Winter Sunlight

HC_Bingo fic: Wraithshadow (Whaleverse) - (1/2)

I saw the "Wings" square on the hc_bingo card and this is what instantly leaped to mind. This takes place a couple of years before Naye's and my magic AU A Clear and Different Light. It's not necessary to read that story first, if you haven't; this one is self-contained and explains everything you need to know.

Title: Wraithshadow
Pairing/Rating: Gen, PG
Prompt: For the hc_bingo square "Wings (Always There)"
Word Count: 11,500
Summary: How Ronon came to live on Athos in the ACaDL universe -- the sunny spring day when Teyla found an injured, winged stranger in the woods, and what happened after. Contains mostly Teyla and Ronon (and Halling, Charin, et al) plus a teeny bit of Rodney. (At this point in ACaDL continuity, John is not in Pegasus yet.)

Read on one page at DW





As the most accomplished rune-scientist of her generation, Teyla enjoyed the task of shoring up the protective runes around the village. Some people considered it a dull chore, but she found the work relaxing and pleasant, especially on such a lovely spring morning as this.

She'd left her long, heavy coat in the village, and the breeze was warm on her bare arms. In one hand she carried her basic rune kit: a carved wooden box, open to display an array of pigments, brushes, and sharp styluses. The rune circle had been fully renewed at the spring equinox, and now she was merely walking the circle, feeling for weakness and touching up any runes that had been damaged by weather, animals or the normal wear and stresses of time.

She was using her smallest stylus to carefully redefine the corners of a rune carved into a massive oak tree when a sound caught her attention. Replacing the stylus in the box, she stood still, head cocked to the side, listening. There were many sounds in the forest this morning: birds singing, wind in the trees, water rushing somewhere out of sight. But there was also something that did not belong, and eventually she found it -- the crashing of something large in the woods, outside the rune circle.

The sound stopped, came again, stopped. This time, she thought she heard a distant moan, and her instincts were confirmed: the crashing sound was not right for any of the animals that inhabited the forest in this season. There was a stranger in the woods, a stranger who must be in some kind of trouble. The protective rune-circle would not prevent a human from crossing it -- the circle was effective only on Wraith and large animals -- but anyone who did not carry the runes that marked them as a friend of Athos would find the village somewhat difficult to see; they would not be deterred if they were actively looking for it, but if they did not know of its existence, the circle would confound their senses and make them pass by.

Teyla hung her working kit at her belt, and drew her bantos rods, checking quickly to be sure that the defensive runes painted on the gleaming wood were still fresh and bright. Then she stepped across the circle, feeling the slight tingle on the sigils painted on her skin as she passed through the warding ring. She moved through the woods with a lifetime's stealth, approaching the source of the crashing sounds.

Despite her caution, the sounds stopped, the forest going silent. The birds were hushed, and by this, Teyla knew she was approaching the right spot. Cautiously, bantos rods at the ready, she peeked through the trunks of a stand of bright-leafed elin trees, into a small glade.

For a moment she could not sort out what she was seeing. It was a man -- but at first she thought he was tangled in the body of some large creature, both of them fallen in exhaustion at the end of a struggle. Then she took a step closer and thought it must be a cloak he was wearing -- a great, tangled cloak with feathers sewn crudely to its bulk, as filthy and ragged as the rest of him. Another step, and suddenly the sight before her leaped into focus: a man, thin and dirty, hunched over in the sunlit glade, with great barred hawks' wings arched above him. One was splayed across the forest floor, the pinions dirty and broken, spread like the fingers of a hand. The other arched over his body as if to shield him.

Teyla did not think she'd made a sound, but when the man moved, he was so fast that she had no time to react. His head snapped up; his eyes, golden as an eagle's, fastened on her as he raised a strangely-shaped gun of a sort she'd never seen before. As Teyla reacted instinctively, bringing her warded bantos rods to cross in front of her, the man fired the weapon and red light flashed across her. She saw it course across her arms, feeling the tingle on the runes, but it did nothing.

The weapon carried the man's hand to the ground, as if he no longer had the strength to hold it up. Teyla waited, but nothing further happened, so she took a few cautious steps into the glade. The man watched her with his wary eagle's eyes half-lidded. He was very clearly at the end of his strength.

"You don't carry a Wraith." His voice made her jump; it was low and harsh, rasping in his throat. "If you did, that would've chased it out of you."

"No, I do not carry a Wraith in me." Pity and compassion warred with caution in Teyla's heart. "What places have you been, stranger, that you must look for Wraith in all who approach you?"

"Dark places," the man whispered, and his head slumped to the Athosian soil, though he continued to watch her through drooping eyes.

Teyla knelt beside him. She did not lower her guard, remembering the incredible speed with which he'd moved, but the gun had not hurt her and she did not sense menace from him. She did, however, sense something else -- something she'd felt but rarely in her life, though it was enough to raise the hairs on her arms and make her body's defensive runes sting with a low fire.

"Wraith-taint," she murmured, and the man's eyes, nearly closed, opened again. "You have been touched by Wraith. It is all throughout you." Teyla drew back before she touched him. "Do you carry one inside you, stranger?" Though he would not answer truthfully, if he did.

"No," the man said quietly, in his broken voice -- the voice of someone at the very end of his body's limits. "Not that. Ancestors, not that. They destroyed my world, and now they hunt me."

Teyla's breath hissed between her teeth. "Have you brought them here?"

The man shook his head violently, his long hair lashing his dirty face. "No, I don't think so. I hope not. Passed through lots of worlds on my way here, and I think, I hope, I shook 'em off my trail. But I can never know. I think they can find me by their touch on me, if I stay too long in one place." He drew a breath, and the eyes he raised to hers were inutterably weary. "Won't be here long. I just need to rest a little."

Her heart ached for the evident exhaustion in his voice and manner. "Wait here," she told him, rising. "We had a good harvest last fall, and our trading has been fruitful. I can bring you food and water for your journey."

"Thank you," the man said softly, and rested his head on his arm.

She tucked away her bantos rods, the better to run through the forest. As she ran, she searched her memory for stories of worlds with winged men and women. She had heard something, not too long ago -- and it came to her as she ran: the tale of lost Sateda, brought to her by some of their trading partners several years ago. Sateda, it was said, had been a beautiful world of airy cities filled with spires, a world where the people had the leisure to make many beautiful things, and the courage to become great warriors. But the Wraith had come, and now Sateda was a dead world, its people long gone.

Apparently it was not just a story, and its people were not all gone.

In the village, Teyla hailed the first person she saw -- the boy Jinto, a small child playing with a practice bantos rod. "Bring your father and the other Council members," she told him without bothering with greetings or pleasantries. "Tell them it is important. I will be in my house."

When the Council arrived, trickling through the beaded curtains draping Teyla's door, she was stuffing a knapsack with food and blankets. "What is happening?" Halling asked, gripping her arm. "Is there danger?"

Teyla shook her head. "Not for us." I hope. "There is a stranger in the woods, injured and alone. I go to aid him. I seek the Council's blessing to offer him the sanctuary and assistance of our village."

Halling had always been able to read her well, ever since they were children. "Will he bring danger upon us, if we aid him?"

"I do not know," Teyla said quietly, bending to reach for a basket of fruit. "He is Satedan, I think."

There was a silence in her house. She could see by the looks on the faces of the different Council members -- some shocked, some afraid, others confused -- that some remembered the stories of Sateda that had been passed to them through their trading partners, and others did not. Halling was one of those who looked startled and worried. Taking her hands, he refused to let go until she looked at him. "Teyla," he said. "Did you feel the Wraith on him?"

Teyla met his gaze boldly. "I did," she said, and Halling released her hands as if he'd been burned. "I do not believe he carries one inside him. He says that he does not, and I believe him. But that is not my area of specialty." Her eyes turned to the one among the Council who specialized in healing runes. "Charin, will you come with me? I would have need of your help."

"You should not bring him back here," one of the younger Council members, Andaran, snapped peremptorily, drawing sharp looks from his elders.

"I do not intend to," Teyla answered. "Not without the unanimous approval of the Council. I intend to take this stranger to a safe, uninhabited world until we are sure that he means us no harm. But I cannot allow him to go without offering him the hospitality and assistance that we would offer to any traveler who was injured and in need of aid. We of Athos have a long, proud history of helping survivors of Wraith attacks; we do not reject those who need our help."

"We help the innocent, but we owe nothing to strangers who bring the Wraith with them," Andaran pressed. "We have remained safe for many generations because we are cautious in our trading partners, and careful to keep our village hidden, our runes in good working order. You cannot suggest that we risk the entire village's safety for the sake of one --"

He broke off when Charin raised one arthritis-gnarled hand and gripped his arm. "I will go with Teyla," she said. "I will see this stranger for myself. I think Teyla is right; we can take him to a planet where no one lives, and I will see what I can do for him."

Teyla offered her a brief smile of gratitude. Though she herself held a position on the Council, hers was only one voice among many. But no one dared gainsay Charin without good cause. "I was thinking of taking him to Makkara," she said. "It has been empty since their great drought many years ago, but most of the houses should still stand, so there will be shelter for him."

Charin nodded. "I will come to you there," she said, and turned, marching out of Teyla's house. The remaining Council members looked at each other. After a moment, some of them followed Charin, while others, including Halling, continued to watch Teyla nervously as she packed.

"Believe me," Teyla said, shouldering her knapsack, "I have no intention of risking the entire village for the sake of one stranger's life. That is why I am taking him away. Once I've gotten him settled, I will come back and we will speak more of this."

"We certainly will," Andaran said, and left, followed by all of the others except Halling. Teyla raised a brow at him.

"If you're determined to do this, I will do it with you," Halling said, and Teyla smiled at him. "Besides," he added. "If this person is Satedan, he will have wings -- does he have wings?" Teyla nodded, and Halling said, "Then you will probably need help moving him, if he cannot walk on his own."

After all that, Teyla half expected that the Satedan stranger would be gone when she returned to the glade. But he was still there. He'd moved a little, propping himself against the trunk of a tree with his gun in his lap. His left wing still splayed across the ground, and the thought occurred to her that he must have injured it; he couldn't gather it to him like the other one, which was tucked up behind him, arching over his shoulder.

Teyla made no effort to be silent, and his eyes opened when she stepped out of the woods. "You came back," he said.

"I said that I would."

"That doesn't always mean much."

She didn't bother responding to that. "This is Halling," she said. "He has offered to help me. There is another planet we know, where no one lives, but it will be a safe place for you to recover. I have food and water and blankets in my pack."

She extended a hand, but the Satedan only stared at it warily. "Why are you helping me? Most people wouldn't."

"I am not 'most' people, then, and I am glad for it." Teyla continued to hold out her hand.

After a moment, the man closed his fingers around it. Halling took his other hand, flinching only slightly at the Wraith-taint, and between the two of them, they hauled him to his feet. He staggered, and they moved to support him, one under each shoulder. He was very tall, although much lighter than he looked -- like a bird, Teyla thought. His left wing dragged the ground, and he winced occasionally when it rasped over a log or caught in a tangle of brambles, pulling out some of the barred gray feathers.

They took him to the clearing where Athos's portal was located, and Teyla supported him while Halling drew the runes to open the portal to Makkara. She could feel that he had gone tense against her side. "We are not planning to double-cross you," she said quietly.

A slight smile curved the corner of his mouth. "Sorry," he said. "It's just ... kindness like yours is rare. Still not sure if I trust it."

"Well," Teyla said, "you are honest; I like that."

His next words were soft enough that she barely heard them. "I'm Ronon. Specialist Ronon Dex."

"Teyla Emmagan."

She didn't offer Halling's name; that would be Halling's gift to give, if he chose to. A person's full name was a precious commodity among the trading worlds, because it could be used to learn a portal address or gain admission to a community. I am a friend of Teyla Emmagan, one could say, and if Teyla's reputation was good -- and it was -- then many doors could be opened.

The portal settled, and Halling stepped back to help her with Ronon. On the other side, Makkara was much as she remembered it from her last visit many years ago -- a bleak and lonely place, where sand drifted through the broken walls of empty houses. When she was a small child, some people had still lived here: the last remnants of a once-thriving town, most of whom had already resettled on other worlds. In those days, there were still scattered patches of grass where they grazed their goats. Nothing remained now but a few thorny shrubs and, everywhere, the shifting sand. Unlike many empty worlds, the damage had not been done by Wraith or war, but rather, Teyla understood, by careless overgrazing and a trend towards hotter summers that had combined to render a once-lush valley into a barren wasteland.

They settled Ronon in the most intact of the houses. Teyla rolled out blankets from her knapsack, and laid baskets of food and a jar of water beside the makeshift pallet. She poured water into a clay cup marked with runes to keep it fresh and cool, and passed it to Ronon; then she filled a bowl and dipped a cloth in it, already marshaling the energy that she would need to pass along the small amount of healing ability that she possessed. When she reached for his filthy, broken wing, however, he jerked away. "Don't," he said.

"I will not hurt you. You're injured; I would like to help."

"I'll do it. Don't need you to baby me."

His gaze was wary, the hawks' eyes guarded. Teyla nodded and handed him the cloth, then rose. "You may have privacy; please call if you need help. Halling and I will set up a defensive circle around this house."

He bristled at that, half-rose and then sank back down. "Don't want to be a prisoner."

"You will not be. You can leave as you wish, but the circle will stop predators or those of hostile intent."

He glared at her a moment longer, then gave a curt nod and settled back down. Teyla turned her back in a deliberate show of trust, and, after a moment, Halling followed her to the door and out into the dry, empty street.

"I hope you are right about this man, Teyla," Halling said softly as they circled the house, brushing protective runes onto its crumbling walls. The circle contained only the house and a small area in front of its door. Small circles needed less energy than large ones, and Teyla was already somewhat fatigued from her runework of the morning. "I know that we of Athos have always tried to help refugees of Wraith-damaged worlds when they came to us, and I am proud of that history. You know that I am -- my own mother settled on Athos after her family was taken. But there is a great darkness on this man. The Wraith have touched him deeply. I do not know what he would bring to the village."

"We will see what Charin says." Teyla dabbed a bit of red paint with her fingertips and closed the circle; she felt the tingle as the magic took hold, pleasant but slightly painful, like muscles stretching to meet the challenge of a long hard run. "I have felt the Wraith-taint in him, as you have. But Charin is a skilled healer and has worked with many refugees, including those who are mind-sick and soul-damaged from the touch of the Wraith. I do not intend to judge this man before I know what kind of man he is."

The circle finished, she tapped lightly beside the empty doorway and awaited a response -- "Yeah, whatever" -- before ducking inside. Ronon looked a little better; he'd managed to wash off the worst of the caked dirt and dried blood, though he still needed a bath. She also saw that he'd eaten some of the food she'd brought, and looked a little stronger. His wings were arranged around him like a great feathered cloak.

There was nowhere to sit, so Teyla seated herself crosslegged on the floor, while Halling leaned against the doorframe and watched them, saying nothing. She deliberately left a good space between herself and Ronon, hoping to set him at ease -- and, she had to admit to herself, because the sense of Wraith around him made her uneasy. "Our healer will be here soon," she said.

"You shouldn't bring him here. Not safe."

"Her," Teyla said, "and this planet is safe, as far as I know."

Ronon shook his head. "Not the planet. It's me. Wraith hunt me -- I told you that, right? Hard to remember what I've said, sometimes. There've been so many worlds ..."

Teyla felt a shudder work its way through her. "You said that, yes."

Ronon nodded. "They can find me, like I said. Sometimes it takes longer than other times, but I shouldn't stay here too long, and you should probably go back to your world. Thanks for the food and stuff."

"If you are going to travel, we can give you more," Teyla said. "And it is possible that Charin can break the -- connection, I suppose? Whatever it is that binds the Wraith to you, and you to them. She is a very skillful healer."

Ronon regarded her steadily. "Healers have tried before."

"But can it hurt to let her try?" Teyla asked, smiling.

After a moment, the corner of his mouth tugged a little, answering her smile in kind. "Thanks," he said, and cleared his throat. "Look, about earlier, before you left. Didn't mean to be rude."

"It is all right," Teyla said. "You have no cause to trust us, and I did not mean to imply that you aren't capable of helping yourself."

"It's not that. Well, not just that." He looked down, and she realized to her surprise that he was actually a little embarrassed. "Not sure if you've heard of it, but I'm from a world called ... Sateda." He hesitated a little, and Teyla thought again of the stories she'd heard -- the beautiful planet of towers and aeries, reduced to ash and rubble.

"I have heard of it," she said cautiously.

"But you never met anyone else from my world."

"No," Teyla admitted.

"When you started to touch my wing --" He shifted a little, and ran one broken pinion between his fingers. "On Sateda, no one would do that. It'd be like me ... I don't know, touching you there without your go-ahead." He glanced quickly, suggestively at her chest, then just as quickly away.

"Oh," Teyla said, startled, as his sudden withdrawal made more sense to her. "It is intimate."

"Yeah. Not quite the same -- it's not exactly sexual, but it's ... yeah. Intimate. I didn't mean to -- It's just that on my world, no one would touch someone's wings without permission. Ever."

"I am so very sorry. Please forgive me; I did not know."

"Not your fault. Different world. Different rules." But then he fell silent, and Teyla thought she could guess why it had hit him so hard, as more than just a breach of social custom. There were no other Satedans -- none known, anyway. There was no one else who would know without being told how one's wings were to be properly handled. Her throat felt thick.

A gentle tingle on her skin alerted her to someone crossing her wards outside the house -- a friendly presence, one that produced a warm frisson across her wrists and the pulse-points in her neck. A moment later, Charin entered the house with a small bag of supplies. "Ah," she said. "You're our guest."

Ronon looked a little skeptical at guest. Teyla decided to let it pass. "This is Charin, the healer I told you about."

"Ronon," he said after a moment.

Charin nodded, and knelt creakily beside Ronon's pallet, her old joints popping. "Why don't the two of you give us some privacy, so that I can attend to my patient."

"I'm not sure if that's a good idea," Halling said. Even reclining, Ronon's bulk dwarfed the old woman, especially with the extra mass of his wings.

Charin shot him a look of steel over her shoulder. "Why don't you grant me a bit of credit, and I will not need to remind you that I changed your swaddling clothes when you were an infant. Nor will I need to mention the birthmark on your --"

"Perhaps we will be outside," Halling said quickly.

Teyla rose, and touched Charin's shoulder. "Summon us if you need us," she said. For one as skilled in rune-science as Charin, it would take only a simple rune scribed in the dirt to send a distress call.

Charin nodded, her attention already focused on Ronon, who watched her warily. Teyla thought about warning her of the touch-taboo regarding Satedan wings, but did not wish to be presumptuous. Ronon could explain, if he needed to. Instead, she followed Halling outside, across the protective circle and into the ruined village.

They walked across the village, talking little, to the edge where the last houses gave way to desert. Old walls jutted up through the sands, marking the boundaries of long-vanished fields. Teyla knelt to poke at a piece of broken pottery, half-buried in sand. Eventually, the village would be swallowed by the ever-advancing desert, as the fields already had been. Teyla wondered if, in the distant future, the weather would change and the rains come again, bringing forests and a new generation of villagers to wonder at the ancient buried potshards when they dug their new wells and basements.

This would never happen on a world scourged by Wraith. Teyla had never visited such, but she had heard many stories of them -- the gray, empty cities, the skeletal forests of dead trees. A single Wraith would hide inside a series of hosts, drinking their energy and feeding on their fear and pain. But a swarming hive of culling Wraith left nothing alive, drawing the energy from every living thing to feed their cold, insatiable hunger, and spawn a new generation of their brood. They left the land so tainted that nothing would grow again, at least not in the lifespans of any who escaped through the portals.

How easily could that taint be carried to other worlds, spreading as the Wraith themselves spread? Teyla did not know. She'd felt shadows of Wraith-taint on the handful of survivors who had come to Athos for sanctuary, over the years. But in Ronon it went deeper than she'd ever felt before, laced into his muscle and blood.

What places have you been, stranger? she had asked, and he had answered, Dark places. Dark indeed, she thought. What would be left of a man, after experiencing such darkness? Could he survive with mind and soul intact?

Halling sat on a broken wall, and traced aimless patterns in the sand with the toe of his boot. "Charin is a strong healer and very wise in the ways of runes. But, Teyla -- you heard him. The Wraith follow him; they hunt him. We cannot bring someone like that to the village."

"I know. But Charin is very skillful, Halling. I have never seen anyone so adept with healing runes. Surely she can remove whatever shadow they have cast upon him."

"And what then?" Halling frowned at her. "Teyla, I do not mean to discount your judgment. But how can our people accept him after such a thing? How can we know that it will not happen again, or that he has not been so damaged in the mind that he may be dangerous to us? I have a son to think about."

"I have the welfare of the entire village to think about," Teyla said, more sharply than she'd intended. She sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I'm sorry. It's just that -- if we refuse to give sanctuary to refugees, if we succumb to the superstitions about Wraith survivors that cause world after world to turn them away, we will have lost a vital part of what makes us Athosian. We will have become no better than --"

She broke off then, because the quick cold glide that had just gone over the runes on her skin was one she'd hoped never to feel.

Most worlds had Wraith wards around the portals. Of all the wards on a planet, the Wraith wards were the strongest, with all their makers' energy and hope poured into them. Makkara's wards were old, and had not been renewed in many years, so the warning that Teyla received was only a weak flicker of what she would have felt on a more populous world with stronger, better wards. Halling did not flinch at all, but he was not as proficient with the runes as she was, and he frowned at her; he could tell she'd felt something.

"Wraith," Teyla said. "At the portal. Without hosts." Wraith in human hosts did not usually trigger any but the most sensitive and delicate wards; it was how they were able to walk undetected on human worlds. Unhosted Wraith were weak, unless they had just fed, but they would be drawn to living human energy like flies to carrion.

Halling leaped off the wall. To his credit, he did not waste time on recriminations or blame. "Athos. They might be there as well, or on their way. We have to warn them."

"If Wraith came through their portal, they will already know," Teyla began, but then she saw how torn he looked, and knew he was thinking of Jinto. "Go," she said, "but be very careful; I do not know how many there are, or how close to the portal they may still remain. I will go to Charin."

Halling nodded, and with no more discussion, they were off -- he vanished among the houses towards the portal, and Teyla ran as silently as she could, drawing her bantos rods.

She sensed the first Wraith before she saw it: a sharp stinging in the sigils laced around her wrists and neck. Then she glimpsed it, a subtle presence gliding between the houses, little more than a shimmer in the air like the waver of heat on a sweltering summer day. But it was late in the season on Makkara, and the afternoon sun was cool. It moved with purpose, a cruising Wraith on the hunt for souls.

Teyla withdrew, heart pounding, and went another way, circling around towards the house where they had left Ronon and Charin. It did not seem to have sensed her yet, through whatever means Wraith used to detect prey.

The presence of the Wraith here could be no coincidence. In her life, Teyla had seen Wraith only a handful of times. That they would appear now, on Makkara, mere hours after she and Halling had brought Ronon here, could only mean that Halling was right to be suspicious of Ronon. I think they can find me by their touch on me, Ronon had said to her back on Athos. But he'd also thought that he had thrown them off his trail. She had not realized that the connection could be so strong, that they could find him again so quickly.

What kind of life had he lived since the fall of Sateda, never able to stay for more than a few hours in one place, never able to rest or put down roots anywhere?

Her protective circle around the house was unbroken. "Quickly," Teyla said, stepping across it and through the door, "we must prepare --" and then she flung up her bantos rods and rune-laced wrists in automatic self-defense as red light washed over her. "Stop that," she snapped, lowering her arms. "It is very annoying."

"Sorry," Ronon said, looking a little abashed as he lowered his weapon. "Thought you were a Wraith."

"No, I am still not a Wraith." He looked much better, she thought -- his color was improved, his face and shoulders marked with small runes of healing. There was no rune discipline so draining as a deep healing, however, and Teyla could see how Charin's shoulders slumped with weariness.

"You better get out of here, then," Ronon said. He reached up to his hair, and she noticed for the first time that there were many small charms twisted into his dreads. "There's Wraith on this world. Didn't know they'd get here so quickly. Sorry."

"I know." Teyla stepped to one of the small house's gaping windows and peered out into the street, but there was no sign of the telltale shimmer. "I cannot tell how many. Can you?"

"Four or five, I guess." She heard him moving, the wings rustling, and looked over her shoulder to see him lifting himself painfully to one knee and then to his feet. "Seriously, Teyla, get out of here. Charin says that she --" He glanced at the healer, and for the first time his eyes were open, unguarded, with emotion brimming in their depths. "She took it away, the Wraith poison in me. I can feel it. I'm free; they can't track me anymore." He shook his head, drawing the fragments of his self-control around him like the cloak of his wings. "But I better get going, and you better get out of here, 'cause they'll find this house eventually."

"You need not face them alone," Charin said quietly.

Teyla nodded, and spread her arms, the bantos rods with their Wraith-repellent runes swinging freely in the air. "Wraith are a threat to all of us in this galaxy, Ronon. They are not merely your problem. We will help you."

"I don't ..." He looked back and forth between them, clearly at a loss for words.

"There is no time to argue," Charin said. "I assume Halling returned to Athos?"

Teyla nodded. "I hope that he is all right."

"He will have to take care of himself, as we will. Teyla, come here quickly; I will renew the Wraith-runes on you. Ronon, guard us."

As Teyla knelt before the old woman, Ronon rose, swinging his gun to cover the doorway. "Wraith-runes?" he asked.

Teyla closed her eyes, feeling the feather-light touch of the paintbrush renewing the runes on her eyelids. "I am a guardian of my people," she explained, taking care not to move her head. "I can see the Wraith, if dimly, and I can sense their movement through the portal. Most of my people cannot, beyond a few who are trained as I have been."

"Think I could get some of those runes?"

"No, you cannot," Charin said, and Teyla could sense the anger behind the sudden rustling of Ronon's feathers. "Do not take that attitude with me, boy. It is nothing to do with you. Teyla has the aptitude for it, and she has trained from childhood to use these runes. Very few other people would be able to." She pushed Teyla back gently, one hand on each cheek. "There, child; it is done."

Teyla opened her eyes. The room looked hazy for a moment until she blinked her vision clear. She felt a little strange, like she was underwater, and blinked again until the moment passed. The awareness of the Wraith was a little stronger now; she could tell that one was nearby. "Outside," she whispered, pointing.

Moving with absolute silence despite his obvious stiffness, Ronon glided across the room and flattened himself against the cracked doorframe. Teyla joined him, bantos rods at the ready. "Can you see or sense them at all?" she murmured into his ear.

Ronon reached up to tap one of the charms braided into his hair. "Some of these help a little. I can't see Wraith, but I kinda know where they are."

"I can point them out for you, if your weapon can hurt them." Teyla's voice dropped until it was nothing but a faint murmur, framing the words against his ear. "There." She let the word fall into his ear, and raised her hand slowly, pointing down the street towards the eerie shimmer in the air.

Ronon squeezed the trigger of the gun. The barrel had writing on it, Teyla realized for the first time, when the unfamiliar script flashed and then faded; there was a mechanical whine and a burst of red light. The Wraith's shriek went through Teyla's skull like a drill and then faded away on a warbling, soul-scraping note. Neither of the others reacted; she was fairly sure that she was the only one who could hear it.

"It's gone," she breathed.

Ronon gave her a quick grin. "Nice gun, huh?"

"The very best," Teyla assured him. She pointed towards the end of the street. "There are some more undamaged houses there. You have fought them more than I have. Should we find shelter there, or remain here?"

Ronon squinted towards the empty air where the destroyed Wraith had been. "Got an idea."

A few moments later, Teyla was up on the rickety roof, crouching and feeling rather unsure of the loose tiles under her feet. From here, she could see most of the village, including the portal at the far edge. It was much harder to see the Wraith at a distance than up close, but she was aware of a couple of them milling around the portal. She spotted two more cruising through the streets, appearing and disappearing as they flitted past the ruins of fallen houses. At first she thought Halling must have made it through the portal, but then she located him sitting on a fallen wall near the portal. One of the Wraith flitted near him and Teyla opened her mouth, not sure what she meant to do -- she could not warn him at this distance -- but then the Wraith drifted past his shoulder without pausing, and her heart sank to her toes.

Leaning down, she called softly through the nearest hole in the roof, "There are four of them that I can see, and --" She swallowed hard, and forced the words out. "I believe Halling has been taken."

"We cannot let them escape, then," Charin said. "If they have entered his mind, they will have Athos's portal address."

Teyla wanted to run to the portal, to Halling. But Ronon's idea was sound: she was the only one who could see the Wraith, and therefore the one who had to provide directions. "Ronon, there is a Wraith two streets over, moving east," she called down as quietly as possible. "I can use runes to direct you."

"Runes? How?"

Teyla had already opened her kit, and she sketched a quick rune into her palm. In a pinch, a little dust dampened with saliva would do as well, but the paint was easier to work with. Teyla blew on it, and the rune rose off her palm and hovered in the air before her. "They carry my words to you," she murmured to it, and at a mental command, it slipped between the roof tiles into the room below. Teyla bent to the hole in the roof again, just in time to see the rune disintegrate by Ronon's ear, delivering its message.

"Oh," he said. "Gotcha. Cool."

Teyla raised her head again. "The Wraith just turned north. It is coming this way. Are you well enough to do this?"

"Guess I better be," Ronon said from below.

Teyla knelt as close to the front of the building as she dared. Ronon emerged from the doorway beneath her, walking unsteadily, his good wing folded and the tip of the bad one trailing through the dust in the street. She sketched a fresh rune, and murmured to it. "The Wraith is coming down the cross street, and will appear in a moment. Prepare to fire in that direction when I tell you to."

She sent the rune on its way, and saw Ronon, now halfway down the street, nod when the message was received. The Wraith had vanished from her sight, but then she glimpsed it at the crossing -- they were very hard to see in the sunshine, even for her enhanced sight. "Ronon, now!" she called.

The gun made its distinctive whine, and the Wraith disintegrated as the other one had. Teyla gritted her teeth against its sinus-clearing death scream. "Nicely done," she called down.

Ronon tilted his head to look at her, and called back, "What are the other ones doing?"

Teyla cautiously raised her head. The scene at the portal hadn't changed much, except that Halling was now standing and looking into the town, shading his eyes with his hand. She dragged her gaze away from him and scanned the town for the other Wraith. "I do not think --" she began, and then a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. "Ronon, look out!"

She wasn't sure whether it was simply luck, or whether his charms gave him some warning, but Ronon jumped the right way -- not towards the Wraith sweeping at his back, but away. He landed badly, though, tangling himself in his wings.

There was no time to think or hesitate. Teyla leaped down from the house roof, bending her knees to cushion the shock of her landing. The Wraith's dull shimmer rippled in the middle of the street, bending and warping the buildings behind it. "Here, enemy," Teyla said, spreading her bantos rods to either side. "Here, destroyer of worlds. Take me, if you can!"

It struck, faster than sight. But Teyla had trained all her life for this sort of battle, though she'd had blessed few occasions to employ it. She sidestepped with one bantos rod before her face and the other cocked across her hip, and the tip of the lower one caught the Wraith as it failed to anticipate her movements -- she whipped the rod upward, through the center of its ghostly shape, pressing her advantage and feeling its pained cry as a throbbing ache behind her eyes. The Wraith-repellent runes on the bantos rods were fresh and powerful, for she had been trained since childhood that caring for her equipment was the most important thing she could do -- it might mean the difference between life and death. And her body was the greatest weapon in her arsenal, a finely honed instrument with its energies gathered and ready in her head, heart and hands.

Time slowed. There was nothing but this, a dance whose steps she knew by heart. The Wraith must not touch her, and she must not let it escape; she fenced it in a prison of thought-swift bantos strikes, and wore it down by shredding its very self, until it tore to wisps on her rune-marked rods and vanished in the afternoon air.

Teyla lowered the rods, catching her breath, and saw Ronon watching her with a stunned expression. "The Wraith is dead," she said.

"That was ... really something. Never seen anything like it before."

Teyla smiled. "We may not have guns like yours, but we are not without defenses on Athos."

"Congratulate yourselves later," Charin snapped, limping out into the street. "Leave me here, both of you. I can handle myself. You two must rescue Halling, and prevent the Wraith from leaving this world with the information they've gleaned from him. I would help you, but I cannot run so far."

Teyla hesitated. "You must remain hidden, Charin. You know that you cannot fight Wraith as you used to."

"Don't lecture me, girl. Go!"

With a final, reluctant look behind her, Teyla nodded to Ronon and took off at a jog for the portal. She kept her steps slow so that she did not outdistance Ronon's limping trot.

"She used to fight Wraith?"

Teyla grinned. "What you just saw me doing? Charin was the very best in the village, when she was my age. Her grace and skill were the equal of none else in her generation. In her later years she turned to healing, and mastered it as well."

"Talented lady," Ronon muttered, casting a glance over his shoulder. Then his bad wing caught on a fallen section of wall as he leaped over it, stopping him short with a gasp and a curse. "Hang on a minute," he said, and unwound a length of rope from around his waist, using it to bind up the wing with quick practiced movements, strapping it to his shoulder. Teyla moved to help, but Ronon shook his head. "Just look out for Wraith."

"What happened to your wing?" she asked, bringing her bantos rods to the ready.

"What, this? Sprain. Overextended it trying to fly in a storm. It's been getting worse ever since. Not like I could stop to let it heal." He gave the knot a final yank. "Okay. Go."

They were near the portal now. Teyla drew Ronon into a house with a collapsed roof, picking her way across fallen beams until she could see out a window that gave them a view of the portal. There were more Wraith in evidence now, five or six swooping and dipping past each other, obviously agitated. No one was really sure how well Wraith could communicate with each other outside a host, but it was clear that they were aware something had happened to their brethren. Teyla guessed that the additional Wraith had also been hunting in the ruins, and all of them had now withdrawn to the portal, which might mean they were about to leave.

Teyla leaned over to whisper into Ronon's ear, "Will your gun work on a Wraith that has taken a human host? Without harming the host?"

"Yeah," he murmured back. "Doesn't do anything to humans, just Wraith."

"Then I will distract the others, while you free Halling." She wanted to help Halling herself, but since she could see the disembodied Wraith, it only made sense for her to take the other part of the fight.

"There are a lot of them."

"I am very fast," she said, with a quick smile. In truth, she was not at all confident of her ability to fight that many, but Charin was right: if they had gleaned Athos's portal address from Halling's mind, they could not be allowed to escape and carry it back to their hive-queen.

"Good luck," Ronon said.

"You too."

Teyla ducked out a gap in the crumbling wall. Drawing a deep breath, she spread her bantos rods wide, and leaped up onto a section of the old barrier wall that had once surrounded the trade plaza where the portal stood. "Two of your number are now dead," she called out to the swarm of Wraith. "Which among you wants to be the first to taste my soul?"

Halling, or the Wraith in Halling, straightened and folded his arms, moving with the careful awkwardness of a Wraith still getting used to human flesh. "Teyla of Athos," he said, and it hurt, oh, it hurt to hear those cold, stiff tones in her friend's voice. "Where are the soldier and the old woman?"

And yes, of course they would know how many were on this world; they had access to Halling's mind, after all. Teyla thought that he must have managed to conceal Ronon and Charin's exact location from them, or they would have converged on the house immediately, but she did not know how long Charin could possibly remain safe -- how long could Halling hold out? "Somewhere you will never find them," she said, and spread her arms wide, bantos rods fully extended. "Surely you are not afraid to take me and find out?"

And that was when Ronon leaped up from behind the barrier wall and fired straight through the swarm of Wraith at Halling. Teyla, who'd expected him to circle around the other way, was at least as startled as the Wraith; she nearly fell off the wall. Halling jerked and then dropped like a rag doll, and the rest of the Wraith rushed Teyla in a great rippling mass.

"Ronon!" she yelled angrily, flinging herself to the side. One of the Wraith grazed her; she felt the instant of contact, an icicle of agonizing cold, its fury and hunger tearing at her -- and then it was gone. She whacked her knee on a chunk of rock as she landed, but the pain was just another distraction that must be minimized and pushed to the back of her mind. I am in the moment, she told herself; the bantos rods are part of me, body and soul -- and she was up, spinning through the swirling cloud of Wraith. She had never moved so fast in her life. She felt the slight resistance as one of her rods went through the center of a Wraith, then back through at an angle, separating the Wraith again and again before it could recover. Another Wraith swooped towards her face, until red light laced over and through, disintegrating it; but she'd already flinched back, into the clammy embrace of yet another one. For a single interminable instant, its icy claws bit into her soul in a moment of numbing pain; and then she felt a rush of heat, and her vision flared red, and the Wraith was gone.

There was no time to recover. Teyla killed another, crossing both her bantos rods in front of her until they met in its unraveling body. And then, suddenly, she was alone. No Wraith tugged at her senses. She lowered the bantos rods and then dropped them to clatter at her feet. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath. Weakly, she reached up to push back a hank of sweat-limp hair. "Oh," she said, "Halling!" and managed to totter over to him on wobbly legs. He lay where he had fallen, and Teyla sank down beside him, reaching for the lifebeat in his throat. It beat strongly, and his breathing and color were good.

"Nice distraction," Ronon said.

Teyla glared at him; he was leaning on the barrier wall, gun in hand. "I did not expect you to follow me!"

"Shoulda said so." Ronon twirled his gun and holstered it. "So. This planet is kinda compromised. Know of any other places where I could hole up for a while?"

~

Part Two