Chapter one and all header information is here
"Wraith?" Rodney looked desperately from side to side. The Wraith here, in Atlantis! Pale faces and long fingers. A whole race that fed on fear, leaving their victims wrung dry, just an empty shell, unable to feel.
"How many?" Sheppard asked.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not know. Perhaps ten? There are only a few spirits out here, and they are lonely and homesick. They do not like the Wraith, but they cannot help me fight them."
Sheppard frowned. "There was a raiding party earlier. It must have been a decoy while these guys snuck in."
"Only ten?" Ronon drew his quickened pistol from his belt.
"Only ten?" Rodney echoed, pressing himself back into the shadows. "Ten is quite enough. Remind me why we aren't we running away?"
Sheppard raised his hand to his lips, as if to hush Rodney, even though Rodney wasn't shouting very loudly, all things considered, and nothing like as loudly as the situation warranted. "Because we've found them by accident, and we don't want to lose them," Sheppard said quietly. "The city's too big and we don't have any way to track intruders. If there are Wraith here, I want to know exactly where they are."
"By fighting them?" Rodney looked at them – rain-drenched, determined, crazy. "Three of you? Because I can't… Don't expect me to… And Sheppard hasn't even got a weapon." And Sheppard had been sitting broken on the ground only minutes before, and… "Oh!" Cold swept through him, setting his heart pounding. "It's a heroic last stand thing. Go down fighting."
"I hope not," Sheppard said, but Rodney saw how Ronon and Teyla both looked at him sharply. "Reinforcements would be good right now. If you can't fight, McKay…"
"What?" Rodney exclaimed. "Me? You want me to send for reinforcements? What part of 'deserted dock' don't you understand? We're way off the communications network here."
"They you'll have to go the old-fashioned way." Sheppard wasn't looking at him. "By which I mean walk," he said, when Rodney didn't move. "Preferably run. Bring us at least twenty of Ford's finest." He seemed to falter a little before saying Ford's name.
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. "Okay. I can do that." He stood unmoving for a while, until Ronon started towards him, flapping his hand in a way that implied 'please go away', but somewhat less politely. "You'll still be here when the heroic reinforcements get here? You won't be, uh, dead?"
"The aim is not to engage them," Sheppard said, "but to contain the threat until reinforcements arrive."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Yes. Of course." He turned and trotted away into the darkness, lashed by rain, and very, very cold. When he turned to look over his shoulder, he couldn't see any of them, as if they had been swallowed by the darkness whole.
"Contain the threat?" Ronon echoed, when McKay had gone.
"Of course," John said.
He remembered battles fought side by side with Ronon, Ronon's pistol-work and his own sorcery weaving together to create a swathe of death. He remembered Teyla fighting in a swirl of sparkling light, glowing with the fury of spirits who hated the Wraith. He remembered standing in the middle of a cloud of clearing smoke, shouting orders.
He remembered going up against the Wraith that final time, his skimmer shot from the sky, cold metal embedded in his shoulder. He remembered rising up to try to fight, but there were too many of them, just too many of them to fight.
He remembered feeling the fear that he had always felt before battle. He remembered asking Ronon once if he, too, felt afraid, and Ronon saying yes, every warrior felt fear, and if they didn't, they were stupid, and wouldn't last for many days.
He remembered his Genii masters coming to hurt him, and how his addled mind had decided that the best thing to do was to accept whatever they did to him, but not to let them see his pain. He remembered standing there staring straight ahead, and he had never cracked, not even once.
"We're not going to fight?" Ronon said.
And Kolya had fallen to his knife. And John had been chained and powerless for so long, and the sorcery was in his blood, desperate to break free, and all he needed to do was to let it out, to strike a blow, to take a stand, to kill…
He shook his head, anchoring himself with a hand on the wall behind him. Atlantis came first. If they engaged too early, they would probably take out a few, but there was a risk that the other Wraith would disappear into the depths of Atlantis, to places where even Teyla's spirits couldn't find them. "We'll fight if we have to, but for now… For now, we wait."
They had to stand and let them come. And he was John Sheppard on the brink of a battle… and he was the slave sitting utterly still in a dark room, waiting for his masters to come.
But this time… This time, it was right.
It wasn't fair. He wasn't good at running; you didn't have to do things like that as an alchemist. His feet splashed in puddles, and he was already soaked right through to the skin, but the extra drenching of mud-stained water was horrible. The wind drove the rain horizontally into his eyes, and he took a wrong turn, coming to a panting halt in the middle of a bridge, then turned round, his breath heaving in his chest as the wind made his coat lash around him.
Wraith, he thought. Wraith, and Sheppard and the others were out there in the darkness, facing them alone. Ronon and Teyla knew how to take care of themselves, of course, but Sheppard was a slave, who had trembled in taut fear just because Rodney had said the wrong word at the dinner table. No, no, Sheppard was a military leader, a hero. He'd been through some tough times, yes, but nothing really changed you. No matter how much Rodney resolved to think more before he spoke, the wrong words came out and people were hurt by what he said, and you couldn't really change. People wouldn't let you.
Were they dead yet, killed by the Wraith?
Even they hadn't wanted him to stay. No, that was a stupid thing to think. Rodney certainly didn't want to stay there, thank you very much. When the Wraith were around, you ran away as fast as you could. At least when you didn't have any close friends, no-one expected you to do stupid things like stick around and die with them. He was better away from them. He'd be the heroic messenger who went to fetch help. He'd be…
He slipped and almost fell, keeping himself up only by a desperate lunge for the railing. He couldn't run any more, he couldn't. He couldn't breathe. Pressing his hand to his chest, he carried on, lurching forward, half walking, half running. There had to be nearly a mile still to go… and what had possessed Sheppard to go out so far? What on earth had possessed Rodney to follow him? He'd probably made things worse, and now Sheppard and the others were going to…
Oh! The communications network! He didn't have to find reinforcements in the flesh, just call for them. How far out had they laid the communication filaments? They were slowly spreading them throughout the city, radiating them out from the centre like the threads in a spider's web. They'd reached the towers of the southern plaza… but that had been a year ago. Maybe they'd reached further since then.
He tore open the nearest door, and it was dry – oh, thank the flame, it was dry! He grabbed hold of the balustrade, hauling himself up the few wide steps that led to the hallway. He groped across the wall until he found the switch, and the light responded, muted with workings at least a few months old. And there – oh thank the flame, yes! Yes! He lurched towards it; propped himself up against the wall, leaning with one hand, slapping at the switch with the other.
"Help," he gasped. "Help."
"Who is this?" a voice responded.
"McKay," he panted. "Adept McKay. The Wraith. Not here. Further… further south. An old dock. Sheppard… Sheppard's there, and Ronon and Teyla. They need help. At least twenty, he said. Help. Please help."
And that was that – duty done. He sank down onto the floor, and let his head sink forward, as he struggled to draw enough breath into his lungs. He could rest now. The soldiers would take care of it. They'd get there in time and they would stop Sheppard and the others from being horribly killed at the hands of the Wraith.
Of course, he thought, the soldiers were twice as far away as he was, and they'd have to go to the armoury first and load themselves with firearms and armoured jerkins. That would delay them… what? Ten minutes? And a lot could happen in that time.
He thought of Sheppard asking questions over dinner, and sitting broken in the rain. He thought of Teyla pressing her forehead to his in the barrens, and of Ronon… And Ronon was quite scary at times, but quite comforting, too, and it really wouldn't be fair if he was killed by the Wraith in the safety of Atlantis, when he'd managed to survive for so long out in the wilds.
Rodney wasn't aware that he had made a decision, but suddenly he was outside in the rain again, heading back as fast as he could.
When you concentrated on the creak of your master's footsteps on the floor above you, there was no room inside you for anything else. Only the waiting existed. Everything else you packaged up inside. You readied yourself to do what you had to do, and not to let a single scrap of your fear and your pain spill out.
His master's footsteps approached: one, two, three…
"They are coming," Teyla said.
He couldn't be the slave again, not now. "The important thing," he said, "is to stop them from going to ground in Atlantis."
There were ways, of course. A single sorcerer, outnumbered by enemies, could open himself fully to the elements. He could raze everything around him to a smoking ruin, and burn himself out from within, leaving just dust and ashes. It was the final stand, the final sacrifice. Many of the most powerful sorcerers in the stories had gone out like that, giving their own lives in a final, desperate act.
"John," Teyla gasped, catching hold of his wrist, as he realised that he had stepped away from them. He saw things too clearly, and he knew that his eyes were flooded with sorcery, his body ready to act.
"It's not worth it," Ronon said, "not for ten."
"It is never worth it," Teyla said fiercely. "Not you."
He tried to spread his hands. He tried to shrug, to say, 'hey, guys, I wasn't serious.' But he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. He was tired, so tired. He had been powerless for so very long… He was scarred, broken, and that would never go away.
But Teyla and Ronon were with him, just as they had been before the nightmare had started, and he would do anything in his power to keep them safe. He had looked at the stars and dreamed of flying, but the skimmers were still there, waiting for him to fly them. And there were late-night discussions with Elizabeth, and meals with his friends, and missions to undertake out in the wilds, that brought back intelligence that Atlantis desperately needed. And they couldn't go home again, and they had always been desperately short of sorcerers, and every single one was needed. Even if he was broken, he could still do good.
Teyla was holding onto his wrist, as if she was afraid that he would turn into dust and disappear. Ronon had planted himself in the archway, as if he planned to grab John bodily and hold him here. Rain streaked across their faces like tears.
John let out a breath he hadn't realised he had been holding. "The important thing…" he began, was not to throw their lives away in a doomed attempt to fight ten Wraith. He wouldn't risk the others like that. He wouldn't risk…
Myself? he thought. He would give his own life if he had to, but that had always been true. Nothing had changed, except… except that he had found his home again, and although he was broken, he wanted to live.
The slave had submitted to save his own life, not to end it.
"The important thing," he said at last, "is to eliminate the threat. If we can, we'll draw them back to where McKay's reinforcements will be able to take them on."
"They have seen us," Teyla said.
He smiled grimly. "Then we run."
Was the rain easing? It was. Oh, thank the flame, it was. Too late, of course. Rodney was already drenched, and likely to catch his death of cold. If the Wraith didn't kill him first, of course, as a result of the quite ridiculous and stupid fact that he was apparently running directly at them.
Perhaps his time with the Genii had turned him completely insane, because he kept on running into danger, and Sheppard was always involved in it somehow. Yes, it was Sheppard's fault. The man was a bad influence. If it wasn't for Sheppard, Rodney would be nice and dry, inside with his feet up, reading through books beside an open fire, safe, content, alone.
Where were those reinforcements? He wasn't a fast runner, and his muscles would be screaming at him tomorrow – if he was still alive, that is. They were strapping young soldiers with nothing in their heads but the desire to exercise and become big and strong and brainless – the sort of people you could point towards an enemy and say, 'kill it, please,' and they would. They should have overtaken him by now, because he wasn't… he couldn't…
Oh, Shadow, and there were people ahead of him, and how did you get ahead of me? he almost said, but they were tall and pale. They were Wraith, and he skidded to a halt, and looked over his shoulder, his breath tearing in his chest, and tried another way, but another one was coming out of the darkness, its pale hand outstretched, reaching for his throat.
Rodney fell to his knees. All he had at his belt was a small alchemist's knife, good for sharpening pencils, for cutting paper, for slicing off the leaves of the herbs that went into the more primitive fixings. It was tiny in his hand, no longer than his finger, and it was trembling. "Go back," he begged them. "Go away! Shoo!"
What did the Wraith do to you? They had to touch you to eat your fear, and people said that it hurt, it hurt terribly, although it shouldn't, really, since having terror like this ripped away from you sounded like a good thing. If they let you live, you were broken forever, unable to do anything but smile inanely. More often they killed you. If they were really intrigued by you, they took you as a captive, like Sheppard, like Ronon…
"…and I'm a really important person, actually," he told them. Their eyes were cold stones. Their expression was always the same, as if the only mode they came in was 'terrifying killer.' "I'm the most talented alchemist in the north. I can make things for you." His mouth was dry. The rain started up again, soft at first, cold upon cold. "Uh, not that I would, of course," he said, "because you're, uh, enemies, but… Help!" he screamed. "Help! Somebody help me!"
And somebody did. The nearest Wraith jolted back, struck in the chest with a bolt of flame. Rodney heard a repeated crack – Ronon, he thought, with his pistol – and then the second Wraith was rising up, silver ice-magic surging through the cracks in its palms. Another one whirled in a swirl of black clothing, and drew firearms from its belt, both of them glowing with Wraith metal-magic.
"McKay!" he heard Sheppard shout, and Rodney scrabbled to his feet and followed the sound of his voice, but ice-magic crackled over his head, and a shard struck him on the shoulder, sending him tumbling down heavily onto his side. Water splashed, blinding him, and he coughed, choking on it. Dark shadows wreathed around him, and he saw a light, a light so bright that it seemed to scour through his eyelids and freeze the image of the Wraith in place like statues.
"Rodney!" Teyla scooted over to him, crouching low, her stick held above her like a shield. When ice-magic struck the patch of air above her, it melted, falling like hot tears. Teyla grabbed his arm, and, "It hurts," he told her, his hand clutching his shoulder, but she was pulling him up, and sorcery surged above them, and a Wraith screamed.
Ronon and Sheppard were standing shoulder to shoulder, their arms outstretched as if they were mirrors of each other. The air rippled around them, with the wind and the rain and even the stones of Atlantis responding to Sheppard's sorcery. "To the right," Ronon gasped, and Sheppard turned, and the two of them struck together, a bullet hitting the Wraith's chest and a shimmering fist of rain and air closing on its throat.
"That's seven left," Rodney breathed, collapsing heavily into the shelter of a doorway. "Or eight." Wraith were notoriously hard to kill.
"What are you doing here, McKay?" Sheppard's voice was strained. He didn't look round. "Did you get my reinforcements?"
"They're on their way." Rodney dug his fingers into the flesh around his wound. "I came back. I… I thought you might need some help."
"Huh. Good call," Sheppard said.
"Oh." Rodney relaxed his grip just a fraction. Was that blood on his hand, or just rain? "Sarcasm. How nice."
"John!" Teyla gasped.
"I'm on it." There was another blaze of light. Rodney cowered in his paltry shelter of stone. Sorcerers were supposed to get drained, weren't they? It was yet another reason why they were inferior to alchemists. Extensive alchemy was tiring, but it was possible to carry on. Too much sorcery left you pale and drained, unable to stand.
He thought of the slave dying in his arms in the barrens. "Ronon," he heard Sheppard say, his voice sounding strained. "You see that one…?"
"Trying to get away?" Ronon fired his pistol again and again and again. "Not any more."
"Thanks, buddy," Sheppard said. Rodney twisted his neck, but he couldn't see them. "I couldn't…"
"It'll be back soon," Ronon said.
"And so will I. I just need a minute."
Everything was dark. For a moment there was total silence. Then something struck the wall above him, and stone dust rained down on him. Rodney hauled his legs in, and curled himself over them. All he had was a knife. He was wounded, for crying out loud. He was…
"John!" Teyla screamed.
"I'm fine," Sheppard said. "It's good. I'm--"
Rodney peered round the doorway, his fingers clutching the edge of the wall. Still firing his pistol, Ronon was lowering Sheppard to the ground with one arm. Teyla threw herself down beside him, touched his chest briefly, then rose up fiercely, stick whirling. The Wraith… Rodney couldn't see them, but he heard one screaming not far away, getting closer by the second.
He crawled out, keeping himself low. "What is it? What's happened?"
Sheppard was struggling to sit up. "Wraith tendril-bullet," he rasped. His hand rose to his shoulder, then fell down stiffly to his side, his fists clenched in a way that Rodney knew only too well. "Help me sit up. I can--"
"No, you can't." Rodney shook his head. Ronon's pistol was sounding over and over again, and Rodney's own shoulder was throbbing in time with the pounding of his heart. Wraith tendril-bullets were a death sentence. The living metal grew like a branching plant, strangling its victim from the inside, crushing the organs one by one. Within minutes, Sheppard would be in agony. Within a few minutes more, he would be dead.
"McKay!" Sheppard snapped. His hand found Rodney's arm, gripping tight. "Yes, I know, I've only got minutes, but--"
"No," Rodney breathed. "No." He tore his hand from Sheppard's grip, snapping his fingers. "It's Wraith metal-magic. I know how to counter that. Leastways, I managed to remove your collar and this… this can't be anything like as complex. Let me…"
He dug into his pocket, looking for his phials, and oh Shadow, they weren't there! No, the other pocket! He fumbled there, pulled out the wrong one, then found the right one, less than half full of dark liquid.
Sheppard's head snapped back. His fists were clenched, one at his side, one at the fabric at his chest. No screaming, though. Of course he wouldn't scream. Ronon and Teyla were retreating back towards them, standing one near Sheppard's head and one near his feet, guarding him. Ronon grunted as a dart of glowing ice struck him on the arm. Teyla was smooth and fluid, her stick whirling so fast that Rodney couldn't see it properly… and Rodney was fumbling with the stopper, and when he pulled it out, his hand shook so much that most of the contents of the phial came out, flooding over his hands.
"I'll have to…" he said, pulling at the opening of Sheppard's tunic.
Sheppard looked at him, his expression completely different from any expression Rodney had ever seen on the slave's face, but his eyes the same. "Do it," he said. "And do it quickly, so I can…"
Teyla gasped in pain, falling down to one knee, then rising up again, but slower, more clumsily. Rodney struggled with the buttons, and Sheppard helped him, his fingers managing to work steadily even as his back was arching in pain. "Do it," he said again. It was not a plea, but a command.
Rodney touched the place where the bullet had entered, blood and fixing and rain smearing on his hands. The metal of the bullet had left a trace, and like called to like. He made the patterns that he had made in his workroom in the city of the Genii, and desperately pleaded the words of command that he had discovered then. The bullet hadn't gone in far, but the tendrils were already as long as his fingers, and twice as many. They hissed and moved away from him. He could see them burrowing through flesh, reaching for Sheppard's heart and lungs.
"Come on," he begged. "Come on." He could sense Sheppard's breathing faltering and his heartbeat stuttering. His pain was almost palpable. I'm not one of your masters, Rodney wanted to say. Let it out, please. And there it was – a faint whimper, a low moan – and Rodney traced the patterns desperately, his thumb smearing in blood.
The longest tendril froze. "Back," Rodney commanded it. "Draw back." Nothing else existed but Sheppard and himself. Were the others still alive? His concentration flickered as he tried to take a look, and the tendril broke free from his control. Sheppard moaned, his back arching, his heartbeat faltering…
"No," Rodney moaned. This was a battle. He had to lose himself in the fight. He had to forget that the Wraith were very probably going to kill him in a minute. "Please," he muttered, "please," as he whispered the words that he had to whisper, and traced the patterns, and slowly, slowly, the tendrils receded, until he just had a small, flat silver bullet held tight between his shaking fingers.
"I've done this before," he whispered. "By the flame, Sheppard, I never want to do this again."
Sheppard was pushing himself up, but he swayed, and Rodney instinctively grabbed him, steadying him with a hand on the upper arm. "Stick around," Sheppard rasped, "and you might have to. You saved my life again. Thanks."
"Thanks?" Rodney said. "Just thanks?" But he found himself rising, too, still supporting Sheppard as the man found the strength from somewhere – and, seriously, where did he find the strength? – to send a wave of rippling sorcery in the direction of the Wraith.
Rodney pulled out his knife, and Teyla stood closer to him, almost shoulder to shoulder, and Ronon was on the other side, a fierce grin on his face.
"John," Teyla said, and she, too, was smiling. Rodney frowned, because he was surrounded by idiots, who smiled even as they were about to be hideously killed by the Wraith, but for some reason he found himself smiling, too.
"There are only five Wraith left," Teyla said.
Sheppard nodded. "And four of us. Think we can take them?"
Ronon squeezed his shoulder. "Of course we can."
Then the square was suddenly full of people, and Rodney stiffened, fearing it was the Wraith, that more Wraith had come. But Sheppard took a step forward, shouting commands, calling to people by name, and Rodney realised that the reinforcements had arrived – nice, strong, welcome, brainless soldiers. Then he realised that he was still holding Sheppard up, standing in far too exposed a position. Then he realised how much his shoulder hurt.
Teyla caught him, he thought, before he hit the ground. After that there was just darkness, soft and blessedly dry.
On to chapter ten