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Cocytus


Humming, soft and gentle. Not threatening.

A sting.

Pain.

Then nothing.

When Teyla regained consciousness, she found herself staring at a canopy of leafy green. One tree, branches elegant, old and covered in leaves reminiscent of the shape of Atlantis.

She tried to remember what had happened but failed to recall beyond their arrival on M33-604 and the short trek toward the nearest village. The sun had been warm upon their faces, the breeze carrying the scent of drying hay. She still could smell the lingering sweetness of it in the air now.

The reason for her unconsciousness confused her, but she did not worry. As long as the others were with her they would not let her come to harm while she was vulnerable.

Thinking of the Colonel, Dr. McKay and Ronon gave her the motivation she needed to work against the sluggishness that seemed to have settled so deep in her bones.

When she tried to rise, she found that she could not. Not one toe, not one finger responded. None of her muscles reacted. She tried to speak up and could not. Blinking was unattainable. She tried to draw breath and found even that was impossible. She could hear her breath, slow and shallow, but could not voluntarily draw, nor feel it. A stunner blast never was this efficient. Complete paralysis.

She tried again and again. Minutes, maybe hours trickled by.

The wind was cool on her face as the sun began to settle and the light made the leaves glow a pale, translucent sea green.

Night would be falling soon and she would be the perfect prey for any predator on its hunt. She contemplated her options and tried to fight the mounting fear that was gnawing at her. Fear was something she could not afford at this very moment, she had to find a way to get out of this situation, somehow. One of her team-members could be hurt, or similarly afflicted.

It was in the middle of this deliberation that she heard the sound for the first time. A soft, metallic tinkle, the sound of heavy pieces of metal shifting against each other, as though lined up on a string. There was something about the rhythm of the tinkling that only heightened Teyla’s anxiety. She wished she could at least feel her heart pound, but there was nothing to feel except for this horrible numbness, only hearing the painfully slow heartbeat in her ears.

The tinkling came closer, resolving into footsteps accompanied by the metallic jingle.

Grass rustled.

Twigs snapped.

A shadow fell over her, and a new scent followed – incense, so strong that it would have made her cough if she could have had the ability.

Concern slowly escalated.

A murmur of voices, in a language Teyla did not understand but was familiar with, a language long dead. Fabled. She remembered her father telling her stories of those who spoke it by the fire of their winter settlement on Athos.

Another shadow fell across her face. Something gauzy and grey obscured her view, touched her face. She wanted to recoil from the sensation only to realise that she did not feel the touch of the ... veil. It was a veil, multi-layered and as stone grey as the sky over Athos on a cold autumn morning.

More veils descended around her, obscuring her view of the tree, shrouding her in nothingness and incense.

Her heart did not beat faster. Her breath did not speed up. Her eyes did not widen.

But when the face appeared from under the veils, the dark tracks of tears tattooed into the skin under the grey eyes, Teyla found herself screaming inside as her worst childhood fears became reality:

They cry for those who have no one left to cry for them.

They were not a story after all. The Lamenters were real.


To John, waking was like a slow dissolve from sleep to awareness. At first, all he saw was a blur of light and mingled grey, then his vision cleared and he could focus on a cloud-striped sky

Obviously, he was lying on his back. He tried to sort out how he got there.

He remembered being dizzy, swaying on his feet while the blood in his ears rushed louder and louder. The sound had turned to white noise in his head. Then nothing. He must have passed out, but how and why he couldn’t say. Since it had happened so suddenly, he assumed he’d come in contact with some dubious substance. Something in the water, something in the air? It sure had been effective.

John began to sit up – or well, he intended to sit up. It didn’t work. None of his limbs would move. Not even so much as an inch.

Now, that was problematic.

The first thing that sprang to mind was a Wraith stunner, the effects were similar enough. John discarded the idea, but couldn’t fully shake his uneasiness. He made an effort to be reasonable. There was only a very small chance that any hostiles could’ve crept up on them. Teyla would’ve sensed them. Ronon would’ve heard them five miles against the wind. Not an attack then, he could convince himself of that at least.

It didn’t change the fact that he was as stiff as a board.

John was still puzzling over his condition when he caught a drift of distant music. Music was so very unlikely in these deserted parts, he was sure he’d misheard. Yet when he listened closer, the noise was still there and by then more discernable. A swinging, silvery sound, like wind-charms in a tree. It was coming closer, too.

He barely got the chance to make sense of it before the noise arrived at his side and stopped. He heard the rustle of clothing, another wayward tinkle, then a head moved into the field of his vision. At least he thought it was a head. It was hard to tell since all he saw was a grey sheet, long and plain, covering the newcomer’s potential head, shoulders and torso. John could see the source of the tinkling, though. Small metal coins were woven into the hem of the veil and dangled from filigree threads. They jingled against each other with every slight movement.

Featureless, with not even the shadow of a face behind the folds of sleek fabric, the stranger looked down at John.

What’s going on? he asked the masked figure. Only he didn’t. The question was stuck in his head; his lips didn’t form the words. He tried to speak, but his tongue lay like a swollen mushroom in his mouth and he couldn’t make it move. He couldn’t move his head. Couldn’t move a finger. He decided to close his eyes to calm down.

He couldn’t do that either.

Hands on his face. Dry, sandpapery fingertips. He was able to feel them, touching his cheek, his forehead, the base of his throat. There was a smell of herbs, which he couldn’t place. His open eyes were beginning to feel arid and gritty – a feeling he couldn’t relieve because blinking was just as impossible as talking. At least he was still alive. Otherwise he wouldn’t feel or smell or see any of these things. Death excludes sensory perception.

How would you know? The question was chilling. He shoved it aside. Choked down the panic that wanted to stir in its wake.

He was breathing, he was almost sure of that. That is, his lungs didn’t scream for oxygen or anything. Which, again, would be kind of redundant if he were dead. Dead lungs didn’t need air.

Get a grip, he ordered himself. He meant to clench his fist, but once more his unresponsive body curbed the reflex. A wave of frustration hit. This whole situation was getting more fucked up by the minute. Would somebody please explain what the hell was going on?

The hands disappeared, their movement accompanied by the rhythmic tinkle of the coins. There was a shuffle of footsteps, a shadow falling over him, before he was gripped by the ankles and beneath the shoulders. Next thing he knew, he was hoisted from the ground. His head tilted back without resistance and for a moment, he saw the world upside down. Grey figures moved around the road, two of them carrying a limp figure. Rodney, by the color of his clothes. Was he paralysed, too? What the hell was happening?

John was lowered down only to be lifted again, this time on a stretcher. He knew it must be so because he could feel the contact all along his back and calves and heels. He could feel, god dammit. He had to move, too. Whoever these people were, wherever they were taking them, he needed to get up. Look for his team. Get to his weapons. He couldn’t leave them to be dragged off like this.

The more he struggled, the more his body seemed to shut down on him. It was like battering against the lid of a coffin from the inside. He cried out furiously, but the shout was locked in his numb throat. He was not getting anywhere with this, nothing changed. John smelled, saw, listened, helplessly.

Sounds of grass, seesawing in the cool wind, rustling as the grey folk carried him . . . where? No way to determine the landmarks since he couldn’t turn his head. There was only the sky up above, the white scrawl of cirrus clouds and the fading blue of dusk.



Ronon knew something was wrong as soon as he came to. His hunch proved true as soon as he tried to reach for his gun and couldn’t lift so much as a finger from the ground. A quick run through the rest of his limbs asserted that he was entirely paralysed.

When he’d still been a soldier in training, one of his tutors instilled to him the need for clear-headed assessment. In the event of finding yourself trapped, the first step must be to study the knots that tied you.

“Get out in here, first,“ the old man had said and tapped Ronon’s forehead with one finger, ”then use your muscles.“ Throughout his running years Ronon had found it useful advice. No reason to neglect it now. So he settled within himself and moved back in his mind to before his blackout.

They’d reached the village nearest the stargate and found it deserted. They assumed rumours true; a Wraith culling had taken place on M33-604. It was the natural conclusion, although Ronon had his doubts. Usually a culling left marks in its wake, tracks of flight, upended carts, possessions flung about, and demolition caused by Dart ordnance. They found nothing of the kind. Instead it looked like the villagers had just upped and left. McKay had consulted the Lantean life signs detector but nothing showed. If the people of this area were hiding, they’d found a safe and well covered spot. With nothing to gain but pointless questions, Sheppard had moved his team back toward the stargate.

Whatever happened to him must have happened on the way back. Ronon considered all that had happened there. Nothing out of the ordinary, no one followed, only the empty track ahead, McKay complaining about insects . . . Ronon stopped there. He recalled the scientist’s curses; Sheppard’s edgy amusement and he also recollected being stung himself. Dizziness had set in shortly after.

He’d been poisoned, then, and the others, too. The midgets had been eating McKay alive, or so he’d said. Ronon assumed his teammates were somewhere close by and as immobile as he was. He wondered if they understood what was happening. He’d something of an idea himself. He’d heard accounts of such conditions as this, brought about by the venom of an insect widely called Ker. Effects included paralysis and partial impediment of the senses. It applied. To his knowledge, the paralysis was also temporary. While his first instinct was to struggle and rage against the forced stillness, he knew it wouldn’t help. As much as he hated being unable to do something, his years as a runner had taught him exactly when fighting was a waste of time and energy. Little more to do than wait then.

There was more in connection with the name Ker. Another snippet, something about wakeful sleep, but he couldn’t quite remember it yet. It might’ve been one of his mother’s many tales. She knew countless of those, collected and carried over from many worlds until they reached her hearth. But before Ronon could put together what else she’d related about Ker flies, he heard a tangle of sounds approaching.

The hidden villagers? He doubted it.

The air around him was suddenly flooded with scent, perfumes like waves rolling to shore. Burning herbs, dyed linen, something darker, more subtle . . . sweat mingled with body oil. The noises were an undulating jingle and reminded him of the chimes the warrior dancers wore back on Sateda.

Two veiled figures moved at the edge of his vision, ashen robes shifting around their tall shapes. Rows of brass sequins caught the fading daylight and glinted. One of them circled to Ronon’s left side, the other seemed to get to his or her knees right next to his head. The folds of their clothing shifted close to his ears. Both reached for his face, wide sleeves revealing hands the color of murky tea.

As they touched and prodded him, Ronon’s thoughts wandered back to his mother’s legends and the myth of Ker. The fly was supposed to be native to a planet few ever visited. Merchants who claimed to have been there brought back tales of caravan-members supposed dead and buried. Some were lucky enough to be detected in time; others had to suffocate with all their senses still alert. Ronon had always taken such sensational titbits for gossips’ exaggeration, now he revised his opinion.

He wondered briefly if such a burial was in store for him. He tried to move his hand, but nothing had changed yet. Wait a little longer.

Another figure joined the couple and stood above Ronon’s head. With their flowing garments, they reminded him of slender and vast-winged ardeas, lighting on a lake. On his home world, those water birds were believed to be heralds of death. The thought brought him up short. He looked at his silent sentries with new suspicion.

Most of his mother’s stories he could recite by heart. He’d never told her, but he suspected she’d known all the same. Now the weave of words she’d spun throughout his childhood led him to the information he needed. The melodic intonation of Lore was back in his head as Ronon remembered.

. . . wanderers from world to world, drifting in the evening light, gathering the forgotten. Their blessing has no words, their lament no sound. The rest they give knows no morning.

Lamenters, they were called.

It seemed like legends came to life in hosts today.

Ronon sunk into inner calm with a will. He wasn’t going to waste any reserves on struggling prematurely, but he would be ready the moment he sensed the slightest agility in his limbs.

If he was right about these people, he had not much time to regain power over his body.


The first thought he had when he opened his eyes and saw nothing but tall grass and shadows flickering over the ground was: Oh, great.

What was it this time? He vaguely remembered the buzzing of insects, remembered warning them all to take care, but did anyone ever listen to him? Of course not. Ronon had laughed and Teyla had smiled at him.

Of course he had been right.

”Didn’t I tell –”

That was only in his head. He heard nothing. No vibration in his vocal chords. No sound. Rodney tried to clear his throat and realised that he couldn’t.

Fantastic. Losing my voice because of a bug-sting has always been high on the top list of my priorities. Thank you, Sheppard.

He tried to move his arms in order to push himself up and glare at Sheppard – only to realise that his arms wouldn’t move. He tried a leg, a hand, a finger, his head – nothing. His lips wouldn’t form words. He was vaguely aware of his heart beating and of his breath flowing slowly, much more slowly than it should. Everything seemed strangely subdued, as though experiencing it from behind a wall of cotton balls.

This was not good. This was far beyond the realm of good. This was heading straight into very, very bad territory.

Calm down. The fact that you’re still breathing and that your heart is still beating means that you’re still alive.

But where were Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla? Whom he would gladly kill if they ever so much as tried to mock his caution again, but that was beside the point.

Still alive. Alive is good, alive you can work with. But if you’re alive and yet can’t move, then how will anybody else know you’re alive? Is the heartbeat still strong enough to detect?

The thudding was slow, too slow. His breathing, he noticed, was so shallow and slow that someone who didn’t know what to look for would probably not realise he was still alive.

Oh, god. Anabiotic. You’re anabiotic.

He could still hear, the rustling of trees above him, the wind in the grass, the distant tinkling of metal against metal. Scent of sun-dried hay in the air, and something sweeter, almost like the heavy perfume his aunt Cecilia had always worn, the one that always made him choke. He should be having an allergic reaction to it by now, but there was nothing.

Anxiety morphed into fear morphed into panic and yet he couldn’t feel any of it. His heart wasn’t beating any faster. His breath wasn’t picking up. No cold sweat, no prickling scalp, no shaking hands, no pressure behind the forehead, nothing. All the comforting physical reactions of a panic attack were missing.

Anabiotic. Oh, God.

He was trapped inside his body with no way out, no way to come up with a brilliant plan to save the situation. Claustrophobia had always happened in small places, as it should.

Now, the claustrophobia happened inside his body.

What if no one notices you’re still alive?

They’ll bury you.

Cremate you.

While you’re still alive.

He had always hated fire.

Oh God.

How long--

Will it hurt?

Will you notice--

Oh God.

-- will your consciousness stay with your body?

-- asphyxiate?

Oh God.

-- burn to death?

The tinkling came closer, the scent grew stronger. Shadows around him.

The panicked swirl of thoughts gave way to a wild rush of hope when he heard steps and the soft rustle of clothes.

I’m here, I’m here, I’m still alive, do something, damn it, Sheppard, do something, if you can hear me do something, do something, help me, I need to get out of this, get Carson, get the fucking Nox, I don’t care, just get me out, get me out, I don’t want to die like this, not like this, please, please, not this way, I don’t want to be buried alive --

Something grey moved into his line of vision, pooled on the grass next to his face. Heavy coins woven into grey, gauzy fabric that moved with the breeze.

A hand cool on his face.

The veil moved over him, covering him.

Grey. His world turned grey and he clung to his mantra: Please, please, I’m still alive, please, don’t go away, don’t leave, do something, get Sheppard.

Hands on his arms, under his arms, lifting him. His head lolled back.

More grey veils, upside down.

I’m still alive!

People. Figures, the veils covering their entire bodies, head to toe, like grey ghosts, the veils fluttering and billowing in the breeze.

They put him onto something like a stretcher and then there was sky above him, clouds moving slow and lazy.

The coins tinkled, a soft melody to the measured steps of his rescuers.

Yes, get Carson, please, get help. Still alive.

The movement stopped after what seemed like hours to Rodney. More of the grey-veiled people appeared above him A barely visible face hovered over his, uncomfortably close, letting his unblinking and dry eyes see more gauzy material wound around the figure’s mouth and nose. Hair cropped short. Ashen. Dark, inquisitive eyes. A track of tears tattooed into the skin under the eyes.

Those eyes scrutinised him for a while, then closed. A single tear trickled down the track of the tattooed ones.

A language Rodney didn’t completely understand was spoken, but there were enough pieces of Ancient woven into it that the panic slammed back fully into his mind.

Mors, he heard. Requietum. Aeternus.

Not dead, he wanted to scream, I’m not dead, I’m NOT DEAD, but no sound made it past his lips.


II

They carried him head first into the event horizon. After using the stargate for God knew how many times, John had thought it would never feel alien again. He’d been wrong.

Entering the wormhole without seeing it, hearing its watery ripple as a disembodied gurgle, then the quicksilver liquid flowing over his forehead, filling his eyes . . . it was deeply unsettling.

They came out in darkness, the other side pitch black with not so much as a single star in the sky.

Supposing there was a sky.

A whiff of sulphur, something crackled, then a pale flickering at the periphery of his vision. Seconds later, a thick orange glow spread over John’s head. There had to be torches, a couple of them.

The procession continued; John could feel the stretcher bump with every step of its carriers. After an indeterminable period of time, he was set down.

John heard the unending tinkle move back and forth, the rustle of robes on sandy ground. Someone bowed over him, head outlined against the glowing smoke of the unseen torches. The veil was gone, revealing a bald head and haggard face. In the flickering light, the features were hard to discern, but John saw markings that ran down from the stranger’s eyes like tear-smudged kohl.

A drop of sweat trickled down John’s temple. The shock of it seemed to vibrate in his belly. Did he imagine it? No, it had been there. A reaction of his body. Another drop, following the track of the first, more quickly.

John willed the man above him to react. Watch, damn it. Watch me!

The head disappeared. There was hardly any time for disappointment, though. John felt movement at his feet. Someone was untying his boots and slipped them off his feet. His socks went, too. The night’s chill grazed his bare feet and crept beneath the hem of his pants. Hands emptied the pockets of his tac-vest almost gently, removed his sidearm from its holster.

As of now, he couldn’t decide whether he was just baffled or really creeped out.

Alarm cranking up another notch over the lack of his sidearm, John waited for another sign from his body. He refused to believe that the droplet of sweat had been false hope.

Nothing happened.

The bald man reappeared, leaning once more into John’s limited field of vision. He lifted a hand to cover John’s face and his palm smothered John’s already shallow breathing.

He’d closed John’s eyes. Fuck. It seemed like the perfect time to run through all of the expletives he’d ever heard. No one would hear him anyway.

Once more plunged into blackness and wrestling the dread that simmered just above the surface, John listened to the ongoing soundscape. He tried to make sense of it. Was his team still with him? They had to be. The urge to make sure was maddening. After a while, the sound of the coin-fringed veils started to move away. Noises grew faint, distant and vanished. The rest was silence.

John lay unmoving. His keyed up mind expected a bang, some sort of climax. The sickening rush of air in free fall. It didn’t come. He just remained . . . suspended. Rigid. Blind. Perfectly lucid.

This wasn’t how he’d thought he’d go out at all. But then again, you couldn’t exactly call this going, could you?

There was no way to tell how much time passed, but after a while, the cold covered every inch of skin inside his clothing. A shiver ran down his arms and his jaw twitched. Like the sweat, it was a brief signal and isolated. Nothing else improved, not immediately.

More time passed and the waiting nearly drove John out of his skin. He wished it could have. He tried to distract himself, reciting the specs and top speeds of all the planes and helicopters he had ever flown. Gradually, he became more aware of his gooseflesh. Was it possible . . .?

John frowned and found that he could. Frown, that was. He tried drawing a deep breath next. Cool and dry air filled his lungs. Just breathing for a couple of minutes was the best feeling he had experienced in a long time.

He tried to wriggle a finger. It took him what felt like another two hours to manage. Dry sand crept under his fingernails. He tried moving a toe next. There was a light breeze tickling his bare feet. At last he just went for it, bent his knees and sat his feet flat on the ground. It worked. More sand between his toes.

John licked his dry lips and let the air whoosh out of his lungs. He scrubbed a hand over his face and could feel the relieved smile; touched it deliberately just to believe it wasn’t only in his imagination. He had control over his body again. Everything back to normal.

He hoped Ronon, Teyla and Rodney were recovering the same way he was. If they really had been left here, too. Wherever here was.

He turned his head to his right and opened his eyes. Nothing. Utter, inky blackness. The familiar heaviness of the tac-vest was resting on his chest, so they couldn’t have removed everything. His boots were gone for good, though. He was still weirded out by their removal. What the hell had that been about – take his boots but not his tac-vest?

There was breathing nearby. From the many off world missions, he was familiar with Rodney’s slightly nasal, almost congested breathing, Teyla’s light and nearly inaudible one and Ronon’s deep and steady breathing patterns. They were all here, and at the very least all of them were alive. Thank God.

Time for a sit-rep. Rolling to his side, he sat up. His head still felt as though he were on the fringe of a hangover, but at least moving was possible again.

“Rodney? You all right?” he asked.

His answer was a sharp intake of breath that told him Rodney must have been awake for some time already. “If this is the afterlife, I demand an exchange. I fully expected to be met by Einstein and Marie Curie and have a couple of beautiful angels around me, feeding me citrus-free delicacies. I did not request to have you there as well.” A pause. “Unless this is hell.” Rodney’s voice wavered just a little too much for John to smile at the forced sarcasm.

“You’re not dead.”

“I’d better not be. I’m too valuable to die so young.”

“You’re forty, McKay.” That was Ronon’s low rumbling voice. Another weight slipped off John’s shoulders.

“Thirty-eight!” came Rodney’s indignant reply. Another pause. “You’re here, too? Then this really must be hell.”

“It is not,” Teyla said. Her voice was unsteady, too, but John passed it off as relief.

He reached into his tac-vest, where he felt the reassuring weight of the flashlight. “Let’s get some light into this place.”

“No!” Teyla’s voice was as hard and clear as glass.

John’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“Do not turn on your flashlight.”

“Are you insane?” Rodney bristled. “Why the hell shouldn’t we?”

“Do not ask me to answer this question, Rodney.”

“Rodney’s right, Teyla, why the hell shouldn’t we use the flashlights?”

“Trust me in this.“

John was surprised to find no protest from Ronon. “Why?“

“Just trust me. Please, John.“

He didn’t know what rattled him more. Her using his first name, or that fierce little ‘please’. He put the flashlight back in his vest.

He scrubbed a hand over his face: “All right, let’s focus: Anybody hurt?”

Ronon and Teyla declined. Rodney’s answer was a huffy: “Except for my mental state and the fact that Kate Heightmeyer will be working overtime when we get back? No.”

“My shoes are gone,” Teyla said quietly.

He heard Ronon shift. “So are mine.”

“Rodney?”

“Since my feet are almost frozen solid, you could safely assume that my shoes are gone.” He paused. “You?”

“Same here.”

John pulled his knees up and felt the sand shift under his toes. “I felt them take away my sidearm and go through my tac-vest. Check what they took.”

A few moments of rustling in the dark followed.

“Ammunition.”

“Water.”

“Powerbars. Bastards!”

God, he was getting a headache. “ So, anybody have an idea what happened? This time?”

John heard Ronon shift on the sandy ground. “Ker.”

“Could you be any more specific?”

“The insects buzzing around us on M33-604 – they were Ker.”

“And those are --”

“The heralds of death,” Teyla said, softly. “Their sting leaves you paralysed for a few hours, enough to make it seem you were dead. They are living mutually with small predators known as Leshan. The Ker uses its sting to immobilise the prey, and the Leshan later comes to feed on the victim while the Ker draws the blood of the Leshan to survive.”

“Charming,” Rodney commented. “So, why aren’t we all Leshan food?”

“I do not know.” The miniscule pause Teyla made before answering made John uneasy.

“Teyla?”

“I do not know, Colonel.”

“Okay, those Ker ... why didn’t we know about them? I’m sure there would have been something in the database --“

“They were believed to be extinct on almost all worlds.”

“Always good to find the exception to the rule.” And, yes, that was Rodney back in full sarcasm-mode.

“All right, folks, I’ve had enough of sitting around,“ John said, rising to his knees and dusting off his hands on his pants. “We have to find out where we are and how to get back to the gate. Suggestions?“

Rodney huffed. “What, you don’t have superior night-sight? Wait a moment, I’ll have mine switched on in a few seconds.“

“I can see well enough,“ Ronon said.

“Of course you can.“ John didn’t need to see Rodney’s face to know the side of his mouth was turned down in disdain.

“We use our belts,“ Teyla explained. “Each of us holds one end, this way no one will get lost.” She paused as though the next sentence cost all her strength to force over her lips. “I will take point and use my flashlight.“

“What, suddenly there’s light allowed?”

The same question was on John’s lips but he bit down on it when he heard Teyla’s breath hitch.

“Let’s do it,” he said instead, ignoring Rodney’s outraged “What?” and undid his belt.

After this, there was a good deal of fumbling in the dark. Rodney muttered along the whole time through, a running commentary of their ‘ridiculous performance’. He didn’t grumble too loudly, though. John suspected he’d picked up on Teyla’s nervousness, as well. If they’d learned anything on previous missions it was to pay attention to her sixth sense. Although John had never seen her quite like this before. He was familiar with Teyla being wary, alarmed, or even on edge.

Freaked out was new.

When they were all properly linked, Teyla switched on her flashlight. She pointed it at the tip of her feet – bare, like John’s own. In the narrow beam of light, the sandy ground looked ghostly white. Teyla moved and the beam of light skittered ahead until it hit on a strip of gravel.

“This way,“ Teyla said and they set in motion.

Once on the gravel they fell in line and followed what John supposed to be a road. He could see Teyla’s legs, but nothing else. He’d never been much good flying shotgun. Letting others navigate made him itchy, always had. But this was Teyla, so he forced down his misgivings. She must have her reasons. Strange, Teyla-like reasons, but reasons all the same.

“Ow!“ Rodney’s voice, followed by a tug at the belt-line.

“What’s wrong?“ John asked back over his shoulder.

“Sharp pebble. In my foot.“ More tremors in the belt as Rodney presumably hobbled the next few steps. “Not enough that they left us in this godforsaken place. Did they have to steal our shoes as well?“

“They did not steal them,“ Teyla said from the head of the line. “It is part of their ritual.“

“And who the hell are they?“ Rodney demanded. “Since you obviously know what’s going on, can’t you at least tell us who those people were that dragged us here?“

“I’d like to hear that, too,“ John agreed. He fully expected Teyla to explain, but was surprised by her silence.

“Teyla?“

Still nothing. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, it was Ronon who answered in her stead.

“They’re called Lamenters,“ he said. “They’re a travelling order.“

“Again, this would strike me as something the Ancients would have included in their data base,“ Rodney remarked.

“They came after the Ancients had left.“

“My father told stories of them,“ Teyla said quietly. “People who had lost their families or else left their worlds to join the order out of conviction. They wear . . . they have markings on their faces.“

“I’ve seen them,“ John cut it. “Black smudges, like running paint?“

“Tear tracks,“ Teyla said. Her hollow tone sent a chill down his back. He was starting to feel a little freaked himself. Teyla’s cryptic behaviour was puzzling enough, but John was also bothered by something else. Noting he could put his finger on but, well, . . . something.

Maybe it was the total silence around them. John waited to hear anything, even the tiniest noise like the flutter of a nocturnal bird, but heard nothing except the sound of their clothes rustling.

No world was this quiet, not even at night.

“And what does this order of yours do,“ Rodney spoke up once more. “Prodding unconscious people at the roadside, carrying them off and adding foreign boots to their collection of intergalactic footwear?“

“They gather the forgotten dead.“

John could feel the vibration in the belt-line as Rodney faltered in his steps. His own hand had clenched into a fist on the strip of leather that linked him with Teyla. He recalled the shrouded head with sudden vividness and again felt the phantom fingers closing his eyelids.

Someone’s walking on your grave.

He’d no idea why he thought of that phrase right then. He didn’t like the feeling it gave him. He tried to concentrate on their progression. Was he imagining it, or did Teyla pick up her pace?

As they plodded on, John’s head was filling with questions. In a galaxy plagued by cullings it figured they’d have a death cult as well. People might appropriate the thing that harried them most. It made sense . . . in a morbid, disturbing way.

His thoughts kept spinning back to the veiled figures. Now, as then, they seemed hardly human. Before he could stop it, his imagination filled the gaps he’d rather have left empty. A culture drowned in grief, trailing the scourge of death, picking up the husks that were left behind. It was familiar.

Memories began to rise in John like evening fog. He knew Teyla’s Lamenters from before. He’d seen them walking empty streets, carrying shattered bodies, their sorrow too vast to have a voice. Once more he smelt the engine grease, the hot metal of his Black Hawk and the fine blue smoke that still lingered in the air. He saw women in black veils, holding men that should be too heavy for their arms. Somewhere in the distance, another chopper took flight, rotor howling in the torrid heat.

Swirling sand. A young woman digging bare-handed through charred rubble. Her hands leaving bloody marks on the stones she threw aside with the strength of the desperate. John stood paralysed, ears still ringing from the force of the explosion that had rocked the village, his team no longer around. Just him and that woman. Frozen in time. She was keening in a local dialect he didn’t understand, her voice an eerie counterpoint to the rattle of machine guns. She never once turned to ask him for help. John sank to his knees anyway, felt sharp stones digging through his BDU pants and didn’t ask what she was looking for.

The image of the small, broken body they had pulled out from under the rubble had haunted John for months before he had managed to lock it away. The mother’s silent cry of absolute anguish still echoed in his mind when everything grew too quiet. John hadn’t had time to grieve the boy. It wasn’t his child; it wasn’t his business. He was a soldier. Death was something he had to deal with. But that never stopped him from feeling responsible.

Mitch and Dex died the same day.

Two years later, he went to another galaxy and woke the Wraith. And he was just as helpless and paralysed as he’d been back in that village in Afghanistan.

John closed his eyes to stop the images from surfacing. It worked. Barely. When he opened his eyes again, he was calm, his former anxiety turned to ice.

He repeated Teyla’s words.

They gather the forgotten dead.

Gather them to bring them where?

John was once more keenly aware of the silence around them. He shivered, but the cold he felt now came only partly from the outside.

“How do we know we won’t get lost?“ Rodney asked suddenly.

“There’s just one road,“ Ronon rumbled from the rear.

“Have you been here before?“ Rodney asked, hope sparking in his voice.

“No.“

“Then how would you know?“

“We came here in a straight line.“

“How long until we get to the stargate?“ John asked.

He’d become aware of a subtle odour – sickly sweet, thick at the back of his throat, cloying, instantly nauseating. It was a faint smell, no more than a tinge in the still night air. He knew it all the same. Had smelled it too many times before.

John clamped down on the images that fought their way to the surface, unbidden. That moment he’d an inkling why Teyla had wanted the only source of light. Rodney would freak out, and if he was honest with himself, John didn’t know if he’d be that much better off.

The trek seemed endless. Not seeing where they went didn’t alleviate the impression. Teyla, who’d never answered his question, set a brisk pace. Rodney didn’t complain once.

At one point, Teyla handled her flashlight too carelessly and the beam slipped to the side of the road. The light flicked back to the trail immediately. John still caught a glimpse of that which she hid from them. A bony ankle, a withered heel.

It was enough.

They didn’t stop, and the hours in paralysis without nutrition started to take their toll on John. He had searched his pockets earlier and found that all his food supplies were gone from the various pockets of his tac-vest. It just figured - the dead didn’t need any food. He couldn’t think of eating anyway, though. Ever since he’d detected that sickly smell, he was unable to ignore it. Hazy though it was, it still had him close to throwing up. He spent most of the walk concentrating on fighting nausea.

Behind him, he heard Rodney mutter under his breath. Breathing that was as shallow as John’s. John found that this and the nonstop murmuring calmed him.

When dawn finally came, he almost missed the sliver of light on the horizon. Pale, sallow sunlight crept over the rise of a hill and bathed everything around them in smudged ochre. Gradually, the haze cleared into a cheerless ivory brightness that, once it hit the cloud-cover, came from everywhere and nowhere.

As dawn stretched fully across the hillside, it removed the cover of darkness without compromise. No more protection from the open space and the view it revealed. After a while, John lifted his head.

He shouldn’t have looked. Really, he shouldn’t have.

“Oh, God.” Rodney’s voice broke in horror, telling John exactly when Rodney had copied his movement and had looked up from the trail.

“Keep your head down, McKay.”

“Oh, God, how many --“

“Rodney!”

“We’re walking in an open grave, excuse me for doing the only sensible thing.”

“And that would be what?” Ronon asked.

“Freak out!” There was no heat behind Rodney’s exclamation, only abject terror. John was glad he couldn’t see his eyes.

He knew now why the night had been so silent. The landscape he tried to ignore stretched vast and endless on either side of the trail. His traitorous gaze searched for landmarks, but didn’t find a single tree. Nothing lived on this world, nothing grew, not even so much as a weed on the road. Instead, everything was covered with an off-white dust that could be pulverised stone, but wasn’t. He could feel a layer of chalky powder on his soles of his feet, between his toes.

He looked at the skeletons to his left and away again. Like stones in a grid, they lay isolated, symmetrical. He’d lain like that. They all had.

An open grave. John sometimes hated Rodney for being so damn concise. He concentrated on walking again; climbing the rise of the hill along the path. Teyla stopped abruptly; John barely avoided stumbling into her.

“I can see the stargate,” she said. Her voice was quiet and flat. No emotions.

He realised that Teyla hadn’t looked up from her feet once during their walk. Her head had been bowed the entire time, only seeing the next step, no more.

She was looking up now, her body a dark silhouette, fraying out on the edges against the diffuse sunlight. John was inappropriately reminded of Lot’s wife.

It was what was beyond her that made John think of just how close that comparison hit to home after all.

The gate was ahead of them, maybe four or five miles down the hill, manageable in a little over an hour. But the trail was no longer straight; it curved and on its way down the hill, opening their view onto fields. Fields of what, at a fleeting glance, could be mistaken for firewood. Perfectly even, long lines of firewood stretching along all the way to the horizon.

Only, they weren’t firewood at all.

Bodies, thousands, maybe millions of them were arranged in exact positions, shoes removed, hands on the ground next to them all facing the stargate as though ready to greet incoming travellers - skulls and withering corpses and not one of them buried, god, no, he couldn’t --

Behind him, Rodney listed to the side, pulled on the belt, and retched.

John’s own stomach jumped in sympathy.

They’d been stacked. The dead were so numerous they’d been heaped on top of each other.

“Teyla, move,” Ronon rumbled from behind them, his voice low and commanding in a way John had never heard before. Teyla didn’t react and stood as if paralysed all over again. She’d let go of the belt and John realised the broken line was dangling from his fist. He could see Teyla’s feet and ankles, turned white by the remains of crumbled bones.

“My father is among them.”

John winced. Behind him, Rodney straightened again. Neither of them had any words for this. In the end it was Ronon who managed to snap Teyla out of her trance.

“Teyla.” At this, she bowed her head and began to put the flashlight back into her vest.

“We better get going,” Ronon said.

“God dammit, Ronon,” John snapped. “Give her a moment.” He turned and saw Rodney, too, glaring at the Satedan.

“We move now,” Ronon repeated, expression hard and unreadable. “Unless you prefer to actually die today.“

“Why?” Rodney demanded, “It’s just about to get really cosy here, don’t you think, Colonel?”

Ronon’s face twisted into a parody of a smile. “Because they make sure whoever comes here dead stays dead.”

That revelation made anything John might have wanted to add stick in his throat. He recalled the susurring whisper of robes and the tremulous tinkle of little coins. His empty stomach twisted sickeningly.

Of course they took the shoes. Once you were here, you’d done all the walking you ever would do.

Without another word, Ronon moved to the head of the line. John let Rodney step past him and brought up the rear himself. After a while, Rodney moved up to walk beside Teyla, close enough their shoulders almost touched. Her stride seemed firmer with the contact.

They all kept their eyes glued to the trail as they walked down the hill, wordless for once. John felt shadowed the whole time through, was almost sure he could feel the Lamenter’s breath on the back of his neck. Every sound in the stacks of bones made the hair on his arms rise further. He couldn’t shake the memory of the Lamenter’s veils and in his mind, their herbal scent mingled with the stench of this place, became, after a while, identical.

He imagined the stargate, it’s welcoming ripple, the familiar rush that would pull him through space and time. He tried to recall the sun-dappled halls of Atlantis, the saline air and the soothing patter of living voices. One step through the wormhole and they would be there.

He looked up; saw the gate far in the distance and the pale road, stretching for miles on end through fields of bone and decay.

“Do not look back.” Teyla said and Rodney, who’d been about to turn, stiffened his shoulders. It took John all the restraint he’d left not to turn around himself. He all but felt parched hands reach for him and a jolt of sheer panic flared through his body.

“Sheppard,” Ronon called without turning to look at him.

The taste of incense was on the back of his tongue and he felt a breeze on his skin, soft, sleek, like a veil grazing his ankle.

Maybe death had been his shadow after all.

John closed his eyes for a second, looked ahead again, kept walking.


Fin


Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Siegfried Sassoon

 



 
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