A PATH IN THE DARK
A personal correspondence from Lord Rakeri of the Guild of Miners to Guild Master Aitrus of the Guild of Surveyors
I understand that both you and your wife, the honorable Lady Ti'ana, have expressed keen interest in my houseguest, the outsider Rahd'ni. Grand Master Deretheni of the Guild of Healers assures me that the current progress of Rahd'ni's healing is to be expected, granted the nature of his injuries. Unfortunately, Rahd'ni has made no progress in regaining any of his memories from before his rescue. The Healers fear that the damage to his mind is permanent but is fortunately limited to his memory and not any portions of his mind responsible for higher function.
This must come as limited comfort to you and your kin, Grand Master Aitrus. I know this is very difficult for you, perhaps as much as it is for me. You and Veovis had been so very close for so many years. You must yearn to understand the events that brought you and your wife to that Age on that day as much as I, yet the answers sadly do not lie in Rahd'ni.
Whatever befell Veovis to bring him to that path, I fear, no matter what the evidence the Maintainers locate, we shall never completely understand what drove my son to such butchery. May Yahvo, the Maker, help him and we who must live in his wake.
Rahd'ni pays no heed to the Lanteans, shutting their balking out entirely. He replies with curt, noncommittal and dismissive answers to any of their arguments. Rahd'ni's mind is set, and nothing will divert him from this plan. To Sheppard, Ronon and Radek, it is a startling glimpse of the old Rodney McKay peeking from behind the veneer of the stranger that is Rahd'ni, even if the man in question cannot see it. It is both comfort and utterly maddening to the Lanteans.
Rahd'ni wastes little time and offers the Lanteans no respite from their journey. He hustles them back into their skiff and takes the helm from Ronon, steering them back towards the city. He holds himself stiffly and distantly from the Lanteans, his body fraught with tension. Wisely, the Lanteans hold their tongues through the lake crossing, knowing that anything they say will only worsen the situation.
Rahd'ni ties the skiff alongside one of the docks in the lower city and jumps off, growling, "Wait here."
Sheppard nods, and Rahd'ni leaves them for some time, sitting there in the skiff. In fact, it is long enough for the three Lanteans to grow bored. The time is passed with idle, awkward chatter that dies almost as quickly as it springs up. Just as Ronon starts to huff with annoyance, Rahd'ni appears from nowhere, weighted down by four big, leather packs. He clambers back into the skiff, sending the thing lurching uncomfortably in the water. Ronon helps him with the packs, setting them down without question while Rahd'ni pushes off from the dock and takes them out to deeper water.
Finally, Radek inquires cautiously and gently, "So, how do we get to the surface? Another book?"
"No," Rahd'ni replies softly as he propels the little skiff along the lake. "You can only link between two Ages, not between locations within a single Age." He shakes his head. "No, we must take the Path."
Rahd'ni snorts oddly. "A labyrinth. The Surveyors and the Miners were quite thorough to exhaust all avenues within the rock to construct the most secure tunnel possible. Sounding and resounding. Turning back and starting anew, burrowing into the rock." He gives an awkward sort of chortle. "Master Aitrus often described it as infuriating, but, when the D'ni build something, they build it to last."
His eyes mist, and, despite Rahd'ni's attempts to conceal it, Sheppard can plainly see the pain written upon his once friend's face. Rahd'ni has mentioned this Master Aitrus several times, enough for the colonel to venture that this Aitrus was a friend or at least a close acquaintance of Rahd'ni's. It pains Sheppard to see Rahd'ni aching so, but Rahd'ni maintains his grief as a private thing and is unlikely to share with them.
Sheppard tactfully changes the subject. "How long will it take us to reach the surface, then?"
Rahd'ni scratches his chin and surveys the colonel's injured leg once more before half-heartedly answering, "Perhaps four or five days, depending."
Sheppard nods to himself. Rahd'ni may think little of them at the moment, but he is not a hardened asshole. Rahd'ni knows Sheppard is still healing from his fall and will not press the mending leg beyond what is safe. Sheppard can and will fake it and stretch that time for as long as it takes to convince Rahd'ni against ditching them on the surface of an alien world.
Upon receiving clearance to leave the SGC, Dr. Jennifer Keller solicits a ride into town. Before Atlantis, Keller had leased cars, enjoying the frivolity of having a nice vehicle without the necessity to worry about long term maintenance and repairs. Upon signing onto the expedition, she had terminated her last lease prematurely, seeing no sense in paying for a vehicle she would likely never drive again before the end of her lease. As such, she now has no car of her own; she will have to rent one in the morning.
However, at the moment, she has more pressing matters to attend than caring about renting or leasing a car. One of the MPs has been kind enough to drive her to a hotel in town. It is not much, but it shall suffice. She checks in, finds her room, drops her bag on the floor and runs a hot bath. She sinks into the nearly scalding water, hugs her knees close to her chest, and just cries herself dry in thick, choking sobs. This is a new insult, replete with the requisite sorrows, for, if whatever Sheppard has planned fails, Jennifer will never see either of her loves again.
Rahd'ni guides the flat bottomed boat to the far end of the lake, away from the city, closer and closer to the massive, gaping rift in the great cavern wall. Sheppard eyes the huge span with sheer awe. It is taller than he could ever imagine, and wide too. He is no geologist by any stretch of the imagination, but the fissure inexplicably appears new even to his untrained eyes. It reminds Sheppard of the fresh edges of a single, swollen geode he had cracked open as a child in hopes of finding delicate shards of crystal yet rewarded instead with only void and stale air held within.
At the base of the crack, a great tunnel bores deep into the rock, taller than any man and certainly large enough to avoid imbuing claustrophobia upon any who traversed it. The tunnel is flanked by a great, decorative arch opening to the cavern and appears lined by a dark, smooth stone beyond. While Rahd'ni works to secure the skiff and unload his many parcels, Sheppard hobbles to the wall of the great tunnel to investigate more closely and discovers that the stone lining it is a smooth, garnet stone, slightly cool yet not cold to the touch and utterly seamless, as though a singular piece. He marvels at the buttery texture of the stone and the mastery it must have taken to create such sophisticated rock work.
Rahd'ni calls from behind him. "Sheppard."
The colonel returns to the lakeside, to Rahd'ni's side. The man has brought several items with him, likely from the Guild House. Three sets of sturdy, leather boots. Three plain yet elegant and smart cloaks of the deepest black. Three sets of goggles much like his own. Three protective cowls of some form. He presents these items, along with the packs, to the three Lanteans. Sheppard's leg remains encased in plaster, and he balks until Rahd'ni shows him one of his boots is far oversized and laces on both sides for a snug, adjustable fit.
"The epicenter of the final quakes is not far, and there has been much damage dealt to the Path its self," Rahd'ni explains sternly, holding up a single finger in warning. "We must proceed with caution."
"How can you be certain?" Radek asks curiously.
"Certain of what?"
"That the quakes began here?" Radek responds quickly, flushing visibly. "Forgive me, but I did not think geology one of your specialties."
Rahd'ni tenses visibly as though struck, and the man turns his back to them, shuddering oddly. Radek grimaces at whatever social error he has made with just a simple inquiry. The Lanteans hold little favor in Rahd'ni's eyes now, and they must be wary not to lose what miniscule sentiment the man might harbor to survive in the alien, subterranean realm of D'ni.
Radek takes a single step towards Rahd'ni, intending to apologize, when Rahd'ni shakes his head and whispers, "Come. I will show you."
The strange quartet walks for perhaps ten or twenty minutes down the tremendous tunnel into the rock in stark silence. Radek carries a chemlight for the Lanteans while Rahd'ni strides ahead them bearing a D'ni lantern. Rahd'ni maintains a comfortable distance between them of a few meters or so. Every now and then, he pauses and glances over his shoulder to allow the Lanteans time to close the distance slightly before starting off again.
He leads them to an impressive antechamber of rock and just stops, allowing the Lanteans to marvel at the sight spread before them. This is absolutely the epicenter of the quakes, of that, there can be no question. A great, grave looking machine rests along the wall, crouched before a great crag in the rock menacingly, long tools of some sort pressing into the crack. A faint, orange glow penetrates through the rock, and Sheppard realizes this is the far side of the massive fissure spanning the cavern wall in D'ni. His stomach sours to note that this horrible machine that has rendered such damage is some curious blend of both D'ni and Ancient technology. Sheppard's heart sinks instantly as Rahd'ni approaches the behemoth of a machine, for only one man could have fabricated such a brilliant marriage between two entirely alien technologies.
Rahd'ni steps up right alongside the machine and is utterly dwarfed by the thing. When Rahd'ni touches the machine, it is with fearful reverence. His fingers move across the skin of metal, gracing with just the tips as his hands slip across the graceful contours. Sheppard wonders idly if Rahd'ni knows this design could have only been wrought by Rodney McKay.
He closes his eyes and leans forward, resting his forehead against the device. "This….. this is it."
Rahd'ni sounds lost somehow, adrift in an unforgiving world. He speaks as a child, his words timid, frail, and entirely noncommittal. As if to complete the illusion, Rahd'ni crumples forward into the machine, shuddering as he does. Sheppard's heart falls further, if such a thing could be possible; Rahd'ni knows.
Radek looks beyond the machine to the back of this nodule in the rock. Several other machines rest in this cavern as lost, forgotten monuments to the fall of the D'ni empire, yet these are all the same and are entirely of D'ni design. He crosses the chamber, intrigued now by what appears to be massive ventilation machines. They are plain and utilitarian in design, yet sturdy and impressive. Each seems to feed a wide tube, to which innocuous cylinders are attached. Radek stares curiously at them for a moment and taps one of the cylinders.
"No!" Rahd'ni cries out sharply, sending Radek jumping in fright. "Do not touch!"
Radek jerks his hand back as though burnt, giving Rahd'ni space enough to slip between the Czech and the machinery. "I'm sorry."
Rahd'ni's crisp, blue eyes flicker over the machines, and he breathes, "No harm done, quite fortunately for you."
"Rahd'ni… what is it?" Sheppard breathes softly and timidly.
The guildsman shakes his head and sighs, "This is how Veovis and A'Gaeris undid D'ni. The earthquakes did great physical damage and killed many, but they were just ruse. A'Gaeris and Veovis wanted the city in chaos to distract the Maintainers from this. That machine served to convey a simple harmonic frequency in the rock, rendering stable geology unstable and producing earthquakes of monumental scale." He points to the machines, "These are from the supply of the Guild of Miners and the Guild of Surveyors, meant to bring fresh air to new excavations until permanent ventilation could be installed." Rahd'ni hands his head and gestures to the cylinders. "Those traitors pumped their poison right into D'ni with these."
While Radek's face registers shock at the casual cruelty to such a plan, Sheppard and Ronon merely exchange a knowing glance. Despite their differing worlds and cultures, they are both military men with specialized knowledge of strategy, and such a plot surprises neither. In the wake of the mighty tremors, with the city in chaos, the injured piling up, and major structural damage dealt to many of the main edifices, any police or military force would be too preoccupied to mount any sort of assault or investigation. Given the opportunity to destabilize a population before an assault, both Sheppard and Ronon know they would exploit it.
Rahd'ni shakes his head slowly, mournfully, before breathing, "Come. We have a great distance to cover before the first eder tomahn."
She waits and watches, shielding her eyes from the scorching desert sun beneath her delicate, tanned hand. The desert is an unforgiving place, the only place fit for her ilk, but she has lived her for much of her natural. She knows how to move with the shifting dunes to beyond the aging, rounded lip of the caldera, how to scale the cliff faces below the dormant volcano and how to scuttle through the narrow cracks within the rock. She is suited to the desert, curried and groomed to this existence by her father.
Yet, the child is not.
She watches him as he pauses and examines something in the ground intensely. He prods at the offending item, furrowing his brow in the same way his father did. She knows he will be drawing whatever it is in his journal tonight, carefully sketching it to precise detail and rendering a near perfect copy, just as his father would. She sighs heavily; he is so like his father that it pains her sometimes greatly to even just look at the boy. It brings her such unimaginable shame to feel so.
A tear prickles at her cheek, and she instantly swallows the cumbersome emotion down. The desert does not forgive the loss of precious moisture for something as frivolous as tears in this large a degree of exposure. No. She shall save her tears for nightfall in the cleft, once the child is fast asleep and cannot hear her mourn all that she has lost.
She calls to him, softly now, wary of his uncertain emotions, "Gehn, come now."
He looks up to her and nods, speaking as though to a stranger, "Of course, Mother."
She waits for him to come closer before extending her hand to him. He does not take it. He never will. The child brushes past her and continues on his way towards the cleft, leaving her behind in the sands. He blames her. She sighs and shakes her head; she deserves his blame.
The Path is long, treacherous and punishing.
Ronon Dex has crossed many vast distances through his life, but this is harder than most. Rock is terrible to the feet, and the Path is a vast, winding passage through the rock, lined by hard, unyielding stone. There are twists and turns every few dozen meters in the Path, and obstacles too, rockfalls where huge sheets of whatever stone material lines the Path has collapsed. Rahd'ni scales these obstacles with the ease born of familiarity, but it is hard for the Lanteans. Radek is not accustomed to such climbing, and Sheppard's leg does not allow the sort of grace and fluidity necessary to mount such obstacles.
Each step is nothing short of misery as white hot pains shoot through Sheppard's still mending leg. The first few hours of hobbling along were bearable, but, as the time and distance traversed increase, each step grows more and more difficult. He begins to lag, slowly at first, just slightly off pace. Ronon matches his own, otherwise long gait, keeping time with Sheppard either subconsciously or consciously as Radek strides just a few feet ahead of them. The Satedan keeps close to Sheppard, well aware of the colonel's suffering as he struggles to keep up from the fine lines upon his pale face and the beads of perspiration forming upon his brow. When Sheppard falters, Ronon catches him, shouldering his friend's weight from then on until it seems too much for the colonel to bear.
"Rahd'ni!" Ronon calls.
The stranger that was once their friend, their colleague, has gotten too far ahead again. He has kept his distance from the Lanteans, leading them deeper and deeper into the stone labyrinth with only a single lantern and cheerfully blazing fire marble to illuminate the Path. He has maintained at least five to ten meters between them at all times, but, as Sheppard's valiant struggles have increased, so has the distance. Rahd'ni has somehow kept a keen ear upon them, knowing when to stop and give pause long enough for the Lanteans to close the distance before starting off once more into the dark without ever giving a passing glance behind him.
This time, when Rahd'ni stops once more, Ronon simply and firmly states, "We need to stop."
"Soon," Rahd'ni replies, turning and holding the lantern out towards them.
"No, now," Ronon growls, helping the colonel to the ground. "Sheppard can't go much further." The Satedan glances to Radek and spies the weariness in the Czech as well, "And Radek needs a break soon, too."
There is a momentary flush of gratefulness to Radek's face, a tiny quirk of his lips into a minute smile that fades as swiftly as it formed. The Czech is tired. Sheppard is spent. And Ronon? He is a fit man, fit enough to carry Sheppard, but it is not in him to put his friend through such torture any further.
"Soon," Rahd'ni repeats. "We are almost to the first eder tomahn."
Ronon shakes his head. "How far?"
Rahd'ni shrugs and pulls a map from within his cloak to consult and calculate. "Within the next two hundred meters."
Ronon looks to Sheppard with concern. The colonel appears waxen in the off colored light imparted by the blue fire marble in Rahd'ni's lantern. The light catches the sweat on the colonel with a surreal sheen. Sheppard's breathing is hard and labored as he tries desperately to still himself. He glares up at Ronon with the sort of sharp sternness that the Satedan is certain must be Sheppard's best attempt at quelling any arguments. Ronon shrugs and helps him clamber back to his feet. The last stretch is spent with Sheppard grunting in Ronon's ear, forcing one foot in front of the other as best he can but truly being dragged along his friend.
And, then, as simple as that, there it is. The eder tomahn. Although Rahd'ni has never explained what an eder tomahn is, the Lanteans know this can be nothing else. It is a house or fortress of some kind, carved into a wide relief in the stone at a swollen node in the Path. It is large and quite secure seeming. Both Ronon and Radek let out a sigh of relief at the sight, but Sheppard is too exhausted to truly notice the structure even as Rahd'ni opens the door and bids them enter. The three Lanteans nearly tumble inside from exhaustion and shuffle into a wide, well appointed vestibule.
Rahd'ni takes the time to move swiftly ahead of them through the eder tomahn and strike fire marbles in several lamps throughout the structure before motioning for the Lanteans to follow him. The eder tomahn is efficient is design. The vestibule opens to a long, wide corridor flanked by many rooms. As Rahd'ni draws them deeper into the eder tomahn, Radek peers through the wide archways into what appears to several lavish sitting rooms and studies. He furrows his brow but says nothing as Rahd'ni leads them up a flight of stairs to a series of several private chambers.
Rahd'ni gestures to the chambers. "Please, make yourself comfortable." He is polite, but there is a cold distance to his words that betrays the manners implied. "I shall fix something light for you."
The man spins about on his heel and stalks down the steps, leaving the Lanteans to their own devices. That is fine by Sheppard. All he wants to do is curl up in a bed and die, which is rather convenient considering each of the rooms offer two large, plush looking beds. Sheppard shambles across the room and flops into the bed, unconscious by the time he hits the plush sleeping mat provided by whomever came before these weary travelers. With great care, Ronon gently lifts the colonel's legs, places them on the bed, removes his boots and sets them beside the bed. Radek sits upon the other bunk as Ronon locates a neatly folded blanket from somewhere in the room and drapes it out over the colonel.
As the Satedan steps away from the colonel, Radek catches him by the wrist and whispers, "I do not like this, Ronon."
"What's to like?" the burly man hisses through his teeth.
"The Colonel, he cannot continue at this pace, and we cannot be certain that the surface is safe," Radek argues softly, timidly, as though afraid of reprisal.
Ronon nods in concession. "Yeah, but Sheppard seemed to put his stock in this."
"Oh, the surface is quite habitable, I assure you." Both Ronon and Rahd'ni jump at the sudden reappearance of Rahd'ni in the door frame, bearing a tray with several items, but the man continues without missing a beat. "A desert Age. It is unforgiving, yes, but habitable if you are suitably fit and educated about the rigors of such existenc"
Rahd'ni sidesteps between the two Lanteans to set his tray upon the table. Surprisingly, the tray bears an abundant array of food, all fresh, nearly tumbling an elegant serving bowl detailed with patterns set in fine, white lines. They appear to be fruits mostly and berries as well, all alien from Earth standards but somewhat vaguely familiar to men who have grown accustomed to the wide range of edible foods from several different worlds. The few that have leaves bear green leaves, obviously photosynthetic; Radek realizes from this simple fact that the eder tomahn must bear an Age of some form to provide such bounty, hidden away from the Lanteans by Rahd'ni.
One side of the tray is occupied by a tall pitcher filled with what appears to be clear water and three, sturdy seeming tumblers of fine alabaster carving. Both Radek and Ronon take note of the number, knowing intrinsically that it means that, despite the ample food, Rahd'ni will not be dining with them. It is likely yet another manner of maintaining the careful distance between them that Rahd'ni has cultivated since his flight from Atlantis. Rahd'ni intends to abandon them in a desert, and he clearly means to offer them no room to dissuade him from this course.
Radek attempts to politely shift the subject to something slightly less disturbing, inquiring, "What is this place?"
"The eder tomahn?"
Radek nods. "Yes."
Rahd'ni pauses, frowning oddly, before explaining, "The Path had been a matter of great debate shortly before Lady Ti'ana's arrival, and well before my own. There had been many voices in the Council who wished the Path to be a route to the surface for trade and communication with any who might dwell there. The eder tomahn are way stations, rest houses, intended to provide comfortable, restful accommodations for any travelers." Rahd'ni sighs heavily, mournfully. "Sadly, the Path never saw such usage."
"Because of the…." Radek pauses, uncertain how to most tactfully word the demise of an entire culture nearly overnight.
"No, no," Rahd'ni states with a quick, terse shake of his head. "After lengthy inquiry and countless hearings, it was declared that the Path should be sealed."
"Why?" Ronon inquires, his ears pricking at what might be a potential issue.
Rahd'ni shrugs. "It is… difficult to explain. The D'ni were a cautious race, never one to rush into anything blindly. In capping and sealing the Path, they forgo any immediate action and prevent any further incident."
Ronon folds his arms across his chest, his displeasure rising with each entirely overly calculated phrasing on Rahd'ni's part. "What incident?"
The man's lips quirk at the edges into a faint, nostalgic smirk. "Why, Lady Ti'ana, of course." Rahd'ni looks to the Lanteans and spies confusion in their eyes; he shakes his head and chortles haughtily, "I thought you understood. Lady Ti'ana was not D'ni. She was ahrontahntee, an outsider." Rahd'ni pauses and closes his eyes solemnly, as though stilling himself, before admitting somewhat sheepishly, "Like me."
The Satedan melts slightly. It has been difficult this day to remember that Rahd'ni is still Rodney McKay considering how hard he has pushed an injured man on their march down the Path. Yet, there is a bashfulness to Rahd'ni that is completely endearing and all too reminiscent of the nervous, flighty creature that had been Rodney McKay. He sounds more like he is speaks of his first lover than what must have surely been his one and only ally in an all too desperate situation.
Ronon sits and considers his words carefully before asking, "Were you… involved?"
Rahd'ni laughs. "Lady Ti'ana and I?"
Ronon nods sternly, and Rahd'ni hoots, nearly rolling right off the bed and hugging his sides. The noise stirs Sheppard in his sleep, and the three men freeze. Rahd'ni stares at the colonel with wide eyes, yet Sheppard does not wake. He is dead to the world.
When Rahd'ni speaks again, it is much more softly. "Surely, you jest."
"No," Ronon whispers back. "It's just…. the way you talk about her…."
Rahd'ni grows serious once more and shakes his head slowly. "No. Lady Ti'ana's heart belonged to Master Aitrus and his to her." He smiles wistfully and drops his gaze. "I was very blessed to call them friend." Rahd'ni stills and quickly composes himself once more, replacing the warm, jovial creature with whom they had just been speaking with the cold, dispassionate creature who had pushed them so callously all day. "My heart belonged to another." Ronon winces and opens his mouth to say something, anything, but Rahd'ni swiftly cuts him off, "You should eat and get as much rest as possible. Tomorrow begins a more difficult section."
Radek and Ronon exchange a glance, but Rahd'ni departs before either can say a word, retreating to his own room at the far end of the hall and locking the door behind him.
Rahd'ni wakes the three Lanteans early the next morning for a simple meal. Sheppard watches Rahd'ni carefully as they share their meal in a dining hall in the lower level of the eder tomahn. When Rahd'ni catches Sheppard's eye and scowls, the colonel flushes and averts his gaze, resorting to stealing passing glances to the man. In the past, Sheppard had always ensured that McKay ate the quantity with the frequency necessary to prevent any sort of hypoglycemic reaction, and old habits die hard, grizzly deaths. Shortly after, they depart the eder tomahn in uncomfortable silence.
Rahd'ni had not lied the night before; the Path somehow proves more grueling the second day. Sheppard curses each and every step they take through the darkness. The colonel tries to push it down, to remind himself that this is the only chance they have of winning back Rahd'ni's trust, but the Path has proven so strenuous on his healing body that he has not yet had the opportunity to even consider a plan of attack. In fact, it is such a difficult hike that Sheppard can hardly think straight about anything, worsened only by the slowly rising temperature of the Path – or is it his own body heat?
By what feels like Lantean midday by his calculation, Sheppard is so exhausted that he can hardly breathe, let alone walk. He flops down to the side of the Path and lies there, heaving deep breathes of clear, cold air. His heart hammers in his chest, and his leg throbs painfully with each beat. Heat rolls off his body from the exertion, but, surprisingly, the rock beneath him is only mildly cold, not the least bit as refreshing as he had hoped.
Ronon crouches down beside him. "Hey. You alright?"
Sheppard forces himself to nod, but he knows he is not. He cannot continue pressing himself at this pace, not if he is to make it to the surface in one piece.
Rahd'ni scowls, folds his arms across his chest, and snaps, "Come now, we walk a dangerous corridor and cannot afford to dawdle any longer."
At any other time, Sheppard might have hooted at the word "dawdle," a word far too antiquated to be taken seriously in contemporary conversation. Yet, he finds no humor to this. He is exhausted, pissed, and burning up. Sheppard has no energy left to spare on petty jest and mockery, and, even if he could, he doubts it would serve any benefit to their tenuous relationship with Rahd'ni.
"He needs to rest," Radek interjects gently and imploringly.
Rahd'ni shakes his head tersely. "No, no, no." He strides swiftly to the Lanteans and glares, his features exaggerated vastly by the lantern light. "I told you, we cannot afford to wait. We must keep moving." When the Lanteans make no move to drag Sheppard to his feet, Rahd'ni shouts, "Now!"
Ronon rolls his eyes and glances both ahead and behind them in the tunnel. "There's nothing here."
Rahd'ni nods. "Yes, and that is precisely the problem."
"Can you not smell it?" Rahd'ni demands fervently.
The three Lanteans blink and give pause to sniff at the air. Most caves and subterranean structures that the Lanteans have encountered in their various travels have been quite musty, the air stale from centuries of stillness and calm. The air upon the Path is clean, but, upon further sampling, it is not nearly as fresh as the air in D'ni proper. Ronon furrows his brow and inhales deeply, studying the curiously off odor and finding something lingering there, something decidedly unpleasant.
"Sulfur," Radek breathes in surprise and sudden fright.
Rahd'ni nods and explains slowly, as though to children, "Now do you understand? This entire area we are entering is still highly unstable. We cannot rest here, cannot even tarry. Not even for a moment. Come, now, or I shall leave you."
Sheppard groans but forces his recalcitrant and protesting body to rise. Ronon helps him, taking up his place by the colonel's side and shouldering his weight. Sheppard is immensely grateful, but he is too tired to offer anything more than a nod of his head. Ronon understands. The Path grows warmer until it is stifling, and Rahd'ni signals them frequently to stop for him to scout ahead a bit before returning and bidding them follow once more. Sheppard wants to argue, as all this stopping and going is punishing on his body, for it offers a taste of rest before snatching it away. His knees ache and throb as he rises, forcing Ronon to bear more and more of his weight as they continue on.
Then, after one of Rahd'ni's frequent scouting, when he returns, he draws his cloak closely about him, pulls his goggles over his eyes, and sets the protective cowl upon his head. Ronon and Radek frown, curious, but the man merely instructs them to do the same. Ronon helps Sheppard fetch the items from his pack.
Rahd'ni draws near to them and orders curtly, "Stay close to me now."
The Lanteans obey, keeping close to Rahd'ni's heels as they round a corner and are instantly bathed in radiant light and scorching heat. Sheppard blinks, his eyes adjusting beneath the lenses before he recalls that such finely crafted goggles are capable of screening out various levels of light intensity. The Lanteans fiddle with the fine controls on the goggles before finding a comfortable level, and each gasps in turn. The Path has opened up to a wide node in the stone with a narrow, delicately crafted bridge crossing a glowing stream of lava oozing like honey through the Earth.
"This was once a subterranean hot spring."
Sheppard nods at Rahd'ni's statement, but he does not register it truthfully. He is honestly too awed by the heat and beauty of it to consider the terrible cataclysm caused by simple vibrations in the Earth to render this portion of the Path so unsafe. There is something transfixing about the smooth, slow motion of the lava, both lulling and frightening. The cave its self is wide, with smooth, long walls lined by smooth, dark basaltic stone that shimmers in the light and topped with sharply pointed stalactites hanging from a cavernous ceiling. A forest of delicate stalagmites reaches up about the periphery of the cavern, but several are cracked and fallen. Before the quakes, when this cavern had been dominated only by a geothermal spring, this must have been a gorgeous, refreshing sight along the Path, so much so that it seems the D'ni saw fit to emphasize the natural curves and shapes of the node with the design of the bridge.
Rahd'ni blinks his eyes in shock, but the action is safely concealed from the others beneath his darkly tinted goggles. The marvelously designed bridge is marred by a broad gap at the very apex which has been haphazardly repaired with what appears to be a board or plank of nara, the hardest and most durable of D'ni stone. He had traveled the Path, once before, shortly before the fall, and knew this portion before such destruction. At that time, the bridge had been solid; this repair has come after the collapse of D'ni civilization. Rahd'ni's mouth goes dry to realize that there are potentially more survivors out there – more D'ni!
Rahd'ni pushes down his nostalgic and naïve hope and refocuses himself on the entirely dire situation at hand. "Quickly, now!"
Sheppard stares in amazement as, once more, Rahd'ni moves with a speed and agility that surprises the Lanteans, crossing the space of the cavern and ascending the bridge with ease despite his bulky pack and protective gear. Rodney McKay had never been a particularly fit person, balking at even the slightest hint of physical exertion. However, necessity has carved a stronger, leaner, and entirely more capable man from the soft, malleable flesh of Rodney McKay.
Rahd'ni may appear cool and confident, but, secretly, he is not. Nara is strong, impossibly strong in regards to both tensile and impact strength, and incredibly heat resistant, yet that does not assuage any fears regarding the safety of such hasty a patch. At any moment, the nara plank could tumble out from beneath his nimble feet and pitch him into the lava pool below. As he reaches the top of the bridge, he holds his breath while he scurries across the span. He does not release that breath until he is safely at the other side of the chamber.
"Alright. Come across one at a time!"
The Lanteans exchange a quick series of glances. Radek goes first, flitting across the plank. Sheppard ambles after him, but, with his bulky cast, he is not nearly swift enough. The heat goes right to his head, stealing his breath away and blanketing the colonel with a fuzzy haze. He lists uneasily, his head swimming, and Sheppard's world grays. The world lurches wildly as the darkness closes in and as he begins to fall.
To the man's eternal surprise, it is Rahd'ni's voice that cuts through the cavern as the man rushes for him. A hand reaches out and snatches at his cloak, but, before Sheppard can be dragged to safety, the darkness drags him down deeper and deeper into the blessed, merciful void of unconsciousness.
Rahd'ni watches sharply as, first, Radek safely crosses the nara span and, then, Sheppard follows, shambling as though half dead. The colonel has flagged behind them all day, clearly spent but too hard headed to concede defeat. However, if Rahd'ni is to be perfectly honest with himself, he knows it is because Sheppard only wishes to curry his favor. The Lantean would likely drag his own carcass through even the darkly fabled Tre'Merktee and back if it meant turning Rahd'ni's heart even the slightest. The man is a stubborn creature, perhaps as stubborn as Rahd'ni himself, yet he cannot continue at this pace.
The guildsman flushes and shakes his head. He has been too hard upon the Lanteans, driving them at a grueling pace that no man unaccustomed to could keep up for long, let alone when bearing a hefty cast as Sheppard does. The colonel will not make it to the next eder tomahn, that is certain, not without lengthy respite. As soon as they are free from these treacherous grounds, he shall find a suitable node from the original expedition for them to rest and for him to consult his maps once more.
Sheppard tilts oddly on the beam, riveting Rahd'ni's full attention back upon him. The colonel's steps grow small, staccato, and unbalanced. He pauses, as though lost.
Sheppard slumps against his restraints, weak and battered as the Wraith is dragged off by Koyla's men. His blood boils with rage at the sight of the Genii's smug little grin at Sheppard's suffering, yet they are helpless to do anything to save him.
Sheppard stumbles, his body listing dangerously to the side.
"MAHLAH!" Rahd'ni shrieks, forgetting in his haste and fright that the Lanteans do not speak D'ni, nor understand the swift, curt order to come.
Sheppard cocks his ear to the side, but he does not seem to hear as his body slowly crumples beneath him from the heat. Ronon launches into motion, but he is too far to save the man. Rahd'ni can see that quite clearly from where he stands, even as he springs into motion. Before Sheppard can tumble into the lava pool, Rahd'ni's hand shoots out and grabs a fistful of the colonel's cloak. Rahd'ni rears back, digging his heels into the nara and jerking Sheppard back to him. The obviously unconscious man collapses into him, nearly knocking Rahd'ni right off the other side. However, Rahd'ni recovers quickly, and, in no time, Ronon is at his side to help. Together, they drag Sheppard from the plank, to the safety of solid ground and beyond, into the cool air of the Path beyond the cavern.
Only when Rahd'ni gives pause does Ronon loosen his white knuckled grip upon Sheppard. They lay the colonel down upon the Path with great tenderness and care, mindful of his cast encased leg. Ronon pulls the protective helm from Sheppard's head and presses the wide pads of his fingertips to the pale man's neck, finding a strong pulse there. Then, Ronon lets out the breath he did not realize he had been holding, realized with immense relief that it is merely a combination of the heat and exhaustion which has overcome Sheppard.
Rahd'ni scowls bitterly at the man and bellows, "What were you thinking coming across like that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Ronon replies with a sarcastic shrug. "That Sheppard looked like he needed saving."
"What if the bridge hadn't held?" Rahd'ni demands, sounding ever so much more like the Rodney McKay of Atlantis who bickered and berated other members of the expedition for their seeming incompetence.
"Well, he wouldn't have been in that mess if you'd just listened to me in the first place," Ronon hisses darkly. "I told you he needed rest," Ronon grouses in a low rumble. "Almost got Sheppard killed."
Rahd'ni blanches, but the Lanteans return their attention to their fallen compatriot and do not notice. As Radek and Ronon tend to Sheppard, Rahd'ni retreats to the cloaking darkness of the tunnel beyond. He reaches a hand out and touches the smooth nara lining to the Path, allowing himself to be guided by touch through the shadows and away from the Lanteans. Rahd'ni does not leave them too far beyond, just enough so that he can breathe once more. Once alone, he sinks to the ground, draws his knees up to his chin and wraps his arms about himself, shaking with….. is it fear? Shame? Regret?
Rahd'ni sits for some time in the darkness, hugging himself against the alien and frightening. He is not usually so hasty, so callous, and his miscalculations have nearly cost a man his life. He should have noticed the weakness in Sheppard earlier, but he had been too keen on being rid of the Lanteans once and for all, pressing the man far beyond what was necessary. Rahd'ni chastises himself over and over again for his idiotic and almost near fatal mistakes.
Finally, when the man has regrouped enough, he pulls a fire marble from the pouch tucked safely in his pack along with his journal. He strikes the fire marble and holds the glowing, red orb in his palm as he cracks the spine of the leather bound book. It is an older journal of his, already filled cover to cover with notes, diagrams, equations, and, most important of all, his maps. This is his journal from his one and only previous trip to the surface, and, as such, it includes the maps he had compiled before the trip from the records of the Guild of Surveyors and the Guild of Minors, annotated with his own experiences.
For a time, Rahd'ni sits and contemplates, chewing on his nail as he does. One of the eder tomahn lies not far beyond, but it would be cruel and utterly barbaric to force Sheppard any further than necessary today. He back tracks from the eder tomahn, skimming his finger along the map before finding an entirely suitable node and nodding.
With a heavy heart, Rahd'ni rises and returns to the Lanteans, delicately announcing, "There is a place not far from here where we can rest. Quite safe." He approaches the fallen colonel and looks to the scowling Satedan hesitantly. "If you would help me…." Rahd'ni pauses and bites his lip, trembling slightly. "Please?"
Ronon's scowl fades, replaced by sympathy. "Sure."
When Sheppard awakens next, it is to confusion. Gone is the blistering heat and orange glow of the magma chamber, replaced, instead, with chilled, refreshing stillness. He blinks in surprise and finds that he is lying upon the ground, looking up into what seems a dark sky filled with stars. No. For, as Sheppard rubs his eyes and focuses, he realizes that what he had initially taken as stars are the sharp points of crystals glittering with the light of Rahd'ni's lantern. He is in the middle of a giant geode of what might be amethyst or quartz.
It is all Sheppard can come up with to say at that time. The geode is an impressive and glorious thing, far more beautiful than he could have ever imagined as a child.
"Ah. You are finally awake," Rahd'ni's voice greets him sadly.
Sheppard rolls onto his side and discovers that the man is sitting beside him, just watching him as Radek and Ronon seem to be exploring the far expanse of the geode. Rahd'ni seems cowed, his shoulders sagging. He looks tired and worn under the red light of the firemarble resting in the center of his lantern.
Rahd'ni drops his gaze. "You fainted."
Sheppard winces at the term and shakes his head before correcting, "No, passed out."
Rahd'ni cracks a timid smirk. "Alright. You passed out." He pauses before offering, "Do you think you can walk a bit further? There is an eder tomahn close to here."
Sheppard's stomach growls loudly at the thought of food, and he asks, "Will there be room service?"
Rahd'ni chuckles slightly at the jest. "Perhaps." He shrugs. "I suppose it is the least I can do for nearly causing your decidedly untimely demise."
Sheppard smiles. It is a small thing, whatever has transpired between them, but he cannot help but feel it is a step in the right direction.
They progress much more slowly in their ascent with limited progress in drawing Rahd'ni closer. Radek does not notice it at first, but Sheppard and Ronon do. As time goes on and as they progress further in their journey, the distance Rahd'ni keeps between himself and the Lanteans fluctuates. He sometimes lags a bit, allowing the distance between himself and the Lanteans to close before seeming to recall his plot and striding off again. Despite that, Rahd'ni makes it a point that Sheppard rest every hour or two for at least a few moments before continuing on, easing the strain on the colonel from the steady climb to the surface.
They see many wonders. Further geodes and crystals, including several with Sheppard thinks may honestly be diamonds the size of tangerines. They cross underground rivers and skirt about even a massive waterfall in the rock that sends a gentle, misting spray. Upon one rest stop beside a meandering stream in the darkness, the three Lanteans even spy sightless fish and salamanders skittering about in the water, smiling with delight at their antics.
It is on the fifth day, however, that they come to perhaps the most incredible sight to behold and what looks to be the worst challenge of this journey.
Sheppard whistles in appreciation of the sheer enormity of it as he slowly revolves. "Would you look at that!"
Rahd'ni smiles warmly, beaming at the sight. The Path has a small pause in it here, where the Council diverted from their original plan of a tunnel cut at a maximum of 3825 torans – or 22.032 degrees – from the horizontal. Here, in their excitement to reach the surface in a timely manner, the Council had elected to construct a wide, towering shaft. The construction had taken several weeks to hew a perfectly cylindrical shaft in the stone. It is a marvel of surveying and engineering, the very pinnacle of D'ni mining. Upon closer inspection, however, Rahd'ni notes with dismay that the spidery thin tracks which once circled upwards and carried passenger carriages up and down the shaft have torn away from their mountings and crossbracings spanning the shaft, likely during the quakes. Without a functioning carriage, they shall have to make the ascent on foot.
Rahd'ni points it out to the Lanteans, who groan in turn. However, when any of them stops to think about it, they each realize in turn that this is better than continuing on at the slow, steady pace of the Path. If they are truly as deep in the earth as this great shaft implies, it would take months to reach the surface at the gradual climb the Path took.
"This is going to blow," Sheppard laments.
Rahd'ni grimaces sourly. "Indeed it will." He glances to the colonel and claps him on the shoulder. "We shall proceed slowly and with care, yes?" As the colonel nods, Rahd'ni stares up solemnly at the shaft where the shadows swallow the stone walls. "There is no telling what other damage has been dealt."
Radek's stomach flops at the thought, yet the Lanteans nod and follow as they begin to ascend, climbing a narrow staircase hugging the wall of the shaft and spiraling upwards. Now, Rahd'ni stays close to the Lanteans, within a step or two. They make frequent stops, sitting on the stone steps. As they do, Rahd'ni consults with his maps and marks the journal, annotating the damage to the shaft at various elevations, while Radek glances over his shoulder at the complicated schematic.
Finally, Rahd'ni sighs and states firmly, "It is rude to pry."
Radek flushes. "I'm sorry."
Rahd'ni closes the journal and hands it to the Czech, who stares with wide eyes but does not take the book. "Go ahead." When Radek still hesitates in taking the book, Rahd'ni insists. "It is not as though you can understand D'ni."
Radek nods and takes the journal, thumbing through the leather bound tomb reverently. Rahd'ni's work in this particular journal seems to encompass a variety of topics, none of which include ZPM manufacture. Instead, Radek finds that this journal seems to detail much broader topics, illustrated by Rahd'ni's hand. He finds pictures of different individuals, all political officials or nobles, it seems, as well as various illustrations of buildings and rooms. Then, about midway through, the journal documents the Path in vivid detail, including an accurate map of the labyrinth in the rock, a series of catacombs so dense and intricate that Radek now realizes would be impossible to traverse without a knowledgeable guide or map such as this.
Radek pauses on a drawing towards the end of the journal. It is a crudely drawn image compared to the finesse of Rahd'ni's other pictures, obviously drawn swiftly, more of a gesture than an actual completed piece. The image depicts the rough form of three people. A man, a woman, and a child. They are sitting together on what appears to be these very same steps.
"You have traveled to the surface before," Radek whispers in surprise.
Radek points to the three half-formed persons on the page. "With other survivors?"
Rahd'ni swallows hard, reclaiming his journal. "No." When Radek furrows his brow, Rahd'ni continues, "It was before. Before everything."
Before another word can be said, a faint, humming sound meets his ears. Rahd'ni rises slowly to meet the strange noise, tilting his head to the wide void of the shaft to better catch the sound. The Lanteans strain, their ears unaccustomed to filtering the normal sound of D'ni ventilation systems running through the labyrinth on their own, operated by no master. Yet Rahd'ni's ears, acclimated to this environment and the general din of such, clearly hear something amiss.
When the sound swells abruptly, Rahd'ni knows what it is before the horrible, lurching motion of the rock even reaches them on high. "TREMOR!"
The earthquake rises up beneath them like a wave racing upwards. The shaft reverberates suddenly in simple harmonics, producing a single, perfect note piercing through the air so loudly that it cuts down to the bone and seems to cleave right through the skull. The entire shaft quivers and jerks wildly, so much so that the travelers hurl themselves at the wall of the shaft, hugging the smooth, ebony stone for what little safety it offers.
From overhead comes a sickening crack that stops Rahd'ni's heart. He glances upward just in time to spy a fissure open between two of the nara slabs which line the shaft before one of the pieces falls away. He has no time to react, not even to move as the nara rips away from the shaft and tumbles towards him. As the nara falls, it strikes his arm with a horrific snap, knocking him from the steps.
"RAHD'NI!" Sheppard cries out, reaching for Rahd'ni, but the man is gone, taking his lantern with him and plunging the Lanteans into darkness. "RAHD'NI, NO!"
It is the gentle, lulling hum of the cleft which stirs her from her sleep. She opens her eyes but hardly wakes. She merely rolls over and curls up tightly under the blankets. It is just the rock settling beneath them, as it has for five years now. She hugs herself, but against the loneliness of an empty bed and not for the trembling ground beneath her. It will pass shortly, as it always does, while her grief will never pass.
Dr. Jennifer Keller awakes from her nightmare with a sharp gasp and drenched in sweat. She does not remember the dream. In fact, the more the physician struggles to cling to the nightmare, the more it slips away from her. Yet, she recalls the distinct impression of someone she loves being in grave danger.
It has been some days since they last had contact with the paltry expedition party of Ronon, Sheppard, and Radek, and there is no telling now what has happened to them. Any attempts to establish a wormhole to Atlantis have been met with nothing short of failure. Each night, she has cried herself to sleep, wondering what has become of her friends, her lovers, her family, yet each day brings the same news that there simply is no news.
Keller rolls over and draws the covers close before drifting back to a dreamless sleep.
The Lateans grip one another and the rock face as the shaft continues to howl and shake about them until, just as suddenly as it started, the tremor subsides, leaving the shaft still and silent once more. The preternatural silence that follows in the wake of the tremor is both eerie and almost deafening in its own right after the cacophony of the earthquake, broken only by the sounds of their breaths and heartbeats. Worse still is the darkness, so deep and so pure in void that it seems it could swallow the Lanteans whole.
When he comes to himself, Sheppard reaches about blindly and pats the two men beside him. "Ronon, Radek? You two okay?"
"Yeah," Ronon rumbles in the dark.
Radek's response comes just as swiftly. "Yes. Rahd'ni?"
There comes no reply from the darkness.
Quickly, Sheppard collects himself and rifles through his pack, fumbling about to find the smaller pouch of fire marbles from within. Several of the small, cold orbs slip between his fingers, but the bottom of the pack catches the escapees. Sheppard finally produces a single fire marble and pauses, biting his lip in uncertainty. Rahd'ni has always lit the stones, and Sheppard does not know precisely how to light the fire marble. He fiddles with the small, cool orb for a moment before finally sorting out how best to strike the marble. It flares to life with a warm, orange glow, lighting their perch upon the steps quite clearly. He passes it to Ronon and strikes two more, a blue one for Radek and a red one for himself.
He peers over the edge and stares out into the darkness, straining to see. The lantern has fallen to the bottom of the shaft, illuminating only the perfectly circular base below. The bottom of the shaft is curiously empty save for the ruined D'ni lantern, yet everything between is shrouded in shadow.
"RAHD'NI!" Sheppard screams into the dark. "RAHD'NI!"
A faint sound meets the ears of the Lanteans, perhaps a moan or perhaps just the rock settling about them. Sheppard's heart flutters in his chest fearfully. He holds the fire marble out over the edge, but, still, the colonel spies nothing.
The three Lanteans listen apprehensively, but nothing sounds further in the shaft. They cannot hear anything nor see anything below, not a single sign of Rahd'ni. Sheppard extends his arm out, avoid the emptiness of the shaft and drops his red fire marble. The Lanteans watch carefully as the marble drops, illuminating a small section of the shaft as it descends until, suddenly, there! As it drops beside one of the crossbracings for the carriage tracks that span the mighty cylinder before clattering to the ground, Sheppard spies what appears to Rahd'ni, lying so very still upon the bracing.
"There!" Radek cries out, pointing, but, by that point, the single, crimson fire marble has already passed Rahd'ni, leaving only shadows behind. The Czech looks to Ronon and Sheppard with wide, fearful eyes, asking, "Is he….?"
The Satedan shakes his head, holding his orange fire marble over the precipice. "I don't know."
"He would have answered us if he was conscious." Sheppard hisses through his teeth, mentally calculating just how far Rahd'ni has plummeted before landing. "We've got to get down there." Sheppard digs through the pack Rahd'ni has provided him, finds a length of sturdy rope with a harness of some kind, and passes the rope to Ronon, instructing, "Here, tie yourself off."
"We don't have time to go back down. It's not like I can repel with this goddamn thing on my leg. You're going to have to go," Sheppard reasons.
The Satedan shakes his head. "Not happening."
Sheppard blinks, dumbfounded. "Ronon….. we can't leave him."
"We're not." Ronon glances about. "Look around you. There is nowhere to tie off securely up here." He gazes firmly at Sheppard. "I know you're strong, but you're not strong enough to hold my weight on your own."
The colonel nods slowly. It is true. Without anywhere to secure a climber on high, whoever goes down must rely on whoever remains behind to hold their weight as they climb. Sheppard is a strong man and quite capable, indeed, but Ronon is easily fifty pounds heavier than he, a measure of pure muscle without an ounce of superfluous flesh. It is a matter of simple physics that Sheppard failed to recognize in his haste to get to Rahd'ni.
"I can't climb with this leg," Sheppard murmurs, glancing over the edge.
"I know," Ronon breathes.
"What do we do?" Radek asks timidly. "We cannot leave him."
"We're not going to," the Satedan informs him, placing the harness in the Czech's hands. "You're going down."
Radek's face goes white even in the colored light of the fire marbles, and he stammers, "No, no, no. I cannot go down there!"
"It's the only way," Sheppard reasons sternly, refusing to take the harness back as Radek repeatedly and quite frantically attempts to hand the thing back off. "Radek, Radek, listen to me!" The Czech freezes, and Sheppard firmly catches his gaze. "Radek, we don't know if Rahd'ni is hurt, but, judging from his height, I'm betting he is and, quite possibly, badly. Ronon's right. He's too heavy for you or I to anchor him, and I can't move well enough in this cast to get around down there. It's you, or nobody."
Sheppard shakes his head curtly. "No, you won't. Ronon and I will be up here to anchor you. We won't let you fall."
Radek trembles but, eventually, nods, seeing the logic to it. "Alright. Alright."
Ronon and Sheppard help Radek get the harness about him and ensure that it is secure before tossing the loops of rope from his and Rahd'ni's pack about the Czech's thin neck. Through it all, Radek quivers and quakes with fear, perhaps more than the rock did in the earthquake. He bites his lips. Radek has never enjoyed going off world like the other Lanteans, favoring a cozy, safe laboratory over the thrill of adventure. As such, he is understandably terrified. The Czech holds himself together until Ronon helps him settle his feet firmly upon the edge of the steps.
"No!" he cries out, shaking violently. "I am sorry. I cannot do this!"
"Yes, you can," Sheppard speaks evenly and flatly. "You have to." He puts his hand on Radek's shoulder and feigns a chortle. "Just imagine how you'll be able to lord this over Rodney when he gets his memories back."
Radek forces a laugh and sniffles, scrubbing his cheeks with the back of his hand. Sheppard feels his stomach sour; the Czech has been crying silently this entire time as they have been outfitting him for the climb. The dark of the shaft has concealed his tears until now.
Sheppard knows he is not, but he admires Radek for it as the Czech follows their instruction and tips himself back, over the edge. Ronon and Sheppard grip the rope tightly, letting it out little by little as the smaller man descends slowly but surely. The hulking Satedan eases the rope between his fingers, feeling it tremble even from on high as down and down Radek goes, holding his fire marble to light his way.
Suddenly, he cries out. "Slow now. I think….. I can see him, now."
"How much farther?" Ronon grunts.
"Four…. No five meters." Carefully, the Satedan lets precisely five meters slip between his hands before the rope falls slack and the Czech calls up, "I am here!"
Ronon and Sheppard crawl to the edge of the steps and peer out in surprise. Radek kneels on the crossbeam, gripping it tightly with one hand and the fire marble with the other. In the pale blue light of the curious little orb, they can see that Rahd'ni lies just beyond Radek, perched ever so precariously until the fine structure of the bracing system. His legs and right arm dangle dangerously off the crossbracing.
"Okay, hard part's over," Sheppard yells down, trying to keep his voice calm and as reassuring as possible. "You can do this."
Radek gives a nervous jerk of his head in what seems something akin to a nod, but, from that height, it might just be a trick of the odd light imparted by the fire marble clasped in Radek's hand. Agonizingly slowly, Radek inches out onto the structure. Sheppard and Ronon hold their collective breathes as the Czech moves, crawling out at a snail's pace. If and when they get themselves out of this mess, Sheppard knows he will owe the Czech immensely.
A moan startles the three Lanteans as Rahd'ni stirs slightly with a small shudder.
"Rahd'ni?" Radek calls in a small voice.
Rahd'ni groans louder now, reaching for his head and shifting his weight upon the beam. His disorientation is visible even from Sheppard's vantage point as he moves to massage his head. He is dazed, and badly, possibly concussed. Rahd'ni has taken a seriously blow in the fall. He does not even seem to comprehend the grave danger of his current predicament.
Sheppard orders from above, "Rahd'ni, listen to me and listen very carefully. Do not move a muscle. Just stay right where you are. Radek's coming for you."
Rahd'ni blinks slowly. He moves his left arm and yelps in pain, drawing the limb close to his chest. He reaches out subconsciously with his right hand, perhaps to find something to pull himself upright with, and finds nothing. He gasps sharply and flails in the air, awkwardly. Rahd'ni gives an inarticulate cry of surprise and fright.
Ronon bellows without thought, forgetting the last several years that have passed between them. "McKay, stop!"
Rahd'ni freezes abruptly, staring up into space with wide, horrified eyes. Neither Sheppard nor Ronon know if Rahd'ni obeisance stems from memories of life as Rodney McKay or perhaps from flashbacks of torture at the hands of his captors. Neither cares. They only care so much as it keeps Rahd'ni from moving any further and potentially pitching off the crossbracing to the punishing stone floor below.
"Good, that's good," Sheppard calls down as Rahd'ni stills. "Radek's on his way. Just stay there."
Radek takes that as his hint to continue onwards across the structure. He murmurs gentle utterances in Czech, fluid, liquid words that lull. Rodney McKay, while a genius, never spoke nor understood Czech in his life, often claiming that Radek hid behind his native language and insulting him for it. As such, it is unlikely that Rahd'ni understands a word Radek says. It is the calming, soothing effect which is of unspeakable value, keeping Rahd'ni still as a statue until the wiry man reaches him.
"Good, Radek," Sheppard reassures. "Sit down. It'll lower your center of gravity and make you more secure, okay?" Radek straddles the crossbrace, dangling his legs over the nothingness; once he is settled, Sheppard nods and calls, "That's perfect. Slowly now, I want you to tie yourself off."
Radek swallows and nods, but the task is not as easy as Sheppard makes it sound. In order to secure himself to the bracing spanning the wide gulf of the shaft, he must first set his fire marble down and, then, let go with both hands. Radek sets the glowing marble in a small, dimpled pit in the framework and works to muster up the courage, but, when he lets go with his right hand, he feels so insecure that he immediately grabs the crossbrace again.
"I cannot!" Radek screams, shaking his head.
"Yes, you can," Sheppard calls firmly once more.
Radek sobs openly, the sound echoing in the shaft. "I am not you! I cannot do this!"
Both Sheppard and Ronon grimace, each feeling the sting of what they are putting Radek through. However, they have no other choice if they are to save Rahd'ni. It hurts to know that Radek's terror is wrought from their hands, but it will hurt worse if Rahd'ni tumbles to his death.
"I know, I know, Radek," Sheppard says. "But you've got to do this. C'mon, Radek, be smart. We've still got you on the line. Besides, if you give up now, everything you've done will have been for nothing."
Ronon smirks at the somewhat dirty ploy, but the colonel seems to get through to scientist. With shaking hands, he slowly takes one of the lengths of rope from about his neck and ties a tight knot to his harness. Then, Radek ties a second knot to the structure beneath him. The crossbracing is a strong yet delicate seeming lattice of stone and metalwork, offering plenty of opportunities to tie off.
Radek crumples forward over the knot, hugging himself for a moment before composing himself enough to crack out, "Okay. Done."
"Good. You're doing great, Radek. Now, tie off the second rope, but leave maybe six feet loose."
Radek swallows convulsively once more but does as he is told, making a tight, secure knot.
"Perfect," Sheppard praises him further. "Now make a loop on the end big enough for Rahd'ni."
The Czech obeys, tying a wide loop, and the colonel gives another nod. "Great. Now, Rahd'ni, Radek's going to give you the rope. Put your arms through it first, and, then, put it over your head."
Rahd'ni does not answer, gives no indication that he has even heard the colonel. Sheppard's heart nearly stops entirely. The man is clearly injured and has lost consciousness. He might have a concussion, or, perhaps worse. Kellar did mention serious head trauma, and it is entirely possible that the fall could have exacerbated the prior injury.
"Rahd'ni? Rahd'ni, talk to me." When the man does not answer, Sheppard shouts, "Rahd'ni, god damnit, answer me!"
That seems to rouse the man enough, and he whimpers, "I hear you."
"Rahd'ni, the rope," the Czech breathes, placing the loop gently upon Rahd'ni's chest, careful not to disturb the man any further.
"Rahd'ni, put your arms through the rope," Sheppard orders.
The three Lanteans hold their breath once more as Rahd'ni fumbles feebly with the rope with his right hand alone. Sheppard bites his lip so hard that he nearly draws blood, but there is nothing he can do from up there, nor is there anything Radek can do without risking toppling Rahd'ni. No. Rahd'ni must do this. Sheppard watches as Rahd'ni manages to put his right arm through the loop, but his left arm does not move.
"Come on, Rahd'ni, both arms," the colonel chides, trying to keep this somewhat light hearted, if possible.
Rahd'ni clenches his teeth and manipulates his left arm with his right. The very slightest of movements tears a shriek of agony from the man that cuts right through Sheppard. It cannot be helped. Rahd'ni continues to shriek blood curdling screams as he pulls his left arm through the loop as well. Then, he lies there, gasping and panting.
Sheppard waits, letting Rahd'ni calm once more before calling, "Almost done, Rahd'ni. I just need you to put your head through, too."
A pained noise escapes Rahd'ni's lips, but he complies, ducking his head through the rope loop. He flops back, his head striking the bracing with a thud audible even to Sheppard and Ronon on high. Both men wince at the sound, yet Rahd'ni hardly gives it any notice. Enough of the old Rodney McKay lingers in the man that Sheppard and Ronon know that Rahd'ni must be in agony if he is unable to issue a single complaint. Sheppard tries not to think about it, focusing instead on the intense relief washing over him to know that Rahd'ni cannot so easily freefall to his death now with the rope about him.
"Good. Okay, Rahd'ni, you can sit up. Slowly, slowly," Sheppard repeats the stern warning again and again, mindful of precisely how irritating it must sound.
Rahd'ni moves awkwardly, pushing himself up. He hangs his legs down, as Radek does. He moves stiffly, cradling his left arm close to his chest and moving the limb as little as possible. Rahd'ni flops forward, hanging his head and taking deep, heaving breathes. Radek reclaims his fire marble and holds it out. Rahd'ni squints and turns away. The Czech acts without thought, catching Rahd'ni by the chin and holding him still with the intention of checking the man for a concussion. Unfortunately, the abrupt action causes Rahd'ni to jump in frighten, twisting in Radek's grasp to jerk away from his hold, but it nearly sends the man pitching right off the crossbracing.
"No!" he grunts, shaking his head and wriggling weakly in Radek's hold.
"Shh… shh…." Radek coos tenderly, murmuring once more in both Czech and English. "Shh…. It is alright. You must be still, Rahd'ni."
His mouth moves on autopilot, breathing gentle assurances and promises of care and safety, if Rahd'ni would only calm down and be still. The Czech rubs Rahd'ni's uninjured arm, feeling him shiver with what might be fear or possibly a neurological reaction to the blow he must have taken either when the stone clipped him or when he landed. Rahd'ni stills under those humble ministrations, blinking his eyes methodically in a daze.
"Are you alright?" Radek inquires in but a whisper, still massaging the man's arm.
Rahd'ni nods and instantly wretches from the motion, gagging on a few mouthfuls of sickly, sticky bile. Radek winces in a mixture of sympathy and repulsion. Rahd'ni hacks until he can only give a few dry heaves.
Radek waits for Rahd'ni's stomach to seemingly settle before asking, "Better?"
Radek squeezes Rahd'ni's arm and looks up to the two men waiting above. "Now what?"
"Radek, help Rahd'ni get the other harness on."
The Czech does the work for Rahd'ni, who merely sits meek and pliant, focusing on keeping his roiling stomach from rebelling once more.
Sheppard pauses oddly before venturing, "You're not going to like this next part, Radek."
Radek scoffs both angrily and nervously. "I have not enjoyed any of this!"
"I know," Sheppard concedes. "I need you to untie yourself from the main rope and tie Rahd'ni to it."
"WHAT?" The scientist blurts out before launching into a diatribe of Czech profanities.
The colonel allows Radek to swear and rant below until he goes quiet once more. "I know, I know. But you're still secured there. You're still safe, and you can file a formal complaint when we get out of this."
The Czech continues to rail, but he still obeys, griping every moment in his odd mix of languages. "Done."
"Until his other line from the frame."
Radek swiftly does so. "Alright."
"Rahd'ni, we're going to hoist you up now." Sheppard glances to Ronon. "Steady now, yeah?"
Ronon nods and, together, they begin to pull Rahd'ni up. At first, Rahd'ni grunts and gives other sounds of pain, but, in time, the noise falls away, leaving nothing but a frightening stillness. Ronon picks up the pace, hauling Rahd'ni up nearly by himself. He is unconscious by the time they drag him back onto the steps. His left arm is swollen and likely broken, but, thankfully, his respiration and pulse seem strong. Sheppard and Ronon share a quick smile.
The Czech snarls from below, "Excuse me, but I trust you have not forgotten me."
The three Lanteans exchange a laugh.
Rahd'ni surfaces some time later, sprawled out upon the steps by the Lanteans. They are speaking softly, as though afraid of waking him prematurely, and do not notice his blue eyes moving about and surveying the situation warily. His left arm is bound in neat, mass produced bandages. The appendage feels heavy and dead, pain free, which is surprising as he remembers quite vividly being struck by the nara slab on his forearm. He flexes his fingers and grits his teeth against the flare of pain that surges through his arm as a result, yet it is not nearly as bad as Rahd'ni knows the pain should be.
Sheppard's voice startles him. "We had some painkillers in with the first aid supplies. Nothing fancy, like morphine, but it should take the edge off."
Rahd'ni gives a small laugh, but it comes out as more of an exhausted huff. "Not the good stuff, eh?"
The three Lanteans are all taken back by the comment, another fleeting glimpse to the man they once knew. Could it be possible that sitcom quality amnesia recovers are possible? That all it would have taken to cure Rahd'ni's memory loss was another blow to the head? Yet, Rahd'ni says nothing more on the matter, offering no further clues to any further injury or potential healing resulting from the fall. Sheppard ignores it, recalling that small fragments of Rahd'ni's memory have briefly surfaced before and subsided just as swiftly. He will not allow his hopes to be gathered up only to be dashed apart when Rahd'ni's memories fail them once more.
Sheppard takes one of the fire marbles and holds it up, casting Rahd'ni's face in a light so pale blue that it is almost white. Rahd'ni clamps his eyes shut and turns away. Sheppard frowns. It could simply be hypersensitivity caused by so many years in the dark, or it may be further indication of concussion.
"I just need to check you out."
Rahd'ni reluctantly obeys, staring as Sheppard passes the fire marble back and forth over his eyes. Their reaction, thankfully, seems normal. Sheppard doubts that Rahd'ni has a concussion, but he will keep a close eye on the man, just to be safe.
Rahd'ni speaks in a hushed utterance. "You saved me."
Sheppard blinks and, then, nods. "Yes."
"Why?" Rahd'ni rasps, his voice thick with emotion.
"Because…." Sheppard pauses, chewing on his lower lip; there are so many reasons but only so few of any real value. "Because you're our friend. It's what friends do. It's what we've always done for each other."
Sheppard smiles slightly. "Hey, I told you. It's what we do."
Rahd'ni nods listlessly. They rest for some hours on the steps before continuing on. However, now, Rahd'ni travels closely with them as they navigate the labyrinth of tunnels up to the surface.
For three days, that miniscule earthquake nags at the back of her mind until, finally, she cannot bear it any longer. That morning, there is little work to be done about the cleft, and, so, she elects to venture to a place which she has not visited in many years. She rises before dawn in the dark twilight and packs a canteen of cold, clear water from the spring at the base of the cleft before setting off. The child slumbers on, unaware of her departure. If she leaves now and travels swiftly, she will be back before he wakes.
She skirts about the base of the dormant volcano beside the cleft before cutting out and onto the open desert. She crosses the desert sands on nimble feet, practically skimming over the dunes lightly the entire distance to the circle. It is no more than a mile from the cleft, yet, under the desert sun, it would be a grueling mile to walk. In the cool light of the predawn twilight, however, it is a nearly refreshing hike. She can forget about her troubles and toils keeping both herself and her son alive and fed. She wonders if she can even forget about the friction between herself and her son if she just keeps running.
In what seems no time at all, she finally comes upon the circle. It is a curious sight in the center of the desert, an absolute, perfect circle consisting of stones seemingly graded by sizes radiating outwards from a center hollow of sand alone. Her father had come across it many years before, and the two of them had spent several days pondering the creation of such a fantastic sight. Surely, they had surmised, such a phenomena could not be a natural occurrence, yet it would have taken years for men to sort the rocks so effectively and arrange them at such precise orientations. On a whim, she had suggested to him that it was more as though the stones had been shaken from below, and both she and her father had laughed it off.
She smiles wistfully; her father had passed not long after.
She drifts with her memories and tarries at the circle for some time longer than intended before turning back at dawn. When she does, her heart lifts, and, unbidden, a song passes her lips. She has not sung in many years.
As she passes the volcano once more, something catches her eye, and she drops low to the ground instinctively. The desert is an unforgiving place, populated by select predators including both animals and less than savory humans. She has been cautious these years, shielding her son and concealing his presence from the men she trades with to maintain their meager existence. The shadow moves, and, as the first light of dawn crests the mountains to the east, she spies what seems to be four, cloaked men stumbling from the lip of the caldera and down the side of the volcano.
She furrows her brow but rises to her full height to wait for them to approach. They seem haggard and disheveled, trudging and shambling along. They stop not far from her, their mouths hanging open in surprise. They simply stand there for a long moment before one separates from the others. He walks awkwardly, his arm bound up in a sling and putting him slightly off balance.
He crashes to his knees at her feet and sobs out, "Lady Ti'ana."
Her heart hammers in her chest. She has not heard that name since the day her husband died; nor has she heard that voice since before then, since before those final, terrible quakes shattered her world. She crouches down with him and pulls his goggles free from his head, savoring the look of familiar, blue eyes shining with unshed tears in the light of dawn.
She throws her arms about him, clinging to him tightly. "Oh, Rahd'ni…."
Author's Notes : Yes, it is quite long, but, as always, I do hope you enjoyed.