ACT I

John Sheppard flew the Jumper low over the treetops as the small village of Cablaos came into view. There were several villagers already in the square and he glanced sideways at Carson Beckett. The doctor had requested he join him on a supply run so that he could check the condition of several patients who'd been suffering from the Pegasus form of the Chicken Pox. The plan was for him to drop Beckett off and make a circuit of several other mountain villages.

The villagers harvested a plant that grew wild along the north face of a vast array of mountains. The plant seemed to have many medicinal qualities that the scientists on Atlantis were excited about. His job was to trade with the villagers for as much of the plant as possible before returning for Beckett in two days' time.

Sheppard hadn't realized just how much he'd missed Beckett's sense of humor during the time he was gone. Keller was a damn good doctor, but Beckett was part of the original team that came to the Pegasus Galaxy. The loss of Aiden Ford and Elizabeth Weir had affected him deeply, but he'd kept his emotions in check when others were around. John grieved in his own way, in the privacy of his quarters.

"A penny for your thoughts, Colonel."

"That much, Carson?" Sheppard asked with a grin before landing the Jumper and shutting it down. "My thoughts aren't worth a penny."

"I don't believe that, lad," Beckett said and followed the colonel to the back of the Jumper. He smiled as the hatch opened and several villagers rushed forward.

"Welcome back, Dr. Beckett," an elderly man said as he stepped forward.

"Thank you, Crase," Beckett said. "You remember Colonel Sheppard?"

"Of course, we are honored by your presence," Crase told them and bowed slightly.

"We are honored to be here," Sheppard said and returned the gesture before picking up two boxes and stepping out of the jumper. The twin suns hung low on the horizon giving the sky a vibrant mixture of purple and orange hues that rivaled the sunsets of Earth.

"Your quarters are the same as on your last visit to Cablaos," Crase offered.

"Thank you, Crase, how is your family?" Beckett asked as a couple of villagers took the last two boxes and strode toward the hut near the end of the narrow street.

"Miriel is doing well and is expecting my first grandchild in six months. She is hoping you will deliver the baby."

"I would be honored…what of Byrone? Is he still courting Juwel?"

"Yes," Crase said with a wide grin. "They are to be wed within the month."

"That's wonderful news," Beckett said.

"We would be honored if you and Colonel Sheppard were in attendance, but we understand if it is not possible."

"I'd like that, but it would depend on the timing. Right now things are quiet on Atlantis, but…"

"We understand, Dr. Beckett. It is the same amongst our people," Crase explained. "The invitation is open to all of your people."

"Thank you, Crase," Beckett said once they reached his hut and he stepped inside and motioned to the villagers who carried the supplies. "Put those down in the corner."

"Carson, is there anything else you need before I go?" Sheppard asked.

"You are not staying, Colonel Sheppard?" Crase asked.

"No, but I'll be back in a couple of days."

"Colonel Sheppard is going to check the villages in the mountains to the north," Beckett explained as he began to unpack the supplies.

"The mountains are dangerous," a young male whispered softly.

"I'll be careful," Sheppard assured him. "You said yourself we need more of those plants, Carson," he added when Carson continued to look worried.

"Not if it means putting yourself in any danger," Carson told him.

"Then I'll make sure I don't put myself in any," Sheppard vowed.

"Just promise me you'll be careful," Carson said, reaching out to pat John's shoulder.

"You know me, Carson…careful is my middle name!"

"Since when?" Beckett snapped, shaking his head when Sheppard simply smiled and turned away. A frown formed as the colonel disappeared through the door, but he could not quite figure out why he suddenly felt like he was losing his best friend. "Colonel… John…"

"Dr. Beckett," a woman called as she entered the hut carrying a small child in her arms. "Tarly fell…"

"Put her on the bed," Beckett ordered as the child's sobs reached his ears. He lifted the cloth from the wound on the small girl's knee and smiled at her. "This is not so bad, lass. We'll have you fixed up in a minute and just maybe there'll be a wee piece of candy waiting for you."

"The red one?" Tarly asked hopefully.

"Aye, lass, I think there might be a red one for you," Beckett said and began cleaning the wound.

~oOo~

John Sheppard didn't consider himself a loner, but he did enjoy those few times when he was on his own. It gave him a chance to think about his team and the people whose lives had intersected with his. He closed the rear hatch before climbing into the pilot seat and starting the Puddle Jumper. He flew high over the village and headed toward the mountains to the north.

Teyla Emmagan had proven her worth time and again since their first meeting in the Athosian village. She'd saved his life on several occasions and had nearly died at the hands of the Wraith, Michael while protecting her son, Torren from him. Michael was dead now, killed when he tried to kidnap Torren from Atlantis. Teyla had saved John's life by letting Michael fall to his death. This particular mission didn't need the team and Teyla had stayed behind to spend time with Torren

Dr. Rodney McKay had come a long way since their first meeting and was no longer the pain in the ass Canadian whose ego was bigger than his country. The man was still smarter than most people, but he no longer needed to rub it in, although he still liked to over-exaggerate things and come in with a 'by the seat of his pants' rescue. Still, he was an integral part of Sheppard's team and one who had finally found his place in Atlantis. McKay was working on a new project that involved training personnel for jobs other than the ones they specialized in. John had a feeling McKay would be grinding his teeth before the day ended.

Ronon Dex, a native of Sateda was the final member of his team and a man John was glad to call friend. John remembered their first meeting and knew he'd made a friend for life when he'd chosen Ronon to replace Aiden Ford. The Satedan had shown his loyalty in spite of what others thought of him. Even Elizabeth Weir had changed her opinion of the Satedan once she'd met and talked to him. Ronon not only brought a new dynamic to the team, but he also brought a weapon that many envied. John included himself in the latter and wished they could find more of them. As it was Ronon had also saved his life and vice versa. The team was a damn good one and John counted himself lucky to have them watching out for each other. Ronon had stayed behind because Woolsey had requested his assistance with training others in the Satedan's unique fighting style. John had thought it was a good idea, and he would've loved to have been a fly on the wall at the training sessions.

Sheppard flew the Jumper north along the shoreline, surprised to see a pod of what looked like humpback whales swimming at the edge of the breakwater. The magnificent creatures were headed in the same direction he was and he swung lower, flying just above the creatures. One of the largest of them came out of the ocean splashing water as it disappeared several feet in front of the Jumper.

John watched as the moisture sluiced off the forward windows and continued to watch the whales for nearly twenty minutes before being forced to fly inward toward his destination. There were low-lying clouds in the foothills, blotting out the horizon as lightning flashed across the sky. Thunder echoed and re-echoed through the mountains as high winds and torrential rain buffeted the Jumper, but Sheppard expertly piloted the craft through the rough conditions.

Sheppard knew he should look for a place to land and ride out the storm, but there seemed to be nothing suitable on the scope. "Damn," he thought and panned right as lightning struck a nearby tree that towered high above everything else. There were lights in the distance, but it took him a few minutes to realize he was looking at a village of some sort, one that was not mentioned on the map of the area.

Sheppard fought the controls and managed to keep the Jumper from crashing into the trees, but the downward force of the winds through the mountain pass felt like a giant's hand pressing him down. He swung right, marginally avoiding an impact with the sheer face of a cliff before being forced to bank left as a jagged peak appeared directly in front of him. He narrowly missed crashing into it as the wind increased and the rain slanted toward him like sheets of brittle glass shattering against the Jumper.

"Oh crap," he whispered as the craft shook beneath his touch. He struggled for control, but knew it was a lost cause as the Jumper descended toward the unknown darkness below.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett walked to the opening of his hut and looked out at the darkening sky that spoke of inclement weather. At the first sign of the storm, the villagers had quickly moved to 'batten down the hatches' and make sure everything that wasn't nailed down was secured somewhere safe.

Crase and the other men had assured him that the storm would not last long, but Beckett wasn't sure he believed it when lightning shot across the sky and struck a tree nearby. The tree burst into flames, but the fire was quickly doused as torrential rain fell in heavy sheets.

~oOo~

John Sheppard wasn't sure what woke him, but he knew he'd much rather have remained unconscious as he became aware of pain in many parts of his body. He shifted slightly, realizing instantly that it was a mistake and gritted his teeth as he forced his eyes open. It was dark, but light filtered through from high above him and he knew he was no longer inside the Puddle Jumper.

He frowned when he realized he was lying on something soft and that voices were filtering through from somewhere on his right. Instincts born of years in the military had him on the offensive and ignoring the pain the movement awakened. He slid his legs over the edge of the cot he was lying on and sat up, but immediately slammed his eyes shut in an effort to keep the suddenly encroaching darkness at bay.

"You should not be up."

The voice was lightly scolding with an edge of anger to it as hands pressed him back on the bed. He swallowed convulsively until the nausea stopped and then opened his eyes again. His visitor held a small lamp in his hand, revealing wrinkled features that spoke of an age far beyond anything he'd ever seen before.

"It would not be good for us if we let you die before his arrival," the man said and covered John with a thin blanket.

"Who are you? Where am I?"

"I am called Kiosion. You are in the village of Shelona in the North Mountains," the elderly man answered.

"Shelona? Look, I have to go—"

"You are injured and must rest," Kiosion said and held a small bowl in front of Sheppard's mouth. "Drink this, it will help you rest and heal."

"I need to get back to my people—"

"You are far too weak for that. Drink."

John frowned as the elderly man pressed the bowl against his lips and he sipped at the sweet tasting liquid. "What is it?"

"It is called Rooshi and is made from the root and bark of the Rooshi trees. Finish it," the elderly man ordered.

Again John found he could not refuse and he swallowed the last of the drink before closing his eyes. The pain eased considerably and he sank toward sleep as snatches of conversation filtered through.

"It would not… if he is dead when the master returns…"

"He will…die…see to… making him…until the Wraith…."

"Wraith," John whispered, but then he could no longer hear the words as the drug he'd been given took control.

~oOo~

Dr. Rodney McKay had reached the end of his patience as he glanced at the trio he'd been explaining the new Atlantis technology to. The newcomers were supposedly top of their class, but Rodney wondered exactly what class that was. The most promising member of the group was a young woman named Carla Morton, yet even she was having trouble making sense out of the formula he'd written on the overhead display.

"I'm sorry, Dr. McKay, but it just doesn't make sense," Brian Sharp said, frowning as he tried to work out the mathematical logistics of the new formula.

"What doesn't make sense?" McKay asked impatiently.

"The formula itself. How can you be certain it won't blow up in your face?"

"Because I've seen that it works!" McKay snapped, rolling his eyes as he pointed out the logistics of the equation.

"Rodney, Mr. Woolsey would like to see you," Radek Zelenka said from the open doorway.

"Thank God," McKay said and turned to the three 'students'. "Keep working on it and maybe you'll figure it out without me having to show you every single step."

Zelenka watched the Canadian leave and couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the man. Rodney McKay was smart, probably the smartest man he'd ever met, but he had very few people skills and was not cut out to teach newcomers the nuances of Ancient technology.

"Dr. Zelenka, do you think Dr. McKay is right in his theories?" Carla asked.

"Rodney McKay knows more about Ancient technology than anyone on Atlantis—"

"Including you?" Sharp asked.

"Including me, but if you tell him I said that I'll deny every word. His ego is big enough without us feeding it," Zelenka told them and motioned for them to return their attention to the formula on the overhead board.

~oOo~

McKay hurried toward Woolsey's office, relieved that he didn't have to go over the formula with the new members of his department while feeling a little sorry that he'd turned them over to the unsuspecting Zelenka. He shook the feeling off and wondered what John Sheppard and Carson Beckett were doing. It wasn't often that he didn't go with Sheppard, but when it happened he sorely missed the fieldwork.

McKay entered the office to find Teyla Emmagan and Ronon Dex already seated across from Woolsey. "Okay, what's going on? Don't tell me Sheppard's in trouble already?" he asked and glanced at his watch, noting how much time had passed since Sheppard had taken Beckett to visit the village of Cablaos. "This must be some kind of record."

" Dr. McKay, that's not why I called you here," Woolsey said.

"It's not?" McKay asked incredulously.

"I want you and Ronon to accompany Teyla on a mission," Woolsey answered.

"What kind of mission?" McKay asked [N1] .

"Teyla's been in contact with a tribe her people traded with and they want to open talks with us," Woolsey explained.

"What kind of trade are we talking about?" McKay asked.

"The people of Torea are farmers and have agreed to trade fresh fruits and vegetables similar to those of your people for medical supplies," Teyla explained.

"Teyla says they have something that closely resembles our coffee beans," Woolsey said.

"They also have what we call Shireo. I believe you call it cocoa," Emmagan explained.

"Cocoa? As in the chocolate drink?" McKay asked incredulously.

"I believe so," Teyla said with a hint of a smile.

"When do we leave?" McKay asked.

"As soon as you're ready," Woolsey replied, watching as John Sheppard's team readied themselves to go on a mission without their commanding officer. He knew it wasn't the first time, but it just seemed odd to send them off without the colonel.

~oOo~

The storm ravaged the landscape, changing it until it would have been unrecognizable to anyone flying overhead. Large trees had been uplifted as if they were mere kindling, yet the village seemed untouched by the violence nature had wrought. The people were exiting their [N2] huts, unscathed and smiling as they realized the tempest was over and they had survived.

Carson Beckett looked around, recognized several villagers, and hurried toward Crase, who was standing a short distance away with his daughter and her husband.

"Dr. Beckett, were you comfortable during the storm?" Crase asked.

"Aye, if I hadn't opened the door I would never have known there was a storm," Beckett observed.

"We are lucky. The Goddess Shalemei sees fit to protect us from the storms sent down from the mountains," Crase explained.

"The storm came from the mountains?" the physician asked worriedly.

"They often do, but as I said they do not last long. Outside our village there has been much damage, but nature has a way of correcting things so new growth will appear within a few hours," Crase told him[N3] .

"Colonel Sheppard was probably caught in the middle of it," Beckett said, frowning.

"Would he not turn back if he knew there was bad weather ahead?" Miriel asked.

"He would if he saw it in time…if it showed up on the sensors," Beckett told her.

"The storms come on very fast, Dr. Beckett, but if Colonel Sheppard is as good a pilot as you told us he was during your last visit he should be fine," Crase offered.

"Aye, you're probably right, but…is there any way to contact the villages in the mountains?" Beckett saw something he didn't like in the other man's eyes as he asked about the mountain villages. "What is it?"

"The mountains are dangerous because some of the villages still believe in the old ways. If Colonel Sheppard tries to find refuge in one of them he could be in danger from more than just the weather," Crase explained.

"What kind of danger?" Beckett asked.

"It is said that they are Wraith worshippers and would contact the Wraith if there are strangers in their midst," Miriel explained, her eyes filled with fear at the mention of the creatures that one time culled their world and could return at any time.

"Wraith worshippers," Beckett whispered and prayed that John Sheppard did not run into them. There were stories about them that scared him almost as much as the Wraith themselves. Ronon had told them about his time as a runner and how several times during his ordeal he'd run afoul of Wraith worshippers and been turned into the Wraith who was hunting him. The big Satedan still bore the scars from the Wraith technology that had been surgically placed in his back and partially embedded in his spine.

~oOo~

John Sheppard opened his eyes and tried to moisten his dry lips, but his tongue seemed to have adhered to the roof of his mouth. He managed to force his heavy eyelids open and tried to sit up, but it felt like his body was weighted down. His arms and legs felt leaden and he suddenly realized the reason he couldn't move had nothing to do with how he felt.

"What the hell?" he whispered and struggled against the heavy ropes that bound him to the small cot. He lifted his head from the pillow and blinked as a bright light suddenly shone in his eyes.

"It is useless to fight the Shagri," the elderly man he'd seen before snarled.

"What the hell is a Shagri?" Sheppard forced out through tightly clenched teeth.

"The Shagri are the bindings made from the Rooshi tree and they are unbreakable," Kiosion explained and checked to make sure the bindings were still in place. "You were brought here by the Gods as an offering."

"I was brought here because of a damned storm," Sheppard snapped.

"The Gods favor us with storms that bring sacrifices—"

"Sacrifices? Whoa, now wait a minute here. I'm no sacrifice. I just crashed!"

"Yes, you crashed in a ship of Ancient design and it is said that the Wraith will reward any village willing to cooperate—"

"The Wraith don't reward anyone! They suck the life out of you!"

"We have worshipped the Wraith since the dawn of time and have found favor with them whenever an Ancient falls into our hands. We have contacted the Wraith and a hive ship will be here before the darkness falls tonight."

"The Wraith will destroy your village! They'll—"

"The Wraith have been here many times and we are under their protection. Tonight we will celebrate because as an Ancient you will please the Wraith."

"I'm not an Ancient!"

"You arrived in an Ancient ship and survived a crash that should have killed you. How do you explain that if you're not an Ancient?"

"Just lucky I guess," Sheppard answered and continued to struggle against the Shagri. "Look, the Wraith will kill you—"

"No, they allow us to live as long as we worship them. They are Gods—"

"No, they're not. They can be killed!"

"To kill them would bring down the wrath of others of their kind. We do what we have to in order to survive and the Wraith have left us alone!"

"How long do you think that will last? The Wraith will not hesitate to kill you once they have what they want!"

"They will be here shortly and you will bow down to them!"

"Not a chance!" Sheppard snapped and struggled against his bonds.

"Kiosion, the Wraith ship has arrived."

"They are early," Kiosion said and hurried from the cell.

"Oh, crap!" Sheppard said and tried to loosen the Shagri, but the ropes seemed to have adhered to his wrists and they tightened the more he struggled. He lifted his head when he heard the sound of voices and footsteps just outside the doorway. His breath caught in his throat as a male Wraith and two drones entered the cell and towered over him.

"Colonel Sheppard, how good to finally meet you in person," the Wraith said, showing a mouthful of uneven teeth.

"Sorry to say the feeling's not mutual," Sheppard retorted as Kiosion moved to release his legs.

"You are well known amongst my kind, Colonel Sheppard, and I would enjoy feeding on you, but a man of your reputation deserves a far more fitting end—"

"Don't do me any favors," Sheppard snarled as his bindings were released and he sat up on the edge of the bed.

"Kneel!"

"You know I'm getting really tired of playing the game this way and would really enjoy it if you did the kneeling," Sheppard said and stood up.

"Kneel," the Wraith warned and ran his finger along the right side of Sheppard's face.

"This is getting old," Sheppard said as his legs bent and he knelt in front of the Wraith.

"You have killed many of my kind, Colonel Sheppard, and it is only fitting that you provide us with—"

"The last Wraith who tried to feed on me got a bad case of indigestion," Sheppard said.

[N4] "Bring the human!"

John sucked in air as the Wraith released him and he fell forward heavily onto his hands. His captors grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to his feet. Sheppard could see Kiosion and several of his people standing in the shadows as he was dragged past them and he wondered if they understood what it meant to worship these creatures. Yet, he knew they would not heed his warning as he was dragged out of the cell so he kept his silence.

~oOo~

Teyla smiled as she stepped through the gate and inhaled the intoxicating scent of wildflowers and roasting Shiccato Roots. The Torean people had perfected a way to make the normally unpalatable Shiccato Roots a delight to eat. They were smooth textured and had a sweet taste that reminded her of the bananas brought through the Stargate from the Daedalus' last trip to Earth.

Teyla sensed Ronon and Rodney on either side of her as she made her way toward the gentle giants who called Torea home. They were a peaceful race and measured over seven feet in height with flame red hair, and eyes that were the color of the sun. Their skin was bronze with flecks of gold at the shoulders and knees. They wore a simple garb that hung low across their upper body, flowing smoothly down below their knees.

"Teyla, are you sure they're friendly?" McKay asked, unconsciously taking a step back and allowing Ronon to stand beside Teyla.

"Yes, Rodney, they are friendly," Teyla assured him and smiled at the male and female Torean who stepped forward. "Greetings, Brea Shuliak."

"Welcome, Teyla. It has been many Frions," the [N5] male said.

"Yes, it has, Brea Shuliak. I do hope that by opening talks with you it will give us more freedom to visit your world," Teyla said and motioned to her two companions. "I have brought new friends. This is Dr. Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex."

"Welcome to Torea, Dr. McKay. You are also welcome, Ronon Dex," the Torean said and offered both men his hand. "Please join us for a simple meal of Shiccato Roots and Shireo."

"Shireo? That's like cocoa, right?" McKay asked hopefully.

"I do not know this cocoa, McKay Dr. Rodney," Brea Shuliak answered.

"It is…Oh, never mind. I doubt that you'd be able to understand," McKay said as the Toreans led them away from the Stargate.

~oOo~

John Sheppard had been a captive of the Wraith more times than he cared to think about, but this time there was something different. Something about this Wraith sent a shiver down his spine as he was led toward a Hive Ship hovering above the mountain village. It was unusual to see such a large vessel this close to a settlement and John suddenly realized this particular Wraith had his own agenda.

"Hey, Curly, would you tell Larry and Moe I can make it on my own?" Sheppard said and pulled his arms free of the drones. He stood up and stared at the Wraith leader and wondered why he suddenly felt like someone was walking on his grave.

"You will be silent!"

"Sorry, Curly, I've never been one to take orders. Just ask any of my commanding officers. I tend to—"

"Silence, Colonel Sheppard! You are a defiant one, but you will learn to obey."

"Not going to happen, Curly, so you might as well let me go now," Sheppard said.

"We will see, Colonel Sheppard," the Wraith told him, signaling for the two drones to escort the prisoner into the ship as he turned to the villagers. "You will be rewarded for your loyalty."

"The Wraith will kill you!" Sheppard snapped, and then sank to his knees as something connected with his lower back.

"Silence, human!" the Wraith warned and cupped Sheppard's chin as he forced his head up. "You will need your strength, Colonel Sheppard."

"No problem. What's on the menu for tonight?"

"Not you, at least not right now. These people are loyal to me and they have supplied me with a fitting meal," the Wraith answered and released his captive.

John knew once he was inside there'd be no escape and he waited for the Wraith to turn his attention back to the villagers. The drones stood on either side of him, with the hive ship directly above them. His only chance was to turn and run toward the forest and lose the Wraith in the darkness.

"We are honored that you have come to us…"

John waited for Kiosion to speak before making his move. He shoved the drones away and raced toward the trees as a cry went up from the villagers. Sheppard knew he had the element of surprise on his side, but he also understood it wouldn't last long. He needed to get as much distance as he could between himself and the Wraith and he knew damn well the villagers would not help him.

Sheppard glanced toward the thick copse of trees and wondered how far he was from his ship, but he knew for now it was out of reach. He dodged fire from the drones and ducked low as something flew over his head. He dove to his right, coming up on both feet as he heard the distinctive sound of a Wraith Dart.

John knew they were almost on top of him, but the sanctuary offered by the trees was so close he could smell the sickly sweet scent of the hearty wildflowers he'd seen from the air. He darted forward, seeking the cover of the trees but something wrapped around his ankles and he fell forward as a net was thrown over him. John fought to free himself, but the tiny barbs in the material cut into his skin and stung as blood seeped from the tiny wounds they left behind.

"Still the defiant one, Colonel Sheppard, but you are wasting energy you will soon need," the Wraith commander warned as the drones pulled John to his feet and held him between them. "Bring him!"

~oOo~

Dr. Carson Beckett watched as the children of the village chased each other around as if they hadn't a care in the world, even though he knew that was far from the truth. These people, like most of the people in the Pegasus Galaxy knew of the Wraith and had first hand knowledge of their cruelty. He nodded to a young couple walking past the simple hut he was staying in and hoped they were blessed with a long, happy life.

Beckett glanced at the night sky littered with millions of tiny stars surrounding the twin moons that hung low on the horizon. He sighed heavily, wondering where John Sheppard was and praying the colonel had not run into the Wraith worshippers.

"Dr. Beckett, would you like to join us for the evening meal?" Crase asked.

"Thank you, I'd like that," Beckett said, relieved to have something to take his mind off the missing man, although the truth was Sheppard was not missing, just off on a scouting mission. The problem was the colonel had a habit of finding trouble without even looking for it and Beckett's internal alarms were screaming at him.

"Dr. Beckett, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Crase, I just wish Colonel Sheppard would check in," Beckett answered.

"He is due to return soon, is he not?"

"Yes, day after tomorrow," Carson replied. "It's just that he seems to attract trouble and if he's run into those Wraith worshippers…"

"It is not likely that he would go that far north, Dr. Beckett," Crase offered reassuringly.

"He may not have had a choice if he ran into that storm we had," Beckett said as they walked toward Crase's home. The aroma of stew set his stomach rumbling anticipatorily as he ducked beneath the partially open door.

"Welcome, Dr. Beckett, please sit down," Miriel told him as Crase and Byrone took their seats.

"Let me help you with that," Beckett offered, but Miriel just smiled as she motioned for him to remain where he was. "It smells like the stew my grandmother used to make."

"There are warm biscuits if you would like some," Miriel told him.

"Thank you, Miriel, how are you feeling?"

"I feel wonderful," Miriel answered and patted her slightly rounded belly contentedly. "Dionair will be back from his hunting trip tomorrow and we will celebrate with much wine and dancing."

"Wine?"

"Not for me, Dr. Beckett, but for my husband and father and brother," Miriel assured him. "And for you and Colonel Sheppard if he returns in time."

Beckett smiled at the pretty woman before allowing his thoughts to return to John Sheppard and where the Colonel was at that exact moment. A cold finger of dread ran down his spine as a vision flashed across his mind and somehow he knew Sheppard was in trouble. The problem was he had no proof until either the colonel showed up or they found his Jumper. He knew there was nothing he could do right now and smiled as his host passed a plate of sweet smelling biscuits.

~oOo~

Rodney frowned as he looked at the unappetizing appearance of the food placed in front of him. It looked like something his cat might have dragged in, but the aroma was enough to make his stomach rumble and his mouth water. He looked for utensils, but one look at Teyla told him there were none as she picked up her plate and used her fingers to pick up the pieces of Shiccato Root and put them in her mouth.

"This is delicious, Brea Shuliak," Teyla offered and motioned for McKay to follow suit.

Ronon grinned around a mouthful of food. "It's good, McKay. Just a hint of citrus—"

"Damn it…I'm—"

"Rodney, there is no citrus," Teyla said and noted the frown on their host's face.

"Is there a problem, Dr. McKay?" Brea Shuliak asked.

"No…No, it's just that I have an allergy to certain foods and break out in hives. Trust me it's not something you want to see," McKay answered.

"Hives…like the Wraith? You are Wraith?" Brea Shuliak snapped and quickly stood, towering over his guests.

"No, we're not Wraith!" McKay said fearfully backing away from the larger man.

"Brea Shuliak, please forgive Rodney," Teyla said, stepping between her friend and the Torean. "An allergy is the same as your Shrigala sickness and is brought on by eating the wrong food. Those red bumps you get are what Rodney refers to as hives."

"Bumps?"

"Yes, let's call them bumps from now on," McKay said as the Torean sat down across from him.

"Eat, McKay, or we won't get any of the Shireo and you know Sheppard loves his chocolate," Dex offered around a mouthful of Shiccato Roots.

"I hope you know this could end very badly if there's citrus involved," McKay said and reluctantly took a small piece of the Shiccato Root, chewing carefully before realizing the taste reminded him of crisp vegetables done on the open BBQ and his eyes opened wide appreciatively as Brea Shuliak offered him more.

"It is good? No hives, Dr. McKay?"

"Yes, it is very good. In fact it reminds me of home and I always asked for seconds there," McKay answered as someone pressed an odd shaped cup into his hand. He sniffed the dark liquid before sipping it with a smile as he found it did taste like chocolate with just a hint of cinnamon. "We have got to take some of this back home."

"We will, but first we have to talk about what Brea Shuliak can expect in return," Teyla said and smiled at the Torean.

"You are welcome to share my fire for the night," Brea Shuliak told them once they'd finished their meal and the sky was filled with stars winking down at them from a midnight black, moonless tapestry. "Then we can talk more."

~oOo~

John Sheppard paced the narrow confines of his cell, silently cursing his inability to find a way to escape the Wraith before being brought on board the Hive ship. There was nothing he could do until he escaped his cell, but that was easier said than done. He didn't even have anyone to talk to, then again that was a blessing, because at least he didn't have someone else's life to worry about.

John moved to sit on the bench, disgusted at the way it felt, but again there was nothing he could do about it. Several times he thought he heard voices, but whoever they were had simply passed by his cell without a word to him. Sheppard wondered how long he'd been aboard the Hive ship, but had no way of figuring it out because they'd taken everything and left him in nothing but his pants. Even his boots and socks had been confiscated before he'd been thrown into this small box-like room.

John knew they were no longer on Crase's world, but he had no idea where they were headed once the ship left orbit. He stood up and resumed his pacing, but stopped as he caught movement outside his cell. The Wraith commander stood watching him with such coldness that John thought his blood might freeze in his veins. There were two drones standing on either side of him, both holding weapons that Sheppard recognized.

"Bring him," the commander ordered as an opening appeared.

John stepped through as the Wraith Commander turned and strode away from the cell. John stumbled forward as one of the drones struck him forcefully across the shoulders. He grabbed at the wall, disgusted with the feel of the living thing beneath his touch and managed to stay on his feet.

John studied the lay of the ship, hoping he'd be able to use whatever intel he came up with to aid his escape if and when the opportunity arose. He sensed the drones at his shoulders, but they stayed far enough away that he knew it would be impossible to overpower them. It surprised him when the Wraith Commander stopped and turned toward him with a look that promised nothing but pain.

"You are a warrior, Colonel Sheppard and it is only fitting that you die as a warrior…"

"If it's all the same to you I'd rather not die at all," Sheppard said as a section of the wall parted to reveal a single slab of Wraith technology at the center of a small room. He had no idea what the room was for, but something told him it did not bode well for him.

"Strap him down," the Wraith Commander ordered.

John struggled against the drones, but he was dragged into the room and lifted onto the table. He was forced face down on the table and his arms were drawn above his head as tendril-like filaments wrapped around his wrists and tightened until they were in danger of cutting off his circulation. Similar strands wrapped around his ankles, knees, and thighs, pinning him in place as the Wraith Commander stepped forward.

"I have heard of your team, Colonel Sheppard. I believe Ronon Dex is a member and I am sure he has told you of his fate as a runner. His exploits are extraordinary and I am hopeful that you will prove just as resourceful."

John could hear sounds on his right and struggled to see what was happening, biting back a cry of pain as something sharp pressed against his back. He felt something wet running down his skin and fought to control the nauseating pain that swept along his nerves. He nearly blacked out as the sharp instrument slowly cut through his flesh, but he fought to remain conscious. He twisted his head when he heard a noise on his right, eyes widening as he caught sight of the strange instrument gripped by clamps held in the Wraith Commander's hand.

"I am sure you know what this is, but it is always a pleasure to describe it to a runner. This is a tracking device and it will attach itself to the bones of your back. It will send out a constant signal and allow any Wraith to find you. However, I will be the only one to hunt you, Colonel Sheppard, since the Queen you so mercilessly killed was part of this Hive."

"I—"

"Silence, Colonel, you must be perfectly still or you risk being useless as a runner. We have learned many things since your kind came to the Pegasus Galaxy. Unfortunately many have died in our experiments, but you…you will survive and do anything in your power to escape and defeat me," the Wraith Commander told him.

John clenched his fingers as the commander lowered the tracking device toward his back. He felt cold dread as he heard a soft whir and then agony ripped through his flesh as the device fused with his spine. His body convulsed and bile rose in his throat as he struggled to rid his mind and body of the rippling waves of agonizing pain that rendered him weak and semi-conscious.

John barely registered another biting pain but he knew the Wraith Commander was sealing the wound with the tracking device inside him. Every breath he took told him something foreign was embedded inside him, yet there was nothing he could do to ease the tremors that wracked his body. He felt the restraints removed, but did not have the strength or ability to fight as two drones lifted him from the table and carried him through the corridors of the Hive ship. When they dumped him on the floor inside his cell he cried out and reached for the ravaged wound in his back. He crawled toward the small bed and managed to climb onto it before the darkness reached out for him and he embraced its welcoming void.

~oOo~

The Torean sky was awash with pastel colors that ranged from warm pink and yellows to brighter oranges, reds, and purples. Ronon had been awake for several hours, unsure why he felt as if someone was walking over his grave. He'd heard the expression on Atlantis and never really understood it, but now he was pretty sure he knew what they meant.

Ronon walked along the edge of the Torean village and inhaled the fresh scent of flowering shrubs nearby. He felt a cold shiver of dread down his spine and again felt as if someone, someone he was close to, was in trouble. He couldn't shake the feeling as the sun peeked over the horizon and the colors in the sky faded to reveal a sapphire blue sky speckled with dusty rose-colored clouds.

"Ronon, are you all right?" Teyla asked upon finding him staring into the distance.

"I'm all right," Ronon assured her.

"Brea Shuliak has invited us to join them for their morning meal," Teyla said.

"I'm not hungry."

"Since when?" Teyla asked with a hint of a smile. Ronon Dex was well known for his voracious appetite and when he wasn't hungry it was usually a sign that something was wrong.

"Did you ever feel like you had to do something, but you didn't know what it was?" Ronon asked softly.

"Many times," Teyla answered honestly.

"I keep thinking we need to do something but I don't know what it is," Ronon told her.

"Does it have something to do with the Toreans?"

"No, I don't think so," Ronon said and tried to figure out why his instincts were suddenly in high gear. "Something's wrong, Teyla."

"Do you want to contact Atlantis?"

"No, it wouldn't do any good right now," Ronon assured her as they made their way toward Brea Shuliak's home.

Once inside they sat on the small cushions that surrounded a low stone-topped table. The smell of sweet breads and fresh fruit made Ronon's stomach rumble and he reluctantly admitted that he was hungry after all.

"This is wonderful, Brea Shuliak," McKay said.

"Thank you, Dr. McKay ," the Torean said and bowed to the Atlantian. "Teyla, do you think your people would be willing to trade?"

"I believe that is why we came, Brea Shuliak," the Athosian said. "We are always looking for friends to trade with."

"We have more than enough to trade with friends, and we are hopeful that you will share some of your wealth with us…"

"Our wealth?" McKay said suspiciously. "Teyla, I thought we were here to barter for wares?"

"Rodney, let me handle this," Teyla ordered softly and returned her attention to the Torean leader. "I believe we have much to offer each other."

"We are in need of such things as clothing and medical supplies," Brea Shuliak told her.

"We can supply you with both of those in exchange for a share of your crop," Teyla told him.

"Very well. As I said we have an abundance of fresh fruits, grains, and Shireo—"

"Then it's a done deal," McKay said, smiling at the thought of bringing home the Pegasus version of hot chocolate. "I wonder if they have anything like marshmallows."

"What are marshmallows?" Brea Shuliak asked.

"They're a white fluffy thing you add to hot chocolate or you take chocolate and marshmallows and put them between two graham crackers and make s'mores," McKay said as he bit into a sweet fruit that tasted like a ripe mango.

"I believe we would like to try these s'mores," Brea Shuliak told him.

"Perhaps we can bring the things we need to make them on our next trip," Teyla said, watching as Ronon remained silent during the exchange. There was something troubling the Satedan, but she had no way of figuring out what it was. She saw McKay frown as he looked in Dex's direction and knew he was seeing the tension in the set of the man's shoulders. The Torean people began talking amongst themselves and Teyla listened with only a slight interest.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett was worried as he watched the sky for any sign of Sheppard's Puddle Jumper. The day had dawned with bright skies, but had quickly changed when clouds moved in and rain pelted down on the village. Crase and his people were inside, but he stood beneath a canopy of low-lying trees in hopes of catching sight of the craft.

"Dr. Beckett, why don't you come inside?" Miriel suggested.

"I'll be right in, lass," Beckett told her, searching the sky again before reluctantly following the woman inside. He'd treated the injured and sick, and was ready to travel back to Atlantis as soon as Sheppard returned. The problem was Sheppard had been silent during his trek to the mountain villages and that did not set well with Beckett.

"Dr. Beckett, would you like a cup of Geraacho?" Miriel asked.

Beckett nodded his head and accepted the cup of strong liquid that had a hint of lemon flavor. He'd acquired a taste for the mixture and wondered what his mother would think of it. She loved lemon drinks, whether hot or cold and this could be drunk either way. He reached for a piece of bread without even realizing he'd done so and dipped it into the crushed fruit served in a small silver bowl.

"Maybe Colonel Sheppard lost track of time," Crase offered.

"No, I don't think so," Beckett told him. "Sheppard is one of the most reliable people on Atlantis. He should have been back early this morning."

"Perhaps we could search—" Miriel began.

"It is impossible to search the mountains on foot, Miriel," Crase told her.

"If he doesn't return soon I'll have to contact Atlantis and have them send a team to help look for him," Beckett said, eating the food placed before him without really tasting it.

~oOo~

John moaned and rolled onto his back, crying out as pain twisted through his body. He reached for the source of the agonizing white fire, and his fingers brushed across the ravaged flesh as memory returned. He forced his eyes open, blinking rapidly in an effort to bring everything into focus.

Sheppard knew he was alone as he stared up at the destroyed buildings and knew instinctively where he was. The Wraith, his own personal demon, had a sick sense of humor. There was no doubt he'd been thrown onto the Satedan home world and he struggled to sit up as the sun burned down from high overhead.

John shifted and brought his legs up under him, forcing his body to ignore the pain caused by even the slightest movement. He looked down at his hands and noted they were shaking as he leaned heavily on his knees before straightening his body out.

"Crap," he spat as nausea churned through his gut. He released the thick stream of bile and wiped at his mouth as his body trembled in spite of the warmth provided by the hot sun. He called on his military training and ignored the fire raging through tattered nerves as he searched the area for anything he could use as a weapon.

John knew what the Wraith expected of him and wished there was some way out of this, but right now he was alone on a deserted world with a Wraith tracking device fused to his spine. He knew Beckett and Keller could remove it, but first he had to find a way to get to them without putting anyone else in danger.

Sheppard thought about Ronon Dex and the lonely life he'd led once the Wraith had made him a runner. The Satedan had found out that people didn't really give a damn if you had not chosen to be a runner; they simply damned you because otherwise the Wraith would cull their world. He remembered Ronon telling him of several villages he'd visited during his first few months as a runner. How the people had tried to help him, but had wound up victims of the vile creatures who hunted him.

Sheppard remembered his first meeting with Ronon Dex and smiled in spite of the pain searing his back. The Satedan had shown so much courage and strength and had fought to survive when others would have quit. He moved toward one of the buildings, but stopped when something caught his eye.

He moved across to the dust covered table outside what looked like a pub and reached for the Wraith communication device. He listened as static finally ceased and a familiar voice reached his ears.

"Colonel Sheppard, you will find many materials to devise weapons. Weapons you may use to protect yourself or kill yourself before I feed on you…"

"Go to hell!"

"I must warn you that I will destroy anyone who tries to help you."

"Big surprise there," Sheppard said and moved toward the open door as he listened to the hated voice.

"You have six hours to devise your weapons before I come after you."

"Nice. You have such a hard task ahead of you. I mean tracking someone with Wraith technology is just so damn hard and so sporting," Sheppard spat and turned the device off. He wished Rodney was with him as he looked at the communication device, wondering how the scientist would turn this into something he could use to contact Atlantis.

John entered the first building and tried to remember everything Ronon had told him about Sateda. After the last battle there'd been many weapons left in areas that only the military knew about. Ronon had told him where to find them and he'd planned on coming back here to help Dex retrieve whatever he wanted.

The building was eerily silent and everything was covered in dust and debris. John slowly made his way along the outer wall, carefully avoiding anything that looked dangerously close to collapse. He walked through a narrow opening that might have been a door at one time, but was now just a jagged entrance in an area that looked like it had been devastated by an explosion.

Sheppard glanced around and spotted the small indentation in the wall Ronon had told him about. He knew what was hidden behind it and prayed he remembered the code properly. He knew the series of numbers and symbols, but wasn't sure he remembered the correct order. He closed his eyes and thought about his conversation with Ronon then finally touched the indentation and waited for it to open up.

He stared at the keypad that was set deep into the wall and slowly touched a succession of numbers. He listened for any sign of trouble, but there was no sound as he tapped at the keys. He finished the sequence and stood back, eyes opening wide in surprise as he heard several warning sounds.

"Sonofabitch!" Sheppard spat and jumped through the narrow opening as the distinct sound of an explosion reached him. His body was propelled across the room and he landed hard against the wall before sliding to the floor. He blinked several times until his vision finally cleared.

"Way to go, John! Blowing yourself up is a great way of escaping that damn Wraith!" He slowly made his way to his feet and looked around. The smell of an unknown explosive reached his nostrils and his face screwed up in distaste before he retraced his steps and entered the room once more.

There didn't seem to be much damage, most of it confined to the area around the keypad. John moved forward sweeping his hand in front of his face in order to clear the smoky haze that seemed to linger around him. The opening was large enough for him to fit through and he was surprised at what he found in the storage area. There were several unfamiliar weapons, but there was also a gun, a monster like the one Ronon used and he lifted it, smiling at the way it felt in his hands.

"Now that's what I'm talking about," he whispered and searched for something he could add supplies to.

John cried out as he felt something move beneath his skin and dropped to his knees as nauseating fire burned through his nerves. He doubled over, writhing on the dirt covered floor as he tried to reach for the source of the pain. Darkness seemed to be reaching for him, but he fought it back in an effort to stay conscious. The Wraith had given him a time limit, and Sheppard knew they'd be after him the minute his six hours were up. Hell, he wasn't even sure he had six hours because he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious.

John's breathing grew ragged and sweat beaded on his forehead as he struggled with this new agony. He briefly wondered if Ronon had suffered this kind of pain and vowed to talk to him about his experiences when he got back to Atlantis…if he got back to Atlantis. He had no idea how long the pain went on as his body arched in agony, but the pain finally ebbed and he lay still for several minutes fighting to breathe past the nausea left in the pain's wake.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett knew something was definitely wrong as the sky darkened with the advent of night and there was still no sign of John Sheppard. The Colonel would have found some way to send him a message if it was simply a delay, but he would never stay away this long without sending word.

"Dr. Beckett, I am sorry Colonel Sheppard has not returned. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"You did everything you could, Crase."

"Will you be contacting your people?"

"Yes, I need to send a message home and let them know we need help searching the villages to the north," Beckett explained and knew the man would allow him to use the device they'd been given to contact Atlantis.

"We will do anything to help, Dr. Beckett," Crase assured him.

~oOo~

"Mr. Woolsey, Dr. Beckett is waiting to speak to you," the communications officer of the day explained as Richard Woolsey hurried toward him.

"Dr. Beckett, is everything all right?" Woolsey asked and knew it was a stupid question since Beckett and not Sheppard was the person contacting him.

"Colonel Sheppard has not returned from his trip to the north villages."

"When was he supposed to return?" Woolsey enquired.

"Yesterday, but a major storm swept through the area and Crase says there are villages in the mountains that are filled with Wraith worshippers…"

"And if Colonel Sheppard went down in the storm he could have been caught by them," Woolsey observed.

"Aye, and if that's happened then there's no way of tellin' where the lad is."

"Well, let's not go jumping the gun yet, Dr. Beckett, it could be he had problems with his Puddle Jumper…"

"He would have contacted me if that was the case."

"I'll have Major Lorne's team—"

"Unscheduled gate activation! Dr. McKay's IDC."

"Open the gate," Woolsey ordered and returned his attention to Carson Beckett as McKay, Ronon, and Teyla returned from their off world mission. "Dr. Beckett, rest assured help will be on the way within the hour. In the meantime find out what you can from Crase about the villages and whether they have the technology to contact a Wraith hive ship."

"Crase assures me they do, Mr Woolsey, and his people have already sent out search parties, but there's not much they can do on foot."

"Understood, Dr. Beckett, I'll get back to you as soon as everything is set in motion at our end," Woolsey said and moved to meet the returning team. "Welcome home."

"Thank you, Mr. Woolsey, it is good to be home," Teyla told him.

"How did things go with the Toreans?" Woolsey asked.

"We have a trade agreement," McKay told him excitedly. "And they promised an unlimited supply of Shireo."

"Yes, they did, and thanks to Rodney they are also interested in s'mores," Teyla explained with a smile.

"Have you heard from Sheppard?" Ronon asked out of the blue.

"Actually…no," Woolsey said as they reached his office. "I just spoke with Dr. Beckett and it seems Colonel Sheppard is overdue—"

"When do we leave?" Dex asked softly.

"Hold on a minute. I was going to send Major Lorne's team—"

"I'm going," Ronon said.

"Mr. Woolsey, perhaps it would be best if you allowed us to—"

"Let me finish," Woolsey said lifting his hands in an effort to keep control of the meeting. He knew as soon as Sheppard's team returned they would insist on being involved in the search and he understood their concern for the missing man. "You have just returned from an off world—"

"It was a simple mission and we had plenty of time to rest. We're ready to leave," McKay interrupted, obviously concerned for his missing friend.

"How long before you're ready to leave?" Woolsey asked.

"I'm ready now," Ronon answered.

"Yes, I'm sure you are, but you need to make sure the Puddle Jumper is fully stocked with supplies. Take an hour to get everything you need and I want hourly updates on your progress once you start the search," Woolsey ordered and watched as Sheppard's team moved to carry out his orders.

~oOo~

John knew he could not stay where he was no matter how bad the pain got. He called on his military training and prayed it would be enough, but each time he tried to stand, the Wraith device in his back sent shockwaves of pain through him. He lost track of time as he struggled to get to his feet, but he finally managed to stand upright, or as upright as any man who'd had his back carved up by an alien creature was capable of doing.

John looked around him and gritted his teeth as he reached for the collection of weapons and supplies he'd managed to find and knew he had to get moving. He had no way of knowing when the Wraith would start hunting him, but he needed to be ready and that meant finding a place to defend until he found a way off the planet.

Sheppard made his way along the deserted streets, not worried about keeping out of sight because the tracking device would let the Wraith know where he was. It made for a short game of cat and mouse, but John understood that game and had played it many times in his life. At some point the mouse became the cat as the hunter became the hunted.

Ronon was living proof of that, and he couldn't help but smile at the thought of the big Satedan. How many times had Ronon proved his mettle by putting himself in the line of fire to save their lives? It never occurred to John that he'd done the same selfless act on many occasions.

John glanced at the sky as he moved and wondered how many hours of daylight remained as he ignored the feeling of ants crawling around in his back. The bitter, acidic taste of bile burned his throat and he wished he had something to wash his mouth out with, but the Wraith had left him nothing but their little gift now making a home against his spine. The alien device shifted and he screamed before dropping to his knees in the dirt.

Sweat beaded on his forehead, dripping from his hair and trailed a path down his dust covered face. He cursed and screamed before finally managing to regain some control and making it to his feet again. He lifted the small pack and began running in an effort to escape the city and the Wraith who would soon be there.

He forced his mind to think of anything but the pain twisting like a double edged blade through his back and finally reached the end of the street. He ran on, silently thinking that 'runner' was the perfect name for people like him because that was about all they could do to escape their enemy.

John remembered Ronon had been hiding in a cave when they'd first met and he tried to remember whether Ronon had told him the cave had a dampening effect on the device's signal. It didn't really matter right now because there didn't seem to be anything remotely resembling a cave in the area. A stargate? No, if he remembered correctly the Wraith commander had destroyed the Satedan Stargate in an effort to keep Ronon tied to the planet.

"You're so screwed, John," he whispered and realized he was talking to himself again. He stopped and leaned heavily on his knees as the hot sun beat down from high overhead and wiped the sweat from his forehead before continuing away from the city.

~oOo~

The Wraith Commander watched as the drones readied themselves to begin the hunt for Colonel John Sheppard. It would be so easy to capture and feed on the human, but he wanted to make the man suffer. He wanted Sheppard to know what it was like to be hunted down like the animal he was.

The drones knew what was expected of them and there was no question that they would do exactly as ordered, but he also understood that humans could be highly unpredictable. That didn't bother him because it simply made this more interesting and exciting and that rarely happened anymore.

The Wraith Commander reached for his weapon of choice and smiled at the feel of the item in his hand. The gun fired projectiles instead of electrical impulses and would cause damage without killing Sheppard unless he misjudged where he placed the shot. This was his first hunt in a long time, and one he was really looking forward to because Colonel John Sheppard had a reputation that surpassed any other enemy he'd ever had the misfortune to meet.

"It is time," the Wraith Commander said and led the way to the dart.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett was barely able to contain himself as the Puddle Jumper landed in nearly the exact spot John Sheppard's had a few days ago. He wasn't surprised when Ronon, Teyla, and McKay stepped out and hurried toward him.

"Has there been any word, Carson?" Teyla asked worriedly.

"Not since I last spoke with Mr. Woolsey," Beckett answered and hurried toward the hut he'd been using. They entered to find Crase and several others going over the simple maps they'd made of the mountains to the north.

"We have nearly finished the maps, Dr. Beckett."

"Thank you, Crase. I'd like you to meet some friends of mine. Dr. Rodney McKay, Teyla Emmagan, and Ronon Dex," Beckett said. "This is Crase and his son Byrone and daughter Miriel."

"Welcome to Cablaos. I wish it was under better circumstances," Crase said as the newcomers joined them around the small table.

"Thank you, Crase, I have heard many good things about your people," Teyla said and smiled at their host.

"Have you been able to narrow the search parameters down?" McKay asked.

"Colonel Sheppard said he was going to fly north along the shore and then turn inland at the base of the mountains," Beckett explained. "The storm hit late in the evening and if Colonel Sheppard was caught in the open he could have gone down anywhere from the foothills to the upper mountains."

"Sheppard would have made sure the Jumper was sending out a signal if he went down," Ronon said.

"Not if it came upon him before he had a chance to react," Beckett offered.

"Sheppard's reflexes are fast. He'd have sent the signal if he could," Dex told them.

"I take it you didn't pick up any signal?" Beckett asked.

"Not a thing," McKay answered and studied the map. "How far away are these mountain villages Sheppard was supposed to visit?"

"By foot it would take many long weeks, but in the ship you have it should only take a few of your hours," Crase explained and pointed to several dots on the map. "These are the villages Colonel Sheppard would have checked on if not for the storm. There are at least two that are filled with Wraith worshippers and if he crashed anywhere near them he could have been discovered and turned over to the Wraith."

"We need to get moving," Ronon said.

"We're not even sure where we should be searching yet, Ronon," McKay said impatiently.

"We start at the first village and work our way into the mountains," Dex said.

"Ronon, are you all right?" Teyla asked.

"I'm fine," the Satedan vowed, but there was obvious tension in every muscle of his body. "I don't like wasting time—"

"Oh, give me a break, Ronon, this is not wasting time!" McKay snapped. "Look, the more information we have the better we'll be able to search for Sheppard. There's a lot of ground to cover."

"Easy, Rodney," Beckett said as he watched the two men. He knew they were worried, they all were, but Rodney and Ronon were like mixing oil and water, they just didn't blend well. That showed just what kind of man John Sheppard was because he'd made up his team using strangers and melded them into the best in the Pegasus Galaxy…Maybe even the best in any galaxy.

"Look, Ronon, I know you're worried. We all are, but we need to do this right so we don't make the mistake of going over ground we already covered," McKay said, hoping the Satedan would listen to reason,

"Sheppard's in trouble," Dex said simply.

"How do you know that? How can you know that?" McKay snapped.

"I don't know how. Just do," Ronon answered.

"Then help us come up with a real plan not some Neanderthal—"

"Rodney, stop!" Beckett warned.

"Look, Carson…"

"I'm leaving. Who's coming with me?" Dex asked.

"Oh, just like that…Tell me, Ronon, how do you plan on getting there?" McKay snapped.

"Dr. Beckett can fly the Jumper," Ronon said.

"You two squabbling like wee children is not getting us anywhere!" Beckett spat. "Ronon, we'll leave shortly, but not until we have a good idea of where to start searching. Crase, how many villages are there?"

"At least four as you fly along the base of the mountains, but there are two more in the thickest part of the forest and they are the Wraith worshippers. As I said before they are dangerous and if they found Colonel Sheppard then it is already too late…"

"It's never too late," Dex told him.

"I wish that was true."

"You don't know John Sheppard. He'll fight."

"Then they'll kill him," Crase said sadly.

"I don't think so. There are worse things the Wraith can do to him," Ronon offered and walked away without a backward glance.

"Worse than killing?" Crase asked and looked at Teyla as she answered.

"The Wraith could feed—"

"That is how they kill," Crase said.

"Yes, but there are other things they do. Ronon was a runner," Beckett explained.

"I have heard of Runners, but have never met one," Crase told them.

"That's because they usually end up captured by the Wraith. There's a tracking device placed in a Runner's back and that's how they find them," Beckett explained. "Ronon was smart and found ways to escape them."

"Do you believe Colonel Sheppard can escape the Wraith if he is a Runner?" Crase asked.

"I know he can," Teyla answered for them all as they returned their attention to figuring out where to start the search for their missing team leader.

Act II

The pack on his back irritated the wound made by the Wraith, but John knew he needed everything he carried. The weapons, including the one he cradled in his arms, were the only defense he had against those who tracked him. There was no doubt in his mind that they would eventually find him, and he silently prayed he'd find a place he could defend.

He staggered over the rough terrain, hoping he'd find water somewhere, otherwise it wouldn't matter if the Wraith found him or not. The Satedan sun beat down fiercely, sapping the moisture from his body with each step he took, but John was not a quitter and somehow found the strength to keep moving in spite of the twisting agony in his back.

He topped a low rise and was shocked when he looked down into a deep valley covered with dense forests as far as the eye could see. The trees were as tall as any he'd seen on Earth and seemed to reach up to touch the sky, but he knew that was simply a natural illusion. He glanced left and right, searching for the best route down to the bottom and finally settled on a rugged path strewn with rocks and fallen trees.

He cursed as he shifted his weight and nearly lost his footing in the loose soil, but managed to stay on his feet by grabbing a small sapling and hanging on long enough to regain his equilibrium. He started down, slipping and sliding on several occasions, but considered himself lucky when the floor of the valley appeared below him.

Carefully, he picked his way along the ledge he was standing on until he found a place that offered at least a little hope of getting to the bottom unscathed. It was nearly a sheer drop of at least 25 to 30 feet and John sat down before lowering his legs over the edge. He twisted his body and slowly eased down until he found something to rest his feet on. He tested it several times until he was sure it could take his weight and took a deep breath before searching for handholds below the ledge he'd just left.

He shook his head as some kind of insect landed on his cheek, tickling his skin and irritating the hell out of him. He found two handholds to his left and levered his body so that his left foot could search for another spot below the right. He continued his trek downward and glanced overhead several times as the sun continued its heated journey across the sky. He judged that he'd covered around ten feet, leaving him with a lot of treacherous ground to cover. His right foot found a spot while his left hand latched onto a root that protruded from the ground.

John's relief at making progress was short lived as his foot slipped from the foothold and the root was torn free. He didn't have time to react as his body became airborne and he dropped the final 15 feet to the ground. The air left his lungs in a strangled huff of pain as the sound of the impact echoed around the valley.

He had no idea how long he lay there, but the burning in his back made it impossible to lie still. He curled onto his left side and felt something wet on his back. John reached behind him and touched the area, his hand coming away soaked with blood.

"Way to go, John," he spat and removed his pack as he tried to sit up. The burning sensation continued beneath his skin and he felt the Wraith object moving as if it had a life of its own. He prayed he could stop the bleeding or it really wouldn't matter whether he survived to fight the Wraith because he'd be too damned weak to mount any kind of opposition.

He frowned as he heard a gurgling sound and turned toward the familiar sound of running water. He stood up, swaying dangerously, but managed to grab his pack and move toward what he hoped was salvation. He pushed aside the heavy branches and felt them tear at his skin, but the sight that met his eyes brought a hint of a smile to his pale face.

He stepped out into a clearing that could not be seen from above. He ignored the beauty provided by nature and staggered toward the small stream that ran directly through the center. He dropped down to his knees and used his hands to cup the water and sighed as the cold liquid hit his heated flesh.

Sheppard drank his fill before turning his attention to the wound in his back. He knew he needed to stop the bleeding, but had no way of seeing what he was doing. With a small groan, he eased the clothing from his body and walked into the stream in hopes that the water would clean the wound and help stop the bleeding. It felt great and he dove under, wincing as the water flushed the ravaged flesh then his head broke the surface and he stayed where he was, enjoying the freedom while he had it.

Reluctantly, he finally left the water and donned his clothing once more, relieved when he didn't feel any more bleeding. He lifted the pack and began walking south, following the stream in hopes of finding a place to hole up for a while and maybe grab some shuteye before the Wraith discovered his whereabouts.

~o0o~

They'd been flying north for several hours with Rodney in the pilot's seat and Ronon in the one beside him while Beckett and Teyla were seated in the back. McKay knew all he had to do was think about the controls and they'd work for him, but it didn't come as naturally to him as it did for John Sheppard. Hell, Sheppard seemed to be a natural at everything where Ancient technology was concerned.

"We follow the shoreline north," Ronon had told him as the Jumper lifted off.

"I know," McKay snapped. "Keep an eye out for Sheppard's Puddle Jumper!"

"I am," Dex said simply and continued to watch for anything that might indicate where Sheppard had gone down. There was no doubt in his mind that his instincts were correct as time went by with still no word from the missing man. They'd spotted a pod of what McKay described as whales, but he had no interest in them as the Puddle Jumper continued its northward journey.

The heavily forested area they now flew over could easily hide a jumper, but McKay had yet to spot anything that might be an indicator of something gone wrong. He flew higher as the trees seemed to reach out for him, and easily manipulated the craft so that he followed the path they'd laid out during their talk with Crase.

"There's something up ahead," Ronon said as the monitors indicated a change in telemetry.

"I see it," McKay said and maneuvered the craft closer to the treetops until they spotted a clearing and huts that indicated they were about to enter one of the mountain villages. "I just hope they're not Wraith worshippers."

"Didn't Crase say the Wraith worshippers were deeper in the mountains?" Ronon asked.

"Yes, he did, but he could be wrong about these people."

"Do you always look at things-"

"Look, I'm a confirmed pessimist and that means I always see things in the worst possible way. It's a trait I come by honestly so just leave it alone!"

Ronon could only smile at the man in the pilot's seat. He loved pushing McKay's buttons, but right now was not the time or the place. They needed to find Sheppard before it was too late and he studied the village below as if he could sense the Wraith, but it was Teyla who could do that and he glanced toward her.

"I don't sense any Wraith nearby." Teyla answered his unspoken question as McKay landed the craft at the edge of the village.

~o0o~

The Wraith commander looked at the device and growled deep in his throat when he noted there seemed to be only a dull signal from the tracker embedded in Sheppard's body. He knew it had not malfunctioned, but something was suppressing the signal and making it hard to get any kind of clear indication of where his prey was.

Oh, he knew Sheppard was somewhere in the vicinity of the city, but they could not pinpoint his exact location. He knew now he should have tested the device, but he'd been eager to have the game begin. Now it looked like they would be hunting the human without the aid of a tracker.

The others waited for his orders as he stood staring out over the darkening landscape. He knew to hunt Sheppard would be extremely dangerous in unknown terrain. He turned back to the dart, deciding that returning to the ship was the only choice they had. The hunt for John Sheppard would begin as soon as the sun rose above the horizon.

~o0o~

John glanced over his shoulder as an ominously familiar sound echoed through the area. He glanced skyward as a Wraith Dart flew past and managed to duck beneath a heavy overhang of branches from the trees. He watched until it disappeared and began to move once more, searching for anything that would offer him sanctuary during the darkest hours.

He kept the stream to his right as he walked, listening for any sound of pursuit, but there was nothing except the soft breeze that whispered through the trees. It would be too dark for him to move soon, yet he knew he could not stay out in the open with the Wraith tracking him.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten anything since being captured by the villagers. He thought about Ronon and what the Satedan had told him about his world. There were several berries he could eat, and if he was lucky enough to find them, there were several plants that grew an edible nut, but so far he'd been unable to find anything. He glanced at the stream and wondered if there were any fish in it, but with the oncoming darkness, he knew he wouldn't have time to find out.

He glanced to his right and spotted an opening in the trees that might offer some refuge, but it meant he'd have to cross the stream to reach it. He secured his pack and took a deep breath before stepping into the water. It was colder than he remembered, but he ignored the deep chill as he waded deeper into the stream. He slipped several times, but managed to stay on his feet as he neared the opposite shore.

He stared at the opening for several minutes before realizing what he saw was a shallow pool reflecting what little was left of the daylight. He blinked several times until he was able to bring everything into focus and hoped his eyes were not deceiving him. At the back of the pool there seemed to be a natural indentation where the stream had eroded the soil. John slowly made his way toward it and took a deep breath before diving beneath the surface. He knew he was taking a chance, but if he was right he'd found a place he could hole up for the night and be able to defend, if and when the Wraith came for him.

John swam, using long strokes as he sank deeper below the ground and knew he'd have to turn back if he didn't find something soon. He was ready to give up, but one last effort pushed him forward and he surfaced inside an underground cave. There seemed to be some kind of natural luminescence that reminded him of phosphorous and he sighed heavily in relief as he walked onto solid ground.

He knew he had to search the area and make sure there were no more entrances the Wraith could use to surprise him. Ignoring the aches and pains in his abused limbs, John checked the area and found no other entrances. If he was lucky, he would be able to stay here until he could figure out a way to contact Atlantis and let them know where he was and what kind of trouble he was in.

First things, first, John… food, he thought and realized whatever was causing the light was also giving off a natural heat that took the chill from his body. He removed his pack and placed it near the wall and hoped the water did not get any higher or he could be in serious trouble.

"You have a Wraith tracking device in your back, how much more serious can it get!" Sheppard spat and glanced toward the water. He knew it was safe to drink, but food would be an issue soon and he sighed before removing his clothing and ducking beneath the surface once more. He swam toward the entrance and broke the surface just before he'd be forced to take a deep breath and fill his lungs with water.

He shivered as a cool breeze blew across his naked flesh and felt goosebumps form on his body. He knew it would be fully dark soon and wasn't sure whether the stars would give him enough light to search by so he moved quickly along the shore. He checked the underbrush for anything that resembled the berries Ronon had told him about.

Pushing back the brush, he smiled when he caught the smell that reminded him of ripe strawberries. Ronon had described the berries and had told him they had the same scent and texture as those brought from Earth. John smiled as he remembered Ronon saying the berries of his world grew as large as the apples of John's planet.

Sheppard reached inside and picked two berries, washing them in the water before taking a tentative bite. He smiled appreciatively as he chewed the sweet 'fruit' and hoped it was the one Ronon had told him about. He ate the two berries and picked a couple to take with him before glancing around once more. It was hard to see now that the darkness had overtaken the land, but his sense of direction was good and he quickly made his way back toward his sanctuary.

Once inside, John stepped out of the water and let the natural heat warm his body before checking his clothing and finding they were nearly dry. He used the backpack as a pillow and lay back as weariness washed over him. It wasn't long before he drifted toward sleep, a soft moan escaping as the device in his back drew energy from him and shifted against his spine.

~o0o~

Rodney allowed Ronon to take the lead while Teyla and Beckett walked behind him as they made their way toward the village. It was similar to Crase's home, but with fewer huts. There were several children playing at the center of the village, but when they spotted the newcomers, they disappeared inside the huts.

"They seem a wee bit skittish," Beckett observed as several adult males gestured toward them, but remained a safe distance away.

"Yes, they do," Teyla agreed and smiled as she moved away from the others. "Crase sends greetings and said you would help us."

"Crase sent you?" the older male asked.

"Yes, we are searching for a friend…"

"He is not here."

"How do you know it's a man we're looking for?" McKay asked.

"We do not," the man said and tried to move back inside, but Ronon had reacted on instinct and moved to block his escape route. "Please, we know nothing of your friend," the man protested

"Then why are you afraid?" Dex asked softly.

"I…we are close to those who worship the creatures of the darkness," the man answered and seemed to be searching the shadows outside the village.

"The Wraith?" Beckett asked.

"I do not know what they are called, but there are some who worship these creatures and they have taken several of our people. They are used as prey to the creatures of darkness," the man told them.

"Do you know where these worshippers are?" McKay asked.

"They have a village further north… deeper in the mountains. If you keep the tallest mountain directly in front of you then you will find them, but it is dangerous and those who go there have not returned," the man answered nervously.

"Thank you, but we must find our friend," Teyla told him.

"Wait…" a woman interrupted

"Gianna, no…"

"We must tell them, Skyleer," the pretty woman said, her voice laden with certainty and fear. "We found a strange ship not far to the north."

"Sheppard's Jumper," McKay said.

"I do not know what a Sheppard's Jumper is, but the craft is still there," Gianna told them.

"Where?" Dex asked.

"Our hunting party discovered it and they were half day's walk from here," Skyleer answered.

"We'll start there," Ronon told them.

"There is more," Gianna said and moved away from Skyleer when he tried to stop her.

"Gianna, we must not speak of them!"

"They need to know…"

"Need to know what?" Beckett asked.

"It may already be too late for your friend. We saw a Wraith ship two cycles ago. They do not come unless summoned by the worshippers," Gianna explained.

"If the Wraith have John, we must find out where they have taken him," Teyla said.

"We need to find that village!" Dex said. He knew why they hadn't heard from Sheppard, and something told him the missing man was in a lot more trouble than they realized. Wraith either fed on you right away, or turned you into their own version of a 'worshipper', or worse yet, they made you a runner. Ronon had first hand knowledge of what that meant.

"Follow the trail north toward the tallest mountain and you will find the ship," Gianna told them.

"Thank you for your help, lass," Beckett said and followed the others back to the Jumper. Once inside McKay took control and they flew north, watching for any sign of the downed Jumper.

Ronon spotted the sheered off treetops and pointed them out to the others as Rodney kept on a direct course that led to the missing craft. Once they saw it, they quickly realized they'd have to find a place to land and then work their way through the dense forest in order to reach it.

~o0o~

John moaned as he shifted on the floor of the cave and silently cursed as he fought to control the nausea churning through his gut. His back felt as if it was on fire and he knew there was something definitely wrong with the Wraith tracking device. He remembered Ronon saying there was pain, but nothing he couldn't handle, and Sheppard knew he was no stranger to pain as he struggled to sit up.

He leaned against the wall of the cave and drew his legs up while wrapping his arms around his knees. He rocked back and forth and tried to ride out the pain, but each time he moved, the Wraith device moved with him. John had no idea how the device was attached, but it felt like the damn thing was chewing through his spine.

"God!" he screamed as the agony intensified. He slid sideways until he was lying on his left side and drew his legs up as he tried to curl into a ball. He tasted blood and managed to spit it on the floor of the underground cave, shivering uncontrollably in spite of the natural heat emanating from the walls of the cavern.

Breathing through tightly clenched teeth, he finally lay still as the Wraith device seemed to stop moving. He felt the sweat trickling down the back of his neck, yet he was chilled to the bone. He shifted slightly, hoping and praying the pain would not return as he finally managed to lean back against the wall once more.

He knew he'd have to make the trip outside again in order to find something to eat, but he had no idea what time of day or night it was. How long had he been asleep before the pain woke him? Were the Wraith waiting outside for him even now? Did they have a fix on his location? It didn't matter one way or the other because he knew he could not stay here forever. Sooner or later he'd have to return to the city and try to find some way of contacting Atlantis.

~o0o~

The rough trail was hard to follow, but they cut through the thickest brush until they finally reached the downed Puddle Jumper. Ronon and Teyla entered the craft through the open rear hatch and motioned for the other two to enter. There was no sign of John Sheppard, but there were signs that animals had tried to nest inside it.

"John is not here," Teyla said and watched as Ronon stepped outside and began searching the area.

"This looks like blood," McKay said of the stain on the console.

"It is, but that doesn't mean—"

"Carson, who else would it belong to?" McKay interrupted him.

"Could be an animal's," Beckett answered.

"Looks like whoever took him traveled north," Ronon told them from the open hatch.

"It could be the hunters from the last village," McKay said.

"No, their tracks go south, away from the mountains," Dex answered.

"How can you tell that just by looking at a few footprints?" McKay asked impatiently.

"Different markings," Ronon answered simply. "There's also evidence that whoever took Sheppard was carrying something when they left here."

"Then I guess we head north," McKay said.

"We should contact Atlantis and have them send someone to repair the Jumper," Teyla suggested.

"We'll do that from the ship," McKay said as the group hurried back the way they'd come.

~o0o~

John eased his trembling body into the water and dove beneath the surface. He followed the small tunnel away from his sanctuary and resurfaced in the small pool with the sun beating down on him and warming his body. Exiting the water, he listened for any sign of the Wraith, but heard nothing that alarmed him.

He reached the area where he'd found food the day before and reached for a couple of the sweet berries. He hoped he was right in what he remembered Ronon telling him about them being good for him, then again, he figured it was too late anyway. He bit into the ripe fruit and relished the taste as he sank to his knees. He listened for any sounds of danger as he enjoyed the meal, but doubled over as agonizing pain encompassed his back. It felt as if the Wraith tracking device was grinding against his spine.

He rolled on the ground, curling into a ball as his body shook with tremors and he clenched his fists as his eyes closed. John had no idea how long the attack lasted, but when the agony slowly died, he found the strength to breathe. He lay on his back and fought the urge to laugh when he realized he was totally naked and unarmed should the Wraith show up.

John managed to climb to his knees, but remained still as he tried to work out what kind of damage the tracking device was causing. He thought about Ronon and remembered how he'd described how it felt, but he couldn't remember the Satedan saying anything about this kind of pain.

"All right, John, get moving before you're caught with your pants down," he whispered and tried to get to his feet as a sound reached his ears. A sound like nothing he'd ever heard before and he quickly turned in all directions in an effort to find out where it was coming from. Ronon had told him of the large creatures that lived in the forests outside the city, and John had a feeling he was hearing one of them now.

Sheppard quickly grabbed more of the berries as the sound grew closer, sending a chill down his spine. He raced back to the water and hoped whatever it was didn't know how to swim. John dove beneath the surface, but not before catching sight of something covered in long golden fur, with talons raised, as if to strike at something. Sheppard quickly realized the something was probably him and he cursed the thought of becoming a meal for the creature or prey for the Wraith. Either way he was between a rock and a hard place.

He soon found himself back inside the small cavern and placed the berries on the ground beside his clothing. He took a deep breath as he watched the water for any sign that the creature had followed him inside. There were no ripples in the water, and after a few minutes, he relaxed and moved away from the pool. The pack was near the back of the cavern and John moved toward it with a grimace as the movement sent shockwaves through his back.

Leaning back against the warm wall, he closed his eyes as sleep beckoned him once more.

~o0o~

The Wraith Commander looked around the deserted city, silently berating the defective device they'd implanted in John Sheppard's back. There was no way to track him now, but the drones would have to search for signs of where the human had disappeared. His anger had grown during the darkest hours and he'd fed upon one of his own kind before leading the others back to Sateda.

The Wraith knew the drones had not found anything so far and he found himself drawn toward a structure on his right and stepped inside. The place looked like the others he'd seen, but there was a little difference here… There was evidence of a recent explosion of some kind. He moved closer, relieved when he saw no sign of human remains because he wanted the pleasure of feeding on John Sheppard.

The Wraith Commander knew Sheppard was dangerous, far more dangerous than he'd thought, but he was only human and humans were merely food for his kind. Like any of the inhabitants of the Pegasus Galaxy, humans were meant to be culled and forced into serving the Wraith.

He growled deep in his throat before turning and leaving the empty building, sniffing the air and listening for any sound that his prey was close by. There was nothing more he could do now except wait to see whether the drones were able to find out in what direction Sheppard had gone.

~o0o~

Rodney flew the Jumper low over the treetops as they searched for evidence of the people who'd taken Sheppard. So far they'd seen nothing except for a couple of bear-like animals that disappeared beneath the canopy of trees as soon as they'd spotted the craft.

"McKay, go left," Dex ordered.

"Did you see something?" McKay asked.

"Thought I saw a flash of color in the treetops."

"It was probably some kind of bird."

"I don't think so… too big," Ronon told him.

"What else could it be? Those trees are too tall for it to have been a Wraith Worshipper… unless they live in tree houses," McKay corrected. He studied the area Ronon had pointed out and frowned when he spotted the same flash of color. "I see it…"

"Be careful, Rodney," Teyla said as McKay flew closer to the object. It wasn't very big, but there were several of the creatures with bright orange and red fur swinging from one tree to another.

Carson smiled when he recognized the docile creatures known to the people of Cablaos. He'd seen them on several occasions inside the village where the people treated them with kid gloves. They were sacred to Crase's people and were supposed to be harbingers of good rather than evil.

"They're called Shinshrong and are quite friendly creatures," Beckett told them.

"They look like colorful chimpanzees," McKay said.

"They do, but those have bigger teeth," Carson explained as they left the creatures behind them.

"Rodney, perhaps it would be a good idea to cloak the Jumper," Teyla suggested and watched as he did as she suggested before continuing along their flight path.

"There's a clearing up ahead," McKay told them before making a wide sweep of the area. He spotted the village as they moved past the clearing and realized the huts were much like the ones in Crase's village, but the inhabitants had tried to make them blend into the background. They'd done a good job of it too, but McKay and the other members of the team knew what to look for at any given time.

"Rodney, there seems to be a small clearing to the left," Teyla said and relaxed as McKay flew toward the area.

"One of us should stay with the Jumper," McKay suggested.

"You volunteering, McKay?" Dex asked.

"Well… someone has to," McKay told them.

"Carson could stay," Teyla suggested.

"No, if Colonel Sheppard is in the village, he could be injured. I'm going," Beckett insisted.

"Then it looks like Rodney will be staying with the Jumper," Teyla said with a sa\mall smile.

"Are you sure? I mean you could stay and I'll—"

"You and Dr. Beckett are the only ones who can fly the Jumper. Since Dr. Beckett might be needed in the village, it is best that you stay here," Teyla replied.

"Just be careful of the relatives of the chimpanzees, McKay… I hear they got big teeth and razor sharp claws," Ronon teased before exiting through the rear hatch.

"Wait a minute! Razor sharp claws… Ronon, you're kidding right? Ronon!" McKay turned and quickly closed the rear hatch. He made his way to the front of the Jumper where he could watch the instruments and make sure no creature got too curious about the craft.

~o0o~

John sighed heavily and realized it was time to leave his sanctuary, but he wanted to make sure he remembered where it was and leave a few provisions should he be forced to make a hasty retreat. He chose a couple of smaller weapons and placed them at the back of the cavern, away from the water.

He looked at the weapon that resembled Ronon's and knew he needed to test it once he was outside. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and shivered as he looked at the water. John grabbed the pack and stuffed his clothes inside, hoping it would keep them from getting soaked again.

During the last few hours, John had begun to realize there was something wrong with the Wraith tracking device and that it was affecting his body and mind. He felt hot and sluggish and silently prayed the thing would not screw him up too badly. Taking a deep breath, he dove into the water, and with long strokes, had soon exited the tunnel into the clear pool. He stayed where he was and listened for the creature he'd heard earlier, but the sound was not repeated and he stepped onto the shore.

Reaching into the pack, he pulled out his clothing, relieved to find that the pack had kept it fairly dry. He pulled on his clothes, shivering as a soft breeze blew across his body and ruffled his hair. John quickly glanced around, eyeing the berries before realizing his stomach was churning and right now nothing would stay put if he tried to eat. He craved water and returned to the stream to drink his fill before shouldering his pack and looking around.

There were two choices, follow the stream and chance running into whatever creatures lived in the dense forest, or return to the city. Neither choice appealed to him, but at least the city might provide him with a means of contacting Atlantis. That was his best chance of getting help, but it also meant he could be walking right into a Wraith trap.

He frowned when he realized the Wraith should have found him by now, but there'd been no sign of them… not even the whine of a dart flying overhead. Was it possible that tracking device really had malfunctioned, and did that mean the Wraith would give him up as lost? That was possible, but John didn't hold out much hope that it was the case. Nothing was ever that easy, not in his life anyway.

He began the long trek back toward the city, his mind and body tuned to everything around him, but he hadn't gone far when the paralyzing pain crawled through his nervous system again and sent him to the ground. He struggled for each breath, yet there still seemed like no air entered his lungs and he rolled onto his hands and knees.

"God!" he screamed. It felt like sharp needles were embedded in his spine. Sheppard had no idea how long the attack went on, but suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. John gasped as he latched onto it and fought with everything he had, but whoever had touched him easily got the upper hand.

"Be still… let me help you!"

The voice and the touch got through to him and he fought to look at whoever it was. God, he couldn't allow them to help him, not when the consequences would be death to his benefactor and anyone else who tried to help him. "No… can't… won't let you be hurt because… of me…"

"Shh, they will not hurt me. You will be safe."

"You won't… the Wraith… put some… device in my… my back," Sheppard told her and felt strong hands sliding under his shirt.

"I know… I have seen it before."

"Who are you?" Sheppard managed as her fingers touched the raw wound in his back.

"My name is Jordanaeh and I can help you."

"No, they'll come… hurt you… can't let th-that happen," Sheppard tried, sighing as the pain eased and his eyes closed.

"Sleep… it is best for you right now."

~o0o~

Jordanaeh looked around. She had lived in the higher mountains all her life, but came down to the city in search of supplies when needed. There were times when she wished she could leave the mountains, but her life was there, her world was there in the caves that ran beneath the mountains and streams. She knew when the Wraith came, had felt the city die as the people were culled and had mourned the loss of countless lives that would never be avenged.

Jordanaeh knew this man was not from Sateda, but she sensed the goodness in him and would help him if she could. There had been several other 'runners' she'd found through the years and she'd been able to remove the tracking devices, but this man was different. The device had attached itself to him, not just his body, but other systems in his body had been affected. She could feel the heat rising from him and sensed the unbearable pain that shocked his system.

Jordanaeh whistled softly and smiled when a large beast pushed through the heavy thicket. By nature the animal was a vicious beast, but she'd found him as a small cub and quickly bonded with him. There were those who would say the creature had imprinted on her and thought of her as its mother, but she did not believe in those things. She saw in it a silent brother, one bonded by necessity and held together by a shared need of a strange, yet familiar love.

Jordanaeh had become familiar with some of its guttural connotation over the years and had learned how to communicate with it. She used a series of hand signals and growls to get it to understand what she expected of it. She smiled when the creature reached for the unconscious male and cradled him protectively in his strong arms.

Jordanaeh reached for the discarded pack and saw blood on the ground. There wasn't a lot, but if the stranger continued to bleed, he would grow weaker. There were ways she could stop the bleeding, but could she do that while the Wraith device was still inside him? Would he be able to live with that or would they need to find a way to remove it? For now all she could do was get him back to her home and hope he lived long enough for her to find a way to help him.

She followed the swiftly moving animal deeper into the forest and knew it would take several hours to reach the base of the mountains where she'd made her home. There were others there, not many, and most were elderly who didn't venture out of the system of caves.

The creature, whom she chose to call Risha, was covered in long golden fur, with close set green eyes, and long arms. It followed the path along the ground, but could just as easily take to the trees and disappear in seconds. If it sensed danger nearby, it would scoop her up and carry them all to the safety of the tall trees.

Jordanaeh studied the man cradled in Risha's arms and wondered where he'd come from and why he been chosen by the Wraith as a runner. From what she'd seen, he was well muscled and exceptionally built, but the Wraith didn't need their prey to have those characteristics. She knew there would be pain ahead for him, but she hoped she could rid him of the device before the Wraith discovered his whereabouts.

~o0o~

The Wraith Commander's anger intensified as they journeyed away from the city in search of the missing runner. The drones had found evidence that Sheppard was moving in this direction, but the signs were many hours old, and without the use of the tracking device, he might just escape altogether. That was something he would not allow to happen because it would undermine his authority with his Hive's new queen. She'd taken control soon after Sheppard had killed the Hive's first queen.

He'd been the one to tell her of his plans for the human and she'd given her approval, but if he returned without the colonel's body, then it was likely he would become her next meal. He growled deep in his throat as the drones stopped and turned in his direction and he knew they were waiting for his orders.

"Keep following him! He cannot have gotten that far!"

The Wraith Commander continued to follow the others, glancing all around for the creatures that lived in the remnants of the city. He knew there were more of them in the forests, but he was safe because he could easily sacrifice a few drones to appease the creatures.

"Where are you, Colonel Sheppard?" the Wraith Commander whispered as he followed the others past the last building and entered the forest where the shadows lengthened and the sounds of the night reached them.

~o0o~

Ronon led the way through the dense thicket until they reached the outer part of the village. He held up his hand and signaled for Teyla and Beckett to be quiet while he checked the area for any signs of danger. He'd seen villages like this before and recognized the signs of Wraith worshippers. His instincts kicked into high gear when he realized there was no movement from the people who lived there.

"It looks deserted," Beckett whispered.

"I believe the Wraith have been here," Teyla offered and saw a slight nod from Ronon.

"Bloody hell," Beckett spat softly. "Do you think the buggers are still here?"

"No, they're long gone," Ronon said, standing and making his way into the village. The central fires were cold to the touch and he knew whatever had happened, they'd missed it by more than a day. He looked around, shaking his head when he spotted several bodies huddled together near the edge of the village.

"Carson, over here," Teyla called, having seen the same thing as Ronon.

Beckett hurriedly joined them, shaking his head at the devastating effects the Wraith feeding had on human bodies. There was no way to tell how young or old these people were before they'd been fed on, but they deserved to be buried no matter how wrong they'd been in choosing to worship the Wraith.

"They are beyond my help," Beckett said.

"They died as they lived," Dex said and looked around. He spotted something near the edge of the village and hurried toward it, smiling at a child whose eyes were filled with horror. "Hey… it's okay…"

"No… please don't… don't let them feed on me."

"We won't, kid," Dex assured the child. "Teyla, could you…"

"Hello, my name is Teyla. What is yours?"

"I am Chadish… my papa is dead… they fed on him."

"Are there any others?" Teyla asked.

"No… I was playing outside the village when I heard the Wraith and I stayed hidden… I am a coward… we worshipped them and they fed on us," the boy said.

"We need to get him back to the Jumper," Beckett said.

"Where do we take him after that?" Ronon asked.

"Back to Crase's village. They'll take care of him," Beckett answered.

"Chadish, was there a stranger here a few days ago?" Dex asked.

"Not now, Ronon," Beckett warned as the boy wrapped his arms around Teyla and began to cry softly.

"We need to know, Doc," Ronon said.

"I know, but he's been traumatized…"

"He's a Wraith worshipper…"

"No, he's a kid… his papa may have been a Wraith worshipper, but he's hardly old enough to know what the Wraith are," Beckett snapped.

"There was… was a man here. Kiosion cared for him be-before he signaled the Wraith," Chadish told them.

"Did the Wraith take him?" Teyla asked.

"I think so. I stayed hidden until after they left… after they killed everyone…why? Why did they kill Kiosion and the others… my family… we worshipped… we did as they wanted."

"The Wraith do what they do, Chadish. They do not answer to anyone but themselves and there are plenty of others to take the place of those they kill," Teyla explained.

"Teyla, why don't you take him back to the Jumper. Ronon and I can check the rest of the villagers and meet you there," Beckett suggested and waited for her to leave. "Ronon, do you think they are—"

"They'll make him a runner, Doc," Dex answered simply.

"They'll put a tracking device in him."

"That's how they operate. What's wrong, Doc?"

"Colonel Sheppard has the Ancient gene… probably one of the strongest in Atlantis…"

"And you're worried about what the device will do to him?"

"We both know the Ancients built in safeguards where the Wraith are concerned. If the Wraith have developed their own technology, they could very well have done the same thing. Colonel Sheppard is in danger… and not just from the Wraith," Beckett explained.

"We need to get moving," Ronon told him and began searching the village for survivors.

~o0o~

Jordanaeh kept watch as Risha cradled the injured man in one arm. They'd been forced to take to the trees when Risha had sensed danger lurking nearby. She had no idea whether it was animal or Wraith that had spooked the creature, but she had learned long ago to trust its instincts. They were still an hour away from their destination and the 'runner' still hadn't regained consciousness.

Jordanaeh knew the dangers of helping the 'runner', but the caves would help protect them from discovery if they were able to reach them. They traveled quickly through the treetops, but she knew Risha was tiring because of the extra burden he was forced to carry. She heard soft cry from the injured man and signaled for Risha to stop. She heard a guttural growl in his throat, but he did as she requested and eased both her and the 'runner' to a thick branch that could easily hold their weight.

~o0o~

John wanted more than anything to stay where he was, but the pain had intensified to the point where he had no choice but to acknowledge it. He reached behind him and tried to touch the source of the agony, but soft hands touched his and held them until he opened his eyes and looked at the woman kneeling beside him.

The moonlight reflected off shimmering silver hair that framed a face graced with such beauty that it took his breath away. Her eyes were green, a soft hew that hypnotized him, but he shook off the effects and concentrated on sitting up. "I need to go—"

"We will keep moving, but first I must check your back. The Wraith device is causing you pain."

"I'm fine…"

"Is that so?" Jordanaeh asked, silver eyebrows rising in amusement as she watched his face.

"Look, I can't… let you be hurt because of me. If they catch you helping me, they'll kill you."

"Then it is up to me to keep them from finding us. We will get to the caves and there you will be safe until I can figure out how to safely remove the tracking device."

"You seem to know a lot about Wraith technology."

"I have had the displeasure of meeting several Wraith and their victims."

"How did you escape?"

"They did not know I was there," Jordanaeh explained. "What is your name?"

"John Sheppard."

"Do you think you can move or should Risha carry you, John?"

"I can… I can move," Sheppard told her and struggled to stand. He swayed on his feet and would have fallen had she not reached out to steady him. He looked down over the edge of the branch and turned to smile weakly at her. "Careful, that first step is a big one."

"Yes, it is," Jordanaeh said with a soft laugh as she took his arm and linked it through hers. "Follow Risha, he knows where he is going and will not let anything happen."

John looked at the animal standing to his right and wondered why he felt like the damn thing would eat him alive if given the chance.

"Risha is not like others of his kind. He has been with me since he was a small cub and has saved my life many times. I trust him with my life," Jordanaeh explained.

"He looks like he's hungry," John observed.

"It is past his meal time, but do not worry he is not hungry… yet," Jordanaeh replied with a teasing smile as they began moving through the treetops. She knew the man beside her was unfamiliar with traveling so high off the ground, but he seemed to have been born to it. He mis-stepped a couple of times, but was quickly able to compensate and she caught herself trying to keep up with him until he cried out and dropped to his knees. "Risha, wait!"

John fought to breathe, but each time he tried to draw air into his lungs, it felt like razor sharp fangs were biting into his spine. He felt hands touching him, easing him onto his side before soft fingers touched his back and gently began to ease the misery as if they held some kind of localizing pain medication. He sank toward sleep as he felt the hands leave his body and was soon lifted in strong arms as darkness finally won out.

~o0o~

Teyla held the young boy as they reached the Puddle Jumper and quickly brushed past a startled McKay.

"Teyla, who's that?" he asked as Ronon and Carson joined them.

"His name is Chadish and he is the only survivor of a Wraith culling," Teyla said as the boy trembled against her. She would never get used to the utter barbarity of a Wraith attack and she knew that was the difference between them. The Wraith did not care who they culled or how many they killed as long as they got what they wanted - a ready food supply.

"Did you find Sheppard?" McKay asked, looking worried. "He wasn't—" He gestured lamely.

"No," Ronon answered simply as he hurried toward the front of the Puddle Jumper and sat down.

"Rodney, take us back to Crase's village," Beckett said.

"What? I thought we were going after Sheppard?" McKay said, looking confused.

"We are, but we can't take Chadish with us and we can't leave him alone out here," Beckett answered.

"Oh… right." McKay nodded and hurried to sit down next to a quiet Ronon.

"You know I've been thinking about the Wraith," McKay said.

"What about them?" Dex asked as the puddle Jumper lifted off.

"If they have Sheppard…"

"They have him!" Ronon snapped.

"Okay, they have him and I have a feeling I know where they've taken him," McKay said.

"Where?" Teyla asked from the rear.

"Sateda," McKay answered simply.

"Why would they take him there? That's Ronon's home, not Sheppard's," Beckett said.

"If the Wraith knows who Sheppard is, he could easily decide to take him there because—"

"The Wraith don't need a reason," Teyla interrupted. "Rodney, do you think you can check it the way you did when the Wraith took Ronon?"

"I tried while you were gone. There is a signal, but it doesn't read the same way Ronon's did," McKay explained.

"What do you mean?" Teyla asked and moved to stand behind McKay and Ronon.

"It's like something's been changed, but I'm not sure what," McKay told her.

"Then how can you be sure it's Wraith technology you're tracking?" Teyla asked.

"It reads like a Wraith tracking device, but—"

"What is it, Rodney?" Teyla asked as they flew south toward Crase's village.

"If I'm right then it's possible Sheppard's Ancient gene is affecting it," McKay answered. He'd been studying the readouts while Carson, Teyla, and Ronon were at the village and everything he'd seen pointed to trouble for John Sheppard.

"We knew that might happen, but it remains to be seen how badly the gene affects the Wraith device or vice versa," Beckett offered as he covered Chadish with a blanket.

"There's no telling how the device will react to the Ancient gene, but the signal has changed," McKay offered.

"Maybe that's a good thing," Teyla said.

"How?" Ronon asked.

"Perhaps the changes to the device leave the Wraith unable to track Colonel Sheppard," Teyla explained.

"She could be right," McKay offered, feeling a hint of hope forming as he flew the Puddle Jumper low over the trees. "So, we drop the kid off and head for Sateda."

"What if you're totally wrong, Rodney? Does Colonel Sheppard have that kind of time?" Beckett asked.

"He's not wrong," Dex said simply, his shoulders slumped.

"Sateda is a long way from here," Teyla observed.

"I know, but we can get there by using the gates," McKay said simply as the group grew quiet and silently prayed they reached the missing man before the Wraith did.

~o0o~

The Wraith commander grew angrier as the drones searched for anything that would lead them to Colonel John Sheppard. So far the tracking device was not working and there'd been no signal since they'd begun the search. Something had happened to the device, something that rendered it inoperable.

He turned toward the mountains north of the city and wondered if the human had found refuge in the system of caves. There were stories of people who lived there, hiding from the Wraith and only coming out when they needed something. There was supposed to be a woman who could heal people there, but as far as he was concerned it was just a story told by Wraith when they wanted an excuse for their failure.

If John Sheppard was hiding in the caves, he would find him and feed until there was nothing left but a dry husk that would disintegrate in a strong wind. He motioned for the others to follow him, and knew it would be so much easier to take the dart, but that would mean warning the inhabitants of the caves that they were there.

The Wraith commander would not allow anything to interfere with his plans for the human, and would show the new Hive queen that he could do what needed to be done. There were others of his kind who would benefit should he fail, but he held his head high, as he led the drones deeper into the forest.

~o0o~

Jordanaeh knew she was being watched, but for now she only had eyes for the man Risha had placed on the soft bed made of brushes and blankets. She knew his fever had risen since she'd found him and silently worked to strip him of his clothing. Heavy bruising had already formed on the well-honed chest and taut muscles of his upper body. A long gash on his lower leg had bled and showed signs of infection that would need to be cleansed properly in order to heal. She knew these injuries would need to be taken care of, but her priority had to be the wound in his back and the foreign object embedded there.

"Jordanaeh, can I assist you?"

"Come forward, Caleashi," Jordanaeh said and turned to watch the young man limping toward her. He had been injured during the Wraith culling of Sateda and had barely escaped with his life. Risha had found him at the bottom of a ravine, near death, covered in dirt and debris.

"What do you need?" Caleashi asked softly.

"Bring me water and Shinasta oil," Jordanaeh told him.

"Will he survive the removal of the device?"

"I do not know, Caleashi," Jordanaeh answered honestly as she gently probed the ravaged flesh. She looked at the instruments on the table beside her and wondered if it was wise to try and remove the Wraith device. She heard Caleashi moving around and gathering the items she would need and hoped they could save this man. She eased him onto his stomach and winced at the damage done by the Wraith responsible for his injuries.

"Is there anything else I can do?"

"I am going to try to remove the device. Have Risha come in," Jordanaeh explained as she used a cloth and the Shinasta oil to clean the area around the wound. Through it all there was no sound from the injured man, but that would change once she started digging inside him for the foreign object. She heard the creature enter the chamber and motioned with her hands as she explained what she wanted him to do.

"Should I stay?" Caleashi asked.

"I will need your help with him once I have removed the device," Jordanaeh explained.

"Can you remove it? The wound does not look the same as the others," Caleashi observed.

"No, it does not, and I am afraid I may not have the proper tools or knowledge to remove it," Jordanaeh explained as she gently eased the wound open, eliciting a sharp cry from the injured man.

"If anyone can, it is you, Jordanaeh," Caleashi told her.

~o0o~

John felt someone touching his body, and it felt as if they were pushing shards of glass deep into his back. He tried to escape, but something held him in place and his eyes opened wide as terror shot through him. "God!" he cried and struggled to break free.

"You need to be still!"

"Jordanaeh," Sheppard managed through tightly clenched teeth.

"I am here, John, and I am going to help you, but the device—"

"Is screwed up… It's not like it was with Ronon," Sheppard told her.

"Who is Ronon?" Jordanaeh asked, wishing she could give him something to help with the pain, but for now all she had was her touch and that didn't seem to be helping much.

"A friend. A Satedan like you, but he was a runner and the Wraith hunted him. He killed the bastard, or should I say Beckett kill-killed… God!" he cried as he felt the thick tendrils wrap themselves around his spine. He thought he heard a new voice, but his mind and body were no longer his own as she continued to try and separate him from the Wraith device. "Stop… I can't… too much!"

"I cannot remove it, John," Jordanaeh told him, worried about the amount of blood that stained her hands and the blankets he lay on. She reached for the container of Shinasta oil and poured some over the wound. It would help ease the discomfort and maybe help with the fever that raged through his body, but she knew the device had to be removed or it would eventually kill him.

"Figured as m-much. Look, Jordanaeh, I appre-appreciate everything you've d-done for me, but I can't stay h-here… danger to y-you," Sheppard said, but quickly he was losing the fight to stay conscious as she cleaned the raw wound.

"Just rest, John, we are all safe here," he heard her reassure him as she covered the wound.

~o0o~

Rodney knew the people of the village were sincere in their wishes that they'd be successful in finding John Sheppard, but he was in a hurry to leave. Teyla had explained to Crase where they had found the boy and that his village had been destroyed by the Wraith. Ronon stood at the edge of the village, and McKay knew he was thinking about the missing man.

Ronon had been a runner twice and survived, and there was no doubt in Rodney's mind that Sheppard would also survive, but they needed to find him as soon as possible. McKay walked over to the Satedan and stood beside him. "We'll find him before the Wraith do, Ronon."

"Will we?" Ronon asked without looking at the other man.

"As soon as Teyla is finished, we'll leave. It won't take long to get to Sateda," McKay said, but he could tell Ronon was not listening to him.

"Rodney, Crase has agreed to take care of Chadish. The boy will not be blamed for what his village did," Teyla explained and waited for the two men to follow her to the Puddle Jumper. She knew they were both worried about Sheppard and the truth was, she was too, but right now they needed to get moving and find him.

~o0o~

John opened his eyes and waited for them to adjust to the dim light of the cave. He could see several dark shadows opposite the mound of furs he lay on and frowned when one seemed to walk toward him.

"Hello, John, how do you feel?"

"I'm okay… I think."

"You are far from okay, but you will be if you rest."

"I can't rest, not here. The Wraith—"

"The Wraith will not find you here, John," Jordanaeh assured him, but she could tell he did not believe her. "The caves of our ancestors were once used to hide from the Wraith and other creatures that preyed on our kind. There is something in the stones that make it hard for the Wraith to enter and their tracking devices do not work in here."

"Maybe… but I can't… take that chance with your life."

"That is my choice, John," Jordanaeh said, a smile blossoming on her face as she looked at him.

"What of your people? Can you stand there and tell me they are in no danger?"

"There is always danger in life, John, but we choose not to bow down to it. We chose to stand and fight for what we have and that includes our belief that in helping others, we help ourselves. You should rest."

"Not while the Wraith are out there. Help me up, Jordanaeh," John ordered.

"No, John, Risha is keeping watch with the others and will let us know if they see anything. You are not strong enough to leave."

"I have to… don't you understand what…what the Wraith will do to you."

"Yes, I do, but I will not turn away someone in need, and right now you are in need of my help. I have tried to remove the tracking device, but it is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It has become twisted in your spine and attached itself to your nerves. That is why you feel such pain."

John struggled to sit up and felt her hand on his arm, supporting him even as she scolded him for being so stubborn. He smiled weakly when he finally made it to an upright position and grabbed for a fur when he realized he was totally naked. "Where are my clothes?"

"They were of no use, but if you insist on being up, I will give you some of Jakar's clothing. It should fit… although the pants may be a little short for you," Jordanaeh explained and moved to a small cabinet near the bed of furs. "These should do you."

"Thank you," Sheppard told her.

"You are welcome," the woman said and sat beside him. "Is something wrong with the clothing?"

"Not really, but would you mind?" John motioned toward the opening.

"Are you shy, John?"

"No… yes… maybe a little."

"There is nothing for you to be ashamed of, John, from what I have seen, you have no reason to be embarrassed. You have the body of a strong warrior."

"Thanks… but…"

"I will leave you to get dressed," Jordanaeh said with a smile. Moving to the open fire, she began ladling stew into bowls. While she set the stone table, she listened for any sign of trouble from the other room, and turned when she heard footsteps.

"Smells good," Sheppard told her, smiling when she motioned for him to take a seat.

"It is very good, and hot, so be careful," Jordanaeh warned as she placed the bowl in front of him. She could tell he was still feverish, but there was not much she could do for him until the device was removed from his back.

"I'm okay, Jordanaeh," Sheppard said as he fought to eat the savory stew she'd prepared. He knew he could not do it justice, but managed to eat several spoonfuls before his churning stomach cramped and he doubled over in pain. He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard her soft voice, but nothing could ease the nauseating discomfort he felt.

"John, you need to lie down," Jordanaeh said and helped the injured man to his feet. She stumbled under his weight as his legs threatened to give out, but she maneuvered him toward the room where he could rest.

John held tightly to the woman as she directed him toward the mound of furs and allowed her to ease him down onto them. He breathed through tightly clenched teeth until he was settled on his side and drew his legs up in an attempt to ease the debilitating pain. He felt a cool cloth placed on his forehead and sighed heavily before opening his eyes. "Sorry…"

"You have nothing to apologize for, John, just lie still and it will ease," Jordanaeh explained.

"The Wraith are coming… they can't find me here," John tried, but he didn't have the strength to fight as she lifted the blanket over him.

Jordanaeh turned away from the injured man and made her way outside. The sun had risen long ago and the heat of the day was already making things uncomfortable. She saw Risha moving through the nearby treetops and knew the animal would warn her should there be any sign of the Wraith.

"Is the man alive?"

Jordanaeh turned to see a crippled elder walking toward her. The man was wise beyond his years and had survived a Wraith culling before finding the safety of the caves. Now he spent most of his time inside, teaching the young ones who had found their way to the sanctuary after the city had been destroyed.

"He is in pain," she replied.

"You could not remove the device?"

"No, Bilar, I believe it is not reacting to his body the way it did with our people," Jordanaeh explained sadly.

"I have seen that on one other occasion. It would be dangerous for you to remove it, yet it will eventually bring the Wraith to us," Bilar explained.

"I know, but I cannot turn my back on him."

"No one is asking you to, but there are those amongst us who will want to turn him over to the Wraith before they find our sanctuary."

"That will only get us all killed. We both know the Wraith do not reward us for our loyalty."

"We have no loyalty to the Wraith, but you are correct in what you say. We must convince the others that it is not safe to turn him over to the Wraith and hope they agree with us," Bilar told her.

"You will stand by me?"

"I have always stood by you, Jordanaeh," the elder said softly. "You must rest."

"I will, but I wish there was something more we could do for him."

"Perhaps when he is awake, you could find out where he is from and if we could find a way to reach his people."

"The gate was destroyed," she reminded him.

"I know, but there are other ways to send a message."

"If we did, we would be exposing our presence to the Wraith."

"Yes, we would, but a man's life is important and we could move the communication device to another section of the caves. An area far enough away that we could close it off if the Wraith found us."

"Thank you for understanding, Bilar."

"What is to understand? We help those who need it or we are no better than the Wraith," the elder told her before returning to the cave.

Jordanaeh stayed where she was for several minutes, watching as Risha continued to guard over the trails leading to the caves. They were overgrown, but if a person knew what to look for, they would find them. The Wraith; she could sense them coming, but they were far enough away that she felt safe for now.

~o0o~

The Wraith Commander led the way through the thick brush until they stepped out into a clearing beside a stream that flowed south toward the ruined city. He knew John Sheppard had been here, but he was no longer present. He looked toward the mountains and knew that was where he would find the human and he vowed that when he did he would finish this once and for all.

"He was here," the Wraith Commander said and waited for the others to search the area. The drones could not speak, but they understood what he wanted and they would protect him with their lives if the need arose. His prey was somewhere high in the mountains and he would find him.

He looked around and motioned for the drones to clear a path through the heavy shrubs then followed them along a steep path that would eventually lead him to Sheppard.

ACT III

"Mr. Woolsey, Brea Shuliak has sent a message that his people are ready to start trading and he is asking for Teyla."

"Thank you, Beth, I'll be right there. Has there been any word from Teyla and the others?"

"Not since they left for Sateda," the woman answered.

"They should be checking in once they reach Ronon's planet."

"Do you think they'll find Colonel Sheppard?"

"If he's there they will," Woolsey said, closing the file he'd been reading and moving to walk beside her. "Have Major Lorne meet us in the Control room so he can speak with Brea Shuliak and hopefully take over for Teyla."

"Yes, Mr. Woolsey," Beth agreed as they reached the control room.

"Greetings, Brea Shuliak," Woolsey said into the microphone.

"Greetings, Mr. Woolsey. Is Teyla Emmagan ready to return to my world?"

"I am sorry, Brea Shuliak. Teyla is unavailable, but he has asked that you negotiate with Major Lorne. I assure you we will fulfill everything Teyla and her team agreed to."

"Major Lorne will be welcomed by my people."

"Thank you, Brea Shuliak, he will be ready to leave shortly," Woolsey vowed and was glad to see the other man smile before communication was cut off.

~oOo~

Ronon was silent throughout the flight, listening to Teyla and Rodney, but only speaking if asked a direct question. His instincts had kicked in and he knew Sheppard was somewhere on Sateda. It didn't take tracking devices to confirm it because he'd long ago learned to rely on gut instincts.

"Ronon, is there anywhere Colonel Sheppard could hide from the Wraith?" Teyla asked him.

"There are some places, but there are also creatures that could tear him apart," Ronon answered.

"Sounds like a great vacation spot," McKay snapped impatiently and saw a hint of a smile on Ronon's face.

"Not for you," Dex told him.

"Tell me about your world, Ronon," Teyla suggested.

"Not much to tell. Mountains, trees, rivers, and animals," the Satedan answered simply.

"What about the mountains? Is there anywhere Sheppard could hide out there?" McKay asked hopefully.

"Maybe…There are old tales."

"What kind of tales?"

"During the Wraith cullings there were stories of people taking to the mountains and finding refuge in the caves."

"Do you think Colonel Sheppard could find them?"

"Maybe…if he knew where to look," Dex explained and frowned before continuing. "Before the last attack I found a clear pool of water. Beneath the surface was an entrance to a small cave. I spent a lot of time there…Was going to show it to…" His voice trailed off.

"It's okay, Ronon," Teyla said and laid her hand on his arm as the look of sadness deepened.

"If he found it he could hide out there," Ronon told them.

"Do you think you could find it again?" McKay asked.

"Think so," Ronon said and closed his eyes as he thought about finding the sanctuary, but being unable to use it. He hoped Sheppard had found it, or found somewhere he could hide from the Wraith. It would be several hours before they reached Sateda, and once they arrived they'd need a starting point to search for Sheppard.

"You know we can use the detector to figure out where the Wraith are once we reach Sateda," McKay suggested.

Ronon leaned his head against the back of the seat. He watched as Rodney returned his attention to the screen, looking for anything that would confirm they were headed in the right direction.

~oOo~

John could feel the pain easing, but it did not disappear completely and he knew as soon as he moved it would be back with a vengeance. He tried to remember everything that had happened and forced his eyes open as a soft hand touched his cheek. The woman before him was familiar and he reached out to her as she spoke.

"You are feverish and must rest," Jordanaeh explained.

"I need to contact Atlantis," John told her.

"Atlantis?"

"My world. They can help me," John told her, swallowing convulsively as nausea churned through his gut.

"There is a way, but we must wait until you are stronger."

"No, the longer I st-stay here, the more danger I put you in," John gasped as he sat forward.

"The Wraith will not find us."

"Don't bet on it," Sheppard said and managed to climb to his feet before turning back to her. "You said there was a way to contact Atlantis."

"Yes, there is, but it involves many hours traveling through the tunnels," Jordanaeh explained.

"Show me the way."

"Risha and I will go with you."

"No, I won't be responsible for your deaths," Sheppard told her.

"You will not be responsible, but if I were to let you go alone then I would be responsible for your death. Rest, and I will get everything ready for the trip."

"Rested enough. Need to get out of here," John said determinedly.

"You are a stubborn man," Jordanaeh observed and saw a hint of a smile form on his face.

"I've been told that a time or two," Sheppard told her.

"I will get Risha and tell Bilar where we are going. You sit and gather your strength," Jordanaeh ordered.

John sat down and reached for the rough-hewn clothing she handed him and suddenly realized he had very little covering his body, again. He pulled the blanket from the bed and wrapped it around him as soft laughter reached his ears.

"I have seen it before, John."

"I'm guessing I wasn't conscious at the time," Sheppard tried, but again his words were met with soft laughter.

"A woman shouldn't tell all her secrets," Jordanaeh teased.

"Oh crap!"

"Nice dimples. I'll be back in a few minutes," the woman said, smiling at the look on his face.

~oOo~

The Wraith Commander grew angrier with each step he took. The Drones were cutting through the overgrown trail, yet they seemed to be no closer to reaching the base of the mountain. There was no way of knowing for sure that they were headed in the right direction, yet he could almost sense John Sheppard nearby.

The hunger he'd kept at bay was quickly gaining momentum and he knew he would have to feed soon or be forced to feed on one of the Drones. Not that he felt guilty about that, because he'd done so before when the food supply was short. That's what the drones were for, but the feeding wasn't nearly as satisfying as feeding off the weaker species in the Pegasus Galaxy.

The Queen often fed on those below her and he knew if he failed to recapture the human then he would lose face with her. He had heard stories about what happened to anyone she found lacking and knew she would not think twice about feeding on him. He needed to find John Sheppard and bring his lifeless body back to the ship as a gift for his new Queen.

The Wraith Commander's anger festered until he grabbed the nearest Drone and shoved him up against the thick trunk of a tall tree. The Drone gave only a token fight as he tore away the vest and pressed his right hand against the bare chest. He could feel the strength racing through his body even as he took years from his victim. Once there was nothing, but a dry, shriveled husk left, the Wraith Commander released his hold and followed the others deeper into the dense forest.

~oOo~

Evan Lorne's team stepped through the gate and smiled at the people waiting nearby. Woolsey had briefed them on their mission and they were bringing some of the promised supplies with them. There were several men and women standing in the vicinity of the gate and Lorne moved to the man who seemed to be in charge.

"Greetings, Major Lorne, welcome to our world," Brea Shuliak said and reached for the offered hand.

"Thank you, Brea Shuliak, Teyla sends her greetings and asked me to apologize for being unable to meet with you and your people."

"Will you honor the agreement, Major?"

"Yes, we will. Mr. Woolsey asked us to assure you he has every intention of honoring the agreement you have with Atlantis. We have brought some of the promised supplies with us," Lorne told him.

"We have Shireo and Shiccato roots as well as several other veg…vege…

"Vegetables," Lorne supplied.

"Yes, vegetables. Thank you, I believe that is the correct word. They are at the village and we hope you will share our fire tonight?" Brea Shuliak asked.

"We would be honored," Lorne said as several villagers moved to help his team with the supplies.

~oOo~

John looked up as Jordanaeh returned with the creature called Risha. The animal stared at him, but John felt no fear at being so close to it. There was a soft sound, reminding him of the purr of a cat and John couldn't help but wonder what McKay would think of that. He stood up, and grabbed the table next to the pile of furs as a wave of dizziness threatened to floor him.

"John, Risha can carry—"

"No, I'm okay," Sheppard lied and stood up, wincing as the movement tugged on the wound in his back. He looked at the pack she carried and reached for it, only to have it snatched away before his fingers could take hold of it.

"Risha and I can handle the supplies, John," Jordanaeh vowed as Risha continued to stare at John as if it understood how stubbornly stupid he was being. She helped John into a warm fur that would help protect him from the colder temperatures of the higher escarpments. "Risha, we need to go to the far tunnels higher in the mountains."

The creature grunted and led them away from the warm room as Jordanaeh reached for the flashlight. It was something she'd salvaged from the city on one of her forays, and it continued to hold the light so long as she remembered to leave it in the heat of the sun. She took John's left arm with her right and followed Risha away from the sanctuary.

John could hear Risha up ahead and allowed Jordanaeh to help him across the rough floor of the caverns. The tunnels were wide enough for them to walk side by side, but there were times when they had to let go and force their way through a narrow crevice. He briefly wondered how Risha managed it, and was surprised at the way the creature seemed to manipulate its body when necessary.

John looked at the narrow opening before him and knew there was no choice, but to go through. His back burned where the Wraith device seemed to have fused with his spine and he knew this would only serve to make it worse. He waited till Jordanaeh moved through then stepped forward, fisted his hands at his side and released the air from his lungs in an effort to make his body as small as possible. He closed his eyes, forcing his body forward even as the rough stones tore at the heavy sweater he was wearing.

"You're almost through, John," Jordanaeh assured him as she reached for his arm.

He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead and sliding down his cheeks as he ignored the pain his movements caused. "Crap," he whispered as he managed to squeeze his body through the narrow opening and dropped heavily to the floor. He felt Jordanaeh's hand on his shoulder and leaned back as a warmth spread through him. God, he wanted to lie down and sleep, but he could not stay with Jordanaeh with the Wraith breathing down his neck. He looked up as Risha returned and shook his head when the creature reached for him. "I can make it."

"Perhaps, but it would be better if Risha carried you for a while," Jordanaeh said.

"No…I can make it," Sheppard repeated and climbed unsteadily to his feet before motioning for Risha to continue. The glow from the flashlight cast elongated shadows across the walls as their footsteps echoed hollowly through the larger chamber they found themselves in.

"John, perhaps we should rest."

"I'm okay, but if you need to rest just say so."

"I am fine," Jordanaeh assured him and reached for his arm as the ground took an upward slope.

~oOo~

Ronon sat forward when the screen showed his world and closed his eyes as vivid images assailed him. The planet was a reminder of everything he'd lost during the Wraith cullings, but it also held the memories of a time when his world had been filled with happiness. That seemed a lifetime ago now, but he would always hold Melina's memory close to his heart.

Ronon sighed heavily as McKay flew the Puddle Jumper with an ease that nearly rivaled John Sheppard, though the Colonel had a natural ability that wasn't forced. Sheppard could fly the small craft as if he'd been born in the seat. There'd been no sign of Sheppard since they'd reached Sateda and even the signal McKay had gotten seemed to have disappeared. Ronon hoped it meant his friend had found the caves in the mountains and that the dampening effects of the stones would keep him from being discovered.

"Ronon, we'll soon be in the city," McKay told him, and cloaked the Puddle Jumper when he spotted a Hive ship orbiting the planet.

Ronon saw it too and felt his shoulders tense with anger and worry.

"Is there any sign of Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked.

"No, I'm still not picking up his subcutaneous tracker, but that's probably because the Wraith removed it," McKay suggested. "We are getting life signs north of the city…"

"How many?" Teyla asked.

"Looks like ten and they seem to be moving toward—"

"They are headed for the mountains," Ronon told them.

"If it is the Wraith then it means they haven't found Sheppard," McKay offered. "How far are those caves, Ronon?"

"Keep going north. The caves are hidden," Ronon answered.

"Hidden?" McKay spat. "How the hell are we supposed to find them if they're hidden?"

"Markers," Dex answered.

"What kind of markers?" Teyla asked.

"I'll know them when I see them," Ronon told her.

"Can we take the Wraith out of the equation?" McKay asked.

"We don't know that they are Wraith, Rodney," Teyla replied.

"Who else could they be?" McKay asked.

"People from the caves," Ronon said.

"Oh come on…Do you really believe that?" McKay asked acerbically.

"Rodney, it is possible and unless we get a visual on them we cannot kill them," Teyla said.

"We can do a quick fly over."

"Trees are too thick in that area," Ronon told them. "We stick to the plan and find Sheppard."

"Who died and left you in charge?" McKay snapped out, but he nodded and flew the cloaked Jumper toward the mountains.

~oOo~

Lorne smiled at the beautiful woman who served him and the other members of his team. Brea Shuliak was excited about the supplies they'd brought and had listened carefully to Lorne's explanation of what each item could be used for. Simple things like soap delighted Brea Shuliak and brought a smile to the faces of each member of Lorne's team.

"Major, we thank you for the gifts you have brought us," Brea Shuliak said as he lifted a glass in toast to their guests. "To new friends and allies."

"To new friends and allies," Lorne repeated and drank the sweet tasting nectar in his glass. It reminded him of a cocktail his mother had made with a variety of fruits and he allowed a woman to refill his glass. "Thank you."

"Brea Shuliak, the soil on your world…" Janet Newman, an agriculturalist on Lorne's team began.

"Soil?"

"Sorry." Janet smiled as she bent down and scooped up a handful of the black dirt beneath her feet. "Soil…Dirt…"

"We call it triscon," Brea Shuliak said.

"The sample of triscon Dr. McKay brought back revealed that it is rich in nutrients and wonderful for just about any crop you wish to grow…"

"Crop?"

"What you grow…Shiccato Roots for example," Newman explained. "There are many samples from our world that would do very well on yours if you are willing to accept our help."

"What kind of…crops?" Brea Shuliak asked.

"Corn, peas, even broccoli…"

"Broccoli," Lorne said with distaste and tried to ignore the glare Newman turned his way.

"You do not like this broccoli, Major?"

"No, but that's just me. Many people like it and it's supposed to be really good for you," Lorne explained. "I'll let Dr. Newman explain."

"Thank you," Newman said and started telling Brea Shuliak and his people about the various crops that could flourish on their world.

~oOo~

Okay, something was definitely not right, but for the life of him John Sheppard could not quite figure out what it was. He was moving, of that he was certain, but his legs no longer obeyed his command to walk. Someone…or something cradled him against a furry chest, and his mind told him to fight, but instincts kicked in and his eyes opened to near darkness and the sound of heavy breathing close to his ears.

'Risha,' Sheppard thought. He struggled against the arms that held him and heard a deep guttural growl from the creature holding him.

"Put him down, Risha," Jordanaeh ordered softly and placed a gentling hand on the creature's arm as it released its hold on the injured man.

"What happened?" Sheppard asked.

"You were unable to continue and Risha was quick to catch you before you fell into a deep pit," Jordanaeh explained and reached out to steady him as he swayed on his feet. "Perhaps Risha should continue to carry you…"

"No, I'm okay…just need to keep moving," the colonel told her. The longer he stayed here the more danger he caused these people. "Jordanaeh, it would be better if you just told me how to get to the communication device instead of—"

"Nonsense, John, you would not make it on your own."

"I could—"

"Should I remind you that Risha has been carrying you for the last few hours…"

"Hours? How much further is it?" Sheppard asked.

"It will take us another two hours to reach the base and perhaps ten of your minutes to climb to the hidden chamber that holds the device," Jordanaeh explained. "Risha will carry us both once we reach the base…there is no way you…or I could make it on our own."

John looked into her eyes and knew there was no point in arguing with her any longer. Jordanaeh was as stubborn as he was and what irked him was that she was right. He was reminded of that every time he moved and set off the fire in his back and he wondered how the hell Ronon had survived this not once, but twice.

"John, we must keep moving," Jordanaeh warned as Risha motioned impatiently for them to follow. She took his arm, and pretended it was for her benefit, but her own instincts were ready should he once again fall victim to the Wraith device in his back. She held the light in front of her as the shadows darkened around them and Risha growled deep in his throat.

~oOo~

The Wraith Commander was quickly losing patience with the slow trek through the thick underbrush, and silently cursed himself for not turning back earlier. He knew they needed a Dart and no longer cared that it would warn Sheppard that they were closing in on his location.

"We are going back to the ship," he ordered and watched as the Drones turned back the way they'd come. It didn't matter that they'd wasted time because soon or later he would feed on Colonel John Sheppard. He could almost taste the human's fear as he took the years from his life and then he would take his desiccated body to his new Queen.

~oOo~

"Find someplace to land, McKay," Dex ordered.

"Oh, give me something simple for a change," McKay snapped as he looked at the tall trees spread out as far as the eye could see. They'd been flying for nearly an hour without speaking and still no sign of a clearing. Even the life signs seemed to be moving back toward the city.

"Just do it!" Ronon spat impatiently.

"You both need to calm down," Teyla told them though she knew both men were worried about the missing man, but showed it in different ways. Her own worries were hidden behind the calm façade she set in order to think clearly, but she knew she wasn't doing a very good job of it either.

Ronon stared at the horizon, searching for a place to set the Puddle Jumper down, but so far there was nothing. The trees and underbrush had grown wild since the city had fallen to the Wraith, making it impossible to find any of the familiar markers he'd known as a young man hunting the creatures that dwelled in the forest.

"I'm sorry, Ronon," McKay said softly.

"Me too," Dex offered.

"There seems to be a clearing on the left," Teyla said and pointed out the area she'd noticed while the two men were silently seething over their own angry words.

McKay flew low over the treetops until they reached the area and circled several times until he was sure he could land the Puddle Jumper without crashing into the trees. He wished, not for the first time, that he was as adept as Sheppard at maneuvering the craft, but that was not to be. He hovered for several seconds before allowing the Jumper to land in the dirt with a loud thud and turned to find Teyla smiling at him.

"Colonel Sheppard would be proud," Teyla told him as if she'd read his thoughts.

"Not bad, McKay, just a little rough," Dex said and checked the monitors before the craft shut down. He reached for the life signs detector and secured his weapon as Teyla and McKay did the same.

"Which way?" McKay asked once they were outside and the rear hatch was closed.

"This way," Ronon answered and used a laser weapon to cut through the thick underbrush. He knew it would take some time to reach the caves, but at least they'd been able to get within walking distance. He heard Teyla and Rodney fall into step behind him and hoped they reached Sheppard before the Wraith did.

~oOo~

John moved as if his life depended on it and the truth was it really did. During the hard trek through the caves it felt as if red ants had taken up residence in his back and were slowly chewing their way through every nerve located there. He tried to ignore the growing weakness and trembling in his lower extremities, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so.

"John, do you need to rest?"

"No, we need to…to keep moving," Sheppard told her, wincing as he straightened his back.

"It will do no good to keep going—"

"I'm all right, Jordanaeh," Sheppard said and looked up to see Risha watching him closely. Something about the creature's stature told him it understood more than they gave him credit for. John couldn't help but smile as Risha turned away and began moving deeper into the tunnel. It narrowed once more when they rounded a corner and John cringed at the thought of forcing his body through the narrow space.

"John, perhaps we should look for a more suitable tunnel," Jordanaeh suggested.

"No, we need to keep moving," Sheppard told her. His instincts told him the Wraith were closing in on them and the faster he contacted Atlantis, the faster he could leave these people and hopefully keep the Wraith from finding them. Since that fateful day they'd stumbled on a village that had once helped Ronon Dex, the Satedan had told them stories of his life as a runner. He'd lost track of how many people had died simply because they'd offered to help him. There was no doubt that Ronon harbored the guilt of their deaths, even though the guilt was not his. It lay with the Wraith who sucked the life from their victims with no regard for humanity.

"John, we must keep moving if you wish to reach the cave," Jordanaeh told him.

"Oh…sorry, I…Jordanaeh, please promise me that if…if the Wraith find me…you and Risha will hide."

"We will help you—"

"No, I won't have your deaths on my shoulders, Jordanaeh. I want your promise that you will hide or I make you turn back now," Sheppard warned.

"I promise we will hide if the Wraith discover us before you can send your message."

"Thank you," Sheppard said and moved toward the narrow opening as Risha motioned impatiently for him to follow.

~oOo~

Richard Woolsey watched as Lorne and his away team came through the gate. They were returning as scheduled and that was something he was always thankful for because it usually meant the mission had gone as expected. He knew by the relaxed look on their faces that things had gone well, but he wanted to hear it from Lorne. "Welcome back, Major, how did it go?"

"Brea Shuliak is pleased with the supplies and asked Dr. Newman if she would return and show them how to plant crops to get the best harvest possible."

"Is that something you would like to do, Dr. Newman?" Woolsey asked as they walked toward the debriefing room.

"I would, Mr. Woolsey. Brea Shuliak's people are willing to learn which are the best crops and when to plant them. I explained that it would take me a couple of weeks to do the proper soil samples and figure out what crops they should plant," Newman explained.

"Very well, just keep me up to date on your progress," Woolsey told her.

"I will," Newman answered.

"Has there been any word from Colonel Sheppard's team?" Lorne asked.

"Not since they reached Sateda and began the search," Woolsey explained.

"Maybe we should—"

"There is no point in sending another team until we know for sure it's where the Wraith took Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey told him.

"I thought McKay said that's where they took him," Lorne said.

"He did, but they've lost the signal. Ronon seems to think he may have discovered caves in the mountains that seem to have some kind of dampening effect on the signal," Woolsey answered.

"If that's true then the Wraith can't track him either and maybe they'll give up."

"Do you really believe that?" Woolsey asked. The Wraith were relentless and had proven that with their countless cullings of planets in the Pegasus Galaxy. There was nothing more they could do until they heard from McKay.

"Is Dr. Beckett back?" Lorne asked.

"Not yet. There are a couple of people he needs to treat in Crase's village and he'll contact us as soon as he's ready to return," Woolsey answered.

~oOo~

Ronon led them through the dense forest as darkness began to descend over the landscape. He inhaled the scents of his world and closed his eyes as if that could bring back his life. If he kept his eyes closed and suppressed the memories of that fateful day, he could easily imagine the Wraith culling had never happened. He could almost believe he was simply hunting one of the many predators that could supply his family with food for the coming weeks… almost, but all too soon the truth came back with a vengeance. He leaned heavily against a tree and felt a hand on his shoulder and knew, without looking, it was Teyla.

"Ronon, I know this must be hard on you, but…"

"I'm okay, Teyla," the Satedan said softly as McKay's harsh breathing reached his ears.

"No, you're not, Ronon, but right now we need to find Colonel Sheppard. Do you think you can continue?" Teyla asked.

"We need to keep moving. Should be an easier trail just over the next rise," Ronon told her, turning south when he heard a familiar sound that made his blood run cold. "The Wraith are here!"

"At least we know we're on the right track," McKay offered once he'd caught his breath.

"We need to find Sheppard before they do," Ronon said and began forcing his way through the brush.

~oOo~

John hated showing any kind of weakness, but right now he'd be hard-pressed to hide what the Wraith tracking device was doing to him. The pain was a constant reminder that threatened to drive him to his knees, but John had never been a quitter, and was not about to start now.

"John, Risha needs to carry us from here," Jordanaeh explained when they reached the base of what looked like a sheer cliff.

It reminded John of when he'd tried rock climbing during his more adventurous days. That made him chuckle softly when he realized those days were tame compared to the adventure he was having now. He briefly wondered what his friends would think of Atlantis, the Wraith, the stargates, and the desperate situations they often found themselves in since coming to the Pegasus Galaxy.

In the dim light cast by the flashlight Jordanaeh carried, John knew he would never be able to scale it and nodded to Risha. The animal seemed to understand and scooped him up. John found himself planted on Risha's back and grabbed onto the thick fur in an effort to stay in place as Risha lifted Jordanaeh gently into its arms.

"John, are you able to hold on?"

"I think so…just as long as we don't go leaping over tall buildings…"

"I do not think that is possible since there are no buildings in these caves," Jordanaeh offered seriously.

"Sorry, an old joke," John told her, clutching the fur as Risha began to climb as if born to it. He fought to stay conscious, but it was increasingly difficult because it felt like his lungs didn't have the capacity to hold oxygen. He felt himself slipping, but tried to hold on as Risha's muscles undulated with each upward movement.

"John, give me your hands," Jordanaeh ordered.

"What?" Sheppard whispered tiredly.

"Give me your hands!"

"Why?"

"You're slipping and I need to secure them," Jordanaeh answered and showed him a strip of material she'd torn from her shirt. She smiled when the man did as she ordered, wrapping his arms around Risha's neck so she could secure them. "Rest, John, Risha won't let you fall."

"Thanks," Sheppard managed before losing the fight to stay conscious.

~oOo~

"We must hurry," Jordanaeh said and felt Risha's response as if they were connected. In a way they were and she knew the creature understood her urgency because it could also sense the Wraith nearby.

~oOo~

The Wraith commander exited the dart and glanced around until he spotted several drones searching the surrounding terrain. The tracking device was useless, but at least now they could start the search for the human as soon as the sun rose. There was nothing they could do during the darkest part of the night, especially when the terrain was rough enough during the daylight hours.

He knew they were no longer alone in their search for the human, but the others were of little consequence right now. He could easily kill them, but wanted them alive in case there was trouble with his prey. He could already feel the urge to feed and moved to the nearest Drone. He ignored the scream as he fed on its life force. There wasn't the same satisfaction he got from feeding on the humans. The fear was not as strong, nor was the will to survive at all costs and that's what he would get from Colonel John Sheppard.

~oOo~

Ronon knew they could not go on, but he didn't want to call a halt now that the Wraith was so far ahead of them. The darkness was cloying and brought back memories he'd rather forget, of a time when he and several other adventure seeking kids had come into the forest and wound up lost for several days. They foraged for food and water, but were caught in a violent storm that knocked over several trees that trapped them on a ledge with nothing to protect them from the elements.

"Ronon, we need to stop," Teyla said and saw the reluctant nod in the beam of McKay's flashlight.

"I know," Dex agreed and motioned toward the heavy branches.

"Where do we sleep?" McKay asked.

"Can you climb?" Ronon asked.

"Of course I can climb," McKay retorted.

"Then start climbing," the Satedan said and moved to the nearest tree.

"The tree? You want me to climb a tree. I thought you meant a ladder…"

"Do you see a ladder?" Dex asked as Teyla grabbed a low branch and pulled herself up.

"No, but a tree? Can't we sleep down here?"

"Sure…just watch out for the Trogar. They like the damp underbrush," Ronon advised.

"Trogar?" McKay repeated.

"It looks like that snake…ana…ana…"

"Anaconda?" McKay asked.

"Trogars are a little bigger and the venom is ten times as toxic," Teyla explained. "Ronon told me about them when he was supposed to be meditating. Sleep well, Rodney."

"Very funny," McKay said and began climbing the nearest tree. "We'll be safe from Trogars up here right?"

"Yes, but there are other—"

"Stop, I really don't want to know," McKay said seriously. He climbed until he noticed Ronon and Teyla had stopped and shifted his body weight until he was as comfortable as he was going to get.

"Good night, McKay," Dex said, a hint of humor in his voice.

"Oh, please, this is anything but a good night," McKay snapped.

"You'll be fine, Rodney," Teyla said with a smile.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett knew he'd done all he could for Crase's people and Major Lorne would be at the village come morning to pick him up. They would be heading toward Sateda as soon as his belongings and supplies were on board and Carson hoped they would find Sheppard and his team.

Beckett knew Jennifer Keller could just as easily have gone to Sateda, but since Lorne would be picking him up it made sense that Carson accompany him to Ronon's home world. Keller had also stated the obvious, and that was the fact that Carson was the only one who had successfully removed a Wraith tracking device.

Woolsey had readily agreed and all Carson had to do was wait for transport. That was easier said than done because Beckett had always been low on patience when it came to waiting. He turned to find Crase watching him and forced a smile to his face before joining him at the table.

"Perhaps your friends are wrong about Colonel Sheppard and the Wraith," Byrone suggested.

"Not likely. Colonel Sheppard would have found a way to contact Atlantis," Beckett assured them.

"The boy is telling the truth about the Wraith. They came for Colonel Sheppard," Crase said.

"Then he is probably dead," Byrone offered sadly.

"That's not possible," Beckett said with a touch of humor. "If I know Colonel Sheppard he's probably driving them crazy and making them run 'round in circles trying to find him."

"I hope you are right," Crase said. Carson Beckett was a good man and if he believed in Colonel Sheppard then perhaps there really was hope of finding him alive. He wished he could offer something more tangible than words, but until they found the missing man, Carson Beckett would not allow himself to rest.

~oOo~

"John, try not to move around too much," Jordanaeh ordered softly. They'd reached the hidden chamber high above her home in the lower caves, but Sheppard had been unconscious for most of that climb. He'd uttered soft curses and sometimes a sharp gasp making her aware of how much pain he was in. Now she knew it was time to wake him and find out how to contact his world, because she knew time was quickly running out as the fever raged through his body.

"John, you need to tell me how to contact your world," Jordanaeh said when Sheppard finally managed to open his eyes. She'd lit several torches that cast elongated shadows across the cave walls. The lighting wasn't much, but it was enough for her to see just how badly this man needed medical attention.

"Where… What hap-happened?" Sheppard managed and allowed her to help him sit up on the edge of the bed.

"Risha made the climb without incident, but you've been unconscious for several hours," she explained. "How do you feel?"

"Like I could use a Hail Mary of my own," Sheppard answered and smiled when he saw the frown on her face. "Remind me to explain that one later."

"I'd like to hear it, but as I said we must try to contact your world before—"

"Before I pass out again," Sheppard said and rubbed at his temples. "Why's it so damn hot in here?"

"It's not hot. You have a fever," Jordanaeh said.

"Oh, that explains it. Where's Risha?"

"Keeping an eye out for trouble."

"How do you communicate with Risha?" Sheppard asked. He'd managed to stand up, but without her help he'd have been flat on his back.

"It is something we worked out when I first found him."

"How do you know it's male?"

"I don't, but somehow I feel that it's a male. He has this stubborn streak and sulks if he doesn't get his way."

"That would make him a female," Sheppard teased.

"Now, John, remember who has been taking care of you or would you rather I left you to fend for yourself? I'm sure Risha would help you," Jordanaeh teased.

"Thanks, but I think I'll stick with you. Maybe you're right about Risha being male."

"Why is that?"

"He's hairy, although I once had a great aunt who had more hair than…" He shook his head as a wave of dizziness threatened to send him to his knees.

"John, tell me what to do," Jordanaeh ordered.

"I'm okay."

"Sure you are… and like I said, stubborn," she said and led him to the console along one wall.

John looked at the primitive equipment and wished he'd paid more attention when McKay was giving a lecture on outdated communication devices. He recognized some of the dialing sequences already laid in, but whether the panels had enough power to send a message to Atlantis seemed to be reaching a bit, even for him.

"Is everything all right, John?"

"I think so. I just wish McKay were here…he'd know exactly what to do. Hell, he'd rewire the damn thing and call Earth if that's what was needed," Sheppard told her.

"Earth?"

"I'll tell you about that later."

"So that makes two stories you owe me -Hail Mary and Earth," Jordanaeh said as she watched his fingers fumble with the keyboard. She knew he was having trouble focusing and reached out to steady his hands and felt the heat emanating from his body.

"Guess we're doing the old SOS type of message," he muttered and began tapping at the keys and silently praying someone on Atlantis would understand.

~oOo~

"Mr. Woolsey."

"What is it, Chet?" Woolsey asked of the communications officer on duty.

"Sir, I'm getting a signal, but…"

"Why do I hate those buts?" Woolsey asked as he moved to stand beside the other man.

"Well, sir, it's not a clear signal and sometimes it fades out on me, but I know where it's coming from."

"Where?" Woolsey asked impatiently.

"I'm pretty certain it's coming from Sateda."

"Is it Dr. McKay?"

"No, sir, not unless they've lost the Jumper and they're using—"

"Try contacting Dr. McKay," Woolsey ordered.

"Yes, sir."

"And try to get a lock on that signal just in case…"

"Do you think it could be Colonel Sheppard?" Chet asked as he tried to establish a link with the Puddle Jumper.

"It is possible. Can you understand the message?"

"I'm not sure, but I'm pretty certain it's Morse code," Chet answered. "I should be able to work out the symbols."

"Let me know as soon as you have it," Woolsey ordered and watched as Lorne piloted a Puddle Jumper through the wormhole. The major would stop by Crase's village and pick up Dr. Beckett before heading for Sateda to help in the search for John Sheppard.

~oOo~

Ronon knew they needed to move quickly and sensed Teyla's impatience with the slow trek up the nearly sheer cliff face. He could hear McKay grumbling behind him, but he understood it was the Canadian's way of hiding his worry. Rodney sputtered and complained and threatened the possibility of hypoglycemic shock, but when push came to shove the man had what it took to survive and 'save the day'.

Ronon felt the pull on the safety rope linking him and McKay, as he reached above his head for a piece of rubble protruding from the mountain itself. It had been rough going, with him leading and McKay and Teyla linked with ropes as they tried to reach the ledge that still seemed high above them.

Ronon made sure the rubble would hold before releasing his left hand and attached another safety spike to the mountain before linking it with a metal loop and feeding the safety harness through it. He tested it several times before he was sure it would hold his weight and that of McKay and Teyla should anything happen. He glanced below him as McKay reached for the hoop he'd just released and was relieved to find Teyla moving along slightly to his left.

Rodney grumbled under his breath about calluses and blisters as they moved up the mountain. The gloves didn't give much protection, but at least they weren't sweaty like his palms. He reached for the handhold he'd seen Ronon use, but was shocked when the root came loose in his hand and he felt himself falling. A scream bubbled up in his throat as he dropped, but it was quickly cut off as the rope caught and held him suspended in midair before he slammed into the side of the mountain.

"Ronon!"

"I got him, Teyla," Dex managed through gritted teeth as Teyla worked her way sideways until she reached the unconscious McKay.

"Rodney," Teyla knew McKay had hit the ridge hard and saw blood on his forehead when she reached him.

"How is he?"

"He is unconscious," Teyla answered and tried to help Ronon by taking some of McKay's weight off the line. "Do you think you can reach the top and pull him up?"

"I can do it, just keep him steady," Ronon ordered. He played out the rope so that Teyla could hold the unconscious man in place until he reached the top. It took another ten minutes to reach his destination and pull himself over, but he didn't take the time to catch his breath. He turned on his side and spotted Teyla and Rodney 20 or 30 feet below him.

"Ronon?"

"I'm ready, Teyla. Shout if you need a break," Ronon told her.

"I'm not the one who'll be pulling a dead weight," Teyla called.

Ronon nodded, moved to a tree near the edge, and looped the rope around it before starting to pull McKay up. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to ignore the strain on his overtaxed muscles. He lost track of time as he painstakingly pulled on the rope, feeling the heat on his palms when he lost the grip and it slid between his fingers. He heard Teyla shouting, and held on tightly until he had a firm grip on the rope once more.

"Ronon, are you all right?"

"I'm okay, Teyla, hang on," Ronon answered and began working his hands along the rope once more. It took nearly half an hour to get McKay up and over the edge with Teyla climbing right behind him. Ronon dropped to his knees before sitting down and breathing heavily as Teyla reached inside her pack and pulled out the first aid kit.

Teyla cleaned the wound, wincing sympathetically when she noted the bruise surrounding the laceration above McKay's right eye.

"He'll have a headache when he wakes up," Ronon observed, relieved when McKay seemed to be coming around. "Good timing…could have used his help…"

"Easy, Rodney," Teyla ordered softly.

"Did anyone get the number of that truck?" McKay asked, moaning softly when the light stabbed at his eyes.

"Actually it was a mountain," Teyla said, smiling at the old joke Sheppard had told her about.

"How long was I out?"

"About 40 minutes," Teyla answered. "Ronon pulled you up."

"Thank you, Chew—" McKay turned to his side, looking distinctly nauseated.

"Teyla, maybe you should stay here with him," Ronon offered.

"No, I'm okay," McKay said.

"Rest, Rodney, we won't leave without you," Teyla told him and taped several thick gauze pads over the wound. She could see Ronon's impatience and hoped McKay could move soon or the Satedan would leave them behind and search for Sheppard on his own.

~oOo~

Bilar could sense the creatures closing in on their location and knew it was time to take his people deeper into the system of tunnels that led to the lower caverns. They quickly erased any sign of their presence and collected what supplies they had. There were fewer of them now, but those that were left looked to him or Jordanaeh for guidance when the Wraith or other creatures found their refuge.

"Bilar, Jordanaeh brought them here by helping the Runner," Canesis said angrily.

"Canesis, need I remind you that Jordanaeh brought you here when she found the Wraith feeding on you?"

"I was not a Runner!"

"No, you were not, but would you have survived had she not brought you here and treated you without question?"

"I would never have put you or her in danger."

"Perhaps not, but the Wraith drones found us nonetheless. It was Jordanaeh's quick thinking that saved us from discovery. That is why we must go to the lower caverns and wait until they leave," Bilar explained.

"The Wraith will follow us if they think the Runner is here."

"The caves shield our presence, Canesis. If the Wraith do enter the cave they will not find us."

"How can you be sure?"

"It is something we know and you will too once the Wraith leave. I know your fear and have even felt it myself, but you must not let it consume you. Come with us and you will be safe from the Wraith."

"I—"

"Come, we must leave now before the Wraith arrive and discover our presence," Bilar ordered. He understood Canesis' fear and had even felt it himself upon first discovering the caves. The difference was he was not as young and inexperienced as Canesis and that could be dangerous in one so young. He ushered the others ahead of him and made a mental note to keep an eye on Canesis once they reached the lower caverns.

~oOo~

The Wraith Commander stood outside the entrance to one of many caves that peppered the mountain and closed his eyes. He could almost taste the human and sensed that he was close. The caves had a dampening effect on the sensors and made it impossible to pinpoint anything inside.

The Wraith growled under his breath before moving toward the entrance and motioned for the two drones closest to him to check it out. He stood and stared up at the sky, watching as the trees moved slowly with the soft breeze. He knew his Queen would never forgive him if Colonel John Sheppard escaped and that she would feed on him if he returned without proof of the human's death. He could not allow the man to escape, no matter what the cost, because the consequences of losing him were far worse than anything he could imagine.

It was time to find the Runner and feed on him. With that thought the Wraith Commander stepped into the cave and lifted his head as if scenting the human's fear.

~oOo~

Sheppard sat back with a soft groan as Jordanaeh's hands found his shoulders and worked to ease the tense muscles. He closed his eyes and knew there was nothing more he could do now that the message had been sent. John knew he was a danger to Jordanaeh and her people and understood he would have to leave before the Wraith found them.

There was no doubt in his mind that they would find him eventually, and when they did, it would not bode well for Jordanaeh and her people. John could not be responsible for more deaths, not when his score sheet was already thick with names and faces of those who were beyond his help.

"John, you should rest," Jordanaeh told him.

"I need to stay here and wait for an answer," Sheppard told her.

"I will stay here, you are ill and I can help ease the pain so you can rest."

"Jordanaeh…"

"Shh, John, come with me," she said and helped him to his feet. She guided him across the cavern and helped him lie down on a sturdy cot she'd covered in furs while he was sending his message to Atlantis. She knew his fever was high and wished she had water to cool him down, but for now there was nothing she could use. She would send Risha for water once she was sure John was sleeping and they were in no danger.

"Wake me if they answer," John said and felt her fingers touch against his temples, easing the pain and tension from his body. "So damn tired."

"I know…rest," Jordanaeh ordered and wished there was more she could do, but for now she had relieved him of his pain though she could not continue to do so without draining her own energy. She waited until she was sure he was sleeping and made her way to the mouth of the cave.

Jordanaeh never grew tired of the view from this high in the mountains. She could just make out the city, and felt a deep ache in her heart at being unable to live in the beautiful buildings she'd once called home. The trees had grown so tall that all she could see were the tallest structures that remained standing even after the Wraith culling that had devastated Sateda. The scent of wildflowers reached her and she inhaled deeply before searching the area for Risha.

The creature blended well with its surroundings and she had trouble finding him until he moved and hurried to her. She ran her fingers along his mane and tickled the area behind one of his massive shoulders. She knew she would have to use signs to get him to understand what was needed, but it would be easier than making him understand her words. There were lidded containers kept inside and she quickly collected several before clasping her hands as if she was drinking something. Risha would understand because it was something she had seen him do when they were at the river.

~oOo~

Teyla watched as Ronon moved quickly through the dense thicket, but most of her attention was on the man walking beside her. Rodney McKay looked pale and ill as he tried to keep up with the Satedan. Ronon had slowed his pace, but still moved faster than McKay was used to.

"Rodney…"

"I'm okay, Teyla," McKay lied, glancing sidelong at her. He knew she expected him to grumble and complain, but the truth was he wanted to find John Sheppard before the Wraith did. If that meant ignoring his own pain then so be it because right now his injury paled in comparison to what a Wraith would do to the missing colonel.

"Ronon, how much further?" Teyla asked as they reached the base of what looked to be a sheer cliff.

"There's no way in hell we're going to climb that," McKay grumbled.

"We don't have to," Dex told him and pointed to a waterfall nearby. It seemed to spring from the mountain itself and Ronon knew it looked as if there was no way of climbing to the next ridge.

"Oh, and what are we supposed to do? Swim upstream like a salmon on steroids?"

"We walk," Ronon answered with a hint of a smile as he moved toward the waterfall.

McKay frowned, wincing as it pulled on the wound above his right eye and was shocked when Ronon seemed to disappear into thin air. "Where did he go?"

"I believe there is a hidden entrance," Teyla said as Ronon returned and motioned them to follow. She shouldered her pack and took McKay by the arm when he stumbled and nearly fell. They reached the entrance and slipped beneath the falls as Ronon turned on a lightweight flashlight.

"Do you know where this leads?" McKay asked.

"Leads up," Dex answered.

"Oh, please, as if I couldn't see that. I meant—"

"Know what you meant. It'll take us to the top."

"I thought we were trying to find the caves?" McKay grumbled.

"We are," Ronon answered. He had no way of explaining why he felt it important to head for the higher caves, but something spurred him in that direction and instincts told him Sheppard needed them fast.

"Come on, Rodney, lean on me," Teyla said when Ronon began moving up the incline. She knew McKay's head was bothering him, but there was nothing more she could do until they found Sheppard or help arrived.

~oOo~

Richard Woolsey waited impatiently for Chet to finish deciphering the coded message and knew the others were also anxious to find out where it originated from and who had sent it. Jennifer Keller had joined them as soon as word had spread that they'd received a message in Morse code. Most of the expedition knew the last time the old form of communication had been used was when John Sheppard fell into the hands of a group of people who called themselves The Travelers.

"It's from Colonel Sheppard," Chet said suddenly.

"Thank God, where is he?" Woolsey asked.

"Sateda, but not in the city. He's in the caves in the mountains north of the city," Chet answered. "He's not sure of the exact coordinates, but he's pretty sure Ronon will know the area."

"Anything else?" Woolsey asked.

"Yes, sir, he has a Wraith tracking device in his back…"

"I'll get my things," Keller said.

"Colonel Sheppard is requesting Dr. Beckett," Chet said and noticed the hurt look on Keller's face.

"Major Lorne is picking up Dr. Beckett and will be closer to Sateda," Woolsey said and hoped to placate Keller with his next words. "Dr. Beckett has removed the device from Ronon twice so it makes sense that he would ask for him. Chet, contact Major Lorne and give him everything we know. Make sure Dr. Beckett understands about the tracking device and that there will be Wraith in the area," Woolsey ordered before turning to Atlantis' CMO. "Dr. Keller, I'm sure you realize why Colonel Sheppard requested Dr. Beckett at this time."

"Of course. I'll have the infirmary prepared for them when they return," Keller advised and realized she really did understand and knew that it wasn't meant as an insult to her. Beckett had the experience and Lorne had already left to pick him up and that meant they were closer to Sateda than Atlantis was.

~oOo~

Canesis knew Bilar would be angry at what he was doing, but he could live with that as long as he made a deal with the Wraith. He would gladly give up John Sheppard and Jordanaeh if it meant saving his life and those who were hiding in the lower caverns. He'd hidden in a small recess while the others filed past and hurried back to the entrance before anyone noticed his departure.

Canesis could hear movement around the entrance and trembled as he realized how close he was to the creatures that fed on his kind. For a moment fear made him turn and take several steps back down the tunnel, but he could not help feeling his choice was the better one.

"I smell your fear, human," the Wraith Commander said with disgust.

"Please…I can help you—"

"Yes, you can. I will feed on you…"

"No! No I can help you find the Runner…"

The Wraith commander was fast and Canesis had no chance to escape as the creature's hand grabbed him and pulled him close.

"Where is John Sheppard?"

"You will let us go?"

"Perhaps if you are telling the truth," the Wraith Commander spat and tightened his grip on Canesis' throat.

"Tell me where he is!"

"There's a sys…system of tunnels be…behind me. The second one on the right leads to a secondary cavern and there is a hidden entrance that will lead you to a large chamber. At the back of the cham…chamber there is a steep wall that is difficult to climb, but not impossible. Jordanaeh took Sheppard there so he could call for help," Canesis explained.

"Where are the others of your kind?"

"There is no one else," Canesis lied, unable to betray Bilar and the others even as he betrayed John Sheppard and Jordanaeh.

"You have served me well, but I am afraid I require more from you."

Canesis' eyes grew wide with fear as the Wraith Commander pulled back his hand and brought it forward onto his chest. The pain was instantaneous beginning with a burning sensation that slowly built to an unbearable fire that sucked the air from his lungs and the life from his body. Too late he realized Bilar had been correct to lead them into the lower caverns and was glad he had not given away their existence.

The Wraith Commander growled, deep in his throat as he sucked the life from the body before tossing it aside and looking toward the system of tunnels. It would take time to find John Sheppard, but now he knew where the human was and he would feed on him before his people reached this planet.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett watched as the Jumper touched down in the clearing at the edge of the village. Crase stood beside him and Beckett was grateful for the man's friendship. He'd heard from Woolsey and knew they would be leaving for Ronon's home world as soon as his stuff was stored away.

Carson moved forward as the rear hatch opened and two men hurried to help him with his equipment. He turned and grasped Crase's hand in a show of friendship. "Thank you, Crase."

"It is I who should be thanking you, Carson," Crase assured him. "We are hopeful that you find Colonel Sheppard before the Wraith do."

"Thank you."

"Will you send us word when you find Colonel Sheppard?"

"I will, Crase, take care of your family and I will return when it is closer to Miriel's time," Beckett vowed and hurried into the Jumper as Crase and the other villagers moved back to watch them leave.

~oOo~

John woke with a start and looked around, certain he was surrounded by a raging fire that was melting the flesh from his body. He sat forward, searching the darkness for anything that would tell him where he was.

"You are safe, John," Jordanaeh told him as she sat down beside him. She placed her hand on his arm and could feel the heat as he trembled at her touch.

"How long was I out?" Sheppard asked worriedly.

"Not long. Risha brought some water and Pichi fruit."

"Pichi fruit?"

"It is sweet and easy on the stomach. It will give you a little energy."

"Could use a lot of energy right now," Sheppard told her.

"I am sure you could, but this is all I can offer right now," Jordanaeh said.

"It's good. Has Risha seen anyone?"

"Not yet. He is watching the lower ledges, but so far there has been no movement."

"What of your people? Will they be safe?"

"As long as Bilar took them to the lower chambers they will be safe," Jordanaeh explained.

"What about you and Risha? You should leave," Sheppard told her.

"And go where?"

"To the chambers with Bilar and the rest of your people. I don't…I can't be responsible for your death, Jordanaeh," John said.

"John, have you always carried so much on your shoulders?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"You are a man who has lost a lot in your life, yet you continue to fight as if your life does not count. Do you value your life less than you do others'?"

"No, but it's my job to protect people. Not put them in danger."

"Then it is my job to make sure you remain alive until your friends arrive. I would say we should do our best to make sure both our jobs are fulfilled," Jordanaeh told him.

"I just don't want to see you hurt, Jordanaeh," Sheppard replied, frowning when he noticed Risha standing at the cave entrance. There seemed to be an unnatural sound emanating from the creature and from the woman's reaction he knew it wasn't good.

"Risha senses someone nearby," Jordanaeh explained and hurried toward the creature.

John wasn't far behind and he stood in the darkness staring down the mountain face. He couldn't see anything beyond the trees, but Risha seemed to be pointing at something just below them. The chittering sound hurt his ears, and he held both hands against them as Jordanaeh tried to calm Risha down.

"John, the Wraith must be near," Jordanaeh told him.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Risha senses them below us. They are probably climbing from the lower level," she answered.

"Are there any weapons here?" Sheppard asked, frowning when he remembered finding a weapon like Ronon owned. Where had he left it? He glanced around and realized somewhere during their trek to the mountains he'd lost the pack with whatever provisions he'd managed to scrounge up.

"Nothing that we can use," Jordanaeh told him, fear evident in her eyes as she followed him back inside.

"When you found me did you see a pack?'

"No, I am sorry, but there was nothing," Jordanaeh told him.

"We need to stop them from coming up here," John told her and spotted several fair sized rocks in one corner. He strode over, grabbed one in each hand, and smiled when Risha did the same as if it sensed what he had planned.

"John, we cannot stop them with rocks," Jordanaeh told him.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Sheppard said with a weak grin. "We have the high ground and rocks in the right hands can do a lot of damage…even to a Wraith."

Risha made several clicking noises with his teeth as if agreeing with Sheppard before moving back through the short tunnel

"We wait until they are half way up before we start firing," Sheppard told her.

"We won't be able to see them," Jordanaeh replied.

"No, but if we're quiet we'll hear them," the colonel assured her and made another trek to the cave in search of more stones.

ACT IV

Bilar had checked the lower chambers, but found no trace of Canesis. He knew the younger man was headstrong and so he looked back the way they'd come, but he knew that Canesis was probably beyond his help now. If he'd gone to the Wraith then it was certain he was dead, fed upon by one of them until there was no life left in him.

Bilar felt a small amount of regret for the loss of such a young life, but he would not feel guilt over it. Canesis had made his choice and there was nothing he could do to change that. His job now was to watch over those who'd made the journey with him. He sighed heavily and returned to the center of the chamber and hoped Jordanaeh and her charge were okay.

~oOo~

Rodney knew he was probably slowing Ronon and Teyla down, but he kept putting one foot in front of the other in an attempt to keep walking. His head hurt and it was hard to stay focused with his stomach doing flip flops with each step he took. He felt a hand on his arm, swallowed several times and forced a smile to his face as he accepted the water Teyla handed him.

"Rodney, perhaps you should—"

"I'm fine, Teyla," McKay grumbled and heard a disbelieving grunt from up ahead. He handed the water back to Teyla and ignored the lancing pain in his skull as he picked up the pace. They'd been walking a steady upgrade for over an hour and McKay tried hard to forget where they were as a chill swept through him.

"Rodney…"

"Sorry, Teyla, I hate closed in places," McKay told her.

"Just imagine it is night time and there is a cool breeze…"

"That smells like guano…"

"What is guano?"

"Bat feces," McKay answered. "It's not a pleasant smell."

"I see, perhaps it would be better if you pretended—"

"Be quiet," Ronon whispered.

"What's wrong?" McKay asked worriedly as Teyla extinguished her flashlight, casting them into total darkness. He listened carefully and realized the loud sound he heard was his own breathing and he fought to keep his mounting panic at bay.

"Ronon, what is it?" Teyla asked softly.

"Thought I heard something up ahead," Ronon answered.

"I hear it too," McKay said a minute later.

"We need to be careful," Ronon said. "McKay, you could wait here."

"No, I'm going," McKay said and wondered at the changes the expedition had caused in him. Changes that had him doing things he never would have dreamed of during his time on Earth.

"All right…stay close," Ronon ordered and led the way up the slope.

~oOo~

The Wraith Commander watched as several drones began climbing toward the next level. He stood back, waiting to see if they could make it to the top without mishap and sensed the closeness of the 'human runner'. He glanced up, but could see nothing but darkness yet he felt as if someone was watching them.

He moved to the side and listened for anything that would tell him how close they were to the top. The only sound he heard came from the drones as they loosened stones that rattled toward the bottom. He could almost taste the human's life so close and craved the strength such feeding would give him.

Without a word he moved further along the cliff face and began climbing toward the top. He heard a sharp cry from his right and then a solid thud as if something struck the stone floor several feet below. A smile formed as he thought about the human and how easily he would defeat him.

~oOo~

"Dr. Beckett, we should be at Sateda in thirty minutes," Lorne said.

"Has there been any word from Rodney or the others?" Beckett asked. He'd checked and double-checked everything they'd brought with them and silently prayed he'd be able to remove the tracking device, if the Wraith had put one in Sheppard's back. It had been a fairly simple procedure with Ronon, but he had no idea what effect the Wraith device would have on the colonel's ATA gene.

"Not since Woolsey contacted us," Lorne answered. He kept glancing at the other man worriedly.

"Is there any way of contacting Rodney when we arrive?"

"We should be able to find them using their subcutaneous trackers," Lorne answered.

"What about the Wraith?"

"Hopefully we'll be able to distinguish their signals from McKay and the others." Lorne replied.

Carson hoped his words were true, but he knew nothing was ever that simple where the Wraith were concerned.

~oOo~

John knew they were running out of ammunition and silently cursed the loss of the weapon. The rocks were keeping most of the Wraith from scaling the wall, but it was only a matter of time before they were over-run. Jordanaeh had realized there was no need to hide and had relit the area so they could see the creatures climbing toward them. He knew there was no choice but to make the woman listen to him and leave. "Jordanaeh…"

"We must leave, John."

"Yes, you must. Take Risha and travel through the—"

"You must come with us," the woman said.

"No, I can't," Sheppard said as Risha continued to fire the missiles with surprising accuracy. "Listen to me, Jordanaeh, if you stay here you will die."

"So will you, John," she said sadly.

"I know and believe me if there was any other way I'd gladly take it."

"John…"

"Please don't make me responsible for your deaths too, Jordanaeh. I can't do that," Sheppard told her. "Take Risha and leave now before they reach the top."

"Perhaps Risha can find more like himself and we shall return to help you. Please don't give up yet."

"I'm not," Sheppard vowed. "I'll fight until my last breath."

"It won't be your last breath, John, not as long as you have the strength to keep fighting," Jordanaeh said and kissed his cheek before turning to find Risha watching them closely as if he sensed something was wrong. "Risha, we must get help!"

"Be careful, Jordanaeh," John said and kicked out as a Wraith Drone's head rose above the ground before him. He knew it was only a matter of time before there were too many for him to stop, but he called on every ounce of strength and determination he had left.

~oOo~

Jordanaeh knew John Sheppard was right, but leaving went against everything she'd been taught. How could she leave him to certain death, while she and Risha escaped into the dense forest? How could she live with herself for turning her back on someone in need?

There was no easy answer for those questions and she let the tears flow as Risha lifted her into his arms and carried her swiftly through the tallest trees. She could tell the creature disliked leaving the man behind by the way he kept glancing over his shoulder while making the loud clicking noises.

"We need to find others of your kind, Risha. We must help John," she vowed as they moved further away from the cave's entrance.

~oOo~

Ronon reached the base of the cliff and cursed at the sight of the dark shadows near the top. He knew there was no way McKay could make the climb, but he didn't have time to argue as a Wraith drone fell to the ground beside it. Not taking any chances, Ronon pulled his weapon and quickly shot it, killing it instantly as McKay and Teyla joined him.

"You have got to be kidding," McKay grumbled at the stark face of the cliff before him.

"Teyla, you and McKay wait here."

"Ronon, we can—"

"Stay here in case there are more Wraith behind us. I need to go help Sheppard," Ronon said and tucked his gun back inside his coat before reaching for a handhold directly above his head. A second Wraith drone fell to his right and he heard the sound of Teyla's weapon and knew she'd taken care of it.

~oOo~

The sound of weapons' fire from below gave him some hope, but he couldn't take the time to acknowledge it as the Wraith Commander quickly stepped from the darker shadows on his right. He quickly shoved another drone over the edge and turned his attention to the man who was the cause of his misery.

"You have given me quite a chase, Colonel Sheppard," the Wraith Commander said.

"Glad I could keep you entertained," Sheppard told him, wincing as the device in his back sent tremors of agony along already strained nerves.

"How is your back?"

"Peachy," Sheppard answered sarcastically as he and the Wraith Commander circled each other.

"I will enjoy feeding on you, Colonel Sheppard."

"No, I doubt that very much. I'm not that palatable," Sheppard said as the Wraith Commander launched an attack. Sheppard sidestepped and slammed his fist into his foe's lower back, but knew he hadn't connected as solidly as he would have liked. He rounded on his opponent and lashed out with his left leg, connecting with the creature's knee and smiling when he heard a grunt from the Wraith.

John dodged left, ducking under the Wraith's fist and driving his own up under the ribs. He dove to the left as his enemy raised his feeding arm and tried to grab him. He had no idea how long they'd been fighting, but he knew he could not keep up with the intensity required for this type of fight. Every time he moved he felt the device in his back biting into him as if it had taken on a life of its own.

~oOo~

Ronon wasn't sure how long it took to reach the top, but he heard Sheppard's voice and smiled when he heard the biting sarcasm in the man's words. He had no idea how many Wraith drones had made it to the top, but there'd been several killed by Teyla and Rodney when they'd fallen from the cliff face.

Ronon chanced a glance back down, but could barely make out his two friends so he turned his attention back to the task at hand. He grabbed a protruding rock with his right hand and pulled himself up with a grunt. He caught sight of Sheppard and the Wraith, but didn't call out for fear of distracting his friend.

He pulled himself over the ledge, but didn't stay down as he drew his gun and tried to get a clear shot of the Wraith Commander. Sheppard seemed to be holding his own as they fought in close quarters, but Ronon could tell the man was weakening.

Ronon watched as the Wraith Commander struck out with both fists and connected solidly with Sheppard before John managed to strike out with his right foot and drive the man backwards. Ronon leveled his gun, but John's voice stopped him cold.

"I got this bastard!" Sheppard snarled.

"You fight well, Human, but it is only a matter of time…"

"And yours just ran out!" Sheppard said and launched a kick at his foe.

"No!" the Wraith Commander screamed as he realized he was teetering on the edge of the cliff.

Sheppard dropped to his knees as the Wraith disappeared and fought to catch his breath as the pain he'd been keeping at bay intensified.

"Sheppard…"

"Good to see you, buddy," Sheppard said and collapsed against Ronon, who'd dropped down beside him. "God…"

"I know…"

"Ronon, did you find Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla's voice echoed through the chamber.

"Yeah, he's here," Ronon answered.

"Is there anything you could use to pull us up with?" McKay asked.

"Let me take a look…"

"Check the other c-cave," Sheppard forced through his constricted throat.

"Hold on a minute," Ronon shouted to the others before easing Sheppard to the ground, grabbing the light, and hurrying into the other chamber.

~oOo~

Jordanaeh looked out over the mountains as Risha traveled through the treetops. Tears burned her eyes at the thought of leaving John Sheppard to fend for himself, but she knew he was right. She would most likely get in his way, but Risha…Risha could help him and perhaps it was not too late.

"Risha." Jordanaeh tapped his broad shoulder until he stopped and turned to look at her. She used several hand signals to show the creature what she wanted and heard a series of disgusted grunts that told her he understood. She knew Risha was angry with her decision, but he did as she ordered and raced back toward the cave entrance.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett looked down at the familiar yet unfamiliar city as Lorne piloted the Jumper above the buildings. He had been here when Ronon had been taken by the Wraith. He'd seen a little of the destruction, but what bothered him was that it was so desolate now that they knew the people of Sateda had died at the hands of the Wraith. "Such a waste."

"Yes it is," Lorne agreed and checked the systems for any sign of Ronon and the others. There were no signals, until he broadened the spectrum and found a locator beacon that could only be coming from McKay's Puddle Jumper. "It looks like they're somewhere in the mountains."

"Yes, but I don't believe they're alone. Isn't that—"

"A Wraith Dart," Lorne said of the familiar readings.

"Do you think—"

"No! Let's not go there until we find them," Lorne said, expertly sending the Jumper into a steep climb before heading toward the mountains and hoping they'd be in time to stop the Wraith.

~oOo~

With the fight against the Wraith over, the adrenalin rush that had kept him from feeling anything dissipated. It left John awake and aware of every blow the Wraith Commander had landed on his body, not to mention the ones he'd received during his slide down the hill. Sheppard tried to remember when that happened, but it seemed like eons ago until he shifted and tried to sit up.

The cry escaped through tightly clenched teeth and brought Ronon running from the other chamber. John could hear the Satedan speaking, but could not understand a word he said as the shock of his injuries wore off and pain slammed through every inch of his body. It robbed him of the ability to do even the most mundane task like breathing and he felt Ronon slapping his face until he gasped for air.

"Breathe, damn you!" Ronon repeated, eyes wide with fear.

"I ju-just did," Sheppard managed.

"Good! I'd hate to have to train a new boss," Ronon told him and eased him back down as a sound came from the other chamber. "Someone's out there."

"Go! I'm okay."

"Don't do nothing stupid!"

"Me?" Sheppard managed a half grin as Ronon hurried into the next chamber. He could hear Rodney and Teyla calling from below, but didn't have the energy to answer them. He frowned when he heard Ronon curse and several guttural growls that were familiar and suddenly realized all hell was about to break loose.

"Who are you?" Ronon's voice was filled with anger and John knew he had to do something before someone got hurt.

"John…"

"Jordanaeh, stop Risha! Ronon's a friend!" Sheppard managed, fighting to get to his feet.

"He attacked Risha!"

"Please! He's Sa…tedan…"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, his name is…Ronon Dex. Stop him before he hurts Risha…"

"Risha, no!" Jordanaeh said when the creature struck Ronon and nearly drove him over the edge.

"Ronon, what's going on up there?" McKay's voice sounded worried and Teyla's soon joined in.

"Ronon, are you all right?"

"Who are these people, John? Where are the Wraith?" Jordaneah asked.

"They're friends. Wraith are all dead," Sheppard told her, fighting to see past the woman.

"Risha, they are friends," Jordanaeh said calmly as the creature moved to protect her.

"Ronon…"

"Just hang on, McKay!" Ronon called as Jordanaeh calmed the creature he'd seen before only from a distance. They were a species that hid in the mountains and were seen only when they wanted to be.

"John, you are bleeding again," Jordanaeh said.

"I'm okay. Would you ask Risha to help my friends? Teyla could pro….probably climb up, but there's no way McKay'll make it," Sheppard told her.

Ronon watched as the woman used hand gestures and a series of clicking growls until Risha moved to the edge of the cliff and looked down. "How do you make it understand?"

"Risha and I have an understanding. He will do as I asked of him," Jordanaeh said as the creature disappeared over the edge and a cry was heard from below.

"Ronon…tell McKay…Risha won't hurt him," Sheppard said.

"Teyla, the creature is friendly. He'll bring you both up," Ronon called down.

"I need to check his back, but it's too dark in here. Can you carry him outside?" Jordanaeh asked.

"I can…can walk," Sheppard said.

"Yeah sure," Ronon said and lifted the colonel in spite of his weak protests. He quickly carried the injured man outside and hoped Sheppard was right about the Wraith.

"Put him down over here," Jordanaeh ordered and spread out a thick fur she'd found inside the cave. She wished she had something to ease the man's pain, but there was nothing. She gently touched his face. She concentrated on easing whatever torment she could, but knew it wouldn't be nearly enough for his kind of injuries.

"You're a Neliopath?" Ronon asked incredulously.

"I am, but I do not have the power to do anything more than ease his pain slightly," Jordanaeh explained.

"It drains you?"

"Yes, but I will regain my strength with rest and nourishment. John will not survive without help," the woman explained.

"I have heard stories about you," Ronon told her.

"I believe I am the last of my kind. The others perished in the last culling."

John listened to the two of them speaking as the agony slowly receded and the torment became centered on the device in his back. He tried breathing slowly and let his eyes close until he heard McKay and Teyla join them.

"How is he?" Teyla asked.

"What's she doing to him?" McKay grumbled and sank to the ground beside Sheppard.

"She is easing his pain," Ronon answered.

"How? I don't see any needles?" McKay said.

"She is a Neliopath and uses her energy to dampen the pain centers," Teyla explained. "Ronon told me about them during his last stay in the infirmary."

"I got you," Ronon said when Jordanaeh released her hold and shook with undisguised weakness. He eased her down beside Sheppard, awed that she was a healer and surprised that she had survived the last Wraith culling.

~oOo~

Carson Beckett was reminded of Earth as they left the city behind and flew low over the treetops headed for the mountains in the distance. It amazed him how much the trees reminded him of the spruce and other evergreens that grew in abundance back home. Even the flowers reminded him of wild honeysuckle and roses and he briefly wondered if they gave off the same sweet scent.

Carson turned when he heard a distinct change in the signals and pointed to a trio of signals high in the mountains. "Major…"

"I see it," Lorne said and adjusted the flight plan to bypass the Puddle Jumper and Wraith Dart. "It looks like three…"

"Ronon, Rodney, and Teyla?" Beckett said, frowning when he noted a fourth signal that didn't quite match the others. "That could be Colonel Sheppard."

"Maybe, but it's not reading the same," Lorne offered.

"If he's been fitted with a Wraith tracking device then it could be interfering with the signal. God only knows how that would affect his subcutaneous tracker," Beckett said.

"You'll be able to remove it won't you, Doc?"

"I hope so, Major, but we'll have to wait and see," Beckett answered worriedly.

~oOo~

"Ronon, what is that creature?" McKay asked. He had been watching Risha and did not like the way the animal bared its fangs when it looked at him.

"Risha is a Trishka," Ronon explained.

"It kind of reminds me of a ferocious teddy bear crossed with a feline," McKay said, rubbing at his temples as his headache obviously made itself known.

"Rodney, you should rest," Teyla suggested and turned her gaze toward the sky as if she sensed something.

"Teyla, what's wrong?" Ronon asked.

"I believe we are not alone," Teyla told him and reached for his arm when Ronon went for his weapon. "It is not the Wraith."

Ronon released his hold on the weapon as a Puddle Jumper de-cloaked directly above them. He turned when Risha began squealing as if angered and helped Jordanaeh move to the creature's side.

"It is okay, Risha, they are friends," Jordanaeh spoke as she used her hands to reassure the creature. She had seen the small crafts before, but had never been this close to one as it hovered above them.

"Rodney?"

"Carson, thank God," McKay said with a weak grin.

"There's nowhere to land, but Major Lorne is going to bring us in closer and lower the rear hatch," Beckett explained.

"Ronon, have Jordanaeh keep Risha away," McKay ordered. "All right, Carson, just don't make any sudden moves!"

Ronon watched as Lorne positioned the Jumper as close to the edge as possible and moved to help Beckett with the equipment he was carrying. He placed the two kits on the ground and reached out to offer the doctor his hand.

"Thank you, Ronon," Beckett said once he was firmly on solid ground. "How is he and what is that?"

"That is a Trishka," Ronon answered as Beckett moved to Sheppard. "Don't worry, it's friendly."

"I'll take your word on that," Beckett said and glanced at McKay. "What happened, Rodney?"

"I hit my head…"

"Oh, so it's nothing serious then," Beckett offered.

"Very funny, Carson," McKay grumbled.

"Just stay where you are until I'm finished with Colonel Sheppard," the doctor ordered. He didn't like how pale Sheppard was or how fast he seemed to be breathing. There was no doubt that the man was running one hell of a fever, but he was obviously also in a lot of pain from the Wraith device. "Ronon, I need to take a look at his back…"

"I got him," Ronon said and eased Sheppard onto his side in a semi sitting position so the colonel was leaning against his chest. "Doc?"

"I don't know, Ronon, the damn thing is in deep. I don't have what I need here," Beckett answered. "We need to get him back to Atlantis."

"No…Wraith…follow…track us…"

"Easy, Colonel, I don't think the Wraith can track us. The device has changed and I think it has something to do with the ATA gene. I'll know more once we get you back to Atlantis," Beckett said and continued to check the raw wound in Sheppard's back. There was nothing he could do, except give him something to ease the pain, but he wasn't sure how the device would react if Sheppard succumbed to drug induced sleep.

"Carson, what if…Would it react the same way the Iratus Bug did if it thought Sheppard was dead?" McKay asked.

"I don't know, Rodney, but I can't chance that not when we're so far from Atlantis. We need to get him back there before we make any hasty decisions," Beckett answered.

"Will you be able to help him?" Jordanaeh asked softly.

"I am going to try," Beckett answered, wondering who the woman was and why the creature seemed to be protecting her. "Teyla, contact Major Lorne and tell him we need to leave as soon as possible."

"What about the Jumper we came in?" McKay asked.

"We can come back for it, Rodney," Beckett replied and turned to the unknown woman who seemed unnaturally pale. "Are you injured, lass?"

"No, I am fine," Jordanaeh answered.

"You look like you've been through hell," Beckett said and touched her cheek, jerking his hand back when the creature beside her growled deep in its throat.

"I assure you I will be fine. Risha will help me back to my people."

"There are others?" Ronon asked hopefully as Beckett continued to examine Sheppard.

"There are many of us who live in the mountains. We go down to the city when we are in need of supplies, but we have lived in the caves for so long that it has become our home. We are safe there and there are elements that keep the Wraith from finding us," Jordanaeh explained.

"How many?" Ronon asked.

"Hundreds, but most are shy and do not like strangers in our midst. We have lived in the caves long before the last culling destroyed Sateda and we will remain hidden there for many more years. The Wraith do not come now except when they play games with 'runners' like John Sheppard."

"What if we offered you a safe haven?" Teyla asked.

"We would prefer not to leave our world," Jordanaeh told her.

"You do have a device in the cave that is capable of contacting Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard used it…"

"He said it was primitive, but it worked," the woman answered.

"What if we offered a way to update the device so that you could contact Atlantis?" McKay asked.

"I believe it would be up to my people," Jordanaeh said.

"Carson, Major Lorne is ready whenever you are," Teyla told him.

"We need to go," Beckett said.

"Jordanaeh, I cannot leave you here alone," Ronon said.

"I am not alone. Risha will return me to my people and I will rest and grow strong. Your life is with these people, Ronon, but you are welcome to return any time you wish. We will watch the sky for your ship," Jordanaeh told him and smiled as John Sheppard looked at her.

"I owe you my life," Sheppard managed between ragged breaths.

"You owe me nothing," Jordanaeh told him.

"You and Risha…You saved my life…I owe…"

"Shh, there is no debt where a life is concerned, John Sheppard. We do what we must or we are no better than the Wraith. My people will be here and we hope you will return when you are healed and strong."

"I will," Sheppard said, eyes closing as Lorne maneuvered the Puddle Jumper close to the edge of the mountain. He felt Ronon and Carson lift him to his feet and held his breath as they helped him inside the craft. By the time they eased him down the pain had built to a roaring crescendo and he gave into the darkness.

~oOo~

Richard Woolsey had never been a patient man and he hated being out of the loop, especially since taking command of Atlantis. There'd been no word from Major Lorne or Rodney McKay since Lorne had picked up Beckett and headed for Sateda. He had made his way to his favorite spot on Atlantis, a place where he could be alone and think. He thought about the 'woman' who'd 'poached' his secret place and hoped they'd found a suitable world to start the seeding process.

Woolsey knew others used this spot, but they usually left him alone when they knew he was here. He had a reputation for being a loner, yet a lot of people seemed to have changed their impressions of him since the day he'd accepted an invitation to share a meal with Sheppard's team. He'd found he actually liked being able to sit with different members of the Atlantis expedition and that they opened up to him more freely than before.

"Unscheduled off world activation."

Woolsey didn't even think about what that could mean and hurried toward the control room without a backward glance. He knew it could be any number of off world teams or even one of the worlds they traded with, but instincts told him it was McKay or Lorne. He hurried into the control room as Chet turned toward him.

"It's Major Lorne's IDC."

"Open the gate," Woolsey ordered and watched as the gate activated.

The Puddle Jumper came through the gate and stopped as the shimmering whirlpool disappeared behind it. Woolsey hurried down the stairs and stood watching as the rear hatch opened and revealed a bedraggled group of weary travelers.

"Colonel, stay where you are!" Beckett ordered as an announcement went out for a medical emergency to the gateroom. "Rodney, you stay put too!"

"I'm—"

"Suffering from a concussion. Now sit there and be quiet," Beckett said.

"How is Colonel Sheppard?" Woolsey asked Beckett.

"Bad enough," Beckett answered. "I'll know more when Jennifer and I get him under the scanners." Beckett had used the emergency supplies from the Jumper, but had been afraid to give Sheppard anything for pain until they knew what they were dealing with. He placed a hand on Sheppard's shoulder as his body went rigid and arched at an impossible angle. He heard Keller's arrival as everyone moved out of the way so they could load the injured man onto the stretcher.

John heard Keller and Beckett talking and could hear the concern in their voices as they gave orders on how to get him on the stretcher. His breath caught in his throat as they shifted his body and placed him on his side before using the straps to keep him in place. He heard Beckett 'scolding' McKay and couldn't help but chuckle when he heard McKay grumble about being able to walk to the infirmary instead of waiting for another stretcher.

Sheppard closed his eyes during the fast paced trip and was soon transferred to a bed. Again he listened while Beckett and Keller gave orders for what they wanted done and soon felt a needle slip into his hand and another into the crook of his right elbow.

"Colonel," Keller called and waited for the man to look at her. "We know you're hurting right now, but we can't give you anything until we figure out how to get rid of the Wraith device."

"Cut…cut it out," Sheppard said, his voice sounding strangled as he tried to breath through the agonizing pain in his back.

"We can't. Not until we see what it's done to you," Keller said as McKay was wheeled in. She knew he was suffering from a concussion and gave orders for the nurse to start an IV and run some obs on him before returning her attention to Sheppard.

"Jennifer, we need to run a complete scan and find out exactly what we're dealing with," Beckett said as he watched the nurse finish the IV set up.

"You were right about the ATA gene's effect on the device," Keller said as she helped ease Sheppard onto his stomach before moving the mobile unit into place above him. "Colonel, we need you to be as still as possible until we're through."

"Try-trying," Sheppard gasped.

"There's the little bugger," Beckett said as the monitor came to life. He silently cursed what he was seeing and knew they had to come up with something fast or it would be too little, too late.

"It's attached itself to his spine," Keller said, pointing to the tendrils of metallic filaments that looked as if they were fused to the colonel's vertebrae.

"It's also infiltrating his nervous system and if we wait too long it will attach itself to his brain," Beckett explained.

"Doc…Hard…hard to breathe," Sheppard told them.

"Easy, Colonel," Beckett said and shook his head when he realized the foreign device seemed to be attacking every major system in Sheppard's body.

"Carson, we may need to intubate. Look at his oxygen levels," Keller said.

"Let's not wait any longer on this," Beckett advised and placed a hand on the injured man's right shoulder. "Colonel, we're going to have to intubate."

"Hell!"

"I know, but there's no choice right now because your breathing is compromised. Just relax…"

"Easy for…for you to say," Sheppard told him and allowed his eyes to close. He soon felt the intubation process, but suddenly realized the pain had eased some. He briefly wondered if that was a good thing or not as darkness reached up and embraced him.

~oOo~

Rodney McKay lay back against the pillow and closed his eyes. Four hours had passed since they'd returned from Sateda, but so far Beckett and Keller had been unable to come up with anything that could help Sheppard. Rodney had asked for his laptop and Beckett had reluctantly given it to him because they needed whatever help they could get where Sheppard was concerned.

Since hooking Sheppard up to the ventilator the Wraith device seemed to have slowed, but it was steadily worming its way through Sheppard's body. McKay knew there was so much information in the Ancient's database that it would take decades to correlate everything. If he could narrow the search down then the information he sought could conceivably be within his grasp in time to help the colonel.

McKay's head throbbed and he closed his eyes in an effort to ease the mounting headache and felt the laptop removed from his hands. "I'm not finished…"

"Yes, Rodney, you are," Keller told him and closed up the laptop. "You need to rest—"

"I can't! Not—"

"Rodney, you can't help him if you neglect your own health," Keller lightly scolded. "Close your eyes and sleep."

"At least let me type in one more command so the damn computer keeps running through the data. The information is in there, Jennifer, and we have to find it before… before we run out of time," McKay said.

"All right, Rodney, but you tell me what to type in and then I'm going to put this over there so that it doesn't tempt you," Keller told him.

"You're as bad as Carson…"

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"So will I," Beckett said from behind Keller.

"Carson, how is he?" McKay asked.

"The device is slowly taking over every system in his body, including his respiratory and nervous systems. If we don't find a solution soon it may be too late," Beckett warned.

"Then give me back my laptop," McKay ordered.

"No, you need to rest!" Keller ordered. "Now I told you I'd let you put in the command so that the computer keeps functioning, but that's it, Rodney! You sleep or so help me I'll give you something that'll knock you out for a week."

"Carson…"

"Don't look at me!" Beckett told him. "This is Jennifer's infirmary and I'll back her on this one!"

"Get a little sleep, Rodney," Keller ordered softly.

"I can't fight both of you, but…"

"What?" Keller asked.

"Would you ask Radek to check the laptop in case something comes up while I'm forced to lay here and do nothing?"

"I think that could be arranged," Keller told him, and watched as his eyes closed. She quickly contacted Zelenka and was not surprised when the man turned up in less than five minutes. He listened to what McKay had to say, taking the computer and typing in several commands before settling in to watch the screen.

~oOo~

Richard Woolsey walked into the infirmary and waited for Beckett and Keller to finish what they were doing with John Sheppard. Eight hours had passed, eight hours without an answer as to what could be done about the device in Colonel Sheppard's back. Eight hours of fielding questions from members of the Atlantis Expedition.

Woolsey wondered how many times Elizabeth Weir and Samantha Carter found themselves in this type of situation. The decisions they had to make, whether life and death was involved or not, demanded they make the right choices. Choices that were hard and sometimes cost lives. Still they had to be made and that weighed heavily on his shoulders.

Woolsey was pulled from his thoughts by the sound of approaching footsteps and smiled at Jennifer Keller. "Is there any change in your patients?"

"Rodney is awake and griping about being unable to check his laptop. Carson and I agree that he should be resting and not checking through streams of code," Keller explained.

"Yes, well, Dr. McKay seems to think he's the only one who can figure this out. He needs to learn to allow others a chance to prove themselves," Woolsey said, but his voice showed that he understood just how valuable McKay's input was.

"I'm afraid that's not possible when it concerns John Sheppard."

"They do seem to have a unique friendship."

"Yes, they do. Colonel Sheppard knows how to handle McKay and Rodney seems to thrive on last minute Hail Marys," Keller said.

"You never answered my question about Colonel Sheppard's condition," Woolsey told her.

"His condition is deteriorating with every passing minute. There's nothing more we can do without going in and cutting the device away."

"You said that isn't possible without killing him."

"It's not," Keller said as Zelenka hurried into the infirmary.

"Is Rodney awake?"

"I'm awake, Radek. Tell me you have something?" McKay said when Zelenka hurried past Woolsey and Keller and placed the laptop on the table.

"I believe we have something," Zelenka told him. "I keyed in the commands you mentioned and then bypassed several key words until this showed up."

"Radek, what did you find?" Woolsey asked.

"It seems there is a lab on the lower levels that was built for this type of emergency. The Ancient database—"

"Yes…Yes," McKay said and tapped at the keys. "We can explain it later, but we need to move Sheppard to the lab right away or it'll be too late!"

"Rodney, we can't move him right now. It's too dangerous," Keller said.

"We don't have a choice, Jennifer," McKay snapped. "Look, if the information is right then once that device successfully infiltrates Sheppard's nervous system and takes control of his mind we've lost him. We need to take him to the lab and hook him up to the Ancient scanner there. According to this there's a laser that's specifically designed for this. They used it on several of their own kind, Jennifer."

"How many, Rodney?" Keller asked.

"There are at least 25 cases in the base, but they are not only tracking devices."

"What else?" Woolsey asked.

"It seems the Wraith enjoyed experimenting with the Ancients and the other races in the galaxy and there are several files that explain what they did. Suffice it to say the Ancients found a way to remove the devices," Zelenka explained.

"How many were removed successfully?" Woolsey asked.

"18," McKay answered.

"That's not exactly great odds, Rodney," Keller said.

"No, it's not, but we're running out of options," McKay told her impatiently. "Didn't you say Sheppard's condition is deteriorating and there's nothing you can do for him?"

"I—"

"Rodney, we're doing everything we can," Beckett said upon joining the group at the Canadian's bedside.

"I know, Carson, but hear me out. This could be Sheppard's only chance and I say he'd want to take it!" McKay said.

"Rodney's right. The lab seems to be the only solution," Zelenka offered.

"We have to try something," McKay said. "Look, we can't just sit here and watch him die!"

"We're not," Keller said.

"Have you come up with anything that'll come close to saving his life?" McKay snapped.

"No, but there's still time," Keller tried.

"Oh, really? How much? Five minutes…ten…maybe an hour?" McKay spat out impatiently.

"Easy, Rodney," Beckett warned when he noticed how McKay squinted his eyes as if the light hurt.

"Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, how long does Colonel Sheppard have?" Woolsey asked.

"I'd like to say a couple of days, but I'm afraid Rodney may be closer to the truth," Keller told them dejectedly.

"I believe Jennifer and I are both concerned because of the low ratio of success Radek mentioned," Beckett said.

"At least it gives him a shot," McKay said, grateful when Keller lowered the lights. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," she told him.

"We don't have much time to come up with an alternative," Woolsey offered.

"No, we don't and the longer we wait the harder it will be to remove the device. We need to move now while there is still time," Zelenka told them.

"Jennifer, what do you think?" Beckett asked.

"As much as I hate to admit it I think we have to go along with Rodney and Radek," Keller said.

"I agree," Beckett said.

"Then let's get—"

"Rodney, you won't be going anywhere," Keller stated.

"What? But I need to be there. I'm the only one who knows how to—"

"Dr. Zelenka, can you do this?" Woolsey asked.

"I believe so…yes," Zelenka said.

"What if something goes wrong? It would be better if both of us were there," McKay grumbled.

"You can be in contact with Radek, Rodney, but you're not going to be there," Keller warned.

"Carson…"

"Sorry, Rodney, but I agree with Jennifer. Now we're wasting time arguing. Time that Colonel Sheppard doesn't have," Beckett said and knew by the slump of McKay's shoulders that he understood.

"Radek, you need to make sure you calibrate the laser to the exact specifications or you could—"

"I know, Rodney," Zelenka said and did something he'd never done before. He placed his hand on McKay's shoulder and tried to show him the trust went both ways. "I can do this, Rodney."

"I know you can," McKay said simply and settled back on the bed as Zelenka made sure he would be able to see everything that happened in the Ancient's Lab.

~oOo~

Richard Woolsey watched as Beckett and Keller hooked up the mobile equipment they'd need to keep Sheppard alive during the trip to the lower levels. There were no transporters near the lab and it would take approximately fifteen minutes to make the trek from the nearest transporter.

Keller and Beckett would be making the trip and attempt to use the laser to remove the tracking device. Woolsey knew this was one of those hit or miss choices and silently prayed it would work in Sheppard's favor. He moved back as the bed was pulled away from the wall and pushed out into the hallway where dozens of Atlantis personnel had gathered to lend silent support to the injured colonel.

Woolsey followed behind the medical team as they moved to the nearest transporter and took a deep breath as they disappeared inside. He knew there was nothing more he could do for Sheppard, but he hoped his presence would show his support to the other expedition members. He knew Lorne would be leaving shortly to visit Brea Shuliak and deliver more medical supplies and pick up samples of the planet's fruits and vegetables.

Woolsey nodded to several people as he made his way toward his office to wait for word on Atlantis' military commander. He hoped the news would be good, but also understood the dangers of using equipment they knew very little about.

~oOo~

Rodney McKay waited until he was alone and knew it was time to move when Sheppard was wheeled out of the infirmary. He knew he'd catch hell from Beckett and Keller, but there was no way he'd stay here when Sheppard's life depended on them working with unfamiliar technology.

Rodney eased the tape from his hand and pulled the IV clear before grabbing several tissues and pressing them against the tiny puncture wound. He slid off the bed and stood for several seconds until the dizziness eased. Once he could open his eyes without fear of falling flat on his face, Rodney reached for a robe hanging over the back of a chair and quickly put it on.

He stood for several seconds listening for anything that would signal a member of Keller's staff was nearby, relieved when the infirmary remained quiet. He moved toward the door, grabbing the wall in an effort to stay on his feet and used his hand to guide his way to the door. Rodney checked the hallway, but it too was empty and he leaned against the wall before making his way toward the transporter.

"Keller's going to—"

"Damn it, Ronon, don't sneak up on a man like that. If I had a gun…"

"You'd probably shoot yourself," Ronon said as Teyla joined them.

"Where are you going?" Teyla asked, not really needing an answer.

"If you must know I'm needed in the lower level," McKay snapped.

"The Ancient's laser lab," Ronon offered.

"Rodney, don't you think Radek, Jennifer, and Carson can handle this?"

"Let me ask you something, Teyla. Where were you and Chewy going?"

"He got you, Teyla," Ronon said with a slight grin.

"Then we might as well get moving or we'll miss the whole thing," McKay said gruffly.

"Perhaps I should get you a wheel chair…"

"I'm fine, Teyla, honestly it's just a headache… one hell of a headache, but I've had worse."

"Of course you have," Teyla said, smiling as Ronon grabbed McKay's arm and leant his support.

~oOo~

Beckett and Keller maneuvered the bed into the lab and positioned it underneath the scanner as Zelenka moved to the control console. Beckett left Keller to adjust the mobile equipment while he helped bring the Ancient Technology to life. He still felt inadequate where the ATA gene was concerned and sometimes wished he could control it as easily as John Sheppard did. Few people had that kind of natural ability though and even with the gene therapy they had to concentrate in order to make things work.

Keller continued to work with the equipment she knew and was frustrated that there seemed to be no other choice but to do this. Sheppard's vitals were in the danger zone now and they needed to work quickly if they had any chance of saving his life. She silently wished they'd allowed McKay to come with them and turned at the sound of approaching footsteps.

"Rodney!" Keller snapped.

"I know and I'll go back as soon as I help Radek get the laser working properly. Look, I'm not saying Radek can't do it, but with us both working on it Sheppard will have a better chance of making it. You and Carson are going to have your hands full making sure nothing else goes wrong."

"Rodney…"

"Come on, Carson, you know I'm right!"

"Yes, I do, but I want your ass in that chair and if I see you move Jennifer has a nice little syringe tucked away just for you!" Beckett told him and saw a hint of a relieved smile form on McKay's face before he turned to Ronon and Teyla. "You two will have to wait outside."

"We'll have words later," Keller told the duo as they exited the lab. It would take time to get everything into position and Keller knew they had to move quickly or chance dangerous repercussions where Sheppard was concerned.

"Radek, see if you can bring up the schematics for the laser and find out what went wrong with the seven cases that…failed," McKay said, not speaking the single word that might put a kink in their plans.

"Rodney, the files are incomplete," Zelenka told him.

"Damn it, Radek, we need the information now!" McKay groused. "Let me see if I can find the missing files."

"Rodney, Colonel Sheppard doesn't have the time for you to go over everything. We need to do this now," Keller said, watching the monitors closely as Beckett joined her at the laser.

"Just give me a second!" McKay snapped and brought up the files he needed. He quickly scanned them until he found what he was looking for. He knew what the laser could do and that once they had it positioned properly it could, conceivably, destroy the device without damaging Sheppard's nervous system. The problem was it hadn't been used in over 10,000 years and if the power systems shut down they were signing Sheppard's death certificate and there was nothing that could change that. "Okay, once you start this you'll need to keep it moving until you've completely obliterated the damn thing!"

"All right, just let us know when to start," Keller said.

"Radek…"

"Don't wait for me, Rodney. I'm good to go," Zelenka said.

"Rodney?" Beckett asked.

"Do it now!" McKay ordered and hit the key that would start the laser. The noise was unbelievably loud and his hands went to his ears as he turned to see Beckett and Keller working in harmony in spite of the thunderous screeching sound assaulting them.

Beckett took control of the laser while Keller watched the readouts giving Sheppard's vitals as they tried to remove the foreign object from the colonel's back. Carson moved slowly, methodically eradicating the tendrils that had fused with the spinal column. No one spoke as he performed the procedure, moving from the spinal column to the ones that had attached themselves to Sheppard's lungs.

"Carson, his BP is dropping," Keller warned. "I'm going to run the fluids wide open."

"How much longer, Carson?" McKay asked.

"I don't know, Rodney, there's so much of it I swear it's growing new tentacles each time I move the laser," Beckett answered.

"I don't know how much longer the laser will be at full power," Zelenka warned.

"Carson…"

"I can't hurry this, Rodney!" Beckett snapped. "If I do I risk paralyzing him or compromising his respiratory system or killing him!"

"I'm just saying we don't have much time," McKay said and he tried to divert power from other systems. "Radek, see if you can patch us into the main power grid!"

"I'm trying, Rodney, but most of this stuff has been shut down for 10,000 years," Zelenka told him.

"I know…but so were most of Atlantis' systems, but they started up when we came through the stargate—"

"True, but it wasn't long before we realized the city was using up the last reserves of power—"

"Agreed, but there was a failsafe built in—"

"I know, but there doesn't seem to be—"

"Would you two stop bickering and pay attention?" Beckett snapped impatiently.

"Sorry, Carson, we're just trying to make sure we have everything covered," McKay said.

"Try to do it a little quieter," the physician warned.

"We work best when we're bouncing ideas off each other," Zelenka offered.

"Then bounce a little more quietly," Keller told them.

"How is the colonel holding up, Jennifer?" Beckett asked.

"His BP is still low, temperature is high, but we knew that coming into this. Heart rate is fast and erratic. We really need to finish this," Keller answered worriedly.

"I'm almost there," Beckett said. He knew the hardest part was still to come as he moved the laser toward the brain stem and silently prayed his hands would remain steady. He took a deep breath and continued to work with pinpoint accuracy until McKay's softly spoken expletive reached his ears.

"Sonofabitch! Carson, we're losing power."

"I'm almost finished, Rodney, just another minute at the most," Beckett snapped.

"Radek, see if you can bypass the main power supply—"

"I've tried that, Rodney, but it won't accept the commands," Zelenka said.

McKay's fingers flew over the keys, deleting orders while issuing new ones in an effort to keep the laser powered up. He turned away as sparks flew from several wires near the console he was working on, but did not stop what he was doing. There were times when he loved coming up with a last ditch solution to problems, but this was not one of them. This really was life and death and it was John Sheppard's life he was helping to save.

"30 seconds, Rodney!" Beckett said and ignored the small fire that started near the laser. Teyla and Ronon appeared seemingly out of nowhere and quickly doused the flames before moving back and watching the life and death struggle going on in the room. An alarm sounded, and he could hear McKay and Zelenka, but ignored what was being said as he turned the laser on the last of the tendrils. He completed the task and reached for the Wraith device with a set of sterilized forceps.

"Carson, we need—"

"I got the damn thing!" Beckett told Keller as the alarms continued around them. He looked up to see Sheppard had flatlined, and quickly turned his attention to the extra equipment they'd brought with them.

Rodney McKay watched as they worked to restart Sheppard's heart and silently counted the seconds that ticked by. He didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until Teyla's hand touched his right shoulder and he drew in a ragged breath. He almost slid from the chair when Keller said they had him back.

"Thank God," Zelenka whispered.

"I just did," McKay said softly as Keller and Beckett unhooked the laser and moved the bed out of the room. He knew Beckett had covered the wound in the colonel's back and would take care of it as soon as they reached the infirmary.

"Come on, Rodney, let's get you back to the infirmary," Teyla said as Ronon helped McKay to his feet.

"Radek, make sure this room is secured until we get a chance to check it out," McKay ordered and allowed Teyla and Ronon to support him as he stumbled out of the room.

~oOo~

Voices filtered through the fog that seemed to have enshrouded his mind and he managed to open his eyes and look at the man in the next bed.

"Welcome back, Sheppard," McKay said and watched as a hint of a smile formed before the colonel's eyelids closed once more. During the last 48 hours Sheppard would awaken for a few seconds, look toward him, and then close his eyes once more. Beckett and Keller had removed the ventilator, but placed him on oxygen while he slept. A drain had been put into the wound in his back and had finally cleared of the bloody discharge that had been so prevalent during the first 24 hours after the removal of the tracking device.

"He's doing better, Rodney," Keller said. She knew McKay was worried because he hadn't given them any grief about staying put in the infirmary. It also helped that the headaches were keeping him from working on anything that wasn't pressing.

"How long before he's really awake?" McKay asked.

"Carson and I will check him over and see if we can close up the wound. If it's clear we'll stitch it closed and ease off on the heavier meds. He'll be uncomfortable for a while, but he should be awake more," the doctor advised.

"Good, I'm not used to seeing him so damn quiet," McKay said.

"I know," Keller said and checked his eyes. "I think you'll be able to go back to your quarters tomorrow, but I want you to rest and let me know if the headaches come back or get worse."

"I will, Jennifer," McKay agreed. The headaches were not as intense now, but when they hit he was sick and dizzy and found that only sleep helped to ease the pain. He glanced at Sheppard, whose dark hair was soaked with sweat and spoke of the fever that still plagued him, but Keller and Beckett both said his temperature was coming down. That meant there was no longer a danger of convulsions and that meant no brain damage.

"Rodney, go to sleep. He won't wake up until tomorrow," Keller said and turned to find Teyla and Ronon standing behind her. The duo was never far from the Infirmary and would often keep McKay company while waiting for news on Sheppard. Woolsey checked in every couple of hours for an update on the injured men and made sure Atlantis personnel were kept abreast of their condition.

"How are they?" Teyla asked.

"Rodney will be released tomorrow morning. Colonel Sheppard's numbers are better and it won't be long before he's fighting to get out of here."

Ronon smiled at the thought and knew Sheppard would not be down much longer. He looked forward to getting back to their workouts and smiled when Keller seemed to read his mind.

"Ronon, you need to take it easy on him until he's had a chance to heal," Keller warned.

"I always take it easy on him," Ronon said.

"You better not let him hear you say that, Ronon," Teyla observed and saw the hint of a smile on the Satedan's face before Keller left them alone with McKay. "How do you feel, Rodney?"

"Better than I was," McKay answered honestly.

"Are Jennifer and Carson still angry with you?" Teyla asked.

"No more than usual," McKay replied. "I did what I had to do. We all did."

"Yes, we did," Teyla said simply. She turned and looked at the man in the bed next to McKay and knew he still had some healing to do, but at least they'd rescued him before the Wraith completed their plans. They'd been back to Ronon's planet and had been surprised to find the Dart ship gone and no sign of the Wraith. Whatever the reason the Wraith had left and Jordanaeh and her people were safe for now.

~oOo~

"Welcome back, Colonel," Richard Woolsey said when Sheppard finally focused on him. Three days had passed since they'd removed the tracking device, but this was the first time the colonel was aware enough to actually speak with them.

"Did I go somewhere?" the Colonel asked tiredly.

"Very nearly," Beckett answered.

"What happened?" Sheppard asked.

"What do you remember?" Keller inquired.

"I remember…" Sheppard's brow furrowed as he tried to remember what had happened as he glanced at Beckett. "We went to see Crase at that village."

"Yes, we did," Beckett said. "Anything else?"

"Went to check a village to the north… alone… some kind of storm?"

"That's right. The storm hit soon after you left," Beckett said.

"Seem to remember a man… another village…Wraith worshippers?"

"Yes, they were and they turned you over to the Wraith," Woolsey offered.

"Damn, I was hoping that part was a dream," Sheppard told them and shifted slightly.

"Take it easy, Colonel, we don't want you ruining our handiwork," Keller said.

"They put in a tracking device."

"Yes, they did and you had a bad reaction to it. We figure it was caused by the ATA gene," Beckett said.

"What kind of reaction?" Sheppard asked.

"Let's just say it made Ronon's experience look like a cakewalk," Beckett advised.

"The device was fused to your spine, respiratory systems and several major organs," Keller said. "We had a hard time removing it."

"How did you remove it?" Sheppard asked.

"Rodney and Radek found a lab…"

"Another one?" the colonel asked, sighing tiredly.

"Aye, but that's a story for later, lad," Beckett advised. "Right now you need to rest."

"Colonel, we're glad to have you back," Woolsey said.

"Thanks. Good to be back," Sheppard said and closed his eyes as the others left him alone. He drifted toward sleep, grimacing when he shifted and set off a flare of pain in his back. He felt someone doing something with his IV and mumbled a soft thanks before feeling the pain ease with the injected medication.

~oOo~

John Sheppard moved to the table where McKay, Teyla, and Ronon were seated and smiled as he placed the tray on top of it before sitting down. Today marked the first time in two weeks that he'd been given his freedom. He'd started with a walk to his favorite spot on the highest tower. He breathed deeply of the cool air before realizing the low rumble was not the ocean, but his stomach reminding him he hadn't eaten since the night before.

"Good morning, John, I must say you look much better," Teyla said.

"Thank you, Teyla," Sheppard said and lifted the cup of hot liquid, smiling at the taste that was so much like chocolate. "What did you say this was called?"

"It's Shireo," McKay said. "I can't believe we have our own version of chocolate so far from Earth."

"It's good. And this is?" the colonel asked.

"Shiccato Root. It is very good for you," Teyla answered.

"Does this mean we can make s'mores?" Sheppard asked with a grin.

"I believe that is something Brea Shuliak is very interested in trying," Teyla said.

"They're in for a treat," Sheppard said and turned to Ronon. "So, you've been taking it easy on me?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ronon said.

"I heard you… Guess it was a few days ago, but I heard you say you were taking it easy on me when we spar."

"I warned you, Ronon," Teyla said with a smile.

"I'm ready—"

"Sheppard, I should tell you Carson is standing behind you," McKay offered.

"Hi, Carson," Sheppard said.

"Colonel, if I see you doing anything more strenuous than deep breathing exercises you'll be off the duty roster for a month," Beckett warned.

"I'm—"

"In trouble," Keller advised.

"Damn, I'm being double teamed," Sheppard said and turned his attention to the tray of food in front of him. It felt good to be back where he belonged and although he was down, he could not be counted out. He laughed when Keller scolded McKay for not reporting for his physical and knew things would soon be back to normal.

~oOo~

Jordanaeh stood watching as the ship flew low over the treetops and nestled down near the entrance to the cave. She placed a hand on Risha's shoulder in an effort to keep the creature calm and smiled when the rear hatch opened revealing John Sheppard and the other members of his team.

John took a deep breath and stepped toward her as Risha began chittering excitedly. He looked at the woman curiously. "I hope that means he's happy to see me?"

"Risha and I are very pleased to see you well and truly healed, John."

"Thank you…for everything you've done for me," Sheppard told her, unconsciously scratching the creature behind the ears. "Did the Wraith come back?"

"No, there has been no sign of them and my people have returned to the upper levels of the caverns," Jordanaeh explained.

"I'm glad. Rodney has brought the equipment he needs to upgrade the communications device in the upper chamber. It will make it easier for you to get in touch with Atlantis if you need anything," Sheppard told her and walked beside her as the others removed the equipment from the Jumper.

"Tell me about Atlantis, John."

"It's a city on the ocean with high towers and it seems like there's always something new to discover. You could come see it for yourself."

"Perhaps I will once my people do not fear the Wraith returning. They know you had nothing to do with what happened to Canesis, but his death has proven that the Wraith are not to be trusted and could easily come again. We are hopeful that the others understand Canesis made his own fatal mistake in trusting them, but until we are sure I must remain here," Jordanaeh explained.

"Sheppard, we have everything we need to do this," McKay offered.

"All right, McKay, let me know when you're through," Sheppard said and heard the scientist mumbling something under his breath.

"Is something wrong?" Jordanaeh asked worriedly.

"No, Rodney just likes to gripe about everything. It's in his nature…I believe it's called constipation…can't seem to get his crap together," Sheppard said mischievously.

"Very funny, Sheppard," McKay said when Ronon and Teyla chuckled softly.

"Perhaps your doctors can help him," Jordanaeh observed.

"No, there's really no help for Rodney," Sheppard said, cloaking the Jumper before following the others into the cave. It wouldn't take McKay long to set things up for Jordanaeh and her people and he suddenly realized they'd found more of Ronon's people. The Satedan was speaking with several males near the entrance and John understood how the man felt. It seemed like every time they took out a Jumper or connected with a new world there were friendships forged and allies made. Sheppard understood that they had also made enemies, some more dangerous than others, yet he would not give up the certainty that this was where he belonged.

"John, are you coming?" Jordanaeh asked with a smile. "I believe there are a couple of stories you promised to tell me about."

"I'm right behind you," Sheppard replied and hoped these people could return to the city in the near future. He knew no matter what happened Ronon would be visiting his home world more often, and John would gladly go along with him. He heard McKay and Ronon arguing and felt good that things seemed to have returned to normal, or as normal as things got in the Pegasus Galaxy.

The End