For lack of a better plan, we headed east in the vague direction of Koschei's path. The mad scion hadn't left as much of a trail as I might have hoped, once he'd no longer had a reason to swing that blade at someone's head he seemed to have stopped using it. We'd initially been able to follow the dead tree limbs and petrified animals touched by mordite, but after a certain point he seemed to have either sheathed his weapon or tossed it back into the pocket of the Nevernever from whence it had come.
We didn't dare stop moving though, not with the screaming howls of the vampires echoing across the tree-line. If we were lucky the burning scent of petrol from the APC would mingle with the general carnage of the Russian bombs and drown out the evidence of where we'd gone.
If we weren't, we'd soon find an entire raiding party of vampires led by one of the Lords of Outer night nipping at our heels. Day turned to night before the Colonel and his men demanded that we stop and break camp in a reasonably concealed ravine.
"We cannot keep going like this." He insisted firmly. "We require food and sleep. If my men do not rest they will be worthless to you."
"Leave them." Kincaid snorted dismissively, looking at me. "We don't need them."
"No," I agreed, "But they're not the only ones who need rest."
Enlil and Muminah both looked dead on their feet. Enlil had spent god knows how long being tortured by the Russians before our ordeal, and even with the healing power of his symbiote, he was just barely managing to put one foot in front of the other. It was a testament to the man's sheer stubbornness that he was even standing. There were dark circles under his eyes so prominent that I might have mistaken it for makeup under different circumstances. The immaculate garments he was so proud of looked disheveled, ripped and torn from walking through the underbrush. There was probably a small fortune in extraterrestrial pearls ripped from the fringes of his clothing, spread across the Russian wilderness to baffle some future archeologist.
Muminah was operating on fumes at this point, and she was woefully inadequately dressed for the climate. Her feet were swollen and cut from walking barefoot across the rough terrain of the Russian wilderness, and her skin was chaffed where her piercings had rubbed against her as she'd walked. She hadn't complained though. She would allow me to march her to death by exhaustion before she complained.
Thomas wasn't looking tired, but there was a silver glimmer in his eyes that I didn't like. He was getting capital "H" hungry – he was at the level where it was still manageable, I'd seen him like this before, but we were fast approaching the point where women on the street would find themselves compelled to throw themselves at him in blind lust. Ammit was already giving him smoldering looks that couldn't help but seem unsettling given her own proclivities and the sheer mechanics of that situation.
Kincaid followed my gaze around our compatriots and curled his lip in frustration. He wasn't an idiot, there was no way for our group to advance tonight – not without abandoning at least some of our compatriots. And while he might have been willing to abandon Muminah to die in the woods, I wasn't. He exhaled in frustration, "Fine – we stop for three hours. That's it. More than that, and we leave behind the ones who can't follow. We need to talk with Killer Croc about how to follow Koschei anyway."
Ammit growled from where she was kneeling over Muminah. The Goddess had taken advantage of our momentary lull in travel to heal the priestess' cut and swollen feet, kneeling down to hold the glowing healing device to her wounds. She flinched at the scion's name, deliberately focusing on the priestess' physical discomfort over her own visible discomfort at the conversation to come.
I'd never actually seen Ammit rattled before. I'd seen her angry, I'd seen her worried, and I'd even seen her scared on a couple of occasions, but this was a degree of unease that I'd never seen out of her before. It was reminiscent of Murphy in some of her darker times after the Nightmare Kravos had attacked her.
"Give her a moment." I insisted as Kincaid moved towards her, placing my hand gently on his shoulder. "I don't want to rush her into talking about this."
Kincaid's eyes hollowed with momentary rage at having been prevented from progressing towards freeing the Archive but he softened after a moment at the calm, insistent pressure of my hand upon his shoulder. He brushed it aside after a moment, grunting his assent and walking over to the Russians to confer with the Colonel.
One of the Russian soldiers approached me tentatively, as one might approach a large dog that you're reasonably but not entirely sure won't bite you. He was perhaps in his late twenties, though one might have mistaken him for his early thirties with the thick stubble across his chin. I arched my brow in curiosity rubbing the recently healed patch of cheek where the Lord of Outer night had previously chewed a hole through my face. "Yes?"
"You are a Goa'uld Lord." The man stated nervously. "The King of an entire Empire."
"So they tell me." I replied in Russian, leaning against me staff.
"What is it like in your Kingdom?" The man inquired, a tone of longing and wanderlust in his voice. "What are other planets really like?"
"You've been offworld haven't you?" I was reasonably certain that this man had been one of my kidnappers, but it might just have been the Beret that seemed familiar.
"Uh – once." The man replied uncomfortably, clearly aware of the awkwardness inherent to carrying on polite conversation with a man you'd only recently arranged to put on death row. "But I only saw rocks and moss. I have never seen a world full of life any people."
I took pity on him. I mean really, how regularly does one get the chance to ask an "alien" questions about his home world? I would have been rapid-firing questions at myself in a heartbeat, up to an including "do you know Luke Skywalker" before my brain managed to catch up with my mouth. "Nekheb is an arid world. There are forests and farms to the extreme sides of the planet, near the poles where water collects, but most of the planet is desert and mountains."
Before I'd even realized I was doing it I reflexively held up my hand and breathed out onto it, a smoky, coalescing cascade of starlight flowing out of my lips and onto my palm before expanding into a swirling galaxy on my fingertips. Spurred on by the sense of nostalgia and longing I had for Nekheb, the mantle molded my words into images. The spinning mess of black starlight zoomed down, focusing ever inward till it showed me the surface of my Throne World.
The Russian's eyes bulged in wonder as I continued to speak, the globe spinning round and zooming in on individual elements of the world of Nekheb. I showed him the endless dunes glowing with irradiated light, the mountains of pure bleached bone left by fairy warriors, the sprawling chaos that was the city of Nekheb, glimmering with the eternal daylight of the force field that protected it from the irradiated beauty of the lands beyond. I showed him the palace of Nekheb, a massive Egyptian superstructure built in the city's center out of marble, diorite, and gold. It was not till I showed him the throne room that I realized that this was no mere illusion, I was showing him an image of the throne room in real-time. The constantly vigilant presence of Traitor's Bane pulsed at my fingertips, connected to the mantle of the Lord Warden with an intimacy and immediacy I found troubling.
Bob was sitting in my throne room, behind the shield as my First Prime briefed him on the particulars of warfare in my campaign. Traitor's bane wasn't interested in what they were saying, conversations were a particularly mortal concern and not immediately relevant to the defense of Nekheb or the surrounding worlds in the primary system. It did, however, pick up on four individuals approaching the throne room. It had identified them as potential threats, and was intensely interested in them as they entered.
I hissed as I realized who they were. I closed my fist around the swirling mass of stars, absorbing it into the porcelain white surface of my clasped fingers. Starlight shimmered out and around my fingers as I crushed the illusionary universe, shimmering and sparking as I did so.
I'd done it quickly but apparently not quick enough to avoid showing them to the Russian soldier. He looked at me in curiosity. "Was that SG-1?"
"You're remarkably well informed." I replied calmly, even as I tried to connect the dots on what might have brought Colonel O'Neill and his cadre to my doorstep. I couldn't imagine what might have gotten the Colonel to willingly come to my Throne World, let alone what series of events would get him there unarmed.
"Informed enough." Interjected the Colonel as he walked up to his subordinate. "Vallarin, go – get some rations and some sleep."
The Colonel waited for the solider to get out of earshot before he addressed me. "Do not speak to my men. You speak to me, and I speak to my men."
"Are you afraid I'll corrupt them?" I replied, a metallic rumble of amusement in my voice. "Turn them to the dark side?"
"I'm afraid of nothing – especially not you." The Colonel snorted derisively. "But you are not Russian, and I do not trust you."
"What a coincidence." Kincaid interjected, walking back to us holding a tin of rations he'd taken from the soldiers. He was eating a red paste that looked something like catfood and smelled overpoweringly of pork, "Because you are Russian and I'm sure he doesn't trust you."
I snorted, turning my head to catch Ammit's glance as she stood up from Muminah and walked the priestess into a deeper part of the woods. The goddess nodded once and mouthed "now" in Goa'uld. It would seem that Ammit was ready for what came next.
"If you will excuse me – I have a private matter to address." I looked to the Mercenary. "Kincaid, if you would come with me?"
"Are you completely out of your mind?" Kincaid replied icily. "You want me to walk out into the woods with you so that you can insert a brain parasite into me? No – we're doing this in the open where I've got men with guns in case you get squirrely."
"Kincaid – I give you my word that you'll be safe." I replied calmly. "I'll swear it on my power. I will not allow you to come to harm for the duration of the coming conversation."
"And if that's not enough?" Kincaid replied.
I shrugged. "Then I'll have the conversation with her anyway and you won't know how to get to Buyan."
Kincaid's eye twitched. I was pretty sure he wanted to shoot me, but he acquiesced. "Fine."
The Colonel looked like he might have liked to follow us, but he apparently wasn't willing to leave his men with either Thomas or Enlil. Not when two of them were dozing peacefully. He sent me a murderous look as I walked after Ammit, following her into the woods. She hadn't gone far, maybe five minutes in a straight line till she reached a babbling brook and sat down on a petrified stump next to a fallen tree. The crocodilian woman was staring out and into the water, clutching her legs to her chest as she rested her chin on her knees. Muminah sat next to her on a bed of moss, cross legged and attentive to the goddess' silence.
Apparently, the female ability to communicate vast multitudes without actually saying anything was a cross-species skill. I got the distinct sense that the two of them were engaged in an entire conversation that I was not party to based off the significant looks they gave each other. Muminah places her tiny hand on Ammit's arm, closing her eyes and chanting a prayer of comfort and strength. Ammit looked at her and chuckled, "Are you praying for the Warden to offer me strength little one?"
"No lady Ammit, I am praying that you will share a measure of your strength so that I might one day share in your fortitude." Muminah replied, bowing her head in deference.
Ammit rubbed beneath her eye, wiping away what I might otherwise have mistaken for a tear, before placing a hand on the priestess' head and ruffling her hair fondly. She stood up from the stump, turning to me and saying. "Warden. Let's get this over with. Does the Scion speak Goa'uld?"
"No. But I can translate." Muminah replied, interlocuting in English on Kincaid's behalf. The mercenary grunted some half-hearted thanks, as though not entirely sure if he could trust my translation.
"Good. Because I'm not repeating this twice." Ammit replied, kneeling down to pick up a rock. She rolled it around in her palm, checking its shape and size before flinging it across the stream. It made two bounces, not quite managing to make it to the other bank. She tutted irritatedly and kneeled down to find another stone. "I haven't talked about it before and I very much hope to never talk about it again."
"Do you know where Buyan is?" Kincaid asked in English.
Muminah was starting to translate into English when Ammit interrupted her. "I need you to translate my words. I understand his just fine. I can't speak the languages of the Tau'ri with the ease you do, but there are only so many questions to ask when someone loses a loved one to that monster. No, nobody knows where Buyan actually is. Koschei takes after his mother, he lives in a house that wanders and hides at will. But there are paths than one might take to find it, if you're actually dumb enough to try."
"Such as?" I inquired, Muminah doing her best to translate the gist of Ammit's pontification into English as the goddess pondered my question.
"Before I get into that, you need to understand why I know what I know Warden." Ammit tossed her stone into the air, juggling it between her hands with dexterity belied by her enormity. "You know that I was one of the last Goa'uld to fight the courts when we were expelled from the First Word after the Terms were met. But I wonder warden, do you know what happened after that great battle? Do you know why it is that I am welcome in any Goa'uld kingdom in the galaxy?"
"No." I replied honestly. "I'd rather assumed that nobody was stupid enough to try barring your path. It seems like a remarkably poor life choice."
Ammit laughed out loud. "Yes, that it is Warden. Blood of Apep but you are young, aren't you? Powerful? Yes, you have great power but you're not even old enough to know to lie to your elders."
"Nobody has ever attribute me with having an overabundance of sense." I replied, shrugging.
"Indeed. Very well then, upstart, I am free to come and go as I please without any territory to my name or land to my name because I was not the last through the Chappa'ai – I was driven from it when all else was lost. I spent six thousand years fighting to the last man to allow Ra's Empire to escape then I survived living alone on this world for over eight thousand years before Sokar Rescued me." She shivered, balling her fist around the stone as she looked around the woods as though expecting something to leap out at her at any moment. "I've been on this world longer than the Tau'ri have had a civilization. I've fought almost everything that walks, climbs, crawls, or bites on this world, so I want you to understand the magnitude of what I say when I tell you that there is nothing on this world as dangerous as Koschei."
She paused for a moment, closing her eyes and breathing deeply through her nose as she tried to steel herself for her next sentence. Dust fell from her fist where she'd clenched it hard enough to pulverize the stone in her hand. "They all fell, one after the other, either to infighting or the races of the First World, and I tried, I really tried, to help them from falling into disorder, but they inevitably gave up on holding this world and fighting the evils that live on it. They forgot our duty to purge the evils of this world. Well… most did. For all his faults, the Jade Emperor has never forgotten his duty. Yu had enough power to keep order in his dominion even as the rest of the world dissolved into Chaos after the Goa'uld Empires surrendered their colonial holdings on the First World. So, I made one final attempt to help restore order, nearly a millennium after the loss of the Chappa'ai."
"He found me. I don't know how, but he found me." Her fist was clasped so tight that glowing green blood was now seeping down from where her talons had cut into her flesh. She was outright quivering as she spoker her words. "Koschei captured me at the edge of Lord Yu's territory. I went into a bag, just like the Archive did, and he took me back to Buyan. He took me there to break me."
"Ammit… I'm so…." I started to apologize before the Goddess got in my face, her snarling maw clenched in a grimace as her eyes bulged.
"No Warden. Don't you dare presume to pity me. I am the Eater of Sin, not some quivering whelp to be pitied. I am a devourer of the unclean not some mewling quim to be sheltered and babied." She grasped me by my armor, lifting me off the ground with shaking hands. "Listen and understand but do not pity me. I will not be pitied."
"Ammit." I replied in a voice of deadly calm. "I understand and respect your feelings, but if you do not put me down I will be forced to make you put me down."
She blinked, realizing what she was doing in an instant before placing me back on the ground and grunting out what might have been an apology as tears welled in her eyes. Green-black fluid dripped down from her yellow eyes, leaving glowing runnels along the side of her face. "He doesn't touch you. He doesn't need to touch you. He has forever, you understand. It doesn't seem like it, but that man is patient beyond what you could possibly imagine. He has eternity to wait."
She looked at me, wiping the glowing tears from her face with the back of her palm. "I woke up from that bag in a room. I couldn't move, I couldn't see anything, I couldn't hear anything, and I didn't need anything. There was no hunger and no thirst, just time – endless inevitable time. I thought that he was going to torture me or demand something from me, but he didn't."
Her voice cracked. "Have you ever been alone warden? I mean really truly alone? Without anyone in the world to even begin to understand how lonely you were?"
"Yes." I replied, thinking back to when I lost Susan.
"I want you to remember that feeling when I tell you that even if you were to have felt that absence of hope it would not begin to match what Koschei waits for you to feel before he visits you. He waits for you to be near insane from desperation, then he will visit for only a moment – just long enough to remind you that other people exist – before he disappears back into the void." She shivered, rubbing her left arm with her bleeding palm – spreading glowing blood as she grinned wolfishly. "But I found a way to stay sane, something the arrogant bastard didn't think to stop. I started talking to my host."
"I've never found the Unas to be particular conversationalists." I jibed.
"Warden," Ammit chided me. "I haven't always had an Unas host. Like most of the Goa'uld, I took a Hok'tar when I came to this world."
I blinked in surprise. "Aren't you the one who always insists that the Tau'ri are weak, frail and prone to failure."
"She was." Ammit choked up. "Failure, and laughter and sadness and joy – the Tau'ri feel in ways that the Unas do not. They break in ways that the Unas do not."
That was… ominous. "Ammit… what happened to your host?"
"She broke." Ammit replied harshly. "I did not. Koschei realized that I was drawing strength from her and ripped me from my host. He implanted me in an animal capable of seeing her broken form. Without me to make her sane I watched her break to his will, beg him to love her, and die to his blade as soon as the words left her lips. I sat in a cage for the next thousand years staring at her perfectly preserved body and cursing her weakness…and my own."
The Goddess closed her eyes as the tears ran down her face. "I will never be weak again Warden – not ever."
"But you did escape." I interjected in the hope of saying something positive without shoving my foot into my mouth. "Eventually you escaped."
Ammit nodded once. "The Archive came and stole my cage. I don't know if she knew what I was or if she just picked something that Koschei cared enough about to draw him into her trap, but when she was done she opened my cage and released me into the skies."
"She did – well, somewhat." Kincaid grunted. "Talked about it once. She thought you were a transfigured girl, he was fond of doing that, she only figured out after the fact what you were from the notes she stole escaping Buyan. It was a hell of a surprise apparently."
"I can't express the freedom that I felt when she let me go." She spread her arms wide, tilting her chin up in memory of having taken flight before snapping her arms to her sides and letting her eyes glow furiously. "I owe her. I will save her."
"Ok sister, I believe that you want to help the Archive." Kincaid interjected calmly, leaning against a tree with his arms crossed. "But you haven't answered my question – how do we find the bastard?"
"There are two paths that we might take." Ammit replied, chewing her lip. "The first is that we can petition his Mother to allow us passage to Buyan."
"I'm… disinclined to draw the attention of Mother Winter." Exiled son or not, Koschei was still Mother Winter's kid. I really didn't want to gamble on what exactly constituted familial loyalty for Mother Winter and I didn't want to image what the price of transporting me across time and space to murder her son might be. There was also the added complication of Mother Summer – she might murder me on principle just for having offended her daughter.
"Heh – You might think twice about that when you find out the other option." Ammit replied.
"I'm really not going to like this, am I?" Kincaid replied when Muminah translated for him.
"Not if you're sane." Ammit agreed. "There are chariots hidden across the First World capable of conveying a Hok'tar to Buyan, but they have been lost to time. I do not know where the archive took the one she used to save me, but there are creatures who lurk at the edges of Sun and Snow who might."
"Crap." I groaned. "You're not talking about Fairies, are you?"
"The Furlings are only one creature out of many who dwell beyond the veil. There are other things with power and knowledge that will trade it, for a price." Ammit replied calmly. "I would not dare to deal with them myself, but I have not undergone the ritual of Necromantic Ascension."
"Oh hell." I meant it literally too. Demons, she was talking about summoning a demon. Generally speaking beings of spirit aren't overly interested in mortal concerns. Even the Fairy realms are really only interested in the affairs of mortals in context with either their own capricious whims or the power struggles between Summer and Winter. As long as you stay out of the way of the Summer and Winter fairies and don't accidentally catch some Sidhe Lord's sense of whimsy, you can pretty much avoid the notice of the Sidhe. Demons are a different story entirely.
Demons care, demons watch, and demons wait. Generally, out of hunger or some abstract need to just generally be terrifying or monstrous, demons collect as much knowledge and power as they are capable of gaining in order to tempt and corrupt mortals so that they can gain greater knowledge and power so that they can generally be even hungrier, terrifying and monstrous bastards.
That shiver that runs up your spine when you're doing something that you shouldn't be doing and get the vague sense that someone noticed? Chances are that's a demon taking notes. And while demons are consummate tattle-tales, they're generally as dangerous to the person summoning them as they are to the person they're tattling about.
"Hell indeed." Ammit nodded. "But I see no other course if we are not going to parley with Mother Winter."
I inhaled deeply before letting out a long stream of air through my nostrils, pinching the bridge of my nose as I tried to think of a better idea. Coming up empty after my seventh deep breath I replied calmly to the goddess. "I know a guy."
Hopefully Chauncey was feeling chatty today.