sheppard just licked slower, letting his eyes linger on McKay.

“Um...” McKay swallowed thickly. And then the moment ended as Sheppard was out of fake cheese to lick.

“Carter said if I ever wanted anything compromising she knows a guy,” Sheppard said. He grabbed his fork and stabbed into McKay's tray, coming back with a forkful of macaroni and cheese. He ate it with a triumphant smirk that did not seem warranted considering the meagerness of his victory.

It took McKay a moment to realize. “Hey,” he complained, pulling his tray close to protect it. He grabbed his own fork and dug into his lunch. He wondered who this 'guy' was.

*****

Caldwell.

Of course it was Caldwell. It had to be Caldwell. It couldn't be Lorne or Chuck or some no name Sergeant in the barracks somewhere.

McKay stood outside of Sheppard's office, or at least it was Sheppard's in name. Sheppard spent as little time as possible in this office, preferring to foist his paperwork onto Lorne or even Caldwell when he could get away with it. Given the current state of the science team it made sense Caldwell was hiding out in here.

McKay announced himself by thinking the door open.

To Caldwell's credit he didn't seem startled. He simply looked up from the laptop he was reading.

McKay stepped inside and allowed the door to close.

“What's this about?” Caldwell asked.

McKay had no idea where to begin. How did one ask an unlikely smuggler to smuggle him something? Especially something so embarrassing? He settled on a tried and true tactic. “I need a favor.”

Caldwell visibly relaxed, for some definitions of. “What kind of favor?” he asked.

“I, um, I talked to Sam, I mean, Colonel Carter and... She said you help her get stuff that would otherwise be... difficult...”

“I'm not smuggling coffee,” Caldwell said. “No plants, no cuttings, not even the green unroasted beans. We know all too well what Atlantis can do with even that little bit of DNA. I will not be responsible for cloned coffee plants all over Pegasus.”

McKay hadn't even thought of that. That was an idea. But it would have to wait for later. “This isn't about coffee,” he said. “This isn't banned at all. It's just... embarrassing.”

Caldwell looked him in the eye. “I'm not smuggling sex toys.”

McKay had no words for that. He had the horrible mental image of Caldwell in a sex shop pondering dildos and trying to match sizes. He curled in on himself, hiding his face behind his hands. “Not what I'm asking and I will never unsee that.”

Caldwell seemed to enjoy McKay's pain. At least that was the only explanation McKay had for the man's strange grin. “Good,” Caldwell said. “Imagine why I have to say that.”

“Oh god...” McKay had to shake the images from his head. He knew they'd be back later to haunt him as he tried to sleep. He'd have to keep them at bay with math or something. But he was here for a reason. “This is nothing about that,” he said. “Nothing illegal, nothing banned, if I thought you could get me a cat I'd ask but I know better. This is about the Pathfinder game.”

“I assume there's normally less drinking than yesterday.”

“Much less,” McKay agreed. “I'm playing a character who uses a harrow deck for... various reasons and I don't know anything about it. I don't have one; I know they exist, Pete had one Sunday before last. I'm sure there are books on it, rules for it, whatever's out there.”

“So you want me to...” Caldwell trailed off. “Why is this embarrassing?”

“I think it's a divinatory aid. I can't have people thinking I'm taking this crap seriously. But I really want to know this stuff... for my character of course...”

“Makes sense,” Caldwell said. “I'll see what I can find. Anything else?”

McKay was about to leave but then... “Can you get really good chocolate?”


This place was haunted.

There was no other word for it. Ace didn't even have his sword unsheathed; blades were useless against powers that lurked just on the other edge of perception, on the wrong end of reality. It seemed every room in this cursed house had invisible hands grasping at their psyches, dragging them into hallucinations so real they ripped and tore at mind and body.

There was no sword that could have sliced Cela away from being dragged around the collapsed ballroom by the beautiful woman only he could see.

There was no blade that could have stopped Charlie from trying to stab herself in the neck with a shard of broken wood.

There was no weapon of any world, of this one or the next, that could have stopped the torrential growth of disgusting fungus that wrapped them all in spores, crawled all over their skin, burrowed down their throats, and then disappeared without a trace. The memory still made Ace itch in places he didn't even know he had.

Foxglove Manor was a nightmarish place of rot, decay, malaise, and a sense of wrongness so complete that Ace couldn't believe Mira's tales about the place. There was no way Lord Aldern Foxglove lived here, no matter how creepy the man had seemed during the boar hunt.

“They call this place 'the Misgivings',” Mira had said. “It's cursed by fire, by devils, by suicide, and some say by worse. It's said there are some deeds that should never be undertaken.”

Now, as they explored this place, Ace found himself believing in curses.

There was a scream.

And again.

And again.

Ace didn't even draw his sword. This scream was too familiar.

Charlie giggled as she pulled the cord again. She let it go and that same scream issued forth from the disembodied monkey head mounted on the wall.

“Will you stop that,” Ace snapped.

Charlie laughed as she looked at the monkey head. “Why would anyone own this?” she asked. “It's so... weird... I'm taking it.”

“Mira's doing some sketches of the stained glass windows,” Ace said. “She says they mean something but she's not sure what. Something about not being allowed to study things this dark.”

“Well that's not ominous,” Charlie said.

“Not at all,” Ace agreed.

Upstairs Mira sat on an old couch, its padding and cushions in curiously decent shape. She had a large board in her lap and parchment laid out before her. Her fingers were black with charcoal as she copied the stained glass windows before her. She winced as a horrible squeaking sound came behind her.

“That was painful,” she complained, not even looking up.

Cela held a violin, its finish peeling and the bow string frayed with horse hair swaying every which way. The violin's gut strings were stiff and brittle. “I am unsure I can tune this without breaking it,” he said.

“Then don't,” Mira said.

Cela looked over her shoulder then up at the stained glass. “You are good,” he said. “It is a strong likeness.”

“I was never an apprentice,” she said idly as she worked. “There was no one to teach me magic. I learned from the ruins. But we moved on so often, this was the only way I could bring the ruins and their secrets with me.”

“Perhaps you will find secrets here,” Cela said.

The stained glass windows on this floor depicted a diverse array of animals and plants. The first window showed a scorpion, the second a gaunt man crawling with bats. The third window depicted a moth with skulls patterned on its wings. The fourth showed a tangle of plants with bell-shaped flowers and the fifth a young woman sitting on a well with a giant spider descending for her.

“I already have,” Mira said. “These are all classic spell components for necromancers. The venom of a scorpion, the breath of a vampire, the tongue of a deathwing moth, the juice of the belladonna, and the heart of a maiden slain by poison.”

“What does it mean?” Cela asked.

“Either a necromancer worked here because it's creepy or it's creepy because a necromancer worked here.”

“Are all necromancers creepy?”

“Baba Rann always said necromancy was dark magic,” Mira said. “It was a one way trip to undeath and Desna couldn't forgive that.”

“And was Baba Rann a priest?”

Mira shook her head. “The cards spoke to her, and Desna to the cards. She had a book of spells like mine, all full of past readings and signs and the stars. When I put together my book of spells she always said she didn't care what I put in it so long as I stayed away from undeath. She said the cards warned her about it, said bad things would happen to me if I dabbled in undeath.”

Cela snorted.

Mira scowled at him.

Cela noticed her attention. “Oh, not about you, my dear,” he said. “Just that it seems restrictive to bar you from a study due to fear. It makes more sense to study that which one is afraid of. I sense you feel as I do. After all, I have seen you use such magic. You have not barred yourself from necromancy. You know better.”

“I have barred myself from abjuration and conjuration,” Mira said. “I cannot summon and I do not hide. I am an evoker. I use my power to affect reality around me, to harness the elements of creation, and to defend myself so I do not need to hide. Raw life force is a part of reality, why should I weaken myself by giving it up?”

“Well said, my lady,” Cela said.

Footsteps on the stairs behind them drew their attention. Three sets of footsteps climbed the stairs even though Ace and Charlie were the only ones there.

“What have you got?” Charlie asked. She pretended there wasn't a strange monkey head shaped bulge in her pack.

“Necromancy,” Cela said.

Mira explained the meaning of the stained glass windows on this level and the level below. She predicted there would be matching windows with more meaning to them on the attic floor and perhaps even the basement given how the house was constructed.

*****

They did not stay in the attic long.

Something in the attic screamed and screamed and nobody wanted to know what it was. They stayed only long enough for Mira to sketch the two windows there while Charlie and Cela tried to keep Ace from throwing himself out of the window.

Finally Cela slapped him and Ace stopped screaming. Recognition came back to his eyes and he looked around as though seeing everyone for the first time in ages. “I'm... I'm not on fire?” he asked.

“You are not,” Cela said.

“Do you have any idea how far that drop is?” Charlie demanded, pointing at the hole in the window. Canvas fluttered over the hastily covered hole which seemed like it was entirely the right size for someone else to have gone crashing through it long ago.

“I was... someone was...” Ace looked at the old scorch marks marring the wood near the broken window. “Someone tried to... burn this place down. It didn't work. They were engulfed. They went out the window, burning all the way down.”

“Try not to die,” Mira said as she worked quickly. She was never good at drawing people and these windows were of two people. One, a pale woman with dark hair, green eyes, and an iron staff. The other, his lower half broken and missing, a regal man wearing a crown of ivory and jade.

“I'd rather none of us died,” Charlie said. “It would be inconvenient.”

*****

The basement was full of rats.

But it was also full of answers.

Old books in an old worm-eaten library, stained glass windows with the key to the entire glass story, a demolished workshop filled with the remains of research past. Mira settled down on the floor of the ancient laboratory and spread out the charcoal drawings. She called books to her, their delicate state leaving dropped pages and fragments as they drifted through the air to lay open at her bidding with their secrets open to her gaze.

“Mira, are you all right?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, yes, I'm fine,” Mira said, waving away needless concern.

Ace knelt down next to her. He didn't understand any of the scrawled and faded writing. Most of these books were too smudged for him to read or maybe they weren't written in Common at all. “Mira, what is it?” he asked.

“I know what he was doing,” she said.

“That's good,” Ace said, sounding happier than he felt. “That means we can finish up here and get out. I doubt Foxglove is here at all.”

Mira didn't acknowledge his words.

“Mira, you're scaring us,” Charlie said.

Cela stood in front of the windows, studying them. One showed a man drinking a potion. The other showed that same man, now long dead, triumphantly brandishing his completed work, a seven sided box that seeped mist. He made the connection. “The stained glass windows,” he realized aloud. “They're a lich formula.”

“What?” Charlie asked.

“Mira,” Ace warned.

“I don't plan on using it,” Mira said. Finally she looked up. Her eyes were wild but, disturbingly, there was no trace of this place's haunting. “Besides, I think he failed.”

“What do you mean failed?” Charlie asked.

“I think his attempt to become a lich ended in failure,” Mira said. “It would explain this place.”

“I thought a failed lich was just a dead man,” Cela said.

Mira shook her head, a smile blooming over her face. “A failed lich isn't dead,” she said. “Nor is it undead. It's forsaken, somewhere in between. A horrible fate...”

“Mira, stop this,” Ace commanded.

Mira glanced at him then ignored him again as she went over the notes in these old books.

“Mira, this is a bad idea,” Cela said. “Your Baba Rann warned you about this, don't you remember? Bad things will happen if you dabble in undeath.”

Mira looked up at him, pouted, and slammed a book closed. The cover ruptured in her hand.

Ace grabbed her under her arms and pulled her to her feet even as she pouted. “I wasn't going to use it,” she said. “I was just going to study it.”

Ace rolled his eyes as he let Charlie pick up the charcoal drawings and put them away.


McKay pouted at the other players. The fact that they were all immune didn't seem to matter. Rather it seemed to make him pout harder.

“Becoming a lich is a bad idea, Rodney,” Carter said. “It costs all of your gold and most of your soul.”

“Bah, who needs a soul,” McKay said, overly grandiose.

“I get the sense liches are evil,” Sheppard said. “Rodney's not allowed to play evil. He'll get ideas and apply them to real life.”

“I built a bomb in the sixth grade,” McKay said. “I think I'm already evil.”

“You are not evil,” Zelenka said. “There would be more dead bodies to hide if you were.”

“More?” Carter asked ominously.

Zelenka pretended he hadn't said anything wrong.

“Anyway,” Rowan said, working to get them all back on track. “Piles of broken stone, dirt, and a few ruined pickaxes line the edges of the next room.”


The room was lit with a single flickering lantern. Mira snarled as she saw him, that damnable Aldern Foxglove, sweaty and dirty and wild and he didn't notice them at all. Instead he kept digging away at the stone floor with a pickaxe. With each strike he muttered out two words. “For you.”

She knew who he meant and she was offended by is offering. She raised a hand to finish him off but the floor broke open. Shrieks from beneath turned to claws turned to glowing red eyes as a pack of ghouls, as thirteen undead hands reached up for Foxglove and dragged him underneath. He didn't scream. With horrified fascination she realized that sound was a sigh.

And then red eyes all turned on her.

And then someone was shaking her.

The ghouls were gone. Foxglove was gone. In the middle of the floor a spiral set of stone stairs descended into the bedrock of the cliff.

“The haunting had you,” Cela said. “What did you see?”

Mira took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she realized she knew exactly what she saw. “The Beating,” she said. “It ends down there. It all ends there.”

“Then that's where we go,” Ace said. He pulled his sword and led the way into darkness.

Chapter Text

This was more like it.

Ace's sword felt good in his hands. Ghouls were physical things that could be destroyed, dismantled, killed with a quick stab and slash and it just felt good to be capable. It felt good to watch Charlie jump on the back of the gigantic monstrous bat and stab it repeatedly until it twitched and lay still. It felt good to feel the healing wash of Cela's power as it caused their foes to shrivel in on themselves, screaming in agony. It felt good to see Mira step into the corridor above the largest cavern and fill the belly of the cave with fire.

That all ended when they found it.

It. And him.

The room was suffused with a stench, a rotting miasma that came from the fungoid wall on the far side of the cavern and the delicate porcelain plates and platters all set out on a serving table in the corner, their contents crawling with maggots. A table in the center of the room held what could only be described as an altar complete with a portrait that might once have been a painting of someone else, redone in blood to look like...

Mira growled as something, someone moved in the chair facing the altar. The chair was smeared and sticky with blood, its leather rent by grasping claws. Those same claws now curled over the armrests and their owner stood up.

“Motherfucker,” Cela whispered.

Aldern Foxglove was a hairless creature of teeth and claws and the stench of undeath. His once regal finery was stained with blood, dark patches that looked like he'd tried to lick them clean at some point. His eyes glowed an ominous predatory green in the dark cavern, lit only by the Dancing Lights that flickered red behind Mira. Those eyes went wide as he saw her, his maw breaking into a twisted mockery of a smile. “You, you've come to me,” he said. “I knew my letters would sway your heart, my love.”

Ace's grip tightened on his sword. Given the fury coming off of Mira in waves he wondered if he'd get the chance to use it.

“Come, my dear,” Foxglove said, holding out a clawed hand. His other claw slid something out of his sleeve. “Let us consummate our... hunger...” He flipped open the war razor and jumped on her, even as she raised her hands to set him aflame.

The spell failed as she screamed, as he bit and bit and...

Charlie sunk her knives into his back and the battle began properly.

It did not last long.

Ace debated sitting in the monster's chair but easily dismissed that. No matter how much he wanted to clean his sword that chair was too disgusting. Instead he watched as Charlie looted the headless corpse, as Cela held his holy symbol against Mira's breast and cast the spells that would bring her out of this ghoul paralysis and heal the wounds she'd suffered.

She jolted back to awareness, grimacing and hissing in pain. Despite Cela's magic the bite wounds on her shoulders and arms still looked red and raw.

Ace wandered around, taking in this place. The fungoid wall was strange, the worst of it seemed to grow from a great black mass in the middle with the vague shape of a man. A shattered puzzle box lay scattered on the floor, its seven sides oddly familiar. He had the strange urge to touch it...

“Bad idea,” he muttered to himself, moving away from the wall.

The serving table was somehow worse. Crystal decanters were filled with congealed blood, plates and platters held raw meat that might have been humanoid in origin if that disembodied hand was any indication. Ace seriously considered becoming the vegetarian stereotype people jumped to when they thought of elves.

But the altar...

“Mira,” Ace called. She had to see this. And maybe set most of it on fire.

Mira got to her feet and staggered over to the altar. She brushed aside the ruined parchment of used scrolls and the disturbing charcoal sketches of her nude. She picked up a ruined and stripped feather, brandishing it at Ace. “I liked this pen,” she snapped. She ripped the remaining barbs off of the feather shaft and snapped the quill in half.

She tossed aside an apple core and teeth from a shell comb. She picked up a wad of her own red hair, tangled and matted in some sort of bow, and threw it to the ground. She held up a blue and silver scarf and growled. It was a mockery of Baba Rann's scarf, the one she still wore draped over her hair. She could see the white ash drawn on the silk to try and duplicate the delicate twisting lines of the original. She tossed that aside and stopped cold.

“What is it?” Cela asked. Then he saw. “Oh, good, we found it.”

The Crows stared up at her, the missing card from her harrow deck. She gently wiped a smudge of charcoal and dried blood off of the card's delicate artwork.

“He is already dead,” Cela said softly. He almost seemed to be talking her down. “You have your vengeance. He'll not take any more from you.”

Mira held the card to her chest and sighed. Whether it was relief or resignation not even she could say.


“The card isn't damaged, is it?” McKay asked.

“Roll a luck die,” Rowan said.

“Huh?”

“Really? You're going that route?” Carter asked.

Rowan grinned. The game room was back to something akin to normal, the Daedalus and her crew out in the Void somewhere between galaxies. The card table in the back hosted what looked like competitive solitaire although no one was sure how. A small chess tournament was taking advantage of the city's best chess players' distraction with the Pathfinder game, Airman Roberts was hosting the Loser's Table complete with beers and snacks. What made that ominous was the Loser's Table's physical proximity to the Pathfinder game, so close that Ronon sat among the 'losers' while watching the game and regaling those around him with tales of other games he'd watched. One of the historians was sitting so close she was almost in his lap, enraptured with his every word.

“I'm going that route,” Rowan said. “I don't know how damaged the Crows is, I didn't plan on the question. I'm willing to let chance decide. Rodney, pick a die, any die, and roll it. Tell me the result.”

Rodney picked up a six-sided die and rolled it. “Five,” he said.

“All right,” Rowan said. “The Crows is filthy, there's blood stains on the image. The card isn't warped, nor is it torn, but the right wing of the tengu is stained. It's not bad but the spot's seeped into the ink so you're not sure you can pull the stain out of the card without damaging it further.”

“That wasn't lucky at all,” McKay complained.

“It wasn't bad,” Rowan assured. “Gives the card character. The cards remember where they've been. Several of the cards have little spots and smudges in them, your Baba Rann always said it gave them wisdom.”

“Huh,” McKay said. It was a thoughtful sound.

“You've killed Foxglove,” Rowan said. “What so you do now?”

“We take everything not nailed down and get out of here,” Carter said.

“Not everything,” Sheppard said. “There's a lot of stuff I'm perfectly willing to leave here.”

“You head back to Sandpoint then?” Rowan asked.

“Yes, we need to report our success,” Zelenka said. “And regroup.”


Mira pushed the mug of beer away from her. She was hungry, in fact she was starving, but the idea of food made her nauseous. She should eat, the tremors in her hands told her that much, but she knew she'd just throw it all back up again.

Foxglove was having one last laugh at her expense. No, not a laugh. Not really. This was worse.

For all his letters, for all his begging, for all his talk of this 'pack', he'd been right. The deaths would only stop if and when she joined them.

She knew what this was. The disease had several names. Belly blight, ghoul fever, Kabriri's curse, they were all the same. The disease was fatal.

She watched as Cela cavorted with the serving girl, inviting her to sit on his lap. In a rare failure of form the girl was having none of this, instead she dumped a mug of beer on his head.

Charlie sat in a corner sharpening knives, arguing with Ace over a map or another note or something. Mira didn't feel like getting involved. She was already far too involved for her own good.

Sometimes people could shake off this disease on their own. She knew she wasn't anywhere near hardy enough to do so but she could imagine it. She went up the stairs to the room she was sharing with Charlie and laid down on the bed. She wrapped all of the blankets over her shivering form and tried to get some sleep.

She awoke to the feel of hands on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see Ace looking worriedly at her. “Hey,” she said.

“How do you feel?” Ace asked.

Mira closed her eyes. She couldn't lie to his face but she could lie to darkness. “'M fine,” she said.

“No you're not.”

She sighed and tried to curl up in the bed. The shaking didn't make it any easier. She hurt all over, mostly her middle, as she curled around her belly and groaned. “Gonna...” She just barely dragged herself to the edge of the bed before vomiting over the side.

“You're definitely not.”

“Sorry,” Mira muttered as she curled back up. Her throat tasted like fire, her insides felt like fire, her skin felt like fire. She shivered as Ace picked her up and carried her downstairs.

She must have lost awareness because the next thing she knew she was on the great altar in Sandpoint Cathedral. The seven standing stones ringed her. She shivered on the cold stone. Living people never lay on this stone, only the dead. Only the dead were allowed here. Why was she here?

She saw a pair of faces above her, both looked worried. At least neither Father Zantus nor Cela spoke the words that would have sent her off to Desna's arms. This wasn't a funeral yet.

*****

“I don't have the power to cure this,” Father Zantus said.

“My studies were of the living, not of the dead or undead,” Cela said. “I don't know what this is.”

“This is something we call 'ghoul fever',” Zantus said. “It's a disease but it's also a curse. Ghouls spread it to the living with their bite. That's likely how she was exposed unless... You don't think she's resorted to cannibalism lately?”

Cela snorted. “Depends on what the Hagfish serves,” he said. “You cannot trust what people say about her.”

“What, that she's a witch?” Zantus laughed darkly. “You'd think here of all places people would understand Desna's gifts. No, I don't believe the rumors.”

“She was bitten by a ghoul two days hence,” Cela said. "The same one behind the Sihedron murders. The one who tried to have her implicated."

Zantus looked worried. “Might Calistria grant you the power to cure diseases?”

“I believe so,” Cela said. “I shall pray to her tonight. Otherwise, what do you suggest?”

“There's a ship bound for Magnimar leaving in the morning,” Zantus said. “If you can't release her from this fate by sunrise I suggest you take it. I can book you and your friends passage but there's nothing else I can do.”

“We are in your debt,” Cela said, bowing.

“Then consider ours paid,” Zantus said, also bowing. “These 'Sihedron murders' were stopped by your deeds, not ours.”

Cela bowed again. A pattern seemed to be emerging where neither cleric seemed willing to be the one to stop.

Finally the door to the Cathedral opened. “What's the word?” Ace called from the doorway.

Zantus stopped first. He scowled at that fact and at Ace's lack of manners. “You may come in, my son,” he said. It was more of a command than a welcome.

Cela grinned with personal triumph as soon as Zantus wasn't looking. “Ace, help me carry her,” he called. “I need to pray for Calistria's aid this midnight. Perhaps you would assist?”

Ace resolutely ignored the cleric leering at him as he picked up Mira and carried her out of the Cathedral.


“So...” Zelenka said, leering openly. “Will you assist?”

Carter was trying to ignore the situation as she hid behind her hand. Rowan seemed resigned that this was turning into 'one of those games'. McKay looked at Zelenka, then at Sheppard, then he seemed to be visibly pondering the idea.

Sheppard sighed with a grand slump. What the heck, this was just a game. “Sure, why not,” he said. “No details though.”

Carter gave him a speculative look.

“I said no details,” Sheppard said defensively. “I don't need to know. Besides, if it'll help Mira...”

McKay looked pleased with himself.

“Okay,” Rowan said, sparing a glare for Zelenka. “You realize you don't actually need to have sex to get your spells back,” he said.

“I know,” Zelenka said. “But they don't.”

Sheppard looked scandalized before he groaned and hid behind his hand.

“Well then,” Rowan said. “Ace, you had no idea people could do that without rope.”

Sheppard could feel McKay laughing at him.


Ace was exhausted and sore as he stood in the Cathedral in the early hours before sunrise. He was pretty sure he'd pulled something in his thigh and it ached. Worse, Father Zantus kept looking at him weird.

The stars shone overhead as they stood in the circle of standing stones hidden within the Sandpoint Cathedral. Seven stones, seven altars. One altar of ancient stone in the center, six of new wood along the walls. Holy symbols of the human gods of travel, of family and commerce, of beauty and the sun and the sea all looked down at them from those walls. Symbols of wood, of horn, of marble, of gold plate.

Yet in the middle of the standing stones, of this ancient sacred site long dedicated to Desna, it was a priest of Calistria who called forth the power of his god. Her elven presence was nowhere to be felt or found, unwelcome in this human settlement. But it was Mira's only hope.

Mira's faith belonged to Desna. Maybe, just maybe, Desna would take pity and allow one of the elven gods to affect this site.

Or maybe not...

Cela held his holy symbol against Mira's chest as he called forth Calistria's power to cleanse the disease from her. He shuddered with that power, an inner light that Ace could feel even if he couldn't see it.

And then...

Cela fell to his knees next to the stone altar. Mira lay on the stone where so many others had been laid to begin their final journey to Desna's grace. But Mira was still alive.

“I can't,” Cela whispered. “Calistria granted me the power but... I do not have the strength to wield it against this...”

Mira curled on her side and shuddered. She whined through the pain of the wracking shakes.

“The ship leaves at dawn,” Zantus said. Ace couldn't help but think the man seemed somehow smug about this. “There are churches in Magnimar that could cure her. The church of Pharasma would be my suggestion.”

Cela hoisted himself up, using the stone altar for leverage. He ignored the scandalized look Zantus gave him.

“We'll take her there,” Charlie said. “Thank you for all your help, Father.”

“I wish I could have done more,” Zantus said.

Ace carried Mira out of the Cathedral. After everything he'd personally done to aid Cela in this ritual Ace didn't like the superior way Father Zantus lorded Cela's failure over them.

“He was rude,” Ace said, still glaring at the Cathedral as the doors closed.

“Desna won't grant him the power,” Cela said, also annoyed. “But of course no one else can wield in his church.”

“You think he sabotaged you?”

“No,” Cela said. “This disease is simply not what the Father claimed it to be. He led me to believe this was a simple task. It is not. We'll try again on the ship to Magnimar but I do not hold much hope.”

“Shut up, you two, Father Zantus got us passage on the boat,” Charlie warned. “You want to speculate, wait until after we're on board. I don't think you want to carry Mira on a three day's ride over land.”

Ace and Cela both huffed in annoyance and headed to the docks. At least they had cause to head to Magnimar. Charlie had reason to believe Foxglove was following the orders of someone there.

*****

The ship creaked and groaned around them. The sky above was growing dark, the sun dipping below the horizon. Ace didn't care. All that mattered was that they'd reach Magnimar the next morning. Then they could disembark, run Mira to the Cathedral of Pharasma, and get them to cure her of this horrible disease.

Cela couldn't. He'd tried. He'd taken the ship's cook to bed with him and returned with spells of potent power and yet that wasn't enough. Now all they could do was wait, wait and hope.

Dancing Lights bounced in the corner, lazily orbiting the lantern Charlie had hung to give Mira something to aim at. Over the last three days the light had gone from burning merrily inside the lantern to flickering ominously below the lantern to now circling chaotically nearby and underneath and around. Dim droplets of light dripped from the spell like it was melting, like it would soon dissolve away to nothing.

He heard footsteps behind him. Cela wouldn't have his spells back, it wouldn't be him. No, it was Charlie.

“She's going to be all right,” Ace said stubbornly. He held Mira's hand like it was the only thing keeping her alive. Like he could save her with his touch.

Charlie glanced up at the flickering orb of spell's light. It faltered, dripping down like blood in water before reforming as a dim wad underneath the lantern. She didn't hold Ace's conviction, not at all. She knew it would take a miracle for Mira to survive the night.

“You should get some sleep,” Charlie said. “I'll sit with her.”

Ace hadn't slept since they boarded the ship. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to leave her. He knew if he did she'd leave him.

“Ace,” Charlie said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

He shrugged her off and glared at her.

“It's not your fault,” Charlie whispered. “Get some sleep. You'll need it when we make port.” She smiled and then lied through her teeth. “How will we get Mira to the Cathedral if you're too tired to carry her?”

Ace sighed. “You're right,” he said. But he didn't want to let go.

“I can get Cela in here to cast Sleep on you,” Charlie warned.

Ace sighed again. He laid Mira's hands against her chest as she lay on the cot. She looked like Death would come for her soon. For a moment he believed they'd beat the Lady of Graves at her own game. But he knew better. Charlie was telling him to go so he wouldn't have to be here when she died.

“Don't leave her alone,” he said, pleaded.

“I won't,” Charlie said. “I'll be here.”

Ace stood up and walked away.

He resolutely didn't watch as the amorphous orb of Dancing Lights dripped to the floor and faded away.


“Fuck!” McKay shouted.

His last Fort save had failed. Of course it had, by this point he'd have needed to roll a 21 on a 20 sided die to succeed. But what had him swearing was the six sided die in front of him. In order for Mira to survive to sunrise he would have needed to roll a one.

A six was not a one. It was the opposite of a one.

Rowan looked like he wanted to say something but couldn't. Instead he looked around the table. Carter looked resigned yet still annoyed at him as though Zelenka's inability to roll a successful caster level check was his fault. To be fair, the needed roll was not a small one and Zelenka had made several attempts. At least Zelenka looked he was blaming his dice instead of the story or the storyteller.

Sheppard looked quiet, that disturbing quiet he had after Reggie the Bard!'s death. Rowan had hoped that he'd get over that but, well, this was McKay. McKay had that carefully controlled look that did not bode well for the object of his ire.

“Hour break,” Rowan said. He pointed to McKay. “Not you. We need to talk.”

“Yeah, I just died,” McKay snapped.

“Yes, you did,” Rowan said. He paused to look at the others who hadn't left. “Hour break,” he said again. “That means 'go away'. Go hit the mess hall or something.”

Sheppard stormed off. Carter gave Rowan one lingering look that did not bode well before following.

“The dice did not favor us today,” Zelenka said. “Bad luck happens.” He finally left as well.

McKay pouted and sat back, crossing his arms as though daring Rowan to do his worst.

Rowan thought about it, just long enough that he could see McKay's urge to snap and rant and demand and bitch rising to critical levels. “I may have an idea,” Rowan said just as McKay was opening his mouth to begin.

That stopped McKay's rant in its tracks. “What, I'm magically not dead? Cela tried that. Three times. It didn't work.”

“No, no, not that,” Rowan said. “Despite the stupid Fort save this was a variant of 'ghoul fever'. He had a 30% chance of making the check each time he rolled.”

“You couldn't have given him the buttsex modifier?” McKay demanded.

Both Rowan and McKay resolutely ignored the muffled snickers around them.

“Sets a bad precedent,” Rowan said. “But I have an idea. Tell me what you think.”

Chapter Text

Someone in Atlantis liked to bake. It wasn't a regular member of the KP staff. That's all anyone knew; the staff were more than willing to keep the baker's identity secret if it meant they weren't the ones who had to make these spectacular cookies. Today's cookies involved some sort of local spices and soured cream all rolled in sugar. Whatever they were they made for a passable snickerdoodle.

Carter had commandeered two dozen of the cookies under the clause of 'it's good to be the boss'. The half-empty plate was sitting in the middle of the table where she, Sheppard, and Zelenka all wondered what would happen next.

“Fifty-fifty he stays in the game,” Zelenka said.

“I told Pete not to do this,” Carter said.

“Wait, you told him?” Sheppard asked.

“I have my reasons,” Carter defended. “Rodney's the only one we have here who can make heads or tails of this Replicator code. If anyone in this city needs to stay sane it's him.”

“That code makes no sense,” Zelenka said. “It's nothing but unconnected clauses and multitudes of if-then statements leading into nowhere.”

“Nobody's blaming you,” Carter said. “I've looked at it too, I couldn't make sense of it either. I have no idea how Rodney does it.”

“But that means Rodney has no backup.”

“Unless you can get your Wraith friend to work with us again,” Carter said.

“Well, he's not really what I'd call a 'friend',” Sheppard said. He took another cookie.

“He hasn't eaten you yet,” Carter said. At Sheppard's deadpanned look she revised her statement. “He hasn't eaten you lately.”

Sheppard sighed. “I asked Caldwell to smuggle me some new RC cars,” he said. “If Rodney quits the game I'll leave too. Keep him from working too hard.”

“We'll miss you,” Carter said. “But it's up to Rodney. If he wants to stay it won't be a problem. If he gets disenchanted and leaves later on, it'll be up to you. I won't order you to play with Rodney but...”

Sheppard grinned. He quickly wiped the smile from his face and replaced it with a look of mock-seriousness. “It's a difficult task but if I'm the best man for the job I suppose I'll have to.”

Carter managed to keep a straight face just long enough to throw a cookie at him.

*****

“That... is an interesting plan,” McKay said.

“I hadn't planned on anyone dying,” Rowan admitted, emphasizing carefully. “But I did prepare something just in case.”

Rodney wondered if that was a lie, if Rowan had indeed planned this. Maybe just a little bit. “The others have no idea,” he realized.

“Cela knows the basics. The others don't have Knowledge (religion), they only know what they've been told. It'll be tricky, I think it all depends on Sheppard.”

“His character does carry a comically large sword,” McKay agreed.

“Do you have any nonlethal spells prepared?”

McKay scoffed.

“We'll level them up to sixth as soon as they get to Magnimar,” Rowan allowed. “If you level now you can take Hold Person. Ace has a weak will save.”

“I feel weird plotting against Sheppard like this,” McKay said.

“It's for his own good,” Rowan said.


Mira opened her eyes.

She was alone. The cabin was empty. She cast Dancing Lights out of reflex and realized as she did that she didn't need it to see. The spell brought color to the black and white darkness but it didn't bring light. Or maybe she didn't need light...

Her eyes went to her hands, her... claws...

Kabriri's curse always had the same ending. Descent into undeath, into madness, into unending hunger.

She was hungry. Starving. The last time she'd felt hunger like this she'd been a child, the wagons trapped in the snows of winter in the foothills of the Kodar Mountains. There was no escape until the snows receded, no end to the searing hunger as the wendigo of the north howled and called all their names. Baba Rann held back the nightmare with a single reading as she cast doom upon the one whose death would save them all. Mira had cried for days, Lightfoot had been her favorite horse. His death saved them all but she would gladly have suffered that hunger to save him.

She felt that hunger again, a burning crushing hunger than gnawed at the insides. She could almost hear the wendigo outside.

She listened to hear the howling wind and whispered names but it wasn't there. Nothing but creaking sails, groaning wood, and lapping waves.

So the tales were true. But she didn't feel any different. She remembered her life. She remembered her magic. Weren't ghouls supposed to lose themselves? Or was it the hunger that drove them mad?

No matter. She reached for her spellbook and began her preparatory studies.

*****

Ace stood on the deck of the ship. The stars shone above, only sparse clouds wafting across the sky to block their light. What did Desnans believe? Would he find a new star in the sky where Mira's soul watched them now? Would her family wonder what had happened to her? How would he even find them? The Varisian roads were well known and well traveled but which caravan was hers?

He held her scarf in his hands. It shimmered blue-purple in his hands. Esoteric patterns of spirals and swirls and stars shone silver in the moonlight. Sewn into the seams and under the golden tassels were small gems kept hidden for emergencies. Spell components, bribes, the occasional fine or large bar tab, these gems could get them out of any jam.

Except this one.

“I could not save her.”

Ace heard Cela settle against the railing of the deck next to him. He wanted to blame the cleric, he did. But he couldn't. However he could blame Foxglove. They should have let the man die in the goblin raid, then he wouldn't have turned murderer. He wouldn't have grown obsessed with Mira. He wouldn't have killed her days after his own death.

“I cannot even take vengeance for her,” Cela said. “Foxglove is already dead.”

Ace held the scarf over the water. All he had to do was let it go.

Cela's hand grasped his wrist. “Don't,” he said. “She may want it back.”

Ace pulled the scarf back from the railing's edge and had to stare at Cela.

“If Zantus was not lying, if she did die of ghoul fever, she will awaken,” Cela said.

Ace took a step back. “As what?” he asked.

“I don't know,” Cela said. He honestly did not know.

Ace wrapped Mira's scarf around his neck and headed down below to the hold. He stormed to her cabin and paused at the door. He hadn't been down here since Charlie sent him away. He didn't know if he could handle seeing her dead body, lifeless and still. But the idea of a monster lurking there where she'd once been made him pull the door open.

He stood in the doorway transfixed by the sight of glowing red eyes staring back at him. A maw littered with sharp teeth opened and hissed.

Ace felt his heart break as his hand went to his sword. She'd come back but not as herself, not as his Mira and now...

And then she hissed a command and he couldn't move.

Was... was this the terrible 'ghoul paralysis' he'd heard Cela mention? Was the monster wearing Mira's skin going to eat him now? He wished he could close his eyes. He wished she'd get on with it.

Instead she was... talking?

“I know this looks bad and I'm sorry but it's not like I can re-life myself,” Mira said, pacing the floor of the cabin before him. “I woke up like this and yes I know exactly what this means but please don't kill me, I'm not going to, okay, I'm not planning on eating anyone and wait, that sounds even worse, look, just... The spell wears off in a little bit, just don't kill me after that? Please? Because Cela's a cleric and I don't know Calistria's views on undead and that might get bad and I have no idea what Charlie's going to think and, wait, give me that.” She reached out and unwound her scarf from Ace's neck. She laid it over her head to hide her new form.

She was... She was striking to say the least. Her beautiful red hair was gone, strewn about the bed where the fever had stolen it in clumps. Her ears were pointed like an elf's ears. Her skin was porcelain pale, bloodless and waxy smooth and Ace wanted to touch her, to know what that skin felt like. Her eyes were red, nothing like Foxglove's shining green eyes. Her mouth hid a sinfully long tongue and a multitude of pointed teeth that looked like they could rend living flesh if she so chose but instead she was talking without pausing for air or thought.

“This doesn't hide me at all does it,” Mira realized. “I can't go out like this, how can I go out like this? Wait, how do I even look? Foxglove looked hideous, I'm not hideous am I? All rotted and gaunt and icky and... and wait...” She started laughing. “The Sihedron amulet! Oh, Desna's laughing her head off right now, I know it. Don't you see, Ace? This amulet casts Gentle Repose on any dead body you put it on! I'm a dead body! I'll never have to worry about being gross since I can't rot! Oh that is disgusting to think about, maggots and worms and eurgh...”

Ace felt the hold of magic beginning to fade. At least he could blink. His hand twitched.

Mira jumped as she noticed the movement. “Please don't kill me, I only have one of those prepared today, it's a difficult spell and I'm just lucky you're kind of dumb otherwise it wouldn't have worked and, wait, you're not dumb I'm sorry I said that!”

The spell wore off and Ace was able to drop his sword arm. He breathed slowly, deliberately, trying to keep himself from doing anything rash.

Mira noticed he wasn't trying to kill her and stepped forward. She tentatively reached out to him, wickedly long claws visible despite her best efforts. He couldn't help the glance at them.

She pulled away.

“You're undead,” he whispered.

“I... think so,” she said. She tried to look less threatening.

Ace reached out to her, his hand gently stroking her face. Her skin was cold.

He turned and left without a word.

Mira watched him leave and sank onto her bunk. She hid under her scarf as she tried not to cry.

Ace, meanwhile, stormed through the hold to Cela's bunk. He pounded on the door and opened it without ceremony.

The sight before him was one he both expected and never would, not even after he'd been involved in such actions. The ship's cook was a rather large and hairy man. Cela was neither, small and thin and smooth in all sorts of indecent places. The cook had Cela on his hands and knees and was thrusting into him from behind while Cela moaned like a wanton. Ace was struck by a sudden memory as he remembered what it felt like to ride that man and--

Ace blushed as Cela's glazed eyes focused on him.

“Mira's awake,” Ace said, nearly stumbling over his words as he tried to get them out quickly. “I need you come check her out!” He left, slamming the door behind him.

Ace had the feeling someone was laughing at him. It wasn't important. What was important was...

Wait, where'd she go?

*****

Charlie stood on the bow of the ship, watching the bow lantern as it cut their way through the night.

The darkness was nearly total for her. Stars twinkled above but the horizon wasn't anything she could pick out with any surety. She didn't know the coast, she wouldn't know where Magnimar was from here. But soon they'd be pulling into port one day too late. If Mira had told them she was sick in the first place, if Cela could cast a damned spell correctly, if Magnimar wasn't so far away... So many ifs. None of them mattered.

She heard footsteps behind her. She glanced back, realized what she'd saw, and had to turn to stare. “You're dead,” Charlie said.

Mira hummed her assent. She leaned on the railing, her scarf gently blowing back to hint at her new-found baldness, her pointed ears, her red eyes. “I'm feeling better,” she said.

“I watched you die,” Charlie said, clearly not okay with this situation. “I held your hand as you died!”

Mira reached for her. Those were big claws. Charlie pulled a dagger, daring Mira to come closer.

“I only had one Hold Person prepared today,” Mira warned. “I already used it on Ace.”

“You're dead,” Charlie said. “You can't be here. If you're here that means you're a ghoul and you're dangerous.”

Mira scoffed. “Of course I'm dangerous,” she said. “We're all dangerous. Ace wields a sword that weighs more than I do, you have knives in places even Cela couldn't find, and Cela can make bones crumble with a touch.” It clearly wasn't helping. She backed away from Charlie, claws out as she debated reaching for her harrow deck and using its own magic to recall that spell in case she needed it.

Charlie lunged. Mira dodged out of the way, pausing for a moment to wonder how she did that. That moment didn't last long as Charlie came at her.

Mira ran back along the deck to the hold.

*****

Ace sat on Mira's bunk. Long red hairs lay strewn and tangled all around him. He ran his hands through them and sighed. She was... not alive. She was up, at least. Undead. Unchanging. Even elves eventually grew old and died and she'd never have that. But then, in all likelihood he'd never live long enough to have that either.

If these past few days taught him anything it was that their lives were dangerous ones.

He gathered a handful of hair and looked at it. It seemed wrong to do this but... He pulled a string from his sleeve and tied the lock of hair together. He hid it in his tunic even as Cela came in.

“So where is she?” Cela demanded.

Ace looked up. Cela was rumpled, ruffled, and barely wearing pants. It seemed to be a look he was used to wearing.

“Well?”

Ace opened his mouth to admit he'd lost track of her when Mira tore through the hold and jumped into the cabin. She hid under the bed like a cat and hissed, red eyes glowing in the darkness.

Ace had the absurd urge to start laughing and never stop. Maybe reach down and boop her nose like a kitten's. Then the urge passed as he brought himself under control. He noticed Cela was looking at him strangely; it had nothing to do with Mira's current predicament.

Charlie ran up, knives unsheathed. “Where is it?” she demanded. “Mira's a ghoul and we have to put it down before it eats us all!”

Ace pointed at her as though this were the reason he'd barged in on Cela's 'prayers'.

“She is a ghoul,” Cela agreed. “Ghouls are not mindless eating machines. That would be zombies.”

“I thought you didn't study undead,” Mira accused.

Ace looked under the bed where she still hid. “You're not helping your case.”

Mira growled and playfully batted out at him with her claws.

“See?!” Charlie said, pointing dramatically.

Ace looked at Charlie, looked into the darkness where Mira crouched like an oversized cat, and decided on what upon later introspection seemed like a highly stupid plan. He laid down on the bed so he could dangle his arms and head over the side, reached under the bed to grab Mira around her middle, and tried to drag her out from under the bed.

It didn't work. She must have gotten stronger or more dexterous or maybe both because he did not expect her to grab him by the shoulders and drag him under the bed like some sort of cheesy childhood monster.

“Ace!” Charlie shouted.

“Mira!” Cela scolded.

Ace realized he was laying on top of her and that her claws were tangled in his tunic. He felt his cheeks warm as he blushed.

“This... wasn't my plan,” Mira said.

“What was your plan?” Ace asked.

She didn't answer, not aloud. There was no blood in her veins to blush but she still managed to look sheepish. Maybe it was the droop of her pointed ears. Maybe it was the large red eyes that still seemed so delicately innocent. Maybe...

Ace gently stroked her cheek. “I'm glad you're all right,” he whispered.

“I'm glad you think I am,” Mira whispered. She untangled her claws and let her hands slide around him to hold him.

Someone outside kicked the bed. It might have been Charlie. She certainly sounded annoyed as she complained she could hear them and this didn't prove anything and if Ace got himself dead it was his own fault.


This seemed like a good point to stop the game. Sheppard and McKay were getting out of hand and Rowan knew there would be no getting them back on track, not after the 'boop' incident. And that was something Rowan never thought he'd see, Sheppard breaking McKay of Mira's suspicious lurking by poking him in the nose. Claims were made that McKay was acting like an irate cat and should therefore be treated as one but McKay was having none of it and now the building rant threatened to be one for the record books.

Indeed Sheppard took the signal for the end of the game and tried to escape. Or maybe he was leading McKay out of the game room so the ensuing rant would be more private.

“Interesting solution,” Zelenka said as he left. “I would not have thought of it.”

“Nor I,” Carter said ominously.

Rowan did not like the look she gave him.

The game room was transitioning into smaller games as the chess tournament ended. The winner was Sergeant Elliot, the marine everyone called Boss regardless of anyone else's orders or rank. He stood on a chair with a chess bishop held in one hand like a cigar. Someone else questioned where that chessman might have been and the posturing quickly ended as half the room laughed. The card table was gathering a game as Dr. Parrish brought out a brand new jar of betting materials fresh from the Daedalus's recent run: a gigantic plastic jug of jelly beans. The jar may have had a 'Costco' label on it, it was hard to see from Rowan's position.

Carter waited until Zelenka left and then fixed Rowan with a long glare.

“It wasn't my fault Zelenka couldn't roll a 14,” Rowan said defensively.

“You couldn't have given him the buttsex modifier?” Carter demanded. She resolutely acted as though the snickering around them wasn't happening. “Sheppard even offered.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” Rowan said. “McKay asked me the same thing and he agreed with my reasoning. Trust me, I had planned on Zelenka rolling better than a six. I was even willing to fudge his results a bit if he got close.”

“So now we have undead,” Carter said. “Rodney is running an undead character.”

“I gave him options,” Rowan said. “Of those options he chose this.”

“Pete...”

“Look, I'll work with him on this,” Rowan said. “I know how the rest of the adventure path goes and this won't get in the way. In fact, there's a lot of opportunity here that won't be seen until later. He'll be fine. Trust me.”

*****

Ronon caught up with Sheppard and McKay in the mess hall. They were piling their trays with some of those deboned 'hot dogs' in buns. Sheppard was pouring chili on his while McKay opted for a bowl. Ronon saw Teyla at a table and waved. She waved them over to join her.

Ronon sat down with her. As he'd hoped McKay and Sheppard joined them. He reached over and stole one of McKay's hot dogs.

“Get your own,” McKay snapped. “I'm hungry. Everyone else got a break; I assume you ate food.”

“Why do you think that?” Sheppard asked. His chili dogs were too hot to eat so he focused on acting like he wasn't still full of cookies.

“It's what I would do,” McKay said. He then glared at Sheppard. “I could smell it on you.”

“Smell me often, do you?” Sheppard asked, leering.

“Only when you smell good,” McKay said. Only then did he seem to realize what he'd just said and blushed. His embarrassment lasted only until he had to smack Ronon's hand with a spoon to save his tray.

Sheppard picked up one of his chili dogs, trying to figure out a way to hold it without getting chili everywhere. Prospects did not look good. He ended up cradling the whole thing in his hands and resigning himself to stuffing his face into things.

“Good game today,” Ronon said. “Liked the twist.”

“Twist?” Teyla asked.

“I died,” McKay said like it was the most normal thing in the world. At her horrified look he amended his statement. “I got better! Honest, I'm fine.”

“You're undead,” Sheppard said. He started on his chili dog. “You're a walking corpse who eats people,” he said, talking with his mouth full. “You only look fine.”

“I'll only eat people who deserve it,” McKay said as he delicately spooned chili onto his remaining hot dog.

Ronon pondered the chili aspect of these chili dogs and and dipped his pilfered hot dog into McKay's bowl of chili.

“Gross,” McKay snapped. “Who knows where you've been.”

“Here,” Ronon said, answering the implied question.

“Not the point.” McKay noticed Sheppard's lack of usable hands and reached across the table to divest Sheppard's tray of a chili dog.

“Go ahead,” Sheppard said, mouth full. “Ate a lot of cookies earlier.”

“Ha!” McKay shouted, triumphant. Then he realized. “Wait, there were cookies? Fresh cookies? The 'Mystery Baker' was in here?! Damn, I missed it!”

“Have you considered a pursuit where no one 'dies', even in jest?” Teyla asked with a sigh.

McKay paused and seemed to visibly consider the idea. This didn't stop him from slapping Ronon's invading hand with a spoon. “No, this is more fun,” he said. “I can sit down, let my mind run off with me, and nobody hits me with sticks.”

“Sparring's fun,” Ronon said. “It's good for you.”

Sheppard finished his chili dog and realized his napkins were no match for the chili remains all over his hands. He started licking.

McKay waited until Sheppard was busy before darting his hand out and...

Sheppard stopped in mid lick, tongue sticking out, two fingers in his mouth as he realized McKay had just poked him in the nose. He fixed McKay with a calmly questioning look, ruined completely as his lips wrapped around his fingers and sucked.

McKay looked smug. “Nobody gets to boop me and walk away, Colonel,” he said.

“I think it's a 'cat' thing,” Ronon said as Teyla looked to him for answers.

Teyla merely shook her head as she allowed her focus to wander. The others seemed set on their fictional pursuits. She didn't understand it, nor did she like it, but in the end she guessed she didn't have to.

Chapter Text

Ace stood around feeling uncomfortable.

He supposed it was an unfortunate side effect of their activities here in Magnimar. The Foxglove townhouse led to another place then yet another and somehow they found themselves on the top of a tower fighting a flying snake.

It wasn't really a snake and it was using magic to fly but it was still a flying snake. Ace planned on insisting upon that point no matter how many people pointed out the lamia had hands and a human torso and breasts and a cobra's hood. And cast spells. And had a gold spear that leaked despair. And tried to turn him to stone with some mask.

That was a weird day. No other word for it.

Now he stood in the middle of a large foyer surrounded by the city's elite. He wasn't allowed to wear his armor, instead he was made up to look like some sort of posh elven lord. The idea made him want to belch and scratch himself. But he supposed that's what happened when one uncovered and ended a plot to assassinate the lord-mayor.

Cela wore something equally elven despite his half-human heritage. Yellow and black fabric draped around him, doing nothing to hide his form. Ace looked down into his wine glass, wondering if that was due to some magical tampering or if he just hadn't drunk enough yet.

Charlie looked like many of the local noblemen with her brocade and her doublet and her bobbed blonde hair. Ace wondered how many knives she had hidden in those sleeves.

Mira was... Ace had no idea if Mira was going to show up or not. Events in the church of Cayden Cailean proved she couldn't get drunk, wouldn't ever satisfy her gnawing hunger with mere food. Perhaps she'd skip the ball entirely. She'd been hiding from the city in some bolthole in the Underbridge. Cela had some friends with the church of the drunken god who were keeping an ear out for anything ghoulish in the city's shadows and so far nothing. No strange deaths, no more corpses than normal, just Mira's insistence that she was working on something and she'd come out when she was ready.

“Ace, is it? Enjoying yourself?”

Ace turned to the voice, a rather large and round man with a particularly garish hat. The Lord-Mayor Grobaras held what must have been the most ostentatious goblet in the entire room, there were rubies embedded in the crystal. Those rubies were nearly lost in the deep red wine that caught the light such that it looked nearly black.

“Of course, Lord-Mayor,” Ace said. He knew how to ingratiate himself to nobility, it was something every elf of Kyonin had to learn if they wanted to survive.

“You haven't joined the party,” Grobaras said. “Dinner will be served soon, and then of course dancing.”

“I'm waiting for someone,” Ace said.

Grobaras sniffed, sneering just enough. “Ah, yes, your necromancer.”

“Evoker,” Ace said absently.

“What?”

“She's an evoker,” Ace said, his tone daring the lord-mayor to disagree.

Grobaras sniffed again, redirecting his sneer. He left Ace alone, mingling with his other guests.

The outer doors opened and a footman allowed a woman to enter. It was... It couldn't be...

Ace stood transfixed. Mira wore beautiful blue silks edged in silver. A bright orange-red scarf was wrapped around her waist, accentuating her thin curves while hiding the gaunt nature of her undead form. Her blue-purple scarf was draped over her head, translucent enough to see her underneath and, wait...

Mira drew the scarf back, letting it fold over and fall to her shoulders.

“How?” Ace asked.

“I told you I was working on something,” Mira said.

She had hair. Her red eyes matched the long red tresses still confined by the scarf. Ace reached out and...

His hand touched nothing. He watched as his hand stroked her soft red hair but he couldn't feel it. The illusion was a complex one but it wasn't total. “Will it wear off?” he asked.

“I enchanted Baba Rann's scarf,” she said. “I couldn't enchant it to make me look human again but I think this is close enough.” She stepped back and let him look.

Mira the ghoul was thinner than Mira the human was. This illusion made the attempt to reverse that, or maybe that was the result of the careful drape of fabric and twist of scarf. Her claws were impossible to see, hidden under magic and the illusion of long silk gloves. Her teeth were still sharp but less threatening, less inhuman. Vampiric, maybe. She was still pale, cold, smooth, her red eyes striking and her will a force of its own.

“I think you're beautiful,” Ace said, breathless. “I mean, you always were and you still are but--” Cold fingertips pressed into his lips. He could feel the tips of her claws against his skin.

“So I look all right?” she asked wryly.

Ace nodded. He offered his arm. She took it and he led her into the vast ballroom.

The lord-mayor didn't look overly pleased that they were there but cleared his throat anyway as he tapped his crystal goblet with a spoon.

“Ladies, gentlemen, esteemed guests, we're here to show our appreciation for these fine heroes for their roles in uncovering and foiling a most heinous plot by our own Justice Ironbriar to have me assassinated.” Grobaras waited for the gasps and the applause to die down. “Yes, yes, thank you for your concern. I assure you I'm fine. Ironbriar on the other hand...” He allowed the crowd to titter with vague and pointless laughter.

“I'm sure you've all had the chance to meet... most of them,” Grobaras continued, eying Mira. She drew herself up and seemed to dare anyone to say anything. “There will be time for meeting the necromancer later.”

Grobaras winced as four voices shouted “Evoker!” He visibly sniffed at the interruption and continued. “My Office has been given full access to the trappings of Ironbriar and his accomplices, until such a time as the Council of Ushers decides what to do with them. Viewing is in the ballroom. Please, enjoy yourselves.”

Masks and robes of the Skinsaw Cult hung along the ballroom walls. Ace shuddered as he looked at them, empty and devoid of the cultists who'd tried to kill them all. Mira glanced at one, looked away, then stared. An eyebrow arched as she quietly cast Detect Magic. She smiled as her hunch proved correct. “These are fakes,” she whispered, switching to Elven for privacy.

“What?” Ace asked. “You're serious.”

“Nonmagical fakes,” she whispered. “We got paid for these, right?”

“Finder's fee, half cost.”

“Good enough. I don't care what happens to the originals, I don't plan on being here long enough to find out.”

“Where will you go?” Ace asked.

Mira shrugged. “If nothing comes up here, I don't know. There's a prophecy I'm supposed to fulfill. I suppose I have time now but... I'd like to know if I can ever go home.”

Ace couldn't see the weaving of magic that was missing from these cloaks and masks. But he trusted her. “You could come with me,” he said. “I don't have anywhere to go. Or maybe I could come with you?”

“I'd like that,” Mira said, leaning close to him.


Rowan closed the adventure book with a satisfying 'snap'. The second adventure was finished.

“You all hit level seven,” he said.

Carter hissed in triumph and began making notes on her character sheet. Sheppard leaned back and stretched. He almost found his arm draping over the back of McKay's chair but caught himself before McKay noticed.

Zelenka flipped through the core book and skimmed a few pages. “In that case I'd like to ask Calistria for a Sending spell,” he said. “I need to take petty revenge for a minor slight.”

“Okay,” Rowan said. “Against who?”

“Father Zantus.”

“Are you still blaming him for my death?” McKay asked.

“No, this is a minor grievance. I only wish to rub events in a little bit.”

“The fact that you're burning a 4th level spell when a letter would suffice certainly rubs it in,” Carter said absently.

“Ah,” Rowan said, finally getting it. “In that case, you have 25 words.”

Zelenka sat back to think about his word choice.

Sheppard was able to level his character up in under two minutes. Being a fighter was easy that way. He nudged McKay. “Let's see what's in the mess,” he said.

“Good idea,” McKay said. He moved to get up.

Rowan pointed at him. “You're not leaving yet.”

“What?!” McKay demanded. “Oh, come on. I haven't eaten in hours! We're done, right?”

Rowan smiled. McKay did not like that smile. “They're done,” he said, gesturing to the others. “You... have some circumstances we need to deal with.”

McKay crossed his arms and pouted as he slouched in his chair. “Being undead's hard.”

“I'll bring you something,” Sheppard said.

McKay's pout dissolved into a blinding grin. “You will?”

Sheppard smirked and left.

“I have it,” Zelenka said. “'Foxglove worked under orders of Skinsaw Cult. Assassination plots foiled. Investigating Turtleback Ferry at request of Magnimar government. Mira recovered with aid from Cayden Cailean.' Is twenty five words exactly. I do not wait for his answer, is unimportant.”

Rowan snorted. “You may not pay attention but it comes through anyway,” he said. “In essence, Sandpoint's safe, assassinations are worrisome, and why didn't you go to the Pharasmins? They were the only ones who could have saved her.”

Zelenka grinned. “So he thinks.”

“That's one way to tell them she's undead,” Carter said. She chose a feat and finished leveling up. “Now we can never go back there.”

Zelenka scoffed. “They couldn't handle goblins,” he said dismissively. “I don't fear them and neither should Mira.”

“Speaking of,” Rowan said, his smile returning as he regarded McKay. He pulled the adventure book toward him and reopened it, flipping to pages near the back. “Mira... You said you wanted to find some... things... You hear of just the place.”


The lord-mayor had a 'favor' to ask of them, one that came with a pittance of gold to cover expenses. Charlie headed off to exchange several of her daggers with better made ones, Cela said something about petty revenge, Ace spent his time at the church of Cayden Cailean partaking in the holiest of beers, and Mira had her own plans.

Mira lurked in the Undercity. Her death had made her more persuasive, maybe it was the eyes, and she was able to find what she sought in the shadow of the Irespan where the city guard knew not to venture. There were monsters here, murderers and thieves and giant rats. But there was one thing even monsters feared and that was necromancy.

She'd spent an entire night in the lord-mayor's mansion being called a necromancer. The church of Cayden Cailean decided it was easier to pretend she was 'just' a necromancer and not anything worse. The city guard called her a necromancer to her face, a witch behind her back. She was used to being called a witch.

She wasn't the only one. Her questions had led her to a tiny independent graveyard run and operated by a 'witch'. This place was a shack in the darkness next to a small plot of bare dirt. A sign proclaimed it to be a graveyard even though there were only three dilapidated headstones. The expected smell of death did not drift from beneath the earth here. She allowed her scarf to fall away from her face and knocked on the wood frame.

A black rooster flapped awkwardly up onto a leaning gravestone. It fixed her with beady black eyes and clucked.

“Hey,” Mira said, reaching out to rub the rooster's feathers. The rooster trilled and pecked at her claws. It then jumped, flapping clumsily into the shack's glassless window.

The door opened. The black rooster drew itself up, puffing its chest and flicking its tail feathers. It stood amidst the bright green hair of a gnome with big silver eyes, a wide grin, and a stare that seemed to see right through Mira's scarf of disguise. “Dropping off or picking up?”

Mira wondered how one might 'pick up' from a graveyard. It was better not to ask. Her belly growled as her hunger decided to make itself known. She winced and hissed aloud until she could ignore it.

The gnome gave her a calculating look. “Come in, come in,” he said, far too gleefully to be natural.

Mira looked around, hoped she wasn't making a mistake, and stepped inside. The rickety door closed with a distinct sense of finality.

“Call me 'Tartegre',” he said. The rooster flapped away to perch on a bookshelf. The second shelf was dominated by a large nest. “He's 'Shimmer Pitch' but I'm the only one who gets to call him that.”

Mira recognized a caster's familiar. The rooster moved and acted with an intelligence she'd not seen in many goblins. “May I call you 'Pitch'?” she asked, scratching under its beak. The rooster trilled and rubbed its head against her claws, no fear whatsoever in its feathered head.

“Honey, if you keep scritching him like that he'll let you call him whatever you want,” Tartegre said.

Mira noticed there were eggs in the rooster's nest. She recalled something about eggs hatched by roosters, or was it rooster eggs hatched by toads? Either way, that knowledge did not sit easy with her.

Tartegre stirred a bubbling pot on the fire. He ladled a portion into a bowl too big for his hands. “You should eat something,” he said ominously. “Hunger can be maddening, don't you think so?”

Mira's pettings slowed as she pulled away from the rooster. She ignored it as it pecked at her claws, insisting she get back to proper business. She pulled her scarf from her head and allowed the illusion to drop.

Tartegre merely smiled. “Sit, hun, sit down. Have some soup.”

Mira sat down, wondering if she'd followed the wrong directions and ended up somewhere truly terrifying. She took the bowl, expecting it to leave her feeling as empty as the lord-mayor's feast the night before. Nothing she ever ate would quench this hunger, nothing except... And there was no way she would ever...

She took a polite sip and...

Mira moaned aloud as the agony of her hunger faded. She shuddered at the sheer weight of sweet relief. The pain was gone...

The pain was gone!

But...

Wait, no, no! It was coming back! She whimpered and drank from the bowl again. Food, glorious food! It didn't feel like ash in her belly, it didn't taunt her with empty promises, she could feel it... The hunger came back soon after each swallow but...

Wait...

Mira looked into the bowl, at the thick stew with its chunks and shreds of slightly overcooked meat. She looked up at Tartegre, at the delighted grin on his face as he watched her with rapt attention. He giggled and bounced in glee as she stared at him in horror.

Ghoul hunger... could only be satisfied... by the flesh of humanoids...

“You must be young,” Tartegre purred. “I have so many leftovers in my line of work. Eat as much as you like.”

Mira wanted to put the bowl down. But the hunger was coming back. She began to realize how so many others before her went mad with it, why they lost themselves. She wanted to...

She brought the bowl to her lips and drank it all. On the edge of her perception she could hear the gnome laughing in glee, the black rooster crowing.


McKay sat in dawning horror as Rowan calmly described the scene. Intellectually it made sense, being a ghoul allowed him access to some nice things: immunity to disease, poisons, and mind effecting spells, increased hit points due to the charisma bonus, increased dexterity, natural armor, Mira was a much more powerful character now than before. A fighter would be devastatingly powerful with these advantages. It was only expected that there be some drawbacks.

Mira's unnatural aura of undeath that scared animals and small children was a problem but it was something that could be managed. The smell was a nuisance but it wasn't like McKay couldn't burn some skill points on crafting perfumes, besides the smell would only get bad if Mira ate people. That fact, that ghouls ate people, was something he'd dismissed as unimportant.

Now he realized how wrong he was.

Rowan stopped talking as Sheppard came into the game room. He carried a cardboard box with several sandwiches in it, a travel mug of coffee, and looked like he had several cookies stuffed in his pockets. Rowan made the effort to look like he hadn't been describing anything abnormal at all, nope, nothing weird here.

McKay had no idea how the man did it. He wasn't even sure he wanted to eat anymore but his stomach growled at him as Sheppard sat down and started pulling things out of his pockets.

Rowan stole a cookie and continued. “Once your bowl's empty Tartegre refills it without asking. Then he asks why you're here, other than lunch.”

McKay held a sandwich halfway to his mouth and debated putting it down. But he couldn't. He was too hungry.


Tartegre glanced over Mira's shoulder at her spellbook. His eyes went wide as he recognized the writing style. “What brought you to necromancy?” he asked. “Aside from, well, the obvious...”

“I'm an evoker,” Mira said. “Necromancy doesn't oppose evocation. Why should I pretend it does? Necromancy is no more difficult than divination.”

“Everyone should know a little bit of divination,” Tartegre said absently, looking worriedly at his rooster. Pitch clucked back at him. “How old did you say you were?”

Mira looked up at him. She could see his sudden worry but didn't understand why. “I didn't,” she said.

Tartegre sat looking thoughtful. Pitch flapped down to perch on his head.

“I'm in the market for some scrolls,” she said. “Animate Dead, of course. Maybe a few other things. There are some small spells I've heard of that I never learned. Perhaps you could help me out there.”

Tartegre fell out of his chair. Pitch took to the air squawking. The rooster landed on Mira's head. It settled down as if to brood her bald head like a giant egg. She giggled, Pitch was warm.

“Of, of course, my lady,” Tartegre said, suddenly formal and deferential. He scrambled to his feet and ran off to a trap door in the floor.

Mira looked up at the rooster, who looked down at her as if sharing in her confusion.

Tartegre returned quickly, a pair of skeletons following him. One held a collection of scrolls, the other a spellbook. “Look, look, peruse all you wish! I... need to... do something...” He headed outside. Soon the sound of someone jumping into a rain barrel reached her ears.

“Wonder what that's about,” Mira mused aloud. Pitch clucked dismissively, it was unimportant. Mira had to agree as she took the spellbook from the bowing skeleton. She flipped open the book to copy a few of these cantrips she'd missed due to her lack of an apprenticeship.

Later she left with a black feather tucked behind her ear and an open invitation to return whenever she so wished. A few extra scrolls were tucked under her arm and her spellbook felt heavier with the spells she'd long ago been warned she should never touch. She silently begged Desna's forgiveness but Baba Rann's predicted 'bad things' had already happened and now she needed every edge she could get.


“So why did you need us all to leave for that?” Sheppard asked, eating one of the sandwiches he brought for McKay.

McKay nearly choked on his sandwich.

Sheppard looked suspiciously at Rowan.

“Nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Rowan assured him. “Mira just needed to acquire a few scrolls from shady sources. Nothing important.”

Sheppard did not look entirely convinced but he let the matter drop. This game was getting weird enough as it was. There were some things he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Chapter Text

“This makes no sense!”

“It makes sense if you take the time to look at it.”

“Nic nedává smysl! There is no connection between clauses. There are statements that have no meaning. There is nothing to influence the code!”

“Are you blind?! It makes perfect sense!”

Zelenka and McKay stood across from each other, neither backing down. Zelenka's insistence that the Replicator code made no sense was true. There were minimal connections between clauses, it was written as though the program was expected to know which statement to access next without using logic gates to make the determination. McKay's insistence that the Replicator code made sense was also true. These senseless, gateless, logicless portions were determined to be the original code unaltered by Replicator or Wraith meddling. The Replicators may have been discarded by the Ancients but they worked from the beginning; it was only with the addition of extra code that they began to stray from their original purpose.

The extra portions of code were riddled with extraneous information, gates upon statements upon a million dead end if-thens that didn't matter, shouldn't matter, shouldn't even be there. These were tagged as Replicator additions to their own base code.

McKay had tagged the portions he'd added, using a dud copy he kept as reference. These lines looked like a drunken hybrid of the two styles, extraneous if-then statements leading to some logic gates that were then ignored by later loops of code, all leading to a function that worked just enough. It wouldn't win any awards and it wasn't pretty but it ran.

There were older portions that seemed a bit too elegant to be original code. These sections were tagged for easy access but nobody wanted to admit in public what they meant. These commands countered the original function, this was what turned the Replicators off in the first place. The Wraith did this.

McKay was tired. He was tired of being the only one who could make sense of the logicless code. Reading it gave him a headache after more than an hour and he always came away from it feeling cold. He'd found a few things that helped him cope and interruptions were not one of them, thank you very much. He glared at Sheppard in the doorway.

“Busy,” McKay said.

“Food,” Sheppard said, gesturing behind him.

“Busy,” McKay said again. “Replicator code.”

“You can't teach other people to read it the way you do?” Sheppard asked.

“Nejsou žádná slova,” Zelenka muttered. “Není tam žádný smysl, to běží na duchy.”

“Yes, yes, it makes no sense, it's full of illogic and madness and whatever,” McKay said dismissively. “Go elsewhere until it does.”

“Rodney,” Sheppard said. It wasn't a whine. It wasn't even close. Honest.

McKay pointed to the corridor outside. “Out,” he said in a voice that allowed no protest. “Go away. I will eat later.”

Sheppard watched in horrified fascination as McKay pulled the screen close to him, set himself up with a couple of laptops, put a set of headphones on his head, gave him one last glare for good measure, and then...

Sheppard had seen that glazed-eyed trance-like look on McKay before. It was usually when he was concentrating on something, occasionally when he was about to do or say something brilliant. It meant bad things would happen to the one who disturbed him. Sheppard took the hint and left the lab.

Zelenka stormed past him, laptop under his arm, muttering in Czech. Sheppard hear something about logic and sense and Gypsies? Weird. Sheppard trotted to catch up to him. “What was that about?” Sheppard asked.

Zelenka kept his pace, annoyance radiating off of him in waves. “It is no use,” he said. “There is no sense at all to the Replicator code. I cannot work with it, there's nothing for me to work on. All code has certain rules, steps the program follows to reach a conclusion. The steps are all missing. It is... You have experience with math, you know how frustrating it is to see a proof with steps missing. Too many steps gone and you cannot follow the proof. It proves nothing.”

Sheppard knew the feeling. Sometimes following McKay's thought patterns felt like that.

“Replicator code is like that,” Zelenka continued. “Out of 32 lines only, say, lines 1, 9, 11, 16, 23, and 32 are present. I am expected to follow this code with that much missing. There is nothing connecting clauses together.”

Sheppard winced. “And McKay gets it,” he realized.

“He is not the only one,” Zelenka admitted. He considered his next words carefully. Nobody wanted the Wraith involved but if it was the only way... At least the others should know of the option. “We know of one other who has succeeded with this code.”

“Great, who?”

*****

Sheppard stood in the field under protest. He did not want to be here. He didn't want the cloaked jumper 20 paces to the south to have to be here. He didn't want his team to have to be here.

He was here to meet the individual in question. Teyla was in the jumper to make sure he was coming and that he was alone. Ronon and McKay were there to make sure nothing went wrong and because it had been ages since they did anything together as a team. A squad of marines rounded out the benches inside the jumper, weapons down as they all waited.

“You think he'll be here?” McKay asked.

“Hope not,” Ronon said. “We don't need him.”

“You know that is not true, Ronon,” Teyla said. She shifted in the jumper seat, the seat back was not comfortable given her rounded belly.

Ronon reached out and slid a hand between her and the seat back. He curled his fingers and smirked as she leaned back into his hand and groaned, wiggling just enough to dig his knuckles into her tense muscles.

McKay watched them with a look of contemplation, like he was trying to figure that one out. He seemed to come to a realization and abruptly looked away, eyes glazing over as he tapped at the sensor feed through his laptop.

Outside Sheppard tapped his radio. “Rodney, Teyla, any sign of them?”

“No, John, I... ah...” Teyla moaned aloud as Ronon's knuckles hit a particularly sore spot.

“Ignore them,” McKay said. “Nothing on sensors. Teyla's a little busy. Give it five more minutes.”

“It's been long enough, Rodney,” Sheppard complained. “Five more minutes isn't going to matter.”

McKay disagreed. Five more minutes felt about right. “Five more minutes,” he repeated. “It's not going to ruin your day.”

“Rodney...”

Teyla sat up straight, eyes wide. “John, he's coming.” Her eyes went languid as her face went slack, the strangely relaxed expression she got when establishing mental contact with someone. “He's here...”

Above them a Wraith dart screamed down from the clouds and twisted to land in the clearing. The pilot disembarked, jumped to the ground, smoothed down his coat, glanced directly at the cloaked jumper, and only then allowed his gaze to land on Sheppard.

“Ah, Sheppard,” Todd said. “I knew you'd require my help.” He looked at the jumper as though he could see it through the cloak, as though the cloak wasn't even there. “I see you brought Dr. McKay. Good. We can get to work.”

Sheppard always hated this part. Stupid Wraith. Stupid Wraith mental contact. Stupid Wraith with thousands of years of experience. Stupid Wraith who enjoyed keeping him off-guard. Stupid Wraith who seemed to be able to hear all these thoughts as he had them. Well he hoped Todd enjoyed them because he wouldn't be giving the Wraith the satisfaction after this.

Todd seemed almost tauntingly pleased by Sheppard's unnerved state.

It wasn't natural.

*****

Rowan sat down at the table. Carter was already there. “We're enforcing a lot of Sundays,” he mused aloud.

“Sheppard's idea,” Carter said, flipping through a book. “He seems to think the Wraith will cooperate better if we let him sit in a cell an extra day.” She looked up. “I know exactly what he's doing. If Todd didn't seem so amused by it all I'd object.”

“You think he's really amused by it?” Rowan asked.

Carter shrugged. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “It's as good enough an excuse as any.”

“Rodney gets... touchy... if he thinks he's being coddled,” Rowan realized.

“I think the fact that he doesn't have backup is getting to him. We don't have a military option. I haven't even let him hear the intel yet; the Replicators are moving against the Wraith.”

“That's good,” Rowan said.

“By neutralizing their food supply.”

“That's bad.”

“The last thing we need is Rodney blowing a vein because of a stim overdose or blowing a chromosome with the ascension machine.”

Rowan opened his mouth to answer but the game room door opened. McKay looked exhausted, shadows under his eyes and a slight tremor to his hands. Sheppard looked much less beaten down as he carried two large travel mugs of coffee. And yet it was McKay who was berating Sheppard for needing the day off, if not for this he could get to work with Todd right away on this stupid code.

Sheppard put both mugs down on the table in front of McKay's usual seat and then took his own seat. McKay sat down heavily, wrapped his hands around one mug, and slowly inhaled. A low blissful sound fell out of him as his eyes closed.

Zelenka came in, his single mug of coffee in his hands. He looked at McKay then at Carter then sat down.

The game room was quiet today, not much going on. Today's Sunday was being enforced a mere three days after the last one and most people were just taking the time to sleep in. The gate was active, people breaking into groups to head to offworld markets. Today was normally a trade day and Teyla had volunteered to take over, to keep the Enforced Sunday from interfering with obligations.

Rowan opened a new book. The title did not look comforting. “Let's begin, shall we?”


Cela stared openly as Mira rode up to them on a horse.

The road outside of Magnimar was long and dusty, many days between them and their destination. It had been decided that they would take the old Varisian road but Cela knew there would be problems, not the least was the unnatural aura of a ghoul. Animals would not suffer their presence, it would be impossible to find a horse willing to carry Mira. Walking would add ten days to their journey.

And yet here she was, skirts dangling off to one side, no saddle or bridle between her and the horse, her scarves trailing behind her in the breeze. Her illusion allowed for her hair to bounce along with, though the image didn't quite catch the wind in all the right ways.

Charlie and Ace sat on their own horses, both waiting on the road for Mira to catch up. Ace tugged at his horse's reigns as the animal shifted and stamped, uneasy at her presence. Charlie had no such control over the animal and it decided to continue on the trail without any of them.

“Let's get going,” Mira said as she approached. “I don't want to have to maintain the illusion longer than I have to.”

“I thought you enchanted your scarf so it wouldn't take effort to maintain,” Ace said.

“Not me,” Mira said. She patted her horse's neck. "Him."

Cela noticed then that her horse's mane and tail bounced along with its trotting but didn't quite catch the wind in all the right ways. His eyes went wide. “Mira, what did you do?” he asked.

“Be easier to show you,” she said. “But first I want a few miles between us and the city. Wait, where's Charlie?”

They found Charlie still on her horse, arms crossed in annoyance. Said horse had found a grassy field sheltered by a turn in the road and was grazing contentedly.

Ace grinned at her. “Still haven't gotten the hang of riding?” he asked.

“Screw off,” Charlie said. She tugged at the reigns and kicked the horse's sides. Her horse, a deep bay mare named Cocoa, looked at her and snorted then went back to grazing.

“That's Spot,” Ace said, pointing to Cela's horse. Cela's black mare was not spotted at all. “And this is Sugar.” He gestured to his own horse, a gray gelding with white ticks all over his hindquarters. Ace wondered about Mira's horse, the animal had walked to this field and just stood there, no grazing, no sniffing, no noises, nothing.

Mira looked around. “I guess we're far enough away that I can drop the illusion,” she said. “This is Lightfoot.” The image of the brown horse faded away, leaving bleached bone and bare skeleton in its wake. Sugar screamed and reared. Spot bared her teeth and snorted, tail flicking. Cocoa looked up, laid her ears flat, then decided everything was fine and went back to eating.

“Ah,” Cela said, as though this were completely normal. “That explains much.”

Ace wrestled Sugar under control while Charlie gaped openly. “Where did you get that?!” she demanded.

“I raised it,” Mira said. “What?”


“What?” McKay asked. He finished his second mug of coffee.

“Who gave you an undead horse?” Sheppard demanded. He glared at Rowan.

“It was dead when I got there,” McKay said. “What?”

“You let him have an undead horse,” Sheppard said, enunciating every word as he glared at Rowan.

“Mira bought the scroll, she transcribed the spell, she found the horse, she raised the horse, she knows the illusions, and people already call her a necromancer,” Rowan said, enunciating right back. “You're on the open road. If I throw a wandering paladin at you, who would you back?”

“Me, I hope,” McKay said.

Sheppard slumped. He crossed his arms and glared. He was not happy with this.


“Your, um...” Ace didn't know what to call it. “Your demon horse isn't going to eat the other horses is it?”

“He's not a demon,” Mira said as she slid off. She stroked Lightfoot's nose as though it were a living horse. “You're not a demon are you? No, no you're not. You're just a widdle skeleton, yes you are...” Lightfoot waved the few tailbones it had like it was swishing a tail that was no longer there.

Their camp was simple enough, a few bedrolls around a fire. Charlie watched, visibly disturbed, as Mira petted the skeletal horse. Cela had the living horses in a nearby pasture, letting them roll around to get the feel of saddles and reigns off of them. The sounds of snorting and soft neighing came from the pasture.

“If you're worried about the horses you might as well ask if she's going to eat us while we sleep,” Charlie muttered to Ace. She then turned on Mira. “I saw what Foxglove did to you, I know you could paralyze us so we wouldn't be able to scream. How do we know we're safe?”

“I'm not going to eat you,” Mira said, turning her red eyes on Charlie. She ignored the memory of how wonderful it felt when the hunger faded. She wouldn't chase that feeling, she couldn't. That road led to eternal madness and endless solitude. She shook off the thought. “And Lightfoot isn't going to eat the other horses. He's a skeleton, they don't eat anything. They don't sleep, they don't eat, they don't get tired.” She smiled as though solving a problem no one else had thought of. “He can watch the other horses while they sleep! I know there's predators and horse thieves out here, he can keep the other horses safe.”

Ace sighed. This was not why he'd bought a ring of sustenance but he was glad he had.

The next day they were breaking camp when a voice hailed them. “Hail, travelers, I-- holy shit!”

The elf who stood at their camp was familiar. The hoop earrings that dangled to her shoulders, the hair tied up in spikes, the cloak that covered her bow arm, they'd met her before. Most of them.

“I don't know you,” Cela said. "Ace?"

“Shalelu, hi,” Ace said, feeling uncomfortable. Much had changed since the goblins at Thistletop.

“What the hell?!” Shalelu demanded. She managed to tear her horrified stare from Mira and instead focused on Ace, he looked like he had some answers. “Father Zantus tells me you were contracted to head to Turtleback Ferry and I thought I'd hitch a ride! He didn't say nothing about her!” She pointed at Mira. Mira hissed, teeth bared.

“Ah, yes, she died,” Cela said as though Mira's death and rebirth were an ordinary occurrence. “Father Zantus offered what help he could but in the end it was for naught. At least Calistria granted me the power to avenge her death. And now she is returned to us.”

“As a...” Shalelu looked Mira up and down. The illusions weren't active, leaving her open to full scrutiny. Mira smiled, letting too many sharp teeth act as a warning. She hoisted herself up onto Lightfoot's bare spine, feet and skirts hanging daintily off to one side.

Shalelu opened her mouth to say something but Ace cut her off. “She's not a necromancer,” he said. “I don't know why people keep saying that.”

“Is a safer term to use around Pharasmins,” Cela said. “They kill undead on sight. At least they ask necromancers first.”

“Ah,” Ace said.

Shalelu pointed at the pelvis of the skeletal horse walking away from them, taking Mira with it. “That... is a pretty convincing necromancer.”

Ace rolled his eyes and mounted Sugar. He kicked his heels and Sugar trotted off after Mira. Sugar whinnied and shied away from the skeletal horse but he didn't rear this time.

“She's only a necromancer until you see her blow stuff up,” Charlie said, mounting Cocoa. She kicked the mare's sides and flapped the reigns. Cocoa looked back at her and stood there. “Stupid horse, walk.”

Cela piled the last of the party gear onto his horse Spot. “You may ride with me,” he offered. He and Shalelu shared the saddle as they followed the road.

*****

A routine developed over the next few days. Every night the horses were staked in a clearing by the road, Lightfoot standing off to the side so as to avoid spooking them. Mira worked on various bits and things, enchanting unique wondrous items while everyone else slept. Ace sat up with her most of the night, keeping watch. He watched her as much as he watched for midnight dangers.

There were few caravans this time of year, the rain and the wind making travel less than ideal. Cela and Mira had their own magical solutions to the weather and offered them to the others. Soon the horses had blankets to protect them from the wind and rain, Shalelu had a new cloak, and then the incident with the cougar changed things.

That had been a strange night. Everyone awoke to the sound of screaming. Ace and Mira stood on the edge of the clearing where the horses were tied, watching as the firepelt cougar lost its chance at a meal. Soon it lost much more. Mira let Lightfoot keep the bloodstains, his forelegs coated in dried and flaking blood. The other horses lost their fear of the skeletal creature and stayed close to him.

Ace skinned the dead cougar and prepared the fur. By the time he'd convinced Mira to let him to use Lightfoot's ribcage to stretch the pelt nobody could muster up enough fear to be surprised.


Rowan sighed and put his head in his hands. Not even an hour into today's session and already his game was getting ridiculous.

“Just so you know, I'm not letting you use Lightfoot as a stretching rack for any old dead skin you find,” McKay said. His tone was far too normal for the strangeness of his words.

“Of course not,” Sheppard said. “Only the pretty ones.”

Rowan looked to Carter for help.

“You did this,” Carter said, pointing at McKay.

“You're supposed to be an evoker,” Rowan accused.

“I am,” McKay said. He looked around, confused. “That didn't change, did it?”

“I hope not,” Sheppard said. “I prefer you blowing stuff up over not.”

Rowan thought of something and picked up another book. He flipped through it, skimming a section. That seemed to leave him feeling less hopeless about things, as he chuckled darkly to himself.

“What did you do?” Zelenka asked ominously, looking at Sheppard and McKay.

“Nothing.” Both men spoke at the same time with differing levels of veracity.

“Don't worry about it,” Rowan said. “You leave the Yondabakari Road and follow the Skull River upstream. The remainder of your trip is fairly uneventful and in a few days the river widens into the Claybottom Lake. On the other side of the lake is Turtleback Ferry.”


The town had no news from Fort Rannick. There hadn't been word from the fort for weeks, not since the month of the Black Moon began. No one wanted to be the one to check on the Black Arrows, not with the ogres and trolls known to lurk in the forest. Nobody wanted to be the one to wander into an ogre ambush if the Black Arrows had fallen, nor did anyone want to bother a group of antisocial rangers if they weren't in danger.

They stayed the night, Mira having to concentrate the entire time to keep the illusion over Lightfoot. By the time they were ready to leave her headache was not assuaged by the worried stablemaster who had stayed up all night with her horse, trying to get him to eat something. Ace had to slip the man a gold coin and tell him not to worry because he could see that look in Mira's red eyes, the one where she wanted to set someone on fire.

She got the chance a short ways outside the town.

Ace wondered if it was normal to be thankful for ogres.

Given how Shalelu acted when she found the bear, someone's injured animal companion, Ace realized his relief was not normal at all.

Neither was the sprawling shack that stood in the clearing before them.

But at least there were monsters.

Chapter Text

Deliverance?” Carter asked.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” McKay countered.

Evil Dead,” Sheppard said, grinning at McKay. McKay hit him.

“What is this?” Zelenka asked.

“We're trying to figure out what movie this house is from,” Carter said. “It can't be Evil Dead, that one had the protagonists trapped in the house while monsters invaded. We're invading the house full of monsters.”

“There was this one 'X-Files' episode,” McKay said. “Ooo, or The Carpenter.”

“So... wait, no, there wasn't a house in The Devil's Rejects was there,” Sheppard mused.

“Next team night we're watching all the dumb horror movies you've obviously missed,” McKay said.

Zelenka and Rowan looked at each other. Zelenka shrugged. “I never learned to indulge in movies,” Zelenka said.

“This place doesn't remind me of a movie,” Rowan said. “It reminds me of a neighbor's place when I was a kid.”

Carter looked horrified.

“What?” Rowan asked.

“If it is like I'm imagining, I knew of place like this too,” Zelenka said. “It was said children who disobeyed their parents were kidnapped to feed the man's dogs.”

“Jesus,” Sheppard whispered.

Carter and Sheppard both looked horrified. Perhaps it was the utter seriousness of Zelenka's words or maybe his matter-of-fact delivery but they believed him.

“Yes, yes, you grew up in Soviet Czechoslovakia no electricity and had to battle giant rats for food,” McKay said dismissively. “Can we move on?”

Carter and Sheppard both glared at McKay. “What?” McKay asked. They all missed Zelenka's smirk.


Mira took a deep breath, letting it out with a long shudder.

She didn't notice Cela and Ace both look at her strangely. She was undead, she didn't need to breathe, therefore the action must have some deeper meaning.

It did. The hunger burned in her in this house of inbred hells. The ogres and their kin who lived here reveled in their appetites, especially here in their own home. Little went to waste. Human bones and sinew became chairs and tables with stretched human skins as upholstery. Hands and feet and equally unsavory cuts of meat were allowed to dry for decoration or boiled down for soups, the bones sewn into toys and chimes and fetishes and the myriad collection of traps that threatened them with every step.

The kitchen was the worst. She had to grip at her middle with her own claws while the others all made ill noises and barely held back their retching. A butcher's block stood near the fire and a large iron pot bubbling away with something none of the others wanted to consider. Fresh blood still dripped from the block, the hastily wiped cleavers hanging on the wall above. A platter sat nearby, an array of severed fingers with their nails removed awaiting their addition to the stew pot. Mira grabbed one of the bloody rags on the wall and lifted the pot's filthy iron lid.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

She didn't even hear her own wanton moan, not until she felt the knife at her throat. Mira opened her eyes.

Charlie looked ill, pale and disturbed, one of her daggers at Mira's throat. “You're not even thinking about it,” Charlie said threateningly.

“Oh, she's thinking about it plenty,” Shalelu said.

Cela forgot his disgust and smiled as he watched. He giggled.

Charlie and Ace both glared at him.

“Hunger is the purest and simplest lust of them all,” Cela said, almost purring as he watched. “You know you want to, Mira.”

“No!” Charlie shouted, pressing her knife harder. “You can't. If you do...”

“What?” Mira asked, her voice deceptively calm. “What happens if I do?”

“If you do... It won't stop. You won't be able to stop yourself. You'll kill us all. We're all dead if you do this, Mira.”

“Are we?” Ace asked.

Shalelu shrugged. “If she turns weird I'm running.”

Mira smiled, an easy smile that didn't watch in the slightest with her next words. “How do you know I haven't already?”

Charlie took a step back, her head shaking as she mouthed the word 'no' over and over.

Mira picked up the pot's ladle and dipped it in the bubbling stew. She blew grave-cold air over it to cool the bubble then took a sip. She moaned aloud, nearly dropping the ladle as the hunger faded for one precious moment. She winced as it came back, demanding more of her. She took a breath to steady herself, tamping down the need. She looked over at the others, at their varying degrees of horror, disgust, curiosity, and utter delight. They all expected her to do something, to attack them or to drink the entire pot. In the end she did neither, instead trying to defuse the situation with words. “Needs salt,” she said.


Carter and Rowan both leveled tired glares at Zelenka. Sheppard, meanwhile, had his own turned on McKay.

“What?” McKay asked.

“'How do you know I haven't already',” Sheppard said, quoting deadpanned.

“There was this necromancer in Magnimar,” McKay said defensively. “He just kept feeding me. What was I supposed to do, say no?”

“Generally yes,” Sheppard said.

“That would have been rude,” McKay said.

Sheppard sighed and gave up.

“There's a reason I said you couldn't be evil,” Rowan said. “It wasn't because I thought you were incapable.”

“I have not fed her,” Zelenka said. “I have not killed to feed her. I have merely made the suggestion that since the opportunity has presented itself, she should partake. It is cruel to force her to hunger more than she has to.”

Carter made an array of facial expressions as she thought of responses, prepared to say them, then dismissed them before she got the chance. Finally she slumped in her chair. “Fucking chaotic neutrals,” she muttered.

Rowan sighed. “Moving on,” he said.


The hallway led down to a filthy doorway barely held together with bent nails and half-hammered pegs. The door creaked on its hinges, opening to a nightmare of stench and sight. Fat flies hovered around overflowing buckets used as makeshift chamberpots. A huge easel leaned against one wall, pots of crushed organs and clotted blood acting as paint and pigments. A gigantic bed sat in the middle of the room. That bed was nearly completely obscured by the morbidly obese ogrish woman spread out on its sagging mattress. A red curtain draped over her lap was the only clothing she wore, leaving her stretched and split skin open to the buzzing flies.

Mammy Graul moved on the torturously creaking bed, rolls of flesh shifting and splitting as she sat up and screamed. “BOYS! GIT IN 'ERE! Y' LEFT THE DOOR OPEN AGIN!"”

The ogre zombies who clawed their way out of shadows and a closet were somehow less disturbing than the living creature who cast Fly and then rose from the bed.

“I am not a necromancer,” Mira said with conviction. “That is.”

The zombies advanced. They fell quickly enough even as Mammy Graul screamed her ire at the invaders in her home. Ace charged in, sword raised, only to be grabbed in one massive hand. He began to scream as dark oily magic invaded him and brought him to his knees.

Shalelu fell back, shooting wildly. Charlie threw her knives even though she didn't know what to do. Cela flung the tongue of his whip around Ace and yanked, trying to pull the fighter from the necromancer's grasp.

Mira didn't hesitate. She jumped on the ogress's back and bit, clawed, howled, snarled...

She didn't stop until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Cela stood there, almost serene with his horrible understanding. “It's over,” he said. “It's done.”

Mira looked around the room. It was still a disgusting morass in here but now there was blood and viscera everywhere. Shalelu and Charlie had Ace between them, all of them on the floor while Ace sat curled in on himself with his hands on his head. Cela looked so damned understanding and...

She was covered in blood. None of it was hers. The hunger hadn't yet come back. What had she... Who...

Oh... She looked down as her bloody claws, soaked in red up to the elbows. Blood stained Baba Rann's pretty blue and purple scarf, turned the silver patterns red. She could taste the blood on her lips, feel it drying all over her face.

She had spells, she could have... But there was... And she... And Ace...

She looked up at Cela and wrapped her arms around his legs, rubbing her bloody face against his thigh as she shook and shuddered and tried not to cry.

*****

Ace's head was killing him.

Cela assured him the curse wasn't permanent, he'd be able to lift it tonight after he prayed for a Break Enchantment. Until then it wouldn't get worse, he could handle it until then right?

Of course Ace had said yes. Sure, he could handle it. It wasn't like his head felt like spikes were being driven through his skull from the inside out.

“Is it dead?” he asked, groggy.

Two sets of hands next to him, one set on each side. He couldn't even find the space to joke about the armored tits on either side of his face as Shalelu and Charlie both leaned close to him like they were trying to protect him. Maybe it wasn't dead? But the last thing he remembered was Mira jumping on it... all fangs and claws and... she saved him...

“You're safe now,” Shalelu said.

“No one's safe,” Charlie hissed.

Ace tried to get up. It wasn't easy with both women pressed so close to him. He squinted through the pain as he raised his head to look at the carnage.

Carnage was a good word for it. The corpse of the necromancer was split open down the back, rent with claws and marred by bite marks and missing chunks where Mira had torn entire pieces away. Organs were few, thankfully, but gallons of blood pooled on the floor. Mira still wallowed in it, blood staining her skirts and her skin and all her pretty scarves as Cela let her paw at him. Then she looked up and...

Ace almost forgot the pain in his head as he crawled out from between the overly protective women. He made it across the floor, kneeling at the edge of the pooling blood. “Hey,” he said.

Mira looked up at him. Her eyes were as red as the stains over most of her face. It dripped down her neck, down the front of her blouse, stuck all her scarves to her and she looked so miserable he couldn't stand it. He untangled her from Cela's legs and pulled her close to him.

“I'm a monster,” she whispered.

Ace held her tight. “No, no you're not,” he said. He ignored Charlie's scoff behind him. “You're not you're... Mira...”

Mira curled up in his arms. “I couldn't let you die,” she said.

“I'm glad you didn't,” Ace said.

Charlie looked from Cela who was trying to spit-wash some of the blood from his robes, to Ace who had a freaking ghoul in his lap, to Mira who was the freaking ghoul in his lap. “You're all nuts,” she said.

*****

They continued to search the house despite Ace's cursed headache. The pain made him slower to react to things, easier to hit, but he still hit back just as hard. He insisted he was all right so they continued, though Mira stayed with him. He didn't seem to mind, leaning on her when the pain get bad.

Then they came to the barn.

The ogres and their kin fell easily enough but the barn held worse secrets.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Mira said.

“You're a walking bad feeling,” Charlie muttered.

Ace looked down, shaking his head to clear it. He stopped mid-shake and went still. “Guys?” he said.

“And I'm sorry about that!” Mira snapped. “Is that what you want to hear? Fine! I'm sorry this happened to me, I'm sorry you have to put up with me, I'm sorry you had to watch me save Ace's life! I died, I can't change that! Cela can't change that, you can't change that, no one can. So what do you want me to do, die again? Leave?!”

“Guys!”

Mira glared at Ace who was still looking down.

Cela looked at Ace then down. He went still. “Mira, dear, please tell me you prepared Fireball today.”

“Of course, why?” She looked down. “Oh.”

Charlie looked down and shrieked.

Below them, below the catwalks, below the cages with their battered captives, there was a web. The gigantic funnel web was the size of the barn. Something inside the funnel moved, stretching huge hairy legs out toward the scream.

Then Mira threw out her claws and the giant spider was engulfed in flames.

That only seemed to make it mad.

Ace came to a decision. He squeezed Mira's hand. “Try not to hit me,” he said.

“Wait, what?” Mira demanded. She was readying more fire to throw at the thing. Charlie threw daggers into the thing while Shalelu drew her bow.

Ace took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. “I'll be right back.” And then he stepped off the catwalk.

“Ace!” Mira shouted, leaning over the edge to see... She slumped and glared when she realized he'd fallen to a sheet of web only a few feet below the catwalk. He couldn't move much, stuck as he was to the web, but his sword arm seemed free. She pouted at him.

“Mira, kill the thing!” Ace called.

Oh, right.

Fire made it mad. But eventually it burned like anything else.


Sheppard straightened his spine, stood tall, then spent all that posture on a confident swagger as he entered the Ancient detention level. The holding cell contained only one occupant. Around the holding cell, one to each corner, all staring blankly inward, four marines stood at attention with their weapons at full parade display. They all glanced at Sheppard as he entered, each of them attempting to put some menace into their blank stare.

It didn't work. Their prisoner stood in the middle of the cell, hands behind his back, easy grin revealing unnaturally sharp teeth.

“Todd,” Sheppard greeted.

“Sheppard,” Todd said. “Are we done making me wait?”

Sheppard debated having Carter enforce a second Sunday. It wouldn't be the first time Sunday came two days in a row. But one day was petty, two days was pointless. Besides, McKay was chomping at the bit, desperate to get going with the Replicator code.

“We have our reasons,” Sheppard said, trying to be cryptic.

“Ah,” Todd said, letting the matter drop for now. “Then I suppose you've decided whether or not I'll be allowed to use my hands?” He raised his hands, slowly wiggling the fingers as if to taunt. The feeding slit on the right hand gaped obscenely.

“That depends on you,” Sheppard said. If Sheppard had his way Todd would be shackled the whole time but McKay had shot that idea down; what was the point of bringing Todd in at all if they wouldn't let him work?

Todd hissed through his grin. Sheppard had the disturbing feeling he was being laughed at.

“Lead on, then,” Todd said.

Sheppard undid the protections that separated him from a dangerous predator. The energy field fell and the door opened. Four marines, one from each corner, all leveled their weapons on the captive as Todd stepped out into the city proper.

“I'm surprised it took so long to make these decisions,” Todd said conversationally as Sheppard led him through the corridors.

“They're important decisions,” Sheppard said. He checked their guards. There was one before and three behind, all of them with weapons at the ready. He did not understand the Wraith and their strange sense of superiority.

“It seems to be the discussion would take an hour at most,” Todd said. “No matter. You're ready now.”

There were four more guards at the labs, all ready to take their posts around Todd. McKay had been ordered to stay five feet from the Wraith at all times but Sheppard held no illusions there, he knew McKay would ignore those rules in the heat of discovery. Guards in the labs were supposed to keep Todd from taking advantage of McKay's exuberance.

The labs had been cleared of all nonessential science personnel. Only Simpson, Kusanagi, Zelenka, and McKay remained, all of them looking like they'd gotten various amounts of sleep. McKay had an extra mug of coffee next to his normal travel mug and a pair of little white pills hid in their shadows.

Todd looked around the lab and hissed in satisfaction. His eyes lit on McKay and he grinned. “Good,” he said, drawing out the word. “You have some ability to see the obvious. That will make things easier.”

Eight marines and four scientists against one Wraith. Sheppard stood outside the lab as the doors closed. He hoped he hadn't just made a terrible mistake.

Chapter Text

Todd stood in front of screens and white boards all strewn with Replicator code. He tapped the keys on a laptop, scrolling through page after page of code, all of it filled with pointless loops and meandering statements leading nowhere. Clauses led to null variables, errors and bugs abounded and were patched around yet never removed, this portion of the code was a mess.

“They learned,” Todd mused.

“That is what they do, no?” Zelenka asked. “Replicators are learning machines.”

Todd looked at him strangely, slitted pupils wide. Then he hissed and turned away. “Not these Replicators,” Todd said.

“Perhaps that's the problem,” Kusanagi suggested. “We're thinking of these Replicators as the Milky Way versions. Maybe these work differently.”

“The Milky Way Replicators were made by the Asgard,” McKay mused.

“And these weren't,” Simpson realized.

Four scientists and one Wraith stood in the main lab. The normal activity was gone; everyone else was confined to auxiliary labs, to McKay's own private lab, or sent offworld to known facilities for field work. Instead four marines stood at the walls all looking like they had boredom headaches. Outside the lab there were more, four at the doorway to the lab and a squad leader nearby keeping radio contact with everyone involved. Thus far the Wraith hadn't tried anything.

But that was no guarantee he wouldn't.

“What did that code look like?” Todd asked.

“Oh, I have some,” McKay said. He pulled up one of his own programs. There weren't as many random loops or pointlessly defined variables but there were some. “That was written using the Milky Way code as a base.”

Todd hummed as he looked at it. “Simplistic,” he mused. “Unfortunate.”

“What part?” McKay asked.

Todd looked at the human scientists he was forced to work with. These four supposedly represented the best and brightest minds of the expedition. That thought did not fill him with confidence. “These Replicators, built by the... Alterans... were not meant to be learning machines.”

“What do you mean?” Zelenka asked.

“They had a function,” Todd said. “They were built to carry out that function without the threat of learning.” His careful veneer of civility broke as he lunged at McKay, snarling. “You taught them to think!”

Todd pulled back and reapplied that veneer, hissing low in his throat. The sound of so many weapons cocked and trained at him was unimportant. He looked out over the three scientists who stood and stared then turned back to growl at Dr. McKay. “We will have to rectify that.”

“How?” Kusanagi asked. She ignored Simpson trying to keep her quiet.

Todd smiled. “The key is to make them believe an action was their idea,” he said.

“If they do not think how do they believe anything?” Zelenka asked.

McKay snorted.

“I must concur with Dr. McKay,” Todd said blandly. “Their code as written allows for some interpretation. It simulates thought without changing the ultimate outcome. Over the millennia interpretations have been added but never before has their code been so crudely tampered with.” He tapped on the laptop's keys again and brought up a sample of delicate, elegant code. “I'm particularly proud of these clauses here.” He pointed out several lines. “I believe this started a philosophy that lasted a thousand years until the interpretation changed.”

“And that doesn't denote thought?” Simpson asked.

“The interpretation was purged from the system,” Todd said. “The adherents were...” He looked at McKay, growling low in his throat. McKay winced and looked confused. “I believe the term you might use is 'reinstalled'. The adherents were reinstalled.”

Todd watched and felt the visceral reactions around him, the disturbed disgust and the personal offense. But McKay wasn't distracted by an emotional reaction. Instead the man felt confused and suspicious. Todd hissed in satisfaction. This would be interesting.

*****

Sheppard stopped outside the lab for the third time that day. He hadn't gone inside, instead tapping into the open audio feed from outside the lab. Aside from one incident early in the day Todd had been surprisingly civil. The radio chatter and the audio feed were still normal. It was normal enough that the marines were joking amongst themselves. Sheppard glared at them and that stopped the jokes for the moment. Working with Todd might seem easier than working with McKay now but once they got hungry McKay would only metaphorically bite someone's head off.

Sheppard debated heading inside. They'd been at it all day. Rumor from the marines implied there'd been some sort of breakthrough early on and from then it'd just been planning and arguing and some shouting but no actual work. Sheppard recognized one of McKay's impasses, he'd need food or quiet or something to distract him.

There was a shriek from inside the lab. The door flung open and McKay tore out of there. Weird, Todd wasn't chasing him. Instead Todd clapped his hands together once. “We should begin again tomorrow,” Todd said like some sort of twisted professor. “You have all been invaluable.”

“To je prázdné,” Zelenka muttered.

“How was it?” Sheppard asked from the open door.

“We have found the problem,” Todd said happily.

“He and McKay argued all day,” Simpson said, gesturing to Todd.

“How is this different from Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka?” Kusanagi asked.

Sheppard had to admit she had a point. Then his radio chirped. “Sheppard to the gate room.”

Sheppard tapped his radio. “On my way.”

“You should hurry,” Todd said. “Dr. McKay was most distraught when he realized your deception.”

Sheppard glared at Todd.

“He did not say anything,” Zelenka defended. “They were arguing, then Rodney drops quiet and says 'oh god they're all going to die'.”

Sheppard looked from Todd to Zelenka to the confused scientists. He took off running to the gate room.

*****

McKay ran to the gate room and Carter's office. The smell of ozone followed him, a phantom smell that wasn't there. Molecules weren't shattering under plasma charges, the crust wasn't fracturing to allow the red hot mantle to bleed all through the city. Yet he remembered it vividly, like he was there, like he was watching Replicator ships firing on a city he'd never even been to. The heat, the burning, the terror, it was all so real and then it was gone, gone in an instant. Now memory chased him as he stormed up to Carter's office.

He ordered her door open, not caring that she looked up in shock at his interruption. He was furious and...

...and he didn't know why.

He remembered it all, the heat of the plasma, the burning fires as the lava spread to consume his building, the stench as the atmosphere itself burned, the char of his own flesh and...

But it couldn't have happened. He was here, he was fine, he'd never even been to that city before. There was nothing.

“Sorry,” he said, curling in on himself. McKay turned to leave.

“Rodney?” Carter asked. “Are you all right?”

“I'm fine,” McKay said dismissively. “It's nothing. I just... I'll go see Keller.”

McKay turned and left even as Carter's hand went to her radio. He decided against the infirmary and instead fled to his quarters.

He expected the chime that came not ten minutes later. He didn't expect it to be Sheppard.

“Hey,” Sheppard drawled. He leaned on the door jamb. “Can I come in?”

McKay gestured vaguely at the inside of his quarters. As soon as Sheppard was inside McKay went back to his careless sprawl against the bed. “Sam sent you,” he said.

“She may have,” Sheppard admitted.

“Don't you have Wraith to wrangle?” McKay asked.

“Damn thing's been doing that growling thing with the grin for the past half hour,” Sheppard said. “He went back to his cell without a fuss.”

“It's called 'purring',” McKay said.

“Wraith do not purr.”

McKay gave Sheppard an unimpressed look. “He purrs,” he said. “I had a cat like him once. Always thought she knew more than I did. This one just happens to be right about that.”

Sheppard opened his mouth to ask about the cat but decided he didn't want to know. “What happened?” he asked instead.

“I made a mistake,” McKay said, staring ahead at the ceiling. He didn't want to have to look at Sheppard, to see the disappointment in his eyes. “The Replicators here weren't thinking machines. I taught them how to think. I taught them how to alter their own code. I mean, they're really bad at it. Really bad. First year programming student bad. But I taught them that and now...”

“Now they're coming after us,” Sheppard supplied.

“Now they're fighting the Wraith by purging the galaxy of humans.”

Sheppard went dead still. He looked away. “I didn't know Sam told you,” he admitted.

McKay's eyes fell closed and he let out a long sigh. “She didn't. You did. Just now.”

“Rodney...”

McKay sat up. “I get it, you didn't want me to know,” he said bitterly. “I don't blame you, what if I said something? I'm sure this is some big state secret and--”

“We did it to keep you from going nuts,” Sheppard said, cutting him off.

That brought anger to McKay's blank eyes. “'Nuts',” he said. “Nuts. Nuts! You didn't want me to break. You'd rather I take my sweet-ass time while out there a million humans die at the hands of something I did. Something I can fix!”

“You were working without backup, of course we wanted you sane!” Sheppard snapped.

“Because they're all idiots!” McKay shouted. “They can't even see the obvious!”

“What 'obvious'?” Sheppard asked.

McKay slumped back onto the bed. He wanted to do this but he couldn't. He was too tired to work up a decent head of steam. Maybe the others could pile together some excess anger into a physical response but he didn't have enough left. “I'm not even sure,” he admitted. “Todd called it 'seeing the obvious' and he's right, it's all so... It's right there and I can see it, I know what matters and what doesn't and what I can leave out but no one else can. Why can't they see it, John?” McKay turned tired eyes up at Sheppard.

Sheppard sat on the bed next to McKay. “I don't know, buddy,” he said. “But you have to slow down.”

“How?”

“You just--”

McKay cut him off. “Not that. How can I slow down? I taught the Replicators to think. I taught them how to change their code. I gave them this idea. People are dying out there... because of me...” The momentary sting of ozone hit his nose again and he closed his eyes against the assault on his senses. Yes, maybe he was seeing things, maybe it was a sign he needed to slow down. But he couldn't afford to.

*****

McKay sat alone in the lab. It was Sunday, another enforced Sunday, but he wasn't going to the game room. Not today. He'd requisitioned Todd for the day and they were going to pound out this program today if it killed him.

Todd walked in flanked by his usual guards. He looked around the room with a detached curiosity. “The others are not here,” he said.

“Astute deduction,” McKay said. “It's just you and me today. We seem to be the only ones who can read this code, the others don't need to be here, let's get this done.”

Todd checked his surroundings, moved to a more advantageous wall for leaning against, folded his arms, and slumped against the wall in a move that reminded McKay far too much of one of Sheppard's moves. “No,” he said.

Utter betrayal crossed McKay's features before he hid it behind his anger. “Then I'm doing this myself,” he said flatly. “Fine. I've done it before.” He started tapping on the keyboard.

Todd hissed low in his throat. “You're not,” he said.

“Then are you going to help me?” McKay demanded.

Todd bared his teeth and hissed. “Not today.” That hiss turned to a twisted grin. “I was promised a day off.”

McKay turned murderous. “We don't get days of!” he shouted. “People are dying out there because of me!”

Todd cocked his head and watched. “Humans always die,” he said.

“The Replicators are starving your people as they kill mine! Don't you even care?!”

Todd smiled as though this made more sense. “I see,” he said. “Guilt. You think you taught them this tactic.”

“I taught them to think,” McKay snarled, throwing Todd's own words back at him.

“They used this tactic before,” Todd said. “The Alterans programmed it into them.”

McKay looked like he'd been struck.

“The Alterans did not value human life as you do,” Todd said. “Not even as food. That is one thing you and I have in common, Dr. McKay. We both value human life in some way. Those values are different, of course, but important.”

McKay was not going to admit this all made some twisted sense. Nothing else made as much sense as this. Todd's words enveloped him, caressed him in ways that made him agree. The worst part of it was his own sense of logic couldn't argue.

“So trust me when I tell you this,” Todd continued. “We will not find the answer today. You are exhausted and I am not an insect to be kept in a glass jar. I need some variation of experience or I will go as mad as this code will drive you.”

McKay had to admit he was very tired. And he wouldn't like to have to sit in a cell all day either. McKay recalled Todd had been in prison once, held by Kolya as a living torture device meant to extract information and execute prisoners. The idea of going back to a cell like that filled him with intense dread, a clawing pain in his mind that left him shaking.

“I see you understand,” Todd said.

McKay nodded. What did he understand? He wasn't sure. He needed a day off.

Todd showed a hand to his guards, splaying the fingers to prove it was his non-feeding hand. He walked up behind McKay and placed that hand on the back of McKay's neck. McKay groaned and his eyes fell closed.

Todd raised an eyebrow at the nervous guards around them. The guards stood down, lowering weapons they hadn't even known they'd drawn.

“Let's head to this 'game room' of yours,” Todd purred. “You can tell me about Mira.”

McKay nodded, eyes half closed.

Wait... Who told him about Mira? It... wasn't important...

*****

“I told him not to,” Zelenka muttered.

“I could order him,” Carter offered.

“He's not going to pay attention,” Sheppard said.

The game table was short one player. Rowan cracked his knuckles as he skimmed through the adventure. This was not a day where he wanted the group to be down a player. He was already going to be playing four NPCs, three Black Arrow rangers and Shalelu, two of them with strange familial ties and one traitor waiting to sell them all out to the adventure's midboss. Worse, today was exactly the kind of adventure where Mira's talents at battlefield control would have been most valuable. He just knew the difficulty of taking a keep full of ogres would have appealed to Mira's tactical nature and her completely understandable zeal for blowing things up.

He didn't even notice as the room went quiet.

He did notice the whine of Ronon's gun. “The fuck?” Rowan asked, looking up.

Todd walked in with his non-feeding hand on the back of McKay's neck, guiding the man. McKay looked half conscious, like he was in some sort of trance. He blinked up at Todd with slow languid eyes and then looked at the table with the same sleepy gaze.

“The fuck?” Rowan asked again.

“My sentiments exactly,” Sheppard said. “Ronon?”

“Yeah?” Ronon asked. He raised his pistol.

“His ire is unnecessary,” Todd said. He then let go of McKay.

McKay stumbled then managed to find his footing. He blinked, shook his head, and only then seemed to realize where he was. He turned on Todd. “What did you do?!” he demanded. “That was some sort of, of of Wraith mind control, wasn't it? Wasn't it!”

Todd did not back down from McKay's tirade, instead he almost seemed amused. “Yes,” he said. “Yes it was.”

McKay's anger faltered. He'd expected a denial. "Oh."

“I will not work with a lunatic,” Todd said. He put both hands on McKay's shoulders, ignoring the sounds of weapons readied all around him, and pushed McKay into a chair. “We will not work on code today. You will not work on code today. You will unwind or I shall do it for you and I guarantee you, John Sheppard will not enjoy that. Play.”

McKay took a moment to parse that sentence. That moment was all Todd needed to turn and walk off. He didn't leave, instead moving to the cases of painted miniatures on the walls. He came to a collection of small dragons arranged as a chess set.

Sheppard made to get up. McKay stopped him with a hand to his arm. “Do you have any idea how boring it is in the holding cell?” he asked. “Every advanced mind needs a chance to goof off.”

Sheppard stopped dead. “You're not still being mind controlled are you?” he asked, horror plain in his voice.

“Todd ordered him to play games,” Carter said. “What would the Wraith learn from a Pathfinder session?”

“Ogre tactics?” Rowan suggested. “The value of really cool dice. The secret of the Fireball spell.”

“Not more ogres,” Zelenka sighed. “Can there be less incest this time? Was disturbing.”

“Are you sure you're okay?” Sheppard asked.

McKay nodded. He still looked exhausted but less haunted and much more awake than before. That was an improvement, at least. “I'm fine,” he said. He glared at Todd who he could tell was still purring. “Mostly I'm annoyed.” And confused, but he didn't voice that part.

“Are you going to be okay to play today?” Rowan asked. “We could do something else.”

“No, I'm fine,” McKay said. “I promise. So we have Fort Rannick to liberate. What sort of plan do we have?”

Sheppard sat back as the game began. He watched McKay as intently as he watched Todd. The Wraith didn't leave, not now that he felt he didn't need to. His guards stood near him, all waiting for some excuse to put him away again. Instead Todd collected some choice pieces from the miniature cabinet, handling them with due care as he set them up on a strange circular board he drew on a sheet of paper. He placed the figures down and seemed to absorb himself in a...

No. Sheppard didn't want to think of whatever games the Wraith might play. Not even as Dr. Corrigan moved in and sat far too close to the Wraith as he asked questions, made a nuisance of himself, and convinced Todd to teach him how to play.

Chapter Text

Mira screamed in frustration as the shouting grew to another crescendo. She stormed outside where a collection of people were hiding behind the local cleric of Erastil. “Stop molesting my horse!” she shouted.

Lightfoot stood unmoving in the pasture. She didn't have the illusion on him, she must have lost the spell during the discussions inside. She was sure she'd cast it earlier. She pulled a card from her harrow deck to make sure.

The Inquisitor. Oh. Right. Oops. She'd... forgotten to cast the spell then.

“That beast is an undead monstrosity,” Father Maelin shouted. “I must destroy it in the name of Erastil!”

Mira carelessly waved her hand, teeth bared as Hold Person ensorcelled the priest. “You will do no such thing,” she snapped. “He is safe, he is under my control, and he is more useful to me than any flesh-living horse who needs rest and food. If your god takes offense to my horse standing there, doing nothing, offending no one, guarding the other horses, then perhaps you need to ask yourself if your god makes sense!”

The priest was held with his holy symbol brandished, the beginning words to a prayer frozen on his lips. He stood absolutely still even as his robes fluttered in the breeze.

“Fort Rannick is overrun with ogres,” Mira said. “There are three Black Arrow rangers alive in this world. Magnimar heard your pleas and sent us, and only us, to deal with the problem. Winter descends early and there's nothing else they can do. We are all that stands between Turtleback Ferry and utter destruction and you, you!” She pointed to the cleric who still hadn't been allowed to move. “You cause us to waste time, energy, effort on you! To keep you from driving away the only hope this town has to avoid total annihilation! Tend to your flock, cleric, because if you stand in our way I guarantee you the ogres will be more than willing to tend them for you.”

Mira released the spell. She leveled her red glare at him just long enough to see him slink away before going inside.

In the tavern the rangers Jakardros and Vale looked horrified at what she'd done. The ranger Kaven grinned and toasted her with his beer. Shalelu hit him for his indolence, causing beer to slosh over the map on the table before them.

“Hey, watch the map,” Ace scolded.

Jakardros pointed at Mira, abject horror on his face, as though she was the cause of all ills.

Charlie, Cela, and Ace all looked at Mira then all went back to what they'd been doing. Charlie sharpened her knives, Cela wove a spell into his armor, and Ace pondered the map. Small tokens dotted interesting architectural features that Vale had pointed out earlier, from the wooden firetrap of the new barracks to the cave entrance hidden behind the waterfall to the sluiceway in the south wall. The north watchtower had a weak foundation and had been abandoned, it was possible the ogres weren't smart enough to realize the danger and were using the tower for some purpose.

“The gates will be watched,” Vale said, trying to bring them all back to the task at hand. “Ogres may be stupid but they are cruel and cunning. They'll have someone watching for any activity on the roads.”

“How close can we get before they see us?” Ace asked.

“The tree line is back here,” Vale said, drawing it in on the map. “But there are stragglers up to here. Someone with stealth could get within bow range of the fort's walls.”

“Someone with invisibility could get much closer,” Mira mused.

“Do you have enough for all of us?” Ace asked.

Mira shook her head. “Six of us. More if I want to reduce my effectiveness in the coming battle.”

“That's not worth it,” Charlie said. “Can ogres see in the dark?”

“Of course,” Jakardros said.

“Can they see as well in the daylight?” Cela asked. “We could use the cover of noon to take the caverns here.”

“Those caverns take us to the north side of the fort,” Vale mused.

“We could just knock,” Kaven said.

“If you're that eager to be eaten I'm sure Mira would oblige,” Shalelu snapped.

Mira looked him up and down, lingering her gaze on his legs and belly. She hummed as though considering it. “Needs something,” she mused. “Ah, yes, a reason. I'm not eating anyone without good reason.”

Ace and Cela were the only ones who didn't scootch away from her as she leaned over the table to get a good look at the map. She tapped lines drawn to denote the sluiceway. “What about this?” she asked. “The collecting pond sits right next to the new barracks. I could set a fire from range, no one would see me.”

“I dread to think what's in the collecting pond at this point,” Vale said.

Mira looked down at herself and her clothing. The bloodstains had taken hours of careful scrubbing and spellcasting to remove from all her silks and scarves. But she'd be less likely to be seen or recognized without them. Her important magic items did nothing to hide her modesty but she could clean them later. She even had a waterproofed bag and a case for her spell components, her harrow deck, her growing collection of wands and scrolls... “I'll take the sluice,” she said. “It'll be gross but...”

“You ate the Graul necromancer,” Charlie said deadpanned. “I think you've got gross covered.”

Vale and Kaven both looked like they felt ill. Jakardros was only somewhat more contained but he said it anyway. “I am... deeply disturbed but I feel the need to personally thank you for ending that creature.”

Cela looked at Jakardros and had a sudden nauseating feeling of realization. He knew not all virtues could be recovered but a little bit of vengeance helped.

*****

Fort Rannick stood proud and regal nestled into the side of the Wyvern Mountains. Morning frost still clung to the stones of the keep walls. What once might have been a crystal clear pond and mountain stream curled around the keep like a moat, though now the waters were fouled with the rotting corpses of the dead. Flies rose from the waters as the sun warmed them, buzzing in lazy pillars over the bodies of giant eagles, of horses, of fallen rangers, of things no longer recognizable.

“Looks cold,” Cela mused.

“Looks like a one way trip to some sort of corpse rot,” Vale said.

They hid under pine boughs that still sparkled with ice, shadows breaking their outlines in the trees.

Mira dug through her haversack and pulled out a pile of scrolls. She skimmed them, checking they were scribed correctly, then handed them to Charlie. “I know you can read these when you have to,” she said. “I scribed a few scrolls just in case. Invisibility, some minor illusions, a Wall of Fire, and if you have to, I have an Animate Dead for the ultimate distraction.”

“I'm not raising anything,” Charlie said.

“Don't decide now,” Mira said. “Decide later when you're in a desperate retreat and a few skeletons might make the difference between capture and escape.”

“You don't want to risk capture,” Jakardros said. “I'll die before that.”

“Listen to the ranger, he knows these ogres better than you do,” Mira said. She untied her scarves and stuffed them in her haversack.

“What... are you doing?” Jakardros asked.

Mira wrapped her spellbook in Baba Rann's scarf and placed that in her haversack. Then she began to pull at the ties on her skirts.

“Oh my,” Cela said. He turned his attention from the fort to the show closer at hand.

“You're all weird,” Mira said as she slipped her blouse from her shoulders. “I want to be as stealthy as possible.”

“You know clothing doesn't impede your ability to be stealthy, right?” Charlie asked.

Mira stuffed her clothing into her haversack. The bag seemed to take everything she put into it without bulging in size or changing weight. Mira looked at everyone staring at her as though she just now noticed. “What?”

“You are nude, my dear,” Cela said, grinning.

Mira adjusted her bracers, the belt across her waist, her medallion, and her headband. “Do you have any idea how long it took to get the blood out of my clothes last time?” she complained. “I have no doubt that sluiceway is going to be worse. Or lead to worse. Besides, ghouls go naked all the time.”

Ace shifted his clothing and wisely didn't say anything.

“Mira, dear, most ghouls do not have the benefit of a constant Gentle Repose,” Cela said. “Nor do they... deprive themselves as you do.”

Mira looked down at herself. She was pale, her skin ashen with the lack of blood. She was much thinner than she used to be. She didn't think she was particularly pretty. Striking, perhaps, but pretty?

“If it makes you feel any better, you do smell like a ghoul,” Charlie said, nose wrinkled. “You've reeked of death ever since you ate the necromancer.”

“That makes sense,” Shalelu drawled. “Did you see the necromancer? It was rotting before she killed it.”

“Don't remind me,” Kaven said. His hand was to his mouth and he looked like he might be ill.

“Tasted all right,” Mira said.

That sent Kaven running back into the woods. The sound of retching drifted to their ears.

“Watch him,” Mira said, pointing back where Kaven had run. “I don't trust him. Something's off with him.”

“He endured torture with us,” Vale said.

“He delayed our return,” Jakardros mused. “If we'd gotten back in time...”

“Then we'd be dead,” Vale said.

“Don't underestimate a small group against an army,” Charlie said.

“I will watch him,” Cela said. “If he betrays us, Mira, we will need you to cover our escape.”

“Why do you think Charlie has my scroll of Animate Dead?” Mira smiled then turned to the fort. “Let's begin this. The new barracks will take time to burn.”

“Stay safe,” Cela said.

Mira cast a spell and disappeared from view. Footprints in the pine needles trailed toward the fort and then out of sight.

Charlie tapped Ace on his armored shoulder. “She's gone, you can stop drooling now.”

Ace wiped his mouth and looked sheepish.

Kaven came back. He took a pull from a waterskin to swish and spit. “Wait, where's the necromancer?” Kaven asked, looking for Mira.

“Evoker,” Ace said. “She's already begun her approach. Let's go. Noontime is burning.”

*****

Mira was glad she was already dead.

Not just the freezing water. Not just the flies that buzzed angrily as she moved their feasts out of her way. Not just the maggots that she had to brush from her skin.

The sluiceway was clogged. She shoved and pawed at the blockage, trying to figure out what it was. It squelched at her touch, oozing under her claws. She pushed at it, trying to unblock the sluiceway before she...

And she was stuck. Great. She pushed and shoved and wiggled, sliding in the algae and the deep disgusting film of gross she didn't want to think about. She huffed in annoyance. Her spell wouldn't last forever, it would immediately fall if she had to defend herself or even cast a spell. She dug her claws into the blockage and...

Wait, this was a dead body. It was waterlogged, swollen to bursting with rot and sluice water, but it was a body.

Mira was very glad she was a ghoul.

It was the perfect disguise. The ogres might notice a floating body go missing. They would find a ghoul and... She hissed silent laughter in the shadow of the stones.

Everyone underestimated ghouls. Even she had once. These ogres would as well.

The blockage was removed one bite at a time.

And then she heard it.

“Hey! Sumthin's 'appenin' ta Spongy!”

“Nawt Spongy, is funny! Bobbin' up an' down.”

Mira carefully slid into the collecting pond inside the fort. She dismissed her Invisibility then planted her claws on the wall and pulled herself halfway out of the water. She hissed, sharp teeth bared, then dropped back in the water, growling as loud as she could.

“Issa gool.”

“Aww, is eatin' Spongy.”

“Hey. Less feed it.”

“Feed it wut?”

“Minktuck keelt Handsy, is Handsy still 'ere?”

“Bits.”

“Less feed it.”

Mira figured her disguise had worked when the two ogres guarding the south gate began throwing bits of flesh into the collecting pond like they were tossing bread to a duck. Okay then. She jumped up and caught a chunk of dead flesh in her jaws as the ogres began laughing and cheering and tossing down more.

That all ended when the lead ogre took offense to his underlings neglecting the watch. The sound of a thorough beating drifted down from above. Mira took the opportunity to cast a silent spell. Small fires began in the scattered lumber under the new barracks. The wood structure would burn nicely, taking anything inside with it. Then she watched and waited.

The sounds of a fight ended as the lead ogre looked down. A beard of dead minks hung from his face. He scowled at Mira and idly tossed a javelin at her. “Git!” he shouted.

She ducked out of its path and hissed.

The ogre growled. “Git, I say!”

Mira dropped underwater, watching from underneath 'Spongy's' half-cleaned skeleton. She giggled as the lead ogre snorted and disappeared from sight.

This was kind of fun.

*****

Charlie slid aside the tunnel's secret entrance. Fort Rannick's courtyard was abuzz with activity. The new barracks were aflame, the fire raging despite, or perhaps because of, the efforts of the ogres who ran to and fro trying to put out the fire. A trio of ogres ran back and forth between the fire and the collecting pond but they didn't seem to be collecting very much water.

“Mira's been here,” Charlie whispered back to the others.

One of the lead ogres shoved an underling into the collecting pond, shouting orders in broken Taldane. The ogre screamed as something small with claws and teeth grabbed the ogre and pulled it underneath.

“Mira's still here,” Charlie amended.

Shouts of “Is jussa gool!” drifted from the courtyard. “Keel it!”

“And we should probably do something about that,” Charlie continued.

“Let's go,” Ace said. He drew his sword.

The battle for the keep was long and bloody. A dozen ogres and more died in the fire and to Mira's ire but the rest had to be battled directly with steel and bow. Even Ace was getting exhausted by the time they were able to clear the courtyard of its guards and of those who had rushed out of the keep itself.

Finally the battle broke. Charlie moved from corpse to corpse, her knives ensuring those who still breathed became corpses quickly. Cela tended the wounded until his power ran dry. Ace cleaned his sword even as he told Cela to save his power for those who truly needed it. But...

“Where's Mira?” Ace asked. The last he'd seen of her was an explosion near the new barracks and then...

One last ogre crawled from the flames of the south courtyard. It screamed and then fell as something small jumped on it from behind and tore into its neck.

Mira ripped a chunk from her victim and spat it on the ground. She stood and walked out of the fire.

Ace had never seen anything so beautiful.

Blood dripped from her claws and smeared all down her chest. She sauntered away from the last ogre, the fire burning behind her. Her death-thin frame was changed, a well-fed softness filling her pale bloodless skin. Long legs led to full hips and rounded belly up to full breasts smeared with blood. Feral red eyes looked at him hungrily as her obscenely long tongue licked the blood from her claws.

Ace ran up to her and wrapped his arms around her. Blood smeared over his armor as her feral hunger turned to recognition then to delight and she held him close and squealed her glee.

“That's disturbing,” Jakardros said.

“I think it's sweet,” Cela said.

“It is easier not to think about it,” Charlie suggested.

“That's the last of them, right?” Shalelu asked. “Before we start celebrating and all.”

“No,” Jakardros said. “We haven't found the leader.”

“We need to do that,” Vale said. “Quickly. Before--”

The doors to the main keep opened with an echoing slam. A gigantic ogre stepped out and saw them all, saw the death of his entire clan and the interloping rangers who'd caused it. But right before him he saw easier prey, the elf covered in blood who moved to protect the pretty naked woman behind him. The ogre raised his hooked weapon and struck, impaling the elf from navel to neck in one horrible stroke.

Mira screamed as Ace's body was flung to the side and the ogre move to descend upon her. She raised her claws and bellowed the words to one of her last spells, and her most powerful. The ogre stopped, his arm dropping as he awaited a command.

“Die,” she whispered. “Die for me.”

The dominated ogre dropped its weapons, walked into the fire, and did as it was told.

Mira fell to her knees as the spell broke and the ogre began to scream its last. She saw Cela run to Ace's side, saw the casting of useless healing spells, knew it was too late.

The hunger returned as Mira began to scream.


“Good death,” Carter said. “Still, ouch.”

“That sucked,” Sheppard said.

“Sorry,” Rowan said. “I didn't try to crit you but...”

“Nah, it's okay,” Sheppard said.

“And Rodney, wow,” Carter said. “That was impressive.”

“I can see the benefit of enchantments in battle,” Zelenka said.

McKay took a deep breath and still said nothing.

“The rest of you hit 9th level,” Rowan said. “Radek, check the fifth level cleric spells.” He glanced at McKay and Sheppard.

Sheppard leaned back in his chair, only mildly bothered by the whole thing. McKay was mildly nothing, a low level fury came off of him in waves. The game room was oddly quiet, most of the silence coming from the card table where Todd sat with his eyes closed and his hands steepled in front of his face as he quietly purred. He appeared to be in the middle of a game, or at least the game around him was frozen as the dealer Parrish looked unwilling to interrupt the Wraith's silence. Dr. Corrigan was excitedly trying to play a solitary round of whatever game Todd had taught him, it consisted of placing pieces and thinking. A game of Werewolf had started at some point but was long since moved into the halls outside, leaving those tables empty.

“So what do I do?” Sheppard asked. “Do I make a new character or...”

“You don't have to,” Zelenka purred.

McKay and Sheppard both looked at him. “Wait, what?” McKay asked.

Zelenka smirked as he pointed to a page in the rulebook. “I can raise him.”

Chapter Text

I can raise him.

The words echoed in Mira's mind as the spells from Cela's wands knitted her wounds, the slimy cold feeling of death that normally would leave her shuddering and writhing with the exquisite wrongness of it all. She barely felt his hands, hot like fire against her skin. She barely felt cold fresh water dumped over her head, washing away the blood and the filth and the gore. She barely felt the hunger beginning to burn as she grew thin and lithe again.

And then the world went dark.

She shook the darkness away, found her clothes piled on top of her, all around her, dropped haphazardly on her.

“Get dressed, Mira,” Charlie said. Her voice was thin, pleading, tired. “We've all had a long day.”

Mira growled at her. What did the human know of 'long days'?

“And put on some perfume, you stink like death.”

Mira hissed as Charlie walked away. She curled up underneath her clothes. She wanted to stay there, go to sleep, she hadn't truly slept since her death. Maybe if she slept Cela would cast the spells to raise Ace by the time she woke up.

But it wasn't to be. An ominous laugh filled the courtyard. Mira sat up, ears pricking against the sound. Charlie pulled her knives and Cela uncoiled his whip. Shalelu nocked an arrow. The three Black Arrow rangers pulled their weapons, bows and swords.

The woman who slithered out of the keep's ruined doors was beautiful. Long red hair cascaded down her shoulders, bright against the soft green satin corset that accentuated her waist. That green matched her eyes and the emerald scales that cascaded down from her hips where human skin merged with her serpent's body and tail. The woman, the lamia, laughed with a deep welcoming joy that dripped like dark red wine.

“Welcome, my dears,” the lamia said. “I apologize for the mess but I'm afraid civilization is so difficult to find among ogres.”

Mira hissed, teeth bared.

“And among ghouls,” the lamia said. “Such strange company to entertain me. But I suppose you'll have to do. Mokmurian insists I bring him something... powerful. He would love to meet you. All of you.” The lamia focused on Kaven. “Especially you, my dearest.”

Jakardros and Vale both turned on their companion. Kaven stammered and shrunk from the lamia's gaze. “I, I-I, I have no idea what you...”

“Nonsense,” the lamia praised. “These oafish Kreegs would have had quite the trouble taking Rannick without the lovely details you provided us. Well done, my love, well done.”

The lamia laughed as Jakardros and Vale raised their weapons.

The lamia's laughter stopped in a gasp. She screamed as she turned on Charlie, the rogue's daggers still sticking out of her back.

Mira lunged at Kaven. The two rangers shook the lamia's charm from their minds and turned on the serpent. The lamia screamed her last.

*****

Ace's body lay on the altar.

The Rannick chapel was a mess. The shrine to Erastil, god of the hunt, had been thoroughly desecrated by the ogres. The old offerings of hunting trophies and delicately constructed longbows were destroyed, broken, or draped in gore as part of the ogre's efforts to reconsecrate the shrine to Lamashtu, the mother of monsters. The three-eyed jackal leered on the wall, her visage painted in blood.

Cela muttered under his breath, swearing to himself in Elven. Former sacrifices to Lamashtu were piled in the middle of the floor while Cela scrubbed at the jackal's visage with bucket and brush.

Mira pulled an amulet out of her blouse. The lamia had worn a medallion like her own, the same powers enchanted into it. She pulled the amulet from Ace's neck, some generic enchantment meant to toughen his skin and make him resistant to damage. Fat lot of good it did him. She pocketed his amulet of natural armor and laid the Sihedron medallion around his neck. “That will keep you,” she whispered.

“Hmm?” Cela looked back and sighed. “Oh, Mira, I didn't hear you.” He dropped the boar hair brush into the soapy bucket and took the opportunity to lean against the wall. He slid down to the floor.

“I could make that easier,” Mira offered, pointing to Lamashtu's leering visage. All the scrubbing had barely put a dent in the blood stains.

“No, no,” Cela said. “Not that I am ungrateful. The chapel will be easier to reconsecrate if I spend the effort myself.”

“I've never understood gods,” Mira said.

“Is like travel,” Cela said. “Desna bids you take the long way in all your endeavors. It is why you cannot teleport, no?”

“I refuse to conjure,” Mira said. “I am no summoner. I will not lurk in my eidolon's shadow. Unfortunately teleportation relies on the same magical principles.”

“Hmm,” Cela hummed. “What brings you here, then?”

Mira gestured to Ace's body on the cracked marble altar. “The lamia had a Sihedron,” she said. “Figured he could use the gentle repose.”

“That is a good idea,” Cela said. “Calistria has given me nine days to raise him. I have until then to acquire the materials.”

“What do you need?” Mira asked.

“Diamonds.”

Mira pulled off her scarf. She had gems sewn inside for just these emergencies.

“I guarantee you do not carry enough,” Cela said before she could pull the threads apart. “I would need five thousand gold pieces worth of diamonds. Seven thousand to be safe. The town below may not be worth that much.”

Mira pouted. She considered the problem. They had more than enough treasure to pay for the diamonds, they just needed to... She hissed. “The Yondabakari Road,” she realized. “It splits into the Dawn Shadow Path and that goes to...”

“Janderhoff is five days ride,” Cela warned.

“For you,” she said. “I don't have to rest, Lightfoot never has to slow down. I can't ride him to death, he's already dead!”

Cela stood up and grabbed her arm before she could run off. “Wait until nightfall,” he said.

“What?! Why?”

“Janderhoff is a city of dwarves and paladins,” Cela warned. “You are undead. I want you rested and studied before you ride. If you leave at nightfall and run the whole way you will get there, when, noon? The hearts of good men overlook much that is done in the daylight hours, Mira. You will be less questioned if you walk those streets by day. And if you maintain your illusions.”

Mira huffed but she had to admit, Cela was right. She looked down at Ace's body, at the pale skin devoid of blood. The killing wound was dressed, the wounds of battle bound as if to aid in healing. His swords and armor were piled next to the blood stained marble.

Cela picked up the brush and began scrubbing again.

*****

Mira left at sunset. The skeletal horse ran with all the speed of a racing mount yet it did not slow or tire, never wavering from its course. The woman draped over it likewise would never tire, never grow weary of the road. With her she carried enough treasure to ransom a kingdom.

Hoofbeats faded in the distance as the dust from her departure blew away. The frost of early winter brought with it a bitter cold.

Cela shivered.

“You should wear clothes,” Charlie said. Still, she shivered as well. “Any reason this couldn't wait until morning?”

“Sometimes you just have to ride all night,” Cela said.

Charlie bit back the urge to hit him as she felt someone laughing at her.


Sheppard laughed while Zelenka made the effort to look innocent.

“Grow up,” Carter said. That didn't stop her own grin.

Rowan did some math in his head. A skeletal horse ran at 200 feet per round, with ten rounds in a minute that was about 25 miles an hour. The caravan roads were as close to real roads as Varisia got, enabling someone who knew those roads to travel at full speed. This all meant that, yes, Mira could ride the 230 miles to Janderhoff in one long, monotonous night. And she was undead, she wouldn't get tired.

“You have access to a real city,” he said. “You may now sell all the random crap you've collected since Magnimar.”

“Thank you,” Carter said with an overly dramatic sigh. She picked up the rulebook and started flipping through the back. “I'm keeping that +1 keen rapier we picked up, by the way.”

“You can sell my belt of +2 strength,” Sheppard said. “I'll keep the +4 we found.”

“You know, I could enchant the +2 belt for you,” McKay offered. His offer turned sarcastic. “I could put +2 constitution on it. You need the hit points.”

“I'm fine,” Sheppard said.

“Yes, is why you're dead,” Zelenka drawled.

“I'll get better.”

McKay rolled his eyes.

“So we have discovered the problem with the fort,” Zelenka said. “It was full of ogres. Is the lord mayor going to compensate us for our troubles?”

“Doubt it,” McKay said.

“No, but Mayor Maelin will offer you stewardship of the fort,” Rowan said. “One of you three.”

“Wait, the asshole priest is the mayor?” McKay demanded.

“Priest, mayor, and bartender?” Sheppard mused.

“Priest, mayor, and doctor,” Rowan agreed. “Turtleback Ferry is a small village. Their single 5th level character has to do a lot of jobs.”

“Anything happen while I'm gone?” McKay asked.

Carter and Zelenka looked at each other. “I don't want it,” Carter said.

Zelenka nodded sagely. “Ace became a lord while he was dead,” he said.

“Wait, why me?” Sheppard asked.

Carter grinned. “What are you going to do, refuse? You're dead!”

“Better him than me,” McKay said.

“Oh, Father Maelin wouldn't give you the time of day,” Rowan said. “Much less a keep.”

“Good,” McKay said.

The mood in the game room shifted as something happened over at the card table. Todd shoved his not insubstantial pile of poker winnings into the middle of the table and stood up. “It was enjoyable,” he said.

“You picked up the game fast,” Parrish complemented. “Do the Wraith have something similar?”

“No, not as such,” Todd said. “Your players have a habit of thinking about their cards. I can hear them.”

Parrish looked disturbed and not a little offended as Todd sauntered through the game room past the Pathfinder table. He paused there and bared his teeth in a grin. “Tomorrow, Dr. McKay, we shall resume work.”

“Good, maybe we can stop this futzing about and finish the code,” McKay snapped.

Todd hissed, long and low. It turned to a low chuckle as he saw the look of challenge on Sheppard's face. Todd lifted a hand, his feeding hand, and gestured for his guards to follow him out as though he were commanding minions.

“That was bracing,” Rowan said.

“You have no idea,” McKay said. “Half the time I think he's answering thoughts instead of words.”

“I believe he is,” Zelenka said. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “And so do you.”

McKay dismissed the idea.

*****

McKay was fuming by the time he entered the gym. “I thought we were working today,” he snapped.

Todd's guards hung around the room, their diligence somewhat reduced by the normality developing about their task. They still kept their weapons drawn but were sitting on benches, leaning on walls, one had his weapon on the floor and was using the opportunity to get in a few stretches.

Todd stood in the middle of the room, his hiveskin coat laying on one bench and his feet bare. His talons gripped the woven mat floor and his hivesilk undershirt shimmered in the constant natural light. His tangled hair was tied back in a loose ponytail. He carried two bantos rods.

McKay was not amused.

“We are,” Todd said. “It has come to my attention that you are not as versed in the obvious as your inherent talent suggests.”

“Obviously,” McKay said. Only then did his own word choice hit him. He stood by it even as Todd snorted.

“You are untrained,” Todd said. “I cannot work with someone so ill-equipped.”

“So... what do we do?” McKay asked. He had a sinking feeling this was the moment when Todd left them all and he was forced to work on the Replicator code alone until it drove him insane.

“There is more to a program than code,” Todd said. “The others can worry over the logistics, the application, the upload. Meanwhile, you will learn the obvious.”

“You're... not leaving?”

Todd rolled his eyes. He then fixed McKay with a predatory stare and purred. “Why should I leave when I've found something so interesting?”

McKay gulped. He wondered if this was what a slice of chocolate cake felt like. “Can I... um...”

“No,” Todd said. He held out one bantos rod. “Remove as much clothing as you must in order to feel comfortable. That is all the preparation you will have.”

McKay sighed and slipped off his shoes. By the time he stood in the middle of the gym with a bantos in his hand he was already tense to the point of shaking.

Todd circled his student, talons brushing the gym mat. “You have been mistreated before,” he observed.

McKay held the bantos in front of him in a desperate attempt to defend himself from the savage attack he expected, envisioned, remembered. Every sparring session with Ronon came to mind, the larger man roaring in frustration and berating McKay for his lack of even the most basic knowledge. 'Children learn this stuff, McKay,' he remembered. 'Relax before I hurt you.'

McKay felt his face heat with shame. It wasn't his fault he'd never learned these things as a child. He'd been a kid on Earth where the worst things to worry about were bullies and polar bears and his father. He'd learned to hide, to run, to evade; fighting back was a useless skill against such opponents, it only made things worse.

Todd circled, hissing to himself as he considered the situation. McKay had all the knowledge of a prey animal and that shamed him. Interesting. That shame meant he would not be content to remain a prey animal. Todd purred, teeth bared. He raised the bantos rod and brought it down against McKay's side with a barest of slow taps.

McKay looked confused.

“The point of this exercise is not to injure you,” Todd said. “It is not meant to increase fighting prowess. This is an exercise in awareness. The use of force or pain is useless for this exercise.” He raised the bantos rod again and slowly brought it down at McKay's wrist. McKay moved his own rod to block.

“This isn't that thing where we start slow and we end with you beating me with a stick, is it?” McKay asked.

“There will be an increase in difficulty,” Todd admitted. “It has nothing to do with force or speed.” He moved again, giving McKay plenty of time to block the tap to his side.

McKay began to feel safe as Todd circled him, attacking him with all the speed of a snail and all the force of a feather. He grew confident as he stopped gripping the bantos rod with both hands, instead letting himself hold it one-handed. He didn't need to fear Ronon's overwhelming force or Teyla's quick twists or Sheppard's suppressed disappointment. He could see the arcs of the rod, track the movements necessary for each strike. It began to make sense. He could relax.

“Good,” Todd praised. Then he stepped back and pulled something from a pocket of his hiveskin coat. “Perhaps we can increase the difficulty.” He held up the blindfold.

McKay felt his nervousness return. “Um... why?”

“This is an exercise in awareness,” Todd said. “There is much more to your awareness than your sight. By taking that sight we can enhance your sense of the obvious.”

McKay glanced around at the guards who were still here. A couple looked on with bored obligation but the other two were already lost in disinterest. They sensed no danger here. And Todd had said he wouldn't hurt him. “Okay,” McKay allowed. His sight went dark as the soft silk covered his eyes. Todd tied the blindfold snug but not tight, close enough that it blocked the majority of his sight. He still had a vague sense of light and dark so the loss wasn't complete. Knowing he wasn't totally blinded helped a great deal but it didn't make seeing any easier.

“Now what?” McKay asked.

“Now we continue,” Todd said. He began to circle.

McKay felt the gentle tap of the bantos rod against his back. He held his own bantos out on front of him, trying to guess where Todd was. Then he felt the draw of a cold fingertip against his neck and heard Todd's voice whisper in his ear.

“Listen to me,” Todd said. “You know where I am.”

McKay felt movement and tried to block. He felt the tap against his side.

“Yes,” Todd purred. “Close. You know where I am. Listen. There is nothing here but you and I.”

McKay took a deep breath. He felt something to his left and moved the bantos to block. He felt the tap of wood on wood.

“Good,” Todd praised. “Again.”

McKay felt something behind him. He turned and tried to block but felt the tap on his belly.

“Very close.” Todd's voice made him shiver, it felt like that purr was the only thing he could hear. He shuddered at the feel and the sudden movement behind him again. He turned and this time he ducked.

Todd's purr turned to a deep chuckle. “Clever little maletrix.”

McKay wondered what that word meant. It wasn't important. He felt something and brought his bantos up. He felt the soft knock of wood on wood and then he took a slow swing of his own.

McKay felt the soft tap of wood on flesh. It wasn't his own flesh this time.

“Hold,” Todd said. Strange, his voice sounded different this time, scratchy, less of a purr to it.

Light flooded McKay's eyes as the blindfold was pulled from his eyes and he got a look at himself and Todd.

Todd's weapon was down, held at an angle that must have been mid-movement. McKay's own bantos rod was raised, its wooden length gently resting against the side of Todd's neck. All around them the guards were no longer distracted, no longer bored. Instead they all stared at the pair of them with something almost like astonishment in their eyes. It might even have been fear.

Todd purred. “I think you'll do well,” he said. He stepped away.

McKay let his arm fall, his bantos slipping out of his hand. He felt cold. He shivered, shuddered, and a sudden exhaustion crashed in on him as a headache he didn't know he had made its presence known.

“I will go to the lab,” Todd said. He shrugged on his hiveskin coat and laced his boots. He pointed to McKay as he addressed his guards. “Make sure he gets some sleep.”

McKay dropped heavily on the bench. He felt like he'd just gone running with Ronon. But he hadn't done anything so strenuous, it was just a little thing. Right?

Chapter Text

The morning's video footage was disturbing. The guards were barely in the video frame; they stood inattentive, distracted from their work of guarding McKay from the dangers of having to work with a Wraith. Todd's hands moved freely, ghosting down McKay's t-shirt clad shoulders then back to his neck. Both hands caressed his neck, the feeding hand leaving a faint red mark like a suck bruise. The guards reacted then, though their reactions were less than adequate as they were likely only moving in response to the obscenely sexual moan McKay gave as he relaxed into the blindfold.

“Now what?” McKay asked, his voice distant, almost dream-like.

“Now we continue,” Todd said, a low purr coloring his words.

And then the video grew eerily silent. No more words were exchanged between the pair as Todd began to circle the blindfolded McKay. He held the bantos rod in his feeding hand, gently tapping McKay as he stalked. He hissed, purred, once there was a distinct growl. But there were no words.

Then things grew weird. McKay began to move, first slowly, ever so slowly to defend himself. But it wasn't the defense of the blind man, he was moving his own bantos rod to block Todd's movements as though he knew from where the attack would come.

The four guards finally came into the camera's view. One didn't even have his weapon, it was still out of frame behind him. Instead they all seemed transfixed by the strangeness of the scene as McKay moved without sight, slowly but surely responding to the Wraith's movements.

Carter paused the video here and turned to the two other people in her private office. The walls were opaque glass and orichalchum. Each of her two companions, both of them looking on with different levels of disturbed seriousness, had their own parts to play in the room's security. Sheppard had begged the city not to record anything said in this office, not now, please don't let anyone hear us. Zelenka had a program written that would comb the city's files to make sure the city complied and to delete recordings if it hadn't.

“It gets weirder,” Carter said. The video resumed.

McKay continued blocking, matching Todd's movements with eerie exactness. But then he faltered as Todd moved behind him. The tap to his belly was barely visible though the loud purr was distinct. McKay's reaction was unmistakable and somewhat drastic.

At the next strike McKay moved, ducking out of the bantos's swing and answering with a soft blow to Todd's neck.

“Hold,” Todd said. He reached up and pulled the blindfold from McKay's eyes.

“What the fuck,” Sheppard whispered.

McKay had a distinct languid look to his face and eyes that matched his slow, deliberate movements. It was a look Sheppard had seen before but usually under the worst of McKay's self-imposed deadlines. He'd never seen it like this.

A sharp intake of breath was Zelenka's only reaction as he watched the screen with a calculating look.

“I think you'll do well,” Todd purred.

And then McKay seemed to wilt in on himself like a marionette with its strings cut. He barely made it to a bench before collapsing.

“I will go to the lab,” Todd said, announcing his intention to his guards. And then he dismissed them with a command they couldn't in good conscience disobey. “Make sure he gets some sleep.”

Three guards scrambled for their weapons and followed Todd as he left, jacket still open. One stayed behind and radioed the infirmary.

The video ended.

“How is he?” Zelenka asked.

“He's showing signs of physical and mental exhaustion,” Carter said. “That's to be expected. His blood sugar was low. But what's interesting is his peripheral body temperature was low.”

“Any enzyme in his system?” Sheppard asked.

“No trace,” Carter said. “It was a dry bite, didn't even break the skin. As far as Dr. Keller can tell there's no permanent damage.”

“How long did he sleep?” Zelenka asked.

“He's still asleep,” Carter said. She pointed at the screen for emphasis. “That was four hours ago.”

Zelenka nodded as though this made sense. “Todd said Rodney would sleep the rest of today and awaken ravenous,” he said. “He left the lab early, claiming his own exhaustion.”

Sheppard made to leave.

“John,” Carter warned.

Sheppard stopped near the door. “I want to know what he's doing to Rodney,” he said. “I can get that from him.”

“I'm not sure you can,” Carter said.

Sheppard's expression hardened.

“John, Santhal stopped answering,” Carter said. “I sent AR-5 to check it out. I should have sent a MALP first.”

Sheppard had a bad feeling about that statement. Her cold stare made it all the worse. He thought about asking but... didn't want to know.

“I'll talk to Rodney,” Sheppard allowed.

“We have to stop them,” Carter said. “The Daedalus will be here in a few days. The Apollo won't be available for another six months.”

The unspoken words were damning. There was no military option. The rewritten code was more important than any of them. If she had to sacrifice McKay to Todd then she would.

Sheppard nodded. It wouldn't come to that. He'd make sure of it.

*****

McKay stretched as he awoke to the sound of... beeping? What? He opened his eyes and sat up. He felt the faint stab of an IV line in his arm and looked around, confused. A feeling of dread began to creep over him. Why was he here? Had he been exposed to something? How long was he out?

“Hey buddy.”

McKay jumped as he realized Sheppard was in the hard plastic chair next to him. “What... Why am I here? I'm not contagious or anything?”

“Officially, you're here for exhaustion,” Sheppard said.

“There's an unofficial reason?” McKay asked.

The timbre of the room changed as Dr. Keller came in. “Rodney, you're awake,” she said. And then she started poking at something on his neck.

McKay shied away from her physical exam and rubbed at his neck. Now that people were poking at him he did have a sore spot... “What happened?” he asked.

“We don't think he fed from you but Todd gave you a...” Keller was about to call it a 'love bite' when she noticed Sheppard's glare. She revised her statement. “...a bit of a thing. Right there. On your neck.” She picked up a small hand mirror and angled it so McKay could see.

McKay grabbed the mirror and angled it better. “Huh,” he mused. “I didn't feel it at all.”

“See, that's why you shouldn't let Wraith get their hands on you,” Keller said. “It's a dry bite, no enzyme injected, as far as we can tell he didn't feed at all. Not even a nibble.”

“You sure there's no enzyme?” McKay asked. He wondered about the events of the morning, the cold feel of claws on his neck. Had Todd done something to make him, what, able to react without seeing him?

“Nothing on your blood tests,” Keller said. “Now that you're awake there's no reason to keep you. Go get some food then take it easy for the rest of the day. And don't let Todd touch you anymore.”

McKay watched as the nurse removed his IV.

“Get dressed, the KP staff has those tarts made from those weird purple apple-y things you like,” Sheppard said. He had to admit, McKay was moving like he'd recovered. But recovered from what?

*****

Sheppard ignored the looks he kept getting. Atlantis personnel seemed to fall into two camps about the red mark on McKay's neck: those who knew what it was and those who kept leering at him. His tray held three of the purple tarts and a plate piled high with some sort of ground meat mixed with pasta and glorious fake cheese. McKay's tray was mostly tarts along with more standard dessert fare, two jello cups and a spoon.

“You should get some food,” Sheppard suggested as they took a table.

McKay gestured to his array of tarts. He picked one up and bit into it, moaning as he tasted it. His eyes fell closed and Sheppard was eerily reminded of McKay's earlier languid state.

“Yeah, food,” Sheppard said, gesturing to his own plate of bright orange cheese sauce.

McKay opened his eyes and blinked slowly, like he was coming out of a trance. He fixed his liquid gaze on Sheppard. Sheppard shivered, when had McKay's eyes felt like that? Then it ended as McKay reached out with his hand and scooped up some fake cheese with two fingers. He stuck those fingers in his mouth and sucked, gaze fixed on Sheppard the whole time.

Sheppard's mouth went dry. “Um...”

McKay licked his fingers as he pulled them out of his mouth. That languid gaze didn't look ominous anymore, now it looked downright disarming. Then the moment was over as McKay turned his attention back to the purple tart.

Sheppard shifted in his seat. He didn't know if he was thankful or not when Ronon and Teyla came in with their own trays and sat down with them.

“Hey, get your own,” McKay protested when Ronon plucked two tarts from his tray. Ronon repaid McKay with a wrapped sandwich. McKay still pulled his tray away from Ronon's reach.

Sheppard silently passed McKay two of his own tarts.

“Thank you, Colonel,” McKay said. “At least someone here appreciates what I went through today.”

“You can always spar with me,” Ronon offered. “I won't eat you.”

“No, you just hit me with sticks,” McKay said.

“It's good for you,” Ronon said. He tried to steal another tart.

McKay slapped Ronon's hand with the flat of his plastic knife. He had to do it a half dozen times before Ronon got the hint.

Teyla watched him, a contemplative look on her face. Her eyes grew soft and McKay felt something like a caress. He looked around but there was no one there. Instead Teyla looked troubled. “What's wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing you need to concern yourself over,” she said. Teyla got up even though her tray was still arrayed with a small tower of purple tarts. “I am not hungry.” She left, though she did pile the tarts in her hands before leaving.

“What was that about?” Sheppard asked.

McKay shrugged.

*****

McKay lay on his bed. He pushed himself into a weak sitting position so he could burp properly then laid back down. “Urrrg...”

Sheppard shook a bottle of large-sounding pills. Antacids.

McKay reached for the bottle. He pushed himself back up to sitting and tossed two of the large tablets in his mouth. He chewed the chalky tablets as he made a face.

“Should have eaten real food,” Sheppard said, grinning. He set the bottle back on the nightstand and sat on the bed next to McKay.

“I blame the fake cheese,” McKay said. “That was not a color found in nature.”

“Clearly you have not been to Scrinia,” Sheppard drawled.

“The rocks are that color,” McKay grumbled. “Rocks aren't food.”

Sheppard ignored him and opened the laptop. “What d'you wanna watch?” he asked.

McKay yawned. “I dunno, something weird.”

Sheppard opened up some cheesy file, something that opened with mad scientists and had robots in the front row. He didn't have to pay attention when all the jokes were already there, heckled at the movie by the silhouettes at the bottom of the screen. Instead he could pay attention to McKay, who was still tired even after sleeping through most of the day. He tamped down the worry, burying it under the warm feeling of McKay leaning on him, then slumping against him, then laying halfway on him as he fell asleep.

Sheppard closed the laptop, the movie not even half over. He contemplated some method of escape and came up empty.

Crap.

*****

McKay woke to the smell of John Sheppard.

There was no mistaking that smell. It was the smell he awoke to on every overnight offworld mission, a less than washed Sheppard still in his clothes even as their sleeping bags got tangled or kicked off during the night. He felt the uncomfortable constriction of pants so they must be offworld. McKay nuzzled into the smell and opened his eyes.

That was weird. They weren't offworld. These was his quarters. Then why was he hallucinating that smell?

Oh. Um... He wasn't hallucinating.

They were more 'on' his bed than 'in' it. Sheppard's shoes looked like they'd been haphazardly kicked off at some point but the both of them still wore yesterday's uniform. Sheppard was asleep, laying on one of McKay's arms. McKay contemplated ways to extract himself but they all involved waking Sheppard. He wasn't sure he wanted to do that, then they'd have to talk about stuff. He hated talking about stuff.

Sheppard sniffed in his sleep and moved. McKay tried to extract his arm but Sheppard grabbed it first, pinning it beneath him.

McKay pouted at the room. He huffed. He tried to reclaim his arm. He decided to give up and go back to sleep. Maybe if Sheppard woke up he'd leave and they wouldn't have to talk about anything.

He curled up in that smell again and let it lull him back to sleep.

*****

Sheppard woke to the feel of a Rodney blanket.

That was one of the things he secretly liked about overnight offworld missions. McKay was warm and heavy and he slept like the dead, draping himself over and under and around anything he could. He kept Sheppard warm on cold planets, especially since McKay had the weird habit of kicking off both of their sleeping bags. But McKay could sleep like this for hours. Luckily Sheppard had a plan.

He wiggled.

He shifted from side to side, wiggling like a snake underneath McKay's unconscious sprawl. He didn't know what it was that caused McKay to respond to this particular movement but he always did, rolling over and off of Sheppard.

Sheppard took the opportunity to bolt to the bathroom. He felt like he'd been holding in his bladder for hours.

When he came out McKay was awake, sitting up and stretching. “Hey,” Sheppard said. “We should get breakfast.”

“Yeah,” McKay said. Then he sniffed himself. “Maybe shower first. I smell like you.”

Sheppard bit his tongue and wisely didn't say anything. He rather liked how McKay smelled.

McKay looked at him strangely. “Or... we could just get food,” he offered.

“Why not?” Sheppard said, accepting the offer.

McKay's radio beeped. He grumbled at it on the bedside table and fitted it in his ear. “What?” he demanded. “Oh. Oh! Oh crap, fine, shut up, I'll be right there.” He groaned and got to his feet. “I have to get to the lab,” he said. “Can't keep Ye High and Mighty Seer of the Obvious waiting.”

Sheppard tried to catch McKay on the way out but he seemed to be made of avoidance this morning. Fine then. Sheppard had his ways.

His ways consisted of conning the KP staff into getting him one of the large travel mugs of coffee and taking it to the lab.

The scene was fairly normal, or it was quickly becoming normal. Todd and McKay ranted to each other in front of a white board, each arguing what was essentially the same point. Strangely enough, their argument was over the method of reaching that point and neither of them could possibly be right since programming and math both involved more steps than that.

Todd's guards all stood at attention. The failure of the previous day seemed to have made an impression on them as they all looked like they'd been paying attention and all had their weapons at the ready. The scientists were less concerned, Zelenka least of all for some twisted reason. Instead he seemed to be taking notes.

Sheppard stood at the doorway to the lab, opened the travel mug's lid, and gently blew the smell into the room.

McKay's argument stopped in the middle of a sentence and he immediately abandoned it, instead descending like a pouncing cat upon Sheppard's mug of coffee. He even hissed, a low rumbling hiss the likes of which Sheppard would have expected from a Wraith. Then the mug was gone from his hands and McKay hummed in contentment at coffee, glorious coffee.

Todd delicately sniffed the air. He bared his teeth and hissed in that strange Wraith way that made Sheppard feel he was being laughed at. Maybe he was given the low haughty glare and growl McKay gave Todd in return.

“You still owe me breakfast,” Sheppard drawled.

McKay hummed dismissively even as Simpson looked personally offended and swore while Kusanagi visibly demanded winnings.

Sheppard decided it was safer to ignore whatever bet they had. He didn't want to think about it. He had the sinking feeling he knew what it was about.

*****

Teyla entered the detention level, the soft fabric of her gravi'nemorosus flowing around her like silken water. She held her hands over her belly, accentuating the bulge of her growing child even as her backless dress veiled the young mind from the horrors of the world. She exuded an aura of calm serenity, of overwhelming power. This was a queen and she was here in her domain to question a Wraith who was not yet hers.

She did not like the thought though she could appreciate it. Still, she arched an eyebrow at the creature within the cage who had supplied the thought to her.

Todd rumbled, a low welcoming sound. She felt his willingness to curl around her and offer his life to taste. It was not a mocking offer, though she hoped it might be. Rather she knew it was the result of worse things than mockery.

“You may leave,” she said, speaking to the guards.

“We're under orders to keep watch,” one said. The other said nothing but maintained his stance.

“I am in no danger here,” she said.

Still they stood.

She sighed. Fine then, this conversation would take place outside their ability to listen. Teyla placed her hands on the horizontal bars of the cage, leaned against the cold metal, and hissed long and low. She fixed Todd with a cold glare, the gold in her brown eyes glinting in the light.

Todd dropped low to his belly and hissed up at her. Then he stood, foreclaws tucked underneath his chest as he snarled, growled, and sighed.

Teyla slid against the bars, her belly almost pressed against the energy barrier. If that barrier wasn't there he could have reached out and grabbed her belly, caressed the taut skin, ripped the child out, or more likely he would have nuzzled her navel and hissed promises to the child.

Promises and prophecies.

Below the hissing, the movements, below the strangely sensuous energy of the room, Teyla and Todd were having a conversation.

You have done something to Rodney, Teyla accused.

Todd laughed, sending her images of McKay's past, flashes of insight he'd lifted from McKay's open mind. I didn't begin this, my queen, Todd purred. He pressed himself against the bars of his cage, the better to hiss and purr in her ear.

Do not call me that.

Oh but you are, Todd insisted, his inner voice as languid as McKay's eyes when he worked the Replicator code alone. Or you will be. I have seen you in the guise of a queen, my own second sitting at your feet. They will beg you to taste them.

Teyla snarled, aloud and not. The guards looked confused when she swiped at the energy barrier with claws she didn't have. Their orders covered Todd attempting to escape, not someone else trying to get in at him.

“You know what I can do,” Todd said, both aloud and not. Then he fell back into their inner conversation, hissing and purring and pacing as he lost himself to more civilized words within. You know what I am.

Maletrix, Teyla accused. I agree, you are. But Rodney is not.

Do not force him to be something he's not, Todd warned. Do not confine him to walls he doesn't feel. I have spoken to him as I speak to you now. He doesn't realize it yet. I haven't told him.

I would warn you of the same, Teyla said.

He nearly ascended, Todd warned.

He did, she admitted.

You know how the first maletrix began, Todd warned.

I do.

Then why do you fight it?

The guards watched as Teyla turned away. She looked like she was going to leave. But instead she turned, screaming something without words, her tiny teeth bared as she arched up at the Wraith, hands twisted into claws like she would rip him apart.

He merely chuckled, an oddly human sound and completely incongruous to the previous few minutes. The chuckle turned to a rumble as he agreed with her. Yes she owned McKay. She also owned him. That did not change what they were.

Chapter Text

The Daedalus landed on a Sunday. Caldwell hadn't been aware it was Sunday. Last he heard it was Thursday. But then Sundays on Atlantis never did match the Sundays on the calendar. The year on Lantea was less than nine months long, the year on New Lantea was estimated to be 413 days give or take a few hours. Earth's months didn't mean much when there were arguments over whether this planet would need a leap day every two orbits or three or maybe on an alternating schedule. That meant Sundays could happen on declaration, at any point they were deemed 'necessary'.

It meant landing clearance was handled by some third shift Lieutenant who drew the short straw this 'week'. It also meant Caldwell was stuck carrying this box of contraband to the game room. He always preferred to make these exchanges behind closed doors, in offices or in labs. Making the exchange in public always meant people would ask him to get them stuff, people who didn't know his rules.

He was not ending up in the back of a store full of frilly lace, brightly dyed feathers, and weird leather things again. The skinny man behind the counter had been far too eager to invite him to something called a “play party” for demonstrations of the merchandise. That had been... an interesting experience.

Caldwell braced himself for the interested and curious looks and entered the game room.

Oh. Oh my.

This was not what he'd expected.

First of all there was a Wraith at a table with a trio of chess sets, picking out pieces to assemble a set for something else. The anthropologist Dr. Corrigan looked like he wanted to lay in the Wraith's lap while Todd explained something or another. Todd had his collection of guards, though whether they were guarding Todd or the room or the poker table was difficult to determine. Dr. Parrish's glare from the poker table said more than he must have intended.

Two scientists had a miniatures game on a back table, the both of them laying out their various space marines for the upcoming battle. That was fairly normal. The argument at the Pathfinder table was less normal.

Caldwell decided he must be at the tail end of it given the variously bored, disturbed, and distracted faces on three of the players. Meanwhile, Zelenka and Rowan were arguing.

“This is a no porn game,” Rowan insisted. “That means there's no porn in it! If you need porn I'm sure someone else can run a game of Maid RPG.”

“Since when?” Zelenka demanded. “Is this a new rule? Is this a post-ogres thing? I am not demanding a reenactment, merely the opportunity to describe.”

“Please let's handwave it,” Rowan pleaded.

Carter saw Caldwell at the doorway and her eyes lit up.

“I had to sit through ogre incest, infanticide, and torture,” Zelenka countered. “There were Black Arrow rangers raped to death and you won't allow a consensual reconsecration?”

“How do you know it's consensual?” Rowan demanded. “You want to tie Jakardros to the altar and fuck him!”

Zelenka looked offended. “Pete, you wound me,” he said. “I would do no such thing. Haven't these men been through enough? I am so much more inventive than that. Calistria seeks nothing more than their healing.”

“You're creepy,” Carter told Zelenka. She then turned on Rowan. “Shalelu doesn't need to deal with this, Charlie's going to drag her to town to get her drunk.”

“I'm dead,” Sheppard offered.

“I'm still in Janderhoff,” McKay said.

Carter, Sheppard, and McKay all came to the same decision and escaped.

“I'm not RPing this,” Rowan said.

Caldwell decided to step out and follow the others.

*****

“This is really creepy,” Rowan said. “Kind of rapey.”

“What I have in mind is much less than you have put us all through,” Zelenka said. He gestured to the empty table. “It is all right when it's written down but not when it's invented?”

“I don't have to look the guy who wrote this in the eye the next day,” Rowan snapped. “I'm not doing this.”

Zelenka looked around. Ronon kept one eye on Todd even as he pretended to play a card game about goofing off. He wasn't doing well, he held the cards upside down and kept asking why the card 'find a couch' was worth a free point for everyone, not just the one who found the couch. Zelenka sauntered over to Ronon and leaned against his chair.

Ronon looked Zelenka up and down. He leered. “What'd you have in mind?” Ronon asked.

Zelenka leaned over, sliding one arm around Ronon's shoulders. “Here's my idea,” Zelenka said.

Ronon listened. As he listened he put his cards down.


Jakardros stood in the former chapel of Erastil, of Lamashtu. The racks of antlers offered to Erastil, the bodies of sacrifices to the demon goddess, the ogre's own perverse wall hangings of monstrous mergings of man and beast, it was all gone. The bloody jackal was scrubbed away, the walls and floor gleamed pale and clean in the soft light of a dozen candles. The braziers at the altar sat cold, unlit. The cracked marble altar stood before the empty alcove.

The chapel was without a god. It stood cleansed of Lamashtu's taint but Erastil's wholesome feeling had also long fled. It felt empty.

Cela wore soft silk pants, his chest bared to show the faint red tattoos that swirled and arched over his torso. Thin scars rent those markings, breaking their beauty as much as adding to it. His soft brown hair fell to his shoulders, unbound from its usual knot.

“Why me?” Jakardros asked, voice kept carefully neutral. He trusted this priest of lust in battle but here?

Cela slinked around Jakardros, making sure to keep his hands visible. “You have lost much,” he purred. “More than Vale. More than Shalelu. More even than Mira or Ace. They merely lost their lives.”

Jakardros felt his hands curl into fists. He debated storming out and leaving, leaving Rannick. He'd done it before, dropped his unwanted life and left, beginning anew elsewhere. Crying Leaf felt like a lifetime ago. Rannick felt like a lifetime. He had another lifetime in him, he could begin elsewhere.

“Rannick was yours,” Cela continued. “Not by blood, not by right, but by sweat and toil it was yours. Taken from you by treachery.”

Jakardros didn't leave. Instead he swung. The feel and sound of his fist impacting the priest's jaw was satisfying.

Cela staggered back, his feet failing him as he landed on the floor.

Jakardros smirked. That felt good.

Cela spat, blood marring the pale pine floor. He tenderly moved his jaw, making sure everything was still aligned and that he still had all his teeth. Once he was sure of that he looked up at the looming ranger and smiled. “There's still fire in you,” he said.

“You doubted that?” Jakardros asked.

Cela wiped the blood from his lips. “I have seen some break under less strain,” he admitted. “You're stronger than them.”

Jakardros hummed. “Why did you ask me here?” he asked.

Cela stood up and resumed his slinking. The blood on his lips and the blooming bruise on his jaw somehow added to the effect. “The chapel should be reconsecrated,” he purred. “I have my preference, of course, and was wondering if you'd join me.”

Jakardros scoffed. “I'm sure our new 'lord' would gladly aid you in that.”

“He might,” Cela admitted. He slinked closer, lightly draping one arm over Jakardros's shoulders. “But you...”

“A new toy?” Jakardros asked.

Cela looked offended. “Of course not.” That offense faded as he carefully draped himself against the ranger's side. “Of everyone here you were most wronged. You suffered the most indignities at the hands of others. You have the most to gain of vengeance. Your connection to the divine makes that vengeance sing. You want this. You want what I can do.”

Jakardros stepped out of Cela's reach, ready to strike the priest again for his gall. But...

Calistria was a goddess of vengeance. This priest of lust was willing to chase the power behind his friend's murderer across sea and country to avenge her. He understood the biting drive to avenge himself and his order against the ogres of Hook Mountain. He would understand, even approve of, the need to pursue them to their holes and deny them Erastil's promise of a quick death at the end of the successful hunt. Calistria would understand.

“What... would you have me do?” Jakardros asked.

It wasn't long before Jakardros was unclothed and kneeling against the marble altar. His arms laid over its well-worn surface, his hands gripped the far side. He could relax easily like this, raising to his knees or falling to his haunches. He felt more silly than exposed. He glanced back to make sure the chapel door was closed and saw Cela undoing the ties that kept his pants on. He blushed and turned away.

He heard soft footsteps behind him and then a calloused hand laid gently on his shoulders. “There is nothing here that will hurt you,” Cela whispered. “No one to see. Only you and I and the goddess.”

Jakardros let out a deep breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

“The moment you need to stop, we will,” Cela promised. “All you have to do is let go of the altar and we will stop. You're in control here, not I.”

“Doesn't the priest usually control these things?” Jakardros asked. But there was no more sneer to his words.

“I am a tool for your vengeance,” Cela said. He pulled a whip from his things, a fat flogger with soft leather tongues. “I am the vessel for your lust, should you feel the need. Tonight I am yours, to give you what you crave most.” He slapped the flogger's tongues across the top of the altar.

“So I want to be flogged?” Jakardros asked.

Cela drew the flogger's soft tongues across Jakardros' arms. “You need to be reminded what it is to feel,” he said. “Wrongs must be understood before they can be avenged. I am here to help you.” With that he swung the flogger, flicking the tongues across Jakardros' shoulders. The ranger shivered and then readjusted himself, raising himself up to his knees to present his back for the flogging.

Cela let the flogger fall properly, the tongues impacting broad shoulders and back. Tanned skin reddened under the onslaught, warm to the touch.

“Erastil failed you,” Cela said. He let the flogger fall with more force, trying to raise welts. The leather was too soft for it, unable to cause real damage. But it would cause delicious warm pain. “Lust is as natural as the hunt and he made you ashamed of it. You hid your lusts, all of you. Hid them underneath subterfuge and lies.”

Jakardros moaned. He shifted against the altar, the warm heat of the flogger, and wondered when the scent of the leather had grown so strong.

“Commander Lamatar hid his lover from you out of shame,” Cela sneered. “His lust was simple, pure, harmless, but Erastil would not have approved. The Order would have shamed him, stripped him of his command and why? Because he dared to fall in love with something Erastil would not approve of.”

Jakardros gripped the altar tighter. The commander was known for his monthly 'communion walks', lone treks through the wilderness to 'put him closer to the realm he was charged to defend'. Nobody even thought he'd been using that time to sneak off to see a lover, much less a nymph. But even if she'd been human, such entanglements were frowned down on by the Order. The commander wouldn't have been decommissioned for that but...

...but someone would find an excuse.

“That same subterfuge allowed Kaven's lusts to blind him,” Cela accused. “It left him open to the lamia's influence.”

“Kaven was weak,” Jakardros growled.

Cela slapped the flogger against Jakardros' ass hard, earning a yelp in response. “He was,” he agreed. “But subterfuge allowed that weakness to fester. Erastil's shame doomed the Order underneath Kaven's weakness.”

“What would you have us do?” Jakardros demanded. “The Order demanded obedience, sacrifice, devotion.”

Cela circled the altar so he could look Jakardros in the eye. He slipped his hand under the ranger's chin, drawing his gaze upward. “I would have expected no less from Erastil,” he purred. “And when obedience, sacrifice, devotion were no longer enough?”

Jakardros looked away. He couldn't meet Cela's eyes.

“He abandoned you,” Cela said, circling back around the altar. He drew the flogger's tongues down the ranger's spine, admiring the warm red color there. His hand followed the flogger's trail, feeling the heat under his skin. “Erastil withdrew his final gift, the prey's quick death at the end of the hunt. He denied you that mercy, instead leaving you to suffer beside the swine who betrayed you.” He punctuated his word with a swat from the flogger.

“I should have killed him while I had the chance,” Jakardros growled.

Cela chuckled. “I hear there is no greater horror than falling to a ghoul's paralysis while she feasts,” he purred. He leaned in close, draping himself over the ranger's warm back. “Mira made him suffer. For you.”

Jakardros' hands slid against the side of the altar. Cela stood up as the ranger reorganized himself and then relaxed back against the marble. He sighed and seemed to accept something.

Cela ran his hands over warmed skin, red with marks and faint welts that would be faded within an hour. “Your lusts matter,” Cela promised. “Your devotion matters. Your sacrifices matter. Your vengeance matters and you will have it. The Black Arrows will rise again under your leadership. Fort Rannick will be avenged.”

Jakardros moaned.

Cela stood back and took his flogger in hand. He let the tongues fall.

He wasn't warming the skin this time. He wasn't pulling hard truths out shameful darkness. Those truths were already laid bare, evident in the empty halls and lonely barracks of Fort Rannick. The flogger was too soft to do real damage but it could cause the pain Jakardros needed.

Jakardros melted under the flogging, draped over the altar. His breath came in gasps and moans as he arched into the leather, desperate for sensation.

And then it ended and he whined in frustration.

Cela smirked. “Lay on the altar,” he commanded. “On your back.”

The cold marble made Jakardros hiss. He arched on the stone, unable to lie still as he writhed. He didn't even know he'd gotten hard, when had that happened? And then...

Cela climbed onto the altar and straddled him. Jakardros grabbed the priest and tried to manhandle him. Cela giggled in delight, reaching down to coat the ranger's cock with something slick. Jakardros growled at the wait, as Cela stuck his own fingers up his ass.

“Stop stalling, whore,” Jakardros snapped.

Cela lowered himself onto the ranger's cock, a long moan spilling from his throat as he bottomed out. Cela wiggled, relishing the feeling of being filled. Then strong hands gripped his waist and lifted him before slamming him back down. Cela managed not to scream as the ranger thrust into him, taking his pleasure with force.

Jakardros thrust up into the willing half-elf, Cela's head thrown back in wanton abandon. His own cock bobbed, the head dark and wet with need. “Touch yourself,” Jakardros commanded.

Cela whined. His slicked hand found his cock and stroked, slow, too slow, he wanted to prolong this. But the ranger below him, gripping him, using him...

Jakardros growled. “Finish yourself,” he said. “I need to see you...”

Cela whined and nodded. He bit his lip and stroked himself, one hand going up to play with his nipples. He heard the ranger's words babbled to the night, pointless words of lust. “Yes, like that, more, take it whore, take it all...”

Cela arched back and keened as he came. He pumped his cock, milking his cum across the ranger's chest. That keen became a scream as Jakardros slammed him down into his lap and snarled his own orgasm.

Cela drooped forward, not caring when he ended up laying in his own cum across the ranger's bare chest. He felt the man's softened cock slide out of his ass and hummed in contentment. He stretched out on the altar even as Jakardros sat up.

“I'm no whore,” Jakardros said to no one.

“Nor am I,” Cela said. “I haven't taken money in a long time.”

Jakardros did not look like he considered the distinction relevant. He stood up and gazed into the empty alcove.

“There will always be ogres in the mountains,” Cela said as he ran a finger through his own cum. “There will always be unwanted bastards born of lusts. There will always be whores seeking to defend themselves from the shame of those who... well...”

Jakardros gave a noncommittal noise.

“When have you felt content with a god?” Cela asked. He groaned as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. He hissed and wiggled, he could still feel the delightful stretch. “You do not redeem, the Black Arrows have never allowed for family or beauty, yours is not a life of magic or battle or travel. Allow yourself vengeance for what was taken from you. You may find it suits you.”

Jakardros nodded. “Okay.”


Caldwell found them in the mess hall. Dr. McKay sat with a tray piled with the remains of what might have been an omelet and hash browns, two cups of coffee in front of him. Sheppard sat across from him, looking amused by the amount of food McKay was polishing off. Carter sat next to Sheppard, her own coffee cup sitting next to an empty muffin wrapper. Teyla seemed to be in the middle of a banana craving based off of the three peels in front of her, the fourth banana she was polishing off, and the fifth and sixth bananas waiting for their turn.

Caldwell didn't wait for an invitation, he dropped into the chair next to Carter. There was one burning question he needed answered. “Why was there a Wraith in the game room?” he demanded.

“He gets bored,” McKay said. He swallowed and washed down the eggs with first one then both cups of coffee. “Todd did time in a Genii prison, am I supposed to keep him locked up like they did?”

You are doing no such thing,” Carter said. “I'm the one who has to make the decision.”

“Well then?” Caldwell asked.

Carter sipped her coffee, put it down, and then unabashedly stole McKay's idea, if not his words. “The Wraith we call 'Todd' spent several years as a prisoner of Acastus Kolya, used as a living torture device in his fascist regime,” Carter said. “He is a sentient, sapient individual of indeterminate and possibly incomprehensible age. He's kept under armed guard at all times. Assuming he's not interacting with idiots who let him touch them--”

Carter glared at McKay. McKay scowled.

“--he poses an acceptably minimal risk.” Carter finished.

Caldwell looked at McKay.

“What?” McKay asked.

Caldwell wasn't sure he wanted to know. Instead he put the box he carried on the table and slid it over to McKay. “Your contraband,” he said.

McKay looked confused for a moment and then remembered. He grinned and snatched the box. He pulled it open and started going through the contents.

Carter looked put out. “Yours is already in your office,” Caldwell said. That made her feel better.

“What is it?” Sheppard asked.

McKay looked up and went still. But wait, he gamed with these people. Except Teyla but then he'd never seen anyone eat so many bananas so she couldn't possibly laugh at him. He let them see the harrow deck and various Pathfinder books.

Sheppard pawed at the box's contents. “Nothing for me?” he asked.

“You're dead,” McKay said.

“Not for long,” Sheppard said.

“Depends on if rocks fall and Cela dies,” Carter said. “I think next game Pete needs to set some alignment restrictions. No chaotic neutrals.”

“Hey, I'm chaotic neutral,” McKay said.

“Only because you eat people,” Sheppard said.

McKay blushed. “Yeah,” he admitted.

Teyla rolled her eyes. She pointed her half-eaten banana at McKay's box of 'contraband' then at him. “You are allowing this fiction to go to your head,” she warned. “You should not have chosen to embody a diviner.”

“Evoker,” Sheppard corrected. “Mira blows stuff up with her mind.”

“Still, everybody should know a little divination,” McKay said.

Teyla looked less than pleased with his response. She looked up to see Ronon entering the mess hall, a broad grin on his face. She waved him down. “Ronon, tell Rodney he should not have been a diviner.”

“Evoker,” Sheppard insisted.

Ronon sat down at their table. He still hadn't lost that grin, like he'd done something nefarious and couldn't wait to tell people. “Pete's ready for you,” he said.

“Is Cela dead?” Carter asked.

“Nope.”

“Is Radek dead?” McKay asked.

“Nope.”

Carter looked disturbed. “Pete didn't allow...”

Ronon's grin grew smug. “I got to play Jakardros,” he said. “It was fun. The doc and I are gonna do that again tonight without the audience.”

Carter looked scandalized before she sighed, accepted it, and drank her coffee. McKay nodded like this was completely expected. Sheppard looked thoughtful as he considered. Teyla merely glared. “Do not hurt him,” she warned. “You are much larger than he is.”

“Wait, how would you know?” McKay asked.

Carter choked on her coffee. Caldwell pounded on her back while McKay realized what he'd just said and why Ronon was laughing at him.

Chapter Text

Rowan sat in the game room, a bottle of Zelenka's Trade in one hand. Glasses were eschewed, the better to forget how much one had drunk. His eyepatch was over the wrong eye, his damaged eye closed against the bright light and the disturbed looks.

He heard people returning. He heard them as they sat down at his table and weren't quiet about it.

“You okay there, Pete?” Carter asked.

Rowan groaned and sat up, blinking at her with his bad eye. He knew the milky white scarring did not make him appealing. He reached up and moved the eyepatch over, covering the bad eye and revealing his good one. “They acted it out,” he said, emphasizing each word.

Carter winced. McKay looked at Zelenka like he wasn't sure to scold or congratulate him.

“There were props,” Rowan said. “I only have one eye and I will never unsee that.”

“We were clothed,” Zelenka said. “And you can still see out of two eyes. Sort of.”

“Satedan storytelling always has props,” Ronon said. He hadn't even moved to a nearby table, instead leaning against the wall like he was hoping he'd get to act out more porn. He smirked. “If this were a private show there would have been costumes.”

Rowan twitched and took a swig from the bottle.

Carter plucked the bottle from Rowan's hands. “Tomorrow's not a Sunday,” she warned.

Rowan sighed and wiped his face, scrubbing to remove the mental image. “Okay,” he allowed. “Mira, you get back from Janderhoff early in the morning. There's snow all over the ground and you can feel your joints trying to freeze. The sun's not even risen yet.”

“I'm sure my butt's sore after, what was it, five hundred miles in 36 hours?” McKay said.

“You're immune to nonlethal damage,” Zelenka said. “You cannot get sore.”

McKay thought about it for a moment. “Well that's less fun,” he said.

Sheppard snorted and Rowan grabbed for the bottle of Trade.


Mira rode up to the fort. The remains of a massive pyre still steamed in the clearing outside the moat, the burnt bones of two dozen ogres piled against the night sky. The North Gate stood open, the shattered doors dismantled and needing repair.

Lightfoot thundered across the North Bridge, charging into the empty courtyard. Mira slid from his bony spine, the new bags of holding tied to his skeletal frame. She pulled her haversack down and stormed into the keep, scarves waving behind her as her illusions fell.

The others hadn't been idle. The main hall was cleaned up, most signs of battle removed. Blood still lurked in the cracks of old stones where the scrubbing brush couldn't get to it and the walls lacked replacements for the tapestries that had fallen to ogre revelries. The keep felt empty as Charlie descended the stairs.

“You're here,” Charlie said. She sounded tired. “Good, Cela was hoping... We're ready for you. Do you have the stuff?”

Mira pulled the massive gem from her haversack. The diamond was easily the size of her closed fist. She'd known men who would have killed for a bauble like this, it seemed fitting that she would sacrifice this gem in order to restore a man to life. “Cela mentioned he might need more,” she said. “I have that as well.”

“Good, good, he'll need it afterward,” Charlie said. “I'm not sure of the particulars but...”

“Yes, yes, restoration spells to regain lost power,” Mira said. “I am aware.”

Charlie nodded and beckoned Mira up the stairs.

The chapel was... different. It felt different. The faint tones of Erastil's disapproval were gone. Lamashtu's fecund horror was purged. Instead there was a quiet undercurrent of anger, a simmer of promise that made her shiver. Ace laid on the altar, the Sihedron medallion still around his neck. Cela looked scantily clad as always, yellow and black silks doing little to hide his tattoos. But he wasn't alone, Jakardros stood on the other side of the altar in shiny smooth black leather armor edged with yellow brass.

“You've been busy while I was gone,” Mira observed.

“As I hope you have, my dear,” Cela said. “Did you bring it?”

Mira presented the gem. “I have the rest as well,” she said.

“That can wait,” Jakardros said. He lit the braziers and the multitude of candles around the room while Cela began the ritual.

Mira didn't understand divine magic. She studied arcane formulae, she derived elemental forces out of physical laws. She knew the incantations necessary to warp space and sensation, enabling her to effect actions at vast distances. She could pull energy out of the surrounding aether and use it to set the air itself on fire. She understood the four elemental types, acid, fire, cold, and electricity, the four forces, sound, pressure, gravity, and shadow, and the dichotomies of raw life and unlife taken to their logical extremes.

She never understood begging on one's knees for permission. For anything.

The ritual made it pretty, tried to cloak it all underneath mystery and awe, but that's what Cela was doing. He was on his metaphorical knees begging his fickle goddess for the miraculous power necessary to restore life to dead flesh, to drag a soul kicking and screaming back from the astral plane.

She didn't understand it.

But it worked.

Mira held back as Ace twitched on the altar, as his chest took his first breath in days. His green-gold eyes opened and he gripped the sides of the altar like he still expected the ogre's blow. But...

“Welcome back,” Cela purred.

Ace put his hand to his chest as though he was amazed to feel the beat of his heart beneath. “Mira, is she--”

Mira moved to stand next to the altar. “Hey there,” she said.

“You're okay,” Ace breathed. He took her hands, so cold in his, and passed out.

Cela scowled. “He is alive,” he said. “I have work to do to get him back to full health. You should rest, Mira. We have much to do in the morning.”

Mira nodded. She picked up her haversack and left the chapel. But she didn't rest. She had something else to do first as she ran up the tower stairs to the top. She pulled scarves from her haversack and squealed with glee as she danced alone in the cold pale light of the coming dawn.

*****

“I can't believe you made me a lord,” Ace grumbled.

“Don't blame me, I was in Janderhoff when the offer was made,” Mira said. She watched from the keep's walls as Cela and Charlie rifled through Lightfoot's bags for all the goodies on the lists they'd sent. Charlie pulled a large wax-sealed jar. “Hey, that's mine!” Mira shouted.

“What is it?” Charlie asked. She made to break the wax seal.

“No, don't!” Mira shouted. She could tell when Charlie broke the wax by the sudden disgust on her face as she tossed the jar away and tried not to retch. Mira growled. “I have to keep them out of my stuff,” she said.

“What did you get?” Ace asked, following her as she bounded the stairs and entered the courtyard.

“There was this nice alchemist in Janderhoff who made undead-hunting gear,” Mira said. “I tried to be discrete but I don't think I was--”

“Mira!” Cela scolded. “I told you to stay disguised.”

“I did,” Mira said defensively. “He just... saw through it. He didn't do anything threatening, he fed me!”

Cela looked surprised. “In Janderhoff?! The city of paladins?”

“I think he was testing his ghoul bait on me,” Mira admitted. “He gave me the recipe. It's...” She picked up the jar Charlie had opened. The bait reacted with air, causing the insect eggs and the spores inside to grow at a furious pace. The rancid meat was the lure, some alchemical process transmuting animal flesh into something that actually sated her hunger. The worms and fungus threatened to overfill the jar as Mira reached inside for the actual bait. She leaned against the wall and slid down to the ground as she took a bite. It tasted like candy and it kept swelling inside her, obliterating the hunger as she giggled and hugged the jar and burped and giggled even more.

Ace wrinkled his nose. The smell left something to be desired.

“Carrion bait,” Cela realized. “It is meant to incapacitate the hungry dead. It renders them unable to run or fight back. Mira, who possessed you to be so careless?”

Mira sighed and burped again. She giggled when a few flies flew out of her mouth. “Well I was in Janderhoff and these people with really shiny armor and that aura of goodness that sets your teeth on edge, you know them? Paladins. I ducked into a store to avoid them and there was this alchemist and he had jars of this and other things that made me uncomfortable. I pretended to be looking at holy water and stakes when I asked him what the jar was. I asked if it really worked and how did he know?”

Cela knelt down next to Mira. She still had her claws in the jar of... he didn't want to think of what the jar's contents looked like. “Mira, this is why I wanted you to keep your spells about you,” he whispered.

“She's fine, just keep the jar away from me,” Charlie called from upwind.

Ace sat down next to her. What had she done while he was dead? “What happened?” he asked.

“He said testing was difficult since, well, since undead are evil things that don't cooperate. I asked if he'd ever asked one. Because I was so hungry and I... I let the illusion drop and said I'd test it for him.” Mira looked so innocent, like she wasn't an undead monster licking rot and maggots off of her claws. She stuffed a handful of the jar's contents in her mouth and moaned, wiggling as the hunger faded again. She hugged the jar close.

Cela sighed, unable to hide his disappointment. “It all worked out in the end,” he allowed.

“He gave me the recipe,” Mira said, still wiggling. “Said I should eat lots and lots of it so I'd stay safe.”

Cela snorted. “He's hoping you'll never taste human flesh.”

“Bit late for that,” Charlie shouted.

“You went to a city of paladins alone?” Ace asked.

Mira belched, spitting flies. She blushed and couldn't look at him. “Someone had to,” she whispered. “I was the only one who could make it there and back in time. We knew it was a big risk.”

Ace pulled her close to him. He was coming to the horrible realization that he could have lost her again and he would never have known, he was too busy being dead. He buried his face in her neck. He didn't even mind the smell anymore.

*****

Mira stood before the enormous statue. The giant must stand close to forty feet, its coal-black skin cracked and fissured and covered in runic scars. The statue wore bejeweled armor and a helm like a leering devil's face. In its massive hands it held a glaive set with rubies and blood red garnets. She looked closer and shuddered.

“This is a body,” she said.

The Kreeg clanhold was not what she expected an ogre cave to be. It looked savage enough from the outside, the gigantic dragon's skeleton covered in delicate scrimshaw, but upon closer inspection the bones were littered with Sihedrons and this rune-covered giant wore a Sihedron medallion the size of a tower shield. How long had it stood here, frozen and dead?

“Mira, let's go,” Charlie hissed.

Mira looked up at the rune giant and followed her companions deeper into the cave.

The tunnels, large enough to ride a horse through, twisted and turned inside the mountain. Ogres fell to blade and spell as they went, Jakardros' bow singing as he put electric black arrows into the ogres who stole his Order from him. Cela laughed with glee and vicarious vengeance while Charlie tried not to think about it.

Ace hung back with Mira. “Something's bothering you,” he said.

Mira nodded. “The Sihedron,” she said. “It's been popping up everywhere since Foxglove. The murders, the lamias, hidden all through Turtleback Ferry, and now here.”

“It's Thassilonian,” Ace allowed.

“That's just it,” Mira said. “I know it's Thassilonian. The magic I use is Thassilonian. That's what makes it dangerous. Ace, Varisians wander because before we did we were all enslaved by the old masters, powers who might as well have been gods. If we settle anywhere, ever, the old masters will awaken and retake the world. Retake us.”

“You think it's some sort of sign?”

“I hope not.”

They stepped out into an open-air grotto. They weren't alone.

And Mira froze as a voice began purring in her ear. She felt the slimy buzz of necromancy dripping down her mind as the voice spoke in words only she could understand. No one else spoke them, not openly, not in ten thousand years.

“Nunc mea's tu...”

She heard the grind of rocks as the stone giants on the other end of the grotto began their approach. One of them was a spellcaster, he had some sort of control over her, he spoke to her in Thassilonian. She'd never admitted to anyone that she knew the language, how did he know? What enchantment was this?

“Comed'il.”

'Eat him'? But... Mira turned to Ace. He was talking to her, he looked desperate, she could almost hear him, he was trying to...

She just got him back. She couldn't eat him, she'd lose him again. But she could...

“Aliquan...tulus...” she agreed. Yes, she could bite him, curse him, make him hers. Then she'd never have to lose him again. Mira smiled ever so sweetly as she unfastened the gorget of his breastplate and exposed his neck. She bit down hard, his blood flooded her mouth and made her moan in ecstasy as she felt hands against her, pushing her away, holding her closer. He didn't scream, instead his low moan vibrated through her as she bit a second time, trying to ensure he fell to ghoul fever.

She vaguely heard screaming around them, angry shouts and screams and threats. But it wasn't important. And then...

“Interfic'il.”

'Kill him'? Mira growled as she pulled off of him, languidly licking the blood that welled from the diseased bites. She felt his arms around her, his hands weakly trying to push her away. He could try but he was hers now, the cleric couldn't heal her when she died, he wouldn't be able to heal Ace either, not if she had anything to say about it. But killing him? No. No, he had to die of the fever or it was all pointless.

“Caedo!”

Mira nuzzled the bloody wounds, smearing Ace's scent and taste over her face. She pulled away from him, let him crawl away from her. He wouldn't get far. Instead she turned to face the necromancer who had Charlie's daggers in his back, who's touch drained the fire from Jakardros, who shot a shining black ray of energy that made Cela scream.

“Parere!”

Mira raised her claws. “No,” she whispered. “I won't.”

The fire she summoned burned hotter than she'd ever managed before.

And then it was over and Mira found herself thrown against the wall, a dagger at her throat.

“Damn it all, Mira, we just got him back!” Charlie shouted. “What the fuck were you thinking?!”

“I--”

“Don't even,” Charlie snarled. “I know what you were thinking. You've been a threat to us ever since you died and here's the proof! You've been waiting for the excuse to kill us all!”

“Charlie!” Cela shouted.

“And you!” Charlie snapped, turning a dagger on the cleric. “You've been enabling her the whole time! I'd expect a whore of Calistria to be into some freaky shit but this!”

“Charlie, stop it.” Ace's voice didn't have the same volume of the others but it still carried weight. He stood on shaky feet, one hand gripping his shoulder like he was trying to hold something in. The bites weren't that bad, he'd had worse. Hell, he'd had worse today but...

Mira shook in horror as the whole thing crashed down on her.

“Charlie, who's at fault, the enchanter or the enchanted?” Cela asked quietly. “Necromancers have their own enchantments meant solely for undead. We just saw the results. She had no control over herself, Charlie. That wasn't her fault.”

“I'm... I'm sorry...” Mira whispered. She twisted and ducked out from Charlie's dagger and tore off through the caves into unexplored darkness.

“Now look what you've done,” Ace snapped. He shrugged off Jakardros' questing fingers and refastened his armor over the wounds. They didn't hurt much, they just ached. “I'm going after her. Yes, she's undead. Yes, she just bit me. Yes, I've seen what she eats. But if you can't handle that, Charlie... Just... Make a decision.” He followed the caves, descending into inky blackness.

He found her in a cavern lit by a fire under a bubbling cauldron, surrounded by three hags. He ducked away, not sure what to think of the image of Mira crying with three hulking monstrous women dabbing her tears and cooing over her, their claws wrapped around her, their teeth at her ear. She'd just been mind controlled, how impressionable was she still? Ace burst into the room and...

“No, wait!” Mira shouted.

Ace felt something change and suddenly these weren't hags. How could he have thought that? Sure, they were annis hags, but they weren't doing anything wrong. They'd found Mira for him and were comforting her tears like a trio of grandmothers. Mira needed comforting. Mira... “Hey,” he greeted. He sheathed his sword.

Mira glared at the three hags. They laughed as they ladled the cauldron's contents into a bowl and started passing it around.

“I'm glad you're all right,” Ace said, stepping up and wrapping his arms around Mira. “I was so worried when you ran off.”

Mira went still. The hags had charmed Ace to like them, not her. But then, was this... “Ace, are you all right?” she asked.

Ace reached up, rubbing his thumb over her tear tracks. “I'm fine,” he said. “Or I will be. You bit me pretty good.”

Mira blushed. “I didn't, I...”

“I know, you were mind controlled,” Ace said. “It's not your fault. Let's go home.”

“Oh but you can't,” croaked the first hag, grabbing Ace by the arm.

“Not yet,” crowed the second, pulling on Ace's armor.

“Not without dinner first,” leered the third, grabbing Ace's other arm.

The three of them pulled him back deeper into the cave. “So long as I'm not dinner,” Ace allowed. He looked over at Mira and leered mischievously. “I think we just did that.”

The three hags cackled. No, they had other plans.

*****

Mira opened her eyes to cold darkness.

She was exhausted. The hunger gnawed at her insides despite the open grave reek that hung over her like a miasma. Most of her clothing lay in shreds around her, Baba Rann's scarf the only thing she had for modesty's sake. Ace wasn't much better off, his armor scattered around the room and his own clothing ripped off by the hag's claws. Another of her scarves, red and orange and once belonging to Foxglove's murdered Iesha, was piled around his middle where one of the hags dropped it as she cackled, as they left the two of them there.

Mira couldn't break their enchantment, couldn't rip their charms from Ace's mind. And so she'd stayed in an attempt to keep him alive.

It worked, she watched the rise and fall of his unconscious chest, but at what cost?

She remembered flashes of the hag's horrible exquisite torture. They'd stripped Ace quickly, ravishing him over and over until exhaustion left him unable to perform for them. Then they turned on her. She shuddered as she remembered how they made Ace offer himself to her, beg her to feed on him. When she wouldn't, couldn't, not like this, they found the jars of carrion bait in her haversack and fed her, kept feeding her as they shoved his head between her bare legs, laughing and jeering as the carrion stench oozed from her skin and left him retching even as he...

Not like this.

Mira sniffed as the darkness stuttered, as the faint scent of a torch reached her. She shivered as voices she knew found them.

“Mira, Mira, what-- savored sting, what happened here?” Mira leaned into Cela's voice, felt his armored arms around her.

“Hags,” Mira whispered. “There were hags.”

Cela held her close and whispered comforting nothings as he rubbed her back. She curled up in his arms, clutching her scarf.

“He needs a break enchantment,” Mira said. “They... Cela they...” She bit back a sob.

“Shhhh,” Cela shushed. “It's over now. We're here. You're safe.”

Footsteps next to her shifted as Charlie knelt down. “Why did you stay?” she asked. “You could have run.”

Mira shied away from Charlie. She didn't realize she was hissing until she felt the rumble in her chest.

“Cela explained a necromancer's enchantments,” Charlie admitted. “Hags can't control you. Why did you stay?”

Mira looked away. Jakardros was tending Ace's many superficial wounds. “They had him,” she said. “If I left they'd kill him once they were finished with him and this time we wouldn't get him back. There wouldn't be a body to raise. I couldn't let them. Even if...” She looked down.

“Oh...” Charlie sat down and couldn't look at Mira. “I'm sorry.”

Mira let Cela go as he moved to cast the spells that would give Ace his mind back. She could tell the moment they worked as Ace whined and curled in on himself.

She wasn't sure how they got down the mountain. She wasn't sure it mattered.

*****

Ace found her in the library working on a book.

Mira had a room nearby but she never slept so she was never there. Instead she spent her time in the library as though the room were her own personal magic lab. Ruined tapestries and maps had been taken down and were in the demolished mess hall awaiting appraisal and possible repair. Instead she'd hung soft silks and drawn magic symbols in charcoals and pastels on the bare stones. Tools and half-finished projects littered the tables, even a few of the books that could be salvaged or were considered of some importance.

Mira looked at him and then looked away. She looked hurt, same as she had ever since they got back.

“Cela says I'll be fine,” Ace offered. He rubbed his shoulder, the bite scars still tight. The wounds had healed naturally, magic unable to smooth out all of the scars. “He said I never contracted ghoul fever.”

Mira still wouldn't look at him. “That's good,” she said. The words sounded forced.

“Mira...” Ace didn't know what to do. Yes, a lot had happened to them. He'd died, been made a lord, was brought back to life while she put herself in terrible danger to bring him back. Then they were tortured together, had to endure the hag's delight. Yes, it was a lot to handle. But it wasn't too much, was it? Her own death and reawakening didn't tear them apart like this. Why did this have to?

Mira sighed. “Ace...”

“What is it?” Ace asked.

“You should know,” Mira whispered. “I... I don't think I resisted... When the necromancer commanded me to kill you I...”

“I'm not dead,” Ace offered. “I'd say you resisted him plenty.”

“It made sense,” Mira admitted. “He told me to feed and rend and bite and... It made sense.”

Ace swallowed. He'd been afraid of this day ever since Mira died. Was she giving up? Was she giving in to the hunger?

“I'd just lost you,” Mira said. “I didn't want to lose you again. If I bit you and you... If I made you like I am...”

“If I was a ghoul,” Ace realized.

“You'd already be dead,” Mira agreed. “You wouldn't die. I wouldn't have to lose you.”

She looked at him and her red eyes held so much sadness. Ace sat on the bench next to her and pulled her into his lap. She leaned into him as he wrapped his arms around her.

“I love you,” he said.

She hissed and stiffened in his arms. He let her turn and look at him, her eyes wide. He rubbed the cold skin of her cheek, trailed his fingertips along the edge of one pointed ear. “I do,” he said. “I love you.”

She nuzzled his hand, eyes falling closed. “Ace,” she whispered. “I love you too.” She leaned in close and nuzzled his neck.

A soft hiss was all the warning he got. Ace leaned away and put his hand over her mouth. She looked disappointed.

“Not that,” he said. He felt her pout behind his hand. He leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Everything but that.” He let his hand fall from her mouth.

She slid her claws up his neck and kissed him.


McKay blushed as he felt Sheppard's hand on his cheek, his fingers twining in his hair. He closed his eyes, blocking out the game room. Sheppard's breath was so close, his hands so warm, and...

It wasn't real.

McKay opened his eyes to see Sheppard's playful gaze but there was something wrong, something hiding beneath.

“I think we can call it here,” Rowan said.

Then the game room came crashing back to McKay's awareness and the moment was over. He stood and fled.

Chapter Text

Sheppard stood outside McKay's door. He should just go to bed. As Carter had said earlier, tomorrow was not a Sunday. Instead he stood outside McKay's door not even sure if he should knock.

He knew McKay was inside, the city was almost cheerfully helpful in supplying him that information. But he couldn't bring himself to chime the door.

It was just a game. If he told himself that enough he might believe it.

He should just go. Pretend none of it mattered. Pretend he hadn't watched McKay blush bright red and close his eyes as Sheppard touched him. Pretend he hadn't wanted to do more. Pretend he hadn't watched McKay bolt like a rabbit once he opened his eyes and realized they weren't alone, it was all just a game.

Pretend he hadn't wanted to run after him, pin him to a wall and...

The door opened. McKay stood there, looking tired and unimpressed. “You've been standing there for half an hour,” he complained.

Half an hour? Sheppard shifted from foot to foot. It didn't feel like half an hour. He resisted the urge to check his watch and instead asked the city. The weird Lantean time system informed him Rodney was about right and he tried to look unfazed. “Can I come in?” he asked.

McKay rolled his eyes and sighed before heading back inside. He left the door open, the only invitation Sheppard was going to get.

Sheppard gathered himself and stepped inside, allowing the door to close behind him.

McKay's quarters were comforting, much like his own. There was a smell to them, something like used t-shirts and hot plastic. The induction charger held a single tablet, a little blinking light warning of overcharge. The bed was made, for some definitions of, and a scattering of colorful cards were laid out in a half-filled grid. He'd seen cards like that once before when Rowan brought them out for the Pathfinder game.

McKay picked the overcharged tablet off the charger and gingerly touched the hot case. He hissed and grabbed a screwdriver, bringing both with him as he moved to sit on the bed.

Sheppard picked up one of the cards. An aged creature with purple skin and white hair held her single eye in her sharp teeth, one clawed hand raised in supplication or maybe in prophecy. The card was called 'the Mute Hag'. “Practicing?” he asked, showing McKay the card.

“Hmm?” McKay glanced up as he removed the Ancient protective case from the tabled and began prying apart the inner case. “Oh, that. It's just a game, it doesn't mean anything.”

Sheppard winced at the words he'd been telling himself for weeks thrown back at him in such a dismissive manner. “It doesn't have to be,” he said.

McKay pried the case open. The battery smelled hot from here. He didn't take it out, instead stared into the tablet's innards and took a slow breath. “It's a colorful distraction,” he said, voice carefully neutral. “It doesn't affect anything real. It doesn't mean anything.”

“It could,” Sheppard said.

McKay looked like he wanted to throw the tablet. Instead he put the tablet and screwdriver on the nightstand. Sheppard was not prepared for the quiet fury that simmered behind blue eyes. “You say that now,” McKay said. “What happens when someone finds out? What happens when you figure out I'm not the character I play? Am I supposed to believe you're actually thinking about me?”

Sheppard should have run. Instead he discovered the best way to shut Rodney McKay up.

McKay tasted like hot plastic, like chocolate and something cold, like nights offworld waking up warm and squished and safe.

And then the world tilted as McKay pulled him onto the bed and rolled, pinning him. Sheppard gave a muffled 'mmph' and then a groan as McKay laid bodily on him and growled. Sheppard pulled at McKay's shirt, finding bare skin to slide his hands over. McKay's eyes fell closed and he made a low noise that Sheppard wanted to hear again.

That plan ended when McKay kissed him, one hand under his neck to hold him still. Sheppard whined and returned the kiss, holding on for dear life.

McKay pulled off of him, just enough to lay on him. Sheppard had the odd feeling he was being laid on by a particularly huge cat. The sounds McKay had been making lately certainly didn't help the impression. “Still worried?” Sheppard asked, smirking.

“You're an ass,” McKay said. “Stay tonight?”

Sheppard reached up and ran his hand through thinning blond hair. “What do you want to do?”

*****

Sheppard woke to the sound of something angry beeping at him. He didn't want to get up. He was warm and there was something heavy on him and it felt like Rodney and... Oh hey, he wasn't dreaming. But that meant the radio was even more of an annoyance because he had to get out from under McKay to grab the thing and and...

Ugh, finally. He grabbed the radio and shoved it in his ear. “Sheppard,” he said.

McKay groaned and wrapped his arms tighter around Sheppard, stuck his face into Sheppard's armpit and sniffed. Sheppard rolled his eyes as McKay snorted and moved to a body part that didn't smell like armpit.

Finally someone answered him over the radio. “Colonel Sheppard?” Carter asked.

“Yes, what is it?” Sheppard demanded.

“This is Dr. McKay's radio,” Carter informed him. Somewhere in the background someone laughed and demanded she pay up.

“Oh...” Sheppard blushed. He looked down. McKay was pretending to still be asleep. All they'd done last night was sleep, neither of them wanting to leave the other alone but not needing anything more than kisses and skin and contact. They wore t-shirts and boxers, most of the blankets kicked off in the night as per McKay's usual sleeping habit. “Do you want me to put him on?”

“That's unnecessary,” Carter said. “Todd requested a meeting with the senior staff, I'll need you both there.”

“Since when do we follow his orders?” Sheppard asked.

“Since Dr. Zelenka found his codework in over 40% of the Replicator code,” Carter said. “It's not an 'order' it's a request. He says this is to discuss the 'possibilities for this project's eventual direction'.”

Sheppard grumbled.

“You have one hour,” Carter said and then the radio went quiet.

McKay groaned and stretched, laying on Sheppard as he yawned. “Who was it?”

“Sam,” Sheppard said.

McKay rolled off of Sheppard. Unfortunately the edge of the bed was right there and he ended up on the floor. Sheppard leaned over the edge of the bed to watch while McKay found a discarded blanket and tried to hide under it.

“Todd called a meeting,” Sheppard said. The conversational tone hid the fact that he was trying not to laugh. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

“No...”

“We have an hour,” Sheppard said as he got up. “You owe me breakfast, I recall...”

McKay groaned and sat up, the blanket draped over him like a cloak. “I'm not going to get a shower, am I?” he grumbled.

“Nope.”

McKay stood up and dumped the blanket on the bed. He resigned himself to another weird day of Todd smelling him and rumbling in that smug Wraith way.

*****

Todd looked around the room and rumbled in anticipation. Everyone necessary was here, as were a few others. McKay and Sheppard, both of them still smelling like the other, both looking apprehensive despite the low level calm radiating from McKay on a level only he and Teyla could consciously sense. Queen Carter, the Lady of Many Burdens, sat at the head of the table in a position of power, Colonel Caldwell standing behind her as a representative of her consort. Dr. Zelenka looked on with his civilized interest, the project at the forefront of his barely whispered thoughts. The Satedan Ronon grinned with teeth bared in challenge while beside him Queen Teyla, the Lady of Sweet Flowers Edged in Steel, kept him under control with the force of her personality. Major Lorne and Dr. Keller seemed inconsequential as they filled the remaining seats in the room, leaving him and his escorts to stand.

Very well. It fit his needs. Todd stood next to the main video screen, betraying his intent to use it.

“First, there is news I believe we should hear,” Todd said, gesturing with his feeding hand to Caldwell. He purred as Teyla bristled at the insult yet did nothing.

“How did you know?” Caldwell asked, voice carefully level.

“You are here,” Todd said. “It is... obvious. What is the news on the 'military option'?”

Caldwell scowled. Todd rumbled in amusement at the man's obvious feeling of betrayal. No matter, the consort's representative would soon learn just how outclassed he was.

“There was a problem in testing,” Caldwell admitted. “The power consumption of the Asgard beam weapons is greater than we expected. The Apollo was retrofitted and I observed the first tests out of Edgeworth.”

“It didn't work?” Sheppard drawled.

“The first shot hit the target KBO at 84% power,” Caldwell said. “The second shot hit the target KBO at 47% power and blew the sublight engines. The third shot drained the generators. The Apollo was towed back to Edgeworth Station for examination where a fracture in the hyperdrive core was discovered. A new core will have to be grown. There's...” Caldwell cleared his throat. “There's discussion as to whether or not the Apollo will be outfitted with an intergalactic core.”

The room went quiet. Todd could feel the utter disbelief all around him, the betrayal. He held back the urge to purr as he felt shards of fate falling into place. But they couldn't fall too fast, not if events were to unfold as he knew they must. “Then my request becomes that much more important,” he said. “But first, a demonstration.”

Todd tapped this strange glass device the humans called a 'tablet'. The device connected to the screen before him and he stepped to the side. On the screen there was a planet with a landmass, the map intimately familiar. Little red dots denoting enemy ships hung over the planet with numbers to mark altitude above the surface. It was a blockade, one he remembered with fondness, fear, and glorious satisfaction. He earned his name that day. But now was not the time to reminisce, now was the time to prove a point.

“This is a blockade,” Todd said. “The world is unimportant for this exercise. The why is irrelevant. You have one ship, imagine it as one of your 'puddlejumpers'. It has no cloak. It has no shields. It will shatter after one weapon strike. Its only saving grace is that its energy signature is so configured that it looks like a common meteor on sensors until you change direction. How do you get through the blockade?”

Caldwell looked at the screen. “You don't,” he said.

Carter picked up her tablet and began plotting. Todd could see the allure of a puzzle in her eyes.

“I can outfly them,” Sheppard said. “I've been through worse.”

“With or without Dr. McKay at your side?” Todd asked. “For this exercise you are alone.”

Sheppard scowled, his defiance hiding an undercurrent of suspicion.

McKay looked at the screen, his eyes glazed under a mild trance. Todd could hear the muttering under his mind, the lines and paths all traced out. There was movement to McKay's red dots while the screen showed a still image. Todd again suppressed the urge to purr even as he noticed the strangest reaction in the room, Zelenka watching McKay with keen interest.

“Got it,” Carter said, putting her tablet down.

McKay drew out his own answer on a tablet and then came out of his languid state. He drank his coffee to cover for the perceived oddness.

“When I broke this blockade using the ship I described, this was the information I was provided,” Todd said gesturing at the screen. “And this is what I found when I arrived.” He tapped the tablet and the screen changed, the red dots moving. They moved in an overlapping pattern, every ship's swirl covering for the holes in another ship's path like twisting fractals. There were few paths down but one was the most obvious to him. “In order to maintain the illusion of a falling rock the ship's trajectory must be planned before arrival. As the pilot it was my task to plan using what little information I had, my knowledge of the ships involved, and my sense of the obvious.”

Todd pulled up Carter's solution. It was flawless considering the previous screen's information but it failed due to the difference between intelligence and reality. He told her so, complimenting her skill.

Then he pulled up McKay's solution. The ship fell through the atmosphere, curling in its trajectory only in the last few kilometers, quickly hitting the tree line and screeching through like the outfitted dart it was. Todd purred as he felt McKay's pride.

“How the fuck?” Carter demanded. “If the intelligence doesn't match the reality how does one use the intelligence without knowing the enemy?”

“It's rigged,” Caldwell said with a distinct smugness.

“It is not rigged,” Zelenka said.

“Correct,” Todd said. “It's not rigged.” He pulled up the still image again. “This was our intelligence on the Alteran blockade over Lantea ten thousand years ago.” He purred as the room fell silent again, this time filling with a dawning horror. He brought up the moving image, putting both images side by side. “This is what we found.” He put in his own trajectory. “And this is the trajectory I took when I broke that blockade from within.”

He waited until the room's fear began to turn. Awe, anger, despair, fury, and not a little bit of respect... “I am a maletrix,” he said.

He expected Ronon's reaction, not even flinching as the Satedan stood and pulled his weapon. He waited while the others pretended they could bring him under control. When that pretension failed he waited until Ronon was ejected from the room.

“What is a maletrix?” McKay asked. “You've called me one too.”

“I have,” Todd purred. “And your protest was correct, Sam Carter. One cannot defeat such circumstances unless they can see the reality behind the intelligence. That sense of the obvious, that sense you call 'foresight', is what defines a maletrix. I broke that blockade because I knew where Alteran ships would be before they were there.”

McKay stood up and left without a single word, his cloud of betrayal drifting behind him.

“I sense he has been mistreated for his talent before,” Todd said.

“People can't see the future,” Carter said. “You'd have to be able to keep track of every quantum state of every particle in the universe and then Heisenberg reduces your knowledge to probabilities. Nobody can do that.”

Todd hissed. It made more sense now. The humans didn't believe in such power. But Todd had found in his lifespan that reality did not care what one believed.

“That is accurate, Colonel Carter,” Zelenka said. “But also untrue.”

Caldwell snorted. Sheppard looked between Carter and Todd and Zelenka like he wasn't sure what to believe.

“Let me guess, you've seen this before?” Carter asked. She sounded almost mocking.

“During my mandatory conscription I was assigned to a facility where the Soviet Union trained psychics as spies and sleeper agents,” Zelenka said. His voice implied this was a normal occurrence but the utter shock from the rest of the room betrayed the oddness of his statement. “Your CIA's propaganda denouncing psychic research as pseudoscience and quackery was known to us. The attempt to cloud Western citizens in an armored veil of ignorance and disbelief was admirable. Unfortunately it was irrelevant. Our testing found the beliefs of the target are inconsequential. Only the beliefs of the psychic are important. In the end your only success was in marginalizing people like Rodney.”

“An untrained maletrix is a dangerous thing,” Todd said. “Wisdom must be pounded into the maletrix through failure and hardship. The probabilities leading toward a future are more important than any vision. I offer to train him. But that means I will have to touch him. With both hands.”

“No,” Sheppard said.

“Wraith telepathy is easier to understand through touch,” Teyla admitted. “I have... experienced that myself.”

“No,” Sheppard said again, emphatic this time.

“Your dissent has been noted,” Carter said. “John, go check on Rodney. Make sure he's okay.”

Sheppard looked like he wanted to protest more. He growled at Todd who merely rumbled in response. Then Sheppard was gone.

“If we don't allow it?” Carter asked.

“I can complete the Replicator code on my own,” Todd said. “I expect success in two to five years.”

“Years?” Carter whispered. “Those things are out there killing hundreds of thousands of people!”

“And they will kill millions more,” Todd agreed. “Those hives without a maletrix to guide them will all cull out of desperation and attempt to wait out the Replicator tide in the Void. Those with maletrices will harass the Replicators out of their perceived senses of safety and superiority. I will take credit for the end of the Replicator's rampage, as I have three times before. I will enjoy a thousand years of consortship as queens compete for my wisdom. Or, you can allow me to train him and the code can be completed within 15 weeks, barring any changes in circumstance.”

“And what do you get out of it?” Teyla asked. “Would not a thousand years be enough?”

Todd hissed, his voice low with satisfaction. “I don't need a thousand years,” he purred. “I only need three.”

*****

Sheppard found McKay in his quarters sitting on his bed. He shuffled a deck of cards. Colorful, new, they weren't playing cards. Sheppard didn't wait for an invitation, McKay had that focused angry look he got when he was trying not to show how much he hurt. Sheppard sat down on the bed.

McKay shuffled the cards. “I always used to tell myself it was random,” he admitted. “I used to use playing cards for this same purpose. It was easier to hide.”

Sheppard stayed quiet. He had the sinking feeling this 'maletrix' thing was not a new development.

“I almost convinced myself sometimes, that it wasn't real,” McKay continued. “But then something else happened and I knew better. I was so good at hiding it. But then, it's never been this...” He sighed. “It got stronger after the ascension machine. It used to be small feelings, the occasional flash of insight. I could focus it with cards and things but now...”

“It's more now, isn't it.” It wasn't a question.

“I knew something bad would happen to Carson,” McKay said. “I thought it was something on the mainland. I thought if we stayed on Atlantis he'd be safe and...”

Sheppard felt his blood run cold. No wonder McKay blamed himself. “It wasn't your--”

“Don't,” McKay said, his voice low and hard. “If I could do this better he'd be alive. If I'd ignored that feeling he'd be alive. If I'd just asked a deck of fucking cards he'd be alive. If I couldn't do this at all... he'd be alive.”

Sheppard watched as McKay pulled nine cards from the deck, all of the cards with little keys on them. He shuffled just those nine and laid them out face down on the bed. He pulled one card, a giant juggling a rock, a tower, and a confused elephant. McKay dropped the card with a scowl. “The Juggler,” he said dully. “One who toys with the fates of others. I wonder who that's supposed to be.” He stuffed the cards back into the deck and shuffled again.

Sheppard wasn't entirely sure what he was seeing as McKay laid out a 3 by 3 grid of cards. He didn't know why the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as McKay removed three cards from the spread, pulling them out and setting them aside as unimportant.

McKay looked down at the spread, breathing slowly like he was trying to keep calm. He pointed to the two cards left in the first column, one of a big red ant and one of an angry mob. “The past,” he said. “The Uprising, an overwhelming uncontrollable power. It crushes those who try to stand against it. It's easier just to get swept up in it, let it carry you where it will. The Queen Mother, knowledge in its pure form. She dolls it out in flashes of cursed insight to amuse her.”

Sheppard was starting to believe Todd. And these cards were a toy, a game supplement meant to make a Pathfinder session into something pretty and fun. He wondered what McKay could do with a real divinatory aid.

The middle column held only one card, a knight in golden armor. “The present,” McKay said. “The Paladin, strength against adversity. He stands for what's right even if it destroys him.”

“Does it?” Sheppard asked.

The third column contained three cards: a living tornado, a wide-eyed child stalked by a clown, and a woman sick with plague holding useless charms. “The future,” McKay said. “The Cyclone, intelligent destruction. It's a war planned for, eagerly awaited, that changes everything. Forever. The Carnival, illusion and false dreams. Unreliable prophecy. The Sickness, corruption of body and soul. I... think it does destroy him.”

Sheppard didn't know what to think. He'd never taken this type of thing seriously. He didn't like believing in fate, not even as he tossed the coin in Antarctica. He'd even thought of ignoring the coin's advice, staying on Earth even as the coin told him to go. But the idea of losing all of this to his own hubris made him feel ill.

“Even the cards admit they're unreliable,” Sheppard said. “Maybe they're wrong?”

McKay fixed him with a dull glare, his blue eyes almost gray in their lifelessness. “I'm reprogramming the Replicators using this,” he said, gesturing to the cards on the bed. “And I didn't even know. Either I trust it... or I don't.”

The door chimed. McKay sighed and revealed an extent of what he could do. “What is it, Radek?” he called.

The door opened and Zelenka stood there, looking much less surprised than Sheppard.

“Come to laugh at the psychic freak?” McKay asked. “Am I fired yet?”

“You are wallowing in self pity,” Zelenka said. He saw the cards on the bed as he came in. “It will taint any readings you attempt. They will focus on bad outcomes.”

“There, see?” Sheppard said.

McKay looked confused.

“If you had stayed in the meeting you would have heard,” Zelenka said, looking at both of them. “Colonel Carter was greatly interested in my experiences working with people like Rodney. You are not the first. You are merely the first in a long time.”

Sheppard had no idea what he wanted to say but he knew he had to ask something. “Wait, what?”

“I assume most of the records were lost,” Zelenka said. “Or perhaps are being lorded over SGC by old Soviets hoping to sell them trained psychics to combat latest threat to Earth.”

McKay blinked slowly.

“Do not seem so surprised,” Zelenka snapped. “Americans had their superscience during Cold War, we are living the results.” He gestured to the alien city, the alien world, the entire galaxy around them. “The Soviets did not have access to such technology so they focused inward. Your CIA tried to inspire talent in their agents. The Soviets tested children and trained those found to already have talent.”

McKay looked down at the spread of cards below him. He took a deep breath and pulled one more card from the deck, one of a walking castle.

“What's that one mean?” Sheppard asked.

“The Keep,” McKay said. “Not destroyed then, merely changed.” He sighed and dropped the card in the middle of the spread. “I can live with that.”

“Good,” Zelenka said. “I was sent with a message. It is your choice but Colonel Carter will not stand in the way of whatever you and Todd decide.”

McKay drew one more card. The Peacock stared back at him, the card of sudden and irrevocable change.

Chapter Text

The blindfold was soft over McKay's eyes, black hivesilk that felt like satin, that tied as tight as any rope, that blocked sight without cutting off all light. The bright sunlight of the gym filtered through in a strange array of colors altered by the hivesilk into purples and greens and the faintest metallic sheen without the slightest shadow.

He felt Todd's claws curling over his shoulders, sliding down his arms past the sleeves of his t-shirt then back up underneath the cloth. He shivered as the world grew cold despite a spot of sucking warmth on his right arm. That spot moved down to his belly then under his shirt, searing against the skin. He moaned at the contact, tried to bite back the sound.

They weren't alone. Far from it, he could hear them now. He could hear them all, whispers growing to a riotous din like a maelstrom, impossible to pick out individual sounds but so much, too much, he could drown in this...

“It's so loud,” McKay whispered.

“It is,” Todd said. His voice was harsh, it held none of the purr McKay expected. There was something wrong here.

“We're not alone,” Todd said, answering the unspoken question. “We should speak aloud. That's why I sound like this.”

“Don't like it,” McKay said, shaking his head. “It's... it's too loud. Everything's too...”

Todd leaned in and hissed, low and long. McKay relaxed into the sound. “Listen to the maelstrom,” Todd purred, under and over the din. “It surrounds us. It's the thoughts of everyone here.”

“They're afraid,” McKay admitted. “They're... terrified...” He scowled. “They think you're going to eat me.”

Todd laughed. “I suppose they do. Can you pick out who's here?”

McKay thought about it. “Sam,” he said. “Sheppard's here. Zelenka. Ronon and Teyla.”

“That was basic deduction, wasn't it,”

“Of course.”

Todd smirked. “And if I say none of them are here?”

McKay stayed quiet.

“When I step away from you, I will fade into the maelstrom,” Todd warned. “I'll disappear. Then there's only yourself and your sense of the obvious.”

McKay felt the handle of a bantos rod pressed into his right hand. He gripped it and held it before him as Todd's presence faded into the background. And then he was alone surrounded by the oppressive roar of other people's thoughts.

*****

Carter and Caldwell watched the screen.

Around the gym an entire squad of marines stood as both a test and a deterrent. McKay had been led inside blindfolded, Todd already testing the limits of decency and patience with his feeding hand leaving dry bites up McKay's arms and under his shirt. At least they were speaking aloud, Todd's smirk at the camera in the corner making it clear this would not be done for long.

“McKay used his Pathfinder character as a cover to ask me to smuggle him a divinatory aid,” Caldwell said.

“He could have just asked for game materials,” Carter mused. “They're on the official requisition forms under 'mental health, misc'. Dr. Robinson's doing.”

“Then why ask me to smuggle it in?” Caldwell wondered. “Unless this isn't a new development.”

“It's not new,” Carter agreed. “Rodney was known for his 'flashes of insight' at Area 51. To be fair, would you have believed him if he'd said anything?”

“I want to know what he's been influencing,” Caldwell said.

“You think he could do that?” Carter asked. “There's never been any indication.”

Caldwell gestured to the screen where Todd circled McKay, slowly striking at him with a bantos rod. McKay was blindfolded and yet he still matched Todd's circle with his own, defending himself with the same slow grace. The implication was clear: this was indication enough.

*****

Sheppard sat in the mess hall, Ronon and Teyla on either side of him. McKay was in the gym with Todd and Sheppard had orders to stay out of the way. Hence his friends sat too close, keeping him here through forceful persuasion.

“I don't like this,” Ronon said.

“And I do?” Sheppard demanded.

“I have never seen a maletrix before,” Teyla admitted. “Does Earth have anything similar?”

“Still not sure what a maletrix is,” Sheppard admitted. “Do they see the future?”

“We had stories on Sateda,” Ronon said. “Usually the maletrix lives alone in the forest with an animal she talks to, it's supposed to talk back when there's no one else to hear. The character of the story goes to her for mystical help. He gets what he wants but then refuses to pay the price she demanded. So she calls forth the Wraith to reclaim all she gave him. The Wraith take everyone except the maletrix, leaving her alone. Just as she wanted in the first place.”

Sheppard had a sinking feeling. That was a familiar story. The version he knew involved black cats and broomsticks.

“On Athos we understood the maletrices to be a myth of the Ancestors,” Teyla said. “They were once heretics who refused ascension, instead taking the powers of near-ascension for their own use. They were capable of great feats: flight, illusions, foresight, and the ability to talk to animals. Then the Wraith came and the maletrices offered their services in exchange for the right to never be fed upon. The Wraith still uphold their end of the bargain, but only so long as every maletrix serves the Wraith in turn. I fear Todd will use Rodney's talent for his own ends.”

Sheppard sighed and put his head down. “Rodney's a witch,” he mumbled.

“A what?” Teyla asked.

Sheppard didn't want to talk about it.

*****

Zelenka watched the mock battle on the screen in McKay's lab. Next to him an anthropologist, a geneticist, and a physicist watched as well, all of them with varying degrees of calculating looks.

“I wondered if there were other Ancient gene groups.” Dr. West, the geneticist, had voiced these opinions before. McKay had shot down the idea before despite Carson's interest, now she wondered what ulterior motives McKay had for denying her research. “ESP is too well documented in humans to be a mass delusion. What if it's Ancient in nature?”

“I doubt it,” Dr. Otero, the anthropologist, specialized in magic traditions and had been growing bored only working with Wraith legends. “Magic traditions on Earth are much older than Ancient influence. There's evidence of magic traditions at Neanderthal and early human sites, in their graves and tools. The oldest confirmed early-human art on Earth can be interpreted to have magical significance. No, Earth-based ESP has nothing to do with the Ancients or the Wraith. Todd just happens to be lumping Dr. McKay into his own tradition because it's what he understands.”

“No wonder he was able to handle the ascension machine,” Dr. Esposito, the physicist, mused aloud as she remembered McKay's easy time hearing and blocking people's thoughts. Including her own.

“He was picked up by the American's CIA when he was 11,” Zelenka said. “If they had any idea what they were dealing with he would have been trained as a child.”

“And as a human,” Otero agreed.

West hummed as she watched. On the screen McKay hissed with something that might have been glee as he lunged, dodging underneath Todd and tapping his knee. “Todd's letting him win,” she realized.

“Of course,” Zelenka agreed. “The novice won't build confidence if the master unleashes his full strength too early.”

The antics on the screen changed as McKay slumped against Todd. The Wraith picked him up and carried him off screen. Zelenka's radio chirped, relaying the news. McKay would be unavailable for the rest of the day due to 'exhaustion'.

*****

Sheppard found Todd outside of McKay's quarters. Todd rumbled, teeth bared in a grin. Sheppard cracked his knuckles as he leveled Todd with a low glare.

“He is unharmed,” Todd said. “He will sleep for the rest of the day and awaken ravenous.”

“And is that all?” Sheppard demanded.

Todd hissed, a low proud sound that wasn't a purr at all. Sheppard would never consider that sound a purr no matter what McKay called it. He ignored Todd and went inside.

McKay laid on his bed, seemingly dumped there and then arranged into a comfortable drape. He breathed slow, deep, slower than he should. His hands were ice cold, there were oval-shaped suck bruises up his right arm, around his neck and his belly, he seemed pale. Sheppard reached for his radio then decided against it. Instead he laid down behind McKay, spooning against him to try to keep him warm.

He didn't relax until he heard McKay begin to snore.

*****

Three and four day 'weeks' were becoming the norm. Not that anyone would complain, even Enforced Sundays ended up full of research opportunities. There were offworld markets and gossip, trips to bars that rarely ended with news about another world not answering their stargate. Todd began telling stories to assembled anthropologists about the Nine and the Old Ones, stories that couldn't possibly be real. Parrish still held court over the card table in the back, though the games were beginning to change to dice games as though he were daring Todd to cheat at these. Mathematicians gleefully kept track of numbers in an attempt to determine whether or not he indeed was.

McKay slumped on the Pathfinder table, caught between dual urges. On one hand, he could sleep like this. On the other, there were two mugs of coffee in front of him and in order to drink them he needed to sit up. Then Sheppard came by and the decision grew harder. A third cup tempted him now. He whined, not wanting to move.

“We could get Todd to grope you,” Rowan offered.

“Ugh no,” McKay groaned. He dragged himself into a sitting position. “When he does that I can hear all of you and I don't wanna.”

Sheppard was less worried than he felt he should be. McKay's exhaustion seemed to be physical, a distinct improvement from the mental exhaustion of the months prior. He wondered if it was like any normal exercise regimen and McKay simply needed to build endurance. Although what kind of endurance these mind things required he had no idea.

“That makes sense,” Zelenka mused. “Todd has much more experience than you. Perhaps he is using his own senses to augment and expand your talent?”

“Can we not discuss psychic research today?” McKay pleaded. He took comfort in the first cup of coffee, inhaling deep. “If I wanted to do that I'd go back to arguing solar flares with Todd.”

“All right,” Rowan said. He picked up a tablet of notes. “When last we left off...”


Ace stood on the rampart of his castle.

That still didn't feel real. He owned a castle. It had a keep and there were walls and theoretically there were lands surrounding it he could tax if anyone lived there. He had an entire knight order under his command, although 'command' was a loose term and the 'order' consisted of two frazzled rangers.

There were also little problems like the oncoming winter, the ogre cleanup, the lack of any real food, the collapsing guard tower on the north end of the keep, the giant in the valley to the north... Little things, the others assured him. Minor inconveniences.

He heard shouting behind him and the crumble of stones. Ace sighed as he turned to head back down into the courtyard. Vale was a talented architect but getting him to agree on a design and stick to it was not easy. Meanwhile the unsafe guard tower kept crumbling and crumbling and...

Well, that took care of the need to dismantle the tower safely. Now they had to worry about cleanup instead.

This was going to be a long winter.

*****

Cela and Charlie walked through the streets of Turtleback Ferry. Children followed them, their giggles barely contained as they tried to catch the illusory ribbons trailing from Cela's glamored armor. The ribbons didn't quite catch the wind right, darting out of the grasp of little hands that couldn't hold onto what they caught anyway. The village was recovering from the horrific floods of the month before, though the cathedral to Erastil would house several families through the winter. Charlie carried a pie, a desperate 'thank you' from a schoolmistress who couldn't afford any other reward for saving the lives of her and her charges. It felt almost like Sandpoint had...

Had it only been three months? The goblins felt like a lifetime ago. The month of the Cold Moon approached and with it the Night of the Pale. It didn't feel real. Three months ago she'd been drifting north from Magnimar looking for fortune and now she had it. She had daggers made out a variety of metals and a shiny new rapier dripping with magic. She had more money than she knew what to do with, enough to buy herself a title.

She had... friends? Companions? Something like that. Their sort-of 'don't say it to his face' leader had a title now with a castle and land and responsibilities. Their wizard was a Varisian fortune teller who lost her life to a mass murderer and only somewhat recovered. And the man beside her was some priest of Calistria they'd found one day who just sort of stuck around. Now he was bartering with a local farmer over the price of chickens while she held a pie and tried not to come up with ways she could con the others out of their share. Mira wouldn't miss her slice, she claimed it tasted like ash anyway. Cela would take revenge though. And stealing pie from Vale felt too much like kicking a puppy, a big beefy puppy who carried really big axes. Ace would be disappointed in her and make her feel guilty. And Jakardros was getting almost as vengeful as Cela. At least Shalelu was gone, that meant bigger pieces for everyone.

It was good pie, scheming to get more was a valid use of her time. Honest. The odd feeling of being laughed at didn't deter her.

Charlie saw the farmer scowl at something off in the distance. A small caravan of wagons creaked along the road led by a dark-haired man riding a black horse with white socks. Chralie looked closer. Weird, the man rode without rein or saddle almost like...

Charlie nudged Cela. “Hey, check it out,” she said.

Cela looked over. “Varisians,” he said. “Small caravan. And?”

“We don't need their kind here,” the farmer said. “Homewreckers and troublemakers the lot of them.”

Cela grinned. “Homewreckers, you say?”

Charlie sighed and rolled her eyes. She hoped they weren't going to be taking these people back to the fort. Yet somehow she knew they would.

*****

In the courtyard Jakardros and Vale were building a small shed out of the stones from the collapsed tower. While they worked they kept looking at each other and grinning while they whispered conspiratorially about eggs.

Mira could relate. From what she heard, Cela's Create Food and Water spells were appreciated in that it was food, it nourished the body and kept it going even though it tasted like wet honeyed cardboard on a good day. While she hadn't partaken, there was no point, there was some satisfaction in knowing the others were coming to suffer as she had to. She missed eggs too. She missed a lot of things.

Plodding hooves drew her attention. Strange, neither Charlie nor Cela had taken their horses down into Turtleback Ferry. Did they have visitors? She heard voices below as Ace came out to meet someone. The voice was...

No...

Mira had the presence of mind to cast every illusion she had over herself before launching herself down the crenelations. “Vinny!”

Cela looked over at the man he'd brought back to the castle and saw recognition blossom across his face as he broke into a delighted grin. “Blessed stars, Mira?!” The man ducked past Cela and Ace and picked Mira up by her waist as they hugged and laughed.

“They know each other?” Ace asked.

“I guess so,” Cela said. “Then perhaps the caravan we found was once hers.”

“An entire caravan?” Ace slumped against the wall. “We barely have enough food for us.”

“Charlie and I bought chickens,” Cela said. “We will have eggs. Or we will have roast chicken. Jakardros and Vale are rangers, I'm sure they can convince the birds to lay eggs.”

Ace groaned.

Meanwhile, Vinyamar put Mira down and looked oddly serious. “Mira, you're deathly thin,” he said. “What happened?”

Mira looked away. Baba Rann's scarf fluttered over her red hair, hair that didn't quite catch the wind right. “I need to talk to Papa,” she said. “Something happened to me and... I need to talk to Papa.”

Vinyamar laid a hand against her cheek. “You're cold...” He stepped back, a sad realization in his eyes. “The seventh night of the Black Moon,” he said.

Mira nodded.

Vinyamar enveloped her in his arms and held her close as she sniffed.

*****

On the other side of the stream, outside the fort's walls, a trio of wagons decorated with brightly colored fabrics clustered near a single large fire. Horses pawed at the ground seeking the last few blades of grass or watching the night around them. The sounds of an argument drifted from the fire.

Ace had a passing familiarity with such arguments. However, his experience told him they usually happened around private hearths away from curious ears and that they usually involved the indiscretions that resulted in half-elves. Still, he watched from the south bridge as Mira attempted to explain events to her family, events that had led to this.

Her illusions were gone and with them any pretense of life.

A man was on his feet, shouting and swearing and she stood up to him, teeth bared as she shouted right back. Ace heard the name 'Foxglove' drift over the wind several times and then the man stormed off, leaving the safety of the fire.

Mira stayed. She curled up at the firelight's edge, Ace could hear her crying.

He wanted to go to her, he desperately wanted to comfort her. But this wasn't his place, it wasn't his family, he wouldn't know what to say. And then it got worse as the man came to him. From here Ace could see how bad things really were. This man had the same blue eyes Mira took to her grave.

This man, her father, leaned on the crumbling stones of the south bridge as he watched the fire. “You failed her,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” Ace said.

The man seemed surprised. “You admit it?”

“As soon as I knew she was sick I carried her to the temple,” Ace said. “If I'd known, if I'd kept a closer watch on her, we would have made it to Magnimar on time. I was told the Pharasmins could have saved her.”

“Your own priest?”

“He's a Calistrian,” Ace said. “I...” He blushed and looked away. He couldn't look Mira's father in the eye and admit this, it was too embarrassing. “I offered him my own body to use if it would help his spells.”

Mira's father cleared his throat and blushed. “I see.”

“It... didn't help,” Ace admitted.

“And then she died.”

“I know it's selfish of me,” Ace said. “But when she woke up I was so... Sir, I would do anything for her. I've died for her.”

Mira's father listened as Ace told an abridged story of the retaking of Fort Rannick. The ogres, the desperate battle, Mira's beautiful fury as she laid waste to fully half of the ogre's numbers. “I remember their leader,” he said, undoing the ties on his tunic. “He was a gigantic brute, arms the width of my torso. He wielded this hook, I remember that well.” Ace pulled his tunic up, revealing a strange white mark on his belly. “He went for Mira first. I pushed her behind me and took the blow.” He pointed to the mark on his belly and the matching white mark at the base of his throat. The last thing he remembered, aside from the agony of death, was the odd sensation of being threaded like a worm on a hook and then the pull on his ribs as he was lifted into the air. Then nothing.

“And yet your priest brought you back.”

“I think he's on better terms with his god now than before,” Ace said wryly. He knew Mira's father was trying to make him feel guilty. He was succeeding.

Mira's father watched her in the firelight, as Vinyamar knelt next to her and held her. The two curled around each other. “Vinny felt her die,” he said. “The seventh night of the Black Moon. He wanted to dance with her one last time but...”

“But she was already dead,” Ace said.

Mira's father shook his head. “That's no barrier,” he said. “We were in Palin's Cove. Too many people, there was no way to dance with her until we could finish business and take to the open road. But by midnight she was gone and we all knew something horrible had happened to her.”

“She woke up,” Ace realized.

“And now she'll never dance with Desna.”

This strange obsession with dancing was something Ace was unfamiliar with. He'd never asked Mira about it though he had caught sight of her at night when everyone else was asleep. He knew it was intensely personal, that was enough for him. But apparently it was more important than even that.

“And I have to accept that.”

“Sir?”

But Mira's father was gone, already returning to the fire. He stood before her and knelt down. She threw herself into his arms and cried.

*****

Cela found Ace in the ruined tribunal, the tattered maps long taken down. He didn't ask what Ace was doing here, it was clear he was hiding. “The Night of the Pale approaches,” Cela said.

“What's that?” Ace asked. “Some human thing?”

Jakardros and his bear lurked the wilds with bow and blade searching for something to kill. Perhaps it was the lingering effect of ogres or maybe it was Erastil's disappointment but hunting was scarce and the fort's lack of unsullied provisions left them relying on Cela's spells for food. The hens were beginning to settle down into their new flock but none of them had taken to nesting yet. Charlie had threatened the birds with the stew pot if they didn't lay eggs soon, the chickens didn't seem to take her seriously. Vale had suggested one of the horses if winter got bad. Nobody mentioned any sort of tithe or taxes from Turtleback Ferry even though as legal representatives of Magnimarian rule it would have been Ace's right.

“The Night of the Pale,” Cela explained. “It's the solar calendar's New Year. The last night of the year the spirits of the dead are supposed to return to haunt the living. It's usually celebrated with a feast and then with hiding in the kitchen until daybreak.”

Ace groaned. “We don't have anything for a feast,” he said. “And why hide from spirits? Surely they're not here just for evil.”

“Yes they're here for evil,” Cela said. “Traditionally they're here to settle scores, sometimes to jealously kidnap the living. We do not have nearly enough salt.”

“This is just a superstition, right?” Ace asked.

Cela smirked. “Yes, Ace, it is,” he said. “Reports of disappearances on that night are surely due to lovers eloping and the ravages of winter's hunger.”

“Good. I'm freaked out enough by the idea of having to throw a feast with...”

“You are worried about impressing Mira's family?” Cela realized. He smiled. “Come with me. There's something you have to see.”

Ace allowed Cela to lead him out of the keep and the fort. The caravan was less foreboding in the sunlight. Strange unbridled horses sniffed at Lightfoot as the skeleton stood watch, clacking their teeth and swishing their tails trying to get it to play. The large bonfire had been allowed to die down into a cooking fire, a pot of something that smelled delicious bubbling away in the coals. Children played, chasing each other through the fresh snow even though Ace could see they didn't wear shoes. Young women washed bright fabrics in the frigid stream while two identical young men in black leather armor watched from the back of a wagon.

“Ace! There you are. We wondered where you'd gotten to!”

Ace glanced at Cela but the traitor was smiling and waving him off as Mira's father all but wrapped an arm around Ace's waist and pulled him into the caravan's circle, introducing more names than Ace would ever remember.

Mira's father was Adalaberro, there were Mira's twin brothers Szeli and Szele and if there was any difference in pronunciation Ace couldn't hear it, Vinyamar was Mira's cousin, then Mira's aunts Bretha and Tala, half a dozen other names, and of course Baba Malen the current family matriarch but she was busy at the moment.

It took Ace a moment to realize he was hearing a soft tap tap tap sound from one of the wagons. He took the chance to look and...

“Hi,” Mira said.

Mira sat stripped to the waist, no illusions between her and the delicate tapping of the needles that pounded ink into her skin. The old woman who was interrupted in her work scowled at him. “Leave, stranger, or I will be the one to sing your song,” she threatened.

“Baba Malen,” Mira scolded. “He's my friend. This is Ace, the one I was telling you about.”

Baba Malen's scowl turned into something more like a leer. “He's skinny,” she said. “Alas that we won't be getting any half-elves out of you.”

“Baba!” Mira shrieked, mortified.

Ace blushed and tried to lurk away. A gnarled hand grabbed his arm with more strength than he thought old hands should have and dragged him back into the wagon. Outside he could have sworn he heard laughter.

Two hours later his head was swimming and he felt like he'd been interrogated. Maybe he had been, he knew he'd been threatened several times by a woman who was nearly his age. He was an elf, weren't humans supposed to die off in their 70s? What business did a human have being his age?

But then the pot on the fire was opened and he was willing to forgive anything. He barely even noticed the twins watching him with intent as he gleefully accepted a wooden bowl full of stewed plums.

Adalaberro drew Mira aside, out of earshot as Ace moaned like he hadn't had food in days. “Surely they have food,” he said.

“I told you, Papa, there were ogres,” Mira whispered. “Cela creates food every day but it's boring and it's not always enough. Erastil's still angry at the rangers for turning their back after their god betrayed them first so they haven't had a successful hunt in weeks. The horses are thin and now there's chickens to feed.”

Adalaberro considered Ace while he ate like a starving man. Baba Malen plied him with more food. Politeness visibly warred with the visceral need to eat and she took his protests away by refilling his bowl even as he refused. “Little foxes roam far and wide,” he said.

“Papa!” Mira cried and threw her arms around him. He hugged her close, a desperate hug like he was trying to bring her living self back. But it didn't work. It never would.

Chapter Text

The next morning Ace was awoken by an odd combination of outrage and glee. None of it was his own, it all came from the shouting outside his bedroom.

He still didn't have a bed. Instead his bedroll was laid on the floor of Commander Lamatar's old quarters, the furniture gone and the detritus cleaned up. Anything salvageable was sent down to the workshop for repair and then redistribution to the rest of the fort. That left him with a depressingly empty windowless room lit by flickering eternal candles Mira had reverse-engineered them from their Thassilonian versions looted from Thistletop. His armor stood on a rack in a corner, his weapons mounted on the wall in easy reach. What he needed most was a window.

Ace yawned as he put on pants and found the argument in full swing in the chapel.

“There is a reason Varisians are all considered thieves and liars,” Vale said.

“And it has worked in our favor,” Cela insisted. “If someone from the village wishes to take their vengeance they may attempt. That is their right.”

“Until then we have stolen chickens!” Vale shouted.

“Who stole our chickens?” Ace demanded.

“No one,” Cela said.

“No, we just happen to be in possession of stolen chickens,” Vale snapped. “And a goat. Who steals a goat and gets away with it?!”

Ace blinked at the ridiculousness of this argument and decided he needed to see this for himself.

He did not expect this. Given the argument he guess he expected something more blatant. This was almost subdued.

The chicken flock had a rooster. He counted thirteen hens and a rooster where before they'd had twelve hens. Huh. And there was a goat standing among the horses, bleating in annoyance at the presence of so much large around it. When did they get a goat? And... He sniffed, inhaling the wonderful scent of smoke. Someone somewhere nearby was tending a smokehouse.

Ace found Jakardros poking at the coals in the smokehouse. Within he could see most of a deer carcass broken down and hung. “Hunt go well?” Ace asked.

“Finally,” Jakardros admitted. “And Mira tells me we had little foxes last night.” His grin ruined the seriousness of that statement. “Strange, most foxes I know only take. These left us with chickens, a goat, and a sack of grain.”

“A sack of...”

“For an evoker Mira can be surprisingly versatile when she has reason to be,” Jakardros mused. “Perhaps it's her cousin being here. He's not as strong a mage as she is but his magic seems to come from within, if you know what I mean.”

Ace nodded and pretended he knew.

“This windfall is a sign,” Jakardros continued. “Perhaps by Desna. She is the Varisian's goddess and tonight is the Night of the Pale. As the local lord you should throw a feast. And now we have enough. For a small one, at least. I sent Charlie down to the village to acquire some bottles of wine and any preserved fruits she could get ahold of, that should be enough. If only that goat produced milk. I should check if the horses...”

Ace left Jakardros to his musings about food. He didn't care, all he cared was that there was food.

Enough for a proper feast.

*****

It was a feast the likes of which Fort Rannick hadn't seen since the ogres. A haunch of deer with a wild mushroom sauce, loaves of fresh bread, plum pies and fish pies and meat pies, and an entire cask of wine. There wasn't a bowl of honeyed mash in sight. That alone was a cause for celebration.

Mira watched the revelry from the corner and sighed. It wasn't that she felt unwelcome, far from it, Ace was drinking and trying to pull her to the table. He even offered her his lap to sit on while Cela and Vinny leered. On any other night she would have joined them, tasting some remnant of the feast's flavors from Ace's mouth as she kissed him, sauce and wine on his lips. But not tonight.

The Night of the Pale. It was the night when the spirits of those who'd died that year came back. Tradition dictated it was the darkest of compulsions that brought these spirits back, a night for revenge before the year began. Of course, these 'traditions' were imported from the South, Chelaxian colonists bringing their so-called civilization to the 'savages' who wouldn't even live in proper houses like a proper provisor caste under the Azghat. Yes, the Night of the Pale brought the dead back to their caravans. But not for vengeance. For something else.

She had something she needed to do. She left the feast hall, retreating to the room next to the library. The room was meant to be her quarters but she never slept, not anymore. Instead she used this room as a place to store the supplies and experiments that were too uncomfortable or disturbing to keep in the library. Iesha's red and orange scarf lay draped over the workbench, silver blades and silver thread woven halfway through the delicate silk. Jars of carrion bait lined one shelf along the wall. On the shelves below several skulls leered blankly above a sack of bones. Mira picked a likely skull and held it before her. It was human once, taken from one of the rangers who died here. The skull was tacky and yellow from fats and fluids leaching out of the marrow. She licked it, tasting the echo of flesh.

Perhaps the fort would be overrun with the dead, as the Chelaxians believed. Even as the half-elf believed. More likely she would be the only one here. And she had something she had to do.

*****

Midnight approached and Mira still wasn't anywhere to be found. Not that anyone else was worried. Charlie had gone to bed with an entire pie and the declaration that no matter what anyone heard, it was all worth it. Cela was busy laying lines of salt over the thresholds of the bedrooms in use and the door of the main hall. Jakardros and Vale were already in bed, declaring clean-up could wait until sunrise. It seemed only Ace was awake and worried about Mira.

Not even her family were worried. Adalaberro said they'd find her later, Vinyamar said this was something she needed to do, even Baba Malen told him to drop it.

Ace took a deep breath and decided he wasn't going to wait. Not anymore. He went upstairs to his quarters to put on his armor.

His room wasn't empty.

“I expected you earlier,” Adalaberro said. He crossed his arms over his chest. His pose seemed to demand an explanation.

“For what?” Ace asked. “And where is Mira? You're not worried about her so either Varisians are weirder than I heard or you know where she is. Tell me.”

Adalaberro visibly relaxed. “Come with me, then,” he said. He plucked one of the eternal candles off of the wall and led Ace back downstairs, over the protective salt lines, and out into the night.

The moon was down near the horizon, the fat crescent halfway to full. The stars twinkled overhead in the freezing air, the icy ground crunching underfoot. Their breaths froze before them as Adalaberro led Ace to an outcropping of rocks near the frigid stream. From here they could see the caravan, the fire bright against the night. The colorful fabrics of the wagons fluttered in the chilly wind as most of the family sat outside the fire's light, bundled against the cold.

Most.

Vinyamar stood inside the circle of the fire's light, breathing deep like he was preparing himself for something.

“The Chelaxians think they know our customs,” Adalaberro said, talking quietly so as not to interfere with the fire. “They know we wander, they know we dance, they know we steal everything not nailed down.”

“Do you?” Ace asked.

“We do wander,” Adalaberro said. “We do send our little foxes out to find what we need. And we do dance.”

Near the fire a single violin began to play, a mournful tune that echoed into the night. Vinyamar raised a tambourine and it hissed in his hands as he slowly began to move.

“We carry little with us. Songs and stories and our kapenias are our most treasured possessions.” Adalaberro pulled the scarf from his waist, a violet silken thing lined with golden threads and a fringe of soft white fur.”Anything else is just something to leave behind.” He draped the scarf around his shoulders. “A dance can never be left behind.”

Ace nodded. He was beginning to see how this was important. Suddenly the nights when Mira would dance alone under the stars made more sense. “Dances are private things, aren't they?” he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer. If he wasn't supposed to see then she would have stopped him, right? Or did she not know he was watching?

“They often are.”

Now Ace felt guilty.

In the distance something came out of the darkness toward the fire. Ace squinted at it but even with his elven sight he couldn't see exactly what it was. There was some illusion masking it. The violin's mournful wail wasn't helping. And then the shadows coalesced and he relaxed.

It was Mira. She looked to be wearing some sort of costume, there was a mask over her face. It looked like a skull, maybe it was an actual skull. That would make sense... She glided past the onlookers toward the firelight, wisps of shadowy illusion trailing behind her. They evaporated in the light as she slinked behind Vinyamar and slid her claws over his hands.

The tambourine's hiss stopped as he leaned back into her, his eyes closed. A new hiss began, this one intimately more familiar than an instrument's approximation. Then movement began again, Mira wrapping Vinyamar into an embrace as she moved him like a marionette.

“When she died he begged me to let him dance the Vimaturi with her,” Adalaberro said. “We were in a town surrounded by people and he knew, he knew he would never get this chance again. 'One last time', he said. It was the only thing he's ever begged me for and I had to refuse. I wouldn't force that on her, or on them.”

“Them?” Ace asked.

“The Vimaturi is among our most private affairs. Outsiders are never permitted to watch. Any outsider who dares is cursed.”

Ace inched away from Adalaberro. He wondered if Cela could remove curses.

Vinyamar's arms trapped Mira, trying to hold onto her even as she hissed and squirmed. The violin grew angry.

“When an outsider watches this, he angers the dancing spirit. She doesn't rest easily after this. Instead she does everything in her power to haunt the outsider, never leaving him.”

Ace stared at Mira's father then at Mira in the firelight. She had Vinyamar on his knees and was circling him, wisps of shadow rising. “You're... giving her to me? Why?”

“She can never come home,” Adalaberro said. “She will never dance with Desna, not like this. She will never rest again. All of this became true the moment she woke up. After she died.” He looked down at his hands and sighed. “You love her, even as she is now. That's more than I had when her mother... woke up.”

Ace didn't know what to say. He could feel himself shaking and he didn't know why. In the firelight a pair of red eyes found his and Mira hissed even as Vinyamar desperately held onto her.

“You died for her. She trusts you, even before you died she trusted you. I think I may know why.”

Desperation broke as Vinyamar finally let go. The violin approached the depth of its song as Mira seemed to dissolve into shadow and mist, fading into the darkness. Yet Ace could still see her, could pick out the darkness against the night where illusion hid her form as she approached. Then the illusion was gone and she stood before him.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey yourself,” Ace said, pulling her close. “You're beautiful, you know that?”

“I'm glad you finally got to see,” Mira said as she draped her arms around him.

The candle's flicker faded away as Adalaberro rejoined his caravan where Vinyamar sat alone by the fire and the violin died.

“About that,” Ace said. He knew he was going to get slapped for saying this. “I've... um... I've seen you dance before.”

“What? When?!”

He was right about getting slapped. He could have sworn he heard someone laughing at him.


“How dare you,” McKay said with all of the seriousness his character demanded. “I thought elves slept.”

“Hey, I sleep,” Sheppard protested. “Just... less than humans do. Why should I waste the night?”

“Watching me dance,” McKay muttered, pouting in an exaggerated manner. “Without saying anything! I knew you were a pervert.”

“Yes but I'm your pervert,” Sheppard said, leering.

McKay blushed as he considered the offer, still with that exaggerated seriousness. He ignored Zelenka trying to hide his laughter. He raised a hand to his forehead for dramatic effect and leaned against Sheppard. “Baba Malen was right,” he lamented. “You only want me for my dancing.”

Zelenka lost the ability to hide as Rowan and Carter gave in to their own mirth. Sheppard draped an arm over McKay and pulled him close. McKay lost balance and just barely managed to avoid falling entirely into Sheppard's lap. “Not just,” Sheppard defended. “You're decent at blowing stuff up.”

“You always did appreciate my magic,” McKay purred as he regained his balance and sat up. And then Mira's purr disappeared from McKay's voice. “So how long are we going to stay at Fort Rannick?”

Rowan took a moment to process the sudden shift in character. “Up to a year,” he said after he caught up. “Anything you want to make, you have time. Any strange thing you want to research, go ahead.”

“We should probably do a Cliff's Notes version of the year,” Carter said. “No need to RP everything.”

“Of course,” Rowan said. “Mira's caravan hangs around until the first thaw at which point they're gone. That's long enough to help Cousin Vinny make his own harrow deck so Mira doesn't have to feel guilty about it. Also, Rodney, Mira's tattoos are finished.”

“Good,” McKay said, making a note of it.

“What do they do?” Zelenka asked.

“They make me look pretty.” McKay thought about it. “Do they do anything?”

“They make you look pretty,” Rowan agreed. “Baba Malen was secretly delighted you have no hair. It's been a long time since she got the chance to tattoo a bald scalp.”

McKay reflexively ran his hand over his hair while Carter snickered.

“Jakardros wants to set up some bee hives in the spring,” Rowan continued. “Calistria prefers wasps but bees make salable honey.”

“Oh, I have a bladed scarf I need Cela to enchant at some point,” McKay said.

“I still think it's weird,” Carter said. “You turned Iesha's murder scarf into a weapon.”

“It was there,” McKay defended. “It's poetic. It's thematic. And it's pretty.”

“If there's nothing else we could jump ahead,” Rowan said. We waited until everyone responded favorably or at least neutrally. “Summer is coming to a close. Magnimar has accepted your claim to Fort Rannick and had given you the right to collect taxes from the local environs, the Council of Ushers expects their standard cut. Turtleback Ferry and a few of the villages south, Ilsurian and Whistledown, can supply you with all the workers you need to restore Fort Rannick into something more livable. Jakardros begins rebuilding the Black Arrows. Also, bees.”


Ace wandered the forest around his castle.

Eight months on and it was still weird. He owned a castle. He wasn't even 150 yet and already he was a lord with his own knight order and a village. True these were human lands and the people he lorded over were humans, for the most part, but there were gnomes in Sanos Forest, the Shimmerglens were watched by the ghosts of Lamatar and his nymph lover Myriana, the lake monster called 'Black Magga' was asleep, and Calistrian bees were flourishing in the meadows around the Fort's walls.

The giant in the Valley of Broken Trees was content to own the valley and Ace was content to let him. Having a hill giant willing to hang around was interesting and Ace hoped he'd never have to call in a favor to test their alliance.

Speaking of, he heard something large thundering through the underbrush. Ace ducked to the nearest large tree and quickly climbed it. He was glad he did, the giant was far too large for his comfort.

“Razmus,” Ace greeted.

The giant Razmus looked down and around him, expecting the voice to come from somewhere near his waist. He looked surprised then amused to see Ace sitting at eye level. Ace kicked his feet idly, as though sitting in trees was just something elves did.

“I was looking for you,” Razmus said in his strangely accented Taldane. “The tiny one eyed one told me to keep an ear out for news.”

“Jakardros?”

“Black and gold armor, disappears in shadows, growls like his pet bear. Him.”

Ace nodded. That sounded like Jakardros. “What news did you hear?”

“There's a name he warned me about,” Razmus said. “Mokmurian.”

Ace vaguely knew the name. The others said it was important. He was dead at the time so he only knew some of the context. “What's the news on Mokmurian?”

“He's building an army.”

“That... sounds bad.” Ace's feet stopped kicking idly. Instead they drooped and stayed still.

“They're almost ready to conquer the lowlands. All they need is something from the coast. They're sending a raiding party to some town called 'Sand Point'.”

Ace sighed and slumped against the tree's trunk. He knew Sandpoint. There were people there he liked. People there he didn't like, too, but they didn't deserve to get stomped and eaten by giants. “Thank you, Razmus. This is dire news.”

Razmus nodded. “Mokmurian put out a call to all giants to join his army. But I like it here. I have a valley to myself. I think I'll stay here instead.” He left, his huge feet thundering off through the forest.

Ace jumped down from the tree and jogged back to Fort Rannick. He needed to tell the others and decide what they were going to do.

Chapter Text

McKay drew a deck of cards out of his shirt and began to shuffle. “Mira's going to do a reading,” he said.

“You should have warned me,” Rowan said. “I could have stacked something for you.”

McKay scoffed. “Stack? Bah. What am I, an amateur?”

Sheppard chanced a glance at the cards and realized what they were. “Um... Rodney?”

McKay flipped the deck over, showing the bottom card. A one-eyed bartender stood surrounded by passed out patrons. Then he went back to shuffling. “I had this desk smuggled in for the game,” he said defensively. “I'm not letting anything real get in the way of that.”

Zelenka sat back and watched intently. Carter was less obvious about it, but then she started pondering the physics aloud. “Does this actually work?” she asked.

“I've seen it work,” Zelenka said. “Including with Rodney. Although many psychics simply use cards like these for advice, to convince them to follow a line of reasoning they have already decided on.”

“But it's just chance,” Carter mused. “Unless the diviner is stacking the deck without conscious knowledge.”

“We tested that, well, the original researchers tested that. When asked to place their decks into certain orders simply by shuffling them, such psychics were incapable. Even with the threat of... persuasion.”

Carter hummed as McKay turned the cards over and began pulling out all nine of the suit of... hammers? Harrow cards were strange. “In that case, if it is truly randomized, how does the diviner account for uncertainty? Does the difference between the Many Worlds and Copenhagen interpretations change the method?”

“Most divination systems are vague enough that they're incapable of giving concrete information on their own,” Zelenka said. “The psychic's mindset and preconceptions are known to determine the reading as much as chance. It's really an interesting glimpse into the mentality of the psychic at any given time--”

“Are you two done?” McKay demanded. He spread nine cards out face down. “Everyone pick one.”

All four players picked a card.

“That's not ominous,” Sheppard said sarcastically, looking at his card. The Fiend showed a giant green scaly thing tossing naked humans into its gigantic maw.

“Not at all,” McKay agreed with the same tone. He showed the Beating with its thirteen undead hands dragging a gravedigger down to his doom.

Carter looked at the Forge and its blacksmith toiling away surrounded by cavorting fire spirits. “So are these us?”

Zelenka showed the Keep, the walking castle. “I do not feel kept,” he said.

“Shut up,” McKay said, though there was no fire in his voice. “Everyone remember your card and give it back to me.” He collected the suit of hammers and reshuffled the cards before laying out a 3 by 3 grid. He considered the cards and pulled away three. There was a rhyme and reason for his actions but from the outside it looked arbitrary.

“This is why I stack the deck,” Rowan said. “It's easier when I know what the cards are going to say.”

“Then you don't see anything new,” Zelenka said.

McKay sat back and pointed to each person in term, telling them what their card meant. “The Keep, quiet strength that knows when to move and when to stand firm. That's good, we'll need that. The Forge, a trial by fire. Specifically one that requires all manner of neglected talents to overcome. You don't get to use that stealth of yours very much, do you? The Fiend. Ace, are you a dark intelligence endangering innocents? Legitimate question. And the Beating, am I going to die again? I hope not. Although I did just research that spell...”

“I am not,” Sheppard said. “And what spell?”

Revive Undead,” Rowan said. “It's a 3.5 necromancy spell, it's like Raise Dead but for undead.”

“Can't you just bring her back alive?” Carter said, looking at Zelenka.

“I don't have Resurrection yet,” he said.

McKay turned to the spread of cards before him. The first column contained one card, a cloaked figure holding a disembodied hand with keys tied to the fingers. “The past,” he said. “The Locksmith, something strange and ancient unlocking events and destinies. None of us, I don't think. Doesn't feel like it.”

“Mokmurian,” Rowan allowed. “Also, McKay...” He glared and pointed, face twisted in a warning scowl.

“What?” McKay demanded. “It's not like I get game relevant details.”

The second column contained two cards, one of a water elemental and a fire elemental proudly holding their strange offspring and one of identical twins facing each other with knives hidden behind their backs. “The present,” McKay said. “The Marriage and the Twin.”

“Oh my,” Zelenka said, leering at Sheppard.

“Shut up,” Sheppard said.

McKay pointed at the Twin. “No, not that,” he said. “It has nothing to do with us. Okay it might. The Marriage is the union of various things to create a new power, that could mean anything. And the Twin tells me it could apply to anything. It could be horrible knowledge, it could be a bunch of giants forming an army, given the Fiend over here it could refer to those hags earlier and... what?!”

Rowan stood, his glare reaching comically epic proportions as he pointed and glared and scowled and then gave up. He collapsed back into the GM's chair. “Game's over, go home.”

“What?” McKay demanded.

“Which one did he call?” Zelenka asked.

“The hags thing isn't even in the book!” Rowan complained, scowling. He slumped and pouted. “He called all three.”

Carter looked from the cards to McKay and then back to the cards. “I'm convinced,” she allowed. “This might be useful. Does it only work in game or does this work in real life as well?”

“What hag thing?” Sheppard asked.

Rowan's scowl disappeared as he grinned at Sheppard, a grin that promised pain. Suddenly Sheppard didn't want to know what the three hags had planned.

“The future,” McKay said, pointing to the last column of three cards: a prince sobbing at his father's gravestone, a wide-eyed child stalked by a clown, and a living tornado. “Those two like coming up in readings,” he mused. “The Empty Throne, the Carnival, and the Cyclone. Information from an ancient source, maybe a library? Someone else's ambitions, a reliance on arcane power and a war? No...” McKay grinned. “This adventure path is called 'Rise of the Runelords' isn't it.”

Rowan deflated. “Yes...”

McKay purred as he thought about the one thing that would make Rowan most likely to flip the table and leave the game. He pulled a single card from the harrow deck. The Trumpet showed an angel blowing a horn; it was a card that inspired fools to wade into trouble because it was the right thing to do even if it all went horribly wrong. “The giants are starting a war,” he predicted. “And we have to defend Varisia because it the right thing to do. But someone, say, a runelord, is going to use those deaths to fuel some horrible evil plan.”

Rowan mimed flipping the table.

“That was specific,” Zelenka said. “I'm impressed.”

Sheppard grinned but then he realized what this meant. “That's horrifying.”

McKay looked offended. “Well if that's how you feel about it--”

“Not that,” Sheppard said, cutting him off. “I mean in game, that's horrifying. Either we let an army of giants conquer Varisia and eat us all or we help some ancient Thassilonian ruler conquer Varisia and enslave us all. Holy fuck, Pete, what kind of game is this?!”

“This is a problem,” Carter agreed.

Rowan pointed at McKay, gesturing like he wanted to say something. He eventually settled on words. “You are never playing a Varisian again,” he said.

“Why not?” McKay asked.

Rowan sighed and pulled a flask of Zelenka's Decent from his things. He pulled the stopper and took a long drink. He slammed the bottle on the table, explicitly keeping it out of McKay's reach.

“Imagine what he could do with a dedicated deck,” Zelenka murmured. Carter only nodded.


The town of Sandpoint spread along the coast, shining and pretty in the light of the setting sun. Four horses stood on Ravenroost Ridge overlooking the town and the road below. Four mounted figures sat astride, or in one case sidesaddle, as they discussed among themselves the coming raid against this pretty little town. Would they defend the town from here? Or would they make the danger known, allow the innocents below time to prepare themselves? Sandpoint was unprotected, only a single watchtower on the North approach. The river, shallow and narrow as it was, would offer no protection against giants.

A decision was reached and four horses picked their way down the slope to the road.

At the Northgate watchtower a guard hailed the travelers. The hail was returned and he had to look again, could it be? He sent a runner to the Garrison as four horses plodded their way past the watchtower to the White Deer Inn just inside the town proper.

After a year abroad Sandpoint's heroes had returned.

*****

There was something different about them.

Father Zantus watched the four adventurers carefully. Sheriff Hemlock was more than willing to take these heroes at face value and Mayor Kendra followed his lead without question. After all, these were the heroes who stopped the Sihedron murders, as they'd come to be called, and then had to flee to Magnimar to save their friend from the ghoul's taint. But they hadn't heard the news afterward.

Zantus remembered a certain Sending well. They hadn't gone to the Pharasmins. It was such a small detail, something that he might have dismissed as unimportant. Something he had dismissed. But...

The Varisian's hair didn't move right. Her skin was too perfect. The elf's hand on her waist didn't seem to conform to her curves.

Zantus moved off and cast a quiet spell, a Detect Undead he so rarely had to use. His sight so augmented, he cast a heavy gaze on the heroes and had to clamp his hand over his mouth to stifle the scream.

The room went quiet as questioning eyes all turned on him. But the heroes, they didn't look surprised. Not at all. They looked resigned, annoyed, expectant.

And she...

Augmented sight stripped away the illusions and Zantus reached for his holy symbol. “I... I can't... By Desna...”

“Father, what's wrong?” Kendra asked.

Zantus raised his holy symbol and summoned forth the wholesome power of life and healing. It burst from him, an invisible wave crashing against everyone in the room. Only one of them reacted, a flinch and a low growl that only he could hear. And then she turned on him, eyes glowing red like infernal coals as she descended on him. He closed his eyes against the blow that...

...didn't come?

Zantus opened his eyes. He heard the faint hiss of undead flesh burning where she grasped his holy symbol. Her grip felt like iron as she held him. He glanced around, looking for a weapon he might use but there was nothing in reach. And then she raised one wicked claw and laid death-cold fingers on his face. He could feel the sharp claws pricking at his cheek, numbing the skin with her paralyzing touch. Her perfume was overwhelming, sickly sweet honey dripping over the cold earthy miasma of an open grave.

“Shhhhh,” she shushed, her hiss a mockery of a mother's comfort. Zantus flinched and tried to look away. Her claws on his face gripped tight, forced him to look at her.

“You're dead,” he whispered. He gathered his voice and screamed it. “You're DEAD!”

She smiled. Far too many sharp teeth spoke of his impending doom, ripped apart and eaten alive. Or worse, he would be savaged as she was and left to linger before his own death and then...

“We didn't make it to Magnimar fast enough,” she said, sounding not at all sorry. Instead she sounded amused at his disgust as she didn't deny it at all. “I was awake before we landed. Of course we couldn't go to the Pharasmins, but Cayden Cailean has always been willing to help out a Calistrian. And really, it's not so bad.”

Zantus tried to pull away, or at least get her claws off of his face. Maybe get his holy symbol back. Convince the others this was a monster, anything.

“Mira...” The Calistrian's voice had a note of warning. But that was all the help he got.

She leaned close to Zantus's ear and whispered something horrible. “They can't hear you.”

He looked around them. The world took on a slight shimmer as she allowed him to see the faint outline of her illusions, the mockery the others saw. His own shadow stood before hers, the two of them calmly discussing something unimportant. And then her glimpse faded and he knew just how alone he was even in his own cathedral.

“If I give this back to you, you'll try to hurt me again,” she purred, his holy symbol in her hand. Desna's butterfly looked so delicate, so fragile in those horrible claws. “But if I keep it from you, Cela will be disappointed in me.” She turned and pouted at her cleric, who gave her a fond look. Zantus realized the cleric Cela could see past the illusion and...

That made it worse, the knowledge that someone could see this and wasn't stopping it.

“And you will need it,” she said. “That's why we're here. We have it on good word Sandpoint's in danger. The cards tell me this is just the beginning, all of Varisia is in danger.”

“The cards still speak to you?”

Her smile lost some of its sinister character, becoming something close to a human's expression. “Of course. Desna may disapprove but she knows this isn't my fault. And I have never, ever eaten someone without good reason.”

Zantus scoffed. “Hunger is a 'good reason'.”

She purred. “I haven't eaten in a year,” she whispered. “If hunger were my reason...”

Zantus cringed and struggled as he felt something long and slimy, obscenely long, curl around his neck and trail up the side of his face. It had to be her tongue. She was tasting him. He whined as her tongue dragged along his skin and she had the audacity to purr through the whole thing. Once it was over she pulled back and bit her lip, like she was...

Winged grace, she was fighting to control herself. Zantus waited for her to lose that battle and braced himself for the embrace of cursed hunger. But it didn't come. Instead she took a single deep breath, the first one he'd seen her take. Her breath smelled like stale air, an empty grave, but it lacked the rotting stench traditionally associated with the hungry dead. “A year,” he said.

“A year,” she agreed. “Give or take a few months. The ogres at Fort Rannick. When against an army one defends oneself with any weapon one has, no matter how foul.”

He felt her grip lose some of its strength. He could move, he reached out for his holy symbol. She didn't stop him, let him wrap his fingers around it. But she didn't let go of it. Not even as he whispered the words to a spell, Detect Evil.

A horrible truth unraveled before him as he found her aura devoid of such taint. “Oh child,” he said. “Poor twisted child...”


“I hate you all.”

Pete Rowan made this declaration with no hesitation or discrimination. Instead they were all at fault here. After all, none of them were stopping McKay from carrying out Mira's twisted manipulations. True, half of them had failed their will saves and completely believed Mira and Zantus were in the corner discussing religion or turnips or whatever cover Mira's illusions were giving. But Cela made his save and Zelenka wasn't doing a damn thing about it, he hadn't even told the others anything was wrong.

“Hey, I'm not in this one,” Carter said. “That's all them. I warned you about fucking chaotic neutrals.”

“I'm not so sure about that 'neutral' part,” Rowan warned. “Either of them.”

“Pete, you wound me,” Zelenka said. “I haven't done anything that would warrant such actions.”

Rowan took a long swig from the flask. “Can we be done hurting me?” he asked. “Because I am seriously thinking of making Rodney run the next adventure so he can't hurt me anymore.”

“Rodney, cut it out,” Sheppard said.

“Yeah, do you have any idea how many crits he's gonna roll against us for this?” Carter asked.

McKay sighed. “Very well,” he conceded.

“There is something wrong with you,” Carter said.

McKay rubbed his temples. “There may be,” he admitted. He didn't feel right. Not ill, just not right. Like there was something else entirely going on. What was it the Twin had meant when it said everything and nothing mattered? He shook his head, trying to clear the feeling, but that just made it stronger. He pulled the harrow deck close, shuffling it as though the sound would help him somehow.

Rowan opened his mouth to complain but Zelenka shushed him. The table grew quiet as a strange seriousness replaced the game table's normal antics.

Ronon approached. “What's going on?” he asked.

“Don't know,” McKay said absently. “Something... I don't know...” He pulled three cards from the harrow deck and looked at them. The Big Sky reversed, twisted freedom leading to utter terror. The Betrayal reversed, stupidity's self-sacrifice. The Bear, untamed strength. He glanced at Sheppard and pulled a fourth card, dropping on the previous three. The Tyrant, the leader who destroys his followers. He sat back.

“What do you see?” Zelenka asked.

“Twenty five years,” McKay muttered.

“What?” Carter asked.

McKay shook his head, his movements slow and languid. He shivered, only just realizing how cold he was. “I... don't know...”

“Maybe we should call it for today,” Rowan said.

“Good idea,” Zelenka agreed.

McKay stayed at the game table while the others packed up and left, leaving him with words that would have made more sense if he were ill or something. This wasn't illness, it felt worse, so much worse. He drew one more card, the Mountain Man, an overwhelming force beyond his control.

It didn't make sense. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

*****

The detention level was active with the prisoner transfer. Todd had had his allotted time out of his cage and was being put back in.

“I need to talk to you,” McKay said. “Privately.”

Todd purred as the bars were closed and the energy field activated. “That is unfortunate,” he said. He looked around at the four guards, his 'escorts', as they took their posts at the sides of the room. “I would need to touch you. I do have that right but here?” Todd leered. "Is that wise, Dr. McKay?"

McKay looked at the four guards and then at the cage.

“I wouldn't recommend it, Dr.”

McKay stared at the guard who'd said that and shut down the energy field. He opened the cell door and allowed it to close behind him, his gaze daring them to stop him.

And then he realized he may have made a mistake as clawed hands enveloped him, as Todd pressed against his back and slid his hands over his front. McKay opened his mouth to scream but instead a strangled moan escaped as his eyes slipped closed, as the sucking warmth of Todd's hand grew painfully hot against his belly. He felt his knees going weak and then...

Todd purred in his ear and it didn't matter anymore.

We can speak now. Tell me, clever little maletrix. What brings you to my den?

McKay felt foolish, like he'd forgotten why he was here. There was a reason, right?

Todd hissed, his hands roaming across ever so tempting skin. He hungered and it would be so easy. Or he could stay his feast and take instead what McKay had so inadvertently offered when he came in here with an open and questioning mind. He could hear the commotion outside the cage, the guards on radios as queen and blades were summoned. He ignored it and instead casually rifled through McKay's surface thoughts.

“Twenty five years...” McKay mumbled aloud, words slurred like he wasn't even aware of his own voice.

Todd purred and followed the threads of thought to the spark of the obvious beneath it all. The wisdom of the maletrix is knowing when to interfere. And when to allow time to take its course.

“How...” McKay's voice faded to a breathy hiss. How do I know? What does it mean? What's going on? What are you doing to me?

There is a future you will see, you'll want it. You'll need it. It's what must happen. Sometimes... sacrifice is necessary to get there. Lives are unimportant, pride and years and self are meaningless. It needs to happen, it wants to happen, and you... You, little maletrix, are time's own voice. You alone see. You alone decide. Or you'll die trying, like so many others who failed to attain their wisdom.

Todd heard the storming footsteps outside. He knew the sight they'd be faced with, himself kneeling on the floor of his cell with Dr. McKay leaning and laying on him, their hands all over each other. He growled a warning at those uncivilized wretches who must be watching and dropped back underneath.

When faced with the chance to decide the future, how will you choose? Will you be selfish like so many others? Will you pick the easy way out? Will you leave the responsibility behind? Or will you give yourself over to twenty five years?

McKay's eyes shot open and he was thrown uncomfortably back into himself. A line of hot pain the width of a palm sat under his jaw where Todd held his head steady. He felt the Wraith pressed behind him, felt Todd's non-feeding hand under his shirt. The world swam, his vision strange like his sense of time had gone wrong. Todd's purr in his ear didn't help much but it kept him from panicking even as he realized he was looking at half a dozen gun barrels pointed at and around him.

“Rodney?” Sheppard asked, his sidearm pointed squarely at Todd's head. “Are you okay?”

“I'd feel better if I wasn't about to get shot...”

Sheppard nodded and all but one gun was pulled away. Sheppard's own sidearm stayed where it was, daring Todd to give him a reason.

Todd rumbled in amusement and pulled his hand out from under McKay's shirt. He then slid his feeding hand away from McKay's skin, trailing down his shirt. He gripped McKay's arms to steady them both and stood, hauling McKay to his feet.

“Think about it,” Todd purred. “I believe I'll be as interested in your choice as John Sheppard...”

Sheppard barely kept himself from shooting Todd in his smug face as he led a stumbling, weirdly exhausted McKay out of the cell. The energy field warbled on behind them, leaving Todd alone with his thoughts and his hunger.

McKay had a curious problem in his mind, the beginnings of an event. The obvious thing was to prevent the whole affair but...

Todd had the feeling this needed to happen.

He wouldn't interfere.

Chapter Text

A scream cut short with a THUD. Booming voices jeered and shouted and mocked them all in a language that sounded like Varisian and Thassilonian mixed with the grinding of rocks. Giant bears roared in the din of battle, cutting down the screams of guardsmen too small and young and fragile to do more than slow down the charge.

And then everything got so much worse.

The flapping of great wings descended on terrified Sandpoint, turning the hopeful dawn into a terrible spectacle to behold. The stone and glass Cathedral was full to bursting with families too scared or pious or vulnerable to hide in their own homes. Men and women in leather armor wielding hunting bows tried in vain to defend their town from giants outside of a bow's easy range, their stony skin protecting them from the worst of the arrows.

Something in the sky roared and it all changed.

The dragon had come.

Fire rained down on the Garrison as the dragon breathed before landing in the flames of his own breath, flapping his wings and roaring with carnal glee. He reached down with his long neck and the scream ended in a horrific gurgle as the dragon feasted, taking a single great bite from the belly and tossing the rest away like so much refuse. Then he jumped, flapping into the air before strafing again.

This time the dragon's fire splashed against the Cathedral and the dragon screamed his glee.

*****

Ace looked up in horror and not a little frustration at the dragon above them. He had a bow, yes, but what good was a bow against a monster like that? “Can't you do anything about that?” he shouted, pointing at the dragon.

“Busy here,” Mira shouted back. She was busy, the giant's leader had just made himself known.

“Dragon!” Ace shouted. “Women and children!”

“Leader!” Mira shouted back. She glanced up and jumped out of the way, taking Ace with her as the boulder sailed through the air to land right where they'd been. She growled at the situation. This wouldn't do, not at all. She cast a spell and sent its power into Ace. “Go take care of the dragon, then,” she said.

“How?!”

“Fly!”

Ace looked at her like she was nuts. Then he realized his feet weren't touching the ground anymore and he could... fly? He could... fly.

Mira shook her head with far too much fondness when she heard Ace's realization behind her, as he flew laughing into the sky to meet the dragon head on.

Cela was in the middle of organizing a bucket brigade and defending the Cathedral. The dragon was in the air again trying to use claw and fang against Ace's comically large sword. Charlie was somewhere, Mira couldn't see where, but that wasn't odd.

And then Mira made a mistake. She didn't dodge fast enough and the giant's greatclub, really just an uprooted tree wielded like a weapon, slammed into her. She found herself on the ground in a world of pain and then the world shifted, a gigantic hand holding her still.

No, this wasn't how it ended. She snarled and bit and bit and clawed, feeling a grim satisfaction as the giant went limp and fell. She wasn't entirely sure how but then she caught a glimpse of Charlie's daggers and purred. She felt better as she shot rays of fire into the next charging giant, causing it to scream and stumble into the river.

Battle was chaos. Battle was chaos and pain and fire and as Mira wrapped the red and orange bladed scarf around her claws she howled in glee at the carnage.


“You feeling okay, Rodney?” Carter asked.

“I'm fine, why?”

Meanwhile Sheppard had his dice out and was grinning in that way he only grinned when McKay had already lost a chess game or there was tapioca pudding in the mess hall. It was his turn and he so close to bringing down the dragon.

“Roll to hit,” Rowan said.

Sheppard rolled the die and began adding numbers, the math working quickly in his head. “Twenty nine,” he said.

“You just barely hit,” Rowan said.

Zelenka scowled. “Oh, so he rolls a seven and hits,” he said.

“He's a fighter,” Carter said. “That's what they do.”

“Roll damage,” Rowan said.

Sheppard rolled his damage dice, two of the six sided dice. His sword's fire damage didn't mean anything to a red dragon but even without he still hit like a freight train. “Twenty five,” he said.

“Is that your damage or your to hit roll?” McKay drawled.

Rowan reached over onto the battle map, picking up the miniature of a large red dragon and moving it off the table. “Okay,” he said. “You've just killed a large red dragon over a town. It's going to fall out of the sky. What do you do?”

“I'm... not sure I thought this part out,” Sheppard admitted.

“Roll a luck die,” Rowan said, grinning.

Sheppard picked up a die, any die, it happened to have eight sides, and rolled.


Ace jumped off of the dragon's corpse as it landed in the dusty crossroads. The Fly spell was still active and it carried him above the wreckage to a nearby rooftop. He happened to glance south and...

“Scarnetti Manor!” he shouted. “The giants are on the bluffs!”

Mira heard him shout and looked over. The giants at the mill pond were on the retreat, she only had two Fireballs today and both were lobbed to gain that advantage. A soft billow of smoke drifted from the bluffs where Sandpoint's manor houses stood. Mira swore under her breath, something about rich idiots who couldn't give up and admit they were bound to one spot without their pride, and reached out with her mind. Yes, Lightfoot was still intact. He stood near the stables where the giant's raid of the brewery was rendered short-lived by Cela and Charlie.

She called the skeletal horse to her and hoisted herself on his back, riding out over the bridge to the bluffs.

She was running low on spells. This raid had better end quickly.

The manor house was in shambles. What once might have been a study was now without roof or walls as giants carried off rolled tapestries and chests of goods. The Scarnettis themselves were bound and tossed screaming into a large wagon the giants must use as a handcart. The fire hadn't spread far, just far enough to smoke and smolder, deep gray smoke rising into the sky.

Mira called up one of her last spells, two lines of fire splashing against the back of the closest giant. He turned and growled, breaking off a large piece of masonry and hurling it at her. Lightfoot swerved, circling around as she threw out her last powerful spell.

It had an effect, of sorts. Baleful Polymorph was supposed to turn the giant into a rabbit or a weasel or something less dangerous. Instead all it did was make the giant angry.

Mira urged Lightfoot to swerve again as now both giants abandoned the manor and their wagon of prisoners, instead coming after her.

And then she wasn't alone.

And then it was over.


Sheppard looked at McKay, eyes wide and hopeful.

McKay attempted to ignore the bouncing, buzzing hope next to him. Instead he looked at the miniatures on the table. His was a new one, no longer the half-painted lady with the ribboned staff. Instead this one was eerie and spiky, something pale with red eyes and far too round of a rear end. Not that he was complaining but Dr. Tomson had painted the miniature like the skirt was really sheer and that translucency was distractingly evident on the rear. Somehow he thought underwear should be a thing. But maybe not, after all this was fantasy...

Sheppard whined aloud. “Rodney...” he pleaded. He pointed to a thing in the main book.

McKay rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.

“Rodneeey...”

“Fine,” McKay allowed. “I'll make that for you.”

Sheppard grabbed McKay and kissed him right there.

The game room was far from empty. A marine and an engineer argued over distances, each waving their tape measures as their animal-headed armies fought on the table below. The card table in the back hosted a dice game as evidenced by Parrish calling for 'no whammies', glaring at Todd as though he may have been involved. Todd played a game of Go with Dr. Kusanagi while Todd's guards pretended to keep watch while arguing over fantasy football stats. And yet most of that seemed to slow, succumbing to a communal double-take as McKay closed his eyes and relaxed into the kiss.

“Are you two done?” Zelenka demanded.

Sheppard snorted and pulled away. McKay scowled at Zelenka then realized they were in public and blushed.

“I'll thank you tonight,” Sheppard murmured.

McKay's blush went deeper as he cleared his throat and tried not to think about tonight.

“What are you making for him?” Rowan asked. He seemed determined to ignore anyone else's plans for that night.

Sheppard started bouncing again, metaphorically at least. “I'm going to skin the dragon and then Mira's going to make me some wings of flying.”

Carter sighed and rolled her eyes. “I should have guessed,” she mused. “I wondered how long it would be until you found those.”

“Roll a Survival check,” Rowan said.


The dragon's corpse was dragged to a strategic location, where Ace could skin the thing in peace and where Cela's prisoner could see it. On the other side of the river Lightfoot stood in the Sandpoint graveyard without illusions as that seemed a fitting spot for an undead horse to stand. Boulders were rolled out of streets and damage assessed while the dead were discovered and mourned. Charlie helped with the dragon while Mira and Cela got the prisoner ready.

Not all of the fallen giants were dead. This one survived.

The strength of a rope would not contain something like a stone giant but maybe a dozen ropes? Or chains?

“If I was one of those strength-draining undead this would be easier,” Mira mused aloud.

“If you were you would be incorporeal,” Cela said. “'A shadow of your former self' is not a metaphor.”

“What if we got Charlie to hamstring him?”

“That would work...”

“I'm not torturing anyone!” Charlie shouted at them from the dragon's corpse.

“We're not torturing him,” Cela said defensively.

“We're just trying to find a way to keep him from running while we interrogate him,” Mira agreed.

Charlie threw up her hands in disgust. A faint rant about loose morals and 'alignment-creep' drifted from her direction.

The giant was tied enough. If he tried to run they'd just have to kill him. Mira was nearly out of spells but Cela's bladed whip held a bane against giants. “Wake him,” she said.

Cela cast the spells that brought the giant around.

Large gray eyes opened and looked around. The injured giant squinted, frowned, and then chuckled wryly to himself. “Defeated by little humans,” he said. “Never thought this would happen to the Plateau People. No matter. My lord Mokmurian is one of the giants of old come again. His magic, the things he has made, he has mastered the ancient arts. We will rule the lowlands again, down to the sea. He will kill you all, run rough over your tiny homes with his army. The fortunate will become his slaves. You may beat us today but you won't beat us when there are a hundred, a thousand of the Plateau People marching together. Lord Mokmurian will make it happen.”

Mira climbed onto the giant where he lay, standing on his chest so she could look him in the eyes. She summoned a small spell, one of those she still could call up without a thought. She pulled the Sihedron medallion from the folds of her scarves and let it catch the light. “Your Mokmurian isn't the only one come from before,” she purred.

Cela looked confused for a moment before he went along with the charade. This must be a bluff. She was better at bluffing than he was. And then she moved to a language he didn't know, though he knew a threat when he heard one no matter the language and no matter how sweetly she purred.

“Et inebriabo sua'carn,” she purred. “Mortem autem... deprecatus...”

The words were unimportant, though she planned on making good on those promises to feast on Mokmurian's flesh while he begged for death. She hadn't done that in a long time, not since the ogres. What was important was the language and the look of utter fear in the giant's eyes as he heard Ancient Thassilonian spoken aloud. “Kill me then,” he said. “I'll tell you nothing.”

Mira hissed, darting up the giant's torso to snarl in his face. He merely grinned, baring teeth much bigger than hers. This... might not work.

“She wants to kill you, you know,” Cela said conversationally. “And I would let her. But she would do much more than kill. She would tear and maim and I need your body intact if I'm to interrogate it. Mira...”

Mira hissed and retreated, sliding down the giant's torso. Her claws left tiny rents in stony flesh as she slid, little more than cat scratches to something so much bigger than she was.

“That's better,” Cela praised. Mira purred at him, playing the part of the cooperative pet. “Now then. Do you have a name? What should I call you?”

The giant sneered and didn't answer.

“I see,” Cela said, still disturbingly conversational. “You must know I have nothing against you in particular. My interest is in vengeance, not justice. Petty laws mean nothing to me. And so my quarrel is with your lord Mokmurian, not with you. If he is as strong as you say, he will be more than capable of defending himself from 'little humans'. If not, why protect him?”

“Mokmurian doesn't need protection,” the giant snapped. “He fears no human! He fears no elder, no blasphemy, no force on this world or the next! He has mastered the magic of the Azghats! He alone has claimed the Valley of the Black Tower! He is Lord!”

“He is dead,” Mira purred. “He just doesn't know it yet. As are you.” She climbed the giant's torso and ripped out his throat.

“Mira,” Cela warned. There was no fire in his voice, only an annoyed disappointment. “Now I have to cast Speak With Dead. We have to wait until I can pray for my spells tonight.”

“No we don't,” Mira said, purring with glee. “I know where the Valley of the Black Tower is.”

*****

They detoured to Fort Rannick to drop off a few things. Jakardros and Vale were particularly interested in the three large barrels of brandy liberated from a quartet of marauding ogres who hadn't yet managed to open and befoul them.

The keep was already improved over last year. Beehives buzzed in the meadow between the tree line and the stream. The tunnel to the abandoned giant eagle aerie was cleared and open; there was rumor of dragons flapping around the mountaintop and if there was any situation that needed to be watched it was potential dragons. The outer walls were newly remasoned, the collapsed watchtower was replaced with a new one of magically shaped stone. Mira had taken one of the smaller towers, saying it was traditional for wizards to squat in towers.

But it was the people that made the most difference.

Fort Rannick functioned as an actual castle with a seneschal and a staff and its own order of knights. The pantry had actual food in it, even. It was a drain on Ace's personal finances but he could possibly con Charlie into footing some of the bill. She never seemed to buy anything, finding most of her gear in caches or on newly dead bodies, and had amassed a sizable fortune. Maybe if he convinced her it would lead to better pies...

But there was something more important. Ace waited until after midnight, after Cela was done praying for the day's spells and could be convinced to kick the night's acolyte out of his bed. They grabbed Charlie and the three of them cornered Mira in the main library at the base of her tower.

“Talk,” Cela said. “The reading before we left for Sandpoint.”

Mira considered fleeing up the stairs to her observatory, really just a trap door in the ceiling to the outside where she could lie on the roof. She didn't want to talk about that reading. It was too unnerving.

“The Marriage and the Twin,” Charlie said, leaning against the door so she couldn't flee out into the keep. “The Empty Throne, the Carnival, and the Cyclone.”

“I thought prophecy died with Aroden,” Ace said. “But now I'm not so sure.”

“The Azghat,” Cela said. “You knew that word. What is it?”

Mira sighed, a deep breath she didn't need to take. She moved to a bookshelf and began pulling scrolls of parchment. She looked through several, stuffing them back into the shelves as she searched for... Ah, there. That one. She pulled it from the shelf. She brushed stray red dragon scales from her workbench and unrolled the parchment.

It was a charcoal drawing of a man, one that seemed familiar somehow. First Cela went still, then Ace, then Charlie was left wondering what was going on. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Every caravan has a story,” Mira said. “It's a different story each time. But it's the same story. It's all the same story. We were enslaved, bound in one spot by chains of servitude, toiling under masters of unbearable power. Then the darkness came and in it our chains were broken. We wandered for a thousand years, lost and alone and starving until the sun came back. We wander still, because if we don't, if we settle down and bind ourselves to one spot, the old masters will come back. I've heard them called demons, monsters, masters, but the only real name I've ever heard was 'Azghat'.”

“What does it mean?” Ace asked.

“Earthfall and the Age of Darkness?” Charlie asked.

“Possible,” Cela admitted. “The humans say Aroden uplifted them after that Age and began their empire. Taldor.”

Ace snorted. Taldor was an ancient human empire, that was true, but like most ancient empires it was collapsing under its own decadence and superiority. Cheliax had supplanted it in Aroden's eyes millennia ago and everyone but Taldor knew it. Now without their god even mighty Cheliax had fallen to diabolism, an entire empire in the service of Asmodeus. A chilling thought.

“Not us,” Mira said. “We never cared for their god. Aroden demanded too much, he demanded we stop wandering. In exchange he'd give us pretty chains to bind ourselves. Gold chains are still chains and toil beneath a benevolent master is still slavery.”

“Before Earthfall was... Azlant?” Charlie asked.

“And Thassilon,” Mira agreed. “Azlant sank beneath the waves and the continent was shattered. But Thassilon endured. Thassilon endures to this day.”

“The ruins all over Varisia,” Ace said. “They're all that remains of that empire, aren't they?”

“Not all,” Mira said. “There are three languages spoken today that descended from Thassilonian. The three languages spoken by the three slave castes. Giant, Shoanti, and--”

“And Varisian,” Cela realized.

“Yes.”

Charlie shuddered and looked down at her hands. She wondered if this was how a halfling felt, knowing one was meant to be a slave. Even the Varisian's language was a mark of that servitude. And Mira's tattoos... Charlie looked up in dawning horror as she realized what the intricate tattoos that marked spiky runes all over her skin must really mean.

Mira must have come to the same conclusion because she was tracing the lines etched into her arm. “My caravan had a story,” she said. “A great dread wolf descended from Desna's palace in the stars. As the Azghat fought among themselves in the ending of the world, the dread wolf sheltered us all beneath his belly. But the battle was too fierce and the world was destroyed and so we hid in the darkness of his fur for a thousand years.” She snorted. “It's silly, I know.”

“It's not that bad,” Ace said as he moved to her, sliding an arm around her waist. “Elves have a story where we came from Castrovel.”

Charlie snickered. Ace had the feeling she wasn't the only one laughing at him but he couldn't hear it. The feeling soon passed.

“You think the Azghat are... returning?” Cela asked.

“Yes, no, I don't know.” Mira tried to hide her worry from them but Ace tightened his arm, preventing her from fleeing. Instead she was pulled against him. She relaxed into his warmth. She didn't want to be worried. She didn't want to know these things. She didn't want the urge to draw cards. What if it wasn't Desna speaking to her through them? What if it was something worse? But then there was the vision that killed Baba Rann a year, an eternity ago.

Somehow she knew the charcoal drawing on her parchment was the man that killed Baba Rann. The burning glaive, the stones sewn into his skin, tall and pale with long black hair... Somehow she knew his voluminous robes were green and gold.

Chapter Text

The Valley of the Black Tower was aptly named.

Nestled in a valley between mountains of the Iron Peaks, the Valley of the Black Tower held one of the lesser known Thassilonian ruins. A single black tower of smooth glassy stone stood alone, crenelations like blades reaching up into the sky. There was some rumor to the tower, that it was only the upper reaches of a vast complex buried by time. However, recent memory did not recall any attempt to determine the depths of the dungeons below, if they even existed.

An attempt might have been made now.

Night began to fall, the westering sun turning the autumn sky red. Four sets of eyes watched from cover.

The Valley of the Black Tower was much changed.

The tower itself no longer stood alone. Instead it looked like the giants had incorporated it into their fortress, using the Black Tower to anchor their outer walls. Inside the walled ring stood buildings full of movement and noise and activity, but at the moment that was the least of their problems.

The entire valley floor was an army encampment.

“Fuck,” Ace whispered.

“The giants have raised an army,” Cela said, stating the obvious.

“Please, Desna, let this be the bulk of their army,” Mira said.

“Even if it is, how do we deal with that?” Charlie asked.

“Very carefully,” Cela said.

Charlie hit him.

“Quiet,” Ace hissed. He wished he had a spyglass.

Seven smaller clusters of camps made up the bulk of the army. Mira figured each camp represented a tribe of giants dragged into this army business by Mokmurian, either mind controlled or promised great rewards upon conquering the lowlands. To be honest, she was surprised this many tribes had bothered to show up. The giants of the Storval Plateau weren't known for their cohesion or their regimental ideals. Rather they tended to wander in tribes held together by tradition and a strong elder, much like wolf packs. There were also the basic logistic problems involved in feeding an army this size made up of giants this size. Not even stone giants ate rocks and rocks seemed to be the only food around for miles.

“We could disrupt a few of the camps,” Mira suggested. “If we can cause the tribes to start fighting among themselves we'll have a better chance at getting inside.”

“Why do we need to get inside then?” Charlie asked. “If we can disband the army from here I'm all for it.”

Mira shook her head. “I want Mokmurian,” she said. “I need to know.”

They stayed under cover as the sun set into night. The valley below twinkled with fires that mirrored the stars above. The soft flapping of great wings betrayed the presence of Night Wyverns in the skies.

“I have an idea,” Mira said.

*****

“This is a horrible plan,” Mira said.

“It's your plan,” Ace said.

“That's how I know it's a horrible plan,” Mira said defensively.

Ace and Cela rolled their eyes.

“I like this plan,” Charlie said. It was a rare thing for her to be able to slink out into darkness unseen, whatever the occasion. The danger only made it that much more exciting.

“If something goes wrong we won't be able to come get you,” Mira warned.

“Yes, yes, and I'll be eaten or worse,” Charlie said dismissively. She pulled on soft leather gloves, black to blend in with the night. She pulled her cloak around her shining mithril armor, hiding the sheen from the starlight. She pulled the cloak's hood over her face.

“Wait,” Mira said.

Charlie sighed. “What now?”

Mira reached into her haversack and pulled out a skull. At least it might have been a skull once. Now it was mostly the face of a skull lined with black silk that seemed to drip out of it. “Wear this,” she offered.

Charlie twitched as she looked at the thing. It had 'evil' written all over it, she just knew it.

Ace thought he recognized it. Last winter, the Night of the Pale, Mira wore... “I've seen that,” he allowed.

“Yes,” Mira agreed. “It's my death mask. I wore it for the dance.”

“Dance?” Cela asked.

Mira ignored him. “It'll cloak you in shadows, make you harder to see. It's not a real Darkness spell, just an illusion, but it'll hide you from casual perusal. Just... stick to shadows.”

Charlie nodded and gingerly took the mask. It didn't feel evil but it sure looked it. She pulled off her eyes of the eagle and slid the death mask of shadows over her face. She didn't feel any different...

Oh...

Charlie held up one black gloved hand and saw its edges were softened, like her outline faded instead of its normal stark line. Shadows seemed to drip from her, pooling at her feet and darkening their little hidden alcove.

“I've... never heard of anything like this,” Charlie said.

Mira didn't blush, not really. “I invented it,” she said. “I needed something to make me look like a spirit. It's just a little thing but maybe it'll help?” She looked away. She was unprepared when Charlie hugged her.

Charlie pulled away. The skull's jawless grin hid her smile but not her eyes. “Thank you, Mira,” she said. “I'll bring it back.”

“Bring yourself back too,” Mira said. And then Charlie was gone, a wisp of darkness darting from shadow to shadow below like an apparition.


“Finally get to use this Stealth score,” Carter said, cracking her knuckles.

“You've been putting full ranks into that thing and you're only now getting to use it?” Sheppard asked. It didn't seem right or logical.

“I'm a rogue,” Carter said. “I get more skill points than Mira. I might as well keep up my skills.”

The game room was winding down for the Sunday. The card table in the back was quiet, Lorne and Parrish in the middle of a game of Gin. Todd stared down at the Go board with disturbed worry while Dr. Kusanagi sat looking quietly pleased and a dozen scientists all watched what had become far more exciting than any normal game of Go expected to be. The army tables were empty, or at least devoid of armies as Dr. Tomson had commandeered a table and was putting the finishing touches on a brightly colored dragon. Ronon sat nearby with a spread of snacks, most of them untouched.

McKay yawned and stretched. He started stacking his dice in towers. Sheppard reached out to poke one, causing dice to scatter. McKay pouted then gestured to him while glaring at Zelenka. Zelenka nodded and moved his own dice out of Sheppard's reach before building his own tower.

“Roll your Stealth,” Rowan said.

Carter rolled her dice, adding her nearly obscene numbers to the dice roll. “Forty five,” she said.

Zelenka knocked his own dice tower over as he stared.

“What?” Carter asked.

“Yeah, I'd say you make it to the first camp,” Rowan allowed. “The giants have guards posted on the perimeter, mostly to keep watch on the other tribes. There are six tents in all. What do you do?”

“Do these tents have doors or cracks or some way I can get in without bringing attention to myself?” Carter asked.

“Roll a Perception check,” Rowan said.

Carter picked up her 20-sided die and rolled again. “Thirty three,” she said.

“Yes, you can find unsecured tent flaps,” Rowan said.

“I listen at some doors,” Carter said before rolling her die unprompted. “Damn. Twenty five. Can I tell who's sleeping and who's awake?”

“Yes you can,” Rowan said. “What's your plan?”

Carter grinned. “I'm going to sneak into the tents of sleeping giants and slit their throats. All of them.”

Rowan looked taken aback by that statement. “Okay,” he accepted. “You're going to sneak into tents and coup de grace sleeping giants. Do you have a... quota?”

“I figure I'll take out this camp then head back,” Carter said. “Don't want to get caught.”

“Oh, of course not,” Rowan said. Occasionally he forgot Colonel Carter was an SGC-hardened military strategist. And then something like this reminded him.

“If it looks good I'll approach Jorgenfist from the other direction and see if I can't take out another camp.”

“That's... kind of hot,” Sheppard admitted.

McKay looked offended.

“Shut up,” Sheppard said. “Besides, you agree with me.”

“I agree with you,” Ronon said, grinning.

“I'm glad my ruthlessness makes me so attractive,” Carter said in a deadpanned voice.

Todd looked away from his impending loss to this tiny human and purred, teeth bared in a grin. McKay twitched and gaped openly at him, blushing. He looked back at Carter. “At least I can say I found you attractive before I knew you were a ruthless monster,” he said.

“Gee, thanks, McKay,” Carter drawled.

Sheppard tried not to laugh.


The army outside was in disarray. The gates of Jorgenfist were open, giants riding on the backs of woolly mammoths attempting to quell the uprising. Threats and accusations flew like arrows, shouted over the din as dire bears roared and mammoths trumpeted.

Mira led the way into the Black Tower. The giants on the surface didn't concern her, she hunted Mokmurian. If any of the boasts about Mokmurian were true then he must have found some ancient cache of Thassilonian lore somewhere. This place was most likely; why else would he collect his army here if not to keep them close to his personal libraries?

The room was... empty. Hoarfrost coated the floor and the base of the walls, growing from underneath.

“Aren't you glad we make you wear shoes?” Charlie asked.

“Hey, I like shoes,” Ace said defensively. “Rocks hurt.”

“Wimp,” Cela said. “And yes, I am glad.”

Mira scratched at the frost-covered floor. She found a trap door set into the floor. “Let's go down,” she said.

“It's colder down there,” Charlie complained.

“And?” Mira asked. “There's stuff down there.”

“How do you know?” Cela asked.

“There's stuff somewhere,” Mira said. “There's a reason Mokmurian's here and not, say, anywhere else. That reason is this tower. There's got to be something down here.”

Ace shrugged. “Makes sense,” he allowed.

The trap door slid aside with the barest of touches. Cold air stole their breath as the frost climbed up the walls all the way to the tower's apex. Cela cast a quick Endure Elements on himself and sighed in relief as he stopped shivering. Ace and Charlie glared at him. Mira didn't notice as she already lay on the icy floor, leaning over into the open shaft down. “Shut up, I think I hear something,” Mira said.

Charlie leaned over the shaft and listened. “I hear it too,” she admitted.

Beneath them a voice grew stronger as it ascended the shaft up toward them. It muttered the same words over and over.

“viridi lux viridi lux viridi lux Viridi Lux Viridi Lux VIRIDI LUX

“RUN!” Ace shouted. But the tower door slammed shut before they could escape as the green light ascended.

Mira clutched her head and screamed as the green light flooded her senses, tried to twist her to its will. She reached out with a hand. Fire flew from her fingertips, turning the green to red just long enough for the slimy feeling of green light to recede from her mind.

And then the green light descended, coalescing into a mummy clutching a scroll tube that shone an eerie green. She wanted that scroll tube.

*****

“Ow,” Ace complained.

“I'll get to you in a minute,” Cela scowled.

“What the hell was that?” Charlie demanded as Cela cast the spells to remove the mummy's rot from her wounds.

“A mummy,” Mira said absently.

“I could see that,” Charlie snapped. “Since when do mummies fly?! It didn't even have legs!”

Mira hummed in acknowledgment as she ran her claws over the scroll tube filled with green light. Now that the mummy was destroyed, now that the mind controlling the green light wasn't trying to focus it on her, she could handle it. It still felt slimy, wrong in some personally insulting way, but it didn't hurt anymore. The scroll tube itself was made of dull gray adamantium, locked with a complex puzzle lock. Mira slowly spun the little dials, still pristine after all these thousands of years.

“Mira, are you okay?” Cela called.

“'M fine.” The green light within lessened when she closed her eyes, not quite disappearing even in darkness. The slimy feeling clung to her mind, dripping into the dark corners where she kept her hunger and all the horrors that came with it.

Ace dragged himself to his feet. He was injured, sore, but he was free of the mummy's rot. The three steps he took to Mira's side hurt more than the entire battle with the ancient flying mummy and its putrid soul-stealing breath. He collapsed next to her.

Mira hummed as she turned dials, feeling them click against her claws and each other, tiny gears working like clockwork to turn the scroll tube's insides.

“Mira, what is that?” Ace asked.

“Dunno.” She sounded so far away, like she wasn't even here.

Ace reached out to take her hand. She pulled it away, not letting go of the scroll tube. “Mira,” Ace warned.

Mira hissed low in her throat. He just didn't understand. There was something in here she needed. It was terrible, it was beautiful, she needed it. She turned dials more, pressing one then another as the mechanism inside clicked and the scroll tube opened.

The green light winked out, revealing delicate rolled scrolls of wyvern hide edged in gold.

"At least that's over," Ace said. But it wasn't.

Mira purred and smiled as she turned. The green light wasn't gone, it had only moved, shining out from her glowing green eyes.


“Rodney...” Sheppard looked like he wanted to do or say something rash but then he slumped and gave up. “Why?”

“This... is the Anathema Archive,” Rowan said with a grin. “Congratulations, you found your first artifact. And whoever uses it goes insane. Have fun!”

“How come he gets the first artifact?” Carter demanded.

“You can have it,” Zelenka said. “I would prefer not to go insane. I would prefer none of you going insane, to be honest. You keep more knives than Ronon, you carry a comically large sword, and you eat people.”

“Not all the time,” McKay said.

“Regardless, I think here's a good point to stop,” Rowan said. “You're at Jorgenfist, you've gotten into the compound, you're in the Black Tower, and you even found the artifact. And no one's gone insane yet.”

“I don't like that 'yet',” Sheppard said, glaring at McKay.

“Oh ye of little faith,” McKay said.

The game slowly dissolved, breaking into pleasantries and small talk about the next day's work. McKay stretched and then remembered something that had him leering at Sheppard. “So about tonight,” McKay drawled.

Sheppard grinned.

*****

As soon as the door closed Sheppard was on him.

McKay moaned aloud as Sheppard's hands pulled his shirt up, baring pale skin to scrutiny. Red marks still betrayed spots where Todd's feeding hand lingered during programming sessions, Sheppard growled at these and licked them, bit, sucked on tender flesh until the red turned purple and McKay had to lean against the wall as his knees grew weak.

“He can't have you,” Sheppard murmured.

McKay grabbed Sheppard's head and tried to take some control, tried to move his angry mouth to somewhere less tender.

Sheppard shook off McKay's grip and pushed him against the wall. Sheppard nearly growled, a sound that ran down McKay's spine like a spark. “Do you know what I'm going to do to you?” he asked.

McKay nodded, eyes falling closed.

“You do, do you?” Sheppard said, leering.

McKay wasn't sure if the languid feeling was anticipation or if he really did know. It didn't seem to matter. “You're going to bend me over my bed,” he purred. “You're going to fuck me hard and fast and you won't let me cum until I beg.”

Sheppard was intrigued. “Is that what you want?” he asked. “Or what I want?”

“Yes,” McKay hissed.

Sheppard took that as answer enough, pushing McKay onto the bed. He took off his own shirt and climbed on the bed, laying on McKay to feel soft smooth skin against his own. McKay's hands gripped him, pulling him close, sliding under the waist of his BDUs. Sheppard hissed at the strangeness of cold hands, since when did McKay have cold hands, and ground their cocks together. Fabric was in the way and he pulled away, sliding his BDUs down his hips. He toed his boots off before grabbing McKay's own shoes and pulling them off.

That eerie languid look was back, leaving McKay looking like his eyes wouldn't focus quite right. He bit his lip and purred, a sound Sheppard refused to associate with anything Wraith-like, and rolled over to reach for the nightstand and the lube hidden within.

Sheppard grabbed McKay's waistband and tugged. McKay lifted his hips as he reached and rummaged, letting his pants slide off. And then he moaned aloud as he felt Sheppard's hands grip his hips and lift him onto his knees. “Yes,” McKay hissed. “Just like that.”

Sheppard took the lube from McKay's absent hand. He squeezed some onto his hand and traced slick fingers over McKay's hole. The long breathy moan was an interesting sound, one he'd never heard before. It certainly didn't sound like anything he'd heard McKay breathe when Todd was groping him, definitely not. The thought alone made him growl as he slicked himself and pressed inside.

McKay grabbed at the pillow, the bed, anything. The stretch burned, it burned like Todd's feeding hand when everything else grew cold. His eyes fell closed and his mouth fell open in a scream that sounded more like a tiny keening squeak. And then something broke inside him as Sheppard began to thrust.

McKay could hear himself moaning, could feel the exquisite pain and searing pleasure of taking too much too fast. He thought he might have gasped Sheppard's name, he could feel “John...” on his lips but he couldn't hear it.

Instead he could hear everything.

He heard soft words whispered in his ear as he knelt on the floor of someone's quarters, not his own. He heard the soft electric buzzing of the Void between the stars. He heard Todd's overly formal 'do you mind?' and then the mental slam of a door blocking him. He heard a child called 'Darling' running through caverns lined with snails. He heard 25 years lost and then gained and meaning.

McKay's eyes shot open, unseeing even as he vaguely felt Sheppard thrusting into him. He saw a beautiful pale woman in a white veil with Todd's piercing eyes. He saw Todd standing naked before his own crew, arms thrown wide in supplication as he demanded they take with both hands. Elizabeth all dressed in black on the bridge of a Replicator ship. A planet imploding by his own hand. Drops of mercury scattering from a closed fist.

And then nothing.

McKay came to, the feel of warm hands on his face and chest. He opened his eyes to see Sheppard above him. “You okay, Rodney?”

McKay grinned. “Wow... What happened?”

Sheppard looked away, a sheepish blush staining his cheeks. “I may have... Um... That is...”

McKay shifted and hissed at the sensation. He felt stretched and open, a heat that burned to remind him of... of what? Whatever it was it felt rather... “We should do that again,” McKay said.

“I think you passed out,” Sheppard said.

“I may have,” McKay admitted. Now that the sudden overwhelming trance was over he shivered. It felt like the cold was coming from within him somehow and for a moment it seemed he'd never be warm again. He put cold hands on Sheppard, he couldn't help the snort as Sheppard jumped and squeaked.

“Holy shit, Rodney, you're freezing.” Sheppard grabbed McKay's hands with his own and tried to warm them. It didn't make sense, the room wasn't this cold, not by a long shot. “What... happened?”

“I'm... not entirely sure,” McKay admitted. He curled up in Sheppard's warm arms. How did he get this cold? What was going on?

Chapter Text

Todd was tired.

His cage was little more than a square box, all bare floor and sharp corners. These humans didn't trust him alone in a room of Lantean design. Normally he wouldn't have cared, his knowledge of Lantean 'amenities' left him preferring the honesty of a bare floor over the lie of a raised pallet that looked like comfort and felt like that same bare floor, but the lack of privacy was getting to him.

Even worse, McKay was growing stronger. Or at least he had discovered an activity that enabled him to expand upon his extant strengths. And that was an experience, trying to sleep curled up on the floor of the empty cage with those sounds in the back of his mind. Sheppard was at fault here, there was no doubt. Sheppard was exactly the type of human to claim his mate with such force and volume that the mental impression could be felt through an entire hive. His queen Samantha Carter denied him the right to protect his mate from Wraith collaboration and so of course Sheppard would find another way to make his claim known.

Todd stretched as he looked around the lab. The human Dr. Zelenka looked well-rested and smelled of the Satedan. The human Dr. Kusanagi still seemed pleased with her victory in the human strategy game but acted surprisingly civilized about it. The human Dr. Simpson smelled like puddlejumper lubricant and overheated crystals, her mind seemed elsewhere. Todd's entourage, the guards who were supposed to keep him from feeding on any of these scientists, all stood bored. If they had any idea how long it had been since Todd fed they would be less bored. His feeding hand gaped as he inhaled the scent of so many prey. A drop of enzymatic saliva pooled in the corner of his feeding slit. Todd casually wiped it away and closed his hand.

He would not feed yet. Not today. Soon. His sense of the obvious told him it would be soon and he would not have to fight for it. A meal freely given. These humans would have no other option. But until then he had to wait.

And then his wait grew difficult as Dr. McKay walked in.

The man reeked of John Sheppard to such a level that Todd's nasal slits closed out of reflex. He remembered the taste of that man's life force, the glorious feeling of glutting himself and then forcing it back over and over while Kolya watched, toying with his meal solely to extend the time he could, luxuriating in the sensation of being able to feed at all. Keeping John Sheppard alive through the process was an added bonus but one he couldn't squander. Not even now.

Especially not now. McKay was too important to the futures he saw.

“Let us begin,” Todd said. If there was any tremor of hunger in his voice the humans didn't react. Perhaps they didn't know what it was.

The code was inelegant. Todd disliked throwing together such shoddy code. This code wouldn't last more than a few centuries. His pride demanded millennia although he knew the humans wouldn't allow the Replicators to last out the year. These humans were too fond of their shows of strength to allow the Replicators to survive.

“You don't look so good,” Zelenka observed.

“It's nothing,” McKay said.

Todd looked at McKay suspiciously. He should not seem this disturbed. Unless Sheppard's claiming left aftereffects? “Last night,” Todd probed.

McKay blushed. He blushed deeply, the color hot enough to alter his scent. Todd clamped his feeding hand closed.

“What about last night?” Simpson asked.

“Not important,” McKay snapped. “Didn't involve you.”

“And yet you involved me,” Todd said, voice carefully neutral. “You were loud enough I would not be surprised if Teyla refused to look you in the eye this morning.” That neutrality left as he heard McKay's memory and purred. McKay was one of those humans who felt retroactive embarrassment to such a purity. It made him amusing to toy with.

“Yes, well, from what I saw you're no blushing virgin,” McKay snapped.

Todd caught the barest edge of something McKay couldn't possibly have seen, at least, not in present time. He saw himself at the mercy of his own crew, body and mind bared as their maletrix as he demanded they take with both hands. He felt the room grow cold as it often did when McKay's senses expanded.

And then he struck.

Todd descended with both hands, grasping McKay to him as the man squeaked and squirmed, eyes wide. Todd yanked McKay's shirt up from his waist and slid his hands underneath. “Show me,” he purred before the lab faded.

Events of last night were unimportant. Todd paged through them like flipping past the boring chapters of a book before coming to the passage he wanted.

A small Wraith boy ran down a cavern passage. He was dressed in human clothing, the soft browns and dull cream colors of undyed fabric. He had human friends, the sons and daughters of the first children to call him their friend. Soon his current friends would grow up and their children would be his friends, entire families bound to one little boy born of the lady behind the white veil.

The caverns were damp, dark, but bright and colorful for Wraith eyes. The black stones held soft bands of color no human eye would see, greens and reds and purples and the delicate magnetic fields held within by invisible flakes of iron.

Soft pillows and simple tapestries draped the walls and piled on the floor of the open cavern. A trickle of water traced through the floor, leaving behind careful mineral features in a lovely opalescent display. Animal furs held back the chill of the caves, lining a single large nest where the child slept with his mother. She was there now, dozing to save her energy. It had been a long time since her humans came to her with an offering and sleep would extend her endurance. But the boy jumped in the nest as children of all types and species were wont to do and awakened his mother with joyful exuberance.

Long-fingered white hands reached for him, the skin smooth and freshly oiled, her claws unlaquered. A soft voice, dull with sleep, greeted her Darling as she sat up and stretched. Her pale skin seemed almost white in the dusky half-light of the cavern. Her hair was white like her mother's, long and soft and a little dull from her hunger. But her eyes were bright, piercing, yellow and shining in the dark as she knew she was being watched. She lifted a white veil from a hook on the wall and draped it over her hair and face before she reached out and...

“Father?” She looked shocked then delighted as she tore her veil off. Tears sprang to her eyes as the boy looked around in confusion, not seeing to whom she spoke. “Father! I hear you! I'm safe here. Oh Father, how are you alive? I felt Mother die. Never mind, it's done, I know you'll come for me when the time is right. You always know the right time. Stay safe, Father, I will see you again!”

And then the vision broke and Todd faintly heard the cocking of human weapons. But they were unimportant. What was important was the skin beneath his hands, the warm weight of the human in his arms, and the beautiful vision that human allowed him to see. He was still grinning like an idiot when McKay was dragged half-conscious from his grasp, when leather cuffs strapped his wrists to his waist, when he was thrown back into his cage. None of that mattered. All that mattered was she was safe.

*****

A full dozen guards stood around Todd's cage. Yet the Wraith didn't seem to mind it, nor did he display his normal sense of detached aloofness. Instead he looked delighted at the recent turn of events, a true delight shining beneath a veil of exhaustion that betrayed ten thousand years of life and far too much of that time spent bereft of nourishment.

Teyla gazed at him through the horizontal bars and tried to ignore the thoughts and feelings of the men around her. Confusion, arousal, worry, fear, pity, even disgust, the gentle touch of Todd's mind gave her a glimpse of the maelstrom of emotions swirling around her, caused by her rightful entry to the detention level. His chest rumbled with his purr as he sat on the floor with his eyes closed, basking in the wonderful images. The young queen in the white veil smiled for him there in memory and vision.

“Who is she?” Teyla asked aloud.

Todd didn't even open his eyes. He hissed, low and long, a sound almost like a sigh. I have not seen her in eighteen years. She's my daughter.

Teyla leaned against the cage. Hands reached out to pull her away but she shook them off with a glare and a hiss. You... have a daughter? You've never spoken of her.

Todd chuckled. There are limits to a maletrix. Legends grow and twist but we are still limited. I have not seen my daughter, even in vision, since I lost her. And her mother. One human generation ago.

“I had wondered,” Teyla whispered. “What your limits were.”

You had wondered what Dr. McKay's limits are.

“They are the same question, are they not?”

“No, they're not,” Todd said aloud. He finally opened his eyes, the delight beginning to fade. There was a reality here he needed to face before he could see her again. “I have millennia more experience than he and yet there are things I cannot see. One's own future, for instance. I have never seen my own future the way he sees his. I see what can be and I fight to get there. He sees the endless possibilities and their probabilities and can choose to plan in kind.”

“Dr. McKay has always done that,” Teyla said. “Loudly and to the annoyance of those around him.”

Todd made a sound, something like a 'murr'. Dr. McKay was a maletrix of the original type. But if Teyla was being truthful with her carelessly scattered thoughts then...

How long has he seen these things? Has he always been like this? Since the beginning?

Teyla smiled sweetly and then bared her teeth as she leaned forward and hissed to keep her words private. Ever since I have known him. Though perhaps he has not been aware of it. She slid her hands along the horizontal bars, fingernails sliding like claws. The hands that grasped her wrists and pulled her forcibly away from the cage were unexpected and she snarled. When that didn't work she growled and thrashed. Finally she found the right language. “Unhand me!”

Guards pulled Teyla from the cage and pushed her against the far wall. “Sorry, ma'am, but we can't let anyone get close enough to touch. Sheppard's orders.”

Teyla yanked her arms from their grasp. “I am in no danger,” she snapped.

Yes you are. But not from me.

“Silence!” Teyla demanded. Todd purred demurely and obeyed.

“Let's go, ma'am.”

Teyla allowed herself to be ushered out of the detention level. But she did not allow herself to be led like a lost child.

*****

The smell of antiseptic, the sounds of a heart monitor, the rustling of an IV stand, the rough scratchy sheets, McKay knew he was in the infirmary again before he opened his eyes. Already a fairly common event, he was coming to know more about the minutiae of this place than he had when AR-1 still went offworld. There was something inherently wrong with that; Atlantis was supposed to be safe. Or, well, safer. Instead, ever since Todd showed up, it felt like he'd been waking up in more infirmary beds than any other time in the expedition's history.

Maybe one of the mathematicians could look into that. Or maybe not, what if it was all in his head? Then they'd laugh at him and he'd had more than enough of that in his life.

McKay opened his eyes.

“Rodney,” Sheppard said. He got up from the plastic chair and approached the bed.

“What happened?” McKay asked. He was tired, yes and hungry, but mostly he was sore. There was a distinct soreness to his everything, like he'd been running with Ronon, sparring with Teyla, training with Todd, and arguing with Zelenka but all at the same time. He tried to twist some of the kinks out of his own shoulders but it didn't really help.

“Rodney, I want you to promise me something.”

McKay looked at Sheppard's serious expression, the strange iron hardness in his eyes. “What happened?” McKay asked again.

“Oh good you're awake.”

Sheppard stepped back and glared at Keller from behind, where she couldn't see. She didn't notice, instead she took out a stethoscope and put it on. “How do you feel?” she asked.

“How long was I out?” McKay asked.

“Four days,” Keller said. “We figured it was best if you slept through the worst of it.”

“Worst of... what?” McKay asked. This lack of answers was really starting to scare him. The beeping of the heart monitor didn't help, taking on an ominous tone.

Keller placed the diaphragm of the stethoscope against McKay's chest. She hummed and then lifted his scrubs to check out an angry red mark on his side. There was another one on his back. These weren't just 'love bites' anymore. “We don't think Todd meant to feed on you,” Keller said.

“That's debatable,” Sheppard said, voice low.

“If he'd intended it he'd have gone for the chest,” Keller said, her voice raised just enough to declare her ownership of this conversation. “He did inject enzyme, though we're not sure why.”

“Wait, what?!” McKay demanded.

“You've been exposed often enough we figured we should keep you under through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms,” Keller explained. “Your heart rate is still elevated and I expect you'll be shaky for a week. Come see me later if you're having trouble sleeping.” She poked at the raw marks where Todd's feeding hand broke the skin. McKay hissed and bared his teeth, growling.

“Rodney, stop it,” Sheppard snapped.

McKay growled and pulled back, sitting up with and air of authority Sheppard instinctively disliked.

“Well, if he gets weirder, bring him back,” Keller said. “He's stabilized and there isn't a whole lot else I can do here. Come back tomorrow so I can make sure.”

McKay heard the dismissal and took the opportunity to escape. Everything was getting all weird and he needed to think about things. Except Sheppard followed him, lurking on the edge of his senses, all of them. McKay went to his quarters, not even bothering to lock the door.

The smell of something lived in, less than clean, was a welcome contrast to the infirmary. The bed was still unmade; he thought he could still smell Sheppard on his sheets even four days later. Had it really been four days? He stretched out in the softness, luxuriating in the feel of it. There was something strangely hedonistic about this and idly he wondered if there were less obvious side effects of enzyme withdrawal that he'd never known because he was too busy screaming.

Like this. This was oddly nice. Or maybe this was something else. He should ask. He laid on his belly and stretched out for the nightstand when his door opened.

Sheppard cleared his throat. McKay smirked at him.

“That's not why I'm here,” Sheppard said. He stepped in and let the door close.

“Nor I, to be honest,” McKay said. He rummaged in the nightstand's lower drawer and pulled out his harrow deck. He sat up with the cards in hand. “I need to know some things.”

“Rodney...”

“What happened?” McKay asked. The urgency was gone from his voice, only a soft plea left behind.

Sheppard took a deep breath and sat on the bed next to McKay. “Todd grabbed you,” he said, voice dull and neutral. “He had both hands under your shirt before anybody could react. You... screamed.”

McKay took the cards from their box and shuffled them. The feel and sound was comforting, when had that happened? “I saw things,” McKay said. “The night before it was all a jumble, too much to make sense of. But when Todd touched me he was able to unfold it all, there were details, I was there, John. I stood on the deck of the Daedalus and watched the Replicator homeworld implode in on itself. I know how I did it. I saw the Grand Alliance, seven hives, the Apollo, the Daedalus, and the six other ships. And if all goes right it's only the first such alliance.”

“You don't know that's what's going to happen!” Sheppard said.

“And why not?!” McKay demanded.

“Todd fed from you!”

That shocked McKay to silence, at least for a moment. “And that makes me wrong?” he asked. “Should I stop this, then? Stop reprogramming the Replicators?”

“He fed from you.”

“I don't care! I've seen what the Replicators do to a world! I was there, once. I died there, burned alive in liquid fire as they rent the planet's crust beneath me. Don't you dare stop me from stopping them.”

Sheppard got up and backed away.

McKay glared at him and knew this was why he never told anyone. This, right here, this was why he'd kept this hidden for as long as he could remember, even when it was nothing more than dreams and playing cards. As Sheppard backed away McKay's glare softened. “John, I...”

Sheppard hit the wall and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and his shoulders slumped as he stepped forward. “You never said anything,” he said.

McKay couldn't look at him. “There's no good time to bring it up,” he admitted.

“He really did feed from you,” Sheppard said. “Not a lot. It's hard to see unless you're in the right lighting. Then you look pretty bad.”

McKay looked down at his hands. They didn't look any different. They didn't feel any different, either. That was a relief: arthritis of the fingers was one of his great fears second only to the loss of his mind. He got up and went to the bathroom mirror. He looked the same.

And then he thought the lights on and shrieked. “That's different,” he admitted. He looked closer. “You sure he fed from me?”

“Rodney, you have gray hair,” Sheppard drawled.

McKay studied his reflection. He wasn't that gray. Oh, sure, he was pretty bad but the blond hairs hid the gray pretty well. But if he didn't know any better he'd swear he had fewer wrinkles than before. Certainly the lines on his forehead seemed reduced? And the ones around his eyes were almost gone. “Well, yeah, but... are you sure?”

“He fed from you,” Sheppard said. It was a tone that allowed no more argument. McKay pouted. “He's not allowed to touch you again.”

McKay felt as affronted as he looked. “What?! How am I supposed to code?!”

“You coded just fine before he got here.”

“Yeah but--” McKay turned back to the mirror and felt a loophole. He smiled. The scheming grin didn't look quite right, his skin was too smooth, the smile looked too evil to be him. But maybe that was fitting considering what he realized he was about to say. He said it anyway. “How about this,” he said, letting himself purr like a Wraith. “I won't let him touch me again until after he feeds. Feeds properly, I mean.”

“Until he kills someone,” Sheppard said flatly. “Rodney, you know I can't let that happen.”

“Then I guess I'm coding alone. Until he feeds. That way we don't have to worry about any more accidental nibbles.”

“That was not an accidental nibble,” Sheppard said. “And fine, it's a deal.”

McKay sauntered out of the bathroom smirking like he'd just won something important. Sheppard didn't want to know why.