A/N: Chap 54 review responses are in my forums as normal.


Chapter Fifty-Five: Close Quarter Combat

Juneau Indich, a mutt of the Empire who could claim a Mal-Jaffa mother and a Eridu father, laughed as he somersaulted over the pale Prior. The soulless creature's face never lost its composure—Priors never responded to taunts other than to scowl occasionally. However, his thrust of kinetic energy was an answer of itself.

The blow struck the young Imperial Knight in the chest and sent him sprawling arse-over-tea kettle, as his master Prince Daniel would say. He pulled heavily on the Force and came safely to his feet in time to spin away from a billow of white-hot fire from the Prior's staff.

Around them, Ori soldiers and Imperial marines engaged in the fiercest close-quarter quarter combat the twenty-day-long Garande campaign had seen. The lines of the two forces had been moving back and forth across the planet's primary inhabited continent while their respective navies continued to clash every few days for orbital dominance.

This was the second Prior dispatched to Garande—the first they managed to destroy using a heavy sonic cannon. Unfortunately, a second Ori offensive forced them to destroy the experimental weapon, which left Juneu fighting his first-ever duel with the second Prior to arrive.

Normally, when they entered a battlefield, Priors preached constantly about the Path of Origin and how those that joined them would find eternal peace and salvation. What the Priors didn't seem to realize was how firmly the religion of Kheb had established itself in the Empire. The Akai'kheb had proven himself a Chosen One of heaven so many times that there was no question in the minds of his followers.

For Jeaneu, he could feel the Akai'kheb's power ever time he stood in the man's presence. The Emperor didn't just radiate energy in the Force, he radiated a sense of power that approached that of the divine.

Though he was too young to have served during the final destruction of the Goa'uld under Anubis, he'd watched the plethora of records of the battle dozens of times. So had every other child in every school in the empire. The Priors could preach until they actually had red in their cheeks—the people of the Empire knew who their gods were.

The Priors might be able to kill Imperial soldiers (and did so with frightening efficiency), but they would never convert them. It was this, Juneu believed, that angered the Ori the most. They'd swept into the galaxy by the hundreds millions, bringing ships and soldiers almost beyond imagining, and seemed affronted when the galaxy did not immediately kneel down in subservience to be converted.

The Prior slashed down with his staff, wielding a kinetic energy so powerful Juneu knew he could never have survived it. He didn't try—he cartwheeled to the left and threw his saber in a horizontal line, moving so fast in turn his blade was in the air before the Prior had even finished his own slash.

The bone-white puppet of a man's eyes widened a moment in shock as the saber cut his mid-section clean through before returning obediently to Juneau's hand. The creature burst into flame and disappeared as all Prior did upon dying.

It was at that very moment something hit Juneau in the back so hard he flew forward ten feet and fell numbly into the dirt. It took a moment for the numbness to pass enough to weakly roll over and look up as a strange shimmer in the air formed over him.

"That should have killed you," an oddly duplicative voice said softly. Juneu, terrified and seriously injured, looked around desperately at the muddy battlefield all around. The worst of the fighting had passed them by, leaving the field littered with churned mud, pools of blood, bodies and Imperial medics. With the loss of the Prior, the Ori soldiers were being pushed back.

Except his attacker.

"Yeah, well, just lucky, I suppose," Juneu whispered weakly. He felt hot, iron-flavored blood in his mouth and found himself struggling to breathe.

"Well equipped, perhaps, but not lucky," came the reply. "Not today."

The shimmer moved. Juneu desperately called on the Force, but found it slow to respond to his critically injured body. Fortunately, he didn't have to. A burst of blaster bolts slammed into the shimmer, breaking whatever cloaking technology the assassin used and sending the now visible assailant sprawling into the mud.

Juneau tried to turn his head and saw his fellow knight, Jocat Cancal, running toward him with a blaster rifle in one hand and a green lightsaber in the other. She screamed and continued firing with each step, forcing the assassin to shield himself.

Without his cloak, Juneu could see a tall, well-built figure in a suit of full, dull-gray fitted body armor with an odd, fully enclosed helmet. He spun and revealed not a blaster, but a Goa'uld hara-kesh, a weapon similar to the kara-kesh but used exclusively by Ashrak assassins. The surveillance video of an Ashrak infiltrating Kalmah in the earliest days of the Empire was required watching for all Knights. Juneu tried to shout a warning, but Jocat saw and sensed the danger before he had a chance.

She surged forward in a burst of Force-speed and somersaulted over the kinetic energy blast. As fast as the Ashrak were, they could not force their hosts to go faster than an Imperial Knight. Juneu heard the creature cry in rage even as Jocat slashed her saber down, bisecting his head easily.

She rolled to her feet before rushing to Juneu. "Have I told you how sexy you are when you fight like that?" he muttered.

Like Juneu himself, Jocat was half Mal-Jaffa, half Eridu. She had sand-colored hair and an oval face with a deep tan that he knew from training ran head to toe. She was a year younger than he was at nineteen, and it was their young age that led the Thrones to pair them as partners, whereas the oldest knight, Mione, led solo commands.

"Shut up," Jocat said intensely. "By the Thrones, Juneu! I thought you were dead. It not for the armor the Empress gave you, you would be."

"Still pretty hurt," he noted.

"I think the shot may have broken your back," Jocat confirmed as she ran her hands gently over him, probing him with the Force. "We need to get you back to the Command Cruiser."

"How'd you know he was there?"

"Didn't you read your dispatches this morning?" She shook her head and clucked her tongue as if he were a naughty child. "The Empress Luna sent an intelligence report about the Ori reaching out to recruit the Ashrak. If not for that report, I would never have sensed the one who tried to kill me." She slapped the communicator around her wrist. "Righteous, this is Imperial Knight Cancal requesting priority emergency beam-out direct to Medical."

"Knight Cancal, this is Righteous. Stand by for beam out."

Assured they would survive, Jocat looked back down at her long-time training partner. "So, sexy, huh?"

"Thrones' yes!" Juneu whispered with a weak smile as the two disappeared in a flash of white teleporting energy.

~~Stars Alone~~

~~Stars Alone~~

"Hermione was able to heal Juneu; he is expected to recover completely. We were too late for Maria, though. I'm sorry, Daniel, the Ashrak got to her when she was out of her armor."

Prince Daniel of Kheb sighed sadly at the thought of one of his personal trainees falling. His second wife Sam placed a hand on his arm while staring intently at him for some clue as to his feelings. Across a wide stretch of beach, Norta played with their children—hers and Sam's alike—at the water's edge. Looking at her now, Daniel wondered at how such an able and blood-thirsty Ranger could be such a loving and wonderful mother. Even Sam's two girls adored her.

He hated the fact that he used these excursions to distract Norta from his and Sam's discussions. He wasn't always sure it worked, but it was one of the few times he and Sam could talk without fear of their every word getting back to Luna. He was sure Norta loved him, but he was also absolutely certain where her loyalties were. After all, it was because of Luna alone that she was a princess of the realm.

"How goes our research?"

The former United States Air Force captain and astrophysicist grunted as she laid back in the sand. "Slow. We're seeing a lot more activity now that the Aschen have been destroyed, but it's still been a challenge. Intelligence gathering has never been my strong point. Fortunately, most of the Jaffa and even some of our Hebridan and Terran operatives seem to take it for granted that the Prince would want his own spy network in addition to that of the Vice Empress Luna."

Daniel couldn't help but chuckle. "I'd imagine Luna feels the same way."

Sam scowled. "She doesn't like me."

"She likes you fine," Daniel said.

"You're a terrible liar considering your profession, Daniel." She turned to meet his eyes briefly before nodding to Norta. "She's a better mother than I am. More importantly, her kids are all Force-sensitive."

"Whereas your kids are brilliant and beautiful, just like their mother."

Sam's cheeks turned slightly pink. Even after two children, she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, Daniel thought. The fact that she was comfortable enough in the privacy of their retreat to wear a revealing, black two-piece bikini just illustrated how beautiful she was. Motherhood had given her wider, more curved hips and larger breasts that took nothing away from her physical perfection. On the golden sands of a private beach, with her skin glistening with oils under the sun, he considered himself an amazingly lucky man.

"I don't think the Tripartite want to win," Sam said suddenly. In fact, it came out more as a whisper than anything.

Such a statement completely ruined the idea he had of burying his face in her spectacular breasts. "What?"

She met his gaze, and in so doing let him see the worry in her eyes. "It's…a pattern. I've been sifting through action reports and at first I just couldn't understand some of the decisions the Tripartite were making, until I started putting the pieces into a larger puzzle."

"And?"

Sam frowned and shrugged as she leaned closer to him. Their retreat was in the southwestern continent of Kalmah—an exclusive resort wholly owned and operated by the Imperial Family.

She handed him a data tablet. "Look, we have between twenty and thirty current active engagements with Ori forces at any given time across the galaxy. The Ori will invade a world, we'll attack and repel them; the Ori move on to a different world. The Orici is reputed to be just as powerful as the Emperor is. We have credible reports of him converting whole cities with a single speech, and destroying whole cities with fire just like the Emperor can if they resist. But we also know for a fact that he just turned fifteen. He's an inexperienced wunderkind being advised by your physicist sister, and it shows in his strategy."

Daniel saw what she was saying, but for some reason his mind refused to grasp onto it. "What are you trying to say?"

"Daniel, I've read of some of the Emperor's campaigns in the past. The Goa'uld under Anubis were a numerically superior force. They had more soldiers and more ships. Your adopted parents wiped them out in less than four years despite being significantly out-gunned through most of the war."

She leaned over closer to Daniel and touched a spot on the tablet. "Look at these deployments, Daniel. The Empire is actually on an even keel with the Ori, and whenever Harry, Hermione or Luna actually engage Ori forces directly, it's nearly an automatic win. My God, when Amhar stripped half his fleet to obliterate the Aschen, we should have won the war right then and there. And yet we've been sitting at a near stalemate for over a year. Why?"

"You think it's because he doesn't want to win?"

Their daughter Claire Luna's delighted scream of laughter drew their attention to the coast, where Norta had thrown the girl into the water next to her own kids.

"I…maybe?" Sam glanced back at Daniel, and he could see realization as her lips puckered. "Daniel? Daniel, what aren't you telling me?"

"Tell me your thoughts first," he said.

Sam frowned as she studied him intently. "Fine. I wasn't sure until I read about Tritillion, a former world of Ba'al's. The Emperor was personally leading the counter-attack when word came that the Orici was there. By coincidence, the Vice Empress Hermione called for assistance in a campaign she'd already wrapped up. But the Emperor personally diverted the entire attack force to help her. It was an obvious diversion to prevent the Emperor from actually facing the Orici."

And Luna and Hermione are going along with it. Maybe not even consciously, but they're going along with it. They're afraid of Amhar. Daniel sighed before turning the data pad off and handing it back to Sam. He flopped back onto the pure white sand and stared into the endless cobalt sky. There were no clouds, and the sun was far enough to the west not to hurt his eyes when he stared up.

"Daniel?"

He turned to stare at her. She was leaning over, almost spilling out of her black bikini. While Norta may have had the most beautiful posterior of any woman he'd ever seen, Sam's breasts were simply breathtaking.

The real difference between his two wives, however, was that he could discuss his concerns regarding the Tripartite Thrones with Sam. Norta, for all her devotion to him, would never understand, being absolutely loyal to the Thrones and Luna in particular. After all, it was because of Luna that Norta was a princess of the Empire. It was because of Luna that she got the man she loved, even if she had to share him.

"Suppose you're an Olympic athlete on Earth," Daniel said absently, deep in thought as he tried to explain what he believed was happening. "You've been training your entire life for one competition. It's consumed every minute of every day you've been alive and conscious. Finally the time comes, you run your race, and suddenly it's all over. The race is done. What do you do?"

He loved when Sam shrugged in a bikini. "You live your life. You move on and find some other challenge, or you prepare for the next Olympics."

"Except there won't be a next one. The Ori were the very reason Harry Potter was forged into the Akai'kheb; the Ancients were the ones that did it. You've read his story. He was just a boy once—a brave, loving, selfless boy. He wasn't an unearthly warrior. He was a little boy who sacrificed himself out of love. But the Ancients turned that little boy into a weapon of almost unimaginable power, and gave his life meaning in a way none of us can understand. He was like your Jesus—a literal messiah sent by actual gods to defend the galaxy against an untold evil.

"Now that that evil has arrived—now that Harry's moment has finally come—he doesn't want it to end. He told me, when Anubis rose to power, that when you have a legitimate threat, you send your big guns first, and that he himself was the biggest gun in the Empire. He knows he could win the war, Sam, but he isn't doing that. He's prolonging the fight because he can't imagine living without it."

She stared down at him with eyes as blue as the sky behind her, her thin lips set in an intense frown. "And how many people are going to die so he can prolong his moment of glory?"

"That's the question, isn't it? Because there's a solution. A weapon I learned about from the Ancient Repository. Harry must know about it too, but he refuses to even consider it."

"Why?"

"Because it could destroy all ascended beings, Ancients and Ori alike. If he used that weapon… well, what reason would he have to fight any more?"

He sat up as his kids suddenly ran toward him, his eldest Melburn in the lead, followed by Claire, Earnest and little Cynthia. They all tackled him into the sand, laughing uproariously. The heavily pregnant Norta followed, laughing herself. "They wished you to play with them," she said. "I am too tired."

"Then it must be our turn!" Daniel said. He rolled to displace the kids before climbing to his feet. Sam smiled as she took his hand, and with their kids in each arm, marched back to the water so that Norta could rest under the shade of the umbrella placed just for that purpose.

The section of the beach they claimed had a secure net far into the ocean, positioned strategically over a granite ledge that provided a shallow lagoon perfect for swimming. The kids all had their arm floaties on, and since Norta enjoyed playing at the water's edge but did not like to swim, it was Daniel and Sam who led the four out into the water.

"Look at me, mama!" Cynthia squealed as she kicked furiously with her plump, toddler's legs.

Daniel met his wife's eyes, and they mutual understanding that the fate of Empire could continue undecided for a few hours.

~~Stars Alone~~

~~Stars Alone~~

Growing up in the presence of three powerful Force-users, Daniel knew for a fact that Harry, Hermione and Luna slept together more often than not. Each had their own bedroom within the palace for when they were alone, but if any of them were on-planet together, what little sleep they took was in the same bed.

Daniel spent many a night, cheeks flaming, as their passions flooded the Force. Who needed pornography when he was in the presence of a ménage a trois of powerful psychics? Worse yet, when he was older, Daniel realized the Tripartite probably felt his natural and inevitable reaction to their passion just as he felt them. Thankfully, none of them ever spoke of it.

The thought came to him as he leaned over and kissed the soundly sleeping Norta. He might not have had as much in common with Norta as he did Sam, but he cared for both women intensely. And because he cared for them—loved them, even—he knew better than to ever suggest they all sleep together. It is entirely possible he wouldn't survive the experience. More importantly, neither of them would enjoy it. Sam and Norta were always polite to each other; even kind. But there was little overt affection. Both knew that if Daniel ever assumed the throne, it would be his children with Norta who would be in line to succeed him.

With a gentle nudge of the Force, Daniel ensured Norta would not wake any time soon. It astonished him that a former Ranger enjoyed pregnancy and motherhood as much as she did, but the woman lived for the joy of child-rearing. Sam meanwhile loved her daughters, but also couldn't wait until they were old enough to actually have what she considered an interesting conversation.

He found her in his room, still dressed in the same Terran-style jeans and sweater she put on after they retired back to the house. Sitting across from her at the little bistro table in her room was one of her fellow Terrans—a professor at the University of Byrsa. It was a pattern the two adopted in the past year—inviting an intellectual or artist to join them for an evening. It was the first time for this particular educational luminary.

"Gerry Lane," Daniel said as he stepped in.

Lane hopped to his feet, smiling with a touch of nervousness. "Highness," he said quickly.

"Please, in my pajamas you can call me Daniel. It's good to finally meet you. I've heard a lot about you." He reached out and took the man's firm handshake. "How's your family?"

"They're well," he said. "My eldest Rachel accepted a research position at the Imperial Drive Yards last month."

"I believe Sam mentioned that. Can I get you anything? Believe it or not I have a small bottle of authentic Jameson."

The other man's eyes widened. "Really? I…"

"That's a yes, Daniel," Sam said with a smile.

Daniel grabbed three shot glasses from the bar on the far side of Sam's room, placed a single round cube of ice from the inset dispenser, and carried the precious, irreplaceable bottle of thirty-year aged whiskey back to the table. Without a word, he poured each of them a sniff.

The burn was as smooth as Daniel could have hoped. Eridu whiskey had a bitterness he'd never learned to appreciate.

"So, ah…I'm honored. But last I heard it was usually media stars and diplomats who get invited, not archology professors. Please forgive my asking, but why am I here again?"

Daniel studied the man, seeing much of himself as he might have been in the process. "I'm not sure your aware, but my natural parents were both professors at Columbia University in New York. They were recruited by the Akai'kheb in the sixties."

"Actually, I did know that," Gerry said, laughing wryly. "There was an Air Force colonel who convinced me to wear a wire tap when the Vice Empress Luna recruited me to teach English. I remember to this day how well she played us both. She'd dressed up like Cindy…well, like a popular singer of the time, even dyed her hair. I honestly thought she was just another freshmen college girl."

Daniel knew all this, of course. "She told me the story. She was very fond of you. So, I understand your recent publications have some ranking you as one of the top archeological researchers in the Empire. How's your Ancient?"

"Passable, though I can read it far better than I can speak it," Lane admitted. "I understand you yourself are fluent in it. Still, you couldn't ask for a situation with more opportunity for an archeologist than an intersteller network of human-seeded worlds."

"Very true." Daniel finished his whiskey and leaned forward, glancing only briefly at his wife. "Then let me tell you an interesting story. It begins with an Ancient Repository of Knowledge that, for various reasons, I had to absorb into my mind. It is that repository that provided us the technical knowledge to produce ships that can match the Ori."

The repository was not common knowledge. Lane leaned forward, a hungry look on his face as he clutched his glass of whisky with white knuckles. "A Repository? I thought those were all destroyed. That's…that's amazing! Did you learn anything about their culture?"

"Yes. Of their culture, and their history. I learned about our origins as human beings, and the role the Ancients played in that history. They've meddled more than once. For instance, the Merlin of Arthurian legend was not only real, he was an Ancient. He descended from the Ascended realms and retook a mortal form."

"Merlin?" Daniel knew he had the man's full attention. "And the rest?"

"That's why you're here, Gerry. I'd like to sponsor you on a private expedition to find Merlin, and his cave of treasures. I can give you a few hints that I was able to retain from the Ancient Repository, but I suspect it will be a difficult job."

"And potentially dangerous," Sam added.

The professor, now in his fifties, still had a fit body. He sipped his whiskey with a grimace of appreciation. "I survived the devastation of Earth. A little danger is okay now and then. Just don't tell my wife."

"Well, if it makes her feel better you'll be accompanied by the Prince's personal guard," Sam said. "All of whom are former Terran special forces."

"And a pair of Imperial Knights," Daniel added.

Gerry looked from one face to the other. "I…does the…um….how should I ask this?"

"You shouldn't," Daniel said. "Nor should you discuss it with anyone other than the two of us, and your team. This project is need-to-know at my discretion."

"But…why me? I'm nobody."

"If you were nobody, Professor Lane, the Vice Empress would not have hand-picked you to teach here," Daniel noted. "Will you accept?"

"Well, yes, of course. What do you need me to do first?"

~~Stars Alone~~

~~Stars Alone~~

It was dangerous to compare women in bed, Daniel knew. As he kissed a slumbering Sam deeper into her dreams, admiring the glisten of sweat on her bare stomach and the down of her sex, he couldn't help to do so. Between the Mal Jaffa former Ranger and the intellectual scientist who happened to know how to use guns, one would expect Norta to be the more passionate.

The opposite was true. Sam's passion burned bright and demanding. Norta was astonishingly gentle and even passive at times, happy to give whatever Daniel asked, and do whatever he wished.

He left the bed, threw on his bathrobe and stepped into the gentle, brisk air of a late night. The sky was perfectly clear above, though he could see the stars obscured by clouds on the horizon. He sat cross-legged, closed his eyes, and with more effort than he should have had to expend, sank into the Force.

Instantly he felt an impossibly powerful presence beside him. He somersaulted to his feet, cursing himself for not bringing a lightsaber. His visitor, however, made no move against him. It was a woman, sitting cross-legged across from him with a gentle, almost wistful smile.

"Hello, Daniel," she said in a deep, matronly voice. "You don't know me, but I know you very well. In another time, and another place, you and I were friends. My name is Oma Desala."

The name meant nothing to Daniel, but the virtual gravity-well she created in the Force told him everything he needed to know. "You're an Ancient."

"Yes."

"Are you the one who shaped Uncle Harry?"

"In part, yes."

"Why?"

"To save us."

The intimacy of the 'us' confused him. "What do you mean?"

"Will you sit with me, Daniel?"

Hesitantly, he did so, closing his robe more thoroughly in the process. He sat on his meditation mat, unconsciously assuming the Lotus position as if he were going to meditate. "Why are you here?"

"Because I am afraid," Oma admitted.

"Of Harry?"

"For you, Daniel. May I show you something?"

Hesitantly, Daniel nodded. Instantly his mind was awash with a life unlived. Deaths unexperienced. Ascensions un-ascended. Through-out everything she showed him, he saw no trace of the Tripartite. Instead, he saw himself die. More than once.

"What was that?" he gasped.

"There was a device called a Quantum Mirror that one of our researchers built, eons ago during a plague that was ravishing all life throughout the galaxy. She hoped it would be the key to finding a reality where the plague never occurred. Instead, she realized it simply breached dimensional walls. Your Aunt Luna found it shortly after you shared the knowledge of our people, and had it melted down without telling the others."

"Why?"

"For fear that your Uncle Harry and Aunt Hermione would go back to their original reality and abandon the Empire they founded."

"I don't understand."

Oma's smile never faulted. "The Ancients, in clinging to our individuality, never truly became gods. If I concentrate, I can see versions of you throughout every dimension. I've seen versions of you where you spend your entire life in obscurity, others in tragedy. This, however, is the only reality in which you are a prince of an empire. This was not our intention when we began shaping Harry Potter to fight our war for us. Rather, you are an illustration that not even the Ancients are perfect. For us to see the future of all those we impact, we must actively look."

"You didn't look at my future?"

"Yes, but only so far as to see you as a happy young man with both your parents alive and siblings you adored. No more. We saw what we wanted and then stopped looking for the rest. Until now."

"And what does that mean?"

"I can't tell you everything, Daniel. There are rules of engagement even I must adhere to. Instead, I came here to ask you a simple question. What do you think will happen to the people of an unopposed Empire led by immortal beings?"

Abruptly, Oma Desala was gone. Daniel shivered in the suddenly cold air. With a last glance at the approaching cloud bank, he went back inside.