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 Heaven Called While You Slept

 

Chapter 3

The sun was barely peeking over the ridge of the surrounding mountains when Daniel opened the flap and slipped out of the tent, needing to find a place to relieve himself. Hania was already sitting beside the embers of the large fire, although there wasn't any sign of the other villagers.

He wandered down a slightly worn path. The night had been uneventful...Casey hadn't suffered any nightmares. But she'd slept fitfully. He was aware of the fact that she'd done her best not to disturb him, but he'd awakened twice to feel the dampness of her tears against his skin. He'd been left with that all-too-familiar feeling of being absolutely helpless. The need to offer solace for the emotional turmoil she was dealing with had become a physical ache. Unable to do anything else, he'd held her tightly, keeping her body as close to his as possible.

It was the first night, even on a mission, that they hadn't made love, orally pleasuring one another. Usually she insisted that she didn't want him 'uncomfortable', nor was she willing to let him go without a 'fix' of her sweet nectar. He shook his head mentally. Her emotions were in such turmoil at the moment that physical demands from him were the last thing she needed to deal with.

Not for the first time, Daniel fretted about what his Wife endured as a seer, and as his Guide. This particular mission was an example of the weight she bore on her slender shoulders...the knowledge, the insights that gave her more information about a planet than the MALP or UAV could ever render. How many times had she shed tears because she hadn't seen 'enough', or hadn't seen it 'soon enough' to make a difference in the lives of the people they met through the Stargate? No matter how many lives were saved because of those insights, she would continue to castigate herself for those she hadn't been able to save. He could only hope that nothing went wrong on this mission. Wasn't sure her tender heart could take what she would consider a personal failure on her part.

Finding a suitable spot behind a group of trees, he unbuttoned his BDU pants, tugged himself free, his bladder insisting that he'd procrastinated enough. Glanced over his shoulder when he heard the snap of a twig. Nodded at Jack, turned back to finish his business.

Jack was grumbling to himself, having awakened when Teal'c climbed out of his tent. He didn't remember falling asleep, but from the ache in his back, he figured it had to have been fairly soon after he'd settled down to keep watch. While he continued to complain to the universe in general, and the Tooth Fairy in particular, he tried to recall a time he'd ever been unable to remain awake when it had been necessary. And totally missed the obvious - that his vigilance hadn't been needed.

Sam was the next member of the team to stir. She headed down a narrow path, Casey right behind her; both women carrying a small hand shovel and a roll of toilet paper. The major had taken note of the fact that Casey's eyes were slightly puffy. She'd been crying again.

Casey found a suitable spot, began digging a shallow hole.

She followed suit, making certain not to dig a hole too close to the seer. Casey was modest, and wasn't comfortable with others nearby when she had to answer nature's call. "Are you alright?" Sam asked softly.

"I'm okay," Casey replied, glancing over her shoulder to ascertain no one but Sam was nearby.

Sam winced slightly at the response. 'Okay' was the word the slender seer used when she really wasn't, according to Daniel. "We'll get that stone today, and bring it back."

"Oh, I hope so." Casey looked around one more time before lowering her BDU pants and squatting over the hole she'd dug. "These people are so heartbroken. They blame themselves for what happened, and it's not their fault!"

A smile tugged at Sam's lips. How often had Casey done that very thing...blaming herself for something she had absolutely no control over? "We're the good guys, Case. We'll get everything set right."

"We're the good guys," Casey repeated softly.

A stop at the river that could be heard from the cave saw the four team members washing as well as they could, without diving into the quickly moving water. Normally they bantered back and forth as they dealt with their morning routines. Today, however, found them unusually quiet, as thoughts concerning the reason for being where they were filled their minds. The very air around them felt solemn, as if the trees that surrounded them were mourning the loss of the stone as deeply as the people who dwelt in a nearby cavern.

Jack led the way back up the trail. Teal'c, they discovered, was meditating on the far side of the ledge in front of the cave.

"Okay, campers. Let's get some breakfast, and then we find out where we're supposed to go," Jack said, when the five were together, just outside of the cavern.

Quietly explaining to Hania what they were doing, as Casey nestled the teakettle full of water into the red-hot embers, Daniel began to ask questions about not only the location of the village they would travel to, but also anything concerning The Others that Hania might know. There was very little information about the group that had split from The People, he discovered. Not that the discussion the previous night had given him much hope that there would be.

By the time the members of SG-1 were sipping hot coffee, tea in Teal'c's case, and eating warm oatmeal, most of the others in the cave were stirring. Unlike the night before, however, when they had been treated as honored guests, it was as if the team didn't even exist. Daniel quietly admonished his teammates to not be offended, that more than likely it was simply the social conventions of the people that prevented them from acknowledging the team so early in the morning.

The Elders had returned to the ledge as the team finished eating. The old people were once again sitting in a circle, hands clasped tightly, faces upturned.

"They pray for your safety, and your success," Hania said, his voice low.

"Thank you...them," Daniel said. "We'll do our best."

Hania nodded, then joined the Elders.

"Let's get this done, campers. I wanna be home before the weekend," Jack said.

Gear was gathered, the area near the fire carefully examined to make sure no trash was inadvertently left behind. Tents were taken down, rucksacks repacked, and the team was ready to leave fifteen minutes later.

The few children among the People followed the strangers as far as the river, then watched as the five disappeared into the forest.

 

A A A A A A

 

"How far, Daniel?" Jack asked, watching as Teal'c followed what appeared to be some sort of path. It was possible that the villagers used it to find food. If that were the case, it would probably end soon, since that group didn't seem to wander far from their cave.

"About a day," Daniel replied.

"Oy. We'll plan on a cold camp tonight, then scout around tomorrow, get an idea of the layout of this place, and any routines," the military man replied. Hoping that this mission wasn't going to drag on for days.

"Casey, can you sense anything at all about the people who took the stone?" Sam asked, stepping around a large bush.

"No, but then, I haven't really thought about them," the seer admitted. "I could do a search-"

"Not here or now, Radar," Jack interjected. "Later."

The blonde head moved up and down. "If I get anything, want to know now, or later?"

Daniel grinned from ear to ear at the teasing tone that filled his Wife's voice.

"You're a pain-in-the-ass, Radar."

"So you tell me."

"If you get a download, I want to know."

"Little hard not to know about a download, since Daniel will have to hold me while I deal with it," Casey retorted dryly.

He felt his heart flutter with joy at her proclamation. Daniel felt incapable when it came to helping his Wife more often than he was comfortable with. To know that she needed him to hold her, almost as much as he needed to hold her, eased that feeling somewhat.

"Have I mentioned what a pain-in-the-ass you are?" Jack asked.

"Not in at least five seconds." Casey was grinning as broadly as her Husband.

"Well, you are."

"I'll take your word for it. Of course, you're the only one to complain..." Casey giggled when Jack rolled his eyes.

Sam couldn't help but grin as well. As long as they could toss banter back and forth, all was well. They were nervous, each of them exhibiting the little signs that only they recognized: Jack was worrying the safety on his P90. Daniel's fingers absently toyed with strap of his P90. Teal'c's head seemed to be on a swivel as he attempted to look in all directions at once, and as often as possible, his hand hovering near his Beretta. Casey was tugging on her lower lip. She caught herself rubbing the trigger guard of her weapon. No one who didn't know them as well as they knew themselves, and one another, would even notice those things.

There was every reason to feel nervous. They had no idea what they'd find in the village they were making their way towards. No idea how or where to look for this 'stone'. Just like most of their missions, Sam thought amusedly. They didn't have a clue what they were doing, not really. But they'd stumble along, and do what felt right. Follow their hearts. Casey always said their hearts would never lead them wrong.

"I wonder how far The Others go when they hunt or search for food," Daniel mused.

"No clue. Probably ought to keep our eyes open, though," Jack replied. "Do you think they keep tabs on the group on the mountain?"

"I wouldn't think so. From what Hania told me, they were pretty adamant about not wanting to retain any connection with The People," Daniel said. "Whether or not that was to keep them from influencing upcoming generations, to prevent any 'return' to the ways of The People, I have no idea."

"It might have seemed less...painful...to just cut ties and be done with it," Jack said thoughtfully. "Sometimes, walking away is the best thing for everyone involved."

Like walking away from Rachel, Daniel thought. Jack hadn't said a lot about the situation with his sister, but there had been enough revealed when she had visited for him to be able to put the pieces together. Casey had told him that Rachel had broken Jack's heart...that her refusal to accept what he could tell her, that her demands that he 'stay away', had hurt him more deeply than Jack would admit, even to himself.

"Do you think The Others doubted the power of this stone?" Sam asked. "Maybe that 'lack of faith' was part of the problem between the two groups?"

"Hard to say," Daniel admitted. "It seems that the split happened quite some time ago. If there hadn't been any 'dream seekers', it's possible that those who became The Others believed that the stone wasn't as...important...as it had been."

"That makes sense," the leggy blonde replied. "If they felt the stone wasn't important...or wasn't as important, they might have resented the fact that their lives revolved around it."

"Well, it's odd that after all this time, The Others would steal the stone, don'tcha think?" Jack asked.

Casey stopped walking. Within seconds, her teammates surrounded her.

"Radar?" Jack's voice was soft.

"There was no other path that led away from the Stargate," she said, her head tilted to one side. "The only path leads straight to The People...and the maNika. Whoever 'she' is...she didn't come through the Stargate."

"Now why don't I like the sound of that?" Jack grumped slightly.

"You don't suppose that someone, somewhere, heard about this stone, and decided to take it for themselves, and set up business guiding 'dreamers', do you?" Sam asked, a frown on her face.

"Or that the stone would make a hefty profit on the black market," Daniel added.

"Possible," Jack said. "Any tidbits to help, Radar?"

"Nope. Just that we need to be careful."

"That's a given," Jack replied.

She cocked her head slightly. "Stay with one of us, boss...whatever you do," she said softly.

"Why?" the CO of the team demanded to know.

"Why what?"

"You said I need to stay with one of you," he told her, watching her carefully.

"Okay. I hate when that happens, ya know."

Jack grinned. "Yeah, you've mentioned that a time or two."

Sam was frowning. "There has to be a reason," she murmured. "That's just too specific to be a random warning."

"I concur," Teal'c said. Even though he was standing with his teammates, he continued to scan the forest around them, alert to any movement nearby. So far, there had been none.

"What do the four of us have in common, that Jack doesn't have?" Daniel asked.

Five faces frowned in concentration, each of them trying to come up with the answer.

"Snake alarms," Casey said, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Only Jack can't sense the presence of a snake."

"Now see, that just ticks me off," the older man complained. "You know that means there's a snake behind all of this."

"Gee, there's a surprise. Name one problem out here," the seer huffed, waving her hand in a small circle, "that isn't caused by the snakes."

Jack couldn't help but grin at Casey's response. "Okay, I'm betting that the 'she' Radar has picked up on is the Goa'uld. Danny, any thoughts on who might be interested in a stone that opens a door to dreamland?"

Daniel shook his head. "Not a clue," he replied.

"Well, if you get one, share with the class," Jack said. "Let's go, campers. We have a snake to deal with, and a stone to get back to the rightful owners."

Whatever they found at the end of their journey, it would be much worse than they'd previously thought. It was always much worse when the Goa'uld were involved.

 

A A A A A A

 

It was difficult to see the sun; the forest was thick, and the green canopy of the trees hid the sky from view, but the rumbling of their stomachs indicated that it was well past lunchtime. Convinced that anyone nearby could hear the almost constant protests their empty bellies were making, Jack called for a break.

Not knowing how far The Others would travel in search of food, or medicinal plants, or any other reason they might have to wander from their settlement, Jack and Teal'c discussed the matter, and decided that keeping out of sight was in their best interest. With that thought in mind, the team found a secluded area near a cluster of trees far enough from the 'path' they had been following to prevent them from being noticed, yet close enough for them to keep watch, and to be alerted by anyone traveling the same 'path'.

Experience had the team eating quickly...with a minimum of movement or noise. Trash was carefully put into Ziplock bags, and stuffed back into packs.

Daniel was finishing off the water in his bottle, his eyes searching the brush nearby, when he spotted movement. Immediately he raised his fist, a sign for his team to remain silent. He glanced at Jack, caught the brown eyes, pointed to his own eyes, and then toward the bushes where he'd seen...something.

Jack nodded. Took enough time to wonder just when Daniel had become so adept at being a soldier...and another moment to mourn that fact. Not that there was anything wrong with being a soldier. But Daniel had always been the scholar...the dreamer. He regretted the fact that there had been such a change in the gentle man.

A glance over his shoulder told Jack that the rest of the team had noticed Daniel's signal as well - Teal'c frowning as his dark eyes scanned the area as well; Casey and Sam slowly shifting their bodies closer to the ground. He pulled his mini-binoculars from his vest pocket, raised them to eyes that never wavered as he continued to watch.

By the time their CO was getting a closer look, the rest of SG-1 had managed to slide back among the trees, using the shadows to hide in. They divided their attention between the possible threat, and watching Jack.

Well, isn't that interesting. Jack watched as two women moved among low bushes. It was apparent that they had no fear of stumbling upon outsiders...or any other threat. Long baskets, intricate designs visible among the woven fibers, were carried by means of long straps, leather it looked like, slung over their shoulders. Nimble fingers were plucking the leaves from one of the bushes, leaving more than enough to keep the bush from looking as if it had been stripped bare, but still filling the baskets. He continued to monitor them as the women worked slowly...methodically.

Casey could barely make out the forms of two people; unable to see clearly, she couldn't tell if they were male or female. Pressed against the tree beside her, using the shadows created by the afternoon sun to hide in, she concentrated on keeping her breathing steady. Her heart was pounding against her ribs...if the team were to be discovered now, there wasn't a doubt in her mind that they'd be taken as captives. Which would not be a good thing.

Daniel glanced over his shoulder. Only because he knew where to look was he able to see his Wife...even then, he couldn't see more than one shoulder. He shifted slightly, smiled when her green eyes focused on him for a brief moment. His attention went back to the threat in front of them.

Sam could see little more than where Jack and Daniel stood, hiding behind two large trees that grew side by side, with barely enough room between them to squeeze through. It was through that narrow opening that both men were staring. Teal'c and Casey, who were on her right and left, had a better vantage point, as they were able to see around the trees. Her fingers caressed her weapon, and she continued to watch Jack, waiting for any signal he might give.

Teal'c was able to see one of the women clearly as she moved closer, her attention focused on her task. He eased his bulk further behind the tree that hid him from sight, glancing at the positions of his teammates. He nodded in silent approval. If either woman should turn and look over their shoulders, they would see nothing but the trees of the forest.

Jack held one fist in the air, signifying that he wanted them to remain in place. He took the time to check his team. Couldn't see anyone but Daniel, who was right beside him. Gave a nod indicating that all was good...for the moment.

Time seemed to stand still as the team waited, each sending up prayers to the true gods that they wouldn't be discovered.

The sound of running feet had them all jumping, mentally if not physically. Three small children came down the path, then veered toward the women, rushing through the brush with little care. The leader, a young boy, was calling excitedly...although the team was just far enough away that they were unable to hear any distinct words.

Both women looked up, smiled at the eager excitement of the children, listened carefully to the boy. One of the women rolled her eyes in obvious disdain, bringing what sounded like gentle scolding from the other. With a shrug, the first woman replied...her tone of voice indicating she wasn't worried about whatever was bothering the second woman...then both women made their way toward the path, and followed the children.

Waiting until they couldn't hear voices, or the sounds of movement through the dense forest, the members of SG-1 huddled in the shelter of the trees.

"Well, guess we're closer to that village than we thought," Jack said, keeping his voice low.

"It's possible the village was moved, or even that it's grown large enough that people venture this far," Daniel mused.

"Doesn't matter why. The result is the fact that we're going to have to be very careful," Jack replied. He looked at the team seer. "Okay, Radar, now's the time to take a look."

She gave a nod, stepped in front of Daniel. His arms went around her, holding her tightly against his chest. She looped her arms around his neck, gave him a smile, then closed her eyes. Opened them again. "It's okay to help," she said softly, smiling at her teammates.

Smiling at the seer in return, Jack, Sam, and Teal'c moved closer. Jack put an arm around Sam, his other hand on Daniel's shoulder. Sam reached out and took Teal'c's hand, who put his free hand on Casey's back. The connection was complete. The three remained alert...continued to watch the forest around them, as their seer prepared to learn what she could.

Taking a moment to center herself, Casey took a deep breath. Felt herself pulled up, until she was above the treetops. Another deep breath, and she was moving, heading toward the village of The Others. There were two groups of people, both carrying spears and bows and arrows. Hunting parties, she thought. Neither would be a threat to the team as they moved closer to the village...both groups were heading outward from the village in opposite directions.

Something poked at the back of her mind. She stopped, cocked her head sideways. Gave one last, careful look around her, before moving toward the sunny meadow where she met with Miss Eloise.

 

"Miss Eloise?" she called softly.

"Hello, Sunshine!"

She couldn't help but smile. "There's something...odd...going on. And dangerous."

"Yep. Sure is."

"I know that the Stone is special."

"Very much so."

"It's a portal to the dream world. That's an astral plane, isn't it?"

"One of them, yes," the old seer nodded. "One that's accessible to mortals, under the right conditions."

"It's there where premonitions...visions of the future...that's where those with the ability come to learn...to 'see'."

The white head bobbed up and down.

"Is that where this meadow is?"

"Yes, and no. You're a very powerful seer, Casey. You aren't just dreaming. Your abilities open up other levels of the astral plane to you."

"So, this is...higher...than the 'dream world'?"

"Not necessarily higher...just a different location."

"A Goa'uld took the Stone. What we don't know is why." Casey said.

"Well, if you were a Goa'uld, why would you want access to the dream world?"

"Do I look as if I can think in such a warped, twisted way?" Casey grumped.

Miss Eloise cackled. "Nope. But...think about that for a moment."

Casey frowned. Okay, so the 'snake-of-the-day' wanted access to the dream world. Why? What would she gain from traveling to the dream world? Of course, if she only knew that the stone was a 'portal', she might not realize that it was a portal only to the dream world of mortals...

She jerked at the implications. "She knows it's a portal, she wants to open it!"

"Why?"

Tugging on her lower lip, Casey wrapped her arms around her narrow waist and began to pace back and forth. "I have no idea," she murmured. Unaware of the smile the old seer tossed at her for sounding so like the archaeologist she was married to. "Escape? Does she think that she can use it to escape her enemies?"

"You tell me," Miss Eloise said gently.

"Doesn't feel right," Casey sighed. "Okay, she knows it's a portal. She might not know that it's a portal to the dream world. I'm willing to bet she thinks it's a portal to somewhere specific...somewhere she wants to go, or wants access to. Snakes don't do anything unless it benefits them directly." She heaved another sigh. "She knows the stone is special...but..." Slender shoulders moved up and down in a familiar gesture of frustration.

"Okay, what else could it be?"

Again the seer paced. "I don't know."

"Maybe you need a bit of help."

"That would be nice," Casey sighed. "So can you help me?"

"Nope. But your friends can. I'm betting The One can figure it out."

"It would be nice if I could offer a bit more. I'm supposed to be the SGC seer, ya know," Casey said dryly.

"Seems to me you're doing just fine," Miss Eloise countered. "Tell them what you've seen. Together, you'll figure it out."

"Before or after we need the intel?"

"Depends on how long it takes you to figure it out."

"You're so not helping," Casey complained.

"I do what I can, Sunshine."

She shook herself slightly. "I know. Just...sometimes it doesn't feel like enough."

"Think about this, Casey...without you, without the insight you can offer...how much more of a struggle would it be for them?"

A frown creased her forehead as she contemplated. "I guess having some idea of what's going on, or what's going to happen, is better than nothing at all."

"You offer more than just general ideas, Sunshine. You just have to stop believing that you should be able to offer every detail of every mission. You're only a seer, not an omnipotent being."

Casey turned this thought over in her mind as well. "Sure wish I was, sometimes."

"You'd be bored senseless in a heartbeat," Miss Eloise retorted.

She couldn't help but giggle. "Okay, so the Goa'uld knows it's a portal...we just have to figure out why she'd be interested in it. If we can figure that part out, it'll make it easier to get it away from her."

"Should be," the old seer allowed.

"Thanks," Casey said softly.

"That's what I'm here for, Sunshine."

She gave the old seer a hug, watched as Miss Eloise walked away. Then opened her eyes.

 

"Well?" Daniel asked softly.

"The village is about an hour or so from here...it's pretty big. Two hunting parties are out, but they're heading out in other directions, so unless they turn and head back to the village, we won't run into them," Casey reported. "And the Goa'uld knows the stone is a portal. I don't think she understands that it's just to the dream world. She..." Her blonde head tilted slightly. "She doesn't know that it's a portal to the dream world...just that it's a portal. I don't know if she thinks it's a portal to another plane of existence."

"I don't believe the Goa'uld are particularly interested in other planes of existence," Daniel said dryly. "That would force them to admit there are powers in the universe greater than theirs."

"If this Goa'uld is convinced that the stone is a portal, she may believe it is similar in function to a Chappa'ai," Teal'c said.

Sam nodded. "That sounds logical. She'd be anxious to have something that would offer her an edge over the other Goa'uld."

"So she thinks she can just zap herself from one place to another with this rock...er...stone?" Jack asked incredulously.

"Why not? They believe they're gods," Daniel grinned.

"True."

"How big is this stone?" Sam asked.

Casey frowned. "What I saw was about...I dunno...something like this," she replied, holding her hands about ten inches apart.

"Not something large enough to stand on," Sam mused.

"Maybe she thinks she can use it like a communication orb," Daniel suggested. "She might think she can use it transmit images of herself...something...larger, or 'better' than an orb."

Sam was frowning as she contemplated the technology the Goa'uld utilized. "She could believe it's a portal that would allow her to spy on her enemies. She'd certainly be interested in something like that."

Jack sighed. "We're talking about a snake here. Anything is possible in their demented minds. Why she took it doesn't change the fact that we need to take it back where it belongs."

"I was hoping that knowing would help us figure out how to get it back," Casey said, frowning slightly.

"Hey, we know that the snake knows it's a portal. So we know she's not going to give it up without a fight," Jack said.

"She wouldn't have done that anyway," Casey pointed out.

Daniel was tapping on his lips with one finger. "It does make a difference, Angel," he said slowly. "We know that whatever specific reason she has, this Goa'uld is thinking in personal terms...she's not looking for something to barter or sell. That gives us a clue about how she's treating the villagers, and how willing they'd be to fight for her."

Teal'c nodded his agreement. "It would be obvious to the Goa'uld that The People control the Chappa'ai. She would have had reason to take the stone as a means of 'empowering' The Others...in an attempt to rile them against their brethren, simply to gain control of the Chappa'ai."

"That's right, Radar," Jack said. "Since we know that the snake has something else in mind, she's not trying to make nice with the natives, so we might be able to rally the villagers against her."

"You said that the people who took the stone were more afraid of her than of the response of The People," Daniel said. "That means she's probably been brutal, setting herself up by whatever means was necessary. That's an important tidbit of information to have. Like Jack said, that makes it possible to turn the villagers against her."

"All useful intel," Jack nodded.

Casey smiled. "Well, I guess we have more of an idea of what's going on now than we did ten minutes ago."

"Indeed," Teal'c said. "As O'Neill stated, the information is of value."

"You say that village is nearby?" Jack asked.

"Probably about an hour," Casey confirmed.

"Okay, that gives us plenty of light to find a good place to settle in for the night. I don't suppose you saw anywhere promising?"

She smiled at the hopeful tone in his voice. "Not on this side of the village. If we're careful, we could probably slip into a nice little copse of trees on the other side. We'll just have to make certain that those hunters don't see us on their way back into the village."

"Trees, huh?"

"Yep. Closer together than these are."

"Any chance you can shimmy up one of them? Give us a head's up on what you see?"

She closed her eyes, examined the memory of her astral visit. "There's one I should be able to climb."

"Good. When we get there, we'll send you up to be a look out," Jack decided.

"There are several bushes, almost at the edge of the village. If you're careful, you'd have a pretty good view from there of what's going on," Casey added.

"That's good news," Jack said, nodding approvingly. "Teal'c and I can do a little reconnaissance. Carter, you and Daniel will keep watch on our flanks. Radar, think you can keep a three-sixty watch from up a tree?"

"I can try."

"Good enough," the older man smiled. It was always a good thing to have a plan of action in place before it was actually needed. He preferred having as many plans and contingency plans as possible. This was a good start. "Okay, let's get moving. I want to be in place before dark."

 

A A A A A A

 

Following the trail that the women and children had used as far as possible, the team jogged toward the waiting village. Adrenalin was flowing, and would keep the members of SG-1 awake and alert for hours to come.

Jack put Casey on point, telling her that she knew where the copse of trees they were searching for was located. Daniel brooded slightly, convinced that being behind his Wife would prevent him from protecting her from any potential threats. As a result of that concern, he stayed as close to her as he could, while still maintaining a safe 'fighting' distance. Although he continued to scan the brush around him for any hidden dangers, he remained as focused on her slender frame as possible.

Teal'c and Jack checked their flanks as far as safely feasible, slipping into the thick brush quietly...proving once again their experience at moving almost silently...while keeping the others of their team in sight at all times. They found nothing that suggested any sort of threat.

The sounds of life in the village were wafted on the gentle breeze that moved the foliage around them; voices of those engaged in conversations, the sound of wood being chopped, the laughter of children at play. Those sounds alerted the team that they were close, and using the trail was no longer a safe option. Carefully skirting the village, senses hyper-alert to every noise and movement among the bushes and flora of the forest, SG-1 moved into position to observe. Just as Casey had told them, the trees were growing closely...getting between several of them and into the small space created by the trunks was nearly impossible. It was, Jack declared quietly, a perfect place in which to hide.

Daniel knitted his fingers together, waited for Casey to put one booted foot in them, then lifted her toward the lowest branch of the tree, the one furthest to the 'front' of the copse. Watched as she climbed upwards. If she was up in the tree, she wouldn't be noticed, unless she called attention to herself. She was, he thought, in the safest place she could possibly be. A thought that did much to ease his concern over her well-being.

Receivers for the radios were tucked into ears, the transmitters pressed against cheeks, near their mouths. The slightest whispers would be easily heard.

Sam and Daniel settled with their backs against two of the trees to either side of the copse, facing one another. From their vantage points, their flanks and rear were readily visible.

On their bellies, Jack and Teal'c eased forward into the heavy brush that ended not far from the first of the simple dwellings that made up the village. Jack grinned. He could see directly into the large, open space that was surrounded by other huts. It seemed to be a communal work area. He was able to watch those who were working at various tasks quite easily. Perfect view, just like Radar said. Not surprisingly, this group had the same skills as those on the mountain. Three men were working near a large fire, doing some sort of metal work. The occasional 'clang' as hammers were struck against the anvil rang out.

Casey had checked behind the team, lifted her small binoculars to her face. Couldn't see a damned thing. Just trees, bushes, and...what the hell is that? "Boss, there's a small...geez...a shrine I guess...a few yards behind us. Not sure what it is exactly."

"Danny, think you can get to it without being seen or heard?" Jack asked immediately.

"Yep."

"Do it."

"Which way, Case?" Daniel asked, rising to his feet.

"Straight out from where you are," she replied.

"Got it."

Once he'd cleared the trees, he could see the path that had been worn into the thick, short grass that covered most of the forest floor. Certain that both Casey and Sam would keep an eye out for any threats, he concentrated on finding the shrine as quickly as possible.

What he found was the remains of an old tree. The thing had been a giant, and had either been broken off or cut off at some distant time in the past. Not quite as high as he was tall, the tree had been hollowed out. The inside had been carefully sanded smooth, and it looked as if it had been polished. Probably using animal fat, he thought idly. Three rows of geometric designs in red and black marked the walls of the 'shrine'. Inside was a large stone...although this stone had been carved to look like a face. "Casey, was the stone you saw just a stone...no carving or anything?" he asked quietly.

"It was just a round stone," she replied immediately. "Not certain what was on the side it was laying on."

"But it was laying flat?"

"Yep."

"What'd ya find?" Jack asked.

"It's a shrine, all right. Carved into the trunk of what's left of a giant tree. It's been carefully prepared and decorated, and there's a stone effigy here."

Casey shook her head where she sat on the limb of the tree. "That's not our stone, Stud Muffin. The Others made that after they got here."

"Wonder why," he mused aloud.

"You wonder why what?" Casey asked. Four soft chuckles filled her ear. "Yeah, yuk it up," she grumbled.

"Well, even if it's not the stone we're after, it's still interesting. I'm going to get some pictures," Daniel said. Hoping that the reflection of his spotlight wouldn't be noticed in the late afternoon shadows, he clicked several photos, taken from every angle he could manage.

It took him less than four minutes, according to his watch. He hurried back to the copse of trees to settle back where he'd been before Casey's discovery.

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes later, the team was settled in for the night. Jack and Teal'c would remain where they were...anyone arriving or departing from the village would be noticed by them, although they were totally obscured by the brush, so they wouldn't be spotted by any of the villagers. Sam and Daniel had decided to take turns watching...with Casey as their 'backup' the three could take turns sleeping.

Sunset saw an increase in activity in the village as those who had been out gathering food returned. As the evening wore on, the team expected the hunters to arrive at any time. Even as well hidden as they were, they fretted that hunters might be more apt to notice anything out of the ordinary.

Jack watched the villagers carefully. Noted that only one of the small, thatched huts seemed to be relatively quiet. The others had various family members, or so he assumed them to be, moving in and out of the dwellings as meals were cooked on the open fires in front of each hut. When the meal was ready, the families sat down together beside their fires to eat. He couldn't help but wonder what the groups did in the winter...if there were hearths inside the narrow structures.

His eyes went back to the hut where no one seemed to be tending the small fire that burned not far from the open door. As the twilight deepened, the inside of that dwelling began to glow. Someone had some sort of light source there, he thought. He tapped Teal'c's wrist, pointed toward the hut.

"I believe that is where the Goa'uld is residing," Teal'c whispered.

"That's what I thought," Jack replied. "Ten to one she's got the stone we want in there."

"Undoubtedly."

Well, he thought, they knew where the stone was. How they were going to get it...he didn't have a clue.

"Do you think we can just wait until everyone is asleep, and sneak in and get it?" Daniel asked, whispering as well.

"It's a thought," Jack admitted. One he'd already begun contemplating.

"I do not see evidence of domesticated animals," Teal'c mused.

"Which means no critters to give away our presence," Jack said. The odd thought that lately the villages they'd visited were bereft of any sort of domesticated animals flittered through his mind. It was, he decided, a benefit for which he'd be grateful, and not worry about the lack of pets or livestock.

"Colonel, what if you and Teal'c went after the stone? You're already closer than we are," Sam suggested.

"Radar, can you see us?"

"Nope. But I know where you are," she replied.

"How far into the village can you see?"

"Not quite to the center. If I move up a bit, I could probably see more."

"Quietly, Radar. And be careful," Jack ordered.

There was barely a rustle of leaves above them to indicate that Casey was moving. Daniel strained to see into the dark shadows. Thought he caught a flash of something light...probably her long braid, he thought, smiling to himself.

"Hey, would'ja look at that! The only hut in town fully lit!" Casey whispered.

Jack grinned. "That's where we figure the snake is."

"Makes sense to me."

"Okay, when everybody goes to sleep, Rocco and I will get that stone. Try to get a bit of rest," Jack instructed.

They knew where the stone was...or at least had a good idea where the stone was. They had a plan for getting it. Now, they waited for the right time to implement their plan. And studiously ignored the fact that so far, nothing had gone wrong on their mission. There was always the chance that they could avoid any problems. Hope does spring eternal.


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