The sun had finally set over the great temple of Mixcoatco, blending the stripy shadows inside the shrine into solid black. There had been no movement outside, no one coming to talk to the prisoners and – even better – no one preparing hideous ways of killing them out on the landing. Jack hoped that the inactivity meant the queen had decided not to deal with them until morning. In the dark of night it was time to put the escape plan into action. That is, as soon as I have made the plan.
He got up from his seat on the floor and stretched, as if he was simply softening up his stiffened muscles. Unfortunately it wasn't entirely an act to cover up a surreptitious survey of the guard force outside. His limbs really were stiff, and he could feel quite a few bruises from the Otomi not so carefully transporting him back to the city. They must have dragged me the entire way, over stocks and stones. Strangely enough, almost contradictorily, there was a neat bandage over the wound left in his arm by the poison arrow.
Jack peered into the darkness beyond the bars and saw a small circle of light painted by a single burning torch. Beneath the flickering light sat two Otomi on the edge of the top step of the staircase. They seemed pretty relaxed, chatting away and laughing, and definitely not very concerned about watching the prisoners. That's their loss, Jack thought, but just for safety he made a few more demonstrative shoulder rolls. In his ears they sounded like he had a row of nutcrackers in his neck. He leisurely strolled across the cell, resisting to make a face when the stiffness twinged his bad knee.
The back of the shrine was unguarded, but that was a poor encouragement. There was no gate on this side. The bars sat firmly fused into both the floor and the ceiling making it impossible to get out that way. The lack of guards did however mean they had a spot where they could make plans without fearing the guards overheard. Jack waved Sam and Teal'c over.
"I count two guards directly outside," he said in a hushed voice. "Could be more further down, but it's too dark to see that far. Any ideas?"
"Perhaps if we lure them closer, we can execute a surprise attack," Teal'c suggested.
"Or maybe we can pick the lock," Sam said.
"I have another idea," said a fourth voice, and even the usually unshakable Teal'c gave a little start. The voice had come from the darkness beyond the bars, and though unexpected it was utterly familiar.
Jack squinted into the shadows and jumped again when the owner of both voice and name appeared with a smile. The glee of the expression had no effect on Jack, who frowned in response.
"What are you doing here?" he asked accusingly.
Daniel sighed and rolled his eyes.
"I came to see the sacrifice and get myself a Jack-snack," he said with sarcasm dripping off every syllable. Then his voice changed and the smile returned. "What do think I'm doing here?! I came to rescue you guys."
Jack still looked less than impressed.
"Did you bring reinforcements? Not that I'm not happy to see you, but reinforcements would be better."
"Ehm…" Even in the low light Jack thought he could see Daniel blush a little, or maybe he just recognized the tone of voice that went with an embarrassed archaeologist. "Well…that is…I, I tried, but…I didn't have a GDO or a radio so I tried sending a Morse code SOS by throwing stuff at the iris. They'll probably figure it out sooner or later, but I was too worried about you guys to just sit around and wait so…here I am." Daniel's voice sped up as he spoke, blurting out the explanation. In the end Jack couldn't hold his smile back any longer.
"Okay, okay, calm down there motor-mouth. You said you had a plan?"
"Yeah, I got the idea from something Chimalli said on our way here when I asked him about what happened at the celebration. Long story short, the queen thinks I am one the gods incarnated. We just need to get into the priests' closet and 'borrow' some ceremonial clothing and then it's all about timing. Just hang tight and I'll get you out in one piece – or, well, technically three."
Before Jack knew it Daniel disappeared into the darkness again, leaving the colonel with a figurative question mark painted across his face. For once I think I would have preferred the long version, he considered to himself. There were more than one point he had questions about. Like, who the hell is Chimalli? And at what point did Daniel move up from king to god? And… He halted the listing in his thoughts. Daniel was going to get to answer all of his questions in due time, and maybe he could finally learn the midpoint between too much and too little information. The only thing that mattered now was getting out of this situation alive. Despite the sketchy details Jack drew the conclusion that Daniel's words of incarnated gods and ceremonial clothing meant he was going to play on the people's beliefs as a diversion. Thus, even if they didn't know what the precise timing Daniel had mentioned would be, they were going to prepare and be ready when the time came.
Daniel made his way back down the backside of the temple to where Chimalli was keeping watch. They had come up with the plan for rescuing the rest of SG-1 during the walk through the city, but Daniel had insisted on filling Jack in so they would be a bit prepared for what was to come.
A small wooden door beside the staircase led to the interior of the temple. Through empty winding corridors they reached a small room lit by a skylight-like shaft. Several mannequins stood along the walls with magnificent robes and headdresses mounted up on them, forming a combined storage and display. The colors and intricate bead and feather work drew Daniel to them like a moth to a flame. For a moment the fascinatingly archeological significance almost blotted out his purpose for coming here.
"Which one is Mixcoatl?" he asked, forcing himself to focus. Chimalli, who had remained just outside, reverently pointed to a coat decorated with green and red feathers. The big headdress that belonged to it was made in the same colors and extended in a black mask that would cover the wearer's eyes. Beside the mannequin stood a lavishly carved set of ceremonial bow and arrows and a small table with a set of bejeweled golden arm rings and necklace.
"Help me put it on."
He had to ask twice before Chimalli dared to enter the room, and even then he did it slowly and hesitantly as if expecting to be struck down by lightning just by setting foot inside. He relaxed a little when no thunder came and helped Daniel lift the coat off its mannequin.
Jack, Sam and Teal'c waited patiently – at first – but as the hours ticked by with no further sign of Daniel or his plan they grew increasingly restless.
"Where is he?" Jack muttered, barely able to keep his voice down, not to mention trying to contain the nervousness driving him to pace back and forth in their cell. Reluctantly he reigned himself in to not attract the guards' attention. "We might need a plan B. Carter, you think you can actually pick that lock?"
Sam looked up, surprise and worry written across her face.
"Yeah, probably, but…Do you think something's happened to Daniel, sir?"
"I really hope not, but it doesn't hurt to have a backup plan, does it." Jack tried to keep his tone light, but it was a struggle. He was beginning to worry, to wonder if something had indeed happened to Daniel. If something had stopped him from executing his plan to rescue them. If he had been taken captive as well. Sam read the thoughts on his face, but taking her cue from his hope she gave him a nod and started patting down her pockets.
"I just need something to use as lock picks and I should be able to open the gate. Too bad the Air Force has hair regulations."
Jack chuckled, but the joke passed Teal'c by like a high flying plane. Jack shook his head and opted for searching his own pockets over trying to explain about women and hair pins. With a still puzzled look Teal'c did the same.
"I've got nothing," Jack finally admitted, "unless you can use a belt buckle?"
"That isn't a bad idea, actually," Sam replied.
Jack and Teal'c took off their belts and Sam began dismantling the buckles, removing the prongs to use as lock picks. Then she silently with one eye on the guards still sitting on their step outside, crept up to the gate. The lock that held it shut was big and definitely not sophisticated, but she was careful as she inserted the prongs. If the lock was big that also meant its parts would be big and difficult to move. She didn't want to break her lock picks attempting to get it opened.
The darkness slowly lifted as she worked uncomfortably squatted by the gate. It was barely noticeable at first, no more than a shift in the shadows as the light of the still not visible sun made them distinguishable from the dark of the night. A thin stripe of pink appeared on the horizon and then the bright orb ascended from the woods.
All of a sudden there was movement outside. The two guards jumped to their feet and came to attention in front of someone coming up the steps. Sam quickly moved away from the lock, suppressing a string of curses.
"I almost had it," she muttered, receiving a nod from Jack that both showed the same disappointment she felt and forgave her the failure at the same time.
Barely had the communication passed between them when the prison gate opened and several armed Otomi rushed into their cell. Judging the moment wasn't opportune for a breakout Jack signaled to his friends to go along peacefully and they were led out onto the open landing. The wooden pole had received two identical companions, probably yesterday while they were still unconscious Jack surmised. A line of archers already stood prepared to fire, just waiting for their victims and the queen's command.
The guards grabbed their hands, and despite their struggling Jack, Sam and Teal'c soon found themselves strung up on the poles in the same position they had less than a day ago seen Daniel. As Jack felt the ground disappear under his feet, to the cheer of a crowd he only just realized was gathered on the plaza, he decided it was one of his least favorite positions ever. With his hands above his head and no contact with the ground there was absolutely nothing he could do to defend himself, nothing to do but wait for the arrows to strike. Any time now, Daniel. Any time would be good.
The queen, Xilah, walked up to him. There was a smile on her lips, and no hostility in her eyes. He knew she was about to execute them, and the lack of the prisoner-captor animosity he was used to in these situations made him uneasy. He realized a bit of the 'Kree!' and 'Sholva!' enemy Jaffa usually spit at him would have made him more comfortable, and almost let out a little laugh at the thought. Oh, the things one can get used to.
Xilah reached out a hand and gently touched his chest, sending an odd chill through his body. Then she flashed him another smile before she walked over to the edge facing the plaza.
"People of Mixcoatco! It is time for the celebration. Today we honor these loyal servants of our lord Mixcoatl. Rejoice!"
On a sign of her hand the archers drew their bows. Jack felt his breath and heart beat speed up at the sight of the sun glistening off the polished arrow heads. Any time now, Daniel. Any time. A gasp went through the crowd below, simultaneously rippling through the Otomi gathered at the temple's top, and the archers hesitated. Jack followed the awed eyes, all converging on the top of the arched shrine. There was a figure there standing upright on the shrine roof, but its details was barely visible in the sharp light illuminating it from behind.
"Stay your arrows, brave Otomi."
The voice had force and command, and the setting made it appear almost otherworldly, but Jack smiled in recognition. So that's what you mean by timing, huh?
As the archers lowered their bows the backlight dimmed and the figure became clearer, every red and green feather standing out sharply against the sky. The sun glistened in gold at the wrists and ankles, bounced off silver threads woven into the fabric of the feathered cloak. The naked arms and legs were painted in candy-cane red and white stripes and its face was half obscured by a black mask, making the figure look like an Aztec version of Superman. As silly as that thought seemed to Jack, he couldn't deny it was a majestic sight and for a moment he forgot who was actually hidden under the lavish costume. The queen however, unlike her people, was apparently not fooled.
"Daniel Jackson," she greeted the figure. "You have returned to us, to receive the honor rightfully yours?" Her voice was full of something Jack couldn't quite identify. There were too many variables in the current situation he didn't understand.
"Daniel Jackson is no more," came the voice from atop the arch again. "He is dead and I, Mixcoatl, have been released to my divine form. I owe you thanks, queen Xilah, and yet you follow this splendid deed with this." Mixcoatl-Daniel's voice turned sharp and angry as he indicated the prisoners and their would-be executioners. "These may have been my unwitting mortal servants, but they cannot follow me to where I go now. They must return to their people. Let them go and I shall forgive your mistake."
The queen hesitated, but Daniel's act must have been more convincing than Jack had thought because the hesitation only lasted a fraction of a moment. Then she bowed her head and spoke to the Otomi.
"Cut them down."
"They will need their belongings," Mixcoatl-Daniel pointed out and a gesture from the queen sent a couple of Otomi to fetch them. Turning to the three members of SG-1 he continued, "Now, my servants."
Jack looked up at the feathered figure, noting the slightly uncomfortable smile on its lips that revealed to his trained eye that Daniel knew he was going to pay for those words later. 'Later' is the word, though
"Lord," Jack said, knowing the rest of the team would take it as a signal to follow his lead and play along. After all, Daniel's plan did seem to be working.
"Yes, my trusted servants. Go from this place and hold no grudge against these people as they will hold none against you. Worry not; you will see me again along your path. Now, I see the trusty Otomi have retrieved your belongings so I must bid you farewell."
The light flared behind him again, becoming so painfully bright that Jack had to turn his eyes away. When he looked back Mixcoatl-Daniel was gone, and as he looked around he could tell the 'magical' disappearance had only deepened the impression on the natives. An Otomi with a truly awed expression on his face appeared by Jack's side and handed him his backpack and, surprisingly, his weapon. He opened the pack and found his handgun and – hallelujah – his GDO on top. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sam and Teal'c also receiving their equipment, and smiled at the pleased look on Teal'c's face when his staff weapon was returned to his hands. Jack swung the pack onto his back and turned to the queen.
"Well, bye then. It's been…yeah, bye."
No one stopped them as they made their way down the staircase. As they reached the foot of the pyramid the crowd parted for them like the sea before Moses. The people seemed disappointed but they were still treated as royalties, and thrown flowers followed them as they crossed the plaza. At the edge of the open place, where the maze of the city streets began, a boy broke out of the front line. Jack instantly recognized him as the runner boy that had brought them to the celebration the day before.
"Lords and lady." He bowed. "May I guide you to the city gates? It would be my honor."
Jack nodded and let the boy lead the way through the winding streets. He was on his guard; at every turn half expecting the Otomi to appear and try to recapture them, but the streets remained peacefully empty. They found the city gates open and the boy waved goodbye as they headed into the forest, this time travelling on the more open path to the Stargate. Jack threw a glance behind now and then, but it still didn't seem the queen had changed her mind. They had made a clean get-away. The only worry then is Daniel. I hope he thought of having an exit strategy for himself as well so we don't have to go back and rescue him.
They were almost at the 'gate when there was a rustling in the bushes beside the path. Their weapons swung up with well-trained military precision and they watched breathlessly as the bushes shook again and then erupted in a flurry of green and red feathers that fell to the ground in the middle of the path.
Jack lowered his weapon and let out the laughter pushing its way up his throat. Sam gave him a stern side glance and hurried forth to help the creature, which obviously was Daniel, up. Another rustle in the bushes made them swing around with guns armed again. Jack's trigger finger twitched when an Otomi appeared in the hole Daniel had made by his violent exit.
Suddenly Daniel was in front of him, blocking the line of fire. Jack would never understand how the scrawny archaeologist could possibly go from a complete tangled mess to moving like the Flash when it came to saving another human being. Speaking of which, how in the universe did he manage to get back to the city and stage that god-act to get us out? The memory of Daniel collapsing in the forest, so exhausted he could barely talk, flashed before Jack's eyes.
As if his body had just realized the same impossibility Daniel swayed. His knees buckled and like a falling house of cards he sank to the ground. Jack dropped his weapon and intercepted just before his head hit the dirt. Removing the heavy feathered headdress he found Daniel's blue eyes boring into him with that look that said 'Jack!' in much the same way his voice did so very often. The look only lasted a moment, then the eyes became dim and unfocused as if the commanding look had taken every ounce of the little strength Daniel had left.
"He's a friend," he whispered before the eyelids fell down and he lost consciousness.
Teal'c appeared by Jack's side, silently offering to carry their wounded comrade again. While he gently cradled Daniel up in his strong arms Jack turned to the Otomi, who was still standing hesitantly in the Daniel-shaped hole in the bushes.
"A friend, ey?" he asked skeptically.
The man nodded.
"My name is Chimalli. I assisted Tlatoani Daniel in your rescue and he promised me refuge among your people."
The name sounded familiar and Jack realized the man must be the person Daniel had mentioned last night when he was 'explaining' his rescue plan. So that's one less question for him to answer. He waved for the man to step onto the path, and then signaled with a nod to Sam and Teal'c to proceed to the Stargate.
"Well…thank you for helping out," he said, taking up the rear next to Chimalli. "I suppose if Daniel promised you, you'll have to come with us to Earth. But tell me, why did you help us?"
"When I and the other Otomi lay wounded after the battle with your friends, Daniel showed us mercy. The sleep-arrow archers had taken the woman and the dark one and he would have been in right to take revenge on us, but he treated our wounds and promised us safety among your people."
Only then, when Chimalli mentioned being wounded, Jack noticed the limp in the man's walk and the bloodstained bandage on his thigh. He stared at the hazel haired head resting on Teal'c's shoulder and shook his head. Well I'd be damned. I suppose that's one for the 'peaceful explorer' approach.
It didn't take long to reach the Stargate and as soon as the trees opened into the glade Chimalli rushed over to his four Otomi comrades still sitting by the platform. Jack was on his heels, immediately understanding these were the other wounded Daniel had cared for. He also understood why not more of them had offered to help with the rescue operation.
The question was evident in Sam's voice and Jack nodded his okay for her to dial the 'gate. While the heavy machine rumbled and locked in the address he helped Chimalli check on the Otomi. They were exhausted and dehydrated. The staff blast burns looked particularly nasty; too deep for blisters but already showing signs of infection. Despite the serious injuries the warriors were all still clinging to life, and when Jack laid a hand on a neck to check the pulse he was greeted by a hopeful look in the man's pain-shadowed eyes.
Jack sent Teal'c first through the wormhole with Daniel. Then he and Sam helped Chimalli get the wounded Otomi through. When he reintegrated on the Earth-side, with the last man hanging heavy on his shoulder, the 'gate-room was already a buzz of activity. Dr Janet Fraiser was at the centre of it all, barking orders to her nurses and the soldiers alike. Someone, probably a nurse, took over the patient from his shoulder, and relieved of its burden Jack's body seemed to decide it was time for a rest. His legs folded and he sat down on the ramp with a thump. A tired smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. They may all be battered up – and as per usual Daniel more than anyone else – but they had made it home safe once more.