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Once a Master

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The velum in his hands was shaking as he finished reading the text printed there. “This isn’t possible. Enra Hammond, this must be in error!” But as he looked up into the eyes of the head of the Council, Cam knew what he held was truth. There was sadness and betrayal there, in the old eyes. He carefully rolled the velum between his hands and offered it back to the Enra.

“No, son, keep it. You’ll need it.” Lifting a small covered jar from the table beside him, Enra Hammond passed it to Cam. “This as well, bones of the ancestors from the soil of birth.”

He could feel his eyes begin to grow moist as he soberly accepted the jar. This was beyond serious, the Council did not invoke these measures without the agreement of each and every serving Councilor. Cam’s summons to appear had come from the hand of Enra Hammond himself. “Is there no other way? Has the decision already been passed?” Cam knew he was speaking out of order in this solemn moment, but these circumstances were beyond anything he had ever expected to be called upon to do.

There was no censure in the Enra’s eyes for the outburst. “Such a turning has never come to pass, in all the Council’s written history. Never before has a Council Nandeer been called to hunt another. The trust has never before been broken.”

“Does the law allow time, Enra? Any time at all, to see if the turning can be undone, to put the Nandeer upon the path of light once more?” Cam was desperate. He did not want to do this. He did not want to hunt his Master, his mentor, his friend. This was one task he could never reconcile within his soul. This blood would never wash from his hands. Before the Enra could say nay, Cam said, “I do not know if I can do as the Council asks, I do not know if I am capable of saying the words. Give me time, Enra Hammond, in the name of all the good my Master has done before this…” Cam shook the rolled paper in illustration.

“And what would you do, son? The charges are drawn, the evidence has been seen and examined and proven. You hold truth in your hands.”

“Truth of the moment, Enra.” Cam went down on one knee and bent his head. “I beg leniency, I beg mercy. I beg time.”

The Enra’s hand fell atop Cam’s head. “Time to do what, Cam? Reason has been tried. He will not listen to reason. He will not come back to the fold.”

“Let me gather the others of his Sagone. Perhaps with the strength of all, we can undo whatever has turned him.”

“Gather a disbanded Sagone for a working? It isn’t done. The Sagone of Nandeer O’Neill was disbanded with good reason, Nandeer Mitchell. You have all grown in power since the day you parted ways, all the more reason to never gather together again. Such power in one place tempts fate, mocks the gods and is sure to end in disaster.”

“As the death of a Nandeer will not? As the death of Nandeer O’Neill will not? If any have a chance to reach what is good and light in him, it is his Sagone. Please, Enra, as this is a circumstance as never before, surely it requires a solution as never before?”

The hand that had been resting on Cam’s bowed head slid down to squeeze his shoulder. “Wise words, Nandeer Mitchell. Very well, I will inform the Council that this is my decree. You may have a three time three sunsets, with the first tomorrow. Return here by Juklamas, before the setting of the sun, with Nandeer O’Neill restored to the light, or else return with your duty discharged.”

“By your order, Enra Hammond.” Cam looked and returned the tight smile the old man gave him. The head of the Council turned and swept regally from the room, his long heavy robes swishing quietly as he walked.

It was unheard of, what he had been granted. The Hand of the Council had never been purposely stayed. Cam had nine days to find a way to make everything right.

Or else he had to slay his Master.

~*~

Leaving the Lake House had been a mistake. Jack acknowledged the fact in retrospect and decided it was the start of all of his current troubles. Retirement had suited him; he had liked the lack of responsibility and the laid back pace of life without constant demands and danger. He had not realized just how much the expectations of the Council weighed on him until he had no longer carried the burden of being their Hand. When the mysterious summons came to his door, he should have investigated it more carefully, but he had been relaxed and out of practice.

He had been easy prey when he’d walked into the library at Tenatay. Silence inherent to a place of study had greeted him inside the heavy doors, and he had not thought it odd that there were no voices within the halls. The message had said to meet at the Ancient Scroll Repository, so Jack had gone straight to the winding stairwell that led to the cool depths below the main halls of study.

It should have struck him as odd that no librarian met him when he entered the lower level. But Jack was retired and out of the habit of skulking as if people were attempting to kill him at every turn. He wove his way through the warren of cells and alcoves that made up this level until he saw the symbol of the Council, emblazoned on the wood doors leading to the Repository.

He had called out a greeting, but no one had replied. He moved to the doors, intending to go inside to wait, he knew the librarian and would not mind talking with the woman for a time. He walked past an alcove on his left that was deeply shadowed, and something moved within the dark. A glint of torch light reflected off metal. O’Neill might be rusty, but he was still a Nandeer, with decades of training and skill. He dove to the right, throwing up a protective ward as he went, intending to roll up to his feel to cast a defensive spell.

A trap was a trap, however, and his weaving was too late. His motion moved him away from the person waiting in the shadows, but he bodily tripped a spell that had been set close to the floor and he was held fast, stuck to the floor as he had landed, leg, hip and shoulder. One arm was pinned beneath him, but he had one hand free. Tripping the spell had interrupted his own casting, and he threw up a ward to protect himself as he twisted and turned, trying to get free.

“The more you struggle, the more entangled you shall become, Nandeer,” said a voice from the shadows. Jack heeded the warning, he could feel the trap growing tighter, he had no doubt the words were truth.

“Who are you?”

“It matters not, but I am called Yu. I am merely a messenger, a courier if you will, meant to convey that which must be conveyed.” The words were silky with a heavy accent Jack did not recognize. The speaker was not from the local regions. Jack tried to turn towards the voice, but he was held still. He could see only the base of the dark alcove, and the slightest movement of gray on black as the man shifted position.

Frustrated, Jack snapped, “And what exactly must be conveyed?”

“My companion.” There was a thud as a ornate box was placed on the dusty floor, far enough into the light that Jack could make out the details of the carvings. That gave him a direction: the west, his attacker came from the west. Western magics were largely unknown, the wielders of it kept strictly to their side of the mountains, very rarely crossing into the eastern lands. Easterners found no welcome there. This was bad. It also explained why Jack had been unable to break free of a simple binding trap. His castings would be useless against western magics.

“I have come a very long way to find you, Nandeer O’Neill. Our lords are quite pleased that you are going to be doing our work here.” Gloved hands reached from the darkness and undid the clasp holding the lid of the box closed.

“I’m not doing anything for anyone. I’m retired. Even if I were not retired, I don’t work under duress. Tell your lords they can take their box and...” The lid opened and Jack heard a slithering within the box. A head slowly rose up into view and his words tapered off as he caught sight of the creature within.

No, what he saw was impossible. They were extinct, wiped out in the first Winter Storms, one of the few benefits the turbulent magical weather had ever provided. “That can’t be here.” Jack gasped out in denial as a creature of nightmare slithered over the edge of the box and onto the floor. It moved towards him, eyes glowing bright yellow.

“And yet, it is. Welcome to the fold, Nandeer O’Neill. My companion Ba’al is quite eager to make your acquaintance.” Satisfied laughter covered the sound of the slithering, but was not enough to mask the hiss the creature made as it looked Jack in the eye and then dove at his face.

~*~
Could waking to find one a prisoner in one’s own body be considered waking at all? It was a nightmare. It was worse than being trapped by the binding spell. Jack battered against the creature controlling his body, like a bug against the sides of a holding jar, with just as much chance of making an escape. He could only watch in horror as events unfolded like a theatrical production before him; a horrible, vicious, vile piece of theatre that the audience despised to the core of his being.

Ba’al tried to get into his mind, but Jack retained enough sense of self to resist. For the time being, the creature had only its own resources to work with, using Jack’s body. The battering at his mind did not stop, and Jack wondered how long he would be able to withstand the onslaught.

He did not know how much time had passed. He recognized the shops of Tenatay as they passed them. He caught sight of his reflection in a window and mentally shuddered, there was a light in his eyes that should not be there, an evil light. Surely people on the street saw it. Perhaps they did; bypassers were giving him a wide berth.

His body had been stolen from him, he had a damned snake in his head! He raged at that for a time until his captor grew weary of his struggles and turned on him, battering him down painfully until he cowed and fell silent. The effort of subduing Jack seemed to tax Ba’al and he slowed to a stumbling pace. He spotted a woman going into an alleyway and followed her. Jack leapt up again in protest as he watched Ba’al raise a hand and heard the mutterings of a spell.

Jack had already learned that he could still feel all the pains and pleasures of his body. Pain slashed through his mouth as something razor sharp cut through his gums. He realized in horror that the spell the thing was casting was a transformative one. The hands he spied through his eyes had sharp claws. No doubt he had just felt the eruption of fangs. Ba’al licked the points of the fangs with his tongue, proving Jack’s assumption correct.
.
A new spell was cast, a single word uttered and then another shouted, and the unfortunate woman fell to the ground in a sudden slump. Jack could only scream in disgust and outrage as Ba’al fell upon her and tore her throat out. He wanted to vomit as he tasted the blood.

How could he hope to stop this?

~*~
On his way back to the Inn, Cam stopped at several stalls in the marketplace to gather fresh elements and ingredients he might need for casting on this hunt. “It’s not a Hunt,” he whispered, taking in a shaky breath as he eyed a narrow bladed, curved dagger with a handle etched with very strong wardings. “There will be no kill at the end of this.” He needed to believe that, to make it part of him. He turned away from the weapon and left the marketplace, his traditional preparation for a Council Hunt undone. He would buy no new killing blade for this journey, for he refused to acknowledge that there might need to be death at the end of the grace period. He hoped the refusal might be enough to make it so.

His hand went to his hip and he touched the sheath of his personal blade. He owed his master this much, if death was to come at Cam’s hand, then it would come with Cam’s own ritual blade. If the blade was sullied with the blood of his friend, then Cam would never use it again. Nor would he have need, for that day would be his last as a Nandeer; he would leave the service of the Council, he would work no more castings, he would never use magic again.

He entered his room just before sunset, crossing to the bed to drop his bundles carefully on the blanket. Approaching footsteps told him his Gara had been waiting for him. The adjoining door opened and Jonas rushed through. “Well? What was the summons about? Did you see Enra Hammond?”

“I saw him.”

“How did he look?”

“Older. Sad.” Cam pulled his cloak off and hung it on a hook behind the door. He undid his belt and draped it over the back of the chair in the corner of the room. Then he tugged his robe of office off over his head and hung it beside the cloak. Clad only in a sleeveless tunic and baggy trousers, he sat down in the upholstered armchair to pull off his boots.

“Cam, what happened?”

One by one, Cam dropped his boots and then leaned back, closing his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it, Jonas.”

“Oh no you don’t. Don’t go all stoic and quiet on me now. I’ve been waiting all day to find out what’s going on. I need to make preparations, get the spells ready, package the components safely for travel, fill our packs…”

“My pack. You aren’t going this time.”

Cracking one eye open slightly, Cam saw that Jonas was standing there beside the bed with an expression of hurt on his face. “No. You are not pouting your way into it this time.”

“I do not pout.”

“You’re pouting now. Jonas, I’m really not in the mood to argue. Let me collect my thoughts, please.”

His Gara didn’t reply. Cam heard him moving the packages around, by the rustling he could tell Jonas was opening them to examine the contents. He would see to it that everything was properly sorted, measured and stowed for travel. Jonas was an excellent Gara, one of the best currently serving the Council, Cam was very fortunate to have him as his own First Gara.

Letting his mind run through what he might possibly face in the days ahead, and calling to mind the spells he would need to have prepared, Cam lost track of time. He opened his eyes as a warm hand clasped his forearm. “You need to eat, Cam.”

It was full dark outside and the candle marks had burned down a few hours since he had come in. Passing him a plate of bread, cheese and fruit, Jonas poured a mug of wine for him. He accepted it gratefully, setting the plate on his knee and sipping at the wine.

“I see no knife. Is this a retrieval or a banishment?” Jonas asked, snatching a small slice of fruit from the plate.

“It’s a Hunt.” There, he had said it, despite his intention not to, he needed to prepare for this properly, admitting that it was a Hunt was a necessity to do that.

“There’s no knife.” Jonas knew Cam’s habits and had of course noticed the absence of a weapon to dedicate to this task.

Leaning to the side, he tugged his belt from the back of the chair and tossed it to Jonas. Jonas caught it and fingered the intricately embossed leather sheath hanging from it. “Your ritual blade,” Jonas whispered, looking at Cam with wide eyes. “By the gods, whom have they sent you after?”

“Nandeer O’Neill.”

Rattled by the name, Jonas dropped the belt to the floor. “They can’t ask that of you! Your own Master?”

“What other could they ask, Jonas? A stranger would do no honor to what O’Neill was in the past, what he did for our Council. Only a senior Nandeer could hope to take down another. It would bring dishonor to our Council to call upon another Council to send their Nandeer for this duty. No, Jonas, it falls to me, I must do this. I have been granted a boon by Enra Hammond; I have until Juklamas to redeem O’Neill and return with him to The Springs.”

Jonas gulped and said, “Just nine days? I must go with you.”

“Too dangerous, my friend.”

“You will need to change with the wind, Cam. You must be able to adapt. If I am with you, you can draw on other spells; I can change out what you have for something that works. You must take me with you!”

Cam shook his head. “I am going to gather O’Neill’s Sagone. I will have O’Neill’s First Gara along with me. There is no need to put you in danger.”

“O’Neill’s First Gara?” Jonas snorted. “The man is incapable of casting; he hasn’t a bit of facility with magic and his potions fail more often than they succeed.”

“And he knows every spell in use today as well as spells used for the last five generations and even some beyond, all without a spellbook, no one living can claim the same.”

Crossing his arms, Jonas glared at Cam and the Nandeer knew he’d touched on a sore point. “When Nandeer O’Neill chose me as his Second to replace his First it was not without reason. And from what I hear, his First is soulbonded now. He probably won’t even be able to accompany you.”

“I shall see about that when I get there,” Cam replied, though the soulbonding was news to Cam, he had not heard this.

“I know the spells Jack prefers, Cam. I would be an asset. I could tell you which he may use and which he would not.”

There was that. The thought gave him pause. It might be an advantage he could use. Like the Sagone, Jonas had known Jack O’Neill for many years, and had worked closely with him on many occasions. Without warning, Cam flung out his hand and tossed a small fireball in Jonas’ direction. The Gara reacted quickly and the flame crackled and dissipated against a properly constructed defense shield. “Just testing,” Cam said with a grin. “Very well, you may accompany me. I trust you to keep my confidences and give no one any information unless I give you leave to do so?”

“Yes, Nandeer, of course!” Jonas was mildly affronted at the mere suggestion that he might forget his duty as First to Nandeer Cam.

“We’ll leave at dawn. Start with the usual defenses while I go through my spellbooks.” Cam stood up and went to his trunk, flipping open the top and withdrawing three heavy, leather-bound books. Leaving the trunk open, as Jonas would be in and out of it while making ready, Cam left two of them on the bed and opened the third, pacing as he slowly thumbed through the pages, searching for spells that Jack might not know or think Cam would use.

He had been Nandeer in his own right for the last ten years. He had ten years of experience and spell casting on his own that O’Neill had not been privy to. He needed to draw on that experience if he hoped to succeed, he could not rely on skills and spells taught to him by his Master, for Jack would know how to counter them easily.

“The binding spell from the south, the one you traded a Jaffan blade to obtain. You should have that one ready,” Jonas said as he came in from the other room and placed a few items on the bed.

“Mmm. Good idea. Do we have the dried chulak leaves for it?”

Jonas knelt beside the trunk and lifted out a small wooden case. He flipped it open and started pulling out the small glass vials from the slots within, reading the labels. He tugged one completely out and waved it in the air. Chulak leaf, you bought a lot of it from that market in Kree, we still have plenty left.”

“I’ll need charred rado as well.”

“You’re doing a Derson’s circle? That didn’t go so well the last time.”

Cam glanced over at Jonas and smirked. “I’m hoping to do better this time.”

“I hope so. That stuff does not come out of fiber, I’ll have you know. I had to burn that robe you were wearing.”

“Is that what happened to it? That was a comfortable one.” Finding a fast bind spell that he had used successfully in the past, he crouched down to place the open book on the floor beside Jonas and tapped the page. “I picked up a siank crystal shard. Could you pulverize it before you wrap it?”

Glancing at the spell, Jonas nodded and picked up a mortar and pestle from the tray in the trunk, adding it to the growing pile on the floor beside him.

The smallest of the books he had left on the bed, a collection of sigils, patterns and designs was what he needed to look at next. He resumed his pacing around the room as he slowly turned the pages, looking at the dozens of sketches he had collected over the years. None was a complete design, for the danger of one or more of the designs becoming charged by accident was a disaster no experienced spell caster ever wanted to face. Cam’s habit was to draw the outline as a broken line of dashes to avoid any problems. Buried on the fifth page, Cam found the image he was looking for. He studied the design and then read the notes he had made beside it.

Coming to a decision, he walked over to Jonas and held out the book, pointing to the swirling, looping, twisting knotwork. “May I get your opinion? Will that work here?” He held his left arm out and flipped it over to the bare underside of his forearm.

“You know it would, that’s a power spot.” Jonas had looked at Cam’s arm before looking at the design he intended to have placed upon it. The Gara ran a hand over the pale skin and studied the design thoughtfully. He looked up at Cam’s face, searching his eyes. “Are you certain you’re ready for this sigil?”

“I’ll need the protection.”

“You know what this declares?”

Cam nodded. He knew. “It might shock him, if he sees it.” It was a Symbol of Severance, one traditionally marked in a place of power on the body upon the death of one’s Master. Upholding tradition, O’Neill had chosen the spot on the night Cam had moved from Apprentice to Nandeer in his own right, thus Cam’s left forearm had remained bare of markings all this time.

“I’ll make the mark. Shall I cast the warding, or do you have another in mind?”

“If you would do an open warding when you finish the mark, I hope to have the Sagone add to it once they are gathered.”

“That would make this the most powerful mark I have personally seen in my lifetime.” Jonas patted Cam’s arm and handed the book back. “Do you really think they will come? They have new lives now, new paths. Jack cut ties with you and I - I am certain he must have done the same with the others.”

“I have to try. We have three moons.”

Picking up a small leather kit, Jonas waved in the direction of the other room where there was a table and chairs. “Come, I’ll do the mark now, while I’m fresh. I can pack in the morning.”

“Without preparing for the warding?” Cam asked as he followed the Gara and took a seat across from him, setting the book on the tabletop.

Jonas pulled out needle and ink. “I do my best warding when I’m frightened for my life. Give me your arm.”

~*~
“You’re using a rock?” When Cam looked over, his Gara was rolling his eyes as he stood with his arms crossed over his chest watching the preparations.

“What’s wrong with a rock? Rocks are solid. Rocks don’t shatter if there’s too much energy suddenly fed into them.”

Jonas waved a hand. “Just so… inelegant.”

Ignoring him, Cam sprinkled his focus rock with the powder from two different paper packets. He tugged the strap of his waterskin over his head and pulled the cork. He allowed a few drops of water to mix with the powder and then knelt to mix the resulting mess with his fingers, spreading it over the rock.

“One of these days you’re going to send your finger on ahead of you,” Jonas scoffed.

“Shush, pest. I’m not even thinking about the incantation yet. I should make you do this casting, you’re out of practice.”

“Do you want to end up halfway across the world?”

Standing up, Cam smirked and shook his head. “I’ll let you shift us home when we’re done with all of this.” He held a hand out to the Gara. “Ready?”

Walking up to the Nandeer, Jonas took his hand. “Try not to drop us this time.”

“You say that every time. When have I ever dropped us?”

“So the reminder helps, doesn’t it? Carry on.”

Closing his eyes, Cam concentrated on the incantation, repeating it a few times in his mind before saying the words aloud. He felt the rip, the tear, the briefest twinge of pain as the spell took hold. When he opened his eyes, they had shifted. “Looks like Desala to me,” he remarked.

“You are a very funny man, Nandeer Mitchell,” Jonas said as he stared at the statue of the city’s founder that was directly in front of them. A large plaque at the base of the statue proclaimed it to be “Desala.”

Cam smiled, but then sobered as he remembered why they were here. “Let’s get moving.”

“Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes, I was here a few times after he left Council service. I believe he has been doing quite well working privately.”

They walked in companionable silence, each lost in thought. A Hunt was always a serious task, but this time, it was much more personal. They came to a fork in the road and the Nandeer took them off the worn road and onto the less traveled path.

The stone house was set back from the road, surrounded by flowering bushes instead of a wall. Cam stopped at the gap between the bushes at the head of the path leading to the house and waved his hand in the air in a swirling pattern to disrupt the ward around the land without breaking it completely. He ushered Jonas ahead of him and allowed the ward to settle back into place after they had passed through.

“Stop there or I will shoot you,” a feminine voice called from the direction of the house. The curtains in the open window on the second story moved slightly.

Cam stooped and looked up at the house, dropping his hands to his hips. “Go ahead.”

“Go ahead? What do you mean go ahead?” There was confusion in the voice now.

“Shoot us,” Cam replied, not letting his amusement show. Now that he was warned, he was fully warded with a shield protecting both himself and his Gara.

The sash flew open and a woman with wild black hair appeared, a crossbow in one hand as she leaned on the sill and looked down at Cam. “Are you mad? I could do it.” She waved the crossbow, which Cam noticed had no bolt knocked into it.

“You could try. We’re here to see Gara Jackson.”

“Why?” she demanded.

“Business.”

She pulled the crossbow inside; Cam heard it clatter to the floor. She leaned on the sill again and glared at Cam and Jonas. “He’s out of business. Go away.”

“I’ll hear that from him, if you don’t mind. Are you through shrieking at me, harridan?”

“Harri… how dare you…!” She pulled back so fast she smacked her head on the sash and let out a howl of outrage.

Cam turned to Jonas. “This should be an interesting reunion.” He walked forward to the door and knocked. He had expected to see the woman, but it was Gara Jackson standing there when the door opened.

The Gara smiled brightly in welcome. “Cam!” The smile dimmed as he saw Jonas standing behind the Nandeer. He pursed his lips and nodded shortly. “Quinn.”

“Jackson,” Jonas echoed the tone.

“Come in, come in.” Jackson opened the door wide and stood aside to let the men pass. “What brings you to my doorstep today? I wasn’t expecting you until after the Summer Storms.”

“Bad tidings.” Shaking his head ruefully Cam moved past Jackson into the main room. He tugged his cloak off and shrugged out of his pack, dropping both on the floor by the wall.

Jonas did the same and then smirked at Jackson. “I see you have a new guard. Very effective, all that shrieking, better than dogs for alerting you, I’d wager.”

Wiping a hand over his face, Jackson rolled his eyes. He suddenly ran over to Cam and grabbed the front of his robe. “You have to help me. She’s driving me mad. I can’t think, I can’t work. You have to get me loose of her.”

Gently prying Jackson’s fingers from his clothing, Cam patted his arms consolingly. “So the rumors are true, you’re soulbonded to that woman?”

“Yes. Please, I’m asking you as a Nandeer, you must be able to cast something that can get me out of this!”

Jonas chuckled as he rubbed his chin. “There’s always Chara’s Removal, or Kav’s Banishment, oh, Siler’s Smite would work!”

“Very funny, Quinn. I’d like to actually live through the process,” Jackson sneered.

“You should have been more specific.”

“Oh, I like him,” the dark haired woman slithered into the room and circled Jonas, caressing his cheek with the back of her hand before moving over to the desk across the room. She shoved at a pile of tomes and scrolls and sent them crashing to the floor. Then she perched on the edge of the desk, crossing her legs and resting her chin on her hands. She intended to stay for the discussion, apparently.

Jackson glared at the woman and then turned to Cam, who was sprawled in the chair in front of the cold fireplace. “Did you have to bring him?”

“I’m his First Gara. I go where he goes,” Jonas chirped, ignoring Cam’s warning glance and needling Jackson more by reminding him that Cam had chosen Jonas over him when the time came to choose his First Gara.

“A Gara? Oh, you were a Gara once, weren’t you, Daniel dear?”

Jackson spun around and pointed a warning finger at her. “Do not start with me, Vala!” He tossed his head in Cam’s direction and added, “I might not be able to, but he could slap you in a binding spell that would take moons to wear off!”

Grinning toothily, Jonas thumped his chest with his thumb and chirped, “So could I!”

Vala turned her attention to Jonas, giving him an appraising look. “I thought Gara could not cast?”

“That one can’t. This one can.” Jonas pointed at Daniel and then at himself, rocking on his heels as he returned the brilliant smile Vala flashed at him.

“Enough, Gara Quinn, sheath your claws! Show some respect when you’re in the man’s house.” Cam fixed a steady stare at Jonas, who stopped smiling and looked contrite. Cam pointed at Vala. “And you - do not give me cause to hex you.”

“You would not dare!” Vala said indignantly.

“Oh yes he would!” Jackson and Quinn said in unison.

Vala crossed her arms and pouted, her lower lip jutting out as she looked at each of the men.

“Bonding spell?” Cam asked Jackson.

“Curse.”

Tilting his head thoughtfully, Jonas waved his hand in the air, his lips moving as he worked an incantation. He burst out laughing. “It’s true! You got yourself cursed!” He wiped a tear away from his eye and started laughing again.

“Jonas!” Cam chastised. “One more warning and I will shift you home!”

“My apologies, Gara Jackson,” Jonas said, realizing he had gone too far and that Cam was truly angry now. He moved to stand beside the chair the Nandeer was sitting in, holding his hands behind his back and ignoring Vala’s flirty looks and smiles.

Jackson looked at Vala and then at Cam. “Can you break a Damilzian Curse?”

Sadly, Cam shook his head. “No, they are beyond my ken, I’m afraid. I don’t use them, curses work too slowly in my experience, and on the rare occasions that one has slipped past my wards, I had plenty of time to get to the Council to have someone undo it. How did you end up cursed, Daniel?”

“She’s a thief. She snuck in here, looking to steal the Tome of the Fire Bringer…”

Sniffing in indignation, Vala interrupted. “I did not sneak. I artfully circumvented the wards and walked in.”

“… which was protected by a rebound ward. She broke that ward and the closest magic-infused object to it when it snapped was a dragon egg that was on my desk. The egg was protected by a binding curse, meant to bind a thief to the owner of the egg so that it could be found and retrieved. The Tome’s rebound spell activated the egg’s curse. Since the egg was mine…”

“So am I now. And aren’t we just so happy together, Daniel darling?” She beamed at Daniel, and he growled low in his throat in response.

“Surely someone at the Council can break this curse?” Cam looked from Daniel to Vala, who was now lightly bouncing the egg in her hand.

“It’s a dragon spell and he can’t find it,” Vala mocked in a sing-song voice, grinning at Daniel when he huffed at her.

Daniel had his back to Vala and he mouthed, “Scare her, please.”

Taking pity on his friend, Cam feigned surprise and made his eyes go wide as he looked at the egg Vala was toying with. “You have a Damilzian dragon egg? In your home? What if it were broken? What if it hatched?!?”

“Then we’d have a very hungry Damilzian dragon whelp to deal with,” Daniel replied in a casual tone, catching on quickly to Cam’s game, they had always worked well together.

Cam pointed a finger at the egg and then at Daniel and scolded, “Jackson! Those things bond with the creature closest to their egg when they hatch, surely you don’t want to be the brood mother to a dragon whelp?”

Over on the desk, Vala had stopped bouncing the egg and was holding it gingerly in both hands, staring at it nervously as she whispered, “Daniel, perhaps you should put this in a safe place.”

With a triumphant smirk at Cam, Daniel went and retrieved the egg and placed it carefully in a bowl on the bookcase. “Now, you said you had bad tidings.”

Nodding, Cam pulled the Decree of Indictment from his belt pouch and handed it to Daniel. Unrolling it, Daniel read it quickly and then read it again. “Jack? How can this be? I saw him before the Winter Storms; I saw nothing amiss with him. Surely this is a mistake?”

“I’m afraid not. Enra Hammond put that in my hands and declared it truthful.”

“You’re Hunting Jack; you’re Hunting the head of the Sagone?” Daniel looked at Cam with betrayal in his eyes and Cam winced away from it. “And you came here to ask me to help you in this? I thought we were friends, Nandeer Mitchell. I thought you knew me better than that!”

Cam leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he dropped his head into them and tugged on his hair. “I begged for time, Daniel. Enra Hammond gave me three times three sunsets to fix this. I have to find a way to bring Jack back by sunset on Juklamas. That is what I came here to ask of you, because yes, I am your friend, but more importantly, you were Nandeer O’Neill’s First Gara.”

There was a thump as Vala’s heels hit the front of the desk. She was staring at Daniel with her jaw dropped open. She pointed at him and sputtered, “You... were the First Gara of O’Neill... First Gara of his Sagone?”

“Why else would he be in possession of the Tome of the Fire Bringer, little thief? Look around you, there are more books and scrolls in this single room than there are in the libraries of some Councils,” Jonas said, rare praise for Jackson in his tone.

She blinked and said nothing, and Cam hoped she had begun to have a new understanding of just whom she was bonded to.

“What is it you mean to do, Cam?” Daniel asked in a subdued voice.

“I want to gather the Sagone and go to the Lake House, to try to talk to him. I hoped that between us, those who knew him best, we could figure out what has gone wrong, and try to bring him back.”

“Even Sam?”

“Especially Sam. If any one of us has the chance to reach him, it will be her.”

Daniel took off his wire rimmed spectacles and cleaned them with the tails of his shirt as he stared at the floor, thinking. “I would need to bring Vala. We cannot be separated over any great distance.”

“Wait, what? What are you volunteering me to do, Daniel?”

“Oh, not much, just Hunt down the most powerful Nandeer in five generations and attempt to capture him alive.”

Throwing herself off the desk, Vala stalked to Daniel and poked his chest with one finger. “Hunt a hunter?!? You plan to go on a Nandeer’s blade quest? You’re going to try to capture a rogue magic wielder?”

“The founder of the first Sagone to be disbanded for power reasons in nine generations,” Jonas added fuel to the fire.

Making a sound of distress, Vala waved her hand to include Jonas’ words. “We’re going to die. You are going to get both of us killed.”

“I’m going. This is duty, Vala. Can your mercenary little heart understand the concept?” Daniel had grasped her shoulders and was staring down into her face with a pleading look.

“You say that like I have no heart. Like I have no honor,” she whispered, looking stricken.

He released his hold on her and replied, “Show me differently, I’d like to believe otherwise.”

Taking a shuddering breath, Vala looked over at Cam. “What will I need to pack for this journey, Nandeer?”

“Sturdy, practical clothing, weapons, any charms of protection or warding you possess,” Cam replied, impressed that she had acceded to Daniel’s plan with no further histrionics, she showed bravery.

“I will assist you in packing, Vala, if you would like. I am accustomed to preparing for journeys like this one,” Jonas offered.

She nodded at Jonas and he followed her from the room.

Walking to his bookcase and pulling a leather bound book from the shelf Daniel asked, “If you cannot turn him back?”

“Then I must do as the Council demands.”

“How could you carry on after that?”

Cam looked down at the floor and answered his friend honestly, because they had always been honest with each other and now was not the time to change. “I don’t know that I could. I will step down and let someone else take their place as the Council’s Hand. Perhaps I will take up farming. Or cows, cows seem very innocuous and undemanding,”

“You haven’t the temperament for farming, Mitchell. You would have to teach, I think.” Daniel was gathering tools and books and placing them in a leather satchel he had retrieved from beneath his desk.

The Nandeer sighed. “I will decide my future path if I live through this task.” He really did not expect to have a need to learn anything about cows, he expected to be dead by Juklamas.

~*~
“That is a cave.”

“Yes Vala, that is indeed a cave,” Jonas agreed, standing at her shoulder as she looked down into the valley.

The others kept walking and Vala had to quicken her step to catch up to them. “Why would a powerful Magor live in a cave?”

“Perhaps he likes it?” Jonas quipped.

“If he has power, then he must have gold. If he has gold, he should be able to live in a nice house,” Vala declared, clambering over a rock. She lost her balance and skidded slightly on loose gravel before finding her footing once more. Stopping she waved her hand limply at the barren landscape around them. “This is so… outdoors.”

The men ignored her and kept walking.

“Unwarded?” Daniel remarked as they reached the valley floor and approached the entrance to the cave.

The Nandeer tossed his chin back towards the path leading up to the top of the ridge. “Unnecessary. If we had any ill intent, we would never have been able to get onto the path at the top. He has a diversionary spell up there at the head of the trail.”

“Smart, less area to cover, and the spell wouldn’t need to be replenished as often,” Daniel said.

They entered the cave and walked for a short time before coming to a wall with a door set into it. Cam gestured for the others to wait a few paces away as he went to the door. “He might be a little unhappy to see me…” he raised his hand to knock just as the door was suddenly opened. A fist flew out, catching the Nandeer under the chin and sending him toppling backwards into the dirt.

“And that is for leaving me in Chulak with that damned snake!” the owner of the fist declared as he came through the door and stood over Cam with his fists on his hips. The dark haired man looked around at the others. “Hello Daniel, hello Jonas. Hello pretty lady.” He flashed a smile at Vala.

“Hello Kawalsky. Did you have to knock him out?” Jonas asked as he crouched down beside Cam and forced open his mouth, checking for broken teeth.

Cam smacked Jonas’ hand aside and groused, “I’m not knocked out.” The Gara pulled him up by the front of his cloak and rolled his eyes.

“He’s not knocked out,” Kawalsky assured the others. “I should take you out front and toss you around in the dirt for a while, Mitchell. It took me a month to get home.”

“You should have learned to shift years ago, Kawalsky, it isn’t my fault you were a horrible student.”

Kawlasky took two steps and stood in front of Cam. He extended his hand and pulled him up. Then he laughed and embraced the Nandeer, pounding his back heartily. “I know how to shift, you sheep loving troublemaker. If I’d shifted, I would have never gotten to spend a month with the lovely snake charmer.”

“He doesn’t act like a Magor,” Vala whispered to Daniel.

“As with anything else, Vala, appearances are deceiving. Kawalsky is one of the best Magors on the continent.”

“Awww, Danny! You still like me.” Kawalsky spun around, grabbed Daniel and enveloped him in a hug. “I missed you too Danny!”

Dropped roughly back onto his feet, Jackson protested, “Don’t call me that.”

When Kawalsky stepped close enough to Vala to be within her aura, he tilted his head and stared at her until she started to shift from foot to foot under the scrutiny. “I see strands, thick ones.” He leaned close and sniffed at Vala. “Damilzian dragon demon? Interesting. Very interesting. Are you ready to be the mother of a dragon demon whelp, lovely lady?”

Daniel had turned away and Cam could see his shoulders shaking with mirth. Cam had to cover his own mouth to hide his amusement at Vala’s expression of horror. The Magor reached out and took Vala’s limp hand, bowed artfully and kissed her fingers. “Welcome to my home, Vala Mal Doran. Please do not pilfer anything; you might end up stuck with something worse than a retired First Gara.”

Kawalsky gestured to the door, “Come in, rest, eat. You didn’t mention you were coming for a visit in your last letter, Daniel.”

Sensing she was the butt of some kind of joke, as she walked towards the door Vala tossed Kawalsky a dirty look.

Cam turned around when he was inside the door, interested to see Vala’s reaction when she stepped into Kawalsky’s home. It was worth the pause. Her jaw dropped as she gawked around at the rich paneled walls, thick carpets and luxurious furnishings. She turned around and looked back out through the entryway.

“Where’s the cave?” she demanded of Cam when she turned around and saw him watching her.

“Still here, just improved. Kawalsky is a very good Magor.” Cam reached down and grabbed both her hands, sliding his over her fingers before releasing the light hold.

She held her hands up in front of her face and then looked at Cam. “What did you do to me?”

“Nothing at all, I was just checking to see that they aren’t sticky. Kawalsky wasn’t joking, little thief; it could be deadly to pick up anything in here that appeals to your inner magpie.” He turned away from her to walk into the great room to join the others.

“I’m not a thief,” she said quietly.

Pausing, he turned back towards her. “Daniel said you tried to steal from him.”

She huddled miserably in on herself with her arms wrapped around her middle. “I wasn’t going to take the book. I just wanted to look in it.”

“Copying a spell from a spellbook is still theft in the eyes of the law.”

“I can’t cast anything, I have no talent. I wasn’t going to copy anything. I heard that there might be information about something in that book, I just wanted to see it.”

Vala seemed to be telling the truth. What would she gain by lying to him now? The damage of her act of home intrusion was already done, Daniel was bonded to her. “What was it you were looking for?”

Glancing over at Daniel, who was talking to Kawalsky, she undid the top ties of her blouse and pulled a chain and pendant from around her neck, holding it out to the Nandeer. He paused before taking it, doing a quick sweep for a spell trap.

Jonas came over and silently reached for the clasp of Cam’s cloak as the Nandeer examined the pendant, removing it. Then the Gara tugged the straps of his pack, urging him out of it and carrying both cloak and pack away with him. Quite used to his Gara undressing him, Cam ignored the manhandling and turned the pendant over in his fingers, focusing several low level spells on it out of habit. The pendant looked like a bug on first sight, a bulbous body and two curving ‘legs’ at the bottom that bowed inwards to nearly meet. There was a single rune etched into the domed front, the back was flat and bare.

“It opens,” Vala said, reaching over and sliding a fingernail along the edge. There was a ‘click’ and the body of the pendant spilt down the middle to reveal a bright blue gemstone within.

“A starburst stone, very rare. How did you come by it?”

“I inherited it when my father died; he inherited it from his father and so on going back. I think it might be cursed. I always heard rumors, but until bad things started happening to me, I didn’t really believe them.”

Cam turned and walked into the room, Vala trailed after him. “Charles?”

“Yes?” Kawalsky looked up from his intense conversation with Daniel.

“Do you have a copy of the Tome of the Fire Bringer in your library?”

Kawalsky waved at the bookshelves that lined the walls. “Fourth case from the door, middle shelf.”

“Jonas, since you’re not busy…”

“Why don’t I go and get that book for you, Nandeer?” Jonas said airily and turned towards the library shelves to retrieve the book.

Cam turned to Vala. “Did you tell Daniel about this?”

“No, he was too angry and I was too stubborn and then… it just didn’t seem to matter anymore. He hates me.”

“I don’t think he hates…” he couldn’t finish the statement because from his observations, it did seem that Daniel hated her, and Cam didn’t want to lie and get her hopes up.

Carrying the heavy book in his hands, Jonas came over to join them. “What is that?”

“That is your project.” Cam snapped the casing on the pendant closed and folded it into Jonas’ hand. “You and Vala figure this puzzle out while Daniel and I break the news to Kawalsky and try to formulate some preliminary plans.”

“I want to help plan too!” Jonas looked askance at Jackson.

May the gods give him the patience he needed for dealing with jealous Gara. “This is just preliminary, Jonas, we will have to go over it all again when we meet up with the others. If we can broker a peace between Daniel and Vala, it will make the journey more pleasant for everyone.” He made a shooing motion with his hands, “Go and do what you do best, Gara.”

Kawalsky offered him a mug as Cam walked over. He took it gratefully, knowing it would be a good ale, Kawalsky didn’t skimp on the things that were important to him.

“You didn’t come all this way unannounced to drink my beer and sleep in my guest rooms. Why the company on this task, Mitchell?”

“You know I’m on task?”

“You wouldn’t risk Jonas if you were not. You would not travel with both Jonas and Daniel together if it were not very important. Honestly, no one in their right mind would.”

“I resent that,” Daniel retorted.

Kawalsky was not bothered by Daniel’s pique. “Resent it all you like. It is still the truth.”

“Nandeer O’Neill has been marked by the Council, indicted and convicted of treason,” Cam said sadly.

“You’re going to warn him?” Kawalsky said after solemnly taking in the information.

Daniel shook his head. “No, Charles. Cam has been charged to end him.”

Lowering the mug he had just raised to his lips, Kawalsky looked at Cam in disbelief. “Jack was your Master.”

“He’s gone renegade. I have until Juklamas to get him back to the Council on the path of good and light again.”

“Nandeer Jack O’Neill is not and cannot be evil. I refuse to consider it.”

Cam smiled. “Good. Then you’ll come with us and convince him to come along peacefully.”

“Hunt? With you? Hunt Jack?”

“Still certain of your convictions?” Cam asked, sipping at his ale.

“Of course I am. Jack could no more be evil than I could be a Yuvian dancing girl. I’m in; someone has to keep you from turning this into a Blade Hunt. We should discuss all the possible scenarios,” Charles said.

“I was hoping to do just that. The last thing in this life I would ever have conceived of doing was drawing my blade against Jack,” Cam admitted shakily.

Kawalsky looked over at Jonas, then at Cam and Daniel. He smiled and said with satisfaction, “You’re gathering the Sagone. I approve.”

Relieved that Charles was with him. Cam looked over at Daniel and sipped his ale. “And that, Jackson, is why we came here first.”

~*~
After a filling meal, prepared by Kawalsky’s cook, Jackson went to the books as Charles went to gather necessary ingredients as Jackson called them out. Cam went to the corner where Jonas and Vala were sitting on a rug, huddled over the pendant, with several books arrayed out on the floor around them.

“You didn’t find anything in the Fire Bringer, did you?”

“No.” Vala looked up at him with disappointment on her face. “I’ve lost my home and position as a peacekeeper back home and gotten saddled with him,” she waved at Daniel, “All for nothing.”

Cam crouched down and caught her hands in his. “No journey is ever for naught, Vala. Live for the experience, not for the destination. What did you learn about your bug jewelry?”

“It does look like a bug, doesn’t it? Well, Jonas sensed some magic about it, but not a dark curse. We’re trying to find the source of the rune or the design of the pendant.”

“There is a similar shape to the ward markings coming out of the Uncharted lands in the generations following the Tortured Times, but the starburst stone is not native to any of the regions where the design emerges. It is very odd.”

Cam picked up the pendant and touched a fingernail to it to open it once more. The blue stone caught the torch and candlelight and sparkled. “Perhaps a trader carried the stone to the maker of the setting, or the other way around.”

“Possible. Also possible the piece was custom made, the starburst stone being so rare, a special casing was made for it.” Jonas reached for another book and tapped the page as he handed it to Cam. “The rune is here, however.”

“Moyan? Why is there a Moyan rune on a piece of jewelry from the other side of the world?”

Jonas sighed and began collecting books and stacking them neatly. “I don’t know, but I wish we had the time to dedicate to figuring it out. I should really be helping Daniel and Charles.” He stood and lifted the books, going to re-shelve them.

When Vala stood, Cam looped the chain around her neck once more, lifting her heavy hair and letting the pendant fall into place. She tucked it under her blouse. “Jonas was being kind; he didn’t need to spend so much time with me.”

“He likes a puzzle, and it kept him and Daniel from going at each other’s throats all evening.”

As he turned to go towards the fireplace, Vala caught his sleeve. “Nandeer, may I ask a question?”

“You may always ask. I reserve the right to refuse an answer.”

“Why did you choose Jonas over Daniel when it came time to take a First Gara?”

He sighed, considered a lie and then told her the truth, how could he expect her to be honest with him if he did not extend the same courtesy? “I love Daniel; he is one of my dearest friends, as dear to me as a brother would be. When he served Jack, he did everything that he could possibly do, he was devoted to both Jack and the Council. He gave everything that he had to his duty. What he lacked in casting ability, he more than made up for in memory, organization and precision. I doubt we shall see a Gara with the repository of knowledge that is in Jackson’s head ever again in our lifetimes.”

“Then why did you take Jonas?”

“Because I love Daniel, I couldn’t ask him to do it again. I had seen him burning out his life energy doing for Jack and I could not ask it of him again. He would have done it, he wanted to do it. I could not live with the knowledge that I was taking so much from him. Do you understand?”

Vala looked over at Daniel, standing with a heavy tome open in his arms, his face scrunched up in concentration. “I think I do. He puts all of himself into whatever he is doing. I often have to remind him to eat or to come away and sleep. Please, do not tell him that I asked about this, Nandeer Mitchell. He is a very private man.”

“You have leave to call me Cam, Vala.”

She smiled at him, a real smile, not one of the flirty ones she apparently used as a defense. There was much more to this woman than Cam had first thought when she was shrieking down at him from a window.

~*~
”I’m not going.”

“I’m not going either.”

“I’m a stranger, I cannot go.”

“Cam should go, this is his plan.”

Cam looked over at his companions and growled as they all nodded in agreement and four pairs of eyes stared at him expectantly. He peered over the edge of the boulder and looked at their destination again before sitting down quickly. “Skulls! There are skulls on pikes down there! When did the Jaffan get so vicious?”

“The Jaffan was always vicious, Cam. You just refused to see it. Go knock on the door.” Charles punched him in the arm.

Cam ran a hand through his hair, knocking his hood aside. “I haven’t tried to block a Jaffan blast in years. Maybe this was a bad idea. We can do without…”

“The whole Sagone, Mitchell. What do you think would happen if the Jaffan found out after the fact that we had gone after Jack and felt slighted that you did not ask?” Daniel drawled as he leaned against the rock.

Huffing out a breath, Mitchell stood and took his cloak off, throwing it at Daniel. He peeled the straps of his pack off his shoulders and let it slide to the ground. He knelt beside it and began hunting through it until he came up with a blood crystal wired into a silver frame.

“Oh no! Oh, no, no, no. Don’t do that, Mitchell. You will only make the Jaffan mad if you use that!” Kawalsky advised, pointing at the crystal. “You have to go in there stripped down, my boy. No weapons, no charms.”

“Damn, Charles, you’re right.” He put the crystal back into his pack. He took off his belt and slid the sheath of his ritual blade off. Going on one knee he held out the blade, offering it to Jonas. “I charge you to keep this.”

“Yes, Nandeer.”

He stood and started to go around the boulder that was sheltering them, hiding them from view of the small house below. “Cam, you should lose the boot blade too. Jaffan can smell steel,” Daniel called helpfully. Cam bent and tugged his utility blade out from his boot and tossed the sheathed weapon to land in Daniel’s lap.

Stalking away, he praised himself for his performance. He had managed to convince them that he did not want to do this. He had not wanted company when he spoke with the Jaffan. He wanted privacy, for words needed to be said that were not for other ears. Even the ears of his closest friends.

There were warning signs lining the path, easily discernible for anyone trained to read them. Signs that clearly said “Go away or die.” He sidestepped several traps and had to force his way through one cleverly layered ward that was wrapped around a mundane pit trap. If he had fallen into the pit, he would have no doubt broken his neck. He would have admired the trap, if he had not designed it himself when he and the others had been students together training with Nandeer O’Neill.

He could see the shield shimmering around the small wooden house that was visible through the trees. Reaching out with his magical senses, he was able to discern that it was a shield constructed exactly as Jack had taught them all to do when their Sagone was first formed. It was a shield meant to keep out strangers, since knowing how it was constructed made it very simple to take down or walk through if one had the skill. He did, and he cast the spell that would allow him passage. As the shield parted and he walked through, he braced himself for an attack in response, just in case. When none came, he continued on towards the house.

“For a Nandeer, you are not very stealthy, Mitchell,” a familiar voice remarked.

He looked up towards the house and saw the Jaffan perched on a stump, staff within easy reach. “I wasn’t attempting to be stealthy. I know better than to sneak up on a Jaffan.”

“I am not a Jaffan anymore.”

“Once and always. You simply no longer serve a Master or a Sagone.”

The Jaffan shrugged elegantly and stared at him as he drew closer.

“As you are and shall always be of our Sagone, though it exists now only in spirit,” Cam said.

“The Sagone was Nandeer O’Neill’s, he pushed me out.”

“You will always be one of his; you cannot change your history.”

There was tension in the air. He was now within striking distance. If the Jaffan chose, Cam could easily be dead between one breath and the next. At this range, Cam could not shield against a Jaffan, no one could. He stopped and crossed his arms, staring at the Jaffan.

“You are either very brave or very foolhardy. I could take your head, Mitchell.”

“What do you want with my head? You never wanted it before. Besides, you have a lovely collection of skulls in your little spike forest here. Which, by the way, very, very disturbing.” Cam waved an arm around to encompass the gruesome garden.

“They came with the house.”

“Are you done playing the hermit yet, Sam?”

She closed her eyes and tipped her head back to face the sky. “I wish it would rain. I like the rain. The rain cleanses the soul. I thought if I sat in the rain often enough, it would wash away all the smut on my soul.”

“You did not have to come all the way out to The Wastes to do this cleansing, Sam. You were always welcome in Kansa, I would hope that you knew that. I need you, Sam. I need you now more than I ever have.”

She shook her head and looked away from him staring at the small house in a manner that suggested she was not seeing it. “I am not what you need. I am not what anyone needs. I am not worthy to walk with you any more, Cameron.”

She was one of only two people living that had the right to use his full name. He reached out and clasped her chin, pulling her face up towards him. “You were once the other half of my soul, Samantha. Sister of my heart, you know me better than anyone. You saved me from the street; you brought me to the Sagone. I owe you my life as it is, as it has been since that day. And I tell you now, I need you. I cannot do this task they have asked of me without you at my side. I need your strength, for I fear I shall be weak when the time comes to do what I must.”

He knelt down and pressed his forehead to her knees. “Sam, they sent me to Hunt Jack.” As her hands came up to clasp his head, he felt the tears start. He had known that once he got here he could not keep up the stoic face of the Nandeer when he asked for her help. Not with Sam. He couldn’t even give her that little lie of pretending to be brave. It was another reason he had needed to do this asking alone.

With his arms wrapped around her knees and his face buried in her lap, he shook with the enormity of what he was undertaking. He let himself fall apart because despite everything that had happened, he trusted that Sam would hold him safe until he was able to pull himself back together. She would not hold his tears against him.

Her fingers caressed his head, smoothing over his hair. “Shhh, Cameron,” she soothed. She tugged on his hair until he looked up at her. She opened her arms then and he surged up into them and clung to her, as he had once done as a boy. She rocked him as the trembling eased, and held him until he was once more in control.

“Don’t make me do this alone,” he whispered raggedly.

She clasped his face in her hands and kissed away the tears that clung to his eyelashes. “Never.”

And that was all either of them had to say.

~*~
A short time later, after washing his face in cold water, Cam walked back up the trail towards the rest of his companions.

“Is that you, Mitchell?” Charles called from behind the boulder as Cam tossed a pebble at their hiding place.

He smiled at Kawalsky’s question and intoned darkly, “I am the ghost of Cam Mitchell, coming to haunt your every step.”

“The Jaffan didn’t kill you, then?” Jonas called cheerfully.

“The Jaffan most certainly did not,” Sam answered as she preceded Cam around the boulder. “Do you think so little of me, boys?”

“You went away angry and you have to admit that you are very frightening when you are angry, Sam.” Daniel was the first to approach and embrace her.

Charles gingerly patted her shoulder and then quickly backed away. “You broke my nose and you scared my Apprentice so much, she quit.”

Giving Kawalsky a look, Sam retorted, “That was no Apprentice that was a whore. You should be ashamed of yourself, Charles. I did you a favor; if anyone had found about your illicit little love nest, the scandal would have lost you your Council Seat.”

“There was that. I’m not holding it against you. Welcome back Sam,” Charles rushed forward to hug her as well.

“Greetings, Jaffan Carter,” Jonas said formally, keeping his distance. He had been there at the end, when the unpleasantness had happened. Cam knew that seeing Sam again had to be awkward for his Gara.

She smiled shyly at him. They had once been good friends. “I owe you an apology, Gara Quinn. Please forgive me the slight I paid to you and any offense or discomfort I may have caused.” She bowed her head and went to one knee. It was more than she had to do to make the formal apology; as a Jaffan, she outranked the Gara.

Recognizing the offering in the spirit it was intended; Jonas walked over and touched a hand to her shoulder. “I accept your apology. The waters run clear once more.”

“I have missed you, Jonas.” Sam said, standing up and pulling him into an embrace.

“And I have missed you, Sam. I am glad to see you, though I wish the circumstances were different.”

She nodded and released her hold on Jonas. “As do I. Will someone introduce us?” Sam tilted her head towards Vala.

“Vala Mal Doran. I travel with Daniel.” Vala brushed past Daniel and Charles to offer her hand, palm up in the way of the Southern Provinces.

Sam pressed her palm to Vala’s. “I am Jaffan Carter. Everyone calls me Sam.”

“We should go, the weather will not hold here and I do not want to try to shift in a storm,” Cam announced.

He caught Sam by the elbow and waited until the others were out of hearing distance. “Sam, have you any idea where we might find Teal’c?”

“Are you admitting to me that the great Nandeer has misplaced his Jaffan… again?”

“I told you I needed you, Sam. He doesn’t talk to me. He was your Apprentice; you were the only one he would really talk to. And when you left he got even quieter. And then he started disappearing on me for moons at a time.”

“He’s YOUR Jaffan, Cameron.”

Cam tried to look pitiful. “He doesn’t like me.”

“He likes you. You just don’t understand him yet.”

“He doesn’t do what I tell him to.”

Sam stopped him. “Cam, no one ever does what you tell them to.”

“I know! That’s why I need you.”

~*~
They shifted to Dakara without incident, though traversing with the addition of so many companion’s bodies made the working take extra energy and Cam had to draw life energy from his Gara just to stay on his feet when they arrived. Head bowed and gasping against the pain, Cam gripped Jonas’ shoulder tightly as his knees wobbled.

“Cam?” Sam asked with concern. “Do you need a Healer?”

“He should be fine,” Jonas answered for him as he looked up into Cam’s face. “He didn’t pull much from me. I’d know if he was in trouble.”

“I’ll split the next shift with you Cam,” Kawalsky offered. Too pained to argue, Cam merely nodded in acceptance of the offer without any posturing for appearance’s sake.

Jackson was turning in place nervously. “Can we get moving soon? I really don’t like this town. I want to be out of here before sunset.”

Looking around at the company, and pausing to stare at the heavily armed Jaffan in their midst, Kawalsky caught Jackson’s eye and then looked back at Sam pointedly. “Really, Daniel?”

“Habit. Bad memories here. Look, let’s just go, all right?” Surprisingly, Daniel seized Vala’s hand and started walking towards the town, dragging her along after him when she didn’t move quickly enough to suit him. His voice carried back to them, “I don’t care how much power and protection we have between us. Bad things always happen to us in Dakara.”

“He doesn’t look right,” Sam said with concern to Jonas, speaking over Cam’s head. Mitchell was leaning heavily on his Gara as they started down the road after Daniel and Vala. Falling into step beside them, Sam patted the pack on Mitchell’s back. “I’d offer to do a spell of lightening, but I suspect most of the gear in your pack would react badly to any casting I might do upon it.”

Head down, Cam merely nodded, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. This had been a bad shift, a very bad shift. Something was torn. “Stop,” he whispered, clutching one hand to his forehead as pain exploded. His legs went out from under him and he felt hands catch him and lower him to the dirt road. He heard Jonas and Sam calling his name as darkness swam up and took him.

~*~
“He’s waking up.”

“About time,” Daniel muttered.

Cam leaned on Jonas as his Gara helped him to sit up. A gentle hand pushed his hair back from where it had fallen down into his eyes. “Bad shift, eh, Cam?”

He sighed as he looked into the warm brown eyes of the one person he had not wanted to bring on this Hunt, the one member of the Sagone he was purposely leaving out, hurt feelings be damned. “What are you doing here?” he grumbled in irritation.

Janet smirked at him. “Setting you to rights. Again. You overextended Nandeer. You veered one step too close to the void with that shift.”

“I’ve shifted six people before,” Cam complained. This should not have been a problem. He had anticipated a small drain, but nothing like what had hit him.

“Not into damned Dakara!” Daniel hissed, rocking on his heels.

Cam put a hand to his head as the last vestiges of the healing spell Janet had cast dissipated. He blinked and looked around at the assembled company. “How did you get here, Janet?” Her fingers were under his chin, bringing his face around to look at her as she peered into his eyes with concern.

“Charles came for me.”

Charles… Cam was startled. Kawalsky had shifted all the way to the Capital and back again? “How long... was I out?”

“Three candlemarks,” Jonas replied, crouched on his knees at Cam’s side. He looked extremely guilt ridden. His Gara gushed out an apology. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize how bad off you were, Nandeer.” Cam patted his arm in forgiveness.

“Apparently, Dakara is a sinkhole, Mitchell. I had to draw off Daniel to get back, and I was only carrying Janet with me. It was a good thing Daniel was here and familiar enough for me to grab onto, or we might have side-stepped and been completely lost.” Kawalsky was now crouched beside the healer. He extended a sliver of dried meat to Cam. “Eat. That’s been dipped in riodthyde, it should help to equalize you.”

Cam ate the meat and sipped from the flask Jonas passed him. “I didn’t want you here,” Cam told Janet when he felt that he could speak clearly again. “Not you. Not for a Hunt. Especially not for this Hunt.”

“I’m Sagone, I have as much right to be here as any of the others.” Her chin went up, and the stubborn light that he loved came into her eyes. “I’m hurt that you didn’t think I was worthy of this.”

“It wasn’t that…” he started to say, raising a hand towards her face, but she got up and walked away. All he wanted to do was protect her, but she always needed to be in the thick of things. He couldn’t make her understand that she had always been and would always be a distraction for him. She was dangerous to him, just as he was dangerous for her.

Jonas squeezed his shoulder and met his eyes when Cam finally looked away from Janet. “I’ll watch her. We can’t risk shifting to take her back, not with a sinkhole in place.”

“How are we going to get to the Lake once we’ve gathered Teal’c?” Sam asked.

Vala snorted. “We’ve two Garas, a Magor and a Nandeer; surely between them they can manage a port spell?”

“A port spell in a sinkhole? We’d be better off walking,” Daniel scoffed from where he was sitting on the top of a stone wall that ran along the roadside.

“What’s wrong, Jackson - can’t hold a frame position any more? Or maybe you are afraid to try?” Jonas goaded.

Daniel glared at him. “My framing is… there’s nothing wrong with my framing! It’s an unnecessary risk.”

“If we walk out of here, we might not have the time to get back before Juklamas, and everything will be for naught,” Kawalsky pointed out.

“I can hold a port frame,” Janet said in the silence that followed Kawalsky’s words.

Sam nodded. “As can Teal’c and I. It would be far better to overcompensate, we’ll all frame it, once we find Teal’c.”

“What about me?” Vala said in a very quiet and uncertain voice. “I don’t know how to do that. What do I hold onto?”

Wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her up against him, Daniel said, “You hold onto me.” He nuzzled his face into her neck. “And don’t let go.”

“Stop that! Not in front of people!” She slapped at him and pulled away, though the effort was half hearted and she didn’t go very far from his side once she had made her escape.

“Now that we have a plan to leave, let’s gather up our wayward Jaffan and get to it, shall we?” Cam used Jonas’ shoulder to push himself to his feet. Gratified that he seemed to be back to normal, he gave his friends an encouraging smile and pointed in the direction of the town. “Any idea where he might be holed up, Sam?”

She nodded. “I had a letter from him not long ago; care of an inn on the riverside road.”

~*~
“Big guy, dark skin, permanent scowl, mark of a Prime on his forehead?” the barkeep asked.

Standing beside Cam, Kawalksy sipped at the ale he’d purchased, pulled a face at the bitter taste and said, “That would be him.”

“He paid me very well to pass along a message, should a blue-eyed Nandeer with the mark of the Southern Council come asking after him.” The barkeep pointed to the marking clearly visible on the back of Cam’s hand. Cam sighed, his errant Jaffan was not making this easy.

“How much will it cost to retrieve the message?” Jonas asked.

“Two brass.”

Cam fished in his belt pouch and handed over the coin.

The barkeep smiled and said, “He said, ‘Go home.’”

Cam looked at the ceiling as he prayed for patience. Then he started to count silently.

“Barkeep, do you know what happens when a Nandeer loses his temper? If you have any idea where the Jaffan is, it would be a very good idea to share the information. Now,” Sam advised. She gave Cam a nervous look and then started to back away dramatically.

“You can’t do nothing to me, I delivered what you paid for, just like you asked. I can’t help it if you don’t like the message.”

“There might be room to inscribe the circle on the floor here, Nandeer,” Jonas called out helpfully, shoving a table aside and eyeing the floor critically. He looked around and up. “The ceiling is high enough; the smoke damage might not be too terrible.”

“Smoke damage? Inscribing? Wait, no, no, no, you can’t go casting here, there’s public safety to consider!” the barkeep cried as Kawalsky began helping Jonas move furniture.

In a very pleasant voice and with a bright smile, Sam informed him, “Finding the Jaffan is a matter of public safety as well. We work on orders of the Southern Council. You may file a claim for damages from the finding spell with the Council, they might reimburse you.”

The man gulped and stared at Sam. “Might? Listen, wait. Wait. You don’t have to do all that. He’s around. You should be able to find him. He’s been keeping company with Ishta at the Compound.”

Cam leveled a stare at the barkeep. “Where is this Compound?”

~*~
Yanking the rope attached to the bell beside the gate, Cam stood beside Sam and Jonas and waited for someone to come to unlock the gate. The others had remained behind at the inn to eat and rest. Despite Daniel’s vehement protests, it had been decided that remaining in Dakara overnight was the wisest course of action. They would attempt the port spell in the morning, when they were all together, rested and at full strength.

A smiling woman peeked over the edge of the gate. “Hello. May I help you?”

“We are hoping to speak with Ishta,” Sam called.

“Oh! Are you here to help?” the girl seemed excited by the prospect so Cam nodded.

When she opened the gate, she stepped aside and let them enter. Cam heard Teal’c call out, “I’ve got you now!” and he instinctively braced for impact. When none came, he opened his eyes, stood up straight and grinned sheepishly at his companions, who were staring at him.

They followed the girl into a courtyard, where Teal’c stood at the center of a dozen little girls. He grabbed one, tickling her and tossing her high in the air, provoking a stream of screaming giggles from the child. “What is this place?” Jonas asked their guide.

“A foundling home. Brother Teal’c is very good with the girls, he is patient and kind, he minds them during the day.”

Sam covered her mouth with one hand to hide her grin as Cam sputtered before regaining his composure. “Teal’c!” he roared.

The giggling stopped and every eye turned to stare at Cam. “Mitchell,” Teal’c said simply, setting down a squirming child. As usual, there was no expression on his face as Mitchell stalked over to him.

“What are you doing here?”

A small girl in a simple tunic tugged on Cam’s hand. “He’s playing. Are you here to play too?” Cam smiled and shook his head.

“Playing?” Cam stared at the Jaffan the Council had assigned to him after O’Neill had retired.

His Jaffan, unperturbed, stared back. “Indeed.”

Cam dropped his fists to his hips and tried to keep his voice even and his tone conversational as he said, “Well, you’ll have to stop playing now. We have a task to do.” The mob of children let out a collective groan of disappointment and there were quite a few glares tossed Cam’s way.

“I do not wish to leave this place,” Teal’c replied. That was met with a rousing cheer from the children. Teal’c smiled down at his mob of tiny supporters.

“We need to talk, Teal’c.”

“We are talking now, are we not, Mitchell?”

Reaching into his belt pouch, Cam pulled out the decree and passed it to Teal’c. Stubbornly, Teal’c refused to take it until Cam swatted his arm with it and growled at him. When he read it, his eyes widened. “You expect me to help you do this?”

“I expect you to help us help O’Neill.”

“This does not mean I will come back.”

Mitchell threw his hands up into the air. “I didn’t ask you to. I told you before Teal’c, you have always been free to come and go as you please. I didn’t want you to stay because I needed a Jaffan. I wanted you to stay because it was home.”

For a moment, Teal’c was silent, then he said, “Very well, I will go with you to help O’Neill.”

Mitchell pursed his lips and realized Teal’c hadn’t yet met his eyes and was staring beyond him as he spoke. “You weren’t talking to me, Sam is standing behind me, isn’t she?”

“Indeed.”

~*~
After having a meal together at the inn, the Sagone had a tense discussion and hammered out the basics of a plan.

As the others stood to leave, Jonas cleared his throat. “Nandeer Mitchell needs something else of those willing.”

“Oh?” asked Sam, glancing Cam’s way.

Cam tugged up his sleeve and showed the newest mark on his arm.

“Cam!” Kawalsky hissed, grabbing his arm and turning it to see the mark. “How could you do this?”

“A last resort. If all else fails, I had hoped that seeing this might distract him.”

“Oh, that should do the trick. It’s like... like... going to your own funeral!” Daniel exclaimed and then shuddered. “I don’t like it.”

“You want us to charge it, doing you?” Sam asked, smoothing her fingers over the ink with a sad and resigned look in her eyes.

“It might help. A focus, to concentrate our power. I’ve charged it as well, if anything happens to me, grab an axe.”

Sam huffed out a breath. “Cameron.”

“What? You’re the one with heads on pikes around her house. Surely one little arm won’t trouble you?”

“Do what with it? Hit him?” Vala asked?

Daniel laughed and pulled her hair. “That might work, if it were spelled properly.”

None of them refused. Daniel and Vala stood outside the circle, unable to cast. Taking the spot to Cam’s left as Jonas stood to his right, Janet clasped his hand and squeezed her eyes shut as they began to cast the necessary spell.

Once again, Cam found himself flat on his back, staring up at his friends. It had been expected this time and he had time to sit down before falling over. He was buzzing with the power they had put into him. He rubbed at the mark, which had changed to a dark blue color. “Thank you, everyone. Find your beds, we have a long journey come morning.”

 

There was a loud pounding on the door of the room Cam was sharing with Janet. He had refused to let anyone else be responsible for her and they had called a truce, agreeing to shelve their personal problems until this Hunt was over and done with. At least they could still share a bed without arguing. He rolled off the lumpy mattress, tossing a ward up around Janet as she snorted and buried her head deeper into the pillows.

A quick scry told him Daniel and Vala were at the door.

“Jonas!” Cam called, summoning his Gara as he went to the door and opened it to let Daniel in. “What is it, Jackson?”

“Skitters and slinks. Thousands of them. The road outside is crawling with them. I hate Dakara. I really hate Dakara,” Daniel muttered as he went to the window and looked down into the road. “Everything bad migrates to Dakara eventually.”

Janet rolled over in the bed and sat up, blinking at the crowd gathered in the room as Jonas came in, followed by Kawalsky. “What’s going on?”

Quietly mouthing an incantation and motioning with his hand, Cam was scrying again, trying to determine the source of the swarm outside. He dropped his hand and hissed out an oath. “O’Neill.”

“You’re sure?”

“I know the taste of O’Neill’s casting, though it’s tainted oddly, I recognize his hand in it. He knows we’re here, he probably sensed the power of the Sagone as soon as we were all together. He’s too smart not to realize why we would be together, despite Council orders against a gathering.”

“He knows we’re coming after him,” Daniel whispered, looking out the window. “Teal’c and Sam are already outside.”

“I know,” Cam replied, his eyes glowing bright blue indicating he was using magic. Vala, Janet and Jonas joined Daniel by the window. Kawalsky went to stand beside Cam.

Daniel glanced over at Cam and shook his head. “I hate when you do that. You’re a Nandeer, why don’t you stick to Nandeer tricks, why must you also be a Magor? It drives me nuts when you use Magor Sight.”

“Jealous?” Jonas asked in a teasing tone. Daniel ignored him.

“Should they be down there alone?” Janet asked with concern.

Jonas patted her shoulder. “They won’t be for long.” She spun around at his words to glare at Cam, probably intending to lambast him for straining himself to shift, but Kawalsky finished the spell and they shifted before she could lash into him.

The Jaffan were back to back, casting through their staff weapons with one hand while hacking with their swords with the other.

As soon as he and Kawalsky were solid, Cam started casting spells. The skinks, drawn to their magic, slithered around them, all of them poisonous and deadly. Kawalsky set a wall of fire and pushed it across the road, burning up many of the magically enhanced vermin.

Cam knew the pestilence was a distraction, he suspected something else was coming and his eyes were scanning the darkness around them. It was sneaky of O’Neill to attack at night while they slept, Cam had to bow to his Master’s superior tactics once again. He saw the others run out the door of the inn and join the fight.

“Did it have to be snakes?!” Vala asked as she smashed them with her heels, her thick boots protecting her from their bites. “I hate snakes!”

Jonas cast a ring of fire around himself, Daniel and Janet, as it started at their feet, burning outwards and killing the snakes. In the middle of the road, Kawalsky lifted his hand towards the sky and called down lightning, making the creatures explode.

The Nandeer heard it coming. He saw nothing, but he heard danger in the darkness and the ground beneath them trembled. Suddenly, the ground itself seemed to explode upwards, throwing them off their feet.

Warriors clad in black armor, carrying black swords rose from the ground. “Death Troops! Janet, Daniel, Vala run, get away!” Cam screamed as he tried to cast one of the few wards effective against this threat. Jonas met his eyes over the rescinding flames of his ring as he squelched it. Even from a distance Cam could read the disappointment and regret in his Gara’s posture and expression. They could not have planned for this. Jack had never dabbled in the necro arts, this was completely unexpected.

Cam drew his sword, the only way to survive this now was to best the Death Troops in hand to hand combat. Luckily, he had two Jaffan on his side. Sam and Teal’c were already swinging their swords as the first of the walking dead reached them.

He fought as hard as he could, for as long as he could, matching each blow, parrying and blocking and with each dead skull he lobbed off he sent a prayer of thanks for Jack O’Neill insisting he master the sword.

One got by Sam, then Charles. Cam was too busy trading blows with a pair of Death Troopers and did not see the third. He felt the blow cut across his gut, a hot sting followed by the feel of a thousand tiny pinpricks as the magical wound took hold. He looked down and saw the black oozing from between his fingers as he tried to hold his flayed abdomen closed. He saw balls of light hurtling through the air out of the darkness, unknown spells. Hopefully they did not hit and take hold.

He’d failed. He was dead, even Janet couldn’t cure this, not in time. He went to his knees and looked around. There were not many of them left. Half a dozen had cornered Vala and Daniel and Janet near the entrance to the inn. With the last of his strength, Cam formed a ball of positive energy, pulling on the reserves of the sun’s light that he always held within himself for battles against creatures of night. He poured all he had into the ball, split it in two and and hurled them towards the inn. He did not see if his spell was successful. He pitched forward onto his face and knew no more.

~*~
Daniel had grabbed her hand after Cam had killed the Death Troops that threatened them. Something came screaming through the air, a ball of white fire hit the ground not far from them. The world had exploded in a shattering of light and Vala had been blinded, though she had tried to shield her eyes. When she chanced opening them again, she was not where she had been. The dirt road of Dakara was gone and thankfully with it the snakes.

She climbed to her feet and looked around; the place where she was now was unlike any other she had ever seen before. She was indoors, at the center of a small room, one that had no windows and no doors. Her legs felt a little wobbly when she tried to walk, but she refused to let physical weakness stop her. She had been fighting against that since her childhood and she wasn’t going to give in to it now.

Slowly, in a jagged line, she made her way to the curving wall. She pressed her left palm to the iridescent gold. It was cool to the touch, it felt like glass. Her fingernail would not press in, nor did she make a mark on the surface when she tried to scratch at it. She pressed both hands to it and leaned all her weight against the wall, but there was no give to it, it was solid. The walls were not flat; there were bumps and indentations at regular intervals, a design that was familiar to her, though she could not remember where she had seen it before today.

Looking up, she regarded the crystal chandelier that hung at the center of the round room. It seemed to be decorative as it gave off no light. It was suspended by a chain from the peak where the curving walls met. The bottom of it was too high above Vala’s head for her to reach, even if she stood on her toes. Staring at the crystals, Vala wondered at the purpose of them. The light in the room came from the glow of the walls. The only furnishings in the room were low padded couches around the base of all the walls. Pillows in a myriad of shapes and sizes in every color of the rainbow and every shade within each color were strewn across the couches.

It was a lovely and comfortable place. Unfortunately, it also appeared to be a prison.

There was a table near the wall in a break between two couches and she walked over to examine the contents. A golden dome with a handle at the top sat at the center of the table. She flicked a finger at it and it chimed slightly. She pressed a hand to it before clasping the lid. She bent to peer under the lid as she lifted it cautiously from the table. It seems her captor did not intend to starve her, there was bread and cheese and fruit on the platter beneath the dome, as well as a carafe of wine and another of water.

She could refuse to eat as a protest, but there did not seem to be anyone present to witness any stubbornness, and she was hungry and thirsty. Picking up a lodenberry, she nibbled the ridges off it and sucked in the sweet juice. At least it was good fruit. Her throat was parched from the fight out on the road in Dakara, so she poured herself a goblet of water. It was cold and sweet. As she set the decanter back on the table, she saw it refill.

Magic then. Vala suspected that there would be no jailers coming to bring her fresh food or water. There would be no one to flirt with, no one to overwhelm and steal a key from. She took her water and an unsliced complin and flopped down gracelessly on one of the couches.

Daniel had been right, Dakara had been trouble waiting to happen.

~*~
The violent shaking of the ground beneath him roused Daniel. His face was pressed to a fancy carpet. He slowly rolled over, taking a mental inventory of his body parts and assuring himself that everything was still where it belonged. He sat up and looked around, and seeing no people in the room, he relaxed slightly.

Getting hit with a spell was a rather unique experience for Daniel. He had rarely been out in the field when he served as Jack’s First Gara, and the few times he had, he had been swaddled safely in layers of wards and shields. This was the first time a battle spell had actually landed on him. It hurt, and so he decided he did not wish to repeat this experience.

Why was the room shaking? The decorative crystal chandelier at the center of the room was swaying to and fro with the vibrations. Daniel attempted to stand, but he slid across the floor when the room tilted. He fell into the cushions of the low sofa that was set against the wall and became entangled in the pillows. He struggled to get free of them and fell to the floor when the room tilted once more, in the opposite direction, leveling out somewhat.

Where was he? What kind of place moved in such a manner. He looked around and realized that all the furnishings were suddenly perfectly tidy, even the rug he had slid across the room upon was back in the proper place beneath the chandelier. He groaned as sorted through the possibilities and quickly came to the realization that he had to be in a jinn trap. It was the only thing that made any sense.

But why this kind of holding spell of all things? Jinn traps were fairly common in the west, but so far as Daniel knew, none of the eastern Councils needed or sanctioned their use. And to the best of his knowledge, Nandeer O’Neill had never subscribed to any western magics, Daniel would have bet a year’s income that there were no western spells in Jack’s repertoire. So how had he ended up here?

He crossed the room to the elaborately laid table and picked up a piece of fruit. If his captor wanted him dead, he would be dead, not imprisoned in this trap. It was highly unlikely that the food was poison. Affecting a replicating food spell to add poison or drugs would take an additional level of spellcasting to initiate, as well as additional maintenance. Daniel doubted the effort was worth it, and so he ate the fruit. He was hungry, and didn’t really want to starve.

He wandered close to the wall and touched it with his fingers, finding the ridged surface cool to the touch. The walls glowed, providing light to the room. Daniel reviewed what he remembered about jinn traps and concluded that he was quite likely in a bottle of some kind.

Daniel had very little knowledge about western magic. Even if he had been a caster of Mitchell or Kawalsky’s level, he would likely have been unable to do any spellcasting within this bottle. He saw that his pack was on the floor beside one of the couches and he went over to it. He withdrew one of the books he had been interpreting as well as a scribing lead and a bound pad of paper that he used to make notes and flopped down onto the cushions of one of the sofa. He might as well catch up on his work.

It was either daylight outside or the room the bottle was currently being kept in had a light source. It was steady, so Daniel doubted it was a torch or candle lit room, it must be daylight. Another day had started. They were running out of time to save Jack. Nibbling on a piece of cheese as he cracked open the cover of the book, Daniel wondered if Jack was the instigator or the victim in this.

~*~
Jack tried to put the blue bottle down, he struggled against his captor, trying to gain control of just his arm and hand, hoping that isolating his effort might yield a better result than all his other attempts over the past few days.

It was no use, he could feel Ba’al’s satisfaction at what he had accomplished. One ornate green bottle sat on the table, while another was clenched tightly in Jack’s fist. The spell Ba’al had cast to call these bottles into being was unlike any Jack had every heard before. More western magic, he presumed.

The blue bottle was set down carefully beside the green. Then Ba’al pulled out a mirror, one just wide enough for Jack to see his face within the framed glass when the creature bent over it. His eyes looked wrong, there was a yellow tinge to them. His cheeks were drawn and slightly sunken. By Jack’s reckoning, it had been less than a moon, and Ba’al’s habitation of Jack’s body was already starting to wear heavily. Jack had the thought that perhaps his body would simply break down and die and then Ba’al would be forced to give him up. But he pushed the thought aside, unwilling to let this evil being win.

Ba’al and his lords were evil. Jack had overheard enough conversation between Ba’al and Yu to have a basic understanding of their plan. They were here to conquer. In the generations since the Winter Storms had started, the lords of the west had bred the snakes back from the brink of extinction, and now planned to use them to gain power in the east. They were going to take control of people in key positions within the various councils of the east and use their power.

A noise near the door made Ba’al look up. Jack saw movement, the quick flash of someone darting from the door to the alcove. The snake within his body had worn Jack down over the time it had been living in him and it had started leaching knowledge from his mind while he slept, helpless to fight the intrusion and theft. Bal’al lifted a hand theatrically and whispered a quick incantation. Power flowed out over Jack’s arm and the alcove was lit up with a bolt of mage-light. There was a cry of pain and a loud thud. Ba’al sauntered over to the alcove and Jack’s spirits fell low as he saw his friend Teal’c crumpled there on the floor.

Ba’al laughed harshly and pulled a vial from a pouch attached to the belt he wore. He sprinkled some black powder over Teal’c, muttering words in a discordant chant that grated on Jack’s very soul. This was dark magic from the west. Jack tried to block it out, but he could not look away from what the snake was doing to his friend.

Teal’c opened his eyes and looked up, and there was disbelief in his eyes as he saw the monster wave Jack’s hands around, carving sigils in the air. Teal’c was apparently bound in place, he wriggled slightly but did move otherwise. Jack saw the Jaffan’s lips move, he was trying to cast, but before he could finish, Ba’al clapped Jack’s hands together, shouted a word of invocation and there was a flash of light and a puff of smoke, and Teal’c was gone. Was he dead? Jack could not be sure, he did not know what the spell did. The knowledge pathway only went in one direction in this twisted relationship he had with the snake controlling his body. Ba’al rarely spoke to Jack directly, unless taunting him, and he never answered any question Jack had been able to put to him.

Humming in satisfaction, Ba’al went back to the table and picked up a stone, and began to etch ornate symbols in the glass that had been left on the table. Powder was rubbed into the score marks and blown off. Then a short spell was uttered as the green bottle was lifted and waved slowly over the mirror in a slow counterclockwise circle.

An image appeared in the glass, it was obviously a scrying spell, though unlike any Jack had ever learned. An image appeared, faint and fuzzy at first, but it cleared and Jack saw Daniel. ‘No, not Daniel too!’ he thought with dread, which amused the interloper. His former First Gara was curled on a pile of cushions and pillows, hunched over a book, as usual. Jack could read tension in his posture, Daniel was passing the time, he was not comfortable wherever he was.

The monster suddenly gave the bottle a shake from side to side and Daniel was thrown from his perch, landing on the floor in a pile of pillows. Ba’al chortled a gleeful little laugh. Jack noticed then that the walls of Daniel’s prison were the same color green as the bottle that dangled between his fingers. An old memory came to him, he had heard of this before, in stories from the west, a Jinn trap? Was Daniel inside the bottle?

“Do you worry for your friend?” Ba’al hissed through Jack’s lips, his voice sounding distorted and wrong. “I could end him, break the bottle and make him die. But this is so much more fun, to know he suffers and by his suffering, you suffer.” The hand holding the bottle moved, as if to hurl it to the stone floor.

“NO!” Jack screamed, but Ba’al gave a caustic laugh and set the bottle down gently. Before Jack could wonder at the identity of the other prisoner, the other bottle was moved over the scrying glass. Jack saw a dark haired woman appear in the mirror, someone he did not know, in a place decorated almost identically to Daniel’s prison.

“Do you see the connection as it flows? I could break this glass, I could sever the connection, and end both of their lives,” Ba’al taunted.

Now that it had been pointed out, Jack saw the tendrils of magic that flowed between the two bottles. He realized that the woman must be the thief Daniel had written him about, Vala, the one he had accidentally been cursed with. Jack had planned to travel to Desala to try to help Daniel break the curse, but he had been ambushed before that had happened.

“I shall let them live, for now, it will be much better to break the glass when the others come.” The blue bottle was carefully set beside the green once more.

Others? Had Teal’c and Daniel been together? Surely by now the Council was aware that something was very wrong here, there had been too many killings, too many strange workings that could easily be traced to the foreign thief in Jack’s body. If that had happened, what would the Council do? They’d likely send a Hunter to take care of him. They’d probably send Cam, since he had been named the Council’s Hand when Jack had retired. Mitchell was smart, the best Jack had ever trained, in fact. He had absorbed everything Jack had to teach him like a sponge and wanted more, had gone on to study on his own after becoming a Nandeer in his own right. If Mitchell was coming after him, Jack was humble enough to admit that they would be evenly matched. But this thing in his body was using Jack’s magic as well as Ba’al’s own. How could Mitchell hope to go up against that?

By gathering the Sagone, by getting them all together to come after Jack. The Sagone had been forced to disband because the Council feared the nexus of power that was forming around Jack and his friends. Now, years later, that power had to be increased at least threefold, if not more.

As Ba’al puttered around the lab it had put together in the burnt out ruins of the Tollana Castle, Jack hoped that Cam managed to make it here. If anyone could deal with this serpent problem, Nandeer Mitchell could.

~*~
“Nandeer Mitchell? Cam? Cam? Can you hear me? Please don’t be dead, come on, open your eyes.” Cam realized that the urgent voice over his head belonged to Jonas. Gentle hands were running over his middle, hands that definitely did not belong to Jonas. Janet, he recognized her touch and her voice as she said the words of a healing spell. He struggled to open his eyes. Three balls of mage-light floated over him, providing the light for Janet to work by. Cam recognized Sam’s handiwork in the warm blue lights.

“Don’t move, Cam, Janet is trying to close the gaping hole in your gut,” Kawalsky had Cam’s head braced on his knees, holding him still.

“The others?” Cam whispered raggedly. It was hard to breathe. Now he could feel the pain seeping around the edges of the spells Janet and Charles had cast on him.

Charles cleared his throat and looked down into Cam’s face. “Sam is standing watch. She took care of the stragglers.”

“I heard Jonas, is Jonas alright?” Cam tried to look around, but Charles was holding his head still, he could only see the top of Janet’s head as she bent over him.

Jonas replied, ‘“I’m here beside you, Nandeer.”

“Where? Let me see you, Gara,” Cam demanded.

“Well, there’s a problem there. I got hit with some kind of shielding spell. No one seems to be able to see through it.” Jonas replied.

Damn it! Jonas was his responsibility, he shouldn’t even be out here. “Daniel, Teal’c, Vala?”

“They’re all missing, Cam. Daniel and Vala were at the center of that last big spell when it hit the ground, Teal’c was close by,” Charles said. He smoothed Cam’s forehead with one hand and made a shushing sound to soothe him when Cam got agitated. “We didn’t find their bodies, nor was there any blood. It was likely a relocation spell. I didn’t recognize the smell of the spell components that were left, this attack was not like any I have encountered before.”

Janet raised her head and looked up at him. There was tension on her face, and she was exhausted, drained. “I can’t do any more. I need to stop for a short time,” she whispered. Cam knew his injuries must be extensive, for her to have drained herself and still not finished.

“How bad is it, Janet?” he asked, feeling the pain tingling at the edges of the spell that was shielding him from the worst of the effects of his injury.

“If we had another healer, we could probably get you back on your feet. You’re going to need bed rest. I can try another round of healing tomorrow.” The sun had not yet risen. Bedrest meant sacrificing a whole day, a day they did not have to spare.

He opened his mouth to protest and Charles said in a low warning voice, “You were dead, Mitchell, your heart stopped, you were not breathing. She brought you back from death, don’t be stupidly brave, stay down for a day, don’t waste the time she bought you.”

Dead? He fumbled his hand around until he caught Janet’s. She looked at him and he could see relief in her eyes as she raised it to her lips and kissed his fingers. “You made promises, Cam. I had to keep you here to fulfill them.”

Sam came over and crouched beside him. She pushed his hair back from his face as she looked at him with a mixture of relief and concern. “Good to see you back with us, Nandeer. I thought we lost you too.”

“The others are not dead!” Kawalsky protested vehemently.

“I shall count them as lost until I see them again. Your finding spell failed, as did mine. We cannot spare the time to search for those that might have been dissipated. When all is said and done, we will return here with experts from the Council to do a proper finding spell to see what we can find. And they can undo this power sinkhole while they are here. I am beginning to share Daniel’s intense dislike of Dakara.”

Sam patted Cam’s shoulder. “Jonas and I made a litter, let’s get out of the road before the Dakarans rise and start wandering around. I scoured the area and found no other spell traps, I believe the town is secure.”

When they moved him, the pain overrode all the spells that had been keeping agony at bay and he passed out.

 

A warm wet cloth being moved over his chest woke him. He opened his eyes to see Janet with a wash rag in her hands. He glanced down at his bare chest and saw the ragged edges of the hole that the spell that had nearly cut him in two had left across his abdomen. He should be dead.

“I’m just finishing. I needed to clean you up. How do you feel?” Janet asked.

“Thirsty.”

She smiled lightly and dropped the wash rag into the water bowl and set it aside. She picked up a mug from the table beside the bed and slid a hand under his head to raise it so that he could drink without choking. “Slowly, sip at it, do not gulp.”

“Where are the others?”

One graceful hand waved in the direction of the window. “They went to the local Council library. They’re hoping to find a spell to break the shielding that is around Jonas to make him visible again. Kawalsky is looking for a set of focus stones. He’s hoping that with four of us, we can still set the corners of a frame so that you can port us out of here.”

When he was done drinking, she let his head sink back to the pillow. He knew she had dosed the water with something to make him sleep. If she had not nearly burned herself out healing him, he might have argued with her. But the least he could do to repay her efforts was to humor her and rest for a while.

Her eyes were sad as she looked at him. “They might be dead. If Daniel and Vala are not together, the bonding spell will kill them within a day or two”

“They might not be dead.” He reached up to stroke her cheek. “Jack might have grabbed them up and ported them to where he is.”

“Where is he?”

“The Council’s information said Tollana Castle.”

She tilted her head thoughtfully, “That’s in The Greens, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that where Lorne’s place is?”

Cam felt the drug she had given him taking effect. The pain was a dull throb in his middle now. “Yeah, I think he’s up that way. I figured if I had to I could beg him for help, if all else fails. If I die, make sure he gets my arm, he might have a chance at harnessing the power and working with the rest of you, he can use my arm as a focus.”

She pressed a kiss to his forehead. “I doubt you’d have to beg, he’s your friend. And I’m not letting you die. Sleep Cam. You need to rest. The Hunt will be there tomorrow, you still have time to finish.”

He smiled and for once, did as he was told to do without arguing about it.

~*~
Waking was painful. Cam was not surprised to find Sam and Janet staring at him when he opened his eyes. “How long was I out?”

“All day yesterday and through the night, it’s just after dawn,” Sam replied.

“Are you in a great deal of pain?” Janet asked, looking into his eyes.

He was actually. He debated admitting to it, but she seemed more serious than usual. He shifted on the bed and whatever spells she had cast to help with the pain seemed to fade. He was in bad shape. He sucked back a gasp as a wave of pain overtook him, then whispered harshly, “Yes.”

Sam and Janet exchanged an odd look, then Sam grasped his hand and squeezed it as she carefully sat on the edge of the mattress beside him. “We’ve some bad news for you, Cameron. We had two of the local healers come in to try to help Janet. They are all in agreement that the spell that cut you isn’t something they are able to heal. They think it’s western magic.”

More western magic? This was too much to be a coincidence. He blinked at Sam when she continued to stare at him expectantly. “So, it will take longer to get back on my feet, is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

His heart-sister squeezed his hand tightly and shook her head sadly. “No, Cam. They cannot heal it. The wound is magical in nature, it will not heal naturally, it is going to fester and spread and get worse.” Behind Sam, Janet’s breath caught on a sob and she covered her mouth with one hand and blinked rapidly as she rocked on her heels and stared at him. This was bad. This was Mitchell-ends-up-dead levels of bad.

“How long do I have?”

“A fortnight, if you are very lucky and stay still and quiet and rest.”

He pushed the blankets down and braced himself for another wave of pain. “So, days, because I am getting up right now to finish this Hunt.”

“NO!” Janet and Sam cried in unison.

Glancing down at his middle, he could see black seepage through the bandage wrapped around his gut. Gaining his feet might prove to be impossible, but he was duty bound to try. He moved his legs around and shifted to the edge of the bed. “Help me up, Samantha,” he used a commanding tone of voice. She sighed and slipped an arm under his shoulders and helped him to sit up. He panted against the pain, which was almost intolerable.

Janet’s hands moved, one to his face, the other over his heart, and he felt warmth spread and the pain receded as she cast. “I was afraid you would be stupidly brave about this. I can keep the pain tamped down for short periods, but I cannot heal you, Cam. The only chance you have is if you can get to a western healer.”

“No one can port past the Othallan Mountains. I guess I’m doomed. All the more reason to get moving now.” He gave the women what he hoped was a cheeky smile and pushed up to his feet. He swayed in place for a moment, but did not fall.

“Cameron, please, do not do this,” Janet begged, holding his arm.

Leaning over, he kissed her forehead and then stroked a hand over her hair. “Ah, little love, I did not expect to come back from this Hunt at all. At least now I know what my end will be, and I can make peace with it. In the meantime, we have to get to Jack and try to save him.”

Watching him move painfully to the foot of the bed, Sam said thoughtfully, “If Jack can be swayed back to the light, with the power of the Sagone, he could probably port you to Kelowan, I’m sure you can find a western healer there in the trade city.”

Cam pulled Janet against his side and hugged her as best he could, he dropped a kiss on top of her head and said cheerfully, “See? Now we have even more reason to fix Jack. With you renewing that healing spell every few hours, I should be able to function long enough to get up to The Greens.”

She sobbed and looked up at him. “That’s just it, Cam, I can’t go with you. Charles, Jonas and Sam tried to port me to the Capital for help, I was going to try to bring Beckett back to help you, but I cannot leave Dakara. I can’t even walk over the border. I’m trapped here. One of the spells hit me and bound me here.”

This kept getting worse and worse. Three gone, one invisible, and now one stuck here, he had gathered the Sagone only to lose them again. He rubbed Janet’s back soothingly. “Don’t worry.”

He would worry enough for both of them.

They met up with Charles outside the inn, and Jonas was with him. Kawalsky looked concerned but not surprised when Cam appeared with Janet and Sam. He was leaning heavily on Sam for support, while Janet was hauling his pack. “Let’s set the frame and do this. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay on my feet, I prefer to get out of Dakara while I still have the energy to do so.”

“Nandeer, perhaps you should reconsider...” Jonas said, and Cam felt the brush of an invisible hand on his arm, the warmth of his Gara’s breath on his face and neck as Jonas leaned in and spoke to him. “Charles, Sam and I can move on while you remain here.”

“No. We all go.”

“Janet, I think you should not attempt to set the frame with us,” Sam said as they walked into a field not far from the inn and Charles walked off to take the far corner.

The healer’s jaw was clenched and she took a step away from Mitchell. “I will do this. Cam will need four corners.”

“But if you cannot port with us, you could be hurt when the spell snaps,” Sam replied, grabbing Janet’s arm when she tried to walk away.

The healer shook her head, refusing to change her mind. “I have to chance it. Since I’m bound here, it might simply dissipate.”

Listening to the women, Cam wanted to side with Sam and talk Janet out of it. But she was correct, he needed her to set the frame. There was no time to spend bringing an outsider into proper harmony with the Sagone to have someone else stand in. It needed to be Janet if they were to attempt this today.

In his mind, Cam was running over spells he knew, trying to find any that might help to buffer or protect Janet. He reached out and took her hand. “Come with me, I’ll get you set.” Realizing he did not mean to dissuade her, she nodded and allowed him to walk her across the grassy field.

“I need to tell Charles something. Come with me,” Janet led him over to Kawalsky.

“Your hand, Magor,” Janet demanded.

Charles immediately gave her his right hand. She pulled it over to place it on Cam’s leather jerkin, over his heart. “Remember this, concentrate on renewal, you are not building anything, you are merely renewing what is here. I know this is within your ken. If Lorne can do it, you can.” She was setting a mild challenge with that statement, daring Charles to protest his ability to perform the task. He nodded stiffly, her ploy had worked. She looked up into Kawalsky’s face and slowly intoned the words of a spell. “Adwanis, mirascham, roos, alisham, adwanis.” He nodded, his lips moving as he said the words to himself. “Try now,” Janet prompted.

Adwanis, mirascham, roos, alisham, adwanis.” Charles chanted, and Cam felt warmth from his hand through the jerkin and the pain subsided. He felt much better, what Charles had done had worked. It was as if only one dragon had stepped on his back, instead of three dancing a jig all over him.

“Not too shabby, Kawalsky. You might be a match for Lorne one of these days,” Cam teased.

Charles merely snorted and bent to pick up his pack and slide his arms through the straps. Then he pointed to Cam’s pack, still on Janet’s back. “I’ll take that.”

She slid it off and handed it to him. He placed it on the ground at his feet, inside the square of knots he had twisted in the grass. He had placed a focus stone on the ground in front of him and also sprinkled some elogum powder on the grass; he was ready to begin the spell.

Walking Janet a short distance away, he carefully knelt, grasped a handful of long grass and tied a knot, muttering a few words and charging the knot with energy needed to set the frame. Janet knelt beside him and copied the knot, though she left the casting to him. It showed her utter trust in him that she was willing to let him cast the spells that would keep her safe and in place as the port spell was winding and twisting around them all. She pulled the focus stone Kawalsky had found for each of them from her pocket and set it on the ground. When all the knots were twisted, tied and cast, he let her put an arm around his waist and help him to stand. They all knew he was dying, why pretend otherwise? He needed the assistance.

Janet settled her feet into place within the square and held the pouch containing the elogum powder as Cam sprinkled it and set the ward around her. Then he took her face in both of his hands and leaned in to kiss her fully on the lips. Breaking off the kiss, he pressed his forehead to hers and whispered hoarsely, “If I make it through this, I will make things right between us again. I swear it, Janet. Until then, know that you hold my heart.” He kissed her forehead and stepped back. Their eyes met and she smiled a wavering smile at him before he turned and went to check Sam’s corner. As expected, Sam was ready.

“Jonas?” Cam called as he walked to what seemed to be a bare square with a focus stone in front of it. Moving closer, Cam could see that the grass was pressed down where Jonas stood upon it.

“I’m ready. Where are you porting us to, Nandeer Mitchell?”

He had choices. “I thought to go to the wayfarer’s cabin in The Greens. I do not know what shape I will be in upon arrival and it would probably not be prudent to appear on the doorstep of Tollana Castle if I cannot defend myself.”

“Wise, Nandeer,” Sam remarked. She leaned on her staff and waited for Cam to take up a position at the center of the frame.

The port spell wasn’t exactly difficult, it was merely problematic if there were less than four points framing it. It needed to be contained until the energies built up enough to transport those within the frame. It was similar to a shifting spell, but required more control because the energies being harnessed were much more powerful. A port spell that broke loose from the frame could cause serious destruction to the area around the site of the casting. Because the energies involved were so much more potent, port spells were generally reserved for moving groups of people, or for travelling great distances. The focus stones would help those holding the frame, it gave them an anchor to this place.

He looked over to Janet. “You might get swept along with us.”

“That would be good,” she smiled.

Thinking it through, he frowned and shook his head. “If you are out of step with the rest of us, you might land somewhere else, or land badly.” There was something he could do about that possibility. He walked over to Kawalsky and crouched down beside his pack.

“The pocket on the left side,” Jonas called helpfully. “Wrapped in green silk.”

“Magic is green,” Cam whispered, and smiled at the memory the phrase brought him, of his days as an Apprentice at Jack’s elbow. He dug out the token he wanted as well as a small stub of a candle and fastened the pocket closed once more. He went back to Janet. Unwrapping the soft fabric, he let the blue stone pendant slide into his hand.

“What is that?”

“A Harriman’s Charm,” Cam replied. He held it out to her and let it drop into the palm of her hand.

“It’s cold!” she exclaimed in surprise.

Mitchell nodded and pulled his ritual blade from the sheath at his hip. He reached up to grasp a thin plait of hair, one that was longer than the rest of his shoulder length hair, and brought it over his shoulder. He whispered a short incantation and sliced through it with the blade. He draped the severed braid over Janet’s outstretched palm. He made a motion with his finger at Janet, coaxing her to turn around and give him her back. He grasped a thin hank of her hair and repeated the incantation, slicing off the strands in his hand. “Done,” he told her, and she turned around to face him again.

Kneeling at Janet’s feet, he pulled a flint and tender from his belt pouch and it the candle stub. He tore up a wad of grass and tossed it aside, setting the candle into the small hole he had made. Gesturing to Janet’s hand, he took the braid of his hair from her and quickly twisted hers around it. He whispered a few words and let the hair drop. The spell he had cast held the bundle aloft over the candle’s flame.

“Finger?” he held a hand out to Janet. Once again, she displayed her trust in him, she did not ask what he was doing, or why he wanted her finger. She simply put her hand out. “To seal, no more,” he assured her as he pressed the tip of the ritual blade to her smallest finger and applied pressure enough to make a tiny slice. Making a slice on his own finger, he pressed their fingers together and then moved them together over the floating bundle of hair.

“When I tell you, we’re going to say jelsis, and then matui, and then frenel. Speak with intent and do not break eye contact with me.”

Jelsis and matui and then frenel, I understand.”

He took the Harriman’s Charm and slipped it between their hands, after letting their blood smear across the pale blue surface of the carving. He applied pressure and let a few drops of their blood fall onto the bundle of their hair, which was now smoldering. He nodded his head and they said together, “Jelsis, matui, frenel.” Cam tossed energy at the pendant and then concentrated on the spell, whispering the rest of the incantation as he focused the magic through the pendant that he and Janet held. The bundle of hair burst into flame and the candle went out.

He smiled at Janet and pulled his hand back, leaving the pendant in her grasp. It was now a mottled purple color, infused and charged with their blood. “It’s warm now,” she remarked.

“The spell worked.”

The healer had a silver chain around her neck, a dainty charm - one that warded against the undead - dangled from it. Cam had gifted her with it years before, during another Hunt. He reached for the chain and tugged it over her head. Undoing the clasp, he then took the Harriman’s Charm from her hand and slid it onto the chain. “Find me,” he said and let it drop over her head once more.

“Always,” she whispered in return, took his hand and kissed his palm.

“If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what will,” Jonas called and Janet laughed lightly.

Cam made a face in the direction of his Gara. “I’m not entirely comfortable leaving the recharging of the pain spell in Kawasky’s hands, I would rather have our healer along with us. No offense, Charles.”

“None taken, I agree. I like her healing spells much better than his or yours, are we ready?”

“Ready,” the others all replied at once.

Kawalsky smiled and stepped one foot through the strap of Cam’s pack at his feet. So long as Kawalsky ported, Cam’s gear would as well.

The energies of the Sagone surged through him as he called the power to him and wove the port spell. Damn, it had been a long time since he had done this; taken the individual strands of power from his friends and made them one unified and solid cord of strength. There were only four of them, but as soon as he held the four strands in his grasp, he could tell that the Council had been correct, the strength of just the four of them was more than the entire Sagone had once held. The power of four was stronger now than they had been with seven of them and Jack O’Neill doing the weaving. It was a heady feeling of power.

Samas!” Cam shouted, and everyone stepped forward, outside the square of knots that held the frame. The focus stones were kicked aside. The Greens. Cam concentrated on the image of the wayfarer’s cabin in the forest. Once he had it firmly fixed in his mind, he thrust outward, expelling the energy and activating the port.

The port spell tore at the healing ward that Janet had set. As he felt his body begin to shift and be elsewhere he felt the pain begin. It was going to be a hellacious landing.

~*~
Something drew Ba’al’s attention suddenly away from the scroll he had been studying. Jack felt his head go up and the snake sniffed at the air and tossed out sensory spells. Ba’al seemed nervous as he climbed out of the chair he had been curled in. Did the snake care nothing for the aches and pains sitting curled like that caused Jack’s body? He wasn’t twenty anymore, he couldn’t sit all twisted up like that.

Ba’al stumbled a few steps to right himself as cramps coursed through his legs and Jack laughed to himself. Unfortunately, he felt the aches as much as the interloper in his body did.

Ba’al stalked to the worktable and pulled over the scrying mirror. He hissed words of a complicated spell and Jack saw the woods around the ruined castle appear in the mirror. He saw nothing amiss, and apparently Ba’al did not sense anything either, as it waved a hand over the glass and broke the scrying spell.

“Your ambush at Dakara failed to stop the Sagone,” a smug voice said from the doorway. Jack felt the wave of irritation, disgust and hatred that rose up in Ba’al as Yu came into the room and smirked at the snake holding Jack captive.

“How do you know this?” Ba’al demanded.

Yu sauntered around the edge of the room, picking up items and looking at them casually before setting them back down again. “I set eyes in Dakara. You failed. Our lords will be displeased.”

“A minor setback. I will deal with them. You are supposed to be infiltrating the Council, why are you still here, Yu?”

“I have time enough to complete my task. I like this body, I am not ready to give it up yet.” Yu smoothed his hands across his chest and artfully arranged himself in a chair near the fore, crossing his legs as he stared at Ba’al. “I think our lords would be very unhappy to have a bad report about your work, Ba’al.”

Jack realized that the companions were not at all unified in their cause, they were working at odds with each other, he wondered if it was something that might be exploited.

“Mind your task, I shall take care of the matter.”

“I decided to help you. I summoned blood hounds, only those with goa’uld sight will be able to see them. The hounds will guard the perimeter of this castle.”

Yu’s working to summon these blood hounds must have been what drew Ba’al’s attention earlier. Jack could feel Ba’al’s irritation and he started to take delight in this friction between the western snakes.

“Be sure the beasts do not come inside, I have no time to spend warding against your pets.”

Laughing, Yu flicked his fingers at Ba’al and looked away towards the fire. “You could have picked better accommodations, this castle is falling down around us,” Yu complained.

“There are enough rooms intact, we are in hiding, Yu. We are not here to reside in luxury and entertain. Go expend your own energies on transformation spells if you want better rooms.”

Yu huffed in annoyance but said no more and Ba’al began to putter around the room, resetting wards. Knowing that the snake was looking for something to vent his anger upon, Jack remained very still and quiet, it was better if Ba’al forgot Jack was there. But Jack couldn’t help but be a little gleeful at this evidence of chinks in the enemy’s armor.

~*~
“I’ve tried, there isn’t anything else I can do for him,” Mitchell heard Kawalsky say.

“Cameron Mitchell! Open your eyes. You have to help yourself!” Sam said sharply near his ear. He could not ignore her when she was being so angry and forceful. He opened his eyes. “Good. Look at me, focus on my voice. You need to come back, you’re not all the way here.”

All the way here was going to be very painful, he could sense that. But he could not stay in-between, that state was ineffective and he had things he needed to do. He felt Sam’s hand clenching his tightly and he focused on her touch and shifted the rest of the way into place. He could not stop the scream that ripped out of him. He had expected it to hurt, but this was excruciating.

He was shaking when the pain subsided enough for him to be aware of his surroundings again. He was cradled against Kawalsky’s chest, his friend’s arms around him, holding him tightly. “He’s back with us,” Charles announced with relief.

“Curse my birth day, that hurt,” Cam whispered raggedly, clasping Charles’ arm. “Jonas, Janet?”

“I’m here, Cam, Janet is missing,” Jonas replied, and an invisible hand pressed against his cheek. “I’m going to go look for her.”

Cam reached up and caught Jonas’ hand as he pulled away. “Wait, give me a moment to catch my breath, I’ll get you a direction.”

“The Harriman’s Charm. You knew this would happen?” Jonas said as Cam slowly sat up with a lot of help from Kawalsky.

“I suspected it would take time for the binding spell she was under to snap, and because of that she was out of step with the rest of us. She’s nearby, I can sense her.” That was a relief, he had been worried that she might have been left behind, or worse, that she had been stuck in that binding spell and torn apart by the power of the port spell.

He reached out with a minimal finding spell, concentrating on Janet. “South. She’s off to the south,” he told Jonas. He heard the creak of leather pants as Jonas stood up and moved away.

“Let’s get him into the cabin,” Sam told Charles and the Magor agreed with a grunt.

“I got us here?” Cam asked as Sam picked up his feet and Charles wrapped his arms around Cam’s chest from behind and lifted him.

Sam snorted, “Yes, you managed it somehow. Now you need to rest for a while.”

They carried him to the cabin, a sparsely decorated one room structure that was used by most travelers coming and going from the area. The only cost to use it was replenishing any of the wood or water that was used so that it would be available for the next traveler in need. A fire was already blazing and he saw that his pack was leaning against the wall. Jonas must have brought it in before he left and started the fire.

Kawalsky held him upright as Sam pulled blankets from their packs and spread them over one of the four pallets in the room. Sam pulled off his cloak, removed his belt and undid the ties of his leather jerkin and awkwardly worked it off him. They eased him onto the bed and Sam set about stripping off his boots, leaving him in shirt and trousers. “Are you cold?” she asked.

“A little bit,” he admitted. He was certain that he was never going to be truly warm again. The wound in his gut was like ice, he knew it was spreading, he could feel that it covered more of his middle than it had the previous day. Sam pulled the blanket roll from Cam’s pack on the floor and draped it over him.

“Well, we got out of Dakara, so that is one advantage we have. Being this close to Jack, he is sure to sense us nearby, he’ll have time to prepare a defense. Ideas to deal with that?” Charles picked up a stool and set it beside Cam’s pallet, and sat. Cam appreciated that his friend was not going to baby him.

“I’m going to set a perimeter ward, so we’ll have a warning if something comes close,” Sam picked up her staff, “do you have berman root?”

“There should be a few pieces in the wood box in the bottom of my pack. Jonas ties it with red twine to differentiate it from braga root.”

He concentrated on breathing, it helped him regain focus. “Jack would know we came here to regroup, we’ve used this cabin too frequently in the past, it was a solid destination to use for a port,” Cam replied to Charles when he felt more centered. “It is over a full day’s walk to Lorne’s from here.”

“We’d also be less likely to involve Lorne in a Sagone affair. That should protect Lorne.”

“Do you think he needs protecting? Should we warn him?”

Cam thought about it and then shook his head, “If it were anyone else, I would say yes...”

“But Lorne is the Council’s expert on warding and should be able to protect himself,” Kawalksy finished the thought for him. “Warning him would draw attention that way.”

“Agreed. But check on him when this is over, will you?”

“Check on him yourself,” Charles said, batting Cam’s leg. The Nandeer just nodded, he knew Charles would see to their friend.

They discussed various spells that they might use, Charles pulled a spellbook from Cam’s pack and flipped through the pages that had been marked with ribbon and they discussed the merits and pitfalls of each. Sam came in just as Mitchell was feeling weariness overtake him. She crossed to the bed and stood with her hands on her hips. “Sleep, it is the only thing that will truly help you right now, Nandeer.”

“Yes, dear,” he replied.

She made a face at him and crouched beside the pallet and reached for his hand, squeezing it tightly. “Don’t you give in to this, Cameron. You have to fight it. You’ve been through worse than a little seeping belly wound.”

“I have? When?” he smiled sleepily at her.

“Do not give up. I’m not ready to say goodbye yet.”

“I promise I will not give up until I have done what I can for Jack,” Cam whispered and then he slept.

~*~
Once again he woke to familiar soft hands on his bare skin. He smiled and reached out to stroke Janet’s cheek, even before he opened his eyes. When he did, he could see that the port had been rough on her. She had scratches on her face and neck, her hair was mussed and she looked exhausted.

“Jonas found you?” Cam asked, startling her, as she had not been looking up at him.

Her lips twisted and she shook her head. “He scared twenty years off my life. We should make him wear bells until he is visible again.”

“Sneaky Gara.” Cam looked around the room, Kawalsky and Sam were sleeping on the pallets across the way and there was a lump under the blanket on the bed next to Cam’s that had to be Jonas.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” he whispered to Janet. There was a single mage-light hovering behind her shoulder, the warm yellow glow indicated that Jonas had cast it for her. To help identify spells and magics, each member of the Sagone had their own color that they generally infused their work with.

“I did, for a while when I first came in, I’m taking first watch. How’s the pain?”

He waggled his hand in the air. “Better than it was before I slept.”

“Are you going to be able to do this, Cam?” she asked as she pulled out a tiny scissor and started cutting the bandage away.

“I’ll be drawing power from everywhere I can, leaning on everyone more than usual, but my mind is not impaired, and if necessary, I could cast from this bed. Charles and I talked about it and we’re going to ward each other, instead of setting our own. Jack knows how each of us constructs our wards, if he has to take the time to decipher which of us set the other’s protections, it might slow him down a bit. We’re also going to layer them, again, to slow him down if he tries picking them apart. Do you need more light?”

He summoned a mage-light and set the green ball to bobbing over her other shoulder. The healer made a noise of dismay as she pulled the bandage off his abdomen and the festering wound was revealed. Cam looked down and then looked away. “That looks pretty disgusting.”

“I don’t know how to fix this. I have never felt so helpless before. Nothing I try has any affect. This black goop is insidious, it resists every spell I throw at it. It absorbs everything.”

“Have you tried light?”

Her head came up and she looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“It’s dark and black, maybe hitting it with the opposite might help.” He should be panicking, after all, this was his body that was being eaten up by this spell. But he felt a sort of calm acceptance that this was to be his fate, he was not going to let himself become obsessed with it. If it took him, it took him. If his friends found a way to get him past this, he would be overjoyed. But he needed to focus on Jack now.

Janet tapped her lower lip with her index finger and stared at his belly thoughtfully. “I don’t know any light spells.”

The blanket on the bed beside them fell away and Cam heard the rustle of fabric as Jonas moved to Janet’s side. “Goddess that is horrible,” Jonas remarked. “I know a spell that might work, it generates a burst of light but no heat and doesn’t leave a residue.”

“You were supposed to be sleeping,” Janet chastised.

“I’m too nervous to sleep. It’s almost time for my watch.” Cam felt Jonas’ hands move along the edge of the wound. The Gara sucked in a loud breath. “That feels... alien... I don’t know how else to describe it. Shall I try that spell?”

Cam nodded. “I don’t see that it will hurt.”

Though he could only tell by feel, since he couldn’t see his Gara, Jonas settled his palms on either side of the gash across Cam’s middle. He spoke quietly and Cam didn’t catch the entire incantation, but he certainly felt the effect. It was if a great weight had suddenly been lifted off him. He sagged back against the bed and let out a whimper of relief.

“It’s still there, but it constricted and drew back to the center,” Janet said as her hands slid in to assess the damage.

“I can breath again,” Cam told them, until that moment, he had not realized how labored his breathing had been. “Thank you Jonas.”

Janet was nodding. “Thank you, Gara. You have to teach me that spell.”

“I will. Why don’t you try to sleep for a little while Janet? I’ll sit up with the Nandeer.”

A testament to how exhausted she was, she did not argue. She scooted over to the bed Jonas had abandoned and fell onto it. It was odd, knowing Jonas was sitting on the edge of the bed, but being unable to see him. Keeping his voice low so they did not wake their sleeping companions, Cam asked, “Do you remember the spells we discussed before we went to Daniel’s?”

“Yes,” Jonas replied simply. Being this close to where Jack was hiding, they could not be certain they were not being scryed upon. It was why they had decided on what they were using beforehand.

Each of the books they had brought had ten ribbon marked pages, spells they thought might be useful and had marked up, just in case. “I want to augment with the fifth ribbon in the old book. Do we have enough root material for me to have that mixture in my pocket?”

Jonas sighed. “We will never, ever run out of that. I told you to buy a spoonful You came back with a bucketful.”

“A handful.”

“Relative. But the answer is yes. I have most of the dry components already mixed, I’ll add the root.” Jonas had picked up the fresh bandage roll and pressed the edge to Cam’s side. “Are you able to sit up?”

He pushed himself to his elbows and then rolled to the side slightly. Jonas got a hand under his arm and helped him to sit all the way up. “Doesn’t hurt as much now.” The bandage was rolled around his middle and Jonas tucked the edge under.

“While I’m up, I should take a walk outside.” Getting off the pallet was not too difficult. He barely wobbled on his feet.

“I’ll walk with you,” Jonas whispered, a hand grasping Cam’s elbow.

“I needed some privacy, Gara.”

Jonas snorted. “I’ll walk you to a tree and turn my back.”

~*~
There was not much for the small group to do the next morning. They ate a quiet meal, conscious of the possibility of prying eyes and ears. They each went through their packs and withdrew what they felt they would need for the confrontation ahead.

Jonas appropriated the table in the cabin as his own and began mixing the components for spells they had chosen. The small packets, bundles and charms were distributed to those who would need them and secreted away in pockets and tucked into boots and belts and pouches. Sam tied one bundle and a handful of charms to the end of her staff and they clinked and rattled as she walked.

The light spell seemed to have bought Cam some time, though he felt the wound spreading again and the bandage was stained with the black ooze from the unhealed wound in his gut. It was spreading rapidly, he doubted he had more than two or three days to live. He was uncomfortable walking but not in enough pain to keep him from joining the others. If his pace was slower than usual, his friends adjusted their own and did not remark upon it. Cam was grateful for the courtesy.

Tollana Castle, what was left of it, was only about a candlemark’s walk from the wayfarer’s cabin. Jonas took the lead, since he would not be seen approaching and could scout their destination before they arrived. Sam guarded their backs while Kawalsky insisted on walking close to Mitchell, despite the Nandeer’s protests that he didn’t need protection.

“There’s something up ahead!” Jonas called, sending up a spray of trail debris as he ran back to join them and skidded to a halt. “Just up past that boulder, there was a barrier of some kind. I walked through and felt it tingle, but nothing else happened.”

“You probably tripped an alarm spell,” Kawalsky said, moving forward with his hands extended. “Stay still for a moment.” He muttered an incantation. “I don’t sense anything on you, it was likely just the first layer, the one that sets off the bells inside.”

Cam nodded in agreement. “Jack does love to layer his spells.”

Walking up to stand beside Cam, Sam’s eyes were in constant motion as she watched for any sign of challenge or attack. “Keep looking up, he learned that suspension spell in Abydos years ago and loved using it in his perimeter wardings.”

“I was amused the time he suspended the whole flock of chickens and then dropped them on Councilor Woolsey when he tried to serve that injunction,” Cam said, chuckling at the memory.

“Watch for floating chickens, got it,” Jonas said, with amusement evident in his voice. “Should I keep going?”

There was nothing else to do but move forward, this needed to end today. “Yes. We expected this. Be alert and walk softly, try not to kick up any dirt or twigs. Wait at the boulder, we’ll meet you there.”

The boulder was at the edge of the woods, the last bit of cover to hide behind before they would need to cross the wide open field that surrounded Tollana Castle. They were approaching from the burnt and ruined end, the remnants of the once magnificent spires were now charred and crumbling. The far side of the castle was likely where Jack was holed up. One wing had survived the fire, though few people would go inside, since it was haunted as well as hexed.

Apparently, Jack no longer avoided ghosts or feared curses. That departure from character worried Cam. Nandeer O’Neill had always had a healthy respect for the dead, and had always refused to summon spirits, no matter how dire the situation. It was a peculiarity that was well known to everyone. Why would he be at Tollana castle, a place riddled with spirits? The changes in Jack’s behavior, these little oddities did not make sense. Why leave the comfort of the Lake House? The Nandeer’s home and workroom were the most fortified location in the east. Why abandon comfortable safety for this haunted ruin?

“Why here?” Cam said aloud as he thought about the questions. “Why not the Lake House?”

Sam leaned on her staff and stared at him thoughtfully. “I wondered about that myself. None of us could get in there if Jack did not wish it to be so. The Lake House wards are part of the house itself, the foundation was spelled when Jack built the place.”

“Even O’Neill could not destroy those wards from the outside of the house,” Kawalsky said, nodding in agreement with Sam’s words.

“What does this place have that the Lake House does not?” Cam asked.

“No lake. Not even a river or creek. The spring was destroyed when they tried to save the castle from the fire. There is no water to draw for an elemental spell,” Janet said, looking around at the grounds of the castle.

“Good point, luckily none of us are water Magor. There’s plenty of air here for me,” Charles said.

Cam pointed to the open ground between them and the building. “What benefit is the space? The Lake House is surrounded by trees, there is no field near the house.”

“I would say battle ground, but there is no army waiting here.” Kawalsky rubbed his chin and looked around. “A spirit army wouldn’t need space, they would not be solid unless striking.”

Apparently, Jonas had climbed up on top of the boulder for a better view. He spoke from high above their heads. “I don’t believe that Nandeer O’Neill would ever use spirits as a weapon. He would not use willing, friendly spirits, he would never compel any.”

“He threw Death Troops at us in Dakara. Spirit armies are not that far of a step to take from there.” Kawalsky said sadly.

Sam shook her head and pursed her lips. “O’Neill would never tear the throats out of helpless women and children either, but evidence has been presented that he has done just that. This is not the Nandeer O’Neill that we knew, do not lean too heavily on your faith in the man he was, Gara Quinn.”

“It hurts my heart to think badly of him,” Jonas replied to Sam as she dug in the ground with the end of her spear after speaking.

“All our hearts are troubled, Jonas. One should never have a need to face their Master across a field as an enemy,” Cam said into the tense silence that followed Jonas’ heartfelt statement of what they all felt.

Charles cleared his throat. “Do we stick to the plan?”

“Yes. Too bad it was Jonas and not me that was hit with that shielding spell, it would have come in handy.”

“I wish it was me that had that wound, Nandeer Mitchell, the Council can ill afford the loss of you,” there was a catch in Jonas’ voice and Cam looked up at the rock where he thought his Gara was perched and gestured for him to come down. They heard leather scraping against stone and then a thud as Jonas landed at the base of the boulder.

“Come here, Gara,” Cam said, beckoning him forward with a crooked finger. He could sense that Jonas was right in front of him, with time, he might actually be able to see past the spell concealing his Gara, but there was no time. He reached out and his hand brushed Jonas’ hair. He was able to pull his Gara forward into a hug. He whispered in the general area where Jonas’ ear should be, “I am of no more or less value than any one of you. You have it in you to be a Nandeer, Jonas. If I don’t survive this day, I want you to go to Lorne, and tell him I charged him on my deathbed to train you as an apprentice. And if I survive it, I will do the same.”

Jonas hugged him tightly and then broke away, his voice was tight with emotion when he said, “I’ll walk a straight line from you to the building. If I sense another trap, I’ll come back.”

Kawalsky was crouched down, digging in the pack he had taken off his back, the only pack they had carried here with them. He pulled out a cloth pouch made of purple wool and upended it into his hand. Two halves of a seashell fell out. He rolled them in his hand, apparently activating the spell that was on them and then held one out towards Jonas. “When you get to the building safely, crush that beneath your boot, and we’ll know.”

The shell disappeared as Jonas pocketed it. “May the goddess watch over us today,” the Gara said in parting.

They waited, all of them alert and looking around constantly. Janet was standing with her back pressed against Cam’s her eyes on the trail behind them. Sam was walking a circle around them, while Kawalsky leaned against a tree at the edge of the woods and stared at the castle.

“I saw something shimmer,” Charles said, pushing away from the tree.

“I saw something move, at the edge of the west corner,” Sam said at the same time, lifting her staff and pointing it towards the west corner of the castle.

Kawalsky turned his hand to show them the seashell in his hand, he closed his hand and it crumbled to dust. “Jonas is at the building.”

After hugging Janet and then Sam, Cam walked over to stand beside Charles. “He didn’t feel whatever you saw.”

“Go Cam! We’ll get between you and the west corner.”

“This thing reeks! Where was Jonas storing it?” Cam exclaimed as he swung the cloak that had been folded over his arm around his shoulders and pulled the hood up. He disappeared from view. Jack knew Cam owned the cloak. He had gifted his apprentice with the garment early in Cam’s studies, it had been spelled by Jack’s own hand. The Nandeer could see right through it, but Cam hoped anyone or anything else that might be serving Jack could not.

“I’m going. Be safe everyone.” He refused to make this a goodbye, he refused to admit that this was the last time he would see his friends.

He felt the tingle of a border spell as he walked through it halfway across the field. He saw the others pause as they too reached it. Then he heard growling, animal growls like none he had heard before. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, but there was no sign of the beast or beasts doing the growling.

“Keep moving!” Kawalsky shouted, meant for Cam as he, Sam and Janet moved to stand back to back.

“Over here!” Cam heard Jonas call and he ran towards the crumbled wall in front of him and awkwardly climbed over it, grunting in pain as the movement tore at the cut across his belly. Jonas was there, having spotted Cam when the cloak opened when he climbed. The Gara grasped his arms and helped him stay upright as he fought against a wave of pain. They had tried the light spell again that morning, but it had not worked a second time.

“It passed, I’m all right now. Do you see anything, what is that growling out there?”

“I can’t see anything. I hear them though. More than one, I heard them run past me earlier, their nails or claws scratched on the tile. Jonas turned Cam gently and he saw long, fresh gashes across the ruins of the tile floor.

Something leapt at their friends, Cam saw the splash of a shield as the invisible beast hit it. He could not stay to help, he had to keep moving. “Jonas, do what you can to help them.”

“I will, Nandeer, go. Luck of the goddess be with you.”

~*~
Jack sensed that Ba’al was very excited, he had leapt up as something approached the castle and refreshed the wards that protected the workroom. He had used western spells, Jack wondered if his people would be able to deal with them.

The scrying mirror showed Sam, Charles and Janet crossing the field at the far side of the castle.

“Only three now, how disappointing. I guess the Death Troops got the other two,” Ba’al remarked with a pout. Jack’s spirits fell at that. Kawalsky was a powerful Magor, and Sam was an excellent Jaffan, but neither of them could harness the energies of the Sagone and utilize it offensively as Mitchell would have been able to do. The spells Ba’al had pulled from Jack’s mind were more than adequate to kill the three magic users approaching now.

Ba’al clapped his hands like a child as he looked in the mirror. “It seems Yu’s pets have found them. This is a bit of a letdown, I had hoped for a more stimulating encounter with this Sagone that you had hung your hopes upon. The blood hounds will tear them to shreds before they even get this far.”

His friends were fighting the invisible enemy, how long could they withstand the attack of an unknown number of assailants?

Ba’al suddenly looked away from the scrying glass and Jack felt a shiver of excitement run through his body. “Not all dead then? Someone has a little case of invisibility, I see.” The snake thrust out a hand and hissed a pair of foreign words. The air shimmered and Jack saw Jonas Quinn standing in the doorway. Jonas stared at Ba’al for a moment and then dove for the cover of one of the armchairs by the fireplace.

“I think I’ll put you with the others, add you to my collection,” Ba’al said, snatching a bottle from the table. Jack was certain it was the blue bottle that Daniel had been trapped in. In his haste, Ba’al had grabbed the already occupied vessel.

To his credit, Jonas wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Jack heard him speaking the words of an incantation, though he could not make out which one. He stood up and flung both hands out and Jack felt the brush of energy pass over him. It wasn’t enough to adversely affect Jack’s personal wards.

“That tickled. I do not like to be tickled,” Ba’al hissed and threw the spell he had been preparing towards Jonas. The Gara was enveloped in a blue shimmer and rose into the air. Croaking out a laugh, Ba’al was delighted, he twisted his hand, making Jonas turn in a circle. “Milsi, rewan,” Ba’al cried loudly and there was a loud pop followed by the sound of glass shattering. Jack felt a sudden stab of pain in his middle. When Ba’al looked down, Jack saw a large shard of blue glass impaled in his side and blood dripped from the hand holding the neck of the broken bottle.

“Daniel, take cover!” Jonas shouted. Ba’al looked away from the bottle and Jack saw Daniel dart to an alcove cut into the wall. Jonas, released from Ba’al’s hold, had toppled a heavy table and was crouching behind it across the room from Daniel. Good, very good, Ba’al’s focus would be split between them, Jack thought.

“Two bodies cannot occupy the same bottle, Jack. Didn’t you learn that in Jinn trapping school?” Daniel called from the shelter of the alcove.

With a cry of frustration, Ba’al hurled the remnant of the bottle towards Jonas’ hiding spot. It hit the floor and shattered with a tinkling sound. Spinning around towards the table, Ba’al snatched up the green bottle and hissed an incantation, then hurled the bottle at the floor. When it hit, there was a different kind of noise, like wind rushing into a canyon. An instant later, the dark haired woman that Jack had seen in the scrying glass stood in front of Ba’al, her back to him.

“Vala!” Daniel shouted, but the warning was too late, Ba’al reached and arm out and caught the woman in a choke hold, dragging her back against his chest.

“Now we have something to bargain with, I think. Come out, or I will break her lovely neck,” Ba’al ordered.

Jack wished for some measure of control, the ability to do something, anything that might help his friends. The protection of the Sagone was still his responsibility. They were his, they would always be his, no matter how much time and distance passed between them. That was why they were here, why they had come, instead of strangers.

The attention of the snake was focused on Daniel for the moment. Looking at the floor across the room, Jack realized that there was a line of powder where there had not been one before. As Ba’al turned his head to look in Jonas’ direction, Jack saw that the line went around the room. A circle? Oh, his smart, smart Sagone. It seemed to him now that Jonas was acting as a diversion for a greater plan, why else would the Gara still be here? There was nothing preventing a shifting spell, Jonas could easily shift away from here to protect himself.

An animal’s scream ripped through the air, followed by four more. Ba’al tightened his grip on Val’s neck. “It seems Yu’s pets are in distress. Come out, First Gara. I order you to appear.”

Daniel peeked out of the alcove and grinned at Ba’al, and Jack recognized the look on his friend’s face as the one he got when he figured out a puzzle. “Who are you?”

“Don’t be stupid, Gara, I’m O’Neill, I’m your Nandeer and you owe me respect.”

“Keep talking, thief, you’re just digging the hole deeper,” Daniel called as he ducked back out of sight. “Why aren’t you at the Lake House, oh great Nandeer?” Daniel’s voice dripped with derision and Jack knew that his First Gara at least knew that something else was in control here.

Ba’al ignored the question. “I will kill her!”

“To what end? Kill her, I die as well and you don’t get whatever it is you wanted from me,” Daniel called.

“Well this is getting ridiculous,” the woman pressed against Jack muttered. She reached up with both hands, grasped the forearm that was around her throat and suddenly shifted forward. One moment Jack was standing upright and the next he was on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. The woman tried to run, but Ba’al caught her in place with a holding spell. She was a good match for Daniel, Jack thought with amusement as she glared at him in frustration and stomped her foot, she had fire.

Ba’al pushed himself to a sitting position. “You’ll pay for that, wench!”

“Who are you?” Daniel repeated the question. “You are not O’Neill. How are you wearing his face?”

“This body is mine. I claimed it. This power is mine, I took it.” Ba’al declared as he climbed to his feet and brushed off his ornate robes. Jonas and Daniel jolted as they were struck with a holding spell that froze them in place.

“We’re here to take it back!” Kawalsky declared, stepping into the room, Sam was already circling the edge of the powder line on the floor. Trapped within his body, Jack watched his former apprentices nervously. They were moving into positions to act. With the circle on the floor, Charles or Sam might be able to focus the Sagone’s power long enough to take Jack’s wards down so that the others could act. He hoped they could, but he doubted it.

“Nandeer Jack O’Neill! You are hereby ordered to stand down and turn yourself over to the Council to answer for the heinous crime of murder.” Mitchell’s voice boomed through the room and Jack felt the first stirrings of hope. Mitchell lived, he could wield this power. Jack could feel it now, the unified strength of the Sagone. Ba’al had to fee it as well, tugging on this body. The handling of this kind of energy was not something that could be taught, it was something that was done by instinct. No matter what other knowledge he had stolen from Jack, Ba’al could never hope to hold the power of O’Neill’s Sagone and utilize it.

“No,” Ba’al sneered. He raised a hand and muttered an incantation, then hurled a fist-sized ball of black swirling miasma towards Vala. Jack saw motion as Mitchell tossed his cloak aside and tried to get to the woman.

It hit her in the chest, but she did not fall. Instead, there was a bright flash of iridescent light near her throat, and the ball of dark magic came hurtling straight back at Ba’al. It hit him in the middle of the chest near his heart and Jack felt an explosion of pain. Ba’al screamed and went to his knees, then fell to the floor, writhing in agony. In all his life, Jack had never felt pain like this, not even when Ba’al had taken him.

Mitchell had moved to crouch over him and had drawn his ritual blade. Even in his agony, Jack recognized that blade. He also saw the mark on Cam’s forearm, in the spot Jack had chosen, the mark that was to be made when Cam’s Master was dead. Jack was apparently already dead to his former and best apprentice, the one he had loved like the son he never had time to make. He saw the glint of the blade and thought that this would be for the best, the pain would end and the snake would be dead with him.

“Step away from him,” Yu voice ordered from the doorway. Mitchell did not look away, and Jack braced himself for death.

Yu’s voice was calm. “I will slit her throat, then I will set the blood hounds upon the rest of you. I can call a score of them at will.”

Mitchell looked away then and Jack saw his shoulders sag. The blade clattered to the tile floor and Jack screamed in denial.

“No. Let her go,” Cam said.

Yu forced Janet to walk with him into the room, carefully stepping over the powder line as he lifted Janet over it. Yu apparently did not know it for what it was and did not want to risk touching it. Good, the circle was unbroken. “I think not. No. Ba’al needs a new host, you have ruined his. She will serve nicely.”

“She is my responsibility. They are all my responsibility, you will take me,” Mitchell snapped. Unable to believe what was unfolding, Jack whimpered in pain and despair. Ba’al would have a strong healthy body.

“Cameron no! You cannot let that thing have access to your power!” Sam screamed from across the room. Jack could not remember ever hearing her become hysterical like that, even in that last day when she had been so angry with him and stormed out for good. But now the Jaffan had foolishly drawn Yu’s attention. Janet would have been a weak host, with little besides healing magic to offer. Mitchell was a treasure trove of energy and power.

It got worse, Kawalsky added to the argument, “Mitchell, you can’t do that, the power of the Sagone, the focus in you, if it learns how to use it...!”

Ba’al writhed on the floor, his echoes of pain echoing Jack’s screams of denial and despair as he watched his apprentices practically handing the Nandeer to the snakes.

“Kneel beside him,” Yu ordered. When Cam did as he was told, Yu said, “Bow your head.”

The last thing Jack heard was Mitchell saying, “I love you, Janet.” Then everything went black and he knew no more.

~*~
Cam felt the touch of a holding spell and then he felt the thing slide into him. For a few moments, he was able to move, he looked around and saw that the others had all moved into place. He reached a hand out and felt at Jack’s throat for his pulse, relieved when he felt the throb beneath his fingers. Jack lived. The thing that had been within his body was out. Cam had carried out his task, Jack O’Neill had been swayed back to the light. His Master would not die this day, Cam had taken death in his place.

His body swayed as the thing that had moved from Jack to him attempted to take control of his body. It was weakened by the pain it had endured in Jack’s body, and the transfer could not have been pleasant for the thing.

“It will not control him!” Kawalsky shouted.

Yu shoved Janet and she landed on her knees beside Cam. Her hands went to his face and she looked into his eyes. “You didn’t have to do this,” she whispered.

He caught her hands and whispered, “Yes, I did. It’s better this way, little love. Only one of us dies today, instead of two. He was my Master, I owed him this.”

Tears welled up in her eyes and she nodded. “I understand. I love you, Cameron.”

“Take the pain wards away now, Janet, dispel all your workings,” he told her. Her fingers caressed his face and then her lips moved as she said the words that would bring back the pain. Cam was not going to let this murdering snake have an easy death.

“It will take a few moments, I am sorry for this,” she told him. “Your eyes!”

He felt the creature surge up a moment before Janet cried out and threw herself back and away from him. “Fools!” Cam heard the thing say in a hollow voice that was not like him own. The thing stood up and surveyed the room. It pointed at Vala and shouted, “Yu, strike her down! I demand it!”

The one called Yu nodded and took a step towards Vala, one hand outstretched as he began to chant.

There was a sudden whoosh of sound and a bolt of purple energy lashed across the room and struck Yu in the chest. Purple? When the creature turned, Mitchell saw Teal’c emerge from one of the alcoves, his staff weapon held ready and aimed at Cam. Yu’s body slid to the floor, an expression of surprise on his face.

“You will all pay for this, all of you!” The creature in Mitchell screamed.

“Maybe, but you’re dead where you stand, Body Thief,” Daniel said.

“I have the power here.”

“You have the power in a dying body. Or haven’t you realized that yet?” Sam asked.

The thing looked down at Cam’s body, hands going to the wound across his belly. “What? I don’t understand, I feel no pain. You lie.”

“Just wait,” Janet sneered. “May you die quickly for the pain you brought him.”

The thing had ripped open the fastenings of Cam’s leather jerkin. It looked down at the wound and then looked at Janet. “This? You think this can harm me? Foolish woman, this is my own spell!” He pressed a hand to the wound and then muttered an incantation.

He straightened up and looked in Janet’s direction. Cam tried screaming out a warning, but he could not control his body anymore. He understood how Jack had felt in that moment. But the thing had healed him, there was no pain, Cam felt his body grow stronger as the dark festering wound vanished. This was not good.

The torches in the room flickered and Cam felt the air move. The fire in the fireplace flared up. He felt the tingle of power move across his skin.

“Janet!” Kawalsky called, and she ran to his side and took his hand. Most of them were still bound in place by the spell the thing had hit them with. He saw Teal’c calmly walk to take up a position on the powder line. What were they doing? They should be breaking the circle! They couldn’t allow this thing to touch the Sagone’s power!

“I will have this power!” the creature threw back his head and laughed. I can feel it building, it will be mine. The lords will answer to Ba’al. I will control all.”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” a familiar wry voice said from behind Ba’al. The snake spun around and there stood Jack, his hands glowing with a swirl of red energies as he drew the power from the circle and channeled it. “Shyannis, icardus, lantus, destus! Nandeer O’Neill did not waste time parrying with the enemy, he hurled the gathered energy at Mitchell. “Sorry for the pain, Mitchell.”

“No!” Ba’al had time to shout as he was enveloped by the spell. Mitchell felt as if his body was being turned inside out. It hurt, but not as much as the dark spell that had been eating away at him had hurt. He felt the creature’s struggles as it tried to hold on, but Jack had tossed an exorcism spell of the first order at the thing, bolstered by the power of the Sagone. Ba’al didn’t stand a chance. One moment the thing was raging within Cam’s body and in the next, it was gone. Cam crumpled to the floor in a boneless heap.

“Cam!” he heard Janet’s cry and then she was there, her hands roving over his face and sliding inside his open jerkin to run over his chest and belly. “Please be all right, please,” she whispered frantically.

He tried to reassure her but it came out as a bleated “Erk!”

He could hear the others moving, the binding spell had collapsed with the banishment of Ba’al. Jack knelt beside Cam and caught his chin in one hand and lifted his face. “You snakeless now, boy?”

“Glrk,” was all he was able to answer.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Thank you for coming. Thank you all.” Jack looked around at everyone.

“What was it, Nandeer?” Jonas asked.

“Goa’uld.”

“They’re extinct! They died out in the first Storms!” Daniel exclaimed.

Jack had taken Janet’s hand and was filtering the energy of the Sagone through to Janet as she healed the wound Ba’al had caused when he entered Cam’s body. “We have a problem. The lords out west bred them back to viability. They have some kind of plan to take over our councils. We have to warn the others.”

“So we shall, O’Neill,” Teal’c intoned gravely.

“Is Cam going to be all right?” Sam asked.

Janet smiled broadly. “He is. That thing healed the wound that was killing him. I think he’s just a little drained at the moment.”

“I need to burn off this energy. Does everyone have everything they came in with? I’m porting on the count of five,” Jack said.

When no one objected, Jack cast the spell. The rush of power was too much for Cam and he blacked out.

~*~
The rustling of pages woke Cam. He flopped his head over on the pillow to see Daniel sprawled in a comfortable chair beside the bed, a book open in his lap.

“Oh, you’ve decided to rejoin us.”

“How long was I out?”

Daniel waggled a hand dismissively, “Just a few candlemarks.”

“Where is everyone?”

“Jonas, Kawalsky and Teal’c took Jack to see Enra Hammond and get the Council’s Decree revoked. Sam and Jack had a row as soon as we got here and she left. She said she would see you in a few days. I think Janet is trying to teach Vala how to cook.”

“She makes a really good stew.”

“Why isn’t Vala dead?” Daniel asked abruptly.

Cam gestured towards his throat, “Starburst stone. It had a spell of protection on it, I suspect.”

“Why did it protect her from that spell but not the binding curse?”

At Daniel’s perplexed expression, Cam laughed. “Daniel, do you have any evidence that you’re soulbonded to Vala?”

“The dragon egg curse!”

“Simply kept her where you could find her. It wasn't a binding spell. I think you only imagined that it was more than a tracking spell.”

Daniel shook his head. “But... have you known this all along?”

Cam shrugged, “I suspected it. I knew it when the bottle shattered and the tendrils between the bottles disappeared and then Vala turned up alive. It wasn’t a permanent spell, Daniel.”

“I knew that,” Vala announced as she came into the room and set a tray over Cam’s lap. An aromatic bowl of soup steamed atop the tray.

Slamming his book closed, Daniel jabbed a finger in Vala’s direction and sputtered, ‘You knew? You knew you could leave at any time?”

“Of course. I did leave, twice. You didn’t have any sweets in the house so I walked to town and back, without you being any the wiser.”

He stared at her, his mouth working silently. Cam slurped his soup and watched the entertainment.

“Why did you stay?” Daniel asked finally.

She shrugged, standing with one fist planted on a cocked hip as she faced Daniel. “I wanted to.”

“You wanted to? Why?”

“Are you that dense, Jackson?” Cam asked, and decided to meddle. “Ask her to stay and see what she says.”

Jackson scowled at him and then looked up at Vala. “Do you still want to stay... with me?”

“Why Daniel dear, I thought you’d never ask!” Vala replied saucily, reached for the book across Daniel’s knees, dropped it on the floor beside the chair and then climbed into his lap and snuggled against him.

“There’s your answer, she wanted to stay,” Cam said, and ate more of his soup. He was humming happily as Janet came into the room.

“I don’t know whether I want to kiss you or beat you for scaring me,” she scolded Cam.

He looked up at her hopefully, “Kiss?”

She sighed and bent down to press her lips to his. “You said something about fixing things.”

“I think this is a very good start, don’t you?” He leaned forward to kiss her again. He had not expected to ever be able to do this again, but some higher power must have been watching out for them, because he had been gifted with another day, and perhaps a few more to come, if he could keep himself out of trouble.

 

The End