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28 July 2009 @ 09:53 am
The Road to Tartarus - Chapter Six  
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Chapter Six


Baal decided that it was necessary to punish Yu for his continual invasions of Baal's territory, and went to conquer one of Yu's worlds with a fleet of his ha'taks. Yu's fleet was nowhere around, so the conquest took about five minutes.

Baal stood in his pel'tak, regarding the planet on the viewscreen with an irritated expression, and finally commanded, "R'zac, you may commence bombardment with the al'kesh at your leisure. Don't kill them all, though. I still need people to work the mines."

Asheron heard the command and simply couldn't believe it at first.

Then he walked up to Baal and said in a very quiet voice, "I need to speak to you. Now."

Baal glanced at him and noticed his expression. He frowned slightly, and said, "Hold, R'zac. Until I confirm."

In the anteroom off the pel'tak he turned, arms folded, but Asheron didn't let him get a word out. "What the hell are you doing?"

"I don't expect that a Tok'ra would understand the necessity --" he began.

"Necessity?" Asheron repeated furiously. "No. There's no 'necessity' here. This is the most idiotic thing I can imagine! Do this and they will hate you. They will rebel and work with your enemies to overthrow you."

"Isn't that to your advantage?" Baal demanded scornfully.

"Not while I'm standing next to you. Who do you think they'll come after first to get to you?"

Baal reared back in shock as though the idea had never occurred to him. Asheron thought that must be nice, to never have a care for anyone but oneself.

He glared at Baal, with his own arms folded. "This isn't because I'm soft hearted, this is self-preservation. Being smart. You might try it."

He waited, wondering if he could possibly override thousands of years of casual and excessive brutality. But he couldn't just stand there and allow Baal to slaughter thousands of people for the sin of having the wrong master. He had to try, no matter how futile it would be.

But Baal surprised him. He narrowed his eyes in thought, regarding Asheron with his head cocked to one side for a moment. And he asked, very reasonably, "Then what would you propose to do instead?" Asheron opened his mouth to answer, but Baal held up a hand. "No, don't tell me. I have a better idea." He beckoned Asheron to follow him back to the pel'tak, sat down in his throne and spoke to R'zac. "Jaffa. Lord Asheron will give the orders about what to do with this planet and its population. He has a new plan." The last was said with only a little sarcastic emphasis.

Trying not to show how shocked he was by Baal's order, Asheron took a deep breath to settle himself again and addressed R'zac, "There is supposed to be a local god, Ikanu, servant of Yu. Capture him. Don't kill him if you can help it. I'll tell you what to do with him when you have him in hand."

R'zac nodded sharply. "Yes, my lord." And he went off to see to it.

Baal leaned closer to Asheron in his chair and murmured, "Tell me I won't have to keep Ikanu a prisoner very long."

Asheron smiled, teasing him. "You'll see."

At first Baal looked grumpy that Asheron wasn't revealing his plan, but then he sat back as if to enjoy a show, crossing his legs. "I hope it will be entertaining."

Asheron was aiming for practical. But if Baal was going to give him the chance to keep people alive, then he was certainly going to take it. With a little luck and skill, he might bring this world into Baal's domain with a minimum of bloodshed and terror.

When he gave R'zac the order to execute Ikanu in the town square, he felt Baal's gaze on him. Asheron ignored him to give the First Prime the text of the proclamation he was going to read to citizens after the execution.

Baal said nothing in protest, even waved a hand for permission when R'zac glanced at him uncertainly at the content. Then, when R'zac was following his order, Baal leaned closer and murmured to him, "I see what you're doing."

"But you're letting me."

Baal shrugged. "If you can make them more useful alive, then that's all for the better." He smirked up at Asheron in amusement. "Having them compile a list of their needs? Really? If you want more dull clerical business to attend to, I have tribute records I haven't looked at in two hundred years you can audit, if you want."

Asheron remembered the SG-1 report about Mot and snickered inwardly. "Yes, I know. And I think I should. Conquest only goes so far; you have to administer what you conquer or it slips away."

Baal leaned back in his throne, folding his hands together contentedly. "Then I'll do the conquering, you do the administering. That seems reasonable."

"You get the exciting half, and I get the boring half?" Asheron complained.

Baal snorted, not buying it. "You enjoy it. But I'll keep in mind your desire for occasional excitement in our next engagement with our enemies. I know you can be creative in getting what you want," he smirked at Asheron knowingly, and out of sight of the few Jaffa in the pel'tak, his hand slipped off the arm of his chair to run a finger down the side seam of Asheron's pants. "I've always been curious about your talents in battle."

* * *

Baal was as good as his word. Asheron was with him on the command ship when Yu's fleet started to move. Baal had suspected the missing defenses on Ikanu's planet meant Yu was planning something major, so Baal's fleet was well positioned to bring twelve ha'taks down on Yu's incursion. The Jaffa fairly quivered with excitement about the possibility of such an overwhelming defeat. But then a communication came that Morrigan - obviously working in concert with Yu - was sending her fleet against the border she shared with Baal, which was relatively lightly defended.

But Baal needed only a short moment to think before he started issuing commands. "R'zac," Baal ordered, "You will obey Lord Asheron as you do me. He is my voice and my hand. Defeat Lord Yu while I tend to Morrigan's foolishness. I will take Izal's ship and three others."

"Only four?" Asheron asked.

"Is that concern I hear?" Baal retorted dryly. "I can spare a few from Dakara to reach there in time. But you must teach Shang-ti a lesson we are not so easily tricked."

They didn't kiss before he left, but Baal ordered him, with a tight grip on his sleeve, "You will keep yourself alive. At all costs."

Then he ringed away to the other ship, leaving Asheron in command of the fleet. He glanced at R'zac and knew that Baal had left his loyal-to-the-death First Prime here because he didn't completely trust his lover not to take the fleet and betray him somehow. Though Asheron wondered if Baal really believed he'd not fight Yu -- it wasn't as if he had a problem killing other Goa'uld.

Baal's small fleet went to hyperspace and was gone.

With a slow, long inhalation of breath, reminding himself that he'd sat in a damn throne before, he seated himself in Baal's throne. For an instant the pel'tak was silent, and R'zac waited to see what he would do.

"Continue on our intercept course toward the enemy fleet," he ordered. "And let me see the map of the region."

When he had an idea of his strategy, recalling lessons from his youth from his father and the military academy and having some knowledge of the usual Goa'uld and Jaffa strategies, he called R'zac to him and laid it out. "Shengu," he pointed to the system. "Two ha'taks go there and wait. Six of us will proceed to engage Yu's fleet, that way he'll think Baal split ours in half. During the battle, our line will fold and we will limp back to Shengu, luring them behind us. Then the fleet will catch them in a crossfire."

R'zac frowned at him. "My lord prefers open attack and overwhelming force, not deception."

"We don't have overwhelming force," Asheron reminded him. "We're even, and that's only if we have accurate information. What if Oshu's bringing all of Yu's fleet?"

"That... would be problematic," R'zac admitted. "But we will fight, regardless," he declared proudly.

Asheron shook his head. "Well, if it's twenty to one, no, we won't. We'll retreat and wait for reinforcements. I'm not going to get killed for nothing, and I won't let you, either."

R'zac didn't say anything for a moment and regarded him unblinking. For a moment, Asheron was inwardly amused by the Jaffa's difficulty. R'zac knew Asheron had killed Ishtar, knew he was a Tok'ra, and knew his lord had taken this mortal as his mate and had left him in command even though he was no Goa'uld and was possibly plotting treachery. He knew that Ishtar's personal Jaffa had all died when she did, and there was no way he could know which ones Asheron had personally dispatched. Jaffa culture, preoccupied with blood lines as it was, didn't approve of male on male sexual relations in general, though that was probably the least problematic of any of it.

Baal had put his First Prime in a difficult position, forcing him to accept a situation that was bizarre, at best.

Asheron waited patiently for R'zac to figure out a way to understand it, knowing that R'zac's acceptance would lead the rest of Baal's Jaffa to accept it as well. Not that anyone had dared object, but Asheron would rather they figure it out for themselves.

After a moment, R'zac nodded. "Understood, my lord. It will be as you wish, though I promise we would fight to the death if it is required."

The granting of the honorific was a signal of acceptance, and Asheron relaxed a little, knowing that R'zac would follow. "Let's hope not," Asheron returned wryly. "Fighting to the death has its place, but dying itself isn't that much fun, trust me on that."

The two reserve ha'taks peeled off to wait in the Shengu system, and the rest of Asheron's fleet proceeded to intercept Yu's.

It was with a far more companionable atmosphere that he and R'zac continued planning. Asheron decided to eat lunch before they'd engage the enemy, and then unsettled R'zac by inviting him to eat at the same time, when they were in the commander's chamber off the pel'tak. When R'zac refused, Asheron asked if R'zac had a family, and had to smile at R'zac's confusion about why he cared about such things. "My life depends on you, R'zac. It seems only prudent I find out about you. Plus, I'm bored, waiting for the battle to start."

R'zac didn't quite crack a smile at the admission, but he did relax slightly. "Two hours, my lord, by our scout report."

The fleet found Yu's on the scanner ninety-seven minutes later, and the battle was joined. They were, in fact, outnumbered six to nine, though Baal's fleet had a few al'kesh bombers and beaming technology that helped even things up before the Jaffa over there figured out how to cycle the shields to block the beam. Until that happened, Asheron thought they might win anyway and wouldn't need the feint, but then someone on the other side got the bright idea to start acting like a wolf pack and cut individual ships out of the squad, damaging it and forcing others to break off to help them.

They started to take damage. The fleet started to splinter apart, each ship acting individually, carrying out the plan a little too well, and Asheron called for everyone to fall back.

The lead Jaffa from Yu's fleet, not Oshu, called to taunt them for fleeing like cowards. R'zac stiffened and glanced to Asheron, who listened with a smile. He shut off the communication without responding. "Keep to the plan," he reminded R'zac. "We're not retreating - we're advancing. He just doesn't know it yet."

Harried by Yu's fleet, they limped away, the undamaged ships protecting the hit ones. They came into the Shengu system again, right before the largest gas giant and pretended they were aiming to hide in the rings.

The enemy signaled another taunt at them, pursuing. This time, though, his Jaffa didn't react. Everyone watched the tactical display, waiting, as they drew Yu's fleet into position.

Asheron imagined the consternation in the enemy fleet as two ha'tak's rose out of the rings and put the enemy ships in a crossfire. He smiled as he ordered R'zac, "All ships fire at will. Pound them."

His advantage of position was fleeting, since he didn't have enough ships to truly box them in, but it lasted long enough to do significant damage. One of Yu's ships suffered some sort of catastrophic engine failure and blew up. Minutes later, a second lost its shields and, in trying to get out of the battlefield, careened out of control and right into the planet's rings. Asheron's hands clenched to fists, watching, knowing there was no way to save them, as the ice and rock pummeled the ship and then it dropped into the storms of the planet to be crushed.

"Open a channel," he ordered Tel'nor on communications. When he was told it was ready, he addressed the screen in a tone of voice he hadn't used in thirty years, "This is Asheron, commander of the fleet of Supreme Lord Baal. You have lost. Surrender or you will be destroyed."

The viewer hummed to life and a Jaffa appeared, sneering, "We will not surrender to Baal. Not ever."

Asheron was tempted to call him an idiot but held his tongue. "As you wish. Maybe after a few more of your ha'taks are destroyed, you'll reconsider. There's no reason for you all to die for nothing. The offer remains open for you or any of your men."

He nodded to Tel'nor to close the channel.

The fleet destroyed three more of Yu's ha'taks, and Asheron tried again, with an open channel to the remaining ships.

He leaned forward in the throne and fixed his eyes on the screen. "If you come to my ship, kneel to me, and swear fealty in Lord Baal's name, I will let you live," he declared coldly. "If not, you all die."

One of the other Jaffa captains bowed his head. He was wearing Cronus markings, not Yu's, and he said, "We align ourselves with the strength of Lord Baal and we will transfer our allegiance to him."

"Shol'va," one of Yu's Jaffa snarled from another screen.

Cronus' former Jaffa snapped an order, and fired on his former fleet. Another ship, perilously close to destruction, surrendered.

Tel'nor reported, "My lord, one ha'tak is activating hyperspace engines. Shall we send an intercept?"

Asheron didn't have to think about it. "No. Let them go," he ordered. "Someone has to tell Oshu what happened here."

The last ha'tak went to hyperspace and was gone.

The pel'tak was silent, and Asheron frowned then glanced at R'zac. "So tell me, R'zac. We won, right?"

And R'zac smiled -- he grinned. "Yes, my lord. It is a great victory."

Which was when Asheron let himself believe it. He slapped the arms of the throne and stood up, too full of energy to sit down anymore. "We won. Damn it, we won! Tell everyone they did a great job. And ... and I'm sure Baal will be pleased, but I certainly am. I need to send a message to Baal. Bring those commanders here to swear their loyalty but watch them in case they intend treachery. And I'm not sure what ceremonies you have for the fallen, but feel free to arrange that as well."

R'zac bowed his head, and Asheron went into the adjoining room to call privately. He sat down and then jumped up again while the commlink searched through subspace to find Baal's ship. The delay was tedious, but in all, not quite as long as Asheron expected before Baal's face appeared on the wall monitor. "Asheron." He frowned slightly, searching Asheron's face curiously. "Have you engaged?"

"Oh yes," he answered, smug and excited by his news. "It's all finished. They were defeated utterly. I let one escape, three ships have decided to swear fealty to you, and the rest are destroyed."

Baal's eyes widened. "I am impressed. Well done."

"And now I completely understand the urge to conquer things," Asheron added. "It's all so ... thrilling." The excitement of his triumph was like liquid fire running through his veins. Looking at Baal, he wished Baal was there, on the ship with him so they could have sex, maybe for the next two days -- that might be enough to burn off all this adrenaline and endorphins of victory.

Baal grinned. "Then this all turned out even better than I hoped," he said, his dry voice teasing. Then the amusement fell away as he glanced aside at something. "I am two hours out from Morrigan's position still, but I think she's attempting to bait me with this derelict vessel on our sensors." His gaze returned to the screen, facing Asheron. "Until I finish her, go to Tartarus. You remain my second."

"I will."

Asheron was about to close off the connection, when Baal added, "Asheron? We will celebrate our victories. Have patience." His smirk suggested he knew exactly what Asheron wanted, and then the picture faded and the connection was lost. Asheron smiled ruefully, at how easy he was to read from thousands of light-years away, and went back out to the command deck.

In lieu of expending his energy in bed, he went to find some Jaffa who would celebrate with him by staff fighting. Some didn't want to spar, though Asheron wasn't sure if it was because 'the gods' shouldn't be slumming on the lower decks, or out of respect, or maybe even fear that he would be too mortal. But Asheron ordered them and eventually they actually gave him a fight. By the time he was on his fifth opponent he was profoundly glad for Teal'c's training and didn't embarrass himself.

He thought he saw some new respect dawning in the warriors' eyes, and accounted the few bruises well-spent by the time he gave the staff back.

The ship arrived at Tartarus. Asheron hated the place instantly. He hated the overblown gaudy Gothicness of the audience chamber, and the creepy chambers for creating the Kull soldiers, and the giant hall where they waited like robots. The Kull soldiers didn't attack him, but they didn't listen to him either. The aura of Anubis was all over the walls, stinking of death and evil, and by the time he found the remains of the Kull experiments in the basement, he was ready to bomb it from orbit. He refused to sleep on the surface, preferring to stay on the ha'tak.

That first night he had vicious nightmares of Ishtar watching gleefully as armored Kull soldiers surrounded him, crushing him between their hands. He woke, gasping for breath and heart pounding so hard he was shaking. He reached across the bed for warmth, but Baal was still gone. *Malek?* He prodded at that part of his mind, needing the company. *Malek, please. Wake up. I can't be alone right now.*

Malek's presence returned in a rush of warmth. *I'm here, beloved. You're never alone.*

Malek soothed him until he felt strong enough to go wash his face. He stared into the mirror, not liking how the haunted shadows had returned to his eyes.

*Stay on the ha'tak,* Malek advised. *There is no reason to go back there.*

He took a deep breath, calming himself. *I think you should look at the technology down there. And if you're with me, I'll be okay. I guess I expected a place more like Saphon, not this... unrelenting horror.*

He sensed Malek's desire to tell him that there were parts of Saphon that were pretty horrible, too, but after seeing Asheron's memories of the things he'd found on Tartarus, he kept quiet.

It felt like a restoration of how things had been before, those two days they explored Tartarus. Asheron dealt with a few things that R'zac passed up to him, but mostly Malek investigated Anubis' technology, while they both waited for Baal to arrive.

When he did, it was to report Morrigan had never shown herself. Baal was disgusted by her cowardice, figuring she must have heard of Shengu and fled back home.

"But you... won a great victory," Baal purred at him when they were finally alone. "I already have squads of Jaffa from Heru'ur and Apophis petitioning to join my ranks as word spreads. Even if half of them are Jaffa rebel spies, it's still impressive. Your first major engagement and you won a victory the galaxy will remember for years to come..."

His lips brushed Asheron's neck, while his hands worked on the buttons to remove his clothes.

Asheron slid his fingers into the short, bristly hair to raise his head and get to his mouth. When Malek bid him goodnight, he returned it absently, and barely noticed when his symbiote took himself out of the way.

* * *

Baal refused to destroy Tartarus, too busy studying Anubis' technology, even though he acknowledged that the place was unpleasant to stay for long. Asheron kept himself either on the ha'tak or in the anteroom of the throne room, where he'd set up a computer link to examine some of Anubis' records. Much of the databanks were encrypted, but the records his Jaffa had made were not, and Asheron and Malek were going through them, marking delivery of supplies that seemed related to other projects besides the supersoldiers.

He was interrupted by Baal's footstep on the stone floor and a PTD tossed at him. He snagged it out of the air, curious. Baal explained, with open scorn and impatience, "I received this request for assistance from Thenvar. It's a useless planet, of barely any value at all. Not long ago I would have let them all starve and thought nothing of it. But I know this is the sort of thing you enjoy, so do what you will."

Asheron smiled at his retreating back, but the smile faded when he realized how dire the situation was. Thenvar was suffering sudden high rains. The people had escaped to higher ground, but their crops and stores were destroyed. They had food only for a few days.

He had to find them food, but where? So many Goa'uld worlds were deliberately primitive and rarely had enough for themselves, not to mention enough to spare for another community. For a moment, he was tempted to send information to the Tau'ri so they could help and then shook his head in disgust. What the hell was he doing here if he couldn't even feed people? He had to find a way to do it himself.

But Baal returned while he was still compiling a list and sending messages. His steps were quick and his voice urgent, "Gather your things. You must go."

Asheron blinked up at him in confusion. "What happened?"

"A message from one of my commanders. The fools recovered Anubis," Baal snarled. "They're coming here. And you cannot be here when he arrives."

"What? Why?" Asheron stood, still trying to process that Anubis was back.

"You are not a Goa'uld. If he finds out you have a Tok'ra, he will quite probably kill you both." Baal swept all his papers and his PTD into a pile and shoved them at him. "Do this from the ship."

"But -- the Kull -- you can -- "

"They are programmed to obey him first, not me. And I do not want you anywhere that he can reach you easily." His mouth compressed into a tight line and he ordered impatiently. "Move, Asheron. I will not give him more weapons to use against me than I can help."

"Where am I going?" Asheron asked, bemused by the concern as Baal pushed him to the center of the room and clicked a metal bracelet into place on his wrist.

"Saphon. You will have my authority there. Tel'nor will be your first prime."

"And you?"

Baal snorted in disgust. "Until we find a way to be rid of him forever, I'm stuck playing his minion. I'll join you when I can." He caught Asheron in his arms and kissed him hard. "Stay safe."

He touched a button on the bracelet, and Asheron felt the dizzying electric sensation of an Asgard-designed transport beam take him before he could say anything in return.

* * *

A week passed while Baal attended to Anubis on Tartarus. On Saphon, Asheron acted in Baal's stead, hearing his audiences and resolving various disputes that came to him. As the Jaffa and clerks understood what sort of things he was willing to hear, the scope of the petitions widened to include common people. Asheron felt more comfortable handling those, since they were the same sort of things he'd heard on Naritania, though the occasionally tangled politics of some of Baal's minor lordlings could be interesting. But since he knew all this rule was boring to Malek, he made sure to give Malek time in the lab, too, creating the roshna antidote.

One afternoon, the last petitioner was done, and Asheron let his shoulders relax as the main door closed behind the clerks, leaving just him, Tel'nor, and two Jaffa guards.

"Leave us," a Goa'uld voice commanded, and Asheron glanced aside where Nerus was entering through the open archway to the left. He kept his lip from curling in distaste at the sight of the Goa'uld, but his jaw tightened.

Asheron was pleased to see that Tel'nor looked to him for instruction, first, and Asheron waved him off. He'd been expecting a challenge from at least one of Baal's Goa'uld lordlings since Baal had unequivocally informed them that Asheron ruled in his stead.

"Nerus, " he acknowledged coolly and didn't rise from the throne.

"Asheron," Nerus replied, and he smiled - an expression that reminded Asheron more of a shark than anything. His great bulk moved with a threatening smoothness across the floor toward Asheron. "I listened to your audience. Some of your decisions were... questionable. Contrary to my lord's way of doing things."

Asheron raised his eyebrows. "Oh? In what way?"

"You gave mercy to one who questioned Baal's authority, for one," Nerus said. "Baal will not approve."

Asheron wasn't concerned; Baal had known exactly what was going to happen when he put Asheron to rule for him. When Asheron refused to get sucked into defensiveness, Nerus continued, "Also, I couldn't help but notice you didn't use the voice."

Nerus did, though, using the timbre, and Asheron waved a hand in dismissal and obvious mockery. "It's a silly affectation."

"But how else will the filthy humans know we are gods?" Nerus asked.

"We're not gods," Asheron answered flatly.

"Well, you certainly are not. You're not a Goa'uld at all. Are you, Tok'ra?" he accused.

Asheron smiled faintly at him, refusing to be intimidated by this moronic attempt at blackmail. "Baal knows what I am. I am his mate and his second-in-command." He stood up, looking down from the dais at the Goa'uld. "That is all that concerns you."

For a moment, Nerus reconsidered, looking worried, but then decided to go for it. "You are nothing. Egeria's spawn, weak rats all of them."

Asheron's lips pulled into a dark smile. "We choose another path, one less blinded by our appetites and instincts. But hardly weak. Don't make me your enemy."

But Nerus wasn't ready to give up yet and ignored the warning. His gaze slipped insolently down Asheron's body and then back up, and he licked his lips. "You were Ishtar's whore, and now you're his. And in time, you will show me the tricks you must have to ensnare a lord of Baal's power."

Asheron's insides froze with rage, and he stepped down to confront Nerus face to face. "Do you really want to challenge me, Nerus?" he asked softly. "So quickly you forget -- " he leaned forward to stare right into his eyes and murmured, "I butchered Ishtar. I cut her throat while she made me fuck her. Baal's alive because we have an arrangement; you get no such safety. If you touch me, I will kill you. And if I don't, Baal will."

Nerus started to smile, as if he didn't believe him, but Asheron pushed the tip of his knife deeper into Nerus' toga so he could feel it at his ribs. The smile faded. He hadn't thought Asheron was armed, just because he wore no ribbon device. But Asheron had taken to wearing Baal's knife under his sleeve, exactly for situations like this.

"You're pathetic," Asheron said, with a sneer. "Your appetites control you. All I have to do is order the kitchen to stop feeding you, and you'll come crawling for some of that mercy you scorn so much. So who's the better Goa'uld, Nerus?" Nerus flinched, and both of them felt it. Asheron smirked, knowing he'd just won. He lowered his knife, turned to walk up the two steps of the dais, and seated himself on the throne again. "You may go."

Nerus tittered as if the whole thing had just been a joke. "My lord, forgive me, I didn't understand your power, your magnificence --"

Asheron ground the pommel of the knife against the arm of the chair, blade pointing upward, cutting off the fawning words. "Be glad I'm not putting this knife right into the back of your host's neck. Get out."

Nerus bowed, as best he could with his girth, and hurried out.

Asheron put the knife back into its sleeve sheath and looked up when Tel'nor approached. The Jaffa was frowning in concern.

"He's either cowed or he's going to poison me," Asheron guessed and added with wry humor, "If he manages to assassinate me, make sure Baal knows, so he can kill that bastard very, very slowly."

Tel'nor answered seriously, "We will not let him harm you, my lord."

"I appreciate that."

* * *

One evening, after dinner, Asheron sat at the desk, with old, dusty bound papyrus sheets and PTDs piled up before him, as he tried to reconcile Baal's tribute records. It was no wonder he'd lost Mot -- for someone who was so detailed about some things, Baal had paid just enough attention to make sure his income wasn't declining. But his minor lords and his clerks had clearly been taking advantage of his inattention, though Asheron was still unwinding how bad it was.

Two of Baal's most loyal Jaffa stood guard in the doorway, and it was with only a part of his mind that he heard them conferring with another Jaffa who sought audience. The Jaffa was passed within, and without yet looking up, Asheron asked, "You have a report?"

"I do, my lord." The words were said properly, but the voice… was familiar. Frowning, Asheron glanced up. What he saw was stunning. Only years of practice with the royal mask kept him from standing and blurting out the Jaffa's name. Yet it was only the specific identity of the visitor that was a surprise -- Asheron had been expecting a visitor for some time now.

So he merely beckoned the Jaffa nearer. His two bodyguards lingered in the doorway, but did not approach. Which was fortunate, as Asheron had quite a lot to say, to the tall, youthful Jaffa, he had first met two years ago at the Alpha Site.

Lowering his voice, Asheron asked, "What are you doing here? You must leave. Immediately. This was foolish, Rak'nor."

Rak'nor stood at formal Jaffa 'attention' not daring any sort of familiarity in his gestures, but his face was quite revealing. "What are you doing?" Rak'nor returned softly, but his eyes blazed. "You claimed you were not a Goa'uld, but here you sit, by all appearances, Lord Baal's right hand. You run his empire, rumor says. And we know you commanded his fleet at the battle of Shengu. I came to find a prisoner, but instead I find a collaborator."

Asheron flinched, but anger rose up to cover the moment's weakness. "There is more here than you understand, Rak'nor. And I haven't the time to explain it to you. You must go. Baal is expected shortly, and he is no fool. He will know you are Free Jaffa come to 'rescue me', and I will not be able to save you."

"Even though you are his lover?" Rak'nor accused.

But this did not make him flinch. It was true, after all, and there was some strategic advantage to letting it be known. Not to mention it would keep Sam away from him, safe. "Even so," he answered steadily. "You must go. Now. When you return, tell Teal'c this -- Anubis has returned." He saw the shock on Rak'nor's face and knew the Jaffa understood a lot more. "He will understand why I stay, and send no more fools to save me. Now, hurry. Go."

Only a few moments after Rak'nor had gone, the small door behind Asheron opened. He did not turn around, even when hands came to rest on his shoulders. "So. Our message is delivered," Baal said, and Asheron nodded. "You did well," the Goa'uld added.

Asheron let out a half-sigh and leaned back into the grip, trying to chase Rak'nor's angry words from his mind. "I knew it would happen eventually. And now we've warned the Tau'ri."

Baal let out a soft chuckle, and opened the small buttons on Asheron's collar, to slide his fingers inside and caress the sides of his neck and top of his shoulders. "And once again, you prove you have ensorcelled me," he murmured, burying his face in Asheron's neck to kiss him under the ear. "I cannot believe I permitted a known leader of the Rebel Jaffa to walk out of here."

Asheron turned, with a smile, eager to bury the nagging doubts raised by Rak'nor's visit. "Then perhaps I should reward my mate for his forbearance?" he asked archly, but didn't wait for an answer, pulling Baal down to have their mouths meet.

It took little time for them to go to the bedroom and disrobe. Skin against skin, flesh on flesh, Asheron tried to lose himself in the heat of Baal's body against him and the feel of deft hands. The warm, oiled fingers were leisurely stroking across his soft opening and then moved forward, painting his balls and cock with the oil in slow rising heat. But that wasn't what he wanted. It wasn't enough. He needed to drown that voice that said all of this was wrong. He needed to feel right.

He raised his legs to Baal's shoulders to open himself, seeking the hard length against him and to put it where he wanted it. "Now," he requested hoarsely. "In me, now."

Baal's eyes flared with surprise at the unusual request, but then burned with eagerness. He leaned forward, nearly bending Asheron double. Goa'uld strength let him press inside in one forceful thrust, and Asheron cried out in pain and surprise. Baal stopped, asking in concern, "Asheron?"

"No," Asheron protested, nearly incoherently, clutching his arms tightly to urge him to keep going. "It's okay. Do it, I need it. Don't stop. Please don't stop, I want -- "

Baal silenced him, his mouth sealing Asheron's. And he did what Asheron wanted -- he moved. His tongue probed inside, withdrew, and returned, a softer echo of the penetration below. He pulled back with just the tip of the head left within and then pushed forward, slow but inexorable. Not stretched and opened, ready as usual, the friction of the tight channel was harsh, and Asheron could feel every millimeter of Baal's invasion, until he ached deep within, throbbing in time to his heart.

Back and then in again, a wave of pressure that grew and grew, before it ebbed, but never to the lower level before. He shut his eyes tightly and let out a moan at each long, slow plunge, but as his body loosened, the pain began to change to something more intense. Baal was unerring, brushing the seed of desire each time, until that touch overcame everything else. Out and in again until Asheron thought he would go mad with the wanting.

Finally Baal stayed within, but continued to move, more quickly now. Each push seemed to go deeper, filling him with greater need at every stroke. The hurt was swallowed up in it. Nothing else existed beyond the two of them. Sweat beaded on their skin and gathered, running in rivulets off their bodies. His own erection was trapped between their bodies when they slid together in consummation. His body was burning in a fiery haze and he reached for more, harder, faster, seeking utter release.

There were no more thoughts. No more doubts.

Oblivion.

* * *



SG-1, O'Neill, Jacob, and Rak'nor gathered to hear Rak'nor's report of his visit to Saphon. Sam listened, and couldn't believe it.

"Anubis. Well, that's just special," O'Neill groaned. "After all we did to get rid of him, Baal has to go get him back. Why?"

"Not on purpose, unfortunately," Rak'nor added, with a frown. "According to the Jaffa of the garrison, one of Baal's ha'taks was in the area and detected Anubis' energy. They investigated and found him."

"Great," O'Neill muttered and scrubbed a hand through his hair, glaring at the folder in front of him.

But Sam was interested in something else. "You're sure," she persisted, "that Asheron is ruling Saphon? He's a lotar."

Rak'nor shook his head. "He isn't acting like a lotar, Colonel Carter. That morning I watched him give an audience, sitting in Baal's throne. No one questioned it. He gave mercy to a child who said Baal was a false god."

"Well, that's good," Sam said in relief.

"But then," Rak'nor added, "he had three others put to death for rebellion. He acts in Baal's name, and I saw no sign he was a prisoner. He told me directly he didn't want to be rescued. He's turned on us."

"No, he wouldn't," Sam objected. "That's ridiculous."

"Maybe he's got a Goa'uld now," Daniel suggested, and held up a hand to fend off Sam's glare. "If Malek was killed or forced out, Baal could've put anything in there."

"No Goa'uld would allow Asheron to use his own name," Jacob answered, shaking his head. "Plus, he let you walk out of there, Rak'nor. No, I think something else is going on."

Sam nodded vigorous agreement with that. If he wasn't Goa'ulded, then he was doing exactly what they'd thought originally by infiltrating Baal's court; he'd just had a whole lot more success than she'd ever dreamed possible. But she could think of more possibilities that that, and none of them were good. The Goa'uld knew about mind-control, brainwashing, drugs - there were any number of ways for Baal to make Asheron into his slave.

O'Neill dragged her attention back to the briefing room, with an aggravated snort. "Does it matter, Jake? Anubis is back. He's going to pick up where he left off, and we're all just as screwed as we were before." He let out a groan. "When did my life get so screwed up that having Baal rule the galaxy is an improvement over anything?"

Sam shared a glance with her father, and they decided silently to drop it for later. But even as she continued the discussion, she already knew what she was going to do.

Later, Jacob followed her to her office and he shut the door behind them.

"I recognize that look, Sam," Jacob said, with a sigh. "Out with it."

She couldn't help a brief smile at how well he knew her. "I'm going to Saphon," she declared, "and find out what's going on with Asheron and Malek. I should be okay, as long as Baal isn't there."

Jacob shook his head. "Sam, no. That's too dangerous. Besides, if he's in deep cover, all you'll be doing is putting both of you at risk."

"Dad, what if he needs our help?" she challenged. She thought about how upset Asheron had been still, over what Ishtar had done to him, and she added, more softly, "What if Baal hurt him until he couldn't take it anymore? We saw how Ishtar still haunted him, and that was thirty years ago. Getting tortured again might have broken his mind. We owe it to him to find out the truth and get him out if he needs it."

Jacob nodded once, reluctantly. "All right, but I'll go," he said. "Selmak and I have played Goa'uld before."

But she was shaking her head. "Not Goa'uld. I want to go as myself. Asheron and Malek will help me get away."

"And if they can't or won't?" Jacob asked.

"Then you'll know Rak'nor's right, and there's nothing left of them," she answered, trying for humor but it fell flat. She bit her lip and tried to explain how she felt bruised inside, imagining what was happening on Saphon. The truth couldn't be any worse than her fears, or her guilt. "Dad, I left him there. I let him trade his life, maybe his sanity, for me. I have to try."

Jacob looked into her eyes, saw the resolution there, and sighed. "Jack will never agree."

"Then I'll have to go without asking." When her father stared at her in shock, she lifted her chin. "We're Tok'ra. We need to look after our own."

Inside, she felt a little rill of excitement in her nerves, and an eagerness that wasn't entirely her own.


* * *

Getting off-world was easy enough. They waited a few days so no one would make the connection to Rak'nor's report, and then Jacob decided he wanted to retrieve some hidden Tok'ra gear and she went with him as the only other person who could access it. Persuading O'Neill that they didn't need backup was a little more difficult, but it was such a milk-run to a quiet, backwater planet when most Goa'uld these days had more important things to worry about than checking on uninhabited planets, that he finally let them go.

Sam couldn't quite return his smile when he saw them off, guilty over the lie, but not quite guilty enough to confess, and walked through the event horizon.

The sunlight was brutally glaring, and the planet smelled like rotting vegetation. The Stargate was perched on the side of a cliff, overlooking a sea that looked strangely and nauseatingly pink. After a moment she figured it out: the water was full of some kind of reddish plankton or algae as far as the horizon.

"You really hid supplies here? Nasty." She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"There's a way down the cliffside to a cave," he nodded toward the edge. "You sure you don't want to go with me to see?"

"I'm sure. Hopefully, this won't take long," she said and tried a smile. "Thanks for covering for me."

He sighed. "Be careful." He dialed the Stargate with the glyphs for Saphon.

Instead of heading through immediately, she flicked on her radio, hoping there was some sort of reception or this was going to get more complicated. She was sure Baal probably had some kind of shield on his gate like the SGC's iris, since it was right inside his palace compound. "I am an emissary of Earth, the ones you know as Tau'ri, and I bring a proposal of negotiation for Supreme Lord Baal. I am unarmed and I am prepared to come alone, if Lord Baal agrees to meet with me."

The answer came through surprisingly quickly. "Supreme Lord Baal is not upon Saphon at the moment."

She let out a silent sigh of relief. "Then would it be possible to present my offer to his First Prime or other authority for him to consider when he returns?"

"Yes. You may enter. Take no more than two steps beyond the event horizon. If we see weapons, you will die," the obviously Jaffa voice commanded.

"Understood," she sent back and shared a look with her father, and he gave her a hug.

"Good luck, Sam. And if you get a bad feeling, get out. Remember it’s not just you anymore."

"I know," she said. "See you soon."

She took a deep breath, asked herself if she really wanted to do this, then walked through, determined to find out the truth.

Not surprisingly, she ended up in the Stargate hall she'd left from months ago. She walked the careful two steps out of the gate and stopped, raising her hands out to her sides. The air was cool and smelled fresh, and she took a deep breath to rid her lungs of the cloying algae stench. The Jaffa were out in force, and a Kull soldier stood sentinel, watching her without moving. One lead Jaffa frisked her for weapons thoroughly, while the others kept a zat on her, then he glared at her.

"Tau'ri, you may speak to Lord Asheron, who rules while our Lord Baal is absent. He will determine what to do with you," the Jaffa declared.

"That's fine," she answered, keeping her voice calm while inside she was suddenly jittery with the confirmation of what Rak'nor had said and dread for what she would find.

She wanted the truth, even if it wasn't good. She needed to know what was really happening, so they could plan to do something about it. If Asheron was really a Goa'uld or brain-washed, she needed to know that so she could plan an extraction. If he was in deep cover, she needed to know that, too.

Sam entered the throne room, surrounded by Jaffa. She hoped she looked calm and confident, even though her heart was pounding, and she surreptitiously had to rub her palms on her pants. What if she was wrong and Rak'nor was right, and he'd turned on them? No, she was right, she knew she was. She just had to talk to him.

But her mouth went dry when she got a good look at the occupant of the throne. She could barely recognize him. It wasn't just the throne or the layered clothes of the same tailored brocades that Baal favored. It was the posture, the casual slouch that was nevertheless completely in command, and the look on his face, so at ease and so controlled as he listened to what one of his Jaffa was telling him.

He did not look like a man doing something against his will.

She swallowed hard and reminded herself that there were many ways to hold a person against his will. Chains were only the most obvious.

The Jaffa next to her announced, "My lord, we have brought the Tau'ri intruder to you as ordered."

Asheron turned to look at her. He turned white and clutched the arms of the throne. Obviously he hadn't been told who was coming. But she was immediately certain he hadn't been implanted with a Goa'uld, since no Goa'uld would have that look of horror on his face.

He didn't keep it very long. His face went blank and when he spoke, his voice was cold. "Colonel Carter. Tau'ri are not welcome in Saphon. Why are you here?"

She thought frantically for something to say that was fit for public consumption. She doubted that blurting out that she was here to rescue him would go over well. Straightening, she lifted her chin, "The Tau'ri come with an offer of peace."

His brows lifted in sardonic amusement. "I was not aware we were at war, Tau'ri."

She bit her lip and stared at him, wishing he would give her some help. But he seemed disinclined to give her some way to get him to talk to him alone.

Alone. Maybe that was the key.

"No, we're not at war," she agreed. In fact it was only half-true. Baal had not attacked Earth or its few outposts, but that didn't mean he couldn't. And it didn't mean that Baal wasn't Earth's enemy -- nobody was enthusiastic about his conquest of the galaxy. She continued, squaring her shoulders and hoping this was going to work. "We have watched you in your continuing quest to eliminate all who stand in your path. My leaders decided that we must seal a bond of friendship with you and Lord Baal, to keep our world safe. So they sent me to arrange a treaty with you."

He leaned back in his chair, tapping a finger on the arm of his chair -- the very picture of a pleased lord -- and he deliberately swept her from head to foot with a lingering gaze. "And you, Tau'ri, are you my prize for agreeing to any treaty?"

She felt her cheeks heat from the suggestion, but took the suggestion gratefully. She bowed her head. "If you wish."

His smile widened. "Oh, I am quite certain I wish it. Tel'nor, take the Tau'ri to the mountain view study. I will be there shortly."

One of the Jaffa bowed his head. "Yes, my lord."

Sam let the Jaffa take her away, looking back over her shoulder at the door. Asheron was watching her, his face expressionless but his hands clutched the arms of his chair in unconscious anxiety. But then she was nudged from the room and lost sight of him.








ONWARD TO CHAPTER SEVEN

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