A Murmur, A Sigh

Part Two

By: sharilyn

 

Part XII.

Though it means my death, I will not struggle now; I refuse to be drawn any deeper into the insane machinations of yet another madman harboring delusions of godhood. It matters not what Aliph does to me, nor am I concerned with the fate of my symbiote. The larval Goa'uld was removed from me moments ago and placed--writhing and hissing its displeasure--into the bottom of a large silver urn nearby; and even as its absence weakens my body more severely with each passing moment, I care not that it has been taken from me in such a brutal fashion.

I fully understand that my own life is in grave danger; yet I find that my primary concern at this moment lies with the condition of O'Neill, my friend and commander. Less than one hour ago he entered this room, moving easily and without apparent pain; I had not looked upon his face since before his beating in the prison block, and it was with a mixture of surprise and grateful relief that I beheld his seemingly healthy form approaching me.

"Hello, Teal'c," were his first words to me upon his entrance, and then he smiled slightly. They were words spoken in the familiar tone one friend might use with another, but it required only one, searching look into the depths of the commander's eyes to reveal to my spirit the ominous shadow of something foreign in his deceptively steady gaze--something that did not belong. My heart sank within me as troublesome questions crowded my mind, and the next words from my mouth were uttered with a harshness that I would never normally use against the friend I know and respect so deeply.

"You are not O'Neill," I spoke flatly to him as he stood calmly awaiting my return greeting. The words that came from my mouth were not the warm sounds of relieved welcome he was expecting, and his left eyebrow rose in the same wryly surprised gesture I have seen my friend make countless times before.

His expression was indeed familiar, and yet the energy directing it wasn't the same; the intelligence gazing out at me from the commander's wary brown eyes was of a completely different nature than that of the soul whose bright, shrewd wit I had initially thought to behold. The body was indeed O'Neill's--the voice his, as well; but the entity gazing out from the familiar face before me bore no resemblance to the man I have willingly fought alongside these past four years.

"Very impressive, Mr. Teal'c," O'Neill's voice murmured admiringly, even as something very like annoyance flared briefly in his eyes. "How is it that you were able to so quickly discern what your companions could not? It took Daniel and Samantha much longer to recognize that something was...different...about me."

"I have had many years of experience in identifying false gods," I retorted without inflection, and the creature standing in front of me drew himself up sharply, a ripple of some dark, unspeakable anger crossing his face.

"I do not claim to be God; there is only One, and He is my Father." O'Neill's voice emerged, low and trembling with emotion, and he lifted a warning finger before my face as he continued sharply: "I will not listen to such blasphemous insinuations from your lips, nor will you speak of my Father with such insolence."

"I do not know your father," I replied imperturbably, and the familiar lines of Jack O'Neill's face stretched into a taut smile that was strangely chilling to observe.

"Ah, but you will, Teal'c; you WILL know him. He wishes for all of SG-1 to know him...and to serve Him, with all due reverence and respect for the many blessings He will bestow upon you in return.' A fanatical light had appeared in O'Neill's dark eyes, and I kept my expression purposely blank, even as a sharp twist of apprehensive anger uncoiled silently inside my chest.

"I have done with serving petty dictators who mistakenly believe that it is their destiny to rule the universe," I replied in the same implacable tone as before, and O'Neill's face tightened with frustrated ire, his hands clenching into fists at his sides before he made the conscious effort to relax his stance.

"My Father wishes only that the Truth be made known to all beings everywhere...that every ensouled creature might embrace the Light and discover genuine freedom, eternal salvation--" the deluded consciousness masquerading as O'Neill began; but I could bear to hear no more of the lies, not one word more of the putrid poison of indoctrinated drivel that poured from the lips of my lost friend.

Before he could finish speaking, I simply closed my eyes and turned my face away, withdrawing my attention from the man whose presence had at first filled me with such gladness; and as a very human sigh of frustration eased from his lips, I felt a great sadness well up within me.

What have they done to you, my friend? I wanted to cry out to him; is the Jack O'Neill I have come to trust like a brother still anywhere to be found behind those brown eyes that gazed at me with such calm treachery just now? As the disturbing presence encased in the familiar body of my commander continued to study my deflected profile, I pulled myself into a type of kel-no-reem that is often used to stabilize the body upon suffering a sudden, severe injury or trauma. On my part it was a protective measure, a delaying tactic to give myself time to process this terrible thing that had been done to my friend.

Even as black rage burned somewhere deep within me, I refrained from any attempt to overpower O'Neill or the two guards who had entered upon his heels into this chamber. Escape at this juncture was highly unlikely; and furthermore, I was unprepared to concede that perhaps the O'Neill I have come to know so well might be forever lost to me, to the rest of SG-1 and--most tragically of all--to himself.

"Your stubborn silence will avail you nothing but additional suffering in the end," the entity within O'Neill's body began in an aggravated tone; but before he could further state his case, the door opened once more to admit a figure whose deliberate, sliding gait I instantly recognized, even immersed as I was in protective meditation.

Aliph.

I knew instantly that he was the one to blame, that his was the mind behind the heinous act of evil that had so ruthlessly transformed my friend into a twisted stranger. Low in my belly a fire began to burn, and it was with grim satisfaction that I heard Aliph rather summarily dismiss O'Neill to continue indoctrinating our absent team mates into Aliph's insane religion. Yes, I thought to myself; send the automaton you have transformed my friend into away. This should be a conversation between us alone.

THIS one I WILL gaze upon, I thought savagely to myself as Aliph's stealthy, slippered feet approached me, the sound as furtive as the rustle of a snake's smooth skin along the cool, marbled floor; this monster I will gladly kill myself, once I have forced him to divulge the mechanics by which he replaced O'Neill's soul--O'Neill's lively mind--with the pallid facsimile who departed so meekly at his command just now.

"You are not like the others," Aliph rasped in a thin, dry voice once he was standing before me. "You are a true demon, cleverly attempting to pass yourself off as one of My own children; but your pitiful charade could not hope to escape My detection. An evil serpent lives within your belly, revealing itself as the TRUE master of your wizened soul; perhaps once, eons ago, you truly WERE a child of Mine...but the demon has possessed you for much too long now, whispering its perverted sedition into your ears, polluting your mind with its lies, its hungers..."

"You call the creature within me a demon," I found myself replying, my eyes gazing full into Aliph's watery, pale blue stare. "And on that charge I might almost agree with you; I would not willingly suffer the presence of the Goa'uld larva within me if I had any choice in the matter. What the System Lords did to me and to my people is the same sort of power-mad evil that you yourself have perpetrated against O'Neill...and against countless others, no doubt."

Aliph's unblinking stare held mine, his spidery white fingers plucking obsessively at one sleeve of his white robes as he waited pointedly for me to finish. Tilting my head in acquiescence, I drew breath and continued steadily.

"I hold myself blameless for the injustices done to me under the oppressive rule of Apophis; his evil, his insanity, were none of my doing. I was but the object and recipient of his evil, while lacking the quality within myself. The same principle holds true here; the only real demon to be found in this place looks at me now from behind YOUR eyes, Aliph. You call yourself the omniscient God of all creation, and yet you cannot recognize your own, abject evil."

As Aliph's slightly red-rimmed eyes burned into mine, I gave him a very small smile and continued with simple assurance: "I have killed many false deities such as you since O'Neill first helped open my eyes to the truth; together SG-1 and I have rid many planets of your kind. And I say to you now, Aliph: if given the chance, I will dispatch you with the same efficiency I utilized when killing all those others."

"You speak boldly for one who is soon to die in unspeakable agony," Aliph murmured once I was done, his voice high-pitched and trembling with almost apoplectic fury at my insolence. "I am well versed in the wily, deceitful language of creatures such as yourself; and your boastful, blasphemous words do not move me. You are weak; you are nothing. Your words are no threat to me. My will IS the perfect will for all of creation, and my message must be sent to every corner of the universe!"

His face contorting in a paroxysm of mad fervor, Aliph reached one corpse-white finger and stabbed it emphatically against the unyielding wall of my chest. "You will find that everyone on this world--that all of these, my chosen people--know and accept this missive and are willing and ready to march to a greater destiny, to set foot onto other worlds such as this Earth from which you came...And once there, they will see that the pathetic, deluded souls teeming on its continents are given the incomparable gift of enlightenment and salvation which they themselves enjoy. All will submit to me, all will live in unquestioning obedience to the truths that will be revealed to countless souls too long chained in darkness..."

"I will hear no more of this," I retorted coldly; my blood burned hot within me with the almost overwhelming desire to grasp this repulsive creature by the throat and rip his head from his body, and something of my thoughts surely revealed themselves to the monster's wide-eyed gaze. For he took a quick half-step back, even as the four large men who had entered as his retinue quickly surged forward to surround him in a protective circle.

"If you are my God, then why did you flinch from me as if in fear?" I scoffed coolly, and Aliph lifted a shaking hand to snap furious fingers in some obscure signal to his men.

"I fear nothing," he retorted in a low, fierce growl, and his unnaturally pale eyes seemed to grow larger in the white, sunken expanse of his face. "I merely grow disgusted by the taint of evil which hovers about you like a foul miasma. I could make you suffer horribly now as punishment for your blasphemous words, but my people know I am a just God; therefore, if you are truly blameless and it IS only the serpent within your belly which is evil, then you will be given one chance to prove it. The worm will be removed from you--something you have apparently been unable to do yourself while ensorcelled by its evil powers; and once the worm is destroyed, we shall see how you fare without its depraved influence."

"I will not survive without the symbiote," I replied calmly, my eyes never leaving his. "The creature has acted as my immune system all these many years now, and without it my body is defenseless. It has nothing to do with good or evil, demon possession or innocence; it is merely the biological consequence of having been infested for such a long time by the larval Goa'uld."

"Do you hear his sly words of deception--the demon-spawned lies he's manufactured to explain his own innate evil?" Aliph sneered to his silently glowering security force, and corresponding sneers of agreement blossomed on each man's face.

"Well, it matters not in the end," Aliph continued with false compassion flowing from his lips. "Whether or not you survive the removal and exorcism of this profane and detestable demon within you, the objective will still have been achieved; your immortal soul--if you truly do have one--will be released from its onerous bondage to the worm and will wing its way to paradise. So you see, I truly am your savior, your God; you just don't realize it yet."

"A God who cannot even say for sure if I do have a soul?" I retorted mockingly, and a spasm of impotent rage flitted like quicksilver across Aliph's pasty face. "If you truly are then my only hope for salvation--for immortality--then I go willingly alongside my symbiote into the depths of Hell."

"So be it," Aliph snarled, and his hand lifted itself to deliver a sharp, resounding slap to the side of my face. "You would try to tempt my only begotten son into denying his Father, into believing that he is still the dark, fallen angel who knew himself as OH-NEALL; but your evil will not stand against me...or him. My Darius will stand at my side and witness your destruction alongside the foul demise of the serpent within you; he will see for himself, first hand, that only I speak Absolute Truth. Darius will see you and those others for the deceiving demons you are, and he will worship me with even greater fervor and adoration for having shown him the Light."

"MY O'Neill--the true brother of my heart--would gladly sunder your head from your body and spit into the bloody stump of your neck," I replied coldly. "Wherever his mind--his soul--is now...whatever it is you have done to him...I will repay. I vow that you will not kill me--I will NOT die--until I have avenged the monstrous wrong done to him by your hand. And if I SHOULD fail in the task, then Daniel Jackson and Major Carter will see that it is completed. Together we will either return O'Neill to himself or die trying. You will not enter Earth, Aliph; and O'Neill will not lead even one deluded follower of your madness through the stargate to contaminate any other worlds."

Aliph's men silently converged on me as I spoke, their expressions ranging from disgust to wariness to outright fear; while I was certain I could have killed almost all of them with minimal effort, I refrained from launching an attack against them and merely stood waiting for them to lay hands on me and carry out Aliph's bidding. The half-formed plan in my mind was not guaranteed a successful outcome; indeed, I realized that I would very probably die from the ordeal yet to come at Aliph's hands. But I needed something violent--something visceral and shocking and traumatic--to snap O'Neill back from the darkness Aliph had dragged his soul into, back to sanity and reality and hopefully to his own salvation, even should my death be the price to obtain it.

So now I wait, free of 'Junior' and dying because of his absence. Aliph, acting the all-powerful God he claimed to be, insisted on removing my symbiote himself; while four of his men held me in place, their false god--unable to completely hide the grimace of distaste that contorted his face at the procedure--reached cold white hands into my pouch scant minutes ago and removed the infuriated larva from its refuge within my body.

I made no move to stop him, voiced no protest; once the 'ritual of cleansing,' as Aliph so pompously named the operation, was complete, I was led to one of three strong marble columns extending from floor to ceiling in the room and chained to it without further ceremony. Aliph informed me that Darius would return shortly to witness the destruction of not one, but TWO, evil demons; and with that he and his retinue prepared to leave me.

"Any last words--a death confession, a plea for mercy, perhaps?" he asked mockingly as he stood in the doorway; but my only response was to bite out a terse:

"Send O'Neill to me now; send me my friend. I have no further need of you. Any words I have left to say will be said to him alone."

"Perhaps you are right; it might be good training for my son, to hear on his own the final confessions of a depraved demon such as yourself; afterward I will allow him to administer the final death stroke to insure your eternal damnation, to make certain that you will never again reanimate the body you now inhabit. Once he has heard your last words, Darius will sever your head from your body and bring it to me. Then his initiation into My holy order will be complete."

"I await him," was my only response; and now, mere moments later, the room is emptied of all save myself and my symbiote, still screeching and writhing desperately within its sterile new prison. I watch the closed door across the room with a mixture of weariness and anticipation, my gaze fixed on its blank expanse with all the concentration my flagging body can muster.

Come soon, O'Neill, I think as my compromised immune system begins to turn against me; return to me, old friend, and let ME become YOUR sacrifice, if that is what will save you. Quickly, O'Neill; come quickly, before it is too late for either one of us.


Part XII.

Though it means my death, I will not speak further; I refuse to be drawn into the insane machinations of yet another madman harboring delusions of godhood. It matters not what Aliph does to me, nor am I concerned with the fate of my symbiote. The larval Goa'uld was removed from me moments ago and placed--writhing and hissing its displeasure--into the bottom of a large silver urn nearby; and even as its absence weakens my body more severely with each passing moment, I care not that it has been taken from me in such a brutal fashion.

I fully understand that my own life is in grave danger; yet I find that my primary concern at this moment lies with the condition of O'Neill, my friend and commander. Less than one hour ago he entered this room, moving easily and without apparent pain; I had not looked upon his face since before his beating in the prison block, and it was with a mixture of surprise and grateful relief that I beheld his seemingly healthy form approaching me.

"Hello, Teal'c," were his first words to me upon his entrance, and then he smiled slightly. They were words spoken in the familiar tone one friend might use with another, but it required only one, searching look into the depths of the commander's eyes to reveal to my spirit the ominous shadow of something foreign in his deceptively steady gaze--something that did not belong. My heart sank within me as troublesome questions crowded my mind, and the next words from my mouth were uttered with a harshness that I would never normally use against the friend I know and respect so deeply.

"You are not O'Neill," I spoke flatly to him as he stood calmly awaiting my return greeting. The words that came from my mouth were not the warm sounds of relieved welcome he was expecting, and his left eyebrow rose in the same wryly surprised gesture I have seen my friend make countless times before.

His expression was indeed familiar, and yet the energy directing it wasn't the same; the intelligence gazing out at me from the commander's wary brown eyes was of a completely different nature than that of the soul whose bright, shrewd wit I had initially thought to behold. The body was indeed O'Neill's--the voice his, as well; but the entity gazing out from the familiar face before me bore no resemblance to the man I have willingly fought alongside these past four years.

"Very impressive, Mr. Teal'c," O'Neill's voice murmured admiringly, even as something very like annoyance flared briefly in his eyes. "How is it that you were able to so quickly discern what your companions could not? It took Daniel and Samantha much longer to recognize that something was...different...about me."

"I have had many years of experience in identifying false gods," I retorted without inflection, and the creature standing in front of me drew himself up sharply, a ripple of some dark, unspeakable anger crossing his face.

"I do not claim to be God; there is only One, and He is my Father." O'Neill's voice emerged, low and trembling with emotion, and he lifted a warning finger before my face as he continued sharply: "I will not listen to such blasphemous insinuations from your lips, nor will you speak of my Father with such insolence."

"I do not know your father," I replied imperturbably, and the familiar lines of Jack O'Neill's face stretched into a taut smile that was strangely chilling to observe.

"Ah, but you will, Teal'c; you WILL know him. He wishes for all of SG-1 to know him...and to serve Him, with all due reverence and respect for the many blessings He will bestow upon you in return.' A fanatical light had appeared in O'Neill's dark eyes, and I kept my expression purposely blank, even as a sharp twist of apprehensive anger uncoiled silently inside my chest.

"I have done with serving petty dictators who mistakenly believe that it is their destiny to rule the universe," I replied in the same implacable tone as before, and O'Neill's face tightened with frustrated ire, his hands clenching into fists at his sides before he made the conscious effort to relax his stance.

"My Father wishes only that the Truth be made known to all beings everywhere...that every ensouled creature might embrace the Light and discover genuine freedom, eternal salvation--" the deluded consciousness masquerading as O'Neill began; but I could bear to hear no more of the lies, not one word more of the putrid poison of indoctrinated drivel that poured from the lips of my lost friend.

Before he could finish speaking, I simply closed my eyes and turned my face away, withdrawing my attention from the man whose presence had at first filled me with such gladness; and as a very human sigh of frustration eased from his lips, I felt a great sadness well up within me.

What have they done to you, my friend? I wanted to cry out to him; is the Jack O'Neill I have come to trust like a brother still anywhere to be found behind those brown eyes that gazed at me with such calm treachery just now? As the disturbing presence encased in the familiar body of my commander continued to study my deflected profile, I pulled myself into a type of kel-no-reem that is often used to stabilize the body upon suffering a sudden, severe injury or trauma. On my part it was a protective measure, a delaying tactic to give myself time to process this terrible thing that had been done to my friend.

Even as black rage burned somewhere deep within me, I refrained from any attempt to overpower O'Neill or the two guards who had entered upon his heels into this chamber. Escape at this juncture was highly unlikely; and furthermore, I was unprepared to concede that perhaps the O'Neill I have come to know so well might be forever lost to me, to the rest of SG-1 and--most tragically of all--to himself.

"Your stubborn silence will avail you nothing but additional suffering in the end," the entity within O'Neill's body began in an aggravated tone; but before he could further state his case, the door opened once more to admit a figure whose deliberate, sliding gait I instantly recognized, even immersed as I was in protective meditation.

Aliph.

I knew instantly that he was the one to blame, that his was the mind behind the heinous act of evil that had so ruthlessly transformed my friend into a twisted stranger. Low in my belly a fire began to burn, and it was with grim satisfaction that I heard Aliph rather summarily dismiss O'Neill to continue indoctrinating our absent team mates into Aliph's insane religion. Yes, I thought to myself; send the automaton you have transformed my friend into away. This should be a conversation between us alone.

THIS one I WILL gaze upon, I thought savagely to myself as Aliph's stealthy, slippered feet approached me, the sound as furtive as the rustle of a snake's smooth skin along the cool, marbled floor; this monster I will gladly kill myself, once I have forced him to divulge the mechanics by which he replaced O'Neill's soul--O'Neill's lively mind--with the pallid facsimile who departed so meekly at his command just now.

"You are not like the others," Aliph rasped in a thin, dry voice once he was standing before me. "You are a true demon, cleverly attempting to pass yourself off as one of My own children; but your pitiful charade could not hope to escape My detection. An evil serpent lives within your belly, revealing itself as the TRUE master of your wizened soul; perhaps once, eons ago, you truly WERE a child of Mine...but the demon has possessed you for much too long now, whispering its perverted sedition into your ears, polluting your mind with its lies, its hungers..."

"You call the creature within me a demon," I found myself replying, my eyes gazing full into Aliph's watery, pale blue stare. "And on that charge I might almost agree with you; I would not willingly suffer the presence of the Goa'uld larva within me if I had any choice in the matter. What the System Lords did to me and to my people is the same sort of power-mad evil that you yourself have perpetrated against O'Neill...and against countless others, no doubt."

Aliph's unblinking stare held mine, his spidery white fingers plucking obsessively at one sleeve of his white robes as he waited pointedly for me to finish. Tilting my head in acquiescence, I drew breath and continued steadily: "I hold myself blameless for the injustices done to me under the oppressive rule of Apophis; his evil, his insanity, were none of my doing. I was but the object and recipient of his evil, while lacking that same quality of evil within myself. The same principle holds true here; the only real demon to be found in this place looks at me now from behind YOUR eyes, Aliph. You call yourself the omniscient God of all creation, and yet you cannot recognize your own abject evil. I have killed many such as you since O'Neill first helped open my eyes to the truth; and if given the chance, I will dispatch you with the same enthusiasm with which I helped rid world after world of parasites who were equally as deranged and deluded as you."

"You speak boldly for one who is soon to die in unspeakable agony," Aliph murmured once I was done, his voice high-pitched and trembling with almost apoplectic fury at my insolence. "I am well versed in the wily, deceitful language of creatures such as yourself, and your boastful, blasphemous words do not move me. My will IS the perfect will for all of creation, and my message must be sent to every corner of the universe!"

His face contorting in a paroxysm of mad fervor, Aliph reached one corpse-white finger and stabbed it emphatically against the unyielding wall of my chest. "You will find that everyone on this world--that all of these, my chosen people--know and accept this missive and are willing and ready to march to a greater destiny, to set foot onto other worlds such as this Earth from which you came...and once there, they will see that the pathetic, deluded souls teeming on its continents are given the incomparable gift of enlightenment and salvation which they themselves enjoy. All will submit to me, all will live in unquestioning obedience to the truths that will be revealed to souls too long chained in darkness..."

"I will hear no more of this," I retorted coldly; my blood burned hot within me with the almost overwhelming desire to grasp this repulsive creature by the throat and rip his head from his body, and something of my thoughts surely revealed themselves to the monster's wide-eyed gaze. For he took a quick half-step backward, even as the four large men who had entered as his retinue quickly surged forward to surround him in a protective circle.


Part XIII.

"Are you sure you're all right, Daniel?" Sam's hands are gentle as she traces the outline of my cheek, her worried eyes noting how tired my own eyes appear above the dark circles that lie like smudged shadows beneath them.

"I'll be fine, Sam," I murmur, both my tone and my touch absent-minded as I lift shaky fingers to gently pull Sam's hand away from my face. Giving her fingers a distracted, vaguely reassuring squeeze, I dredge up a rather flat smile before giving my concerned friend a somewhat embarrasssed shrug.

"It wasn't Jack's fault...I mean, it wasn't really HIM who left me in this condition--it was Darius, his alter ego...or whatever the hell you want to call him."

"Now that you mention it, just what the hell is all that about?" Sam sighs, her expression darkening, and I shrug again, hiding a wince as every muscle in my body cries out a silent protest.

"When I first saw the Colonel walk in, I was just so relieved to see him again, and looking so well!" Sam continues on a troubled sigh. "But then, after just a word or two from him, I knew something was really...off...about him. God, Daniel, what did that bastard Aliph do to Colonel O'Neill?"

"I'm not sure," I reply soberly, watching Sam fumble behind her for a seat on the cushioned dais as her face goes suddenly pale. My forehead creasing with concern, I ease my exhausted body down onto the dais alongside Sam and reach a hand toward her. She answers my mute query as to her condition with a weary but reassuring half-smile, and we link hands where we sit, our fingers curling protectively around one another's as I chew at my bottom lip and try to organize the thoughts roaming disjointedly in my head.

Dammit! I think in silent frustration; whatever that device was that Darius/Jack used on me, it still has my brain half-scrambled. The hypotheses that I'd formulated earlier concerning what might have befallen Jack suddenly slip like water through my fingers, and I have to struggle very hard to put them all back together into some halfway coherent semblance of order.

I don't even want to think about the other things I was forced to endure at the hands of the thing who used to be my best friend, I think grimly now; it does no good rehashing any of it, and I can certainly do without those particular memories to haunt me in the future. So I push it all away, wishing that I could push the pain in my battered body away just as easily; and as I remind myself to just BREATHE, I'm able to fix my pathetically wavering attention on Sam's anxious face with what I hope is a halfway comforting smile.

"I can't tell if Aliph has just, well...brainwashed...OUR Jack somehow, making him believe he truly is this Darius character, or if this is some sort of completely alien entity that's taken over Jack's corporeal body and is using it in much the same way the Goa'uld do when they inhabit their hosts' bodies." As Sam's pale gaze studies my face with unnerving intensity, I sigh and force myself to tell her the part that really makes this whole thing so difficult for me to handle emotionally.

"All I DO know, Sam, is that at one point--right before he started...hurting me--I saw the real Jack. OUR Jack, looking out at me from that body--from those eyes--with terrible regret and horror for what he was about to do. He KNEW, Sam; it only lasted a second, and then he wasn't there anymore. He was just...gone...again. But for that one second, I KNOW I saw Jack O'Neill. And I couldn't help him, Sam; I couldn't reach him wherever he was in his own head, his own body. It was Jack's hand that held that torture device to my head a moment after that, but it damned sure wasn't Jack himself who activated it. Darius was back by then--whoever the hell HE is--and Jack never returned for the rest of Darius's 'session' with me."

"But what does it mean, Daniel? Is Jack being brainwashed, as you say, somehow drugged or tortured or otherwise coerced into taking on this alternate persona...or is he actually SHARING his body with some separate entity that's in control of him?" Sam muses, her voice trembling under her own physical duress and emotional confusion.

"I don't know what the hell is going on, not really," I admit with a sigh, my thumb tracing a distracted pattern across the back of Sam's slender hand. "And I don't have a clue how to get OUR Jack back...or if we even can. But I SAW him, Sam; he was--he was TRAPPED somehow inside his own body, and it was like he knew it for that one brief moment, knew it and was in such despair...God, Sam, what are we going to do?"

"There has to be a way to reverse whatever it is that Aliph has done to him," Sam speaks up, giving my hand a firm squeeze. Her unnaturally pale features suddenly resolve themselves into stubborn lines as she half-turns on the dais and looks me straight in the eye.

"We have to figure out how to get the Colonel back, how to get rid of this Darius character without destroying Colonel O'Neill along with him," she begins rather fiercely, and I frown unhappily through the terrible, sick pounding inside my skull.

"And how do you propose we do that?" I ask shortly, instantly regretting my tone but too tired to offer an apology. I can read in Sam's eyes that she knows, anyway, and I close my eyes briefly in a vain attempt to draw nonexistent energy up from somewhere deep inside my body. Got to keep thinking, moving, trying...I muse fuzzily as a huge, black wave of exhaustion rolls slowly over me, leaving me stranded and gasping in its wake.

"I don't know yet, Daniel," Sam is muttering irately when I snap back to myself; but her aggravation is aimed at herself rather than at me, and as I blink my eyes open again and try to focus on her face, I can see the self-castigation brewing there at her inability to come up with a quick answer for Jack's problem.

"Maybe it's being done through drugs, and there could be an antidote to it somewhere around here," Sam muses fretfully, her hand slipping from mine as she begins plucking at the hem of her robe. "Maybe it's some form of deep hypnosis and there's a trigger word or phrase that might snap him out of it. Or maybe there IS some sort of entity inside his body, in which case we just have to figure out how to drive it out of him without hurting the Colonel in the process."

"Are you saying we need a priest, something like an exorcism?" I retort wryly. "Or maybe just a doctor with some big, freaking forceps to yank that sucker right out of Jack's head or wherever it might be hiding?" I add, my voice unpleasantly snarky as a renewed upwelling of frustration knots inside my chest.

"God...I'm sorry, Sam," I sigh resignedly a heartbeat later, bowing my head in weary chagrin. My gaze falls blankly to my bare feet, taking in the angry red marks around my ankles where first the manacles in the prison cell and then the leather restraints on Aliph's torture table last night have bitten into my flesh.

"I just hate feeling so helpless, knowing that Hammond won't even miss us for another forty-eight hours, since we'd just checked in that things were fine right before all this happened. So once again we're on our own, dealing with some fanatical religious wacko who thinks he IS God of all creation and that Earth is the next planet on his list needing his particular brand of salvation. God, Sam, I think I'm getting really, really tired of this shit..."

"Such language in front of a lady."

Jack's voice sounds with startling smoothness, and both Sam and I look up with nervous jerks to find that the room's single door has slid silently open without either one of us noticing it. We're slipping, I think dourly as Darius/Jack glides into the room on soundless feet and comes to a stop before us. With even my hair screaming in exhaustion, I suppose it's no wonder that my mental acuity might not be at its highest right now. Two of the Three Stooges have entered with their faux messiah and silently flank the door as it slides closed again, their expressions stony.

"You're obviously not Colonel O'Neill, or you'd know better than to talk that way about me," Sam bites off churlishly, and I slide a surreptitious hand over to give her fingers a light, warning rub. "I can hold my own in the bad language department anyday, Darius...or whoever you are," she ends acerbically, and then subsides reluctantly as the being in Jack's body leans in and fixes her with a disturbingly dark stare.

"My Father has warned me of the duplicity and treachery of females," Darius/Jack murmurs contemplatively as he extends one long finger to lift Sam's chin and gaze more deeply into her rebellious blue eyes. "He explained to me that a softly curving form and lovely face are not necessarily indicative of the soul residing behind the physical exterior. And yet...and yet he tells me that perhaps I should take a bride--a helpmate, a companion--to lend me sweet support and succor in the difficult times ahead, when I must necessarily step forward and claim my rightful place at my Father's side."

"Is this a proposal, Colonel?" Sam speaks up, twin dots of furious color blooming in her cheeks. "If so, then sorry, SIR," she continues in a voice heavy with sarcasm; "but military regulations wouldn't allow us to be married and still serve in the same unit together, much less rule the universe. You know that...or at least Jack O'Neill does. So as much as your proposition might thrill me, I'm afraid I would have to decline."

"You do not have the luxury of choice in the matter," Darius/Jack murmurs, seemingly unfazed by Sam's bitter tone. "Nor have I mentioned YOUR name in particular pertaining to the situation. I was merely making conversation, Major, merely judging for myself the veracity of my Father's words concerning the female disposition. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that He appears to be correct. As always. Women truly are deceitful bitches, are they not, Daniel?"

As Sam releases an infuriated gasp beside me, Darius/Jack turns his dark eyes from her outraged face to my stupefied expression, his own features lifting in a sardonic smile.

"Well, never mind that now...I regret that you spent such an uncomfortable night, my friend," he murmurs to me in a rueful aside, the intimate tone in his voice making my skin crawl. "I did not wish for such suffering to become your lot; but unfortunately you were most intractable and uncooperative. Discipline had to be enforced; you must learn surrender and acceptance so that once again we might fellowship together. I've...missed you, Daniel."

Again, for the most infinitesimal breadth of a second, something shatteringly familiar peers out at me from Jack's lean face; and as an almost undetectable frisson of anguish ghosts across my lost friend's eyes, I feel a pain clench around my heart that makes last night's torture session seem like a walk in the park in comparison.

"Jack!--" I begin, desperately and rather foolishly hoping that I can somehow pull him all the way back, can call him to me again and give him the strength to remember himself, to return to me. To all of us. But already the brief flash of recognition is gone, replaced with Darius's mildly curious expression of inquiry as he steps right up to me and taps me on the arm with a chiding finger.

"Give it up, Daniel," he murmurs pityingly, his brown eyes devastatingly warm and alive, even without the unique consciousness I long so desperately to see peering out from their depths. "The Jack you followed so blindly, so trustingly, is no more; I have explained this to you more than once, and yet you stubbornly continue to hold to the notion that he might somehow return to you."

As I glare up into Darius/Jack's eyes, my pulse pounding weak and dizzy in my veins, the hands that have by turns both nurtured and damaged me over the past twelve hours reach for me again, capturing my face between warm, callused palms as my friend's voice speaks Darius's words to me with implacable finality.

"OH-NEALL is dead...destroyed...his particular brand of evil will not be seen here again, all thanks to my Father's perfect justice. This body was always mine, meant from the beginning of All Things to house my spirit; the dark angel stole it from me, for the express purpose of misleading innocents such as yourselves and leading your souls to damnation. But my Father's will prevailed, and he returned my wandering soul to its rightful temple. I AM the son of God, and you must learn to address me as such. You cannot hope to become my right hand, Daniel--my guard and my holy avenger--if you cannot relinquish your old, corrupted nature and allow my Father to make you a new creation. Don't make this more difficult than it has to be, my friend; just as you followed OH-NEALL before, you will now find great satisfaction in following me, in worshipping our Father without ceasing and in showing your appreciation for His mercy through serving me, always."

"I really don't think so," I reply calmly, forcing my gaze to remain steady on his even as a sour wave of sick nausea churns inside my gut. "I'm not really so much into the whole worshipping false gods thing...I'm not even all that sure about kowtowing to the REAL 'One True God', if it comes right down to it. Which, by the way, Aliph is NOT. He's no more God than I am, no more a deity than you are a deity's son. Whoever or whatever you are, Darius, you do NOT belong in that body; and if it's the last thing Sam and I do, we intend to drop-kick your ass out of it and give it back to its rightful owner."

"Shall we table this discussion for another time?" Darius speaks softly, something ominous gliding like a serpent beneath his outwardly serene demeanor. It just feels and sounds so WRONG, watching Jack's achingly familiar body enact this insane drama before us, as if he is no more than a cleverly animated puppet with no real soul inside.

"Right now my focus must be on Samantha; we have much to discuss," he continues smoothly, and as his hand reaches for her she pulls sharply back from his intended grasp, an expression of both grief and loathing twisting her wan face.

"Don't touch me!" she hisses out, her tone low and venomous, and I find myself lifting a protective arm against Darius/Jack's exasperated reach. As my arm impacts his chest, holding him back from taking Sam's arm and pulling her bodily up from the dais, the Two Stooges begin advancing across the room toward us, a light of cruel anticipation gleaming in their eyes.

"Hold!" Darius/Jack calls out sharply without ever turning around to see them; his eyes--Jack's eyes, goddammit--blaze mutely into mine for what seems like an eternity before he suddenly steps back and lifts both hands in a pious gesture that has me grinding my teeth together in outrage.

"Very well; I won't touch you. Yet," he amends, his pupils dilating strangely as he fixes all his attention on Sam's white face. "If you will agree to accompany me willingly, I will see to it that neither my hands nor the hands of my guards make contact with your flesh. At least not until it becomes absolutely necessary. But right now I merely wish to...converse...with you, to make certain things very clear so that you will not be led astray by Daniel's rather vociferous incomprehension of the Truth."

"You just want to hurt her, like you did me," I rap out sharply, damning myself for stating the truth so baldly in the face of Sam's already-stressed nerves. But she isn't blind, deaf, OR dumb; she's seen for herself the physical evidence of what was done to me, and she knows that Darius/Jack isn't exactly rowing with all his oars in the water. Wherever he and his goons take her now, it isn't going to be pleasant.

"Leave her alone," I demand despite the futility of the words; fighting back my growing exhaustion, I rise to my feet and plant myself in front of Sam's seated form. "She isn't going to fold under your...methods...any more than I did. The only reason you have to USE torture in the first place is because your astounding doctrine of Truth can't hold up to any real, legitimate scrutiny! And somewhere deep inside you, Darius, or Jack--or whoever you're being right now--you know this. You KNOW none of this is right, that Aliph is so far on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Truth that--"

Funny, I didn't even see it coming, I think dully as Darius/Jack lands a rapid, stunning clout to the side of my head; already weakened from last night's ordeal, I find myself toppling forward onto my face with extreme inelegance, my nose making painful, blood-spurting contact with the marbled floor as Sam cries out above me and tries to untangle her robe from her legs long enough to come to my aid.

"Leave him," Darius/Jack orders coolly; and as I lie in a suddenly boneless heap on the floor, my debilitated body momentarily unable to move, I can only watch in helpless rage as the thing inside Jack uses Jack's body--Jack's strength--to drag Sam off the dais and shove her toward the door.

"Will you walk unassisted, or will I have them escort you?" he murmurs politely, and Sam turns to give me one last, silently desperate look of worry for me and trepidation for herself before turning a scornful sneer on the face of our commander.

"I'll walk on my own," she replies tightly; and as I lie here with every molecule of my body going into protective shutdown mode, all I can do is close my eyes and pray that Sam will somehow be able to break through to the real Jack before Darius hurts her too severely.


Part XIV.

"This doesn't have to be painful, you know," the Colonel's voice murmurs softly in my ear, and I can't quite control the shudder of revulsion that runs through me as his hand strokes lightly down my back. To have his familiar form so near, to feel the warmth of his touch and yet to know there's nothing of SG-1's Jack O'Neill in any of this, is just too disturbing for my mind to process.

"I had no desire to watch Daniel suffer, either," the consciousness that calls itself Darius continues thoughtfully. "If only he had been more amenable to the Truth, then things might have taken a much happier turn for him. Unfortunately, he insisted on resistance and was disciplined accordingly. I hope, Samantha, that you won't prove to be as foolishly stubborn as your friend."

"I suppose we each have our own 'Truth,' as you label it," I reply drily, forcing myself to stand still beneath his touch. Fixing my eyes on a spot on the far wall, I listen to the dull thud of my heartbeat in my ears and curse myself for the helpless trembling of my fingers as I twist them tightly together in front of me.

"There is only ONE Truth," the Colonel's voice rasps angrily against my hair, and the hand that was stroking my back a moment ago slides upward now to grip the nape of my neck in a bruising vice, his strong fingers digging into my skin with casually brutal force.

"And do you know what that Truth is?" he continues, his voice an inexorable whisper of doom against my ear. "Come on, Major; you're an intelligent woman. Why don't you tell me what I want to hear? What I NEED to hear in order to keep things...pleasant...between us? My greatest wish for you is that you might pass the test of enlightenment without undue pain and suffering...though it has been my experience thus far that a certain amount of each seems to prove beneficial to the soul. No pain, no gain, after all--isn't that the popular saying on your world?"

"The only 'Truth' I know, s--," I bite out, choking back the automatic sir' trying to slip from between my lips; there is no way in hell I'm calling THIS O'Neill wannabe 'sir,' I think angrily to myself as I clench my hands into fists and try to control my breathing.

"The only Truth I know," I repeat now with deliberate slowness, "is the truth that whoever or whatever you are, you have no right to Jack O'Neill's body, to his life. It doesn't belong to you; and no matter what you do to Daniel or Teal'c or to me, we will never willingly follow you...much less help you spread your sickness and lies back to our planet!"

I can feel my cheeks growing hot with infuriated indignation, and Darius/Jack chuckles softly in response, his breath gusting warm against my ear. In a startlingly swift move, he slides his hand from its iron grip at my neck around to my throat, moving his body in smooth tandem so that he's now standing directly in front of me, so close his chest almost brushes against mine.

"Your sharp tongue matches the fire in your eyes, Samantha Carter," he murmurs almost flirtatiously, his brown gaze pinning me in a breathless stasis of mute panic. "It seems my Father was indeed correct in his insightful estimation of the female of the species. Your effect on those around you is rather insidious. It's almost enjoyable, matching wits with you...very stimulating, in a sense. A weaker man might even find himself in danger of becoming lost in those huge blue eyes of yours--or worse, might find his very soul in danger of becoming completely beguiled by just one flutter of those lashes..."

Almost as if he's drawn despite himself, the Colonel lifts one finger to lightly skim my eyelashes, and I find myself closing my eyes against the dark speculation lurking in his fascinated gaze. This is too much, too difficult to take, I think desperately as my whole body suddenly goes weak and shaky. For this--this THING inside my commander to raid Jack's memories like that and use them against me now...A sick feeling of rage begins to churn inside me, and I swallow hard against the surge of nausea that rises in my throat.

Colonel O'Neill and I have never had THAT kind of relationship, I think angrily to myself now, even though for a brief period some sort of deeper attraction was definitely there between us...Luckily for the both of us, we had enough sense to keep our heads on straight and realize that it just wasn't prudent or feasible to think along those lines. It didn't mean that there weren't still periods now and then when that old physical attraction reasserted itself; but both Jack and I realized that we were much better suited as friends and co-workers only. And I've never really regretted that mutual decision. It's always been a comfort to me to know that I have his unquestioning friendship and support, and I know that he considers me a valuable member of his team...just as I feel grateful in return to have him as my commander.

But now, as those familiar amber eyes study my face with a sudden hunger growing in their depths, I pull myself back to my current dilemma and force my own eyes to study the Colonel's features in return, using the tense moment of silence between us to regather my scattered thoughts.

"Females...treacherous, indeed," Darius mutters in Jack's voice, one thumb absently rubbing a path up and down my cheek. "If I DO choose you as my helpmate later on, I fear I will have to keep you sequestered for a good portion of the day, in order to...circumvent...the distractions you would inevitably pose to my attention and my duties."

"So, it's the old 'Women should be neither seen NOR heard caveat?" I retort sharply, and for a moment something very close to the old Jack O'Neill sense of humor gleams in the commander's eyes. The sight of that familiar, sardonic expression sends a sharp pain into my chest, and it's all I can do to keep my own expression neutral as that fleeting glimpse of Jack vanishes in an eyeblink, shunted aside as Darius lifts his other hand to squeeze my shoulder.

"You must understand that what I am about to do is not done from malice or ill will but is merely the first step in making you familiar with the precepts of our Father; as time goes on and you assimilate more of His blessed teachings, I expect things to go much more smoothly with your education than they will today. I begin to think, Samantha, that you just might be the helpmate my Father has in mind for me; but I fear He will not be pleased with the level of insolence barely veiled beneath your words."

"I already have a job, thanks, anyway," I reply through gritted teeth as Darius/Jack tilts my head this way and that and stares down his nose at me as though evaluating me for breeding purposes. "And the only 'help' I'm willing to give you, you son of a bitch, is helping you find your way out of my commander's body and straight back to the pit you crawled out of!"

My voice is low and shaking with emotion, and I can feel the heat from my gaze searing into Darius's eyes as he frowns at me with something close to bewilderment on his face.

"Why do you challenge me?" he murmurs in a tone of wounded mystification. "I am offering you a place at my side, Samantha; you will become the holy daughter of God, the true Bride of the messiah. Blessings beyond your wildest dreams await you, if only you will drop your sinful pride and submit yourself to the will of our Father...and to my will, as your rightful lord."

"Now I KNOW you're not Jack O'Neill," I sigh impatiently, and as an irate frown pulls down the corners of his mouth, I surreptitiously take a half-step backward and give him a considering look.

"The Jack O'Neill I serve with knows better than to make such ridiculous, sex-biased comments," I continue smartly, giving an annoyed shrug as Darius tries to tighten his grip on my shoulder. "And as for you, Mr. Messiah Complex, whoever or whatever you really are...You could probably force me to submit to you physically, through torture and whatever other means you might employ; and maybe you can even warp my mind somehow or make me forget who I really am...just as you've obviously done to the Colonel. But I won't give you my soul, no matter what you do to me; and if the REAL Jack O'Neill's soul is still anywhere inside the body standing here before me, I can guarantee you that it remains his own. He would NEVER yield it up to you...never."

I'm dismayed to hear the thickness of enraged tears in my voice, and I lift both hands now and roughly push out against the strong wall of Jack O'Neill's chest, fighting back the irrational desire to twist the material of his robes between my fingers and shake him until the horrible caricature acting in MY Jack O'Neill's place is driven from the commander's body.

"Shh! Shh now, you're becoming distraught, Samantha..." Darius begins, fumbling with a clumsiness Jack O'Neill would never display as he tries to capture my hands in his.

"Dammit, will you STOP calling me that!" I explode, lifting one knee to drive it into his groin. I just can't take any more of this, I think wildly, exhaling my breath on a harsh gasp of frustration as he deflects my aim and spins me adroitly around to crush me against his chest, my spine pressed tightly against the front of his body. Fine time to lose the clumsiness, I think with hopeless chagrin as his iron-hard arms squeeze with such force I can't move and can barely breathe.

"You WILL submit...and you WILL relinquish your soul to the One True God," Darius growls into the back of my neck. "You are still blinded by your misplaced loyalty to the one who is no longer," Jack's voice continues heatedly, the familiar tone lending a ghoulishly surrealistic air to the twisted words of the entity who's taken over.

"We won't let you take him away from us, you bastard," I grunt against the pressure of inflexible arms beneath my ribcage. "I don't care what you say, Colonel O'Neill ISN'T dead! Or irretrievably lost or anything else; whether Darius is some singular entity completely apart from Colonel O'Neill, or whether Darius IS you, Colonel...at least, who you THINK you are now...oh, dammit, sir!...If you're in there at ALL, please hear me! Please understand that we aren't giving up on you, Colonel; we won't stop until you're yourself again. Aliph will NOT get away with this, I promise--"

I know I'm probably babbling incoherently now, but suddenly I don' care. Something tells me that the Jack O'Neill I know IS still there somewhere, trapped in some fashion within his own body, his own mind; and the rage that fills me on his behalf gives me the strength to surge up against the unyielding arms around me and fight my way partially free.

"If you wish to suffer as much as Daniel suffered, then so be it!" Darius growls at me, his eyes almost black with rage; and as I go into a defensive stance he lunges wildly at me and wraps both arms around my waist in a clumsy forward tackle. Both of us go down hard onto the marble floor, arms and legs scrabbling for purchase, the two of us struggling to inflict as much physical damage as possible as we vie for supremacy on the cold tiles beneath us.

"You're only this pissed because you know I'm close to the truth!" I gasp out as I land a fleeting punch to the Colonel's right cheek. Wincing inwardly at the knowledge that I've just technically struck a superior officer, I continue fighting grimly nonetheless, some part of me blindly hoping that if I can't get through to Colonel O'Neill any other way, maybe I can at least get his attention in there, wherever it is he's lurking. God, what did Aliph do to him, to drive such a strong man so far inside his own soul that he no longer recognizes who and what he has become?

"Stop resisting me!" Darius growls, using a patented Jack O'Neill move to pin my legs beneath his. "Why do you make me hurt you, force you...why is it so damnably hard for you and your friends to accede to my wishes, to open your eyes to the TRUTH my Father offers?"

Sweating and struggling, I writhe beneath the Colonel's strong form, fingers trying rather halfheartedly to gouge at his eyes as he grapples to pin my arms at my sides. Fixing my eyes on his perspiration-streaked face, I buck my hips against his crushing hold on my legs and almost manage to free my left leg from his grasp.

"Eat shit, Darius," I choke out crudely, surprising even myself with the vehemence in my voice. "I want to talk to Jack O'Neill, to the dark angel; if you want me to cooperate with you, to listen to you, then call him back from wherever it is you've sent him and let me say good-bye to my old friend one last time..."

"You mean to deceive me," Darius grunts, recapturing my leg and leaning in--hard--till the bruising weight of his hip bone grinds into me. His brown eyes glowing with frustrated anger, the being looking out at me from Jack's lovely eyes narrows his gaze on mine now till nothing else exists but the grim contest of wills going on between us.

"I only want to speak to Jack--the REAL Jack," I pant in reply, unable to hide the miserable note of pleading that's crept into my voice. "I swear, if you'll just let him come forward for a minute, just let me have the chance to make my peace with that part of my life, of my past..."

"Do you think I'm stupid, Samantha?" Darius rasps, one scarred brow lifting in enraged disbelief. "Do you think I can't see your treachery, that I can't SMELL your duplicity as you lie here tormenting me with your scent and the softness of your flesh...trying to distract me with the female wiles my Father warned me about..."

"Oh, for God's sake, get over yourself!" I exclaim, completely exasperated with this particular entity's ridiculous sexual hang-ups; he is SO far from bearing even the remotest resemblance to Colonel O'Neill and that particular soul's sardonic innuendos that I find myself having less and less qualms about kicking the ever-living crap out of him if he so much as lays a finger on me...

"Jack! Colonel Jack O'Neill, commander of SG-1, friend of absent-minded archaeologists and ass-kicking Jaffa warriors, the terror of the SGC infirmary...C'mon, Colonel, where are you? If you could only see what your wacko, fanatical counterpart here is doing with his hands on your 2IC right now..." I babble feverishly, and at my stubborn insistence on speaking my piece, Darius's frayed patience reaches a violent end.

"BE SILENT!" he roars in a voice that emerges sounding nothing at all like Jack's usual, low-key tones; and before I can react, Jack's fist curls into a tight, frustrated ball as the entity controlling it slugs me a good one right in the jaw.

"I told you...I told you..." Darius mutters in a low, singsong monotone as an explosion of pain sears up from my stunned jaw and erupts inside my brain; convinced that I'll be eating through a straw for the next several weeks-assuming I survive the rest of this damned mission first, that is--I fight back the thick, black waves of sickness and incipient unconsciousness threatening to drag me under and force my disoriented eyes to focus on the crazed brown glare pinning me in place.

"Let me talk to the Colonel," I repeat doggedly, my voice somewhat slurred. "Please...Lord...just for a moment, just once..."

And as I keep my bleary gaze fastened onto the Colonel's, something suddenly and inexplicably...SHIFTS...right there in his eyes, in the intense focus of his gaze on my face. Something dark and liquid seems to glide like an oily shadow across the surface of his dilated pupils; and as the breath hitches in my throat, the body of Jack O'Neill somehow seems to shift consciousnesses, as well.

"Colonel?" I whisper hesitantly, unmindful now of the terrible throbbing in my jaw; as an expression of lost bewilderment sweeps across the lean face above me, I manage to tug one hand free of Jack's loosening grasp and lift it to carefully touch his cheek.

"Colonel O'Neill...are you with me now?" I ask shakily, my fingers trembling against his warm skin; and with a suddenness that steals my breath completely, Jack is looking down at me, hot tears of rage and grief burning in his beautiful eyes.

"Oh, God, Carter...Sam, I hit you..." he chokes out, the force of his guilt and self-castigation rippling over his features like quicksilver. "God, Sam, I'm sorry, I can't...I can't be here, I can't stay...hard, it's too hard..."

"No, don't you DARE leave me here!" I cry out, jerking my other hand free and raising it so that I can grab his face between both my hands. "Sir, don't you even THINK of not fighting this, of letting this Darius take over again! You have to help us, Colonel; you have to tell us what Aliph did to you, how we can help you fight this, how we can fix it..."

"Can't..." The Colonel's voice is a tortured rasp, his eyes darkening to an impossible hue as he begins to shake and tremble helplessly above me. "God, I can't...it hurts!...oh, God, it hurts so much!" Agony contorts his lean face, leaching it of all color; and as he fixes me with eyes wracked by pain and hopelessness, I can feel my own desperate tears scalding the backs of my eyes.

"What can I do, how can I help?" I cry, stroking my hands up and down both sides of his face in a futile attempt to comfort and calm him. "Please, Colonel, can you give me ANY information that might help us fight this--"

"Sorry...goddammit, sorry..." For one painfully brief second longer it's Colonel O'Neill gazing down at me; it's Jack's trembling hand lifting to stroke a featherlight trail across my swelling jaw as his mouth tightens with terrible regret for the blow that same hand dealt to me moments ago. And then I see him leaving me, see the oily darkness creeping relentlessly back across his vision, obscuring those gorgeous O'Neill eyes and the true soul behind them, sucking that soul down and away, out of my reach...

"NO!!" I shriek the word, my hands clutching futiley at the Colonel's shoulders as eyes that have become someone else's gaze down at me with cold disdain.

"You really shouldn't have done that, Samantha," Darius murmurs almost pleasantly; and as he draws back his fist to hit me again, with feeling, I can feel my own soul spiralling down into the same hopeless darkness that has swallowed up Jack O'Neill's.


Part XV.

I am close to losing consciousness when the familiar form of Jack O'Neill enters the room where Aliph has me under guard; my symbiote's condition seems as dire as my own, and I do not know how much longer either one of us will be able to survive. So it is with a sense of weary relief that my eyes behold the countenance of O'Neill, even though it is not O'Neill's familiar and much-missed spirit that studies me now through the Colonel's eyes.

Faint lines of stress and frustrated impatience bracket the corners of the commander's mouth, and I find myself hosting the uncharitable thought that, for one professing to be the son of Almighty God, the entity calling itself Darius appears distinctly lacking in even the most rudimentary of messianic qualities. And it is that realization that begins to seed within my mind the first, tentative germ of an idea--an idea whose successful outcome seems marginal at best, impossible at worst...but one which my desperate mind finds unable to completely dismiss.

I find it intolerable to look into my friend's eyes and see someone else--something else--looking back; and even as my dying mind fumbles toward some last-ditch effort at saving the man who once saved me from a different but no less dangerous false god, I find myself longing almost desperately for even one glimpse of the unique consciousness that has seemingly fled forever from its rightful body.

The real O'Neill--the soul that has always lived beneath the thin veneer of my friend's insouciant cynicism and sardonic humor--THAT O'Neill exudes a level of natural feeling and integrity that this alien, blank-eyed intelligence observing me now could never hope to emulate. And as the Colonel's body moves to stand directly in front of me, I find myself searching in vain yet again for any sign of the real O'Neill's shrewd consciousness struggling for supremacy behind Darius's impatient glare.

"There's no use looking at me like that," Darius mutters flatly, the words falling from those familiar lips like heavy stones. "OH-NEALL isn't here. Oh, your friend Samantha tried her best to call him back to her, to find some remnant of his miserable, weak soul still alive inside this body...and for the briefest moment a stray memory of the presence which once resided here did indeed stir, somewhere deep within this mind. But a memory is ALL it was; the dark angel himself has gone to his own, just fate."

It is difficult for me, in my rapidly weakening state, to keep my attention steadily focused on the deceptively familiar visage before me. But as Darius continues, his next, chilling words abruptly pull my thoughts from my own discomfort to the fate of Major Carter. A mock-regretful grimace twists O'Neill's bland face as he explains casually:

"Samantha was--understandably, I suppose--devastated at the realization that your Colonel is forever lost to all of you. Yes, 'devastated' would be the appropriate term, Mr. Teal'c; in fact, she became so overwrought and violent with the excess of her emotions that I was forced to strike her--several times--merely for her own good, you understand. She MUST face and accept the truth before she will be able to move ahead, to fulfill the exalted position that my Father has in mind for her."

"Major Carter is well aware of the only 'truth' that matters, the truth of what you are," I hear myself rasp, my voice disturbingly weak. "Furthermore, she has already attained--through her own intelligence and will--the position she desires at this present moment. She is more than capable of making such decisions for herself."

"Interesting, this misguided concept of free will yo proffer...anything else you'd like to add?" Darius inquires wit exaggerate politeness, and I find a rather savage smile flitting about th corners of my mouth.

"Indeed," I murmur, fixing my most intent gaze on the brow eyes tha harbor this twisted stranger in place of my friend. "I have made solemn vow; if fate decrees that I survive this, I WILL seek retributio for an injuries you have inflicted on Samantha Carter."

"Perhaps it isn't your place to do so," Darius smiles slightly in reply. "But if this is your intention, will you then also see recompense for the physical damage done to Daniel Jackson, as well, in the course of his...indoctrination?"

As my eyes narrow dangerously with the black rage rising within me, Darius extends a finger and lightly pokes me in the chest. "Surely you realize you are in effect shifting the decision-making prerogative of your team mates' souls onto your own shoulders?" he asks softly, and I clench my jaw tightly against the words which struggle to leave my mouth on a surge of inchoate anger.

"By taking on the unsolicited role of avenger, you would also be taking control over their destinies, would you not, just as you accuse me of doing," he continues pleasantly, and I swallow back a muffled groan of pain as an uncontrollable series of violent spasms strikes the muscles in my arms and legs.

"It is not the same thing," I grit out from between clenched teeth, and Darius laughs once, a short bark of ugly noise that sounds nothing like O'Neill's customary, dry chuckle.

"Perhaps that is merely a matter of perception," he retorts and as my body is seized again with helpless jerks and shudders of muscles locked in the throes of incipient shock, the entity within O'Neill's body takes a step back and studies me speculatively.

"You will die soon...very soon, by the look of you," he murmurs more to himself than to me. "Which is, of course, just as my Father has decreed...and yet, I feel troubled that perhaps your soul has not yet had the proper amount of time in which to evaluate and repent of the evil that lurks within you. I cannot save your life, you understand; that does not mean, however, that I am completely callous in regard to your soul."

"Your...Father...does not seem at all assured that I even possess such a thing," I sniff disdainfully, my legs fumbling to support me as every molecule of my body is suddenly inundated by a rush of overwhelming fatigue. "He seems rather...uncertain...of many things, for a god. For THE God, as such is his claim. Is it not also a pity that His son--who must necessarily be subordinate in purity and perfection to the Father--exhibits more common decency and concern than God Himself?"

"You will not blaspheme in that manner!" Darius raps out furiously, stepping forward to clutch my shoulder under his tight fingers. "My Father possesses knowledge and wisdomm that I do not; I am sure that His will for you here, under this punishment, IS the best thing for you."

"And yet you questioned that perfect will...even if only for a moment, you questioned it," I gasp out as strong cramps move through my abdomen. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and trickles down my face as Darius turns eyes made almost black with agitation onto my own brooding gaze.

"Are you so certain you yourself are adequately prepared for the exalted position your Father offers you?" I continue implacably, uncaring that O'Neill's arm muscles are bunching in growing rage, that endorphins are even now rushing through his body and urging him to take his rage out on me.

"A true messiah is sent but to carry out the will of his Father, not to second guess that will, as you have done," I continue as Darius struggles to control his fury. "Perhaps, before I die, I will call God to me and tell him of your treachery, your disloyalty. But wait...He IS God, is He not? Then He already knows."

A sneer lifts one corner of my mouth as I cough roughly, "Perhaps, once I die, your God will turn His righteous judgment onto YOU. Perhaps He has a two-fold purpose in executing me in just this fashion; should my symbiote survive for a longer period than I myself will, who is to say that your Father will not then use the demon to punish YOU? You have proven yoursel unworthy, after all, just as I am unworthy...so perhaps you should be given up to Hell, as well, in the form of this demon who once lived within me. If God places the demon within you, it will take over O'Neill's body just as surely as you did. Darius will then be no more, as God will send both your soul and the soul of the demon down into damnation. He will then be free to choose another to replace you--maybe even Daniel Jackson."

"You lie! I will not listen to your feeble attempts to make me doubt my Father's fidelity!" Darius hisses, his face contorting with rage. It pains me beyond measure to watch O'Neill's helpless features distort into such a hate-filled mask, and for a moment I close my eyes against the disturbing sight. I am weary, so weary; and as my breath catches harshly in my lungs, I wish only for all of this to be over.

It galls me that I have failed my team, that I have failed O'Neill; my death would go easier had I the sure knowledge that at least O'Neill might be returned to himself, to life and hope and a future. But I am unable to fight against the inexorable loss of my energy, the slipping away of my own fading life; and I am filled with silent bitterness that my feeble emotional manipulation of Darius seems to have failed. I am too tired to successfully convince him to return my symbiote to me, to trick him into offering me the chance to restore my own strength through the re-implantation of the larval Goa'uld that was taken from me by Aliph.

"Perhaps you are right; perhaps it is as you say and I speak only lies," I rasp out, barely able to hold my head upright now. "Perhaps I am unworthy of redemption." My arms quiver with minute ripples of strain as I sag helplessly against the chains binding me to the column behind me, and it takes great effort to remember what I want to say next.

"I merely regret that I will die in spiritual darkness, that your Father could not find it in his heart to grant mercy to one whose soul was never given the choice of freedom," I sigh. "If I were to be given another chance, allowed to undergo some form of testing to prove that I DO have a soul--one worth saving, no less--then perhaps my team mates in their turn would more easily see the true light of your Father's divinity."

"Do not believe that I have no compassion for your suffering," Darius murmurs hoarsely after a long moment in which I find myself struggling to retain full awareness. When I force my blurring vision onto O'Neill's face I am torn by the expression of naked vulnerability that suddenly arises in the dark eyes fastened on mine.

"I dare not disobey my Father's wishes," Darius whispers almost pleadingly, his voice tightening with something very close to fear. "I will not question the judgments of the Most High, nor presume to direct the final disposition of your soul. And as for Daniel and Samantha...they will see the light if it is so fated for their souls to see it. If not, then their spirits will descend to perdition along with yours. Perhaps you will all be happier there in the long run; after all, you will undoubtedly find yourselves reunited with your friend OH-NEALL once you arrive there."

"I think not; if O'Neill's spirit has truly departed, then he dwells now with his fellow warriors, at home in the eternal paradise of the One Brotherhood," I reply, the words emerging with slow, dogged resolve from my lips. It is becoming almost too much of an effort to stay awake, to breathe, and my heart is filled with inexpressible sadness at the realization that I will die without having told O'Neill how privileged I feel myself to be for having known and served with him.

Perhaps, if my soul is found strong enough, I will yet have the opportunity to meet with O'Neill in that same paradise and tell him all that is in my heart concerning the bond of brotherhood we have shared. Better by far that he be alive and whole now on some other plane than trapped within the twisted web of this alien presence staring back at me; or still worse, transformed somehow into something completely unrecognizable, I think morosely.

It is exceedingly difficult for me to look now upon this Darius consciousness and see ANYTHING of O'Neill in the agitated glare directed my way; in some fashion it IS easier to accept the notion of Darius as a completely separate entity who has somehow invaded O'Neill's body, rather than deal with the grim possibility that O'Neill's consciousness and personality have been somehow erased and replaced with the fanatical zealot peering at me now with such fevered intensity.

I know well my friend's deep-seated aversion to the idea of losing himself, of being taken against his will and forced to live a life he would never have chosen; and as O'Neill's turbulent brown eyes drill into mine now, I feel a surge of self-castigation rise like acid in my throat at my own inability to be the one to at least offer my friend a quick death and to bring his soul blessed relief from the unending nightmare of Darius's possession.

"If I returned the demon to your body, you would regain your inhuman strength; you would attempt to harm me," Darius mutters now, his voice wavering in a manner I have never heard O'Neill utilize. "My Father would not understand my reasons for defying His authority; He sent me here only to listen to your confession and then to...to put a merciful end to your life. And He warned me that you would prove clever and sly, that you would use the wiles the demon has taught you to try to trick me into releasing you. I assured Him I would not fail him; I promised Him that I would stand strong against your evil and bring triumph to His holy name."

The hands that I have grown so familiar with--watching for years as the blunt, capable fingers stripped and cleaned a gun or built a campfire or held onto a sick member of his team with surprising gentleness--these same hands rise shakily now in front of O'Neill's troubled eyes as the Darius consciousness inside my friend's body studies each individual fingerprint with something like fascinated horror.

"I AM Darius; I was given this body, my soul put into this form, because it is my destiny. My Father assured me that the dark angel who inhabited it before had no right to it, that from the Beginning of All it was fated for me to claim this body as the corporeal vehicle for my spirit's earthly work. I cannot doubt my Father's words, nor question His immaculate purpose in fashioning things thusly. I do not and will not believe that I was once this OH-NEALL, that I was a mere, fallible wretch like the rest of you...I try to remember the transferral process, the exact moment when my Father inserted my immortal spirit into this frail body; but every time things begin to come clear, I am struck with incredible pain. It is forbidden for me to ask questions, to harbor doubts; it is a grave sin against The Most High."

Darius gazes dully now at his hands--at O'Neill's hands--staring at each knuckle, studying every callus as if he recognizes almost against his will how ill-fitting this body is for his consciousness. His pupils constricting down to pinpoint size, he raises a gaze as sere and empty as a burned-out world to my fading sight and murmurs hopelessly:

"Am I me? Am I God's only son, sent to be your savior and the savior of all others? If so, why does my Father order me to execute you without even the attempt to salvage your soul? Was I truly sleeping in eternity before this, as God Himself told me, awaiting only His command to set me down here in this body, ready to do His bidding? Or was I indeed once this OH- NEALL, this fallen angel your friend Daniel tells me was really only a man? Tell me, Mr. Teal'c; tell me what I am. And tell me why I harbor this strange compulsion to return the worm to your belly, never mind that it would doubtless reinfect you with its demonic presence in direct contradiction to my Father's wishes...Does that not make me the most horrible of traitors--the vilest of the vile--to defy the One Creator? To disobey my God?"

O'Neill's familiar voice has begun to slur slightly, as if the intelligence directing it is breaking apart into small, disorganized fragments of confused emotion. But even as my stomach sinks in dread at the frightening notion of forever losing O'Neill's true consciousness somewhere in the tangled morass of this being's tormented thoughts, my heart begins to beat harder in desperate anticipation of somehow bringing a desirable conclusion to the unbearable drama playing out before me.

"Perhaps it is a test sent to you by your Father," I murmur, my voice barely audible. I am dismayed by the extent of my weakness and growing debilitation, and I struggle to bring the right words from my dry mouth as Darius eyes me with terse interest. I can sense that he is looking for the smallest comfort or reassurance to hold to in whatever it is that I migh say next, and I know that I will have only one chance to turn this entire situation to my advantage--and possibly save both my commander's life and soul in the process.

"A test?" O'Neill's lips are forming the question now, and I nod feebly, my shoulders shrieking in silent agony beneath the weight of the chains wrapped around me.

"Indeed," I grit out, keeping my tone as even as I am able to. "Perhaps God wants to see what is stronger within you--your fear of His retribution against you, or your desire to see that every lost soul is saved. Will killing me now truly save my soul? How is that to be accomplished if my spirit travels straight to this perdition you have spoken of once my body is destroyed? Perhaps, if this IS a test, you will fail it if you blindly follow your Father's orders without first tempering them with the wisdom of your own soul...wisdom He has Himself given you, is this not so? If you are the messiah, the savior...then you must somehow fulfill that calling."

"I don't know, I don't know, I don't KNOW!" Darius growls, his voice rising to a harsh roar of anguished rage and confusion as he fists both hands in his silver hair and gives a vicious yank of frustration. "Why is He doing this to me, why is He forsaking me like this?! I've done everything He's asked, I made myself forget, worked so hard to forget, to not have the PAIN anymore...God, oh, God, who AM I, why is this so HARD..."

With an inarticulate cry, Darius/O'Neill turns from me and rushes wildly over to the silver urn containing the dying husk of my symbiote. As he wraps trembling hands around the edges of it, his brown eyes staring down at the larva with mesmerized revulsion, the room's single door opens to admit two guards and the familiar forms of my team mates, Daniel Jackson entering pale and wan but under his own power while a seemingly unconscious Major Carter is carried in right behind him in the arms of one of the guards.

Daniel's eyes travel first from O'Neill's frozen body to my bound form, his blue gaze widening with a mix of excitement and consternation; his lips form my name as our eyes meet, and I use almost the last of my strength to clear my throat and offer a rather truncated greeting.

"Daniel Jackson; are you well?"

"Um...yes, Teal'c, fine," my young friend replies, his eyes flitting once more from me to O'Neill and then back to me again. "They've taken Junior," he hisses in sudden understanding, and the expression on his face as he glares at O'Neill speaks worlds of the hurt and loathing and anguish churning within his spirit.

"O'Neill...Darius...did not do it," I gasp out, feeling my heart begin to falter within my chest. "It was...Aliph."

"Oh, of course; God Himself," Daniel quips humorlessly, and then flounders frantically to hold onto Samantha Carter as the guard carrying her suddenly and unceremoniously dumps her limp body into the linguist's arms.

"I suddenly find myself contemplating what might happen should I return the demon to Mr. Teal'c's body," Darius speaks up now, seeming completely oblivious to Daniel Jackson's valiant struggles nearby to slide our team mate's body carefully and gently to the ground. Daniel is too weak to continue holding her dead weight, and when he finally straightens up from arranging her as comfortably as he is able on the hard floor, his skin has taken on a sickly grayish color and is sheened with perspiration.

"Tell me, Daniel; should I do this thing? Should I defy my Father and return this foul creature to the one you call your friend?" Darius demands, his crazed stare fixing itself onto Daniel Jackson's shocked face. "Will I pass the test if I do it? Or will the terrible pain come again, crushing my brain, ripping my soul apart? The ironic thing is, Mr. Jackson...I feel that if I DON'T return this worm to its burrow, my soul will suffer untold agonies, anyway. So there IS no solution, no way out of this hellish paradox. If my Father is truly merciful, all will be well; if not, then nothing I do will make any difference."

"And that is the beginning of true wisdom," a reedy voice speaks from behind the guard who so recently held Samantha Carter. As Aliph glides into the room, his pale face glowing eerily under the golden lights streaming down from the ceiling, O'Neill's body goes rigid with a combination of fear and deference; his brown eyes flit wildly first from my lashed form to the barely-moving symbiote in the urn, then to Samantha's still, bruised body and Daniel Jackson's exhausted but oddly compassionate gaze before coming to rest at last on Aliph's smug countenance.

"What wisdom do you speak of, Father?" he asks, and the sound of O'Neill's voice calling this monster Father fills my soul with both anger and pity. But Darius's tone is resentful rather than respectful, and a slow flush of anger travels up O'Neill's throat as the entity within his body continues stubbornly.

"Is this the same wisdom that prompted you to sacrifice that child--Lah'jhan was his name, I believe...the same wisdom that prompted you to send the dark angel to his doom without even a whisper of regret for the passing of such a strong and vital energy?" Darius demands of Aliph. "What wisdom is this that fills my head with such agony any time I try to think too much, to remember where I came from before I was...here? Tell me, Father; tell me how to pass Your test, what You expect me to do."

Darius/O'Neill's voice trembles now with feeling, with raw emotion, and as he turns to suddenly plunge his hands into the urn containing the Goa'uld larva, Aliph steps past Daniel Jackson's barely ambulatory form and crosses thin arms over his bony chest.

"You would question my wisdom, my infallibility?" Aliph murmurs in a voice that is almost a purr. His eyes narrow to feral slits as he watches O'Neill's hands withdraw the flaccid length of the symbiote from the urn, the Colonel's mouth pursing with innate disgust at the feel of what he's holding in his hands now.

"What will you do with the demon worm, my son?" Aliph questions smoothly, raising one curious eyebrow. "Will you attempt to save its soul, as well, though I can assure you beforehand that it has none? Or will you return it to the one called Teal'c, to reinfect him with the demon's ancient evil and surely damn him forever? Have you not asked the man himself which fate he would prefer?"

"You would damn me, regardless," I gasp out to Aliph now with all the dignity I can still muster. "You are no God, no deity; you are merely a sick, power-hungry madman who has taken what does not belong to you for purposes having nothing to do with either holiness or righteousness. Any prophet--any GOD--who must use torture and coercion to establish His rule is not worthy of the title. But I will answer your question, facetious though it seems coming from your lips; I would choose to have the symbiote returned to me, to live so that I might do all in my power to return the commander to his rightful state."

"A very pretty speech, Jaffa," Aliph retorts drily, his gaze sliding from me to O'Neill's irresolute form. "But it is so very easy to live; much harder to die, to sacrifice oneself for the greater good. The dark angel OH-NEALL discovered this; in the beginning he mistakenly believed that by living he would serve the greater good--in this case, the rescue of his team mates and his world. But he was sadly mistaken; in his arrogance he failed to see that his life, his contributions, were as nothing. What passed for his soul was too weak to fight, so weak it could not even retain ownership of the body it inhabited. And in my infinite wisdom I directed his spirit to its proper place, to eternal darkness. I then brought my own son into this body in his stead, which is a feat only I could have arranged."

Aliph smiles narrowly now, his pale gaze encompassing all of SG-1, and his expression is decidedly smug as he continues extolling his own virtues and abilities. "I know that you are confused, uncertain as to whether Darius is merely your old friend acting under the influence of some type of hypnosis or torture or drugs...or is he indeed a completely different being, placed into the body of Colonel Jack O'Neill in a procedure unknown to you? In your minds you are telling yourselves it doesn't matter, that the only thing that is of importance is whether or not your friend's lost soul can be restored. Perhaps now is the time to find out. But before that question can be addressed, you must make another decision, my son, one regarding Teal'c and the demon he has carried. What do you plan to do with them? Their time is almost over; soon they will both be dead."

His eyes cold on mine, Aliph studies me briefly as the others present with us remain frozen in attitudes of either careful indifference or anguished indecision. The guards by the door display no reaction whatsoever to the drama taking place before them, but Daniel Jackson's entire body is quivering and trembling with nervous agitation; and midway across the room O'Neill's lean form stands with the Goa'uld larva twitching weakly in his grasp, an expression of deepest consternation darkening his features. Samantha Carter has begun to moan softly in the floor, one slender hand scrabbling weakly at the tiles beneath her as she struggles her way to consciousness; and as for myself, it is all I can do to keep my head up and my eyes open. The breaths that are left to me come in short, hurtful gasps that bring me precious little oxygen, and if it were not for the chains holding me to the column, I would have fallen into a crumpled heap long before now.

"Why do You toy with me--with all of us?" the Darius persona demands in a voice whose low, rasping tenor mimics O'Neill's angry tones with eerie precision. "You have explained to me that OH-NEALL is gone, that this body now belongs to me! You have told me what I must do to please You, to prove myself Your most exalted son; and yet it seems that You slyly mock me now, even taunting me to disobey Your previous edicts. In one breath You tell me that this Jaffa has no soul, and in the next You dare me to save him, implying that he does possess a spirit in need of salvation. You offer me Samantha as my bride while yet explaining that females can never be trusted; and You order me to torture one who was OH-NEALL's closest friend in some perverse attempt to align him with our own agenda, to draw his allegiance and his soul to me in place of the one he admired so greatly."

"And what will you do with all of these conflicting messages, my son?" Aliph murmurs in reply, his calm demeanor unaffected by Darius's growing agitation. "Will you bow to your Father's wishes and wisdom, or will you stumble along some dark, rocky path, searching for your own, faltering divinity? Are you so certain you know all that you need to know in order to make even the simplest decision?"

As O'Neill's face contorts in a disturbing grimace of the most extreme agitation I have ever beheld on those familiar features, Daniel Jackson mutters an enraged expletive and takes a threatening step toward Aliph. Instantly the two guards are moving toward him, and even after Aliph lifts one thin hand to stop them, they yet shift resentfully from foot to foot, casting malignant glares at the archaeologist as he comes to a reluctant halt midway between their bulky forms and Aliph's slender figure.

"Tell me," Darius murmurs to Aliph, extending the limp form of my symbiote toward him as though offering up some pitiful oblation. "Tell me what to do with this creature, how I might destroy the evil it represents and yet prevent Teal'c from following OH-NEALL down into darkness! What must I do; how can I satisfy both Your requirements and the needs of my own soul?"

"What matters your soul, if it strives in opposition to My will?" Aliph replies quietly, that same cold smile lingering about his thin lips. "Would you save this Jaffa and lose your soul--the very soul I created for you?"

"If you ARE the One God, then technically you're the creator of ALL our souls," Daniel Jackson speaks up now, his blue gaze narrowed thoughtfully on Aliph. "And whether Teal'c has a soul or not, he IS a living being and therefore falls within the purview of the Almighty, master of all creation. Bearing that in mind, would you, as Everlasting God, turn your back on even one of your creatures?"

"Ah...but you are assuming that I am a BENEVOLENT God, Dr. Jackson," Aliph replies with an amused lift of one eyebrow. "Justice--true righteousness--has no place for spineless mercy and second chances. No; my son must learn to accept the consequences of every weak choice, each weak decision, that he makes. He must discover for himself that while the meek might indeed inherit the earth, it would not be a world worth inhabiting under such ineffective influence. He must learn true strength of purpose if he is to take his place at my right hand; he must learn that the RIGHT way is most often NOT the way of compassion but of an iron fist."

"So, tell me, Darius," Aliph concludes, turning his penetrating glare from Daniel Jackson's pale visage to O'Neill's equally colorless face. "Tell me; will you be meek and mild, my son, and doom your soul--just as these poor souls are doomed; or will you curl the fingers of this body have given you into the instrument of steely resolve that will mark you as the true messiah, intent only on his Father's will?"

"Don't listen to him, Jack," Daniel Jackson urges now in a low, intense tone, turning his back on Aliph and taking one slow, infinitely careful step toward O'Neill. "He's messing with your head, trying to blind you to what you KNOW is true. He's made you confused on purpose, just so he can stand there now and offer you an instant solution, an easy way out of the dilemma of trying to think for yourself! He's manipulating you into doing exactly what he wants you to do, and once you've done his dirty work for him, he'll convince you it was all free will on your part, that YOU chose the actions you did without any coercion from his end. And that just isn't true! C'mon, Jack, you HAVE to be in there somewhere, still; some part of the snarky, ballsy man I know has GOT to be rolling his eyes at the unbelievable hokiness of this idiot's theatrics! God, Jack, don't tell me you're not just itching to bust loose in there and kick his scrawny ass!"

"Who will you believe, Darius?" Aliph interjects, his voice fading in and out as my perceptions become more and more distorted. I can no longer support my own weight, and my legs collapse bonelessly beneath me as my full mass sags with excruciating pain against the punishing coils of the chains wound round and round my body. Desperately I strain to keep my head up, to focus my eyes on the tense tableau playing out before me; I can feel the last of my life force seeping away, and it irks me that I will not survive long enough to witness the ultimate outcome in this battle for O'Neill's soul.

"Help Teal'c, s--, Darius; oh, God, please give him back the symbiote!" Major Carter's desperate, still-weak voice erupts without warning now from her prone body, and with great effort she pulls herself up to a shaky sitting position on the floor and directs her frantic gaze to O'Neill.

"Do it, Jack; save Teal'c!" Daniel adds his voice to Major Carter's, his blue gaze sending me a tense, silent message to hang on, to persevere. "He's saved YOUR life, been there for you more times than you can count; his soul is worthy, Jack--or Darius--or whoever the hell you are right now! Please...there's no more time; don't let Teal'c die, not like this. He...he deserves so much better. It isn't even a question of benevolence anymore, of mercy; it's a question of JUSTICE, Darius, just as Aliph said. And this is NOT justice for Teal'c."

"So many voices clamoring for your attention, my son; which one will you heed?" Aliph hisses now, and with the last of my waning strength I lift my head and train my dimming eyes on the sight of O'Neill, his panicked brown gaze shifting from me to Aliph and then back to me again. His expression is one of utter torment and bewilderment, and I feel a sudden surge of broken pity well up within me for the terrible lostness emanating from his shaking body.

Just let me die, I think dimly, distantly, as the larva in O'Neill's hands gives out one tiny, despairing shriek of helpless rage. Let me die so that O'Neill will not have to make the choice; take this cup from him, and make Aliph drink deeply from it in O'Neill's stead...

"I have decided."

O'Neill's voice is raw, the words oddly inflectionless now; and with all my senses spiralling down into darkness, I find myself unable to accurately read the expression on his face. But I can still make out his form, blurred and indistinct as it is to my failing sight; and I watch in a silence shared by the others in the room as O'Neill grasps the larval Goa'uld more securely in his hands and turns away from me and toward Aliph.

"I offer unto You a sacrifice," Darius intones formally from within O'Neill's body, even as Daniel Jackson grits out an anguished, "No!..." and makes an unsteady attempt to step in front of O'Neill.

"You are my Father; You are He who made me," O'Neill continues in a hushed voice that has nothing of our friend and commander in it. "Your will is perfect; Your teachings divine. I will honor and obey You always, and as a sign of my unending devotion, I deliver into Your hands the vile demon which hid its cowardice and evil within the body of another for so very long. I wish to offer up its blood for your cleansing, its body for your final judgment."

"Very good, my child; VERY good, indeed," Aliph purrs, and though I can no longer focus on his face, the smug tone in his voice fills my mind with a clear mental picture of the gloating expression which must rest on his face even now. So all is lost, after all, I find myself thinking with weary resignation. Whatever spark of the O'Neill spirit I knew and admired has either been lost forever or is too weak to fight back; and though I have no doubt that Daniel Jackson and Major Carter will fight to their last breaths to salvage the Colonel's soul and end Aliph's brutal tyranny, their chances do not look good. Maybe Hammond will send a rescue team, I think dimly as the events going on around me fade into the background. Maybe at least two of SG-1's members will return home safely before all is said and done. I only regret that I was unable to be effective on this, my last mission.

"Hand me your knife," I hear Aliph order someone, presumably one of the guards; and as the muted sound of the transaction rustles in the room, I allow my head to fall limply against my breast, my eyes sliding closed against the impending sight of O'Neill driving the knife into my symbiote's body.

The low, frantic noise of Daniel Jackson protesting our commander's actions merges with Samantha Carter's desperate plea for Darius to defy Aliph's machinations; I cannot hear O'Neill's voice at all, and as I surrender myself to the black curtain of oblivion descending over my spirit, I find I harbor one last regret: I must meet O'Neill's spirit in the hall of the One Brotherhood still burdened by the shame of my failure to avenge his death. I have failed, and I do not belong in fellowship with those who are true warriors. I am sorry, my friend...these last words steal from my fading thoughts and dwindle into the endless dark encroaching upon me. I am sorry...


Part XVI.

NOTE: The excerpted lyrics in this section are from the song "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence.

~ How can you see into my eyes like open doors
Leading you down into my core
Where I've become so numb without a soul
My spirit sleeping somewhere cold Until you find it there and lead it back home... ~

I know what I have to do...know what I have to...I know it, I know...God, what is it I'm supposed to know? Why can't I remember! Why is it so dark here, so cold...Someone's yelling--how do I understand that, how am I hearing it, that VOICE, so familiar...?

It knows me, that voice; it calls a name--MY name?--in a tone so rife with stress and anguish (Jack! No, Jack, please...) that it's painful to listen to it, so painful...I want to answer, if only to make it STOP; but I seem to have no body, no mouth, no way to do what I have to do to soothe that tormented, wretched voice into some semblance of peace. It hurts me, that voice; hurts me because I KNOW him, I know he's upset and that isn't good, it's wrong to make him suffer, I'm supposed to be his friend, if only I could remember...

Why can't I respond; how is it that I remain here in darkness, trapped and muzzled while something else--some ONE else--hovers like a dark, cold mist all around me...Can't breathe, closing me in, smothering me with the blackness, this penetrating chill sucking my life force--my very spirit--away from me...MY God, won't somebody out there HELP ME?!!

Jesus, this hurts--it fucking HURTS--to think, to remember, to even TRY breaking free...I'm trapped in a nightmare I can't wake up from, and I don't know who I am; but the voice...oh, God, that VOICE I know (how do I know it, HOW?)...It consumes my awareness, that low, anxiety-filled cry of despair coming now from nowhere and everywhere, from the OUT THERE that isn't HERE.

Yes, that voice...it calls again, a single word--a name--tells me I'm someone else, someone NOT Darius...but Darius says it's a lie, Darius says he IS the son of God, that I AM DARIUS, I AM THE SON!...But I'm someone else, too, Daniel knows but I can't see Daniel, can't KNOW him anymore, I'm not supposed to BE here, not supposed to talk to my friends...He'll send them all to Hell if I talk, He's God and He promised me He would do it if I talked, if I struggled...and it hurts, ah God it HURTS!!...

I need to see Daniel's eyes, something about his eyes will help me, will make me remember, make me understand who I am, what's real...But no, my fate is here, in my hands--HIS hands--our Father, who art in Heaven, Aliph be Thy Name...and He's got the whole damned world in His hands...But these hands I see now are MY hands, so foreign-feeling and yet so strangely familiar; and I have a very important task, a job to do with these hands...There's something here now, I'm holding something sluglike and writhing and alive between my fingers, oh-my-God it's alive and SO disgusting, but I KNOW this thing...and it's almost there now, the memory of it...

DANIEL! God, Daniel, help me, I know you've helped me before, you've helped Darius, God's son...no, it isn't Darius Daniel helped, but someone else, another...Help the other now--I AM that other, that name, God, what is it, the name I used to know!...Daniel, sweet Jesus, Daniel, help me, I KNOW you, and you know me, NOT Darius but ME, I'm here, too, but I am...lost. God, so lost.

~ Wake me up inside
Wake me up inside
Call my name and save me from the dark
Bid my blood to run before I come undone
Save me from the nothing I've become... ~

An offering, a sacrifice...this horrid thing I hold in my/Darius's? hands, this thing of evil...but it has the power of life or death to some, especially to ONE whose name hovers near, so near, as evocative and mysterious as my own elusive identity...I see dark skin, gravely intelligent eyes, a fierce, proud spirit...but it doesn't fit, the notion that this hideous worm that I hold in my grasp is somehow connected to that image, to that other whose name dances so tantalizingly just beyond my reach...God, it hurts, my head frigging hurts SO MUCH, and I think maybe I'm ill, maybe I've been sick and I need help...No,I need to remember what I have to do, I promised Father this sacrifice, this oblation...

But it's wrong, this is all wrong...and that voice, the name it offers up, the name it hurls at me like a lance through my brain...It calls and calls, that familiar voice, until some other force suddenly intrudes and shuts off the sound in mid-grunt, ending the summoning, cutting me off from Daniel, from CONNECTING...It troubles me, the loss of that voice, and of the name it sent forth to pound and pound relentlessly at my skull, this skull that means I have a body, that I am a physical being, alive...that I am, I am...Jack.

JACK.

Jack...that was the name Daniel called, the name of the dark one, the one Father sent away to everlasting torment...I felt him go, felt the last, tenuous threads of that imperfect soul unloose themselves from their moorings with an agonized, infuriated cry that shrank and shrank away, spiralling down to little more than a murmur, a sigh, and then to nothing at all...

Nothing. I am nothing. Darius is here but he is nothing, too; he is a bit of alien metal, a tiny pellet in my head, he is the son of God but God is not here...His God is a killer of children, of innocent not-Charlie boys and damaged Colonels and inscrutable Jaffas--but surely this is blasphemy, to speak against one's own Father so, to doubt and question and to stand trembling before Him with this repulsive creature in hand, hating it, hating Him, yet needing His approval, needing this excruciating pain to STOP, needing Darius to make this sacrifice, to drive the dark one back again, back to perdition...

No, goddammit, NO! Not the dark one here, only me, only Jack, good old Jack, Daniel will vouch for me, he knows...He tried to wake me up, and there's blood now, blood on my hand from the knife I've taken up, the knife God offers me now to kill the worm, to kill my good friend Teal'c along with it...

~ Now that I know what I'm without
You can't just leave me
Breathe into me and make me real
Bring me to life... ~

Help me, Daniel; please please please help me, make this stop, it hurts and I'm tired, so damned tired...but I have to do this, Darius is with me still and he serves the Father, he is his Father's son, he is smoke and mirrors and a bitter pill not swallowed but rammed into my brain with excruciating force, an unwelcome saviour, an unsolicited messiah...Out, I want him out!--he's not real, but I'm not real, either, am I? I'm the dark one, sent away, but Daniel wouldn't let me go, not Daniel...or Teal'c, or Carter. GOD, I KNOW those names, I want to breathe, I can't breathe, can't think, I want to LIVE!...

Help me, Daniel; help me breathe, help me live. I hurt you but you're still my friend--you'll help me, won't you help me...I won't let God kill you if you'll only help me, show me what it is JACK wants to do, NEEDS to do now...Yes. Jack. NOT Darius; no offerings on the ceremonial pyre from that craven, nonexistent son...Jack wants to come back now, Jack very badly wants to know what to do, and Daniel's eyes will tell him if only he can find that blue, blue gaze in all this darkness, in this cold, cold vacuum of infinite inner space...

~ Without a thought
Without a voice
Without a soul
Don't let me die
There must be something more
Bring me to life... ~

Thought, voice, soul...here, all of it here, somewhere, and I am trying to understand, am wandering, searching...

I am the resurrection and the life, He said; but He lied, He's a lying son of a bitch, He kills kids and made me hurt Daniel, I made Daniel scream, oh God the screams...! I think I hurt Carter, too, (me, not Darius, all of it ME)...what did I do to Sam, I remember her eyes, so confused, so full of pain and despair as she struggled beneath my fists...

And now my head is exploding, my brain bursting out through this skull, this body that trembles with sick uncertainty concerning the identity of the consciousness inside it. There's a spirit fighting within, fighting to break free, to KNOW who the hell this is, who I am, as I stand here with the knife's keen blade slicing into the flesh of my palm, shedding crimson drops of blood onto the vile creature--it's called a symbiote, how do I know that?--struggling weakly in my fingers to evade the knife's deadly kiss...

Oh, Jesus, the symbiote!...This is TEAL'C'S life I hold in my hand now, Teal'c, my friend, my brother...Where have they taken you, what the living FUCK is going on here...?! Junior, it's Junior writhing and twisting in my grasp, and my blood falls on his sickly white flesh, my blood drips and sizzles a trail of memory and agony and bone-deep despair onto the marble floor as I lift my eyes--Jack O'Neill's eyes again, by God--into the colorless orbs of the bastard who killed Lah'jhan, into the gaze of the false, fucking god who wants to kill Teal'c...if he hasn't died already for lack of his symbiote.

And I can hear Daniel, Daniel whose voice called me back, Daniel who's lying on the floor behind me now with Stooge #2's massive foot planted in the back of his neck, cutting off his voice, his air, his strength...And I know Sam is here, I can hear her agitated breathing as Stooge #1 drags her up from the floor, holds her too hard, too tightly, and I know it hurts the bruises I gave her, I know she wants to lash out, to fight back but she's tired, too, so tired...

And it comes to me, finally something is clear, something makes sense...I know I have to fix this now, make this all come out right for my team, make this bastard smirking before me pay and pay and PAY for what he's done...I have to do this, I have to think, have to kill him-kill him-god-yes-KILL-the-fucker...and I know my name isn't Darius. But I also know--for now--that neither am I Jack...at least, not completely.

Just call me Judas, you motherfucker, I smile now deep inside, in a place that unwary faux-deities cannot probe with their wicked eyes; and as I curl the fingers of one hand protectively round Junior's weakly struggling form, my other hand clutches the sacrificial knife in blood-streaked fingers, my grip firming and tightening on the handle as I step forward to plant a traitor's kiss on the cold cheek of Darius's God.

"For you...Pops," I murmur silkily against his ear; and as his eyes go suddenly, impossibly wide with shocked comprehension, I ram the knife into his body with all the strength I have left in me.

"Die, you godless motherfucker!" I hiss into his agony-contorted face, leaning into him and twisting the knife, twisting and sawing and splitting him up the middle, opening up his rotting husk for all to see the lies suppurating within...The stench of his evil pours out on a noxious wave of gas and blood and steaming entrails, ropes of intestine surging eagerly forth as if eager to escape the fleshly confines containing them...Hot ichor pumps from his body to drench my hand, splashing down the front of my body as a scream unlike anything I've ever heard before erupts from his mouth in one long, continuous ululation of horrified denial.

"That was for Lah'jhan," I pant as he falls forward into my embrace, latching onto me with fierce, preternaturally strong fingers, caught up in his own, personal spasming death dance that has him digging his nails into my skin, has him vomiting up blood and curses and incoherent pleas for the Deity he's claimed to be to save him, to rain down eternal torment on my patricidal head...

"And this is for me," I murmur intimately against his neck, hurrying now because the stooges are about to snap out of their stunned, frozen shock and come for me, are mere seconds away from ripping me limb from limb. As Aliph claws at me, his gore-soaked body plastered against mine--as close as a lover, as near as my own heartbeat--I drop the knife and delve slippery fingers down into the pocket of his robe, searching out and finding the small rod he made me use on Daniel, the source of so much pain for my friend. In the space between one drowning, gurgling cry and the next, I bring the rod up, jam it against Aliph's left temple and activate it at its highest setting.

"I guess you're a god who can't even answer your own prayers," I mutter as Aliph goes completely rigid, the whites of his eyes searing and boiling and becoming nothing recognizable as human, not even recognizable as eyes anymore. I feel him die at the exact same moment my own, fading strength plays out completely; and as the both of us tumble gracelessly to the floor--Aliph's ruined body bleeding the last remnants of its evil all over my once nice robes--my limbs convulse and I feel the almost imperceptible trembling of Junior, still clutched like some bizarre, lucky talisman in my left hand.

Hang in there, you little bastard, I think almost fondly to the symbiote as Daniel's frantic cries drift vaguely into my consciousness. You've still got a Jaffa to save, not to mention the joy of all those fruitless fantasies of universal dominion coiled in your nasty little head. Don't you die, Junior; don't you fucking die.

And then there are hands on Aliph's body, hands on me, a veritable army of hands tugging and pulling us apart, reaching for my limp form; and I don't know if they're friend or foe, these hands--if they are the hands of mercy and assistance or the hands of brutal retaliation for having murdered yet another God-wannabe. I want to get up, want to do all I can to shield Daniel and Carter and Teal'c from the wrath my actions will bring down upon us; but right now there's nothing left in me, no more energy, no more rage to fuel even a weak attempt to rise up against these hands, these voices, so angry and so frantic...

But it's okay, I think dizzily to myself as my body becomes numb, unfeeling, just an object lying on the blood-soaked floor; I can rest now, now that I know who I am, now that I know what I've done. It's almost unbearably sweet, the burden of being Jack O'Neill once again; and as the light fades out around me, I'm dimly aware of my lips moving soundlessly and realize, with faint surprise, that even now--even after all of this--I am still able to utter a prayer of sorts:

'Save my friends; I took out another God-wannabe for You, it's the least You can do for ME.'

Maybe it won't make the top ten list of devotional favorites, I think as this world slides away from me; but it's the best I can do, dammit. And as I begin to hallucinate Daniel's hands gentle on my face, begin to hear his voice and imagine it's the voice of God, throwing me a gossamer-thin line to hang onto, to clutch at with my blood-slicked hands, a vast roaring washes the bizarre mental image away and leaves me lost again, falling.


Part XVII.

I can't believe this is happening. Somehow I thought Jack would be stronger, that the Darius consciousness or whatever the hell it is lurking inside his body would be unable to stand against the sheer gutsiness and determination buried deep in Jack O'Neill's soul. And with Teal'c's VERY immediate survival at stake, I suppose I allowed myself to believe that Jack would do anything--ANYTHING--to save our friend from the terrible death he's experiencing now at Aliph's hands.

But to my horror Jack doesn't seem to be anywhere in residence now behind those wild brown eyes that lift so beseechingly to Aliph's cold, colorless orbs. Darius's is the only essence I can sense within the subservient body of what used to be my best friend as that same lean, graceful body moves toward Aliph with Teal'c's symbiote held out before it in a desperate plea for approval, for mercy.

"No, Jack; NO, dammit!" I hear myself cry out, compelled to keep trying till my last breath to shake him out of this, to call him back from whatever dark, horrible place he's gone to before it's all too late. I feel almost overwhelmed by the horror of the situation, my body trembling as though in the grip of a high fever from the almost lethal mix of rage and fear and desperation churning inside my chest. God, Jack, not like this; don't let Aliph win, don't let him defeat you so easily!

"Don't do it, sir! Don't let him have Junior!" I hear Sam cry out, her voice muffled with strain and exertion as she struggles to break free of the hold one of the guards has on her. I'd love to rush to her aid, but I'm having my own mini-crisis as the other guard seems determined to grind his huge foot all the way through the back of my neck and into the floor he's got me pinned against so effortlessly. With the side of my face pressed painfully into the cold marble tiles, it's difficult to get a clear view of the action taking place mere feet away; but I grit my teeth against the agony the guard's foot is inflicting on my neck and manage to turn my head just enough to see Jack--no, Darius--coming to a position of abject servitude before his imposter god. He is murmuring something low and fervent and intense to Aliph, something about an oblation, about honoring and serving his true father; and I want to scream out the terrible frustration and fury building and building inside me.

"Jack! Damn you, Jack, wake up in there! Listen to me--listen to Sam! You can't do this, you can't let Aliph win! He's not God, and you know it! You're not his son, you're not Darius...Jesus, Jack, PLEASE! You have to remember who you are and WHAT you are! You know what needs to be done, it still isn't too late if you HURRY...!" With a strangled squawk my voice is cut off in mid-plea as the guard standing on my throat steps down even harder, practically crushing my larynx and coming close to severing my spinal cord, if the pain in my neck is any indication.

"Stop it, you're killing him, you bastard!" Sam yells, and as blackness dances around the edges of my vision, I can't decide if she's talking to the guard about me or to Darius about Teal'c. Doesn't really matter either way, I think fuzzily as I begin to choke and gasp wildly for air; if Jack's truly lost to us, then we're all lost. All doomed. God, it just CANNOT end this way!

And then it happens--the miracle I've been silently yearning for with no conscious awareness of doing so--the answer to my every, desperate prayer. As Darius makes a move to slice his knife deep into Teal'c's symbiote--severing forever any hope Teal'c might have of surviving this ordeal--a change as subtle and mercurial as the ripple caused by a single water droplet on the surface of the ocean passes through Jack's body, transforming that body's energy completely.

Between one pent breath and the release of it, Darius is gone; as Jack's figure steps up close, so close, to Aliph and whispers like a lover into the false god's ear, it is undeniably Jack's soul doing the whispering, Jack's hand that suddenly and savagely brings the knife up with an eternity's worth of rage and vengeance behind the movement, scissoring and thrusting with enough strength to split Aliph from crotch to nipple before the doomed charlatan can even summon the breath to scream.

"Die, you motherfucker; die!" I hear MY Jack growl in grim satisfaction; and as the guards holding Sam and I immobile freeze in disbelieving horror at the spectacle before them, both of us take advantage of their stunned stasis and surge up in a furious revolt of our own.

Silent curses fill my mind as I grapple with the incredibly heavy foot atop my neck, twisting and slithering my weak but determined body until I'm able to flip myself over far enough to grasp that hated foot between my hands and upset the guard's off-centered balance. With a startled grunt of dismay, the behemoth standing on my neck staggers heavily back, arms windmilling almost comically as he slams flat on his back onto the hard floor.

From the corner of my eye I can see Jack writhing in the floor beneath Aliph's gore-splattered body, his left hand stretched as far out to one side as he can reach, fingers still clutching the dying body of Teal'c'c symbiote as if in a desperate attempt to keep the creature safe and alive. As the painful sounds of Sam doing her best to dispatch her much-larger assailant sound in my ears, I drag myself away from the enraged, scrabbling form of my own guard with my heart pounding wildly in my chest. Still debilitated from my recent torture session with Darius (NOT Jack, I think fiercely to myself now), my body wavers uncertainly between the two options looming before me: should I go to Sam's defense, or grab Junior from Jack's hand and move as fast as I can to reimplant the nasty little bugger back in Teal'c's pouch, praying like mad the whole time that it's not too late already for the both of them?

One look, first at Sam's stubborn but sadly ineffective attempt to keep her guard's attention away from Jack, and then at Teal'c's limp, chained body, makes the decision grimly simple: with my own guard grappling madly at my heels, I pull myself on my belly across the blood-and-guts strewn floor and curl my right hand around Jack's left, my grip sliding briefly over his gore-streaked fingers before wrapping around the symbiote's unpleasantly smooth body still secure in his grasp.

At almost the same instant Sam's guard breaks free of her exhausted efforts to keep him away from our commander and drops heavily to his knees beside the two huddled bodies practically afloat on a sea of gore. The guard's huge, shaking hands begin yanking and tugging at Aliph's body, a high-pitched keening coming from his lips as he attempts to burrow down past his fallen deity's reeking corpse and get to the traitorous messiah temporarily shielded beneath it. Insane murder flashes in his eyes as he scrabbles for any bit of Jack's flesh he can reach, and I know we don't have much time.

"Junior...let me have Junior, Jack!" I pant weakly, my fingers tugging in opposition to Jack's stubborn hold. As the larval Goa'uld squeals weakly once from within the tangled web of our laced fingers, Jack turns his exhausted brown gaze on my face, a shadow of confused incomprehension darkening his unfocused stare.

"Jack..." I murmur softly, the insane tableau of blood and death and unspeakable violence that hangs so heavy and fetid in the air around us fading dimly into the background as recognition sparks suddenly and with startling ferocity in his eyes. Without conscious volition my fingers slide from Junior's blood-streaked form to stroke along Jack's hand, my touch pulling him back, anchoring both his mind and his spirit to this reality, to the unspoken link between us that has carried us through so many crises in the past.

"Daniel..." he echoes in mild surprise, the sound of my name gusting--broken and repentant--on a tired sigh from his lips. Daniel--just two simple syllables that nonetheless send a shiver of profound emotion through every molecule of my body, the blessedly familiar recognition in Jack's voice pulling a helpless groan of shattered relief from my chest as his eyes hold mine.

"We don't have much time, Jack," I plead calmly, my fingers unmindful of the sticky residue of Aliph's life's blood adhering to Jack's knuckles as I caress his hand in gentle persuasion. "I need to put Junior back--NOW. Teal'c's dying, Jack."

"Go...go," Jack nods, his gaze roaming hungrily over my face as though he's desperate to memorize every line, every angle, of my underlying bone structure; I feel his fingers twitch beneath mine, as though they long to follow the path his eyes have taken and to map my features through the intricacies of touch. Helpless to hide the depth of trembling emotion in my own frantic assessment of his drawn, blood-splattered face, I spare us one more second, one more heartbreakingly brief clasp and squeeze of joined fingers, before sliding the twitching symbiote from Jack's weakening grasp.

"Hurry," Jack rasps out, even as the guard who's been clawing his way up my back suddenly pulls himself to his knees in a sticky puddle of blood and lunges frantically at Aliph's and Jack's gruesomely entwined bodies. God, I think desperately, even as I force myself to pull away from the scene, from Jack and his pitifully vulnerable position beneath Aliph's corpse; God, they mean to rip Jack apart for killing their damned, fake god. And I'm helpless to stop them.

"Go, Daniel; go!" I hear Sam call out desperately, and I look up to see her crawling across the floor, both her face and her body tight with a mixture of pain and more determination than I've seen her display in a long time. Briefly her blue gaze flicks from me to something just beyond my line of sight, and taking her silent cue, I clutch Junior more securely to my chest and twist my body sideways long enough to follow the direction of Sam's pointed stare. Almost immediately my eye falls on the discarded torture rod Jack had slipped from Aliph's pocket and rammed against the false god's temple; he had apparently dropped it during Aliph's death spasms, and it had skittered across the blood-slicked floor to land several feet away from Jack's and Aliph's bodies.

Gotcha, I send back to Sam now with a grim nod, praying that she can get to the rod before one of the two goons at Jack's side notices. They'll still have the sheer physical strength needed to overpower her and simply take the device from her; but if Sam can conceal it from their immediate notice, we might be able to use it against them before they can react...or against one of them, at least, before the element of surprise wears off and goon #2 pulverizes us all into hamburger.

Trusting Sam to go to Jack's aid, I stagger upright and slip and slide across the entrail-smeared floor, Teal'c's symbiote flopping with dismaying lifelessness in my shaky grasp. Keeping my eyes fixed on Teal'c's equally lifeless form, I skid across the noxious remains of corrupted evil beneath my feet, fighting back a surge of acid nausea at the disgusting squish of spilled body fluids oozing up between my bare toes.

"Hold on, Teal'c! Just...hold on!" I hear myself gasp out with barely-contained desperation as I manage to reach his side without falling on my ass. Awkwardly juggling Junior's limp body in one hand, I reach with my other hand to feel for a pulse at Teal'c's neck. I can't find it, can't feel even the faintest thread of a heartbeat beneath my questing fingers; and with an inarticulate cry of rage and denial, I fumble wildly at the chains and the robes covering Teal'c's midsection until I finally bare enough of his abdomen to get a visual of his pouch.

Gritting my teeth against this intimate invasion of my Jaffa friend's body, I clutch Junior's seemingly dead body more securely in my hand and shove the creature as deeply into Teal'c's empty pouch as I can; the movement is met with surprising resistance, as though Teal'c's pouch is already sealing over and closing up in the aftermath of the loss of its lone inhabitant. I have to work my hand into my friend's body, my gaze sliding obliquely down at the task as if gazing directly at what I'm doing is just too much for my brain to process. I realize I'm breathing harshly through my mouth as I work, every respiration jerking roughly from my chest as I use my fingers to manipulate Junior's boneless length completely inside Teal'c's pouch.

"C'mon...C'MON, damn you both!!" I hear myself grit out, tears of strained effort springing hotly to my eyes. "Live, dammit, Teal'c! Come on, you know how pissed you're going to be if you let this tin-plated, Apophis wannabe take you out!"

I can hear myself sobbing out choked epithets as I withdraw my hand from Teal'c's pouch and try ineffectively to wrench the chains from his lax body; cursing my own frailty, I take Teal'c's lolling head between my blood-smeared hands and raise his ashen face to mine.

"Don't die, Teal'c...please, please..." I whisper, my fingers stroking desperately, uselessly, over his strong cheekbones and down across the fullness of his bottom lip. My thumb glides helplessly over the slight part between his top and bottom lip, all my senses focused on trying to detect even the faintest sign of air, of breath, ghosting from his mouth. But there's nothing. His eyes are closed, his bald head gleaming softly with a strangely dignified, almost unearthly beauty in the dim golden glow of the room's subdued lighting.

Teal'c has always been a master at the unutterable stillness of carefully restrained power, his body a sleekly carved and priceless granite sculpture made oddly fluid and graceful by the undeniable vitality of the spirit inhabiting it. And now, without that indefinable essence of soul to animate the body, Teal'c's empty shell slumps before me, a still-impressive but oddly unsatisfying piece of art, solid and so tragically empty.

"No..." I murmur, taking liberties I would never dare to take were he conscious and aware and dammit, alive; almost without volition my fingers continue to stroke his face, tracing the strong line of nose and jaw and the surprisingly smooth, dusky skin resting in such vivid contrast against my own pale touch. As a hard lump of grief rises in my throat, I find myself leaning in to press my forehead to his, my hands sliding up over the smooth dome of his head and around back to cradle the nape of his neck in my palms in an agony of silent regret. With my thumbs rubbing gently along either side of his neck, I blink back hopeless tears and murmur softly, "I'm sorry, Teal'c. I'm so sorry."

I want to stay here with him, torn between loyalty and friendship and the unutterably horrible feeling of knowing that Teal'c spent his last moments unattended, with no last words of comfort or benediction to ease his final breaths. The sensation of complete and total bereavement that lodgeds itself in the center of my chest seems to be cutting off my own breath, slowly but surely stealing life from my lungs as unidentifiable noises from behind me gradually resolve themselves into the grim sounds of mortal combat.

Realizing I can do nothing more for Teal'c now, I gently position his head so that his chin rests against his breast and turn my pain-wracked body with infinite weariness to face the dreaded scene of battle taking place mere feet away. It's highly doubtful that I'll be of any more use to my team in this particular arena than I was to Teal'c, but I can't let Sam and Jack take on Aliph's incensed guards all by themselves.

As my eyes take in the sight of one guard lying limp and deathly pale on the floor near Aliph's ruined corpse, the sound of Jack's low, continuous curses pulls me from numbed incomprehension to the almost surreal spectacle of both Sam and Jack riding the back of the second guard like demonic, gore-spattered imps from Hell.

With his legs wrapped securely around the guard's waist from behind, Jack uses every ounce of strength he has left in his body, channeling the last dregs of his energy into his fists as he whales away at the back of the guard's head; at the same time, Sam makes use of our c.o.'s diversion to literally climb up the right side of the raging behemoth flailing at them both, her nimble hands manipulating the device she's holding to a position as close to the guard's neck as she can get it.

"Goddammit, Carter, hurry up!" Jack growls, his voice frayed with the ire of exhausted desperation; I know he's rapidly reaching the limits of his endurance, and as the guard slams one meaty arm around behind him and almost succeeds in hurling Sam from her tenacious grip on his shoulder, I force my stiff legs into motion, charging clumsily to the rescue and completely forgetting the slimy soup of Aliph gore lying in wait underfoot.

With a dismayed cry I suddenly find my already shaky legs sliding out from under me, sending me flat on my ass with a tailbone-jarring thump that has me biting down hard on my tongue with the exquisite agony of it. Completely out of control, my stunned body slides and careens across the floor and slams into the guard's ankles with all the force of a small tornado, impacting his body at exactly the same moment Sam finally manages to press the torture rod against his neck.

With a truly hideous scream of enraged agony, the guard stiffens as if caught in the throes of a grand mal seizure, his body going rigid even as he's knocked off his feet by my own graceless entrance onto the scene. Everything seems to take place in slow motion, the four of us merging into a phantasmogoric, multi-headed creature from a Daliesque nightmare as Aliph's final bastion of evil crumbles.

Bathed in the crimson-and-black hues of blood and ichor, all of us--Sam, Jack, the guard, and I--kiss the fouled floor with earth-shattering force, limbs impacting the tiles beneath us with uncontrollable violence. As someone's elbow connects viciously with my left cheekbone, I'm dimly aware that gut-wrenching cries of pain are erupting simultaneously from our four separate mouths.

I want to move, want to drag myself away from this traffic-stopping disaster of a collision, but I seem to be buried under a solid wall of crushing flesh, my panicked body bucking uselessly against the weight pressing me down into the nasty slime on the floor. Sam obviously gave the guard a heaping dose of hurt, as he lies jittering and jerking and convulsing helplessly in the midst of us, his floor-thumping exertions knocking the rest of us to and fro like flotsam and jetsam on some noxious sea.

"Teal'c!" Jack gasps raggedly from somewhere under the guard's threshing legs; briefly I catch a glimpse of one red-rimmed, wild brown eye commanding my attention, and at the breathless question that eye directs my way, I try to suck nonexistent air into my compressed lungs to wheeze out the hopeless verdict.

"Gone," I say, the word hanging over us like the black sword of death, of eternal damnation. "Too late--" I gasp out as the guard gives one last, monumental heave of quivering muscles and goes lax, his dead weight pinning Sam and me to the floor in exhausted surrender.

"Like hell it is!" Jack growls from underneath the guard's tree-trunk legs; even though his face is positively gray beneath the savage mask of gore congealing on his skin, he somehow manages to grimly heave one of the guard's legs away from his body and then squirms and wiggles tenaciously till he's able to pull himself free of the other leg.

"Where's that rod?" he barks at Sam, his blood-stiffened hair sticking straight up from his head in matted spikes as he staggers to his knees. "Dammit, we don't have TIME for this shit! Carter, where the fuck IS it?!"

"I think I'm...lying on it, sir," Sam gasps out, her blue eyes widening with both pain and recognition as she scrabbles weakly beneath her. "I can't...get to it, this oaf has my arm wedged...under my stomach..."

"Here, maybe I can reach it," I grit out, digging my fingers into the seam of one of the floor tiles and clawing my own glacially slow way out from under the guard's right arm. Stretching gingerly toward Sam's prone body, I manage to slip my right hand under her torso and fumble blindly for the missing device.

The first, hesitant blush of some huge insight regarding Jack's urgency is dawning faintly at the edges of my wavering mind, and as Sam chokes back a grunt of pain and directs me to slide my fingers a little more to the right, I realize where Jack's thoughts are leading concerning the retrieval of the device. Even though it's so obviously hopeless to even consider the possibility that Teal'c might yet be saved, I suddenly find my heart pounding wildly in my chest with the desperate need to believe, to trust that if Jack could return from Hell, then surely he can bring Teal'c back, too. And as my fingers close around the hard outline of the torture rod, I can't help the short bark of triumph that erupts from my throat.

"Got it!" I call out, and before I've even managed to withdraw the device completely from beneath Sam's pinned body, Jack is scrambling like a deranged monkey over both the guard's limp form and my own, pain-drenched body. With a low grunt he snatches the device from my trembling hand and rolls off me onto his hands and knees, his body shaking uncontrollably with exhausted desperation as he struggles to find his feet and stay upright on the blood-slick tiles.

"Oh, God, can he do it?" Sam exclaims in a low, hoarse voice trembling with emotional strain and fatigue. "Daniel, are you sure Teal'c is..."

"I couldn't find a pulse...no hearbeat, no breathing," I reply wearily, my gaze meeting hers for one long, troubled intake of putrid air. "But the rod...the electrical current it carries..."

"Instant defibrillator?" Sam finishes half-hopefully, half-doubtfully. I can see the pulsebeat at her neck begin to triphammer with excitement, with the same, overwhelming need my own heart feels right now to pull one more miracle from this hellish mission, from this seemingly doomed day.

"He'll need our help," I say grimly, and with a bare nod to each other Sam and I work together to fight our way clear of the guard's barely-breathing bulk. Please don't let it be too late, please prove me wrong, let me be wrong!--

I hear the words over and over in my head now, repeating themselves like an insane litany; and as I stumble to my feet and follow unsteadily in Sam's wake to the pillar where Teal'c's body is chained, I find myself fighting the urge to laugh hysterically at the notion that Jack O'Neill might yet end this day with not one, but two amazing resurrections under his belt--his own and now Teal'c's.

Jack's will be done, I think with half-crazed disregard for the heretical nature of the sentiment; if it means both of my friends will go home with Sam and me, alive and breathing at the close of this horrible day, then I'll be happy to spout blasphemies all the way back through the gate.

C'mon, Teal'c, I urge silently now as I move with Sam to Jack's side, the three of us staring somberly at our team mate's still form; come back to us, straight from the vaunted Hall of Warriors or whatever the hell it is...We need you, Teal'c; and there's one very sore, exhausted, pissed-off dark angel here who just won't take no for an answer.

"Stand back," the dark one himself rasps now, his fatigue-shadowed eyes glittering suddenly with immutable resolve. "Stay clear, and pray like hell that this works." And as Jack steps up to press the torture device to the muscled wall of Teal'c's chest, directly over his heart, I feel my own heart freeze within me, its jerky beats seemingly jangling to a discordant, faltering halt as I close my eyes against the terrible fear that this will all be for nothing.


Part XVIII.

That s.o.b. will NOT take one of mine; he didn't get me, hard as he tried, and he sure as hell isn't going to add Teal'c to his list of victims. I don't care how hopeless it looks--we are NOT giving up on the Big Guy.

"Get back!" I repeat harshly to the others as I press Aliph's torture stick against the unmoving wall of Teal'c's chest. God, I hate this, I think grimly to myself as I try to position the device directly over Teal'c's silent heart; even knowing I can't possibly do any further damage to my friend, the very idea of zapping him with this thing gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

"C'mon, T; don't make me do this more than once," I hear myself mutter distractedly as my blood-encrusted fingers fumble for the hidden activation control on the device. I can feel both Carter and Daniel practically breathing down my neck, and in my current exhausted, jagged-nerves state, it's all I can do to stop myself from spinning around and warning them off with a snarled curse.

But the silent weight of their intense concern for Teal'c pulls me back from the raw edge of emotions frayed nearly to the breaking point; Daniel's tentative, featherlight brushing of fingers across my back keeps me from erupting now into yet another display of traumatized fury at how completely gone-to-shit this mission has turned out to be. Teal'c...oh, God, T, don't do this to me...

As my thumb hovers over the device's trigger, my pulse pounding weak and rapid through my veins, I find myself briefly lifting my other hand to cup Teal'c's jaw, tilting his head back and up so that the strongly chiseled planes of his face are revealed to my grieving eyes.

"Come back to us, Big Guy," I murmur before gently resettling his chin against his chest and taking a firmer grip on Aliph's little torture toy. "We need to get the hell out of here, and we're damned sure not leaving you behind; and in a unanimous vote, your fellow team members have decided that we would much prefer carrying you out of here still breathing. So, okay; here we go."

And before I can talk myself into backing out, I activate the device and press it with grim determination to Teal'c's bare skin. His body jerks convulsively--once, twice, three times--as I grit my teeth and force myself to keep putting steady pressure against my friend's chest with the hated device.

After the third mini-seizure jolts Teal'c's body with no discernible change in his condition, I can't take it anymore and deactivate the rod, lowering it to my side with a trembling hand.

"God...we ARE too late," Sam murmurs from behind me, her voice thick with an exhausted grief whose hopeless finality starts up a sympathetic, relentless pounding deep inside my head.

"He's gone, then," Daniel's voice sounds in a defeated tone that is nonetheless as much question as statement; slowly I turn to look into his eyes and find my soul pierced through by the unguarded expression of dark misery in his somber return gaze. Behind the misery I see the reflection of my own stunned disbelief, and the intensity of that mirrored sentiment tightens my chest with an anger that's almost beyond bearing.

"We didn't try everything; there's still Junior," I hear myself grit out stubbornly, and at the dubious look on Daniel's face, I lift the torture rod and gesture angrily with it in the direction of Teal'c's abdomen.

"Junior's the one who serves as Teal'c's immune system, right?" I ask, and both Daniel and Sam nod cautious agreement.

"So you're thinking if you can jumpstart Junior again, maybe he'll be able to revive Teal'c somehow," Daniel murmurs, and I give him a curt nod before turning back to T's limp body.

"Why not; we did the same kind of thing once before in Janet's medical lab," I mutter, then jerk my head toward my team mates. "I might need some help with this," I warn tersely; and almost before the words are out of my mouth, both Carter and Daniel are moving up on either side of me, silently awaiting my instructions.

"One of you needs to reach in and pull Junior out of Teal'c's pouch, at least far enough for me to zap the little bastard," I order, and Sam and Daniel cast brief, questioning glances at one another, silently deliberating with each other and then agreeing on which one of them will do the honors.

Without a word Daniel reaches out to brush hesitant fingers against Teal'c's abdomen; with the smallest grimace of misgiving playing about his lips, his hand slides into the narrow cavity in Teal'c's stomach and begins to fish around for the symbiote. And a new party game is launched, I think nonsensically to myself as a brief, ludicrous flash of an imaginary tv commercial touting the all-new "Find the symbiote!" game flickers in my head. Obviously some of my marbles are still missing, I think with distracted exasperation as Daniel bites down on his lower lip and nods his head at me.

"Get ready, Jack," he mutters tensely after another, nervewracking moment of careful grappling inside Teal'c's body; and I nod an almost imperceptible response as my fingers tighten on the device in my hand in strained preparation. Almost as soon as Junior's ugly little head appears, clutched rather gingerly between Daniel's thumb and forefinger, I'm toggling the tiny nub of the rod's activation control and steadying my hand as a subliminal hum of energy starts building up inside the device.

"Pull him out a little further," I order curtly, and Daniel complies in taut silence. Carter has moved to stand alongside Teal'c's slumped form and has taken his left hand between her palms, gently rubbing his dark skin as if trying to coax life and mobility back into his unresponsive digits.

"Just do it, Jack...please," Daniel adjures into the sudden silence that's fallen over us, and I curse inwardly to myself as I realize he's right; I'm reacting to this whole situation with uncharacteristic hesitance, and Teal'c's death will be the penalty we'll all pay for my indecision if I don't get my ass in gear.

"Watch out--part of the charge might transfer itself to you from Junior," I warn Daniel, and he merely nods roughly, his eyes dark and intense on mine as we share one final look of exhausted desperation. In the next instant I'm pressing the device against the symbiote's sickly white flesh, fighting the reflexive backward jerking of the hand holding the rod as Junior arches wildly in Daniel's grasp and gives off the most godawful screech I've ever heard the little monster emit.

"Again!" Daniel gasps, his face paling a bit as what must have been a decidedly unpleasant electrical shock ripples its effects across his face. I give him a second to reposition his grip on the weakly writhing larva hanging halfway out of Teal'c's pouch, then I zap the little sucker again, my jaw clenched tight against the shrill shrieks that emerge from Junior's madly working maw.

"Shit!" Daniel exclaims, lifting his left hand and using it to brace his right wrist as painful spasms of current radiate from the symbiote's body into Daniel's fingers, then up along his right arm. "I--I think it's working," he adds breathlessly, his attention fully focused on the very pissed-off Goa'uld larva struggling more and more strongly in his grasp.

"Hurry--stuff him back inside; let's see if he can help Teal'c," I order, and Daniel nods and wrestles Junior back into his customary environment.

"God, please..." Sam groans at Teal'c's side, and my eyes fall to the sight of her fingers curled tightly now around Teal'c's wrist, her nails digging into his dusky flesh with an intensity equal to the desperation in her blue eyes. "Come on, Teal'c, time to get your butt back here where you belong; you don't expect us to let Junior take one of US as his next home, now, do you?" she adds with rather macabre wit.

"I've had more than my fair share of THAT sort of thing for one mission, thank you," I retort with an acerbic grunt; but as Sam's eyes widen and she murmurs a flustered, 'Sorry, sir,' in my direction, I merely flap an indifferent hand her way and reach to circle Daniel's right wrist with my fingers, my other hand lifting to capture his right hand and hold his arm still.

"All right?" I question softly, briskly sliding the fingers I have clasped around his wrist up and down his arm; minute tremors of electricity still twitch at the nerves beneath his skin, and an expression of mingled relief and discomfort briefly twists his face as I massage the last, tingling remnants of the device's charge from his mildly contracting muscles.

"I'm fine, Jack," he murmurs, for maybe the millionth time since the very first moment I ever laid eyes on him; pushing away the knowledge that his "fines" usually mean just the opposite, I merely nod silently and almost regretfully release my hold on his arm. A strangely powerful sensation of bereavement washes through me as he gently disengages his hand from mine, the loss of contact leaving my fingers slightly curled and twitching helplessly, as if groping to re-establish a physical connection with him, to reassure myself that he really will be okay, despite all he's gone through in this place. I did things to him, I think dimly now, a wave of dark horror surging up from somewhere deep inside my mind; I hurt him, hurt Carter, and now Teal'c...

Oh, God, how could I forget Teal'c, even for a second! I curse to myself as my attention is wrenched almost painfully from the withdrawal of Daniel's touch to the still-motionless form of our team mate slumped against those damned chains.

"Let's get him down from there," I grit out, and with brief nods Daniel and Carter begin fumbling at the chains, looking for some way to unfasten them.

"There's a lock here, we'll need the key," Sam murmurs after a few seconds of urgent fumbling at the chain-wrapped stone column at Teal'c's back. "Maybe the guards--"

"I'm on it," Daniel gusts out and scrambles gingerly across the blood-smeared floor to drop to his knees beside the fallen guards. As he begins rifling through their robes in search of a key to the chains' padlock, I turn my attention back to Teal'c, taking his head between my hands and briskly rubbing my thumbs along either side of his face.

"C'mon, T, give us a sign here," I mutter fretfully, giving his head a little shake and scowling in grieved frustration as my helpless ministrations are met with absolutely no response. "Dammit, Teal'c, I am ORDERING you to live!" I exclaim in my pissiest, most deeply aggravated voice; and as Daniel suddenly gives a sharp exhalation of triumph at one guard's side and waves a metal object in the air above his head, I'm almost certain I feel the smallest tremor of...something...from somewhere deep in Teal'c's limp form.

"Get over here with that!" I order sharply, and Daniel almost falls on his ass as he hurries to comply, his bare feet sliding and skidding in the gore drying on the ornately tiled floor.

"Talk to him, Carter," I address my 2IC as I continue stroking Teal'c's face and chest, rubbing almost hard enough to hurt him as I attempt to pull him back from death, trying to reawaken him to his body, to life. As Carter presses her lips to the shell of Teal'c's ear, murmuring heartfelt pleas for him to come back, to be here with us, Daniel arrives with the key and scurries around behind the pillar to fit it into the lock binding all the chains together around Teal'c's body.

"Hang on, almost got it, just...one...second..." I can hear Daniel muttering feverishly as his shaky fingers stab at the stubborn lock; Junior is writhing and chittering and making a decidedly unhappy commotion from inside Teal'c's pouch, and I can only hope that that means he's trying his best to save his cozy home by also saving the soul who's shared it with him all these years.

As long as Junior's staying in the pouch trying to heal Teal'c, rather than blindly seeking to expel himself and go in search of a new host, then that definitely means he doesn't think Teal'c is a completely lost cause yet...doesn't it? I ask myself frantically as Daniel gives a guttural snarl of satisfaction and the heavy chains around Teal'c's chest suddenly loosen and go slack.

"Have you got him, Jack?" Daniel calls as I wrap both arms securely around Teal'c's body, cradling him against me as he falls forward, dragging heavy lengths of chain with him.

"Got him," I huff, shooting Carter a silent look of gratitude as she hurries to help me lower Teal'c to the floor. I'm marginally aware of both Carter and Daniel maneuvering the chains carefully from around the Jaffa's prone figure, but the main focus of my attention lies with Teal'c himself; his abdomen ripples with the internal force of Junior's agitated gyrations, and as my fingers fumble at his neck for any sign of a pulse, I imagine I feel the slightest rise of his chest beneath my palm as I slide my other hand to rest over his heart.

"Go, Junior, go!" I exhort the little critter inside my friend's abdomen, my eyes shifting from Teal'c's slack features to his unmoving chest and then to the cold, silent ridge of artery lying quiescent beneath my questing fingers. "Goddammit, T, work with us just a LITTLE bit, here!"

"Maybe you should zap him again," Daniel offers uncertainly from Teal'c's right side; his blue eyes hold mine, their expression grim, as he clarifies: "Zap Teal'c, I mean...maybe just a small jolt..."

"What if it interferes with whatever it is Junior's doing?" I fret, and Sam gives both Daniel and me a worried frown, her brow furrowing in thought.

"The symbiote's still very weak itself, sir," she murmurs consideringly, her pensive gaze dropping to Teal'c's unresponsive form. "Maybe if we try it just one more time on Teal'c, set to lowest level..."

"Where'd I put the damned thing?" I growl out, and Daniel gestures wordlessly to a spot slightly behind me.

"Do you want me to--?" he begins as I fumble at my heels and close reluctant fingers around the torture rod. I shoot him a brief, dark look of chagrined gratitude even as I shake my head in brusque refusal.

"I'm the commander; I'll do it," I rasp and gesture for Sam and Daniel to take their hands away from Teal'c's body. As soon as they're clear, I press the rod against Teal'c's chest and depress the tiny trigger, not flinching this time as current travels from it into my friend's body. Teal'c arches gently, his back bowing up off the floor beneath him in a strangely graceful arc as one arm twitches and jerks as if he's been briefly startled by something unexpected intruding into his awareness. And awareness is all we can pray for; feverishly the three of us scrutinize his body for ANY sign of life as Junior lets it be known in no uncertain terms that he did NOT appreciate our latest resuscitation attempt.

"Check his pulse, Carter," I sigh as the last, faint tremors of current die away and Teal'c's barely twitching arm goes lax at his side. Dammit to fucking hell, it's too late, we've lost him, he's gone, really gone...The hopeless mantra repeats itself over and over in my mind as my dulled eyes stare blindly at Carter's pale fingers pressed against Teal'c's neck, probing desperately for even the faintest pulse, the smallest thread of life beneath the Jaffa's skin.

"One of the guards is dead; the other will revive soon. And once everyone knows what we did to Aliph..." Daniel mumbles wearily now, his fingers plucking absently, obsessively, at the skin of Teal'c's arm. "If we stay here much longer, Jack..."

"You mean what I did to Aliph," I growl back. "And I don't give a damn who comes in on us, Daniel," I add, my eyes glittering angrily into his as we face off across Teal'c's body. "None of us is exactly operating on full thrusters right now, and carrying Teal'c's...body...along with us is probably going to drain us of whatever physical resources we have left. We wouldn't get fifty feet down the corridor outside before we got caught. So to hell with it; we stay right here, with Teal'c. We sit here, and we wait."

"I didn't mean it like that, Jack," Daniel mutters resignedly, too broken and exhausted to even take offense at my infuriated tone. "You know I'd never leave Teal'c...never leave ANY of you...behind--dead or alive. No more than you would."

His blue eyes are gentle on mine, his pupils enlarging with the volume of his own compassionate empathy; and as he reaches a hand to rest it over my own hand atop Teal'c's unmoving chest, I feel sudden, unexpected tears flood hotly into my eyes.

"Sorry, Daniel," I mutter dejectedly, feeling every damned last whisper of the exhaustion that's overtaking my body, threatening to pull me down so low I might never rise again. "I'm just...tired. So damned tired."

"I only meant that maybe--since we're staying here--we might move behind these pillars and hold them off for a few more minutes when they come," Daniel is explaining patiently, his face pinched and colorless with silent pain.

"Why delay the inevitable?" I begin tonelessly, my body empty of any last, hidden reserves of strength, of determination; suddenly nothing fucking matters, I don't want to deal with this, don't want to remember all I did and said and how weak I was, how easily I was overtaken by Aliph's artificially created messiah...This isn't like you, O'Neill; this ISN'T you, giving up like this, a distant voice hectors me from somewhere inside my mind. But I'm tired, too goddamned tired to pay it any attention.

"I'll try to block them; you take the rod, use it as long as you can to defend yourself and Carter," I start wearily, shoving the hateful device in my left hand in Daniel's direction. Mutely he shakes his head in denial, making no move to accept the rod; and before I can dredge up a few choice swear words to motivate him, Sam suddenly makes frantic shushing noises to both Daniel and me and raises impossibly huge blue eyes to my face.

"I think he's got a pulse!" she hisses aloud, her fingers pressing into the side of Teal'c's neck. "Shut up, you guys, let me concentrate!"

Instantly Daniel and I clam up, our gazes locking briefly before settling on Carter's frantic ministrations to Teal'c. She's moved her fingers from one carotid artery to the other, her eyes closing as she channels all her attention, all her focus, into her sensitive fingertips.

"I feel something, I know it," she mutters more to herself than to us, her mouth twisting to one side as she drops her free hand to Teal'c's forehead and rubs small, distracted circles around the tattoo embedded there. "If he'd only take a breath, remember how to breathe..."

"Maybe he just needs reminding," I say, already moving to tilt the Big Guy's head back, my fingers pinching his nostrils shut as I lean over and lower my mouth to his. As Daniel begins to count automatically above me, I blow several evenly-spaced breaths into Teal'c's mouth and stop when I feel Daniel's hand on my shoulder.

"Wait..." he murmurs, and even without looking I'm conscious of his eyes riveting themselves to Teal'c's chest, searching for any evidence of spontaneous respiration. "Nothing; go again," he mutters worriedly after a heart beat, and I repeat the process of blowing precious oxygen into Teal'c's flaccid lungs, breathing into him all my hopes and prayers at the same time my breath fills his body.

Again I feel Daniel's constraining touch on my shoulder, and again I pause in my efforts, tiny black spots of exhaustion dancing behind my closed eyes. I can't look anymore into Teal'c's passive face, can't make myself lift my eyes and see the defeated sorrow that I know I'll see darkly in Daniel's resigned gaze.

"Oh, my God...he just took a breath," I hear instead, unbelievably, and it takes me a long, stunned instant to process and identify the peculiar note I just heard in Daniel's voice. Shaky, tremulous, dumbfounded--all of these and more resonate in Daniel's quietly frantic tone as he repeats louder, stronger: "He breathed; he's breathing!"

"Thank God; oh, thank God!" I hear Carter gasp out on a choked half-laugh, half-sob, and I open my eyes to find myself staring down into Teal'c's unconscious face, absorbing with something close to stupid wonder the almost imperceptible flaring of his nostrils as he draws in air all on his own. My gaze travels down to his chest, to the very slight rise and fall of his rib cage as he breathes; and both Daniel and I find ourselves competing in the race to plaster our hands over his heart, searching out the elusive, miraculous rythym of its life-sustaining throb beneath our palms.

"YES, dammit! YES!!" I hiss fiercely, my eyes refilling with hot tears; I'm sure the savage grin on my face isn't quite sane, but Daniel's wild-eyed stare of stunned jubilation is every bit a match for the expression on my face.

"C'mon, Teal'c; come on, you great big hunk of Jaffa love; open those bedroom eyes, give us another thrill," I hear myself muttering nonsensically as Junior squirms and complains in muffled tones from within Teal'c's pouch. "Wakey, wakey, Big Guy; come on, we've got company coming, and it would be very rude to sleep through their visit."

My hands are trembling as I cup Teal'c's face between my palms, my thumbs caressing the line of his jaw in mute affection and gratitude; his breathing is audible now, and a tiny wisp of something that sounds almost like a groan climbs halfway up his throat and vanishes there. None of us seem able to keep our hands off him; even as I caress the strong ridge of his jaw, murmuring to him that he needs to wake up, Sam has both hands on the smooth dome of his skull, massaging the crown of his bald head with gentle, loving fingers; and Daniel seems almost oblivious to the fact that he has both hands spread flat atop Teal'c's chest, his eyes closed in an expression of silent concentration as he revels in the comforting vibration of Teal'c's incredibly strong-willed heart beating beneath his slender fingers.

"Well, team," I hear myself begin, my voice oddly rough with emotion; I can hear the exhaustion in every syllable that comes from my lips, but behind that I can hear something more, something stronger and better and blessedly familiar. I hear the return of hope to my voice, to my soul; I hear the sound of subdued but inexorable determination infiltrating every battered cell of my being, and even though physically I feel like I'm ready to drop, the sense of victory and jubilation rising inside my spirit is working hard to offset the exhaustion in my body.

"Well, team," I repeat with what must be a completely goofy-assed grin on my face; "It looks like the dynamics of this whole situation have suddenly changed...and I for one seem to have lost the desire to just sit here and wait to be mangled at the hands of a bunch of misguided religious zealots."

"Ditto," Sam grins, wrinkling her nose at me as relieved tears shine in her eyes. "I would very much like to get Teal'c out of here and back to the SGC so Janet can take a look at him; any brilliant suggestions for how we're going to accomplish that?"

"Teal'c's not the only one in need of the Doc's services," I remind her grimly, taking in the bruises on her face and the stiff, pain-filled way Daniel is holding his body as he kneels at Teal'c's side across from me. "And I don't KNOW yet how the hell we're going to get out of this...but we are. I promise you that we ARE going home...alive. ALL of us."

"Indeed, O'Neill."

The words are so softly spoken that for a frozen space of several stunned seconds all I can do is gape at Sam and Daniel, studying their matching, dropped-jawed expressions as though suspicious that they've somehow managed to mimic Teal'c's unmistakable rumble and are playing some sort of sick joke on me. But then it hits me, the overwhelming realization that Teal'c is awake and TALKING to me, dammit...and I can't hold back the small shout of triumphant elation that escapes me as I direct my gaze to his beautiful, wide-opened eyes.

"T!" I crow, my face almost splitting in two with the width of my smile; as my eyes devour his somewhat confused and mildly curious expression, I can't stop myself from leaning down to press a huge, smacking kiss to his forehead.

"You son of a bitch!" I chortle deliriously as my hands frame his face and stroke lightly along the ridges of his cheek bones. "You scared the living shit out of us, Big Guy; about time you decided to come back."

"I offer my apologies, O'Neill," Teal'c rumbles quietly, his dark eyes gleaming up at me with a weary blend of both regret and humor. "It was I who meant to save you, not the other way around."

"You save me, I save you...who's counting? I thought we stopped keeping score long ago," I quip gently. "Next time maybe it'll be Daniel's turn to save the universe...or Carter's. But for now, my friends, we just need to get the hell out of here."

"I second that, sir," Carter murmurs from her kneeling position at Teal'c's head; and as Teal'c makes a weak effort to tilt his neck back to look at her, she leans over him obligingly to make it easier for him to see her face. Her expression is damned near radiant with overjoyed relief, and something warm and strangely intimate seems to pass briefly between the two of them as Carter loses herself in T's amazingly tranquil gaze.

"Good to have you with us, Teal'c," Daniel speaks up quietly, and Teal'c shifts his attention from Carter to lift a weak hand in Daniel's direction. Daniel reaches to touch his fingers to Teal'c's, their digits gently entwining in a brief, subtle clasp of silent communion; for the smallest second I witness Daniel's thumb tracing a careful trail of comfort and reassurance against Teal'c's hand, and then the stoic Jaffa respectfully withdraws from the contact, his suddenly ashen complexion revealing how very weak he still is.

"Oops; I think Sleeping Beauty over there is trying to awake from his nap," Sam warns, and both Daniel and I look over to see the unconscious guard twitching and moaning fitfully as he tries to claw his way up from being half-electrocuted minutes ago. "Suggest we try to clear out of here QUICKLY, sir?" Sam adds, and I give her a wicked grin.

"And that's why you're earning the big bucks, Carter," I reply, feeling a strange rush of euphoria in the midst of my exhaustion and frayed nerves. "Gentlemen, methinks the lady doth make a hellava lot of sense; let's pack it in and MOVE, people."

"I am weak still, O'Neill," Teal'c begins with a troubled frown, his voice barely audible as he strains to eject the words from his recently revived body. "I will only hold all of you back; you should return without me, send another team for retrieval..."

"NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND," I announce grimly, lowering my face so close to Teal'c's that my breath puffs warmly against his cheek. "You know the drill, Big Guy. So shut up and get with the program. Who's in charge here, anyway?"

"You are, O'Neill," Teal'c manages, his voice gravelly with something that sounds suspiciously like affectionate relief. "It is...good...to see that you are...yourself...again, my brother."

"I owe you, Teal'c; I owe ALL of you, more than I can ever repay," I answer tersely, my tone roughening with the force of my own emotions. "But that's for another time; right now we're just going to do our damndest to get out of here all in one piece and make it back to the stargate. Is everybody down with that?"

"'Down with that', Jack?" Daniel echoes bemusedly, one eyebrow raised in disbelief; but there's a wonderful, familiar glow of life and energy returning to his exhausted eyes as he looks at me, and I can't help grinning at him like an idiot.

"Hey, I'm not just some stodgy old Colonel," I defend myself, and a muffled snort of laughter escapes Sam's lips as she begins to help me prep Teal'c for moving him. "I mean, I heard Cassie talking on the phone to one of her friends once; I'm not completely in the dark concerning today's radical, hip teen lingo."

"Just don't EVER try to talk like that to ANY self-respecting teenager, Jack," Daniel suggests with a ghost of a smile, and Teal'c's subdued voice chimes in.

"Do not speak in such a manner to ANYONE, O'Neill; not if you wish to retain at least a modicum of dignity and respectability."

"Everyone's a critic," I huff woundedly, hiding the huge smile that's rising and rising inside me like blinding sunlight after months of grim darkness. "But we'll discuss this insubordination in the ranks later; right now we need to MOVE."

As Sam and Daniel slide careful arms around Teal'c's body to help him ease to a sitting position, I grab the torture rod and make my way over to the guard who's struggling to pull his hulking body upright in the middle of the entrail-strewn floor.

"Ah,ah! None of that, now," I chide him and tap the activated rod against his shoulder. With an anguished scream the guard crashes back against the floor, his limbs threshing helplessly until his eyes roll up in his head and he's unconscious again. I suppose I should feel SOMETHING concerning my treatment of him, but all I can do is recall how it felt when this same asshole broke my arm outside the cell block while my friends listened helplessly; he'd seemed to enjoy the activity immensely, and now--even though I don't feel any enjoyment myself for hurting him back--neither do I feel regret.

"It's not going to be easy, slipping out of here," I call back over my shoulder to my team as I head for the room's single, closed door. "Especially looking like this," I add under my breath as I look down at the chunks of gore and thick, cloying streamers of Aliph's blood liberally splattering my robes. "So we'll have to move as fast as we can--" I begin but get no further.

The closed door is suddenly closed no longer; even as my fingers reach for the knob, my mind intent on testing to see if it's locked, the knob turns and the door flies open in swift silence, slamming against the wall behind it with a dull but powerful thud that sets my teeth on edge. And as my eyes take in the veritable mob of infuriated natives crowding--fully armed and reeking of vengeance--in through the open portal, I can't help thinking that I'm getting really, really tired of this line of work.

To Part Three