Author: kariesue, kickstand75, firedew1, mysra, amycat8733
Disclaimer: Don’t own them, just borrowing them for a bit of fun
Size: ~11,089 (this chapter)
Comments: Team Sheppard travels to Belosia where they discover the origin of the Minotaur, but with everything the Ancients did, the truth is worse than the fiction.
This week: Chapter 11 – We Who Are About to Die, Salute You
Dexcian’s chest throbbed. He felt covered in bruises. Groggy, his eyes opened to narrow slits and he glanced down. A white bandage had been wrapped diagonally over his neck and across his torso on the left side.
He’d been hit, he remembered. He had fired on the Beast at close range with one of the strangers’ weapons. On an unlucky pass, one of the projectiles had ricocheted off the Beast’s armor and volleyed straight back toward him. It had felt like an insect bite compared to the subsequent pain of being hurled across the passageway and slamming into the wall.
Dexcian looked around and recognized the extravagant decor of the Magistrate’s manse. He’d been brought to one of the suites. A waste, he thought. The bed’s silk sheets were covered with haphazard smears of crimson, and across the room, a shallow basin dripped blood. His own. He cursed the infernal stench of incense burning up his nose. Damned physicians used too much of the stuff. If they were too delicate to withstand the smell of human suffering, they might’ve done better as tailors or scribes; anything other than doctors.
Thick draperies covered the windows. A serving maid bustled around the room tidying up red-stained towels. “You, woman,” he said, hoarse. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What is the hour? How long have I been here?”
The spindly woman startled and turned, her eyes darting to the floor. “I-It is … nearly sunset, lord Protector.”
“Sunset?” That came as a surprise. He hadn’t thought he would last this long. “And where is …”
The woman squeaked like a scared little mouse. “M-my sincere apologies, Lord Protector. I must go. I have my orders.” She scurried out before he could respond or question her about the strangers or the Beast.
Frustrated, he gritted his teeth and sat up with a hiss. Carefully, he lifted the edge of the bandage to peer beneath. A hole beneath his clavicle had been cleaned and sewn shut. A few inches lower and it might have been his heart. Dexcian was unmoved by the thought. He might have been killed and didn’t care.
“Dexcian, you have finally awoken.”
He looked up. Casus, the head of Ducis’ personal guard, strode in. A smile tugged at the corner of Dexcian’s mouth as he saw Casus’ typically fine, polished armor looked a bit tarnished. “Got your hands dirty today, did you, Casus?”
“More than I would have liked,” the other man said, a deep frown settling into his expression. “But someone had to finish what you could not.”
Dexcian smirked. Dexcian was the province’s General and lead man-at-arms. Casus was a bodyguard with money and a title. All in all, they were both men of skill and reputation, but they had little use for one another. “And your men? How did they fare?”
Casus’ lips thinned. “About as well as yours.”
Dexcian snorted in derision. He hadn’t had his men. Half of the contingent he had led to the caves had been the Dux’s personal guard, Casus’ men, forced on him by the Magistrate. Poorly trained fools who deserved what they got. Dexcian’s men, those that had been with him, had deserved better.
An angry stare covered his face. “Well, let’s not pretend you came here out of concern, Casus. Get on with it. What happened?”
“The Beast is in the Dux’s custody.”
“Alive?” Dexcian asked in a gruff, impartial tone. He didn’t dare show more interest in the creature than that.
Casus nodded. “It was caged and taken to the Games Arena shortly after we found you.”
“What about the strangers?”
“The woman was safely recovered, along with two of the others. The Primus Pilus - the one called Sheppard - did not survive.”
Unseen, Dexcian’s fingers clenched into a tight fist.
“You should rejoice, Dexcian. The Dux is pleased. He has the Beast and his prize, and you have done your duty. He had the best physicians in the province tend to your wounds.”
“Best physicians, eh?” He scanned the nightstand and its empty top. “They’re so good they don’t even leave their patient a glass of water.”
Casus chuckled. “Physician Negoti insisted there be nothing within your reach that might be thrown across the room. It seems you and he have met.”
Dexcian rolled his eyes. “Get the woman back. Have her fetch me some water.”
Casus nodded again. “Very well. Get yourself up, Dexcian. Ducis wants you in the Arena tonight when he presents his victory to the province.”
“Why, you’re to be honored, of course; for your loyalty and commitment to the greater good, even unto death.” Casus’ tone reeked of bitterness. “I am sent to clean up your mess, yet you are the one receiving the honors. I suppose it must be nice to be the people’s Champion. To have so much esteem on your side.”
Dexcian glowered at him. “You’ll never know.”
No one knew how much he’d sacrificed for his people. No one. And it seemed the job was yet undone.
Casus blew air down his nose in a haughty retort. Dexcian considered breaking it for him, but Casus turned and went on his way.
Alone, Dexcian stood and stretched his arms, testing his muscles. White hot pains shot through his chest, but he didn’t let that stop him. He was too preoccupied to concern himself with anything other than the task that lay before him. The Beast was still alive and, while he didn’t know how, it seemed he continued to have the Magistrate’s trust. He would need to use that to its full advantage if he still meant to succeed.
Sheppard was dead. He regretted that. Sheppard had seemed a good man, and when he thought of Teyla Emmagan, he wondered if she was grieving now. A small part of him, whispering in the back of his mind, wondered if Marinel was grieving him now as well. She would have one day, regardless. Sky daemons, the Beast, criminals, and foes from the other cities always lurking in the shadows—the life he led didn’t often allow men the luxury of growing old. At least, this way she was safe. She had a chance for a new life far away from here.
Marinel had never chosen to be with him. She was his because he’d happened to see her in the street, so young and sweet and daring, and he’d wanted her. Nothing more. She had been frightened of him, but he hadn’t cared. True, over the years they had come to respect each other. He was proud of that, proud that she’d seemed contented with him, and so unlike the frightened creatures most women were. And, though she again had been given little choice, he was also immensely proud to have given her children she genuinely seemed to want. Marinel doted on their children, cared for them, and never once treated them as though he’d forced them on her. In all his life, he had never seen two more beautiful babes or a more beautiful mother.
Dexcian exhaled. An anchor weighed so heavy on his chest it threatened to turn his ribs inside out and send his leaden heart plummeting to the floor. He wished things might have been different. So much time wasted. He wished he could have it all back. He wished they could’ve had more.
Love wasn’t something he’d ever expected. Only a fool gave up his heart to someone who simply did what was necessary to please him. But Marinel … She was his weakness. A hardened, lifelong soldier had woken up one day and realized he’d surrendered to raven hair and a pair of bright blue eyes, to soft pink lips and a smile that chased away all his bad memories.
He was a fool, and he missed her. He missed her already.
Aware he could ill afford regrets; Dexcian shook off his memories and steeled himself. He had done the best thing he could by his wife. Given her freedom, Marinel would forget him eventually. One day, so would his children. Knowing the man he was and the things he had done, it was probably better that way. Once he finished the Beast and was declared a traitor, there would’ve been no life left for them here anyway. Not one worth living.
But, in that, he had no choice. The Beast meant death, not only for enemies of the province but for his own people, and the best way to honor Sheppard’s memory would be to help his wife and friends, and to finish what they had started.
Dexcian stalked across the room to where the doctors’ tools had yet to be taken away and dug through their belongings until he found a vial of a familiar milky-looking liquid. He poured it down his throat, gulping past the chalky texture, knowing that soon his pain would fade and he’d be able to do all that was required.
The woman came back and he snatched the glass of water from her to wash it down. Then, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Legate Quintus. Get him and bring him here. Go.”
Sunset. High up on the walls far above Teyla’s head, light streamed in through the windows of her cell. Particles of dust navigated the beams as shades of ever deepening oranges, yellows, and reds amassed on the opposite wall. She couldn’t look out to gauge the exact path of the sun, but Teyla’s hopes for word of John or rescue grew dimmer by the minute. Another day was in its death throes, and her time was swiftly running out.
The cell was unbearably quiet. Rodney was still unconscious and shackled to the stone pillar. Her only company, Teyla huddled next to him.
They had come for Ronon a few hours ago. Her friend had been only just coming around from the blow he had taken at the Beast’s hands. Amid a host of other obvious cuts and contusions, a deep purple bruise lined his temple and extended back into the hairline beyond where Teyla could see. She suspected he had a concussion, but despite that, he had not gone easily. The first man to have gotten too close to the shackled warrior would likely be limping well into middle age, and the bone-splintering crack of the second’s arm continued to resonate inside the cell. But, to her horror, it wasn’t long before Ducis’ soldiers exacted their own brand of vengeance and Ronon was writhing on the ground completely at their mercy.
They dragged him away in chains and Teyla didn’t know when she would see him again. It would probably be in the Arena, where Teyla would be a prisoner at Ducis’ side, Rodney a hostage to quell any rebellion from her, and Ronon would be in the ring fighting for his life.
And John …
Closing her eyes, Teyla quashed a fresh wave of tears. She had to stay in control, even though she was gradually being cut off from everyone she cared about. Soon, they would come for her too and she needed to stay strong.
A sharp groan hit the air and Teyla’s head jerked up. “Rodney?”
“Oh … God ...” he moaned, shakily hugging himself around the middle.
“Rodney, are you alright?”
“I think … I’m gonna be sick.”
Teyla sighed, peculiarly relieved. “Well, I am glad to see you are awake.”
“That makes one of us then.” He glanced up with bleary eyes, his features pinched in misery. “H-how long have I been out?”
“Several hours,” she said. “Can you sit up?”
“Assuming my head doesn’t explode in the next five seconds? Maybe.”
With a certain amount of clumsy maneuvering on both their parts, Rodney was soon upright and Teyla examined him with a careful eye. He was breathing deeply, and beyond a fairly standard grimace, he did not seem too worse for wear; although his pallor had delved slightly into a pale, sickly shade of green. “Any better?”
“Not really. Maybe a little,” he said.
Teyla gave a slight nod. “What do you remember?” She recalled only too well the headache and disorientation he was likely feeling now, but she couldn’t be sure what damage Ducis had also done.
“Not much.” Rodney scowled and clutched his head. “Have I been stunned twice now?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Figures,” he muttered. “Simple mission gone awry, as usual. Getting our asses kicked. As usual,” Rodney said as he flicked his wrist to shake out his right hand, his chains clinking and clattering against each other. “And Shep—” His eyes grew to saucers and he glanced wildly around. “Where are Ronon and Sheppard? What happened?”
Teyla placed a hand on his arm. “Do you remember fighting the Beast?”
There was a significant pause where Rodney’s face was frozen in confusion. Then a glimmer of recognition took root and he slowly nodded.
A stone formed in Teyla’s throat, but she pushed past it. “You remember that … that John and Ronon were injured?”
Another break, then Rodney nodded again.
“Ducis arrived with his men and we were stunned with the same Ancestor technology they used to capture us when we first arrived,” she explained. “You, Ronon, and I were brought here. While you were unconscious, Ducis threatened me. He … used one of his torture devices on you to … ensure my cooperation.”
Even though his reaction was dampened by his current condition, Rodney still managed to look horrified. “He ... You mean I was … You mean the black cattle prod from hell Spartacus and his brute squad were using on the Beast?”
“I guess that explains why my nerves feel like they were put through a shredder.”
“I am sorry, Rodney. I was told the effects are only temporary.” Teyla hoped Spartacus had been right about that part.
“Let’s hope so,” Rodney said, echoing her thoughts.
Her expression clouded over. “Ronon was taken to the Arena. Ducis means to put him through some sort of trial by combat.”
Rodney was silent for a moment. Not even he could miss the anguish seeping into her voice. “And Sheppard?”
Her eyes glassy, Teyla shook her head. She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t even think it. “I do not know, Rodney. I have not seen him since the caves. They … left him there.”
With a knifing pang of sorrow, she watched as Rodney’s face drained of its remaining color. When they had last seen him, John had been critically injured. Ordinarily, they knew John would have fought, kicked, and even crawled his way out of the labyrinth if it meant survival for him and his team. But he had been in no condition to do any of that. He had been weak and bleeding badly. Left alone with no one to help him …
“He’s not dead,” Rodney said into the stillness. While Teyla had wrestled against the urge to sink into despair, his mouth had set into a stubborn line. “Sheppard’s not dead. He’s probably laying low somewhere, coming up with a half-baked plan to get us all out of here. He’s not dead. He’s not.”
Teyla gladly nodded along. “Of course. Of course.” She patted his arm and squeezed, needing that small reassurance as much as he did.
If she could have, Teyla would have nestled deep in denial with him and stayed there, but one of them had to keep focus and Teyla was neither recovering from being tortured nor chained to a wall. They could not assume anyone was coming for them.
“Rodney,” she said softly. She tilted her head to regain his attention. “Rodney, we may not have much time.”
His eyes, unsteady at first, came to rest on hers. “What do you mean?”
Teyla glanced swiftly at the cell door, where she had already begun to hear noises outside that suggested a change in their guards’ activity. “They will be coming for me soon. I do not know what will happen after that.”
His gaze searched her face and suddenly his expression grew stark with comprehension. “He’s gonna keep me here, isn’t he? I’m the only thing Ducis has to keep you from wearing his kneecaps as jewelry, so I’m gonna be stuck here until he kills me to make space for someone else. Either that or the dust gets me, one of the two.”
He screwed up his chin, a potent mixture of panic and belligerent refusal taking domain over his features.
“Well, screw that,” he exclaimed. He rallied his strength and started actively struggling against his shackles. “I’m not sticking around to find out what other surprises Sir Psycho has in this house of horrors. All the planets we could’ve gone to and what do we get? Caligula with a bad haircut!”
Teyla spun toward the doorway, worried his outburst might bring the guards that much sooner. “Rodney …”
“When we get back to Atlantis, Carter can expect a few dozen strongly worded memos on visiting primitive societies, explaining in explicit detail how I will NOT be doing it anymore!” He continued to fruitlessly yank at the iron restraints. “I am a genius! Geniuses don’t die in medieval prisons; we get old and have strokes. We die of heart attacks in the middle of arguments or of acute caffeine intoxication surrounded by lab equipment. This place doesn’t even have air conditioning!”
“Rodney!” Teyla seized him hard by the shoulders.
Hardly in prime condition, he was relatively easy to contain. He was pale and breathing heavily. Teyla looked at him and wondered for the thousandth time if this was the right thing to do. She refused to live here as Ducis’ plastic version of a wife; she would sooner die. If she submitted to a man like that, she would never be able to hold her head up or look at herself in the mirror again. However, she was cut off from Ronon, John was—again she shied away from even thinking the word—and Rodney wasn’t in any shape to carry out an escape. The smarter move was probably to bide her time, to wait for a proper opening and then make for the Stargate and come back with reinforcements. By herself she could move faster, with more stealth, and with the greatest chance of success.
But if she did, Rodney would likely be dead before she returned, perhaps Ronon as well. She couldn’t leave him here. John would not have left him behind and she wouldn’t either.
“Rodney, listen to me,” she said urgently. “I’m going to try to overpower the guards. We will get you free and then we will get away from here. Now, when the guards come in, I need you to get their attention.”
“What? What do you mean?” Rodney frantically glanced around at their barren stone surroundings. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“I don’t know, Rodney, but I am sure you will think of something. I will only need you to distract them for a few seconds.”
Teyla pulled on the hem of her dress. She embedded her fingers in the seam and tore the fabric across the middle. She came away with a long strip about the width of her hand and the length of her arm. It wasn’t a knife. It wasn’t even very hardy material, but it was better than nothing.
Giving Rodney a quick tip of her chin, she got up and placed herself next to the entrance in the shadows. Closer now, she could hear voices and the bustle of activity just on the other side. She twisted the material lengthwise and looped the ends around her hands as her concentration moved elsewhere, into a place of focus and determination.
If she did not succeed, Rodney would be the one to bear the consequences. Therefore, she had to make sure she succeeded.
Rodney looked on, dumbfounded. “What are you going to do?” he whispered loudly, as if all of a sudden realizing the volume of his voice might make a difference. Then the door flew open and his face fell as a pair of soldiers entered the room.
“Heh … Hey, you! In the toga!” he shouted.
Teyla burst out from behind the door and flung herself on the rear soldier. She coiled the material around his neck and yanked with all her might. Probably not expecting a lone woman to put up a fight, she took him unaware and he reeled backwards. With exacting precision, Teyla reached around him as he fell and caught the shaft of his spear before he careened to the ground. Now armed, she hooked her elbow to intercept a blow from his companion, and then swung the iron tip in a devastating arc at his head. The soldier ducked and Teyla kicked the door shut again as a third man tried to enter the room. The concussive force of the slam rippled through the walls.
Wood thick in her palms, Teyla gave the spear a testing swing to gauge its full weight and get the feel of the shaft, which was longer than she was tall. It was heavier and more unwieldy than she was accustomed to, but there was no time to practice. The felled soldier had recovered his feet and his companion raced toward her brandishing a sword. Relying on her skill, she leaned heavily into an overhead swing and brought the spear thundering down. One sword became two, and the three of them traded blows with blistering momentum. Teyla didn’t like the extreme arcs she had to put into her body with every movement to account for the bulk and reach of the weapon. The extra flexion only opened her up to attack. But grit and roiling anger over all that happened drove her on.
The door behind her shot open and the remaining guard burst through. Having anticipated his re-entry, Teyla thrust her leg into one soldier’s knee and pivoted, directing the blunt end of the spear on a merciless course for his head. The force of the blow sent him sprawling, however Teyla immediately had to rear back as a glint of razor-edged steel landed in front of her face. The wood shaft splintered and cracked, and the soldier hacked at it once more.
When it shattered in her hands, the soldier seemed to think the fight was over. Out of breath, he, along with his limping companion, ceased their assault for a beat and he had the audacity to smile victoriously, as if this outcome had been a foregone conclusion.
Teyla’s fingers closed around the two halves of the spear like a pair of long lost friends.
He never knew what hit him.
Teyla exploded in a flourish of movements that left her remaining opponents staggering to keep up. Due to her size, Teyla was especially suited to close range combat and used every ounce of expertise she’d honed over the years to her advantage.
She shoved a rod into the smiling one’s gut and ducked a fierce swipe from the other. Shifting directions, with another strike she hooked his leg at lightning speed. Once he was down, she kicked away his sword and hammered him across the jaw. Helmet or no, he didn’t get up. Bloodlust and a thirst for revenge pounding in her veins, she moved back to the remaining guard, who was doubled over. As Teyla raised her weapon, he looked up at her for the first time with fear in his eyes.
She showed him no mercy.
Her lungs heaving with adrenaline, Teyla glanced over at Rodney to make sure he was alright and then bent over the unconscious bodies to search for a key or control mechanism to release the locks.
“Teyla, look out!” Rodney shouted suddenly.
Her head whirled around but only got so far before a thick, muscled arm caught her across the sternum and the tip of a knife was pressed to her jugular.
“Now, now, now. Just settle down,” a deep voice ground against the back of her skull. “I would hate to open such a pretty throat.”
In spite of his current state, Rodney was livid. “Let her go! You even think about hurting her and I’ll—”
Maintaining his hard hold, the man laughed. “A woman wielding weapons better than any man and an academic brave enough to make threats while in chains.” He repositioned himself slightly to call out behind him. Teyla struggled against his grip. “You were right, brother. These strangers are quite interesting.”
“I am glad you approve.” Another voice rumbled in from the doorway, dark and grizzled. One Teyla recognized. “Now release her, Quintus.”
The man sighed as if already bored of grappling with her and loosened his hold. Not wasting a moment, she ripped herself free and turned.
Spartacus stood against the stone threshold, bruised and bandaged yet at home in his armor. Teyla was stunned. “You are alive.”
His lips curled into a humorless smile. “So it seems, Teyla Emmagan. So it seems.”
“Great. That’s just great,” Rodney grumbled. “There’s a sadistic lunatic out there who wants to kill me and take you for his new playmate, and you want me to entrust my life to two of the extras from Gladiator.”
Teyla cast a quick glance across the cell where Spartacus and Quintus had both moved off for the moment to allow them to talk. One of the unconscious guards stirred. With sobering casualness, Quintus put a heel to his face and kicked him back into oblivion.
“He has offered to free us and Ronon in exchange for our cooperation,” she said.
“And you trust him?” Rodney angrily jangled his chains. “He won’t even take off these stupid manacles. What makes you think he’ll just let us go?”
Teyla pursed her lips as they exchanged a measured look. Her teammate had bristled at everything having to do with Spartacus and his plans, his attitude petulant even by Rodney’s standard. After all they had been through, his indignation was understandable. He was entitled to it. But Teyla had a feeling his hostility stemmed from something else, the same dreadful worry that coiled in the pit of her stomach. The fact was, throughout their entire discussion there had been no mention of John, and the implications of that loomed over them like the shade of an executioner.
Teyla spoke evenly. “I believe him, Rodney. He has kept his word to us before, and we may need to accept that we might never reach Atlantis without his help.”
The scientist scowled. “Fine. I still don’t see why he won’t get me out of these things!” He glared at Spartacus and raised his voice to get the soldier’s attention. “That’s right, pal. You want us to trust you? This is the sort of thing friends do for each other. They mess around, play chess, they have a few beers, and—oh yeah—they break each other out of prison!”
Spartacus peered back at him, his cold, calculating exterior simmering with amusement. “And in a few minutes when the Magistrate’s guards come looking for their comrades, wondering why they have not collected the woman yet, what will you tell them, Doctor McKay? They slipped off?”
Rodney’s chin held firm, but his posture bent uncomfortably. “I have … very delicate wrists.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” he returned shrewdly.
“Oh, nice one, Spartacus. Caveman humor is apparently universal.”
Quintus quirked his brow at the use of the informal moniker, though Spartacus himself made nothing of it.
“Considering your offer,” Teyla said, “perhaps it would be fitting for us to know from whom it comes. We have never been properly introduced.”
Spartacus looked at her, his face impenetrable.
After a sufficiently long pause with no response, Rodney spoke up. “Don’t tell me. ‘You are Spartacus.’”
“You have the honor of addressing Dexcian Navis, lord Protector, Commander of the Magistrate’s elite forces, and the chosen Champion of our people,” Quintus replied with a deferring eye toward his commander, frowning at Rodney. “You will treat him with respect.”
Spartacus - Dexcian - looked away, ostensibly impatient and uncomfortable with talk of titles. Overall, however, unlike their first meeting, Teyla found him to be strangely aloof. Quintus had studied her with overt fascination. She supposed she must be quite an oddity to him, a woman who could fight as well as speak her mind without fear of reproach. Dexcian, on the other hand, seemed resolved. He bore the look of a man who had no longer had any questions in life. He knew what was coming around the corner, what tomorrow looked like, and he was ready to meet it.
Without understanding why, she was sad for him.
“Enough of this,” he muttered under his breath and then exhaled. “Time is short, Doctor McKay.”
He glanced between Teyla and Rodney, as if undecided on which of them to address. “You and your people promised your help and you gave it. Would that I could release you now, but my men will need time to get into position, and we cannot afford to be sidetracked by your ‘escape’ should anyone discover you are missing. Once our business with the Beast is finished, my men will come back for you and see you safely to the Ring, you have my pledge.” He sent a pointed look to Quintus and the soldier tipped his chin in response. “Until then, you have only to play your parts.”
“And Ronon?” Rodney asked stubbornly.
Dexcian paused. “He will be more difficult. He is already in the Arena and it is too well manned by Ducis’ Praetorians and the Career fighters to get in and out unseen.”
“What do you intend to do?” Teyla asked, concerned.
A flash of annoyance contorted his features, though she got the impression it was directed more to himself than her. “I don’t yet know. He is being held under charges.”
“Attacking the Dux’s Commander, of course,” Quintus said. He threw a sardonic grin Dexcian’s way, to both Teyla and Rodney’s consternation. “After he was injured by one of your weapons, what other conclusion was there to be drawn?”
Rodney shouted at Dexcian. “That’s total crap and you know it!”
The wounded soldier kept an even keel. “The Dux can hardly charge him with being an inconvenience, can he? This way he can demonstrate to the people that he seeks justice on their behalf, and they love him for it. Your friend becomes useful whether he lives or dies—though, for his convenience, the Dux would prefer he dies.” He gazed at Teyla. “I sincerely hope your friend is a solid fighter. He may need to play his part as well until my men can get to him.”
“While you do what exactly?” Rodney interceded again. “Ronon fights for his life, while you go after this Beast thing again right underneath Ducis’ nose? Even though it can take out pretty much anybody that comes near it, and our guns are pretty much useless and, I almost forgot, gone. Again. Teyla, remind me why we ever helped this guy in the first place.”
Dexcian stood tall, his muscles taut and dangerous, as immovable as one of the room’s stone pillars. “You are worried for your friend, Doctor. That’s admirable. But if Ducis has his way, your friend will only be the first of the Beast’s victims.”
His eyes swept them up and raked them over, burning like hot coals over a flame as he began to stalk the room.
“The Magistrate will not be satisfied until every leader across Minoa kisses his sandals, and the Beast is exactly the weapon he needs to fulfill that desire. How long do you think he can keep the creature fed on enemy insurgents and criminals? I guarantee it will not be long before false charges become innumerable and innocent lives are sacrificed to that monster. My people. The ones I have given up everything to protect.”
Teyla saw pain in eyes, a wound separate from the gunshot taken in the earlier battle, something deeper that transcended flesh. Invisible. Lethal. What had he given up?
“I will not walk away from that, Doctor,” he declared finally, unmistakably. “No matter the odds.”
Quintus stepped forward. “The Beast has been killing us for thousands upon thousands of years, virtually unchecked. It has taken more of us for itself than even the Sky Daemons. At least they only prey on us every few generations. The Beast never stops. My father, his father,” he pointed to Dexcian,” their fathers and theirs. Our sworn brothers and, one day, our sons.” He halted his speech for a moment, his message clear. “The Beast will have our children and many more if we do not stop it now where it stands.”
Dexcian grew unaccountably quiet. To Teyla’s bewilderment, he seemed suddenly unable to meet his lieutenant’s gaze. That was when, to her heartache, she realized that the question was not what he given up, it was who.
He soon recovered himself and said in a low, harsh tone, “This is my people’s last chance. The stakes are too high. My men will see you and your friends free, Doctor McKay.” He cast a long glance toward Teyla and she knew he spoke to her as well. “But the Beast comes first. If we miss this window, there will never be another. I cannot let anything or anyone stand in the way.”
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity, then Teyla found her voice. “We understand. If we can help in any way, you need only ask.”
Dexcian peered across at her as though trying to gauge her sincerity. Then he nodded.
“Even if we aren’t sure whether you have a death wish or are just plain stupid,” Rodney said sourly beside her. She turned to see him shaking his head.
Teyla gave a small smile. “Rodney.”
“Oh, don’t ‘Rodney’ me.” Huffing, he pushed himself up so his back rested higher against the stone column to which he was chained. “Alright, Spartacus, hand it over.” He lifted his hand and gestured with his fingers.
Dexcian wrinkled his brow in question.
“The black thingy on your belt.”
He glanced down at his waist and pulled it loose. “It is called an Aranea.”
“Spider. Cute. Now give it to me.” Rodney didn’t bother to hide his disgust as he took it in his grasp. “If you plan on going after the Beast, you’d better have something up your sleeve besides those swords you’re carrying, and I happen to be the foremost expert on Ancient technology in two galaxies.” He studied the casing and, after locating a small access panel, pried it open. “You know, this would be much easier if I had my tools, but maybe I can boost the power output.”
“And what will that do?” Quintus asked.
Rodney squinted at the device’s wiring and circuitry before gingerly advancing inside. “Think the difference between a static shock and a taser. Now shut up, I’m trying to concentrate.”
Dexcian sidled up to Teyla. “What is a taser?”
The corner of her mouth quirked upward. “Something that will help.”
“We do not have long, Doctor,” he said.
Distracted, Rodney barely responded. “Just … give me a minute. This doesn’t seem too complicated.” He abruptly lifted his head and barked at Quintus. “You! You’re gonna need to bring every one of these you’ve got here so I can modify them, unless you plan on doing it all yourself. Yours too. Now.”
Teyla and Dexcian watched on blanketed in temporary silence as Rodney worked, apparently determined to test Quintus’ patience to the fullest, and the minutes ticked by, each one deafening as they waited for the guards to show up. She stood there with her arms hugged around her waist, her hands pulling deftly and discontentedly at her sleeves.
She wanted to fight. It went against every instinct she possessed to simply let them take her away, but she had elected to trust Dexcian, and for a little while longer that meant compliance. Wait. Do nothing. Allow others to take risks for her and her friends, one of whom she was desperately worried about. It felt so wrong.
It was hard to believe that only yesterday she had walked through the Stargate with her teammates expecting a short hike over idyllic countryside and an easy first contact. How had they ended up here?
“What about John?” she heard herself quietly ask. “Colonel Sheppard. Have you heard anything of him?”
Dexcian was slow to look at her, and time, already stretched to its limit, ground to a halt. His dark countenance was grave, his eyes softened to ash.
And then she knew.
“I am sorry, Teyla Emmagan.”
In the space of an infinitesimal moment, despair pierced her heart like a dagger and rapid, mournful gasps built in her lungs like an oncoming avalanche. Tears welled up in her eyes, and feeling her foundation of control crumbling, she blinked them away and flutteringly nodded her thanks for his honesty.
Later. There would be time to grieve later. If she started now, she wasn’t certain she would ever be able to stop.
He stared at her intently, diligent despite the far away timbre that shaped his voice. “Did you have children with him? Sheppard?”
Teyla started to settle into the smooth cradle of sternly regimented detachment, yet plaintive visions stole into the back of her mind of what a child of John’s might have looked like. A small wild-haired boy with a crooked smile perhaps. A face gradually appeared from behind a smothering black curtain, and it was all she could do to say one little word.
He seemed to consider her answer carefully, then turned his gaze back to Rodney and Quintus. “Perhaps that is for the best.”
He said it with so much forced callousness that Teyla was pushed to once again draw breath. “Do you have children?” she asked, scrambling to regain some sense of composure.
His eye line scraped the floor. Were they the ones he had given up?
“Did you lose them to the Beast?” she asked softly.
There was a long pause. “In a way.”
Teyla regarded him with a measure of empathy. She may not have grown up with the Beast, but she knew the Wraith, loss, and the heavy toll it took on those affected by it. “Tell me about them. How many did you have?”
He looked her way again, his expression slowly finding a median between skepticism and anguish. “Two. A son and a daughter. Marcus is …” His cheek ticked slightly. “He was still small. Just a boy.”
Teyla quietly tilted her head. “And your daughter?”
His voice hollow, his eyes empty, he stared straight ahead. “A babe. I barely knew her.”
The clatter of footsteps approaching from the outer passageway shattered the fleeting illusion of calm, and she and Dexcian immediately went on alert. “Quintus.”
His comrade glanced toward the doorway, then wrenched the Aranea from Rodney’s busy hands. “Hey!”
“My apologies, Doctor, but our time is up. Are you ready?”
Rodney moaned. “Do I have a choice?”
He sighed. “Just don’t forget we’re only trying to make it look painful.”
Quintus grinned. “I will try.”
With no ceremony, Dexcian grabbed hold of Teyla’s arm and pushed her face first up against the wall until her cheek scratched stone. He, not ungently, pulled her elbow back and up in a lock and Teyla once again found herself with a knife to her throat.
“Soon, Teyla Emmagan. You will not need to suffer the Dux for much longer.”
He released her arm for a second and she felt him fumbling with one of the dress pockets at her waist. Something dropped inside, about the size and density of a palm knife. “Do not get caught with this, and only use it if you have no other choice,” he said quietly.
She nodded, catching a glimpse of his face over her shoulder. “Thank you.”
He said nothing, just took her arm back.
As the guards drew near and Dexcian started to tense behind her, Teyla inhaled in a deep breath. “John would have made a wonderful father,” she whispered, replete with regret.
She wasn’t sure Dexcian had heard until his voice rasped in her ear. “Then, I am sorry for that too.”
Then Quintus hauled back his fist and punched Rodney.
“He was quite loud, wasn’t he?” Quintus said behind him as they finally exited the manse.
Dexcian hastily forged a path away from the Magistrate’s house. From the top of the hill, he could already see the crowds in the heart of the city headed for the Arena, sending up hazy plumes of dust under their feet.
“I held back as much as could be convincing, yet he shouted as if I was removing his fingernails.”
Dexcian kept walking. “Perhaps he was only trying to be equally as convincing.”
Quintus answered with a snort. No, Dexcian didn’t think so either.
A series of granite stairs had been built into the ground leading downhill. The pair followed them to a stand of trees in a secluded part of the yard, far enough from the house to avoid drawing anyone’s notice.
“Still, they are impressive enough,” Quintus said more seriously. “Do you really think the Doctor’s changes to the Araneas can bring down the Beast?”
“I don’t know, but you will do as he said,” Dexcian replied. “We do not have many, but every Aranea at our disposal goes to him quickly, before our men take their positions. Doctor McKay was not wrong when he said we would need more than swords to bring it down.”
A storm of unqualified bitterness masked over his friend’s features. “We have been fighting it long enough to know.”
Dexcian exhaled. Now wasn’t the time for arguments. “No more, Quintus.”
“Ducis lied to us, Dexcian. He lied to all of us. He’s turned his back on his people and spit on those that came before, those like us who have fought and bled and died to keep our people safe.”
Dexcian pursed his lips, then gave a clipped nod. “Yes, he has, but don’t lose sight of the real enemy.”
“I don’t believe I do. Ducis is our leader, but if he would betray us to the Beast, he is guilty and deserves to be punished.”
Fuming, Quintus broke off a few paces as a chill wind shook the leaves.
Quintus had always been headstrong, as far back as Dexcian could remember. It was part of what made him so good and why Dexcian had wanted him by his side in battle. Quintus did not understand the word defeat and oftentimes that alone was enough to see a man home. But not always. This was one final lesson that Dexcian had no time to teach.
“Be careful what you say, brother,” he warned. “I talk of betrayal. You talk of rebellion.”
Quintus sniffed and angled his shoulders as he glanced back around at Dexcian. “Perhaps rebellion is what we should be talking about. Ducis’ sons are no better than their father. You know that as well as I do.”
Angry, Dexcian shook his head. “Stop this. Don’t—”
“The people would follow you, Dexcian. You are their Champion.”
Dexcian abruptly seized him by the scruff of the neck and got in his face. “I am no one’s Champion. Not anymore,” he growled, needing him to understand before he did something foolish. “I am a soldier and, after the Beast is dead, I will be no one. A traitor whose men were only following orders. Do you understand? This is my choice, and unless you intend to lead our men into taking on Casus and the rest of Ducis’ army, you will abide by it.”
Quintus’ expression remained locked in stubborn defiance. “You talk as if your men are not with you. As if we would not follow you into Hell itself.”
Dexcian tightened his grip on the back of his neck, a moment of friendship within an arresting embrace. He grimly shook his head. “I don’t want you to follow me that far, Quintus. I need you here.” Quintus wasn’t his blood, but he was the closest thing to a true brother Dexcian had ever had. “I need you to take care of the men once I’m gone. Someone will have to command and there is no one else I trust.”
“You don’t need to do this. We can take care of the Beast and the Dux together. I’ll not see you branded a traitor for doing only what is right.”
“As if any of us are a fit judge of what is right,” Dexcian grumbled. He released Quintus with a bitter shove. Quintus stumbled a step before righting himself, and this time it was he who watched as Dexcian moved away and looked out over the city he’d grown up in.
It seemed so far away now. Almost like it didn’t exist.
“What about your son, Dexcian?” Quintus asked after a long moment. “Have you considered what will happen to him when you are dishonored and vilified by the Dux? And what of your wife? If I recall, you are quite fond of her.”
Dexcian didn’t respond. His eyes were still, yet the corner of his mouth crept upward into a knowing smile. Quintus still had a small scar on his neck, a memento of the last time anyone had thought of laying a hand on his wife. Quintus had been younger then, still eager to prove himself, and the bruising Dexcian had given him had made him think twice about many things, the way he handled women—especially one not his own—the first among them.
Quintus was a good man. Stubborn. Idealistic, perhaps. But he knew none better.
“Would you have them brought to ruin?” Quintus asked. “Turned out? Your son a traitor’s spawn, your wife another man’s whore?”
“I have a daughter too,” Dexcian reminded him. His Astrea. His pretty babe whom he’d ignored and tried to forget, in order to shield himself from the pain of losing her one day. It hadn’t worked, and now he would never forget her. He would think of his son, his wife, and his beautiful daughter when he took his last breath.
“Don’t you worry, Quintus. They are safe. No matter what happens, no one will hurt them ever again.”
He finally turned. Questions creased the lines of Quintus’ face, but Dexcian paid them no heed. There was no more time.
Quintus stood taut as Dexcian clasped his shoulder. “I wish you luck, my friend. With everything. I’ll see you on the field?”
Quintus stared at him a moment, frustration and disbelief coloring his complexion, the lines on his face strained. But finally, in a move that perfectly mirrored Dexcian’s, he reached out and caught his shoulder. “On the field,” he said.
Dexcian nodded his chin in solemn approval.
No promises about after.
A soldier could swear his sword and his life to duty, but he couldn’t guarantee anything more, and Dexcian was almost done.
The two brothers clutched at each other one last time, each knowing that this time it was goodbye.
John shot a cagey glance toward the street. It had been surprisingly easy to slip back into the city. When John’s team had initially gone out to meet the Beast, there had been a fair number of sentries at the main gate giving them the stink eye, but their positions had been empty upon his return. Probably a lucky break, but he was still wary.
For the moment, he was staked out behind a small sandstone house which, unlike Ducis’ overblown mansion, wasn’t much bigger than his first apartment. Positioned on a block with several others just like it, it provided enough cover for him, along with Lorne and his team, to move around relatively unseen and still allowed him to keep an eye on the ever increasing amount of foot traffic on the street.
The laundry hanging out back to dry didn’t hurt either.
“How’s it coming over there, Lorne?” he called quietly.
“Okay, sir. Almost done. I think.” The Major fussed around with a dangling flap of material, not really sure what to do with it. The white wool togas were bulky enough to cover their uniforms and weapons but a royal pain in the ass to put on.
Meyers stepped in to give him a hand.
“I’m thinkin’ it’s no wonder these things went out of style two thousand years ago, sir,” Sanders groused, awkwardly flailing his arms around to maneuver inside the massive folds. Issue number two had been to figure out how to conceal a P-90 while maintaining accessibility. They couldn’t just go in playing Rambo. These people had weapons they had no clue about. They needed to be smart about this. “I feel like friggin’ Julius Caesar,” Sanders complained again.
Meyers looked over his shoulder at his teammate and chuckled. “Well, hopefully things work out a little better for you than they did for him.”
Frankly, John thought his men looked closer to Animal House than Shakespeare, but fortunately the average citizen on this planet seemed to fall somewhere in between.
A few rapid clicks sounded in John’s ear. Capt. Campbell’s voice came over the comms. “Are you seeing this, sir?”
John turned again to view the movement in the street. Thinking they stood less of a chance being spotted with a smaller strike force, John had split the marines up—one team in the Jumper ready for a quick extraction and another team with Campbell moving along a similar vector toward Ducis’ house.
“I see it,” he replied.
“Something’s up, Colonel.”
John felt like someone had dug channels under his eyes as the world vaguely began to resemble the view from a Tilt-a-whirl. “Yeah, you got that right.”
He closed his eyes and took a few controlled breaths. And, of course, the medic was right on top of it. “You alright, sir?”
“Relax, Ramirez. Just got a little dizzy. I’m fine.”
Ramirez frowned and offered up his canteen. He observed as John took a long pull. “You lost a lot of blood, Colonel.”
John returned the small brown vessel. “And once we’re all back safely in Atlantis, I’ll be sure to set aside plenty of time for another one of Keller’s lectures. Right now, we’ve got more pressing matters to deal with.”
Feeling better again, John was anxious to move on. With Ducis’ threats fresh in his mind, he didn’t want to think about all that could’ve happened to Teyla and Ronon and Rodney in the hours since he’d been left in that cave to die. He had to get to them, but with all these people headed toward the center of the city, suddenly veering off on their own would only make them stick out like a sore thumb, despite the outfits.
“We need to find out what’s going on,” John said.
“Suggestions, sir?” Campbell asked over the radio.
John exhaled and addressed the team waiting in the jumper. “Radek, are you getting anything?”
“Life signs seem to be converging inside a large structure in the center of the city. It looks like a kind of … arena.”
“Like the Roman Colosseum?” Lorne asked in front of him, now fully dressed.
“That would certainly fit with the trend,” John muttered.
“Still nothing from our missing people, though,” Radek reported over the comms. “Sorry, Colonel.”
“Yeah, didn’t think so,” John said, disappointed nonetheless. “It’s more than likely our locator chips were shorted out when we first got captured.”
“Well ...” Lorne eyed the moving crowd. “We look the part. We could always just ask.”
John nodded, pushing up from his careful crouch. “Simple. Direct. That’s a plan after my own heart, Major. Have I mentioned yet how glad I am that you decided to join this mission?”
Lorne’s lips quirked upward. “Once or twice.”
“Just thought I’d check.” John glanced swiftly between his men and the growing throng. “Alright, well … I guess I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Uh, sir …”
John rotated back around to address the Major. “Yeah?”
Lorne stepped forward, his forehead bunched in an uncomfortable grimace. “Sir, I think you should let me.”
“I told you, Major, I’m fine.”
“Be that as it may, with all due respect, Colonel, you look like hell.”
John’s brow curled in weary amusement. “Et tu, Lorne?”
The Major smirked. “Sir, you’ve been through a lot today and the fact is it shows. Someone sees you, they’ll start asking questions.”
John considered his point and quickly determined his XO was probably right. He hadn’t had much of a chance to look himself over after nearly getting filleted by the Beast. But it was probably safe to assume he’d looked better. Healed or not, he was more than likely looking pretty pale and, though John had stopped to wash himself off, he still detected the tacky sensation of blood drying in the hair at the back of his neck. Nice impression to make on the locals.
“Alright, Lorne, you’re up,” he said. “Word of advice: you’ll probably be better off approaching a man rather than a woman. Right now, we can’t afford some guy getting angry thinking you’re horning in on his property,” John shook his head with combined disdain and disbelief he had to say this, “and any woman you ask will probably be too scared to give you much.”
Lorne nodded his head with a dejected air. ”Yeah, we kind of got that impression with Marinel, the soldier’s wife. The whole slavery thing. I don’t understand how they can do stuff like that.”
“I don’t either,” John said. “But for now …”
Lorne nodded again. “The job. Got it. Be back in no time, sir.”
Without pause, Lorne stealthily moved away from the group to join the crowd at a more inconspicuous point, and from there time seemed to drag on interminably. After a few minutes, John spotted him up the street walking and chatting with an older man, who looked like he was hobbling along on a cane.
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.
A few minutes later, Lorne reappeared knifing his way through files of people, and once he was in the clear, he double-timed it back to their position. He spoke urgently. “Colonel, I think our plans just changed.”
“What’s going on?” John’s mind swam with every jacked up scenario under the sun. Ducis had his team. The only thing stopping him from hurting Teyla was the residual claim of her “newly deceased husband” and that ended at sundown, when Ducis had gloated he would legally and in all benevolence take her as his own. For all he knew, everyone was headed to a big public announcement of Ducis’ wedding. John knew Teyla would never accept the guy willingly, but with Rodney and Ronon as his collateral …
God, if he’d hurt them …
John’s worst case scenario practically unfolded in front of his eyes as Lorne dispensed with the pleasantries. “It’s Ronon, sir.”
Explanations came so fast his XO barely drew breath, and when he was done there was no stopping John anymore. Driven by purpose and fear, John and his men immediately broke position. His hand flew to his earpiece.
“Capt. Campbell, new orders. Forget the mansion. I repeat, forget the mansion. Follow the crowd toward the center of the city. We’re headed to the Arena.”
The blade of a sword clanked clumsily across the bars of Ronon’s cage, held by a hairy, thick fingered brute in light armor. “You’re a quiet one,” he said, revealing a cracked front tooth and an ugly smile. “Doesn’t seem right to sit there without begging for mercy like most.”
Ronon glared darkly back at him.
“You sure he has a tongue, Acrisius?” one man, similarly built, called out from across the torch lit chamber. This one had a hooked nose, widened at the bridge from countless breaks. Nearby, another sat hunched over on a wooden bench, polishing an iron shoulder plate and, in the corner, two more rough looking fighters were gathered. One had no apparent interest in what the others were saying. He was too busy with the woman in his lap, groping and kissing her. The Groper tore at her dress and yanked her top aside, his other hand climbing high up her skirt. The woman bent her head back in apparent ecstasy, but Ronon knew better. From his vantage point, he could see she was posturing. She stared blankly at the ceiling as the fighter did what he liked to her, no hint of pleasure anywhere on her face, while the last man, rat-faced and leaner than the others, chugged on a flagon of ale seeming content to watch.
As the underground staging area where they were situated filled with the noise and movements of the converging masses above, the five of them circled Ronon like a pack of overconfident hyenas.
Mercenaries. They might be called something else here, but Ronon knew mercenaries when he saw them. They stood out from the uniformed soldiers steadfastly guarding every exit, warriors who sold their skills to the highest bidder, sometimes for public entertainment, sometimes in the name of justice, but consistently brutal and always deadly.
“He looks half wild, that one. Maybe men like him don’t talk where he comes from.”
“He’d better,” said the third one, his voice sounding like he’d swallowed a bag of rocks. He looked up from his armor to reveal a blind right eye, white and scarred. “If the Magistrate doesn’t get the show he wants, we don’t get our money.”
“Oh, he will,” Acrisius said, looming next to the cage. He leered down at Ronon. “Don’t you worry, I’ll get some begging out of you yet. They all go screaming in the end.”
Inside an unblinking animal stare, Ronon raged at the chains chafing at his wrists and ankles, collaring him at the neck. After what he’d done to the last set of guards to try and move him, someone had decided the cage itself wasn’t enough, so not only was he still bound, his chains were also anchored to the floor. Frustrated and immobile, Ronon pictured in gruesome and satisfying detail reaching through the bars and clamping his hands around Acrisius’ throat. Hard to scream with a crushed windpipe. Acrisius would die flailing and gulping like a fish.
The man’s eyes honed in on Ronon’s predatory half smile and his voice lowered to a devious pitch. “There now. Look at you. You’re gonna be fun, aren’t you? Good. The harder you fight, the more we get paid when you’re dead.”
He laughed, a barking cackle that reverberated through the room, and turned his back on Ronon. He sauntered over to Ratface and snagged his ale. To the amusement of the others, the smaller fighter let out a resentful yelp as Acrisius shoved him aside and swilled the contents of his glass. After taking his fill, Acrisius then crossed to the woman and seized her upturned face in one of his large, meaty hands. Her cheeks locked in an inhumanly tight grip, she cried out in pain as he ripped her off the Groper’s lap by her head to fall in an ungainly heap on the floor. Ronon surged forward inside the cage only to be stopped cold again by shackles.
The woman sobbed and choked as Acrisius changed his white-knuckled grip and pulled her to her feet by the neck. She whimpered as he stroked his tongue down the side of her cheek, but his actions were cut short when the Groper clubbed the distracted Acrisius across the head with a mail-plated fist and, with a loud possessive grunt, kicked his knees out from under him. The group roared with laughter as Acrisius flopped backward into the dirt. Triumphant, the other man roughly took the woman by the hand and hauled her to him, then continued where he’d left off by fondling her behind and possessively biting the tender flesh of her neck.
The whole scene made Ronon sick. The booming echo of the clamoring crowd traveled down from the stands outside, through the tunnel and into the network of rooms beneath. The antechamber they were in teemed with the crowd’s anxious, surging energy and the mercenaries were feeding off it like a drug.
White Eye stood with his newly shined armor in hand. Rumbling out the last of a hollow, grating chuckle, he shouted, “That’s it, boys. They’ll be singing our song in a minute.” And as though in answer, from the chamber up ahead emerged an ear-splitting metallic clang and the Beast let out a deafening roar.
The mercenaries laughed as they strolled past the guards with the woman in tow, presumably to finish readying themselves for combat. Like Ronon, they were used to the Beast’s tumultuous bellowing by now. Every few minutes the creature’s hideous, wheezing shouts flooded Ronon’s ear drums and bounced off the inside of his skull, screaming, “MINE! MINE!” over and over again as it bucked and heaved, frenetically testing the merit of its cage. Hurt from tangling with the Beast once already, Ronon’s head pounded relentlessly. The racket created by the creature now only fed the throbbing ache and amplified it with staggering precision. But knowing what stood in front of him, Ronon used the pain to fuel his rage and to center his resolve.
By the time the guards came for him again, Ronon was a seething mass of Satedan fury. He opened his eyes and the world was coated in red.
They were prepared this time, with weapons ready as his fetters were released from the floor and he was escorted out, still chained at the wrists and ankles. He flexed his hands, his palms aching to be armed as he moved up the wide ramp leading into the Arena where his survival would be dangled in front of him to torture Teyla and for Ducis to get his jollies. Maybe the asshole thought Ronon would be a quick demonstration of his power over her, with Rodney to be his insurance in the future. An easy, strategic kill.
Ronon walked the path ahead with sinister smile draped on his lips.
Not gonna happen.
Ronon was halted at the head of the Arena. Though he was still cloaked in the shadows of the underground, the sprawling venue was laid out before him. Here, too, guards stood in wait at the entrance, but beyond them the wide open sandy interior was surrounded on all sides by towering stands bursting with people of every walk of life, young or old, rich or poor. In the center of the stadium, a parcel of the stands differed from the rest, more spacious and extravagantly decorated. Ronon squinted and saw Ducis standing at the head with Teyla beside him. Projecting loudly, the craven ruler shouted a few words and the crowd fell silent. Then he started to speak.
Ronon didn’t hear much, because behind him another pair of voices picked up, exchanging words harsh and fast.
“I have my orders, lord Protector. I’ve had no word from my superiors regarding--”
“I will deliver the prisoner to the Dux and his people myself, Praetorian,” the new voice barked. “It was my blood he spilled and his blood is mine by rights.”
“My lord …”
Having sighted Teyla, Ronon didn’t want to pull his eyes away hoping he could spot Rodney as well, but he listened intently, thinking the voice sounded familiar.
“Unless you wish to challenge me, boy, I suggest you step back and remain silent. I would think you’d serve Casus better with both hands, but I am willing to put your faithfulness to the test.” The shear sound of steel breaching its sheath cut the air.
“N-no, lord Protector,” the other practically squeaked. “I wouldn’t dream of denying you the pleasure of delivering him to the Magistrate yourself.”
There was a quick shuffling of sandaled feet and then the razor edge of the sword slid effortlessly across the back Ronon’s neck, the deft movement encouraging him to move slightly forward. The circular press of something hard dug into his spine and Ronon froze, now fully aware of what the object in question did.
Ronon hissed behind his teeth, loathing how vulnerable he was at the moment. As he stood tense, the full, grizzled voice commanded behind them, “Take them off.”
A soldier ambled forward and set about releasing his shackles, leaving Ronon’s limbs free and able to fight before he was pushed violently forward a few more paces, almost into the Arena.
Then the dark voice drifted softly near and whispered in his ear. “Look to your left and right.”
Rattled, for an instant Ronon did nothing. Then, he obeyed. With surreptitious glances, the two guards manning the final passage to the Arena were now watching them.
“Cadmus and Aerod,” the man said by way of introduction. “They are loyal to me. They will get you out of the Arena when the time arises. You must be ready.”
Now sure who he was talking to, Ronon didn’t relax a single inch. “What about my friends?”
“My men will see they are safe. You will meet them at the Ring and go back to your home soon enough. You only need stay alive until then.”
Ronon pursed his lips. “And why should I trust you?”
The blade pressed the skin, the weight bearing more on the right side, motioning him to look left. A short distance away, the guard, Cadmus, with a subtle flick of his wrist, pushed his cape back from his hip revealing something strapped to his belt. Something Ronon was starting to think he’d never see again.
“This weapon is different from the rest. I take it you know how to use it?”
A mad thirst started to build within Ronon’s blood. He nodded.
“Good,” Spartacus said. “Save it for the Beast. You may need all the power it has. Can you take the Career fighters without it?”
Ronon thought of Acrisius and his cohorts and, with a wolfish smile, nodded again before he was taken into the Arena.