Darkness Hides the Hunter – Part One

Morning

Jack's hands grabbed frantically at the thing clinging to his face, desperately trying to tug it off. The foul smell coming from it filled his nostrils, making him gag, and choke, completely unable to draw a breath. Instinctively, he opened his mouth to shout for help, only to have it filled with legs, slime, and claws. Two of his nails broke as he clawed at the creature, managing to grasp its thin neck. Leathery wings beat against his head, the hooks on the ends of the spiny limbs scratching deep cuts into his scalp as his assailant fought for its own life. The noise of thousands of similar wings filled the dark and roared in his ears. His last thoughts as his oxygen starved system shut down were of birds and blue sky

xoxoxoxox

Night - Hunted

He stood in the still silence of the winter night, waiting. He once thought he was able to detect a presence without effort - that his senses, fine honed from years of training and experience, would warn him if he was not alone. But he knew better now. It was with a sudden revelation, one that drained the blood from his face, that he understood there would be no warning, no moment to prepare. So he stood, waiting. Desperately straining for anything, any sign his pursuer was near.

The branches hung limp in the trees where once the evening breeze had lifted and shaken them. It was as if the forest was listening as well, holding its breath along with the tall figure in its midst.

Finally he edged forward, cautiously placing one foot in front of the other, careful to tread only on firm soil that would muffle his steps. The trees closed in tighter until he was forced to move branches aside, seeking a clearer path. In one sense he was glad of this as if he could not move swiftly, neither could his pursuer, but he also felt a deep concern that he was unable to return speedily enough to his companions, was unable to warn them that his quarry had turned the tables, making the hunter into the hunted.

How this had happened was the question he kept asking himself. He was use to having the upper hand, to being the expert at such deadly games as these. Now he found himself pursued by a shadow that disappeared whenever he turned, that skipped from his peripheral vision, leaving only a brief after image of no substance.

Once again he paused, listening. Almost he thought he had imagined it. Almost.

Then, once again, as if teasing, it was gone, and he knew he was being taunted, played with.

His blood pounded in his ears and the unfamiliar sensation of fear wrapped itself around his heart.

xoxoxoxoxo

Morning

Jack woke some time later, still in the dark, still gasping for breath, still sore and bleeding, but alive. The darkness was absolute, and he reached out, trying to get a tactile sense of his surroundings. His hands recoiled from the touch of the body beside him on the floor of the cave, the slime no less repellent now it was dead, its neck broken. Quiet sounds of sharp nails on rock and movement of bodies above him had him sitting up quickly, his head spinning. The feeling of being watched was spine chilling in its intensity, and he reached around, thankful for the familiar weight of his pack still on his back. He didn't need to see to find what he wanted, his flashlight was soon in his hand, the beam lighting up gloom, reflecting hundreds of small bright eyes, hot and red. Scrabbling scrapings and high pitched squeals echoed in the vast space, followed by beating wings and the rushing of displaced air as hundreds of the creatures fled out past him and into the tunnels that branched out in all directions.

He ducked instinctively, the sheer numbers causing some to brush past him, touching him in the darkness, and he put his arms over his head, tucking it down into his chest and rolling into as tight a ball as possible. It seemed like hours, but he knew it was only minutes before the last creature left the cavern with a short defiant cry, leaving him huddled on the sharp rocks.

After a few moments, he uncoiled, stretching out his legs as he lifted the flashlight once again. He rolled to his knees, wincing when the multitude of scratches on his hands connected with the slippery, guano encrusted rock. Warm blood trickled down his face and into his eyes and mouth from the cuts on his scalp and he brushed it away, blinking to clear his vision.

"Colonel?" The suddenness of the voice in the silence had him reaching for his radio.

"Receiving you, Carter."

"We're at the rendezvous point, sir. How long will you be?"

"I'll be late, Carter. I have a little problem here." O'Neill shone the flashlight across the walls, confirming his initial suspicions.

"Sir?"

"I'm in a cave about one kilometre due east of your position. There are plenty of exits, just none I can reach. Bring a rope."

"Bring a rope. Yes, sir."

There was a pause and the sound of another voice. "Are you alright, Jack?"

"I'm fine, Daniel. Now give the radio back to Carter." Jack couldn't help smiling at the anxiety he heard in his teammate's voice.

"Sir." Jack almost see the glare the major was giving Daniel.

"You'll find a large stand of trees near a cliff face. Careful. There's only a thin layer of stone, and it crumbles easily, as I found out. You should see my P90 near the hole. I'll be waiting."

"Yes, sir. We'll check in again as we get closer. Carter out."

Jack switched the radio off, putting it back in his vest pocket. Holding the flashlight carefully in one hand he shrugged the pack from his back and placed it on the ground beside him, taking the first aid kit from it. A quick wipe over with some antiseptic and the cuts were as clean as he could get them. None seemed serious enough for a bandage, although it was difficult to tell with the ones on his scalp.

Then he settled down to wait.

xoxoxoxoxo

Night - Hunter

The forest held him close, protecting him, concealing him. His swiftness belied his care, each movement soft, calculated, and planned. His training had prepared him for this, instilling in him a determination to succeed, to prevail, and there was nothing in this situation to hold him back from his objective. He was silence within silence, his blade held so there was no chance of light reflecting off it and betraying him, his eyes well adjusted to the darkness with an almost preternatural ability.

He had a task to do, and he would do it, with no qualms, no thought of wrong. He was sure in the rightness of his action and certain in its conclusion. He stalked his prey as he had done so many times before, knowing exactly when the other stood, when the other froze, stopping as well, then echoing his movements. Twice he allowed his shadow to cross a dull patch of light, moonlight forced through branches to lie upon the ground. Twice his quarry stilled, head up. He was close enough to see the nostrils flare, to see the eyes straining to see in the blackness.

It was a game. A game he knew he would win, because he always had. This opponent was smarter than most, thinking at first that he was the one with the upper hand, but he knew better now. The scent of his sweat was a betrayal, both of his position and of his fear, as were his eyes, constantly shifting.

Watching, he licked his lips, knowing the taste of victory and blood.

As always.

xoxoxoxoxo

Morning

"They don't look too bad, sir."

Jack winced just a little as Carter wiped antiseptic across his scalp, parting the hair as she did so in order to get right into the cuts.

"I'm sure you're right, Carter. It could have been a lot worse. I was lucky not to break my neck falling into that hole." He shook his head. "Damn stupid thing to do."

"Come on, Jack. If you hadn't warned us we'd have been right in there with you. There was no way you could have know the stone was so thin there."

The Colonel frowned as he stood, tentatively touching his head as he did so. "I should have been more careful, Daniel. One of the first things I learnt was not to assume that just because something looks safe that it is safe. I put myself in danger with my carelessness, and then endangered the rest of you by having to be rescued. That ground was unstable. You could have just have easily fallen when you pulled me out."

"You're too hard on yourself, Jack. It all turned out okay, with nothing more to show for it than a couple of scratches."

"O'Neill is correct, Daniel Jackson. By not taking due care, he jeopardized himself and others." Teal'c continued, ignoring the younger man's protests. "He has been trained to be aware of such dangers, as have I."

"And I suppose you wouldn't have fallen in that hole if you'd come in this direction?" The bit of sarcasm was not lost on the Jaffa, but he chose to ignore it.

"No, Daniel Jackson, I would not have."

Jack put up a hand, stopping Daniel's words. "Come on, guys. There's no point squabbling over spilt milk. My little escapade has set us back several hours and we need to get moving if we're going to make it back to the SGC on time." He shouldered his pack. "We'll get as far as we can before we make camp for the night. Then an early start in the morning, and we should be back on schedule. Carter, watch our six. Teal'c, you take point, I think that he would agree I should be in the middle of our little conga line after my adventure. Am I right, T?"

"Indeed, O'Neill."

xoxoxoxoxo

Night - Hunted

He dropped, falling in a fluid motion to the ground, then rolled into the protection of the fallen log. All he needed was a chance to regain ground, to put himself back on an equal footing. He slowed his breath instinctively, such control second nature, and let his eyelids close until only slits of white showed, not enough to be seen. All around the night crept in and enveloped him, hiding him.

So he waited.

He would not be defeated in this, too much was at stake. He must protect. He could do nothing else, and to protect he must win.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

Afternoon

"I thought you said there were no signs of anyone else on this planet, Carter?"

They had stopped for a quick lunch, and to take a breather. Never one to sit when he could be active Jack had wandered up to the top of the hill behind where they sat, canteen in one hand, energy bar in the other.

"There wasn't, sir." Sam raised her voice, making sure he could hear her clearly. "Why?"

"Come see what I've found."

His teammates soon joined him on the rise, and stared down at the tumbled stone remains of a small town.

"Care to explain this, Carter?"

Sam gave him an irritated glance, then looked away in an obvious attempt to cover her lapse. Her voice when she spoke was carefully controlled.

"The UAV didn't fly over here sir. I program it to fly a grid pattern that gives the best chance of picking up anything we may be interested in, but it can't survey everything."

"Can we have a quick look, Jack?" asked Daniel. From his tone it was obvious what answer he expected to get.

The Colonel looked at his watch and then smiled back at the archaeologist.

"We've made good time, in fact we're a little ahead of schedule. What say we allow thirty minutes for a quick recon, and if we find anything interesting we ask Hammond to put this planet on the schedule for revisiting?" He was rewarded by a beaming smile.

xoxoxoxoxo

Night – Hunter

He watched the log, saw the care the other took to show no movement, not knowing it was much too late for that. Laughter had no place in such a contest, so he crushed it down and allowed it no escape. He had time now to rest, time now to plan exactly what he would do, and how. The other was a true warrior, his experience obvious, but he was still no match. Time and time again in this conflict he had met men who thought they were better than he, time and time again he had proven them wrong.

He was the best at what he did. Tonight was no exception.

When he judged sufficient time had passed, he came forward, moving without conscious thought across the space between, until the other lay just a few short steps away.

He stilled as the head came up.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

Afternoon

"Well that was a bust" Jack patted the despondent man beside him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, the next planet we gate to may hold the answer to all the questions of the universe, and I don't mean forty-two."

His attempt at humour was met with a small smile as they reached the top of the hill.

"It's just so frustrating, having so little time to really look at things." Daniel took a final look at the ruins before turning and following Teal'c and Sam down the slope.

The town had been totally empty of anything of interest, at least what they could see in such a short time. It seemed to have been abandoned to the elements, only a few pieces of paint on the interior walls of some houses giving a tantalizing glimpse of ruined frescoes. There had been no reason to linger, even Daniel admitting that such a quick survey could give no clue as to the whereabouts of the inhabitants.

"Maybe this planet isn't as deserted as we thought, Jack. I really think we need to come back." He tried to inject a little enthusiasm into his speech, knowing the chance of SG-1 being sent to do it was very slim.

Jack nodded sympathetically.

"I'll see what I can do."

xoxoxoxoxo

Night – Hunted

He didn't know what made him turn, just an instinct that kicked in now it was too late, but turn he did. He had time to reach up, grab an arm and pull, using his weight against the other. They rolled, twigs snapping beneath them, breathing reduced to a panting, but making no other sound. He needed all his energy to win this battle and for a moment it looked as if he had the upper hand, regaining his feet. The other followed him up, shifting and weaving. Lightning fast, a hand lashed out, hard and stabbing and leaving no defence, then a twist and he was spun, straight into the knife, flashing through the air, the moonlight finally revealing the one who wielded it.

And that one momentary glimpse was enough to freeze his motion and leave him open, enough to fix him where he was.

He felt the blade dig deep into his flesh, and knew despair.

His last thoughts as the darkness rushed in were for his companions. They would have no chance against his killer.

No chance at all.

xoxoxoxoxoxo

Evening

They had walked until the light began to fade, then, finding a suitable clearing in the depths of the thick forest they needed to cross, made camp as far from the trees as possible. An early start in the morning should see them at the gate for their scheduled departure, so they wasted no time eating and making ready for bed.

"Let me check those cuts, sir." Carter didn't wait for a reply – already digging into her pack for a medical kit.

The Colonel submitted to the examination gracefully, wondering why it was always the smallest cuts that hurt the most. He flinched a little, the cold air hitting his head as soon as his hat was off.

"They're no worse than paper cuts, Carter. They'll probably be almost gone by the morning."

She smiled back, packing the kit away. "You're right, sir. You'll live. They look fine."

"You were very lucky, O'Neill. Your injuries could have been much worse, given the fall."

Jack gave Teal'c a rueful look. "You're right there, T. Guess someone was watching out for me today." He stood and stretched, yawning. "Okay, kids. Daniel, first watch, Carter next, and Teal'c you get the dubious pleasure of waking me for the last watch. I'll have coffee ready when you wake up."

The order was obvious, even if it wasn't spoken aloud, and within a few minutes the camp was quiet, only Daniel left to finish his coffee, staring into the darkness.

xoxoxoxoxo

Night – Hunter

The dull thud as the body fell broke the quiet, and he looked around, checking. Then off once more without a second glance, because he knew there were more to find.

They would be easier. He had heard their whispers, darting back to watch and delight in their vulnerability before returning to the chase.

He felt the thrill of the hunt diminish, but allowed himself only a moment to rest, needing to finish it. He had to finish it. To not do so was unthinkable, especially now. So close to the end.

They called to him out of the night, luring him with their weakness, no longer just a task to complete, but now a prize waiting to be collected. Each victory strengthened him, sent him further towards true mastery.

His blood sang within him.

xoxoxoxoxo