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This story is No. 10 in the series "The 'Tabula Avatar' Universe". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: SG-1 go through the Stargate and come out of an Illefarn song portal near Neverwinter just after the Wailing Death plague. An encounter with a young ranger and her giant companion leads them into a world of magic, monsters, and sudden and brutal death.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > Non-BtVS/AtS Stories > Crossover: Other
Games > Dungeons and Dragons > Neverwinter Nights
(Current Donor)SpeakertocustomersFR1811109,5361813826,71327 Apr 0911 Jun 10Yes

How The Heroes Die

Disclaimer: ‘Neverwinter Nights’ is the property of Atari, Bioware, Hasbro, and Wizards of the Coast Inc. ‘Stargate: SG1’ was created by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner and is owned by MGM Television Entertainment and Gekko Productions. Cierre was created by Ed Greenwood and Jason Carl in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms’ game accessory ‘The Silver Marches’.

Author’s note: This fits into the ‘Tabula Avatar’ universe between ‘Tabula Avatar’ and ‘A Plague of Serpents’, roughly two years after TA, and three years before APOS. No Buffyverse characters will appear in this story (this is twelve hundred miles to the north of where they are) although ripples from their presence in the Realms have affected events and one of the characters in this story has had significant contact with them (especially with Giles). In ‘Stargate: SG1’ continuity it would come some time after Season 5 Episode 14 ‘48 Hours’. For purposes of the plot I'm taking it that ‘Stargate: SG1’ was set in the near future, rather than running in real time, and that ‘48 Hours’ takes place, not in March 2002 when it was first broadcast, but in March 2004.

Debt of Blood banner by SpeakerToCustomers

Part One: How The Heroes Die

Colonel Jack O’Neill scratched his nose and looked at the Stargate. “So, a new planet. Any Goa’uld presence?”

“We don’t know yet,” General Hammond said. “The MALP only went through two minutes ago.”

Daniel Jackson frowned as he looked at the gate symbols. “That pattern was supposed to be a null. Blocked, buried, or destroyed.”

“Well, it isn’t any longer.” Jack pointed at the active Stargate that was incontrovertible evidence that the gate at the other end was functional. “I guess somebody must have dug it up.”

“Hmm. That implies a tech level high enough to permit leisure time and scope for intellectual curiosity,” Major Samantha Carter remarked.

“Or they just dug it up by accident while they were looking for gold or something,” Jack suggested. He turned to General Hammond. “How come we found out it was back in action, anyway?”

Hammond gestured in the direction of the senior chevron technician. “Harriman was re-running Major Carter’s cold dialing program and going through old null codes for training drills. This time one worked.”

“Do we know where it goes?” Daniel asked.

“Somewhere designated P3A-219, that’s all,” Hammond said. “We’ll know more when the MALP starts transmitting.”

“Receiving signal now, sir,” Harriman reported. “Putting it up on screen.”

The monitor displayed a picture that was clear but that shook as the robot exploration vehicle traversed the terrain. It was a snowy landscape with a scattering of fir trees. There was no sign of human habitation but marks in the snow could have been footprints.

“Oxygen content 21.02 per cent,” Harriman read out. “Nitrogen 78.08, carbon dioxide 0.036, argon 0.81. Atmospheric pressure 14.67 psi. Low levels of background radiation. As close a match for Earth’s atmosphere as I’ve seen. Just a touch more oxygen and the merest hint less carbon dioxide.”

“Possibly pre-industrial,” Sam mused.

“Gravity?” Jack enquired.

“0. 993 g,” Harriman replied. “The temperature is fluctuating around one or two degrees above freezing.”

“Warm clothing required but nothing extreme,” Jack said. “It’s not exactly Hawaii but it doesn’t sound too bad.”

“The MALP is right out in the open,” Sam commented. “That’s not what I would have expected if the gate had been buried.”

“That’s a good point,” said Daniel. “Turn the MALP around, would you please, and let’s take a look at the gate.”

“Yes, Doctor Jackson,” Harriman said, and obeyed.

“Hold it!” Jack, who had been lounging with his hip against the edge of a control console, snapped alert and stood up straight.

The camera was pointing at a corpse.

Daniel adjusted his glasses. “Is that a unas?” he asked.

Sam frowned. “There are similarities,” she said, “but the brow ridges are much less pronounced and what I can see of the nose looks much more human. Visible ears, too, and it’s a lot hairier than a unas. Less reptilian.”

“That arrow sticking out of its back probably killed it,” Jack observed. “I’d have thought a unas would have been tougher than that.” His forehead creased to match Sam’s. “Hey, could it be a cross between a unas and a human?”

Sam shook her head. “Not a chance, Colonel. Total genetic incompatibility,” she said. “The Goa’uld could have bred the unas to produce a race more like humans, though. That would fit.”

“Trading off some of the power and resilience for greater tool-using capability and the expressiveness that they seem to prize in us,” Daniel added. “It’s possible.”

“I don’t see them fighting with bows and arrows if the Goa’uld are still in charge there,” Jack said.

“Unless the Goa’uld at the top stays in his palace and lets the slaves fend for themselves,” Daniel suggested. “After all, someone must have dug up the Stargate.”

“Yeah.” Jack nodded. “I don’t think we’ll learn anything more from the dead guy. Turn the MALP round the rest of the way, Chief.”

The camera view swung as the MALP turned to face in the direction from which it had come. The planet’s Stargate came into view. It stood in plain sight on top of a low hill.

Daniel gave a low whistle. “If they dug that up,” he said, “it must have been quite a burial and one heck of a digging job.”

“Right,” said Sam. “No way has that ever been buried.” She pursed her lips. “That means that, if it was an inactive one, they repaired it.”

“Look for the DHD,” Jack told the technician sergeant. “I think we have a mission.”

“Yes, sir!” Harriman maneuvered the MALP back along its original route. “I think I see a DHD, sir,” he reported. “I’ll move in closer.”

“What’s that?” Daniel tilted his head to one side.

“What’s what? I don’t see…” Jack began, and then he noticed the same thing as Daniel. Not something on the screen, but something on the MALP’s indistinct sound relay. Half obscured by the whine of the robot’s motors but just distinguishable. Singing. Several voices singing at once, raucously, more like a military unit sounding off than a choir.

“That sounds vaguely familiar,” Sam commented.

“Yeah,” Daniel agreed. “I can’t place it, but I’ve definitely heard it before.”

Jack nodded. “On one of the Classic Rock stations, I guess,” he said. “It’s Twisted Sister. We’re Not Gonna Take It. Only not in English.”

“Twisted Sister?” General Hammond’s eyebrows climbed high. “What’s that?”

“A metal band from the Eighties,” Jack explained. He glanced at Daniel, saw the archaeologist’s eyebrows climbing as high as Hammond’s, and shrugged. “Hey, I was young once.”

“I do not understand, O’Neill,” Teal’c said, breaking his silence for the first time. “What is a twisted sister? Is a metal band a form of ribbon device?”

“A bunch of guys who made music, well some call it music, twenty years ago,” Jack said. “Whoever is singing out there on that planet is singing one of their songs.”

“Then they have been in contact with the Tau’ri,” Teal’c deduced.

“Damn right,” Jack confirmed, “and we’d better find out what else they picked up besides a rock tune.” He looked at the General. “Right, sir?”

Hammond nodded. “Definitely. Doctor Jackson, can you identify the language?”

“It’s not Egyptian,” Daniel said, “or anything similar. European or Asian, I think. It should be easy enough to pin it down. After all, Jack knows what the words mean.”

“I only remember the chorus,” Jack said. “Chief, can you get a picture of whoever’s doing the singing?”

“I’ll try, sir.” Harriman brought the MALP around in another turn. A figure appeared on the screen, close to the vehicle, and approaching fast.

“Human,” Jack said, “and kind of wild looking.”

The man was a tattooed savage, naked to the waist, with his head shaved except for a top-knot of black hair with twin feathers stuck through it. Despite the somewhat Native American style of his garb he had the facial features of a white man, with a bristling mustache across his lip, and his skin was pale with little evidence of a tan. He bore a large shield on one arm and wielded a battle-axe with his other hand. He closed with the MALP and brought down the axe.

The monitor flashed once and went blank. There was the crashing sound of another axe blow and then the loudspeakers fell silent.

“Oh, crap,” Jack said. “Looks like the natives aren’t friendly.”

“He might have thought the MALP was some sort of monster,” Sam suggested. “He was obviously a primitive.”

“That doesn’t tie in with reactivating the Stargate,” Daniel said. “I postulate a technologically sophisticated elite, probably small in number, probably ruling over a larger group of primitives. The top of the social pyramid may well be a Goa’uld.”

“That guy would have stood out like a sore thumb on Earth,” Jack pointed out.

“Indeed,” said Teal’c. “I am inconspicuous in comparison.”

“So it had to be one of the elite who was here,” Daniel deduced. “Quite possibly a Goa’uld.”

“Doctor Jackson, work on the language,” Hammond said. “The mission is on. Harriman, shut down the Gate. Briefing at oh-eight hundred hours.”

- - - - -

SG-1 emerged from the gate on P3A-219 and, as soon as they’d recovered from the momentary disorientation of gate travel, they surveyed their surroundings and moved to secure the site.

Daniel went straight to the DHD. “Oh boy,” he said. Sam scurried to join him.

Jack groaned. “What is it?”

“These aren’t the normal symbols,” Sam said. “They don’t look like anything I’ve seen before. The ones on the gate itself are the same. Completely non-standard.”

“But you can decipher them, Daniel, right?” Jack said. “Please tell me you can decipher them.”

“I guess it must be a local script,” Daniel said. He bit his lip. “Uh, if I can find other examples, yeah, I can decipher it, no problem. With just this to go on… maybe, but it will take a long time.”

“A long time? Just what do you mean by that? Hours? Days?”

“Months, maybe years,” Daniel said.

Jack’s mouth turned down at the corners. “I guess this time it isn’t your fault that we’re stranded on an alien planet. For once.”

“Well, we know there must be a way off the planet,” Daniel said. “Someone from here visited Earth.”

“Or we’re only twenty light years from Earth and they’ve just started picking up MTV signals from the Eighties,” Sam added pessimistically.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” Daniel said. “There aren’t any Earth-like planets that close. Uh, there aren’t, are there?”

“Just decipher the symbols, Daniel,” Jack said. “I’d kind of like to be able to go home at the end of the mission. Would a naquadah reactor and an over-ride work?”

Sam shook her head. “I don't think so, sir. Not unless we can work out what at least some of the symbols mean.”

“We must seek out the examples you need, Daniel Jackson,” Teal’c said.

Right,” said Jack. “Okay, we’ll take a look at what’s left of the MALP and then move out.”

The wreckage of the robot vehicle was plainly visible from the top of the mound on which the Stargate stood. SG-1 walked down and Sam examined the remains.

“The motor is beyond repair,” she reported. “The manipulator arm is smashed and the camera unit is missing altogether. Maybe the primitive decapitated it and took the ‘head’ as a trophy. Or else someone more sophisticated salvaged it for the lenses in the camera. They’d be useful to any tech level above Medieval.”

“No way of knowing without finding the person who took it,” Jack said. “Can you get it working as a radio link and a homing beacon?”

“If I can get the antennae reattached,” Sam said. She worked on the robot probe for a couple of minutes. “That should do it,” she said. “It wouldn’t stand up to operational conditions but it will function as a passive relay.”

“So we can find it again if we get lost, and send messages home explaining how we’re stuck here,” Jack said. “Better than nothing, I guess. Okay, we’d better get moving.”

- - - - -

The girl appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She stepped out from behind a tree that was too slender to have concealed her from their sight. Her clothing offered a possible explanation for her apparent invisibility; she was clad in pants and a shirt of dappled brown and green, with a brown leather jerkin over the shirt, and a cloak of white cloth covered with a pattern of brown and green leaf shapes. The overall effect was well suited to camouflage in the snow-dusted forest. She held a short recurve bow, with an arrow nocked to the string, and although it wasn’t pointed at any member of SG-1 it was evident that she was ready to bring it to the aim in an instant.

Three P-90s and a staff weapon swung to cover her. Jack glanced back over his shoulder, faced her again, and then cast another glance backwards.

The young woman spoke. Her tone conveyed the impression that she was asking a question but her words were incomprehensible.

“We come in peace?” Jack ventured. He shot another glance over his shoulder. He somehow doubted that the woman was alone and suspected that she had at least one companion who had remained out of sight. Probably behind them, or off to one side, because that’s where he would have positioned the rest of SG-1 if he’d come out of hiding to confront strangers.

The woman warrior shook her head and spoke again.

“What’s she saying, Daniel?” Jack asked.

“I’m not sure,” Daniel admitted. “Germanic roots, like I worked out from the singing, with Celtic influences and… ah. There’s a Finno-Ugrian element in there too. Uh, as close as I can get it, she asked us, ‘Are you not-winter or are you… something else?’ The last bit was some word I couldn’t translate, sounded like ‘Luskan’, probably a name or maybe a nationality.”

“Are you not winter? Huh?” Jack’s eyes narrowed. He took another look at the woman’s clothes. Thick woven pants, fur trim at the top of her boots, and a white fur stole swathing her neck above the leather tunic. Dressed for warmth as well as for camouflage. “Maybe she was saying ‘Hey, aren’t you cold?’ or something like.”

“No, the way she said it was more like a sort of ‘friend or foe’ challenge.” Daniel ventured a response in a mash-up of German and Old Welsh.

The woman grinned and nodded. She said a phrase in reply.

“What did you tell her?” Jack asked.

“I have no idea,” Daniel said. “Well, I think I told her we were strangers in this land and we don’t know what ‘not-winter’ is, but then again I might have said that we are not the droids she’s looking for.”

“Why would you tell her that, Daniel Jackson?” Teal’c asked. “She is not an Imperial Stormtrooper.”

Jack checked his six again. When he looked back at the young woman she was smiling. It was an honest, friendly, smile that lit up her whole face. Jack had learnt through hard experience that you couldn’t go by appearances but he was inclined to believe that this woman was trustworthy. Her eyes, brown as far as Jack could tell at this distance, seemed to sparkle as she smiled. A fringe of red-brown hair could be seen under the hood of her cloak. She called out, louder than her speech to them, and made an obvious point of lowering her bow.

“She’s telling someone to come out,” Daniel said, even as Jack heard a noise behind him and whirled with his gun leveled. “I think you knowing… he… was there impressed her.”

A huge figure emerged into view from behind a group of boulders that offered much better concealment than the tree that had, surprisingly, hidden the girl completely. This native couldn’t possibly have taken cover behind anything so slender.

Male, approaching seven feet tall and proportionately broad across the shoulders, clad in armor made from the hide of some unknown animal – and not human. His skin was brown with a distinct grayish tinge, his nose was broad and flat, and his lower jaw jutted out so that the tips of what could only be described as fangs protruded in front of his upper lip. Above his eyes his brows were heavy and slightly ridged. A mop of reddish-brown hair crowned his head and he had sideburns that took up most of his cheeks. He held a weapon that Jack had never seen before.

It was a thick wooden staff, as high as its wielder, with a double-headed axe blade at each end. ‘That must be a bitch to control in combat’, Jack thought; although this guy certainly looked as if he had the muscle to cope.

Daniel’s eyebrows shot up. “Not a unas,” he mused. “Something like the corpse we saw on the MALP images but more human.” He listened to the woman speaking again. “This, uh, guy is her… sidekick? Right hand man? Squire? He’s either called Daelan and he’s a Red Tiger or else his name is Red Tiger and he’s a Daelan. I’m not sure which way round it goes.”

Jack pointed to himself. “Colonel Jack O’Neill,” he said. He pointed to the others in turn. “Daniel Jackson. Major Samantha Carter. Teal’c.” Daniel added a few explanatory words, presumably clarifying that ‘Colonel’ and ‘Major’ were ranks rather than names, and Jack didn’t bother to ask exactly what he’d said.

The woman pointed to herself. “Kenadi Nefret,” she said.

Daniel bit on his lower lip. “That is fascinating,” he said. “The first name sounds Celtic but the last could be Egyptian, or maybe Turkish; Goa’uld, even.”

The huge newcomer spoke in a deep, rumbling, voice.

“The girl’s a famous hero,” Daniel translated. “Savior of… the place that doesn’t have winter?” He frowned. “It must be a long way from here.” He went back to translating. “Sword… skill… got it! Great swordswoman, always hits with her bow, defender of the… weak.”

The girl in question laughed again, shook her head, and spoke.

“She’s downplaying it,” Daniel related, “saying she was lucky, she just did what anyone else would have done, and she had good… back-up.”

Jack studied her again. She held the bow like someone who knew how to use it, the way a combat veteran would hold a rifle, and there were two swords slung at her hips. He assessed her as being very much the deadly warrior her massive sidekick claimed. The modesty was a nice touch; this ‘Kenadi Nefret’ would probably have made a good officer in an Earth Special Forces unit if she’d been born on a different planet. He’d be prepared to bet heavily that she was neither a Goa’uld nor one of their slave soldiers.

“Okay, it looks like we can communicate,” Jack said. “Securing our line of retreat would be a good first step. See if she knows anything about the DHD.”

Daniel, with some input from Sam, began questioning the local girl. Jack occupied himself with studying the big guy and, of course, keeping an eye on the surroundings for possible hostiles. The barbarian seemed to be doing the same thing.

“She calls it a ‘song gate’, or ‘song portal’, and says it’s a left-over from some empire called ‘Illefarn’ that fell thousands of years ago,” Daniel reported. “Of course she attributes its workings to magic. It must be called a ‘song gate’ for a reason, logically, and that could mean that the symbols on the DHD are a musical notation. If that’s the case then I can definitely decode it. Finding out what the locals use for music would help a lot, though, assuming it hasn’t changed too much over time.”

“The local music that isn’t Eighties metal songs.” Jack grinned. “Okay, so we need to find what passes for civilization in these parts, I guess.”

Daniel turned back to the girl. They exchanged words and gestures. “She says she knows an expert in ‘magic’ and music,” Daniel related, “and she can take us to her. Neat.”

“Right, if she can guide us, let’s go,” Jack said. “You can ask her about the Goa’uld, and if she knows about anyone from this place traveling off-world, while we’re…”

Kenadi interrupted him with a sharp hiss, a finger held to her lips, and a hand upraised in a gesture that matched the American signal for ‘halt’. Jack was aware that it wasn’t a universal gesture, signifying ‘come here’ in parts of the Philippines and something obscene in Greece, but in this instance the meaning was clear. He fell silent and listened out for whatever the girl had heard; he guessed it was something possibly signifying approaching hostiles.

Yep. He could make out the faint sound of distant feet crunching on the snow. The girl must have sharp senses to have picked it up in the middle of a conversation.

She spoke rapidly, her tone urgent, and her giant companion shifted his axe in his grip and fixed a scowl on the forest in what, judging by the position of the sun, would be a roughly northerly direction.

“She says she hears… some name that doesn’t mean anything to me… approaching,” Daniel translated. “Too many to fight.”

“She hasn’t seen our weapons in action,” Jack said, “but there’s no point in taking chances. She seems friendly, which implies her enemies might not be, so we’ll take her advice. If she heads out we’ll follow where she leads.”

Daniel relayed Jack’s decision. Kenadi gave a tight-lipped smile and a nod. She dipped behind the tree, came up holding a large back-pack, and shrugged it onto her shoulders. She spoke once more. Jack didn’t need Daniel to interpret what she said as “Follow me.” The girl led the way, SG-1 followed, and the massive semi-human axe-man brought up the rear.

Kenadi set a fast pace. Her pack was as large as an infantryman’s ALICE pack, and probably not as good at distributing weight, but it didn’t seem to be slowing her down. Her balance indicated to Jack that the pack wasn’t light; the girl must be stronger than she looked. The big guy was wearing a pack of at least equal size but it was a much smaller proportion of his mass. It wasn’t any surprise that he treated it as if it was non-existent.

She wasn’t leading them in the direction of the Stargate. It lay slightly south of east and her course was to the south-west. Jack had no objection. Returning to the Stargate only to sit around waiting for Daniel to decipher this non-standard DHD would be pointless, especially if they were going to be besieged there by tattooed barbarians, and following Kenadi seemed a much better alternative.

Or did, until she led them into a trap.

- - - - -

The woods became thinner and an open plain lay ahead. Out on that plain a line of warriors barred their path. There were seventy or eighty of them, in a ragged skirmish formation, small groups scattered across a wide front. Jack had expected to encounter tattooed half-naked barbarians like the one that had destroyed the MALP, and indeed a handful of the blocking force fit that description, but the bulk of the soldiers were rather different. They wore armor, chain shirts or steel breastplates, and many of them held bows or crossbows. Those not armed with missile weapons held spears, halberds, or axes.

Kenadi halted, still in the cover of the trees, and spoke quietly to Daniel.

“She says that she and Daelan – it must be his name, not his species – could cut their way through but we might get caught,” Daniel reported. “She suggests we stay here and lie low. They’ll chase after her and we can wait until they’ve gone. The bunch behind us aren’t that close and we should get clear. If we make our way west until we hit the coast, then go south, we’ll find a town. Port something – the rest of the name doesn’t translate. Clast? Llast? She claims we can’t miss it. She’ll try to meet us there but, if we don’t find her, we should ask for someone called Sharwyn.”

Jack clenched his jaw. “I’m not going to watch two people taking on seventy plus,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re fighting about but she comes over as one of the good guys. She didn’t try to shoot us a line to get us to help her side, went out of her way to help strangers, and now she wants us to stay out of danger. That’s not the way the bad guys act.”

“Indeed,” Teal’c put in. “Many times people have lied to us in an attempt to gain our assistance. I do not think this is one of those times.”

There was a deep crease between Sam’s brows. “Sir – do we really want to get into a firefight with a bunch of guys with bows and arrows?” she asked. “It’s pretty much overkill, especially when we don’t know who the sides are. Just because Kenadi seems like a good guy doesn’t mean the others are the bad guys. It could be one of those wars over trade and resources, or religion, where both sides are convinced they’re in the right.”

“Arrows and crossbow bolts have killed a lot of people in their time,” Jack pointed out. “I don’t plan on giving them the chance to clock up a few more, namely us, by playing too nice. Maybe a demonstration of what we can do will make them back off.”

“O’Neill is right,” Teal’c gave his opinion. “Those two are warriors. To let them fight alone against such numbers would disgrace us.”

“I’ve made my decision,” Jack said. “Daniel, tell her.”

They advanced out of the tree line together. Crossbows swung up to point at them. “A demonstration is a hell of a lot easier when you can tell the other side what you’re doing,” Jack muttered. He raised his voice. “Daniel, tell them to lower their weapons and back off or they’ll get for real what I’m going to do to the ground in front of them.”

Daniel shouted out, as instructed, but he didn’t carry the tone of command Jack would have imbued in the warning had he been able to deliver it himself. It was better than nothing, however, and as soon as Daniel fell silent Jack let loose a burst from his P-90. Dirt and snow flew up where the bullets hit the ground.

The opposing soldiers fell back with cries of alarm. A few bolts and arrows were loosed but went nowhere near SG-1 and their new friends. Jack’s eyebrows shot up in astonishment as, over the next few seconds, several figures materialized out of nowhere in the midst of the panicked soldiery. Four of them were in full plate armor, with shields emblazoned with a snowflake symbol on their arms, and cloaks of white trimmed with blue; women, Jack thought, although it was hard to be sure at a couple of hundred yards. Another two were men in long black robes and cloaks. One wore a pointed conical hat, like a stereotypical fantasy wizard, and carried a staff to complete the resemblance.

“Where did they come from?” Sam wondered aloud. “Surely they can’t have invisibility at this tech level?”

“The ruling elite,” Daniel speculated.

Kenadi showed no surprise at the appearances. She made a comment to her huge companion. Daniel didn’t get a chance to translate before she spoke again. This time she addressed him directly, although her eyes kept flicking to Jack; she was obviously well aware that he was the one in charge of the strangers.

“She says be ready to fight,” Daniel relayed. “I don’t quite get the rest of it. Something about them coming out of invisibility meaning they’ve already started their attack. And the invisibility didn’t faze her one little bit.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “She popped up from behind a tree that wouldn’t have concealed a cat. Does she have an invisibility screen herself?”

Kenadi hushed Daniel when he tried to ask. Her head tilted, listening, and her eyes scanned the ground around the group. Suddenly she reached her right hand across her body to the sword at her left hip, pulled it from the scabbard, and delivered a thrust to apparently empty air. Half of the sword-blade vanished, blood began to trickle along the runnel in the blade and drip onto the snow, and then a body became visible on the end of her sword. A man in black leather, hooded and cloaked, a dagger poised in his upraised hand. His fingers opened and the dagger dropped to the ground.

Kenadi disengaged and let the body fall free. She slung her bow over her shoulder and drew her other, much shorter, sword with her left hand. She adopted the stance of someone dueling with rapier and main-gauche and swung her head around. Her eyes were trained on the ground.

Jack looked at the body, jerking spasmodically in its death throes, and saw the trail of footprints in the snow leading up to it. He suddenly realized how Kenadi had spotted the invisible man’s approach and he turned his own attention to the snowy ground. At first he saw nothing and then depressions in the snow began to appear, with no visible cause; footprints. Jack brought up his P-90 and fired a short burst.

A spray of blood spurted from out of nothing. Red droplets spattered on the snow. A scream of agony rang out, high-pitched and probably female, and something fell heavily. The body remained invisible but a mace appeared and rolled across the snowy ground.

Exclamations of surprise sounded from Daniel and Sam. “Invisible attackers!” Jack yelled. “Watch the snow!”

Two seconds later Sam’s P-90 spat fire. She achieved similar results to Jack and another body hit the ground in a welter of blood. Teal’c’s staff weapon blasted out and the snow was kicked up as the target was thrown backward.

Daniel was slower to react. He avoided a fatal stab wound only by sheer accident; he stopped in his tracks and half-turned just as a dagger-wielding attacker delivered a thrust. Suddenly he was grappling with a black-clad assailant, desperately trying to keep a knife from his throat, but then he was saved by the huge warrior Daelan. The big man seized the knife-man by the scruff of the neck, threw him bodily to the ground, and swung his double-axe. The blade bit deep and no second blow was required.

Jack saw Kenadi killing another invisible man, her movements graceful but lethally efficient, and checked his surroundings again. He saw no more footprints but instead something even more baffling. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a pack of giant wolves was charging toward them.

There were five of the big animals, perhaps twice the size of timber wolves, snarling and slavering as they came. For a second Jack couldn’t believe that they were real, suspecting that they were hologram projections as they had materialized from nothing, but then he saw snow flying up behind their racing paws. He gave them a burst from the P-90, joined a second later by Sam, and the beasts went down in howling ruin.

The line of soldiers was advancing now. Arrows whistled through the air. Most fell short but some struck the ground close to SG-1. Reluctantly Jack decided that they were committed to battle now and further warning shots would be useless. He emptied the rest of his magazine at the men, hitting several, and then ejected the empty mag and slapped a new one home.

Sam followed his example. Teal’c fired a staff blast at one of the men in fantasy wizard garb and blew him away. Daniel had a full magazine, not having fired yet, and his additional firepower made up for the fact that he couldn’t match Jack or Sam for marksmanship. In all about twenty-five of the opposing force went down, including both of the ‘wizards’ and three of the armored women, and the survivors turned and fled en masse.

Jack sucked in and released a deep breath. “So far so good,” he said. “I guess we can move on now.” He expected their ‘native guides’ to hasten onward but instead they went to the bodies of the invisible attackers and began a hasty but thorough search. He saw Kenadi pulling rings from fingers and necklaces from around necks. His opinion of her went down. “Do we have time for that?” he asked.

Daniel passed on his comment. The girl looked up briefly, nodded, and spoke in reply.

“As near as I can interpret,” Daniel passed on, “she says they’re operating in hostile territory and rely on the enemy dead for everything. The ‘magic’ they take from the bodies has kept them alive many times.” He tilted his head to one side. “Maybe the invisibility gadgets are in jewelry.”

“That makes sense, I guess,” Jack said. “I didn’t figure her for a looter. Okay, I can live with that. As long as she doesn’t spend too much time at it, if there’s another horde coming up behind us, but she knows about them.”

Kenadi removed her pack from her back, opened it, and stuffed her trophies in. She fastened it quickly and swung it back into position. She spoke again, jerking a finger in the direction in which they had been headed, and Jack didn’t need Daniel’s translation to know that she was saying “Okay, we’re done here, let’s move out.”

- - - - -

They trekked on for another three hours. Daniel spent some time as they walked questioning the girl, and to a lesser extent her companion, about what she might know of the Goa’uld, the technology behind the ‘magic’, and the reasons behind the war she seemed to be fighting. She gave terse answers; her attention was obviously concentrated on her surroundings. Eventually she apparently tired of his questions, rummaged in her pack, produced a book and handed it to him. Daniel smiled happily and occupied himself with trying to decipher its script whilst on the move; after the second time that he walked into a tree Jack took the book from him, stowed it away, and told him he could have it back when they were somewhere they could sit down in peace.

Twice during that time they came under attack. The first attack was by a group of humanoids who were obviously of the same race as the corpse that had been the first life-form spotted by the MALP. Protruding-browed, heavy-jawed, and hairy; reminiscent of ancestral hominids, homo erectus perhaps, but with weapons and armor that wouldn’t have been out of place in Dark Ages Europe. They made good use of cover as they attacked, giving the members of SG-1 only a couple of clear shots, but at close quarters they were outclassed by Kenadi and Daelan.

Teal’c clubbed one with the butt of his staff weapon, Jack shot another in the face at point-blank range, and the other attackers fell before Kenadi’s rapier and short-sword and Daelan’s double-axe. Jack noticed, during the fight, that the rapier had some properties not normally found in a sword. Even a slight wound from its blade seemed to have a paralyzing effect on a foe. If Kenadi could make contact with an enemy’s flesh the humanoid froze in place, unable to attack or defend, for a few moments. Almost always Kenadi or Daelan finished off the helpless opponents before they could recover.

On the other occasion the attackers were shambling gray-skinned beings, human in shape and feature, but seemingly mindless and capable only of relentless attack. Kenadi’s rapier had no such paralyzing effects upon these creatures and they ignored thrusts with the slim blade even through the chest. She used her shorter, broader, left-hand sword to hack away at them and Daelan carved them apart with his mighty axe-blades. That was much more effective.

They reminded Jack of the zombies from horror movies, George Romero’s ‘Living Dead’ series in particular, and he put into practice the standard technique for killing zombies as depicted in those classics; bullets straight through the brain. It worked in real life just as well as it did on screen.

- - - - -

After a while Kenadi called a halt for a meal break. She collected fallen twigs and small branches and built a fire. Instead of using a tinder-box to light it, as Jack expected, she produced a small rod of some ivory-like material, pointed it at the wood, and sent out a jet of flame. The deadwood caught light immediately and she melted snow over the resultant fire.

Daelan took over cooking duties and Kenadi occupied herself with examining the items she had looted from the enemy dead. She unrolled parchments taken from the dead ‘wizards’, grinned widely, and then read aloud from one of the scrolls. Jack stared at the parchment and his brow furrowed. He was sure that there had been words written on it when she started to read but, by the time she had finished, the scroll was blank.

Kenadi fixed her gaze on Jack. “Now,” she said, apparently in English, “we can talk.”

- - - - -

“The gods you name sound like those of Mulhorand,” Kenadi said. “That is thousands of miles away.” She grinned. “I impersonated a Mulhorandi ambassador to penetrate the Host Tower of the Arcane but I only succeeded because the guards knew even less about that far land than did I. I have read of their gods but that is all. The gods we have here in the North are different. I follow the goddess Mielikki, the Forest Queen, patron of rangers and druids.”

“Sounds a pleasant sort of goddess,” Jack remarked.

“She is,” Kenadi said, giving him a flashing smile.

“Have you ever heard of the Goa’uld?” Daniel asked. He gave a brief description of their physiology and habits.

“I’ve never heard that name,” Kenadi said, “but I know about creatures that burrow into humans and take over their minds. We call them ‘Intellect Devourers’. I killed one in the Peninsula Prison. It had taken over the Head Warder, and released all the prisoners, and was organizing them into an army.”

“You killed it? With your sword?” Jack raised his eyebrows.

“It wasn’t easy,” Kenadi said, “but, yes, I did. I sent away all its dominated slaves before I attacked the Warder. When I had slain him the creature emerged and tried to possess me or Daelan, as there were no other hosts present, and I impaled it on my blade.” She shuddered. “It was truly a vile, disgusting, thing.”

“They’re all of that,” Jack agreed. “Know of any more around here?”

Kenadi shook her head. “They are rare. The one I slew had been brought to Neverwinter from Waterdeep to be an ingredient in the cure for the Wailing Death plague. It escaped when the Academy was attacked.”

Jack didn’t ask her to elaborate. Getting anything more than a brief overview of the local situation would take far too long. “Okay,” he said. “Tell me who the guys are who tried to stop us back there.”

“Wizards from the Host Tower of the Arcane,” Kenadi told him, “priestesses of Auril the Frost Maiden, and followers of Kurth the High Captain who I slew in Luskan. They are allied with the Elk Tribe of the Uthgardt, who are also worshippers of Auril, and they seek vengeance upon me for the death of Kurth, various wizards, and several of the priestesses. I am sorry that I have involved you in my fight, which is none of your concern, but had you traveled on your own you would still have been at risk. Kurth was a pirate and his men would doubtless seek to rob you. Those weapons of yours would be a valuable prize.”

“Hey, we don’t mind helping you out,” Jack said. “Our first priority has to be working out how to get home but we’ll do what we can.”

“I want to know how you did that translation thing so that we can understand what you’re saying,” Sam said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it.”

“I used a spell scroll,” Kenadi said. “I am no wizard but I can use magic devices that others have created.”

“Voice-activated technology on a sheet of paper,” Sam muttered to herself. “It doesn’t make sense.” She raised her voice to normal conversational level again. “Can you explain how it works?”

Kenadi shook her head. “It uses the power of the Weave, that is all I know, and only a real wizard could explain how. I have friends who may be able to tell you more. They may still be in Port Llast, to where I am taking you, or else they will have moved on to Beorunna’s Well for the campaign against the Elk Tribe Uthgardt. Of course the Host Tower wizards would give you a demonstration of magic, should we encounter them again, but only of its destructive and painful effects.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, “with a vocal accompaniment of ‘cower before me, puny mortals’.”

She rose to her feet. “We had better move on. If we go now we should be in Neverwinter territory before sunset. We can talk at more leisure then.”

Daniel pouted. “Hey, I wanted to take a look at that book.”

Jack shook his head. “Later, Danny boy. She has a point. We have more important things to do first.”

Daniel’s pout grew more pronounced. “Nothing’s more important than books.”

- - - - -

The sun was dipping but was well short of the horizon when Kenadi brought them to a halt. They were walking along a dirt road, its surface rutted by wheel tracks, and some of the fields near to the roadway were cultivated and held crops or livestock. The farmhouses showed signs of being built with defense in mind, however, and this was hardly civilization.

Two figures were sitting by the side of the road. They rose to their feet as Kenadi halted and stood as if waiting for the party to approach.

Kenadi led them forward again. The waiting figures made no offensive moves. “They seem not hostile,” Kenadi said to Jack and his companions, “but I believe I know who they are and they may well bear us ill intent. Do not use your weapons without provocation but be wary.”

Jack studied the two as they came into clear view. One of them was a huge man, almost a match for Daelan in size, but with features that were clearly those of a normal human. His garb was similar to that of the barbarian who had smashed the MALP, except that he wore a short open-fronted chain mail shirt over his tattooed torso; Jack guessed that the armor had been originally made for someone much smaller. His head was shaven save for a feather-decorated top-knot. A necklace of animal teeth hung around his neck and his arms bore bracelets of copper. He had a large oval shield, with a spiked central boss, strapped to one arm and he held a battle-axe in the other hand.

The other waiting figure wasn’t so obviously human. It was a woman, slim of build and as tall as Sam Carter, with skin that was the blackest that Jack had ever seen. Not the brown-black of the African or Melanesian races of Earth but a pure jet black. Her hair was absolutely white, matching the snow, and her ears were… unusual, to say the least. Long and pointed, as if she were a Vulcan, or an elf from that Peter Jackson ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie. She was clad in figure-hugging matt black leather, reinforced with dark metal studs, and a cloak that closely resembled Kenadi’s camouflage cloak. The hilt of a sword stuck up from a scabbard across her back and a hand-axe was thrust through a belt-loop at her left hip.

“You would be Cierre of Luruar, if I am not mistaken,” Kenadi greeted her.

“And you, I presume, are Kenadi, dubbed the Benefactor, Hero of Neverwinter,” the black-skinned woman responded. “You have slain many priestesses of my goddess.”

“You seek vengeance, no doubt,” Kenadi said. Her eyebrows twitched upward. “I would not have thought to meet you thus, sitting plain by the road, less than a league from a fort of Neverwinter.”

“You are a ranger perhaps as skilled as am I, if rumor speaks true,” Cierre replied. “To sneak up on you would be no easy task. It was easier, as well as more honorable, to wait for you and challenge you to a duel.”

“And who is your companion?” Kenadi asked. “Does he seek to challenge Daelan in like fashion?”

“I do,” the barbarian warrior said. “I am Jaevgrim of the Elk Tribe. You and your sniveling traitorous toady slew Yeanasha of the Elks. For that I shall take your heads.”

“Slew Yeanasha? We did no such thing,” Kenadi protested. “We saw her in the waiting chambers of the Host Tower, and spoke to her, but that is all. She was alive and well when we departed.”

“Lies!” Jaevgrim snarled. “You treacherous Neverwinter murderers, spreaders of plague…”

Spreaders of plague?” Kenadi interrupted. Her lips curled back from her teeth in a snarl. “Two thousand of us died of the Wailing Death!”

“I shall smash your insults back into your mouth, Elk warrior,” Daelan growled.

“Weakling of the cowardly Red Tigers, I will urinate on your corpse,” Jaevgrim answered.

“Hush, primitive male,” the dark-skinned girl put in. “Your boasts are tiresome.”

Kenadi glared at Jaevgrim for a moment longer but then pursed her lips and turned to the other girl. “You are far from your home in Luruar, Cierre, and I hardly think news of my deeds could have carried there so quickly. Certainly there has been no time for you to travel here on foot. Were you summoned here to confront me?”

“I was,” the black-skinned woman admitted, “but I will not tell you by whom.” She raised her right hand and took hold of her sword.

“I have no wish to fight you,” Kenadi said, “but I suppose that it cannot be avoided. What of these companions of mine? I warn you that they have weapons that would slay you in an instant.”

Cierre cast an incurious glance over the members of SG-1. “Were they with you in Luskan?”

“No,” said Kenadi. “I came upon them in the forest after I left the city. I was guiding them to Port Llast.”

“Then I have no interest in them,” said Cierre. “If I am not mistaken this road leads to Port Llast and they no longer need you as a guide. When you are dead they can continue on. I shall not impede their passage.”

“Hey, if you think we’re just going to stand here and watch you kill our friend, you’re making a big mistake,” Jack put in. “Back off, girl, or I’ll put a bullet through your kneecap.” He gestured with his P-90, sweeping the barrel across in an arc encompassing the dark girl and the barbarian, pointed low. “You too, big guy.”

“There is no need for you to be involved, Colonel Jack,” Kenadi said, shaking her head. “Cierre has done me the courtesy of an open approach. She is known as a skilled tracker and she would doubtless find me again. If I do not face her now I will have to in the future. We might as well get this over with.” She took off her backpack, set it down on the ground, and drew her swords. “If I should fall,” she said to Jack, “take my pack. There is gold therein that will cover your needs, or to pay for a wizard to assist you, and books that might be of interest to Daniel. Seek out Sharwyn, as I have told you, and she will give you aid.”

Jack gritted his teeth. “I think you’re doing a dumb thing,” he said, “but, okay, we’ll go along with it if that’s what you want.”

Cierre drew her sword, revealing a blade that glowed with an eerie green light, and hefted her hand-axe in her left hand. “You have more honor and less arrogance than I was led to believe,” she said to Kenadi. “This will be a victory of which bards shall sing for years to come.”

“Probably,” agreed Kenadi, “but it remains to be seen which of us shall be the victor.”

“Enough talk,” the giant human barbarian growled. “It is time to fight! I shall return to the Elk Tribe in triumph with the head of the Red Tiger mongrel hanging at my belt.” He clashed his axe against his shield. “Fear my fury!”

“Rage of the Red Tiger unleashed!” Daelan responded. The two huge men hurled themselves at each other in a whirlwind of swinging blades.

The two girls faced off against each other more cautiously. For a moment they merely stood looking at each other and then Kenadi lunged, Cierre parried, and from then on it was a blur of dancing motion. The swords clashed together in a blinding sequence of thrusts, parries, ripostes, and slashes.

“They’re amazing,” Daniel commented. “They have to be enhanced some way. No normal human could move that fast.”

“Kenadi definitely isn’t a Goa’uld host,” Sam said, “but I don’t know about the other… girl. Her eyes look strange. They might even be glowing a touch.”

“I do not believe that she is Goa’uld,” Teal’c said. He frowned. “She is indeed skilful. More so, I fear, than our companion Kenadi Nefret.”

“You could have a point,” Daniel said, as Cierre parried a thrust by Kenadi and retaliated with a slashing axe blow that Kenadi avoided only by fractions of an inch. Daniel bit his lip and his brows descended. “She’s at least as fast and strong and I think she’s totally ambidextrous. Kenadi isn’t as good with her left.”

Jack studied the other two fighters. “I think our big guy is stronger than their big guy,” he said. Daelan was driving his opponent back with a barrage of powerful blows.

“Well, that’s good,” said Daniel, “but suppose Kenadi loses. Are we just going to let it happen?”

“If this is a matter of honor, our intervention would offend her greatly,” Teal’c said.

“Yeah, but she won’t be dead,” said Daniel. “I’d count that as a win.”

Jack hefted his P-90 and clenched his jaw as he debated with himself. A second later the issue became moot.

Kenadi recovered from a lunge and delivered a backhand cut that just caught the tip of Cierre’s shoulder. The tip of her blade sliced through the leather armor and drew blood. Cierre froze in place, her weapons motionless, and Kenadi grinned in triumph. She reversed her sword and raised it to strike with the pommel to Cierre’s head.

Suddenly Cierre came to life. A smile flickered on her lips as she thrust with her sword and took Kenadi under the ribs. It pierced through the leather jack and drove in deep. Kenadi cried out. Her rapier fell from her hand. Cierre thrust still deeper, stepping in as she did so and coming close enough that their chests touched, and the glowing tip of her blade burst through the back of Kenadi’s armor. Blood gushed from the wound.

Jack raised his P-90 and took aim through the optical sight, looking for a clear shot, but Kenadi was in the line of fire. To his side Sam was aiming as well but, like Jack, she didn’t pull the trigger.

Daelan roared in rage and anguish. Cierre’s eyes flicked in his direction as she began to withdraw her blade and step back. In that instant Kenadi brought up the short-sword in her left hand and stabbed Cierre in the stomach. Her sword went in up to the cross-guard and Cierre screamed in her turn.

The two women staggered apart. A great gout of blood burst from Kenadi as the sword ripped through her abdomen. She swayed on her feet for a moment and then toppled like a felled tree. Cierre dropped her weapons and fell to her knees clutching at her stomach. Kenadi’s sword was still embedded in the wound.

Daniel and Sam raced to Kenadi’s aid. Jack lowered his P-90 and went to Cierre. Now that she was wounded, and badly, there was no longer any question of shooting her. Teal’c’s eyes were fixed on the battle between the two giant barbarians.

Daelan, in a berserk frenzy of rage and anguish, was battering his opponent with a flurry of blows almost too quick to see and carrying shattering power. The Elk Tribe warrior’s shield was being smashed back against his face and body by the force of the impacts and he had no chance at all to strike back. Daelan gripped his double-axe in the fashion of a quarter-staff and rammed the centre section into the other man. Jaevgrim rocked back, stumbled, and fell over. He landed on his backside, desperately trying to protect himself with axe and shield, as Daelan roared, changed his grip on his weapon, and rained down powerful blows with the blades.

Sam tried to staunch the flow of blood from Kenadi’s dreadful wound. It was hopeless. The damage was massive. Blood began to spill from Kenadi’s mouth as she tried to speak.

“Hea... heal… po…” she croaked incoherently. Her hands moved feebly at waist level.

“Don’t try to talk,” Sam urged. “Lie still.” Her sleeves were red to the elbows as she strove to do something, anything, to stop the blood loss.

Cierre’s wound was not quite as horrific as Kenadi’s but it was still probably mortal. She moaned and clutched at the hilt of the sword in her gut. “She… went to… knock… me out,” Cierre gasped out. “Not to… kill me.”

“Yeah, well, she’s one of the good guys,” Jack said. “I’m going to see what I can do for your wound, okay?”

Kenadi suddenly sat half upright. “Save Neverwinter,” she said clearly. “Kill Maugrim. Save…” Her body jerked convulsively. Blood bubbled from her mouth and then stopped. Her head lolled sideways and her body flopped back down. Sam felt for a pulse and found nothing.

Daelan split his opponent’s shield in two and raised his double-axe for a finishing blow. It never landed.

Soft thuds, displaced air expelled from spaces suddenly being occupied by a solid body, came from all around. Human figures appeared in those spaces. Some robed, some armored, all immediately taking action.

One fired some kind of energy bolt at Daelan, causing him to arch his back as his muscles went into spasm, and stopping him from bringing down his axe. He whirled to face his new attacker and Jaevgrim, spared for the moment, rolled away and began to scramble to his feet.

Sam and Daniel were caught totally off-guard. Daniel’s hands were cradling Kenadi’s head. Sam had slung her P-90 over her shoulder as she tried to tend to the girl’s fatal wound. Before either of them could bring a gun to bear one of the armored attackers, a woman in a white and blue cloak, gestured with her hands and spoke a phrase that seemed to be an invocation to a god. Both Daniel and Sam froze in place, motionless, Sam’s P-90 half-way to the aim and her finger just entering the trigger guard.

Teal’c had his staff weapon in his hands. As soon as the new arrivals revealed themselves as hostile he reacted. A staff blast hurled the closest of the robed men from his feet and sent him crashing to the ground, smoke curling up from a charred patch on his robes, to lie limp and still.

Jack rose from beside Cierre, aiming and firing even as he came to his feet, spraying the nearest robed figure with a short burst. The bullets bounced off some sort of force shield. The man sneered and raised a stick of bone or ivory – Jack refused to think of it as a wand – and pointed it at Jack. There was nothing Jack could do other than fire again, even though he expected it to be futile, and so he let loose another burst. The first few bullets bounced off again but then the shield failed and four rounds tore into the wand-wielder’s body. He spun around and fell flat on his face in the bloody snow.

Teal’c blasted one of the armored women. Coruscations of electrical sparks illuminated her armor as she fell. Teal’c shifted targets to aim at an indistinct robed figure, shimmering and translucent, but a wave of energy emanated from the robed man and struck Teal’c before he could fire. Teal’c staggered and his fingers lost their grip on the staff. Frost crystals formed on his eyebrows. He shook himself and stooped for the fallen staff.

Jack sprayed the ghostly figure with bullets. They passed through harmlessly. An armored woman was coming at him from the side and so Jack turned and gave her a burst through the chest. The 5.7 mm armor-piercing rounds ripped through the plate armor and dropped her in her tracks.

Meanwhile another of the women had frozen Daelan in the same rigid paralysis as had afflicted Daniel and Sam. The woman turned to face Teal’c, gestured, and spoke words that were incomprehensible despite the translation effect. The ground burst open beside him and a human skeleton emerged from the hole. A steel circlet crowned its head and in its bony hands it held a long two-handed sword. Even as Teal’c snatched up his staff weapon the skeleton swung its sword and knocked the staff from his grasp.

“Don’t kill him!” the shimmering figure commanded, as the skeleton lashed out with its sword again and Teal’c dodged.

“As you wish, Lord Maugrim,” the woman acknowledged. The skeleton shifted its grip on the sword and struck with the flat of the blade.

Teal’c went in under the blow, seized the skeletal arms, and grappled for control of the sword. He swept his leg around, tripped the skeleton, and threw it over his shoulder. He kicked out, broke one of the arm bones, and pulled the sword free. A downward strike shattered the helmeted skull and the animated skeleton fell apart.

Jack couldn’t get a clear shot at the woman who had controlled the skeleton. Sam and Daniel were standing, paralyzed, in his line of fire. He moved to get a clear shot but something hit him across the back of the head and he fell to his knees, head spinning, his gun muzzle drooping to point at the ground. He managed to turn his head and saw a man, clad in a fancy jacket and high boots that made him look like some kind of goddamn pirate, who hadn’t been there a second ago. The pirate held a club, maybe even a belaying pin, in his right hand. Jack tried to raise his P-90 but the stunning blow had slowed his reactions and he was too late. The club came down again on Jack’s head and he saw stars.

Teal’c found himself fighting something insubstantial, a hazy black figure like the shadow of a man, preventing him from recovering the staff weapon. It touched him with intangible hands and he felt a chill penetrating to his bones. Suddenly the sword in his hands felt heavier. He brought it round in a swing and the blade passed through the shadowy creature. There was a slight tug of resistance, almost as if he was swishing it through water, and the dark shape recoiled. It came forward again and laid a hand upon Teal’c’s arm. The sword’s weight seemed to increase yet more.

Teal’c summoned all his strength and swung the sword again. He aimed at where the neck should have been on a human. Again there was momentary resistance to his blow. This time the shape didn’t just recoil, it dissipated into nothingness. Teal’c hurled the sword point-first at the woman who had sent the skeleton, and presumably also the shadow creature, to attack him. It fell short.

The woman fixed her gaze on Teal’c. Her helmet was open at the front and revealed a pretty face with full lips and wide blue eyes. “I’m impressed,” she said. “You have other talents besides your strange weapons.”

“You waste time, Lady Cold Circle,” the translucent man complained. “Take him!”

Teal’c dived for his staff weapon. Simultaneously Lady Cold Circle pointed her fingers at him and spoke in a chanting tone. Teal’c hit the ground beside the staff, his limbs refusing to obey his mind, and lay motionless in the snow.

Jack was seized by strong hands and jerked to his feet. The piratical man took him in an arm-lock and held him as a robed man and an armored woman approached. The blows on the head had dazed Jack too much for him to be able to free himself before his gun was taken and he was bound tightly with ropes. The pirate took the P-90 and examined it for a short time before it was snatched from him by the man in dark robes.

Daniel, Sam, Teal’c and Daelan were tied up as well. Daniel’s paralysis wore off while the knots were being fastened but his captors easily restrained him. The big Elk Tribe barbarian joined those binding Daelan and took the opportunity to deliver a solid punch to the face of the man who had defeated him.

“You cowardly bastard,” Jack snarled.

“I will smash you too, little man,” the barbarian growled in answer.

“He speaks truth,” Lady Cold Circle said. “There is no honor in such an act, Jaevgrim. Desist.”

Jaevgrim scowled but obeyed, delivering no further blows, and restricting himself only to ensuring that Daelan’s bonds were tight.

The shimmering translucence that enveloped the attackers’ presumed commander either expired, if it was time-limited, or was switched off. The man came into plain view and Jack and Daniel stared at him.

He wore black robes and a black skull-cap with a peak that went down over the centre of his forehead. He had an aquiline nose, high arched black eyebrows, and a thin mustache and goatee beard that proclaimed him as an Evil Mastermind as plainly as if he had worn a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘I’m the Dark Lord, fear me’. He folded his arms and stared back at the prisoners.

“Most satisfactory,” he said. “I thought the so-called Hero of Neverwinter would fall into this trap and I was correct.” He turned and strode over to Cierre, who lay moaning on the ground with the sword still embedded in her stomach, and looked down at her. “You made the perfect bait. Well done for actually killing her, by the way. The Neverwinter fools built up her legend so much that now they will be plunged into despair. Their morale will be shattered.”

“You… lied to me, Maugrim,” Cierre gasped out. She struggled up slightly and supported herself on an elbow. She panted for breath, clouds of condensation forming in front of her mouth in the cold air, and managed to speak again. “Lady… Cold Circle,” she began.

Maugrim didn’t let her continue. He stooped down, grabbed the hilt of the sword, and pulled it out of Cierre’s stomach. He ripped sideways as he tugged and blood spurted forth. Cierre screamed, a high piercing shriek of agony, and collapsed.

Maugrim tossed the sword down close to Kenadi’s corpse. “A perfect picture,” he said. “These two killed each other, almost exactly what really happened, and then the big oaf drove off the other attackers and pursued them. If the Neverwinter people know about these strangers, and I suspect they don’t, they’ll assume they went with the half-orc. Or that they were false and helped with the attack, possibly, but I don’t really care.”

“You should have let me heal Cierre,” Lady Cold Circle said.

“She’s more useful dead,” Maugrim said. “Ah, that reminds me, I’d better make sure that the bothersome heroine stays dead.” He beckoned to the Elk warrior. “Make yourself useful, Jaevgrim, and cut off her head. Use Cierre’s axe rather than your own.”

“With pleasure, Lord Maugrim,” said the giant. He swaggered over to join Maugrim, took up the hand-axe, and hacked down at Kenadi’s neck. “This shall make a fine trophy,” he said, and picked up the severed head by the hair.

“Put it down,” Maugrim commanded. “Taking it away would spoil the impression I seek to leave.”

Jaevgrim scowled but obeyed. He cast the head, and the bloody hand-axe, down beside the girl’s corpse. Jack averted his eyes from the grisly scene and looked at his captive colleagues. Daniel was grim-faced and tight-lipped. Sam, who had recovered from her paralysis by now, had tears trickling down her cheeks.

“Excellent,” Maugrim said. “That should stop anyone Raising her.”

“They can raise the dead?” Daniel muttered. “Sarcophagus technology?”

“This staging will not fool Aarin Gend,” Lady Cold Circle said. “There are too many inconsistencies.”

“It only has to convince the common herd,” Maugrim replied. “If Gend comes to investigate in person that in itself will gain us valuable time. Now, we must be off. This road is little traveled these days but the sound of the strangers’ weapons will have carried far.” A sardonic grin appeared on his face and he rubbed his hands together. “Those weapons will enable my army to crush Neverwinter for all time.” His grin grew wider. “Especially if these strangers can reveal to me the mysteries of the portal.”
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