There was no conscious thought as Althea plummeted to the dark waves below, only a strange stillness, a tepid blur that numbed and poisoned the mind. She didn't know how long she fell, but her body instinctually recognized the feeling of flight after all those years of being tossed by Morgar. She twisted like a cat in mid-air, subconsciously trying to land on her feet.
Then, she hit.
At first, Althea didn't know what to feel. A split second later, a terrible fire lanced up her feet.
Agony. A thousand needles, thin as fish bones, piercing and relentless.
Shock. Overwhelming incomprehension at the pain, the confusion, and the cold.
Her breath was knocked violently from her as her entire body entered. The sea's touch was like a hard clamp around the chest, squeezing out the air; it was only after she struggled to the surface, gasping for breath, that she realized how cold it was. By all the gods, this was a chill beyond any she had known before. Again she sought the surface, coughing, choking, her hair plastering over her face and wrapping around her neck. Cold fire burned her feet with such pain that she almost didn't want to move her legs at all.
A wave arose: not a big wave at all, quite a moderate swell of water, but it shoved her under. The thudding of her heart, the throb of her lungs and the fierce pain in her feet and legs broke her still lingering daze. She flailed her arms, spluttering as she came up. By accident she took in a huge mouthful of the water.
Immediately she gagged, her belly lurching at the overpowering taste. She went under. A numb feeling was spreading through her arms. She broke the surface and snatched a breath. She was growing tired. Her heart contracted; she was suddenly, sharply awake. I won't die. I refuse to die. With a half-conscious mind, she chanted to herself over and over, a charm of survival: I won't die, I won't die.
Struggling with the clamoring panic inside her, Althea began to swim toward the gray platform of Atlantis's base. It stretched out like a promising shoreline. To it, she swam, the cold shock seeping her warmth away. Around her legs, her leather was dragging her down. Her feet continued to throb, as if she had landed on embers.
Must keep going, she thought, in a strange, apathetic daze. She didn't know how long she swam to Atlantis, nor did she remember crawling up the cold side. Her arms shook as she hoisted herself up. A strange drowsiness stole over her. Her burning limbs twitched, heavy as stone. Her eyes burned. Her feet and legs ached. The terrible taste of brine clung to her mouth, numbing her lips. Then her eyelids slid shut as she fell into a merciful darkness.
Althea stirred in the grey light of morning. Sky had grown pearly with a thin overcast of cloud. No longer calm, the gray-blue sea frothed, foaming along the hard platform of Atlantis's base. The rhythm of the waves woke her, their wash soaking her skin. She felt the cold sting of air briefly, then another wave. She opened her eyes to find herself lying pressed against the cold, unyielding surface. Another swell sluiced over her.
Choking, she rolled to her knees, pitched shakily to her feet. Where am I? she thought. Her mind feeling poisoned. Weakly, the young woman shook herself and staggered. The salt air breathed against her wet skin, chilling her. She slid a wet draggle of hair from her eyes. The gummy, salt taste of her own tongue constricted her gorge.
"Water," she croaked out loud, still mightily confused at her surroundings. She shook her head, rubbing one side of her face with a salt-abraded hand. Never had she seen this part of Atlantis before—
Suddenly her whole world crashed. If the scene had been a movie, the film would have screeched off the roll. She remembered everything, from the day she came to Atlantis to the fateful night and her ruined escape attempt.
At first she could only stand, stock still, eyes wide open. Dripping water was forming a puddle by her feet. Her heart churned she clasped a hand to her mouth in utter shock. It was all she could do it muffle the scream of distress. Almost instinctually, she scuttled higher up the platform, hidden by a giant support rod. There, she huddled, feeling the panic forcing its way out, quickening her breath, pounding at her temples. She was so overwhelmed with fear that all she could muster were mewling sounds of distress. She felt so terrified that she was almost too afraid to breath. Behind every huge support could be a dozen Lanteans, ready to stick her in a cage.
"Oh no, no, no, no," she whispered, rocking. Hot tears dripped down her face unnoticed. She had failed! All her stupid fault! All her stupid, stupid fault! She had failed Lynex . . . Warrior . . . herself . . . but Warrior most of all. Her mind continued that vicious, unrelenting course as she huddled by herself, wet and cold.
She subsided after a while into a terrible, still silence, a withdrawal that spoke of a state of profound shook and disappointment. She could feel herself shaking. It was all confusion for a while. She could not tell if what she felt was grief or fury or merely cold recognition of failure. Her whole week's planning, her whole night's effort had been futile. For nothing. It hurt, most certainly.
Why didn't I listen to Sheppard? she thought miserably, shamefully remembering how she spurned his attempts to calm her. How she acted like an impatient half-grown! If I had listened, maybe this wouldn't be so messed up! Guilt consumed her for a second. With guilt came exhaustion and despair. She sighed, feeling the bitter, blinding rage, anguished disappointment, and a chilling recognition of failure.
Homesickness threatened to crush her. I was so stupid, Althea thought bitterly, biting on a knuckle reflectively. It was my own yearning for home that blinded me. Made me angry. Now look: I attacked their commanding officer—a most heinous crime, she was sure—so ruining any hope of negotiation with him.
Even as she thought about him, the long cut along her shoulder smarted. She winced, looking it over. Nothing too serious . . . my, what a fine array of reminders I shall have, she thought dryly. Four cat claw marks on her left cheek, a bullet wound on her arm, a knife cut, Morgar's claw marks along her belly . . . not to mention previous scars she had received while learning how to fight and hunt.
The very thought of her past with Warrior's patient teachings brought another wave of guilt. She heaved a great sigh, painful against the crushing tightness of her breast. Her eyes closed from her internal exhaustion.
When she awoke, the seas had calmed. The sky had darkened to a slate colour. Shaking herself, Althea rose, wincing as her cramped muscles protested. Was it midday? Who could tell? Her belly growled, a rebuke to its lack of feed. Althea closed her eyes, remembering what Warrior told her: patience, combined with self-improvement, can be a sign of strength. Panic never is.
What good would it do? she thought almost sulkily. I failed.
This isn't your fault, my young fighter. You did not mean for any of this to happen.
Warrior's voice, throaty and smooth, echoed in her head. Althea gave a sharp intake of breath. She was almost afraid to look around, so close was his voice.
I will not hear of it. I will not speak of whose to blame and anything akin to that. You are strong, Little Dagger, but you must learn that not everything depends solely on the actions of a sole person.
The voice went away. Althea remained frozen, blood pounding in her ears. It was as if he was right there beside her. Almost guiltily, she lowered her head submissively. Then, she almost wanted to laugh in relief at her own foolishness. Of course it wasn't her fault! She gave a shaky laugh then, high and tinged with strain. How could she had possibly have known? It wasn't as if she meant for Sheppard to find them.
"He's always been right. I'm doing it again. It couldn't have been my fault. Nobody's fault." She felt indefinitely lighter, as if she had cut within herself and pulled out something rotting. It hurt, but it was a cleaner hurt. Suddenly, the situation didn't seem as bad. Guilt and shame were far heavier burdens than the physical discomforts.
It was with this in her mind did she assess her situation.
She was cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, and alone. She needed to get out of her clothes and find some food and water. But how? By now the upper Atlantis would be combing to search for her . . . no, wait—why would they be? I fell. Maybe they think me dead . . .? Althea gingerly tested the bottoms of her feet as she walked to the platform's edge. The deep blue depths gurgled and frothed at her. She looked up, craning her head, looking for the place from where she fell.
How could I have survived it? she thought in awe, eyeing the high circle. She backed away, a little fearful of being in plain sight. It was such a great fall . . . She chewed her bottom lip. Best not question her fortune, sparse as it may be. If she was alive, it had to be for a reason.
Althea continued to hide in the shadows, filled with purpose and determination. Earlier thoughts of guilt and shame dwindled. Resolve took its place. She recognized Warrior's wisdom. It was silly to blame herself.
She settled on her haunches, her throat salty and swollen. "Think, Little Dagger, think," she croaked out loud. Her life-signature would probably be registered as human. If she could blend with a large group of people . . . then it could be as if she had might as well disappeared.
For once she was slightly glad her bio-sign did not come up as 'Wraith.'
But to do that, she would need to change her clothes. And appearance. She didn't want any to recognize her. Why would they? she thought to herself as she continued gnawing on her lower lip. Teyla's people hardly even noticed her—testament to the guards and isolation. But Sheppard and his crew might. I need to get out of these clothes and cut my hair, she thought again, a trace regretfully.
Blend in with the people. A large group comes to the City everyday, she remembered, in a large room to share food and drink. Her belly gurgled. Hardly any guards, if any. If I can slip in . . . With a pause, Althea proceeded to bite her hair off as well as use her hands to rip it to neck length. Wet strands landed in a clump by her feet.
She shook her head, unaccustomed to the lightness. Without a word, she began to slink deeper into Atlantis's base, her steps hardly making a sound.
Althea didn't know how long she skittered and dodged about the halls, always staying out of sight whenever she could. Apprehension never let go of her heart. Her hands felt cold; eyes, hot. Her ragged, torn hair clustered around her neck. Once or twice she almost ran into people, each time thankfully hiding in the nick of time. Either they were surprisingly stupid or extremely preoccupied to have so blithely missed her. Althea chose the latter of the two.
Luckily, she didn't run into any of the military-type. Thank the gods. She recognized her mistakes, and submitted to their superior advantage. It would be silly to fight them now. Best hide and skirt any attention. 'A rabbit huddles not merely from terror, but from a wisdom that knows how motion catches the eye' was a lesson she had been taught in childhood. Before she didn't understand it.
Now she understood.
The muted daylight still managed to fill the hallways near the open. Gooseflesh was still on her arms, reminding her of her drama of the night, morning and midday. Another reminder was her belly, who once again giving a gurgle of complaint. Althea wanted to ignore it, but the tantalizing smells of food enticed her. She was close, much closer than she had thought. Along with the scents of warm bread, richly flavored meats, and fresh picked fruits came the laughter and chatter of many, many humans.
Althea cocked a wary ear, eyes darting, drying hair saturated with salt. She peeked through a doorway, salivating at the thought of filling her belly and torn between blowing her cover. So many people! They didn't even notice her, each sharing food with one another, their faces smiling and gracious. Their talk filled her ears. General excitement hung in the air, tingling in the veins.
She continued to watch, unable to tear her eyes away from the sight. How easily they shared their food. She watched an old woman bend down to give a sliver of meat to a child, who rushed away with it to give it to a young woman—it's bearer, Althea guessed. How fascinating! Her curiosity was sparked. Though her memories would always remind her of her hard dealings with humans, she hardly had the heart to hate them. How could she hate something that only responded with its nature? She fought Sheppard first—she could not harbor ill will to him for defending himself.
High-ranking Wraith have first dibs on humans, selecting the strongest and most-willed humans for their own personal stores. Hunters get third pick according to their rank after the females. Lastly come the adolescents, who fight each other for the 'scraps'. It is the Wraith way of weeding out the weak. Those too weak to fight for their share of the humans starve. Those strong enough look on and learn.
Even then it is a fearsome battle. Friends fight friends for their own choice of humans, punching and hitting each other to procure their food. Althea once had watched a group of adolescents fight over a culling's products. She was surprised none had died, such was the ferocity of their strength.
And now, utterly at peace with each other, these humans were sharing. Such a strange and fascinating notion! This was probably one of the humans' best traits, she thought to herself before steeling her strength. She took a deep breath, shook her strangely light head, closed her eyes briefly, and entered the throng.
She was immediately surrounded on all sides by jostling, talking humans. Althea gulped down her distaste for close contact. People on all sides continued to talk and share food. Food . . . Althea's stomach rumbled again. A woman heard it and turned her head to Althea, eyes smiling. For a second, Althea froze, unsure of what to do. She was still debating on walking away or staying when the woman asked a question.
She pasted a smile, not exactly knowing what else to do. She nodded a trifle foolishly.
"Yes, hungry," was all she could stumble through. At least, she hoped that was what the woman was asking in the first place.
The woman smiled politely again, choosing not to comment on her strange accent, raw rent on her shoulder, or strained appearance. Althea followed her gaze to her ragged hair and wet clothes and attempted to give a sheepish smile. She didn't know what words to use so she stuck with her slightly foolish grin. Once again, her fortune held.
The woman exchanged brief words with a child, motioning to Althea and then to the table of food. Althea watched, pretending to be immersed in thought but actually wary of her surroundings.
Guards? Not that she could see. Lantean-folk that could recognize her? Once or twice she thought she saw Teyla in the throng, but it was only a half-glimpse. She thought she saw the Queen slip by, but then again it was out of the corner of her eye. Stop it, Althea thought firmly, trying to calm her raw nerves. Keep this up and you'll work yourself into a panic. Just get some food, water . . . clothes . . .
The child had returned with a great plate of steaming meat and a hunk of bread. Green fruits that still looked like it had dew on them glistened besides the bread. To Althea nothing had ever looked so good. Her gorge suddenly felt as small as a pinhole. She had difficulty swallowing. She licked her salty lips.
"Th . . . thank you," she said, her voice low and guttural compared to the woman's laughing voice. The woman made a curious gesture with her head and said something Althea couldn't understand. A spark of unease fluttered in her belly, but Althea once again reverted to her hesitant smile, her only answer. The woman didn't seem to notice Althea's lack of understanding, for she sent the child off again. Please, please, not Teyla or the Queen, Althea thought.
But the food in her hands were more binding than any fear. She had no choice but sit at a table amongst so many other humans. The general chatter astounded and rung in her ears. None of it seemed hostile or aggressive, though, and Althea's nerves soothed just a bit. Having grown up amongst Wraith, at the least nuance of anger it was the wisest course of action to move out of the side. One-on-one combats amongst younger Wraith were not unheard of since their rankings were very insecure, though older Wraith thought it was beneath them to fight so wantonly.
It was almost physical agony to eat at a polite pace. Althea wanted nothing more than to wolf it all down, to disregard the human concept of manners. But she must not draw attention to herself. So, she ate and drank at a moderate pace, glancing around or giving the person next to her more elbow space.
She was almost done when the same child—a girl, her hair as fair as flax—came up to her. Althea immediately eyed the child, tensing a little, as if wary for any hidden tricks. But in the child's hands was not a weapon, but a bunch of clothes made from a strange fabric. Althea's gaze softened as she murmured the words for gratitude. The child brightened and babbled something to her, too fast for the young Wraith-woman to follow. The only word she could discern was 'change.'
Althea gave a growl of consent, her voice low and throaty. "Yes."
Before she could react, the child grasped her hand with the uninhibited gestures of a child and led her away from the throng of people. Althea grudgingly softened at the child, liking the way the gray light from the windows glinted off the flaxen hair. So bold, she couldn't help muse. She would have to learn the proper way to treat her elders.
The she-child didn't lead her far, just across the gathering. The two of them came to a room. The girl reached up on tip-toes to touch the panel to allow them entrance. She tugged Althea's hand to enter, for the young woman had grown cautious again. Was this a trick? No, I don't think so, she thought as the door open to show three elderly woman.
Althea was torn between flight or staying when the women dragged her in, making clucking sounds with their tongues as they noticed her wet outfit. The child piped something to them, pointing to the clothes in Althea's arms. One of them spoke to the confused young woman, and when she only got a bemused silence, the woman led her to a smaller room.
The other women chatted with the child. Althea thought how interesting to listen to so many odd chirps and strangely inflected syllables, to that flowing speech. The Common tongue. At one time Althea desperately wanted to learn how to speak it. Now all what she wanted to do was go back home and speak Wraith for a long time.
With efficient, brisk gestures, the elderly woman began to help a hesitant Althea out of her sodden clothes. By now, Althea was only assuming what was asked of her, saving herself behind a polite, if distant, smile.
The change was unbelievable. I never would have thought to have pulled this off, Althea thought with pleasure when she looked at herself through the thing Beckett had named 'a mirror.' With her rough-cut short hair ending at the base of her neck and now these rather humble clothes, she looked as if she could have passed for member of Teyla's people.
She gave another toothy grin with satisfaction. The woman who aided her misinterpreted her smile for one of thanks. Little did she know Althea was congratulating herself on meeting her objectives so quickly and so well.
They are a little scratchy, she thought when she was led back by the child. A very strange feel. What she wearing was a light wool shirt, muted green for colour. It was a little big for her, for she had to roll up the sleeves. She wore darkly tanned pants now, unfamiliar but not at all uncomfortable, though she had to get used to the lack of 'freedom' she had before. She, however, refused the shoes that was offered to her. Shoes would make noise. She would need silence.
She was still getting used to her clothes when she almost ran into the one person she dreaded: Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart thumped painfully between her ribs. His back was turned, his head sweeping slowly as he surveyed the crowd. But his messy hair and casual posture marked him out as the ranking second-in-command. He wore the standard Atlantis jacket, his hands resting easily on his hips.
The child sensed the resistance from Althea, and tugged harder, still trying to get back to the table. Althea couldn't protest, instantly holding her head down as Sheppard casually shifted a little to let them pass, as if lost in thought and not really paying attention to the woman shielding her face with a curtain of ragged hair.
Althea felt like she was walking on eggshells. She felt the fear causing gooseflesh to ripple along her arms as she continued, dreading to have his long-fingered and vice-like grasp on her shoulder to apprehend her. But as the child blithely continued, Althea allowed herself a breath of relief. To have had skirted so nimbly a dangerous ground was beyond her.
Too bad our choices make us enemies, Althea thought, pausing ever-so-slightly. He was a good fighter. He could have helped teach her some human fighting moves. But she would never have that chance—she ruined that chance last night when she spurned his attempts and attacked. Althea flushed a little when she remembered her embarrassing fall. She should have paid more attention to her surroundings. She had acted like a half-grown still in white clothing; she had been too confident. His casual appearance hid his ferocious side—he could fight like an animal when cornered.
Althea turned slightly around, eyeing Sheppard aslant. She didn't know why she did. She couldn't help it. Perhaps curiosity to look upon the one who beat her spurred her. Later she would look back and wonder what the hell was running in her mind. Stupid curiosity.
She looked at him from behind ragged hair and realized it was a mistake. A very big mistake. Sheppard's gaze languidly rested on her, went away, and immediately zoomed straight back at her. Althea could only look back, transfixed, as she saw his eyes widen with surprise, eyebrows shooting into his crop of messy hair. His stance stiffened.
In a flash his lips thinned into a hard line. His look hardened and grew cold, sinister storm clouds building behind his gaze. Before their dark power Althea wanted to crouch submissively, as she would have done before an angry high-ranking Wraith, for such was his anger. The words 'forgive me' trembled on her lips as they continued to stare at each other. She couldn't look away. She felt like a rabbit torn between the ancient dilemma: to run or to remain motionless.
Her decision was suddenly made clear when Sheppard suddenly started walking toward her. Without hesitation and as limber as a weasel she darted deeper into the thick crowd of Teyla's people. They hardly paid any attention to her, for her motion was soft and flexible, moving in a way that made it as if she was just looking for someone.
Somewhere behind her, Sheppard tried to follow her, half-murmuring apologies as he shifted through them, striving to get to the girl he was so sure was dead.
Althea was very good at hiding her trail from people. Such games had been the hide and seek of her childhood. She darted and weaved, never giving any the impression that she was being chased. Why doesn't he call for reinforcements? she thought during a moment of rest, hiding behind a rather large man. She didn't see him.
He doesn't want to panic these people, a cool logical voice within her replied. He can't tell them a psycho Wraith-woman was amongst them. That would ruin the festive mood and drive people to panic. She skittered around him, gently moving between a line of people. She crouched lower, thankful of her shorter height. Somewhere, she could barely see a head of brown, tousled hair pace back and forth. Despite her beating heart and quick breath, she gave a small smile. Not all strengths came from merely fighting.
Althea used the huge gathering of people, blending in with her subtle wool shirt and cropped hair. However, she noticed the number was smaller than before, that people in ones and twos were leaving the hall. Why? Her stomach dropped as she realized that these people were the physical representation of the time. They're leaving, heading toward the Ring. I need to find Warrior and Lynex—and run with them!
Time seemed so precious that she almost didn't know what to do first. After a low growl of teeth-grinding, eye-watering determination, Althea wedged herself between two people and made her way to the entrance. She did not run, desperate for the least amount of attention. Besides, Sheppard was too busy looking for her in the throng . . . or did he know she wanted to find the Wraith?
She had the perfect opportunity to escape: why would she risk everything to save the imprisoned Wraith? Sheppard had called her a 'worshipper' . . . he probably thinks I merely worship them to save my own hide, Althea thought, almost giddy with tension and roguishness. That I would abandon them when it suited me.
There was definitely less activity the farther she went from the hall and less near the cages. Her short hair swung around her neck she skirted about, paranoid for Sheppard or even the dreaded Ronon. She didn't know how long she would have before Sheppard realized she wasn't with the people or tell the Queen of her appearance. Twice she was so sure a Lantean or two saw her—but each time they let her pass, their eyes blank and polite. With Sheppard her disguise meant nothing; she felt a little twinge of irritation. But to them, it was as if she was a guest.
Ah, let the wolf tread freely amongst the sheep!
Althea gave a sharp intake of breath as she bolted behind a bubbling statue. The clomps of the two Lanteans faded as they continued walking, not realizing that a young woman had been just two meters away. Althea dared not let a breath of relief escape her before resuming her fast pace. Time, time. If only she had more time.
She crouched just outside the doorway, eyes bright and alert. The scratchy feel of her wool shirt made her want to scratch. She shook her short hair out of her eyes irritably: there would be no room for mistakes now. She was flying blind here; she didn't have eleven days to plan her new escape, just hours. She didn't know how many guards there were, or what she would do after she freed them—if she freed them . . .
Oh just shut up and get on with it, Althea thought.
Althea made a single beeline to the cage; she didn't care for the startle grunts of the human guards. All what she wanted now was to open the cage. She twitched her body to the left, ducking a wild shot from a stunner. It missed. She dove for the panel, touching it with an open palm. It took less than five seconds, but in that time there was a small commotion.
Althea turned around to find herself keeling backwards from a rock-hard fist. Pain exploded and she fell, shocked by the violence. Cries and shouts rung in her ears as something exploded out of the cage, dodging hastily fired shots. The stunners were in too close of a range, and the Wraith moved far too quickly. Althea heaved herself to her feet but stayed in the background. Lynex could take care of himself. Her eyes watered from the blow, the area hot to the touch and tingling.
It was over quickly; the three guards were either knocked out or stunned; the young Wraith's clever hands turned the stunners upon their masters. Althea snuffled, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. The noise caused the Wraith to spin, a startled hiss escaping from between his teeth. An arm whipped out.
Althea's eyes widened; she tried to cry out, to identify herself, but before her lips were even open, she was hurled against the cage wall. The outstretched hand had caught her full in the face. With a cry, she was whacked against it. Her head hit it, hard. A rumbling growl snapped her out of her pain. She struggled to get back on her feet.
"Ouch! Damn it, Lynex! If you wanted to stay in your cage, just tell me next time!"
At the very first word Lynex froze, eyes wide with shock. His pupils were dilated to the max. He didn't speak, but continued to stare at her as if she had three heads. Althea eyed him as she massaged her brow.
"You know, it's bad enough with the Lanteans going after me," she scolded yet failing to find the angry tone.
How still he was as he stood there, how quietly astonished.
"It really is you," he said.
"You're damned right it's me. Try to nearly kill me, huh! Talk about gratitude!"
"You're—you're alive," he said.
Althea grunted agreement, remembering that they were still pressed for time. She brushed past a still bemused Wraith, picking up a clumsy stunner. She'd prefer a pistol-gun, but the rifle would do. When she got up again, she found herself looking straight into Lynex's face. His eyes where the darkest green the fluid—like light through deep water.
"What did you do with your hair?" he growled with horrified amusement, reaching down to rub several strands of ragged hair between his finger-tips. "And your clothes . . ."
"Long story, and when we have time, I'll tell you everything. Now, we need to get to Warrior's cage—don't have time, you know? We need to follow a group of humans through the Ring and I don't know how long it's going to take—"
"I thought you were dead," Lynex growled, scything through Althea's babbling with a low voice. His warm, strong gaze stilled her enough for her to shut up. Any thoughts of leaving now didn't seem as important as Lynex thrummed down to her.
Words didn't seem right. They, in fact, seemed out of place. Althea didn't know what to say or even feel, not exactly wanting the sensation of warmth spreading across her body from end to end.
But in the end, it was Lynex who said, "Let's find the Leader and leave this City once and for all."
Althea couldn't agree more.
It was déjà-vu. It was as if the were reliving the first failed escape attempt. They retraced their steps from the night before, always mindful for the human guards or watchful eyes. Althea was constantly worrying about reinforcements or if the guards back at Lynex's prison managed to contact any others. But then again, the adolescent Wraith had been extremely efficient. Surely none had the chance . . .?
"This way," Althea said, pointing down a passageway. Lynex narrowed his eyes and followed after her small form, shifting the clumsy Wraith stunner under his arm. His leather creaked and his trench-coat garment swished as it dragged. To Althea the sounds were like music. A Lantean. A pause; a half-stifled breath. Two pairs of eyes watched as the ignorant creature walked down another corridor.
They crouched without saying anything for a while. Althea felt safe. Protected. The escape and the threat of capture seemed less vivid and threatening when they were close like this. That sense of protection was hard to define and she didn't try, although much later she would discover the source of its strength: she was near the arms of a male who would die for her with no hesitation at all. It was a fact she simply knew: it was in the scent that came from his skin, something utterly primitive that her own glands could respond to.
The two got up from their crouch and continued their course. For a time Althea thought that they would manage to make it unscathed, but just then luck would run out. The two companions ran smack dab into a small party of Lanteans—military class, four of them. Sheppard was leading them, weapon strapped easily to his leg and jacket open to show a black shirt underneath. He froze when he saw Althea and Lynex, eyes wide. Already he was tensing for battle, instinctually going into a crouch.
"I got this, Little Dagger! Get the Leader," Lynex cried as he, without seeing if Althea would obey him, begin to shoot the humans with the stunner. Their cries of surprise and barks of commands mingled with Lynex's snarls filled Althea's ears, but she obeyed her tall, wiry companion. She pitched to a sprint, leaving Lynex behind.
Lynex shifted his body back and forth, growling deeply when several bullets pierced his flesh. He saw Althea run down the hall out of the corner of his eye. He did not pause, however. He did not relent for a second, coolly using his advantage of surprise and position to incapacitate them unconscious. He was no wild-shooter; despite the bullets riddling themselves within his arm and shoulders, he managed to lay all but one low. Blood beaded down his leather. Strands of white hair were dyed red.
All but one remained.
"Give it up, Wraith—you've got nowhere to run!" said Sheppard behind a pillar. It was his bullets who found their mark the most. Lynex bared his teeth, feeling the wounds close as his body healed itself.
"Never, human. I will not rest till I am off this City!"
"What? With such great room service? Atlantis has probably the best in the galaxy, you know?" quipped the human with provoking bravery. The harsh smell of gunpowder and smoke stung Lynex's nose. His eyes watered at the metallic scent. None of the human's words made sense. His patience was growing short fast.
"All we want is to leave this place."
"You know we won't allow it, Wraith—oh, and you do have names, right? That girl with you has a name—you seriously didn't raise her, did you?"
The human must be stalling for time, waiting for reinforcements. Lynex bristled at the human's casual mention of Little Dagger and her name. He still hadn't forgotten when Little Dagger told him her name. He had been torn with jealousy. Even now as he growled, trying to look for the best angle to stun the human, a spark of it bit him.
"Well, did I fail to mention to you that you look like a Sam? Since you're going to be staying here for a while—"
"I have no intention of remaining on this damn City," snarled Lynex. "And I do not have the slightest intention in providing you my name!"
"You're stubborn, I'll give you that."
A growl. Lynex tensed.
A reckless rush. The swiftness of the attack caught Sheppard off guard, but managed four new bullets into Lynex's thigh and leg. Lynex hardly paused, pressing the trigger and enveloping the man in blue. Sheppard gave a strangled grunt of pain, a strained expression on his face. He collapsed on the floor, passing out.
Anger burned within Lynex as he stood over his enemy. Finally! He would have his revenge!
Lynex knelt by the fallen warrior, trembling hand clenched in a fist. This would be instant: a simple hard thrust to the head and the fragile skull of the human would be crushed. Easy, if not bloody: quick. Fury arose in him, nearly overwhelming the discipline he had learned to impose upon himself. The enemy was only one. This wretch had nearly stolen his dearest of friends, Little Dagger, his loyal shadow whom his deepest feelings were realized when he had thought her dead. This wicked creature had held him, the Leader, and Althea captive. And now he would die. How could it be otherwise?
They must get to safety. He must act swiftly, and go. Little Dagger had told him time was short; he trusted her. Lynex looked down at the fallen man's face, a strong, thin face marked by a stern jaw, a relaxed mouth in unconsciousness, long dark lashes and unkempt hair.
What was he waiting for? He was a Wraith, wasn't he? This should be as easy as slaughtering a goat or sheep, easier in fact, since the victim lay passive, offering his flesh for sacrifice. But Lynex's hand would not move. This human had the strength he himself possessed depth within: a fortitude to marvel at. Furious hatred and a reluctant admiration warred in Lynex's heart. For what he had done, this man deserved death. But Little Dagger wouldn't approve, despite all Lynex's good intentions. For some odd reason, she still managed to respect him despite all what he had done to her. Jealousy roiled in the pit of his soul, but Little Dagger's obvious respect toward the man swayed his reasoning. The last thing he wanted was to face her disappointment.
Lynex couldn't strike the final blow. Instead, with a terse growl, he rose slowly to his feet. He unclenched his fist and stalked away, leaving the human with his life.
Althea and Warrior both ran back towards the place where she left Lynex without hardly a word. Her cheek was bleeding, having been laid open by a cunningly thrown punch by a guard. Her whole side of her face smarted, but she took comfort at the thought of going home. For the first time since she walked into Atlantis Althea began to feel—not just hope, but truly feel—that they might carry the day.
How could they not? They were running the faster they had ever gone through the halls before and with the silent stealth of experienced hunters. Fear and exhilaration gave her wings of flight, her terror as sharp as pain.
A noise up ahead. Someone coming straight at them. Althea cast a look up at the stoic, silent Wraith besides her. The lithely-built Leader hardly seemed to have any fears or hesitations; he looked almost relaxed. How does he do it? she thought, ruefully noting her own flushed, hectic face.
Without a single word Warrior motioned to stop, clenching a raised fist. She immediately made herself motionless, even to her breathing.
Lynex jogged into view, his tacky blood drying on his body. Beside her, Warrior didn't waste a second in growling, "Good. Your plan, Little Dagger?"
Wait—did he say her plan? Althea looked up at Warrior from her crouch, and knew from the first glance he wasn't joking. Lynex, breathing hard, and Warrior, eyes half-lidded, gazed down at the short-haired, humbly dressed human. Expectant. Proud.
"No more secrecy—we give it all out till we are near the Ring. We'll run through with the humans." Fierce pride and the feel of their admiration coursed throughout her body.
"It's the best we can do with these circumstances," Warrior said, "and it is a better plan than cutting your hair."
Althea blushed, climbing to her feet. Warrior snorted, showing the same exasperated amusement at her hair and began to lead the pace at a good run. Lynex and Althea followed slightly behind him. Althea wanted to sigh with relief when she had seen Lynex emerging as the victor of the skirmish, but something nagged at her.
He regarded her solemnly. "I did not kill Sheppard," he said, "although I could have done."
She felt a strange relief, closely followed by regret, confusion, and even some tender amusement as she saw the look on Lynex's face, where pride and jealously were both evident in those bright eyes, the thin line of the mouth.
In no time at all they were almost there. Althea could see the familiar halls and Lynex had submissively given Warrior the stunner and now whenever a human was in their way, Warrior efficiently shot them. He never missed. Althea's heart leapt every time. The sounds of the humans were mere halls away. Althea forced herself to go full-out, the unconscious signal that they were so close.
The three of them exploded through out of the corridor and into the great hall. In an icy calm Althea noticed that only a tiny bit of the humans remained. Like sands in an hourglass. That would mean they are all at the Ring!
At the first look of the Wraith a woman gave a bloodcurdling shriek of terror, abandoning her conversation with another to race to the portal. Milling panic ensued.
Warrior hardly gave a growl as he said, "Stick together. Don't lose yourselves."
Without a look back over his shoulder to see if Lynex or Althea would follow him, he began to run into the crowd. The humans screamed in breathless terror, running toward the Ring. Some tripped over themselves in their haste to distance themselves with the silent Wraith, their eyes wide and feverish. Warrior hardly gave them a second glance: his eyes were for the open Ring alone.
"Hurry!" Lynex hissed, racing after Warrior. This time, Althea didn't hang back and she closely followed him, terrified at loosing him or Warrior and remaining stuck on this City. The narrowness of the hallway to the room with the Ring forced panicking humans to run harder and faster or crouch with terror, waiting for the inevitable. Their mouths continue to open and close like fish when the Wraith passed by them safely in a dark flash of claws and white hair.
Desperation almost came off of them as a scent, their faces grim and taut with hope. Althea felt her flesh draw tight as she whizzed into the room. A clear coldness she would never see again in her life appeared before her sight. In it everything stood out and forward; never again would she see the three dimensions of reality so clearly defined. She possessed every color, every angle, ever distance. Fear departed. She felt the hunter's simple lust for certainty and oncoming consummation. Her pulse slowed. Her running became firm and natural. She drew in a deep breath. It seemed her lung would never fill completely.
The Ring was open, a giant pool of shimmering water. People continued to rush through it in a torrent in their desire to stay away from the Wraith. They didn't stop or check. Why the Lanteans didn't shoot Warrior or Lynex or herself as they, too, sprinted to the Ring tickled her.
With a cry, Althea leapt into the Ring, feeling the cold sensation grasp her body; it was as if submerging in a bowl of cold jelly. She knew somewhere behind her Warrior and Lynex were doing the same. Even before she passed through the Ring, Althea felt like collapsing on the floor in joy: they were off Atlantis.
Almost immediately Althea opened her eyes to a new world. Late afternoon. The sun hung in the blue lake of sky toward the west. People continued to stream away. No time, Althea thought giddily, the freedom as intoxicating as alcohol. Have to make it to the trees. Behind her, the two Wraith emerged, a comforting relief in a world of unknown.
Warrior hardly wasted time. He said, "Get to the trees! The Atlantians will follow!"
Althea felt her thudding heart and sweat beginning to cover her forehead. How long had she had gone without the daily training and exercise? she thought in dismay. In the five weeks that passed she could have done this all day and never lost her wind. The trees looked far away. A strong wind blew her ragged hair along her neck, smelling of campfires and cooking. It woke her up for her to start running at breakneck speed after the Wraith. She gave it all out; it didn't hurt yet, but it would in less than a minute.
Behind her, the four figures emerged from the blue portal. With a shout of command, the one in charge led them after them. Althea heard them behind her. The wind whistled through her hair. Her breathing came out in short, rapid gasps, eyes wide. Keep going, keep going! her mind yammered. They were so near the trees.
Althea's wheezing startled and perplexed her. A hot stitch was beginning to form in her side, that terrible pain that was forcing her to go slower. Warrior noticed her flagging strength and doubled back. Lynex stopped as well, noting with increasing distress the proximity of the humans. None carried stunners.
"Warrior . . . I can't make it," she wheezed, her side on fire.
"Get to the trees and hide," Warrior said. "I'll hold them off."
Althea snapped her head up with horror, staring straight at the wiry Wraith. "No! You'll be killed!"
"Arguing with me?" Warrior said. "Not this time!"
With a powerful heave, he took her and threw her to Lynex. "You will be a worthy mate to my son—I was fortunate to see you grow into such a fine hunter," he said. Then he ran to meet the humans. Althea cried, not caring that she would be disobeying the Leader. Tears of distress blinded her. But as she pitched herself to follow, an arm as strong as steel wrapped around her.
"This way, Little Dagger," Lynex said, dragging his struggling burden. They were now within the safety of the trees.
"Let me go, Lynex!" Althea sobbed, fighting against a vice-like embrace. "Lynex! Let go!He'll be kil—"
Gunshots. A terrible cry sliced through the air, high above even the gunshots. It was too awful to describe. It hung in the air, a banshee howl. Even years after the accident the villagers would recount the demon that had died that day.
The sound of it remained seared in her heart forever, so horrible was it to her ears. She felt as though lightning had seared her. The agony was uncontainable. She gave a strangled gasp, eyes shocked and wide. Her hands were like blocks of ice, a horrific wail stuck in her throat.
Then . . . silence.
The tall figure that had been her guiding hand since she could remember toppled to his side, dead. The one who taught her the language. The one who had taught her how to survive was dead. The one who had taught her how to be a Wraith. Dead. How he would cluck his tongue whenever she did well, or grow confused when she hugged him. When she cried. When she laughed. When she ran about the conifer woods. Dead.
Incomprehension warred within her soul. Pain crushed her. And all what she could do was watch, helplessly. Behind her, Lynex kept a firm but gentle hand around her wrist, lest she threw herself to Warrior's body and blow their cover.
They saw Sheppard jog further out for few feet, then stopped. His hands rested easily on his hips as he surveyed the band of trees. Nothing. He pursed his lips in dismay. They would by long gone by now. All for that Wraith's sacrifice.
"Well, now they know we exist," John Sheppard said. He didn't feel any pleasure killing the Wraith by his feet, only a hard sense of duty. He didn't feel proud of having killed, but no guilt, either. The breeze lifted his tousled hair.
"Do you want us to go after them, sir?" asked another.
John felt a bubble of irritation, but sighed again. Then, he gave a dry chuckle. Life for a life, eh? He glanced down at the dead Wraith, its pale hands curled, in the act of tearing huge tufts of grass even in death. He nudged it reflectively with a foot. What secrets it held, John would never uncover. All for the best, too—he didn't even want to know what sort of spell they put on that girl—so to speak—or even what they were going to do to her after. Probably feed on her, he thought ruefully. Well, I did do everything I could . . . raised her, ha. What a story. And I thought I had seen everything.
"No. We'll go back and tell Elizabeth our position . . . our position may very well have been compromised."
The men tensed, their jaws clenched. But they followed their commanding officer, without even a look back at the strewn form of their enemy.
Althea watched them go through now dry eyes, agony coursing through her as she watched Sheppard nudge Warrior's corpse. Certainly, her own heart was breaking. She felt as if a part of her was missing; as if something had plucked something out of the vibrant core of her being, leaving an empty hollow in its place.
Lynex did not cry out. His tone was not grand nor ringing, but quiet, respectful, intimate: it was as if he spoke to Warrior alone, directly, as son to father. Althea dimly heard him above her internal turmoil. She gazed out from the safety of the trees, watching with still dry eyes that the people were coming to take Warrior, her Warrior, away. Away to be torn or to be burned, how could she tell? Numb and achingly hurt, she stared uncomprehending at the still, unmoving figure in the grass.
Lynex walked by her, silent and light-footed. He paused, as if deep in thought. They would wait till activity settled down before dialing a world where they would have safe passage to the homeworld. With firm hands, he pulled her to her feet. Althea kept her head down until with his thumb and index finger cupped her chin. He forced her to look him in those un-human eyes with her own sea-gray ones.
An image was in her mind as she looked at Lynex, a memory of green eyes staring into hers with penetrating intelligence, a voice both soft and incisive, of features austere within self-discipline. He is Warrior's son, Althea thought dully. Whether she would remain at Lynex's side was for time to tell. Now, all she wanted was to grieve. And be comforted.
She felt such an overwhelming gratitude to be with him again that it almost took her breath away, that gratitude that came from the fact that he was by her. And yet, she should have known from the beginning that she was meant for him: she had experienced and witnessed everything—the pivotal point where he came adult, his near-starvation and the weakness he had shown. She knew more about him than any other. She knew his desires and ambitions, had fought besides him, and knew what was hidden beneath his calm, cool composure. She had seen his anger, sorrow stress, and love. Those things alone bound them closer than anything.
Lynex struggled to find the words to comfort his silent, shaking companion. He betrayed an awkward self-consciousness, caused by the struggle of his love to express itself and his physical inability to express it. He seemed as shy as a wild animal.
"Catch me," he said, beginning to run. Althea unconsciously reached for him, missed, and began to run after him. Blood flowed through her veins, tracing the crack in her broken heart, making it whole, though leaving behind a scar.