Sheppard and Ronon, and Kenmore, stand guard throughout the night; the men because it was their turn and the Lieutenant because she was still sore from Rodney’s beating and couldn’t find a comfortable position to sleep in to save her life so she thought she might as well stay up and save everyone else’s.
As before, with the first piercings of dawn light, the winged beasts start returning to the mountaintop. They aren’t loud as in snarling or roaring or perhaps grumbling, it’s their wings that make the sound. The long steady flapping from such large wings working to keep such a heavy load up in the air is what first stirs Teyla and Daniel to waken. Those that’re already awake stay still and watch, making sure to measure their breathing and trying not to blink too much in case the Fomorian creatures have eagle-eyed vision.
After another of the creatures returns, disappearing into some unseen hole on the mountain’s front side, the five awake SGC personnel wait again… watch again… listen again. No more flyers follow. Sheppard gives it a ten-count before he figures that that means that was the last one. He gets up and pours some water from his canteen on the long dead remains of their campfire to make sure they don’t start a forest fire. With their luck, that would be a real possibility if he didn’t take care of it now. With his movements, Ronon, Kenmore, Daniel, and Teyla start moving too. Teyla wakes Rodney as the others begin to break up camp.
* * *
His eyes look up and it’s high noon. Literally. The sun is high in the sky as they march up the semi-ragged, semi-sheer mountainside. There are faces of the side that are so completely flat that not even their fingernails can find purchase on it and then there are faces that are so ragged that every part of their bodies could get a hold on the rock if they wanted to. Thankfully there’s the slimmest of paths, forcing them to go single file once more and making it easier to hide their numbers in case the Fomorians scout this side of the mountain. Doesn’t look like it, but at least it’s still a path. Better than what their travel options where at times, mountain climbing with McKay complaining about the chances of running into alien scorpions hiding in the gaps in between the stones. Which John, already familiar with mountain climbing as an old hobby of his back on Earth, had already been worried about, but he’d also figured that no scorpion he knew on Earth would dare live anywhere near those flyers. Prey, no matter how small, didn’t usually take up residence so close to predators of any size.
The large formidable trees of the forest have become scraggly, thin, practically bare, stunted things. Teyla looks up at the rest of the mountain they have yet to traverse and sees that there are no trees at all in the distance of a few dozen feet above them. Nevertheless John keeps pushing their group on towards the top. They have still got a long way to go despite how far they have already come. It had not been far from their encampment when the encountered the abrupt incline of the mountain’s base. When they had looked up, it again seemed as though they were looking at a goal that distance would prevent them from achieving. However Daniel quickly found a way up, a natural trail created by the treelines zigzagging up the mountain. The used the roots as a walkway until the stone itself provided them with one about a third of the way up. Now they are halfway with half the day already gone and half the impressive edifice above them. As it had before, reaching the mountain’s top seems to be an impossible distance to reach. Teyla goes back to watching her step.
John keeps his head down though, never looking up at the sight in the first place. No use in making himself feel like they’ve got no hope or that this is never going to end. That they’ll never finish it. That it’ll all come to nothing. See, even when he doesn’t look at what there is to see above their heads, it still gets him to think those things. John shakes it off by refocusing on the stone in front of his black boots. When the village Elders had said ebony, he had thought of that deep dark black color that the wood polished nicely into. Gleaming black piano keys. But this stuff… he’s looking, but he isn’t seeing any black anywhere. None whatsoever. It looks to him more like granite. Gunship gray and white with a vein of paler gray running through it sort of granite. He isn’t sure when or where the obsidian is going to come in, but it sure isn’t on the outside. Come to think of it, Boudica had mentioned something about the interior’s obsidian echoing like crazy with weapons’ fire any louder than knives. He has no problem admitting to himself that he’s curious about seeing that. No kidding, he really wants to. He’d never heard before about a palace whose exterior was made out of obsidian. He imagined the thing reflecting sunlight like a nature-made lighthouse beacon. Blinding. But from what he’s seeing so far, this place is definitely no reflector. It probably couldn’t even blind a mouse. Lucky for the mouse. He keeps climbing, leading his mission group higher and higher.
* * *
They finally reach the mountaintop… well, close to it. The actual top is still a good solid five miles above them, bare and snowless. They’re not sure why that strikes a few of them as a bad sign, but it just does. There’s a flat top jut of stone sticking out of the mountainside. It looks to be more than wide enough for the group to stand up and move around on.
Lieutenant Kenmore climbs up on it first. The wind blatantly whipping around the mountain at this height since the altitude choked the trees to death long ago down below them. The strong gusts take Kenmore’s hair long, naturally wavy hair and lifts it up around her head like licks of flames wriggling up from the core of a fire as she stands on the outcrop, bending over to lend a hand down to Doctor Jackson. Sheppard looks up to know if he’s going to have to render the Doc any assistance from underneath and sees that Kenmore isn’t looking down at her friend, she’s looking in the direction of the village. It dawns on him then that they’re finally at the side of the mountain, not it’s back anymore, and that means that the village should be back in their sight again. It also strikes him that the dying golden glow of the sun silhouettes her nicely… like, somehow, she belongs here… like some part of her has been here all along. The thought crossing his mind for the first time: perhaps she isn’t getting played here, perhaps she’s genuinely needed here. Maybe John hasn’t made the wrong call in following her this time. A part of him eases, the first time this entire mission, into a sentiment he’s familiar with; that they’re on the right track.
Daniel gets up onto the jut beside his friend then turns and starts helping others up along with her. Sheppard takes Kenmore’s blindly offering hand, Teyla takes Daniel’s. As soon as John help’s Daniel help Teyla up, holding her stable by providing his hand underneath her nearer bicep, and John himself gets his feet up on the landing too, Kenmore moves off to the jut’s cliff-like edge. Teyla Emmagan turns at Daniel Jackson’s side and helps Ronon up as Doctor Jackson helps Rodney while Sheppard goes to stand by Kenmore’s side. The two of them look out towards the village.
Smoke columns are coming up from various places all over it. Fires. There’s a particularly huge column coming up from slightly behind a large building, one of the important ones, that’s been partially demolished by something clipping it as it had come crashing down to the ground. They highly doubted one of the flyers would smoke after being brought down so there was no need to guess what had crashed so badly. Lorne’s jumper. All either of them can do from this distance and after the fact is to hope that the Major had gotten out alive. Both of them still refuse to go to their radios to make sure Lorne had survived. They still know they can’t chance it, now it’s Sheppard’s team, the Lieutenant, and Doctor Jackson that are too close to the Fomorians for it to be a safe thing to do… what a crap thing.
Their eyes keep searching for any other details. Even from this distance they can see that several other buildings’ roofs have been literally ripped off, obviously by the animals. Torn and most likely chucked as another weapon. The village itself looks quiet. Dead down there. A ghost town. Not good. After the first night’s attack that they had survived, many of the unscathed villagers had gone about life as usual when the day had come and they’d continued to do so well into the evening before the second attack. But there’s none of that now. Nope, ‘their’ side had not fared well at all and that’s another bad sign. ‘Right track’ goes right the hell out of his mind and again Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard wonders if he’s made the wrong choice, not his first in this galaxy. Was he just wanting the Lieutenant to be right? Was he just hoping he felt protective of her because he wanted someone to protect him from—Suddenly a raven, large as any eagle and black as any starless night John’d ever seen, passes into their eye lines. The eerie thing is that it’s moving incredibly slowly. Riding the strong wind current like water slipping over the surface of glass; the thing doesn’t even look ruffled, no flitting of wingtips. For a moment John thinks he’s hallucinating. He blinks a few times before he settles on leaving his eyes open. Nope, the bird is really flying in front of them that slow and that easily. It’s surreal.
Then the giant avian turns its sleek black head and locks its black beady eyes with Kenmore’s. Her heavy breathing suddenly shallows to the point where Sheppard thinks she’s holding her breath. The bird and Kenmore keep their eyes locked as the raven continues its slow glide all the way around the perimeter of the jut edge then it disappears around the mountain’s other side. After the bird is gone, the Lieutenant keeps staring after it. Waiting to see if the raven’s going to return. Sheppard does too for a moment then looks at the back of Kenmore’s head then back at where the raven had disappeared then back at Kenmore’s head again. Already, by her body posture alone, he knows something’s up.
“What is it,” he asks. God, he’s always going to have to do this with her, isn’t he? What’re you thinking? What’re you thinking? Well, until he learns an unspoken shorthand with her like he’s got with Ronon and Teyla. But he was really hoping she wouldn’t be around long enough for him to have to do that with her.
Kenmore’s brows furrow at the spot where the raven disappeared. She tilts her head, narrows her eyes. Thinking… and studying.
“I was born under the sign of the Raven. In two cultures,” she tells him.
“So what does that mean,” he steps closer to her, “Is it some sort of a sign?” One in a long list of other ones.
“Not necessarily a good one,” Oh great, but John refrains from saying it; the Lieutenant keeps talking, “In Celtic mythology, the Raven was the sign of the War Goddess. In Native American mythology, the Raven is the trickster and forced Seagull to give the world the sun, bringing about life on the world and light into the darkness.”
“How is this going to go for us then?”
Kenmore looks back at him, “I’m not sure,” she shakes her head. Her brows furrowed in confusion.
She’s a brat, but at least she’s an honest brat. Maybe getting her butt kicked by Rodney McKay Klingon Warrior last night schooled her in manners a little. John’s seriously doubting that, but a guy can always hope.
She returns to looking back at the spot where the raven had disappeared behind the mountain, continuing to analyze it while the rest of their party finally steps over to see what’s become of the village.
“My God,” Rodney breathes, “There’s no one down there.” He sounds genuinely fearful, after all his girlfriend was down there. He hopes Jennifer made it back to the gate and got out of there before the fighting broke out. God, please tell me Jennifer didn’t play hero, he starts begging a deity he’s never really talked to before.
Ronon gestures off-handedly, “The jumper went down. Hard.” His mind and black eyes taking the tactical view.
“Can we not radio them now,” Teyla asks, a certain desperation creeping into the furrows of her delicate face; these people, U’dana, reminds her so much of her own people, her own loved ones and she cannot bear the thoughts threatening her mind, “There are no Fomorians around. We cannot possibly reveal ourselves as well as distract them from protecting themselves now.”
“No,” Daniel tells her firmly as he too watches their outlook, “There may not be any Fomorians down there, but now we’re up here and so are they. Even if we did radio down to them, it wouldn’t be safe for them to radio back to us. Besides, we’re out of radio range,” Daniel looks no less happy with the situation than anyone else here and he’s no less experienced with the fact that this is how it has to be.
Teyla nods, her eyes lowering from the archeologist’s face. Reluctance is never pretty. Her somber eyes return to the heavily damaged village and she and the group continue to eye it for signs of any further information it can give them whether they like to have the intelligence or not.
Lieutenant Kenmore moves towards the far edge of the jut, towards the same spot that the raven had gone behind. She comes right up to the blunt edge and looks over. She doesn’t see anything. Can’t see anything that doesn’t look like it’s dozens of feet below her. An immobilizing if not fatal drop below her. Crazy. Insane. She hesitates a moment. Then looks straight ahead of herself. Takes a deep breath. And steps off the edge…
…directly onto another smaller ledge. Way smaller. It’s scarcely large enough for one of her boots to barely fit. Ursula quickly swings her body towards the mountainside, grabbing onto the rock face as well as she possibly can. The front of her body slams against the dusky gray stone. Her heart pounds in her ears, rushing at how more than half of her body could have taken her off the mountain side as quickly as she could blink. But she’s still here. At least she’s still alive. That’s lucky, really lucky. Ursula Kenmore eases her face away from the stone a little, enough to look down at her feet.
The ledge’d been hidden from common view. Camouflaged by natural geological formation and the elements somehow. It reminds her of the Leap of Faith test in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One of her favorite movies, one of her favorite scenes, and terrifying as hell to actually go through herself in real life. What sadistic crack were George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on when they came up with that stunt? Jesus Christ. Sweet Mary, Mother, and Joseph. She pants as she realizes how long the fall would have been for her again, it’s easy to be so terrified considering how directly behind her boot heel is said sheer drop. She can’t help but thank God again that let alone is Last Crusade one of her favorite movies, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it was also one of her mother’s, grandmother’s, and aunt’s catch-alls. The film was even one of her grandmother’s Christmas traditions to watch it on Christmas morning while the Christmas turkey and the rest of the massive dinner was being prepped. Ursula’d always thought that that was a little weird but whatever floats your boat and now it’s saved her life. Funny how things work out that way.
She turns her head and looks yet again at the spot where the raven had gone behind the mountain. Ursula eyes it like a goal. Like the top of the rope net up the wooden tower in Basic. Back then, well, and still, heights scare the crap out of her. Each and every time she faces them because her Mom taught her a long time ago not to let anything get in her way, even herself. She took a deep breath to focus herself and swallow down the gut-gripping fear that made her tear up and climbed the 40-foot cargo net of Victory Tower. Ursula takes a deep breath, fear but no tears, and starts carefully working towards her goal. Just like she had that day back in Basic.
Sheppard looks away from the rest of the group and back over to see if Kenmore’s figured anything out about the raven yet… and sees only about half of her body sticking up from the jut’s far ledge. What the—? She starts moving. Going somewhere. Following the raven. John goes over to the side of the edge she’d been near when he’d first looked away from her and peers over it. It’s tricky, he has to track it from where her boots are back to him, but he spots the narrow ledge she’s on. He sits down on the landing’s edge and gentle climbs down onto the narrow track of stone. He angles his body to face the mountain side, gets some satisfactory handholds like he did when he free soloed back on Earth, and begins following Kenmore.
Drawing the archeologist’s attention by moving away from the main part of the group in the first place, Daniel takes after Sheppard. Originally he’d looked to the Colonel for thoughts or orders on what to do next, but apparently something different was going on without him knowing about it beforehand. He watches Sheppard climb out onto an apparent out-of-sight ledge right behind Ursula. Daniel knows what to do next. He follows the Lieutenant Colonel out onto the ledge too.
Rodney turns to say something to Sheppard… and notices that John isn’t there anymore. He looks around for hi—Rodney reaches over and taps Teyla on the arm. She looks up at him, catches his expression, then averts her direction over to where Rodney is looking. Ronon does too. The three stare at the other three.
“Where are you going,” Rodney asks.
“We’re following a raven,” Sheppard answers like he’s following the ordinary directions of a road sign.
Under the cover of her long hair, Kenmore sneaks a look back at Sheppard and offers him a trying-to-be-subdued-but-still-blatantly-mischievous smile. Sheppard takes advantage of the fact that he’s facing her and offers his own roguish smile back. Apparently there’s also common ground to be had between them on enjoying teasing McKay, or at the very least of messing with the puffed up genius scientist’s mind. The Lieutenant goes back to looking where the raven had gone and so does the Colonel.
The line keeps moving as Teyla joins behind Daniel after she and her friends had exchanged looks. Frankly they’ve done weirder things in this galaxy than following a large black bird’s lead.
The group keeps following the narrower ledge as it traces around the mountainside. They hazard occasional glances down and realize that the Fomorian path down the mountain is close to them. It’s still about a mile below them, but that’s a lot closer than any of their comforts like. And it’s coming up to meet them quicker and quicker the farther along the ledge they go. Way too close for comfort.
Then Kenmore sees it. There’s a sliver of shadow about ten feet ahead of her and still a good half-mile above the Fomorian path’s apparent entrance into the mountain down below their ledge. It’s a distinct possibility that this could be where the winged beasts go, but she tries to put that out of her mind with her quick estimation of how tall the sliver appears to be. The Flyers would have to compact themselves a good bit to accommodate the height and she’s never seen a predator as establishedly dominant as the Flyers have to live somewhere uncomfortable. They could simply pick wherever they want to to kick down for a nest. Kenmore moves closer. The sliver turns out to be an indicator of an entrance the size of a single human being only a couple of inches taller than Specialist Dex with a little arm room on either side. Comfortable, cozy, not exactly battle-ready, and definitely not the entrance to the Flyers’ nest. There also seems to be another flattop jut of stone right in front of the small mountain entrance that looks like it’s big enough to hold the group again. But the fit would be with barely any room between them this time. They’ll have to cram together on it. But still…
“I’ve got an entrance here,” Lieutenant Kenmore calls back to the others, “Kinda tight.”
“Oh great,” McKay returns.
Carefully Kenmore steps onto the smaller landing and peers in at the entrance. It’s black inside the tunnel?—yeah, she thinks it’s a tunnel; seems like it at least. The light from outside doesn’t stretch very far in, only about two feet at most. The floor itself is loose dirt, not stone. Sheppard steps up onto the jut behind her and peers in too, he’s not sure he likes the dirt floor. Boudica had mentioned echoing and dirt absorbs sound which means a part of their initial intel is off. He’s not sure this is right. Daniel works his way onto the landing too. Already it’s starting to get crowded, but that doesn’t last more than a second or two as Daniel squeezes his way past Ursula and steps into the tunnel proper. Freeing up his spot on the jut to give the rest of their group some extra room on it. His curious archeologist’s hand instantly reaches out and touches one of the tunnel’s walls, tracing something his eyes caught the minimal light of. He feels for a moment then goes to the other side of the tunnel and traces something else. His eyes scan further on. It’s harder to tell, but his archeologist’s eyes can spot the fine details between the dark and the even darker shadows.
“There are symbols here,” he tells them, his curiosity and confusion peaked, “Dozens of them.”
“Any torches,” Sheppard asks, “Or signs that there should be torches?”
“No,” Sheppard looks back at Rodney and sees that the scientist has broken out his lifesigns detector, “And this mountain or at least this entrance to it is shielded. Kenmore’s signature is glitchy, and yes, that is the term I’m going to use,” McKay quickly adds before John can make his own condescending comment, “and Daniel doesn’t even show up. This thing has been completely useless this entire mission,” he complains before he puts the Ancient device back in its usual pocket on his tactical vest.
They really haven’t used it as much as they thought they were going to for fear of the light of its display attracting either the Fomorians or their winged friends’ attentions despite their planning against such matters. Kenmore’s encounter with a flyer on the tree branch had pretty much spooked all of them a lot more than any of them are willing to admit to either each other or themselves, but they’re willing to admit it when comes to any vote about using the bright device. Always ‘nay’. And now the mountain is shielded which pretty much guarantees not using it in the immediate future.
Sheppard’s gaze travels past Rodney and goes out at its view of the outer right edge of the ghost town village. He feels a sudden slight breeze funnel through into the tunnel entrance, it’s getting colder outside and darker. U’dana had been right about the trip taking up most of this day as well as yesterday. The sun is starting to set again, all this way and they’ve basically gotten to the start of their new mission on this planet. The Fomorians and their flyers will be launching soon for another attack. Most likely to finish off the village. Well, what’s left of it at least. John’s not sure the village has anything left to repel with, doesn’t look like they do. He looks back at the rest of the tunnel ahead of him with Kenmore a step ahead of him and Jackson a few more ahead of her, checking the walls with a flashlight. John can see the multitude of grooves in the rock face, but the image at the forefront of his mind is the village…
“The faster we get through with this, the faster we can go back and help them,” he announces.
Everyone surveys the tunnel. Agreed.