Soaring high overhead, the birds of the Everfree Forest enjoyed an excellent view of the land. The forest itself spread out for miles in all directions, the lush green canopy broken only by a winding river that ran from the dragon-haunted mountains in the west to the lush plains in the east. Besides the river, the only other large break in the canopy was the ruins of the princess sisters' ancient castle.
Settled close to another mountain range, the ruins had been hidden from landbound creatures for the past thousand years, and only in the past few had they been rediscovered. Even so, creatures on the wing were rarely treated to so much activity as what was happening this afternoon.
A small group of two-footed creatures stood in front a broken-down tower set into an inside corner of the castle wall. A quarter-circle of other two-footed beings, these recognizable as the foe who had been running roughshod over this part of the world for the last two days, kept them penned in. The two groups were standing still now, but the promise of sudden action hung thick in the air.
Sh'vak, First Prime of Epona, swaggered forward another couple of steps. Though she didn't exactly smile, the gleam in her eye was that of a tigress who wants to have a little fun with her cornered prey. She fairly purred as she spoke, the words thick with mockery. "Well, 'First Prime'? Have you nothing to say?"
O'Neill glanced over to Teal'c, who shifted his weight a little at being addressed. Though the big man still held his hands behind his head, O'Neill knew him well enough to see that he was on the verge of violence. Sh'vak seemed to know it, too; she stayed well out of lunging range, though her posture never changed.
"You know very well I am not that person any longer." Teal'c managed to keep his voice level, but it sounded as tightly restrained as his body.
"Indeed." Sh'vak laughed, though her eyes glinted with a harsh light. "The infamous traitor. True Jaffa tell horror stories about you to their children, you know. You and your band of Tau'ri marauders." She swept her gaze over the humans, naked contempt showing. She paused when she saw Twilight Sparkle, and flashed the pony a much too toothy smile. "Ah, yes, and the animal who got away." Twilight eased back from that look, ears flattening in distress. Sh'vak continued, her voice quiet and deadly. "You killed two of my soldiers, little animal. They followed you through the Chappa'ai and never returned. It will be a pleasure to be the one to bring you all down."
O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Oh please." Sh'vak's attention snapped to him, and he continued. "Look, lady, if all you're gonna do is make empty death threats, could you come back later? We've got a lot to do." He glanced nonchalantly over his shoulder toward the tower. The soldiers outside had all moved away from the opening, leaving a clear field between the gate room entrance and the Jaffa. He turned back to Sh'vak, shrugging. "We might be able to squeeze you in tomorrow morning."
A hiss escaped Sh'vak's lips, her eyes blazing. "Empty? Fool, you have nowhere to run! At my command, you, the traitor, the animal, and every one of your men will be struck down. You had best beg for your life if you wish to live long enough to meet the goddess."
"Honestly, Carter," O'Neill complained, "is there some evil overlord's guide to boasting that gets passed around? I swear we've heard this exact rant three times in the past month."
"Just about, sir." Carter, for her part, was significantly more wary of the Jaffa and didn't take her eyes off Sh'vak, but still answered casually enough.
Sh'vak settled back on her heels, and much of the tense anger drained away. "Foolish children," she sneered, though it held as much pity as contempt now. "You think you're going to bluff your way out of this. Epona already owns this planet. The animals' traitorous leader is under her control. She is nothing more than Epona's plaything now."
Twilight's eyes widened, and the angle of her ears twisted to flatten in outrage rather than fear. "Princess Celestia is nopony's plaything, you evil...evil witch!" She took a step forward, but stopped as three staves trained on her, their ends pulled back to reveal the humming blaster muzzles.
"'Princess,'" Sh'vak scoffed, glaring at Twilight. "What is that to a goddess?" She swept her staff in a sudden, irritated slash. "Enough of this. You may enjoy meaningless banter, Tau'ri," she pointed at O'Neill, "but this is quickly getting tiresome."
Daniel snorted. "If that was true you'd have just gunned us down. You had us dead to rights, but you wanted to gloat."
A wicked smile crossed Sh'vak's lips. "True enough. Let it be done, then." She tapped the button at her neck again and the horse's head reformed over hers, red eyes glaring once more. She raised her arm high in the air and shouted a command in the Goa'uld language, her voice distorted and amplified by the mask.
Seconds passed. Nobody moved. Despite Sh'vak's irritation, she was clearly enjoying holding the fates of so many people in her hands and was milking it for all it was worth. The shadows of birds wheeling overhead passed along the ground silently, sending Jaffa and humans alike flickering for brief instants. When the First Prime felt she'd let the silence linger long enough, she cried out, "Mol kek!" Her arm began to fall...
...and all hell broke loose.
The air split with the thunder of leonine roars. There were so many that it was impossible to tell what direction they were coming from until the flickering shadows pulled together into one solid shape. Forms flashed down from the sky, moving at incredible speed as they darted in and out of the Jaffa firing line. Where they passed, Jaffa soldiers simply vanished, carried off by the brown and white streaks.
With the din of the roars filling everyone's ears and the firing line being torn down, the chatter of gunfire from behind O'Neill went nearly unoticed. Sparks flew from the armor of several Jaffa, and they jerked and twitched before falling limply to the ground, staves falling from their hands.
O'Neill wasted no time in taking advantage of the surprise, trusting the others to follow suit. He dove prone to the ground, snatching up his P90, and started picking his own targets. Bullets began to fill the air as the rest of the SG soldiers joined the fight. The ripsaw snarls of gunfire added to the high-pitched whine of battle staves firing wildly amidst the furious roars, creating one giant painful cacophony.
A shadow fell across his sight, and he looked up to see Sh'vak nearly on top him, holding her staff high over her head. Though her mask's expression couldn't change, her posture told him she was mad as hell. She brought the staff swinging down, the heavy butt end arcing toward his head like a hammer to a ripe melon.
O'Neill flung himself to one side, rolling onto his back. The staff missed him by inches, slamming into the earth just beside his ear. He stared up at the furious First Prime, standing upside down in his field of view, but something drew his eye up to the sky beyond her.
On first glance, it looked like an eagle: beak, feathers, outstretched claws, the usual. But the beak was open, and O'Neill realized that it was roaring, as were the others with it. Though it was diving straight at Sh'vak, he could see its tail whipping about behind it; a lion's tufted tail rather than an eagle's. The beast looked terribly familiar, but Daniel was a little too busy to supply him with a name just now.
Sh'vak froze, noticing his gaze shifting off her. It saved her life. She spun around into a crouch, staff sweeping up in a fluid motion to meet the oncoming talons. The butt of the staff smacked hard into one outstretched claw, causing the creature's roar to shift into a pained screech. It banked away, aborting its attack.
The First Prime's head whipped back and forth, noticing more of the creatures lining up for a run at her. She looked down at O'Neill, then back up at the sky, snarling out a curse. Dismissing him from her attention, she took off running toward the edge of the wall from which she had first appeared, two of the beasts in hot pursuit.
O'Neill lifted himself onto one elbow to watch her go, then shifted his grip on the P90 and turned back to the battle. Between the surprise attack and the loss of their leader, the Jaffa stood little chance. They fought tenaciously, but the battle was loud, brutal, and short. O'Neill raised his weapon and squeezed the trigger, a spray of sparks dancing off the armor of the last Jaffa standing.
Only one other Jaffa in sight was still moving, and he was clenched in the grip of one of the beasts. It carried the Jaffa beyond the cliff that separated the ruins from the rest of the forest, then unceremoniously pitched him into the abyss. He dropped out of sight, but not out of earshot; in the sudden silence, his scream could be heard a long way down, mercifully fading away before reaching the bottom. O'Neill winced in sympathy for the Jaffa, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
The whine of engines filled the air as the sound of gunfire died away, and O'Neill checked over his shoulder to see a glider lifting into the air over the walls of the ruins. The small fighter craft hovered in the air for a moment, the heat of its engines and the late afternoon sun causing its forward-swept wings to shimmer in his sight.
The two creatures that had been pursuing Sh'vak grappled the fighter, clawing ineffectually at the armored wings and cockpit. It hung in the air for another couple of heartbeats as if to taunt their efforts, then its engines flared to life, propelling it away from the ruins at speed. Knocked senseless by the sudden departure, the creatures spun in midair, freefalling for a bare second before regaining their wings.
The silence that fell over the small courtyard didn't last long. As the humans began to pick themselves up from the ground, checking over themselves and their squad mates, the air filled with the sound of every beast in the vicinity crying out another roar. The timbre had changed, though; where before it was a cry of challenge, now it was one of victory.
One by one, they came back to the clearing. They settled down in a ragged formation around where the Jaffa had stood, though their collective posture was not so much threatening as strutting. They fell into raucous chatter among themselves, and though the speech was difficult to follow, O'Neill recognized warriors talking excitedly about a finished battle.
Daniel edged over from where he had been standing, coming in close to murmur to O'Neill. As if in answer to an unspoken question, he said, "I think they're griffons." O'Neill nodded in acknowledgement, but held up his hand for silence.
The two that had chased after Sh'vak sailed back into the clearing, their wings spread wide. One settled onto the ground between two of its packmates, while the other swooped in to land in front of the humans. This one was notably larger than the others, and though its wings beat gently as it lowered itself to earth, the sheer volume of air they pushed sent dust and pebbles scattering past the humans' feet. It favored one claw, and O'Neill recognized it for the one who tried to divebomb Sh'vak.
The griffon puffed out its chest, shooting the humans a haughty, smug look. It opened its beak, but the banter from the other griffons rose up in volume. It clacked its beak shut, expression twisting into an annoyed grimace, then spun around. It opened its mouth, and a rough but recognizably female voice barked out, "HEY! SHADDAP! YOU MOOKS ARE RUININ' MY COOL!" The rest of the griffons obediently fell silent, though a chuckle or two filtered out of the crowd.
The lead griffon turned back, shaking out her ruffled feathers with an annoyed huff. "As I was going to say, you lot," she sneered, jabbing a talon at O'Neill, "just got saved by the one, the only-"
"Gilda?" O'Neill turned to find Twilight picking her way out of the rubble from within the tower where she had taken cover when the fighting began. SG-3 followed close behind her, the last member of which was just stepping out of the doorway to the gate room. The pony gave the griffon a puzzled look. "That is you, right?"
Ignoring the interplay for the moment, O'Neill raised a hand. "Nice shooting, Carl." Major Warren tipped off a casual salute, touching the muzzle of his P90 to his cap.
A full-throated roar burst from Gilda, shaking the ground around her. O'Neill spun back around to find the griffon's talons scoring the ground, drawing a claw back as if she meant to charge. "Listen to me! I. Saved. Your. BUTTS," she snarled, spitting out each word. "YOU OWE ME!"
Puzzled silence greeted the infuriated griffon. Finally Carter frowned, asking, "How do you figure?"
Gilda sneered, tossing her head back. "You saw her. She was just about to throw the signal to kill you all before we interrupted."
"It would not have happened," Teal'c assured her. "The Jaffa sprung the trap too early. SG-3 was still inside the gate room and had clear lines of fire."
"But thank you for your help," Daniel added brightly. He glanced over at the rest of SG-1. "I doubt we would have come out of it so cleanly otherwise."
The griffon stared at all of them in turn, even Major Warren, who hefted his P90 and grinned. Finally she let out a huff and rolled her eyes, easing back into a more relaxed crouch. Ignoring the humans for the moment, she rolled her eyes toward Twilight and grinned, self-composure returning along with casual arrogance. "Well, well. If it isn't Dorkus Magicus! How's the flip-flop doing?" She raised her injured claw to inspect it, eyes half-lidded. "Pretend I care or something."
Twilight stiffened at the insult narrowing her eyes at the griffon. Her voice came out icy but polite, putting a definite emphasis on the first two words. "Rainbow Dash is well. Thank you for inquiring."
Gilda made a rude noise, flipping her claw in idle dismissal. Whatever she had been able to say cut off in a sudden twinge of pain that showed in her expression, and Major Carter stepped into the conversational gap quickly. "How did you find us here...Gilda, was it?"
A purely baffled look crossed Gilda's face and she tilted her head to stare blankly at Carter. Finally she said, with much-too-exaggerated patience, "I wasn't looking for you. I've been hunting that psycho ever since she came down with her troops and started shooting the place up. I couldn't care less what happens to lame-o ponies, but it's only a matter of time before she goes after the griffons too. Figured I'd nip it in the bud."
She grinned wickedly. "Besides, we don't often get to hunt...interesting prey. The only reason we didn't take you all down too is because you don't look like them. Different uniforms and all that." She paused, then flicked an idle glance at Teal'c. "He kinda does, but whatever." Her sly grin returned. "Anyway, if we took you out, then who'd owe us a solid?"
Carter folded her arms, giving the bird a skeptical frown. "We didn't ask for your help. You gave it freely. What makes you think we owe you anything?"
Gilda considered Carter for a moment before launching herself into the air toward the woman. Carter tensed and the soldiers around her swung their weapons up, but Gilda slowed to a hover directly in front of Carter's face. She sidled in close, beak nearly touching nose, and slid a companionable arm around the woman's shoulders. She purred quietly, favoring Carter with a wicked smile. "Right now, cupcake, that solid is the only thing keeping me and my pack from hunting you for sport, too." She reached up with her free claw, lightly trailing one talon along Carter's bare neck up to her chin. "Now, what do you say to that?"
For an answer, Gilda got a flat, even stare. "This." And Carter pulled the trigger on the zat gun held at her hip.
Though the soldiers of the SGC preferred their P90s for general purpose work, through various encounters with the Jaffa and Goa'uld they had acquired more exotic weaponry. The zat'nik'tel, or zat gun, was one such. A compact weapon no bigger than a pistol, the zat gun was favored both for the low profile and its unique property of stunning with the first shot. It took two shots in succession to actually kill a creature. Major Carter only needed the one.
The little serpentine weapon spat out a flash of blue light that struck Gilda square in the belly. Electricity coursed visibly over the griffon and she flapped drunkenly away from Carter, shock written all over her beak. Her wings locked up, and she tumbled to the ground on her back, one wing trapped underneath.
The pack leaped to their feet, eyes suddenly sharp and alert and dangerous, and all of them fixed on Carter. Before they could move, O'Neill snapped his hand up in a halt command. When all eagle eyes were on him, he silently pointed to Gilda. After a moment, she twitched a leg, and let out a long, slow exhalation. "Owwwwwwwwwwwww..."
The pack relaxed. Slightly. They didn't appear to have murder on the mind any more, at least. O'Neill strode over to the limp griffon, kneeling next to her. "We'll think about it," he assured her blithely. He looked up and waved the other griffons over. "Give her an hour or two, she'll be flying and cussing like normal again. In the meantime..." His voice hardened. "Get the hell out of here. And take her with you. Teach her some manners while you're at it."
The two closest griffons shared a look, then started forward, their eyes never leaving O'Neill. They paused for a second as metal clicked and several soldiers shifted their weapons, then darted forward and dragged Gilda back into their midst. The dust stirred once more as every wing in the group began to beat, lifting the griffons off the ground as one. They spiraled around the courtyard briefly, then took off into the air, one of the griffons carrying Gilda on its back.
The humans watched them leave in silence until the last griffon disappeared over the treetops. O'Neill tilted his head toward Daniel without looking at him. "So what are they, exactly?"
"Mythical animals," Daniel supplied promptly. "Half eagle, half lion. Either Greek or Egyptian, there's some controversy over that."
O'Neill frowned. "What, like in that wizard book?"
"No, that was a hippogriff. Half eagle, half horse. Said to be the spawn of a griffon and mare."
Twilight, who had been staring at the ground where the Jaffa lay, blinked and looked up. "What?" She made a face. "Gross doesn't even begin to describe that."
Daniel cocked his head. "Since when did you start reading that series, Jack?"
O'Neill favored Daniel with a cryptic look. "There's a lot you don't know about me." With that, he spun around, nodding toward Major Warren. "Change of plans. Carl, your squad is to stay behind and help SG-5 defend this spot. SG-1 goes in alone."
Warren frowned at that. "Sir, you said we were to accompany you to the Goa'uld. You'll need us for fire support and demo."
"That was before we got made." O'Neill jerked his thumb behind him, indicating the world in general. "The First Prime escaped. Epona probably already knows we're here and that the Stargate's active again. And I trust that griffon about as far as I can kick her. I need you here to make sure we don't lose our only way home."
The frown on Warren's face deepened, but he nodded. He glanced over to one of his soldiers who was carrying a thick bandolier of C4 thrown over his chest. The man pulled the bandolier off, tossing it to O'Neill. As O'Neill passed it to Teal'c, Warren asked, "How are you going to get to the Goa'uld by yourselves?"
"Hey. It's us." O'Neill slung his P90 back into its strap, letting it hang freely. "Just make sure we've got someplace to come back to. Get on the radio and inform Hammond of the situation, then get yourselves dug in." He paused, then added, "See if you can get him to send any backup."
"Sir? Hammond told us we were all he had available."
O'Neill shook his head. "Not men. Maybe some of the big guns he keeps locked up in the armory. We never have big guns around when we need 'em, and right now we need 'em."
Warren's face split into a sudden, wide grin. "Yes sir. We'll have this place locked down tight." The two men traded a salute, then Warren turned to the rest of the soldiers. "Get these bodies clear, then start digging in." He headed off to confer with Major Altman, leaving SG-1 and Twilight alone.
Twilight stepped forward, eyes taking in the aftermath of the battle. Though the griffons had carried away most of the Jaffa, there were still a fair share of casualties lying about. Her ears folded down and she took a step back, looking up at Daniel. "Is...it going to be like this? All the way to Epona?"
Daniel was silent for a long moment, his face neutral. Finally he let out a sigh. "Maybe. It's a last resort, but these people mean to kill us, Twi. Your people are to be enslaved, so they have a bit of safety, but they're going to want to stop us. Permanently. Sh'vak doesn't seem like the kind to let go of grudges easily."
She let her eyes fall to the ground at her feet, still unhappy. "Last time you were here everyone came out of it alive."
Teal'c answered as he checked his gear, settling the bandolier across his broad shoulder. "Last time we were here, we faced no more than 40 horses confused and fresh out of cryosleep whom Celestia had asked us not to kill."
"Teal'c's right," O'Neill confirmed. "We had the advantage last time. Now there's an entire army, and they've been actively swallowing Epona's propaganda for who knows how long. We're not pulling any punches this time. Can't afford to."
Twilight nodded, taking a deep breath. "All right. So, where are we going?"
O'Neill opened his mouth...then closed it again.
Carter eyed him, a warning note in her voice. "Sir, you do know where to find Epona, right?"
O'Neill looked at everyone in turn, momentarily at a loss for words. Finally, he said, "Think I should have asked Sh'vak nicely?" Carter rolled her eyes, and he added defensively, "Look, she's probably in a big spaceship that landed somewhere. We just gotta find it."
Daniel frowned. "It would help if we had a place to start."
"Fine. You see any pyramids around?"
Twilight's ears perked up, and she looked up between Daniel and O'Neill before the former could retort. "What about the safehouse? Princess Luna won't have been sitting still. Maybe she has some information we can use." She shrugged, some of the unhappiness creeping back in. "At the very least, I need to make sure my friends are safe."
The two men traded a look, and Carter nodded. "Sounds as likely a place to start as any," she agreed.
O'Neill started toward the bridge, waving them along. "Let's get moving, then."
As the sun began to dip into the horizon, casting lengthy shadows over the land, SG-1 marched in single file from the castle ruins with Twilight in their midst. They crossed into the forest proper over the bridge, which Twilight was now heartily glad she had not cut. It had only been last night she'd made that choice, but it already felt like a week.
She refused to look down into the chasm as they passed over it, not wanting to chance spotting the griffons' talonwork. Her imagination was filling in a mental image easily enough in any case, and it was rather less than pleasant. She tried to distract herself by watching Daniel walk in front of her. It...worked surprisingly well.
The humans tended to wear clothes as a matter of course which hid most of their bodies, but hints and outlines came through anyway as motion shifted and pulled the clothing tight. She found she could follow the tensing of muscles within his haunches as he strode forward in that odd rolling gait bipedal creatures needed to walk properly. It was really sort of mesmerizing in its exoticism.
"Where is Rainbow Dash, anyhow?" The question startled Twilight out of her reverie, and she glanced guiltily back over her shoulder toward O'Neill.
He wasn't looking at her, though it was hard to tell with those sunglasses on, but her cheeks darkened anyway. Now that her, ah, focus was broken, she took note of their surroundings. They'd passed the bridge some time ago and were heading along the path back to Ponyville she'd become familiar with over the last several months. It bore signs of last night's pursuit; here and there broken branches lay on the ground, with noticeable scorch marks from the Jaffa staves darkening the ground and occasional tree. It certainly made the path easier to follow.
She gave her head a small shake. "Sorry, Colonel, what was that?"
"Rainbow Dash," he repeated. "Gilda asked after her, but you didn't say much. How's she doing?"
"Oh." Twilight frowned, looking ahead. And not at Daniel this time. "Like I said, I was in Canterlot. I don't know what's happened to anyone in Pony..." She blinked, then smacked her forehead with a hoof. "I totally forgot! Rainbow Dash isn't in Ponyville. She took off last week for Appleloosa. She wanted to go visit her buffalo friend Little Strongheart, plus it was Braeburn's birthday but Applejack couldn't leave the farm to give him a present, so she took it with her." Her mouth snapped closed as she realized she was rambling. In all the excitement, if a pony could call it that, she'd forgotten some of the simpler, happier stuff, and it came back to her as she talked.
There was silence for a moment, then O'Neill said slowly, "Sooooo... she's not in the area."
Twilight shook her head. "Maybe she returned while I was in Canterlot, but Appleloosa is very far away, at least half a day's travel. It's in the middle of the desert."
Ahead of her, Carter and Daniel exchanged a look. Daniel mused, "So so far we've found ponies, dragons, griffons, and now you tell us there's buffalo?"
"Yep." Twilight tilted her head, looking up at him. "Why do you ask?"
Daniel reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "I'm just starting to wonder how many intelligent species live on this world."
The pony smiled. "Didn't you wonder why the ponies in Ponyville were only uneasy around you and didn't run screaming for the hills? We're used to different creatures, though some of us more than others." She shrugged, stepping around a tree root. "Equestria itself is only that part of the world ponies live in. It's a big place, but the world is bigger still."
Carter made a low noise of understanding. "And all this time we've been calling the planet Equestria. What do you call it?"
Twilight blinked. "Uh...Equestria?" She grinned weakly. "I mean, the Princesses do control the sun and moon, so it's only fair, right? I haven't really traveled far out of pony lands anyway."
The group fell silent as they approached a fallen tree that lay across the path. One end of the trunk was charred black, as was the stump to the side of the path. Twilight frowned. "Do the Jaffa always leave this much destruction behind them?" As she spoke, she drew her will into her horn, wrapping both it and the entirety of the tree trunk in the familiar blue glow of her magic.
Teal'c folded his arms, eyeing the tree disapprovingly. "The Jaffa are efficient and loyal soldiers who follow orders. They do not normally go out of their way to destroy or kill anything that has not been identified as a threat." His voice took on a tinge of disgust. "I believe this may be Sh'vak's influence. She appeared to have...impulse control issues."
The tree lifted off the ground slowly, and Twilight guided it into the woods off to the side. She let go of the tree, and it landed heavily on the ground with a shudder of leaves. "It makes me worry for the other ponies. Everypony's been telling me they'll be safe, but if that...woman...is leading the soldiers..." Daniel rested a hand on her head, and she trailed off in a quiet sigh.
With the tree out of the way, they could see the river lying not far ahead. Between the sight and Twilight's concern for her friends, another memory dropped into her mind like a lead weight. "Steven!" she cried, breaking into a sprinting gallop. She heard Daniel and the others shouting for her as they hurried to keep up, but her attention was entirely on the riverbank ahead.
Steven Magnet wasn't there, but Twilight only allowed herself a small breath of relief. She paced up and down at the water's edge, peering around for some sign of Steven. She found it as the humans approached, jabbing her hoof at a rust-colored spread in the sand. "There! Oh, no, they did hurt him!" She looked up at them, eyes a little too wide. "Please, we have to find him! I have to know if he's okay!"
Teal'c planted his staff in the sand. "We have little time, Colonel O'Neill. Sh'vak already has the advantage over us in preparing her defenses."
Twilight turned to face O'Neill, ears wilting. "Colonel, Steven is my friend. He helped me escape the Jaffa, and he didn't have to. He's hurt because of me and maybe worse. Could you leave someone like that behind?"
O'Neill's jaw tightened and he glanced aside at Daniel for a second. After a moment's silence, he said, "We don't even know where Epona is, Teal'c. We're going to have to reach this safehouse and speak to Luna before we even know where to go, much less figure out a plan of attack. That's more than enough time for Sh'vak to do whatever it is she's going to do, if she hasn't already. At this point, I think another hour or two won't hurt." He gestured to Twilight, a touch uncomfortably. "And...she's right. I wouldn't leave someone behind. It's not right to ask her to."
Teal'c nodded slowly. "Very well, then."
Twilight let out a breath in relief. "Thank you, Colonel, Teal'c."
"Colonel, over here!" Carter was several yards downriver, studying the ground during the conversation. The others joined her, and she pointed. "The trail of blood leads this way, but it stops after another ten yards."
Twilight frowned, then nodded. "He must have gone all the way into the water."
Carter exchanged a look with O'Neill before asking, "Isn't Steven another pony? Why would he jump in the water if he's injured?"
The pony tilted her head up quizzically. "What? Oh, no, he's not a pony!" She laughed. "He's a river serpent."
"...Oh." Carter blinked. "Okay then."
Daniel pulled out a small notepad and made a tick mark before tucking it back into his vest. "That makes five species we know about." He started down the river in the direction Carter had indicated. "At least it should make finding him easy, right?"
The sun had very nearly disappeared below the horizon, casting the forest into deep shadow, when SG-1 saw light ahead through the trees. It flickered and danced, suggesting a fire, and the light spilled out from the trees onto the flat sandy bank.
The humans all fell silent, their steps slowing, and after a moment's hesitation Twilight copied them. The five figures prowled forward, half-crouched and wary of their footing. SG-1 readied their weapons, their movements small and sure in order to keep from making too much noise.
They eased through the trees just beside the riverbank where they wouldn't be spotted as easily, creeping up until Teal'c in the lead could get a good look through the foliage. All of them crouched down, remaining still and silent while the Jaffa eased himself forward, peering around the trunk of a large tree.
After a moment, he settled back, whispering, "It is a small cove. There is a fire on the bank. A large beast I presume to be Steven Magnet is lying half in, half out of the water. There is also what appears to be a pony, as well."
Twilight blinked, suddenly attentive. "Let me see," she whispered back, and crawled through the brush carefully to peer around the same tree.
Indeed, it was a small clearing with a pool branching off from the river. Steven lay curled up in the middle of the pool, his upper body stretched out on the sandy bank. A bright, cheerful fire crackled and popped between Twilight and Steven, illuminating the serpent well. She could see his shoulder and side were bound in soft cloth bandages, both showing spots of blood despite the thick wrapping. Despite that, he appeared to be snoozing peacefully, breath whistling through his teeth with each snore.
Motion drew Twilight's attention, and she noticed a dark shape moving not far from her spot. It was indeed a pony shape, but on this side of the fire it was little more than a silhouette. Its back was misshapen and lumpy, as though it were carrying a bag. Despite that, it was a very familiar silhouette.
The figure walked over to stand next to Steven's head, which brought it more clearly into the light. She reached behind to pull the sack off her back with her teeth, revealing dark stripes and a spiral cutie mark. She placed a hoof on Steven's neck and gently nudged him, speaking in a low, warm voice. "My friend, it is time for you to wake, so that your medicine you can take."
Relief and joy flooded Twilight and the pony bounded out of the trees without a second thought. "Zecora! Steven!"
Zecora the zebra whirled in place, eyes wide in shock. "Who would dare to trespass there?" Twilight trotted into the light of the fire, beaming wide at Zecora, and the zebra relaxed visibly, her own smile blossoming. "It's only my dear friend Twilight! Dear child, you gave me such a fright!"
Behind her, Steven blinked groggy eyes open. "Ooh, what's going on?" He raised his head a little, peering about, then broke into a broad smile. "Oh, Twilight, it's you! Thank heavens, I feared the worst!"
Twilight darted around the fire to embrace her two friends. "I'm so glad to see you both! I was so worried about you, Steven."
The serpent shifted his arm, wincing as he did, to lightly pat Twilight's mane. "And I was simply distraught over you, my dear! I'm so glad I was able to help you get away."
A rustle in the trees caused both zebra and serpent to look up, and Zecora's smile faded into a glare as SG-1 emerged from the trees to stand on the far side of the fire. She pushed Twilight back, and Steven wrapped a protective arm about the pony as she did. "Twilight, you must get out of sight!" Zecora stepped forward, legs spread in an aggressive posture. She lifted her head, eyes hard and unafraid as she stared the humans down. "I warn you, intruders: I will fight!"
At the harsh words, Teal'c hefted his staff and Carter raised her zat gun, faces turning grim. Daniel's eyes widened in shock and he put a hand over Carter's, pushing the zat down to point at the ground. O'Neill pulled Teal'c's staff up, preventing the Jaffa from pointing it at Zecora. "Take it easy!" O'Neill snapped. "There's no need for that."
Twilight began to panic, pushing at Steven's arm until the serpent let out a yelp of pain and drew away, looking hurt. She paid him little mind for the moment, dashing forward. "Stop! Stop!" She skidded to a halt in front of Zecora, staring hard at the zebra. "They're friends." Giving Teal'c and Carter a hard look, she added, "We're all friends. Now stop this at once!"
Zecora did not back down from her stance, but her eyes flicked to Twilight. "After I found Steven hurt, and to his wounds attended, the creatures he described to me were like these you've befriended."
O'Neill sighed and looked over to Teal'c. "Is this what it's like for you? Getting mistaken for the enemy?"
Teal'c eyed Zecora, then settled his staff back on the ground. "All the time."
Daniel stepped forward as Carter holstered her weapon. He spread his empty hands. "Zecora, we're not here to harm anyone. We're friends of Twilight, and we're here to help drive away the intruders."
After a beat of consideration, Zecora exhaled slowly through her nose, relaxing into a less confrontational stance. "If Twilight Sparkle vouches for you, then I will accept what you say as true." She inclined her head politely. "You are welcome to my fire, but of your names I must inquire."
Twilight let out a sigh of relief and smiled at Zecora. "Of course. Zecora, Steven, this is Colonel O'Neill, Major Carter, Teal'c, and Daniel Jackson. They're an exploration team called SG-1. SG-1, this is Zecora, who lives here in the Everfree Forest and is wonderfully knowledgeable about all sorts of things, and Steven Magnet, who as I said helped me escape the Jaffa." Everyone nodded and politely waved to each other as Twilight made the introductions, the humans seating themselves in a half-circle around the fire.
Twilight beamed at the serpent. "I don't know what you did, Steven, but you delayed them long enough for me to contact SG-1. I can't thank you enough."
Steven waved a thin hand dismissively. "Oh, please don't, my dear. I only startled the ruffians for a few seconds, then they shot me! Twice!" He nodded to the bandages, looking forlorn. "My beautiful scales saved me, but I had to swim for my life before they could do worse." He sighed dramatically. "I'm just...glad that it was enough."
Zecora moved to Steven's side, plucking gently at the bandages and peeling them off. "Last night I discovered Steven, and naturally I could not leave him. My skills alone were insufficient, but fortunately I have an assistant." The bandage on Steven's side fell away, revealing a raw, red patch marring the gleaming scales.
Twilight frowned. "An assistant? But I thought you lived alone?" The enigmatic smile she got from Zecora was rewarded with an unamused snort.
Not two seconds later, the brush at the edge of the cove began to rustle. The humans tensed, but rather than a squad of angry Jaffa, a rabbit - carrying a basket of herbs over his head - hopped out from the bushes.
"Oh, Zecora! I found those herbs you wanted!" The soft, cheerful voice followed the rabbit out, and a pastel yellow pony with long pink hair pushed her way quietly through the brush. She froze when she saw that Zecora wasn't alone, tilting her head to let her hair fall protectively over her face. "Um..."
Major Carter broke out into a smile first. "Hey, Fluttershy. Remember us?"
Fluttershy blinked, eyes wide as she recognized the humans. A smile graced her gentle face and she trotted forward. "I-I'm sorry. I didn't think we'd ever see you all again." She blushed. "Not that I'm not happy to see you. Hello, everyone."
Zecora took the basket off Fluttershy's back, and the rabbit set his down beside it. "Ah, yes, these are the perfect hue. Thank you Fluttershy, these will certainly do! It will take just two shakes, and you will see how much this makes!"
As the zebra pulled out her cauldron and equipment, Twilight turned to Fluttershy, giving her an affectionate nuzzle. "I'm so glad to see you! Are the others out here too?"
Fluttershy's smile faded. "N-no." She glanced away, another blush coloring her cheeks.
Twilight tilted her head. "No? Then how did you come to be out here by yourself?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh, but I'm not out here by myself! I have Angel with me! We were on the edge of the forest when...something shot out of the air. I think I saw it head toward Canterlot, but I couldn't see that far. It made an awful lot of noise." She gave a dainty little shiver. "Angel was so startled that he took off running into the forest, and of course I couldn't just let him go by himself. Who knows what would have happened? When I found him, I found Zecora, too. We were just about to go back home when this..." Her chatter slowed until it stopped in a scared little squeak, and she drew back into herself. Angel glared at her and thumped a foot on the ground impatiently. He certainly didn't look the type to startle easily.
Twilight edged forward, as did SG-1. "This...what?" She tried a reassuring smile, reaching out a hoof. "It's okay, Fluttershy, you're safe now. What did you see?" Fluttershy pressed in tight against Twilight, but would not or could not answer.
"As fire in the sky portended, a demon from the stars descended." Zecora had gotten her cauldron over the fire and was grinding the herbs with a mortar and pestle. She had set the pestle aside for the moment to speak. "A wicked thing of steel and gold that made my very blood run cold." She picked up the pestle in her teeth again, working it deftly.
"A Ha'tak mothership." Excitement and confidence threaded Carter's voice. "It has to be. Epona attacked the larger cities from orbit, then launched her transport ships as she landed her ship." She turned back to Zecora and Fluttershy, who shrank a touch from the intensity of Carter's expression. "Do you remember where it came down?"
"Um..." Fluttershy's fear receded slightly as she thought, then pointed with a hoof toward the northeast. "It was hard to tell at first, but when it disappeared beyond the treetops we were looking in that direction." Zecora continued to work the pestle, but pointed her own hoof at Fluttershy in silent confirmation. The pony gave a small shudder. "It was so big..."
Twilight hugged her friend again. "What do you think, Colonel?"
"I think Luna can wait." O'Neill stood, as did the rest of SG-1. "We hit them now."
Twilight frowned. "In the middle of the night?"
"That is the best time to strike," Teal'c confirmed. "The guards will be less alert. It will offset Sh'vak's warning."
Carter, though, looked less than confident. "Sir, wouldn't it be better if we went to see Luna first? We could use all the intelligence we can get. Like you said earlier, is an hour or two really going to make that much difference?"
"No reason to delay now." O'Neill's own voice was bedrock certain. "By the time we get to the ship, it'll be the perfect time to hit it. We can get with Luna afterward about cleaning up the Jaffa forces on the ground, but we've taken out motherships before. We dealt with Apophis, we can deal with Epona."
A long breath escaped Carter, and though she still looked uncertain, she nodded. "I'm with you, sir."
Daniel walked over to Twilight and Fluttershy and knelt. "There's no need for either of you to come if you don't want to. We could use your help, though."
Twilight blinked, then glared at Daniel. "Well of course I'm coming with you! How could you think otherwise?"
He grinned. "Just checking." His smile faded to something gentler as he turned to the other pony. "Fluttershy?"
"Uh...um, do...do you really need me along?" Fluttershy couldn't meet Daniel's eyes, scratching timidly at the ground with one hoof.
Twilight shook her head. "You should stay here, Fluttershy. It's probably the safest place you can be right now. Zecora will look after you and Angel until we get back."
Zecora dumped the crushed herbs into the cauldron, then gave Fluttershy a warm smile. "Stay with me here, and there is nothing to fear." Her voice turned wry. "We will tend to Steven's wounds and leave the fighting for these loons."
Fluttershy nodded, but still looked worried. "We'll wait here until you return. ...Please return."
Twilight smiled warmly. "Of course we will." She turned to Zecora and gave her a small but respectful bow. "And thank you, Zecora, for looking after them."
The zebra calmly stirred the boiling water within the cauldron. "Nonsense, my pony friend. I always have a hoof to lend." She peered into the cauldron, then dipped a ladle into it, blowing gently on the hot mixture. "You must drink this. Open wide." The serpent eyed the ladle dubiously, and she frowned sternly at him. "Steven, there is nowhere to hide."
Steven sighed and waved gingerly to Twilight and SG-1. "Good luck, and do be careful." He opened his jaws wide and allowed Zecora to pour the medicine into his mouth. He hissed at the heat, but swallowed it quickly before making a disgusted face.
Twilight giggled as she and Daniel rose to rejoin the others. Silently, the squad made their way back to the river and in the direction Fluttershy had given them.
"I don't get it," O'Neill muttered, peering through his binoculars. "Why there?"
Night had fallen in full by the time SG-1 reached the treeline, far to the northeast of the cove. Keeping behind the cover of trees and brush, they each looked through their binoculars out over the plain. Though the forest was so dark they had to use flashlights to make their way, the moon hung bright and heavy over the open sky, bathing the plains in a soft glow. It did an excellent job of illuminating the enormous Goa'uld ship that had settled on the world like a tick.
It was easy to see why Fluttershy had been frightened; if you didn't know what you were looking at, the Ha'tak motherships were monstrosities. The core of the ship was simple enough: a golden pyramid dotted with windows and entrances to bays. Surrounding it, however, was a strange hexagonal ovoid web of dulled metal, providing a platform for the ship's weaponry and giving it a sinister, organic appearance.
O'Neill continued, "I mean, okay. This one decided to play with horses instead of humans. I get it. She's a few gliders short of a squadron. But she's got her pick of all those mountains, including the ones over the secret base. The damn things are made for sitting on mountains. So why there?"
The mothership had settled within the mountain range across the plains, but Epona had not chosen an actual mountain for her landing site. Instead, the ship had touched down on the walls of the very canyon SG-1 had employed on their last visit here to capture and subdue the squad of horse Jaffa. The canyon could more correctly be called a hollow mesa: a low, flat-topped hill with a deep circular crevasse cut out in the middle, forming a large, nearly-circular C when seen from above.
The ship had settled gently atop the great broad walls, one face of the pyramid crossing over the wide mouth of the canyon entrance to form a lintel. The great bulk of the ship shrouded the actual canyon from the light of the moon, but artificial lighting within could still be seen. As they watched, a glider patrol returned to the ship, sailing into the bay entrance at the bottom of the pyramid, and more Jaffa emerged from the entrance to the canyon to relieve the ones currently standing guard on the ground.
Carter didn't take her eyes away from the sight, but replied, "Sir, didn't you think it was odd at the time that a geological formation should be so perfectly formed?"
"Yeah," O'Neill replied off-handedly. "But at the time I thought a lot about this planet was odd. Still do." He glanced aside at their companion. "No offense, Twilight."
Carter continued, "It's not a square shape, so it doesn't fit the base of the ship perfectly, but the whole mesa is clearly just big enough to support its weight, and the dimensions are about right. Other than the shape, sir, it really does look like the mesa was made for a ship that size."
"Epona's returned to her old throne," Daniel murmured. "She can see for miles in every direction. That's where she used to rule." Twilight let out a small shiver; the quiet, absent-minded tone of Daniel's voice had lent the words an ominous edge.
O'Neill finally lowered his binoculars and turned his back to the ship, resting it against a tree. "All right, folks. The plan hasn't changed." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "We need to get in there to plant charges, take out the boss, and get Celestia and any other prisoners out." Glancing around, he added, "I'm open to suggestions."
Author's Note: I just want to mention a quick thank you to Escher at EqD for pre-reading these chapters, and in particular for helping with Zecora's dialog. And thanks everyone for reading!