The sun kissed my face as I leaned on the railing on the catwalk outside Buyan's Throne Room. The cool air felt crisp against the patchwork skin that had grown back over my face, slowly but surely returning me to my former - if still inhuman - appearance. Now that the mantle wasn't in overdrive focusing on immediate combat it had returned to its former role of repairing me in the background.
Only time would tell if it ever healed my face completely.
"You're going to have to try to activate it eventually, you know." Spoke the elegant man standing next to me as he pulled at his long strands of braided beard. "The people of Nekheb are afraid to leave their houses for fear of the ill omen that hangs above their heads."
"I don't have a great history with mystical thrones." I replied, just enjoying the simple pleasure of watching the birds fly around Buyan. There were too many of them flying at this altitude, so at least some of them were spies for Summer, but they were no less pretty for that. "And I'm not the only option - not any more."
"Ammit won't go anywhere near the control throne that governs this city." Enlil shuddered as though remembering something distinctly unpleasant. "She detests this place. Given the option she would have us fling it into the sun."
"It's my responsibility." I shook my head, listening to Traitor's Bane as it gave regular reports on the Jaffa moving around the City. The Genius Loci was unable to see through Buyan's wards as it would have been able to see into a Goa'uld craft, but it was able to follow my soldiers as they systematically explored the city. "She doesn't need to be here."
"I suppose she already got all that she wanted out of the city." Enlil replied, his voice somewhat muted by facing in the opposite direction. I didn't need to look to know what he was looking at. The Brute Squad Wizards, frozen in time, were the only thing that could have stolen his focus to that degree. Enlil hadn't said anything but I knew he lusted for a Hok'tar body. I wasn't going to be able to delay that issue forever. He clicked his tongue twice then spoke in a voice of measured calm. "Lord Warden - there is an issue that we need to discuss. One that I cannot continue to delay given that I now know that it was inexperience rather than some sort of master plan that caused it."
"Enlil - does it have to be now?" I really wasn't ready for this conversation. I had a half assed plan at best for how to ethically get the Goa'uld hosts.
"I'm afraid so, Lord Warden." Enlil replied apologetically. "Please understand that I truly do understand the aversion a man has to dealing with his wives, but there is really only so long that I can continue to provide excuses."
"I don't have a - " I stopped as Enlil's words caught up to me. "My what?"
"As the Lord of Nekheb you took over all of Heka's property, including his wives. System Lord Law is very clear on this matter." Enlil pulled out a data pad from his pocket and started flipping through files on it. "How you deal with your marriage to the Priestesses of Nekheb is really your business - "
"I'm married to the Priestesses?" I managed not to yell, but only because I was too horrifed to raise my voice. "All of them?"
"Well, yes." Enlil snorted. "I'll admit that it's a bit Greek for my taste but Heka was obsessively possessive of his clergy. Really it's the Goa'uld wives who are of more interest to me. You have obligations to them as husband which must be fulfilled."
I have never been so relieved for a Jaffa to signal potential danger across the communications net. "I'm afraid I'm needed elsewhere, Enlil. The Jaffa need me."
"You can't put this off forever Warden!" Enlil bellowed as I sprinted away from him, following the path my Jaffa traveled. The were on the second spoke of the snowflake, the one on the opposite side from the library I'd crash-landed the chariot into. Ammit had been guiding my Jaffa in the safety protocols for exploring a Gate Builder facility. Given that they boiled down to "touch nothing" and "if you see anything of interest, call the Lord Warden" it had been slow going. Safe but slow, I'd had enough excitement for the week, thank you very much.
It took me about thirty minutes to reach the far spoke on foot, there was supposedly a teleportation system but I'd forbidden anyone the use of it until we'd verified that the ancient system still worked properly. I didn't need anyone half-teleported and all the way dead. I was glad for the walk. Now that there wasn't a monster trying to murder me in the city, I was actually enjoying the beauty of Buyan.
"Lord Warden." The Ancient Jaffa from my personal guard saluted me. "You're not going to believe what we found."
"Honestly I'm just amazed you got a door open, Koschei's final protocols have prevented us from getting into anything of importance." I scratched at the patchy flesh over my face. It itched painfully and flaked off whenever I started using magic. "I didn't think anything we had could even put a dent in those doors."
"We didn't try to put a dent in them." The Jaffa replied, holding up a Goa'uld wrist computer. "But Shal'mok had the idea that if our computers were based off of Gate Builder tech, maybe they could talk with each other. He was able to talk the door into opening."
"Thats… Hell's Bells, that's dangerous man. We still don't know how the wards to this place work." I shuddered at idea of everything that could have gone wrong. "I appreciate the initiative but don't let anyone else try that until Bob gets back to have a look at the wards. I can't make heads or tails of them."
"Yes, Lord Warden." Replied the Ancient Jaffa, bowing his head. "But I would strongly advise coming in to see what we've found."
"What have you… oh… oh… crap." The largest tower of the spoke was a single spiral path leading up and down as far as I cared to look, at least a half-kilometer upwards and downwards. The spiraling space was glowing blue with cool light shining out from cubicles housed in the wall, frozen figures in each cubicle. A glowing display in the language of the gate builders let me know that the creatures inside were, in fact, still alive.
I called them creatures because I had no other word to describe them. They weren't any creature I'd ever seen before. I ran my fingers over the surface of the ice, whistling in surprise as I catalogued the features of what I was looking at. It was huge and muscular, with a bipedal body was unnervingly human. It was paler than even the vampires of the white court, scraggly white locks dangling down from an eyeless and mouthless carapace that consumed the creature's face. It was wearing clothing that had little respect for symmetry or unity in their choice of material.
It was exactly like the frozen creature next to him. There were marginal enough differences in the clothing and armored face carapace to let me know that they weren't completely identical but it was only through prolonged examination that I was able to tell. I lost count of how many identical creatures I wandered past before I finally found one that had some autonomy to it, a male figure who seemed to have been frozen in ice only under extreme duress. The creature's eyes were frozen in a mad, hateful glare as it reached out with talon tipped fingers - vertical fanged mouths prominent on the palms of each hand.
"Are you kidding me?" I looked at the Ancient Jaffa, my heart sinking as my promise to Mother Winter echoed in my mind. I muttered it under my breath. "I bear responsibility for the welfare and survival of the people on Buyan. I would see to their safety and welfare."
"I am not joking and I will support any responsibilities you have, milord" Yeesh, that Jaffa had good hearing.
"How many are there?" I shook my head as my mental bestiary came up with a fat goose egg, "What the hell are they?"
"We're still getting a count, milord. We've identified five of the males and three females without carapace on their face." The Ancient Jaffa tapped the front of the icy block with his staff, a shimmering forcefield blocking him from making contact with the icy surface. "And I don't know what they are, but the Gate Builders damn well wanted these things to stay in stasis."
"I want more soldiers on Buyan." I walked out to the bridge looking out along the seemingly irregular landscaping in front of the entrance to the tower. The overlapping walls and bridges that seemed to go from nowhere to nowhere suddenly making sense. They'd designed as much cover as possible for someone defending against a mass escape. "And some gun emplacements along this path."
I nearly jumped out of my skin as something popped out from behind a waist high wall. I raised my hand device reflexively, channeling power into the red crystal as a little girl popped out. She was a tiny thing - seven or eight years old. She froze as she stared into the red light, her eyes wide with terror at the sight of it.
Crap, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that there were victims of Koschei I hadn't found yet. I lowered my hand, kneeling down as I said, "Come on kiddo. I won't hurt you. I promise."
The little girl looked up at me her body contorted and twisting as it reflexively took on its true form. The child whispered fearfully through ghoul lips as it fell to the ground before me, utterly worshipful in her submission to me. "Great one! Thank you Great One. Thank you for this one's life."
I pinched the bridge of my nose as it occurred to me that Koschei wouldn't have kept a tower full of dangerous prisoners without having some muscle to keep those prisoners in place. Muscle I had sworn to the Winter Lady I had taken responsibility for.
"Fuck." I summed it up as elegantly as I knew how. "Ghouls… why did it have to be ghouls."
And somewhere, in the distance, I was sure I could hear the cruel laughter of an iron toothed crone stirring a stewpot.